Tiong Bahru

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Tiong Bahru
Name transcription(s)
 • Chinese 中峇鲁
 • Pinyin Zhōngbālǔ
 • Hokkien POJ Tiongbāló͘
 • Malay Tiong Bahru
 • Tamil தியோங் பாரு
 • Tamil Romanisation tiöng bāru
SIT flats in Tiong Bahru
SIT flats in Tiong Bahru
Country  Singapore

Tiong Bahru is a housing estate located within Bukit Merah Planning Area, in the Central Region of Singapore. Built in the 1920s, Tiong Bahru is the oldest housing estate of the city-state. It was the first project undertaken by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), a government body administered by the British colonial authority, to provide for mass public housing in Singapore. The main estate consists of about 30 apartment blocks with a total of over 900 units and also high-rise HDB flats and condominiums along Boon Tiong Road, Jalan Membina and Kim Tian Road surrounding the main estate. The apartment blocks in the main estate are made up of two to five-storey flats and the units are assorted three to five-room apartments.

Etymology and Early History[edit]

Tiong Bahru means "New Cemetery" (thióng 塚 – Hokkien for cemetery, bahru – Malay for new). Till the 1920s, it was an area dotted with many cemeteries. They were new as opposed to the established cemeteries in Chinatown. The present day Tiong Bahru Rd. was at onetime called " Burial Ground Rd". In 1925 this area was declared unsanitary and designated for improvement. The SIT (S'pore Improvement Trust) cleared out the squatters and moved the graves and then filled in and levelled the area.[1]

The construction style of the estate is a mix of Streamline Moderne and local Straits Settlements shop-house architecture. The flats feature rounded balconies, flat rooftops, spiral staircases, light wells and underground storage and shelters. One notable feature of Tiong Bahru estate is that all its streets are named after Chinese pioneers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, Chay Yan Street is named after rubber plantation merchant and philanthropist Tan Chay Yan; Peng Nguan Street is taken from Lim Peng Nguan, an early settler and father of famous merchant and community leader Lim Nee Soon.

It is apparent that a lot of effort was put into designing the estate with a series of flats that are visually pleasing. Thus the flats in the Tiong Bahru estate contrasted markedly with those of the much later post-war mass housing programs undertaken by SIT's successor, the Housing and Development Board. In contrast with the aesthetic art deco theme of the Tiong Bahru flats, the flats built by the Housing Board in the 1950s and 1960s are starkly utilitarian in appearance and design; where flats are almost identical in their two-dimensional "matchbox" style.

Not many people could afford to live in the Tiong Bahru Estate during the pre-World War II years. It was the choice place of living for the upper class and also the place where the rich and powerful kept their mistresses. For this reason, the estate used to be known as Mei Ren Wo ("den of beauties" in Chinese).

The population in Tiong Bahru estate tripled after the Second World War, and it gradually lost its exalted status as an exclusive upper class housing estate. However, it retained its close-knit Kampong (small village in Malay) spirit and became a bustling and lively little town where everyone knows and looks out for each other.

The new Tiong Bahru Market was completed in May 2006.

Tiong Bahru is renowned for its bird-singing aviaries, which has now been torn down and replaced by the Link Hotel. Bird lovers gather with their songbirds every morning to catch up with fellow bird lovers over coffee and tea amid the crisp, melodious chirps of Prinias, Robins, and Shrikes. The bird corner is now part of The Link Hotel that took over the former block of flats in the mid-2000s. Its attempts to revive the bird corner have yet to become fully successful.

Tiong Bahru Market, under the charge of the National Environment Agency, was, in fact, the first modern market to be built in a housing area, in 1955, by the SIT. Prior to the building of the Market, also known as Seng Poh Market, the hawkers were all street-hawkers, who were under constant threat of being chased off as street-trading was illegal. Tired of their uncertain lifestyle, the hawkers organised themselves and petitioned successfully to the Governor of Singapore, for a market to be built. The SIT thus, built an experimental modern market on the same spot as today's market. Till date, the market is still well-known for its hawker foods like chwee kueh, pao, porridge, roast pork etc.

Intro After the event of world war two, more flats were built at Tiong Bahru and it slowly became a mixture of middle class and street hawkers. During 1950s Tiong Bahru market was the first market to be added into a housing estate in the modern era. Tiong Bahru market is chosen for site investigation as it has the highest concentration of 'heritage hawkers' in Singapore. The project intent to retrace the lose elements of wet market that is not seem in Tiong Bahru market today. This report will describe the evolution of the Tiong Bahru market and deconstruct the different memory, social and physical layers in the site. Early years The name Tiong Bahru was coined by the Peranakan community which derived from the Hokkien word Tiong, meaning tombs and the Malay word Bahru, meaning new . Before 1930s, Tiong Bahru area was a cemetery ground for the Cantonese and Hakka communities at Tanjong Pagar. Tiong Bahru was surrounded by Sit Wah and Outram roads which consisted of mangrove swamps and low hills. In 1937, the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) announced the plan to plan to house 1,000 people with the new flats by 1938.

