Singapore, Peranakan culture in Katong

More than any other cultures in Southeast Asia, the Peranakan culture fully embodies Southeast Asia’s ethnic mix. Peranakan is a word derived from the Malay language which means “local-boom”. It generally describes mostly Chinese immigrants from Southern China who settled originally along the Andaman coast and married to local people living in Penang, Melaka, Singapore, Java and Sumatra and then to Siam. These communities adopted local customs strongly blended with their own Chinese tradition. They are also often described as Baba (for men) and Nyonya (for women).

Singapore is one of the main settlements of Peranakan communities. They have been living for over a century around the Katong/Joo Chiat district, a 15 minutes-drive from the Singapore civic district. Once filled with coconut plantations and used as a weekend retreat by wealthy city dwellers, Katong developed into a residential suburb by the early 20th century. Neighbouring Joo Chiat area is named after Chew Joo Chiat, a wealthy Chinese landowner in the early 20th century.

All this area is an attractive destination for visitors with few tourists here. The district is characterised by its unique pre-war architecture. Along the narrow streets, stand side by side colourful two- storey shophouses and terrace houses with ornate facades, intricate motifs and ceramic tiles. Best examples of Peranakan architecture are the stucco-decorated two- storey shophouses along Koon Seng Road and Joo Chiat Road among others. Koon Seng Road is turning into a very beloved photo and selfie motive with its imposing houses painted in bright – even psychedelic – colours.

Over the last decade, local association of descendants of Peranakan communities have been fighting for the preservation of the area with a certain success. Large stretches of roads are now protected, while houses have been renovated. Small gardens, resting areas and signage boards provide explanations about landmarks.

Many of the old shop houses are filled with restaurants and coffee shops selling local delicacies including the famous Katong Laksa- a spicy coconut milk-based noodle soup enhanced with a sour chili paste). It is worth trying Kueh Chang (rice dumplings) and other Nonya biscuits filled with pineapple jelly. Kim Choo Kueh Chang is one of the shops where original Peranakan cakes and Kueh Chang were locally manufactured for almost 80 years. The Red Katong House Bakery along East Coast Road is an easily recognisable structure with its all-red colour. The house operated from 1925 to 2003 as a bakery with a Jewish owner. It only reopened in 2016 but is no longer in the original house.

If one is interested to buy Peranakan objects and visiting a former Baba-Nyona original house, the Intan House is a perfect place to visit with its collection of Peranakan antiques. However, as it is only open for private tours, booking is compulsory (contactus@the-intan.com- 69 Joo Chiat Terrace).

A two-hour sightseeing walking tour is a minimum to enjoy the area fully including a break for a laksa, a coffee or an ice cream. There is a small guided tour available online under the Singapore Tourism Board website www.visitsingapore.com.

ADDRESSES

328 Katong Laksa
It is considered as the original place to eat the famous Katong Laksa. The owner has two shops along East Coast Road. One Laksa soup is generally sufficient to fill up a stomach but they are also possibilities to buy dim sum…
> 216 or 51 East Coast Road

Birds of Paradise Gelato Boutique
Home-made ice creams with natural flavoured from herbs, spices, fruits and flowers.
> 63 East Coast Road

Kim Choo Kueh Chang
Famed delicacies on sale as well as a range of Peranakan souvenirs made as much as possible in Singapore…
> 60 Joo Chiat Place


Photo: Koon Seng Road with its colourful houses