Mention Lim Chu Kang, and the first impressions that come to our mind are probably ulu (secluded), countryside or cemetery. The name Ama Keng may be even more unfamiliar to many Singaporeans, who are unaware of the former existence of this famous and bustling village.
Lim Chu Kang Road and the Villages
Lim Chu Kang Road has a long history. It was built in the 19th century as an ease of accessibility to the pepper and gambier, and later rubber, plantations that once flourished in this vicinity. The road soon became the main link between the rural villages that scattered around Lim Chu Kang and the city-bound roads of Choa Chu Kang and Bukit Timah.
Three large Chinese kampong once flourished at Lim Chu Kang. They were the Ama Keng Village (亚妈宫村), Thong Hoe Village (通和村) and Nan Hoe Village (南和村). Located between the 17.5 milestone of Lim Chu Kang Road, Ama Keng Village was filled with attap and zinc-roofed houses and single-storey shophouses that provided the basic needs for a self-sufficient rural community. Thong Hoe Village was situated a short distance away at the 18.5 milestone of Lim Chu Kang Road, while Nan Hoe Village stood along Neo Tiew Road.
Flanked by thick canopies of Angsana and Mahogany trees, the rustic Lim Chu Kang Road was gazetted as a Heritage Road by the National Parks Board in 2001. Four other Heritage Roads elsewhere in Singapore are Arcadia, Mandai, Mount Pleasant and South Buona Vista Roads.
Early History of Ama Keng
The name Ama Keng originated from a popular Chinese temple built in 1900 (see Ama Keng Temple below) that worshipped the deity of Ma Zhu, the Chinese goddess of the sea. The words “Ama” and “Keng” means grandmother and temple (or palace) respectively in Hokkien and Teochew. By the 1930s, there was a sizable population living around the temple, and the growing kampong came to be known as Ama Keng Village.
The rubber industry at Lim Chu Kang took a big hit when the prices of rubber crashed in the early 1930s. Abandoned plantations soon became wastelands. In 1933, the British’s Department of Agriculture tried to experiment with pineapple cultivation at the old rubber estates near Ama Keng in an attempt to tap into the growing pineapple business in Malaya.
In 1935, a tiger was spotted within the Lim Chu Kang vicinity, creating panic among the villagers. The Sultan of Johor had banned the shooting of tigers in his state for several years, resulting in its abundance. It was believed that a few swam across the Straits of Johor and roamed around Bukit Timah and Lim Chu Kang, where there were more than 10,000 acres of jungle.
In the early 1940s, the Lim Chu Kang vicinity fell into total darkness at night when the British RAF (Royal Air Force) ordered the total prohibition of lights in order to prevent air surveillance by the enemies. This, however, did not deter the Japanese invaders from pinpointing Ama Keng Village as one of their first targets. On 8th February 1942, the Japanese crossed the Johor Straits and attacked from the northwestern side of Singapore, swiftly occupying Ama Keng. Tengah Airfield fell into the enemies’ hand within a day. The planned Ama Keng-Sungei Berih line, defended by the Australian brigade, rapidly fell apart.
Ama Keng after the War
It was a chaotic period after the war. Food was scarce and jobs were limited. In 1953, the British government decided to speed up Singapore’s food production with a multi-million food production centre at Ama Keng.
Over 300 squatter farmers, more than half of them living at Ama Keng Village, were given lands for vegetable cultivation in a 750-acre site along Lim Chu Kang Road. The remaining farmers were from other parts of Singapore whose farms were affected by other development plans. The British also set up Animal Husbandry Station and Veterinary Station along the 17th milestone of Lim Chu Kang Road (present-day Old Lim Chu Kang Road) to encourage organised rearing of poultry and other farming livestock to meet the growing domestic demand.
Things gradually improved, but life was still tough for the residents at Ama Keng Village. Water cut-offs were frequent in the Lim Chu Kang vicinity. The Konfrontasi period made it worse, as the relatively peaceful Ama Keng Village was one of the sites where the Indonesian saboteurs hid their guns, hand grenades and TNT explosives. Fortunately raids and arrests were carried out successfully by the Special Branch after tip-offs.
Construction of Public Amenities
As the population size grew, more public amenities were needed. One of the facilities built in the vicinity was the Ama Keng Police Station, constructed in the fifties to provide assistance and security to the residents. Located a short distance from the junction of Lim Chu Kang and Ama Keng Roads, the police station was housed in a single-storey concrete building with a signboard that states “Balai Polis Ama Keng” in Malay.
In September 1958, the rural police station was one of the chosen sites to be involved in the first Police week organised by the Singapore Police Force to improve the public-police relationship and cooperation. The police premises was opened for three evenings for the villagers to visit and understand its operation, facilities and equipment.
Ama Keng Police Station was eventually closed in July 1989 due to the impending resettlement which led to the decline in the number of residents seeking police assistance. With its closure, the remaining residents were advised to visit the Jurong or Choa Chu Kang Neighbourhood Police Posts (NPP) for urgent matters.
