Taking a stroll at the quiet tranquil Springleaf Park today, it is difficult to imagine that 30 years ago, this place was a bustling centre of activities. The well-known Nee Soon Village had once existed here, along Sungei Seletar, at the junction of Upper Thomson Road, Sembawang Road, Mandai Road and Nee Soon Road.
A stone’s throw away was Nee Soon Camp, a important source of demand for goods and services that provided significant incomes for the many residents living in the vicinity. By the sixties and seventies, the Nee Soon Village area resembled a self-sufficient town with many amenities such as post office (Nee Soon Post Office), police station (Nee Soon Police Station), schools, community centres, workshops, clinics and places of worship.
Nee Soon Village’s predecessor was a kangchu system called Chan Chu Kang, established along Sungei Seletar in the mid-19th century. The kangchu system was an important social-economic system that existed in Johor, Riau as well as Singapore in the 19th century. Via the system, the Malay rulers could effectively control the influx of Chinese immigrants and, at the same, gain economic development in the rapidly growing spice industry.
In Singapore, there existed several kangchu systems. A couple of the larger ones had their names retained till this day, such as Lim Chu Kang, Choa Chu Kang and Yio (Yeo) Chu Kang. Others faded into history. By the late 19th century, the likes of Tan Chu Kang (located at Sungei Mandai Kechil), Lau Chu Kang (Sungei Mandai) and Chan Chu Kang (Sungei Seletar) had all but vanished.
Headed by Chan Ah Lak (曾亞六, 1813-1873), Chan Chu Kang’s name literally means the “House of Chan at the river”. Chan Ah Lak served as the headman of a kangkar (“foot of a river” in Teochew), who usually managed a large piece of land around a river for the cultivation of gambier or pepper. Chan Chu Kang was also commonly known as Chia Zhui Kang, which in Teochew refers to a “freshwater river”.
The processing of gambier was labourious and tedious. Besides the large number of Chinese coolies, the kangchu also hired the Orang Seletar, who were the indigenous people of the Seletar river. Although they mostly lived on houseboats and engaged in fishing, some worked at the kangkar’s bangsal (gambier-processing houses). Orang Seletar had called Sungei Seletar home for more than a century, until they moved out and resettled at Johor between the sixties and eighties.
The gambier and pepper industries eventually declined and lost much of their values by the end of the 19th century. Rubber quickly became an important commodity and export for Malaya and Singapore in the early 1900s. The vast northern part of Singapore, from Sungei Seletar to Mandai, soon became dominated by rubber estates and pineapple plantations, most of them owned by Lim Nee Soon (1879-1936). In 1930, Chan Chu Kang was renamed Nee Soon Village in honour of his contributions to the development of the Nee Soon area.
Although Nee Soon Village was the dominant village and centre of commercial activities, there were many other pockets of settlement in the Nee Soon-Mandai vicinity, such as Puah Village, Hup Choon Kek Village, Hainan Village (at Old Upper Thomson Road), Kum Mang Hng Village, Mandai Tekong Village, Pineapple Hill Village, Chye Kay Village, Kampong Jalan Kula Simpang and Kampong Telok Soo.
Nee Soon Village enjoyed decades of undisturbed peace and development until the seventies, when the government launched the Yishun New Town project. By 1977, batches of residents of Nee Soon Village had started to move out. Some of the secondary forest vegetation was cleared, and a number of tracks, namely Lorong Handalan, Lorong Persatuan and Lorong Sunyi, were expunged. The resettlement and demolition lasted throughout the eighties, and by the early nineties, Nee Soon Village was completely gone.
The once busy Nee Soon Road, named after Lim Nee Soon in 1950, became the main access road to a new private residential estate called Springleaf Garden. Over the years, the vegetation slowly claimed back the areas along Nee Soon Road that were previously home to the former village. Springleaf Garden was completed, in the late eighties, with rows of new semi-detached houses that fetched prices between $589,000 and $700,000.
The Nee Soon Bridge, spanning over Sungei Seletar, was constructed by the Public Works Department. Its predecessor was a wooden bridge built by Lim Nee Soon’s associate Koh Chin Chong. Sections of Sungei Seletar were straightened into a canal, and a new park connector, named Springleaf Nature Park, was developed and opened to public in 2014.
Over the decades, many landmarks of the Nee Soon vicinity had vanished. There was a popular market called Nee Soon Market situated between Nee Soon Road and Thong Aik Road. Initiated by Koh Chin Chong in 1947, the market lasted until 1979 when it was destroyed in a fire. A makeshift market was erected but it was demolished together with the village in the late eighties.
Expunged in the early nineties, Thong Aik Road was named after Thong Aik Rubber Factory, a rubber-processing factory established by Lim Nee Soon in 1912. It was renamed Nee Soon and Sons Rubber Works in the 1920s, before Lim Nee Soon sold it in 1928 to Lee Kong Chian (1893-1967), who named his new investment Lee Rubber. The red-walled facilities became a prominent landmark at the junction of Nee Soon Road and Sembawang Road, but was eventually torn down in the late eighties.
But one can still catch some glimpses of older Nee Soon today. The former Nee Soon Post Office building still stands at the junction of Upper Thomson Road and Mandai Road, having refurbished and converted into a pet sanctuary in recent years.
The old shophouses at Thong Bee Road (named after Lim Nee Soon’s company Thong Bee at Beach Road) and Chong Kuo Road (named after Lim Nee Soon’s eldest son Lim Chong Kuo) remain intact. So are the shophouses and popular eateries along Upper Thomson Road. There is also Meng Suan Road, with its rows of old charming Mandai Garden houses and overhanging cables.
Transit Road, however, underwent tremendous changes in the past two years. The Nee Soon Camp’s main access road has seen its rows of shophouses demolished and replaced by new private condominiums. A new Springleaf MRT Station is also being constructed in the vicinity, as part of the new Thomson-East Coast Line (TEL) network.
National Cadet Corps (NCC) members of the nineties would remember the Springleaf Camp, which was opened in 1990 by Dr Arthur Beng, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Fengshan. The 2.1-hectare camp’s School of Cadet Training was specially catered for the secondary schools’ NCC members, who previously had their trainings at Nee Soon Camp. Springleaf Camp, however, was demolished in the early 2000s. The site remains a vacant patch of land today.
Home of the indigenous people, a gambier and pepper-growing kangchu system, rubber and pineapple plantations, a dominant village and a nature park today. The Sungei Seletar area has indeed evolved drastically in the past 200 years.
Published: 09 June 2019