Boon Lay, JTC and the En-Bloc Flats

As part of the early industrial development of Jurong, small residential estates were built to accommodate the increasing workers’ population as well as the resettled farmers and fishermen from the Jurong and Tuas villages. Hence, by the mid-sixties and mid-seventies respectively, the housing projects of Taman Jurong and Boon Lay were launched.

The Taman Jurong residential district was first developed by the Economic Development Board (EDB) and then by Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) between 1964 and 1975. The development of Boon Lay estate, on the other hand, began in 1969, when the villages were cleared and the tracks of Jurong Road expunged, replaced by the construction of new tarmac roads.

The Boon Lay estate, consisting of Boon Lay Drive, Boon Lay Place and Boon Lay Garden, was named after Chew Boon Lay (1851-1933), the Chinese pioneer who had owned huge gambier and pepper plantations in the Jurong vicinity in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

By the mid-seventies, the small housing estate was taking shape, with the network of roads completed, and new JTC flats ready for the workers at the nearby industries. The construction of JTC flats lasted until 1979. As many as 53 blocks were built, numbering from 161 to 220, and ranging from 10-storey to 15-storey and 20-storey tall. Simple public amenities were built too, such as a children’s playground with swings and see-saws, and mini football field, between Block 192 and 196.

The blocks of 167 to 172 have designs similar to the former JTC flats at Yung Kuang Road, where two parallel blocks were served by a common lift system in between the blocks. From their top views, the blocks look like the letter “H”. There were other similarly designed flats at Boon Lay Drive (Block 161-166, 192-197), but most were demolished in the late eighties and early nineties.

Since the beginning of 2017, the 40-year-old Block 167-172 of Boon Lay Drive have been vacated. It was six years ago, in 2011, when the flats were selected in the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS).

In 1988, six empty rental blocks at Boon Lay Drive, built in 1973, were used as Fighting in Built-Up Areas (FIBUA) for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) servicemen. The three-room flats had been awaiting for demolition by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). It was the first time SAF conducted their urban warfare training outside their designated facilities at Pasir Laba’s Basic Combat Training Centre and the FIBUA Village at Jalan Sarimbun.

The FIBUA exercise was carried out from Mondays to Saturdays and lasted for six months, where blanks and thunderflashes were constantly used. It was an unforgettable moment for the Boon Lay residents to experience the sounds of firing and explosives at their doorsteps.

Interesting Trivia

In 1989, after the FIBUA exercise had ended, Block 192, one of the six blocks scheduled to be demolished, could not be torn down despite the large amount of explosives used by HDB. Dubbed by the amused residents as the “invincible” block, Block 192 stubbornly stood for several months, before finally demolished using the conventional ball-and-crane method.

The balloting for the Boon Lay flats were carried out in different stages in the mid- and late-seventies. Block 198, 199 and 200, for example, were completed by the JTC in the mid-seventies. As many as 131 units, at $35,000 each, were offered in 1976 to the Jurong workers, with the balloting officiated by Ho Kah Leong, the former Member of Parliament (MP) for Jurong.

The ownership of the JTC flats was at first limited to the workers at Jurong. After 1977, the restriction was lifted and the units were subsequently put up for sale and rental to those working outside of the Jurong vicinity. In 1982, the management of the JTC flats at Boon Lay was handed over to HDB as the sole housing agency in Singapore.

The Boon Lay flats of the seventies had basic installations such as telephone lines, where the owners could request for new telephones to be fitted by the Telecommunication Authority of Singapore (TAS), a statutory board established in 1972 from the government’s Telecommunication Department.

But the flats were not without issues. In 1977, residents living at 198 to 206 blocks of Boon Lay Drive made complaints of brownish and salty water flowing from their taps, which, after investigations by the Public Utilities Board (PUB), was due to corroded pipes and water storage tanks. For weeks, the residents had to make daily trips to the nearby refuse centre to collect water for their cooking and washing purposes.

Other than the frequent water disruptions, the Boon Lay residents also faced another headache in the mid-seventies, when construction activities, reclamation works as well as smoke from the nearby plywood factory and Jurong power station polluted the air badly and staining the residents’ furniture and clothes with grime. The situation only turned better after the Ministry of Environment’s Anti-Pollution Unit stepped in to monitor and limit the emission from the power station and factories.

The small housing estate was also plagued in the seventies and early eighties by burglaries, armed robberies and gangsterism. In the year 1980, there were as many as eleven murders at Boon Lay; the most shocking case being the attack of five Malaysian workers by an armed gang. The anti-crime police unit launched a major operation, rounding up dozens of suspected gangsters at the new Jurong Town Police Station.

The new police station, located at the junction of Boon Lay Drive and Corporation Road, was officially opened in 1980 by Goh Chok Tong, then-Minister for Trade and Industry, at a construction cost of $2.7 million. Serving as the new headquarters for the Rural West Division, it aimed to provide swift response and assistance to the Jurong vicinity that already had a 250,000-strong residential and working population in the early eighties.

In 1986, the Boon Lay Neighbourhood Police Post (NPP) was set up at Boon Lay Place, first as a temporary post at a container cabin, and later at the permanent location at Block 210’s void deck. The purpose of NPPs was to tackle petty crimes and offences, such as thefts and conflicts, and carry out patrols and house visits.

There was also the Jurong Fire Station, located at the corner of Boon Lay Drive. Officially opened in 1975 by Othman bin Wok, the then-Minister for Social Affairs, it had a grand opening ceremony made up of a firemen marching contingent, inspection of new equipment and facilities, and spectacular fire-fighting demonstrations.

Amenities and services for the Boon Lay residents would improve over the years. In 1978, the Singapore Bus Service (SBS) introduced new direct feeder services between the residential and industrial sectors at Boon Lay and Taman Jurong during the peak hours so that the commuters need not transfer to other buses at the Jurong Bus Interchange.

