The Lost Cause and Forgotten Ruins of Fort Serapong

Built between the 1870s and 1890s, Fort Serapong, together with Fort Siloso, Fort Connaught and the Imbiah Battery, formed an integrated part of the British’s southern coastal defence at Pulau Blakang Mati (present-day Sentosa). The fortifications, along with Fort Pasir Panjang on the southern part of mainland Singapore, were aimed to protect the colony’s flourishing port, possibly against the Dutch East Indies, pirates or other enemies.

sentosa fort serapong ruins01

The forts were not the first fortifications built by the British against sea attacks. Fort Fullerton, located at the mouth of the Singapore River, was built in 1830 to defend the town of Singapore. By the 1870s, its location, however, was deemed unflavourable by the colonial government because during an invasion, the fort would instead attract fire from enemy ships, which in turn could destroy the booming Commercial Square (now Raffles Place). Hence, in 1873, Fort Fullerton was demolished to be replaced by a General Post Office.

Another southern coastal fortification was Fort Palmer, or the Mount Palmer Defence Battery, constructed in 1855. It was strengthened in 1878 on fears of a war with Russia, but the fortification was eventually demolished in 1905 when Mount Palmer was levelled. Fort Tanjong Katong, existed between 1879 and 1901, was also part of the series of the defensive batteries and fortifications built in the late 19th century.

sentosa fort serapong ruins03

sentosa fort serapong ruins04

The newly-built Blakang Mati forts, armed with 7-inch guns and 64 Pounders, became primarily responsible for Singapore’s southern defence after the demolition of Fort Fullerton, Fort Palmer and Fort Tanjong Katong. From the 1900s to 1930s, heavy gun practices were regularly carried out. Large red flags were raised on Mount Serapong during the exercises and vessel owners were notified by the Royal Artillery to avoid entering the nearby waters.

The weapons at the Blakang Mati fortifications were later upgraded through the arming of 10-inch guns, which had more firepower and longer range, and observation posts and battery plotting rooms were added in the 1930s to strengthen the forts’ defence capabilities. Some of the buildings on Mount Serapong today still bear the stone signage embossed with the year 1936.

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sentosa fort serapong ruins10

sentosa fort serapong ruins11

The monster naval guns of the Blakang Mati forts and batteries, however, were never put to test against any attacks from the south. In early 1942, the Japanese invaded the northwestern side of Singapore from the Malay Peninsula. The guns had to be turned 180 degrees inland and, for three days, fired all their ammunition at the Jurong and Bukit Timah areas. But it was of little effect in stopping the advancing enemy forces.

With the impending fall of Singapore, the guns were then used to destroy the oil tanks at Pulau Sebarok and Pulau Bukom. After that, the guns and the batteries on Pulau Blakang Mati were also destroyed or broken up to prevent them from falling into the enemies’ hands. The island itself was then captured by the Japanese and Blakang Mati Artillery Barracks were used as a prisoner-of-war camp.

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After the war, the Blakang Mati forts and batteries were handed over to a number of military forces, including the Royal Navy, Royal Artillery, Malay Coastal Battery and the Gurkha Contingent. Fort Serapong was still in use in the fifties – a 21-gun salute was fired by the Royal Artillery from Fort Serapong in August 1958 to mark the birthday of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (1900-2002).

With the withdrawal of the British forces starting in 1967, the fortifications came under the command of the Singapore Armed Forces. The buildings were used as storage for several years before the government decided in 1972 to redevelop the island into a tourist destination. During the redevelopment, Fort Siloso was restored and converted into a military museum to display its past and antique coastal guns that were moved from the island’s other forts and batteries. Fort Connaught, on the other hand, was demolished to make way for the Tanjong Golf Course. As for Fort Serapong, it remains in ruins and abandoned state till this day.

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sentosa fort serapong ruins17

Today, the long upsloping Serapong Hill Road that leads to the ruins of Fort Serapong is also the road to the Sentosa Service Reservoir, a small protected water catchment area managed by the Public Utilities Board (PUB). At the top of the hill, one can have a splendid panoramic view of the city.

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A Summary of the British’s Coastal Fortifications and Batteries in Singapore:

Fort Fullerton (1830-1873)
Fort Palmer (1855-1905)
Fort Canning (1861-1907)
Fort Faber (1859-1862)
Fort Teregah (1861-1942)
Fort Tanjong Katong (1879-1901)
Fort Connaught (1878-1942)
Fort Serapong (1885-1942)
Fort Siloso (1898-1942)
Fort Pasir Panjang (1898-1942)
Fort Silingsing (1901-1942)
Targem Fort (1939)
Beting Kusah Battery (1939)
Changi Battery (1939)
Johore Battery (1939)
Buona Vista Battery (1939)
Pasir Laba Battery (1939)
Labrador Battery (1939)

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sentosa fort serapong ruins08

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sentosa fort serapong ruins13

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sentosa fort serapong ruins18

Published: 06 June 2016

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The Red Butterfly – Girl Terrors of the Sixties

The name Red Butterfly may sound harmless and nothing unusual in Singapore today. In fact, in Chinese legend, it is viewed as a bringer of good fortune and happiness. But back in the sixties and seventies, it represented a dark side of the streets of Singapore – the name of an all-girls gang that once terrorised the streets with assaults, intimidation and extortion.

It began in the late fifties, when some 20 young girls, aged between 16 and mid-20s, got together, probably prompted by sense of insecurity and the need to protect themselves, to form a fearless gang called Red Butterfly, or Ang Hor Tiap in Hokkien. These girls, working as prostitutes, bargirls and dance hostesses, would then terrorise their victims, usually other bar waitresses and prostitutes, for protection money.

red butterfly2Dressed in black tight-fitting clothes, the woman gangsters often used their belts to whip the victims into submission. Sometimes, they would brutally attack the victims’ faces using stone-removed ring prongs as jagged-edged weapons. Those who refused to pay them money were disfigured and maimed.

