Comments on article: InfopediaTalk
Tiong Bahru is a town in Singapore with architectural, cultural and historic significance. It was developed in the 1920s as Singapore’s first public housing estate, and remains the only existing public housing not built by the Housing & Development Board. In 2003, 20 blocks of flats in the estate were granted conservation status by the Urban Redevelopment Authority.
Origins of name
The name of the estate is derived from the Hokkien word tiong, meaning tombs, and the Malay word bahru, meaning new. The area contained a burial ground for the Cantonese and Hakka communities before the 1930s, and the name came about as there was already an existing cemetery for these two communities at Tanjong Pagar. It is thought that the Peranakan community coined the name.
Before 1926, Tiong Bahru consisted of mangrove swamps and low hills, bordered by Sit Wah and Outram roads. The cemetery lay on one of these hills; one of its more famous burial sites was that of philanthropist Tan Tock Seng. The other hills were dotted with squatter colonies with a population of around 2,000, and between the swamp and the hills was flat land where a sago factory and pig farms were located.
In 1925, the colonial government initiated a scheme to clear the land in Tiong Bahru and improve drainage. The Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) Ordinance was approved in 1927. Slum clearance and land acquisition began, and over 280 huts and 2,000 squatters were removed. Graves were exhumed and moved to Bukit Brown cemetery, while the hills were levelled and the soil used to fill in the swampy ground. Roads in the area were named after prominent businessmen and philanthropists of the period, including Khoo Tiong Poh, Koh Eng Hoon and Seah Eu Chin.
Building the estate
The land work was completed by 1931 and cost around S$1.5 million. Over the next four years, private developers could not be found to build the housing estate. In 1935, the Singapore Improvement Trust decided to begin housing development itself.
Construction of the estate began in March 1936 and the first block of flats was completed in December that year. The first 11 families moved in on 1 December, paying monthly rents of S$20 to S$22. By 1941, 784 flats, 54 tenements and 33 shops had been completed, accommodating over 6,000 people. The estate had a market, restaurant, coffee shops, shoe shop, a dressmaker’s and sundry shops, as well as a diverse population of Chinese, Indian, Eurasian and European residents.
The Japanese Occupation interrupted Tiong Bahru’s development and increased its population significantly. An estimated 40% of the estate’s post-war population moved in during the Occupation. The post-war British Military Administration recognised these new residents but terminated the tenancies of those who had illegally sold their flats. Other tenants had sublet their flats, doubling the population to around 14,000.
Construction in Tiong Bahru continued after the Occupation and another 64 flats were completed by 1948. Tiong Bahru flats continued to be in high demand, and by 1951 the SIT had constructed a total of around 2,000 units in the estate. In the early 1950s, the population of Tiong Bahru stood at around 400,000. In 1951, Singapore’s first community centre was established in the estate, followed by the island’s first polyclinic in 1961.
The SIT was dissolved in 1955. When the People’s Action Party government came into power in 1959, it replaced the SIT with the Housing Development Board (HDB). The HDB announced its first five-year building plan in 1960, including the construction of some 900 flats at Tiong Bahru for lower-income groups.
In March 1965, Minister for National Development Lim Kim San announced that the pre-war flats in Tiong Bahru would be sold. Prices were set at between S$10,000 for a two-room flat and S$32,600 for a five-room unit. The post-war flats came under HDB management in 1973.
Until the 1980s, Tiong Bahru was seen as an estate with a greying population and facilities. The 1990 Singapore Census of Population showed that 31.8% of residents were aged 45 and above. However, redevelopment and an influx of new residents changed the estate’s demographics in the early 1990s. A shopping mall, Mass Rapid Transit station, new public housing and private condominiums sprang up in the area. In 1995, 16 blocks of flats built in 1952 were chosen for the first Selective En-Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS). Located opposite Tiong Bahru Plaza, the 384 units were acquired by the government and redeveloped into 1,402 new units.
In 2003, 20 blocks of pre-war SIT flats were granted conservation status by the Urban Redevelopment Authority. Tiong Bahru market underwent a two-year, S$16.8 million redevelopment, with the new building following the Art Deco architecture of the estate. Chinese firm Hang Huo Enterprise developed two blocks of conservation flats into the S$45 million Link Hotel, which was completed in 2007.
There were numerous fires in Tiong Bahru before the development of modern housing. The easily flammable materials used to construct attap huts in the kampongs and their crowded layout meant that fires spread quickly and caused major damage. In 1934, 1955 and 1958, fires destroyed kampongs across Tiong Bahru, Bukit Ho Swee and Havelock Road, leaving thousands homeless. Although a volunteer fire-fighting force was formed in 1958, a major fire in 1959 caused up to 12,000 people to lose their homes and S$2 million worth of damage.
On 25 May 1961, a fire began near the site of the 1959 fire at Kampong Tiong Bahru and spread across 100 acres, destroying the homes of nearly 16,000 people in what came to be known as the Bukit Ho Swee fire. It was one of Singapore’s worst-ever fires and gave new impetus to the government’s policy of replacing attap hut settlements with flatted public housing.
Architecture and culture
Tiong Bahru’s SIT flats reflect a blend of imported and local styles, including Art Deco and the influence of the International style, which focused on simple, clear lines and planes. The style was prominent in Europe during that period, and SIT architects and managers took inspiration from public housing in British New Towns like Stevenage and Harlow. Architects involved in the design of Tiong Bahru estate included Lincoln Page, Robert F. N. Kan and A. G. Church. The design of the flats was based on a modified shophouse plan featuring rounded balconies, exterior spiral staircases, courtyards, and air-wells while combining privacy and aspects of a modern apartment.
