Think Singapore and you probably envision glitzy buildings and a fast paced modern city with urban lifestyles. Well, while this is true, this is also a city that also has many unknown aspects that are quite the opposite of clichéd references that one tends to associate with the ‘Lion City’. So in my quest to see an offbeat part of the city, I landed at Tiong Bahru early in the morning. This is a 80 plus year old estate that has an interesting mix of residences, art deco cafes, gourmet stores, quaint book shops and a community centre among many others.
My first stop was at the Monkey God Temple that was founded in 1920 said to be the first temple here dedicated to the worship of the monkey God that bears an uncanny resemblance to Lord Hanuman! The Tiong Bahru Qi Tian Gong Temple has more than 10 monkey God statues and the oldest among these is about 100 years old. Locals believe that praying here will help them gain prosperity and longevity and beat bad luck! The temple itself is a riot of colour and the fragrance of incense wafts through the premises. With divine blessings in my stride, I then decide to satiate my hunger pangs and stop by at the Tiong Bahru bakery that is well known for its croissants. Among the kinds of croissants available here are variants like Chocolate Almond and Green Tea Almond Croissants but the plain and almond croissants are soft and flaky and leave you asking for more. Also sample the delectable lime and basil tart, berries tart and the Molasses bun here and wash it all down with some delectable coffees and you are sorted for the walk ahead.
Breakfast done, I decided to explore the architecture as this locality is home to Singapore Improvement Trust flats that were inspired by international styles. The architects have incorporated local features like spiral designs and five foot ways in these flats that date back to as early as 1936. Also Block 78, the horse-shoe block at the Moh Guan Terrace and Guan Chuan Street designed in the shape of a horse shoe has an admirable architectural design. The designs of Block 81 and 82 along the Tiong Poh Road resemble an aircraft’s wings and are called aeroplane flats. The Community Centre here was a pre war standalone air-raid shelter in 1951. The Community Centre here was a pre war standalone air-raid shelter in 1951 and today houses a Volleyball Court, Music Room, Multi-Purpose Hall, Health Fitness Room and Dance Studio among other public utility spaces. Walking past more gourmet stores and cafes, I am drawn towards street art on the walls that depicts a bird singing corner with four men looking up at the bird’s cages. This is an ode to the old bird singing corner by talented artist Yip Yew Chong who has painted several other murals alongside this area. The one called Pasar & the Fortune Teller is a depiction of a market place and has a woman clad in a saree too. This one depicts the old market place with a fortune teller that has now made way for a new market.
After getting my art fix, I am drawn to a book store called “Books Actually” that has a vending machine outside. I stop and notice that all the books are wrapped in a white paper with ‘mystery book’ written on it. So how this works is that when you insert the coin you get a book, only that it is a book whose name you don’t know in advance and that is the ‘mystery’! The store itself is delightful and you can spend hours browsing through the collection and the witty take on the English word that is hung across the store. This is also where you will find some antiques including music cassettes of old Hindi films! By this time, I felt the need to eat something sweet and headed to Galicier Pastry, now being run by the fourth generation of the family. This is where I discovered the ‘sweet’ history of traditional desserts and also tasted them. This is where they freshly bake and sell nonya kueh, steamed tapioca, pandan chiffon cake, ongol-ongol a soft cake made with tapioca starch and coconut tarts. Their Kueh Dar-Dar has a soft crepe skin and has a coconut and sugar filling. I also liked the Putu Ayu a steamed coconut cup cake that has delightful flavours. This is where you can sample the durian cake (they also sell by slice). While you are here do check out the music stores that sell old vinyl long play records as well as stop by some artisan groceries to pick up some organic foods. As I walked along the numerous lanes here, I was transported back in time and yet in that nostalgia was a sense of today. And that is Singapore for you, always manages to give you a nice surprise.
This story first appeared in The Hindu dated 13th September 2018 here: