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  • Writer's pictureChris Wright

Tiong Bahru: Singapore's Coolest Suburb

Qantas Travel Insider, January 2018

Nowhere else in Singapore looks like this. Just a few metres back from one of the city’s teeming highways, a less frantic mood descends. The buildings, never more than a few stories high, are 1930s Art Deco, all graceful curves and streamlined edges, recalling steamships and aircraft, while the twisting staircases at the back of the houses are shapely and smooth.

Beneath the residences, in shopfronts and ground-floor conversions, something vivid is happening. The coolest but calmest cafes and restaurants in town are spreading among funky yoga studios and independent bookshops. For all its elegance and history, this has always been a place with an edge, a place that Bohemian French expatriates and KTV karaoke hostesses alike have chosen to call home, a haven to the LGBT community before the abbreviation was ever coined, and today creativity seeps through in the venues.

It’s as hipster as Singapore gets. But it’s still peaceful, restrained: no neon, no Hooters, no forcing out of the generations-old noodle stalls or the wet market where people queue half an hour for secret-recipe bean curd. In just these few blocks of public housing, between the mania of Chinatown and the tourist hang-outs around the Singapore River, a perfect balance has been struck between quirky and cool new arrivals and the serene environment that attracted them in the first place.

Welcome to Tiong Bahru.

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Bincho’s double life

This place best sums up the Tiong Bahru ethos. For 70 years it was a classic kopitiam coffee shop called Hua Bee. Then new owners came in, wanting to build a funky Japanese yakitori restaurant and bar. But they also wanted to respect the place’s tradition, and so set about creating a place with a double life: by day, a classic old coffee shop of rickety wooden chairs and mee pok noodles; by night, Japanese, with a tiny but funky little bar which you access through a metal door round the back of the building. Hip yet historic, Tiong Bahru in a nutshell.

History through mural

Take a close look at the mural on the wall of a house where Tiong Poh Road meets Eu Chin Street. Take your time: it’s all in the detail.

The picture of a man in a chair reading the newspapers in his living room is one of the best immersions in local Chinese life and history you’ll find anywhere. A calendar on the wall tells you it’s January 12 1979; if you look closer the pictures on the front page of his paper depict a young Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founder, with the long-demolished National Theatre in the background. Everything in the image – the 555 cigarette tin on the table, the little deity statues on top of the ancient Telefunken TV, upon whose screen 1970s local comic duo Wangsa Yefung appear – is accurate enough to bring a smile to the face of any local of a certain age. This is Chinatown from the inside.

The best bit is that this mural, and another in a nearby alleyway showing a market, and another of men sipping their coffee beneath bird cages, and another of a fortune teller, are all painted by a guy who, in a classic Singapore twist, spends his days as an accountant. Called YC, he was attracted to Tiong Bahru as a canvas with its unobstructed clean white walls. Singapore has plenty of fine museums to celebrate its history, but here it’s painted on the walls of the houses.

Hawker heaven

Get to the Tiong Bahru Food Centre early enough and you’ll be greeted by the sights and smells of the wet market selling fresh meat, fish and vegetables. Prince Charles dropped by here in October, which was quite a thing: Ah Chuen Fishmonger doesn’t host a lot of royalty.

At any time of day you’ll find one of Singapore’s better food courts on the upper floor. The golden rule of any hawker centre is to look for the queues and join them, but you might be surprised where you find them. Yes, the two Michelin-recognised stalls here – Hong Heng Fried Sotong Prawn Mee and Tiong Bahru Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice – are renowned. But the longest lines are often at Teck Seng Soya Bean Milk, famed for its home-made beancurd (it’s all in the way you heat and stir the soya milk, apparently). Or try Jian Bo Shui Kueh, whose speciality is a steamed rice cake called chwee kueh.

Croissant crusade

“Paris of the Yeast.” Behind this pushbike-mounted sign you will find the institution of the Tiong Bahru Bakery, which one can argue is where the hipster gentrification of the area began after French expats started to move in. It excels on two counts: the magnificence of the croissants and French pastries, the best in town; and the friendly, bright service – not always a given in Singapore – which now characterizes many of the cafes in Tiong Bahru.

Best coffee? Probably nearby Forty Hands, a thoroughly Australian-feeling brunch-and-barista sort of place where you can settle in with a book from one of the nearby shops.

The Independents

Let’s go shopping. I’ll take you on a tour.

From the Plain Vanilla bakery on Yong Siak Street down the hill, the sequence goes: Nana & Bird, Woods in the Books, Ikyu, Books Actually, and then several yoga studios and the Art Blue art gallery.

We point this out because each one of them expresses something distinctive about Tiong Bahru. All of them are independent of global or even national chains. Each of them take pride in just doing what they want: the Nana & Bird clothing shop logo is “only curating what we love.” Books Actually goes so far as to produce its own: it has an imprint called Math Paper Press to encourage local writers of prose and poetry into print. Woods in the Books is the best children’s bookshop in the country, Ikyu a terrific Japanese restaurant, and people come from all over Singapore for the yoga studios, some of which have been run by the same people for years.

And to show the place still hasn’t been gentrified to death, when you go around the corner you will see a sign hanging out of someone’s living room window offering to re-sole your shoes. You don’t get that on Orchard Road.

Peranakan pleasures

Have I just walked into a restaurant or someone’s living room? It’s a common cause for pause in Tiong Bahru, and hardly surprising since many of the restaurants started out as the ground floors of homes anyway. More often than not the owners still live upstairs.

The feeling is particularly striking amid the turquoise walls of House of Peranakan Petit, and it helps to create a homely atmosphere just right for enjoying the food. Peranakan is where Chinese and Malay influences meet, which is quite the combination. Exquisite dishes here include otak otak, a grilled fish cask; garram assam fish; and beef rendang.

Petit Indeed

Don’t be alarmed when your order from PS Café Petit’s fine gin bar comes in a plastic beaker. It’s just the way it goes in a place that is so damned small it is physically impossible not to spill out on to the street. Its diminutive size doesn’t knock the custom, though: its burnished dark wood exteriors and crisp takeaway pizza are a local magnet despite the fact that if you walk six feet into the place you’re in the kitchen.

It’s the vibe

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 put it into everything he built. You see it from the curves of the street corner buildings to the bold vertical lines on the front of the apartments on Tiong Poh Road, as well as the occasional porthole. As a style for a whole district, we’d argue it’s unique in all of Southeast Asia.

Monkey Magic

The Monkey God is a distinctively Singaporean deity, drawn from Chinese classical literature, brave and resourceful, helping the poor. Nobody is quite sure why he is more revered here than anywhere else in Asia, but he has a crowded and colourful temple in Tiong Bahru, increasingly incongruous among the hipster cafes but no less captivating for that. If you can, time your visit to coincide with one of the twice-yearly celebrations full of lion dances and processions (middle of the first and eighth lunar months).

Dancing Girl

Tired from walking and full of good food, have a sit in a small local park called Seng Poh Garden, and see if you can work out what the sculpture is. A swan? A fan?

The correct answer is a dancing girl, in a sweeping abstract style. It is the creation of Lim Nang Seng, whom Singaporeans know better for creating one of their true icons, the Merlion, spouting water into Marina Bay.

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