Remnants of Singapore’s Lost Roads – Tiverton Lane

This particular area at the Orchard vicinity has a strong British and Irish flavour. Tiverton Road was named after a town in Devon county, southern England. Devon, also known as Devonshire, has its name bore in the adjacent Devonshire Road. Exeter Road, on the other hand, was named after a city in Devon.

More than 150 years ago, the area was part of a massive nutmeg plantation owned by Dr Thomas Oxley (1805-1886), the Surgeon of the Straits Settlement. His name gave rise to Oxley Road, while his private residences, the Killiney Bungalow and Grange House, reflected his strong connections to his native Ireland. Today’s Killiney Road, Grange Road and Dublin Road  (Killiney is a Dublin suburb) were named after them. Meanwhile, Lloyd Road, could be named after Henry Lloyd, who managed Thomas Oxley’s estate after the latter’s return to Britain in 1857.

By the late 19th century, double-storey terrace houses and shophouses were built at Tiverton Lane. Some of the terrace houses had their facades built in a zigzag manner, an unique style in the design of early local shophouses. Leong Man Sau, a well-know timber merchant in the early 20th century, had lived at one of these Tiverton Lane’s terrace houses. Also serving as the Justice of Peace and member of the Municipal Council and Chinese Advisory Board, he died of tetanus infection in his home in 1916, at an age of 50.

In the 1920s, a terrace house at Tiverton Lane would cost around $9,000. It rose to $24,000 in the fifties. By the early seventies, when the Tiverton Lane residents were ordered to evict their homes to make way for the construction of a new Communication Centre (Comcentre), a Tiverton Lane terrace house would cost $150,000 in market values.

In the 1950s, Tiverton Lane was also home to the Singapore Cantonese Women’s Mutual Help Society, Singapore’s only amahs‘ association that was set up to provide help and care for amahs. Amahs were helpers, typically Chinese Cantonese women, employed by rich families in the past to clean the house, look after children and perform domestic tasks.

In 1971, to cope with the demands of the rapidly growing number of telephone users, the government decided to build a new $58-million Communication Centre (Comcentre) at Tiverton Lane, functioning as the headquarters of the Singapore Telephone Board (STB) after its merger with the Telecommunications Authority of Singapore (TAS).

Hence, the residents of Tiverton Lane were told to look for other alternatives while they would be compensated for their properties. By the mid-seventies, the residents had moved and their houses demolished, paving way for the piling works to commence. The Exeter Road Market and Zion Church, situated between Exeter Road and Tiverton Lane, were also affected. The market, established since 1953, was torn down in 1977 and its hawkers were resettled at a new market at Ghim Moh.

The 32-storey Comcentre, after its completion in 1980, became the new landmark in the vicinity. Further land bounded by Tiverton Lane, Devonshire Road and Killiney Road were acquired in 1982 for the construction of an extension for Comcentre.

The remaining shophouses at Tiverton Lane, made up of furniture stores, tailor shops and popular beef rendang and seafood eateries, were subsequently demolished. By the late eighties, the one-way Tiverton Lane was expunged and officially walked into history.

Today, all that was left of Tiverton Lane is an old street signage pinned at the back entrance of Comcentre.

Published: 20 April 2020

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The Restored Beauty of Winsland House II

Located along Penang Road are a pair of beautiful double-storey Victorian semi-detached houses, known today as part of Winsland House II. Built in the 1910s, the whitish building was designed in typical “Late Bungalow House Style“, which is made up of two residential units and consists of similar but symmetrical facades, giving it a pleasant and balanced appearance.

More than 150 years ago, this area was a vast 173-acre nutmeg estate owned by Dr Thomas Oxley (1805–1886), who was posted to Penang, Malacca and Singapore between 1825 and 1841. He later became the Surgeon of the Straits Settlements. Thomas Oxley’s estate, just before his return to England in 1857, was put up for sale in lots. His legacy lives on till this day with Oxley Road named after him.

For a greater part of history, the Penang Road bungalows were used as private residences. In the eighties and nineties, they were subsequently leased to the Singapore Tong San Association (founded in 1955) and Orchard School of Arts and Commerce (established in 1988).

The properties and land were eventually sold for redevelopment purposes. A tall commercial building was to be built at the site, but fortunately the developer agreed to conserve the houses as this would free up the additional floor area available from the bungalows and also preserve a part of Singapore’s heritage.

After the designers firmed up the incorporation of the bungalows into the clean modern design of Winsland House II, restoration works kicked off from October 1996 to October 1997. Costing about $1.4 million in the restoration, many original features, such as the tall verandahs, roofs and facades, were carefully retained and refurbished.

Additional new features such as a new flight of steps with planter boxes were added at the front porch, as well as a curvilinear ramped path for handicapped access. The project team’s detailed restoration efforts managed to win them the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Architectural Heritage Award in 2002, and the beautiful buildings are part of the Orchard Road heritage trail today.

Published: 13 April 2020

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Jurong Stadium Gone Under the Wrecking Ball

Completed in 1973, the old Jurong Stadium was meant to be part of the sports and recreational amenities for a rapidly developed Jurong town in the late sixties and early seventies. Managed by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC), the stadium possessed a seating capacity of 8,000. By comparison, the population of Jurong town by the mid-seventies was only 60,000.

Jurong Stadium was based on a cost-effective flattish design, with a sheltered grandstand gallery overseeing the grass pitch that was encircled by an asphalt running track. Four tall iron truss structures, situated at the corners, supported the floodlights.

