Tiong Bahru

An estate with architectural, cultural and historic significance, Tiong Bahru was developed in the 1920s as Singapore’s first public housing estate by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), the colonial predecessor of the Housing Development Board.1 In 2003, 20 blocks of flats in the estate were granted conservation status by the Urban Redevelopment Authority.2

Origins of name
The name of the estate is derived from the Chinese word “tiong”, meaning “cemetery, and the Malay word “bahru”, meaning “new”.3 When put together, the term “Tiong Bahru” was used by the locals to refer to the “new” cemetery beside the Heng San Teng Burial Ground or the Old Chinese Burial Ground located at the present site of the Singapore General Hospital.4 According to then Municipal Engineer WT Carrington, the Tiong Bahru burial ground was probably established in 1859, about 30 years after the Heng San Teng Burial Ground was established.5

Early use
Early maps show that Tiong Bahru appeared to be hilly, with Pearl’s Hill, Mount Farquhar and Mount D’Anguilla as its highest points, and swathes of lowlands and swampy areas in the low-lying areas.6 Apart from being used as a burial ground, the area in the early days was used for cultivations, and by military personnel from the Sepoy Lines fortification at Pearl’s Hill.7

After the General Hospital was relocated to its present site in 1882, settlers began to move into the low-lying areas around it. By the 1920s, this young settlement had grown into a village called Kampong Tiong Bahru.8 However, the disorderly growth of the village, marked by overcrowding squatters and poor sanitation, soon became a concern for both the hospital and health authorities.9

SIT development
To address the housing and sanitary situation in Kampong Tiong Bahru, the colonial government initiated an improvement scheme in 1925,10 with SIT tasked to spearhead the project.11 Formed in 1927 out of a department of the Municipal Commissioner, the SIT would build drains and culverts (drain pipes), as well as provide the infrastructure and provision for the erection of 900 houses. The SIT expected these houses would provide proper accommodation for some 13,500 residents.12

Slum clearance and land acquisition began in 1928, and over 2,000 squatters in Kampong Tiong Bahru were offered alternative accommodation in SIT flats poised to be built at Alexandra Road. Graves were also exhumed and moved to Bukit Brown cemetery, while the hills were levelled, and the swampy ground was sand-filled.13 Roads in the area were named after prominent businessmen and philanthropists of the period, including Khoo Tiong Poh, Koh Eng Hoon and Seah Eu Chin.14

Building the estate
The infrastructural work was completed by 1931, but attempts to sell the sites to private developers proved unsuccessful for SIT. In 1936, SIT decided to build the Tiong Bahru housing estate on its own.15

Block 55, the first block of SIT flats was ready by December 1936. Located at the junction of Tiong Bahru and Tiong Poh Roads, it had 28 flats and four shops, and its first tenants were 11 families who moved in on 1 December. In the following five years, SIT constructed more flats and by 1941, the SIT Tiong Bahru estate had 784 flats, 54 tenements, 33 shops and a population of around 6,000.16 However, due to the costly monthly rental of about $25, the Tiong Bahru flats were taken up by families “of the clerical class”, rather than those in need for housing.17

Post-war developments
Development of Tiong Bahru still continued after the Japanese Occupation. One of the first tasks SIT faced was to restore the estate to its pre-war conditions.18 It was a mammoth undertaking as it had to repave many of the roads, repair damaged buildings, clear the open spaces around the estate from tapioca and yam cultivations, and removed the squatter colony that had moved in to settle in the estate due to the housing shortage problem in the immediate post-war years.19 It was estimated that the population of the slums at the time was between 100,000 and 150,000.20

By 1954, SIT had added a further 1,258 flats to the northern side of Tiong Bahru. These four storey post-war flats were different from the original pre-war flats. They were built as per an “open development” concept, which meant they were surrounded by open spaces and served by footpaths. Located along Seng Poh Road towards Tiong Bahru Road and Boon Tiong Road, these flats were very popular and by the end of the 1950s, an estimated 17,000 people were living in them.21

Tiong Bahru under the Housing Development Board
When the People’s Action Party came into power in 1959, it replaced the SIT with the Housing Development Board (HDB).22 To lead the government’s effort to address the acute housing shortage problem, the new housing board announced a massive five-year plan that included a target to build 10,000 low-cost flats by 1961.23 About 900 of these flats were located in Tiong Bahru.24

In March 1965, then Minister for National Development, Lim Kim San announced that all 823 pre-war flats in Tiong Bahru would be sold. Prices were set between $10,000 for a two-room flat and $22,100 for a four-room unit. The sale was to enable the residents who had been staying in these flats to be home owners rather than tenants. At the time the sale was announced, these residents were paying about $34 to $40 per month.25 In 1972, HDB extended this scheme to tenants of the post-war flats.26

