An in-depth special focus on Asian real estate hot spots, as well as key interviews with important industry figures and analysis
In Depth: Tanjong Pagar: A historic Singapore district forges ahead
Jun 12, 2012
Building in Singapore's Tanjong Pagar district
Words and photography by Khalil Adis
An area rich in history and culture, Tanjong Pagar is a port district located within Singapore’s Central Business District that’s also home to some of the tallest skyscrapers in the city state. The lifeblood of Singapore since 1819, the district owes it success to early immigrants, who under British rule, helped establish Tanjong Pagar as an important centre for trade and commerce. Today, the area is still an important focal point for Asia, boasting the world’s busiest trans-shipment hub. Tanjong Pagar is also a major financial centre with several regional and international banks headquartered there.
Despite its stellar achievements, the historic district is not resting on its laurels. Over the years, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) has relaxed planning guidelines, allowing hotels and mixed- use developments to grace the skyline. The area is currently home to shophouses, condominiums and government-built apartments – both old and new. A government sub-committee is also looking into expanding the CBD, integrated with waterfront housing, hotels and other lifestyle attractions when the current port lease expires in 2027. Exploring Tanjong Pagar is little like embarking on a treasure hunt. Dig a little deeper and you find cultural and architectural gems that have made this district a sought-after location among Singapore’s creative, well-heeled investors.
Live, work and play
The concept of live, work and play within the Singapore’s business districts was pioneered by Far East Organization when it first launched ICON in 2003. Boasting 646 apartment units spread across two towers, this integrated development features a selection of bars, restaurants and other conveniences at its ICON Village, located directly below the residences. A hotel-like reception with artwork, paintings and a concierge service greets residents and visitors at the lobby. The clubhouse on the 31st floor houses the Jacuzzi, swimming pool, gym and pavilions, which all have breathtaking views of the city and the Indonesian islands to the south. “I chose to live in ICON because it is right smack in the heart of the city while being a stone throw’s away from the many historical shophouses and places of interest,” says James Lin, a resident at ICON. “In addition, there are plenty of dining options – from high-end restaurants at ICON Village and Club Street to hawker centres.”
ICON will soon be dwarfed by the tallest residential tower in Singapore. In 2010, GuocoLand was given the green light by the URA to build a new development that rises 280 metres above sea level from a 99-year leasehold white site situated just above Tanjong Pagar MRT Station. The mixed-use development, occupying a land area of 15, 022.6 sqm, will have an approximate gross floor area of 157, 738 sqm. 60 per cent of the development will comprise office space, 10 per cent hotels. The rest will be set aside for residential and retail use in accordance with the URA’s tender conditions. When completed, the mixed-use development will be integrated into the existing Tanjong Pagar MRT Station and will command panoramic views of the CBD and Marina Bay.
Culture, and plenty of it, has made Tanjong Pagar a hot real estate destination among the well-heeled young professionals. Within walking distance to condo developments like ICON, Eon Shenton, Lumiere and The Clift are rows and rows of well-preserved shophouses governed by the URA’s conservation guidelines. Some of these are homes to clan houses, which served as welfare centres for the Chinese immigrants who first arrived in Singapore in the 18th century and built the city into what it is today. To give thanks for their safe passages to Singapore, places of worship for Chinese and Indian Muslim immigrants were erected along Telok Ayer Street. Formerly part of the coastline, Telok Ayer Street is still home to Thian Hock Kheng Temple and Nagore Dargah Indian Muslim Heritage Centre. These architectural gems continue to draw locals and tourists , helping to preserve the legacy of immigrants long gone.
Not everything that celebrates the uniqueness of Tanjong Pagar reflects its past. Several new additions have helped shed Singapore’s reputation as a contemporary cultural desert, adding a sense of urban cool. Awash in red, the Red Dot Traffic was formerly the headquarters of the Traffic Police. The colonial building has since been given a new lease of life as a creative space that is buzzing with architecture, interior design, media and research firms, as well as hip restaurants and cafes. “‘We explored several other places including Bugis/Lavender area and those outside the CBD,” said Andre Cheong, chief executive at Global Search Partners. “But given its proximity to the CBD/Raffles Place district and its charm as a historical conservation building, it was not too bad a choice. There are also those typical standalone conservation shophouses but those places lack the tenant interaction.”
