Tiong Bahru is in the headlines again

No, not because the popular ice cream and waffle café Creamier has opened its Tiong Bahru branch at Yong Siak Street, just two units down from Forty Hands.

URA announced on Tuesday (24 July) that it will be rezoning some sites in the Tiong Bahru estate under the Master Plan, from “Residential” to “Residential with Commercial at 1st storey”.

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So what does this mean?

According to Straits Times, some eateries that have been around Tiong Bahru for decades, like Por Kee Eating House and Ting Heng Seafood Restaurant, were formerly operating in residential units that had been granted permission by the authorities to be used for commercial purposes. With the rezoning, the presence of such shops is now formalised and their status in the estate secured.

Not sure if it means that shops like Por Kee and Ting Heng were previously constantly concerned that their business operations would be deemed “informal”. But the recent announcement by URA is definitely well-intended.

The rezoning exercise aims to balance the need to have “a good living environment for residents, and commercial uses to serve residents and visitors”; and ensures that “commercial uses do not sprout out indiscriminately across the residential estate.”

The underlying meaning is: don’t suka suka convert residential place into one for commercial use. The authorities are watching.

However, the future of Tiong Bahru should be more than just about its commercial use. More than a decade ago, Tiong Bahru (a name which combines Chinese and Malay words and loosely translates to “New Cemetery”) was just a quaint neighbourhood but the estate’s rich heritage caught the eye of the public. Not long after, one café after another found their way in. Soon, coffee houses, upmarket bakeries and “indie” shops took over old business establishments, and the estate transformed into a hipster community.

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The appeal of Tiong Bahru therefore, is closely tied to its heritage. As the first public housing estate in Singapore and the only existing one not built by HDB, Tiong Bahru has significant architectural, cultural and historic value. For eg, how many of us know that Tiong Bahru was once a “mistress village”? The proximity of Tiong Bahru to the cabarets of Great World Amusement Park at nearby Kim Seng Road and the high apartment rentals meant that only wealthy businessmen could afford to house their lovers in Tiong Bahru.

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There is also an air raid shelter at Blk 78 Guan Chuan Street which could accommodate up to 1600 persons in times of emergency.  It is the last remaining pre-war civilian air raid shelter still in existence today.

The once quiet neighbourhood was given a second lease of life because of its rich history. However, this appeal seems to be waning as many visitors seem more interested in the variety of commercial entities set up. When planning for its future development, perhaps authorities should constantly bear in mind not to base any decision solely on commercial considerations and the community’s needs. Tiong Bahru is a part of Singapore, and its past forms an integral component of Singapore’s history. We should cherish it lest we forget.