A Delightful ArtDeco Walkabout ~ Tiong Bahru, Singapore
I'd like to think I have a bit of a nose for neighborhoods; that I scouted Tiong Bahru well before its current renaissance as a trendy little enclave of boutiques, tasty eateries, and bearded hipsters. A spate of articles in 2011 proudly proclaimed Tiong Bahru as Singapore's oldest and hippest neighborhood. Whereas my first time staying there was in 2010, January 2010 to be specific, during an urban/jungle holiday in Singapore and then Borneo with my brother.
The proof is in the pudding, and by pudding I mean photos. Cast your gaze on these pics 6 years ago, when Marina Bay Sands was still racing to completion and I was still in the plausible realm of same height possibility with my baby brother.
Albeit on a step, on tip toes.
Even back then this neighborhood struck a chord with me; I enjoyed browsing its little side-streets and admired its fresh white, nautical curves.
Tiong Bahru's Art Deco style reminded me so much of Miami, well minus all of Miami's vibrant pink and pastel hues that blends spectacularly well with hip-shaking Afro-Caribbean music, white sand beaches, and chuletas and griot for days. Miami♥
Anyhoo, 2010 marked my first stay in Tiong Bahru. Almost 4 years passed before I found myself there again, and that was by simple happenstance. I was visiting a close Malaysian girlfriend and as I walked down her street, I thought déjà vu?
As we walked further, I laid eyes on Tiong Bahru Market. And instantly, that placed me - this girl doesn't forget good food. I turned to my friend and said follow me, and then I walked her down this street and up that one, and led her straight to my old hotel. She was pleasantly amused.
Since then, I've stayed in Tiong Bahru almost half the time I'm in Singapore. And if I seem a little infatuated with Singapore recently, it's because I am. I was down for Cirque Eloize iD performance at the MasterCard Theaters, which was brilliant and covered in detail here. The icing on that theatrical treat was time to catch up with my girlfriend, a chance to browse the shops, and a quick visit to the newly renovated National Gallery.
What makes Tiong Bahru special?
Well, it's Singapore's first public housing estate established in the 1930s; when Art Deco was all the rage and the architectural focus was moving towards curves, spirals, portholes and long horizontal lines reminiscent of luxury ship liners and Zeppelin air-ships.
The Industrial 30's brought us the first jet engine, the first turboprop engine, and the first helicopter. While the Wright Brothers took off in 1903, it really wasn't until the 1950's and 1960's that commercial flights became semi-affordable.
So the 1930s was really that liminal period between invention and commercialization; when the world was transfixed, excited, and optimistic over all these scientific innovations and this was reflected in the architecture of that period.
Fellow Culture Vultures, I know you will soon tire of me talking about the joys of being able to walk in wide open spaces, with perfectly paved sidewalks and cars that thoughtfully stop when the light is yellow, not to speak of red.
Maybe in your mini-verse this is a non sequitur, something to be taken for granted, or you care not for urban rambles. But let me tell you, the joy of being able to walk head up, instead of concentrated on large gaping potholes, broken storm drains and motorbikes that jump up on to the sidewalks and scare three years of life out of you - well, that joy is simply delicious.
It also gives you the chance to be a bit of a snoop into the lives of Tiong Barhu residents, since often there are small side streets running behind the buildings. This provides a peek into how they decorate their outdoor spaces with the random miscellany of life.
Tiong Bahru has a rich history; I'd love to dig more into it but I know you might be keen to explore some of my favorite spots, so I'll hold back on the historical rambles... well, except to share that before this was a 1930s housing development, it was a cemetery.
In fact its very name - an amalgamation of Chinese and Bahasa Malaysia - means "New Cemetery". Now why they thought that would be a good name to launch a new development is beyond me, especially knowing how superstitious folks are here. If you know the whys on that one, please enlighten me.
Beyond that, the neighborhood was also known as "Mei-Ren Wu" aka "Den of Beauties", infamously know as the place where rich Singaporeans housed their mistresses. tsk tsk. This lead to the cheeky nick-naming of the spiral staircases at the back as a "Mistress Staircase".
