Monday, August 18, 2008

“Tiong Ma-Lu” as the Cantonese would say - By Peter Chan

Today’s pre-war Tiong Bahru Estate is different from my time. It is very colorful because there are enclaves of Chinese temples, dormitories for South Indian foreign workers, Filipina nurses working at the nearby Singapore General Hospital, YAMCs (Young Adult Married Couples), Chinese restaurants, and wine bars among the owner-occupied houses. Lately it has served as the backdrop for film producers such as “Sayang Sayang” (circa 2008) on Mediacorp 5 and Eric Khoo’s “Be With Me” movie (circa 2005). I have also seen Medicorp 8 serials using the backlanes off Seng Poh Road and Tiong Poh Road as back-drops.

My grandfather moved in from Tras Street to the pre-war SIT flats in late 1937. Incidentally the original house at Tras Street still stands and renamed as the Acclaim House. The Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) flats were built and offered for rent by the British Colonial Government. In 1966 the HDB, in the first acid test for public home-ownership, offered the SIT flats for sale to the existing tenants. I understand there were many criticisms and grouses from the ground and it prompted the speedy intervention of the then Prime Minister. Many took up the government offer for alternative public housing but our family took up the government offer. We paid S$20,000 for our flat.

For some people, Tiong Bahru area is an area bounded by the CTE, Yong Siak Street, Kim Pong Road and Tiong Bahru Road. For me my best recollection is on the Pre-war SIT housing. I guess it is due to my observations as a child who grew to adulthood and the stories that were told to us by our forefathers.

Fig 1: Seng Poh Road (circa 1953) viewed from Tiong Bahru Road. The empty grassland would be the future post-war SIT flats. The Chinese temple was on the left. The Seng Poh Road Wet Market had not been built yet. According to my father, the wet market ground was occupied by squatters who grew tapioca during the war-years. Is the landscape the same today?

My soft-spoken grandfather was an ARP (Air Raid Protection) warden at the onset of WW2 and loved to tell us “grandfather stories”. Promptly on a Saturday at 5 pm, he brought his grandchildren on a heritage tour. There was a string of us walking and laughing; the older ones holding the hands or piggy-back the younger ones (youngest was 2 years of age), as we walked down the corridor of the pre-war SIT flats. I believe this experience is one reason for our close bonding till today even down to the level of our children. By the way if you thought that we were “hum sup”, I like to point out that Tiong Bahru pre-war SIT ground floor flats have bedroom windows that face the main street. A slight breeze blows the curtains wide open. We saw the air raid shelter at Block 78 and the spots where sandbags lined the streets. My grandfather pointed-out to us where the first Japanese bombs landed on the pre-war SIT flats; funny thing many did not explode after landing on the flat roof-top. The Japanese bombs landed in Tiong Bahru Estate because they missed their target at the Singapore General Hospital.

Fig 2: Singapore General Hospital’s A&E Department which was replaced by the National Cancer Center

Fig 3: Behind the bus-stop was the Sook Ching “Desk” during WW2

Eng Hoon Street does have a bit of history. It was the path taken by the retreating Australian and Indian soldiers when Singapore was about to fall to the Japanese in February 1942. My grandfather told me the soldiers took off their uniforms and helmets, and threw away their medals on the street before heading towards Cantonment Road. The kids picked up the left-overs but soon threw it away because the Japanese soldiers entered Eng Hoon Street to set-up a Sook Ching “Desk”. After the war, it was the street that sick patients from all parts of Tiong Bahru Estate walked all the way through College Road to get to “Say Pai Por” A&E Department.

For some reason, the Cantonese group was the dominant group at Eng Hoon Street since 1937. The Hokkiens and Teochews, the Cantonese being the minority, in other parts of the Tiong Bahru Estate. So we conversed in Cantonese with our immediate neighbours. This all changed after 1966 when other dialectical groups moved in. At one time our immediate neighbour was the Chinese comedian Wong Sar, the “Skinny One”; he was Teochew-speaking. The Cantonese families felt the other dialectical groups were “loud-mouth” but for me I found Teochew girls especially better looking than the others.


pinto said...

Thanks for the post, Peter. Filled with your always colourful anecdotes. =)

yg said...

peter, was the king's theatre called 'suan kiong' in hokkien and popular with the chinese movie goers?

Lam Chun See said...

Yes. King's was also called Sim Kong in Cantonese.

Icemoon said...

Those aeroplane towers!!