But the biggest source of the Red Butterfly’s income was their lucrative “service” to women who wanted to teach a lesson to their cheating husband’s mistress or girlfriend. For a fee, the gang would track down the mistress, threatening them to leave the unfaithful man or else suffer the “consequences”.

Recruitment was harsh and cruel too; those who refused to join the Red Butterfly would be beaten up severely. Resentful women who were jilted by their lovers, or had unpleasant experiences with men, were favourably recruited as new members.

With their influence growing strong, the Red Butterfly became affiliated with the notorious 108 secret society. To be their sworn “sisters”, initiation ceremonies were held where the girls drank the rooster’s blood mixed with their own blood. The women gangsters often pak tor (dated) with the secret society members, or they would keep their own men whom they called Romeo. When they got tired of a Romeo, they would set gangsters on him.

All members of the Red Butterfly gang wore butterfly tattoos on their shoulders or thighs. The butterfly tattoos came in different colours – red, black and blue. Only the leader was qualified to own the red butterfly tattoo, and she was respectfully known as Madam Red Butterfly by the underworld realm.

Organized crime, secret societies and gang fights were rampant between the fifties and seventies. Each secret society controlled its own territory tightly, operating illegal businesses like chap ji kee (a lottery game), gambling dens, opium dens and brothels. It also gained other sources of income through protection money, extortion, robberies and kidnapping. Clashes over territories, interests or revenges were so frequent that they were almost like daily affairs.

The major secret society groups in the sixties were the 108, 24, 32 and 36. Over the years, they expanded so fast and large that they often had branches or small triad groups under them. For example, the Pek Kim Leng (White Golden Dragon) was under 108, and it controlled territories from Chinatown to Bugis.

Different areas in Singapore were “owned” by different secret societies and gangs. The Tiong Bahru vicinity was, for example, “ruled” by Ang Peh Hor and Hai Lock San, whereas Ang Soon Tong was the active triad around Nee Soon and Sembawang Road. See Tong, affiliated to the infamous drug-dealing Ah Kong gang, made their presence felt at North Bridge Road, Seah Street and Beach Road. Sio Oh Leng, Leng Hor San and Sar Ji each established their respective “strongholds” at River Valley Road, Havelock Road and Boat Quay.

former secret society member killed new bridge road 1973

The Red Butterfly did not vie for territories with other secret societies; they were mainly active at the nightclubs and bars around Cecil Street. But they did often get into fights with other women gangs at Clifford Pier, Geylang, Jalan Besar, Sungei Road and near the Capitol Theatre. Police arrested the Red Butterfly gang members several times but could not bring charges to them as there were either not enough evidences or the victims were too terrified to testify against them.

But the lawless days of the Red Butterfly did not last for long. The police invoked the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Ordinance, and by the mid-sixties, thousands of secret society members and gangsters were detained without trial. Some were put into custody at the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) Headquarters; others were locked up at Changi Jail and Pulau Senang.

arrest of ang soon tong leader 1973By 1972, it was estimated that there were still 20,000 secret society members and gangsters in Singapore. A year later, in 1973, the CID detectives made headlines by successfully tracking down and arresting the head of Ang Soon Tong. This led to the decline of one of Singapore’s remaining secret societies that still held triad rituals, initiation ceremonies and blood oaths of allegiance.

Six members of the Red Butterfly were put on police supervision for two years, and the seventh, a Malaysian, was banished. In 1968, the Red Butterfly tried to make a comeback with a new leader and 30 gang members. This time, their main tactic was to seduce unsuspected men and robbed them. But again, they were swiftly busted by the police. The rest of the Red Butterfly members then lied low but remained active till the seventies.

The eighties saw the rise of several rebellious girl gangs, such as the Yong Sisters and Mother Ang’s Brood, who were largely involved in shoplifting, stealing and robbing of the elderly, children and other girls. There were teenage girl gangs in the nineties too, such as the ones with cutesy names like Xiao Ding Dang and Xiao Tian Tian, who spent their time fighting one another and extorting the others. But despite the defiant nature of these girl gangs, they were nothing like the infamous and vicious Red Butterfly.

Also read Roland Tan Tong Meng and the notorious Ah Kong Gang.

Published: 01 June 2016

Updated: 20 June 2016

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SIT Apartments, Old Schools and a Famous Hawker Centre at Monk’s Hill

SIT Apartments

It is a quiet neighbourhood tucked away in a small district bounded by the Bukit Timah Road, Cavenagh Road and Clemenceau Avenue. Over here, one can find several blocks of Singapore Trust Improvement (SIT) apartments, built by the colonial government in the mid-fifties for the civil servants.

winstedt monks hill sit apartment1

In terms of designs, the black and white apartments are unlike any SIT flats found elsewhere in Singapore. Spacious with high ceilings, wide balconies and tall rectangular windows, the apartments, made up of a total of 120 residential units, were previously owned by the Public Utilities Board (PUB). Today, they are managed by the state and are rented out to individuals or families on 2-year renewable leases.

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winstedt monks hill sit apartment2

The origin of the name Monk’s Hill has several variations. According to Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics, it was supposedly named after the residence of a resident named Carnie, who had lived there in the 1860s. Another possible version is that Monk’s Hill, as its name suggests, was formerly a small hill, and on it stood a Chinese monastery.

In the late 1920s, the SIT carried out the excavation of the hill, offering the contractor 10 cents per cubic yard of earth excavated. Almost 100,000 cubic yard (approximately 76,455 cubic metre) of earth was shipped to fill the Balestier Road area. By the early 1930s, Monk’s Hill was leveled with a canal constructed through it.

monks hill and winstedt estate 1966

At the nearby Monk’s Hill Terrace, there is also a single file of double-storey terrace houses built as government quarters in the fifties. Two rows were originally built, but one of them was later demolished. Each house was designed with casement windows, its own porch and doorway, and a balcony on the second floor that was fitted with canvas to shelter against the hot sun and tropical rains. During the fifties and sixties, it was common to see mobile food vendors selling fried noodles or ice-creams on pushcarts and tricycles on the narrow road of Monk’s Hill Terrace.

