The Owkang Chicken Sellers

8 06 2019

Unforgettable memories of the sights and smells of buying Fresh Chicken and Other “Chicken” Memories.

A guest post by Edmund Arozoo, once of Jalan Hock Chye and now of Adelaide


Images do stir up emotions. Some are like flashcards that jolt our memories transporting us back in time. For me in recent years, one particular image did just that. Browsing the net, I came across pictures of the memorial sculpture at the site of the previous Simon Road Market in Hougang – the sculpture of a chicken seller and the female customer. This triggered many childhood memories of the “sights and smells” associated with this particular trade and other “chicken” memories. And I wanted to view the sculpture in real time as well as photograph it so that I could use my personal image(s) when I do a post on this subject. I would thus not be infringing any copyright issues.

On my recent trip back to Singapore I caught up with a good friend Rasiah Sabai, a schoolmate and a fellow Jalan Hock Chye kampong “kaki” from way back. I had mentioned to him my quest to visit the sculpture. So meeting up at Serangoon MRT station we caught the train to Kovan station and took a walk down memory lane.

An old Singapore Street Directory map of 6 ½ milestone Upper Serangoon Road.

Starting from Lowland Road we tried to mentally picture where the old Empire Theatre would have stood and where our favourite hawker stalls once were situated. As we headed for the sculpture we recollected and tried to pinpoint where “Daily Bookshop” would have been and the various provision shops, radio/electrical shops and coffeeshops that were past landmarks. Memories of watching the first TV broadcasts standing along the fivefoot path outside the radioshop also came back.

We then stroll down towards the sculpture and I took lots of pictures. Then we did a loop right up to Lim Ah Pin Road, crossed Upper Serangoon Rd and on to the junction and entered Tampines Rd up to where old Jalan Hock Chye was. Both of us were reminiscing as we walked.

An edited picture of the Roadside Sculpture near where Simon Road Market once was.

Since then I’ve been keen on documenting my “chicken” memories. It has been over a month since I have returned back to Adelaide and it is time to do just that. My mind fast rewound back to the days when we kampong kids were similar to the “chooks” that grazed the kampong compounds. We were indeed like the kamong ayam – the original “KFC” – Kampong Free-range Chickens (children).

Free range rooster in our compound.

Most of my neighbours reared poultry. For chicken rearing, the start would be to visit one of the two chicken incubator shops just past the junction of Upper Serangoon Rd and Tampines Rd in the easterly direction towards Ponggol. These shops had huge incubators that could hold tens if not hundreds of eggs. And as kids if we were fortunate to pass these shops at the right time it was hard not to fall in love with the recently hatched yellow little darlings that were placed in flat wicker trays/baskets prior to being sold. Many a kampong chicken started life that way and were reared for their eggs or groomed for their eventual destination of the pot. I do remember carrying a few of these yellow furry bundles of joy home in the brown paper bags that were in prevalent use then.

These small yellow bundles of joy when brought home were literary hand fed by us kids and we watch them grow to hens and roosters. Thus when it was time for them to be slaughtered and readied for the pot it was traumatic for us as they had become almost pets. Oh the trauma. I will come back to this later as nothing overrides the memories of buying live chicken from the chicken sellers in Owkang.

The chicken sellers our family patronised were located at an unsheltered area quite close to the canal running alongside the start of Tampines Road. This canal ran alongside the Simon Road market and travelled underground under Upper Serangoon Road.

The area where these poultry sellers operated seemed in areas remanet of floors of old buildings as some parts of the ground were cemented and there were also remnants of wall edges.

Usually on Sundays as our family made our way to attend the early morning Mass at the Church of the Nativity from Jalan Hock Chye we walked along Tampines Road. After crossing the road, a small pedestrian bridge would take us to the area of the poultry sellers and then through a small alleyway we would emerge on Upper Serangoon Road which we had to cross to get to the side of the market to catch the transport that would take us to church. This alleyway had a number of makeshift stalls that sold different merchandise, a mini bazaar indeed. Only two stalls remain clear in my memory the one that sold clothing material and clothes and the “You Tiao” hawker who sat almost on ground level in front of a huge wok of boiling oil armed with his pair of long chopsticks busily turning the twirls of dough for the ever long queue of customers waiting for their orders to be ready.

