Seah Im Road and the Mysterious Bunker

The name Seah Im, to many Singaporeans, may ring a bell when they think of that popular hawker centre opposite of Harbourfront that serves delicious duck porridge, nasi goreng ayam and curry rice. It is Seah Im Road, however, a short road located off Telok Blangah Road, that gives the hawker centre its name.

Seah Im Road began as a private road in the early 20th century. It was built at the request of Ang Seah Im (undetermined-1927), a wealthy Hokkien tin mining businessman who had many properties at Telok Blangah. In 1907, the Municipal Commission agreed to name it Seah Im Road, after Ang Seah Im met the requirements of installing lighting, fences and embankments on his new private road.

One of the early notable landmarks at Seah Im Road was the Keppel Harbour Community Centre, built by the Social Affairs Ministry in 1957 at a cost of $40,000. The People’s Association took over and manage it in 1960. The community centre served the Telok Blangah residents well for more than two decades until the early eighties.

Low-rise blocks of staff quarters and a pre-war colonial bungalow also once stood at Seah Im Road, managed by the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) in the seventies.

On the opposite side of Telok Blangah Road were known as Seah Im, made up of rows of godowns and warehouses, and Jardine Steps, a docking place for boats plying between the mainland and Pulau Belakang Mati (present-day Sentosa). The facilities and dock later made way for the development of World Trade Centre, Maritime Square and Harbourfront Centre.

In 1974, a tower was built at Seah Im Road as part of the $5.8-million cable car system between Sentosa and Mount Faber. The 64m-tall Seah Im Road tower is one of the two towers – the other was at Pulau Selegu (the little island had since been absorbed into the larger Sentosa) – supporting the cable car system. The pair of towers cost $1.1 million in construction in the early seventies.

The mid-eighties saw two landmarks appeared beside Seah Im Road – the popular Seah Im Hawker Centre in 1984, and the World Trade Centre bus terminus in 1985 (present-day Harbourfront Bus Interchange), built at the site of a former Malay kampong.

Today, there are several double-storey private residential houses still existing at the end of Seah Im Road.

The mysterious Seah Im bunker entrance is hidden in thick vegetation about 20m just behind a heritage tree called Kapok Tree, standing on the fringe of Seah Im Carpark.

The tall sturdy tree – Kapok Trees are able to grow up to 40m tall – originates from tropical America and is, in fact, the national tree of Puerto Rico. From far, it is easily recognisable by its cream-coloured flowers during the flowering and fruiting stage. This particular Kapok Tree at Seah Im Carpark has been endorsed as one of Singapore’s heritage trees since 2005.

The name of Kapok Tree is derived from kapok which, in Malay, refers to the white fibre that surrounds the seeds inside its large hanging fruits. The fruits, or seedpods, split open when ripe, releasing tiny black seeds with kapok that are scattered and carried away by the winds.

Kapok is useful for its softness, good water-resistance and buoyancy. It is often used for a stuffing material for life jackets, pillows and mattresses.

The 1m-tall Seah Im bunker lies on the forested slope of Mount Faber. Its brick entrance leads to an elongated tunnel, about 2.5m tall on the inside and was designed with small ventilation holes along its walls.

Little information is known of the bunker. It was likely to be built just before the Second World War, and might be used for imprisonment of the prisoners-of-war (POWs), or as a storage place for wartime equipment and ammunition. Over the decades, it became covered by thick vegetation and its existence gradually forgotten.

There are several surviving WWII tunnels and bunkers in Singapore. Labrador Park, Fort Canning, Alexandra Hospital, Sentosa’s Fort Serapong and the Marsiling Tunnels are some of the examples.

As for the Telok Blangah vicinity, it has a number of lesser-known heritage sites that have caught the attention of heritage enthusiasts and media in recent years. Other than Seah Im bunker, the sites are the abandoned Keppel Hill Reservoir, a mysterious Japanese tomb and the old Marang Road graves.

Published: 13 October 2019

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Reminiscences of the Old Beauty World

Located at the junction between Upper Bukit Timah Road and Jalan Jurong Kechil, used to be known as the Bukit Timah Road 7.5 milestone, was once a popular market and shopping destination for locals during weeknights and weekends.

Before the Second World War, the Bukit Timah vicinity was mostly made up of kampongs and rubber and pineapple plantations. Beauty Timah Village was the dominant kampong; its surrounding area was then known as “Chin Huat”, derived from the name of a grand mansion – the only brick house in the vicinity – owned by a Chinese mandarin who had settled in Singapore in the early 20th century. The house was destroyed by the bombings during the Japanese invasion, and its site later replaced by Halfway House nightclub and restaurant.

Tai Tong Ah

During the Japanese Occupation, some local businessmen collaborated with the Japanese to open an amusement park at Bukit Timah Road 7.5 milestone. It was named Tai Tong Ah Sai Kai (大东亚世界 in Cantonese), after the Japanese’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere propaganda during the Second World War. The new amusement park cost almost $1 million to build, with funds likely raised by the Overseas-Chinese Association.

A grand opening of the amusement park was held in September 1944, opened by Japanese officers and several invited Overseas-Chinese Association members. The new recreational place was made up of getai (singing stages), food and drink stalls, photo studios, medicine shops, a Japanese films-screening theatre called Tiong Hwa Cinema and all types of gambling booths such as lottery, tikam-tikam, pai-kow and fan-tan.

It was said that the Japanese wanted gambling to divert the people’s attention from their oppressive rule, and, at the same time, soak up their wealth and recoup the banana notes which were not printed fast enough to deal with the runaway inflation during the Japanese Occupation. It was not uncommon to see lucky gamblers went home at night carrying sacks of banana notes, without any fears. Robberies were rare then – thieves and robbers would have their heads chopped off during the Japanese Occupation.

Powered by generators, the amusement park’s stalls were brightly lit at night and packed with people, making it stood out in a vicinity of ruralness and darkness, and was dubbed as the most “beautiful” place at Bukit Timah. Hence, Tai Tong Ah was also known as Beauty World.

After the end of war in 1945, Tai Tong Ah was allowed to operate for another year with a temporary license granted by the returning British. The gambling booths, however, were banned, greatly affecting the park’s business. With the crowds not returning, a businessman and hotel owner Giam Kok Eng sought approval from the British authority to dismantle the park and convert the site into a market place.

Old Beauty World

In 1947, the Beauty World (美世界) Market was opened, retaining its former popular name. The name was also catchy and easy to remember among the locals, as it resembled the three well-known leisure places in Singapore then – Great World (大世界, located at Kim Seng Road), Gay World (繁华世界, Geylang Road) and New World (新世界, Jalan Besar). The new market-shopping venue was filled with stalls selling a wide range of products from food, beverages, textiles and shoes to books, hardware and utensils.

