Friday, June 14, 2013

Joo Chiat - a heritage gem at the East Coast

The corner of Joo Chiat Road and East Coast Road has row of typical Singaporean shophouses that has been preserved within the Joo Chiat Heritage Town area. Shops filled the first floor at the street level, and the owners lived above their businesses. Rumah Bebe, a shop selling traditional Peranakan embroidered clothing, beaded shoes, ceramics and cakes is housed in the turquoise part of the row, and Kim Choo Kueh Chang, my favorite Peranakan dumpling and kueh provider to the left of it. The shophouses are typically very ornamental - with plaster decorations and colorful tiles, and many other rich elements loaned from both European and Chinese building traditions.

Brave, bold and bright as they might be, Singapore's real charm does not lie in its newest and most media-touted attractions. Instead, the city's true gems are best found by digging past its shiny surface. One of them is the quiet enclave of Joo Chiat on the East Coast, a bit further east from Katong where I live for the moment. Joo Chiat fills all my requirements for a charming neighborhood: it is perfectly walkable, has a great mixture of cultures and ethnicities, loads of beautiful architecture - much of it in form of colorful Singaporean shophouses - and last but not least, great food and cafés.
This vibrant little enclave came into being a bit over century ago, when  the raising land values made nutmeg, gambier and pepper plantations and coconut groves of these eastern coastal areas give way for Singapore's growing middle class who sought out from the increasingly hectic (and then dirty) inner city. The area was named after one of the most successful plantation owners and traders of the area, Hokkien Chinese Chew Joo Chiat (also called 'King of Katong'), to whom large parts of the land belonged until early 20th century.
While having a great mix of cultures from Eurasian and Indian to Malay and beyond, Joo Chiat and Katong have traditionally been the preserve of the Peranakans. These middle class locals and wealthy merchants were descendants of Chinese, Indian and even European immigrants who married native girls from the Malay Archipelago (the Malay term ‘peranakan’ means literally ‘locally born’; these intermarriages occurred as early as in the 14th and 15th centuries when trading between the different areas started to develop). Peranakans settled in many parts throughout Singapore - Emerald Hill is another well-known Chinese Peranakan area and Little India housed Peranakans of Indian decent - but today, the Chinese Peranakan living heritage can probably be best experienced in the Joo Chiat district.

Food was and still is an important part of the Peranakan traditions, so it comes as no surprise that some of Singapore's best eateries can be found in Joo Chiat, with many stalls dating back to the 1940s. Many of them still sell traditional Nyonya dishes from kuehs like onde onde to pandan-wrapped dumplings, or specialize on other classics as Singapore chilli crab, wanton mee, Teochew porridge and of course, Katong laksa, a spicy coconut broth filled with rice noodles, prawns, sprouts and herbs (one of my favorites, I've even learned to make it myself from scratch, pounding the spice paste by hand...).
After a dip into the brink of sleaze in the late 1900s, Joo Chiat has today reclaimed its proud heritage with help of several grassroot organizations. First, was granted first Conservation area status in 1993, and then nominated Singapore's first Heritage Town in 2011. To date, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) has listed for protection 928 buildings and 15 bungalows in Joo Chiat alone, which makes a stroll through the colorful streets a great deal more relaxing in this city where old buildings all too often come down in a dust cloud, feverish development goes on from 7 to 10 six days a week and the sound of jackhammers is never distant.

As often is the case, the security provided by the high protection status of Joo Chiat has led to gentrification of the area (which some locals disapprove of),  and Joo Chiat seems to be evolving into a favorite for both locals as well as foreigners, often working in different creative professions, who seek more from their neighborhoods and abodes than just off-the-rack modern design and conveniences. Hopefully things don't get all too trendy though so the mix of small businesses from bakeries to eateries, hardware shops to funeral supplies, antique houses to interior designers prevails, as it is exactly what makes Joo Chiat so lively and special.  
More restaurants from Joo Chiat Road - most of them Chinese or Peranakan, but even Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese... and the occasional steak house and pizzeria.

