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Tiong Bahru — Then And Now

We thought our neighbourhood had changed a lot in the time we have lived here, but it turns out that is nothing!

I first moved to Singapore at the beginning of 2008 and bar the exception of sleeping on my now brother-in-law’s bedroom floor for the first couple of months, Anna and myself have since spent our entire time here living in the neighbourhood of Tiong Bahru. When we first moved here, Tiong Bahru was a very different place to what it is now; it was far less built up, only just small neighbourhood stores selling cheap hardware and dusty, canned groceries, and there were only a handful of foreigners in the area, plus a rooster walking around. Fast-forward almost 13 years and this neck of the woods is completely gentrified with quite a few new high-rise condominiums, hipster-run cafes opening up all the time, speakeasies, restaurants covering all cuisines, food preferences and allergies, as well as art galleries, record stores, and probably one of the largest expat communities in Singapore. If that’s how much the place has changed in a bit over a decade, it’s unimaginable the transformation through which the oldest housing estate in the country has gone must be perceived by the countless senior citizens who still call the place home. Seriously, there is a ton of them still around and they would barely recognise the tiny enclave where they spent their childhood.
A little about the background of the place courtesy of our friends at Wikipedia:

In 1927, 70 acres of land were acquired by Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) as a test case for public housing estate. This land was Tiong Bahru, a term translated from the Hokkien and Malay tongue as “tomb” and “new” respectively. The land was hilly and swampy, with ‘squatters of the pig-breeding and coolie types’. To build the first ever public housing estate of Singapore, the SIT had to remove cemeteries and displace some nearly 2000 squatters, while leveling the hilly terrain by cutting the hills nearly.

The first block of SIT flats, block 55, was ready in December 1936. Its 20 flat units of the total 28 flat units were occupied by 11 families then. It had adopted a similar typology to the shophouse where the ground floor consisted of shops with residential flats above. According to Tan Mok Lee, one of the first residents in the estate, the area was peaceful and had quite many empty flats, due to the costly monthly rent of $25 at that time.

Tiong Bahru is now seen as a hotspot for millennials who enjoy the old nostalgic vibes of the area. It attracts a good number of high-income residential population due to its close proximity to the CBD, while retaining a traditional Singapore charm. There is a thriving art community in the district, with murals and art-centric shops in the area.

That may not be all that interesting to everyone, but when we first moved into an old apartment owned by Anna’s uncle, he mentioned this little tidbit, one that I also brought up in my previous post, which is definitely worth noting:

Tiong Bahru was then also known as Mei Ren Wo (“den of beauties”) as it was where wealthy men would keep their mistresses. Due to close proximity to the Great World Amusement Park, there was a predominance of ‘pipa girls’ within the SIT estate, which refers to a more polite term for prostitutes. It was speculated that the pipa girls use the staircase access at the back of the flats to entertain the men, and flee whenever the men’s wives return.

I don’t think the phrase “wealthy men” is referring to the same demographic as it would now. Back in those days it wouldn’t be guys working in finance, or even doctors or lawyers that had their piece on side staying here, it was more than likely these guys (spelling and grammar corrected where possible from original text):

Tiong Ba Lu (Tiong Bahru), Ang Shua (Redhill), Aw Kio Tao (Havelock/Beo Crescent),and Ho Chwee Shua (Bukit Ho Swee) were notorious gangster areas which also had some influence in Brickworks Estate (ABC), where there were occasional incidents of gang fights and rumours of impending fights. Ordinary people were uneasy hearing the names of these places, especially in the Hokkien dialect.
Large red police trucks known as “Ang Chia” in Hokkien were a common sight. The Ang Chia police and the “Umpai”, a Hokkien name for plain clothes, usually big belly detectives, were fearsome forces to the gangsters who would disperse upon seeing their arrival. Some gangsters who had tattoos on their bare body were medium, usually possessing the “Guang Kong” character, the fierce warrior in Chinese history. Tattoos were done manually using a needle heated up over fire-in-can, dipped into the colour liquid, and the needle poked on the flesh to create the desired design.

