The “King” of Bedok, Villa Haji Kahar and the Bedok Rest House

Longtime residents of Bedok may have heard of a grand residence that was once owned by the “king” of Bedok.

It was the Villa Haji Kahar, located at Jalan Haji Salam, off Upper East Coast Road. The grand private residence was named after its first owner Haji Kahar Abdul Ghani (1863-1940), also known as Haji Kahar Palembang due to his birth place in Indonesia.

The “King” of Bedok and his Villa Haji Kahar

Haji Kahar arrived at Singapore at an age of around 20. He took up many odd jobs before starting a barter trading business at North Bridge Road, establishing a trade relationship with his brother at Palembang. It took Haji Kahar 20 years before he had amassed enough wealth to venture into property, coconut and nutmeg plantations, and other businesses.

Haji Kahar even became the first Malay to clinch a distribution license to sell HMV-label albums in his other shop at Muscat Street. In the expansion of his business, Haji Kahar sent his son Haji Mohamed to Jakarta to establish a “triangular” trade between Singapore, Palembang and Jakarta.

villa haji kahar at jalan haji salam

In the 1900s, Haji Kahar bought 30 acres of land at Bedok from a Chinese nutmeg plantation owner. The parcel of land, completed with small houses and fruit orchards, cost him about $7,000. Earning a generous $1,000 per month collected from the leasing of his properties, a 50-year-old Haji Kahar decided to dedicate more of his time in the religious study. He would later become active as a Qur’anic teacher at Masjid Al-Taqua at Jalan Bilal, a short distance away from his grand Bedok residence.

At the peak of his business, Haji Kahar was known as the “Raja” (“King” in Malay) of Bedok. He was one of the largest landowners in the vicinity, and had two horse-drawn carriage to ferry him between Bedok and the city. He would later spend $1,190 to replace his carriage with Ford cars.

villa haji kahar at jalan haji salam 2005

Despite being extremely wealthy, Haji Kahar was a humble and low-profiled person. The rich entrepreneurs, in the early 20th century, tend to own large parcels of lands and have roads named after them. Haji Kahar, however, refused to accept the renaming of Jalan Haji Salam to Jalan Haji Kahar due to the respect he had of the eldest and most respected villager at Kampong Bedok.

Haji Kahar had a total of 16 children; three with his wife at Palembang, and 13 with his Singapore wife. The decision to build the grand Villa Haji Kahar was motivated by his wishes to bring the family close together. Haji Kahar died in September 1940 at an age of 78, after three years of illness.

villa haji kahar at jalan haji salam 2014

villa haji kahar at jalan haji salam2 2014

After his death, his family did not stay in Villa Haji Kahar for long. In 1942, the Japanese forced the family to sell the estate for $22,000. When the Japanese surrendered three years later, the family’s fortune vanished overnight as the Japanese currency became worthless.

Today, Villa Haji Kahar still stands proudly at Jalan Haji Salam, hidden among the new semi-detached houses. The villa was likely to have changed hands many times after it was sold by Haji Kahar’s family in the 1940s. Compared to Singapore’s other grand private residences built in the early part of the 20th century, Villa Haji Kahar’s history is relatively less well-known.

There is also a well-maintained kampong-styled house beside the villa.

bedok avenue kampong house

bedok avenue kampong house2

bedok avenue kampong house3

Bedok Corner and the Land Reclamation

The Bedok Corner, referring to the sharp bend between Bedok Road and Upper East Coast Road, has been a favourite hangout for the older generations of Singaporeans and also perhaps the British military veterans who had once stationed in Singapore in the fifties and sixties. Many still have fond memories of the place, where the iconic Bedok Rest House was located.

bedok rest house 1960s

However, subsequent land reclamation projects would alter the appearance and scenic views of Bedok Corner. In 1963, a small-scaled land reclamation project was carried out by the government at the 14km East Coast Road to add 19 hectare of land.

A much larger project called the East Coast Reclamation Scheme was launched in April 1966. This massive land reclamation project, undertaken by the Housing Development Board (HDB), would take almost 20 years and a total cost of $613 million to complete. More than 1,525 hectare of land and 1km of coastline were added, using sand, soil, gravels and rocks taken from the hills at Siglap and Tampines.

east coast reclamation 1966

Wyman’s Haven, Long Beach and the Bedok Rest House

The massive land reclamation saw the decline of a popular Chinese restaurant called Wyman’s Haven, located near the junction of Jalan Haji Salam and the Upper East Coast Road. The restaurant was said to have opened in the 1930s and its business flourished after the Second World War, especially in the late fifties. Housed in a large seafront bungalow, the patrons of the restaurant enjoyed a splendid view of the coastline. But the beautiful seaside scenery was gone by the late sixties due to the land reclamation, and this led to the eventual closure of Wyman’s Haven.

bedok rest house long beach seafood 1992

bedok rest house long beach seafood2 1992

The Long Beach Seafood Restaurant, on the other hand, survived the effects of the land reclamation. It was established in 1946, serving seafood cuisine popular to both the British military personnel and the locals. Housed at the Bedok Rest House, both the building and restaurant became one of East Coast’s most famous landmarks, well-remembered by many for the sandy beach, icycold beer, chilli crab and tea dances.

Although the seaside scenery and vibrant shoreline were altered by the late sixties, Long Beach and its large variety of seafood dishes remained popular with the locals. Its business at the Bedok Corner lasted more than 40 years, before it had to be shut down in the early nineties due to the redevelopment plans in the vicinity. In 1993, the Bedok Rest House and its Long Beach restaurant were demolished, making way for the development of a private residential district called Eastwood Park. The terrace houses of Eastwood Park were completed by 1998.

demolition of bedok rest house 1993

Kampong Bedok Laut and the Mosques

Bedok Corner used to have two kampong mosques called Masjid Al-Taqua and Masjid Bedok Laut. Masjid Al-Taqua still exists today but Masjid Bedok Laut was demolished along with Kampong Bedok Laut in the early nineties. Kampong mosques are a rarity in present-day Singapore. Unlike modern mosques which integrate large gleaming Indo-Saracenic-styled domes into their roof designs, kampong mosques were much simpler, often capping only a small dome over a pitched zinc roof.

map of bedok  corner 1981

Located at Jalan Bilal, Masjid Al-Taqua had a long history, and was the mosque where Haji Fahar taught his Qur’anic studies in the 1930s. In 1984, the villagers in the vicinity were dismayed when they heard their place of worship, which could accommodate a congregation of 700, would be demolished. It turned out to be a misunderstanding as the government was acquiring the lands around Jalan Bilal but leaving Masjid Al-Taqua intact. After confirming with the Land Office that the mosque would stay on, the mosque trustee approved a $120,000 project to repair the aging building.

masjid al-taqua at jalan bilal 1980s

masjid bedok laut at bedok road2 1980s

Masjid Bedok Laut, on the other hand, did not survive the redevelopment. It was demolished along with the Bedok Rest House and Kampong Bedok Laut. Today, the vicinity is occupied by the private residences of Eastwood Park.

There was also a Muslim cemetery which served as the burial ground for the Muslim residents living at the kampongs around Jalan Bilal, Jalan Haji Salam, Jalan Greja and Jalan Langgar Bedok. It was located near the 14km mark of Upper East Coast Road, beside a Chinese Teochew cemetery named Hwa San Teng (or Wah Suah Teng).

