A Short History of Tampines Road – Busy Junction, Customs Station and Illegal Alcohol

There are a couple of old buildings along Tampines Road, near its junction with Upper Serangoon Road, that seem out of place standing among the new developments in the vicinity. They were the former Customs Station and Quarters, more than three decades ago, functioning under the jurisdiction of the Customs Operations Command Building, or COC, at Keppel Road.

Prior to that, during the Second World War, the wooden houses were apparently warehouses storing gunny bags of rice. After the Customs Station’s operations ceased in the seventies, the buildings were utilised as an Islamic religious school for several years during the nineties. They were then converted into a kindergarten and student hostel in the 2000s.

Today, the vacant buildings, consisting of five single-storey wooden houses and a four-storey block, stand between new private condominiums Tembusu and Stars of Kovan (still under construction). The buildings are part of the list of state properties under the administration of the Singapore Land Authority (SLA).

The COC, during the sixties and seventies, was the headquarters of the Land Division of the Customs and Excise Department. Beside the Tampines Road Customs Station, it also held the jurisdiction of other Customs Stations located at the old Woodlands Customs Checkpoint, Kangkar, Lim Chu Kang, Changi, Tanjong Pagar and Jurong, which was its latest addition in the seventies.

A customs team, known as the Land Squads, was stationed at the Land Division headquarters, with specific tasks to raid and seize the illegal manufactured samsoo, or samsu (which like toddy, was a type of alcoholic drink once popular among the local community in Singapore and Malaysia), smuggled opium and duty unpaid cigarettes.

The Land Squads was organised into “A”, “B” and “B” teams, with each teams assigned to their designated zones of duty. Often, the teams had to venture into the rural parts to seek the hidden samsoo distilleries and smugglers hidden in the jungles. In 1964, the customs officers busted an illegal samsoo hideout in the thick undergrowth along Tampines Road. Caught with almost 1,800 litres of mash and 80 litres of samsoo, the manufacturer was fined a hefty $9,000.

The Customs Stations at Changi, Kangkar and Tampines Road came with staff quarters that provided accommodation for the customs personnel. The customs officers stationed at Tampines Road Customs Station were tasked not only to conduct regular checks and raids on illegal alcohol, drugs and cigarettes, but also worked as tax collectors for imported eggs and other produce shipped from the Kangkar and Punggol Point fishing ports.

The area near the junction of Upper Serangoon and Tampines Roads used to be known as “lak kok jiok” (referring to the 6th milestone of Upper Serangoon Road) by the local Chinese, particularly the large Teochew community, who had lived there for generations, together with pockets of Malay, Indian and Eurasian families. Between the sixties and eighties, lak kok jiok was a bustling “centralised” area with markets (Simon Road Market and Lim Tua Tow Market), cinemas (Empire Theatre and Zenith Theatre), villages, schools, clinics, provision shops and places of worship.

The Tampines Road Customs Station, after two decades of operations, was closed in the seventies. By the late seventies, its opposite Somapah Serangoon Village was demolished as its site was redeveloped into the (old) Hougang Town Centre. New blocks of Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats sprung up in the vicinity by the mid-eighties, and Jalan Hock Chye became Hougang Avenue 1. Jalan Hock Chye did not disappear into history, though, as a short section of it was retained and used as an access road to private residences today.

Published: 14 January 2019

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From Old Cemetery to Vibrant New Town; A Peck San Theng Heritage Gallery

After two years of conceptualisation, and supported by the National Heritage Board, the Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng Heritage Gallery was officially opened in June 2018, showcasing the history of Peck San Theng Cemetery, and its transformation into the vibrant Bishan New Town.

Early Cantonese Cemeteries

The early Cantonese and Hakka communities in Singapore had their roots traced back to the early 19th century, when they arrived in batches from China’s seven prefectures – Guangzhou, Huizhou, Zhaoqing, Jiaying, Fengshun, Yongding and Dapu.

In 1824, the Cantonese and Hakkas built the Fuk Tai Chi Temple, a place of worship that also served as the headquarters of the two communities. Over the years, their populations grew, leading to higher demands for burial grounds. Hence, between 1820s and 1870s, three Chinese cemeteries were established. They were the Cheng San Teng (青山亭) Cemetery, Loke Yah Teng (绿野亭) Cemetery and Pek San Theng (碧山亭) Cemetery. The three cemeteries were located at present-day Maxwell Road, Bukit Ho Swee and Thomson Road areas respectively.

The Teahouse

After the Second World War, until the 1970s, Peck San Theng Cemetery had covered a large 324-acre (1.31km2) area, almost equivalent to 180 football fields and two-thirds of present-day Bishan New Town. The cemetery was also home to Kampong San Teng, which was largely made up of Chinese families as well as a small number of Indian and Malay residents. The village itself was self-sufficient; there were provision shops, a soy sauce factory, clinic, school, wayang stage and a large coffee shop named Peck San Tea Pavilion.

Also known as Peck San Teahouse, the coffee shop was housed in a single-storey building with distinctive tapered roof that modelled after the teahouses in rural China. It mainly served as both an eating and gathering place for the residents of Kampong San Teng.

Peck San Tea Pavilion was particularly bustling during the annual Qing Ming Festival, when the members of the extended families came together for drinks and meals before their tombsweeping activities at the cemetery. One of the popular dishes the coffee shop was selling were their steaming hot dim sum.

Kampong San Teng

The Kampong San Teng residents lived scatteredly beside the Peck San Theng Cemetery, which was demarcated by 12 pavilions. The Cantonese families stayed around Pavilion 1 to 3, while the Hokkiens and Teochews’ homes were located between Pavilion 4 and 7. At Pavilion 8 was another small number of Hokkien families. Most of the villagers’ homes were attap houses; the better off families lived in wooden ones with zinc roofs.

The kampong residents mostly worked as farmers at the small plots of lands beside their homes. Others reared and sold livestock such as chicken, ducks and pigs at the nearby markets. A small number of skilled craftsmen also resided at Kampong San Teng, engaged in specialised jobs such as tomb inscription for the cemetery.

In the sixties and seventies, many young men from Kampong San Teng preferred to venture out of their village, travelling further to work at the electronic factories, Sembawang shipyard and Sembawang Naval Base.

For much of its history, Kampong San Teng had inadequate amenities and a lack of proper sanitation. Accessibility was also an issue for those residents living at the inner parts of the kampong, a long walking distance away from the village’s entrance. Overall, life was difficult but generally safe and simple. By the early seventies, Kampong San Teng reached its population peak of about 1,000 residents.

Chinese Public School

Peck Shan Ting School was established in 1936 by the Kwong Wai Siew Federation to provide free education for the children of Kampong San Teng and the nearby villages. Lee Min, one of the school’s founders, wanted the poor families’ kids to have access to education so that they could have better prospects in life.