But Beauty World during the fifties was plagued by extortion, violence and territorial fights by the secret society members. The stallholders and hawkers at the market had to pay protection fees to the gangsters. Otherwise, they would be beaten up and their stalls wrecked. It would be the sixties before the anti-gang laws came into effect to reduce and suppress the illegal activities of the secret societies.

In 1962, the market saw expansion with the establishment of Beauty World Town, adding vitality to the busy stretch from Bukit Timah Road 7 milestone to 8 milestone that was already buzzing with business and industrial activities.

In fact, the Bukit Timah area was one of Singapore’s first industrial areas established after the war, with numerous rubber, canned food, beverage and sauce production plants operating in the vicinity, such as Bin Seng Rubber, Lam Choon Rubber, Amoy Canning, Lam Soon Cannery and Yeo Hiap Seng. There were also the famous Singapore Cold Storage and Ford Motor Company.

The withdrawal of the British military in the early seventies dealt a blow to the businesses at Beauty World. Like many other markets and clusters of shops elsewhere in Singapore, including Jalan Kayu, Changi and Nee Soon Village, Beauty World also relied on the spending powers of the British troops stationed in Singapore.

But with the opening of more factories and industries in the vicinity, Beauty World managed to survive and flourish. By the mid-seventies, the Beauty World Market had grown to include more than 150 stalls, selling all types of food, necessities and appliances popular with the locals, tourists and expatriates.

But its popularity came with a price. Jalan Jurong Kechil was constantly jammed with many illegally parked cars, and the crammed market was often complained by the public for its dirtiness and poor hygienic conditions.

The congested stalls covered with corrugated zinc and canvas tops, messy huts and makeshift structures at Beauty World Market and Beauty World Town were also a potential hazard for fire-related incidents. At least five major fire broke out at Beauty World Market and Town between the seventies and eighties.

In 1975, a fire roared through two coffeeshops and seven stalls that sold food, poultry, textile and radios, destroying $200,000 worth of properties. The last fire incident, occurred in 1984, razed the 40-year-old Tiong Hwa Cinema to the ground.

The Beauty World site was acquired by the Singapore government in 1975, and by late 1983, it was decided to close and demolish the old and dilapidated Beauty World. The former market saw its last batch of stallholders and hawkers moved out by 1984.

The old shophouses at the nearby Chun Tin Road and Cheong Chin Nam Road are perhaps the only survivors in the vicinity that have witnessed the rise and fall of the old Beauty World. The shophouses have since been refurbished and converted into popular restaurants, cafes and pubs.

New Beauty World

As the old Beauty World walked into history, a new Beauty World – the government-built Beauty World Centre and the privately-developed Beauty World Plaza – emerged on the opposite side of Upper Bukit Timah Road.

Opened in 1984, Beauty World Centre was designed and built by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) at a cost of $45 million. The new mall’s shops on its first three storeys were mostly reserved for the former stallkeepers at the old Beauty World. On its fourth level was a 41-stall food centre, where the previous hawkers shifted and continued their trades.

The remaining old Beauty World tenants, who did not want to shift to the new place or not agreeable to the rents, had mostly relocated to the new town of Clementi.

Beauty World Centre was bought over by Pidemco Land in 1989. Nine years later, the ownership of the mall was sold to its 194 individual shopowners in a strata-titled deal that amounted $80 million in total.

As for the former sites of Beauty World Market and Beauty World Town, there had been proposals since the mid-eighties to redevelop the land for new high rise buildings or malls, but the plans never did materialise. In the 2010s, the Downtown Line cut through the vicinity, with a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station opened in December 2015. The MRT station was fittingly named after Beauty World.

After more than three decades, the new Beauty Worlds are showing signs of aging too. Both Beauty World Centre, including its hawker centre, and Beauty World Plaza have been the subjects of purchases for redevelopment in recent years, albeit unsuccessful deals due to their valuations. However, with Singapore constantly and rapidly evolving, it is not surprising to see a new generation of Beauty Worlds in the near future.

A trip down the memory lane of the old Beauty World (before its resettlement and demolition in the mid-eighties):

Published: 22 September 2019

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Past and Present Cemeteries of Singapore (Part 2) – Malay/Muslim Burial Grounds

One of the early records of Muslim cemeteries was carried by the Municipal Engineer in 1875, when he was tasked to conduct site surveys on those burial grounds situated within and on the outskirts of the Singapore’s city area.

As many as 20 cemeteries were recorded; among those were six Malay burial grounds, located at Victoria Street, Tanjong Pagar, Orchard Road and River Valley. The others were Chinese, Bugis, Parsi, Hindu, Roman Catholic and Portuguese cemeteries.

Cemeteries

The Siglap and Bedok areas have a number of old and former Muslim graveyards. The maps of the fifties show that there were plots of Muslim cemeteries, often named as Mohammedan cemeteries, in the vicinity. One of them is the Kubur Kassim Cemetery, established in the 1920s on a piece of land along Siglap Road endowed by Ahna Mohamed Kassim bin Ally Mohamed, a cargo boat and steam launch owner.

Kubur Kassim Cemetery’s striking yellow and green gates possess the Indo-Saracenic style of a mixture of Mughal and classical European features, a popular architectural design in Malaya in the early 20th century. The cemetery, which also houses a surau (prayer house in Malay), used to serve as the final resting place for the Muslims living in Siglap.

Buried at Kubur Kassim Cemetery were some of the well-known community leaders, including former Singapore Municipal Commissioner Dr Hafeezudin Sirajuddin Moonshi, who became the first in Singapore to open a Muslim clinic in 1916. Another was Che Lembek binte Abdin, the former headmistress of Kampong Glam Girls’ School during the Second World War.

For years, Kubur Kassim Cemetery has been a source of haunted tales. This may be due to the fact that some of its tombs are dedicated to Orang Bunian, a kind of supernatural human-like beings often portrayed in Malay folklore. However, the 90-year-old cemetery may be facing the likelihood of exhumation. In the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) 2014 master plan, the site where the cemetery resides has been earmarked for future residential development.

About 200m away from Siglap Road, at Jalan Sempadan, was the grave of a Sumatran prince called Tok Lasam (or Lassam), believed to be the founder and penghulu (chieftain in Malay) of Siglap. Marked by yellow tombs, signifying royalty, the grave also included Tok Lassam’s wife and his panglima (commander-in-chief).

It was said that Tok Lasam came to Singapore and established a fishing village by the sea in the early 19th century. In 1821, a solar eclipse occurred, frightening many of the village’s residents who thought their village had fell into the darkness. This led to the naming of the village as si-gelap, meaning “dark one” in Malay.

