Singapore Bicentennial 2019 – The Arrivals and Their Contributions

Singapore celebrates its bicentennial year, the 200th anniversary of Sir Stamford Raffles’ arrival, in 2019. One of the commemorative events is the setting up of four statues beside the existing Raffles statue along the Singapore River. Although the bicentennial is a significant milestone, Singapore’s history did not begin in 1819, but all the way back to 1299.

Hence, one of the displaying statues belongs to Sang Nila Utama, who stands beside the other three – Munshi Abdullah, Naraina Pillai and Tan Tock Seng – each representing the early pioneers and their significant contributions to the major communities in Singapore in the early 19th century.

Sang Nila Utama (undetermined)

A Srivijayan prince from Palembang, the mythical Sang Nila Utama was said to have arrived and founded Singapura in 1299. The name of the city derived from his most famous story, in which he, after a sighting of a lion on the island, renamed it from Temasek to Singapura (City of the Sea Lion in Sanskrit).

As the ruler of Singapura, Sang Nila Utama assumed the Sri Tri Buana title, which means “Lord of Three Worlds” in Sanskrit. His descendants succeeded his dynasty, ruling Singapura until the fifth king Iskandar Shah was driven out by the Majapahit (Javanese) troops. Iskandar Shah later founded the Malacca kingdom in the 15th century.

In Singapore, the former Sang Nila Utama Secondary School (1961-1988), the country’s first Malay-medium secondary school, was named after him.

Munshi Abdullah (1797-1854)

Known as the father of modern Malay literature, Munshi Abdullah was a man of many talents. A teacher, author and interpreter, Munshi Abdullah was able to speak many languages including Arabic, Tamil, Hindi and English. Through years of studies and hard work, he became an expert in his own mother tongue Malay. He became known as munshi (or munsyi, refers to teacher in Malay) even though his real name was Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir.

The Malacca-born Munshi Abdullah worked for Stamford Raffles as a copyist in 1810. In 1819, when Raffles arrived at Singapore, he hired Munshi Abdullah again, this time as a secretary and interpreter. While working for him, Munshi Abdullah would teach Raffles, and other foreign arrivals, the Malay language.

In his later years, Munshi Abdullah published Hikayat Abdullah, becoming the first local Malay to have his works published. Although there were some inaccuracies in the book, Hikayat Abdullah – Munshi Abdullah’s autobiography that was completed in 1843 – was nevertheless considered an important source of information regarding the social history of Singapore in the 19th century.

Munshi Abdullah Avenue at Teacher’s Estate, Ang Mo Kio, was named after him.

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826)

Credited with the founding of modern Singapore, Stamford Raffles arrived in the late 1810s from Calcutta in search of a new British settlement. Malacca had come under the Dutch’s control (it was later ceded to the British in 1824), and the British was eager to find another strategic trading post along the Strait of Malacca.

On 6 February 1819, Stamford Raffles signed an official treaty with Johor’s Sultan Hussien and Temenggong Abdul Rahman in the establishment of a British trading post in Singapore. Under Raffles’ administration, a town plan was drawn, areas in the city were segregated for different ethnic groups and government buildings, roads, bridges and other amenities were constructed. A free port was declared, and a judicial system was also put in place to ensure law and order in the new colony.

Numerous landmarks were named after Stamford Raffles, including Singapore’s commercial centre (Raffles Place), road (Stamford Road), school (Raffles Institution), hotel (Raffles Hotel) and public library (Raffles Library and Museum).

Naraina Pillai (undetermined)

Naraina Pillai was one of the first Tamils to set foot on Singapore, when he left Penang to come to Singapore with Stamford Raffles in 1819. Initially he worked for Raffles as the colonial treasury’s chief clerk, but left soon after a new replacement was hired from Malacca.

Naraina Pillai then established a brick company, becoming Singapore’s first Indian building contractor, to supply to the growing housing demands in the new colony. His business soon expanded to textile and cotton goods, but was hit by a fire disaster that burnt down his bazaar and landed him in debts. Naraina Pillai sought help from Raffles, who assigned a parcel of land for him at the Commercial Square (present-day Raffles Place). With new warehouses constructed, Naraina Pillai was soon able to build his business again.

With aspirations to serve the local Indian community, Naraina Pillai put in much efforts for the construction of a Hindu temple. His dreams finally came true in 1827, when the Sri Mariamman Temple was completed at South Bridge Road. Naraina Pillai also harboured hopes for a new Indian educational institute, but, unfortunately, this plan of his did not materialise. Nevertheless, his contributions earned the respect from his fellow Tamils, and Naraina Pillai was eventually appointed as the chief of Indians from Cholamandalaman.

Pillai Road, off Paya Lebar Road, was named in honour of him in 1957.

Tan Tock Seng (1798-1850)

An entrepreneur, philanthropist and community leader, Tan Tock Seng, born in Malacca in 1798, arrived at Singapore in 1819 at an age of 21. Started humbly as a small merchant, Tan Tock Seng, after years of hard work, grew to become a successful businessman and landlord, owning many properties in shophouses and plantations.

In the 1840s, Tan Tock Seng generously donated 7,000 Spanish dollars to the construction fund of the Chinese Pauper Hospital at Pearl’s Hill (the hospital was later relocated a couple of times and renamed after him). Beside the hospital, he also made other charitable contributions, took care of the funeral and burial expenses of poor Chinese immigrants and co-founded Thian Hock Keng Temple, Singapore’s oldest Hokkien temple.

