An unexplored area to many, Balestier Road is a road steeped in rich history. It was named after Joseph Balestier, who was appointed the first American Consul to Singapore in 1837. Balestier Road was also known in Chinese as ‘Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong’ after the temple, ‘Go Cho’ being the Hokkien translation of ‘Rochor.’
The main stretch of Balestier Road lies between Thomson Road and Serangoon Road and contains a rich mix of two-storey pre-war shop-houses, built in the 1950s and 1960s. Interspersed amongst these are a few high-rise commercial and residential complexes such as Balestier Point and Balestier Plaza. These buildings reflect the evolution of physical development since the 1840s and are reminders of the history of the area. Most of Balestier Road’s shops are devoted to selling light fixtures and other interior decoration items, but locals and some tourists still flock here, if only to get a taste of the local culture through the Balestier Heritage Trail and to enjoy a taste of some of the best bak kut teh and tau sar piah in the city.
Begin your heritage walk at the junction where Moulmein Road ends to connect to Balestier Road. Here you’ll find a row of Art Deco shop-houses, built in the 1950s. Distinct features of the Art Deco style include geometric shapes, as can be observed in the building which houses the Hoover Hotel on 246 Balestier Road. With its vertical fins and slit-like windows, this prime example of Art Deco used to be the entertainment hub ‘Hoover,’ with the Hoover Theatre constructed here in 1960. Today, the name lives on, as the former entertainment centre has been converted into a hotel.
Across the road from Hoover Hotel, look out for another historical building that stands boldly amidst a row of shop-houses – the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple. Built in 1847 by Hokkien labourers working in nearby sugarcane plantations, ‘Goh Chor’ translates to ‘Rochor’ in Hokkien, while ‘Tua Pek Kong’ refers to a Taoist deity. Teochew and Hokkien operas and puppet shows are still performed at this temple grounds’ freestanding wayang stage during important Chinese festivals.
Continue down Balestier Road and turn into Kim Keat Road for an authentic taste of some sliced kaya toast, a classic breakfast staple for Singaporeans past and present. Situated at 10/12 Kim Keat Lane, you can count on Sweetlands Confectionery to make their breads, buns and rolls fresh daily from scratch instead of succumbing to mass production.
Strong wafts of coffee aroma permeate the air as you continue sauntering down Balestier Road, originating from Lam Yeo Coffee Powder shop. Many households and coffee stall owners used to source their coffee powder here, which now stands at 328 Balestier Road. The coffee trade was traditionally started by Hainanese migrants who used to work as domestic servants for the British in colonial times. They began brewing coffee during their service and eventually opened their own coffee shops, which are commonly known as kopitiams.
Make sure to look upwards at the shop-houses from 292-312 along Balestier Road. Here you’ll find a façade that sets itself apart from the rest, with designs that are an amalgamation of European- and Chinese-style motifs. Look closely to find Venetian arches and baroque foliage inspired by European architects, as well as traditional Chinese plant and animal iconography plastered on the walls.
If all this exploring has awoken your appetite, don’t despair as there is a good choice of local fare nearby. If there’s anything Balestier Road is well-known for, it’s bah kut teh. This dish consists of meaty pork ribs simmered in a complex soup broth of herbs and spices. 333 Bah Kut Teh, at 333 Balestier Road, serves generous portions of this popular favourite, while its peppery counterpart can be sampled at Founder Bah Kut Teh at 347 Balestier Road. Here, their credibility is hard to doubt, with pictures of local and regional celebrities plastered on every corner of the shop’s interior. Chicken Rice lovers should head for either Loy Kee Chicken Rice, at 342 Balestier Road, or Boon Tong Kee, at 401 Balestier Road. Anyone who has tried their signature juicy roast chicken can testify to its succulence. If you should prefer roast duck, satisfy your cravings at Golden Duck Restaurant at 369 Balestier Road. For a local dessert, head to the Original Herbal Shop at 414 Balestier Road. Specialising in herbal teas and desserts since 1989, don’t miss their signature dessert kwai leng guo, a herbal jelly believed to relieve ‘heatiness.’ Rochor Beancurd House, at 432 Balestier Road, has also established itself as a popular brand for their soft and silky bean curd, a dessert not to be missed when in Singapore.
Alternatively, for respite from the midday heat, head on to Balestier Market. At this 24-hour sheltered food court, fuel yourself with some of Singapore’s local other food delights such as rojak and satay. A word of advice – leave some space in your tummy for the next half of your Balestier Road expedition.
Free outdoor public drinking water in Singapore is a rare sight, but don’t be alarmed if you pass a nondescript water kiosk standing in the corner of Boon Teck Road. Continuing on from the tradition of providing drinking water to poor labourers toiling in this area in the past, this kiosk still offers water and tea to passers-by today.
Just off Balestier Road, Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall stands flamboyantly at 12 Tai Gin Road, in a quiet, colonial-inspired, white villa. Its five galleries recount the story of Dr Sun Yat-Sen, a pivotal figure in the 1911 Chinese Revolution, and the contributions made by the Chinese communities in South East Asia to the Revolution through the collection of artefacts, paintings and photographs.
Complete your cultural trail with an exclusive Singapore brew at Starker. Located in Zhongshan Park, this casual restaurant serves German-styled craft beer that is traditionally brewed from malted barley and wheat, delivering a clean and crisp finish. Choose from their five unique brews (Lager, Dunkel, Charcoal, Aromatic and Lychee) for some hard-earned refreshment.
Speak to any local about Balestier Road and tau sar piah, the flaky pastry made of flour with a filling of bean paste, will surely get a mention. Loong Fatt Tau Sar Piah, at 639 Balestier Road, and House of Tau Sar Piah, at 529 Balestier Road, both have a long-standing reputation for making this traditional confectionary. Where the original tau sar piah flavours used to be just sweet and salty, today there is an assortment of flavours for you to choose from, ranging from yam, pineapple and green tea to local favourites like durian and black sesame.
While Balestier Road is comprised mostly of standalone shops, major shopping malls in the vicinity include Velocity, Novena’s largest shopping mall. Complete with a gymnasium on the top floor, this mall boasts a wide selection of higher-end branded sporting goods and is a popular choice for sport enthusiasts. Thinking of throwing in a workout during your stay in the area? The Ceylon Sports Hub nearby holds regular cricket, pool, futsal and hockey tournaments or if you’re up for a vertical challenge, give rock climbing a shot at Climb Asia Climbing Centre at 60 Tessensohn Road.
Stepping into the streets along Balestier Road is an experience of the old and the new. There is definitely something for everyone here – from rich Singapore history to some great local food favourites. Happy exploring!
For local accommodation, Zhongshan Park offers two convenient options, the Ramada Singapore and Days Hotel Singapore. Connected to a shopping mall, with lots of good eating and entertainment options, these two hotels offer modern urban accommodation and great value for money. Close to the medical centres and shopping malls at Novena, Zhongshan Park is just a short drive away from the many attractions of Orchard Road.
It’s not just Keong Saik Road (see our previous issue)