Opening up a backdoor

6 01 2014

An partly wooded area on the edges of Toa Payoh that for long has been insulated from the concrete invasion next to it is the plot of land south of Toa Payoh Rise and the site on which the former Toa Payoh Hospital (ex Thomson Road General Hospital) once stood (see also a previous post: Toa Payoh on the Rise). That, is a world currently in the midst of a transformation, one that will probably see the face of it changed completely and one that will destroy much of the tranquil charm the area would once be remembered for.

A formerly quiet area on the fringes of Toa Payoh that is in the midst of a huge transformation.

A formerly quiet area on the fringes of Toa Payoh that is in the midst of a huge transformation.

The elevated area, is bounded in the north by Toa Payoh Rise, in the south by the expansive grounds of the former Thomson Primary and Secondary Schools, and to the west by Thomson Road, where the SLF Complex – a mid-1980s addition to the area and a wooded area that has been referred to a Grave Hill is found. Grave Hill was where the grave of the illustrious Teochew immigrant, successful merchant and community leader, Seah Eu Chin, was discovered in November 2012 (see Straits Times report dated 28 Nov 2012: Teochew pioneer’s grave found in Toa Payoh and also Seah Eu Chin – Found! on All Things Bukit Brown).

Grave Hill is located on the left of the photograph.

Grave Hill is located on the left of the photograph.

Much work has already been carried out in the vicinity of Toa Payoh Rise – the construction of the Circle Line’s Caldecott MRT Station has seen the area left vacant when the buildings of the former Toa Payoh Hospital were torn down, take on a new face. This, along with the expanded Toa Payoh Rise – previously a quiet road where the calls of tree lizards were heard over the noise of the traffic, is perhaps a harbinger of things to come.

What the future does hold for the area - from the URA Draft Master Plan 2013.

What the future does hold for the area – from the URA Draft Master Plan 2013.

Looking into the crystal ball that is the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) plans, the latest being the Draft Master Plan 2013 released in November 2013, we can see that a vast part of the area will be given to future residential development with transport infrastructure to support the developments probably kicking-off the complete transformation of the area. Besides surface roads that will be built and the already built Circle Line station, there will also be a Thomson MRT Line station that will expand Caldecott Station into an interchange station, and also the construction underground of the planned North-South Expressway.

The former Thomson Secondary School, now occupied by SJI International.

The grounds for the former Thomson Primary and Secondary Schools, now occupied by SJI International, is a area I was acquainted with in my Toa Payoh childhood.

One part of the area that is familiar to me from my Toa Payoh childhood, is the grounds of the former Thomson schools, now occupied by SJI International School – an area the construction of the North-South Highway will also be change to. The huge sports field down the slopes from where the school buildings are, was often where football teams formed by groups of boys from the Toa Payoh neighbourhood would meet to play a match in the early 1970s – taking a short cut to the grounds from Lorong 1 from the area close to where the Philips factory is.

A inter-schools match being played on the football pitch in 1972 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

A inter-schools match being played on the football pitch in 1972 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

A pavement where there once wasn't, along a well-trodden path that served as a shortcut to Thomson Primary and Secondary Schools from Toa Payoh.

A pavement where there once wasn’t, along a well-trodden path that served as a shortcut to Thomson Primary and Secondary Schools from Toa Payoh.

Besides providing the huge playing fields, I always thought that the grounds of the schools placed them in a such a beautiful setting, one that rose high above the main road, close to the forest of trees now being replaced by a forest of towering trunks of concrete. For students of the schools getting in from Thomson Road however, it must have been quite a chore to have to walk up the incline of the road everyday just to get to school – a sight that greeted me passing on the bus in the mornings was the stream of students making what appeared to be a very slow climb up the rising road.

The playing field seen today.

The playing field seen today.

Another view of the field and the expansive grounds.

Another view of the field and the expansive grounds.

The schools were relocated at the end of 2000, after occupying the grounds for over four decades. Thomson Secondary does trace its history by to 1956 as a Government Chinese Middle School when, based on information at the website of North Vista Secondary School (which it was renamed as after its relocation to Sengkang), it was formed. Through a merger of Thomson Government Chinese Middle School and co-located Thomson Vocational School, Thomson Secondary was formed in the second half of the 1960s. Thomson Primary on the other hand started its life as Toa Payoh Integrated Primary School.

Towering trunks of concrete seen rising behind the former Thomson Secondary School.

Towering trunks of concrete seen rising behind the former Thomson Secondary School.

Next to the grounds of the schools, the twin octagonal towers of the SLF Complex, has dominated the landscape since the mid-1980s. Built by the Singapore Labour Foundation, one tower, built originally with the intention that all unions affiliated to the National Trades Union Congres (NTUC) could be housed under one-roof, was sold to the Ministry of Community Development (currently the Ministry of Social and Family Development or MSF) in 1986. The People’s Action Party, which has ruled Singapore since independence, also had its headquarters in the SLF Complex. It moved the headquarters there in 1986 from Napier Road, before moving out to its current premises in New Upper Changi Road in 1996.

The Singapore Polo Club has occupied its current grounds since 1941.

The twin octagonal towers of the SLF Complex as is seen from the Singapore Polo Club across Thomson Road.

At the SLF Complex’s backdoor, which leads out to Toa Payoh West, the impending transformation that will come to the area is very much in evidence. Clearance work is already underway on both sides of the road that will permit construction works for the future MRT line as well as tunneling work for the future expressway to be carried out.

Clearance work is already being carried out at Toa Payoh West.

