Friday, April 27, 2007

Joo Chiat links

When I first started this blog, I googled around to check out what sites already existed on Katong and Joo Chiat and found that there were very few. In fact, that was one thing which motivated me to set up this blog. But now, as I continue with this blog, I find that there are more and more sites and blogs which also cover Joo Chiat and Katong. The latest one I have found is, which is a community-based site and covers Joo Chiat news, businesses, restaurants etc. My list of links is getting longer....

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Joo Chiat Road foodie joints

I read somewhere (can't remember where exactly) that Joo Chiat road was named after some wealthy plantation owner called Chew Joo Chiat. When then British government wanted to build a road through his estate, he willingly acceded - and then sold off the land on either side of the road at a handsome profit! The shops and houses along Joo Chiat Road are still there to this day.

There are so many nice eating places to try out along Joo Chiat Road. What has really made these places more accessible is the opening up of more car parks down the road. We've been to a number of them and maybe I'll give more details in a subsequent post. But some of my favourites are in this little cluster just near the old Maternal and Child Health clinic, now newly converted into a Scanteak furniture shop. I have always liked the look of this building, in particular its simple and clean lines, and its good to see that it is now back in use.

But back to the food. Straight across Scanteak is the Ayam Penyet stall. This "smashed" fried chicken dish is now a bit of a fad, but this is one of the first few stalls which started selling it. In fact this stall also sells fish penyet and beef penyet too! I like the fish penyet, as the fish is nicely fried - crispy on the outside, yet retaining its juiciness inside.

A few shops down, is the Lau Hock Guan Kee Bak Kut Teh stall - which is mentioned favourably in Makansutra for its fish head curry and which we like, of course, for its steamed fish tail! But that was not our intended destination that particular evening. Just next door is "My Mum's Place", another Makansutra-featured home cooking restaurant (and where else but Joo Chiat would you get two in a row). And if its a Katongite's home-cooked food, it is pretty good stuff. We have been there a few times, wolfing down their juicy, tasty prawn paste chicken, tender kangkong shoots in sambal, and crispy baby squid. This time we were eating their signature dish, seafood stuffed tofu balls - crispy on the outside, with a juicy filling of tofu and seafood inside (amongst other things), their kangkong (again) and their sliced beef with ginger (not a particularly unique dish, but well-cooked and tasty nonetheless). Service is good, and the food comes quickly to our table. Great choice for a family meal. But busy on weekend nights especially, good to go on a weekday evening. That's also when the carparks are less crowded.

There used to be a third restaurant next to Lau Hock Guan Kee and My Mum's - "Tasty Penang", which obviously sold Penang food. Somehow, despite the fame of Penang hawker fare, Penang food stalls have not done too well in Katong. Penang! Penang! opened in Lau's Arcadia along East Coast Road some time back but folded (I personally think their food was a little overpriced). Similarly, "Tasty Penang" didn't last too long. Whilst a lot cheaper than Penang! Penang!, perhaps the variety of dishes was not sufficient for it to keep up with the competition all around. It's a tough neighbourhood for restaurants but for Katong residents like myself, its a great place to eat! Where else in Singapore can you get great Eurasian, Peranakan, Chinese, Indonesia, Malay, Indian, and frankly many other types of food in one small little area!!

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Lumen Christi

"Lumen Christi!" "Deo Gratias!"

These Latin words come at the beginning of the traditional pre-Vatican II Easter Vigil Mass. Today, it is said in English: "Christ our Light!" and the response is "Thanks be to God!"

Holy week is the busiest time in the Christian calendar. Coming at the end of Lent, it starts with Palm Sunday, commemorating the entry of Christ into Jerusalem, then Maundy Thursday which reminds us of the Last Supper, Good Friday when we recall the death of Christ and finally Easter Sunday when we celebrate His resurrection.

In Katong, much of this activity takes place at the Holy Family church, on East Coast Road. There has been a church serving the community here since the early 1930s; I too was baptised here (not in the 1930s, thank you!). The current church building was erected in 2000 as the older building was too small for the large community. The old church building was a Katong landmark with the tall bell tower above the entrance on East Coast Road. It was a simple church building but it warmly welcomed visitors through the many doors which went all around the church.

In the old days, too, the congregation would wait outside the closed church whilst the Easter candle was lit from the newly kindled Easter fire, and follow the priest into the church. Today, the numbers attending the Vigil would make this a difficult logistical exercise. The structure of the church also makes it a little more difficult, given that we now have to climb up one storey to enter the church building as the car park is now on the ground floor. But it is still quite meaningful to sit in the dark church, listening out for the call of "Christ our Light!" and watching as the altar boys enter and move around the church lighting our candles, and then watching as the light continues to spread throughout the church.

But the highlight of the Easter Vigil mass is typically the baptism ceremony for adults. It is the culmination of a longer process stretching slightly over a year in which they have prepared themselves to renounce their sins, and cleanse themselves in the waters of new life in Christ. This Easter, the group was a fairly small one for Holy Family parish - I think just under 30 people being baptised or brought into full communion with the Catholic church. But the past groups have been rather large, so much so that Holy Family now has a pretty efficient process - the baptism with water, annointing with holy oil, the giving out of the white garment and candles were all done with true Singaporean efficiency. I recall my friend's baptism in London, when she was the only one being baptised. She wore black, was totally immersed in water, then went to a room at the back of the church to dry off (we heard the hairdryer going for a while) and change into all-white. It was a beautiful and highly symbolic service, but can't exactly be done en masse (think of the hairdryer queue).
The church itself is a beautiful place to be on Easter Vigil; the choir sings better and the congregation generally happy and patient despite the long ceremony. And although the church has changed, it is the same ceremony which has been celebrated in this place for over 70 years, and around the world for 2000 years.

The Rose Window at Holy Family Church

Friday, April 06, 2007

Old Space, New Place

Katong used to be the civic hub of the East Coast. In a way it still is - the churches, the temples, the mosque are still around in this Katong/Joo Chiat area. We also used to have our own Joo Chiat Police Station, near the junction of East Coast and Joo Chiat Roads (opposite the TBG shophouse featured in an earlier post). But the police station moved away long ago, and subsequently the Immigration Department moved in and set up its Field Office (and, I think, a temporary lock-up) there. I visited it once and recall the thick walls of the cells, the large iron-grilled doors, the rather sterile atmosphere of this government office.

Immigration department has long moved out also. The fences and gates surrounding the complex have come down and it has become Katong Village, home of many little restaurants and shophouses. There was an attempt at putting a food centre here - somehow, it did not have staying power although I recall it being fairly popular at one point. Other restaurants came and went. But today, there seems to be a certain new life emerging. Waraku Japanese Restaurant, Samba Brazil Steakhouse Churrascaria, Samy's Curry (of Dempsey Road fame), have all set up shop in this area, together with the pool hall and the one or two pubs which have somehow hung on. It remains to be seen as to how they will survive - I have hopes of Waraku which is pretty crowded whenever I go there. Samy's Curry - not so sure. I think that afficiandos would flock to the "mother restaurant", and in Katong the fish head curry competition is a fierce one. Whilst Samy's have their signature fish head curry, many zi cha stalls will give you a choice between Thai style, Assam, Hongkong style and so on.

Finally, the main office of the old Police station has a new tenant, a Hongkong style noodle restaurant. The home of law and order has transformed into a rather more fun space. Pictures of cantopop stars adorn the walls, and stacks of magazines to read encourage people to hang out here. This place is one of the few which sells my old favourite, beef hor fun in black bean sauce, complete with onions and green capsicum, topped with black pepper. (I acquired a taste for this in my student days where it was the staple of all the Cantonese restaurants in London's Chinatown.) And of course it sells instant noodles with various meat toppings, Yinyang coffee/tea mix, hot coke with honey and lemon etc etc. But their function rooms (for rental) and the outdoor alfresco dining area are often empty. Surprising, as compared to the Hongkong restaurant further down East Coast Road, it is probably better value for money and has better car parking facilities to boot. I suppose only time will tell.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Peranakan Houses

One thing which I feel gives Katong its distinctive atmosphere is its buildings, in particular the charming Peranakan buildings in the area. The Peranakans settled in Katong many years ago, as did the Eurasians. The Eurasians tended to stay in single-storey bungalows but the Peranakans built their unusual, charming east-west fusion homes and these line parts of East Coast, Joo Chiat and surrounding roads.

The houses are painted in pastel colours, with elaborate floral or animal moulding or decorative tiles adorning the facade. The roofs have wooden fringes, painted in matching colours. The houses appear deceptively narrow from the front - but once inside, the building stretches well beyond the front facade. Apparently, property taxes in Malacca were based on the length of the house fronting the street. So buildings were built narrow but long, and this particular architectural design spread also to Penang and Singapore.

Peranakan houses typically have a little veranda in front. The front entrance typically has two doors - the first is a half door, or pintu pagar (this literally means door fence, or a gate, but in this context is a half door), and the second is a proper door. The pintu pagar allows for ventilation, whilst at the same time maintaining privacy.

On entering a Peranakan house, there is a small front entrance room - a parlour, for receiving guests. In my relatives' home in Penang, this had the family photos in it - a large photo of our revered ancestor who had come over from China, a picture of the extended family many many years ago (I'm not in it). But just behind this room is the large family room where all the action would take place. Here is where the dining area is, and the family living area where (today) people watch television, listen to music etc. Here is where also the inner courtyard is located, letting sun and light into the middle of the house. The kitchen lies beyond that. On the second floor, the front room would typically have a little peephole in the floor. Looking down through the peephole, the residents would be able to check out visitors to the house before going downstairs to let them in. The shortcoming of these old houses is that often they live with old plumbing systems, so the bathrooms are in the back of the house and maybe there would be only one, on the ground floor....

Many Peranakan houses have been put to other uses these days. Along Joo Chiat Road, they hold coffee shops, karaoke bars, hotels, and in some cases, art galleries. Following complaints that there was too much, um, street action taking place in the area, pub licences have not been renewed. The ladies of the night are moving out and the creative crowd, slowly coming in. Which is all very well but it is also nice to see that the 60 year old bakery is still going strong at one end of Joo Chiat Road. Together they create the unique blend of old and new, of tradition and innovation, in this charming corner of Singapore.


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