Toa Payoh, which means ‘big swamp’ in Hokkien, is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Singapore. As such, it is not surprising that this heritage-rich ‘hood is chockfull of charming oldies and secret gems known only to those who are clued-up to the area.
Already it holds the honour of several firsts: It is the first town comprehensively planned and developed by HDB; it is where the first MRT station was built; it was the first town to employ the neighbourhood police post system; and was also the location for Singapore’s first air-conditioned bus interchange that is integrated with an MRT station. It’s such an iconic area that Queen Elizabeth herself visited the Y-shaped Block 53 in 1972.
Toa Payoh houses a combination of lovely spots that showcase a slice of everyday Singapore and hidden gems waiting to be uncovered. Below, we pay homage to the eclectic and homey neighbourhood by spotlighting some of them.
1. Famous Dragon Playground
There’s not one, but two dragon playgrounds in the matured estate of Toa Payoh. Designed in 1979 by HDB’s in-house designer Khor Ean Ghee, these playgrounds were all the rage in estates such as Toa Payoh and Ang Mo Kio, but were phased out in the ’90s. The iconic design features a large dragon head covered with terrazzo and tiles as well as a body of colourfully-painted steel rings which children could either slide or climb through. There are usually concrete slides and steps alongside the head. The one at Blk 28 Toa Payoh Lorong 6 features a sand pit and is the only one of its kind left. Fun fact: It was picked by New York culture blog Flavorwire.com as one of 15 amazing playgrounds in the world in 2012. There is a mini version in Braddell ar Blk 240 Toa Payoh Lorong 1 which features a smaller dragon slide and foam mat flooring.
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2. Bugs Bunny barbershop
Opened in 1971, this nostalgic spot at Blk 94 Lorong 4 has become somewhat of an institution. Snap a photo with its tavern-like bricked exterior. The retro facade boasts swing doors that sport the iconic cartoon rabbit the shop is named after. Inside, the shop feels like it has remained in the ’90s, with furnishings from an era gone by and a colour scheme that’s decidedly a throwback. The shop got its shot at fame when Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen posted about his haircut at the barber on Facebook in 2015.
Completed in 1972, this gem opposite HDB Hub used to be a popular photo shoot location for wedding photography in the ’70s and ’80s. Its serene ambience, lush greenery as well as scenic stone bridges and ponds still make it a charming place of respite and an ideal spot for a stroll or a family picnic. Look out for the iconic 25m-tall observation tower that was built in 1972 – you can’t access it anymore but you can admire the fountain pool at its base and rest your feet at one of its rustic gazebos.
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4. ‘Ci Ern Ge’ tree shrine in Toa Payoh Central
If you happen to be browsing the shops at Blocks 177, 178 and 179 of Toa Payoh Central, you might have seen an unusual sight – a shrine nestled at the foot of a tree. It houses several statues of deities and is dedicated to a tree god. Founded in 1969, it is sheltered by the tree’s leafy canopy and has withstood the test of time. An urban legend surrounds the mysterious location: older residents say bulldozers had once tried in vain to cut the tree as the new town was being built. In the end, the tree was accommodated in HDB’s development plans. Unfortunately in 2013, the tree was felled by a thunderstorm, but the shrine was rebuilt with the remaining parts of the ficus as its backdrop. It still remains a significant heritage location and a gathering spot for regulars in the area.
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Surrounded by residential flats and glitzy high-rise apartments, the traditional architecture of this Buddhist temple certainly stands out. The idea for the temple was conceived in 1898 when successful businessman Low Kim Pong had a vision in his dream. He donated the land for the construction of the temple, which was modelled after Xi Chan Monastery in Fuzhou, China. It was made from materials transported from China, and the wood and stone engraving as well as masonry were undertaken by craftsmen from China. Construction was completed in 1907. In 1991, it underwent a major renovation and restoration project that spanned 11 years. Today, the monastery remains a popular place of worship for Buddhists in Singapore. Noteworthy features include its 9m-tall main gate, known as Shan Men (Mountain Gate), which boasts stone pillars decorated with Chinese calligraphy inscriptions that are joined at the top by a wooden roof. Its highly decorated Mahāvira Hall, which houses three Buddha statues, and its wishing well, is also worth a visit.
6. Toa Payoh Sensory Park
Those looking to entertain the kiddos will like this educational and interactive spot at Lorong 5. As its name suggests, this neighbourhood park aims to encourage the stimulation of sight, smell, touch, sound and taste. It houses a playground, exercise area and a special garden zone that’s full of fascinating facts about the estate, flora and fauna and more. A favourite is the Parabolic Dish, an interactive play equipment that reflects sound between two stainless steel dishes. Get the kids to create sound waves through various actions and hear them echo from behind you. There is also a main play structure that includes tunnels and slides, but if me-time is what you seek, there are plenty of quiet corners in this maze-like park with seating area surrounded by fountains, bamboo and other foliage.
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7. Toa Payoh Market and Food Centre
This food centre at 127 Lorong 1 might only consist of 40 stalls, but it houses some of the best and most beloved hawker food in Toa Payoh, and some say other estates as well. Its most famous stall is Chey Sua Carrot Cake, a second-generation stall that sells only the white version of carrot cake and often requires a minimum 30 minute-long wait. Also known as chai tow kway, the rendition served here comes in crispy pancake-like layers that’s soft and fluffy on the inside. Other popular stalls include the Come Daily Fried Hokkien Prawn Mee that is fried with fresh pork lard and full of aromatic wok hei (smoky, charred flavour). It has been operating since 1968 and requires a wait of at least 45 minutes. Also not to be missed are Hong Kong Lung Hwa Roast Duck for unbelievably tender roast meats and 88 Congee for hearty Hong Kong styled congee. Note that most stalls close by mid-day so get your fix early.
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Located in a a nondescript canteen tucked away in a Toa Payoh industrial estate, this stall might at first glance seem like nothing out of the ordinary. There’s a reason, however, why it was awarded a spot on the Michelin Guide’s Bib Gourmand list. Run by two proteges of chef Ang Song Kang who owns one-Michelin-starred private kitchen Chef Kang’s, the stall sells mouthwatering wanton mee topped with the juiciest char siew that has been charred to a perfect finish, a skill they picked up from Ang. The meat is paired with springy jook sing noodles that are imported from Hong Kong and topped with crispy lard pieces for satisfying texture.
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After eight years, the popular ice cream parlour bid farewell to its iconic and idyllic spot at Blk 128 Toa Payoh Lorong 1. Fans who had frequented the shop for a scoop of its delicious handcrafted ice cream, freshly-baked waffles, or a freshly-pulled espresso were crushed. Thankfully, it reopened half a year later at Block 131 Toa Payoh Lorong 1, which is just across the road from its previous location. The new space continues to serve its signature offerings and the brand has also partnered The Food Bank Singapore to set up a place where people in need can pick up food items. It’s once again packed during weekends and in the evenings, and you can find satiated customers nibbling on their treats at the same playground or benches nearby.
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This casual no-frills eatery is a favourite among residents and office workers, thanks to its menu of comforting home-style dishes that are a fusion of both Western and Nepalese cuisine. Named after the owner’s son, it boasts a pleasant setting in which you can tuck into dishes such as chicken chop, sirloin steak and braised lamb shank if you want Western fare. Chicken Tash with Pulau Rice, a dish of spicy chicken marinated with Nepali spice, and Chicken Momo, a Nepali style steamed meat dumpling, is great if you’re looking for something unique. Make it a set to enjoy a beverage and dessert with your main dish.
Please check the establishments’ respective websites for opening hours before visiting, and remember to adhere to safe-distancing measures while out and about.