Reminiscences of the Old Beauty World

Located at the junction between Upper Bukit Timah Road and Jalan Jurong Kechil, used to be known as the Bukit Timah Road 7.5 milestone, was once a popular market and shopping destination for locals during weeknights and weekends.

Before the Second World War, the Bukit Timah vicinity was mostly made up of kampongs and rubber and pineapple plantations. Beauty Timah Village was the dominant kampong; its surrounding area was then known as “Chin Huat”, derived from the name of a grand mansion – the only brick house in the vicinity – owned by a Chinese mandarin who had settled in Singapore in the early 20th century. The house was destroyed by the bombings during the Japanese invasion, and its site later replaced by Halfway House nightclub and restaurant.

Tai Tong Ah

During the Japanese Occupation, some local businessmen collaborated with the Japanese to open an amusement park at Bukit Timah Road 7.5 milestone. It was named Tai Tong Ah Sai Kai (大东亚世界 in Cantonese), after the Japanese’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere propaganda during the Second World War. The new amusement park cost almost $1 million to build, with funds likely raised by the Overseas-Chinese Association.

A grand opening of the amusement park was held in September 1944, opened by Japanese officers and several invited Overseas-Chinese Association members. The new recreational place was made up of getai (singing stages), food and drink stalls, photo studios, medicine shops, a Japanese films-screening theatre called Tiong Hwa Cinema and all types of gambling booths such as lottery, tikam-tikam, pai-kow and fan-tan.

It was said that the Japanese wanted gambling to divert the people’s attention from their oppressive rule, and, at the same time, soak up their wealth and recoup the banana notes which were not printed fast enough to deal with the runaway inflation during the Japanese Occupation. It was not uncommon to see lucky gamblers went home at night carrying sacks of banana notes, without any fears. Robberies were rare then – thieves and robbers would have their heads chopped off during the Japanese Occupation.

Powered by generators, the amusement park’s stalls were brightly lit at night and packed with people, making it stood out in a vicinity of ruralness and darkness, and was dubbed as the most “beautiful” place at Bukit Timah. Hence, Tai Tong Ah was also known as Beauty World.

After the end of war in 1945, Tai Tong Ah was allowed to operate for another year with a temporary license granted by the returning British. The gambling booths, however, were banned, greatly affecting the park’s business. With the crowds not returning, a businessman and hotel owner Giam Kok Eng sought approval from the British authority to dismantle the park and convert the site into a market place.

Old Beauty World

In 1947, the Beauty World (美世界) Market was opened, retaining its former popular name. The name was also catchy and easy to remember among the locals, as it resembled the three well-known leisure places in Singapore then – Great World (大世界, located at Kim Seng Road), Gay World (繁华世界, Geylang Road) and New World (新世界, Jalan Besar). The new market-shopping venue was filled with stalls selling a wide range of products from food, beverages, textiles and shoes to books, hardware and utensils.

But Beauty World during the fifties was plagued by extortion, violence and territorial fights by the secret society members. The stallholders and hawkers at the market had to pay protection fees to the gangsters. Otherwise, they would be beaten up and their stalls wrecked. It would be the sixties before the anti-gang laws came into effect to reduce and suppress the illegal activities of the secret societies.

In 1962, the market saw expansion with the establishment of Beauty World Town, adding vitality to the busy stretch from Bukit Timah Road 7 milestone to 8 milestone that was already buzzing with business and industrial activities.

In fact, the Bukit Timah area was one of Singapore’s first industrial areas established after the war, with numerous rubber, canned food, beverage and sauce production plants operating in the vicinity, such as Bin Seng Rubber, Lam Choon Rubber, Amoy Canning, Lam Soon Cannery and Yeo Hiap Seng. There were also the famous Singapore Cold Storage and Ford Motor Company.

The withdrawal of the British military in the early seventies dealt a blow to the businesses at Beauty World. Like many other markets and clusters of shops elsewhere in Singapore, including Jalan Kayu, Changi and Nee Soon Village, Beauty World also relied on the spending powers of the British troops stationed in Singapore.

But with the opening of more factories and industries in the vicinity, Beauty World managed to survive and flourish. By the mid-seventies, the Beauty World Market had grown to include more than 150 stalls, selling all types of food, necessities and appliances popular with the locals, tourists and expatriates.

But its popularity came with a price. Jalan Jurong Kechil was constantly jammed with many illegally parked cars, and the crammed market was often complained by the public for its dirtiness and poor hygienic conditions.

The congested stalls covered with corrugated zinc and canvas tops, messy huts and makeshift structures at Beauty World Market and Beauty World Town were also a potential hazard for fire-related incidents. At least five major fires broke out at Beauty World Market and Town between the seventies and eighties.

In 1975, a fire roared through two coffeeshops and seven stalls that sold food, poultry, textile and radios, destroying $200,000 worth of properties. The last fire incident, occurred in 1984, razed the 40-year-old Tiong Hwa Cinema to the ground.

The Beauty World site was acquired by the Singapore government in 1975, and by late 1983, it was decided to close and demolish the old and dilapidated Beauty World. The former market saw its last batch of stallholders and hawkers moved out by 1984.

