Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Straits Times : Life before HDB: What was the Singapore Improvement Trust?

The Straits Times (Web Specials)
By Yeo Sam Jo

24th December 2014

SINGAPORE - Five old housing blocks in Tiong Bahru are being given a new lease of life, even though they were earmarked for demolition almost 20 years ago.

From next year, Blocks 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 on Tiong Bahru Road will be rented to couples waiting for their new flats, under the Parenthood Provisional Housing Scheme.

These blocks were built by the now-defunct Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT).

They were selected for the Housing Development Board's (HDB) Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme in 1995, but have been spared the wrecking balls, and are currently being retrofitted.

Here are five things to know about the SIT and the flats that it built:

1. The SIT saved the day, back in the day

A street hawker at the Singapore Improvement Trust flats in Tiong Bahru on Sept 12, 1961. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

The SIT was set up in July 1927, under the Singapore Improvement Ordinance, to solve the serious housing shortage then faced by a rapidly growing population.

Many of the 23,000 flats it built were in areas such as Tiong Bahru and Old Airport Road.

The SIT was dissolved in 1959, and its successor, the HDB, took over in February 1960.

2. Flats were designed with the weather in mind

A Singapore Improvement Trust block at Tiong Bahru Road on Dec 18, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SIT architects were conscious of the fact that Singapore was close to the equator, with warm temperatures and high humidity.

Hence, SIT flats were built for tropical living, frequently featuring high ceilings, large windows and open, cantilevered balconies. Each flat had two to six rooms.

Land scarcity was also less of a concern back then, so these walk-up blocks tend to be under 10 storeys high, without any lifts.

3. Block designs borrow from the then-aesthetics du jour

A crowd gathers at a Singapore Improvement Trust flat in Upper Pickering Street in 1956. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

Block facades and staircases often bear the distinctive curved forms of the Art Deco movement, which were popular during the 1920s and 1930s.

Some blocks also take on the Modernist tendencies of the Bauhaus era, as well as the International Style of highrise flats in a post-Modern vein.

4. Look lower and you might still spot some SIT blocks

Blocks of Singapore Improvement Trust flats at Kampong Silat, Silat Avenue. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

There are currently 138 SIT blocks left standing in Singapore.

They range from two to seven storeys, and are located in Bukit Merah, Queenstown, Geylang and Kallang Whampoa.

About 35 per cent of them, or 48 blocks, are pending redevelopment. The rest are either being conserved, or there are no plans for them.

5. These blocks are old, but certainly not useless

Singapore Improvement Trust blocks (foreground) at Tiong Bahru Road on Dec 18, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Blocks 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 Tiong Bahru Road are not the only SIT blocks currently put to interim use.

Three of them, Blocks 2, 3 and 7 on Short Street and Prinsep Street, are leased to educational institutions as student hostels.

Source: Straits Times archives, HDB

The Straits Times : Old flats in Tiong Bahru get new lease of life

The Straits Times
By Yeo Sam Jo
24th December 2014

120 units in five blocks to be rented to couples waiting for their new flats 

Standing out against a backdrop of taller and newer blocks, the old four-storey ones were built by the now-defunct Singapore Improvement Trust, which provided public housing before the HDB took over in 1960. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

FIVE old blocks of flats in Tiong Bahru are being given a new lease of life, even though they were earmarked for demolition almost 20 years ago.

From next year, Blocks 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 in Tiong Bahru Road will be rented to couples waiting for their new flats, the Housing Board (HDB) has told The Straits Times.

Standing out against a backdrop of taller and newer blocks, these four-storey ones were built by the now-defunct Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), which provided public housing before the HDB took over in 1960.

They were slated for demolition in 1995, but have so far been spared the wrecking ball as HDB continues to find use for them.

The latest purpose for the 120 three- and four-room units is rental, under the Parenthood Provisional Housing Scheme.

They are part of 800 flats, including others in Bukit Merah and Queenstown, that will be retrofitted and rolled out under the scheme early next year.

Under this programme, which began in January last year, such flats can be rented by first-timer married couples with children under the age of 16 who are waiting for new flats.

Three months later, the scheme was extended to those without children and, in September last year, to married couples comprising first-timers and second-timers, as well as divorced or widowed parents with children.

When The Straits Times visited Tiong Bahru, one of Singapore's oldest housing estates, last week, renovations were being carried out at the five blocks and surrounding areas.

The HDB said the works include external repainting, reinstating footpaths, landscaping and installing fixtures such as lights and water heaters in the flats.

These blocks are part of 16 in Tiong Bahru Road and adjacent Boon Tiong Road picked for the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (Sers) in 1995, when it was first introduced.

Under the scheme, which aims to rejuvenate ageing HDB blocks, residents have to move out and are offered replacement flats.

While the other 11 blocks have been demolished, these five blocks were leased to a private operator from 2007 to this May. They are among 138 SIT blocks still standing.

Under the Urban Redevelopment Authority's 2014 master plan, the site has been earmarked for residential use and future widening of Tiong Bahru Road and Zion Road.

