In this three-part series, we take a look at Tiong Bahru's next-generation offerings and how the estate has evolved from being a pre-war housing estate to one of the most charming and sought-after districts in Singapore. This week, we take a look at how its creative history has shaped the architecture of the neighbourhood.

Wander around Tiong Bahru and you’ll find an intriguing combination of old and new in the neighbourhood. Many of its low-rise, pre-war buildings have been preserved, giving people a look into Singapore’s past. And now, as hip and modern shops and eateries have flocked to the estate, it has become one of the coolest places in the world.

Mr Kenny Leck, who owns the Books Actually bookstore at 9 Yong Siak Street, told Keppellandlive in our new Tiong Bahru Insider video series: “It’s almost like you’re going through a time travel machine when you’re in Tiong Bahru. There is a lot of history to be uncovered in this modern estate.”

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Retaining fond traditions 

Explore the neighbourhood and you’ll find some of the oldest and most distinctive buildings in Singapore. The pre-war housing blocks, built in the 1930s, were inspired by the sleek and modern transport options then, including trains, ocean liners, airplanes and cars. The buildings have clean, curved shapes, rounded corners and balconies and the occasional nautical feature, such as porthole windows and stainless steel railings.

The historical buildings have helped to keep several decades-old traditions alive. The Koh Brother Pig’s Organ Soup stall in the Tiong Bahru Market and Food Centre, for instance, has been operating in the estate since the 1950s. It is probably the only one in Singapore that still sells the traditional Teochew version of the dish with pig intestines stuffed with glutinous rice.

Another iconic property in the neighbourhood is the Hua Bee coffee shop at Block 78 Moh Guan Terrace. It has welcomed diners since the 1940s, and is one of the few remaining coffee shops in Singapore that still sells coffee with a slice of butter in it. You might also recognise the eatery as the setting for local filmmaker Eric Khoo’s 1995 movie, Mee Pok Man.

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Pre-war flats at Tiong Bahru

Building on the past

Other shops and houses in Tiong Bahru have looked to the future even as they honour the estate’s past. At the Pin Pin Piau Kay & Co provision shop at 71 Seng Poh Road, which has been operating since 1938, traditional local products such as cha kiak (wooden clogs) and sapu lidi (brooms made of twigs) share shelf space with new offerings such as quinoa, white wine vinegar and bottled jalapeno peppers.

Highline Residences, the newest condominium in the neighbourhood developed by Keppel Land, also achieves a seamless blend of modern architecture while retaining the integrity of the area’s heritage. The condominium’s row of four-storey apartment blocks along Kim Tian Road blends in with the neighbourhood’s low-rise, pre-war housing blocks. The property also has sky terraces in its three towers, as well as a unique, 180-metre-long green feature, to mirror the estate’s greenery. 

An architectural oasis

“The low-rise heritage in Tiong Bahru is fantastic,” said Mr Leck. “I think that it is something that we should pass on to our future generations so that they can not only see the progress that Singapore has made, but also the architectural history of the country.”