In a rapidly changing world, most countries have to stay on top of their game by redeveloping and revitalising mature areas into modern townships. Singapore, a city that is known for its modern urban planning is no exception.
Since it gained independence 50 years ago, Singapore has been relentless in its pursuit of urbanisation for the comfort of its own citizens and travellers like you and me.
Most travellers would be pleasantly surprised to discover that despite the urbanisation, priceless landmarks like street hawkers, old roads, precincts and buildings have been conserved in preservation of their heritage.
As such, there is much to be discovered in this thriving and modern city that is rich in heritage – be it dining, visiting a museum or simply engaging in a cultural programme – just across the causeway.
Go on a cultural tour around the Katong & Joo Chiat trail
The beginnings of the Katong/Joo Chiat area can be traced back to the early 19th century, where coconut plantations and humble attap-roofed kampungs (villages) dotted the landscape. Up to the 1950s the area was a serene seaside retreat for the wealthy.
Joo Chiat Road started off as a simple dirt track that linked plantations to the sea in the 1920s. It was named after Chew Joo Chiat, a wealthy landowner and philanthropist who bought over the large plots of land in Katong and was known as the “King of Katong”. In the 1920s and 1930s, many communities moved eastward out of the city centre to make Katong/Joo Chiat their home – most of them were of Peranakan and Eurasian descent. This resulted in bungalows, shophouses and places of worship steeped in their culture. To retain its rich architect and heritage, over 700 buildings in the area have been conserved.
Foodies will be happy to know that Katong/Joo Chiat is particularly well known among Singaporeans for their food trails that will take you through traditional kopitiams (coffee shops), Peranakan Dining Institutions and multi-ethnic eateries.
A few eateries to look forward to during the food trail are such as:
1. A spicy affair at 328 Katong Laksa
If you prefer something more savoury and spicy, the 328 Katong Laksa is a must-visit in Singapore. Ranked number one on the Lonely Planet’s list of things to do in Singapore, this establishment was even visited by Michelin-starred and celebrity chef, Gordon Ramsay.
2. Dine at Tian Tian chicken rice
The Tian Tian chicken rice is not your average chicken rice. Known as one of the best Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore, the Tian Tian chicken rice has even gained the approval of celebrity chef, Anthony Bourdain who said that the “chicken rice was so good that you can even eat it on its own”.
3. Take a tea break at Chin Mee Chin Confectionary
Chin Mee Chin Confectionary has been known to serve up local sweet treats such as their delicious egg tarts and almond cupcakes to Singaporeans for over 80 years.
4. A sweet affair at Strictly Pastry
Those with a sweet tooth should try this new brick and mortar confectionary that is tucked away in Joo Chiat, specializing in customised cakes for specialised occasions and innovative desserts – which is the mastermind of owner and executive pastry chef Hannah Wong. Not new to this industry, Hannah Wong has a slew of expertise, as she was also the former Chef de Partie in the Pâtissère, of the award winning team at the Food & Hotel Asia Salon Culinaire. She was also the previous scholarship holder of Cacao Barry scholarship to Paris at the World Street Gourmet. Be sure to order her creations, “Hey Hey Devil’s Chocolate cake” and “Strawberry Velure” when you are there.
5. Taste of yesteryears at the Immigrants Gastrobar
Doing a food trail, around one of the richest historical precincts in Singapore, would definitely make you wonder what the forefathers ate in Singapore. Experience the taste of the yesteryears as you make your way to Immigrants Gastrobar. Offering a menu that consists of dishes from the major ethnicities that were previously immigrants of Singapore such as the Chinese, Eurasian, Indian, Malay, and Peranakan. Chef Damian D’Silva who is well known for his cultural culinary expertise.
After all that eating, it is always a good idea to walk off some of those calories before your next meal by visiting some of Katong/Joo Chiat’s attractions such as:
Katong’s colourful past at the pre-war shophouses along Koon Seng Road
Get your Instagram ready when you stroll alongside Katong’s colorful shophouses along Koon Seng Road. The colourful pre-war shophouses reflect strongly upon Singapore’s rich Peranakan culture.
For starters, feel free to embrace the Peranakan culture at the “accidental museum”, The Intan.
It is always interesting to learn more about the rich culture and heritage of the Peranakans as they had a major influence on the development of the Katong/Joo Chiat precinct. Learn more about the Peranakan culture and its heritage with a visit to the “accidental” private museum at the Intan by Peranakan-born Alvin Yap.
Visitors may also taste home-cooked Peranakan food by opting for tea or dinner at the museum.
