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Is Tiong Bahru losing its old charm?

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 25, 2013

THE Hua Bee coffee shop has been operating at a pre-war estate in Tiong Bahru for 70 years. The nearby Hup Seng provision shop has been around for more than half a century.

But in the next few weeks, they will be consigned to history, with their owners opting to rent their shops to two new food outlets.

Their departure from the estate follows a slew of other takeovers in the past five years where older mom-and-pop businesses such as hair salons, textile shops and medical halls have made way for cafes, bakeries and eateries.

Not everyone has welcomed the changes. "A cup of coffee from these new cafes costs 10 times more than one from a coffee shop," said retiree Paul Tng, 65, who has been making sketches of the estate for the past 20 years.

Bounded by Seng Poh Road, Outram Road and Tiong Poh Road, Singapore's first public housing estate features 20 blocks of low-rise pre-war public housing flats as well as Transitional style and Art Deco shophouses.

The area was awarded conservation status by the Urban Redevelopment Authority in 2003 for its "rich history, unique architecture and familiar streetscapes".

But in recent years, its demographic has changed. Attracted by the estate's old world charm and its proximity to the city, a younger crowd with greater purchasing power moved in.

With them came new hip shops and cafes. The Spa Esprit Group, for instance, owns four businesses there - Tiong Bahru Bakery, cafe 40 Hands, bistro Open Door Policy and We Need A Hero, a men's grooming shop.

And the trend is expected to continue, said property analyst Nicholas Mak, head of consultancy at SLP International, pointing out that a five-room flat there now averages between $800,000 and $1 million. Shop rents are also higher. "As property prices increase, people with more middle-class taste will occupy the area, increasing the demand for new cafes and restaurants."

Dough and Grains owner Khoo Chee Wee, 40, who bought over a zi char restaurant for about $2 million last September, said: "I do my best to build rapport with residents. I don't want the old neighbourhood to completely disappear."

But retiree Mildred Choo, 63, who has lived in Tiong Bahru for six decades, said the estate's old charm is gone for good. "I've been here a long time and I feel like I can't keep up with the times."

But several residents told The Straits Times that the new shops are lively additions.

Said Mr Rodney Goh, 58, who operates a minimart: "People used to say that Tiong Bahru was a senior citizens' estate, so change is good; at least it will not become obsolete."

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This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 25, 2013

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