Singapore’s Heritage Tree Series – Broad-Leafed Mahogany

Launched on 17 August 2001, the Heritage Tree Scheme advocates the conservation of the old mature trees in Singapore that have beautified the country’s landscapes and served as green landmarks for decades. Open to the public, anyone can nominate trees to be considered as heritage trees, as long as the trees have a girth (trunk circumference) of more than 5m and have perceived values in botanical, social, historical, cultural and aesthetical aspects.

Till date, a total of 263 trees in Singapore have been given the heritage tree status by the National Parks Board (NParks). One of the heritage trees is the broad-leafed mahogany (scientific name: swietenia macrophylla).

Introduced to Malaya and Singapore from Central and South America in 1876, the broad-leafed mahogany, a native from Honduras, has been a popular roadside tree. It possesses a dense crown of dark glossy leaves, and can grow up to 30m tall. Its small flowers are greenish-yellow in colour and have a faint scent. The fruits are large brown woody pods of about 10 to 15cm long. When ripe, they split open to release dozens of flat winged seeds.

The broad-leafed mahogany’s densely-grained timber is highly valued for the manufacturing of furniture, panelling and musical instruments. Its fruits are also sometimes used as native medicine for diabetes treatment.

A total of nine broad-leafed mahoganies with heritage tree status can be found at Seletar Airport (five), Tanglin (one) and Sentosa (three). The ones at Seletar were planted when the Seletar West Camp was developed in the 1930s. While they had probably provided the shade along the passageway for the British servicemen in the past, they are now the shade trees at the Singapore Youth Flying Club premises. The Seletar broad-leafed mahoganies were endorsed as one of Singapore’s heritage trees in 2003.

Besides the broad-leafed mahogany, there are also the African mahogany (scientific name: khaya nyasica; introduced to Singapore in the late seventies) and West Indices mahogany (scientific name: swietenia mahogani) trees in Singapore.

Published: 21 April 2021

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A Forgotten Past – The Noah’s Ark of Pasir Panjang

Once located at Pasir Panjang Road 7¼ milestone (formal address was 189 West Coast Road), the zoo, dubbed as the Noah’s Ark of Pasir Panjang, was opened during the Chinese New Year period in 1957 by Tong Seng Mun (born 1920), a wildlife dealer and owner of Chop Wah On, Singapore’s oldest medical oil company located at Pagoda Street. Chop Wah Oh was established by Tong Chee Leong, Tong Seng Mun’s father, in 1916.

After his studies, Tong Seng Mun worked at Singapore’s police department. In 1942, he quitted his job to inherit his father’s medical oil company. A dealer and avid collector of wild animals, he even kept a tiger cub named Margaret at Chop Wah Oh, which led to a humorous incident in the sixties. Tong Seng Mun would later realise his dreams of his own zoo opened at Pasir Panjang in the fifties.

Occupying a size of 2 hectares (20,000 square metres), the Pasir Panjang zoo, facing the sea, was named Singapore Miniature Zoo and housed many large animals such as sun bears, lions, panthers, camels, tapirs, penguins, orangutans, birds of paradise and 50 tanks of tropical fish. It even had a baby rhinoceros and a baby elephant.

A 90kg sea lion was specially imported from Holland in 1956 for the zoo. Costing a grand $3,000, the sea lion was also featured at Singapore Aquarists Society’s fish exhibition held at the Happy World stadium.

The Singapore Miniature Zoo was opened daily from 9am to 7pm, and charged admission fees of 50c and 20c for adults and children respectively. In 1958, more than a year after the zoo was opened, it was almost forced to close down due to debts. With his pet shop business in England running into issues, Tong Seng Mun incurred a $3,500 debt that nearly saw his zoo’s animals auctioned off for repayments. Tong Seng Mun eventually managed to settle his debt and continue the Singapore Miniature Zoo.

Tong Seng Mun also faced some pressure from the World League of Animal Lovers International, which deplored the cruel treatment of monkeys being shipped overseas. Many of the animals were often found dead at the end of the long shipments. Tong Seng Mun proposed several points, including veterinary checks, sufficient food, issuing of import and export permits and registration of animal dealers by the government, to improve the wildlife trades.

The Singapore Miniature Zoo operated for nearly 10 years and was a popular attraction along Pasir Panjang until it was eventually closed in the sixties, affected by the new regulations of international wildlife trade.

Before the establishment of the Singapore Zoo at Mandai in 1973, Singapore had several private zoos that were opened to the public. Local Chinese businessman Hoo Ah Kay’s Whampoa Gardens had a menagerie-like collection of animals in the mid-19th century. Between 1875 and 1905, there was a miniature zoo at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, consisted of orangutans, a tiger, leopard, emu and sloth bear.

Indian merchant William Basapa opened a zoo at Punggol in 1928, but it was closed and destroyed during the Second World War. The Tampines zoo, opened in 1954, boasted of various wildlife such as crocodiles, leopards, tapirs, snakes and the large, flightless cassowaries. Another Punggol zoo was started by Chan Kim Suan and his brothers in 1963. It lasted until the early seventies as the last private zoo in Singapore.

When interviewed by the Free Press in 1957, Tong Seng Mun explained that his life ambition was to get the Singapore government interested in establishing a permanent zoological garden for the colony. Although his own zoo was closed in the sixties, he remained passionate in the wildlife.

