Jurong will never be Jurong again

31 08 2022

It is sad to think that Jurong will soon be without Jurong Bird Park. The attraction, which brought many into the heart of what might have been an unattractive industrial estate if not for its presence, will welcome its last guests on 3 January 2023 — exactly 52 years after its 1971 opening. Its closure is in anticipation of its move to Mandai, where it reopen as Bird Paradise as part of the larger Mandai Wildlife Reserve. When the bird park does close, Jurong will certainly be a poorer place without it. What will become of the lush green space that the bird park occupies, one that has taken half a century to grow, is not known. I would certainly love to see that it is retained as a green oasis in the midst of the industrial sprawl that surrounds it. It will be quite a shame if we were to also lose it once after the bird park closes.

The old and very industrial looking entrance to the bird park. The park would have been in operation for 52 years when it closes its doors for the last time on 3 Jan 2023.
(Photo: Mandai Wildlife Reserve).

For those like me who grew up with the bird park, Jurong will not be Jurong without it. Developed as part of the effort to provide the then newly minted industrial town a greener and softer face and a space to also live and play in — some 12% of the Jurong’s land area was set aside for parks and gardens, the bird park and the plan to make Jurong a “garden industrial town”, was the brainchild of Dr Goh Keng Swee. A trip that Dr Goh made to Rio de Janeiro for a World Bank meeting as Finance Minister in 1968, during which he visited the city’s zoo, provided the inspiration for the bird park. The zoo’s aviary caught Dr Goh’s eye and he hit on the idea of the bird park. When asked why not build a zoo instead, Dr Goh reportedly quipped, “birdseeds cost less than meat”.

Among the bird park’s visitors in its early days was HM Queen Elizabeth II in 1972.
(Photo: Ministry of Information and Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore)

Like Jurong Industrial Estate, the new bird park’s host, the bird park was a huge success story. Given the “wow” factor through what was at 100 feet high, the world’s tallest man-made waterfall, which was set in the world’s largest walk-in aviary, the bird park captured the imagination of many of us in Singapore in the early years of nationhood and very quickly became a favourite destination for many. In a matter of less than twenty months of its opening, the bird park welcomed its one-millionth visitor in August 1972. It was especially popular as a destination for school excursions, as learning journeys were then known as. Besides the many family outings to the bird park, I also remember numerous long and usually uneventful journeys to it on the school bus. Getting that whiff of cocoa in the air, as the bus carried us down the grand avenue-like Jalan Boon Lay and past the Van Houten chocolate factory, was always something to look forward to. That meant always increased that sense of anticipation as it meant that the bird park was close by.

Once the pride and joy of Singapore. At 100 feet or 30 metres in height, Jurong Bird Park’s waterfall was once the tallest man-made waterfall in the world. See it for the last time before it closes its doors for good at the end of 3 January 2023.

To celebrate its legacy ahead of its closure, Jurong Bird Park is inviting all of us in Singapore to embark on A Flight To Remember. The four-month long last hurrah of sorts for the park, being held from 3 September 2022 till 3 January 2023, will see a series of activities held at the bird park. During this time, visitors will be able to recall some of the park’s more memorable moments as well as their past experiences through a self-guided heritage trail, mock-ups of the park’s features over the years such as its one-time cuckoo clock tower and the panorail (which operated from 1992 to 2012), and, a memory wall at the Penguin Coast to which visitors can add their own memories of the park. An opportunity will also be provided for visitors to see Jurong Bird Park through the eyes of its dedicated team of staff through a staff-curated Insider’s Guide.

The iconic cuckoo clock tower that once graced the park’s entrance.
(Photo: Mandai Wildlife Reserve)

Come November 2022, visitors will also be able to join the bird park’s Nostalgic Signature Tour, which will be conducted by seasoned guides and will delve into the park’s much storied past. Bookings can be made for this tour from 19 October 2022. Adding to the sense of nostalgia, the bird park will launch a nostalgic dining experience in November, when traditional pushcarts offering local hawker fare make an appearance. More information on A Flight to Remember can be found on the Jurong Bird Park’s website.

A mock-up of the cuckoo clock for A Flight to Remember with a count down timer.

Jurong Bird Park, opens from 8.30 am to 6 pm (last entry is at 5.00pm) from Thursdays to Sundays, and on the eve of public holidays, on public holidays, and during selected school holidays.

A mock-up of the 1992 panorail at which visitors can take photographs.

“Old Birds” of Jurong Bird Park



A tour of Jurong Bird Park on 30 August 2022






Forbidden Hill spiced and demystified

27 08 2022

Fort Canning Hill, aka Bukit Larangan or Forbidden Hill, the place of many a schoolboy adventure for me, has always been a place of discovery and rediscovery for me, as well as a space that provides an escape from the urban world. An abode of the ancient kings of Singapura — the spirits of whom are said to still roam the hill, the hill is one steeped as much in history, as it is surrounded by mystery.

Fort Canning Hill, the Forbidden Hill is a place that has long been cloaked with an air of mystery.

The mystery of the place, was quite evident when the British first established their presence in Singapore in 1819. Col William Farquhar’s attempt to ascend the strategically positioned elevation, which commanded a view of the plain across which the settlement and Singapore River, was met with resistance by the followers of Temenggong Abdul Rahman who claimed that the sounds of gongs and drums and the shouts of hundreds of men could be heard, even if all that was present then on the hill were only the reminders of a long lost 14th century kingdom. The claim did not deter Farquhar from making his ascent, nor his colleagues in the East India Company, who would exploit the hill to place the seat of colonial rule in Singapore, as an experimental botanical garden, for the first Christian spaces for the dead, and as an artillery fort and barracks, for fresh water supply to the fast developing municipality and as a strategic military command bunker.

It has long been a place of escape for me.

Much of that history, and mystery, is now wonderfully captured in the new Fort Canning Heritage Gallery — and in a book “Fort Canning Park: Heritage and Gardens” that was launched in conjunction with the gallery’s opening yesterday on 26 August 2022. The gallery is housed in a 1920s barrack block now known as Fort Canning Centre, that has seen use most recently as a staging point for the Bicentennial Experience and as the short-lived private museum, Singapore Pinacothèque de Paris. The centre, which also housed the “world’s largest squash centre” from the 1977 to 1987 during the height of the squash rackets craze in Singapore, sits quite grandly atop the slope we know today as Fort Canning Green and forms a magnificent backdrop to the many events that the former cemetery grounds now plays host to.

Fort Canning Centre, a 1920s barrack block in which the newly opened Fort Canning Heritage Gallery is housed.

Divided into five zones, the gallery provides an introduction to the hill, and through four themed zones, places focus on a particular aspect of the role that the hill has played through its own and also more broadly, Singapore’s history. The stories, told succinctly through information panels, archaeological artefacts excavated from the hill and interactive digital stations, provide just enough information to the visitor to provide an appreciation of the hill history and its heritage. There is also a condensed version of the “From Singapore to Singaporean: The Bicentennial Experience” video that plays in a mini-theatrette within the gallery.

Minister of National Development, Mr Desmond Lee, opening the new Fort Canning Heritage Gallery.

Also opened with the new gallery was an enhanced Spice Garden, which now extends to the 2019 pedestrianised section of Fort Canning Rise and a pedestrian ramp and underpass (that once led to the former car park at the rear of the old National Library). The pedestrian ramp and underpass now features the new Spice Gallery, which I thought was a wonderful and meaningful way to use a space that serves little other practical use today. The Spice Gallery, made possible by the generous support of Nomanbhoy and Sons Pte Ltd — a spice trader with over a hundred years of history, provides an appreciation of the significance of the spice trade to modern Singapore’s early development as a trading hub and also the role that Fort Canning Hill played in Singapore’s early spice plantations.

The newly opened Spice Gallery at the enhanced Spice Garden occupies a former pedestrian ramp and underpass.

A book, “Fort Canning Park: Heritage and Gardens”, authored by Dr Chng Mun Whye and Ms Sara-Ann Ang, which highlights the park’s rich heritage, was also launched together with the opening. This is available for sale Gardens Shop at various locations around the Singapore Botanic Gardens or online at https://botanicgardensshop.sg at SGD 29.90.

A book, “Fort Canning Park: Heritage and Gardens” was launched together with the opening.

Along with the permanent exhibition two galleries, there is also a “Kaleidoscope in Clay (I)” exhibition that features exhibits showcasing 5,000 years of Chinese ceramic history from 26 August to 11 September 2022 at The Gallery@L3, Fort Canning Centre. Also running is the 3rd edition of Festival at the Fort being held in conjunction with the opening and Singapore Night Festival, the programmes of which include movie screenings at Fort Canning Green, guided tours and children’s activities. The festival runs from 26 August to 4 September 2022 and more information can be found at https://www.nparks.gov.sg/activities/events-and-workshops/2022/8/festival-at-the-fort-2022.