Renewal and conservation
Until the 1980s, Tiong Bahru was seen as an estate with a greying population and facilities. The 1990 Singapore Census of Population showed that 31.8 percent of residents were aged 45 and above. However, redevelopment and an influx of new residents changed the estate’s demographics in the early 1990s. A shopping mall, Mass Rapid Transit station, new public housing and private condominiums sprang up in the area.27 In 1995, 16 blocks of flats built in 1952 were chosen for the first Selective En-Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS).28

Located opposite Tiong Bahru Plaza, the 384 units were acquired by the government and redeveloped into 1,402 new units.29 Besides the post-war flats, Tiong Bahru witnessed a series of development recently. This included 20 blocks of pre-war SIT flats being granted conservation status by the Urban Redevelopment Authority in 2003, and the S$16.8 million redevelopment of Tiong Bahru market, which was opened in 1951, from 2004 to 2006 at a cost of S$16.8 million.30 Chinese firm Hang Huo Enterprise developed two blocks of conservation flats into the S$45 million Link Hotel, which was completed in 2007.31 

There were numerous outbreaks of fire in Tiong Bahru before the development of modern housing in the estate. During the pre-war and post-war periods, there had been a series of fires in Tiong Bahru.32 Although a volunteer fire-fighting force was formed in 1958, a major fire in 1959 caused up to 12,000 people to lose their homes, and S$2 million worth of damage.33

On 25 May 1961, another fire began near the site full of squatter huts at Kampong Tiong Bahru, and spread across 40.5 ha of land, destroying the homes of nearly 16,000 people in what came to be known as the Bukit Ho Swee fire.34 It was one of Singapore’s worst-ever fires, and gave new impetus to the government to accelerate its public housing building programme.35 

Architecture and culture
Tiong Bahru’s SIT flats reflect a blend of imported and local styles, including Art Deco and the influence of the International style, which focused on simple, clear lines and planes.36 The style was prominent in Europe during that period, and SIT architects and managers took inspiration from public housing in British New Towns like Stevenage and Harlow.37 Architects involved in the design of Tiong Bahru estate included Lincoln Page, Robert F. N. Kan and A. G. Church.38 The design of the flats was based on a modified shophouse plan in the shape of a horse-shoe, and accompanied by features such as an exterior spiral staircases, courtyards, and kitchen air-wells.39

The layout of the SIT estate comprised an outer ring of four-storey flats encircling a communal zone that included a market and hawker centre, coffee shops, a pet shop and a Chinese temple.40 The hawker centre housed well-known chwee kuay (rice cakes) and pao (bun) stalls, and the pet shop, and bird-singing corner formerly located at Block 53 attracted both locals and tourists.41 

In its early years, Tiong Bahru estate gained the colloquial tag of mei ren wo or “den of beauties” or er nai chun or “Mistress village” because it housed many mistresses of rich men.42 Because of its proximity to the cabarets of Great World Amusement Park at Kim Seng Road, many cabaret dancers and pippa girls – a euphemism for prostitutes – also stayed in Tiong Bahru flats with their majies or minders.43 The pre-war flats were also called “aeroplane towers”, as their design resembled that of the control tower at Kallang Airport.44


