Once carpeted by large swathes of sugarcane plantations in the mid-19th century, Balestier today is known for a much sturdier resource: its glorious patchwork of historical architecture. Walk its streets, and you’ll find 1930s-era shophouses in the “Singapore Eclectic” style, wherein glazed floral European motifs and Chinese-style figurines festoon the building, and distinctive Art Deco shophouses from the 1950s. In 2003, the neighborhood was designated a conservation area by the Urban Redevelopment Authority. But as always, the city moves along at its rapid pace, with the new encroaching upon the old. Today, heritage buildings sit alongside sleek edifices like Ramada and Days Hotels Singapore and Zhongshan Park, while boutique coffee bars ply their trade beside lighting shops and historic bakeries.
Lam Yeo Coffee Powder Factory
A sepia-toned vision of coffee culture, this stalwart has been purveying its kopi blends – the uniquely Singaporean concoction of beans roasted with margarine and sugar – since 1959. Not much has seemed to change since then. Vintage coffee grinders still sit on the shelves. Giant sacks of beans are stacked, two-men-high, at the back of the store. Customers who have been coming since day one still pop by for their regular orders. On a recent afternoon, Tan Bong Heong, son of Lam Yeo’s founder Tan Thian Kang, sat in the store. “We get over 2,000 orders every day,” he said. And no wonder. Not to be left behind by the times, the family-run shop has also stocked up on modern gourmet coffee. Tan has passed the baton to Benny Tan, his son. With a third-generation’s keen eye for trends, Benny has broadened Lam Yeo’s repertoire. Among the store’s legacy blends, one can now find newer ones from Brazil, Ethiopia, Colombia and even South Africa – enough to rival the latest third wave joint.
328 Balestier Road
Original Herbal Shop
Along the area’s ubiquitous five-foot ways, you’ll find another remnant of days gone by: the Original Herbal Shop. Recognisable by the huge bronze dispensers that grace its entrance, the decades-old store is famous for gui leng gao, a traditional dessert from Wuzhou, China. Made with 18 natural herbs, the black jelly – best eaten with a generous drizzle of sugar syrup – purports to be a panacea for ailing modern bodies, curing everything from indigestion to a spotty complexion. If medicinal desserts aren’t your thing, never fear – more mainstream options such as mango sago are also available.
414 Balestier Road
Loong Fatt Tau Sar Piah
Since 1948, the bakery has been churning out hundreds of these flaky bean paste cookies each day. Coming in “sweet” and “salty”, these pastries set themselves apart from competitors with a supremely flaky, light crust. The secret is simple: butter. Come early, as the bakery closes when it sells out for the day. “It’s the oldest tau sar piah shop in the area, and I’ve frequented it since young,” says Ramada and Days Hotels Singapore at Zhongshan Park’s chef Lim. “It retains old-school vibes and I feel nostalgic each time I patronise the shop.”
639 Balestier Road
(Photo credit: Tan Wei Te)