Kaleidoscope in Clay (I) at Gallery@L3, Fort Canning Centre.

Fort Canning Heritage Gallery is opened daily from 10 am to 6 pm (expect for the last Monday of each month), while the Spice Gallery is opened from 7 am to 7 pm daily. Entry to both galleries is free to the public.


Photographs of Fort Canning Heritage Gallery during the opening on 26 August 2022.


Fort Canning Centre, various views


Fort Canning Spice Gallery / enhanced Spice Garden






Erasing the countryside

11 08 2022

The winds of change that are blowing through the area around the area of Bah Soon Pah Road seem to be gathering pace. Long an area in which the march of urbanisation was resisted, it has started to take on the appearance of a site being prepared for the inevitable spread of public housing in Singapore’s relentless quest to overpopulate and overbuild an already overcrowded and overly concretised island nation.

The former Bukit Sembawang assistant plantation manager’s residence near the entrance to Bah Soon Pah Road in 2021.

I am thankful that I had the opportunity to have known the area in its previous form. Located off a section of Sembawang Road that I first set eyes on in the early 1970s, it was set for much of the time that I knew it across a green and rolling landscape that in spite of several changes over the course of half a century, has long had that feel of the countryside. Seeing it The many drives that I was taken on and have myself taken over the years brought great joy to me, as did the escapes that I found in the space whenever I took a long walk through it.

A recent view from Lorong Chencharu towards the bungalow, with clearance work in the foreground.

As frequent and necessary as change may be in Singapore, it is hard to grow accustomed to it. When change does come, it can often be swift and cruel. Not only does change erase that sense of familiarity one has with a space in the blink of an eye, it can break a bond that one may have developed with the space over a course of several decades. This seems to also be the case with the Bah Soon Pah Road area in the sense of the rather abrupt manner that change is taking place as it is being readied for its next chapter as a residential area.

Bah Soon Pah Road no more, August 2022.

Named after the illustrious Lim Nee Soon and originally constructed to serve as a access road to a government holiday bungalow, there have been several iterations in Bah Soon Pah Road’s transformation over the years. Besides being closely associated with the Bukit Sembawang estate by virtue of the prominent placed bungalow that served as its assistant plantation manager’s residence, the area also played host to Malaysian military establishments, a field experimental station, rubber plantations and more recently, farms and plant nurseries.

Nurseries along Bah Soon Pah Road, August 2021.

The spread of what will presumably be an extension to Yishun town, extends to the area now occupied by Orto leisure park and Kampung Kampus and several tropical fish farms in the area south of Bah Soon Pah Road by Lorong Chencharu. Based on a Straits Times report published on 7 August 2022, both Orto and Kampung Kampus will have until June 2023 to operate at their current premises. Judging from reactions amongst members of the public to the news, it seems quite clear that spaces such as these are of great value to many. They provide a much needed and location friendly alternative to the cramped, confined, very concrete and rather infuriating leisure and recreational spaces found in malls and integrated complexes in which one can’t seem to escape from the madness that Singapore has become.

Kampung Kampus at Lorong Chencharu, which will closed by June 2023.
Orto is not only a welcome place of escape, the sight commuters on the MRT line from and to Khatib MRT Station catch of it, breaks the monotony of the journey.

Another change that is already altering the face of the area is the construction of the North-South Corridor, a new expressway that will carry traffic from Singapore’s north to the city centre, the northern part of which will be carried on a viaduct up to the Marymount area after which it will run underground. The widening of roads over which the viaduct will run is already being taking place. This is in order to divert traffic onto whilst the viaduct is being built. Preparations for this are well underway along the stretch of Sembawang Road by Bah Soon Pah Road, where the viaduct will run over before it turns toward Lentor Avenue and before long, a road that I knew for half a century will be quite unrecognisable.

A harbinger of change: hoardings being erected along Sembawang Road in November 2021 in preparation for the widening of the road to allow the North South Corridor viaduct to be built.

One consolation is all of this is that the area to Sembawang Road’s west, the site of Sembawang Air Base, will remain relatively uncluttered. Interestingly, evidence of the air base’s links with the Admiralty, having been develop to serve the fleet air arm, can be found in a few Admiralty land boundary markers placed along Sembawang Road. Hopefully these will survive the construction of the viaduct along Sembawang Road and remain in situ to at least tell the story. The story is part of a greater and more important story of the huge naval base that provided employment and made a significant contribution to the pre-Independence Singapore economy that to this very day has left a mark on the Sembawang area.

An Admiralty land boundary marker.

Lorong Chencharu

URA Master Plan 2019 identifies the area as a future residential site subject to detailed planning.

Views around Bah Soon Pah Road, mostly from August 2021:


Views around Lorong Chencharu, Orto, Kampung Kampus and Sembawang Road, in August 2022:






Parting Glances: Farrer Park Swimming Complex

10 08 2022

The rapid pace of change in Singapore’s robs many of places dear to them. These places, ones Singaporeans may have grown up with and made memories in, provides a connection to the country in a way that can never be replaced, and is what anchors people to a place and to a large extent is what makes home, home.

Farrer Park Swimming Complex

One place where memories for many in my generation were made, was Farrer Park, at which the last laps were swum at its 65-year-old swimming pool yesterday on 9 August 2022. From attending school sporting meets, to catching childhood football heroes “in action” and watching sports on a Sunday afternoon for free, Farrer Park seemed the go-to place for anything connected with sports. Its small (by the standards of today) swimming complex was also a popular spot to spend an especially warm day, being a lot more accessible than Singapore’s first public pool up on Mount Emily.

A swimming pool that played a big part in establishing the foundation on which the swimming career of Ang Peng Siong, once the “world’s fastest swimmer”.

Like Mount Emily, Farrer Park Swimming Pool was showing the signs of its age by the time I got to use it. Nevertheless, it was one of my favourites. It had that homely feel that seemed missing from the newer public swimming complexes, such as the one at Toa Payoh at which I would learn to swim.

Designed by City Architect, M E Crocker, Farrer Park’s swimming pool was built as Singapore’s third public pool (see: A Short History of Public Swimming Pools in Singapore) at the cost of $460,000. Officially opened on 22 February 1957 by the then Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock, it drew a huge crowd following day —  when it was opened to the public. A thousand pool users were reported to have used the pool that first day alone, with queues forming some two hours before its 7.30 am opening time.

A last look at Farrer Park Swimming Pool

Farrer Park would go on to become the “grounds” on which a one-time “world’s fastest swimmer”, Ang Peng Siong, was groomed. It was at the pool that Ang’s father, a supervisor at the pool, taught him to swim and provided him with his early training. In 1982, Ang became the “world’s fastest swimmer” when he recorded the world’s fastest time in the 50 metres freestyle. Ang would return to Farrer Park following its closure as a public pool in 2003, when the APS Swimming School which Ang founded in 1995, moved in 2004. The school has used the swimming complex since then until its closure this August.

The sun goes down on Farrer Park Swimming Pool

While a proposal was made to retain the swimming complex and refurbish it for future use in an area on which some 1,600 flats will be added, an announcement was made earlier this year that it would not be feasible to do so. The pool is now set to be demolished … to be replaced by a modern new-age integrated sporting complex in which new swimming facilities would be added, breaking yet another link that Farrer Park has to Singapore’s sporting history.


Parting glances: Farrer Park Swimming Complex






Northern Singapore’s last fishery port

26 07 2022

Believe it or not, the northern coast of Singapore once played host to a large fleet of fishing vessels. The fleet’s port of call was at old Kangkar Villlage down the Serangoon River, located right at the end of Upper Serangoon Road. The fleet was moved to Punggol Fishery Port when that was set up in the 1980s to move the fleet and consolidate the fish wholesalers of Kangkar and also Bedok. At the point of its move in 1984, Kangkar accommodated a fleet of 90 fishing boats and 16 fish wholesalers. Another move was made in 1997 to Senoko Fishery Port, which will itself close in 2023, after which all fish wholesale activity will be consolidated at Jurong Fishery Port. The move, which in tiny Singapore terms seems to a place a world away, will bring to a close the northern coast’s longtime connection with the fishing and the fish wholesale business.

The entrance to the port.
The floor of the wholesale market at Senoko Fishery Port.

