Goodbye to the Iconic Landmarks of Shaw Tower and Liang Court

The downtown area saw a couple of changes this year with the demolition and redevelopment of long-time landmarks in Shaw Tower (also known as Shaw Towers) and Liang Court.

Shortly after Singapore’s independence, particularly in the seventies, it was an era of rapid development. Dozens of new multi-million buildings and skyscrapers were springing up at the downtown and city areas, including the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS) building, United Industrial Corporation (UIC) building, Robina House, Shenton House, Shing Kuang House (at Shenton Way), Hong Leong Building, Central Provident Fund (CPF) building (at Robinson Road), United Overseas Bank (UOB) building (at Raffles Place), Chung Khiaw Bank building (at Cecil Street), Straits Trading building, Cecil House (at Battery Road), Peace Centre (at Selegie Road) and Textile Centre (at Jalan Sultan).

One set of buildings particularly caught the eye due to their daring Brutalist architectural designs. Built between the early and mid-seventies, they were the Golden Mile Complex, People’s Park Complex and Shaw Tower.

Upon its completion in 1975 at a cost of $36 million, Shaw Tower was one of the tallest buildings in Singapore, standing at 36 storeys and 134m tall. The record was short-lived though, as it was broken a year later with the completion of the 198m-tall OCBC Centre.

Owned by the Shaw Organisation, Shaw Tower became a well-known landmark at the junction of Beach Road and Middle Road with its waffle-like appearance. After the nineties, with the rise of internet, its appearance reminded people of a block of ethernet ports.

But just two years after its completion, the Business Times reported that Shaw Organisation was looking to sell Shaw Tower for $60 million. The Capitol Building, another property owned by the organisation, was also put up for sale but without success.

Shaw Tower consisted of a double-storey podium made up of 242 units for shops, coffee houses and restaurants. It also housed two popular cinemas – Jade and Prince Theatres – which were located on different levels and at the opposite ends of the building.

The 1,952-seat Prince Theatre – its original name was Pearl Theatre – had the largest cinema hall in Singapore. It mainly screened popular movies, whereas the smaller 844-seat Jade Theatre was used for the release of new movies. In 1976, the newly-opened Prince Theatre screened Jaws, one of the biggest US blockbuster movies during that time. It raked in a record $940,000 in just 74 days.

Both Jade and Prince Theatres enjoyed their best periods in the eighties, with almost 9,000 patrons visiting both cinemas each day. However, by the late eighties, the cinemas began to lose their popularity. Hence, in 1988, in order to give the cinema-goers a wider choice of movies and also to prevent the large cinema halls from having too many empty seats, both Jade and Prince Theatres were split into two smaller cinemas, called Jade 1 and 2, and Prince 1 and 2.

But stiff competition from emerging new cinemas in the nineties continued to chip away the businesses of Jade and Prince Theatres. After having their ownership changed several times, Prince Theatre was eventually shut down in 2008 and was leased out to churches for holding religious events. Jade Theatre, on the other hand, was acquired by Indian cinema chain Carnival Cinemas in 2017.

In 2018, the tenants of Shaw Tower were alerted of the building’s redevelopment plan. By mid-2020, most of the tenants had moved out, and the 45-year-old landmark began its demolition process. A new Shaw Tower, 35-storey and 200m tall, is expected to be erected at the original site by 2024.

Another downtown’s landmark that was recently demolished was Liang Court at Clarke Quay. Opened in 1984, the complex with the iconic brownish twin towers by the Singapore River were a mixture of hotels, service apartments, offices, department stores, supermarkets, restaurants and lifestyle shops.

Catering largely to Japanese expatriates and the Japanese community in Singapore, there had been numerous Japanese shops and restaurants at Liang Court over the years, including the likes of Kinokuniya and Meidi-ya. But Liang Court’s first anchor tenant was the immensely popular Japanese department store and supermarket Daimaru, which was opened two months prior to the complex’s official opening.

Towering over the mall were the 25-storey twin towers used as hotel and service apartments, called Hotel New Otani and Liang Court Regency respectively.

Entering the millennium, with many other shopping and mixed complexes established in Singapore, Liang Court was increasingly facing competition and pressure. Hotel New Otani was then sold and became Accor Hotels (later renamed Novotel Singapore Clarke Quay), whereas Liang Court Regency became known as Somerset Liang Court Singapore. The mall also changed ownership several times, in 1999, 2006 and 2019. Daimaru could not survive, closing down in 2003 and exiting the Singapore market.

Long-time tenant Kinokuniya eventually closed in 2019, while the rest of Liang Court’s tenants – shops, hotel and service apartments – ceased their operations by April 2020. The entire Liang Court complex was torn down in July 2021, making way for a new development called Canninghill Piers, a residential-and-commercial complex expected to be ready by 2024.

Published: 23 July 2021

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Remnants of Singapore’s Lost Roads – Boh Sua Tian Road

Along Yio Chu Kang Road once existed a Boh Sua Tian Road that extended into the rural parts of Seletar. The road was named after the nearby wireless station, which was formerly owned by the Royal Air Force (RAF) Seletar in the fifties and sixties. The name boh sua tian (无线电) means wireless in Hokkien and Teochew.

A Yio Chu Kang Village, also known as Kampong Boh Sua Tian, once existed at Yio Chu Kang Road 10th milestone (near the junction of Yio Chu Kang Road and Boh Sua Tian Road) as early as the 1930s. The large village, having a postal code of 28, was a bustling and self-sufficient one made up of hundreds of residents, attap and wooden houses, provision shops, vegetable and pig farms, durian orchards and fish ponds.

At the other end of Boh Sua Tian Road was another kampong called Kampong Pengkalan Petai, a Malay village that was located along Sungei Seletar (developed into Lower Seletar Reservoir in the late eighties).

In 1958, the Singapore Auxiliary Fire Services held its first fire-fighting course at Kampong Boh Sua Tian. The aim was to teach the residents of the safety measures such as fire prevention, as well as the methods of using fire extinguishers, water and sand buckets to fight fires. The course was also launched at other villages at Sembawang, Changi, Jurong, Bukit Panjang and Pasir Panjang.

A People’s Action Party (PAP) branch, named the Jalan Kayu-Boh Sua Tian Sub-branch, was opened in 1966 to serve the communities living between Boh Sua Tian Road and Jalan Kayu.

Boh Sua Tian Road was further developed in the seventies. It became longer and was branched off to other roads – mostly dirt tracks – named Lorong Gemilap, Lorong Anchak, Lorong Jirak, Lorong Andong, Lorong Selangin and Lorong Hablor.

At its peak, Boh Sua Tian Road was home to numerous community centres, temples and schools, such as Sin Cheng Chinese School and Kong Hwa Chinese School. A Seletar Sewage Treatment Works was also installed at the junction of Boh Sua Tian Road and Lorong Andong in the seventies.

Like many other villages in Singapore, Kampong Boh Sua Tian also faced various issues such as poorly maintained roads, defective street lights, illegally dumped rubbish, clogged drains as well as gang fights and harassments. The history of the village eventually came to an end with the development of the Central Expressway (CTE). With the lands of their home acquired by the government, many of the residents, by the early eighties, had moved to nearby flats at Seletar Hills and Ang Mo Kio. Lorong Gemilap, the access road to the village, was expunged in 1988.

yio chu kang village house 1980s

In 1984, the expansion project for the Lower Seletar Reservoir resulted in many trucks and heavy vehicles taking their daily routes via Boh Sua Tian Road. Due to the intensive usage of the road, Boh Sua Tian Road was filled with potholes, causing inconvenience to the remaining residents still living in the vicinity.

The first phase of the massive CTE project (between Yio Chu Kang Road and Bukit Timah Road) was completed in 1989, after which the development of the expressway was continued to be linked to the Seletar Expressway (SLE) and Tampines Expressway (TPE). In 1990, the direct link between SLE and CTE was officially opened for traffic.

Boh Sua Tian Road remained accessible in the early nineties, with an underpass constructed at the slip roads to the expressway. But by 1995, the road and its accompanying network of minor roads and tracks were closed to vehicular access and erased from the official maps. Their locations are now occupied by the interchange between the three expressways (CTE, SLE and TPE).

Today, a short remnant stretch of Boh Sua Tian Road (and the underpass) still exists, albeit forgotten over the years, under the slip roads (from Yio Chu Kang Road to CTE) and Yio Chu Kang Flyover.

Published: 30 June 2021

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Landmarks of Yesteryears – Times House at Kim Seng Road

Located at the junction of Kim Seng Road and River Valley Road, Times House was the home for Singapore’s English newspaper The Straits Times for more than four decades.

The Straits Times was one of the oldest newspapers in Singapore (after Singapore Chronicles and The Singapore Free Press), with its origin went back to the mid-19th century. Catchick Moses collaborated with English journalist Robert Carr Woods (1816-1875) to launch The Straits Times, where Robert Woods also served as the newspapers’ first editor. This history of Catchick Moses, an Armenian-speaking merchant, founding the English-medium newspaper, however, has been disputed by historians.

Consisted of eight folio pages, The Straits Times was launched on 15 July 1845 on a weekly basis, with copies printed from its office at the Commercial Square (Raffles Place today). Catchick Moses withdrew from the business a year later in 1846, but the printing and circulation of the newspapers would continue. In 1903, the operations of the company were shifted to another premises at Cecil Street. But this office was taken over and occupied by the Japanese during the occupation, who would launch their own newspapers called The Shonan Times.

Shortly after the war, The Straits Times resumed its publication on 7 September 1945. The company grew rapidly and acquired offices at Anson Road but it would still be insufficient for the expanded operations of its printing business. Finally, on 3 April 1958, The Straits Times called a new home at the Times House, an iconic landmark at Kim Seng Road for more than 40 years.

The site was purchased at a cost of $420,000, and a further $1m was invested to make Times House a fully airconditioned news complex designed by architectural firm Swan & Maclaren. Made up of Front and Press Blocks, Times House was equipped with a modern Crabtree Presses, a huge 6m-tall 114-tonne printing press that could churn out 40,000 copies of newspapers every hour. In the seventies and eighties, Times House was further renovated and added a Circulation Block to accommodate the growing operations.

But Times House could only largely functioned as a branch office after its completion, as the headquarters of The Straits Times was relocated to Kuala Lumpur following the independence of the Federation of Malaya in 1957.

The separation of Singapore and Malaysia in 1965, however, saw the company restructured into Straits Times Press (Singapore) and New Straits Times (Malaysia). With the incorporation of The Straits Times Press Ltd in 1975, the company moved back to Times House as its main office.

