The Last of Singapore’s Rural Centres

The low-rise flats of the former Jalan Kayu Rural Centre are now undergoing demolition as the latest development of Sengkang New Town expands into the vicinity between Jalan Kayu and the newly built Sengkang West Road, which was opened last year and cuts through the network of the Seletar West Farmways.

demolition of former jalan kayu rural centre blocks1

Rural centres were part of an unique public housing development at Singapore’s rural regions between the seventies and eighties. There were formerly three rural centres built by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) at Seletar West Farmway (known as Jalan Kayu Rural Centre), Punggol Road (Punggol Rural Centre) and Neo Tiew Road (Lim Chu Kang Rural Centre).

An early rural centre concept was carried out at Keat Hong Village in the early sixties, when it was redeveloped under the Master Plan of zoning from an agricultural sector to a settlement zone with a rural centre. Rural centres were also common in Malaysia, a term that was coined as early as the fifties, but they appeared to be more of training facilities that aimed to develop the rural areas and train the locals on agriculture such as padi planting and rubber tapping.

singapore agriculture areas 1982

map of singapore rural centres 1988

Most of Singapore’s agricultural areas, in the seventies and eighties, were concentrated at the country’s north-eastern and north-western parts. They were mostly vegetable, fruit, poultry and pig farms. The HDB-built rural centres were therefore meant to be “centralised” locations at the different agricultural areas to provide basic amenities, such as shops, markets, hawker centres, clinics and small residential units, to the populations living around the farms.

This would provide convenience to the residents and allowed them to be self-sustaining, reducing the need to travel frequently to the more urbanised parts of Singapore to buy the basic necessities. In many ways, rural centres were similar, only on a much smaller scale, to the town centres built in the early new towns at Ang Mo Kio, Bedok and Clementi.

lim chu kang rural centre plan 1977

The Lim Chu Kang Rural Centre was built on a former site, an area of 1.9-hectare, of a pig farm. Bounded by Lim Chu Kang Road and Neo Tiew Road, it was completed in 1979 at a cost of $4 million, and made up of several flats, shops and a market. HDB’s initial plan was to make the rural centre a bustling centre for the communities living at rural Lim Chu Kang, particularly the villages of Ama Keng, Thong Hoe and Nan Hoe.

It would comprise of two-storey blocks that housed six shops and an eating house. Serving the residents would be a hawker centre with 36 foodstalls and a wet market with 78 stalls selling fresh produce. There would also be two four-storey blocks; one with 46 three- and four-room units, and the other with 44 three- and four-room flats and an additional nine shops. Each of the four-storey blocks would have its own play area at the ground floor.

lim chu kang rural centre neo tiew estate

The Lim Chu Kang Rural Centre, later also known as Neo Tiew Estate, lasted until the late nineties, when it was en-bloc under the Selective En-Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS). By 2002, most of its residents, and the Ama Keng, Thong Hoe and Nan Hoe villagers, were resettled at Jurong and Choa Chu Kang. The vacated rural centre was later used by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) as their urban warfare training ground.

The rural centres at Jalan Kayu and Punggol were built in the late seventies and early eighties respectively. Both consisted of seven blocks of low-rise flats. The Punggol Rural Centre started with five blocks (Block 1-5), with two more added (Block 206 and 207, consisting of 222 residential units, 12 shops and two eating places) in the mid-eighties. Upon their completion, the Jalan Kayu Rural Centre and Punggol Rural Centre remained as Kangkar (later renamed Sengkang) and Punggol’s only public housing for almost 20 years until their development as new towns in the late nineties. The first flats would be completed at Sengkang’s Rivervale in 1997.

buangkok south farmway pig farm 1983

The Punggol Rural Centre was demolished in the mid-2000s; its adjacent Buangkok South Farmway 1 was expunged a decade earlier. The only thing unchanged today is the long Punggol Road that runs from Sungei Pinang to the Punggol end. The former site where the Punggol Rural Centre once existed is now part of Sengkang’s Compassvale, whereas the former Jalan Kayu Rural Centre, after being used as foreign workers’ dormitories in the past ten years, looks to be replaced by the extension of Fernvale neighbourhood. The demolition will spell the end of an era of Singapore’s rural centres, an unique feature in the local public housing’s history.

demolition of former jalan kayu rural centre blocks2

demolition of former jalan kayu rural centre blocks3

demolition of former jalan kayu rural centre blocks5

seletar west farmway 6

Published: 11 February 2016

Posted in General | 1 Comment

A Singapura Mystery – The Queenstown Shooting 1972

It was a sunny Sunday noon, like any other normal weekends in Singapore. Yet a tragic case happened and shocked the Singapore society; an unsolved case that still baffles many till this day, even after 43 years.

