Bras Basah Complex, Singapore’s City of Books


Completed in 1980 under the urban renewal plan, the Bras Basah Complex has been a familiar place to many Singaporeans for the past three decades. Over the years, the commercial-cum-residential complex has become Singapore’s well-known City of Books, an unofficial yet representative name just like the Beach Road’s Army Market, the Arcade where moneychangers ply their trades, or the famous Sungei Thieves Market with their second hand goods.

The Bras Basah Complex is made up of two 25-storey blocks, where the first to fifth floor are catered for commercial purposes and the sixth to 25th level as residential units. The flats are part of an early public housing plan at the downtown area developed by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) in the seventies and eighties, which also include the flats at Selegie Road (Selegie House, built in 1974), Rochor Road (Rochor Centre, 1977), Waterloo Street (Waterloo Centre, 1978) and Queen Street (Cheng Yan Court, 1984).



The name Bras Basah was derived from beras basah, which means “wet rice” in Malay. This is because in the early days, boats carrying sacks of rice would unload and dry them along the banks of Sungei Brass Bassa (now Stamford Canal), and the rice would often get wet by the rising tides.


The sale and balloting of the Bras Basah Complex flats were carried out when the buildings were completed in 1980. Under the Home Ownership for the People Scheme, interested Singapore citizens were invited to have a tour of the blocks and residential units before the balloting was officiated by then-Minister for Labour Ong Pang Boon.

The Home Ownership for the People Scheme was launched by the HDB in 1964 to enable low income Singaporeans to buy and own their flats at affordable prices. This would also give the citizens a tangible asset and a stake in the nation building, and foster a sense of identity to the country.


Before the construction of the Bras Basah Complex, the old streets of North Bridge Road, Victoria Street and Bras Basah Road had been traditional venues for book stores, second-hand bookshops and stationery shops. Dozens of such shops were often housed side by side in old shophouses competitively. To the students of the sixties and seventies, it was the go-to place to get the necessary school textbooks and study guides to Shakespeare, poetry and science.

The bookshops at Bras Basah Road probably had its best days in the sixties, when there were strong demands of textbooks from regional countries such as Indonesia and Brunei. The most popular textbooks were those of English literature, history and science. Although the demands from overseas had considerably waned by the seventies, the bookstores continued to have their businesses boosted by the local market.



By the end of July 1982, however, the last of the many bookshops at Bras Basah Road – Educational Book Emporium, S.S. Mubaruk and Brothers and Student’s Books Associates – had to shut down, following the previous lot in their relocation to the new Bras Basah Complex or other available space at North Bridge Road. The old Bras Basah Road shophouses were later demolished.

When the Bras Basah Complex was built, it was designed and designated to be a book centre. The early batches of tenants were contractually obliged to sell books. The early tenants – many of them were the book merchants and bookshop owners from North Bridge Road and Bras Basah Road – formed the Bras Basah Complex Merchant’s Association (BBCMA) in the eighties to work together, protect interest and settle common problems at the newly-built complex.


In mid-1986, the Business Enterprise Committee announced that the HDB had decided to allow the tenants at the complex to change their trades, although most of the tenants, represented by the BBCMA, would prefer at least 80% of the shop space at Bras Basah Complex to be reserved for bookshops. This would uphold the clean and wholesome image of the complex as a “city of books”. Some of the shops, however, later switched to selling of watches, leisure goods and others.


One of Singapore’s oldest bookstores, Shanghai Book Company (上海书局), was previously housed at the Bras Basah Complex between the eighties and late 2000s. Established in 1925 in a High Street double-storey shophouse, it was one of the “big four” pre-war Chinese bookshops in Singapore, which included The Commercial Press (established in 1915), Chung Hwa Book Company (1923) and The World Book Company.

Shanghai Book Company was set up by Chen Yoh Shoo and Wang Shuyang, who came to Singapore after the May Fourth Movement in China. They were also the founders of Hou Chio Public School (後觉公学), a local Chinese school at North Bridge Road that was banned after only three years of operation.


Having survived the Great Depression in the 1930s and the Japanese Occupation, Shanghai Book Company’s heydays came in the fifties and sixties, where it enjoyed brisk business selling large number of books in Chinese, English, Malay and Tamil.

The famous bookshop was patronised by many local Chinese students, even as it shifted from High Street to North Bridge Road and Victoria Street before settling at the Bras Basah Complex. But a shrinking market and declining interest in Chinese books in the eighties changed its fortune. To revive the public interest, Shanghai Book Company initiated a series of exhibitions and book fairs, such as the Bilingual Book Fair in 1983 and an exhibition of Chinese bookmarks in 1985.


But its final chapter eventually arrived in the late 2000s, when Shanghai Book Company was embroiled in internal disputes between its local and China shareholders. Also mired in deep debts, the 83-year-old bookshop had to cease its operation by mid-2009, spelling the end of one of Singapore’s oldest Chinese bookshops.

In February 2016, Bras Basah Complex lost yet another of its long-time tenant in Kaiming Enterprises, when the 77-year-old stationery shop closed due to dwindling business and a retiring owner. Established in 1939, Kaiming Enterprises had supplied stationery to the local and Malaysian markets in the past decades.


In the eighties and nineties, numerous exhibitions, art galleries and cultural performances were held at the atrium of the Bras Basah Complex. In 1989, the HDB upgraded the atrium with a $80,000 fiberglass roof to shelter it from disruptive weather. This was due to the sudden rains that sometimes affected the cultural events such as Chinese painting exhibitions or instrumental performances.