Jurong Stadium was designated as one of the several decentralised venues for the National Day Parade in the seventies and eighties. For example, in 1977, Jurong Stadium, along with Queenstown Stadium, Jalan Besar Stadium, Toa Payoh Stadium, Tiong Bahru Secondary School and Temasek Junior College, were selected to host the contingents of the National Day Parade. The aim was to bring the National Day celebrations to the doorsteps of the residents, so that more people could watch the parades and displays.

In 1981, 55 contingents and cultural groups participated in the National Day Parade at Jurong Stadium. Reviewed by the Labour Minister Ong Teng Cheong, the parade began with performances of Chinese orchestra and Malay dance music before marching to Boon Lay Drive. In the 1983 National Day Parade highlights, Jurong Stadium’s last hosting of the parade, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) commandos wowed the spectators by parachuting into the stadium.

Jurong Stadium, however, was mainly used for football competitions. As early as 1973, there were plans to introduce a professional National Football League in Singapore. Eight clubs were formed to kick off the league competition. Each club was assigned with their own stadium at Jurong, Jalan Besar, Farrer Park, Toa Payoh, Queenstown, Geylang, Serangoon Gardens and Gillman Barracks. By 1975, the number of teams was expanded to ten.

But the cost of using the stadium’s facilities and services, which included the levy, leasing of the pitch, turning on of floodlights, wages of ticket collectors and standby electricians, cost the teams as much as $400 per match night. After numerous complaints, the Jurong Stadium authorities agreed to waive part of the charges. The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) also helped by sponsoring $20,000 to offset some of the league’s expenses.

Other non-professional but competitive football matches were also once played at the Jurong Stadium. In 1975, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) organised the inter-service final at the stadium. The result was a convincing 3-1 victory for the Singapore Army over the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN). Others were inter-company matches, such as the Ovaltine League in 1981, participated by the likes of Fitzpatrick Food, General Electric, Ingasoll Rand, Marathorn Letourneau and Union Carbide Asia.

By the late seventies, the interest in local football had waned, resulting in the significant decline in the number of fans attending the matches. In 1986, an unwanted record was set when only 14 fans turned up at the two night matches – Toa Payoh United vs Changi Constituency and Police vs Farrer Park Dynamos – at Jurong Stadium.

In 2003, the local football community was surprised when the S-League, established since 1996, accepted the participation of a foreign club in its league competition in order to raise the overall standard. China’s Sinchi Football Club, formed with young China players, joined the league with Jurong Stadium as its home ground. It hosted its first home game against Home United in its debut season.

Besides football, various activities from school athletics, sports carnivals and telematches to community walks, cycling trips and religious meetings were also hosted at Jurong Stadium. A number of SAF ceremonies and parades also took place at the stadium, such as the Infantry Officers’ commissioning parades and colour presentation ceremonies to the Singapore Guards.

There was also an interesting sight, between 1977 and 1984, outside the stadium where the large carpark was located. It housed numerous private driving schools, set up in temporary tents, umbrellas and tables under the trees.

But their disorderly and unsightly “offices” were soon banned by JTC. To counter this, the driving schools used their lorries, designed with signboards, furniture and telephones, as mobile offices and paid $50 a month to occupy the parking lots. They could then continue attracting and recruiting students who were keen in taking up driving lessons for lorries, cranes or other heavy vehicles.

As many as 25 such driving schools competed with each other. Occasionally, the touting and undercutting went out of hand, resulting in quarrelling and fighting between the driving instructors.

The Registry of Vehicles (ROV) formally established the Jurong Testing Centre near the Jurong Stadium in the early eighties. Other than the Class 4 (lorries and buses) and Class 5 (heavy vehicles) tests held at the test centre, the ROV also introduced the Class 2 test circuit in 1980 for motorcycle learners. The circuit consisted of the usual figure 8 test, triangular pylons set at different intervals and a 30-cm wide plank bridge.

The various operators later merged to become one driving school and relocated to a new office in 1984 after their carpark “offices” were disallowed to continue their operations. Their office structures were dismantled and totally removed by August that year.

Jurong Stadium also once housed Medo in the early eighties, a local restaurant, owned by the Ong family, that offered Chinese and Western set lunches at reasonable prices. At its peak, Medo had five restaurants in Singapore, at various locations such as Outram Park and Orchard Park.

With the modern Jurong East Stadium (at Jurong East Street 31, opened in 1988) and Jurong West Stadium (Jurong West Street 93, opened in 2006) built to serve the larger Jurong community, the old Jurong Stadium became gradually underutilised. Its swimming pool was closed, filled up and converted into Futsal courts, whereas the stadium, in recent years, was mainly used only for jogging and recreational football.

In early 2020, Jurong Stadium finally walked into history as the bulldozers rolled into the premises. By March, the half-century-old stadium was completely torn down.

Published: 22 March 2020

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A Siglap Tale of Kee Sun Avenue and Seaside Villa

Kee Sun Avenue today is a small quiet road leading to private semi-detached houses located between Upper Changi Coast Road and Marine Parade Road.

Almost a hundred years ago, this was home to an exquisite seaside villa owned by local wealthy businessman Ching Kee Sun (1888-undermined). It all began in 1910, when Ching Kee Sun’s father, a Canton-born contractor who settled in Singapore in the mid-19th century, bought this piece of land.

Before it was owned by the Ching family, it was a swampy area with only one Malay attap house standing. There was a 6m-tall tall tree nearby, rumoured to be possessed by a dead Malay fisherman. This haunting tale made many locals shun and avoid the area.

On the 2.5-acre site, Ching Kee Sun cleared the swamp, leveled the grounds and built his prized asset, a luxurious villa by the sea. He also spent $2,000 paving a 180m-long road that led to his residence. The road was named Kee Sun Road.

