A memory of Changi Chalet Hospital

23 09 2020

A guest post by Edmund Arozoo.

Once of Jalan Hock Chye, Edmund takes us on a walk back in time from Adelaide in South Australia, to his days as a radiographer in the small and little known Changi Chalet Hospital. The hospital, which was set up in 1974 in the former RAF Changi Chalet Club, became part of Changi Hospital in 1976.


Changi Chalet Hospital

It is surprising what you may accidentally uncover (discover) when you are searching for certain specific items, and how you then get distracted from the task at hand. Usually these surprise discoveries are memory joggers, leading you onto different tangents altogether as they remind you of certain memorable (or unpleasant) times of yesteryear.

I was going through some old photographic slides in the hope of finding slides I wanted to use for a particular project, when I came across two slides that I had forgotten about. And that was it –– my focus was disrupted as I started to reflect on these two images that have withstood the passing of time. Both slides have retained their quality in colour and detail thanks to the arid climate of Adelaide.

One of these slides brought me back to the early 1970s when I was working as a Radiographer I/C at Changi Chalet Hospital. I was also the unofficial resident photographer then and captured memories of staff etc.  The slide shows the Nursing staff getting ready for our Christmas Celebration Lunch. The Kodachrome slide processed in Australia was marked as Jan 1975. So I am sure this would be the celebrations of Christmas 1974.

Christmas Staff Party 1974.

On seeing the slide I was then diverted in trying to locate other images of Changi Chalet Hospital. Unfortunately most show the faces of staff members, as such without their permission I am reluctant to share these on the internet.  Nor am I known for posting and sharing images of me on the various social media sites with this guest post being an exception.

>In 2015, I did take a trip down memory lane to try and see what changes had taken place since I last worked at the hospital. My, what changes indeed there has been. A good friend drove me there and I was surprised that I could not get my bearings of the area that I was so familiar with, a long time ago. Trying to fit the missing links in my memory banks, I seem to have lost all my bearings.

As we drove slowly along the leafy roads, memories of the squads of SAF commandoes going through their daily exercise drills along the roads, came back to me. Most of all the tranquillity surrounding the old buildings and tall trees and the greenery was striking then and this was still there.

Fond memories of the Chalet Hospital still remain despite being more than 44 years old. It was a “mini” self-contained hospital with a pharmacy, laboratory and radiology services. Workload was not that heavy and I must confess that on a number of occasions when the tide was right I took a dip in the sea during my lunch break.

I was fortunate to be an owner of a second hand green Ford Anglia and used to drive to work from home which was near the start of Tampines Rd and the journey took me to the end of the road then veering left at the junction of the old Changi Air Force Airport into Upper Changi Road. Then after passing the old Changi Village turn left again on to Netheravon Road then into Turnhouse Road.

It was a long drive but almost halfway I used to pick up the Junior Photographic Assistant (my Darkroom Technician) who lived along Tampines Road on the way to work in the mornings and drop him off after work, so I had company for most of the journey to and fro. It was also a long walk from the bus terminus at the Changi Village to the Hospital, so me and other staff who had cars used  to pick up other hospital staff who were seen walking to work from the bus stop. It did foster a “family” atmosphere and environment.

As I started this blog thanks to the Onemap Singapore website https://hm.onemap.sg/ I was able to take a walk or rather a “drive” down memory lane. The old maps help put pieces together.

My daily commute from home to work and back (Map from the 1975 Map collection of old maps from the OneMap Singapore website).

There were still sand quarries along Tampines Road then and often you would share the narrow road with lorries carting sand. The spillage from the load of these lorries often presented a road hazard especially after a light shower. The mixture of sand and water was a recipe for skidding. Imprinted in my mind is the sight of the lorry I was trailing do a 360 degree spin. Thankfully I had kept my distance from it and was able to ease off without my car going into a spin too.

Another memory along the route was the turnoff to Kampong Loyang. In my early school days the whole family clan used to spend a week of the August School holidays in a holiday kampong shack in Kampong Loyang. Passing this turnoff always reminded me of those carefree days.

