The urban redevelopment resettlement centre that became Funan

1 07 2016

The lights went out on Funan DigitalLife Mall last night. The well-loved mall will be closed for three years for redevelopment and from the sound of the “experiential creative hub” it is being made into, the new Funan will bear little semblance to the Funan we all knew and loved.

The lights of Funan.

The lights of Funan.

While I shall miss Funan, a dignified alternative to Sim Lim Square for electronics and IT related merchandise shopping, I shall not mourn its passing in the same way I mourn the rather iconic Hock Lam Street that it buried. What can best be described as a very colourful example of Singapore in less ordered days, is on the evidence of the many photographs and postcards that exist of it, must have been one of the city’s most photographed streets.

Hock Lam Street, as seen from Colombo Court across North Bridge Road (source: National Archives of Singapore online).

The street, at its junction with North Bridge Road,  was where the Tai Tien kopitiam (coffee shop) was located. Popular with office workers from the vicinity and shoppers from the nearby shopping streets as a lunch destination, the kopitiam or rather the five-foot-way around it, would be where I would often find myself seated for the post shopping treat my parents would give me of Hock Lam Street’s famous beef ball soup.

A popular lunch stop for office workers from the area and for shoppers from the High Street area, the Tai Tien coffee shop at the corner of Hock Lam Street and North Bridge Road (source: National Archives of Singapore online).

It is from Hock Lam that Funan in fact takes its name; Funan being the pinyin-ised Mandarin pronunciation of the Hokkien Hock Lam (福南). The name, an attempt to remember the lost icon,  is perhaps a also reminder of a period in our history when we saw fit to distort place names that reflected the diversity of the Chinese diaspora to Singapore through the Mandarinisation of many of them.

The Hock Lam Street area (in the foreground) in 1976 from which businesses were moved temporarily to the Capitol Shopping Centre - the flat roofed building seen at the top of the picture (image source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/).

The Hock Lam Street area (in the foreground) before its demolition  in 1976. Businesses displaced were moved temporarily to the Capitol Shopping Centre – the flat roofed building seen at the top of the picture, before being moved to Funan Centre in 1985 (source: National Archives of Singapore online).

Funan Centre, as it was known in its early days, was completed in 1985 after much delay (it was initially scheduled to be completed in 1979 but a design change resulted in its delay). Built as a permanent “resettlement centre” by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), it’s purpose was to house the many businesses being displaced by the huge wave of redevelopment that was then sweeping through the city, including the many hawker stalls the street had been well known for. Examples of such centres include the former Blanco Court, since converted to Raffles Hospital, and the former Cuppage Centre (now 51 Cuppage Road). The latter was built to house market vendors and food stalls from the former Orchard Road Market and the area around Koek Road and Koek Lane.

Funan with its floors of IT and Electronic shops.

Funan with its floors of IT and Electronic shops.

When it opened in early 1985, Funan Centre featured a mishmash of shops and businesses, organised by the floor according to the categories of goods and services they offered. Many had roots in the area, and moved over from a nearby temporary resettlement centre, Capitol Shopping Centre and the neighbouring temporary food centre. Already then, Funan was touted as a place to shop for computers – its opening coinciding with the dawn of the personal computing age. One floor, the sixth, was devoted to the forty to fifty shops that made up its Computer Mart.

Capitol Centre just before its demolition.

The since demolished Capitol (Shopping) Centre.

The hawkers of Hock Lam Street found themselves elevated seven floors above it in the Funan Food Paradise – described then as Singapore’s first custom built air-conditioned hawker centre, what we today are perhaps fond of referring to as a food court (it actually opened a couple of months before Scotts Picnic Food Court, which was widely recognised as being Singapore’s first air-conditioned food court). Besides the popular Beef Noodle stall from Hock Lam Street, Funan Food Paradise became well known for Carona Chicken Wing, which built up a popular following when it was located at temporary food centre.

Packing the food court up. Some may remember the original food centre on the 7th floor from which the likes of Carona Chicken WIng operated.

Packing the food court up. Some may remember the original food centre on the 7th floor from which the likes of Carona Chicken WIng operated.

The floor below Computer Mart, the fifth, featured hairdressing salons while the fourth was where one shopped for home appliances and music. The third level was where shops dealing with fashion apparel and accessories were found, including a downsized Cortina Department Store, which had moved over from Colombo Court. The second level, as it was before it closed, was the place to buy camera equipment. Fast food outlets such as A&W and Big Rooster were then found on the ground floor. A post office also made a brief appearance, opening at the end of 1985 and closing two years later.

An eatery on the first level.

An eatery on the first level.

The ownership and management of URA owned commercial property passed on to Pidemco Holdings in 1989. Pidemco Holdings, later Pidemco Land, was a privatised property ownership and management arm of URA formed in 1989. Pidemco, which is an acronym for Property Investment, Development and Estate Management Company, merged with DBS Land in 2000 to form CapitaLand, the mall’s current owners. The mall was upgraded by Pidemco in the 1990s and took on a more IT / Computer related flavour. It was renamed Funan The IT Mall in the late 1990s and Funan DigitaLife Mall in the mid 2000s.

More information on the redevelopment can be found at the following links:


Parting Glances

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A view from a sandbar

5 06 2014

It was against the backdrop of the drama of a passing storm playing out in the rapidly changing light of the morning, that I found myself standing on a sandbar four nautical miles out into the Singapore Strait.

Terumbu Pempang Laut and beyond, seen in the light storm coloured morning.

The view from a sandbar in the light of the storm coloured morning.

The view from a sandbar, four nautical miles out.

A rainbow appears as the weather clears.

Walking where few now thread.

Walking where few now tread.

Reflections on the morning.

Reflections on the morning.

The scene revealed by the transformation of night into day in the darkness and light of the storm coloured morning was one that did seem rather surreal, disfigured by the craggy interventions of the natural world juxtaposed against the human interventions that now dominate Singapore’s nearshore.

The morning's drama.

The morning’s drama.

Light in the darkness.

Light in the darkness.

Juxtapositions of the natural world against the human world.

Juxtapositions of the natural world against the human world.

Spot light on the interventions of men that now dominate Singapore's nearshore.

A natural spotlight on the interventions of men that now dominate Singapore’s nearshore.

It wasn’t quite what I had intended in interrupting that much needed weekend’s slumber. The excursion was one to have a feel for the patch reef, Terumbu Pempang Laut, to which the sandbar was a part of, as well as the island to its south, Pulau Sudong, regular visitors from which it would once have hosted.

The changing hues in the early hours of the day as seen from the boat.

The changing hues in the early hours of the day as seen from the boat that left at 6am.

A northward view across the reef.

A northward view across the reef.

The expanded Pulau Sudong, as seen from Terumbu Pempang Laut.

The expanded Pulau Sudong, as seen from Terumbu Pempang Laut.

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It was as close as one could get to Pulau Sudong, now part of a restricted military zone. The island, once itself not much more than perhaps a spit of sand that was part of the surrounding reefs, had been one of several islands off Singapore’s south-western shoreline on which stilted villages of the sea had decorated.

Pulau Sudong in the 1950s (source: National Archives of Singapore Online).

The dwellings on stilts arranged around the island’s foreshore, had been on that had evolved from buoyant mobile dwellings of those, the sea nomads from the pre-Raffles era, who the occupants had inherited the seas from. Living on the sea, the nomads and their descendants also lived off it; the waters and the reefs around the island, contributing much to their livelihoods.

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Even without there being a source of fresh water, the island at its height, supported a community of several hundred and boasted of schools (there apparently were two in the 1940s), a clinic, a community centre and a police post.

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The reefs, teeming with marine life and exposed as the tide receded, was where life on the islands might have often extended to. Men would be seen laying their bubu, traps made by the fishermen themselves out of strips of bamboo, weighing them down with corals that the reef did provide. The womenfolk also found their way to the reefs, seeking a harvest of both edible produce of the sea and items such as corals that could be sold.

Corals were harvested by the women of Pulau Sudong.

Corals were harvested by the women of Pulau Sudong.

Life as the reefs might have seen, is quite wonderfully captured in words by Chew Soo Beng, who in “Fishermen in Flats” (1982), describes the activity on a Terumbu Raya, a reef to Sudong’s west:

Groups of women row their kolek to different parts of the exposed portions of the reef to gather sea produce. In the past, this activity was performed with considerable gaiety, seeming to be an enjoyable activity. Everyone carried a basket and unmarried girls wore bunga raya (hibiscus flower) in their hair.

In teams of threes or fours, usually to form a line, they combed the reef for agar-agar (an edible seaweed), gulong, the trepang and a variety of beche-de-mer. When both the tide and sun were low, the gather chatter of the women at work would drift into the village where the men, excluded from the offshore merriment, conversed beneath their favourite pondok.

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The reefs see a different merriment today. The chatter of women gathering in the harvest is now replaced by the excitement of sea birds seeking a harvest of their own. Human chatter is now heard on occasion, of those who seek only to harvest what the reef can tell them – as an part of a continuous marine survey that the tireless Ria Tan of the Wild Shores of Singapore champions.

The merriment the reefs see today are those of the sea birds seeking their harvest from the sea.

The merriment the reefs see today are those of the sea birds seeking their harvest from the sea.

It was with the group that I ventured out to the sandbar. Of the finds of the morning’s harvest, the one that did perhaps trigger the greatest excitement was a sighting of a small giant fluted clam. This find, along with what else the reef did reveal, is described by Ria in Terumbu Pempang Laut check up in her blog, which is a glorious celebration of life on our shores.

The giant clam that raised the level of excitement.

The giant clam that raised the level of excitement.

On the reef's edge.

On the reef’s edge.

One thing that Ria does point out in her post that did get my attention, is that life around the shores of the reefs and the islands might to come to an end. The reefs, along with the cluster that it belongs to which also includes Terumbu Pempang Tengah to its immediate east and  Terumbu Pempang Darat, face an uncertain future. The Land Use Plan, released to support the less than popularly received Population White Paper in early 2013, does show that the area is one where future land reclamation work could take place.

Possible future reclamation poses a threat to the future of the reefs (and the islands).

Possible future reclamation poses a threat to the future of the reefs and the islands (source: Land Use Plan 2013).

If that does happen, the reefs will be incorporated into part of a land mass that will include the Bukom cluster of islands and the Hantu twins, leaving the only ghosts haunting our southern shores (hantu translates into “ghost” in Malay) – there was also another Pulau Hantu that has since been renamed as Keppel Island, that of lost islands and reefs, and of a people and a way-of-life that will never again be seen.

The future of many of the islands as individuals such as Pulau Jong, are also under threat from the Land Use Plan.

The future of many of the southern islands as individual islands, such as Pulau Jong (seen here with Pulau Sebarok), are also under threat from the Land Use Plan.

Life on Pulau Sudong, one of the last of the Southern Islands to host a resident population, did itself come to an abrupt end in early 1980. By then, reclamation that added some 174 ha. to its area, had already decimated the once rich fishing grounds that surrounded it, prompting a move for many in the late 1970s to seek a new beginning in Tanah Besar as the mainland was referred to, completing an assimilation into the Malay world.

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Initially intended as a recreational island, Pulau Sudong was closed to the public in mid-1982. Used since as part of an air force live-firing area that also includes Pulau Pawai and Pulau Senang to its south, what ghosts it may have inherited from its long discarded past, may also have abandoned it.

Reflections off a lagoon at low tide.

Reflections off a lagoon at low tide.

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