Parting glances: the “mini cantonment” with a view

25 09 2018

The time has come to bid farewell to Normanton Park, a housing estate with a military past in more ways than one. Built on part of the site of the Admiralty’s former Normanton Oil Depot, the estate initially housed regular military officers and their families in an attempt to build camaraderie.

HDB built private estate with a view – Normanton Park.

Completed in late 1977, Normanton Park offered a total of 488 “low-cost” housing units; 440 of which were in its five 23-storey high point-blocks. Another 48 were found in eight 3-storey walk-up apartment blocks. Prices ranged from $36,500 to $39,500 for the 122 square metre point-block units, which were laid out in the same fashion as HDB 5-room point-block flats of the mid-1970s). The larger 153 square metre walk-up apartments were sold at $65,000. These were offered to regular officers of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) with the thought that a cantonment like environment could be created to foster bonding among military officers in the same way officers’ messes did for the British military and also bring wives and families of military officers together.

Residents are in the midst of moving out (one of the eight 3-storey walk up apartment blocks is seen in the background).

Designed and built by the HDB, the estate was also provided with a community hall, space for a supermarket and kindergarten, a multi-storey car-park and recreational facilities such as a swimming pool and tennis courts. It was privatised in 1993 and that was the point when curbs on the sales of its units to non-military personnel were lifted. What made it an attractive prospect was its location and the wonderful views that the estate’s point-blocks offered of the lush green spaces around Alexandra Park and Kent Ridge.  It was sold under a collective-sale arrangement a year ago. Its residents have begun the exodus out of the estate with some saying goodbye to four decades of memories.

The swimming pool.

Plaque

Plaque unveiled by Dr Goh Keng Swee at the official opening of Normanton Park in April 1978 – being removed for safekeeping (photo: courtesy of a resident).


Parting glances …

Playground with the initials of the Normanton Park Residents Association (N.P.R.A.).

The entrance to Normanton Park.


Goodbye….Normanton Park (1978 – 2018) – a video made by an ex-resident


The Admiralty’s Normanton (Oil Fuel) Depot

The Normanton Oil Depot was set up on the grounds of Normanton Barracks and a rifle range in the 1920s to serve as fleet fuel reserves, just as the Naval Base was being established in the north of the island. The depot was set on fire on 12 February 1942 in the final days before the Fall of Singapore. This was to prevent the oil reserve falling into the hands of the enemy.

The Admiralty’s burning Normanton Fuel Oil Depot. The depot was set on fire on 12 February 1942 in the final days before the Fall of Singapore to prevent the oil reserve falling into the hands of the enemy (photo: Queenstown – My Community).

What could be remnants of the Oil Depot …

What may have been a valve pit belonging to the oil depot. Two can be found on the grounds of Normanton Park and one just beyond the perimeter fence.

 

A peek into the pit.

Another look inside.

 






The best views of the western Singapore Strait

24 08 2018

From its perch by the sea, the block of flats that sits on an elevation next to the former Pasir Panjang ‘A’ Power Station provides what has to be the best views of the western Singapore Strait. Completed in late 1953, the block was followed on the development of the power station and was built to house expatriate senior officers of new station. 12-storeys high, the block contains a total of 42 housing units, It would have been among the colony’s tallest buildings at the point of its completion and was quite certainly the tallest residential building then to have been built with public funds.

 

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Flats, built for Electricity Board employees, with a view one would pay a premium for these days.

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The block of flats, or ‘housing units’, as they were referred to, on its perch. the elevation its stands on was cut and cemented before the block was built as that the power station could be constructed.

It is interesting to observe the progression that the development shows. The building of the flats to house senior staff represented a move away from from previous practice (a newspaper report described the housing units to be to “better than flats”). The most senior of officers would have been accommodated in the block’s two penthouses, the terraces of which provide a most stunning of views of the sea and the area around. Annexes to the block housed a clubhouse and six air-conditioned rooms that provided staff on night shift a place in the daytime to sleep in comfort. A void deck,  unusual in flats built in Singapore in the time, occupies most of the main block’s ground level.