For Tiong Bahru resident Tee Chai Teck, 70, the five blocks are a symbol of the past.

He lived in an SIT flat in Boon Tiong Road more than 20 years ago, but moved to a new block in the same road under Sers.

"I hope they don't tear these down too," said the cinema ticket collector, who also runs a market stall in Tiong Bahru. "They bring a sense of familiarity."

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Straits Times : Wall from 1887 lunatic asylum rediscovered within SGH

The Straits Times
By Melody Zaccheus

17th November 2014

Part of a 127-year-old boundary wall of a defunct lunatic asylum that has been unearthed in the heart of the Singapore General Hospital (SGH). -- ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

SINGAPORE - A 127-year-old boundary wall of a defunct lunatic asylum has been unearthed in the heart of the Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

The National Heritage Board (NHB) said the wall is significant as it was part of the 1887 New Lunatic Asylum - one of three early psychiatric hospitals here.

Asia Paranormal Investigators co-founder Charles Goh had alerted the board to the 3m-high, 75m-long wall in September.

Save for the wall, the facility that housed 300 patients and closed later in 1928 is long gone.

(From left) Associate professor Ng Beng Yeong, head and senior consultant psychiatrist of the Department of Psychiatry at Singapore General Hospital who helped in the research project, Mr Charles Goh, the co-founder of Asia Paranormal Investigators who re-discovered the wall, and the National Heritage Board's group director of policy Alvin Tan. -- ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

The NHB and SGH said at a briefing on Monday that they are considering preservation and commemorative efforts for it.

Mr Goh, a heritage enthusiast, had stumbled upon the wall while exploring the old forested area near Macalister Road.

NHB then embarked on a three-month research project. A team consulted old newspaper articles, maps and spoke to experts such as associate professor Ng Beng Yeong, head and senior consultant psychiatrist of the Department of Psychiatry at the hospital.

The NHB found that the New Lunatic Asylum was revolutionary for its time as it practised patient kindness by, for instance, doing away with strait jackets.

The results of NHB's research will be detailed in a documentary that will be launched on its website on Tuesday.

Mr Goh said he hopes the agencies can work towards protecting the wall. "It's a piece of our past and it takes just a little effort to keep it standing. It will add to the landscape and we will have something historic to show future generations."

Singapore General Hospital in the 1970s. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Straits Times : Three more aged tombs found at Outram

The Straits Times
By Melody Zaccheus
5th November 2014

Work around the aged tombstones uncovered in Outram has stopped, a Ministry of Health spokesman said. The ministry has also notified the National Heritage Board (NHB) and the National Environment Agency, which oversees public exhumation works. NHB said research work on the tombstones has started. -- ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Grave hunter Charles Goh stumbled upon the three relics last month in a wooded area, just metres away from his earlier find.

But the four graves are set to make way for an open-air carpark for Singapore General Hospital (SGH) and other health-care facilities in the vicinity.

Excavators have already swept in to clear trees and level the hilly terrain, which is about the size of two football fields.

The Ministry of Health (MOH), which owns the land, said the new carpark - bounded by MacAlister Road and SGH's multi-storey carpark H - will "better provide for the needs of patients and visitors to SGH and the other health-care facilities in the area".

The Straits Times understands that the new carpark will have approximately 620 spaces, and could be ready by July next year.

Nurse Brenda Lee, 56, said it might help address parking woes in the area.

She said: "It can get very busy during peak hours.

Some carparks here provide valet services because the wait can get very long."

Still, Mr Goh, 46, hopes the authorities will leave the tombstones intact as they are remnants of the now-defunct 1859 Tiong Bahru Cemetery and serve as valuable historical markers.

The construction safety manager said: "They have remained untouched, standing in a single row, over the past century.

"They should be left as they are, as a reminder of how the area has evolved over time."

He called for the ministry to give more time for the graves to be studied: "We need historians, researchers and relevant clan associations such as the Hokkien Huay Kuan to do a thorough documentation of the tombs before they are exhumed."

When contacted, an MOH spokesman said work around the tombstones has stopped.

The ministry has also notified the National Heritage Board (NHB) and the National Environment Agency (NEA), which oversees public exhumation works.

NHB said research work on the tombstones has started.

The MOH spokesman added that it "will work with NEA and NHB on the appropriate management of the graves, including putting up a notice in the public domain to alert next-of-kin who wish to claim the remains".

The SGH area is home to institutions such as the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, the Singapore National Eye Centre and the Health Sciences Authority.

By 2020, the Outram Community Hospital will also be there.

Preliminary research by Mr Goh and his brother Raymond, 50, a pharmacist, shows the hilltop graveyard where the tombs rest belonged to the Seh Chua Clan.

According to an 1884 land deed, it was owned by Chua Bian Kay, an early trustee of the Hokkien temple Thian Hock Keng.

The four tombstones bear the names Madam Ho Koon Neo (1860s), Madam Ee Leong Neo (1872), Mr Chua Chi Siok (1876) and Mr Chua Soon Chin (1878).

