Strolling through the back alleys of Joo Chiat, it is not uncommon to pass a bright pink house, a wall covered in pastel-patterned tiles or a shop overflowing with characterful antiques. In this ethnically rich neighborhood on Singapore’s east coast, the roots of the colorful Peranakan culture run deep.
This distinctive way of life began to develop in the 15th century as Chinese traders adopted local customs and married into prominent Malay families. Also known as Straits-born Chinese, they developed their own patois, style of dress, design aesthetic and cuisine. In the early 20th century, the coconut plantations along Singapore’s east coast began to give way to seaside bungalows and the neighborhood named after self-made businessman Chew Joo Chiat began to take shape.
You can still find plenty of charming shophouses, local coffee shops and antiques dealers in this refreshingly slow-paced enclave, which is just a short drive from the city center. Of course, the usual hip cafés, sleek malls and international options are creeping onto the scene as well. For the most part though, Joo Chiat – the traditional heart of the broader Katong area, which was named for an exotic sea turtle – retains its old-world charm and offers visitors to Singapore an absorbing insight into the island’s unique cultural heritage.
For an introduction to Peranakan cooking, stop by this family-run eatery which serves no-nonsense, full-flavor Nonya comfort food like laksa (spicy prawn noodle soup) and mee siam (tangy, tamarind-flavored soup with vermicelli noodles). On the pavement outside, Nonya dumplings, a portable meal of glutinous rice and pork wrapped in a bamboo leaf, hang on a cart to tempt passersby.
139 East Coast Rd; +65 6344 1749; glorycatering.com.sg
Chin Mee Chin Confectionery
No Joo Chiat food pilgrimage would be complete without a visit here. Generations of aunties have been serving up the island’s best Hainanese kaya toast in this corner shophouse since 1925. Kaya is a rich, thick coconut jam that the rather sullen “aunties” slather on home-made buns toasted over charcoal. Add a pat of butter, two soft-boiled eggs and a steaming cup of kopi – sweet local coffee – and you have one of Singapore’s favorite breakfasts.
204 East Coast Rd; +65 6345 0419
This shop and café in a shophouse dating back to 1928 showcases a lovely selection of Peranakan pottery, painted tiffin carriers and textiles. Artist Bebe Seet designs much of the merchandise. She specialises in beaded slippers and art featuring flower, bird and butterfly motifs; Peranakan treats like curry puffs and pineapple tarts are also available.
113 East Coast Rd; +65 6247 8781; rumahbebe.com
Kim Choo Kueh Chang
Next door to Rumah Bebe you’ll find another part-shop, part-snack counter in an equally lovely heritage shophouse. Jewelry and beaded slippers fill the front window, making it almost impossible not to enter for a quick peek. Once in the shop, the scent of founder Madame Lee Kim Choo’s Nonya dumplings takes over. They are prized for their rich pandan fragrance and traditional fillings, and have been made in the same manner since 1945.
111 East Coast Rd; +65 6741 2125; kimchoo.com
Teong Theng Co.
More jumbled workshop than orderly retail space, Teong Theng has been the place to find beautiful handmade rattan furniture since 1945. The uncles inside still design and fashion wicker baskets, shelves, stools and much more in traditional Indonesian style.
369 Joo Chiat Rd; +65 6344 7000
Lower East Side Taqueria
For a more international, urban vibe, head to this open-air spot on a breezy corner, which is a great place to watch the world go by. Pair unique taco fillings like tilapia and chorizo with Lower East Side’s signature hot sauces, and put the fire out with a glass of home-made horchata, a milky drink with hints of vanilla and cinnamon.
19 East Coast Rd; +65 6348 1302; lowereastsidesg.com
Step into this glass-fronted interior-design consultancy-cum-café for hot dogs and lattes with a side of home-renovation advice. Some of the chairs, lamps and soft furnishings inside are for sale, and there is a small retail space for clothing and accessories.
456 Joo Chiat Rd; +65 6348 9803; avenue.sg
This full-service gourmet Australian deli is the place to go for organic meat, sausages and cheese. It’s a popular spot, but if you can find a seat, they also serve all-day breakfast, meaty sandwiches and fresh salads.
421 East Coast Rd; +65 6440 4409; ohdeli.com.sg
After snacking and shopping your way through Joo Chiat, veer off the main street to experience some of the neighborhood’s quieter pockets. For a full appreciation of the Peranakan penchant for flamboyant design, pay a visit to the “Painted Ladies” of Koon Seng Road, a row of well-preserved terraced houses dating from 1935 that exemplify the homes built by wealthy Peranakan merchants. Their original owners may not have lived to see Singapore celebrate 50 years of independence, but the ladies are as brightly colored as ever and, along with their Peranakan neighborhood, are showing no signs of fading quietly into Singapore’s history.
Also read: Singapore city guide
This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Smile magazine.