It was this early morning walk negotiating the path between the poultry sellers that was mind blowing. In the dimly lit environment we would catch sight of some unscrupulous sellers force feeding chickens with sand and small stones or pebbles. This was so that these live chickens sold would weigh heavier and this would increase their selling price. These were the sellers mum would avoid and if I remember correctly we had a regular seller whom she always went to. But still there were precautions that she and other mums took to lessen the chances of being short changed when buying live chickens and we kids were often deputised to assist.

The sequence of buying life chickens those days was in this order:

  1. the chicken was chosen from amongst the many from the wicker baskets they were in. This was to ensure they were not sickly or perhaps even dead.
  2. the selected chicken(s) were weighed and their price bargained.
  3. the selected birds were tagged and placed in another basket.
  4. from this basket the chickens were removed slaughtered and de-feathered
  5. the “naked” carcass with the metal tags still attached were placed one side for collection.

Besides the knowledge of the additional weight increase through sand and stones, we were also schooled to scrutinise the actual weighing process. The daching was the prevalent weighing machine then. These hand held scales could be manipulated through a slight of hand. Whilst the thumb and index finger held the string that was the fulcrum and all eyes were focussed on the pointer at the opposite end of the balancing rod, we were always told to be aware of the little finger that would sometimes be used to covertly tilt the scales in the sellers favour. In the commotion of balancing a squawking, struggling chicken hanging from the dachin the action of the little finger could increase the sale price by a few cents.

It was a well-known fact as stated by K S Neoh in his blog post – Weighing In On The “Dacing”: 

It was also widely known that sellers sometimes manipulated the implement to cheat customers either through deft handwork ………..

The use of the little finger to tilt the scales (adapted from the picture by K S Neoh).

As mentioned above, once the chickens were selected, weighed and the sale price negotiated, the birds were tagged with metal numeric tags around their necks for identification of ownership and placed in a separate wicker basket. It was the responsibility of us “deputies in short pants” to ensure that “our” birds were not switched.  Thus we stood in the midst of all the activity while our mums went across to the Simon Road market to do their marketing for the various chicken dishes she had in mind.

Who can forget the sight of the assistant(s) reaching into the “sold” basket grabbing one of our birds, plucking away at the feathers around the throat region then with a swift action of a knife  slit at the exposed skin Then holding the bird tightly, manoeuvre the neck above a bowl so that the blood could be collected. The grip had to be secure or else you would literally witness the scene of chaos of a “headless chook” running around.

Once the bird was limp and lifeless, it would be dipped into a basin of boiling hot water and quickly removed and the de-feathering would commence. Throughout this ordeal the birds would still be wearing their identification tags. Once completely naked the birds would be place into another basin and when all of our purchases were ready they would be place in our market baskets and their tags removed.  Then us deputies then had the honour of helping our mums by carrying the basket of “naked” chickens home all the time eyeing the edges of the “you tiao” wrapped in newspaper that mum had bought. It was a nice reward for our services and would complement the cup of hot coffee she would make when we got back home.

I do not think those who have been deputies would ever forget the sights and smell of buying fresh chicken then. The smell of spilled blood, wet feathers and chicken poo are not easy to forget .Now we just decide which tray we want to buy or point to the supermarket staff the pieces that we want.

Coming back to our own chickens as I mentioned it used to be traumatic because of the attachment through hand feeding them when they were littlies as well as watching them grow.  The adults would try and shield us from seeing the particular bird being chased and restraint, slaughtered, etc. It was sometimes hard to sit and have a meal of what was once close to us. But those days we had to eat whatever was on the table or go without a meal.

Those hens that were layers normally had longer lives as nothing beats the taste a freshly laid egg. It was when they stopped laying then it was time for the chopping board.

An occasional bonus was when a neighbour’s hen would take a short flight over our fence and come into our compound. Then observing where she was scratching the dirt and which bush she would nestle into, we would wait for the usual clucking to announce that she had laid an egg. And sometimes out of habit she would return to grace us with more free eggs.  Those were the days too when we could bring our eggs to the various hawker food vendors and get them to include the eggs in the dish at no extra cost rather than pay more if he had used his own eggs. I do not think the present day hawkers at the Hawker Centres or Food Courts would entertain this now.

