Where’s my Katong?

In News Reports on February 27, 2014 at 1:17 am

This post has nothing to do with the news of the day. It’s personal and, therefore, totally unreasonable. You’ve been warned.

Two days ago, I spent a whole afternoon in my old stomping ground, Katong. I stomped and stomped. In frustration and rage.

You see, I am a Katong Girl. And I felt like I was in Holland Village.

As a young girl with a ponytail, I accompanied my late grandmother to Katong when she made her visits to nonya relatives. They were all on streets with names of fruits…Our visits would always include a visit to Tay Ban Guan, where she bought me my first Enid Blyton book. It would end with a pork satay treat at a coffeeshop on the main East Coast Road, at 10 cents a stick with a side of peanut and pineapple gravy. It was…expensive…

Of course, Tay Ban Guan has long been gone. And who knows what Red House is going to be like after its very extensive renovation? Definitely no bakery – not the dark and dingy one at any rate.

I went to Tanjong Katong Girls’ School, which is no longer along Tanjong Katong Road. My friends and I used to prowl the vicinity after school hours, marvelling at the wonders Katong Shopping Centre offered. It had Island supermarket on an upper floor which produced ice cream from a machine. Pioneer generation of supermarkets!

Island is long no more although Katong Shopping Centre is still there, filled with maid agencies and transfer maids. The only reminder of years past – it still has those stationery shops which let students do photocopying.  

I know Aston’s moved in some years ago. Brotzeit has set up shop as well, turfing out the tau kwa pau seller who has been moved from coffeeshop to coffeeshop in the area over the decades. Now that coffeeshop which was his last stand has gone German.

That day, I walked along East Coast Road from Joo Chiat Road with a slightly enraged heart. There is only the 328 coffeeshop which sells laksa which feels remotely Katong-like. There is an upmarket Prata Place and all manner of upmarket American beer-and-burger joints. There is a Lower East Side, which is semi-Mexican, several Japanese restaurants, ice cream parlours , pancake places, pizza posts, and someone called Irene is selling Australian food. They all have fancy names, The Kitchenette and even a Rabbit, Carrot and Gun?

No need now to say “that coffeeshop along XX Road which has what and what’’.  I mean, I ask you, do you really notice coffeeshop names and use it when you recommend places to others?

Oh! Oh! There is an Alibahbar – a corner coffeeshop done up to look more high class. It seems to want to retain its coffeeshop credentials with local fare, except that it also sells French cuisine. Sniff..

It was in the afternoon about lunchtime. I would like to report that they were almost empty of patrons, except for 328 Laksa. Seems people preferred to eat at the basement coffeeshops in Katong Shopping Centre and Roxy Square – where I believe the “original’’ Katong laksa is. What a far cry from the days when the eateries would be filled with office workers at lunchtime! Patrons start filling up  the F&B places in the evening…and, at the risk of appearing xenophobic, most are non-Asians.    

The “lower class’’ section is further down East Coast Road towards Holy Family Church. I mean no disrespect with the term lower class. It’s a stretch which sells food at lower prices by people who didn’t give their eateries fancy names and which still has some old coffeeshops living and breathing. Chin Mee Chin is still around although Cona’s has long gone. So sugee cake can still be eaten in Katong.

More “locals’’ gather there. There is like some kind of invisible line drawn across East Coast Road. Maybe it’s a function of rents.

 My late father used to work in Joo Chiat Police Station which now houses some kind of Hong Kong eatery. He was known as the tua kow or Big Dog of Joo Chiat.The family could never walk through Katong when he was alive even after he retired without some stallholder or other coming up to shake his hand and press bags of fruit on him.   

He would turn in his urn to see Katong now.

Now even the not-so-old places has gone, like Chevy’s. Police broke up the last ever set of the band last Saturday, cutting off music mid-way. Seems residents nearby were complaining about the noise. You would think that the patrons lamenting the end of Chevy’s were rioting. They were, of course, drunk. But they were not disorderly.   

I know I sound like an old woman, standing in the way of progress and change. I sound like a xenophobe; not at all cosmopolitan. The change over Katong has been happening over time but it seems to have escalated over the last two years or so.

Some semblance of “home’’ must remain in pockets of Singapore – or you will find us retreating into the HDB heartland and setting up barricades against “outsiders’’.   Already, I prefer spending more time in my more immediate neighbourhood, than venturing further afield, although gelato joints have started sprouting up….Sigh.