The Bedok Muslim cemetery had about 4,000 graves; its last burial was done in the mid-seventies. Both cemeteries were later exhumed. Their sites were eventually redeveloped into Kew Green Condominium in the late nineties. Hwa San Road, the dirt road that led to the cemeteries, was expunged during the redevelopment.

kampong bedok laut 1980s

Kampong Bedok Laut, whose name means Bedok Sea Village, was mainly made up of Malay families; many of them worked as fishermen for generations. Leaving for the sea in early mornings, the fishermen would return by noon with their catches, and laid them along the shoreline to sell to other villagers. The land reclamation project between the sixties and eighties, however, took away the livelihood of many fishermen, who had to switch to hawking of food, drinks and cigarettes. When the kampong was demolished, many of the street hawkers were relocated to the Bedok Corner Hawker Centre.

The face of Bedok Corner has been changing constantly in the past 50 years. In the next decade, it will receive yet another makeover with the opening of Downtown Line’s Sungei Bedok MRT Station.

Published: 02 March 2015

Posted in Historic | 4 Comments

Then and Now, The Public Holidays of Singapore

There are some public feedback recently about reinstating Thaipusam as a public holiday. Why was Thaipusam removed as a public holiday in the first place? Here’s look at the changes in Singapore’s public holidays in the past few decades.

The public holidays for the Chinese, Malay and Indians in Singapore, since the 19th century, were the Chinese New Year, Hari Raya Puasa and Thaipusam. In the 1920s, both the local Muslim and Hindu communities petitioned to the British colonial government to add Hari Raya Haji and Deepavali to the list of annual holidays in Singapore. The Legislative Council eventually approved the amendment to the Holiday Ordnance after years of discussions. Hari Raya Haji was declared as a holiday in 1928, whereas Deepavali was added to the holiday list a year later.

Singapore’s Public Holidays during the British Colonial Era

During the British colonial times, there were a total of 16 public holidays, excluding the bank holidays, in Singapore. In 1950, there were calls to add the Sikh, Buddhist and Muslim festivals of Vaisahki (also known as the Punjabi New Year), Vesak and the Birthday of Prophet Mohamed to the annual public holidays’ list, but it was rejected by the Legislative Council. The colony’s 16 public holidays in 1953 were:

singapore public holidays 1953

Some of the holidays were common to those that were celebrated in the United Kingdom, such as the Bank holidays, Queen’s Birthday and Whit Monday.

The Bank holidays were first proposed by British politician and banker Sir John Lubbock in 1871 as designated holidays with pay. During the Bank holidays, the banks and other businesses would be closed, but the government offices would remain opened. The Queen’s Birthday, on the other hand, was not the monarch’s actual birthday and was usually marked in the late May or early June to coincide with the better weather for celebration in the United Kingdom.

queen's birthday parade at padang 1955

Singapore’s Public Holidays during Self-Government

3 June 1959 was marked as Singapore’s National Day when Singapore officially gained full self-government from the British. The Queen’s Birthday was removed, but the bank holidays, although not official public holidays, were retained. The 1961 public holidays of Singapore were fixed as:

singapore public holidays 1961

Singapore’s Public Holidays during the Merger

When Singapore became part of Malaysia between 6 September 1963 and 9 August 1965, the declared public holidays for the state (in 1965) were:

singapore public holidays 1965

As a state, there were 4 official public holidays for Singapore, and an additional 11 federal holidays.

In 1965, the Chinese New Year coincided with Hari Raya Puasa. This double celebration of festivals for the Chinese and Malay would be repeated in 1996, 1997 and 1998. But in the mid-1960s, especially after two major racial riots in 1964 that rocked Singapore, it was a rare opportunity for the society to come together in celebrating both festivals and emphasizing the importance of peace and harmony among various communities.

hari raya puasa eve at geylang serai 1961

firecrackers during chinese new year 1968

Singapore’s Public Holidays after Independence

After independence, Singapore’s list of public holidays underwent another change. The Birthday of Yang di-Pertuan Agong was no longer valid and the Malaysia Day was replaced by Singapore’s own National Day on 9 August. This time, the National Day represented the full independence of Singapore rather than self-government.

The Parliament of Singapore also passed the Holidays Bill in December 1966 to officially abolish the bank holidays. In the following year, Singapore’s public holidays, totalled 16, were chosen as:

singapore public holidays 1967

Thaipusam Removed as Public Holiday

Thaipusam, the Hindu festival where many men carried kavadi and walked for long distances from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple at Serangoon Road to Tank Road’s Sri Thandayuthapani Temple, had been celebrated in Singapore since the late 19th century.

There were some controversies about the festival, however. In 1957, the Veeramma Kaliamman Temple’s trustee G.M.K. Sabai called for the abolition of Thaipusam as a public holiday. His call was supported by several influential Hindu leaders, who argued that “Thaipusam was a sectional festival important only to the devotees of Lord Subramania, most of whom were Chettiars.” They suggested that the holiday could be replaced by Puthandu, the Tamil New Year, which usually fell in mid-April.

thaipusam 1960s

In 1968, the Parliament of Singapore passed the Holidays (Amendment) Bill, which sought to reduce the number of annual public holidays in Singapore in order to improve productivity. It was a time of uncertainty, as the new-born nation of Singapore faced probable economy upheavals and high unemployment rates that followed the withdrawal of the British armed forces. After discussions with various religious communities, the religious festivals that continued to be accompanied with public holidays were Hari Raya Haji, Hari Raya Puasa, Deepavali, Good Friday, Christmas Day and Vesak Day. The holidays of Thaipusam and the Birthday of Prophet Mohamed were removed.

For years, the local Hindus petitioned for the reinstatement of their religious holiday. In 1970, the University of Singapore’s Indian Cultural Society sent a delegation to the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Social Affairs to explore the possibility of reinstating Thaipusam as a public holiday, but without success.

singapore public holidays 1973

Since its first recession in 1985, Singapore had experienced and survived several global economic crises. Today, it ranks among the highest in the Global Competitiveness Index and GDP (gross domestic product) per capita in the world. The times of uncertainty that Singapore once faced as a new nation no longer existed, and the targetted economic progress and high productivity had been achieved. After almost half a century, perhaps it is time to reinstate Thaipusam as one of Singapore’s official public holidays.

Published: 21 February 2015

Posted in Cultural, Historic | 1 Comment

The Forgotten Diamond of Taman Jurong

The four blocks at Yung Kuang Road (Block 63-66) used to be the pride of Taman Jurong. Not only that, at 21 storeys, they were the tallest flats at Jurong when they were completed in the 1970s, the unique diamond shape formed by the four blocks (when viewed from the top) also gained them an iconic landmark status in the vicinity due to their easily recognisable appearance.

A New Industrial & Residential Estate

In 1960, the Singapore government acquired around 2,440 acres of land in Choa Chu Kang, Tuas and Peng Kang to be used as part of the planned 5,000-acre Jurong new town and industrial estates. The $45-million project was spearheaded by Goh Keng Swee, Hon Sui Sen and Dr Albert Winsemius to develop the swampy area into Singapore’s first industrial district, completed with different sectors in shipbuilding, steel milling, cement and textile manufacturing.

chartered industries of singapore 1960s

national steel and iron mill 1960s

The Economic Development Board (EDB) was set up to carry out the development plans, although its role was passed to the new Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) later in 1968. To encourage the workers in the industrial estates to stay near their workplaces, Taman Jurong was established in 1964 as a residential site for the rapidly increasing population. A network of roads and public amenities in flats, markets, schools and playgrounds were built.

