My Community, My Space

Chosen area: Tiong Bahru Estate

Boundaries: The area within Tiong Bahru Rd, Seng Poh Rd, Tiong Poh Rd and Yong Siak St

Disciplinary Concepts

a. Common Space

b. Governance

c. Identity

Key Points:

1. Architecture

2. Demographics

3. Businesses

4. Common Space

Hello there! This is an analysis of Tiong Bahru Estate, an area brimming with heritage and identity unique to the area. This social commentary aims to inform and reflect on how factors including (but not limited to) governance policies, common space (or the lack thereof!), demographics and types of businesses dilute or preserve Tiong Bahru’s communal identity, and if this identity is important in preserving Singapore’s historical heritage. 

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Architecture

Architecture & (1) how it is affected by governance, (2) how it affects communal identity

Tiong Bahru Estate’s rich heritage & culture can be largely attributed to the fact that it is one of the oldest housing estates in Singapore. It was the first public housing project undertaken by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), an organization initiated by the British colonial government.

 Within the estate, two types of flats are predominant – the first being pre-war flats built by the SIT, namely, aesthetically pleasing art deco style flats that feature rounded balconies, external stairwells and flat rooftops.

Pre-war flats

The second type of flats are the post-war flats built by SIT’s successor, the Housing and Development Board (HDB). These flats, by contrast, are starkly utilitarian and uniform, with what many would call a “matchbox” style appearance.

Post-war flats

 These flats are extremely iconic as they are unique to Tiong Bahru and give the place nostalgic charm, holding much memories of the past. Tourists flock to the area for its architecture alone, as proved by a group of Caucasians I interviewed who pronounced that they visited the place “because of its charm and character”. Tiong Bahru Estate was thus given conservation status on 1 December 2003 by the government. This indeed has helped to preserve Tiong Bahru’s physical identity, preventing major changes to the flats that would affect their appearance. Preserving Tiong Bahru’s physical identity is important in preserving the culture of the area as well, as these flats are one thing that all residents of the neighbourhood are communally proud of, which helps bond residents and increase community spirit.

However, high-rise HDB flats as well as newfangled hotels and condominiums (most notably, the Regency) surround the outskirts of Tiong Bahru estate, and while these may not directly affect the conservation of the traditional flats, they do diminish the local, nostalgic atmosphere by introducing a more modern feel to the place that only serves to hamper and suppress the community’s identity as a centre of cultural heritage.

The Regency condominium

A Singaporean woman I interviewed mirrored these thoughts, stating that she is most concerned about the architectural changes made, despite it being a conservation area. Hence, I feel the government should not only protect Tiong Bahru’s physical state but also implement measures that conserve the estate’s intangible yet obviously present communal identity before it is lost with Singapore’s growing modernization.

Demographics

Demographics & how they affect (1) the effectiveness of Common Space, (2) the type of businesses in the estate, (3) the identity/communal spirit of the estate

Tiong Bahru’s demographic has undergone many changes since it’s establishment in the 1930s. In pre-World War II years, it was the choice place of living for the upper class and also housed mistresses of the rich, earning itself the negatively connoted nickname “Mei Ren Wo”, which can be literally translated to ‘den of beauties’. Post war period, however, the majority of its population became the elderly, as the younger generation of Singaporeans moved out of the estate in search of more modern and sophisticated housing.

However, many young Singaporeans and expatriates have recently rediscovered Tiong Bahru’s nostalgic atmosphere and architecture and found it to their liking, hence repopulating the estate. A Singaporean woman in her forties told us that in the past, Tiong Bahru had more of a ‘neighbourhood-neighbourhood’ (meaning that it was more for the middle class and was more homely) but now it has become more ‘high class’. She then revealed some shocking information – in the past, flats here cost approximately $500,000 to $600, 000, but now that price has skyrocketed to $1.8 million.

This price increase and change in atmosphere can probably be attributed to the change in the type of people populating the area, the most prominent change witnessed by the above woman (she has lived in Tiong Bahru for 10 years. She has witnessed an influx of ‘yuppies’ – young urban professionals – moving in and setting up business in the area, as well as a large number of Europeans settling down here.

Group of Caucasian interviewees

A Caucasian woman

From the interview and my observations as well as background research, I can conclude that Tiong Bahru’s population now has large numbers of the demographics of the elderly, ‘yuppies’, and Europeans, as wells as the Chinese, who populate most neighbourhoods all around Singapore. This strange mixing pot of remarkably different profiles makes me wonder if Tiong Bahru’s renowned close-knit community spirit is still going strong. It is hard to believe that people so different can still interact and form bonds despite common spaces that promote interactions between various cultures. (further elaborated on in the section ‘Common Space’) In addition, it is interesting to note that this population is not a good representation of Singapore’s population on the whole. (Businesses also, and architecture) This could result in major differences in Tiong Bahru’s communal identity and Singapore’s national identity.