Discover Singapore’s oldest gem, Telok Ayer Street
Telok Ayer Street is one of Singapore’s oldest street gems. It gained prominence in the 1820s because it served as a landing ground for early immigrants. Under the Raffles Town Plan in 1822, which saw the creation of designated development for different ethnic groups in Singapore by its founder Sir Stamford Raffles, Telok Ayer Street belonged in a district that was designated to be a Chinese District.
The concentration of religious buildings and Chinese clan associations along the street, gives both citizens and travelers an insight into the life of the early Chinese immigrants. Telok Ayer Street used to face the sea and served as a docking bay for boats and sampans for the early immigrants. Grateful for a safe journey, many of them set up altars and worship houses to give thanks to the gods, which led to the building of the Thian Hock Keng Temple (one of Singapore’s oldest temple) in 1842.
To completely indulge in Telok Ayer’s rich experience and enjoy a holistic experience, it is recommended that travellers start at Amoy Hotel at Telok Ayer Street:
The Amoy Hotel is definitely a cultural experience on its own. It is linked to the Fuk Tak Chi museum, which used to be Singapore’s first temple built in 1824 before it was restored into a museum. Amoy Hotel, on the other hand was built from a collection of conserved shophouses that existed over 170 years ago, with Chinese-themed detailing throughout the hotel. The rooms are named after Hokkien surnames like “Chen” and “Huang” in memory of the Chinese immigrants who were mostly of Fujian descent and hailed from Amoy, China (which was what the hotel was named after).
Guests will also be greeted with hotel receptionists clad in chinese costumes, to complete the experience.
Visit the architectural masterpiece, Singapore’s oldest Hokkien temple – Thian Hock Keng Temple
An important part of Singapore’s Hokkien Chinese immigrant history can be found in the Tian Hock Keng Temple. Built in the 1839 by the Hokkien clan, the temple was initially created to house the clan’s office and serve as a meeting venue. It was completed in the 1842. Details of the temple’s history were recorded in granite tablets on the wall inside the entrance hall. The temple even attracted the attention of no less than the Qing Dynasty Emperor Guang Xu, who presented a calligraphy plaque inscribed with the phrase “bo jing nan ming” (波靖南溟or “Gentle Waves Over the South Seas” in Chinese) in 1907.
It is now permanently exhibited at the National Museum.
Built in a traditional southern Chinese architectural style, the Thian Hock Keng Temple’s structure was assembled without nails and comprises of an architectural masterpiece of stone, tiles, woods dragons and phoenixes, intricate sculptures and imposing columns. Its long-standing history has led the government to gazette the temple as a national monument in 1973.It has also been awarded some of the most prestigious architectural awards, including the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage 2001 Awards for the Cultural Heritage Conservation Building.
Food choices are also aplenty at Telok Ayer Street – from famous hawker centers to modern cafes, you will be able to satisfy your craving along this street full or rich heritage:
1. Dine at Telok Ayer Market, also known as the infamous Lau Pa Sat
If you would like to taste Singapore’s hawker food, a trip to the Telok Ayer Market aka Lau Pa Sat is definitely a must. Known as the first market in Singapore, Lau Pa Sat has also been gazetted as a national monument in Singapore – offering travelers and foodies alike different local cuisines to feast on. There are also several shops inside the market and on weekend evenings, visitors can enjoy live band performances in the market.
2. Kick back and Relax with a leisure cup of coffee at sandwich café, Sarnies
If you wish to take some time off from exploring, sit back and relax in a laidback environment like Sarnies. Tucked away in the old shophouses at Telok Ayer Street, Sarnies offer a variety of coffee and comfort food that is popular among the young and hip crowd in Singapore.
Revel in the Nostalgic Charm of Tiong Bahru
Built in the 1930s, Tiong Bahru is one of the oldest housing estates in Singapore. It was the first project undertaken by Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), the government body administered by the British colony history to provide mass public housing in Singapore. Before it became a housing estate, Tiong Bahru was a cemetery. Thiong meant “Cemetery” in Hokkien and Bahru meant new in Malay. The construction style of the estate is a mix of Streamline Moderne and local Straits Settlements shophouse architecture. The streets around Tiong Bahru are also named after its Chinese pioneers of the 19th and 20th centuries (Lim Liak, Kim Pong, Guan Yuan and Chay Yan).
Initially, in the pre-world war years, few could afford living in Tiong Bahru and it became a place for the rich and powerful to keep their mistresses. After the world war, the houses became affordable and more people could live there. Nowadays, Tiong Bahru has transformed into become a hip neighbourhood for families and young people alike.
1. Something for the kids at Woods in the Books
Parents, who are looking to foster good reading habits with their kids, should be introduced to a world of literary at Woods in the Books, an independent bookstore on Yong Siak Street in Tiong Bahru. The co-founder of the bookstore is an artist himself who is known to illustrate some of the books. He and his wife personally curates picture books, comics and graphic novels introduced in the store.