The power station, and the apartment block (with the clubhouse on its left) as viewed from the sea, soon after their completion (online at https://roots.sg/).

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The development, which cost the City Council over $2 million, also included a 2-storey block to house the station’s workmen. Additional quarters were also to added east of the station through the 1950s and 1960s.

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A view inside the former workmen’s quarters.

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The workmen’s quarters can be seen at the bottom of the photograph.

The housing units appear likely to go once detailed planning for the Greater Southern Waterfront takes place. They were as quarters until the 1980s and subsequently rented out, first by the Public Utilities Board and then by the State before being vacated at the end of 2013. A tender exercise, carried out this year for interim use of the property as serviced apartments, attracted several bids. Based on information on the Singapore Land Authority’s website, an award was made to TS Home, who submitted a winning bid of S$48,800.00 per month.

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A view of the block from its grounds.

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More Photographs:

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The Sembawang sport and community hub

2 07 2018

Standing at the top of the southeastern-most hill in the former Naval Base for much of its 78 years in existence, Old Admiralty House is set to part with the quiet isolation that it was intended to have when it was built to house the Commander of the British Admiralty’s then newly completed Naval Base. An integrated sport and community hub, “Bukit Canberra”, will soon come up around it, bringing the hill it is perched on more in sync with the Singapore that we have come to know.

Old Admiralty House and the quiet isolation that was very much a part of why it was there, with modern Singapore knocking on its door.

Unveiling “Bukit Canberra”.

The hub will include amenities that are much desired by the sports and healthcare facilities deprived residents of the area. These include a hawker centre, indoor and outdoor sport facilities, a polyclinic, a senior care centre, green spaces for community farming and lifestyle related amenities – all “within a lush and naturalistic environment”. The first phase of the hub is due to be opened in the first half of 2020. Subsequent phases will involve the integration of Old Admiralty House – a National Monument – after its current occupant, Furen International School, vacates it in 2020.

A model of Bukit Canberra.

Old Admiralty House from the ground.

The “lush and naturalistic” environment the hub will feature is being built around the retention of a large proportion of the hills existing trees, with some 1600 additional trees added. One that has already been added – during a family carnival held to mark the launch of construction on Sunday – is a Sembawang tree (also Semawang tree) from which the area got its name. A “Fruit Orchard and Food Forest” will also feature in which a variety of fruit trees and food plants some grown in the early days of Singapore will be planted. Here a community garden will allow planting to be carried out by members of the community.

Sembawang GRC’s MPs at the groundbreaking.

Planting the Sembawang tree.

Heritage (or history as the case may be) will apparently not be forgotten with heritage story boards telling of Sembawang’s history as a former naval base. Along with Admiralty House, other features of historic interest that would be retained include a gate put up during Admiralty House’s days as ANZUK House (1971 to 1975) and a bomb shelter built before the war. A swimming pool thought to have been built by Japanese POWs after the war will however be going based on model on display at the family carnival.

The front of the former Admiralty House.

More on the former Admiralty House:


About Bukit Canberra (from Press Release)

Bukit Canberra is an integrated sports and community hub to be opened in phases from first half of 2020, it will provide the community with lifestyle related amenities, such as a hawker centre, indoor and outdoor sports facilities, a polyclinic, senior care centre, and green spaces for community activities.

‘Bukit Canberra’ is a name that the residents can easily relate to given the history of the area. Many of the streets in Sembawang have links to Commonwealth countries due to the naval communities residing in the area. For instance, Canberra Road was named in 1937 by Rear-Admiral R.H.O Lane-Poole, a Commander of the Royal Australian squadron, H.M.A.S. Canberra, that was visiting Singapore. The Former Admiralty House, built in 1940 was also known as Canberra House (not so sure about this) when it was first completed, after the adjacent Canberra Road. The hub is scheduled to open in phases from 2020.

