A street fair called desire: Singapore’s Tiong Bahru
Away from the towering condos and steel-and-glass ensconced shopping malls so definitive of Singapore, there exist quieter, slower pockets, where the pace of life is not as frenetic. Enclaves where the skyline is defined by low red roofs instead of skyscrapers, and where the streets are lined with swaying palm fronds, magnolia and chrysanthemum. Where uncles gather on street corners over mugs of kopi to play games of mah-jong, and aunties light sticks of incense at the neighbourhood Chinese temple.
Ask any young local about Tiong Bahru and they will likely claim it as one of Singapore’s coolest quarters today. Descriptors like ‘artisanal’ and ‘hipster’ are thrown around a lot, what with the profusion of cafes that serve vegan, organic, gluten-free, and dairy-free options. This is a neighbourhood where a French bakery and an Australian coffee shop find a perfect home, but scratch the surface and some of Singapore’s early history comes to light.
In the Chinese Hokkien dialect, ‘Tiong’ means ‘grave’, while ‘Bahru’ translates to ‘new’ in Malay. In the late 1800s, Tiong Bahru, or New Cemetery, used to be a Chinese burial ground. Since then, the neighbourhood has seen many transitions.
Today, more than 80 per cent of Singapore’s population lives in public housing estates. In the 1930s, the sleepy neighbourhood of Tiong Bahru was among the first few areas to be developed as one such public housing initiative. Blocks of flats and Chinese shophouses sprung up to house a population living in overcrowded parts of the city. From the ’30s to the ’50s, the area developed into a residential neighbourhood; the flats influenced by the Art Deco style so popular the world over. As a result, the architecture stood apart from the rest of Singapore: low-rise whitewashed building with spiral staircases, curved balconies, rounded windows, and stark lines.
I catch a glimpse of this old-world culture at the Qi Tian Gong Temple. The Chinese Monkey God temple has occupied this street corner from 1938, with its eye-catching red awnings and motifs of lions and dragons that adorn the pillars outside. Dedicated to Monkey King Sun Wu Kong, the temple houses more than 10 statues of the Monkey God, some nearly a century old.
Further down, at a street corner now occupied by the Nostalgia Hotel, the outer wall features a striking piece of art with an open birdcage and birds in flight. Singaporean local Josephine Wee, who’s walking with me through the area, says, “There used to be a pet bird store here. The owner would hang birdcages outside, and as the birds sang, passers-by would stop to watch and listen.” Gathering at the corner to listen to birdsong soon became a local pastime, and the owner of the Wah Heng Kopitiam, or coffee shop, across the corner, took notice of the crowd. In an enterprising move, he fitted a metal structure with hooks outside his shop, so locals could hang up their birdcages and socialise over kopi, while songbirds filled the streets with music.
In a nod to this age-old tradition, local artist Yip Yew Chong has committed this nostalgic scene to the walls of the neighbourhood. Tiong Bahru may no longer resonate with birdsong, but locals will remember and visitors will learn the story as they walk past Old Tiong Bahru Bak Kut Teh, for the wall opposite is adorned with a beautiful mural and this melancholy note: “Came 2003, the last song was sang, the last birdcage unhung, the kopitiam shutter rolled to its end, the Angsana Tree wept, its heart sank. Silence.”
Chong aims to preserve the stories of Tiong Bahru’s old way of life. In the days before the organised hawker centres sprung up in Singapore, itinerant hawkers would walk the streets, selling street food representative of their culture. The walls of a narrow alley tell stories of this time through Yip Yew Chong’s mural – Pasar and the Fortune Teller. ‘Pasar’ is Malay for ‘market’, and the mural shows people of different ethnicities, including a woman in a sari, snacking on street food. Next to the market, a fortune-teller is busy at work.
Chong’s mural not only depicts a bygone era, but also is also reflective of Singapore’s multi-ethnic population and varied traditions. The walls might speak of a time gone by, but within them lie the hip, new establishments that lend the enclave its alternative vibe. Today, European cafes, indie bookshops, record stores, and organic supermarkets line the streets. From a sleepy housing area to a trendy enclave, the transformation of Tiong Bahru in the last 10 years or so, has been massive.
The pioneer of this gentrification is the Tiong Bahru Bakery – the first “modern” establishment to arrive in the locality. With cosy wood-lined interiors and chequered floors, the boulangerie, started by French baker Gontran Cherrier, is abuzz in the morning, as people line up for fresh, flaky croissants. Inside, as I snack on a buttery almond croissant, I browse through a shelf of books by local authors. Josephine tells me the books are curated from an independent bookstore a short way off, called Books Actually.
I make a beeline for the store, and find a book vending machine outside. The charming shop is lined with covet-worthy titles that I’ve never seen elsewhere. With a strong focus on publishing local authors and giving a platform to new talent, the books tell stories of Singapore’s history, culture, neighbourhoods, residents, and their changing perspectives. I could spend hours perusing the obscure, often whimsical, but lovely collections and section of vintage finds at the back.
Wandering further down the street, I press my nose to the glass at Curated Records, which looks like a vinyl geek’s dream, but is sadly shut on the Sunday I visit. When it’s time for a snack break, we step into Galicier Pastry for some traditional Singapore kueh, or snacks. The glass display is a sugar fiend’s dream, lined with all manner of colourful cakes and sweets. The ingredients, though, are somewhat unconventional – tapioca, pandan, peanut, glutinous rice, and durian. Josephine tells us she grew up eating these traditional sweets. We start with Galicier’s signature creation, the Pandan Chiffon cake, a light and fluffy sponge cake with a tinge of green. There’s a pale orange steamed tapioca kueh, and the more familiar tasting Kueh Dar-Dar – a white coconut roll with a sweet filling in a pancake; a flavourful egg tart; and a most intriguing looking multi-coloured, layered sweet called Steam Lapis, made with rice flour and coconut milk.
Suddenly, a bright red, gelatinous kueh catches my eye. I feel like I’ve seen it before. In Yip Yew Chong’s market scene, a table of snacks showed this very same kueh. The Ang Ku kueh, or Red Tortoise Cake, plays an important part in Chinese tradition, given as a gift to families when newborn baby girls turn one month old. The bright red snack is made with glutinous rice flour, coloured with red bean, and may be flavoured with peanut. In Chinese folklore, the tortoise symbolises good fortune and long life. The sweet is delicately patterned with fine lines, to resemble a tortoise shell. As I sample the steamed rice cake, I realize that beyond the quirky boutiques and swank international coffee shops of Tiong Bahru, a slice of old-world charm – just like Chong showcased – still lives on.