Tan Tock Seng became the first Asian to be appointed as the Justice of Peace by the British colonial government. He became popularly known as “Kapitan China” (Captain of the Chinese), who had the authoritative powers to settle feuds and disputes among the early Chinese immigrants within the community.

The Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Jalan Tan Tock Seng were named after him.

The statues will be on display along the Singapore River until the end of 2019.

Published: 17 March 2019

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Enter a World of Advertisement in Old Singapore (Part 2)

The National Library’s “Selling Dreams: Early Advertising in Singapore” exhibition features many advertising materials from the 1830s to 1960s, with snippets of information about the advertisers and their publications, their dreams and aspirations, as well as the way the changes in the society, over the years, affected their designs, which in turn influenced the society.

Modern advertising agencies started appearing in Singapore in the 1920s. Vibrant and competitive, the early ad industry was dominated by Western expatriates – either based here or had regional firms with headquarters at Hong Kong or Shanghai – who actively advertised their services in publications for the business community.

One of the early modern advertising agencies was the Advertising and Publicity Bureau (APB), established in Hong Kong in 1922 by Beatrice Thompson. In 1931, it became the first regional agency in Singapore when it opened one of its branches here. Advertising for many household brands and prominent firms, APB claimed, in the 1930s, to be the largest advertising agency in the Far East.

For Chinese adverts, picture calendars were common advertising tools used by businesses as gifts to their clients. Featuring Chinese women dressed in the latest fashions, they originated from Shanghai and were extremely popular between the 1920s and 1940s. Many local publication firms were engaged in the design and printing of such picture calendars, often in full colours.

During the Japanese Occupation, most of the advertising agencies were forced to cease their operations. They resumed their businesses after the end of the war, and were joined by many newcomers in the ad industry. The fifties and sixties saw more British, American and Australian advertising firms entering the Asian market, some of which later became leading international firms.

Two prominent post-war advertising agencies were Cathay Advertising and C.F. Young Publicity. The former was founded in Hong Kong by Elma Kelly, an Australian businesswoman, and had its Singapore office opened in 1946. By the sixties, it became one of Singapore’s largest advertising agencies. Cathay Advertising later merged with Australian firm George Patterson and was subsequently acquired by New York advertising giant Ted Bates & Co in the late sixties.

C.F. Young Publicity, on the other hand, was established in 1946 by C.F. Young, who was originally a manager from APB. Also a leading advertising agency, it was later renamed Young Advertising and Marketing, before being acquired by British advertising agency London Press Exchange in 1966 and became LPE Singapore.

Food & Beverage

In the early 20th century, the global revolution in food consumption, aided by the new food-related technology such as aerated water, preservatives, refrigeration and tinned food, meant that there was an increase in locally and foreign manufactured food products, which in turn led to a rise in the demand of their advertising in books, magazines and newspapers.

The advertisements often portrayed imported food products, such as chocolates and biscuits (above), as some form of luxury products, which made their consumption associated with modern, affluent lifestyle. Hence, the adverts would usually be made up of illustrations of happy, well-off families with scrumptious meals.

After the Second World War, especially throughout the sixties, the influx of foods and seasonings from overseas largely altered the local taste and cuisines. Foods such as tomato sauce and margarine became common, and their advertising (below) were targeted mostly at women, who were traditionally in charge of home cooking. Some of the popular advertising platforms for the advertisements of these household staples were female magazines such as Her World.

Coffee and tea (above) were also highly sought-after imported food products. Other beverages such as flavoured drinks and aerated waters were also popular due to Singapore’s hot and humid weather. Many of those drinks were manufactured locally. One of the industry’s early brands was Framroz & Co, founded in 1904 by Parsi businessman P.M. Framroz. Its Orange Smash was so successful that the company was hailed as the “pioneer of fruit juice drinks” in Singapore.

Another household name was Fraser and Neave (F&N). Although it started as a printing and publishing company in 1883, F&N later switched to beverage business by supplying aerated water, lemonade, tonic, ginger ale and beer to clubs, hotels and residences in Singapore.

To reach out to the masses, F&N advertised its products heavily, especially in one of its star products Red Lion (right) in the sixties. Its advertisements of female models sipping cold refreshing Red Lion orange drinks were so commonly seen that F&N earned the colloquial name of “ang sai” (red lion in Hokkien) among the locals.

Supermarkets

Food refrigeration had completely changed the way the food was consumed, both globally and in Singapore. Fresh meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables could be shipped and kept fresh for a significant period of time, allowing European residents in pre-war Singapore to maintain their Western lifestyles and diets.

This led to the rise of Cold Storage (established in Singapore in 1903), Fitzpatrick’s (established in 1958) and Fresh Food Refrigerating Company, which became well-known supermarkets with a wide range of fresh imported produce. Prolific and competitive, their advertisements (above) were eye-catching, and were designed with strong emphasis of their fresh supply, convenience and comfort shopping in their air-conditioned supermarkets.

Local retailers were not to be left out. Local trading firm The Borneo Company, which had a long history and had many branches in different parts of Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand, found effectiveness in its active advertising of its trading and distribution services.

By comparing provision shops – it supplied to thousands of provision shops in Southeast Asia, such as Chee Seng Provision Store, the one featured in the full-coloured advert (left) – to the regional equivalent of a supermarket, The Borneo Company highlighted the convenience and the wide range of the products and services that the provision shops provided to its customers.

