Friday, January 30, 2015

The Straits Times : Do S'pore neighbourhoods risk death by cappuccino?

The Straits Times
By Pow Choon Piew
30th January 2015
Trendy cafes have popped up in older estates, such as Tiong Bahru. Gentrification need not be a zero-sum game that pits "winners" (gentrified newcomers) against "losers" (older residents and business owners). With proactive planning and careful management, inclusive forms of gentrification may be possible. -- ST FILE PHOTO 

BY ALL accounts, gentrification should not exist in Singapore, at least not in the conventional sense of the term, which refers to the displacement of a lower-income population from a neighbourhood by new groups of middle and upper class residents.

With an often-lauded public housing programme that accommodates more than 80 per cent of the population in Singapore, the story of residential displacement and eviction due to the vagaries of gentrification "turf wars" seems remote in the city-state.

It is not surprising, then, that gentrification as a term has seldom been invoked in the context of Singapore, be it in official planning documents or academic literature. State housing provision, it is assumed, has provided an effective buffer that keeps gentrification at bay.

But is this starting to change?

In recent years, gentrification has begun to find its way into public discussions, driven by the buoyant real estate market that has seen property prices in some neighbourhoods rising by leaps and bounds.

Last July, the My Community heritage group organised a public symposium on "Queenstown Dilemma: Gentrification Inevitable?", with the aim of fostering debate on how "to improve the community in a way that does not force people out".

Arguably, whether gentrification is occurring in Singapore depends on how the term is defined. To be sure, the meaning of gentrification itself has evolved over time to reflect changing urban dynamics and different property regimes around the world.

For example, distinctions may be drawn between residential and commercial forms of gentrification, the latter referring to the displacement of "traditional" businesses from an urban area due to rent increases.

More recently, the definition of gentrification has also been extended to include upscale office and residential complexes that are built on formerly vacant land and brownfield sites.

So, does this mean that Singapore is facing gentrification?

Going by the broadened definition of gentrification, urban renewal in Singapore during the 1960s undertaken by state agencies, such as the Urban Redevelopment Authority, can be considered as a form of state-led "new build gentrification" that has entailed the relocation of urban populations away from the inner city to new suburban housing estates.

In a similar vein, the "en bloc fever" in many prime neighbourhoods over the past decade can also be seen as a form of property market-led gentrification.

In recent years, commercial forms of gentrification have also made inroads into suburban areas and the HDB heartland such as Jalan Besar, Tiong Bahru and Kampong Glam, where new cafes offering speciality coffees, upmarket bakeries and "indie" shops have rapidly taken over old business establishments, in the process transforming the social-spatial fabric of these places.

A Knight Frank report on "upscale" gentrified neighbourhoods around the world lists Tiong Bahru as one of the top 10 urban markets to watch this year, alongside places such as London's Victoria Park, Hong Kong's Kowloon West and Williamsburg in New York.

Will Singapore's neighbourhoods suffer "death by cappuccino" as more and more such yuppie establishments take root?

Already, we are seeing signs of gentrification fatigue in some of these neighbourhoods. In Tiong Bahru, for example, a walk around the estate readily reveals trendy cafes and chic eateries offering more or less the same fare popping up at the turn of every corner, making one wonder just how many more of such businesses the neighbourhood needs. Even many of these cafe owners are now complaining of "gentrification" by newcomers.

While it is true some of these establishments have injected new life into ageing estates, and some residents may even welcome such changes as they may lead to appreciation in property values, we need to be cautious that these new developments do not excessively drive up the daily cost of living or alter the local identity and heritage of these neighbourhoods to the point that they yield negative net effects in the long run.

Having said that, gentrification need not be a zero-sum game that pits "winners" (gentrified newcomers) against "losers" (older residents and business owners).

With proactive planning and careful management, inclusive forms of gentrification may be possible.

Research has shown that gentrification does not always lead to dismal outcomes, but may, in some cases, improve the living environment and increase employment opportunities.

In a study on New York City, where gentrification forces have been considered to be especially rife, it was found that poor households residing in gentrifying neighbourhoods, such as Harlem, were actually less likely to move away, and that gentrification per se did not cause displacement any more than other factors that result in "normal" residential turnover; though it has to be qualified that proactive planning interventions such as rent regulation are necessary for this to happen.

As Singapore becomes increasingly globalised and cosmopolitan, with neighbourhoods being rapidly transformed in tandem, debates on gentrification are no longer academic but will, in many ways, reflect the kinds of city and urban environment that we want to live in. It is, perhaps, a timely reminder for planners not to place unbridled faith in relying on market forces to find the "right" social mix by allocating spaces only to the highest bidders.