Actually I'm a bit confused how to identify the pre-war SIT flats from their post-war cousins.

I guess to a layman like me, the best clue is their height. The pre-war flats are like 2 storeys? I remember the notorious SIT flat at Smith Street also around that height.

The post-war ones come in different shapes and sizes. Not all of them are five storeys, i.e. "gor-lau".

Icemoon said...

Is Tiong Ma-Lu a Cantonese label?

I mean, isn't "Tiong" Hokkien??

Then I guess they change Bahru (new) to Ma-Lu (road)?

Icemoon said...

I also read that Tiong Bahru had Singapore's first community centre at Tiong Poh/Seng Poh road in 1948. Will be nice to hear stories about that.

Victor said...

Cantonese, like my mum, would call Tiong Bahru as "Chong Ba Lu".

There are not many old places left in Singapore that haven't changed much since the 1950s. That's probably why so many shows about old Singapore have a scene or two featuring Tiong Bahru.

I read somewhere that Eric Khoo's Mee Pok Man also filmed one of the old coffeeshops there that actually has an old-time mee pok stall.

Anonymous said...

I once heard in Cantonese the pronounciation of TIONG MA LOW; similar to Victor's case.

How to differentiate between pre-war and post-war SIT? From the outside view, simple - the staircase. One is "buil-in" and the other "built-out".

Internal view could be difficult unless you can gain access or lived there long enough. Here are some basic rules: 1. air well - in the old days cleaning was a problem because there was no water supply and needed water from ground floor units. Also a very dirty place because neighbours above threw things downstairs as if it was a rufuse bin center, 2. narrow corridor from living room to kitchen or toilets. Sometimes must passed through another room which is usually turned into a bedroom to get to the kitchen. 3. In the old days, kitchen area had chimneys. You can still see the chimneys at the roof-top although no longer in use. 4. Ground floor units have a backyard. 5. Original windows had vertical grills and dark green window glass that 80-90% reflect light. I heard one new owner of a post-war flat paid $2K for a "original window glass" when I saw it and was sure it was not the case. But how to tell someone without hurting his feelings?

I am not sure which year the CC was built at Eu Chin Street but I know that basketball and table tennis were popular sports among the Chinese-educated. English-educated played football and badminton sports. Actually from what I heard from my grandfather, the CC was originally meant to be a garage but somehow after the war they changed the plans. You can recognise its shape of the building/rooftop similar to the garages.

Anonymous said...

I heard this name in Cantonese. SHIN KUNG - not sure referred to Sky cinema in Great World or Kings. One time I saw the movie "King of Kings" at King's Cinema - not sure which year.

Actually Tiong Bahru residents were spoilt for choice when it comes to cinema in the old dyas. 4 cinemas in Great World, 1 in Kim Tian, 3 or 4 in Chinatown. One could take bus or walk. Bus fare 5 cents only, children free.

Anonymous said...

Actually there is one more differntiator between post-war and pre-war SIT. You cna test this out even today. Try buying an a/c and installing it in the bedroom. In the old days, the contractor took 2 days to hack the wall but took 1/2 day for post-war. The reason simple - post-war had 2 layer of bricks side by side to form the width of the wall (in between were mortar and a black metallic gauze to hold the bricks together) where as today builders use "hollow block" or 1 thin piece of red brick and plaster with mortar and sometimes fill the gaps with newspaper.

yg said...

ma-lu in malay means ashamed, shy or embarrassed.

Lam Chun See said...

Photo no. 1 of Seng Poh Rd shd make a pretty simple Second Shot assignment for Icemoon. Game?

By the way, do you notice the Outram Prison in the 1963 map?

Icemoon said...

I think Victor will have covered the assignment by the time I am there - he is cavalry remember?

I "like" Outram Prison, because of its WWII heritage. The Rimau heroes were imprisoned there before their execution.

Icemoon said...

I read that the cc was originally an air raid shelter?! Then they converted it into a canteen.

I've seen a photo of the cc. The facade and roof look like a semi-circle from the front. However I've not been to the actual building before. Not sure whether it still exists and how it looks today, haha.

Icemoon said...

yj, you mean they change a Malay word (bahru) to another Malay word (malu)? Haha.

Anonymous said...

