The “King” of Bedok, Villa Haji Kahar and the Bedok Rest House

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.

villa haji kahar at jalan haji salam

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.

villa haji kahar at jalan haji salam 2005

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.

villa haji kahar at jalan haji salam 2014

villa haji kahar at jalan haji salam2 2014

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 avenue kampong house

bedok avenue kampong house2

bedok avenue kampong house3

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.

bedok rest house 1960s

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.

east coast reclamation 1966

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.

bedok rest house long beach seafood 1992

bedok rest house long beach seafood2 1992

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.

demolition of bedok rest house 1993

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.

map of bedok corner 1981

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 al-taqua at jalan bilal 1980s

masjid bedok laut at bedok road2 1980s

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 1980s

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

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10 Responses to The “King” of Bedok, Villa Haji Kahar and the Bedok Rest House

  1. SLXM says:

    Great article. I remember Bedok Rest House as a kid. 🙂

  2. A captivating collection of memories of Bedok Corner by Ron Ho 🙂

    http://www.singaporememory.sg/contents/SMA-5c6aee71-8aed-4c40-8dec-9fe35c52444f

    I was born in 1947 at Bedok corner in an attap house behind Bedok Rest House. Right at the almost 90 degree corner, a lane led from the main road past the coffee shops on the left and the car park belonging to Bedok Rest House on the right to a village we called Bedok Village.

    Some houses or bungalows, including one which belonged to the Sultan of Pahang, had their front door facing the sea and their back door facing the lane. The Chinese occupied most of the houses near the main road but further inside, next to the Bedok River which now is a canal, was a Malay kampong. Hence, it was natural for the villagers to speak each other’s language. For me, it was the best days of my life living in Bedok Village.

    We were poor and we owned nothing of luxury but we led a most colourful childhood. From rummaging through the rubbish dump looking for toys which PWD had created while trying to cover the tributary of the Bedok River to climbing trees searching for fruits, and from swimming in the Bedok River to attempting to swim in the sand mines at Koh Sek Lim Road, our afternoons were never lonely or dull.

    But what I miss most, even today, is the Bedok Beach which was like 100 yards from my house. The beach stretched from Bedok to Changi Point to the left and to Tanjong Rhu to the right. It was a beach which provided us with food during low tides and provided us with fun during high tides.

    Right next to Bedok Rest House on the right when facing the sea were two abandoned British built gun turret shelters which provided us a place we could camp in, build camp fires and call it our headquarters.

    Between 1955 to 1965, it was the best ten years of my life. When the tide was low, the water would recede at least 100 yards out and we would walk barefoot with a sharp stick or spear to nab the crabs, dig out the clams and to pick the odd shellfish which made the beach its home. At the sand bank, we would use our feet to dig for yellow clams which the Malays call “kepa gading”. We had to watch our feet when walking in knee deep waters to avoid stepping on a fan like clam around 8 – 10 inches in length as they laid embedded within the sand with their sharp edge sticking out. Malays call them “beliong”. Clam shells came in various shapes and sizes and mostly are edible.

    In 1960, there was a unique harvest of “cin-ting”, a very thin flat clam shell with meat in between two plate like flat shells. We collected nearly 20 gunny sacks of cin-ting and we spent two days removing the meat from the shell, and placed them in bottles. My mother put in uncooked rice to create the fermentation process. We called the product “assam cin-ting”. Being a peranakan, we knew how to harvest the sea for food. The assam cin-ting brought the family a good cash income. It was a bonus as we were very poor.

    During our beach combing, we would uncover many unspent bullets. The shells were mostly corroded but we could remove the plastic cords filled with gun-powder. When dried out, these could be lit like a fuse. We used them to destroy ant nests. The bullet heads were removed and kept. We polished them, and the skin being nickel, they shone like silver bullets – like in the Lone Ranger movie. There were 0.303 bullets and machine gun bullets which were larger. The sea contained thousands of these WW2 collectibles.

