It was in late 1976 that I found myself moving to the Ang Mo Kio New Town. Built as part of a huge wave of public housing developments that took place in the mid-1970s, Ang Mo Kio located just north of then canalised Kallang River, and the huge cemetery at Peck San Theng (now Bishan), took its name from the surrounding area.
The rather curious sounding name did fuel much speculation and debate amongst the early residents of the new town as to what its origins were. Explanations ranged from the plausible to the seemingly improbably, a common factor was that it was a Hokkien term. Many argued that it meant evolved from a similar sounding Hokkien term that meant “red tomato”, with suggestions that it might be a reference to an “ang mo” bridge (kio), not far behind.
“Ang mo” in Hokkien is of course a term that is commonly used in Singapore and in Malaysia to describe Caucasians. The term does have its origins in 16th or 17th century Fujian province, when references to the fair hair (ang mo translates to “red hair”) of hitherto unseen and unheard of new arrivals from distant shores, came to be used in the absence of a non-existent proper word. The “ang mo”, it was though in the case of the “ang mo” bridge being a reference to an Englishman by the name of John Turnbull Thomson, the Government Surveyor who gave his name to Thomson Road (or Englishmen in general), who was credited with putting up a proper bridge (or bridges) across the Kallang River. Along with these, the National Heritage Board (NHB) in its heritage guide for Ang Mo Kio, does add another twist with regard to what the “ang mo” might have been a reference to:
A more plausible explanation was given by Douglas Hiorns, former General Manager of Bukit Sembawang Estates (1948-1995). According to Hiorns, there were two key tracks crossing Ang Mo Kio, an area with large expanses of swamps and tributaries of rivers running through it. Bridges carrying the tracks over the waterways gained a local importance as a result. In the north, a wooden bridge carried Jalan Hwi Yoh over Sungei Tongkang and was locally called pang kio, meaning “wooden bridge” in Hokkien. The bridge carrying Cheng San Road over the tributary of Kallang River was made of concrete, a material commonly referred to as ang mo he or “Western ash” in Hokkien. As such the area acquired the name “Ang Mo Kio”.
To add to the confusion over the origins of the name, old maps and references to the area suggest that the name might after all have little to do with bridges, identifying an area close to where present day Ang Mo Kio is, as “Amokia” or “Amokiah”. While the British did have some difficultly in the Anglicisation of local place names, a suggestion that I did hear more recently was that the “kia” could indeed have been correctly Anglicised. The suggestion (attributed to a local cartographer) is that “kia” which can translate into “frightened” or “afraid” in Hokkien, refers to an incident in which J. T. Thomson on a survey in what would have been a wooded area, had taken fright at an unexpected appearance made by a tiger.
Except for a small pockets of trees and a cluster close to Mayflower Garden, it wasn’t a forest of trees but one of concrete structures that the new residents were to encounter in 1976 – and there certainly were no tigers and wild the new Ang Mo Kio certainly was not. Living in the new town in its early days, did however have one feeling very much like it was the wilderness one was living in, especially for my having gotten spoiled by the convenience that Toa Payoh, my previous home had offered.
Block 306 was where I had moved to, in an area as far east as lived-in Ang Mo Kio went at the end of 1976. Most of what had been completed centered around the partially completed roads in the area, which included parts of Avenue 1, Avenue 3 and Avenue 6. These were the roads that carried the new town’s traffic out via a stub of Avenue 1 to Upper Thomson Road.
It was out to Upper Thomson Road – then the only link to the city centre, that the few bus services then serving the new town operated along. The services included numbers 168, which was the bus to take to Orchard Road, as well as a newly introduced 166 – an important link for me in the journeys to secondary school in Bras Basah Road that I would have to then make. A Blue Arrow semi-express bus service to Shenton Way, 308, did also help me save some time on the long journey home from its last stop in the city at Waterloo Street – saving up to 20 minutes in what would usually have been a journey that often exceed one hour.
