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






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.






An enlightened space

4 04 2022

Voluminous spaces amply illuminated by natural light are often a visually treat. We have quite a number of these spaces in Singapore, including several that go back to a time when harnessing natural light and ventilation for interior spaces all seemed very logical.

A view of the main hall of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

One fine example of a such a voluminous space is the main hall of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. The hall features a high vaulted ceiling that rises to a height of some 21.6 metres to keep its users cool. A fair amount of natural light also streams into the space through windows placed at its roof’s gable ends and also along the sides, making it quite a joy to behold. The station is one of many designs that have flown off the drawing boards of architectural firm Swan and Maclaren. The design of the hall’s gable ends recalls the one of the firm’s earlier works, the Malayan Motors showroom on Orchard Road.

The former Malayan Motors showroom.

Designed in 1925, the building — like Tanjong Pagar Railway Station — can still be admired. It now stands at the end of a delightful row of conserved buildings opposite Dhoby Ghaut MRT station and looking at it, it is not hard to see how the former showroom must have been quite an attraction on Orchard Road when it was completed in early 1927. The showroom’s façade, which is effectively a gable end, is topped by a sunburst like decorative feature that seems very much to be a call for attention. The window arrangement on this face does also seem quite similar to that of the gable ends of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station’s main hall, although in being dressed to act as the showroom’s street facing façade, is much more elaborately designed.

Similarities can be seen between Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the former Malayan Motors showroom.

The former showroom, which now stands as a marker of a stretch of Orchard Road that was at the heart of Singapore’s motoring trade, has long fascinated me. Other than its showroom on the ground floor, which I had chance to visit as a child when my father purchased a Morris Marina in the 1970s, I’ve often wondered what lay behind the glorious face of building and its multitude of windows. I long imagined that was a showroom or perhaps a workshop on its upper floors and I was rather disappointed to learn from the building’s plans that what did lie under the rather elaborate roof were offices — at least at the point of design. Knowing this, what now intrigues me is why all that elaboration for a set of mere offices? Whatever it was however, it must have been quite a space to marvel at.

What lies behind the face of the Malayan Motors showroom’s gabled ends.

The showroom’s construction came at a time when the motoring trade was on the up and when Orchard Road had established its place a centre for the business of getting around. The street in its post-plantation era, had become a choice residential neighbourhood and both residents and visitors needed a means to move around, especially with Orchard Road being some distance from the commercial area. By the late 1800s, livery stables from which horses and carriages could be hired, lined the street. Hackney carriages plied the street as much as taxis now do, and carriages makers and horse traders set up shop.

Stables on Orchard Road.

The introduction of the motorcar would see a change of fortunes for those involved in the trade. Some of those involved in the business of horses and carriages would become among the first to trade instead in horsepower, leading to the area retaining its place as a hub as the private transportation business evolved. New entrants to the business, with a greater capacity to respond to shifting demands, soon dominated the scene, with names such as Cycle and Carriage and C F F Wearne (later Wearne Brothers) — now household names in the trade, setting up shop in the area in the early 1900s. By the end of the second decade of the twentieth century, at least a dozen car dealerships had been established in the area close to the entrance to Government House — something I touched on during the Age of Locomotion tour that I recently conducted as part of a series of four historical tours of Orchard Road for Design Orchard’s “The Non Season”.

The “motor” end of Orchard Road, a hundred years apart.

C F F Wearne and Co, one of many success stories associated with the motoring trade, was founded by two Western Australian brothers Charles Frederick Foster Wearne and his brother Theodore James Benjamin (T J B or Theo). The two had come across to Singapore in 1892 and worked their way up from being apprentices at the New Harbour Dock Company to qualify as marine engineers. In 1906, with a startup capital of 700 Straits dollars that Theo provided, C F F Wearne and Co was established as a motor garage in Theo’s brother-in-law’s coach house. This was a time when there were just a handful of cars on the island. In a matter of months, C F F Wearne and Co moved into two shophouse units in Orchard Road. Having secured the agency for Oldsmobiles, the company would expand its portfolio to include makes such as Morris, Rolls Royce, Bentley and Ford and in no time, established themselves as a main player in the business with C F F Wearne and Co becoming Wearne Brothers.

The 1910 built C F F Wearne Garage

By 1924, Wearne Brothers would be producing car bodies locally for assembly to Ford car chassis shipped to Singapore by Ford Canada for the local market. A small assembly plant was established at Penang Lane to handle the work. To avoid any conflict of interests between the Ford agency and other agencies under the Wearne Brothers umbrella, a subsidiary, Malayan Motors, was set up the same year acting as agents for agents for Armstrong-Siddley, Morris, Sunbeam, Packard, Rolls-Royce, Essex, Erksine and Standard motorcars. Malayan Motors operated out of the 1910 constructed C F F Wearnes’ garage, which stood on the site of the 1927 built Malayan Motors showroom at 14-20 Orchard Road. The 1927 building does in fact have the 1910 building appended to it, having been built in front of the older structure. This is quite evident from the difference in floor levels of the older back section and newer front section of the former showroom.

The difference in floor levels between the old and new sections of the building.

