Open up a box full of memories at the library

14 04 2013

As part of the Singapore Memory Project (SMP), an exhibition, “My Home, My Library” is being held at the Public Libraries. The exhibition which runs from 25 March to 29 April showcases many precious memories which have contributed by residents of each of the neighbourhoods the libraries are in, with the aim of serving as memory triggers to help more Singaporeans to add to the 830,000 pledges and contributions made thus far to the SMP.

Visitors can take a photo at the exhibition or of themselves at a photo wall, share it on Twitter or Instagram with a #sgmemory hashtag, in order to stand a chance to win up to $200 weekly.

The My Home, My Library exhibition offers visitors a chance to take a photo at the exhibition or of themselves at a photo wall and to share it on Twitter or Instagram to stand a chance of winning up to $200 weekly.

The biscuit tin of keepsakes and memories at the Library @ Esplanade.

The biscuit tin of keepsakes and memories at the library@esplanade.

At the exhibition, visitors will open a biscuit tin of memories, in the way that their parents or grandparents might have opened their tins and boxes with their mementos and keepsakes stashed in them, through a huge human height biscuit tin (which resembles a popular brand of biscuits many would have been familiar with). There are some 500 memories in the tinboxes found across all the libraries and in them, there may perhaps be some which could evoke a memory stashed away somewhere.

Front and Back Covers of the "Log Book" that I used.

My own tinbox of keepsakes includes a book bought from the bookshops along Bras Basah Road.

The exhibition offers visitors a chance not just to relive precious moments but also to win attractive prizes every week in the Snap & Share social media contest. All that is needed is for visitors to take a photograph of an interesting exhibit or of themselves at the photo wall (which has on its backdrop an image of the respective neighbourhood in days past), and share it via Twitter or Instagram hash-tagged with #sgmemory to stand a chance to win up to $200 in shopping vouchers on a weekly basis. What’s more, the most retweeted tweet will win a prize of $50 in shopping vouchers!

The memory submission stand.

The Memory Submission Stand.

Visitors will also have a chance to submit their memories at the Memory Submission Stand – fashioned from a large scale version of the all familiar Carnation Milk tin. Kids will also have a chance to stamp their mark at the at the Kids’ Stamping Station - I know stamping was one of my favourite activities as a child. There are 6 different locally inspired rubber stamp designs and kids can either bring that stamping work home or contribute their work towards the SMP.

The Kids' Stamping Station - surely a hit with kids.

The Kids’ Stamping Station – surely a hit with kids.

In conjunction with My Home, My Library the libraries also organised a couple of tours involving small groups of bloggers. I got a chance to bore a few bloggers all of whom were a lot younger than me, taking them to places in and around the library@esplanade in a nostalgia tour last Saturday. The places involved some which were close to  my heart and some in which I am still able to find memories of times which would otherwise have been forgotten. The places were ones which I hoped could also trigger the memories of the four bloggers who came along.

A stop on the nostalgia tour - the Children Little Museum.

A stop on the nostalgia tour – the Children Little Museum.

The first stop on the tour was at the NParks roving exhibition “Playsets of Yesteryears” currently at Raffles Place. In spite of the rain, we spotted a little girl in a raincoat determined to have a go at one of the swing sets. That brought back not just memories of playing in many similar playgrounds in my swinging sixties (and seventies), but also of times looking forward to the rain so as to play in the falling rain, splashing in the puddles and wading in the flood waters (I still sometimes look forward to doing some of that!). The installation has been organised by the National Parks Board (NParks) for the commemoration of 50 years of Greening Singapore and is in collaboration with the SMP. More on the installation and where it can be seen at can be found in a previous post The 1970s playground reinterpreted.

The temporary Playsets of Yesteryears at Raffles Place.

The temporary Playsets of Yesteryears installation at Raffles Place.

From Raffles Place, a place which holds a lot more memories of days shopping at Robinson’s and John Little’s and having chicken pies around the corner, we boarded a bus which took us to the next stop, Albert Centre. There we had a look at a wet market and at some street traders along the pedestrian mall at Waterloo Street. The market isn’t one that I had my main wet market experiences at, but as all wet markets are, they are (or at least the used to be) where life revolves around, as well as providing a multi-sensory experience with their sights, colours, sounds and even smells. The market at Albert Centre is one which probably carries with it the memories of what the streets around used to hold, the original vendors having moved into the residential cum commercial Housing and Development Board (HDB) complex when it was completed in 1980, having been displaced from the street markets at Queen Street  and Albert Street by urban redevelopment efforts which swept across the area at the end of the 1970s.

A vegetable vendor at the wet market.

A vegetable vendor at the wet market.

Markets were always fascinating places for me, until that is, when a vendor’s daughter pushed me into a basin of salted vegetables. It is in the markets that I find many of the memories I have of my childhood, although the sights, sounds (one particular sound was that of the cha-kiak - wooden clogs on the wet floor) and smells may now be a little different. Many revolved around live chickens, seeing them in cages, being chosen, weighed, slaughtered and de-feathered and occasionally being carried home alive, struggling in brown paper bags with red and white strings. There are many more memories I have which I do have some posts previously written on.

One particular memory I have of is mutton butchers towering over their huge log chopping blocks at Tekka Market (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

One particular memory I have of is mutton butchers towering over their huge log chopping blocks at Tekka Market (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

Just next to Albert Centre is a concentration of street traders at the end of  Waterloo Street and Albert Mall. The area sees high pedestrian traffic because of the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho and the Sri Krishnan Temples in the area which attracts a lot of devotees. Their presence there harks back to days when similar traders were commonly found on many other streets and one can find Chinese medicine men (that were especially common at pasar malams), fortune tellers, cobblers, as well as what one might expect, food, devotional objects and flower vendors.

A fortune teller's stand along Waterloo Street.

A fortune teller’s stand along Waterloo Street.

From Albert Centre, we headed to Bras Basah Complex, another HDB residential cum commercial that came up in 1980 – this without a wet market. The complex was also one which took in many traders from the area it is in. This included the many watch dealers, book, optician and stationery shops that occupied the shophouses that were cleared on North Bridge Road and the bookshops that the shophouses at Bras Basah Road between Waterloo and Bencoolen Streets were well visited for. Those bookshops were where I got my textbooks and revision books such as the ever so popular “ten-year-series” from and their move in 1980s drew many of us who went to school in the area to Bras Basah Complex. While many of the original bookshops have moved out, there are some of the other original stores that remain including some old school stationery shops (where we could get not just stationery but calculators, sports goods and harmonicas) and watch shops which take us back to its early days. Of the watch shops – it was from a similar one in Katong Shopping Centre where I obtained my very first wrist watch, an Otis for $70 back in 1976.

An old school watch dealer at Bras Basah Complex.

An old school watch dealer at Bras Basah Complex.