At least three major strikes occurred at Times House between 1966 and 1971, involving hundreds of printing workers, clerical staff and journalists over employee benefits and bonuses. The strikes, often lasting five days to two weeks, disrupted the operations and stopped the circulation of the newspapers. Previously, in 1954, there was also the Straits Times strike that occurred at the former Anson Road office, where 300 employees protested against unfair treatment and poor salaries.

In November 1984, The Straits Times Press was merged with Times Publishing, Singapore News and Publications and Singapore Newspaper Services to form the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), whose headquarters was established at its News Centre at Genting Lane. In the subsequent decades, SPH grew and diversified its business from printed newspapers to magazines, radio stations, TV channels, digital media, event management and properties.

After another massive renovation in the late eighties, Times House was converted into the editorial office and corporate headquarters of SPH, whereas the printing facilities were shifted to its Jurong print centre. The last copies of The Straits Times were printed at Times House on 5 June 1989.

SPH moved its headquarters to a new $40m complex at Toa Payoh North in 2002, bringing down the curtains at Times House after 44 years. Its site was subsequently sold a year later to Marco Polo Developments (Wharf Estates Singapore today) for almost $120 million, which went on to demolish Times House in 2004 and build The Cosmopolitan condominium in 2008.

Published: 15 June 2021

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The Forgotten Former Schools at Parry Avenue

Parry Avenue came into existence after the war but its surrounding areas were still largely undeveloped in the early fifties. The Singapore Rural Board, in 1949, prohibited pig rearing activities near Parry Avenue as it was developed as a residential area.

After the mid-fifties, a network of minor roads was constructed, branching off the main Yio Chu Kang Road. Back then, a section of Chuan Hoe Avenue was called Japanese Cemetery Road, named after the cemetery in the vicinity. Parry Avenue was further extended in the sixties.

Parry Avenue Boys’ and Girls’ Schools, and Parry Government Chinese Middle School

By the late fifties, numerous new primary schools were established by the Ministry of Education (MOE) to provide primary education for the growing population born after the war.

At Parry Avenue were three new primary schools – Parry Avenue Boys’ School, Parry Avenue Girls’ School, and the Chinese-stream Parry Government Chinese Primary School (also known as Parry Government Chinese School, Parry Chinese School or Parry Government Chinese Middle School). They were catered to provide educational needs to the population living at Jalan Hwi Yoh, Yio Chu Kang Road, Upper Serangoon Road, Seletar Hills and Jalan Kayu.

The national level of primary education remained low in the fifties. In 1958, the Education Ministry announced on the newspapers to request parents to seek admission for their children to the published list of government schools with vacancies. Parry Avenue Boys’ and Girls’ Schools were two of the schools with many vacancies. Both schools were also affiliated. It meant that the sibling of a student at Parry Avenue Boys’ School could claim affiliation and register to study at Parry Avenue Girls’ School, and vice versa.

The Parry Avenue Boys’ School and Girls’ School were also among the first selected English-stream primary schools in the sixties to provide Tamil classes to the Tamil students. Tamil as the second language was continued to be offered at both schools till the eighties. The other second languages were Chinese and Malay.

Both Parry Avenue Boys’ and Girls’ Schools were excellent in track and field, competing regularly in the Serangoon District Singapore Combined Primary School Sports in the sixties and had won medals in the relays, hurdles and high jumps. Its large field was often selected as the hosting venue of annual athletic meets.

Both schools also won certificates of merit, along with 10 other schools, in 1968 in an inter-school cleanliness competition organised by the Singapore Tourist Association (STA), where a total of 517 schools in Singapore participated.

In 1980, Parry Avenue Girls’ School was part of the 12-school choir at the Singapore Festival of Choirs held at Victoria Theatre, where they presented to the audience a range of songs made up of both Asian and Western folk melodies, such as Sarinande, Di-Tanjong Tanjong, Hallelujah Chorus, Holla Hi Holla Ho and Tiratomba. Towards the end of the performance, the 20 best singers from the 12 schools also combined to sing “Let there be peace on Earth” and “Harmony”.

Parry Primary School

The boys’ and girls’ schools of Parry Avenue and Parry Government Chinese Middle School were merged in 1981 to become Parry Primary School.

In the same year, the new Parry Primary School was selected, along with Broadrick Primary School and three secondary schools (Anglican High, Chinese High and Nanyang Girls’ High), to be part of a pilot project for full-day school.

This meant that the schools would operate on a five-day week from 730am to 230pm (for lower primary), 730am to 310pm (for upper primary) and 730am to 320pm (for secondary). The students would then carry out their extra-curricular activities (ECA) for an hour after their classes. Saturdays would be left entirely free.

The Ministry of Education hoped that this scheme would keep the students in school under the guidance of their teachers. On the other hand, they would be able to have more time with their families during the weekends.

However, many teachers began to seek transfer out of Parry and Broadrick Primary Schools. Teaching in a full-day school meant they would spend lesser time with their families. This was because many teachers were mothers themselves. The students were also observed to be restless, tired or sleepy by the afternoons.

Hence, by December 1983, the Education Ministry decided to switch the pilot project’s full-day schools back to the half-day, double-session mode.

In 1983, Parry Primary School was the first non-mission school in Singapore to start a Boys’ Brigade as ECA for its students.