In the sixties, there were feedbacks from the public and experts regarding a state-run zoo in Singapore. Different views were discussed and debated, such as the zoo’s educational value to the people, whether it would be a boost to the country’s tourism, and the possible high costs of operation and maintenance. Some also opined that caged animals were a cruel act.

The experienced Tong Seng Mun was later engaged as the consultant for Van Kleef Aquarium (1955-1991), Jurong Bird Park (opened in 1971) and the Singapore Zoo (opened in 1973). In 2014, the Tong family donated many digital copies of the former Singapore Miniature Zoo photographs to the National Archives of Singapore.

Published: 12 April 2021

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Searching for the Remaining Old Flood Gauges in Singapore

Located at the junction of Cambridge Road and Carlisle Road, this old one-metre flood gauge serves as a reminder of the frequent floods that occurred in this vicinity especially in the seventies. Such flood gauges were installed at many low-lying areas in Singapore in the past, as a means to record the depths of the waters and the severity of the floods. Not many are left standing today.

Another one can be found along Commonwealth Avenue, near the MRT station, but its wooden frame and markings are in relatively poor conditions as compared to the Cambridge Road one.

In tropical Singapore, rainfall is plentiful and thunderstorms are common. On average, it rains 167 days a year (a rainy day is defined when the total daily rainfall reaches at least 0.2mm), with Novembers and Decembers receiving the largest amount of rainfall. According to the National Environment Agency (NEA), between 1981 and 2020, the annual rainfall in Singapore averaged 2166mm.

The wet climate means that Singapore has always been affected by floods. The particularly bad ones occurred, on records, in 1935, 1954, 1955, 1964, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1974, 1978, 1980, 1984, 1985, 1998, 2000, 2004, 2010, 2011 and 2013. The flooding often caused disruption of services, power failures, traffic congestions, damaged properties, and, in the worst scenarios, loss of lives.

For example, one of the worst floods in Singapore’s history occurred on 11 December 1969, a Hari Raya holiday. Incessant heavy rains led to many parts of Singapore to become severely flooded, with water depths almost at the waist’s level. Electricity and telephone lines were cut, whereas farms were drowned and poultry swept away. There were several deaths, caused by the landslides and fallen trees.

The government launched Operation Rehabilitation, made up of food distributions, rent subsidies and other aids to the affected residents and farmers to help them resume their lives and work back to normal. Major clean-ups were also carried out to remove piles of debris accumulated during the floods.

Another flood disaster happened on the early morning of 7 September 1974. Three hours of torrential rain led to a 38mm accumulation of rainfall, recorded by the Paya Lebar meteorological station.

The low-lying Jalan Besar and Rochor areas were hit badly – at one stage, the floods there were almost 2 feet (61cm) deep. Many houses at Cambridge Road, Geylang Serai and Bukit Timah were flooded, forcing their residents to move out temporarily. Hundreds of cars at the downtown and city areas were stranded, with huge traffic jams reported during the morning peak hours.

In December 1978, thunderstorms again caused disastrous flooding at the areas from Bishan to Potong Pasir. This time, the floods claimed seven lives, thousands of pigs and poultry and destroyed large areas of farms and crops.

Since the early seventies, almost $2 billion had been invested to improve Singapore’s drainage infrastructure. A drainage master plan was drawn in the mid-seventies by the Ministry of Environment. Major diversion canals were constructed. A large canal, for instance, was constructed at Ulu Pandan in 1970 as part of the anti-flood scheme. New towns and housing estates developed in the seventies were also designed with better drainage networks. By the late eighties, things had significantly improved.

Further enhancements were carried out after 2000. The Marina Barrage, opened in 2008, is equipped with pumps to flush out the water into the sea during thunderstorms. In many of newer buildings, detention tanks and retention ponds were also installed to slow down the flow of water, hence preventing the overloading of the drainage network within a short period of time.

The Public Utility Board (PUB) has also installed water level sensors and CCTVs at numerous canals and drains, providing the public with quick updates of possible flash floods. Today, flash floods still occur due to sudden surge of rainfalls, but the waters tend to subside quickly. These new advanced devices are a stark contrast as compared to the old flood gauges that were once found in the different parts of Singapore.

Published: 28 March 2021

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Exploring the Remnants of Kay Siang Bunkers

The Kay Siang Bunkers have been hidden in the small forested area between Kay Siang Road and Margaret Road for decades. Probably built in the 1940s by the British as storage places for ammunition and other supplies, there are a total of three bunkers, designed with double doors for reinforced protection against impacts and bombings. These bunkers might be supporting facilities for the nearby Buller Camp at Alexandra Road, a former British military camp in this vicinity.

The Alexandra Road area was heavily damaged during the Second World War when the British’s Normanton oil depot was set on fire in an attempt to stop the Japanese from advancing.

The desperate bet failed as the thick smoke engulfed the nearby villages instead. When the enemies took over the place, they brutally massacred the remaining residents in the villages. It was unknown whether or how the bunkers served their purposes during the war. After the war, the Kay Siang bunkers were presumably forgotten and gradually consumed by nature.

In the early fifties, Buller Camp, along with the villages, farms, cemeteries and swamps in the vicinity, was demolished and cleared by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) for the development of a new Queenstown housing estate. Margaret Drive was constructed as the main road for the new Princess Estate. Despite the development, the Kay Siang Bunkers remained undisturbed.

