Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Straits Times : At home in Tiong Bahru

Pre-war conserved apartments in Tiong Bahru have become popular with yuppies who like the area's nostalgic charm

The Straits Times
Life Section
24 September 2011
By huang huifen

Mr Terence Yeung and Ms Bella Koh -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
Tiong Bahru is where the heart is for designer couple Terence Yeung and Bella Koh.

Mr Yeung, an interior designer-lecturer, and Ms Koh, a fashion consultant, lived in a third-floor unit in Eng Hoon Street for eight years. When they moved house in March this year, it was to a unit just two streets away.

Ms Koh, 30, says: 'We are reluctant to leave this neighbourhood because it is such a convenient location. It has a market and is just a few minutes away from town. It also has a charisma that keeps you here. It has evolved and has so many things happening now.'

The couple moved to a 1,350 sq ft two-bedroom apartment in Eng Watt Street because they had always wanted a ground-floor unit that had courtyard space for their eight cats to roam in.

The courtyard (above) in their new ground-floor apartment is meant to be a space for their eight cats to roam in. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
The apartment cost more than $1 million and they splashed out a six-figure sum on renovations. Many of these apartments have less than 56 years left on their 99-year lease.

They figure the renovation will save them money in the long run. Mr Yeung, 41, says with a chuckle: 'We designed the house in such a way that it will be better than a hotel or a spa so that we don't have to travel anymore.'

Indeed, in a land-scarce city where space is a form of luxury in homes these days, the clever play of perspectives in this one evokes the feel of a luxe European hotel.

Take, for example, the 2.6m by 2.6m white French doors that separate the kitchen area from the bedrooms. Mr Yeung chose that height to create an illusion of space when entering the area leading to the bedroom.

'The entrance defines the experience when you enter a space. If you enter a narrow door, you will feel that the space is very tight and suffocating, and vice versa,' he says.

The illusion of space is repeated with a 3.2m by 4m six-door, white-washed oak bookshelf, the first thing you see when you walk through the French doors.

Similarly, the door leading to the master bedroom measures 3.2m by 0.9m, giving the sense of entering a spacious suite.

The spa mood is captured in their bedroom bathroom through the use of beige 'travertine' material for the wall, flooring and sink. A rainshower and bathtub complete the experience.

There are also green spaces, too. The airwell next to the kitchen is now a herb garden where Ms Koh can gather fresh ingredients for cooking. Two life-size deer stuffed by a taxidermist complete its wild look.

The airwell next to the kitchen is now a herb garden (above). -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
Mr Yeung's design agenda was influenced by the building's Art Deco style: 'The interior should have a European feel to complement the Art Deco architecture of the building.'

The aim to return to its roots also saw him reconfiguring the walls and doors of the original plan of the apartment. Yet it remains as functional as it is aesthetically pleasing.

The Straits Times : His and hers sides

The Straits Times
Life Section
24 September 2011
By huang huifen

Mr Vinnie Quek's side of the home that he shares with partner Erica Wong has his toys and books displayed on a long shelf. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
An invisible line divides the living room of the apartment shared by Mr Vinnie Quek, 37, head of marketing and entertainment at Avalon nightclub in Marina Bay Sands, and his partner Erica Wong, 32.

That line in the second-floor apartment in Tiong Poh Road translates into a 'his and hers' divider.

The left side is where Ms Wong, a brand manager, proudly displays her collection of contemporary art pieces.

Ms Wong's side is adorned with contemporary art pieces by Hong Kong artist Angela Su on the wall (above) and a dinosaur sculpture by Chinese artist Sui Jianguo. --
These include works by Hong Kong artist Angela Su and a striking red fibreglass dinosaur sculpture by Chinese artist Sui Jianguo, which is mounted on a recycled wood piece from an old table left by the previous owner.

The other side is where Mr Quek has his quirky contemporary street-art pieces such as toy collectibles of Godzilla and works by American street artist Kaws, and books displayed in an artistically 'haphazard' way.

A striking cuckoo clock artpiece by German artist Stefan Strumbel sits on the dividing line, and is an allusion to his motive of using the clocks to question cliched notions of home.

Indeed, Mr Quek and Ms Wong's new 1,003 sq ft home, which cost about $800,000 plus another $100,000 to renovate, is anything but cliched.

The gates of the house are painted coral pink, while the door is in a contrasting emerald green. The doorknob is a leg of the same table used for the red dinosaur.

But the striking hues stop at the door.

Ms Wong wanted the place to have a modern Scandinavian theme, so the colour palette of the living room is mostly white. However, in a corner of the living room, a Victorian antique chair from Canada and a small Moroccan coffee table are juxtaposed against contemporary artworks.

Similarily, in the kitchen, 48 Peranakan floor tiles break the European focus.

The walls of the house were also reconfigured. They have been either removed, added or moved to create the desired spaces for the living room and bedrooms.

The remains of a wall that separated two bedrooms in the living room is now a statement piece in the middle of the living room. The cuckoo clock is mounted on this chipped pillar.

This juxtaposition of his and hers, old versus new, and colour contrast gives the home an electrifying personality, which acts as a mirror to the colourful characters of its two owners.

'We had a lot of fun designing, and I think it really comes out through the kooky yet inviting character of our home. It is still an ongoing project. I am excited to see how it will evolve over the years,' says Ms Wong.

The Straits Times : Picture-perfect apartment doubles as office

The Straits Times
Life Section
24 September 2011
By huang huifen
Olive green and mustard yellow walls complement the retro-themed living room, which is accented by colourful and funky furniture pieces. Further in, a piece of the apartment's original window grille hangs from the ceiling, and with five lightbulbs dangling from it, makes for a unique light fixture. -- PHOTO: TINYDOT PHOTOGRAPHY
Blink and you might miss the appropriately named Tinydot Photography.