Another event that drew the crowds to the Bras Basah Complex in the eighties was the popular xinyao (Singapore Chinese folk songs) concerts and competitions. Local xinyao singers with their new releases of songs and cassette albums often attracted hundreds of fans, largely made up of students and young adults, that filled up the entire atrium. With the decline of xinyao in the nineties and 2000s, the complex had not witnessed such spectacular scene until 2014, when a two-hour xinyao reunion performance had almost 1,000 fans turned up.


Standing for more than three decades, the Bras Basah Complex has seen some tremendous changes in its surroundings and neighbours, even as it has stayed largely unchanged.

Victoria Street was widened and changed in the eighties from a one-way to a dual-carriageway road. The Empress Hotel was demolished, and the minor roads of Lorong Sidin and Holloway Lane were expunged. The site is now occupied by the new National Library building. On the other side of the Bras Basah Complex, the Odeon Theatre and Bethesda Church were long gone, replaced by the Odeon Towers and Carlton Hotel today.




Published: 23 October 2016

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Bird Singing, a Favourite Pastime of the Past

Bird singing competitions, bird singing corners, bird singing clubs. True enough, bird singing was and is still a favourite hobby among many Singaporeans. The fascinating hobby seemed to have kicked off in Malaysia and Singapore in the late fifties. The bird singing contest held in Singapore in 1960 was a success, stimulating great interest among bird enthusiasts and attracting headlines from the local newspapers.


Locally, the favourite birds kept as songsters are the merbok (zebra dove), white-rumped shama, merbak jambul (red-whiskered bulbul), mata puteh (oriental white eye) and China thrush (Chinese hwamei). The merbok, in particular, is well known for their pleasant and soft cooing calls. Previously more commonly known as perkututs, the bird is dark brown in colour and resembles a small pigeon, and was once commonly found at the sandy parts of Singapore’s countryside. The white-rumped shama, on the other hand, was featured on the Singapore fifty dollar note of the bird series.


In the sixties, there were many bird shops at Rochore Road. Birds like merobok would cost a few dollars each, but the prized ones could easily fetch up to $3,000. Several local bird singing interest groups were formed, with the Kelab Burong Singapore (Singapore Bird Club) being one of the most prominent ones. It regularly organised annual bird singing competitions, especially in the late sixties and early seventies, at venues such as Jalan Besar Stadium, Gay World Stadium and the South Buona Vista Training Institute.

When the Jurong Bird Park opened in 1971, it also held bird singing contests to boost its visitorship. In its first ever contest, held at the tram terminal of the park, a total of 287 participants competed, making the contest a considerable success.


When the government ramped up new public housings at Ang Mo Kio, Bedok, Tampines and Clementi in the seventies and eighties, the hobby and contests in bird singing started to move into the heartlands.

Many bird singing corners were set up at the flats’ void decks, open fields or the parks within the housing estates, where there were customised poles and railings used for hanging rows of bird cages currently. It proved to be popular among the residents, who, beside showcasing their chirping birds, could also engaged in chit chatting, exchanging of views and tips, making friends, or simply engrossing in their prized feathered pets’ melodies in the common space.





Community centres, People’s Association and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Reservists’ Association were the most regular organisers of local bird singing contests. In the eighties, such competitions easily saw hundreds of bird lovers taking part, and Members of Parliament (MPs) were often invited as guests of honour. Monetary prizes and trophies were awarded for the most outstanding birds.

Judges were invited to give marks to each bird’s performance, and sometimes it took hours for them to assess hundreds of birds. To pick a champion was no easy task. There were several criteria to determine a winner; its general appearance, the number of scales on its feet, the health of its plumage, and – the most important factor of all – its singing ability, which included the length of each call, the tonal quality, the volume and the purity in the sound of the calls.



In 1983 and 1984, the National Bird Singing competition, organised by Jurong Bird Park, Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) and the People’s Association, were held at the open space next to the Mandarin Hotel and Ngee Ann Building respectively. The contest attracted more than 850 entries, some of which even came from neighbouring countries such as Indonesia and Thailand. Computers were used for the first time to aid the judges in their assessment. Thousands visited the events, which resembled a carnival that consisted of talks, sale of bird cages and bird seed, and even a bird show of colourful parrots from the Jurong Bird Park.

Perhaps the most famous bird singing corner in Singapore was the one at Tiong Bahru Block 53. The bird singing corner, dubbed as “Singapore’s most famous Sunday bird singing concert“, was located beside a kopitiam named Wah Heng, a favourite meeting place for bird enthusiasts between the early seventies till its closure in the nineties. The popular spot was said to have started off in the mid-fifties as a gathering venue for a small group of bird lovers. Over the years, the group grew bigger as others joined in.


In the mid-eighties, during the Sundays, the number of bird lovers outside the coffeeshop could be as high as 300, made up of mostly men, old and young, and among them were contractors, businessmen, technicians and retirees. Some of the bird lovers even came all the way from Ang Mo Kio and Jurong.


Hundreds of bird cages could be seen suspended from a metal trellis. It was put up by the kopitiam owner Teah Lam Kuan, who saw his business grew tremendously in the eighties. Such was the high popularity of the Tiong Bahru bird singing corner that it was promoted by STPB as a tourist attraction, and was regularly featured in foreign newspapers and magazines.

The news spread fast and many curious tourists and foreigners could be seen visiting the place and snapping photos of the crowds and bird cages. Renowned American flautist Herbie Mann (1930-2003) paid a visit to the Tiong Bahru bird singing corner in 1984 to perform “against” the songbirds, while Dutch journalist Guus van Bladel joined the folks at the Tiong Bahru kopitiam to write about the interesting hobby for his Dutch newspapers.


During the 1986 Christmas Day, KLM, the Dutch airlines, even organised a bird-singing competition at the bird singing corner, sponsoring many flight tickets as top prizes. It also paid for the hooks and number tags used for the hanging of the bird cages at the corner.

The Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) flat of Block 53 was later converted into a hotel, while the bird singing corner was renovated in 1997 by the Tanjong Pagar-West Coast Town Council in a $60,000 upgrading project. In 2008, a bird singing competition was held at the newly reopened Tiong Bahru bird corner, but the hype and buzz seen in the older days could no longer be duplicated.

Bird singing hobby is still very much alive in Singapore today, although its most spectacular moments were arguably between the seventies and nineties.


Published: 29 September 2016

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

Telok Ayer Street is truly Singapore’s representative street of religious harmony. Several major places of worship – a mosque, Indian Muslim shrine, Chinese temple and church – have made this street, a short 350m-long stretch between Boon Tat Street and Cecil Street, their home for more than a century.

All the four religious buildings – Al-Abrar Mosque, Nagore Dargah Indian Muslim Heritage Centre (formerly the Nagore Dargah shrine), Thian Hock Keng Temple and the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church – have been gazetted as Singapore’s national monuments. In addition to the Telok Ayer’s conservation list are the Ying Fo Fui Kun Building and Singapore Yu Huang Gong Temple.


Telok Ayer Street

In Malay, telok means bay and ayer is water, referring to the seafront where Telok Ayer Street once ran past. It was one of the earliest streets in Singapore, and it took the form of a road as early as 1836. The Telok Ayer vicinity was designated as a Chinese district by Sir Stamford Raffles in the 1820s and its seafront and docking bay had served as one of the earliest landing sites for Chinese immigrants, especially the Hokkiens from the Fujian province of Qing China.

With their arrivals at Singapore in waves, the Chinese immigrants soon formed the largest community at Telok Ayer. Chinese religious buildings and clan associations popped up rapidly. During Chinese festivals, Telok Ayer Street would be adorned with colourful banners and flags, where thousands of spectators crowded along the street to watch the interesting performances by the Chinese processions, acrobats, and marching bands.



The street in the 19th century was shared by the Chinese, Indian and Muslim immigrants. The Indian immigrants would work as milk traders – many could be seen walking along the street with buckets of milk slung across their shoulders – or labourers at the harbours, loading and unloading cargo from the merchant ships docked at the Telok Ayer Basin.

By the late 19th century, Telok Ayer became a commercial and trading centre. But the issues of pollution and overcrowding bothered the street. In 1891, a large fire destroyed many shophouses and other properties. The merchants began to move out of Telok Ayer for other suitable trading places along the Singapore River, resulting in the declining importance of the street.


In the mid-19th century, Indian convicts were roped in for the land reclamation from the Singapore River mouth to Telok Ayer. By the early 1900s, the area known as Shenton Way today was formed. Telok Ayer Street no longer faced the waterfront; the coastline was shifted several hundreds of metres away.

Today, rows of refurbished pre-war shophouses line up along both sides of the street, witnessing the tremendous changes of Telok Ayer in the past 150 years.



Al-Abrar Mosque



The Al-Abrar Mosque, also known as Masjid Chulia, had its roots all the way back to 1827, when it began in a simple hut. In the 1850s, the mosque was upgraded to a brick building to serve as the primary place of worship for the South India’s Tamil Muslims who worked and lived around the Singapore River area.

The architectural setting of Al-Abrar Mosque blends easily into the facades of the shophouses at Telok Ayer Street. The Indo-Islamic architectural styled mosque faces the direction towards Mecca, but like other shophouses, it also has a five-foot way. A second storey, jack roof, prayer room and an upper gallery were added to the mosque building in a $1-million renovation project in the late eighties, but the mosque’s most iconic features belong to its twin octagonal minarets, each topped with a crescent and star.

The Al-Abrar Mosque was gazetted as a national monument on 19 November 1974. Today, the mosque premises can accommodate up to 800 worshippers, many of them working in the offices nearby.



Nagore Dargah Indian Muslim Heritage Centre (former Nagore Dargah Shrine)



Completed in 1830, Nagore Dargah is a memorial or cenotaph, in the shape of an Indian Muslim shrine, built by the Chulias from South India. The shrine commemorates Sayyid ‘Abdul Qadir Shahul Hamid (1490-1557 or 1579), a South Indian saint and Islamic preacher who was widely respected for his propriety and holiness.

Initially known as Shahul Hamid Dargah, the limestone building was designed and built as a replica of the original shrine in India. Like Al-Abrar Mosque, Nagore Dargah Shrine was gazetted as a national monument on 19 November 1974, and underwent major restoration works in 2007. The shrine’s most eye-catching features – its four corner minaret towers topped with small domes – were carefully restored and touched up.

Officially reopened in 2011, the shrine was converted into an Indian Muslim heritage centre that has galleries and exhibitions showcasing the pioneers of the Indian Muslim community in Singapore.




Thian Hock Keng Temple



Thian Hock Keng, whose name means “palace of heavenly happiness” in Hokkien, first existed in the early 1820s as a small temple located at the seaside of Telok Ayer Basin. It was dedicated to Mazu, the sea goddess believed by its devotees who would give blessings and protection to the seafarers.

In 1842, with the generous funding from various local Chinese businessmen such as Tan Tock Seng (1798-1850), a larger and much more elaborated Thian Hock Keng was built. Costing almost $30,000 (in Spanish silver dollars), the temple was completed with all building materials and skilled craftsmen imported from China. It was said that not a single nail was used in the construction of the temple.


Thian Hock Keng was later added a Chung Wen Pagoda, Chong Boon Gate and Chong Hock Pavilion. In 1907, the temple received its recognition from the Qing Empire when Emperor Guangxu (1871-1908) bestowed on it an imperial scroll with the words “Bo Jing Nan Ming” (波靖南溟, “The waves are calm in the South Seas” in Chinese).

Thian Hock Keng was also home to the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan (clan association), founded in 1840 to provide assistance such as accommodation, jobs and burial services to the early immigrants. On 28 June 1973, Thian Hock Keng was added to the national monument list, while major restoration works were carried out at the temple premises in the late nineties.



Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church



The Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church joined other religious places of worship at Telok Ayer Street in 1925. The church, however, was established much earlier in 1889. Founded by Benjamin Franklin West, a doctor and missionary, in a rented old shophouse at Upper Nanking Road, the church reached out to the Chinese immigrants, especially the opium addicts, with sermons and services in Hokkien. Hence, in its early days, it was known as the Hokkien Church.

The church expanded in the late 19th and early 20th century, accepting members of different dialect groups. With its increasing number of followers, the church had to look for larger premises. Therefore, it was relocated several times to Boon Tat Street, Neil Road and eventually its current location at the junction of Telok Ayer Street and Cecil Street, where it bought the land for $3,600. The Chinese Methodist Church at Telok Ayer started as a tent and zinc hut, before they were replaced by the current building, designed with an unique mixture of European and Chinese styles.


During the Second World War, a buffer wall was added to the church building as a protection against stray bullets and bombs. As many as 300 Chinese took refuge in the church, and members were encouraged to attend the Sunday services during the harsh and difficult Japanese Occupation.

On 23 March 1989, the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, on its 100-year anniversary, was preserved as one of Singapore’s national monuments. Today, it is the oldest Chinese-speaking Methodist church in Singapore.


Telok Ayer Street in the Past Century







Published: 14 September 2016

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The Old World Charm of Mountbatten

Mountbatten Road today is a 4.5km-long road, connecting to Geylang Road on one end and linking to East Coast Road on the other, where there is a good mixture of quality bungalows and high-end apartments. New houses have been popping up in this old residential district in recent years, but the old laidback charm and elegance of Mountbatten is still very much alive.

mountbatten road 2016

In the past, Mountbatten Road was known as Grove Road. It was later named after Lord Louis Mountbatten (1900-1979), who was the Earl Mountbatten of Burma, last Viceroy of India and also Southeast Asia’s Supreme Allied Commander during the Second World War. In September 1945, Lord Mountbatten was in Singapore to witness the surrender of the Japanese Forces at the Municipal Building. Grove Road was renamed in his honour a year later.

In the late 19th century, the area between Grove Road and the original shoreline, before the land reclamation, was a huge plantation known as the Grove Estate, where its western boundary was Sungei Geylang (also known formerly as Sungei Gaylang or Gaylang River). Its eastern side was the Confederate Estate (Confederate Estate Road is present-day Joo Chiat Road), with Tanjong Katong Road as the divider. Due to its low-lying grounds, Grove Estate was extremely prone to floods, and bunds had to be erected to protect against the overflowing Sungei Geylang during high tides.

bungalow 744 mountbatten road 1982

Thomas Dunman (1814-1887), Singapore’s first Superintendent and Commissioner of Police, was the then-owner of Grove Estate. After his retirement from the Straits Settlements Police Force in 1871, Thomas Dunman began cultivating Grove Estate. He died in 1887, and his son William Dunman (1857-1933) took over the assets. William Dunman would go on to expand the estate by hiring coolies to plant thousands of coconut trees, rubber trees and lemon grasses.

mountbatten road bungalows1

In the late 19th and early 20th century, William Dunman’s properties took a hit when the rubber trees at Grove Estate were destroyed by floods and the coconut trees overran by the infestation of red beetles. It almost bankrupted him, but fortunately for him, the rubber boom years in the 1920s made William Dunman a very wealthy man again.

In the early 1920s, as more Europeans entered Singapore, accommodation became an issue for the colonial Housing Commissions. The city area was getting congested and new blocks of flats at Coleman Street, North Bridge Road and Orchard Road were not getting constructed fast enough to meet the demands.

mountbatten road abandoned bungalow1

mountbatten road abandoned bungalow2

mountbatten road abandoned bungalow3

Grove Estate was proposed as an alternative, as it was only an hour’s trip from the city. William Dunman had already built numerous bungalows in his estate – he himself lived in a $2,000-bungalow by the lake –  and these housings were deemed suitable for those junior married Europeans and bachelors. Moreover, William Dunman had an electricity plant and a brick factory to supply the construction materials if there was a need to built a large number of similar bungalows.

By the late 1920s, William “Old Billy” Dunman began selling off his Grove Estate, and moved to Cameron Highlands for retirement. He died at an age of 77 in Batu Gajah, Perak, after suffering from a fever in 1933.

map of mountbatten road 1954

One of the most prominent families at Mountbatten and Tanjong Katong in the early 20th century was the Lee family, who owned several grand residences in the vicinity. Wealthy Peranakan merchant Lee Cheng Yan (1841-1911) built the famous Mandalay Villa at Amber Road, which was later passed to his son Lee Choon Guan (1868-1924), also a successful businessman himself.

The Lee family used to throw lavish parties at the villa, inviting distinguished guests such as the Governor of Singapore and Sultan of Johore. Another grand residence, Bungalow 777 situated at the junction of Mountbatten and Crescent Roads, was owned by Lee Cheng Yan’s grandson Lee Pang Chuan.

mountbatten road bungalow 777 1984

mountbatten road bungalow 777

Another well-known family at Mountbatten was the Chan family, who had lived in a double-storey Early Modern-style bungalow at 745 Mountbatten Road between the 1940s and 2000s.

It was owned by Dr Chan Ah Kow (1912-1996), a local swimming coach who had trained his children to become some of the best swimmers in Singapore in the sixties and seventies, including Patricia Chan, a multi-gold medalist at the Southeast Asian Games. The bungalow, dubbed as Chansville, was sold to SC Global in 2004 and was redeveloped as part of a luxurious residential project called the Five Legends of Mountbatten.

chansville mountbatten road 1982

On 23 July 1993, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) designated the Mountbatten Road Conservation Area, giving conservation status to a total of 15 bungalows with significant histories. Most of the old bungalows have since been restored and refurbished. Some, after bought over by new owners, are given new leases of life with the addition of modern swimming pools, garages or extended buildings.

One example is Bungalow 733, which was built as early as 1927. An outhouse was added to the single-storey Early Style bungalow in 1955. When the new owner took over in 1999, the house’s original roof, staircases, floor tiles, timber partitions and windows were retained or carefully restored.

mountbatten road bungalow 733

One of the bungalows in the vicinity has been functioning as a hotel since the end of the Second World War. Located at 759 Mountbatten Road, the two-storey hotel named Sing Hoe (formerly Sin Hoe) Hotel was owned in the fifties by Ong Tiow Kian, a Chinese hotel-keeper.

sin hoe hotel mountbatten road 2006

sing hoe hotel at mountbatten road

Sing Hoe Hotel was not the first hotel at the Mountbatten/Tanjong Katong district. The Grove Hotel had first started operating at Tanjong Katong in 1903. Named after Grove Estate, the hotel, housed in a two-storey bungalow at the sea front, was unlike any other early hotels built during the hotel boom years in the early 20th century.

While most hotels were built in the developed city area of Singapore, Grove Hotel was settled at the “countryside” of Mountbatten and Tanjong Katong, where it had horse-drawn carriages and sampans to ferry its guests between the city and the hotel. At the Grove Hotel, visitors and guests were treated to a different experience in exotic beaches, picnics and hiking.

grove hotel early 20th century

Grove Hotel, however, operated only a few years before it became part of the old Sea View Hotel in 1909. The old Sea View Hotel was first owned by Sir Reuben Manasseh Meyer (1846-1930), a wealthy local Jewish businessman, municipal commissioner and philanthropist. Like Grove Hotel, it was also housed in a large colonial bungalow situated by the sea.

When the hotel was leased to the Armenian brothers of the Sarkies family in 1923, it went through a series of elaborated renovations. By the 1930s, the old Sea View Hotel became a prestigious hotel equipped with modern bathrooms, tennis courts, a grand ballroom, swimming pool, golf course and other luxurious facilities. In fact, it was rated, along with Adelphi Hotel and Raffles Hotel, as Singapore’s top three hotels.

sea view hotel3 1930s

The Sarkies was a famous family who had owned many high-end hotels in Southeast Asia in the late 19th and early 20th century. The four brothers (Martin, Tigran, Aviet and Arshak Sarkies) and their cousin (Arathoon Sarkies), at one period, were the owners of Singapore’s top Raffles, Adelphi and Sea View Hotels.

Other than hotels, some Mountbatten Road’s old bungalows are converted into pre-school centres, such as the Brighton Montessori pre-school centre. Brighton is the name of an English seaside town; in the old days, Tanjong Katong, with its seaside location and idyllic surroundings, was fondly known as the “Brighton” of Singapore.

mountbatten road brighton montessori preschool

montessori for children mountbatten road

The old bungalows at Mountbatten Road came in different designs and styles. The most common and popular architectural styles belong to those of Colonial, Victorian, Art Deco and Early Modern. Owned by the wealthy and elite class, they used to have a fanciful nickname called the “millionaires’ bungalows”.

Some of the most unique and beautiful bungalows at Mountbatten Road are the single-storey ones with their eye-catching conical roofs. Built in the late 1920s, only a couple are left to be conserved. The houses, beside their iconic roofs, also come with detailed verandahs, balustrades, staircases and stilts that allow under-floor ventilation. It is a well-designed feature that has proven to be effective in the hot and humid climate of Singapore.

mountbatten road old bungalow 781 2007

mountbatten road bungalows2

Published: 06 September 2016

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S.R. Nathan (1924-2016) – President, Diplomat, Crisis Leader

At his lowest point in life, he almost could not survive out there in the streets. Yet in the later part of his life, he would go on to become Singapore’s sixth and longest-serving President (2011). It was a colourful and amazing life story of ups and downs, and the story belonged to a man called Sellapan Ramanathan (S.R.) Nathan, who was born in Singapore in 1924 to a Tamil Indian family.

sr nathan family late 1920s

During his childhood, Nathan’s family was relocated to Muar, Johor, where his father worked as a clerk in a rubber plantation. The world economy and rubber prices, however, collapsed in the early 1930s, and with his father out of job, Nathan’s family was thrown into a crisis. The family tragedy struck when Nathan was only eight; his father had committed suicide after a series of difficulties in finding new jobs.

By then, Nathan and his family had moved back to Singapore. Under his uncle’s care, Nathan had his studies at Anglo-Chinese School and Victoria School. But in an incident where he was accused of stealing his classmate’s books, a 16-year-old Nathan was forced to leave school. Unable to face his family, he decided to run away from home. To survive, Nathan took up several odd jobs and also worked as an office boy.

sr nathan and lieutenant kokubu japanese occupationIt was the early 1940s, and the impacts and horrors of the Second World War had reached Singapore. During the Japanese Occupation (1942-1945), Nathan, in a twist of fate, managed to master the Japanese language with the help of an English-Japanese dictionary. At age 18, he started working as an interpreter and translator to a high-ranking officer in the Japanese civilian police.

After the war, Nathan went to work as a clerk at the Public Works Department (PWD). In the early fifties, he pursued his studies and was enrolled at the University of Malaya, graduating with a diploma in 1954.

sr nathan received public service star 1964After graduation, S.R. Nathan began his 40-plus-year career at the civil service, until the late nineties, taking on numerous roles at the Marine Department, Labour Research Unit, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defence.

In the eighties, Nathan also chaired the Hindu Advisory Board, Hindu Endowments Board and Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), and was the director of the Singapore National Oil Company, Singapore Mint and Times Press Foundation.

S.R. Nathan’s arguably highest-profile accomplishment was the handling of the Laju hijacking incident. On 31 January 1974, four terrorists from the Japanese Red Army and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, after failing to blow up the oil refinery on Pulau Bukom, hijacked a ferry named Laju. Five crew members on the ferry were held hostages.

Serving as the director of the Security and Intelligence Division (SID), Nathan led a team, made up of Internal Security Department (ISD) director Yoong Siew Wah, Marine Police Deputy Superintendent Tee Tua Bah, several government officials and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) commandos, to negotiate with the armed hijackers. After more than a week of intense negotiations, the hijackers accepted the offer of a safe passage to Kuwait.

sr nathan laju hijacking incident 1974

In exchange for the release of the hostages, a team of guarantors, including Nathan himself, would be required to accompany the hijackers and hostages throughout the flight. The incident was successfully resolved on 08 February 1974 when the team of guarantors returned to Singapore unharmed.

S.R. Nathan demonstrated his firm diplomatic skills when he was appointed as the High Commissioner to Malaysia and Ambassador to the United States in 1988 and 1990 respectively. During his times as the high commissioner, Nathan had to tackle escalating bilateral issues such as the Malayan railway land in Singapore, Pedra Branca dispute and the visit of Singapore by Israeli president Chaim Herzog.

The Michael Fay case in 1994 was another test for Nathan. Singapore’s decision to convict and cane the teenager for vandalism caused an uproar among the American public. As the ambassador, Nathan had to deal with the immense pressure from the United States government and backlash from the Americans.

sr nathan high commissioner to malaysia 1988

In 1999, S.R. Nathan ran for the candidacy of the presidential post. Being the only eligible candidate, he successfully became Singapore’s sixth President and was sworn into office on the first of September. Nathan would be again re-elected without contest in 2005, bringing his total tenure as the President of Singapore to 12 years.

In 2000, with a vision to build a more caring and cohesive society, Nathan initiated the consolidation of several charity projects into one annual event called the President’s Challenge. Since then, the Challenge has raised, through various fundraising and charity drives, more than $100 million for over 500 beneficiaries. S.R. Nathan stepped down as Singapore’s President in 2011, and was conferred Darjah Utama Temasek (Order of Temasek) First Class, the nation’s highest award, in 2013.

sr nathan sworn into office singapore president 1999

In recent years, some had expressed doubts in Nathan’s contributions to the nation, given that the President of Singapore, at more than $3 million a year, is one of the highest-paid leaders in the world. Other less favourable critics included Nathan’s passive custodial role, regarding the nation’s reserves and assets, when compared to his predecessor Ong Teng Cheong (1936-2002). Nathan, however, did his part as the key guardian of the national reserves in 2009, approving a $4.9-billion withdrawal from the past reserves to deal with Singapore’s worst recession since independence.

Despite the controversial opinions, S.R. Nathan’s contributions to Singapore and the public service should not be denied. In July 2016, S.R. Nathan was taken to the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) after suffering a stroke. He passed away on 22 August 2016, at an age of 92, leaving behind his wife, a daughter and son, and three grandchildren.

sr nathan 1924-2016

Published: 25 August 2016

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Tuas of Yesteryears – A Fishing Village and Seafood Restaurants

Before the eighties, Tuas Village was one of the westernmost points of Singapore. Made up of largely Chinese Teochew and Malay families, the bustling fishing village was said to have existed since the 1880s, founded by one of the pioneering gambier planters named Zheng Wan Bao.

tuas village map 1978

Jurong Road

Tuas Village was hardly accessible by land, reachable only via Jurong Road. The road, connecting to the 7th milestone of Bukit Timah Road more than 15km away, had been present since the mid-1930s, but, until the eighties, was a narrow and poorly lit dual-lane carriageway that was frequently bothered by traffic jams and motor accidents, especially after the official opening of Nanyang University in 1956 (the entrance road to Nanyang University was at Jurong Road 14½ milestone).

jurong road map 1958

Along the long Jurong Road were many small villages such as Lokyang Village (Jurong Road 16th milestone), Huat Choe Village (14th milestone), Jurong Village (13½ milestone), Hong Kah Village (12th milestone), Kampong Ulu Jurong (12th milestone), Kampong Sungei Jurong (11th milestone), Kampong Ulu Pandan (10th milestone) and Ong Lee Village (10th milestone). Tuas Village, located at Jurong Road 18th milestone, was the farthest village in the west.

Jurong Road’s importance as the main route to west Singapore was gradually reduced after the construction of the western section of Pan-Island Expressway (PIE), running parallel to Jurong Road, in the late seventies.

kampong house at jurong road 1980s

barber shop at jurong road 1980s

Fishing Village

Situated by the sea, Tuas Village naturally had several small rivers running around it, such as Sungei Tuas, Sungei Che Mat Gun and Sungei Piatu. Sungei Tuas had disappeared during the land reclamation, while the latter two became part of the Tengah Reservoir when it was dammed in the early eighties.

To the local Teochews and Hokkiens, Tuas Village was also known as zhap buay kok (十八块), a reference to its approximated location at Jurong Road 18th milestone (joo long zhap buay kok 裕廊十八块 in full). In Malay, the name Tuas was possibly evolved from menuas, referring to an old fishing method where Malay fishermen, after using coconut leaves and fishing nets to create floating shady traps, “hauled up” the catches. The Chinese name for Tuas was first directly translated into 都亚士, before changing to a modern 大士.

tuas village 1980s

tuas village6 1980s

The fishing and prawn farming industries in Jurong thrived in the sixties, thanks to plenty of riverine areas and muddy beaches in the vicinity. Tuas as the bustling fishing village peaked in the seventies, with more than 200 fishing boats docked daily at the jetty to unload their catch for the fishing port and the nearby seafood eateries. But situated by the sea had its risks. For instance, in 1984, pirates lurked around the waters near Tuas Village, stealing several boats and outboard motors.

tua jetty entrance 1970s

Temples and Churches

One of Tuas Village’s landmarks was its popular Tua Pek Kong Temple (named Tuas Pek Kong Keng). It was founded in 1944 by eight residents of Tuas Village, who sought divine protection for the village during the Japanese Occupation. The 2,000-odd families living at Tuas Village had been terrorised by the war that already seen 39 villagers killed. The place of worship soon became popular; its wayang attracted even the Japanese soldiers.

By the mid-fifties, the temple was upgraded from a modest attap hut to a brick-and-tile building. When the government acquired much of the lands at Tuas in the seventies for industrial development, many of the villagers were resettled at Boon Lay. In 1983, the Jurong Town Council granted a plot of land at Boon Lay Drive for the relocation of the Tua Pek Kong Temple. The temple was later opened in 1987 much to the delight of the former Tuas Village residents.

tuas ma cho temple

tuas ma cho temple wayang stage

The Ma Cho Temple was another place of worship at Tuas that had a large following, especially the Chinese fishermen. It was dedicated to Mazu, the goddess of the sea whom the devotees believed would protect the fishermen and seafarers.

Beside the temples, there was also a Chapel of Fatima at Tuas Village. A simple wooden single-storey chapel, it was established in 1958 by Father Joachim Teng to cater for the Catholics living at Tuas. Italian priest Father Thomas di Pasquale was one of the early preachers at the chapel. The Catholic Welfare Services, in the mid-sixties, had also set up a welfare centre at Tuas Village to distribute rice and food to the needy, provide medical facilities and conduct useful courses such as sewing, domestic science and literacy.

The Sixties

Like many other kampongs in Singapore, Tuas Village in the sixties had been frequently bothered by water shortages and rations. The wooden houses, even though many had switched from attap roofs to zinc roofs after the war, were still prone to fire outbreaks. Life was simple but tough. To improve the life of the villagers, a community centre was opened at Tuas in 1960. Equipped with sports and reading facilities, it also occasionally screened movies arranged by the Ministry of Culture.

opening of tuas community centre 1960

Many families, however, were impoverished. Hence, it was not unusual for a boy living at Tuas Village in the fifties and sixties to know how to catch mud crabs and monitor lizards to sell for extra incomes for the family. Dead corals washed up onto the muddy beach was useful and profitable too. Coral rocks, when mixed with water, could be used for painting walls white.

Public Schools

Not all children had the chance to study. For the large and less well-to-do families at Tuas Village, the priority in studying were often given to the boys rather than his sisters.

Among the schools in the old Jurong vicinity were Joo Koon Public School (公立裕群学校), Joo Hwa Public School (公立裕华学校), Sin Nan Public School (公立醒南学校) and Joo Long Public School (公立孺廊学校). Funded by the community leaders, businessmen and the residents, the schools were established in the 1930s to provide primary education, in Chinese medium, for the children living in the kampongs.

joo hwa public school 1961

The public schools, like the villages, were built along Jurong Road. Joo Hwa was located at the 10th milestone of Jurong Road, whereas Sin Nan and Joo Long were established at Jurong Road 12th and 13½ milestone respectively. Joo Koon Public School, situated at 17½ milestone, was a short distance away from Tuas Village and therefore was the main school for the children living at Tuas.

The primary schools were halted during the Second World War, but were reopened and expanded after the war due to an increase in the population. Most of the rural schools were housed in simple single-storey buildings or shophouses, and had small classrooms and inadequate facilities. Sometimes the students had to make use of the village wayang as their temporary classroom.

sin nan public school jurong road

joo long public school 1980s

The development of Jurong in the seventies and eighties had affected the rural schools; many were either shut down or relocated. Their names were also changed to the hanyu-pinyin format, due to the Speak Mandarin campaigns launched in the late seventies and early eighties.

In 1983, Joo Hwa Primary School (its name was changed from Joo Hwa Public School to Joo Hwa Primary School in 1981) was branded as Yuhua Primary School after its relocation to Jurong East. Joo Koon Public School, on the other hand, was closed in 1976 and was reopened in 1984 as Yuqun Primary School. However, due to declining enrollment of students, the two schools were merged in 2002 as the new Yuhua Primary School.

Sin Nam Public School was shut down at the end of 1987. In early 1988, a new primary school at Jurong West was opened. Named after Sin Nan, it was called Xingnan Primary School. Likewise, Joo Long Public School was shifted to a new premises at Jurong West in 1985 as the new Rulang Primary School.

Seafood Haven

The construction and opening of the Nanyang University in the fifties had brought life to the vicinity and offered opportunities to the villagers, who could earn additional incomes by providing the labours, domestic works and food. In the sixties and seventies, Tuas Village was popular among the groups of Nantah students, who would, after classes, take the bus from the university to the fishing village to feast on seafood and other local delights.

tuas village seafood restaurant 1978

tuas jetty 1970s

Several larger seafood restaurants sprung up at Tuas Village in the early seventies. Its image as a faraway fishing village had briefly transformed into a seafood haven. Food lovers would come from other parts of Singapore for the fresh seafood. They were well-received by the National Service (NS) personnel of the seventies too, who loved to dine at Tuas Village before bidding goodbye to the “civilised” world and booking-in to the camps that were situated at the western end of Singapore.

Industrial Development

Jurong as Singapore’s new industrial town was the government’s most ambitious project in the sixties. As early as 1960, large plots of land at Choa Chu Kang, Tuas and Peng Kang were acquired. Swamps, forests, farms and plantations were cleared. Investors, local and foreign, were invited to set up mills, factories and manufacturing plants. By the early seventies, the industrial development had reached Tuas, and many residents were resettled at the new public housing estates.

tuas village2 1980s

tuas village5 1980s

As the Jurong Town Corporation’s (JTC) earth-moving machines made their way into Tuas, the fishermen, farmers and other villagers had no choice but to accept the government’s payments and move out. The shop owners at Jurong Road were offered alternate nearby locations to carry on their businesses, such as the new Boon Lay Shopping Centre, or the shops at Taman Jurong, Teban Gardens and Ulu Pandan housing estates.

By the mid-seventies, there were only three thousand plus residents at Tuas Village, a far cry from its 10,000-strong population in the late sixties. Many fishing boats could be found deserted at the jetty. Gone were the days when the jetty was overcrowded with boats filled with fish, waiting to be unloaded.

Tuas Village turned lively in the seventies when it became well-known as a seafood haven. The Tuas Seafood restaurants had enjoyed brisk businesses, but even that was short-lived. By 1978, it was clear that time was up for the seafood restaurants. Some struggled to hang on for another couple of years before their eventual forced closure or relocation.

tuas village4 1980s

tuas village3 1980s

Land reclamation projects at Tuas were started in the eighties. Before the land reclamation, Singapore had an approximate landsize of only 590 square kilometres. The first phase of the land reclamation, between 1984 and 1999, added some 10.2 square kilometres of land. The second phase, from 2000 to 2008, saw an increase of 19.1 square kilometres. Today, Singapore is about 719 square kilometres large.

Several large facilities have been built at Tuas. In late seventies, its $70-million shipyard was completed. The Tuas Incineration Plant, at a cost of $200 million, became operational in 1986, and in 1994, Tuas Naval Base was officially opened. For the next two decades, the Tuas Terminal will be developed to become Singapore’s megaport.

tuas map 2016

tuas south boulevard1 2016

tuas south boulevard2 2016

The rustic, carefree and idyllic Tuas of yesteryears had long vanished. Today, it is a vibrant industrial district. In the future, it will be a busy port that never sleeps. As for the most western part of Singapore, it was no longer Jurong Road 18th milestone. Instead, Tuas South Boulevard is currently the country’s westernmost road.

Published: 15 August 2016

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Singapore Trivia: A TV World at Tuas

Little known to many, there is a Television (TV) World at the end of Tuas, situated just beside the Tuas Second Link checkpoint. Looking like a rundown theme park from the outside, it was mainly used by the Television Corporation Of Singapore (TCS) in the nineties as the production venue of local period dramas.

tuas tv world01

Occupying a land size equivalent to about four football fields, the TV World was created in 1990, completed about two years later, to look like Singapore of the fifties and sixties. It was designed with buildings that resemble old cinema, railway station, fire station, church, mansions and traditional shophouses. Three main streets run around these buildings.

There was also a man-made river within TV World for filming purposes. In the past, the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) artistes, if required in the scripts, were made to jump or swim in the Singapore River.

tuas tv world02

Using the nostalgic props and backgrounds at TV World, the TCS would produce many memorable Chinese dramas for Channel 8, such as Strange Encounters 3 奇缘3 (aired in 1995), Tofu Street 豆腐街 (1996), The Price Of Peace 和平的代价 (1997), Wok Of Life 福满人间 (1999) and Hainan Kopi Tales 琼园咖啡香 (2000).

In 2001, TCS was restructured and became Mediacorp TV. The TV World was subsequently given up probably due to high maintenance costs. Also, Mediacorp had decided to cut down on the production of local period dramas. Instead, if required, they would be filmed at Caldecott Broadcast Centre, Malaysia or China.

tuas tv world03

After its closure, the premises of the TV World was taken over by the Singapore Police Force as their Tactical Training Village for special forces. In 2012, Mediacorp did, however, return to the TV World for one more production of drama series – Joy of Life 花样人间 – for the 30th year of production of local Chinese dramas in Singapore.

tuas tv world road

tuas tv world04

Check out more old photos of Tuas TV World here.

Published: 31 July 2016

Updated: 20 August 2016

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