Saturday, July 30, 2011

Business Times : Tiong Bahru Redux

Designer home offices, indie retail outfits, penthouse parties, a resident stormtrooper... Welcome to Tiong Bahru, where heritage is hip and old-world charm meets edgy entrepreneurship.

Business Times
30 Jul 2011
By Tan Teck Heng

Unfazed by the arrival of a younger, hipper crowd, the original residents of Tiong Bahru continue to gather for chats downstairs, or watch the world go by from their upstairs windows

TIONG Bahru resident Lim Kah Hoe is a hardcore Star Wars fan who's game enough to don his stormtrooper uniform on a walk around the neighbourhood.

This masked and costumed figure may be a pretty startling addition to the scenery, but considering the transformation that has swept through the district recently, the sight of a stormtrooper hardly counts as an alien invasion. A walk from Eng Hoon Street to Yong Siak Street today is like visiting a completely different world, thanks to an influx of designer home offices, creative small businesses and indie retail outfits with artsy facades.

Says Mr Lim: 'I like the fact that many new residents and businesses‚ have been moving in; it injects life, and a changing‚ estate is a dynamic one.'

Homegrown comedienne Selena Tan agrees: 'It's really been gentrified, but still has a lovely village feel.' And the Dim Sum Dolly ought to know - she helps out at her mother's Peranakan food stall in Tiong Bahru Market. Daisy's Dream Kitchen sees all sorts of customers daily, from elderly residents to expatriates and yuppies living or working around the area.

Daisy Tan (left) flanked by her children Selena, the local comedienne, and Ray. Mrs Tan's Peranakan food stall in Tiong Bahru Market, Daisy's Dream Kitchen, sees all sorts of customers, from elderly residents to expatriates and yuppies living or working around the area.
 'It's (becoming) an edgy type of place ... a lot of fancy cars around,' says Steven Ong, chef owner of patisserie Centre Ps. The patisserie, started in 2007, was one of the first new wave outfits in the area. Mr Ong notes that the young couples or expatriates who live around the area often turn the upper levels of the neighbourhood into 'penthouse parties'.

    Steven Ong, chef owner of patisserie Centre Ps, one of the first new wave outfits in the area
One doesn't have to look far for a similar sentiment - Maria Ng, owner of art gallery White Canvas located just next door, concurs. 'Because of the low-density and the conservation efforts, the older population has moved out,' she says.

'You get the younger people and expatriates moving in who are sure of what they want - those who don't want to live in a box or high up in sky - and many of their homes are designer types which have been featured in magazines.'

It was quite a different story five years ago. Says Mr Lim, who owns a studio apartment: 'Back then, with the shabbiness that was associated with the area, many were not keen about moving into this place at all.'

Stormtrooper Lim checking out the upholstery shop behind his apartment. Above right: Maria Ng, owner of art gallery White Canvas and art cafe The Orange Thimble

But he took the plunge, and is probably very glad he did. Since then, property prices have doubled, says Centre Ps's Mr Ong. A conservation site since December 2003, Tiong Bahru today sees tidy streets lined with refurbished, freshly painted shophouses. Many ground level units sport fancy, contemporary facades with sleek, modern lines.

One such unit along Yong Siak Street houses creative studio Tofu, started in March. Says creative director Michelle Au: 'We really like the old and new energies together, (with) new talents and shops sprouting up among old historical buildings.'

The shops Ms Au is referring to include the holy trinity of coffee joint 40 Hands, bookstore BooksActually and artisan boutique Strangelets, all located just next door to each other. After 40 Hands opened in October last year to rave reviews, the latter two outfits were persuaded to shift from their previous locations in Chinatown.

For many, the old-world charm and serenity of the district is the biggest draw. 'We find the old Tiong Bahru neighbourhood incredibly charming with its interesting mix of old architecture and an up-and-coming arts scene,' says co-owner of Strangelets, Ong Ker Shing.

And for them, creativity is not the only thing that's hitting an all-time high; business is better, with both Strangelets and BooksActually reporting growing sales figures.

It explains why the surrounding businesses are not content to rest on their laurels. Management consultancy firm Ampern Services moved in last year, diversifying from its core business with a new concept retail store and art gallery named Bhutan Shop. The current floor space is divided into two by a lounge/gallery area, with Ampern's office at the back.

The retail outfit sells products from Bhutan which are organic, eco- and social-friendly. Director Ong Eng Chin hopes to see 30 per cent of his overall revenue coming from Bhutan Shop in the future.