Other Tiong Bahru Cemetery graves were exhumed and relocated to Greater Bukit Brown after the 1920s to make way for SGH and housing projects.

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.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Straits Times : Tomb uncovered in Outram, 150 years on

The Straits Times
By Melody Zaccheus
15th October 2014

Grave hunter makes surprise find in forested Tiong Bahru area

The lone grave in Outram discovered by Mr Charles Goh (right, with brother Raymond) has stayed untouched in its original spot since the 1860s. Mr Goh hopes it will be included in heritage tours of Tiong Bahru estate. -- ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH 

A FORGOTTEN tombstone in the heart of Outram has been found, on the heels of the rediscovery of an abandoned reservoir on Keppel Hill last month.

Wrapped snugly by creeping tree roots in a forested area, the 150-year-old tombstone was discovered last month by intrepid grave hunter Charles Goh, 46.

He made his latest find last month while bashing through the forest hunting for remnants from old cemeteries in the Tiong Bahru area. "I often walk by the forested area, but I had no idea that it housed an ancient treasure and relic from Singapore's first few Hokkien cemeteries," he said.

The construction safety manager had also stumbled across the lost reservoir near Mount Faber back in 2005, without knowing it, while he was tomb-hunting.

The lone grave in Outram has stood the test of time even as modern Singapore grew around it, staying untouched in its original spot since the 1860s. It is sandwiched between the defunct 1828 Tiong Lama and 1859 Tiong Bahru cemeteries.

Mr Goh hopes the tomb, which belongs to Madam Ho Koon Neo, will be included in heritage tours of Tiong Bahru estate.

Both cemeteries were exhumed after the 1920s to make way for the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) and later housing projects.

Most of these exhumed graves now rest in Greater Bukit Brown, which Mr Goh and his brother Raymond, 50, a pharmacist, have been researching and documenting.

The brothers, who also co-founded Asia Paranormal Investigators, realised some relocated tombs and urns in Greater Bukit Brown had been haphazardly rehoused, leading them to believe that some reburials were done in a hurry.

Mr Goh said: "We then wondered if some graves had been left behind from the Tiong Lama and Tiong Bahru cemeteries."

After consulting maps, he narrowed his search down to a forested parcel of land about the size of two football fields. Bounded by College Road, Jalan Bukit Merah and MacAlister Road, the forest is part of the SGH compound.

SPH Photo Superimposed on Google Maps

According to an 1884 land deed, the hilltop graveyard where Madam Ho's tomb rests was owned by a Chua Bian Kay.

The 1m-high tombstone states that Madam Ho, who married into the Chua family, was from Zhong Shan in Fujian, China. Her exact date of death is not listed, although her grave states that she died during the 1862-1875 reign of Chinese emperor Tongzhi.

The tomb also lists her children - son Gim Guan, daughters Huat Neo and Eng Neo, and grandson Choon Swee.

The Goh brothers, who have hunted down hundreds of graves including those of pioneers Seah Eu Chin and Chia Ann Siang, are appealing for Madam Ho's descendants to come forward.

They hope the National Heritage Board (NHB) clan associations and other volunteers can help do more research on the country's pioneers.

An NHB spokesman said the board looks forward to doing research on the grave with the brothers to "shed more light on the discovery".

Meanwhile, Mr Kelvin Ang, the chairman of Seng Poh Residents' Committee in Tiong Bahru, said residents who conduct heritage tours and talks on the conservation estate might consider including the tomb as part of their talks.

He added that the find proves "history is all around us". "Mr Goh's discovery adds to the historical knowledge of the area and, hopefully, as we go on, more stories can be built upon such finds."

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Business Times : The new 'new Tiong Bahru'

The Business Times
By Debbie Yong
4th October 2014

Debbie Yong looks at the latest wave of openings that is transforming the aged estate into a trendy cafe cluster popular among the young

CULTURAL IMMERSION: The businesses in Tiong Bahru are helping to highlight the area's rich history; Tai Kwang Huat coffeeshop, a pre-war unit is now home to heritage bistro The Tiong Bahru Club. PHOTOS: DEBBIE YONG, NANA AND BIRD

WHILE up-and-coming neighbourhoods such as Everton Park and Jalan Besar have been wresting over the spotlight as the "new Tiong Bahru", the neighbourhood that first popularised the idea of heritage-chic has quietly been revamping itself to suit the times.

New businesses have been slowly trickling into once-sleepy Tiong Bahru over the last few months, accelerating the pre-war housing estate's transformation from a trendy cafe cluster popular among the young into a complete lifestyle destination.

Among the latest entrants are the Clothes Curator, a three-month-old boutique specialising in loose-fitting cotton and linen apparel for women in their late-20s to 50s, as well as fortnight-old Curated Records, which offers vinyl records from independent bands of various genres. Deeper into the neighbourhood, The Modern Outfitters is a menswear store started by entertainer Dick Lee and young tailor Clinton Zheng; Nana & Bird Kids on Eng Hoon Street specialises in homewares and socially conscious, sustainably produced products for children, and is a sister store to their two-year-old Chay Yan Road flagship store; pop-up Crateful is a collection of locally produced food; while Bloesem, a creative art studio for home decor enthusiasts now has two units along Eng Hoon Street and Seng Poh Road.

