once, the sea used to come right up to katong, and wealthy merchants and traders had their mansions along the coast. there are several big houses here still, but the sea has been pushed back, by almost a mile i think. i first came to katong – a suburb in the east – with a colleague, to buy cheap perfumes at katong shopping centre. everything changes in singapore, all the time, but happily, the shopping centre with its deep blue and pale peach facade and circular windows still dominates the intersection of haig road and mountbatten road.
you don’t sense the waters as you walk along the avenues and quiet lanes, but near or pushed away, the sea determines the story of singapore and this part of the world. not only of its trade and commerce, but also of people. traders from everywhere came sailing down this vibrant maritime route passing by india, burmah, malaya, on its way to indonesia and farther east. some became colonizers and started living on these shores. migrants from china took risky journeys over the swelling south china sea looking for opportunities, livelihood. the foreigner and the local people met, mixed, married, settled down. over time, new communities came into being; with their combined heritage and particular way of looking at life, of living. the peranakan chinese and the eurasians are two such communities, both are fond of katong and have lived here since long.
i’d never heard of peranakans or eurasians before coming to singapore. but often, when i was floored by intricately detailed tiles on a shophouse or a beautifully crafted ornate hairpin, or fine embroidery on a diaphanous shirt, i’d be told it’s peranakan. who are these peranakans, i’d wonder.
peranakan comes from the word “anak”, child in malay and indonesian; it translates to “local born” or “local descendants”. the term peranakan chinese was most probably adopted and used by chinese communities living in the region, sometime in the late nineteenth century; to distinguish themselves from the new immigrants from china. not all peranakans are chinese though; the chittis, a tamil group, are pernakan indian. there are other peranakan communities well. the word usually indicates mixed heritage.
peranakan chinese men are called “baba”, women are referred to as “bibi”, might be some influence of hindi or punjabi there, which drifts into their language via malay; there’s also that pretty sounding “nyonya” for peranakan women. peranakan food is distinctive, the kuehs, curries, laksa redolent with wonderful flavours. a twist on original recipes some, absolutely new ideas others. something about their spice levels, the intricate blends and yet the light touch reminds me of bengali cooking. actually, the classic bibi look, with a tight bun pulled high on the head, a demeanour not at all cowering, an air of the boss about her, is so bengali. i wonder if there was a connection back in time somewhere.
no simplicity, straight lines, less is more in their sense of beauty and aesthetics. instead, bold mixing of styles, crush of colours, curls, curves, fanciful arcs, lots of little details, and a reach for something more, a hunger, an adventure. peranakan jewellery has me gawking at show windows. it’s usually old jewellery, for the craftsmen are no longer there, the clients too have dwindled, but the pieces are so pretty. you don’t always need the finest brilliant cut diamonds to make a gorgeous piece and show off to your friends, the smoky gleam of intan will do. intan is “skin of diamond”, mine cut and not as dazzling as the diamonds we see these days.
on our first katong walk, we started from the peranakan side at tanjong katong road. and it so happened, that the second walk began at the holy family church, a lot of eurasians live around this part of katong and joo chiat nearby. the eurasians have both european and asian ancestry, the offspring and descendants from marriages between a european and a local asian. the term was most likely officially used for the first time in 1849 in the straits settlements census records. singapore was a part of the straits settlements, administered by the british from kolkata, then calcutta. a couple of my friends have one eurasian parent, and from what they say… that side of the family is always full of fun, song, dance, and a tipple. jeremy monteiro, the famous jazz musician, is eurasian; and so is swimmer joseph schooling, the olympic gold medalist from singapore. there are many eurasians in arts and entertainment. when i first came here, i used to listen to joe augustin and flying dutchman’s radio show, in the taxi on the way to work every day. pity the show ended, they were really funny; and joe if i’m not wrong, is eurasian. i’ve never had eurasian food i just realised. must do something about that quickly. aj’s wife is eurasian/peranakan, maybe she’ll help.