On 17 September 1972, at around 1230pm, 22-year-old Malaysian seamstress Chan Chee Chan (Zeng Lizhen, 曾麗珍) suddenly screamed and collapsed at Queen’s Circus. She had suffered a gunshot at her chest, while walking back from a shopping centre to her Tanglin Halt flat with her younger sister Chan Kim Moy (Zeng Jinmei, 曾锦梅).

The Tragedy

queenstown shooting2 1972A passing-by police patrol car immediately attended to her and called an ambulance. With blood gushing out of the wound, Chan Chee Chan was rushed to the Singapore General Hospital. The hospital staffs at first thought she was stabbed, but it was later diagnosed as a wound caused by a gunshot. She was shot slightly above her chest, and the bullet entered her heart after deflected by a bone. Chan Chee Chan was pronounced dead at the hospital after 11 hours of unconsciousness.

The bullet extracted from Chan Chee Chan’s wound was of .22 calibre. The police, initially suspected that it was fired from a flat within Tanglin Halt, proposed two theories; a sharpshooter or sniper, with a score to settle, aimed and shot her from a flat. Or it could be a case of an accidental discharge of a rifle, perhaps, from someone while he was cleaning his weapon.

map of queen's circus 1972

The shooting was later classified as a murder case by the police, and a big hunt was launched to nab the mysterious Queenstown gunman. Witnesses, whether they had seen the shooting or heard the gunshot, were appealed to come forward. Hundreds of residents living at Tanglin Halt were interviewed. Other investigations were also carried out, including the checking of firearms’ licenses.

Unlike today, private firearm licenses were abundant from the fifties to seventies. By the early seventies, there were still more than 5,000 firearm owners in Singapore, although the majority was owned by the various gun clubs’ members. Almost of half of the firearms accounted for were shotguns, followed by 1000-plus rifles. Revolvers, pistols and air rifles made up the remaining. At Queenstown, there were several registered gun owners living at Queenstown. By Monday 19 September 1972, seven guns were seized and ballistic tests were conducted, but the results proved to be negative. More islandwide raids were then conducted by the police.

More Theories

queenstown shooting4 1972The shooting case dominated the newspapers’ headlines for days.

Who was the murderer? What was his motive? Or was it an accident?

An unnamed firearm expert came forward to propose a new theory. He believed that the weapon used was a .22 pistol or revolver instead of a .22 rifle, and the bullet was shot at a close range, possibly from a passing car at Queen’s Circus. He cited two reasons. First, if a .22 rifle was used, a telescopic lens would be required as the nearest block of flats was more than 150 yards (approximately 137m) away. According to the expert, he did not know anyone in Singapore who possessed a telescopic lens.

Secondly, a .22 game-hunter’s bullet would have penetrated the victim’s chest and left a gaping hole in her back. A target practice bullet, although it would not have penetrated the body, would have to be fired very accurately. It was very unlikely that the gunman could make his kill with only a single precise shot. Hence, the firearm expert deduced that the gunman was hired to kill the victim, and had followed and shot her at Queen’s Circus.

Another speculation was that it might be a case of wrong identity, in which the target was actually Chan Chee Chan’s sister Chan Kim Moy, and the assassin was her rejected suitor or a hired killer.

Unsolved Case

queenstown shooting3 1972Chan Chee Chan was from Kluang, Malaysia, and had nine siblings and a longtime boyfriend. She had been in Singapore since 1970, working as a seamstress at East Coast and living at a relative’s home at Tanglin Halt with her two sisters Kim Moy and Loy Koon. Upon hearing the tragic news, Chan Chee Chan’s mother, elder sister and brother rushed to Singapore. The mother, devastated by the loss of her daughter, claimed the body from the mortuary on Tuesday morning to bring back to Kluang for burial.

The forensic report submitted in 1973 concluded the case as unsolved. Since then, it has been more than four decades. The case remains open today, and the murderer, if there was ever one, is still at large all these years. Hopefully, the victim’s family could move on in life with their departed rested in peace.

