Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Sunday Times - Cool, edgy vibe in Tiong Bahru

The Sunday Times
13th February 2011
By Natasha Ann Zachariah

The opening of art galleries and design studios has added to the bohemian charm of the neighbourhood


Amid the mom-and-pop hardware and provision shops in Tiong Bahru, art galleries, indie stores and design studios have been popping up recently, lending new charm to the bohemian neighbourhood.

The laid-back, chilled-out vibe of Yong Siak Street was one of the factors enticing bookstore BooksActually to move from its Club Street location.

Books Actually @ Yong Siak Street - ST PHOTOS: CHEW SENG KIM

Mr Kenny Leck, 32, co-founder and owner of the indie store, says: 'The feel of the place fits in with our store concept and it's an area that's familiar to me and my staff.'

Cheaper rent and a bigger space were also incentives. The new single-level store, which is set to open at the end of this month, is 2,200 sq ft and he pays one-third less rent than the previous location.

Tiong Bahru was gazetted by the Urban Redevelopment Authority as a conservation area in 2003.

The pre-war walk-up apartments found in Eng Hoon Street, Chay Yan Street and Seng Poh Road among others, feature architectural touches such as air wells, rounded balconies, back lanes and spiral staircases, uncommon to public housing in Singapore.

The colonial-era buildings, which go up to five storeys, have some ground-floor units that have been designated for commercial usage.

Another recent addition to the street is 40 Hands, a 50-seater speciality coffee shop set up by Perth native Harry Grover and his brother, which opened in October last year.

The 30-year-old barista tells LifeStyle that he had offers to start his first shop in malls such as Wheelock Place in the Orchard Road area, but felt that Tiong Bahru was a 'cool neighbourhood'.

'It's a bit run-down, but it's definitely edgy and it's such a hole-in-the-wall location.'

Art galleries have also added to the chi-chi factor of the area. There are now three galleries in Guan Chuan Street.

White Canvas Gallery opened in October 2009 and owner Maria Ng says the neighbourliness of Tiong Bahru residents gives the place a 'kampung feel'.

Ms Ng, 45, who also runs a private art gallery five doors away, says: 'Everyone knows everyone here. It's so informal, even for an art gallery. You don't need to be dressed up to walk in.'

White Canvas Gallery @ Guan Chuan Street - ST PHOTOS: CHEW SENG KIM

For others, the versatility of the interior space was a pull factor.

Artist and author Joanna Wong, 51, bought a ground-floor unit last year to set up her own private art gallery and studio, Jo's Creations, to work on her oil paintings.

The ex-banker paid $838,000 for the unit and knocked down the interior bedroom walls to create a more open concept.

The gallery opens next weekend and she says: 'It's a great area to showcase my art- works and books. It's also such a cosy village, with no tall Housing Board flats in your face.'

Jo's Creations @ Guan Chuan Street - ST PHOTOS: CHEW SENG KIM

Real estate analyst Tejaswi Chunduri of online portal says that Tiong Bahru is a hot location to buy or rent property as it is well-served by basic amenities such as schools, public transport and food centres and is located close to town.

She adds: 'From a business perspective, it is more affordable when compared to the same offerings in nearby areas such as Tanjong Pagar, where rent can cost at least $450 more a month for a 1,200 sq ft unit.'

Convenience and price aside, another draw is nostalgia for Tiong Bahru.

For independent curator Terence Yeung, 40, living here now with his designer wife brings back memories of the days when his parents lived there and dated each other.

They were childhood friends who lived only streets apart - his mother in Moh Guan Terrace and his father in Seng Poh Road - and who later became sweethearts.

Mr Yeung, who moved into the area seven years ago, says: 'The character of the place, the space and its people hold a certain charm in everyday living.'

One of the first design businesses there, architectural materials showroom RICE, which moved to Eng Watt Street from Kallang five years ago, welcomes the new businesses to the neighbourhood.

Mr Alan Tan, 38, director of the 10- year-old boutique stone and Italian tiles provider, believes the area's design for commercial units, which are spread out over five streets, allows each business to add its own style to the mix without being too overwhelming.

'We complement one another well and we are a close-knit community, but we each have our own character,' he says.

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