1975 Map showing Kampong Loyang turn off from the OneMap Singapore website.

Part of my duties was to provide x-ray services for the newly established Changi Prison Hospital. So with my JPA I used to drive to the prison on allocated days when x-rays of inmates were requested. The workload was not heavy but the challenges were very different to that of a hospital based X-ray Department. One of the benefits however was the ability to access some of the services of the Prison Industries that were organised to assist in the rehabilitation of inmates by teaching them skills they could utilise on their release and be employable. I remember getting my computer notes and books hardbound for a small sum. And these lasted me for the duration of the Computer studies I was undertaking then and beyond. The hard cover binding was of a professional level.

But the proximity of Changi Village shops was a bonus for us Hospital staff with cars. It was place we frequented for lunch and the occasional shopping.  I was just starting into serious photography then and the friendly Photographic shop owner became a great friend. I cannot remember the name of the shop but if my memory serves me well I think his name was Mr Lim. He was a great salesperson and very knowledgeable.  I still having gear bought from those days more than 40 years ago. Those were “film” camera days but most of these are still useable though some lenses do need adapters to be used with today’s digital cameras.

Changi Village – map from the OneMap Singapore website.

Recollection of the old Changi Village Shops.

Another memory that resurfaced was the change of plans of upgrading The International Airport at Paya Lebar to the establishment of the current Changi Airport.  Driving along Tampines Road we did skirt around the perimeter of the existing Paya Lebar Airport and I do remember seeing the row of terrace houses that were acquired to make way for the initial plan to extend the Airport. These were left vacant after the plans were changed. Likewise there was another beachside newly built hotel along Nicoll Drive, Tanah Merah that was never opened because of the switch to Changi. Most of the hospital staff were looking forward to having a meal at the new premises. This never eventuated. More recently after trying to research the name of the hotel and without coming up with any answers I was beginning to doubt my memory, and wondered if it was a figment of my imagination. However during a recent viewing of this Youtube video https://youtu.be/r26M_Lryu6Y, there was a brief mention of the razing of the hotel. It was great to receive this confirmation indeed.

Changi Chalet Hospital

Main Entrance to Hospital.

? Same Tree – 45 years later.

Panorama of the old “Padang” Sports Field.

Chalet Building erased – sigh………

Fond Memories.

Belonging to the various nostalgia-themed facebook groups has been great for me. There members share photos and experiences of places now mostly all gone. One group I am glad to be part of is the “Memories of Changi Village” group. A “wave” is sent to Ms Geraldine Soh, the administrator. Like the present Changi Airport this fb group platform is the crossroads where members from all corners of the world come together to share their precious memories and photos keeping our own flickering memories of Changi alive.






A wander through old Changi Hospital

17 10 2015

Changi is an area of Singapore still riddled with many reminders of its past. The site of an artillery battery and an army garrison before the war, Changi was also where tens of thousands of prisoners-of-war were held during the dark days of occupation. The end of the war brought the Royal Air Force (RAF) to Changi with the establishment of the RAF Changi. Changi then served as the Headquarters of the Far East Air Force (FEAF) and its predecessor until the pull-out of British forces in 1971.

The cluster of buildings reminding us of the former RAF Hospital Changi.

The cluster of buildings reminding us of the former RAF Hospital Changi.

A corridor into the past - a corridor along Block 161 as seen from Block 37.

A corridor into the past – a corridor along Block 161 as seen from Block 37.

Several reminders of these episodes in Changi’s history can still be seen today. Buildings from the various barracks from the 1930s and the remnants of the Johore Battery tell us of its garrison days. The air base is still around and although this is hidden from the public eye, a part of the former RAF Changi isn’t, including a cluster of buildings which served as the RAF Hospital Changi. With the permission of the Singapore Land Authority, I managed to wander through the old corridors of the old hospital, which despite what has, in more recent times, been said about it, isn’t what it is made out to be.

The casualty entrance and the operating theatre at Block 37 on top of the hill at the end of Hendon Road.

The casualty entrance and the operating theatre at Block 37 on top of the hill at the end of Hendon Road.

The operating theatre area.

The operating theatre area.

Perched on the northern slope of the former FEAF Hill overlooking the eastern Johor Strait and surrounded by a sea of greenery, the site of the hospital does seem as ideal as any as a one given to the care and recovery of the infirmed. Standing somewhat forlornly since they were vacated in 1997, the three buildings of the former hospital, now painted by many in a somewhat negative light, a sad reminder of the hospital that was very well thought of by many of its would be patients.