Supplements & Tonics

From the late 19th century to the early 1920s, the public in Singapore increasingly grew to become more conscious of the relationship between one’s health and his diet. Observed by many advertisers, they marketed their food products based on the people’s desire for a healthy and long life. In the advertisements, many food products were portrayed as tonic food with additional nutrients; others claimed to boost one’s health, strength and energy, or aid in slimming or dieting.

Due to the high infant and child mortality throughout the mid-20th century, mothers’ biggest concern was the health and well-being of their children. As such, advertising of supplements and ointments were common and frequent. Examples were the cod liver oils by Scott’s Emulsion and Seven Seas (below), both of which were heavily advertised for their benefits to pregnant mothers and their children.

However, the market was soon flooded with so many different types of health food products that the public was often confused by their factual information. In the sixties, the Medicines (Advertisement and Sale) Ordinance was introduced by the authority to put an end to the advertisements of those products without the backing of authoritative researches.

Alcohols

Alcoholic beverages in Singapore had a long history, ranging from imported beer, liquor, whiskey, gin, port and brandy. Overseas brands often tried to attract local drinkers by associating themselves with local cultures. For example, Carlsberg, with its signature green bottles, referred itself as “Carlsberg hijau” (green in Malay). Others advertised themselves as the alcohol used in famous local inventions such as the Singapore Sling and the “stengah” (a cocktail mixed of whiskey and soda). Local beers did not come into the picture until 1932, when the locally-brewed Tiger Beer was launched.

Until the 1960s, it was common for beer adverts to feature vibrantly coloured images of beer served in cold, similar to those soft drinks adverts, giving the readers an impression of a perfect drink in Singapore’s tropical climate.

One of the popular alcoholic drinks was Anchor Beer (right), produced by the Archipelago Brewery Company, a German company that started brewing beer in 1933 at their Alexandra Road factory. The company was bought over, after the Second World War, by Malayan Breweries, the brewery that had produced Tiger Beer.

Electrical Appliances

When electricity became an integral part of the household, so were the consumer products in electrical appliances. In general, the ones heavily advertising the electrical appliances were the department stores, local dealers and major brands such as National (below), General Electric Company, Morphy-Richards and others.

At the start, electrical appliances were affordable only to the better-off families. For example, an electric iron in 1947 cost $11.50, equivalent to a factory worker’s two-month salary. However, by the fifties and sixties, the electrical appliances would become more affordable and accessible to the middle-class households. This led to their more extensive advertising, which tried to infuse the concept of a “modern home” equipped with the latest home gadgets and home entertainment.

A significant number of women in Singapore had entered the workforce by the 1950s and 1960s. The advertising companies understood that the new-age females had the tedious task of juggling between their jobs and housework. Therefore, many of their advertisements, for household and domestic goods such as electric fans, fluorescent lighting, gas burners and sewing machines (right), highlighted the convenience that the products could bring for the working women.

Other electrical appliances included radios (below), televisions, record players and other home entertainment that were considered luxury items at first, but later become household staples enjoyed by the family members together. Radios and televisions, especially, grew to dominate the media and communication industry, and their channels became important platforms used extensively by the advertising agencies to reach out to a much larger audience.

Automobiles

After the Second World War, cars in Singapore became more of a norm due to improved roads and more affordable cars. The huge popularity of the Singapore Grand Prix held at Old Upper Thomson Road in the sixties and early seventies also helped to spur the public’s interest in cars.

Many car manufacturers rode on to the competition’s popularity by sponsoring the drivers and advertising their brands, parading their car models in front of thousands of fans at the start of each race. For those car models or brands that won the races, it provided further advertising opportunities for the car companies to highlight their prized car’s speed, power, control and efficient fuel consumption.

For instance, the Datsun Bluebird of Nissan Motor was heavily advertised (right) in the late sixties, where its achievements (winner of Australian economy race, winner of Kenya’s Rift Valley Rally, 4th place in 36th Monte Carlo Rally, 4th & 5th place in 1967 Singapore Grand Prix) were proudly listed.

In Singapore, cars have always been used to symbolise wealth and prestige. Hence, even as cars became more affordable over the years, the car companies made it a marketing strategy by categorising their car models into “economy” and “luxury” cars, which catered to different groups of audiences.

For “economy”, or “family”, cars, their advertisements (above) often portrayed car ownership as part of a happy family. The car’s safety features, interior spaciousness, fuel efficiency and an affordable price tag gave an impression of a family’s perfect ride that clearly appealed to the masses.

Tourism

In 1872, Englishman Thomas Cook brought a group of tourists on a world tour, going to America, Middle East and Asia that included a two-day stay at Singapore, before returning to England. Since then, global tourism had become popular with more and more tourists making inter-continental travels.

For the travellers between Europe and Asia or Australia, Malaya usually became one of the stopover destinations. Hence, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, Malaya was often advertised as an exotic Orient – a land of tropical climate, magnificent scenery, multicultural society and rich in resources – with great potential business opportunities.

In 1901, the Federated Malay States Railway (FMSR) was established. Its Malay Peninsula’s west coast rail, made accessible by the 1910s, played an important role in promoting Malaya as a progressive place where the tourists could travel in style and comfort. FMSR was further connected to Siamese State Railway in 1918, making travel by rail between Singapore and Bangkok possible. This gave rise to the adverts (above) featuring the exotic images of both Malaya and Siam (Thailand).

The rapidly-growing tourism industry also boosted airlines and hotels. Malayan Airways made its maiden flight in 1947, and the airline soon carried tourists commuting between Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Ipoh. Its flights later expanded regionally to include Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei, Sarawak and Hong Kong.

