A Taste of Tiong Bahru

I thought that Singapore started providing housing for its citizens when the new government came to power after World War II, but it turns out that I was mistaken. No, the move toward large public housing projects began with the formation of the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) in 1920, back when the British were still in charge. The SIT’s third and grandest project (following initial ventures into the Lavender and Kreta Ayer neighborhoods) was in Kampong Tiong Bahru. The goal was to sweep out the slums and the pigsties, reclaim the swampy land, and create a model set of flats. All that stood in the SIT’s way were several graveyards (Tiong Bahru means “old cemetery” in an unusual combination of Malay and Hokkien), but this is Singapore, and they have no qualms about exhuming bodies and sending them somewhere else for reburial.

Tiong Bahru looks like no other place on the island, because the housing was all built in the 1930s. This means that the buildings are low-slung and inspired by art deco motifs.

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The man credited with Tiong Bahru’s distinctive look is Alfred Church, an architect who created his own version of the Streamline Moderne style. According to a sign near some of the buildings, Streamline Moderne was characterized by “clean, curved shapes and rounded corners; long horizontal and vertical lines; occasional nautical elements; simple, uncluttered lines; flat roofs; [and] racing stripes to simulate speed and movement.” Basically, buildings were meant to look like race cars, airplanes, and ocean liners.

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Aside from architecture — I’ll come back to that in a bit — the other exciting thing about Tiong Bahru is its food. The neighborhood is home to the eponymous Tiong Bahru Bakery, which boasts the best baguettes and kouign amann in Singapore. And in the center of the neighborhood sits the venerable Tiong Bahru Market:

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The building is relatively new (it’s a 2006 creation), but there are nearly two dozen hawkers on the second floor whose families have been in the food service business since the 1950s or 1960s. That’s amazing — there are still people cooking here who started out as itinerant push-cart hawkers over sixty years ago. One of these is Tay Soo Lan, who has been in the noodle business since 1958.

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We tried his excellent kway teow, a stir-fried rice noodle dish, at Tiong Bahru Fried Kway Teow (stall #2-11). We also indulged in a sampling of other dishes, including: noodles and mystery stuff from Ruyi Vegetarian Food (surprisingly mediocre, given the length of the line and fact that the stall has been around since 1950); absolutely outstanding shui kueh (steamed rice cakes that look like halved eggs, topped with preserved radish) from Jian Bo Shui Kueh (stall #2-05); …

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… and delicious nonya kueh from Harriann’s Delights (stall #02-55):

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This hawker center is worthy of repeat visits, because it is impossible to try everything in one trip. Oh, and we learned that Singapore’s hawker centers are trying to receive UNESCO Heritage status — so if you’d like to cast your vote for them, please add your support here.

While I was in the neighborhood, I decided to follow part of the Tiong Bahru Heritage Trail. The beginning of this trail isn’t very promising; it takes you to a temple that’s no longer there and a bird corner with no birds. Well, there’s space for people to hang their birdcages, but it was empty when we arrived.

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It’s too bad, because this used to be a famous bird corner. In fact, there were once so many men who came to hang out their birdcages and so much bird noise that jazz musician Herbie Mann made a special visit to this corner to record himself playing the flute with the birds in the background. But those days ended with a construction project in 2003, and now all that’s really left to capture times gone by is this mural:

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There’s a cat mural just a few steps down — inspired by the birds or painted at some other time, I’m not sure.

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Continuing with the animal theme, I paid a visit to the Monkey God Temple, which has been at the base of this shophouse since 1938:

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Sun Wu Kong was a Monkey King in a Chinese fable called Journey to the West; he has now moved up from royalty to deity and is revered for his bravery, resourcefulness, and vigor (he is also a simian lie detector). And this temple in his honor doesn’t just have one monkey — there are monkeys everywhere, in all shapes and sizes:

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There are big monkeys …

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and medium monkeys …

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…and rows and rows of small monkeys …

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… and tiny monkeys in boxes!

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If monkeys aren’t your thing, they have dragons …

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… and tigers …

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… and several dozen Taoist deities thrown in for good measure:

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But most of my time in Tiong Bahru was spent wandering around and looking at the architecture, which never fails to disappoint (even on this mostly-rainy day).

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I love the spiral staircases …

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… the art deco touches …

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… the curvy corners …

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… and the distinct, streamlined look of the buildings:IMG_5746

You really could eat all day long in Tiong Bahru. I had brunch at Bakalaki Greek Taverna, which had some of the best Greek food I’ve had outside of Greece (but you have to do your best to ignore the outrageous pricing, which puts even the biggest tourist traps in Greece to shame … this is Singapore, after all).

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