Site size: 11.86 ha

Key Facilities/ Features:

Sports

  • A six-lane sheltered swimming pool, an eight-lane lap pool, a wading pool and a fun pool for children
  • Indoor sport hall with 500-seat gallery for sports like basketball and badminton
  • Inclusive gym, an outdoor forest gym and fitness studios
  • Running trails
  • Active Health Lab & Active Health Nutrition Studio

Greenery & Heritage

  • Community Gardening
  • Fruit Orchard
  • Food Forest
  • Heritage story boards

Healthcare

  • Polyclinic
  • Senior Care Centre

Food

  • Hawker Centre

 


Landscape design (from Press Release)

The landscape design for Bukit Canberra will leverage on and enhance the existing greenery, topography and heritage of the site to create unique experiences for visitors. Taking into consideration the existing site conditions and character, the landscape design for the site is divided into three zones: Forest, Agrarian and Hilltop. The landscaping will help to strengthen ecological links for biodiversity, allow users to enjoy the hub’s features in a natural setting and connect the community with flora and fauna.

Overview of landscape design for Bukit Canberra (Courtesy of SportSG).

Forest Zone

In the Forest Zone, the focus is on restoring habitats for fauna and enriching biodiversity. Existing healthy mature trees and vegetation will be retained and more native forest species will be added progressively to recreate the natural rainforest structure. Bukit Canberra is at the intersection of existing NParks Nature Ways and the species planted within the Forest Zone will include those found along the Nature Ways to help increase ecological connectivity.

Agrarian Zone

The existing vegetation in this zone is less dense and several community spaces are planned for within this zone, including the Food Forest, Fruit Orchard and community gardens. The landscaping surrounding these features will be themed similarly.

Hilltop Zone

The key feature at the Hilltop is the Former Admiralty House. The landscaping will frame the frontage of the building and provide an open and unobstructed view of the surroundings. The area around the house will be an open space suitable for a wide range of recreational activities, from events to picnics and gatherings.


 





A Dutch flavoured corner in the former Chasseriau Estate

5 06 2018

With what could be described as Dutch gables prominently displayed, the pair of houses right at end of Watten Estate Road gives the area a distinct feel. The houses are what remain of a cluster of six. Erected from the late 1920s (when four were constructed) and into the mid-1930s (when another two were added), the houses occupied a plot of land that had once been part of the vast Chasseriau Estate1. All similar in design, the houses were each given a uniquely shaped gable Dutch gable. Perched on a small hill and with its verdant surroundings, the setting for the cluster of houses could quite easily have resembled a Dutch or Flemish country village.

One of two Dutch-gable topped houses at Watten Estate Road.

The architect behind the designs for the houses, I was pleasantly surprised to learn, was the preeminent Major Percy Hubert Keys. Major P. H. Keys is best known for efforts that were quite significantly larger in scale and included the likes of the Fullerton Building, the Bowyer Block of Singapore General Hospital and the (King Edward VII) College of Medicine, all of which stand today as National Monuments. While the designs of the three were carried out in Keys’ capacity as a Government Architect, the work that he carried out through his private architectural practice, Keys and Dowdeswell, is also well thought of. Examples of these are the 1929 Oversea Chinese Bank at Cecil Street (now the Quadrant) and the 1930 Namazie Mansions (now the Capitol Building) and Capitol Theatre.

Once the home of Major P. H. Keys. An architect best known for the Fullerton Building and the College of Medicine, Major Keys also designed this house.

One of Keys’ first undertakings with Keys and Dowdeswell, which he founded in partnership with Frank Dowdeswell in June 1927, would have been the design of the Watten Estate2 cluster. One of the houses, No. 130 (as it was renumbered in the late 1960s), was to serve as Keys’ home; a move that was necessary as he would have had to vacate the government residence he occupied in the Labrador area. Art-deco influences can be seen in the design of the houses. The influence can also be seen in much of Keys’ later work in Singapore, such as in the post 1927 buildings identified above.

A peek inside one of the houses.

The “Wheatley”, as Keys’ had named his home, was described as a “European Compound house” with “modern sanitation, four bedrooms, servants quarters, a garage for two cars, two tennis courts”.  The house, comfortable and with a design well adapted for the hot and humid tropics, would however serve as his residence for only a matter of  five years from its completion possibly in 1928 or 1929 until 1934 – when Keys moved both home and practice to Shanghai.

Inside one of the four bedrooms.

The house was put up for rent soon after Keys’ move. Together with No. 1263, the other surviving house, it came into the hands of the government after the war. Among No. 130’s post-war occupants was Mr. H. W. Nightingale. Mr. Nightingale, a government official, served as an Acting Secretary for Economic Affairs in the 1950s. A well-known postwar occupant of No. 126 was Justice T. A. Brown. Justice Brown was a High Court judge who held the position of Acting Chief Justice when the Chief Justice went on leave in 1951. He also played a prominent role in the chain of events that would lead to the Maria Hertogh riots in December 1950, delivering the verdict that declared her marriage illegal and restored custody of Maria to her birth parents.

See also: Story of a lift nearing 90 (Sunday Times, 27 May 2018)


Notes:

1Frenchman Leopold Chasseriau established the estate in 1872 for the planting of tapioca. This would eventually be sold to the founding interests of the Bukit Timah Rubber Estate in 1895 following which it would be split-up. The Municipality purchased a portion – the catchment for the (MacRitchie) reservoir, soon after, followed by the Bukit Tinggi area being purchased by the Swiss (Rifle Shooting) Club. A significant portion of the estate was also sold to the Turf Club in the late 1920s.

While the cluster of houses may have occupied a corner of the former Chasseriau Estate, they acquired addresses connected with the unrelated Watten Estate from the road through it, which was extended to the corner of the former Chasseriau. Watten Estate was a 47-acre estate on which Alexander James Gunn, a one time Secretary for the Singapore Chamber of Commerce, had his residence. Gunn named his residence and estate Watten after his Scottish home village.

The grounds of No. 126 was the subject of an archeological dig conducted by Jon Cooper as part of the Adam Park (battlefield archaeology) Project. It is believed that the cluster of houses housed British POWs as an extension to Adam Park POW Camp (which housed POWs put to work on the construction of the Syonan Jinja) in the early part of the Japanese Occupation.


More photographs:


 





The forest that will be making way for the “Forest Town”

5 05 2018

One of the things that I quite dearly miss are the seemingly long road journeys of my childhood to the far flung corners of Singapore. The journeys, always an adventure, provided an opportunity to the many different sides that Singapore then had; places that had each a unique charm and character.

A stream running through the now forested area, close to what would have been the 12th Milestone.

One especially long journey was the one to would take me to the “wild west”. The journey to the west, along a slow and dusty Jurong Road that meandered from the 8th milestone of Bukit Timah past wooded areas, settlements, graveyards, rubber plantations, and a rural landscape that is hard to imagine as having ever existed in the brave new world that we now live in.

There is a reminder of that journey, an old stretch of the road that, even stripped of rural human existence and its paraphernalia, bears some resemblance to the old road. Found just north of the Pan Island Expressway (PIE) between Bukit Batok Road and Jurong West Avenue 2, it has been relegated to a service road and has been all but forgotten.

12 Milestone Jurong Road today.

The stretch, now shaded by its overgrown trees, would have corresponded to the 11th to 12th milestones of Jurong Road – an area that went by the name “Hong Kah” before the name was appropriated by a public housing precinct across the PIE in Jurong West. Hong Kah Village itself stood right smack where the 12th milestone was and it wasn’t one that would have easily been missed in the old days, just as the old Chinese burial site nearby, Bulim Cemetery, on the road just past the village that gave me the chills on night drives past the area.