Ching Kee Sun was attached to China – he visited China many times – so he incorporated many traditional Chinese elements into the design of his villa. At the residence were Chinese pagodas, Chinese-styled rockeries and even a miniature model of Peking’s Summer Palace. The double-storey house also had a mixture of pine trees, gardens, caves, pathways, tennis lawns and Japanese bridges.

One of the villa’s buildings, shaped like a ship’s bow, jutted into the sea. From far, it looked like a ship during the high tides. From there, one could enjoy the gentle breezes and splendid panoramic view over the Siglap waters.

The Anglo-Chinese School-educated Ching Kee Sun had made his fortune as a comprador with the Asiatic Petroleum Company, a regional predecessor of Royal Dutch Shell. In 1939, he was made a Justice of Peace by the British colonial government. He later also joined the board of directors at Industrial and Commercial Bank, established in 1954.

As one of the leaders in the local Cantonese and Chinese community, Ching Kee Sun, along with other respected and prominent businessmen in Singapore, were actively involved in various donation drives for China in the 1930s. For example, he was part of the committee that raised funds for Szechuan province of China when it was hit hard by a famine in 1937.

One of the lows in Ching Kee Sun’s life would come during the Japanese Occupation, when he was forced, even during his mother’s funeral, to attend and pay respect at a memorial service at Bukit Batok’s Syonan Chureito, representing the Overseas Chinese Association at the absence of their ailing chairman Dr Lim Boon Keng.

Ching Kee Sun’s famous villa had been the venue for numerous parties and picnics over the years. It was also located near St Andrew’s Orthopaedic Hospital. The 60-bed hospital was constructed at a cost of $60,000 in 1939 for tuberculosis patients. Ching Kee Sun was one of the distinguished guests invited to the groundbreaking ceremony in 1937. After the event, he hosted a tea party for the guests at his villa.

The access roads to the hospital were built in 1938 and named Kee Sun Drive and Kee Sun Avenue.

During the Second World War, St Andrew’s Orthopaedic Hospital was seized and used a radio station by the Japanese. The hospital lasted until 1987, when it was closed and replaced by St Andrew’s Community Hospital. The premises is known as St Andrew’s Autism School today.

Ching Kee Sun’s neighbour Tay Lian Teck (1899-1942) was a prominent pre-war Singapore Legislative Councillor and Municipal Commissioner. Also a Justice of Peace, he held positions in the Singapore Trust Improvement (SIT), Singapore Chinese Football Association, Chinese Advisory Board and Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Just before the fall of Singapore, Tay Lian Teck was killed when his ship was bombed by an enemy aircraft.

In 1947, to honour Tay Lian Teck, the Singapore Rural Board renamed Kee Sun Road, Kee Sun Avenue and Kee Sun Drive to Tay Lian Teck Road, Tay Lian Teck Avenue and Tay Lian Teck Drive respectively. Kee Sun Avenue was later reverted to its original name.

As for Ching Kee Sun’s seaside villa, it was last mentioned in the newspapers in the early sixties. It was probably affected by the series of land reclamation projects – the East Coast Reclamation began in 1966 – in the vicinity carried out by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). The land reclamation saw the coastline shifted hundreds of metres southwards. Part of the reclaimed land, where the seaside villa used to be located, is occupied by Laguna Park today.

Published: 15 March 2020

Updated: 9 November 2020

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The Colonial Bungalows and “Country” Roads at Sembawang

A reminder of Singapore’s colonial past, there are more than 400 colonial houses, or sometimes known as the black and white houses, still standing in different parts of Singapore.

One large cluster of Singapore’s colonial houses are located at the northern side, near Sembawang Shipyard. The others are distributed at Seletar and Portsdown vicinity as well as Adam Road, Chatsworth Road, Goodwood Hill, Malcom Road, Nassim Road, Ridout Road, Seton Close, Swiss Cottage Estate, Swettenham Road and Watten Estate.

Built in the late 19th century, the famous Atbara House was one of the earliest black and white houses built in Singapore. The majority were constructed in the 1920s and 1930s by the Public Works Department (PWD) and Municipal Commission.

Most of the colonial houses are double-storey buildings; their designs were influenced by Tudor, Art Deco and Arts and Crafts architectural styles but have adopted certain local features such as high ceilings and stilts, for better ventilation in Singapore’s hot climate. Over the decades, several of the colonial houses were demolished due to their dilapidated conditions or to make way for new developments.

The “black and white” nickname arose from their distinguished black timber beams and whitewashed walls. Not all colonial houses are painted “black and white” though; the ones at Wellington Road retained their red-bricked appearance, looking more like tropical chalets or resorts.

Some larger colonial houses have car porches, gardens, and even servant quarters. Many of the buildings are made up of bricks and timbers. The ones that were built later have concrete ring beams with timber flooring and ceilings, with their roofs lined up with China tiles or Marseilles pattern terracotta tiles.

The colonial houses at Sembawang were mainly used as accommodation for the senior British military personnel and their families. They were from the Sembawang Naval Base (also His Majesty’s Naval Base, Her Majesty’s Naval Base, HMS Sembawang), which was completed its construction in the late 1930s after more than a decade of delays.

Plans of a new naval base were proposed after the First World War, for defending Britain’s assets in the East. Near the mouth of Sungei Sembawang, with its strategic location and deep waters, was deemed ideal for the docking of the new British battleships. However, objections from the public and new government of Britain blocked the plans and delayed the massive and expensive project.

In the end, donations from Singapore, Hong Kong, New Zealand and the Federated Malay States helped to fund the construction, and the naval base was eventually completed in 1938 just in time for preparation against Japanese aggression.

