Longtime residents of Bedok may have heard of a grand residence that was once owned by the “king” of Bedok.
It was the Villa Haji Kahar, located at Jalan Haji Salam, off Upper East Coast Road. The grand private residence was named after its first owner Haji Kahar Abdul Ghani (1863-1940), also known as Haji Kahar Palembang due to his birth place in Indonesia.
The “King” of Bedok and his Villa Haji Kahar
Haji Kahar arrived at Singapore at an age of around 20. He took up many odd jobs before starting a barter trading business at North Bridge Road, establishing a trade relationship with his brother at Palembang. It took Haji Kahar 20 years before he had amassed enough wealth to venture into property, coconut and nutmeg plantations, and other businesses.
Haji Kahar even became the first Malay to clinch a distribution license to sell HMV-label albums in his other shop at Muscat Street. In the expansion of his business, Haji Kahar sent his son Haji Mohamed to Jakarta to establish a “triangular” trade between Singapore, Palembang and Jakarta.
In the 1900s, Haji Kahar bought 30 acres of land at Bedok from a Chinese nutmeg plantation owner. The parcel of land, completed with small houses and fruit orchards, cost him about $7,000. Earning a generous $1,000 per month collected from the leasing of his properties, a 50-year-old Haji Kahar decided to dedicate more of his time in the religious study. He would later become active as a Qur’anic teacher at Masjid Al-Taqua at Jalan Bilal, a short distance away from his grand Bedok residence.
At the peak of his business, Haji Kahar was known as the “Raja” (“King” in Malay) of Bedok. He was one of the largest landowners in the vicinity, and had two horse-drawn carriage to ferry him between Bedok and the city. He would later spend $1,190 to replace his carriage with Ford cars.
Despite being extremely wealthy, Haji Kahar was a humble and low-profiled person. The rich entrepreneurs, in the early 20th century, tend to own large parcels of lands and have roads named after them. Haji Kahar, however, refused to accept the renaming of Jalan Haji Salam to Jalan Haji Kahar due to the respect he had of the eldest and most respected villager at Kampong Bedok.
Haji Kahar had a total of 16 children; three with his wife at Palembang, and 13 with his Singapore wife. The decision to build the grand Villa Haji Kahar was motivated by his wishes to bring the family close together. Haji Kahar died in September 1940 at an age of 78, after three years of illness.
After his death, his family did not stay in Villa Haji Kahar for long. In 1942, the Japanese forced the family to sell the estate for $22,000. When the Japanese surrendered three years later, the family’s fortune vanished overnight as the Japanese currency became worthless.
Today, Villa Haji Kahar still stands proudly at Jalan Haji Salam, hidden among the new semi-detached houses. The villa was likely to have changed hands many times after it was sold by Haji Kahar’s family in the 1940s. Compared to Singapore’s other grand private residences built in the early part of the 20th century, Villa Haji Kahar’s history is relatively less well-known.
There is also a well-maintained kampong-styled house beside the villa.
Bedok Corner and the Land Reclamation
The Bedok Corner, referring to the sharp bend between Bedok Road and Upper East Coast Road, has been a favourite hangout for the older generations of Singaporeans and also perhaps the British military veterans who had once stationed in Singapore in the fifties and sixties. Many still have fond memories of the place, where the iconic Bedok Rest House was located.
However, subsequent land reclamation projects would alter the appearance and scenic views of Bedok Corner. In 1963, a small-scaled land reclamation project was carried out by the government at the 14km East Coast Road to add 19 hectare of land.
A much larger project called the East Coast Reclamation Scheme was launched in April 1966. This massive land reclamation project, undertaken by the Housing Development Board (HDB), would take almost 20 years and a total cost of $613 million to complete. More than 1,525 hectare of land and 1km of coastline were added, using sand, soil, gravels and rocks taken from the hills at Siglap and Tampines.
