Retracing the 26 Tracks of Punggol Road

A section of the old Punggol Road has walked into history in late August 2018. The pedestrianisation project will convert the 1.3km-long stretch of the road, between Punggol Drive and Ponggol Seventeenth Avenue, into a heritage trail which can also be utilised for jogging and cycling.

Punggol Road

The 4.5km-long Punggol Road first appeared in the later half of the 19th century. Being the only access road to the northeastern part of Singapore for more than a century, the early Punggol Road was largely made up of granite and laterite, where it was filled with potholes and certain parts of the road became impassable during rainy days.

Many Chinese immigrants settled at Punggol during the early 20th century, establishing villages and shophouses along Punggol Road. There were also poultry, pig and vegetable farms, as well as rubber plantations in the vicinity. Far away from the city area, the area, however, also quickly developed into a hotbed of crimes where murders, gambling and secret society activities frequently occurred.

In the sixties, basic public amenities such as electricity supply, pipped water, street lights and metalled roads were introduced, through both government and gotong royong efforts, to the areas along Punggol Road.

Further improvements to Punggol Road were implemented in 1983 for better road safety. The long and narrow road had been plagued by high accident rates due to dim street lights and reckless overtaking by drivers.

Several measures taken were the installation of high pressure sodium vapour lamps, using of highly visible thermoplastic paint for lane markings, and the implementation of double white lines.

Milestones and Landmarks

Like the other old major roads of Singapore, milestones were marked along Punggol Road. Branching off Upper Serangoon Road near Sungei Pinang, Punggol Road was ranged from 7th milestone (intersection with Upper Serangoon Road) to the 11th milestone (near Punggol end).

Along the Punggol Road were several recognisable landmarks. Located near Punggol 9¾ milestone was the Matilda House, a grand private residence that was surrounded by rows of palm trees and well-maintained lawns. Built in around 1920, the bungalow was owned by the Cashin family who occassionally used it as their weekend resort.

Punggol Road 9¾ milestone was also previously home to the Holy Innocents’ School, which, between 1959 and 1961, had its two classrooms shared to Hai Sing Girls’ School to accommodate the girl students from the rural Punggol areas.

Punggol Road 10th milestone was home to a large rubber plantation in the early 20th century.

There was a private Singapore Zoo, also commonly known as Punggol Zoo, located at the 10¾ milestone of Punggol Road. It was set up by a wealthy Indian trader named William Lawrence Soma Basapa in the 1920s, but the zoo was closed and destroyed during the Second World War.

In 1984, Punggol Road 10¾ milestone was selected to be the new site of the Punggol Fishing Port, built by the Primary Production Department (PPD) for the relocated fishermen and fish merchants from the nearby Kangkar, which had ceased their 60-year-old operations due to the development of Hougang New Town.

The $12-million fish port, market and jetty, however, lasted only 13 years before the entire operations had to be shifted again, this time, to Senoko Fishing Port at Woodlands. Punggol Fishing Port and its wholesale fish market were subsequently closed in 1997 for the development of Punggol New Town. Punggol Port Road, the road leading to the port and fish market, was also expunged.

Not known to many, the Punggol area once had many fortifications, built by the British as part of the defence line for Singapore’s northeastern coastline. After the Second World War, most of them were destroyed, with some remnants still located at Punggol Seventeenth Avenue and Cheng Lim Farmway 1, off Punggol Road.

By the eighties, the fortifications were largely forgotten; many were covered by creepers and thick vegetation, while others were utilised as store buildings for the farmers. In 1988, the Singapore Tourism Promotion Board (STPB) was keen to restore the Punggol forts as a tourist attraction, similar to that of Sentosa’s Fort Siloso. Most of the fortification remnants no longer exist today.

The Kampongs

Several kampongs once existed at Punggol. The oldest was Kampong Punggol, located at Punggol end and was one of the earliest settlements in Singapore. Said to have existed before the arrival of the British in the early 19th century, the Malay fishing village was also known as Kampong Wak Sumang, named after its founder Wak Sumang, a legendary Javanese warrior.

Several distinguished guests had visited the century-old village in the past, including Richard Nixon, former USA President (then Vice President), in 1981, Yusof Ishak, Singapore’s first President, in 1966, and former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on several occasions.

Other villages at the Punggol vicinity were Kampong Sungei Tengah (located at the junction of Punggol Road and Lorong Buangkok), Kampong Serangoon Kechil (along Jalan Serangoon Kechil, off Punggol Road) and Kampong Pinang (along Sungei Pinang, near Punggol Road Track 1). There was also another Kampong Punggol located near Punggol Road Track 20 in the sixties and seventies.

Pig Farming

In 1975, the commercial pig farming at Punggol was started at Punggol Road 10½ milestone, occupying several plots of lands that totalled 2.5 square kilometres in size.