White Canvas's Ms Ng has also started up what she calls an 'art cafe' just down the street from her already established gallery. Named The Orange Thimble, it features artworks related to the neighbourhood. There are also quaint decor elements in the form of refurbished antique furniture and novelty accessories - reassuring residents who may be concerned about the rapid evolution of the district that they can have their cake and eat it too.

'There are many zi char restaurants here, and people do come here for the food,' observes Ms Ng, who notes that there are also many visitors who come for more plebeian pursuits. 'You can't compete with that - the idea here is to complement them.' So newer establishments should offer a place where one can have 'a cup of coffee in an air-conditioned place ... or (food) for the health-conscious, like sandwiches', she says.

That is exactly what the minds behind 40 Hands - beauty and F&B brand Spa Esprit - intend to do. Come late September, they will open a new casual dining restaurant named Open Door Policy (OPD). The menu will be designed by Ryan Clift, co-founder and executive chef of Tippling Club at Dempsey.

'The appearance of 40 Hands has changed the landscape of Tiong Bahru, turning it into a bustling and much talked about area,' says founder Cynthia Chua. 'With that endorsement, we are stoked to launch another creative F&B concept to further boost the scene.'

Despite the surge in development, there are obstacles halting the rate of growth. 'The commercial units (in the area) are not easy to come by, and there are very few of them,' says Ms Ng, who has had trouble getting a unit for her art cafe which is closer to White Canvas. She adds that the Housing Development Board (HDB) has been increasingly reluctant to give out cooking licences, apparently because of noise complaints from residents.

But Tofu's Ms Au feels that controlling the number of businesses here is a good thing. 'This helps ensure that the residents don't get crowded out, and that the vibe remains peaceful and laid back - we love that.'

She adds: 'I hope ... it doesn't get overly commercial or pretentious. After all, what makes this area charming is the authenticity of the old businesses and residents.'

Still, tenants remain confident that their vision of Tiong Bahru turning into an indie hangout will come to fruition.

'We think Tiong Bahru will continue to grow in popularity - its laid-back, chilled-out vibe appeals to those looking to escape the crowded and heavily-commercialised parts of Singapore,' says Strangelet's Ms Ong.

And you can't buy heritage. 'There are pre-war HDB buildings here; I don't think you can find it anywhere in Singapore ... there's a lot of historical value,' adds Centre Ps's Mr Ong.

Concludes stormtrooper Mr Lim: 'Tiong Bahru is certainly evolving, and I definitely think its headed in a nice direction - it has a certain chaotic, yet natural beauty.'

Business at BooksActually has increased significantly since it moved from Club Street to its Tiong Bahru premises (above right). Above left: Sara Tan and Peter Ng of Bhutan Shop get all dressed up for the occasion
9 Yong Siak Street
Tel: 6222-9195

FIRST, it was part of an independent retail movement in Club Street that turned the Chinatown neighbourhood into a gentrified lifestyle hotspot. Now, BooksActually has joined other independent operators who are doing the same in Tiong Bahru.

Moving in three months ago, owners Karen Wai and Kenny Leck were convinced by their friend Harry Grover, who started the popular coffee joint 40 Hands just across from them on Yong Siak Street.

The relocation is friendlier on their bank books too. 'Rent-wise, we are paying less than half of that in Club Street,' says Ms Wai, who says it was the main reason for their move. 'It's hard to find a nice location that's rather central, but which has ample parking.'

While their subsidiary brand Birds & Co - which retails hand-made stationery and vintage novelty items - has two outlets in Tangs and Cineleisure Orchard, the owners have no intention of shifting their flagship store to the heart of town. Nor are there plans to open branches of the bookstore, as the whole idea is to retain an intimate connection with hippie book lovers.

The shift has in fact done just that, with results exceeding the owners' expectations, and the neighbourhood is proving to be just the right fit for indie establishments.

'People living here are mostly PMEBs and expatriates - people with higher income brackets,' says Ms Wai. 'They are more supportive of independent startups,' she continues, adding that business has increased significantly since the shift.

As the current store is also slightly larger and consolidated into one single level (compared to the two-level space at Club Street)), there's more leeway to host larger events. Hence, the outfit has fired up its efforts to galvanise the local literary scene.

One new initiation is Babette's Feast, a fortnightly gathering where writers new or experienced can 'come and share their own works, and talk about writing with people from the writing industry,' says Ms Wai.

The sessions will culminate in a series of chapbooks - short books - which will be distributed by their in-house publishing press, Math Paper Press.