The new services 249 and 249A, costing 20 cents per trip, plied between Boon Lay Drive, Corporation Road, Jalan Samulun and the National Iron and Steel Mills, and were terminated at the former Boon Lay Bus Terminal. Today, the premises of the former bus terminal has been converted into an open-air parking space.

A hawker centre and market were added at Boon Lay Place in 1976. Many street hawkers from Jurong Road 13th and 15th milestones were relocated to the hawker centre’s new food stalls.

The Boon Lay Shopping Centre was up in 1978, becoming Jurong’s first shopping and residential complex. The simple neighbourhood hub, in its early days, had many money changers to cater to the large foreign population, most of them Malaysians, working at the Jurong industrial estate.

In the early eighties, Boon Lay residents had their own cinema too, when Shaw Organisation opened the Savoy Cinema, or commonly known as the Old Boon Lay Cinema, beside Boon Lay Shopping Centre. The cinema lasted for more than a decade until the late nineties.

Several schools were established at Boon Lay estate during its development stage.

Boon Lay Garden Primary School was set up in 1977, catering to the new housing estate’s increasing number of families. Opened by Ngeow Pack Hua, former MP for Boon Lay, it had about 1,080 students and 27 classes in its first year of enrollment. In 2001, the school was relocated to a new campus along Boon Lay Drive. Today, its classes have increased to 50 with more than 1,500 students.

Jurong Vocational Institute, Boon Lay Garden Primary School’s old neighbour along Jalan Boon Lay, was set up as early as 1969 (its official opening was in 1973) to train students in their technical expertise and provide future skilled workers for the booming industries at Jurong. It was converted in 1992 into the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) Jurong.

The old campus sites of Jurong Vocational Institute and Boon Lay Garden Primary School are currently occupied by River Valley High School.

Another school at the Boon Lay vicinity was Boon Lay Secondary School, established in 1977 and officially opened in 1979 as a bilingual school with classes in both English and Chinese streams. The school began with only 13 classes, but gradually expanded to 34 classes by the early eighties. In 1998, Boon Lay Secondary School became a sole English-medium school, and it moved, a year later, to its new premises at Jurong West.

Interesting Trivia

One of Singapore’s two remaining clock-design playgrounds can be found at Boon Lay. The other one is located beside the Bishan Bus Interchange. Such sand-based playgrounds, along with other iconic designs, were commonly found in the new towns and housing estates in the eighties and nineties.

In 1981, the Boon Lay residents had a chance to witness the National Day Parade at their doorsteps. The National Day Parade in 1981 had been decentralised and was held concurrently at several venues, including the sport complexes at Jurong, Queenstown, Toa Payoh and Jalan Besar.

55 contingents and cultural groups lined up at the Jurong Stadium, witnessed by the former Minister for Labour Ong Teng Cheong and 10,000 spectators, before marching from the Fourth Chin Bee Road to Boon Lay Drive.

The Boon Lay estate is now part of a larger Boon Lay district, which is inclusive of the Jurong West New Town. Like Taman Jurong, new HDB developments have been launched at Boon Lay in the recent years, as replacement and upgrading for the aging JTC flats. The previous SERS project was carried out for Block 180-184 in 2006; the redeveloped site is now known as Boon Lay Meadow. It is now Block 167-172’s turn to be redeveloped.

More Photos of the En-Bloc JTC Flats (Block 167-172) at Boon Lay Drive:

Published: 17 September 2017

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Goodbye to the old Golden Shoe Hawker Centre

Many refer it to the Golden Shoe Hawker Centre, although its formal name was known as the Market Street Food Centre. Located at second and third levels of the Golden Shoe Carpark, the 33-year old food centre was formerly one of the most popular eating places at Raffles Place and Shenton Way.

The hawker centre had 56 stalls, serving a wide variety of affordable and delicious local food such as nasi lemak, chicken rice, roti prata, bak chor mee and fish soup. It was a common sight to see congested crowds, “choped” tables with tissues and long queues at the stalls during the lunch hours from Mondays and Fridays.

On 31 July 2017, the stalls were shuttered for the final time, bringing an end to its 33 years’ history. An interim hawker centre has been set up next to the Telok Ayer MRT Station at Cross Street.

The old Golden Shoe Carpark will be demolished and replaced by a new 51-storey integrated tower made up of offices, serviced residence, carparks and retail shops. One level will be reserved for a food court, which will be occupied by most of the former Market Street Food Centre stallholders. When completed in 2021, the building will be one of the tallest at Raffles Place.

The name “Golden Shoe” refers to the piece of prime land at the city area in the sixties and seventies. The 80-acre district, shaped like a shoe, was bounded by Collyer Quay, Raffles Quay, Shenton Way, Telok Ayer Street, Church Street, Boat Quay and Fullerton Square. It was where the most crowded and expensive office space could be found in Singapore, especially at the likes of Robinson Road, Change Alley, Raffles Place, Cecil Street and Market Street.

In 1970, the government announced the urban renewal project for the Golden Shoe district, hoping to attract influxes of investment capital and redeveloping the vicinity to match the prestigious “Golden Mile” that was fronting the Nicoll Highway. Under the Controlled Premises (Special Provisions) Act, landlords could evict tenants under certain conditions, in order to free up property for redevelopment.

Thousands of small businessmen and shopkeepers were affected. Many of them were sub-tenants, and had been doing businesses at the district since the 1940s. The move, however, was applauded by the various chambers of commerce in Singapore, pointing out that the rent-controlled premises and a shortage of good class office accommodation had been a hindrance to the development of Singapore’s prime district as a financial centre.