Planners will need to be more interventionist in creating more inclusive forms of urban development. This can be done only if they take seriously the needs and lifestyle aspirations of diverse groups of residents on the ground and consider the building of vibrant local neighbourhoods and communities at the core of their planning mission.

The writer is an associate professor of geography at the National University of Singapore.

Friday, January 9, 2015

We need a health check for the Estate

Straits Times dated 9th January 2015

This is one of the side effect if short term rentals is allowed.

Unlike gated private condo, Tiong Bahru Estate is rather porous. It would be tough to trace who is residing here.

Given today's volatile security climate, it would make a very ideal hideout.

It is time the land owner, the HDB, exert some authority and start demanding Lessee update them on who their tenants are, just like how they are managing the Post War HDB side.

Even owners of private properties are obligated to update their MCST when they put in new tenants, otherwise the tenants would be denied entry.

At the moment, the Pre-War side is slowly turning into a cowboy estate.

Rogue companies and landlords blatantly run service apartments out from these flats. Some apartments even have 3 additional en-suite toilets in the heavily partitioned apartments. Housekeeping is always done after office hours to avoid detection.

Of late, food retailers are also joining the GREY bandwagon by turning residential properties into retail outlets.

Legally, Hdb doesn't allow units to be converted from residential to commercial space but the mantra seems to be See no Evil, Hear No Evil and Speak no Evil.

As long as the permit doesn't come to their inbox, everything in Tiong Bahru "appear" to be running smoothly and efficiently.

This denial is almost like someone who did the health check ten years ago and still think he is healthy today.

How much rot must the genuine homeowner take before something is done?

It's time someone working in the ivory tower takes a regular stroll around the estate....after office hours included.
Please help us make this a great place to live in.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Straits Times : Life before HDB: What was the Singapore Improvement Trust?

The Straits Times (Web Specials)
By Yeo Sam Jo

24th December 2014

SINGAPORE - Five old housing blocks in Tiong Bahru are being given a new lease of life, even though they were earmarked for demolition almost 20 years ago.

From next year, Blocks 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 on Tiong Bahru Road will be rented to couples waiting for their new flats, under the Parenthood Provisional Housing Scheme.

These blocks were built by the now-defunct Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT).

They were selected for the Housing Development Board's (HDB) Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme in 1995, but have been spared the wrecking balls, and are currently being retrofitted.

Here are five things to know about the SIT and the flats that it built:

1. The SIT saved the day, back in the day

A street hawker at the Singapore Improvement Trust flats in Tiong Bahru on Sept 12, 1961. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

The SIT was set up in July 1927, under the Singapore Improvement Ordinance, to solve the serious housing shortage then faced by a rapidly growing population.

Many of the 23,000 flats it built were in areas such as Tiong Bahru and Old Airport Road.

The SIT was dissolved in 1959, and its successor, the HDB, took over in February 1960.

2. Flats were designed with the weather in mind

A Singapore Improvement Trust block at Tiong Bahru Road on Dec 18, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SIT architects were conscious of the fact that Singapore was close to the equator, with warm temperatures and high humidity.

Hence, SIT flats were built for tropical living, frequently featuring high ceilings, large windows and open, cantilevered balconies. Each flat had two to six rooms.

Land scarcity was also less of a concern back then, so these walk-up blocks tend to be under 10 storeys high, without any lifts.

3. Block designs borrow from the then-aesthetics du jour

A crowd gathers at a Singapore Improvement Trust flat in Upper Pickering Street in 1956. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

Block facades and staircases often bear the distinctive curved forms of the Art Deco movement, which were popular during the 1920s and 1930s.

Some blocks also take on the Modernist tendencies of the Bauhaus era, as well as the International Style of highrise flats in a post-Modern vein.

4. Look lower and you might still spot some SIT blocks

Blocks of Singapore Improvement Trust flats at Kampong Silat, Silat Avenue. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

There are currently 138 SIT blocks left standing in Singapore.

They range from two to seven storeys, and are located in Bukit Merah, Queenstown, Geylang and Kallang Whampoa.

About 35 per cent of them, or 48 blocks, are pending redevelopment. The rest are either being conserved, or there are no plans for them.

5. These blocks are old, but certainly not useless

Singapore Improvement Trust blocks (foreground) at Tiong Bahru Road on Dec 18, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Blocks 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 Tiong Bahru Road are not the only SIT blocks currently put to interim use.