A railway and a long coastal road, named Naval Base Railway and Naval Base Road respectively, were constructed to transport raw materials from the ferry terminal and railway station at Woodlands. The railway had since been demolished, whereas Naval Base Road became known as Admiralty Road West in the sixties.

Admiralty Road West and Admiralty Road East are home to some of Sembawang’s colonial houses. The rest are distributed along the “country” roads, which were named after  the countries and cities from the Commonwealth of Nations. They are:

  • Auckland Road (Auckland – city in the North Island of New Zealand)
  • Bermuda Road (Bermuda – British Overseas Territory in North Atlantic Ocean)
  • Canada Road (Canada – country in North America)
  • Canberra Road (Canberra – capital of Australia)
  • Cyprus Road (Cyprus – country in Mediterranean)
  • Delhi Road (Delhi – city in India)
  • Durban Road (Durban – city in South Africa)
  • Fuji Road (Fiji – country in Pacific Ocean)
  • Gibraltar Crescent (Gibraltar – British Overseas Territory at the south of Spain)
  • Hobart Road (Hobart – capital of the Australian island state of Tasmania)
  • Jamaica Road (Jamaica – country in Caribbean Sea)
  • Kenya Crescent (Kenya – country in east Africa)
  • Kowloon Road (Kowloon – walled city in Hong Kong)
  • Lagos Circle (Lagos – city in Nigeria)
  • Madras Road (Madras – old name of Chennai, city in India)
  • Malta Crescent (Malta – country in Mediterranean)
  • Montreal Road (Montreal – city in Canada)
  • Ottawa Road (Ottawa – capital of Canada)
  • Pakistan Road (Pakistan – country in south Asia)
  • St. Helena Road (St Helena – British Overseas Territory in South Atlantic Ocean)
  • St. John’s Road (probably refers to St John’s – capital of Antigua and Barbuda)
  • Sudan Road (Sudan – country in northeastern Africa)
  • Tasmania Road (Tasmania – island state of Australia)
  • Wellington Road (Wellington – capital of New Zealand)

Delhi Road, Madras Road and Kowloon Road were expunged in the nineties to make way for the development of Sembawang HDB housing estate.

The colonial houses in Singapore were first made available for leasing by the public in 1963. Some of the houses, especially those located in the prime districts of 9, 10 and 11 came under the Finance Ministry, while the other suburban ones were in-charged by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and Port of Singapore Authority (PSA).

The departure of the British, Australian and New Zealand troops in the seventies left behind even more vacant colonial semi-detached houses and bungalows. In 1978, these properties were also put up for lease.

Overall, 83 bungalows at Sembawang, Wessex Estate (Portsdown), Sussex Estate (Clementi), Llyod Leas Estate (Upper Changi Road) and Seletar Air Base were offered by HDB, with rents ranging from $175 to $560 per month. The rents depended on the houses’ floor sizes, their facilities and distances from the city areas.

By the mid-eighties, the rental fees had risen to $1,400 and above for those at Seletar, Sembawang and Changi. The colonial houses at Rochester Park and Nepal Park fetch ed about $2,700 a month, while the ones within the prime districts were asking for $4,000 to $9,000.

Today, some of Sembawang’s colonial houses are housed inside the premises of shipyard (Sembawang Shipyard), clubhouses (Terror Club, Home TeamNS) and rehabilitation centres (The Turning Point, Taman Baccan). 

Rich in heritage, the colonial houses form an unique and exclusive type of residence among Singapore’s various types of housings that include HDB flats, shophouses, condominiums and private semi-detached and bungalows.

Published: 22 February 2020

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15 February Commemoration and the Civilian War Memorial

Every year, on this date of 15 February, the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) will organise the war memorial service in commemoration of the civilian victims of the Japanese Occupation (1942-1945). It is also the Total Defence Day on this date. Back in 1942, the British forces surrendered Singapore to the Japanese, marking the beginning of three-and-a-half years of sufferings for the people of Singapore.

One of the commemorations is carried out annually at the Civilian War Memorial at Beach Road. The monument dedicates to those who had perished during the occupation; its four 68m-tall columns symbolising the shared sufferings, hardship and unity of Singapore’s four main races – Malay, Chinese, Indian and Eurasian.

Shortly after the fall of Singapore, the Japanese forces carried out the notorious Sook Ching operation, starting from 21 February 1942. Many Chinese males, aged between 18 and 50, were rounded up and massacred at different locations in Singapore. The total number of victims remains inconclusive, ranging from an estimated 5,000 to as high as 40,000.

In 1962, many mass war graves of the Japanese Occupation victims were discovered at Siglap and Changi Road. While requesting the British government to seek atonement and compensation from Japan (the British was still in-charge of Singapore’s foreign affairs), Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and the Singapore government also lobbied for a war memorial to be built in commemoration of the war victims.

In 1963, a plot of land of size 1.8 hectares at Beach Road, opposite the former campus of Raffles Institution, was selected for the construction of the war memorial park and monument. Half of the $500,000 construction cost would be paid by the government, while the remaining funds were raised through donation drives carried out by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and other local organisations and societies.

A design contest for the monument and park was launched, followed by a ground-breaking ceremony conducted on 15 June 1963. An exhibition was held at the Victoria Memorial Hall, displaying the various designs submitted by the participating design firms. In the end, Swan and Maclaren won the contest and its architect Leong Swee Lim was the designer of the iconic monument we see today.

The Civilian War Memorial was completed in early 1967 and officially unveiled by Lee Kuan Yew on 15 February 1967, marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of Singapore. The solemn ceremony was attended by the public, many of them the surviving family members of the war victims. Singapore’s religious leaders of the Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh and Zoroastrian faiths also attended the ceremony.

