Tanjong Katong / Joo Chiat: Singapore’s Peranakan Neighborhood
“Going around Singapore is like walking through a duty-free store,” said a long-time resident and friend. Upon closer inspection, however, there is much more to the little city-state than Orchard Road’s luxury stores that have infamously rubbed many a credit card strip and chip raw.
Recently, the opportunity to stay the weekend in Tanjong Katong/Joo Chiat, a residential area that lies in Singapore’s central-eastern side, materialized. Needless to say, after so many visits to the country, it was a welcome chance to explore another side of Singapore. And boy, was I rewarded with an experience.
“Katong”: A Brief History
A former seaside suburb for wealthy Eurasian plantation owners (the reclamation project that yielded East Coast Park consequently moved Tanjong Katong further inland), Tanjong Katong (or Katong, for short) was home to coconut and cotton plantations in the 1800’s. The first owner was a man named Francis James Bernard, who incidentally happens to be Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s great-great-great-great grandfather.
Political ancestry aside, because neighboring Tanjong Katong & Joo Chiat were popular among the wealthy, these areas turned into a seaside suburb-of-sorts.
Peranakan or Straits-born Chinese (immigrants from China who moved to the Malay archipelago) began settling into Joo Chiat in the 1920s, thus making it an important trading district as well.
With so many cultures existing in such a small area, it’s no surprise that the area around Joo Chiat Road was declared Singapore’s first Heritage Town in 2011, mainly due to efforts to promote Peranakan culture among residents and visitors alike.
A quick 15-minute Uber ride (or a scenic 40-minute bus ride) away from Changi Airport, Katong and Joo Chiat are both a step back in time, and away from the usual tourist traps.
With the nearest MRT stations being Eunos (Green Line) and Paya Lebar (Yellow/Green Line), make sure to pack your most comfortable set of flats (and your smartphone, for Google Maps) then make your way toward Joo Chiat Road!
1. Shophouses on Koon Seng Road
These shophouses give the area an ‘old world’ charm that you thought Singapore didn’t have.
Strolling by them in the day and at night are two very different experiences, which should give you even more reason to make it your next base for exploration.
2. Rumah Bebeh (113 East Coast Road)
Priding itself on being a Peranakan Heritage Boutique, the view from outside is a fantastic come-on to curious passersby, and one step inside the store is an immersion in itself.3. Antique Katong House (208 East Coast Road)
The Antique Katong House lies on the same block as Chin Mee Chin Confectionery (see below!), which makes for a convenient post-breakfast stop. Peter Wee, a fourth-gen Baba Peranakan, welcomes and tours guests for a small fee.
1. Chin Mee Chin Confectionery (204 East Coast Road)
Start the day right with an order of Kaya (or in our case, Durian spread) and butter on toast with Soft Boiled Eggs and pair that winning combo with an Iced Coffee (because Singapore’s humidity is no joke).
2. 328 Katong Laksa (51 East Coast Road)
Walk off your breakfast and explore the shophouses on Koon Seng Street and Joo Chiat Road, then make your way back to East Coast Road for a piping hot bowl of Katong Laksa.
Get a personal order of those Charcoal Salted Egg Buns to cap off your soupy meal, and a glass of Lime Juice to fight off the heat.
3. Mookata (103 East Coast Road)This place gets packed over dinner, and with good reason. Like spice? Then you’ll certainly enjoy getting to grill your Thai BBQ (over a Tom Yum soup broth!) at Mookata.
Order your plates of meat and veg, and they’ll set you up with a sauce dish that varies in 3 different degrees of spicy. Be prepared to smell like the food you just ordered, which, in my opinion, smells as good as it tastes.
4. 5 Star Hainanese Chicken (191/193 East Coast Road)
Nestled in a corner across the road from Chin Mee Chin Confectionery, FiveStar Hainanese Chicken has a menu filled with other home-runners that taste as good as its namesake.
Aside from the Steamed FiveStar Kampung Chicken, order: Imperial Pork Ribs, Stir-Fried Four Season Beans with Preserved Radish, and the Hometown Tofu. You won’t regret ordering that extra rice (or two).
5. Birds of Paradise (63 East Coast Road)
So good we had to come back two nights in a row. Every flavor is a superstar and it’s all a matter of which one you’re willing to try first.
We tried Strawberry Basil (in a cup) on our first night, and just had to go back for the Lychee Raspberry (in their signature Thyme waffle cone) the next night, just in time before they closed!
What I love most about Singapore is its ability to mix culture, concrete, and greenery in a tasteful manner. Even before Gardens by the Bay, the city already had an abundance of well-designed green spaces, some that you can visit for nary a fee.
I got my first look at Singapore’s East Coast Park during one afternoon just three years ago, and what a lovely breather it was. If one afternoon wasn’t enough to fully enjoy the 15km stretch of sand, sea, breeze, and its bountiful restaurants that sit beside its walkways and bike lanes, then one weekend sure wasn’t enough to savor all that Katong & Joo Chiat has to offer.