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Singapore's History: Tiong Bahru Estate

Credit: Sengkang via wikimedia.org

Tiong Bahru estate's distinctive art deco style is reminiscent of Singapore's colonial period.

The Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) then, was tasked with the thankless job of developing public housing for a burgeoning population.

As Singapore's oldest estate, it was the first to have been built under SIT's programme in the 1930s.

SIT was historically known as failing to develop sufficient public housing for a population that was bursting at the seams.

Much of this can be attributed to the aesthetics and detail they chose to imbue their estates with.

Perhaps choosing aesthetics over swift delivery was a poor choice back then but in retrospect, Tiong Bahru stands out for its' unique and vibrant style - a style that significantly contrasts with the brutalist cold stacks of HDB blocks.

Although originally existing as an exclusive estate for the rich where they would keep their mistresses (hence its' nickname of Mei Ren Wo or ‘den of beauties'), Tiong Bahru became more of a mainstream estate when its population increased after World War 2.

In 2003, 20 of the pre-WW2 era blocks were gazetted for conservation by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). This includes 36 units of shop flats and shop houses along Outram Road.

Credit: Sengkang via wikimedia.org

Yet, its' plethora of original hawker centres serving local food, shopping malls that mirror the style of the flats and various shops that sell groceries and other assorted items remain in business. 

Presumably having changed owners over the years, these historically accurate shops are mixed in with the modern ones that have since opened in the estate.

Due to the government's redevelopment process, several notable locations were torn down or replaced with newer buildings.

One such place was the make shift aviary where bird owners would gather their songbirds and hang the cages overheard as they mingled over coffee and tea.

Their morning sessions would be accompanied by the songbirds' melodious chirps.

The area has since been replaced by the Link Hotel in 2003 and the two blocks of starkly red flats that served as the aviary were closed for hotel use.

In 2008 however, the owners of the hotel re-opened the aviary.

The aviary has since become a part of the newly launched Tiong Bahru Heritage Trail; a trail that aims to bring relevance to this old estate by making its history known to the population.

The trail was launched on 14th April 2013 and offers guided tours stretching 2.5km.

Credit: www.nhb.gov.sg

The tour includes historical sites such as the grave of philanthropist Tan Tock Seng, the Tiong Bahru Market which has a history tracing back to 1945 and Singapore's first Monkey God temple that was founded in 1920.

Tours of the air raid shelters in the estate are available, albeit once every two months starting from June 2013.

These tours which are headed by volunteer Tiong Bahru residents and students of Henderson Secondary School cost $2.

The collected money goes towards the Tanjong Pagar-Tiong Bahru Community Development Welfare Fund.

Tiong Bahru's unique look and historical status puts it in a strange position.

On one hand, it's home to generational families who have lived there for decades - people that are culturally Singaporean.

On the other hand, its aesthetics have attracted young locals and foreigners to take up residence, making it a sort of hip urban town.

Credit: www.nhb.gov.sg

This dichotomy is what makes Tiong Bahru so significant.

The art deco style which was out of place in the 1930s with its low-rise buildings and wide spaces are reasons people flock to the estate now.

Truly, who could have imagined that an 83 year old SIT estate would be more culturally relevant than the modern and brutalist HDB flats?

As it stands, Tiong Bahru is by far the only Singaporean estate so radically removed from the look of its modern counterpart.

Therein lies the irony; that such a foreign looking estate would ultimately be the most Singaporean.

Written by: Christopher Chitty

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