The early residential blocks at Taman Jurong, constructed in the sixties, were mostly kept below five storeys in their heights. Jurong Town Primary School, one of the earliest primary schools at Taman Jurong, was officially opened in March 1968 at Taman Jurong 4 (later renamed as Hu Ching Road) by Ho Kah Leong, the Member of Parliament for Jurong. The school would merge with Yung An Primary School and Merlimau Primary School to form Lakeside Primary School in January 2003.

construction of 1-room flats at taman jurong 1963

To attract the workers to move and stay at Taman Jurong, recreational facilities were also added in the late sixties. In 1967, picnic grounds, a boathouse and an artificial lake adjoining Jurong River were built. Regular events were held at the boathouse, with TV and radio artistes invited for performances and refreshments provided.

Renaming of the Roads

When they were first built, the roads at Taman Jurong were simply given numerical names, such as Taman Jurong 1, 2, 3, 4, up to Taman Jurong 12 (There was no Taman Jurong 11). To suggest “industrialisation” and “progress” in the new industrial estates, and also a bright future for the residents living in their new homes at Taman Jurong, the Street Naming Committee decided, in 1970, to give the roads new names:

  • Jalan Peng Kang to Corporation Road
  • Taman Jurong 1 to Corporation Drive
  • Taman Jurong 2 to Yuan Ching (园景, means “scenery of gardens”) Road
  • Taman Jurong 3 to Yung Ping (永平, “eternal peace”) Road
  • Taman Jurong 4 to Hu Ching (湖景, “scenery of lakes”) Road
  • Taman Jurong 5 to Yung Kuang (永光, “eternal bright”) Road
  • Taman Jurong 6 to Tao Ching (岛景, “scenery of islands”) Road
  • Taman Jurong 7 to Yung Sheng (永升, “eternal rise”) Road
  • Taman Jurong 8 to Ho Ching (河景, “scenery of rivers”) Road
  • Taman Jurong 9 to Yung An (永安, “eternal serene”) Road
  • Taman Jurong 10 to Shan Ching (山景, “scenery of hills”) Road
  • Taman Jurong 12 to Tah Ching (塔景, “scenery of pagodas”) Road

Due to the residential development, Shan Ching Road was later expunged and Kang Ching (岗, “scenery of ridges”) Road was added.

The “Industrialised” Road Names

The naming of the new roads at the industrial estates beside Taman Jurong came from a different aspect. The names suggested the “industrialisation” and “progress”, and the constant striving for economic success by the new nation in Singapore.

jurong industrial estate roads 1972

The roads were also named using the four official languages of Singapore in order to also reflect a multiracial and multilingual society. For example, (Jalan) Tukang and (Jalan) Jentera, referring to “craftsman” and “mill” in Malay respectively, were named.

Neythal Road was formerly home to the Singapore Textile Industrial Limited, one of the largest factories in early Jurong. To reflect on the new textile industry, the road was actually named as Nesavu Road, in which nesavu refers to “weaving” in Tamil. However, due to its difficult pronunciation, it was later renamed as Neythal Road. Neythal means “to weave as clothes” in Tamil.

jurong industrial estate development 1960s

The roads at present-day Soon Lee, Wan Lee, Kwong Min and Fan Yoong were all given auspicious names, as they literally mean “successfully” (顺利), “lucrative”, (万利), “promising” (光明) and “prosperity” (繁荣).

Jurong or Peng Kang?

The Jurong Industrial Estate was in fact developed within the Peng Kang (平港) vicinity, which was roughly situated between West Coast and Tuas. The vicinity of old Jurong, where Jurong West is today, was actually located north of Peng Kang. Jalan Peng Kang, later renamed as Corporation Road, was the main road leading to Peng Kang. Today, the name Peng Kang is a stranger to most Singaporeans, and has largely vanished into history with the exception of Peng Kang Hill at Pasir Laba.

jurong industial estate 1960s

Demolition of Old JTC Flats

When EDB was given the task to develop Taman Jurong between 1962 and 1968, it oversaw the construction of a total of 4,465 housing units and 150 shops. When JTC took over the responsibility in 1968, another 5,021 housing units and 40 shops were built. By the end of 1975, the residential district of Taman Jurong, bounded by Corporation Road, Yung Ho Road and Yuan Ching Road, was considered officially completed.

taman jurong 1970s

Out of the total 9,486 housing units, 2,104 were 1-room units, 1,522 were 2-room, 818 were 4-room and only 2 were 5-room. The 3-room units were the most common housing size; there was a total of 4,810 3-room units.

In 1982, the Housing Development Board (HDB) took over the management of JTC flats. By then, the aging low-storey EDB and JTC flats were mostly used as rental units to the lower-income population, and the frequent blackouts and disruptions in water supplies caused great inconvenience to the residents.

taman jurong 1990s

In the mid-eighties, Singapore was hit by its first post-independence recession. HDB nevertheless put up a renewal plan to replace the old EDB and JTC flats with new high-rise 4-room and 5-room flats. At the same time, new units at both Jurong East and West were built and made available for the residents. The demolition of the old flats would be carried out in six phases, and more than 100 blocks were pulled down, with the first batch at Corporation Road, Yung Ho Road and Yung Loh Road affected.

yung kuang road jtc flats 2012

Only a few blocks of JTC flats at Taman Jurong still survive today; the most recent to be bulldozed were the H-shaped flats at Yung Kuang Road in 2013.

The Diamond Icon

The four 21-storey blocks at the junction of Corporation Road and Yung Kuang Road, forming an unique diamond shape, were an eye-catching landmark at old Taman Jurong. Constructed at a cost of $4 million, it stood out in the early seventies, as most of the flats at the vicinity were low-storey blocks. The diamond-shaped flats easily became Taman Jurong’s centre of focus in both residential and commercial activities.

taman jurong diamond flats

taman jurong diamond flats2

taman jurong diamond flats3

Fondly known as the diamond blocks or “ji sap ek lau” (twenty-one storey in Hokkien), the four flats were previously under the demolition plan, but are now used as rental flats for the foreign workers and lower-income families. Most of the shops at the first levels had closed. The NTUC Fairprice, however, is still going strong today. Officially opened in May 1983 by the former Minister for Communications Ong Teng Cheong, it is one of the oldest NTUC Fairprice outlets in Singapore.

An unique feature about the older Taman Jurong flats was that, unlike the new HDB flats elsewhere, void decks were uncommon. Most of the former EDB and JTC flats, due to their low-storey designs, had their first levels occupied either by housing units or shops.

taman jurong diamond flats4

Taman Jurong also had its private hospital. Named Jurong Hospital, it was located at the junction of Corporation Drive and Yung Kuang Road and was the only private hospital in the western part of Singapore since 1970. With an initial 24 beds, and later increased to 46 in the mid-eighties, it served the factory workers and residents at Jurong. Today, it is known as West Point Hospital.

Published: 28 January 2015

Posted in General, Historic | 11 Comments

The Clock is Ticking on Singapore’s Last Village

kampong lorong buangkok 2015

The Last Kampong on Mainland Singapore

Lorong Buangkok was originally a swampy area. In 1956, a traditional Chinese medicine seller named Sng Teow Koon bought a piece of land at Lorong Buangkok and rented it to several Chinese and Malay families, which gradually formed a kampong over the years.

