Tiong Bahru is one of Singapore’s oldest housing development neighborhoods; an oasis of art deco buildings and culinary discoveries in an area that modern time forgot – until recently.
Once the desired living room of the upper-class, Tiong Bahru became infamous as the keeping place for mistresses of the rich and powerful, lending itself to the Mandarin label Mei Ren Wo (“Den of Beauties”). But the beauty here is not just skin deep; the architecture is also something to behold, with a mix of local Straits Chinese shophouses and art-deco structures with rounded balconies, flat rooftops and spiral staircases still in use today. Kind of like Miami's pre-gentrified South Beach with Chinese characteristics.
All roads in this historic area lead to your foodwalk starting point: the famed Tiong Bahru Market. It’s the epicenter since 1955 of what feels distinctly like a compact village hidden deep within the towering development of the Lion City’s central district. The first self-organized wet market in Singapore, this primarily-morning affair is still seen as a prime example of a well-designed center for excellent food.
Start your walk on the second level hawker center with a helping of chwee kueh at Jian Bo Shui Kueh (stall #02-05). The ladies there will slide tender, steamed rice cakes onto a sheet of paper, plop a dollop of radish sautéed with garlic, soy and herbs on top and slip a heaping spoon of dense, not-too-hot chili in the middle. It’s four for a buck and with just one bite you’ll understand why so many claim this to be the best on the island.
Next, head down-stall to Tiong Bahru Pau (stall #02-18) and supplement breakfast with a fresh-made steamed pork bun, silky prawn dumpling and delicious shiu mai
And if that doesn’t tickle your taste buds, try a plate of roasted meats with rice at Original Tiong Bahru Golden Pig & Roasted (stall #02-68) or nearly any of the other hawkers up there – just look for the longest queue and you can't go wrong.
Downstairs in the wet market, wander the aisles of fish mongers on the far end, their catch neatly iced for maximum freshness. Off to one side comes multiple pork stalls – among the best in town – followed by fresh vegetables, eggs and fruit. On the other side of the market's grassy open courtyard is chicken, fishcakes, more vegetables and stalls of fresh cut orchids and other tropical flowers flashing optic in the morning sun.
As much as you’ll want to stay and enjoy the market, head out the main entrance to the intersection of Seng Poh and Eng Hoon streets. As you look around at the old-school architecture of this town center you may feel drawn to the opposing corner, where excellent curry rice with pork chop has been available since 1946 at Loo’s Hiananese Curry Rice (57 Eng Hoon St. #01-88). But make a left and work off your starter snack by walking down Lim Liak Street, passing orderly rows of low-rise housing, inviting lawns and coconut trees.
At the end, turn left onto Kim Pong Road, strolling along the green open space of Kim Tian Green. If a Chinese holiday is approaching chances are there will be a large theater assembled on the lawns - something worth coming back to in the evening to watch.
As the road curves stay to the right on Yong Siak Street, where you re-enter rows of streamline-moderne flats offering an authentic throwback to neighborhoods of yesteryear, including Teck Kee Leong Huat general store (01-18 Yong Siak St.).
By now it’s time for a coffee or tea, and the groovy Forty Hands coffee shop near the corner of Chay Yan Street (78 Yong Siak St.) is just the place. The vibe is mellow and inviting -- sort of like a Seattle coffee house before that label meant anything -- and the coffee is made with great care and respect for the forty hands required to bring it from seed to brilliant, steaming cup.
Head up to the corner and make a left. You’ll pass the oldest part of Tiong Bahru and the housing projects that inspired the successful HDB development scheme that is now emblematic to Singapore. Hang a right on Guan Chuan, then left down Tiong Poh Road. At the corner of Eng Hoon Street check out ninety year old Qi Tian Gong Temple, Singapore’s oldest temple honoring the Monkey God, who bestows blessings and protection, eliminates bad luck and grants longevity and prosperity.
Stroll around Eng Hoon Street to see a mix of old and new cooking schools, shophouses, ancient sewing supply stores and a specialist egg seller. At the dead-end of the street is Foodie Market Place (225 Outram Rd.) a gourmet store where hard-to-find items, including fine cuts of meat, cheeses and an assortment of imported gourmet products not available in most stores can be found.
Back at Tiong Poh Road turn right, toward the corner of Tiong Poh and Tiong Bahru Road. A quick left onto Tiong Bahru Road brings you to Glacier Confectionery (Blk 55 Tiong Bahru Rd.) for colorful kueh, breads, coconut lapis and other Chinese desserts. You’ll want to sample a few and take home even more.
After sating your sweet tooth, continue along Tiong Bahru Road to Sin Hoi Sai (55 Tiong Bahru Rd.) and survey the live seafood selections for a future cue cha diner feast. It's gone a little Hollywood in recent years, but even local foodie critics admit it's delicious.
At the corner with Seng Poh, cross right to the yellow Tiong Bahru Bird Arena, where old Chinese guys spend early mornings hanging cages of songbirds and then drink kopi while quietly gambling over who's is the most melodic.
By now you may be getting hungry again (as if!), so walk back up Seng Poh toward the market. You'll pass the aforementioned Loo's curry rice joint where, if you didn't try it before, the pork chop curry rice will knock your socks off. But don't have seconds, because your real destination is a couple of short blocks up the street at Old Tiong Bahru Bak Kut The (Blk 58 Seng Poh Rd #01-31) where you should treat yourself to a peppery bowl of thier namesake pork bone soup classic along with a side of succulently braised pig trotter and a pot of gongfu tea – it’s an old neighborhood institution, with a crowd almost anytime of the day, so you know it’s good!
Or head down Seng Poh Lane to Por Kee Eating House (69 Seng Poh Ln.) where, if you find yourself with a small group for lunch or dinner, you should grab a table for some excellent cue char specialties like their coffee ribs (for which they are famous), a plate of crunchy cereal prawns or a steamed fish in a sour broth. Skip the air con dining room and grab an outdoor table by the car park overlooked by spiral staircases of old-school HDB low-rises. Snub-tailed stray cats will wander the lot as cooling breezes flutter your table cloth. Within minutes you'll feel you've left glittering Singapore for somewhere culturally richer.
Tiong Bahru is one of those neighborhoods in Singapore where old and new triangulate into a well-balance blend. She's Asian-old meets neo-bohemian, where you can taste good wines and artesan breads while simultaneously watching the past stand still. And that's one Den of Beauties whose beauty has stood the test of time.
Note: Sadly, Por Kee Eating House turned off the woks and cleared out of the car park forever in late 2013; one of the great food losses of the year....