Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Straits Times : Tiong Bahru is shabby chic

The Straits Times
27 January 2011
By tan shzr ee

It suddenly dawned on me that Tiong Bahru was hip, with an old-world charm

This weekend, Civic Life: Tiong Bahru, a film on Singapore's historic Tiong Bahru district, opens in one of London's arthouse cinemas, Renoir.

Helmed by British film-makers Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, it stars 'real life' people of the famed area's markets, who struggle with big decisions about life choices, belonging, identity and place.

My own tiny contribution to the project as a voiceover artist allowed an initial glimpse of the rushes, which showed Tiong Bahru in all its old-world charm, its almost ridiculous greens, reds and oranges; its dated multi-storey carparks that were so ugly they could almost be beautiful.

And then, it suddenly dawned on me: Tiong Bahru was hip. Old housing board developments were being reclaimed as not-quite 'historic' districts than viable, livable spaces whose slightly worse-for-wear and once unfashionable facades were now the epitome of cool.

Rydwan, my fellow consumer of Singaporean nostalgia in London, concurred over a Facebook chat: 'Yes, TB is quite the hip. No gentrification yet. Outram Park, Changi Village, the old Seletar airbase - people in these neighbourhoods have this solidarity and pride about their own kampungs. You never find it in Yishun or AMK.'

What about Chinatown?

'Chinatown where got people live there anymore? Same as Bugis.'

Yes - I agreed. They were choc-a-bloc with beautiful hotels, too-trendy design boutiques, or indeed the creature which crossed both genres: boutique hotels.

But what then, of Holland V?

'Too ang moh. But it's still villagey.'


'Hmmz. Not hip... yet. But getting there. It's seedy. Got edge.'

And Siglap? With its wine merchants and all?

'Laidback hip. It's the Holland V of the East but not so ang moh.'

And so we went through major sections of Singaporean topography, debating over their merits and faults in terms of our very own definitions of hipness.

As it turned out, Ryd's definitions were slightly different from mine, although we both decided that hipness was not so much measured by design-worthiness or pure old-world charm or youth culture, than an X factor reeking of tried-and-tested aliveness.

I, for one, ruled out Siglap on the grounds of its too-obvious colourful and new cafes in restored buildings which seemed to be reaching out to yuppies every single second.

To me, the architecture of the area and its communities seemed to be always declaring, oh-so-self-confidently, that it was neither Bukit Timah or Orchard Road, but 'a real village'. Not that I wouldn't choose to live in this beautiful district though - self-admitted pretentious bourgeois bohemian that I really am.

But Siglap did not have that unplanned, quirky and slightly rundown feel of slow-burning buzz which Outram Park, Selegie, Geylang, Redhill, Toa Payoh - even Ang Mo Kio and Balestier which Ryd felt could not make the list - all possessed.

As far as I was concerned, these neighbourhoods all had an uncle touch: they sported those ubiquitous, singlet-wearing, balding 60-something males who would be squatting by the pavement, griping about the abominable fashion sense of 'those young people' when not stoning in front of a kopitiam widescreen TV broadcasting the English Premier League.

And the 'uncle' touch wasn't just about live, grumpy old men in tatty clothes populating public and open spaces. It was a whole ethic - of shabby chic, of has-been-ness and finally, of a steely determination to remain marginally relevant to the pulse of everyday life in Singapore, every moment.

Of course, there are uncles in Yishun, Holland V and Siglap too. But they were not so much central to the landscape than incidental to it. They were either holed up in their swanky third-generation HDB flats' air-conditioned 'guest rooms' (watching the English Premier League, no less), or dutifully and invisibly walking their precious grandchildren to kindergartens and nursery schools.

Real uncle-hipness was a different matter: Here was an old man's stubbornness, an old man's recalcitrance - whether demonstrated in physical displays of kiamsiap (stingy) behaviour in disputes over correct change at the coffeeshop, or metaphored in the defiant, graffitised but not yet mouldy paintwork of walls, building archways and void decks.

In my books, Tiong Bahru - with its brilliant reds, greens, oranges, dirty yellows and ucky beiges - has the original 'uncle-hip' factor. And where newer, shinier, multi-purpose multi-swimming-pooled executive condominiums with skywalk passageways might cause you to take deep intakes of breath from within as well as from afar, I'm equally happy taking the heat any day from your cantankerous uncle on his crumbling, roadside perch in some rundown corner of neglected - but still alive - Singapore.

The film-makers are giving away 100 DVDs of Civic Life: Tiong Bahru. Go to for more details.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Old School Health Service & School Dental Service Building

Now that DDB Worldwide Pte Ltd has moved out of the former School Health Service & School Dental Service at 226 Outram Road, I wonder what will become of this building.

It was a building of "terror" for me when I was growing up coz that was the place I had my teeth checked as well as got my BCG jab when I was 12!

There was once I even got trapped in their elevator with my grandma for about 30 minutes before someone pried open the doors to let us climb out of it.

Hope I still have a chance to wander inside the building again.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Sunday Times - Featured Tiong Bahru Resident

Learn more about our fellow Tiong Bahru resident and also find out what's keeping him busy nowadays in today's Sunday Times write up.

The Sunday Times
Lifestyle Section - Bookends
9th January 2011
By Shairah Thoufeekh Ahamed


Who: Michael Lee has a short attention span when it comes to reading books. The 38-year-old visual artist finds it difficult to stick to one book at a time, let alone the same chapter in a single book.

'I get bored very quickly. I think I end up benefiting in terms of breadth but suffering in terms of depth,' he says.

The self-professed book-hoarder, who is also a part-time lecturer at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, will be showing his latest work at this month's interactive art tour Open House.

Titled The Eulogist, his work features personal eulogies written by the owners of the households themselves and will take place in four HDB flats in Marine Parade. The Open House tours take place today and next weekend. For details, go to

What are you reading now?
I am now split between 6 Memos For The Next Millennium by Italo Calvino, Lives Of The Artists by Giorgio Vasari and Ideas That Changed The World by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto.

The first is a series of lectures delivered at Harvard University from 1985 to 1986, about what Calvino felt were important literary values, which are lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity.

Lives Of The Artists was partly responsible for heralding the Early and High Renaissance, a period of artistic flourishing in the West during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Vasari was championing the trades of painting, sculpture and architecture, which were previously considered more craft than art. I hope one day I can do the same for Singapore, if not for the world.

The last book is an excellent mini- encyclopaedia with illustrated pages of the evolution of human thought.

All these books feature beautiful prose, even if they are considered non-fiction. More importantly, I like that they challenge conventional ideas.

If your house were burning down, which book would you save?

Human, All Too Human by Friedrich Nietzsche. It keeps me sane by reminding me that a lot of so-called human virtues such as morality and loyalty are nonsense, and are ways of preventing people from realising their fullest potential.

The bottom line is that anyone who wants to be really free needs to have this book on his reading list.

6 Memos For The Next Millennium (Penguin, 2009, $29.43),
Lives Of The Artists (Oxford, 2008, $25.95),
Human, All Too Human (Prometheus, 2008, $25.72)
are available from Books Kinokuniya. Ideas

That Changed The World (DK, 2007, $13.92)
is available at

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