So, why am I telling you all of this? Because a few months ago Anna found a Facebook page, Daily Quote Singapore, that had just uploaded a whole heap of old photos from around the neighbourhood so she forwarded a bunch to me. The photographs were fascinating, because although we recognised a lot of the places in them, we weren’t seeing them through the same eyes as when we walk around our home. I was bored during the Circuit Breaker period, Singapore’s 10-week mandatory lockdown period to help curb the spread of Covid-19; no shops or restaurants were open, only ‘essential services’, however, we were still able to leave the house so I donned my mandatory face mask and took to the nearby streets to try and recreate some of the shots. The vibe of some of the newer images may seem a little post-apocalyptic though, because despite the normally bustling nature of Singapore and indeed Tiong Bahru, there were very few people out and about back when these were taken toward the end of May, 2020. Hopefully this serves as a cool little history lesson and I’ll add the actual year to the original photograph if I can find it, but if you’re just scrolling through the photos and don’t particularly care about the backstory, just keep an eye on little things like the city skyline in the background, the size of the trees in the foreground, that type of thing. Enjoy!

Bird Corner

These pictures were both taken from the junction of Tiong Bahru Road and Seng Poh Road, looking from the Nostalgia Hotel (more on that soon) toward what was once referred to as the Bird Corner: 

Across Tiong Bahru Road from the Bird Corner is actually where its origins lay; in the location that is now the Nostalgia Hotel was a pet store where birdcages were hung out the front, attracting many passersby. In the early 1980s the owners of what was then the Wah Heng coffee shop decided to capitalise on the attraction and give actual bird owners living in the HDB apartments above a place to hang their cages and enjoy a coffee and a chat over the screeching and squawking of their feathered friends so they installed this metal structure outside. The Bird Corner became a well-know spot in the neighbourhood and was apparently always crowded, however, sadly the newer image isn’t so much the result of the lockdown; the Wah Heng coffee shop is long gone, the apartments are now part of the Link Hotel and the original birdcage structure has been torn down and replaced with smaller, more structurally-sound token effort called the Tiong Bahru Bird Arena. As long as I have lived here, I have rarely seen a cage hanging there, if so just one or two if you’re lucky:

Link Hotel

The Bird Corner joined to the end of one of the buildings that make up the now Link Hotel, running along Tiong Bahru Road so the next logical step would be to take a closer look at those buildings:

I mentioned that the Wah Heng coffee shop was a part of an HDB apartment building, but what is HDB you may ask? Well, here‘s the lowdown:

The Housing & Development Board is the statutory board of the Ministry of National Development responsible for public housing in Singapore. It was established in 1960 to replace the colonial-era Singapore Improvement Trust.

HDB is credited with clearing the squatters and slums, and resettling residents into low-cost state-built housing in the 1960s. By 2019, 78.7% of Singaporeans live in public residential developments, ranging from studio units to executive condominiums provided by the HDB, a major factor in Singapore having one of the highest home-ownership rates – over 90% of the resident population – in the world.

Two particular art-deco HDB apartment buildings were converted into the boutique Link Hotel, which opened in 2007. The colour scheme had changed while the buildings were still apartments as is evident in the pictures above, and admittedly, the hotel tried to keep the exterior of the building true to its original form, making only minor changes such as building in the balconies and replacing the trees out the front with palms. Furthermore, the interior pays respect with a lot of birdcage-shaped hanging ornaments and lights, possibly due to its construction causing massive disruptions to the bird corner, however, when it was an HDB I doubt the shops at the bottom would’ve contained Japanese restaurants and craft beer stores. Also, Tiong Bahru Road itself is a lot wider than it used to be too.

The Link Hotel got its name because it has its own overpass linking to another building further down on the opposite side of Tiong Bahru Road. As for the HDB apartments that became the second building, they also received little change to the exterior and the rooms themselves only received a general upgrade to become the more affordable wing of the Link Hotel and some have also been used as private offices, however, as of the coronavirus outbreak, this building has been used to quarantine migrant workers. The overpass can be made out toward the far end of the building in the more recent photograph:

Walk-Up HDBs

One of the icons of the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood are the art deco-style walk-up buildings, some of which are privately owned, but most of which are HDB. in fact, even the private buildings are technically governed by HDB, but lets take a look at the ones that fall solely under the banner of “government housing”, the example below being on Moh Guan Terrace:

The walk-up HDBs in Tiong Bahru aren’t the oldest, but they are still among some of the more established buildings in all of Singapore and here’s how they came to be:

After the Second World War, SIT built several blocks of four-storey flats between 1948 and 1954, which can be seen around Lim Liak Road and along Seng Poh Road northwards toward Tiong Bahru Road and Boon Tiong Road. The design of these post-war flats in Tiong Bahru was done by SIT’s Senior Architect Lincoln Page and Robert FN Kan, the first locally-born person to be appointed assistant architect and town planner in SIT. Page and Kan favoured the International Style of design which was inspired by mechanical simplicity and structure. One important characteristic of the International Style is the use of boxes to carve out the interior space of the building. Lines are clean and simple, giving the building a modern yet functional look.