The link that it has with old Kangkar does mean that Senoko has become home to a tightly-knit community of fish wholesalers who are of Teochew origin. Several of Senoko’s businesses have their roots in Kangkar’s fishing fleet operators whose boats would spent 3 to 4 days fishing in the waters close to Horsburgh Lighthouse (on the island of Pedra Branca). Over the years, close ties have been forged between the businesses which span several generations and what that does mean is that in Senoko there is a spirit of cooperation rather than competition. The closure of Senoko will thus not only bring a huge dose of sadness to its business operators but surely bring to the end that sense of community and that “kampung spirit” that is quite clearly evident in Senoko.

While the atmosphere in Senoko, which supplies a small portion (some 4% in 2020) of Singapore’s chilled seafood imports, certainly does come anywhere close to Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market — with which it has often been compared to, visiting it is a must due to its impending closure. As with Tsukiji, visits have to be made at an ungodly hour, in the wee hours of the morning. That is when its offerings, which are now imported mainly from Malaysia and other parts of Asia, come in and when the regular buyers come to obtain their supplies. There may also an opportunity to purchase seafood at wholesale prices, although one has to be prepared to buy in larger quantities with some exceptions, and be armed with an ice-box. While the port may be accessible to the public (you will need you NRIC and it is opened from 2 to 6 am except for Monday mornings), getting to Senoko may proof difficult. There is however an opportunity that presents itself for a guided visit during the My Community Festival. Organised by My Community, the annual festival runs from 5 to 21 August 2022 and offers programmes that provide a host of unique experiences — including visits to both Jurong and Senoko Fishery Ports and also Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre (for vegetables).

Lian Yak Fish Merchant, is the oldest of the businesses. It started business way back in 1955 and operated a fleet of fishing vessels out of Kangkar Village.

More information on My Community Festival can be found at https://mycommunityfestival.sg/.

Seafood is sorted into baskets for buyers.
Crustaceans are among the items on offer.

More photographs of Senoko Fishery Port






Elizabeth House, nurses’ quarters to part of a nursing home , or will that be just a mirage?

14 07 2022

Developments around Singapore General Hospital in the last five years or so, have altered the complexion of its much storied surroundings. With that, a number of markers, which linked the area to its much storied past were permanently lost. Future developments threaten to do the same with old Alexandra Hospital, with plans to redevelop a part of its grounds as a nursing home for dementia patients recently announced. While it may seem to involve only a small part of the grounds, what it signals is the beginning of the end for the hospital campus and some of its historically significant sites as part of what will eventually be the “Alexandra Health Campus”. 

Alexandra Military Hospital

It is good that three of the hospital’s existing buildings, ones that serve as the face of the hospital, are already protected for conservation. There is however a question of context in keeping older structures, especially when they are drowned or find themselves minimised by the scale that new developments are often given.  Given the history of the hospital and the significance of many of its structures and spaces, there must be more of the campus that deserves to be considered for conservation.

The spacious, green and quiet grounds of the hospital could be overtaken by the mess of concrete in the near future as there are plans to turn it into the Alexandra Health Campus.

Alexandra Hospital’s roots lie in its construction as Singapore’s main military hospital. This came at the tail end of an effort to turn Singapore into the “Gibraltar of the East”, and a naval outpost to which the British fleet could be sent to in event that its assets in the Far East could be defended. This brought new garrisons of troops to the island. With only the aging and glaringly inadequate Tanglin Military Hospital to serve the huge contingent of European soldiers on the island, there was a need for a large enough hospital. In July 1940, Alexandra opened as the British military establishment’s most modern hospital this side of the Suez and counted among the largest medical facilities that were built for the British army.

In Alexandra Hospital’s campus, there is a mix of pre and post World War II buildings.

Tragedy was to befall the hospital within a year and a half of its opening when on the eve of the Fall of Singapore, the hospital became the scene of a most horrendous of atrocities. In spite of the hospital being clearly marked and identified as a medical facility, Japanese troops entered the hospital late in the morning of 14 February 1942, allegedly in pursuit of British Indian Army soldiers who had fired on them. What followed was the wanton killing of staff and patients over the course of two days. Estimates of those killed in the course of the two days of savagery go as high as 300. More information on the massacre can be found in this link.

One of the hospital’s ward blocks not protected for conservation. This houses the auditorium, which was a chapel during the war and one of the points of entry of Japanese troops.

Two buildings, Blocks 18 and 19, are threatened by the development of the nursing home. Even if the signs seem to point to the buildings’ retention, how that will work could involve the buildings being incorporated as parts of larger structures. Block 19, also known as Elizabeth House, is the newer of the two blocks and is particularly unique. Having been constructed in two parts to house female nursing staff in 1949 and in 1958, what distinguishes the modernist blocks are exterior ventilation blocks that serve as privacy screens.

The former Elizabeth House, Block 19, with its older and newer sections and its privacy screens.

The construction of Elizabeth House came at a time when Britain was involved in the counter insurgency efforts against the communists in Malaya in a campaign known as the Malayan Emergency. With Alexandra Hospital, also known then as British Military Hospital Singapore, being Britain’s principal military facility in the Far East, it played a crucial role in supporting the effort. New buildings were built on the campus including Elizabeth House in support of the large amount of military personnel sent by Britain to Singapore and Malaya. Elizabeth House was closely associated with nurses with the then exclusively female Queen Alexandra Royal Army Nursing Corps or QARANC in short and known as tyhe “Garden Billet” to what were known as the QAs or nurses. Among the stories that have been told of the block was how its residents would sunbathe at the badminton court behind it.

Alexandra Hospital is a historical site with a plaque to recall its history placed in its gerden,

Based on what the Ministry of Health (MOH) has announced, as reported by the Straits Times on 26 June 2022, it is hard to see Elizabeth House surviving without substantial change or even demolition. While the sounds are for keeping the structure, there seems ample leeway given to the the successful tenderer (for consultancy services in regard to the nursing home development). What will be required of the tenderer is an assessment as to what opportunities there are to design the nursing home with respect to the heritage value of Blocks 18 and 19 — whatever that means. It seems quite possible that the option or a “documentation and heritage interpretation” route, with “elements of the blocks incorporated in the nursing home’s design” could be possible given the site’s constraints. If that is the case, Blocks 18 and 19 may just be a reinterpreted illusion. Without an actual form, and certainly without substance, we could just be left with a mirage that we in Singapore seem so fond of creating.

Block 18, built as the Commanding Officers’ residence.

Corridors of Block 19 – the former Elizabeth House.





Goodbye to a View

30 05 2022

The pace of development in the north of Singapore, a part of the island of which I have some wonderful childhood memories of, seems to be quickening. The recent demolition of all but one of the blocks of KD Malaya and the loss of its parade square has left the section of the old naval base closest to the causeway almost unrecognisable. Nearby, former residents of another marker of memory, the former “Torpedo Lines” at Khalsa Crescent — most recently a prison, returned to say goodbye and have their memories collected ahead of its probable eventual demolition in an event organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) last week. A little further east, it has already been some time since the loss of part of the elevation that played host to a UNHCR refugee camp for “Boat People” fleeing South Vietnam. The same elevation was also home to the former View Road Hospital, a branch of Woodbridge Hospital (now Institute of Mental Health), which stood at its top. The building that housed it, which dates back to 1941 and is still standing, is a longtime marker that if the URA Master Plan for the area is to be realised, may also soon disappear from sight.

The observation tower at View Road.

Although the former View Road Hospital, once also a home to Asian Naval Base Policemen and their families may be of little architectural value and of little significance in the whole scheme of buildings within the former naval base, it has, since I started conducting tours in collaboration with the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) in 2017, has become one of my favourite places. Why that is so is for the views one is able to get from its lookout tower, one that now provides an idea of the scale of redevelopment that is taking place in and around it. An example of the development work that is now in evidence, is the Rail Transit System link that will connect Woodlands North to Bukit Chagar in Johor Bahru via a 25 metre high bridge. Scheduled to open by the end of 2026, it will transform the area into a major entry point for cross border human traffic with its peak capacity of 10,000 passengers per hour.

Among the other developments that is already taking place in the area, is that of the future Woodlands North Coast, a component the overall Woodland Regional Centre. Based on the URA Master Plane, that does appear to spell the end for the former hospital.

The future of View Road (URA Master Plan 2019).




Parting Glances: Khalsa Crescent, home turned prison

24 05 2022

Once home to a huge naval base that stretched from the Causeway to Sembawang Road, Singapore’s rather sleepy northern coast seems set for a huge transformation. Work to build a much-anticipated rail transit system link to Johor Bahru is already underway and the signs are that the ground is already being prepared for a role as key component of the future Woodlands Regional Centre. The demolition of much of the former KD Malaya complex is now already complete, and all that is left of the longtime landmark, sited in an area close to Woodlands North MRT Station is gone, save for the conserved administration building. One set of structures that may likely disappear is the former quarters at Khalsa Crescent, which many of us would only know as Khalsa Crescent Prison.

