Walking Down the Memory Lane of Margaret Drive

Margaret Drive was named after Princess Margaret (Margaret Rose, 1930-2002), the younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II. Constructed in the mid-fifties, Margaret Drive was simply known by the locals as the new road, as it was the main road to serve the newly developed Queenstown housing estate. It ran through Queenstown’s first two neighbourhoods, namely Princess Margaret Estate (later shortened to Princess Estate) and Duchess Estate.

The early Margaret Drive was extended from Alexandra Road to connect with Tanglin Road. It was linked with Queensway at its other end by the early sixties, making the road a total of about 2 km long.

Margaret Drive’s route remained the same for 50 years until 2016, when part of the road was altered due to the Housing and Development Board’s (HDB) residential projects in the vicinity. The modified Margaret Drive is now linked to Kay Siang Road and Dawson Road before continuing its way towards Tanglin Road.

Located along Margaret Drive, the Princess Estate’s early terrace houses were built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) in the early and mid-fifties, selling for $7,000 to $7,700 each. Other similar houses, designed with two bedrooms and modern sanitation, were located at Duchess Estate’s Dawson Road.

At the same period, the SIT also built blocks of SIT flats of one-, two- and three-bedroom units at Margaret Drive. The relatively low construction cost of the flats also meant that the quality could be compromised, and various defects such as wall cracks started to show up by the early seventies.

In 1973, the HDB, who took over the role from SIT in 1960, proceeded to redevelop some of the aging residences at Margaret Drive. Several terrace houses (Block 35, 36, 38) and low-rise flats (Block 34, 37, 93, 95, 99) were identified, with their residents served moving out notices. Many of the residents had rented the units for monthly fees of $35 to $40.

The demolition of the SIT flats and houses freed up the space for new redevelopment projects. In the following years, amenities such as supermarket, cinemas, community centre, multi-storey carparks as well as new HDB flats were built to serve the needs of the increasing Queenstown population. The eighties saw another batch of SIT flats torn down, whereas the remaining survived until the late nineties.

While the SIT flats phased out in the vicinity, the taller HDB flats faced their own fate of demolition too, as the likes of Block 39, 39A and 40, built in the mid-sixties, were torn down in the early 2010s to make way for a newer batch of public housing.

Margaret Drive had new pipping and extension to its water networks installed in the late fifties. The street lighting, however, did not arrive until the sixties.

In the early sixties, both sides of Margaret Drive would be busily dotted with street hawkers, providing a convenient source of food for the residents. However, at the same time, they were congesting the pedestrian walkways in a disorderly manner. The poor hygienic conditions of the street hawkers also posed an issue.

The Margaret Drive street hawkers were later disallowed to ply their trades, and their makeshift stores and tents demolished by the authority. Many later found home at the new markets and hawker centres at Margaret Drive and Tanglin Halt established in the late sixties.

Queenstown’s increasing number of residents and motorists often led to heavy traffic conditions and jams during the peak hours in the sixties, especially at the junction of Margaret Drive and Tanglin Road. It was not until the seventies when the installation of traffic lights at the junctions that the situation started to improve.

Schools

More than a dozen schools once co-existed along Margaret Drive in the sixties and seventies. Many of the schools had closed, or merged. Only a handful of them – Queensway Secondary School, Queenstown Primary and Secondary Schools, Rainbow Centre – Margaret Drive School and Lee Kong Chian Gardens School – still stand at Margaret Drive.

1. Queensway Secondary School (1961-Present)

2. Margaret Drive School (1958-1986) – Not to be confused with Rainbow Centre – Margaret Drive School (RCMDS) which caters for students with special needs. It was established at Margaret Drive School’s former premises in 1987.

3. Birkhall Road School (1956-1984) – Merged with Queenstown School in 1984.

4. Queenstown School (1956-Present) – Merged with Birkhall Road School in 1984. Merged again with Mei Chin Primary School and Tanglin Primary School in 2002 to form the new Queenstown Primary School.

5. Strathmore School (early 1960s-1980) – Established next to Birkhall and Queenstown Schools. Shifted further down Margaret Drive and near Kay Siang Road in 1969. Merged with Keng Seng School in 1980.

