The architecture and artistic residents of Tiong Bahru are both symbols of Singapore’s cultural past and directions to the neighbourhood’s future.
“I don’t see it,” I said after studying the Dancing Girl sculpture for the better part of a minute. Standing in the middle of Seng Poh Garden, an open grassy area located in the heart of Tiong Bahru, I tried my best to decipher the artistic puzzle before my eyes. However, no matter how I tilted my head, all I saw was a concrete swan on a pedestal, ready to take flight. Just where was the girl?
Dr Kevin Tan, the former President of the Singapore Heritage Society and my tour guide for the day, pointed eagerly at the tip of the sculpture. “See, there? That’s her arm, and she’s holding a fan. That at the bottom, you see? That’s the pleated skirt, and she’s doing a harvest dance.” Oh, I thought to myself, as my eyes squinted under the blazing sun. There she is.
The Dancing Girl sculpture is the work of Lim Nang Sang, the same man behind the Merlion sculpture. When Seng Poh Garden was conceived in 1972, Ch’ng Jit Koon, then a Member of Parliament for Tiong Bahru and a former resident of the neighbourhood, wanted the garden to be given greater prominence. Two weeks and $2,000 later, Lim sculpted the 1.2m high sculpture, which in turn became Tiong Bahru’s very first piece of public art.
It was difficult to believe that the sculpture is also the estate’s only public work of art. After all, Tiong Bahru was once known as the Hollywood of Singapore as its architecture gave it a certain Hollywood-like mystique. I asked Dr Tan, and he chuckled under his breath. Art in Tiong Bahru, he said, is more than just a concrete statue. It is in the architecture and the residents—those are the estate’s most visible and impressive public art works yet.
Take a stroll down the streets of Tiong Bahru today, and the first thing you will notice is this: They don’t build houses like that anymore.
The Tiong Bahru estate was one of the first mass public housing projects in Singapore. Constructed by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) in the 1930s, the buildings were heavily inspired by a style of architecture called Streamline Moderne, a minimalistic architectural style that abandoned the sometime lavish and ostentatious decoration of the Art Deco movement in favour of simple, functional lines. “The architecture that is proliferating in magazines today is ‘Dramatic Architecture,’” explained Choo Meng Foo, an independent consultant with 20 years of experience in architectural and urban planning works in Asia. “[These ‘Dramatic Architectures’] tend towards decadence and weakness as it arouses the senses to the most extreme. Many architectural designs these days are like that, but not Tiong Bahru.”
In the case of Tiong Bahru, the pre-war buildings here were greatly inspired by the industrial age of the 1920s. “Back then, if you were able to drive a car, take a plane or a cruise, you were on the cutting edge,” explained Dr Tan. “As such, buildings here were designed to look like automobiles, trains, ocean liners and airplanes.” In fact, the closer you look, the more the details harken back to the early 20th century. There are nautical elements built into the residential houses, such as the rounded windows, which resemble portholes, as well as the clean, curved corners that resemble the bridge of a ship. In fact, blocks 81 and 82 are known to the locals as the “Aeroplane” blocks, simply because the elongated layout of the buildings resembles the wings of an airplane.
The pre- and post-war houses in Tiong Bahru are not all form and no function either. Houses here adopted the five-foot ways of shophouses to allow people to move from one building to the next at ease and a place to meet neighbours and build relationships. Ventilation air wells were also built right into the structure of the buildings to improve air circulation and temperature regulation. The original, and increasingly rare green glazed windows helped to cut out glare from the tropical sun. In fact, Tiong Bahru was also the first neighbourhood in Singapore to have proper sanitation. The combination of form and function, according to Dr Tan, is an art form unto itself. “You need two things for good architecture,” explained Dr Tan. “One, you need the absence of overly restraining rules. Two, you need architects and developers who are willing to work against tried and tested formulae.” These factors, according to Dr Tan, are the reasons why Tiong Bahru continues to be one of the most beautiful estates in the city-state.
There is no denying that the Streamline Moderne architecture gave Tiong Bahru a veil of glamour. However, it was the people living behind that veil who really imbued the estate with artistic and cultural significance. Choo explained it best when he said “No place stays the same forever. It adapts and changes according to the times and their users.” Throughout its history, Tiong Bahru has attracted many well-known literary and artistic personalities, giving the neighbourhood an air of sophistication and creative freedom.
Perhaps one of the estate’s most famous residents was Heng Kim Ching, better known by his stage name, Wang Sar. Wang Sar was one half of the highly successful comedic team of Wang Sar and Ye Fong (sometimes known as Ah Pui and Ah San), who were based on characters from the Old Master Q comic books. Their stand-up comedy routines featured a hilarious mix of banters in Teo Chew, Hokkien, Cantonese, Malay and English, and were immensely popular at that time.
The Quests, one of the most popular home-grown bands in the 1960s, comprised four teenagers who had been neighbours in Tiong Bahru. Aside from covering popular American and British hit-makers, the band also wrote, performed and recorded many original songs in their heyday. Today, the band’s legacy continues, and many local musicians consider it to be Singapore’s answer to The Beatles. In 2007, EMI/Warner even re-released The Quests’ original music as part of a compilation, which is testament to the group’s lasting appeal.
Over the years, Tiong Bahru has continued to attract many artists, as well as art-related establishments and events. In 2012, OH! Open House organised a series of art exhibitions inside the homes of Tiong Bahru residents as a way of bringing art closer to the community. Meanwhile, establishments such as The Orange Thimble (a café that frequently holds art exhibitions) attracts a younger, more artistic crowd. Choo believes that the phenomenon of designers, artists and writers moving into the neighbourhood will persist as long as the estate exists. “I presume it will grow to be a place for artists, both local and international, to congregate and exchange ideas. Perhaps, in the future, it can become a place that supports artists and their works. There should be a new form of art spaces inserted into Tiong Bahru, which can in turn encourage creativity and sustainability.”
The reputation of an estate is only as strong as its residents, and Dr Tan said it best when he compared Tiong Bahru to a pair of sports trainers: “If you don’t wear them, the shoes will fall apart after some time. Buildings are funny that way, too. If people don’t live in them, they will collapse.”
Tiong Bahru has changed dramatically over the years. Gone are the textile vendors on the streets and the old wanton noodle store around the corner. However, the neighbourhood has been experiencing a renaissance in the past decade. Restaurants such as Open Door Policy and independent bookshops such as Books Actually have been moving into the neighbourhood, giving a brand new lease of life to the community. Heritage trails, organised by the National Heritage Board, continue to bring younger members of the society through the streets of Tiong Bahru, reminding them of the life that was.
Even with the migration of these new establishments into Tiong Bahru, the estate’s architecture and artistic history will continue to serve as reminders of the neighbourhood’s vibrant past; a time when art was created, nurtured and set free.
“I still see a swan,” I told Dr Tan after giving myself another generous minute of observation. “But I think I get it now.”