Singapore’s National Heritage Board (NHB) has put together a wonderful set of “Heritage Trails,” and on Saturday, Prescott and I picked up a small NHB guidebook and set off down Balestier Road. To call this a “trail” would confuse any American — it’s really a walk down a long, busy road. You start out thinking, “this cannot possibly be interesting.” And then five hours later, filled with good food and fascinating sights, you wonder why you don’t take this sort of an outing more often.
Balestier Road is named after the first American Consul to Singapore, Joseph Balestier, who arrived here in 1836. He leased a whole bunch of land to grow sugar cane (which, between import duties, intensive labor requirements, and tiger attacks, turned out to be a pretty bad investment). The sugar cane fields are long gone, and there’s nothing around that would indicate that Balestier or his agricultural experiments ever existed here. But he does have a road named after him — and while it’s not much to look at if you just drive down it, if you slow down and go for a leisurely walk, you can find some really neat things.
We started out by searching for the Art Deco shop houses, the first stop recommended by our guidebook. Most typical shop houses in Singapore look like the blue one in the photo above, but in the 1950s, a few architects started to work specifically in the Art Deco style. So you end up with the occasional building that has a facade like this:
A short section of Balestier Road also appears to be dedicated to durian shops. They’re not in season right now — return in November if you want fresh durian — but I loved the advertising (and the name “Combat Durian”):
Temples, on the other hand, never go out of season — and they appear to proliferate in this area. The first one we saw was the Goh Chor Pek Kong Temple, which our guidebook describes as “modest.”
Compared to most Chinese temples here, I would describe it as “tiny.” But I loved it anyway, because it’s old (it dates back to 1847, which is practically ancient for Singapore) — and, as our guidebook continued, it “serves as the only visible reminder of the pioneers who worked on Balestier’s land.” I also really appreciated the detail, like these tiles and decoration (note the fish downspout):
This temple is only one of two in all of Singapore to boast its own permanent wayang (Chinese street opera) stage.
A trip just a few doors down a side street took us to a bakery that has been in operation for the past 50 years:
The bakeries in this neighborhood bake bread for the quintessential Singaporean breakfast: kaya butter toast (toast with butter and kaya, a sort of coconut-egg jam). The bread is all white and fluffy. What I didn’t know was that the bakers burn the bottom of the bread — intentionally — and then slice it off. Here, you can see that the loaves in front have been recently shaved, but the bottoms of the loaves in back remain charcoal-black.
We weren’t quite ready to commit to an entire loaf of fluffy bread, but we did buy some rusks that turn out to be excellent with raspberry jam.
One of the more well known contemporary buildings in this area is Balestier Point, an apartment complex that wowed the Singapore architecture scene when it went up in 1986.
Our guidebook suggested that this structure might call to mind either Legos or Picasso’s cubist structures. I’m not sure I see either of those, but I do agree that the building is “visually striking.”
My favorite building, however, was this one, known as the Sim Kwong Ho shophouses:
These shophouses were built in the “Singapore Eclectic” or “Chinese Baroque” style in the mid-1920s. I think that’s a nice way of saying that these shophouses are wacky and busy, mixing all sorts of architectural features (mostly European) and iconography (mostly Chinese).
As architecture goes, this falls into my “fun” category (though I’m sure that many real architects would disagree).
We meandered (moving slowly — it’s been extra-hot this week) down to Kim Keat Lane, where the bread at Sweetlands Confectionery — another traditional bakery — was almost all sold out. But it’s open 24 hours a day, so I think we just hit it at a low point. Right across the street sat this itty-bitty temple:
I called this “the temple of the little figurines,” because the altar featured these two icons (each no more than a foot and a half tall)…
… and there were also dozens of smaller statues in little boxes:
I took a picture of the sign by the entrance, hoping that it might tell me what the figurine thing might be all about, but the translation appears to be: “Welcome all walks of life to visit and pray for the blessings of peace and prosperity.” That doesn’t help me understand what’s going on inside the temple, but I appreciate the sentiment.
Singapore always has something to surprise me. This time, it was the bird cages hanging outside of the auto repair place in the first floor of a shophouse.
I just don’t usually think of auto repair and delicate birds in the same breath.
We stopped for a quick bite at Eastern Rice Dumpling, a 30-year-old shop where they still use the recipes created by the managing director’s grandmother. These dumplings, also called bak chang, are made by wrapping glutinous rice around a savory filling and then wrapping the rice triangles, in turn, in banana leaves.
You eat the rice — not the leaf — but Prescott was getting hungry.