The remains of the thousands of victims uncovered in the mass war graves were exhumed and reinterred, based on different religions. Those who were cremated had their ashes placed in 606 urns, and were stored inside the chamber of the memorial podium. A large bronze urn at the centre of the four columns symbolises the remains of the dead buried at the memorial podium underneath.

Since 1967, annual commemoration and memorial services were conducted at the Civilian War Memorial. In the seventies and eighties, many families still wept at the losses of their loved ones at the ceremonies. The passing of the older generations may have brought along with them the agonising and horrific memories of the war and losses of family members. But it remains important for the next generations of Singaporeans to remember this painful lesson and darkest moment in Singapore’s history.

We meet not to rekindle old fires of hatred, nor to seek settlements for blood debts. We meet to remember the men and women who were the hapless victims of one of the fires of history. This monument will remind those of us who were here 25 years ago, of what can happen to people caught completely unaware and unprepared for what was in store for them. It will help our children understand and remember, what we have told them of this lesson we paid so bitterly to learn.” – Lee Kuan Yew, 1967

The Civilian War Memorial was gazetted as a national monument on 15 August 2013.

Published: 15 February 2020

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From Old Woodlands to New

The Woodlands of the early 20th century was an entirely rural area, filled with forest and mangrove swamps with clusters of attap huts, rubber plantations and farms. Over at Malaya, across the Straits of Johore, all that its residents could see were just rows of tall and green Keranji trees that formed the “woodlands”.

One of the earliest modern facilities at Woodlands was the old railway station – even though it was a simple single-storey building on a platform – when the Singapore-Kranji railway line started operating in 1903. The railway station was located just beside the Woodlands Jetty, where ferries fetched the passengers across the narrow strait to Malaya.

A new Woodland Road, made of asphalt surface on a solid granite foundation, was built by the Public Works Department at the same period, replacing the old derelict Woodlands Road and acting as a direct link between Kranji Road and the railway station.

Business for the new railway station was poor at the start, as the undeveloped Woodlands was simply too far away from the town area. In the 1903 Straits Settlement Annual Report, there were only 19 season ticket holders, and the net earning per train mile was only 63 cents. Railway workers at the old Woodlands also faced many difficulties. Diseases and illnesses, especially fever, were rampant. The black dust emitted by the train engines had polluted the surroundings, making living conditions unbearable.

The ferry service at Woodlands was Singapore’s only connecting link with Peninsula Malaya. By the early 20th century, the ferries were overly burdened by the high volumes of commodities and goods’ shipping between Malaya and Singapore. The solution of a rubble causeway was proposed and accepted. Construction works began in 1920.

The Causeway was built in 1923, ending the ferry service and completed the connection of Singapore’s railway network with the mainland of Peninsula Malaya. The $17-million Causeway was officially opened on 28 June 1924 by then-Governor Sir Laurence Guillemard. For the first time, commuters and motorists could travel on road and rail between Malaya and Singapore.

The construction of the Singapore Naval Base (Sembawang Shipyard today), from the 1920s to late 1930s, also led to significant infrastructure development along the northern coast, including Naval Base Road and the Naval Base Railway that branched off from the main railway line at the Woodlands station. The Naval Base Railway had long vanished into history, while Naval Base Road had evolved into Admiralty Road West today.

After the Second World War, Woodlands remained largely rural and rustic. Rubber plantations and attap villages were aplenty. The larger villages in this northern part of Singapore were Kampong Lorong Fatimah, Kampong Wak Selat, Kampong Melayu, Kampong Sin Min, Kampong Sungei Mandai Kechil and Mandai Tekong Village. Many of the villages were only accessible via muddy tracks that branched off the main Mandai Road, Sembawang Road, Woodlands Road and Naval Base Road.

A rural road called Lorong Gambas, located off Jalan Ulu Sembawang, gave rise to the modern Gambas Avenue, one of the main roads that leads to Woodlands’ industrial estates today. Until the mid-eighties, Jalan Ulu Sembawang was a road leading to vegetable farms and fish ponds. Today, the road was primarily gone; only a short section of it, off Mandai Road, has been converted into a Park Connector Network (PCN) pathway.

About 1,899 families at Woodlands were resettled since 1969. Out of those, 877 families chose to stay within Woodlands and Marsiling rather than moving to other parts of Singapore.

During the seventies and eighties, it was common to see kampongs and the new HDB flats coexisted in the same vicinity. As redevelopment inched closer to the doorsteps, some villages managed to hold on until the last minute. Kampong Lorong Fatimah, demolished in the late eighties, was one of the last Woodlands villages.

Kampong Wak Selat, located off Kranji Road and at the fringe of Woodlands, managed to survive until the mid-nineties. It former site is now home to Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) flatted factories. A minor road in the vicinity called Jalan Wak Selat is the only remnant of the kampong today.

The development of Woodlands as an upcoming new town began in the early seventies. It was part of Singapore’s third five-year plan in 1970, which aimed to build 100,000 flats at Toa Payoh, Queenstown and three proposed new towns in Woodlands, Bedok and Telok Blangah.

At Woodlands, a rubber plantation was cleared by mid-1971. The construction of Woodlands New Town – an initial 5,000 one-room, three-room and four-room improved type flats – officially kicked off in October 1971.

A 1973 HDB magazine My Home ran an article featuring Woodlands as a “Frontier Centre” of the seventies, where it would be filling with flats, shops, departmental stores, markets, schools, banks and parks. The “Frontier Centre” concept referred to Woodlands’ close proximity to the Causeway, hence it would be welcoming tourists and visitors from Johor and other parts of Malaysia.

The initial plan for Woodlands by HDB was to build 55,000 units, in different stages, in a designated 1,000 hectares of area. By comparison, HDB only planned 425, 545 and 730 hectares of land for the development of Clementi, Bedok and Ang Mo Kio respectively. Woodlands, Singapore’s fourth new town, was expected to be the largest new town when fully developed.

Woodlands’ Neighbourhood I had provided an initial 1,400 flats to approximately 7,000 residents in the mid-seventies. By 1977, 5,400 Woodlands units were completed, most of them located on the east side of the Woodlands Immigration and Customs Checkpoint.

The same year also kicked off the construction of the Woodlands Town Centre. Upon its completion, the town centre thrived to become a bustling neighbourhood, particularly from the seventies till the mid-nineties, after which its popularity declined and was eventually closed in late 2017 and demolished a year later.

But Woodlands’ progress by the late seventies was far from satisfactory. Its development had been slowed down due to poor demand, as many HDB flat applicants viewed it as an isolated and inconvenient area. Critics were skeptical about Woodlands’ growth; some even predicted that it would become a ghost town. The new Telok Blangah housing estate, developed at about the same period as Woodlands and located much nearer to the downtown and city areas, was a far more popular choice.

The early Woodlands residents and shopowners also expressed disappointment with the new town’s inadequate transport, shopping and recreational facilities. City-bound bus services were insufficient and the nearest cinema was Rex, located at Rochor which was more than an hour’s journey away.

Things would slowly improve by the early eighties, although Woodlands’ population remained low at only 37,000 in 1981. Ang Mo Kio New Town, which was developed two years later than Woodlands, already had 200,000 residents by then.

Resettled residents from the kampongs gradually moved into the new town of Woodlands. Other residents were made up of the workers at the new industrial estates and Sembawang Shipyard. The first industrial estates at Woodlands, made up of about 150 single-storey terrace factory and workshop units for light and general industries, had been completed at Marsiling Road since the mid-seventies.

Public amenities such as markets, retail shops, primary schools, playgrounds (HDB introduced see-saws, swings and other play facilities at Woodlands in the mid-seventies) and a sewage treatment plant were added. The Singapore Bus Services (SBS) also deployed almost 60 buses in four services at Woodlands – 180 and 182 to the Central Business District (CBD), 208 to Kranji, and 169 to Ang Mo Kio via Sembawang.

To provide further accessibility and convenience to the residents, a bus interchange was set up at the Woodlands Town Centre in the seventies. It was better remembered in the eighties with its fleet of yellow-and-orange Trans-Island Bus Services (TIBS) buses that mainly plied the routes at the northern part of Singapore.

For motorists, the new Bukit Timah Expressway (BKE), operationalised in 1985, added much convenience with its connection between Woodlands Road and Pan-Island Expressway (PIE). In the late nineties, the completion of Seletar Expressway (SLE) meant that motorists could travel to Yishun, Ang Mo Kio and the central areas of Singapore in shorter times.

The Woodlands Bus Interchange at the Woodlands Town Centre operated for almost two decades until it was replaced in 1996 by the new Woodlands Regional Bus Interchange located at Woodlands Square, which became the new town centre for Woodlands New Town. The new town centre was rapidly matured within the next five years, when the Causeway Point Shopping Centre (opened in 1998), Woodlands Civil Centre (2000) and Woodlands Regional Library (2001) were added.

In the same year of 1996, the Woodlands MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) Station of the North-South Line (NSL) started operation. Both the MRT and bus services began playing an important public transport role between Woodlands and the rest of Singapore.

Besides Woodlands MRT Station, Woodlands is also served by the Admiralty and Marsiling MRT Stations. Two more – Thomson-East Coast Line’s (TEL) Woodlands North and Woodlands South MRT Stations – are added to the new town in early 2020. Overall, Woodlands consists of five MRT stations and nine neighbourhoods (N1 to N9), including the residential estates of Marsiling, Admiralty and Woodgrove.

As more basic public amenities were added, one was still missing by the late seventies – a town garden. For every new towns, it was important to reserve some areas of greenery for leisure and recreational purposes. Hence, the Woodlands Town Garden was created in 1982.

To reflect the mixture of local cultures, the town garden was designed with Chinese pavilions, Malay rest huts, small lakes and playgrounds. Various community activities were organised at the town garden, such as jogging and tree planting. There was even a floating seafood restaurant at Woodlands Town Garden, however it did not last long due to poor business.

Woodlands continued to grow in the nineties. In 1997, it was earmarked to be the regional centre for the northern part of Singapore. The ghost town prediction in its early days of development fortunately did not come true. After almost four decades, Woodlands is now home to more than 68,000 HDB flats and 242,500 residents.

Published: 09 February 2020

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Sembawang Hot Spring’s Long-Awaited Rejuvenation

The idea to turn Sembawang Hot Spring into a recreation spot started a century ago. Back then, there were already suggestions to make use of the only natural hot spring on mainland Singapore and convert it to a hydropathic establishment, garden, spa resort or even rest-houses with bathing facilities.

Located off Sembawang Road 12 milestone, or in today’s context, near the junction of Sembawang Road and Gambas Avenue, the hot spring was first discovered in 1908 on a piece of land owned by Seah Eng Keong (1873-undetermined), a local Chinese businessman. The hot spring became known as Seletar Hot Spring or Salitar Hot Spring until the 1940s. The locals, however, preferred to call it semangat ayer (or energy or spirit water in Malay).

Samples of the hot spring water were sent to London for testing. The results were favourable, and Seah Eng Keong’s company Singapore Hot Spring Limited began bottling the water to sell them under the name “Zombun”.

