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