Wearne Brothers, which established the first local airline to operate out of Singapore in 1937, Wearnes Air Services (Charles Wearne was also a great aviation enthusiast), would be greatly affected by the war. War not only disrupted Wearnes Air Services operations just as it was about to see returns on the investment and Wearnes’ other businesses operations, war would affect the Wearne brothers in a very personal way. Whilst Charles and Theo made it out of the very last shipping convoy to leave Singapore just a few days before the inglorious Fall of Singapore, two of Charles’ sons would become Prisoners of War. Charles also passed on at the age of 71 in Mandurah, Western Australia, a year before the war ended.

Malayan Motors made its last sale in the showroom in August 1980, after which the company consolidated it operations at its Leng Kee Road branch. The showroom was renovated in 1988 and used by the Singapore Manufacturers’ Association as SMA House and from 2002 to 2020, the building was used by the private school Management Development Institute of Singapore or MDIS.

The former showroom was a witness to war.

Let there be light!






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 first Royal Sailors’ Rest House outside of the UK

3 03 2022

Perched on an elevation right across from the dockyard gates, the attractive building that housed Aggie Weston’s Royal Sailors’ Rest stood as out as one of the more noticeable structures in the huge naval base in Sembawang. Designed by preeminent architectural firm Swan and Maclaren and completed in 1963, the Royal Sailors’ Rest featured 50 cabins, a restaurant, games rooms, tennis courts and a swimming pool. Established by a Royal Navy and Royal Marines charity established by Dame Agnes “Aggie” Weston whose history goes back to 1876, the sailors’ rest house was the very first to be established outside of the United Kingdom.

The former Aggie Weston’s

Endowed with a complete set of facilities to meet the needs of Royal Navy personnel, especially those coming in with the fleet being put up at nearby HMS Terror, the life of the first overseas Aggie Weston’s would close in a matter of eight years.


The Royal Sailors’ Rest opening to great fanfare in 1963

https://www.britishpathe.com/video/VLVA20B4RKED2RZ0IAJPPOEPUQFIG-SINGAPORE-BRITISH-NAVAL-RATINGS-IN-NEW-CLUB-HOUSE-16MM


The construction of the sailors’ rest came as part of a modernisation programme for the naval base initiated in the early 1960s with a view to the continued future use of the base. Singapore, along with Aden, had been identified as important bases to be retained by the Harold Macmillan led Conservative government then in power in the UK. This came even as Britain’s development of amphibious task forces minimised the need for overseas bases. The policy was however reversed in a matter of years by the Labour government led by Sir Harold Wilson which came into power in 1964. A defence white paper published in 1966 would lead to the eventual withdrawal of British forces based in Singapore at the end of October 1971, and this meant that the first overseas Aggie Weston’s would operate for a period of only eight years.

All was however not lost for the beautifully constructed recreational complex. With the pullout, a small Australian, New Zealand and UK joint force under the ANZUK pact was established in Singapore from which both the UK and the Australians would withdraw from, resulting with the deployment of the New Zealand Defence Forces as the sole foreign force stationed in Singapore to supplement its defence needs from 1975. New Zealand NZForSEA (New Zealand Force South Easr Asia) was formed in 1974 to take on this role and the former Aggie Weston’s would find use again as Fernleaf Centre, which would be used as a recreational space, a transit centre and as quarters for unmarried members of the force. As Fernleaf Centre, the former sailors’ rest would see good use for some fifteen more years until the departure of NZForSEA in 1989. During this time, the centre featured a library that boasted of some 20,000 books.

Fernleaf Centre as a transit centre.

Subsequent to the withdrawal, the former sailors’ rest found use BY CDans (Civil Defence Association for National Servicemen) as its Sembawang Clubhouse, which morphed into the HomeTeamNS Sembawang, from 2000 until the brand new HomeTeamNS Khatib clubhouse was completed in June 2020.

https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=337041284012522&t=4

Today, the site remains empty and its eventual fate remains uncertain. One can however look into the crystal ball that is the Master Plan, which has the site identified as a future housing site, possibly for high-rise public housing with a plot ratio of 3.5. Whatever it is, my hope is that the building, a landmark in Sembawang and a repository of many memories and of the area’s history since 1963, is kept.

What the Master Plan says about the future of the site.




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):






Old Changi Hospital — a chance to visit for the 80th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore

9 02 2022

The three blocks that make up the former Changi Hospital are probably some of the most misunderstood buildings in Singapore. Much has been speculated about them and how they were used during the Second World War, leading to the buildings having gained a reputation for something that they are not.

A tour of the former hospital in 2017.

Just what role did two of the hospital’s original blocks play? Why were they built in Changi? How were they part of the overall strategy for the defence of Britain’s possessions in the Far East? What happened in them during the war? These are questions that I hope to answer during a specially arranged visit that will permit us to have a look at the buildings behind the security fence for a tour that I will be conducting in conjunction with Changi Chapel and Museum’s (CCM) programme being organised to mark the 80th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore.

Block 24. What role did it originally play?

Two sessions of the tour will be conducted on 19 Feb 2022, which will begin with a docent-led tour of CCM through which will provide participants with a better understanding of Changi as a military site, how it became associated with captivity – both military and civilian, and provide a deeper appreciation of the experience of the civilian and military internees. Following the docent-led tour at CCM, participants will travel by coach to the site of the former Changi Hospital where my section of the tour will begin.

In a hospital ward with a view that will change the perspective of what the hospital was and what it meant.

Registration for the tour will begin at 10 am on 10 February 2022. Please visit https://ccm1-och22.peatix.com/ for more information, tour times and to register. Information can also be found on the CCM website. I will also be doing two tours of the former Tanglin Barracks (Dempsey Hill) to explore its connections with the Second World War, one on 12 February and another on 5 March 2022, both from 9am to 10.30am (more at this link).