However, despite these setbacks and doubts, an interviewee (the Singaporean woman) reassured me of the community’s neighbourliness. To illustrate her point, she told us that should she have a plane flight early the next morning, the owners of the coffee shop down the road would give her a wake up call to ensure that she did not miss her flight! In addition, she knew of a senile old resident of the estate that vented his anger towards the ‘new era’ by cursing mediacorp artistes and defiling pictures of them.

Defiled pictures of Mediacorp artists

These revelations were shocking given my initial discoveries concerning the population. However, I think the sheer proximity of each unit to each other as well as the length of time people have resided in the area have been able to overcome these demographically–induced boundaries. According to the interviewees, residents of the estate have stayed in Tiong Bahru for a considerably long period of time, many of them since childhood. Their reluctance to move away demonstrates their sense of attachment to the estate, which shows that their sense of belonging to it is strong and thus communal identity is strong.

Businesses

Businesses & how they affect communal identity

The types of businesses operating in the area are largely influenced by the population demographics. Though the shophouses and flats are traditional and old, many specialized businesses and art or fashion related design businesses (that are usually associated with modern times) have set up business within the estate.

Modern design/art shops operating in the vicinity

Tiong Bahru’s businesses used to comprise mainly coffee shops and seafood restaurants manned by Chinese owners, but an increasing number of Chinese shops can be seen closing down or perhaps leasing the unit to other businesses. Along with this discovery, I also observed that many European manned specialized businesses (such as The French Bookstore, whose owner I interviewed) and design-related businesses set up by ‘yuppies’ have sprouted up among them.

Owner of the book store; interviewee

Inside the bookstore

Closed Chinese shops

While the government has taken effort to conserve the area, it seems as though the policies governing alterations to the unit itself are rather liberal. Hence, many of these new businesses have altered shop fronts and have their logos plastered across signs and glass windows. These new additions, while aesthetically pleasing themselves, look rather out of place in this traditional place of heritage. They destroy the atmosphere somewhat; they do not contribute to and in fact dilute Tiong Bahru’s local, traditionally Singaporean feel.

The irony in this is that it is a vicious cycle set to end in the complete annihilation of Tiong Bahru’s traditional charm. The Europeans and ‘yuppies’ set up business in the estate as they like the local charm and architecture of the area; but by doing so, they significantly lessen this same local feel. A group of Caucasians I interviewed said that they visited the place as they heard about it’s nostalgic charm from a magazine, and they had enjoyed their visit as it had ‘local character’, unlike places like Holland Village which have lost their local flavour with increasing commercialization and modernization.

Indeed, if the government does not implement policies to prevent this, Tiong Bahru could be well on its way to becoming another generic modernized place – while physically conserved, it will lose the local charm that is the exact thing that draws people to the estate and renders it unique compared to other housing estates. Hence more must be done to prevent this from occurring.

Traditional businesses are also suffering due to the westernization of Singapore and the changing demographics of the estate, as well as problems with common space in some cases. With the increasing numbers of ‘yuppies’ and Europeans living in the area, there will be fewer patrons in traditional food joints as they either do not appreciate local cuisine or are unfamiliar with it. Even local Singaporeans may choose to patronize other food joints due to the increasing introduction of western cuisine into our Singaporean culture.

Common Space

Common Space & how it affects communal identity & spirit

One such food stall facing these problems is Tian Tian Yuan, a dessert house situated in Tiong Bahru Market. Its owner, Mr Cheng, took over the stall from his father in 1981 and his daughter is now manning the store in turn. Having lived in Tiong Bahru for more than 60 years, he has witnessed the many changes that have occurred and is unhappy with how it has turned out.

Tian Tian Yuan Dessert House, one of the stalls in Tiong Bahru Market

Owner of Tian Tian Yuan; interviewee

According to him, the stall’s daily income has been decreasing over the past few years. This can be attributed to several factors, the market’s renovation in 2006 being the main one. Tiong Bahru Market should technically be an ideal common space – it is open to any member of the public and interaction is unavoidable when dining. However, the market as a common space has not fulfilled expectations of its success. The market’s considerably large size leaves it with excess space, thereby diminishing the atmosphere and bustle often associated with a market. The sheer size of the area means that stalls (such as Tian Tian Yuan) have to be self-service, as they cannot possibly deliver food to 1 of the 300 tables in the market.

