The hidden remains of Sentosa’s big WW2 guns

14 12 2022

Do note:

The photographs of the remains of Connaught Battery contained in this post were taken during a recent recce accompanied by a member of Sentosa’s staff. Do note that the area in which the remains are found is out of bounds. It contains a number of hazards and it is not only not advisable not to visit the area without the necessary permissions and supervision, you would also be trespassing if you do so.


The remains of Connaught’s No 3 Gun emplacement.

Hidden in the vegetation of Sentosa’s two easternmost elevations just a stone’s throw away from one of Singapore most luxurious residential quarters, are the remains of its guns from the era of the Second World War. The better known of the two elevations, is of course Mount Serapong, which has been made accessible through public tours. A second set of guns, three 9.2 inch guns, were placed on the neighbouring elevation. These went into action during the Second World War, and were turned north and north-west to fire towards advancing Imperial Japanese Army troops in the direction of the Causeway, Jurong and Bukit Timah. All available ammunition, a large proportion of which were armour piercing and therefore ineffective against the advancing foot soldiers, was used before the guns were spiked and destroyed on 14 February 1942 — a day before Singapore capitulated. What remains of Connaught Battery include the badly damaged No 3 gun emplacement, a Battery Observation Post and an underground magazine, a retaining wall of the underground structure and several ventilation and other openings.

BEFORE THE FALL OF SINGAPORE, C. 1942
One of Connaught Battery’s 9.2 inch guns with its concrete emplacement.
BEFORE THE FALL OF SINGAPORE, C. 1942 © IWM (K 714)
Another view of the No 3 Gun Emplacement (inside – the shaft and opening for the ammunition hoist can be seen)
A Battery Observation Post
Fittings for railings and a hinge on the emplacement
Inside the BOP
Inside an underground magazine (note the red brick cavity wall)
The cavity wall arrangement, which was possibly installed for moisture control
A view up the ammunition hoist

Background to the development of Sentosa’s Coastal Defence Positions and Connaught Battery

For large parts of its history, Sentosa was not as tranquil an island as its name would suggest. The so-called isle of tranquility, was previously called Blakang Mati, a name that carries with it a suggestion of death or even violence, even if little seems to be known about the origins of a name that it was known by since at least the early 17th century.1 Blakang Mati was also an island that has long had a reputation of being a pirates’ lair. This seemed to be the case as far as the 14th century, with the accounts of Yuan dynasty Chinese voyager, Wang Dayuan, describing what is now thought to be the waters in the area of the island as being infested with pirates2.

While an air of tranquility may have descended on the island following the Honourable East India Company’s (EIC) entry into Singapore with its second Resident, Dr John Crawfurd, describing it as a “beautiful and romantic spot”3, the spectre of death seem to still hang over Blakang Mati. Outbreaks of “Blakang Mati Fever” occurred. These were “of so deadly a character as to carry off three quarters of those attacked”, prompting some of those who settled on the island to flee in “fear and horror”.

The threat posed by “Blakang Mati Fever” however, did little to stop the one square mile island from being turned into one of Singapore’s most heavily armed and fortified square miles. Suggestion were in fact made as early as 1843, for an infantry garrison to be placed on the island as part of a plan to defend Singapore. While little came out of this plan in relation to Blakang Mati, the threat posed by Imperial Russia through it establishing a base in 1872 at Vladivostok on land it acquired from China, and the fact that advances in naval shipbuilding had greatly improved the speed, range, armour, and armament carrying capability of warships, prompted the building up of a coastal defence system to protect the Singapore and New Harbour. Measures taken included the placement of coastal artillery batteries on Blakang Mati. By 1878-79, batteries with fortifications were established at Fort Blakang Mati East (renamed Fort Connaught in 1890 to commemorate the visit of the Duke of Connaught to Singapore) and Fort Siloso. This effort also saw an infantry redoubt built at Mount Serapong.

Blakang Mati’s coastal defence positions and armaments on Sentosa would see overhauls over the years. Among the upgrades was the setting up of a battery at Mount Serapong following a review undertaken in 1885 with Singapore’s growing importance as a coaling station ii mind. Another upgrade, made from 1907 to 1911, came in the wake of Japanese successes in the Russo-Japanese War. This saw the battery at Mount Imbiah added, which was completed in 1912 with Fort Connaught’s battery being decommissioned as a result of it. Imbiah Battery would itself be decommissioned in 1937, when a rebuilt Connaught Battery came into play. The battery, along with a battery at Mount Serapong, remained in service up to the time of the Second World War. The rebuilding of Connaught Battery resulted in the removal of all traces of the 19th century fortifications of Fort Connaught.

While the guns at Serapong seemed to have been damaged during Japanese air raids in January 1942, the three guns at Connaught Battery were turned northwards and were fired in the direction of the Causeway and later at advancing Japanese troops at Jurong on 11 Feb 1942 and Bukit Timah on 12 Feb 1942, expanding all the available ammunition, before being spiked and destroyed on 14 Feb 1942.

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1 The first instance of the island being positively identified as Blakang Mati was through a map made by the Malacca-based Manual Godinho de Erédia. This was published in 1604 to aid in the discovery of the legendary islands of gold. In the map, the island is identified as “Blacan Mati” with the “c” being pronounced as a hard c.

2 In Wang Dayuan’s accounts contained Daoyi zhilüe (島夷誌略) or “Description of Barbarians of the Islands”, he provides a description of a pirate infested “Longyamen” (龍牙門) or Dragon-Teeth Gate, which is now believed to have been a reference to the pair of rocky outcrops at Tanjong Rimau at the western end of Blakang Mati and across the waters at Tanjong Berlayer. Known as “Lots Wife” to the British, they were removed to widen the entrance to New Harbour (Keppel Harbour) in 1848.