Published: 16 January 2016

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The Cambridge Estate – An “English” Estate in Singapore

Located in the central part of Singapore, and largely bounded by Bukit Timah Road, Serangoon Road, Thomson Road and Moulmein Road, the Cambridge Estate, of Farrer Park district, is an old housing district where its inner roads are mostly named after English counties, cities and towns.

English-named Roads

As many as 22 minor roads at the Cambridge Estate carry the “English” names:

  • Bristol – English city
  • Cambridge – English city and county town
  • Carlisle – English city and county town
  • Derbyshire – English non-metropolitan county
  • Dorset – English non-metropolitan county
  • Durham – English city and county town
  • Essex – English non-metropolitan county
  • Gloucester – English city and county town
  • Halifax – English town
  • Hampshire – English shire county
  • Hertford – English county town
  • Kent – English non-metropolitan county
  • Lincoln – English city and county town
  • Norfolk – English non-metropolitan county
  • Northumberland – English non-metropolitan county
  • Oxford – English city and county town
  • Rutland- English county
  • Shrewsbury – English county town
  • Suffolk – English non-metropolitan county
  • Surrey – English non-metropolitan county
  • Truro – English city and county town
  • Worcester – English city and county town

There were also the Cumberland Lane and Westmoreland Road, named after historic counties in England, but they were expunged in the seventies. Interestingly, the network of “English” roads at the Cambridge Estate is situated near to the “Burmese” roads at Moulmein and Balestier, such as Akyab, Bassein, Bhamo, Irrawaddy, Mandalay, Martaban, Mergui, Minbu, Pegu, Prome, Rangoon and Shan, all of which were named after cities, towns, states and rivers in old Burma.

Another place in Singapore where a network of roads within a residential estate is similarly named after places in Britain is the Serangoon Gardens, a former enclave for British military and their families until the early seventies. At the Serangoon Gardens, more than 30 roads were named after English, Scottish and Welsh cities, towns and villages.

Singapore Improvement Trust Estates

dutch corner houses dorset road 1973

The Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) was tasked with the development of residential units at the vicinity in the 1930s and 1940s. One of its most memorable residential projects was the “Dutch-corner” houses located at Dorset Road and Cumberland Lane. The seventeen Dutch-style cottage-like houses added an unique European flavour, but they eventually had to make way for new development by the mid-seventies.

In the early fifties, the British government planned to develop a new SIT (Singapore Improvement Trust) public housing estate at Kampong Java. Seven new blocks of double-storey flats, made up of 10 three- and 10 two-bedroomed units, were built at Kent Road, in addition to the existing staff SIT flats at Gloucester Road. Between 1953 and 1955, new SIT flats popped up at Norfolk Road and Durham Road; their respective housing estates became known as Norfolk Estate and Durham Estate.

norfolk durham estates 1955

sit flats at norfolk road 1958

Other little neighbourhoods included Owen Estate and Tasek Utara Estate. By the late fifties, there were almost 8,000 families living at the estates of Norfolk, Durham, Owen and Tasek Utara. The estates’ names largely vanished in the late eighties, with the vicinity became generally known as Cambridge Estate. To the local Chinese, this vicinity was better known as Pek Kio, which literally means “white bridge”.

The residential vicinity, however, had existed since the early 20th century, with Truro Road and Carlisle Road metalled and drained in a Municipal project in 1929 that cost $15,500 and $12,300 respectively. Gloucester Road, on the other hand, remained as a muddy and potholes-filled road until it was given a tarred surface in 1962. As street lighting was insufficient, the roads were dark at night.

The darkness provided a cover for illegal activities and affected the residential estate as it was infested by secret societies, particularly in the sixties. A gang named “329” had, for several years, dominated Cambridge and Truro Roads, and posed a serious threat to the residents living there. In 1964, six “329” members, while having a “gangland conference” in a hut at Cambridge Road, were caught by the detectives. They were subsequently detained under the Criminal Law Ordinance, but the influence of the secret societies was under control only in the seventies.

truro road cambridge estate

In the early seventies, Durham Estate was sarcastically known as the problem estate, even by their own residents. The tiny housing estate of 20 SIT blocks was constantly bothered by gangsterism, robberies, floods as well as dirty and poorly maintained corridors. To make things worse, the three-storey flats appeared to be tilting and sinking.

