The great “hold up” at the sixth mile

24 07 2015

1999 would have been a year that is celebrated by the residents of the area in and around the 6th Milestone of Bukit Timah. It was in August of that year when the Singapore Turf Club (STC) moved its race course from its sprawling 140 ha. site off Dunearn Road north to the site of the current race course at Kranji, bringing much relief to the area’s long suffering residents.

The old and new grandstands of the former Bukit Timah Race Course as seen today.

The old and new grandstands of the former Bukit Timah Race Course as seen today.

Opened on 15 April 1933 by the then Governor of Singapore, Sir Cecil Clementi, who made his grand entrance riding in on the back of a horse; the race course was to experience its first race day traffic holdup at its inaugural race meeting in May of the same year. Described as “Saturdays Great Hold Up” in a 22 May 1933 report in the  Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, a motorist spoke of the 25 minutes it took him to cover the final mile into the car park, which was said to be almost three times as long as the time he had taken to cover the distance from town to the new race course.

A post card a newly built new Turf Club in the 1930s.

A post card of the then newly built new Race Course with its iconic 5000 seat grandstand.

That the 1933 opening was a grand occasion, there is little doubt. Among the 5000 guests at the opening was the Sultan and Sultanah of Johor, the Tunku Mahkota, as well as the Sultan of Perak – who was at the time the largest individual owner of racehorses in Malaya.

The original south grandstand.

The original south grandstand as seen today.

The new course, designed by Swan and MacLaren, was itself built as a replacement for the older race course at what is today Farrer Park. The older race course’s location in the city made it difficult for it to be expanded and a decision was taken in 1927 to sell off the site, the use of which went back to the Singapore Turf Club’s founding as the Singapore Sporting Club in 1842, to the Singapore Improvement Trust. A new site was identified and the 244 acres (99 ha.) acquired from the Bukit Timah Rubber Estate for it in 1929 required the felling of some 25,000 of the estate’s rubber trees and a huge effort in the levelling of the area’s undulating terrain. The new race course’s location also made it convenient to move racehorses around to the other venues in the Straits Racing Association’s circuit in the Peninsula by rail with the re-sited Bukit Timah Railway Station of the 1932 railway deviation located just a stone’s throw away.

A view of the south grandstand from the car park.

A view of the former south grandstand from the car park.

A reminder of its horsey past.

A reminder of its horsey past.

Among the features of the new race course and its spread of structures such as stables and quarters was its rather iconic grandstand with its distinctive central clock tower. The three tier grandstand at its opening contained a royal box and press box on its second level and stewards’ and owners’ boxes on the upper tier. The stand was also fitted out with some 2000 tip-up teak chairs, which was described as “the largest single chair order East of the Suez”.

A track-side  view of the former South Grandstand.

A track-side view of the former South Grandstand.

One thing that the Turf Club, renamed in 1924 as the Singapore Turf Club, wasn’t able to do was to commemorate its centenary with war interrupting the running of races from Octber 1941 to November 1947. The days leading up to the fall of Singapore saw the British Military move in and during the occupation the race course and its auxiliary buildings were reportedly used as a prisoner of war camp and its lawns used for growing food crops.

The area where the former race track was - now used as a sports ground.

The area where the former race track was – now used as a sports ground.

Much of the appearance that the former race course’s main structures display today, are the result of work carried out to expand its capacity in the 1970s and 1980s. A second grandstand, the North Grandstand, which expanded the seating capacity to 8,000 and a possible 50,000 standing, was added in 1981. The two-storey car park we still see on the grounds today, was an addition made at the end of the 1980s. Another addition made, a multi-storey car park with a capacity of 2900 cars at the corner of Swiss Club Road and Dunearn Road, has however since been demolished.

The north grandstand, which came up in the early 1980s.

The north grandstand, which came up in the early 1980s.

The upper deck of the two-storey car park that was added at the end of the 1980s.

The upper deck of the two-storey car park that was added at the end of the 1980s.

The grounds, zoned in the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Master Plan for future residential use, was soon after the race course’s last meeting in July 1999, re-purposed in part for use as Turf City. Among the tenants during an initial ten-year period and the extension of its lease to 2012, were a hypermarket, dining outlets, early education providers and other retail outlets in the former grandstands as well used car dealers on the ground level of the spacious double-storey car park. During this time the building took on a rather worn and tired look.