Three of them, Blocks 2, 3 and 7 on Short Street and Prinsep Street, are leased to educational institutions as student hostels.

Source: Straits Times archives, HDB

The Straits Times : Old flats in Tiong Bahru get new lease of life

The Straits Times
By Yeo Sam Jo
24th December 2014

120 units in five blocks to be rented to couples waiting for their new flats 

Standing out against a backdrop of taller and newer blocks, the old four-storey ones were built by the now-defunct Singapore Improvement Trust, which provided public housing before the HDB took over in 1960. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

FIVE old blocks of flats in Tiong Bahru are being given a new lease of life, even though they were earmarked for demolition almost 20 years ago.

From next year, Blocks 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 in Tiong Bahru Road will be rented to couples waiting for their new flats, the Housing Board (HDB) has told The Straits Times.

Standing out against a backdrop of taller and newer blocks, these four-storey ones were built by the now-defunct Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), which provided public housing before the HDB took over in 1960.

They were slated for demolition in 1995, but have so far been spared the wrecking ball as HDB continues to find use for them.

The latest purpose for the 120 three- and four-room units is rental, under the Parenthood Provisional Housing Scheme.

They are part of 800 flats, including others in Bukit Merah and Queenstown, that will be retrofitted and rolled out under the scheme early next year.

Under this programme, which began in January last year, such flats can be rented by first-timer married couples with children under the age of 16 who are waiting for new flats.

Three months later, the scheme was extended to those without children and, in September last year, to married couples comprising first-timers and second-timers, as well as divorced or widowed parents with children.

When The Straits Times visited Tiong Bahru, one of Singapore's oldest housing estates, last week, renovations were being carried out at the five blocks and surrounding areas.

The HDB said the works include external repainting, reinstating footpaths, landscaping and installing fixtures such as lights and water heaters in the flats.

These blocks are part of 16 in Tiong Bahru Road and adjacent Boon Tiong Road picked for the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (Sers) in 1995, when it was first introduced.

Under the scheme, which aims to rejuvenate ageing HDB blocks, residents have to move out and are offered replacement flats.

While the other 11 blocks have been demolished, these five blocks were leased to a private operator from 2007 to this May. They are among 138 SIT blocks still standing.

Under the Urban Redevelopment Authority's 2014 master plan, the site has been earmarked for residential use and future widening of Tiong Bahru Road and Zion Road.

For Tiong Bahru resident Tee Chai Teck, 70, the five blocks are a symbol of the past.

He lived in an SIT flat in Boon Tiong Road more than 20 years ago, but moved to a new block in the same road under Sers.

"I hope they don't tear these down too," said the cinema ticket collector, who also runs a market stall in Tiong Bahru. "They bring a sense of familiarity."

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Straits Times : Wall from 1887 lunatic asylum rediscovered within SGH

The Straits Times
By Melody Zaccheus

17th November 2014

Part of a 127-year-old boundary wall of a defunct lunatic asylum that has been unearthed in the heart of the Singapore General Hospital (SGH). -- ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

SINGAPORE - A 127-year-old boundary wall of a defunct lunatic asylum has been unearthed in the heart of the Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

The National Heritage Board (NHB) said the wall is significant as it was part of the 1887 New Lunatic Asylum - one of three early psychiatric hospitals here.

Asia Paranormal Investigators co-founder Charles Goh had alerted the board to the 3m-high, 75m-long wall in September.

Save for the wall, the facility that housed 300 patients and closed later in 1928 is long gone.

(From left) Associate professor Ng Beng Yeong, head and senior consultant psychiatrist of the Department of Psychiatry at Singapore General Hospital who helped in the research project, Mr Charles Goh, the co-founder of Asia Paranormal Investigators who re-discovered the wall, and the National Heritage Board's group director of policy Alvin Tan. -- ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

The NHB and SGH said at a briefing on Monday that they are considering preservation and commemorative efforts for it.

Mr Goh, a heritage enthusiast, had stumbled upon the wall while exploring the old forested area near Macalister Road.

NHB then embarked on a three-month research project. A team consulted old newspaper articles, maps and spoke to experts such as associate professor Ng Beng Yeong, head and senior consultant psychiatrist of the Department of Psychiatry at the hospital.

The NHB found that the New Lunatic Asylum was revolutionary for its time as it practised patient kindness by, for instance, doing away with strait jackets.

The results of NHB's research will be detailed in a documentary that will be launched on its website on Tuesday.