Between 1968 and 1973, numerous large cracks began to appear on the flats’ ceilings and walls. As a result, many units were deemed unsafe. The problem became so serious that families living in Block 43 were ordered by the authorities to shift while Block 48 was demolished. All of the 30-plus-year-old SIT flats at Durham Estate were later torn down and replaced by a cluster of new HDB flats. The neighbourhood was later renamed Kampong Java Estate and Dorset Court. Today, it is called Dorset View.

flooded areas in singapore 1978

flooding junction of norfolk road thomson road 1978

Durham Road used to be a busy road, mainly used by motorists, cyclists and pedestrians to access Durham Estate. It was, however, flood prone and full of potholes in the fifties.

In fact, the whole vicinity bounded by Owen Road, Dorset Road and Norfolk Road was extremely flood prone, and was constantly devastated by floods especially in the sixties and seventies. An old flood level gauge can still be seen along Cambridge Road today, reminding one of the difficulties the residents faced during the flooding. It was a dreaded scene of overflowing muddy waters, sometimes as high as knee levels, submerged corridors, waterlogged furniture and helpless residents waiting for the rains to stop.

cambridge road flood level gauge

Durham Road, by the mid-eighties, was cut short and became a minor road that accessed Kampong Java Estate. The Norfolk Estate, on the other hand, was flattened in the eighties when the Central Expressway (CTE) was built. Its 17 blocks of SIT flats were demolished in batches between 1982 and 1989, while a large section of the road itself was widened to become part of the expressway. Today, Norfolk Road is a 600m-long minor road that runs parallel with CTE at the Kampong Java Flyover.

norfolk owen durham estates early 1980s

norfolk road sit flats1 1982

Life at the sleepy SIT estates of Norfolk, Owen, Durham and Tasek Utara was changed forever when the completed CTE cut through and divided them in 1985. The residents found it difficult to cross the six-lane expressway, and former neighbours of Norfolk and Tasek Utara estates could no longer visit each others regularly.

The residents also lamented that the closure of two road junctions, at Norfolk and Owen Roads, and at Norfolk and Rangoon Roads, caused them great inconvenience as they had to make detours or long trips to visit the markets or clinics on the other side of the CTE. Hawkers, shopkeepers and stallholders in the vicinity were also unhappy due to the declining number of regular customers from Balestier, Whampoa, Toa Payoh, Thomson and Ang Mo Kio.

central expressway pek kio norfolk owen durham estates 1985

Places of Worship

Cambridge Estate has been a place where many different religious practices co-exist together in the same vicinity. One of the smallest mosques in Singapore can be found here. Masjid Tasek Utara, a humble kampong mosque that can accommodate 120 people, has its history traced back to 1907 and is located at the junction of Carlisle Road and Bristol Road.

There are two Chinese temples at Cambridge Estate; the Ling Chi Xing Gong Temple (灵慈行宫) and the Qing De Gong Temple (清德宫). The Ling Chi Xing Temple was built at Truro Road in 1962 and its devotees mostly worship the Goddess of the Ninth Heaven and Ma Zhu, the Goddess of the Sea. The Qing De Gong Temple used to worship the Jade Emperor, the supreme Taoist god, but the temple has been left unattended for many years.

cambridge estate truro road abandoned qing de gong temple1

cambridge estate truro road abandoned qing de gong temple2

cambridge estate truro road abandoned qing de gong temple3

The Singapore Baptist Church was registered with the government in 1960 and first conducted its worship services at a residential house at Cambridge Road. As its church members grew in number, it required a building of its own. Hence, it purchased a plot of land nearby in 1967 and moved into the new church two years later. The Singapore Baptist Church became the first bilingual church in Singapore in 1973 when it conducted its worship services in Mandarin and English simultaneously.

the singapore baptist church

Another significant church, the Parish of Christ Church, is located at Dorset Road. Established just before the Japanese Occupation, the Christ Church is a Tamil church whose foundation stone was laid on 18 October 1940, the St. Luke’s Day. During the war, the church suffered considerable damages by the bombing raids but was able to rebuild within three months.

parish of christ church dorset road 2000

The Little Sisters of the Poor Home, a Catholic institution, was established in 1935 at Derbyshire Road. The Little Sisters was a congregation of religious sisters who devoted themselves in providing accommodation, food, clothing and medical services to the elderly, assuring that the old folks would be well taken care of in their golden years. It later shifted to its new location at Thomson Road, with its old premises taken over by Kheng Cheng School. Little Sisters of the Poor Home was renamed as Saint Theresa’s Home in 2003.

little sisters of the poor home thomson road 1972

Primary Schools

A number of primary schools had existed at the Cambridge Estate; one of them was Kheng Cheng School (擎青学校), whose name literally means “to uplift the youth” in Teochew and had a long significant history. It was founded by Madam Lim Peng Tuan, the mother of Tan Chong Tee, a well-known heroic resistance fighter with the Force 136 in Malaya during the Second World War. Lim Peng Tuan had first started a private school at her own home, providing education to about 20 students.

