29th July 2012
By Cheryl Faith Wee
Long-time residents and family businesses in the estate co-exist alongside cool new cafes and eateries, drawing the attention of locals and tourists
Once a sleepy residential area, Tiong Bahru has roused from its slumber with at least one new shop opening in the neighbourhood every other month.
Its reputation for being an upper-class estate where wealthy businessmen housed their mistresses in the 1930s and early 1940s gave way to a tight-knit middle-class estate with a kampung feel after World War II.
And now, besides housing long-time residents and famed eateries that go back decades, the distinct 1930s Art Deco-style buildings of the neighbourhood are also home to quaint cafes, indie boutiques and hip working professionals.
The estate's revival has drawn both locals and tourists, who on weekends, comb the main streets and back lanes of the sprawling residential area turned trendy destination.
The neighbourhood's rejuvenation in the last decade has also made those abroad sit up and take notice. In the past five years, international publications such as American daily newspaper The New York Times and travel news website CNNGo have lauded the estate's beautiful architecture and unique mix of old- and new-world charms.
Premium coffee joint 40 Hands in Yong Siak Street is often attributed as the catalyst that drew all eyes to Tiong Bahru. It opened in 2010 and the owners helped persuade seven-year-old independent bookstore Books Actually to move from Ann Siang Hill to just across the road the following year.
Within months, quirky boutique Strangelets, the bistro Open Door Policy and the restaurant SocialHaus opened alongside them.
Yong Siak Street, which takes just two minutes to walk from one end to the other, has a total of five eateries and counting - Japanese restaurant Ikyu is expected to open there next month.
Just this week, PS Cafe, which has four outlets here, started operating a 1,000-plus sq ft food and dessert test kitchen in Guan Chuan Street nearby. While the kitchen does not retail food yet, PS Cafe says that it is developing a retail element.
There are currently 21 food and beverage outlets among the 64 HDB commercial properties in the Tiong Bahru estate.
The Housing Board evaluates requests to convert a shop into an eating establishment based on criteria such as the layout and concept of the unit.
Private buildings in the area fall under the purview of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, whose criteria for change-of-use applications are similar to HDB's.
In spite of the F&B outlets that seem to have taken over the area, the enclave of conserved private pre-war homes, located just minutes away from the Central Business District, was popular as a residential area first.
It attracted young working professionals such as Ms Georgina Koh, 32, who moved into the area six years ago when she got married. She says: 'Back then, it was very sleepy here but I loved its kampung feel.'
Ms Koh, who works at the Singapore Tourism Board and is also a co-founder of fashion boutique Nana & Bird in Yong Siak Street, paid around $200,000 for a 947 sq ft three-room post-war flat in 2006. These days, the same post-war flat would cost $600,000 to $680,000.
And a 1,000 sq ft private pre-war flat with about 53 years left on a 99-year lease would set a buyer back by about $1 million now.
Rental flats here are popular too, especially with expatriates. Property agent Alvin Yeo, 41, who deals primarily in Tiong Bahru homes, says rents for a typical 1,000 sq ft unit can hit $3,500 or $4,000 a month.
Rising rents in the area have also hit businesses. Shop space rentals go for more than $7 psf a month, up from around $4 about two years ago. And the numbers are still climbing.
The owner of Books Actually, Mr Kenny Leck, 34, expects his mid-four-figure-sum rent to double when the two-year lease on his 2,100 sq ft unit expires next year.
He says: 'This area is hot and it is the landlord's prerogative to make money in a free market. I am 50-50 about moving again, but the thought of moving all my stock is a nightmare.'
Commercial space in the area is in such demand that mom-and-pop shops in Seng Poh Road, such as 74-year-old provision shop iEcon and 19-year-old hardware store Hock Eng Hin, receive offers from keen buyers every other week.
Mr Michael Chan, 64, is part of family- run business Hock Eng Hin that occupies a 1,300 sq ft unit. He says: 'We bought the unit for around $570,000 in 1993. Now it's worth around $2 million.'
He adds: 'A lot of old shops have closed and sold off their business but we tell the interested buyers 'no' because our hardware store can still survive.'
At nearby iEcon, Mr Rodney Goh, 57, says: 'The shop has sentimental value - it was handed down by my grandfather. Even if my children do not want to run a provision shop in the future, they can have the space to do other kinds of business.'
Some eventually give in to these offers. One former owner is 60-year-old delivery man Wee Chye Guan. For more than a decade, he owned a provision shop in 78 Yong Siak Street, but sold the under 1,000 sq ft space earlier this year for what is said to be around $1.4 million. Mr Wee declined to confirm this.
