A confluence of cultures and eras

A row of conservation shophouses (above) is juxtaposed against the Pinnacle@Duxton HDB estate as its backdrop.

SINGAPORE - Round wooden tables and stools fill the floor and Chinese paintings line the walls of Ms Vionna Huan's bak kut teh shop on Tanjong Pagar Road.

Office workers and tourists throng the coffee shop-style store for pork bone soup and other local dishes. Ms Huan opened it just two years ago, restarting her father's Xin Mei Le Bak Kut Teh business, which began as a stall in Kallang Airport back in 1969.

Next door in the row of conservation shophouses, bakery cafe Quarter to Three serves sandwiches, coffee and cakes named after Beatles songs.

The cafe's decor is modern and minimalist. Owner Denise Tong says customers are young and drop in for dessert after a trendy Korean barbecue dinner nearby.

These are the two faces of Tanjong Pagar, a historic neighbourhood at the crossroads of a rapidly modernising Singapore.

Tanjong Pagar means "cape of stakes" in Malay, which refers to the wooden kelongs of the once- sleepy fishing village in the 1800s.

Today, it is a hub where Chinatown meets Shenton Way. Elderly residents with memories of sleeping 10 to a room mix with a young, hip crowd. "When you're asked to define Tanjong Pagar, you'll probably have some difficulty," said Mr Cheng Hsing Yao, chief operating officer of private developer GuocoLand Singapore.

A hodgepodge of eateries, watering holes and bridal salons, Tanjong Pagar lies at a confluence of cultures and eras.

This may change in 2016 with GuocoLand's new project, Tanjong Pagar Centre. which will be Singapore's tallest building at 290m. Integrated with Tanjong Pagar MRT station, it will include Grade A offices, a luxury hotel, retail space, apartments and a park.

In the meantime, residents reminisce about the bygone icon of their district, Yan Kit Swimming Complex. Opened in 1952, it was Singapore's second oldest public pool until it closed in 2001.

"We used to take our children swimming there," said Madam Ho Geok Khern, 70, a newspaper vendor who has lived in Tanjong Pagar Plaza for about 30 years.

She added that the area used to be more bustling, with food stalls lining the streets hawking local favourites like popiah and tang yuan. In recent years, Tanjong Pagar has relied on bars and pubs to give it a lively atmosphere.

The 50's is one such establishment. Since its opening in 1994, the lounge, with its leather couches, neon lights and disco balls, has been a haunt for businessmen who go there to listen to singers from China.

Across the street is the sleek WA Bar, which opened two years ago amid a boom in Korean culture. It draws students and workers with its K-pop videos and fusion dishes like bulgogi pizzas.

"I'm crazy over Korean culture," said bank executive Cindy Loye, 31, who goes there for Korean fried chicken five times a week.

Meanwhile, street names in the area like Duxton, Wallich, Yan Kit and Hoe Chiang reveal a colonial past and also pay homage to Chinese merchants.

While Golden Cafe coffee shop in Craig Road sells zi char fare, just around the corner is a row of Western bistros. Mr Jay Soh, manager of Australian wine boutique Merchants, said: "There are fewer sleazy pubs and more niche places like ours coming up."

But Singaporeans, like shipping administrator Josh Hau, 35, avoid them. "I still prefer hawker food," he said. "The new pubs and cafes are too expensive."

The Urban Redevelopment Authority sees Tanjong Pagar as a mixed-use district, conserving historic buildings like Maxwell Chambers and introducing new residences to liven up the commercial area in the evening and on weekends.

Mr Cheng hopes GuocoLand's new centre will make the area a choice destination. "Now, if you want to meet friends, you say, 'Let's go to Orchard or Marina.' You don't say, 'Let's go to Tanjong Pagar.' This project would give it that identity," he said.

joseow@sph.com.sg

yeosamjo@sph.com.sg


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

VIDEOS TO WATCH

SERVICES