Monk’s Hill Terrace was officially named in 1926 by the Municipal Commissioners.

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Schools at Monk’s Hill/Winstedt

Many schools once called Monk’s Hill and Winstedt home. Between the 1930s and 2000s, there were the Winstedt Road School, Tanglin Tinggi Malay School, Monk’s Hill Malay School, Monk’s Hill Primary School, Newton Boys’ School and Monk’s Hill Secondary School. A short distance away, across the main Clemenceau Avenue, there were also the Anthony Road Girls’ School, Scotts Road Malay Girls’ School and Cairnhill School.

None of these old schools lasted till this day; the only school in the vicinity today is the Anglo-Chinese Junior School.

monks hill winstedt map 1972

Now a bar serving alcoholic drinks and all-day breakfasts, 10 Winstedt Road used to be the former school compound of Monk’s Hill Secondary School.

Along with Siglap and Serangoon Secondary Schools, Monk’s Hill was one of the earliest schools in Singapore to offer Malay-medium secondary classes, before the establishment of Sang Nila Utama Secondary School, the country’s first Malay-medium secondary school, in 1961.

monk's hill secondary school waris 1966 1969

Monk’s Hill Secondary School itself was set up in 1958, becoming an integrated school three years later and offering both Malay- and English-stream classes. It was converted into a main English-medium school in 1976, where it had 2,200 students and 90 teaching staffs, led by its popular principal Jacob Yoong.

The Monk’s Hill Secondary School of the sixties and seventies was active in sports, especially in the inter-school rugby tournaments, where they challenged the likes of Raffles Institution, St Joseph’s Institution and Beatty Secondary School. Besides rugby, the secondary school students of Monk’s Hill also regularly participated in cricket, track and field, swimming and cross country races.

monks hill secondary school principal jacob yoong retirement 1976

In 1993, Monk’s Hill Secondary School was relocated to a new school compound at the junction of Monk’s Hill Road and Winstedt Road, a short distance away from its old premises. The old buildings were then used to house the students from Outram Secondary School between 1994 and 1996 when their new school was undergoing construction at York Hill.

Monk’s Hill Secondary School was eventually closed in 2006 due to the dwindling number of students. It had only 300 students enrolled in its last year of existence compared to 800 in 2001. After its closure, it was merged with Balestier Hill Secondary School at Novena. Its premises was, in 2009, taken over by the Anglo-Chinese Junior School (ACS), which was their third home after their earlier ones at Baker Road and Peck Hay Road.

winstedt road

Across the narrow Winstedt Road is 9 Winstedt Road, the former address of Monk’s Hill Primary School, which operated between the forties and eighties. Monk’s Hill Primary School was temporarily used to house the students of Hua Yi Secondary School in 1957, when the latter’s new school building was built at Margaret Drive.

monks hill primary school 1968

In 1978, the MOE introduced a third language scheme to allow talented secondary school and junior college students to take up either German, French or the Japanese language. By the end of the seventies, five school premises in Singapore were used to conduct foreign language lessons. They were the Rangoon Road Primary School, Maju Secondary School, Joo Avenue Primary School, Mountbatten Government Chinese Primary School and Monk’s Hill Secondary School.

A new convenient “centralised” place was required to consolidate all the classes at one location. The former Tanglin Tinggi Malay School was initially considered, after it was closed in 1978. In 1983, a school block of Monk’s Hill Primary School, located at the junction of Winstedt Road and Monk’s Hill Terrace, was chosen by the MOE as the new language centre after its lease to the Vocational and Industrial Training Board expired.

lasalle college of the arts former monks hill primary sch1

lasalle college of the arts former monks hill primary sch2

After the closure of the language centre, the premises was left vacated for several years, before it was used, between 1996 and 2000, as a temporary school site for the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah, Singapore’s second oldest Islamic institution of learning, and Madrasah al-Irsyad. Today, the former premises of Monk’s Hill Primary School is occupied by the Lasalle College of the Arts.

monks hill primary school report book

Monk’s Hill Primary School’s notable alumni includes Winston Choo, Singapore’s first Chief of Defence Force (CDF), Abdullah Tarmugi, former Minister in-charge of Muslim Affairs between 1993 and 2002, Shih Choon Fong, former President of the University of Singapore (NUS) and Pathmanaban Selvadurai, Member of Parliament (MP) from 1967 to 1984. Abdul Jamil bin Haji Ahmad, a Malaysian lieutenant general who was in charge of the national security of Peninsula Malaysia in the seventies, was also from Monk’s Hill Primary School.

Monk’s Hill Primary School’s immediate neighour was the Newton Boys’ School. It was established in 1956 but closed in 1978 due to a drop in enrollment. In its final year, it had only 560 primary one to primary five students. The Ministry of Education (MOE) decided that it was uneconomical to continue the operations of the school and had it placed under the administration of Monk’s Hill Primary School. Its school building was later used to conduct commercial classes by the Adult Education Board.

The earlier schools within the Monk’s Hill and Winstedt vicinity were the Tanglin Tinggi Malay School, Winstedt Road School and Monk’s Hill Malay School. Located beside one another along Winstedt Road, they were established before the Second World War and had survived the Japanese Occupation. During the occupation, Tanglin Tinggi Malay School was used to conduct Japanese classes, where students were taught Japanese alphabets, songs and exercises. It was converted back to its Malay mainstream and English lessons after the war.

tanglin tinggi malay school project 1938

Monk’s Hill Malay School, possibly the predecessor of Monk’s Hill Secondary School, was also started before the war. It was used by the Land Transport department during the Japanese Occupation and also temporarily by Raffles Institution in 1946 due to the damages of its original school premises.

