Joo Chiat Photowalk

Cyclist on Koon Seng RoadBefore I spent more than an hour watching the really fascinating Javanese “horse trance” dance performance I chanced upon in Joo Chiat, I had been on a self-initiated photowalk down Joo Chiat Road. As a long-time Katong/Joo Chiat resident, I was walking a route I already knew well, but had rarely bothered to photograph.

If you’re from this part of town as well, I hope my photos will reflect what you know and love about our neighbourhood. And if you’re not familiar with it, I hope you’ll like what you see in my photos and come visit!

 

Javanese “Horse Trance” Dancing In Joo Chiat

It’s been too long since I showed Joo Chiat some photo-love on this blog. We often wander there for bak kut teh at Sin Heng or drinks at The Cider Pit, but perhaps because I take it for granted for being so close to home, I rarely bring my camera. A few weeks ago, I did, which is why I managed to film and capture one of the intriguing things I have ever witnessed in public in Singapore.

At the junction between Joo Chiat Road and Joo Chiat Place, a traditional Javanese dance called Kuda Lumping (also referred to as Kuda Kepang) was being performed. Apart from carrying and manipulating horses made of woven bamboo, the participants in this dance are said to go into trances where they behave like horses and are treated accordingly, such as being fed and whipped. As they are supposedly immune to pain while in this trance-like state, they also perform various dangerous feats such as eating broken glass.

Singapore Snapshots (Eunos, Geylang)

While I procrastinate on writing about our rather awesome orangutan odyssey in Sabah, I thought I might as well share some photos I took a while back during various explorations of Eunos and Geylang and never ended up posting. There’s nothing in these photos quite as exciting as trekking through leech-infested Bornean jungles, but I like them because they are souvenirs from sleepy weekend afternoons spent walking around quiet neighbourhoods near our home, doing nothing exciting but happy nonetheless.

A bird shop in Eunos:

Bird Watcher

We ventured deep into the Eunos warehouse district in search of dining chairs to match a $100 dining table we scored off Craigslist. Although we did end up buying conventional chairs, for a moment the idea of dining horses was rather tempting:

Random model horses

You can pay $8 (or more, not sure what the price is now since I haven’t gone there in a while) for Penang assam laksa at Penang Kitchen on Tanjong Katong Road, or you can go two or three bus stops down the road to the food court at the top of City Plaza and enjoy this one, just as good, for $3:

$3 laksa at City Plaza

Anthony Bourdain listed Sin Huat as one of his 13 Places To Eat Before You Die, but he probably didn’t mean from splinters:

Decrepit tables at the famous Sin Huat

I am rather fond of roadside altars. Not sure why. It might be bundled up in that somewhat trite tendency of modern yuppie Singaporeans to celebrate the preservation of traditional practices they have no intention of really perpetuating themselves.

Roadside Altar, Geylang Road

Durians. What to say about durians? I’m actually fairly indifferent to durians, although I do like photographing them. I still think Andrew Zimmern is a fucking wuss though.

Durian stall, Geylang Road

Hungry Eyes

Cat under parked car

At the Ponggol Nasi Lemak branch in Tanjong Katong, there is always a little cat that darts and scurries under and in between the parked cars in hope of scraps from the tables of the pavement diners. He keeps his distance and isn’t as insistent as strays elsewhere can be, but there’s no questioning what he’s after. I took the photo on the left while waiting for Alec to bring back our plates of nasi lemak.

There he is again, eying my newly arrived nasi lemak:

Random Joo Chiat

I’m a bit weddinged and kittened out. Here are some photos of Joo Chiat instead.

Can you believe this is just sitting in a Joo Chiat driveway? I did a double take as we walked past and Googled my hunch once I got home – yup, I’m pretty certain it’s a Ng Eng Teng work.


Another view

Peeling pillar on the five foot way

Not the best photo – I was too busy drooling in anticipation of this place’s divine otah. You can get better in restaurants, but as far as cheap street-side otah is concerned I haven’t tasted better. The site says it’s open from 7 am to 7 pm, but they’ve definitely also sold us otah before at about 3 am, which is of course when it tastes the best.

Things You Can Get In Joo Chiat

In a red light district in some other country I’d know this pun was totally intentional, but in Singapore’s Joo Chiat I’m not too sure.

I snapped this last week while waiting for my food in Tasty Penang, a restaurant across the road which had such laughably incompetent service (but to be fair, pretty damn good Penang char kuay teow and I don’t even like char kuay teow usually) that all the customers in the restaurant bonded through their shared frustration. In somewhere like Singapore where almost no one makes conversation with strangers, it was an amusing change to see people winking and laughing with the people at other tables as they asked, for the umpteenth time, where their laksa was.

We were back in the same area a few nights ago for sweet potato leaves and steamed fish with sng buey sauce at Lau Hock Guan Kee Bak Kut Teh. We’ll be going back soon for its assam fish head curry, rated “die die must try” by Makansutra.

Man, I love Joo Chiat.

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.

Give Us This Day Our Daily Beer

Outside the Joo Chiat KTV lounge where Alec was turning tricks last weekend, this humble altar moved us deeply and reminded us of the profound insights we can gain from other religions. We are seriously considering incorporating certain elements of this beautiful offering into our own worship.

Altar with beer mugs
Give that god a Tiger!

Happy Easter, everyone!

The Ayatollah Of Joo Chiat

Many of my friends have been asking how Alec’s job-seeking has been going. I am pleased to announce that on Sunday, he was given his first job in Singapore. It was in a KTV¹ lounge in Joo Chiat².

A friend of a friend needed a Caucasian for a TV commercial she was shooting (it’s only for a competition, not for normal TV), and since Joo Chiat is right up our alley, he agreed to help out.

The ad was for an expat magazine, and it focused on helping expats fit into Singapore culture. Alec’s role was to walk down the corridor, enter the KTV room and greet his Singaporean friends enthusiastically, after which they would all sing a Hokkien song with great gusto. During rehearsals, initial ideas of teaching Alec the whole song were hastily reassessed in favour of teaching Alec one line. But he took this line very seriously. Neither of us know what it meant, but by God he brought tears to my eyes.

He got paid a small token, but I’m pretty sure the neighbourhood hookers enjoy a more attractive remuneration package. This means I need to work on pimping him out a bit better, especially since he finally got his employment eligibility visa on Monday. After collecting it, he checked to see that everything was in order. It was, mostly, except for the bit where his nationality was “Iranian”. The mistake’s fixed now, but I’m still calling him Ayatollah for the rest of this week.

¹ May have once been used in an attempt to make karaoke look hip and trendy, but is now just a synonym for karaoke.
² A neighbourhood near where I live, with a burgeoning sex industry.