"Operation Rimau" POWS were kept in Outram Prison but executed somewhere else. If u go to Dover Road where there is a school behind the CALTEX Station. Before they raised the ground to street level with North Buona Vista Road, it was a depression and a field used by the nearby British Army units. This was the site where 23 Australian and British commandos were executed.

yg said...

icemoon, i don't think it is a case of substituting one malay word for another but more a case of mispronouncing it such that the unintended result is a word which sounds like another malay word.

Icemoon said...

I guess I'm also confused. Maybe Peter can enlighten us. Is it:

1. Malu (unintended result)


2. Ma-lu (马路)

Or is there a third option?

Victor said...

Icemoon, I will let you have first shot at the second shot, I mean have the second shot first. Boy, now I am confused. :p

BTW, the SIT flat in Smith Street was a 4-storey block. My late aunt used to live there. There is a photo in this post which shows the Smith Street SIT block partially in the background. (See the photo of the fish monger.)

Icemoon said...

Oh no, which one to cover first? The Jurong Line or Tiong Bahru?? Chun See has already reached Penjuru Road leh!

I'm pretty sure the pre-war SIT at Smith Street was a 2-storey block. I look at such pictures day and night, so I couldn't be wrong. I even uploaded it for you -

Icemoon said...

Oh wait! I think I might be wrong. I think I can see the staircase access. It looks at least three storey to me now. Strange, there are only two storey of windows leh.

Lam Chun See said...

Actually the Chinese writing for Tiong Bahru is 中ba鲁. The writing for ba is as for Bali the Indon island (山on top, and 合 below). But don't know why I cannot output it on pc). You can refer to street directory.

So the Cantonese pronunciation 'malu' is actually not a Cantonese pronunciation of the Chinese words but rather a mis-pronunciation of the English; as in kopi how.

Lam Chun See said...

Icemoon. You better catch up with me on the Jurong Line, otherwise you 'malu':)

Anonymous said...

Icemoon - Smith Street preww2 SIT flats was built at the same time with the one in Tiong Bahru. The photo you have was the Kempetai torture chamber which you find more details in the "Double-Tenth Trial"

I must admit I do not know the origin of "Tiong Ma Lu" except to say that all Cantonese people who lived there called it that way. When you see a Hokkien he calls it a different way. But I was told that many Teochews and Hokkiens took the Cantonese way of pronunciation because the Cantonese was then the dominant dialect.
There is also another story why they call it "Tiong Ma Lu" (from my grandmother) to differentiate this "modern estate" from the squatters who lived between main Tiong Bahru Road and Boon Tiong Road. I was told the squatters were mainly Hokkiens who lived at the fringe of the old cemetery grounds before Tiong Bahru was converted into public housing. It seems that Tiong Bahru Estate was once Cantonese burial ground, Hokkiens at Jalan Membina Barat area.

Maybe someone interested can do further research to "clear the air" because these were the stories that were told to us as kids.

Anonymous said...

I mentioned in my article that there was an open space where the Seng Poh Road Market now sits. After WW2, the Hokkien squatters occupied that place and made it a mess, growing tapioca. The Cantonese people were not happy that they had to go to "Ngau Cher Sheun" (Smith Street, Temple Street) for their wet marketing needs. So they petitioned the colonial government to build the original Seng Poh Road Market which was a one storey concrete building, again curved shape like the garage architecture. In later years the Seng Poh Road Market was extended to cater for the hawker stalls and small retailers. One end of the building was an office cum street cleaners department (side of the market corner nearer to Lim Liat/Seng Poh Road junction Street).

Anonymous said...

i spotted my mistake. Pre-war flats were built with 2 layers of bricks; side by side...unlike post-war.

Gilbert said...

Hi, do u have any old photos of selegie road and bras basah road?

Victor said...

Icemoon, your Flickr photo looks more like an SIT flat in Tiong Bahru to me. The SIT flat in Smith Street definitely had 4 storeys. I used to visit her quite often with my late mum.

Victor said...

Icemoon, did you mean the 3-storey SIT flat at the far end of this photo of Smith Street? My aunt's flat was the 4-storey block in the foreground.

Lam Chun See said...

It looks like in the 2007 directory, they have changed the Chinese writing to an easier word. Now it's 中巴鲁。

Anonymous said...

The corner of Smith Street and new Bridge Road had those pre-war SIT flats - similar in design to the ones in any corner block in Tiong Bahru pre-war SIT. Now pulled down. Your aunty's one looks more modern and slightly different.

Anonymous said...

Just recalled that the shop at the corner of Seng Poh Road and Eng Hoon Street was SEE HENG.

