You’ve probably heard of Balestier as Singapore’s “designer lighting-shop district”, but if the glare of the lights has kept you from exploring its rich history and fantastic food, then you are missing the best part of this colourful neighbourhood.
A good place to start your two-to-three-hour foodwalk is at Shaw Plaza, not because of the food, but rather for its taxi stand or indoor parking. Use the overpass to get to the other side of Balestier Road and, if it’s noon, fight for a table at Founder Bak Kut Teh (347 Balestier Road), just a few steps up from the stairs.
One of the most famous bak kut teh joints in this most famous of pork-rib tea neighbourhoods, it cooks the long, pork-rib bones in a peppery, garlicky, Hokkien-style stock. Maybe share just one order – along with a braised pig trotter, steamed rice and a cup of gongfu tea for the classic experience. And if it’s a full house at Founder, never fear; there are many other excellent bak kut teh shops around, like Kai Juan (397 Balestier Road), that deliver a milder pepper bite and equally tender bones.
Walk off your first tastes by heading uphill and to the right for a few blocks to the Wu Cao Da Bo Gong Gong Temple (249 Balestier Road). Built in 1847 to safeguard sugar plantation workers from the tigers that lived in the surrounding swamps, today people come here to pray for peace, tranquillity and justice. Beside the temple is one of Singapore’s last original Chinese opera stages, built in 1906. Just a few times a year, the wide doors are still opened for performances.
Cross over Balestier and walk left down the hill to the corner of Whampoa Drive. Turn right and you find Sing Hon Loong Bakery (4 Whampoa Drive), where blackhead bread is baked the old-school way: with charred tops that are later trimmed off. If you’re friendly, the baker might offer you a sample with butter or kaya from a vat on the counter. Take a couple of loaves home.
Further down Whampoa is Whampoa Makan Place (Block 90), where more than a hundred hawkers are housed under two separate roofs next to a tidy, efficient wet market. Many stalls here are considered among Singapore’s best, including China Whampoa Handmade Noodles (#01-24), where the ban mian with hand-torn noodles and prawns is excellent. Order a bowl of it dry, with an egg broken over it to form its own gravy. Before you leave, taste the savoury barbecued wings with a squirt of calamansi (lime) at Whampoa BBQ Seafood and Chicken Wing (#01-83). You’ll soon be returning for more.
Back up on Balestier Road, make a right past old shophouses and arrive at Lam Teo Coffee Powder (328 Balestier Road), a landmark coffee institution since 1959. Here you’ll discover the intoxicating smells and sights of an old coffee-powder shop, right down to ancient grinders, traditional Singaporean kopi beans roasted with margarine and sugar and even an abacus on the counter. And thought proprietor Benny Tan, the original shop-owner’s grandson, does not brew coffee here for you to sit and enjoy, he’ll grind your beans to take away while regaling you with the history of this unique shop.
Continuing down Balestier, stop at Eastern Rice Dumpling (300 Balestier Road) for excellent bak chang – delicious Nonya rice-dumpling pyramids filled with tasty ingredients and wrapped in bamboo leaves. In business for over thirty years, and having franchises all around the island, they may be the most popular rice dumpling makers in Singapore. But this is their main store, with a variety of the freshest bak chang hanging by coloured ribbons like savoury Christmas ornaments.
Further down Balestier you’ll admire Chinese-Baroque façades, including the two remarkable Sim Kwong Ho Shophouses (292 to 333 and 418 Balestier Road). Built in 1928, these buildings reveal the mixed history of Balestier. They are festooned with Chinese and European designs: lotus blossoms, dragons and bats appearing alongside Sikhs and angels that guard the shophouses’ colonial heritage.
Proceed to Jalan Ampas, where you can turn right and stroll to the site of the former Shaw’s Malay Film Studios. It dates back to 1947 and the Malay film industry was born here, producing Bollywood-like films. But aside from a stylish marker on the street, there is little left to see.
Back on Balestier, head to Boon Teck Road where, on the corner, you’ll see the last remaining water kiosk in Singapore. Two cisterns there have been providing free drinking water since the 1940s.
Here you should cross Balestier and head left, back up the hill. You’ll quickly arrive at Boon Tong Kee (399 to 403 Balestier) for a well-deserved cool-off in the air-conditioned restaurant, complete with checked table cloths and exceptional chicken rice. Perhaps the most well-known name in Singapore’s chicken rice world, due to its numerous outlets, this flagship restaurant delivers flavourful rice and thick, juicy chicken in a robust brown liquid hinting of sesame, garlic, pandan and other spices. Few chicken rice establishments rival this high quality version of the nation’s quasi-national dish in such a comfortable yet local setting and at such excellent prices.
Carry on up Balestier to the 80-year-old Ann Soon Hong Bird Shop (315 Balestier Road), where second-generation son, Anthony, will show you the many colourful birds and ornate cages and explain the hobby of song-birding, so popular with many older Chinese men. Just up the side street are old homes where people live as if still in old Singapore.
Returning to the elevated crossover where you started, you come to the end of today’s food walk. But there’s just not enough space here – or in your stomach – to discover all of Balestier in one shot. More awaits your return: temples, vendors, duck rice, tau sar piah (mung bean pastries) and so much more. So, come back soon to beautiful Balestier.
Intersecting with Serangoon Road on one end and Thompson Road at the other, Balestier is tricky to get to without a car or taxi – but worth it. Nestled between Novena, Little India and Toa Payoh, its nearest MRTs are Toa Payoh (walk to the nearby flyover to cross the CTE or take one of the numerous buses that head from there) and Novena (a 10-to-15-minute walk down Moulmein Road until you reach Balestier, then turni left). Or drive, and park at Shaw Plaza.
Check out the map in our online magazine here.