Every trip to Singapore, there is always something new to check out. Whether it is a new hotel, a new mall, a new restaurant, casino or garden, you can be assured the landscape of the Lion City would have been altered since your last visit. After living in Singapore for three years, I had mixed emotions about all the changes. Why favor something new, when you loved the “old” it offered. After all, Singapore is only marking its 50th birthday in August, so old is fairly relative.
I do love Tiong Bahru, Singapore’s oldest residential estate. The 1930’s art deco buildings still stand erect in Tiong Bahru, only five-minute taxi ride to Orchard. Its name is a hybrid of Hokkien and Malay, meaning new cemetery. It was once a burial ground, but in the past five years or so new life awakened in Tiong Bahru. It isnow the preferred address of the creative types and artsy expats. It has also emerged as a dining destination with hip cafes and restaurants sprouting out here.
Tiong Bahru was my last address in Singapore. I shared a flat across the market with my friend Isabel, a Tiong Bahru resident since 2007. But it was cut short by my move to Hong Kong. My happy concession was to stay with Isabel, with every visit to Singapore. With every visit, I discover another facet of Tiong Bahru. I wrote articles for CNNGo and Flavours Magazine Malaysia on this town. At one point, Isabel had one fear, it might lead to the rise in real estate prices. And her fears were realized, and I feel guilty for having contributed to this. Isabel left her home in Tiong Bahru last February 14, ending an eight-year love affair with this neighborhood.
Living and visiting Tiong Bahru many times, I’d like to share ten things I love about Tiong Bahru:
1. The old fashioned charm
The art deco walk-up buildings, the sound of mahjong tiles being mixed around, and its residents living here for decades make for a lovely contrast to the ever changing nearby CBD.
2. Tiong Bahru Market
The best thing about our flat was living across the street from Tiong Bahru. It has evolved from two-shop houses before the war, to a larger hut, to a wooden structure to its current building completed in 2006. The second floor’s food stalls and coffee shops have vendors selling here for 30 years now. My favorites include Teck Seng Soya Bean, always a long queue here in the morning with kind Lock TengSeng and wife continuing what his father started in the 1950’s. Tiong Bahru Pao’s are must, for the Char Siew Pao, a tradition dating back to 1960s’. For lunch, head to stall 02-31 for Pork Ribs Prawn Noodle, with the crunch pork fat and extremely delicious shrimp broth I absolutely love!
3. Bird Singing Corner
One of the assignments I did for Timeout Singapore was to cover the revival of the bird-singing corner next to Link Hotel. I woke up extra early on a Sunday morning to cover this story. I rushed at six in the morning to the corner of Tiong Bahru Road and Seng Poh road is the bird-singing corner. It is a sight to see grown men, holding birdcages covered in batik fabric. In the past, the bird corner was located across the street. It is now a boutique hotel called Nostalgia.
4. Art & History
Take a stroll around the neighborhood and walk to Seng Poh Garden. You will find the Dancing Girl, a sculpture by Lim Nang Sang, same man behind the famed Merlion.
5. Small shops, bookstores, and boutiques
While you can easily purchase your books and clothes online, I personally prefer touching actual things before buying them. The scent of new books also excites me.
In the age of online shopping, I welcome Tiong Bahru’s small shops. Books Actually has an excellent selection of books, curated by booklover Kenny Leck. Kenny is always in the store, along with his beloved cats: Cake and Pico. Take a trip to memory lane in the bookstore’s back room with toys and icons from our childhood like White Rabbit and collectible Pez candy containers.
6. Plain Vanilla
The first time I saw this cupcake store,I thought I had landed on a feel good magazine page. Two little girls shared the wooden swing in front of the store. Baby blue bicycles with wicker baskets, jugs of ice water with lemon slices, and wooden benches greeted me. They are all things sweet and nice, and I haven’t even entered the store. Inside the shop, Vanessa Kenchington, a Singaporean lawyer turned baker and her team produce a dozen different cupcakes daily. Earl Grey & Lavender, Strawberry White Chocolate, Chocolate Hazelnut, and Salted Caramel are a few of their bestsellers.
7. Coffee, Coffee, Coffee
There is no shortage of cafes in Tiong Bahru offering the Australian coffee culture. We are talking flat whites, brunches, and yes, five-dollar coffees. You are not lacking in choices from: Forty Hands Café, Orange Thimble (a former sewing supplies shop turned café) and The Dispensary with antique pharmacy cabinets still intact.
Although there are residents of Tiong Bahru who prefer the classic Coffee shops in the market selling one-dollar Kopitiam coffee fixes.
8. Por kee
From the time Isabel and I first ate at Por Kee Eating House at Block 69, 01-02 Seng Poh Lane, it instantly became our happy place. We return over and over for Champagne Pork Ribs, Cereal Prawns, and Homemade Beancurd. I was sad when it closed in 2013, but happy that they opened seven months later.
9. Tiong Bahru Bakery
I do have a sweet tooth. Sure, I can give up rice and cut down on my carbs, but I find it extremely challenging to say no to Tiong Bahru Bakery’s perfectly flaky Orange Croissant with a secret candied orange inside. They serve French breads, baguettes, Kougn Aman, and many other irresistible French style breads. So I don’t bother resisting the tempting breads at Tiong Bahru Bakery. I simply wake up early, go for a run by river, do several burpees and mountain climbers, work up a sweat, then allow myself a decadent breakfast at this hip bakery. Thumbs up on their coffee, too!
10. Tiong Bahru Heritage Tours
Perhaps, the greatest charm of Tiong Bahru is the strong community spirit. Locals or expats, they come together and do things like work on the community garden or have a drink. Kelvin Ang, leads a group of 20 residents who volunteer to lead heritage trails, every first Saturday of the month. Despite all the new additions to this neighborhood making it a favorite hipster hangout, these residents are committed to celebrate its heritage.