The houses build in its early years were given authority to house only for the people who were displaced by SIT improvement schemes . Therefore, most of the stakeholders in Tiong Bahru after the development were likely to be civil servants. With the SIT improvement schemes, around 2000 units of three-to five-story apartment buildings were built between 1936 and 1954.

1945 Tiong Poh was named after Fujian-born merchant and shipping businessman Khoo Tiong Poh (1830 to 1892). In 1945 , two shophouses along Tiong Poh Road area were converted into a wet market. Many vendors and hawkers were attracted by the market but most vendors have to park themselves outside the market as the space was small. With the SIT improvement Plans that increases the stake holders and population in Tiong Bahru, the crowd at Tiong Poh Road wet market increase and the hawkers decided to move to a bigger space, moving their stalls to an open area at Seng Poh Road which become Seng Poh Market.

Seng Poh Road was named after Tan Seng Poh (1830-1879), Perak-born local trader, Municipal Comissioner and Justice of Peace. He was also Seah Eu Chin’s Brother-in-law. SIT built a market in 1950, with a bid to consolidate and license the street hawkers, as well as provide a convenient place of food and grocery for the community.

Alternatively, Belmont Lay from local blog website Mothership state that the market was “set up to cater to the community and people from surrounding Bukit Merah and Henderson estates, as Singapore experienced a population boom after World War II” . In the website, the sensitive topic of world war two that could not be seem from local official medias publication was mentioned. Construction of the Seng Poh Market were made of material such as simple wooden structure with zinc pitched roofs that seems to be used for temporarily functions. After the construction, there was a community meeting at Seng Poh road market with SIT municipal commissioner for south ward d robertson where he addresses residents of Tiong Bahru . The market serve as a connection between residents and authorizes in that period.

1980s Seng Poh market By 1980, Seng Poh market was made up of different various functions and culture that makes the market lively. Seng Poh market Culture In a blog post by Belmont Lay that states “Back in the day, butchers and poultry sellers could hang their meat out without refrigeration” reflects the wet market culture during the 1980s. The market also “houses many local delights such as the popular lor mee, chwee kueh and Hokkien mee”. Stalls such as Tiong Bahru Bak Kut Teh, Hokkien Mee and Jian Bo Shui Kueh has been serving their customers for up to sixty years. Therefore, the market holds many memory of the functions in Seng Poh market. There was also a relationship that was established between the stall owners and customers through the local delights selling at Seng Poh market through the years.

Seng Poh market Function In Seng poh market, one could locate all sort of goods there, from “towels, umbrellas and cute embroidered pyjamas for little girls, georgette blouses for women, to joss-sticks, fresh meat, fish, eggs, mountains of fresh fruit, huge watermelons slung in string bags, to dried and canned goods, and the freshest and most colourful selection of cut flowers” . The market used to sell diverse amount of items that could be used for daily life of the residents.

There was also a culture of housewives bargaining with a stall owners to get a better price for the goods which are usually very expensive during festive season. This was stated by singapore press holdings (sph) in an unedited description supplied by transferring agency that says, “housewives bargain with a fishmonger at tiong bahru market to get a better price for the prawns which are usually very expensive during the lunar new year season”

Ageing of Senh Poh market Through the years, infrastructure of Seng Poh market experience ageing and deformation due to the materials used for to construct the market were for temporary functions. Thus, the market experience several upgrading. According to the Tanjong Pagar Town Council, in2 8 June 1993, the 25-year-old Tiong Bahru market, at the junction of Lim Liak Street and Seng Poh Road, get a watertight roof, brighter lights, a broader walkway and garden lights. Therefore, there was a need to upgrade the market. Renewal plan of Senh Poh market In 2004, Seng Poh Road Market was shut down for a complete rebuild over a two-year period. Therefore, there was a relocation of stallholders a temporary market at Kim Pong Road. Kim Pong road was named after low kim pong (1837-1909), local merchant and philanthropist, and co-founder of Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

New Tiong Bahru Market The old market was demolished and built into a new concrete 2 storey structure that is meant for permanent usage. After two years, the market reopened in 2006 and was repurpose to a food court and hawker centre and renamed to Tiong Bahru Market and Food Centre. With ground floor as wet market and retail stalls while the upper deck is a food hawker.

