Monday, October 4, 2010

Voices at Central Singapore : Youthful Outlook


Lin Xiaoling wanders the streets of Tiong Bahru and finds the area, despite being in its 70s, still spry and engaging.


QI TIAN GONG stands at a corner of Eng Hoon Street, which leads to the heart of Tiong Bahru. The temple, in the evening, basks in the soft orange glow of street lamps. Lights off, shutters down, incense burnt. Gone is the bustle of the daytime, when crowds pray to the Monkey God for the well-being of their loved ones.

Shophouses line that street. One has edgy graphics in bright colours which glimmer through the dark on its inside walls. It is a communications outfit. A group from the company crowd the five-foot way outside. Lights positioned, cameras snapping, ideas flowing.

The two faces of the old enclave, a stone's throw from Chinatown and the Singapore General Hospital, are more accentuated up the street. Here, two of the shophouses retain the mosaic tile flooring laid years ago. Local fruits spill out of one, barrels of rose, merlot and chardonnay beckon from the other.

Walking the streets and back alleys of Tiong Bahru, roughly bounded by Tiong Bahru, Tiong Poh and Kim Pong roads, is never boring. The little estate comprises many of the old Cantonese-style shophouses which once lined most roads in town. Go further in, in the horseshoe-shaped area around Moh Guan Terrace, is yesteryear's version of posh public housing, because these homes had a flush toilet. These three-and four-room flats are just a stone's throw from today's top of the line, towering HDB homes in Duxton Plain.

The older version is four-storey blocks of walk-up apartments, built in the 1930s. They are the first mass housing project undertaken by the Singapore Improvement Trust, the British colonial authority's version of the HDB. They boast rounded balconies, spiral staircases and light wells, practically nonexistent in public housing now. Twenty blocks have been gazetted for conservation.

Before World War II, the precinct was favoured by the upper class. The rich kept their mistresses there. After the war, the population tripled, undermining its exclusivity. In the 1980s and 1990s, many younger residents saw the flats as too old, too small, too old-fashioned and moved out.

Mr Nai Yong Chew, 52, grew up in one. He and his nine siblings, hawker dad and housewife mum enjoyed two living rooms and a bedroom. "It was a squeeze," he admits. Still, it was considered better than the neighbours' attap houses.

Children played hide and seek at the bomb shelter at Block 78, now a storeroom for cleaning equipment.

Hawkers plied the streets with their wares. When they were rounded up for illegal peddling, they banded together and appealed for licences to carry on selling. It led to the building of Tiong Bahru market in 1950, a modest single storey centre.

Once smokey and cramped, this one-level gastronomical haven, known for its chwee kueh, for mee and roast pig, was replaced four years ago with a round three-storey building complete with escalators - wet market on the ground floor, hawker stalls on the second and a car park to top it off.

Today, the market is still the heart of the estate.

While his siblings have since moved out, Mr Nai has taken over his father's fruit stall at the market. "Tiong Bahru has changed a lot, mostly for the better," he notes. "It's funny, I'm getting old, but Tiong Bahru has become more youthful."

Mr Huang, dried goods stall owner

The two primary schools he and the neighbourhood children attended have gone - because there were not enough pupils! The many corners residents would gather at with their singing birds have been pulled down to make way for an expressway and fancy boutique hotels.

The new has merged with the old, the flamboyant and the nondescript sit cheek by jowl. Each street has its own character. Those lined with eateries are crowded and boisterous, but just turn a corner, and you are back in a quiet lane, never knowing what you will stumble upon.

At Yong Saik Road, some shophouses still carry the wooden signboards of yesteryear. One has a painting of a woman with coiffed hair. The Chinese characters on it invite passers-by to climb a dark narrow stairway to a hair salon. Knocks on the door of this are unanswered.

A man from the ground floor unit explains the salon has closed, but if needed, a girl from China who rents a room nearby can offer a haircut.

At every junction of the estate's short streets are old-style coffee shops, the kind where customers were once served by men in sleeveless singlets and striped pyjama bottoms. The tables and chairs still spill onto the sidewalk, the morning still orders kopi and eggs, friends and families still --ather in the evening for a hotpot meal.

On Guan Chuan Street. where the U-shaped, red brick Block 78 is an architectural artwork, there are a sprinkling of art galleries and studios. a hint that the neighbourhood is looking beyond the basics.

What made the estate charm in the past is working again, and over the last decade, a younger professional crowd and expatriates have been moving in. Like Mr Kelvin Ang, 38, who spent six years living near London's Portobello Market and who wanted to continue that experience of contemporary village life at home.

The low-rise buildings and smallness of the estate comfort him. He appreciates the many opportunities for interaction with the neighbours, especially the older ones, who hang out in their backyards, tend to their gardens and chit-chat with friends. "If newer residents make the effort, most of the older ones open up fairly quickly," says the civil servant, who has been offered home-cooked dishes.

Madam Lee, resident

The community spirit which attracted him is palpable. Madam Tan Ghee Chang, 75, a resident for close to 40 years, does not hesitate to invite this stranger in for tea and a chat. She says in a mix of Chinese and Hokkien: "Some people are wary of others; they don't trust people and they don't open their hearts. But I'm not like that."

Like others her age, she knows her neighbours by name. by their dialect group, by the number of children they have, and can sketch out their family trees as well!

Despite what Tiong Bahru has to offer, Australian Emily Hills, 29, "hated the place" at first. The white walls were too glaring. Six months later though, the arts lecturer is full of enthusiasm about "the people, the food".

Clutching a bottle of wine to her chest, she proceeds to dinner with friends, the smack of her flip-flops echoing in the back alley. It is a strange combination of old and new, but so Tiong Bahru.

The above article was extracted from VOICES at Central Singapore, Issue 54, September + October 2010.

VOICES is a Central Singapore Community Development Council publication. 

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