Exploring Tiong Bahru: What makes this old estate so charming?

PHOTO: Stackedhomes

What makes a place feel like home? Is it that 50-metre infinity pool, the numerous dining pods, or the fact that you have an open roof top patio that overlooks an unblocked view?

Sure, all that's important when it comes to attracting you to buy a home. But what makes you stay, or what truly makes a home is a lot more nuanced than these tangible things.

More often than not, it's the little things of what makes the neighbourhood special to us. 

It may be the friendly neighbourly faces or the familiar sounds and smells from your usual Kopitiam stall? Or the smiles from the uncle selling your favourite afternoon pastries? 

And that's what makes living in different neighbourhoods – say Pasir Ris compared to Clementi, so different from each other.

There are stories of each neighbourhood that tells a unique tale of Singapore that only a resident will be able to endearingly share.  

Which is why in this new series, we attempt to try to capture the essence of a particular neighbourhood through photos.

We'd look to observe living in different areas through a visual diary and what it means to reside in such different neighbourhoods. It may be difficult to depict the true sights and sounds, but I'll try my best to do so in words. 

Our first neighbourhood of choice? Tiong Bahru. 

Tiong Bahru, apart from being widely known as Singapore's first public housing estate, offers its own intricacies that makes it so unique. 

Personally, I have had strong affiliations to this charming neighbourhood since I was a little girl, even though I've never lived there.

My family always had the habit to visit 69 Seng Poh Road for its delicious tze char to celebrate any special occasion – from Father's Day to my aunties' birthdays. 

From time to time in the early 2000s, I accompanied my grandfather on his scooter to Tiong Bahru Market to nab the freshest fish and pork just for my grandma to cook a scrumptious dinner. 

Bird Singing Corner mural by Yip Yew Chong is just beside 69 Seng Poh Lane.
PHOTO: Stackedhomes

But for those who've witnessed its past, Tiong Bahru's current dynamics might come as a surprise.

Allegedly the birthplace of Singapore's booming cafe scene, it is now a strange juxtaposition between old and new, yet still charming and captivating in its own ways. 

Here's a visual tour of what it's like to live in Tiong Bahru. 

Tiong Bahru's unique architecture and built environment 

Many Singaporeans would say that they love the architecture of Tiong Bahru's low-rise flats and shophouses – some might even say that it is the highlight of the neighbourhood. 

Many of the low-rise flats draw inspiration from Art-Deco styles and many features on the buildings were inspired by aeroplanes, ocean liners, trains and automobiles.

Since those modes of transportation were considered revolutionary at that time, architects drew heavy inspiration from the curves of the various modes of automobiles. 

The horse-shoe block, Art Deco Motif along Moh Guan Terrace.
PHOTO: Stackedhomes

Before diving in further to explore its wonderful built environment, it's perhaps prudent to first understand what the name Tiong Bahru even means.

Tiong refers to 'end' in the Chinese Hokkien dialect, and Bahru means 'new' in Malay – together, it means 'new cemetery' since the place used to be a burial ground. 

Although it's no longer a burial ground, the neighbourhood was crucial to Singapore's housing system pre-and post-war. 

Curved sun shades and vents for natural ventilation along Moh Guan Terrace to curb Singapore's weather.
PHOTO: Stackedhomes
Unique curved windows with iconic fair-faced brickwork features along Tiong Poh Road.
PHOTO: Stackedhomes

The built environment stands out from the typical skyscrapers, that's for sure.

But I guess what makes living in these walk-up apartments special is in its details – the exterior spiral staircases, courtyards, kitchen air-wells, curved facades and how some blocks are shaped as a horseshoe.  

A bulk of the designs were not just purely aesthetic, the units were meant to acclimatise to Singapore's harsh tropical weather.

Natural ventilation was built into flats, some units have sun shades at their windows to reduce the glare, and windows were made of green glass to polarise the afternoon sun and provide a certain extent of privacy. 

Iconic external spiral staircases along Chay Yan Street – a superb spot for street photography.
PHOTO: Stackedhomes

Every bend you see a new interpretation of a Tiong Bahru shophouse and along each different street, you'll see something distinct that sets them apart from each other.

It could be the tiles or the curvatures from the windows or even the art murals that make each and every lane special.   

Art-deco style windows give the facade a unique character.
PHOTO: Stackedhomes

Here's a history fun fact – the Tiong Bahru estate was colloquially known as mei ren wo or "den of beauties" in Mandarin in its early years.

Due to its proximity to Great World City and the entertainment industry, the neighbourhood used to house many mistresses of Singapore's rich men.

Although the demographic has evolved drastically over the decades, past stories like these make living in Tiong Bahru all the more interesting. 

I had the pleasure of revisiting Tiong Bahru again just to write this piece and I love how the neighbourhood is so vibrant with trees, greenery and colourful flowers.

Dangling planters from the residents and huge potted birds-of-paradise can be spotted from several units, making me feel that there's a strong sense of love for the place from the residents. 

Naturally ventilated balconies along Moh Guan Terrace with hanging plants.
PHOTO: Stackedhomes

I've always wondered why are there so many curved corners on the building facades, and it turns out that these smooth edges were inspired by a ship's bridge, whereas the long horizontal vertical lines were associated with planes. 

For those who spot elements such as stainless steel railings and round porthole windows, they drew heavy inspiration from nautical elements. 

It was also fascinating to see how there are different motifs on the window grilles, doors and gates – all in various forms and colours but somehow blend so well together and evidence that the young and old co-exist in this little neighbourhood very well together.

Nostalgic flower-patterned window grilles that showcase Singapore's vibrant past  Nostalgic gate grille at the back alleyways.
PHOTO: Stackedhomes
Nostalgic gate grille at the back alleyways.
PHOTO: Stackedhomes
Modern, clean and westernised front door is a stark difference from older gate grilles.
PHOTO: Stackedhomes

Gentrification has had its fair share in transforming the neighbourhood even during pre-war and post-war times, but the current usage of Tiong Bahru is perhaps the most interesting. 

Naturally, this attracted a whole different dynamics of people to want to live in such a special neighbourhood in Singapore. Conserved shophouses now house art galleries, vinyl stores and the delicious scent of fresh French bakes.

Take a quick look on the online property portals and you'd see what I mean too. More often than not, the listings showcases home with eclectic design, each in a different distinctive style from another. 

My highlight of Tiong Bahru is most definitely the Lim Liak HDB side. These predominantly white HDB blocks have a very nostalgic essence that reminds me of the 90s. 

PHOTO: Stackedhomes

The simple porthole windows flushed against the luscious green background make the whole place feel very aesthetically pleasing for some reason – this brings back to my point on the architectural inspirations based on nautical elements. 

PHOTO: Stackedhomes

You'll see the residents climbing up and down the stairs (since there are no lifts) and it's a very different sight as compared to the typical sky-high HDBs that we're more used to seeing.

To be sure, it isn't the most practical. Other than it being inconvenient for the elderly, on days with heavy rain you'd still need an umbrella to walk up even though it is sheltered. 

Exploring Tiong Bahru in the day 

PHOTO: Stackedhomes

If you ask an auntie what to do in Tiong Bahru, she'd probably direct you to Tiong Bahru Market to either try the many food stalls on the second floor (I personally love the Hainanese Curry Rice) or do your grocery shopping for the freshest ingredients at the wet market on the first floor. 

Main entrance of Tiong Bahru Market – wet market on the first floor and up the escalators to the food court.
PHOTO: Stackedhomes
Beautiful peacock mural on the stairways of Tiong Bahru Market – so vibrant! 
PHOTO: Stackedhomes

If you ask a younger person, chances are they'll share with you the many aesthetically pleasing cafes to get the best bakes and coffee in the neighbourhood and fitness studios to break in a sweat. 

It's a constantly bustling neighbourhood, that's for sure. 

Man appreciating Tiong Bahru in the afternoon – look at the textures of the plants!
PHOTO: Stackedhomes

During my visit there (it was around 9am on a Wednesday morning), I noticed that there were many younger people walking their furry friends around the neighbourhood and cycling with their cool bicycles. 