Newton Food Centre

Newton Food Centre is perhaps the most famous landmark in the vicinity, located just beside the Newton Circus and at the corner of the Monk’s Hill estate. Opened in 1971, the hawker centre was later used to house the street hawkers from the popular Orchard Road Carpark Hawker Centre, when the latter was forced to shut down in 1978.

newton food centre 1985

Newton Food Centre was actively promoted by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) as a tourist attraction for tasting different kinds of local delights. It, however, also attracted the wrong headlines with cases of overcharging, touting and poor hygiene. The hawker centre was also a hot spot for fights between youths and motorcyclist gangs in the early eighties.

newton food centre 2016

Published: 22 May 2016

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From Villages to Flats (Part 3) – The Traditional Shophouses

Shophouses are commonly found in many historic cities and towns of the Southeast Asian countries, but the shophouses in Singapore and Malaysia are more similar in their architectural styles and designs, largely due to the two nations’ historical links. In Singapore, shophouses also provided one of the housing means for the population between the 1840s and the 1960s, especially in the downtown area.

tanjong pagar neil road shophouses

A typical shophouse has two or more storeys, where the owner usually uses the ground level for conducting his business and the upper storeys for his residential needs. In cases where both levels are designated for living, the building is often known as a terrace house. Shophouses were commonly built in an adjoining manner; two shophouses share a common party wall in between.

Different Styles and Designs

Shophouses are buildings of a curious mixture of the East and West architectural styles. They are derived from the classical European-style buildings, such as England’s Georgian terrace houses or the canal houses of Amsterdam, which in turn are inspired by the Roman and Greek classical architecture. On the other hand, they look “Chinese”, and have been used for decades by the Chinese, Malay, Indians and Peranakans in Singapore.

The prewar shophouses, largely built between 1840 and 1940, were categorised into three main groups – the Early Style (1840s-1900s), the Transitional Style (1890s-1910s) and the Late or Chinese Baroque Style (1910s-1930s). The Art Deco Style (1930s-1960s) and Early Modernism Style (1950s-1970s), on the other hand, dominated the designs of the postwar shophouses.

tanjong pagar everton road early style shophouses

shophouses transitional style chinatown 1983

Shophouses of the Early Style were mostly simple double-storey buildings with one or two rectangular windows on the upper floors and timber-framed doors that had louvers or shutters for ventilation. Shophouses of the Transitional Style continued the similar designs in their windows and doors but often furnished with glass-plated shutters. Transoms and fanlights were also incorporated into the designs of their windows at the upper floors.

The Late or Chinese Baroque Style perhaps gave the best demonstration of the fusion between the Eastern and Western architectural styles. Decorative mouldings, delicate ornaments, detailed pilasters, elaborate woodcarvings and imported glazed tiles were extensively used on the facades of these shophouses. The shophouses’ extravagant displays of designs and colours also reflected Singapore’s rapid growth of wealth and its role of a global mercantile centre in the early 20th century.

upper cross street chinese baroque style shophouses

Art Deco style architecture emerged in the 1930s, and had greatly influenced the design of shophouses. Exposed to the cultures of the European, American and Chinese, the Art Deco-styled shophouses often had grey Shanghai plaster walls and flagpoles mounted on ziggurats that resemble the United States’ Empire State Building. The years of their construction were sometimes displayed on the top of their facades. Using reinforced concrete, steel, clay bricks and glass as the main materials, the shophouses were typically three- or more storeys tall and had facades with geometrical deigns.

upper circular road shophouses art deco style

Aided by the building boom during the postwar economic recovery, and also influenced by the early Modern movement in the fifties, Early Modernism-styled buildings had its share of fans, especially among the overseas trained architects. Simple, clean and mostly painted in white, the Modern shophouses were notable with their curved corners and balconies, thanks to the new building technology and the use of reinforced concrete. The popularity of shophouses designed in Modern style had lasted until the seventies.

Five Foot Ways

An interesting feature of a typical Singaporean shophouse is its five foot way. It was first proposed by Sir Stamford Raffles in his Plan of the Town of Singapore in 1822. Under this plan, walkways measuring five feet in width must be built in front of the shop buildings in Singapore, so that they could share a common boundary with the streets.

The five foot ways (“kaki lima” in Malay and “gor kar kee” 五脚基 in Hokkien) were meant to have continuous corridors or verandahs, sheltered against the tropical sun and rain by the second storeys of the shophouses. The width of five feet, however, was not consistent. Some five foot ways were wider, others narrower, depending on the types and designs of the shophouses.

cross street shophouses 1960s

By the 1870s, hawkers and other trades began to do businesses along the five foot ways. As more and more people plied their trades at the five foot ways, chaos and conflicts erupted, sometimes worsened by the involvement of secret societies.

The colonial government later began to disperse and expel those who were congesting the walkways and streets, but the harsh treatments eventually led into a three-day social unrest in 1888, known as the Verandah Riots. Prominent Chinese leaders such as Tan Seng Poh, Tan Beng Swee and Whampoa Hoo Ah Kay had to be roped in by the government to speak to the unruly crowds.

tanjong pagar everton road shophouses3The five foot ways continued to be filled with activities throughout the 20th century until the eighties. Different types of traders and service providers could be found at the five foot ways, such as locksmiths, barbers, knife sharpeners, fortune tellers, newspaper vendors, storytellers, food stallholders, clog makers, letter writers, traditional medicine men and others.

Many of the old professions could not keep up with time and had largely vanished today. The life of five foot way traders and shophouses’ residents and tenants were captivatingly portrayed in the 1987 Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) drama Five Foot Way.

In the later shophouses, five foot ways were furnished with elaborate aesthetic finishing. Large quantity of mosaic, terracotta and clay tiles were used, and they would sometimes be repeated on the front walls of the shophouses to create an uniform display of patterns.

duxton hill tanjong pagar shophouses

Over the decades, the five foot way has evolved from a familiar architectural feature to a cultural identity of Singapore. When the Housing and Development Board (HDB) built the low-lying flats in the new towns in the early eighties, they featured similar walkways in front of the shops at the ground floors, which were also covered and shaded by the second-storey units.