3 Among the early uses of the island in the early days of EIC Singapore was the installation of a flagstaff on the island’s highest peak, Mount Serapong, in 1833. The island would also find use for the cultivation of pineapple, jackfruit, guava and chempedak with three villages being established. One was Kampong Ayer Bendera, which was named after the flagstaff. This was located at the foot of Mount Serapong and inhabited primarily by Bugis. There was also a Malay village in the area known as Kampong Serapong, while the third village was Kampong Blakang Mati, another Bugis village. A few Chinese also found their way to the island.


More photographs:


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More Windows into the Past: The gilt-decorated domed mansion that depleted Singapore’s stock of gold

6 12 2022

Another set of photographs from the Harrison Forman collection offering a peak into Singapore’s past is one that contains views, in complete colour, of a famous but long demolished mansion and its curious garden in 1941. Both were objects of much fascination, and its even had the likes of Carl Mydans also photographing it for LIFE Magazine that same year, for a feature on Singapore published in July 1941.


Perched on an elevation that was described as “probably one of the best” for a mansion in Singapore and one that commanded a “striking view” of a great part of the island, the lavish and gilt-domed residence of the Aw’s in Pasir Panjang, Haw Par Villa, must have been a magnificent sight for the one thousand guests who were invited for its housewarming party in March 1937. No expense had been spared in the construction and the fit out of the rather lavish interiors of the mansion, which was topped by seven gilded domes. Such was the amount of gold that was used that Singapore’s entire stock of gold was reportedly depleted because of it!

Haw Par Villa in full colour, Harrison Forman, 1941.

Designed by pioneering Singapore architect Ho Kwong Yew, Haw Par Villa sat on a plan that was rather uniquely a series of circles centred on a central hall that was surrounded by circular rooms. Entering the house, one would have encountered its reception hall, and beyond that the central hall. There was also a drawing room, a dining room, four bedrooms with dressing rooms and attached bathrooms, all of which were furnished in a rather ostentatious manner with furnishings and decorative items that were handpicked by Mr Aw Boon Haw from the “best furnishing houses and decorators” during his travels to America and Europe. Even the coloured cement walls inside the house were expensively decorated — with mother of pearl inlays. There were also specially made bronze panels which had been brought in from Europe featuring tigers in various poses, lining the doorways inside the house. The opulent interiors would also have been brought quite literally to light by day and by night, having been illuminated by the generous amount of light filtering through stained-glass laylights fitted on the domes, and through the house’s curved steel-framed windows in the daytime, and by coloured lighting after nightfall.

A much photographed pagoda, Harrison Forman, 1941.

Almost as soon as it was completed, the villa, and the fantastical and extravagantly laid out and publicly accessible garden that was created to complement it, became an instant hit with visitors to Singapore, as well as with the local population. Open to the public, the garden was laid out over several terraces of the elevation that the villa stood on, and although it was meant to complement the mansion rather than take centrestage, much attention was drawn to it by curious press reporters and photographers. Its decorative structures, such as the rockeries and grottoes of artificial rocks, a pagoda, miniature buildings and figurines depicting animals such as cranes and storks, drew a fair bit of interest as did its 50 feet by 25 feet swimming pool.

A garden that was created to complement the villa, Harrison Forman, 1941.

The garden soon became synonymous with Singapore and a must-visit visitor attraction. Among its early visitors were Hollywood couple, William Keighley and Genevieve Tobin during part of their honeymoon in Singapore in May 1939, 39 Australian schoolboys visiting Singapore with the Young Australia League in January 1939. The garden also took centrestage for a pahit party (cocktail party) that was thrown for a visiting Republic of China military delegation in May 1941, which was attended by the British military’s top brass based in Singapore. Such was Haw Par Villa’s draw that it seemed to be the first out-of-town destination to which “all newcomers to Singapore” were brought to — as was the case with a batch of Australian nurses with the Australian Army Nursing Service who were sent to Singapore in September 1941.1

AANS nurses visiting Haw Par Villa (with the villa seen in the background) in September 1941 (source: Australian War Memorial, public domain, copyright expired).

The villa was itself was a draw. Public access to it was permitted during open houses held on festive occasions such as the Chinese New Year. Sadly, the villa did not survive very long. It was taken over for use as a residence during the Japanese Occupation and reportedly housed both Japanese and German officers.2 Poorly maintained, it was left in a poor state by the end of the war. Looting had also stripped the house of all its furnishings and many of the statues from its garden.

By early 1951, Mr Aw Boon Haw, who had lost his younger brother during the war (Boon Par died in Rangoon in 1944), had Haw Par Villa demolished in the hope that he could have a mansion modelled after a Chinese-styled palace put up in its place. Later, a 200 ft high pagoda was proposed. The ongoing austerity drive, which limited spending on private home to a mere $50,000, put paid to Mr Aw’s plans and he turned his attention instead to expanding the set of displays. In doing so, he placed focus on using displays to provide moral guidance to visiting members of the public through the depiction of scenes from Chinese folklore, the Chinese classics, and Buddhist and Taoist teaching which contained messaging on moral values such as filial piety.

Both Taoist and Buddhist themes feature in Haw Par Villa’s displays, Harrison Forman, 1941.

Mr Aw passed away in September 1954 without being able to fulfil a desire to have the demolished villa replaced. The garden, which took on the name “Haw Par Villa” from its association with the missing villa, continued to be a popular spot for visitors to the island. Its collection of figurines and tableaux would have appeared to have been quite bizarre to those not schooled in traditional Chinese teachings and was at the very minimum, a source of amusement and fascination. Among those who graced the garden was the very first Miss Universe, Armi Kuufcla, who visited in April 1953. Another famous personality to visit was teenage idol, Frankie Avalon, late in 1965.

Harrison Forman, 1941.