In 1927, Kheng Cheng School was officially named and registered with the government. It also had its own building, leasing a bungalow near Shrewbury Road as its new campus. In 1931, Kheng Cheng School was relocated to Moulmein Road, but was forced to stop its classes for two years due to financial difficulties. Due to high enrollment rate, Kheng Cheng School was relocated again to Derbyshire Road in 1938, taking over the premises of the Little Sisters of the Poor Home, and was converted into a public school.

kheng cheng school derbyshire road 1969

During the Second World War, the campus of Kheng Cheng School was partially damaged, and it had to suspend its classes until the end of the war. In 1963, former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew paid a visit to the school. Kheng Cheng School stayed within the Norfolk Estate until 1974, when it finally settled at Toa Payoh Lorong 3.

Cambridge School was opened in March 1963, near the junction of Cambridge and Carlisle Roads, with Yong Nyuk Lin, the former Minister for Education, and G. Kandasamy, the Parliamentary Secretary to Ministry of Culture, invited as the guests of honours. The school cost $370,000 in construction, and had 24 classrooms catered for as many as 2,000 students in both morning and afternoon sessions. Cambridge School was the 20th school opened by the Singapore state government in the early sixties.

carlisle road cambridge school 1982

As Cambridge School was opened during the merger years between Singapore and Malaysia, the lyrics of its school song were composed in Malay, which began with:

sekolah Cambridge sekolah sami, tempat yang mana kami sanjungi
(“our school Cambridge School, the place where we hold dear”)

In 1998, Cambridge Primary School was shut down. Its premises, together with that of the neighbouring Norfolk Primary School (opened between mid-1960s and 1984), was later converted into a foreign student dormitory called the Carlisle Hostel. The buildings of the former Cambridge and Norfolk Schools are still standing today, although they have been vacated for years.

carlisle road former cambridge school1

carlisle road former cambridge school12

carlisle road former norfolk school

The other schools that made their presences at Cambridge Estate but have since closed down or relocated to elsewhere were the Dorset School, Owen School, St. Michael’s School and Rangoon Road School.

Dorset School was started at the junction of Dorset Road and Durham Road in the mid-fifties and had existed there until the mid-seventies, when it was relocated to a new site between Thomson Road and Gentle Road. It, however, only lasted a few years before its new premises was taken over by Catholic High School. The old campus of Dorset School at Dorset Road was demolished after its relocation, and in its place, two new blocks of HDB flats known as Dorset Court were built in 1976.

dorset school1 early 1970s

dorset school2 early 1970s

dorset school3 early 1970s

Owen School was also started in the mid-fifties and lasted until 1988. In May 1986, Owen Primary School hit the headlines when two of its students, 12-year-old Keh Chin Ann and Toh Hong Huat, went missing. The boys were never found, and the case remains unsolved till this day. After its closure, the school compound was vacated for years before its conversion into Cambridge International Hostel. The premises was eventually demolished in 2015.

cambridge international hostel former owen primary school

Other Public Amenities

The Cambridge Road Market was formerly located at Tasek Utara Estate, along Cambridge Road. It was built in the fifties to serve the growing community, but had become disorderly when illegal hawkers made their pitches all over the place. In 1958, the Singapore City Council decided to expand the market and provide permanent stalls for the selected hawkers.

The Cambridge Road Market was demolished in the early eighties. It was not until the late eighties before a new market, the Pek Kio Hawker Centre and Market, was completed at the junction of Cambridge Road and Owen Road. It has remained popular since, and is often referred as the Cambridge Road Market by the older residents.

The Pek Kio Community Centre was opened in 1954 by J.T. Rea, the President of Singapore City Council, as an effort to enhance communal harmony and develop the residents’ civil pride and consciousness. The humble community centre was housed in a shophouse at Cambridge Road for a decade, before it was relocated to a new single-storey building in 1964, just beside the Cambridge Road Market.

pek kio community centre 1984

In 1984, the community centre received its new building, built at the site of the demolished Cambridge Road Market. Costing about $600,000, the new single-storey Pek Kio Community Centre was designed with roof and steel pillars that mirrored the design of the old Cambridge Road Market. It was also equipped with multi-purpose hall, library and rooms for kindergarten and cooking classes.

