Singapore Trivia: The Tembusu Tree and 5-Dollar Note

If you visit the Botanic Gardens via the Tanglin gates, you may have notice the iconic Tembusu tree and find it familiar. That is because the tree, with its signature low stretching branch, is used as a motif on our current 5-dollar note.

Native to Singapore, the Tembusu trees, whose scientific name is fagraea fragrans, are hard-wooded evergreen trees that strive even on poor clayey soils. In the wild, the trees will often grow up to 40m in height, with large low-lying branches that have upswept ends. Named as one of Singapore’s heritage trees, the Tembusu trees, during their flowering seasons in May/June and October/November, will bear small orange berries and creamy moth-attracting flowers that open and give off a strong fragrance in the evening.

botanic gardens tembusu tree

botanic gardens tembusu tree singapore five dollar note

The signature Tembusu tree at the Botanic Gardens was more than 150 years old; it was already standing there before the Botanic Gardens was founded and laid in 1859 by an agri-horticultural society. Since then, it had witnessed the changes of the garden in the past one and a half century. The Botanic Gardens was taken over by the British colonial government in 1874 and during the Japanese Occupation, it was administrated by a Japanese professor and renamed as Shōnan Botanic Gardens. Today, the 74-hectare Gardens is managed by the National Parks Board.

The current Singapore 5-dollar note belongs to the Portrait Series, the fourth currency series of Singapore after its independence. The back design of the greenish note, officially issued on 9 September 1999, features the exact Tembusu tree that stands in the grounds of the Botanic Gardens.

Iconic landmarks in Singapore have been commonly used as the back designs of the former and current Singapore currency notes. Examples are the Supreme Court Building, Clifford Pier, Victoria Theatre, The Istana, Benjamin Sheares Bridges and Changi Airport, which have all been used as motifs in the previous Orchid, Bird and Ship series. The dollar notes’ motif designs sometimes also tell a Singapore’s history. For instance, the back of the Orchid Series’ 1-dollar note, released in mid-1967, features the Tanglin Halt flats, which were built in 1962. Fondly known as chup lau chu (“10-storey building” in Hokkien), these early HDB flats had existed for more than 50 years but eventually could not stand the test of time. Most of its tenants had moved out since 2008, and the vacant blocks will be demolished by end of 2015.

tanglin halt chup lau6

tanglin halt chup lau7

Published: 19 November 2015

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Coney Island and the Forgotten Haw Par Beach Villa

When Coney Island, also known as Pulau Serangoon, was opened to the public on 10 October 2015, most are more interested and eager to spot the lonely Brahman bull that has roamed the tiny island for many years. Few, however, are aware that there is another lonely “figure” which has stood on the island for decades. It is the Haw Par Beach Villa, located at the mangrove area in the central part of Coney Island.

coney island haw par beach villa7

Coney Island

In history, two Singapore islands have been given the name of Coney Island – Pulau Satumu and Pulau Serangoon. The former, also called Pulau Setumu, is situated in the south-western side of Singapore and is home to the historic Raffles Lighthouse.

The name Coney Island did not restrict to the outlying islands. Probably influenced by the popularity of New York’s world-famous Coney Island, the name had been commonly used by the local entrepreneurs. In 1947, a proposed holiday resort by the sea at Tanjong Balai, off Jurong Road, was named Coney Island. The Happy World Amusement Park, in 1949, also planned to introduce a miniature Coney Island entertainment centre between Geylang Road and Serangoon Road.

coney island map 1954

Haw Par Island

Before the fifties, Pulau Serangoon was known instead as Haw Par Island. It was then owned by the prominent Burmese-born Aw brothers, Aw Boon Haw (1882-1954) and Aw Boon Par (1888-1944), who built a huge business empire with their trademark Tiger Balm ointment.

In 1937, Aw Boon Haw built his beach villa on Pulau Serangoon after purchasing the island. At their peak, the Aw family owned many properties in Singapore, including the famous Haw Par Villa, the Haw Par Mansion and the Jade House. During the Japanese Occupation, many of the Aw family’s properties were heavily damaged. The destroyed villa and the death of his beloved brother affected Aw Boon Haw badly. He passed away in 1954 on his return trip to Hong Kong.

By the eighties, Haw Par Villa was handed to the Singapore Tourism Board whereas the Jade House at Nassim Road was demolished. As for Haw Par Island, Aw Boon Haw sold it after the war to a local Indian businessman named Ghulam Mahmood. It was, by then, a popular spot for picnicking and organised water sports.

coney island pulau serangoon 1985

The Island’s Development

In 1950, Ghulam Mahmood planned to invest $100,000 to convert Haw Par Island into a holiday resort island. Calling the isle “Coney Island”, Ghulam Mahmood wanted it to be specially catered for the working and middle class people, where they could enjoy various facilities used for swimming, boating, fishing, skating and other indoor and outdoor activities. He also visioned the island to have restaurants, bars, dance halls as well as cottages for honeymoon couples. The proposal, however, did not work out well.

Over the years, the 32-acre (approximate 13 hectares) island changed ownerships several times. It was owned by a Thai businessman in the early seventies, who tried to sell it off at $1 million without success. In 1974, Coney Island and its foreshores were reclaimed and expanded by the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) in a $20-million project, which also included the construction of a bridge between the island and the mainland. The planned conversion of the island into a recreational centre, however, came to nothing.

coney island path

coney island mangrove

The Beach Villa

Designed in Modern architectural style, likely by Ho Kwang Yew, a leading architect during the 1930s, the beach villa consisted of a main building and a service block that occupied 600 square metres and 100 square metres respectively. The main building was built with a central hall and an open veranda that surrounded the house. At one corner, there was a water well, presumably to supply fresh water to the occupants.

coney island haw par beach villa1

For many years, Coney Island was only accessible from Punggol and Changi Points. It was a popular destination among the locals for fishing, swimming, bird-watching, water-skiing, picnicking and camping activities. Hence, it was no surprise that the Haw Par Beach Villa was once a haunting topic among the picnickers and campers. The stories ended when the island was closed in the late nineties during the Punggol 21 development, when its size doubled to 50 hectares through land reclamations.