On either the second or third level, the entire family was killed when the Japanese dropped bombs in Tiong Ma-lu. The deceased were having their dinner that night when the bombs sharpnels came through the windows. A small bomb crater was created in the backyard of #73 Eng Hoon Street

My auntie who's in her late 70s recently reminded me the same stories which our grandfather had told us when we were kids. These were the only known incidents in that area during the outbreak of the WW2.

preston loon said...

Is there someone out there who has
any insight on NAM TIN Cabaret in
Chinatown.I would like to know what
was going on inside that night joint.

peter said...

u buy a ticket and have a dance with the carbaret girl, no hanky panky like "under the table" as in Joo Chiat Road or "touch here and there" as in Paramount Shopping Center.

Anonymous said...

Nam Tin was a high class night club back then. If my dad was still alive, he probably could enlighten you on that...hahaha. He was a regular then.

Although pronounced in Cantonese accent, but it is actually Hokkien.

Anonymous said...

yg, yes, the hokkiens call it 'Suan Kiong' for King's theatre.

I grew up there.

Remember in those days, there would print & distribute A4 size pamphlets promoting coming movies. These pamphlets are all mono color either in all blue or all red, or all green. Show some scenes of the movies, a short synopsis of plot, names of cast, all in monotone...


Also noted the 1963 street directory... those fonts very memorable....

Selatke said...

I am new to this blog, and happen to read this topic only today.

There has been comments and speculations on the name Tiong Bahru, in Chinese 中峇鲁.

A few years back I did some research on the origin of the place name. My conclusion is that it is a combination of a Chinese word and a Malay word.

Some history. Up till some 50 years ago there were a few Chinese cemeteries in the Tiong Bahru area, behind the SIT flats.

Land for one such cemetery plot was bought by a wealthy baba from Malacca, who named it the New Cemetery. Malacca babas are mostly Hokkien and usually could speak but could not write in the Chinese. language. So Tiong in Hokkien is actually 冢, meaning cemetery, but was replaced by the simpler homonym 中. Bahru is of course the Malay word for 'new'. Hence Tiong Bahru, or New Cemetery.

Different dialects pronounce the place name somewhat differently.

Shanlyn said...

Hello to everyone who contribute to this blog,

This blog is really helpful for me as I'm collecting stories about Tiong Bahru as part of my project. When I mean stories, it's not just the historical facts about Tiong Bahru that everyone can easily research on. I need stories that probably only people who had been living/working in Tiong Bahru, will know what had happen in the area.

There are alot of stories in this page, but still, I need to collect more happenings from different timeline.

- Tiong Bahru was used to be called as 'Den of Beauties'. I tried to google or went around talking to people, but it seems not much people talk about it. Maybe because it happened long ago, and probably people who were born in the era, aren't around anymore. But i wonder if anyone of you have heard any related stories from that timeline?

- Japanese Occupation. When Japanese attacked Singapore, is there anything that happened/changed in Tiong Bahru? Or is there any experiences that anyone of you can contributed?

-I talked to one of the provision shop uncle. His shop had been there since his grandfather time. He told me that the single level shops at the carpark at Seng Poh Lane (blk 61, 63, 62, 69) used to be garage for the people who had a unit in the nearby block. And during Japanese Occupation, it was used as a place to give out rations. Can anyone provide me a more detailed description about it? (if there's more storys about the garage, you're welcome too.)

- BEfore Seng Poh Market was built (actually, am I right to say that the area is the current Tiong Bahru Market?), there were alot of street hawkers. And some of these street hawkers, moved to Seng Poh Road Market when it was built. Anyone has any experiences in related to this?

Sorry for the long post. I'm so sorry for asking so many questions. I tried to talk to some residents in Tiong Bahru, but not everyone is willing to talk to me. Even if they do, it may not be as detailed. I will like to know as much stories as possible. Being it from the past or even from the more current timeline (80s, 90s etc). Also, if you keep any objects (photographs, tickets etc etc), that you think will be useful in telling the visual stories of Tiong Bahru, please feel free to share with me.

Email me at chew_xiang_ying(at)hotmail(dot)com if you have lots of stories to share with me. :) Thank you very much!!!!

Unknown said...

Wow. Fantastic site. I was born at 30 Eng Watt Street in 1961. Any one knows of the Kwok Maternity Home? Any stories to share about the place? Pictures or otherwise - there is a name Kwok Sun Oi on my birth register - I wonder who the person might have been?