"The five-foot way" - Sir Stamford Raffles wrote in his famous Ordinances from 1822 that all houses on both sides of the streets in Singapore were to have a continuous walkway with the minimum width of 5 feet to provide pedestrians both shade and shelter from rain. Very clever - I'm still thankful for him every time I walk under their cover!
Decorative ceramic tiles are very typical for Singaporean shophouses, the type that was commonly used to surround fireplaces in Victorian England. The floral and natural motifs of them appealed to the Chinese who build the houses, and were used to decorate the exteriors in this warm climate.
This shophouse in the corner of Joo Chiat Road and Lane was built just before the Crash of 1929... It combines classical elements from both Rococo and Barock with Chinese animal and plant motifs, like the huge Dragons on the top of the front.
 Tin Yeang Restaurant is one of our favorite fish restaurants at Joo Chiat Road - their steamed fish dishes are deliciously fragrant and spicy.

  Shophouses without shops - a well-preserved and quiet residential row at Koon Seng Road. According to history books here, this house type has its roots in the Chinese building tradition, but I can't help thinking of the Victorian terrace houses when I see them... Either way, they are extremely charming, and it is very lucky that this area has been preserved for the delight of future generations.

Saloon-type doors were a regular feature, they provided privacy while letting the breeze through the houses - here, intricately carved wooden doors at Tembeling Road.

Chang Pow Joss-paper trading is a rare survivor from the past - they make supplies for Buddhist funerals. Everything handmade using thin bamboo sticks that are tied together and covered with colorful paper to form palatial buildings, cars, bicycles and anything else imaginable to be burned at funerals to provide the dead with better life on the "other side".
Cars and bicycles, and huge mansions - all to make the dead family members and ancestors happy in the afterlife... Unfortunately, no-one spoke English, and did not want to tell me how much these amazing works were worth (I was actually curious enough to ask...)

There are many bicycle and mechanical repair places and hardware shops and the smell of motor oil fills the hot air when walking past. 

I'm not entirely sure if Katong Antique House on East Coast Road is a small museum or a little shop full of old Peranakan treasures from porcelain to beadworks - the old lady did not speak English, and didn't want to sell anything.

Maintaining good relations with the gods and ancestors (and of course, older generations still living) is important in the Chinese culture - I know too little to be able to tell which gods there little shrines are dedicated to, but they are a typical sight in the Joo Chiat area.

A row of smaller heritage houses off East Coast Road - all painted in individual colors according to the owners tastes...Very charming, I think.

Time for lunch... walking makes one hungry, and the fresh Calamansi lime juice available in most places is so refreshing in the heat.

One of the oldest houses, probably from the times the area was covered with coconut plantations... the second storey loggia has a wonderful collection of orchids, I would love to get a closer look at them! Loggias were practical as they sheltered the buildings from direct sun, and so kept the temperatures inside lower. 

Joo Chiat has several places of worship - Christian churches, Hindu and Buddhist temples and probably many others... Tthe Kuan Im Tng Temple can be found at Tembeling Road, and it upholds a unique three in one combination consisting of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, consolidating the essence of these three religions into “Xian Tian Sect.”

If you are interested in reading more about the Singaporean shophouses, there is a beautiful book called "Singapore Shophouse" by historian Julian Davison, with wonderful photos by Luca Invernizzi Tettoni - highly recommended!



Unknown said...

Tats quite a few countries u live. Finland must be a very cold places

Unknown said...

Hi, we would like to request for permission to use some of your photos for a project, kindly advise how we can contact you.


Unknown said...

Hi, we would like to request for permission to use some of your photos for a project, kindly advise how we can contact you.


The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Hi Jerome - could you please contact me at liisa @ wihman dot se (sorry the unfamiliar format - just don’t want to get all bots emailing me if possible...)