Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Tiong Bahru: An estate steeped in history

The new Tiong Bahru Heritage Trail has plenty of stories to share
By Melody Zaccheus, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2013

THESE days, it is an upmarket enclave where yuppies sip cappuccinos.

Yet Tiong Bahru's past is colourful and chock-full of nostalgia, heritage and history.

Back in the 1950s, the area was referred to as 'the den of beauties'. Its post-war buildings housed mistresses of wealthy Chinese businessmen and pipa girls - a euphemism for prostitutes.

There were also cabaret dancers who performed at the nearby Great World Amusement Park.

This was just one of the historical nuggets shared yesterday with about 1,000 participants at the launch of the Tiong Bahru Heritage Trail. Long-time residents who volunteered to be guides related their experiences at the event, organised by the National Heritage Board.

The Tiong Bahru trail, the 11th to be launched so far, spans 2.5km. It covers 10 stops including the grave of philanthropist Tan Tock Seng, Seng Poh Garden and its Dancing Girl Sculpture and the pre- and post-war architecture of the estate.

Tanjong Pagar MP Indranee Rajah said the trail would give members of the community better understanding and appreciation of the estate's rich heritage.

'Whether you are a resident who has been living in the estate for decades, or someone who has moved in recently, this trail offers a greater insight into the history of Tiong Bahru, charting its milestones through the war and commemorating memorable sites that hold a significant place in the hearts of many.'

Mr Roney Tan - a descendent of philanthropist Tan Tock Seng - said he is glad that his ancestor's grave at Outram Road is part of the trail, and hopes that it signifies better things to come.

The 56-year-old businessman added: 'I hope that the site will be earmarked for preservation. After all, not many graves of our pioneers are left in Singapore. Tan Tock Seng for one, contributed heavily to the Chinese community during his lifetime and he serves as a role model in philanthropy.'

Lawyer Chia Yong Yong, 50, who took part in the heritage trail, said: 'It's amazing that Tiong Bahru has managed to retain its old-world charm even as it has gradually become a modern residential area.'

The trail costs $2 and members of the public can sign up at this website: www.nhb.gov.sg. The proceeds will go to the Tanjong Pagar-Tiong Bahru Community Development Welfare Fund.

The guided tour will take place every first Saturday of the month at 10am and 3pm, starting next month.

Participants can also sign up for a separate tour of an air raid shelter built in 1940 - the only one erected by the Singapore Improvement Trust as part of the design of a public housing building.

Tours begin in June and will take place every two months, on the first Saturday of the month at 12pm and 2pm.

Ms Indranee said the architecture of the neighbourhood is 'evocative of a certain era'.

With news surfacing two weeks ago that Singapore had launched a bid to get the Botanic Gardens listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, heritage buffs have been debating the possibility of nominating Tiong Bahru and the Bukit Brown cemetery for a place on the list.

As it is, the Singapore Improvement Trust Art Deco flats of Tiong Bahru were given conservation status by the Urban Redevelopment Authority in 2003.

Ms Indranee said the criteria to become a Unesco heritage site is quite stringent: 'I don't know at the current time if Tiong Bahru actually meets that criteria and I think further research has to be done.

'If it does meet the criteria, I think it will be a wonderful nomination - because the unique character of the place makes it special not just to the residents here but to all Singaporeans.'

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