The garden was also popular for fashion shoots, and as a filming location. Among the movies with scenes shot at Haw Par Villa was a joint Bollywood-Malayan production, “Singapore” in 1959, which contained a scene that saw the popular Maria Menado dance with Bollywood heartthrob Shammi Kapoor. The film was released in 1960. A 1966 Hollywood production, Kommisar X, aka Operation Far East, aka So Darling, So Deadly, had a scene that featured a chase through the garden, and a 1967 British production, Pretty Polly (also A Matter of Innocence) included an evening scene that was filmed at Haw Par Villa.

Harrison Forman, 1941.

Following Aw Boon Haw’s death, Boon Par’s son, Aw Cheng Chye, introduced displays that broke with the garden’s theme, and its Chinese flavour. An avid traveller, Cheng Chye put up International Corners to mark his overseas trips. While this may have contributed to the garden’s quirkiness, it did much to alter its character. Much, much more has happened since. An attempt to convert the garden into a theme park in 1990, failed rather miserably. That saw a ride through an all too prominent dragon. This some believe, brought negative energy on the garden due to the incompatibility of the dragon and the tiger (the “Haw” in Boon Haw’s name, translates into tiger). Most recently, the garden seems to have gone the way of hell, with the current operator intent on Hell’s Museum becoming Haw Par Villa’s draw even if hell, especially the non-Chinese interpretations of life after death, was never intended as the garden’s dominant theme.

The dragon that swallowed hell up – during its theme park days.

1A number from the group were among a second batch of evacuees who would depart on board the SS Vyner Brooke on 12 February 1942, which was attacked and sunk by the Japanese forces on 14 February 1942 in the Bangka Strait. Out of a group of 65 nurses on board the Vyner Brooke, only 24 survived the war, with 21 losing their lives during a massacre on Radji Beach on Bangka Island. 

2There was a German U-Boat repair and supply facility maintained at Pulau Damar Darat, which included a graving dock. Among the residences that German naval personnel were known to have used were ones in Pasir Panjang and also at Gilstead Road.





A window into the past: W J Garcia and Singapore’s first piano factory

3 12 2022

Photographs freeze moments in time, moments that may never again be seen, or even ones with a tale or two to tell. A photograph with a tale to tell is one that belongs to a collection of photographs taken by American photographer Harrison Forman. Taken in While it has been dated to the 1950s, it does appear to be one of a multitude of photographs that Forman captured of pre-World Singapore in 1941, which also includes several taken on 35mm colour slide.

The photograph, taken with Amber Mansions along Orchard Road (where Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station is today) in it, also shows W J Garcia’s piano showroom. Garcia, who was a piano and organ dealer, and is now probably best known as the person behind the installation of what is now Singapore’s oldest pipe organ at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in 1912.

Garcia, was a well known personality, having been a pioneering Singapore piano maker. He ventured into the business of piano making in the 1920s, challenging the commonly-held belief that pianos could not be made in the tropics. Garcia’s motivation for venturing the piano making business had been the difficulties that existed in the postwar (First World War) period in obtaining good pianos at reasonable prices. Prior to setting the factory up in 1926, Garcia had his son W H Garcia learn the trade in London. Within Garcia’s teak piano cabinets, were sounding boards made of Romanian pine, imported iron frames, actions, keys and hammers.

Garcia’s factory, which was at Holland Road, had a machine shop measuring approximately 20 by10 metres in which teak was prepared and cut, a room 15 by 10 metres in which the teak was seasoned, and another 20 by10 metre room for assembly. The Second World War would bring Garcia’s venture to a tragic end, with Garcia, who was interned as a civilian during the Japanese Occupation, passing away at the age of 66 on 26 April 1942.





Which was your “most haunted” place in Singapore?

4 11 2022

Where would the “most haunted” place in Singapore have been when you were growing up? In the days before the myths about a certain set of buildings in Singapore’s east acquired that reputation with little foundation, there were many other places or buildings that were thought of as being the creepiest. The list ranged from the old and derelict, houses with ghostly tales, to places such as the old YMCA at which the Kempeitai carried out verified acts of torture.

One that I was especially terrified of, was the so-called haunted house at Peirce Road. This was back in the 1970s and 1980s when many old bungalows whose glory days had long deserted them, could still be found and even accessed. The house at Peirce Road, was a large two-storey mansion (where Peirce Villas now stands) that was particularly popular for youthful thrill seekers seeking a nocturnal adventure. It was the place to head to for a dare, to show-off, or quite simply, to have the hell scared out of you. Reputedly Singapore’s most haunted house, the stories of those who dared venture into it were of instances of spirit possession, poltergeist-type activity and almost anything that made one’s hair stand on ends. By the end of the 1970s, the house had already become quite derelict, and even if the stories — true or false — did not put fear into you, there was the need to approach the house with some caution as there was the chance you could injure yourself if you were not careful.

Despite its reputation, the house played a starring role as the Soong family mansion in the 1989 TV mini-series, Tanamera – The Lion of Singapore, which was based on Noel Barber’s novel, Tanamera, set in 1930s Singapore. It was one of two buildings that were then in poor state that were used in the series, having to have repairs and a new coat of paint splashed on to look presentable enough; the other being the old Blakang Mati officers’ mess on Sentosa. While the old officers mess has since been refurbished as the rather resplendent Capella Hotel (the venue of the farcical 2018 Trump-Kim Summit), the Peirce Road mansion was demolished, not long after filming was completed in 1989.





A Singapore in transition: SIT

23 10 2022

Among American photo-journalist Harrison Forman’s vast collection of some 50,000 photographs, found in the American Geographical Society Library of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee are the wonderfully captured scenes of a Singapore in 1941. The photographs, which include a number of rare colour captures, provide a glimpse of the bustling colony that Singapore was, just as preparations were being made for a war that many felt would not come to its shores.