we saw a kueh stall and stopped. as i paid, i realised, it led into a peranakan shop beyond and a museum like place above. we had to spend time there, and how could one resist painted enamel tiffin carriers, lovely ceramic soup spoons with flower motifs, in green and pink. the coconut filled queh wrapped in a pale green pancake was fresh and delightful… it’s a bit like the “patishapta” we bengalis make.
the laksa at the famous katong laksa shop was, however, disappointing. never mind, right across was roxy theatre, now renovated and called roxy square; it’s supposed to be haunted, lots of ghost stories there, gives me the shivers to even look at it. i enjoyed the heebie-jeebies while aj tried to get a better shot (than mine) of the brightly painted red house bakery building, the famous bakery is gone now. we turned into a lane, and there was another building in vivid shades. this time a hindu temple, its gopuram lemon yellow and orange under the clear blue sky.
there was colour everywhere: in the tiles, the shophouse facades, the doors and windows, the beads, the kuehs, the gauzy kebaya or blouse of the nyonya, the pink bed… and the ghosts lent a hue of their own. the new buildings are in contemporary city tones, their greys sombre and muted, their lines all straight, calling katong away from what it once was. but katong seems reluctant. its splashes of colour, even the clean whites, breach the limits and surge into view. not in a hurry to ebb away.
the katong album
tanjong katong means “turtle point” in malay. katong refers to a species of sea turtle that’s now extinct. when you look at the sea, the rippling waves along the shoreline often create a mirage… katong also means that.
second walk: 4 september 2017
love the tiles. something asian and something european in many things peranakan chinese.
rambutan, a fruit i’d never had before coming here.
array of grinding stones. the second from left, like the bengali “sheel nora”. the others too are common in india. shapes may vary.
betel nut crackers… the sort we use in india as well. bengalis call them “jnaati”, my mother’s and grandmothers’ come to mind.
the pink bed.
an enamel tiffin carrier, a couple of ceramic spoons, and a ceramic container came home with me.
the senpaga vinayagar temple was built by the ceylonese or sri lankan tamils, among the early immigrants in singapore.
i loved this notice… all are welcome. and a temple that takes note of the physically challenged. next time, i’ll visit.
the red house bakery was once most famous. you can read about it here. a jewish gentleman started the shop, then in 1931, a hainanese seaman took over the shop, after paying $600 “coffee money”. the building belongs to muslim landlords. “coffee money”, i’ve also heard the term “tea money”. think it’s what we call “pagri” in india; a large amount of money given as “advance”, thanks to which you can pay a much lower rent.
roxy square, erstwhile roxy theatre, used to be police prison… the source of many ghost stories.
so very seventies. glad to see it’s still around.
the ubiquitous shophouse. hope it never disappears.
the nyonya kebaya consists of an embroidered blouse in a fine material over a batik sarong. goes with beaded shoes. no buttons on the kebaya, the ends are held together by three krosangs: ornate broaches.
first walk: 4 january 2016
birds are popular around here, but the cages disturb me.
ponggol nasi lemak is a heritage brand, it was established in 1979.
there’s good food everywhere.
the katong shopping centre.
one of those large bungalows of katong.
laksa and lime juice, with fish otak.
road to singapore, tanjong katong road, mountbatten road, east coast road, 04/01/2016: chapel road, cheow keng road, tembeling road, joo chiat road, ceylon road, east coast road, 04/09/2017. #SG50
end of 1997, we moved to singapore from india. in 2015, the country celebrated fifty years of independence. singapore has given me much and i am fascinated by the spirit of this gutsy city state with hardly any land or resources, but oh what dreams and chutzpah (the finest interpretation of the word), the ability to reach big, hunker down and hold and strategise and act and grow. despite my many years here, i haven’t seen a lot of the island, which started out at only 28 miles by 18. now of course it’s bigger, thanks to that spirit i spoke of. so i thought why not see singapore in this landmark year, and celebrate #sg50. aj, my friend and trainer, and i traipse in different parts of the city every week. hope you enjoy the walk talk. you’ll find more in my index. and the walks continue in singapore’s year 52.