The next stop we had was Esplanade Park, better known as Esplanade or Queen Elizabeth Walk in the days when it was a popular outing spot to catch the sea breeze and indulge after in some satay and chendol. Back then walks in the evening were always interesting, not just for the sea breeze, the flicker of lights of the ships in the distance, or the beam of light from Fullerton Light that swept across the harbour, but also for the many traders scattered around the promenade. There were the usual kacang putih man, the balloon vendor who supported his colourful air-filled balloons with long tubular ones, and the snake charmer.

In search of the satay club at the Esplanade.

Bloggers +1 in search of the satay club at the Esplanade.

No longer there are the satay club which was at the location from 1971 to 1995, having moved from its original spot at Hoi How Road where we would sit at low tables on low stools and where satay would be piled up on a plate and charging was by the number of sticks consumed, as well as the semi-circular laid out Esplanade Food Centre which went in 1980 and which was possibly Singapore’s first built hawker centre coming up in the 1950s, which had been well known for its chendol. However, there are several memories including the Tan Kim Seng Fountain which used to serve as a marker of the former Satay Club, as well as another first - Singapore’s very first pedestrian underpass (as well as non surface pedestrian crossing) built in 1964 which connects Empress Place with the Esplanade.

Composite photograph of the Satay Club (and Esplanade Food Centre) and Esplanade Park today.

Composite photograph of the Satay Club (and Esplanade Food Centre) and Esplanade Park today.

From Esplanade Park, we moved next to the library@esplanade for the My Home, My Library exhibition there – that provided not just a look at the tinbox of memories but also provided some welcome relief for what was an extremely hot and sweaty morning. From that it was a drive by of the former site of the New Seventh Storey Hotel, and the DHL Balloon, which some may remember as landmarks (the DHL Balloon for a short while) in the Bugis/Rochor area, enroute to the Children Little Museum on Bussorah Street which holds in its toy shop full of old school toys and its museum of many full memories, many reminders of my (if not the other bloggers’) childhood. The toy shop and museum does also provide an appreciation perhaps of childhood toys and games over the generations – from simple cheap to make toys and low cost games, many a result of invention and improvisation, to more expensive and sophisticated ones, to the handheld electronic games which made an appearance in the late 1970s – the predecessors of the handheld video game consoles of today.

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There was time at the end of the tour and before the heavy downpour that was to come, to have lunch nearby. That was at the Seow Choon Hua Restaurant at Sultan Gate, popular for its Fuzhou (Foochow) dishes including Foochow fish ball noodles – which I had. There was also some time for me to share my experiences accompanying my maternal grandmother on a trishaw to the area nearby – Arab Street to be precise, an area she referred to a “Kampong Jawa” (as the area hosted a Javanese community), to do her shopping for items such as batik sarongs and bedak sejuk (powder sold in tablet  form). The street then as it is now, plays hosts to many textile shops – a reminder of a time it was common to have clothes made-to-measure. While such shops in other areas have gone – the popularity of ready-to-wear clothes from the late 1970s onwards meant that demand for textiles fell. Many such shops, especially those found in Toa Payoh Central, turned to selling ready-to-wear clothes and a large concentrations of them are now found only on Arab Street.

Foochow Fishball Noodles at Seow Choon Hua.

Foochow Fishball Noodles at Seow Choon Hua.


About My Home, My Library:

The Singapore Memory Project presents “My Home, My Library” – a nationwide exhibition showcasing personal memories contributed by residents of each neighbourhood. From library romances to tok-tok noodle carts and kampong life, each memory tells a unique story that forms a portrait of our home and our libraries. Take a peek into our treasure trove of stories and share some of your own precious memories with your fellow residents. For more information, please click here. My Home, My Library runs at all public libraries (except for Geylang East which is under renovation) until 29 April 2013.


About the Singapore Memory Project (SMP):

The SMP is a national initiative started in 2011 to collect, preserve and provide access to Singapore’s knowledge materials, so as to tell the Singapore Story. It aims to build a national collection of content in diverse formats (including print, audio and video), to preserve them in digital form, and make them available for discovery and research.

Currently, members of the public can submit their memories for the project by”


Do also read about the impressions My Home, My Library left on some of the other bloggers:






A walk on the wild side

15 05 2011

I took a walk into a world where there might not have been one, where gold, crimson and blue tinged fairies dance a flight of joy, a joy that’s echoed in the singing of songs of joy that eludes ears made weary by the cacophony of the grey world we have found ourselves in. It is a world that seeks to be found in the midst of the cold grey world we find around us, a world that we may soon lose with the lost of the reasons for its being. The world I speak of is none other than the Green Corridor that has existed solely because of the railway which has allowed a green and seemingly distant world to exist next to the concrete world that we have created in our island.

A world that seeks to be discovered - but how much longer will it be there for us?

The walk on the wild side passed through some two kilometres of plush greenery which now probably exists only because of the railway that runs through the area.

The walk that I took was with a group of some 30 people, led by the Nature Society of Singapore and the National Library Board (NLB) to a stretch that I had previously only seen from the perspective of a passenger on the train. It was a short but interesting walk that started at the foot of a railway bridge across Dunearn and Bukit Timah that takes me back to my childhood days – the black truss bridge that I have since my early days looking out for it from the back seat of my father’s Austin 1100, associated with the area. Led by our expert guide, Ms Margie Hall, we were taken not just on a history trip through the slightly more than two kilometre route to the road bridge over the railway at Old Holland Road (close to its junction with Ulu Pandan/Holland Roads), but on a nature trail, as names of birds some of which as Singaporeans we have forgotten about, rattled off Ms Hall’s tongue.

The railway bridge, our starting point, was one that I have identified with the area since my early days spent looking out for it from the back seat of my father's Austin 1100.

One of the features of the walk from a historical perspective was of course the station at Bukit Timah, built to serve the great railway deviation of 1932 which turned the line in that direction and onto Tanjong Pagar. These days, the station serves more as a point where the exchange of the key token, made necessary by the single track is made, a practice I have observed many times from my many encounters with the train.

Bukit Timah Station now serves as a point for the exchange of the key token. In the days gone by, the station was where racehorses coming in to race at the Turf Club were offloaded as well.

A waiting train at Bukit Timah Station.

It was beyond the station that my journey of discovery started. Looking into the distance the width of the clearing through which the line ran looked very much wider than most of the other areas I was familiar with. This was understandable from the perspective of the station itself where alternate tracks for waiting trains to shunt onto were necessary. The width was of course explained by the fact that a line had branched off at the station – the old Jurong Line which was constructed in a project initiated by the Economic Development Board (EDB) to supplement the development of Jurong Industrial Estate. The line ran in parallel for a short distance before turning west into a tunnel under Clementi Road – what is now an area with dense vegetation that is featured in Liao Jiekai’s award winning movie Red Dragonflies which is currently on a limited run at Filmgarde Iluma. The stretch is already popular with cyclists and joggers who in using the stretch of the Green Corridor, shows that there is already a lush stretch of greenery that is ready made – with the authorities having to spend very little money to develop compared to the millions spent on the park connector network. Ms Hall also shared her visions for the area, saying that the tracks should be kept along with the station in its original condition – the station, which has also been listed as one with conservation status (meaning that only its façade needs to be conserved). Ms Hall felt that conserving the station without keeping it in the original condition would not serve the purpose of conserving it – something that I certainly agree with. Some of the thoughts she had included running a replica railway over a short length of tracks to and from the station to allow future generations to have an appreciation for the trains which had served us for over a century.