The compensation process soon kicked off, and many old shophoues and buildings were demolished. Within a few years, rents and land values at Raffles Place and Shenton Way rose rapidly. By the early seventies, many new skyscrapers were erected, such as the $10-million Cecil House, and the $80-million Ocean Building.

The Golden Shoe Carpark building was opened in May 1984 at a construction cost of $50 million. Its massive 1,074 parking lots was able to ease the increasing demand of carpark space in the city. 500 lots were initially reserved for season parking, which was offered at a rate of $130 per month, similar to that of the nearby Market Street Carpark.

The 10-storey building also came with three floors of hawker stalls, 17 shops, a restaurant and even a petrol kiosk at its ground level. Some of the early tenants at Golden Shoe Carpark were the minimart owned by Siang Heng Brothers and the famous Noodle Garden Restaurant.

In November 1984, the Market Street Food Centre at Golden Shoe Carpark building was officially opened by Ong Pang Boon, the Minister for the Environment. Within a short time, the new hawker centre established itself as a popular eating place among the workers at Raffles Place.

The first generation of the stallholders at the hawker centre were the street hawkers formerly plying their trades at D-Almeida Street and the back lanes of Market Street and South Bridge Road. The relocation of the street hawkers to a proper food centre was part of the government’s effort to clear all food hawking off the streets by the late eighties.

The Central Business District (CBD) has been constantly evolving. One of its changes was the demolition of old carparks and the subsequent redevelopment of their sites. This included the Raffles Place Carpark (closed in 1984), Empress Place Carpark (closed in 1989), Fullerton Square Carpark (1954-1989) and the Market Street Carpark, Singapore’s first multi-storey carpark (1964-2014).

Published: 14 August 2017

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Little Guilin and the Former Granite Quarries of Singapore

According to Singapore’s geological map, the island’s strongest rock formation is found at the Gombak Norite, where its rock is tested to be more than ten times stronger than concrete. During its heydays, there were nine quarries operated at Gombak Norite. The Bukit Timah granite formation, on the other hand, covers an area of 200 square kilometres and stretches from Woodlands and Sembawang to Bukit Batok. The rock formation in this vast region is about six times stronger than concrete.

Gombak Norite also contains some rock formations that are millions of years old, although Singapore’s oldest rock is found at Pulau Tekong’s Sajahat Formation, which is estimated to be 300 million years old.

Little Guilin

It is here at Gombak Norite where the former Gammon, Seng Chew, Lian Hup and Poh Hin Quarries once operated. By 1984, the Gammon Quarry was disused, and a year later, the authorities decided to convert it into a park. Hence, Little Guilin, with its tranquil lake and towering rock cliffs, was born, named after the famous natural granite formations in Guilin, China.

Little Guilin’s highest point reaches 133m, making it the second tallest hill in Singapore after Bukit Timah Hill, which is also a huge block of granite, standing at 163.63m above sea level.

The Little Guilin project was in-charged by the Housing and Development Board (HDB), which initially wanted the abandoned quarry to be filled and a road built over it. Before the preservation decision was made, the board surveyed the site and faced two difficult problems – preventing the place from becoming a safety hazard to the residents of the new town, and making sure it would not develop into a stagnant, mosquito-breeding ground.

By then, the water-filled quarry was one or two metres above the “safe” depth, and there were suggestions to lower the water level, but this would result in the water losing its shifting lights and sparkle. Hence, a low granite retaining wall was built at the edge of the quarry. In this way, visitors could be prevented from getting too close and falling into the waters while the water level could be retained.

The second problem was more difficult in solving. As the land around the quarry slopes away from it, rainwater tends to flow away rather than into it. But HDB’s engineering team in the end managed to locate a small quarry at a higher ground to supply Little Guilin with an adequate supply of fresh water.

The development of Little Guilin was completed by the mid-eighties. Part of Jalan Perang, a long narrow road that was once the only accessible way to Gammon Quarry, was rebuilt as Bukit Batok East Avenue 5. In 1990, the Bukit Gombak Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) Station was opened, providing additional convenience to the new scenic spot.

In the vicinity also lies the the former Seng Chew Granite Quarry, sitting on a small hill about 500m north of Little Guilin. Like the former Gammon Quarry, it was also previously accessible only by Jalan Perang. After its abandonment, rainwater filled it up and the former quarry became a lake.

The development of Bukit Batok Town Park saw one side of the once-heavily forested hill trimmed to become the contoured slopes today. A drainage system is also built to allow excessive water from Seng Chew Quarry, especially during the thunderstorms, to flow down along the slopes to the underground canals.

Granite in Demand

A search with the Registry of Companies (ROC) shows that the company operating Seng Chew Quarry had existed from 1949 to 1960. The period between the fifties and seventies was indeed the golden era for local granite quarrying industry; numerous quarry companies were set up in Singapore due to the increasing demand for granite, such as Koko, Malaya, Jurong, Lian Moh, Chih Yee, Asia, New Asia, Eng Kee, Lam Eng, Atlas and Gim Huat.

In 1950, there were calls to tap the granite resources at the Bukit Timah Hill. Approving the proposal would be disastrous, as sections of the hill would be blown up and its virgin forest destroyed. Fortunately, the government carried out a series of studies, assisted by an University of Malaya geologist, and concluded that the Mandai and Pulau Ubin quarries would be able to supply sufficient granite for Singapore for another hundred years.

For the other existing Bukit Timah quarries, the Commission of Enquiry into Granite Resources and Nature Reserve recommended their closures to prevent their encroachment into the forest reserve. However, behind strong economic forces, their quarrying activities would continue until the late eighties.

But by 1995, the major Singapore Quarry, Hindhede Quarry and Gali Batu (“to dig for rocks” in Malay) Quarry had ceased in their operations and became part of the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

Kampong Quarry

A small village called Kampong Quarry once flourished at Hindhede Road, near Bukit Timah Road 8th milestone. The Hindhede Granite Quarry had already been in existence when the village was built during the Japanese Occupation. The kampong, by the mid-fifties, had expanded to about 200 Malay residents living in 24 attap-and-zinc houses.