In 1980, as more pig farmers were relocated from Chua Chu Kang, Bukit Timah and the Kranji water catchment area, another 1.5 square kilometres of lands near Punggol Road 9th milestone were developed by the PPD. The expanded pig farming industry at Punggol increased the pig population to almost 375,000.

By the mid-eighties, Punggol was the only place in Singapore where pig farms were still allowed to operate. But the pollutive nature of pig farms to the environment meant that they would not last for long in Singapore.

By 1990, the last pig farm at Punggol was closed; their lands replaced by the less pollutive vegetable and orchid farms. Many of these farms flourished along Buangkok Farmway and Cheng Lim Farmway until the mid-nineties and early 2000s respectively, when they had to give way to the rise of the new Punggol New Town.

Punggol Road’s 26 Tracks

The tracks of Punggol Road first appeared as dirt paths in the late sixties. In total, there were 26 tracks, starting from Track 1, near present-day Sengkang East Avenue, all the way to Track 26 at the Punggol end. On the map, the tracks located on the left side of Punggol Road, in the northward direction, were named in odd numbers (Track 1, 3, 5, 7 and so on), whereas those on the right were assigned with even numbers.

Several larger roads such as Cheng Lim Farmway, Punggol Farmway and Buangkok Farmway also appeared in the early seventies, branching off the Punggol Road and serving as the main roads leading to the farms.

Track 1 to Track 8

Punggol Road Track 1 was located where Sengkang East Avenue is today. It was home to the Singapore Telecoms building in the seventies.

Track 3 was expunged in the late seventies, making way for the Punggol Rural Centre, one of the earliest HDB developments at Punggol. Built at the junction of Punggol Road and Buangkok South Farmway 1, the Punggol Rural Centre, when completed in the mid-eighties, quickly became a little bustling enclave with six blocks of low-rise flats made up of more than 200 units, 12 shops and two eateries.

Buangkok South Farmway 1 became defunct in the nineties, but Punggol Rural Centre lasted until the mid-2000s before its six blocks of flats were demolished.

Elsewhere, most tracks of Punggol Road, even by the late eighties, remained rural in nature, consisted of scattered wooden huts, small plots of farms, tall durian trees, fish ponds and, sometimes, a makeshift roadside shrine for religious purposes.

The 1 km-long Track 6 once led to several sand and granite quarries. A common sight in the mid-eighties was a long line of heavy trucks and lorries ferrying the sand and granite from Punggol Road Track 6 to different construction sites in Singapore.

In 1985, the Singapore government started acquiring lands at Punggol for its proposed housing development of the vicinity, which, at that time, was still under the plan of an extension of Hougang New Town instead of a new residential district of its own. Among the first to be affected were those living and plying their trades between Track 1 and Track 7, including the residents, farm owners, boat builders, boatel operators and workers.

Between Punggol Road Track 7 and 9 was Lorong Buangkok, a 3km-long rural road that appeared after the Second World War and was named by the Singapore Rural Board in 1948. One end of Lorong Buangkok was connected to Punggol Road, at the junction with Jalan Merdu and Lorong Sengkang (Lorong Sengkang gave rise to the naming of Sengkang New Town), while its other end was linked to Yio Chu Kang Road, home to Kampong Lorong Buangkok, the last surviving village on mainland Singapore.

At the junction of Punggol Road, Lorong Buangkok and Jalan Serangoon Kechil were the St Anne’s Church and Meng Teck Chinese School (currently St Joseph’s Convent). Built in 1963, St Anne’s Church aimed to provide religious needs to the Catholic community living in the Punggol vicinity. The church was named in honour of Saint Anne, the mother of Virgin Mary.

In the seventies and eighties, due to the resettlement of the residents, the church’s following dwindled to only 300. The development of Sengkang and Punggol new towns managed to revive the church’s prosperity and it has since grown to a present 7,000 strength. For more than half a century, the St Anne’s Church has witnessed the vast changes of its surroundings, made up of wood and attap dwellings in the sixties and seventies to the present day’s high rise HDB flats.

Today, Lorong Buangkok has broken up and separated into two minor roads near Punggol Road and Yio Chu Kang Road respectively. Jalan Merdu and its rows of private housing still remains, but Lorong Sengkang had been expunged years ago.

Track 9 to Track 16

In the late eighties, there was a dairy goal farm at Track 10 Punggol Road that had 80 goats and produced some 35 litres of goat milk a day. There were also small manufacturing factories and repair workshops in the vicinity, but they had to move out by the early nineties, as three large plots of lands near Track 10 were acquired by the Singapore government for general development purposes.

Both Track 10 and 12 led to the swampy areas near Sungei Serangoon Kechil, a small river flowing into the former Serangoon Harbour. Hence, it was not uncommon to see fishermen and their boats fitted with outboard motors parked at the end of the tracks.