Nana & Bird Kids on Eng Hoon Street specialises in socially conscious, sustainably produced products for children and home PHOTOS: DEBBIE YONG, NANA AND BIRD

Even decades-old businesses in the area have been prompted to spruce themselves up, in keeping with the neighbourhood's growing vibrance.

Cheng's Delicacies' owner Dawn Cheng says that the month-long revamp of her family's 25-year-old eatery on Yong Siak Street in June was carried out with the aim of making the place more comfortable for their existing clients, but it has unexpectedly helped to stretch their diner demographics. The Hainanese zichar and curry rice specialist's new cafe-like decor and attractive dessert counter now lures in youthful weekend shoppers with their coconut oil-seeped gula melaka chiffon cake and handmade traditional kuehs. "Before, we would get parents who bring their children here for dinner, but now we see younger diners bringing their parents and grandparents in for a meal," Ms Cheng observes.

Decade-old nail parlour and spa Hui Aesthetics, too, spent S$30,000 to spruce up their space three months ago. Even though owner Jade Shen Jie didn't expect the neighbourhood to develop so quickly when she moved into the venue a decade ago for its lofty ceilings and sleepy village feel, she isn't surprised that it has. "We're not quite as old as some of the businesses that have been around for decades, but we aren't new either, so I've been able to watch the neighbourhood's growth from the middle ground," she observes. "I like the buzz that the new businesses bring - we visit them often to buy cakes and flowers - yet I couldn't help but shed a tear watching some of elderly tenants move out of the old coffeeshops."

But she adds: "At least the architecture of the buildings was left untouched thanks to the government's conservation efforts. But the businesses within have to evolve to suit the times - that is inevitable."

"We knew from talking to residents that there was a lot of anxiety and hype over what we would open here," says Jerry Singh, who took over the lease on Tai Kwang Huat coffeeshop, a pre-war unit prominently sited across from Tiong Bahru Market in July. "We wanted to create something that would restore and celebrate the space's rich history," he adds of his three-day-old heritage bistro, The Tiong Bahru Club. The coffeeshop's landlord Lim Ah Boon, who ran a fruit stall in the space for 45 years, put up the entire unit for rent when he had to undergo an operation last year. He now helps out at the bistro daily. "I'm not getting any younger and my two children don't want to take over, so this was the only option. Of course I miss the place, but what's the point in thinking about the past? We have to move on," says Mr Lim.

And move on is exactly what marketing executive-turned-baker Tricia Lim did when she took over the corner coffeeshop that used to house Hong Kong Jin Tian for close to two decades . "I didn't want to do another local-inspired concept, that's become too common these days," says the New York-trained baker, explaining her cafe Whisk's minimalist, European-inspired decor.

And while adapting their concepts to suit the neighbourhood is a personal choice, not all of the new businesses have been keeping to the stipulated conservation guidelines, says Tiong Bahru resident and active community contributor Carolyn Oei. Several have altered building facades by installing glass-door shop fronts. "It might be time for the re-establishment of a business association to complement the residents committee and to make things more cohesive," Ms Oei suggests, adding that she hopes to see new more residents, whether residential and commercial, become more active in volunteering their time to conduct heritage walks or writing in to the authorities requesting recycling bins for the betterment of the neighbourhood, as current residents regularly do.

Echoing her thoughts, Ms Shen adds: "The new businesses that come in should hopefully be a place where, anyone - whether you're a resident, an expat or a tourist - can walk into and get a feel of the local culture."


Vinyls for a lifetime
Curated Records
55 Tiong Bahru Road #01-53
Tel 6438 3644
Hours: 11am-9pm daily

SAY IT WITH MUSIC: Mr Lim (above) settled on his existing unit hoping to add colour to the historic neighbourhood, which did not have any music-related shop, he further plans to host autograph and meet-up sessions with independent local musicians and bands in the shop.

FORTNIGHT-OLD Curated Records is the realisation of a childhood dream by Tremon Lim, who left a publishing job of six years in May to start the independent records shop along bustling Tiong Bahru Road.

It was a dream that the 30-year-old thought was done and dusted at one point in his life but the yearning was revived again a few months ago, thanks to a visible vinyl resurgence of recent years, says Mr Lim.

The little nook of a shop packs in over 1,200 records into its brightly lit 280 square foot space, mostly from independent bands and performers in genres spanning electronic, rock, folk and pop music. It's "the stuff that most large record shops don't bring in", he explains, because "regular bands may move much faster, but there's no point selling what everyone else is already selling". Prices range from S$27 to S$49 per record.

Mr Lim was initially scouting for a store in the City Hall area close to the existing cluster of record shops in the area, but settled on his existing unit hoping to add colour to the historic neighbourhood, which did not have any music-related shop.

