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