Clearance work is already being carried out at Toa Payoh West.

On the south side of the road, a complex of low-rise buildings from a more recent past is currently in its final days – demolition work on the complex, the former Elders’ Village is already underway. The village, completed in 1995, was put up by the Singapore Action Group of Elders’ (SAGE) on land it obtained on a 30-year lease which expired in 2012. SAGE originally had ambitious plans for the Elders’ Village, which would have included resort-type facilities and chalets, but was forced to scale back on plans due to a lack of funds.

The former SAGE Elders' Village as is seen from the SLF Complex, now being demolished.

The former SAGE Elders’ Village as is seen from the SLF Complex, now being demolished.

A view of the clearance works around Toa Payoh West.

A view of the clearance works around Toa Payoh West.

On the relentless march Singapore has embarked on towards achieving its vision for the future, there certainly will not be any lack of funds. Much activity seems now to focused on developing roads, transportation links and housing to support the huge growth in population that is anticipated (see also: Population White Paper and the supporting Land Use Plan). With this effort, many places such as the quiet and somewhat forgotten buffer between Toa Payoh and Thomson Road, will all too soon have to go. While the efforts will bring us new worlds some may wish to celebrate, with it will also come the inevitable crowd of concrete. And while it is nice to see that the Draft Master Plan 2013 does provide for many pockets of green spaces, there will however be but a few places left on the island that will be left to find an escape that for me will increasingly be needed.

Another view of the former Elders' Village.

Another view of the former Elders’ Village.


Changing Landscapes in the vicinity:






Riding on in a world that will soon change

26 11 2013

One of the few places in central Singapore left untouched by the spread of the concrete jungle, the area bounded by Thomson, Whitley Road (Pan Island Expressway) and Lornie Road, will in the not so distant future, see the change it has long resisted.

The area bounded by Thomson Road, Lornie Road and Whitley Road, hides some beautiful sights which has long resisted the advance of the concrete world.

The area bounded by Thomson Road, Lornie Road and Whitley Road, hides some beautiful sights which has long resisted the advance of the concrete world.

The area, a large part of which Bukit Brown Cemetery and the cemeteries adjoining it occupies, is where a calm and peaceful world now exists, one not just of cemetery land reclaimed in part by nature, but of laid back open spaces, colonial era bungalows beautifully set in lush greenery, and where horses sometimes outnumber cars on a few of its roads.

Gates of Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Gates of Bukit Brown Cemetery.

While it may be a while before the concrete invasion arrives – much of the area has been earmarked for housing developments in the longer term, the winds of change have begun to pick up speed. Alien structures related to the MRT Station have already landed and exhumation of graves affected by the new road through Bukit Brown will commence soon.

Notices of exhumation at Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Notices of exhumation at Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Close-by, across Thomson Road, which will soon see construction work beginning on the North-South Expressway, Toa Payoh Rise has been widened and looks nothing like the quiet and peaceful road it once was.

Toa Payoh Rise losing its gentle feel in 2010 as work started to widen the once laid-back road.

Marymount Convent, a long time occupant of the mound next to Toa Payoh Rise, already once affected by the construction of Marymount Road, held its last mass – the convent will have to vacate the land on which it has occupied for some 63 years. Not far away – at the corner where Mount Pleasant Road runs through, the houses and the Old Police Academy another with a long association with the area, will also not be spared. The expansive grounds of the academy was where many would have spent a Sunday afternoon in simpler days watching grown men kicking a ball on the field. Besides football matches close-up, one could sometimes get a treat of a glimpse at a parade or a Police Tattoo practice session as one passed on the bus.

Riding off into a sunset - the Old Police Academy south of the Polo Club will be one of the victims of the winds of change will may soon blow into the area.

Riding off into a sunset – the Old Police Academy south of the Polo Club will be one of the victims of the winds of change will may soon blow into the area.

With the many changes about to descend on the area, one probably constant along that stretch of Thomson Road – or at least the hope is there that it would be, is the Singapore Polo Club. A feature in the area for more than seven decades, the club first moved to the location, just as the dark days of the Occupation were upon us in 1941.

The Polo Club's grounds as seen from Thomson Road.

The Polo Club’s grounds as seen from Thomson Road.

Sitting across the huge monsoon drain in which many boys would once have been seen wading in to catch tiny fishes, the grounds of the Polo Club – with it huge green playing field, is one that I almost always kept a look out for, in the hope of catching a glimpse of a match underway.

Some of us would have fond memories of catching fish from the huge monsoon drain running by the eastern edge of the Polo Club.

Some of us would have fond memories of catching fish from the huge monsoon drain running by the eastern edge of the Polo Club.

The grounds, the lease on which the club holds for another 20 years, wasn’t the club’s first. One of the oldest polo clubs in the region (as well as being one of the oldest sporting clubs in Singapore) dating back to 1886 by officers of the King’s Own Regiment – not too long after the rules of modern polo was formalised. The first grounds on which the sport was played at was one shared with golfers of the Singapore Golf Club at the Race Course or what is Farrer Park today.

The Polo Club's Indoor Arena and Stables.

The Polo Club’s Indoor Arena and Stables.

It does seem that from a 1938 newspaper article contributed by René Onraet, the Inspector General of the Straits Settlements Police from 1935 to 1939, who was a keen polo player and also a President of the club that the game was also played at the reclamation site across Beach Road in front of Raffles Hotel. This was where the NAAFI Britannia Club / SAF NCO Club and Beach Road Camp were to come up, a site currently being developed into the massive Foster + Partners designed South Beach residential and commercial complex.