6. Hua Yi Primary School (1963-1991) – Established as Hua Yi Integrated School. Closed in 1991 due to low student enrolment.

7. Hua Yi Government Chinese Middle School (1956-Present) – Established at Fowlie Road in 1956 as Singapore’s first government Chinese secondary school. Relocated to Margaret Drive in 1958. Renamed Hua Yi Secondary School and moved to Depot Road in 1985. Shifted to Jurong West in 1999.

8. Tanglin Boys’ School (1958-sixties)

9. Tanglin Girls’ School (1957-late eighties) – Merged with the nearby Belvedere Primary School and Xianglin Primary School in the late eighties.

10. Kay Siang Primary School (1969-1983) – Took over Tanglin Boys’ School’s premises in the late sixties. Lasted 15 years until its closure in 1983.

11. Queenstown Secondary School (1956-Present) – Established in 1956 at Jalan Eunos School and moved to Strathmore Avenue as Queenstown Secondary Technical School a year later. Renamed Queenstown Secondary School in 1993 and shifted to a temporary site while its old school buildings were demolished. Moved back to its new school campus in 1997.

12. Townsville Institute (1988-1995) – Established at the former premises of Hua Yi Government Chinese Middle School as a centralised institute for three-year pre-university students studying commerce. Closed in 1995, along with Seletar Institute, as a result of declining student enrolment.

13. Lee Kong Chian Gardens School (1961-Present) – Singapore’s first permanent school for children with intellectual disabilities. Moved to Margaret Drive in 1970 after temporarily housed at Ah Hood Road and Outram. Its old iconic octagonal blocks were demolished in 2000, and replaced by new buildings.

Library

Besides the flats and schools, Margaret Drive had numerous prominent landmarks, one of which is the Queenstown Public Library, Singapore’s first full-time branch library. Initially called Queenstown Branch Library, it was officially opened by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on 30 April 1970.

Costing more than $1 million in construction, the double-storey library was designed in Modern style, with unique features such as a “bow-tie” motif along its parapets, sun-shading block and large glass windows that allowed the reading rooms to be naturally lit.

At the start, the library offered as many as 50,000 books – 25,000 of them were children books – allowing the population living in the vicinity who could not afford to buy books to have free access to reading. The library also supplemented the mobile library services that used to ply along Margaret Drive. By the early seventies, Queenstown Branch Library had almost 13,000 members. Between 1,500 and 2,000 books were loaned out on a daily basis, a testimonial of its high popularity.

Equipped with information counter, large reference area, reading room and discussion corners, Queenstown Branch Library was the main venue for many activities in the seventies, including various crime prevention talks, photo competition exhibitions, career fairs, guitar lessons and films on awareness of drug abuse. In 1973, the library’s operating hours were extended to 10pm for four days a week, due to popular demands.

By 1978, Queenstown Branch Library had 48,000 members. Its success was replicated at other new towns and housing estates, such as Toa Payoh, Jurong, Kampong Chai Chee, Joo Chiat and Kaki Bukit. Overall, the National Library, its various branches and mobile library services achieved almost 350,000 memberships by the end of the seventies.

For the many schools along Margaret Drive in the seventies and eighties, the library provided a convenient venue for their students to revise homework or do researches on different topics after classes.

In 1978, Queenstown Branch Library was upgraded with air-conditioning, giving additional comfort to the many library-goers. The library was further refurbished in 2003, with installation of elevator, new lighting and cafeteria. The library was renamed Queenstown Public Library in the nineties.

Along with 74 other buildings in Singapore, the 43-year-old Queenstown Public Library was included in the conservation list of Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) Master Plan 2014.

Polyclinic

The former Queenstown Polyclinic (known as Queenstown Combined Clinic at the beginning) at Margaret Drive was officially opened on 13 January 1963 by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. It was Singapore’s first polyclinic, and was established to provide subsidised affordable healthcare and medical services to the residents of Queenstown.

Queenstown Polyclinic comprised an outpatient clinic, psychiatric clinic, maternity centre and a healthcare services outlet for children. A private dental clinic was also added in 1984. In 1986, the polyclinic was upgraded for more consultation rooms and to improve on its registration processes.