The closely-knitted kampong went through the racial riots of the sixties. Both the Chinese and Malay residents agreed to look after one another during the turbulent periods and keep the village unaffected by the external chaos. When the peaceful time returned, the village was actively engaged in gotong royong, helping each other in the construction and repairs of houses.

kampong lorong buangkok2 2015

Today, the piece of land that Kampong Lorong Buangkok is standing on, about the size of three football fields, is owned by Sng Mui Hong, the daughter of Sng Teow Koon. Around 28 families are still living in this rustic village, paying tokens as monthly rentals to the landlord. There is also a kampong head, who takes care of the surau, daily prayers and other Muslim affairs within the village.

kampong lorong buangkok3 2015

kampong lorong buangkok4 2015

Flood-Prone Area

Lorong Buangkok has been a low-lying area that is prone to flooding during thunderstorms. So much so that Kampong Lorong Buangkok was once also known as Kampong Selak Kain, which means “lifting up one’s sarong” in Malay, as the residents had to lift up their sarongs to their knee levels in order to walk through the waters during the flooding.

In 1976, the kampong was hit hard by a downpour that lasted three hours. Some 40 Malay families were affected and had their Hari Raya preparation ruined as their beds, furniture and curtains were soiled by the flood water that covered the entire lorong.

kampong lorong buangkok flooded 1976

History of Lorong Buangkok

Lorong Buangkok used to be part of the Punggol constituency, represented by Ng Kah Ting who served as the Member of Parliament (MP) for Punggol for 28 years between 1963 and 1991.

In 1978, after several requests, the government approved a $770,000 project to metal 15 muddy trails at Lorong Buangkok and Cheng Lim Farmways. The upgrading took almost three years. By the early eighties, the residents of Punggol and Lorong Buangkok finally had new tarmac roads flanked by brightly-lit street lamps.

chinese attap house at lorong buangkok 1980s

chicken farm at lorong buangkok 1980s

The Cheng Lim Farmways was a network of roads between farms and plantations at the southern part of old Punggol (where Sengkang’s Anchorvale neighbourhood is today), linked by a small trail named Lorong Buangkok Kechil (kechil means “little” in Malay). Lorong Buangkok had its network of farmways too; there were Buangkok North Farmways 1 to 4 and Buangkok South Farmways 1 to 4.

On the eastern side of Lorong Buangkok were the Seletar East Farmways, which had been redeveloped into the Fernvale neighbourhood of Sengkang. To cross over to either side, the residents and farmers of Lorong Buangkok, Cheng Lim and Seletar East made use of a simple bridge that spanned across Sungei Tongkang, an extension of the main Sungei Punggol.

Sungei Tongkang – From Stream to Canal

For years, the sluggish and narrow Sungei Tongkang was the main cause of the numerous flooding at Kampong Lorong Buangkok. The stream tend to overflow during downpours. In 1979, the Ministry of Environment’s Drainage Division decided to widen and deepen Sungei Tongkang, and convert it into a canal at a cost of around $1.8 million. Works were also carried out at the upper and lower parts of the river to ensure the water flowed smoothly.

Despite the upgrading, the kampong still suffered from occasional floods. It was especially hit hard by one as recent as 2004.

sungei tongkang canal 1979

sungei tongkang canal 2015

All the farmways above-mentioned were expunged by the early nineties, with their vegetable, chicken and pig farms demolished. The clusters of villages scattered around Lorong Buangkok, Cheng Lim and Seletar were also gone, making way for the development of the Punggol and Sengkang New Towns in the late nineties.

The housing estates of Fernvale, Anchorvale and Buangkok Crescent were up and running between 2002 and 2004, surrounding Kampong Lorong Buangkok, the last village standing in the vicinity. A jogging track and park connector were constructed in the late 2000s along the canal that was previously Sungei Tongkang.

lorong buangkok development 2009-2014

Development and Possible Demolition?

By the mid-2014, the vast forested area beside the kampong was bulldozed, confining the Kampong Lorong Buangkok to its remaining strip of vegetation sandwiched between the canal and the cleared land. The new parcel of land is likely to be reserved for an extension of the existing Buangkok Crescent housing estate.

lorong buangkok development 2015

lorong buangkok development2 2015

As for the kampong, it is not sure how much longer it will be able to hang on. After withstanding the test of time for the past 60 years, the clock, for now, seems to be ticking fast on Kampong Lorong Buangkok’s eventual demolition as development is inching ever closer to the last village of Singapore.

Updated: 13 January 2015

Posted in Exotic, General, sglocalflavours | 14 Comments

Farewell to the Former Queenstown Driving Test Centre

Over the years, the old Queenstown has seen its former buildings torn down one by one. Like the Forfar House (1959-1995), Queenstown/Queensway Cinema (1977-1999, demolished in 2013), Commonwealth Avenue Hawker Centre (1969-2011) and many others, the latest building to go is the former Queenstown Driving Test Centre, located between Commonwealth Avenue and Dundee Road. Its 10,500-square-meter site, roughly the size of two football fields, is to be redeveloped with new condominiums.

former queenstown driving centre

Singapore’s Second Driving Test Centre

Built in 1968 at a cost of $285,000, the Queenstown Driving Test Centre was Singapore’s second driving test centre after the one at Maxwell Road. Design with a state-of-the-art concept, the driving centre allowed 14 driving instructors to conduct as many as 300 tests in driving proficiency and Highway Code in a day. This was able to take some pressure off the Maxwell Road Driving Test Centre, which was facing increasing traffic congestion along Maxwell Road by the sixties.

former queenstown driving centre2

former queenstown driving centre8

In early 1969, the Queenstown Driving Test Centre was officially opened by Yong Nyuk Lin, the former Minister for Communications. An interesting trivia about the former driving centre was its driving test method. For the theory portion, the candidate would have to “drive” a miniature toy car on a model designed with traffic lights, pedestrian crossings and road markings. The tester would then ask the candidate questions in order to check his or her responses to different traffic conditions.

l-plated cars along commonwealth avenue 1970s

Beside conducting driving tests, the Queenstown Driving Centre in the early seventies also functioned as a centre for renewal of road taxes and driving licenses for all classes of vehicles. In 1973, the Public Service Vehicles Training School was held at the driving centre, providing refresher courses for bus drivers and conductors on traffic rules, road courtesy, and responsibility, conduct and attitude towards passengers.

former queenstown driving centre3

In January 1974, the Registry of Vehicles passed a new ruling, stating that learner-drivers and motorcyclists must pass their Highway Code before they could be granted provisional licenses. This caused a surge in the number of applicants. The Queenstown Driving Test Centre, by 1976, was facing the same issue as what the Maxwell Road Driving Centre faced in the sixties. As the number of candidates applying for provisional driving licenses increased, the waiting period for its driving tests was stretched to five to six months, compared to the three months’ waiting period at Maxwell Road Driving Centre.

former queenstown driving centre4

former queenstown driving centre5

Due to the increasing demands, two additional levels were added to the Queenstown Driving Centre in 1975. The upgrading project was undertaken by the Public Works Department (PWD), allowing the floor space of the building to increase from 431 to 1,295 square meters. The ground level was converted into a waiting area, a collection centre and offices for the chief tester and cashier, while the second floor was mostly made up of classrooms.

Other Driving Test Centres

In May 1977, in order to decentralise testing centres in Singapore, a driving centre was established at Jurong, the first of such driving centres to be set up in an outlying area. The new driving centre rented its premises from the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) and hired experienced testers from the Maxwell Road and Queenstown driving centres. Learner drivers took their tests conducted around Jalan Ahmad Ibrahim, Jalan Boon Lay, Boon Lay Way and Yuan Ching Road.

A year later, two more driving centres were opened as part of the Registry of Vehicles’ decentralisation plan; the Kampong Ubi Driving Test Centre was set up at Block 26 Eunos Crescent, and the other driving centre was located at Block 7 Toa Payoh Lorong 8.

kampong ubi driving centre 1986

In September 1985, the Singapore Safety Driving Centre was opened at Ang Mo Kio Street 62. The new driving centre came with a modern driving test circuit and facilities that simulated realistic road conditions for the learner drivers. Another similar driving centre was built at Bukit Batok in 1989 at a cost of $9 million.