In 1921, Fraser & Neave (F&N) acquired Seah Eng Keong’s company, land and the hot spring. F&N continued the production of the successful Zombun, but at the same also launched a series of other beverages. Those were called Vichy Water and Singa, and were marketed as natural tonic drinks containing saline constituents obtained from the hot spring.

The production plant was abandoned when the Second World War broke out, and the hot spring was taken over by the Japanese military, who built luxury bath amenities for their high ranking officers. Approaching the end of the Japanese Occupation, in 1944, an allied air raid damaged the hot spring’s surroundings and briefly disrupted the flow of the water from its source.

After the war, F&N regained the ownership of the hot spring, which had by then recovered its flow and temperature. F&N planned to redevelop the place but did not proceed due to the projected high cost. The hot spring water was instead used by the nearby kampongs for bathing, washing and cooking of eggs.

In the early sixties, there were again calls to develop and make full use of the medicinal water of Sembawang Hot Spring. F&N again rejected the pleads, citing the difficulty in locating the source of the hot spring by geologists. There were hopes in 1965 when F&N’s subsidiary company in Malaysia, a bottling plant, looked to invest in the redevelopment of the hot spring for recreational purposes and also to bottle the water for local consumption and export. The plan did not materialise in the end, but F&N nevertheless introduced new mineral drinks called Seletaris and Spata.

In 1985, the plot of land where the hot spring was located was acquired by the government. This led to the enquiry by Chiam See Tong, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Potong Pasir, in the parliament in 1989 on the possible redevelopment plans of Sembawang Hot Spring by the Ministry of National Development. No concrete plans were in place, and by the late nineties, the spot was in a state of neglect, even though it remained popular among the public.

Sembawang Hot Spring was closed to the public in early 2002, affected by the construction and drainage improvement works carried by the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF). The extension of Sembawang Air Base got the public worried that the hot spring would be permanently closed or became restricted to public access, prompting many to petition to the MINDEF. The hot spring, however, was reopened three months later.

In 2003, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) sought interested parties to conduct technical and feasibility studies in converting the Sembawang Hot Spring into a spa resort. Once again, the plan turned futile.

Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, the Sembawang Hot Spring continued to be a popular haunt for many, despite its simple and limited amenities. Dozens of plastic chairs and pails were provided free and shared by the public, who drew the hot water from the metal standpipes for their usage. The original well, a potential safety hazard, has been caged up in a small red-bricked building.

As the hot spring caught attention in the new headlines, many were interested in its “miracle healing” ability, where its steaming water, rich in minerals, is believed to help in the alleviation of ailments such as rheumatism and arthritis, or treatment of foot diseases. But many doctors, when consulted, dashed the hopes by stating there were no evidences that the water from the hot spring could cure illness. The relief the hot spring water gave might be only temporary.

After months of construction, the much anticipated Sembawang Hot Spring Park is officially opened in January 2020. After almost a century, the Sembawang Hot Spring is finally rejuvenated.

Designed with cascading pools and hot water collection points, the new park has been receiving hundreds of daily visitors so far. Naturalised streams, old Banyan trees, planted fruit trees and different species of vibrantly-coloured flowers add to the rustic touch of the park’s environment. Wooden buckets and ladles are provided and shared, and there are plenty of resting areas for visitors to enjoy a warm foot spa or some soft-boiled eggs.

Sembawang Hot Spring Park opens between 7am and 7pm daily.

Published: 11 January 2020

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The Hauntingly Beautiful Terrace Houses of Petain Road

There are more than 230 shophouses at Jalan Besar. The rich history of Jalan Besar’s shophouses spanned almost eight decades, ranging from the oldest shophouses that were built in the 1880s, to the post-war ones developed in the sixties. Their various architectural designs also extended from the early traditional types to the late Art Deco styles.

One of the most beautiful and well-preserved ones along Petain Road, made up of 18 double-storey pre-war terrace houses (terrace houses are the residential version of shophouses). Built in the early 1930s, they are the classic examples of Chinese Baroque-style shophouses in Singapore, designed with symmetrical lines, delicate ornaments and ceramic tiles on both the floors and walls.

Petain Road’s terrace houses were initiated by a landlord named Mohamed bin Haji Omar, who first owned a row of shophouses in 1925 at the junction of Jalan Besar and Kitchener Road. Built by J.M. Jackson, a municipal engineer-turned-architect, they were the first three-storey shophouses in the vicinity, and had then-contemporary features such as terraces on the top floor and partial flat roofs.

Architect E.V. Miller was engaged to design the Petain Road terrace houses for Mohamed bin Haji Omar. A Modernist, E.V. Miller preferred designs with rounded lines and streamlined functionality. However, insisted by his client, the Petain Road terrace houses eventually turned out to be of Chinese Baroque style with neo-classical features complimented with Peranakan flavours.

This interesting mix of European and Peranakan styles was demonstrated by the pale green and pink birds and flowers’ plaster ornaments on the facades, floral ceramic floor tiles along the five foot way and elaborated Chinese motifs on the Greco-Roman columns. Originated from Malacca, this design was found nowhere else in the world but Malaysia and Singapore.

Petain Road has had several controversies in the past. Henri Philippe Benoni Omer Joseph Pétain (1856-1951) was the Marshal of France who commanded and led the French army to victory at the Battle of Verdun during the First World War. In 1928, the colonial government’s Municipal Committee decided to name it after the great French hero, as part of the naming exercise of the eleven roads at Jalan Besar after First World War’s famous commanders and battles. The other ten were Kitchener Road, Verdun Road, Sturdee Road, Somme Road, Beatty Road, Mons Road (defunct), Marne Road, Flanders Square, Jutland Road (defunct) and Falkland Road (defunct; there is another Falkland Road at the Sembawang area).

