Tag Archives: Tiong Bahru

What Neil said

wasn’t new to me. But when a silver haired stranger with wise deep set eyes leans in from the other table to look inside your sketchbook and goes,’drawing is really good for you, much better than photographing. You know why?‘, you pay attention because from the way he draws in a deep breath and turns himself around to face you, you know he has a story to tell. And I am a sucker for stories. Also a stranger telling you a story makes a great story.

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My husband reading Jeffry Archer’s The Prodigal Daughter on kindle. We shared a sausage roll and had tea and coffee at Tiong Bahru Bakery.

Like every Sunday we were spending the morning at Tiong Bahru Bakery. My husband as you can see above was reading as per usual and I was scanning the room for interesting people to sketch while sipping on ginger lemon tea. That’s when Neil , ‘an IT guy from Sydney” as he called himself settled down at the next table, finished eating whatever he was eating and turned his attention to us.

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(L) A couple in Starbucks; (R) A couple in Tiong Bahru Bakery

Can you remember phone numbers?”, he asked. “We didn’t. Neither did heBut my mother remembered every phone number in her contact list until her dying days because she never relied on a machine to do the work for her‘. He said the last bit looking somewhat disparagingly at our smart phones or so I imagined. In any case, my husband quit looking at cricket scores and pushed the phone aside pretending it wasn’t his.

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This was my late Sunday night view at our neighbourhood Starbucks which is open for 24 hours every day. These high stools and shared table are especially meant for people who need to work or study. Don’t miss the girl with the Micky Mouse hoodie!

But Neil wasn’t there to deride technology; nor was he there to randomly dish out avuncular advise on how to disengage from technology. All he wanted was to talk about an epiphany he once had while watching the northern lights in Iceland. “For someone who loves photography..”, he said “..this was a chance of a lifetime”.

The last thing he wanted was a smudgy camera lens. Refusing to take chances by trying to clean it himself at the hotel, Neil went seeking for professional help, hoping to receive top-notch service. Here’s where the story goes downhill- the girl at the counter whose job was to only receive the item and pass it on to the appropriate person for servicing decided to be useful that day and took the matter in her own hands. She started wiping the lens with a cloth and before Neil could say stop, his only camera lens was irreparably scratched.

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(L) People reading physical books is becoming a rare sight. When I saw someone the other day lost in the pages of a thick novel, I had to draw her;(R) This girl was toiling away on a Saturday night with the help of a Frappuccino and gospel music.

The northern lights were beautiful..indescribable really!”, he said. Neil had slipped into a reverie. His head was tilted to the side and his eyes glazed over. “We watched the sky for hours y’know…and as far as I could see I was the only one without a camera“. We were crestfallen on his behalf. Before I could offer my first word of commiseration he said, “..but the incredible thing is without my camera, I could really see! Instead of looking through the lens I saw everything with my eyes..E..V..E..R..Y..T..H..I..N..G.. you know what I mean?”. He pointed to his head and said, it was all stored up there, intact and distinct, even though he doesn’t have a single picture to prove to his friends that he watched the northern lights. But I believed him.

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(L) This sketch is of a bunch of girls who were trying to study but couldn’t stop talking about the movie they came out from. Also they didn’t finish their popcorn! (R) This extremely hairy and incredibly talkative guy seen at Tiong Bahru Bakery was juggling two different conversations with two diff families on either side of his table. Whoa!

He asked whether he could flip through my sketchbook. Of course he could. We had to leave but were greedy for more stories and Neil, a lone traveler having found two perfect listeners in us was eager to share. ” So as I was saying to you..” He started again. We slouched back in our chairs. “..when you draw, you see things, observe things more keenly than ever..“. I didn’t check the time, but he went on for a while. We let him.

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(L) Just a guy seen at Tiong Bahru Bakery wearing a neatly ironed shirt and a very shiny wedding band. Seemed like he was new to the game! (R) How to make a statement: the case of rugged boots vs. chunky costume jewellery

These are some of the sketches of random people I did on my recent visits to cafes around Singapore along with my observations. You can find more under the ‘people sketches’ category in the side bar.

