Shining and Guiding the Way… The Lighthouses of Singapore

Lighthouses, typically located on islands and shoals near the entry waterways to ports and harbours, provide the visual aids and navigational guides for mariners. In addition, they also serve as the warning markers of dangers such as rocks and reefs.

Today, five of Singapore’s lighthouses are managed by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA). Four of them – Horsburgh Lighthouse, Pulau Pisang Lighthouse, Sultan Shoal Lighthouse and Raffles Lighthouse – are located on offshore islands. The fifth one is Bedok Lighthouse.

Horsburgh Lighthouse (1851-Present)

Built in 1851, Horsburgh Lighthouse is Singapore’s first and oldest lighthouse. It is also Singapore’s most isolated lighthouse, located at Pedra Branca (“white stone” in Portuguese, also known as Batu Putih, or “white rock” in Malay) that lies 54km away from the southeastern side of Singapore. The strategic position of the lighthouse and island marks the eastern entrance of ships from the South China Sea into the Singapore Strait.

The construction cost of Horsburgh Lighthouse was funded by a cosmopolitan group of merchants, ship captains and officers, who raised about 4,200 Spanish dollars in total (total construction cost eventually amounted to almost 25,000 Spanish dollars, and was partially sponsored by the British colonial government). Government surveyor John Turnbull Thomson (1821-1884) was engaged to design and build the lighthouse.

It took seven years for John Thomson to survey, test and build the lighthouse, due to the harsh marine environment where Pedra Branca was located. Granite, instead of brick, was used as the material for the tower, in order to withstand the strong monsoon winds and waves. On 15 October 1851, Horsburgh Lighthouse commenced operation, using oil lamps for its illumination. It was named after Captain James Horsburgh (1762-1836), prominent Scottish navigator and hydrographer.

In 1966, Horsburgh Lighthouse switched to electrical source for its illumination. Twenty years later, in 1988, solar panels were installed to provide power for the lighthouse.

The sovereignty of Pedra Branca was disputed by Malaysia in the late seventies. Singapore and Malaysia agreed to refer the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1994. The court eventually ruled, in 2008, that Singapore has the ownership of Pedra Branca.

Raffles Lighthouse (1855-Present)

The 29m-tall Raffles Lighthouse was built in 1855, almost two decades after numerous petitions from merchants and mariners to the British government calling for the construction of a lighthouse in the Singapore Strait. The 1.3-hectare Pulau Satumu (“one-tree island” in Malay), located 23km southwest of mainland Singapore, was chosen for the new lighthouse.

The lighthouse’s foundation was completed on 24 May 1854, and was named Raffles Lighthouse after Sir Stamford Raffles. The lighthouse tower was built by Indian convicts and other labourers, using granite that were mined from Pulau Ubin.

Raffles Lighthouse was commissioned on 1 December 1855, and was manned by seven lightkeepers to operate its wick burner. The using of kerosene for its light continued for more than a century before the lighthouse, in 1968, switched to electrical power.

Like Horsburgh Lighthouse, Raffles Lighthouse was upgraded in 1988 to solar panels as its main source of power, enabling it to be automated and monitored by the base station on mainland Singapore. The lighthouse’s luminous intensity was increased to 117,000 candelas, with its beacon flashing three times every 20 seconds. Its light could be seen by ships as far as 20 nautical miles (37km) away.

Today, two lightkeepers are stationed on Pulau Satumu to take care of the lighthouse’s operations and maintenance. It remains restricted from public access.

Pulau Pisang Lighthouse (1886-Present)

Pulau Pisang Lighthouse is a Singapore-administrated lighthouse situated on a Malaysian island, called Pulau Pisang (“banana island” in Malay), in the Strait of Malacca. Erected in 1886, Pulau Pisang Lighthouse is Singapore’s westernmost lighthouse. The lighthouse tower is 18m tall, but its focal point reaches 135m above sea level as it stands on the highest point on the island.

In 1900, Sultan Ibrahim of Johor and Sir James Alexander Swettenham, the Governor of the Straits Settlements, signed an agreement for the British administration to build, operate and maintain the lighthouse. The tasks were later taken over by the Singapore government.

Although there are recent disputes in the ownership of the lighthouse, the location of Pulau Pisang Lighthouse remains crucial to Singapore as it denotes the western approach to the Singapore Strait. For the ships, this is the path of a main busy shipping channel.

Pulau Pisang Lighthouse underwent renovation and automation upgrading in the eighties, switching to solar power sources. Currently, its main beacon’s light produces 110,000 candelas at a range of 20 nautical miles (37km).

Sultan Shoal Lighthouse (1895-Present)

Built in 1895, Sultan Shoal Lighthouse was located on the small island of Selat Jurong, about 5.5km from the southwestern side of Singapore. Today, with the ongoing reclamation projects, it is sandwiched between Jurong Island and the reclaimed Tuas extension. The lighthouse is 18m tall; its white masonry tower stands above a white and red colonial style bungalow.

Sultan Shoal Lighthouse originally used kerosene to power its wick lamps that were enhanced with reflectors. Its revolving light provided a flash every 30 seconds, allowing its illumination to be seen as far as 22 nautical miles (40km) away. Its power supply was upgraded to electrical source in the late sixties.

The present-day Sultan Shoal Lighthouse is equipped with a rotating beacon that produces up to 110,000 candelas. It is also installed with a radar to provide additional navigational information to ships.

Bedok Lighthouse (1978-Present)

The unique Bedok Lighthouse is Singapore’s most recent lighthouse. Operationalised on 9 August 1978, it is the only MPA-managed lighthouse located on mainland Singapore, and is installed on the roof of a 25-storey Lagoon View condominium that faces the East Coast Parkway. Bedok Lighthouse was built to replace Fullerton Lighthouse, which had its beacon’s light blocked by the new development at Marina Bay.

