Genuine Joo Chiat?

Friday night was one of those pleasant surprises the Internet throws my way from time to time. Tony, who runs the Betel Box backpacker hostel in Joo Chiat, organised a dinner outing to PeraMakan for a small bunch of Joo Chiat enthusiasts and well-wishers he had met over the Internet – Jaclyn, who is proud to call herself a Joo Chiat girl, Emilyn her colleague and erstwhile professional pedophile bait (it’s a long story and I probably shouldn’t write about it here), Victor the engineer who spends his free time observing, photographing and filming Chinese temple ceremonies for posterity, Su Yin, another traditional culture enthusiast, and finally, me and The Ayatollah Of Joo Chiat.

PeraMakan was pretty good, but there was a mildly awkward moment during the meal when someone asked me to name my favourite Katong/Joo Chiat eatery and I stage-whispered “Actually, I really like True Blue!”¹ across the table. Despite my lack of social graces, I really liked PeraMakan’s beef rendang, Penang plum sauce pork ribs and ikan chuan chuan, although my plebeian tongue found its MSG-free bakwan kepeting soup a little flavourless. I found its seafood otak a little drier than I would like, but still think it’s a jolly good idea and would try it again. To the general outrage of my family I’m not generally a big fan of ayam buah keluak, chap chye or nangka curry so these dishes didn’t particularly delight me, but I can’t say there was anything wrong with them either. And for quite a feast, we paid only $20 each.

After dinner we walked down Joo Chiat Road for kopitiam Vietnamese drip coffee, and Victor rendered me bug-eyed and fascinated (and also thoroughly endeared by his passion for the subject) with his tales of people going into trances in temple rituals .

Finally, we made our way to the Betel Box, which is a pretty damn awesome hostel for any tourist actually interested in immersing themselves in Singapore. It’s cheap but cheerful, cleaner than most other hostels I’ve stayed in, and Tony takes his guests on food walks, nature walks and cycling tours where all they have to pay is the cost of their food or bike rental.

It’s sad that Tony’s efforts to make a great backpacker hostel in a district so rich with local heritage tend to get hindered by Joo Chiat’s sleazier denizens and bureaucratic red tape. Joo Chiat Road’s lurid signs and equally lurid women are a far cry from Keong Saik Road’s oddly harmonious mix of brothels, boutique hotels and yuppie bars, and an even farther cry from its past. The thing to note here is that removing the sleaze from Joo Chiat wouldn’t be gentrifying it and removing “authentic flavour”, it would be restoring it to its original state as a quiet haven of traditional trades and culture, and making it easier for tourists to choose Joo Chiat as a place to stay and explore in Singapore rather than the tedium of Orchard.

Having said this, while walking all the way up Joo Chiat Road on the way home after midnight, past bars redolent with alcohol and cheap perfume, “massage parlours” with girls pressed up against their glass walls, and many prospective “couples”, I never felt unsafe or even worried about taking my digital camera out to photograph this rather random collection of junk. I guess that’s Uniquely Singapore for you.

Roadside junk
Retro port-a-loo?

¹ A rival restaurant, which serves Peranakan food fit for the gods.

9 comments

  1. I know this sounds silly but I checked out the Betel Box backpacker hostel’s website and I am now so impressed I am even tempted to try it out for one night for fun! And go on their free food trips! All for $18!

    And for someone who lived in the east for most parts of her life, I have been pathetically unadventurous with the food here… And am only now curious to try and look out for these places in the east when I now live in west. Stupid.

  2. Unfortunately I think their policy is *not* to take in Singaporeans, so as to save beds for backpackers.

    However, it would be best to clarify this, and the possibility of attending food trips, with Tony.

  3. joo chiat is not authentic anymore. it’s like any other shophouse suburban areas and the peranakans acculturated long time ago. don’t you work?

  4. Hi Michelle: it’s Emilyn here, Jaclyn’s colleague. Glad to have met you last Friday, over very good food and strong coffee.

    Rather unfortunately I don’t know enough about the neighbourhood to comment much on it, but from the myopic standpoint I’m coming from, it is quite a shame to see it this way: not so ironically, the businessmen in the area were actually extremely incensed with press coverage highlighting the increase in sleaze though – “how can we do business anymore?!”

