Beyond Tiong Bahru's Hip Cafes

Instead of just Instagramming those delicious tarts or oh-so-nice latte art, look up and around you the next time you café hop in Singapore’s first public housing estate. Here’s a brief guide that might help you see Tiong Bahru in different light.

It’s a ship! It’s a plane! 

Beyond Tiong Bahru's Hip Cafes
The Horse Shoe Block: Block 78 was known as Tiong Bahru Gor Lau ("5-story flat" in Hokkien). It was the highest public housing in Singapore when built in the late 1930s.

The hip cafes and eateries in Tiong Bahru are located in pre-war flats that were marked as conservation buildings in 2003. There are 20 of these 2- to 5-storey blocks built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) in the 1930s and 1940s.

According to the National Heritage Board, architect Alfred G. Church was entrusted to design the flats between 1936 and 1941. His designs emphasised the clean, curved lines and rounded corners of Streamline Moderne, a late development of the Art Deco movement that was inspired by travel and technology of the 1930s.

Beyond Tiong Bahru's Hip Cafes
All the pre-war blocks have bevelled edges (also known as chamfered faces) that make the corners a pretty sight.
Block 81 on Tiong Poh Road resembles an airship while Block 82 looks like an ocean liner: Spot the ship’s decks and nautical semi-circle windows. The flats were cleverly designed for the tropics, says Tiong Bahru resident Mr Kelvin Ang, who is Director of Conservation Management at the Urban Redevelopment Authority. He notes that eco-friendly features like air wells and air vents in every unit help to reduce indoor temperatures while introducing light. “There are [also] ledges above windows that prevent rain from splashing in so we can keep the windows open to cool down the flat,” he adds.
Beyond Tiong Bahru's Hip Cafes
Left: Dog-leg staircases serve as fire escapes for residents. Top Right: The unique semi-circle windows of Block 82. Bottom Right: Drips Bakery Cafe occupies a shop space that was once a “sports association” where the muffled clacks of mahjong tiles could often be heard.
Beyond Tiong Bahru's Hip Cafes
Speedy getaway: Architects used space saving spiral staircases as fire escapes and alternative access for residents.

Old world charm

Beyond Tiong Bahru's Hip Cafes
Compare and contrast: Tiong Bahru estate has rapidly gentrified in the past five years.
Tiong Bahru has become a much sought-after place to live and work in. With rentals escalating, many old-time shop owners have decided to retire and collect rent instead. In June, Hup Seng, the oldest provision shop, and Hua Bee, the oldest coffeeshop, called it a day. Still, there are those who have tales to share, for those who care to listen.
Beyond Tiong Bahru's Hip Cafes
Mr Goh Chwee, the owner of Hup Seng provision shop retired in June after leasing his shop to a cafe owner.
Mr Rodney Goh runs Pin Pin Piau Kay & Co, a minimart in Block 71, Seng Poh Road. His grandfather opened it in 1938. Mr Goh recalls buying meals from roadside hawkers who plied the streets outside, including the founder of the famous Tiong Bahru Pau, who used to “park his tricycle and sell one pau for 15 cents, seven for $1”.
Beyond Tiong Bahru's Hip Cafes
Mr Rodney Goh runs Pin Pin Piau Kay & Co, a minimart at Block 71, Seng Poh Road.
The nostalgic Mr Goh shows off some wooden food crates from the 1960s that he still uses today. He then reaches up to a shelf and carefully unwraps his vintage baby blue leather school bag from the 1950s. “I used to sit on it while waiting for my father to take me home,” he grins.
Beyond Tiong Bahru's Hip Cafes
Left: A wooden crate, which was once used to store Milo tins in the 1960s, is still being used in Mr Goh’s shop today. Right: His childhood school bag from the 1950s is still in mint condition.
Further down the road at Block 58, Ms Nei I-Ann runs Nelson’s Tailor, which was started by her parents in 1951. Nelson’s was originally where the current Link Hotel is. The youngest of four, Ms Nei spent her childhood days in the shop where she picked up her parents’ knack for tailoring.
Beyond Tiong Bahru's Hip Cafes
Top left: The scissors and stone weights that Ms Nei’s parents bought in the 1950s are still being used. Bottom left: Ms Nei now runs Nelson’s Tailor. Right: A blouse from the first batches of Singapore Airlines’ uniforms made by Nelson’s.
Long-time residents share that Nelson’s made the first batches of Singapore Airlines’ uniforms in the early 1970s. When asked about this, Ms Nei opens a drawer and pulls out a set of the Pierre Balmain-designed kebaya. “The collar, with the intricate pleating, was the hardest to sew,” recalls Mdm Lau Hong Cheng, who has worked here since 1971 and remembers sewing uniforms for “five matchsticks” (colloquial for Rolex). Today, Nelson’s makes bespoke cheongsams for regulars but alteration requests are increasingly coming from clients who shop online.
Beyond Tiong Bahru's Hip Cafes
Hainanese coconut candies are among the traditional offerings from Galicier Confectionery.
The oldest block in the estate is Block 55 along Tiong Bahru Road. For 15 years now, residents have been enjoying mouth-watering Peranakan treats like kueh dadar and lemper udang from Galicier Confectionery. Run by Madam Soh Kee Chin and her husband, the bakery is keeping up with the times by constantly innovating. Galicier now offers German-style black wheat bread, brownies, apple pies and even jelly cakes.
Beyond Tiong Bahru's Hip Cafes
Left: Madam Soh Kee Chin is keeping up with the times by constantly innovating and introducing new desserts. Right: With their strong almond aroma, these butterfly cupcakes (named for the wings atop) look and taste different from the typical American dessert.
Beyond Tiong Bahru's Hip Cafes
At Block 56, the corner coffeeshop serves yong tau hu and other local food in the day but turns into a pizzeria called Two Face at night.
Beyond Tiong Bahru's Hip Cafes
In Tiong Bahru, the cats are so loved that there is a Tiong Bahru Catlovers’ Circle on Facebook.

If this has intrigued you about Tiong Bahru, download the Tiong Bahru Heritage Trail guide for more.

Cheat Sheet to Tiong Bahru’s Food Heritage

With so many stalls and too little tummy space, which ones should one prioritise? We asked some Tiong Bahru residents for their picks.

Loo’s Hainanese Curry Rice
Block 57, Eng Hoon Street, #01-88

Tiong Bahru Yong Tau Hu
Block 56 Tiong Poh Road #01-46

At the Tiong Bahru Food Centre:
• Teochew Kueh #02-02
• Tau Kwar Pop #02-06
• Tiong Bahru Pau #02-18/19
• Koh Brothers’ Pig Organ Soup #02-29
• Hwa Yuen Porridge #02-74
• Ru Yi Vegetarian Food #02-26

    Jul 24, 2013
    Bridgette See
    John Heng
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