The surrounding area around the bunkers saw some changes over the decades. Several schools, such as Hua Yi Government Chinese Middle School, Tanglin Girls’ School, Strathmore School and Kay Siang School, emerged around the bunkers and its forested home in the late fifties and sixties. Some students of these schools might have discovered and explored the bunkers.

Townsville Institute was established in the late eighties, occupying the former site of Hua Yi Government Chinese Middle School. It had a stadium built just a stone away from the bunkers.

The campus later became the headquarters for the Movement For The Intellectually Disabled. By the late 2000s, the premises, except the stadium, were torn down. A new Housing and Development Board (HDB) cluster of flats named Skyparc was developed.

On the opposite side of Kay Siang Road are some of the pre-war colonial houses, built and used by the British likely in the 1930s. Most of the houses have been used as exclusive private residences today.

Note: Interested explorers of Kay Siang Bunkers need to watch out for safety as the decades-old buildings, especially the remaining façade of the first bunker, may be structurally unstable.

Published: 10 March 2021

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Emerald Hill – A Gem at Orchard

The beautiful Emerald Hill area today was originally a jungle when the British first arrived at Singapore. The trees were cleared between 1819 and 1836 to provide fuel for the boiling of gambier leaves. After decades of exploitation, Emerald Hill became a barren wasteland, and was leased in 1837 to William Cuppage (1807-1872), who was originally a postal clerk in Singapore in the early 1830s and had worked his way up to become the Acting Postmaster-General in 1856.

In 1845, William Cuppage was granted the permanent ownership of Emerald Hill, where he planted vast nutmeg plantations and built two villas for himself called Erin Lodge and Fern Cottage. The nutmegs, however, failed in the 1860s due to diseases and falling prices.

When Cuppage died in 1872, he left the plantations to his three daughters. One of Cuppage’s son-in-law Edwin Koek, a lawyer and Municipal Commissioner, purchased the estate. Both Cuppage Road and Koek Road were named after William Cuppage and Edwin Koek respectively.

In the following decades, Emerald Hill had changed ownership several times. In 1900, the estate was purchased by local Chinese businessmen Seah Boon Kang and Seah Eng Kiat, who then carved up the land into smaller lots and sold them to individual owners who built the first terrace houses and shophouses at Emerald Hill. Many of these early terrace houses of Emerald Hill were designed in Georgian and Regency styles, with added touches of Chinese Baroque elements especially in their façades, wall ornaments and ceramic floor tiles.

The Emerald Hill of the early 20th century soon became a residential enclave for the wealthy local Chinese and Peranakan businessmen and their families. During this period, a typical Emerald Hill terrace house would cost about $3,000. It was a bustling place then, where many rickshaws and horse drawn carriages plied the roads.

The Orchard Road Market, situated between Cuppage Road and Koek Road, was the go-to place for the Emerald Hill residents to get their fresh produce and groceries. There was also the Singapore Cold Storage that catered mainly to the European residents living in the Orchard area. Opening in 1905 at the site of present-day Centrepoint, it was Singapore’s first supermarket.

A railway bridge also once existed near Emerald Hill. Known as the Orchard Road Railway Bridge, it was part of the railway system between Tank Road and Woodlands Jetty. In 1932, the Tank Road Station and Orchard Road Railway Bridge were subsequently demolished after the railway line was diverted to the Keppel Road Station.

The increasingly crowded Emerald Hill saw more street hawkers moving into the area to sell food and other stuff. The poor hygienic conditions of the hawkers and street eventually led to a typhoid outbreak in 1934, affecting as many as 11 adults and 13 school children, some of whom died.

In 1921, the Municipal Commission agreed to convert Emerald Hill Road into a public street. Six years later, Hullet Road, a short street connecting Emerald Hill Road to Cairnhill Road, was properly paved and also declared a public street. In 1937, Cairnhill Road was extended at its northern end to link up with Emerald Hill Road. The road extension was named Cairnhill Circle.

To the local residents, Emerald Hill Road was fondly known as tang leng tiam yia yee hang (“Tanglin Cinema Street” in Teochew). The cinema referred to the Pavilion Theatre (previously known as Palladium Theatre) that operated between 1914 and 1971 near Emerald Road Hill. The location of the cinema today is occupied by Orchard Gateway.

In 1925, the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School moved from Hill Street to the Orchard area, where its new $65,000 campus was located in the parcel of land bounded by Orchard Road, Emerald Hill Road, Cairnhill Road and Hullet Road.

The Singapore Chinese Girls’ School was founded in 1899 as an all-girls Peranakan school. To support its relocation plan, Dr Lim Boon Keng, one of the co-founders of the school, agreed to sell his parcel of land at Orchard to the government, which subsequently exchanged it with the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School’s Hill Street premises.

The Singapore Chinese Girls’ School stayed at the Emerald Hill area until 1994 when it moved to Dunearn Road. Its old school campus was then taken over by Chatsworth International School in 1998.

The Second World War impacted Emerald Hill just like any other places in Singapore. After the war, the wealthy Straits Chinese’s exclusive residential enclave had lost its upper class shine; the terrace houses and shophouses had become dilapidated and some were left vacant. Robberies and house break-ins were rampant at Emerald Hill in the fifties.

During the post-war period in the late 1940s, supplies of the basic necessities were extremely tight. In 1946, hundreds had to queue along Emerald Hill Road to get their milk at the Singapore Cold Storage, where the controlled quota was fixed at nine tins of condensed milk per person.