Features of a Typical Shophouse

Beside the five foot way, a typical shophouse has several other distinctive features, such as a pitched roof, an internal airwell and a rear court. There are also timber staircases inside the old shophouses leading to the second floor. In some designs, retractable ladders were built into the ceilings of the five foot ways, just outside the main doors of the shophouses, and were usually used by tenants to access directly to the verandah section.

different features of a typical shophouse

A common party wall, acting as the principle load bearing factor of the overall structure, separates two adjoining shophouses. The airwell provides natural ventilation and lighting to the interior of the shophouse, whereas the rear court is traditionally used as a kitchen and toilet.

Shophouses in Singapore generally use two types of tiles for their roofs – the terracotta tiles and the flat ‘Marseilles’ tiles. The most prominent feature of a shophouse is its front facade, the front “face” of the building that is facing the street. With designs and aesthetic elements of different eras, the front facade of a shophouse tells a thousand stories about its history.

shophouses mohamed sultan road

Singapore’s Historic Districts

Shophouses are found in many parts of Singapore, especially at the four designated Historic Districts in Singapore – Boat Quay, Chinatown, Kampong Glam and Little India.

Chinatown is the largest of the four Historic Districts, and has its history dated back to the mid-19th century, where shophouses started to pop up on almost every of its streets, including Keong Saik Road, Kreta Ayer Road, Mosque Street, Pagoda Street, Smith Street, Sago Street, Temple Street, Trengganu Street, Upper Chin Chew Street, Upper Hokkien Street, Upper Nankin Street and Upper Cross Street.

upper chin chew street upper nankin street shophouses 1974

The shophouses at Upper Chin Chew, Upper Hokkien and Upper Nankin Streets, however, were demolished during the urban renewal schemes in the mid-seventies. The Hong Lim Complex and HDB blocks were built in its place between 1978 and 1981. The urban renewal schemes of the mid sixties and the upgrading and redevelopment plans in the eighties had led to the demolition of hundreds of shophouses, but fortunately, the remaining old shophouses were retained and, in 1989, given conservation status.

Most of the Kampong Glam shophouses are now concentrated along Aliwal Street, Arab Street, Pahang Street, Muscat Street and Haji Lane. At Arab Street, for instance, as many as 35 shophouses form a block that is 135m long and 8m deep. The shophouses mostly belong to the Early Style era, designed with simple facades and one or two windows on the upper storey. Merchants in import-export, wholesale and retail textile trades used to do their businesses in these shophouses, but today, they are used as offices, eateries and shops selling the likes of perfumes, carpets and jewellery.

shophouses aliwal street

Many of the shophouses at Little India, along Serangoon Road, were built between 1840s and 1960s. They had decorative facades, using tile patterns extensively on the floors, walls and pillars. The foundation of the shophouses’ external plasterwork were created using the Madras chunam, which was a mixture of water, egg white, shells, sugar and lime. After the mixture was applied and hardened on the buildings’ surfaces, polishing was done using crystal stones, which gave the shophouses a smooth appearance.

shophouses serangoon road 1980s

Shophouses at the Suburban Areas

At the suburban districts, defined as Secondary Settlements by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), which include Balestier, Beach Road, Geylang, Jalan Besar, Joo Chiat, Mount Sophia, River Valley, Tanjong Katong and Upper Circular Road, hundreds of prewar shophouses can be seen lining up the streets. Geylang Road, for instance, was transformed from a land of plantations and fields to an urbanised area by the early 20th century.

The two- and three-storey shophouses along Geylang Road were largely built in the 1920s, designed in colourful Chinese Baroque style and decorated with glazed porcelain tiles, motifs, intricate base relief mouldings and stained glass windows.

geylang road lorong 3 shophouses

Joo Chiat is well-known for its Peranakan-style shophouses and terrace houses. Many of the shophouses and terrace houses, a good mixture in Transitional, Late, Art Deco and Modern styles, are situated around Koon Seng Road, Joo Chiat Road, Joo Chiat Place, Tembeling Road and Everitt Road. In 1991, they were gazetted for conservation by the URA.

With more than 700 buildings conserved, the district of Joo Chiat was designated as Singapore’s first Heritage Town in 2011.

koon seng road joo chiat terrace houses

joo chiat road joo chiat shophouses

The terrace houses at Martaban Road, Balestier, were built between the 1920s and 1930s. Lining up on both sides and following the gradual upsloping of the road, they reflect the vast influence of European neo-classical architectural designs during the early 20th century. Additional features were incorporated into the design of these houses to suit the tropical sun and rain, such as high air vents to allow the warm air to escape from the roofs, and coloured glass to diffuse the harsh sunlight.

These prewar terrace houses of Balestier were gazetted for conservation in late 2003.

balestier road terrace houses

Urban Renewal and Conservation

After its independence in 1965, Singapore carried out a series of urban renewal schemes to clear and replace the old city with an integrated modern city centre. The numerous demolition projects, however, led to a question on conservation, raised by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. After several years of studies, the Preservation of Monuments Bill was passed in 1970, and the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB) formed, with the objective to “preserve objects and buildings that remind us of our heritage”.

Many old shophouses, however, did not escape the fate of demolition. The PMB placed its emphasis on historic landmarks such as old mosques, temples and churches. The dilapidated shophouses, especially in the Central Business District (CBD) area, were considered slums and eyesores. Throughout the sixties and seventies, several hundreds were pulled down by the Urban Renewal Department; their sites redeveloped and replaced by new commercial buildings, shopping malls and residential complexes.

urban renewal project new bridge road 1979

dilapidated shophouses cumming street 1980

The start of the eighties saw the topic of conservation being raised again. Orchard Road was then promoted as Singapore’s exclusive shopping belt. In 1981, Emerald Hill Road’s aging prewar shophouses and terrace houses, built at the beginning of the 20th century, seemed certain to face the fate of demolition.