The old shophouses at the nearby Chun Tin Road and Cheong Chin Nam Road are perhaps the only survivors in the vicinity that have witnessed the rise and fall of the old Beauty World. The shophouses have since been refurbished and converted into popular restaurants, cafes and pubs.

New Beauty World

As the old Beauty World walked into history, a new Beauty World – the government-built Beauty World Centre and the privately-developed Beauty World Plaza – emerged on the opposite side of Upper Bukit Timah Road.

Opened in 1984, Beauty World Centre was designed and built by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) at a cost of $45 million. The new mall’s shops on its first three storeys were mostly reserved for the former stallkeepers at the old Beauty World. On its fourth level was a 41-stall food centre, where the previous hawkers shifted and continued their trades.

The remaining old Beauty World tenants, who did not want to shift to the new place or not agreeable to the rents, had mostly relocated to the new town of Clementi.

Beauty World Centre was bought over by Pidemco Land in 1989. Nine years later, the ownership of the mall was sold to its 194 individual shopowners in a strata-titled deal that amounted $80 million in total.

As for the former sites of Beauty World Market and Beauty World Town, there had been proposals since the mid-eighties to redevelop the land for new high rise buildings or malls, but the plans never did materialise. In the 2010s, the Downtown Line cut through the vicinity, with a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station opened in December 2015. The MRT station was fittingly named after Beauty World.

After more than three decades, the new Beauty Worlds are showing signs of aging too. Both Beauty World Centre, including its hawker centre, and Beauty World Plaza have been the subjects of purchases for redevelopment in recent years, albeit unsuccessful deals due to their valuations. However, with Singapore constantly and rapidly evolving, it is not surprising to see a new generation of Beauty Worlds in the near future.

A trip down the memory lane of the old Beauty World (before its resettlement and demolition in the mid-eighties):

Published: 22 September 2019

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11 Responses to Reminiscences of the Old Beauty World

  1. I still remember playing KOF 95 or 97 at the basement arcade centre there. Such a long time ago…

  2. bossyflossies says:

    I moved to Singapore two years ago and I always wondered why the station was called “Beauty World” as I found it rather odd compared to some of the other MRT station names. Thank you for this wonderful history!

  3. Angeline says:

    The fire that destroyed the Old Beauty World happened on the first day of CNY in 1982, not 1984. I was a 12 girl back then. My house was directly opposite the Old Beauty World, along Jalan Hiring Kechil. I witnessed the fire that evening.

    • Hi Angeline, you are right, just that the article did not mentioned the 1982 fire.

      The news headline then: “61 shops and homes hit by New Year fire, The Straits Times 27 January 1982

      Overall, Beauty World was hit by major fire incidents in 1967, 1975, 1977, 1982 and 1984. The 1984 one was the last fire incident before Beauty World got flattened.

    • Tong wee Aw says:

      Hi. Maybe we are from the same kampong. 🙂 where there is onli a common toilet and uncles would come collect nightsoil regularly.

  4. Tong wee Aw says:

    Thank you for bringing me back to the kampong I grew up from. It is so wonderful to be able to see the pictures and recognise where they actually are like the cinema where I used to go watch Masked Rider movies. I would lile to point out that the last pic is actually opposite Beauty World beside a row of shophouses. I know this cos that is the same path I take to access my kampong at the back which is now HDB flats. I also use this path to get to the main road with the bus stop. Beauty World Town would be visible when I reached the main road when there was a big drain too. 🙂

  5. Teh says:

    Now I know why they are called Beauty World.

  6. Clementi kid says:

    Once upon a time Beauty World Centre was one of the hippest places to be, comparable to what Ion Orchard is for today’s shoppers.

    Back in the day there weren’t a lot of suburb malls in the heartlands, going to a mall was a luxury (usually for a weekend) and you were very privileged indeed to be living near one.

    There were a lot of Chinese radio (95.8FM) ads for the Beauty World mall in the mid-late 1980s.

    Malls built around the same era tend to share the same aesthetics, for example the ‘zig zag’ staircases within the mall can also be found in People’s Park Centre and The Adelphi.

  7. niklar55 says:

    In the 1960’s, I met a girlfriend in the old Beauty World, but she eventually married another man.
    I used to visit the ‘Halfway House’ restaurant and bar, for a meal quite often, on my way to Singapore town for an evening cinema show. I saw the original, ‘2001 a Space Odyssey’ when it was premiered in Singapore.
    Malaya had its first ”free” elections while I was there, and all the Chinese people voted, while most of the Malays didn’t bother, so all the Chinese delegates were voted in.
    The Malay government promptly threw them all in jail for ”Sedition”!
    It was reported that the riots were so extensive, and so many people killed, that they had to use the meat cold stores for the bodies.
    There was a curfew in Singapore, with soldiers every 100 metres along Bukit Timah Road into town. I took a trip into town, on my moped, to see what it was like, ignoring the curfew, and I’d never seen Singapore Town so completely deserted. It was erie!
    The soldiers ignored me, in spite of the curfew. I suppose they considered that a European wasn’t likely to cause any problems.
    Eventually, my time in Singapore ended, and I returned to the UK, but I still miss the food and very civilised lifestyle of Singapore, and its people.

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