The grounds at Balestier Road which hosted the Singapore Polo Club from 1914 to 1941.

The grounds at Balestier Road which hosted the Singapore Polo Club from 1914 to 1941.

The club sought new premises after being prevented from using the Race Course grounds in 1913 – moving to its first dedicated grounds at Balestier Road (Rumah Miskin) in June 1914 – grounds now occupied by the cluster of buildings which once were used by the Balestier Boys’s School, Balestier Mixed School and Balestier Girls’ School.

The Prince of Wales playing polo at the Balestier Road ground in 1922 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

The Prince of Wales playing polo at the Balestier Road ground in 1922 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

The grounds were unfortunately limited in size, and a search was initiated for a new ground at the end of the 1930s. It was the club’s President, René Onraet, who was instrumental in securing the current premises, which incidentally was right by what was the Police Training School – the Old Police Academy.

The Singapore Polo Club has occupied its current grounds since 1941.

The Singapore Polo Club has occupied its current grounds since 1941. The grounds were said to have been used as vegetable plots during the Japanese Occupation.

Although the grounds were ready at the end of 1941, it wasn’t until 1946 that the first game of polo was played on the grounds which by the time required some effort to restore it. The war had seen the grounds turned, as a couple of newspaper reports would have it, into vegetable plots – complete with drainage ditches and water wells. The club’s website makes mention of the Japanese Imperial Army converting the grounds into a gun emplacement area, before turning it into a squatter’s camp.

Prince Charles participating in a game on the Thomson Road ground in 1974 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Prince Charles participating in a game on the Thomson Road ground in 1974 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Over the years, the club has expanded it membership and now includes activities such as equestrian sports, as well as having facilities for other sports. Along with club, the area around the club, also plays host to the likes of the Riding for the Disabled Association and the National Equestrian Centre at Jalan Mashhor.

The sun rises on Jalan Mashhor, home of the RDA and National Equestrian Centre.

The sun rises on Jalan Mashhor, home of the RDA and National Equestrian Centre.

Another view of Jalan Mashhor.

Another view of Jalan Mashhor.

The Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA).

The Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA).

The National Equestrian Centre - with the Mediacorp Caldecott Broadcast Centre seen in the background. The Broadcast Centre is scheduled to move to Buona Vista in 2015.

The National Equestrian Centre – with the Mediacorp Caldecott Broadcast Centre seen in the background. The Broadcast Centre is scheduled to move to Buona Vista in 2015.

The area where a healthy cluster of horse related activity centres are located is one which based on the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Draft Master Plan 2013 will be retained for sports and recreation use in the future.

Masjid Omar Salmah, at Jalan Mashhor which was built in the 1970s and is now long abandoned by Kampong Jantai it was built to serve.

Masjid Omar Salmah, at Jalan Mashhor which was built in the 1970s and is now long abandoned by Kampong Jantai it was built to serve.

Another view of the National Equestrian Centre.

Another view of the National Equestrian Centre.

The area where the Polo Club is (in green) on the recently released URA Draft Master Plan, is designated for Sports and Recreation use, but the rest of the area around it may see a change.

The area where the Polo Club is (in green) on the recently released URA Draft Master Plan, is designated for Sports and Recreation use, but the rest of the area around it may see a change (http://www.ura.gov.sg/MS/DMP2013/draft-master-plan/map.html).

While it does look like this might remain a beautiful world for some time to come, time is being called on the gorgeous world which now surrounds it. It won’t be long before the wooded areas across Thomson Road are cleared for development. The greater loss will however be the places of escape to the west. That is the green and beautiful world of the cemetery grounds. Grounds where men and horses, and perhaps the good spirits of the world beyond us, have but a few precious moments in which they can continue to roam freely in.

Jalan Mashhor at sunrise.

Jalan Mashhor at sunrise.

The road to nowhere ... at least for the time being.

The road to nowhere … at least for the time being (MRT related structures are clearly visible).


More on the game of Polo and how it is played in Singapore: A Royal Salute to the sport of kings.





The glow on All Saints Day

1 11 2013

The glow over the very recognisable bell tower of the Church of St. Alphonsus, better known as Novena Church, seen at 6.30 am on All Saints’ Day 2013. The bell tower dating back to 1956 is one of the structures for which time has been called when work starts on a much needed new church building (possibly after next year). The new building will be built on the area where St. Clement Pastoral Centre and the bell tower is as the old church building has been gazetted for conservation.

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60 years of the Procession

8 09 2013

Those familiar with what has come to be referred to as the Novena area of Singapore would probably know of an event, the Novena Procession in honour of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, once a year which sees crowds filling the two terraces used as car parking space in front of Novena Church. The event, held every first Sunday in September, is one which through much of its history, has also brought much colour to the area with beautiful floral decorations being put up on the church’s rather well known façade and on the two retaining walls flanking the church.

Decorations during the annual procession in 1987.

Decorations during the annual procession in 1987.

This year’s event which was held on 1 September 2013, which attracted a crowd of some 10,000, was one which also celebrated its 60th anniversary in Singapore and is the 61st edition of a tradition which was started by Fr. William Dowling in 1953. From the inaugural procession held on 21 June 1953, the annual event has attracted huge crowds – there have been occasions when crowds spilled onto the slopes leading down to Thomson Road and even the sidewalks on both sides of the busy street. The significance of the occasion also saw the Archbishop of Singapore, The Most Rev Msgr William Goh; the Superior General of the Redemptorists  Fr. Michael Brehl; and Fr Patrick Massang , the Vice-Provincial of Singapore/Malaysia in attendance with Fr. Brehl giving the sermon. 