A view of Hong Lim Green and the so-called “Suicide Flats” built in the early 1950s by the SIT (photo: Harrison Forman Collection, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)

The collection also contains a number of photographs taken in the 1950s and 1960s that show a Singapore in transition, as Singapore went from colony to state, and eventually towards merger with Malaya and independence. One of these photographs, taken in the mid-1950s, is seen here. It captures the then newly erected 9-storey blocks of flats at Upper Pickering Street / Upper Hokkien Street (a plot now occupied by Parkroyal Collection Pickering) that was put up by the Singapore Improvement Trust or SIT (the block in the middle was in fact built to house the SIT’s HQ).

Completed in 1952, the blocks were Singapore’s tallest public housing blocks and the tallest buildings in Chinatown. As with many tall public housing blocks over the years, they had an unfortunate association with suicides and became known as the “suicide flats” almost as soon as it came up. The blocks of flats, also acquired a reputation for being haunted. This was not without reason as there were a number of reports of hauntings. An ex-resident —  a former colleague of mine, who lived on the top floor of one of the blocks, described how he had resisted a compulsion to jump from the balcony at the urging of “a group of children” who were calling to him from the ground. He told his parents about the encounter and was never allowed out on the balcony again.

The SIT, which was established to carry out town planning and later took on the role of providing public housing, built Tiong Bahru Estate and also put up estates such as Princess Elizabeth Estate and Old Kallang Airport Estate (where Dakota Crescent is) and set what then was the largest public housing programme at Queenstown in motion. They were also responsible for putting up several smaller clusters or individual public housing blocks such as the Princess Elizabeth flats at Farrer Park, blocks in the Bugis area and in Kampong Kapor. SIT made initial plans and carried out the early land acquisition for Toa Payoh and built the old Kim Keat Estate as a prelude to Toa Payoh before being disbanded in 1960 —  when the Housing and Development Board (HDB) was formed. The rest, as they say, is history. HDB became one of Singapore’s great success stories and built twice the number of public housing units that SIT had managed to put up in its three decades of existence in a matter of just three years.

SIT built Tiong Bahru

While the blocks at Upper Pickering Street have been demolished, the legacy of the SIT can however still be found. The SIT built portion of Tiong Bahru has largely been conserved. There are also several blocks around Dakota Crescent that are being conserved following calls to keep the surviving part of the old estate. Beyond public housing, the back lanes behind shophouses, and the spiral staircases found behind them, could be thought of as another legacy of the SIT with the trust having been responsible for executing the scheme following their formation. There are also the estates that the SIT built and maintained that housed their senior staff. These are still very much with us and can be found at Adam Park and at Kay Siang Road.





Forbidden Hill spiced and demystified

27 08 2022

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

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

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

It has long been a place of escape for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Fort Canning Centre, various views


Fort Canning Spice Gallery / enhanced Spice Garden






Erasing the countryside

11 08 2022

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

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

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

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

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

Bah Soon Pah Road no more, August 2022.

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

Nurseries along Bah Soon Pah Road, August 2021.

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

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

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

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

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

An Admiralty land boundary marker.

Lorong Chencharu

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

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


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






Parting Glances: Farrer Park Swimming Complex

10 08 2022

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

Farrer Park Swimming Complex

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

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

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

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

A last look at Farrer Park Swimming Pool

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

The sun goes down on Farrer Park Swimming Pool

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


Parting glances: Farrer Park Swimming Complex






The former Police Coast Guard HQ at Kallang

5 08 2022

Seemingly uninteresting and rather unexciting, the cluster of buildings that were used by the Police Coast Guard (PCG) to house their headquarters from 1970 to 2006, now hide an interesting secret. Repurposed as the National Youth Sports Institute (NYSI), the buildings have not only found a new life, but have been repurposed with a minimum of intervention and have retained much of the fabric of its past.

NYSI at Kallang, occupies a space that was used as a flying boat reception and maintenance facility and later by the PCG as its headquarters.

The former base, which was carved out of the former Kallang Airport’s flying boat reception and maintenance facilities (its ramp/slipway is still there, except it is part of the National Cadet Corp (Sea) facility next to NYSI), was turned into a base for what was then the Marine Police in 1970 at the cost of S$1 million. Having been based at the congested Singapore River by what is now the Asian Civilisations Museum, a new base with a maintenance facility was much needed to permit enable a swifter repair turnaround time for its boats, improve response and also accommodate the Marine Police’s expanding fleet.

A piece from its days as the flying boat facility.

Amongst the structures that were put up during the development of the Kallang Marine Poilce HQ, was a two storey building that served as its nerve centre, which is the same building that NYSI has operated out of since November 2015. The building and an annex, which once housed offices, interrogation rooms, an armoury and even a lock-up, is now home to gyms, sports laboratories, accommodation, recovery rooms counselling rooms, and even chill out spaces. While that may have been expected, what is unexpected is the manner in which the building has been redone in a way that not only allows it to keep many of its reminders of its days as a Marine Police base, but also with little need for light and ventilation other than that which occurs naturally. This rather intelligent, sustainable, no-frills and rather affordable approach is a breath of fresh air and should really be a model for many of our developments in which old spaces and building are repurposed. Most projects, quite unfortunately, have gone down the path of being flamboyant and gimmicky.

Decently exposed.

The Marine Police, morphed into the Police Coast Guard in 1993 and vacated the base in 2006 due to the intended closing up of Marina Bay through the construction of the Marina Barrage. It is now based in Pulau Brani.