Today, Pek Kio Community Centre is located beside Farrer Park Primary School at Gloucester Road, where the former Farrer Park Stadium was.

Despite the fact that the SIT flats, schools and most old terrace houses have vanished, and the present-day Cambridge Estate is largely filled with new modern private residences, one can still spot glimpses of vintage buildings in the vicinity that have somehow escaped the fate of redevelopment and served as this old estate’s reminiscent history.

cambridge estate hertford road old house

cambridge estate truro road kampong house

keng lee road old terrace house

cambridge estate truro road old building

cambridge estate truro road shophouses

Cambridge Estate Truro Road Shophouses2

Published: 10 January 2016

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From Hock Lam’s Beef Noodles to Funan’s Computers

The older generation of Singaporeans would remember Hock Lam Street and its delicious beef noodles, fried kway teow and char siew rice. To the current generation, the name Funan is more associated with computers and information technology (IT). When the 30-year-old mall eventually closes for redevelopment in mid of next year, perhaps the next generation of younger Singaporeans will have a different set of memories of this iconic place.

The now-defunct Hock Lam Street was famously known for its street food and crowded lanes. Flanked by two rows of century-old pre-war shophouses, the street was located just opposite of the distinctively red-and-white-striped Central Fire Station.

hock lam street 1972

The sixties saw severe overcrowding and hygienic issues at Hock Lam Street. Tenants, sub-tenants and squatters, and very often in large families, squeezed into single rooms above the mouldy stores of the double-storey shophouses. It was also a common sight to see hundreds of laundry hanged out to dry on bamboo poles, above the busy street filled with street hawkers selling dishes, fruits and other goods. During the day, canopies were set up by the hawkers to shield against the strong sunlight.

By the mid-seventies, hundreds of street hawkers plying their trades at the side streets and lanes at Chinatown and city were requested by the government to clear their mobile stalls and move into the newly built hawker centres. The roadside hawkers at Hock Lam Street, and the nearby Chin Nam Street, were not spared, even though they had been the favourite eating spots for those living and working at the vicinity.

hock lam street map 1969

The beef noodles and beef kway teow at Hock Lam Street were extremely popular. In Singapore, there are generally two versions of beef noodles; the Teochew and Hainanese versions.

hock lam street hawkers 1970s

The Hainanese styled beef noodles are typically served dry with beef tendons and beef balls. Two pioneering Hainanese beef noodle hawkers Lee Suan Liang and Kian Teck Huan were credited in popularising the dish before the war. On the other hand, the Teochew beef noodles are generally soup-based, topped with slices of beef and innards. Tan Chin Sia was one of Singapore’s earliest beef noodle hawkers when he set up his stall at Hock Lam Street in 1921.

By the mid-seventies, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) had unveiled the redevelopment plan for Hock Lam Street. Its shophouses, under the urban renewal scheme, began their demolition in 1977. The Hock Lam Street hawkers were relocated to a temporary hawker centre behind the Capitol Shopping Centre. Some of them were later given allocated stalls at the Food Paradise, an air-conditioned food court located on the 7th level of Funan Centre when it opened in 1985.

hock lam street sign 1977

From Hock Lam to Funan

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) expected the facelifting of Hock Lam Street to be completed by 1979. The street had been expunged, its shophouses demolished, and in its place, a three-storey shopping centre with 127 shop and eight eating houses was proposed. Space allocation for 64 stalls on the ground floor at the back of the shopping centre was also catered for the original Hock Lam Street hawkers.

The plan, however, did not materialise and the redevelopment of the vicinity was dragged on for several years. A seven-storey retail shopping mall-cum-computer bazaar was proposed instead, with the belief that one-stop shopping idea and a centralised mart would be beneficial to consumers. Finally, in January 1985, the new Funan Centre was completed and opened. The name Funan, the hanyu pinyin-isation of Hock Lam, reflected the history of the vicinity.

funan centre 1989

funan centre2 1989

The new mall did provide new shopping experiences and better convenience to shoppers by putting all the shops in the same trade mix on the same floor. The first floor was occupied by the fast food restaurants in A&W and Big Rooster. Shops selling pens, watches, cameras, photographic and optical equipment lined up on the second level. The third storey were reserved for shops that dealt with retail apparel and ladies’ fashion wear, such as handbags, shoes, leather products, luggage and textiles. An annex also linked up the third floor to the new Cortina Department Store.