Neil was right. I only just realized that I may have sketched over hundred people in the last few months spending about 10 minutes per drawing but the incredible thing is I remember each one of them. Every page in my sketchbook takes me back to the actual scene. Every minute spent is accounted for. It is not just fun, drawing is a fulfilling exercise and you know it. But sometimes we all need a silver haired stranger with wise deep set eyes to sit beside us and tell us a story to help make sense of what we so love doing.

 

 

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The ‘Plus Five Hundred’ walks

 

The title maybe beguiling but isn’t misleading I assure you. Here’s the story.

Right after returning from our trip to New York, we were hit with severe jet lag. Time difference had throttled our body clock. It was agonising to stay awake during the day and by night time we felt so alive and active that it was impossible to sleep. So to ease back into the GMT+08:00 time zone as quickly as possible we hatched a plan and decided to execute it immediately. Being the long new year weekend, timing was perfect and the idea was simple –  we must tire ourselves so much during the day that we’d just zonk out by nightfall. But how does one make that happen?

By taking very long walks to get our morning coffee.

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Okay, hmm…but where could we go? Maybe to a cafe/bakery that opens really early and is far enough to warrant a long walk. Quick search on the internet revealed that Tiong Bahru Bakery on Eng Hoon Street is about 5kms from our house and if we set off slightly before 7 in the morning, we could be standing first in line when their door opens. Trust me, there is a line of eager beavers queuing up to grab a seat even before the door opens.

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Some of the goodies at TBB

Besides solving the problem which it was designed for, the walk itself seemed enjoyable, more than we imagined because the two bugaboos – heat and humidity were missing from the equation. Save for the construction workers, a handful of buses, bicyclists and domestic helpers speeding towards Lucky Plaza to spend their day off, the roads were empty, the street lights were on, the sky was mellow and there was a breeze that blew our hair and dried our sweat when we climbed up an incline.

About 7000 steps later we pushed through the wooden door of Tiong Bahru Bakery where giddy with self approbation (and air-conditioning), we rewarded ourselves with sugary buttery treats to accompany the beverages. I wouldn’t mention how they fared because in Singapore, the city of gourmands, the queue for food does all the talking. And there was one snaking from the already house-full cafe’s entrance door till the cash counter which revealed how popular their goodies are with the locals and expats.

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Patrons queueing up inside Tiong Bahru Bakery

Suffice it to say that if you’ve eaten here once chances are you will come back, many more times. Unless we are out of the country, this is where we can be found every Sunday morning swirling in the glistening folds of a Kouign Amann or nestling inside the flaky comfort of an Almond Croissant. Because it was so enjoyable we started walking our way back home from the cafe, making the journey a total of 10kms which should’ve made it the most salubrious habit we ever nurtured if we didn’t know counting. But since we do, here’s the math – for every 500 calories we lose on the walk we pile on 1000 more from our cloying lapse in judgement making the count, you guessed it – plus five hundred. If there’s a lesson to be learnt from this mood dampening revelation it would be to never overthink when you’re having fun.

So naturally, the plus five hundred walks are very much on. Also, should jet lag strike again, we now have the perfect antidote.

 

 

 

 

Cafe Hopping Wednesdays

Hardware Cafe on Tyrwhitt Road

Hardware Cafe on Tyrwhitt Road, Jalan Besar – convivial fuss free ambience and some seriously good coffee

For the past couple of weeks I, in the company of some talented artist friends have been cafe hopping. Yes, it’s a thing here that you can now engage in without seeming flippant. And why not? Singapore’s F&B greenhouse has been spawning some big blooming cafes for the past couple of years.

Curious Palette cafe (on the right) & Dumpling Dinner at Tim Ho Wan (on the left)

(L) Dumpling Dinner at Tim Ho Wan ; (R) Cappuccino at the spunky and hip Curious Palette cafe on Princep Street – try their waffles!

Boutique outlets serving artisanal coffee and sundry (which is more than a sidebar in this context) ranging from handcrafted ice creams, creatively conjured waffle dishes, Instagram worthy pastries, cakes, fusion burgers with clever fillings to an exhaustive range of breakfast, lunch and dining options, have been springing up all over the island.

AEIOU cafe in Jalan Besar

The wonderfully colourful AEIOU cafe in Jalan Besar as you can see here is a treasure trove of cleverly upcycled tchochokes. They whip up some hearty yet classy meals too.