A couple enjoy pints of beer in the hot Singapore weather.
PHOTO: Stackedhomes

Otherwise, these younger folks would have already found a seat in their favourite cafe or are typing away on their laptops. 

PHOTO: Stackedhomes

I visited Plain Vanilla to indulge in a cupcake during my visit and was surprised to see that both outdoor and indoor seatings were already full, mainly occupied by solo diners working on their iPad or laptops – and that's a glimpse into Singapore's cafe culture. 

Iconic green store facade along Seng Poh Lane.
​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes
​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes

Each store has its own aesthetic – this is something you'd quickly notice when touring around. I don't think there's ever a boring storefront. Just look at the artistic (yet functional) installation outside of Mewtants and Woof.

I passed by the famous Tiong Bahru Community Centre and saw a couple taking their wedding shots with their photographer there. 

​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes

Like any decent person, I congratulated them on tying the knot and found out that they actually met at Tiong Bahru, which is why they chose to take their wedding photos at the place they first encountered each other. Full circle! 

The usually occupied basketball court in Tiong Bahru CC.
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Beautiful red bricks used in Tiong Bahru CC.
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I too, visited several other famous cafes – the unmistakable Tiong Bahru Bakery, Merci Marcel and Prive. Although not packed but definitely many regulars were enjoying their breakfast and coffee before heading about their day. 

Visit Tiong Bahru Bakery for amazing croissants.
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Diners enjoying breakfast at Prive.
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Lovely storefront of Prive mixed with signature motifs of Tiong Bahru's shophouses.
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Don't miss out touring the back alleyway of these shophouses too – you might chance upon cool-looking doors, colourful walls or art murals. 

Black- and magnolia-coloured back doors to give a pop of muted colour.
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Eye-catching orange doors.
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A back alleyway lined with greenery.
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The Pasar and The Fortune Teller mural by Yip Yew Chong – depiction of life in yesteryear Tiong Bahru.
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Mural showcases street peddler selling putu mayam.
​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes

By 10am, most of the other stores were opening one by one and that's when the roads start to get busier too. 

Enjoy traditional breakfast at Hua Bee Restaurant, which has been running for more than 70 years.
​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes
Traditional upholstery services at Yong Huat Upholstery.
​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes

Next up on the tour was the Tiong Bahru Market and the HDBs nearby.

There were many more middle-aged folks and elderly choosing to enjoy breakfast with their spouse, friends or solo on the second level while the first floor was bustling with merchants selling fresh flowers, fish, pork and other poultry and customers haggling over prices. 

Local friends enjoying brunch at Tiong Bahru Market's hawker centre.
​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes
Tiong Bahru Market: Surprise a loved one with handpicked flowers from Tiong Bahru Florist.
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Tiong Bahru Market: Traditional market vendor store selling shoes.
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Tiong Bahru Market: Pick out fresh fruits from your friendly fruit vendors.
​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes

The elderly were seen sitting on public benches and what seems to be people-watching. In the HDB area, I saw several uncles in white singlets walking around and watering the plants which seemed to be a routine for them.  

Elderly man walking through an abundance of greenery along Seng Poh HDB.
​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes
Dangling potted plants and unsecured bicycles – evidence of a quaint & trusted community
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Tiong Bahru is big on plants and greenery.
​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes
​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes
The Beautiful Lim Liak HDB – iconic porthole grills and curved staircase column. See the five-foot walkway too. 
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Mini court behind Lim Liak HDB 
​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes
Tiong Bahru is big on plants and greenery.
​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes

Compared to the cafe-centric part of Tiong Bahru, this had much more nostalgic and somewhat familiar sights and sounds that reminded me of my days as a little girl. 

And of course, how can we forget the iconic Tiong Bahru bird corner? 

Conserved bird corner part of Tiong Bahru Heritage Tour.
​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes
​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes

This spot has been around since the 60s and used to have the influence of gathering all the bird lovers in Singapore (even Malaysia and Thailand!).

These bird enthusiasts used to admire each others' birds by hanging the cages on these strips and enjoying coffee at the nearby coffee shop. In fact, the Tiong Bahru Bird corner was the idea of the coffee shop owner to rake in more business. 

