Singapore art deco Tiong Bahru walking tour: A trip through the city's exotic past

"It's not technically a fire escape, it's a boyfriend escape," says Lip Sin, pointing to the stairs on an apartment building in Tiong Bahru. "A lot of rich businessmen housed their mistresses here."

It seems Singapore is not the buttoned-up puritanical state it's often depicted as; or at least it wasn't back in the 1930s. That's when this residential neighbourhood was built on a reclaimed swamp, with graceful art deco buildings replacing squatters' huts and rutted, muddy roads.

Not only is it art deco, but it's Streamline Moderne – the sexiest variant of the style with sleek, curving walls and sweeping eaves.

When Tiong Bahru was planned by a government housing commission back in the British colonial era, it was intended to relieve congestion in crowded Chinatown. The planners created such a charming district, however, with relatively high rents, that it became popular with office workers rather than the working class.

That upmarket appeal lives on today. With its stylish architecture preserved by law,  21st-century Tiong Bahru has taken on a hipster tone. Its shopfronts are now dotted with cool cafes and bars, and its apartment buildings have a fresh appeal for people working in the nearby Downtown.

This renewed popularity has sparked a reaction from those who lived there before it became cool. Wanting to preserve and share its distinctive history, the Tiong Bahru Heritage Volunteers offer monthly free guided tours of the estate.

That's why I'm walking its streets with a huddle of other tour members, most of whom are Singaporeans wanting to learn more about their city's past. For me, it's a great opportunity to meet locals and try something different from the stereotypical food and shopping attractions of the island state.

As we walk, Lip Sin points out four circular structures, which were designed as bomb shelters, then redeveloped into community facilities after World War II. One of them is now a music centre, about as far from the cacophony of war as you can get.

Tiong Bahru was always a relatively uncrowded district in this busy city, says our guide, with residents buying goods from street hawkers and hauling up their purchases by basket.

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Then, past the streamlined modernity, we reach an outpost of the past. The Monkey God Temple is a Taoist place of worship that predates the estate, established in the early 20th century to serve plantation workers in the area. 

Near it is a row of old shophouses, and an Anglican church. This mix of eras and faiths seems typically Singaporean, a mix symbolised by the name of the suburb itself. Tiong is a Chinese word meaning dead, and Bahru a Malay word meaning new; before the housing was here, the area was home to cemeteries.

We're about to meet one of those laid to rest in the area. Crossing busy Outram Road, we climb a pathway into the leafy Pearl's Hill City Park.

Here we find the grave of Tan Tock Seng, a successful businessman from the earliest days of British Singapore. As a mediator between Chinese and Europeans, and a philanthropist who donated funds for a public hospital on this hill, he's remembered and honoured as a public benefactor.

Back in Tiong Bahru, we pass a Streamline Moderne marketplace built in the 1940s, and make our way to a former air-raid shelter used by locals in the war. 

Lip Sin says he's met someone who was born within its dimly lit interior, underlining how recent Tiong Bahru's past is.

After the walk, I chat with the organisers at long-lived local noodle joint Hua Bee (behind which is discreetly tucked cool contemporary bar Bincho), and ask them if they feel Tiong Bahru is becoming too popular. 

"On the one hand it's nice to see the estate being revitalised," says one. "But it's too much sometimes. One cupcake shop or hipster cafe is enough; why do you need six?"

How do they feel their tours counter this trend?

"Singapore develops so quickly that not everybody has the chance to experience something before it's gone," comes the answer. "This is our little contribution to the awareness of the space around us, where we came from, what our forefathers did. It's more than nostalgia."

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of the Singapore Tourism Board.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

yoursingapore.com

GETTING THERE 

Qantas (131313, qantas.com.au) flies to Singapore from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

STAYING THERE 

Raffles Singapore, 1 Beach Rd. Suites from $S750 per night, see raffles.com/singapore.

The Sultan, 101 Jalan Sultan. Rooms from $S130, see thesultan.com.sg

Ibis Singapore on Bencoolen, 170 Bencoolen St. Rooms from $S130, see ibis.com

SEE+DO

The free Tiong Bahru Heritage Walk usually takes place at 10am on the first Saturday and Sunday of each month, commencing at the Tiong Bahru Community Centre, 67a Eu Chin Street. Check the schedule and register at peatix.com/user/469474

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