Thank you Rasiah! Our walk down memory lane took us back in time as we tried to pin point where our favourite hawker stalls were especially the good ones. We had lots of laughs during that warm afternoon walk delving deep into our memory banks and tagging fond memories of people, faces and names to sites and locations still standing. But the sights and smells associated with the chicken sellers was a re-run hard to forget.

Edmund Arozoo  

June 2019


 

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Memoirs of Nanyang – a Nanyin Musical

24 05 2019

It is wonderful what Siong Leng Musical Association is doing to help keep memories and culture alive not just through their promotion of Nanyin (南音) – “music from the South”, but also through their attempts at cross-disciplinary productions that make Nanyin and the various perfomance genres involved much more relatable to the modern day audience.

Their most recent attempt “Memoirs of Nanyang” brings together the cultural practices of two ethnic groups and three different cultures – a mixed that is a reflection of the mixing and intermingling of races and cultures that have made Singapore and much of the “Nanyang” what it is.

The production, which will also provide the audience with a sense of nostalgia through its musical repertoire and costumes, is commissioned by Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre. There will only be one performance on 25 May 2019 at 2.30 pm and tickets are still available at https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/csccce2019.


Ticket giveaway

I have one (1) pair of tickets priced at $28 each for the performance tomorrow (25 May 2019) to giveaway.

First reader to drop me an email before 7pm today (24 May 2019) with your full name gets your hands on the pair of tickets. The winner will be notified by return email.

Update: the pair of tickets was given out at 12:47 pm



A Sypnopsis 

Memoirs of Nanyang – a Nanyin Musical

A Siong Leng Musical Association’s production commissioned by Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre.

One photograph, two ethnic groups, three different cultures – this is the unique label of the Peranakan Chinese.

In the course of preserving their culture, the Peranakan Chinese, with a typical pioneering spirit, headed West in search of greater knowledge and more advanced technology Upon their return, they put their knowledge to good use and have played key roles in the enrichment of the Peranakan culture.

The performance highlights the bold fusion of Nanyin and Peranakan culture, as well as Siong Leng Musical Association’s courageous spirit to innovate and explore new horizons for their art form. We are privileged to feature the works and successors of three cultural medallion recipients, Mr Yip Cheong Fun, Mr Teng Mah Seng and Mdm Som Bte Mohd Said.

Audiences will be treated to a unique harmonisation of Nanyin, Malay cultural music and Mandarin pop, which lets them experience the deep elegance of Nanyin and the boundless artistic ambit of music.

Following the thoughts and emotions of the two generations, an immigrant came to Nanyang for a better life and married a local Malay woman. Since then, his business flourished and he had a comfortable and happy family. In spite of his success, his heart still thinks about his family in his hometown day and night, wanting to reunite with them. Realizing it may be impossible, he is deeply saddened and unable to accept the reality.

To make him happy, his grandchildren discussed how to combine two polar genres: Nanyin and today’s music. This interesting and bold attempt at fusing Nanyin with different music genres such as Malay music and Pop, helped them to create a new style of song that showcases multiculturalism and their strong spirit. This spectacle portrays the happiness of a family after reunion, leading a blessed and fulfilled life together.


 





The ghosts of Kallang’s past

12 05 2019

Like ghosts, a familiar pair of figures from Kallang’s past have made a reappearance. The pair, fibreglass replicas of the Merdeka Bridge Monument lions, were unveiled this afternoon at Stadium Roar as part of the launch of The Kallang Story, a Sports and Heritage Trail that uncovers many other aspects of the area’s rich and colourful history through 3 suggested walking routes featuring 18 heritage markers.

The unveiling of the replica lions at Stadium Roar at the National Stadium.

The lions, commissioned by the Public Works Department during the construction of the bridge, were designed based on sketches by Mr. L. W. Carpenter of its Architect’s Branch. The full design was completed by Signor Raoul Bigazzi (not by Cav. Rodolfo Nolli as has been widely reported), who had them made in Manila at a cost of $14,200.