Some of the more prominent former residents of Emerald Hill Road were former Municipal Commissioners Seow Poh Leng and Chin Chye Fong (1892-1965). There were also Heng Pang Kiat, a Justice of Peace, and Chan Sze Jin (1886-1948), a Straits-born Chinese lawyer and member of Executive and Legislative Councils. More than 500 people attended Chan Sze Jin’s funeral when the procession left his Emerald Hill Road house on 27 September 1948.

The Tai Suah Ting cemetery at the Orchard area was exhumed and cleared in the mid-fifties. Orchard, due to its excellent location and close proximity from the city area, gradually became a bustling place, with C.K. Tang Department Store opening in 1958. Supermarkets, malls and hotels began filling up Orchard from the sixties to the eighties. Despite the rapid pace of development, Emerald Hill remained a hidden and quiet sanctuary from the increasing busy main streets.

In 1982, the century-old Orchard Road Market was demolished to make way for the further development of Orchard Road into a shopping belt. Peranakan Corner, at the junction between Emerald Hill Road and Orchard Road, was renamed Peranakan Place and was leased out by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to a private entity for the promotion of Peranakan culture to both locals and tourists.

In 1985, URA announced the plan of an Emerald Hill Conservation Area to be established at a cost of $2.2 million, inclusive of the restoration cost for some of the terrace houses.

In the late eighties, a section of Emerald Hill Road, the short stretch that led to its junction with Orchard Road, was pedestrianised and closed off to vehicular traffic. Likewise, part of the neighbouring Cuppage Road was also converted into a pedestrian walkway.

The Emerald Hill area was officially gazetted for conservation by URA on 7 July 1989, together with Peranakan Place and Cuppage Terrace. Most of Emerald Hill’s terrace houses were designated for private residential usage, except for a few that were granted for commercial purposes.

While the owners were required to maintain the front façades of the housing units, in order not to compromise the overall aesthetics of the Emerald Hill’s stretch of conserved terrace houses, they were allowed to add extensions at the rear of their units to create more spaces. These extensions, however, were not allowed to be taller than the front façades.

Emerald Hill and Peranakan Place are part of the Orchard Road’s Heritage Trail today.

Published: 26 February 2021

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The Colourful Landmark of Selegie Arts Centre

Tucked in the corner of Selegie Road and Prinsep Street, the three-storey wedge-shaped building is an eye-catching landmark, largely due to its odd shape and rows of window panes painted in bright cheerful colours.

The formal address of this building is 30 Selegie Road, and it was likely built in the late 19th century or early 20th century as part of the row of shophouses along Prinsep Street. According to the Newspapers Archives of Singapore, the junction of Selegie Road and Prinsep Street used to have many jinricksha (rickshaw) pullers, coolies and a public latrine.

In the eighties, the building housed a popular kopitiam at its first floor, serving delicious Indian rojak, banana leaf curry, tandoori chicken and kebabs. There was even a small yogurt bar in the coffeeshop. By the early nineties, Prinsep Street’s row of aging shophouses, affected by the urban renewal plan, were torn down. The unique wedge-shaped building was fortunately preserved, escaping the demolition plan. However, it was in a poor dilapidated state.

In 1994, the National Arts Council (NAC) moved in to house several of the local arts groups, giving the pale-yellow building a new lease of life and a new name called the Selegie Arts Centre. Tenders were opened and the public was invited to set up cafes and art retail shops such as bookshops, art materials shops and music shops.

The Selegie Arts Centre, since 1995, also houses the Photographic Society of Singapore as well as the Loke Wan Tho Gallery, which displays the former Cathay Organisation founder and cinema magnate’s award-winning photographs taken in the fifties.

As part of the Waterloo Street Arts Belt, the Selegie Arts Centre is managed under the NAC’s Arts Housing Scheme, which was implemented in 1985 as an effort to provide artists and arts groups in Singapore affordable spaces to carry out and develop their works, so as to contribute to an active Singapore arts scene.

Besides the Waterloo Street Arts Belt, NAC also works with the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) in the designation of the Chinatown and Little India Arts Belts. Under the housing scheme, the old shophouses and disused warehouses at Chinatown and Little India are leased to many arts groups, where they help to revitalise and rejuvenate the buildings and areas.

The other arts institutions and campuses around the Selegie vicinity include the Singapore Art Museum (Bras Basah Road), Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) (Bencoolen Street), Lasalle College of Arts (McNally Street), Stamford Arts Centre, Sculpture Square and Singapore Calligraphy Society (Waterloo Street).

Published: 20 January 2021

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The End of Lorong 3 Geylang Neighbourhood

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

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Bidding Farewell to Dakota Crescent Flats

Dakota Crescent and its low-rise flats were built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) in 1958, two years before the formation of the Housing and Development Board (HDB).

It was then known as the Old Kallang Airport Estate, a massive $2,250,000 housing project prided by SIT to be “one of the most pleasant and easily accessible suburbs in the colony, served by first class road and frequent bus services. Abdul Hamid bin Haji Jumat (1916-1978), the Minister for Local Government, Lands and Housing officiated the opening of the housing estate with a commemorative plaque in July 1958.