12 Milestone in 1986 (source: National Archives Online)

The odd sounding “Hong Kah” quite interestingly translates to “bestowing a religion” in the Hokkien or Teochew dialects. It was a term that apparently, in colloquial usage, was also used to refer to Christians (Chinese converts to Christianity I suppose). “Hong Kah Choon” was thus the “Christian Village”, so named due to its association with the Anglican St. Andrew’s Mission, which had carried out missionary work in the area since the 1870s (see page 45-46 of NHB’s Jurong Heritage Trail booklet). The mission also built a nearby church, St. John’s Church Jurong, located at 11th milestone at the top of 105 steps on a hillock. Put up in 1884, the church operated until 1992. That was when it was acquired together with the rest of the area for redevelopment.

The track leading to SJJ at 11 MS Jurong.

Cleared and left untouched, except for its use as military training grounds until very recently, nature has since reclaimed much of the area – which stretches up north to the Kranji Expressway. Today, the site hosts a lush secondary forest, complete with fresh water streams and a thriving birdlife. Redevelopment, will however soon clear much of what is now there, to be replaced by a forest of concrete that will be called Tengah – Singapore’s 24th “new town”.

One of the forest’s winged residents – a (male) common flameback woodpecker.

Dubbed, rather ironically, as the “Forest Town“, Tengah  will feature a fair bit of greenery. Much of which, however, will quite saldy be manufactured and put in once the existing forest has been cleared and a fair bit of concrete has been introduced – which is the Singapore way.

Another resident – a St. Andrew’s Cross spider.

Also manufactured will be a “real” forest that will take the form of a 100 metre wide and 5 kilometre long “forest corridor”. Running by the Kranji Expressway, it will serve to connect the Western Water Catchment Area and the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. And again, in the Singapore way, the corridor will be one that is “planted with rainforest tree species to transform it into a rich forest habitat”.

More views of the forest 





Parting Glances: the boxing gym at Farrer Park

30 04 2018

The Farrer Park Boxing Gym, the home of Singapore boxing and its stable, is hanging up it gloves after half a century. Its premises, which it moved into in 1968 after another had burned down, has long been a very recognisable fixture that stood along the famous playing fields at Farrer Park; it does in fact date back to Farrer Park’s pre-playing fields days when the grounds were put to use as a horse racing course, having originally been been built as a horse stable.

Farrer Park Boxing Gym’s gloves are being hung up.

The gym, which also served as the home of the Singapore Amateur Boxing Association (SABA), would have been where Syed Abdul Kadir – Singapore’s first Commonwealth Games Boxing medallist and the only boxer to have represented Singapore at the Olympics, trained at in the lead up to his participation in the international events. Besides bringing a chapter in Singapore boxing to an end, the closure of the gym also spells the start of a what would eventually be a complete disconnection of Farrer Park from its sporting roots. The grounds, which Sports Singapore will have to give up by 2020, would eventually be redeveloped as a residential site.

A last reflection – the building which houses the gym was built as a horse stable for the Race Course.

The gym was opened in 1968 after its previous premises burned down.

Part of the furniture – a bench that has been with the gym since 1968.

A final training session at the gym.

Final punches being thrown.

A peak inside the gym – the walls between blue pillars were not part of the original horse stable structure.

Trainees from the final training session with Coach Bala – who is also the Secretary of SABA.

Coach Bala closing up for what may be the final time.


Farrer Park

Named in honour of Mr Roland John Farrer, who presided over the Municipal Commission from 1919 to 1931and had played a key role in procuring the former racing ground of the Singapore Turf Club for the Singapore Improvement Trust, much of the grounds at Farrer Park was converted into much needed sporting grounds as part of a drive by the Commission to provide public sporting facilities for the fast growing municipality in the 1920s and 1930s. This drive, motivated by a growing awareness of the benefits “wholesome sport” to the health and well-being of the working classes, also saw Singapore’s first public swimming pool built at Mount Emily (see: A Short History of Public Swimming Pools in Singapore).

