Architecture and culture

(Source: Tiong Bahru, Infopedia, National Library Archives)
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. 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. Architects involved in the design of Tiong Bahru estate included Lincoln Page, Robert F. N. Kan and A. G. Church.

The design of the flats was based on a modified shophouse plan featuring rounded balconies, exterior spiral staircases, courtyards, and air-wells while combining privacy and aspects of a modern apartment.

The layout of the estate incorporated open spaces and emphasised small neighbourhoods. The pre-war flats circled a communal zone that included a market and hawker centre, coffee shops, a pet shop and a Chinese temple. 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.

In its early years, Tiong Bahru estate gained the colloquial tag of mei ren wo or “den of beauties” in Mandarin because it housed many mistresses of rich men, as well nightclub singers and hostesses working in the nearby Keong Saik red-light district and Great World Cabaret. The pre-war flats were also called puay kee chu or “aeroplane houses” in Hokkien, as their design resembled that of the control tower at Kallang Airport.

In 2005, Tiong Bahru estate appeared in scenes of Be With Me, a movie by local filmmaker Eric Khoo. In 2010, the short film Civic Life: Tiong Bahru featured residents of the area and the relationship between the community and the environment.