Wyman’s Haven, Long Beach and the Bedok Rest House
The massive land reclamation saw the decline of a popular Chinese restaurant called Wyman’s Haven, located near the junction of Jalan Haji Salam and the Upper East Coast Road. The restaurant was said to have opened in the 1930s and its business flourished after the Second World War, especially in the late fifties. Housed in a large seafront bungalow, the patrons of the restaurant enjoyed a splendid view of the coastline. But the beautiful seaside scenery was gone by the late sixties due to the land reclamation, and this led to the eventual closure of Wyman’s Haven.
The Long Beach Seafood Restaurant, on the other hand, survived the effects of the land reclamation. It was established in 1946, serving seafood cuisine popular to both the British military personnel and the locals. Housed at the Bedok Rest House, both the building and restaurant became one of East Coast’s most famous landmarks, well-remembered by many for the sandy beach, icycold beer, chilli crab and tea dances.
Although the seaside scenery and vibrant shoreline were altered by the late sixties, Long Beach and its large variety of seafood dishes remained popular with the locals. Its business at the Bedok Corner lasted more than 40 years, before it had to be shut down in the early nineties due to the redevelopment plans in the vicinity. In 1993, the Bedok Rest House and its Long Beach restaurant were demolished, making way for the development of a private residential district called Eastwood Park. The terrace houses of Eastwood Park were completed by 1998.
Kampong Bedok Laut and the Mosques
Bedok Corner used to have two kampong mosques called Masjid Al-Taqua and Masjid Bedok Laut. Masjid Al-Taqua still exists today but Masjid Bedok Laut was demolished along with Kampong Bedok Laut in the early nineties. Kampong mosques are a rarity in present-day Singapore. Unlike modern mosques which integrate large gleaming Indo-Saracenic-styled domes into their roof designs, kampong mosques were much simpler, often capping only a small dome over a pitched zinc roof.
Located at Jalan Bilal, Masjid Al-Taqua had a long history, and was the mosque where Haji Fahar taught his Qur’anic studies in the 1930s. In 1984, the villagers in the vicinity were dismayed when they heard their place of worship, which could accommodate a congregation of 700, would be demolished. It turned out to be a misunderstanding as the government was acquiring the lands around Jalan Bilal but leaving Masjid Al-Taqua intact. After confirming with the Land Office that the mosque would stay on, the mosque trustee approved a $120,000 project to repair the aging building.
Masjid Bedok Laut, on the other hand, did not survive the redevelopment. It was demolished along with the Bedok Rest House and Kampong Bedok Laut. Today, the vicinity is occupied by the private residences of Eastwood Park.
There was also a Muslim cemetery which served as the burial ground for the Muslim residents living at the kampongs around Jalan Bilal, Jalan Haji Salam, Jalan Greja and Jalan Langgar Bedok. It was located near the 14km mark of Upper East Coast Road, beside a Chinese Teochew cemetery named Hwa San Teng (or Wah Suah Teng).
The Bedok Muslim cemetery had about 4,000 graves; its last burial was done in the mid-seventies. Both cemeteries were later exhumed. Their sites were eventually redeveloped into Kew Green Condominium in the late nineties. Hwa San Road, the dirt road that led to the cemeteries, was expunged during the redevelopment.
Kampong Bedok Laut, whose name means Bedok Sea Village, was mainly made up of Malay families; many of them worked as fishermen for generations. Leaving for the sea in early mornings, the fishermen would return by noon with their catches, and laid them along the shoreline to sell to other villagers. The land reclamation project between the sixties and eighties, however, took away the livelihood of many fishermen, who had to switch to hawking of food, drinks and cigarettes. When the kampong was demolished, many of the street hawkers were relocated to the Bedok Corner Hawker Centre.
The face of Bedok Corner has been changing constantly in the past 50 years. In the next decade, it will receive yet another makeover with the opening of Downtown Line’s Sungei Bedok MRT Station.
Published: 02 March 2015