Equipped with two beacons, the fully automated lighthouse, at a height of about 75m above sea level, is able to project its 600,000-candela light beam, flashing once every five seconds, to a range of 22.5 nautical miles (42km). Beside its maritime function, it also helps pilots to navigate around Singapore’s southern airspace at night.

A new lighthouse replacement has been proposed in 2014 to be installed on the rooftop of a nearby Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat at Marine Terrace. It will be the first lighthouse to operate on a HDB flat.

Fort Canning Lighthouse (1903-1958)

There are four other lighthouses in Singapore that are not managed and maintained by MPA. Among the four lighthouses, Fort Canning and Fullerton Lighthouses had their operations ceased in the fifties and seventies respectively.

For a long time, Fort Canning Hill was the ideal location for a lighthouse to guide the ships entering the Singapore’s harbour. In 1855, a lantern was mounted on top of the Fort Canning Hill flagstaff. It was later replaced by Fort Canning Lighthouse, completed in 1903. At 24m tall, the lighthouse had an elevation of 60m above sea level, and its 20,000-candela light, powered by a kerosene burner, was visible from 16 nautical miles (30km) away.

During the Second World War, the lighthouse was neglected by the Japanese, but its faithful lightkeepers continued to secretly hide and maintain its equipment. After the war, the British returned to take over the lighthouse, and in 1948, the Union Jack was hoisted again ceremoniously at the tower.

On 19 September 1950, Singapore suffered one of its most worst power failures in history due to a defective generator at St James Power Station. The island was thrown into total darkness for an hour and a half. During the blackout period, Fort Canning Lighthouse remained as the only constant light source in the city.

As taller buildings were built, obstructing the view and its light, Fort Canning Lighthouse became less effective by the late fifties. It was officially decommissioned on 14 December 1958, with its role replaced by the new electrical-powered and sea-facing Fullerton Lighthouse on top of Fullerton Building.

Today, a functional replica of the Fort Canning Lighthouse stands on Fort Canning Hill.

Fullerton Lighthouse (1958-1979)

Manufactured by England’s Stone-Chance Ltd, the Fullerton Lighthouse was installed on top of the Fullerton Building, serving as the navigational guide for ships entering Singapore’s harbour. Commissioned on 14 December 1958, the lighthouse was operationalised to replace Fort Canning Lighthouse, whose effectiveness was diminished due to the obstruction of view by the new tall buildings constructed at the southern side of Fort Canning Hill.

Equipped with a revolving beacon of 540,000 candelas, Fullerton Lighthouse could project its light up to 16 nautical miles (30km) away. The lighthouse, however, met the same fate of Fort Canning Lighthouse two decades later. The rapidly evolving skyline of Singapore’s waterfront began blocking the line of sight between the ships and the lighthouse. Fullerton Lighthouse was eventually decommissioned on 30 November 1979.

The remaining two lighthouses are Berlayer Point Lighthouse and Johor Strait Lighthouse. Technically a beacon (hence, it is also known as Berlayer Beacon or Berlayer Tower), the Berlayer Point Lighthouse, currently located at Labrador Park at the southern tip of mainland Singapore, was possibly installed as early as the 1930s.

At 7m tall, Berlayer Beacon flashes every five seconds to a range of 4 nautical miles (7km). Opposite across the waters is the green Tanjong Rimau Beacon, its cousin located on the northwestern tip of Sentosa. Together, the pair functions as the navigational markers for ships – Berlayer Beacon for the ships’ port (left) side, and Tanjong Rimau Beacon for starboard (right) side – that enter and exit the channel between Labrador and Sentosa.

Johor Strait Lighthouse, the last lighthouse on the list, stands at the end of the jetty of Raffles Marina, a country club located at Tuas West. Facing the Malaysia-Singapore Second Link, it provide flashes of light signals to the ships approaching the Straits of Johor.

Published: 25 August 2019

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A Historical Brief of Balestier’s Red Chinese Temple and Wayang Stage

The Balestier Road’s Chinese temple, albeit relatively small in size and stature compared to other Chinese temples in Singapore, has a long history that dated back to the mid-19th century. Named Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple, it was established in 1847 by the Hokkien labourers working at the vicinity’s sugarcane plantations.

In the mid-19th century, large areas of lands at Balestier were used to cultivate sugarcane, and were largely owned by Joseph Balestier (1788-1858), the American consul to Singapore from 1836 to 1852. Joseph Balestier hired many Chinese immigrants to work at his plantations, and the temple, located at the fringes of his estate, served as a religious solace for the workers, who had to endure harsh conditions at the plantations plagued with mosquitoes, snakes and even tigers.

Joseph Balestier’s sugarcane plantations were also known as the Balestier Plantation. By 1848, a declining sugarcane industry and also due to health reasons, Joseph Balestier sold his properties and left Singapore for the United States, although he still retained his American consul position until 1852.

The road that ran along Joseph Balestier’s plantations was later named Balestier Road. The ownership of the lands changed hands and were converted for other uses, but the Chinese temple survived, witnessing the vast changes of its Balestier surroundings for the next one-and-a-half century.

Bearing the name Goh Chor, which refers to Rochore, the name of the vicinity located next to present-day Balestier, the temple has a typical southern Chinese style that consists of a low tiled roof with ornate ridges decorated with elaborated creatures in dragons, phoenixes, fish and flowers. It is a Chinese belief that these roof ornaments can ward off evil spirits and protect the temple against fires.