Mr Goh said he hopes the agencies can work towards protecting the wall. "It's a piece of our past and it takes just a little effort to keep it standing. It will add to the landscape and we will have something historic to show future generations."

Singapore General Hospital in the 1970s. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Straits Times : Three more aged tombs found at Outram

The Straits Times
By Melody Zaccheus
5th November 2014

Work around the aged tombstones uncovered in Outram has stopped, a Ministry of Health spokesman said. The ministry has also notified the National Heritage Board (NHB) and the National Environment Agency, which oversees public exhumation works. NHB said research work on the tombstones has started. -- ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Grave hunter Charles Goh stumbled upon the three relics last month in a wooded area, just metres away from his earlier find.

But the four graves are set to make way for an open-air carpark for Singapore General Hospital (SGH) and other health-care facilities in the vicinity.

Excavators have already swept in to clear trees and level the hilly terrain, which is about the size of two football fields.

The Ministry of Health (MOH), which owns the land, said the new carpark - bounded by MacAlister Road and SGH's multi-storey carpark H - will "better provide for the needs of patients and visitors to SGH and the other health-care facilities in the area".

The Straits Times understands that the new carpark will have approximately 620 spaces, and could be ready by July next year.

Nurse Brenda Lee, 56, said it might help address parking woes in the area.

She said: "It can get very busy during peak hours.

Some carparks here provide valet services because the wait can get very long."

Still, Mr Goh, 46, hopes the authorities will leave the tombstones intact as they are remnants of the now-defunct 1859 Tiong Bahru Cemetery and serve as valuable historical markers.

The construction safety manager said: "They have remained untouched, standing in a single row, over the past century.

"They should be left as they are, as a reminder of how the area has evolved over time."

He called for the ministry to give more time for the graves to be studied: "We need historians, researchers and relevant clan associations such as the Hokkien Huay Kuan to do a thorough documentation of the tombs before they are exhumed."

When contacted, an MOH spokesman said work around the tombstones has stopped.

The ministry has also notified the National Heritage Board (NHB) and the National Environment Agency (NEA), which oversees public exhumation works.

NHB said research work on the tombstones has started.

The MOH spokesman added that it "will work with NEA and NHB on the appropriate management of the graves, including putting up a notice in the public domain to alert next-of-kin who wish to claim the remains".

The SGH area is home to institutions such as the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, the Singapore National Eye Centre and the Health Sciences Authority.

By 2020, the Outram Community Hospital will also be there.

Preliminary research by Mr Goh and his brother Raymond, 50, a pharmacist, shows the hilltop graveyard where the tombs rest belonged to the Seh Chua Clan.

According to an 1884 land deed, it was owned by Chua Bian Kay, an early trustee of the Hokkien temple Thian Hock Keng.

The four tombstones bear the names Madam Ho Koon Neo (1860s), Madam Ee Leong Neo (1872), Mr Chua Chi Siok (1876) and Mr Chua Soon Chin (1878).

Other Tiong Bahru Cemetery graves were exhumed and relocated to Greater Bukit Brown after the 1920s to make way for SGH and housing projects.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The New Paper : So hip, it hurts, residents say of Tiong Bahru

The New Paper
Ng Jun Sen
18th October 2014

Where got COOL?

Vogue magazine names Tiong Bahru as one of 15 hippest neighbourhoods in the world, but long-time residents disagree

TNP Photo

SINGAPORE - Known for its pre-war architecture and heritage hawkers, Tiong Bahru is hailed by some as a slice of old Singapore.

So rustic were its charms that the neighbourhood was given conservancy status by the Urban Redevelopment Authority more than a decade ago.

It was also named as one of the top 15 coolest neighbourhoods in the world by the fashion magazine Vogue in a recent report.

Part of its lustre also comes from the quaint new eateries, cafes and shops that have popped up in the neighbourhood in recent years.

Its appeal to visitors and locals alike is probably summed up by student and hobbyist photographer Lester Ooi, 19.

The self-professed "hipster" told The New Paper yesterday: "Nowhere else in Singapore will you find elderly folk sipping kopi beside youngsters sipping espressos."

Seng Poh Residents' Committee manager Desmond Tan added to the praise: "It is a cool place. People come here because of the buildings, which are so well-preserved that you can even find shops with their new signboards under the old ones."

Tiong Bahru residents, Mr Oei Khie, 72, (in grey) and Mr Koh Seow Mor, 54, (in red), explain the history of their neighbourhood to Swiss tourist, Mrs Catherine Buholzer, 59. TNP Photo.

