When Singaporeans want to travel back to the Straits that time forgot, they cruise east to Katong. Joo Chiat is the main drag here, and it takes its name from the Chinese businessman who cleared his land to build new houses for the migrants streaming into the 1920s boomtown. And they came in droves.
The triads and secret society members may be long gone, and land reclamation has shunted the beach way back, but that pre-war atmosphere still lives and breathes. Katong just oozes history. You don’t need to know your Peranakans from your Eurasians, or your Hokkien from your Hakka, to appreciate the many different peoples who flooded the district. In an island of immigrants, it seems like every house, eatery — and religious monument — has a story that’s all its own.
During colonial times, white churches often shunned the biracial Singaporeans known as Eurasians. Around the turn of the last century, they founded their own place of worship, the Church of the Holy Family. Just a few years later, Hindu Tamils from Sri Lanka stumbled upon a statue of the elephant-headed god Ganesh and built the towering Sri Senpaga Vinayagar Temple in his honor. Muslim Malays laid the first stone of the expansive Khalid Mosque back in 1917. Two years later, the Kuan Im Tng Temple fused the three main Chinese religions — Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism — into a blaze of red and gold and incense.
Katong’s heritage architecture lends itself to endless Instagrams — and endless walks. A row of beautifully conserved terraced houses on East Coast Road speaks to the days when the Indian Ocean lapped right at their doorsteps: They’re literally elevated to reach above rising tides. The Red House, once a famous bakery, now houses lofts and a gallery. You’ll see shop houses aplenty, the long narrow buildings that define old Singapore, as you stroll. Don’t miss the strip on Koon Seng Road, so lovingly restored in candy-store hues.
What Singaporeans love about Peranakan culture — and, by extension, Katong — is the chance to step back in time to a gentler era. In the island’s early years, the pace of life was slower and more graceful. Artisans hand-crafted ceramics, seamstresses stitched delicate beadwork onto tiny shoes, and the humble packed lunch meant a teetering tower of tiffin tins. It’s an indefinable fusion of Chinese and archipelago elements that still echoes through present-day Singapore.
A few pioneers are painstakingly preserving that vanished world. Peter Wee is a fourth-generation Peranakan who inherited his grandfather’s house in the 1970s, then tended and refurbished it. Today he opens the Katong Antique House by appointment to anyone who would like to visit. At The Intan Alvin Yapp has turned his private home into another by-appointment museum. Katong is replete with pretty Peranakan boutiques selling dainty shoes, delicate clothes and ornate houseware. Visit Rumah Bebe for a dose of vintage style — or even a craft workshop or two.
In food-obsessed Singapore, one of Katong’s top draws is heritage dishes. Kim Choo Kueh Chang feeds the Singaporean soul with Peranakan cakes and sturdy rice dumplings, and the mind with the Peranakan museum upstairs. With its 1950s interior and 1920s history, Chin Mee Chin is one of the last traditional Hainanese coffee shops surviving: Singapore’s national breakfast, kaya toast, coffee and runny eggs, is a must here.
Just down from Sri Senpaga Vinayagar, Udipi Ganesh Vilas showcases a different type of food: the vegetarian cuisines of India, Singapore’s third largest ethnic group. And the island’s Peranakan heritage is not neglected at 328 Katong Laksa, a noodle soup joint so delectable it made the Michelin Guide.
You’ll find Katong’s long heritage and colourful past enshrined in the district’s Hotel Indigo, built on the site of the old police station that locked up those long-gone Chinese triad gangsters. You can taste Peranakan culture in Baba Chews, where chef Alvin Leong mingles Malay and Chinese elements. You can see it in the splashes of color that infuse the hotel, from brilliant ceramic tiles to the craft stall in the Pavilion. And you can live it, with just a weekend’s stay on Singapore’s East Coast.