As the village grew in size, it became sub-divided into Kampong Quarry Bawah (“lower quarry village” in Malay), Kampong Quarry Tengah (“middle quarry village”) and Kampong Quarry Hanyut (“lost quarry village”). The name “lost” village was derived in the fifties, when the residents living there, many of them new settlers, had no occupation licenses and their houses were unnumbered. As a result, their village was not “officially” considered to be in existence.

Life for the residents at Kampong Quarry was difficult, especially in the fifties and sixties. The community was basically a fringe railway settlement, and the settlers who arrived there were taking refuge from one thing or another. The small humble village had no market, cinema, clinic or primary and secondary schools. A religious school, though, was available for the children.

Things would only improve for Kampong Quarry, as common amenities were added, in the seventies and eighties .

The track to Kampong Quarry was full of potholes, which filled with water whenever it rained. Dozens of granite-laden trucks plied daily past the village to Hindhede Quarry, stirring up a flurry of dust that polluted the houses.

By the mid-eighties, it was clear that the village would be affected by Bukit Timah’s redevelopment. For many residents, the nights of drinking coffee and chit chatting under the coconut trees would soon be over. And so was the familiar sound of the siren warning twice a day, at 11.20am and 4pm, before the blasts in the quarry.

By the late eighties, Kampong Quarry was almost vacated, after most villagers had left and resettled at the HDB flats.

Ubin’s Quarries

Other than mainland Singapore, Pulau Ubin was another rich source of granite. Granite quarrying was once a major industry on the island, supporting Singapore’s construction sector and providing ample employment opportunities for the locals. There were once five quarries at Pulau Ubin – the Kekek Quarry, Balai Quarry, Ubin Quarry, Pekan Quarry and Ketam Quarry.

The island’s first quarrying might have started as early as the 19th century. It was reported that about 3,300 tons of granite were shipped from Pulau Ubin to mainland Singapore in 1910.

The Ubin granite, over the decades, had been used extensively for the building of public flats, roads and canals, as well as many local landmarks such as the Horsburgh Lighthouse, Raffles Lighthouse, Istana and Paya Lebar Airport. The construction of the Causeway and Sembawang Naval Base, in the 1920s and 1930s respectively, made use of the granite supplies from both the Pulau Ubin and Mandai quarries (Mandai Quarry, Seng Kee Quarry and Resource Development Corporation Quarry).

Ketam Quarry, otherwise known as Aik Hwa Quarry, was in operation between 1964 and 1999. Producing almost 180 tonnes of granite every month, it made up 30 to 40 percent of Singapore’s demand for the construction and reclamation projects. At its peak, the company hired more than 100 workers, many of them residents of Pulau Ubin. When the quarry shut down in May 1999, many of its staffs chose to retire. Others remained on the island as fishermen, farmers and shopkeepers.

Pekan Quarry was another quarry on Pulau Ubin, formerly named Ho Man Choo Quarry. Located at the middle of the island, it was renamed as a reflection of its proximity to Pulau Ubin’s main village (pekan refers to “town” in Malay). After its closure, its two quarry pits were filled up with rainwater, and merged to form a scenic lake. A lookout point at the top of the quarry was built in 2007, and has been popular among the visitors.

The Pulau Ubin quarries ceased their operations after the granite had been mined to below sea level. Some of the pits were as deep as 40m. The island’s quarries were shut down one after another by the nineties. Ketam Quarry was the last surviving quarry until 1999. With the departure of the quarry workers, the population of Pulau Ubin dwindled from 1,200 in 1980 to about 400 by 1995.

The quarries, abandoned for years, have been gradually reclaimed by nature. Lush greenery and thick vegetation surround the pits that have been filled with rainwater, and become new homes for different species of birds and fish.

In April 2007, however, due to the disruption of granite supply from Indonesia, Kekek Quarry was reopened for limited quarrying works.

Dangers and Risks

Besides the tough manual work, the workers at the granite quarries were constantly subjected to high risks, particularly before the sixties when the concept of safety was often neglected or not taken seriously. Every year, there were dozens of reports of quarry workers killed by plunging rocks, falling off the cliffs or dynamite explosions.

Working conditions in the sixties and seventies remained extremely poor for the quarry workers. The work sites often suffered serious air pollution that was made up of white granite powder in the air produced by the blasting and grinding operations. Many quarry workers simply used towels to cover their faces, even though masks were provided by their companies.

By the early seventies, silicosis – a lung disease caused by inhaling silica dust – had became the chief disease among industrial workers. The quarry workers were especially affected due to the nature of their jobs.

Other Quarries

While there were granite quarries at Bukit Batok, Bukit Timah, Mandai, Jurong, Choa Chu Kang and Pulau Ubin, Tampines and Loyang were better known for their sand quarries. The Tampines sand quarries were started as early as 1912, but the sand quarry boom occurred much later – during the sixties – when sand was in high demand due to the development of many areas in Singapore.

At its peak, Tampines had more than 20 sand quarries. Many farmers and fishermen in the vicinity, attracted by the booming industry, joined to become sand quarry workers. The sand quarrying eventually stopped in the later years, and one of the quarries, the Tampines Quarry, was filled up with water to become a lake today.

Published: 30 July 2017

Updated: 06 August 2017

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Exploring the Ruins of Syonan Jinja at MacRitchie Reservoir

During the Japanese Occupation, the Japanese constructed two of their sacred sites in Singapore. One was the Syonan Chureito at the top of Bukit Batok Hill, while the other was the better-known Syonan Jinja at MacRitchite Reservoir.