A walk around NYSI Kallang

Chin-up bars – a reminder of the past.
Inside the old electrical distribution box.
The former arms clearing station.
Recalling the armoury.
Exposing the dividing line between the main building and an annex.
A breath of fresh air, the non-air-conditioned gym.
Notice the manhole in the gym flooring (previously a wet space).
A performance lab.
Heaters to simulate hot dry conditions.
An “Endless Pool” for swimmers.
Another reminder of the past.
Maximising natural ventilation.
Dorms – a curtain separates the male and female sections.

Common spaces


The former lock-up


Other views around the facility






Chilling out in Pasir Panjang

30 07 2022

Deprived of the long beach that it took its name from, and with its one-time star attraction Haw Par Villa having been set on a course for hell, there seems little to draw the visitor to Pasir Panjang — that is except for the vegetable wholesale centre that has become synonymous with it, Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre. The huge centre, which is spread over a 15.2 ha site that was reclaimed from the sea, comes alive in the dark of night and draws vegetable, fruits and dried goods traders to it, along with others in search of a bargain.

Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre is Singapore’s main vegetable, fruit and dried goods distribution centre.

Developed by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and opened in 1983, Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre was built to consolidate vegetable, fruits and dried goods wholesalers from the urban centre who were being displaced by urban redevelopment and the river clean-up effort, the centre was initially populated by 90 wholesalers from Clyde Terrace and Maxwell Road markets, plus over 350 from the Upper Circular Road / Carpenter Street and the Tew Chew Street / Chin Hin Street area. The centre features four sections with 9 out of its 26 blocks dedicated to fruits, another 8 blocks in its vegetable section, 4 blocks housing cold rooms and another 5 blocks for dried goods. With several hundred cold and chilled stores, it is quite literally a cool place to chill out at!

Tew Chew Street, which was one of the wholesale centres around Singapore. It was one of the places where imported vegetables from Cameron Highlands found buyers until 1983/84.

An opportunity not just to chill out, but also learn more about the centre and some of the people whose nocturnal existence puts fresh fruits and vegetables on the shelves now presents itself with the My Community Festival 2022. Among its offerings is a tour of Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre that is led by guide Ms Pamela Loh, who takes participants on an interesting walk through cold stores, a fruit distributor and through the especially large vegetable section — a hive of activity at the midnight hour six days a week, whether it is the seventh month or not. Besides an “insider” view of the wholesale centre, the opportunity to meet and learn about the lives of some of the people who run businesses at the centre, is a wonderful bonus.

Ms Pamela Loh leading a group at the cold room section.

Organised by My Community, My Community Festival runs from 5 to 21 August 2022. On offer is a host of unique experiences including this tour to Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre. There are also after dark tours to seafood wholesale centres at Jurong and Senoko Fishery Ports. For more information on the festival, please visit https://mycommunityfestival.sg/.


Chilling out at the cold room section where temperatures are maintained at 4 degrees C for vegetables.
The inside of a cold room.
At the fruits section, where a treat awaits …
Huge and juicy chilled US cherries being offered for sale at KSY, a fruit distributor – a must buy!
Mrs Fong, who runs a vegetable wholesale stall with her husband.
Fresh winter bamboo shoots!
Giant cauliflower.
Giant pandan leaves.
The centre’s vegetable section comes alive at night.
The guardian of Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre.





Northern Singapore’s last fishery port

26 07 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More photographs of Senoko Fishery Port






A place of mystery and a place of discovery: Baroque House at Rowell Road

7 07 2022

Old spaces made new often lose a certain level of their charm in the effort to refresh them in the way that the modern world demands. More often than not, their age-old fabric is discarded, and out with it goes the stories that the years and users of the space may have been woven into it. It was therefore with great delight that in rather quaint old space by the name of Baroque House, which has retained its fabric even with renewal, and along with it, a certain charm and mystery. Housed in a century-old shophouse, its name was inspired by the term “Chinese Baroque”, which is applied in Singapore to describe very ornately adorned shophouses. In Baroque House, one finds quite an unlikely setting for what it has become: a private kitchen, an event space, and most of all, a place to discover.

Ventilation blocks from the past inside Baroque House.

My journey of discovery began almost from the off, when I received an invitation from Sonia Ong, the proprietress of Baroque House. The invitation, laced with a tinge of mystery, promised a “secret garden” tour, and more importantly, the irresistible company of good “spirits” through Baroque House’s Bourbon Tasting Omakase dinner menu, which did not take any persuasion for me to agree to. So, armed with only a hint of what to expect and an address, I made my way down Rowell Road one Monday afternoon. Rowell Road is of course a street that is better known for the wrong reasons and I was just as curious as to what Baroque House was all about, as I was about why Rowell Road?

Inside Baroque House.

It wasn’t hard to identify the house in question, its closed pink timber doors and windows and its floral decor setting it apart from the other shophouses along the same row. The exterior was just about all about Baroque House that matched what I had imagined it would be. With the parting of the doors — which did not creak when they were opened as I might have expected them to, I was greeted by Sonia herself who on stepping aside, brought the somewhat oddly and somewhat spartanly furnished space into view. A large chandelier made the space all the more curious, as did the hall’s well worn decorative floor tiles. The cement tiles had age written all over them and that added to mysterious quality of the place. Written in the tiles was not just age but also faded-glory, as it was safe to say that they were laid for an occupant or owner who was rather well off. This set the tone for the visit and I found myself eager to discover more! Joyfully, through Sonia’s Baroque House Secret Garden Tour, I was very soon able to learn much more.

Doors that are apparently a century old, beyond which lies the rather intriguing old world that is Baroque House.

Sonia would reveal was that the house was one of a pair (Nos. 29 and 31), both of which were constructed circa 1919 for a Fong Sien Long. Fong, as it turns out, was a member of the nearby Kampong Kapor Methodist Church. A seemingly wealthy property owner, Fong’s portfolio extended to sites around MacKenzie Road, Jalan Besar, Queen Street and Koek Road. The Rowell Road houses were, quite interestingly, designed by well-known Eurasian architect J B Westerhout. Architectural works in Westerhout’s name include what is known today as the Temasek Shophouse, and the Stamford Arts Centre.

