New to the little red dot and can’t decide if you want to live in the east, west, central, north or city centre of Singapore?
Consult this quick overview of SG nabes to help you decide which one fits “just nice”.
Back in the Day: In the 1800s, this area was popular among wealthy European and Chinese merchants due to its easy access to the Singapore River, which facilitated trading. Warehouses grew up on both banks to store goods.
Known for Today: Much of Clarke Quay’s nightlife scene is housed in the remaining old warehouses. The neighbourhood is popular with people who work in the Central Business District, and its proximity to Fort Canning Park and the Singapore River makes it one of the more scenic ‘hoods in the city. While there is only one MRT station in the vicinity, plenty of city-bound bus lines make the CBD a 15-minute ride away.
Back in the Day: Orchard Road was once the site of fruit, nutmeg andpepper plantations, and colonial landowners cashed in on the booming trade in the 1830s. But, prosperity did not last: A disease wiped out the crops by the 1850s.
Known for Today: One word: shopping. Aside from modern, high-end boutiques, find affordable items in smaller malls like Far East Plaza as well as in Tanglin. Emerald Hill showcases ornate Peranakan houses of the Straits Chinese, while the Singapore Botanic Gardens is a short walk away.
Back in the Day: Situated between the sea and city centre, Tanjong Pagar was a bustling community of Chinese and Indian dock workers in the 19th century. In Chinatown, ox carts were commonly seen moving water, leading locals to name it niu che shui (“ox car water” in Mandarin).
Known for Today: Nowadays, Chinatown is a tourist attraction, as its charming shophouses host souvenir shops, restaurants and bars, plus many festivals – from Chinese New Year to Mid-Autumn Festival – are still celebrated here. Duxton Hill and Ann Siang Hill are nearby, and home to upscale dining spots and bars.
Back in the Day: Many roads were named after Chinese merchants. In the 1920s, Tiong Bahru saw SG’s first public housing estate, predating the ubiquitous HDBs.
Known for Today: These ’hoods retain Singaporean charm without sacrificing inconvenience. The tiny streets of Tiong Bahru are populated with hip cafes, hawker centres and traditional shops.
Back in the Day: Pasir Panjang literally means “long sand” in Malay, referring to the stretch of that runs from VivoCity to the end of West Coast Park. During World War II, it was the site of the Battle of Pasir Panjang. After the area fell to the Japanese, the British surrendered SG the next day.
Known for Today: The sunsets here are spectacular. Traffic is lighter than in other parts of the island, and it’s conveniently near to the National University of Singapore and its hospital plus Sentosa Island*. Built by the Tiger Balm founders, Haw Par Villa is an only-in-SG sight!
* Off SG’s southwest tip, this scenic Sentosa Island is known for its beachy vibe and tourist attractions. Find out what else to do there here.
Back in the Day: In the 1800s, tigers roamed the farms spread about the Bukit Timah area, reportedly killing 200 people. Interestingly, Holland Village is named for architect Hugh Holland, and not the Dutch, who never had much presence in Singapore’s history. Meanwhile, Dempsey Hill was formerly a British army barracks.
Known for Today: These neighbourhoods are close to each other, yet wildly different in demographics. Bukit Timah is home to Singapore’s wealthiest residents, with the island’s highest density of private housing. (Bonus: Expat-friendly mall Cluny Court is here!). Nearby Holland Village is an enclave for Western expatriates, while Clementi and Commonwealth are popular with locals for their proximity to the East-West MRT line going straight to the CBD. Dempsey Hill – now a full-on lifestyle destination – is filled with gourmet offerings, shops, galleries and more.
Back in the Day: The Newton Circus traffic circle was constructed in 1933 to handle heavy traffic at this junction between the city and other parts of SG. The Tamils used to call it ethumuchandi, or “the eight junction place”. Not far off, the Church of Saint Alphonsus – known as Novena Church – was built in 1950 and has been hosting crowds at its Saturday services ever since.
Known for Today: Newton, Novena and Thomson have become popular spots to live, due to their proximity to the city. They are also close to MacRitchie Reservoir, Tan Tock Seng Hospital and malls like Velocity @ Novena Square and United Square. Fun fact: Newton Food Centre was featured in the recent film Crazy Rich Asians.
Back in the Day: Bishan is thought to be haunted, as it used to have many cemeteries before the land was turned into housing. Ang Mo Kio means “red haired bridge”, possibly in reference to a no-longer-existing bridge built by John Turnbull Thomson for moving military equipment. Serangoon flows into Little India.
Known for Today: These nabes are considered affordable to live in yet well-connected via the MRT (and they’ll get even busier when a new expressway and train line go in). Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park is a great green space, and Chomp Chomp Food Centre is well-loved. The area is popular with French expats due to the Lycée Français de Singapour here.
Back in the Day: Once upon a time, Toa Payoh was a squatter district and residents mostly engaged in pig farming. Between the 1960s and 1980s, it reach notoriety for vice, earning the nickname the “Chicago of Singapore”. Balestier was also known as a red-light district.