    During high tide, the sea was our playground and although we had to remove jelly fish, puffer fish, star fish from the sea to enable us to swim with less danger, it was a period of fun.

    But in 1960, we saw lorries coming to dump red mud soil into the sea starting from the area which is now Bedok camp and after one year, they had not only created a huge reclaimed land in the sea measuring 1/4 of a mile into the sea and one mile in the direction of Upper East Road to the bungalow area in front of the Chinese cemetery on the hill which we called Pang Suah Kia. A year later, they took away the two gun turret shelters. The company doing the reclamation was Obayashi-Gumi from Japan. We learnt later the soil came from Chai Chee hills. They later built a conveyor belt transporting soil all the way from Chai Chee to East Coast Beach.

    The reclaimed land was left to settle down perhaps as an experimentation on reclamation. But for me, my low tide hunting ground was forever gone.

    By the time I moved to Lorong Marzuki on August 9, 1965, the day we became a nation, the reclamation had continued engulfing the beaches at Siglap, Katong and marching towards Tanjong Katong.

    Today, I can daresay, no other beach, not even at Pulau Ubin or Kranji can match the beauty, the fun and the experience of Bedok Beach. If I can sum up our nation’s progress, I would say the destruction of our East Coast Beach was a heavy price we paid.

    Recorded by Ronald Ho
    19 August 2013

  3. J.Lee says:

    Wow, excellent article! I lived in this area as a child in the late 70s to late 80s. I remember being so terrified of the cemeteries along Upper East Coast Road, every time we drove by I would look straight ahead and pretend they didn’t exist.

  4. Teh O"Beng says:

    DOES ANYONE HAVE PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE “SULTAN of PAHANG” BUILDINGS? I WOULD LOVE TO HAVE THE IMAGES OR PHOTOS OF THE BUILDINGS IN MY COLLECTION. I WAS WORKING FOR A SHORT WHILE AT BEDOK POLICE POST, BUT HAVE NO RECOLLECTION OF THOSE BUILDINGS.

  5. Basil says:

    I have lived in Bedok South Ave 3 all my life so far. Scarily enough, I remember having nightmares about those cemeteries as a young boy in the early 90’s, around the time when they started exhuming and building Kew Green. It was really frightening. I pass that area rather frequently these days, and it still feels a little weird.

  6. This Villa Haji Kahar belonged to my great great grandfather and his family. My own late grandfather used to stay in that blue hut in front of the house after he got married.

  7. In the late 1980’s, around where those cemeteries were and Kew Gardens is now, I remember hacking through the thick undergrowth of jungle to reach the old British pill-box defenses that would have faced the sea decades earlier. Obviously, I also have fond memories of Long Beach Seafood and jogging in the kampong behind it – once turning a corner and coming face to face with several cows and bulls walking up the lane.

  8. MC says:

    I am very shocked to discover that the “House of Sultan of Pahang” has been put on sale (I think is a recent one!). The “House of Sultan of Pahang” was mentioned here; it stands at what used to be the Bedok corner now Eastwood Road. This 1928’s building that is both charming and quirky, looks as though it has grown organically and lovingly maintained through the years.
    While trying to find out more about the building, I thought I should look straight into the obvious – Sultan of Pahang (Abu Bakar of Pahang 1904 – 1974), since not much other records I could find.. I stumbled upon a short story written by Hsu-Ming Teo – Road Tales of the Sultan of Pahang; and was totally swept by it (very enticing). Then I tried to look for records of the Sultan entering Singapore back in his time – reports as early as the 1930s, then quite many times afterwards..
    Could there really be a possibility that this House on Eastwood Road really belong to the Sultan of Pahang? If so, how come there is not much gossips among the people who used to live around the Bedok corner? Could that be just a myth or worse still a decoy/conspiracy? Ha! A bit over the top…
    Who really built this House?

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