Although it is past its prime, this preserved spot serves as a core reminder of Singapore's past heritage. 

And finally, we end the day tour with Tiong Bahru Park. 

Get onboard the famous Tilting Train playground in Tiong Bahru Park.
​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes

I'd suppose that the children would find this playground exceptionally fun – just look at the Tilting Train! A great and inexpensive way to spend a few hours with your kids under the sun. 

​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes

The park has several pavilions for a shelter to rest in when the weather gets too hot. Generally, the space is very quiet and serene, to the point that I almost forgot that I'm in the midst of Singapore's city region. 

​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes

A friend who stays in the neighbourhood once told me that the French expatriate community absolutely adores the neighbourhood and many of them are occupying the flats within Tiong Bahru. 

Since not many of them own a car, they choose to cycle around to get to their destinations and their bikes parked outside of the walk-up apartments seem to be evidence of it. 

Exploring Tiong Bahru at night 

​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes
​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes

Tiong Bahru at night is much more toned-down as compared to during the day, and the people coming by are there for different things.

Drinks, great food, and a more muted nightlife (as compared to other spots in Singapore like Orchard or Clark Quay). 

​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes
​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes

Unlike touring around the neighbourhood during the day, most of the streets transform to a different kind of vibrance once the sun has set – it almost feels like touring an entirely different neighbourhood. 

Neon lights lit up dim alleyways and popular restaurants will see lines of people queuing up just to try its delicacies. At this time, there are more younger people roaming around compared to in the day. 

​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes

Most of the streets (save for those along popular restaurants) are empty and many of the residents would have come home, as seen from their lit windows. 

​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes

Restaurant wise, I personally would highly recommend giving this Chinese restaurant called Por Kee Eating House along 69 Seng Poh Lane a shot, though I might be biased since I grew up eating there.

My boyfriend, on the other hand, would like to highly recommend Ting Heng Seafood Restaurant since he grew up eating there. Our compromise is usually De Golden Spoon at 62 Seng Poh Lane. 

​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes

Even on weekday nights, the open-air carparks are mostly full because of the people who would come down specifically to have dinner at the various restaurants. 

The newer establishments, such as The Butcher's Wife (I've tried their gluten-free menu and it is quite good), P.S. Cafe and Lin Rooftop Bar are extremely popular options for dates or social gatherings.

​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes

Tiong Bahru, at night, tells a completely different story than it does in the day. However, it's no less appealing and still a gem to discover.  

What to expect when living in Tiong Bahru

Location

Situated in District Three, Tiong Bahru is located nearby to Singapore's city centre and Central Business District (CBD), though its charm would probably make you forget you're even in the city.

Due to its charming architecture and dynamics, you'd get people from all over Singapore visiting the area and foreigners touring around the space. 

Public transport

Commuting via public transport is relatively convenient since there are many bus routes and bus stops that service the neighbourhood. 

Bus stop Bus services Distance from Tiong Bahru Market
Blk 2b 5, 16, 16M, 75, 121, 123, 175, 195, 970 280m, three-min walk 
Blk 1 5, 16, 16M, 33, 33A, 63, 122, 123, 123M, 195, 851 110m, one-min walk 
Ctrl Green Condo 5, 16, 16M, 33, 63, 63A, 121, 122, 123, 123M, 195, 195A, 851 550m, seven-min walk 
Blk 55 5, 16, 16M, 33, 63, 63A, 75, 121, 122, 123, 175, 195, 195A, 851, 970 180m, two-min walk 
Ganges Ctr 51, 64, 121, 186 900m, 11-min walk 

Alternatively, a nine-minute walk from Tiong Bahru Market will get you to the Tiong Bahru MRT Station, which is also a great mode of transportation. 

Being on the East-West line, residents can pop over to hotspots like Bugis MRT (connected to Downtown Line), City Hall (connected to North-South Line) or Outram Park (connected to North-East line and Thomson-EC line) in less than 10-minutes. 

The only downside though, you’d probably have to walk without a shelter to get to these bus stops or train station. 