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.





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“, Hill Street Police Station, Maxwell Road Police Station, and also Beach Road Police Station.

One feature of the new depot was the expansive sports fields and parade grounds that it was provided with. The fields would see hockey, rugby and football matches being played with ones held on Sunday afternoons attracting a healthy crowd. The parade ground saw numerous parades, drills and event rehearsals taking place, some of which involved stunts on motorcycles, with many of spectators finding “seating” on the slope leading to the grounds.

A passing-out parade on the parade grounds with a view towards Block 2 and Block 1 (National Archives of Singapore online).
A view towards the parade ground, part of which is now a construction site.

With the academy having completed a move to the new Home Team Academy in Choa Chu Kang 2005, the death knell on the OPA site was sounded. While the recent announcement has confirmed much of what might have been expected, there is some consolation in the knowledge that the development will for the time being be confined to the OPA site along with an adjacent plot by Onraet Road currently occupied by a set of old police quarters and a former detention facility. That the Kopi Sua cemetery site has been spared, and any impact to its flora and fauna minimised, is a cause for some joy even if it may be temporary.

A view towards Onraet Road and the former police quarters, which will be within the redevelopment site.

All will also not be lost within the OPA site with six structures of historic value being slated for conservation. Among these six buildings, four are those whose time of completion coincided with the opening of the training depot. These are Block 1 and Block 28 within the boundaries of the future estate site, as well as Block 13 and 153 Mount Pleasant Road (the Senior Police Officers’ Mess) just outside of it. Two other buildings being conserved, the 1932 built Block 2, and the 1930 built block 27, are also found within the redevelopment site.

Block 1 in the foreground, which was among the first of the depot’s buildings erected. It originally featured a clock-tower. It and Block 2 (in the background) were more recently used by the Police National Service Department.

Among some structures still found on the site, several which will be lost to redevelopment also date to the period of the training depot’s opening. These include the drill shed, Block 7 and Block 8. Other structures that will have to go are accommodation blocks, a small firing range, a set of squash courts, and a 1976 completed swimming pool that was built at the suggestion of Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

A sign with safety rules at the firing range and a hand drawn “target”.

The eventual redevelopment will take away much that has been familiar about the place and the open spaces that have long been associated with OPA. Nearby, much is already changing as a result of the construction of the North-South Corridor. Even with their conservation, the six structures will probably give off quite a different vibe surrounded by the clutter of structures that the redevelopment promises to bring. Kopi Sua, with green spaces, much of the Singapore Polo Club (which does have a link to the Police Academy through Harold Fairburn’s successor as Inspector-General of the SSPF, René Onraet) and the luxuriously green area up Mount Pleasant Road will however still be there. But, for how long? Only time will tell.


Structures being conserved

Block 2, which was completed in 1932.

The SPF crest in front of Block 1

Block 28, completed in 1929, built on a “butterfly” plan.

Views in and around Block 28


Block 27, completed in 1930. It would have resembled Block 28 without the more recent modifications.

Block 13 – the “hospital” block, which is just outside the area of the development.

Views in and around Block 13.


Views around the Old Police Academy and of structures including the swimming pool, that will be demolished






Windows into Ulu Pandan Forest and Clementi Nature Corridor’s past

21 11 2021

Old maps are often able to offer us a peek into an area’s past. One area that is especially fascinating is the area around the Ulu Pandan forest, which was the subject of news in relation to the removal of a land boundary marker belonging to the huge Tan Kim Seng estate.

Windows into the area’s past.

The area, now dominated by major thoroughfares such as Clementi Road and Ulu Pandan Road, as well as the huge Ulu Pandan canal, has seen much change in the time between Tan Kim Seng’s days to the present day. The area north of Ulu Pandan Road, was where the Ulu Pandan Rubber Company’s estate was established around 1910. Owned by Choa Giang Thye, it counted the likes of Mr Lee Choon Guan, Mr Tigran Sarkies (of Raffles Hotel fame) and Mr Tan Kheam Hock as its investors. The 1900s also saw villages in the area being established. These included one in the are of the Ulu Pandan forest known as Tua Kang Lye, which accommodated a large number of settlers from the Anxi area of Fujian province. A temple in the area, Tan Kong Tian – where one of two remaining fixed temple Chinese opera stages left on Singapore’s main island is found – is associated with the former village.

Tan Kong Tian temple and its Chinese opera stage at Jalan Kebaya.

In the 1930s, the railway deviation turned the train tracks through the area to Tanjong Pagar Railway Station (the section opened in 1932). Later in the decade, two huge 15″ “monster” guns of the Buona Vista Battery were installed for coastal defence (similar to those of the Johore Battery) in the area straddling Ulu Pandan Road close to its junction with Reformatory Road (what is Clementi Road today). Incidentally, the name Reformatory Road came from the reformatory that was established in the early 1900s in the area where SIM/SUSS is today. The reformatory became the Singapore / Gimson Boys Home in 1947 and the road was renamed following this late in 1947.