In 2007, Parry Primary School, due to dwindling student enrollment, was merged with Xinghua Primary School at Hougang Avenue 1. Xinghua Primary School has a long history dated back to 1930 when it was founded as Sing Hua School at Lim Tua Tow Road. It was relocated to Hougang and renamed as Xinghua in 1984. In 2000, Xinghua Primary School had a brief temporary relocation to Parry Avenue. Another school, Charlton Primary School at Aroozoo Avenue, was also merged with Xinghua Primary School in 2003.

Parry Secondary School

The fourth school at Parry Avenue was Parry Secondary School. It was established in 1967 (but was officially opened on 3 July 1968 by Sia Kah Hui, then-Parliamentary Secretary to the Labour Minister).

Parry Secondary School was opened at the same period with two other new government secondary schools in Singapore – Toh Tuck Secondary School at Toh Tuck Road and Changkat Changi Secondary School at Jalan Tiga Ratus, off Changi Road.

Between the late sixties and the early seventies, when the National Service was still at its infancy, due to a lack of training centres, Parry Secondary School was utilised to provide basic police training course for the Vigilante Corps.

Parry Secondary School proved itself as a contender in badminton, regularly participating in the Serangoon district badminton championships against other secondary schools. Its students also took part in inter-secondary school track and field events, such as high jumps, as well as football competitions. The secondary school shared the large field with its neighbouring primary schools.

Parry Secondary School’s Art Society and Home Economics Club made the headlines in 1978 when they held a “Art and the Home” exhibition at the Toa Payoh Library, showcasing their elegant and practical design works in home accessories. They would later take part in another art exhibition in 1980 at the National Museum Young People’s Gallery.

The premises of Parry Secondary School was used several times for Singapore’s General Elections. In the 1972 election, it was one of the 10 nomination and votes-counting centres. The electoral division it represented was made up of Jalan Kayu, Nee Soon, Punggol, Sembawang, Serangoon Gardens and Upper Serangoon. It was subsequently used again as a nomination and polling centre in the 1976, 1980 and 1984 elections.

The Education Ministry introduced in 1972 the “instant school” scheme to Parry Secondary School and three other secondary schools (Monk’s Hill Secondary School, Rangoon Road Secondary School and Chai Chee Secondary School). It was due to an unexpected surge in the number of primary school students passing the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). In 1971, 47,000 or 53% of the students passed PSLE. The number increased to 53,000 or 62% a year later.

To accommodate the additional 6,000 students, the four secondary schools had to hold additional classes at their respective primary schools – Parry Secondary School/Parry Government Chinese Primary School, Monk’s Hill Secondary School/Bukit Tunggal Malay School, Rangoon Road Secondary School/Joo Avenue Primary School and Chai Chee Secondary School/Siglap Malay School.

The new secondary one students would take their English, second languages and mathematics classes at the primary school premises, while making the trips back to their secondary schools’ labs and workshops for the science and technical lessons.

This issue was gradually eased after Singapore built more secondary schools in the seventies.

In 1976, Parry Secondary School celebrated its 10-year anniversary, attended by guest-of-honour Sia Kah Hui, the former Minister of State (Labour).

The eighties saw a significant population shift to the new towns. Also, due to dwindling student enrollment, in 1984, Parry Secondary School and Hwi Yoh Secondary School were merged to form Peicai Secondary School. The new secondary school’s name, picked by the Education Ministry, aimed to reflect the histories of the two merged schools – Parry was “Pei Li” in Chinese, and Hwi Yoh was “Xi Cai”. Hence, the two names combined to form “Pei Cai” which means “nurture of talents”.

The new Peicai Secondary School was established in 1984 at the former premises of Hwi Yoh Secondary School, whereas Parry Secondary School officially walked into history. The campus of Parry Secondary School was then taken over by Rosyth School, which was located along the nearby Rosyth Road.

Established in 1956, Rosyth School became one of Singapore’s four primary schools to host the Gifted Education Program in the mid-eighties. Due to this, its old school buildings at Rosyth road were unable to accommodate the rising number of students. At Parry Avenue, Rosyth School operated for 17 years before it shifted again to Serangoon North Avenue 4 in 2001.

The former Parry schools were no longer in operation, but their premises at Parry Avenue still exist. The school buildings are currently left vacant, while the large school field is occasionally used by the nearby residents for dog walking.

Published: 18 May 2021

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A Brief Past of Ridout Tea Garden and its Popular McDonald’s

The popular McDonald’s outlet at Ridout Tea Garden may be closing this end of 2021. Many Singaporeans expressed a pity when the news was released not long ago, as this unique McDonald’s with a picturesque setting has become a prominent landmark in the vicinity since 1989.

The Ridout Tea Garden’s history began even earlier as Queenstown Japanese Garden. It was 1970 when a small Japanese garden was first built at its current location. A typical Japanese-style garden or park was not new in Singapore. Alkaff Lake Gardens was built by the wealthy Alkaff family in the 1920s as the first Japanese garden in Singapore. It lasted until 1949 when it was sold, with the site redeveloped over the years to become Sennett Estate. A larger and better known Japanese Garden was created at Jurong in the late sixties and officially opened in 1973.

