When I go to an upmarket city like Singapore, I’m less interested in visiting the world class shopping districts or experiencing the shiny Singapore Flyer, or any other high class tourist attractions as I am in getting as close to tasting local life as I possibly can. I struck gold when I hopped off the subway at Tiong Bahru, following a recommendation from The Culture-ist which described it as a suburb “where Singaporean ‘Aunties’ shop at the market for durian, ‘Uncles’ chow down on a bowl of Bak kut teh and their hipster twenty-something kids sip on a latte around the corner at 40 Hands”. I had to see it.
I started my tour with a walk through the Tiong Bahru Market, which is a smorgasbord of fresh produce, seafood and meats, cheap clothing, plants and cut flowers. The Culture-ist was quite right, I saw several Aunties there, shopping for their week’s supply of durian or their two bananas. It has a very local feel about it, not in the least bit pretentious.
I slipped out onto the street to find said latte. I had hoped to sit on the street outside the Tiong Bahru Bakery and do a little people watching, but my plan was thwarted by its sheer popularity on a Saturday morning. And it’s no wonder; the offerings are delectable, and the atmosphere magnetic. So instead, I slunk sheepishly away, coffee and croissant in hand, to find a shady step to sit on. Not very glamorous. Being around hipsters always makes me feel ultra un-cool. At least there are lots of old people in Tiong Bahru; sometimes I feel more at home around the aged anyway.
There really are loads of little hipster handouts and shops in the area; cafes, bars, speciality book stores and even a male grooming parlor. That’s when you know. But they are indeed refreshingly interspersed amongst old school Chinese eateries and tea shops. It’s a pretty cool confluence of old and new.
Tiong Bahru is a residential suburb. The low rise, “International Style” blocks were built between 1948 and 1954 to provide extra housing after WWII. They provides a stark contrast to the typical high rise apartment buildings that characterize Singapore’s public housing. With so much construction and reconstruction happening in Singapore, this little bubble of architectural history is rare, as is the leafy atmosphere between the buildings. The suburb feels a bit like a university campus. It made me realise how much I appreciate the large gardens and big open spaces I enjoyed growing up.