The link way between the car park and the former grandstand.

The link way between the car park and the former grandstand.

A touch of the countryside nearby at the   Bukit Timah Saddle Club - which has been using part of the race course's estate since 1951.

A touch of the countryside nearby at the Bukit Timah Saddle Club – which has been using part of the race course’s estate since 1951.

Under a new leasee, the former grandstands and car park has been refurbished and reopened as The Grandstand in 2012. Besides the hypermarket and used car dealers from the Turf City days, The Grandstand has also attracted a host of dining outlets and a new-age food hall style market. This is however, only in the interim as under the terms of the new lease, even if some S$20 million has been pumped into the refurbishment, will see it used for a maximum of 3 + 3 years, after which the race course and its long association with Bukit Timah, will possibly only be a distant memory,

As Turf City - seen in early 2012.

As Turf City – seen in early 2012.

Another look at the inside of the South Grandstand in its Turf City days.

Another look at the inside of the South Grandstand in its Turf City days.

The last days of Turf City.

The last days of Turf City.

Other parts of the former race course site such as the former stables at 100 Turf Club Road have also been re-purposed - this as HorseCity.

Other parts of the former race course site such as the former stables at 100 Turf Club Road have also been re-purposed – this as HorseCity.

A residence belonging formerly to the Turf Club, which remains vacant.

A residence belonging formerly to the Turf Club, which remains vacant.

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The monster guns of the east

10 07 2015

Tucked away in a forgotten corner of Changi is a reminder of one of three monster guns of the east installed as part of the coastal defences to protect the island’s naval base from an attack by sea. The reminder, the No. 1 gun emplacement of the Johore Battery and its underground network of support structures, topped by a replica of the 15 inch gun that once stood proudly over it, is in an area today dominated by the high fences of the area’s prison complexes that make it seem an unlikely site for a coastal defence gun.

A photograph of one of the monster guns from the Imperial War Museums collection ©IWM (K 758) (Captioned as: A 15-inch coast defence gun at Singapore, November 1941).

A photograph of one of the monster guns seen in November 1941 [Imperial War Museums collection ©IWM (K 758)].

The terrain and its surroundings would of course have been very different in the days when the guns were installed. The considerations for locating them in the area go back to the 1920s, when the British were in the midst of planning on turning Changi into a military base. How it came to be chosen is already well documented by Peter Stubbs on his Fort Siloso website (see: Johore 15-inch Battery) in which there is a wealth of information also on the battery and other coastal defence sites across Singapore.

The replica gun at the site today.

The replica gun at the site today.

Named in honour of the then Sultan of Johor who had donated a substantial sum of money (in the order of £500,000) – much of which was used to set up the battery, the Johore Battery was one of several batteries of the Changi Fire Command, established to protect the entrance to the Tebrau Strait and the Naval Base. These also included 6 and 9,2 inch guns that were set up around the eastern tip of Singapore in an area that extended to Pulau Tekong and Pengerang in southeastern Johor. The 15-inch guns, installed in 1938, had a range of 21 miles.

Gun No. 2 of the Johore Battery being fired in November 1941 [Imperial War Museums collection ©IWM (K 755)].

Gun No. 2 of the Johore Battery being fired [Imperial War Museums collection ©IWM (K 755)].

Besides the Changi Fire Command, the coastal defences also included a Faber Fire Command to protect the port and the city of Singapore and a total of 29 large gun batteries were distributed between the two commands. The Faber Fire Command also included a Buona Vista Battery with two 15-inch guns.

The labyrinth above ground.

The labyrinth above ground.

Much has been discussed on the effectiveness of the guns in the days that led up to the Fall of Singapore. It could be suggested that the coastal defences did served their intended purpose in deterring an attack by the sea. What is quite certain however, was that although the flat trajectory of the guns and their ammunition made them unsuitable for use over land, two working guns of the Johore Battery were trained to the north and west and fired a total of Johore Battery (Infopedia) in the defence of the island. An account of one of the gun’s use is found in a paper “The Story of the end of Johore Battery during the Battle for Singapore” based on interviews with Malcolm Nash, the son of Gunner William Nash:

Once the Japanese had commenced their attack my father stated that his gun was turned around so that it could fire to the north. I believe that he said that turning it round took 12 hours. My father was the gunner responsible for firing the gun and thought the firing to have been merely a morale booster to frontline troops, as the shells available had been designed to pierce ships’ armour. During his time at Changi Prison he said that fellow soldiers had commented that the shells had sounded like a train going overhead when they were fired.