These buildings are extremely popular now, with people traveling from all parts of the country to get a photograph in front of them. In fact, we sold our walk-up apartment on Tiong Bahru Road at the beginning of the year, but when it was on the market most of the viewers just wanted to see what they were like on the inside with no interest in buying. However, that wasn’t always the case as they were initially critiqued as being ugly and sterile, with some deeming them “unliveable”, although the response is far more positive now with people likening them to ships due to some having rounded, protruding stairwells with portholes. Very few changes have been made to the buildings, except for the balconies being built in, the colour of the poles and trim being changed from grey to orange and then back to grey again, and the roofs currently undergoing replacement, as can be seen in some of the photos. Unless, of course, you include the direction that traffic flows past these ones along Lim Liak Street:

A lot of the streets where the walk-up HDBs are located join Kim Pong Road, and across the road was an area that was just grassland with a small canal down the middle. The canal was deep with a bridge over it, but it still managed to flood often in the torrential rain during the monsoon and the grassland was full of toads and their deafening chorus at night, while during the dryer months it was a popular location for mourning Chinese families to hold their funerals. That soggy, toad-infested, grassy plot of vacant land soon became too valuable to leave so construction began and only a couple of years ago our current, temporary abode while we await our renovations to be completed, opened on that very spot, the Highline Residences:

But these walk-up HDBs weren’t the first of their kind in the neighbourhood, not by a long shot.

Private Walk-Up Apartments

These apartments were among the first constructed in Tiong Bahru in an effort to conquer overcrowding in what was once burial grounds and swampy, mosquito-infested farmland situated near the newly-relocated Singapore General Hospital. The poor sanitation in the area at the time only compounded problems, making the entire area somewhat of a health hazard so something needed to be done. A quick lowdown on how that was achieved:

It was then in 1925 that the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), precursor to the modern Housing Development Board (HDB), spearheaded an improvement scheme initiated by the colonial government. Formed in 1927, the SIT aimed to solve the problem of overcrowding by building new homes for the settlers already living in the area, and tackle sanitation by building a new drainage system. Land acquisition for these housing projects began in 1928, followed by the levelling of hills and filling of swampy grounds with sand. Infrastructure, including roads, drains and culverts, was also added. Meanwhile, the graves in both Teong Lama and Tiong Bahru were exhumed by 1930 and moved to Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Work on 72 acres of land was completed by 1931, but attempts by the SIT to sell it to private developers failed due to a negative economic outlook. It was only in 1936 that the SIT elected to develop Tiong Bahru Estate by itself. In December 1936, the first block of SIT flats (numbered Block 55) were completed. Today, it stands at the intersection of Tiong Bahru Road and Tiong Poh Road. Construction continued even up until the outbreak of World War II, and by 1941, 784 flats had been built to house a population of 6,000.

The art-deco style of these apartment buildings was very popular at the time and still is today, plus they have been designed to be beneficial for living in the tropics with high ceilings and air able to flow freely through the individual apartments. As mentioned earlier, at first Tiong Bahru was a very affluent neighbourhood when the first SIT blocks opened, however, this changed not long after during the Japanese occupation of Singapore when the property values decreased and more middle-class families could afford to live there and the area thrived. The first apartment we lived in was a private one on Chay Yan Street and we have recently purchased one on Tiong Poh Road that we are currently renovating from its original form so click that link if you want to see how the interiors originally looked.

In some instances the only change in the private apartments is the size of the surrounding vegetation such as this one on Moh Guan Terrace, located on the opposite side of the same horseshoe-shaped building where we first lived:

When I say little has changed, I mean that exact same stall in both of those photographs, Hua Bee Restaurant, still operates today with unchanged signage, decor, and still selling the exact same kaya toast, kopi, and mee pok (fishball noodles) as it has for the past 70 years. There is one tiny difference now, however; if you enter the same place these days, but through the back door in the carpark you are in Bincho, a modern yakitori joint, something that probably wasn’t a particularly popular choice just a few years removed from the Japanese occupation when Hua Bee first opened.