Tok Lasam’s grave used to be part of a larger Muslim cemetery. In the nineties, the redevelopment of the vicinity saw most of the cemetery’s graves exhumed and reinterred at Choa Chu Kang Muslim cemetery. It was only after the petitioning from the community leaders and public that the tomb of the legendary prince was retained at its original site.

A Muslim cemetery in the vicinity that did not make it to this day was the one located at the junction of Upper East Coast Road and Hwa San Road (defunct). A neighbour of the Chinese cemetery Hwa San Teng (or Wah Suah Teng), the cemetery had about 4,000 graves, serving as the burial ground for the Malay residents living at the kampongs around Jalan Bilal, Jalan Haji Salam, Jalan Greja and Jalan Langgar Bedok.

The Muslim cemetery’s last burial was done in the mid-seventies. Together with the Chinese cemetery, exhumations were carried out in the mid-nineties, after which the site was used to build a private condominium called Kew Green.

The cemetery at Lucky Gardens was a Boyanese burial ground. Boyanese, or Baweanese, were originally from Indonesia’s Bawean Island, arriving at Singapore in the early 19th century and working for the British as labourers, horse trainers and drivers. The unique cultural identity of Boyanese was their communal lodging house, known as pondoks, a type of social institution for Boyanese to interact, find jobs or settle newly arrivals.

Kampong Boyan and Kampong Kapor, along the Rochor river, used to have many of these pondoks, where the early Boyanese came and worked at the construction site of the racecourse at Farrer Park. The last pondok in Singapore, cleared in 2000, was previously housed at a Club Street shophouse. Most Boyanese, after generations of assimilation and integration, had become part of the local Malay population.

A short distance away from Lucky Gardens’ Boyanese cemetery, near Lucky Heights and Sennett Road, used to exist the grave of Madam Hajijah, a wealthy landowner in the early 20th century who was well-remembered for her contributions to the construction of the Kampong Siglap mosque and welfare of the residents living in the vicinity. The road Jalan Hajijah and the former village Kampong Hajijah were named after her.

Madam Hajijah’s grave stood at Batu Lapan (8 milestone in Malay) until the eighties when her remains were exhumed and shifted to the Pusara Aman Muslim Cemetery at Choa Chu Kang.

Located at Victoria Street is Jalan Kubor Cemetery. Originated in the 19th century, it is one of the oldest surviving Muslim cemeteries in Singapore. The cemetery was initially separated into three different burial grounds located close to one another, one of which was the reserved royal burial ground for Johor Sultan Hussein Shah’s (1776-1835) family and household. Hence, it was also known as the Tombs of the Malayan Princes, although Sultan Hussein himself was not buried in it.

The graveyard was in an abandoned state by the late 19th century, although it did receive one of its last burials in Tengku Hussain bin Tengku Haji Ali, a royal descendant of Sultan Hussein, in 1954.

The second burial ground was called Malay Burial Ground, meant to be a final resting place for the Muslim commoners. However, it later became better known as Aljunied Burial Ground after prominent businessman and philanthropist Syed Omar bin Ali Aljunied (1792-1852) and his family members were buried there.

The third was the Kling Burial Ground, mentioned in the municipal engineer’s report in 1875. Mainly used as a cemetery for the Indian Muslims residing at Kampong Glam, it later became known as the Tittacheri Muslim Cemetery, and was managed by the appointed trustees of the Indian Muslim community in the early 20th century.

By 1860, the burial grounds, collectively known as Jalan Kubor Cemetery, was deemed full by the municipal government. The Sultan’s Burial Ground and Malay Burial Ground were closed in 1875 and 1901 respectively, although fresh burials were still carried out occasionally. The Tittacheri Muslim Cemetery remained opened until the Second World War, while its accompanying mosque, Malabar Muslim Jama-ath Mosque, exists until today.

Rich in history, with many old tombstones found with inscriptions in Malay, Arabic, Gujarati, Bugis Aksara, Javanese Aksara, English and Chinese, Jalan Kubor Cemetery was also the burial place of many prominent figures. They included Syed Omar bin Ali Aljunied, Perak warrior and chief Ngah Ibrahim (1830s-1895) and Haji Ambo Sooloh (1891-1963), a wealthy Malay businessman and philanthropist of Bugis descent, and possibly the last person to be buried at cemetery.

Like the Kubur Kassim Cemetery, the site of Jalan Kubor Cemetery is also earmarked as a future residential development in URA’s 1998 master plan. There have been suggestions from heritage enthusiasts and groups calling for the preservation of the old cemetery.

Another old plot of Muslim graves is the one located at Marang Road, at the foot of the southern side of Telok Blangah Hill. It is said that the graveyard, containing some 200 tombstones, originated from an old Malay village called Kampong Marang. Kampong Marang had existed in the vicinity for almost 200 years until it was destroyed by a big fire in the eighties.

Overran by thick vegetation today, the forgotten cemetery was apparently also the burial place for Ahmad Marang Omar, the founder of Kampong Marang.

Keramats

Beside typical cemeteries, there are also a number of keramats (sacred graves or shrines) for Muslim saints or holy men located in various parts of Singapore. Sometimes the keramats contain the makam (tomb) of the holy men, and are regularly visited by pilgrims from other countries. Keramats, other than housing the tombs, also serve as a refuge to the poor and needy, as well as a place of solace for those in distress and agony.

One of the most notable keramats in Singapore is Keramat Habib Noh, dedicated to Muslim saint Sayyid Noh bin Sayyid Mohamad bin Sayyid Ahmad Al-Habshi (1789-1866), also known as Habib Noh. It is situated on the Parsi Hill (previously known as Mount Palmer), where a grand mosque Masjid Haji Muhammad Salleh was built beside it in 1903.

Another famous keramat is located on Fort Canning Hill, belonging to Sri Sultan Iskandar Shah, a historical figure with different accounts regarding his legacy. One such account described him as the last of the five kings of Singapura in the 14th century. He fled during a Javanese attack, and settled and established a new kingdom at Melaka (or Malacca). Another suggested he was the successor of Parameswara, the actual founder of Melaka.

When the British arrived at Singapore in 1819, they observed that the local Malay residents refused to ascend Fort Canning Hill, due to the belief that it was once the palace and the final resting place of the ancient kings. Hence, the hill was formerly known as Bukit Larangan, or Forbidden Hill. The British cleared the forest on the hill and discovered many ancient structures and ruins. By 1822, the burial place of Iskandar Shah was regarded as a keramat and revered by the locals.

Some of the other well-known keramats in Singapore include Keramat Bukit Kasita (at Kampong Bahru Road), Keramat Sheikh Ali (at Kubur Kassim cemetery, Siglap Road), Keramat Radin Mas (Mount Faber Road) and Keramat Kusu (Kusu Island).

