Just minutes from the bustling streets of downtown Singapore is a quietly different neighbourhood full of great food, culture and delightful surprises.
A few metres back from one of Singapore’s teeming highways, a less frantic mood descends. The buildings, no more than a few storeys high, are 1930s Art Deco, all graceful curves and streamlined edges recalling steamships and aircraft, while the twisting staircases at the rear of the dwellings are shapely and smooth.
Beneath the residences, in shopfronts and ground-floor conversions, the coolest – and calmest – cafés and restaurants in town are interspersed with yoga studios and independent bookshops. For all its elegance and history, this is as hipster as Singapore gets – home to bohemian French expats and KTV (karaoke) hostesses, a haven for the LGBTQI community before the abbreviation was even coined – and today creativity seeps through in the venues.
But it’s still peaceful and restrained: no neon, no Hooters and no forcing out of generations-old noodle stalls or the wet market, where people queue for half an hour for secret-recipe bean curd. In Tiong Bahru’s few blocks of public housing bordering the mania of Chinatown and tourist hangouts near the Singapore River, the perfect balance has been struck between cool new arrivals and the serene environment that attracted them in the first place.
For 70 years, Bincho was a classic kopitiam (coffee shop) called Hua Bee. Then new owners wanted to open a Japanese yakitori restaurant and bar. But, mindful of its history, they decided to create a venue with a double life: by day, it’s a traditional coffee shop with rickety wooden chairs and mee pok noodles; by night, a cool little Japanese eatery with a bar accessed via a metal door at the back of the building. Hip yet historic – Tiong Bahru in a nutshell.
Off the wall
Take a close look at the mural on the house where Tiong Poh Road meets Eu Chin Street. The artwork, which shows a man reading a newspaper in his living room, is one of the most evocative depictions of local life and history you’ll find anywhere. A calendar on the wall says it’s 12 January 1979 and on the front page of the paper is a young Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founder. Everything in the image – the 555 cigarettes tin on the table, the deity statues on top of the Telefunken TV showing a local 1970s comedy duo – is guaranteed to make any Singaporean of a certain age smile. The best bit? The mural – and others in a nearby alleyway portray ing nostalgic scenes of daily life – was painted by local accountant Yip Yew Chong (aka YC). He was attracted to Tiong Bahru’ s clean white walls.
Behind the pushbike-mounted sign “Paris of the Yeast” is Tiong Bahru Bakery, which may be where the hipster gentrification of the area began. It excels on two counts: the magnificence of its pastries and the friendly service. And where to go for the best coffee? Probably Forty Hands, an Australian-style brunch and barista place where you can settle in with a find from a nearby bookshop.
Get to the Tiong Bahru Market early and behold the sights and smells of the wet market selling meat, fish and vegetables. Prince Charles dropped by late last year, which was quite a thing – Ah Chuen Fishmonger doesn’t host a lot of royalty. One of Singapore’s better food courts is on the upper floor. There are two Michelin-recognised stalls here – Hong Heng Fried Sotong Prawn Mee and Tiong Bahru Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice – but the longest lines are often at Teck Seng Soya Bean Milk, famed for its homemade bean curd. And do try the steamed rice cake, chwee kueh, at Jian Bo Shui Kueh.
Let’s go on a shopping tour. From Plain Vanilla Bakery, down the hill the sequence goes: Nana & Bird boutique, Woods in the Books, Ikyu, Books Actually then several yoga studios and Art Blue Studio gallery. All take pride in doing what they want (Nana & Bird’s tagline is “Only curating what we love”). BooksActually has an imprint, Math Paper Press, to encourage local writers into print. Woods in the Books is Singapore’s best children’s bookshop, Ikyu is a fab Japanese restaurant and the yoga studios are wildly popular. And when you go around the corner, you’ ll see a sign hanging from a living- room window offering to resole your shoes. You don’t get that on Orchard Road.
Many Tiong Bahru restaurants started out on the ground floor of local homes. More often than not, the owners still live upstairs. That cosy feeling is particularly striking at House of Peranakan Petit, where Chinese and Malay influences meet. Dishes include otak otak (grilled fish cake) and garam assam fish.
Art deco hub
Your first impression of Tiong Bahru, built in the 1930s as a new standard for public housing, will always be the architecture. The estate’s principal architect, Alfred G. Church, loved the Streamline Moderne school of Art Deco and it informed everything he built. You see it in the curves of the street- corner buildings and the bold vertical lines that characterise the apartments on Tiong Poh Road, as well as in the occasional porthole window. As a style for a whole district, it’s arguably unique in all of South-East Asia.
Don’t be alarmed when your order from PS.Cafe Petit’s fine gin bar comes in a plastic cup. It’s just the way it goes in a venue so damned small that it’s physically impossible for patrons not to spill out on to the street. Its diminutive size doesn’t deter customers, though – the burnished timber décor and crisp takeaway pizzas are magnets for locals, despite the fact that if you walk six steps into the place, you’re in the kitchen.
The brave and resourceful Monkey God is a distinctively Singaporean deity drawn from Chinese classical literature. Nobody is quite sure why he is more revered in Singapore than anywhere else in Asia. He has a crowded, colourful temple called Qi Tian Gong in Tiong Bahru, which is increasingly incongruous among the hipster café s but no less captivating because of it. Try to time your visit to coincide with the celebrations featuring lion dances and processions in the middle of the first and eighth lunar months.
Image credit: Tuul and Bruno Morandi