Some of the private walk-up apartments still have shops on the ground floor, such as these ones along Seng Poh Road, again relatively unchanged:

Sure, many of the balconies have been built in again and the 7-11 and the cupcake place aren’t that old, in fact Little House of Dreams was a really good char siew stall that had been run by the same guy for decades when we first moved here, but I guess the rent got too much so he moved. The most glaring difference besides the enormous condominiums in the background would be what’s across the road, which brings us to…

Tiong Bahru Market

Most communities in Singapore are close to a wet market — a market that sells meat, seafood, poultry, as well as fruit and vegetables, plus they also tend to have stalls around that sell items such as cheap clothes, used electronics, aquarium equipment, and knock-off toys. Add to these the countless hawker centres with individual stalls serving up cheap dishes that are on almost every major street, often several of them, and the centrepiece of this neighbourhood is the Tiong Bahru Market. This multi-storey building has the wet market and stalls on the ground floor with a massive hawker centre upstairs, but it hasn’t been in its current form all that long:

In 1945, two house shops were sacrificed to build a wet market on the Tiong Poh Road. The market was named after the Hokkien merchant and shipping magnate, Khoo Tiong Poh (1830 – 1892). However, the space in the market was too small to accommodate all the hawkers who desired a space.

In 1955, the Tiong Bahru Market (Seng Poh Market) was constructed under the auspices of the National Environment Agency after some hawkers moved to an open area on Seng Poh Road.

The market was constructed of stalls with a simple wooden frame and zinc pitched roofs. Meats were hung without refrigeration. The Tiong Bahru market catered to the residents of the Tiong Bahru, Bukit Merah and Henderson estates. Heritage street foods such as lor mee, chwee kueh, Hokkien mee, pao, porridge, and roast pork were available in the market as well as a diverse number of goods for sale from textiles to flowers. Bartering for the best price was common.

There were a lot issues when it came to infrastructure with the original market, namely space. There wasn’t enough room for everyone who wanted a hawker stall so some simply opened up illegal stalls out the front, resulting in frequent police raids and sometimes even brawls! Something had to be done:

In 1993 and 2004, improvements were made to the market including a watertight roof, brighter lights, a broader walkway and garden lights. In 2004, the market was closed for two years for rebuilding. Stall holders were relocated to a temporary site on Kim Pong Road during this time. In 2006, the new market opened. It was a concrete two storey structure with a wet market and retail stalls on the ground floor and upstairs, an area for hawkers.

I go to Tiong Bahru Market to eat quite often, however, I don’t venture into the wet market area that much due to the crowds, the language barrier between some of the older stall-holders and myself, as well as the overwhelming smell of fish as it gets later in the day. Apparently a lot of older people miss the atmosphere and vibrancy of the old market, but one thing needs to be said about the current building; hygiene and sanitation are at a far higher standard than they once were. The entrance as it once was and how it stands now (image source: Channel News Asia)

Here is the view of the old Market from the aforementioned Seng Poh Road, taken while undergoing renovations. From this same angle all you see today is the entrance to the carpark as the main pedestrian entrance is on the corner of Lim Liak Street:

As I mentioned, I don’t really go into the wet market all that much, but Anna does occasionally and I think it’s safe to say we are definitely more comfortable buying food from there today compared to how it was in the past. On the other hand, the stalls on the same floor have changed very little and the same can also be said of the fashion as well. In fact, that may have even got worse!:

Now, I do buy food in the hawker centre upstairs quite often and I realised something while I was recreating photos up there; I had pictures of two of the stalls from the original hawker centre so I wanted to capture what was at those exact stall numbers today. To my surprise, of the 100s of times I’ve ordered food at the market, probably about 90% of the time I’ve ordered from the same two stalls and the one that I’ve ordered from the most, Hong Heng Fried Sotong Prawn Mee, has always been a part of the market, or at least the same dish has. I guess that explains why the cook’s mother still works in the stall. My other favourite is Joo Chiat Beef King so I added that for good measure, because the two Lor Mee stalls were closed when I was getting the photos, but the owners of both of the beef noodle and prawn mee stalls are really cool, know my order, and just smile and start making it when they see me arrive. I’m also pretty confident I can make plans for the following day after eating there now without being in the immediate proximity of a bathroom, but in the past? Maybe not so much:

The rebuilding of the Tiong Bahru Market may have taken two years and come at a cost of S$16.8 million (US$12.37 million), but it was worth every cent. However, the market isn’t the only building that has undergone a major makeover.