As for the beach villa, it remains forgotten until recently, when Coney Island opens up to the public once more.

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Published: 01 November 2015

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The Heritage Bridges – Singapore River’s Grand Old Dames

For over 150 years, the 3.2km-long Singapore River has played an important role in the economical growth of Singapore as a free port. Started from the mouth of the river, development gradually spread upstream. Population surged and trading activities flourished. By the early 20th century, the vicinities at Robertson Quay, Ho Puah Quah and Kim Seng were filled with ricemills, sawmills, boat yards, godowns and shophouses.

The increasing economic and social demands saw the need to link up the northern and southern sides of the river. Thus, bridges were built along the Singapore River to connect the north, where the government offices were located, and south banks, where cargo goods were unloaded from the boats.

bridges of singapore river

Over the decades, the old bridges had been replaced by newer ones. Many had witnessed the transformation of the river and its surroundings in the past century. On 03 December 2009, five of the oldest bridges of the Singapore River were given the conservation status; they are the Anderson, Cavenagh, Elgin, Read and Ord Bridges, built between the mid-19th and early 20th century.

Singapore River’s Early Bridges

According to historical illustrations of old Singapore, the first bridge across the Singapore River was an unnamed wooden footbridge located near present-day Elgin Bridge. The bridge was built in 1819, the same year Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore.

Presentment Bridge

It was replaced three years later, by another wooden bridge named Presentment Bridge, also known as Jackson’s Bridge or Monkey Bridge. The Presentment Bridge later linked up North Bridge Road and South Bridge Road. The roads, named with reference to the bridge, were planned by George Drumgoole Coleman (1795-1844) and constructed in 1833 by his team of Indian convict labourers.

presentment bridge government hill 1830

An Irish architect, George Coleman was the Superintendent of Public Works whose legacy included many roads, churches and buildings in Singapore of the early 19th century. The Coleman Bridge was named in honour of him, when it was completed in 1840 and became the Singapore River’s first ‘modern’ bridge made of bricks.

Thomson’s Bridge

Between 1827 and 1842, the Presentment Bridge was repaired many times. In 1844, the colonial government decided to demolish the bridge, and replace it with a new wooden footbridge. The new bridge was designed by John Turnbull Thomson (1821-1884), a British civil engineer and surveyor who designed and built many iconic structures and buildings such as the Dalhousie Obelisk, Horsburgh Lighthouse and Hajjah Fatimah Mosque.

thomson's bridge singapore river 1850s

Named Thomson’s Bridge, the footbridge was later widened to allow carriages to cross the river. In 1862, the bridge was replaced by an iron bridge imported from Calcutta, India (present-day Kolkata), and was renamed as Elgin Bridge.

ABC Bridge

ABC Bridge was a footbridge across the Singapore River where Clarke Quay is today. By the 1880s, the aging bridge was unable to cope with the growing demands between the northern and southern river banks, where godowns, wharfs and quay accommodations were rapidly increasing.

ABC Bridge was closed in 1884, and was replaced by the new Ord Bridge two years later.

Singapore River’s Heritage Bridges

Elgin Bridge
first 1862-1920s, second 1929-present

The first Elgin Bridge was built in 1862, when its iron-cast body was imported from Calcutta to replace the wooden Thomson’s Bridge. It was named after Lord James Bruce Elgin (1811-1863), the Governor-General of India from 1862 to 1863.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Elgin Bridge underwent widening and strengthening projects in order to meet the increasing demands and trading activities near the river, and also to allow the steamed tramways to cross the waterway. It was demolished on 24 December 1926 to pave way for the construction of a new Elgin Bridge.

coleman and elgin bridges 1970s

elgin bridge 1980s

The second Elgin Bridge was opened on 30 May 1929, after three years of construction by the Public Works Department. It was designed by local-based engineer T.C. Hood, who also designed the Crawford Bridge over present-day Rochor Canal. The bridge’s iron-cast lamp posts were designed by Cavalieri Rodolfo Nolli (1888-1963), the Italian sculptor and architect whose work included the reliefs for the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, Old Supreme Court Building and College of Medicine Building.

elgin bridge

elgin bridge2

The new Elgin Bridge was raised four feet higher than the previous one, so as to allow boats to pass under it during the high tides. It also had encased concrete around its steel structure, in order to prevent corrosion due to the fumes produced by the nearby factories and warehouses.

Fondly known as tee tiao kio (“iron suspension bridge”) by the local Chinese, Elgin Bridge was refurbished in 1989 and conserved in 2009.

Cavenagh Bridge

British engineer Rowland Mason Ordish (1824-1886) left his legacy with his unique “Ordish” cable-stayed bridge design with the Cavenagh Bridge at the mouth of the Singapore River and the Albert Bridge, built in 1873, at London.

cavenagh bridge early 20th century

cavenagh bridge 1960s

Cavenagh Bridge had gone through extensive loading tests. At its factory at Glasgow, Scotland, its components were bolted together and tested using loads four times of the bridge’s weight. With the successful result, the components were packed and shipped to Singapore. After its assembly, it went through another live loading test; this time a company of 120 Sepoy soldiers were ordered to march over it.

Cavenagh Bridge was named after Sir William Orfeur Cavenagh (1820-1891), the last India-appointed Governor of the Straits Settlements between 1859 and 1867. The bridge itself was built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of Crown Colony of the Straits Settlements.

cavenagh bridge

cavenagh bridge2

Trams used to run on the Cavenagh Bridge. However, in the early 20th century, the heavy traffic was diverted to the newly-built Anderson Bridge. A sign was put up at the entrance of the Cavenagh Bridge, declaring off-limits to “vehicles exceeding 3 cwts (hundredweight, equivalent to 50.8kg), cattle and horses”. Since then, it has been used as a pedestrian bridge.

cavenagh bridge3

Cavenagh Bridge was used to be known by the local Chinese as hai kee tee tiao kio, which means “iron suspension bridge by the sea”. During the high tides, cargo-carrying bumboats could not pass under it and had to wait for the low tides. Due to this flaw, the later Elgin Bridge was designed to be four feet higher than its previous version. In 1987, the bridge underwent a $1.5-million restoration. Today, it is the oldest bridge across the Singapore River.

Ord Bridge

Ordnance Bridge, Toddy Bridge, “Bridge of Three Letters” or the new ABC Bridge, Ord Bridge is a bridge of many names. Designed in simple form with symmetrical balustrades and girders, it was meant to replace the old ABC Bridge which spanned across the Singapore River at present-day Clarke Quay area.

ord bridge 1980s

A few weeks after its completion in July 1886, the Public Works Department suffered a public backlash due to a “misalignment” in the bridge’s northern abutment, causing the bridge to be unstable. Ord Bridge was named after Sir Harry St. George Ord (1819-1885), the first governor (1867-1873) directly appointed by Britain after the Straits Settlements was given the Crown Colony status. It was officially opened in 1886 by another Straits Settlements’ governor Sir Frederick Weld (1823-1891).

ord bridge

Many toddy and liquor shops used to be found near the Ord Bridge, which gave rise to its other name of Toddy Bridge. It was also used to be linked to four roads; Magazine Road and Hong Lim Quay (defunct today) on its southern end, and ABC Road (later renamed as Ord Road, defunct today) and River Valley Road on its northern side. There was also a large iron foundry near the bridge in the late 19th century.

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Read Bridge

Originally known as the Merchant Bridge (or Merchants’ Bridge), Read Bridge was named after William Henry Macleod Read (1819-1909), a prominent businessman, the President of the Municipality and Honorary Police Magistrate who lived in Singapore for 46 years.

read bridge 1980

In early 1887, after laying the first cylinder for the bridge, a 69-year-old William Read returned to London for his retirement. Two years later, the Read Bridge was officially opened by the newly-appointed Governor of the Straits Settlements Cecil Clementi Smith (1840-1916).

Read Bridge links the uppermost limit of Boat Quay, which had a sizable Teochew community in the old days. The labourers and rowers from the twakows and tongkangs would often gathered near the bridge to listen to the Teochew storytellers; the location would become well-known as a story-telling centre.

read bridge 1983

The vicinity was also fondly known as cha choon tau (literally means “firewood boat head” in Teochew) due to the jetties built for the firewood-carrying tongkangs from Indonesia. The local Malays and Hokkiens referred Read Bridge as jembatan kampong melaka and kam gong ma la kat kio (both means “Kampong Melaka bridge”) respectively. Kampong Melaka was a Malay village that used to exist near South Boat Quay. Its mosque Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka, built in 1820,  continues to flourish and is Singapore’s first and oldest mosque today.

read bridge

read bridge2

In the early nineties, Read Bridge was restored in a $8.4-million project.

Anderson Bridge

After three years of construction, the Anderson Bridge was opened on 12 March 1910 by Sir John Anderson (1858-1918), the Governor of the Straits Settlements between 1904 and 1911. It was designed by the Municipal Engineer Robert Peirce, who had Peirce Reservoir named after him, and was Singapore’s first steel bridge.

anderson bridge 1938

The 70m-long and 2.8m-wide bridge was constructed using 1,200 tonnes of steels imported from Britain; and its the non-structural parts such as the castings, railings and frames were fabricated by the Municipal workshops at River Valley Road. The bridge’s stone plaque was specially imported from Egypt, and high power gas lamps were used to lit up the bridge.

anderson bridge 1960s

anderson bridge 1980s

Upon its completion, the bridge’s total cost chalked up to £50,000, equivalent to $10 million Singapore dollars today. Due to the high cost, the bronze lions on each pedestal, originally designed by Peirce, were not added. The colonial government’s purpose in building a new bridge was to allow the heavier vehicles, horse and ox carts to cross the river, and also to relieve some of the overloading pressure faced by the nearby Cavenagh Bridge.

anderson bridge

Anderson Bridge became a symbol of terror during the Japanese Occupation, when the Japanese would hang severed heads along the bridge to discourage the people from breaking the law. Its fortune changed after the Second World War; in the fifties, sixties and seventies, it became a favourite destination for lovers to take a stroll in the evening. Fondly known as Lovers’ Bridge, women would throw oranges into the river from the bridge during the last day of Chinese New Years, hoping to land a good husband.

anderson bridge2

anderson bridge3

Singapore’s Anderson Bridge has a twin in the Victoria Bridge at Brisbane, Australia. The latter, a fourth version, was designed by Australian Alfred Barton Brady. It was built in 1897 and replaced by a new Victoria Bridge in 1969.