The wedding photography business is inside a residential apartment that has been converted into a home office.

Apart from laminated wood borders around each of the three windows, there is nothing indicating that the ground-floor unit in Chay Yan Street is actually a functioning office.

As with most of the other residential apartments in the pre-war estate, the door leading to Tinydot is tucked into a stairwell next to the apartment.

Mr Seah Yu Hsin, 40, one of three partners of Tinydot, decided to move his rented office from Sago Street to a residential apartment in Tiong Bahru last month because he wanted a more permanent office space.

The nature of his business also meant that he did not require a retail front.

Also, one of his partners, Mr Jerald Zhan, 28, a bachelor, plans to stay overnight in the office when they put in late nights.

Mr Seah lives in a condominium in West Coast with his wife and two children aged five and nine. The third partner is photographer K.C. Wong, 37.

Having grown up in the early 1970s, Mr Seah loves how Tiong Bahru brings back memories of those years.

He wanted to convert the 930 sq ft three-bedroom apartment into a space that is liveable yet exudes a quirky, old-world charm. He spent about $35,000 renovating the apartment, which cost just under $1 million.

His interior designer, Mr Victor Chua of Viz Interior Artist, did this by removing two walls of one bedroom and turning the space into the main living room.

Here, clients can relax on a three-seat earth-tone fabric sofa while they view their photographs on a television. To add a quirky look to the space, the central wall is covered with cement and layered with cultured stones to look like a brick wall.

Quirkiness continues on the ceiling. A piece of the original window grille hangs from the top with five lightbulbs draped over it, making for a unique light fixture.

Upping the fun factor are posters of works by artists such as Andy Warhol, wall decals and ornaments including two giant Hershey's chocolate-syrup bottles.
Vintage cameras and a typewriter (above) are displayed in the apartment. An iPad has been inserted into an old Macintosh computer, so that customers can view pictures on it. -- PHOTO: TINYDOT PHOTOGRAPHY
The office, which was once a bedroom, had its walls replaced with tempered glass for an open-concept effect.

The kitchen is now a pantry where meetings can be held over a cuppa. The walls and island counter are made of cement to give a raw effect reminiscent of the 1970s.
The kitchen is now a pantry (above), and it comes with a cement island counter for a raw effect. -- PHOTO: TINYDOT PHOTOGRAPHY
With so many different looks at every turn, it is no wonder that Mr Seah has difficulty deciding his favourite spot in the office. 'I love every part of the place because in each of them, I can find something that allows me to sit back, relax and take the time to reflect on things.'

The Straits Times : Find it hard to save money?

The Straits Times
Life Section
24 September 2011
By huang huifen

Dr Anu Menon and Mr Sumana Rajarethnam (above) -- ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN
Walking into the dining hall of Dr Anu Menon and Mr Sumana Rajarethnam's home is like entering a loft apartment.

Designed to be the main area of the 1,350 sq ft two-bedroom, ground-floor pre-war unit in Guan Chuan Street, it evokes an old-world charm befitting the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood. This is particularly evident in how the hall's main wall has been stripped of its plaster to expose red bricks for a down-to-earth feel.

A natural-tone teak table, paired with a wooden bench, sits on a cement floor which is reminiscent of that in an old-school canteen.

Dr Menon, 30, a paediatrician at KK Women's and Children's Hospital, fell in love with Tiong Bahru's nostalgic charm when she visited the area six years ago. Hence she and Mr Rajarethnam, 34, an economic analyst, were keen to find a home in the estate when they got married last year.

They bought the apartment shortly after marrying, but rented it out for six months while they sourced design inspirations. In the meantime, they stayed at the house of Mr Rajarethnam's parents in Woodlands.

Renovation work began in May and they moved in last month. They declined to reveal the price of their home but say the renovation cost 'close to a six-figure sum'.

New, old residents get along
To reflect the neighbourhood's nostalgic feel, Dr Menon wanted the home furnished in an old-world style. 'I like places that remind me of old Singapore. So I told my interior designer to give the place an old feel.'

That was the approach used by Mr Eugene Yip from design firm Otherwise for the dining room. 'The exposed brick wall and cement floor retain the old-world charm of the estate,' he says.

But there are quirky touches, such as works by photographer Brendan Fitzpatrick that showcase a Star Wars character doing a range of migrants' work in the master bedroom.

A row of red and white coffee cups hangs over a striking red kettle in the kitchen. The colour pops up again in a red spiral staircase, an original feature of the apartment, next to the dining hall that leads to a study area.

The spiral staircase (above) in the apartment of Dr Anu Menon and Mr Sumana Rajarethnam has been painted red so that it adds an element of surprise. The dining hall's main wall has also been stripped to expose the red bricks beneath. -- ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN
Mr Yip also reconfigured the apartment's layout, removing another staircase and parts of walls to give a more open concept. The couple's bedroom beside the dining hall used to have a flight of stairs but he removed it. Now, an 80cm platform extends from the room to create a small balcony overlooking the hall.
 The couple love their home, and not just for the design.
A signature piece, the 4.2m ficus lyrata (above) at one end of the dining hall frames the balcony of the master bedroom. The space below the cantilevered platform has been converted into a shallow pond filled with pebbles and garden ornaments. -- ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN

Mr Rajarethnam says: 'The neighbourhood is important to us. We love that there is a mix of people who live here. Some have been here for a long time, while some have just moved in. But everyone gets along, and is estate-proud. That is the very attractive and distinct part of Tiong Bahru.'