The former Khalsa Crescent Prison, which has a much storied past. Block 6 (Prison Block F) was used as accommodation for policemen and featured a recreational space below where lectures and police parties during Sikh religious festivals were held. The space also functioned as a games room.
The watchtowers of the former prison are what draws notice to the complex.

Built in 1950 on the site of the Torpedo Depot “coolie lines”, Khalsa Crescent (Asian) quarters provided Asian members of the naval base workforce and their families, with a roof over their heads. Among those who were housed on the site were members of the Naval Base Police Force and the Naval Base Fire Service, for whom the set of quarters was affectionately known as “Torpedo”, having been know initially as “Torpedo Depot Lines”. When built, the quarters comprised seven two-storey blocks cont laid out with some 170 rooms that could accommodate up to 180 families. Among the blocks were ones housing bachelors with common spaces such as rest and mess rooms and recreational spaces found on the ground floors. Flag Officer (Malaya), Rear Admiral Clifford Caslon, who opened the estate on 10 January 1950, described the construction of new housing units as evidence that interest to the welfare and comfort of the base’s civilian staff was being shown by the Admiralty.

The newly built accommodation blocks in 1950, with Blocks 1 and 2 (far end) on the left, and Blocks 3 (far end) and 4 on the right.
The scene today.

During its first years, the quarters accommodated a fair number of Sikhs families, who men served in the Naval Base Police Force. As a result of this, a gurdwara was established in the eastern section of the ground floor of Block 5. Due to this association with the Sikh members of the force, the road through the estate was named “Khalsa”, which means “pure” in Punjabi. Khalsa, which also describes the guiding principle of the Sikh religion community, is often used as a reference to the Sikh community. The gurdwara moved to View Road (Rimau), where an Asian Naval Base Police Barracks was established, together with the Sikh policemen and their families in 1959. Some naval base policemen continued to stay in Khalsa Crescent while there were others who also relocated to Cochrane Crescent at about the same time. In the 1960s, a surau for Muslim policemen and their families was established at Block 5.

The section of Block 5 where I am told the gurdwara was.

The British military pullout, which took place at the end of October 1971, also saw to the eventual disbandment of the various services associated with the naval base and while the quarters continued in their use as accommodation units, the winds of change would eventually blow through the estate. In late 1974, some three years after the pullout, several of the accommodation blocks at Khalsa Crescent were converted for use as a remand centre and the forerunner of the Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC) — the DRC system was apparently formalised in 1977, although the term was already in use – as part of a broader scheme to segregate drug inmates (also according to the number of times they were hauled in). But while this may have been the intention, one of the centre’s first uses was for the detention of illegal immigrants, more specifically a group of 56 who had fled South Vietnam as the situation deteriorated in the lead up to the Fall of Saigon in April 1975. The group of 56, with 18 women and 10 children among them, arrived on a stolen military plane on 3 April 1975. Having come without the necessary visas, they were detained as illegal immigrants and were held at Khalsa Crescent where they spent 3 weeks, after which they were sent on to Guam.

A view of the former prison.

This drug rehabilitation scheme saw further changes to it and by 1995, drug addicts would first be sent to Sembawang DRC, where they would be observed and further processing was carried out. They would then be placed based on their previous records. Khalsa Crescent DRC was where third time offenders were sent to. Khalsa Crescent’s capacity was increased from 500 to 1050 during a renovation exercise that was carried out in anticipation of this new arrangement. In June 2005, Khalsa Crescent DRC became simply Khalsa Crescent Prison.

Members of the Khalsa Crescent Sikh Community.

The modernisation and expansion of the Changi Prison complex in 2009, saw to the move of some 5000 inmates from prisons like Khalsa Crescent Prison, which was described as the “largest transfer of prisoners in local history”. What that also meant was that older facilities such as Khalsa Crescent Prison were made redundant and surplus to requirements. Decommissioned, the former prison lay hidden behind its tall green security fence — that is until 21 May 2022 when former residents of the one-time Asian quarters were allowed to take a short but sweet walk back in time in anticipation of the complex’s eventual demolition.

Memories of Khalsa Crescent.

Vietnamese Refugees in Singapore
Following the incident involving the 56 refugees arriving by plane, the opium treatment centre at St John’s Island was temporarily set aside for refugees. Addicts under treatment on the island displaced by the arrangements were then moved to Khalsa Crescent Remand Centre, where the 56 had been held. The island refugee camp would be closed in October 1975 and subsequent to that, Singapore took a strong stand against refugees who began to leave the former South Vietnam by boat. A policy of restocking refugee boats before towing the boats back out to sea was initially put in place. It would only be in 1978 at a time when the refugee crisis reached its peak that Singapore permitted refugees to land on the condition that a guarantee was made of resettlement in a third country within three months by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR was also allowed to set up and run a refugee camp at Hawkins Road, not far from Khalsa Crescent.


The evolution of the area through maps and aerials

Maps of the Torpedo Depot area showing the former coolie lines in 1945 and the blocks of the Asian quarters in 1968.
Plans of the site before and after the quarters were built.
Aerial views of the site during the time of the coolie lines and after the barracks were built (Maps from National Archives of Singapore)
What the crystal ball that is the URA Master Plan says that the Khalsa Crescent will be – a future residential development.

A walk around the former prison

The caged passageway built for the prison along the former Block 5, which became the prison’s Admin Block.
An Interview Room in the Admin Block.
A passageway between the Admin Block and the Workshop section of the prison.
A view towards the former RMN Sports Grounds, where the Rail Transit System link from Woodlands North to Bukit Chagar in Johor Bahru is being built.
Inside Workshop 2, one of two prison workshops that were added during the prison days.
Inside a second workshop.
Staircase at Block 7, which was apparently a bachelors’ block.
Block 7, which had bachelors’ accommodation on the top. A Sikh cook prepared meals for the bachelors according to one former resident.
The Kitchen at Block 7.
Potential weapons have to be kept safe.
The Housing Unit – the roof was added to allow the space between the former accommodation and service blocks to be usable.

Inside a “Housing Unit”


More views of the former prison






Putting a chill into Chong Pang City

13 05 2022

I never thought I will admit to this but I shall miss the old market at “Chong Pang City” when it goes. The old market will go sometime around 2027, when it is scheduled to move into a soulless new age all-in-one integrated development now coming up in place of a former community club building and a low-rise block of flats that both were recently acquired and demolished.

A queue for roasted meat

Chong Pang City, which counts as Nee Soon (later Yishun) New Town’s very first neighbourhood centre, acquired its name in 1993, when shopkeepers banded together to rebrand the place in response to the opening of Northpoint shopping mall. The development of the neighbourhood had taken place several years earlier, having been built over a period spanning seven years, from 1977 to 1984. When development first started, much of its surroundings were occupied by cemetery land, farms and on the side of Chong Pang Camp opposite it, fishing ponds and vegetable plots. Leaving its rural past behind the area, around where Chye Kay Village was located, very quickly took on the vibe of a neighbourhood centre typical of any new public housing town built in the era. The market, which was completed in 1984 as one of the last old-style wet markets built by the Housing and Development Board (HDB), became one of its draws, and is today one of the more lively marketplaces.

The Pork Section.

The marketplace at Chong Pang City — I use the word “marketplace” because much of the surroundings in the immediate vicinity of the market, such as the kiosks, commercial units, plazas and pedestrian malls, contributes to the special buzz of Chong Pang’s market. A wide range of produce is available at the market with traders catering to the various segments of the neighbourhood’s population, and this also draws many from further afield. And now, even in the age of supermarkets, online shopping and dining out, the marketplace continues to have a buzz that makes it one of Singapore’s liveliest market places.

A new day at the marketplace.

To me, Chong Pang’s market is one of the places that make Singapore, Singapore, and it is sad to think that this rather unique side of us will in five years or so be a thing of the past. Change, of course, is inevitable in a Singapore that moves much too fast, and we don’t seem to have much of a choice with this with work on the oddly but maybe aptly named integrated development, “Chill @ Chong Pang”, is already underway. Once completed, the “Chill” will literally take Chong Pang to new levels and put a chill on Chong Pang City.

Fruits and vegetables are also sold in the shops in the vicinity of the market.

Stacked onto Chill’s multiple tiers with the wet market will be a community club, a food centre, a swimming complex, gyms, fitness studios, banks, eateries, community spaces and shops. What Chill will also have is an outer garment of vertical greenery that can only be maintained with much effort, and possibly a green roof to enhance its green credentials. All nice and good, but the how of fitting all that is comfortably, and with a setting that is conducive for market shopping, can only be seen in five years time.

Fresh fish is available at the market’s many fishmongers.