The stretch of the Green Corridor is already popular with joggers ...

... and cyclists ... proving that is already a long "park connector" that is ready for use.

The clearing through which the portion of the corridor south of Bukit Timah Station runs is wider than most other parts of the rail corridor.

Ms. Hall felt that the tracks should be kept in place for our future generations to appreciate.

The area where the Jurong Line would have turned off into the tunnel is marked by piles of wooden railway sleepers and is one where we stopped and were able to take in the diversity of birds and insects in their songs and dances of joy in and around the lush greenery before us. It was at this point where Ms Hall was in her element, being able to identify birds from the sounds that rose above the others in the background, identifying that of an Iora and a Tailorbird upon hearing their calls. Ms Hall also pointed out Long-Tailed Parakeets high in the trees as well as a pair of Scaly-Breasted Munias foraging in the grass. From this point the corridor is marked with a narrow path through which we passed through single file. The sight of the bridge over Old Holland Road which marked the end of the trail brought with it what was perhaps an ominous gathering of dark clouds … dark clouds that seem to hover over the future of a wonderful gift of nature that Singaporeans seemed to have passed over.

It wasn't just red dragonflies that were able to discover ...

... but also saffron coloured ones ...

... and turquoise coloured ones as well.

A parakeet perched high at the top of a tree - one of the many birds we encountered.

Morning Glory.

A cassava or tapioca leaf.

Proceeding single file on towards Old Holland Road.

For the Green Corridor, the first of July this year sees not only sees the end of its use by the railway, but its continued existence would be under threat. The indications are that there are already plans to redevelop some of the areas which would be reclaimed by Singapore. During the budget debate in Parliament in March this year, the then Foreign Minister George Yeo was quoted as saying that “the development of areas along the railway line, including Silat Estate and the expansion of the One-North business park in Buona Vista, will start after July 1″ (see the Straits Times report dated 4 March 2011). It has also come to my attention that a tender was called for the “removal and storage of railway including ancillary structures from Woodlands Train Checkpoint to Tanjong Pagar Railway Station” which closed recently with work scheduled to commence on 1 July 2011. It does look that proposals to retain the green corridor made by the NSS has largely been overlooked by the authorities involved, and the authorities are pressing ahead with the redevelopment of a rich natural resource and a part of our green heritage. It is a shame if this does happen, as not only will we see the last of the passing locomotives and carriages that weaved their way slowly across the island for over a century, but also the last bits of a part of Singapore that the railway has given to Singapore. It only through my recent wanderings that I have become so well acquainted with some portions of it and have began to have a appreciation for what the corridor is worth to us. There are some wonderful ideas that advocates of the Green Corridor have for preserving the corridor – some were in fact presented and discussed right after the walk which was part of a programme that included a forum. This I would touch on in another post. What I hope for is that whoever is involved in the plans for the redevelopment of the area pauses to consider some of these proposals more seriously and to also consider we and more importantly our future generations, would be losing should the Green Corridor be taken over by the concrete jungle that so much of Singapore has now become.

Arched brickwork of a culvert supporting the railway tracks near Old Holland Road.

The little things that matter - the rich biodiversity that the railway corridor supports would be lost to the concrete jungle should plans to redevelop the corridor be executed.

From one bridge to the next ... the bridge at Old Holland Road under which the railway corridor passes through.





Sembawang beyond the slumber

29 03 2011

Highlights of a heritage tour of Sembawang, “Sembawang Beyond the Slumber”, with a focus on the Sembawang that I was familiar with in the 1970s. This was conducted through the Sembawang Public Library on 27 March 2011. The two and a half hour tour included a visit to the last kampung mosque in Singapore, as well as to several other points of interest in Sembawang:


The Sembawang of the 1970s was a place that I spent many a happy moment at. Back then, it was a place that, as with many of the coastal areas of Singapore, had the air of a sleepy part of Singapore where one could escape from the hustle and bustle of the urban world that I had in brought up in. The Mata Jetty at the end of Sembawang Road had then been the focal point of many of the seemingly long journeys to the northern most area of Singapore, dominated then (as it is now) by the huge shipyard around which life seemed in those northern part, to revolve around.

The destination that first brought me in contact with the post Naval Base Sembawang of the 1970s, the Mata Jetty.

The shipyard was to many who lived in the area, a source of sustenance, having provided a living to many who settled in the area since it started life as the repair dockyard of the largest Naval Base east of the Suez (said to have enough berthing space to take in the entire Royal Navy fleet at that time) over the 1920s culminating in the opening of the dockyard’s graving dock in 1938. Opened by the then Governor of Singapore, Sir Shenton Thomas on 14 February 1938, the King George VI dock (fondly referred to as KG6), was then the largest ever naval graving dock, one which is still very much in use today. The establishment of the dockyard had been a godsend, coming at the time when a slump in rubber prices meant that many who worked in the area which had depended very much on the rubber plantations introduced by Lim Nee Soon would have had an uncertain future. The dockyard attracted many from far and wide and was responsible for the establishment of the largest community of Malayalees in Singapore in the north. The announcement of the pullout of the British forces in 1968 had cast a shadow of doubt on the future for many who worked there as well as in many of the military bases around the island, coming at a time when a newly independent Singapore was struggling to find its feet, with the bases combined contributing to 20% of Singapore’s GNP. The establishment of a commercial shipyard on the site of the dockyard (the dockyard was transferred to the Singapore government for a token fee of $1) on 19 June 1968, had however, secured the future for many.

The shipyard which was established on the site of the former naval dockyard brought much life to the areas around Sembawang in the 1970s.

The Dockyard's gates seen in the 1960s (source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

By the time I started frequenting the jetty, the British had disappeared, and the ANZUK forces installed in place. By the time 1974 arrived, it was only the New Zealand Force SEA that was left with the withdrawal of the Australian Forces, and their presence didn’t go unnoticed in the area – with “The Strip” – a row of shop houses at Sembawang Village which contained several watering holes including the popular Nelson Bar being a popular hangout. Sembawang Village , established outside the Naval Base’s Sembawang Gate on Admiralty Road had several “makan stalls” including a row of Indian stalls that was popular for Mee Goreng as well as having hosted a bicycle shop that perhaps supplied the families of the many British, Australian and New Zealand military personnel that passed through the area, Cheap John’s which is still in the area – further down Sembawang Road close to Sembawang Shopping Centre.

Sembawang Village grew on the outside of the Sembawang Gate of the former Naval Base, catering to many who lived on the base (Courtesy of Mr Derek Tait).

"The Strip" around Sembawang Village, provided watering holes for the many foreign servicemen in the area, which included the popular Nelson Bar.