Singapore River’s Other Old Bridges

Coleman Bridge
first 1840-1862, second 1865-1883, third 1886-1986, fourth 1990-present

In its 175-year history, there were four Coleman Bridges. The first was a brick bridge built in 1840. It was designed by and named after George Drumgoole Coleman, who was also Singapore’s first architect and the man behind the planning and construction of the North Bridge and South Bridge Roads.

coleman bridge 1920s

As the second bridge built across the Singapore River after Presentment Bridge, the Coleman Bridge was also known as New Bridge. The road that was linked at its southern end became known as New Bridge Road. The bridge was 20 feet wide, and cost $8,700 in construction, a hefty amount during that time.

In 1862, due to the increasing traffic between the northern and southern sides of the Singapore River, the Municipal Commissioner proposed to replace the Coleman Bridge with a new one. Three years later, a new timber bridge was completed and was known as Canning Bridge, or the second Coleman Bridge.

coleman bridge2 1970s

coleman bridge 1983

The second Coleman Bridge was, however, structurally unsound. Thus a new iron bridge was proposed to replace the old and shaky timber bridge, which was demolished in 1883. In July 1886, the third Coleman Bridge was built. Lasting a century, the third Coleman Bridge was considered the most aesthetically attractive bridge across the Singapore River. It was designed with many arches and columns and had ornamental gas lamp posts by its flanks.

coleman bridge

coleman bridge2

Before 1986, New Bridge Road, an one-way road then, was the only access across Coleman Bridge, linking to Hill Street. Eu Tong Sen Street previously ended at its intersection with Havelock Road. The widening of Coleman Bridge allowed it to become a two-way traffic scheme with Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road in opposite directions. The widening project, which took four years and was completed in 1990, retained much of the decorative features of its predecessor.

Clemenceau Bridge
first 1920s-1938, second 1940-1989, third 1991-present

Clemenceau Avenue (formerly Tank Road) and Clemenceau Bridge were named after Georges Benjamin Clemenceau (1841-1929), the French Prime Minister (1906-1909, 1917-1920) who led his nation against Germany in the First World War. Georges Clemenceau had visited Malaya and Singapore on an eastern tour in the 1920s.

In 1938, a new bridge was built to replace the old corroding Clemenceau Bridge. Supervised by G.M. Wheat, the project, costing $250,000, was Singapore’s first bridge built with web girders. Measuring more than 100 yards long and 60 feet wide, the reinforced-concrete bridge was known as the new Pulau Saigon Bridge before it was renamed as Clemenceau Bridge in 1940.

clemenceau bridge 1985

Until the early seventies, Clemenceau Bridge was linked between the northern bank of the Singapore River and Pulau Saigon. On the tiny island, it merged with Pulau Saigon Road (now expunged) and was led southwards to Pulau Saigon Circus, which provided accesses to Havelock Road, Magazine Road and Chin Swee Road.

The vehicular bridges in which Pulau Saigon Road spanned over the river were simply known as Bridge No. 1 and Bridge No. 2. After Pulau Saigon was reclaimed and merged with the southern side of the Singapore River in the early seventies, Bridge No. 1 was relegated as a footbridge, whereas Bridge No. 2 was demolished.

clemenceau bridge

clemenceau bridge2

This footbridge was demolished in the late eighties, together with the expunging of Pulau Saigon Road, during the second phase of the Central Expressway (CTE) project. In 1989, the CTE was extended to cut through the city between Bukit Timah and Chin Swee Roads. The old four-lane Clemenceau Bridge was also demolished and replaced by a new eight-lane one.

Pulau Saigon Bridge
first 1891-1986, second 1997-present

There were two Pulau Saigon Bridges in history, spanning across the Singapore River but located at different locations.

The original Pulau Saigon Bridge, previously located beside present-day Clemenceau Bridge, was built in 1891 and cost $71,000 of Municipal money. It linked up Pulau Saigon and the northern side of the river and was known as Pulau Saigon Bridge No. 1. Bridge No. 2, completed a year later, connected the island with the river’s southern bank.

pulau saigon road footbridge 1982

The Pulau Saigon Bridge was raised in the early 1930s so as to allow bumboats to pass under it during the high tides. It was due to be demolished after the new Clemenceau Bridge was completed in 1940, but the demolition plans were shelved.

When Pulau Saigon was reclaimed in the seventies, the bridge was converted into a footbridge; its access to Merbau Road was cut off. The vehicular traffic was diverted to Clemenceau Bridge. It was not until September 1986, when the extensively rusted bridge was taken down to make way for the development of the CTE. In an 2-hour operation, the bridge’s joints on both ends were cut and the body lowered onto a barge. The dismantled steel pieces were then shipped to a Jurong scrapyard and sold for $22,000.

pulau saigon bridge

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In 1997, a new 43m-long bridge was constructed 400m away from the original Pulau Saigon Bridge. The new Pulau Saigon Bridge links Saiboo Street to Havelock Road, cutting the travelling time between Orchard and Havelock Roads. The five-lane bridge is designed with granite pedestrian walkways and a 60m-long pedestrian underpass.

Kim Seng Bridge
first 1885-1950s, second 1954-present

The first Kim Seng Bridge, named after prominent Peranakan merchant and philanthropist Tan Kim Seng (1805-1864), was built in 1890. Spanning over the river near the Great World, its location was said to be the source of the Singapore River.

