Russel Wong, the man behind indelible images of A-listers such as Tom Cruise, Richard Gere and Chow Yun Fat, has lived and worked in glamorous cities all over the world in his 35-year career as a photographer. Yet, it’s the Katong of the ’60s that the 53-year-old speaks most fondly of. He spent his childhood cycling around the neighbourhood and playing soccer at community centres. A day would typically end with him at a hawker stall.
“This was a Peranakan enclave where everyone knew everyone,” he says. “It’s a little village and the only connection to town was the Merdeka Bridge. If you’re lucky, you’ll go there maybe once a month.”
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But growing up in a Peranakan community was like living in a bubble, he added. “I thought everyone in Singapore were like the people in Katong – that everyone spoke Malay, everyone ate nyonya food. But when I went to town, I realised, wow, we’re different.”
That once tightly-knit community is diluted today as Peranakan children stopped learning Malay in school and the conserved shophouses along East Coast Road that once housed Peranakan businesses are occupied by chic cafes, big-brand eateries and shopping malls.
“It’s so watered down now,” says Wong. “There are pockets still but it’s not the same. I know communities change but I walk into a shop now and don’t know anyone. It’s… weird.”
Today, he keeps in touch with his heritage through its food culture. He insists on having only authentic Peranakan laksa from Janggut Laksa, the actual stall that transformed Katong into a household name. Its original location was taken over by British-themed cafe Rabbit Carrot Gun, but is now located at Roxy Square. “Peranakan laksa has proper rempah (spice mix). It’s more generous and balanced. Other places just sell spicy coconut milk,” he says.
“People tell me, ‘Wow, you’ve shot celebrities and all’, but I tell you this: I think I’m more local than a lot of people,” he says with a chuckle. “You can take the boy out of the kampung but you can’t take the kampung out of the boy.”