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Straits Times : Keeping alive a vanishing trade

National Heritage Board exhibition to showcase 18 old-style provision shops

The Straits Times
11 September 2011
By Kezia Toh

Mr Goh Wee at his provision shop Hup Seng in Tiong Bahru. He says his customers buy fewer things now than before - a bottle of soft drink, compared with sacks of rice and milk powder in the past. -- ST PHOTO: TERRENCE LIM

They were a fixture in the old days: pulley tins that provision shop owners used to keep spare change.

These days, however, cash is usually kept under lock and key - a sign of the changing times.

Mr T.T. Lin from Tian Kee provision shop in Dakota Crescent near Mountbatten is one of those who have taken this precaution.

'As more people move in and the usual crowd disappears, the level of trust between neighbours goes down, which is why we need to guard against thieves,' he said.

The 80-year-old has been running his provision store in the sleepy neighbourhood for more than 50 years.

Changes such as these, along with the dwindling number of such neighbourhood shops that were once a familiar sight in any residential landscape, spurred the National Heritage Board (NHB) to embark on a project to document them.

Part of the board's Community Heritage Series, which captures important elements of heartland heritage, the research project will cover 18 old-style provision shops.

They include one established in the late 1920s in Joo Chiat Road and another in the 1930s in Changi Road.

These 18 were chosen because they have remained relatively unchanged over the years.

The project aims to capture this vanishing trade for the next generation of Singaporeans. A travelling exhibition based on archive materials and newspaper reports and featuring photographs and collectibles will go to community clubs, libraries and schools in December.

The Singapore Provision Shops Friendly Association now has fewer than 150 members, compared with about 1,200 in the 1970s.

Customers have deserted them for supermarket chains, convenience stores and minimarts, which offer a greater variety of products and comfort shopping in an air- conditioned environment.

Those who continue to patronise the provision shops buy fewer things, said shop owners.

Said Mr Goh Wee, owner of Hup Seng provision shop in Tiong Bahru: 'Even if I have 100 customers a day, so what? They used to buy sacks of rice and milk powder, but these days, they come in just for a bottle of soft drink. Small things.'

But some still doggedly persist in running their business.

Mr Lin is barely able to cover the cost of his rented space, which is about $1,000 a month. His four children - in their 40s and 50s - also tell him not to labour any more.

But for him, this is not hard work. 'For me, a happy retirement is like this, where I can chat with my neighbours when they come to the store, so that I don't feel lonely,' he said.

Cultural studies academic Liew Kai Khiun, also a committee member of the Singapore Heritage Society, praised NHB's move, but said that it would not help traditional provision shops stay relevant.

'Devoid of their historical functions and contexts, these shops would merely be reduced to tourist and educational exhibits of a bygone era.'

He added that it is more about the spirit of these shops - which foster neighbourliness and community, as compared to more impersonal retail outlets that are homogenising the social landscape.

He has suggested that the Government offer tax incentives and cheaper rent to these shops in the heartland, to keep the culture going.

Former president of the Singapore Heritage Society Kevin Tan is keen for the exhibition to be a family event.

He said: 'Provision shops are a part of community life because it is in the neighbourhood, so families should get together and go, instead of it being a school excursion.'

And most of the time, people treasure only what is disappearing.

'It is like with the KTM railway's closure - people become curious because that sense of loss is more immediate,' he said.


'This trade is dying out'

Guan Hin provision shop in Tiong Bahru, which opened in 1955, is run by Madam Tan and her husband. They used to have 100 customers a day in the 1980s, but their business has halved. -- PHOTO: HAN FEI

Time seems to have stood still at Guan Hin provision shop in Tiong Bahru.

Cans of food line the floor-to-ceiling wall shelves with sliding glass doors. A vintage Smith electric clock and even a non-working rotary Bakelite telephone sit in a corner of the 56-year-old store.

Owners Ng Heng Lin, 82, and his wife Tan Koy Eng, 74, have seen business slow to a trickle in recent years.

While they used to have 100 customers a day in the 1980s, business has since halved. They can still cover the cost of running the business, since they own the shop space.

So the pair are still clinging on to the shop and do not mind the long hours - the store is open daily from the late afternoon to the wee hours of the morning.

Madam Tan said: 'I will work for as long as I am able to, because staying at home just to eat and sleep is much worse.'

Keeping active is a priority for both, that is why they enjoy the dynamic nature of buying and selling.

But the couple are resigned to the shop shutting its doors for good once they retire. Their three children are university graduates and do not wish to take over.

'I know that young people do not want to take this up because they would want to have their own professional careers, which is why this trade is dying out.'

The Straits Times : The disappearing 'mama shops'

The Straits Times
11 September 2011
By Yuen Sin

Remember the days when you used to pop by the kiosk at your void deck to pick up a quick snack or some groceries?

Such standalone kiosks, affectionately known as 'mama shops' (mama stands for 'Uncle' in Tamil), have weathered the times since they started out as wall stores along shophouses in the 1950s.

Selling sundry goods and traditional sweets, they have been hailed as icons of Singapore's architectural landscape and part of the nation's collective memory.

But like provision shops, these wall stores, too, are fast disappearing.

When they were introduced into housing estates by HDB in the 1980s, they used to dot the precincts as numerously as every fourth block.

At their peak in 1983, there were about 600 such shops. Low demand from prospective operators has resulted in that number dwindling to about 380 kiosks in the past five years.

All 10 stores that The Sunday Times interviewed said it is hard to keep afloat amid rife competition from chain stores.

Mr Sheik Duad, 41, who helps his uncle tend the Faizal & Jahabar Store at Block 175 Toa Payoh Central, said: 'In those days, where can you find a 7-Eleven in the housing estates? They were all available only in the city.'

His store, a stone's throw away from a Cheers outlet and a FairPrice supermarket, has been around for 40 years.