Old Airport Road was constructed as the main road leading to the housing estate, connected to a small network of minor roads named Jalan Satu, Jalan Dua, Jalan Tiga, Jalan Empat, Jalan Lima and Jalan Enam (“one” to “six” in Malay). Blocks of one-, two- and three-room flats were developed on both sides of Old Airport Road, where the Dakota Crescent blocks had even block numbers. The flats on the other side of road were assigned odd block numbers.

Old Kallang Airport Estate and Old Airport road were named after the defunct civilian airport located a short distance away, in which its operations were ceased in 1955. Dakota Crescent was named after Dakota DC-3, an American transport plane that once commonly did its landings at Kallang Airport. In 1946, one Dakota DC-3, belonged to the Royal Air Force (RAF), crashed at Kallang Airport in a thunderstorm. All of its passengers perished in the disaster.

Residents and shopkeepers started moving into Dakota Crescent in 1958. The rental of the one-room flats were $25 per month, but increased to $40 by the early sixties. The first shops, meanwhile, were available for lease at a monthly fee of $125 to $150. In 1959, around 4,000 residents from Kampong Tiong Bahru were temporarily housed at the vacant flats after their attap and timber houses were destroyed in a big fire.

The new housing estate faced several issues in the early days. It had no public phone booths – the residents urged the Singapore Telephone Board to install one so they could get in touch with the police in times of emergency. The lifts were unreliable – one of the flats’ lift was jammed and trapped a family of nine until they were freed by the SIT’s lift operators.

Street lights were installed in 1962, but only along the main Old Airport Road – the roads of Dakota Crescent, Jalan Satu, Jalan Dua and Jalan Tiga were still in the darkness at night. Other requests by some of the early residents included carparks and additional Singapore Traction Company’s bus services to the city area.

Other than the lack of public amenities, the early Old Kallang Airport Estate was also plagued by frequent criminal activities such as thefts, robberies and clashes between rivaling secret society members. In the early sixties, the nearest police station was located more than 6km away. The roads were also lined with street hawkers in the sixties, causing traffic obstruction and choked drains filled with garbage.

Despite the tough conditions, the community spirit within the estate was strong. In 1968, Old Kallang Airport Estate came in second as the nation’s cleanest estate competition organised by HDB, after hundreds of participating residents spent the morning sweeping and washing the corridors and staircases. The blocks at Dakota would win another “cleanest blocks” contest in 1995. In 1969, the small strip of land in front of Block 36 also topped HDB’s gardening competition.

The popular Old Airport Road hawker centre was added to the estate in 1973, housing some of the street hawkers. The nearby Mountbatten Adult Education Board (AEB)  Centre, in the seventies, provided numerous courses for the residents’ personal development and upgrading.

In the early eighties, many one-room flats within the Old Kallang Airport Estate were torn down, replaced by new high-rise blocks of three- and four-room flats. At Dakota Crescent, the HDB blocks of 58, 60 and 62 were built in 1983.

Schools were also built at the estate. Broadrick Secondary School and Maju Secondary School were officially opened in 1969 (In 1996, Broadrick Secondary School and Maju Secondary School were merged to form the new single-session Broadrick Secondary School). Mountbatten Primary School was merged in the eighties from Mountbatten English Primary School and Mountbatten Government Chinese Primary School (in 2001, it amalgamated with Fowlie Primary School and Haig Boys’ School to form Tanjong Katong Primary School).

Another big change came in the 2000s when almost half of the Dakota Crescent flats were torn down to make way for new condominiums. The old Block 34, 36, 38, 40 and 42 SIT flats were replaced by Dakota Residences, completed in 2010. The space left behind by the demolition of Block 44, 46, 48, 50, 52, 54, 56, 70 and 72 is now occupied by the Waterbank at Dakota.

On the other side of Old Airport Road, only Block 13 and 21 of the original Old Kallang Airport Estate development remain till this day.

In 2015, the government announced that Dakota Crescent would be slated for redevelopment under Mountbatten’s estate renewal plans. A Save Dakota Crescent group has since been formed to raise their concerns to the authority, pushing for the estate to be conserved and re-purposed for other uses. Their concerns were discussed in the parliament in October 2016.

The Ministry of National Development (MND) decided that Dakota Crescent’s central cluster of six flats and the iconic dove playground would be conserved and refurbished for civil and community uses, while the remaining nine blocks would be demolished and have their sites redeveloped.

By end of 2017, almost 95% of Dakota Crescent’s 400 households had moved out. Many of them were longtime residents of Dakota Crescent, who grew up in the neighbourhood and had lived there for more than half a century. Some of the residents chose to move the nearby Cassia Crescent.

The demolition project of the Dakota Crescent flats was put on hold in the first half of 2020 due to the Covid-19 circuit breaker enforcement. It has since resumed in late November 2020, and it is finally time to bid farewell to the 62-year-old SIT flats.

Published: 02 December 2020

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Singapore Trivia – A Lone Kampong House at Mandai

There is not much information on the kampong house – how long has it been left there, why was it not demolished last time?

Located about 100m off Gangsa Track (former Mandai Track 15), the small kampong house measures roughly 7m by 5m. Standing on stilts, it is made of wood and has a zinc roof. At the back of the house is a small pond, possibly used for fish or prawn farming in the past. Nearby are also former water wells and remnants of brick and wooden structures which could be used to keep poultry.

