Koon Seng Road
Like last week’s location, Tiong Bahru, Joo Chiat, also known as Katong, isn’t on my tourist maps either. But both are mentioned in my Lonely Planet Pocket Singapore, if briefly. And if my experience is any indicator, not many western visitors have discovered either yet so the feeling in both was distinctly local. That always feels like I’ve found a secret place even when I know I haven’t really.
Before I go on, a word about Singapore’s most excellent Mass Rapid Transit system, the MRT. As a resident most of my life in places with poor to no public transport most of my experiences have been while traveling. So in Mexico, for instance, if I take a bus I’m pretty sure locals on the bus will guide me. But I admit in cities I’m intimidated by big, especially underground, systems. On one of my previous visits to Singapore I went so far as to go down into the Chinatown station, just to have a look but not to actually go anywhere. This visit my companion was a city slicker, no stranger to subways. So down we went and what I found most miraculous, aside from the immaculate and clearly marked system itself, was that I could simply swipe my credit card for each trip, no standing in line to buy tickets, figuring out machines or acquiring and topping up a transit card. I had no idea what each trip cost, but I didn’t care, it was easy and that made it fun. A later look at my credit card account online found 1 charge for all trips, $8.07. So in Singapore, at least, I’m a happy convert.
Now, onward. We arrived by MRT thinking we were in the heritage Joo Chiat neighborhood. Upon stepping out of the station we found ourselves in a business district surrounded by modern office towers. Confused about which way to go and consulting the odious app, we were approached immediately by a young man asking if he could help. Explaining where we hoped to go he took us down the station steps, consulted with a waiting bus driver and loaded us on, with instructions about where to get off. Then on foot and consulting my pocket Singapore guide with a very small map, we were again approached, this time by a well-dressed woman who pointed the way. The kindness of strangers.
Sri Senpaga Vinayagar Temple
Leaving the upscale condo neighborhood, I immediately began to see what I’d been imagining the whole district to be, the Peranakan shophouses of the photographs. Finding ourselves at the bottom end of the Lonely Planet walking tour, we decided to simply follow it in reverse. First stop, Sri Senpaga Vinayagar Temple.
Just off a main drag, where Mountbatten Road becomes East Coast Road, in a quiet low-rise residential neighborhood sits the Sri Senpaga Vinayagar Temple. Dedicated to the elephant-headed god, Ganesha, this impressive building is Singapore’s second-oldest Hindu temple, the first structure begun in the mid-19th century by a growing community of Ceylon Tamils and rebuilt in it’s current form in 2003. You can read more about Sri Senpaga Vinayagar Temple on it’s website here.
Koon Seng Road
After turning the corner from Joo Chiat Road my first impression of the famous block-long rows of houses facing each other along Koon Seng Road was of sameness. They momentarily reminded me of the Welsh village, Portmeirion, a contrivance achieved more with pastel paint than real uniformity. These attached terrace houses were built in the Peranakan style in the 1920s and like the Peranakan people, are a mix of Straits Chinese and Malay heritage. As I got closer and they came into focus as individual homes it was the subtle differences that stood out, the gates, the doors and tiles, plantings, cars in driveways and other evidence of family life. A sign on one called Still House, directed me to a website offering 4 stylish studio apartments for rent by the month, as well as others in the city. One can dream.
After a pause for photos we returned to Joo Chiat Road to continue our stroll through the neighborhood. Past Guan Di Gong Taoist Temple, a stop for noodles in a vegan restaurant and more of the beautifully restored Peranakan buildings that distinguishes the district. At least until I can return for a more in-depth study, my favorite is the Common Man Coffee Roaster’s, below.
Next time, Singapore's Botanic Garden.
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