No 29 and 31 Rowell Road, which were a pair built for Mr Fong Sien Leong that were designed by J B W

From what I have dug out on my own, it would appear that the house may have exchanged hands in 1931 when N B Westerhout — J B’s elder brother and a lawyer was reported to have purchased 29 Rowell Road at a mortgagee’s tender. What Sonia has found out was that more recently, the house — built originally as a residential shophouse and used as a low-cost residential unit at some point in time, was used as a commercial space by Cheng Fong Signcraft. After the sign craft shop moved out, the unit remained unoccupied for a period of about five years before Sonia chanced upon it. It would seem that it is their stories that have been “etched” in patterns of wear on the floor tiles. What seems remarkable to me is that the tiles have not only survived all these years, but were also — save for the wear, very much intact and that Sonia made a conscious effort to retain the character of the shophouse by keeping them.

Worn decorative floor tiles.

For Sonia, creating Baroque House has been a labour of love. It was in a quest to fulfil a life-long dream of owning a shophouse that she stumbled upon this well-worn house in Little India — or as I prefer to call it, the Village of Lime (Soonambu Kambam). Drawn by its character and the stories of past glory that the shophouse’s well worn fabric seemed to tell, it was love at first sight for Sonia. She set about purchasing the house and as she puts it, “nursed it back” to its current condition. Intent to keep the sense of use and history of the house, Sonia ignored suggestions to have much of the shophouse’s fabric replaced, renewing and replacing only what was needed such as termite infested timbers. She was thus able to keep the character of the house as she first saw it and retain it as a veritable treasure trove of past memories.

The reception hall.

Necessary repairs, carried out on the roof, would reveal what has become one of the highlights of Sonia’s secret garden tour, a hidden secret that the shophouse must have held through the course of its one-hundred and more years! The secret, a decorated party wall that appears to have served as an end gable wall, had been kept well hidden behind the house’s ceiling boards. In the motifs of the plasterwork there is also much mystery and begged the question of what it represented or why it was put there. What Sonia speculates is that the decorative plasterwork, and perhaps the floor tiles on the ground floor, may be an indication that what would have been a vacant plot of land before 29 and 31 Rowell Road was built was some kind of yard for the house next door — which rather curiously is numbered No 21.

Mysterious plasterwork that remained hidden for a hundred years.

Sonia’s choices in decorating the house is in keeping with the baroque in its name. Beside the chandelier, ornate furniture pieces that include an exquisite antique Chinese conjugal bed, artwork by local artist Jeremy Hiah, an antique baby grand piano, and somewhat out-of-place but yet in-place skateboard decks decorated with the likeness of Paul Gauguin’s art are some of items that Sonia has brought in, giving the house a quirky and curious quality.

The dining room with the best table.

With the discovery of the house’s interior complete (I did not have enough and actually had a second look later), it was time for an equally intriguing dining experience, and not to forget of course, some bourbon! This was served in the dining room (at the best table) with dessert served in the hall and was experience in itself! The ornately decorated dining room does put one in the mood for food and conversation and that started with the serving of the first course, with which foie gras and pumpkin soup served with fig cracker was paired with a Wild Turkey Rare Breed. Next was a Maker’s Mark 46 — which I instantly took to, served with a meaty but tender and delicious main course of wood-fired Wagyu brisket, pulled pork, spare ribs and smoked chicken. Dessert was interestingly a banana and marshmallow pudding, which I could douse with a bit of Angel’s Envy bourbon before doing a DIY flambé of the assembly.

The first course of the Bourbon Tasting Omakase dinner menu.
The main course with Makers’ Mark 46.
DIY time.

In all, the experience was really quite unique and one that, especially if you are looking for something quite unique and laced with discovery, I highly recommend. The experiences are not confined to the Secret Garden Tour, or to private dining and Baroque House offers an array of other activities such as Bourbon Tasting, Murder of a Millionnaire Mystery Night (a live-action game along the lines of jubensha) which comes with props, facilitators, 3-course dinner and a glass of Prosecco,  Scones at Baroque House (for tea), Wine and Cheese Club, Special Rum Tasting, Sake Tasting, Champagne Tasting, Little India Marketing and Cooking Tour, Chinese Heritage Kueh cooking class, Tea Tasting sessions (and I am told unique tasting sessions such as Indian Mango tasting during the season). The house is also available for rent. For more information, please visit www.baroquehaus.com.


 





An old new world: the old train depot at Sentul

29 06 2022

I love an old space, especially one in which one finds a character that speaks very loudly of its past. It seems increasingly difficult to find one, especially as the pace seems to have quickened when it comes to repurposing old spaces to remain relevant in the present and for the future. Many, having been redeployed in a meaningful way, seem to lose the essence of what they were in the effort to keep them up to speed with the demands of modern world. It was thus quite a refreshing for me to step into three wonderful examples of repurposed spaces that remain a portal into the past in a short span of less than a fortnight — the first being Sentul Depot, which is across the causeway in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

Tiffin at the Yard at Sentul Depot, which is quite an instagrammable place to visit.

Old train maintenance yards always have a certain appeal for me and in them one finds many tales of the past and structures with much character. Stepping into the one at Sentul, which has partially been repurposed by a private developer as an arts and lifestyle destination, brought to mind the yard we once had in Singapore that had been part of the former railway complex at Tanjong Pagar. It is certainly a shame that the yard in Singapore or at least part of it, could not be retained and transformed in a similar way.


