Contrary to popular belief, our famous Singapore Zoological Gardens (or Mandai Zoo), opened in 1973, was not the first zoo in Singapore. It is the first and only national zoo, but before it, there were already several private zoos operating in Singapore.
The Punggol Zoos
One of the early private zoos was located in Punggol. It was simply called Ponggol Zoo (some sources refer it as Babujan Zoo), and was owned by wealthy Indian trader William Lawrence Soma Basapa (1893-1943) between 1920s and 1940s.
Nicknamed the “Animal Man”, Basapa had his original zoo at 317 Serangoon Road. The animal lover saw it an opportunity to charge entrance fees to the increasing number of visitors, but his animal collection would grow so large that there were complaints to the Singapore Rural Board (abolished in 1965) about its stench, noise and overcrowding of animals.
In the 1920s, Basapa decided to move his animals to a 27-acre of land he bought at Punggol. His new zoo was considered modern then, equipped with power generators and had workers’ dormitories. Basapa’s own weekend resort was standing by the sea. As a major tourist attraction, he also had his own restaurant, probably serving exotic dishes. An American film company even visited the zoo in 1933 to shoot a fighting scene between a man and a python.
However, Basapa’s precious zoo would be destroyed before the Japanese invasion. Identifying the Punggol end as a potential landing site for the Japanese invaders, the British forces wanted to make use of the Ponggol Zoo as a defensive ground. With limited time, Basapa could not find an alternate place to relocate his zoo, prompting the British to shoot the animals and free the birds. After the fall of Singapore, the Japanese confiscated Basapa’s power generators and steel cages, using the site to store their supplies and ammunition. A devastated Basapa passed away in 1943.
Another zoo, also located in Punggol near the Seventeenth Avenue, was started by a landlord named Chan Kim Suan (unknown-1996). Also an animal lover, he converted his agricultural lands into a private zoo in 1958, and registered it as Singapore Zoo. During its heydays, the zoo showcased dozens of animals such as tigers, lions, baby elephants, pythons, baboons, tapirs, crocodiles and sea lions on a landsize of five football fields.
Also functioning as an animal breeding center, the Singapore Zoo (or popularly Punggol Zoo) was opened free to the public. Chan Kim Suan largely earned his fortune through animal trading, and one of his main trades was the export of rhesus monkeys to America for research.
A special feature of the Punggol Zoo was its boundary walls, which were made of hundreds of pickling urns and pots. When the Chan family left Punggol in the eighties, after failing in a legal battle against the land acquisition by the government in 1975, the earthenware walls were abandoned and partially covered by overgrown bushes. They laid unnoticed for decades until they were rediscovered by the Asia Paranormal Investigators in 2007.
Years after Punggol Zoo ceased to exist, the Singapore Zoological Gardens finally replaced it as the official Singapore Zoo.
By late 2011, the remaining earthenware walls were demolished by the bulldozers after the plot of land was designated for redevelopment (Editor note: Which explains why I failed to get any photos despite exploring the place twice in December 2011 and March 2012).
Other Early Private Zoos
In 1840, local Chinese businessman Hoo Ah kay (1816 – 1880) built a grand mansion at Serangoon called Whampoa Gardens or Nam Sang Fa Un (南生花园). It housed many rare exotic animals and was opened to the public during the Chinese New Years and other festivals. However, this privilege was discontinued after one of Hoo Ah Kay’s favourite birds was killed by a visitor.
There was a private zoo located at East Coast too, but information about it was rare and limited.
Before the independence of Singapore, local students, such as the early batch from Bukit Panjang Government School, would also travel freely to the Johore Zoo for excursions.
Animals in Circus
Circuses showcasing animals were extremely popular in the fifties and sixties. In 1968, the Great Royal Circus of India arrived at Singapore, bringing with them a group of tigers, lions, chimpanzees, bears, elephants and a rare liger (crossbreed of a lion and a tiger).
Another famous circus was the Great Tai Thean Kew Circus (大天球马戏团) started by Sze Bing Shen after the Second World War. During the fifties, the local circus travelled all over Malaya and Singapore with its elephants, entertaining many young and old.
Published: 19 March 2012