The post-war period saw much more change. Camps were established for Ceylonese troops, Gurkhas and others in the area and names such as Colombo Camp, Ulu Pandan Camp began making an appearance. Ulu Pandan Camp would become the home of the future 1SIR in 1957 and another, established in the 1960s, Temasek Camp, that of 2SIR. Temasek Camp, was at the centre of an incident sparked by the separation of Singapore and Malaysia following the return of 2SIR troops from Sabah in August 1965. Camp Temasek was then still occupied by a Malaysian Armed Forces unit that was still based in Singapore and Farrer Park was used as a temporary home for 2SIR with tents pitched on the sports fields..

One of the important developments the area would see is in the area of the canal. It was originally a marshy area, which, as the name Ulu Pandan does suggest, was the source of Sungei Pandan or Pandan River. There seems to have been some speculation online as to it having been the source of the Singapore River. This connection with the SIngapore River through Alexandra canal was however, only made in the 1950s, when the canal was constructed for use as a diversion canal to carry storm water away from the city and to Sungei Pandan as part of a flood alleviation scheme.

Part of the Flood Alleviation Scheme to divert storm water from the Bukit Timah Canal to the Pandan Reservoir.

As an expansion to the scheme, further work was also done to the canal to allow it to also serve as a diversion canal for the Bukit Timah canal in the 1960s and 1970s. This connection was made through a network of canals and tunnels constructed through the (old) Holland Road area in and around the rail corridor and under the area of Ulu Pandan Camp.

The part of the diversion canal leading to its underground section.

The 1960s would also see the construction of the Jurong Railway Line as part of the development of Jurong Industrial Estate, turning the line through part of what could be thought of as the Clementi Forest (the future Clementi Nature Corridor) and Maju Forest. Remnants of the tracks and a rebuilt tunnel, can be found in the area today.

JeromeLim ClementiTunnel 20180501-1825
A visit to the reconstructed tunnel under Clementi Road that belong to the Jurong Line in May 2018.





Lost Places: the Killiney Road railway bridge

18 10 2021

Wouldn’t it be cool to have paraphernalia related to a conventional railway line in the Orchard Road area, such as the now well-known girder bridge that ran over Orchard Road, still in existence today? It may come as a surprise but the bridge was actually one of two bridges that were in very close proximity to one another, with a similar girder bridge running across Killiney Road following on the Orchard Road bridge in the direction of the Singapore and from 1907, Tank Road Station.

The railway bridge at Killiney Road.

From the Killiney Road bridge, the line – part of the 1903 Singapore Government Railway or Singapore to Kranji Railway, took ran down an incline towards the Oxley Road and then curving towards Tank Road level crossing and then towards Singapore Station. The line was extended towards the port and Pasir Panjang in 1907 forcing the shift of the station at the triangular clearing where the National Theatre once stood to Tank Road proper. The line would be absorbed into the Federated Malay States Railway (FMSR) in 1913. In 1932, a deviation turned the line from the Bukit Timah area towards Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

The road bridge at Neil Road – a remnant from the 1907 extension of the Singapore Government Railway.


Speaking of the extension, there is in fact a remnant of this extension – a road bridge at Neil Road that was built to carry the road over the railway which ran through what is today Duxton Plain Park and some of this, as well as the stations along the old Singapore and Kranji Railway is discussed here in this History’s Mysteries episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r1HStrNMxxE.





The soon to reopen Reflections at Bukit Chandu

3 09 2021

Among the places in which the echoes of a battle fought eight decades ago can still be heard is a point on Pasir Panjang Ridge that has since been named Bukit Chandu. It was where the final acts of heroism and sacrifice were enacted early in the afternoon of Valentine’s Day 1942 – at the culmination of a fierce two-day battle across the ridge we know today as Kent Ridge. The site today, is right next to where an interpretive centre “Reflections at Bukit Chandu” (RBC) can be found. Housed in a colonial bungalow of 1930s vintage, the centre recalls the battle and the acts of bravery of those defending the ridge. Having been closed for a revamp since October 2018, the centre is due to reopen at the end of next week.

Set up in 2002, the focus of RBC has been the retelling the story of the Malay Regiment and the stout but vain defence it put up on Pasir Panjang Ridge in what was one of the last major battles to be fought before Singapore’s fall during the Second World War. The regiment, formed in Port Dickson as an “experimental regiment”, played a key role in holding off the vastly superior and battle hardened Imperial Japanese Army troops as part of the 1st Malaya Infantry Brigade over two days; with its survivors taking a last stand at Point 226, as Bukit Chandu was identified as. A name now well known to us, Lieutenant Adnan Saidi, a war hero in both Malaysia and in Singapore, was also associated with the battle. Lt Adnan led a platoon of 42 of the regiment’s men and was among those who made that last stand. He would pay the ultimate price for refusing to remove his uniform after the Japanese overran his position in the cruelest of fashions. Hung upside down from a tree, Lt Adnan was bayonetted to death.

A view of the unique segmented arches that are a feature of the bungalow’s architecture.

The revamp sees little change to the central thrust of the centre, which is in remembering the Malay Regiment and the heroics of men such as Lt Adnan. Where change is seen, is in the way the story is told. An immersive 5-minute video projection now sees the battle is relived as part of the “Bukit Chandu: Battle Point 226” exhibition that sees the ground floor the the RBC now dedicated to. Along with this, the revamp also adds another dimension to the centre in providing greater context to the bungalow in which RBC is housed in, which was apparently built as part of a cluster of residences for senior members of staff of an opium or chandu packing plant established at the foot of the hill (after which the hill was named). To provide a more complete picture of the area’s rich history, exhibits found in the house and on its grounds have been added to tell the story of Pasir Panjang.

