With its blend of traditional shophouses and trendy cafes, Tiong Bahru is high on tourists’ must-visit lists for its Instagrammable dishes and building-side murals. But it’s also a microcosm of Singapore history, particularly the last century, as well as a hub of heritage trails and hidden green spaces. StraitsJourneys expert Dr. Tai Wei Lim said it best when he described Tiong Bahru as the historical bridge between pre-war, post-war and post-independent Singapore.
The exact origins of the neighborhood are murky but according to Dr. Lim, the term ‘Tiong Bahru’ was first mentioned in a 1868 newspaper. The name is derived from the Hokkien “tiong”, meaning “to die” or “in the end”, and the Malay “bahru”, meaning “new”, due to the cemeteries in the area that were newer than those in Chinatown. However, all graves were exhumed by 1930, not long after the Tiong Bahru housing estate was constructed by the Singapore Improvement Trust, an entity of the British colonial authority and the predecessor of today’s Housing Development Board.
Tiong Bahru is the oldest public housing estate in Singapore. Typical for flats of the 1920s and 30s, it was deliberately designed to resemble transportation from that era (trains, propeller planes, cruise ships). Dr. Lim, who leads guided walks through the hidden spaces of Tiong Bahru, pointed out that there is a corner in the neighborhood from which one can see a HDB built in every decade since 1920, like a tasting course of Singapore’s architecture. Gentrification is a cycle. Over the years, Tiong Bahru has been home to various of waves of residents: British civil servants, the Peranakans and Chinese, the mistresses of the wealthy, and celebrities and expats now.
The neighborhood became hip and trendy just after World War II, then lost its exclusivity in the 1950s, when new housing blocks were built. Growing with the crowds, the neighborhood’s small collection of hawker stalls expanded to become the Seng Poh Road Market in 1951. This simple wooden building housed over 200 hawkers selling everything from raw poultry and vegetables to cooked meals, and remained largely unchanged until the early 2000s, when it was torn down for complete redevelopment. The Tiong Bahru Market and Food Centre was completed and opened in 2006.
Unsurprisingly, Tiong Bahru’s food scene is still vibrant, a blend of local and foreign. There are Australian-style coffee shops alongside a yong tau foo place that serves taxi drivers from 11:30pm to 2am, and famous gems like the market and Tiong Bahru Bakery pin it all together. Similarly, the streets remain chock full of old and new sights, from Tan Tock Seng’s tomb and the country’s oldest Thai temple, to the Singapore literature focused Books Actually and the one-of-a-kind expensive cars that parade through. Though just a few streets, it’s easy to see that Tiong Bahru contains the heart of Singapore.
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An Irish-American residing in Singapore, Laura Jane O’Gorman Schwartz is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Shanghai Literary Review.
Photo of shophouses copyright : Christopher Howey