My Tiong Bahru Heritage Tour

Tour Info

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Date
Every first Saturday and Sunday of the month
Time
10am to 12pm or 4pm to 6pm (approximately). Please arrive 10mins before the start time for registration.
language
English
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Start
Tiong Bahru Community Centre Admin Office (access via gate between Blocks 72 and 77 Seng Poh Road, or via gate between Blocks 74 and 75 Tiong Poh Road.
End
Tiong Bahru Air Raid Shelter, a ten minute walk from Tiong Bahru MRT Station
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Difficulty Level

1.5/5

  • Expect four hours of walking
  • It is compulsory for a parent/guardian to accompany any child of/under the age of 12
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What should I bring
  • Bring a small torchlight, or install a flashlight app on your mobile phone.
  • Bring your earpieces (compatible with mobile phones/mp3 players) to connect to our portable wireless radioguide, so that you can hear our guides better. Earpieces are also provided for a donation of $2.
  • Wear comfortable attire and footwear
  • Use sunblock, sunglasses and insect repellent
  • Have a bottle of water with you
  • Pack an umbrella or poncho. Walks will continue in light rain.

Description

Take a walk around Singapore’s only conservation housing estate with our volunteer guides to explore its pre-war and post-war architecture and learn about the intriguing people and stories associated with this charming and picturesque neighbourhood. This tour includes an exclusive visit to Singapore’s first communal civilian air raid shelter in a residential estate which saved many lives during World War II.

Site 1: The Origin and Development of Tiong Bahru

The Tiong Bahru Market is home to popular hawker stalls.

 

The quaint neighbourhood of Tiong Bahru – known for its elegant 1930s-1950s art deco residential blocks and its network of trendy cafes and popular hawker stalls – comfortably straddles both the past and present.

The estate started out as a lowland swamp. In 1859, the Tiong Lama cemetery (located in and around the present-day Singapore General Hospital compound) was moved to Tiong Bahru. This development is captured in the estate’s name – tiong means die in Hokkien while baru means new in Malay. The cemetery housed the remains of members of the Cantonese and Hakka communities in Singapore. The area was also home to villagers of Kampong Tiong Bahru.

Over time, the lack of infrastructure resulted in sanitation problems. In the 1920s, the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) stepped in. It worked to redevelop the land and build new homes. It was the first public housing estate ever spearheaded by the SIT. Tiong Bahru’s burial grounds were exhumed and slums were cleared before building works began in the late 1930s. The first wave of homes comprised 28 council flats and four shops. These were completed in 1936. In the following years, the SIT built even more flats. By 1941, records indicate that the area was home to 784 flats, 54 tenements, 33 shops. It also housed 6,000 occupants. Due to steep rental rates, the estate grew to be occupied by wealthier individuals and families as well as the mistresses of rich men.

During the war, the estate suffered some damage. The chaos wreaked by the Japanese across the island affected livelihoods and changed the fate of many. By the end of the war, a more diverse group of residents – such as middle-income families – had moved into Tiong Bahru.

In 1954, the SIT added another 1,258 flats to Tiong Bahru. These four storey post-war flats were popular among locals due to planners’ considerate incorporation of communal green and open spaces. A community centre and polyclinic also rose in the estate to serve the growing residential population in Tiong Bahru.

Today, the value of Tiong Bahru’s flats has soared due in part to their aesthetic merits as well as their historical roots.

Site 2: Bird Corner and Former Hu Lu Temple

Bird Corner
At the intersection of Seng Poh Road and Tiong Bahru Road today lies a bird corner that was set up in the early 1980s. The bird corner was set up by the owner of a traditional coffee shop, Wah Heng, that was located at on the ground floor of the current Link Hotel.

The bird corner drew in throngs of bird owners who showed off their birds, listened to their calls and songs, and socialised with one another. However, the bird corner at Wah Heng was not the original bird corner at the intersection. Across the road, on a plot of land now occupied by Nostalgia Hotel, stood a popular pet bird shop that drew many tourists and curious onlookers to it. The popularity of the shop and its hanging bird cages inspired Wah Heng’s owner to erect his own bird corner.

A number of bird singing competitions were held at the corner, including one sponsored by Dutch airline KLM. Popular American jazz flutist Herbie Mann also visited the corner in 1984 and performed to the accompaniment of bird songs.

Former Hu Lu Temple
葫芦庙 (Hu Lu Miao, “Gourd Temple” in Chinese) stood next to the pet bird shop. The temple was informally named after a bright red gourd-shaped temple located just outside the temple. The temple’s genuine name was 威镇庙 (Wei Zhen Miao, “Temple of Awe” in Chinese).