Integrated developments have been around for quite a while, and they do take some getting used to. These developments almost invariably seem to have constraints of space and there is never enough around key access points, intended waiting areas and even around lift landings and getting from one level to the next, is often not a pleasant experience. Closed-in markets are also not the most pleasant of places to do one’s marketing in and while it may be a thing of the future, it isn’t something that I will be looking forward to.

Another fishmonger’s stall.

Stalls / shops in the vicinity of the market.

A roasted meat seller.

A shrine outside the market.

A fruit seller.

Crowds during the lockdown led to further crowd control measures being implemented for entry to the market.

Another scene during the lockdown.

The calm before the storm. The former Community Club on the right, which was demolished, forms part of the site for Chill @ Chong Pang.

Another shrine, this one behind the market.

The marketplace.

An Egg dealer.

More fishy business.





The Singapore debut of The Capitol of Singapore

4 05 2022

Anyone stepping into Capitol Theatre will get an immediate sense of a grace and elegance that is a reflection of the age that the theatre was built in and that and the building’s evolution over the years has been captured on film, through a documentary “The Capitol of Singapore” that makes its Singapore debut this Friday, 6 May 2022, at The Capitol! Two screenings of the film have been scheduled in conjunction with Singapore HeritageFest 2022, the other screening being on 7 May. Directed by French filmmaker Raphaël Millet, Friday’s screening of the film — also known as “Le Capitol de Singapour”, the film, will mark the first time that it will be seen outside of France. More information on the screenings and a link to the booking page can be found at this link.


Capitol Theatre

Built from 1929 to 1930, the theatre was designed by Keys and Dowdeswell at a time when the formerly government employed pair had ventured into private architectural practice. The cinema, the most progressive of the day in Singapore and Malaya, reflected the aspirations of the architect, as much that it did those of its wealthy owner, Mr Mirza Mohamed Ali (M A) Namazie — a Madras (Chennai) born Muslim of Persian origin who had substantial holdings in property and also in the rubber trade.

No expense seems to have been spared in the building of the Capitol. Not only was it large by the standards of the day, but the Capitol was also the first cinema hall in Singapore and Malaya to feature forced ventilation. Maximising the comfort of its patrons, the ventilation system reduced the necessity for large ventilation openings, thus keeping noise at a minimum. This would have been especially desirable, given that the cinema was built during the progression from the silent age of cinema to the new era of the talkies.

Before its refurbishment,

That Capitol Theatre is still with us over 90 years after it screened its first movie, is itself a remarkable story.  The cinema faced a string of challenges from very outset; its opening night plagued by the poor performance of its audio system due to Singapore’s high levels of humidity. Caught up in the excitement of watching Bebe Daniels and John Boles star in the musical production “Rio Rita” in a cinema of Capitol’s stature, not many apparently noticed.

At the end of its refurbishment in 2015.

The death of Mr M A Namazie in July 1931, and the effects of the Great Depression, prompted a change of ownership at the end of 1932. The Japanese Occupation of Singapore would see the cinema utilised as the Kyoei Gekizyo, opening in November 1942. Besides screening movies, the Kyoei also played host to recitals, concerts and other performances, as well as rallies and meetings, some of which were organised by the Overseas Chinese Association. Anti-Japanese saboteurs set off an explosion in early 1945, which caused sufficient damage to see that it would never used by the Japanese again. Capitol Theatre was given a new lease of life in January 1946 when it reopened, having been refurbished by the Shaw Brothers at a cost of half-a-million dollars. The cinema screened its last movie in December 1998 before being revived as a theatre in May 2015.

The Capitol’s elegant interior.


Synopsis

At the heart of Singapore’s Civic and Cultural District stands Capitol Theatre, a historical landmark that has borne witness to Singapore’s transformation over the years.

The documentary film, The Capitol of Singapore, traces the evolution of this historical building, from its founding in 1930 as a state-of-the-art theatre and shopping arcade; its requisition by the Japanese during the Second World War; its years as a top cinema where Hollywood blockbusters and local movie premieres were shown; its eventual decline into disuse and disrepair; and finally, its resurrection, after undergoing preservation and conservation works, to its present day incarnation as part of the integrated development Capitol Singapore, which is owned and managed by Perennial Holdings Private Limited. Capitol Singapore houses The Capitol Kempinski Hotel Singapore, Eden Residences Capitol as well as a retail mall and the iconic theatre.

The film delves into the heritage of Capitol Theatre through a look at the theatre’s original architecture and personal stories recounting what it has meant for many Singaporeans. Like a phoenix reborn, Capitol Theatre has stood the test of time, reinventing itself at every turn to stay relevant for each generation to come. In telling the story of Capitol Theatre, the film also explores, in parallel, the history of Singapore cinema, highlighting the golden years of film production when Singapore was at the centre of Southeast Asia’s film industry, producing films in Malay and the various Chinese dialects and drawing talent from across Asia.

During this period, Singapore was also a known locale for international film productions, attracting filmmakers from both Hong Kong and Hollywood. The Capitol Theatre made Singapore a top Asian destination for many film stars, with celebrity visits from the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Ava Gardner and Douglas Fairbanks who graced their film premieres in Singapore.

Through the story of Capitol Theatre, the film journeys into Singapore’s past and in doing so, reflects upon its present and future.






Breaking KD Malaya’s last ship up

11 03 2022

For those whose connection with Singapore’s far north go back to the 20th century, the road to the causeway was one littered with an interesting range of sights. One such sight that would certainly have caught the eye, was that of KD Malaya, a camp from which Malaysia’s navy – Tentera Laut DiRaja Malaysia (TLDM) or Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) had its fleet based at until 1979, and which was used as a TLDM training facility right until 1997.

KD Malaya from Admiralty Road West – the layout of the buildings gave an appearance of the bow of a huge ship.

The centrepiece of the base was it large parade ground, beyond which an administrative building and two barrack buildings took on the appearance of the bow of a huge ship with the camp’s flagstaff seemingly a foremast. This was quite a remarkable sight, as one came around an area of Admiralty Road West that contained Hawkins Road refugee camp and View Road Hospital (the area was featured in Secrets in the Hood Episode 5).

The former KD Malaya, seen in 2020 after Admiralty West Prison vacated it.

The wondrous sight of the former KD Malaya is now one has quite sadly been lost to the frenzy of redevelopment has now reached Singapore’s once sleepy north, with the Woodlands North Coast development beginning to take shape. While the camp’s streamline moderne inspired former administration block may have been kept for posterity, the two barrack buildings that contributed to the sight has since been demolished. Along with that, the parade square, which had provided the setback to take the wonderful view in, has also been consigned to history. This breaking of a link with our shared history with Malaysia, through the removal of a significant physical reminder of it seems especially ironic with the development nearby of a new link to Malaysia through the Rapid Transit System.

Only the administration block remains today (with a granite-faced staircase leading up to it).

I shall miss the sight of the former KD Malaya, with which I have been familiar with since my childhood. Together with the wonderful spaces and landmarks in and around it, it has provided great joy and comfort, especially with much of the rest of a Singapore being transformed in a way made it hard to identify with. While KD Malaya’s administration block is being kept, my fear is that it becomes just another building in a space overcrowded with a clutter of structures of a brave new world – as seems the case many other developments in which heritage structures are present. An example is the transformation of the joyously green space around old Admiralty House into the monstrous Bukit Canberra development into which a ridiculous amount of concrete has been poured in and around which a clutter of structures has conspired to reduce the presence of the stately arts and crafts movement inspired old Admiralty House.

A road is being built around the site.

There is also the matter of KD Malaya’s gateposts, which will have to be relocated. Whatever happens to it and wherever it will eventually be re-sited, my hope is that it doesn’t go the way of the old National Library’s gateposts. Originally left in situ to mark the site of a much loved Singaporean building, the gateposts have since suffered the indignity of being displaced and put in a position in which it has become …. just another part of the scene.

KD Malaya’s old gate.
The road to perdition. Work on the Rapid Transit System is taking place, which will cross over that body of water that is seen to Johor Bahru.
Will the former Rimau Offices / View Road Hospital (and its unusual above ground “bomb-proof” office) be the next to go?




A lost world

10 03 2022

Photographs of a lost world that exists in a part of Singapore that has been reclaimed by nature.





The last memories of Chia Chwee Kang

24 02 2022

The stretch of Upper Thomson Road between Yio Chu Kang and Mandai Roads is one that has was filled with sights that held a fascination for me as a child. The two large carved wooden elephants that stood out at the front of the Thai Handicraft store close what is today the entrance of Thomson Nature Park, is one such sight that remains etched in my memory. Another that I remember was the standalone building, resembling one of those that served as rest stops on the main trunk road up country in which an Ampang Yong Tau Foo eating place operated, not far from Upper Thomson Road’s junction with Mandai Road.