Decorations at this year's procession.

Decorations at this year’s procession.

Despite the treat of a storm, crowds gathered well in advance with blue skies seen just before the start.

Despite the treat of a storm, crowds gathered well in advance with blue skies seen just before the start.

An image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help being carried during the procession.

An image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help being carried during the procession.

The Most Rev Msgr William Goh, the Archbishop of Singapore.

The Most Rev Msgr William Goh, the Archbishop of Singapore.

The procession which for many in the crowd, including for one man who has attended every procession since 1953, is a means to thank Mary, “Our Lady of Perpetual Help” for the many intercessions made and would have involved nine weeks of devotions in the lead-up to it. The practice of devotions to Our Lady of Perpetual Help is one that is popular with many followers and non-followers of the Catholic faith in Singapore and is one which sees the devotional sessions held every Saturday at the church, packed through the day. The devotional session is called a ‘Novena’ from the Latin word ‘novem‘ for nine as it does involve prayers made over nine consecutive occasions and is what has given its name not only to the church (which properly is the Church of St. Alphonsus), but also to the area and to the MRT station which now serves the area. The practice is one that is promoted by the religious community which runs the church, the Redemptorists, who traced their history in Singapore back to 1935

The Archbishop blessing the image of Our Lady.

The Archbishop with the image of Our Lady.

Fr. Michael Brehl delivering the sermon.

Fr. Michael Brehl delivering the sermon.

L-R: Fr. Simon Tan, Rector of St. Alphonsus; Fr. Patrick Massang, Vice-Provincial of Singapore and Malaysia; and Archbishop William Goh.

L-R: Fr. Simon Tan, Rector of St. Alphonsus; Fr. Patrick Massang, Vice-Provincial of Singapore and Malaysia; and Archbishop William Goh.

The crown after the blessing.

The crown after the blessing.

Archbishop William Goh crowing the image.

Archbishop William Goh crowing the image.

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The practice of putting up floral decorations on the church’s front – there have been some very elaborate and beautiful ones put up in the past, goes back to 1959, when Redemptorist Brother Casimir Godebye, came up with the idea, with many in the congregation donating flowers for the effort. The decorations have of late, including this year’s, have become a lot simpler in form compared to the decorations of that I have seen in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s – I did dig up some photographs of the one put up during the procession that was put up in celebration that coincided with the Marian Year in 1987 which does show how beautiful the sight of the decorations – particularly when illuminated at night, could be.

More photographs from 1987

JeromeLim Novena 1987 (3)

JeromeLim Novena 1987

This year’s celebration will also be one of the last that will see it celebrated as has been for the last 60 years in front of the old church – expansion work planned for the church which will see a new church building built next to the old (which has conservation status), is slated to be carried out after next year’s procession. Estimated to cost some S$45 million, the fund raising efforts have so far raised just above half of the amount necessary – work will commence once 70% of the estimated costs have been raised.

More photographs from this year’s procession

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Archbishop William Goh addressing the crowd.

Archbishop William Goh addressing the crowd.

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Fr. Simon Tan speaking.

Fr. Simon Tan speaking.

A video made for the 60th Anniversary looking back at the history of the Procession





Finding the old in the new – a walk down part of Thomson Road

12 01 2013

The stretch of Thomson Road between Balestier Road and Moulmein Road is one that I am well acquainted with. It is a stretch that was an invariable part of the twelve years of almost daily bus journeys to kindergarten, primary and secondary school and best known perhaps for a religious landmark, the Catholic Church of St. Alphonsus, popularly known as ‘Novena Church’ – so much so that the church has lent its name to the area where it is located. The twelve years, from 1969 to 1980, were ones in which there were significant changes made to the road and its surroundings. One big change was the widening of the road which resulted in pieces of property on the west side of the road losing valuable frontages. Another was the addition of a private women’s and children’s hospital which has set the standards for maternity hospitals in Singapore.

Developments around Velocity have quickened the pace of change in a world where some semblance of the old can (at least for now) still be found.

Developments around Velocity have quickened the pace of change in a world where some semblance of the old can (at least for now) still be found.

The stretch has seen many significant changes including being widened, but does contain a few recognisable landmarks.

The stretch has seen many significant changes including being widened.

The hospital, Thomson Medical Centre, came up close to the end of the twelve years, occupying a plot of land at the start of the south end of the stretch. Known for its innovative approach towards the birth experience of mothers, it does today feature another innovation – the basement of the refurbished building hides one of the first mechanised car parks in Singapore which was added in the mid 2000s. The hospital is the brainchild of a well known gynaecologist, Dr. Cheng Wei Chen, better known as Dr. W. C. Cheng. Built at a cost of $10 million on a terrace on the western side of the road – one of the buildings it was built in place of was a glorious mansion which Dr. Cheng had used as his clinic, the hospital’s opening in 1979 saw a hospital built so to make delivery a less than clinical experience.

The mansion along Thomson Road in which Dr W C Cheng moved his obstetrics and gynaecology practice to from the 2nd floor of the old Cold Storage.

The mansion along Thomson Road in which Dr. W C Cheng moved his obstetrics and gynaecology practice to from the 2nd floor of the old Cold Storage (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book).

