Unbeknownst to many, Balestier Road is a road seeped in rich history. It was named after Joseph Balestier, who was appointed as 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 the ‘Rochor’.
The main stretch of Balestier Road lies between Thomson and Serangoon Road, and contains a rich mix of two-storey pre-war shophouses of the 1950s and 60s. 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’s shops are devoted to selling light fixtures and other interior decoration items, but locals and tourists still flock here, if only to get a taste of the local culture through the heritage trail and take a whiff of some of the best bak kut teh and tau sar piah around.
Beginning your heritage walk at the junction where Moulmein Road ends to connect to Balestier Road, you’ll find a row of Art Deco Shophouses – buildings that were built in the 1950s. Distinct features of the Art Deco 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. “Hoover” used to be an entertainment hub in the past, with Hoover Theatre being constructed in 1960. Today, the name lives on, as the former entertainment centre is now converted to a hotel.
Across the road from Hoover Hotel, it is not difficult to spot the only temple that stands boldly amidst a row of shophouses – the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple. Built in 1847 by Hokkien labourers working in nearby sugar cane plantations, ‘Goh Chor’ translates to Rochor in Hokkien, while ‘Tua Pek Kong’ refers to a Taoist deity. Teochew and Hokkien operas and puppet shows still retain its tradition of performing 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 toast with butter and kaya, a classic breakfast staple for Singaporeans of the past. Situated at 10/12 Kim Keat Lane, you can count on Sweetlands Confectionery to make 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. This aroma originates from Lam Yeo Coffee Powder. 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 the colonial times. They began brewing coffee during their service and eventually opening coffee shops which are today commonly known as kopitiams.
Look above you to the shophouses along 292-312 Balestier Road. You’ll find a façade that sets itself apart from the rest. These designs are the 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 there’s anything Balestier is well-known for, it’s their bah kut teh. It consists of meaty pork ribs simmered in a complex soup broth of herbs and spices. 333 Bah Kut Teh on 333 Balestier Road serves generous portions, while its peppery counterpart can be found at Founder Bah Kut Teh 347 Balestier Road. We are easily won over by their credibility with pictures of local and regional celebrities plastered on every corner of the shop’s interior.
Chicken rice lovers can head for Loy Kee Chicken Rice on 342 Balestier Road or Boon Tong Kee on 401 Balestier Road. Anyone who has tried their signature juicy roast chicken can testify to its succulence. If you should prefer duck, satisfy your roasted duck cravings at Golden Duck Restaurant on 369 Balestier Road.
Standing starkly on 414 Balestier Road, you can find the Original Herbal Shop. Serving 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 themselves as a household brand for their soft and silky beancurd, a dessert not to be missed when in Singapore.
Free outdoor public drinking water in Singapore is a rare sight, but don’t be alarmed if you spot a nondescript water kiosk standing in the corner of Boon Teck Road. Continuing on from a 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.
For a respite from the midday heat, head across the road to Balestier Market. A 24-hour sheltered food court, fuel yourself with some of Singapore’s local food delights, such as rojak and satay. A word of advice: leave some space for your tummy for the next half of your Balestier Road expedition.
Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall stands flamboyantly on 12 Tai Gin Road as a quiet, colonial-inspired, white villa. The five galleries which it is made up of 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 Southeast Asia to the Revolution through the collection of artefacts, paintings and photographs.
Complete your trail with an exclusive Singapore brew at Starker. Located in Zhong Shan 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.
Speak to any local about Balestier and tau sar piah is the first thing to come to mind. Flaky pastry made from flour with a bean paste filling, Loong Fatt Tau Sar Piah on 639 Balestier Road and House of Tau Sar Piah on 529 Balestier Road both have a long-standing reputation for making these 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, green tea, to local favourites 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 higher-end branded sporting goods, and thus is a popular choice for sport enthusiasts.
Thinking of throwing in a workout during your stay here? Ceylon Sports Hub holds regular cricket, pool, futsal, hockey tournaments. If you’re up for a vertical challenge, give rock climbing a shot at Climb Asia Climbing Centre on 60 Tessensohn Road.
Step into the streets of Balestier Road for an experience of the old and the new. There is definitely something for everyone – from the rich Singapore history to local food favourites.