After eighty shells had been fired it was noticed that the rifling had started to protrude from the barrel and a member of the Royal Engineers was consulted. His view was that the gun was no longer fit for action and if fired again would not have his named attached to it. The gun was fired once more which caused its destruction, and the oil tanks around my father to explode and bathe him in oil.

An 800 kg shell on display at the Johore Battery site.

An 800 kg shell on display at the Johore Battery site.

The same paper describes an account of a Japanese Colonel, who recounts the guns’ armour piercing shells producing craters 15-16 metres in diameter and 5-6 metres deep and that the guns most intense phase came during 10-12 February 1942 when they were used to shell the centre and west of the Singapore. The guns were said to have been destroyed on the night of 12 February 1942. Following the end of the war, the remains of the 300 ton guns (the barrel alone was thought to have weighed 100 tons) were sold for scrap.

A soldier loading a shell into the lift below the 15-inch gun [Australian War Memorial, copyright expired].

Loading a shell into the lift below the 15-inch gun [Australian War Memorial, copyright expired].

Besides the emplacements, a labyrinth of underground structures – a trace of which can now be seen above ground, were also built in an around the guns, in part to allow ammunition to be fed to the guns – the shells were loaded to the guns using a hydraulic lift. It was these tunnels and the emplacement of the No. 1 gun of the Johore Battery that was rediscovered in April 1991 in an area that became the Prisons’ Abington Centre and was then turned into the Johore Battery historic site and unveiled on 15 Fenruary 2002.  The underground structures are currently unsafe and access to them is not possible.





The sports complex at Turnhouse Road

24 06 2015

Permission was obtained from the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) for this visit. 


Lying silently and somewhat forgotten is a set of structures that is seemingly out of place in an area dominated by buildings of the former Royal Air Force Changi station (RAF Changi). An award winning sports complex that was completed in October 1982, the set of structures was the Singapore Airlines (SIA) Group Sports Club and had been built on the site of a previous sports facility, the former RAF Changi’s Airmen’s Swimming Pool. The S$11 million modern looking complex at 24 Turnhouse Road, one of the early post RAF Changi era interventions in the previously restricted section of Changi Point, was built to replace to the club’s facilities at the former international airport at Paya Lebar.

The former SIA Groups Sports and Recreation Club complex at 24 Turnhouse Road.

The former SIA Groups Sports Club complex at 24 Turnhouse Road.

The approach to the former club.

The approach to the former club along Turnhouse Road.

Windows into a more recent past.

Windows into a more recent past.

Erected at a time when several larger organisations were also investing in similar leisure facilities, the 2.68 ha. complex was thought of as second only to Shell’s impressive facilities at Pulau Bukom and Paya Lebar and catered for a variety of popular sports. It boasted of a seven lane Olympic size swimming pool, a children’s pool, basketball and netball courts, playing fields, three tennis courts, four squash courts, and a multi-purpose hall with three badminton courts.

The entrance to the club.

The entrance to the club.

The main staircase.

The main staircase.

The multi-purpose hall.

The multi-purpose hall.

And the seven-lane Olympic size swimming pool.

And the seven-lane Olympic size swimming pool.

The row of squash courts.

The row of squash courts.

The club’s architectural design, for which it won an award, has been described in an article on page 6 of the 18 June 1981 edition of the Straits Times:

The architecture of the complex is imaginative in concept and bold in design, featuring a four level chalet style building with sloping roofs, wide eaves and cantilevered balconies … An important aspect of the design is the viewing terrace, which links all sports and recreational areas. A roof deck on the topmost level of one wing offers superb views of the general surroundings, while a viewing balcony overlooks the multi-purpose hall and four squash courts.

A view from the sea towards the area where the former club is. The structures of its buildings stand out in the distance.

A view from the sea towards the area where the former club is. The structures of its buildings stand out in the distance.

The viewing balcony.

The viewing balcony.

The upper floor corridor overlooking the swimming pool.

The upper floor corridor overlooking the swimming pool.

