The now charming and modern Tiong Bahru area was once home to really large families where space was a premium, squeezing five in one bedroom even.
Mention Tiong Bahru to the under-30s, and they will think of a now-trendy neighbourhood with art cafés and indie bookstores.
But to my mother – and some others from her generation – Singapore’s oldest estate was not nearly as glamorous as it is today.
Instead, the words “Tiong Bahru” bring to her mind the image of almost 20 family members living in a three-room flat.
“The vintage and sometimes European architecture of the estate may provide an aesthetically pleasing setting for an Instagram post, but my mother – and I – will remember Tiong Bahru for its simple kampong past.”
Less than five storeys high, the block of flats that my mother grew up in was built after World War II by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT).
SIT, also the predecessor of the Housing and Development Board (HDB), was an administration by the British colonial authority that managed public housing in Singapore. Their first stop: Tiong Bahru.
New Old Tiong Bahru
Although the exact block that my mother used to lived in has been replaced by a high-density 20-storey HDB flat, five original identical blocks still remain in their place. Of the five, some are now serviced apartments targeted at expatriates, commanding a monthly rental of up to $5,800.
“But to my mother – and some others from her generation – Singapore’s oldest estate was not nearly as glamorous as it is today.”
As if bending forward from her chair wasn’t enough, my mother craned her neck to get a closer look at the photographed interior of the serviced apartments.
“Wah, so nice hor,” the 54-year-old said, part in lament and part in envy. “Would have been so nice if the house I stayed in was like that last time.”
Overcome with nostalgia, my mother recounted how she had to share a bedroom with five others.
The room had two double bunk beds, which she slept in with three of her sisters, while mattresses were laid on the floor for her two nephews. My mother lived in the house for nearly two decades, from age 12 until the day she got married at 29 years old.
When she pointed her bed out from a black-and-white photograph, I couldn’t help but notice a poster and an enlarged photograph of a man on the wall beside it.
“Who are those men in the posters? Are they singers?” I asked, hoping to uncover a teenage fangirl under my mother’s typically traditional exterior.
“What? … Nothing lah,” she replied with an embarrassed smile, quickly shifting the focus to the other photographs in the album.
Forced by circumstance, the living room was probably the most versatile area in the house.
Surrounded by a kitchen, three bedrooms and a balcony, the living room was a dining and television area in the day, and a bedroom for her two brothers by night. The two would sleep on foldable canvas beds that were supported by a wooden frame, similar to the ones used by British troops during World War II.
“Look at this photo. Back then, the fridge was our precious item, so we put it in the living room,” she said, referring to a picture of her older sister leaning against the Bosch refrigerator. The classic design of the bulgy and rounded appliance can still be found in stores today.
“Overcome with nostalgia, my mother recounted how she had to share a bedroom with five others.”
My mother also reminisced about how the Tiong Bahru flat would get even more crowded on festive occasions, such as her grandmother’s birthday.
During such events, about 50 family members and relatives would assemble at the apartment for dinner. At least four tables would be laid out, and the cramped living and dining area would force one table of relatives into a bedroom.
Judging by the photographs, there was probably hardly any space for my mother and her family to move around the house during such occasions. This may sound like an annoyance to many, but it was heartwarming to see only delighted faces captured on film.
In fact, my eyes were fixed on the photographed origins of my maternal family’s tradition of large gatherings in relatively small areas. Twice a year without fail, more than 40 relatives would get together at my tua yi’s (Hokkien for “eldest aunt”) three-room flat in Jurong East.
After their grandmother died, my mother and her six siblings gradually moved out one by one, leaving the house to one of her three brothers. My uncle, his wife and two sons lived in the flat until four years ago, when several blocks were selected for en bloc. They then moved to a flat in a 20-storey HDB block in the vicinity.
Pre- and Post-war
The flats in the Tiong Bahru Estate are now either regulated by HDB or are conserved, depending on whether they were built pre- or post-war.
Just from their exterior, it’s easy to differentiate between the pre- and post-war flats. Steep spiral staircases and Art Deco style – these distinctive architectural features reveal Singapore’s colonial past in the pre-war apartment blocks.
In contrast, the post-war flats that my mother lived in were built with less concern over aesthetics, resulting in a more homogenous appearance. These blocks, however, are known for their distinctive “rounded balconies” – which are actually common staircases.
These days, I do admit to frequenting Tiong Bahru for its trendy cafes along Yong Siak Street.
Walking past the low-rise apartment buildings today awakens in me a sense of nostalgia, and the pace of my footsteps will suddenly drop. The vintage and sometimes European architecture of the estate may provide an aesthetically pleasing setting for an Instagram post, but my mother – and I – will remember Tiong Bahru for its simple kampong past.
Words and photographs by Charmaine Ng
Published by the Singapore Memory Project and Studio Wong Huzir