Queenstown Japanese Garden became a popular leisure venue for the nearby residents, with occasional events such as photographic competitions organised by the Queenstown Community Centre. It also consisted of 23 shops that sold a wide variety of consumer products such as furniture, sports equipment, clothes, electronic goods as well as food and beverages. One eatery, called Queen’s Garden Restaurant, offered both Western and Chinese cuisines.

The Queenstown Japanese Garden, however, was destroyed in a fire in June 1978. Almost all the shops had gone up in smokes, resulting in an estimated total cost of $1 million in damages. Only the electronic goods shop, stocked with $200,000 worth of equipment at the time of the disaster, was fortunately spared. It, however, could not survive for long as much of the garden was in ruins. With the crowds gone, the shop was the last to move out of the garden.

In 1980, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) decided to rebuild the area with another garden. $500,000 was pumped into the project, which aimed to construct another park with the popular Japanese vibe. The building – formerly occupied by the shop spared from the fire disaster – was reworked and converted into a new single-storey tea house designed with a double-slope roof and installed with wooden and plexiglass sliding doors. A pond with beautifully landscaped gardens, footpaths and bridges was also created.

Unlike the former Queenstown Japanese Garden, there would be no shops for the new garden. Instead it was to be leased out to private operators as two unique eating places that could accommodate about 300 customers.

Named Ridout Tea Garden, after the nearby Ridout Road, the change of name signified the birth of a brand new place of interest as well as to avoid confusion with the Japanese Garden at Jurong. The name origin of Ridout Road came from Major General Sir Dudley Ridout (1866-1941), the British commanding officer of the Malaya Command in the 1910s and 1920s.

When it was opened in 1980, the concept of Ridout Tea Garden was well-received but the crowds commonly seen at the former Queenstown Japanese Garden were absent, likely due to the lack of shopping amenities. There were some snack kiosks but it was a stark contrast compared to its popular past in the seventies.

Hence, in 1981, Kentucky Fried Chicken was invited to set up an outlet at Ridout Tea Garden, where the authority hoped that the popular fast food could attract the crowds to return.

In 1983, Ridout Tea Garden was one of the several filming locations for the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation’s (SBC) six-episode Army Series drama, which told the stories of eight young men enlisted in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

McDonald’s eventually replaced Kentucky Fried Chicken at Ridout Tea Garden in 1989, and, after going strong for 32 years, is currently one of Singapore’s oldest McDonald’s outlets, after the closure of the other decades-old outlets at Marine Cove and King Albert Park in 2012 and 2014 respectively. Today, the oldest McDonald’s restaurant in Singapore is the one at People Park’s Complex, which opened since 1979.

Ridout Tea Garden’s McDonald’s shares the premises with two other tenants – a Thai restaurant named Bobo (but was closed in 2020) and Far East Flora, a plant nursery.

To many, when it eventually closes, this unique McDonald’s will be a place made up of many fond memories. A common place where students spent hours doing their homework. Where early office-goers grabbed their breakfasts. And where friends met for suppers. Also not forgetting the football fans who crowded here to cheer for their teams during the late night live telecast of the World Cup matches in 2010.

Published: 5 May 2021

Updated: 28 June 2021

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Singapore’s Heritage Tree Series – Broad-Leafed Mahogany

Launched on 17 August 2001, the Heritage Tree Scheme advocates the conservation of the old mature trees in Singapore that have beautified the country’s landscapes and served as green landmarks for decades. Open to the public, anyone can nominate trees to be considered as heritage trees, as long as the trees have a girth (trunk circumference) of more than 5m and have perceived values in botanical, social, historical, cultural and aesthetical aspects.

Till date, a total of 263 trees in Singapore have been given the heritage tree status by the National Parks Board (NParks). One of the heritage trees is the broad-leafed mahogany (scientific name: swietenia macrophylla).

Introduced to Malaya and Singapore from Central and South America in 1876, the broad-leafed mahogany, a native from Honduras, has been a popular roadside tree. It possesses a dense crown of dark glossy leaves, and can grow up to 30m tall. Its small flowers are greenish-yellow in colour and have a faint scent. The fruits are large brown woody pods of about 10 to 15cm long. When ripe, they split open to release dozens of flat winged seeds.

The broad-leafed mahogany’s densely-grained timber is highly valued for the manufacturing of furniture, panelling and musical instruments. Its fruits are also sometimes used as native medicine for diabetes treatment.

A total of nine broad-leafed mahoganies with heritage tree status can be found at Seletar Airport (five), Tanglin (one) and Sentosa (three). The ones at Seletar were planted when the Seletar West Camp was developed in the 1930s. While they had probably provided the shade along the passageway for the British servicemen in the past, they are now the shade trees at the Singapore Youth Flying Club premises. The Seletar broad-leafed mahoganies were endorsed as one of Singapore’s heritage trees in 2003.

Besides the broad-leafed mahogany, there are also the African mahogany (scientific name: khaya nyasica; introduced to Singapore in the late seventies) and West Indices mahogany (scientific name: swietenia mahogani) trees in Singapore.

Published: 21 April 2021

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A Forgotten Past – The Noah’s Ark of Pasir Panjang

Once located at Pasir Panjang Road 7¼ milestone (formal address was 189 West Coast Road), the zoo, dubbed as the Noah’s Ark of Pasir Panjang, was opened during the Chinese New Year period in 1957 by Tong Seng Mun (born 1920), a wildlife dealer and owner of Chop Wah On, Singapore’s oldest medical oil company located at Pagoda Street. Chop Wah Oh was established by Tong Chee Leong, Tong Seng Mun’s father, in 1916.

