Teachers’ Housing Estate – Then and Now

Located near the junction of Yio Chu Kang Road and Upper Thomson Road, the small quiet neighbourhood of Teachers’ Housing Estate was first developed in 1967 by the Singapore Teachers’ Union (STU), a teachers’ organisation that was established back in 1946.

The aim then was to provide the teachers in the sixties an opportunity to purchase their own homes within their income brackets. To make the houses affordable, a 20-acre site for the estate was chosen at the end of Yio Chu Kang Road (near Yio Chu Kang Road 12 Milestone), which was previously occupied by a Chinese kampong known as Hup Choon Kek (合春阁).

Taking charge of the housing project, it was difficult for STU at first, as it had no prior experience in managing housing projects and contractors. Moreover, the teachers would need loans in order to purchase the houses. For this, STU managed to negotiate with the Ministry of Finance to extend a $5 million loan to the teachers.

256 terrace houses at Teachers’ Estate were completed by 1968, and were available for prices between $23,000 and $25,000. Even for these “low” prices, as compared to other terrace houses in other parts of Singapore during the same era, they were still large sums of money for the teachers, whose average monthly salaries ranged between $325 and $690. Most of the teachers had to apply loans up to 80% of the houses’ asking prices. Eventually, more than 70% of the houses were sold to the teachers, while the remaining were put up for sale to the public.

The success of the Teachers’ Estate was well-received. In 1970, they even became one of the places in Singapore toured and studied by a Japanese delegation made up of union leaders and teachers.

By 1984, the STU planned to develop another similar teachers’ housing estate at Bukit Timah. There would be around 70 terrace houses, priced between $550,000 and $600,000, at the new site. The project, however, fell through when the developer sold the freehold land to other bidders.

In the late sixties and seventies, several kampongs, such as Yio Chu Kang Village (Yio Chu Kang Road), Hainan Village (Upper Thomson Road), Lak Shun (Lentor Drive) and Boh Sua Tian (Yio Chu Kang Road), existed near Teachers’ Estate.

As the teachers were teaching at the schools during the day time, they often depended on babysitters and washerwomen from these nearby villages. There were also no provision shops or markets at Teachers’ Estate; the nearest were the villages’ grocery stores. Sometimes, the residents would buy their groceries from mobile grocery vans that dropped by the housing estate.

The Yio Chu Kang Road of the sixties and seventies was narrower and more winding as compared to the road today. It was a dual carriageway of single lanes, flanked by wooden houses with zinc roofs on its both sides. The traffic was particularly busy at certain sections of Yio Chu Kang Road where the larger villages were located.

Due to the development of Ang Mo Kio New Town, Yio Chu Kang Road was realigned and widened in the early eighties. A short section of the road, located just beside the Teachers’ Estate, was retained and renamed Old Yio Chu Kang Road.

The Teachers’ Estate had its fair share of issues in the early seventies. As most of the teachers were out working during the daytime, their middle-class estate and houses became an attractive target for thieves and burglars. Break-ins were common, and many residents resorted to security alarm installation for their homes. Due to the frequent sounding of the alarms, the housing estate became commonly known as the “Whistling Estate”.

A row of double-storey shophouses were built at Teachers’ Estate in the seventies, providing some convenience to the residents. Minimarts and even Fitzpatrick’s, a popular supermarket chain, had their outlets opened here. The shophouses are still around today; they are currently made up of a bakery and confectionery shop, cafe, pet store and even a church.

In October 1971, former Education Minister Lim Kim San was invited for the official opening of a recreation park called Teachers’ Park at the estate.

At the same time, he also officiated the laying of the foundation stone for the new $2-million Teachers’ Centre. Located beside the park, it was a multi-purpose building designed with offices, hall, swimming pool, library, coffee house and an auditorium that allowed seminars and courses to be held regularly.

Part of the building fund for the Teachers’ Centre was collected through the monthly contributions by the teachers. Another portion of the amount was raised through a series of fund-raising campaigns in walkathon, trishaw rides and film premiers, organised by the teachers between 1971 and 1973.

The Teachers’ Centre lasted until the early 2010s, when it made way for a new 99-year leasehold private housing development called Poets Villas.

The most unique feature of Teachers’ Estate is the names of its inner roads. Named after famous poets, writers and philosophers in history, the roads’ names added a literary touch to the housing estate during its initial development. The roads are called:

  • Munshi Abdullah Avenue/Walk – Named after Munshi Abdullah (1797-1854), known as the father of Malay literature.
  • Omar Khayyam Avenue – Named after Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), a Persian poet and philosopher.
  • Kalidasa Avenue – Named after Kalidasa, a 4th-century Sanskrit writer regarded as one of the greatest in India.
  • Tagore Avenue – Named after Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), a Bengali poet, writer and Nobel Prize winner in literature.
  • Iqbal Avenue – Named after Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), regarded as the national poet and spiritual father of Pakistan.
  • Tu Fu Avenue – Named after Du Fu (杜甫) (712-770), a Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty.
  • Li Po Avenue – Named after Li Bai (李白) (701-762), who, together with Du Fu, was regarded one of the greatest Chinese poets.
  • Tung Po Avenue – Named after Su Dong Po (苏东坡) (1037-1101), a Chinese poet, writer and calligrapher of the Song Dynasty.

The Teachers’ Estate has largely remained the same quiet neighbourhood in the past decades despite the changes in its surroundings. Most of the nearby villages were gone by the eighties, and public flats and private condos began to pop up in the vicinity.

A little trivia happened in 1986, though, when numerous residents of the Teachers’ Estate got into a publicised row with the neighbouring Green Meadows Condominium. The flare-up was caused by the closure of a private access road, linking Upper Thomson Road to Tagore Avenue, by the condo management. The Teachers’ Estate residents had been using this access road as a shortcut to their homes, and its closure meant they would need to take a longer route, via Yio Chu Kang Road, to get home.