Many of the keramats had significant long histories, as reported in the Straits Times in the 1930s and 1950s. However, over the decades, numerous keramats had made way for redevelopment, with their graves exhumed and reinterred at the Muslim cemetery at Choa Chu Kang. Some of the affected ones were, for example, Keramat Maliki, previously located at Sennett Road and Keramat Syed Mustapha at Changi Road 6½ milestone.

In the fifties, there was even a keramat and burial ground within the Singapore Government House (present-day Istana) premises. Located at a short distance between the Chief Secretary’s bungalow and the Government House’s main gates, it was set up by the Malay staff to commemorate an old Muslim saint, with permission given by then-governor Sir Robert Black.

Closure

Throughout the 20th century, many older Muslim cemeteries had became defunct and closed. Old Malay graveyards – such as those located at Sembawang Road, Upper Serangoon Road, Geylang Road, River Valley Road and near Pagoda Street – had vanished into history.

The early seventies saw another wave of cemeteries’ closure to make way for new developments. In April 1973, the Ministry of Environment announced the shutting down of 34 cemeteries in Singapore. It included 30 Muslim, three Chinese and one Hindu cemeteries.

Some of the Muslim cemeteries affected were Kubor Wakaff Nyali (at Parbury Avenue, off East Coast Road), Kubor Wakaff Tanah Merah Kechil (Upper East Coast Road), Kubor Wakaff Serangoon Kechil (Punggol Road), Tanah Perkuboran Islam (Plywood Road, off West Coast Road), Tanah Wakaff Perkboran (Pulau Seking) and an unnamed Muslim cemetery at Nicoll Drive 15½ milestone.

Others were small plots of burial grounds situated at Kampong Ayer Bajau, Wing Loong Road, Jalan Bahar, Lorong Akar, South Seletar, Punggol end, Siak Kuan Road, Kampong Loyang and Nicoll Drive.

A large remaining of the affected Muslim cemeteries were those located on the outlying islands of Singapore. For example, Pulau Tekong had almost a dozen of cemeteries scattered all over the island at Kampong Seminea, Kampong Selabin, Kampong Sayangkong, Kampong Batu Koyak, Kampong Pasir, Kampong Ayer Sama, Kampong Semeni, Kampong Ayer Samak and Kampong Pahang.

At Pulau Ubin, the burial grounds at Batu Daun, Kampong Chek Jawa, Kampong Surau, Kampong Sungei Durian and Kampong Bahru were eventually cleared. One signage, indicating the site of Tanjong Chek Jawa Muslim Cemetery, did, however, manage to survive till this day.

Exhumations

Bidadari Cemetery began as a Christian cemetery in 1908. The Muslim, Hindu and Sinhalese sections were subsequently added to the sites next to the Christian cemetery. In particular, the Muslim burial section at Bidadari Cemetery was opened in February 1910. A small mosque called Masjid Bidadari was built within the cemetery in 1932, providing religious needs until its demolition in 2007.

Bidadari Cemetery was closed in 1972. After two decades of sequestered state, the site came under redevelopment plans in the nineties for new Housing and Development Board (HDB) housing projects. By the mid-2000s, more than 100,000 Muslim (68,000) and Christian (58,000) graves had been exhumed. Most of the Muslim remains were reburied at the Choa Chu Kang Cemetery.

Former Minister for Labour Ahmad bin Ibrahim (1927-1962) was one of the prominent figures to have formerly buried at Bidadari Cemetery.

Choa Chu Kang Cemetery therefore remains as the only cemetery in Singapore still opened for new burials. However, this may also change in the next decade. About 35,000 Muslim graves at Choa Chu Kang Cemetery will be exhumed in the next few years, as portions of the cemetery gives way to the expansion of Tengah Air Base.

Since 2007, a new interment system has been used for Muslim grave exhumations, in order to save space by having the interred bodies reburied in a more compact method as compared to the traditional earth plots.

Under the new arrangement, the remains of eight deceased who have been claimed by their families will be buried together in one grave. Otherwise, 16 will be buried in one instead. During the exhumation, the gravedigger will seek permission from the deceased’s family members to collect the remains, after which they will be placed carefully on a piece of white linen.

Wrapped by the white linen, the remains will be cleaned, before being tied up and placed in the grave with seven other remains. The ustaz (Islamic religious teacher) will recite the Quran verses and pray with the deceased’s family members before the remains are lowered into the grave and covered with soil. A concrete lid, with grass on its surface, will be used to seal the grave.

Also read Past and Present Cemeteries of Singapore (Part 1) – Old Chinese Graveyards.

Published: 01 September 2019

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Shining and Guiding the Way… The Lighthouses of Singapore

Lighthouses, typically located on islands and shoals near the entry waterways to ports and harbours, provide the visual aids and navigational guides for mariners. In addition, they also serve as the warning markers of dangers such as rocks and reefs.

Today, five of Singapore’s lighthouses are managed by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA). Four of them – Horsburgh Lighthouse, Pulau Pisang Lighthouse, Sultan Shoal Lighthouse and Raffles Lighthouse – are located on offshore islands. The fifth one is Bedok Lighthouse.

Horsburgh Lighthouse (1851-Present)

Built in 1851, Horsburgh Lighthouse is Singapore’s first and oldest lighthouse. It is also Singapore’s most isolated lighthouse, located at Pedra Branca (“white stone” in Portuguese, also known as Batu Putih, or “white rock” in Malay) that lies 54km away from the southeastern side of Singapore. The strategic position of the lighthouse and island marks the eastern entrance of ships from the South China Sea into the Singapore Strait.

The construction cost of Horsburgh Lighthouse was funded by a cosmopolitan group of merchants, ship captains and officers, who raised about 4,200 Spanish dollars in total (total construction cost eventually amounted to almost 25,000 Spanish dollars, and was partially sponsored by the British colonial government). Government surveyor John Turnbull Thomson (1821-1884) was engaged to design and build the lighthouse.

It took seven years for John Thomson to survey, test and build the lighthouse, due to the harsh marine environment where Pedra Branca was located. Granite, instead of brick, was used as the material for the tower, in order to withstand the strong monsoon winds and waves. On 15 October 1851, Horsburgh Lighthouse commenced operation, using oil lamps for its illumination. It was named after Captain James Horsburgh (1762-1836), prominent Scottish navigator and hydrographer.

In 1966, Horsburgh Lighthouse switched to electrical source for its illumination. Twenty years later, in 1988, solar panels were installed to provide power for the lighthouse.

The sovereignty of Pedra Branca was disputed by Malaysia in the late seventies. Singapore and Malaysia agreed to refer the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1994. The court eventually ruled, in 2008, that Singapore has the ownership of Pedra Branca.

Raffles Lighthouse (1855-Present)

The 29m-tall Raffles Lighthouse was built in 1855, almost two decades after numerous petitions from merchants and mariners to the British government calling for the construction of a lighthouse in the Singapore Strait. The 1.3-hectare Pulau Satumu (“one-tree island” in Malay), located 23km southwest of mainland Singapore, was chosen for the new lighthouse.

The lighthouse’s foundation was completed on 24 May 1854, and was named Raffles Lighthouse after Sir Stamford Raffles. The lighthouse tower was built by Indian convicts and other labourers, using granite that were mined from Pulau Ubin.

Raffles Lighthouse was commissioned on 1 December 1855, and was manned by seven lightkeepers to operate its wick burner. The using of kerosene for its light continued for more than a century before the lighthouse, in 1968, switched to electrical power.

Like Horsburgh Lighthouse, Raffles Lighthouse was upgraded in 1988 to solar panels as its main source of power, enabling it to be automated and monitored by the base station on mainland Singapore. The lighthouse’s luminous intensity was increased to 117,000 candelas, with its beacon flashing three times every 20 seconds. Its light could be seen by ships as far as 20 nautical miles (37km) away.

Today, two lightkeepers are stationed on Pulau Satumu to take care of the lighthouse’s operations and maintenance. It remains restricted from public access.

Pulau Pisang Lighthouse (1886-Present)

Pulau Pisang Lighthouse is a Singapore-administrated lighthouse situated on a Malaysian island, called Pulau Pisang (“banana island” in Malay), in the Strait of Malacca. Erected in 1886, Pulau Pisang Lighthouse is Singapore’s westernmost lighthouse. The lighthouse tower is 18m tall, but its focal point reaches 135m above sea level as it stands on the highest point on the island.

In 1900, Sultan Ibrahim of Johor and Sir James Alexander Swettenham, the Governor of the Straits Settlements, signed an agreement for the British administration to build, operate and maintain the lighthouse. The tasks were later taken over by the Singapore government.

Although there are recent disputes in the ownership of the lighthouse, the location of Pulau Pisang Lighthouse remains crucial to Singapore as it denotes the western approach to the Singapore Strait. For the ships, this is the path of a main busy shipping channel.

Pulau Pisang Lighthouse underwent renovation and automation upgrading in the eighties, switching to solar power sources. Currently, its main beacon’s light produces 110,000 candelas at a range of 20 nautical miles (37km).

Sultan Shoal Lighthouse (1895-Present)

Built in 1895, Sultan Shoal Lighthouse was located on the small island of Selat Jurong, about 5.5km from the southwestern side of Singapore. Today, with the ongoing reclamation projects, it is sandwiched between Jurong Island and the reclaimed Tuas extension. The lighthouse is 18m tall; its white masonry tower stands above a white and red colonial style bungalow.

Sultan Shoal Lighthouse originally used kerosene to power its wick lamps that were enhanced with reflectors. Its revolving light provided a flash every 30 seconds, allowing its illumination to be seen as far as 22 nautical miles (40km) away. Its power supply was upgraded to electrical source in the late sixties.

The present-day Sultan Shoal Lighthouse is equipped with a rotating beacon that produces up to 110,000 candelas. It is also installed with a radar to provide additional navigational information to ships.

Bedok Lighthouse (1978-Present)

The unique Bedok Lighthouse is Singapore’s most recent lighthouse. Operationalised on 9 August 1978, it is the only MPA-managed lighthouse located on mainland Singapore, and is installed on the roof of a 25-storey Lagoon View condominium that faces the East Coast Parkway. Bedok Lighthouse was built to replace Fullerton Lighthouse, which had its beacon’s light blocked by the new development at Marina Bay.

Equipped with two beacons, the fully automated lighthouse, at a height of about 75m above sea level, is able to project its 600,000-candela light beam, flashing once every five seconds, to a range of 22.5 nautical miles (42km). Beside its maritime function, it also helps pilots to navigate around Singapore’s southern airspace at night.

A new lighthouse replacement has been proposed in 2014 to be installed on the rooftop of a nearby Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat at Marine Terrace. It will be the first lighthouse to operate on a HDB flat.

Fort Canning Lighthouse (1903-1958)

There are four other lighthouses in Singapore that are not managed and maintained by MPA. Among the four lighthouses, Fort Canning and Fullerton Lighthouses had their operations ceased in the fifties and seventies respectively.

For a long time, Fort Canning Hill was the ideal location for a lighthouse to guide the ships entering the Singapore’s harbour. In 1855, a lantern was mounted on top of the Fort Canning Hill flagstaff. It was later replaced by Fort Canning Lighthouse, completed in 1903. At 24m tall, the lighthouse had an elevation of 60m above sea level, and its 20,000-candela light, powered by a kerosene burner, was visible from 16 nautical miles (30km) away.

During the Second World War, the lighthouse was neglected by the Japanese, but its faithful lightkeepers continued to secretly hide and maintain its equipment. After the war, the British returned to take over the lighthouse, and in 1948, the Union Jack was hoisted again ceremoniously at the tower.

On 19 September 1950, Singapore suffered one of its most worst power failures in history due to a defective generator at St James Power Station. The island was thrown into total darkness for an hour and a half. During the blackout period, Fort Canning Lighthouse remained as the only constant light source in the city.

As taller buildings were built, obstructing the view and its light, Fort Canning Lighthouse became less effective by the late fifties. It was officially decommissioned on 14 December 1958, with its role replaced by the new electrical-powered and sea-facing Fullerton Lighthouse on top of Fullerton Building.

Today, a functional replica of the Fort Canning Lighthouse stands on Fort Canning Hill.

Fullerton Lighthouse (1958-1979)

Manufactured by England’s Stone-Chance Ltd, the Fullerton Lighthouse was installed on top of the Fullerton Building, serving as the navigational guide for ships entering Singapore’s harbour. Commissioned on 14 December 1958, the lighthouse was operationalised to replace Fort Canning Lighthouse, whose effectiveness was diminished due to the obstruction of view by the new tall buildings constructed at the southern side of Fort Canning Hill.

Equipped with a revolving beacon of 540,000 candelas, Fullerton Lighthouse could project its light up to 16 nautical miles (30km) away. The lighthouse, however, met the same fate of Fort Canning Lighthouse two decades later. The rapidly evolving skyline of Singapore’s waterfront began blocking the line of sight between the ships and the lighthouse. Fullerton Lighthouse was eventually decommissioned on 30 November 1979.

The remaining two lighthouses are Berlayer Point Lighthouse and Johor Strait Lighthouse. Technically a beacon (hence, it is also known as Berlayer Beacon or Berlayer Tower), the Berlayer Point Lighthouse, currently located at Labrador Park at the southern tip of mainland Singapore, was possibly installed as early as the 1930s.

At 7m tall, Berlayer Beacon flashes every five seconds to a range of 4 nautical miles (7km). Opposite across the waters is the green Tanjong Rimau Beacon, its cousin located on the northwestern tip of Sentosa. Together, the pair functions as the navigational markers for ships – Berlayer Beacon for the ships’ port (left) side, and Tanjong Rimau Beacon for starboard (right) side – that enter and exit the channel between Labrador and Sentosa.

Johor Strait Lighthouse, the last lighthouse on the list, stands at the end of the jetty of Raffles Marina, a country club located at Tuas West. Facing the Malaysia-Singapore Second Link, it provide flashes of light signals to the ships approaching the Straits of Johor.

Published: 25 August 2019

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A Historical Brief of Balestier’s Red Chinese Temple and Wayang Stage

The Balestier Road’s Chinese temple, albeit relatively small in size and stature compared to other Chinese temples in Singapore, has a long history that dated back to the mid-19th century. Named Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple, it was established in 1847 by the Hokkien labourers working at the vicinity’s sugarcane plantations.

In the mid-19th century, large areas of lands at Balestier were used to cultivate sugarcane, and were largely owned by Joseph Balestier (1788-1858), the American consul to Singapore from 1836 to 1852. Joseph Balestier hired many Chinese immigrants to work at his plantations, and the temple, located at the fringes of his estate, served as a religious solace for the workers, who had to endure harsh conditions at the plantations plagued with mosquitoes, snakes and even tigers.

Joseph Balestier’s sugarcane plantations were also known as the Balestier Plantation. By 1848, a declining sugarcane industry and also due to health reasons, Joseph Balestier sold his properties and left Singapore for the United States, although he still retained his American consul position until 1852.

The road that ran along Joseph Balestier’s plantations was later named Balestier Road. The ownership of the lands changed hands and were converted for other uses, but the Chinese temple survived, witnessing the vast changes of its Balestier surroundings for the next one-and-a-half century.

Bearing the name Goh Chor, which refers to Rochore, the name of the vicinity located next to present-day Balestier, the temple has a typical southern Chinese style that consists of a low tiled roof with ornate ridges decorated with elaborated creatures in dragons, phoenixes, fish and flowers. It is a Chinese belief that these roof ornaments can ward off evil spirits and protect the temple against fires.

The eye-catching red exteriors of the temple is due to the red-painted plasters that resemble terracotta wall tiles, a traditional Hokkien architectural style. Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple was renovated in 1920 and 1928 respectively, and is currently under the trusteeship of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan.

The worshipping of Tua Pek Kong in Singapore possibly started in the early 19th century, even before the arrival of the British, by the early Chinese immigrants working at the gambier plantations. Literally means “Grand Uncle”, Tua Pek Kong is unique to Southeast Asia, especially Singapore, Malaysia and parts of Indonesia, where devotees pray to him for prosperity, well-being and good fortune.

In Singapore, Tua Pek Kong was initially worshipped by the early Hokkiens, but was gradually accepted as part of the Chinese folk religion by the other major dialect groups such as the Cantonese, Teochews and Hakkas. By the sixties and seventies, dozens of Tua Pek Kong temples could be found in many parts of Singapore, especially at the rural areas where it was worshipped as the protection god for the villagers, including Tuas, Tampines, Changi, Toa Payoh, West Coast, Pulau Tekong and Kusu Island.

Today, the deity remains popular with a large following of devotees, and has more than 50 temples dedicated to his worship.

One of the unique features of the temple is its accompanying wayang stage. Many Chinese temples in Singapore used to have wayang stages, but they were gradually phased out due to the waning interest in Chinese opera performances and the increasing cost in maintenance.

Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple’s wayang stage was constructed in 1906, sponsored by Tan Boo Liat, a Hokkien businessman and philanthropist. The century-old stage continues to serve its purpose today. It is used during the annual Hungry Ghost Festival for stage performances by the invited Chinese opera troupes. The temple, meanwhile, also sees large crowds during the chap goh meh (fifteenth night of Chinese New Year) and the birthday of Tua Pek Kong (14th of the eighth month on the lunar calendar).

Only three surviving wayang stages are left in Singapore. Other than Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple’s wayang stage, the other two are the wayang stages of Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple and Tan Kong Tian Temple, located at Jalan Kebaya off Holland Road.

Published: 12 August 2019

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Jalan-Jalan in Singapore, 1980 Version

What were the fun activities during the school holidays in Singapore back in 1980?

A news article dated in June 1980 provides some interesting insights with a list of 12 outdoor activities for students and teenagers to visit and explore during the mid-year vacation period.

Some of the activities back then could no longer be replicated today, such as the train ride from Tanjong Pagar to Johor, or the fun bus tours to the rural parts of Singapore. Others still applicable today, including the cycling at Pulau Ubin and trekking to the summit of Bukit Timah Hill. One thing remained unchanged though – the hot and humid weather with occasional thunderstorms.

Activities: Nostalgia Tour

Where: Start from Upper Cross Street and work your way into the very heart of Chinatown.

Highlights: Make a list of shops that your mother may want to go to – prices are lower and all kinds of fascinating things can be found. Put the shops under these headings – glass, frames, spices, household utensils, crockery, textiles, books, joss-sticks, furniture, Chinese herbs – accompanied by little map sketches, so that mum doesn’t have to hunt around on a hot afternoon.

Today’s Context: Chinatown remains a place worth visiting, be it for shopping, food or just for some nostalgia’s sake. Most kids today, though, will probably prefer to stay at home playing online games or shop in air-conditioned shopping malls. The hot weather on an afternoon can be unbearable, even for the most enthusiastic mothers.

Activities: Bus Rides to Nowhere

Where: Old Jurong (SBS bus 175), Tengah, Ama Keng (both 172), Punggol (82, 83), Nee Soon, Sembawang (both 161, 164).

Highlights: Think of them as coach tours of rural Singapore. All services end by the sea: Service 175 near Tuas Jetty, 172 (Lim Chu Kang Jetty), 161 and 164 (Sembawang Jetty), and 82 and 83 (Punggol Jetty beside the famous seafood haunts). Look out for rural industries like brickworks and sawmills (bus 175), Tengah Airbase (172), pig farms (82, 83), cemeteries (172, 175, 161, 164), and vegetable farms, wooden temples painted bright red, sugarcane fields, and zinc-and-attap hut clusters. As a variation, ride these routes in the night and observe the rural night scenes.

Today’s Context: Most of those rural landmarks were gone. Tengah Airbase and the Lim Chu Kang Cemeteries are still around, serving by Bus Service 975 instead. Most of the bus services do not end at the bus terminals today; instead they ply between new towns or make a loop back to the bus interchanges, but one can still take a quiet bus ride along Lim Chu Kang Road. For zinc-and-attap hut clusters, only one remains on mainland Singapore. Kampong Lorong Buangkok can be reached via bus services 50, 70, 103 and 854.

Activities: Fishing

Where: Tampines Fish Farm (Tampines Lane just off 19km, Tampines Road – SBS buses 80 and 81 drop you right in front); and Jurong Lake.

Highlights: The fish farm is commercial – you have to pay $5.50 for every rod you bring in. You can also rent rods from the owner. Day fishing from 6am to 6pm. Overnight fishing from sundown to sun-up – bring warm pullover, raincoat, thermos flask of hot beverages, some snacks, powerful battery lamp and waterproof torch for immersing in the water to attract the fish. Don’t bring books to read overnight – you will only strain you eyes. Make up ghost stories to stay awake.

Today’s Context: Prawning, or prawn fishing, is a more popular leisure activity among many Singaporeans nowadays. For a range of $10 to $20 per hour, one can attempt to catch as many prawns, sometimes lobsters, as he or she can, using a rented rod, hook and some free bits of chicken liver. There are barbecue pits too, for an optional makan session of the caught prawns.

Activities: Barbecue and Campfire

Where: Anywhere along the entire stretch of Marine Parade where barbecue pits are provided.

Highlights: First get a permit – granted straightaway – from Parks and Recreation Dept, 19th floor, National Development Building, Maxwell Road. Don’t bring too much food – stuff like sausages, chicken wings and drumsticks, slices of ham and bacon, and bread are convenient. Remember the charcoal (no PUB cookers around!) and skewers or tongs. Afterwards, don’t douse the fire but sit around the dying embers telling tall tales or singing campfire songs.

Today’s Context: Barbecue remains as one of Singaporeans’ favourite food-and-chit chat session, be it at East Coast Park, chalets, clubhouses or condos. Some of the newer HDB estates also provide barbecue pits at the common areas near the playgrounds and basketball courts.

Activities: Train Ride

Where: Tanjong Pagar station to Johore Bahru.

Highlights: All you need is your passport. Five services daily, 8.45am, 1.15pm, 2, 8 and 10. Fare: Adults $1.30 (2nd class) and 90 cents (3rd class), children (under 12) 70 and 50 cents. Be at the station at least 45 minutes early to buy your tickets and go through Customs. Lots of things to do when you get to JB. Explore the tiny streets crammed with hawkers displaying their wares on the ground, the seafront padang, the cinemas, the shopping centres – all with a flavour so similar yet so unlike Singapore’s.

Today’s Context: The Tanjong Pagar Railway Station has closed since December 2016, but one can still take the train to JB at the Woodlands Train Checkpoint. Besides the 5-minute trips by train, hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans flock to JB everyday by cars, taxis and buses. In 2018 alone, Singaporeans made an astonishing total of 10.6 million trips to their favourite destination for a short getaway, seafood feast or shopping spree.

Activities: Bumboat Ride

Where: Singapore River, Kallang Basin and Tanjong Rhu.

Highlights: Two trips daily, 9am and 2pm. Organised by Universal Travel Corporation of People’s Park Centre. You board the boat at Clifford Pier for a 2-1/2 hour trip down the river (highlights are Boat Quay, boatmen’s shrine, Pulau Saigon, Raffles’ landing place), then back to the open sea towards Kallang Basin and the boatyards of Tanjong Rhu. Land at Oasis floating restaurant for refreshments and a coach tour of Katong including a visit to a Malay shrine, the Kramat Panjang. Adult fare $16, children under 12 years, half-price.

Today’s Context: The old days of Singapore River cramped with tongkangs and twakows were long gone. So were the polluted charcoal and firewood tradings at Tanjong Rhu. The bumboat rides of today, named Singapore River Cruise, showcase to the tourists and locals Marina Bay’s iconic waterfront, Raffles Place’s skyscrapers and office towers, as well as Boat Quay’s refurbished shophouses. A 40-minute round trip costs $25 for adults and $15 for children.

Activities: Orienteering

Where: HDB New Towns, like Ang Mo Kio, Bedok and Woodlands.

Highlights: If you’re already a resident, start to find out everything about your satellite town; the police station, the various hawker centres, clinics, schools, major bus stops, unusual shops, late-night coffee shops, playgrounds, cinemas, banks and post offices. The best way to get around is by bicycle. New HDB streets are laid in geometrical patterns, making mapping easy. First draw an outline of the streets, then start filling in the important spots. To add realism, buy a compass ($2 or $3 for a simple one available from bookshops and emporiums) and draw the streets according to their compass direction. When the map is completed, you can frame it up in the living room for easy reference by the family.

Today’s Context: With easy access to internet, Google Maps and Google Street View, there is little need for one to draw his or her own maps. The new towns of the early eighties have become mature residential estates today. Perhaps it is more interesting to explore the older housing estates, especially those in risk of being demolished or redeveloped. Examples are Tanglin Halt, Dakota Crescent and Kampong Silat Estate.

Activities: Hill-climbing

Where: Bukit Timah (enter from Hindhede Road at junction of Jalan Anak Bukit and Upper Bukit Timah Road).

Highlights: Climb up the series of steps to the summit or follow the winding track. For the more adventurous, bash through the bushes – you won’t get lost as long as you keep heading up. Watch out for the quarry. Note: Carry all your snacks and drinks in a haversack (the bag slung behind your shoulders, try Sungei Road) so as to leave your hands free.

Today’s Context: The 163m-tall Bukit Timah Hill is crowded with hundreds of Singaporeans especially during the weekends. Designated in 1990, the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve consists of the Dairy Farm Nature Park and Rifle Range Nature Park, where one can adventurously trek for about 17km to the MacRitchie Reservoir via the various rocky trails. There is also the challenging Bukit Timah Mountain Bike Trail, opened since 1997, that snakes around the former granite quarries and secondary forest.

Activities: Exploration

Where: Pulau Ubin (daily ferry from Changi Point from sun-up to sundown).

Highlights: Our second biggest little island (after Pulau Tekong Besar) is just the right size for trekking and overnight camping. Try night fishing at a jetty on the northside, but don’t swim because jellyfish abound near the jetty. Trekking across island is not for children under 13 because of secondary forest and hilly ground.

Today’s Context: Pulau Ubin stays almost as serene and undisturbed today as compared to 40 years ago. Each year, it attracts tens of thousands of Singaporeans, who visit the island for various activities such as trekking, cycling, picking durians, praying at the Chinese Tua Pek Kong temple or visiting simply to have a nostalgic feel of the ruralness that has long vanished on mainland Singapore.

Activities: PSA Cruises

Where: Clifford Pier, World Trade Centre.

Highlights: Cruise from the WTC is a quick half-hour round the harbour, at $1 for adults and 50 cents for children. Bring a camera to take unusual shots of the city skyline viewed from the sea, the busy port and the container terminal. For a long cruise, go to Clifford Pier – it’s a harbour and southern islands tour, at 9.30am and 3.30pm. The trip is 2-1/2 hours – you visit the harbour, the islands and stop over at Kusu.

Today’s Context: The Singapore Island Cruise and Ferry Services offers the local context of island hopping. At $18, or $15 during the weekends, one can hop onto the ferries from Marina South Pier and explore the tranquil Kusu Islands, St. John’s Island and Lazarus Island in round trips at 10am and 2pm daily (or 9am to 5pm at 2-hour intervals during the weekends).

Activities: Picnicking

Where: Peirce Reservoir (entrance from Old Thomson Road where the Grand Prix used to be held).

Highlights: There are actually two reservoirs – Upper Peirce and Lower Peirce. Head for the Upper where there are toilets. Lots of huge spreading trees near the back for a quiet afternoon picnic. The place is practically deserted so you can have it all to yourself. But remember to get out before dark for the gate closes after 6pm.

Today’s Context: The Marina Barrage, Singapore’s 15th reservoir, is a more popular option today for gatherings, picnics and other activities, such as recreational flying of kites and drones, at its spacious green rooftop. The nearby splendid Singapore skyline provides a treat to the eyes too.

Activities: Free Film Shows

Where: National Museum.

Highlights: Why pay to see cinema shows when the museum has lots of movies – free but on first-come-first-served basis. Wednesdays (June 11, 18 and 25, at 8pm) and Saturdays (June 14, 21, 28, at 10.45pm). Some titles are World Beneath The Sea (June 14), Through The North-West Passage (June 18) and Reef Of Steel (June 28).

Today’s Context: Besides film screenings, the National Museum of Singapore also organises various events such as exhibitions, rhapsodies and family fun activities as its main attractions. Other than the National Museum, one can also drop by the Asian Civilisation Museum, National Gallery Singapore, Singapore Philatelic Museum, Peranakan Museum and Singapore Art Museum, all located within the City Hall district.

Published: 29 July 2019

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The Colonial Charms of Wessex Estate’s Black and White Houses

Even as the rapid development of the one-north biomedical, media and other engineering industries creep towards its doorstep, a walk around Wessex Estate, off Portsdown Road, still makes one feel he has travelled back in time.

Wessex Estate’s clusters of colonial-style black and white houses were mostly built in the 1930s and 1940s. Made up of 26 blocks of walk-up apartments and 58 semi-detached houses, they are concentrated around Woking Road, Westbourne Road, Whitchurch Road, Weyhill Close and Wilton Close, all of which were named after towns and villages in England.

The name Wessex came from an ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom that existed between the 6th and 10th century before England was unified. Coincidentally or intentionally, the names of the estate and roads all started with the letter W.

By the early fifties, there were almost 240 families of British servicemen staying at Wessex Estate, where many of them worked at the nearby military installations at Alexandra and Pasir Panjang.

In the fifties, a primary school was built at Wessex Estate by the British military for the children of their servicemen. In 1955, the use of the school premises was extended as a goodwill to the children of the Malay Other Ranks (MOR). Hence, the school became known as the Pasir Panjang Army Children’s School in the morning, and Wessex Estate Malay School in the afternoon sessions.

In 1967, the British government announced the withdrawal of its troops from Singapore. By late 1971, most of the British military had left Singapore. Wessex Estate, along with other British properties at Chip Bee Gardens, Gillman Estate, Glouchester Park, Rochester Park and Medway Park, were to be handed over to the Singapore government in phases.

By early 1976, the remaining troops, largely made up of the ANZUK (Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom) servicemen, had moved out of Wessex Estate. The Singapore government assigned the Housing and Development Board (HDB) to take over the vacated apartments and houses. The properties were later made available to the public for rental.

For Wessex Estate apartments and houses, the rental fees ranged between $200 and $500. An apartment with three bedrooms cost $200 per month, and $500 for a double-storey three-bedroom semi-detached house. Their monthly rentals would rise to $300 and $550 in the second and subsequent years. In addition, the tenants were charged $30 to $40 for water consumption, and another $3 to $6 for sewage fees.

In 1980, a rental hike of between 30% and 50% saw 100 tenants of Wessex Estate submitted a protest petition to HDB. The hike was delayed but inevitable. In late 1981, another increase in rental fees irked the tenants that many of them decided to move out of the estate.

For decades, the vast lush greenery and the rumbling sound of the passing trains added to the charms of Wessex Estate. But in the early 2000s, the quiet surroundings of Wessex Estate were interrupted as the development of the science hub and business park of Buona Vista and one-north kicked off.

As the surroundings of Wessex Estate was witnessing the rapid changes, the sleepy residential estate itself was slowly coming to life as a new and upcoming artists’ enclave. Art studios and galleries were set up by artists, painters and photographers at the loft spaces converted from the units of Wessex Estate’s black and white houses, adding some cultural touches to the forgotten former colonial buildings.

Within the laid-back neighbourhood of Wessex Estate, one can find an abandoned water tank standing on a small hilltop. The tall concrete tank, equipped with a long vertical rusty ladder, has been relatively unknown to many, but several daring boys have been spotted in their risky attempts to climb to the top of the structure – a stunt that is not advisable and is probably illegal as well.

The more famous landmark of Wessex Estate is the Colbar cafe. Opened in 1953, the Colbar (Colonial Bar in short) was previously located along Jalan Hang Jebat, a short distance away from Wessex Estate, and was extremely popular among the British troops and residents.

In 2003, the restaurant had to be relocated due to the construction of a flyover that links Queensway to the Ayer Rajah Expressway (AYE). The building was carefully dismantled and delivered to Whitchurch Road, the new home of Colbar. The building was then reconstructed to resemble its old appearance. Serving affordable Western food and coffee, the restaurant remains popular among the locals who want to experience a taste of the old colonial times.

Further down Portsdown Avenue is Jalan Hang Jebat (previously, it was situated off Portsdown Road before Portsdown Avenue was built), where rows of colonial terraces stand. Like Wessex Estate’s black and white houses, the colonial terraces were designed with the consideration of Singapore’s hot climate. With features such as high pitched roofs, verandas and rattan blinds, the interiors of the houses are able to maintain a reasonable cool temperature even during a hot day.

Jalan Hang Jebat’s colonial terraces were built by the British in the 1930s. They were used as the accommodation for the British junior ranking officers, whereas the senior officers stayed at Wessex Estate’s semi-detached houses.

Elsewhere in Singapore, clusters of colonial residential houses formerly built by the British can be found at Sembawang, Seletar, Rochester, Dempsey and Changi. Today, the black and white houses of Wessex Estate are currently managed by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC), and available for lease to one-north’s working population and residents.

An afternoon stroll at the charming Wessex Estate:

Published: 18 July 2019

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