In the early 1950s, the increasingly heavy traffic and bottleneck at Kim Seng Road led to the planning of a new Kim Seng Bridge proposed by the City Council. In 1954, using pre-stressed concrete and high tensile steel, the new bridge was built at a cost of $370,000. Twice the size of its predecessor, the 26m-long and 20m-wide bridge was designed to meet heavy traffic conditions with its ability to hold a load of 13 tons per square metre.

Singapore River’s Other Bridges

The other bridges of the Singapore River are the Esplanade Bridge (opened in 1997), Robertson Bridge (1998), Alkaff Bridge (1999) and Jiak Kim Bridge (1999).

alkaff bridge

The latest is the $19.7-million Jubilee Bridge, opened to public in March 2015.

Published: 25 October 2015

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Hillview Mansion, its Remnants and Legendary Tales

Hillview Mansion. A name that is previously well-known and generates much interest among local paranormal investigators. Known as the “green” house, it was once ranked together with the Punggol Matilda House (“white” house) and the Pasir Ris “red” house as Singapore’s most haunted “coloured” houses in the late nineties and early 2000s.

But the history of the mysterious private residence goes back to the seventies, when the house was likely to be built after the Hillview vicinity was developed. In the late sixties, a network of minor roads, consists of Jalan Dermawan, Chu Lin Road, Jalan Gumilang and Jalan Remaja, was extended from the former Princess Elizabeth Estate, which was built in 1951. By the mid-seventies, the minor roads gave rise to the development of private residences collectively known as the Hillview Estate.

jalan dermawan 1969

One end of Jalan Dermawan had initially stopped by the hill side. An extension was later constructed to link to the top of the hill which is the highest point at Hillview Estate. The steep 50m-long road leads to the Hillview Mansion, which, if it was ever completed, would enjoy a splendid panoramic view of its surroundings. Instead, its construction works were halted halfway, and it was left abandoned after that. For decades, speculations and rumours of Hillview Mansion and its abandonment had gripped the imaginations of many self-proclaimed urban explorers and ghost hunters.

hillview mansion jalan dermawan

The Hillview Mansion was reportedly owned by Chua Boon Peng (1918-2005), the former chairman of Cycle & Carriage (C&C) Industries Pte Ltd. Cycle & Carriage began in 1899 as Federal Stores, a small trading company located at Kuala Lumpur. It was founded by Chua Boon Peng’s uncles Chua Cheng Tuan (1876-1912) and Chua Cheng Bok (1880-1940). Chua Cheng Liat, who had the Liat Towers at Orchard Road named after him, was Chua Boon Peng’s father and younger brother of Chua Cheng Tuan and Chua Cheng Bok. In its early days, the humble firm traded nutmegs and then diversified to soap, paper and machine spare part businesses.

Cycle & Carriage later ventured into the selling of bicycles, motorcycles and cars. It established a branch at Orchard Road in 1916 and shifted its headquarters from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore in 1926. The year 1951 was a major breakthrough for Cycle & Carriage, when Chua Boon Peng clinched a sole distributorship agreement with Germany’s Daimler-Benz to sell Mercedes-Benz brand cars in Malaya.

chua boon peng 1969

In 1965, Cycle & Carriage opened a $2.5-million plant at Hillview to assemble Mercedes, Daihatsu, Isuzu and Volkswagen vehicles. The plant, however, suffered losses and had to shut down in 1980 due to significant increase in the production costs. Chua Boon Peng stepped down as the company’s chairman in 1985; the Chua family eventually exited Cycle & Carriage eight years later. The factory’s land, under the ownership of Cycle & Carriage, was redeveloped for private residential use in 1990. Hillview Villas, a mixture of semi-detached and terrace houses, was completed at the site of the former Hillview assembly plant after three years of construction.

hillview mansion remnants1

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Chua Boon Peng himself was said to have spent millions of dollars in the seventies snapping up plots of land near the Hillview assembly plant to build a grand mansion for his wife, and probably also to oversee his vast business empire at Hillview. Few, however, knew the reason behind the halted construction works of the house.

Many rumours had surfaced since then. The rumours came in different versions; the most popular one was that the “unlucky” house was abandoned after its mistress had fallen to her death. Other stories included a worker killed by lightning during the construction. There was one tale about a grisly murder case that took place inside the half-completed house. A more “logical” explanation would be that the Ministry of Defense (Mindef) wanted to reacquire the land where the mansion was planned to be built.

hillview mansion remnants3

hillview mansion remnants4

hillview mansion remnants5

The half-completed Hillview Mansion was demolished in the mid-2000s. Today, there is nothing left of it except a pair of old gates. Once in a while, a few curious passers-by can be seen visiting its premises, but the interest in the mysteries of Hillview Mansion has considerably waned over time. Perhaps people come to realise that there is nothing supernatural about it. And while the “green” house had been completely demolished, the “white” house and “red” house are given new lease of life; in recent years they have been redeveloped into a clubhouse and childcare centre respectively.

Published: 06 October 2015

Posted in Paranormal | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Last Look at Pearls Centre and its Yangtze Theatre

Pearls Centre, located along Eu Tong Sen Street, was a 22-storey residential-commercial building completed in 1977, although its 99-year lease began as early as 1969. It was a joint venture by Outram Realty, Keck Seng Pte Ltd and the Sim Lim Investment Group, under the private development of the Urban Renewal Programme, to construct a modern multi-functional complex at the bustling Pearl’s Hill district which, in the seventies, had several well-established malls such as the People’s Park Complex, People’s Park Plaza, People’s Park Centre and Ocean Garment Shopping Centre.

pearls centre 2015

In the late seventies, Pearls Centre was heavily advertised in the newspapers for its luxury apartments, shopping units, theatre, night club, restaurants and a 7-storey carpark spacious enough for 380 cars. During its peak in the eighties and nineties, Pearls Centre was almost fully occupied with 199 shops in its 4-storey of shopping centre, mostly made up of small strata-titled retail businesses such as food and beverage stalls, coffee houses, travel agencies, beauty centres, tailor shops, traditional Chinese medicine stores and hairdressing salons.

pearl centre advertisement1 1975

In addition, there were 44 residential units in Pearls Centre’s 12-storey apartment tower made up of single-, double- and three-bedroom units. The apartments would cost between $65,000 and $190,000 in the seventies.