The area near Springleaf MRT Station (on the northbound side of Upper Thomson Road), early 1990s – courtesy of Rolf Strohmann.

Much has changed since those days with the rural communities provided the area with much of its past flavour, having long been displaced. There is however as much that is familiar in the area as there is unfamiliar. The former Upper Thomson Secondary School complex, a remnant from the 1960s, is one that is familiar, as is the Ampang Yong Tau Foo outlet, which has since moved into the row of shophouses at Thong Soon Avenue.

The former Upper Thomson Secondary School (UTSS).

Known today as Springleaf, having borrowed its name from a private housing estate of that name, the area is now associated with nature park, and more recently, an MRT station. On the side of Upper Thomson Secondary School, the MRT station opens up to an empty plot of land that awaits future development, a plot that until the 1990s, held on to the memory of the name Chia Chwee Kang (汫水港), by a cluster of temples that were found on it.

A memory of a time and place forgotten – courtesy of Rolf Strohmann.

The name Chia Chwee Kang, which translates into “fresh water stream” from either Teochew or Hokkien, was a name that the area was known by from the early 1900s. The name was a reference to a stream at the source of Sungei Seletar – the river that brought settlers into the area as far back as the early 19th century when a riverside settlement named Chan Chu Kang was established.

The source of the Seletar River – now contained within a dam.

The cluster of temples were the Chia Chwee Kang Hong San See (汫水港凤山寺), Chia Chwee Kang Tou Mu Kong (汫水港斗母宫) or Kew Ong Yah, and the Nee Soon Village Tian Gong Tan 义顺村天公坛, for which an interesting set of photographs were sent over by a Rolf Strohmann recently. Taken in the early 1990s, the photographs include quite a few taken during the Nine Emperor Gods Festival being celebrated by the Chia Chwee Kang Tou Mu Kong temple. This was just before the cluster of temples and the Chia Chwee Kang Tua Pek Kong temple that was located across the road, moved out (eventually moving into the Chong Pang Combined Temple together with three other temples in 1996). The festival incidentally, is still celebrated in a big way by the temple from the end of the eight month to the first nine days of the ninth month of the Chinese calendar, which now involves elaborate ceremonies at Sembawang beach.

The Chong Pang Combined Temple at Yishun Ring Road.

Besides the buildings of the former Upper Thomson Secondary School and the Ampang Yong Tau Foo place, the Shell service station and a row of terraced shophouses (in which the Ampang Yong Tau Foo outlet now operates), and perhaps the Nee Soon (telephone) Exchange building are all that is left to serve as markers of my childhood memories. At the southern end of the shophouse row is a Han’s café that may also serve as a marker for others. Now a household name, the café began its business in the same shophouse row as bakery back in 1978. Of Chia Chwee Kang, while its name is remembered in the Chong Pang Combined Temple some distance away, as a place, it seems now all but forgotten.

Chia Chwee Kang erased – the area where the cluster of temples were located.

Photos (Courtesy of Rolf Strohmann):






Yishun and its links to a 1847 secret society attack off Batam

21 12 2021

Yishun is a satellite town in modern Singapore with a reputation for being in the news for the wrong reasons. It does seem that this may also have been the case in its earliest days — at least as the settlement that the town traces its roots to. The settlement would eventually to be known as “Nee Soon”, Yishun’s name in Teochew and the name of a since-erased village that through its association with the illustrious Lim Nee Soon in the early 20th century, was named after him.

Yishun, on the left bank of what is today Lower Seletar Reservoir. The reservoir was created through the construction of a dam across the mouth of Sungei Seletar.

Located on what could be thought of as the left bank of Sungei Seletar — now Lower Seletar Reservoir, Yishun occupies one of several riverine areas of Singapore that attracted pioneering pepper and gambier planters in Singapore’s earliest days as a East India Company factory (or some say even before). The early planters were almost exclusively from the Teochew dialect group, and had links to the secret societies whose assistance and protection were essential to survival in the early days. The secret societies were however, also a constant source of trouble, with violence often being used as a means towards resolving disputes.

A beautiful sight along the Springleaf Park Connector, this now spruced up upper section of the Sungei Seletar permitted the area to be accessed and provided for its development for gambier and pepper cultivation.

In 1847, the discovery of six boats armed with cannons along with a huge cache of arms in a plantation by Sungei Seletar by a police party, led to them to the arrest of Neo Yang Kwan (Neo Liang Quan). Neo, who was described to have been of “doubtful character”, had come over from the Riau islands and was affiliated with Ngee Heng Kongsi, a Teochew secret society. It was also discovered that he had been behind a well planned and brutal attack on plantations on Galang Island south Batam from Singapore just prior to the discovery, which resulted in the destruction of twenty-eight plantations and the violent deaths of over a hundred.

Still waters do run deep.
It was in a plantation by the river that a cache of arms and cannon-armed boats belonging to a Secret Society affiliated Teochew planter were discovered by the police in 1847. The weapons and boats were apparently used in a brutal reprisal attack on an island off Batam.

Neo’s exit from the plantation scene, possibly after he was taken into custody, nor the issue of land titles that J T Thomson’s 1846 survey of Singapore’s interior provided for, did little to end the disputes that were often over control of land. The first land title that was taken up was in fact related to the area in which Neo had his plantation. Allocated to another Teochew man by the name of Chan Ah Lak in 1850, the settlement came to be known as Chan Chu Kang (曾厝港) [chu kangs (厝港) were river clan settlements that were established up several rivers in Singapore].

Locations of Kangkars (riverside landing areas) and Bangsals (plantation plots) related to chu kangs in Singapore in 1885 (source: Chinese Agricultural Pioneering in Singapore and Johore)

Chan, who seemed well connected and of apparently good standing, was another who was affiliated with Ngee Heng Kongsi. Among the contributions he made was a sum of money that went towards the construction of the temple of literature, Chong Wen Ge, at Telok Ayer Street. As with his predecessor, Neo, Chan cultivated gambier and pepper, on his land allocation, which amounted to some 44 acres (17.8 ha).

A gambier plantation, c. 1900.

Despite the legitimacy of land occupation that the land title offered, secret society activities continued and continued to be a source of trouble. The anti-Catholic disturbances in 1851, during which Catholic owned plantation were targeted, was an example of this. Although not directly affecting Chan Chu Kang, an outcome of this would be the erection of a police thannah (a station or outpost) in Chan Chu Kang that same year. The presence of the thannah however, did little to prevent Chan Chu Kang from being drawn into an even more serious disturbance in 1854 that would leave some four to five hundred dead across Singapore and over three hundred houses destroyed. Remote areas, including Chan Chu Kang, were especially badly affected, and reports had a number of ”wholesale murders” along with the burning of homes taking place at Chan Chu Kang.

An 1865 Map of Singapore showing locations of settlements such as Chan Chu Kang.

While the apparent trigger for the riots may have been a dispute over the price of rice between a Teochew buyer and a Hokkien shopkeeper, tensions between the two dominant Chinese communities had been brewing for some time. Reasons for the rift were wide ranging and included control of gambier and pepper plantations, into which the Hokkiens were making inroads. An influx of an unusually large number of Chinese fleeing China in the wake of the Small Sword Society’s uprising in 1853 together with the disputes that arose over contributions between the two communities to the effort to oust the Qing emperor could also be added to this mix.

A poster depicting the Small Sword Society’s uprising in Shanghai (source: https://chineseposters.net/posters/e37-374)

The troubles in Chan Chu Kang, did not end with the quelling of the riots. On the basis of newspaper articles throughout much of the 1800s and early 1900s, murders, riots, instances of arson, fights between members of rival secret societies or communities and break-ins kept the police thannah very especially busy. Chan Chu Kang’s transformation into Nee Soon Village, which followed Lim Nee Soon’s establishing a rubber processing plant in the village around 1912 and his subsequent purchase of the estate, did little to stop news of murder and crime being reported with regularity.

Besides rubber, Lim Nee Soon’s ventures in the area also included pineapple cultivation and canning. This, together with its location at a three-way junction, made Nee Soon village a significant rural centre for the agricultural north of Singapore. Its position would be further augmented with the development of Singapore as a military garrison from the late 1920s. Not only was huge naval base built at the end of Chan Chu Kang / Seletar Road, which passed through Nee Soon, the village would also benefit from the construction of Nee Soon Barracks late in the 1930s. At the same time, a fully equipped post office was also added to the village late in 1939.

Not long after the construction of the barracks was completed, it became the scene of a murder. In March 1941, an Indian soldier with the Royal Artillery quartered in the camp’s H-Block was brutally killed with a machete. A suspect, a fellow soldier, was charged for the murder but was acquitted. War and occupation was on the horizon, during which time Nee Soon Camp become a POW camp for British Indian Army soldiers.

