Lying at the foot of Bukit Timah Hill is a tiny estate that if not for the Rail Mall that now fronts it and the nearby railway truss bridge, would probably go unnoticed. The estate of 142 households, launched a SG50 coffee table book on Sunday, an event to which I was invited to and one that also saw the unveiling of a sculpture by Oh Chai Hoo dedicated to the estate. It was at the event that I was to learn that the estate traces its origins to Southeast Asia’s “Rubber and Pineapple King”, businessman and philanthropist Mr Lee Kong Chian, and that the estate had once been home to Mr S R Nathan (who was to become the sixth President of the Republic of Singapore).
Faces of Fuyong Estate, a SG50 coffee table book produced by residents of the estate.
The name of the estate holds the clue to this origin. Fuyong or Phoo Yong in Hokkien, and the pinyin-ised as Furong (芙蓉), names by which the estate went by, was the village in China’s Fujian province from which the illustrious Lee Kong Chian hailed from. The land on which the estate now sits was purchased by Lee from a Mr Alexander Edward Hughes. Lee, who pioneered a provident fund based housing scheme to allow his employees to own homes was persuaded by Mr Lim Koon Teck, his legal adviser and a Progressive Party politician, to allow much needed low cost housing built for the public there in the early 1950s and Phoo Yong Estate was born.
A page in the book. It was on land purchased by Mr Lee Kong Chian, pictured, that Fuyong Estate was developed to serve as much needed low-cost housing in the mid 1950s.
Before the Rail Mall – one of the two rows of single storey houses straddling Jalan Asas in 1989 that have since been converted into The Rail Mall.
Much has changed about the face of the estate and its vicinity since the days when it was known as Phoo Yong, or even in more recent times. In an area once dominated by the factories on the hills, and once where the sounds heard through day included the rumble of trains and the blasts from the nearby quarries, the estate is today set in an area bathed in the calm of the verdant Bukit Timah Hill that now paints a much less rowdy backdrop. The rows of houses by the main road, which had housed a mix of businesses that included a coffin shop, have since the mid 1990s, become the Rail Mall – developed by a subsidiary of the Lee Rubber Company.
The now silent truss bridge, a long-time landmark along Upper Bukit Timah Road.
Two of the estate’s oldest residents at the launch event cutting a cake with Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Foreign Affairs.
The strong sense of community in the estate was very much in evidence through the launch event, some of which perhaps in embodied in the sculpture that was also unveiled in the estate’s Fuyong Park. Taking the form of the Chinese character for a person looking forward, the artist behind piece, Oh Chai Hoo, intends it as a symbol of the kampong spirit and the resilience shown by our forefathers.
Taking aim to unveil Oh Chai Hoo’s sculpture, which takes the shape of the Chinese character for a person.
The coffee table book is a good little read for anyone interested in the estate and in the area’s development. The book traces the estates transformation and also offers many interesting insights into the estate, such as how Mr Nathan became an early resident. One also learns of the meanings of the names of its roads in Malay. Asas for example means foundation, Tumpu, focus, Siap, readiness and Uji, challenge. There is also a little known fact that gets a mention. Having been built as a low cost housing estate, a regular visitor to the estate was the 32 door honey wagon. While there were initial efforts by a resident Mr Palpoo to bring in modern sanitation on a private basis in the early 1960s, it wasn’t until 1969 that the estate would fully be equipped with flushing toilets – something we in in the Singapore of today would find hard to imagine.
A scan from Faces of Fuyong with an aerial view over the estate in 1958. The photograph also shows the railway line, the truss bridge, and Hume Industries and the Ford Factory on the high ground across the road.
The estate is set against a verdant backdrop that gives it an air of calm.
Residents pouring over the book.