Located beside the police station was the Ama Keng Village Community Centre. It was opened in 1959 after three years of construction that cost $12,000, and proved to be popular among the villagers as a central meeting place for interactions, newspapers-reading and sports and games. Other amenities included the Maternity and Child Welfare Centre, opened in 1956, to provide dental services to the residents in the rural areas. It was later renamed as the Maternal and Child Health Centre before its operation was ceased in 1981.
In 1978, the Telephone Exchange fitted Ama Keng with 2,000 new lines for the telephone subscribers in the village. For the first time ever, the residents could dial to both local and international numbers. By the end of the seventies, Ama Keng had become a bustling neighbourhood with shophouses, kopitiam, provision stores and motor repair shops. Life was simple yet happy for the residents who lived in their kampong houses and farms that stretched more than a milestone along the present-day Old Lim Chu Kang Road.
New Ama Keng Road
It was a joyous time for the Ama Keng villagers in late 1969. Electricity supplies were provided to the kampong for the first time. A new tarmac road was also constructed for the convenience of the residents, who had to bear with the muddy tracks that were prone to floods during stormy weathers. To celebrate the achievement, dinners, dragon dances and variety shows were held at the community centre.
The newly paved Ama Keng Road used to link up Lim Chu Kang Road and Choa Chu Kang Road (present-day Old Choa Chu Kang Road) via a long and winding path known as Jalan Piring.
Today, the majority of Jalan Piring had been absorbed by Tengah Air Base and Lim Chu Kang Camp. A small part of it still exists off Old Choa Chu Kang Road today, although it is now restricted to public access.
In the early eighties, there was a lot of safety concerns because many drivers would use Ama Keng Road as a shortcut to Choa Chu Kang Road and Woodlands Road (via Jalan Pisang and Neo Tiew Road respectively). Lorries tend to speed above limits due to the absence of traffic police in the rural areas, posing a threat to the students and residents in the areas.
Before the expansion of Tengah Air Base, a network of tracks existed in Ama Keng. They were, interestingly, given names in ayam (chicken in Malay), possibly due to the abundance of chicken farms in the vicinity. Some of the small roads such as Lorong Ayam Hutan and Lorong Ayam Katek still exist today, but the access is now cordoned off by a military gate.
Others like Lorong Ayam Belaga, Lorong Ayam Beroga, Lorong Ayam Bogel, Lorong Ayam Borek, Lorong Ayam Dara, Lorong Ayam Denak, Lorong Ayam Jalak, Lorong Ayam Jantan and Lorong Ayam Selaseh had all vanished in history.
A Lorong Ayam Betina also once existed nearby. It was paved in 1980 by 800 volunteers made up of national servicemen, students and citizens’ committee members, using tools and machinery provided by the Public Works Department. Upon its completion, the metalled road was able to serve 200 residents living in the area. Such gotong royong (mutual aid) projects were common in Singapore during the seventies and eighties.
Live Firing Area Dangers
Due to Ama Keng’s location near the designated live firing area, there had been a couple of accidents occurring in the seventies and eighties. Some of the villagers earned a side income by picking up the shells and sell them to the rag and bone dealers for their copper value. One Ama Keng Village resident was killed in 1980 when an anti-tank shell exploded in his house after he collected a basket full of spent and unspent cartridges. The fatal accident prompted the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) to step up their security in preventing villagers from entering the live firing area to collect the shells.
Earlier in 1971, a 10-year-old boy was shot dead near the village. The boy, along with other children, had apparently followed the army troops in an obstacle training exercise. One of the soldiers lost his grip and fell. His rifle, loaded with blanks, went off and hit the boy in close range. It was a sad moment, as the mother was only 30 yards away selling soft drinks when her son was killed.
Ama Keng Chinese Temple
The historic Ama Keng Chinese Temple was one of the earliest landmarks at Ama Keng. It was first built in the form of a simple wooden structure in 1900 by Lim Nee Soon 林义顺 (1879-1936), Lim Chee Meng* 林子明 and Eng Seet Chuan* 翁翼泉, and had its deity statue of Ma Zhu extravagantly “invited” from Yuen Hai Ching Temple (粤海清庙), the oldest Taoist temple in Singapore located at Phillip Street. The kampong temple was destroyed when the Japanese invaders landed in Singapore in early 1942. Surprisingly, the Japanese were respectful of the deity and later ordered the temple to be rebuilt in 1943.
With increasing number of devotees visiting the temple, the temple committee decided to expand its premises in 1965. When Jurong and Tuas underwent industrial development in the late sixties, population in the western part of Singapore surged and more people visited and prayed at the temple. The following decade was arguably the golden period in the history of Ama Keng Temple. At the peak of its popularity, the temple organised grand religious ceremonies, filled with wayang performances and extravagant dinners, several times each year.
The better days of Ama Keng Temple ultimately came to an end by the late eighties, when the government decided to acquire the lands for military purposes. The temple committee, residents and devotees tried to petition the acquisition without success, and its building was subsequently demolished.