While some have modernised their shops, they are still a class apart from chain stores, which are able to reap economies of scale.

iEcon, for example, started from a group of provision shop owners who banded together to do central purchasing of stock and upgraded to minimarts. It made its mark in heartland neighbourhoods as early as 1982. There are now 100 of such iEcon stores, with 90 per cent operating in HDB estates and three of them in void decks.

7-Eleven entered the heartland in 1984, and about a third of its 550 stores are located in heartland estates, with 3 per cent in void decks.

Cheers, which has over 80 standalone stores, says 35 per cent are located in HDB estates. There are also four void-deck stores.

Another factor is the changing demographics of the old estates where these stores are mostly located in.

At Hoe Peng Kiosk in Shunfu Road, Mr Ong Hoe Peng, 50, said business has been getting worse in the 20 years the store has been around.

He said: 'A lot of my customers used to be neighbourhood kids but now it's mostly old people who live around here.'

Yet, owners staunchly cling on to the model of business that has served them over the years. It is the human touch, they say.

Take Mr Toh Yew Ghee, 41, who has operated a store at Block 222 Toa Payoh Lorong 8 for 13 years. Having interacted with residents there for many years, 'we're now like friends and sometimes they'll joke, call me 'handsome'.'

Delivery services are also available - without additional charges.

Mr Stephen Neo, 47, a senior executive, is also appreciative of the fact that things can be bought on credit.

'I can just grab a drink from the fridge even though I don't have money with me, and the owner will say no problem, pay another day.

'They are friendlier and there is also a sense of trust and closeness.'

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Straits Times : The business of 'keeping provision shops alive'

NHB project to document heartland culture will cover 18 old-style shops

The Straits Times
8 September 2011
By Kezia Toh
Guan Hin provision shop in Tiong Bahru, which opened in 1955, is run by Madam Tan and her husband. They used to have 100 customers a day in the 1980s, but their business has halved. -- PHOTO: HAN FEI
EIGHT owners of traditional provision shops recently had an unusual request from 'customers' - an interview.

The request came from staff of a research firm appointed by the National Heritage Board (NHB), which is documenting this slice of Singaporean life as part of its Community Heritage Series.

The project will cover 18 old-style provision shops, including one established in the late 1920s in Joo Chiat Road and another in the 1930s in Changi Road.

The researchers will also dig into the archives and old newspaper reports, and use information from the Singapore Provision Shops Friendly Association.

Said Mr Alvin Tan, director of heritage institutions and industry development at NHB: 'We want to document our heartland heritage for the future generation of Singaporeans who may not be familiar with this, so that they can relate when their parents share memories from the past.'

Modern-day supermarkets, convenience stores and minimarts are threatening to bring down the shutters on the old operators. One telling fact - the Singapore Provision Shops Friendly Association now has fewer than 150 members, compared with about 1,200 in the 1970s.

Its secretary Tan Bock Heng, 72, used to run a provision shop in Jalan Sultan, but closed it in 1995 when the landlord took over the space.

He said: 'After my generation, traditional provision shops will disappear and we know it. Even if we were to promote ourselves to draw customers, where would we get the funds to do that?'

At one old-time outlet, Guan Hin provision shop in Tiong Bahru, owner Ng Heng Lin, 82, said he and his wife Tan Koy Eng, 74, will continue as long as they can.

They had 100 customers a day in the 1980s, but business has halved since then.

Madam Tan noted that while customers used to buy cans of dried food by the box, they now opt for just a few cans.

Their three children, all university graduates, do not want to take over the shop, which opened in 1955.

NHB plans to curate an exhibition based on the research findings, photographs and collectibles donated by shop owners and the association. The exhibition will be held in community clubs, libraries and schools in December.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Business Times : Tiong Bahru Redux

Designer home offices, indie retail outfits, penthouse parties, a resident stormtrooper... Welcome to Tiong Bahru, where heritage is hip and old-world charm meets edgy entrepreneurship.

Business Times
30 Jul 2011
By Tan Teck Heng

Unfazed by the arrival of a younger, hipper crowd, the original residents of Tiong Bahru continue to gather for chats downstairs, or watch the world go by from their upstairs windows

TIONG Bahru resident Lim Kah Hoe is a hardcore Star Wars fan who's game enough to don his stormtrooper uniform on a walk around the neighbourhood.

This masked and costumed figure may be a pretty startling addition to the scenery, but considering the transformation that has swept through the district recently, the sight of a stormtrooper hardly counts as an alien invasion. A walk from Eng Hoon Street to Yong Siak Street today is like visiting a completely different world, thanks to an influx of designer home offices, creative small businesses and indie retail outfits with artsy facades.

Says Mr Lim: 'I like the fact that many new residents and businesses‚ have been moving in; it injects life, and a changing‚ estate is a dynamic one.'

Homegrown comedienne Selena Tan agrees: 'It's really been gentrified, but still has a lovely village feel.' And the Dim Sum Dolly ought to know - she helps out at her mother's Peranakan food stall in Tiong Bahru Market. Daisy's Dream Kitchen sees all sorts of customers daily, from elderly residents to expatriates and yuppies living or working around the area.

Daisy Tan (left) flanked by her children Selena, the local comedienne, and Ray. Mrs Tan's Peranakan food stall in Tiong Bahru Market, Daisy's Dream Kitchen, sees all sorts of customers, from elderly residents to expatriates and yuppies living or working around the area.
 'It's (becoming) an edgy type of place ... a lot of fancy cars around,' says Steven Ong, chef owner of patisserie Centre Ps. The patisserie, started in 2007, was one of the first new wave outfits in the area. Mr Ong notes that the young couples or expatriates who live around the area often turn the upper levels of the neighbourhood into 'penthouse parties'.