On the other side of Punggol Road, one could reach the banks of Sungei Punggol via  Track 13. In the seventies, the swampy area at the end of Track 13 was notoriously filled with stench as it was conveniently used as a dumping ground for dead diseased chicken and other garbage.

Located at the junction of Punggol Road and Track 15 was the Punggol Malay School, a small rural school that first began at Punggol Road Track 24. It was set up by Awang Osman, a village head who aspired to provide education to the Malay children living at Punggol, as there were no formal Malay schools in the vicinity after the Second World War.

Opened by William Goode, the then-Secretary of the Colonies, on 26 February 1955, the humble school had only a small hall with little facilities except a sepak takraw court. Needed to expand for the accommodation of more students, the school was moved to a new building at Track 15 in 1963, where it was opened by Chor Yeok Eng, the former Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of National Development.

Punggol Malay School operated for another 20-plus years before it was closed in the late eighties.

Track 17 to Track 26

Punggol Road Track 17 was converted into a proper asphalt road in the early seventies, after a small residential estate made up of new bungalows was developed there. It was renamed Ponggol Seventeenth Avenue.

Punggol Marina, a $50-million project built in 1996, was once located at the end of Ponggol Seventeenth Avenue. Upon completion, it was hailed as Singapore’s largest sea sports centre, which the developer hoped could revive Punggol’s previous crowd-pulling days of boating and water-skiing. Those days had not been seen since the last boatel at Punggol closed in 1994.

Today, Punggol Marina is no longer linked to Ponggol Seventeenth Avenue. Its surrounding areas are undergoing rapid development into a new Punggol residential district called Northshore.

Ponggol Twenty-Fourth Avenue did not appear until the late seventies. Unlike Ponggol Seventeenth Avenue, it was not converted from Track 24, but instead appeared as a new road on the same side as the odd-numbered tracks of Punggol Road. Hence, for a period of time, there were both Ponggol Twenty-Fourth Avenue and Punggol Track 24.

In 1985, a campsite was opened at Ponggol Twenty-Fourth Avenue, allowing students to experience camping in the rural parts of Singapore. The camp lasted until 1993 before its closure and demolition.

Named Ponggol, the old spelling of Punggol, the two roads of Ponggol Seventeenth Avenue and Ponggol Twenty-Fourth Avenue are the only “numbered” avenues in Punggol.

The land around track 22 was put up for public tender in the late eighties by PPD for the development of a fish or prawn farm. Track 24 was located almost at the end of Punggol Road, where, in the eighties, had a 18-room boatel, dubbed as the Ponggol Hotel. Nearby was the Punggol Boating Centre that provided dinghies and converted fishing boats for rental to sea sports enthusiasts.

There were also several double-storey bungalows located at Punggol Road Track 24, owned by private owners who used them as seaside resorts during weekends.

The bungalows were acquired by the government in the late eighties as the site was earmarked for future public housing development. One of the bungalows, built in 1973, hit the headlines in the newspapers when its owner, a local architect, won a rare case against the government’s low valuation. He was eventually compensated more than $670,000.

By the mid-eighties, except for a handful, most of the bungalows were torn down.

Track 24, most recently home to a fishing and prawning site, was one of the last tracks of Punggol Road to vanish. By 2017, all the tracks of Punggol Road had walked into history.

Punggol Point

The Punggol Point, or Punggol end area, was previously home to many landmarks, one of which was the Punggol Point Community Centre, established at Track 24 in the mid-eighties. The community centre occupied the old school building previously used by Punggol Malay School.

At Track 26 was Masjid Wak Sumang, a small kampong mosque that served the Malay fishing community living at Kampong Wak Sumang. It was demolished in 1995 to make way for the area’s development.

In 1993, the Punggol Point area, near Track 24 and 26, was hit by an outbreak of malaria, likely due to the many pockets of stagnant brackish water found in the fish farms. It resulted in the halting of almost all activities at Punggol Point, as the Environment Ministry scrambled to carry out fogging and oiling to curb the breeding of the Anopheles mosquitoes.

Between 1983 and the late nineties, the northeastern coast at Punggol underwent several land reclamation projects. The cost of the land reclamation totalled more than $1 billion, adding dozens of square kilometres of lands to the Punggol area. The reclamation project was competed by the end of the nineties. By then, the enlarged Punggol was bounded by three rivers – Sungei Punggol to the west, Sungei Serangoon to the east, and a narrow river passageway between Punggol and Coney Island (Pulau Serangoon).

Seafood Restaurants

The Punggol Point, however, was best remembered for its seafood restaurants, jetty and roadside bus terminal.

