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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.