Exploring the Instagram worthy estate of Tiong Bahru
Described as “one of the Globe’s coolest neighbourhoods” by British Vogue in its September 2014 issue, it’s no wonder the nine decades-old Tiong Bahru estate remains a popular spot for homegrown brands to shoot their latest products.
Today, it’s still evident that the hood is a historical bridge between the pre-war and post-war independent Singapore. With heritage trails ongoing every other weekend, it’s no surprise if the community stays as a trailblazer even for decades to come. Read on, and we’ll spill some photo-opt tips to the estate’s hidden gems plus the neighbourhood’s top secrets below.
About Tiong Bahru
The name Tiong Bahru is a combination of the word Tiong, meaning “cemetery” in the Hokkien Dialect and the word ‘Bahru’, which means ‘new’ in Malay, thus referring Tiong Bahru as a ‘new cemetery’. The once burial grounds, have been exhumed and had its cemetery removed in Teong Lama (old cemetery located off Outram Road) and Tiong Bahru. So, there’s nothing to be creeped out about whilst in the neighbourhood.
The estate is the progenitor of all government housing in Singapore and developed to turn the rather swampy and insanitary plot of land into shophouse lots that would relieve congestion in Chinatown. However, that did not happen as rents were just too unaffordable to the masses.
Compared to paying only three to five dollars in Chinatown, moving to Tiong Bahru would cost them up to $40 per unit. Therefore, the estate eventually became homes to the affluent and professional classes of which includes businessman and merchants who had a thing for modern amenities such as flushing toilets. (Something estates in the day did not have access to.)
As of December 2003, the chic and charming estate gazetted as conserved buildings by the Urban Redevelopment Authority. So, not to worry about needing to rush over for a photo-opt as you would still be able to immerse in the precinct’s authenticity as no facades are allowed to be demolished nor are any repainting works permitted.
How the streets got its name
If you take a closer look into the street names whilst taking a stroll in Tiong Bahru, you would realise that many were named after people. But, exactly who are they that they get roads named after them?
Recall how Tiong Bahru got its name after the once cemetery grounds – It was all established for the Hokkien Community by See Hood Kee, a wealthy Hokkien Trader in Singapore that time. Most street names then took after members of See’s family and other notable Chinese Businessmen who aided in the estate’s upbringing one way or another.
Boon Tiong Road
Named after See Boon Tiong, principal founder of Kent Teck Huay, a Hokkien Peranakan Association.
What to look out for here: Currently stands one of the newest HDB flats, on sale at over a million dollars to date.
Chay Yan Street
Singapore would not have gotten its fair share of rubber if without one of the industry’s pioneer, Tan Chay Yan, also the grandson to Tan Tock Seng.
What to look out for here: Good Photo Spot for its edgy flat facade.
Eng Hoon Street
One of the more well-known streets of Tiong Bahru was eponymous after Koh Eng Hoon, a merchant and commission agent dealing with Bugis traders. The road is also home to the famous feline resident, Bob. The cat is so prominent that residents even gathered to chip in for its medical fees after being diagnosed with a rare medical condition. That’s an ultimate Kampong Spirit right there all for a tiny furball.
What to look out for here: Monkey God Temple (picture above), the oldest and only Buddhist-Taoist temple of its kind to stand under a HDB flat. Every Lunar New year, drop by for firecrackers display and lion dance performances or even rent a table for reunion dinner and dine al-fresco right in the middle of the street.
Eng Watt Street
See Eng Watt was a Chinese pioneer in the shipping industry. He also founded a free Chinese School, Chui Eng Si E still stands at Amoy Street until today. (now known as Chui Eng Free School)
What to look out for here: The Pasar Mural (picture above); painted in memory of the old ‘Pasar Tiong Bahru’ (Tiong Bahru Market). Local artist, Yip Yew Chong did the mural alongside a few others around Tiong Bahru. Just recently, he revealed that all of the calendars he included in his mural were dated 12 January 1979, the day he was born.
Eu Chin Street
Founder of Ngee Ann Kongsi, Seah Eu Chin also established a mercantile business in Singapore. Today, you would be able to see his legacy live on in charitable organisations such as Wild rice Theatre, Ngee Ann Polytechnic and couple of other establishments around the city.