    Steven Ong, chef owner of patisserie Centre Ps, one of the first new wave outfits in the area
One doesn't have to look far for a similar sentiment - Maria Ng, owner of art gallery White Canvas located just next door, concurs. 'Because of the low-density and the conservation efforts, the older population has moved out,' she says.

'You get the younger people and expatriates moving in who are sure of what they want - those who don't want to live in a box or high up in sky - and many of their homes are designer types which have been featured in magazines.'

It was quite a different story five years ago. Says Mr Lim, who owns a studio apartment: 'Back then, with the shabbiness that was associated with the area, many were not keen about moving into this place at all.'

Stormtrooper Lim checking out the upholstery shop behind his apartment. Above right: Maria Ng, owner of art gallery White Canvas and art cafe The Orange Thimble

But he took the plunge, and is probably very glad he did. Since then, property prices have doubled, says Centre Ps's Mr Ong. A conservation site since December 2003, Tiong Bahru today sees tidy streets lined with refurbished, freshly painted shophouses. Many ground level units sport fancy, contemporary facades with sleek, modern lines.

One such unit along Yong Siak Street houses creative studio Tofu, started in March. Says creative director Michelle Au: 'We really like the old and new energies together, (with) new talents and shops sprouting up among old historical buildings.'

The shops Ms Au is referring to include the holy trinity of coffee joint 40 Hands, bookstore BooksActually and artisan boutique Strangelets, all located just next door to each other. After 40 Hands opened in October last year to rave reviews, the latter two outfits were persuaded to shift from their previous locations in Chinatown.

For many, the old-world charm and serenity of the district is the biggest draw. 'We find the old Tiong Bahru neighbourhood incredibly charming with its interesting mix of old architecture and an up-and-coming arts scene,' says co-owner of Strangelets, Ong Ker Shing.

And for them, creativity is not the only thing that's hitting an all-time high; business is better, with both Strangelets and BooksActually reporting growing sales figures.

It explains why the surrounding businesses are not content to rest on their laurels. Management consultancy firm Ampern Services moved in last year, diversifying from its core business with a new concept retail store and art gallery named Bhutan Shop. The current floor space is divided into two by a lounge/gallery area, with Ampern's office at the back.

The retail outfit sells products from Bhutan which are organic, eco- and social-friendly. Director Ong Eng Chin hopes to see 30 per cent of his overall revenue coming from Bhutan Shop in the future.

White Canvas's Ms Ng has also started up what she calls an 'art cafe' just down the street from her already established gallery. Named The Orange Thimble, it features artworks related to the neighbourhood. There are also quaint decor elements in the form of refurbished antique furniture and novelty accessories - reassuring residents who may be concerned about the rapid evolution of the district that they can have their cake and eat it too.

'There are many zi char restaurants here, and people do come here for the food,' observes Ms Ng, who notes that there are also many visitors who come for more plebeian pursuits. 'You can't compete with that - the idea here is to complement them.' So newer establishments should offer a place where one can have 'a cup of coffee in an air-conditioned place ... or (food) for the health-conscious, like sandwiches', she says.

That is exactly what the minds behind 40 Hands - beauty and F&B brand Spa Esprit - intend to do. Come late September, they will open a new casual dining restaurant named Open Door Policy (OPD). The menu will be designed by Ryan Clift, co-founder and executive chef of Tippling Club at Dempsey.

'The appearance of 40 Hands has changed the landscape of Tiong Bahru, turning it into a bustling and much talked about area,' says founder Cynthia Chua. 'With that endorsement, we are stoked to launch another creative F&B concept to further boost the scene.'

Despite the surge in development, there are obstacles halting the rate of growth. 'The commercial units (in the area) are not easy to come by, and there are very few of them,' says Ms Ng, who has had trouble getting a unit for her art cafe which is closer to White Canvas. She adds that the Housing Development Board (HDB) has been increasingly reluctant to give out cooking licences, apparently because of noise complaints from residents.

But Tofu's Ms Au feels that controlling the number of businesses here is a good thing. 'This helps ensure that the residents don't get crowded out, and that the vibe remains peaceful and laid back - we love that.'

She adds: 'I hope ... it doesn't get overly commercial or pretentious. After all, what makes this area charming is the authenticity of the old businesses and residents.'

Still, tenants remain confident that their vision of Tiong Bahru turning into an indie hangout will come to fruition.

'We think Tiong Bahru will continue to grow in popularity - its laid-back, chilled-out vibe appeals to those looking to escape the crowded and heavily-commercialised parts of Singapore,' says Strangelet's Ms Ong.

And you can't buy heritage. 'There are pre-war HDB buildings here; I don't think you can find it anywhere in Singapore ... there's a lot of historical value,' adds Centre Ps's Mr Ong.

Concludes stormtrooper Mr Lim: 'Tiong Bahru is certainly evolving, and I definitely think its headed in a nice direction - it has a certain chaotic, yet natural beauty.'

Business at BooksActually has increased significantly since it moved from Club Street to its Tiong Bahru premises (above right). Above left: Sara Tan and Peter Ng of Bhutan Shop get all dressed up for the occasion
9 Yong Siak Street
Tel: 6222-9195

FIRST, it was part of an independent retail movement in Club Street that turned the Chinatown neighbourhood into a gentrified lifestyle hotspot. Now, BooksActually has joined other independent operators who are doing the same in Tiong Bahru.

Moving in three months ago, owners Karen Wai and Kenny Leck were convinced by their friend Harry Grover, who started the popular coffee joint 40 Hands just across from them on Yong Siak Street.

The relocation is friendlier on their bank books too. 'Rent-wise, we are paying less than half of that in Club Street,' says Ms Wai, who says it was the main reason for their move. 'It's hard to find a nice location that's rather central, but which has ample parking.'