"The Strip" seen in the 1970s (Source: ANZ Military Brats of Singapore).

Sembawang Village was also where Cheap John's - a popular bicycle shop started some 40 years ago, was located. The shop is still around, currently located further south along Sembawang Road close to Sembawang Shopping Centre (Source: ANZ Military Brats of Singapore).

Cheap John's at its current location is still very much a source of bicycles for Sembawang residents.

Despite the presence of the foreign military personnel, it was probably the workers of the shipyard that were responsible for perhaps rousing Sembawang from its slumber in the 1970s, bringing much colour and life not just to the villages that provided housing to many of them, but also to the streets around. One of the sights that greeted the early morning scene along the narrow Canberra Road that wove its way past the old Canberra Gate (another of the former gates of the Naval Base), of which one concrete pillar remained close to a bus stop that always looked busy with the comings and goings of the many schoolchildren who attended the few schools along the road, and the extended Chong Pang Village which grew to the west of Canberra Road all the way to the marshy land on the banks of the Sungei Sembawang, was that of the convoy of bicycles, their riders in the colourful overalls marked with the seahorses that Sembawang Shipyard had adopted as its logo.

Canberra Gate along Canberra Road in 1968 - near the junction with Sembawang Road. (Courtesy of Mr Derek Tait)

A scene reminiscent of the Sembawang of the 1970s and 1980s - the stream of bicycles along a part of Canberra Road that has remained relatively unchanged.

Along Canberra Road across from the area where Sembawang Mart is today, the sight of a Hindu temple set in a clearing would greet the traveller. That was what was the original Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple built in the 1960s around an altar to Lord Murugan set up by a dockyard worker. It was at this temple where a annual festival which provided the area with much colour, Panguni Uthiram, involving a procession of a chariot and a kavadi procession, was first celebrated in the area in 1967, a tradition which continues till today, with the temple having moved to a new location in Yishun Industrial Park A in the 1990s.

The old Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple off Canberra Road (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

The area still plays host to the annual Panguni Uthiram festival, which now takes a different route. The festival was first celebrated at the old temple in 1967.

There were several other houses of worship which rose up prominently along some of the main roads of the area as well: the distinctive St. Andrew’s Church, built in 1963 to serve British Military personnel in the area along Admiralty Road close to what had been Sembawang Gate, which is still around; Masjid Naval Base which was close to the junction of Delhi Road and Canberra Road (since demolished); and the Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea (now in Yishun) at the corner where Canberra Road branched off from Sembawang Road. One that was in an obscure location – nestled in the wooded coastal kampung area to the east of what is today Sembawang Park, in the Malay Settlement, Kampong Tengah, established by the British to house Malay dockyard workers, the Masjid Petempatan Melayu, built from the 1960s right up to the 1970s when the bulk of it was completed, is also still around in a setting very much unchanged (except that the kampung around it has since deserted it), having been granted an extended lease of life on a temporary basis. What the future holds for the mosque, dubbed the “Last Kampung Mosque in Singapore”, no one really knows, as Mdm. Zaleha of the mosque’s management committee laments … Today, the mosque comes alive during the school holidays, with camps run by the mosque for Muslim schoolchildren being a popular activity. One of the participants of the walk thought that it would be a nice idea to set up a holiday campsite in the area for schoolchildren of other religions as well.

Masjid Petempatan Melayu Sembawang - the last kampung mosque in a kampung setting.

Mdm. Zaleha of the Mosque's Management Committee speaking to two of the participants.

Around the St. Andrew’s Church is the area dominated by the stately residences of the military personnel, many of which were built in the 1920s and 1930s as the Naval Base came up, both to the north of Admiralty Road all the way to the coast, and to the south towards Canberra Road. Many of the houses, referred to as “Black and White” houses for the way in which they are painted, are still there today, housing military personnel from the US Navy’s Logistics Base which now occupies part of what was the Stores Basin of the Naval Base just west of Sembawang Park. The former Stores Basin is also occupied in part by the Sembawang Wharves, run by the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA), established in the 1970s when it was vacated by the British. Sembawang Wharves had since been associated with timber, rubber and container imports, as well as being at one time one of the entry point for cars imported to Singapore.

St. Andrew's Church, built in 1963 for the British Military personnel and their families.

Sembawang has a generous distribution of "Black and White" houses built in the 1920s and 1930s to house military personnel and their families.

The Stores Basin seen in 1962 (source: http://www.singas.co.uk). Part of it is used as a US Navy Logistics Base and the rest is part of PSA's northern gateway, Sembawang Wharves.

In the cluster of Black and White houses south of the park, along Gibraltar Crescent, there is an interesting find – an entrance to a bunker engulfed by a Banyan Tree that has grown over it – a scene similar to that which greets a visitor at the ruins of the Ta Prohm temple complex in Siem Reap. Bunkers were commonly found nestled amongst the houses – most have been covered over now, including one at Gibraltar Crescent of which the only evidence left is a grass mound, as is one that used to greet the eye behind Beaulieu House.

The entrance of a WWII bunker engulfed by a Banyan tree along Gibraltar Crescent.

Another view of the bunker's entrance.

Speaking of Beaulieu House, it is one of a few buildings in the area with conservation status, having been granted that in 2005. Built as a seaside home of a wealthy plantation owner in the early 1900s, it was acquired by the British military as the Naval Base was being built, serving as a home for the engineers and later for senior naval officers and it is mentioned that from 1940 to 1942, an Admiral Geoffrey Layton, the Commander-in-Chief for Britain’s China station stayed at the house and the house was occupied by Senior Fleet Officers after the war. The URA’s write-up on the house mentions that the name was derived from a certain Admiral Beaulieu, a Chief of Staff of the Royal Navy, but makes no mention of whether he stayed there.

Beaulieu House started life as a seaside home of a wealthy plantation owner, before being taken over by the British as the Naval Base was being constructed in the 1920s. Beaulieu House was included URA's conservation list in 2005.

Beaulieu House, overlooks what was referred to in the 1970s as the Mata Jetty, being located at the end of Mata Road, which took one past two Muslim graves at a bend under a tree close to the fence line of the former Stores Basin. The jetty brings with it many memories of the smell of rotting fish used as bait in square bamboo framed crab traps weighed down by lead weights wrapped at each of its four ends of the frame, tied to the jetty with nylon or raffia twine. What comes back as well to me are the burnt planks and the railing-less sides and end off which a car was driven off at high speed in 1975. The waters around the jetty were great for harvesting shrimps with butterfly nets while wading in the eel and puffer fish infested waters. The shrimps eyes stood out when a light was shone in the water and that enabled one with a quick hand to scoop them out with the net. These often ended up over an open fire which we often built on the beach – the smell of fresh seafood over the fire and the crackling sounds that accompanied them as they cooked are still fresh in my memory.

Beaulieu House overlooks the Mata Jetty which was built in the 1940s and is today a popular jetty for fishing and crabbing.