Recognition and public awareness Other than functioning as a food court and hawker centre visitors now come to the market and its surrounding area for re-connection to the past. The market becomes a focal point amongst the surround flats for that creates recognition and public awareness of Tiong Bahru heritage. The market becomes a core for heritage tours and connect itself to other heritage site such as the neighbourhood air-raid shelter, during the World War II when Japanese air raids between December 1941 and January 1942. In 2012, a community exhibition was launched by National Heritage Board near the Tiong Bahru market which exhibit schedule of events to commemorate the battle. Memory and Impression of upgrading project After the rebuilding of Tiong Bahru market there were different impressions of the market from the stakeholders. Figure 18 shows an interview by NEA on a long-time stake holder of Seng Poh market who likes the new Tiong Bahru market after its upgrading. An alternative impression of the upgrading project can be seemed in figure 19 which state that the renovation took away many aspect and atmospheric environmental that Seng Poh market used to have. Setesh state, “I can no longer see any more of the old trace of my childhood in anymore” . This shows a negative impression of the upgrading project happening at Seng Poh market. Changes before and after market Renewal Physical and Morphological Change While Seng Poh market used to be a one storey porous and open wet market made with temporal material such as zinc roof, the new Tiong Bahru market is two storey 2 level enclose and introspective made with permeant materials such as concrete structure. Despite the fact that the new Tiong Bahru market is made to last longer, the market became more introverted and lose the visual porous connectivity of the Seng Poh wet market. There was also a morphological change around the market. Seng Poh market serve as a market core for the period of increased density around the site. The new market serve as a core for Tiong Bahru and Bukit Merah estates residents and act as a site heritage core for visitors to connect to the conserved flats around Tiong Bahru. Stall owner of soya bean who has been selling soya bean at market in Tiong Bahru for 44 years from figure 20.1 said that that Seng Poh market used to have food stalls and wet market selling fruits, fish and meats on a single level where the crowd mix together between housewives and residents going for a meal. However, the new Tiong Bahru market separate the food stalls and wet market, into two different level. This takes away the aspect and essences of Seng Poh market. Stall owners who used to sell their foods along with the wet market owners like fishmonger now moved up to level two. Despite the renewal of the market, the typological changes makes the market less lively compared to the past. The stake holders buying a meal or fruits cannot no longer be seem interacting in the same spot. Much of the Seng Poh wet market culture has been lose since the upgrading project.

Social and Functional Change Stake holder’s changes, demography, usage change Residents visiting the market generally have a higher elderly index in the Tiong Bahru market now compared to the past. While Seng Poh market was first build, the stake holders were new families and residents who were displaced by SIT improvement schemes.

The residents around Tiong Bahru market now comes are more diverse and comes from different social class as seem from the different type of housing estate around the market ranging from two room flat to five room flat.


In recent years, the population of Tiong Bahru estate has declined steadily. Following the economic boom of the 1970s and 1980s, the next generation of Singaporeans became more affluent and sophisticated. They hold allure to the sleek and modern designs of new towns and private condominiums and began moving out of Tiong Bahru en-masse. Consequently, Tiong Bahru estate for a while became an estate for the elderly, but lately younger Westerners and sophisticated Singaporeans have been rediscovering the charm of the area.

In 2003, as a result of many years of discussion over its heritage status both as a pioneering experiment in modern urban housing in Singapore and S.E.Asia, as well as its entrenched familiarity in Singaporeans' sense of place, 20 blocks of the pre-WW2 flats were gazetted by the Urban Redevelopment Authority for Conservation. Included in the Tiong Bahru Conservation Area are 36 units of shopflats/shophouses along Outram Road.

The area, is also home to several events that demonstrate a lively folk culture. The Market has a regular 7th Lunar Month dinner and auction. The long established Qi Tian Gong Temple on Eng Hoon Street, dedicated to the Monkey God, has birthday celebrations annually on the 16th day of the 1st and 8th Lunar Months, which includes lion, dragon dances, and performances of Chinese street opera.

The estate and its residents were the subject of the 10th in the CIVIC LIFE films by Irish filmmakers Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy. TIONG BAHRU, starring 150 volunteers from the estate and from across Singapore, was shot in June 2010 and premiered at the National Museum of Singapore in October 2010.

With the relocation of popular independent bookstore BooksActually and coffee joint Forty Hands Coffee in 2011,[2][3] the area has recently been revitalized by hipster culture, and was listed by Thrillist and Vogue magazines among the most hipster neighborhoods in the world.[4] [5]

Amenities[edit]

There is one shopping centre in Tiong Bahru Estate, Tiong Bahru Plaza and there is also the popular Tiong Bahru Market, known to being one of the best hawker centres in Singapore. Other amenities in Tiong Bahru include Tiong Bahru Community Centre and Tiong Bahru Park. Singapore General Hospital is also located near to Tiong Bahru. There is one school in Tiong Bahru, namely Zhangde Primary School. Other schools which are near the estate are Alexandra Primary School, Gan Eng Seng School and Henderson Secondary School.

Some other places of interest includes:

Transportation[edit]

The nearest Mass Rapid Transit station is Tiong Bahru MRT Station of the East West Line. Bus services 5, 16, 32, 33, 63, 64, 75, 120, 121, 122, 123, 123M, 175, 195, 851, 970 and NR5 passes through Tiong Bahru Road. Havelock MRT Station will be located within close proximity to Tiong Bahru on the upcoming Thomson-East Coast MRT Line. The new MRT Station will be operational from 2021 onwards.

See also[edit]

  • Alexandra
  • BooksActually
  • 118 , a 255-episode Singaporean television drama airing from 2014 to 2015, set against the backdrop of a coffeeshop in Tiong Bahru
  • 118 II , a 218-episode Singaporean television drama airing from 2016 to 2017, set against the backdrop of a coffeeshop in Tiong Bahru

References[edit]

External links[edit]