Countless Singaporean friends have adjudged Tiong Bahru as one of Singapore’s most sought after residential addresses. And why not. Nowhere on the island have I seen an entire estate lined with lipstick palm fringed, pristine white apartment blocks with bright red borders, bearing luscious curved balconies and rear back alley spiral staircases reminiscent of medieval Europe.
I’m no Art Deco fan, but the more I visit Tiong Bahru, the more mindful and appreciative I become of its architectural elements. The clean aerodynamic curves and rounded corners, the flat roofs, subdued base colours with bright red trimmings, horizontal bands of windows, occasional inclusion of nautical elements such as porthole windows and steel railings, and the overall simple and functional lines of these pre war apartments designed in the ‘Streamline Moderne’ style (a late development of Art Deco movement) is growing on me.
Inspired by technology and speed, buildings were designed to look like automobiles, trains, ocean liners and aeroplanes! At a heritage walk in the estate our guide pointed out that Block 81 and 82 along Tiong Poh Road were known to early residents as ‘aeroplane flats’ because they appeared like the wings of an aeroplane. It still seems hopelessly abstract to me but I’m getting there.
There was another wave of construction after the war. Between 1948 and 1954 the several blocks of four storey apartments erected along Seng Poh Road towards Tiong Bahru Road and Boon Tiong Road were designed differently, i.e in the ‘International Style’. For the untrained eye it maybe hard to tell the difference as this style was also influenced by machine aesthetics but favoured heavy use of concrete, steel and glass. Also the apartments were much boxier than their pre war counterparts.
What more, these modernist designs were tailored to suit the tropics! Such as the five-foot way, a distinctive architectural element of the shophouses (introduced by Raffles) – setting back the ground floor entrance by five feet allowing pedestrians to walk from one end of the block to another in sheltered comfort – was adapted in Tiong Bahru flats.
The warren of well maintained back lanes that you see behind the apartments meant for ‘scavenging (access for night soil carriers) and drainage’; the shophouse design – the ground floor used for business and the upper floors for lodging; spiral staircases at the rear for providing alternative access and fire escape for dwellers; kitchen airwell for allowing fumes to escape naturally are other features that were infused by the architects, reflecting their acuity.
Whether you’re a first time visitor trying to wrap your mind around these unique residential units and their provenance or a wannabe resident, two things that’ll always jump out at you are how uniquely quaint, neighbourly and laid back this part of Singapore feels with its streamlined architecture, open spaces of grass plots and playgrounds served by footpaths, local eateries, heritage temples and mom and pop stores; and in this shadow of the past, how palpably hipster it is becoming – talk about nifty bakeries, artisan cafes, indie bookstores, upscale restaurants, salons, boutiques, speciality shops, Tiong Bahru has it all.
For a former 19th century burial ground to have evolved into what it is today, it’s pretty commendable, wouldn’t you agree? ‘Tiong’ means ‘to die’ in Hokkien and ‘Bahru’ is Malay for ‘new’. ‘Tiong Bahru’ was used by locals to refer to a ‘new cemetery’ at this very site. Who knew! Right beside the new, was an old cemetery called Tiong Lama, replaced by what is now the Singapore General Hospital by Outram Road. In fact, it was the relocation of the hospital (from Kandang Kerbau’s swampy grounds) in 1882 to this highly elevated site, that played the role of a catalyst in Tiong Bahru’s transformation.
The hospital’s presence encouraged settlement in the area for the next 40 years. A village of wooden and attap houses called Kampong Tiong Bahru flourished to such an extent that by 1920s, the Municipal health authorities felt that the area around the hospital was becoming insanitary.
The Tiong Bahru Heritage Trail brochure carries an excerpt from The Straits Times of 26th June 1930, describing the area during this time :”..the land was practically all evil smelling swamp, several feet below sea level, with a dirty-looking reek running through it to the Singapore River. There were three fairly large hills on the far side from the main roads, and on these were numerous hovels, filthy and insanitary, occupied by squatters of the pig-breeding and coolie types.”
In 1925, upon Colonial Secretary’s request to propose an improvement scheme for the area, Dr. P.S Hunter, the Municipal Health Officer asked the Municipal Corporation to take action. Singapore Improvement Trust was established in 1920 initially as a department of Municipal Corporation and later after it became a separate entity in 1927, was approved a special budget of $260,000 to acquire 70 acres of land in Tiong Bahru, with the aim of turning the insanitary swamp into a housing estate, with the aim of relieving congestion in Chinatown.
However things didn’t go as planned. Rents in Tiong Bahru, averaging between $18 to $25 for an apartment was unfordable for the mass residents in Chinatown, who were paying between $3 – $6 a month as rent. Instead the estate attracted the affluent and professional class. By 1939, Tiong Bahru became a haven for civil servants, businessmen and Europeans who appreciated the neighbourhood’s proximity to town and modern amenities like flushing toilets!
As per the brochure, “Today the 2042 flats form the heart of Tiong Bahru and are one of the best preserved low-rise Art Deco style mass public housing projects in the world.” In 2003, the URA gazetted 20 blocks of pre-war flats for conservation. Since then the area has attracted new residents and frequent visitors.
I am undoubtedly one of them.