After his studies, Tong Seng Mun worked at Singapore’s police department. In 1942, he quitted his job to inherit his father’s medical oil company. A dealer and avid collector of wild animals, he even kept a tiger cub named Margaret at Chop Wah Oh, which led to a humorous incident in the sixties. Tong Seng Mun would later realise his dreams of his own zoo opened at Pasir Panjang in the fifties.

Occupying a size of 2 hectares (20,000 square metres), the Pasir Panjang zoo, facing the sea, was named Singapore Miniature Zoo and housed many large animals such as sun bears, lions, panthers, camels, tapirs, penguins, orangutans, birds of paradise and 50 tanks of tropical fish. It even had a baby rhinoceros and a baby elephant.

A 90kg sea lion was specially imported from Holland in 1956 for the zoo. Costing a grand $3,000, the sea lion was also featured at Singapore Aquarists Society’s fish exhibition held at the Happy World stadium.

The Singapore Miniature Zoo was opened daily from 9am to 7pm, and charged admission fees of 50c and 20c for adults and children respectively. In 1958, more than a year after the zoo was opened, it was almost forced to close down due to debts. With his pet shop business in England running into issues, Tong Seng Mun incurred a $3,500 debt that nearly saw his zoo’s animals auctioned off for repayments. Tong Seng Mun eventually managed to settle his debt and continue the Singapore Miniature Zoo.

Tong Seng Mun also faced some pressure from the World League of Animal Lovers International, which deplored the cruel treatment of monkeys being shipped overseas. Many of the animals were often found dead at the end of the long shipments. Tong Seng Mun proposed several points, including veterinary checks, sufficient food, issuing of import and export permits and registration of animal dealers by the government, to improve the wildlife trades.

The Singapore Miniature Zoo operated for nearly 10 years and was a popular attraction along Pasir Panjang until it was eventually closed in the sixties, affected by the new regulations of international wildlife trade.

Before the establishment of the Singapore Zoo at Mandai in 1973, Singapore had several private zoos that were opened to the public. Local Chinese businessman Hoo Ah Kay’s Whampoa Gardens had a menagerie-like collection of animals in the mid-19th century. Between 1875 and 1905, there was a miniature zoo at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, consisted of orangutans, a tiger, leopard, emu and sloth bear.

Indian merchant William Basapa opened a zoo at Punggol in 1928, but it was closed and destroyed during the Second World War. The Tampines zoo, opened in 1954, boasted of various wildlife such as crocodiles, leopards, tapirs, snakes and the large, flightless cassowaries. Another Punggol zoo was started by Chan Kim Suan and his brothers in 1963. It lasted until the early seventies as the last private zoo in Singapore.

When interviewed by the Free Press in 1957, Tong Seng Mun explained that his life ambition was to get the Singapore government interested in establishing a permanent zoological garden for the colony. Although his own zoo was closed in the sixties, he remained passionate in the wildlife.

In the sixties, there were feedbacks from the public and experts regarding a state-run zoo in Singapore. Different views were discussed and debated, such as the zoo’s educational value to the people, whether it would be a boost to the country’s tourism, and the possible high costs of operation and maintenance. Some also opined that caged animals were a cruel act.

The experienced Tong Seng Mun was later engaged as the consultant for Van Kleef Aquarium (1955-1991), Jurong Bird Park (opened in 1971) and the Singapore Zoo (opened in 1973). In 2014, the Tong family donated many digital copies of the former Singapore Miniature Zoo photographs to the National Archives of Singapore.

Published: 12 April 2021

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Searching for the Remaining Old Flood Gauges in Singapore

Located at the junction of Cambridge Road and Carlisle Road, this old one-metre flood gauge serves as a reminder of the frequent floods that occurred in this vicinity especially in the seventies. Such flood gauges were installed at many low-lying areas in Singapore in the past, as a means to record the depths of the waters and the severity of the floods. Not many are left standing today.

Another one can be found along Commonwealth Avenue, near the MRT station, but its wooden frame and markings are in relatively poor conditions as compared to the Cambridge Road one.

In tropical Singapore, rainfall is plentiful and thunderstorms are common. On average, it rains 167 days a year (a rainy day is defined when the total daily rainfall reaches at least 0.2mm), with Novembers and Decembers receiving the largest amount of rainfall. According to the National Environment Agency (NEA), between 1981 and 2020, the annual rainfall in Singapore averaged 2166mm.

The wet climate means that Singapore has always been affected by floods. The particularly bad ones occurred, on records, in 1935, 1954, 1955, 1964, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1974, 1978, 1980, 1984, 1985, 1998, 2000, 2004, 2010, 2011 and 2013. The flooding often caused disruption of services, power failures, traffic congestions, damaged properties, and, in the worst scenarios, loss of lives.

For example, one of the worst floods in Singapore’s history occurred on 11 December 1969, a Hari Raya holiday. Incessant heavy rains led to many parts of Singapore to become severely flooded, with water depths almost at the waist’s level. Electricity and telephone lines were cut, whereas farms were drowned and poultry swept away. There were several deaths, caused by the landslides and fallen trees.

The government launched Operation Rehabilitation, made up of food distributions, rent subsidies and other aids to the affected residents and farmers to help them resume their lives and work back to normal. Major clean-ups were also carried out to remove piles of debris accumulated during the floods.