He still lives in Tiong Bahru and notes: 'It is hard to make a living from a provision shop these days.'
The new landlord has rented the space to a cafe called PoTeaTo.
Some residents are apprehensive about the growing number of F&B outlets. Earlier this year, a resident called the police about it being too noisy at night, while others reportedly were unhappy about parking congestion on weekends.
Businesses in the area have tried to be mindful of residents. For instance, SocialHaus added noise-absorbing velvet curtains to its windows to contain the music.
A member of the Seng Poh Residents' Committee, Mr Kelvin Ang, 40, who has lived in Tiong Bahru for the past seven years, says: 'Newcomers are welcome but instead of just coming here to leech off the community, they should balance how they can do a business and contribute.'
One example of how the new co-exists with the old is 40-plus-years stall Ah Chiang's Porridge in Tiong Poh Road.
Mr Cher Kee Chiang, 65, who has been selling porridge cooked over traditional charcoal stoves since the 1970s, sold his business for a five-figure sum to Mr Eddie Tan, 41, and his partners in 2005.
Mr Cher says: 'My children were not interested in taking over the business and I felt it would be a lost opportunity if I did not sell it.'
In Mr Tan's hands, the small stall grew to occupy the entire coffee shop. Modern equipment, such as gas stoves, are now used in combination with charcoal ones to shorten customers' waiting time, but Mr Cher still works at the stall every day.
Even retired cleaner Ng Siew Tock, who is almost 90 years old and has lived in Tiong Bahru since 1980, has few problems with the changes in the neighbourhood. She says: 'It used to be very quiet, but now it is very lively. We need such new blood.'
|PHOTO: CHERYL FAITH WEE|
He explains: 'My shop is located at a traffic junction facing oncoming cars and they said this meant all my luck will be lost.'
Friends also advised against the location. Businesses in the area then consisted mainly of provision shops and coffee shops. His shop, selling luxe fare such as macarons ($2.50 each), pastries such as eclairs ($3.80 each) and custom-made cakes (1kg from $50+) seemed out of place.
The former executive pastry chef at Conrad Centennial Singapore hotel, who noticed the space was for rent while in the area for its famed hawker fare, took the risk anyway. Five years later, Centre Ps is still there and thriving.
Customers include expatriates, working professionals and grandparents who buy macarons and cakes as treats for their grandchildren. Mr Ong is now lauded for recognising the potential of the area.
He says: 'Back then, I was the youngest tenant in an old neighbourhood. From the start, it was a very comfortable place. I love this enclave that is so near to the city.'
From being the only shop selling such pastries in the area, he now faces competition from other nearby cafes such as Drips Bakery Cafe in Tiong Poh Road and Tiong Bahru Bakery in Eng Hoon Street, which draws a good crowd throughout the day.
But he is unfazed. Centre Ps does not have a seating area and relies on advance orders rather than over-the-counter sales.
While the chef-owner declined to reveal sales figures, he says that business is better than it was five years ago, owing partly to the spillover from other eateries.
And his macarons, which come in 20 flavours such as apple tea chocolate and black sesame, are a hit. Some customers place orders two days ahead to get the flavours they want.
Mr Ong says: 'One of my customers is a vegetable seller in Tiong Bahru market who treats my pastries and cakes as an indulgence and a way to spoil himself.'
For decades, the ground-floor spot at 78 Yong Siak Street now occupied by newbie cafe PoTeaTo was a corner provision shop.
PoTeaTo's owner, Ms Debra Chan, 32, says: 'The previous owners took a while to decide whether they wanted to sell because they wanted to seek the blessing of the former owners first.' This was made difficult by the fact that the former owners had died. They must have given their approval somehow, as it did get sold.
Ms Chan, who rents the shop of just under 1,000 sq ft from the new landlord, decided to keep the provision shop's wooden green backdoor, which adds to the raw feel of the cafe's brick- and-cement walls.
She opened PoTeaTo just over a month ago. The casual tea joint is one of the newest arrivals in a street already popularised by the likes of coffee joint 40 Hands and independent bookstore Books Actually.
Ms Chan had always wanted to open a cafe and left a marketing job to do so earlier this year. PoTeaTo, located just a few doors down from 40 Hands, serves potato dishes and other bistro fare such as soup and pasta.
The first-time cafe owner took notice of the area when some friends moved into the estate about two years ago. It gave her an excuse to visit the neighbourhood. Charmed by its homely vibe, she decided that the place would be suitable for her hole-in-the-wall cafe.
She says: 'I wanted to be in a friendly neighbourhood where residents could come in and chill in their shorts and slippers, or stop by after their evening stroll.'