Emerging Design Districts: Jalan Besar (Singapore)

Chye Seng Huat Hardware used to be a neighborhood hardware store in Jalan Besar. Today it serves Third Wave coffee. This conversion is symbolic of how rapidly this industrial area has changed. Together with the design-store-cum-craft- workshop space The General Co above the café, the building has become a landmark of Jalan Besar’s retooling by Singapore’s emerging creative economy.

Just two metro stops east of Singapore’s historic center, City Hall, or a 15-minute drive from the picturesque Marina Bay waterfront, Jalan Besar was swampland that developed as the former colonial town expanded in the late nineteenth century. First home to mills, abattoirs, and brick kilns, the area evolved in the twentieth century with an industrial community that built rows of Art Deco shop houses still standing today. Many have now been creatively repurposed.

Since Chye Seng Huat (which means “to flourish”) opened two summers ago, the neighborhood has percolated with a slew of cafés and creative outfits. Affordable rents at the city’s edge are the draw, but so is the history, culture, and grit. New establishments are nestled amid traditional kopitiams (coffee shops) and workshops left over from Singapore’s yesteryear. At night, the neighborhood features a lively mix of supper spots and dodgy karaoke bars—Little India’s 24-hour Mustafa Centre shopping mall is just a short walk away.

Flanked by the four-lane Jalan Besar (Malay for “big road”) and Rochor River, this neighborhood is a kind of drip-coffee cone, filtering a creative brew into Singapore’s commercial and cultural center. Will it last? By the end of the year, Lavender Food Square Centre, Jalan Besar’s iconic late-night food emporium since the 1980s, will make way for a commercial development that real estate agents are already promoting as “hip.”

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