Driving

Aside from the sole multi-storey carpark located beside Tiong Bahru Market, most parking lots are on the street levels either in open-air car parks or alongside pathways.

This means that there are not many lots and often you’d see most occupied, especially on busy weekends. 

Don’t let that deter you as residents have their own allocated ‘resident-only’ lots. They are generally not sheltered, though.

Destination Distance from Tiong Bahru Market (Off-peak timings) 
Orchard Road 3.2km, five-min drive 
Fullerton Road  3.9km, six-min drive 
Victoria Street  5.9km, nine-min drive 
Harbourfront Walk  3.9km, six-min drive 
Bukit Timah Road  6.6km, nine-min drive 
Clark Quay 3.4km, five-min drive 
Chinatown 3.3km, five-min drive 
Changi Airport  24km, 20-min drive 

Driving to other parts of Singapore from Tiong Bahru is also extremely convenient since its location is so central.

Once again, we used Tiong Bahru Market as the main point to determine travelling times.

However, do note that travel timings were recorded during off-peak periods so get ready to wait in traffic for a bit during busier hours. 

Shopping malls

Shopping mall Distance from Tiong Bahru Market 
Tiong Bahru Plaza 750m, three-min drive 
Concorde Shopping Centre 1.2km, four-min drive 
Great World City 1.7km, three-min drive 
Orchard Central  3.4km, five-min drive 
The Centrepoint  3.7km, six-min drive 
Takashimaya Shopping Centre  3.1km, five-min drive 
Ion  3.4km, five-min drive 
313@Somerset  3.5km, six-min drive 
Tanglin Shopping Centre  4km, six-min drive 
Tanglin Mall  3.7km, five-min drive 
Chinatown Point  3.3km, five-min drive 
Clark Quay Central  3.1km, six-min drive 

There’s no doubt that the variety of shopping malls within a four-kilometre distance of Tiong Bahru Market is great – with popular shopping options like Ion being less than a 10-min drive away. 

One thing that I truly love about Tiong Bahru’s location is that it has an amazingly central location but life there is away from all the hustle and bustle that one might usually associate with living in the city.

For me, I think the vicinity to these lifestyle options is one of the neighbourhood’s key selling points.

Grocery shopping

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Tiong Bahru Market will be a great option for those who are looking to purchase extremely fresh ingredients and don’t mind breaking a sweat while jostling around with other shoppers!

Not only does it truly show a fragment of Singapore’s way of commerce in the past, but there’s always that community feel about shopping in the local markets that you just don’t get at a supermarket. 

However, for those who’re looking for air-conditioned grocery shops, there are two FairPrice outlets in the vicinity, namely at Tiong Bahru Plaza and Kim Tian Road. 

Schools

School  Distance from Tiong Bahru Market (Off-Peak Period) 
Superland Preschool (Outram)  1.1km, three-min drive 
Superland Preschool (Ganges)  1.5km, three-min drive 
EtonHouse Preschool (Robertson Walk)  2.7km, four-min drive 
EtonHouse International School Orchard 4.1km, six-min drive 
EtonHouse International Preschool Claymore 4.5km, seven-min drive 
Chinese Kindergarten  1.1km, three-min drive 
MapleBear Havelock  1.8km, four-min drive 
Hampton Preschool (Tanjong Pagar)  850m, three-min drive 
Zhangde Primary School  1km, three-min drive 
Alexandra Primary School  1.8km, four-min drive 
CHIJ (Kellock)  2.6km, five-min drive 
Radin Mas Primary School  2.3km, four-min drive 
River Valley Primary School  2.6km, five-min drive 
Cantonment Primary School  2.6km, five-min drive 
CHIJ St Theresa’s Convent  2.6km, five-min drive 
Gan Eng Seng School  1.8km, four-min drive 
Crescent Girls’ School  2.7km, five-min drive 
Outram Secondary School  1.7km, three-min drive 
Bukit Merah Secondary School  2.5km, five-min drive 
Queenstown Secondary School  2.9km, five-min drive 
SOTA  4.2km, six-min drive 
SMU  4km, seven-min drive 
LASALLE College of the Arts  4.8km, eight-min drive 
Duke-NUS Medical School  1.6km, three-min drive 
Murdoch University Singapore  1.6km, three-min drive 
Ascensia International School  2km, four-min drive 
Knightsbridge House International School  2.1km, four-min drive 
Astor International School  2.8km, five-min drive 

Options for schools across all education levels are aplenty within Tiong Bahru's vicinity, which is great news for families with schooling kiddos. D

o note that the travel times are estimated based on off-peak hours so be sure to account for the traffic during regular conditions. 

