Secret Journeys in Singapore: Global souls hidden city

Lee Siew Hua darts between grease shops and hip cafes, the sleazy and spiritual sides of Jalan Besar

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LOOKING for a new pie shop, I expect a fancy address. But I am travelling instead into a realm of flinty men and engine shops housed in a half-dozen streets radiating from Jalan Besar Stadium. The zone, with trucks everywhere, is unlovely at first.

Here, purveyors of pipes appear to share no bond with prissy dessert lovers.

I look around, and before long I am lingering, not in a cafe but in front of the moodily romantic facade of the Kwong Soon Engineering group, circa 1950. Inside its cavernous workshop on Cavan Road, a vintage vermillion Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar repose under skylights, alongside ship turbo-chargers, all like an industrial still life.

The luxury cars belong to Mr Louis Ching, 74, chairman and managing director of Kwong Soon Engineering, now a global marine and offshore empire. Born in a shophouse across the road, the towkay now lives in an unseen apartment above his freehold 20,000 sq ft workshop. It is a goldmine that he thinks he may develop as a residential property - but I think the architectural gem may be a perfect art gallery or museum.

Near Kwong Soon are humbler hole-in-the-wall motorcycle repairers.

I love these vivid contrasts, and it feels like I'm gazing at a monument and hovels in the same freeze frame - a cinematic image of Singapore when it was still a tinkerer and fixer of broken things, still hiding the seeds of a First World metropolis.

So a whole hierarchy of grease shops that reveal a slice of the Singapore Story, a narrative of opportunity and tenacity, abides in the old district.

Paris and whimsy

And now hip cafes, media start-ups and condo-dwellers are moving into the enclave, a 1920s motoring hub and a gritty precursor of the sleek industrial engine that Singapore was destined to be.

I take a closer peek at a trio of notable cafes in this city-fringe district, near Lavender MRT station.

Chye Seng Huat Hardware, in reality a chic coffee bar ensconced behind an obscure gate on Tyrwhitt Road, picks up the industrial vibe in its name and decor.

Antoinette, a patisserie, is Paris on nondescript Penhas Road.

And Windowsill in the Woods is a whimsical pie shop that opened last November in a bare-bones Horne Road shophouse.

One of its three young owners, Mr Sean Gwee, 21, who once offered private degustation dinners using molecular methods alongside his doctor brother, when they were teens, is my ebullient tour guide for an hour.

He likes being neighbours with an elderly champion who set up Happy Table Tennis down the road, where actress Kym Ng and a couple of millionaires sometimes swat ping-pong balls next to talented school boys. Tables are rented out for $10 an hour.

Mr Gwee's next-door neighbour is Ms Mary Ong, a glamorous middle-aged boss of a hardware company who works out often at a gym and has tasted his pumpkin pie with bourbon cream.

He says: "I like this hardworking neighbourhood. It's not nostalgic, not over-quirky. The people here don't really care about the new-fangled kids. We are just neighbours."

Yet he and Ms Ong share moments of kinship on the five-foot way, when the driven duo, entrepreneurs blazing different trails, find themselves locking up at 2am.

The pie-shop partners chose the unlikely location as it is "close-ish to town, not too far from east and west", Mr Gwee says. Rental is still affordable. And the wide streets are perfect for customers driving up for takeaway pies.

Hipster elements are emerging here, observes Mr Gwee. On reflection, he says a moment later that the place has been hip for years, with media and event companies holed up in dodgy, low-rent buildings.

The hipness quotient has risen, so has the sleaze. Overheard at the pie shop - a man surrounded by six girls coos: "You are as sweet as this pie."

In the vicinity, men motor up in showy Benzes, always Benzes, to the Fragrance Hotel, for a romp between 4pm and 6pm before dutifully going home for dinner.

Sprinkled among the hardware shops are karaoke clubs and spas. A couple of times, I see Thai girls with tinted hair emerging from faded walk-up apartments to start their day at 3pm.

Heritage consultant Andrew Tan, 46, has dwelt in a conserved shophouse on Hamilton Road for three years and says his neighbours are Indian migrant workers and transient bar girls. He hears the girls, who speak Mandarin with inland Chinese accents, sobbing some nights.

Nevertheless, Mr Tan, who has no Singaporean neighbours, though his landlord has been urging him to entice other urban professionals to rent here, loves the 1930s aura. "I find it very romantic to live here. It's like the movie Lust, Caution. There is a dark, exotic, jazz-age look."

I begin to think that like other world capitals, there must be hidden cities within the Singapore we think we know. Secret journeys are enticingly possible through back alleys, concealed lifts and private doors to inner sanctums.

On one visit to the quarter, which takes 30 minutes to walk around, I notice that a shop offers foot massages. The dolled-up Malaysian girls inside must think I am an oddball, wandering into a salon where male clients are sequestered in dim corners that blazing mid-afternoon.