In 2004, the Teachers’ Housing Estate, being the oldest private estate in the Nee Soon South Division, was given an Estate Upgrading Program (EUP) funded by the government. The upgrading project cost about $1.2 million.

Published: 28 July 2020

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Adam Park and its WW2 Past

Adam Park was developed as early as the 1920s. Between 1925 and 1929, colonial houses were built at Adam Park by the municipal council as housing quarters for the senior officers in the British government. Three types of residences – type A, B and C – were built to accommodate the officers of different seniority. For the benefits of the residents, garages, outhouses and even tennis courts were also approved for construction by the municipality. A substation was erected in 1930 to provide electricity for the Adam Park area.

Adam Park, and the main Adam Road, were named after Frank Adam (c.1855-1925), the former managing director of The Straits Trading Company. Established in 1887, the company specialised in tin mining and had developed the Pulau Brani Tin Smelting Works. Frank Adam, a Scot, dealt with sugar business in Java before he arrived at Singapore in 1901. In the next 15 years, he worked his way up at Straits Trading Company, and retired in 1918. Frank Adam returned in 1923 as the chairman of the company, but retired again in the same year, and went back to Scotland for good.

In the late 1930s, the municipal government earmarked a $1 million budget to upgrade the road networks in Singapore. From the city area, the “inner” and “outer” rings of roads were connected to provide better accessibility to the suburban areas. Adam Road and Adam Park were part of the “outer” ring network, which were linked to Farrer Road, Lornie Road and Braddell Road.

The municipality also acquired four houses at Adam Park for $90,000 in early 1940, but war broke out two years later. The road-facing house, 7 Adam Park, was converted and functioned as the field headquarters of the 1st Battalion of the Cambridgeshire Regiment. The battalion was stationed at Adam Park in February 1942, ordered to hold the defensive line against the invading Japanese army.

It was near Adam Park, at the intersection of Adam Road, Sime Road and Lornie Road, that saw one of the fiercest battles in Singapore during the Second World War. The intensive fighting was nicknamed “Hellfire Corner”, referenced after a famous battleground in First World War. It resulted in heavy casualties and several Adam Park houses damaged in the bombings. At 4pm on 15 February 1942, the Cambridgeshire Regiment battalion received a cease-fire order. The British had surrendered to the Japanese that evening.

Following the Fall of Singapore, Adam Park was used to house the prisoners-of-war (POWs). Between March 1942 and January 1943, some 1,000 British and 2,000 Australian POWs were locked up at the Adam Park POW Camp. Despite the hostile conditions, the POWs managed to have a small chapel, canteen and hospital at Adam Park. Many of them, however, were forced labourers, paid 10c per day, at the MacRitchie Reservoir for the construction of the Syonan Jinja shrine.

In late 1942, about 900 of the British and Australian POWs were sent to construct the Siam-Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway. Up to 250,000 Allied Forces’ POWs, captured in other regions, were shipped to construct the railway. An estimated 40 to 55% of the POWs did not survive the horrific working conditions filled with torture, hunger and malaria.

After the war, the municipal commissioners approved a $50,000 budget in 1948 for the repair of the damaged houses at Adam Park and other areas. But the area remained short of electrical supply and lighting in the early fifties.

In the late fifties, some of the vacant bungalows at Adam Park, Tanglin Road, Swiss Cottage Estate and Woodleigh Park were made available for rent to the senior officers of the Singapore City Council. Others were leased out to the highest bidders via public tenders. Over the years, various groups had also occupied the Adam Park houses, such as the Singapore Cage Bird Society, British High Commission and Asian Women’s Welfare Association. By the early seventies, the monthly rental fee of an Adam Park bungalow cost as much as $3,500.

Adam Park remained secluded over the decades but things began to change in its surroundings after the sixties. In the early seventies, the construction of the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE) and Adam Flyover cut it off from the nearby Adam Drive and Sime Road. A neighbouring kampong was cleared and demolished during the massive project, in which the Public Works Department (PWD) used explosives to blast open the rocks at the junction of Adam Road and Adam Drive.

In 1987, 7 Adam Park was refurbished and opened as the Guild House of the National University of Singapore Society (NUSS). It was NUSS’ fourth Guild House, after the ones at Dalvey Estate, Evans Road and Kent Ridge. It lasted until 2014, when the Adam Park Guild House was closed after NUSS opened their new Guild House at Suntec City.

Battlefield archaeologist Jon Cooper started the Adam Park Project in 2009, sponsored and contributed by many organisations such as the National Heritage Board (NHB), National University of Singapore (NUS), National Library of Singapore, National Museum of Singapore and the Singapore Heritage Society. Through his years of researches and site surveys, more than 1,000 valuable artifacts of the Second World War have been unearthed and discovered. These included military badges, coins, Christian murals and even a counting-down calendar scribbled on a wall by a former POW.

Published: 15 July 2020

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The History of Singapore’s Night Soil Bucket System

The modern liveable city of Singapore today has a complete sanitation system supported by a network of sewers and water reclamation plants. Since 1997, Singapore has achieved 100% accessibility to the modern sanitation system.

Toilets of modern sanitation system used to be a luxurious amenity. They were usually fitted at the colonial houses, villas or office buildings in the city areas. But for the suburban and rural parts of Singapore, at the villages and shophouses, most of them were served by the night soil bucket system.

The night soil bucket system was not unique to Singapore. It was also commonly used in other parts of Asia and Europe. In Singapore, the history of night soil bucket system began in the 1890s. Before that, it was unregulated and largely depended on Chinese coolies to go around collecting faeces from houses and transporting them to plantations to be used as fertilisers. However, the wooden buckets storing the faeces often could not be sealed properly, resulting in seepage and stenchful situations.