The green paint on the house’s walls has worn off, and its wooden stairs broken off, indicating that the house should be abandoned for a long time. But some of its connecting bolts are found relatively new; perhaps there were some repairs in recent years? Judging by its relatively small size and location, the house might be a temporary home or a storage place.

According to the Singapore Land Authority’s (SLA) 1979 and 1985 maps, Mandai Track 15 used to have many houses, ponds, plantations and even a place of worship.

Gangsa Track, or Gangsa Trail, was developed for both the mountain bikers and trekkers in the early 2000s. Stretching about 5km from Mandai Road to Chestnut Nature Park (North), it was developed from Mandai Track 15, a beaten road off the main Mandai Road.

As for other rural roads such as Lorong Gangsa and Jalan Kwok Min, they existed until the nineties before they were expunged and consumed by the thick Mandai forest and undergrowth.

Between the early and mid-eighties, Bukit Timah Expressway (BKE) was constructed from north to south, first from Woodlands to Mandai Road, then from Mandai Road to the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE). This affected some of the Mandai villages, resulting in the relocation of their residents.

By the late eighties, the Mandai area was taken over by the Singapore Armed Forces as part of their training grounds, and almost all the villages were relocated and demolished.

Although Gangsa Track has been made accessible to the public since the early 2000s, Live Firing Area and Protected Area signages remain erected at certain points to warn people against straying needlessly into the forested area.

Published: 11 November 2020

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15 Defunct Department Stores We Miss the Most

As we bid farewell to longtime retail giant Robinsons, let us do a recap of those once-familiar Japanese, French, Hong Kong as well as local department stores that became defunct in Singapore (We will save the former supermarkets/hypermarkets for another day).

1. Robinsons (1858-2020)

Being in the business for a long 162 years, Robinsons began as a small shop at Raffles Place (formerly Commercial Square), named Spicier and Robinson. Its founders James Gaborian Spicer and Philip Robinson sold everything from European groceries, spices to women’s apparel.

In 1859, the business was renamed Robinsons and Company after James Spicer left the partnership. By the early 20th century, Robinsons had become the leading department store in Singapore, positioning itself as the upmarket store catering specially for the European expatriates.

In its history, Robinsons and its iconic department store at Raffles Place survived the Great Depression (it posted its first ever losses of about $233,000 in 1932), Second World War bombings, Japanese Occupation (it was closed between 1942 and 1945) and a disastrous fire in 1972 that killed nine people and destroyed million dollars’ worth of goods.

Robinsons picked itself up after the disaster, expanding to other parts of Singapore. It subsequently opened stores at the Specialist’s Shopping Centre (1972), Clifford Centre (1977-1983) and The Centrepoint (1983-2014). After the company was sold to the Al Futtaim Group, another three stores were opened – Raffles City (2001-2020), JEM (2013-2020) and The Heeren (2013-2020). But they were eventually closed in 2020 due to dwindling business, challenges from the eCommerce and the impact by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Memorable Slogan: “Robinsons Sale – The sale worth waiting for

2. John Little (1842-2016)

Before Robinsons, John Little was Singapore’s oldest department store. It was started in 1842 when John Martin Little opened his shop at Raffles Place (formerly Commercial Square), selling wine, textile, furniture, stationery and clocks. In 1955, John Little was acquired by Robinsons.

John Little left his iconic Raffles Place store in the sixties, and over the years, went on to open stores at the downtown area, such as Plaza Singapura and Specialist’s Shopping Centre. It was revamped with a new logo “JL” in the late eighties in order to woo the younger crowds.

John Little reached out into the new towns and suburban area in the early 2000s, by opening outlets at Parkway Parade, Jurong Point, Northpoint and Compass Point. But by 2015, Robinsons’ new owner Al Futtaim Group decided to close all the John Little department stores in Singapore, with the last one at Plaza Singapura shuttered in November 2016.

3. Yaohan (1974-1997)

Japanese department store Yaohan entered the Singapore market in 1974 with its first branch at Plaza Singapura. Offering a wide range of merchandise, Yaohan also boasted a supermarket, bakery and even a child play centre, a fresh concept that attracted many shoppers in the seventies and eighties. Before Yaohan, Singaporeans had not have the chance to experience shopping, supermarket and takeaway snacks under one roof.

At its peak, Yaohan had stores at Katong (1977-1983), Thomson Plaza (1979-1998), Bukit Timah (1981-1996), Jurong (1983-1997) and Parkway Parade (1983-1997). But by the late eighties, it faced challenges from other Japanese department stores such as Daimaru. The new mega player Takashimaya, opened at Ngee Ann City in 1993, also influenced changes in the consumers’ shopping habits.

Yaohan opened its last store at Marina Square in 1996 in a bid to catch up with its rivals, yet a year later, its mother company in Japan was declared insolvent due to mounting losses. In Singapore, its flagship store at Plaza Singapura was closed in 1997. Thomson Yaohan, the last one standing, eventually shut down in 1998.

Memorable slogan: “For one-stop family shopping

4. Daimaru (1983-2003) 

Daimaru was another Japanese department chain that had been eyeing the Singapore market for a long time. It was during the Second World War when Daimaru set up its first department store in Malaya – opened in Penang in 1942. It had a brief presence in Singapore, replacing the ousted John Little at Raffles Place. During the sixties and seventies, Daimaru carried out market researches and surveys to establish a branch in Singapore.