As I walked past one building doorway, I spied blue sky shining down the stairwell. My curiosity piqued, I scampered up and discovered the infamous mistress staircase leading tempting upwards. As I walked up, I came smack tab in to pots of all sorts of prickly cacti strategically blocking the top of the stairs!
How utterly appropos! Only after I had laughed my head off did I come to my senses and remember that I was on some random Singaporean's staircase and skipped back down chortling to myself.
So lovelies, it just so happens that whenever I'm about an hour away from Singapore, on that final leg of a car, bus, or flight...I start to think about Plain Vanilla and specifically, a latte and their raspberry-lime tea cake.
This time was no different. I was planning only a high-flautin purist pursuit of the Theatre and Art Galleries, but let's be real - sometimes you want to browse about and slam some sweets, right?
And so I present to you, first stop - Plain Vanilla Bakery.
Plain Vanilla's got a cute lil outdoor nook around a shared table and they are pet friendly. Every time I'm down, they have a pretty seasonal display. Aside from the sweet treats that they whip up in plain sight, they've got a nice little assortment of wild honeys, scented sugars, soaps and trinkets perfect for little gifts.
www.plainvanillabakery.com // 1D Yong Siak Street, Tiong Bahru// +65- 836-37614
Next up Tiong Bahru Market was built in 1955 and is still going strong - with stands of fresh flowers and other doo-dads, I generally head straight up that escalator to the hawker food stalls. It's pretty massive and with so much to choose from, it's hard to recommend only one stall.
Everyone has their own favorites. Just talking this past weekend with my girlfriends, one mentioned hers were these scrumptious rice cakes that I had totally missed. The only alleviation to my immediately disappointed gut was the thought of my next trip and her photo-share of the stall Jian Bo Shui Kueh and the Pao man below (Thxxx Fong!) for future reference.
http://tiongbahru.market // 83 Seng Poh Rd, Tiong Bahru
Now if you ever walk around Tiong Bahru in the morning or early lunch, you'll stumble across Loo's Hainanese Curry Rice because there's a steady line that pokes out into the street from sunup to 2pm.
Loo's Hainanese Curry Rice is old school Tiong Bahru; It's been churning out delicious pork chops smothered in a light tomato gravy, along with curry pork chops, prawns, squid and all sorts of tasty deliciousness since 1946. I've heard that they prepare all their curry pastes from a secret family recipe that takes 3 days to prepare - what ever they are doing, they are doing it right!
It's kind of the perfect heavy breakfast after a late night out, if you get my drift. I got down with it last time but ran out of time on this trip, so see the glory of Loo's scrumptiousness here!
Loos Hainanese Curry Rice @ Taik Kwang Huat Coffee Shop // 57 Eng Hoon Street // +65-622-53762
So far these are all my usual haunts but early one morning I stumbled across Maissone Contemporary Homeware & Bed Linen. I peered through the window and knew I had to circle back later.
Good that I did as not only was it laden with all sorts of beautiful stuff for the home but tucked into corners and on top of shelves, were these pretty pieces from Cameroon, Morocco as well as designs from New Zealand, Sweden, Denmark. They have an online shop and ship to KL and elsewhere I presume, so even if you can't drop by Eng Hoon Street you can still browse their inventory online.
www.maissone.com // 20 Eng Hoon Street, Tiong Bahru // +65-6669-9681
Now one of the things I LOVE about Tiong Bahru is that there are a number of independent bookstores - four that I know of and perhaps more!
I'd happily share them all, but since fellow booksworms may be limited, I'll share my fav - Books Actually on Yong Siak Street. It is nestled between a trendy yoga studio and Strangelets, and just a hop skip away from Plain Vanilla. Yong Siak is easily one of my favorite streets in Tiong Barhu.
