Tiong Bahru has had many incarnations, from a place where wealthy tycoons kept their mistresses to being the 1930s’ site of the first government housing estate, a distinctly Art Deco-influenced affair. Today, it is the latest trendy neighbourhood in a city-state increasingly becoming aware of its own hipness.
Before World War II, Tiong Bahru was one of Singapore’s most chic neighbourhoods, at least the part of it not surrounded by mangrove swamps. Even the Chinese cemetery that gave the area its name (Tiong is Hokkien for tombs and bahru is Malay fornew) was favoured by the rich and famous, with the tomb of one of Singapore’s greatest philanthropists, Tan Tock Seng, located there.
After the war, Tiong Bahru lost much of its prestige as a residential neighbourhood, despite retaining its sleepy kampung(village) charm. Today, that allure has resulted in a massive influx of cafés, bars, eateries and design studios. The key player in this has been Cynthia Chua, the serial entrepreneur behind the Strip and Browhaus grooming chains, who opened the 40 Hands café in the area. Today the neighbourhood is just about holding on to the vestiges of its renowned traditional hawker fare while accommodating new tastes and sensations.
The Tiong Bahru Market and Food Centre on Seng Poh Road is regarded as one of the finest in Singapore. In a city where hawker centres are held in high esteem that’s no small boast. Dr Leslie Tay, creator of the popular Singaporean food blog, ieat•ishoot•ipost, recommends the char siew pau (pork-filled buns) at Tiong Bahru Pau, the wanton and char siew noodles at Wanton Noodle and the shark meat fritters with sticky sauce at 178 Lor Mee. The respected local food guide Makansutra, meanwhile, has bestowed its “divine” rating (two-and-a-half rice bowls out of three – just half a bowl short of its “Die, die, must try!” rating) on the Hokkien Prawn Noodles stall, as well as Chwee Kueh and Jian Bo Shui Kueh stalls, both of which serve excellent rice cakes.