Finally, in November 1983, Daimaru’s flagship store at Liang Court was opened. It enjoyed the best days throughout the eighties, warding off challenges from other large retailers such as Isetan, Metro, Robinsons and Tangs. But entering the late nineties, Damairu was suffering from consecutive years of losses.

Despite the tough times, Daimaru seemingly won the battle when they took over the space left behind by Yaohan at Plaza Singapura, as the latter had shut down in 1997 due to bankruptcy. However, Plaza Singapura’s Daimaru did not last for too long. It was opened for six years before its operations were ceased due to its Japanese headquarters’ decision to scale down on their overseas venture and concentrate in their main business back at home.

5. Sogo (1986-2000)

Sogo was another Japanese retail giant that had established a number of department stores in Singapore in the nineties. Back in Japan, it had a long history, starting off as a kimono shop in 1830. In the eighties and nineties, Sogo expanded to other Asian regions, such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.

Sogo opened its flagship store at Raffles City in 1986, with Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Suppiah Dhanabalan (born 1937) invited as the guest of honour to officiate the opening. The company subsequently opened two more new stores at Paragon and Tampines’ DBS Building.

But in 2000, Sogo ran into real estate investment issues and landed itself in a mountain of debts. Several overseas stores had to be closed, including the ones at Singapore. The 14-year-old Sogo flagship store at Raffles City was replaced by Robinsons, whereas Metro took over Sogo’s former premises at Paragon.

6. Tokyu (1987-1998)

Tokyu joined other Japanese department chains in Singapore by opening its first store at Marina Square in October 1987, where former Finance Minister Dr Richard Hu (born 1926) officiated the opening.

Tokyu Department Store was designed to provide shoppers a “complete Japanese experience with the ingenuity of traditional Japanese-style customer services”. Tokyu positioned itself as a brand offering moderately-priced merchandise from Japan, Hong Kong and other sources. By the late eighties, besides the Singapore store, Tokyu had expanded to Hawaii, Bangkok and Hong Kong.

In 1993, Tokyu closed its Marina Square branch (1987-1993) and moved to Tampines (1993-1998). But by 1998, Tokyu had exited the local market as the group looked to restructure and liquidate their overseas assets due to hefty losses incurred during the 1997/98 recession. In 2014, Tokyu Hands, a sister store of the former Tokyu Department Store came to Singapore with a new lifestyle store opened at Westgate.

7. Seiyu (1998-2008)

Another Japanese brand was Seiyu, which was established in 1946. In Singapore, Seiyu appeared in 1994 as Seiyu Wing On Department Store, a joint venture with Hong Kong company Wing On. Seiyu then took over and became the main department stores at Bugis Junction, Junction 8 (Bishan) and Lot 1 (Choa Chu Kang) in 1998.

Singapore’s Seiyu stores were bought over by Beijing Hualian Group in 2005 for $4 million, and their stores renamed BHG. By 2016, BHG has owned seven department stores in Singapore, at locations such as Seletar Mall, Century Square Shopping Centre and Jurong Point. Meanwhile, the Seiyu Group back in Japan was fully acquired by Walmart in 2008.

8. Galeries Lafayette (1982-1996)

Upmarket French department store chain Galeries Lafayette has been finding successes in its business since it opened in 1912. However, that success was not replicated in Singapore. It had an official opening at Goldhill Plaza on 7 December 1982, occupying three storeys and offering many exquisite yet affordable items of Galeries Lafayette’s own brands.

However, the department store lasted only four years at Goldhill Plaza, before it had to shut down in 1986 after posting a total of $15 million’s worth of losses. Poor store location, image problems and merchandising difficulties were cited as the reasons behind its closure.

But Galeries Lafayette was determined to make a comeback in Singapore. On 28 March 1987, it reopened its store at Liat Towers, aiming to claim a stake in the fast growing Orchard Road shopping belt. It took over the space previously occupied by Isetan, which had moved to Wisma Atria.

But once again, stiff competition and leasing issues eventually saw Galeries Lafayette bowed out of the Singapore market again, this time in early 1996.

9. Printemps (1983-1989)

Galeries Lafayette was not the only French department store trying to penetrate the Singapore market. Printemps, a French department store that dealt with lifestyle, fashion and accessories, had a brief presence at Singapore’s Orchard Road in the eighties. The retail giant was founded in 1865, and went global in the eighties and nineties by opening stores in Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan as well as Singapore.

10. Lane Crawford (1994-1996)

Established Hong Kong retailer Lane Crawford has a significant history, dating back to 1850. It later expanded to China and Japan but was devastated by the Second World War. Lane Crawford quickly picked itself up after the war, becoming an upmarket department store that offered jewellery, fashion, furniture and watches.

In June 1994, Lane Crawford arrived at Singapore, with its store opened at Lane Crawford Place at Orchard Road. Former Minister for Information and The Arts George Yeo was the guest of honour for its official opening.

Singapore, however, was undergoing a retail slump in the mid-nineties. Lane Crawford itself was also bothered by internal issues, which saw some of its top management resigned in quick succession. In 1995, Lane Crawford slashed its store size from five floors to two.

Just slightly more than two years after its opening, Lane Crawford was closed in October 1996, incurring a loss of $7 million including a compensation to landlord Marco Polo Development for the early releasing of its four-year lease. Lane Crawford exited the Singapore market and Lane Crawford Place was subsequently renamed Wheelock Place.