The eye-catching red exteriors of the temple is due to the red-painted plasters that resemble terracotta wall tiles, a traditional Hokkien architectural style. Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple was renovated in 1920 and 1928 respectively, and is currently under the trusteeship of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan.

The worshipping of Tua Pek Kong in Singapore possibly started in the early 19th century, even before the arrival of the British, by the early Chinese immigrants working at the gambier plantations. Literally means “Grand Uncle”, Tua Pek Kong is unique to Southeast Asia, especially Singapore, Malaysia and parts of Indonesia, where devotees pray to him for prosperity, well-being and good fortune.

In Singapore, Tua Pek Kong was initially worshipped by the early Hokkiens, but was gradually accepted as part of the Chinese folk religion by the other major dialect groups such as the Cantonese, Teochews and Hakkas. By the sixties and seventies, dozens of Tua Pek Kong temples could be found in many parts of Singapore, especially at the rural areas where it was worshipped as the protection god for the villagers, including Tuas, Tampines, Changi, Toa Payoh, West Coast, Pulau Tekong and Kusu Island.

Today, the deity remains popular with a large following of devotees, and has more than 50 temples dedicated to his worship.

One of the unique features of the temple is its accompanying wayang stage. Many Chinese temples in Singapore used to have wayang stages, but they were gradually phased out due to the waning interest in Chinese opera performances and the increasing cost in maintenance.

Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple’s wayang stage was constructed in 1906, sponsored by Tan Boo Liat, a Hokkien businessman and philanthropist. The century-old stage continues to serve its purpose today. It is used during the annual Hungry Ghost Festival for stage performances by the invited Chinese opera troupes. The temple, meanwhile, also sees large crowds during the chap goh meh (fifteenth night of Chinese New Year) and the birthday of Tua Pek Kong (14th of the eighth month on the lunar calendar).

Only three surviving wayang stages are left in Singapore. Other than Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple’s wayang stage, the other two are the wayang stages of Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple and Tan Kong Tian Temple, located at Jalan Kebaya off Holland Road.

Published: 12 August 2019

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Jalan-Jalan in Singapore, 1980 Version

What were the fun activities during the school holidays in Singapore back in 1980?

A news article dated in June 1980 provides some interesting insights with a list of 12 outdoor activities for students and teenagers to visit and explore during the mid-year vacation period.

Some of the activities back then could no longer be replicated today, such as the train ride from Tanjong Pagar to Johor, or the fun bus tours to the rural parts of Singapore. Others still applicable today, including the cycling at Pulau Ubin and trekking to the summit of Bukit Timah Hill. One thing remained unchanged though – the hot and humid weather with occasional thunderstorms.

Activities: Nostalgia Tour

Where: Start from Upper Cross Street and work your way into the very heart of Chinatown.

Highlights: Make a list of shops that your mother may want to go to – prices are lower and all kinds of fascinating things can be found. Put the shops under these headings – glass, frames, spices, household utensils, crockery, textiles, books, joss-sticks, furniture, Chinese herbs – accompanied by little map sketches, so that mum doesn’t have to hunt around on a hot afternoon.

Today’s Context: Chinatown remains a place worth visiting, be it for shopping, food or just for some nostalgia’s sake. Most kids today, though, will probably prefer to stay at home playing online games or shop in air-conditioned shopping malls. The hot weather on an afternoon can be unbearable, even for the most enthusiastic mothers.

Activities: Bus Rides to Nowhere

Where: Old Jurong (SBS bus 175), Tengah, Ama Keng (both 172), Punggol (82, 83), Nee Soon, Sembawang (both 161, 164).

Highlights: Think of them as coach tours of rural Singapore. All services end by the sea: Service 175 near Tuas Jetty, 172 (Lim Chu Kang Jetty), 161 and 164 (Sembawang Jetty), and 82 and 83 (Punggol Jetty beside the famous seafood haunts). Look out for rural industries like brickworks and sawmills (bus 175), Tengah Airbase (172), pig farms (82, 83), cemeteries (172, 175, 161, 164), and vegetable farms, wooden temples painted bright red, sugarcane fields, and zinc-and-attap hut clusters. As a variation, ride these routes in the night and observe the rural night scenes.

Today’s Context: Most of those rural landmarks were gone. Tengah Airbase and the Lim Chu Kang Cemeteries are still around, serving by Bus Service 975 instead. Most of the bus services do not end at the bus terminals today; instead they ply between new towns or make a loop back to the bus interchanges, but one can still take a quiet bus ride along Lim Chu Kang Road. For zinc-and-attap hut clusters, only one remains on mainland Singapore. Kampong Lorong Buangkok can be reached via bus services 50, 70, 103 and 854.

Activities: Fishing

Where: Tampines Fish Farm (Tampines Lane just off 19km, Tampines Road – SBS buses 80 and 81 drop you right in front); and Jurong Lake.

Highlights: The fish farm is commercial – you have to pay $5.50 for every rod you bring in. You can also rent rods from the owner. Day fishing from 6am to 6pm. Overnight fishing from sundown to sun-up – bring warm pullover, raincoat, thermos flask of hot beverages, some snacks, powerful battery lamp and waterproof torch for immersing in the water to attract the fish. Don’t bring books to read overnight – you will only strain you eyes. Make up ghost stories to stay awake.

Today’s Context: Prawning, or prawn fishing, is a more popular leisure activity among many Singaporeans nowadays. For a range of $10 to $20 per hour, one can attempt to catch as many prawns, sometimes lobsters, as he or she can, using a rented rod, hook and some free bits of chicken liver. There are barbecue pits too, for an optional makan session of the caught prawns.

Activities: Barbecue and Campfire

Where: Anywhere along the entire stretch of Marine Parade where barbecue pits are provided.