Pearls Centre also boasted one of the earliest versions of food courts in Singapore. On the fourth floor of the building, it housed Fast Food Centre, an air-conditioned hawker centre that was popular among office workers and cinema-goers when it was opened in February 1978. As many as 30 stalls, selling Chinese, Malay and Western food, operated in the hawker centre that could seat 450 people. The concept of enjoying hawker food in an air-conditioned environment led to the rise of food courts in Singapore since the eighties. Picnic Food Court, was dubbed as Singapore’s first food court, was opened at the now-defunct Scotts Shopping Centre.

yangtze theatre1 1980s

One of the key tenants of Pearls Centre was the Yangtze Theatre (长江戏院), famous as the last cinema in Singapore to screen R-rated and soft porn movies. Originally named as the Pearls Theatre, it was changed to Yangtze, named after the longest river in China and Asia, upon its opening on 27 January 1977. In its early days, the 1,159-capacity cinema occupied six storeys inside Pearl’s Centre, with a gross floor area of 8,010 square metres.

Yangtze Theatre, in the seventies and eighties, used to screen Hong Kong kungfu movies mainly catered for the Chinese residents living near Chinatown. With its whitish and clean outlook, the cinema and apartment tower actually resembled the suburban cinemas and HDB flats built in the new towns such as Ang Mo Kio, Bedok and Clementi. The cinema, along with the nearby Majestic and Oriental theatres, proved to be popular entertainment venues within the Chinatown vicinity.

yangtze cinema 2012

yangtze cinema1 2015

The ownership of Yangtze Theatre had changed hands several times over the years. In 1983, its owner Pearls Theatre Ltd, which also owned the Straits Theatre at Woodlands, faced a winding-up order by the High Court. Yangtze was subsequently forced to shut down and sold. Four years later, its new owner, a Malaysian investor, put the cinemas of Yangtze and Straits up for sale for $5 million and $1.8 million respectively. There were proposals to convert the premises into a church, offices or even a high-tech entertainment centre named “Fantasy World” catered for tourists, but none of the plans were successful.

With the failure in the conversion of its premises for other commercial usages, Yangtze Theatre was renovated and reopened in September 1991 as Yangtze 1 and Yangtze 2. Local artistes and Hong Kong stars such as Michelle Yim were invited for the grand opening. However, the cinema faced declining revenues due to the slowdown in the local movie industry in the nineties. In 1995, it was converted again, this time as an erotic films’ provider.

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This business strategy lasted for more than a decade, before its management attempted to change the cinema’s image by including conventional movies and blockbusters in the late 2000s. But by then, the reputation of the cinema was already well perceived in the eyes of the public.

Thus, after a $350,000 renovation in 2011, Yangtze Theatre was reverted to the screening of erotic movies until its closure in 2015. The unsavoury reputation of Yangtze Theatre also affected the image of Pearls Centre, which, throughout the 2000s, was started to be tenanted by numerous shady massage parlours dealing in sex-related services. Regular reports of police raids of vice activities also caused Pearls Centre to appear in the wrong headlines.

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In August 2012, the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) announced the acquisition of Pearls Centre for the construction of the new Thomson Line (TSL), where its site will be replaced with underground tunnels and a new high-density, mixed-use building that will be integrated with the current Outram MRT station. By August 2015, Pearls Centre was almost emptied with the departure of most of its tenants who have accepted the government’s compensation packages.

A last look at the now-vacated Pearls Centre while it awaits its impending demolition:

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Published: 20 September 2015catered

Posted in General | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Dragon Quest – Searching for Singapore’s Lost Dragon Playgrounds

When former Housing Development Board (HDB) interior designer Khor Ean Ghee was tasked to design a series of playgrounds for Singapore’s upcoming new towns and housing estates in the seventies, he took inspirations from animals and objects that could provide a sense of familiarity and identity to Singaporeans.

old animal-themed playgrounds singapore

Thus in the late seventies, the popular animal-themed sand-pit playgrounds were created, in the shapes of dragons, tigers, elephants, pelicans, doves and sparrows. Most of them lasted until the late nineties, when they were replaced by the safer modern plastic playgrounds. Several of these old-school playgrounds still exist in different parts of Singapore today, with the dragon playground at Toa Payoh the most iconic of all.

First Dragon, Toa Payoh Town Garden (Demolished)

When Khor Ean Ghee first designed the dragon playground, it was not well-received by the management. The metal structure was difficult to be manufactured, and the paint on the dragon head faded easily. The body was too long and there were only monkey bars. Nevertheless, the playground proved to be popular among the children when the first one was built at the Toa Payoh Town Garden in 1975.

first dragon playgrounds toa payoh 1970s

In his later version, Khor Ean Ghee pixelated the dragon head and tail with glass mosaics that could retain their colour throughout the years. Glass mosaics of different colours were imported from Italy; warm coloured spectrum such as orange was used for the exterior of the playground structure, while the interior was made up of the cooler blue glass mosaics. To increase the fun factor of his playgrounds, Khor Ean Ghee also incorporated four key elements to his designs, which were the slides, swings, see-saws and merry-go-rounds.

