Take your pick from more than 20 free activities when Wan Qing CultureFest 2014 kicks off today for a three-week run. Now in its fourth year, the annual event organised by the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall "aims to bring a diverse range of cultural activities to enrich visitors' experiences with Chinese culture and art in an accessible manner", says its assistant curator, Ms Low Li Ming.
Chinese pop culture is this year's theme, and visitors can catch screenings of home-grown Chinese movies such as 881 and Already Famous and take part in photography (next Tuesday and Dec 3) and silkscreening workshops (Nov 26).
As in past editions, home-grown celebrities will be roped in. For example, Michelle Chong will entertain as Lulu, one of her alter-egos from the comedy sketch show The Noose, at the festival's opening ceremony tonight.
Local sand artist Stacey Lim will premiere a visual narrative of Sun's journey in Singapore and the region in the early 1900s as well as present-day scenes. Sun, the leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party, is the focus of the Memorial Hall, which reopened in 2011 after a renovation.
The organisers hope to draw 20,000 visitors to the festival, about the same number as last year.
Ms Low says: "Many of our activities this year are designed with the youth in mind, with themes that cater to their interests. That being said, families can also look forward to many hands-on and interactive activities which they can bond over."
One such highlight is the new Balestier heritage and food trail, which includes stops at some popular food outlets in the neighbourhood.
These include the 66-year-old Loong Fatt Eating House & Confectionery, which is famous for its tau sar piah, a type of Teochew pastry made with mung beans, as well as the 55-year-old Lam Yeo Coffee Powder shop.
Incidentally, the story behind Balestier's name is related to food too. American merchant Joseph Balestier was the owner of a vast sugarcane plantation that dominated the area in the 19th century.
The free trails, which feature two routes, will be led by the docents of the Memorial Hall and cover five to seven stops in 21/2 hours. Each session can take up to 30 participants and tours will be conducted in English and Mandarin.
The trails are an enhanced version of a previous tour launched in 2006 by the National Heritage Board, which was offered as a self-guided tour.
After the CultureFest ends, those who are interested can download the Balestier heritage trail mobile app to explore the area on their own.
Though food sampling is not officially part of the new trail, participants can buy items to try if there are no queues. While Balestier is known for food such as chicken rice and bak kut teh (pork rib soup), the aim of the trail is to share the rich history of the neighbourhood.
Ms Belinda Mock, a volunteer docent of the Memorial Hall and a 30-year resident of Balestier, says of the traditional shophouses there: "Some of the houses have carvings on the wall - the Chinese phoenix is a sign of longevity. Then there are carvings of a Gurkha guard to protect the people living in the houses."
The creative consultant, who is in her 50s, is one of the guides who will lead the trails in English.
She adds: "If you don't tell people the stories, they will think it's just another house, another street."
BALESTIER TRAIL HIGHLIGHTS
GOH CHOR TUA PEK KONG TEMPLE
What: This temple, built in 1847, was located on the northern fringes of Joseph Balestier's 89ha sugarcane plantation, serving as a place of spiritual solace for the Hokkien plantation workers. "Goh Chor" is a Hokkien transliteration of Rochor, the name of the surrounding area in the 19th century.
Where: 249 Balestier Road
FORMER SHAW MALAY FILM STUDIOS
What: Sleepy Jalan Ampas was once Singapore's Hollywood for Malay movies, after Shaw Brothers set up the film studio for Malay movies in 1947. The studio, which closed in 1967, saw the production of more than 160 films, including its first, Singapura Di-Waktu Malam, or Singapore At Night, in 1947. The studio remains and is looked after by a caretaker.
Where: 8 Jalan Ampas
BALESTIER ROAD TRADITIONAL SHOPHOUSES
What: These shophouses were built in 1928 by property owner Sim Cheng Neo. The architecture is a blend of East and West, with reliefs of flowers, dragons and bats. Also look out for the figures of Gurkha soldiers carved in the pillar of the corner unit, which is a symbol of protection for the property.
Where: 412-418 Balestier Road
What: A legacy of the past, these two canisters filled with tea and water were once meant for the passing labourers, rickshaw pullers and bullock cart drivers at a time when clean water was hard to come by. The service continues to be provided by Thong Teck Sian Tong Lian Sin Sia, a religious charitable organisation located down the street.
Where: Corner of Boon Teck Road
LOONG FATT EATING HOUSE & CONFECTIONERY
What: This place draws long queues for its tau sar piah, or Teochew pastry filled with mung beans (60 cents a piece). Look out for the middle-aged woman with black-rimmed glasses behind the production table: Known as Ah Mei, she is said to be the only worker besides the shop owner who knows the recipe of the pastry.
Where: 639 Balestier Road
Open: 8am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday, closed on Sunday