Located in the central part of Singapore, and largely bounded by Bukit Timah Road, Serangoon Road, Thomson Road and Moulmein Road, the Cambridge Estate, of Farrer Park district, is an old housing district where its inner roads are mostly named after English counties, cities and towns.
As many as 22 minor roads at the Cambridge Estate carry the “English” names:
- Bristol – English city
- Cambridge – English city and county town
- Carlisle – English city and county town
- Derbyshire – English non-metropolitan county
- Dorset – English non-metropolitan county
- Durham – English city and county town
- Essex – English non-metropolitan county
- Gloucester – English city and county town
- Halifax – English town
- Hampshire – English shire county
- Hertford – English county town
- Kent – English non-metropolitan county
- Lincoln – English city and county town
- Norfolk – English non-metropolitan county
- Northumberland – English non-metropolitan county
- Oxford – English city and county town
- Rutland- English county
- Shrewsbury – English county town
- Suffolk – English non-metropolitan county
- Surrey – English non-metropolitan county
- Truro – English city and county town
- Worcester – English city and county town
There were also the Cumberland Lane and Westmoreland Road, named after historic counties in England, but they were expunged in the seventies. Interestingly, the network of “English” roads at the Cambridge Estate is situated near to the “Burmese” roads at Moulmein and Balestier, such as Akyab, Bassein, Bhamo, Irrawaddy, Mandalay, Martaban, Mergui, Minbu, Pegu, Prome, Rangoon and Shan, all of which were named after cities, towns, states and rivers in old Burma.
Another place in Singapore where a network of roads within a residential estate is similarly named after places in Britain is the Serangoon Gardens, a former enclave for British military and their families until the early seventies. At the Serangoon Gardens, more than 30 roads were named after English, Scottish and Welsh cities, towns and villages.
Singapore Improvement Trust Estates
The Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) was tasked with the development of residential units at the vicinity in the 1930s and 1940s. One of its most memorable residential projects was the “Dutch-corner” houses located at Dorset Road and Cumberland Lane. The seventeen Dutch-style cottage-like houses added a unique European flavour, but they eventually had to make way for new development by the mid-seventies.
In the early fifties, the British government planned to develop a new SIT (Singapore Improvement Trust) public housing estate at Kampong Java. Seven new blocks of double-storey flats, made up of 10 three- and 10 two-bedroomed units, were built at Kent Road, in addition to the existing staff SIT flats at Gloucester Road. Between 1953 and 1955, new SIT flats popped up at Norfolk Road and Durham Road; their respective housing estates became known as Norfolk Estate and Durham Estate.
Other little neighbourhoods included Owen Estate and Tasek Utara Estate. By the late fifties, there were almost 8,000 families living at the estates of Norfolk, Durham, Owen and Tasek Utara. The estates’ names largely vanished in the late eighties, with the vicinity became generally known as Cambridge Estate. To the local Chinese, this vicinity was better known as Pek Kio, which literally means “white bridge”.
The residential vicinity, however, had existed since the early 20th century, with Truro Road and Carlisle Road metalled and drained in a Municipal project in 1929 that cost $15,500 and $12,300 respectively. Gloucester Road, on the other hand, remained as a muddy and potholes-filled road until it was given a tarred surface in 1962. As street lighting was insufficient, the roads were dark at night.
The darkness provided a cover for illegal activities and affected the residential estate as it was infested by secret societies, particularly in the sixties. A gang named “329” had, for several years, dominated Cambridge and Truro Roads, and posed a serious threat to the residents living there. In 1964, six “329” members, while having a “gangland conference” in a hut at Cambridge Road, were caught by the detectives. They were subsequently detained under the Criminal Law Ordinance, but the influence of the secret societies was under control only in the seventies.
In the early seventies, Durham Estate was sarcastically known as the problem estate, even by their own residents. The tiny housing estate of 20 SIT blocks was constantly bothered by gangsterism, robberies, floods as well as dirty and poorly maintained corridors. To make things worse, the three-storey flats appeared to be tilting and sinking.
Between 1968 and 1973, numerous large cracks began to appear on the flats’ ceilings and walls. As a result, many units were deemed unsafe. The problem became so serious that families living in Block 43 were ordered by the authorities to shift while Block 48 was demolished. All of the 30-plus-year-old SIT flats at Durham Estate were later torn down and replaced by a cluster of new HDB flats. The neighbourhood was later renamed Kampong Java Estate and Dorset Court. Today, it is called Dorset View.