The students of Peck Shan Ting School were taught their subjects in Chinese. In 1956, the school built a new single-storey building with six classrooms to accommodate morning and afternoon classes. A year later, Peck Shan Ting School was incorporated into the national education system, becoming a government-aided school like most other Chinese public schools in Singapore.

The school premises had its own basketball court and running track. Beside studies, the students engaged in many sports and games. Hence, the school’s Sports Day was an important annual event.

Many former students would fondly remember their carefree schooldays; each day was made up of games such as five stones, fighting spiders, catching games at the small hills and pavilions, or flying layangs (kites) at the cemetery areas.

Peck Shan Ting School had three long-serving principals in its 45 years of history. The last principal was Kwok Ming, who witnessed the closure of the school in 1981 due to the resettlement of the kampong residents resulting in a dwindling number of students.

12 Pavilions

There were 13 burial hills at Peck San Theng Cemetery. The burial hills were named after “xin jia po guang hui zhao bi shan ting yu lan sheng hui” (新加坡广惠肇碧山亭盂兰胜会), which referred to the Singapore Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng Ullambana Festival. There were 13 characters in the Chinese name; hence, each burial hill was named after the characters in sequence.

The 12 symbolic pavilions were built at the open areas between the burial hills, serving as stopovers or resting points for the visitors. The pavilions were named one to ten, with the additional New Pavilion 5 and New Pavilion 7. Constructed in different periods, the pavilions had distinctive architectural styles. The older ones were simple shed-like structures, whereas the newer ones, such as New Pavilion 5, had elaborated hexagonal roof.

Pavilion 10 and New Pavilion 7 were built in 1957. Among the 12 pavilions, two were named after distinguished figures – New Pavilion 5 was also known as Wong Fook Hill Pavilion (named after Wong Ah Fook), while Pavilion 9, or Loh Poh Lum Pavilion, was named after Loh Poh Lum.

Pavilion 4, previously located beside the present-day Bishan Stadium, was the last surviving structure of the former cemetery. By the eighties, it was in a dilapidated state. Moreover, numerous haunted tales regarding the pavilion ran rife, spooking the new town’s residents who eventually requested the pavilion to be demolished.

Exhumation of Cemetery

As for the cemetery itself, its 100 years of serenity and tranquility finally came to end with the redevelopment plans arriving at its doorstep. The lands occupied by the cemetery were included in the government’s proposed town plans for Toa Payoh and Bishan. By 1973, the government had stopped all new burials at Peck San Theng. The cemetery was officially acquired in 1979, with a compensation of $4.9 million to Kwong Wai Siew. The exhumation of Peck San Theng Cemetery kicked off three years later, in 1982.

Kwong Wai Siew tried to initiate negotiations with the government for the preservation of its temple and the establishment of new crematorium and funeral parlour. After several rounds of negotiations, the government eventually granted Kwong Wai Siew a 3-hectare land with a 99-year lease for the construction of a new columbarium. It could also proceed to preserve its ancestral temple. The new modern-looking columbarium was officially opened during the Qing Ming Festival in 1986.

Notable Personalities

The establishment of Peck San Theng Cemetery could not have succeeded without the efforts of numerous influential Chinese community leaders, such as Whampoa Hoo Ah Kay (胡亚基), Boey Nam Sooi (梅南瑞), Ng Sing Phang (吴胜鹏), Yow Ngan Pan (邱彦宾) and Boey Ah Sam (梅湛轩). Together, they were involved in the donations, fund-raising, land purchasing, planning, construction and development of Peck San Theng.

A handful of notable persons were buried at Peck San Theng Cemetery, including Wong Ah Fook (黄亚福) and Cao Ya Zhi (曹亚志). Wong Ah Fook (1837-1918) was a famous contractor in the late 19th century, involving in Singapore and Johor’s building projects such as the Victoria Memorial Hall and Istana Besar. Jalan Wong Ah Fook, a street in Johor, was named after him.

As the founding member of Kwong Wai Siew federation, Wong Ah Fook was buried at Peck San Theng Cemetery after his death in 1918. His tomb, located near Pavilion 5, was the grandest of all.

Cao Ya Zhi (1782-1830), on the other hand, had a disputed existence. It was said that he was a Chinese carpenter working on Sir Stamford Raffles’ ship that arrived at Singapore in 1819. Raffles assigned him to led a reconnaissance team to find out about the hostility of the natives and whether the island had been occupied by the Dutch. Cao Ya Zhi successfully completed his mission and raised the Union Jack on the top of Fort Canning Hill, signalling to Raffles’ ship to make its official landing on Singapore.

Cao Ya Zhi settled permanently in Singapore and founded the Ning Yeung Wui Kuan (Ningyang Benevolent Association), which later collaborated with other clans to form Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng. He died in 1830 at an age of 48, and was buried at one of the early Cantonese cemeteries before his grave was shifted to Peck San Theng.

Another legendary tale at Peck San Theng was the seven Cantonese heroes who sacrificed their lives protecting the cemetery and defending the interests of the local Cantonese community. Previously buried at a common grace, their urns are now placed at the columbarium’s pavilion for visitors to pay their respects.

Second World War

Not known to many, Peck San Theng Cemetery was one of the sites where intense fighting took place during the Second World War. After invading Singapore from Peninsula Malaya, three divisions from the Japanese’s 25th Army were rapidly advancing from three sides – Jurong, Bukit Timah and Thomson – to capture the city area.

On 13 February 1942, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Peck San Theng’s “Hill 90” (present-day Raffles Institution), where it was defended by the British’s 2nd Cambridgeshire Regiment, 5th Royal Norfolk Regiment and 5th Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment. Both sides suffered considerable casualties and damages, but the British would eventually surrendered two days later.

After the brief intense battle, the Japanese withdrew and did not return to the cemetery, possibly due to their reluctance to disturb the dead. As a result, Peck San Theng became a refuge place, not only for the Cantonese, but also for the nearby Hokkien, Teochew and Hakka communities who would hide among the tombs to evade the Japanese brutalities. However, it was not entirely safe. There was an occasion when the Japanese aircrafts flew and dropped their bombs on Kampong San Teng, killing dozens of lives.

A New Town

The development of Bishan New Town began after 1983, with the construction of new Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats at Shunfu, its first neighbourhood. A temporary bus terminal with several bus services was established; it was later replaced by the new $5.5-million bus interchange in 1989. Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system included Bishan in the first stage of the North-South Line. The Bishan MRT Station, opened in 1987, was initially called San Teng MRT Station.

Junction 8, the popular shopping mall that was opened in 1994 beside the MRT station, had its name inspired after N8, Bishan MRT Station’s original code. Bishan MRT Station’s code was changed to NS17 in 2001.

During its early development, there were worries that the new Bishan town would not be popular as it was built over a former cemetery, but the concerns proved to be unfounded as Bishan quickly became one of Singapore’s up and coming new residential estates. It remains popular today, after 30 years. The former old cemetery has successfully transformed into a vibrant new town.

The Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng Heritage Gallery is opened between 930am and 4pm daily, and from 930am to 1pm on public holidays. Admission is free.

Published: 23 December 2018

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Gone Were the East Coast Park Chalets

Before staycation became a trendy word, chalets have always been a popular choice among Singaporeans, for barbecue sessions, or a short get-together with families or friends during the holidays. And the chalets at East Coast Park were pretty popular in the nineties and 2000s.

The familiar red-bricked chalets at East Coast Park were gone, being demolished last year as part of the redevelopment plans for a cyclist park. There were 197 chalet units then, occupying a stretch of 4-hectare (40,000 square metres) area at the middle section of the 15 km-long East Coast Park. Carpark D3 was its main parking space.

Before 2006, it was known as the Costa Sands Resorts, under the NTUC Club. And in the eighties and nineties, they were called UDMC Chalets, owned by the Urban Development and Management Company, which also had another chalet complex at Pasir Ris, built in 1987. Costa Sands Resorts closed in January 2006 after the expiry of its 30-year lease. The chalets were, by then, quite run down. Together with the limited amenities, the resort attracted many negative online reviews.

After NTUC Club left, the vacated chalets were temporarily handed over to the Singapore Land Authority (SLA). In 2007, the new tenant Island Park Resort, under Goldkist International, bid successfully to take over the chalets. After a $5-million makeover of the units and their amenities to resemble those of the beachfront English cottages, it was hoped that the popularity of the chalets would be revived, serving as a weekend getaway among friends, a corporate retreat venue or an adventure camp for students, for prices of $100 to $135 a night.

It barely lasted a decade, when the company, facing stiff competition from the newer and better equipped chalets and bungalows at Pasir Ris, Loyang, Changi Fairy Point, Changi Coast Walk and Boon Lay Way, as well as the impending redevelopment plans of the vicinity, decided to call it a day.

The demolition of the chalets had brought along those notorious hearsay of overnight carouses, hanky-panky affairs and ghost sightings. For many middle-aged Singaporeans, it was another lost piece of memory of their teenager days, when the likes of East Coast Park chalets, Marina South bowling and Parklane arcades were among the trendiest hangouts during the nineties.

Since 2017, several sites along East Coast Parkway, such as the former Big Splash and Raintree Cove, had been torn down and their sites rebuilt for new playgrounds, open lawns, food joints and other amenities. As part of East Coast Park’s redevelopment plans, the site of the former East Coast Park chalets will be transformed into a bicycle park designed with circuits and trails for different groups of cyclists.

Published: 19 November 2018

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End of Era for Normanton Park, and other HUDC Estates

The Housing and Urban Development Company (HUDC) scheme was started in 1974 to suit the aspiration of the middle-income residents in owning private homes, and to give the owners more control in the management and maintenance of their properties.

Construction of HUDC flats began in 1975, and in the next 12 years, a total of 7,731 units in 18 HUDC estates were built. Four stages of development were carried out, with Phase I and II built and managed by HUDC Private Limited, followed by Phase III and IV, handled by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) after 1982. The HUDC scheme lasted until 1987 and was eventually phased out due to declining demands.

In 1995, the government gave the go-ahead for the privatisation of HUDC estates. A year later, Gillman Heights and Pine Grove became the first HUDC estates to be privatised. Gillman Heights was then sold for $548 million in 2009; its former site now replaced by The Interlace. Meanwhile, the 660-unit Pine Grove, located near Ulu Pandan Road, has been attempting for collective sale in 2008, 2011 and 2017, but without successes. In 2007, Farrer Court clinched the sale record for a HUDC estate when it was sold for a $1.3 billion.

Normanton Park was an unique HUDC estate, built in 1977 exclusively for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) personnel and their families. Located near Kent Ridge Park, its residents had enjoyed many years of serenity and splendid views of vast areas of greenery around their estate.

Made up of 13 blocks and 488 units, completed with amenities such as swimming pool, tennis courts and kindergarten, the estate was sold to SAF officers at prices ranging from $37,000, for high rise units, to $65,000 for the walk-up apartments.

Officially opened in April 1978 by former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Goh Keng Swee, the building of Nornanton Park was intended to provide SAF officers a decent and low-cost condominium-like housing. It was one of the Defence Ministry’s many ways of fostering camaraderie among the officer corps.

Normanton Park was not the first housing estate where an organisation’s colleagues became neighbours. Since 1972, government and statutory boards had started their own housing schemes with the view of retaining civil servants and employees in service. Other similar examples included the Farrer Road’s executive flats for Housing and Development Board (HDB) staffs, and the Spottiswoode Park flats for Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) employees.

Normanton Park added a new neighbour in the early eighties, when the Singapore Science Park, the nation’s new technology corridor, was developed.

Privatised with the status of a condominium in 2012, Normanton Park was put up for collective sale twice, first in 2015 and then again in 2017. The 40-year-old estate was eventually sold for $830 million in the second sale bid. By October 2018, most of Normanton Park’s residents had vacated the premises.

In recent years, there was a flurry of collective sales for HUDC estates. Between 2016 and 2018, Shunfu Ville, Raintree Gardens, Rio Casa, Serangoon Ville, Florence Regency, Eunosville, Tampines Court and Chancery Court were sold.

The demolition of the 34-year-old Raintree Gardens, located at Potong Pasir, and Shunfu Ville, built in 1986 at Shunfu Road off Marymount Road, kicked off between early and mid-2018. The two HUDC estates were sold for $334 million and $638 million respectively, after their privatisation in 2013 and 2014. Raintree Gardens and Shunfu Ville’s former sites will be redeveloped for new private residences named The Tre Ver and Jade Scape.

Meanwhile, another HUDC estate Eunosville has been hoarded up and is ready for demolition. One of the last HUDC estates built before the phasing out of the HUDC scheme in 1987, Eunosville, located between the parallel Sims Avenue and Changi Road, had 10 low-rise blocks and 330 units. It was sold in 2017 for $766 million, and in its place will be a new private residential development called Parc Esta.

The history of HUDC was not without controversy. In the late seventies, the angry buyers of Amberville sued the company for their revised plan to build a 13-storey block which would deprive the owners of their panoramic views of the sea, which was the original selling point of new HUDC estate. Others were also unhappy with payment issues using the Central Provident Fund (CPF) and subsequent price hikes in the maintenance fees.

In March 2017, the 918-unit Braddell View became the last HUDC to be privatised, marking the end of the HUDC era that spanned over four decades. Currently, there are five HUDC estates – Pine Grove, Ivory Heights, Lakeview, Laguna Park and Braddell View – that have not been sold and redeveloped. It will be another chapter in Singapore’s housing history when the day finally arrives for the complete ceasing of existence of HUDC estates.

Published: 12 November 2018

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10 Types of Vehicles that Had Disappeared from the Streets of Singapore

The advancement in transportation technologies has brought convenience and efficiency, and their rapid evolution saw the human- and animal-powered sedan chairs, rickshaws, bullock carts and gharries replaced by motor vehicles on the roads in the early 20th century. Different types of vehicles made their appearances throughout the decades. Many had already walked into history, while some are gradually vanishing from the streets of Singapore, such as the classic blue pickups and yellow-top taxis.

Below were 10 iconic transportation vehicles that had disappeared from the streets of Singapore.

1. Rickshaw (1880-1947)

First introduced into Singapore in 1880, rickshaw was a type of hand-pulled transportation vehicle originated from Japan. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, rickshaw-pulling became a primary source of income for tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants.

The relatively low charges for rickshaws indirectly led to the demise of the more expensive gharry, a type of horse-drawn two-wheeled carriage available for hire. In the 1920s, the rise of motorised vehicles prompted the British government to gradually phase out rickshaws – by then, there were almost 30,000 rickshaws in Singapore – due to many safety-related incidents.

The life of a rickshaw puller was both physically demanding and prone to accidents. By 1947, rickshaws were banned, on humanitarian grounds, and were replaced by the bicycle-powered trishaws.

2. Trams (1880s-1927)

There were once two types of trams operating in pre-war Singapore – the steam trams and electric trams – used for ferrying of passengers and carrying of cargoes. In 1882, the Singapore Tramway Company was established, and tramways were constructed mainly at the city, wharves and docks and major routes to the suburban areas.

The costly fares of steam trams meant that demands often could not cover the operating costs. The tram operation managed to stay afloat for slightly more than a decade, before the company called it a day and ceased its operation in 1894.

Electrical supply’s rapid growth and stability in the early 20th century led to the increased feasibility in the implementation of electrical trams. Once again, infrastructures were constructed, and the operation of electrical trams debuted in 1905.

Ridership stood at 32,000 in 1909, but by the 1920s, the conditions of many tram tracks had deteriorated to the extent that the Municipal Commission refused to extend the tramway concessions. In 1927, the last electrical trams were decommissioned, having replaced by the trolleybus system.

3. Mosquito Buses (1920s-1930s)

Mostly converted from Ford cars of Model T, the mosquito buses proved to be popular among workers and students as they were fast, cheap and comfortable. At the start, the mosquito buses plied mostly between the city and its outskirts, often being the only public transport available at the rural areas in the 1920s and 1930s.

Able to ferry up to seven passengers, the mosquito buses were small and highly manoeuvrable, and could weave in and out of the traffic without stopping. By 1930, there were more than 450 mosquito buses in Singapore.

Issues arose due to their reckless driving and speeding, high accident rates and heated competition against the rickshaws and trolleybuses for passengers. More stringent regulations were imposed by the Municipal Commission, and with the stopping of Ford’s Model T production, the mosquito buses  were eventually ceased in their operations by the end of the 1930s.

4. Trolleybus (1926-1962)

The demise of trams saw the rise of trolleybuses in the 1920s. Trolleybus was a type of bus that was electrically powered from overhead wires by means of a trolley pole. The trolleybus operation, owned by the Singapore Traction Company, was meant to replace the tram system, with the trolleybuses covering the similar routes left behind by the trams.

Trolleybuses were more successful than the trams, in terms of ridership and popularity among the masses. However, the accident rates involving trolleybuses were high due to overcrowding and cases of passengers boarding or alighting the trolleybuses while they were still in motion.

By 1933, the trolleybus operation in Singapore was one of the largest in the world, with a fleet of over 100 buses plying in a 40-km long network. After the Second World War, the “slow and noisy” trolleybuses began to fall out of favour, and were gradually replaced by motor buses in the early sixties.

5. Mobile Library Van (late 1950s-1991)

The idea of a mobile library services came from Britain and was introduced into Malaya and Singapore in the fifties by the People’s Education Association in a bid to improve literacy of the people, especially those living in the rural areas. After the Second World War, the Raffles Museum and Library resumed operations and was reopened to the public. The Raffles National Library was established in 1958, with branches set up at the suburban areas, and mobile library services launched.

At the start, three mobile library vans were introduced, one of which was a gift from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The mobile library vans, converted from old army vehicles, were stocked with English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil books. The mobile libraries were later upgraded to larger buses, which could carry more than 2000 books during their fortnightly visits to primary schools at Nee Soon, Tampines, Sembawang, Jurong and Bukit Panjang.

The new iconic National Library was opened at Stamford Road in November 1960, and mobile library services were extended, throughout the sixties, to both adults and children at many community centres at Nee Soon, Chong Pang, Bukit Timah, West Coast, Tanjong Pagar, Paya Lebar, Taman Jurong and Bukit Panjang.

The year 1970 saw the opening of Queenstown Library, the National Library’s first full-time branch. By the late seventies and eighties, the mobile library services were in declining demands, due to the establishment of library branches at the new towns. For instance, the Joo Chiat mobile library service ended in November 1978 due to the opening of the new Marine Parade branch library.

National Library’s mobile library services eventually ceased in 1991. In 2008, the National Library relaunched “Molly the Mobile Library” to bring reading pleasures to special-needs schools, orphanages, senior citizens’ homes and selected primary schools.

6. Sentosa Double Decker Bus (early 1970s-early 1980s)

After Pulau Blakang Mati was renamed Sentosa in 1970, the newly-formed Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC) introduced a bus service as part of the development plans for the new island resort. Consisting of a fleet of green London-style double-decker buses, the Sentosa bus service was mainly used for ferrying tourists and visitors to the island’s attractions at Fort Siloso, Coralarium and the Maritime Museum.

The double-decker buses were phased out by the early eighties when the monorail started operating in 1982, although the single-decker buses continued plying the routes on the Sentosa island.

7. Lorry-Bus (1974-late 1970s)

In 1974, under the Singapore government’s supplementary transport Scheme B service, lorries were allowed to operate as private buses. Known as lorry-buses, they were retrofitted with service number plates, stepladders and wooden benches to transport factory and office workers. The lorry-bus operators were also required to display a Registry of Vehicles (ROV) disc at the back of their vehicles.

Each lorry-bus typically could carry up to 16 passengers – 1 sitting at the front of the vehicle that had no doors, and 15 at the rear. As many as 34 routes were initially approved for these lorry-buses to ply, together with other private buses, as the authority sought ways to relieve the overcrowded public buses and congested roads during the morning and evening peak hours.

The service, however, was generally unpopular, especially among women passengers who had difficulties climbing up and down the vehicles in their dresses. The lorry-buses became a history on Singapore streets just a few years later.

8. 32-Door Truck (1970s-1980s)

The nightsoil collection truck was also commonly known as 32-door truck due to its unique design of 16 compartments on each side of the vehicle that were used to store the nightsoil buckets.

In the seventies, many of Singapore’s public and private latrines were still using nightsoil buckets. The workers would collect the nightsoil buckets, two at a time, from the latrines and swapped them with empty ones. The filled nightsoil buckets were then deposited into the 32-door trucks, where they would go to the nightsoil collection centres at Albert Street, Lorong Halus and Jalan Afifi off Paya Lebar Road for disposal.