Books Actually specializes in fiction and literature but what I find special is it's large section of Singapore and Southeast Asian poetry and anthologies. It's the perfect place to discover new Asian poets and intellectuals.
www.booksactuallyshop.com // 9 Yong Siak St, Tiong Bahru // +65 6222 9195
Strangelets is probably my go to place in Tiong Bahru to look for quirky gifts, their tagline is Militant Craftsmanship but its also a bit softer than that. I picked up some colorful necklaces by a Melbourne designer for my sister-in-law and I last time.I'm always on the look out at Strangelets for neat gift ideas. Plus they got popsicles. #nobrainer.
www.strangelets.sg // 7 Yong Siak Street, Tiong Bharu // +65 6222 1456
Another great stop is the ArtBlue Studio, where you can find some of Vietnam's most established and emerging artists. At the moment, they are also featuring mixed-media art by a Belarusian artist and friend. The store is run by a lovely Vietnamese-French couple, Phuong and Jacques. My eyes were drawn to the simple portrait of a young girl by a 75 year old Vietnamese master Nguyen Lam, and to the gold lacquered paintings reminiscent of Gustav Klimt by Duong Sen.
I had an interesting chat with Jacques about the number of Vietnamese artists that have trained under French masters and teachers and the continuing close collaboration between French and Vietnamese art universities. Do recommend you pay Art Blue a visit!
www.artbluestudio.com // 23 Yong Siak Street // +65-975-25458
A quick shot out to Ting Heng Seafood Restaurant where we dined the first night - it's the perfect place for dinner or late night snack, as its open super duper late, and is extra delish! Apparently its famous for its Tze Char - having no clue what that is, I will test it out next time. It's also conveniently located directly across the Monkey temple, so you can get your eat and pray on just steps away.
82 Tiong Poh Road, Tiong Bahru// +65 6323 6830
I love how naturally the Tiong Bahur Qi Tan Gong Temple aka Monkey Temple temple blends into the neighborhood. This is Singapore's first temple dedicated to the Monkey God, as depicted in the novel (and endless Chinese television series) the Journey to the West Monkey King 'Sun Wu Kong'. Those seeking protection and blessings come here to pray for prosperity and longevity, and particularly that quick witted-monkey mind to generate truckloads of cash. I'm not doing this cute one roomed temple justice, so go here instead to learn more.
http://qitiangong.com // 44 Eng Hoon Street
I would be remiss if I didn't mention Tiong Bahru Bakery since I stop by every time, and every time I choose an almond croissant. Though normally a neophile, all that goes out the window when it comes to anything marzipan related ♥
Who can resist all that almondy deliciousness? Clearly no one because this bakery is always packed. I try to nab a seat outside, which seats only two to a table and is a bit quieter. Folks love it, so much so that they've already opened up two more bakeries in Raffles City and Tang Orchard.
www.tiongbahrubakery.com/56 Eng Hoon Street, Tiong Bahru//+65-622-03430
And last but not least, there's a beautiful flower atelier aptly named The Floral Atelier that manages to be both minimal and lush with bright, colorful blooms.
The day I visited was just when they were shooting for their new seasonal collection. There were blooms every where and things were in a bit of a disarray, so I've can't properly show you how beautiful this little couture flower shop is. I've learned that they also host floral workshops that focus on technical skills and floral care, which sound just up my alley.
As my neighborhood florists at Katherine Florist just behind Hock Choon Market in Kuala Lumpur know, I nurture a little day dream about working surrounded by flowers, and so they let me play out my floral fantasy by giving me free reign over the blooms and the creation of my own bouquets. I have a feeling that a workshop at the Floral Atelier must be just what I need to elevate my artistic touch!
www.thefloralatelier.co // 40 Eng Hoon Street, Tiong Bahru // +65 8869 2830
I'd like to leave you with these vibrant blooms...but in case you don't have friends to stay with in Tiong Bahru (don't you? quick, make some!), then I've heard that the Wangz Hotel is a pretty little option for those wanting to stay in this quirky, adorable neighborhood. And there's definitely a number of sweet spots that I've skipped and some I might not even know of, so if you have some favorite spots - do let me know because I'll definitely be back!