To improve the situation, the municipal government passed a law in 1889 to restrict the operating hours of night soil collection. Two years later, they banned the wooden buckets, and replace them with galvanised iron buckets. Cesspits were also disallowed. House owners were instead required to place pails or jars on solid grounds for their excrement. Meanwhile, the municipal government also built more public toilets in the late 1890s.

By the turn of the new century, the municipal government wanted to implement a better sanitation system for Singapore. But the progress was slow and ineffective. In 1909, they hired G. Midgeley Taylor, a British sanitation engineer to design the new sewerage system. Robert Peirce (1863-1933), the British municipal engineer based in Singapore between 1901 and 1916, took Midgeley Taylor’s design and improved it further.

In the early 20th century, a treatment plant was built at Alexandra Road to extend a sewerage network to parts of the downtown area. The treated waters were eventually disposed into the Singapore River. As the new Alexandra Sewage Disposal Works served only a small portion of the municipality, the night soil bucket system had to be continued.

The Alexandra Sewage Disposal Works soon could not cope with the rapidly increasing population. An examination at the Singapore River showed that half of the discharge into the river was crude sewage. The Alexandra facility was later upgraded and expanded, but more installations were needed by the 1930s. A Municipal Sludge Disposal Works was built in the late 1930s at present-day Lorong Halus, along Sungei Serangoon.

In 1941, new pumping and disposal stations were built at Rangoon Road and Kim Chuan Road respectively, and sanitation systems were made available at Kampong Kapor, Kampong Java, Geylang, Katong, Siglap and parts of Bukit Timah and Balestier. During the Japanese Occupation, many prisoners-of-war (POWs) were forced by the Japanese to carry out the night soil collection.

After Singapore’s independence, the government rolled out the Sewerage Master Plan in the late sixties. Singapore was divided into six regions, including the Kranji, Bedok, Jurong and Seletar areas, where the sewage was collected and pumped to a centralised treatment station. The waste water was then treated according to international standards before being discharged into the sea.

In 1972, the Ministry of the Environment (ENV) was formed with the staff recruited from the Public Works Department (PWD) and Environmental Public Health Division. One of its main tasks was to greatly improve the efficiency in controlling the environmental health and pollution of Singapore.

Singapore of the seventies was still largely rural and unsewered. Under ENV, hundreds of night soil collection workers worked daily to clear the buckets from the villages and shophouses’ toilets. By the early eighties, additional sewage treatment plants were added and the sewerage network was massively extended. In more than two decades, $1.6 billion had been spent on the sewerage system to improve the living standards of Singapore.

Public health and hygiene were further enhanced through various other means. Thousands of street hawkers were relocated and housed at the hawker centres and markets. Slums and squatters, with their latrines hanging over the rivers, were cleared and demolished. Pig farming was phased out. A 10-year cleaning program, from 1977 to 1987, was also carried out at the once murky and foul-smelling Singapore River and Kallang Basin.

By 1984, almost 90% of Singapore had modern sanitation system. It was time for the night soil bucket system to be phased out. The night soil collection centres at Albert Street, Toh Tuck Road and Jalan Afifi (off Paya Lebar Road) were subsequently closed in the eighties. More than 15,000 night soil buckets were disposed of.

On 24 January 1987, Singapore’s last night soil collection centre, located at Lorong Halus, was officially shut down. As the century-old night soil bucket system walked into history, the remaining 78 night soil workers were redeployed as cleaners or retrenched. The famous night soil collection trucks, fondly known as the 32-door trucks, also vanished after plying on the roads of Singapore for decades.

At the closing ceremony of the Lorong Halus’ night soil collection centre, the last night soil bucket was cleaned and retained by the ENV as a reminder of Singapore’s obsolete night soil bucket system. It was also a tribute to the thousands of former workers who had contributed to Singapore’s public health and hygiene through this manual and laborious job. An replica of the night soil bucket is currently one of the exhibit items at the Sustainable Singapore Gallery at Marina Barrage.

Since 2000, the Deep Tunnel Sewerage System (DTSS) has been developed as Singapore’s new sewerage system in the 21st century. Managed by the Public Utilities Board (PUB), it will gradually replace Singapore’s existing sewerage network and waste treatment and disposal facilities, with the residential and industrial used water channeled through three main networks to the water reclamation plants at Changi, Tuas and Kranji.

Published: 7 July 2020

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The Old Gate at Jalan Selimang and the Legacy of the Former Cycle & Carriage Chairman

At the end of Jalan Selimang stand the old remnant of a gate made up of brick walls, wooden doors and a tiled roof. It was said that the gate was the former entrance to a grand seaside bungalow owned by Chua Boon Peng (1918-2005), the chairman of Cycle & Carriage from 1957 to 1985.

There is nothing left of the bungalow today, while the gate has been forgotten and hidden in the thick vegetation located between the Sembawang coastline and Masjid Petempatan Melayu Sembawang.

Chua Boon Peng was a legendary figure in the local business realm. He clinched the Mercedes-Benz sole distributorship in Malaya, awarded by Germany’s Daimler-Benz, back in 1951, when Cycle & Carriage was still a small family business owned by the Chua family.

Cycle & Carriage started as Federal Stores, a sundries shop, in the late 19th century, and was renamed in 1899 as it ventured into the business of selling bicycles, motorbikes and cars. In the first half of the 20th century, Cycle & Carriage survived both the Great Depression and Second World War, and went on to expand and open branches at Orchard Road as well as Malaya’s Penang and Ipoh. But its biggest break was its successful deal of the Mercedes-Benz franchise that propelled the company to greater heights.

Chua Boon Peng became a extremely successful and well-respected businessman, and owned many properties at Oei Tiong Ham Park, Sembawang and Hillview (the incompleted Hillview Mansion was also owned by him). The seventies and early eighties represented another new golden period for Cycle & Carriage, as the company grew rapidly after its listings on the Stock Exchange of Malaysia and Singapore (1969) and Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange (1977).