Alvin Chua

1. Kevin Y L Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail (Singapore: National Heritage Board, 2013), 2. (Call no. RSING 915.95704 TIO-[TRA])
2. Tan Hui Yee, “20 Blocks of Pre-War Flats to Be Conserved,” Straits Times, 27 June 2003, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Victor Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of of Toponymics, 3rd ed. (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2013), 993–94.
4. Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail, 3–4.
5. Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail, 3.
6. Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail, 7.
7. Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail, 4, 7.
8. Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail, 5–6.
9. Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail, 6–7.
10. Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail, 6, 8.
11. Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail, 2.
12. Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail, 9.
13. Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail, 9.
14. Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail, 32.
15. Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail, 9–10.
16. Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail, 10.
17. Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail, 9–10.
18. Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail, 45.
19. Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail, 45.
20. Tan Hui Yee, “Modern Housing Estate from the Slums,” Straits Times, 16 October 1964, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail, 11.
22. Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail, 11.
23. “Homes for 60,000 People,” Straits Times, 8 December 1960, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
24. “Low-Cost One-Room Flats,” Straits Times, 7 December 1960, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “Pre-War Flats in Tiong Bahru Will Be Sold,” Straits Times, 2 March 1965, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
26. “Board to Sell Post-War Flats in Tg. Bahru,” New Nation, 25 September 1972, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Ho Sheo Be, “Tiong Bahru Is Getting Younger,” Straits Times, 20 November 1994, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Ann Williams, “Tiong Bahru Flats First in Redevelopment Scheme,” Straits Times, 23 August 1995, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Williams, “Tiong Bahru Flats First in Redevelopment Scheme.”
30. Tan, “20 Blocks of Pre-War Flats to Be Conserved”; Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail, 13.
31. “At Home at House: Link Hotel,” Straits Times, 28 July 2008, 99. (From NewspaperSG)
32. “Three Singapore Kampongs in Ruins,” Straits Times, 9 August 1934, 12; “12,000 Lose Homes,” Straits Times, 14 February 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
33. “12,000 Lose Homes.”
34. Yeo Gim Lay, “Worst Inferno,” Straits Times, 12 February 2005, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
35. “904 Homes Ready at Bukit Ho Swee Site,” Singapore Free Press, 15 September 1961, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
36. Steven Lee, “Heart and Soul,” Straits Times, 2 January 1991, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
37. Ng Tan Yong, “He Wants to Put Tiong Bahru on World Map,” New Paper, 2 September 2006, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
38. Ken Lou, “Charms of Tiong Bahru,” Straits Times, 5 December 1990, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
39. Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail, 40, 46–49.
40. Lou, “Charms of Tiong Bahru.”
41. Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail, 51–59; “A Thrilling and Trilling Show of Songs and Colours,” Straits Times, 21 February 1997, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
42. Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail, 11.
43. Tan, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail, 11.
44. Chan Kwee Sung, “Aeroplane Towers Haven for Good-Time Girls,” Straits Times, 21 August 2000, 10. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore: Power Relations and the Urban Built Environment (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003), 223, 300. (Call no. RSING 307.76095957 YEO)

Buy-It-or-Quit Tenants to Protest against ‘High Prices’,” Straits Times, 7 March 1965, 3. (From NewspaperSG)

“China’s Hang Huo Enterprise Wins Bid to Convert Tiong Bahru Flats to Hotel,” Channel NewsAsia, 12 August 2003. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)

Clara Chow, “Niche Accommodation in Tiong Bahru,” Edge Singapore (8 June 2009). (Call no. RSING 338.7095957 ES)

Daryl Loo, “‘50s Flats in Tiong Bahru a Big Draw,” Straits Times, 5 September 2004, 25. (From NewspaperSG)

Hari Raya Inferno,” Straits Times, 26 May 1961, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

Ida Bachtiar, “Tiong Bahru: The Next Yuppie Estate?” Straits Times, 29 July 1993, 4. (From NewspaperSG)

Improvement Trust Flats Occupied,” Straits Times, 2 December 1936, 18. (From NewspaperSG)

Ken Jalleh, “Tiong Bahru’s No. 3 Wives,” Straits Times, 24 July 1949, 8. (From NewspaperSG)

Ken Lou, “Charms of Tiong Bahru,” Straits Times, 5 December 1990, 4. (From NewspaperSG)

Lilian Ang, “Tiong Bahru Estate Is Maiden Site for En-Bloc Redevelopment,” Business Times, 23 August 1995, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

M. Lev, “Songbirds Still Capture Singapore’s Heart,” Orange County Register, 26 December 1996. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)

Magdalen Ng, “Tiong Bahru, The Movie,” Straits Times, 29 April 2010, 8. (From NewspaperSG)

Martin Perry, Lily Kong and Brenda Yeoh, Singapore: A Developmental City State (New York: Wiley, 1997), 44–45. (Call no. RSING 307.76095957 PER)

New Block of Flats,” Straits Times, 20 May 1940, 11. (From NewspaperSG)

Ng Tan Yong, “He Wants to Put Tiong Bahru on World Map,” New Paper, 2 September 2006, 5. (From NewspaperSG)

Overcrowding in Chinatown,” Straits Times, 26 June 1930, 15. (From NewspaperSG)

Steven Lee, “Heart and Soul,” Straits Times, 2 January 1991, 3. (From NewspaperSG)

Tee Hun Ching, “Vintage Advantage,” Straits Times, 26 September 2004, 6. (From NewspaperSG)

Tiong Bahru Flats Will House 1,000 By End of 1938,” Straits Times, 13 October 1937, 12. (From NewspaperSG)

Tiong Bahru’s Glory Days,” Straits Times, 13 November 1992, 5. (From NewspaperSG)

Tiong Bahru Housing Plan,” Straits Times, 20 April 1935, 12. (From NewspaperSG)

Tiong Bahru Plan for Self Government,” Straits Times, 11 August 1948, 8. (From NewspaperSG)

Town Planning,” Straits Times, 15 June 1926, 9. (From NewspaperSG)

Wan Meng Hao and Jacqueline Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2009), 169–71. (Call no. RSING 959.57 WAN-[HIS])

The information in this article is valid as of 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 

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