In the eighties, the government invested $600 million to improve Singapore’s sewage and sanitary network. Newly built housing estates were also mostly fitted with modern sanitation. Data showed that in the 10 years between 1971 and 1981, modern sanitation at homes jumped from 65% to 81%.

Nightsoil collection was gradually phased out by the mid-eighties. As the system officially walked into the history in January 1987, so were the famous 32-door trucks.

9. Volkswagen Police Car (1973-1980s)

In the early seventies, the Singapore Police Force (SPF) patrol cars were mostly made up of brands such as Land Rover, Toyota and Ford (Falcon, Cortina, Escort). In 1973, the SPF made a bold introduction to the public of their new fleet of Volkswagen “beetle” patrol cars. The new police cars were said to have completed their assemblies in Singapore with special modifications to their engines and internal compartments.

Painted blue and white, with the word POLICE printed on their bonnets and side doors, the new police cars were attached to Pearl’s Hill Police Radio Division, where each Volkswagen patrol car was assigned to two policemen of the radio patrol crew team. Internally, the cars were fitted with wireless sets at the luggage compartments, with the radio mouthpieces wired and extended to the dashboards.

The iconic Volkswagen police patrol cars were phased out in the eighties.

10. Tricycle (1960s-1990s)

Except for the licensed ice cream vendors, most of the street hawkers have since vanished from the streets of Singapore. It was a common sight in the seventies and eighties to see different street vendors riding on their tricycles from one place to another, peddling a wide range of items from food, milk and bread to masks, brooms, cooking pots and other daily necessities.

By the late eighties, many street vendors – those who had remained in this line – switched from tricycles to motorcycles installed with modified sidecars that functioned like mini stores. One example was the street rojak hawker, who would go around the HDB neighbourhoods in the eighties and nineties selling his rojak that was cooked directly from his mobile food stall.

Today, one can still spot a few old rusty tricycles parked by the roads, but they are no longer used for street hawking.

Published: 29 October 2018

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A Different Sanctuary at Mount Vernon

With the closure of Mount Vernon Columbarium in end-September 2018, a different type of sanctuary may appear in five years’ time when the new Bidadari housing estate is completed.

It was back in 2013 when the government announced the development plans of the new estate that will replace the former “resting place” of 20,000 niches and urns with 10,000 Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats and 1,000 private homes.

Named after English naval officer Admiral Edward Vernon (1684-1757), the Mount Vernon area has always been a serene and quiet part of Singapore often overlooked by many. In the early fifties, the Singapore City Council built 70 semi-detached houses at Mount Vernon for the accommodation of its junior staffs.

Mount Vernon Columbarium/Crematorium

Calls for a public columbarium started in the sixties, but it was only in the mid-seventies when the Mount Vernon Columbarium was completed at a construction cost of $220,000. The new facilities were able to store 3,000 niches, with each space available for $200, supplied with marble plaques, during the first years of its opening. However, only ashes from the cremations at Mount Vernon could be stored.

The first group of concrete slab-styled columbariums used for the storage of niches were of plain and simple design, where each of them was able to take up to 200 niches on both side of the walls. When these columbariums was filled, the government built new ones with the addition of the sloping green Chinese-style roofs that later became a familiar sight at Mount Vernon.

Mount Vernon was the final resting place for several notable figures, including the fifth Singapore President Ong Teng Cheong (1936-2002), former Finance Minister Hon Sui Sen (1916-1983), Teh Cheang Wan (1928-1986), Minister for National Development between 1979 and 1986, and Naa Govindasamy (1946-1999), People’s Action Party Member of Parliament for Telok Blangah (1968-1976) and Radin Mas (1976-1977). 

Prominent local businessman and philanthropist Lee Kong Chian’s (1893-1967) funeral service was also held at Mount Vernon Crematorium, where hundreds of people from all walks of life came to pay their last respects.

The Mount Vernon Crematorium began as a small government-run crematorium, built in 1962, beside the Bidadari Cemetery. Prior to the seventies, burials were still the preferred choice for various ethnicity and religions in Singapore. It was only after the government announced the closure and exhumation of many cemeteries in the seventies that cremation was gradually accepted.

The nine-storey, green-roofed Mount Vernon pagoda was built in 1987 by the Public Works Department (PWD), which functioned as a vertical columbarium and was the vicinity’s tallest building, allowing visitors to have a bird’s eye view of the tranquil surroundings of Mount Vernon sanctuary. Upon its completion, the pagoda was handed over and managed by the Ministry of The Environment. For three decades, it was the iconic landmark of Mount Vernon.

There were other landmarks too, past and current, at Mount Vernon, such as the Mount Vernon Police Barracks, Maris Stella High School, Mount Vernon Secondary School and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

Mount Vernon Police Cantonment

The Mount Vernon Police Barracks was built in the mid-fifties by the PWD for the operations and accommodation of the police’s Federal Reserve Unit. Since the sixties, the Gurkha Contingent, established in Singapore in 1949, was also housed in this police barracks.

The new police barracks did not get a good start, hitting the news headlines in 1957 when several of their automatic pistols were stolen from the armoury.

After the National Service started in 1967, the police barracks, by then known as Mount Vernon Police Cantonment, began receiving drafted young servicemen to be attached to their reserve unit. Mount Vernon became part of these servicemen’s memories, including the rigorous trainings and the long walk to the secluded camp for booking-in.

An audacious case happened in 1978 when a 18-year-old police serviceman was abducted from his sentry post at the main gates of Mount Vernon Police Cantonment and stabbed to death. His revolver was snatched by three men, all aged 21, who got away in a stolen taxi. They were later caught and sentenced to death for double murder of the police serviceman and taxi driver.

In the early eighties, Mount Vernon Police Cantonment was given a major renovation. Its blocks of quarters, recreation hall, Inspector’s mess and sports facilities were refurbished for more than $1.1 million.

Today, the police cantonment, also known as Gurkha Cantonment, is functioning like a self-sustained small town with shops and schools, providing the necessities to the Gurkha contingent and their families. Katmandu (Kathmandu) Road, where Kathmandu is the capital of Nepal, home of the Gurkhas, used to lead to the barracks. It was later absorbed as an inner road inside the barracks during Gurkha Cantonment’s expansion.

Maris Stella High School

Maris Stella High School was founded in 1958, but did not have its own premises until 1965, when $1.4 million raised from funds from the various business sectors helped in the construction of its new school compound and buildings at Mount Vernon Road. In 1967, Maris Stella High celebrated its grand opening with a new school with fifteen classrooms and a four-storey science block.

The school incorporated classes for both its primary and secondary students, and to cope with increasing number of students, its school premises underwent expansions in the mid-seventies and late eighties. In 1996, Maris Stella High became an autonomous school with additional allocated funds for extra programmes and facilities.