The headdress of the Malay Regiment with the badge.

For those familiar with the RBC prior to its revamp, one change that will be quite glaring as one enters its grounds, is the missing “mural”. In place of the “mural” – a replica of an oil painting by Malaysian artist Hoessein Enas that depicted the Battle of Pasir Panjang that was suspended across a segmented arch – is the revamped centre’s main entrance. Also noticeable will be the re-sited bronze sculpture dedicated to the Malay Regiment, which now has a more prominent position on the grounds, across from the entrance. Heading inside, the entrance lobby beckons, beyond which the “Bukit Chandu: Battle Point 226” exhibition begins. First up is an introduction to the Malay Regiment and its formation, presented in the exhibition’s first section “The Malay Regiment”. Rare footage of the Malay Regiment and of Lt Adnan undergoing training drills can be viewed here, as well as the regiment’s specially designed uniforms, weapons and kit items (which we are told were very well maintained by the regiment’s soldiers).

The (new) entrance to the centre.

The next section “Into Battle” is where the immersion into the battle takes place through a 5-minute video projection. Here a map on the floor traces the advance of the Japanese across the ridge over the course of the 13th and 14th of February 1942. Also on display in this section are items that were carried by both the Malay regiment’s soldiers as well as the Japanese. Spent rounds from the battle, dug up around the ridge by a resident in the 1970s, are also on display.

In the next section “Aftermath”, a bronze bust of Lt Adnan and a tin cup that belonged to Lt Ibrahim Sidek that was donated by his widow, are on display together with the names of those who fell in the battle. Lt Ibrahim is among the names on the wall, having also been killed by the Japanese for refusing to remove his uniform. His tin cup sits on display at a stand fitted with a speaker through which an excerpt of an interview with his widow in Malay can be played back.

The bronze bust of Lt Adnan and the tin cup that belonged to Lt Ibrahim Sidek.

Up the stairs on the bungalow’s second level, one comes to a verandah. Turning left along this is where the room containing an exhibition “Packing Chandu” can be found. It is one of several sections of the centre in which the bungalow’s and the area’s past can be rediscovered. In this section, an attempt is made to re-create the machinery of the chandu packing plant. Tin tubes, in which two-hoons of opium were sealed in as part of an effort to stem the “illegal” distribution of opium (on which the colonial government maintained a monopoly), along with scales are found next to the “machinery”. Paraphernalia connected to the packing and use of opium, photographs and leaflets connected to the opposition by prominent members of the community to the sale of opium, are also on display.

Packing Chandu.

At the centre of the verandah, “The Lounge” can be found. This recalls how the bungalow was used and lived in. The house, which is similar in design to many pre-war colonial bungalows built by the Public Works Department, features generous openings for ventilation and light, as well as verandahs. The lounge, an extension of the verandah, would have had great views of sea at Pasir Panjang. It would also have served as a living room and was where the house’s occupants would have chilled-out in during cool sea-breeze ventilated evenings. On display in “The Lounge”, are objects found during archeological digs around the house. These include a broken piece of Marseilles roof tile, as well as several other objects unrelated to the house. Cards from which the history of Bukit Chandu and Pasir Panjang is told through archival photographs, will also be on display.

The verandah and “The Lounge”.

The history of Pasir Panjang will also be discovered “On The Lawn”, through two installations laid out on the grounds of RBC. The first takes the form of a bronze replica of a boat used by the Orang Laut (who once inhabited the Singapore Strait), and this relates to Longyamen or Dragon’s Teeth Gate – the rocky outcrop that marked the entrance to what is now Keppel Harbour and appears in Chinese navigational maps of the 14th century. The second installation is a bronze pineapple cart, which recalls a more recent past when the ridge was home to Tan Kim Seng’s vast pineapple plantation. The plantation was well known for the superior quality of pineapples that it produced.

An installation on The Lawn – a replica of a Orang Laut boat.
Recalling Tan Kim Seng’s pineapple plantation.

The refreshing revamp now places the RBC back on the map of must-visit locations that will help us develop a better appreciation of the past, and more specifically, the sacrifice made by the men of the Malay Regiment (along with the others who fought alongside them including members of the 2nd Loyal Regiment, the 44th Indian Brigade and machine gunners from the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force). A visit to the centre will not be complete without a walk along at least part of the ridge. Across Pepys Road from the RBC lies the entrance to the canopy walk leading to Kent Ridge Park, which provides some wonderful views of the Alexandra Park area and provide an appreciation of the difficult terrain across which the battle was fought and the conditions that the troops defending the ridge must have faced.

The bronze sculpture dedicated to the Malay Regiment.

Reflections at Bukit Chandu reopens on 9 September 2021. It will be open from Tuesdays to Sundays from 9.30am to 5.30pm (last admission is 4.30 pm). Admission is free for all Singaporeans and Permanent Residents. Admission charges do apply to tourists and information on this is available at the centre’s website.


Opening and Opening Weekend Information

To commemorate the reopening of RBC, all visitors will enjoy free admission from 9 to 26 September 2021. Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents will continue to enjoy complimentary admission beyond this period. 

The opening weekend for RBC will take place from 11 to 12 September, which also coincides with the anniversary of the surrender of the Japanese on 12 September 1945. Visitors can look forward to a self-guided scavenger hunt through the RBC galleries and complimentary live-streamed tours by the curators of RBC and Changi Chapel and Museum on Facebook Live.