The pink triangle in Tanjong Pagar is known for its happening night scene
The pink triangle
Singapore’s pink enclave forms a triangle on the map when Telok Ayer Street, Chinatown and Tanjong Pagar areas are joined together. Much like Bangkok’s Silom but minus go-go bars, this area is where the gay community congregates on weekends. For many, one club is regarded as an institution by many on today’s professionals grew up partying to music from their favourite pop icons when it first opened along Tanjong Pagar Road in 1997. “It has what I call the beauty of a boutique dance club where it is not that big nor too small,” says Addie Low, business partner at Taboo. “People who start moving into this area find it a rather a quaint place to be in, and rather unique. When you see a club, it does not necessarily have to be a modern set-up,”
According to Low,around 20 per cent of his clientele have chosen to live around the vicinity, to be close to where all the action is. In 2004, the club moved one street down to Neil Road partly due to a change in the clubbing trend that required them to look for bigger premises. “The restoration project that has gone on for the past few years has kicked off quite well,” says Low. “The draw comes from those days when the rental was affordable. As time goes by, rent has also gone up by leaps and bounds.”
In fact, the rental for the 3,000 sq ft club was around S$14, 000 (US$11, 224) in 1997 but surged 30 per cent in 2004. Taboo’s move spurred other bars and boutique offices to open along the stretch, leading to what Low call “a healthy competition”. For now, Taboo continues to lead the pack and push the envelope and recently invited guest DJ Will Hsu, who pioneered the circuit scene in Taipei to be its headlining act. “I want to inject the flavour of Taipei into Singapore with my brand of music,” said Hsu, noting the local community’s love for commercial dance music.
A dying trade
While one side of Tanjong Pagar Road is lined with gleaming condos, hotels and office buildings, a dying trade can be found across the street on Tanjong Pagar Plaza and the surrounding shophouses, many of them mom-and-pop shops. Buoyed by the hot real estate market, rents in the heart of the city do not come cheap — having soared by as much as 30 per cent in the past two years — but many professionals are attracted by the convenience they offer, even though some tend to shy away from such shops, preferring the air-conditioned supermarkets, restaurants and malls that have become the norm in Singapore. Still, the mom-and-pop traders are an important reminder of the early immigrants’ entrepreneurial drive and spirit. Amid rising rents and modernity, one can only hope these cultural gems will survive the test of time as they add a unique character and old world charm to Tanjong Pagar.
Go to Club Street for high-end bistros, restautants and bars
Wine and Dine
High-end bistros, restaurants and bars line the entire stretch of Club Street and Ann Siang Hill. A favourite watering hole among expatriates and well-heeled locals, the area is home to Da Paulo, Jerry’s Barbeque and Grill, Yin & Yang Bar, IndoChine, Bar sa Vanh, Beaujolais Wine Bar, Spizza, Shots and The Screening Room, to name but a few. Appealing to a sophisticated clientele, however, is a tricky business as high rentals have caused many eateries to go bust. Typical rents here range from S$5,000 (US$4,008) to more than S$10,000 (US$8,016), depending on the street facing and floor area. Still, some establishments like IndoChine, Spiza and Beaujolais Wine Bar have managed to survive the test of time, staking their claim for more than a decade.
The price of chic
Landlords who own shophouses here are generally receptive to leasing out the upper floors to expatriates and Singaporeans who work in the creative industries and want to live in the area. While the area is a charming stretch and home to some popular boutique hotels as well as private residences, some shophouses were sold at a loss last year, according to data from StreetSine. This has not deterred investors’ demand for the quaint properties that characterise what is a constantly evolving and trend setting part of Singapore. Last year, two shophouses changed hands for S$4.65 (US$3.72) million each while another was sold for S$3.5 (US$2.80) million. In January, another unit was sold for S$1.416 (US$1.134) million. Aside from shophouses, Club Street is also home to a 999-year leasehold condominium called Emerald Garden. Three units were sold this year for between S$1.45 (US$1.16) million to S$1.6 (US$1.28) million. An anomaly was also recorded for a unit that changed hands at S$280, 000 (US$224, 275).