Nee Soon
A view down Transit Road towards Nee Soon Village in the 1960s (David Ayres on Flickr).

The end of the war in 1945, saw Nee Soon Barracks turned into a holding camp for Dutch and Javanese refugees, and as No.1 British Transit Camp transit camp for demobolised military personnel being sent home. Its role as a transit camp would continue, serving for personnel and their families arriving from Britain (hence the name Transit Road). Just before the British pullout in 1971, it became a camp for the Royal New Zealand Army. Australian units, were housed in it as part of the ANZUK force deployed in Singapore post-British-pull-out, after which it became the Singapore Armed Forces’ School of Basic Military Training (SBMT) from 1975. All through this post-war period, murders, gangland activities, and violent crime, continued to make the news — even as the village was being vacated in the early 1980s.

Today, little is left to remind us of a place whose very colourful and eventful modern chapter in its history goes back to the early 1800s. The much altered camp is still around, as its the former post office. The building that house the post office, could be thought of as quite literally having gone to the dogs, having been repurposed as a veterinary clinic. At least it is still there. Also in the area is Springleaf Nature Park. The beautifully spruced-up waterway that is a feature of the park and of the Springleaf Park Connector, could be thought of as a reminder of the waterway that first brought settlement to the area. The use of the former village’s name for the new town does also provide a connection to the past, although this comes through a difficult to relate to and rather different sounding “Yishun”. The physical displacement of the place name by several kilometres, and the subsequent use of the name “Springleaf” to describe the area of the former village, does however, minimise that link that the area has with its colourful and somewhat eventful past.





The soon to be lost post office of old along Alexandra Road

15 12 2021

I have always enjoyed a visit to one of the few remaining standalone post offices of old, and make it a point to use one whenever I am able to. Quite unlike those of the new age, which tend to be tucked away in a hard-to-get-to location in the upper floors of a shopping mall or a community centre, they are much more accessible and conveniently position, with a small car park that makes running into one much less of a complicated task.

It was therefore sad to hear that one such post office — the Alexandra Post Office, whose services I used as recently as the 3rd of November, may soon be another one of to many things of the past. A joint HDB and SLA announcement issued this afternoon, has it that it is being acquired to permit public housing to be built on the narrow section of land between Alexandra Road and Prince Charles Crescent that the Post Office sits on.

Alexandra Post Office, as it was on 3 Nov 2021.

Built as Alexandra Road Post Office as part of a 5-year-plan launched in 1956 to develop a postal service that was “second to none” through the construction of some 22 new post offices and by improving efficiency and economy in operations, the post office was opened on 24 August 1957 by then Minister for Communications and Works, Mr Francis Thomas.

The post office now occupies a small section on the ground floor of the 1957 building, which at its opening, held the second largest postal delivery and distribution centre after the General Post Office.

Designed with a modern façade by architectural firm Chung and Wong — whose claim to fame were well-known buildings such as the Haw Par House of Jade at Nassim Road and the Tiger Balm Clock Tower Building at Selegie Road and Short Street and a firm at which Haw Par Villa’s actual villa’s architect, Ho Kwong Yew, had a stint in — the post office featured living quarters for its postmaster and family. It was also constructed to act as a postal distribution centre that was second in size to the General Post Office. The post office at its opening had a staff of 17 postmen, 2 clerks and was headed by postmaster Mr Horbex Singh.

Pat’s Schoolhouse, has occupied a larger portion of the building since 2008. One of the features of the building are the ventilation blocks that are reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s designed buildings.

With the push to move postmasters out of their co-located post office quarters in the 1970s, and with the decline in demand for postal services through the use of email and online communications, standalone post offices such as Alexandra Post Office have seen the space required for postal services greatly reduced. As such the few that are surviving have seen the excess floor area, popular with preschools, being rented out. Alexandra Post Office for example, which was the first to be used by a preschool, has had a greater proportion of its floor area occupied by Pat’s Schoolhouse since 2008.

While the announcement may spell the end for Alexandra Post Office, it will not be the last of the post offices of a time forgotten. Several post offices or old, or at least the buildings that housed them are still around. It would nice to at least see some of them kept to recall how these post offices and their postmasters provided an important service in the many rural communities scattered across the island.





From “Chinatown” to “China Town”

3 12 2021

The development of Singapore’s Chinatown, its reason for being, and how it does not quite fit into the same mould as the Chinatowns found across the non-Chinese world, was the topic of my previous post. Chinatown’s evolution in more recent years, first into a conservation and a tourist site as one of three of Singapore’s “ethnic quarters”, does have a significant influence on what has become of Chinatown today as a go-to place for the newest additions to the Chinese community in Singapore.

Chinatown today is part tourist attraction, a place for Singaporeans to find traditional goods for the occasion and for the new Chinese to get a taste of home.

The “new Chinese”, if I may call those more recently arrived from China that, started arriving in the wake of the setting up of diplomatic ties between the People’s Republic of China and Singapore in 1990. That opened the doors for an inflow of much needed migrant workers, along with academics, professionals, students and “study-mamas” (or peidu mama) in large numbers. Recent estimates has it that there could be as many as 400,000 new Chinese who have come Singapore, some of whom have been naturalised. Similar ethnically with their long-time Singaporean Chinese cousins who have mainly descended from southern Chinese immigrants, the new Chinese have a wider diversity in their origins, have quite different values and cultural perspectives, speak differently and have differing tastes. A natural consequence of this is the appearance of the many businesses, eateries and stores that now cater to the tastes, wants and needs of this numerically significant group.

Well patronised Northern Chinese and Sichuan food eateries along New Bridge Road.

Chinatown, and in particular, People’s Park Complex, is now where a concentration of such business can be found. People’s Park Complex, perhaps for it long-time role as a place to purchase Chinese made products since its opening in 1970, and where several remittance agents were set up in the 1990s, would attract travel agents specialising in the Chinese market, food and snack stalls, stores dealing in Chinese foodstuffs, and most recently, supermarkets. These have more or less become permanent fixtures in the shopping centre. Beyond this, food outlets are also made an appearance in and around the area of the complex. People’s Park Food Centre has now a range of food stalls offering food representative of northeastern China and also from the numb and spicy (mala) food from the Sichuan area.

Eateries and food stalls lining People’s Park Complex and People’s Park Food Centre offer a taste of home for many new Chinese.

Nearby, a long-time Chinatown landmark in the form of the former Great Southern Hotel, has been the home of Yue Hwa Chinese Products, a Hong Kong store which brings in Chinese goods and foodstuffs since 1996. The store has been a go-to place for ingredients for the more exotic types of Chinese food. It has however seen the arrival of a new competition, Scarlett Supermarket, whose name in Chinese ShiJiaKe (思家客) translates into “homesick”. The supermarket, which brings in Chinese snacks and foodstuffs and offers them at very reasonable prices, has in the short time since it opened its Trengganu Street outlet in October 2020, become popular both with new Chinese and with many Singaporeans. It has since opened stores across Singapore, including a flagship store in People’s Park Complex and by January 2022, will have 10 stores in total.

Yue Hwa Chinese Products, a Hong Kong store that was established at the former Great Southern Hotel in 1996. It has long been a go-to place to obtain ingredients for more exotic Chinese cooking.
The new kid on the block – Scarlett Supermarket, which opened its first store in Oct 2020, and has since opened several other stores across Singapore, including a flagship store in People’s Park Complex in Feb 2021.

What has become especially lively is the Chinatown food scene. This isn’t just confined to the area in and around People’s Park Complex, but has also added flavour to the scene across Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road. That is where the heart of old Chinatown was. Now an area that is at the heart of the tourist side of Chinatown, new Chinese eateries can be found along with several others along Upper Cross Street, Mosque Street, Pagoda Street, and Smith Street.

Eateries lining Mosque Street.

While the eateries may have been set up with the aim of bringing a taste of home to the multitude of new Chinese here in Singapore, many have also found regular patrons elsewhere. Three northeastern (dongbei) Chinese restaurants along Upper Cross Street for example, have become popular with the Koreans and Japanese and are featured on websites and other social media channels not just here but also in their home countries. In this way perhaps, Chinatown could be seen as playing a role of bringing people together, much like it did in the past.

A dongbei restaurant along Upper Cross Street.

While the focus of this post is on Chinatown becoming “China Town”, Chinatown today a lot more than that. As we heard in the video attached to my previous post, it is also a place for Singaporeans, especially those with past connections to the place. The renewal of Chinatown has also brought with it a host of new attractions such as the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Although the authenticity of the relic that it houses has been questioned, and perhaps whether the temple’s place in Chinatown is appropriate, it is here to stay. The temple and much of today’s Chinatown could be thought of as a continuation of the Chinatown of the past. Although not quite the same, it is still very much a place that brings people and cultures together.