Cathay Hotel was one of the luxury hotels in Singapore that was heavily featured in the advertisements (right). The Cathay building, Singapore’s first skyscraper, was built in 1939, housing a cinema, restaurant and luxury apartments.

In the fifties, the Cathay Organisation, already a thriving entertainment business by then, moved to convert its luxury apartments into a hotel. The new Cathay Hotel was equipped with air-conditioning, telephones and private bathrooms. Within the building, there were also squash courts, cinema and shopping arcade.

Other hotels were determined not to be left behind in the booming tourism industry. Located at Eu Tong Sen Street, the six-storey Great Southern Hotel, also commonly known as Nam Tin Hotel, claimed in its advertisements that it was the most reputable hotels in Southeast Asia. Its Southern Restaurant and Southern Cabaret, located at the hotel’s top two floors, were its star attractions.

Another major attraction for tourists would be the local cuisines. Restaurants and eateries had their own advertising, usually on printed media such as posters, newspapers or magazines. Examples included the Jubilee Cafe & Restaurant that served Muslim food, curries and nasi biryani, Komala Vilas, one of Singapore’s oldest Indian vegetarian restaurants, and Cold Storage Creameries and their extremely popular Magnolia ice creams, also known as “milk bars” (below).

Shopping

The rapid development in trade and commerce in British Malaya in the mid- and late 19th century led to the rise of department stores. Singapore, being a major commercial hub and port of call, had the largest number of retail establishments.

One of Singapore’s most prominent department stores was Robinsons, established as a small retail outlet called Spicer & Robinson at the Commercial Square (present-day Raffles Place) in 1858. By the early 20th century, Robinsons had become one of the leading department stores here. It continued to flourish after the war, and was dubbed as the “handsomest shop in the Far East”, with regular promotion of its “Malaya’s Sale of the Year” – the equivalent of its successful Robinsons Sale in the later years.

John Little was founded even earlier, in 1845, as a retailer and auctioneer. In 1910, it opened its signature Raffles Place mall that was filled with wines, provisions, home furnishings, watches, books and men’s and ladies’ fashion. Rivaling Robinsons, John Little proudly declared, in many of its advertisements, that it was the “Finest Store East of Suez”. It, however, was acquired by Robinsons in 1955.

Another prominent department store was Whiteaway Laidlaw. Established in Calcutta, India in 1882, the British retail giant expanded its business throughout India, China and Southeast Asia. It opened its Singapore branch in 1900, and the department store was described as the “Whiteleys of the East”, referring to the famous London department store of the early 20th century. In Malaya, it was not until 1905 that the first non-European-owned department store – Chow Kit & Co – opened at Kuala Lumpur.

A photo gallery of the “Selling Dreams: Early Advertising in Singapore” exhibition and other featured advertisements:

A simple black and white advertisement of Brand’s Essence of Chicken (above) in 1950

A full-coloured Medical Office poster (above) in the 1930s, designed in the popular Shanghai “picture calendar” style for a prominent local pharmacy at North Bridge Road

“Your dream comes true” – the motto for a 1964 National electric fan advert (above)

Advertisements promoting the health of pregnant mothers and their unborn children were common, as shown in this Nespray Milk ad (above) in Her World magazine in 1968

A Bata Shoe Company’s festival advertisement (above) for the Lunar New Year in 1951

Ocean liner adverts (above, left to right) in the 1930s – The Royal Dutch Mails, Danish East Asiatic Line, Peninsula & Oriental and British India Lines

(Editor’s Note: Most of the information in this article was referenced to the “Selling Dreams: Early Advertising in Singapore” exhibition at the National Library)

Also read Enter a World of Advertisement in Old Singapore (Part 1).

Published: 24 February 2019

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The Lone HDB Block at Moulmein

Standing at the junction of Moulmein Road and Exit 7A of the Central Expressway (CTE), Block 69 cuts a lonely figure, being the only Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat in the vicinity. It was an unusual scene, as HDB flats are commonly built in clusters as part of a new town or housing estate.

When Block 69 was first built in the early seventies, the 20-storey point block stood tall among its neighbours, mostly made up of low-rise three-storey Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) flats. Before the construction of the CTE in the mid-eighties that cut through the vicinity, Block 69 was situated at the corner between Moulmein Road and Norfolk Road; its nearest HDB neighbours were the flats located at Whampoa Drive (built in 1974), Cambridge Road (between 1976 and 1982) and Kent Road (1982).

Block 69 was put up for balloting a couple of months before its completion in 1972. It proved to be so popular that only 10% of the applicants were successful in getting their new flats. There were almost 700 applications received for the block’s 76 four-room units, each with a selling price of $15,500. The finalised figures of the allocation were: 15 units went to resettled residents, seven to HDB staffs, and the remaining 54 units were put up for sale to the public.

The chronological history of Block 69 hence began when its lease officially kicked off in July 1972. Moulmein Court became its immediate neighbour when the freehold condominium was erected beside it in 1981. By the late eighties, the CTE has isolated it from the Cambridge Road housing estate. In late 2018, the former Communicable Disease Centre (CDC), opposite the block, was closed to make way for future private residential development.

In 1999, Block 69 was left out of HDB’s Main Upgrading Programme (MUP), much to the displeasure of its residents. They appealed to their Member of Parliament (MP), and the outcast block was eventually included in the upgrading program. Subsequently, the block’s lifts were also upgraded in 2011 and 2016.

