Katong: The Funky Singapore District at the Sweet Spot of Gentrification
Good Weekend, Sydney Morning Herald, March 16 2018
The Peranakan people are all about cultural collision.
The Peranakan are the descendants of enterprising Chinese traders who settled in the Malay archipelago 500 years ago, married locally and raised their children in a mix of local customs and Chinese traditions. Today their influences give Singapore an enduring and unique cultural heartbeat among the malls and the office towers, one which manifests itself in distinctive architecture, clothing and most of all food.
The best place to experience it all today is in the district bordered by Tanjong Katong and Joo Chiat Road, on Singapore’s East Coast. Better still, Katong is in that sweet spot for a gentrifying suburb, with enough funky novelty to be interesting without having eroded all of the history and charm that made it attractive and different in the first place.
The most beautiful vision in Peranakan culture, in all its mixed-up wonder, is the shophouse front, a signature Singapore sight. A classic shophouse always follows the same pattern: narrow and two-storey in long terraces, with shuttered windows on the upper floor, vivid carved reliefs in the timber, then a shop below recessed behind a pedestrian walkway. The windows feel French, the shutters Spanish or Portuguese, the construction Malay and the decoration Chinese: exactly the combination of cultures and ideas that make the Peranakan what they are.
The best place to see the shopfronts is off the main streets on Koon Seng Road, a terrace of heritage shophouses each coloured in a different vivid pastel. Though maintained with a very Singaporean exactitude, these are real, occupied homes, not museum pieces, although one a little distance away, called the Intan, has opened its doors as a living museum where owner Alvin Yapp shows off a lifetime’s accumulation of Peranakan furniture and decoration.
Try the district’s most famous shop, Rumah Bebe, where one can not only buy the classic Peranakan slippers covered in hundreds of embroidered coloured beads, but learn how to make them.
A host of other businesses have moved into the district over the years. It makes for a striking combination: heavy on high-end petcare shops and butchers where expats come to get their imported Australian wagyu, it has attracted western bars and restaurants without driving out the classic local stores. You can still see people queueing 30 deep for laksa at the Ponggol Nasi Lemak Centre.
On one side of Tanjong Katong, feed yourself for $5 in Eng’s Noodles, a nondescript place visually which traces its history to the wonton-making craft of a Cantonese immigrant in the 1950s twinned with a zippy chilli paste he invented to keep the Malay-influenced locals happy. On the other side, eat gourmet ice cream (or a local favourite of charcoal waffle, salted egg and yolk sauce with a scoop of ice cream) at Bing Bing, or eat at one of the district’s three popular Italian restaurants, Bruno’s, Trattoria L’Operatta and Bottega (the last of them a restaurant in a functioning shop, where you dine surrounded by shelves of olive oil and tomato paste).
Ultimately Katong is all about the food. In the district’s revamped mall, I12, one can eat top-class steak at Chop House; but don’t think about leaving without trying Peranakan cuisine, known as Nonya. The most celebrated place for it is Guan Hoe Soon, in business since 1953; devotees love otak-otak, which is spicy fish wrapped in banana leaves, or ayam buah keluak, which cooks chicken with nuts from a mangrove tree found in Malaysia.
And, to embrace the incongruity of it all, maybe wash it down with a drink at the hole-in-the-wall styled bar The Cider Pit, which in addition to offering 50 kinds of cider is surely the least likely place in the world to have Anthracite Nugget Stout on draft. The original Peranakan would appreciate the oddity: a culture in the wrong place which turns out to be just right.
SHOP: Haji Lane
Singapore Hipsterland, Haji Lane in the Arab Quarter is 200 metres of cafes, bars, murals, galleries and quirky boutiques that seem to specialize in vintage clothes, bags and enormous clocks. Check out Sandra Macheroux’s gallery of photography, including stunning canvas shophouse prints, upstairs at number 16A.
ESCAPE: Nikoi Island
Ecotourism meets luxury getaway in this island resort launched by Australians, where the buildings have been made with gifted craftsmanship from driftwood found in the archipelago. Be sure to ask about the enormous dining table hewn from a single tree they towed for a day and a night from another island. Part of Indonesia, Nikoi is reached by a ferry to Bintan Island, then the resort’s staff take you the rest of the way by minibus and speedboat.
WALK: Tiong Bahru
A social housing experiment in the 1930s happened to coincide with the birth of Art Deco and a commissioned architect called Alfred Church determined to try it out. The result is an enclave like no other in Singapore, filled with curves and portholes, all streamlined buildings that look like ocean liners. It’s also one of the best places in Singapore for great restaurants, independent shops and the smallest and coolest bar in the country (Bincho).
Kebun Baru Bird Singing Corner shows you another Singapore away from the relentless money-making of the city and money-losing of Orchard Road. Here, once a week, men of a certain age turn up with birds in ornate cages, hoist them into the air on poles, and hold a bird-singing competition (zebra doves usually win, apparently). But in large part it’s an excuse for them to drink coffee, chat and play chess in peace while the birds do their thing.