Tiong Bahru is shabby chic

Tan Shzr Ee, the narrator featured in the film TIONG BAHRU, writes of the estate’s unique appeal for all generations of Singaporeans, in The Straits Times, 27th January 2011.

It suddenly dawned on me that Tiong Bahru was hip, with an old-world charm

This weekend, CIVIC LIFE: TIONG BAHRU, a film on Singapore’s historic Tiong Bahru district, opens in one of London’s arthouse cinemas, Renoir.

Helmed by British film-makers Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, it stars ‘real life’ people of the famed area’s markets, who struggle with big decisions about life choices, belonging, identity and place.

My own tiny contribution to the project as a voiceover artist allowed an initial glimpse of the rushes, which showed Tiong Bahru in all its old-world charm, its almost ridiculous greens, reds and oranges; its dated multi-storey carparks that were so ugly they could almost be beautiful.

And then, it suddenly dawned on me: Tiong Bahru was hip. Old housing board developments were being reclaimed as not-quite ‘historic’ districts than viable, livable spaces whose slightly worse-for-wear and once unfashionable facades were now the epitome of cool.


      Tiong Bahru – with its brilliant reds, greens, oranges, dirty yellows and ucky beiges – has the original ‘uncle-hip’ factor.

      Rydwan, my fellow consumer of Singaporean nostalgia in London, concurred over a Facebook chat: ‘Yes, TB is quite the hip. No gentrification yet. Outram Park, Changi Village, the old Seletar airbase – people in these neighbourhoods have this solidarity and pride about their own kampungs. You never find it in Yishun or AMK.’

      What about Chinatown?

      ‘Chinatown where got people live there anymore? Same as Bugis.’

      Yes – I agreed. They were choc-a-bloc with beautiful hotels, too-trendy design boutiques, or indeed the creature which crossed both genres: boutique hotels.

      But what then, of Holland V?

      ‘Too ang moh. But it’s still villagey.’


      ‘Hmmz. Not hip… yet. But getting there. It’s seedy. Got edge.’

      And Siglap? With its wine merchants and all?

      ‘Laidback hip. It’s the Holland V of the East but not so ang moh.’

      And so we went through major sections of Singaporean topography, debating over their merits and faults in terms of our very own definitions of hipness.

      As it turned out, Ryd’s definitions were slightly different from mine, although we both decided that hipness was not so much measured by design-worthiness or pure old-world charm or youth culture, than an X factor reeking of tried-and-tested aliveness.

      I, for one, ruled out Siglap on the grounds of its too-obvious colourful and new cafes in restored buildings which seemed to be reaching out to yuppies every single second.

      To me, the architecture of the area and its communities seemed to be always declaring, oh-so-self-confidently, that it was neither Bukit Timah or Orchard Road, but ‘a real village’. Not that I wouldn’t choose to live in this beautiful district though – self-admitted pretentious bourgeois bohemian that I really am.

      But Siglap did not have that unplanned, quirky and slightly rundown feel of slow-burning buzz which Outram Park, Selegie, Geylang, Redhill, Toa Payoh – even Ang Mo Kio and Balestier which Ryd felt could not make the list – all possessed.

      As far as I was concerned, these neighbourhoods all had an uncle touch: they sported those ubiquitous, singlet-wearing, balding 60-something males who would be squatting by the pavement, griping about the abominable fashion sense of ‘those young people’ when not stoning in front of a kopitiam widescreen TV broadcasting the English Premier League.

      And the ‘uncle’ touch wasn’t just about live, grumpy old men in tatty clothes populating public and open spaces. It was a whole ethic – of shabby chic, of has-been-ness and finally, of a steely determination to remain marginally relevant to the pulse of everyday life in Singapore, every moment.

      Of course, there are uncles in Yishun, Holland V and Siglap too. But they were not so much central to the landscape than incidental to it. They were either holed up in their swanky third-generation HDB flats’ air-conditioned ‘guest rooms’ (watching the English Premier League, no less), or dutifully and invisibly walking their precious grandchildren to kindergartens and nursery schools.

      Real uncle-hipness was a different matter: Here was an old man’s stubbornness, an old man’s recalcitrance – whether demonstrated in physical displays of kiamsiap (stingy) behaviour in disputes over correct change at the coffeeshop, or metaphored in the defiant, graffitised but not yet mouldy paintwork of walls, building archways and void decks.

      In my books, Tiong Bahru – with its brilliant reds, greens, oranges, dirty yellows and ucky beiges – has the original ‘uncle-hip’ factor. And where newer, shinier, multi-purpose multi-swimming-pooled executive condominiums with skywalk passageways might cause you to take deep intakes of breath from within as well as from afar, I’m equally happy taking the heat any day from your cantankerous uncle on his crumbling, roadside perch in some rundown corner of neglected – but still alive – Singapore.


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