Singapore’s languorous Katong/Joo Chiat neighborhood is a perfect counterpoint to the sleek and spectacular skyscrapers of Marina Bay, as a tessellation of traditional shophouses traces the charming suburb. Many of them are laved in pastel hues and adorned with ornamental plasterworks and glazed tiles — architectural cues that gesture to the Peranakan culture deeply embedded in the area.
The Peranakans (meaning “local born” in Malay), or Straits Chinese, emerged as a distinct people group between the 15th and 17th centuries, when Southern Chinese businessmen began marrying Indigenous women in the Malay Archipelago, birthing a new creole (Baba Malay) and cuisine in the process. This community, as well as the Eurasians, moved into Katong/Joo Chiat during the early 20th century when the Catholic churches and schools were established in the vicinity. Over time, the precinct became a bastion for Peranakan culture.
Today, while this unique melting pot remains a lodestone in the locale, it has concomitantly grown into a lifestyle district that effortlessly balances the traditional and contemporary — from pre-war coffeeshops that have stood the test of time to newfangled restaurants that are breaking new ground in Singapore’s dining landscape. This intermingling of influences keeps the soul of Katong/Joo Chiat intact. Since its inception, the alcove has always made space for the marriage of different ethnicities, cultures, and ways of life.
Having spent significant parts of my childhood in Katong/Joo Chiat, I’ve selected my favorite places in the area and compiled them in this guide. Though it was difficult to narrow down the precinct’s breadth of options, these offerings provide a good introduction to the neighborhood that is dear to my heart.
Kim Choo Kueh Chang
The origin of this food stall traces back to 1945, when Lim Kim Choo first sold her glutinous rice dumplings under a banyan tree along Joo Chiat Place. To this day, the pyramid-shaped morsels sold at this humble institution are wadded with fillings (such as pork, chicken, and chilli prawn) and enrobed by bamboo leaves. In addition to the staple dish, this heritage stall offers a kaleidoscopic medley of nonya kuehs (bite-sized snacks) and cookies. If you can’t decide on what to order, I would recommend the kueh salat (sticky rice paired with a pandan-flavored coconut egg custard)!
When you wander into this quaint retail haven, something is bound to catch your eye. Cat Socrates is simply a treasure trove, teeming with trinkets, terrariums, books, homeware, and more. With a penchant for featuring local artists and designers, this boutique carries the works of Singapore’s growing creative scene. What’s more, while you’re perusing the shop’s eclectic collection, you might just chance upon Zoozoo, their resident feline.
While laksa (spicy noodle soup) is inextricably linked to the Katong district, the location of the original stall is still debated among foodies. The fact that this eatery at Roxy Square remains a citadel for the iconic Singapore dish within the neighborhood, however, is certain. The essential ingredients in each hearty bowl are fried rempah (spice paste), an infusion of prawn stock, and coconut milk. And the experience is made complete with just a spoon, as the noodles have been conveniently snipped short!
Koon Seng Shophouses
Koon Seng Road is best-known for its dazzling tapestry of ornate pre-war Peranakan shophouses. More than beautiful representations of the Late-style shophouse in Singapore, these homes are singular expressions of Straits Chinese design, which centers on a fascination with stucco façade decorations, timber fretwork fascia, fanlights, and bat-shaped air vents. They are simply a sight to behold and definitely worth a visit when you’re in the area.
Featuring Singapore’s first full-scale wood-fired bread oven, Firebake specializes in making sourdough bread through traditional European methods. Aside from the restaurant’s rustic toast, founder Konstantino Blokbergen has also created a smorgasbord of full-flavored dishes, such as Norwegian blue mussel and a four-spice chicken liver pate. If you’re looking for a weekend brunch spot, this woodhouse is the place to be.
Fei Fei Wanton Mee
Wanton mee (a mouthwatering combination of egg noodles, barbecued pork, and dumplings) is such a classic local dish that every Singaporean seems to have a differing opinion on which particular stall reigns supreme. When in Katong/Joo Chiat, Fei Fei Wanton Mee is one of the esteemed stalls you’re sure to hear locals mention, especially since the business has been passed down through the generations of hawkers. It’s also conveniently open throughout the day, so be sure to stop in for a bite!
Choice Cuts Goods + Coffee
Housed within a coworking space for creatives, Choice Cuts Goods + Coffee is befittingly a multi-hyphenate space. Blending the worlds of music, fashion, and coffee, this hip nook encourages you to sip on a cuppa (or a craft beer) and browse through its assemblage of vinyl records and streetwear brands. If you’re a music aficionado, you could even collaborate with the establishment to create a bespoke listening session based on your desired sound!
Conceived in 1954, Glory Catering is an unassuming nasi padang (steamed rice served with Indonesian-style fare) restaurant. The standout dish on their menu, however, would indubitably be their Peranakan variant of the popiah (spring rolls) — made from an addictive combination of lettuce, prawn, peanut, omelet, and garlic that is cocooned within a velvety egg-based skin. Despite its seeming austere simplicity, I promise you’ll be hooked after just one bite.
Birds of Paradise
Taking inspiration from the fruits, flowers, and herbs of Southeast Asia, this whimsical gelato boutique has quickly gained a reputation for its novel botanical flavors. Highlights would be their Strawberry Basil and White Chrysanthemum flavors, as well as their quintessential thyme-infused cones. Known to have made waves beyond Katong/Joo Chiat, Birds of Paradise stands at the forefront of Singapore’s burgeoning indie ice cream movement.
East Coast Park
A stone’s throw away from Katong/Joo Chiat, East Coast Park is a nine-mile- (15-kilometer-) long beach and a locus for cycling, picnics, and barbecues — all of which can be enjoyed under the canopy of casuarinas, coconut palms, and ketapangs. Built entirely on reclaimed land, this popular weekend destination also offers a skate park and luscious local fare, should you choose to defy gravity or dine at East Coast Food Lagoon along the balmy shore.
While most tourists are enamored by the metropolitan icons of Singapore — such as Gardens by the Bay, the Esplanade, and other representations of a nation ever poised on the future — venturing beyond the sheen of this city-state will unveil to you lesser-known facets of Singapore’s culture. When you stumble upon Katong/Joo Chiat, you’re bound to marvel at the beauty of this place and appreciate the ways in which the old-world suburban town has artfully kept a repository of familial and cultural traditions alive and thriving.