Workshops and maintenance sheds of the former railway yard at Tanjong Pagar seen in 2011
(since demolished)


The siting the depot at Sentul, originally named Central Railway Workshops, can be traced back to the formation of the Federated Malay States Railways (FMSR). The railway administration made a decision to house its huge build and maintenance complex in the area in 1902. The location, just three miles out of town along Batu Road, offered several advantages, chief among which was its position relative to both the main line running through the administrative centre of Selangor and the FMS, and to the Batu Caves. The Batu Caves were where the granite quarries that were exploited to provide railway ballast could be obtained from. A branch line was built to serve the workshop complex — described as “eclipsing anything of the sort in the East” — could also be extended to the quarries.

The entrance to Tiffin at the Yard at Sentul Depot

Construction on the Sentul complex began in 1903 and the workshops were fully operational by August 1906. The complex featured “huge blocks of buildings ” that housed stores, engine and carriage working sheds, running sheds, factories and foundries with a shed that was observed to be 38 feet (~11.6 metres) by 150 feet (~45.7 metres) wide. The complex was able to handle the working of up to 700 miles (1126.5 km) of open line. There were also quarters built for the engineers, supervisory staff, and also coolies (workmen) — quite a number of whom were members of the Tamil community.

Tiffin at the Yard at Sentul Depot
USAAF Raid on Sentul, 1945

Much of the yard and workshops would be destroyed by bombing during the latter stages of the Japanese Occupation. An obvious target for bombing raids made by the United States Army Air Force (USAAF), well over 60 per cent of the yard and workshop area, which covered an area of some 5.7 hectares, was destroyed in early 1945. This forced the Japanese to move and disperse the railway works further afield. Following the end of the war, a huge effort was undertaken to clear the wreckage left by the air raids. The major part of the rehabilitation effort was completed only at the end of 1952, some seven years after the end of the war, having been delayed by the communist insurgency. During this time, the site became known as the Sentul Works (or Workshops).

A view of one of the disused sheds.

Sentul Works, which employed a workforce of five thousand at its height, remained in use until the the early 2000s and was decommissioned in 2009 (although KTM — the successor of the FMSR and later Malayan Railway maintains an EMU Depot next to it). The complex has since been bought up a a private developer YTL, and is in the process of being redeveloped. Among the attractions housed within the Sentul Depot complex is Tiffin at the Yard, which provides an opportunity not just to visit the former railway works, but also to dine in it.

Tiffin at the Yard at Sentul Depot




Lost places: the police station at Singapore’s “little garden suburb”

26 06 2022

The area around the fifth milestone of Aukang / Serangoon was once described as a “little garden suburb”. That was back in the 1930s, around the time when the area gained a degree of prominence as a rural centre with the opening of RAF Seletar just three miles up Yio Chu Kang Road. The period was indeed a busy period in terms of the development of the area with the construction of several of the area’s landmarks. This included the building of a new police station, which replaced an older station, a Municipal market at Lim Tua Tow Road which could be thought of as being the predecessor of the 1950s built market that many in my generation would know, and the older Paya Lebar Methodist Church (and the girls school).

Paya Lebar Police Station, 1958
(Charles Ralph Saunders, posted by Stewart Saunders on On a Little Street in Singapore)

The police station traced its history back to the 1870s, having been set up along what was essentially on of the first cross-island roads that led to Serangoon Harbour (Kangkar). The station building that most will remember was a replacement that was built around 1929; its construction comings as part of a decade-long modernisation effort that was initiated by Inspector General Harold Fairburn to bring greater professionalism the Straits Settlements Police Force. That station was also one built as a police division headquarters or HQ (Paya Lebar Division was initially named “G” Division before becoming “F” Division), and thus bore the characteristics of many of the some of the larger out-of-town stations of the era and also several buildings within the Old Police Academy. As with the main stations coming up back then, Paya Lebar’s was provided with low-rise barrack blocks to house the rank and file. Over the yeats, a nursery and orchard were added, along with a fish pond and an aviary. Prior to the station’s decommissioning, the practice of housing police officers and their families was stopped and the barracks were converted for use as police offices.

The fifth mile area in 1967. The police station can be seen top centre on the left and the older Paya Lebar Methodist Church top centre on the right of Upper Serangoon Road (photo: National Archives of Singapore)

What was interesting about the “F” Division was that it was the second largest in Singapore, covering an area of some 139 square kilometres. This extended to a part of Singapore that included two airports (Paya Lebar International Airport and Seletar Air Base), the area of the former Naval Base where the UNHCR maintained a refugee camp, and the notorious Tai Seng, Ang Mo Kio and Chong Pang areas, which were hotbed of secret society activity and the officers at the station certainly had their hands full.

The area before the Forest Woods development came up, dominated by the Upper Serangoon Viaduct (the former barracks can be seen on the left)

The division also served a population of almost 450,000 by the time the station was decommissioned in August 1987 following its move to Ang Mo Kio. This coincided with the completion of a new division HQ station and Paya Lebar Division morphing into the current Ang Mo Kio Police Division. Rapid urbanisation and redevelopment, including the development of the huge Ang Mo Kio New Town, and the need for modern infrastructure, made the move necessary. The former station’s buildings were then used by the 3rd Division SCDF from 1988 until a new Divisional HQ and fire station was completed in 2005 at Yishun Industrial Park A.

The widening of Upper Serangoon Road in way of its junction with Upper Paya Lebar and Boundary Roads to accommodate a flyover, saw to the demolition of the former station. The other reminders of the station, in the form of its former accommodation blocks, used in the interim as educational premises, were only demolished in late 2016 following the sale of the plot in late 2015 through a tender exercise for private residential development. The site, which was bought for some SGD321 million is now where Forest Woods, a condominium complex, now stands.

