Changes in the City – Afro-Asia Building

One of the oldest office buildings at the Central Business District (CBD), the Afro-Asia Building will be demolished and replaced by a new 19-storey tower that is expected to cost $320 million in construction. The current Afro-Asia Building, owned by Afro-Asia Shipping Company (AAS), was built in the 1950s.

The Afro-Asia Building was designed in typical post-war modernism with a heavy emphasis in reinforced concrete and glass. At seven storey tall, it towered over rows of shophouses and other buildings, most of them only three storey tall, along Robinson Road when it was completed in the fifties.

By the late seventies and early eighties, the CBD area experienced a property boom with Raffles Place “competing” with Shenton Way in the development of new office building projects. Within a few years, new skyscrapers such as the Raffles Tower, OUB (Overseas Union Bank) Centre, Chartered Bank Building and HSBC (Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank) Building were built.

In 1982, the office space rental at Raffles Place’s buildings and towers reached a high range of $80 to $100 per square metre. The office buildings located at the fringes of Shenton Way and Robinson Road, such as International Plaza and Afro-Asia Building, began to pale in comparison, as they charged at a lower range of $40 to $60 per square metre.

Several unions had made their headquarters at the Afro-Asia Building in the seventies and eighties, including Singapore Bank Employees’ Union and National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). Other tenants were largely made up of banks, shipping and trading companies.

One of the better known tenants of Afro-Asia Building was MPH Bookstores, opened at the first level of the building in 1976. The book publishing company has a long history – it was first established in Malacca and moved to Singapore in 1890. Initially known as the Methodist Publishing House, it changed its name in 1927 to Malaya Publishing House, and Malaysia Publishing House after 1963.

Affected by the redevelopment of its landlord, the bookstore’s Robinson Road branch was closed in March 2017. This was after the closure of its iconic century-old flagship store at Stamford Road in 2002.

There was also a restaurant beside MPH Bookstores. It was once occupied by Pizza Hut between the mid-eighties and nineties. One of the largest Pizza Hut outlets in Singapore then, the popular fast food restaurant, patronised by many office workers during the lunch times, had a 150-seating capacity that cost $600,000 in renovation, including a $40,000 conveyor-belt oven that churned out pizzas in half the time compared to other outlets.

Beside the Afro-Asia Building, other office buildings at Robinson Road that were built during or before the 1950s included the Sindo House, Ramayana Building, AIA (American International Assurance) Building, Denmark House and Finlayson House. Most of them had been demolished or redeveloped. The former Telecoms Building (later Ogilvy Centre; present-day Hotel So Sofitel Singapore), constructed in the 1920s, is currently one of the oldest buildings along Robinson Road.

Published: 17 December 2017

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A Final Look at the Old Woodlands Town Centre

The Old Woodlands Town Centre was closed on 30 November 2017, after 37 years.

The small town centre, with six blocks of low-rise flats (1A-6A), was situated only 500m away from the causeway. Hence, for decades, the Old Woodlands Town Centre acted as the bustling transition town between Singapore and Malaysia, where its booming businesses such as the money exchangers, retail shops and eateries benefited from the large number of travellers and workers commuted daily between the two lands.

In the eighties, almost three-quarter of the shops’ regular customers were Malaysians. Dozens of large and small departmental stores and shops were established, one of which was the Welcome Department Store that sold a wide variety of products in men’s and women’s fashion, toys, houseware and electrical appliances. The biggest player was Emporium, while other smaller department stores included Aik Cheong Department Store and Yee Lian Department Store.

The history of Woodlands’ development began in the early seventies. In the 1970 HDB report, Woodlands was expected to be Singapore’s frontier town for the Malaysian visitors. By the mid-seventies, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) began planning for the building of the Woodlands Town Centre. A section of the dual-carriage Woodlands Road was converted in the late seventies into a single lane Woodlands Centre Road that formed a boundary loop around the new town centre.

The first phase of the Woodlands New Town construction was kicked off in the late seventies, but the progress was slow due to the low demand in its flats. The Woodlands New Town, however, was completed in 1980 at a construction cost of $10 million.