The bridge, built at a cost of $8M, was touted as “the longest and largest of its type in South East Asia”. Its construction, along with that of Nicoll Highway was possible by the move of the civil airport from Kallang to Paya Lebar in 1955. The proposal to name the bridge “Merdeka” or “Independence” was made in June 1956 by the then Minister of Works and Communications Mr Francis Thomas under the Lim Yew Hock administration, “to express the confidence and aspirations of the people”. This came after the first round of Merdeka talks for full self-government stalled and Singapore first Chief Minister, David Marshall, resigned. Some 60,000 people crossed the bridge at its opening on 17 August 1956 – at which Mr Lim Yew Hock referred to it as a “Symbol of Our Path to Freedom”.

The monument, was placed at each end of the bridge with a lion at its base. The monument and the lions were removed during the widening and conversion of the Nicoll Highway from a dual to a treble carriageway in 1966. The lions were initially placed at Kallang Park and are now display out of sight to most of us at SAFTI Military Institute.


Will the (Kallang) roar now return?

 

A Wushu display during the unveiling of the replica lions.


 

 





Golden Bell and the intended Anglo-Chinese College on Mount Faber

8 05 2019

Much has been told of Golden Bell (mansion). Built in 1910 as Tan Boo Liat’s stately hilltop residence at Pender Road, an air of romance and some mystery perhaps, surrounds the place. It has quite a proud and distinguished past and its guests included Chinese revolutionary leader Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who spent a night there in 1911. Lavish parties were said to have been thrown at house in the brief period that Tan Boo Liat occupied it. In the little more than a century that has elapsed, neither the romance nor the mystery seems to have been lost, even with its use since 1985 by the Danish Seamen’s Church. Those curious enough to have stolen a glance at the grand residence on the way down from Mount Faber will also have little doubt of its majesty. 

Golden Bell today.

A chapter in the Golden Bell story that seems to be missed by most, is one that relates to the Methodist Mission, and its plans to establish an institution of higher learning in Singapore. The ambitious idea was long held by Anglo-Chinese School’s founder, Bishop William F. Oldham, when it was set in motion through the arrival of Rev. James Stewart Nagle in 1914. Rev. Nagle, picked as the principal of the 3-decade old ACS so that he could also put plans for the college in place, set to work immediately. A College Council was established. Its members counted prominent figures such as Tan Kah Kee, Lee Choon Guan, and Tan Cheng Lock, all of whom made generous pledges and contributions.

Anglo-Chinese College Council, 1918. Seated left to right: Tan Kah Kee; William Thorpe Cherry Junior; Lee Choon Guan; Chan Kang Swi; and Rev. J.S. Nagle. Standing: 3rd from left – Reverend P.L. Peach (ACS Principal, 1922-1924); 4th from left – Reverend Boughman; and extreme right – Tan Cheng Lock.

By late 1917, a reported 26½ acres (10.7 hectares) of land on a “hilltop location in Telok Blangah” had been secured, including Golden Bell. Contrary to the popularly held view that it remained in Tan Boo Liat’s hands unil his death in 1934, the mansion, which had already been vacated by late 1914, had been put up for sale in 1916.

Extract from a 1922 Thomas Cook Guide to Singapore, published by the Methodist Publishing House, that lists the “red brick mansion known as ‘Golden Bell'” as belonging to thr Methodist Mission and “intended as an educational site”.

It was also in 1917 that the Mission sent a deputation to Governor Sir Arthur Young – to “seek Government sanction” for the college. Young (as did his successor in 1919, Sir Laurence Guillemard) had misgivings about the plan. It was seen as a threat to British prestige as the Mission was very much an America one. A letter, sent by the Colonial Secretary F. S. James some weeks after the 29 August meeting, stated that while the Government did not object to the setting up of the college, it could neither support the project nor sanction the granting of degrees by it.

Inside Golden Bell’s turret – originally a Billiard Room.

Rev. Nagle and the Council pressed ahead in spite of the apparent objections. In 1918, a Propectus of the Anglo-Chinese College was issued. The prospectus laid out the aims of the intended college, which was to provide “equal facilities with all other students for qualifying of any public degrees that may be instituted by the Government …” and prepare students for degree examinations that “might be instituted by the Straits Settelments Government, or for degree examinations of any recognised British University”. This was clearly intended to address the concerns that the Government had.