Be it hipster enclaves, sprawling heartlands or the culturally rich districts , you’re never too far from these all pervasive cafes that offer not just coffee and food but far interesting ambience compared to the cookie cutter spaces we are used to.

Pralet Cafe in Tiong Bahru, which is also a Cooking school

Caffe Pralet in Tiong Bahru, which is also a Cooking school dished out one of the best Aglio Olio I ever had

In a bid to distinguish themselves from their competitors, because truth be told everyone sells the same schtick, the cafes’ mommies and daddies dress them up in costumes they think would garner the most candies..umm..customers. Each space is a reflection of personal taste and temperament, therefore unabashedly original.

Bravery Cafe in Jalan Besar

The Bravery Cafe in Jalan Besar has Lavender Coffee!

Some are loud, cluttered, whacky, nonsensical and over the top, reminiscent of say a theme party in an antique dealer’s home or a crafts fair even, while others are unexpectedly austere, minimalistic and pedestrian like a Zen monk’s cave with spartan interiors, exposed brick lining, monochrome wall paint and a sombre looking money plant guarding the entrance.

Park Bench Deli on Telok Ayer Street

Troop to the Park Bench Deli on Telok Ayer Street to gourmandize upon sandwiches and subs with melt in the mouth fillings. The cafe’s cerulean doors always remind me of Santorini!

Whatever the design may be, from an artist’s perspective they’re almost always interesting because we like to observe and until the novelty lasts there’s a lot take in, be excited about and record in our sketchbooks. There’s air-conditioning also, which helps and sometimes a deal breaker, but you can’t judge us for that, not in Singapore.

Grain Traders (on the left) & Tiong Bahru Food Court (on the right)

(L) Grain Traders Cafe has sublime Summer Berries Crumble ; (R) Sketched this at Tiong Bahru Food Court over a chilled lime juice

Therefore every Wednesday afternoon ( Q: Why Wednesdays? A: one of us is free only on that day) we descend on a cafe, grab a table with the most flattering view and comfy seating (easily available because every corporate bigwig and their army of underlings is safely chained to their workstation at such ungodly hour) and once the waitress scoots off with our hurried orders, out comes the art-illery – sketchbooks, paints, brushes, water bottles and what not. We get to work, almost immediately.

The Daily Press Cafe (on the left) & Shophouses on Purvis street (on the right)

(L) The Daily Press Cafe ; (R) Shophouses on Purvis street

There is no small talk, no pressure of asking how astounding or meh the other’s coffee is or what he/she has been planning for the weekend. No foreplay whatsoever. We hunch over our sketchbooks and simply get on with our businesses until it gets done which brings about either a fleeting sense of smugness or lands us in a deep cesspool of self pity depending on our performance, adjudged by the harshest critic around i.e the person who’s work it is. Then we talk about sketchbooks, paper quality, drool over colours and new drawing tools, trying to sound as important and geeky as the next guy on the other table talking about commodity trading.

Creamier Cafe (on the right) & Kopitiam Dinner (on the left)

(L) Korean Dinner of Kimchi fried rice at a Kopitiam in BrasBasah (R) Creamier Cafe in Toa Payoh

Occasionally a patron on her way to the cash counter would hover, make eye contact and say nice things about our sketches. Or the cafe owner confessing his ineptitude at drawing a straight line would become maudlin after watching his precious enclave ( often injected with his entire life savings) being etched in permanent ink and would want to take a picture of our work as a keepsake, which in modern context means for instagramming purposes. Not long after basking in our brief moments in the spotlight we decide on the upcoming venue and adjourn for dinner. Until next week!

AEIOU cafe in Jalan Besar

AEIOU cafe in Jalan Besar

 

 

 

 

Tramping in Tiong Bahru

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.

A typical Tiong Bahru Apartment

A unique design feature of Tiong Bahru’s flats is the use of unpainted brick work on some balconies, laid out in patterns of darker and lighter bricks.

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.

Monkey God Temple on Eng Hoon Street, Tiong Bahru

The Tiong Bahru Monkey God Temple was founded in 1920 and moved here to its current location at 44 Eng Hoon Street in 1938.

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.

P.S Cafe Petit - One of TB's most beautiful cafes

P.S Cafe Petit – One of TB’s most beautiful cafes. We had Truffle fries, Caesar salad, Spaghetti Bolognese, Mocha and ‘Calming Tea’.

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.