Tiong Bahru: hipsters paradise

On day 6 we visit one of the hippest neighbors in Singapore, Tiong Bahru. It’s not a really touristy hot spot and it was had a very different vibe to what I had seen in the city so far.

Tiong Bahru is actually the oldest housing estate in the country and was built in the 1920’s. It’s name actually stands for ‘new cemetery’ (thióng in Hokkien for “cemetery” and bahru in Malay for “new”), since there were a few cemeteries in the area. It  became quite a polluted and shabby part of town, so in the 1930s it got a face lift. Before I tell you about the interesting architecture, I first have to tell you what we had for breakfast.

This breakfast cafe wasn’t actually in Tiong Bahru, but you can find one there too. Ya Kun Kaya Toast is a cafe chain that you can find just about everywhere in Singapore. We found this around the corner from our hotel at City Square Mall, in Little India, which I also mentioned in my post Little India: colourful, bustling and spicy.

This cafe also has heartwarming story behind its success. A young Chinese boy, Loi Ah Koon migrated to Singapore on his own at only 15 years old. He meet some people in the Hainanese community and got a job at a Hainanese coffee stand. It wasn’t long until he partner with a couple other Chinese migrants and started their own coffee stand in Telok Ayer Basin. However, when the others moved on he stay and ran the business on his own. He later married on one of  his visits back home and his new wife helped him run the business. Fifteen years later he relocated the business to Lau Pa Sat and renamed the business Ya Kun. Today Loi’s kids  run the business and you can find this coffee house throughout Singapore and in Asia.

Ya Kun serve the traditional Singapore breakfasts, such as toast sets, Asian sandwiches,  noodle dishes, kopi and tea. There were a few interesting items on their menu that I  hadn’t seen before at other Singapore coffee houses. There was wholemeal and white steamed bread with (kaya or peanut butter), instead of just usually toasted white bread,  Asian sandwiches, which were like a toast pocket sandwich with a variety of protein fillings. There was also cheese ball and kaya balls.

Today I finally gave in and ordered a kopi coffee, since I had previously been watching Marco enjoy his and ordering black tea. I also ordered the Steamed Kaya Toast set. Octavia got her usual Kaya Toast and Marco tried the French Toast Kaya Set. Everything was pretty good. I was really enjoying the kopi coffee and the steamed bread was also a nice twist.


Now, back to Tiong Bahru. The reason why this neighborhood really different to other Singaporean neighborhoods is the Art Deco architecture. The area was largely designed by architect Alfred G. Church. His designed were inspired by the pre-war Streamline Moderne style, which was a later part of the Art Deco movement. This style was inspired by technology and speed  of modern transportation and incorporated the sweeping, streamlined and aerodynamic lines. The buildings where designed with curved shapes, rounded corners, long horizons going both horizontal and vertical, nautical elements (porthole windows), bands of windows and racing strips.

More then anything the buildings remind me of ocean liners and is a style that I often see in beach suburbs in Australia. However,  you can’t smell the ocean from here. There is only a small canal that runs through the suburb and connects to the Marina Bay.


The Qi Tian Gong Temple (Monkey God Temple) is over 90 year old and one of the remaining landmarks before the neighborhood’s rebuilt. In the 1920’s it was located in the ‘taro garden’ but in 1938 it moved to where it currently resides today. It is dedicated to the monkey god, Sun Wu Kong from the Chinese literacy classic, Journey to the West. In the temple there are 10 monkey god statues, one of which is nearly 100 years old since it was the first statue for the temple. The monkey god is a respected figure and is believed to be almighty, brave, knows truth and false, helps the unfortunate. People worship this monkey to get protection, good luck, prosperity and longevity. The temple is only quite small and is situate on the bottom level of a corner building. It’s not far from the local metro so its easy to make a stop and check out out.


Before visiting Tiong Bahru I did a bit of research and found that this suburb is full of book stores, quirky little shops, cute cafes and trendy eateries. To see some of the amazing espresso coffee shops,  cafes and stores, see this article by Honey Combers. Unfortunately a few of the stores that I originally planned on visiting were either closed this day or closed down.

I did find Plain Vanilla Bakery, which was absolutely adorable. If I hadn’t just eaten, it wasn’t 40 degrees and we were coming back this way we definitely would have bought one of those cupcakes. Another bakery that I had intended on visiting, but we didn’t get to was Tiong Bahru Bakery. I have heard great things about them and I did come across another location at Orchard Road a few days later. Throughout this area there are plenty of little coffee shops specializing in espresso style coffee. Again it being so hot today I just couldn’t do hot coffee.

The only book store I found open was Books Actually. Its just gorgeous inside and also has a beautiful white cat that lived there. Unfortunately they don’t carry colouring books, well at least they don’t anymore, since I read an article that they were only selling serious artist colouring books. They do sleep beautiful art, travel, children’s, Singaporean and serious literature. In general the books  I saw there were quite unique to what I had come across at the larger book stores.


Along our way we stopped in at Seng Poh Tea Garden. This little block was originally a green patch that residents use to do their morning exercises or gather for a chat. In 1972 the former resident and member for Tiong Bahru visited his old home he was decided an artist to design something for this green space. So he commissioned the Sarawak-born sculpture, Lim Nang Seng (1916-1987) to do something asap. Lim was already quite well known. He had designed Singapore’s first coin in 1967 and  later designed the Merlion at the Esplanade. So Lim designed a abstract sculpture of girl performing a joyful harvest dance. It only took him two weeks to sculpt in an Orchard Road car park. The sculpture got mixed reviews from the residents and some thought it looked more like a swan taking flight. In 2007, the space received a renovation, which is why its such a pretty spot to sit today. The park was named after the Tan Seng Poh (1830-1879) after a Teochew merchant, who was involved in the Great Opium Syndicate.


A bit later we made our way to the Tiong Bahru Market. Inside there is dry market stalls selling clothes and other nic-nacs, a wet market selling seafood and groceries and a hawker food center. There was some bright artwork inside as well as some big green frogs. The hawker center is not air conditioned but its nice and clean and was pretty large, with many options. If you visiting and you don’t know what to order, Tiong Bahru Market website has a Food Generator that can give you some suggestions.


Marco ordered Char sui pork with rice from Tiong Bahru Lee Hong Kee Cantonese Roast. This place was extremely busy and considering it was only $3 and tasted fresh he was very happy. He also bought this really delicious Fresh Sugar Can Drink from Guan Huat. We ended up buying another one was not enough for three.

I wanted to try something a else I hadn’t tried yet, so I ordered the Fried Oyster Omlette from Fried Oyster/Oyster Omelette/Chee Cheong Fun. I don’t usually like cooked oysters, but this was actually really delicious. It was also not oily at all. I also wanted to try Vegartian Been Hon, so I headed over to this Healthy Vegetarian Food stand. All that food only cost $2.50. It fresh, tasty and had some interesting textures. 


If your interested in visiting Tiong Bahru you will have plenty of trendy cafes to choose from to get a latte and brunch or like us you can get a delicious cheap hawker meal.  Check out Honey Combers to check out the hot spots. You can also do a free self-guided Heritage Tour, by following this Map. Each point will have information board which will give you some insight into the past.

I hope you enjoyed my little visit to Tiong Bahru. In my next post I will take you to Clarke Quay, which I visited later that afternoon.

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