Golden Bell’s dining room – now a place of worship.

While the Council may have met with some success in its efforts to raise funds, which by 1920 had grown to a tidy sum of $400,000, it wasn’t as successful in changing the minds of those that mattered. The continued reluctance on the part of the Government to lend its support – who in 1918 embarked on its own plans for a publicly run college – and the unscheduled departure of Rev. Nagle in 1922, would lead to the plan’s demise. With that, funds raised for the college were channelled instead towards the mission’s other educational endeavours. This was the case with Tan Kah Kee’s subscription of $30,000 (Straits Settlements Dollars), which was transferred with his approval to the ACS’s physics and chemistry funds.

The Entrance Hall.

The house, and the land that had been acquired for the college, remained in the possesion of the Methodist Mission into the 1930s – despite attempts to have that sold once the plan had fallen through. While the Methodist Mission may have failed, its efforts prompted the Government to move on their own plans up for an insitution of higher learning. The outcome of the Government’s plans was Raffles College, the forerunner of the University of Malaya and what is today the National University of Singapore, which was set up after some delay in 1928.

More on the intended Anglo-Chinese College can be found at this links:


Addendum 8 May 2019

The use of Golden Bell as the “Singapore Private Hospital” – an untold mini-Chapter in the Golden Bell story:

It has come to my attention (via Khoo Ee Hoon) that Golden Bell was also used briefly as the “Singapore Private Hospital”, which opened in August 1924. Newspaper reports mention its opening above “Plantation Bahru” on a site “200 feet up on hilly ground west of Mount Faber”, “overlooking Keppel Golf Course” and with accommodation for 14 patients. It also had an “operating theatre with modern surgical theatre and an X-Ray plant for examination and treatment” and had “fully trained English Sisters in charge of nursing”.

The hospital seems to have closed some time the following year. Advertisements for an auction sale of hospital equipment at the property appear in November 1925. “To Let” advertisements for the property subsequent to this – at least up to 1934, list addresses that are associated with the Methodist Mission.


Golden Bell and Tan Boo Liat

Designed by a “local” architect, Wee Teck Moh – whose signature appears on the plans of many shophouses built at the end of the 1800s, the Edwardian-style mansion was given the “blood and bandages” fairfaced brick and plaster face appearance that seemed popular at the time. Local examples of buildings erected during the period with a similar appearance are the Central Fire Station, the former MPH Building and the rectory of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd. The house also exhibits several “local” features such as the Buddhist stupa shaped roof that adorns a turret. The house is thought to have been named after Tan Boo Liat’s grandfather, Tan Kim Ching – the son of Tan Tock Seng (“Kim Ching” translates into “Golden Bell” in Hokkien).

Plans for Golden Bell approved in 1909 (National Archives of Singapore).

Tan Boo Liat, who took over his grandfather’s rice milling business interests in Siam and was a racehorse owner with a reputation for having lived lavishely, hosted parties at Golden Bell. The mansion also saw some illustrious guests, playing host to Dr. Sun Yat-sen, when he made a short visit to Singapore in December 1911.

Plans for Golden Bell approved in 1909 (National Archives of Singapore).

Tan Boo Liat seems to have used the mansion up to about 1913-14, after which he was constantly on the move. Besides being away in Bangkok for long periods in the 1920s, and in Shanghai for two years until his death there in 1934, he also moved quite a fair bit around Singapore. His residential addresses here included 60 Emerald Hill Road, and 8 Simons Road (Angullia Park today). It was at his Simons Road residence and not at Golden Bell as stated in a 2011 Zaobao article, that Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanath of Siam, brother of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) and heir apparent to the Siamese throne, passed away during a stopover in Singapore on 13 June 1920 at the age of 37.

A group photograph at Golden Bell with Lim Nee Soon and Tan Chor Lam among the faces in the crowd (National Archives of Singapore).

Golden Bell would eventully fall into the hands of the Port of Singapore Authority, who used it until 1985 and from whom Danish Seamen’s Church initially leased it from. The State Property, still used by the church, has since been transferred to the Singapore Land Authority.

