Tiong Bahru may be Singapore’s oldest housing estate, but it is also one of the more interesting residential neighbourhoods to visit. With a mix of unique architecture, quirky boutiques, and good old-fashioned traditions and food, here’s our list of the top 10 things to do in Tiong Bahru.
Singapore is filled with towering blocks of flats better known as Housing Development Board (HDB) or government housing. You will notice that the low blocks found in Tiong Bahru are unique and unlike any other in Singapore. These were some of the first blocks constructed in the 1930s, inspired by the popular art deco movement of the time, with great attention paid to the lines and detail, unlike the more cookie-cutter shapes built in the following years. Look out for rounded corners, external spiral staircases and porthole windows – all favourites of snap-happy photographers.
Did you know that Tiong Bahru actually translates into ‘new cemetery’? This is because the area used to be a swampy burial ground. Take the time to get lost in this little neighbourhood and see what surprises you can uncover – like one of the last remaining World War II air raid shelters. There are also free guided walking tours conducted by volunteers who live in the estate, usually on the first weekend of each month. If you’d rather wander around on your own, here is a free heritage walking tour map of Tiong Bahru created by the National Heritage Board.
Take a closer look around corners and up on the walls of the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood to find some artistic treasures. Local heritage lover Yip Yew Chong, who grew up in Tiong Bahru, has three murals scattered around, depicting some of his memories of days gone past. Animal photographer Ernest Goh once had a series of chicken fish pasted on the walls, though these days only a family of three goats can still be seen around Tiong Bahru Market, where you can also spot a colourful peacock and its tail feather on the inner air well by Australian artist Makatron.
Pick up books by Singaporean authors and poets in some of the best local, indie bookshops found in Tiong Bahru. BooksActually is a huge supporter of Singaporean writers, with a whole slew of local literature and poetry titles. For the more visually inclined, Woods in the Books is a picture-book heaven for kids and adults alike, with a generous selection of children’s books and graphic novels.
One favourite past-time of the Tiong Bahru’s older generations is to hang up their bird cages and enjoy the singing from this elevated aviary while catching up with friends. Sadly this practice is less prevalent today, with the designated Bird Singing Corner near Link Hotel eerily emptier than it used to be. Swing by the 90-year-old Qi Tian Gong temple dedicated to the monkey god Sun Wu Kong, or for something a little more fun pop by Tiong Bahru Adventure Playground – one of the few sand playgrounds left in Singapore.
Tiong Bahru is a hipster haven of cafes that are perfect to grab a cuppa and have a leisurely brunch. Ready your cameras and be prepared for an onslaught of Instagramming patrons. Perennial favourites include the flagship Plain Vanilla Bakery and its delicious cupcakes, the stellar coffee at Forty Hands and the croissants of Tiong Bahru Bakery. But there are plenty of cafe options available, as well as restaurants for more substantial meals.
The level above Tiong Bahru wet market is home to a sprawling hawker centre, home to several hawker food stalls that have been given the Michelin Bib Gourmand and The Plate awards – just look for the long queues. A local favourite is Jian Bo Shui Kueh, with its steamed rice cakes topped with diced preserved radish and a dollop of chilli – excellent for a very Singaporean snack. Other gems in the area include Loo’s Hainanese Curry Rice along Seng Poh Road, and Sin Hoi Sai – the oldest restaurant in Tiong Bahru serving up delicious home-cooked zi char-style seafood.
You won’t find popular brands in the alleyways of Tiong Bahru, so be on the lookout for cute indie boutiques showcasing curated fashion and quirky retail concepts. Check out Nana & Bird, which stocks local and international designers, then get your fill of nostalgic tunes over at vinyl record shop Curated Records. Afterwards, pick up some lovely flower bouquets at One Olive.
Look out for some surprises in Tiong Bahru’s streets when the sun goes down.Bincho @ Hua Bee is a traditional mee pok noodle stall in the day that turns into a hip yakitori joint by night, complete with a secret bar entrance near the back. Also popular is Coq & Balls, a cheekily named gastrobar with a healthy selection of alcohol, and so is Lin Rooftop Bar, which offers a great view with your cocktails on the roof of Link Hotel.
While the hipsters may have invaded Tiong Bahru, there is a number of small traditional businesses that are worth checking out. Get your furniture upholstered at Yong Huat Upholstery on Seng Poh Lane, or look out for the lady offering shoe repair out of her house window at Moh Guan Terrace. Pin Pin Piau Kay & Co is a pokey looking provision shop that sells an eclectic mix of stuff, including quinoa and balsamic vinegar amidst its household items, while the Tiong Bahru market on level 1 still feels like a trip back in time.