  5. Hi “yes man”, Joo Chiat or Katong is alot more than just the Peranakans. The Malay settlement in Geylang Serai pre-dates Raffles landing, the Eurasians call this area home & have its community house here and one of the earliest Indian communities is Ceylon Road with the second oldest indian temple in Singapore.

    You may want to check it out again.

    Also, Betel Box don’t normally allow S’poreans to stay with us… perhaps in time we will… we welcome Singaporeans to join us for the activities but they need to write to me first and be invited….

  6. heya tony! but there isn’t any malay settlement left. and the eurasians moved to woodlands. last check, the only indian in ceylon road is our dear president. now, the central node of joo chiat [around joo chiat road] is mainly a mish-mash of ktvs, coffeshops, budget hotels, peranakan boutique restaurants, motorcycle shops and vietnamese girls. nothing in singapore is authentic anymore, tony.

  7. yes man: I don’t quite understand what you’re getting at in your comments – do you feel that because much of Joo Chiat’s authenticity is lost we should make no attempt to restore what we can, or preserve what is left? Or that change is inevitable etc. and there’s no point banging on about authenticity? (Keeping in mind but ignoring for the purposes of this discussion that whole essays could be written about what “authenticity” even means.)

  8. “yes man”, you speak with some devotion and authority but have you actually visited Joo Chiat for more than just F&B?

    The Malay community is very much alive and kicking. Congregation numbers at Mosques in Paya Lebar/ Eunos/ Joo Chiat area is increasing. A convert association in place for many years to encourage participation from other races. Even non-Muslim but Malay culture is widely practiced here … including Datuk Kung temple and Kuda Kepang dances (which incidentally is forbiddened to be performed in Malaysia).

    The Eurasians setup a community centre on Ceylon Road for exactly the same reason you seem to think Eurasians “moved” to Woodlands. Just as much as Eurasians do not wish to differentiate between Portuguese Eurasians, English Eurasians, German Eurasians etc, they don’t differentiate where in Singapore does a Eurasian live. What they believe in the choice of location is the spiritual core of the overall community. The defining years of Eurasian culture being in the pre-war colonial period and home is here in the East. Do you even realise that at EA, they are involved heavily with social welfare, job placements and other community outreach programs that seeks to educate anyone that is interested. Go at least and visit the museum. Its free.

    Sri Senpayagar Vinayagar temple is more than just Mr Nathan and his family. Congregation of over 5000 registered members and many of these make at least 1 visit per week to their spiritual home. Courses, classes, recitals, celebrations… go speak to them and get yourself invited for one of their events.

    Joo Chiat Road is only 1 street in the overall district. Joo Chiat is Katong is also East Coast and is also Geylang Serai. Joo Chiat Road is the oldest road in the district and without doubt, the most prominent of this area. In terms of geo-political boundaries, there is no Katong (only Tajong Katong) or East Coast (only ECP and EC Beach). What we do have is Joo Chiat as a geo-political area.

    The point I’m trying to make here is to encourage the reader to see beyond Joo Chiat Road. Joo Chiat Road has always been intended as the High Street; where commerce happens and F&B places gather. Which district has combinations of 1 bedroom HDB apartments right alongside million dollar terrace houses (diversity in community based on income). Which district sustains its own cultural identity which consists of more than just CIMO (Chinese, Indian, Malay, Others). Peranakans and Eurasians are not lumped as “Other” is our district. They have a dominant identity here in our district way before kebaya swayed on paris catwalks, stb pushed for peranakans as a unique culture etc

    Authenticity is original, its heartfelt, its self-providing. Authenticity suggests of old and legacy.

    Amidst Singapore’s growth, there is dilution of identity but also through the loss, comes about a renewed interest from people like you, like me, like Michelle, who is interested enough to talk openly about “Who We Are”. Somehow, along the way when we are not talking (or get tired of talk) and quietly reflect, we discovered that we have evolved and yes, there is a certain method of living we do that is indeed different from others. This change is evolutionary not imposed or imported.

    Authenticity suggests renewal through participation, creation, creativity and community. I not trying to convince you of otherwise but you should really see beyond the obvious and perhaps get involved rather than being critical. Please do share insights, not gripes.

    I look forward to your reply and perhaps some thoughts from you on what is Authentic in Singapore or outside. (Michelle, this is your blog but would like to explore on this topic if you allow. Thanks)

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