A wooden grille with a golden bell motif on it in the mansion,


 

 

 





127 years old, but not over the hill

20 04 2019

A last look at a 127 year old former “House on the Hill” a.k.a. “Tower House”, before it becomes part of a residential development known as “Haus on Handy”:


Perched on the brow of the hill we know as Mount Sophia is a last of a hilltop once devoted to the large and airy residences of the mid to late 19th century, a two-storey house known as “Tower House”. Used in more recent years as a playschool “House on the Hill”, the conservation house was included in a land sales exercise last year as part of a larger plot.

An early photo of Tower House (source: Memories, gems and sentiments : 100 years of Methodist Girls’ School).

Built in 1892 for the Singapore Land Company, the house was laid out – unusually for the houses of Singapore in the day – on an asymmetrical plan. It featured a carriage porch and a dining room on the ground level and living and sleeping spaces on the upper level. As with the houses of the day, ample openings and generously proportioned verandahs are provided for a maximum of light and ventilation.

More on the house, which I had an opportunity to visit and learn more about some 7 years back, can be found in this November 2011 post:  Windows to Heaven.

The former House on the Hill on its perch at the top of Mount Sophia.


The ground floor

A plaque commemorating the repurposing of the house as the Women’s Society of Christian Service Centre in Dec 1989.

 

Wrought-iron grilles.

 

What would have been the dining room.

 

Evidence of the house’s last occupants.

 

A doorway into the service area.

A door way to the verandah area surrounding the former dining room.

A view of the ground floor verandah.

 

Another view from the verandah.


The second level

The Drawing Room.

 

Views around the verandah.


The starirway to heaven (the tower)


Views from the Tower


Miscellaneous Views


 





Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets is back for SG Heritage Fest

5 03 2019

There will be three Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets guided visits to look forward to this March. Being held as part of Singapore Heritage Festival 2019, the visits will focus on sites used by former hospitals: View Road – former Rimau Offices / View Road Hospital (16 March), Kadayanallur Street – former St. Andrew’s Mission Hospital (23 March) and Halton Road – old Changi Hospital (30 Mar). Places are limited and registration would be necessary.

In addition to the visits, I will also be taking a walk “Down the Middle” in search of the markers that the various communities that have flavoured Middle Road over the years have left behind. The walk will be held at 4 pm on 16 Mar 2019. More information on this can be found at: https://www.heritagefestival.sg/programmes/down-the-middle.

At 5 Kadayanallur Street : a 1929 vintage Smith, Major and Stevens lift, .

Information on the Singapore Heritage Festival can be found at the festival’s site. Information related to the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets sites being visited can be found at these links:

Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets is a collaboration with the Singapore Land Authority that allows members of the public to visit to sites and properties managed by the authority that are normally closed to the public.


News on the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets series of guided visits:


 





Parting Glances: old Singapore’s last place of healing

5 02 2019

Those familiar with Moulmein Road in the days of Moulmein Green would remember the old Middleton Hospital and its iconic gatehouse. The landmark entrance-way stood for over 70 years before “progress” swallowed it up in the 1980s. Progress, which came in the form of road realignment and widening as part of the construction of the Central Expressway (CTE), saw also to the demise of Moulmein Green – one of at least a couple of roundabouts that were named “Green” (the other was Finlayson Green).  

The gatehouse with the black lion crest on it and a bit of Moulmein Green in the foreground.

The gatehouse provided both the hospital and the area with an identity that went beyond being a physical presence. It was the hospital’s black lion crest, which was on prominent display on the house, that the area’s name in the Hokkien vernacular came from.

The black lion – seen at the entrance of the former CDC.

The structure’s disappearance came at about the same time that Middleton, a name that the infectious diseases hospital was known as for 75 years, was also lost. Morphing in Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s Department of Communicable Diseases in 1985 and in 1992 the Communicable Diseases Centre (CDC) however, did not stop the former hospital from being in the news. It was a key component in the health plan drawn up in early days of the AIDS epidemic that saw a dedicated AIDS ward set up in April 1986. The CDC, which for a period of 3 years until 1995 functioned independently of Tan Tock Seng Hospital,  has also been at the forefront in the battle against several other high-profile disease outbreaks, such as the 2003 SARS epidemic.