Highlights: First get a permit – granted straightaway – from Parks and Recreation Dept, 19th floor, National Development Building, Maxwell Road. Don’t bring too much food – stuff like sausages, chicken wings and drumsticks, slices of ham and bacon, and bread are convenient. Remember the charcoal (no PUB cookers around!) and skewers or tongs. Afterwards, don’t douse the fire but sit around the dying embers telling tall tales or singing campfire songs.

Today’s Context: Barbecue remains as one of Singaporeans’ favourite food-and-chit chat session, be it at East Coast Park, chalets, clubhouses or condos. Some of the newer HDB estates also provide barbecue pits at the common areas near the playgrounds and basketball courts.

Activities: Train Ride

Where: Tanjong Pagar station to Johore Bahru.

Highlights: All you need is your passport. Five services daily, 8.45am, 1.15pm, 2, 8 and 10. Fare: Adults $1.30 (2nd class) and 90 cents (3rd class), children (under 12) 70 and 50 cents. Be at the station at least 45 minutes early to buy your tickets and go through Customs. Lots of things to do when you get to JB. Explore the tiny streets crammed with hawkers displaying their wares on the ground, the seafront padang, the cinemas, the shopping centres – all with a flavour so similar yet so unlike Singapore’s.

Today’s Context: The Tanjong Pagar Railway Station has closed since December 2016, but one can still take the train to JB at the Woodlands Train Checkpoint. Besides the 5-minute trips by train, hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans flock to JB everyday by cars, taxis and buses. In 2018 alone, Singaporeans made an astonishing total of 10.6 million trips to their favourite destination for a short getaway, seafood feast or shopping spree.

Activities: Bumboat Ride

Where: Singapore River, Kallang Basin and Tanjong Rhu.

Highlights: Two trips daily, 9am and 2pm. Organised by Universal Travel Corporation of People’s Park Centre. You board the boat at Clifford Pier for a 2-1/2 hour trip down the river (highlights are Boat Quay, boatmen’s shrine, Pulau Saigon, Raffles’ landing place), then back to the open sea towards Kallang Basin and the boatyards of Tanjong Rhu. Land at Oasis floating restaurant for refreshments and a coach tour of Katong including a visit to a Malay shrine, the Kramat Panjang. Adult fare $16, children under 12 years, half-price.

Today’s Context: The old days of Singapore River cramped with tongkangs and twakows were long gone. So were the polluted charcoal and firewood tradings at Tanjong Rhu. The bumboat rides of today, named Singapore River Cruise, showcase to the tourists and locals Marina Bay’s iconic waterfront, Raffles Place’s skyscrapers and office towers, as well as Boat Quay’s refurbished shophouses. A 40-minute round trip costs $25 for adults and $15 for children.

Activities: Orienteering

Where: HDB New Towns, like Ang Mo Kio, Bedok and Woodlands.

Highlights: If you’re already a resident, start to find out everything about your satellite town; the police station, the various hawker centres, clinics, schools, major bus stops, unusual shops, late-night coffee shops, playgrounds, cinemas, banks and post offices. The best way to get around is by bicycle. New HDB streets are laid in geometrical patterns, making mapping easy. First draw an outline of the streets, then start filling in the important spots. To add realism, buy a compass ($2 or $3 for a simple one available from bookshops and emporiums) and draw the streets according to their compass direction. When the map is completed, you can frame it up in the living room for easy reference by the family.

Today’s Context: With easy access to internet, Google Maps and Google Street View, there is little need for one to draw his or her own maps. The new towns of the early eighties have become mature residential estates today. Perhaps it is more interesting to explore the older housing estates, especially those in risk of being demolished or redeveloped. Examples are Tanglin Halt, Dakota Crescent and Kampong Silat Estate.

Activities: Hill-climbing

Where: Bukit Timah (enter from Hindhede Road at junction of Jalan Anak Bukit and Upper Bukit Timah Road).

Highlights: Climb up the series of steps to the summit or follow the winding track. For the more adventurous, bash through the bushes – you won’t get lost as long as you keep heading up. Watch out for the quarry. Note: Carry all your snacks and drinks in a haversack (the bag slung behind your shoulders, try Sungei Road) so as to leave your hands free.

Today’s Context: The 163m-tall Bukit Timah Hill is crowded with hundreds of Singaporeans especially during the weekends. Designated in 1990, the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve consists of the Dairy Farm Nature Park and Rifle Range Nature Park, where one can adventurously trek for about 17km to the MacRitchie Reservoir via the various rocky trails. There is also the challenging Bukit Timah Mountain Bike Trail, opened since 1997, that snakes around the former granite quarries and secondary forest.

Activities: Exploration

Where: Pulau Ubin (daily ferry from Changi Point from sun-up to sundown).

Highlights: Our second biggest little island (after Pulau Tekong Besar) is just the right size for trekking and overnight camping. Try night fishing at a jetty on the northside, but don’t swim because jellyfish abound near the jetty. Trekking across island is not for children under 13 because of secondary forest and hilly ground.

Today’s Context: Pulau Ubin stays almost as serene and undisturbed today as compared to 40 years ago. Each year, it attracts tens of thousands of Singaporeans, who visit the island for various activities such as trekking, cycling, picking durians, praying at the Chinese Tua Pek Kong temple or visiting simply to have a nostalgic feel of the ruralness that has long vanished on mainland Singapore.

Activities: PSA Cruises

Where: Clifford Pier, World Trade Centre.

Highlights: Cruise from the WTC is a quick half-hour round the harbour, at $1 for adults and 50 cents for children. Bring a camera to take unusual shots of the city skyline viewed from the sea, the busy port and the container terminal. For a long cruise, go to Clifford Pier – it’s a harbour and southern islands tour, at 9.30am and 3.30pm. The trip is 2-1/2 hours – you visit the harbour, the islands and stop over at Kusu.