The success of the playgrounds saw the same design duplicated in different housing estates and new towns, from Tampines to Jurong West. At its peak, there were dozens of them in Singapore. Only four dragon playgrounds have survived the test of time and escaped the fate of demolition today.

Orange Dragon, Toa Payoh Lorong 6

dragon playground toa payoh lorong 6

Probably the most iconic of all old-school playgrounds in Singapore today, the dragon playground at Toa Payoh Lorong 6 has fortunately been preserved by HDB, although it has seen some major changes in its surroundings recently. Block 28, the flat that stood beside the playground for more than three decades, was demolished in 2014.

Brown Dragon, Block 570 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3

dragon playground ang mo kio ave 3

The dragon playground at Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3 does not have a high profile as compared to the one at Toa Payoh, probably due to the fact that has a duller colour and its sand-pit was replaced by the rubber mats commonly seen in the modern playgrounds.

Mini Orange Dragon, Block 201 Toa Payoh Lorong 1

mini dragon at toa payoh lorong 1

Mini Red Dragon, Block 58 Circuit Road

mini dragon playground circuit road

The “mini” dragon playgrounds may have similarly-designed heads made up of mosaics, but they do not have the long metal spines seen in their larger cousins. Instead, their bodies are made up of spiral slides. There are only two such mini dragon playgrounds left in Singapore today.

Green Dragon, Block 104 Tampines Street 11 (Demolished)

dragon playground at tampines street 11 1985

The HDB flats at Tampines Street 11 with its public amenities such as the dragon playground and basketball court were completed in around 1982. The flats and basketball court are still around today, but the green dragon playground had been replaced by a modern playground.

Orange Dragon, Block 664 Yishun Avenue 4 (Demolished)

dragon playground at yishun avenue 4 1988

This orange-head dragon with a red body was located between Block 664 and 665 at Yishun Avenue 4 in the eighties and nineties. Like many others, it was also demolished and replaced by the modern playground.

Blue Dragon, Bedok North Street 2 (Demolished)

dragon playground at bedok north street 2 1982

This blue dragon playground was located at Bedok North Street 2, near the Bedok Stadium, Bedok Swimming Complex and Bedok Fitness Park. A new tennis centre and the sepak takraw and Silat federations were later added to the vicinity, but the dragon had long disappeared.

Brown Dragon, Jurong West (Demolished)

dragon playground at jurong west 2000s

This photo of a dragon playground at Jurong West was taken in the 2000s by local blogger Gordonator. It was probably demolished in 2007.

Blue Dragon, Undetermined Location (Demolished)

dragon playground

Have you played at dragon playgrounds before?

Do you still remember their former locations or have any old photos of the playgrounds?

Published: 30 August 2015

Posted in Cultural, Nostalgic | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

“Hello, Hello” The Rise and Decline of Singapore’s Public Payphones

Singapore’s mobile population penetration rate stands at almost 155% (from the 2014 statistics by Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore). That is more than a mobile line per person. Despite the large number of mobile subscriptions, public phones still play a part in Singapore’s society, providing telecommunication services for domestic maids, foreign workers and others who do not possess mobile phones.

Public phones in Singapore arguably reached their peak in the eighties and nineties, when they were almost present in every housing estates, hawker centres and shopping malls. This could be a coincidence with the rise of pagers in the same era, when pager’s users often had to make returning calls to the paging initiators.

public phones 1960s to 1990s

From STB To SingTel

The first telephones were introduced in Singapore as early as 1879. Two years later, Bennett Pell, the manager of the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company, used a simple manual 50-line switchboard to set the first Private Telephone Exchange at Collyer Quay. He later also established a trial connection between Raffles Square and Tanjong Pagar using a telegraph line, making Singapore the first British colony in the East to have a telephone system.

In 1955, the British colonial government formed the Singapore Telephone Board (STB), which would merge with Telecommunication Authority of Singapore in 1974 to form Telecoms. In 1982, Telecoms, after installing more than 500,000 private and public telephone lines, merged again with the Postal Service Department. By 1990, a significant milestone was reached when Singapore installed its one millionth telephone line.

evolution of singapore telecom logos

Telecoms, by the late nineties, had become the most profitable statutory board, holding assets that exceeded $4.2 billion in value. As part of a three-year corporatisation program, the Singapore government restructured Telecoms to become Singapore Telecom (SingTel), and public listed it on the stock exchange in 1993.

The Coin-Operated Phones

public phone 1960sPublic phones were uncommon in Singapore in the fifties and sixties, especially in areas from the city. For example, until the late fifties, the Sembawang Hills Estate only had one public phone serving 6,500 residents.

It was only after several complaints that the Singapore Telephone Board decided to install the second public phone near the Shell petrol station at Sembawang Hills Estate in 1960.

To improve the situation, the Singapore Telephone Board carried out the installation of more than 50 public phones in Singapore in 1962, half of them in rural places. In the early sixties, there were about 250 public phones in Singapore, in a ratio of 3.75 phones to every 100 persons. It was ranked higher than Hong Kong (3.2), Bangkok (1.8) and Saigon (0.9). By 1965, the number of public phones in Singapore had increased to almost 650.