Besides expanding his repertoire to include used records, Mr Lim further plans to host autograph and meet-up sessions with independent local musicians and bands in the shop.

"People who come to Tiong Bahru are the types to appreciate and want something to hold and keep for a lifetime, and vinyls are exactly that," he says.

Heritage bistro
The Tiong Bahru Club
57 Eng Hoon Street, #01-88
Tel 64380168
Hours: 8am-10pm (Mon-Fri), 8am-midnight (Sat-Sun)

CELEBRATING OLD TIMES: The club's food to the decor, made up of old kopitiam kitchenware and vintage knick-knacks (above), provide a reminder of the rich history of the area PHOTOS: DEBBIE YONG

THE club rules are stated clearly above the bar: No outside food, no mischief making, and no flirting with the cashier. But then there's also a catch: there are no real penalties for bending the rules, nor are there any criteria to qualify for membership - or any membership fees to begin with.

What this three-day old "club" really is is owner Jerry Singh's tongue-in-cheek jibe at the idea of an exclusive country club set right in the heart of historic Tiong Bahru. Membership, incidentally, is handed out in the form of cardboard discount cards that you have to pencil your own name onto.

The "heritage bistro", in Mr Singh's own words celebrates all that is old, from its food - a hodge podge of plates that pay homage to the culinary culture of past and present immigrants to Singapore - to the decor made up of old kopitiam kitchenware and vintage knick-knacks scavenged on Mr Singh's global escapades.

Interior of the Tiong Bahru Club  PHOTOS: DEBBIE YONG

Besides retaining the former Tiong Bahru coffeeshop's old tiled blue floors and metal shutters, don't be surprised if you see an elderly uncle helping to direct customers to seats and hand out menus. He's actually the coffeeshop's landlord who ran a fruit stall in the space and still supplies the fresh fruit platter on Tiong Bahru Club's dessert menu.
Truck Stop chicken wings PHOTOS: DEBBIE YONG
Food-wise, expect Asian-inspired starters such as the crispy fried Truck Stop chicken (S$10.80), named for the rest stops built for truck drivers plying India's treacherous North-South highway; satay served on mini tabletop charcoal grills (S$11.80); and a duet of Thai sausages (S$10.80) made up of a fat-chunked Isaan-style sausage and a spicy lemongrass and chilli speckled Chiangmai-style sausage.

Mains comprise a multi-racial mix of Eurasian, Malay, Indian, and even Spanish and Italian-inspired fare such as pastas, fish fillet, soto ayam and fried rice, along with "a curry for every culture," says Mr Singh of his four options of Thai, Indonesian, Indian and a searing Eurasian devil's curry (S$16.80 to S$18.80).

On weekends and public holidays, there's the Good Morning brunch offerings of nasi lemak and bacon-wrapped egg cups or chorizo and beans.

End your meal on a sweet note with their selection of traditional kuehs such as kueh ko swee, ubi pisang and pulut udang all produced in a central kitchen. Wash it all down with sodas, coffee, tapped beers and easy-drinking wines or pick from a selection of over 14 flavours of chai teas from Chaiholics, a two-year-old tea cafe and retail brand also run by Mr Singh.

The legal-trained former manager in a global mining company left his corporate job in 2011 to start Chaitime, a tea chain "positioned somewhere between TWG and Starbucks" that currently has two outlets in the Marina Bay Financial Centre and Chevron House. The brand was renamed Chaiholics this June.

The Tiong Bahru Club is the first of a Singapura Club series of dine-in restaurants he hopes to eventually run. A slightly larger second outlet, the Namly Club, will open along Namly Avenue in Bukit Timah later this month serving up the same menu in similarly vintage surrounds, along with a retail corner where customers can pick and purchase proprietary Chaiholics teas and gift sets.

Meanwhile, Chaiholics, which already has an outlet in Cardiff in the United Kingdom, will soon launch a second outlet in London, presided over by Mr Singh's UK-based Singaporean business partner. The duo plan to open a further 30 Chaiholics shops in key cities around the world in the next two years.

25 years and counting
Cheng's 27
27 Yong Siak St
Tel 9748 9135
Hours: 10am-3.30pm, 5.30-9.30pm daily, closed Tuesdays

REVITALISED The Chengs (Hugo, Dawn and Glenn) gave their 100-seater eatery a sprucing up in June PHOTOS: DEBBIE YONG
THE Chengs regularly get offers between S$6 million and S$12 million for their home-style Hainanese coffeeshop along Yong Siak Street - but they aren't budging.

In fact, the family has just given the 100-seater eatery that they've been running for 25 years in the same space a much-needed makeover in June.

A new kitchen exhaust was installed, chipped marble tables were replaced with spiffy new wooden coffeeshop tables and plastic chairs, and a new dessert counter showcases their range of home-made cakes, traditional kuehs and their signature savoury pumpkin pie.

The renovation - along with a name change to the trendier-sounding Cheng's 27 - was prompted by 25-year-old younger brother Glenn's joining the family business earlier this year, according to older sister Dawn, 40. Their parents Cheng Mook Boon and Lim Toi Ang, both in their early 60s, still help out in the kitchen. The elder Chengs first started Cheng's Delicacies in Pekin Street in the early 1980s, but moved the eatery to Tiong Bahru, where the family also lives, in 1989.

Gula melaka chiffon cake tinged with coconut oil PHOTOS: DEBBIE YONG
Their regular menu of Hainanese curry rice and cooked dishes such as vinegared pork belly and deep fried prawn rolls remain, alongside more trendy creations such as a gula melaka chiffon cake tinged with coconut oil that's popular with the weekend hipster crowd. Desserts start from S$5 and savoury dishes from S$7. Youngest brother Hugo is also working on an online store for their desserts to be launched in a month.

A bit of polishing
Hui Aesthetics
57 Eng Hoon Street, #01-80
Tel 6323 2821
Hours: 10am-8pm (Mon-Sat), 11am-8pm (Sun)

Hui Aesthetics has doubled their capacity with four brand new pedicure stations and three manicure stations. PHOTOS: DEBBIE YONG

OLD is gold, they say, but even gold needs a little bit of polishing sometimes. After a decade of business in Tiong Bahru with nary a tweak to its decor, nail parlour and spa Hui Aesthetics underwent a little nip and tuck in June. Instead of its previous dark and wood-decked Balinese-inspired decor, the front half of the shop now has a brighter, whiter design palette that incidentally - though unintentionally - parallels the design aesthetics of their trendy cafe neighbours, says Hui's founder Jade Shen Jie, 46, who is also the wife of local Chinese television host Guo Liang. Its four brand new pedicure stations and three manicure stations are double their previous capacity. Manicures and pedicures cost an affordable S$25 and S$35 respectively, inclusive of nail art. One-hour massages start from S$100 and facial treatments range from S$98 to S$250.

Passion for pastry
58 Seng Poh Road #01-15
Hours: 9am-7pm (Tues-Thu), 9am-11pm (Fri-Sat), 9am-9pm (Sun), closed Mondays

DIFFERENCES ARE IN THE DETAILS: Ms Lim settled on the Tiong Bahru venue to site her 45-seater Whisk for its high foot traffic and eclectic mix of aged aunties, uncles and youths.

IT DOESN'T matter if hers is the umpteeth iteration to open in the by-now cafe-saturated neighbourhood, or that its all-white decor and flash bulb-studded signboard looks somewhat out of place in the aged estate. Tricia Lim of month-old Whisk Cafe believes that the differences are in the details.

Before setting up shop, for instance, she spent time checking out the baked goods of neighbouring cafes to make sure none of her offerings overlap with theirs, says the 30-year-old.

To formalise her passion for pastry, the former PR and marketing executive left her job in 2011 to enrol in a six-month course at the French Culinary Institute (now renamed as the International Culinary Centre) in New York - and she hasn't looked back since. Besides training under her long-time idol and globally renowned pastry chef Jacques Torres, Ms Lim also spent time apprenticing at the Dominique Ansel bakery in New York, famed for creating the cronut.

The 45-seater Whisk is a physical manifestation of the online home bakery EatLoveBake that Ms Lim has been running since her return to Singapore two years ago. After scouring the island for over a year, Ms Lim settled on the Tiong Bahru venue for its high foot traffic and eclectic mix of aged aunties, uncles and youths. She spent a "six figure sum" doing up the 1,000 square foot space, which is partially owned by her banker parents.

Besides macarons in various flavours, her signature bakes such as carrot cakes, orange-scented cheesecakes and lemon tarts with less meringue to suit the local palate are also on offer from S$2.50 for a macaron to S$7 for a slice of cake. Seasonal specials such as a brown butter pumpkin cinnamon roll topped with a maple cream cheese frosting will be created intermittently, while savoury dishes such as sandwiches and quiches for lunch as well as easy drinking wines for evening diners will be introduced in the coming weeks.

The baby stroller-friendly space also offers mini-"babycinos", or petite cups of foamed warm milk topped with cocoa and marshmallows for the little ones.

Win-win situation
Clothes Curator
2/F, 69 Tiong Bahru Road
Tel 6438 9622
Hours: 12pm-7.30pm (Mon-Tues, Fri-Sun), closed Wed

SHARING WINS: Combining the two national past times of eating and shopping is a no-brainer, says Ms Tan.

WHAT'S a budding entrepreneur with limited resources in a neighbourhood with rising rentals to do?

What every kampung dweller of yore would have done: share. Sequestered away on the second floor of year-old The Dispensary cafe in Tiong Bahru is the Clothes Curator, a four-month old clothes boutique run by former ad agency art director Iris Tan.

The Tiong Bahru resident of seven years was looking for a space in the neighbourhood to run her own business, but landlords were asking for frightful amounts in monthly rent for retail units in the rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood.

