Jalan Besar: A Walking Tour

Yesterday I went wandering in Jalan Besar, an area of the city that’s known to be a little bit seedy, a little bit hipster, a little bit artsy, and mostly very local.  A hundred and fifty years ago, it was swampland, all mangroves and tides — but then they cut down the mangroves (largely to fuel the nearby kilns) and gradually filled in the land.  It became home to abattoirs and glassworks and other undesirable industries (and icky farms — one of the main streets, Lavender, was jokingly given that name because the night soil men took their wares to that area as fertilizer).

Over time, Jalan Besar became home to hundred of shophouses:  two- or three-story buildings with stores and other businesses on the first floor and residences above.  Many of these still exist (though the Singapore government, in true form, has taken down most of them).


The stores are highly specialized; if I’d wanted to buy light fixtures, bathroom sinks, motorcycle seats, or Chinese religious icons yesterday, I’d have been in luck.

Many of these shophouses are known for being particularly beautiful, decorated in colorful Peranakan tiles and plasterwork.  Some have incredibly fancy windows:



One street has especially lovely shophouses that have been restored (apparently, these used to be part of the red light district):




Here are some of the bas-relief figures on the columns:

And some of the tiles:

Second-story shophouse windows come in all sorts of decorative flavors (my heritage trail guide describes them as ranging from Neoclassical to Rococo).

Incidentally, many of the streets in this area are named after famous World War I leaders (Foch, King George, Allenby) and World War I battles (Somme, Marne, Verdun).

It’s amazing just to walk around the city.  Prescott and I live in an area that would be considered the suburbs, even though it’s filled with tall buildings, and our school is in the boonies (locals will say, “You work there? You’re almost in Malaysia.”)  But Jalan Besar is true city, all hustle and bustle, restaurants and shops, building after building after building.

Most of the food in the area is Asian fare, largely Malay and Chinese (pig organ soup appears to be a favorite).  But you’ll also find places here and there that might have come straight out of Brooklyn.  There’s Chye Seng Huat, a coffee shop that used to be a hardware store:


And I stopped in for a slice of chendol cake and delicious lychee tea at Creatures, an upscale restaurant that may best be described as noveau-Peranakan.


This is definitely one of the stranger cakes I’ve ever eaten.  The green layers in the cake are tinted with pandan leaves, the little purplish flecks are adzuki beans, and the darker green flecks are cendol, which the internet describes unappealingly as “rice flour worms.”

Then there are surprises on the other end of the spectrum — very local, and very traditional.  I wandered into this store entirely by chance:

img_8151Those are stacks and stacks of pu-erh, a fermented tea pressed and sold in flat disks.  The store is owned by a Chinese tea master — Mr. Long — whose business is called King of Tea Enterprise.  He has over 800 different kinds of tea, ranging from disks that cost $25 to disks that cost over $1,000.  Before I knew it, I was sitting down at a table with four Chinese men sampling tiny cups of pu-erh.


Serving pu-erh is precise and complicated.  I have never before seen someone weigh tea leaves before putting them in a pot (this was also the first time I saw people use magnifying glasses to analyze the quality of the tea).  After he put the tea leaves into the ceramic pot, Mr. Long poured hot water over them, and then immediately decanted that into a glass pot.  He then poured that into tiny tea cups, immediately dumped one of the cups over the ceramic pot (this is called, “beautifying the pot”), and ditched the rest of the cups of tea onto his beautiful cherry wood tea tray.  Only then did he add more water to the tea leaves and pour us cups of tea (steeped for no longer than about 30 seconds).

Drinking pu-erh is a slow, contemplative (or chatty) process — you’re drinking one tiny cup at a time, and each pour is steeped individually.  One bunch of tea leaves can give you up to ten pours. I must have had fifteen little cups of tea while I sat there listening to these guys banter and talk about tea in Chinese.  Thank goodness one of the customers spoke good English, or I would have had no clue what was going on.  I often feel white in Singapore, but this experience was an all-time high for me in feeling both comfortable and entirely out of place at the same time.  It was amazing.


I did come home with a little teapot and a disk of pu-erh. img_8159

One notable feature of Jelan Besar is that it’s one of the few places in Singapore with wall art — both graffiti (a huge rarity here) and murals.



They’re even adding artwork:


And I found this park, which is both very Singaporean in its level of planning and very un-Singaporean in its level of colorful whimsy:


Jelan Besar is also remarkable for its concentration of places of worship.  The first place I  searched out was a Tibetan Buddhist temple.


Here’s the view from the sidewalk:img_8070

And here’s what it looks like inside:


I can best call the aesthetic “busy and glitzy.”  The photograph of the Dalai Lama draped in a cloak made of real cloth struck me as both odd and moving.

Outside, I turned this big prayer wheel (I should have been meditating and reciting a mantra as I did it, but I’m always conscious of not wanting to look too much like a religious poseur).  On each rotation, a bell rings overhead.


A little later in my walk, I happened upon Singapore’s tiny Zoroastrian center (it’s in a shophouse).  That was unexpected.


I also stumbled on two Hindu temples, one older:



And one newer and very, very shiny:



That’s Hanuman, the monkey god, in case you’re not up on your Hindu deities.  The statuary at this temple definitely stretched my knowledge of Hindu gods.

Just a block away, two  traditional Chinese temples sit across the street from each other:



And right next door to the temple above stands a temple devoted to Shakyamani Buddha.


I wasn’t a fan of the artwork here (though it gets points for being large):


I did appreciate the dragon-hatted tiger:


I also passed at least one mosque — and had I traveled just a few blocks more, I would have hit both Singapore’s central Sikh temple and an old Anglican church.  You can’t fault Singapore for a lack of religious diversity.

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