Another flood disaster happened on the early morning of 7 September 1974. Three hours of torrential rain led to a 38mm accumulation of rainfall, recorded by the Paya Lebar meteorological station.

The low-lying Jalan Besar and Rochor areas were hit badly – at one stage, the floods there were almost 2 feet (61cm) deep. Many houses at Cambridge Road, Geylang Serai and Bukit Timah were flooded, forcing their residents to move out temporarily. Hundreds of cars at the downtown and city areas were stranded, with huge traffic jams reported during the morning peak hours.

In December 1978, thunderstorms again caused disastrous flooding at the areas from Bishan to Potong Pasir. This time, the floods claimed seven lives, thousands of pigs and poultry and destroyed large areas of farms and crops.

Since the early seventies, almost $2 billion had been invested to improve Singapore’s drainage infrastructure. A drainage master plan was drawn in the mid-seventies by the Ministry of Environment. Major diversion canals were constructed. A large canal, for instance, was constructed at Ulu Pandan in 1970 as part of the anti-flood scheme. New towns and housing estates developed in the seventies were also designed with better drainage networks. By the late eighties, things had significantly improved.

Further enhancements were carried out after 2000. The Marina Barrage, opened in 2008, is equipped with pumps to flush out the water into the sea during thunderstorms. In many of newer buildings, detention tanks and retention ponds were also installed to slow down the flow of water, hence preventing the overloading of the drainage network within a short period of time.

The Public Utility Board (PUB) has also installed water level sensors and CCTVs at numerous canals and drains, providing the public with quick updates of possible flash floods. Today, flash floods still occur due to sudden surge of rainfalls, but the waters tend to subside quickly. These new advanced devices are a stark contrast as compared to the old flood gauges that were once found in the different parts of Singapore.

Published: 28 March 2021

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Exploring the Remnants of Kay Siang Bunkers

The Kay Siang Bunkers have been hidden in the small forested area between Kay Siang Road and Margaret Road for decades. Probably built in the 1940s by the British as storage places for ammunition and other supplies, there are a total of three bunkers, designed with double doors for reinforced protection against impacts and bombings. These bunkers might be supporting facilities for the nearby Buller Camp at Alexandra Road, a former British military camp in this vicinity.

The Alexandra Road area was heavily damaged during the Second World War when the British’s Normanton oil depot was set on fire in an attempt to stop the Japanese from advancing.

The desperate bet failed as the thick smoke engulfed the nearby villages instead. When the enemies took over the place, they brutally massacred the remaining residents in the villages. It was unknown whether or how the bunkers served their purposes during the war. After the war, the Kay Siang bunkers were presumably forgotten and gradually consumed by nature.

In the early fifties, Buller Camp, along with the villages, farms, cemeteries and swamps in the vicinity, was demolished and cleared by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) for the development of a new Queenstown housing estate. Margaret Drive was constructed as the main road for the new Princess Estate. Despite the development, the Kay Siang Bunkers remained undisturbed.

The surrounding area around the bunkers saw some changes over the decades. Several schools, such as Hua Yi Government Chinese Middle School, Tanglin Girls’ School, Strathmore School and Kay Siang School, emerged around the bunkers and its forested home in the late fifties and sixties. Some students of these schools might have discovered and explored the bunkers.

Townsville Institute was established in the late eighties, occupying the former site of Hua Yi Government Chinese Middle School. It had a stadium built just a stone away from the bunkers.

The campus later became the headquarters for the Movement For The Intellectually Disabled. By the late 2000s, the premises, except the stadium, were torn down. A new Housing and Development Board (HDB) cluster of flats named Skyparc was developed.

On the opposite side of Kay Siang Road are some of the pre-war colonial houses, built and used by the British likely in the 1930s. Most of the houses have been used as exclusive private residences today.

Note: Interested explorers of Kay Siang Bunkers need to watch out for safety as the decades-old buildings, especially the remaining façade of the first bunker, may be structurally unstable.

Published: 10 March 2021

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Emerald Hill – A Gem at Orchard

The beautiful Emerald Hill area today was originally a jungle when the British first arrived at Singapore. The trees were cleared between 1819 and 1836 to provide fuel for the boiling of gambier leaves. After decades of exploitation, Emerald Hill became a barren wasteland, and was leased in 1837 to William Cuppage (1807-1872), who was originally a postal clerk in Singapore in the early 1830s and had worked his way up to become the Acting Postmaster-General in 1856.

In 1845, William Cuppage was granted the permanent ownership of Emerald Hill, where he planted vast nutmeg plantations and built two villas for himself called Erin Lodge and Fern Cottage. The nutmegs, however, failed in the 1860s due to diseases and falling prices.

When Cuppage died in 1872, he left the plantations to his three daughters. One of Cuppage’s son-in-law Edwin Koek, a lawyer and Municipal Commissioner, purchased the estate. Both Cuppage Road and Koek Road were named after William Cuppage and Edwin Koek respectively.

In the following decades, Emerald Hill had changed ownership several times. In 1900, the estate was purchased by local Chinese businessmen Seah Boon Kang and Seah Eng Kiat, who then carved up the land into smaller lots and sold them to individual owners who built the first terrace houses and shophouses at Emerald Hill. Many of these early terrace houses of Emerald Hill were designed in Georgian and Regency styles, with added touches of Chinese Baroque elements especially in their façades, wall ornaments and ceramic floor tiles.