The new town centre was well-furnished and self-sufficient with rows of retail shops, coffeeshops, air-conditioned supermarket, cinemas, library and a HDB area office. The Woodlands branch of the Post Office Saving Bank (POSB) was also opened at the main Block 2. With the completion of the new town centre, HDB was hoping that it could prove to be an attraction for residents to move to Woodlands.

Other amenities were gradually added in the early eighties. The street hawkers were resettled at the town centre’s new hawker centre. In 1981, the Woodlands Bus Interchange at Woodlands Town Centre was completed. Designed with 17 berths, it provided, at the start, five bus services in 169, 178, 181, 204 and 208.

The bustling businesses at Woodlands Town Centre, however, had turned it into a magnet for all sorts of crimes. Snatch thefts and housebreaking were so rampant that some residents branded the place as a “black spot”. But the town centre was struck by its most serious case in 1984 when an arsonist burnt down two shophouses, causing the death of 10 people, many of them died of asphyxiation. It was the worst fire-related tragedy in Singapore since the 1972 fire at Robinson’s that claimed nine lives.

Beside the negative headlines of the crimes happening at the Woodlands Town Centre, its hawker centre was also subjected to constant criticisms. In 1987, the hawker centre was even dubbed as the “dirtiest in Singapore”. It took HDB and the Woodlands Town Centre Merchants’ Association a great deal of effort to educate the stallholders, cleaners and customers to improve the cleanliness of the hawker centre.

In 1988, the HDB, Ministry of the Environment and the Parks and Recreation Department even stop cleaning Woodland Town Centre for a day to demonstrate to its residents and visitors how bad the surroundings would be affected by inconsiderate littering.

The new Bukit Timah Expressway was opened in 1985, connecting the Woodlands Town Centre to the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE) and providing much needed convenience and accessibility to the northern residents of Singapore.

The same period also saw the completion of the Woodlands Town Garden, located opposite of the Woodlands Town Centre. The $8.5-million park was designed with ponds, Chinese pavilions, Malay-style huts, arch bridges, a watch tower and a floating restaurant. An underpass across the Woodlands Centre Road linked the 12.8-hectare park and Woodlands Town Centre together.

The Old Woodlands Town Centre was also a short distance away from Kampong Fatimah, previously one of the last kampongs in Singapore. In 1989, the residents of the idyllic kampong – with its wooden houses on stilts and crude plank bridges linking the houses together – had to be resettled, and its site was acquired by Singapore from the Malaysian government for the extension of the Woodlands Immigration Complex.

In 1992, with the opening of the new Woodlands Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) Line and underground bus interchange at Woodland Square, it became the new town centre for Woodlands. The “old” Woodlands Town Centre gradually lost its importance as the new town’s administrative centre. With minimal upgrading, the old town centre would largely remain the same for the next 25 years.

The fate of the old Woodlands Town Centre was finally sealed in the 2010s, when it was announced that its site would be acquired for redevelopment, as part of the extension project for the Woodlands Checkpoint to ease traffic congestion, improve lane clearance and enhance overall security. In 2012, the town centre’s blocks of low-rise flats were chosen under the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme, and by late November 2017, the residents and shopowners had vacated the place and the town centre closed.

Published: 09 December 2017

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Singapore’s Street of Religious Harmony (Part II) – Waterloo Street

One of Singapore’s oldest streets, Waterloo Street came into existence as early as the mid-19th century. It was originally known as Church Street, but there was a clash of names as there was another Church Street at Raffles Place. Hence, in 1858, the Municipal Council decided to change the name of the road to Waterloo Street to commemorate the famous Battle of Waterloo in 1815, in which the Duke of Wellington scored a decisive coalition victory over Napoleon Bonaparte’s French army.

Waterloo Street is located at the downtown area between Rochor Canal and the mouth of the Singapore River. In the past, the local Chinese called this area “soi po” (小坡), and, for convenient sake, named the parallel roads in the vicinity (North Bridge Road, Victoria Street, Queen Street, Waterloo Street, Bencoolen Street, Prinsep Street and Selegie Road) in numerical order. Waterloo Street was therefore also known as the fourth road, or “si beh lor” (四马路), in Hokkien.