The Syonan Jinja – its name means “Light of the South Shrine” – was a Shinto shrine built to commemorate the Japanese soldiers who died in Malaya during the Second World War. Designed based on Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, the construction of Syonan Jinja started in April 1942, two months after the fall of Singapore.

Under the command of Major Yasuji Tamura, the officer-in-charge of the Japanese Army’s 5th Division Engineers Regiment, almost 10,000 British and Australian prisoners-of-war (POWs) from the internment camps of Changi, Sime Road and Adam Park were forced to carry out the hard labour, including the clearance of a section of the heavily forested area at MacRitchite Reservoir, construction of a “divine” bridge across the waters, and the building of a flight of 94-step granite steps that led to the shrine.

In May 1942, the foundation stones of the shrine were laid by the notorious “Tiger of Malaya” Lieutenant-Colonel Tomoyuki Yamashita. The Syonan Times, the propaganda newspaper established by the Japanese, publicised the news of the grand ceremony that had many dignitaries and guests invited.

Syonan Jinja was dedicated to Amaterasu Omikami, the goddess of the sun in the Shinto religion and whom the Japanese emperors were said to be direct descendants of.

At its entrance was the “divine” bridge. After crossing the waters, the worshipers would pass through the torii gate before accessing the flight of steps to get to the three 4.5m-tall stone platforms where the open-sided temples stood. Outside the temples was a granite fountain, for purification and cleansing purposes, where it had water drawn from the reservoir through a pump and filtration system.

Upon its completion at the end of 1942, the shrine’s site occupied approximately 470 acres, or about 1.9 square kilometres, in size. There were further plans to expand the premises of the shrine to eventually become a Japanese park with gardens, playgrounds and even a stadium for sporting events. Part of the funds were raised through donations, often with sense of intimidation, from sources such as the Overseas Chinese Associations at the various Malayan states.

The Syonan Jinja had a grand opening on 15 February 1943, a year after the fall of Singapore. Shigeo Odate, the first mayor of Syonan, officiated the opening. Japanese military leaders made up the list of distinguished guests, while local community leaders and businessmen were compelled to attend the opening ceremony to show their loyalty and respect.

During the Japanese Occupation, there was also a Kashima Jinja, a branch of Syonan Jinja, built at Pulau Blakang Mati (present-day Sentosa). It was constructed by the POWs imprisoned on the island, and was enshrined on 8 June 1943.

In the later parts of the occupation, Syonan Jinja and Syonan Chureito became important places for public ceremonies and celebrations of Japanese traditional festivals, mostly attended by the Japanese military and civil officials. Most locals steered clear of the place, although students and young people were often forced to participate in the events as a display of their allegiance to the Japanese empire. The Syonan Times reported that the shrine had almost 240,000 visits between 1943 and 1944, although this number might be exaggerated.

The imminent defeat in 1945 saw the Japanese burnt and destroyed Syonan Jinja, out of fears that the returning British would commit sacrilege on their sacred shrine. The timber portions of the shrine complex were burnt completely, including the bridge. What left behind were the granite and concrete structures, slowly forgotten and consumed by nature over the decades. Today, besides the remnants of the structures, the remains of the bridge foundations in the waters can still be seen.

Along with the Merdeka Bridge and a colonial house at Adam Park, the ruins of Syonan Jinja was declared as a historic site by the National Heritage Board on 16 September 2002, adding a list of 65 historic sites marked since 1996.

Published 16 July 2017

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Sungei Road Thieves’ Market – From Beginning Till the End

It was popularly known as Sungei Road Thieves’ Market, or Sungei Road Flea Market. In the past, it was also known as gek sng kio (“frosted bridge” in Hokkien and Teochew, referring to the former Singapore Ice Works in the vicinity), Robinson Petang (“Robinson in the afternoon” in Malay – a cheeky reference to the old Robinson Department Store, which was catered to the more well-to-do, while Robinson Petang was largely catered to the poor), or the Poor Man’s Department Store.

The idiom of “one man’s thrash is another man’s treasure” perhaps best describes this former selling roadside bazaar of second-hand goods; a well-known venue that was more than 80 years old but eventually could not outlast the rapid pace of development.

As Sungei Road Thieves’ Market walked into history on 10 July 2017, let us take a look of its beginning till the end of its fascinating 80-plus years of history.


Sungei Road Thieves’ Market began in the mid-1930s as a small trading place along the Rochor River for small merchants to sell their goods, usually in the late afternoons or evenings. In its early days, army stuffs such as boots and ponchos were probably the main goods sold, due to the increasing presence of the British military personnel in Singapore.

One of the “pioneers” of the Sungei Road market was said to be a Chinese called Quek Sien, who arrived from Fujian, China in the early 20th century. Going into the second-hand business in the 1920s, Quek Sien bought unwanted items from many local wealthy Chinese and Peranakan homes, and resold them at the Tekka area, before settling down at Sungei Road in the 1930s.


Due to the shortage of goods during the Japanese Occupation, the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market became a popular place for many locals, especially the poor, to purchase crockery and other domestic items.


The street bazaar by then had become commonly known as the Thieves’ Market, due to its cheap goods that were considered a steal. The most probable explanation, however, was the growing yet unwanted reputation of the market, where many stolen and smuggled items could be found. It was to the extent that if a person had his belonging stolen in the morning, he could probably buy it back at the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market by that afternoon.

Brassware, pottery, electrical appliances and even old bicycles also began to make their way into bazaar, after the karang guni (rag and bone) men collected and resold them at Sungei Road Thieves’ Market. On a good day, a karang guni man could earn as much as $6 a day.


In the fifties and sixties, the market had gained such a notorious reputation that no women dared to venture into it alone, and anyone who drove there, would have to prepare to lose a car radio or hubcap (wheel cover).