However, the URA, the successor of the Urban Renewal Department, decided to restore them to their original facades. Emerald Hill was “pedestrianised” and subsequently conserved. It was a major success, as the buildings were reopened as Peranakan Place in 1985 and attracted both tourists and locals.

emerald hill road shophouses 1979

With the success of Emerald Hill, the authority expanded the conservation plan to Boat Quay, Cairnhill, Chinatown, Clarke Quay, Kampong Glam and Little India. In the late eighties, attention was turned to the shophouses at Tanjong Pagar. Since then, some of the best conservation efforts that have been implemented are the colonial era shophouse at 9 Neil Road and the “Baba House” at 157 Neil Road, one of Singapore’s remaining original Straits-Chinese houses.

Today, almost 6,500 shophouses in Singapore have been given the conservation status.

Shophouses of Multi-Purposes

Shophouses were once buildings of many functions. Besides residential and commercial purposes, the early shophouses were also used as government’s administrative offices, public clinics and dispensaries, hotels, schools, religious places of worship, cinemas and theatres.

The office of William Pickering (1840-1907), Singapore’s first Chinese Protectorate, was housed in a shophouse at North Canal Road. As the staff of Protectorate grew, his office was later shifted to the shophouses at Upper Macao Street (Pickering Street today), Boat Quay and finally Havelock Road in the late 19th century.

Many of the early schools were also started at shophouses. St Margaret’s School, Singapore’s oldest school for girls, was first started in a shophouse at North Bridge Road in 1842. The first Anglo-Chinese School, established by Methodist missionaries in 1886, conducted its first class at an Amoy Street shophouse with 13 students. The Methodist Girls School was founded in 1887 in a shophouse at Short Street.

Shophouses were also used as the humble beginnings of some of Singapore’s prominent places of worship. For example, the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, catered for the Jewish community in early Singapore, had its history started in a two-storey shophouse at present-day Synagogue Street in the mid-19th century.

A Photo Gallery of Singapore’s Traditional Shophouses

pasir panjang hill shophouses2

shophouses syed alwi road

chong clan association shophouse yan kit road

shophouses pahang street

shophouses jalan besar

shophouses lavender street

kampong bahru road shophouses

buffalo road shophouses

shophouses east coast road koon seng road

shophouses petain road

joo chiat place joo chiat shophouses

tembeling road joo chiat shophouses

shophouses boat quay singapore river

Editor’s Note: This is the third and final part of the article for discussion on Singapore’s types of housing. The first part talks about the past kampongs and their houses, and the second part on the history of Singapore’s public housing.

Published: 07 May 2016

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The Old Singapore Polytechnic Campus and New Prince Edward MRT Station

Part of the old campus of Singapore Polytechnic, the first polytechnic in Singapore, will likely be giving way for the construction of the upcoming Prince Edward MRT Station of the Circle Line.

former singapore polytechnic campus1

former singapore polytechnic campus2

The Beginning

The history of Singapore Polytechnic stretched back to the early fifties, when the idea of a polytechnic in Singapore was first proposed. In the first half of the 19th century, it appeared there was no actual need for Singapore to have a technical institution, as the former British colony was striving for an economy based on trades and commercial activities.

After the Second World War, the entrepot trade’s importance declined; the rose of industrialisation in Singapore signaled a need for technical education, and this began to show by the early fifties due to the lack of technically trained people. In April 1952, a group made up of Rotarians, Technical Association of Malaya members, lawyers, teachers and the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) representatives met at the Adelphi Roof Garden and agreed that a polytechnic in Singapore was necessary.

The colonial government responded by setting up a study committee to look into the suggestion. In late 1953, with the submitted report, the government acknowledged the need for a polytechnic. Establishing a technical institution finally became a reality on 27 October 1954 when the Legislative Council passed the Singapore Polytechnic Ordinance “for the purpose of providing studies, training and research in the technology, science, commerce and arts”. In early 1955, the first board of governors for the polytechnic was appointed, with J.D. Williams selected as the first principal.

construction of singapore polytechnic 1957

The construction of Singapore’s first polytechnic took place in 1957; the Prince Edward Road campus was completed about a year later, at a cost of $11.5 million. Before the establishment of Singapore Polytechnic, the only technical schools in Singapore were the Balestier Junior School (set up in 1930), St Joseph’s Trade School (1938), Malay Crafts School (1940s) and Maris Stella Vocational School (1940s).

singapore polytechnic prince edward road aerial view late 1950s

The Pioneering Years

Designed in the modernist architectural style, the campus had a prominent main rectangular foyer with distinctive mosaic patterns. It was situated next to the sea, which has been reclaimed into present-day Marina Bay. The Palmer House, former home to the Chinese Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), was located behind the campus, and the eight-storey Asian Seamen’s Club stood a short distance away.

singapore polytechnic library 1959

More than 3,000 students had enrolled in 58 courses provided by the new polytechnic, which was also the first technical institution in Southeast Asia, ranging from engineering, accountancy, navigation to plumbing, brickwork and plastering. In the 1958/59 semester, there were 700 full time students and over 2,800 part time students. Almost 1,000 had signed up for the engineering course.

On 24 February 1959, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, officiated the opening of Singapore Polytechnic accompanied by Sir William Goode, the then-Governor of Singapore.

singapore polytechnic 1960s

The Progresses

In mid-1960, the polytechnic adopted its crest in the form of a red and yellow shield with the phrase “Berkhidmat Dengan Keahlian” (“to serve with skill”) written on it. The phrase referred to the objective of the polytechnic, which was to train the manpower required for Singapore’s industries.

The sixties saw the Singapore Polytechnic used as a hosting venue for numerous seminars and exhibitions, such as the Malaysia Student Photographic Exhibition (1963), Singapore Arts Society Exhibition (1963), Exhibition of Light Industries Service Unit (1964), Public Service International’s Seminar (1964), Proliferation Security Initiative Seminar (1964), International Machine Tool and Metalworking Industries Exhibition (1965), Building Industry Exhibition (1965), Food Industries Exhibition (1965) and Polytechnic Students’ Union Seminar (1966). Important local political leaders such as Lee Kuan Yew, Toh Chin Chye and Goh Keng Swee were regularly invited as guests of honour at the exhibitions and seminars.

singapore polytechnic3 1960s

singapore polytechnic prince edward road 1960s

In addition to its diploma courses, the Singapore Polytechnic also started introducing degree courses in 1965. In doing so, the aim was to develop Singapore Polytechnic into an institute of advanced technology that could award its own degrees. However, this did not happen. In 1968, 68 Singapore Polytechnic engineering students were conferred degrees but by the then-University of Singapore.

