Writers’ Block is a regular contribution from our AWA Writers’ Group Members

Written by Mandakini Arora

It is easy for me to overlook places of interest close to home. Known for its Art Deco buildings, street art, and dining outlets, Tiong Bahru is sometimes touted as Singapore’s hippest and quirkiest neighborhood. I’ve visited often—for dinner at our family’s favorite Japanese restaurant, Ikyu, or to buy meat at Foodie Marketplace—but never in curiosity until one Sunday morning, when a friend and I went just to soak in the neighborhood vibe.

Headed to the Tiong Bahru Market, we walked by white apartment blocks fronted by covered walkways, a feature of town planning introduced by the British in the 19th century. We were impressed by the vintage of these elegant apartment blocks that date back almost a century, old in a city where buildings rise and fall at a dizzying rate. Constructed by the colonial government to deal with the potential health hazards of higgledy-piggledy dwellings that had mushroomed on a former cemetery—tiong and bahru (in Hokkien and Malay, respectively) mean “new burial ground”—the first block of flats, built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), was ready in 1936. A late Art Deco style—Streamline Moderne— with simple lines and curves evoking machines and modern transport was used in the earlier construction. Post-World War II, buildings in the International style became angular and flatter. In the early 2000s, even as cafes, boutique businesses (including an independent bookstore, Books Actually), restaurants, and high-rise condominiums sprouted in Tiong Bahru, several of these unique SIT blocks were earmarked for conservation.

We arrived at the market and hawker center, a two-story building located where itinerant vendors had once gathered outdoors in the 1950s to sell a variety of cooked food. At the time of our visit, the hawker center on the upper level was filled to bursting with patrons enjoying Hainanese chicken rice, fish balls, prawn noodles, and chwee kueh–steamed rice cakes topped with a fermented radish preparation. In the wet market below, sellers of meat, fish, fresh produce, flowers, clothes, and spices did brisk business.

While we were visiting Tiong Bahru, fires in metal drums on the sidewalk consumed paper money and other paper objects. These, together with food and incense sticks alongside, were offerings to spectral ancestors said to roam the earth during the month of the Hungry Ghost Festival. Across from the market, devotees worshipped at the oldest Chinese temple in Singapore dedicated to the Monkey God—the king who appears as a god in the sixteenth-century Chinese epic, Journey to the West.

Continuing to wander, we stumbled upon street art by Yip Yew Chong, a Singaporean street artist whose work I had earlier admired in Delhi, India, unaware of his identity. He paints scenes intrinsic to their location, whether in Singapore or elsewhere. We warmed to the wall-painted men shooting the breeze, bird cages hanging above them. Artfully positioned red plastic chairs by the wall mirrored the seats in the painting. The cages recalled the Tiong Bahru bird corner, now the site of a hotel, where men used to fraternize over coffee as their caged birds sang.

A Sunday-morning visit to Tiong Bahru would be incomplete without a coffee stop. Daunted by the crowds in Tiong Bahru Bakery and Forty Hands, we found a quiet corner in Whisk. We discussed future exploration of other neighborhoods at our doorstep. Then, our inner housewives resurfaced. We shopped for meats at Foodie Marketplace before heading home.

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