Other buildings in the area which have some form of conservation status include Old Admiralty House which has been gazetted as a National Monument in 2002, and the former Sembawang Fire Station which was given conservation status in 2007, both of which we did not visit due to physical limitations. Old Admiralty House on Old Nelson Road (just across Canberra Road from Sembawang MRT Station), a two-storey brick bungalow housed the Commodore Superintendent of the Dockyard and later was used as was the official residence of the Royal Navy Commander-in-Chief, Far East Station from 1958 up until 1971, when it was named Admiralty House, was constructed in 1939. In the lead up to the fall of Singapore, it saw use as the strategic planning headquarters of the British forces. Except for the period during the Japanese Occupation, the house was the official residence of the Royal Navy Commander-in-Chief, Far East Station, until the withdrawal of the British military from Singapore. The URA also provides some information on the former Sembawang Fire Station (which is now within the grounds of Sembawang Shipyard): “built in the 1930s, this two-storey concrete building is designed in a simplified Art Deco-Modern style and has an elegantly proportioned fire-hose tower. The building is a local landmark for both the Sembawang area and the Shipyard”.

Admiralty House, built to house the Commodore Superintendent of the Dockyard and later used to house the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy's Far East Station was gazetted a National Monument in 2002.

Another building with conservation status is the former Sembawang Fire Station built in the 1930s with its distinctive fire hose tower. The building is within the premises of Sembawang Shipyard.

The last stop was perhaps the highlight for many, a visit to the site of the hot springs that has long been associated with the area. The hot springs, dubbed “Sembawang Hot Springs” was for much of my younger days, associated with the Seletaris bottling plant that came up in 1967 under a subsidiary of soft drink giant Fraser and Neave (F&N), Semangat Ayer Limited. The existence of the spring, based on a heritage guide published by the HDB and the National Heritage Board, had been known as far back as 1908 (which a book written by Song Ong Siang, “One Hundred Years of the Chinese in Singapore” puts as 1909), when a Municipal ranger called W. A. B. Goodall discovered it. The land owner, a certain Mr Seah Eng Keong proceeded to start bottling the water under the brand “Zombun” soon after, after he had established that it was safe to drink, establishing the Singapore Natural Mineral Hot Springs Company. F&N bought the company over in 1921 and bottled the water right up to the war under several brands which included “Zom”, “Salitaris”, “Singa Water” and “Vichy Water” until the Japanese Occupation, during which the Japanese built thermal baths in the area. This was destroyed during an allied bombing raid on Singapore in November 1942 which interrupted the flow of the spring water to the surface and on advise of a geologist after the war, F&N left the spring until flow was naturally restored in the 1960s. When Semangat Ayer’s bottling plant was established in 1967, there had actually been plans to build a spa in the area – but that never took off, and bottling continued until the 1980s, when the land on which the spring was on was acquired by the Government to build an airbase. That would have sounded the death knell for the hot spring and if not for an outcry from the local community, we might have seen the last of the only hot springs on mainland Singapore. A corridor was built in 2002 within the perimeter of the airbase along Gambas Avenue leading to a concrete base with standpipes which channel the spring water to taps, allowing the public use of the hot spring which is thought to have curative properties for several ailments. As several of the participants were to find out, the water which reported flows out at 65 degrees Celcius, does, based on its acrid smell, have some Sulphur content which is said to be useful for the treatment of skin problems.

Sembawang Hot Springs was the source of Seletaris - a brand of mineral water bottled by F&N's subsidiary, Semangat Ayer Limited up to the 1980s (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

The visit to the hot springs brought back memories of another part of Sembawang that I was fond of, one that was accessible through a road Jalan Ulu Sembawang that lay at the back of what is now the Seletaris Condominium complex, developed by F&N on the site of part of what had been the Seletaris Bottling plant. A little stub of the road is still left, but no more than that. The road had once provided access to a vast area of farmland and fishing ponds – rising up onto a crest of a hilly area that overlooked what had seemed like rolling plains of vegetable farms. My father had in the 1970s and 1980s been fond of driving along the road just for that view … one that I remember as being one of the most picturesque in Singapore. The road lead to the Lorong Gambas and Mandai area which many who did National Service in the 1970s and 1980s would remember for the training areas they contained. Like much of what was around Sembawang, that is now lost, as is the large Chong Pang village that dominated much of the are south of the Naval Base which was demolished in 1989 after residents moved out in 1986 or so. Much of the area now occupied by the new Sembawang HDB estate. The plot of land where the heart of Chong Pang was, the roundabout near which the Sultan Theatre stood and where some of the best food in Singapore could be found, still lies empty, with plans to build a sports complex over the area. While that has gone, there are still many reminders that remain – particularly the areas on which the Black and White houses are located, the jetty and of course the old kampung mosque. There are also some reminders of the traditions that existed, the stream (albeit a smaller one) of bicycles heading down Canberra Road being one … and there is the most colourful one of all – the procession of kavadis that still make its way down once a year … on a different route, but one that reminds us of what Sembawang is all about, beyond that apparent slumber.

The Ulu Sembawang area was very scenic with its rolling slopes of vegetable farms (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg)..

The area was also home to several fishing ponds (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).





One hundred steps to Heaven

1 03 2011

If heaven was to be a place in Singapore, there would probably not be a better candidate for a suitable location than the Mount Sophia that previously existed. These days of course, Mount Sophia is associated more with sought after high-rise residential units in a prime location close to the heart of the city. However, back in the early part of the 20th century, it must certainly have been a truly magical and heavenly place, dominated by the magnificent Eu Villa that commanded a view of much of the surrounding areas of the fast growing city that lay on the areas some 100 feet below, and the many other grand bungalows and mansions, paticularly around Adis and Wilkie Roads. By the time I was going to school in Bras Basah Road and wandering curiously around the area, many of the heavenly places were still around, albeit in dilapidated condition – and mostly I guess crumbling to a point that it would have taken a monumental effort to preserve them. Still one could easily imagine how grand the area, which seemed a world apart from the rough and tumble of the mixed residential and commercial districts that lay below, would have been.

An aerial view of Mount Sophia and the surrounding area in the 1960s. It is easy to see why the well heeled would choose to build their magnificent mansions on the geographical feature which commanded an excellent view of the area around it. The Cathay Building can be seen on the south of Mount Sophia and the castle like Eu Villa to the top and right of it. The Istana and its grounds, which together with Mount Sophia and adjoining Mount Emily were part of Charles Robert Prinsep's huge nutmeg plantation can be seen on the left of the photo (Photo Source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

I was fortunate to be able to have seen all that I guess and place myself in that magical world, then accessible either via Sophia Road or by the so-called one hundred steps up from Handy Road. Given the choice of access options, the adventurous schoolboy that I was would certainly have chosen the latter route – after all, it was a shortcut we occasionally took to get to Plaza Singapura, then not accessible through Handy Road, which would involve climbing into the upper level of the car park at Plaza Singapore right next to western slopes of Mount Sophia, where Yaohan and a popular hangout for teens then, the Yamaha Music School run Do Re Mi cafe, beckoned. These days, much of that magic that I felt back then, is absent, with the manisons, most of which went in the 1980s and 1990s, with Eu Villa itself being demolished in 1981 after being sold by the Eu family for a princely sum of S$ 8.19M in 1973 to a property development company, having given way to a mess of monstrous apartment blocks, and it’s difficult to return to that magical world that I once wandered around.