The layout of the estate incorporated open spaces and emphasised small neighbourhoods. The pre-war flats circled a communal zone that included a market and hawker centre, coffee shops, a pet shop and a Chinese temple. The hawker centre housed well-known chwee kuay (rice cakes) and pao (bun) stalls, and the pet shop and bird-singing corner formerly located at Block 53 attracted both locals and tourists.
In its early years, Tiong Bahru estate gained the colloquial tag of mei ren wo or “den of beauties” in Mandarin because it housed many mistresses of rich men, as well nightclub singers and hostesses working in the nearby Keong Saik red-light district and Great World Cabaret. The pre-war flats were also called puay kee chu or “aeroplane houses” in Hokkien, as their design resembled that of the control tower at Kallang Airport.
In 2005, Tiong Bahru estate appeared in scenes of Be With Me, a movie by local filmmaker Eric Khoo. In 2010, the short film Civic Life: Tiong Bahru featured residents of the area and the relationship between the community and the environment.
Aeroplane towers haven for good-time girls. (2000, August 21). The Straits Times. Retrieved January 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Ang, L. (1995, August 23). Tiong Bahru estate is maiden site for en-bloc redevelopment. Business Times. Retrieved May 28, 2010, from Factiva.
Bachtiar, I. (1993, July 29). Tiong Bahru: The next yuppie estate? The Straits Times. Retrieved January 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Buy-it-or-quit tenants to protest against ‘high prices’. (1965, March 7). The Straits Times. Retrieved May 28, 2010, from NewspaperSG.
Chin, K. K. (1991, January 2). Tiong Bahru’s old charms. The Straits Times. Retrieved May 28, 2010, from NewspaperSG.
China’s Hang Huo Enterprise wins bid to convert Tiong Bahru flats to hotel. (2003, August 12). ChannelNewsAsia. Retrieved May 28, 2010, from Factiva.
Chow, C. (2009, June 8). Niche accommodation in Tiong Bahru. The Edge Singapore. Retrieved January 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Hari Raya inferno. (1961, May 26). The Straits Times. Retrieved May 28, 2010, from NewspaperSG.
Improvement Trust flats occupied. (1936, December 2). The Straits Times. Retrieved May 28, 2010, from NewspaperSG.
Lev, M. (1996, December 26). Songbirds still capture Singapore’s heart. The Orange County Register. Retrieved May 28, 2010, from Factiva.
Loo, D. (2004, September 5). ‘50s flats in Tiong Bahru a big draw. The Straits Times. Retrieved January 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Lou, K. (1990, December 5). Tiong Bahru’s old charms. The Straits Times. Retrieved January 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
New block of flats. (1940, May 20). The Straits Times. Retrieved May 28, 2010, from NewspaperSG.
Ng, M. (2010, April 29). Tiong Bahru, the movie. The Straits Times. Retrieved May 28, 2010, from Factiva.
Ng, T. Y. (2006, September 3). He wants to put Tiong Bahru on world map. The New Paper. Retrieved May 28, 2010, from Factiva.
Overcrowding in Chinatown. (1930, June 26). The Straits Times. Retrieved May 28, 2010, from NewspaperSG.
Perry, M. (1997). Singapore: A Developmental City State (pp. 44-45). New York: Wiley.
(Call no.: RSING 307.76095957 PER)
Singapore: The Encyclopedia (2006). Tiong Bahru (p. 566). Singapore: Editions Didier Millet.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN - [HIS])
Tee, H. C. (2004, September 26). Vintage advantage. The Straits Times. Retrieved January 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Three Singapore Kampongs in Ruins. (1934, August 9). The Straits Times. Retrieved May 28, 2010, from NewspaperSG.
Tiong Bahru flats will house 1,000 by end of 1938. (1937, October 13). The Straits Times. Retrieved May 28, 2010, from NewspaperSG.
Tiong Bahru housing plan. (1935, April 20). The Straits Times. Retrieved May 28, 2010, from NewspaperSG.
Tiong Bahru Plan For Self Government. (1948, August 11). The Straits Times. Retrieved May 28, 2010, from NewspaperSG.
Tiong Bahru’s glory days. (1992, November 13). The Straits Times. Retrieved May 28, 2010, from NewspaperSG.
Tiong Bahru’s No. 3 wives. (1949, July 24). The Straits Times. Retrieved May 28, 2010, from NewspaperSG.
Town planning. (1926, June 15). The Straits Times. Retrieved May 28, 2010, from NewspaperSG.
12,000 lose homes. (1959, February 14). The Straits Times. Retrieved May 28, 2010, from NewspaperSG.
Wan, M. H. (2009). Heritage Places of Singapore (pp. 169-171). Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions.
(Call no.: RSING 959.58 WAN)
Yeoh, B. (2003). Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore: Power relations and the urban built environment (p. 223, 300). Singapore: Singapore University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 307.76095957 YEO)
Wan, M. H. (2009). Heritage places of Singapore (pp. 169-171). Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 WAN)
The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Architecture and Landscape>>Streets and Places
Architecture and Landscape>>Building Types>>Residential Buildings