Swiss tourist Catherine Buholzer, 59, said she had read the rave reviews about Tiong Bahru and included a visit to the area as part of her two-week holiday here. Said Mrs Buholzer: "It looks like an older area where Singaporeans lived before, like a slice of authentic, old Singapore."

But talk to old-timers in the neighbourhood and you get a very different picture.

When TNP told them about Vogue's listing, they were surprised.

"Where got?" asked a resident of 60 years, who wanted to be known only as Mr Tan, 89.

"I've lived here for so long and no one said (it was cool) before.

It's an all right neighbourhood, that is all."

Mr Tan believes part of the reason Tiong Bahru has lost its charm is the younger residents who have moved there because of its hip appeal.

Several are foreigners who have rented homes in the neighbourhood, he said.

"In the past, there was a large group of people practising qigong in the mornings at an open space near my flat.

Now, they are no longer here," he said.

Mr Oei Khie, 72, a resident of 15 years, did not mince his words over Tiong Bahru's uber hip rating.

"It's all bullshit," he exclaimed.

While the taxi driver was glad that people thought highly of his neighbourhood, he remained sceptical of the accolades.

That's because it is not the first time he has heard such praises.

Each time, he questions how people arrived at that conclusion.

Said Mr Oei: "There are books out there written about this place.

There's one book called I Ate Tiong Bahru. I've read it. It's 60 per cent nonsense."


He believes the recent changes to Tiong Bahru have led to it losing its original charm.

"The praises changed the neighbourhood.

People come here and set up Western cafes and restaurants meant for much younger people and (at prices that) are far too expensive."

Coffee at these cafes, for example, costs $6.50 a cup, he said.

The new cafes and eateries have also taken a toll on local businesses in the area, said char kway teow seller Koh Seow Hor, who has been working at Tiong Bahru Market for more than 40 years.

He said: "It's becoming more competitive, rents are getting higher and we're getting less profit as a result."

But wouldn't the rave reviews of Tiong Bahru's food places bring in the crowds?

Yes, but the younger and trendier crowds don't eat at food centres, he said.

"People who come for the cafes will not want to eat char kway teow."


In an article in its September issue, Vogue magazine highlighted the 15 coolest neighbourhoods in the world known for their "street style".

It wrote of Tiong Bahru: "There's a small nook of town dubbed Tiong Bahru that's the artisanal, coffee shop-filled foil to Singapore's endless skyscraper sparkle.

"Here, low-profile Art Deco-style buildings house eclectic boutiques like Strangelets, which sells quirky design objects, and Fleas & Trees, which offers baubles from emerging designers.

"Feeling jet-lagged? Tuck into Nimble/Knead, a concept massage parlour providing relaxation in a common Singaporean sight: corrugated shipping containers."

Other neighbourhoods featured include Shimokitazawa in Tokyo, Japan; West Queen West in Toronto, Canada; Sodermalm in Stockholm, Sweden; Canal Saint-Martin in Paris, France; Bushwick in New York City, US; Brera in Milan, Italy; Fitzroy in Melbourne, Australia; Hackney in London, UK; and Kreuzberg in Berlin, Germany.

History of Tiong Bahru

Originally a cemetery, Tiong Bahru later became the site of a pre-war public housing programme to alleviate housing woes in Chinatown.

Following a modified form of the "Streamline Moderne" architecture style, the flats were designed to look like cars, trains, ocean liners and aeroplanes with sweeping, streamlined and aerodynamic lines.

These buildings were given conservancy status in 2003 and comprise 20 blocks of two- to five-storey flats.

Before World War II, two rows of shophouses at Tiong Poh Road marked the centre of the neighbourhood.

In 1945, they were converted into a wet market and five years later, a new market called the Seng Poh Market was constructed.

The market is now known as Tiong Bahru Market, and has one of the highest concentrations of "heritage hawkers" in Singapore.

Reports by Ng Jun Sen

Source: National Heritage Board, Urban Redevelopment Authority

4 quaint places in Tiong Bahru

BOOKSACTUALLY A bookstore at 9 Yong Siak Street that sells books not commonly found in other places, including those by local authors. 

THE DISPENSARY The former Chinese medical hall at 69 Tiong Bahru Road has been converted into a cafe and bakery.

STRANGELETS A design shop at 7 Yong Siak Street that sells a variety of products, such as furniture, bags and other interesting curios.

WE NEED A HERO The men's grooming salon at 57 Eng Hoon Street offers premium haircuts, shaves, brow shaping and waxing to its customers.