In 1983, the company snapped up a large parcel of land at the Bukit Timah area, worth $29 million, to build a modern office-showroom-workshop complex.

However, the 1985 recession hit the demands, turning the company’s years of profits into heavy losses. To make things worse, the collapse of plastic manufacturing giant Lamipak Industries and Panther Pte Ltd in 1985 chalked up debts of $140 million.

The major shareholders of Panther Pte Ltd were Lamipak Industries and Chua Boon Peng. As the chairman and guarantor of the many loans to Panther Pte Ltd, Chua Boon Peng faced two suits totalled $19 million, forcing him to liquidate many of his properties, including his Oei Tiong Ham Park house that was auctioned and sold for $1.5 million.

Facing bankruptcy, Chua Boon Peng stepped down as the Cycle & Carriage chairman in 1985 – the move that ultimately weakened the Chua family’s control of the company.

As for the exclusive seaside villas of Sembawang, there were four to five such houses at the end of Jalan Selimang area built possibly in the sixties, including Chua Boon Peng’s bungalow.

In the early eighties, there were newspaper advertisements portraying them as seafront bungalows with three large bedrooms, American designed kitchen with modern appliances and a patio overlooking a matured landscaped garden. Occupying a floor area of around 1,115 square metres (12,000 square feet), their selling prices ranged between $800,000 and $1.1 million.

However, by the late eighties or the early nineties, the site was acquired by the government and all the houses were subsequently demolished, except for the forgotten gate that stands till this day.

Published: 23 June 2020

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The Disappearance of the Historic Ellenborough Street

Ellenborough Street was laid as the road to the Ellenborough Market, built in 1845. Both were named after Lord Ellenborough, Edward Law (1790-1871), who served as the Governor-General of India between 1842 and 1844. The early Ellenborough Market, located by the southern side of the Singapore River, soon had a number of structural integrity issues, when cracks appeared on its walls.

In 1899, a cast iron structure from Scotland was purchased and added to Ellenborough Market as a building extension. The new market became known as “pasar bahru” by the Malays, while the local Hokkiens and Teochews called it “sin pa sat” (new market). The Teochews began populated the place, trading and selling fish, seafood and dried products. This gave rise to the naming of Ellenborough Street’s adjacent roads as Tew Chew (Teochew) Street and Fish Street.

The Ellenborough wet market was a bustling focal place of trades and activities for the local community in the vicinity for many decades. The rows of pre-war shophouses and warehouses along the streets were mostly used for small businesses and accommodation.

There was, however, a dark period when Ellenborough Street was plagued by widespread gambling and opium smoking by the Chinese immigrants and coolies. Until the sixties, thefts, robberies and gang fights were also rampant in the area.

Despite the chaotic conditions, businesses flourished at Ellenborough Market and Ellenborough Street. The large variety of goods and items, ranging from fish, rice, fresh produce to different types of household products, attracted huge crowds everyday. The bustling scene lasted until 30 January 1968, when a big fire, happened during the Chinese New Year, swept and destroyed the market. Hundreds of stalls went up in smoke; the total damages were estimated to be around $250,000.

The remnants of the burnt market was demolished soon after the disaster. A smaller market continued to thrive at the junction of Tew Chew Street and Boat Quay.

At the site of the demolished Ellenborough Market, two blocks of flats (Block 1 and 3) and a three-storey podium extension (Block 2) were built by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). Block 1 was a 22-storey point block, whereas Block 3 was a 17-storey slab block sitting on a three-storey podium that was connected to Block 2. Due to this redevelopment project, Fish Street had to make way, becoming the first of the three parallel roads to be expunged.

The “new” Ellenborough Market was housed at the three-storey podium at Block 2. In the late seventies, a building extension, costing $920,000, was added, making it one of Singapore’s largest markets, comprising 235 market stalls, 72 cooked food stalls and two iced water stalls.

At the third floor was the hawker centre well-known for its row of Teochew stalls that sold delicious Teochew-style dishes ranging from braised goose and hay cho (prawn rolls) to steamed pomfret, hee peow (fish maw) and other seafood. The Teochew-Nonya crayfish fried in sambal was also a popular dish among the customers.

The hawker centre became one of the favourite haunts for taxi drivers in the eighties, who would often stop for a break, a cup of kopi and a hot bowl of fish porridge.

In the mid-eighties, to relive traffic congestion and improve the physical environment of the downtown and city areas, the vegetable and preserved food hawkers at Ellenborough Street, Tew Chew Street, Johore Road, Rochor Road, Maxwell Market and Clyde Terrace Market were relocated to the centralised market at the new Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre.

A hot topic among the coffeeshop talks in the eighties was the spectacular collapse of Chop Hoo Thye, one of Singapore’s largest dried seafood wholesalers. At its peak, the firm had shops located at Ellenborough Street, Clarke Street, Jurong and Pasir Panjang.

Established in 1946, Chop Hoo Thye rose to prominence through decades of hard work by the father and son of the Ng family, both famous as the “Abalone King”. The elder Ng was well-known for being a respectable and humble community leader who built his business from scratch. 

But in 1984, the firm racked up a $100 million unsecured debt to some 20 banks in Singapore, possibly caused by a global slowdown in demands as well as the Ng family’s heavy losses in the stock and commodity markets. The Ng father and son later fled the country and left their company bankrupted. The bad debts suffered by the banks caused a plunge in the Singapore stock market, leading to the Monetary Authority of Singapore’s (MAS) involvement in investigating the case.

In 1985, the street hawkers at Wayang Street, in front of Thong Chia Medical Institute, were relocated to Ellenborough Street Hawker Centre and Hill Street Hawker Centre, where additional stalls were added and allocated to them by the HDB.

In 14 years, since 1971, some 17,800 street hawkers had been cleared from the roads and relocated to the new and more hygienic markets and hawker centres. Around 500 hawkers were still plying their trades on the streets in Singapore by the mid-eighties.

Until the early nineties, one could still drive to Boat Quay, via Ellenborough Street and Teo Chew Street, and cruise along the Singapore River. He could then cross over to the northern side of the river using the Read Bridge, and then divert to either Read Street, Clarke Street, Clarke Quay, North Boat Quay or Canning Lane.

However, the safety of these roads became a hot topic when three cars plunged into the river between 1989 and 1993. As there were no barriers along the river, drivers who were unfamiliar with the area or were going too fast and could not anticipate the sharp turns might drive straight into the waters and put themselves in extreme dangers.

Hence, between 1993 and 1995, Boat Quay and Clarke Quay became pedestrianised, and were out of bounds to vehicles. The conserved shophouses were restored and turned into restaurants, cafes and pubs, as the vicinity was rejuvenated and transformed into a new dining enclave and nightspot. A four-star 476-room Merchant Court Hotel (present-day Swissôtel Merchant Court) was opened in 1997, situated along Tew Chew Street. The hotel has a Ellenborough Market Cafe; its name pays homage to the former popular market.

The Ellenborough Street HDB Flats were en-bloc in 1995 and, together with the Ellenborough Street shophouses and warehouses, were subsequently demolished to make way for the tunneling works of the North East Line (NEL) and the construction of Clarke Quay MRT Station (opened in 2003).

Ellenborough Street, a road of 150 years’ history, was expunged in the early 2000s, when a new shopping mall called Clarke Quay The Central (opened in 2007) was built. Out of the three parallel roads of the former Ellenborough Market, only Tew Chew Road remains today.

Published: 15 June 2020

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Looking for Bits and Pieces of Old Seletar

Seletar has changed tremendously in the past decade. The Aerospace Park is increasing well developed with many multinational companies making their investments here at the northeastern part of Singapore. It is also more accessible now with a direct route, via Seletar West Link, to the interchange network between the Central Expressway, Seletar Expressway and Tampines Expressway.

While a greater part of old Seletar has been demolished to make way for the new developments in recent years, there are still many remnants to remind us of its significant past.

At the entrance was the old guardhouse of the former Royal Air Force (RAF) Seletar (1928-1971). Before the construction of RAF Seletar, this area was mainly rubber and coconut plantations surrounded by mangrove swamps. It took two years for RAF Seletar to be completed. When it was officially opened on 1 January 1930, it was the largest RAF station in the Far East.

After the British military withdrew from Singapore in the early seventies, the eastern side of the RAF station was taken over by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), whereas the western side was used for civil aviation. SAF took charge of the guardhouse and maintained the security of the vicinity until the mid-2000s, when Seletar was slated for redevelopment into an aerospace park. Today, the white guardhouse buildings, numbered 1 and 2 Piccadilly Circus, remain as the identifiable landmarks that “signal” to the drivers and visitors that they are entering Seletar.

The RAF designed and built Seletar like a small self-sufficient town. Besides the offices and living quarters. it had other various amenities such as fuel pump station, school, bank, cinema, clubhouse, swimming pool and tailor and barber shops. The residential area, catered for the officers and their families in accordance to their ranks, was modeled after British-styled landscapes and the roads were mostly named after London’s main streets.

Before the development of Seletar Aerospace Park in the mid-2000s, there were as many as 378 colonial bungalows in the vicinity. Over 150 had been demolished to make way for redevelopment purposes.

The residential bungalows – as many as 32 of them – are largely clustered at Sussex Garden, Maida Vale, Lambeth Walk, Oxford Street, Park Lane, Hyde Park Gate and Hamilton Place. A number of these former RAF personnel’s quarters have been refurbished and leased out as civilian residences.

Placed under conservation by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the timber-framed bungalows are categorised in two different styles – the Early Modern and the typical “Black and White” styles. Taking into consideration of the hot and humid climate of Singapore, numerous features such as verandahs, high ceilings and improved ventilation were added to the buildings during their initial designing stage.

Along Baker Street and Old Birdcage Walk are some of the larger double-storey former colonial houses, previously segregated into smaller units and leased to the public as offices and studios. Majority of them, however, stand vacant today.

The area at Park Lane and The Oval has been designated as an exclusive dining enclave, made up of several restaurants housed in the former colonial buildings. Offering brunches and dinners in alfresco setting, this little dining hideout typically comes to life and attracts a sizable crowd during the weekends.

The eastern part of Seletar remains as the premises of Seletar Camp. However, the SAF military base gave up part of its premises in the early 2010s due to the expanding redevelopment plans of Seletar Aerospace Park.

Two former military barracks – Block 179 and 450 – were fortunately retained. Designed in Art Deco style and constructed in reinforced concrete in the early 1930s, both Block 179 and 450 served as the station headquarters and accommodation block for the RAF Seletar personnel. During the Second World War, RAF Seletar was one of the air raid targets by the Japanese, resulting in extensive damages to its airfields and barracks. During the Japanese Occupation, Block 179 was taken over and occupied by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service.

In the seventies, when SAF took over Seletar Camp, Block 179 served as the Camp Commandant’s Office (CCO). The three-storey Block 450, on the other hand, was used as office and bunks by the camp personnel. In the early 2010s, the boundary of the Seletar Camp premises was reduced, and the two former barracks became accessible via public roads.

Even though they are not currently being utilised, the bluish green barracks act as notable landmarks to commuters on their ways to the new Seletar Airport Passenger Terminal.

The new Seletar Airport Passenger Terminal commenced operations in late 2018. The previous Seletar Airport Passenger Terminal was located at the western side of Seletar. There were three generations of the airport passenger terminals. The first began with the history of Seletar Airport, which was built in 1930 and functioned as both a civilian and military airport.

In 1968, Seletar Airport was handed over to the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA), the predecessor of a statutory board called Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS). In the early eighties, the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) was tasked with an aerospace industry development project at Seletar. New office buildings, hangars, warehouses and workshops were constructed.

In 1982, the old RAF Seletar’s airport passenger terminal and offices were demolished to make way for new hangars. A new second-generation Seletar Airport Passenger Terminal was built and officially opened on 1 October 1982. CAAS continued to manage the airport and passenger terminal until 2009, when they were taken over by the Changi Airport Group (CAG).

From the sixties to eighties, pirate taxis were rife. It was common to see them lined up at the passenger terminal to pick up customers, charging them as much as $20 for a trip to Orchard Road. This lasted until 1989, when the pirate taxis were outlawed in many crackdowns carried out by the Registry of Vehicles (ROV) officers. For the convenience of the arrived passengers, the airport arranged a new bus service to ferry them to their hotels for a $8 fee.

Around 20,000 passengers passed through the former Seletar Airport Passenger Terminal every year, until its 36-year operations ceased and were replaced by the new $80-million passenger terminal located at Seletar Aerospace Road 1 on 19 November 2018.

Since then, the premises of the old Seletar Airport Passenger Terminal was left vacant. It is still undetermined whether the rows of single-storey buildings will be conserved or demolished in the future.

Seletar used to have two golf courses – Seletar Base Golf Course and Seletar Country Club Golf Course. The member-only Seletar Country Club was established as early as 1930, and served as an important recreational clubhouse for the British personnel stationed at Seletar.

In an increasingly land-scarce Singapore, golf courses are usually targeted for redevelopment upon the expiry of their leases due to the large areas of land they occupy. Hence, for the development purposes of the aerospace park, the Seletar Base Golf Course was removed, while the Seletar Country Club Golf Course manages to renew their lease for another two decades. However, by 2030, it will be one of the 13 golf courses left in Singapore, down from 22 in 2001 and 17 in 2017.

During the development of the aerospace park, small design details are carefully applied to the amenities in the vicinity to reflect Seletar’s heritage. For example, the bus stops have shelters shaped like the Supermarine Spitfire aircraft, a British fighter used during the Second World War. This little delightful design consideration is a homage paid to the rich aviation history of Seletar.

Another example is the refurbishment of the past artefacts left behind by the RAF Seletar. A colonial steel lamp post along West Camp Road has been rejuvenated with a new life as an unique street signage with directional indicators.

Several other old British-era “goose-necked” lamp posts are salvaged from demolition, but have not been refurbished yet. Perhaps they will be left alone as heritage markers and remnants of old Seletar, even though they are not lighting up the roads anymore.

For many, the more recent memories of Seletar include the popular Sunset Grill & Bar, a secluded eatery of cold beer and spicy buffalo wings. Well hidden inside the old Seletar, it would take an effort for someone new to the place to search for its location.

And as recent as 2007, one could still enjoy a ride along the roundabout and its adjacent rustic countryside-like roads, named Hay Market, Swallow Street and Bayswater Road, within Seletar. The vintage roundabout and roads, however, have since been expunged and replaced by the new Seletar Aerospace Way, a main road that links to Sengkang.

Published: 04 June 2020

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The Old Forgotten Tombstone of Jane Buyers at Lower Seletar Reservoir

At the corner of Seletar Club Road lies a small tombstone, oblivious to the joggers and cyclists who pass by the area. The inscriptions on the tombstone are fading away, after decades of exposure to the weather, but one can still manage to read the words: “Sacred to the memory of Jane, the beloved wife of JC Buyers, shipbuilder, who died on the 14th June 1867, aged 42. Also their sons John and James who died in infancy.

From the inscriptions, Jane Buyers was the wife of John Craig (J.C.) Buyers, who was, according to records, a shipbuilder in Singapore between 1863 and 1885. Jane Buyers was probably born in 1826, followed her husband to Singapore in 1863, but unfortunately died four years later.

Buyers is a relatively rare English surname; like many others, the Buyers family were likely venturing out for opportunities at an overseas colony in the mid-19th century. A record of Pulau Brani’s history shows that J.C. Buyers and Daniel Robb opened a small ship-repairing dock, called the Bon Accord Dock, at Pulau Brani in August 1866. By 1869, the dock was able to produce and repair seafaring steamers, four of which were named Singapore, Heartsease, Fair Malacca and Pilot Fish. At 600 tons, Singapore was the largest vessel built in Singapore during that era.

Besides Bon Accord Dock, the Buyers and Robb firm also owned another dock at Telok Ayer, which was the birthplace of Bintang, a smaller steamer of 40 tons, in 1871. However, due to the stiff competition in the booming shipbuilding industry, Buyers and Robb ceased their operations in 1885, after two decades of existence.

The tombstone of Jane Buyers is one of the oldest in Singapore. By comparison, a Kampong Java Cemetery grave dated 1865, exhumed and reinterred at Choa Chu Kang Christian Cemetery in 1970, was recorded by the National Archives of Singapore. Other even earlier graves in Singapore included those of early Chinese settlers Qiu Zheng Zhi (1842) and Fang Shan (1833).

Elsewhere in Singapore, there are also several lone tombstones, such as the “water tomb” of a Fan-surname woman at MacRitchie Reservoir, and a Japanese tombstone hidden on the vegetated slope of Mount Faber.

The National Heritage Board (NHB) believed that Jane Buyers’ tombstone was relocated to Seletar from the Bukit Timah Christian Cemetery (1865-1907). But the reasons behind the tombstone’s relocation were unknown. In the mid-2010s, Rowers Bay was developed along Seletar Club Road and Lower Seletar Reservoir. The tombstone was preserved, and its surroundings have been enhanced with plants, garden tiles and storyboards, telling the brief history of Seletar and the story of Jane Buyers.

Published: 19 May 2020

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The Once Mysterious Bedok and Woodlands Flats

Singaporeans always love a good ghost story. And Block 611 of Bedok Reservoir Road provided just that 30 years back.

People have always been curious of vacant houses, including Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats. One or two empty units may be normal, but not for the entire block. Most of the vacant HDB blocks were usually due to the en-bloc scheme. After the residents had moved out, the blocks were left vacated for a period of time before they were demolished. Some were converted into foreign dormitories, such as the flats at Dover Road and Seletar West Farmway. Others were used for military training purposes. For example, the Boon Lay Drive flats were used as the Fighting in Built-Up Areas (FIBUA) for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) in the late eighties.

As for Block 611 of Bedok Reservoir Road, it was built in 1981. Unlike other new flats in the vicinity, it was mostly leased to expat teachers and engineers with their families. Under a government policy in the eighties to attract foreign professionals, a total of 2,860 housing units in several HDB blocks were leased to foreign expats. Such blocks were located at Tampines Street 32 (Block 325), Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4, Hougang Avenue 5, Jurong East Street 13 and 21, Taman Jurong and Teck Whye Lane.

By 1985, several of the expats’ households had moved out, and Block 611 was largely emptied by 1988. Drug addicts and glue sniffers began to use the empty block as their hideouts. Window louvers and pipe fittings were stolen, and the walls were vandalised with graffiti. The dark quiet corridors were explored by youngsters and thrill seekers at night. Hence, HDB put up wooden hoardings over the windows and staircases to prevent pilfering, vandalism and trespassing.

But the “abnormal” block invited gossips among the residents. As the future of Block 611 remained undecided, the HDB could not provide clear responses, which added more mysterious vibe to the block. Hence, ghost stories about Block 611 spread like wildfire, and many came to know the famous haunted Bedok block. Curious passersby, more thrill seeking youths, even reporters were attracted by the rumours to find out the story behind it.

Various stories emerged, such as dark shadows were seen darting along the corridors, and a vengeful spirit was lurking in the block. People swore that they saw flickering lights at certain floors, and some units lit up at night, even though they were supposed to be vacant.

But the rumours eventually came to an end when, in 1989, the HDB decided to refurbish the four- and five-room flats of Block 611 and later put them up for resale to the public in the early nineties. This is why the 99-year lease for Bedok Block 611 begun in April 1993, more than a decade later than its neighbouring blocks, which have starting leases ranging from April 1981 and May 1982.

After the mysterious Bedok block was filled up with residents in the nineties, the rumours gradually faded away. Today it looks just like any other ordinary HDB flats, but many still remember this little fascinating piece of trivia of its past.

Another similar case was Block 852 at Woodlands Street 83. Built in late eighties, the block was emptied by the early 2000s. Likewise, it quickly developed into a hot topic of a haunting block, as people tried to find out the reasons behind its unusual vacant conditions.

In 2003, during the SARS outbreak in 2003, Block 852 was temporarily used as one of the quarantine facilities. After the outbreak, its three- and four-room units were converted into one- and two-room flats, and were available as rental flats. A tragedy occurred at Block 852 in 2009, when a mentally disturbed mother stabbed her teenage girl to death. This caused some disturbance in the neighbourhood which worsened Block 852’s reputation.

But as time passes, its history was slowly forgotten. Today, Block 852 has blended well into its neigbourhood and looks nothing out of extraordinary, after its recent refurbishing and repainting works. Beautiful wall murals and sculptures of the Chinese Zodiacs are added at its premises. It even has a small modern dragon playground installed in front of the block.

Published: 04 May 2020

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A Military History of Singapore’s Pillboxes

A pillbox is a small concrete fort that is built partially underground. Forming the first line of defence, pillboxes were normally located near the coastline, providing protection to soldiers who aim and fire at the enemy ships and troops attempting to land on the shore. Others were constructed on small hilltops due to strategic reasons or in order to defend critical military installations.

Together with machine-gun outposts, citadel-like gunfire-director towers, concrete gun-pits, underground bomb shelters and bunkers, the pillboxes formed an effective pre-war defensive infrastructure used by the British. Their different sizes and heights also allowed the soldiers to take positions at better efficiency against the invaders.

In 1927, General Webb Gillman of the Royal Artillery, who later had Gillman Barracks named after him, came to Singapore for three months to prepare his report of a new naval base for the colony. One of his requirements was the pillboxes along the coastline, as part of the defensive strategies against aggressors.

Hence, the British began installing many pillboxes in Singapore, including the island’s northern stretch from Kranji to Punggol, Sembawang and Changi. On the southern side, they were built along Pasir Panjang, Labrador and East Coast.

At Bedok, a number of pillboxes were constructed, including one on top of a hill where Kew Drive is today. Another was built in front of the Bedok Rest House, and several others at present-day Bedok South Road and Kee Sun Avenue. Further east, there were also pillboxes at Ayer Mata Ikam and Kampong Terbakar.

Numerous pillboxes were also deployed at the outlying islands such as Pulau Sajahat, off Changi Point. The military installations on Palau Sajahat were put up to defend the waters between Changi and Pulau Tekong, but they were never been used during the Japanese invasion. Today, the little island has been absorbed into a greater Pulau Tekong through land reclamation.

Pulau Belakang Mati (present-day Sentosa) had a number of pillboxes as well, as more military emphasis was placed at the southern island due to the British’s anticipation of an attack from the south. Most of these pillboxes were demolished in the seventies when the island was redeveloped into a tourist destination. Only a couple of them – a small one located at Siloso Beach and another at Palawan Beach – survive till this day.

There were pillboxes constructed by the Japanese too, after they annexed Singapore during the Second World War. After the war, these pillboxes were quickly demolished under the orders of the returning British. One such pillbox was at Raffles Place, near the Chartered Bank at Chulia Street. The Japanese prisoners-of-war were given a week to demolish the concrete installation and clear the debris.

Subsequently, the Japanese prisoners-of-war were ordered to demolished several other pillboxes by late 1946, including one that was located at the junction of Chancery Lane and Thomson Road. Another piece at the junction of Tanjong Pagar Road and Anson Road was also torn down to make way for traffic entering and exiting the docks.

Over time, pillboxes became forgotten war relics. Many were covered by thick vegetation; some, like those at Punggol end, were utilised as storage compartments before they were eventually removed in the eighties.

In the seventies, the pillboxes at Changi were removed to make way for the massive land reclamation and the subsequent construction of Changi Airport. Other pillboxes in Singapore were also torn down; most of their demolition were due to road works or other development projects.

At Labrador Park, a temple was built over a Second World War pillbox. Named Mountain Sea Temple, the place of worship faced the sea and housed Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, and Tua Pek Gong, the Prosperity God. In the late eighties, there were even heritage tour groups visiting the temple and its pillbox underneath. The temple, however, is no longer present today.

As most pillboxes were demolished over the decades, there are only a few left in Singapore today. Among these rare remnants of the Second World War artefacts, the Labrador Park pillbox has been well preserved till this day. Designed with two levels of machine gun slots pointing at the sea, this pillbox’s main role was to protect the 12-pounder guns mounted at the top of the hill, know as Berlayer Point, situated just behind the pillbox.

Pillboxes of designs similar to the Labrador Park pillbox were once common but can hardly be found in Singapore today. The pillbox situated along Pasir Panjang Road has a different design – it was built in a box shape.

During the Second World War, it lied within the defensive sector of the 1st Malaya Brigade. The Malay Regiment could have used it during the fierce defence of the Pasir Panjang Ridge in February 1942 against the advancing troops of the Japanese 18th Division.

Designed to fit only one or two soldier armed with machine guns, the small round-shaped Sime Road pillbox was possibly built for the defence of Sime Road Camp prior during Second World War.

After the fall of Singapore, Sime Road Camp was taken over by the Japanese to intern both military and civilian prisoners-of-war, including several high-ranking European government officials and their family members.

The pair of pillboxes at Sembawang’s Bermuda Road is relatively less known as compared to ones mentioned. The squarish pillboxes are located on a small hilltop, partially exposed on the slope and overseeing the Sembawang Shipyard. Not much historical facts have been uncovered for them, but it can be assumed that the Bermuda Road pillboxes were intended for the defence of the former Sembawang Naval Base.

The pillboxes’ machine gun slots have since been sealed up, and the entrances to their ditches are buried underneath the ground.

Published: 30 April 2020

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Remnants of Singapore’s Lost Roads – Tiverton Lane

This particular area at the Orchard vicinity has a strong British and Irish flavour. Tiverton Road was named after a town in Devon county, southern England. Devon, also known as Devonshire, has its name bore in the adjacent Devonshire Road. Exeter Road, on the other hand, was named after a city in Devon.

More than 150 years ago, the area was part of a massive nutmeg plantation owned by Dr Thomas Oxley (1805-1886), the Surgeon of the Straits Settlement. His name gave rise to Oxley Road, while his private residences, the Killiney Bungalow and Grange House, reflected his strong connections to his native Ireland. Today’s Killiney Road, Grange Road and Dublin Road  (Killiney is a Dublin suburb) were named after them. Meanwhile, Lloyd Road, could be named after Henry Lloyd, who managed Thomas Oxley’s estate after the latter’s return to Britain in 1857.

By the late 19th century, double-storey terrace houses and shophouses were built at Tiverton Lane. Some of the terrace houses had their facades built in a zigzag manner, an unique style in the design of early local shophouses. Leong Man Sau, a well-know timber merchant in the early 20th century, had lived at one of these Tiverton Lane’s terrace houses. Also serving as the Justice of Peace and member of the Municipal Council and Chinese Advisory Board, he died of tetanus infection in his home in 1916, at an age of 50.

In the 1920s, a terrace house at Tiverton Lane would cost around $9,000. It rose to $24,000 in the fifties. By the early seventies, when the Tiverton Lane residents were ordered to evict their homes to make way for the construction of a new Communication Centre (Comcentre), a Tiverton Lane terrace house would cost $150,000 in market values.

In the 1950s, Tiverton Lane was also home to the Singapore Cantonese Women’s Mutual Help Society, Singapore’s only amahs‘ association that was set up to provide help and care for amahs. Amahs were helpers, typically Chinese Cantonese women, employed by rich families in the past to clean the house, look after children and perform domestic tasks.

In 1971, to cope with the demands of the rapidly growing number of telephone users, the government decided to build a new $58-million Communication Centre (Comcentre) at Tiverton Lane, functioning as the headquarters of the Singapore Telephone Board (STB) after its merger with the Telecommunications Authority of Singapore (TAS).

Hence, the residents of Tiverton Lane were told to look for other alternatives while they would be compensated for their properties. By the mid-seventies, the residents had moved and their houses demolished, paving way for the piling works to commence. The Exeter Road Market and Zion Church, situated between Exeter Road and Tiverton Lane, were also affected. The market, established since 1953, was torn down in 1977 and its hawkers were resettled at a new market at Ghim Moh.

The 32-storey Comcentre, after its completion in 1980, became the new landmark in the vicinity. Further land bounded by Tiverton Lane, Devonshire Road and Killiney Road were acquired in 1982 for the construction of an extension for Comcentre.

The remaining shophouses at Tiverton Lane, made up of furniture stores, tailor shops and popular beef rendang and seafood eateries, were subsequently demolished. By the late eighties, the one-way Tiverton Lane was expunged and officially walked into history.

Today, all that was left of Tiverton Lane is an old street signage pinned at the back entrance of Comcentre.

Published: 20 April 2020

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