As the race course, which was established in 1843, the grounds also played host to other sporting pursuits including golf and polo. It was also where the first aeroplane seen in Singapore, took off and landed on 16 March 1911. The plane, a Bristol Boxkite bi-plane, was piloted by French aviator Josef Christiaens. Christiaens was granted the rights for distribution of the Colonial Aeroplane Company’s aircraft in the region and required the help of the Royal Engineers to assemble the plane for the demonstration flight.

As sporting grounds Farrer Park – with its 8 football pitches – had also a strong connection with football. Besides being a venue for many matches, its grounds were also where coaching workshops and training sessions were held. The late great Uncle Choo or Choo Seng Quee, one of Singapore football’s best loved coaches, was once a fixture, together with many household names such as the likes of Dollah Kassim, the Quah brothers and Fandi Ahmad, to name a few.

Heather Siddons (Merican) at an Inter Schools Athletics Meet at Farrer Park in 1967 (source: National Archives Online).

Farrer Park was also a name associated with school sports meets – many of which took place at Farrer Park Stadium / Athletic Centre. The centre, which opened in 1957 at the northern end of Farrer Park (straddling Gloucester Road around where Blocks 11 and 12 are today), had a simple grandstand added along with a bitumen track (originally cinder) added in for the second meeting of the Malaysian Amateur Athletic Union in July 1965. The stadium was also were hockey matches were held and where Farrer Park United – a now defunct football club through the ranks of which the likes of Malek Awab rose – played its home matches at from 1975.

Many will also remember Farrer Park for its food stalls at Northumberland Road – across from where the SIT built flats were. Two stalls that I recall were one selling one of the best Indian Mee Siam around and a drinks stall run by a Chinese lady that served bandung with bits of jelly in it.

Farrer Park also became camp for the 2nd Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment (2SIR) in 1966. Having returned from a deployment in Sabah in August 1965 as part of the Malaysian Armed Forces with their base at Ulu Pandan Road (Camp Temasek) still occupied by a Malaysian unit still based here, the unit made Farrer Park a temporary home with tents pitched on the sports fields (more at this link).

Three storey blocks of SIT Flats being built across Northumberland Road from the playing fields (source: National Archives Online).

A more recent sporting introduction to Farrer Park – Frisbee.

Football training – long associated with Farrer Park.

The boxing gym with a view towards the are where the Farrer Park Stadium was.






The passing of an old neighbourhood

5 04 2018

Old HDB neighbourhoods are a joy. Their many reminders of a gentler age, some found in old shops and kopitiams in which time seems to have left well behind, extend a welcome clearly absent in the brave new that modern Singapore has become. Sadly, it won’t be long before modernity catches up on these places. Our national obsession with renewal does mean that it will only be a question of when that these spaces will forever be lost.

One old neighbourhood experiencing a slow death by renewal is Tanglin Halt. Built in the early 1960s, its old flats – among the first that the HDB built – have already begun to make way for the new. Even before this several of the neighbourhood’s landmarks were already lost. These included the rather iconic blue city gas holder and the factories that were home to several household names such as Setron. Many of the factories, which provided the neighbourhood’s folk with employment, went in the 1990s at the end of the sites’ respective leases.  A cluster of towering new flats now mark the neighbourhood. Used in part to house the first residents displaced by the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) in the neighbourhood, the cluster has also introduced a dash of modernity to the old neighbourhood with modern shops, an air-conditioned food court, and a supermarket.  The flats that were affected by SERS, referred to collectively as the “Chap Lau Chu“, were only very recently demolished with a new batch of flats soon to fill the space .

Renewal, even gradual, is taking its toll on the businesses housed in the neighbourhood centre. Many of the surviving businesses, with the displacement of their customer base, have been left with little motivation to continue operating. A recent casualty was a provision shop by the name of Thin Huat, which closed its doors for good over the weekend. Having been set up 1964 – 54 years ago – Thin Huat is one of the neighbourhood’s oldest businesses. That makes it especially sad to see it go.

Thin Huat – a few days before its closure.

Empty shelves and a photograph of its proprietor and his wife.