While their subsidiary brand Birds & Co - which retails hand-made stationery and vintage novelty items - has two outlets in Tangs and Cineleisure Orchard, the owners have no intention of shifting their flagship store to the heart of town. Nor are there plans to open branches of the bookstore, as the whole idea is to retain an intimate connection with hippie book lovers.

The shift has in fact done just that, with results exceeding the owners' expectations, and the neighbourhood is proving to be just the right fit for indie establishments.

'People living here are mostly PMEBs and expatriates - people with higher income brackets,' says Ms Wai. 'They are more supportive of independent startups,' she continues, adding that business has increased significantly since the shift.

As the current store is also slightly larger and consolidated into one single level (compared to the two-level space at Club Street)), there's more leeway to host larger events. Hence, the outfit has fired up its efforts to galvanise the local literary scene.

One new initiation is Babette's Feast, a fortnightly gathering where writers new or experienced can 'come and share their own works, and talk about writing with people from the writing industry,' says Ms Wai.

The sessions will culminate in a series of chapbooks - short books - which will be distributed by their in-house publishing press, Math Paper Press.

Bhutan Shop
1D Yong Siak Street
Tel: 6236-0750

FOR a country obsessed with rankings, Singapore has done remarkably badly in indices measuring happiness.

So perhaps it's time to take an interest in Bhutan, the land from which the concept of 'Gross National Happiness' originated. If you can't find Bhutan on the map (hint: it's a Himalayan nation), the best place to learn about it here will be at Bhutan Shop, tucked away in a corner of Yong Siak Street.

Started in March by a group of friends, the retail outfit specialises in all things Bhutan-related. It's also the local representative of two Bhutanese tour agencies, so it really is a one-stop shop.

A lounge and gallery area features works by Bhutan artists (priced between $800 and $12,800). In addition, there are organic products from Bhutan and Thailand. The eco-conscious will love the 100 per cent organic 'soap nuts', or nature's own detergent, which are purportedly suitable for people with sensitive skin. There's also honey, handmade cashmere bags, organic herbal teas, and a range of lemongrass fragrances and essential oils which can act as insect repellents.

Featuring Bhutanese culture as an integral theme of the retail outfit was, shall we say, an equally organic decision.

'We have good connections with Bhutanese business associates and friends,' says store manager Tan Tiong Pin, adding that interest in Bhutan has skyrocketed since Hong Kong celebrities Tony Leung and Carina Lau had their wedding there.

Speaking of weddings, the shop will host its debut cultural exhibition in October - in line with Bhutan's royal wedding. Bhutanese contemporary art, wedding culture and traditional costumes will be displayed, and visitors will get a chance to sample Bhutanese fare as well. The centrepiece of the exhibition will be Bhutanese artist Dorji Gyeltshen's painting Kilkhor, which is an abstract representation of 'four boundless thoughts: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathy and equanimity', says Ms Tan.

If happiness can indeed be bought, perhaps it'll be found amidst the 'green' esoteric offerings of Bhutan Shop. But whatever form it takes, it'll probably involve a fair bit of tree-hugging, social causes and healthy living.

Ong Ker Shing (above left) of Strangelets, an artisan's boutique inspired by Greenwich Village in the Big Apple. Curated items (above right) range from retro cardholders to jewellery
7 Yong Siak Street
Tel: 6222-1456

'A STRANGELET is a theoretical particle that converts any other particle it touches into a Strangelet as well,' explains co-founder of the outfit, Ong Ker Shing.

It makes 'Strangelets' a doubly apt name for an artisan's boutique located along Yong Siak Street. Because while Strangelets may have meant to make waves by converting the way people shop ('It's not all about brand recognition,' says Ms Ong), it's also one of a handful of independent startups along Tiong Bahru - and like its namesake, the outfit is creating a ripple-like effect with the area morphing into an artsy hangout.

The chemistry started with a passion for design, and a love of 'handcrafted objects or the intelligence and simplistic beauty in design items,' says Ms Ong.

So along with husband Josh Comaroff, friend Schirin Taraz-Breinholt (all architects) and investment banker Yeo Wenxian, the group of four started the brand in mid-2008 on Amoy Street, and moved to their current location in June this year.

The shift was 'driven by a desire for change,' says Ms Ong, and the group was drawn to the area due to the presence of indie bookstore BooksActually as well as coffee joint 40 Hands.

'In a way, all three of us appeal to the indie crowd,' says Ms Ong. 'When the unit next to them became available, we jumped at the opportunity to be side-by-side as we complement each other'.

Business has been brisk at the location, and the 'small boutique experience' they offer (inspired by Greenwich Village in the Big Apple) is a hit. Their curated items form an eclectic selection, ranging from American retro cardholders by Postalco ($185) to white glazed ceramic tableware and titanium plated cutlery by Astier de Villatte ($30-300), and there's stationery and jewellery too. So it's little wonder that they're attracting everyone from the indie crowd to working professionals and tai-tais.

'For us, Strangelets is a fun mix between hobby and enterprise,' Ms Ong says. 'We wanted a diversion from the tedium of the mass market shopping scene in Singapore.'

The Orange Thimble is a happy mix of old and new, serving gourmet sandwiches in a refurbished shophouse (above left)
The Orange Thimble
Blk 56 Eng Hoon Street #01-68
Tel: 6223-8068

THERE'S a schizophrenic air about Tiong Bahru which adds to its charm factor - a heartland district with low-rise flats dating back to the 1950s, dotted with artsy, indie startups in refurbished shophouses co-existing with old-fashioned provision shops.