In the late seventies, the Ministry of National Development embarked on a plan to double the density of public phones from seven to 14 per square kilometre. This was mainly due to the long waiting time in the application of private telephone lines. Under the Telecoms plan, all the new four- and five-room HDB flats came with telephone lines. However, the rate was only 15%, 50% and 75% for one-, two- and three-room flats respectively.

public phones 1970s to 1980s

This led to a surge in the application of new telephone lines; in 1977, more than 3,000 people applied for residential lines per month, and in some areas, the waiting time could be as long as 18 months. As a stop-gap measure, Telecoms carried out their “one phone for each block” plan; at least one public coin phone was to be installed at the ground floor of each HDB block.

The public phones in the seventies typically had round booths in bright orange colour that were secured onto the walls, completed with thick phone books filled with names, addresses and contact numbers. They would be later replaced by the Telecoms’ booths that were in standalone or wall-mounted versions designed in shades of red.

public phone booths 1970s

public phone booth at the junction of orchard and scotts roads 1979

In 1978, a strange incident happened at Florence Road of Upper Serangoon. A youth was reported to be struck by lightning on his left ear when he used a public phone during a thunderstorm. The following investigation, however, indicated that the phone was not damaged and in fine working condition. As a precautionary measure, Telecoms issued a statement to urge the public not to use public phones during thunderstorms.

The public phone services in the late eighties brought significant revenues for Telecoms. In 1987, Telecoms raked in $20.4 million from their public payphones; a year later, the amount rose to a record $24 million. The cash earned from the local calls made by public phones, however, was small change to the company, which reported a profit of $1.5 billion in 1987. A large portion, about $700 million, was from the international calls made from Singapore.

public phone son of pulau tekong1 1985

public phone son of pulau tekong2 1985

The public coin phones, however, were often subjected to issues such as maintainability, reliability, vandalism and theft. Coin collectors hired by Telecoms had to be regularly dispatched to the 25,000 public phones in Singapore. In many incidents, the phones were prised open and had their coins stolen. These factors led to Telecoms pondering the possibility of a cashless public phone system in Singapore. By the late eighties, the company decided to switch to the cardphone system by 1991.

The Rise of Cardphones

first telecom phonecard 1985The switch from coin-operated payphone system to card-operated phone system took place in the mid-eighties. The first cardphone was introduced by the Telecoms in 1985 as an one-year trial to gauge the public response and their general acceptance in using pre-paid phone cards, which were issued in simple designs that indicated their stored values in the denominations of $2, $5 and $10. The $20 and $50 phonecards were introduced at a later time.

In late 1985, some 47 cardphones were installed at major shopping complexes, Changi Airport and the Woodlands Checkpoint. Surveys were carried out to find out customers’ preferences, as well as to assess the operational and technical aspects of the new telecommunication equipments. At the start, three types of card technology were tested; magnetic cards, cards with hologram technology and cards with built-in programmed integrated circuit chips. The following year also saw the 47 cardphones modified to allow users to dial directly to as many as 155 countries in the world.

a public phone at chai cheeBy the late eighties, the success of cardphones led to many of them installed at post offices and the Telecoms outlets, and also places that demanded high phone usages, such as Raffles Place and Hill Street.

To prevent call hogging at these busy districts, coin phones and cardphones were often placed side by side, and the cardphones were programmed such that they could only make oversea calls. This was to discourage users from hogging the cardphones with local calls. In September 1992, the Telecommunication Authority of Singapore (TAS) opened up the market to private competitors, who brought in coin-operated phone models that had more user-friendly features, such as volume control.

In the same year, Singapore Telecom also purchased 6,000 sets of new cardphones. Costing $20 million, the new models were used to replace the older version of cardphones islandwide. The public listed company would spend another $19 million to upgrade the public phone services again in 1998. Between the nineties and early 2000s, two versions of cardphones were commonly found in Singapore. However, this did not signal the end of the public coin phones. Many of them had co-existed with the cardphones, and entering the new decade, the new models possessed both the coin- and card-operated functions.

public cardphones 1990s

The phone cards soon became popular collectible items. Singapore Telecom would design the front of the phonecards with pictures showcasing various Singapore landscapes, heritage, food and festivals. The phonecards later also served as advertising platforms for companies such as Fujifilm, Dulux and Konica, which would launch their own series. The stored values were indicated at the back of each phonecards. Small holes were punched onto the printed arrows to indicated the remaining values after usage.

singapore phone cards 1990s

The Good Ol’ Coinafon

In 1971, the Singapore Telephone Board also introduced the Coinafon, the iconic squarish orange-coloured payphone that could be typically found outside provision shops and kopitiams. Some were installed at private housing estates. For example, in the eighties, Coinafons, together with their wooden telephone booths, could be found along roads outside the terrace houses at Upper Paya Lebar.

black orange coinafons

The early Coinafons belonged to the rotary dial type. In 1984, Telecoms introduced the newer Coinafon model that came with push buttons and a digital display. It provided greater convenience to the users and also allowed them to check whether the numbers they dialed were correct. The rental charges for Coinafons for private owners ranged between $700 to almost $900 per annum. Telecoms would later stop selling these phones, but the durable Coinafons survive the test of time and can still be found at some of the older shops in Singapore today.

public phones singapore 2010s

Public phones once played an important part in everyday life in Singapore. To make an urgent call home while having a late night out. Or waiting anxiously beside the public phone after paging someone. In army camps, dozens of recruits queued up at nights to make calls to their families and loved ones. By the late nineties, public phones’ popularity began to decline as mobile phones made their way into the life of common Singaporeans. By the early 2000s, mobile population penetration rate had jumped to more than 80%.

Today, there are still as many as 11 licensed operators in Singapore to provide public phone services, although most of Starhub’s public payphones had been phased out in 2010.

Published: 19 August 2015

Posted in General, Historic | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments