When a tourist opens his or her guide book or browse through common guides online, common recommendations would include visits to Chinatown, Little India or Kampong Glam for an immersive experience in the different racial enclaves. While such guides cannot be faulted, the experience sometimes are a little sterile or for some it may be a little (or too) touristy. Also, such experiences vary from enclave to enclave with I think Chinatown being worst of the lot; Little India and Kampong Glam still retain some of their old magic.
There are however other hidden gems in Singapore ready to be discovered (and hopefully preserved from the city state’s endless pursuit to redevelop and maximise land usage). Such gems tend to fall within one of two categories.
The first being a relic of pre-independence. These are very rare and not many survived the city’s fast paced development. Some of which still remain in places like Pulau Ubin (a small island with some traces of kampong (village) life still present).
The second being the part of Singapore that is linked to the period around Singapore’s independence or just before that key historical milestone. These places show how Singapore was like just before its mad rush to develop and what Singapore could have been if a different government was elected.
Tiong Bahru is one such place.
I never really paid attention to Tiong Bahru. Singaporeans don’t really see much of it compared to the other heartland estates in Singapore. Tiong Bahru is one of the estates where the MRT/Metro system is underground so if you get around Singapore by train you won’t see much of that place.
I decided to explore this little part of Singapore today after learning that the area is being revitalised with a new crowd. For those who are unaware, Tiong Bahru was one of the first few new estates in Singapore as the population started to move outwards from the city into the suburbs. Tiong Bahru was considered as an ageing estate. That was until now. Youngsters are moving into the area and bringing a new breathe of life into the estate.
I took the train and got off at Tiong Bahru station. Unlike my other trips or exploration attempts, I decided to hit the road without any solid plan and see what little surprises are there. I only had two rules. Avoid the malls and avoid the new parts of the estate (where the newer HDB blocks are located). So I took out my phone and checked the map. On a hunch, I decided to walk towards Tiong Bahru Market.
I was spot on.
As I walked along the path, I came across a curious sight. I remembered reading about them when I was a student in school: Low level government subsidised flats. These blocks look out of place when contrasted against the tall flats in the surrounding area and provide a link between old and new Singapore:
Prior to Singapore’s focus on taller (and more efficient) apartment blocks, Singapore Housing Development Board’s predecessor Singapore Improvement Trust had a different approach and instead built low level apartment blocks.
Such apartments were built in different areas including Tiong Bahru.
For a visitor or a local Singaporean, these blocks may not look much. However, unknown to most people, these blocks are “living” on borrowed time. They are not even supposed to be existing today. “They were slated for demolition in 1995, but have so far been spared the wrecking ball as HDB continues to find use for them.” (Straits Times, 2014). As at 2014, there are only 138 SIT blocks still standing.
While looking at these apartment blocks, they gave me a feel of how differently Singapore could have turned out. While it may not have been ideal to have such low rises as they are not land efficient, the apartment blocks and their surrounding area felt more open and comfortable compared to the high rises nearby.
Following these old apartment blocks, I arrived at Tiong Bahru Market:
For foodies, be sure to take out your Michelin Guide Singapore. As at the date of writing, there are 7 mentions in the guide falling within the Tiong Bahru district. 5 of which can be found at Tiong Bahru Market and of the 5, 2 were awarded the Bib Gourmand symbol (“a well-loved beacon for value-seeking diners looking out for good deals”). These 5 mentions are:
Hong Heng Fried Sotong Prawn Mee – “Cooked-to-order, the noodles stir-fried with sliced fish, squid and prawn and served with homemade chilli sauce is a favourite”
Jian Bo Shui Kueh – “Typical local street food: a white rice cake with preserved vegetables and a secret sauce”
Lor Mee 178 – “Besides the Lor Mee, you should try the fish nuggets”
Teochew Fish Soup – “Cooked-to-order fish soup or seafood soup served with a bowl of rice”
Tiong Bahru Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice – “Along with the signature Hainanese boneless chicken rice, it offers roasted chicken”
Hong Heng Fried Sotong Prawn Mee and Tiong Bahru Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice were both awarded the Bib Gourmand symbol.
Surrounding the Tiong Bahru Market are small streets with apartment blocks that were used for both housing and commercial purposes (i.e. shops on the ground floor and apartments above). While the area still retains its old vibe, it is evident that there is a large number of new shops in the area catering to the younger crowd. I saw bars, cafes, bookshops and art shops when I explored the area:
There were also wall murals that are comparable to (if not better than) those found in Georgetown, Penang:
There were also Zi Char restaurants (restaurants specialising in stir-fried dishes) with their tables arranged along the carpark area for alfresco dining:
There was even a rooftop bar in the area! Sorry, I didn’t take any pictures of that.
While I didn’t get the chance to spend as much time as I would have preferred to explore these dining options, I am sure that I will be back again.
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