Mount Vernon Secondary School

Maris Stella High’s neighbour was Mount Vernon Secondary School, established in 1968 and officially opened a year later by Mohamed Ghazali Ismail, Aljunied’s Member of Parliament and Education Ministry’s Political Secretary. Mount Vernon Secondary School was the 100th secondary school built within a decade by the government since the start of Singapore’s self-rule in 1959.

Excelling in sports such as badminton and football, as well as being the host of regular athletic competitions, Mount Vernon Secondary School put much emphasis in their sports facilities. The school in 1975 added a $90,000 grandstand to its sports complex.

Mount Vernon Secondary School also paid attention to handicapped students, as it became one of the first local schools to accept pupils with hearing impairment in the mid-seventies. In 1985, Mount Vernon Secondary School was handpicked by the Education Ministry to represent Singapore in the United Nations Association’s Flags for Peace project that was launched to celebrate the United Nations’ 40th anniversary and the International Youth Year. For the project, the students put in two-and-half months of work, researching Singapore’s history, geography, culture, festivals and iconic representatives of the country.

In 1991, Mount Vernon Secondary School’s 33 years’ history came to an end due to falling enrollment in the number of students. The same year also saw the closure of Willow Avenue, Toh Tuck, Tiong Bahru and Bukit Ho Swee Secondary Schools, which faced similar student enrollment difficulties.

In the mid-nineties, the vacated Mount Vernon Secondary School was briefly used by Maris Stella High when the latter’s school premises was being renovated. The Mount Vernon Secondary School compound was later used as foreign workers’ dormitory before its eventual demolition.

Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

Located at the junction of Mount Vernon Road and Bartley Road, the SPCA had operated at the Mount Vernon vicinity for 32 years. Previously based at Orchard Road, SPCA moved to Mount Vernon in 1984, before relocating to Sungei Tenagh Road in 2016.

Bidadari Cemetery

Accompanied Mount Vernon for decades was the former Bidadari Cemetery, built in the early 20th century for burials of various faiths. The predecessor of Bidadari Cemetery was Bidadari Estate, owned by Johor Sultan Abu Bakar who constructed a grand residence in the mid-19th century for one of his wives. The grand residence, also known as Istana Bidadari, was demolished in 1915.

The estate was acquired by the Singapore Municipal Commission for $112,000, and was converted into the cemetery in late 1907, consecrated by the Anglican bishop of Singapore, Labuan and Sarawak George Frederick Hose.

Bidadari Cemetery was officially opened in 1908, initially for Christian burials. Other sections for Muslim burials (1910), Hindu and Sinhalese burials (both 1925) were later opened. Notable figures of different ethnic backgrounds had found their resting places at the cemetery, including famous architect Alfred John Bidwell, doctor and community leader Lim Boon Keng, governor of Sarawak Duncan Stewart and local politician Baharuddin Ariff.

As it became fully filled – it had almost 147,000 graves by then – Bidadari Cemetery was closed from further burials in October 1972. In 1996, the Singapore government announced its plans to acquire Bidadari Cemetery for the construction of a new Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) line and station (Northeast Line and Woodleigh MRT Station). The vicinity was also later slated for new Housing and Development Board (HDB) housing projects.

Bidadari Memorial Garden

Full-scale exhumations of Bidadari Cemetery were subsequently carried out between 2001 and 2006. The iconic cemetery gates and their gateposts, as well as key tombstones of prominent persons, were shifted to the Bidadari Memorial Garden at Mount Vernon, built in 2004 by the National Heritage Board (NHB) as a commemoration of the significant history of Bidadari Cemetery.

During the development of the new Bidadari housing estate, the Bidadari Memorial Garden may be relocated or integrated with the estate’s new park or garden.

Mount Vernon Crematorium had ceased its services since 2004. The service halls, however, continued to operate for funeral parlours under the name of Mount Vernon Sanctuary, after the government leased the buildings to private operators. While the Mount Vernon Columbarium had stopped accepting niches for many years, it remained crowded especially during the annual Qingming festival when many came to pay respect to their loved ones.

As part of the redevelopment of the vicinity, a new funeral parlour complex, albeit a small one, will be built at the site of the current Mount Vernon Columbarium. It is expected to be ready by 2024. For now, let us have another glimpse at the old Mount Vernon Columarbium before its demolition.

Published: 20 October 2018

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Retracing the 26 Tracks of Punggol Road

A section of the old Punggol Road has walked into history in late August 2018. The pedestrianisation project will convert the 1.3km-long stretch of the road, between Punggol Drive and Ponggol Seventeenth Avenue, into a heritage trail which can also be utilised for jogging and cycling.

Punggol Road

The 4.5km-long Punggol Road first appeared in the later half of the 19th century. Being the only access road to the northeastern part of Singapore for more than a century, the early Punggol Road was largely made up of granite and laterite, where it was filled with potholes and certain parts of the road became impassable during rainy days.

Many Chinese immigrants settled at Punggol during the early 20th century, establishing villages and shophouses along Punggol Road. There were also poultry, pig and vegetable farms, as well as rubber plantations in the vicinity. Far away from the city area, the area, however, also quickly developed into a hotbed of crimes where murders, gambling and secret society activities frequently occurred.

In the sixties, basic public amenities such as electricity supply, pipped water, street lights and metalled roads were introduced, through both government and gotong royong efforts, to the areas along Punggol Road.

Further improvements to Punggol Road were implemented in 1983 for better road safety. The long and narrow road had been plagued by high accident rates due to dim street lights and reckless overtaking by drivers.

Several measures taken were the installation of high pressure sodium vapour lamps, using of highly visible thermoplastic paint for lane markings, and the implementation of double white lines.

Milestones and Landmarks

Like the other old major roads of Singapore, milestones were marked along Punggol Road. Branching off Upper Serangoon Road near Sungei Pinang, Punggol Road was ranged from 7th milestone (intersection with Upper Serangoon Road) to the 11th milestone (near Punggol end).

Along the Punggol Road were several recognisable landmarks. Located near Punggol 9¾ milestone was the Matilda House, a grand private residence that was surrounded by rows of palm trees and well-maintained lawns. Built in around 1920, the bungalow was owned by the Cashin family who occassionally used it as their weekend resort.

Punggol Road 9¾ milestone was also previously home to the Holy Innocents’ School, which, between 1959 and 1961, had its two classrooms shared to Hai Sing Girls’ School to accommodate the girl students from the rural Punggol areas.

Punggol Road 10th milestone was home to a large rubber plantation in the early 20th century.

There was a private Singapore Zoo, also commonly known as Punggol Zoo, located at the 10¾ milestone of Punggol Road. It was set up by a wealthy Indian trader named William Lawrence Soma Basapa in the 1920s, but the zoo was closed and destroyed during the Second World War.

In 1984, Punggol Road 10¾ milestone was selected to be the new site of the Punggol Fishing Port, built by the Primary Production Department (PPD) for the relocated fishermen and fish merchants from the nearby Kangkar, which had ceased their 60-year-old operations due to the development of Hougang New Town.