She then chanced upon The Dispensary, and struck a deal to carve out a 320 square foot nook on the 2,200 sq ft cafe's upper floor as a petite boutique. Aside from two labels, Tata and Exotic by Hong Kong designer Carmen Wong, the rest of the mainly cotton and linen apparel in loose fitting forms and handmade jewellery and accessories are individually handpicked from South Korea by Ms Tan and her business partner, who also owns Oka boutique in Far East Plaza. Prices range from S$40 for a t-shirt to S$189 for a dress.

The second floor space with no street-level visibility was no deterrent, says Ms Tan, who says most of her customers either heard about her through social media and by word-of-mouth recommendations from other shoppers. Or they are cafe patrons who chanced upon the store accidentally.

Combining the two national past times of eating and shopping is a no-brainer, according to Ms Tan.

"When the women are shopping, the men can have a coffee or read the papers - it's a win-win situation for everyone," she laughs.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Home-Based Businesses

Photo taken from

Back then, it was not uncommon to walk into someone's home to buy some titbits.

When I was studying at the Tiong Bahru Primary between 1978 - 1983, there is an old lady who would parked her make-shift stall at Block 80 Chay Yan Street, just outside unit #01-14. (I think she resided at #02-16B)

I always looked forward to buying a refreshing SNG PAO (Ice Sticks) after school. My fave was the Sour Plum flavour as there is a preserved sour plum at the bottom of the stick.

There were quite a few home based businesses and hairdressing / tuition & piano lessons were the common ones.

Fast forward to today, the "home" based business has evolved and gotten more sophisticated in Tiong Bahru.

Just walk around and you will notice home-based art galleries, home-based clothing retailers, home-based nail spa, home-based offices, home-based antique shops, home-based art studio, home-based cobblers, home-based bakery, home-based hairdresser, home-based grocer, home-based home furnishings, home based lighting retailers, home-based yoga, home-based bicycle shop, home-based book shops,  home-based "hotels" etc etc.

Some of the home-based businesses looks so legit that one cannot be faulted to think that they are operating out of a legit commercial space.

In fact, some realtor are also trying to package residential units as "commercial" units. Not sure if these realtor are really ignorant or they have just conveniently overlooked it

Am just hoping the home-based businesses in the Pre-War Tiong Bahru estate don't eventually displace the home makers.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Straits Times : Patching heritage cracks

The Straits Times
By Melody Zaccheus
26th September 2014

The uncertain fate of Singapore's historic dragon kilns highlights problems of overlapping roles and varying priorities of the three heritage bodies.

THEY may be Singapore's only two surviving dragon kilns from the 1940s and 1950s, part of a once-booming brick industry here, but their fate is up in the air.

The wood-fired dragon kilns - their distinctive shapes resemble a dragon's tail and smoking head - at 85 and 97L, Lorong Tawas, in Jurong are part of a fascinating history.

Up till World War II, Singapore was home to at least 20 smouldering kilns. Some of the Jurong kilns used to produce latex cups used by nearby rubber plantations.

However, they sit on government land earmarked for long-term development.

And the National Heritage Board (NHB), the statutory body some would think is responsible for their safe keeping, actually has no power to conserve the site.

This is even though its impact assessment and mitigation division deemed the kilns historically unique and of artistic value last August, and managed to persuade the site's owner, the Singapore Land Authority, to extend its lease by three three-year terms.

The board's division, the Preservation of Sites and Monuments (PSM), has the power only to gazette - or preserve - national monuments based on stringent criteria.

For the site to be conserved, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) would have to step in. Even then, it would have to weigh the needs of the agencies involved in the site - this includes the JTC Corporation, which runs the CleanTech Park there - and the future land needs of the area. The agencies involved must come to an agreement.

So, after surviving for decades, the dragon kilns' future is clouded due to a hodgepodge of rules on heritage and conservation matters, and overlapping or conflicting development priorities.

Other historic sites and monuments are falling through the cracks too.

In 2008, five heritage bridges along the Singapore River were put on the conservation list by the URA. Under the law, conserved structures and buildings must retain their original structure and achitectural elements.

They must also be sensitively restored or repaired carefully, should the need arise.

But some of these structures, which fall under the charge of their site owners, the Singapore Tourism Board and the Land Transport Authority, fell into disrepair.

This would not have happened if a government body had been appointed to galvanise and see to it that different agencies and developers work towards the same goals.

Architectural conservators, historians and civic groups say the problem lies in the overlapping and unclear roles of the three bodies charged with heritage matters - the NHB, PSM and the URA.

The situation today

THE NHB promotes heritage appreciation through managing its national museums, and documentation and outreach efforts.

Under its umbrella is the PSM, which provides legal protection for national monuments - these must have socio-historical, cultural and architectural value on the level of national significance - and offers monument owners guidance and regulatory support.

Then there is the URA, established in 1974, and which is charged with studying old buildings for possible conservation as part of land use planning.

For a structure to be worthy of conservation, it needs to fulfil the URA's requirements, including having architectural, social and cultural significance; the rarity of the structure; and the contribution to the environment.

Experts have given these bodies the thumbs up for their good work so far.

