These days, industrial estates are very much a feature of Singapore’s landscape outside the city as much as the HDB public housing estates are. Many would not bat an eyelid at the clusters of uninspired high-rise industrial buildings that dot the landscape. Built to house light industries, these high-rise factory buildings, referred to as flatted factories, were “imported” to Singapore at the time of the rapid industrialisation programme of the 1960s.
Prior to the building of the first flatted factories, light industries such as metal working, shoe making, textiles and paper products manufacturing, had been accommodated in a mix of low rise units. Many operated out of pre-war shophouses or makeshift wooden and zinc -factories – some of which may have been squatting on state land.
Redevelopment, as well as the pressing need to develop new factory space for light industries to fuel growth, saw Singapore look towards Hong Kong, where the mainstay of the economy had been its small manufacturers. The building of multi-storey factory buildings, which provide large amounts of inexpensive factory space close to its urban centre – close to its source of labour and also where there was easy access to transportation, had proven a great success.
A pilot programme initiated by the Economic Development Board, gave us the first flatted factory buildings in 1966. Built at Tanglin Halt, Bendeemer, Kallang and Kampong Ampat, space in the five-storey flatted factory blocks were quickly taken up and many more were built.
This success also led to private investment in flatted factories. Along with those built by that were built by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC), there were also many privately developed multi-storey factory blocks that have cropped up all over Singapore over the years.
Along with those built within the boundaries of public housing estates such as Queenstown and Toa Payoh, large clusters of flatted factories also came up in light industrial estates. One such estate is the Kolam Ayer Industrial Park, which features a rather interesting mix of private and JTC built flatted factory buildings.
The industrial park, is perhaps best known for the names of its roads. Some such as Tannery Lane, shed some light on the industrial history of the area. There are others that have puzzling origins – such as one with the strangest of names, Kallang Pudding Road.
It is suggested that the pudding in the name originates from the pokok puding, Malay for the croton plant – a commonly seen shrub with variegated leaves. A road that served as a “shortcut” for my parents on their drives back from the Kallang area to Toa Payoh, where we lived, in my younger days; my overactive imagination had it as being a reference to the pudding I thought the swamp that once occupied the area had been.
The name of the area, Kolam Ayer, which was at the confluence of the Kallang and Whampoa Rivers, alludes to it having been a body of water (it means a basin, pond or pool of water in Malay). Old maps show it as a huge tidal swamp – part of a much bigger Kallang Basin than the one we know today and one around which industries such as sawmills thrived. The maps also show the municipal dump and an incinerator that operated in the area up until 1959.
A huge inland reclamation project in the area commenced at the end of 1961. Earth recovered from the major public housing project that was taking shape in Toa Payoh was apparently used. Carried out with the intention of transforming the basin, which covered a total area of some 405 hectares, into Singapore’s second industrial estate.
The first phase of the project was completed in 1969. At that point, some 3.8 million cubic metres of earth was used in filling up 154 hectares out of an area of 182 hectares that would have been submerged at high tide.
New buildings started coming up on the reclaimed land from the late 1970s , with the bulk, including those erected by the JTC, built in the early 1980s. The estate is probably one of the more interesting industrial areas to wander around. coloured by a mix of old and new factory buildings – some of which sit on seemingly small plots of land.
The mix provides a completely different feel to ones built at one go. It isn't the lack of uniformity or its regular warehouse sales where one can pick up a bargain or two that makes the estate interesting; if one looks hard enough, there are also some rather interesting culinary offerings that certainly will alter one's perception of what an industrial estate can be all about.