The $12-million fish port, market and jetty, however, lasted only 13 years before the entire operations had to be shifted again, this time, to Senoko Fishing Port at Woodlands. Punggol Fishing Port and its wholesale fish market were subsequently closed in 1997 for the development of Punggol New Town. Punggol Port Road, the road leading to the port and fish market, was also expunged.

Not known to many, the Punggol area once had many fortifications, built by the British as part of the defence line for Singapore’s northeastern coastline. After the Second World War, most of them were destroyed, with some remnants still located at Punggol Seventeenth Avenue and Cheng Lim Farmway 1, off Punggol Road.

By the eighties, the fortifications were largely forgotten; many were covered by creepers and thick vegetation, while others were utilised as store buildings for the farmers. In 1988, the Singapore Tourism Promotion Board (STPB) was keen to restore the Punggol forts as a tourist attraction, similar to that of Sentosa’s Fort Siloso. Most of the fortification remnants no longer exist today.

The Kampongs

Several kampongs once existed at Punggol. The oldest was Kampong Punggol, located at Punggol end and was one of the earliest settlements in Singapore. Said to have existed before the arrival of the British in the early 19th century, the Malay fishing village was also known as Kampong Wak Sumang, named after its founder Wak Sumang, a legendary Javanese warrior.

Several distinguished guests had visited the century-old village in the past, including Richard Nixon, former USA President (then Vice President), in 1981, Yusof Ishak, Singapore’s first President, in 1966, and former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on several occasions.

Other villages at the Punggol vicinity were Kampong Sungei Tengah (located at the junction of Punggol Road and Lorong Buangkok), Kampong Serangoon Kechil (along Jalan Serangoon Kechil, off Punggol Road) and Kampong Pinang (along Sungei Pinang, near Punggol Road Track 1). There was also another Kampong Punggol located near Punggol Road Track 20 in the sixties and seventies.

Pig Farming

In 1975, the commercial pig farming at Punggol was started at Punggol Road 10½ milestone, occupying several plots of lands that totalled 2.5 square kilometres in size.

In 1980, as more pig farmers were relocated from Chua Chu Kang, Bukit Timah and the Kranji water catchment area, another 1.5 square kilometres of lands near Punggol Road 9th milestone were developed by the PPD. The expanded pig farming industry at Punggol increased the pig population to almost 375,000.

By the mid-eighties, Punggol was the only place in Singapore where pig farms were still allowed to operate. But the pollutive nature of pig farms to the environment meant that they would not last for long in Singapore.

By 1990, the last pig farm at Punggol was closed; their lands replaced by the less pollutive vegetable and orchid farms. Many of these farms flourished along Buangkok Farmway and Cheng Lim Farmway until the mid-nineties and early 2000s respectively, when they had to give way to the rise of the new Punggol New Town.

Punggol Road’s 26 Tracks

The tracks of Punggol Road first appeared as dirt paths in the late sixties. In total, there were 26 tracks, starting from Track 1, near present-day Sengkang East Avenue, all the way to Track 26 at the Punggol end. On the map, the tracks located on the left side of Punggol Road, in the northward direction, were named in odd numbers (Track 1, 3, 5, 7 and so on), whereas those on the right were assigned with even numbers.

Several larger roads such as Cheng Lim Farmway, Punggol Farmway and Buangkok Farmway also appeared in the early seventies, branching off the Punggol Road and serving as the main roads leading to the farms.

Track 1 to Track 8

Punggol Road Track 1 was located where Sengkang East Avenue is today. It was home to the Singapore Telecoms building in the seventies.

Track 3 was expunged in the late seventies, making way for the Punggol Rural Centre, one of the earliest HDB developments at Punggol. Built at the junction of Punggol Road and Buangkok South Farmway 1, the Punggol Rural Centre, when completed in the mid-eighties, quickly became a little bustling enclave with six blocks of low-rise flats made up of more than 200 units, 12 shops and two eateries.

Buangkok South Farmway 1 became defunct in the nineties, but Punggol Rural Centre lasted until the mid-2000s before its six blocks of flats were demolished.

Elsewhere, most tracks of Punggol Road, even by the late eighties, remained rural in nature, consisted of scattered wooden huts, small plots of farms, tall durian trees, fish ponds and, sometimes, a makeshift roadside shrine for religious purposes.

The 1 km-long Track 6 once led to several sand and granite quarries. A common sight in the mid-eighties was a long line of heavy trucks and lorries ferrying the sand and granite from Punggol Road Track 6 to different construction sites in Singapore.

In 1985, the Singapore government started acquiring lands at Punggol for its proposed housing development of the vicinity, which, at that time, was still under the plan of an extension of Hougang New Town instead of a new residential district of its own. Among the first to be affected were those living and plying their trades between Track 1 and Track 7, including the residents, farm owners, boat builders, boatel operators and workers.

Between Punggol Road Track 7 and 9 was Lorong Buangkok, a 3km-long rural road that appeared after the Second World War and was named by the Singapore Rural Board in 1948. One end of Lorong Buangkok was connected to Punggol Road, at the junction with Jalan Merdu and Lorong Sengkang (Lorong Sengkang gave rise to the naming of Sengkang New Town), while its other end was linked to Yio Chu Kang Road, home to Kampong Lorong Buangkok, the last surviving village on mainland Singapore.

At the junction of Punggol Road, Lorong Buangkok and Jalan Serangoon Kechil were the St Anne’s Church and Meng Teck Chinese School (currently St Joseph’s Convent). Built in 1963, St Anne’s Church aimed to provide religious needs to the Catholic community living in the Punggol vicinity. The church was named in honour of Saint Anne, the mother of Virgin Mary.

In the seventies and eighties, due to the resettlement of the residents, the church’s following dwindled to only 300. The development of Sengkang and Punggol new towns managed to revive the church’s prosperity and it has since grown to a present 7,000 strength. For more than half a century, the St Anne’s Church has witnessed the vast changes of its surroundings, made up of wood and attap dwellings in the sixties and seventies to the present day’s high rise HDB flats.

Today, Lorong Buangkok has broken up and separated into two minor roads near Punggol Road and Yio Chu Kang Road respectively. Jalan Merdu and its rows of private housing still remains, but Lorong Sengkang had been expunged years ago.

Track 9 to Track 16

In the late eighties, there was a dairy goat farm at Track 10 Punggol Road that had 80 goats and produced some 35 litres of goat milk a day. There were also small manufacturing factories and repair workshops in the vicinity, but they had to move out by the early nineties, as three large plots of lands near Track 10 were acquired by the Singapore government for general development purposes.

Both Track 10 and 12 led to the swampy areas near Sungei Serangoon Kechil, a small river flowing into the former Serangoon Harbour. Hence, it was not uncommon to see fishermen and their boats fitted with outboard motors parked at the end of the tracks.