In the eighties and nineties, there were several large seafood restaurants, such as Hock Kee, Choon Seng, Whee Heng, Punggol and Seashore, operated at Punggol end, making it a popular venue among many locals who flocked there for family dinners, friends’ gatherings, or a sumptuous treat after striking a big lottery.

While the adults feasted their chilli crabs, cereal prawns, steamed groupers and Chinese-style mee goreng, the children were happily playing at the jetty. Others would simply take a relax moment at the beach, enjoying the winds over the calm waters, gazing at the stars in the sky or in the direction of Pasir Gudang on the opposite side of Johor Strait.

It was a common sight to see the end of Punggol Road parked with cars during the weekends. Others would take the Singapore Bus Service (SBS) public buses, numbered 82 or 83, to experience the rustic place that seemed to have stuck in time; a stark contrast as compared to other parts of Singapore which were rapidly evolving during that period.

The seafood restaurants enjoyed such brisk businesses that many had set up extra tables by the side of the road. When the buses did their three-point U-turns at the end of Punggol Road, they sometimes came dangerously close to the diners, who were sometimes treated with bright headlights and exhaust smoke.

The last of the Punggol seafood restaurants, affected by the redevelopment plans of the vicinity, was bulldozed by the end of 1994. With the roadside bus terminal also gone, the jetty, said to be built as early as the 1930s, is the only landmark at Punggol end still remains till this day.

Punggol Beach Massacre

The Punggol Point area was also the massacre site of 400 Chinese civilians by the Japanese military during the Second World War.

In February 1942, after invading and occupying Singapore, the Japanese carried out a series of Sook Ching (purging) operations. Hundreds of Chinese males living at Upper Serangoon Road were rounded up during a house-to-house search by the Hojo Kempei (Japanese auxiliary military police). Accused of anti-Japanese or triad members, the men were brought to the beach at Punggol before being gunned down.

A marker has been erected by the National Heritage Board near present-day Punggol Jetty, serving as a reminder of the Punggol Beach Massacre, a dark chapter in Singapore’s history.

In 1996, Singapore’s former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong announced the Punggol 21 plan to develop the rustic Punggol area into a modern bustling new town. After more than 20 years of transformation, Punggol has become a vibrant waterfront town today, home to a 120,000-strong population living in 43,500 HDB high rise flats that are accompanied by parks, shopping malls and a Light Rail Transit (LRT) network.

Published: 30 September 2018

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3 Responses to Retracing the 26 Tracks of Punggol Road

  1. Margaret says:

    Such a shame that in the eagerness to develop Singapore, so much of the historical landmarks are removed and destroyed leaving future generations with nothing to learn from.
    Singapore is now dependent on others for their food supplies as there’s no land for farming of any form. Also dependency on others always leave the dependent at the mercy of others, eg toxic pesticides and herbicides in vegetables and toxic antibiotics and additives in meat products.
    I wouldn’t call that progress, especially when people’s health is compromised and there’s no way forward except a whole lot of high-rise buildings.

  2. Francis Ang says:

    There is a missing jigsaw from the story of Ponggol. There was this big single storey bungalow a stone’s throw from St Anne’s Church. This was the home the legendary Dato’ Alec Heng Choo Leck built. He was a self-made richman who was well loved by the poor folks and farmers of Ponggol nearby Lorong Cheng Lim and surrounding areas. He once also operates the omnibus system in Singapore. He happens to be my late granduncle (maternal). The only two surviving members of the clan are my uncle and my mum. I have heard many happy and sad stories and the generosity and kind-heartedness of my late granduncle to alleviate the suffering of the poor and aged folks. When he passed away in 1957 I was told that his funeral was attended the hundreds and when he was lowered into his grave in Bidadari many in the crowd could not witnessed it. The house was also used by the Japanese Imperial Army as one of their district HQs. When my grand uncle was alive Tengku Ismail, son of then Sultan of Johor Sultan Ibrahim, had visited the home during Chinese New Year on behalf of his dad. The late Sultan Ibrahim had even donated a marble six-foot statue of St Joseph (imported from England) as a house warming gift to my granduncle. The statue was donated to then Sisters of the Poor (St Theresa’s Home for the Aged) along Upper Thomson Road on the passing away of my late grandfather in early 90s. It now stands in the compound of the home. It was bequeathed to the late French MEP priests, Fr Berthold, one of the parish priests of St Anne’s Church, who was a good friend of the family. From Berthold spoke Teochew quite fluently. Hope someone can interview the last two surviving folks of the Heng-Yap clan for some oral history of old Ponggol. I was born in one of the houses on that 3-acre piece of land in 1958 and grew up for many years with my brothers and cousins. The property was filled with many fruit trees – durian, rambutan, pulasan, kedong-dong, jack fruit, mangosteen, nutmeg and coconuts. Toilet then was the bucket system. Memories of those years will forever be etched in my mind.

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