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Why Singapore’s insistence on culturally sensitive gentrification is a model for Hong Kong

The Lion City has managed to modernise its old neighbourhoods, while still retaining their traditional charm and character. We look at seven areas that have undergone development without losing their identity

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 October, 2017, 7:16am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 October, 2017, 4:50pm

Say the word “gentrification” and a number of clichés spring to mind: exotic restaurants with cuisine from far-flung places, hipster cafes rendered in minimalistic decor, bars serving craft beer – and the loss of character that defines a place.

In Singapore, however, where modernisation moves at a rapid pace, gentrification has also given many old neighbourhoods a facelift, while leaving their traditional character intact.

“It is only when more people begin to witness the underlying real estate potential of a neighbourhood and start to participate in it that gentrification occurs,” says Yeo Kang Shua, assistant professor of architectural history at Singapore University of Technology and Design.

Economic, market-driven forces are not always driven by property developers, he adds. “A traditional shop owner may give up his business and rent the premises out.”

Preserving the characteristics of a building’s heritage while ensuring its relevance has long been integral to Singapore’s conservation philosophy. One example is a project by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, whose mission is to turn disused spaces into new places of interest and recreation. Baba House was built in the 1890s.

The private residence was restored as a museum showcasing the Peranakan culture of the Straits-born Chinese and opened to the public in 2008.

Initiatives to officially promote a historic district as a trendy, arty area can backfire.

“The Bras Basah precinct in Bugis was always a hive of creativity before the ‘artistic’ label was attached to it. Businesses pertaining to the arts began taking root there. But now that it is officially labelled as an arts enclave, a lot of the street credibility has been snuffed out,” says Carolyn Oei, an independent writer and educator.

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Singapore need not worry too much about being eclipsed by cookie-cutter eateries and bland retail expansion. There continues to be bold and creative use of traditional spaces as well as integration and diversity, thanks to initiatives by the Urban Redevelopment Authority and independent artists and activists.

With an appetite for internationalism and a well-travelled population, old neighbourhoods of Singapore are benefiting from new cuisines and other additions, while preserving their heritage and culture.

Here are seven Singapore neighbourhoods in which gentrification has straddled modernisation and the preservation of tradition.

Tiong Bahru

This is undoubtedly Singapore’s hallmark neighbourhood of gentrification. Tiong Bahru’s art deco residential blocks, old shophouses and green spaces date back to the 1920s.

Apart from chic bakeries and indie bookstore BooksActually, Tiong Bahru has wall murals commissioned by residential committees. The paintings feature designs inspired by the neighbourhood’s heritage and lifestyle, with names such as “Bird Singing Corner”, a gathering spot for bird lovers, and “Pasar and the Fortune Teller”, a lively spot where people queue to have their fortune told.

The neighbourhood also has a designated heritage trail that offers visitors a glimpse into its origins as a burial ground for Cantonese and Hakka communities.

Oei, a long-term resident, says: “Transience is rife in Tiong Bahru and scores of creative professionals including artists, designers and architects have consumed the marrow of the fascinating meld of culture that it offers. Today, the area is thronged with numerous Airbnbs and people don’t live here long enough to be an actual part of the community.”

Jalan Besar

It was mostly swampland in the mid-19th century, but has since been reclaimed. Until the end of the first world war, Jalan Besar was known for betel nut and fruit trees, and a pig slaughterhouse. It was a stronghold of old Chinese clans and religious structures.

The trendy enclave is a good spot for people-watching at its grunge-inspired industrial cafes, including Chye Seng Huat Hardware, in a former hardware store, and The Western Co, a humble looking eatery that serves Swiss raclette cheese. For those with a hankering for history, there are also plenty of art deco and Chinese-baroque-inspired architectural gems to share on Instagram, including the Holy Trinity Church.

Joo Chiat

This neighbourhood has a multicultural influence. Joo Chiat’s mishmash of places of worship include the Masjid Khalid Mosque and Sri Senpaga Vinayagar Temple. The latter, built in the mid-19th century, is situated around rustic flats where the Ceylonese community once raised cattle.

The old neighbourhood is also peppered with five foot ways (covered shophouse pavements), with an eclectic mix of dining options, ranging from traditional Peranakan restaurants and unvarnished Vietnamese cafes to an authentic German rotisserie. Although it was better known for massage parlours and sleazy bars, Joo Chiat has been evolving since the early 2000s into an upscale area of design studios, boutique hotels and restaurants.

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Tanjong Pagar

This fringe-hinterland area of Chinatown is situated close to the harbour and port area, and is where the former terminus of the railway to Malaysia once stood. Now full of restaurants, this neighbourhood used to be an unsavoury part of town, with prostitutes and seedy karaoke lounges and bars. Its less palatable facade faded away when the government initiated urban redevelopment in the 1980s.

The merrymaking now has a more sophisticated face; the neighbourhood is home to foodie haunts ranging from Caribbean cocktail bars to Mexican burrito joints, Italian trattorias and venues dishing up contemporary European molecular gastronomy.

Geylang and Katong

Oddly, the sleazier parts of Singapore today coexist with some of the city’s most famed and favoured food. Neighbouring Geylang and Katong are popular supper spots, with delicacies ranging from frog’s leg porridge to venison kway teow (a thick noodle), and a perennial favourite, Katong laksa, a rich noodle broth made with clams, shrimp, crisp bean curd and coconut milk. In the past decade, the area has become more eclectic, with a new breed of vegan cafes and trendy bars sprouting up.

Another attraction in the neighbourhood – where there are many homes built by wealthy Eurasian and Peranakan communities – is East Coast Park, developed in 1966 on reclaimed land. It’s a popular weekend spot for families looking for an escape from more crowded urban areas.

For more insights into the neighbourhood’s past, read Peter Neville’s 2006 novel The Rose of Singapore, set in the area in the 1950s.

Dempsey Hill

This area is rich in military and political history, but has since been transformed into an upscale congregation of speciality food purveyors.

Dempsey Hill was at one time covered in dense forest. Then, until 1970, it was the site of a British army barracks. The green cluster was also a base for Singapore’s Ministry of Defence and Central Manpower Base until 1989.

Fast-forward to 2017 and you’ll find tastefully conserved former official buildings housing trendy restaurants and open-concept bars such as Tree Lizard, The White Rabbit, La Salsa and CM-PB.

Kampong Glam and Rochor

These adjacent neighbourhoods are situated in Bugis, an enclave predominantly influenced by the Malay community. Kampong Glam is nicknamed “Little Arabia” (or Arab Street) and visitors cannot fail to be impressed by the magnificent Sultan Mosque, ochre-lit at night. Food lovers may also appreciate the mix of regional Muslim restaurants, including cuisines from Turkey, Lebanon and Morocco.

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Rochor has a few quaint establishments operating out of old buildings. One is Singapura Seafood Restaurant, serving up classic dishes from China’s Fuzhou province, including chilled crab, which is steamed then frozen, and wine chicken soup.

Since the 1930s, Rochor had been synonymous with the Thieves’ Market on Sungei Road. The flea market, where vendors don’t pay rent but just set up shop with mats on the ground, was Singapore’s last spot for old-style merchants selling second-hand goods ranging from electronics, to collectible toys and furniture.

The market was relocated this summer to make way for the site’s redevelopment for residential projects. Vendors are currently squatting at open spaces in neighbourhoods including Farrer Park and Jurong West.