The greenery that surrounds the former hospital site.

The greenery that surrounds the former hospital site.

A view towards the Johor Strait from the roof of Block 161.

A view towards the Johor Strait, Pasir Ris and Punggol from the roof of Block 161.

The hospital’s origins lie with the establishment of the RAF’s Changi Station, or RAF Changi. The construction of an airfield by the Japanese in 1943 in the former army cantonment with the help of labour provided by prisoners-of-war (POW) had unlocked the potential of an area initially deemed unsuitable for an air base. The returning British wasted no time and with help from Japanese POWs built on the initial effort and had Singapore’s third principal RAF station set-up around it in 1946.

An aerial view of the Changi Airfield, the construction of which was initiated by the Japanese in 1943. The coastal end of the east-west intersecting strip was where the Beting Kusah area and Kampong Beting Kusah was located. The kampong was cleared in 1948 to allow an RAF expansion of the airstrip.

An aerial view of the Changi Airfield, the construction of which was initiated by the Japanese in 1943.

RAF Hospital Changi during its time had a reputation of being modern and well equipped. The large maternity ward it boasted of was an indication of the presence of many young military families stationed in Singapore, not just with the RAF, but also in the other armed services. By the time the RAF vacated Changi and the hospital in 1971, the ward was responsible for more than a thousand new arrivals.

What would have been a women's ward in Block 161.

What would have been a women’s ward in Block 161.

Another view of the ward.

Another view of the ward.

The hospital’s own arrival came with its setting up in two former barrack buildings. The buildings on Barrack Hill (later FEAF Hill), Blocks 24 and 37, had originally been a part of the pre-war Kitchener Barracks (Block 37 may originally have been a medical facility serving Kitchener Barracks).

RAF Changi 1950. The relative positions of the original Blks 24 and 37 of RAF Hospital Changi and the Chalet Club can be seen (lkinlin18 on Flickr).

RAF Changi 1950. The relative positions of the original Blks 24 and 37 of RAF Hospital Changi and the Chalet Club can be seen (lkinlin18 on Flickrlicense).

Blocks 161 and 24.

Blocks 161 and 24.

The third building we see today, Block 161, was added in 1962. It was constructed to allow the expansion of the hospital after an attempt to consruct a new hospital at Selarang ran into difficulty and was abanadoned. The new building also provided a link over the steep incline that separated the hospital’s original blocks.

A view from Block 24 towards Block 161.

A view from Block 24 towards Block 161.

A passageway along Block 24.

A passageway on the top level of Block 24.

Named after Lord Kitchener, an officer in with the Royal Engineers who perished in service during World War I, Kitchener Barracks was home to the Royal Engineers and was one of four barracks that made up the army garrison. The hospital’s original buildings, the three storey Block 24 in particular, bear resemblance to many other barrack blocks that were built in the same era found across Singapore.

Block 24, which resembles many of the British built barracks blocks from the same era.

Block 24, which resembles many of the British built barracks blocks from the same era.

The are suggestions that the hospital may have been established before the war, in 1935, around the time the barrack buildings were constructed. This however does not seem to have been likely. The evidence points to RAF Hospital Changi’s being established around 1947 based on records and also mentions of the hospital in newpaper articles.

Another ward in Block 161.

Another ward in Block 161.

Sanitary facilities.

Sanitary facilities.

No mention is also made of the hospital in late 1930s articles reporting to the intention to set up and the opening of the British Military Hospital at Alexandra. These point only to a Military Hospital at Tanglin as having been the only functioning hospital within the British military establishment in Singapore. The first reference to an RAF Hospital was in 1946 when that was set up temporarily in part of the mental hospital at Seletar (what became Woodbridge Hospital).

The bathroom inside the women's ward.

The bathroom inside the women’s ward.

A corridor in Block 161 leading to Block 37.

A corridor in Block 161 leading to Block 37.

One of the notable contributions of the hospital was the role it played in responding to medical emergencies hundred of miles offshore. The participation of the hospital extended to the deployment of “flying” surgeons and other medical personnel, one of whom was S/Ldr Agnes Bartels – who had the distinction of being the RAF’s only woman surgeon stationed in the Far East.

An air-conditioning cooling unit outside Block 161.

An air-conditioning cooling unit outside Block 161.

On the ground level of Block 24.

On the ground level of Block 24.