Waterloo Street was once well-known for its Indian street hawkers. Some of the stalls were decades old, passed down by the hawkers’ fathers and grandfathers who had already operated there before the Second World War. However, the popular gourmet attraction that had many of the locals’ favourite Indian rojak, mee goreng, mee rebus and mee siam vanished in the late seventies when the street hawkers were relocated to the hawker centres at Boat Quay and Empress Place.

In 1997, a 100m-long section of Waterloo Street, in front of Sri Krishnan Temple and Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple, was closed permanently for the conversion of the vehicular road to pedestrian walkways. They were part of an unique open-air and pedestrian-friendly Albert Mall, designed by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple (1884-Present)

Currently there are four places of worship along the 550-long Waterloo Street, the most famous being the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple, or more popularly known as si beh lor guanyin beo. Currently one of Singapore’s oldest Buddhist temples, it started as a simple temple in 1884, built to dedicate to Kwan Im or Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. Today, the temple also worships Shakyamuni Buddha and other Chinese deities.

Except for several minor upgrades, the temple remained largely the same for many decades, even surviving the air raids during the Second World War, when it provided refuge for many victims. Between the late seventies and 1982, a new temple building was constructed to replace the previous one that was almost 80 years old.

Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple has always enjoyed a large following of devotees. Many visit the temple during the birthday of the Goddess of Mercy and other important religious dates in the lunar calendar. Chinese New Year is another period in which tens of thousands of devotees can be seen visiting the temple and offering prayers for an auspicious start to the new year.

Such is the popularity and influence of the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple that many shops dealing with religious goods have been established at the nearby Albert Centre and Cheng Yan Court. It is also common to see devotees buying lotus flowers, joss sticks and candles from the street florists or getting their divination lots analysed by the fortune tellers at the compound in front of the temple.

The design of Cheng Yan Court, the Housing and Development Board flats built in the eighties, is inspired by Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple. The public housing, situated just in front of the temple, has incorporated typical Chinese temple’s architecture design in the motifs of its balcony railings and has similar jade-green tiled pitch roofs.

In 2001, Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple was listed by the National Heritage Board as one of Singapore’s historic sites.

Sri Krishnan Temple (1870-Present)

There was a large Hindu migrant community living at the Victoria and Albert Streets in the mid-19th century. It was said that in 1870, a rich devotee named Hanuman Beem Singh set up a statue of Krishna, the God of compassion and love in Hinduism, in a little shrine under a Banyan tree at Waterloo Street. The shrine eventually developed into a makeshift temple with a significant following, and Waterloo Street became known to the local Hindus as Krishnan kovil sadakku, or “street of Krishnan Temple”.

In 1880, Hanuman Beem Singh passed the management of Sri Krishnan Temple to his son Humna Somapah. The temple’s management was passed again in 1904, this time to Joognee Ammal, Humna Somapah’s niece. Joognee Ammal oversaw the construction of the main shrine building with a rising roof (Vimanam) and conducted the consecration ceremony (Maha Kumbabishegam) in 1933. The same year also saw the addition of the temple’s dome, which, at 8m tall, was the highest point of the temple.

Vayloo Pakirisamy Pillai (1894-1984), well-know local Indian businessman, philanthropist and community leader, took over the management of Sri Krishnan Temple in 1935 and expanded the temple with a main shrine building. A concrete roof was added in 1959, and another consecration ceremony was carried out.

Sri Krishnan Temple was further renovated and expanded in the late eighties and 2000s, and two more consecration ceremonies were conducted in 1989 and 2002.

The temple, designed in classic South Indian style and the only Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Krishna, has become an important place of worship for the local Hindu community, especially during the celebrations of Deepavali and Krishna Jayanthi.

Sri Krishnan Temple was gazetted for conservation on 6 June 2014.

Church of Saints Peter & Paul (1870-Present)

Gazetted as a national monument on 10 February 2003, the Church of Saints Peter & Paul sits between Waterloo Street and Queen Street. It is, however, better known as the Queen Street Church.

The Church of Saints Peter & Paul was initiated by Father Pierre Paris to cater to the local Chinese and Indian Catholic followers. Named after St Peter and St Paul of Tarsus, the church building was completed in 1870 as the sister parish of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, located at the junction of Queen Street and Bras Basah Road.