Queenstown Polyclinic was involved in many government’s medical programs in the seventies, such as the free vaccine for children’s immunity against smallpox, measles and diphtheria. By the late seventies and early eighties, polyclinics became essential amenities in the newly developed housing estates, including Clementi and Ang Mo Kio. There were as many as 12 polyclinics in Singapore in 1980, but Queenstown Polyclinic remained the only one to be opened during Sundays and public holidays.

In 1985, Queenstown Polyclinic underwent another round of renovations. After completion, it became the main medical centre servicing both the Queenstown residents and those living in the Holland Road area, taking over the functions of Chip Bee Outpatient Dispensary and Holland Road Maternity and Child Health Centre.

Medical services remained affordable at polyclinics in the late eighties – it cost $2.50 for consultation and 50c for every items of medicine prescribed. However, the waiting time could be exasperatedly long even after the enhancements to the registration processes.

Queenstown Polyclinic was relocated to Stirling Road in 2007, and its old Margaret Drive premises was temporarily leased out as foreign work dormitories for several years. Currently vacated, there are no news of any conservation or redevelopment plans of the former Queenstown Polyclinic yet.

Hawker Centre

The Commonwealth Avenue Food Centre, or sometimes fondly known as Margaret Drive Hawker Centre, was built in 1969 to accommodate the street hawkers. The makan place was a popular venue for the Margaret Drive residents, who patronised it for their morning doses of kopi and savoured their favourite fish ball noodles and chicken rice during lunches and dinners.

By the late 2000s, as more Margaret Drive residents moved out and old flats vacated, it was clear that the double-storey hawker centre, housed in block 40A, would not last for long. Even then, it remained popular among diners from the nearby factories and offices. In 2011, the 42-year-old hawker centre was eventually closed for good, and was subsequently demolished.

Its site was left vacant for several years before a new residential project – SkyResidence @Dawson – kicked off recently. Its completion will be accompanied by a new hawker centre called Dawson Hawker Centre.

Market

Other than Commonwealth Avenue Food Centre, the Block 38 Commonwealth Avenue Wet Market, a stone’s away from the hawker centre, provided another alternative for food. It was also the main market for the residents to buy fresh produce, vegetables, eggs and other necessities.

Known as the “coffin market” by the residents due to the distinguished parabolic shape of its roof, the market, built by SIT in 1960, was the first wet market to be conserved by URA. It is also one of the two conserved Margaret Drive landmarks, along with the Queenstown Public Library.

Today, the wet market no longer functions, having closed back in 2005. There will be redevelopment plans to the building, one of which is restoration to a wet market place.

Cinemas

Queenstown welcomed its first cinemas when the Venus Theatre and Golden City Theatre opened at Margaret Drive in late 1965. Screening popular Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew movies, the cinemas were a hit among the residents of Queenstown. Both Venus Theatre and Golden City Theatre arguably enjoyed their golden periods in the seventies, but would suffer their declines a decade later.

Facing stiff competition from newer neighbourhood cinemas and the rise of colour television programs, the cinemas’ revenues dropped and had to end their businesses by the mid-eighties. Their buildings have been occupied by the Church of Our Saviour and The Fisherman of Christ Fellowship since then.

A third cinema in the vicinity fared better. The twin-screen Queenstown/Queensway Cinema was opened in 1977 and lasted more than two decades until 1999. It was the go-to place for many Margaret Drive and Queenstown youngsters and dating couples, especially in the eighties, when Hong Kong kungfu flicks and Taiwanese romance films were permanent fixtures on the screens.

The cinema also had a neighbouring bowling alley, known as Queenstown Bowl. In the later years, a karaoke lounge was also added. Both of those amenities provided additional entertainment options for those who had finished the late night movies.

But the late nineties saw the popularity of the cinema and bowling alley declined along with the population of the Margaret Drive estate. They were subsequently shut down, and were left vacated for years. In 2013, the former buildings of the old school cinema and bowling alley were finally demolished. A new Queenstown Mall will be constructed at their former sites in early 2021.

Emporium

Opened on 9 September 1967, Tah Chung Emporium was the undisputed number one shopping venue for the residents of Queenstown. It was housed in a three-storey building, numbered 40B, located between Commonwealth Avenue and Margaret Drive.