Today’s Context: The Singapore Island Cruise and Ferry Services offers the local context of island hopping. At $18, or $15 during the weekends, one can hop onto the ferries from Marina South Pier and explore the tranquil Kusu Islands, St. John’s Island and Lazarus Island in round trips at 10am and 2pm daily (or 9am to 5pm at 2-hour intervals during the weekends).

Activities: Picnicking

Where: Peirce Reservoir (entrance from Old Thomson Road where the Grand Prix used to be held).

Highlights: There are actually two reservoirs – Upper Peirce and Lower Peirce. Head for the Upper where there are toilets. Lots of huge spreading trees near the back for a quiet afternoon picnic. The place is practically deserted so you can have it all to yourself. But remember to get out before dark for the gate closes after 6pm.

Today’s Context: The Marina Barrage, Singapore’s 15th reservoir, is a more popular option today for gatherings, picnics and other activities, such as recreational flying of kites and drones, at its spacious green rooftop. The nearby splendid Singapore skyline provides a treat to the eyes too.

Activities: Free Film Shows

Where: National Museum.

Highlights: Why pay to see cinema shows when the museum has lots of movies – free but on first-come-first-served basis. Wednesdays (June 11, 18 and 25, at 8pm) and Saturdays (June 14, 21, 28, at 10.45pm). Some titles are World Beneath The Sea (June 14), Through The North-West Passage (June 18) and Reef Of Steel (June 28).

Today’s Context: Besides film screenings, the National Museum of Singapore also organises various events such as exhibitions, rhapsodies and family fun activities as its main attractions. Other than the National Museum, one can also drop by the Asian Civilisation Museum, National Gallery Singapore, Singapore Philatelic Museum, Peranakan Museum and Singapore Art Museum, all located within the City Hall district.

Published: 29 July 2019

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The Colonial Charms of Wessex Estate’s Black and White Houses

Even as the rapid development of the one-north biomedical, media and other engineering industries creep towards its doorstep, a walk around Wessex Estate, off Portsdown Road, still makes one feel he has travelled back in time.

Wessex Estate’s clusters of colonial-style black and white houses were mostly built in the 1930s and 1940s. Made up of 26 blocks of walk-up apartments and 58 semi-detached houses, they are concentrated around Woking Road, Westbourne Road, Whitchurch Road, Weyhill Close and Wilton Close, all of which were named after towns and villages in England.

The name Wessex came from an ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom that existed between the 6th and 10th century before England was unified. Coincidentally or intentionally, the names of the estate and roads all started with the letter W.

By the early fifties, there were almost 240 families of British servicemen staying at Wessex Estate, where many of them worked at the nearby military installations at Alexandra and Pasir Panjang.

In the fifties, a primary school was built at Wessex Estate by the British military for the children of their servicemen. In 1955, the use of the school premises was extended as a goodwill to the children of the Malay Other Ranks (MOR). Hence, the school became known as the Pasir Panjang Army Children’s School in the morning, and Wessex Estate Malay School in the afternoon sessions.

In 1967, the British government announced the withdrawal of its troops from Singapore. By late 1971, most of the British military had left Singapore. Wessex Estate, along with other British properties at Chip Bee Gardens, Gillman Estate, Glouchester Park, Rochester Park and Medway Park, were to be handed over to the Singapore government in phases.

By early 1976, the remaining troops, largely made up of the ANZUK (Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom) servicemen, had moved out of Wessex Estate. The Singapore government assigned the Housing and Development Board (HDB) to take over the vacated apartments and houses. The properties were later made available to the public for rental.

For Wessex Estate apartments and houses, the rental fees ranged between $200 and $500. An apartment with three bedrooms cost $200 per month, and $500 for a double-storey three-bedroom semi-detached house. Their monthly rentals would rise to $300 and $550 in the second and subsequent years. In addition, the tenants were charged $30 to $40 for water consumption, and another $3 to $6 for sewage fees.

In 1980, a rental hike of between 30% and 50% saw 100 tenants of Wessex Estate submitted a protest petition to HDB. The hike was delayed but inevitable. In late 1981, another increase in rental fees irked the tenants that many of them decided to move out of the estate.

For decades, the vast lush greenery and the rumbling sound of the passing trains added to the charms of Wessex Estate. But in the early 2000s, the quiet surroundings of Wessex Estate were interrupted as the development of the science hub and business park of Buona Vista and one-north kicked off.

As the surroundings of Wessex Estate was witnessing the rapid changes, the sleepy residential estate itself was slowly coming to life as a new and upcoming artists’ enclave. Art studios and galleries were set up by artists, painters and photographers at the loft spaces converted from the units of Wessex Estate’s black and white houses, adding some cultural touches to the forgotten former colonial buildings.

Within the laid-back neighbourhood of Wessex Estate, one can find an abandoned water tank standing on a small hilltop. The tall concrete tank, equipped with a long vertical rusty ladder, has been relatively unknown to many, but several daring boys have been spotted in their risky attempts to climb to the top of the structure – a stunt that is not advisable and is probably illegal as well.

The more famous landmark of Wessex Estate is the Colbar cafe. Opened in 1953, the Colbar (Colonial Bar in short) was previously located along Jalan Hang Jebat, a short distance away from Wessex Estate, and was extremely popular among the British troops and residents.

In 2003, the restaurant had to be relocated due to the construction of a flyover that links Queensway to the Ayer Rajah Expressway (AYE). The building was carefully dismantled and delivered to Whitchurch Road, the new home of Colbar. The building was then reconstructed to resemble its old appearance. Serving affordable Western food and coffee, the restaurant remains popular among the locals who want to experience a taste of the old colonial times.