Not Chinatown and not Singapore? A structure that perhaps defines the new Chinatown, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Consecrated in 2008, it was built to hold what is claimed to be a tooth of Buddha that was housed in an earthquake damaged stupa in Myanmar. Questions have been asked about the authenticity of the relic.

From Chinatown to “China Town” (video)

From Chinatown to “China Town”





What makes Chinatown Chinatown in Chinese majority Singapore?

30 11 2021

That there is a place known as “Chinatown” in Singapore seems quite odd, with Chinese settlers and their descendants having been in the majority from the mid-1800s. The origins of the name lie possibly in Singapore’s very first Town Plan. Drawn up in 1822, the plan defined areas for settlement along ethnic lines. The area where Chinatown is today, corresponds to the plan’s “Chinese Campong” and an adjacent “Chuliah Campong” (“Chuliah” or “Chulia” is a reference to those from the south of India). The term “China town” to describe the district, as reports in the English language press going back to the 1830s show, found use very early on.

Chinatown, through the eyes of its former residents (a video).

While the use of the term does suggest a similarity with other Chinatowns or Chinese dominated streets or neighbourhoods found in urban centres across the non-Chinese world, that is where the similarity ends. Singapore’s Chinatown has never quite been a “Tong Yan Kai”, the “Street of Tang People” in Cantonese, as many of the other Chinatowns are often referred to. To most in the Chinese speaking community, Chinatown was “Greater Town”, “Tai Por” in Cantonese or “Tua Po” in Teochew and Hokkien.

A statement relating to the revenue obtained from the so-called Revenue Farms in Singapore published in 1838.
“A Street in Chinatown”, 1932, Leiden University (CC BY 4.0)

Another name that the district was, and still is, associated with is “Ngau Che Shui” (in Cantonese) or “Gu Chia Chwee” (in Hokkien) and “Kreta Ayer” (in Malay). Translating into “Water Bullock Cart”, the name is a reference to the section of Chinatown around Kreta Ayer Road and Spring Street, where there were fresh water springs from which bullock carts used for the sale and distribution of fresh water were once filled. The name is now also used to refer to the larger Chinatown area.

Smith and Trengganu Street corner, 1914 with the former Lai Chun Yuen on the left.

One unique feature of Singapore’s Chinatown, is its multi-ethnic flavour. Non-Chinese houses of worship are quite a conspicuous part of it. Two of Chinatown’s streets, Pagoda and Temple Streets do in fact take their names from a Hindu temple. Another, Mosque Street is name after the Jamae (Chulia) Mosque.

The shophouse dominated streets of Chinatown with a Hindu temple, the Sri Mariamman, after which two streets are named.

The multi-dimensional quality extended to the Chinese community in Chinatown, who divided themselves along lines of dialects. The Kreta Ayer section of Chinatown for example, was home to the Cantonese, and the area around Telok Ayer and Amoy Street was predominantly Hokkien. The Teochews lived and ran businesses in the areas closer to the Singapore river. The non-Chinese communities that were added to this mix were those from southern India and smaller pockets of other communities that included the Baweanese (or Boyan). Hailing from Pulau Bawean, the Baweanese were skilled horse handlers. Many found work as gharry-drivers and made the area of the stables at Erskine Road, home. 

A Silver Chariot procession along the Streets of Chinatown during the Hindu festival of Thaipusam.
Pondok Peranakan Gelam Club – set up by the Baweanese community in Club Street near Erskine Road

The South Indian community would come to include many who came during the expansion of the port that followed the opening of the Suez Canal. Areas such as Tanjong Pagar Road on the fringes of Chinatown, became home for some, so much so that the area came to be referred to as “Little India” — a term that is now attached to the Serangoon Road area.

Decorative arch along Cook Street by Kadayanallur Muslim League on occasion of Singapore being conferred the administrative status of a city, 1951. Courtesy of Singapore Kadayanallur Muslim League.

Singapore’s Chinatown was by no means the only “China town” found on the island. As the population of Chinese settlers grew, secondary settlements developed north of the Singapore River. One, known as “Sio Po” — the “Lesser Town”. The area of Sio Po, was allocated to the Europeans in the 1822 plan. As Singapore’s interior opened up, many in the Europeans found the inland areas more conducive as places to live in, and this paved the way for Chinese settlers, who could be thought of as latecomers to the Chinese diaspora began to move into the area. The Hainanese, were among the first to move in, establishing a Tin Hou or Mazu temple at Malabar Street (where Bugis Junction is today) in 1857.

Mooncakes from trishaws and tricycles – street vendors were a common sight even up to the 1980s in Chinatown.

Geylang, could be thought of as another secondary settlement, with many being drawn to the area when its plantations started to make way for industry from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Temples were set up to cater to spiritual and community needs, along with a number of clan associations. One addition to Geylang’s clan scene in the 1920s, the Huang Clan, at which the “Father of Modern Chinese Art”, Xu Beihong, painted his highest valued works (see also: Tigers, elephants, rambutans and Xu Beihong in a garden of foolish indulgences).

A temple in Geylang.

Chinatown proper, would develop into a collection of overcrowded streets and tenements. Nestled into this were some notable cultural institutions such as Lai Chun Yuen and the Majestic Theatre, the physical reminders of which in the form of the buildings that housed them, are still around. A feature of the place were the hawkers who filled many of the streets, with their offerings of fresh produce, cooked food items and sundry goods.

An already somewhat sanitised Chinatown in 1984, with some semblance of street life. The corner of Smith and Trengganu Streets is seen here.

The lively scene on the streets, concealed what may be thought to be a shadier side of Chinatown. Behind the laundry cluttered façades of Chinatown’s numerous shophouses were congested quarters, many shared by coolies, opium and gambling dens, and numerous houses of ill repute. Hints of what did go on in the streets and behind the scenes in the dimly lit shophouses were quite unambiguously described in the colloquial names attached to Chinatown’s many colourful streets.

Colloquial street names offer a peek into the past.

Unsurprisingly, the conditions in Chinatown, made it a prime area for the secret societies. Hideouts, and gang hangouts could be found aplenty in Chinatown, together with many inconspicuous places in which weapons were hidden. Some businesses became fronts for illegal activity, while others, including streets hawkers, became targets of secret society run protection rackets. Fights over territorial control, violent reprisals and settlements of disputes were a common occurrence and with Ineffective policing, murder and mayhem ruled the streets of mid-20th century Chinatown.  

A Chinatown shophouse with cubicles arranged on its upper floor.

That Chinatown is today, a thing of the past. Much has changed since the 1960s and 1970s, when life could still be seen on the streets. Property acquisition with a view to demolition and redevelopment, would see street hawkers, other business and residents being moved, some into Chinatown Complex and Hong Lim Complex in the 1980s. A rethink the urban renewal policy would result in the protection of much of what was left, building-wise, through the conservation of the Chinatown as a precinct in 1989, thus keeping the area’s built character. This paved the way for the development of Chinatown’s identity as an “ethnic quarter” for the promotion tourism and perhaps its evolution into what it is today, a place that some would say, is a reprise of its role as a “China Town” for the new diaspora from China..

Pagoda Street, 1971, Wilford Peloquin (CC BY 2.0)
Murals, through which mural artist Yip Yew Chong brings the past into the present, have become part of the modern day Chinatown scene.





Parting Glances: Old Police Academy

24 11 2021

The old Police Academy (OPA) off Thomson Road has a place in the hearts of many. This will include those from the police force who trained on its grounds, members of the National Police Cadet Corps (NPCC), and those who in one way or another, have found joy in its spacious grounds. The announcement about its redevelopment as a new public-housing estate does not come as a surprise with the knowledge that Mount Pleasant MRT station is already being constructed. Some, like me will however, lament its loss as a space that holds the memories of many and a space that has long escaped the inescapable advance of the clutter and concrete has covered much of this overcrowded island.

The expansive grounds of the old Police Academy.

The old academy’s presence along Thomson Road goes back to 1929, when it made its debut as the Police Training Depot. It setting up came as part of a greater effort to bring transformation to the then Straits Settlements Police Force (SSPF) in response to the growing level of lawlessness. Not only did Singapore come to be known as ”Sin-galore”, comparisons with mob-ruled Chicago were frequently made. To deal with this, an programme to modernise and instil professionalism in the SSPF was launched by it Inspector-General from 1925 to 1935, Harold Fairburn. Along with the setting up of a purpose-built training facility, modern police stations and living quarters being built. The new stations included the so-called “Police Skyscraper“,