Future upgrading plans

It's exciting to see what's installed for Tiong Bahru in the next decade. After all, it looked rather different 10 years ago from today.

However, I'd say that the overall aesthetic of the neighbourhood wouldn't see too much of a deviation since the government has strict and sensitive plans in place to conserve the unique facade and zoning of Tiong Bahru. 

According to the URA Master Plan 2014, some of the more notable upgrades to the area include: 

  • The recent opening of the Outram Community Hospital has made Tiong Bahru's vicinity a medical hotspot.
  • Together with the National Heart Centre, The Academia and Singapore General Hospital, I guess that'll be quite impactful to the neighbourhood in the long run. 
  • Perhaps the more exciting news, Havelock MRT Station which is serviced by the Thomson-East Coast Line is stipulated to operate soon. 
  • There'll be a new cycling network to link the city with other estates 
  • More supply of condo housing in the area 

Downsides of living in Tiong Bahru 

As much as living in Tiong Bahru might seem like a unique experience that you can't find anywhere else in Singapore, there are downsides to living in an older neighbourhood - let's explore them.  

Getting around is tough during rainy days

Many times I visited Tiong Bahru in the past, I recalled that those especially rainy days did not make my visit all that enjoyable.

This was because most parts of the neighbourhood were not sheltered and pathways were mainly subjected to the wills of the weather. 

For residents who have to get around either to the bus stops, MRT station or their personal vehicles, it'll be quite problematic during rainy days (not to mention the extremely slippery floors too). An umbrella is essential! 

Older pipes and building facades 

Since the estate is much older, homebuyers would have to be prepared to fork out a bit more in their budget to repair the older fixtures, such as pipes, walls, windows, gates, tiles and flooring. A major uphaul would be required for most units for the space to be move-in ready. 

Strict requirements to adhere to

Seeing that we are dealing with conserved shophouses, URA heavily emphasizes on the need to apply for permits and clearance when it affects the shophouse's facade.

This means that homeowners will have restrictions on the types of upgrading they could perform. 

Not wheelchair-friendly

Due to its hilly terrains, Tiong Bahru has many steps, slopes and stairs that connect the various pathways and lanes, making the neighbourhood generally pretty wheel-chair unfriendly.

My grandparents have also decided against visiting the Tiong Bahru wet market as of late as it's very inconvenient for them to go about in their wheelchairs. 

For those who might be concerned with this mobility restriction, this neighbourhood might not be too functional.

Final thoughts

​​​​​​PHOTO: Stackedhomes

As one of Singapore's most beloved neighbourhoods, Tiong Bahru has been through countless changes and played an impactful role in shaping our city's future HDBs.

After having the opportunity to re-appreciate the neighbourhood, one thing I deeply value about Tiong Bahru is that its principle design was meant to encourage interactions between neighbours – an important lesson for our future housing in Singapore.  

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Welcome to the million-dollar club: 4-room flat in Tiong Bahru sold for $1.158m

To be able to have ownership over such an important fabric of Singapore's history is priceless, and so is the lifestyle that this quaint neighbourhood so genuinely offers.

Tiong Bahru might not be for everyone, but for those who appreciate a bit of character, an interesting background story and a community of warm faces, it sure does leave quite an impression. 

Be it the location, the amenities and the endearing architecture, I wholeheartedly hope that Tiong Bahru can maintain its essence for many more years to come.

What makes Tiong Bahru such a special place to live in isn't just one specific item – it's the combination of people, stories, architecture, amenities and its charming lifestyle. 

This article was first published in Stackedhomes.