Structures belonging to the former Middleton Hospital.

The absence of the gatehouse has also allowed a much clearer view of the centre’s expansive grounds and the quaint old structures seen on it. The sight is one that is increasing rare in Singapore and provides a glimpse of what could be thought of as an old-fashioned bit of Singapore that we should be thankful to the continued operation of the CDC for.

The old laundry.

It was an old-fashioned and a very different Singapore into which the former hospital came into being. With many in the already overcrowded municipality’s rapidly increasing urban population living in quite insanitary conditions, the urban centre was rife with highly contagious and often deadly diseases. Containing the spread of them, especially among the largely ignorant townsfolk, posed a huge challenge. 

The wards of the new Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Overworked medical staff from the hospital, which was also in Balestier Road before moving to their new site at Moulmein, provided care for the poor also attended to patients at the smallpox hospital and quarantine camp.

The former hospital’s origins can be traced back to a smallpox hospital that was established in the early 1870s at Balestier Plain (where the Singapore Singapore Indian Association and its sports fields are now located). This was expanded with a quarantine camp to isolate and confine “natives” afflicted with other infectious diseases on an adjacent site. Overworked doctors from nearby Tan Tock Seng attended also to patients at the camp.

An 1893 Map showing the Smallpox Hospital and also a Leper Asylum in Balestier Plain (National Archives of Singapore).


A 1905 Map showing the smallpox hospital and the infectious diseases ward (National Archives of Singapore).

By the turn of the last century, it became apparent that the hospital/quarantine camp “was unfit to meet the requirements of a large population liable to epidemics of smallpox and cholera and, to a less extent, of plague”. In 1905, plans were put forward by the Municipal Commission to erect an Infectious Disease Hospital at Moulmein Road. This would also provide wards for Europeans (not without objection), as well as “better class natives”. It wasn’t however until 1911 that work on a scaled-down version of the new hospital began in earnest.

Commissioned on 1 June 1913, the $270,000/- 172-bedded Infectious Diseases Hospital was described as being a “little more than the bones of what was proposed”. It was an improvement however to the “ramshackle institution in Balestier Road” that it replaced. Spread over an 11.5 hectare site, the facility featured three camps for the isolation and confinement of patients infected with cholera, plague and smallpox.

There were originally three clusters of pavilion wards – all widely spaced from each other – “camps” encircled by a fence.

The gentle rising slope that the hospital was placed on, provided for drainage. A fence, a triple-fence on three sides and an iron fence along Moulmein Road, encircled the hospital. This was as much to keep the general public out as it was to keep patients in. The gatehouse provided the hospital with a “pre-processing gateway” with lodgings for the gatekeeper / caretaker on the upper level.

The “pre-processing gateway” – with caretaker’s lodgings above.

Going past the gatehouse one would have seen the doctors and nurses quarters on the right, with those for other staff on the left. An administrative building was positioned right up the road. Three six-bedded wards were placed some distance away to its left with another three on its right. These were for observation and discharge.

What probably were the nurses quarters.

The camps, each enclosed by a fence, were found further up the road past the administrative building. The plague camp was arranged on the left, the cholera camp on the right, and the smallpox camp at the back at the top of the slope. The camps featured a ward for “natives”  with extensions to accommodate “better class natives”.  “Europeans” were housed separately.

The administrative building.

The old-fashioned concept of infection control through separation and ample (natural) ventilation that resulted in the layout of the hospital and in the design of its wards is very much in evidence in the CDC’s pavilion-style wards, even if they may have been modified. Air-conditioning, for both comfort and infection control, is one modern day addition. Building materials and fittings containing asbestos must also have been replaced. These would have been found in the Eternit ceiling panels that were fitted for insulation, damp and vermin control, and fire resistance.

Features for natural light and ventilation are found on the older ward buildings.

With the CDC moving to its new home last December where it has taken on a new identity as the National Centre for Infectious Diseases or NCID, time is being called on the former hospital. The site is marked for residential development under the URA Master Plan and it would probably not be long before all evidence of the hospital and its buildings is erased. 