Staying at Block 306 also made it convenient to catch the bus, as I could board it at the first temporary bus terminal , which operated in a car park just across Avenue 6 in front of Block 217 (before it moved even closer, probably at the end of 1978, to Avenue 6). Close-by the temporary terminal at Block 215, a row of shops lined the ground floor with the corner shop lot closest to the car park occupied by a coffee shop that due to the proximity of the bus terminal, became a hang out for resting bus drivers and conductors. The coffee shop, never quite recovered when the terminal did move across Avenue 6, with the lot being taken over McDonald’s, who did for a while operate a rather quiet outlet there. NTUC Fairprice currently runs an outlet in the same lot.
It was also close by where the only completed neighbourhood centre (in Neighbourhood 2) was found, and where the only market that had then been opened, was. It was in one of the shops in the two storey blocks surrounding the market, that I was to visit for my first haircuts in Ang Mo Kio. That was at an Indian barber shop at Block 226E, my father and I would frequent, until the Pink Panther Malay barber shop in my neighbourhood opened.
Besides the shops at Block 215 and at the neighbourhood centre, there were shops closer to where I lived. These were found at the bottom of Block 307 (since demolished) across the huge open car park. Besides a bicycle shop, a clinic, and a provision shop, the row also contained the coffee shop that I would have most patronised during my nine-year stay in the area in the new town.
In its early days, there coffee shop wasn’t much to talk about, much of the food on offer was rather forgettable – although the Fishball Noodle and the Chicken Rice was to see much improvement over time. Most of my early visits there were motivated by the large glass fronted stainless steel refrigerator (as was common in coffee shops and many provision shops in those days) – then placed right against the back wall of the coffee shop (the coffee shop was laid out as were coffee shops of old – with stalls lining the entrance and tables and chairs arranged inside). It was from the fridge that ice-cold relief was found. This took the form of bottled soft drinks that were to be poured into ice-filled plastic bags – much needed in the heat and dust that seemed to accompany the early days of the neighbourhood.
With the relentless pace at which the town was being developed, it was not to be long before the feeling of being in the wilderness did somewhat subside. The completion of new roads and addition of bus services did provide more links out, although one did have to spend more time on the road given the distance of the town from the city. One road that was useful in the early days was the extension of Avenue 1 out to Lorong Chuan, completed in March 1977, not too long after I moved in. That providing a link out to Serangoon Garden, where the only NTUC Fairprice (then NTUC Welcome) supermarket in the vicinity was to be found (until the branch in Ang Mo Kio Central was opened in 1979). The completion of the road also saw it being used by hell-riders , participants in the illegal motorcycle races that was a big problem in the late 1970s, the roar of their motorcycles were sometimes heard in the dead of the night.
The completion of Marymount Road in August 1979 provided a faster and more direct route southwards towards the city. The construction of the road, which was to see Marymount Convent lose its original frontage along Thomson Road, took a route that cut through parts of the massive Peck San Theng cemetery – and one thing that I very vividly remember was seeing the exhumation work in progress on the part of the cemetery close to Sin Ming Estate that was just by Marymount Road – probably sometime in 1980.
With the masses that the further development of Ang Mo Kio brought in, the town took on a more impersonal feel and what there certainly wasn’t, was the sense of the community that was present in Toa Payoh - the lack of common corridors and open front doors possibly a contributory factor. There were however, open and many grassy spaces to celebrate, spaces that allowed the freedom of play, to kick a ball, and to have a run around … spaces there seem to be a lot less of these days. It did come as a shock to see that many of the spaces I played in, have since been lost to the clutter of renewal that upgrading works seem to do to a place, on a recent visit to the area.
Gone also, is that open space that provided breathing room between the block where I had lived in, the blocks it has since been made to face – a seemingly towering wall of concrete that has hidden that wonderful view I once did get from the bedroom window of the 16th storey flat I had lived in.
Walking around once familiar places that I now find hard to connect with, I did at least stumble upon a consolation. That came in the form of a bowl of ice-kacang, done just the way I like it and as it might have been all those years ago – a simple pleasure from what once was a much less complicated place.