The British army began its withdrawal in the late sixties, resulting in a shortage of military merchandise in Singapore. Much of the army stuffs, however, could still be found at Sungei Road Thieves’ Market, where, according to some regular visitors, it had enough material available to clothe a battalion of soldiers, or a command of sailors.


Sungei Road Thieves’ Market was affected by the extensive urban renewal projects. Many peddles were forced to move to other places and markets. While the flea market at Sungei Road faced uncertainty, others flourished. For example, a similar bazaar had appeared at Chinatown’s Pagoda Street in the late seventies, offering a wide variety of second-hand items ranging from rusty kitchen knives, chipped bowls, broken clocks to old books, vintage watches and stereo radio sets.

Like Sungei Road Thieves’ Market, the roadside bazaar at Pagoda Street served two purposes – a marketplace for the poor to buy their wares, as well as a source of income for the sellers, most of them middle-aged and old folks.


Tarpaulin canvas for ships, even Japanese awning canvas, could be found at Sungei Road Thieves’ Market.


Several stalls of Sungei Road Thieves’ Market had to be demolished to make way for the widening of the Rochore Canal. Unlicensed peddlers started to ply their trades at the place, causing conflicts and unhappiness among other vendors. By the mid-seventies, there were about 270 licensed and 500 unlicensed vendors at the flea market.


The first Kelantan Road Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat, just opposite of Sungei Road Thieves’ Market, was completed.


The urban renewal projects had forced some of the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market vendors to shift to the nearby markets and shophouses at Kelantan Lane and Syed Alwi Road. However, the bustling crowds, including many Malaysians who were attracted by the cheap bargains, ensured the continuous thriving business of the popular flea market.


The famous tiger’s head decoration that was previously installed at the front of the Aw brothers’ (Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par) Fiat car was found at Sungei Road Thieves’ Market.


“It is the end of an era” according to the Environment Ministry officials who proceeded to tear down the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market stalls and sheds. The peddlers were relocated to Golden Mile, Buffalo Road, Petaling Road and other venues.

Little did they know, the 50-year-old flea market would made a comeback a few years later.


Within a year between 1982 and 1983, two large fires had consumed twenty wooden shophouses at Sungei Road, many of them furniture shops.


By the late eighties, the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market was back alive and bustling again, and the regular peddlers at the market were issued temporary permits to sell their second-hand goods.


The Sungei Road Thieves’ Market was cleared due to the development of Rochor Canal, but again it did not stop the peddlers from coming back.


The Member of Parliament (MP) for the Jalan Besar Group Representation Constituency (GRC) Denise Phua called Sungei Road Thieves’ Market a “slum”, blaming the illegal vendors and their messy ways of doing businesses.


The space at Sungei Road Thieves’ Market was halved in order to accommodate the construction of Downtown Line’s Jalan Besar MRT Station. More than 100 vendors were displaced. Others were upset as they could not adequately showcase their goods in the limited lots provided.


The vendors at Sungei Road Thieves’ Market formed an association – Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods – to protect their interests.

One of the first online petitions to save Sungei Road Thieves’ Market was started by the public.


Sungei Road Thieves’ Market had to make way, the authorities declared, before the opening of the Jalan Besar MRT Station.


Sungei Road Thieves’ Market officially walked into history.

Published: 10 July 2017

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Distant Memories of the Big Splash

The former Big Splash tower, once an iconic landmark at East Coast Park, is slated for demolition after almost 40 years of existence.

Many Singaporeans would have fond memories of Big Splash – its slides, pools and restaurants – as one of their favourite recreation parks during their childhood or schooling times, where they spent many weekend afternoons swishing down the slides and splashing into the pools. And not forgetting those awkward moments when someone’s swimwear or trunks got washed off by the high impacts.

Big Splash was developed by Singapore Aquatic Sports Pte Ltd, the wholly-owned subsidiary of private developer Goldhill Properties, who also held directorship at Jurong Watersports Complex Pte Ltd, a firm incorporated in 1975 to set up Mitsukoshi Garden with Japanese retail giant Mitsukoshi Ltd. Located along Japanese Garden Road in the western side of Singapore, Mitsukoshi Garden was the equivalent as well as matching rival of Big Splash.

Both water theme parks shared similar features, both in design and materials used for the pools and slides, which were originated from Yamakuni Iron Company, a well-known Japanese pool maker. In this way, the developers hoped that they would be able to tap into the two large pockets of clienteles in Singapore’s main population centres.

Occupying a site of 33,530 square metres, Mitsukoshi Garden was considerably smaller than Big Splash. But it was still well-equipped, with flow pool, sliding pool, kids’ pool and a wading pool with a stage as its main attractions. Opened in April 1979, the $10 million project also had a restaurant, reception office, golf putting course, spectator’s gallery and function rooms.

Big Splash, however, was more spectacular in design and size, and was soaking in almost a carnival atmosphere.

The iconic five-lane coloured slides – they were ranged between 12m and 17m tall (and 85m long) –  were then the tallest and longest slides in the world for a water recreation centre. Beside the splash pools where the slides ended off, there were the adult-size pool, children’s pool and flow pools with artificially created current movements. All the pools were filled with seawater, and had sand bottoms to give the swimmers a beach effect.

Other than the water amenities, Big Splash also possessed a restaurant, arcade, refreshment kiosks and an amphitheatre for puppet and magic shows. Its entire premises, a large project evolved from the Park and Recreation Department’s plan to develop East Coast Parkway, cost $6 million in construction and a recurring $2 million in annual operation.

Singapore’s largely anticipated water amusement park was opened on 23 July 1977, adding to the vibrancy of the up and coming East Coast Park in the late seventies and eighties. Over the years, more amenities were built at the “green lung” of Singapore, such as the man-made lagoon, chalets, bicycle and jogging tracks, golf driving range, tennis courts, food centre and even a crocodile aquarium.