Further down Portsdown Avenue is Jalan Hang Jebat (previously, it was situated off Portsdown Road before Portsdown Avenue was built), where rows of colonial terraces stand. Like Wessex Estate’s black and white houses, the colonial terraces were designed with the consideration of Singapore’s hot climate. With features such as high pitched roofs, verandas and rattan blinds, the interiors of the houses are able to maintain a reasonable cool temperature even during a hot day.

Jalan Hang Jebat’s colonial terraces were built by the British in the 1930s. They were used as the accommodation for the British junior ranking officers, whereas the senior officers stayed at Wessex Estate’s semi-detached houses.

Elsewhere in Singapore, clusters of colonial residential houses formerly built by the British can be found at Sembawang, Seletar, Rochester, Dempsey and Changi. Today, the black and white houses of Wessex Estate are currently managed by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC), and available for lease to one-north’s working population and residents.

An afternoon stroll at the charming Wessex Estate:

Published: 18 July 2019

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Singapore Bicentennial 2019 – A Note to Remember

The Singapore Bicentennial commemorative $20 note was launched in June 2019, marking Singapore’s long 200 years of journey in becoming a vibrant city and a nation. It also pays tribute to the many generations of Singapore’s forefathers, who arrived from different lands, sank roots here and laid the foundations for modern Singapore.

The back of the commemorative note features the faces of eight pioneers who had made significant contributions to the various aspects of Singapore’s nation building, including defence, philanthropy, social works, education, sports and others. The eight pioneers were Munshi Abdullah, Henry Nicholas Ridley, Tan Kah Kee, P. Govindasamy Pillai, Teresa Hsu Chih, Alice Pennefather, Adnan Saidi and Ruth Wong Hie King.

Munshi Abdullah (1797-1854)

The Malacca-born multilingual Munshi Abdullah came to Singapore as Sir Stamford Raffles’ secretary and interpreter in 1819. An expert in Malay, he taught the language to Raffles and many other foreigners. Munshi Abdullah was the first local Malay to have his works published. His autobiography Hikayat Abdullah, completed in 1843, became an important source of information depicting Singapore’s society and culture in the 19th century. The road Munshi Abdullah Avenue, located at Ang Mo Kio’s Teacher’s Estate, was named after him.

Henry Nicholas Ridley (1855-1956)

Henry Nicholas Ridley was Singapore Botanic Gardens’ first director, arriving at Singapore in 1888 for his appointment which lasted until 1911. During his stay, Henry Ridley explored much of Malay Peninsula for botany specimens, but his greatest contributions were his tireless research in improved tapping of latex and promotion of rubber trees as a valuable commercial commodity. This largely led to Singapore and Malaya’s booming rubber trades in the early 20th century, earning Henry Ridley his distinguished reputation as the father of the rubber industry. Ridley Park was named after him in 1923.

Tan Kah Kee (1874-1961)

Tan Kah Kee was a prominent local businessman in the early 20th century, with investments in various industries such as rubber, newspapers, rice, manufacturing and shipping. Although his business empire was later severely impacted by the Great Depression, Tan Kah Kee remained a well-respected community leader and philanthropist. A firm advocate of education, Tan Kah Kee contributed to the establishment of many schools in Singapore, including Tao Nan, Ai Tong and Nanyang Girls’ Schools. He also led Singapore’s, as well as China’s, war efforts against the Japanese during the Second World War. Downtown Line’s Tan Kah Kee MRT Station was named in honour of him.

P. Govindasamy Pillai (1887-1980)

Successful South Indian businessman, property owner and philanthropist P. Govindasamy Pillai first came to Singapore in 1905 as a poor youth, slogging at a provision shop for years. When the shop closed down, Govindasamy Pillai took a leap of faith and bought over it with his savings and borrowed money. The Second World War made him lost almost everything, but he was able to revive his business after the war and further expanded it to Johor and Malacca. Govindasamy Pillai’s contributions were well-remembered, especially his generous donations to Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple and welfare organisation Ramakrishna Mission.

Teresa Hsu Chih (1898-2011)

Born in China to a poor family, Teresa Hsu and her family moved to Penang after her father had abandoned them. With no formal education, she managed to gain knowledge by joining the children’s classes at the convent she worked in. In 1933, she left to work in Hong Kong, learning English and typing at night. After the war, Teresa Hsu, at age 47, studied nursing at London, and participated in voluntary services to help the poor and needy. She arrived at Singapore and founded the Home for the Aged Sick in 1965. Singapore’s Mother Teresa continued her selfless and tireless efforts in helping the impoverished and destitute even after she became a centenarian in the 2000s.

Alice Pennefather (1903-1983)

Alice Pennefather – her full name was Alice Edith Wilhemina Patterson – was one of Singapore’s pioneering sportswomen, winning multiple badminton championships in Singapore and Malaya from the 1930s to 1950s. Equally good in tennis, she was crowned champion of the Singapore Ladies Tennis for three consecutive years in the late 1930s. The all-round Alice Pennefather also captained the Girls’ Sports Club hockey team from 1931 to 1958. During its 50th anniversary in 1980, the Sports Club hailed her as “The Grand Old Lady of Sport”. She was inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame in 2016.

Adnan Saidi (1915-1942)

A war hero, Lieutenant Adnan Saidi led his Malay Regiment’s 1st Battalion men in the defence of Singapore during the Second World War. Born in Selangor, Adnan Saidi joined the Malay Regiment in 1933 and was posted to Singapore in 1941 to defend Pasir Panjang. At the intense Battle of Opium Hill (Bukit Chandu) on 13 February 1942, Adnan Saidi and his men put up fierce resistance against waves of Japanese attacks. Outnumbered and undersupplied, the brave troop fought to the last man. Adnan Saidi was captured and brutally tortured, before killed by the Japanese. His valour and loyalty would always be remembered in history.

