SINGAPORE – A STREET AWAKENS

City Whisper

Singapore – A street awakens

Jalan Besar stands for “wide street” in Malay, but what it actually means is “main street”. Singapore’s Jalan Besar separates the Arab district of Kampong Glam from Little India and has long slumbered in the shadows of the two tourist magnets.

August 2021, Reading time: 8 minutes

Very top: Courtyard terrace of the hip café Chye Seng Huat Hardware. Middle: The Reninery, a shop where you can also eat. Top: Typical for Singapore – sharp contrast between old and new.

It has its advantages not to be in the front line: who/what is not constantly observed, visited or inspected may develop in peace and learn from the mistakes of others. Jalan Besar runs lengthwise through the district named after it in the north-east of Singapore’s city center, wedged between the much better-known neighborhoods of Kampong Glam and Little India.

In the very past, the area was a swampland. Then, from the late 19th century onwards, the first factories and slaughterhouses settled there. Today, Jalan Besar is especially popular with craftsmen and do-it-yourselfer thanks to the many hardware shops. Others come for the Mustafa Centre, a 24-hour shopping mall, where you can really buy everything from sunglasses to children’s shoes to Iranian herbal mixtures. Tourists rarely stray here. No wonder, since you (still) have to look for places that would be worth the detour. Or you know where to find the chic cafés, creative art spaces, beautiful shops and incredibly delicious restaurants. Even on the main street, the highlights often go unnoticed because, firstly, they are usually small and unobtrusive and, secondly, your gaze is distracted by the quaint historic shop houses. So you look up at the colorfully whitewashed or tiled facades, the curved window arches and the tiled roofs, which stand in stark contrast to the modern residential towers in the background.

Well attended: the art exhibitions at UltraSuperNew. Photo: Jona Smulders Cohen

Only when you draw attention to the small shop windows in the arcade-lined buildings, it becomes obvious why Jalan Besar is so popular these days. Around the sports stadium, which opened in 1929 and is well known to every Singaporean, many unusual places have sprung up that appeal to local hipsters and well-informed holidaymakers: makeshift art galleries, backyard bars, tiny shops with thoroughly styled products, a plushly decadent luxury hotel. Alongside them, traditional food markets, old-fashioned dim sum joints, simple grocery shops and many of the old hardware shops have survived, and it is precisely this serene juxtaposition of old and new that makes Jalan Besar so charming. The new MRT (metro) station is not entirely guiltless of the development: since it opened in autumn 2017, the whole neighborhood has become better known and more accessible.

Stay

Designer Opulence:
The Vagabond Club

In the past, brothel operators, bicycle sellers and illegal migrant workers used the premises of the beautiful 1950s shophouse. After a careful renovation, Parisian star designer Jacques Garcia furnished the lobby and the 41 guest rooms in an opulent-luxurious style with lots of red velvet and interesting artworks. Double room from 215 SGD, hotelvagabondsingapore.com
Photo: Seth Powers

Eat

Dumplings and More:
Swee Choom Tim Sum

From the outside, this restaurant, which opened in 1962 and has grown steadily since then, doesn’t look much, and the interiors are also plain. But the Xiao Long Bao (steamed dumplings), the Sichuan Chili Oil Wantons (dumplings in chilli oil), the fried tofu and the pancakes filled with red bean paste are worth the wait at the entrance. sweechoon.com

Fusion Cuisine:
The Refinery

Modern, industrial-styled and spacious eatery with a partially open kitchen and innovative Asian-Japanese fusion cuisine. The menu includes interestingly composed bowls and other exciting creations, plus tasty, Asian-inspired drinks from the cocktail bar. therefinery.sg

Soup snack:
Sungei Road Laksa

Unassuming food stall with round Formica tables and pink plastic chairs. But the large crowd reveals that something delicious is on offer: laksa, a creamy coconut milk soup flavored with shallots, chili, fish sauce, coriander and laksa leaves, in which cockles, squid strips, soybean sprouts and rice noodles float. 27 Jalan Berseh

Drink

Kopi & Kaya:
Coffee Hut

For a traditional Singaporean coffee (kopi), coffee beans are roasted with butter and sugar in a wok, ground, brewed and served with condensed milk and sugar. It is accompanied by toast with kaya, a sugar, coconut and egg jam. At Coffee Hut, both are delicious; the coffee stall is located in the Berseh Food Centre, which is open all around. 43 Jalan Besar

Café cool:
Chye Seng Huat Hardware

The café’s name was taken from the hardware shop that used to be here. Everything else is new: the horseshoe-shaped counter, the espresso machines, the minimalist furniture. There is a good cappuccino, but connoisseurs prefer the “cold brew” and order a “kueh” (tartlet) to go with it. The courtyard is a particularly nice place to sit. cshhcoffee.com

Beer Bar:
Druggist

Owners Corrine Chia and Lincoln Goh kept the old-fashioned style of the rooms unchanged or spiced it up with retro items like old coffee house marble tables and wooden chairs. Most guests choose from the extensive beer menu with many local varieties, some freshly tapped. For a solid base in the stomach, there are tasty snacks. 119 Tyrwhitt Road
Photo: Singapore Tourism Board

Shop

All Handmade:
The General Company

This is actually a designer studio where leather cases, bags, porcelain or business cards are designed and handmade. But visitors are welcome. Some products can be bought on site, others are made to order. There is also the possibility to participate in a workshop. thegeneralco.sg
Photo: Julian Cheong Photography

Shop Around the Clock:
Mustafa

This multi-story department store is open 24 hours a day and offers just about everything: food, household goods, clothing, cosmetics, electronic items and jewelry. It’s fun to inspect the crowded shelves and buy things you never knew existed. mustafa.com.sg
Photo: Danny Santos

Marvel

Instagrammable:
Petain Road/Petain Court

On this street named after Field Marshal Henri Philippe Petain, 18 enchanting shophouses stand right next to each other. The facades of the two-story buildings are covered in floral tiles, and the upper floors feature intricate Chinese stucco work. This used to be a red-light area, but is now a sought-after residential address.
Photo: Singapore Tourism Board

Interactive experiments:
UltraSuperNew

UltraSuperNew is a Tokyo-based creative agency that promotes experimental collaboration between artists, designers and other creatives. The spaces under the agency are used for exhibitions – there is almost always something interesting, surprising and unusual to see. ultrasupernew.com

My Jalan Besar

Mike Tay
Designer

I used to come to this neighborhood a lot with my parents when I was a kid. My family had some favorite restaurants here, some of which are still around today. However, back then there was a lot less going on than today. There was no metro station, but there were these beautiful old shophouses and lots of old-fashioned eateries.
When I’m in the area around lunchtime, I often eat at Berseh Food Centre (166 Jalan Besar). My favorite is the Chinese soup stall New World Mutton Soup (02-57), and I get dessert from the dessert stall next door (02-58), where they have local classics like Ice Kachang.
If I want something more comfortable, I go to Hillman Restaurant (hillmanrestaurant.com). They serve Chinese-Singaporean home cooking, such as a delicious paper-wrapped chicken or stir-fried bee hoon.
I meet my friends at Chye Seng Huat Hardware (cshhcoffee.com), where we have breakfast into the afternoon and where there is a nice selection of tea as well as excellent coffee.
I also have a hotel tip: At the Kam Leng Hotel (kamleng.com) you feel like you’ve stepped back into the 60s. It is one of the few hotels in Singapore that keeps our past alive.

Near by

Kampong Glam

The Muslim quarter around the imposing Sultan Mosque is one of Singapore’s hippest districts. In Haji Lane, Arab Street or Bussorah Street, cool shisha bars, vintage shops and countless restaurants have moved into the colorfully painted 19th century houses. Highlights: the Zam Zam Restaurant (zamzamsingapore.com), the Aliwal Arts Centre (aliwalartscentre.sg) and the china shop Supermama (supermama.sg).

Little India

Colorful and vibrant – the Indian community has a firm grip on its neighborhood and successfully defends it against any form of gentrification. On Sundays, the central Serangoon Road becomes a large marketplace. Highlights: the food market with food stalls Tekka Centre (Serangoon Road/Bukit Timah Road), the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple (141 Serangoon Road) and the Khansama Tandoori Restaurant with terrace (khansama.net).