2. Quirky shopping at Strangelets
Strangelets is known for one thing: strange things. The owners stock brands that are niche and unavailable anywhere else in the city. Chic designers such as Nils Holger Moorman and David Restorick create some of the item sold at their stores. If you are looking to bring back unique furnishing for your home (i.e. such as fertility dolls) or an imaginative kid’s product, this is definitely the place to go.
3. Café brunch at PoTeaTo
Who would have thought that Potatoes and Teas could compliment well with one another. The PoTeaTo is a must-visit in Tiong Bahru. Occupying a tiny shop front in Tiong Bahru, the café has a variety of potato dishes such as the hand cut sweet potato fries, which can be paired with their detoxifying Sencha tea. A few interesting items to indulge in are the hearty Fisherman’s Pie or the Good ol’ Fish and Chips paired with a pot of Oolong Berry.
4. Dine to a daringly different culinary experience at Ikyu
Ask any old Singaporean if they have thought that Tiong Bahru would one day be the home to culinary art, and the answer would probably be a resounding no. However, that has changed with the opening of Japanese restaurant Ikyu. Helmed by executive chef Takuma Seki, formerly of Hide Yamamoto restaurant at the Marina Bay Sands, Ikyu offers a variety of interesting Japanese interpretations such as French Foie Gras Flavored in Yuzu and Grilled Edamame Flavored in the Truffle.
Take a walk on one of Singapore’s most vibrant street – Little India
The area’s main thoroughfare, Serangoon Road, was one of the earliest roads in Singapore. Farms were set up along the road and they produced crops like sireh or betel nut, paddy, vegetables and sugar cane. Years later, it moved on to cattle trading, which drew in a wider Indian population. The Indian population grew further in the 19th and 20th century, and fuelled the birth of numerous religious and cultural landmarks, which later became iconic tourist attractions in Singapore.
Let’s not forget that there’s also the opportunity to explore the rich history of the Indian culture at Singapore’s Indian Heritage Centre.
One of the key attractions this year is the newly built Singapore Indian Heritage Centre (IHC) that is set to officially open next month. Embrace the rich history of the early Indian settlers as you discover special trade and culture exhibitions by the IHC in partnership with the Indian government, and a wide range of showcase pieces reflecting the Indian History of the South East Asian region.
The IHC will also be showcasing heirlooms, arts and crafts and memorabilia from South East Asia, dating back to early 1900th century.
2. Discover favorite Indian eateries at the Tekka Market
If you are a fan of Indian cuisines like Banana Leaf rice or even the infamous “Nasi Briyani” a visit to the Tekka Market in Little India should definitely be on your list. Known as the heart and soul of Little India, the Tekka Market features authentic Indian cuisines that are colorful and fresh. Each food is also suitable for Muslim travellers as most of the hawker stalls sell predominantly Indian Muslim cuisines.
3. Trendy cafe trails to look out for around Little India
After all that walking around little India, it is always nice to take a break and relax with a cup of coffee or have a snack at a hidden café. Over the years, there are many hidden cafes that are popping up all around Little India – which you must make it a point to visit when you visit this colorful precinct.
4. Recharge and relax at the Countryside Café
Start if you are looking for a place to recharge, the Countryside Café is the ultimate go-to place in Little India. Offering a wide range of Alcoholic beverages, mocktails and palatable western snacks, this fuel shack is also ranked as one of the must-visit cafes in Little India by Lonely Planet
5. Your new brewing hangout spot Rouse Café
Plan your next café visit around at the local hipster hangout spot in Rouse Café, Little India. Known as one of the very few Halal hipster cafes around Singapore, this rustic little café offers house blends brewed by Dutch Colony Coffee in Singapore and offer delectable cuisines like “Beef Wrapped Asparagus” and “Open-Faced Roast Beef Sandwich” which has garnered local fan fare.
6. Dig in to a fine feast at the Jewel Café and Bar at Rangoon Road
If you are looking a fuller meal and are not into sips and bites, this little gem of a café at Rangoon Road, Little India is one to visit. With a stunning chic industrial décor, that is represented by a concrete and brick wall, embellished with copper plates, the shape of jewels and crystal light bulbs, Jewel Café and Bar has a few anticipated dishes such as “Umami Prawn Capellini” and the pan fried “Chilean Black Cod” which is well loved among its recurring visitors.
Rediscover Singapore’s famous developments that are steeped in rich history yet bustling with trendy and interesting lifestyle offerings. Head on over to Singapore to discover more modern experiences set against the historically rich background of the Lion City.
See you there 😉
For more information, visit Singapore Tourism’s official website.