In the following year, it was decided that the professional courses would be transferred to the University of Singapore’s Faculties of Architecture and Engineering. The polytechnic itself was restructured in the same year into the School of Industrial Technology and School of Nautical Studies. The University of Singapore’s Faculty of Architecture was also housed at the Singapore Polytechnic in the sixties. It remained there until 1970 when the faculty was relocated to the Kinloss House at Lady Hill Road.

singapore polytechnic students 1973

The Expansion

By 1973, the number of engineering students at Singapore Polytechnic exceeded 4,800 – more than four times the enrollment in 1959. The polytechnic, in 1973, targeted to produce 2,500 technicians for the industries every year.

Due to the demands, the Singapore Polytechnic was expanded to three campuses in the seventies – its original campus at Prince Edward Road, a temporary Princess Mary campus, converted from a former British barracks, at Dover Road, and a third campus at Ayer Rajah Road. The Princess Mary campus was later demolished and replaced by a new school campus completed in 1979; it has since become the permanent campus of Singapore Polytechnic.

singapore polytechnic dover road aerial view late 1970s

In late 1978, the Labour Ministry’s Employment Service and the Research and Statistics Department was shifted from Anson Road to the former Singapore Polytechnic building.

The campus was later occupied by the National Institute of Commerce (NIC) in 1982. Spending $7 million in the renovation and equipment, the NIC, a commercial institute developed by the Vocational and Industrial Training Board (VITB), offered a series of commercial courses and training with well-equipped facilities including advanced mini computers with programming, word processing and accounting capabilities, electric and electronic typewriters, and language and office training laboratories.

opening of national institute of commerce 1983

In the mid-nineties, the campus was leased out as a commercial entity renamed as Bestway Building, which later housed Mediacorp TV12 (formerly Singapore Television Twelve).

Today, the rapid pace of development is finally approaching the old Singapore Polytechnic campus, which has been sitting at the corner of the Tanjong Pagar district for more than half a century. As for now, the former campus’ main building will not be affected, but its other buildings will be demolished. By 2025, this historic area, also known as Tanjong Malang, will likely have a different look with the new Shenton Way Bus Terminal and a completed Prince Edward MRT Station.

former singapore polytechnic campus3

former singapore polytechnic campus4

former singapore polytechnic campus5

former singapore polytechnic campus6

Published: 16 April 2016

Updated: 03 July 2016

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Changes of Dakota (Part 1) – Demolition of Former Broadrick and Maju Secondary Schools

Dakota Crescent, with its unique Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) flats and the last dove playground in Singapore, has been in the headlines for the past two years, after news of its impending demolition lured many photographers and nostalgia lovers to visit the sleepy neighbourhood. Dakota Crescent, built in 1958 and currently made up of 14 SIT blocks, is due to be torn down in 2017.

But changes have already been occurring around Dakota Crescent. In mid-200s, 15 early SIT blocks of Dakota Crescent were bulldozed, replaced by new private condominiums Dakota Residences (completed in 2010) and Waterbank at Dakota (2013). And in March 2016, the former premises of Dakota Crescent’s two neighbourhood secondary schools Broadrick and Maju are in the midst of demolition.

broadrick maju secondary schools demolition1 2016

Both Broadrick and Maju Secondary Schools were established beside each other along Dunman Road in 1968. Joseph Francis Conceicao, Katong’s then Member of Parliament (1968-1984), first officiated the opening of Broadrick Secondary School on 14 March 1969, and later Maju Secondary School on 6 June 1969.

The construction of both schools cost about $1.1 million each. By June 1969, a decade after Singapore gained full internal self-governance, the nation had established a total of 105 schools, demonstrating its strong emphasis in educating the younger generations. In the month of June 1969 alone, six new secondary schools – Maju, Mount Vernon, Sennett Road, Bukit Merah, Hwi Yoh and Chestnut Drive – were opened.

broadrick secondary school 1969

broadrick secondary school2 1969

Maju Secondary School was also one of the earliest secondary schools to be built in accordance to a new design policy implemented by the Ministry of Education (MOE). In this new policy, schools would have large classrooms, demonstration rooms, science laboratories and domestic science rooms.

Also, secondary schools that were built in post-independence Singapore, including Broadrick and Maju, typically had four main buildings around a courtyard or assembly area. This architectural design would take up lesser space and have better school security. Broadrick Secondary School, in this instance, had the Teaching Block, Science Block, Assembly Hall and Gymnasium around its courtyard.

maju secondary school 1969

maju secondary school2 1969

In 1977, the school premises of Maju Secondary School, along with Rangoon Road Primary School and National Junior College, were used as French centres, offering French as an optional third language for the local students in Singapore.

In the seventies and eighties, the MOE introduced French, Japanese and German as optional foreign languages in the school curriculum to build up a pool of local talents, proficient in different tongues, to service the commercial, industrial and diplomatic sectors. At the same period, the Economic Development Board (EDB) established the France-Singapore Institute (FSI), Japan-Singapore Institute (JSI) and German-Singapore Institute (GSI), which would later become part of the Nanyang Polytechnic’s School of Engineering in 1992.

