\There are many wonderful neighborhoods in Singapore, but one of the most interesting has to be Joo Chiat (also known as Katong).
Singapore’s first “heritage town,” Joo Chiat is home to over 800 pre-war buildings — a significant number for a country that went on a building spree with a “knock down the old, put up the new” exuberance in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Here you can see shophouses in all of their highly-decorated 1920s and 30s glory. You can also steep yourself in Singapore’s Peranakan heritage — this area was one of the hearts of Peranakan life in Singapore (in very short summary, “Paranakan” was the culture that arose from the blending of Chinese and Malay peoples in the late 1800s).
Here’s a sampling of what’s on offer:
1) Shophouse Architecture
The shophouses of Koon Seng Road and other nearby streets were built when shophouse architecture was at its decorative peak. These buildings are famous for their plasterwork and tiles:
Looking up at the second floor windows gives the best view of the elaborate stylings of these homes:
2. The Intan Museum
This museum gives a glimpse into what a savvy collector can do with his home: Alvin Yapp has turned his small 1950s shophouse into a place to display his vast collection of Peranakan decorative crafts.
Here you can see famous Peranakan beadwork on items like shoes …
… and tiered kueh containers …
… alongside Peranakan carvings, silverwork, clothing, furniture and embroidery:
But most importantly, you get the chance to talk to Alvin, who has been collecting this stuff for years and is fascinating. This museum isn’t cheap — at $60 per person, it’s probably the priciest museum I’ve ever visited — and since you can only see it by private tour, it requires reservations (though we lucked into a walk-in). But it’s worth it for the experience. And if you want more than Peranakan heirlooms, Alvin also has a collection of Catholic statuary from all around the world. Where else are you going to see a lineup of Madonnas like this?
I would not ordinarily recommend traveling for a spring roll, but those offered by Kway Guan Hat are worth the trip. They’ve been in the business for over 70 years.
Originally from the Fujian region of China, popiah are filled with cooked turnip, jicama, and all sorts of other tasty things (often including eggs, carrots, fried shallots, and peanuts). But the standout feature is the paper-thin “skin,” and half the fun of going to Kway Guan Huat is watching them make these by hand:
These are also the best popiah we’ve had yet in Singapore, and we can’t wait to go back for more.
4. Peranakan Tiles
In the early 1900s, colorful tiles made in Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium (and later in Japan) became all the rage in the Singaporean and Malaysian Peranakan communities. These tiles no facades and gate posts in many Singapore neighborhoods. I found this assortment at the Intan Museum and on Koon Seng Road:
Joo Chiat is home to one of the oldest Hindu temples in Singapore, Sri Senpaga Vinayagar (the temple dates back to the mid-1800s, though this structure is more recent). Dedicated to Ganesha, this Tamil wonder features an impressive gopuram (tower)…
… and unusual depictions of Shiva dancing:
Not far away stands Kuan Im Tng Temple, which was founded as a place of Buddhist worship in 1919 on what was then a coconut plantation.
The current temple structure dates to 1972, but the building right next door (which appears to be temple-related) looks much older:
One brochure calls this “a hotspot for worshippers of Bodhisattva Guan Yin,” but my favorite deity here was the Maitreya Buddha at the temple’s entrance:
There’s not much blank wall space in Joo Chiat, but the Katong Joo Chiat Art Circuit makes note of at least seven or eight murals. Of these, I found the giant turtle (above), “The Jousting Painters” …
… “Life and Healing” …
… and, of course, the popiah-making scenes at Kway Guan Huat:
7. Terrace Houses
It’s rare to find raised homes in Singapore, but these one-story terrace houses just off of East Coast Road were built to keep the rising tides — then much closer than they are now — at bay. They also feature some unusual plaster designs:
The bowl of spicy noodle at 328 Katong Laksa makes every top-10 laksa list I’ve seen. And the coconut-rich broth did not disappoint!
Joo Chiat has shopping galore, from contemporary fashion boutiques to dusty antique shops to a wonderful gift and bookshop called Cat Socrates. At Chiang Pow Joss-Paper Trading, you can watch them making Chinese funerary homes (to be burned as a place for the deceased to live) by hand.
For a look at some Peranakan-inspired wares, we popped into Rumah Kim Choo …
… and the far more authentic (if somewhat creepily window dressed) Rumah Bebe:
Part of the fun of shopping here is that you’re often inside old shophouses!
There are all sorts of ways to indulge your sweet tooth here at the end of a long day’s walk. You might try the wildly popular gelato at Birds of Paradise (with a queue to match the hype) or some homemade kueh and ondeh-ondeh (pandan-flavored rice covered in coconut, with palm sugar syrup inside). But my very favorite thing was the gula melaka shake at Sinpopo, which was soooooo yummy!