Bhutan Shop
1D Yong Siak Street
Tel: 6236-0750

FOR a country obsessed with rankings, Singapore has done remarkably badly in indices measuring happiness.

So perhaps it's time to take an interest in Bhutan, the land from which the concept of 'Gross National Happiness' originated. If you can't find Bhutan on the map (hint: it's a Himalayan nation), the best place to learn about it here will be at Bhutan Shop, tucked away in a corner of Yong Siak Street.

Started in March by a group of friends, the retail outfit specialises in all things Bhutan-related. It's also the local representative of two Bhutanese tour agencies, so it really is a one-stop shop.

A lounge and gallery area features works by Bhutan artists (priced between $800 and $12,800). In addition, there are organic products from Bhutan and Thailand. The eco-conscious will love the 100 per cent organic 'soap nuts', or nature's own detergent, which are purportedly suitable for people with sensitive skin. There's also honey, handmade cashmere bags, organic herbal teas, and a range of lemongrass fragrances and essential oils which can act as insect repellents.

Featuring Bhutanese culture as an integral theme of the retail outfit was, shall we say, an equally organic decision.

'We have good connections with Bhutanese business associates and friends,' says store manager Tan Tiong Pin, adding that interest in Bhutan has skyrocketed since Hong Kong celebrities Tony Leung and Carina Lau had their wedding there.

Speaking of weddings, the shop will host its debut cultural exhibition in October - in line with Bhutan's royal wedding. Bhutanese contemporary art, wedding culture and traditional costumes will be displayed, and visitors will get a chance to sample Bhutanese fare as well. The centrepiece of the exhibition will be Bhutanese artist Dorji Gyeltshen's painting Kilkhor, which is an abstract representation of 'four boundless thoughts: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathy and equanimity', says Ms Tan.

If happiness can indeed be bought, perhaps it'll be found amidst the 'green' esoteric offerings of Bhutan Shop. But whatever form it takes, it'll probably involve a fair bit of tree-hugging, social causes and healthy living.

Ong Ker Shing (above left) of Strangelets, an artisan's boutique inspired by Greenwich Village in the Big Apple. Curated items (above right) range from retro cardholders to jewellery
7 Yong Siak Street
Tel: 6222-1456

'A STRANGELET is a theoretical particle that converts any other particle it touches into a Strangelet as well,' explains co-founder of the outfit, Ong Ker Shing.

It makes 'Strangelets' a doubly apt name for an artisan's boutique located along Yong Siak Street. Because while Strangelets may have meant to make waves by converting the way people shop ('It's not all about brand recognition,' says Ms Ong), it's also one of a handful of independent startups along Tiong Bahru - and like its namesake, the outfit is creating a ripple-like effect with the area morphing into an artsy hangout.

The chemistry started with a passion for design, and a love of 'handcrafted objects or the intelligence and simplistic beauty in design items,' says Ms Ong.

So along with husband Josh Comaroff, friend Schirin Taraz-Breinholt (all architects) and investment banker Yeo Wenxian, the group of four started the brand in mid-2008 on Amoy Street, and moved to their current location in June this year.

The shift was 'driven by a desire for change,' says Ms Ong, and the group was drawn to the area due to the presence of indie bookstore BooksActually as well as coffee joint 40 Hands.

'In a way, all three of us appeal to the indie crowd,' says Ms Ong. 'When the unit next to them became available, we jumped at the opportunity to be side-by-side as we complement each other'.

Business has been brisk at the location, and the 'small boutique experience' they offer (inspired by Greenwich Village in the Big Apple) is a hit. Their curated items form an eclectic selection, ranging from American retro cardholders by Postalco ($185) to white glazed ceramic tableware and titanium plated cutlery by Astier de Villatte ($30-300), and there's stationery and jewellery too. So it's little wonder that they're attracting everyone from the indie crowd to working professionals and tai-tais.

'For us, Strangelets is a fun mix between hobby and enterprise,' Ms Ong says. 'We wanted a diversion from the tedium of the mass market shopping scene in Singapore.'

The Orange Thimble is a happy mix of old and new, serving gourmet sandwiches in a refurbished shophouse (above left)
The Orange Thimble
Blk 56 Eng Hoon Street #01-68
Tel: 6223-8068

THERE'S a schizophrenic air about Tiong Bahru which adds to its charm factor - a heartland district with low-rise flats dating back to the 1950s, dotted with artsy, indie startups in refurbished shophouses co-existing with old-fashioned provision shops.