Ruth Wong Hie King (1918-1982)

Singapore’s pioneering educator, Ruth Wong Hie King was credited with the revolutionary transformation of teacher training in Singapore. As the first woman principal of the Teachers’ Training College (later became Institute of Education) in the early seventies, Ruth Wong introduced a disciplined approach to the training of new teachers and enhanced their curriculum. This greatly aided in the professional competence of the teachers and indirectly improved the growth of the students under their charge. Singapore’s educational standard of teachers and students, as a whole, had therefore risen significantly.

Published: 29 June 2019

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From Nee Soon Village to Springleaf Park

Taking a stroll at the quiet tranquil Springleaf Park today, it is difficult to imagine that 30 years ago, this place was a bustling centre of activities. The well-known Nee Soon Village had once existed here, along Sungei Seletar, at the junction of Upper Thomson Road, Sembawang Road, Mandai Road and Nee Soon Road.

A stone’s throw away was Nee Soon Camp, a important source of demand for goods and services that provided significant incomes for the many residents living in the vicinity. By the sixties and seventies, the Nee Soon Village area resembled a self-sufficient town with many amenities such as post office (Nee Soon Post Office), police station (Nee Soon Police Station), schools, community centres, workshops, clinics and places of worship.

Nee Soon Village’s predecessor was a kangchu system called Chan Chu Kang, established along Sungei Seletar in the mid-19th century. The kangchu system was an important social-economic system that existed in Johor, Riau as well as Singapore in the 19th century. Via the system, the Malay rulers could effectively control the influx of Chinese immigrants and, at the same, gain economic development in the rapidly growing spice industry.

In Singapore, there existed several kangchu systems. A couple of the larger ones had their names retained till this day, such as Lim Chu Kang, Choa Chu Kang and Yio (Yeo) Chu Kang. Others faded into history. By the late 19th century, the likes of Tan Chu Kang (located at Sungei Mandai Kechil), Lau Chu Kang (Sungei Mandai) and Chan Chu Kang (Sungei Seletar) had all but vanished.

Headed by Chan Ah Lak (曾亞六, 1813-1873), Chan Chu Kang’s name literally means the “House of Chan at the river”. Chan Ah Lak served as the headman of a kangkar (“foot of a river” in Teochew), who usually managed a large piece of land around a river for the cultivation of gambier or pepper. Chan Chu Kang was also commonly known as Chia Zhui Kang, which in Teochew refers to a “freshwater river”.

The processing of gambier was labourious and tedious. Besides the large number of Chinese coolies, the kangchu also hired the Orang Seletar, who were the indigenous people of the Seletar river. Although they mostly lived on houseboats and engaged in fishing, some worked at the kangkar’s bangsal (gambier-processing houses). Orang Seletar had called Sungei Seletar home for more than a century, until they moved out and resettled at Johor between the sixties and eighties.

The gambier and pepper industries eventually declined and lost much of their values by the end of the 19th century. Rubber quickly became an important commodity and export for Malaya and Singapore in the early 1900s. The vast northern part of Singapore, from Sungei Seletar to Mandai, soon became dominated by rubber estates and pineapple plantations, most of them owned by Lim Nee Soon (1879-1936). In 1930, Chan Chu Kang was renamed Nee Soon Village in honour of his contributions to the development of the Nee Soon area.

Although Nee Soon Village was the dominant village and centre of commercial activities, there were many other pockets of settlement in the Nee Soon-Mandai vicinity, such as Puah Village, Hup Choon Kek Village, Hainan Village (at Old Upper Thomson Road), Kum Mang Hng Village, Mandai Tekong Village, Pineapple Hill Village, Chye Kay Village, Kampong Jalan Kula Simpang and Kampong Telok Soo.

Nee Soon Village enjoyed decades of undisturbed peace and development until the seventies, when the government launched the Yishun New Town project. By 1977, batches of residents of Nee Soon Village had started to move out. Some of the secondary forest vegetation was cleared, and a number of tracks, namely Lorong Handalan, Lorong Persatuan and Lorong Sunyi, were expunged. The resettlement and demolition lasted throughout the eighties, and by the early nineties, Nee Soon Village was completely gone.

The once busy Nee Soon Road, named after Lim Nee Soon in 1950, became the main access road to a new private residential estate called Springleaf Garden. Over the years, the vegetation slowly claimed back the areas along Nee Soon Road that were previously home to the former village. Springleaf Garden was completed, in the late eighties, with rows of new semi-detached houses that fetched prices between $589,000 and $700,000.

The Nee Soon Bridge, spanning over Sungei Seletar, was constructed by the Public Works Department. Its predecessor was a wooden bridge built by Lim Nee Soon’s associate Koh Chin Chong. Sections of Sungei Seletar were straightened into a canal, and a new park connector, named Springleaf Nature Park, was developed and opened to public in 2014.

Over the decades, many landmarks of the Nee Soon vicinity had vanished. There was a popular market called Nee Soon Market situated between Nee Soon Road and Thong Aik Road. Initiated by Koh Chin Chong in 1947, the market lasted until 1979 when it was destroyed in a fire. A makeshift market was erected but it was demolished together with the village in the late eighties.

