SIF-Singapore Magazine: On a little street in Singapore

Singapore International Foundation has just published this report about Tiong Bahru (in their quarterly Singapore Magazine) in which they quoted me:

On a little street in Singapore

October 1, 2010

Village life has all but disappeared in Singapore, swallowed up by the island's urban sprawl. If pressed, Singaporeans will name 'Buangkok' and 'Pulau Ubin', although for how long these two villages will exist, no one can tell.


Lived in, but still unique: these Tiong Bahru flats have underground storage and shelters

Village life has all but disappeared in Singapore, swallowed up by the island's urban sprawl. If pressed, Singaporeans will name 'Buangkok' and 'Pulau Ubin', although for how long these two villages will exist, no one can tell.

'Small town Singapore' however still exists, if one knows where to look. By definition, this suburban location must exude a certain homely charm, and be a relatively modern residential area served by mom-and-pop shops.

Tall order? Not if you step into Tiong Bahru. Hidden from the fast changing cityscape of Singapore, and located just minutes away from Chinatown and the hurly-burly of the central business district, it is a 'must-visit' for foodies and architecture enthusiasts.

An Unesco Bid

So unique is Tiong Bahru in Singapore, that university lecturer Adjunct Associate Professor Tan Wee Cheng is hoping it can be listed as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) along with other local culturally important local ones such as Little India, the Civic District and Raffles Hotel.

Having visited a "few hundred World Heritage Sites around the world" Prof Tan, who is also honorary treasurer of the Singapore Heritage Society, has listed spots that warrant UNESCO's attention at

Although not high on that list, Tiong Bahru is still pertinent. As Prof Tan explains, "there is no requirement for any site to be majestic and universally well-known. In fact, apart from about 50 sites such as the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China, the other 850 sites worldwide are familiar only to the people of the country where they are located."

He adds, "What is more important is that a World Heritage Site needs to mean something to human civilisation, that is, possess outstanding universal value.

"Botanic Gardens, our nature reserves, Tiong Bahru and the early housing estates, as well as the historic centre of the port city of Singapore all possess these significance."

In January 2009 he started a Facebook group called UNESCO World Heritage for Singapore! to campaign for Singapore to get itself on the list. It has since attracted some 389 members and is still growing.

Time travel on foot

It takes a slow walk down Tiong Bahru estate to truly appreciate Prof Tan's passion for it. At the heart of the estate is the ubiquitous Tiong Bahru Market, an imposing multi-storey wet market and hawker centre.This was rebuilt in 2006 on the site of the original 1955 market. This behemoth however, is not the draw. Shift your attention to the surrounding areas and it becomes clear that Tiong Bahru is a special place.

The residential buildings within this isolated cluster are distinctively old – in a good way. They exude that characteristic charm that movie sets often fake for celluloid. This neighbourhood however, is the real deal and the architecture is the first thing that will grab your attention.

The construction style of the estate is a mix of Streamline Moderne (a late type of the Art Deco design style which emerged during the 1930s) and local Straits Settlement shophouse architecture. They feature rounded balconies, flat rooftops, spiral staircases, light wells and underground storage and shelters.

IMG_6682Among the 20 blocks of flats and 36 units of shophouses, the tallest are only five stories high, which further adds to that idyllic 'blue-skies-small-town effect' sorely missing in other high-rise modern estates. Tiong Bahru was one of Singapore's first experiments in public housing. Way before the present public housing authority, the Housing and Development Board(HDB) was formed in 1960, this estate was conceived and built by its predecessor, the Singapore Improvement Trust.

Constructed between the 1930s and 1950s, the Tiong Bahru flats were modelled after British towns. A notable feature though is that all its streets are named after Chinese pioneers of the 19th and early 20th centuries such as Lim Liak, Kim Pong, Guan Chuan, Chay Yan etc.

During the pre-World War II years, the estate was a choice residence for the upper class, and also where the rich and powerful kept their mistresses. For this reason, the estate used to be known as Mei Ren Wo ("den of beauties" in Chinese).

The Urban Redevelopment Authority has gazetted the pre-war flats as a conservation area, which means that the flats will not be redeveloped and any renovations that change their exterior façade is disallowed.

Mr Peter Lim, 72, who has lived in the estate since he was three, explains Tiong Bahru's charm.

"It connects with not just residents and former residents, but also with people who live in other areas of Singapore. Visitors to Singapore who have an interest in architecture, social heritage and neighbourhood charm have also been fascinated by Tiong Bahru," says the former editor in chief of The Straits Times.

"Its history encapsulates many of the trials and tribulations of wartime and post-war Singapore, much of the drama and melodrama, the stuff of steamy stories as well as serious sociological studies."

The name Tiong Bahru is derived from two languages, the Hokkien word 'tiong' which means tombs and the Malay word 'bahru', meaning new. The name was most probably coined by the Peranakan community, when a new burial ground was built next to an existing one in nearby Tanjong Pagar.

Face to Sepia

Despite the many accolades, the estate is under threat of eventual dilution. For one, the ever-expanding city limits and new sky-scraping estates are fast encroaching upon Tiong Bahru.

Peter, a life long resident, cautions, "It has conservation status, but we have not gone far enough to restore and preserve the architecture. Aircon compressors and other incongruous fittings have robbed Tiong Bahru of much of its visual charm.

"At a town hall meeting a couple of years ago, one of the younger, newer residents showed us pictures of the Art Deco neighbourhood in Miami. That has the pristine charm that Tiong Bahru sadly lacks."

Peter is of the view that if international recognition for Tiong Bahru as a heritage site is sought, "we need the people and the funds to tidy up the exteriors and the streets, restore the original features that have disappeared and remove the incongruities."

Indeed Tiong Bahru used to be renowned for its bird-singing aviaries, which have now been torn down and replaced by the Link Hotel. Bird lovers had gathered then with their songbirds every morning to catch up with fellow bird lovers over coffee and tea amid crisp, melodious chirps.

The bird corner is now part of the Link Hotel that took over the former block of flats in the mid-2000s. Its attempts to revive the bird corner have yet to become fully successful.

Prof Tan's effort to get Tiong Bahru listed as a World Heritage Site may have some way to go still, but the estate has not gone without some sort of global recognition.

It is the subject of a recent film titled Civic Life: Tiong Bahru by two UK-based filmmakers.

New generation residents


Residents Jacqlyn Cheng and her husband Brando Wong love the estate for its liveliness

The estate today is not just populated by the older generation. Its old-world allure attracts residents of all kinds. Jacqlyn Cheng, 32, and her husband Brando Wong, 34, are an example of true blue Tiong Bahru-ites who represent the new generation.

Television producer Jacqlyn lives with her sound recordist husband and his parents in the very apartment where he was born. She says, "The area is a little eclectic. We have foreign workers, expats, older folks who have lived here for years, and of course the newer generation like myself."

One draw of the estate is its liveliness, she says. "You know how some HDB estates can be a little too quiet at times? In Tiong Bahru, there is constant activity.

"Even at four or six in the morning,there's something going on. The hawkers are getting ready for the day's work."

With any favourite Singapore spot, food inevitably plays a big part in the draw. "Our favourite thing to do in the estate is to eat. There are a lot of eateries in the area and it's all conveniently within walking distance. We love the coffee shop opposite the Monkey God temple," says Jacqlyn.

"It's been there for ages and a great place to walk over on a Sunday morning for some toast and coffee. There's just this air of old-school authenticity to it. You know, feels like home."

She adds, "There's also this famous chwee kueh [steamed rice flour cakes] stall around the corner and the aromas in the morning is fantastic. This place is alive at all times, especially during dinner, when crowds stream in."