A forgotten corner of Thomson Road

6 10 2016

Tucked away in an obscure corner of Thomson Road and Thomson Lane is the Lee Ah Mooi Old Age Home, sitting on a site whose significance has long been forgotten. Operating in a cluster of single-storey blocks of a style reminiscent of schools of the 1950s, the layout of the home points to it having once been one of many built in the 1950s as part of an ambitious school building effort that we have all but forgotten about. The former school’s name, Lee Kuo Chuan, also links to the late philanthropist and rubber magnate Mr.Lee Kong Chian, being the name of his father.

The former school and its soon to be lost yard.

The former school and its soon to be lost yard.

The school construction programme was part of a ten-year education plan, known also as the “Neilson Plan” – attributed to Mr. John Barrie Neilson, a Director of Education with the aim of providing free universal primary education to all in Singapore within ten years. The plan was supplemented by a five-year plan to accelerate the effort to meet the pressing need to provide places in schools for the growing population of children. The latter plan was put in place by the the Mr. Neilson’s successor, Mr. A. W. Frisby. The implementation of the first plan saw the Teachers’ Training College, the predecessor to the National Institute of Education, established in 1950.

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All three acres of the land, on which the school was built – part of a former quarry, was donated by Mr. Lee Kong Chian as its name does suggest. Mr. Lee, who first came across from China with his father, a tailor, in the early 1900s, made generous generous donations to education and to the poor – an effort that is being continued by the Lee Foundation, which he founded. Among the projects Mr. Lee funded was the construction of the original National Library at Stamford Road for which he laid the foundation stone in August 1957. Mr. Lee donated a sum of $375,000 to that effort on the condition that the library charged no membership fees.

Lee Kuo Chuan School in the 1960s (posted by Chong Meng on the Lee Kuo Chuan Primary School Facebook Group).

Lee Kuo Chuan School in the 1950s (posted by Chong Meng on the Lee Kuo Chuan Primary School Facebook Group).

Interestingly the school seems to have lent its name to Kuo Chuan Constituency, one of three new parliamentary constituency carved out of Toa Payoh Constituency for the 1972 General Election. The constituency, whose first elected MP was Mr. P. Selvadurai, and last Mr. Wong Kan Seng, was absorbed into Toa Payoh Group Representation Constituency in 1988.

A classroom in the 1950s (posted by Chong Meng on the Lee Kuo Chuan Primary School Facebook Group).

A classroom in the 1950s (posted by Chong Meng on the Lee Kuo Chuan Primary School Facebook Group).

The school became Lee Kuo Chuan Primary School when it merged with Thomson Primary School in 1985 and moved it new premises at Ah Hood Road. As Lee Kuo Chuan Primary, it operated until the end of 1997 when it was shut down.

A view over the area in the early 1970s when Toa Payoh New Town was taking shape. The school can be seen in the lower left of the photo with Times Building then occupying the other part of the former quarry site.

A view over the area in the early 1970s when Toa Payoh New Town was taking shape. The school can be seen in the lower left of the photo with Times Building then occupying the other part of the former quarry site.

The home, started by a former nurse Madam Lee Ah Mooi in 1963 at her home in Chong Pang Village, does itself have a little story. It was set up to provide care for former Samsui women and Amahs, many of whom were sworn to singlehood, in their old age. It occupied several sites before moving into its current premises in 1986. It has also been in the news as a possible victim of the North-South Expressway project. Based on updates provided on its Facebook Page, it does seem that the home will be able to remain in place until 2020, although its kitchen and laundry spaces and its front yard would be affected.

More on the school, the old age home and the impact of the North-South Expressway project on it can be found at the following links:

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The estate that Lee Kong Chian built

3 11 2015

Lying at the foot of Bukit Timah Hill is a tiny estate that if not for the Rail Mall that now fronts it and the nearby railway truss bridge, would probably go unnoticed.  The estate of 142 households, launched a SG50 coffee table book on Sunday, an event to which I was invited to and one that also saw the unveiling of a sculpture by Oh Chai Hoo dedicated to the estate. It was at the event that I was to learn that the estate traces its origins to Southeast Asia’s “Rubber and Pineapple King”, businessman and philanthropist Mr Lee Kong Chian, and that the estate had once been home to Mr S R Nathan (who was to become the sixth President of the Republic of Singapore).

Faces of Fuyong Estate, seen on the cover of the SG50 book.

Faces of Fuyong Estate, a SG50 coffee table book produced by residents of the estate.

The name of the estate holds the clue to this origin. Fuyong or Phoo Yong in Hokkien, and the pinyin-ised as Furong (芙蓉), names by which the estate went by, was the village in China’s Fujian province from which the illustrious Lee Kong Chian hailed from. The land on which the estate now sits was purchased by Lee from a Mr Alexander Edward Hughes. Lee, who pioneered a provident fund based housing scheme to allow his employees to own homes was persuaded by Mr Lim Koon Teck, his legal adviser and a Progressive Party politician, to allow much needed low cost housing built for the public there in the early 1950s and Phoo Yong Estate was born.

A page in the book. It was on land purchased by Mr Lee Kong Chian, pictured, that Fuyong Estate was developed to serve as much needed low-cost housing in the mid 1950s.

A page in the book. It was on land purchased by Mr Lee Kong Chian, pictured, that Fuyong Estate was developed to serve as much needed low-cost housing in the mid 1950s.

The row of single storey houses straddling Jalan Asas in 1989. The houses have since been converted into The Rail Mall.

Before the Rail Mall – one of the two rows of single storey houses straddling Jalan Asas in 1989 that have since been converted into The Rail Mall.