The hospital would also called into service during the Korean War. A “Flying Ambulance” service, which was organised by the RAF to repatriate wounded UN Command troops from Japan via the UK to their home countries, used Singapore as a stopover. A ward specially set up at RAF Hospital Changi, allowed the wounded to be cared for whilst in transit. During the period, the hospital saw troops from several countries, which included the likes of Turkey and France.

Rooms in Block 24.

What seems to be a kitchen in Block 24.

The entrance area at Block 24.

The entrance area at Block 24.

The end for RAF Hospital Changi came in 1971 when the British pulled their forces out, at which point it was one of the three military run hospitals on the island. While the other two, the British Military Hospital (now Alexandra Hospital) and the Naval Base Hospital, were handed over to Singapore, Changi was retained for use as a military hospital to serve the smaller force being deployed under the ANZUK arrangement. On 1 October 1971, the then 150 bed hospital became the ANZUK Military Hospital.

A corridor on the second level of Block 24.

A corridor on the second level of Block 24.

A view towards Block 24.

A view from Block 161 towards Block 24.

The withdrawal of Australia from the ANZUK arrangement (which saw a pullout in 1975), placed the hospital once again under the command of the UK military. It was then renamed the UK Military Hospital for a short while before it was handed over to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) on 1 December 1975 when it became the SAF Hospital.

A WC in Block 24.

A WC in Block 24.

The roof structure of Block 161.

The roof structure of Block 161.

Another corridor in Block 161.

Another corridor in Block 161.

Intended to serve SAF personnel and their families, the hospital was also to open its doors to the public. This was in early 1976, prior to it being transferred to the Ministry of Health who merged it with the nearby 36 bed Changi Chalet Hospital and it became Changi Hospital on 1 July 1976.

Changi Chalet Hospital at Turnhouse Road seen in the mid 1970s (since demolished). The field in the foreground is the former RAF Changi's Padang Sports Field and is where the former SIA Group Sports Club was built in the 1980s (photograph: Edmund Arozoo on On a Little Street in Singapore).

Changi Chalet Hospital at Turnhouse Road seen in the mid 1970s (since demolished). The field in the foreground is the former RAF Changi’s Padang Sports Field and is where the former SIA Group Sports Club was built in the 1980s (photograph: Edmund Arozoo on On a Little Street in Singapore).

The decision to set up the 36 bed Changi Chalet Hospital, which was opened in the converted former Chalet Club (between Turnhouse Road and Netheravon Road) in August 1974, only for it to be absorbed into Changi Hospital less than two years later seems rather strange. Opened with the intention to serve “residents in the area”, rumour has it that the well equipped hospital, was set up to serve a certain group of holiday makers in what had been a well protected area.

A view from the old Sergeants Mess towards the area where Changi Chalet Club was.

A view from the old Sergeants’ Mess towards the area where Changi Chalet Club was.

The death knell for Changi Hospital was sounded when it was announced in 1988 that a new site was being sought for a new Changi Hospital, which was “poorly located and not designed orginally to operate as a high activity acute hospital”. That was eventually found in Simei and the new Changi Hospital, which merged the operations of the old Changi Hospital, which closed in January 1997, with that of the former Toa Payoh Hospital, was opened in February 1997.

More views of Block 24.

More views of Block 24.

The connection between Block 24 and Block 161.

The connection between Block 24 and Block 161.

A corridor at Block 37.

A corridor at Block 37.

Block 37 as seen from Block 161.

Block 37 as seen from Block 161.

Block 37.

Block 37.

The eventual fate of the buildings is not known. A tender exercise conducted in 2006 saw the award of site for interime use on a lease period of three years (extendable to an additional three plus three years) to Premium Pacific Pte Ltd. The intention to convert it into a Spa & Resort Development by 2008 however did not materialise and the property was returned in early 2010. Further attempts to find interim uses for the site have proved unsuccessful and the buildings have, since the hospital’s move, been sadly been left unused.

An artist’s impression of the proposed spa resort (it would be Block 37 depicted).

Block 37.

Block 37.

Block 37.

Block 37.

A room in Block 37.

A room in Block 37.

Block 37 towards Block 161.

Block 37 towards Block 161.

Block 37.

Block 37.

The staircase down from the second level of Block 37.

The staircase down from the second level of Block 37.