Offering a mix of old and new is The Orange Thimble, opened just this week by Maria Ng who also owns art gallery White Canvas. The cafe is located just down the street from the gallery, and features works from artists (both local and foreign) with whom White Canvas has built relationships. Many of the works are also Tiong Bahru-themed and include paintings by Tia Boon Sim, once a student of the late homegrown artist Liu Kang.

Ms Ng took great pains to preserve the shophouse which she has transformed into a quaint hangout where art meets F&B. The collapsible grille and folding doors were kept, and a cast-iron window frame was refurbished and installed. The decor also includes an antique cash register, a safe, and Chinese stools given to her by Tiong Bahru residents.

There's even a wooden menu hung on the wall, poached from a traditional coffee shop - but of course The Orange Thimble doesn't serve soft boiled eggs or kaya toast. On the menu instead are gourmet sandwiches and coffee, shepherd's pie, and a range of desserts, including ice cream.

'We wanted to remember the past,' says Ms Ng of the design concept, and in fact, the reference to the thimble is in honour of the previous owner who was a seamstress. The premises have, however, been updated with a vibrant coat of Tuscan orange paint, and the alleyway is in the middle of being converted into an industrial-chic al fresco area with a trellis and an exposed brick wall.

'My business partner and I travel a lot and enjoy coffee,' says Ms Ng, who's had her palate refined by visits to cafes and restaurants in cities such as Paris and London. So while they wish to bring the experience of chilling at a mom-and-pop cafe to the district, 'we (also) want to honour and preserve the heritage of Tiong Bahru', she concludes.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Straits Times : Soul Sketches

A sketch-exhibition of buildings in Tiong Bahru is back again after a successful run last year

The Straits Times
Life Section
By Magdalen Ng
2nd July 2011 
 Sketches by Tia Boon Sim (above) and Miel Prudencio (below) will be up for sale at the exhibition. PHOTOS: WHITE CANVAS GALLERY

A Tiong Bahru-themed art exhibition did so well last year that it is returning to the retro-fabulous neighbourhood from tomorrow.

Tiong Bahru Revisited features more than 70 sketches of the Housing Board estate at the White Canvas Gallery, also located in the neighbourhood. The exhibition ends on July 17.

Inspired by the old-school architecture in the area, the works are mainly by four artists - Tia Boon Sim, Paul Wang, Don Low and Miel Prudencio.

The display follows Tiong Bahru Sketches: Outside-In, which ran at the same venue for two weeks around the same time last year.

Tia, 56, who teaches at Temasek Polytechnic's School of Design, says: 'The response last year was so good more than 90 per cent of the works were sold, and some residents even complained that the works they wanted were sold.'

The sketches on display are priced from $600 to $2,000. Works at last year's exhibition sold for between $250 and $900. This year, four works are up for bids in a charity silent auction in aid of the Ability Centre in Tiong Bahru. The centre is run by the Society Of The Physically Disabled.

Most of the drawings were done on weekends. The four artists are part of Urban Sketchers, a global network of artists who draw the cities they live in or travel to. Started by Seattle journalist and illustrator Gabi Campanario in 2007, The Singapore Chapter, set up in 2009, has about 20 regulars now.

Miel, 47, a Straits Times senior executive artist, says the laidback vibe of the iconic area draws him back to it. But he does more than just draw there: 'I would sit there, have kopi and read my book.

'It is almost provincial, yet just a bus ride away from the heart of the city,' adds Miel, who lives in Redhill, an MRT stop away from Tiong Bahru.

There are already plans for next year's exhibition. For that, the artists hope to focus on the back alleys and rooftops of the area. The group is also considering expanding their sketch-exhibition to other heritage areas in Singapore, such as Joo Chiat.

'The more we draw the same buildings, the more we find interesting facets of them. I guess it is the interplay of light and shadows at various times of the day,' says Miel.

Freelance designer and illustrator Low, 40, says the area holds special significance for him. As a child, he lived in nearby Kim Tian Place for 12 years.

The part-time instructor at the Nanyang Technological University's School of Art, Design & Media says: 'The more I sketch, the more I like this place, so I haven't ventured out of it.'

Gallery manager and curator Gerald Tan says: 'We plan to have street names at the exhibition and group the paintings according to that. It will be like a mini-Tiong Bahru in the gallery.'

view it
Where: White Canvas Gallery, 78 Guan Chuan Street, 01-41
When: Till July 17. Tuesdays to Saturdays, noon to 8pm, Sundays, 10am to 6pm. Closed on Mondays and public holidays
Admission: Free
Info: Call 6220-8723

Monday, April 11, 2011

Public Speaking : Art Deco Singapore

Have you ever wondered where the architects of the Tiong Bahru Estate got their inspirations from?

Even though the facade were European, the layout within these apartments are adapted locally.

Let Andrew Tan share with you his findings and research.

Andrew Tan is the person I consult with whenever I have questions about the architecture of Tiong Bahru and he never hesitates to share his knowledge and time.

Besides the PREWAR architecture, Andrew Tan will also touch on the architecture design of the POST WAR side as well!

You will be surprised with some of the twist and turn of events which resulted in the current design that we have there right now.

DATE      : 16th April 2011
TIME      : 3pm 
VENUE    : Chan Hampe Galleries, 21 Tanjong Pagar Road #04-02

SEATS ARE LIMITED, so make sure you RSVP fast at

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

MP Koo Tsai Kee to retire

Associate Professor Koo Tsai Kee, 56, has confirmed that he will not be seeking re-election.

Four-term MP Prof Koo, who is Minister of State for Defence, broke the news of his impending departure to his grassroots leaders and branch activists in Tanjong Pagar GRC over the past week, said PAP sources.

The Colombo Plan Scholar, who is on the civil engineering faculty of Nanyang Technological University, was first elected in Tanjong Pagar GRC in 1991.

