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Joo Chiat is an area in the east of Singapore known for its multicultural heritage, and derives its name from a number of roads in the area named after plantation owner and philanthropist Chew Joo Chiat. In the early 20th century, significant Peranakan and Eurasian populations moved into Joo Chiat alongside the Chinese, Malay and Indian communities. Today, Joo Chiat’s multi-ethnic influences are most prominent in its architecture and dining. In popular conception, Joo Chiat is often conflated with nearby Katong, with a 2001 book on Joo Chiat noting that for many, the terms Joo Chiat and Katong are virtually interchangeable.
From the 1820s, the area that would become known as Joo Chiat consisted of coconut and cotton plantations including Confederate Estate (which included present day Joo Chiat Road), The Grove and Perseverance Estate. Early plantation owners in the area included Francis Bernard, Sir Jose d’Almeida, Thomas Dunman and Whampoa Hoo Ah Kay.
Besides plantations, the area also contained country houses and seaside bungalows built by the wealthy, as well as a number of villages. In an 1885 map of Singapore’s East Coast, the area that later became Joo Chiat is not delineated and lies between the areas of Gelang (Geylang) and Siglap. Two prominent locations existent on the map, however, are the seaside point of Tanjong Katong and Confederate Estate, on the outskirts of Siglap.
From 1900, people leaving the overcrowded city centre were drawn to the east, with a resultant growth in the area’s resident population. They opened up new residential areas with attendant amenities, including what is now the Joo Chiat area. In the early 1900s, an electric tramway ran between the Joo Chiat-Changi Market (present day Joo Chiat Complex) and Tanjong Pagar near the city centre. From the 1920s, the area was served by a number of bus companies, while other forms of transportation included taxis and trishaws.
Demand for residential land began to break up the plantations, and the establishment of Catholic churches and schools in the early 1900s brought a significant Eurasian presence into the area. Around the same period, Peranakan families began to settle in Joo Chiat, building the Peranakan-style shophouses that Joo Chiat is known for today. Some of the best examples of these shophouses lie along Koon Seng Road, Everitt Road and Joo Chiat Place.
Chew Joo Chiat
Chew Joo Chiat, a migrant from China turned wealthy philanthropist, had made his fortune as a trader before becoming a plantation owner who cultivated gambier, nutmeg and coconut. In the first two decades of the 1900s, he acquired considerable amounts of land in the Katong/Joo Chiat area and became known as the “King of Katong”. These acquisitions included 1,121 m2 of freehold land along Confederate Estate Road at a price of $460, as recorded in a property notice from 1910.
Chew came to own large tracts of land around Confederate Estate and Perseverance Estate, including the dirt track leading from Geylang Serai through the plantation to the seafront known as Confederate Estate Road. When the government sought to pave the track, Chew made the road available for public use and it had become known as Joo Chiat Road by 1914. Other roads named after Chew that had appeared by the 1910s include Joo Chiat Lane, Joo Chiat Terrace and Joo Chiat Place, while a post office, market and police station were also named after him.
As the area developed, the Chew family sold off parcels of land for residential and commercial use. The roads were eventually taken over by first the Rural Board, then the Municipality, and more roads including the Marshall, Pennefather, Carpmael, Everitt, Still and Koon Seng roads were laid out.
Post-war Joo Chiat
The Japanese Occupation put a temporary halt to the growth of Joo Chiat, but development restarted in the 1950s. Shopping centres and departmental stores began to compete with wet markets, while cinemas and other entertainment outlets like bars and pubs (from the 1970s) appeared to cater to the growing population.
In the 1950s and 1960s, landmarks such as the Roxy and Odeon cinemas as well as the Tay Buan Guan supermarket and departmental store were constructed in the Roxy area that straddled Joo Chiat and Katong. Other landmarks in Joo Chiat included Chew Joo Chiat’s house, the Sri Vinayagar Kalamandapam temple, the Kuan Im Tng temple and the Galaxy cinema. Architectural features previously prominent in Joo Chiat, such as kampongs (villages), stilt houses and holiday bungalows had largely disappeared or existed only as isolated examples by the 1980s.
In 1991, the Urban Redevelopment Authority gazetted 518 buildings in Joo Chiat for conservation. These were mainly two-storey shophouses and terrace houses of the Transitional, Late and Art Deco styles and the conservation status prevented their demolition. Joo Chiat was then designated a conservation area in July 1993, and in December that year another 191 buildings of the Modern style were gazetted for conservation. In February 2011, the National Heritage Board designated Joo Chiat as Singapore’s first Heritage Town. The award provided funding for the area to develop heritage and community activities.
In the early 2000s, a proliferation of bars, hourly-rate hotels, karaoke lounges and massage parlours had appeared on Joo Chiat Road, which gave the area a reputation for sleaze. Concerned about an increase in activities such as prostitution, fights and public drunkenness, residents formed the Save Joo Chiat Working Group in 2004. The group lobbied the government on law and order issues and licences for businesses associated with the vice trade, and formed a community watch. Tighter law enforcement and a moratorium on new licences for bars, lounges and massage parlours in Joo Chiat then resulted in a number of these businesses closing and a reduction in vice.
The cleanup of Joo Chiat and renewed interest in the heritage of the area brought a new wave of redevelopment in the late 2000s. New businesses such as art galleries, design studios, upmarket retail outlets, boutique hotels and eateries emerged, while a number of shophouses were restored and new condominiums built.
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Information in this article is valid as at 2012 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
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