Tatler Tours: Royston Tan Takes Us Around Balestier | The Best Food, Activities and Spots
Before it had foodies flocking to the neighbourhood for hearty servings of chicken rice and bak kut teh and homeowners and design enthusiasts pounding its five-foot ways in search of lighting and bathroom fixtures within the shops dotting the area, Balestier was home to sugarcane plantations. One of these plantations was owned by Joseph Balestier, the first American consul to Singapore appointed in the 1830s, after whom the precinct was named.
At the heart of the district is Balestier Road, stretching from Thomson Road to Serangoon Road, lined with shophouses in various architectural styles, from art deco to Chinese baroque. These shophouses incorporated an eclectic mix of Malay, Chinese and European architectural details, characterised by pastel shades with European glazed ceramic tiles and bas-reliefs depicting motifs from Chinese mythical tales. This is encapsulated in the Sim Kwong Ho shophouses located at 292 to 312 Balestier Road.
And then, there are the more modern developments such as Balestier Point (279 Balestier Road), built on the site of the former Ruby Theatre, which was one of Cathay’s first cinemas in Singapore. The mixed-use building stands out for its stacked cubic structure, which is said to be inspired by the renowned architect Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 housing complex in Canada.
This juxtaposition of old and new buildings, or “visual conflict” as Royston Tan describes it, appeals to his eyes as a filmmaker. In fact, some of Tan’s productions throughout his prolific career, including his smash hit musical-comedy 881 (2007) as well as the Old Places (2010) and Old Romances (2012) documentary series (directed alongside fellow homegrown filmmakers Eva Tang and Victric Thng) were filmed at various locations within the quarter.
Plus, Balestier is also home to historical and cultural landmarks such as the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, and the former Shaw Malay Film Productions studio on Jalan Ampas, whose films have defined the golden age of Malay cinema in the 1950s and ’60.
And who better than Tan—often described as an old soul by those around him, thanks to his deep interest in showcasing Singapore’s cultural heritage—to take us on a Tatler Tour of the neighbourhood and journeying the eras through its physical development.
Watch the video below:
1/5 Loong Fatt Tau Sar Piah
For a city that is serious about its food, two things define the gastronomic culture in Singapore: long queues and the establishments renowned among taxi drivers who inevitably know some of the best spots in town. And Loong Fatt Tau Sar Piah (639 Balestier Road) hits both on the head.
With a history that dates back to 1948, the bakery cum kopitiam was founded by Lee Wang Long, who moved to Singapore from Hainan in China. He first sold various foods, from ground coffee to kaya toast, before switching to tau sar piah in the 1970s. And judging by the snaking queues, the mung bean pastry has found a loyal customer base till today.
Come early—it opens at 7.30 am—as the bakery closes when it runs out of tau sar piah for the day. A team of bakers prepares up to 4,000 pieces by hand every day and the shop still uses the ovens from its early days to ensure that the pastries are baked evenly until golden brown. Whether sweet or salty, the tau sar piah here is a winner for its light, flaky crust. How to tell them apart? The sweet version has a sprinkle of sesame seeds on top.
Pastries aside, which Tan poetically describes as “a euphoric combustion inside your mouth”, the old-school banquette seats within the space also have his heart for they remind him of Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai’s films, hearkening back to the days of old. In fact, Tan’s affinity with Loong Fatt Tau Sar Piah is long established for he would often make orders of up to 200 pieces of tau sar piah each time as a treat for cast and crew to celebrate the end of filming for his productions.
Now run by its third-generation owners, the bakery also offers other baked goods such as cream puffs, chiffon cakes and brownies.
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2/5 Lim Kay Khee Optical & Contact Lens Centre
One look at the mosaic flooring of Lim Kay Khee Optical House (the name Lim Kay Khee Optical & Contact Lens Centre, which better reflects how the business has moved with the times, appears on its outer signage) and you are immediately hit by a wave of nostalgia.
Then when your eyes land on the old-school visual charts and optical tools in the “Eye-Testing Room”, it is as if you are taken back in time, to 1946 to be exact, when Lim Kay Khee first established his namesake optical shop. An eight-minute drive from Loong Fatt Tau Sar Piah and on the opposite end of Balestier Road, the shop was originally based a few doors down the road, before moving to its current location (330 Balestier Road) in the 1960s.
It was Tan’s interest in the places that he grew up with that brought him here to film his Old Romances documentary—of everyday spaces that come alive through the eyes of ordinary Singaporeans—but it is the warmth of its second-generation owners, Lim Seah Seng and his sister Karen Lim, that has kept him coming back to grow his collection of spectacle frames.
“Every time when I come here, I feel like the elected MP for this area,” he quips, on the warm welcome he receives, with offerings of packet drinks to cool down from the hot weather as well as the easy camaraderie with everyone.
