Tiong Bahru: A Recipe for Transformation

Rapid commercial transformation in the neighbourhood has set the table for social change. But is gentrification on the menu?


By Sean Lee and Lawrence Xi


Written for the Cities and Social Change module, students are tasked to investigate a physical and social change in a street, neighbourhood or city of their choice.



Named after the Hokkien word for ‘end’ and Malay word for ‘new’, Tiong Bahru is sited on a former 19th-century cemetery. Away from the bustling streets of downtown Singapore, it’s been a sleepy, working-class enclave for decades.


Entering the historic neighbourhood, eclectic Art-Deco walk-up apartments contrast starkly with Modernist high-rise public housing ubiquitous anywhere else in Singapore. As if stepping back in time, grandmothers push grocery trolleys down the sidewalk, holding bouquets of flowers wrapped in yesterday’s tabloids. Birds flit about balcony gardens, while the soft smell of incense wafts through bamboo blinds. We nod at an old man peeking out from his window, who reciprocates with a toothless grin. A vintage pastel Volkswagen Beetle parked along the street completes our ‘Casablanca-esque’ backdrop.


Old vs. New: Social dynamics evolve in this rapidly-changing neighbourhood


Bread-winners


So rustic were Tiong Bahru’s charms that Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) awarded it conservancy status in 2003 [1]. This neighbourhood isn’t frozen in time though. Strolling along narrow Yong Siak Street, we spot a dingy-looking shop crammed with wood scraps and unsold furniture. Next door, congratulatory bouquets sit proudly outside a newly-opened Greek restaurant selling kebabs at triple-digit prices. The URA’s gazetting kick-started a revitalisation - art galleries, upscale cafes and lifestyle boutiques have since sprung up alongside existing businesses [2]. Today, Tiong Bahru is well-known for its eclectic patchwork of old and new, standing testament to its oxymoronic name.


Now a tourist and hipster haunt, the cafes and boutique shops here enjoy thriving business. Their success creates a virtuous cycle attracting similar businesses, resulting in the spatial concentration of these establishments. Fast forward a decade, and you get “one of the world’s coolest neighbourhoods”, as fashion magazine Vogue highlighted [3].


However, not everyone is a winner. The sprouting of artisanal shops and eateries has been chipping away at local businesses as landlords hike rentals to eye-watering levels. This sentiment is reflected by Mr Lim, who has served food for the last 60 years at a kopitiam (local food court). “Rents are getting higher, but many people visit the area for cafés, not our [traditional fare]” [4], he says, wiping a sweat-stained brow amidst the tropical heat.


He points down the street. “There was a mamak (mom-and-pop store) there, and another small kopitiam down the lane. They closed 10 years ago because rent basically doubled.” He puts down his half-empty cup of kopi (black coffee) with a little more force than necessary. We sense an undertone of agitation - perhaps we hit a raw nerve. “Maybe I’m next. How can I possibly make ends meet?”


Food Fight


It’s not just business owners - displacement of heritage trades have caused concern to long-time residents like Yvonne, who believe the contentious surplus of upscale restaurants and cafés do little to serve local residents’ needs. “I grew up here. It was a much quieter place. No hipster cafes, no large crowds. Just a few small stores for our daily needs. But now, there’s only one provision shop left, and cafes are far too expensive. How many cafes selling S$20 (£12) breakfasts do you need?” [5] She lets out a sigh of exasperation.


The neighbourhood’s growing status as an up-and-coming destination turned it to a magnet for well-heeled expatriates and young professionals, who adore trendy, modern-luxe cafes like the Tiong Bahru Bakery.



World’s coolest neighbourhood: Upscale cafés displace older businesses


We spot Peter, who moved here from the UK with his girlfriend earlier this year. Basking in the gentle morning light, he gestures for a waiter, ordering a skinny latte - with non-GMO soy milk, of course. “We’ve always dreamed of living here at the heart of the action, with so many cafés at our doorstep” [6]. He takes a sip, leaning back into the rattan armchair with a disarming smile. “Trust me, anyone would fall in love with this place. It’s a highly sought-after [address].”


It’s important to note that residents aren’t being forced out. With homeownership as the single dominant tenure mode in Tiong Bahru’s public housing blocks, potential incomers move in only if owners choose to rent or sell, an increasingly attractive proposition amidst skyrocketing property values.


Back with Yvonne, she recounts how her parents chatted with neighbours over kopi at a kopitiam near their home, yet it shuttered for yet another artisanal cafe in 2010. “Losing that place with all its memories is bad enough. We still live here, but with all these people [coming in], we just don’t feel at home.” With beloved places turning to spaces of exclusion, it’s crystal-clear that Tiong Bahru’s many ageing residents, despite not being forcibly displaced as one might observe in neighbourhoods experiencing residential gentrification, have still been heavily impacted by rapid transformation.


We visit the café in question for a closer look. An elderly man ambles down the sidewalk, meandering between alfresco café seating and boisterous young adults bustling by. He peers curiously into the storefront, gaze lingering on café-goers sipping on overpriced cappuccinos. A longtime resident, 72-year old Mr Oei believes that although a significant original resident demographic remains, the influx of younger residents has eroded the estate’s neighbourly, laid-back charm. “This place has changed. I miss the kampung (community) spirit - the new residents don’t join us for anything” [7].


He tells us about the gap in interaction between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ here, who have conflicting views on how their neighbourhood develops. While expatriates and newer residents want curated, chic lifestyle establishments, it seems that many longtime residents are simply concerned about the diminishing sense of familiarity they have here, amidst rapid physical and cultural changes tugging at the neighbourhood’s socio-spatial fabric.


All you knead is love


Yet not all hope is lost. Grassroots organisations like Seng Poh Residential Committee and Tiong Bahru Community Centre bridge this gap between different social groups. A quick scroll through their Facebook pages reveals a cornucopia of initiatives planned for residents. These organisations often collaborate to hold regular block parties, neighbourhood cleaning events and celebrations. Even the pandemic couldn’t stop these - annual National Day festivities were moved online, complete with video showcases featuring the community and live performances by Tiong Bahru’s residents [8].


In another act of community solidarity, volunteers gathered together, conducting house visits for the area’s many elderly residents, passing them care packages to weather these trying times [9]. Grassroots events have promoted community spirit and established neighbourhood support systems to much success, judging by the number of appreciative comments left by thankful residents.