Routes to Roots

Published on 23 May 2016

A new mobile app allows you to follow, share or curate your own heritage trails in Singapore.


You’ve just had brunch at Tiong Bahru Market, in the heart of an old housing estate built in the 1930s during British colonial rule. You’re keen to explore this charming neighbourhood brimming with history and heritage. But where do you begin?

While in the past you probably had to print out a whole booklet downloaded from the National Heritage Board (NHB)’s website; these days, all you need is a smartphone. Just go to your phone’s App Store and download the Singapore Heritage Trails application. This free app gives you instant access to not only the Tiong Bahru trail, but over 80 other trails.


The Singapore Heritage Trails app is the brainchild of the National University of Singapore’s Keio-NUS CUTE Center, whose mission is to develop experience media. “Basically, it’s media that uses multi-sensory connection technology to engage people in playful, creative and affective dialogue,” explains. Dr Ellen Yi-Luen Do, professor and co-director of the Center.

The project started off with the aim of capturing memories digitally. But through extensive research — including conducting surveys and interviews with heritage guides and experimenting on the experience of trails mediated through a mobile app — the team uncovered the usefulness of trails for telling stories and linking places into meaningful narratives. “It helps bring out locked memories into the physical world,” says Dr Kelvin Cheng, a Research Fellow at Keio-NUS CUTE Center.

Officially launched on 5 May, the mobile app includes not just all of NHB’s heritage trails, but also curated trails by other government agencies — such as the Singapore Tourism Board, Urban Redevelopment Authority and National Parks Board — community groups and schools.

NOOKS & CRANNIES Exploring Tiong Bahru estate on foot reveals sights and surprises at every turn: from charming corridors and five-foot ways (top) to a colourful Monkey God Temple.


In addition to heritage, the app also showcases other types of trails such as World War II, residential towns, heritage schools, nature and architecture. For example, on the Tiong Bahru trail, you’re led to appreciate both the pre-war Streamline Moderne style of architecture (a late development of the Art Deco movement), as well as the post-war International Style, within the estate.

“We also have trails that bring you to sample delicious local delights, such as the Balestier Food Trail, which is my personal favourite,” reveals Dr Cheng, who was involved in developing the app. “It takes you from the 24-hour Sing Hon Loong Bakery, that sells brown bread loaves, to Lam Yeo Coffee Powder Factory, which was established in 1959.”

Using Global Positioning System (GPS), the mobile app is able to detect your real-time location and suggest nearby trails for you to explore. It can also track your actual movements along the trail and indicate various places of interest — or ‘spots’ — where you can stop and find out more.


These 80-plus trails are not exhaustive. As new curated trails are developed by various government agencies, community groups or schools, they are uploaded into the system as they become available. The Little India Heritage Trail, for instance, is slated to be launched in the last quarter of 2016.

Because Singapore is constantly redeveloping, public feedback is crucial. Through the app, the public can submit their comments and photos, which will be incorporated to enrich and update the content. In other words, the app is kept current through the vigilance of millions of eyes.

Besides browsing official trails, users can also contribute their own thoughts and feelings, and share their memories about a place. “They can even curate their own trails and share them with everyone through the app,” adds Dr Cheng. “This is what makes the app unique — it has both official content as well as user-generated content, side by side.”

And in this era of social media, if users want to share a piece of information with their friends while on a trail, they can. All they have to do is click on a ‘share’ icon at the bottom of the page to post it instantaneously on Facebook!


We are all explorers in life. Someone once said our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else,” reflects Dr Do. “So as you use the mobile app to visit and share meaningful personal memories with each other, we hope you’ll also experience the joy of new discoveries or insights from what you thought was familiar.”

So while you may have brunched at Tiong Bahru countless times, you may not have realised that hidden just a stone’s throw away are World War II air raid shelters, or that around the bend is the coffee shop made famous by Eric Khoo’s 1995 feature film, Mee Pok Man. “At the end of the day, we’re all tourists in this world,” says Dr Do. “There are always things around us to be discovered!”

For more information, visit

MONUMENTAL DISCOVERIES Do you recognise the Tan Kim Seng Fountain (1882) and the Dalhousie Obelisk (1850)? How much do you know about these national monuments? Find out by hitting the Monument Trail. PHOTOS  National Heritage Board

App-solutely Easy!

The developers of the new Singapore Heritage Trails app give us the lowdown.

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