According to two stone tablets in the temple, the temple was founded in 1909 by migrants from Nan’an, a county China’s Fujian province. The temple was built on land donated by Lim Chwee Chian (1864 to 1923), a merchant and chairman of the Ee Hoe Hean Club for wealthy businessmen.
The temple was frequented by residents in the area, and was demolished in 2006 after it was sold by its owners. Nostalgia Hotel stands in its place today.

Site 3: Graves of Tan Tock Seng, Chua Seah Neo and Wuing Neo

Tan Tock Seng was a prominent businessman and philanthropist, and is considered among Singapore’s most important pioneers. He was born in Malacca in 1798, and moved to Singapore in 1819, not long after the British arrived.

Tan was a Hokkien, and knew how to speak English. He had good relations with European businessmen, and had a partnership with John Horrocks Whitehead, a trader from Shaw, Whitehead & Co. Tan’s immense wealth was credited largely to joint land speculation between Whitehead and himself.

More than 20 hectares of land at the site of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station belonged to Tan, who also owned a plot of land that stretched from Connaught Drive to High Street and Tank Road. Together with his brother, Tan Oo Loong, he also owned a nutmeg plantation.

Among the buildings and institutions that Tan donated to was a hospital that was named after him. He contributed to the construction of a Chinese Pauper’s Hospital on top of Pearl’s Hill in 1844, after seeing the plight of the locals. The hospital was completed three years later but stood empty for another two years, owing to a lack of funds to employ staff and equip the hospital. It admitted its first patients in 1849, and moved to the junction of Serangoon Road and Balestier Road in 1861. Tan Tock Seng Hospital shifted again in 1903 to its current location off Moulmein Road.

Tan passed away in 1850 and was buried in an unknown location. In 1882, his son Tan Kim Ching (1829 to 1892) buried his wife Chua Seah Neo at this Outram Road site. It is believed that Tan Kim Ching exhumed his father’s remains and reinterred them at the same location. Wuing Neo, Tan Kim Ching’s daughter-in-law, was also buried at the site in 1882.

Site 4: Outram Precinct

The area around Outram Road was formally a military area. The 35th Regiment of the Madras Native Infantry built their barracks at the junction of Jalan Bukit Merah and Outram Road in 1827. Many of the soldiers in the regiment were Sepoys – Indian soldiers hired by the East India Company. The area became known as Sepoy Lines.

In the 1860s, the Sepoys moved to Tanglin Barracks in the Dempsey area. Singapore General Hospital relocated to Sepoy Lines in 1873, occupying some of the buildings that formerly house the Sepoys.

ーSite 3A: Institute of Health

Located in the Outram Precinct, The Institute of Health (IOH) was a joint venture between the government, the University of Malaya and the City Council of Singapore. The building in Outram Road was opened on 23 April 1958, and housed the School Medical and Dental Services headquarters, the University of Malaya’s Department of Social Medicine and Public Health, and the City Council’s Maternity and Child Welfare Centre.

ーSite 3B: Former Outram Prison and Outram Park Complex

A civilian prison was built at the bottom of Pearl’s Hill in 1847. Located in the Outram Precinct, the prison was aptly named Pearl’s Hill Prison, and confined debtors who failed to pay their fines. In 1882, HM (His/Her Majesty’s) Criminal Jail was built next to the civilian prison for those convicted of more serious crimes. The two prisons were brought under one institution, and named Outram Prison. It served as Singapore’s main prison until Changi Prison was opened in 1936.

Outram Prison remained operational until 1968 when it was demolished for Outram Park Complex to be erected.
Outram Park Complex was a modern mixed-use complex and featured apartment built above podium blocks that housed shops and offices. The complex had escalators, lifts and multi-storey car parks. It had a good reputation among shoppers, and housed Hong Kong’s Chancellor Department Store’s first overseas branch. The complex was demolished in 2003.

ーSite 3C: Coroner’s Court

Located in the Outram Precinct, the Coroner’s Court building was completed in 1956 and functioned as Singapore’s Coroner’s Court until 1975 when the court was moved to the main Subordinate Courts complex in Havelock Road in 1975. Previously, the Coroner’s Court occupied different locations over the years.

Singapore’s first Coroner was Andrew Farquhar (1802 to 1829). He was appointed on 17 December 1827. The Coroner first operated in the Medical Department of the General Hospital, until 1848. A small room was then made available to the Coroner at the Police Court on South Bridge Road. On 1 May 1928, a purpose-built Coroner’s Court was completed at the Police Court building.

Site 5: Monkey God Temple

齐天宫 (“Tiong Bahru Qi Tian Gong” in Chinese) moved to its current location at 44 Eng Hoon Street in 1938. The temple, popularly known as the Tiong Bahru Monkey God Temple, was founded in 1920 in a small attap hut.

