A Brief Past of Ridout Tea Garden and its Popular McDonald’s

The popular McDonald’s outlet at Ridout Tea Garden may be closing this end of 2021. Many Singaporeans expressed a pity when the news was released not long ago, as this unique McDonald’s with a picturesque setting has become a prominent landmark in the vicinity since 1989.

The Ridout Tea Garden’s history began even earlier as Queenstown Japanese Garden. It was 1970 when a small Japanese garden was first built at its current location. A typical Japanese-style garden or park was not new in Singapore. Alkaff Lake Gardens was built by the wealthy Alkaff family in the 1920s as the first Japanese garden in Singapore. It lasted until 1949 when it was sold, with the site redeveloped over the years to become Sennett Estate. A larger and better known Japanese Garden was created at Jurong in the late sixties and officially opened in 1973.

Queenstown Japanese Garden became a popular leisure venue for the nearby residents, with occasional events such as photographic competitions organised by the Queenstown Community Centre. It also consisted of 23 shops that sold a wide variety of consumer products such as furniture, sports equipment, clothes, electronic goods as well as food and beverages. One eatery, called Queen’s Garden Restaurant, offered both Western and Chinese cuisines.

The Queenstown Japanese Garden, however, was destroyed in a fire in June 1978. Almost all the shops had gone up in smokes, resulting in an estimated total cost of $1 million in damages. Only the electronic goods shop, stocked with $200,000 worth of equipment at the time of the disaster, was fortunately spared. It, however, could not survive for long as much of the garden was in ruins. With the crowds gone, the shop was the last to move out of the garden.

In 1980, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) decided to rebuild the area with another garden. $500,000 was pumped into the project, which aimed to construct another park with the popular Japanese vibe. The building – formerly occupied by the shop spared from the fire disaster – was reworked and converted into a new single-storey tea house designed with a double-slope roof and installed with wooden and plexiglass sliding doors. A pond with beautifully landscaped gardens, footpaths and bridges was also created.

Unlike the former Queenstown Japanese Garden, there would be no shops for the new garden. Instead it was to be leased out to private operators as two unique eating places that could accommodate about 300 customers.

Named Ridout Tea Garden, after the nearby Ridout Road, the change of name signified the birth of a brand new place of interest as well as to avoid confusion with the Japanese Garden at Jurong. The name origin of Ridout Road came from Major General Sir Dudley Ridout (1866-1941), the British commanding officer of the Malaya Command in the 1910s and 1920s.

When it was opened in 1980, the concept of Ridout Tea Garden was well-received but the crowds commonly seen at the former Queenstown Japanese Garden were absent, likely due to the lack of shopping amenities. There were some snack kiosks but it was a stark contrast compared to its popular past in the seventies.

Hence, in 1981, Kentucky Fried Chicken was invited to set up an outlet at Ridout Tea Garden, where the authority hoped that the popular fast food could attract the crowds to return.

In 1983, Ridout Tea Garden was one of the several filming locations for the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation’s (SBC) six-episode Army Series drama, which told the stories of eight young men enlisted in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

McDonald’s eventually replaced Kentucky Fried Chicken at Ridout Tea Garden in 1989, and, after going strong for 32 years, is currently one of Singapore’s oldest McDonald’s outlets, after the closure of the other decades-old outlets at Marine Cove and King Albert Park in 2012 and 2014 respectively. Today, the oldest McDonald’s restaurant in Singapore is the one at People Park’s Complex, which opened since 1979.

Ridout Tea Garden’s McDonald’s shares the premises with two other tenants – a Thai restaurant named Bobo (but was closed in 2020) and Far East Flora, a plant nursery.

To many, when it eventually closes, this unique McDonald’s will be a place made up of many fond memories. A common place where students spent hours doing their homework. Where early office-goers grabbed their breakfasts. And where friends met for suppers. Also not forgetting the football fans who crowded here to cheer for their teams during the late night live telecast of the World Cup matches in 2010.

Published: 5 May 2021

Updated: 28 June 2021

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Singapore’s Heritage Tree Series – Broad-Leafed Mahogany

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published: 21 April 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published: 12 April 2021

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Searching for the Remaining Old Flood Gauges in Singapore

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

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

There is also an old flood gauge located along the canal at Kampong Lorong Buangkok.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published: 28 March 2021

Updated: 8 March 2022

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Exploring the Remnants of Kay Siang Bunkers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published: 10 March 2021

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Emerald Hill – A Gem at Orchard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published: 26 February 2021

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The Colourful Landmark of Selegie Arts Centre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published: 20 January 2021

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The End of Lorong 3 Geylang Neighbourhood

The Lorong 3 Geylang terrace houses, 191 of them, had their 60-year leases ended on 31 December 2020. Began in 1960, the houses held on for six decades and eventually became Singapore’s first residential units to have met the expiry of their leases. By January 2021, all the housing units have since been vacated and taken over by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA). It is expected that the small housing estate will be redeveloped for future residential purposes.

Before the sixties, Lorong 3 Geylang, running perpendicular at the start of Sims Avenue and Geylang Road, led to two villages – Kampong Koo Chye (sometimes spelt as Khoo Chye or Kuchai) and Kampong Hock Soon. Largely made up of wooden houses on stilts along one of the tributaries of Kallang River, Kampong Koo Chye was better known as it hit the news headlines in the late fifties due to a fire disaster.

Fires were major concerns in the fifties. Kampong Bugis and Kampong Tiong Bahru were destroyed by large fires in 1951 and 1959 respectively. Geylang’s Lorong 1 and Lorong 3 were also sites of two notorious fire disasters in the late fifties – the lorong 1 fire consumed a small village, whereas the much larger Kampong Koo Chye at Lorong 3 was burnt down in 1958.

5 April 1958 was the fateful day for Kampong Koo Chye. A huge fire swept through 200-plus wooden huts, resulting in five deaths and 79 injuries. 379 families with 2,000 residents were rendered homeless overnight. It was Qing Ming Festival then, and a lit joss stick was believed to have carelessly dropped and caused the flames to start spreading rapidly in the strong winds.

Four fire engines were quickly deployed and 300 men, made up of firefighters and the locals, fought the fire for almost three hours before the inferno could be brought under control. But by 430pm, most of the houses had been burnt to ashes. Only an evening downpour stopped the fire from spreading to a nearby Lee Rubber factory, where 3,000 tonnes of rubber were stored.

It was then Singapore’s worst post-war fire disaster. In the aftermath, many residents were seen trying to salvage their charred belongings in the smouldering wreckage of their former homes. Voluntary organisations and social welfare workers arrived to help out with the food, clothing and medical distribution. More than 2,000 homeless people were temporarily housed at Geylang English School. Some of the residents managed to seek refuge with their relatives at other kampongs.

To assist the victims affected by the disaster, the Singapore City Council pledged $100,000 to a newly set-up relief fund. A further $200,000 was collected through donations from the public and various organisations. The Singapore government, under Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock, contributed to the fund by matching the donation amount dollar to dollar. Much of the funds went to help the victims as well as the construction of a number of low-cost low-rise houses in the vicinity.

The houses – their construction would eventually cost $900,000 – were rapidly built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT). Slightly more than 200 double-storey housing units were completed by 1960. Located at the end of Lorong 3 Geylang, the new residential estate – its land were acquired from private owners – was named Lorong Tiga Estate (tiga is three in Malay). Contracted with 60-year leases, each house was available for $5,000 with installment plans offered.

1,300 residents from the Kampong Koo Chye fire disaster had chosen to move into Lorong Tiga Estate. For the others, more than 100 families shifted to the SIT flats at Kallang and Queenstown. The rest decided to return to the rebuilt Kampong Koo Chye.

Lorong Tiga Estate was made up of 14 blocks, numbered Block 3 to 16. The blocks consist of five to 13 housing units. The Housing and Redevelopment Board (HDB) took over SIT in 1960, including all of its existing residential leases.

In the seventies, Kallang River and its tributaries were aligned, lengthened and canalised. New roads in Upper Boon Keng Road, Geylang Bahru and Kallang Bahru were built, serving the up and coming Kallang and Geylang Bahru industrial estates. Kampong Koo Chye walked into history by the mid-seventies, while new HDB flats were developed near Lorong Tiga Estate, including two HDB point blocks (Block 38 and 39) that were built beside the estate in 1976.

Fast forward to 60 years later, in 2020, the leases of the Lorong Tiga Estate houses finally came to an end. Before they were vacated, most owners had already moved out. At the end of 2020, only 40 housing units were still occupied by their owners. 16 had been converted for religious purposes, while 135 were used as dormitories for foreign workers.

Most of the HDB flats carry a 99-year lease. In the past two decades, many older flats underwent the Selective En-Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) and were demolished and replaced by new public housing. However, there are many other old flats that do not fall under the SERS. The flats at Stirling Road, for example, were built in 1968 and are currently one of the oldest batches of flats in Singapore. Tens of thousands more were built in the seventies. It will be a major challenge when the clock starts ticking towards the lease expiry of these flats.

Published: 6 January 2021

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Changes of Dakota 2 – Bidding Farewell to Dakota Crescent Flats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also read:

Changes of Dakota – Demolition of Former Broadrick and Maju Secondary Schools (2016)

Changes of Dakota 3 – Guillemard Camp Walks into History (2022)

Published: 02 December 2020

Updated: 28 January 2022

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Singapore Trivia – A Lone Kampong House at Mandai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published: 11 November 2020

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