Much has changed about the face of the estate and its vicinity since the days when it was known as Phoo Yong, or even in more recent times. In an area once dominated by the factories on the hills, and once where the sounds heard through day included the rumble of trains and the blasts from the nearby quarries, the estate is today set in an area bathed in the calm of the verdant Bukit Timah Hill that now paints a much less rowdy backdrop. The rows of houses by the main road, which had housed a mix of businesses that included a coffin shop, have since the mid 1990s, become the Rail Mall – developed by a subsidiary of the Lee Rubber Company.

The now silent truss bridge, a long-time landmark along Upper Bukit Timah Road.

The now silent truss bridge, a long-time landmark along Upper Bukit Timah Road.

Two of the estate's oldest residents at the launch event cutting a cake with Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Two of the estate’s oldest residents at the launch event cutting a cake with Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Foreign Affairs.

The strong sense of community in the estate was very much in evidence through the launch event, some of which perhaps in embodied in the sculpture that was also unveiled in the estate’s Fuyong Park. Taking the form of the Chinese character for a person looking forward, the artist behind piece, Oh Chai Hoo, intends it as a symbol of the kampong spirit and the resilience shown by our forefathers.

Taking aim to unveil Oh Chai Hoo's sculpture, which takes the shape of teh Chinese character for a person.

Taking aim to unveil Oh Chai Hoo’s sculpture, which takes the shape of the Chinese character for a person.

The coffee table book is a good little read for anyone interested in the estate and in the area’s development. The book traces the estates transformation and also offers many interesting insights into the estate, such as how Mr Nathan became an early resident. One also learns of the meanings of the names of its roads in Malay. Asas for example means foundation, Tumpu, focus, Siap, readiness and Uji, challenge. There is also a little known fact that gets a mention. Having been built as a low cost housing estate, a regular visitor to the estate was the 32 door honey wagon. While there were initial efforts by a resident Mr Palpoo to bring in modern sanitation on a private basis in the early 1960s, it wasn’t until 1969 that the estate would fully be equipped with flushing toilets – something we in in the Singapore of today would find hard to imagine.

A scan from Faces of Fuyong with an aerial view over the estate in 1958. The photograph also shows the railway line, the truss bridge, and Hume Industries and the Ford Factory on the high ground across the road.

A scan from Faces of Fuyong with an aerial view over the estate in 1958. The photograph also shows the railway line, the truss bridge, and Hume Industries and the Ford Factory on the high ground across the road.

The verdant backdrop that bathes the estate in an air of calm.

The estate is set against a verdant backdrop that gives it an air of calm.

Residents pouring over the book.

Residents pouring over the book.

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That old rusty red coloured building along Sembawang Road

3 04 2010

There was a rusty red coloured building that once greeted the traveller along Sembawang Road. This would have been just after where the road started at the junction with Mandai Road. The building seemed to leap out at you on the right side of the road travelling north, just after you passed the old Post Office up Mandai Road on the left, breaking the monotony of what seemed an endless journey to the village of Chong Pang and towards Sembawang end, as was often the case on the many car rides to the Mata Jetty and the coastal villages near end of Sembawang Road, sitting in the back seat of the car. There were the other occasions when the journey was made by bus, which made it even longer, as was it would have been sitting even with the bus load of boisterous boys who were my classmates, on the road to (as it appeared to us) the inclined field at Sembawang School close to Chye Kay Village, to cheer the school football team playing for the North Zone schools championship, and perhaps later, on the bus journeys on service number 169 to Sembawang Shipyard.

The rusty red coloured building rising over the area, as seen in the mid 1980s, before it was demolished (Source: National Archives of Singapore).

The rusty red building was one that rose imposingly over the area, seemingly keeping the village around it hidden in its shadows, which dominated the area with its physical presence, and gave an immediately recognisable face to the village that had been given its name by the original owner of the building, the illustrious Lim Nee Soon. Nee Soon had in 1912, built the Thong Aik Rubber Factory that the building was a part of along what was then Seletar Road, to process the latex that was drawn from the rubber trees found in the plantations to the north of the area. Together with the many plantations that had come up around the area, which grew crops such as pepper, gambier and pineapple, along with the rubber trees, the factory provided opportunities drawing many immigrants to the area which had been referred to, in Teochew (many of the immigrants were Teochew speaking), as Kangkar, “Kangkar” being a geographical term used to describe an area by a river, the area being by the Seletar River. The factory was subsequently renamed as the Nee Soon and Sons Rubber Works in the 1920s, and in 1928, was taken over by “Rubber King” Lee Kong Chian and renamed Lee Rubber. In 1959, the factory was leased to Kota Trading Co. Sdn. Bhd. a subsidiary of Lee Rubber.

An old postcard of Lim Nee Soon's rubber factory and the surrounding area.

The rubber factory was leased by Kota Trading Co. Sdn. Bhd. a subsidiary of Lee Rubber in 1959.

I am not really sure when the factory disappeared – I remember seeing that it was still there on my way to the shipyard around 1983 and 1984 when Yishun New Town was being populated with people being resettled from the villages around. I guess it must have disappeared sometime after, perhaps in the later part of the 1980s. There is an empty feeling I get passing through the area today … along with the factory, the villages and the businesses around have mostly vanished, leaving the area almost like a ghost town.

Another view of the rusty red building (Source: National Archives of Singapore).

The buildings belonging to the rubber factory before being demolished (Source: National Archives of Singapore).

Another building belonging to the rubber factory before being demolished (Source: National Archives of Singapore).