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.

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