The public bathing pagar at Katong Park

14 01 2020

Katong Park is where a last bastion of a 1870s coastal defence fort, built quite foolishly on sand, can be found. Once fronting the sea, the former defensive position turned recreational space, was also where a bathing pagar – the first to be established by the Municipal Commission for public bathing – was to be found.

Children at the bathing pagar at Katong Park, 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

The construction of the pagar – an enclosure extending from the sea shore originally made of wooden stakes – came on the back of the commission’s thrust to provide public facilities for sporting pursuits (see: A short history of public Swimming Pools in Singapore and Parting Glances: the boxing gym at Farrer Park) in the 1920s and 1930s. The original public pagar at Katong was opened by Mr William Bartley in December 1931 – in the same year that Singapore’s first public swimming pool, built using the disused service reservoir at Mount Emily, also opened.

Another view of the pagar in 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

Private bathing pagars were especially common then. They were constructed primarily to keep bathers safe and keep the sharks outs and were found at seaside homes and hotels, and at private swimming clubs. A shark attack in 1925, which resulted in the death of an unfortunate bather, Ms Doris Bowyer-Smyth, prompted the Singapore Swimming Club to erect its pagar soon after.

A bathing pagar seen in the sea in front of Beaulieu House, which had been a private seaside residence before it was acquired for the construction of the Naval Base in the 1920s (photo: National Archives of Singapore).

The Chinese Swimming Club’s Bathing Pagar.

The Katong Park pagar,  which was concretised in the 1950s, stood until work on reclamation started in 1971. All that now remains to remind us of the seaside – the reason for Katong Park’s coming into being in 1928, is the last bastion of Fort Tanjong Katong.

Fort Tanjong Katong

Among the first set of instructions given by Raffles to Farquhar upon the establishment of Singapore as an East India Company trading post was to have a defensive position in the Tanjong Katong area – at Sandy Point or Tanjong Rhu. The thought of a fort was in fact broached from time to time in reviews conducted of Singapore defences, but it wasn’t until 1878 that a coastal battery at Tanjong Katong would be established with a strengthening of coastal defences in the face of a possible Russian threat.

The sandy base meant that the fort’s high range finding tower moved with each firing, not only requiring a recalibration of the range finders with each firing but also made them impossible to use when the tower shook. The fort, built at sea level, also acquired a reputation for being a “wash-out fort” and was decommission in the early 1900. The fort’s southeast bastion, which were uncovered several times following the conversion of the grounds of the fort into Katong Park were once again uncovered in 2004 and can now be found at a corner of Katong Park.

Fort Tanjong Katong Source: Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0)


Fort Tanjong Katong’s southeast bastion.


Another view of Fort Tanjong Katong’s southeast bastion.


The area where the sea – and the pagar was.


A public bath on the museum’s front lawn

28 10 2013

In what is probably a first in Singapore, some 100 people were seen to be taking a very public bath together at the National Museum of Singapore’s (NMS) front lawn on Saturday evening. The public display of cleansing was actually carried out as part of the Singapore Biennale 2013 on its opening weekend – a public performance put up by Malaysian artist Sharon Chin named Mandi Bunga, which literally means Flower Bath.

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Taking a flower bath, although not necessarily a public one in a crowd, is actually a ritual practiced across much of east Asia – as a means to cleanse body and soul of evil and ill luck, or as I was told in my younger days, to “buang suay” or throw out bad luck. The idea for the performance did in fact come from a call to cleanse, one which the Bersih movement in Sharon’s country of origin calls for, with the artist dreaming it up in 2012 after her experience of two Bersih street rallies – hence the yellow that is prominent throughout the display that is seen in the basins used as well as in the sarongs which the participants wore.

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While what most of us got to see was the public display, the 100 or so participants did actually attend workshops which were carried out on several weekends preceding during which participants got to design their sarongs for the event. The performance also involved the participants gathering at another Singapore Biennale venue, the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) – assembling at the courtyard where school assemblies (when the buildings were used by the original occupants, St. Joseph’s Institution) had once been held. The participants then walked in their sarongs over to the NMS.

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While the performance – at which all involved seemed to have tremendous fun at, is a one evening event, the project’s process and outcomes have been documented and will be installed at SAM for the Singapore Biennale which runs until 16 February 2014. More information on the Singapore Biennale 2013 can be found at the event’s website.

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