What to look out for here: Tiong Bahru Community Centre (CC), the first CC in Singapore established in 1951. Its red-brick facade makes it unique and easily noticeable from afar. (Picture above) Also, look out for the “Home” mural (Picture below) near the entrance of the CC, painted by the same mural artist to replicate a typical Asian HDB flat. Take a closer look into its details and you would spot Yellow pages, Axe Oil, the famous 555 cigarettes and so on. One thing for sure, the calendar remains to be dated 12 January.
Kim Cheng Street
Tan Kim Cheng was the eldest son of a pioneering businessman, Tan Tock Seng (now remembered by the hospital). He established the Tanjong Pagar Dock company as well as Chop Chin Seng, dealing with rice, something that was scarce back then.
Guan Chan Street
So Guan Chuan was a member of the first committee of the Singapore Chamber of Commerced formed in 1937.
What to look out for here: Vespas/Bikes that is a rare sight and strike a pose with it. (picture below)
Moh Guan Terrace
Son to See Hoon Kee, See Moh Guan value-added to the pepper and gambier business. Moh Guan Terrace is also the longest block of the whole estate (made up of 3 streets) to make space for its air-raid shelter located on the ground level.
To note: The whole of block 78 straddles both Moh Guan Terrace and Guan Chuan Street.
PHOTO: Shariffah Nadia/ Butler Mag
Block 78 on Moh Guan Terrace included a 1600 capacity bomb shelter, the only public housing building to have been so equipped. Initially built to dual up as a play Pavillion, it solely purposed as a bomb shelter during the nine-week long Japanese bombing attack. With the estate close to Singapore General Hospital (SGH), medical personnel could run over and assist for any medical needs in the shelter, including a child’s birth. (yes a mom gave birth to her child in that shelter)
Tiong Bahru was not the main target of the Japanese bombing, but speculations mentioned that the bombs perhaps fell into the estate as they missed the primary target – SGH, marked with a red cross to remark as “no bombing allowed” to the Japanese.
Just a note: Writer, Shariffah went on the Tiong Bahru Heritage Tour which got her access to the air-raid shelter. Otherwise, the shelter is out of bounds to visitors. So, do sign up for trails to get a first-hand experience.
Seng Poh Road
Tan Seng Poh was a son to a wealthy Kapitan China of Perak. His eldest sister married Seah Eu Chin whom he forged closed business ties with. Seng Poh became the head of an opium farm and was apart of the Great Opium Syndicate.
What to look out for here: Seng Poh Garden and Dancing Girl Sculpture (picture above). The sculptor, Lim Nang Seng also sculptured the iconic Merlion the same year as the Dancing Girl. When the ‘girl’ unveiled, residents had a fair share of disagreements, saying that it looked more like a swan about to take flight. – Frankly speaking, I had the same thought, but if you’re an artist, perhaps you would have a wilder imagination.
Tiong Poh Road
In his lifetime, Khoo Tiong Poh ran a ship chandlery business and landed himself a Manchu title conferred by the Emperor of China in 1888.
What to look out for here: Blocks 81 and 82 along Tiong Poh Road were known to early residents as ‘aeroplane flats’ as it replicated the wings of an airship. Get creative when taking your shots, here’s an example of one! (picture above)
The iconic Tiong Bahru Flats facade
The Instagram-worthy flats you see today in Tiong Bahru has modified after a style called Streamline Moderne, which was a late development of the Art Deco Movement. Although streamline moderne was an in-thing for large scale public buildings such as railway stations and airports, architects took up the challenge of inducing it into the Tiong Bahru flats project. That said, if you take a closer look, the facades mostly took after the speed of modern travel such as automobile, trains, ocean liners and aeroplanes.
The use of curved corners and cantilevered shades gave the buildings its photo-worthy appearance which you don’t see in any other estates. So do try to spot these elements whilst you explore the neighbourhood. Although the architects took significant influence from Western architectural styles, they had to be sensitive towards the local conditions as the excruciating heat and storms would be hazardous to residents. Nonetheless, they still pulled it off by introducing these elements below.