Tiong Bahru Market

In addition, the market is now on the second floor, which makes it less visible to the public and hence less patronized, diminishing interaction. It also makes it hard for the elderly to travel to the market as while there is an elevator and escalator, they break down easily (both were not working when I visited!). The fact that the food is not to everyone’s taste also diminishes its effect as a common space as not every demographic is represented in the market and hence interaction between all cultures is not present.

Another common space is the Tiong Bahru bird arena. It was originally situated on the corner of Tiong Bahru Road, and it was extremely popular then. According to our interviewees, residents (mainly old men) brought their songbirds and held competitions daily at the arena while enjoying kopi from a nearby coffee shop. Now, however, it has been moved across the street as Hotel Nostalgia was built on that spot. Strangely, although it is situated just across the road, the place is deserted, a stark contrast to the bustle of before (from our observation, but confirmed by a resident).

All that’s left of the previous bird corner

Hotel Nostalgia – Bird arena was demolished for this hotel to be constructed

The new deserted bird arena

In my opinion, there is an intangible barrier separating Tiong Bahru estate from the outside community, and though the arena was just across the street, this boundary was passed. Hence, the residents no longer felt comfortable moving out of their community and stopped holding the competitions. This also demonstrates the estate’s identity and sense of belonging as they are reluctant to occupy an area that is not within their community.

The third common space observed in Tiong Bahru is the Tiong Bahru Community Centre. The first thing that struck me as I entered the vicinity was that it was rather closed and unwelcoming. Besides the presence of a rather intimidating gate, those who wished to enter the community centre had to pass through a series of table tennis tables as well as a basketball court and risk interfering with peoples’ matches. Although the billboards in the CC advertised a number of activities and courses for the residents, such as English lessons for the elderly, ballet classes and yoga, I realized that most events seemed to cater for a certain demographic, which means that interaction between different cultures would be minimal. This was demonstrated by the users of the table tennis and basketball court facilities – old men occupied the former while youths occupied the latter with no interaction between the two.

Hence, I feel that the common spaces in Tiong Bahru require a lot of improvement. Common spaces are vital in cultivating and preserving identity and a sense of rootedness to the place, hence more effort should be put into finding and constructing suitable common spaces.

 

Bibliography

Sources

– Primary Sources

Interviews: 

Interviewee Information

1. Name: Emmanuel Brcuillet

    Age: 50

    Gender: Male

    Citizenship Status: Permanent Resident

    Place of Interview: 55 Tiong Bahru Road #01-53C, The French Bookshop

    Date and Time: 15 April 2012, approx. 5pm

    Occupation: Owner of “The French Bookshop”

2. Name: Mr Cheng

Age: 70

    Gender: Male

    Citizenship Status: Singaporean

    Place of Interview: 30 Seng Poh Road #02-15, Tiong Bahru Market

    Date and Time: 15 April 2012, approx 5.30pm

    Occupation: Owner of “Tian Tian Yuan” dessert house

3. Name: Declined to be named

Age: Unknown (Around 40)

    Gender: Female

    Citizenship Status: Singaporean

    Place of Interview: 

    Date and Time: 15 April 2012, approx 4pm

4. Name(s): Declined to be named

Age(s): Unknown (Around 30)

    Gender: Group of Caucasian males & females

    Citizenship Status: Permanent Residents

    Place of Interview: Hotel Nostalgia

– Secondary Sources

Websites:

1) About the Estate. (n.d.). Civic Life: Tiong Bahru. Retrieved April 18, 2012, from http://civiclifetiongbahru.com/about-tiong-bahru-the-estate/

2) Galf, S. (2009, June 30). Hotel 81 in Tiong Bahru is a Test about Changing Mindsets.Tiong Bahru  Estate. Retrieved April 19, 2012, from http://tiongbahruestate.blogspot.com/2009/06/hotel-81-in-tiong-bahru-is-test-about.html

3)Urban Redevelopment Authority (n.d.). Tiong Bahru Conservation Area. Urban Redevelopment Authority. Retrieved April 18, 1012, from http://http://www.ura.gov.sg/conservation/tbahru.htm

Pineda, M. (2011, November 9).

4) Tiong Bahru: Singapore’s Oldest and Hippest ‘hood.CNN GO. Retrieved April 19, 2012, from http://http://www.cnngo.com/singapore/life/tiong-bahru-singapore%E2%80%99s-oldest-and-hippest-hood-980850

5) D. (n.d.). Tiong Bahru: A Good Old Housing Estate. Travel Guide. Retrieved April 19, 2012, from http://www.streetdirectory.com/travel_guide/singapore/singapore_district/1023/tiong_bahru.php

 

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