Hailed as Singapore's centre of cool for its European-style cafes, Art Deco architecture and quirky array of independent bookstores, Tiong Bahru is the perfect place to spend a lazy Saturday morning. Jacqui Gibson catches up with a local couple for a guided tour of the neighbourhood.
Food is top of mind for most Singaporeans and my hosts Boo (33) and Anne (30) are no exception. They’re obsessed, but in a good way.
First up, they take me to the Tiong Bahru Market, a hawker centre that's been a neighbourhood favourite since 1955. We start with kopi – the Malay Chinese (Hokkien) version of coffee – from the Kopi Museum, a walk-up stall. The kopi is super cheap (less than a dollar) and comes asis sweetened with condensed milk.
Nasi lemak, rice cooked in coconut milk with an anchovy and peanut sauce, is next, followed by one of Boo’s favourite dishes, the sweet Malaysian pastries known as onde-onde. They're green-dyed rice dumplings (the green food colouring is made from the juice of the local pandan grass), rolled in coconut and with a liquid palm sugar filling.
Anne, still unsated, is lining up one of her favourite breakfasts, pig organ soup, a popular staple in Singapore. Originating in China, the clear broth is boiled from a mix of pig liver, heart, intestines, stomach, tongue, blood cubes, pork meat and strips of salted vegetables. So good is this soup that it’s been served at Tiong Bahru’s hawker centre (in its various guises) for more than half a century.
Time to walk off our breakfast. We opt to make our own way around the heritage sites of Tiong Bahru, Singapore’s first public housing estate developed in the 1930s.
You can take part in a guided tour of the three km block. But lots of signage makes it easy to find your way unaided. Whichever way you visit, be sure to look up to appreciate the long horizontal lines, rounded balconies and muscular exterior spiral staircases of its low-rise Art Deco shophouses.
We bump into a small walking tour, led by a heritage volunteer, at Qi Tian Gong temple, a monkey god temple erected in the 1920s. Elderly men are seated around outdoor tables playing mah-jong. Outside, families head home from Tiong Bahru’s wet market with bags of fresh produce and young hipsters park up their bikes to grab a latte from one of the many European-style coffee houses.
Tiong Bahru’s specialty stores are a big drawcard for shoppers keen on an alternative to the bold, brassy malls of Singapore’s uber commercial Orchard Road.
Instead of global labels like Gucci and Prada, you find quirky local brands at stores like independent bookshop Books Actually on Yong Siak Street.
Walking in the door, we’re welcomed by the resident cat and stacked columns of local poetry, fiction and non-fiction. I can't resist and opt for a collection of stories on Balik Kampung, a district in Singapore. Like many of the books sold here, it’s published by the store’s publishing arm, Math Paper Press, specialising in local narratives you wont find anywhere else on the planet.
If boutique gifts and locally-made homewares are more your thing, try Strangelets or go to Woods in the Books for all-ages picture books, including graphic novels (both on Yong Siak Street). Get pampered with a spa treatment at Nimble Knead (they specialise in couples’ treatments). Or peruse shelves of vinyl at record store Curated Records located at 55 Tiong Bahru Road.
By lunchtime, it’s too hot to be outside – so we escape to the dark, air-conditioned interior of Forty Hands for lunch. I get my $4 espresso and check out the menu. Today there are gourmet toasties on offer (the pork katsu with homemade pickles, Japanese mayo and apple ketchup looks good), salads and sweet treats like chocolate cake. I spot a Little Creatures pale ale – an obvious clue to owner Harry Grover's Aussie roots – and wonder if it’s too early for a beer.