The temple is dedicated to 孙悟空 (“Sun Wukong” in Chinese), the monkey king in Wu Chen-en’s Journey to the West novel. It contains more than ten statues of the monkey god, with one more almost a century old. Qi Tian Gong’s temples claim that the temple was the very first in Singapore dedicated to the monkey god. Today, there are over 40 temples in Singapore that worship the monkey god.

On the 16th day of the eighth lunar month, Sun Wukong’s birthday, special rituals take place at the temple. Temple mediums go into a trance and bless new idols, altars and offices. Mediums are whipped, pierced, and climb ladders to prove that they have been possessed by the monkey god.

Site 6: Architecture of Tiong Bahru

The Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) was tasked with developing the Tiong Bahru area after it failed to sell the land by tender over a five-year period in the 1930s because of a recession. Architect Alfred G. Church was in charge of designing the Tiong Bahru area between 1936 and 1941.

Many of his designs were a modified form of the Streamline Moderne style, which was a late offshoot of the Art Deco movement. The style was largely influenced by technology and modern travel, and incorporated design features that were characteristic of automobiles, trains and aeroplanes. Streamlined and aerodynamic lines were often seen on the buildings.

The buildings in Tiong Bahru have clean, curved shapes and rounded corners with horizontal and vertical lines. Nautical elements like porthole windows and stainless steel railings are also found on the buildings. The Streamline Moderne style is rarely found in housing projects, and the architectural value of those in Tiong Bahru prompted the Urban Redevelopment Authority to gazette 20 blocks in the area for conservation in 2003.

Site 7: Tiong Bahru Community Center

The centre has undergone multiple facelifts but residents remain at the heart of its outreach efforts.

Singapore’s first community centre can trace its roots back to the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The idea for a community centre stemmed from former Tiong Bahru residents eager to rebuild after World War II. The idea was to build a communal hall and provide recreational amenities such as a basketball court, football field and badminton courts for residents.

Originally costing $20,000 to construct, the centre proved to be a worthy investment. Apart from recreational activities, it grew to serve the community in other ways and was able to offer assistance for matters such as funerals.

Over the years, residents grew fond of it. They popped in to watch films together, participate in night classes and take part in community events such as dances on the weekend.

To keep it relevant to the dynamic Tiong Bahru community, the community centre has undergone five major facelifts since it was first constructed.

Site 8: Seng Poh Garden and Dancing Girl Statue

Although Tiong Bahru had green spaces between its blocks, no garden was officially planned until 1972. The space that Seng Poh Garden occupies today was an open grassy area that residents used for their morning exercise and gatherings.

Sarawak-born sculptor Lim Nang Seng (1916 to 1987) was tasked to design a sculpture for the garden. Over a two-week period, he sculpted a 1.2 metre tall sculpture in an Orchard Road car park. Lim chose an abstract design for the sculpture, depicting a girl performing a joyful harvest dance.

The concrete sculpture was unveiled by then Minister for Interior and Defence Lim Kim San (1916 to 2006), and drew mixed reactions from residents. While some loved it, others thought it was too abstract, and looked like a swan about to take flight.

Site 9: The Horseshoe Block

Block 78 is the largest block of flats in Tiong Bahru, and is bounded by four streets. Apart from its unique shape, the block features Singapore’s first purpose-built public air raid shelter in a public housing project.

The block was built between 1939 and 1940, just after Singapore’s earliest air raid shelters had been built between 1936 and 1937. On 28 June 1939, the Singapore Improvement Trust announced that an air raid shelter would be incorporated into the block’s design.

The ground floor of Block 78 is a mix of residences and shops, and houses Hua Bee, one of Tiong Bahru’s oldest coffee shops. The coffee shop was established in the 1940s, and served bread, eggs, fishball noodles and drinks. It is also known for its bulletproof coffee, or black coffee served with a slice of butter.

Site 10: Design of Tiong Bahru Flats

Tiong Bahru’s architecture continues to draw people to the neighbourhood.

Apart from Art Deco and Streamline Moderne, Tiong Bahru also hosts the sleek internationalism architectural style which developed in the 1920s and 1930s. This style is known for its practical and stripped back design.

The men behind the estate’s international style residential blocks located at Lim Liak Road and along Seng Poh Road were Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) architects and planners Lincoln Page and Robert FN Kan.

The duo used simple, clean lines. To avoid appearing too mechanical and boxy, they incorporated portholes and curved external staircases to provide some relief to the eye.

Some design features of Singapore’s characteristic shophouse styles were also folded into the interiors and exteriors of these blocks. For instance, Page and Kan added airwells to kitchens as well as five-footways.