Heck! I AM an old woman…


  1. Hello! Fellow TKGian here. I haven’t been back since going to JC and NUS and it’s so far away now. Your post makes me afraid to. D=

  2. Being someone who has lived in the east side most of his life, I can relate to exactly to what you just ranted. Sigh. As we get older, things familiar to us somehow makes way for the new. But is it all necessary? You just have to look at Pasir Ris, where I am residing to see what I mean. It has been practically taken over by “condos”. In fact, I call it “Condoland” now.

    The so-called hills that we used to have, has been bulldozed to make way for an international school and even more condos. The only piece of greenery we had……and natural at that, all gone. I better stop here, because I now sound like an old man. Great post BTW.

  3. the old Joo Chiat Police Station area is gonna be a hotel soon. the HK cafe and most of the F&B outlets are gone

  4. hi Bertha, just to let you know, the tau kwa pau shop moved to the old tanjong katong tech campus

  5. I know how you feel Bertha. I lived in Holland Village for the last 42 years. Everything around me has changed and will change very suddenly. Its a sad day tomorrow when they close the Buona Vista Swimming Complex for good. That and the small mosque at the edge of the HV carpark will have to make way for more shopping and high end residential development. According to our MPs, these malls will make live more vibrant. Maybe they have sad little lives that require malls to enrich it. Clearly they do not live here in HV to know that they are taking away the very fabric that makes this little hamlet unique.
    Now I have to take my daughters to Clementi for their swimming lessons because the pool that have served us well and gave 3 generations of my family fond memories will be no more.

  6. Reblogged this on Living in the Dragon's Belly and commented:
    hear hear! I was a KC girl and katong used to be an ‘expensive’ area for me to hang out in. It was always such a nice treat to be allowed to wander along there after school (normally only because mom didn’t have time to cook lunch). But it really has lost quite a bit of its character…

  7. Hi Bertha – we have lived behind Katong Shopping Centre for 21 years (you know my mom, Adie, I believe!) – and a 12-year sojourn away from home notwithstanding, I’ve been back for six years and have watched the transformation take place with the same heart as you have. Most of it happened over the last two years, and here I must disclaim that an article I’ve written about the positive changes will out in print in next week. My mom, too, took me to Tay Buan Guan and Oriental Emporium at Katong Shopping Centre used to be the fanciest thing on the stretch. I remember when Glory was a stall at Shanghai coffee shop and when I longed for a new outfit from Bobby’s Jeans (totally objective, even though I am a huge Springsteen fan).

    I am an optimist, though, and submit that change is inevitable – one only hopes that mini-chains like Brotzeit (fortunately local) and Awfully Chocolate outposts are as gentrified as we will get. 112 is an awful mall, but we finally have a proper cinema and nobody can really be disgusted with Din Tai Fung. But we at least don’t have trampling Instagrammers and hipsters on blog photoshoots – the village vibe is still comfortable, and standard of living adjusted for inflation (ha!) not that different from the upper-middle-class neighbourhood it’s always been. It’s great that expats who have chosen to live here have done so because they wanted a real neighbourhood that they can be involved in and can be very proud of embracing, which they do. This modernised sensibility has also paved the way for businesses such as The Humble Loaf, in the basement of Katong Shopping Centre and next to dear old Dona Manis Confectionery, opened by a former Gattopardo chef who bakes the loveliest breads, from which he constructs heartwarming sandwiches filled with homemade rillettes, hummus, tapenades and other loveliness. A monster sandwich is only $8.50! So much to love about Katong Shopping Centre. And Damon D’Silva’s Immigrants is such a nice spot, all craft beers included.

    We completely agree that the new F&B spots that shift in and out despairingly simply don’t know the area, thinking anything edible in “foodie central” would do a roaring business. And that’s why Chin Mee Chin, Glory, Sin Hoi Sai and Ampang Yong Tau Foo continue to hold court. Maybe it’s because we’re here most of the year and don’t see the changes as much, but it doesn’t feel very different yet. The locals know their spots, secret or not, and that’s good enough. Chin Mee Chin aunties still hug me when I go in, and my mom always compliments them on their hair (in Hainanese, naturally). Mary’s Tau Kwa Pau is now on the second floor of Dunman Food Centre, tucked in the back across from the popiah stall. A few stalls down is a zhi char run by the loveliest family from Fujian, who serve a Nonya fish head dish that’s out of this world. My mom gave them tips on how to enhance the spice so Easties would better appreciate it, and it’s a top seller these days.

    Chin Mee Chin 4-eva!

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