On trend at anold beauty
The Lion City’s oldest neighbourhood is going through a resurgence as a hip ArtDeco sanctuary, writes Sarah Nicholson
‘‘ DO YOU know Tiong Bahru is also called Mei Ren Wo?’’ the elderly cab driver asked as he whisked me from Changi Airport to my boutique hotel on the edge of Singapore’s oldest neighbourhood.
‘‘ It means ‘ den of beauties’ in Chinese and that was Tiong Bahru’s nickname before World War II because the richest men kept their mistresses there and the locals always knew who they were because the ladies would look perfect even when they were out doing their shopping.
‘‘ Some of those ladies still live in Tiong Bahru, they’re in their 80s and 90s now and have become icons of the neighbourhood.’’
Tiong Bahru – the network of lanes bounded by Tiong Bahru Rd and Singapore General Hospital to the west of Chinatown – was established in the 1930s when the Singapore Improvement Trust built 30 low-rise buildings containing 900 apartments to accommodate the island’s expanding prewar population.
The elegant structures were a mix of Art Deco and Straits shophouse architecture, with covered footpaths beside the family businesses at ground level and round balconies, porthole windows, geometric curves, metal trim, panels of opaque glass and shutters decorating the floors above.
Only the very rich could afford Tiong Bahru in the decade before the Japanese invaded Singapore in 1942, but the population tripled in the years after World War II, with the district losing its exclusive status to become a middle-class kampong, or village.
The neighbourhood lost a little more shine in the 1970s and ’ 80s when the boom years brought smart, highdensity developments popular with a new generation of prosperous Singaporeans who left the old settlement to live in modern towers close to swimming pools, tennis courts and new schools.
But young people with a social conscience are returning to Tiong Bahru to embrace the kampong lifestyle in a neighbourhood that has not only retained its original elegant appearance, thanks to some insightful conservation laws, but a healthy dose of historic charm.
I heard about the spot on a visit to Singapore last year when the young PR executive at a luxury hotel told me it was the place hip locals went for coffee, with cafes like 40 Hands, The Orange Thimble and Drips making the best espressos in the Lion City.
And I was hooked after reading a CNN story that described the area as ‘‘ Singapore’s oldest and hippest hood’’ providing ‘‘ a mishmash of old and new Singapore’’.
CAFFEINE CORNER: The 40 Hands cafe in Tiong Bahru district is one the trendy spots to visit.