Conversion into a Police Centre

In 1995, after 28 years of services, the former Queenstown Driving Test Centre was shut down. Its premises were occupied by the Queenstown Neighbourhood Police Centre between 1997 and 2005. Although the building was later leased to private colleges until 2011, many of its rooms still retained the signature Dacron blue colour of the Singapore Police Force.

former queenstown driving centre6

former queenstown driving centre7

Like the Queenstown Driving Test Centre, the Maxwell Road Driving Test Centre was taken over by the Traffic Police in 1978, with its Accident Branch relocated from the Sepoy Lines.

Published: 26 December 2014

Posted in Historic | 6 Comments

Enter a World of Advertisement in Old Singapore

ovaltine advert at new bridge road 1960s

Before the internet era, marketing of products was usually done through advertisements in physical forms, such as billboards, banners or posters put up at prominent locations with high human traffic. Large fonts, colourful themes, eye-catching logos and innovative slogans were commonly used to attract the public’s attention.

advertisement banners at old upper thomson road 1966

chinese action movie advert at temple 1980s

With the successful launch of Television Singapura in 1963, advertisements also found their way to a wider reach to the mass market through television broadcast. In 1964, the television station began selling airtime to the advertisers and sponsors for their TV programs. Other advertising means by the mass media included radios and cinemas.

By the eighties, public transport such as buses also started carrying advertisements of various brands and products.

kodak advert on public bus 1984

Some old brands last till today, others rose and fell. There were some that left deep impressions to many Singaporeans, while the rest were easily forgotten. Here’s a look at some of the classic advertisement posters in Singapore in the past few decades:

tiger beer advert 1933

Brand: Tiger
Advertising for: Bee
Slogan: It’s time for a Tiger
Year: 1933

“Drink more beer”. An advertising slogan like this will probably be disallowed today, but back in the 1930s, it was a catchy phrase to justify that beer was a nutritious and healthy thing to drink. Singapore’s first locally brew beer, Tiger Beer made its debut in 1932, produced by the Malayan Breweries Limited which later became the Asia Pacific Breweries (APB) in 1989. Today, Tiger Beer is sold in 60 countries worldwide.

general electric refrigerator advert 1937

Brand: General Electric
Advertising for: Refrigerator
Slogan: Nothing can be better than the best
Year: 1937

At prices more than $275, only the wealthy in Singapore would be able to afford this back in the 1930s. In fact, the refrigerator was so pricey that the advertising strategy was to convince its customers that the product from USA was a lifetime investment that one could not afford to take a chance with. And it came with a 4-year guarantee too. By then, General Electric was a reputable American brand with a significant history. It was established all the way back in the 1890s. In 1969, it invested a number of manufacturing plants in Singapore.

tiger balm advert 1947

Brand: Tiger Balm
Advertising for: Pharmaceutical products
Year: 1947

Tiger Balm was developed in the 1870s in Burma but was developed into a business empire in the 1920s by Aw Boon Haw (1882-1954), the man who built Haw Par Villa, and his brother Aw Boon Par (1888-1944).

Aw Boon Har was a shrewd businessman and marketing genius. After he established himself in Singapore in 1926, he founded Sin Chew Jit Poh, a popular local Chinese newspaper that always carried the advertisements of his Tiger Balm products. At the openings of his Tiger Balm branches, he had his men dressed in tiger costumes. Aw Boon Har was also frequently seen in his iconic Tiger car on the streets, specially painted in orange with black stripes and fitted with a large metal tiger head.

ck tang department store advert 1959

Brand: CK Tang
Advertising for: Department store
Year: 1959

At a cost of $50,000, CK Tang Department Store was established at the junction of Orchard and Scott Roads in 1958, on a parcel of 1,350-square-metre land bought the legendary Tan Choon Keng (1901-2000). Although the department store faced the Chinese Tai San Ting Cemetery, its convenient location attracted many British housewives who lived at Tanglin. Its iconic green-tiled oriental-looking building was demolished in 1982, and was replaced by the new Tang Plaza.

milo advert 1959

Brand: Milo
Advertising for: Tonic food drink
Slogan: Replaces that energy
Year: 1959

An Australian product introduced in 1934, Milo, owned by Nestlé, was marketed as a tonic food, nutritious beverage and energy drink. It quickly gained worldwide popularity, especially in Singapore where it became a permanent fixture in the kopitiams. Several variations were developed over the years, such as Milo peng (ice Milo), Milo Dinosaur (a glass of ice Milo topped with extra Milo powder) and Milo Godzilla (a glass of ice Milo with ice-cream). In 1984, Milo was produced locally at the Jurong factory.

lee pineapple advert 1959

Brand: Lee Pineapple
Advertising for: Canned food
Year: 1959

From a small family-owned business started in the 1950s, Lee Pineapple is now a famous grower, canner and exporter of canned pineapple and juice to many countries in the world. Owning more than 10,000 acres of plantations in Malaysia, the Singapore company today produces 2.5 million cases of canned pineapple and juice each year, and employs more than 1,000 staffs.

borneo motors austin mini advert 1960s

Brand: Austin Seven/Mini
Advertising for: Automobile
Distributor: Borneo Motors
Year: 1960s

The popular Mini was first produced by the British Motor Corporation in 1959, and was sold worldwide under the brands of Austin Seven and Morris Mini-Minor. The Borneo Motors introduced Austin Seven into the Singapore market in the sixties, and marketed it as an economy car with a reliable engine and hydrolastic suspension.

setron tv advert 1960s

Brand: Setron
Advertising for: Television set
Year: 1960s

With a combined start-up capital of $320,000, a group of businessmen set up the first television set manufacturing plant in Singapore in 1966. The factory, located at Leng Kee Road, began rolling out black and white TV sets. A year later, another Setron factory was opened at the new Tanglin Halt Industrial Estate.

By the seventies, the fast-growing local company had expanded into Malaysia, got listed in the Stock Exchange of Singapore, opened another seven-storey factory at Dundee Road, manufactured coloured TV sets and invested in the production of cassette recorders in a joint venture with Japanese electronic giant JVC. After a glorious decade, Setron eventually went into a decline in the early eighties.

optima typewriter advert 1960s

Brand: Optima
Advertising for: Typewriter
Year: 1960s

German typewriter maker Optima was established as early as 1923. When its factory at Erfurt was destroyed during the Second World War, the company split into two, under the political circumstances that the country was divided into East and West Germany. The original factory was restored, while another factory was set up at Wilhelmshaven. The name Optima was retained by the eastern factory; the western one took up a new brand called Olympia.

The Optima E14, E stands for the Erika models, allowed typing of Arabic alphabet that was used in the Jawi script for the Malay language.

baby stork condensed milk advert 1960s

Brand: Baby Stork
Advertising for: Condensed milk
Year: 1960s

Cans of Baby Stork Condensed Milk were a familiar sight in Singapore provision shops in the sixties. It was manufactured by the Australian Dairy Produce Board using raw material from Australia worth some $2.2 million a year. The products were then distributed by the Malaysia Dairy Industrial Limited, established in Singapore in 1964.