Durham Road used to be a busy road, mainly used by motorists, cyclists and pedestrians to access Durham Estate. It was, however, flood prone and full of potholes in the fifties.
In fact, the whole vicinity bounded by Owen Road, Dorset Road and Norfolk Road was extremely flood prone, and was constantly devastated by floods especially in the sixties and seventies. An old flood level gauge can still be seen along Cambridge Road today, reminding one of the difficulties the residents faced during the flooding. It was a dreaded scene of overflowing muddy waters, sometimes as high as knee levels, submerged corridors, waterlogged furniture and helpless residents waiting for the rains to stop.
Durham Road, by the mid-eighties, was cut short and became a minor road that accessed Kampong Java Estate. The Norfolk Estate, on the other hand, was flattened in the eighties when the Central Expressway (CTE) was built. Its 17 blocks of SIT flats were demolished in batches between 1982 and 1989, while a large section of the road itself was widened to become part of the expressway. Today, Norfolk Road is a 600m-long minor road that runs parallel with CTE at the Kampong Java Flyover.
Life at the sleepy SIT estates of Norfolk, Owen, Durham and Tasek Utara was changed forever when the completed CTE cut through and divided them in 1985. The residents found it difficult to cross the six-lane expressway, and former neighbours of Norfolk and Tasek Utara estates could no longer visit each others regularly.
The residents also lamented that the closure of two road junctions, at Norfolk and Owen Roads, and at Norfolk and Rangoon Roads, caused them great inconvenience as they had to make detours or long trips to visit the markets or clinics on the other side of the CTE. Hawkers, shopkeepers and stallholders in the vicinity were also unhappy due to the declining number of regular customers from Balestier, Whampoa, Toa Payoh, Thomson and Ang Mo Kio.
Places of Worship
Cambridge Estate has been a place where many different religious practices co-exist together in the same vicinity. One of the smallest mosques in Singapore can be found here. Masjid Tasek Utara, a humble kampong mosque that can accommodate 120 people, has its history traced back to 1907 and is located at the junction of Carlisle Road and Bristol Road.
There are two Chinese temples at Cambridge Estate; the Ling Chi Xing Gong Temple (灵慈行宫) and the Qing De Gong Temple (清德宫). The Ling Chi Xing Temple was built at Truro Road in 1962 and its devotees mostly worship the Goddess of the Ninth Heaven and Ma Zhu, the Goddess of the Sea. The Qing De Gong Temple used to worship the Jade Emperor, the supreme Taoist god, but the temple has been left unattended for many years.
The Singapore Baptist Church was registered with the government in 1960 and first conducted its worship services at a residential house at Cambridge Road. As its church members grew in number, it required a building of its own. Hence, it purchased a plot of land nearby in 1967 and moved into the new church two years later. The Singapore Baptist Church became the first bilingual church in Singapore in 1973 when it conducted its worship services in Mandarin and English simultaneously.
Another significant church, the Parish of Christ Church, is located at Dorset Road. Established just before the Japanese Occupation, the Christ Church is a Tamil church whose foundation stone was laid on 18 October 1940, the St. Luke’s Day. During the war, the church suffered considerable damages by the bombing raids but was able to rebuild within three months.
The Little Sisters of the Poor Home, a Catholic institution, was established in 1935 at Derbyshire Road. The Little Sisters was a congregation of religious sisters who devoted themselves in providing accommodation, food, clothing and medical services to the elderly, assuring that the old folks would be well taken care of in their golden years. It later shifted to its new location at Thomson Road, with its old premises taken over by Kheng Cheng School. Little Sisters of the Poor Home was renamed as Saint Theresa’s Home in 2003.
A number of primary schools had existed at the Cambridge Estate; one of them was Kheng Cheng School (擎青学校), whose name literally means “to uplift the youth” in Teochew and had a long significant history. It was founded by Madam Lim Peng Tuan, the mother of Tan Chong Tee, a well-known heroic resistance fighter with the Force 136 in Malaya during the Second World War. Lim Peng Tuan had first started a private school at her own home, providing education to about 20 students.
In 1927, Kheng Cheng School was officially named and registered with the government. It also had its own building, leasing a bungalow near Shrewbury Road as its new campus. In 1931, Kheng Cheng School was relocated to Moulmein Road, but was forced to stop its classes for two years due to financial difficulties. Due to high enrolment rate, Kheng Cheng School was relocated again to Derbyshire Road in 1938, taking over the premises of the Little Sisters of the Poor Home, and was converted into a public school.
During the Second World War, the campus of Kheng Cheng School was partially damaged, and it had to suspend its classes until the end of the war. In 1963, former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew paid a visit to the school. Kheng Cheng School stayed within the Norfolk Estate until 1974, when it finally settled at Toa Payoh Lorong 3.
Cambridge School was opened in March 1963, near the junction of Cambridge and Carlisle Roads, with Yong Nyuk Lin, the former Minister for Education, and G. Kandasamy, the Parliamentary Secretary to Ministry of Culture, invited as the guests of honours. The school cost $370,000 in construction, and had 24 classrooms catered for as many as 2,000 students in both morning and afternoon sessions. Cambridge School was the 20th school opened by the Singapore state government in the early sixties.
As Cambridge School was opened during the merger years between Singapore and Malaysia, the lyrics of its school song were composed in Malay, which began with:
“sekolah Cambridge sekolah sami, tempat yang mana kami sanjungi”
(“our school Cambridge School, the place where we hold dear”)
In 1998, Cambridge Primary School was shut down. Its premises, together with that of the neighbouring Norfolk Primary School (opened between mid-1960s and 1984), was later converted into a foreign student dormitory called the Carlisle Hostel. The buildings of the former Cambridge and Norfolk Schools are still standing today, although they have been vacated for years.
The other schools that made their presences at Cambridge Estate but have since closed down or relocated to elsewhere were the Dorset School, Owen School, St. Michael’s School and Rangoon Road School.
Dorset School was started at the junction of Dorset Road and Durham Road in the mid-fifties and had existed there until the mid-seventies, when it was relocated to a new site between Thomson Road and Gentle Road. It, however, only lasted a few years before its new premises was taken over by Catholic High School. The old campus of Dorset School at Dorset Road was demolished after its relocation, and in its place, two new blocks of HDB flats known as Dorset Court were built in 1976.
Owen School was also started in the mid-fifties and lasted until 1988. In May 1986, Owen Primary School hit the headlines when two of its students, 12-year-old Keh Chin Ann and Toh Hong Huat, went missing. The boys were never found, and the case remains unsolved till this day. After its closure, the school compound was vacated for years before its conversion into Cambridge International Hostel. The premises was eventually demolished in 2015.
Other Public Amenities
The Cambridge Road Market was formerly located at Tasek Utara Estate, along Cambridge Road. It was built in the fifties to serve the growing community, but had become disorderly when illegal hawkers made their pitches all over the place. In 1958, the Singapore City Council decided to expand the market and provide permanent stalls for the selected hawkers.
The Cambridge Road Market was demolished in the early eighties. It was not until the late eighties before a new market, the Pek Kio Hawker Centre and Market, was completed at the junction of Cambridge Road and Owen Road. It has remained popular since, and is often referred as the Cambridge Road Market by the older residents.
The Pek Kio Community Centre was opened in 1954 by J.T. Rea, the President of Singapore City Council, as an effort to enhance communal harmony and develop the residents’ civil pride and consciousness. The humble community centre was housed in a shophouse at Cambridge Road for a decade, before it was relocated to a new single-storey building in 1964, just beside the Cambridge Road Market.
In 1984, the community centre received its new building, built at the site of the demolished Cambridge Road Market. Costing about $600,000, the new single-storey Pek Kio Community Centre was designed with roof and steel pillars that mirrored the design of the old Cambridge Road Market. It was also equipped with multi-purpose hall, library and rooms for kindergarten and cooking classes.
Today, Pek Kio Community Centre is located beside Farrer Park Primary School at Gloucester Road, where the former Farrer Park Stadium was.
Despite the fact that the SIT flats, schools and most old terrace houses have vanished, and the present-day Cambridge Estate is largely filled with new modern private residences, one can still spot glimpses of vintage buildings in the vicinity that have somehow escaped the fate of redevelopment and served as this old estate’s reminiscent history.
Published: 10 January 2016
Updated: 24 June 2021