The term five-foot way refers to the width of a covered walkway corridor from a resident’s front gate. Introduced by Sir Stamford Raffles, it has since been a distinctive feature in several estates around the island. With the walkway, residents could get from one point to another away from the sun or rain. A downside though, ground level unit residents had to keep their windows close/ have curtains installed for privacy’s sake. (Well, you can’t deny how kaypoh a Singaporean can get.)
Back lanes were introduced following reports of blaming overcrowding for the leading cause of diseases and deaths back in the day. To counter the problem of overcrowding, back lanes was said to be able to mandate the housing units with a principle of having a rear lane not less than 15 feet and no more than 20 feet for scavenging and drainage – where soil carriers collect human waste at night in estates with no flushing toilets)
According to residents, it was also a hotspot for businessmen to go on dates with their mistresses discreetly. Well, people living there were mostly of the upper-class, so I guess, why not? Apart from that, these lanes are perfect for your #OOTD shots. Here’s an example of one below.
As its name implies, shophouses are two or three storeys high and typically the ground level is used for business whilst the other floors are used as the residence of the business owner. Shophouses were quite a common sight in the early days of Singapore and many parts of Southeast Asia for both land constraint and convenience sake.
In Tiong Bahru, shophouses are scattered everywhere but are mostly occupied by restaurants and hip cafes today. Of which includes, Prive (picture below), Tiong Bahru Bakery as well as Bincho, a Mee Pok store by day and a Japanese restaurant by night.
Another added feature to the shophouse concept is the spiral staircase. These staircases provided alternative access and fire escape for the dwellers. According to the Europeans, it acts as a defence mechanism in any war outbreaks or anything of that sort. Yet, it became popular even in peacetime for its aesthetically pleasing sight. To differentiate Tiong Bahru from any other estates, the architects then chose to retain the staircases as an icon of Tiong Bahru flats.
Instead of boxing the kitchen with the rest of the apartment layout, SIT architects decided to place the kitchen in the unit’s protruding portion, allowing the cooking fumes to escape naturally. Moms also took the chance to share the latest gossips with their neighbours and even share their dishes using a makeshift bamboo pole. Today, these protruded portions of the flats repurposes as stairwells and a corridor for potted plants to grow. While you are there, keep a lookout for the old-school mailbox you rarely see these days anymore.
PHOTO: Shariffah Nadia/ Butler Mag
The hood with good food
Till state of the art, locals from all around Singapore would visit the Tiong Bahru Market to not only shop for groceries but more often than not for its delicious food options. Previously named the Seng Poh Road Market, it was a magnet for itinerant hawkers and vendors to sell fresh produce back in the 90s. Those days, Moms could pick out a live chicken that is deemed most fleshy and after that get it slaughtered right before their eyes.
Unfortunately, that is illegal today, but those were undoubtedly fond memories of residents and locals who frequent the market. That said, if you are a foodie, Tiong Bahru Market has quite possibly the highest concentration of ‘legendary’ hawker stalls in any estates in Singapore. Below are a few food stores to dive into and to the millennials here are a few must-visit cafes for weekend chillout. (oh and of course, get your phones charged up for endless photo-opt)
Hawker stores to visit
Lor Mee 78
This is probably one reason people from even the far end of Singapore are willing to travel to. At just $3, it is said to be the top contender to any Lor Mee fans for its savoury and starchy gravy. In 2017, the store was awarded the Michelin Good Plate, deemed as good cooking.
Tiong Bahru Market, Store unit: #02-23
7 am – 230 pm (Mon-Sun), will close once all sold out
Tiong Bahru Fried Kway Teow
Operating since the 1960s, it is said to be one of the oldest hawker stalls in the food centre. Many recall the owner, Mr Tay selling on pushcarts on the streets back in the day but today, the store has been passed down to his daughter and son in law. We must say he has done a good job inheriting his skills as queues continue to snake during lunchtime.
It is so prominent to the locals and tourists who are brought here by their tour guides that it was also included in the Michelin Bib Gourmand for hawker food in Singapore back in 2017.
Tiong Bahru Food Centre, Store Unit: #02-11
11 am – 1030 pm (Mon-Tues, Thu-Sun), Closed on Wednesdays
Liang Liang Garden Desserts
You would have probably heard of every other kind of Ice Kachang but for any Milo lovers out there, treat yourself to a bowl of Milo Dinosaur Ice Kachang.