The fairy-tale like Eu Villa, once the home of Eu Tong Sen. It was built in 1915 at a cost of S$1M on the site of Adis Lodge which Eu had purchase from Nissim Nissim Adis, the owner of the Grand Hotel de L'Europe in 1912.

I had an opportunity to do just that, return to the magical world that is, taking a walk with the National Library Board around the area, and trying to transport not just myself, but also a group of 30 participants to that world that I once knew. It was good to have on board two ladies who attended two of the schools in the area, who were able to share their experiences as well of going to Nan Hwa Girls’ School and Methodist Girls School (MGS). Both described ascending the one hundered steps to get to their schools, describing how it rose precariously up the steep slope from Handy Road with no railings to speak of and the steps being uneven in height – far different from the reconstructed steps in the vicinity of the original we see today. The ex MGS girl described how her schoolmates and her would race down the steps … something I am sure many would have not been able to resist in impetuosity of youth. We also confirmed that there were actually 100 steps – something I never thought of trying to establish in the many occasions on which I ascended the steps.

The one hundred steps offered a short cut for the adventurous to Plaza Singapura (seen here in its very early days - source: http://www.picas.gov.nhb.sg).

The walk started with a short introduction at the library, after which we were transported to the magical hill not by the one hundred steps, but by air-conditioned coach to the top of Mount Emily, I guess in keeping with the new age. What we saw were some remnants of there area that I loved, including the former Mount Emily Girls’ home which for a while was used as the Japanese Consulate prior to the war, becoming a halfway house for underage street prostitutes before becoming the girls’ home in 1969 and later the Wilkie Road Children’s Home in the 1980s. There was also the location of the first public swimming pool in Singapore, built on the site of the waterworks on Mount Emily, a pool that I visited in my younger days, being one of my father’s favourite pools, across from which we could see the hoardings surrounding the former bungalow of the late Major Derrick Coupland who passed away in 1991. Major Coupland was well known as a World War II veteran and the President of the Ex-Services Association heading it for some 20 years prior to his death from bone cancer in June 1991. I understand from a reader that the bungalow has been left empty since and the deterioration from 20 years of abandonment was evident before the hoardings came up some time at the end of last year – I suppose that the building is being prepared for demolition right at this moment.

The hoardings havve come up around the crumbling former residence of Major Derrick Coupland.

From the original coat of arms, used during the years of self-govenrment that can be seen on the structure at the entrance to Mount Emily Park, we made our way down Wilkie Road, past the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Sikh Temple. The current temple with its distinctive white dome, is a later one, built in 1983, next to an old house which as a plaque indicates, was purchased in 1932 (I was told from a Jewish gentleman), and originally housed the temple. Most of the magnificent mansions, including one owned by M J Nassim, that lined Wilkie Road have been replaced by apartment blocks … one that remains is the Abdullah Shooker Welfare Home at 81 Wilkie Road which is described in a previous post.

Wilkie Road used to be lined with magnificent mansions including one that still stands - the Abdullah Shooker Welfare Home, left by the late Abdullah Shooker, a Baghdadi Jew who died during internment by the Japanese in 1942, to the Jewish community.

Further down Wilkie Road, the participants were introduced to the Sophia Flats, once the home of the illustrious F J Benjamin, across from which we could once get a glimpse of the roofs of the magical Eu Villa over a retaining wall which marked the edge of the table on which the villa and its huge grounds once stood. Sadly the wall has come down, perhaps the last reminder of the villa that was left, along with the table which is being levelled for what is probably a commercial/residential project.

And the wall came tumbling down ... the last reminder of Eu Villa comes down - a retaining wall that marked the edge of the table of land on which the villa once stood (as seen in January 2011).

The last bit of the wall next to Peace Centre on Sophia Road.

At the corner of Adis and Sophia Roads, the excited chatter of a former student of Nan Hwa Girl’s School was heard, as she reminisced about her schooldays. The building which was completed in 1941, before being used by the Japanese during the war and the British forces after before being returned to Nan Hwa in 1947, is now used as a student hostel – and as one participant on the walk pointed out, the flag poles in front of the basketball courts which also served as an assembly area were still very much in evidence. Besides this, we learnt of a popular ice-kacang stall that both the girls of Nan Hwa and MGS patronised after school which was at the corner opposite Nan Hwa.

The former Nan Hwa Girls' High School at the corner of Adis and Sophia Roads.

A former student at Nan Hwa Girls' School sharing her experiences of going to school outside the former Nan Hwa Girls' School.

The corner of Adis Road and Sophia Road at which the ice kacang stall that both girls of Nan Hwa and MGS patronised, was located.

Before we hit the new one hundred steps, we stopped by the Art Deco styled building which housed San Shan Public School which was built in the 1950s by the Foochow Association, which ran the school up to the 1970s when the running of it was handed to the Ministry of Education. The school after moving from its Mount Sophia premises in the 1980s has stopped functioning. Next was the former Trinity Theological College which was established in 1948. The cluster of buildings that belonged to the college including the church with the distinctive roof shaped to the Chinese character for people, 人 (Ren), were built in the 1960s. The college moved in the 1990s to its current location along Upper Bukit Timah Road – and the roof of the church there is identical to the one on Mount Sophia. Next to the college, the cluster of buildings (now Old School) that house MGS still stands. The former pupil of MGS spoke of how she could see the gardens of Eu Villa from her class window, and how the classes were organised, C being the best class and A for the weakest students, of the three classes that each form had in the 1960s.

A view of the former MGS.

From the hundred steps down, we made our way to the corner of what used to be Dhoby Ghaut and Bras Basah Road, now dominated by another monstrous piece of architecture which did not agree with most of the participants – one remarked that it “stuck out like a sore thumb”. Where that building which is the School of the Arts (SOTA) stand, there was what had been Dhoby Ghaut, gone as a road that carried the name in an area that once was used by the Indian Dhobis to gain access to the fresh water stream that has since become the Stamford Canal. What survives of that Dhoby Ghaut which hold memories of the row of shops which included the Red Sea Aquarium and an A&W outlet that I frequented as a schoolboy and another row of houses up behind on Kirk Terrace which included a Sikh temple, is only the name of the MRT station in the vicinity.

The row of shops at Dhoby Ghaut next to Cathay Building was where the Red Sea Aquarium as well as the A&W was. Today the SOTA building stands on top of the area where Dhoby Ghaut was (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

We then walked up Prinsep Street, named after Charles Robert Prinsep, the owner of the nutmeg plantation which once included Mount Emily, Mount Sophia and Mount Caroline and extended to the Istana grounds (100 acres were purchased in 1867 for the Governor’s House which became the Istana). There were suggestions that the three mounts were named after three daughters of Prinsep, but what is more likely was that when Prinsep purchased the land, Mount Sophia (which appears earlier as Bukit Selegi) would have already been named after the second wife of Raffles, modern Singapore’s founder, Sophia Hull, and if anything, Prinsep named the two adjoining hills after two other daughters, having been part of the former estate of Raffles’ brother-in-law and Singapore’s first Master Attendant, Captain Flint.