What would have been a snack kiosk next to the swimming pool.

What would have been a snack kiosk next to the swimming pool.

A view out to the swimming pool.

A view out to the swimming pool.

Pipework in the club's boiler room.

Pipework in the club’s boiler room.

Besides catering for sports, the club also provided for indoor activities, other hobbies and dining. Housed within its buildings were food and beverage outlets, a gym, a reading room, a conference room, a lounge, a jackpot machine room, an electronic games arcade, as well as rooms for billiards, darts and television. An innovation of the day that the club put to use was a solar powered water heating system.

What must have been a function or conference room.

What must have been a function or conference room.

A restaurant space.

A restaurant space.

A view across the pool to the viewing balconies.

A view across the pool to the viewing balconies.

Despite the club’s enviable facilities, membership fell in its first years of operations at its new premises from a high of 5253 members in 1981 to a low of 1200, based on a 1983 report by in Suara Satu, the newsletter of Singapore Air Transport-Workers’s Union (SATU). Increased membership fees, distance and a lack of transportation to the club had been cited as a contributing factor. This saw the club open its doors to Division 1 civil servants, as well as staff of client airlines of its subsidiary Singapore Airport Terminal Services (SATS). There was also talk then of the club finding new premises or being opened to the public coming to the surface.

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The club did eventually move out – to its current facilities off Upper Changi Road East in 2006, leaving the clubhouse at Turnhouse Road abandoned. Today it remains unused – except for the occasional event being held there. The future of the club’s former buildings is uncertain, although an adaptive reuse may be found for the site in the interim during which time the structures will stand perhaps as a lesser known and temporary reminder of a period of Changi Point’s development that was influenced by the arrival of the new airport at Changi.

A terrace with a view to the sea.

A terrace with a view to the sea.

A view across to 23B Turnhouse Road, now a seafood restaurant.

A view across to 23 Turnhouse Road, now a seafood restaurant.

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The fire station at the 8th mile

9 06 2015

One of those things almost every young boy dreams of becoming is a fireman. I had myself harboured ambitions of becoming one at different points during my childhood; the inspiration coming from picture books and what I must have caught on the television and perhaps from the constant reminder I had in the form of the rather eye-catching Alexandra Fire Station, which was close to where I lived in Queenstown.

The former Bukit Timah Fire Station, a landmark in my many road journeys.

The fire station at the 8MS, Bukit Timah Fire Station, a landmark in my many road journeys and a fire station of old marked by a distinctive hose-drying tower.

Sadly, that station is long gone. The monster of a building that replaced it, besides housing a fire station, also has a police centre operating from it. Without the distinctive hose-drying tower and red doors, the new building, unlike the stations of old, is no longer one to fuel the aspirations of childhood, and certainly not one in which I am able to reconnect with days that I often wish to return to.

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That connection to my youthful days can fortunately be found in several other fire stations of old. Of these, the pretty red and white Central Fire Station, Singapore’s oldest and now a National Monument is still in operation. That, in the days of my childhood, loomed large at the far end of a street now lost, Hock Lam Street, along which I often found comfort in a bowl of its famous beef ball soup.

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Two others that I regularly set my eyes upon, while still around, are no longer operational. One is the red brick former Serangoon or Kolam Ayer Fire Station, along Upper Serangoon Road. Now reassembled, having been moved due to the construction of a road where it had stood, the station was one that was close to my second home in Toa Payoh.

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The other was Bukit Timah Fire Station. Sited at the 8th milestone Bukit Timah, it was close to the giant Green Spot bottle that stood tall at the Amoy Canning Factory (see: a photograph of the Green Spot bottle  on James Tann’s wonderful Princess Elizabeth Estate blog) and was at the foot of Singapore’s highest hill. The station stood out as a landmark in the many road journeys of my childhood. The pair (the station and the giant replica bottle) seemed then to mark the edge of the urban world and on the long drives to the desolate north and the wild west, the sight of them would represent the start of the adventure on the outward journey, and would signal the return to civilisation on the journey home.

The former station, just after its closure (online at http://m5.i.pbase.com/u41/lhlim/upload/22296575.DSCF0029_02.jpg).

The former Bukit Timah Fire Station has a mention in the National Heritage Board’s Bukit Timah Heritage Trail booklet. This tells us that it was in 1956, the fourth fire station to be built; a fact that I assume is in relation to the stations that were built for the Singapore Fire Brigade, coming after Central Fire Station and the sub-stations at Geylang and Alexandra. Kolam Ayer (Serangoon), built for the volunteer Auxiliary Fire Service in 1954 would have already been standing at the time. That only came under the Singapore Fire Bridage in 1961, following the disbandment of the volunteer force. Another station that would have existed, was the Naval Base Fire Brigade’s Sembawang Fire Station. Built in the 1930s, the station’s building is now conserved.

Signs of very different times.

Signs of very different times.

Bukit Timah sub-station’s appearance, is perhaps one of the strongest clues to its vintage, its clean and understated elegance is typical of the 1950s Modernist style. One of the few adornments on its uncluttered façade, is a coat of arms. That of the Colony of Singapore, it is also is a telltale sign of when the station would have been commissioning – the coat of arms was in use during the days of the Crown Colony from 1948 to 1959.

The coat of arms of the Crown Colony.

The coat of arms of the Crown Colony.

The station is designed in the 1950s Modernist style.

The station is designed in the 1950s Modernist style.

The station’s grounds, also speak of the past. Besides a sign slowing us down to 20 miles per hour, there are many other signs of the times, the most noticeable of which would be the now recoloured low-rise apartment blocks. The blocks provide evidence of days when the various services provided for the accommodation needs of servicemen and their families as well as point to a period in our history when Singapore, even if administered by the colonial masters as a separate entity, was a part of the greater Malaya. It would have been common then to find men in service hailing not just from the Crown Colony but also from parts of the Federation. The seven three-storey blocks, each with six comfortably proportioned apartments, are in the company of a single storey house at the back, which would have been the residence of the station master.

The former firemen's quarters, seen in 2010.

The former firemen’s quarters, seen in 2010.

Some of the apartment blocks today.

Some of the apartment blocks today.

A view through a wall to the former station master's residence.

A view through a wall to the former station master’s residence.

Having been in operation for close to half a century, the station was to close its red doors for good in 2005 when a larger and modern replacement at Bukit Batok Road was built. Missing from the new station was the hose-drying tower that once seemed to be the defining feature of a fire station. The introduction of machines to handle tasks such as the drying of hoses meant that stations built from 1987, starting with the one in Woodlands, would take on a new appearance.

The ladder up the hose-drying tower.

The ladder up the hose-drying tower – something firemen are no longer required to climb.

The entrance to the hose-drying tower.

The entrance to the hose-drying tower.

One of several former stations still standing, only the buildings belonging to Bukit Timah have found interim uses. These were initially leased out by the State for three years in April 2008 to serve as a venue for corporate events, adventure camps, arts, education and sports.

A world recoloured.

A world recoloured.

Letter boxes where hoses were once hung.

Letter boxes where hoses were once hung.

Since then, the premises has seen a second master tenant leasing the property on a 2+2 year term, with whom it was relaunched as a lifestyle and education hub in 2012. Besides the take-up of units in the former quarters by businesses running enrichment activities aimed at the young, there is also a food and beverage outlet that now operates out of the station’s former garage.

The former station's red doors, seen in 2010.

The former station’s red doors, seen in 2010.

A F&B outlet now operates from the former garage.

A F&B outlet now operates from the former garage.

As of today, the buildings do not have conservation status. There is hope however for their future retention, even if the current edition of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Master Plan seems to suggest otherwise. A Request for Proposal (RFP) for a Concept Master Plan for the Rail Corridor initiated by the URA identifies the former station as one of four activity hubs for which shortlisted teams are required to submit a concept design in which the buildings are retained and “repurposed for uses that complement its function as a gateway into the Rail Corridor(see A new journey through Tanjong Pagar begins).

Now a enrichment hub, will it be a future gateway to the Rail Corridor?

Now a enrichment hub, will it be a future gateway to the Rail Corridor?

It would certainly be a cause for celebration should this happen. The station, as one of the last to survive from an era during which the area developed as a industrial corridor and as a prominent landmark, serves not just as a link to the area’s development and history, but also as a reminder of a Singapore we might otherwise be quick to forget.

The hose-drying tower and one of the blocks of the former quarters.

The hose-drying tower and one of the blocks of the former quarters.

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