After World War II and the Japanese occupation of Singapore, the buildings in Tiong Bahru were repainted back from the wartime camouflage to their original white exterior, the prisoners-of-war were freed, and the soldiers’ brothels and gambling dens were largely shut down. As previously noted, it was around this time that property values in the neighbourhood had plummeted so many people took advantage of the situation and flocked to the cheaper housing, resulting in Tiong Bahru being the first neighbourhood in Singapore to enjoy new amenities such as:

Tiong Bahru Community Centre

The idea of a community centre was first proposed at a meeting in July, 1948 and was unanimously agreed upon with local citizens concluding that “a community centre is most desirable to further the moral, cultural, physical and advancement of the residents of Tiong Bahru”. It took several years for the idea to come to fruition, but in July, 1951 the Tiong Bahru Community Centre was officially opened on Eu Chin Street in what was originally a stand alone air-raid shelter and it was an instant hit with 13,000 members signing up in the first six weeks alone to watch films at the open-air cinema and go dancing among other forms of entertainment, as well as the centre assisting with funerals and providing ambulance and civil defence training. There was also a basketball court, football field, and even a cheap barbershop. However, things didn’t go particularly smoothly as the centre was mismanaged and quickly become a notorious underground gambling den for the locals, resulting in the Department of Social Welfare forcing its closure in 1956, citing the centre was being used for ‘unlawful purposes’. Now that strip of Eu Chin Street is a back alley behind what will soon be our new home, but the original $20,000 community centre still stands:

But why keep a tiny community centre building that was only open for five years situated in what now amounts to a small carpark in a back alley? Because works began on a larger, revamped community centre that was to be managed by that very same Department of Social Welfare that closed the original and it was officially opened in 1960, eventually evolving into the giant Tiong Bahru Community Centre that stands directly in front of the original building that now serves as the centre’s administrative offices, library, and classrooms. The entrance to the current community centre, just a portion of the building and its facilities:

King’s Theatre

Another amenity gifted to the area was King’s Theatre, built in the 1950s and situated on the corner of Kim Tian Road and Moh Guan Terrace. Going to see a movie back in the day was one of the most popular pastimes so black and white Cantonese films, as well as Taiwanese dramas were big hits there among viewers, while some of the current stallholders at the Tiong Bahru Market were street hawkers out the front of the theatre, selling food and candy. That all sounds like a blast, but patrons still had to be on guard, because the theatre was also apparently a notorious gangster hangout. King’s Theatre closed in 1984 and was demolished to make way for other developments, both commercial and now residential, eventuating in the Regency Suites condominium:

In closing, a lot has changed in Tiong Bahru. Some of the older residents more than likely miss the ardor of the old Seng Poh Road Market, hanging out at the original Bird Corner, catching a movie at King’s Theatre, or possibly even some underground gambling at the Community Centre. Some things remain completely untouched, such as the original housing designs and stalls like Hua Bee Restaurant that have served the exact same comfort food for generations. Then there are things that have improved for the better, such as the removal of slums, gangsters and illegal activity, improvements in hygiene standards at hawker centres and most other eating establishments, and infrastructure improvements including the MRT station and much shorter waiting times for buses:

This one we can all agree on

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9 Comments on Tiong Bahru — Then And Now

  1. Joo chat beef king..the best noodles in Singapore..

  2. If u consider SIT as HDB’s predecessor then some of the houses are indeed the oldest public housing estate in SG, if I’m not wrong. If u want to ignore SIT and consider only estates built by its successor HDB, then yes, the housing estates are not the oldest HDB public housing.

    Just thought to add my thoughts here

  3. Simon Killen // January 30, 2021 at 5:24 am // Reply

    Thanks so much for all that work. I cannot believe how you’ve documented my Tiong Bahru so well. I have been stopping over to and from Australia and Europe for decades now, and fall a little more in love with Singapore each time – but the discovery of Tiong Bahru really sealed the deal.

    I’ve stayed in Hotel Nostalgia dozens of times, nice to see the swimming pool in your photos. I often swim some very short laps, and then stand a while in the water watching life rush past through the plexiglass. I feel very grateful to be so close to the market, I am trying to eat and drink from every stall before I die 🙂 COVID has put paid to that idea for a little while.

    Bincho is an absolute blast, though a very special treat kind of restaurant for sure. My most favourite thing in Tiong Bahru is Books Actually, from which I have purchased many books by Singaporean writers that help flesh out my thoughts and feelings about Singapore.

    • Dr. Tan's Travels // January 30, 2021 at 9:52 am // Reply

      Thank you very much, I’m glad you enjoyed it! Unfortunately Books Actually has recently closed, apparently a gym is going in there.

      • I’m sure they will turn up elsewhere. But what a sad situation. They brought so much to the neighbourhood. True innovators and leaders.

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