Baby Stork faced stiff competitions against the Dutch Lady and Milkmaid in the sweetened condensed milk business. Dutch Lady was mass-manufactured in 1965 by Pacific Milk Industries (Malaya) Sdn Bhd, which changed its name to Dutch Baby Milk Industries (Malaya) Berhad in 1975, whereas Milkmaid was a popular product by Nestlé.

ricoh camera advert 1960s

Brand: Ricoh
Advertising for: Camera
Year: 1960s

In 1936, Japanese entrepreneur Kiyoshi Ichimura founded Ricoh. The camera was marketed as one with precision workmanship, and equipped with high quality lens, clip-on exposure meter and duo-level focusing and built-in self timer. The prices, however, did not come cheap; each camera was sold for more than $200 in Singapore.

in 1960, Ricoh also came up with a range of auto-focus aim-and-shoot cameras at lower prices. Today, Ricoh is also a producer of printers, projectors and other office supplies.

nestle milk advert 1966

Brand: Nestlé
Advertising for: Powdered milk
Year: 1966

Nestlé, a household brand in Singapore, had been operating its business in the country since 1912. Its wide range of food products, such as Milo, Maggi, Nescafé, Nespray, Kit Kat and others, remains a firm favourite among Singaporeans today.

neptune theatre restaurant advert 1970s

Brand: Neptune
Advertising for: Restaurant
Year: 1970s

Ask any older generation of Singaporeans of their memories of Neptune, and most of them will tell you about the famous topless shows. In the eighties and nineties, Neptune was the only theatre-restaurant in Singapore to feature topless shows, until the arrival of the Crazy Horse cabaret in 2006. But Neptune was more than that. It was also a venue for concerts, wedding dinners, dance performances and even beauty pageants.

Managed by Mandarin Singapore, Neptune was established in 1972, competing against Tropicana in the local entertainment realm. By the mid-eighties, both Neptune and Tropicana experienced decline in their popularity due to a shift in public preferences. The famous Neptune dancers were disbanded in 1986, while Tropicana ceased their business three years later. Neptune held on until 2006, when it also closed for good.

yeo hiap seng advert 1971

Brand: Yeo Hiap Seng
Advertising for: Food and beverage products
Year: 1971

Yeo Hiap Seng was originally a small stall selling soya sauce by its founder Yeo Keng Lian. His sons Yeo Thian In and Yeo Thian Kiew moved to Singapore and established a shop of the same name at the junction of Havelock and Outram Roads. During the Second World War, Yeo Hiap Seng suffered considerable damages but was still able to produce soya sauce to sell to the market. By the fifties, it began to manufacture canned food for Singapore, Malaya, Borneo and Indonesia.

In the sixties, Yeo Hiap Seng added packet drinks and instant noodles to its diversified range of products. A family dispute in the nineties saw the company split up, and was subsequently taken over by property tycoon and one of Singapore’s richest men Ng Teng Fong.

yaohan advert 1974

Brand: Yaohan
Advertising for: Department store
Slogan: Yaohan grows with you
Year: 1974

Japanese retail giant Yaohan established its foothold in Singapore when it opened its first store at the newly-completed Plaza Singapura Shopping Centre in 1974. Popular among the Singaporeans, Yaohan specialised in providing one-stop shopping experiences and selling everything from fresh fish and meat to cosmetic and textiles. The household brand, however, ceased its operations in Singapore after its mother company declared bankruptcy in 1997.

national rice cooker advert 1975

Brand: National
Advertising for: One-push button rice cooker
Slogan: Just slightly ahead of our time
Year: 1975

Probably the first famous brand of Japanese electronics, National was founded in 1925 by Konosuke Matsushita. Its first products were battery-powered bicycle lights, but the brand was better known for its range of rice cookers and electric fans sold in the Asian markets in the seventies and eighties.

National had been under the parent company of Panasonic, which was formerly known as Matsushita Electric Industrial Co Ltd. Audio and video products bearing National Panasonic were once the favourites among the consumers. By the early 2000s, the National brand was gradually being phased out. It finally became officially defunct in October 2008.

knife brand cooking oil advert 1976

Brand: Knife
Advertising for: Cooking oil
Year: 1976

The popular Knife brand cooking oil was manufactured by Lam Soon, a local company with a history that goes back to 1950, when local businessman Ng Keng Soon established his copra and canned food factory at Jalan Jurong Kechil. The Knife brand cooking oil became a household brand and was also sold in the Hong Kong market since 1963.

In 1970, Lam Soon ventured into palm oil sector and set up many plantations in East and Peninsula Malaysia. Over the years, Lam Soon’s business was diversified to soap, detergents, beauty care products, packet drinks and fruit juice.

magnolia milk advert 1975

Brand: Magnolia
Advertising for: Packet milk
Slogan: The long life milk with the fresh milk quality
Year: 1975

The brand of Magnolia was born in 1937. It owned a Singapore dairy Farm at Chestnut Drive in Bukit Timah by the 1940s, which had 180 acres of farmland and 800 imported cows. Magnolia’s classic pyramid packaging design was launched in the fifties, with a promotion slogan called “The Peak in quality in every household”.

Magnolia’s popular snack bars were opened in Singapore and Malaysia in the late sixties; the first being established at the old Capitol Building. In the following three decades, Magnolia expanded its business to include ice-cream, soya milk, packet drinks and desserts.

yaohan katong advert 1977

Brand: Yaohan
Advertising for: Department store
Year: 1977

After the success of its flagship store at Plaza Singapura, Yaohan expanded aggressively, opening numerous branches in Singapore. Yaohan Katong made its debut in 1977, followed by Yaohan at Thomson, Parkway Parade, Bukit Timah and Jurong in the next six years.

plaza singapura advert 1978

Brand: Plaza Singapura
Advertising for: Shopping mall
Year: 1978

One of the largest shopping centres in Singapore upon its completion in 1974, Plaza Singapura started with six levels filled with retail shops that sold a wide range of products. Yaohan was its anchor tenant until 1997 when the giant department store went bankrupt. Plaza Singapura underwent a major renovation in 2012 that cost more than $150 million.

drinho advert 1979

Brand: Drinho
Advertising for: Packet drinks
Slogan: Drinho cools you down
Year: 1979

Also a product by Lam Soon, Drinho came in different flavours, such as soya bean, sugar cane, bandong, chrysanthemum and green tea. The brand is still going strong in the market today.

posb cash on line advert 1979

Brand: POSBank
Advertising for: Self-service banking facility
Slogan: Your national saving bank
Year: 1979

Singapore’s Post Office Savings Bank (POSB) was established as early as 1877. After the country’s independence, the bank was placed under the charge of the Ministry of Communications and, later, the Ministry of Finance. In 1976, POSBank received its 1 millionth depositor, and its total amount of deposit crossed $1 billion.

It launched its Cash-On-Line ATM Services in 1979; the early machines were set up at the POSBank branches at Robinson Road and Orchard Road’s Cold Storage Supermarket. One of its marketing strategies was to give out piggy banks in the model of the signature design of its ATM machines. POSBank was acquired by the Development Bank of Singapore Limited (DBS) in 1998.

nestle milk advert 1979

Brand: Nestlé
Advertising for: Packet milk
Slogan: Today’s milk for today’s family
Year: 1979

maggie chilli sauce advert 1980

Brand: Maggi
Advertising for: Chilli sauce
Year: 1980

When Maggi launched its chilli sauce in the early seventies, it creatively raised public awareness by referring the sauce to a grandmother’s recipe. Calling it the Grandma Test, they invited 50 grandmothers to taste the new chilli sauce. The result was, of course, positive. Soon, Maggi also introduced its sauce in tomato, chilli and garlic, and chilli and ginger flavours.

For decades, Maggi has been the favourite brand for chilli sauce and instant noodle for many Singaporeans. It is owned by Nestlé, whose R&D centre developed the popular “fast to cook, good to eat” Maggi Mee in 1979. In the mid-eighties, Maggi also launched another of its signature products. Named Maggi Cook-It-Right, the instant seasonings largely featured traditional local recipes in beef rendang, Nyonya stewed chicken and assam fish curry.

specialists' shopping centre advert 1982

Brand: The Specialists’
Advertising for: Shopping centre
Year: 1982

One of the oldest shopping centres at Orchard Road, Specialists’ Shopping Centre was home to Hotel Phoenix Singapore and, more famously, the John Little departmental store. It was originally named Specialists due to the concentration of medical specialists in its early days, and it was built in the site of the Pavilion Theatre in the early seventies.

Owned by OCBC Bank, the 30-plus years old mall and hotel were finally demolished in 2008 to be replaced by Orchard Gateway, a new mall with restaurants, offices, hotel rooms and a library linked between two towers.

jacks place advert 1984

Brand: Jack’s Place
Advertising for: Restaurant
Slogan: The unchallenged steak house in town
Year: 1984

Jack’s Place was the first restaurant in Singapore to introduce affordable Western food. It had its roots in the sixties when Hainanese Say Lip Hai came to Singapore to work as a cookboy for the British army stationed at Sembawang. Mastering the techniques of cooking the best roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, Say Lip Hai started his own business in 1967, named Cola Restaurant and Bar to serve the British and Commonwealth troops and their families at Sembawang.

In 1968, Say Lip Hai had his big opportunity when his cooking was appreciated by a British housewife, who recommended him to start his caterings at her husband’s pub at Killiney Road. Her husband was called Jack Hunt. Say Lip Hai agreed if he was given the in-charge of the kitchen operation. When the British couple returned to England in 1974, they sold the business to Say Lip Hai.

One of Jack’s Place’s outlets is located at the Bras Basah Complex. Officially opened in April 1980, it is still going strong after more than 30 years.

klim milk advert 1985

Brand: Klim
Advertising for: Powered milk
Slogan: Klim is milk. Pure, creamy milk
Year: 1985

Spelt backwards of “milk”, klim was a Canadian product developed in the early 20th century to serve as a dehydrated powdered milk that could be kept for weeks without refrigeration. It made its way to Singapore in the 1920s, distributed by Getz Bros & Co. Klim was acquired by Nestlé in 1998.

sara lee cake advert 1985

Brand: Sara Lee
Advertising for: Snack Cakes
Slogan: Thank you Sara Lee
Year: 1985

Many Singaporeans would remember the catchy tune of “thank you Sara Lee” advertised on the TVs in the eighties. The butter and chocolate pound cakes, packed in their characteristic aluminum packaging, were the favourites for many locals. Sara Lee was actually an American brand established way back in 1949, when its founder Charles Lubin named his bakery business after her daughter.

bata advert 1980s

Brand: Bata
Advertising for: Shoes
Slogan: First to Bata, then to school
Year: 1991

And finally we have Bata, the Czech shoe manufacturer which has just recently celebrated its 120th anniversary (and 83 years of establishment in Singapore). The first Bata store was opened in Singapore in 1931 at the Capitol Building along Stamford Road, and in 1964, Bata set up its factory at Telok Blangah. The BM2ooo (Badminton Master 2000), one of its signature products in the eighties and nineties, was a must-have shoes for every school boys and girls.

(Photo credits: National Archives of Singapore, Newspapers Archives of Singapore and Facebook Group “Nostalgic Singapore”)

Published: 12 December 2014

Posted in Cultural, Nostalgic | 7 Comments

A Southern Islands’ Tour – Kusu, St John’s and Lazarus

Kusu, St John’s and Lazarus Islands belong to collective group known as the Southern Islands that is currently taken care by the Sentosa Development Corporation. The other islands under their charge are Sentosa, Pulau Seringat, Sisters’ Islands (Pulau Subar Laut and Pulau Subar Darat) and Pulau Tekukor (also known as Pulau Penyabong or Turtle Dove).

Other than private charters, there is only one ferry service, provided by the Singapore Island Cruise, to fetch the visitors from Marina South Pier to the Kusu and St John’s Islands.

southern island tour

southern islands tour3

Kusu Island

Located about 5.6km south-western of Singapore, Kusu Island is a small island with many variations in its name. Originally called Pulau Sakijang Pelepah, it is also known as Peak Island, Pulau Kusu, Pulau Tembakul, Goa Island as well as “Tortoise Island”.

Kusu Island’s Places of Worship

Records show that as early as the 1870s, Kusu Island was already famous in the region for its “holiness”. And pilgrims had been visiting the island at the start of the 19th century, even before the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles.

In 1923, a wealthy businessman called Chia Cheng Ho built a Taoist temple to dedicate to Tua Pek Kong (or Da Bogong 大伯公), also known as the God of Prosperity to the Chinese, and Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. By the 1930s, in every ninth month of the Chinese calender, thousands of people would flock to the sacred island for their annual pilgrimage trips, taking sampans and motor boats from the congested Johnston’s Pier.

kusu island tua pek kong temple

Arriving at the Tua Pek Kong Temple, the devotees quickly laid out their offerings of candles, joss sticks and money, fruits and “nasi kunyet“, a type of home-made yellow rice, for the gods. In return, they prayed for good health, wealth and safety. A yellow string, to be worn around the wrist, would be given by the shrine to the devotees as a preventive against accidents and evil spirits. Sometimes, flowers were purchased to be used for bathing, so that sins and misfortune can be washed away.

kusu island tua pek kong temple2

The Malay Kramats (holy shrines) were built at the top of a small hill in the early 20th century to commemorate a pious family – Dato Syed Abdul Rahman, his mother Nenek Ghalib and his sister Puteri Fatimah Shariffah. According to the tradition, a pilgrim had to climb 152 steps to reach the Kramats. It was said that if he could not complete the journey, he would be considered impure in his heart. Devotees would usually pray for five blessings, namely wealth, marriage, fertility, good health and harmony.

kusu island kramats

kusu island kramats2

Outside the shrine, numerous stones were hanged on the trees and fences; they represented the vows by the devotees, which would be taken off each year after their pledges were fulfilled. Many devotees still practice this tradition today.

kusu island kramats3

The Legends of Kusu

There were many fascinating legends about Kusu Island; one legend tells how a giant tortoise miraculously turned into an island to help a group of drowning fishermen.

kusu island tua pek kong temple6

Another one was the sworn brotherhood between a Chinese and Malay fisherman after their death. The Chinese fisherman had suffered a fit during a fishing trip and, after his death, was buried at the southern part of Kusu Island by his friends. A tombstone was erected in remembrance of dead fisherman, who was well-liked for his generosity and willingness to help others. The fishermen believed the dead spirit of their friend would continue to help them and other travellers out in the seas, looking after and protecting their safety.

kusu island tua pek kong temple7

As for the Malay Kramat shrine, the legend began when the Malay fisherman became the Kramat of Kusu after he was the first Malay to be buried on the island. One night, all the Malay and Chinese fishermen in the village had the same dream. In their dreams, the two dead fishermen who were buried on the island had become sworn brothers, and their relatives and friends were to visit Kusu once a year to pay respect.

Another legend, a lesser known one, was about the gods of the Tanjong Pagar hill who travelled across the waters to Kusu. Many years ago, the hill that stood opposite of the Tanjong Pagar Police Station had been slated for development. However, due to the difficulties faced during the leveling of the hill, it was decided that dynamites would be used to break up the hill. That night, five Arabs were spotted taking a sampan to Kusu.

kusu island tua pek kong temple8

Before arriving at the island, the passengers vanished, leaving the sampan man shocked and bewildered. The only explanation he could come up with was that the five passengers were the gods of the hill. The legend spread and was favourably received by the public, adding an even “holier” touch to Kusu.

