You can take the hipster out of Tiong Bahru, but his moccasin-encased feet will never keep him away for long. Today, the estate, with its promise of heady nostalgia and cool café vibes, lures a steady flow of devotees who trample through the neighbourhood for that perfect, sunlit cupcake shot.
However, Tiong Bahru’s story stretches way beyond specialty foods and indie bookstores. The old apartment blocks may still be around but Tiong Bahru was a pretty different world back before it became Hipster Central.
And here's her story.
Death Becomes Tiong Bahru
The name Tiong Bahru is a combination of 2 words - “Tiong”, Hokkien for “to die” or “tombs”, and “Bahru”, Malay for “new”. Kampong Tiong Bahru was named after a new cemetery used by Hokkien Peranakans since 1859. This new cemetery was an expansion of an older cemetery (Tiong Lama – literally “Old Cemetery”) which occupied present day SGH.
The new(er) cemetery saw about 500 bodies buried there per year. The original Kampong Tiong Bahru was described as a piece of soggy part-swamp, part-graveyard mess which was inhabited by squatters.
Actually Someone’s Grandfather’s Road
This new cemetery was established in 1828 by See Hood Kee - the wealthiest Hokkien leader in Singapore at that time, and one of the rare persons who can claim to have tar and gravel named after him. After the development of Tiong Bahru estate, See’s great-grandson decided that it would be a good idea to commemorate his ancestors’ public spiritedness in giving land to the government for development.
Eng Watt Street is named after his grandfather, and Moh Guan Terrace after his granduncle.
Burning Hot Property
Before development, Kampong Tiong Bahru was an inaccessible swampy land interspersed with small hills and graves. Most of the graves were located on the hilly parts of the area while squatters set up plank and attap houses near the swampy areas below sea level.
The cluttered closely-built wooden houses made the area a big fire hazard. From 1934 to 1961, numerous fires destroyed attap houses across Kampong Tiong Bahru and its surrounding areas. - the most famous being the 1959 Tiong Bahru fire, as well as the Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961 which inspired the Channel 8 drama 河水山.
Designed to Fly
Tiong Bahru’s unique design is partly responsible for the camera-wielding masses who overrun the neighbourhood weekly in search of Instagram fodder. The beautiful design of Tiong Bahru flats developed before the war is termed Streamline Moderne, and was inspired by the speed and movement of transport technology in the 20th century.
Look closely and you will find that the blocks along Guan Chuan Street and Chay Yan Street, with their long, clean horizontal lines, curved forms and porthole windows, seem to resemble an ocean liner. In fact, the elongated blocks replete with horizontal lines along Tiong Poh Road earned them the nickname “Aeroplane blocks”.
Right across Lim Liak Street, you will encounter a different story. Here, the blocks are rectangular and boxy, with bare exteriors. This is the International Style that was adopted after the Second World War. The architects also (very thoughtfully) included some unique tropical elements such as the Five-foot Ways (to offer respite from the insufferable heat) and back lanes (traditionally designed for night-soil workers to collect their ‘goods’). Many people have said that this style of design is very ugly but whatever. Hipsters don’t have to listen to the masses.
Of Funnymen and Teenage Pop Stars
Nicknamed “Hollywood of Singapore”, Tiong Bahru acquired part of its glamour from some of its famous residents. Wang Sar, one half of the famous comedy duo, Wang Sar and Ye Fong – Singapore’s answer to Hong Kong’s Old Master Q (老夫子) – lived on Eng Hoon Street.
The Quests, Singapore’s most successful local band in the 1960s, was formed by 4 neighbours in the Tiong Bahru area. At the height of their popularity, they released a single, Shanty, which became the first local song to hit the top of Singapore charts.
Nest of Beauties
Tiong Bahru was originally developed as a measure to curb overcrowding in nearby Chinatown. However, the monthly rental for each unit was around $18 - $25 - unaffordable for the masses who only earned about $10 each month. However, the rent was low enough for rich towkays to house their mistresses. Beautiful ladies working at the Great World Cabaret or Keong Saik’s red light district also settled in Tiong Bahru because of the close proximity. As a result, people nicknamed the estate 美人窝 Mei Ren Wo (Nest of Beauties) or 二奶村 Er Nai Cun (Mistress Village).
For more information on Tiong Bahru, check out the National Heritage Board’s Heritage Trail markers dotted around the estate.
Top photo from here.