Rarely or never seen elsewhere, this particular Ice Kacang got us speechless – Easy to say it’s like diving into a bowl of Milo shaved ice, simply satisfying and makes you feel at home.
Tiong Bahru Market, Store unit: #02-75
11 am – 9 pm (Mon- Sun)
Cafes to visit
Tiong Bahru Bakery
What’s an adventure to Tiong Bahru without making a pitstop at the iconic Tiong Bahru Bakery. With its rich history of building upon stories within and around its wall alongside being dedicated to celebrating neighbourhoods, the bakery first debuted in 2012 with its flagship store right at Eng Hoon Street in Tiong Bahru. It is also the first of french bakeries in Singapore to revolutionise french bakes into the way locals enjoy bread.
56 Eng Hoon Street, #01-70
List of its 5 other outlets here
8 am – 8 pm (Mon-Sun)
Have a look at the menu here
Must try: Matcha croissant, almond chocolate corissant and sourdough
What started out as a tiny confectionery aimed to share the love for old-fashioned cakes with the local community has now evolved into one of the hippest cafes in the neighbourhood. Today, Plain Vanilla does not only sell baked goods, it has also ventured into selling lifestyle items as well as homewares. A one-stop brunch spot for dining and shopping for sure.
Instagram Tip: Take a picture against the storefront with a straw hat on or sit on the swing. If you’re in luck, pose with a trendy looking bicycle along the road.
1D Yong Siak Street
(next to Woods in The Books)
List of the outlets here
8 am – 7 pm (Mon-Sun)
Browse their menu here
Must-try: Salted Caramel Truffle Tart, Milk Chocolate Honeycomb Tart, Apple Galette
PS. Cafe Petit
Housed in the former grounds of the Bomb-shelter, the tropical themed bistro is excellent for a chillout session over drinks with friends after work. When you are in need of a breather off your crazy back-to-back Zoom Meetings, order a glass of wine and watch the world go by.
Instagram Tip: Trust us, its as though you’re entering a whole different dimension amidst being surrounded by HDB flats. Perhaps take a “drinking wine by the window” shot or perhaps just pose for an #OOTD against the wine racks. *Just remember to block your bosses from your Instagram in any case that you left the office early for drinks!
No. 41, Block 78, Guan Chuan Street
List of its other outlets here
9 am – 1030 pm (Mon-Sun)
Shop for wine and takeaway menu here
Must-try: Truffle fries or anything truffle of that sort * Do check out their Instagram page for recommendations as the menu for each outlet might differs slightly.
Don’t leave the estate without visiting these stores
Who knew a vinyl record store still exists in this era, what more tucked away in the quaint estate of Tiong Bahru. To all you vinyl collectors, spare some time to support one of the last few record stores in Singapore for a fresh playlist to vibe to in 2021.
55 Tiong Bahru Raod, #01-53
1 pm-8 pm (Tues- Sun), Closed on Mondays
Get vibing to Curated records here.
Woods in the Books
If you are looking into purchasing new books for your kids to read before bedtime, woods in the books is the perfect spot for you and your little ones. With the guarantee of bringing to you the best Children’s picture books since 2009, the store stands next to the former Books Actually, a local bookstore which closed its doors amidst the pandemic in 2020.
No. 3 Yong Siak Street
(Alongside Plain Vanilla Cafe)
10 am – 7 pm(Tues- Sat), 10 am – 6 pm (Sun), Closed on Mondays
Shop for books online here
Spotlighting local and indie brands, Cat Socrates hands down is one of the best gift stores in the estate. If you are into artsy-fussy notebooks, trinkets and tiny home decors, definitely add this to your list of “must visit” during your adventure to the estate. As its name implies, it’s perhaps one of the few stores that allow little feline friends to take refuge in on a sunny day or simply for some extra belly rubs.
78 Yong Siak Street, #01-14
(Opposite Woods in the Books)
10 am – 6 pm ( Mon), 10 am – 7 pm (Tues-Thu), 10 am – 8 pm (Fri-Sat), 9 am -6 pm ( Sun)
Shop for your gifts on their online site here