In the late sixties, the Singapore government launched several urban renewal projects at the city and downtown areas. The land between Beach Road and Nicoll Highway, dubbed as the Golden Mile, was one of the options for development. By 1973, a new uniquely-shaped building Woh Hup Complex – better known as Golden Mile Complex – was completed at the site.
The $18-million Woh Hup Complex was often lauded as an architectural wonder – its stepped terraces, designed to increase ventilation and natural light within the building, created a distinctive image of a sloping façade from far and made it a prominent landmark along Beach Road.
The design and development of the complex was mostly carried out by homegrown companies. Singapura Developments, one of Singapore’s major private developers, was awarded with the project, who then hired local architect firm Design Partnership (DP Architects today) and contractor Woh Hup to design and construct the building.
Woh Hup Complex was opened on 28 January 1972, ahead of its completion, by YK Hwang, the managing director of the Industrial and Commercial Bank. At the time of its completion, it was one of the first large-scale mixed developments in Singapore. The 16-storey building was an integration of commercial, recreational and residential uses, where the top seven floors were occupied by residential units, fourth to ninth storeys by offices, and the first to third levels made up of shops that collectively formed the Golden Mile Shopping Centre. These strata-titled retail shops and offices were marketed by the developer in 1971 to attract interested buyers.
In 1974, the 24-storey Golden Mile Tower was opened beside Woh Hup Complex. Its Golden Theatre was once Singapore’s largest cinema with 1,500 seating capacity. The two neighbours shared an underpass that linked the buildings together. Woh Hup Complex became more popularly known as Golden Mile Complex.
The shops at Golden Mile Complex in the seventies and eighties sold a wide range of products, ranging from electrical appliances, cameras and watches to videotapes, jewellery and gym equipment. There were also technical training centres offering courses. One specialised shop, one of the only three in Singapore, offered sporting firearms including airguns, rifles, pistols and revolvers.
This “selling everything under one roof” concept reflected a change in the locals’ shopping habit. Singaporeans could now drive to the complexes, buy all they need in those buildings, and drive away without having to go to another part of the city area.
Travel agencies had also moved into Golden Mile Complex; it was a common sight to see Malaysia-bound coaches lining up outside the complex, which in the seventies and eighties also functioned as the unofficial terminal for buses plying the Singapore-Hat Yai (Thailand) route. It would take as much as 18 hours for the buses to travel between the two countries. Thai vendors often brought in newspapers, magazines and other Thai goods to sell at Golden Mile Complex.
Golden Mile Complex’s residential units were also in hot demand as they commanded a great sea view. A typical two-roomed unit at the complex would fetch about $73,000 in 1979.
Golden Mile Complex’s affiliation with Thai cuisine and culture probably began in 1983 when First Thai Siam Snack House, the first and possibly only snack bar in Singapore that offered Thai food, opened at the ground level of the complex. At the same period, the travel agencies at Golden Mile Complex also heavily advertised holiday destinations and affordable air tickets to Bangkok, Pattaya and Hua Hin.
With more and more Thai stalls and shops popped up, food critics praised the dining and shopping experience at Golden Mile Complex as like being at Thailand’s famous bustling Pratunam. By the mid-eighties, Golden Mile Complex was nicknamed the “Little Thailand” or “Little Bangkok”, popularly known for its authentic and reasonably-priced Thai cuisine. It also became a gathering enclave for the Thai residents and workers in Singapore, who felt at home with their familiar Thai music, food and merchandise at the complex. In 1987, there were about 20,000 Thai workers in Singapore, which increased to 50,000 by the mid-nineties.
In the 2000s and 2010s, mookata, a Thai barbeque steamboat, had rapidly garnered a following in Singapore. Golden Mile Complex, over the years, had numerous popular mookata restaurants and eateries occupying the first and second floor of the building.
Golden Mile Complex was plagued by maintenance issues in the eighties, to the extent that 32 angry tenants and proprietors came together in 1983 to submit a petition to the building’s facility management to complain about the frequent water supply disruptions, lift breakdowns, peeling wall paints and defective corridor lights. In 1984, the shopowners and residents had to endure heat and stuffiness for several months after the building’s air-conditioning system broke down.
The toilets at Golden Mile Complex were rated in 1988 as one of the dirtiest and most poorly-maintained toilets in Singapore. In 1991, a fire damaged the building’s generator room, causing a massive power outage for days.
Another issue was the illegal immigrants working and staying at Golden Mile Complex. The immigration officers collaborated with the police to carry out multiple raids at the complex over the years, with one of the largest operations launched in 1989. 370 suspected illegal Thai immigrants were apprehended, where 160 were charged for overstaying, having no documents or having forged work permits. As many as 10,000 illegal Thai workers were sent home under the amended Immigration Act that came into effect on 31 March 1989.
In 1990, a rumour spread like wildfire at the Thai workers’ dormitories and their hangout spots at Golden Mile Complex. In just 10 weeks, 10 young and healthy Thai workers were found to have died in their sleep. It was likely due to the inhaling of the emitted toxic fumes when the workers cooked glutinous rice in PVC pipes.
But many Thais believed it was due to an evil female spirit that took the victims’ life. Some would paint their fingernails and even apply make-ups before going to sleep, so that the ghost would mistaken them as women. A deeper look at these unfortunate incidents revealed the poor and harsh living conditions of these workers. Many had to squeeze into small bunks and resorted to unconventional ways of cooking in order to save money.
By the mid-nineties, the image of Golden Mile Complex swiftly deteriorated in the eye of the public. Rowdy drunkards, frequent brawls, sleazy nightclubs and high-profile stabbing and murder cases were some of the negative impressions portrayed by the place. The complex was also poorly maintained with dirty toilets and stained corridors. Some of the residents patched their balconies with unsightly zinc sheets and wooden boards.
From an architectural marvel in its early days, Golden Mile Complex had become, to some people, an eyesore and was even labelled as a vertical slum by Dr Ivan Png, the Member of Parliament between 2005 and 2006. There were even suggestions to demolish the complex.
After the 2000s, the owners of Golden Mile Complex tried several times to sell the property via en-bloc deals, but without successes. In 2021, Golden Mile Complex was officially gazetted as a conserved building. A year later, with 80% of the strata-titled shop and unit owners agreeing to the deal, the complex was acquired for $700 million by a consortium made up of Far East Organization, Perennial Holdings Private Limited and Sino Land.
The new owners are allowed to rejuvenate the building with incentives offered by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), such as adding a tower of floor area not more than one-third of the existing building and a renewal in its 99-year lease.
Golden Mile Complex shall present its new clean image in a few years’ time. But “Little Thailand”, and all its accompanying memories, good or bad, were gone forever.
Published: 26 May 2023