(See also: https://www.nhb.gov.sg/bukitchandu/whats-on/programmes).

Visitors are encouraged to pre-book their museum admission tickets and sign up for the opening weekend programmes ahead of their visit. Please visit www.bukitchandu.gov.sg for the latest updates on the museum. 


More photographs of RBC








Jurong’s “imposing shopping complex”

16 08 2021

It had been a while since I’d headed into Taman Jurong and I decided to drop by the area on National Day this year, having found myself in the vicinity. An area of Singapore in which I had my first experiences of watching a movies from a car and also, of skating on ice back in the 1970s, I only got to know it a little better in the early 1990s when I started working in the Jurong area. The estate became an occasional lunch destination and a place to get some banking done. Since I stopped working in Jurong in 2007, I had only been back once. That was in 2014 when I managed to get a few photographs of the estate’s now well-known “diamond block”. One of few constants in an area across which much has changed, the block was in the news last year when it was used during the height of the spread of Covid-19 through Singapore’s foreign worker dormitories, as temporary housing for non-infected dormitory residents.

A view from the inside of the diamond.

Even before 2020, the “diamond block”, or a set of four residential blocks (numbered 63 to 66) at Yung Kuang Road and so called due to the fact that they are arranged to form the four sides of the diamond shape in plan view, had a connection with Singapore’s transient workforce. A number of flats were used as quarters under the “Dormitory Housing Scheme” from the late 1970s — just a matter of years after they were built, which permitted approved companies to rent public flats to house members of their foreign workforce. A report in 1978, revealed that one-third of the blocks’ residents were not Singapore citizens or permanent residents, over half of whom were Malaysians.

Another view with the supermarket block.

Among the last structures of 1970s Taman Jurong left standing, the blocks offer us a glimpse of a time when the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) took on the task of building homes for Jurong’s then fast growing workforce. Completed in early 1974, the oddly designed but immediately identifiable set of blocks were described as an “imposing 21-Storey shopping complex cum flats” by the JTC, with the agency envisioning it as “an attraction in Jurong”. As the tallest buildings in Jurong, they were intended to provide the estate with a focal point, much like what the ‘Y’-shaped block of flats that I grew up in was intended as in Housing and Development Board (HDB) Toa Payoh. Residents of the diamond block’s 456 3-room rental units also had the benefit of having an unobstructed view of the fast developing industrial west of the island. A “shopping centre” was also found at the blocks’ two lowest levels, the first tenants of which included a coffee house, a noodle shop, a textile shop, bookshops, and a barbershop. There were also banks and clinics found among the shopping centre’s 38 shop units.

The Taman Jurong radio taxi service cabin. Many working in Jurong at odd hours had to rely on the service as it was extremely difficult to get a taxi willing to come to the Jurong area.

The jewel in the crown of the shopping centre, was perhaps a two storey building found in its courtyard. Arranged right smack in in the centre of the diamond-shaped internal yard formed by the four blocks, which interestingly had their common corridors face it, it was where the Pioneer Industries’ Employees Union (PIEU) Multi-Purpose Cooperative Society’s opened its very first supermarket and emporium in December 1974. The supermarket was set up along similar lines as other supermarkets run by the cooperative societies of the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) — NTUC Welcome — and the Singapore Industrial Labour Organisation (SILO), with the aim of countering profiteering in the wake of the 1973 Oil Crisis. A merger of these labour union run supermarkets in 1983, saw to the creation of NTUC Fairprice, now a household name in local supermarkets.

A view of the since demolished Jurong Stadium from the diamond block in 2014.

Built as the first residential area for Jurong Industrial Estate with its first blocks constructed in the 1960s, the task of developing Taman Jurong fell initially to the Housing and Development Board (HDB). This arrangement changed with the establishment of Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) in 1968, who then took over the task of housing the Jurong workforce. From this point on, the estate began to take on quite a unique quality in terms of its architecture. A commercial and recreational hub for the residents of Jurong, a host of amenities were also built in and around the estate, with the aim of improving the liveability of Jurong residents. Stand-alone bank buildings and cinemas soon appeared as did facilities for leisure. Some came up nearby along the banks of Jurong lake on the opposite side of Yuan Ching Road. The lake, formed by the construction of a dam to close off the upper stretches of the Jurong River in 1971, was among the generous set of green and blue spaces that Jurong was provided with to make it an attractive place to live in. Among the attractions were Singapore’s first and only drive-in cinema and a water adventure park in the form of Mitsukoshi Garden. Singapore’s first ice-skating rink was also established at Jurong Family Sports Centre and eventually in the 1990s the area would see a short-lived Chinese-style theme park and movie set, Tang Dynasty City. The lakeside attractions, have all since closed and the area that they were in has morphed into the wonderful Jurong Lake Gardens.

The former cinema at Taman Jurong.

The “diamond block”, which by the time I got to know Taman Jurong better in the 1990s, had quite a run down appearance. A New Paper report in 2003, described the blocks as a “ghost town” with just six units being occupied. The same report cited the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis as being the point at which the blocks began emptying of residents, with companies hit by the crisis sending many of the members of their foreign workforce back home. In 2001, the HDB (which took on the running of residential estates from JTC in 1982) began moving existing residents out with the six families still living in the blocks in 2003, resisting the move. The blocks were subsequently used to house flat-buyers under a interim housing scheme and were refurbished in 2014 for use under the HDB’s Parenthood Provisional Housing Scheme, before being used to temporary house healthy foreign workerslast year. While the blocks are still standing, it is not known what the future holds for the unfashionable and roughly cut, but yet unique diamond of Taman Jurong.


