My friend, Huck Lim, who hails from Penang, is an architect who has devoted himself to heritage causes. When I first met him, he was working with another architect, Fernando Jorge, on a project in Malacca, Malaysia.
The historic core of this city was recently inscribed on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization list because of its remarkable stock of structures, which are mostly from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
There was certainly a lot for heritage advocates to do there: community organizing, information drives, as well as building conservation. Out of their experiences, Huck and Fernando fashioned “Malacca: Voices from the Street,” an elegant, richly illustrated tome.
Soon enough, other projects beckoned. The two are now consultants for a museum currently under construction in Singapore. So, finding myself in the island republic, I was happy to learn that Huck was in town. I was certain that he would be the best guide to various preservation initiatives.
Huck generously obliged me. I must admit, though, that I was initially puzzled by his choice for our first sortie: Tiong Bahru Estate. He described it as having been built in the 1930s—the earliest project of the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), a government agency charged by the British colonizers with providing mass housing. Due to my stereotypical notions regarding public residential projects, I couldn’t help but wonder what there would be to see.
As it turned out, Tiong Bahru had so much to offer. Arriving at the estate, one is met by vistas of row upon row of immaculate white buildings done in a sleek ocean liner style, complete with porthole windows. I was reminded of those hyper-rational environments, like the setting for the movie “Gattaca.” Then again, the references to ships add a dimension of romance which ultimately makes for a warmer, more human context.
There were other anecdotal touches: louvered windows, staircase landings which opened unto rounded balconies, light wells, lush vegetation. Who wouldn’t want to live in such a blessed haven?
As it turns out, there was a time when the number of residents in the estate was dwindling. People had started to move out to newer, more upscale neighborhoods, leaving only the elderly. Then suddenly the hip crowd arrived, attracted by affordable rent as well as the gorgeous architecture. Gentrification was on its way. Eventually, the historical value of the complex was formally recognized.
It was noted that Tiong Bahru was very much part of the narratives that underlay the Singapore story. Just as important was the fact that the project reflected perspectives on urban housing, which were pioneering in South East Asia. Also appreciated was the manner in which the buildings themselves were designed with a concern for visual pleasure, in marked contrast to the strictly utilitarian, labyrinthine apartments encountered elsewhere.
In 2003, certain sections of Tiong Bahru were gazetted by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, ensuring their continuous protection.
Interestingly, despite its protected status, the estate has not become a sterile showcase. This point was made clear when Huck took me to lunch at the Tiong Bahru market. Located right at the center of the entire enclave, it was housed in an airy, well-lit structure with clean lines and rounded balconies that matched those of the surrounding edifices, adding to the sense of cohesion.
Frank Lloyd Wright
Perhaps the pillars were the most arresting detail. They could easily have been lifted from the Great Workroom of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax company headquarters. How many shopping facilities can boast of such a distinction?
Oblivious to the Wrightian allusions which were unfurling in their midst, the denizens of the market went about their business, which was mostly centered on one thing: food. While the first floor had booths selling all manner of commodities, the second floor was dedicated to stalls serving the cuisine favored by Singaporeans.
When Huck suggested the local version of chicken rice because of its reputation of being among the best on the island, I readily agreed. This was something I could definitely relate to, having savored this specialty during many late nights at Café Adriatico.
When the platters finally arrived I was somewhat surprised not to find a dish of plum paste. How unlike the ensemble at Café Adriatico that I was so used to. Fortunately, I would soon realize that additional flavoring was completely unnecessary. The chicken was delicious, succulent with a kiss of ginger and herbs.
Though I skirted the chili sauce, I heartily dove into the pile of bean sprouts crowned with garlic, crisp and golden. Everything was then washed down with sugar cane juice, freshly coaxed from stems on the spot and then poured into tall glasses of ice.
Even while I was making short shrift of my meal, I couldn’t help noticing my fellow diners. All the tables were filled with what was a veritable cross section of Singaporean society. Chinese, Indian, Malay, tourists—what brought us together was our enjoyment of what had been set before us.
There were a lot of teenagers, ear phones on, wrapped in their own world. But there were also elderly couples, serene, blanketed with the pleasure of a partner’s company.
This vibrant mix would continue to be evident as we explored the many lanes while walking off the chicken rice. We were sharing the streets with expats and young creative types. Yes, Tiong Bahru was a happening place, undeniable proof that with proper planning, heritage structures can make for dynamic, productive districts.
I saw community learning centers and cutting-edge stores. Huck introduced me to his friend, Kenny Leck, co-founder of Books Actually. I loved how the tomes on display in Leck’s inviting shop were arranged, along with toy trucks and dolls, in artful tableaux, evoking warm childhood memories of kindergarten libraries.
Having succeeded in burning away the effects of lunch, we decided that we deserved a snack. This would be at Forty Hands, a smart—and packed—café that takes its name from the number of people involved in producing a cup of coffee. Along with our brew, we ordered steamed buns, white mounds bursting with the reassuring sweetness of red beans. I noted with amusement the old-fashioned platters and how the napkins were placed in simple but stylish brown paper bags.
Huck recounted that he had tried to find a flat in Tiong Bahru but later opted for another place. This was a smaller complex also by the SIT. It was probably built at about the same time, as suggested by the similarities in design. When Huck subsequently invited me over to his home for dinner, I marveled at his unit’s flowing spaces, wide windows, and numerous balconies.
I smiled when he talked about the advantages of being located right at the tree line. I couldn’t imagine that discussions on the position of a room in relation to the tops of trees would ever figure in a conversation about condominiums in Makati!
Equally unimaginable, of course, is that a housing estate built by the government could merit the honor of being gazetted and deemed deserving of conservation. For the one sad note during what had been a wonderful afternoon discovering Tiong Bahru was that everything I saw reminded me of a tragedy in our own nation’s experience.
No matter how much I tried to shake it off, the curved facades and the streamlined silhouettes I saw in Singapore raised the specter of what we had lost: the Jai Alai Building. To this day it still pains me to recall how this Art Deco jewel was demolished by public officials despite multisectoral protests. Even more painful is the fact that the successor building—the reason for the Jai Alai’s destruction—never even materialized.
Perhaps our best recourse is to really ask ourselves: if the Singaporeans can take care of their heritage resources and put them to such good use, why can’t we? Surely it is not just a matter of money, for financial support can always be generated with a solid business plan. Tiong Bahru has irrevocably shown what enlightened programming can create.
The writer thanks Huck-chin Lim for his assistance. Send comments and questions to email@example.com.