Offering a mix of old and new is The Orange Thimble, opened just this week by Maria Ng who also owns art gallery White Canvas. The cafe is located just down the street from the gallery, and features works from artists (both local and foreign) with whom White Canvas has built relationships. Many of the works are also Tiong Bahru-themed and include paintings by Tia Boon Sim, once a student of the late homegrown artist Liu Kang.

Ms Ng took great pains to preserve the shophouse which she has transformed into a quaint hangout where art meets F&B. The collapsible grille and folding doors were kept, and a cast-iron window frame was refurbished and installed. The decor also includes an antique cash register, a safe, and Chinese stools given to her by Tiong Bahru residents.

There's even a wooden menu hung on the wall, poached from a traditional coffee shop - but of course The Orange Thimble doesn't serve soft boiled eggs or kaya toast. On the menu instead are gourmet sandwiches and coffee, shepherd's pie, and a range of desserts, including ice cream.

'We wanted to remember the past,' says Ms Ng of the design concept, and in fact, the reference to the thimble is in honour of the previous owner who was a seamstress. The premises have, however, been updated with a vibrant coat of Tuscan orange paint, and the alleyway is in the middle of being converted into an industrial-chic al fresco area with a trellis and an exposed brick wall.

'My business partner and I travel a lot and enjoy coffee,' says Ms Ng, who's had her palate refined by visits to cafes and restaurants in cities such as Paris and London. So while they wish to bring the experience of chilling at a mom-and-pop cafe to the district, 'we (also) want to honour and preserve the heritage of Tiong Bahru', she concludes.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Straits Times : Soul Sketches

A sketch-exhibition of buildings in Tiong Bahru is back again after a successful run last year

The Straits Times
Life Section
By Magdalen Ng
2nd July 2011 
 Sketches by Tia Boon Sim (above) and Miel Prudencio (below) will be up for sale at the exhibition. PHOTOS: WHITE CANVAS GALLERY

A Tiong Bahru-themed art exhibition did so well last year that it is returning to the retro-fabulous neighbourhood from tomorrow.

Tiong Bahru Revisited features more than 70 sketches of the Housing Board estate at the White Canvas Gallery, also located in the neighbourhood. The exhibition ends on July 17.

Inspired by the old-school architecture in the area, the works are mainly by four artists - Tia Boon Sim, Paul Wang, Don Low and Miel Prudencio.

The display follows Tiong Bahru Sketches: Outside-In, which ran at the same venue for two weeks around the same time last year.

Tia, 56, who teaches at Temasek Polytechnic's School of Design, says: 'The response last year was so good more than 90 per cent of the works were sold, and some residents even complained that the works they wanted were sold.'

The sketches on display are priced from $600 to $2,000. Works at last year's exhibition sold for between $250 and $900. This year, four works are up for bids in a charity silent auction in aid of the Ability Centre in Tiong Bahru. The centre is run by the Society Of The Physically Disabled.

Most of the drawings were done on weekends. The four artists are part of Urban Sketchers, a global network of artists who draw the cities they live in or travel to. Started by Seattle journalist and illustrator Gabi Campanario in 2007, The Singapore Chapter, set up in 2009, has about 20 regulars now.

Miel, 47, a Straits Times senior executive artist, says the laidback vibe of the iconic area draws him back to it. But he does more than just draw there: 'I would sit there, have kopi and read my book.

'It is almost provincial, yet just a bus ride away from the heart of the city,' adds Miel, who lives in Redhill, an MRT stop away from Tiong Bahru.

There are already plans for next year's exhibition. For that, the artists hope to focus on the back alleys and rooftops of the area. The group is also considering expanding their sketch-exhibition to other heritage areas in Singapore, such as Joo Chiat.

'The more we draw the same buildings, the more we find interesting facets of them. I guess it is the interplay of light and shadows at various times of the day,' says Miel.

Freelance designer and illustrator Low, 40, says the area holds special significance for him. As a child, he lived in nearby Kim Tian Place for 12 years.

The part-time instructor at the Nanyang Technological University's School of Art, Design & Media says: 'The more I sketch, the more I like this place, so I haven't ventured out of it.'

Gallery manager and curator Gerald Tan says: 'We plan to have street names at the exhibition and group the paintings according to that. It will be like a mini-Tiong Bahru in the gallery.'

view it
Where: White Canvas Gallery, 78 Guan Chuan Street, 01-41
When: Till July 17. Tuesdays to Saturdays, noon to 8pm, Sundays, 10am to 6pm. Closed on Mondays and public holidays
Admission: Free
Info: Call 6220-8723