They applauded the NHB's landmark move to set up an impact assessment and mitigation division last July to study and act as consultant on the effects development has on the country's heritage. The new division came about as part of an internal reorganisation. Comprising a group of conservation architects, historians and researchers, its job is to conduct impact assessments of redevelopment works on heritage sites and structures and work with parties involved to establish mitigation measures.

It acted as mediator, working with the Housing Board and Singapore Heritage Society, to incorporate heritage elements into the new Bidadari housing estate, for example. It also worked with civic group My Community, the URA and Housing Board to help conserve several landmarks in Queenstown, Singapore's first satellite town.

NHB chief executive Rosa Daniel said NHB plays the role of heritage promoter, facilitator and regulator. "Each role is important and we seek to find the balance that best serves the needs of a more discerning public and a more complex operating environment."

Experts acknowledged the URA's work as well. The authority has close to 7,200 buildings in its conservation stable.

They noted that its latest gazette in June saved warehouses, public housing flats and social institutions such as health-care facilities and a library - marking a shift from the large numbers of shophouses and black-and-white colonial bungalows it started out saving.

Gaps in the system

HOWEVER, gaps still exist. Experts argue that the NHB's main business is still the operation of its eight museums and heritage institutions.

Meanwhile, the Sungei Road Flea Market, which has to make way for a new MRT station by 2017, and rustic island Pulau Ubin are, like the historic dragon kilns, not safe from future development works.

Despite valiant efforts - including extensive documentation projects of these places by the NHB - the board's hands are tied, for it has no actual power to protect them.

The PSM division has also got flak from some monument owners for not providing enough technical expertise or funding for repair and restoration efforts, which can cost millions.

As for the URA, concerns about conflict of interest have been raised because, while the authority sizes up places for conservation, it is also associated with "bulldozers and demolition, acquisition and redevelopment", says cultural geographer Lily Kong of the National University of Singapore.

What experts want

EXPERTS believe a more holistic way to promote and protect heritage is needed.

Some say the NHB, with its existing resources, should be the lead agency and be armed with greater bite to push for the protection of sites it deems historically worthy. Others say there is a need for an independent and dedicated government agency.

Some suggestions include expanding the NHB's scope and operations to take on the URA's role of conservator.

Under this scenario, the NHB would also preferably have the power to require site owners and caretakers to report to it on maintenance matters and provide more financial support to national monument owners.

Others, such as Dr Kevin Tan, president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites Singapore, said this power should be vested within a new and independent agency. Describing the agency as an ombudsman, he said it would be able to take both private developers and ministries to task if heritage laws are violated.

Take the Tan Si Chong Su temple, where the secretary of the temple's management committee was fined $500 in 2003 for making unauthorised renovations to the national monument.

The monument's owner, the SLA, was not taken to task, said Dr Tan. "There must be political will to give this body enough power to do the job and this would involve amending or creating legislation for this."

He added: "The heritage ombudsman would sit across ministries and account only to Parliament. If this is in place, then there is no need to worry about the pecking order of the various ministries.

"It would have powers to receive complaints and investigate them. If rules are violated, it would have powers to prosecute the parties involved."

The way forward

NO MATTER who takes the lead in this effort, it is clear that there is a need for a body to step in and impose mandatory impact assessments across the public and private sectors before development decisions are made, said Dr Jack Lee, a heritage law expert from the Singapore Management University.

Architectural conservation specialist consultant Ho Weng Hin said the assessment report should detail the condition of the building or site, the heritage elements worthy of protection and the parameters for future use, given its existing state.

Mr Ho said: "Singapore has a dwindling stock of heritage buildings, so we must be diligent about the background work that we do."

Singapore University of Technology and Design assistant professor Yeo Kang Shua, who is also the honorary secretary of the Singapore Heritage Society, said such reports would ensure that, at the very least, "we will know what we are losing, if we have to let them go".

Dr Yeo added that the process should be open for public comment and viewing - as in the case of Hong Kong, where people can submit historic buildings for grading and the results and meetings are open to the public.

This would start the conservation conversation early on.

Law expert Dr Lee agreed. "Heritage groups often don't realise that a site is in danger of redevelopment until after the decision has been made," he said.

The extra pair of eyes could also help identify important historic areas that have been left out of the country's annals.

These include the Singapore Heritage Society's suggestions, such as schooling, housing and leisure heritage sites and forgotten parts of Singapore like Tanjong Malang in the Palmer and Hill road area.

Alongside civic groups, the body would also champion a mindset shift, where heritage considerations, now in their infancy, carry the same weight as the country's developmental needs.

Such a multi-faceted approach would prevent historically valuable places from slipping through the cracks - such as the red-brick National Library building and parts of Bukit Brown Cemetery.

It is timely to relook this sector, especially with the nation's bid for the Singapore Botanic Gardens to become its first Unesco World Heritage Site.

More importantly, with the country's jubilee year coming up next year, Singapore must develop an overarching and all-encompassing system - through a process of constant refinement - that can work for another 50 years, to ensure a lasting legacy for future generations.