On the other side of Punggol Road, one could reach the banks of Sungei Punggol via  Track 13. In the seventies, the swampy area at the end of Track 13 was notoriously filled with stench as it was conveniently used as a dumping ground for dead diseased chicken and other garbage.

Located at the junction of Punggol Road and Track 15 was the Punggol Malay School, a small rural school that first began at Punggol Road Track 24. It was set up by Awang Osman, a village head who aspired to provide education to the Malay children living at Punggol, as there were no formal Malay schools in the vicinity after the Second World War.

Opened by William Goode, the then-Secretary of the Colonies, on 26 February 1955, the humble school had only a small hall with little facilities except a sepak takraw court. Needed to expand for the accommodation of more students, the school was moved to a new building at Track 15 in 1963, where it was opened by Chor Yeok Eng, the former Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of National Development.

Punggol Malay School operated for another 20-plus years before it was closed in the late eighties.

Track 17 to Track 26

Punggol Road Track 17 was converted into a proper asphalt road in the early seventies, after a small residential estate made up of new bungalows was developed there. It was renamed Ponggol Seventeenth Avenue.

Punggol Marina, a $50-million project built in 1996, was once located at the end of Ponggol Seventeenth Avenue. Upon completion, it was hailed as Singapore’s largest sea sports centre, which the developer hoped could revive Punggol’s previous crowd-pulling days of boating and water-skiing. Those days had not been seen since the last boatel at Punggol closed in 1994.

Today, Punggol Marina is no longer linked to Ponggol Seventeenth Avenue. Its surrounding areas are undergoing rapid development into a new Punggol residential district called Northshore.

Ponggol Twenty-Fourth Avenue did not appear until the late seventies. Unlike Ponggol Seventeenth Avenue, it was not converted from Track 24, but instead appeared as a new road on the same side as the odd-numbered tracks of Punggol Road. Hence, for a period of time, there were both Ponggol Twenty-Fourth Avenue and Punggol Track 24.

In 1985, a campsite was opened at Ponggol Twenty-Fourth Avenue, allowing students to experience camping in the rural parts of Singapore. The camp lasted until 1993 before its closure and demolition.

Named Ponggol, the old spelling of Punggol, the two roads of Ponggol Seventeenth Avenue and Ponggol Twenty-Fourth Avenue are the only “numbered” avenues in Punggol.

The land around track 22 was put up for public tender in the late eighties by PPD for the development of a fish or prawn farm. Track 24 was located almost at the end of Punggol Road, where, in the eighties, had a 18-room boatel, dubbed as the Ponggol Hotel. Nearby was the Punggol Boating Centre that provided dinghies and converted fishing boats for rental to sea sports enthusiasts.

There were also several double-storey bungalows located at Punggol Road Track 24, owned by private owners who used them as seaside resorts during weekends.

The bungalows were acquired by the government in the late eighties as the site was earmarked for future public housing development. One of the bungalows, built in 1973, hit the headlines in the newspapers when its owner, a local architect, won a rare case against the government’s low valuation. He was eventually compensated more than $670,000.

By the mid-eighties, except for a handful, most of the bungalows were torn down.

Track 24, most recently home to a fishing and prawning site, was one of the last tracks of Punggol Road to vanish. By 2017, all the tracks of Punggol Road had walked into history.

Punggol Point

The Punggol Point, or Punggol end area, was previously home to many landmarks, one of which was the Punggol Point Community Centre, established at Track 24 in the mid-eighties. The community centre occupied the old school building previously used by Punggol Malay School.

At Track 26 was Masjid Wak Sumang, a small kampong mosque that served the Malay fishing community living at Kampong Wak Sumang. It was demolished in 1995 to make way for the area’s development.

In 1993, the Punggol Point area, near Track 24 and 26, was hit by an outbreak of malaria, likely due to the many pockets of stagnant brackish water found in the fish farms. It resulted in the halting of almost all activities at Punggol Point, as the Environment Ministry scrambled to carry out fogging and oiling to curb the breeding of the Anopheles mosquitoes.

Between 1983 and the late nineties, the northeastern coast at Punggol underwent several land reclamation projects. The cost of the land reclamation totalled more than $1 billion, adding dozens of square kilometres of lands to the Punggol area. The reclamation project was competed by the end of the nineties. By then, the enlarged Punggol was bounded by three rivers – Sungei Punggol to the west, Sungei Serangoon to the east, and a narrow river passageway between Punggol and Coney Island (Pulau Serangoon).

Seafood Restaurants

The Punggol Point, however, was best remembered for its seafood restaurants, jetty and roadside bus terminal.

In the eighties and nineties, there were several large seafood restaurants, such as Hock Kee, Choon Seng, Whee Heng, Punggol and Seashore, operated at Punggol end, making it a popular venue among many locals who flocked there for family dinners, friends’ gatherings, or a sumptuous treat after striking a big lottery.

While the adults feasted their chilli crabs, cereal prawns, steamed groupers and Chinese-style mee goreng, the children were happily playing at the jetty. Others would simply take a relax moment at the beach, enjoying the winds over the calm waters, gazing at the stars in the sky or in the direction of Pasir Gudang on the opposite side of Johor Strait.

It was a common sight to see the end of Punggol Road parked with cars during the weekends. Others would take the Singapore Bus Service (SBS) public buses, numbered 82 or 83, to experience the rustic place that seemed to have stuck in time; a stark contrast as compared to other parts of Singapore which were rapidly evolving during that period.

The seafood restaurants enjoyed such brisk businesses that many had set up extra tables by the side of the road. When the buses did their three-point U-turns at the end of Punggol Road, they sometimes came dangerously close to the diners, who were sometimes treated with bright headlights and exhaust smoke.

The last of the Punggol seafood restaurants, affected by the redevelopment plans of the vicinity, was bulldozed by the end of 1994. With the roadside bus terminal also gone, the jetty, said to be built as early as the 1930s, is the only landmark at Punggol end still remains till this day.

Punggol Beach Massacre

The Punggol Point area was also the massacre site of 400 Chinese civilians by the Japanese military during the Second World War.

In February 1942, after invading and occupying Singapore, the Japanese carried out a series of Sook Ching (purging) operations. Hundreds of Chinese males living at Upper Serangoon Road were rounded up during a house-to-house search by the Hojo Kempei (Japanese auxiliary military police). Accused of anti-Japanese or triad members, the men were brought to the beach at Punggol before being gunned down.

A marker has been erected by the National Heritage Board near present-day Punggol Jetty, serving as a reminder of the Punggol Beach Massacre, a dark chapter in Singapore’s history.

In 1996, Singapore’s former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong announced the Punggol 21 plan to develop the rustic Punggol area into a modern bustling new town. After more than 20 years of transformation, Punggol has become a vibrant waterfront town today, home to a 120,000-strong population living in 43,500 HDB high rise flats that are accompanied by parks, shopping malls and a Light Rail Transit (LRT) network.

Published: 30 September 2018

Updated: 10 March 2019

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