11. Singapore Shui Hing (1980-1983)

Before Lane Crawford, Shui Hing had already attempted to break into the Singapore market. But it also suffered the same fate of having a short-lived presence here, lasting only three years. Shui Hing was started in Hong Kong in 1964, and had been successful, opening as many as 17 outlets in the former British colony by the end of the seventies.

In Singapore, Shui Hing opened the first store at Orchard Road in August 1980, selling mainly American and European merchandise. It was designed in American style, in order to provide customers a feel of “shopping in New York”. The store consisted of four storeys, made up of sections selling fashion, kitchenware and household products. It also had a gourmet shop serving food and beverages.

However, a year later, Shui Hing attempted to shed its pricey New York image. By mid-1983, the department store and its building were put up for sale at a price of $32 million. OG bought the building for $25 million, and Singapore Shui Hong officially walked into history in July 1983.

Memorable slogan: “It’s like shopping in New York”

12. Kmart Metro (1994-1996)

In 1994, Kmart collaborated with Metro to open three stores in Singapore, including the ones at Marina Square and Century Square (at Tampines). Positioning itself as a store offering great values, Kmart aimed to bring a whole new meaning to “discount shopping”.

But again, Singapore’s retail slump in the nineties put massive pressure on its three stores, which suffered a total loss of $12.6 million in 1995. A year later, Kmart’s main office in the United States decided to close more than 200 stores globally, including the Singapore outlets, to concentrate in its North and South American markets.

13. Cortina (1973-late 1980s)

Cortina Department Store was a prominent shopping venue housed at Colombo Court, North Bridge Road. Covering six floors, the department store sold everything from fashion, shoes, bags and perfumes to toys, wine and kitchenware. But the fortune of Cortina went into a decline in the early eighties. It was downsized in 1984 and moved to Funan Centre a year later.

Other local department stores of the past also included the Aurora Department Store (1938-1960s), located at the junction of North Bridge Road and High Street, and Vashi’s Department Store (1960s-1973), a department store at Raffles Place’s D’Almeida Street during the sixties. It was closed in September 1973.

Both were upmarket department stores catering to the masses living and working at the city area.

14. Emporium (1961-1987)

Emporium was a name once familiar to many Singaporeans. It was Singapore’s largest department chain in the early eighties before it was hit by the 1985 recession.

At its peak, the Emporium Holdings Group, established by Lim Tow Yong and his brother back in 1961, opened more than 50 department stores in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Its iconic Emporium department stores could be found in almost all major new towns in Singapore in the early eighties.

Besides Emporium, the group also owned Oriental, Chinese, Eastern, Sin Hua and Yuyi, which specialised in a wide range of Chinese products in garments, textiles and food stuff. In 1978, Emporium Holdings Group opened its 12th retail outlet – Klasse Department Store – at Lucky Plaza.

Debt-laden in the mid-eighties due to the unexpected recession and the group’s overly aggressive expansion, Emporium eventually fell into bankruptcy and faded away among the larger department store chains in Singapore.

Memorable Slogan: “There’s an Emporium around every corner to serve you!

15. Tah Chung Emporium (1967-1990s)

Located between Commonwealth Avenue and Margaret Drive, Tah Chung Emporium was opened in 1967, and had been Queenstown’s iconic landmark for more than two decades. It was housed in a three-storey building, with the first and third floor occupied by hawkers and a Chinese dim sum restaurant. The emporium had the entire second level to itself, selling household goods, kitchenware, apparel and electrical appliances.

In the seventies, Tah Chung Emporium also collaborated with the Emporium Holdings Group, Singapura Emporium (East Coast Road) and People’s Emporium (Tanjong Katong Road) to dish out a “combined emporiums sale”, offering discount vouchers, free gifts and other attractive sale gimmicks.

As Queenstown aged, Tah Chung Emporium went into a decline and was eventually closed in the late nineties, with its building torn down in 1999.

Other Emporiums

The name emporium was widely used between the sixties and eighties. Besides the larger department stores under Emporium Holdings Group and Tah Chung Emporium, there were many others such as Tashing Emporium (at People’s Park Complex), Overseas Emporium (People’s Park Complex), Great Wall Emporium (Maxwell Road), Shankar’s Emporium (High Street) and Neo Soon Whatt Emporium (Serangoon Gardens).

Tashing Co (Pte) Ltd started as a heavy machinery supplier in 1969. They also established Tashing Emporium, which offered products imported from Taiwan.  Their emporium business went into decline and was shut down in 2002, but Tashing Co (Pte) Ltd has since switched to wholesale distribution in food products and is among the top 1,000 food distributing SMEs (small and medium enterprises) in Singapore today.

Overseas Emporium was established in 1970 at the People’s Park Complex. At that time, it was the largest Chinese emporium in Singapore, and its signature paper bags carrying its Chinese name (中桥) were commonly seen throughout the seventies. Operating under the OEGroup, the department store is still a popular destination among the locals today.

Shankar’s Emporium was founded in the fifties, and has been in business for more than 65 years. Its headquarters is based in Singapore and has business operations in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Neo Soon Whatt Emporium was a small former department store at Serangoon Gardens in the late sixties, selling China and locally manufactured products.

Current Department Stores

Today, the major department stores in Singapore are Takashimaya, Isetan, OG, BHG, Tangs, Marks & Spencer (formerly St Michael, renamed in 1994) as well as Metro. 

Published: 7 November 2020

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