Down on the east coast of Singapore lies the heritage area of Katong and Joo Chiat. Many years ago, this area was full of coconut and rubber plantations and was popular with city dwellers as a weekend retreat. Today, it’s a bustling and busy area of colourful shophouses, low-rise boutiques, and Peranakan food that brings you right back to a time when indentured servants and plantation workers mingled with merchants and landowners against an ornamental backdrop of the jewel box architecture of Straits shophouses.
You want to make a day of it, so you start out early and take a taxi down to i12 Katong mall. From here you find yourself heading down Joo Chiat Road, which leads right to the heart of the area. Named after Chew Joo Chiat, a local Chinese landowner in the 1900s, the street reveals alleys and lanes full of curiosities. The whole place feels like a small village that you’ve stumbled into—so far removed from the modernity of the Central Busines District (CBD).
Before you wander too far, you find yourself needing some fuel, so a stop at the delicious Sinpopo restaurant is in order. Sinpopo is a chic, modern iteration of the old kopitiam coffee shops, with enamel mugs and clean décor that recall the days when people enjoyed kaya toast and half boiled eggs underneath swirling fans. The speciality Har Jeong Kai burger with prawn paste marinade on boneless chicken thigh hits the spot for brunch, although the classic Nasi Lemak for two is also a tempting choice. Today, you’ll opt for something sweet like the Gula Melaka Cake, made with sugar tapped from palm trees, or perhaps the Pandan Soufflé, a fragrant and delicate speciality made with the pandan herb, accompanied by some of Sinpopo’s more exotic choices of tea.
A few doors down is Cat Socrates, a charming little gift boutique complete with Zoo-Zoo, the shop cat in residence. This is a great place to browse eclectic items from local and international artists. The postcards, amusing manuals on how to speak Singlish, and the all-natural jams and foods are the perfect little gifts to help you imagine life here one hundred years ago. After that it’s off again, and as you pass the shophouses and temples, you peer into cultural curiosities like Chiang Pow Joss-Paper Trading on the corner of Ceylon Lane, which makes paper offerings on balsam poles that are used in Chinese funeral rites.
A little further on you stumble upon Onepiece Painting, a wonderful little art gallery. This is the place to browse and perhaps even pick up some carefully curated artwork. Mr. Easton Bel and his team source art from places as diverse as Hanoi, Beijing, Cuba, and Hungary. With either a European or Asian influence, the works on oil and serigraph capture the very special, creative vibe that you’ll notice all over this neighbourhood.
But it’s across the road, at the main intersection with Koon Seng Road, where the spirit of this area finds fulfilment in the unique Joo Chiat shophouses. These pre-war terrace houses are painted in a striking rainbow of pastel colours, and you ponder at the artistic ambition and taste of the area’s early settlers. This is Straits Eclectic architecture at its best, and the Chinese influence can be seen on the bat-shaped vents that symbolize good luck. The Malay influence can be seen on the timberwork boards, combined with Western artistic influence in the dazzling floral tiling.
You find yourself lost in the charm of these streets and decide to round off your day with Peranakan food at the delightful Guan Hoe Soon Restaurant. The highlight of the day is surely the ayam buah keluak, sometimes called the Asian truffle—a rich chicken curry created with the Indonesian buah keluak nut. It’s earthy, dark and alluring and best served with some rojak on the side.