Tiong Bahru: Singapore’s oldest and hippest 'hood
There is a popular saying that everything old becomes new again, and it proves especially true with Singapore’s veteran hipster suburb, Tiong Bahru.
Singapore’s first housing estate, built in the 1930s to the west of Chinatown, has a rich, colorful past.
For years, it was referred to as Mei Ren Wu (directly translated as “den of beauties”), as many rich men housed their mistresses in this estate.
Years on, the resident demographic remains cosmopolitan -- young and old, gay and straight, foreigners and local residents all happily coexist side-by-side and call Tiong Bahru home.
The neighborhood’s unmistakable charm is not lost on its residents.
Unlike the masses of modern Lego Land-like Housing Development Board flats around Singapore, the Tiong Bahru apartments with their rounded balconies and shuttered windows possess a quaint art deco style.
This is a suburb of contrasts: mornings see the elderly congregating and lingering over a simple breakfast of zhui kueh (rice pudding with pickles) and cups of kopi, as the younger residents wait, coffee tumblers in hand, at the bus stop, attempting to beat rush hour.
The click-clack of mahjong tiles mix with the morning calls of the matah puteh and merbuk jambul birds at Bird Corner and compete with the beats and bleeps of electronic music from car stereos.
Along with its residents, Tiong Bahru's landscape has evolved.
Hip, new food, shopping, and lifestyle shops now share shopfronts with the stalwarts who’ve been there since the 1940s.
Tiong Bahru’s specialty shops
Shoppers have always come to Tiong Bahru for its specialty shops. Kah Mee (67 Tiong Bahru Road; +65 62257820), a popular optical shop in Singapore, is known for its thick black-rimmed glasses. A corner store on Seng Poh Road sells just one item: crates and crates of eggs. And sewing shops abound with trimmings, buttons and colored thread.
But now, new stores have opened specializing in quirky collectibles. Terence Yeung, a Singaporean design professor and resident of Tiong Bahru, opened Fleas and Trees (68 Seng Poh Lane 01-10; +65 81391133).
Once a cold storage for food, he's converted it to a store selling his design finds sourced from around the world. Japanese pottery, flycatcher plants, a fallen tree trunk saved from Portsdown Road, and even his fashion designer wife’s collection of Vogue magazines.
Over on Yong Siak Street lie specialty bookstore Books Actually (9 Yong Siak St.; +65 6222 9195, www.booksactually.com), and Strangelets (7 Yong Siak St.; +65 6222 1456, www.strangelets.sg) known for its unusual European furniture in the shape of animals.
To market, to market
Serious cooks and grandmothers know Tiong Bahru Market (corner Lim Liak and Seng Poh streets) as the place to get the freshest produce, meat and seafood.
Modern chefs who prefer shopping in air-conditioned, dry-floor climes head to Foodie Market Place (225 Outram Road; +65 6224 3290) for cuts of air-flown Australian meat, Dutch, Swiss and Danish cheeses, and other hard-to-find foods.
For the foodies
One of the best restaurants in Singapore does brisk business in one of Tiong Bahru's parking lots. Diners flock to Por Kee Eating House (Block 69, 01-02 Seng Poh Lane) which is known for its ribs, cereal prawns and the homemade tofu braised with mushrooms.
Over on Yong Siak Street, the ‘hood’s latest restaurant Open Door Policy (19 Yong Siak St.; +65 6221 9307; www.odpsingapore.com) is turning over customers four times a night. An offshoot from its more experimental big sister, Tippling Club, the culinary expertise shines through the menu.
The duck confit with lentils and smoked bacon is fork tender and a mouthful of smoky delight, 48-hour cooked beef cheek melts in the mouth, while the wild mushroom risotto with truffle crumbs is a rich, creamy plate that surprisingly doesn’t weigh down the stomach.
Kopi or an espresso?
For less than a dollar, most customers can get their caffeine fix exactly to their liking: kopi with ice, with evaporated milk, black, white, sweetened, or unsweetened. But for the caffeine aficionados, Tiong Bahru has three new modern coffee bars to peruse.
Drips (82 Tiong Poh Road, 01-05; +65 622 20400, www.drips.com.sg) is a brightly-lit, spacious airy setting reminiscent of New York’s Dean & Deluca stores serving cups of java and fruit tarts. The Orange Thimble (56 Eng Hoon St., 01-68;+65 6223 8068, www.theorangethimble.com) is a bohemian café-cum-gallery run by chatty baristas who serve milky-hot lattes and delicious hazelnut dacquoise.
But the most popular has to be Aussie-style Forty Hands Café (78 Yong Siak St., 01-12, +65 6225 8545, www.40handscoffee.com). Packed to the brim -- especially on weekends -- with coffee hunters keen for a cup of fair trade hand-crafted coffee, and a taste of their sandwich selection.
While a cuppa at any of these three places would cost at least S$4.50 -- well above what any of its old-time residents would pay for cup of kopi, or even a bowl of noodles -- it is a sign of the times, and evidence -- good or bad -- of how Tiong Bahru has evolved.