Published: 09 February 2019

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The Idyllic Days of Changi Creek and Villages

Singapore has many rivers and waterways, one of which is Sungei Changi, also commonly known as Changi Creek (creek refers to a narrow, sheltered waterway), a short river situated at the northeastern part of Singapore.

The Changi area, by the pre-war period, was already an established British military base with airfield, colonial barracks and a wide network of roads served by the Changi Bus Company. Pockets of small villages, existed before the British turned Changi into an airbase, continued to flourish by providing supplies to the troops. Most of them would, however, vanish by the late seventies caused by the redevelopment plans and massive land reclamation projects for the construction of the new Changi Airport.

Changi Village was one of those areas that were affected, but managed to survive after its transformation into a small bustling housing estate and recreational centre in the mid-seventies.

With the impending withdrawal of the British, Australian and New Zealand troops in the early seventies, the Singapore government announced the redevelopment plans of the old Changi Village. This was due to the sizable demand for Changi Village’s goods and services by the Australian battalion living at the nearby quarters. Their departure at the end of 1973 would severely disrupt and impact the shops and businesses at Changi Village.

The government also took the opportunity to alter Changi Village’s business model for lesser dependence on foreign demands and more focus in the domestic and recreational sectors. Its rows of wooden shophouses were demolished, and in their place, a small housing estate of more than 350 units of flats, in low-rise blocks, were built.

Completed in 1975 with flats, shops, eateries, a bus terminal, hawker centre and market, the newly-looking Changi Village not only welcomed back many of its original residents and shopkeepers who were initially affected by the redevelopment, but also attracted other Singaporeans to visit it as a stopover point to Changi Beach or Pulau Ubin.

Changi Creek was also transformed. Its banks were turned into a small esplanade with a landscaped park and children’s playground. The narrow waterway, previously filled with dozens of squatter huts, litters and dead animal carcasses, was cleaned up and, at the end of it, a reservoir was built.

The Changi Creek Reservoir, at 2.8m deep and a storage capacity of 80,000 cubic metres, acted as a water collection system for the new Changi Airport premises built in the early eighties. The reservoir’s pumping system, pipping and hydrant lines were completed in 1981 by the Public Works Department (PWD), enabling the reservoir to support the airport’s fire-fighting capabilities.

Leading to the opposite Changi Beach, the iconic foot bridge at Changi Creek has been around for more than half a century. It has been marked in the local maps dated back to the mid-fifties. The boarding and alighting point of boats, the predecessor of the present-day Changi Point Ferry Terminal, also existed back then to provide ferry services to Pulau Tekong, Palau Ubin and Johor.

In 1979, an unexpected visitor – a Vietnamese trawler with 32 refugees – ran aground at Changi Creek due to receding tides. The refugees, made up of Vietnamese men, women and children, were brought by the police to a nearby sailing club while the boat was being repaired for its damages, after which the refugees continued their journey to an undisclosed destination.

Beside the foot bridge is the docking point for the unloading of live seafood by the Singapore and Malaysia fish farmers. Numerous boats, filled with fish, prawns and crabs, arrive daily at the dock for their goods to be hauled and transported to the local seafood restaurants.

In 2016, however, the authority considered the permanent closure of the Changi Creek dock due to safety and security concerns. There were also reports of illegal smuggling of cigarettes, narcotics and pets. Plans of the closure of the dock were put on hold after the appeals of the fish farmers and ferry operators.

There are a few old roads at the Changi vicinity. Nicoll Drive, between Tanah Merah Road and Changi Village, was built in the fifties as a coast road with a splendid picturesque view of the Changi beach. The road, at its beginning, was a quiet drive without street lamps and a few houses along its 6.5km-long route, a large difference from what it looks like today. After its completion, Nicoll Drive was named in 1955 after Sir John Nicoll (1899-1981), the Governor of Singapore between 1952 and 1955. The Nicoll Highway in the city area was also named after him.

Telok Paku Road, on the other hand, was better remembered for the government bungalows that functioned as holiday resorts by the sea until their demolition in the late seventies. The quaint-looking pre-war bungalows, some of which were named Annexe, Brighton, Clifton and Hove, were made available for rental to the public since 1962.

Near the junction of Telok Paku Road and Nicoll Drive was a small Malay coastal village called Kampong Beting Kusa (Kusah).

In 1948, an airstrip extension at the Changi airfield led to the British’s acquisition of the nearby lands As a result, two affected villages  – Kampong Beting Kusa and Kampong Tenah Merah Besar – were resettled with a $30,000 compensation. The villagers were moved to Kampong Ayer Gemuroh, another coastal village located near the southeastern coast of Changi. Some Kampong Beting Kusa fishermen continued their trades by moving to the easternmost beach, setting up kelongs and coastal houses near to the Telok Paku government bungalows.

While most of Kampong Beting Kusa and Kampong Tanah  Merah Besar villagers relocated their homes closer to the Changi coast, a number of affected kampong residents chose to move inland by resettling at Kampong Tengah and Kampong Darat.

Most of the kampongs had vanished in the mid- and late seventies when the construction of the new airport took place. Changi and Tanah Merah’s villages and the Telok Paku government bungalows were not the only ones affected; the redevelopment works led to the closure of Telok Paku School (1950-1975) and Ayer Gemuroh Malay School, acquisition of private residences, such as David Marshall’s bungalow, and the relocation of several elderly and children’s homes, including the Cheshire Home (established in 1957 by Captain Leonard Cheshire of the Royal Air Force), Chen Su Lan Methodist Children’s Home, Crippled Children’s Home (established in 1953 by Red Cross Society) and the Children’s Society Convalescent Home (established in 1956).