Since then, he has served residents in two wards in the GRC: his own Tiong Bahru ward as well as Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's Tanjong Pagar ward, where he stands in at Mr Lee's Meet the People sessions.

In 1995, Prof Koo became a parliamentary secretary. He was promoted to Senior Parliamentary Secretary in 1999 and to Minister of State in 2006.

He could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Truncated from the report MPs Koo Tsai Kee and Ong Ah Heng to retire, By Elgin Toh, the Straits Times (30th March 2011)

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Straits Times : Pick favourite spot for heritage trail

The Straits Times
By Jeremy Au Yong
11th March 2011

Residents can soon nominate key areas of communities to highlight their unique identities

RESIDENTS will soon be able to nominate their favourite old local hawker stall or mamak shop in their neighbourhood as a heritage site, in a move to create more heritage trails to highlight the unique identities of communities across Singapore.

Mr Lui Tuck Yew, the Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, said yesterday that the Government will work with residents, schools and grassroots leaders to 'identify important areas in their communities, mark them as heritage sites, and incorporate them into new heritage trails'.

'These could include places of worship, cultural institutions, famous businesses and even hawker stalls,' he added.

The step is being taken as part of a multi-pronged approach to foster a sense of belonging among Singaporeans.

Mr Lui announced this effort in his reply to Madam Ho Geok Choo (West Coast GRC) and Nominated MP Calvin Cheng, who both voiced concerns over how a recent influx of foreigners might impact Singapore's national identity.

He also stressed that the increased presence of foreigners had not shaken Singapore's identity.

'On the contrary, I believe they have enriched it. We must remember that we are a city built by immigrants from distant lands. As the Chinese saying goes: Hai na bai chuan, you rong nai da - an ocean is great because it accepts all rivers flowing into it.

'Likewise, we should, as we have in the past, welcome those who want to contribute, weather ups and downs together, and weave their unique cultures into our social fabric.'

He added, however, that Singapore must encourage its people to think and talk about what made them Singaporean.

He highlighted many of his ministry's initiatives aimed at doing just that. At the heart of these efforts was getting ordinary Singaporeans involved in fostering this national identity.

Just as it would work with the ground to identify heritage sites in the neighbourhoods, his ministry also wanted to equip communities with skills and funding to develop their own heritage activities.

The Singapore Memory Project, started last year to capture national memories, similarly wanted personal stories from the people. So far, it has received contributions from more than 40 community and institutional partners.

This year's Singapore Arts Festival will also have an eye on national identity. It's theme is I Want To Remember, and will feature an interactive People's Exhibition at six venues islandwide. It will piece together videos, photographs and other mementoes, contributed by people, of old performing places such as the National Theatre and Great World.

Another festival - the Singapore Heritage Festival - will, for the first time, bring its opening and closing events into the heartland. The festival uses performances and exhibitions to raise awareness of Singapore's rich heritage.

But Mr Lui's speech was not all about preservation. One section was devoted to an aspect of Singapore's national identity he hoped to change: lack of graciousness.

While pointing out some government campaigns, he noted that what was more crucial was for every Singaporean to try and make kindness part of their DNA.

'While we have made progress over the years and particularly so during the occasions when the spotlight is on Singapore, we can do more to bring kindness and graciousness into our daily lives,' he said.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Regarding Bob.....

The Mount Pleasant Veterinary Centre has written in to give their version of the sequence of event and to clarify how much their charges are in relation to the seemingly exorbitant fees that was incurred while treating Bob.

This is their email:

Bob presented to Mount Pleasant Veterinary Centre (MPVC) on 26/1/2011 for a wound on the right inguinal region (lower abdomen).

He seemed otherwise well and there was no other medical complaint brought up by the care takers.

The care takers couldn’t give us accurate history regarding possible trauma.

The wound was clipped and cleaned. Carers were counselled on possible seriousness of the wound and treatment discussed.

Bob was discharged after administration of long acting antibiotics.

Topical wound care medication and painkiller medication was given to be taken after discharge from the clinic.

The carers were given instructions on wound management.

Bob presented again on 4/2/2011 at After hours Emergency Centre (AEC) for passing bloody urine, not eating well and straining to urinate.

Bobs bladder was very large and he could not urinate.

X-ray and ultrasound were performed and treatment was commenced to relieve the blockage.

Bob was transferred to MPVC from AEC on 5/2/2011 for further treatment.

The carer felt Bob could not urinate properly due to stress of the hospitalisation and requested for discharge on 7/2/2011.

The carer wanted to try outpatient treatment to give him more freedom.

We agreed to the carer's request and the Bob was discharged with instruction of very close monitoring and warning of possibly severe consequences if he could not urinate well.

Bob was presented again on 9/2/2011 for being unable to urinate.

The carer reported that Bob was eating ok until the day of presentation.

The carer also noted Bob was straining hard but was unable to produce any urine.

Further examinations lead us to the diagnosis of ruptured urethra in the region of the neck of the bladder.

The severity of the condition and treatment options was discussed in depth with the carer twice and the senior surgeon also spoke to the carer regarding the various treatment options.

The carer declined all the treatment options and requested discharge to seek second opinion at Namly Animal Clinic where surgery was performed.

Bob was discharged on 11/02/2011.

As the original article was not clear on where the exorbitant charges were incurred, the cost of treatment is summarised below:

26/01/2011 MPVC $152 for skin wound.

4/02/2011 (during the CNY holiday period) AEC $1327.40 for urinating blood.

5/02/2011-7/02/2011 MPVC $ 584.80 for subsequent management.

9/02/2011-11/02/2011 MPVC $284.65 for revisit when the diagnosis of ruptured urethra was made.

Total amount $2348.85

Mount Pleasant Veterinary Centre