Kirk Terrace over Dhoby Ghaut (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

It was then a leisurely stroll back to the library via Middle Road, where we stopped by the site of the former POSB headquarters facing Prinsep Street and the Registry of Vehicles (ROV) facing Bencoolen Street, where Sunshine Plaza stands, but not before introducing the former Tiger Balm Building, the David Elias Building and the former Middle Road hospital. At Sunshine Plaza, we saw a few signcraft shops – remnants of those that featured in the area when demand for vehicle number plates existed due to the presence of the ROV in the vicinity. Then it was past the former Middle Road Church (now Sculpture Square), used as a motor workshop when I went to school in the area in the 1970s, and the former St. Anthony’s Convent, before hitting the site of the former Queen of the Mooncakes (Empress Hotel) – our destination where the Central Library building now stands.

Middle Road once featured sign craft shops serving the demand from the nearby ROV, including Rainbow Signs which I well remember from passing many times on the bus home from school (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

It was the end of a rather enjoyable walk for me, and I hope the participants had as good a time as I had. Before what was left of the participants dispersed, there was still time to exchange a story, one about the sighting of an Orang Minyak (translated from Malay as “Oily Man” – one that is said to be cursed to an existence as an dark oil coated being that possesses supernatural powers, but more likely as a participant Jeff pointed out, was a man coated in oil to ensure a smooth getaway), reputed as one that terrorises the fairer sex. I had heard about one which was reportedly known to lurk in the compound of St. Joseph’s Church across Victoria Street, through a reader Greg Lim, who lived in Holloway Lane in the 1950s. My mother who boarded at St. Anthony’s Convent in the 1950s could not confirm this, but did mentioned that there were rumours of one lurking in the stairwell. Jeff, who himself lived on nearby Cashin Street in the 1950s confirmed that there was indeed sightings reported, and he was in one of the crowds that had gathered to try to catch a glimpse of the Orang Minyak. Another participant, the mother of Ms Thiru (who is with the NLB and organised the walk), also confirmed that she was aware of the story. It was certainly an interesting end to the walk, one that took a little longer than anticipated, but one that was thoroughly enjoyable.

The Empress Hotel at the corner of Middle Road and Victoria Street which was demolished in 1985.





A Saturday morning’s stroll through Old Singapore

15 12 2010

Starting at the centre of the Padang where Raffles had once proudly stood, a leisurely morning’s stroll around the Padang with Pugalenthii Ramakrishnan and the National Library Board on Saturday through familiar territory did throw up a few surprises. Moving to the Esplanade towards where the Tan Kim Seng Fountain stands, the sight of a snake charmer with his python on the grass probably caught not just me, but the others on the walk by surprise. For me snake charmers were something that I had somehow always associated the Esplanade with, along with the Satay Club, Chendol at the semi-circular hawker centre, and the colourful balloon and windmill sellers who would support their air filled balloons not with sticks as we do these days but with long skinny balloons. Over at the Tan Kim Seng Fountain, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that among the participants was the great great grand daughter of Tan Kim Seng, who is herself the author of a book “Seven Generations and Counting”.

Pugalenthii Ramakrishnan, guide for the Stroll through Old Singapore.

A snake charmer with his python on the grass.

The Tan Kim Seng Fountain - among the participants on the walk was the great great grand daughter of Tan Kim Seng.

Moving back towards where the Cenotaph stands, we were to discover one that maybe shouldn’t have surprised me: that the Cenotaph had actually once been right by the sea, with the shoreline just by the bottom of its seaward steps, knowing that quite a lot of reclamation work had gone on int the area around the Esplanade way before the much of the shoreline in the area moved much further south in the extensive land reclamation project that provided the land for the Marina Square complex. We were also to learn that the leader of the Indian National Army, Subhas Chandra Bose, had stood on the very steps of the Cenotaph to rally support for the Indian Independence movement during the Japanese Occupation in World War II.

The Cenotaph had once been right by the shoreline.

Photograph in the National Archives Collection showing the Esplanade in 1926 (note the position of the Cenotaph relative to the sea (source: http://picas.nhb.gov.sg).

The other parts we passed on the walk included the site of the Indian Army Memorial which was erected at the Esplanade by Bose and destroyed by the British upon their return at the end of the war. Down the pedestrian tunnel to Empress Place, where we encountered the Dalhousie Obelisk and the grass cutters of the modern day (in contrast to the grass cutters of the days gone by which Pugalentii had highlighted through the use of a photograph in the National Archives that had once been commonly seen in the Padang).

At the bottom of the Obelisk in Empress Place.

The grass cutters of old seen on the Padang in 1946 (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

By contrast the modern grass cutters ...

From Empress Place, it was past the old Supreme Court and City Hall (both soon to be transformed to the National Art Gallery) where we had the opportunity to chat on its famous steps, before moving on to our final stop – St. Andrew’s Cathedral which I had finally stepped into for the very first time in my life.

St. Andrew's Cathedral.

Cathedral window.

Inside the Cathedral for the very first time ...

More views inside the Cathedral.

The Cathedral has some wonderful stained glass.

Stained glass panels at the main entrance.

Close-ups of the Stained Glass.

Books of Prayer.

Pews.





The area around Toa Payoh Library 37 years ago

23 11 2010

Taking a walk back with the Toa Payoh Library to the beginnings of Toa Payoh as a planned satellite town, I was able to explore some of the “newer” additions in the early days of Toa Payoh as a HDB estate. Of these additions, we have of course the Library building itself, and the open space in front of the Library which had incidentally a significant part to play in the history of Toa Payoh as well as having some buildings of significance around it.

The Toa Payoh Library and the open area in front of it as seen today.

The library itself – although it wasn’t opened yet (it opened in early 1974), was the location of a momentous event in Singapore’s sporting history – it was where the Games Village built to house athletes from seven participating countries for the very first mass sporting event that Singapore held, the 7th South East Asian Peninsula Games (SEAP Games), was officially opened by the late Dr. Goh Keng Swee in a ceremony held on 30 August 1973. Looking at the picture of the library in the early days, one is able to count eight flag poles – one to fly each of the participating nations’ flags as well as the Games flag. To house the athletes, four 24 storey point blocks with 346 four room units were built in Toa Payoh Central, each unit housing six athletes in three bedrooms. These units were later sold to members of the public through a balloting exercise, fully renovated and furnished – the first ever HDB flats to be sold that way, at a cost of S$19,000 for the flat and another S$1,700 for the furnishings. One of the point blocks, Block 179, is just next to the library and was in fact also the second VIP block in Toa Payoh, taking over from Block 53 where I had lived in.