The French classes at Maju Secondary School, however, came to an end as the French centres were consolidated and centralised at one location – Monk’s Hill Primary School – in 1983.

broadrick maju secondary schools demolition2 2016

In January 1996, Broadrick Secondary School and Maju Secondary School were merged to form the new single-session Broadrick Secondary School. The new secondary school was relocated in 2006 to the former premises of Mountbatten Primary School, about 300m away at Dakota Crescent. As for its old premises, it was taken over a year later in 2007 by Northlight School, a school established by MOE to provide assistance to primary school students who find it difficult to keep up with mainstream education.

broadrick maju secondary schools demolition5 2016

In early 2015, Northlight School was relocated to Towner Road, and the former premises of Broadrick and Maju Secondary Schools were left vacated once again. Demolition of the school buildings began in early March 2016, and is expected to be completed by the mid of 2016.

broadrick maju secondary schools demolition4 2016

broadrick maju secondary schools demolition3 2016

broadrick maju secondary schools demolition6 2016

After the demolition, the site will likely be reserved for future residential development. The vacant Guillemard Camp, directly opposite the former schools, will also likely be replaced by new residential units in the future. Home to 1SIR, Singapore’s first military unit, the camp was set up in 1969, and lasted more than 30 years until 2003 when the operations of 1SIR were shifted to Mandai Hill Camp.

guillemard camp 2016

An overhead pedestrian bridge, built in the early eighties, links both sides of Dunman Road where the schools and camp used to be. An interesting trivia happened in 1983, when the students of Broadrick and Maju Secondary Schools would ignore the overhead bridge and dash across the busy road after school. It prompted Wee Kee Yin, then principal of Broadrick Secondary School, to implement road safety by assigning his teachers to ensure the students to use the overhead bridge. Students who crossed the road recklessly were made to stand on the school stage during assembly as punishment.

dunman road 1983

Several prominent political figures were associated with Broadrick and Maju Secondary Schools, such as Sidek Saniff, a former teacher at Maju Secondary School and Senior Minister of State for Education (1996-1997) and the Environment (1997-2001), and Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, the current Minister for Communications and Information and Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs. Dr Yaacob Ibrahim belongs to the pioneering batches of students studying at Broadrick Secondary School in 1968.

Dakota Crescent has retained much of its quiet and laid-back character in the past 50 years. But rapid redevelopment will probably alter its appearance completely by the next decade.

Published: 28 March 2016

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There was Once a “Cut Stomach Open” Street off Yio Chu Kang Road

In the early 20th century, there was a dark small road, off Yio Chu Kang Road 6th milestone, that led to an old cemetery with a terrifying name – Phuah Pak Tiong (剖腹冢), which in Hokkien, means “a cemetery for those whose stomach have been cut open.”

It actually referred to the cemetery used by Tan Tock Seng Hospital before the Second World War, where the bodies, usually the poor and those who died of tuberculosis (TB), of post-mortem cases were transferred from Moulmein Road for burial. Jalan Phuah Pak Tiong was the name of that road to the cemetery.

At the junction of Jalan Phuah Pak Tiong and Yio Chu Kang Road existed several families living in attap houses. A short distance away was Kampong Chia Keng, a large Teochew village that existed until the eighties. When the population living at Jalan Phuah Pak Tiong grew over time, the residents came to resent the name. They thought it was inauspicious and sound repugnant to outsiders. In 1951, after appeals by the villagers, the Singapore Rural Board decided to rename Jalan Phuah Pak Tiong as Plantation Avenue.

plantation avenue phuah pak tiong cemetery map 1956

Plantation Avenue might sound presentable, but to many villagers, who largely spoke in the Hokkien dialect, the new English name was confusing and difficult. In the end, they still referred to Jalan Phuah Pak Tiong as their home address. Phuah Pak Tiong cemetery, meanwhile, was no longer used by Tan Tock Seng Hospital by the fifties, but continued to exist as a private Chinese burial ground.

Most kampong houses in Singapore in the fifties and sixties were attap huts. This made them vulnerable to fire hazards, and breakouts of fires and destroyed houses were common. Beside the occasional fire tragedies, crimes such as theft, robbery and gangsterism were also rampant at Plantation Avenue. In 1959, the police raided and busted a gangster hideout and its “armoury” at Plantation Avenue, confiscating a total of 16 parangs, seven spears, five motorcycle chains, 15 acid-filled bulbs and a large number of assorted iron rods.

In 1960, a four-men armed gang robbed a businessman at Chye Seng Tannery. The robbers drove off his lorry and dumped it at Plantation Avenue. 22 cases of crocodile skins, worth a hefty $110,000, were stolen from the lorry.

funeral procession of lee gee chong 1961But the biggest crime news was perhaps the kidnapping and brutal murder of 49-year-old “Biscuit King” Lee Gee Chong (1911-1960), then chairman of Thye Hong Biscuit and Confectionery Factory, in April 1960. He was abducted by three men near his home at Garlick Avenue, and was brutally murdered with severe head injuries. His body was later found wrapped in a blanket and dumped at the Phuah Pak Tiong cemetery.

By the late sixties, the community at the 6th milestone of Yio Chu Kang Road was progressing well. There were crowded wet markets at Chia Keng and Lim Tua Tow Road. Several Chinese schools, such as Chong Hwa and Sing Hua, were established. At least two community centres were built, along Plantation Avenue and Jalan Teck Kee, to serve the growing population. Plantation Avenue itself had several shops, eateries and a sago factory named Bian Seng. In 1973, Plantation Avenue officially met Singapore’s public street standard after the Public Works Department levelled and metalled it, and added proper drainage and lighting to the road.

plantation avenue village community centre 1980

The forgotten cemetery of Phuah Pak Tiong was likely to be exhumed in the late seventies, giving way to new Serangoon HDB (Housing and Development Board) flats built between 1984 and 1985. The kampongs at Plantation Avenue and Chia Keng were also demolished; private houses began to sprung up at Plantation Avenue. In 1984, a landed property at Plantation Avenue would cost some $320,000. For comparison, similar houses at the same period cost between $430,000 (Serangoon Gardens) and $650,000 (Siglap).

Today, not many people are aware that an old cemetery with a gruesome name once existed here.

plantation avenue1 2016

plantation avenue2 2016

plantation avenue3 2016

Published: 20 March 2016

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