“Grand Old Lady of Kusu Island”

A popular and famous temple caretaker used to live at Kusu Island for as long as 80 years. Ng Chai Hoong, also fondly known as “Bibi”, moved to Kusu from mainland Singapore in around 1870. The Tua Pek Kong Temple then was still a small ramshackle hut. She and her husband See Hong Yew took care of the matters in the temple until the mid of the 20th century.

Ng Chai Hoong passed away in 1950 at a ripe old age of 100. She was buried at the slope of the hillock opposite her home at Kusu. Years after her passing, devotees still visited her grave to pay homage.

kusu island tua pek kong temple3

Development of Kusu Island

In the 1960s, tens of thousands visited Kusu each year. Owners of the tongkangs, charging $2 per head for a two-way trip to the island, were reported to have earned a total of $25,000 in the month of pilgrimage. Hawkers selling food, joss sticks and candles also made their way to Kusu to enjoy a brisk business. With increasing crowds every year, the then-Marine Department in 1965 ruled that, for public safety, permits would be required for boats ferrying the people on pilgrimage trips to Kusu.

kusu island tua pek kong temple4

kusu island tua pek kong temple5

In September 1972, the Sentosa Development Corporation was established to oversee the development of Pulau Belakang Mati (today’s Sentosa) into a holiday resort. The statutory board was also tasked to manage other southern islands, including Kusu and Saint John’s Islands.

kusu island reclaimation 1974The 1.2-hectare Kusu Island was reclaimed and merged with another tiny coral island in 1975, a project undertaken by the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA), to become the current size of 8.5 hectares (about 12 football fields). The strip of sand that used to be under the waters during high tides, separating the Chinese temple and the Malay Kramats, was covered.

Ferry services were also started in the same year, taking visitors to Kusu from Clifford Pier and the former World Trade Centre Ferry Terminal. Amenities such as public toilets, lagoons and a hawker centre were built (vacated today except during the period of pilgrimage).

kusu island former hawker centre

By the late 1970s, Kusu Island had become the second most popular island, after Sentosa, in the Southern Islands group. An estimated 235,000 visited the island in 1979, although a large portion of the visitors were pilgrims. The Sentosa Development Corporation was keen to attract more people to visit the island for picnics and enjoy its idyllic scenery by the lagoons.

St John’s Island

St John’s Island’s original name was Pulau Sekijang Bendera which means “Island of One Barking Deer and Flags”. The island had a significant history, where it was used as a quarantine station, detention centre and rehabilitation centre in the 100 years between 1870s and 1970s.

st john island

Famous Lazaretto

Records show that St John’s Island was designated as a quarantine station as early as the 1870s. In 1873, a cholera epidemic took away 357 lives in Singapore. A year later, Qing China suffered a serious plague outbreak. Due to the massive arrival of Chinese immigrants, a plague hospital was built at St John’s Island, and thorough inspections of ships coming to Singapore were carried out.

More than $300,000 were spent on the development of St John’s Island Quarantine Station since 1903, and as many as eight million people were inspected in the following twenty years.

st john island4

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st john island6

In the early 20th century, St John Island also had its police station, located in front of the long jetty, with a Sikh force of one corporal and twenty men. Equipped with water tanks, pipelines, condensing house and rain water-retention facilities, the island was self-sufficient in the fresh water supplies. Staff quarters, steam boiler houses, storerooms and patient wards were built within the vicinity of the camp.

st john island colonial bungalow

The oldest building on the island was the Superintendent’s sea-facing bungalow. It was constructed in 1894, at the time when China suffered the serious plague outbreak. The single-storey Tudor-styled bungalow is still standing today, although it is in a derelict state after being abandoned for many years.

st john island colonial bungalow2

st john island colonial bungalow3

By the 1920s, the quarantine station was one of the largest in the world, with sufficient accommodation for 6,000 people at the same time. Each year, the island’s two launches, named Hygeia and Crow, carried out disinfection of some 2,000 ships.

A Penal Settlement

St John’s Island was converted into a detention centre in the fifties, after the gradual slowdown of large-scaled immigration. As a detention centre, it housed many political prisoners and secret society members and leaders. After the mid-fifties, the facilities were converted into a rehabilitation centre for drug users and opium addicts.

st john island7

 st john island9

Along with Kusu Island and other Southern Islands, St John’s Island was taken over by the Sentosa Development Corporation in the seventies. The drug rehabilitation centre was shut down in 1975, and over the years, the island was redeveloped into a resort that is popular with campers and students today.

st john island2

st john island3

Lazarus Island

Lazarus Island is located next to St John’s Island. The two islands are now linked together by a paved bund. Lazarus Island has a former name that was similar to St John’s Island’s. It was known as Pulau Sekijang Pelepah, which means “Island of One Barking Deer and Palms”.

lazarus island

The Island’s Past

There used to exist several convict prison confinement sheds on Lazarus Island in the late 19th century. The sheds were left abandoned after a prisoner, who was sentenced to life imprisonment on the island, made a successful escape. In 1902, a fire destroyed all the remaining sheds. The island was caught in another major fire in 1914, where almost all its vegetation was burnt down.

lazarus island3

Like Kusu Island, Lazarus Island had numerous graves of those who had succumbed to various infectious diseases on the nearby St John’s Island. For a period of time, the island was forbidden ground to the public. Others were Muslim tombstones of the former villagers on the island. Today, the graves no longer exist as most of them had been exhumed in the late nineties.

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In the sixties, Lazarus Island was used as a radar base fitted with a light-mast and high-frequency omni-directional range equipment for civil aviation. The equipment generated signals that could reach a distance of 200 miles, where they would be picked up by aircrafts coming into Singapore. The pilots could then accurately guide their planes along the selected tracks, thus ensuring the safety of all aircrafts. A Master Attendant used to be stationed on the island, taking care of the daily operational tasks.

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The “Dollar” Islands

By the seventies, Lazarus Island, along with other Southern Islands, were taken over by the Sentosa Development Corporation. In 1976, some $11 million was spent on the land reclamation of Lazarus Island, Buran Darat and Pulau Renggit. Lazarus Island was earmarked for recreation development, with swimming lagoons, a family holiday camp, game courts, boatels and scuba-diving facilities proposed.

Pulau Renggit was also called Pulau Ringgit. In the early 20th century, some ninety Malay fishermen and a Chinese storekeeper had lived on the island. Their annual rent was a nominal dollar, which gave rise to the name of the island. Pulau Ringgit Kechil was another island forty yards away. Surrounded by a reef, it was a tiny coral isle with less than a dozen trees. Both were eventually absorbed as part of the enlarged Lazarus Island.

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“Children of the Sea”

development of lazarus island 1988Lazarus Island had several Malay villages in the sixties and seventies. In 1963, the villagers welcomed former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew when he visited the island in his Southern Island Tour.

There was even a Pulau Sekijiang Pelepah Malay School, which created a sensational headline in 1970 when they won a host of trophies and smashed many records in the Radin Mas District Primary Schools swimming tournament.

Dubbed as “the Children of the Sea”, the participants were said to have trained in the rough waters around Lazarus Island for two months before the competition.

Development of the Island

By the eighties, Lazarus Island was almost emptied, with most islanders relocated to mainland Singapore. In 1988, the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) invited interested parties to submit proposals to develop Lazarus Island as a beach resort. The development plans, however, never materialised.

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Published: 27 November 2014

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