As you look through the rows upon rows of frames, from vintage to modern designs (you would be surprised with what you can find here), keep your eyes peeled for the subtle design elements, such as the frame silhouette at the top of the grill gates at the entrance, which the Lim siblings say is thanks to their father’s astute attention to details.
With two other outlets in Hougang and Peninsula Plaza, they say that it is unlikely that they would move out of Balestier as they hope to carry on their family trade and father’s legacy for as long as they can.
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3/5 Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple
The development of land into plantations beckoned migrants who found work in Balestier and many of them settled around the area. And it was the Hokkien labourers working in Joseph Balestier’s sugar cane estate who in 1847 built the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple (249 Balestier Road), which is a three-minute walk from the Lim Kay Khee Optical House.
“Goh Chor” is Hokkien for Rochore, the then-name for the surrounding area, while “Tua Pek Kong”, or grand old man, refers to the Taoist deity worshipped across Southeast Asia and said to offer protection, blessings and recovery from illness. Reminiscent of the temples in southern China, it features red-painted plaster akin to terracotta walls, while ornate motifs of dragons, phoenixes and fish, among others, decorate the temple’s roof and are said to ward off evil spirits.
Interestingly, within the temple grounds is one of Singapore’s last surviving Chinese opera, or wayang, stages, which was built in 1906 by the merchant and philanthropist Tan Boo Liat. The freestanding stage is still used today (at least during pre-pandemic times) for Teochew and Hokkien operas in celebration of important Chinese festivals.
Tan is particularly intrigued by the improv aspect of Hokkien opera: “You have one script, but 1,000 other kinds of deliveries.” He paid homage to the vanishing art—and the sounds of his childhood—in his award-winning short film Bunga Sayang (part of the critically-acclaimed film anthology 7 Letters (2015) by seven Singaporean directors), which explores the complexities of multiracialism in Singapore. The scenes dedicated to Chinese opera in the film featured this same stage.
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4/5 Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall
A five-minute drive from the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple, this two-storey villa (12 Tai Gin Road), originally known as Wan Qing Yuan, was bought by rubber magnate Teo Eng Hock in 1905 for his mother. Teo later offered the villa to Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat Sen, who used it as the Nanyang (Southeast Asia) headquarters of his Chinese Revolutionary Alliance, or Tong Meng Hui.
It was from this base that Dr Sun planned three uprisings, before the 1911 Revolution which led to the birth of modern-day China. Teo, along with businessmen Tan Chor Lam and Lim Nee Soon, were the three key overseas Chinese supporters of Dr Sun in Singapore. They provided fundraising support and also disseminated revolutionary principles and ideals through newspapers, reading clubs and even drama troupes, among others.
The villa was converted into a museum in 1966 before it was renamed the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall in 1997. The museum later underwent refurbishments, before it reopened in 2011. Royston Tan was the creative director for the grand finale of the museum’s first Wan Qing CultureFest then, and it was here that he indulged in his interest in Chinese culture.
Tan explains, “I’m always intrigued by our Chinese cultural heritage, especially in Singapore. There’s only so much we can learn from textbooks. I’m always very curious to find out more about what our forefathers have gone through—and this place provides a lot of information. And every time I come here, there’s always something new to discover.”
The Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall now houses important artefacts of Dr Sun's revolutionary activities in Southeast Asia, along with the contributions of the Singapore Chinese to the 1911 Revolution. Who knew that Singapore had a part to play in world history?
(Related: Asian Civilisations Museum Becomes The First Pan-Asian Museum Of Decorative Art)
5/5 Xin Heng Feng Guo Tiao Tan at Whampoa Makan Place
Foodies are familiar with the hawker centre at Whampoa Drive, which is now known as Whampoa Makan Place. Just a three-minute walk from the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple, it is spread across two buildings: the stalls at Blk 90 open from lunch till late, while Blk 91 market serves the morning and lunchtime crowd. From chicken rice to mee siam, there are plenty of local eats to satisfy discerning tastebuds.
Xin Heng Feng Guo Tiao Tan (01-1415, 91 Whampoa Drive) does double duty. It sells fishball and minced meat noodles in the day, but come evening time, the pots come out serving up delicious fish head steamboat, with slow burn from a charcoal fire. While it is the only stall at Blk 91 that is open in the evenings, it is so popular that its customers fill up most of the tables in the hawker centre.
Apart from the generous servings of fish, yam, seaweed and cabbage boiling in a delicious broth, there are also authentic Teochew dishes such as braised egg, salted vegetable and beancurd. Tan loves bringing overseas friends here for a taste of local flavours, for he is a strong believer that “culture can be experienced through food”.
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Head to SingapoRediscovers to find out more about available tours and attractions within the different precincts in Singapore.
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