Funan Centre’s fourth level was catered for families, where they could find products ranging from household appliances and electronic goods to music and records. The fifth and seventh storey of the mall were occupied by hair and beauty saloons and a food court respectively. But the mall’s most popular destination among shoppers was its sixth level, where more than 40 computer shops became collectively known as the Computer Mart.

funan centre food paradise 1985

The shops at Funan had changed hands in the past 30 years, but there were several that had left impressions in many Singaporeans, such as the Peacock Trading Company, which specialised in beadwork, Kimaries Hairstyling, Roxy Records, DaDa Records and the popular Carona Chicken Rice stall at the food court.

The focus, however, was still on computers, which coincided with the rise in the popularity of PC games in Singapore in the late eighties and early nineties. Students often took buses to Funan Centre after school to try out new PC games such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Bandit Kings. Before IT shows became regular events in Singapore, computer fairs were held at Funan Centre by Atari, Lingo and Amtech to showcase their latest computer models.

funan centre 1994

Over the years, Funan Centre was given several major renovations. In 1992, it underwent a $44-million makeover. The mall was also renamed twice. It became known as Funan The IT Mall in 1997, and had its name changed again in 2005 as Funan DigitaLife Mall. It is expected to close by mid-2016 to be redeveloped into an “experiential creative hub”.

Previously it was well-known as Hock Lam and for its beef noodles. Then it represented computers and IT. What will Funan become next time? We shall know in the future.

Published: 13 December 2015

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Bidding Farewell to Siglap’s Last Standing Flats

The days have come to bid farewell to the last standing flats at Siglap. Also known as the Siglap Fire Site Housing Estate in its early days, the four blocks stood out in Siglap, where it is almost exclusively filled with private residences such as landed houses and condominiums.

siglap flats2 2015

The story of the Siglap flats began in the early sixties, when a large fire broke out at the junction of East Coast Road and Siglap Road. The fire, occurred on 5 February 1962 and caused by the letting off of firecrackers on the first day of the Chinese New Year, burnt down some 50 attap houses and affected 79 families with 465 residents at Siglap.

The disaster prompted the local community to rally in donations and other assistance. Political parties chipped thousands of dollars. A Kampong Siglap Fire Relief Committee was set up to help the homeless residents through a building fund. Variety concerts were held at the Badminton Hall and Happy World Stadium to raise the necessary money. The Siglap Secondary School was used as a relief centre, and the Singapore Council of Social Welfare and Lee Foundation stepped in with food, drinks as well as new books for students who had lost their textbooks in the fire.

siglap fire 1962

When the fire was eventually put out, the victims, most of them fishermen, rushed to the ruins of their previous homes to salvage whatever they could. It was a different period for many. The Housing and Development Board (HDB), formed just two years earlier in 1960, decided to act fast. It proposed to build 80 units of single-storey temporary terrace houses without modern sanitation at the site of the fire. This plan was later changed to a building scheme of four blocks of five-storey flats, comprising of 136 two-room units, 10 shops and a clinic, all equipped with modern sanitary fittings.

The development was hindered by the resettlement of the residents and the refusal to move by some squatters. It took HDB eight months to build the flats. By December 1963, the four Siglap blocks, costing $500,000 in construction, were ready. The victims of the fire were given the priority in accommodation.

siglap flats 1960s

siglap 1963

For more than 50 years, the little quiet and peaceful housing estate largely remained the same. The flats were never upgraded; they had no lifts and the residents of each block made use of a single staircase to get to their homes. Many shopkeepers had maintained their shops since the sixties, and the residents were contended living in the little estate that was self sufficient enough with the barber shop, clinic, photo studio and eateries.

In fact, many residents were reluctant to leave their homes when the Selective En-Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) for the Siglap flats were announced in November 2011. They appealed unsuccessfully against the location, which is at Chai Chee Road, of their new homes. But since then, many households had shifted, and by November 2015, the Siglap flats were almost vacated.

When the Siglap flats get demolished eventually, likely by early next year, they will bring a small slice of Siglap history with them, just like the former Kampong Siglap, old Siglap Market and the Ocean Cinema.

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Published: 29 November 2015

Posted in General, Historic | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

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.

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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.

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Published: 19 November 2015

Posted in General | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Posted in Exotic | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments