Along McNair Road is an interesting sight, where the prewar terrace houses meet the modern public flats in an interesting mix of old and new architecture. Townerville, the prominent landmark of the McNair/Towner vicinity, refers to the rows of double-storey houses that were built way back in the 1920s.
The terrace houses, bounded by McNair Road, Towner Road and May Road, were designed in a combination of Malay, Chinese and European architectural styles. Every unit is made up of unique features such as a high ceiling, wide verandah, balcony, courtyard and picture rails and skirting.
The six blocks of 84 houses are largely divided into three distinct groups. The 24 apartments along McNair Road are European-looking, while the 34 units, situated at the junction of Towner and May Roads, were built with Chinese-influenced low parapet walls in the verandah and unique column heads. The remaining have Malay-styled pointed roofs.
Townerville was previously utilised by the Ministry of Finance as government quarters in the seventies and eighties. The houses were then left vacant for many years.
In 1986, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) decided to develop the McNair/Towner area as a new housing estate. Eighteen new blocks of flats – Block 108 to 112 and Block 119 to 124, now collectively known as McNair Springs, along McNair Road, and Block 101 to 107 at Towner Road – were built.
The old dilapidated terrace houses soon became an eye sore beside the new HDB flats. Fortunately, instead of demolition, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) announced restoration plans for the empty houses in 1988. Working together with HDB, the restoration project, costing about $12.4 million, aimed to integrate the old world charm of the colonial ethic-style houses into the upcoming housing estate.
It was URA’s first residential restoration project where its carefully applied 3R principles – Maximum Retention, Sensitive Restoration and Careful Repair – set a benchmark for future restoration projects in Singapore.
After the completion of the restoration in 1990, the terrace houses, now under conservation, were put up for open tender. In just two weeks, the highly sought-after properties attracted more than 1,000 bids. Local real estate tycoon Ng Teng Fong’s (1928-2010) Far East Group eventually clinched the multi-million deal with their highest bids.
By the early 2000s, each unit cost between $1.1 million to $1.6 million. The units were put up for sale again in 2001. Today, the Townerville apartments are largely used for residential and commercial purposes.
The residential estate bounded by McNair Road, Towner Road and the main Balestier Road used to be known as Rayman Estate. It was originally called the Balestier Estate, but was renamed in 1949 by the Municipal Commissioners in honour of Lazarus Rayman (1891-1948), the former Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) chairman and Municipal President.
The estate, one of the projects undertaken by Lazarus Rayman’s progressive housing policy, consisted of some 1,400 Artisans’ Quarters, 20 flats and 63 shops, and had its public market added in 1952.
Artisans’ quarters were low-cost apartment units built by SIT to house the skilled workers. Back then such quarters could be found in many parts of Singapore, including Balestier, Tiong Bahru, Tanjong Pagar, Henderson, Bukit Timah Road, Kim Keat Road, Mackenzie Road, Silat Road and Morse Road.
By the late fifties, a new road named Jalan Kebun Limau split the Rayman Estate into two. Thirty years later, in the late eighties, the road would be redeveloped and absorbed into the Central Expressway (CTE), becoming the exit road (Exit 7D) that led to Balestier Road.
Rayman Estate itself vanished into history, together Rayman Avenue, a small road off Towner Road that once led to the housing estate.
Junior technical trade schools were established in British Malaya to equip students with technical skills such as bricklaying, plumbing, construction and mechanical and electrical fittings. In Singapore, the first government technical trade school was set up at Scotts Road in 1929.
The school was relocated to Balestier Road in 1940, but due to the Second World War, its technical classes only began in 1948. The Balestier Junior Technical Trade School lasted until 1963, when it was restructured to become the Singapore Vocational Institute, with its training and courses managed by the Vocational and Industrial Training Board (VITB).
In 1992, the Ministry of Education (MOE) decided to introduce the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) as a post-secondary institution to improve the employability of vocational trainees. With the new implementation, the Singapore Vocational Institute was replaced by ITE Balestier, which had its new premises built and operated at the former Rayman Estate from 1994 to 2013. Today, the site is occupied by Northlight School.
Other than Balestier Junior Technical Trade School, there were several other schools at the McNair-Towner vicinity during the fifties and sixties, including the McNair Road School, Whampoa School, Griffiths School, Balestier Road Boys’ School and Balestier Girls’ School.
The McNair Road School first started as McNair Road English School in 1925, but was shut down during the Second World War and had its premises used by the military. After the war, the school buildings were returned to the Singapore Education Department.
In 1950, McNair Road School became one of Singapore’s first four schools – the other three being Duchess Road School, Anthony Road School and Monk’s Hill School – to be opened under the Supplementary Education Plan. It was part of the colonial government’s 10-year postwar educational program to provide primary education to almost 9,000 students in Singapore. A total of eighteen schools were opened in the $1.5 million project.
McNair Road School was eventually merged into Rangoon Road Primary School in 1968.
Originally known as Towner Road School, Griffiths School was renamed after James Griffiths (1890-1975), the British Secretary of State for the Colonies who visited Singapore and officially opened the school in 1950.
In 1982, the school faced closure due to declining enrolment, and was forced to merge with Balestier Girls’ School to form Moulmein Primary School. It got its name Griffiths back when the primary school was relocated to Tampines in 1988.
Griffiths Primary School merged once again in 2015, together with Qiaonan Primary School, to form Angsana Primary School. The second controversial merger might see the name Griffiths permanently walk into history.
The eighties and nineties saw the numerous old schools at McNair-Towner ceased to exist, replaced by the newer ones in May Primary School, Towner Primary School and the Precision Engineering Institute (McNair Campus).
There were other schools too, along McNair and Towner Roads, that provided education to students with special needs. Examples were the MINDS (Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore) Towner Gardens School, Spastic Special School and the Rainbow Centre Balestier Special School. The latter was established in 1995; its premises was later converted into the Singapore Boys’ Hostel.
Shitoryu Karate Association
One of the former tenants at McNair Road was the Shitoryu Karate Association (SKA). Originally known as Singapore Karate Association, the karate school had its history dated back to the early sixties. It was founded in 1964 by a group of martial arts enthusiasts and professionals, and was based at the bungalow belonging to one of its founders, a police officer, at McNair Road.
During the first decade of its establishment, karate instructors were invited from Japan to impact the skills to local students who had signed up for the courses. Tough training were then carried out at the McNair Road bungalow’s courtyard.
Over the years, the association’s membership steadily increased, and by the seventies, SKA had produced many outstanding karate-kas who competed in the world tournaments.
The SKA, in the late seventies, also held many international karate-do championships. Many participants from Singapore, as well as regional countries such as Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Brunei, contested at the Gay World Stadium.
In 2017, the association’s headquarters, after 52 years at McNair Road, had to be relocated to Tessensohn Road, a short distance away from its old premises. It was one of the buildings that were affected by the latest redevelopment plan at the McNair-Towner vicinity.
Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital
The Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital is a century-old landmark at the vicinity, located at the junction of Serangoon Road and Balestier Road.
It sits on the former site of Tan Tock Seng Hospital, before the latter was shifted to its current location off Moulmein Road in 1909. Tan Tock Seng Hospital was originally situated at Pearl’s Hill. It was in 1861 when it was forced to move to the junction of Serangoon and Balestier Roads.
Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital started as a small Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) hospital manned by only one physician. It was founded by four prominent local Cantonese community leaders – Leong Man Sau (1866-1916), Yow Ngan Pan (1863-1930), Ng Seng Pang (1873-1953) and Wong Ah Fook (1837-1918) – in 1910.
The purpose of setting up a hospital was to provide free medical care to the clan members and immigrants from the Guangdong province of China. The hospital was named after the Kwong Chau, Wai Chau and Shiu Heng prefectures, the ancestral home for most of the local Cantonese.
From a humble medicine outlet, Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital expanded over the decades. In the fifties, it added a maternity ward, hostel, kitchen and a new front block.
Since its establishment in 1910, the hospital had offered free outpatient services to all the locals, although its in-patient facilities remained limited only to the Cantonese. This, however, changed in 1974 when Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital amended its constitution to admit Singaporeans of all races and dialects.
The Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital of the modern era includes a TCM centre and nursery home. Three of its colonial buildings and front block were conserved in 2010. Its other buildings, however, were demolished in 2015 in a $96-million redevelopment project. Upon its completion in late 2017, the hospital will have the largest nursing home in Singapore.
Central Sikh Temple
The Central Sikh Temple is the main temple for all Sikhs in Singapore. It is the country’s two recognised public Sikh temples, along with the Silat Road Sikh Temple.
A Skih place of worship is called a gurdwara. In 1912, a group of Sikhs purchased a bungalow at Queen Street, though the financial support of Wassiamull, a Sindhi merchant, and converted it into a gurdwara. It became known as the Central Sikh Temple, or Wadda Gurdwara (“The Big Temple”).
Beside being a place of worship for the local Sikhs, the temple also had housing quarters for the aged and poor Sikhs. In 1977, the plot of land where the Central Sikh Temple formerly stood on was acquired by the HDB for residential and commercial redevelopment. It had to be temporarily relocated to Seng Poh Road at Tiong Bahru, while a new Central Sikh Temple was being constructed at the corner of Towner Road and Serangoon Road.
At a cost of $6.5 million, the new temple building was completed in 1986, the year that was celebrated by the Sikhs as the 518th anniversary of the birth of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. On 16 November 1986, the temple was officially opened by Wee Kim Wee (1915-2005), the former President of Singapore.
Central Sikh Temple was designated in May 1999 by the National Heritage Board as a historical site.
Published: 31 May 2017