Published: 27 January 2019

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A Short History of Tampines Road – Busy Junction, Customs Station and Illegal Alcohol

There are a couple of old buildings along Tampines Road, near its junction with Upper Serangoon Road, that seem out of place standing among the new developments in the vicinity. They were the former Customs Station and Quarters, more than three decades ago, functioning under the jurisdiction of the Customs Operations Command Building, or COC, at Keppel Road.

Prior to that, during the Second World War, the wooden houses were apparently warehouses storing gunny bags of rice. After the Customs Station’s operations ceased in the seventies, the buildings were utilised as an Islamic religious school for several years during the nineties. They were then converted into a kindergarten and student hostel in the 2000s.

Today, the vacant buildings, consisting of five single-storey wooden houses and a four-storey block, stand between new private condominiums Tembusu and Stars of Kovan (still under construction). The buildings are part of the list of state properties under the administration of the Singapore Land Authority (SLA).

The COC, during the sixties and seventies, was the headquarters of the Land Division of the Customs and Excise Department. Beside the Tampines Road Customs Station, it also held the jurisdiction of other Customs Stations located at the old Woodlands Customs Checkpoint, Kangkar, Lim Chu Kang, Changi, Tanjong Pagar and Jurong, which was its latest addition in the seventies.

A customs team, known as the Land Squads, was stationed at the Land Division headquarters, with specific tasks to raid and seize the illegal manufactured samsoo, or samsu (which like toddy, was a type of alcoholic drink once popular among the local community in Singapore and Malaysia), smuggled opium and duty unpaid cigarettes.

The Land Squads was organised into “A”, “B” and “B” teams, with each teams assigned to their designated zones of duty. Often, the teams had to venture into the rural parts to seek the hidden samsoo distilleries and smugglers hidden in the jungles. In 1964, the customs officers busted an illegal samsoo hideout in the thick undergrowth along Tampines Road. Caught with almost 1,800 litres of mash and 80 litres of samsoo, the manufacturer was fined a hefty $9,000.

The Customs Stations at Changi, Kangkar and Tampines Road came with staff quarters that provided accommodation for the customs personnel. The customs officers stationed at Tampines Road Customs Station were tasked not only to conduct regular checks and raids on illegal alcohol, drugs and cigarettes, but also worked as tax collectors for imported eggs and other produce shipped from the Kangkar and Punggol Point fishing ports.

The area near the junction of Upper Serangoon and Tampines Roads used to be known as “lak kok jiok” (referring to the 6th milestone of Upper Serangoon Road) by the local Chinese, particularly the large Teochew community, who had lived there for generations, together with pockets of Malay, Indian and Eurasian families. Between the sixties and eighties, lak kok jiok was a bustling “centralised” area with markets (Simon Road Market and Lim Tua Tow Market), cinemas (Empire Theatre and Zenith Theatre), villages, schools, clinics, provision shops and places of worship.

The Tampines Road Customs Station, after two decades of operations, was closed in the seventies. By the late seventies, its opposite Somapah Serangoon Village was demolished as its site was redeveloped into the (old) Hougang Town Centre. New blocks of Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats sprung up in the vicinity by the mid-eighties, and Jalan Hock Chye became Hougang Avenue 1. Jalan Hock Chye did not disappear into history, though, as a short section of it was retained and used as an access road to private residences today.

Published: 14 January 2019

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From Old Cemetery to Vibrant New Town; A Peck San Theng Heritage Gallery

After two years of conceptualisation, and supported by the National Heritage Board, the Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng Heritage Gallery was officially opened in June 2018, showcasing the history of Peck San Theng Cemetery, and its transformation into the vibrant Bishan New Town.

Early Cantonese Cemeteries

The early Cantonese and Hakka communities in Singapore had their roots traced back to the early 19th century, when they arrived in batches from China’s seven prefectures – Guangzhou, Huizhou, Zhaoqing, Jiaying, Fengshun, Yongding and Dapu.

In 1824, the Cantonese and Hakkas built the Fuk Tai Chi Temple, a place of worship that also served as the headquarters of the two communities. Over the years, their populations grew, leading to higher demands for burial grounds. Hence, between 1820s and 1870s, three Chinese cemeteries were established. They were the Cheng San Teng (青山亭) Cemetery, Loke Yah Teng (绿野亭) Cemetery and Pek San Theng (碧山亭) Cemetery. The three cemeteries were located at present-day Maxwell Road, Bukit Ho Swee and Thomson Road areas respectively.

The Teahouse

After the Second World War, until the 1970s, Peck San Theng Cemetery had covered a large 324-acre (1.31km2) area, almost equivalent to 180 football fields and two-thirds of present-day Bishan New Town. The cemetery was also home to Kampong San Teng, which was largely made up of Chinese families as well as a small number of Indian and Malay residents. The village itself was self-sufficient; there were provision shops, a soy sauce factory, clinic, school, wayang stage and a large coffee shop named Peck San Tea Pavilion.

Also known as Peck San Teahouse, the coffee shop was housed in a single-storey building with distinctive tapered roof that modelled after the teahouses in rural China. It mainly served as both an eating and gathering place for the residents of Kampong San Teng.

Peck San Tea Pavilion was particularly bustling during the annual Qing Ming Festival, when the members of the extended families came together for drinks and meals before their tombsweeping activities at the cemetery. One of the popular dishes the coffee shop was selling were their steaming hot dim sum.

Kampong San Teng

The Kampong San Teng residents lived scatteredly beside the Peck San Theng Cemetery, which was demarcated by 12 pavilions. The Cantonese families stayed around Pavilion 1 to 3, while the Hokkiens and Teochews’ homes were located between Pavilion 4 and 7. At Pavilion 8 was another small number of Hokkien families. Most of the villagers’ homes were attap houses; the better off families lived in wooden ones with zinc roofs.

The kampong residents mostly worked as farmers at the small plots of lands beside their homes. Others reared and sold livestock such as chicken, ducks and pigs at the nearby markets. A small number of skilled craftsmen also resided at Kampong San Teng, engaged in specialised jobs such as tomb inscription for the cemetery.

In the sixties and seventies, many young men from Kampong San Teng preferred to venture out of their village, travelling further to work at the electronic factories, Sembawang shipyard and Sembawang Naval Base.

For much of its history, Kampong San Teng had inadequate amenities and a lack of proper sanitation. Accessibility was also an issue for those residents living at the inner parts of the kampong, a long walking distance away from the village’s entrance. Overall, life was difficult but generally safe and simple. By the early seventies, Kampong San Teng reached its population peak of about 1,000 residents.

Chinese Public School

Peck Shan Ting School was established in 1936 by the Kwong Wai Siew Federation to provide free education for the children of Kampong San Teng and the nearby villages. Lee Min, one of the school’s founders, wanted the poor families’ kids to have access to education so that they could have better prospects in life.

The students of Peck Shan Ting School were taught their subjects in Chinese. In 1956, the school built a new single-storey building with six classrooms to accommodate morning and afternoon classes. A year later, Peck Shan Ting School was incorporated into the national education system, becoming a government-aided school like most other Chinese public schools in Singapore.

The school premises had its own basketball court and running track. Beside studies, the students engaged in many sports and games. Hence, the school’s Sports Day was an important annual event.

Many former students would fondly remember their carefree schooldays; each day was made up of games such as five stones, fighting spiders, catching games at the small hills and pavilions, or flying layangs (kites) at the cemetery areas.

Peck Shan Ting School had three long-serving principals in its 45 years of history. The last principal was Kwok Ming, who witnessed the closure of the school in 1981 due to the resettlement of the kampong residents resulting in a dwindling number of students.

12 Pavilions

There were 13 burial hills at Peck San Theng Cemetery. The burial hills were named after “xin jia po guang hui zhao bi shan ting yu lan sheng hui” (新加坡广惠肇碧山亭盂兰胜会), which referred to the Singapore Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng Ullambana Festival. There were 13 characters in the Chinese name; hence, each burial hill was named after the characters in sequence.

The 12 symbolic pavilions were built at the open areas between the burial hills, serving as stopovers or resting points for the visitors. The pavilions were named one to ten, with the additional New Pavilion 5 and New Pavilion 7. Constructed in different periods, the pavilions had distinctive architectural styles. The older ones were simple shed-like structures, whereas the newer ones, such as New Pavilion 5, had elaborated hexagonal roof.

Pavilion 10 and New Pavilion 7 were built in 1957. Among the 12 pavilions, two were named after distinguished figures – New Pavilion 5 was also known as Wong Fook Hill Pavilion (named after Wong Ah Fook), while Pavilion 9, or Loh Poh Lum Pavilion, was named after Loh Poh Lum.

Pavilion 4, previously located beside the present-day Bishan Stadium, was the last surviving structure of the former cemetery. By the eighties, it was in a dilapidated state. Moreover, numerous haunted tales regarding the pavilion ran rife, spooking the new town’s residents who eventually requested the pavilion to be demolished.

Exhumation of Cemetery

As for the cemetery itself, its 100 years of serenity and tranquility finally came to end with the redevelopment plans arriving at its doorstep. The lands occupied by the cemetery were included in the government’s proposed town plans for Toa Payoh and Bishan. By 1973, the government had stopped all new burials at Peck San Theng. The cemetery was officially acquired in 1979, with a compensation of $4.9 million to Kwong Wai Siew. The exhumation of Peck San Theng Cemetery kicked off three years later, in 1982.

Kwong Wai Siew tried to initiate negotiations with the government for the preservation of its temple and the establishment of new crematorium and funeral parlour. After several rounds of negotiations, the government eventually granted Kwong Wai Siew a 3-hectare land with a 99-year lease for the construction of a new columbarium. It could also proceed to preserve its ancestral temple. The new modern-looking columbarium was officially opened during the Qing Ming Festival in 1986.

Notable Personalities

The establishment of Peck San Theng Cemetery could not have succeeded without the efforts of numerous influential Chinese community leaders, such as Whampoa Hoo Ah Kay (胡亚基), Boey Nam Sooi (梅南瑞), Ng Sing Phang (吴胜鹏), Yow Ngan Pan (邱彦宾) and Boey Ah Sam (梅湛轩). Together, they were involved in the donations, fund-raising, land purchasing, planning, construction and development of Peck San Theng.

A handful of notable persons were buried at Peck San Theng Cemetery, including Wong Ah Fook (黄亚福) and Cao Ya Zhi (曹亚志). Wong Ah Fook (1837-1918) was a famous contractor in the late 19th century, involving in Singapore and Johor’s building projects such as the Victoria Memorial Hall and Istana Besar. Jalan Wong Ah Fook, a street in Johor, was named after him.

As the founding member of Kwong Wai Siew federation, Wong Ah Fook was buried at Peck San Theng Cemetery after his death in 1918. His tomb, located near Pavilion 5, was the grandest of all.

Cao Ya Zhi (1782-1830), on the other hand, had a disputed existence. It was said that he was a Chinese carpenter working on Sir Stamford Raffles’ ship that arrived at Singapore in 1819. Raffles assigned him to led a reconnaissance team to find out about the hostility of the natives and whether the island had been occupied by the Dutch. Cao Ya Zhi successfully completed his mission and raised the Union Jack on the top of Fort Canning Hill, signalling to Raffles’ ship to make its official landing on Singapore.

Cao Ya Zhi settled permanently in Singapore and founded the Ning Yeung Wui Kuan (Ningyang Benevolent Association), which later collaborated with other clans to form Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng. He died in 1830 at an age of 48, and was buried at one of the early Cantonese cemeteries before his grave was shifted to Peck San Theng.

Another legendary tale at Peck San Theng was the seven Cantonese heroes who sacrificed their lives protecting the cemetery and defending the interests of the local Cantonese community. Previously buried at a common grace, their urns are now placed at the columbarium’s pavilion for visitors to pay their respects.

Second World War

Not known to many, Peck San Theng Cemetery was one of the sites where intense fighting took place during the Second World War. After invading Singapore from Peninsula Malaya, three divisions from the Japanese’s 25th Army were rapidly advancing from three sides – Jurong, Bukit Timah and Thomson – to capture the city area.

On 13 February 1942, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Peck San Theng’s “Hill 90” (present-day Raffles Institution), where it was defended by the British’s 2nd Cambridgeshire Regiment, 5th Royal Norfolk Regiment and 5th Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment. Both sides suffered considerable casualties and damages, but the British would eventually surrendered two days later.

After the brief intense battle, the Japanese withdrew and did not return to the cemetery, possibly due to their reluctance to disturb the dead. As a result, Peck San Theng became a refuge place, not only for the Cantonese, but also for the nearby Hokkien, Teochew and Hakka communities who would hide among the tombs to evade the Japanese brutalities. However, it was not entirely safe. There was an occasion when the Japanese aircrafts flew and dropped their bombs on Kampong San Teng, killing dozens of lives.

A New Town

The development of Bishan New Town began after 1983, with the construction of new Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats at Shunfu, its first neighbourhood. A temporary bus terminal with several bus services was established; it was later replaced by the new $5.5-million bus interchange in 1989. Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system included Bishan in the first stage of the North-South Line. The Bishan MRT Station, opened in 1987, was initially called San Teng MRT Station.

Junction 8, the popular shopping mall that was opened in 1994 beside the MRT station, had its name inspired after N8, Bishan MRT Station’s original code. Bishan MRT Station’s code was changed to NS17 in 2001.

During its early development, there were worries that the new Bishan town would not be popular as it was built over a former cemetery, but the concerns proved to be unfounded as Bishan quickly became one of Singapore’s up and coming new residential estates. It remains popular today, after 30 years. The former old cemetery has successfully transformed into a vibrant new town.

The Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng Heritage Gallery is opened between 930am and 4pm daily, and from 930am to 1pm on public holidays. Admission is free.

Published: 23 December 2018

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Gone Were the East Coast Park Chalets

Before staycation became a trendy word, chalets have always been a popular choice among Singaporeans, for barbecue sessions, or a short get-together with families or friends during the holidays. And the chalets at East Coast Park were pretty popular in the nineties and 2000s.

The familiar red-bricked chalets at East Coast Park were gone, being demolished last year as part of the redevelopment plans for a cyclist park. There were 197 chalet units then, occupying a stretch of 4-hectare (40,000 square metres) area at the middle section of the 15 km-long East Coast Park. Carpark D3 was its main parking space.

Before 2006, it was known as the Costa Sands Resorts, under the NTUC Club. And in the eighties and nineties, they were called UDMC Chalets, owned by the Urban Development and Management Company, which also had another chalet complex at Pasir Ris, built in 1987. Costa Sands Resorts closed in January 2006 after the expiry of its 30-year lease. The chalets were, by then, quite run down. Together with the limited amenities, the resort attracted many negative online reviews.

After NTUC Club left, the vacated chalets were temporarily handed over to the Singapore Land Authority (SLA). In 2007, the new tenant Island Park Resort, under Goldkist International, bid successfully to take over the chalets. After a $5-million makeover of the units and their amenities to resemble those of the beachfront English cottages, it was hoped that the popularity of the chalets would be revived, serving as a weekend getaway among friends, a corporate retreat venue or an adventure camp for students, for prices of $100 to $135 a night.

It barely lasted a decade, when the company, facing stiff competition from the newer and better equipped chalets and bungalows at Pasir Ris, Loyang, Changi Fairy Point, Changi Coast Walk and Boon Lay Way, as well as the impending redevelopment plans of the vicinity, decided to call it a day.

The demolition of the chalets had brought along those notorious hearsay of overnight carouses, hanky-panky affairs and ghost sightings. For many middle-aged Singaporeans, it was another lost piece of memory of their teenager days, when the likes of East Coast Park chalets, Marina South bowling and Parklane arcades were among the trendiest hangouts during the nineties.

Since 2017, several sites along East Coast Parkway, such as the former Big Splash and Raintree Cove, had been torn down and their sites rebuilt for new playgrounds, open lawns, food joints and other amenities. As part of East Coast Park’s redevelopment plans, the site of the former East Coast Park chalets will be transformed into a bicycle park designed with circuits and trails for different groups of cyclists.

Published: 19 November 2018

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