While the emporium occupied the building’s second floor, the ground floor was reserved for the numerous street hawkers formerly from Margaret Drive and Commonweath Avenue. On the third floor was Golden Crown, a popular dim sum and Chinese cuisine restaurant.

The emporium, together with the neighouring market, hawker centres, cinemas, post office, library and polyclinic, served as the unofficial self-sufficient town centre for Queenstown from the seventies to the nineties. An aging neighbourhood and declining resident population, however, brought an closure to Tah Chung Emporium in the nineties, and its three-storey building was subsequently demolished in 1999.

Mosque

Located at the junction of Margaret Drive and Tanglin Road, Masjid Jamek was constructed in the early sixties to cater for the religious needs of the Muslim residents and workers at Queenstown. Upon its completion, it was officially opened on 25 December 1964 by Mohamed Khir Johari, the former Malayan Minister for Agriculture and Co-operatives.

The single-storey mosque was designed in traditional Javanese style and could accommodate as many as 400 worshippers. Masjid Jamek’s most distinguished feature is its tall minaret with a pitched roof, situated above the prayer room.

The mosque also used to have a miniature garden filled with tropical decorative plants and wooden fences, but it had to make way for a drainage when the road next to the mosque was raised. This was due to the frequent flooding in the area during the seventies and eighties.

In some cases, Masjid Jamek was affected so badly that its compound would be filled with water at knee-deep levels. The mosque personnel had to clear the flooded premises by painstaking scooping the water out. The situation only improved after the upgrading of the Alexandra Canal.

Previously painted in bright blue colour, Masjid Jamsek formed a striking contrast with the tall reddish HDB flats in its background. The mosque has been changed to a beige and brown tones recently. Today, it conducts religious lectures on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays as well as madrasah classes during the weekends.

Prison

With imposing watch towers and tall walls, the Queenstown Remand Prison was perhaps the only unapproachable landmark along Margaret Drive. It was built in the mid-sixties as the replacement for the old Outram Prison, which was demolished and redeveloped into Outram Park housing estate.

Queenstown Remand Prison was opened in 1966 by then Minister for Culture and Social Affairs Othman Wok. It was situated at the end of a short minor road called Jalan Penjara, off Margaret Drive.

The 388-cell prison was used for holding inmates on short sentences or those waiting to be transferred to Changi Prison. Typically, three to four inmates were locked in one cell, equipped with squatting toilet with a flush system. The prison also had blocks of quarters as accommodation for the prison wardens.

Queenstown Remand Prison was closed in August 2009, after almost 43 years of operation. There were suggestions to convert it into a hostel, studio, artists’ gallery or even a youth campsite. But the premises were eventually demolished a year later. Its site is currently an empty piece of land waiting to be redeveloped.

Rain Trees

Last but not least, there are numerous majestic rain trees along Margaret Drive that have grown, flourished and witnessed the past peacefulness and recent changes at Margaret Drive. It is a pity that a number of the decade-old rain trees, many of them more than 50 years old, have to be cut and removed due to the widening of the road and residential development of the vicinity.

Margaret Drive is currently undergoing rejuvenation. Other than SkyResidence @Dawson, several HDB residential projects are expected to be completed by the end of 2020. These include SkyOasis, SkyParc and Dawson Vista, which will add more public housing units to the already completed SkyTerrace and SkyVille HDB flats in the vicinity.

Published: 15 December 2019

Updated: 18 December 2019

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3 Responses to Walking Down the Memory Lane of Margaret Drive

  1. Alvin says:

    Hi From what I know parts of former queenstown remand prison is now St Andrews nursing home & rainbow center. Also Jalan Penjara has been realigned ever since.

  2. Hercules Lim says:

    Hi , I grew up in Queenstown, Tanglin Halt n Commonwealth Crescent area in the 60s n 70s and my father is still presently staying there now.

    Regards the schools in the vicinity you mentioned, I think you left out 2 primary and 1 secondary school in that locality. I studied in Permaisura Primary School and it was next to New Town Primary School…both these primary school merged sometime in 1992 n only New Town Primary now exists next to the new HDB skyscaper at Tanglin Halt. Permaisura Primary is no more.
    The Secondary school you left out was the New Town Secondary School n whose original 2 campus buildings still stands and which was also used as a temporary holding school when New Town Seconday moved to Dover. Just wanted to clarify.

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