Harold Fairburn

Modernising the Straits Settlements Police Force (SSPF)

The effort to modernise the police force was an initiative of Harold Fairburn, Inspector General of the Straits Settlements Police Force (SSPF) from 1925 to 1935. It came during a period of time when the SSPF faced great challenges in dealing with a wave of criminal activity. Singapore, then also known as “Sin-galore”, had the reputation of being the “Chicago of the East”. An improvement in policing methods, in recruitment of personnel, and in the methods of training was sorely needed. A massive building programme was also initiated to improve facilities, and living conditions of police personnel and their families and out of this programme, came the Police Training Depot (old Police Academy), stations such as the “Police Skyscraper” or Hill Street Police Station, Maxwell Road Police Station and Beach Road Police Station, were built. Stations also featured barrack accommodation. Accommodation facilities for also provided for the Sikh contingent at Pearls Hill.





Goodbye to a View

30 05 2022

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

The observation tower at View Road.

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

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

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




Parting Glances: Khalsa Crescent, home turned prison

24 05 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A view of the former prison.

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

Members of the Khalsa Crescent Sikh Community.

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

Memories of Khalsa Crescent.

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


The evolution of the area through maps and aerials

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

A walk around the former prison

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

Inside a “Housing Unit”


More views of the former prison






Glamour and scandal in the skies

16 05 2022

The 1920s in Singapore were exciting times for aviation. Late in 1919, Singapore witnessed its very first inbound flight, a Vickers Vimy which carried four men and which landed at the racecourse (now Farrer Park). In the excitement of seeing the Vimy land, many would have missed the sight of its mechanic, Jim Bennett, sliding along the fuselage toward the aircraft’s tail keep the nose up just before landing. The brave act — the equivalent of flaring on landing today, was quite necessary given the short landing distance required at the makeshift airfield. This would be a pattern for flights into Singapore that would follow, even after a dedicated but still makeshift landing ground had been prepared by filling Government sand pits at Balestier Plain in the early 1920s anticipation of an increase air traffic. 

The first ever flight into and out of Singapore was on a Vickers Vimy carrying four crew, which landed in Singapore in December 1919.

The lack of a proper airfield proved of little deterrence to the string of intrepid aviators that Singapore would see through the 1920s. Many, on their quests for fame, touched down here out of necessity more than anything else, as the technology of the day required multiple stopovers as flights could not take place in the dark and, due to the short range of aircraft then, required to be refuelled every few hundred miles.   

The location of Balestier Plain Aviation Ground

Among those who touched down at Balestier Plain was pioneering Australian aviator, Mrs Keith Miller (Jessie Maude “Chubby”) on 7 January 1928. The world had a fascination for the female aviator, who added a touch of femininity and glamour to the skies .She would be the first among several aviatrices to land in Singapore — although she did not actually pilot the Red Rose — a small Avro Avian that was owned and piloted by Captain Bill Lancaster. Capt Lancaster, an RAF pilot, described the aviation ground as a quagmire — something that could also describe the somewhat scandalous relationship that the pair, both of whom had spouses, would forge during the long and eventful journey from England to Australia. The pair, who took off from the racecourse (due to the unsuitability of the aviation ground) two days after landing on 9 January, survived a crash on the island of Muntok that resulted in them spending two months in Singapore having the Red Rose repaired. Repaired and tested, the Red Rose  took off once again on 14 March 1928 and arrived in Darwin on 19 March.

Bill Lancaster and Jessie Miller.

Some years later in August 1932, a murder trial involving the killing of a certain Haden Clarke, played out at the Miami Dade County Courthouse. Capt Lancaster had been charged with Clarke’s murder, which took place at a rented Miami home of Mrs Miller. During the trial, a sordid tale of love and betrayal emerged. Mrs Miller, who arrived in the United States with her lover Lancaster with the intent of having her autobiography written. She became romantically involved with Clarke, who she had employed to be a ghostwriter for the autobiography, and the allegation was that Lancaster had killed Clarke out of jealousy.  It also emerged during the trial that Clarke had deceived Mrs Miller and was a bigamist.  Lancaster was acquitted of the murder, and the pair, who were deemed to have overstayed in the US, were deported. 

The RAF aerodrome, and later the civil aerodrome at Kallang (terminal building pictured here) would be a big improvement on the “quagmire” that the Balestier Plain aviation ground was described as.

The development of RAF Seletar, and its opening to civil aviation, would write a new chapter for aviation here in Singapore. The military aerodrome, built to provide air cover for an intended naval base, would see the launch of the first regular air services to and from Singapore “Garbo of the skies”, Jean Batten  first between Singapore and the Dutch East Indies and eventually with Europe in 1933. The aerodrome would also serve as a staging ground for several other female aviators attempting to set records flying from England to Australia, who included the likes of Amy Johnson and the “Garbo of the skies”, Jean Batten. By the time of the arrival of Amelia Earhart in June 1937, who was perhaps the best known of teh aviatrices, RAF Seletar was forgotten as a dual-use airport and Singapore’s first civil aerodrome at Kallang, was in operation.


The first inbound flight
Piloted by brothers Ross and Keith Smith, a converted Vickers Vimy — a bomber built for use in the First World War but did not get to see action, touched down at the racecourse on 4 December 1919. Together with mechanics James (Jim) Bennett and Walter Shiers, the Smiths had their eye on a prize money of £10,000 — in excess of S$900,000 in today’s terms — being offered by the Commonwealth Government for being the first to fly from England to Australia. One condition was that the flight was to be done in less than 30 days and the four men were well on their way to achieving that, having arrived in Singapore some 22 days after taking off from Hounslow in London. The historic flight would land in Australian soil at Port Darwin on 10 December 1919, four days after taking off on 6 December from Singapore.


The contents of this post supplement that of my talk (cum virtual tour of old Kallang Airport), “An Aviation Journey“, for Singapore Heritage Festival held on 8 May 2022.