Nowadays Tiong Bahru is known for its Café culture and quirky shops but this is a part of Singapore with a very interesting past. Tiong Bahru estate, as well as the grounds of the Singapore General Hospital was once part of a sprawling Chinese cemetery. So next time you are in the area sipping your fairtade coffee or enjoying a refreshing craft beer keep your eyes peeled for those National Heritage Board markers and think about how life here has changed over the years.
· Public Housing – The Art Deco buildings we see today were built when Tiong Bahru was being developed as one of the first public housing programmes and where meant to house residents from the overcrowded parts of Chinatown. The horse shoe shaped streets and five storey residential properties create a very different feel from the usual high rise HDBs around Singapore. Block 78 on Moh Guan Terrace, built in 1939, still has a 1,500 square meter bomb shelter which could hold 1600 people, the only public housing to have been so equipped.
· Grave of Tan Tock Seng – Perhaps it’s not surprising as this area used to be a cemetery that the grave of one of Singapore’s early pioneers can be found here, on a hill facing Outram road. Amongst other philanthropist works Tan Tock Seng donated $7000 towards the construction of a Chinese Paupers hospital in 1844. This hospital is still in operation today, known as Tan Tock Seng Hospital, near Novena.
· Dancing Girl – Created by the same sculptor who created the Merlion, this Dancing Girl was unveiled on 1st August 1970. It was erected by the national day celebration committee of Tiong Bahru in the Seng Poh Garden.
· Community Centre – In 1948 plans were announced to build a community centre which included an open air cinema. In 1951 a stand-alone air raid shelter was converted into Singapores very fist Community centre and it is still there today. It was very active with films, dancing and entertainment and even successfully got permission to run a $10,000 lottery for its members.
· Bird Corner – The funny metal structure on the corner of Tiong Bahru Rd and Seng Poh Road has a very interesting past. There was a pet bird shop near here in the 1980s and the noise of the singing birds used to draw the attention of passers-by. An astute businessman, Wah Heng, who owned the coffee shop opposite, saw how the bird song drew people’s attention. He erected this metal structure so that bird owners could show off their feathered friends and listen to them singing whilst sipping coffee at his café, hence why this became known as Bird Corner.
· Tiong Bahru Market – Many of the stalls and vendors here have been in business for over 30 years. The original market called Seng Poh Road Market used to draw in people from all round Singapore for its variety and quality of goods and quite possibly still does. This is also probably one of the first food centres of its kind that was paid for by the Hawkers themselves.
Tiong means ‘to die’ in the Hokkien dialect and Bahru means ‘new’. So the name translates to ‘new cemetery’.