Expunged in the early nineties, Thong Aik Road was named after Thong Aik Rubber Factory, a rubber-processing factory established by Lim Nee Soon in 1912. It was renamed Nee Soon and Sons Rubber Works in the 1920s, before Lim Nee Soon sold it in 1928 to Lee Kong Chian (1893-1967), who named his new investment Lee Rubber. The red-walled facilities became a prominent landmark at the junction of Nee Soon Road and Sembawang Road, but was eventually torn down in the late eighties.

But one can still catch some glimpses of older Nee Soon today. The former Nee Soon Post Office building still stands at the junction of Upper Thomson Road and Mandai Road, having refurbished and converted into a pet sanctuary in recent years.

The old shophouses at Thong Bee Road (named after Lim Nee Soon’s company Thong Bee at Beach Road) and Chong Kuo Road (named after Lim Nee Soon’s eldest son Lim Chong Kuo) remain intact. So are the shophouses and popular eateries along Upper Thomson Road. There is also Meng Suan Road, with its rows of old charming Mandai Garden houses and overhanging cables.

Transit Road, however, underwent tremendous changes in the past two years. The Nee Soon Camp’s main access road has seen its rows of shophouses demolished and replaced by new private condominiums. A new Springleaf MRT Station is also being constructed in the vicinity, as part of the new Thomson-East Coast Line (TEL) network.

National Cadet Corps (NCC) members of the nineties would remember the Springleaf Camp, which was opened in 1990 by Dr Arthur Beng, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Fengshan. The 2.1-hectare camp’s School of Cadet Training was specially catered for the secondary schools’ NCC members, who previously had their trainings at Nee Soon Camp. Springleaf Camp, however, was demolished in the early 2000s. The site remains a vacant patch of land today.

Home of the indigenous people, a gambier and pepper-growing kangchu system, rubber and pineapple plantations, a dominant village and a nature park today. The Sungei Seletar area has indeed evolved drastically in the past 200 years.

Published: 09 June 2019

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The Architectural Legacy of Pearl Bank Apartments

Located on top of Pearl’s Hill, the Pearl Bank Apartments was built in 1976, and designed by local architect Tan Cheng Siong in a unique horseshoe shape when viewed from the above. At 113m tall, the building offered its residents a breathtaking panoramic view of the Outram and city areas. There was a total of 288 residential units and 4 shops (at ground floor) in the 41-storey Pearl Bank Apartments, which also had amenities such as clubhouse, kindergarten, gymnasium, multi-purpose hall and a multi-storey carpark.

When completed, the Pearl Bank Apartments scored a number of records in Singapore. It was the first residential development built on a designated Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) land instead of a Housing and Development Board (HDB) one. It was the tallest apartment block not only in Singapore, but in the entire Southeast Asia. With almost 2,000 residents living in 288 units, Pearl Bank Apartments also represented the one of the highest urban density for a residential building in Singapore.

The name Pearl Bank was not original to the apartment tower. There was a former primary school in the Outram vicinity called Pearl Bank School. It was one of the three schools – the other two were Park Road School and Pearl’s Hill School – located beside Pearl’s Hill Park.

Both Pearl Bank School and Park Road School, located side by side, were formerly known as Sepoy Lines School 1 and Sepoy Lines School 2, before they were renamed in 1954. They later merged to become Pearl Park Primary School. In 1995, they merged again, with Pearl’s Hill School, but were eventually closed in 2001 due to dwindling student population.

With bold, geometric lines in simple structural designs, often made up of exposed concrete or brick facades, the Brutalist architecture, or Brutalism, became popular in the fifties and sixties, and was largely used as the architectural style for many institutional buildings around the world.

In Singapore, Pearl Bank Apartments, together with Golden Mile Complex and People’s Park Complex, represented the finest examples of the post-independence modernist buildings that were built during Singapore’s urban renewal periods in the seventies. The trio was also the first large-scale public-private and mixed-use buildings entirely designed by Singaporean architects.

The Pearl Bank Apartments’ residential units were aggressively marketed through different means in the early seventies. For example, a two-bedroom split-level unit was offered by its developer Hock Send Enterprise in 1972 as the first prize for the National Sports Promotion Board’s donation. In 1975, the almost-completed units were put up for sale at prices ranging between $130,000 and $180,000.

However, the completion schedule of Pearl Bank Apartments was almost one and a half year late. The delayed completion led to Hock Seng Enterprise’s downfall, as it went into receivership, burdened by the mounting debts due to many unsold units in a depressed residential property market in Singapore in the mid-seventies.

Hence, in 1978, the Housing and Urban Development Company (HUDC), the government’s middle-income housing development arm, moved in to buy 38 Pearl Bank Apartments units, making them available for HUDC applicants. URA also purchased eight penthouses in 1979, after which they were offered to interested civil servants and statutory board employees.

Due to inadequate servicing support from the developer, Pearl Bank Apartments had suffered from maintenance issues for years. Shortly after its completion, the building’s passenger and service lifts had failed in their operations. In 1978, seven of the nine lifts broke down, leaving only two working lifts for the entire block of residents. In 1986, a freak incident occurred as a metal chain plunged from heights and crashed through the roof of a stationary lift at the apartment block. Plasters from the walls started peeling off in the early nineties.

The Pearl Bank Apartments was put up for collective sale several times since 2007. The sale was successful for the fourth time, when it was eventually sold in February 2018 to CapitaLand for $728 million. In 2015, 90% of its residents applied for a conservation order for Pearl Bank Apartments, in order to declare it as a conservation site. The move, however, fell short of the 100% criteria set by URA.

The eventual demolition of Pearl Bank Apartments will bring along with it a vital piece of Singapore’s architectural history. In its place, nevertheless, will be a new cylindrical-shaped One Pearl Bank that hopefully can continue the Pearl Bank legacy for another 40 years.

Published: 20 May 2019

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