During its heydays, Big Splash was a crowd-puller, welcoming tens of thousands of visitors every month. It was also one of the popular venues for private organisations to hold their events, picnics and parties.

The popular Big Splash unfortunately had a couple of incidents soon after its opening.

A 19-year-old youth was found in a dizzy state after playing several rounds of the water slides. He was taken to the hospital but died hours later of cerebral hemorrhage. In September 1977, a 5-year-old boy was drown in the wave pool.

The 6000-strong attendance during weekends, as well as loud music and announcements made through its twelve loudspeakers, also attracted many complaints of noise pollution from the residents living at the nearby Amber Road.

The golden era of Big Splash lasted until the late nineties and early 2000s, when its popularity dwindled rapidly due to the challenges of new water theme parks in the Fantasy Island at Sentosa and Downtown East’s Wild Wild Wet. The managing company began to suffer losses, and it led to a lack of maintenance which saw its pools dirtied and iconic slides filled with algae.

By November 2006, Singapore’s once-favourite attraction could no longer continue to operate. Seafood International Market & Restaurant tendered for the site and took over, demolishing the long colourful slides and converting the place into a dining enclave. Its 10-year lease was up in 2016, and the land was returned to the government for redevelopment.

The Mitsukoshi Garden, on the other hand, was long gone, having closed in June 1983 after only four years of operation. It was subsequently sold to a Japanese restaurant chain, and had the premises converted into a dining venue and renamed as CN West Leisure Park.

The Big Splash building will be torn down in a couple of weeks’ time, and when that happens, we will bid a final goodbye to this former representative landmark of East Coast with all the fond memories we have.

Published: 11 June 2017

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McNair Road, Townerville and the Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital

Along McNair Road is an interesting sight, where the prewar terrace houses meet the modern public flats in an interesting mix of old and new architecture. Townerville, the prominent landmark of the McNair/Towner vicinity, refers to the rows of double-storey houses that were built way back in the 1920s.


The terrace houses, bounded by McNair Road, Towner Road and May Road, were designed in a combination of Malay, Chinese and European architectural styles. Every unit is made up of unique features such as a high ceiling, wide verandah, balcony, courtyard and picture rails and skirting.

The six blocks of 84 houses are largely divided into three distinct groups. The 24 apartments along McNair Road are European-looking, while the 34 units, situated at the junction of Towner and May Roads, were built with Chinese-influenced low parapet walls in the verandah and unique column heads. The remaining have Malay-styled pointed roofs.

Townerville was previously utilised by the Ministry of Finance as government quarters in the seventies and eighties. The houses were then left vacant for many years.

In 1986, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) decided to develop the McNair/Towner area as a new housing estate. Eighteen new blocks of flats – Block 108 to 112 and Block 119 to 124, now collectively known as McNair Springs, along McNair Road, and Block 101 to 107 at Towner Road – were built.

The old dilapidated terrace houses soon became an eye sore beside the new HDB flats. Fortunately, instead of demolition, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) announced restoration plans for the empty houses in 1988. Working together with HDB, the restoration project,  costing about $12.4 million, aimed to integrate the old world charm of the colonial ethic-style houses into the upcoming housing estate.

It was URA’s first residential restoration project where its carefully applied 3R principles – Maximum Retention, Sensitive Restoration and Careful Repair – set a benchmark for future restoration projects in Singapore.

After the completion of the restoration in 1990, the terrace houses, now under conservation, were put up for open tender. In just two weeks, the highly sought-after properties attracted more than 1,000 bids. Local real estate tycoon Ng Teng Fong’s (1928-2010) Far East Group eventually clinched the multi-million deal with their highest bids.

By the early 2000s, each unit cost between $1.1 million to $1.6 million. The units were put up for sale again in 2001. Today, the Townerville apartments are largely used for residential and commercial purposes.

Rayman Estate

The residential estate bounded by McNair Road, Towner Road and the main Balestier Road used to be known as Rayman Estate. It was originally called the Balestier Estate, but was renamed in 1949 by the Municipal Commissioners in honour of Lazarus Rayman (1891-1948), the former Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) chairman and Municipal President.

The estate, one of the projects undertaken by Lazarus Rayman’s progressive housing policy, consisted of some 1,400 Artisans’ Quarters, 20 flats and 63 shops, and had its public market added in 1952.

Artisans’ quarters were low-cost apartment units built by SIT to house the skilled workers. Back then such quarters could be found in many parts of Singapore, including Balestier, Tiong Bahru, Tanjong Pagar, Henderson, Bukit Timah Road, Kim Keat Road, Mackenzie Road, Silat Road and Morse Road.

By the late fifties, a new road named Jalan Kebun Limau split the Rayman Estate into two. Thirty years later, in the late eighties, the road would be redeveloped and absorbed into the Central Expressway (CTE), becoming the exit road (Exit 7D) that led to Balestier Road.

Rayman Estate itself vanished into history, together Rayman Avenue, a small road off Towner Road that once led to the housing estate.

Former Schools

Junior technical trade schools were established in British Malaya to equip students with technical skills such as bricklaying, plumbing, construction and mechanical and electrical fittings. In Singapore, the first government technical trade school was set up at Scotts Road in 1929.

The school was relocated to Balestier Road in 1940, but due to the Second World War, its technical classes only began in 1948. The Balestier Junior Technical Trade School lasted until 1963, when it was restructured to become the Singapore Vocational Institute, with its training and courses managed by the Vocational and Industrial Training Board (VITB).

In 1992, the Ministry of Education (MOE) decided to introduce the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) as a post-secondary institution to improve the employability of vocational trainees. With the new implementation, the Singapore Vocational Institute was replaced by ITE Balestier, which had its new premises built and operated at the former Rayman Estate from 1994 to 2013. Today, the site is occupied by Northlight School.

