The Lorong 3 Geylang terrace houses, 191 of them, had their 60-year leases ended on 31 December 2020. Began in 1960, the houses held on for six decades and eventually became Singapore’s first residential units to have met the expiry of their leases. By January 2021, all the housing units have since been vacated and taken over by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA). It is expected that the small housing estate will be redeveloped for future residential purposes.
Before the sixties, Lorong 3 Geylang, running perpendicular at the start of Sims Avenue and Geylang Road, led to two villages – Kampong Koo Chye (sometimes spelt as Khoo Chye or Kuchai) and Kampong Hock Soon. Largely made up of wooden houses on stilts along one of the tributaries of Kallang River, Kampong Koo Chye was better known as it hit the news headlines in the late fifties due to a fire disaster.
Fires were major concerns in the fifties. Kampong Bugis and Kampong Tiong Bahru were destroyed by large fires in 1951 and 1959 respectively. Geylang’s Lorong 1 and Lorong 3 were also sites of two notorious fire disasters in the late fifties – the lorong 1 fire consumed a small village, whereas the much larger Kampong Koo Chye at Lorong 3 was burnt down in 1958.
5 April 1958 was the fateful day for Kampong Koo Chye. A huge fire swept through 200-plus wooden huts, resulting in five deaths and 79 injuries. 379 families with 2,000 residents were rendered homeless overnight. It was Qing Ming Festival then, and a lit joss stick was believed to have carelessly dropped and caused the flames to start spreading rapidly in the strong winds.
Four fire engines were quickly deployed and 300 men, made up of firefighters and the locals, fought the fire for almost three hours before the inferno could be brought under control. But by 430pm, most of the houses had been burnt to ashes. Only an evening downpour stopped the fire from spreading to a nearby Lee Rubber factory, where 3,000 tonnes of rubber were stored.
It was then Singapore’s worst post-war fire disaster. In the aftermath, many residents were seen trying to salvage their charred belongings in the smouldering wreckage of their former homes. Voluntary organisations and social welfare workers arrived to help out with the food, clothing and medical distribution. More than 2,000 homeless people were temporarily housed at Geylang English School. Some of the residents managed to seek refuge with their relatives at other kampongs.
To assist the victims affected by the disaster, the Singapore City Council pledged $100,000 to a newly set-up relief fund. A further $200,000 was collected through donations from the public and various organisations. The Singapore government, under Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock, contributed to the fund by matching the donation amount dollar to dollar. Much of the funds went to help the victims as well as the construction of a number of low-cost low-rise houses in the vicinity.
The houses – their construction would eventually cost $900,000 – were rapidly built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT). Slightly more than 200 double-storey housing units were completed by 1960. Located at the end of Lorong 3 Geylang, the new residential estate – its land were acquired from private owners – was named Lorong Tiga Estate (tiga is three in Malay). Contracted with 60-year leases, each house was available for $5,000 with installment plans offered.
1,300 residents from the Kampong Koo Chye fire disaster had chosen to move into Lorong Tiga Estate. For the others, more than 100 families shifted to the SIT flats at Kallang and Queenstown. The rest decided to return to the rebuilt Kampong Koo Chye.
Lorong Tiga Estate was made up of 14 blocks, numbered Block 3 to 16. The blocks consist of five to 13 housing units. The Housing and Redevelopment Board (HDB) took over SIT in 1960, including all of its existing residential leases.
In the seventies, Kallang River and its tributaries were aligned, lengthened and canalised. New roads in Upper Boon Keng Road, Geylang Bahru and Kallang Bahru were built, serving the up and coming Kallang and Geylang Bahru industrial estates. Kampong Koo Chye walked into history by the mid-seventies, while new HDB flats were developed near Lorong Tiga Estate, including two HDB point blocks (Block 38 and 39) that were built beside the estate in 1976.
Fast forward to 60 years later, in 2020, the leases of the Lorong Tiga Estate houses finally came to an end. Before they were vacated, most owners had already moved out. At the end of 2020, only 40 housing units were still occupied by their owners. 16 had been converted for religious purposes, while 135 were used as dormitories for foreign workers.
Most of the HDB flats carry a 99-year lease. In the past two decades, many older flats underwent the Selective En-Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) and were demolished and replaced by new public housing. However, there are many other old flats that do not fall under the SERS. The flats at Stirling Road, for example, were built in 1968 and are currently one of the oldest batches of flats in Singapore. Tens of thousands more were built in the seventies. It will be a major challenge when the clock starts ticking towards the lease expiry of these flats.
Published: 6 January 2021