It was a twist of fate by the Second World War, when Philippe Pétain became the Prime Minister of France. No match against a strong and aggressive Nazi Germany, he decided to collaborate with the Axis, allowing France to humiliatingly relegate into a puppet state. After the war, Philippe Pétain was convicted of treason and life imprisonment. Due to this tainted legacy, there have been appeals to rename Petain Road.

Other than the name, Petain Road also had an unsavory reputation of being a red light district in the past. During the early 20th century, this vicinity was commonly known as “kim jio kar” (foot of the banana tree in Hokkien), where vegetable farms were abundant. The farms were later cleared and replaced by the shophouses. The neigbourhood became rowdy and complicated by the 1930s, during the peak popularity of the nearby New World Amusement Park. Rivalling secret Societies, smuggling and extortion became rampant around Petain Road. Some of the shophouses were turned into brothels.

Petain Road continued to be a hotbed of gangsterism and vice that by the early sixties, it was reported in the news that many residents were frustrated by the rising criminal offences and wanted the police to step up their actions.

In 1976, the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB) collaborated with the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) to study the residential districts at Petain Road, Blair Road and Emerald Hill Road with a view to recommend preservation.

The Housing and Development Board (HDB), in the seventies and eighties, developed public housing at several sites in the downtown area, including Petain Road, French Road and Towner Road. At Petain Road, a rental block was built in addition to the cluster of Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) flats situated beside the shophouses, which were fortunately spared from the bulldozers during the construction. The Petain Road SIT and HDB flats had been demolished since, and today, private condominiums Kerrisdale and Sturdee Residences stand at the site.

But in 1979, the Petain Road shophouses again faced the threat of demolition. Kin Ann Pte Ltd, a private developer which bought and owned the land deed in 1977, was planning to replace the shophouses with a six-storey apartment block. In the early eighties, they dismantled the front facades of the three Petain Road shophouses without permit, causing an uproar from the public, architects and heritage enthusiasts. The works were halted by the authority in time to prevent further damages.

In 1981, the Petain Road shophouses were earmarked for preservation. They officially came under the general coverage of the Jalan Besar Conservation Area, designated by the URA, in October 1991. As some of the floor and wall tiles were damaged or lost over time, they had to be replaced by similar pieces made in Vietnam during the restoration projects.

Published: 29 December 2019

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The Fate of Old New Town Secondary School

Opposite of Margaret Drive, at the junction of Queensway and Commonwealth Avenue (previously was a roundabout called Queen’s Circus), lies the former campus of New Town Secondary School.

Established in 1965, the same year as Singapore’s independence, the school was initially made up of only a multi-purpose hall building, a four-storey block of classrooms and open-air basketball courts. At the start, it was known as Queensway’s Third Secondary School (the other two being Queensway and Queenstown Secondary Schools), aimed in providing english-medium education to the children of the Queenstown’s residents.

The school was officially named New Town Secondary School in mid-1965, referencing to the relatively new satellite housing estate of Queenstown. The school’s motto was “to forge a better life”, reflecting the goals and objectives of a new state emerged during late fifties and early sixties, hoping that the school and education could forge a better future for its students and, in turn, they could contribute to the nation’s progress and development.

The first year of New Town Secondary School had 45 classes, made up of 73 teachers and 1,819 students. It was one of the first schools in Singapore to provide bilingual education to the students. Many of its upper secondary classes had students from Hua Yi Secondary School, Queensway Secondary School and Tanglin Integrated Secondary School (renamed Tanglin Technical Secondary School in 1969 and Tanglin Secondary School in 1993).

After well-established for almost 20 months, New Town Secondary School was officially opened on 17 September 1966 by Jek Yeun Thong, Minister for Labour and Member of Parliament (MP) for Queenstown.

The importance of Singapore’s secondary education after independence was demonstrated by the school’s distinguished guests of honour. Former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew and former Singapore President Benjamin Sheares had visited the school in 1967 and 1971 respectively.

In 1969, New Town Secondary School merged with the neigbouring Baharuddin Vocational School, doubling the size of its school compound and increasing its students intake to more than 3,000. By the mid-seventies, New Town Secondary School was the largest secondary school in Singapore.

To accommodate the increased number of students, many of the school amenities were upgraded or expanded. In the seventies and eighties, a running track, grandstand, fitness corner and tennis courts were constructed. Also, long benches and tables were added around the school compound for the students to study and rest. An overhead projector was installed in each classroom. In 1988, New Town Secondary School set up its first computer laboratory.

New Town Secondary School in the seventies was a keen participant in many national campaigns such as “Better Food for Better Health” and “Use Your Hands”, where many of its students competed in inter-school cookery contests, while the rest were involved in the spring cleaning and repair works of their classrooms.

New Town Secondary School achieved a major milestone in the nineties, when it decided to be relocated to a newer and larger premises at Dover Road. The construction of the new campus kicked off in 1996. Two years later, in November 1998, the staff and students of New Town Secondary School gathered one last time at the old campus to bid farewell to their beloved and familiar school. A tree was removed and shifted to the new Dover Road campus as part of the symbolic move.

Since then, for more than two decades, the old premises of New Town Secondary School had been left vacant or leased as temporary campuses to other educational institutes, such as Clementi Town Secondary School, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) Saint Theresa’s Convent School and Assumption English School.

There are no concrete plans for its redevelopment yet, but the piece of land that the old premises of New Town Secondary School is sitting on will likely not be left vacant for too long.

Published: 23 December 2019

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