Views of the diamond block taken in 2014






Pulau Ubin in the merry month of May

25 07 2021

One of the places in Singapore in which the memories of old are still alive is Pulau Ubin. It is where many in Singapore now find an escape from the staid and maddeningly overcrowded world in which Singaporeans have been made to call home.

Pulau Ubin — at least pre-Covid — comes alive every May, when the Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple honours its main deity Tua Pek Kong, around the time of the Buddhist Vesak Day holiday (which has little to do with the local Taoist deity). The manner in which the festival is celebrated, harks back to the days of village life, with the Ubin’s rural settings certainly lending itself to providing the correct atmosphere.

No village temple festival would of course be complete without a Chinese opera performance. Held to entertain the visiting deity more than the crowd, these performances would in the past draw large crowds and be accompanied by a a variety of night-market-like stalls offering anything from food, desserts, drink, masks and toys, and the tikam-tikam man. While the stalls are missing in the modern-day interpretations of village festivals, Chinese opera performances and these days, getai, are still held at selected temples during their main festivals over the course of several days. Such is the case with the festival on Pulau Ubin, which is commemorated with as much gusto as would village festivals of the past, even if it involves a largely non-resident population. What does complete the picture on Pulau Ubin, is its permanent free-standing Chinese opera stage — just one of three left in Singapore — on which both Chinese opera and getai performances are held.


Photographs taken during the Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple’s Tua Pek Kong festival in May 2014





Lost places: the Geylang house in which a 9 million dollar work of art was painted

22 07 2021

One of the unfortunate things about Singapore and its relentless quest to modernise, is the loss of places rich in stories of the past. One such place was the Huang Clan, which was housed in a two-storey bungalow at Lorong 35 Geylang. The house had a strong connection with the “Father of Modern Chinese Painting”, Xu Beihong (徐悲鸿). It was also where some of Xu’s exceptional works of art, several of which featured anti-Japanese themes were executed. Known as Jiangxia Tang (江夏堂), traditionally a name used to denote the Huang clan’s ancestral hall, it served as his place of abode and his studio during his many sojourns in Singapore as a guest of Huang Manshi (黄曼士). Huang, the General Manager of the Nanyang Brothers’ Tobacco Company, was also the General Secretary of the association and an avid collector of art. His association with Xu, came through his Paris-based elder brother Huang Menggui (黄孟圭). The elder Huang, lent support to Xu in Paris when funding for his Chinese government scholarship to the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts was cut. It was also on Huang Menggui’s recommendation that Xu first found himself coming to Singapore in 1925 as a guest of Huang Manshi. Xu returned on several occasions until 1942, during which time he painted quite a number of art pieces, including a portrait of Straits Settlements Governor Sir Shenton Thomas in 1939.

The former Huang Clan house at Lorong 35 Geylang.
Xu, with Huang Menggui and Huang Manshi at the Geylang house.

It was also in 1939 at the Jiangxia Tang, as Xu was about to depart for India for an exhibition he was putting up at poet Rabindranath Tagore’s urging, that he executed one of his best known works, “Put Down Your Whip“. The painting, which was bought for a record price for a Chinese art work of US$9.2 million in at an auction in Hong Kong in 2007, was done after Xu Beihong watched a play put up by visiting Chinese actress Wang Yin (王莹) and her theatre troupe in support for the anti-Japanese movement in China. The art work, which depicted Wang and the audience, was completed at the Jiangxia Tang in the same month of the performance. The work was also among a stash of artworks that was hidden on the grounds of Han Wai Toon’s rambutan orchard at Upper Thomson (where Thomson Nature Park today), during the Japanese occupation. Another of Xu’s paintings in the same stash that was also done at Jiangxia Tang, “Silly Old Man Moves a Mountain“, set the previous record of US$4.12 million in 2006.


The bungalow, as well as as neighbouring compound house, were acquired in 2018 and were demolished that same year to make way for an eight-storey residential development which will also house the clan association, Sixteen35 Residences.


The former Jiangxia Tang in 2018.
The neighbouring compound house that was also demolished.
The site of the former Jiangxia Tang in 2019.
Another view of the site of the former Jiangxia Tang in 2019.




A memory of the JTC flats at Kampong Java Teban

21 07 2021

Initially set aside for the resettlement of villagers displaced by the industrialisation of Singapore’s south-western coastline and its islands, Kampong Java Teban became the site of a Jurong Town Corporation or JTC developed housing estate that took on the name “Teban Gardens” in the course of this redevelopment. It was one of several major residential developments that the JTC undertook following its spin-off from the Economic Development Board or EDB in 1968 together with DBS Bank and Intraco. The JTC was given the task of real estate management and development, not just for industrial property, but also for housing in industrial estates; a task which had hitherto fallen to the Housing and Development Board (HDB), who constructed housing on behalf of EDB. This was before the management of JTC estates and their flats came under HDB’s purview on 1 May 1982, following the passing of the 1982 amendments to the Housing and Development Act.