Poised on recklessly high heels, manicured fingers flashing, the nubile women shampoo heads and knead muscles in a shophouse facing the stadium.

For 30 minutes, Gina, as I'll call her, soothes my feet, conversing in the dulcet tones I imagine some men adore. In the curtained cubicle next to mine, her unseen colleague banters with a dude in the same honeyed rhythms.

Gina is here to indulge one and all, so she says my accent is "endearing" when I spout garbled Mandarin. When I venture to ask why she thinks male patrons enjoy this domain, she stares ahead, tries to frame an answer. Then softly - passive-aggressively perhaps - replies: "I don't know how to answer you."

While we flit easily around neutral topics like beauty regimes and living expenses, a subtler silence separates us. She is more covert than her chatty fellow Malaysians, backbone of Singapore's beauty sector, who paint my nails or style my hair elsewhere.

Before leaving, I pick up her ebony business card stamped with a pastel butterfly motif.

It has her mobile number printed for clients and somehow I feel a pang.

Perhaps because the Ipoh girl who buys frilly dresses from Bugis has to give her number to strangers and work so hard to please men while dewy youth is still on her side.

I pay up $25 and exit the girlie bubble. It feels like I have just walked along the tantalising boundary of a new country, with glimpses of exotic butterflies, entry denied. Beyond the salon's open door lie barricades still invisible to my eyes.

I do not witness hanky-panky, and possibly there is none. But there is an inescapable whiff of sleaze in the eclectic streets here, and the candy-faced women seem as flinty in spirit as the engine workers.

Pure and profane

I dart between the sleazy and the spiritual in this sphere, a tiny place bulging with parallel worlds.

Prominently, there is a Tibetan Buddhist temple with a hand-spun cylindrical prayer wheel and an Anglican church capped with a green-tiled roof.

Both houses of worship are landmarks on the Jalan Besar Heritage Trail (www.nhb.gov.sg) devised by the National Heritage Board and enhanced last year. Wending through the greater Jalan Besar urban streetscape, the trail conjures up New World cabaret dancers, old rubber factories and the birth of Singapore football in the stadium, which was a scene of massacre during the Japanese Occupation.

It is hard to imagine, but mud lobsters and flying ducks once flourished in Jalan Besar, before it became a vanished swamp like much of Singapore.

Zoom in on the Thekchen Choling Temple on Beatty Lane and Holy Trinity Church on Hamilton Road, and the visitor can spot Chinese design elements intended to appeal to local worshippers.

The 24-hour temple has Chinese lanterns emblazoned with Tibetan auspicious signs and a 200-year-old statue of Taoist deity Ji Gong resides there.

When the church was built in 1941, Foochow and Hokkien worshippers could relate to the Chinese-looking church, a style imported from Shanghai. Today, passers-by wonder if it is a temple, until they spot the crosses.

It's clear that this is a place of many layers - memories and modernity, labour and leisure, the pure and the profane.

I look around, and there is no end of such dual stories.

A shop that rents wedding gowns and glitzy getai-worthy apparel sits next to a store offering funeral services, both sharing the same worn look.

A concealed lift at the rear of the somewhat decrepit King George's Building pops me into an achingly hip office, where start-up entrepreneurs work, play and sleep, knowing they will not go hungry with Lavender Food Court open till 3am and Wendy's shuttered late.

Mr Tan Boon Teck and Mr Kevin Lim, both 36 and old schoolmates from Raffles Institution, have created Make Space, this 151 sq m urban kampung where bicycles hang on a wall, work is displayed on an orange wall, paper is recycled and vinyl curtains can be pulled around a semi-circular space for meetings.

The vinyl, used for tentages, is "local material" sourced from the canvas shops around the corner.

A brasher Singapore

Architect Woo Pui Leng, 60, who penned The Urban History Of Jalan Besar and spent her childhood in a Hamilton Road row of 17 pre-war shophouses built by her contractor grandfather, remembers lots of street life and suckling pigs being roasted in back lanes.

"People went on the rooftops of shophouses and brought out bleachers to watch football games at the stadium," she recounts.

In a country that exalts the exceptional, she thinks Singapore should keep more places that feel ordinary. "Places need to have a sense of ordinariness. Artists value that, rather than to have everything sanitised."

She also discerns a changing Singapore in the district.

"It's wonderful that young people find richness and diversity in places like Jalan Besar." There is a greater sense of Singapore as home, she feels.

Unlike her, I have no childhood bond with the locale. I'd never been there in my life, and the irony is that I've journeyed afar as a travel writer. Still, I'm creating memories afresh in Jalan Besar as I travel between eras, encountering young global entrepreneurs and a brasher Singapore of the past, enjoying a place that faces the future buoyantly yet is alert to ancestral echoes.

And this is just one enclave, one hidden city, in a gleaming Singapore that surely abounds with secrets and journeys.

siewhua@sph.com.sg