The house which Dr. Cheng used as his clinic was a landmark in the area for many years. Standing on a terrace behind a wall, it never failed to catch my attention over the many bus journeys I made. The house I was to discover, does have an interesting history that goes well beyond the clinic. Besides being the home of Dr. Cheng’s in-laws – Dr. Cheng had moved his practice to the house in the early 1970s from a clinic he operated on the second floor of the old Cold Storage on Orchard Road, the house, was also where the origins of Novena Church in Singapore could be traced to. That I will come to a little later. Besides the clinic, there was another landmark (or so it seemed) that was brought down in 1978 to make way for the hospital – a four storey building named Adam Court and an associated two storey building which served as a garage. Adam Court housed one of the first Yamaha Music Schools in Singapore which moved into it at the end of the 1960s. A check in the online newspaper archives reveals that there was also a private school, Adam Court Educational Centre, which operated for a while in the building at the start of the 1970s. (I have also since posting this learnt that another music school belonging to Mrs. Madeline Aitken, who had once been described as the ‘grand dame of piano teachers’ had occupied the building before Yamaha moved in).

Another view of the mansion - it had been the belong to Dr Cheng's in-laws prior to him setting up his clinic there.

Another view of the mansion – it had been the belong to Dr Cheng’s in-laws prior to him setting up his clinic there (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book). The mansion had also been the first premises of the Redemptorist mission which arrived in 1935 – the Redemptorists run the Novena Church in Singapore.

The four storey building, Adam Court, next to Dr. W. C. Cheng's clinic seen from Thomson Road before it was incorporated into TMC in 1979. The two storey building in the foreground was a parking garage for Adam Court.

The four storey building, Adam Court, next to Dr. W. C. Cheng’s clinic seen from Thomson Road before it was incorporated into TMC in 1979 (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book). The two storey building in the foreground was a parking garage for Adam Court.

What is perhaps today the most recognisable landmark in the area is Novena Church. Its origins can be traced back to the arrival from Australia of the Redemptorist mission in Singapore in 1935. The Redemptorist community is best known for its promotion of devotions to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, devotions referred to as ‘Novena’ from the Latin word ‘novem’ for nine – the devotions involve prayers made over nine consecutive occasions. Devotional prayer services or ‘Novena’ sessions held on Saturdays at the church have over the years proven to be very popular with both followers and non-followers of the faith and the current Redemptorist church, the Church of St. Alphonsus, has come to be referred to as ‘Novena Church’.

Thomson Medical Centre when it it opened in 1979. The bulk of it was built on the side which contained Adam Court.

Thomson Medical Centre when it it opened in 1979 (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book). The bulk of it was built on the side which contained Adam Court.

Thomson Medical Centre today.

Thomson Medical Centre today.

The Redemptorist community upon their arrival, rented the mansion where Dr. Cheng was to later set up his clinic and only moved from the premises after the Second World War ended, first up Thomson Road to where the Chequers Hotel once stood (which later became the ill-fated Europa Country Club Resort). It at the second premises where the first public Novena devotions were held, commencing in November 1945. It was in 1950 that they moved to their current premises. A new chapel which became the Church of St Alphonsus (after the founder of the order) designed by Swan and Maclaren was built and was blessed on 14 May 1950. Several structures have been added since: a bell tower and residences at the back of the Church were added in 1956; side verandahs in the 1980s; and the St. Clement Pastoral Centre and new residences in the 1990s.

Inside Novena Church - the church is always packed on Saturdays during Novena services and a much bigger church is now needed.

Inside Novena Church – the church is always packed on Saturdays during Novena services and a much bigger church is now needed.

Even with the more recent additions the appearance of the church is still as recognisable as it was during my younger days. The church building itself is one dominated by triple arc pediment at the front. There is however, a huge change that may soon render that as a less recognisable feature of the church. Although the building has been gazetted for conservation on 8 June 2011, it will soon see itself in the shadow of a new and much larger church building which will come up next to it. This is part of a necessary $45 million expansion which will not only see a much-needed expansion of the church’s seating capacity, it will also see the construction of a basement car park and a new pastoral centre (the present one will be demolished to make way for the new building). Work will commence once 70% of necessary funds have been raised.

The once familiar façade of Novena Church which has conservation status will soon be dominated by a much larger building.

The once familiar façade of Novena Church which has conservation status will soon be dominated by a much larger building (image source: http://novenachurch.com).

Besides the church, there are also several structures which date back to my days in the school or public bus. There are two sets of private apartment blocks on the same side of the church just north of it which seems to be a constant there. The block further from the church has a row of shops located beneath it. It was in that row of shops where one, Java Indah, had in the 1970s, sold the best lemper udang that I have bitten into. The cake shop was started by an Indonesian lady, Aunty Neo, sometime around 1973 – well before Bengawan Solo started. It was perhaps better known for its kueh lapis, which was also distributed through the various supermarkets. The shop was later run by Aunty Neo’s niece and moved for a while to Balestier Hill Shopping Centre before disappearing. The row of shops also contains a dive equipment shop which is still there after all these years – it was from the shop that I bought my first set of snorkeling equipment back in the late 1970s.

The block where Java Indah and the best lemper udang was once found.

The block where Java Indah and the best lemper udang was once found.

One of two private apartment blocks next to Novena Church.

One of two private apartment blocks next to Novena Church.

The dive equipment shop today.

The dive equipment shop today.

