Adventures At Home: Let's Rediscover Tiong Bahru
STORY: Nicholas Yong
20 October 2021
Group sizes for dining and social gatherings in public spaces are capped at two. For a full COVID-19 Phase Advisory during this "Stabilisation Phase of Transition to COVID-19 Resilience", click here.
Tiong Bahru is like a window into Singapore’s past; a marriage of old and new. This chic estate is known for its hipster cafes and eclectic indie shops yet still manages to preserve its old nostalgic vibes.
And to think, this place was once a cemetery before the first block of flats were completed in December 1936. The name Tiong Bahru, or “new cemetery" is a combination of the Hokkien word "tiong" (meaning "to die"), and the Malay word "baru" (which means "new"). Whew, talk about being brutally honest.
Embark on the National Heritage Board’s Tiong Bahru Heritage Trail, and get ready to rediscover the the hippest (and happiest, according to the "Tiong Bahru Social Club" movie) part of town.
Breakfast at Tiong Bahru Market
(Marker 1: The Origin & Development of Tiong Bahru)
Did you know that Tiong Bahru first turned up on a map in 1913 (to give you context, that's just one year after the Titanic sank!). Before the turn of the 20th century, waaay back before it was the gentrified and happening place it is today, Tiong Bahru used to be mostly undeveloped farmland.
Fast forward to today, and it's a makan and café paradise. Whatever time you decide to visit, there’s always something to tempt your tastebuds here. For brekkie, grab a chwee kueh from the original Jian Bo Shui Kueh or the mee siam from Ali Corner (spicy alert). Wash it all down with a cup of Teck Seng Soya Bean Milk.
If you’re here around lunchtime, there’s Lao Chen Carrot Cake, the Michelin Bib Gourmand awardee Hong Heng Fried Sotong Prawn Mee, Zhong Yu Yuan Wei Wanton Noodle, or shark meat 178 Lor Mee. Shiok lah, but make sure you leave some space for rest of the makan in this list later ya.
Support a traditional biz, Pin Pin Piau Kay provision shop
(2 mins from Marker 1: The Origin & Development of Tiong Bahru)
It’s hard to find old-school provision shops like this nowadays, but the third-gen owner keeps the business going by catering to the changing Tiong Bahru crowd. Stepping inside, you may find yourself wandering between two different eras – where else can you find a provision shop selling balsamic vinegar and quinoa next to one offering wooden clogs and broomsticks?
Café hopping all over Tiong Bahru
What’s a trip to Tiong Bahru without coffee and brunch? Here are a few household names: Forty Hands, PS.Cafe Petit, Chapter 55, Drips Bakery, Merci Marcel… and the list goes on. Well, you can always make another visit when Plain Vanilla's flagship store reopens next month.
Tea break at Galicier Pastry
(1 min walk from Marker 5: Monkey God Temple)
There are loads of atas looking bakeries here in Tiong Bahru (such as the namesake, Tiong Bahru Bakery), but Galicier Pastry has stood the test of time selling nyonya kueh, cakes, and bakes for close to 50 years. The same family still runs the place, with the 4th generation now helming the business. Good eats: kueh lapis, kueh dadar, kueh salat, and lemper ayam. Sedaaap!
And it's only a minute away from the The Monkey God Temple, one of the first temples in the country dedicated to Sun Wu Kong from the legend of Journey to the West. It was founded in 1920, but moved to its current location in 1938. The oldest statue of Sun Wu Kong here is more than 100 years old.
Lunchtime at Loo’s Hainanese Curry Rice
(1 min walk from Marker 7: Tiong Bahru Community Centre)
The Tiong Bahru Community Centre is Singapore's first Community Centre, hosting activities and events for more than 60 years. It was converted from standalone air raid shelters, two of which remain to this day - in fact, one of them has been retrofitted and turned into a culinary studio!
Just around the corner is one of the best Hainanese curry stalls on this island, and was opened in 1946. Don’t let the long queue put you off from getting a makan spot (best to come after lunch hour). There’s no menu, but mai kan cheong – just order the usual suspects: fried pork chop, cabbage, and curry.
Repair your leather goods with Alice
(Marker 9: The Horse-Shoe Block)
Soles coming off your shoes? Handbag need repairing? Since you’re in Tiong Bahru anyway, bring them to Alice Wong. The sexagenarian is probably the only female cobbler left in Singapore, working out of her house in Moh Guan Terrace. You can’t miss the yellow floral-patterned half-curtains and shoe soles stuck on cardboard on her window.
And speaking of shoes, the block Alice is based in is uniquely shaped like a "horse-shoe", and was built between 1939 and 1940. Straddling Moh Guan Terrace and Guan Chuan Street, it houses Singapore's only purpose-built air raid shelter in a public housing project. No entry hor, but you can sneak a little peek through the ventilation gaps. Or click here for a virtual tour of what it's like inside.
Pick up a new read at Woods in the Books
(2 mins walk from Marker 9: The Horse-Shoe Block)
Woods in the Books is an independent bookstore that’s a treasure trove of picture books for kids (and those young at heart). Plenty of SG homegrown selections too, including "Marvellous Mammals" illustrated by Darel Seow and the "Secrets of Singapore" series, featuring art by Elvin Ching. Perfect if you’re the type who can’t tahan pages filled with words.
Japanese yakitori dinner at Bincho at Hua Bee
(Marker 9: The Horse-Shoe Block)
By day, Hua Bee serves delicious mee pok. By night, it transforms into Japanese yakitori bar Bincho, with the entrance hidden away in the back door, speakeasy style. The atmosphere here feels just like the yakitori bars in the backstreets of Tokyo. Fun fact: this was the location of the iconic 1995 Singapore M18 movie "Mee Pok Man", which you can watch on Netflix.
Your Insta-Walk checklist here:
Marker 10: Design of Tiong Bahru Flats
The flats here are a Tiong Bahru landmark: the old-school charm, rounded corners, external spiral staircases, and portholes are an Instagrammer’s paradise. These were one of the first public housing developments by the Singapore Improvement Trust (STI), which later became HDB.
Marker 8: Seng Poh Garden and the Dancing Girl sculpture
Before this spot became a park in 1972, it was a place where residents gathered and did their morning exercise. The Dancing Girl sculpture was created by Lim Nang Seng, who also sculpted the Merlion! Actually hor, does the sculpture look like a dancing girl or a swan about to take flight?
Hunt for the murals of Tiong Bahru
Discover and admire gorgeous life-like heritage-themed artworks by Yip Yew Chong, a family of goats near Tiong Bahru Market, and a colourful peacock by Makatron, an Australian artist.
Happening history sia
If you’re interested to explore the rich history of Tiong Bahru, you can follow NHB’s Tiong Bahru Heritage Trail. Get your trail map and guide here.