Known for Today: Toa Payoh is now a bustling town centre that combines residential developments with commercial properties. While Toa Payoh has its own MRT stop, Balestier does not. But, it retains lots of charm. Balestier Market has preserved much of its architectural history and is one of few markets to survive SG’s rapid transformation.
Back in the Day: Geylang was also another Malay settlement in SG’s history, and was the site of racial riots between the Chinese and the Malays during the 1960s, after Singapore gained independence.
Known for Today: Geylang is notorious for being a red-light district, and the nabe does come to life after dark. But, it’s not just because of the brothels – its bustling hawker stalls dish out some of Singapore’s culinary treasures. Durian sellers also tend to concentrate here. MacPherson and Bartley are more quiet districts to the north of Geylang.
Back in the Day: From the late-19th to the mid-20th century, this region was home to Singapore’s wealthy elites whose seaside resorts and estates stretched along the East Coast. Many Eurasians and Peranakan Chinese settled here, and constructed churches and fanciful Peranakan buildings.
Known for Today: Many of the heritage houses are conserved by the government, and walking around Joo Chiat and Katong is always a treat. While the Peranakan and Eurasian presence is still strong today, it is not as apparent as before, and many different nationalities now live in these nabes, due to their proximity to the beach and rich cultural heritage. Many modern bars and restaurants mix alongside traditional businesses.
Back in the Day: At the turn of the 20th century, much of Siglap was coconut and nutmeg plantations owned by a Jewish Lithuanian family called the Frankels, who named many streets after famous operas. Bedok refers to the Malay word for “drum”, which was used to call Muslims to prayer.
Known for Today: Siglap is home to many wealthy Singaporeans – seen from the number of large private estates – and also popular with expats, due to its closeness to the beach, airport and Changi Business Park. Bedok is a public housing estate with lots of familyfriendly features like Bedok Reservoir and the newish Heartbeat@Bedok complex. Siglap MRT station is slated to open in 2023.
Back in the Day: These heartland ’hoods used to be home to farms and plantations until recently. Punggol and Hougang also historically housed the Teochew and Catholic communities.
Known for Today: As Singapore’s population keeps growing, these rural areas have been some of the last to be developed. Now, tall blocks of HDB flats dominate the skyline, and the North-East MRT line serves as a direct link to the city. Punggol Jetty and Coney Island are at the end of these nabes, and are hot spots for dining, drinking, and sightseeing.
Back in the Day: Before the 1960s, much of Jurong was left mostly untouched and uncharted. Swamps dominated the coastlines and wildlife thrived. However, when Singapore experienced a population boom in the post-war period, the government began clearing large portions of Jurong for urban settlement.
Known for Today: A sizable proportion of SG’s population lives in the westerly region of Jurong. This district stretches from the westernmost end of Tuas to the Jurong East town centre, where a tonne of commercial activity takes place. Shopping centres such as IMM, JCube and Westgate house a huge number of retailers and restaurants, while family-friendly attractions include Singapore Discovery Centre, Jurong Bird Park and the Chinese and Japanese Gardens.
Back in the Day: Choa Chu Kang and its surrounds used to be made up of villages and rubber plantations, and residents relied on boats or ox carts to get around. The Teochews were the first people to settle here, but the Hokkiens gradually moved in and established pineapple, vegetable and poultry farms. Tigers also used to roam here.
Known for Today: These neighbourhoods are largely residential, and Bukit Batok, Hill View and Upper Bukit Timah have quite a number of private estates and condominiums. Bonus: They’re close to the mountain-bikers’ favourite Bukit Timah Nature Reserve – a.k.a., Singapore’s highest hill. The opening of the newer Downtown MRT Line has helped connect these nabes with the city.
Back in the Day: Rubber plantations stretched across Yishun, Sembawang and Seletar. In 1923, the Straits Settlements bought land from the rubber estates and gave it to the Royal Air Force of the United Kingdom. Colonial black-and-white bungalows popped up to house military personnel.
Known for Today: Yishun is a busy town, compared to quieter Sembawang, while Seletar is home to the aviation industry. Some must-visit spots: the Sembawang Hot Spring, Sembawang Park, ORTO and an up and coming enclave on Park Lane where restaurants and bars are springing up.
Back in the Day: As the closest region to northern neighbour Malaysia, the Johor-Singapore Causeway was constructed here in 1923, and the Woodlands Checkpoint became the modern point-of-entry for travellers entering through Johor Bahru.
Known for Today: Woodlands and Kranji are popular areas to live for many Malaysians working in Singapore, as well as with expats who work at the military base or have kids at Singapore American School (or send their children to boarding school in Malaysia). HDB flats in Woodlands are colourful and well-designed, and Woodlands Waterfront provides a scenic view of Johor Bahru across the Straits of Johor. The so-called Kranji countryside is where much of SG’s produce and livestock is grown and raised – and worth a visit to the various farms and markets!
Text: various The Finder team; Additional Reporting: Joshua Tan / Photos: 123RF.com + The Straits Times, From The Finder Annual Directory 2019
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