The library building soon after completion with the 8 flag poles in front of it. It was where the opening ceremony of the 7th SEAP Games Village was held on 30 Aug 1973 (photo courtesy of the NLB).

Dr. Goh Keng Swee cutting a cake during the opening ceremony for the Games Village (source: The Straits Times, 31 Aug 1973).

Block 179, one of the four 24 storey four room point blocks built to house athletes during the 7th SEAP Games in 1973 and was also the second VIP block in Toa Payoh.

Toa Payoh besides hosting the 7th SEAP Games Village, was also a town of many firsts, as I had mentioned in a previous post. Among the ‘firsts’ was also the first ever fully air-conditioned POSB Bank branch – located at the corner of Block 178 – again just by where the library is (a Bata shoe store now occupies the units which the bank occupied).

The Bata store now at the corner of Block 178 occupies the units which housed the first ever POSB Bank branch to be fully air-conditioned.

In the same area across the open space from Block 179 is another building which is significant in Toa Payoh’s history – the building that housed Kong Chian Cinema – Toa Payoh’s first ever cinema, which opened on 11 May 1972 with the screening of a Charity Premier ‘The Loner’ for the nearby Chung Hwa Free Hospital. Now called 600@Toa Payoh, the building housed a single screen cinema with two classes of seating, which was very typical of the day – where tickets were printed on coloured pieces of paper on which seat numbers were scribbled onto by a box office clerk with Chinagraph. The cinema screened mainly Chinese films for close to fifteen years until it screened its last movie, ‘The Legend of Wisely’ on 31 January 1987 after which the building was sold to McDonalds.

Now 600@Toa Payoh, the building was where Toa Payoh's first cinema, Kong Chian, was housed from 1972 to 1987.





A journey through time: a heritage trail through Toa Payoh

7 10 2010

A journey through time

A heritage trail through Toa Payoh organised with the National Library Board

Take a walk back in time to the Toa Payoh that I grew up in, a Toa Payoh that was taking its first steps as the first planned satellite town. The route will pass through a mix of residential and commercial properties that had existed in its early days as well as the public and communal facilities which included a hospital and a girls’ home. The journey would also go back to the Toa Payoh that was the village that hosted athletes for the very first international mass sporting event held in independent Singapore in 1973 and the block of flats that hosted HM Queen Elizabeth II in 1972. More information on the walk can be found at the end of this post


The Toa Payoh that I grew up in …

The Toa Payoh that I grew up in at the back end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s was perhaps one that was looked at very differently from the way it is looked at now. Over the 40 years since its start as a new satellite town that rose from what was a swampy area – the first planned town and the first that was built following Singapore’s independence from Malaysia, it has evolved from being one that was a public housing exercise to house the burgeoning population of the new nation whose population consisted of young families as well as the many that were resettled from the kampongs that were being clear to make way for the Singapore we see today, to a much sought after residential district with a mix of private and public housing, due to its proximity to the city.

Toa Payoh back then was a very interesting place for a young child to grow up in … it was where new HDB residents were still coming to terms with living in high density and high rise blocks of flats and where the transformation of the heartlands was taking place to what we see today. Back then, it was common to see vegetables being planted on plots behind ground floor units as well as chickens running around, hawkers on push-carts as well as those who went door-to-door balancing their wares at the two ends of a wooden stick or on the top of their heads, much as it might have been in the old kampongs many of the residents came from.

Life for many revolved around the amenities that the new town provided, there were the markets, shops, banks, clinics and food stalls that catered to the day-to-day needs, new schools built to cope with the large population of children of school-going age, new factories that provided work for many who lived there, as well as the many places of worship that were constructed that catered to the spiritual needs of the residents. The areas around the markets were particularly lively – especially in the mornings when residents shopped for their market produce on a daily basis – a practice that was prevalent in the pre-refrigerator age of the kampongs. Around the markets there would not just be the shops and food stalls that would be opened early to catch the market crowd, but also many itinerant vendors – many of whom were Nepali – displaying their wares: leather belts and wallets; trinkets; cigarette lighters; and many other little items on mats that they laid on the ground. The whole area would be bustling with people, some seated on the tables and chairs laid around the periphery of the markets feasting on a breakfast of fishball noodles, kway chap, chee cheong fun, or chai tow kway. The benches laid around the open spaces would be filled with elderly men, dressed as they would have back then in unbuttoned shirts exposing their undershirts or singlets they wore under the shirts. Some would have their undershirts rolled up as they sipped black coffee poured into the saucer to accelerate cooling of the steaming hot beverage.

In those days, the black and white television set might have been on of the few things that occupied our evenings, the pasar malam, the arrival of a travelling Chinese Opera (Wayang) troupe, along with the entourage of hawkers and vendors that accompanied it, or the trade fairs and their games stalls that were a common thing back then, was always seen as a treat. It was when we had a chance to troll the streets and plots of land which came to live each evening, coloured by the incandescent glow of lights, the smell of corn or peanuts steaming and the sounds of generators in the background that rose above the din of hawkers promoting their fare and the shrill cries that came from the wayang stage. Once in a while, we would have a bonus in a travelling circus coming to town – the Royal Circus of India being a regular visitor – and the tents and caravans would occupy the open piece of land part of which the Esso Station at the corner of Lorong 4 and 5 sits on now, or the one which the Police Station now occupies.

Take a journey back in time to the Toa Payoh of the late 1960s and early 1970s ...

Toa Payoh besides being the first planned satellite town, was a place where there were many other firsts as well. It was where the first purpose built VIP block – used to showcase the very successful public housing experiment that Toa Payoh was, was erected by the HDB, complete with a viewing gallery on the roof. The block played host to the visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1972 as well as a host of both local and foreign dignitaries including Sir William Goode, Singapore’s first Yang di-Pertuan Negara who also served as a Governor General of the colony of Singapore, and President Benjamin Henry Sheares, Singapore’s second President. Other firsts include it hosting the games village for the first major international mass sporting event that Singapore hosted in 1973, as well as having the very first NTUC supermarket – started as a cooperative named “NTUC Welcome” in 1973, and the first fully air-conditioned POSB Bank in Singapore. Toa Payoh also has the distinction of being the first (and probably only) town in Singapore that was built without traffic lights – large traffic roundabouts were used to regulate traffic instead – certainly something that would be feasible in the Singapore that we know today. That was the Toa Payoh that I spent a significant part of my childhood in, one that I had many wonderful experiences growing up in, and one that also hid some lesser explored places such as the Toa Payoh Girls’ Home and the Toa Payoh Hospital, and one that I can certainly journey back in time to.



A Journey Through Time

Saturday, 20 Nov, 10.30am – 12.30pm

Toa Payoh Library

To register (registration has already closed), log on to http://golibrary.nlb.gov.sg and surf on to Heritage. This session is limited to 30 participants only. Participants are advised to wear comfortable attire and walking shoes for this trail. Do also remember to bring umbrella and some drinks. Feel free to bring your cameras and start clicking!









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