In the Master Plan.

Another former ward building.

Many of the former CDC’s buildings do actually go back to its days as the Infectious Diseases Hospital of 1913, including the administrative building, a stand-alone mortuary building, and the laundry in its southeastern corner. The laundry, which was expanded postwar with the addition of a new building, was designed such that dhobis would not have had to handle the items to be laundered until they were properly disinfected and cleaned. There are also some of the original wards – Singapore’s last pavilion wards to remain in use and former quarters.  

The mortuary.


Possibly one of the original observation or discharge wards.

With the old hospital having passed into history, it also is important not to forget those associated with its past. Prof. Ernest Steven Monteiro is one who comes to mind whose pioneering in preventive medicine Singapore must be thankful for. Dr. Monteiro is credited with initiating what turned out to be a very successful mass vaccination campaign against polio in the the late 1950s.

The front of the mortuary.

Dr. Monteiro connection with the hospital was during the Japanese Occupation. As the Japanese appointed director of the then Densen Byoin, which was teeming with sick people with infectious diseases such as typhoid and ailments brought about through malnutrition, the young director faced many challenges. One especially serious one was the shortage of anti-diphtheria serum, which he overcame through improvisation. His son, Dr. Edmund Monteiro, was to make significant contributions to Middleton Hospital and the CDC during his service there from 1965 to 1993. The younger Dr. Monteiro’s  oversaw the hospital’s transition to the CDC and co-ordinated the CDC’s response to  the HIV/AIDS epidemic. 

Ward 76, which was converted for use as a HIV/AIDS ward.

We should also remember the forgotten Dr. William Robert Colvin Middleton, after whom the hospital was named in 1920 upon his retirement. This was to recognise the many contributions he made as one of Singapore’s longest serving Municipal Health Officers to improving lives and the role he played in the setting the hospital at Moulmein Road up. A  short bio on Dr. Middleton can be found at the end of this post.

A visible part of the CDC today – former quarters.


The newer extension to the laundry.


Emergency wards set up for SARS.


An isolation room in the emergency wards.


A look inside one of the former wards.

A much more modern addition, a negative pressure ward.


(The forgotten) Dr. W. R. C. Middleton, Municipal Health Officer, 1894 to 1920

A painting of Dr. Middleton, one of three portraits painted by Anatole Shister for display in the Chief Committee Room of the new Municipal Building (later City Hall) in 1929 (National Collection as listed on roots.sg).

The son of a Church of Scotland Minister and a military chaplain in India, Dr. William Robert Colvin Middleton was born in Bombay in 1863. Having obtained his medical qualifications in 1888, he served as a resident physician in the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary before heading to Singapore in 1890 to work for Dr. Charles Llewellyn Howard Tripp in the Maynard and Co. Dispensary.

Dr. Middleton applied for the position of Municipal Health Officer in late 1893 when its became vacant due to the resignation of Dr. Charles Eardley Dumbleton. Dr. Middleton was given the appointment of Acting Health Officer in January 1894 with a view to the full post, on the condition that he obtain a Diploma in Public Health; the Municipal Commission had then determined that should be a prerequisite for the position. Dr. Middleton left for Aberdeen at the end of March that year,  returning with the required Diploma in October, all at his own expense!

Dr. Middleton held the appointment of Municipal Health Office upon his return until his retirement late in 1920, except for a spell back home in during the Great War in 1916. He survived the torpedo attack on the ill-fated RMS Arabia, which sunk in the Mediterranean in November 1916, on his passage back to Singapore from this.

Besides the numerous contributions he made improving the state of sanitation in Singapore, as well as in other aspects of public health including in maternal care, Dr. Middleton also served as the Deputy President of the Municipal Commission in 1904. He held the rank of Major in the Singapore Volunteer Corps and was credited with setting a medical aid post up on the P & O wharf during Singapore Mutiny for the transfer of casualties to the military hospital on Pulau Blakang Mati.

He passed away at the age of 58, on 8 December 1921, in Bexhill in Sussex. He was survived by his wife, the former Mrs. Ethel Hunt, whom he married at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in April 1909.

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