(* the names were loosely translated into dialects due to lack of records)
Ama Keng Clinic
Operated in a small rundown shophouse, the Ama Keng Clinic had been an indispensable healthcare provider for the villagers for almost twenty years. It was opened in 1971 by Dr Tan Cheng Bock who decided to become a doctor at the countryside after his graduation, a noble move that surprised many.
Many poor villagers could not afford their medical fees, let alone travelled to the nearest hospital which was at least 28km away from Ama Keng Village. Dr Tan Cheng Bock generously accepted their eggs, vegetable and chickens in exchange for the consultation and medicine. He also waived the fees for those who could not pay. Over time, a special bonding between Dr Tan Cheng Bock and the villagers was developed. Even till today, the highly respected doctor still keeps in contact with his former patients from Ama Keng.
Like others, Ama Keng Clinic was affected by the resettlement plans of Ama Keng in the late eighties. Dr Tan Cheng Bock shifted his medical practice, which had retained the name “Ama Keng Clinic”, three times before settled down at Jurong West. It was eventually closed in late 2012, after a long significant 41-years of history.
Ama Keng School
Founded in 1951 as part of the colonial government’s Ten Year Plan, Ama Keng School 亚妈宫学校 first started with only 53 students having their classes in three simple single-storey buildings of 14 classrooms. There was also a double-storey block that served as the teachers’ quarters.
In 1959, the Ministry of Education approved the construction of tuck shops at several rural schools for the benefits of the students. Ama Keng School, along with other schools at Jurong, Clementi, Boon Lay and Teluk Jaku, was given the priority.
Over the years, the enrollment at the school increased rapidly. By the late sixties, the school premises was unable to cope with the student size ballooned to almost a thousand. As a result, an extension wing was built. The four-storey building, completed at a cost of $300,000, was officially opened in 1971, followed by an addition of a hall-cum-canteen two years later. The enrollment of students for Ama Keng School peaked in 1982; the number reached 1,512 that year.
The school introduced Chinese-medium classes in the seventies but they did not last. By 1987, the Chinese-medium classes were phased out by the government’s decision to make English as the compulsory first language for all schools in Singapore. Under the new system, the mother tongue would be taught as the second language. Likewise for other races, the Tamil-medium schools in Singapore were phased out in 1982, and the Malay-medium ones saw their end by 1986.
Ama Keng School was closed with the resettlement of the Lim Chu Kang residents in the late eighties. In March 1990, it was merged with the former Nam San School 南山学校 to become the new South View Primary School located at Choa Chu Kang.
Today, the old school compound of Ama Keng School still stands unnoticed and undisturbed along Ama Keng Road, retaining its original sloping zinc roof and wooden windows. The premises has been utilised as a foreign worker dormitories since the early 2000s; its four-storey extension building was converted into a nursing home for several years but is now left vacated.
Decline and Demise of Ama Keng
Two factors had led to the decline and demise of Ama Keng and other villages at Lim Chu Kang. First, the planned expansion of Tengah Air Base and land acquisition was announced as early as 1983. The government followed up by also introducing agrotechnology program to Lim Chu Kang in 1986. It was a scheme to maximise output in limited space, but it also meant hundreds of small traditional farmlands would have to be sacrificed as they were converted into modern agrotechnological parks.
In the resettlement plans, the existing farmers were given options to relocate their operations to Mandai, while other residents were encouraged to move into the new HDB flats.
There were still close to 660 small parcels of vegetable farms at Ama Keng and Lim Chu Kang by the late eighties, providing as much as 17,000 tonnes of lettuce, Chinese cabbage and chye-sim (Chinese spinach) to Singaporeans. Some of the farms had already been around for sixty years. The pig farms, on the other hand, were already phased out.
In 1988, approximately 550 chicken farms at Ama Keng were still in operation, producing almost three million eggs everyday to be sold to both local and Malaysian markets. The number would dwindle rapidly in the next couple of years. Today, there are only four chicken farms in Singapore, all of which are located within the Lim Chu Kang vicinity. The Chew’s Agriculture of Murai Farmway, first started as a breeder farm in 1975, is one of the more prominent ones that stands along Lim Chu Kang Road.
By the early nineties, most amenities at Ama Keng were gone. The temple was demolished, and the police station had shut down. The Ama Keng Market, a simple zinc-roofed single-storey building, was left empty after the stallholders had shifted. There were, however, some 4,500 residents still persisted in staying at Lim Chu Kang, but by the the turn of the millennium, the last family finally moved out. Most former residents by then had already resettled at the new towns of Jurong East, Jurong West, Choa Chu Kang and Bukit Panjang.
Today, what is remaining of Ama Keng is a quiet and forgotten road. Many who drive past may not even notice its existence. Nothing much is left to remind us of the bustling village that once stood here. But to many former residents, this was once a familiar place made up of closely-knitted homes, childhood playmates and simple, peaceful and happy days. Hopefully the memories can be passed on to their next generations.
Published: 22 August 2013
Updated: 17 July 2016