Other than Balestier Junior Technical Trade School, there were several other schools at the McNair-Towner vicinity during the fifties and sixties, including the McNair Road School, Whampoa School, Griffiths School, Balestier Road Boys’ School and Balestier Girls’ School.

The McNair Road School first started as McNair Road English School in 1925, but was shut down during the Second World War and had its premises used by the military. After the war, the school buildings were returned to the Singapore Education Department.

In 1950, McNair Road School became one of Singapore’s first four schools – the other three being Duchess Road School, Anthony Road School and Monk’s Hill School – to be opened under the Supplementary Education Plan. It was part of the colonial government’s 10-year postwar educational program to provide primary education to almost 9,000 students in Singapore. A total of eighteen schools were opened in the $1.5 million project.

McNair Road School was eventually merged into Rangoon Road Primary School in 1968.

Originally known as Towner Road School, Griffiths School was renamed after James Griffiths (1890-1975), the British Secretary of State for the Colonies who visited Singapore and officially opened the school in 1950.

In 1982, the school faced closure due to declining enrollment, and was forced to merge with Balestier Girls’ School to form Moulmein Primary School. It got its name Griffiths back when the primary school was relocated to Tampines in 1988.

Griffiths Primary School merged once again in 2015, together with Qiaonan Primary School, to form Angsana Primary School. The second controversial merger might see the name Griffiths permanently walk into history.

The eighties and nineties saw the numerous old schools at McNair-Towner ceased to exist, replaced by the newer ones in May Primary School, Towner Primary School and the Precision Engineering Institute (McNair Campus).

There were other schools too, along McNair and Towner Roads, that provided education to students with special needs. Examples were the MINDS (Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore) Towner Gardens School, Spastic Special School and the Rainbow Centre Balestier Special School. The latter was established in 1995; its premises was later converted into the Singapore Boys’ Hostel.

Shitoryu Karate Association

One of the former tenants at McNair Road was the Shitoryu Karate Association (SKA). Originally known as Singapore Karate Association, the karate school had its history dated back to the early sixties. It was founded in 1964 by a group of martial arts enthusiasts and professionals, and was based at the bungalow belonging to one of its founders, a police officer, at McNair Road.

During the first decade of its establishment, karate instructors were invited from Japan to impact the skills to local students who had signed up for the courses. Tough training were then carried out at the McNair Road bungalow’s courtyard.

Over the years, the association’s membership steadily increased, and by the seventies, SKA had produced many outstanding karate-kas who competed in the world tournaments.

The SKA, in the late seventies, also held many international karate-do championships. Many participants from Singapore, as well as regional countries such as Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Brunei, contested at the Gay World Stadium.

In 2017, the association’s headquarters, after 52 years at McNair Road, had to be relocated to Tessensohn Road, a short distance away from its old premises. It was one of the buildings that were affected by the latest redevelopment plan at the McNair-Towner vicinity.

Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital

The Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital is a century-old landmark at the vicinity, located at the junction of Serangoon Road and Balestier Road.

It sits on the former site of Tan Tock Seng Hospital, before the latter was shifted to its current location off Moulmein Road in 1909. Tan Tock Seng Hospital was originally situated at Pearl’s Hill. It was in 1861 when it was forced to move to the junction of Serangoon and Balestier Roads.

Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital started as a small Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) hospital manned by only one physician. It was founded by four prominent local Cantonese community leaders – Leong Man Sau (1866-1916), Yow Ngan Pan (1863-1930), Ng Seng Pang (1873-1953) and Wong Ah Fook (1837-1918) – in 1910.

The purpose of setting up a hospital was to provide free medical care to the clan members and immigrants from the Guangdong province of China. The hospital was named after the Kwong Chau, Wai Chau and Shiu Heng prefectures, the ancestral home for most of the local Cantonese.

From a humble medicine outlet, Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital expanded over the decades. In the fifties, it added a maternity ward, hostel, kitchen and a new front block.

Since its establishment in 1910, the hospital had offered free outpatient services to all the locals, although its in-patient facilities remained limited only to the Cantonese. This, however, changed in 1974 when Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital amended its constitution to admit Singaporeans of all races and dialects.

The Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital of the modern era includes a TCM centre and nursery home. Three of its colonial buildings and front block were conserved in 2010. Its other buildings, however, were demolished in 2015 in a $96-million redevelopment project. Upon its completion in late 2017, the hospital will have the largest nursing home in Singapore.

Central Sikh Temple

The Central Sikh Temple is the main temple for all Sikhs in Singapore. It is the country’s two recognised public Sikh temples, along with the Silat Road Sikh Temple.

A Skih place of worship is called a gurdwara. In 1912, a group of Sikhs purchased a bungalow at Queen Street, though the financial support of Wassiamull, a Sindhi merchant, and converted it into a gurdwara. It became known as the Central Sikh Temple, or Wadda Gurdwara (“The Big Temple”).

Beside being a place of worship for the local Sikhs, the temple also had housing quarters for the aged and poor Sikhs. In 1977, the plot of land where the Central Sikh Temple formerly stood on was acquired by the HDB for residential and commercial redevelopment. It had to be temporarily relocated to Seng Poh Road at Tiong Bahru, while a new Central Sikh Temple was being constructed at the corner of Towner Road and Serangoon Road.

At a cost of $6.5 million, the new temple building was completed in 1986, the year that was celebrated by the Sikhs as the 518th anniversary of the birth of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. On 16 November 1986, the temple was officially opened by Wee Kim Wee (1915-2005), the former President of Singapore.

Central Sikh Temple was designated in May 1999 by the National Heritage Board as a historical site.

Published: 31 May 2017

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