Eastern Rice Dumpling also makes a few varieties of traditional kueh, a Malay snack, by hand. Here, they are pressing the rice flour dough and filling teochew kueh, also known as “rice peaches” (but they are savory and filled with a scallion/pork/dried shrimp mix):
Another very traditional vendor on Balestier Road is Lam Yeo Coffee Powder, which has been around since 1960.
Here, they still roast coffee in the traditional Singaporean style: with sugar and margarine!
I have to guess that this is an acquired taste, but it’s how they’ve been drinking coffee at local kopitams (coffee shops) for decades. This delightful shop has adapted to the times, however, so if you want normal (non-margarine, non-sugar) beans from Ethiopia, Guatemala, or Bali, you can get those as well.
Side streets in this area hold all sorts of unexpected wonders. In this case, two short roads — Pegu and Martaban — are lined with pre-war terrace houses from the 1920s and 1930s.
These houses reflect significant European neoclassical influences — note the columns and the cornices — but they also have warm-weather adaptations, like colored glass in the windows to block the sun.
I was a particular fan of the decorations in the front of this terrace house …
… especially when I found what was hiding underneath.
For lunch we went to Boon Tong Kee, a restaurant that started out as a humble hawker stall and has since exploded into a multi-branch operation. We tried their chicken rice — that’s what made them famous — but what we both really loved was their poached bai cai (think small, wrinkly bok choi) with gluten. It was amazing.
One of the most exciting stops on our trip was at a water kiosk:
This small, unassuming stall has been set up as an act of charity, a legacy of the days when rickshaw pullers, cart drivers, and other workers passing by needed access to water in Singapore’s brutal heat and humidity. It has been run for decades the Thong Teck Sian Tong Lian Sin Sia, a local charitable organization, and is one of few such water stations left on the island. This one now serves cold tea in addition to water.
If you want to try this out, I would suggest that you bring your own cup — they do offer a single mug (and a tin of water in which to rinse it), but that arrangement did not appear to be the height of sanitation.
I so loved the idea of any charitable organization providing benevolent beverages that I had to walk over to see the charity itself.
Apparently, they offer far more than free water; they also provide free meals, medical care (both western and Chinese), and burial or cremation services.
That sign made me love this charity all the more. While Singapore purports to support all races equally, I have seen few private or religious organizations so openly espousing the same values.
Inside, to my surprise, it looked (and felt) far more like a Chinese temple than a clinic or a charitable organization.
There were altars and icons and multiple places for prayer.
That said, I only saw a few of the more visible rooms near the entrance — there must be a whole lot more going on behind the scenes.
Walking along Balestier Road can be an exercise in tedium if you are not keeping an eye out for the little things, especially if you don’t care about light fixtures (which I do not). Balestier Road has dozens of lighting stores, perhaps hundreds, one after the other, for blocks and blocks and blocks. There are chandeliers and sconces and ceiling fan lights and standing lamps — it’s mind-boggling that there are so many stores selling one type of item, and that they can all have enough customers to survive. If you’re not in the market for lighting, you start to ignore those stores altogether — until you end up face to face with something like this:
Why? That’s really the only question I have about a lampshade on a horse’s head.
We continued to stumble on temples here and there. One side street led to both Tai Pei Yuen Temple …
… and to Chan Chor Min Tong:
This house and garden are one of Singapore’s last “Vegetarian Halls,” or Zhai Tang. It was founded by a Buddhist philanthropist in the mid-1920s as a home for indigent Cantonese men. They were allowed to live there for free if they agreed to be vegetarian, renounce sex, and practice Buddhism. Not the worst deal for a house and three square meals a day, I suppose.
Our last stop on Balestier Road itself was at a spot that our guidebook calls simply “traditional shophouses.”
This row of shophouses, built in 1928, has some very traditional European stylings:
And if you can squint, it’s really worth trying to see the crazy cupids just below the bottom window here:
But strangely-elongated cupids aside, the molded designs are nearly all Chinese, like this boy with a bat (a sign of good luck in China) …
… this older Chinese man …
… and this beast that we called a pig-dog, which seemed to recur in several of the panels:
To my surprise, there was also a carving of a Sikh gentleman with a gun. The British often employed Sikhs as guards or police, so this image is well in keeping with the time of the building’s design.
Balestier Road has so much more to see; among the things that we missed are a famous old bean curd seller, the location of the former Shaw Malay film studios, a 1970s mosque, and multiple famous bak kut teh (pork ribs tea) sellers. But there was just no way for us to get to it all. Suffice to say that you can spend a wonderful afternoon poking around in this area. I did make it to a few more stops a bit further afield on the Balestier Heritage Trail, but I’ll save those for a later post!