A week-day morning in downtown Singapore and crowds of besuited men and women march purposefully into gleaming skyscrapers and imposing colonial buildings. Taxis, cars and buses stream past in an orderly hurry. Honking horns, engine sounds and chirps, beeps and trills from pedestrian crossings infuse the steamy air. This is the Singapore we know. Hustle and bustle and boundless striving have transformed a tropical island half the size of Zanzibar into one of the world's richest countries.
But a 10-minute cab ride from the CBD, just west of Chinatown, you'll find a slice of Singapore that reveals the city-state in new, more leisurely light. Laid-back and low-rise, Tiong Bahru usually lies under the tourist radar, but it's one of Singapore's most characterful neighbourhoods, a favourite hang-out of trend-setting locals and expats (and home to regular Singaporean families, young and old).
Built between the 1930s and 50s, comprising grid-like streets of whitewashed, three-storey, spiral-staircased apartments, this was the country's first public housing project.
Wealthy businessmen would also shelter their mistresses here (it was dubbed Mei Ren Wuo – "den of beauties" in Chinese). In recent years, gentrification has arrived, with hip new businesses springing up beside wizened veterans on streets named after early Chinese-Singaporean pioneers. My guide, Dino, and I breakfast at the slick Tiong Bahru Bakery.
Its outdoor tables are all occupied by chatting friends, so we head inside – receiving a blast of airconditioning – and find ourselves transfixed by the pastries, quiches and sweet treats on display. The bakery's founder, Gontran Cherrier, is a fourth-generation Parisian baker, and the kouign-amann (sugary, buttery Breton cake) I munch here is as good as any I've had in France. Etched with "latte art", the flat white is rather good, too (coffee is sourced from Common Man Roasters, a joint Australian-Singaporean enterprise that's behind another Tiong Bahru favourite, the brunch-tastic Forty Hands).
With its steamy humidity causing many mere mortals to start sweating in 60 seconds, Singapore isn't exactly a stroller's paradise, but Tiong Bahru is great for sauntering around. Window-shoppers left cold by the huge malls of Orchard Road may find more to their liking in the independent boutiques of Yong Siak Street.
You can browse cutting-edge fashion and design, from home and abroad, at Nana & Bird, the brainchild of friends and self-confessed shopaholics, Georgina Koh and Tan Chiew Ling. It's next door to cupcake specialist Plain Vanilla, and Strangelets, where you'll find everything from retro Magno wooden radios to polar bear-shaped bookshelves. Fronted by potted plants, Woods in the Books and BooksActually lure bibliophiles.
Further along, facing Forty Hands, Open Door Policy is one of the district's wining, dining and cocktail hotspots. Fans of vintage should fossick Fleas & Trees on Seng Poh Lane. It's a haven of clothes, homewares and jewellery, handpicked from around the world by husband-and-wife team Terence Yeung and Bella Koh. Parts of Tiong Bahru remain resolutely old-school. I pass an elderly woman, sitting, feet up, outside her home, the scent of incense wafting from her open front door, drinking green tea and flicking through a Chinese-language newspaper. A fiftysomething cyclist pedals creakily by coconut trees, neatly trimmed lawns, and folk sitting on plastic stools, slurping noodles and other Singaporean staples.
Loo's, established in 1946, is one notable eatery, famed for its Hainanese curry rice. Tradition also permeates Tiong Bahru Market, the neighbourhood's art deco-designed landmark. Its lower floor is a "wet" market – stalls are laden with fish, seafood, fruit and veg; its upper-floor food court is a hive of hawkers and hungry punters, who, at lunchtimes, queue for the likes of fishball soup, fried oyster omelette and chwee kueh (steamed rice cake topped with a tangy sauce). Diagonally facing the market, Tiong Bahru Club has an easy-going, nostalgic vibe. There's teak furniture, mosaic floor tiles and black and white photographs, including shots of the bird-singing competitions that the Chinese community would host in Tiong Bahru. Out front, there's an old goods trishaw and rustic tables. You can order dishes from the melting-pot menu (think: laksa, salted egg prawns and biryanis), sip spiced teas (or iced coffees, craft beers and champagne), and watch the world gently go by.
Singapore Airlines, Qantas and Emirates are among the airlines that fly to Singapore from Melbourne and Sydney.
Fusing heritage and modern decor, Tiong Bahru's Nostalgia Hotel has 50 rooms, priced from SGD120 ($121); hotelnostalgia.com.sg.
Steve McKenna was a guest of Singapore Tourism