In 1888, the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes was built to cater for the local Indian Catholics, and the Church of Saints Peter & Paul became exclusively for the Chinese Catholics.

In the following 100 years, the church underwent several major renovations and expansions, notably in 1891, 1910, 1969 and 2001. Today, it is Singapore’s second oldest Catholic church after the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd.

Designed in Gothic style that features both St Peter’s and St Paul’s statues, two of the church’s main attractions are its century-old stained-glass windows and bronze bells that were specially fabricated and imported from France and installed in 1869 as part of the church building.

Maghain Aboth Synagogue (1878-Present)

Another place of worship along Waterloo Street is the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, whose name means “Shield of our Fathers”. It is one of the two synagogues in Singapore – the other is the Chesed-El Synagogue located at Oxley Rise.

The oldest synagogue in Singapore as well as Southeast Asia, the Maghain Aboth Synagogue was built and consecrated in 1878 with the aid of Sir Manasseh Meyer (1846-1930), a wealthy and influential Jewish businessman and community leader.

Maghain Aboth Synagogue became an important religious and social centre for the local Jewish community since its completion. Over the years, it had underwent several renovations and restorations. The synagogue’s premises was expanded in 1924, and it was used as a gathering base for Jews to exchange news and information during the Second World War.

In 1998, Maghain Aboth Synagogue was gazetted as a national monument. The seven-storey Jacob Ballas Centre building is the synagogue’s latest addition, having completed in 2007.

Middle Road Church (1894-1930)

The Middle Road Church building was initially used as a Christian Institute, founded by a British army officer called Charles Phillips, to promote Christianity in Singapore. Built in 1872, the small wooden Gothic-style building first functioned as a Christian social centre for young men.

The building was later used by the Methodist missionaries, before it was converted into the Tamil Girls’ School (later Methodist Girls’ School) during the weekdays, and leased to the Foochow Chinese Mission for their Sunday worship services.

When it was inaugurated as the Middle Road Church in 1894, it became the first Methodist Church in Singapore for the Straits Chinese community, where its services were conducted in Baba Malay. British Methodist missionary William Girdlestone Shellabear(1862-1947) was appointed as the church’s first pastor.

By 1897, the church’s attendees had grown to almost 1,000, largely made up of children. A year later, the church bought over the building from the Methodist Girls’ School, and had it dedicated by the Bishop Warne of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1901. By then, the church was popularly known as the Baba Malay Church or Middle Road Church.

In 1930, the church was relocated to Kampong Kapor, and the building was sold to local tycoon Eu Tong Sen (1877-1941). At its new premises, the church was renamed as Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.

For the next few decades, the former Middle Road Church building was either left vacant or used for other purposes – for example, it was converted into a motor workshop in the eighties. Since the nineties, the former church building has been largely utilised as an art or exhibition centre. It was declared as a historic site by the National Heritage Board on 22 January 2000.

Other than the religious landmarks, Waterloo Street of today is also home to many art organisations, such as the Singapore Calligraphy Centre, Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore, The Theatre Practice (formerly YMS Art Centre) and Dance Ensemble Singapore. At the junction of Waterloo Street and Bras Basah Road also lies the national monument of the former St Joseph’s Institute (1867-1988), currently occupied by the Singapore Arts Museum.

Also read Singapore’s Street of Religious Harmony (Part I) – Telok Ayer Street.

Published: 25 November 2017

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The Disappearance of the Historic Hallpike Street

Hallpike Street was previously a little known road that once existed between High Street and North Boat Quay. But the road had a significant history that goes back to the 19th century. Located near to the recorded landing site of Sir Stamford Raffles, it was also once the premises of Hallpike Boatyard, a large boat-building company owned by an English blacksmith named Stephen Hallpike (1786-1844).

Beside his blacksmith and boat-building businesses, Stephen Hallpike and his wife Ellen Richardson also run a boarding house that provided food and lodging for paying guests. Singapore, by then, was a thriving port called by many Chinese junks, Bugis prahus and European clippers. In 1831, for instance, eighteen junks from Shanghai arrived at Singapore, bringing with them $200,000 worth of cargoes.

Stephen Hallpike went on to become a successful and well-reputed person within the European community in early Singapore. Some records shed light on his background, that he was a former inmate who had been convicted of larceny in England and was shipped to Singapore in 1819 along with 159 other convicts. Regardless of his past, Stephen Hallpike settled well in Singapore and lived till an age of 58. He died in 1844, and had his tombstone erected among those at the Fort Canning Cemetery.

Until the 1870s, the northern bank of the Singapore River was almost exclusive for boat-building and repair works. Many boatyards were building tongkangs, but it was at Hallpike Boatyard where Elizabeth, Singapore’s first ocean-going vessel, was constructed. The 194-ton sailing ship was launched in 1829, an incredible feat for the newly-established trading post then.

In 1848, Ranee was completed at Hallpike Boatyard. The 60-foot long vessel was the first ever steamship built in Singapore. It represented the advancement in technology, ahead of the growing global trades that boomed in the 1860s with the opening of the Suez Canal and the popularisation of steamships.

Hallpike Boatyard was located beside another important landmark, the old Parliament House. The double-storey colonial mansion was built in 1827, and served as the first courthouse until 1865. The building was bought by the colonial government in 1841 and continued to function as a courthouse and other administrative offices. The old Parliament House would later become the Supreme Court (1875), Legislative Assembly House (1954), Parliament of Singapore (1965) and The Arts House (2004).

Due to the proximity of the boatyard, the colonial authority tried to shut it down several times as the loud noises from the boatyard’s operations were daily distractions to the public offices in the vicinity.

Hallpike Street, which was later named after Stephen Hallpike, was likely to be built in the 1870s after the decline and closing down of the Hallpike Boatyard. Several rows of shophouses appeared at Hallpike Street by the early 1900s.

Many immigrants from China started gathering at Hallpike Street, but the shophouses were mainly occupied by wealthy merchants before the Second World War. The short road would be busily choked with cars and rickshaws scuttled past daily, throwing up thick clouds of dust. Hallpike Street did not become a proper asphalt road until 1956.

Development caught up with Hallpike Street in the seventies, when nine of its old pre-war shophouses, along with other shophouses in the city area, were acquired by the Singapore government in the urban renewal projects. There were about 50 residents living and working at the Hallpike Street shophouses. Before the acquisition, the shophouses were belonged to Lee Wah Bank, Cathay Finance and a Chinese businessman. Cathay Finance was the agent for the estate of the famous cinema magnate Dato Loke Wan Tho (1915-1964).

There were also many street vendors selling hawker food at Hallpike Street. When the redevelopment kicked off, the street hawkers had to be relocated to the Boat Quay Hawker Centre, built in 1973. The hawker centre was famous for its delicious local food along the not-so-pleasant Singapore River.

By the late eighties, the surrounding areas along the Singapore River had changed rapidly. Sections of the long North Boat Quay was converted into a wide pedestrian walkway, and the street signage of Hallpike Street was removed as it was connected directly to North Boat Quay.

By the early nineties, the street, its shophouses and even its name had disappeared and forgotten. It was noticed by some heritage enthusiasts then, as they wrote in to the newspapers and authority requesting for the reinstatement of the street name. It, however, did not change the fact that Hallpike Street had completely vanished in history.

Published: 27 October 2017

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Nostalgic Coloured Photos of Former Seng Poh Road Market

In the late 1940s, Tiong Bahru was recovering from the horrors of the Second World War. Jobs were scarce, so many turned to street hawking. A new market emerged at Tiong Bahru, converted from two old shophouses in the vicinity. As more street hawkers joined, the limited space resulted in many rifts and conflicts. The street hawkers soon decided to shift their stalls and pushcarts to the nearby spacious Seng Poh Road to continue their trades.

In 1950, the Municipal Commission approved the construction of the Seng Poh Road Market, a large simple wooden building with zinc roofs. When the new market was completed, more than 200 hawkers applied to sell poultry, fish, vegetable, fruits and cooked food. In 1951, the Municipal Commission declared the Seng Poh Road Market, and the equally popular Lim Tua Tow Road Market at Upper Serangoon Road, as the new public markets.

Except for some repairs and a replacement of the battered roof, Seng Poh Road Market remained largely unchanged, in the next 40 years, until the late eighties. In the early nineties, it was given a major cleaning up. The old market’s history, however, came to an end in 2004, when it was torn down for a complete redevelopment. Its hawkers were then relocated to a temporary spot at Kim Pong Road. After two years of redevelopment, a new Tiong Bahru Market and Food Centre was completed and opened in 2006.

Here is a trip down the memory lane of the former Seng Poh Road Market:

(All photos above are credited to Tiong Bahru Estate)

Published: 26 October 2017

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First Toa Payoh Secondary School No More

Although Toa Payoh was the second satellite town in Singapore after Queenstown, it was the first to be built solely by the Housing and Development Board (HDB).

In 1968, First Toa Payoh Secondary School (FTPSS) became Toa Payoh’s first secondary school, located at Toa Payoh Lorong 1. Initially made up of students from the nearby Kim Keat Vocational School and Thomson Secondary School, FTPSS was officially opened in May 1969 by Eric Cheong Yuen Chee, Member of Parliament (MP) for Toa Payoh, as an English and Chinese fully-integrated school.

FTPSS was an active participant in the inter-district track and field, cross country, badminton, football and hockey tournaments in the seventies. In 1971, the secondary school also held the two-day Festival of Music and Dance, where as many as 49 schools in Singapore participated in the events of cultural and folk dances performed in artistic and coordinated moves.

In the seventies, the FTPSS campus was also one of the schools in Singapore used by the Adult Education Board (AEB) to conduct a series of skill-learning courses for the public, such as tailoring, interior designing, dressmaking, photography and copper tooling.

In 1980, FTPSS, along with Jurong Secondary School, became two of the nation’s many pre-university centres to offer 3-year commerce courses for students with acceptable GCE ‘O’ level results. Pre-universities, together with junior colleges and polytechnics, were part of Singapore’s educational system for students to further their studies after secondary education. The pre-university classes at FTPSS lasted until 1991, when the school adopted the single-session schedules.

FTPSS had been actively involved in the campaigns that emphasized on social contributions and environmental protection. In the late seventies, its students were encouraged to participate in the “Use Your Hands” campaigns, beach cleaning activities and old newspapers’ collection for charitable events.

The new millennium saw FTPSS underwent a series of mergers due to falling enrollment of students in the vicinity. In 2001, it merged with Thomson Secondary School and Pei Dao Secondary School.

Another merger followed three years later, as FTPSS merged with Upper Serangoon Secondary School in 2004. In the same year, the secondary school was relocated to a new campus at Toa Payoh East, where the site is now temporarily occupied by Pei Chun Public School. FTPSS had its last merger in 2016, this time with Bartley Secondary School at the latter’s campus at Jalan Bunga Rampai.

In September 2017, hoardings have been erected around the former premises of FTPSS, together with the old school buildings of First Toa Payoh Primary School (FTPPS), at Toa Payoh Lorong 1. Demolition has commenced and is expected to be completed by early 2018. Located beside FTPSS, FTPPS was also started in 1968, and was shifted to Toa Payoh Lorong 8 in 2002 after merging with Braddell, Westlake and San Shan Primary Schools.

Although the name First Toa Payoh Secondary School and its original school campus have officially walked into history, its 48-year history, legacy and spirit shall be continued to be well-remembered by its many generations of former students.

Published: 08 October 2017

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Boon Lay, JTC and the En-Bloc Flats

As part of the early industrial development of Jurong, small residential estates were built to accommodate the increasing workers’ population as well as the resettled farmers and fishermen from the Jurong and Tuas villages. Hence, by the mid-sixties and mid-seventies respectively, the housing projects of Taman Jurong and Boon Lay were launched.

The Taman Jurong residential district was first developed by the Economic Development Board (EDB) and then by Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) between 1964 and 1975. The development of Boon Lay estate, on the other hand, began in 1969, when the villages were cleared and the tracks of Jurong Road expunged, replaced by the construction of new tarmac roads.