The Emerald Hill of the early 20th century soon became a residential enclave for the wealthy local Chinese and Peranakan businessmen and their families. During this period, a typical Emerald Hill terrace house would cost about $3,000. It was a bustling place then, where many rickshaws and horse drawn carriages plied the roads.

The Orchard Road Market, situated between Cuppage Road and Koek Road, was the go-to place for the Emerald Hill residents to get their fresh produce and groceries. There was also the Singapore Cold Storage that catered mainly to the European residents living in the Orchard area. Opening in 1905 at the site of present-day Centrepoint, it was Singapore’s first supermarket.

A railway bridge also once existed near Emerald Hill. Known as the Orchard Road Railway Bridge, it was part of the railway system between Tank Road and Woodlands Jetty. In 1932, the Tank Road Station and Orchard Road Railway Bridge were subsequently demolished after the railway line was diverted to the Keppel Road Station.

The increasingly crowded Emerald Hill saw more street hawkers moving into the area to sell food and other stuff. The poor hygienic conditions of the hawkers and street eventually led to a typhoid outbreak in 1934, affecting as many as 11 adults and 13 school children, some of whom died.

In 1921, the Municipal Commission agreed to convert Emerald Hill Road into a public street. Six years later, Hullet Road, a short street connecting Emerald Hill Road to Cairnhill Road, was properly paved and also declared a public street. In 1937, Cairnhill Road was extended at its northern end to link up with Emerald Hill Road. The road extension was named Cairnhill Circle.

To the local residents, Emerald Hill Road was fondly known as tang leng tiam yia yee hang (“Tanglin Cinema Street” in Teochew). The cinema referred to the Pavilion Theatre (previously known as Palladium Theatre) that operated between 1914 and 1971 near Emerald Road Hill. The location of the cinema today is occupied by Orchard Gateway.

In 1925, the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School moved from Hill Street to the Orchard area, where its new $65,000 campus was located in the parcel of land bounded by Orchard Road, Emerald Hill Road, Cairnhill Road and Hullet Road.

The Singapore Chinese Girls’ School was founded in 1899 as an all-girls Peranakan school. To support its relocation plan, Dr Lim Boon Keng, one of the co-founders of the school, agreed to sell his parcel of land at Orchard to the government, which subsequently exchanged it with the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School’s Hill Street premises.

The Singapore Chinese Girls’ School stayed at the Emerald Hill area until 1994 when it moved to Dunearn Road. Its old school campus was then taken over by Chatsworth International School in 1998.

The Second World War impacted Emerald Hill just like any other places in Singapore. After the war, the wealthy Straits Chinese’s exclusive residential enclave had lost its upper class shine; the terrace houses and shophouses had become dilapidated and some were left vacant. Robberies and house break-ins were rampant at Emerald Hill in the fifties.

During the post-war period in the late 1940s, supplies of the basic necessities were extremely tight. In 1946, hundreds had to queue along Emerald Hill Road to get their milk at the Singapore Cold Storage, where the controlled quota was fixed at nine tins of condensed milk per person.

Some of the more prominent former residents of Emerald Hill Road were former Municipal Commissioners Seow Poh Leng and Chin Chye Fong (1892-1965). There were also Heng Pang Kiat, a Justice of Peace, and Chan Sze Jin (1886-1948), a Straits-born Chinese lawyer and member of Executive and Legislative Councils. More than 500 people attended Chan Sze Jin’s funeral when the procession left his Emerald Hill Road house on 27 September 1948.

The Tai Suah Ting cemetery at the Orchard area was exhumed and cleared in the mid-fifties. Orchard, due to its excellent location and close proximity from the city area, gradually became a bustling place, with C.K. Tang Department Store opening in 1958. Supermarkets, malls and hotels began filling up Orchard from the sixties to the eighties. Despite the rapid pace of development, Emerald Hill remained a hidden and quiet sanctuary from the increasing busy main streets.

In 1982, the century-old Orchard Road Market was demolished to make way for the further development of Orchard Road into a shopping belt. Peranakan Corner, at the junction between Emerald Hill Road and Orchard Road, was renamed Peranakan Place and was leased out by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to a private entity for the promotion of Peranakan culture to both locals and tourists.

In 1985, URA announced the plan of an Emerald Hill Conservation Area to be established at a cost of $2.2 million, inclusive of the restoration cost for some of the terrace houses.

In the late eighties, a section of Emerald Hill Road, the short stretch that led to its junction with Orchard Road, was pedestrianised and closed off to vehicular traffic. Likewise, part of the neighbouring Cuppage Road was also converted into a pedestrian walkway.

The Emerald Hill area was officially gazetted for conservation by URA on 7 July 1989, together with Peranakan Place and Cuppage Terrace. Most of Emerald Hill’s terrace houses were designated for private residential usage, except for a few that were granted for commercial purposes.

While the owners were required to maintain the front façades of the housing units, in order not to compromise the overall aesthetics of the Emerald Hill’s stretch of conserved terrace houses, they were allowed to add extensions at the rear of their units to create more spaces. These extensions, however, were not allowed to be taller than the front façades.

Emerald Hill and Peranakan Place are part of the Orchard Road’s Heritage Trail today.

Published: 26 February 2021

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