Life in the little lanes
Joo Chiat presents a colourful cross-section of Singapore’s history, people and flavours.
By Surekha Yadav
Sprawled across 10 km, the low-rise scatter is a realisation of that oft-repeated cliché, “a blend of old and new.” Unlike typical impressions of Singapore, carefully conserved shophouses that capture the city state’s immigrant heritage dot the streets, resplendent in pastel hues and detailed insignias, tiles and mouldings. Amble around to the back of these shophouse streets and you’ll discover how some of them have transformed into ultra-modern apartments with shiny glass panes and state-of-the-art security systems, or luxe private homes that fit a lap pool on to a top floor, hidden behind the traditional shophouse facade.
This is Joo Chiat, an east coast Singapore neighbourhood on the road to gentrification. Most locals know of it as a residential conservation area with heritage architecture bounded by Geylang Serai and Marine Parade Road. More know it better for its good hawker fare. Pulling Joo Chiat’s charms together are its people, many with roots that go back generations.
“The people who used to come to eat my father’s food are still coming,” says 52-year-old George Low with a smile. His char kway teow stall on the corner of Joo Chiat Place and Tembeling Road is something of an institution in the neighbourhood. Just as his father had done, Low carefully wok-fries each plate of the popular noodles to the preference of each customer. Life around the stall has changed much though. Low remembers when the street used to be far busier with hawkers, and when kampungs stood where nearby apartment blocks now rise. But Joo Chiat’s history goes back much further than one generation.
This area spills over with history because of its proximity to the Singapore River. About 200 years ago, the nation’s founder Sir Stamford Raffles set up base at the river and built outwards — but a consequence of his town planning was the displacement of the native Malay sea gypsies who moved to the nearby Kallang and Geylang Rivers, which run west of the area known as Joo Chiat today. As Singapore continued to grow, these people adapted to life on land. To this day, these areas remain the heart of the Malay community in Singapore.
The neighbourhood takes its name from Chew Joo Chiat, a Chinese migrant trader who built a fortune as a plantation owner after acquiring land here after World War 1. The track that would become Joo Chiat Road was known as Confederate Estate Road. It took his name when Chew turned the area left and right of it into coconut and rubber plantations.
Chew was one man among waves of migrants who came to Singapore. These resulted in intermarriages and the adoption of languages that created a distinctive patois in new generations of Singaporeans from these mixed ancestries. Broadly referred to as Peranakans, the Malay word for “descendent”, this community can be divided into four categories.
The largest and best known segment of the Peranakan people are the Baba and Nyonyas, collectively known as the Straits Chinese because these communities arose among the Chinese and Malays from the three main ports along the Straits of Malacca — Singapore, Malacca and Penang. These settlements also led to the smaller Straits Indian and the Jawi Peranakan communities. The Eurasians came from European (Portugese, Dutch or English) and Asian unions. Significantly, the Eurasian Community House, where one can get an insight into the Eurasian community in Singapore, is a Joo Chiat landmark.
Every Thursday evening at 6.30pm these days, a group of tourists, backpackers and curious locals gather on the second floor of a restored traditional Singapore shophouse on 200 Joo Chiat Road. This is the Betel Box Hostel, and they are here for a six-hour stroll to savour the wealth of culture in this historical neighbourhood.
“We eat our way through the district — and at the same time learn about how Singaporeans work, live, play and pray,” summarises tour guide and trail creator, Tony Tan, 39. The bubbly hostel founder, a definitive Singaporean, rattles off facts, figures and bits of local trivia throughout his tour.
“Most people see and appreciate the façade of the shophouses, but that is only half the story. Life, and its intricacies, lie in the little lanes,” says Tony.
There is charm in the details, in the five-foot ways (covered shophouse sidewalks) cluttered with people and their lives — like a “resident” five-foot way cobbler snoozing against his pillar as a nearby confectionary sells the tastiest curry puffs in Singapore (so a painted sign claims), or the warm buttery scent of local coffee that envelops you from a coffee-bean wholesaler whose cheerful staff roast it from a recipe that has been handed down from generation to generation.
Resident and civil servant Carrie Chua, 39, recalls how she used to entertain herself every evening by simply sitting outside her home to watch the world go by. She says the area has changed with the arrival of trendy cafes and hip design firms. “It is an eclectic mix of old and new,” she muses.
Places of worship are clues to the communities that made Joo Chiat home through time. These are wedged between dwellings of different shapes, sizes, social and economic brackets as if in a cosy camaraderie that reflects the continuous acceptance of change among the neighbourhood by its people.
At the corner of Tembeling Road and Joo Chiat Lane, the Kuan Im Ting Temple sits next to an ornate shophouse block surrounded by private housing where coconut plantations once stood when it came up in 1921.
Over at Joo Chiat Road, Masjid Khalid mosque, built in 1917 when the Road was but a dirt track, stands out with its Malay architecture among a recent generation of shophouses. The even older 150-year-old Sri Senpaga Vinayagar Temple in Ceylon Road, the second-oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, lies opposite old apartment blocks where the old Ceylonese community once raised cattle.
Another statement about the neighbourhood’s diversity can be seen at the end of Haig Road, where a 360-degree view shows Singapore’s four kinds of residences — public housing flats, terrace domiciles, and private apartments, and standalone houses.
Besides these sights, and the scents and sounds of worship in the area, there is one more sense that can be entertained and entertained well in Joo Chiat — taste.
A veritable foodie paradise, Joo Chiat’s roads are packed with “must-eats”, “must-trys” and “die-die must-trys”,as the locals will say.
Tony’s tour takes the ‘tapao’ (takeaway) route, packing a variety of local delights from food vendors along the way to be brought back to his hostel for a communal feast with Peranakan fare from the hostel’s bistro. This means tour participants get to savour Joo Chiat’s celebrated street food — like deep-fried cempedek (a local fruit) to kueh tutu (steamed rice cake stuffed with coconut, sugared powdered peanuts or palm sugar) — with ayam buah keluak (a hallmark Peranakan chicken stew) and pulut hitam (black rice pudding) from the bistro’s true-blue Peranakan chef.
Yet this spread only scratches the surface of the neighbourhood’s culinary offerings. There is much more — the legendary black pepper crabs of Eng Seng Restaurant, the springy texture of Fei Fei’s wanton mee and the much lauded Katong Laksa with its trademark lemak (creamy coconut) flavour. These foods are all legacies of the different communities that make up Joo Chiat.
With great food, local lore and identity steeped in history, it is no surprise the people of Joo Chiat are proud of where they live. What’s better, they’re happy to share it with others who venture into their neighbourhood.
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