The Boon Lay estate, consisting of Boon Lay Drive, Boon Lay Place and Boon Lay Garden, was named after Chew Boon Lay (1851-1933), the Chinese pioneer who had owned huge gambier and pepper plantations in the Jurong vicinity in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

By the mid-seventies, the small housing estate was taking shape, with the network of roads completed, and new JTC flats ready for the workers at the nearby industries. The construction of JTC flats lasted until 1979. As many as 53 blocks were built, numbering from 161 to 220, and ranging from 10-storey to 15-storey and 20-storey tall. Simple public amenities were built too, such as a children’s playground with swings and see-saws, and mini football field, between Block 192 and 196.

The blocks of 167 to 172 have designs similar to the former JTC flats at Yung Kuang Road, where two parallel blocks were served by a common lift system in between the blocks. From their top views, the blocks look like the letter “H”. There were other similarly designed flats at Boon Lay Drive (Block 161-166, 192-197), but most were demolished in the late eighties and early nineties.

Since the beginning of 2017, the 40-year-old Block 167-172 of Boon Lay Drive have been vacated. It was six years ago, in 2011, when the flats were selected in the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS).

In 1988, six empty rental blocks at Boon Lay Drive, built in 1973, were used as Fighting in Built-Up Areas (FIBUA) for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) servicemen. The three-room flats had been awaiting for demolition by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). It was the first time SAF conducted their urban warfare training outside their designated facilities at Pasir Laba’s Basic Combat Training Centre and the FIBUA Village at Jalan Sarimbun.

The FIBUA exercise was carried out from Mondays to Saturdays and lasted for six months, where blanks and thunderflashes were constantly used. It was an unforgettable moment for the Boon Lay residents to experience the sounds of firing and explosives at their doorsteps.

Interesting Trivia

In 1989, after the FIBUA exercise had ended, Block 192, one of the six blocks scheduled to be demolished, could not be torn down despite the large amount of explosives used by HDB. Dubbed by the amused residents as the “invincible” block, Block 192 stubbornly stood for several months, before finally demolished using the conventional ball-and-crane method.

The balloting for the Boon Lay flats were carried out in different stages in the mid- and late-seventies. Block 198, 199 and 200, for example, were completed by the JTC in the mid-seventies. As many as 131 units, at $35,000 each, were offered in 1976 to the Jurong workers, with the balloting officiated by Ho Kah Leong, the former Member of Parliament (MP) for Jurong.

The ownership of the JTC flats was at first limited to the workers at Jurong. After 1977, the restriction was lifted and the units were subsequently put up for sale and rental to those working outside of the Jurong vicinity. In 1982, the management of the JTC flats at Boon Lay was handed over to HDB as the sole housing agency in Singapore.

The Boon Lay flats of the seventies had basic installations such as telephone lines, where the owners could request for new telephones to be fitted by the Telecommunication Authority of Singapore (TAS), a statutory board established in 1972 from the government’s Telecommunication Department.

But the flats were not without issues. In 1977, residents living at 198 to 206 blocks of Boon Lay Drive made complaints of brownish and salty water flowing from their taps, which, after investigations by the Public Utilities Board (PUB), was due to corroded pipes and water storage tanks. For weeks, the residents had to make daily trips to the nearby refuse centre to collect water for their cooking and washing purposes.

Other than the frequent water disruptions, the Boon Lay residents also faced another headache in the mid-seventies, when construction activities, reclamation works as well as smoke from the nearby plywood factory and Jurong power station polluted the air badly and staining the residents’ furniture and clothes with grime. The situation only turned better after the Ministry of Environment’s Anti-Pollution Unit stepped in to monitor and limit the emission from the power station and factories.

The small housing estate was also plagued in the seventies and early eighties by burglaries, armed robberies and gangsterism. In the year 1980, there were as many as eleven murders at Boon Lay; the most shocking case being the attack of five Malaysian workers by an armed gang. The anti-crime police unit launched a major operation, rounding up dozens of suspected gangsters at the new Jurong Town Police Station.

The new police station, located at the junction of Boon Lay Drive and Corporation Road, was officially opened in 1980 by Goh Chok Tong, then-Minister for Trade and Industry, at a construction cost of $2.7 million. Serving as the new headquarters for the Rural West Division, it aimed to provide swift response and assistance to the Jurong vicinity that already had a 250,000-strong residential and working population in the early eighties.

In 1986, the Boon Lay Neighbourhood Police Post (NPP) was set up at Boon Lay Place, first as a temporary post at a container cabin, and later at the permanent location at Block 210’s void deck. The purpose of NPPs was to tackle petty crimes and offences, such as thefts and conflicts, and carry out patrols and house visits.

There was also the Jurong Fire Station, located at the corner of Boon Lay Drive. Officially opened in 1975 by Othman bin Wok, the then-Minister for Social Affairs, it had a grand opening ceremony made up of a firemen marching contingent, inspection of new equipment and facilities, and spectacular fire-fighting demonstrations.

Amenities and services for the Boon Lay residents would improve over the years. In 1978, the Singapore Bus Service (SBS) introduced new direct feeder services between the residential and industrial sectors at Boon Lay and Taman Jurong during the peak hours so that the commuters need not transfer to other buses at the Jurong Bus Interchange.

The new services 249 and 249A, costing 20 cents per trip, plied between Boon Lay Drive, Corporation Road, Jalan Samulun and the National Iron and Steel Mills, and were terminated at the former Boon Lay Bus Terminal. Today, the premises of the former bus terminal has been converted into an open-air parking space.

A hawker centre and market were added at Boon Lay Place in 1976. Many street hawkers from Jurong Road 13th and 15th milestones were relocated to the hawker centre’s new food stalls.

The Boon Lay Shopping Centre was up in 1978, becoming Jurong’s first shopping and residential complex. The simple neighbourhood hub, in its early days, had many money changers to cater to the large foreign population, most of them Malaysians, working at the Jurong industrial estate.

In the early eighties, Boon Lay residents had their own cinema too, when Shaw Organisation opened the Savoy Cinema, or commonly known as the Old Boon Lay Cinema, beside Boon Lay Shopping Centre. The cinema lasted for more than a decade until the late nineties.

Several schools were established at Boon Lay estate during its development stage.

Boon Lay Garden Primary School was set up in 1977, catering to the new housing estate’s increasing number of families. Opened by Ngeow Pack Hua, former MP for Boon Lay, it had about 1,080 students and 27 classes in its first year of enrollment. In 2001, the school was relocated to a new campus along Boon Lay Drive. Today, its classes have increased to 50 with more than 1,500 students.

Jurong Vocational Institute, Boon Lay Garden Primary School’s old neighbour along Jalan Boon Lay, was set up as early as 1969 (its official opening was in 1973) to train students in their technical expertise and provide future skilled workers for the booming industries at Jurong. It was converted in 1992 into the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) Jurong.

The old campus sites of Jurong Vocational Institute and Boon Lay Garden Primary School are currently occupied by River Valley High School.

Another school at the Boon Lay vicinity was Boon Lay Secondary School, established in 1977 and officially opened in 1979 as a bilingual school with classes in both English and Chinese streams. The school began with only 13 classes, but gradually expanded to 34 classes by the early eighties. In 1998, Boon Lay Secondary School became a sole English-medium school, and it moved, a year later, to its new premises at Jurong West.

Interesting Trivia

One of Singapore’s two remaining clock-design playgrounds can be found at Boon Lay. The other one is located beside the Bishan Bus Interchange. Such sand-based playgrounds, along with other iconic designs, were commonly found in the new towns and housing estates in the eighties and nineties.

In 1981, the Boon Lay residents had a chance to witness the National Day Parade at their doorsteps. The National Day Parade in 1981 had been decentralised and was held concurrently at several venues, including the sport complexes at Jurong, Queenstown, Toa Payoh and Jalan Besar.

55 contingents and cultural groups lined up at the Jurong Stadium, witnessed by the former Minister for Labour Ong Teng Cheong and 10,000 spectators, before marching from the Fourth Chin Bee Road to Boon Lay Drive.

The Boon Lay estate is now part of a larger Boon Lay district, which is inclusive of the Jurong West New Town. Like Taman Jurong, new HDB developments have been launched at Boon Lay in the recent years, as replacement and upgrading for the aging JTC flats. The previous SERS project was carried out for Block 180-184 in 2006; the redeveloped site is now known as Boon Lay Meadow. It is now Block 167-172’s turn to be redeveloped.

More Photos of the En-Bloc JTC Flats (Block 167-172) at Boon Lay Drive:

Published: 17 September 2017

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