Speaking of Balestier Hill Shopping Centre, that was an addition made sometime midway through the twelve year period. Situated across from where Thomson Medical Centre is today, the low-rise Housing and Development Board (HDB) cluster is where the very first Sri Dewa Malay barber shop moved to from its original location further south opposite Novena Church. Sri Dewa possibly started the Malay barber craze in the late 1960s and early 1970s and at its height, boasted of some 22 outlets. That outlet is one that I visited on many occasions – I was (as many of my schoolmates were) often sent there by the discipline master of Balestier Hill Technical School which I went to for technical classes in Secondary 3 and 4. He did always seem to have very different standards for what short and neat hair meant than our own discipline master.

Balestier Hill Shopping Centre which was completed in 1977.

Balestier Hill Shopping Centre which was completed in 1977.

The cluster which a post office could once be found in has always seemed a rather quiet place. Work on it started sometime in 1975 and was completed in 1977, and it was built partly on land occupied by a row of terraced houses by Thomson Road. What perhaps was interesting was the land behind that row – it and the hill on which the technical school, the first to be purpose built (and two primary schools) came up in the early 1960s. That was once owned by the Teochew clan association Ngee Ann Kongsi and used as a Teochew cemetery around the turn of the 20th century. Evidence of this did surface during the clearing work to build Balestier Hill Shopping Centre – a coffin with some human remains was uncovered at the foot of the hill in December 1975.

The road up to Balestier Hill where three schools were located. The hill was once used as a Teochew cemetery.

The road up to Balestier Hill where three schools were located. The hill was once used as a Teochew cemetery.

Right next to the road up to Balestier Hill in between the shopping centre and the private flats is a Shell service station which has been there since I first became acquainted with it. My father was a regular at the station, Yong Kim Service Station, from the days when he drove his Austin 1300. Loyalty gifts were commonly given to customers then, and my parents do still have some of the sets of cups and drinking glasses that were given out back at the end of the 1960s.

The former Yong Kim Service Station.

The former Yong Kim Service Station.

Besides these structures, there are also several more which have not changed very much along the road. One is another religious complex, across from Novena Church, where the Seventh-day Adventist Chinese Church and the San Yu Adventist School can be found – which dates back to the 1950s. Not far from that is a house which has also been a constant there, retaining its original design over the years. The house is one that was affected by road widening – it once sat on a even larger plot of land which was lined with a row of palm trees along the road.

The Seventh Day Adventist Chinese Church and San Yu Adventist School.

The Seventh-day Adventist Chinese Church and San Yu Adventist School.

A house that was once fronted by a road of plam trees.

A house that was once fronted by a road of plam trees.

Just south of Novena Church, across what is today Irrawaddy Road, is another part of the area which had for seemed to be always there. That however is also soon about to change. The cluster of blue and white buildings and a red brick wall in the fenced off compound takes one back to the late 1950s / early 1960s and were once where stores of the Electricity Department of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) (before that became corporatised) were located. They have since fallen into disuse and a recent tender exercise conducted by the Urban Redevelopment Corporation means that it will soon see it being redeveloped. The tender was awarded to Hoi Hup Realty Pte Ltd, Sunway Developments Pte Ltd and Hoi Hup J.V. Development Pte Ltd and is slated for mixed use development which will include a hotel.

The former stores of the Electricity Department of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) before corporatisation will probably be the next to go.

The former stores of the Electricity Department of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) before corporatisation will probably be the next to go.

Adjacent to the former stores is where two storey shophouses which once lined the road and the Jewish Cemetery behind them have made way for a shopping mall, Novena Square (now Velocity @ Novena Square) and an Novena MRT station. The mall was completed in 2000 and was built by UOL. I remember the shophouses that lined the road for one thing – the image of an elderly man sitting on a chair outside the shophouse has remained in my memory from my upper primary school days. There was also a two storey house that had long stood at the corner of Thomson and Moulmein Roads which always seemed unoccupied and used as a storeroom during my primary school days which has since disappeared.

Velocity as seen close to the junction of Moulmein and Thomson Roads where a two storey house once stood.

Velocity as seen close to the junction of Moulmein and Thomson Roads where a two storey house once stood.

One of the things I should perhaps mention is how busy the sidewalk down the slope from Novena Church were in the 1960s and early 1970s on Saturdays when hourly Novena services are held. Many among the thousands of church-goers that came and went thronged the sidewalks in search of treats from the food and snack stalls set up to cater for the crowd. Among the food vendors there were some who were to set up successful baking businesses later after the stalls were cleared.

The sidewalks just below the slope up to Novena Church were always busy on Saturdays when many stalls selling food and snacks were set up to cater for the church going crowd.

The sidewalk just below the slope up to Novena Church were always busy on Saturdays when many stalls selling food and snacks were set up to cater for the church going crowd.


Afternote:

It has been brought to my attention by Mr William Cheng, the architect of Thomson Medical Centre (TMC) that the old Adam Centre or Adam Court (Yamaha Music School) was not demoished but incorporated into the Right Wing Consultant Suite Block. That is where Dr. Cheng has his consultant suites on the ground floor. In addition, a new elevator core for 2 low speed lifts was added and annexed to the new TMC building with an extra floor was added.

Mr Cheng has also added that the TMC Building was designed and built in a record time of 8-9 months. During the construction Dr. Cheng did not maintained his practice at the renovated consultant suite on the ground of the old Adam Centre which he moved to from the old house and has remained there until today.

Mr Cheng also pointed out that iconic arches were introduced to the top of the TMC building’s façades to “maintain the spirit of the old 339 Thomson Road house”. These were moved to the new façades when the TMC building was extended in 2000 to 2002. The “innovative first-of-its kind in Singapore automatic computer controlled mechanical underground carpark” was built to provide additional car parking spaces.






Toa Payoh on the Rise

15 09 2010

Rising gradually and somewhat obscurely off Lorong 1 in Toa Payoh, a somewhat lonely and forgotten little road that starts between an old school building and an empty plot of land leads to the crest of a little hill on top of which once stood one of the major public hospitals in Singapore. Part of the road – the section that leads from the former hospital down to Thomson Road, had probably been the first named after the area that was to be one of the first planned satellite towns in Singapore, Toa Payoh. It had been named Toa Payoh Road prior to 1961 and was subsequently renamed Toa Payoh Rise, to avoid confusing it with what was to become a main thoroughfare, Jalan Toa Payoh, now part of the Pan Island Expressway.

Toa Payoh Rise today.

I had first been acquainted with the area in the late 1960s, as a somewhat reluctant companion to my mother who taught at the school on Lorong 1, aptly named First Toa Payoh Primary School being the first school to be built for the new satellite town (the word back then was that the subsequent schools being planned would be named in the order of build). I would accompany my mother on Saturday mornings, when I was home as kindergarten was on only five days a week. Back then, Alternate Saturdays were school days and the other Saturdays working days, so what it meant was that school teachers would be in school for at least half a day. I suppose it was common then for teachers to bring their children along on Saturdays, as I remember having many companions – fellow children of school teachers with me in the school’s staff room.

First Toa Payoh Primary School in 1968 soon after it opened. On the left of the photograph, a 10 storey block of flats, Block 167, typical of the early Toa Payoh, can be seen - that stand on what is now an empty plot of land.

The main school building had been one that was typical of those that were built post-independence – a U-shaped four storey high building – the three sections surrounded a little quadrangle that with its two flag poles right smack in the front of the centre section, formed an assembly area. The paved area extended further back to the fence and served as a car park. Behind the main building, the school canteen with its long rows of tables and benches, doubled up as a school hall and with badminton courts marked on the floor and a stage at one end, the food stalls being at the other. The pathway to this building also led down to the expansive school field behind the school – that was down a steep slope via a long flight of stairs to a field that not only served the student population, but what had seemed a resident population of pythons and cobras that were frequently sighted in the drains that surrounded the school field. The buildings and the field are still there today, now the temporary premises of St. Nicholas Girls’ School.

The former First Toa Payoh Primary School building is today the temporary premises of St. Nicholas Girls' School.

Across the road from the school, there was a cluster of flats that have since disappeared – blocks 164, 165, 166 and 167. The blocks had stood on a raised table of land and accessible from Lorong 1 by several flights of stairs. The flats had hidden a cluster of low rise buildings further up the road, one that was well protected by a fence around it that told perhaps of its use. That was the Toa Payoh Girls’ Home, which was opened 1968 to replace the York Hill Home, and was meant to serve as a refuge for destitute girls as well as for the rehabilitation of young offenders and delinquents. The home was in operation up to 2006 when it moved to new premises and was renamed the Singapore Girls’ Home. These days, the cluster of buildings sits silently behind the fence, awaiting perhaps redevelopment in what must be a prime piece of land.

Up the slope from Lorong 1, where Blocks 164, 165, 166 and 167 had once towered over much of Toa Payoh, an empty landscape now greets the observer.

The former Toa Payoh Girls' Home, seen through the locked gate.

The cluster of buildings of the former girls' home now sits silently behind a fence and locked gate which now keeps people out rather than keeping girls in.

Beyond the home, lies the crest of the small hill which Toa Payoh Rise rises up to – a clearing there these days with quite a fair bit of construction activity going on for a Circle Line MRT station, erasing any evidence of its past as the site of one of Singapore’s public hospitals – the Toa Payoh Hospital, and before it was renamed on 1 April 1975, the Thomson General Hospital or Thomson Road Hospital. The hospital had been set up in 1959, opening in May of that year, as a hospital for the chronic sick and included a nursing school as part of its complex. Set in a quiet and somewhat secluded area, the only means of access to it in the early days was via Toa Payoh Rise from Thomson Road. It had been a hospital that I visited on many occasions … my maternal grandmother in her later years had frequent stays there and I myself had been a patient, having been warded whilst I was in Secondary 2 with an illness that deprived me of 8 months of playing football. I had on two occasions visited the A&E Department as well, once when I had a nasty spill taking a corner on a racing bicycle in 1980 that had half my tee-shirt covered in blood and required several stitches to be put in my head … and another time when I had an extremely high fever after returning home from an overseas trip in 1991. The hospital closed its doors in 1997 and moved, lock, stock and barrel to Simei as the New Changi Hospital which is now known as the Changi General Hospital (CGH). More information on the history of Toa Payoh Hospital can be found at CGH’s website.

The former Thomson Road Hospital and its nursing school in its early days.

Another view of the former Toa Payoh Hospital (source: http://www.healthcare50.sg).

The top of Toa Payoh Rise, once a quiet spot - ideal for the former Toa Payoh / Thomson General Hospital which had once stood there.

Where a main public hospital once stood, an empty plot of land now stands. The construction activity going on for the Circle Line MRT station will erase all traces of what might still be left as a reminder.

The view from the grounds of the former hospital towards the fence of the former girls' home and beyond to Toa Payoh.

At the crest of the hill where the road that led to the hospital is, there is another building that still serves its intended function – the School for the Visually Handicapped, and a little beyond that, the Association for the Visually Handicapped. Beyond the crest and the area where the hospital had stood, the road rolls downward towards its junction with Thomson Road. That had been a nice shady and wooded area – one through which I enjoyed my frequent walks through – not just for the peace and calm it provided me, but as a “short-cut” when I was older, to Thomson Road where I could hop on the many buses which could take me down Thomson Road and to the city. That would take me past a cluster of flats beyond the line of trees which are still there today, marked by a sign on the road. Further down at the junction, there used to be a Mobil Service Station – one that stood as a landmark for many years – which has quite recently disappeared. Much has changed in the area around the junction over the years and it is hard to imagine now what it might have been like … something I guess might soon be said as well about Toa Payoh Rise.

A road sign at the crest of the hill seeks silence for the School for the Visually Handicapped and also previously for the hospital that had stood nearby.

What had once been a quiet wooded area now sees much construction activity which involves the construction of an MRT station and the widening of the road that will completely disfigure what had once been an escape from the concrete jungle.

A sign off Toa Payoh Rise pointing towards the cluster of low-rise flats that are still there today.

The junction of Toa Payoh Rise and Thomson Road ... looking to where the Mobil Service Station had once stood.





Adventures with numbers

19 05 2010

No, I don’t mean math! But I did have a lot of adventures associated with numbers back in the days of my childhood. It was back when we had the likes of Stanley Kramer’s madcap It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and the lovable Volkswagen Beetle named Herbie that Disney gave us in the Love Bug (numbered 53), which perhaps laid the ground for my own adventures on wheels, or so I imagined. It was cretainly with the numbers on wheels that seemed to be the source of many an adventure then, from the ones I got with the long drives my father took us for in his Austin 1100 numbered 793 (that being the number on the car registration plate, SM 793) to the far flung corners of Singapore and to the hills and beaches that lay across the Causeway, to the adventures of my own on the minibus that carried me to school, numbered 388 (being CB 388). While sitting on the backseat (and roof) of the 793 did provide a fair bit of adventure, it was on the 388 that perhaps made life for a boy of school-going age a lot more fun, and looking back, school days at St. Michael’s School would certainly not have been complete and made all the more exciting if it wasn’t for the 388. It was on the 388 where we, the closet mischievous school boys that many of us were, could express this inclination, free from the watchful and critical eyes of our parents and teachers. There was a big adventure each day for us to look forward to; adventures through which bonds were built that have survived to this day.

On the roof of my father's SM 793, Changi Beach, early 1970s ... adventures weren't just confined to sitting on the backseat, but also on the roof. However, it was on the school bus CB 388 that I had most fun on.

For five out of the six years I spent in primary school, with the exception of Primary 4 during which my parents allowed me to venture on the public bus for the journey to school, the 388 was what carried me to and from school. There were a few occasions when I did skip taking the 388, as I did when my parents did decide to drop me off or pick me up, and that one occasion in Primary 3 when I made my way home on foot, having missed the bus (for reasons that have escaped me).

The staircase at the foot of Block 53 where the 388 would pick me up from.

The route that took me from the foot of Block 53 Toa Payoh where I lived, to St. Michael’s School each school day, brought me and my fellow passengers around much of Toa Payoh, with the last stop being the curved block (Block 157) at the corner of Lorong 1 and 2. Following this, the journey that would take us over the flyover to Jalan Toa Payoh, and out to the slip road that connected with Thomson Road non-stop to school. We would usually have to spend some time at the corner, having to wait in the traffic that often crawled into Thomson Road, during which I remember being fascinated by the comings and goings of the compound on which a zinc building stood (I can’t remember if it was built completely in zinc sheets, but it at least has a zinc roof), which gave me an impression of being used as a sawmill (or at least where wooden planks were stored), which I got from the numerous wooden planks that lay in stacks in the yard. This building occupied the little strip of land wedged between the slip road and the canalised Sungei Whampoa, on which perhaps the apartment block that occupies the space at the same corner has been built. It was from this point where our adventures would usually end, our mischievousness returning to the closets they came out from.

The area by the slip road from Jalan Toa Payoh to Thomson Road by Sungei Whampoa where the zince building stood.

Through the stops and starts of most of the journey through Toa Payoh, with the driver usually distracted by having to focus on negotiating through the busy road, and the slower speeds that the bus could travel at, we had the perfect opportunity to get away with almost anything. And got away we very often did with our weapons of mass irritation: water pistols, rubber bands and paper bullets, self-fashioned “pea-shooters” from straws with which a mouthful of green beans could be discharged through, with which we could take aim, and rain a barrage of beans, paper bullets and streams of water at unsuspecting motorists and pedestrians, from the relative security offered by the narrow windows of the minibus. There were a few occasions when, out of ammunition, some of the boys would aim a short shout of “chicken shit” or the like at a pedestrian, catching them off-guard and drawing nothing more serious than a bewildered stare. When the exercise of mischievousness did catch the eye of the driver, he did usually try to discipline us with his thin whip of rattan when traffic conditions permitted. This sometimes ended up going through the window or being broken in two. He would sometimes have to deal in the same way with the fights that often broke out between some of the boys, cheered on by the rest of the juvenile occupants of the minibus, with the cane often losing out in the same way.

Rubber Bands and Paper Bullets

Once out of Toa Payoh and onto Thomson Road, things usually settled down. For one, there was less pedestrian traffic along the short stretch of Thomson Road to school. This would also mean a relatively short journey which remained, putting us greater risk of incurring the wrath of the driver once we got to our destination. Back to our best behaviour, all we could do then was stare silently out the window, as we impatiently looked forward to getting to school where a different set of adventures would await us.

The rest of the journey down Thomson Road, which looked very different then, would be accompanied by a calm after the storm.








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