Development work on Teban Gardens, Jurong Town’s third residential neighbourhood, commenced in 1973. By the third quarter of 1976, the estate’s first 625 three-room flats were put on sale through a ballot, with the bulk of the estate’s first 3776 units coming up for balloting through much of 1977. While the development was initially aimed at the industrial estate’s workforce, the anticipated demand fell short of expectations due to a slowdown in industrial expansion with the weak economic climate in the mid-1970s. This led to the sale of the flats in Teban Gardens being extended to the general public from June 1977.

The bulk of the flats in Teban Gardens being put on sale during this period were three-room flats. Comparable in size to HDB built three-room flats, the estate featured three-room flats that were quite unique in that they did not open to a common corridor unlike their HDB counterparts. The 10-storey slab-blocks with these flats had common corridors on the third, sixth and ninth levels, along which four-room flats were arranged. With a floor area of 766 sq. ft, the three room units were sold for $15,000, while the 866 sq. ft. four-room common corridor units went for $21,500. Along with the three and four-room units, there were also a number of slab blocks and point blocks with five-room units, measuring between 1147 and 1400 sq. ft. in floor area, which were sold between $30,000 and $35,000.

Among the flats from this first wave of Teban Gardens’ development, were a set of blocks that I last caught a glimpse of in the mid-2010s when they were already emptied of life, having come under HDB’s Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) in 2007. The flats, which numbered 2 to 11 and of which I had a passing familiarity with from my working days in Jurong and in the Pandan area from 1991 to 2008 and from my adventures along the former Jurong Railway line, are no more. All that I have to remember them by are these few photographs, which I captured in 2013.





The “ruins” by Kallang Airport’s gates

16 07 2021

Right by the old gates of the former Kallang Airport, is a crumbling set of structures that pre-date the construction of Singapore’s first civil airport. With a little imagination, the sight of the rather mysterious looking structures could to transport the travel-starved observer to a place like Siem Reap. A closer inspection of the structures will however reveal that the crumbling walls belong not to an ancient temple … or for that matter anything like a palace or istana as recent suggestions have had it as, but to a raised burial plot.

The raised former burial plot, seen in August 2018.

The plot, which shared a boundary with the former Firestone Factory that was established in the 1920s (some may remember the former factory building on the banks of the Kallang River near Sir Arthur Bridge being used by electrical good and furniture retailer Courts in the 1990s), is marked in a 1930 survey map as a “Mohammedan Cemetery” and in a 1936 plan for the new Civil Aerodrome (i.e. Kallang Airport) quite simply as “graves”. An explanation as to why the graves were placed on a raised plot can be found in a 1939 letter to the Straits Times. The writer, who described its location to a tee in saying that an elevated plot of graves could be “seen just inside the entrance to the civil aerodrome, on the right”, recalled seeing them on small eyots or “patches of higher ground” in the mangrove swamp “before the place was reclaimed”. Reclamation work for the airport, it should be noted, was carried out in the 1930s.

The plot in January 2014, with the old airport gates in the background.

While there are no traces of the graves today — they were exhumed sometime in the late 1980s, there is still an item of physical evidence that still exists, if one looks for it along the base on which the structures rests. There, a tablet with inscriptions in the Tamil script can be found and that does in fact confirm that the site was indeed a burial plot — at least based on a translation provided by a local urban exploration group on Facebook in 2019. This translation dates the tablet to 1854, as a burial site for the “kith and kin” of Chinnakkani” — a descendant of “Hajji Ismail of Thiruvarur”.

The tablet seen in September 2018.
The plot in September 2018.
The plot shown in a 1930 survey map (NAS).
The plot shown in a 1936 plan for the aerodrome (NAS).




Where durians and Chinese opera come together

13 07 2021

Once commonly found across Singapore, permanently erected free-standing Chinese opera (also commonly referred to in Singapore as “wayang”) stages have become quite hard to come by in Singapore. Erected to entertain the gods during their visits down to the mortal realm, the were also put to use in several other ways, doubling up as the clan, temple or village schools, depending on where they were built. Only three such stages are left in Singapore, two on the main island and one more on Pulau Ubin and it is always a treat to catch a Chinese opera performance being staged on one of them, especially if one is able to head backstage where in my opinion, the best “action” takes place.

The Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong temple is a place of devotion for many.

One occasion during which I had the good fortune of doing just this was during the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations at the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple at Balestier Road in September 2016 from which the photographs in this post were captured. The temple, having links to Hokkien plantation workers from Joseph Balestier’s venture to grow sugarcane by the Whampoa River, has a history that dates back to 1847. Its stage, which came up in 1906, was built by Tan Boo Liat — the great-grandson of Tan Tock Seng, and who is also well-known for erecting Golden Bell — the Edwardian-style mansion on Mount Faber that is now the Danish Seamen’s Church.

It is also a place where Chinese opera performances take place (at least pre-Covid) on one of Singapore’s last permanently erected free-standing wayang stages.

The temple, besides being a place of devotion and a place to catch a wayang, has also become a place that is synonymous with indulgence in the “king of all fruits” — durians. Durians have been sold in and around the area for, which was also known for its cinemas, for a long time and right by or in front of the temple ever since I can remember. Much of the area has changed, even if there is much that is is familiar physically. The durian stalls of old, are however, still very much a common sight every durian season. Not only do you see them just by temple, but also in the side lanes in the area. Like the temple, and the stage when it comes alive, they are among the last vestiges of the living side of the old Balestier Road, a side that long lives in my memory.

Durians and Chinese opera.
Another view of the temple.
Joss sticks at the temple.

Photographs of the Chinese Opera preparations and performance in September 2016