We were invited to the preview of the “My Queenstown Heritage Trail“, which is organised by impressive civic group My Community (which aims to preserve and propagate history and heritage in communities), and The Other Sites of Singapore (TOSS).
The guides are volunteers, and this initiative is also supported by the National Heritage Board and the Queenstown Citizens’ Consultative Community, making the provision of nifty headsets and mini-buses possible, even as this guided trail is free-of-charge to the public. The headsets were particularly useful, since it meant that each of us could hear the guide speak “live” even if we were 200-300 metres away, ambling along and distracted by photo-taking.
If you’re wondering how suitable this trail is for kids, I’d say it’s best for those aged 9 and above. Kids under the age of 12 should be prepared for almost 3 hours of walking, mostly exposed to the elements (rain, shine, mozzies).
This extremely informative guidebook is given out to all participants, and features a wealth of old photographs and history of landmarks, some of which no longer exist today.
If you didn’t already know, Queenstown was a residential project that started in 1953 when Singapore was still a British Colony, and was thus named by British officials from the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation a year before that.
This also explains the British, if not regal names of streets and avenues in the locale. One of our first stops was Princess House, named after Princess Margaret.
Princess House started as an office for the SIT and has a unique “U-shaped” roof which also functions as a viewing deck. After independence, the SIT was dissolved and the Housing and Development Board (HDB) took over the premises. In 2007, Princess House was gazetted for conservation after the previous occupants vacated the premise in 1989. Glad that this is another building saved and immune from being torn down, even as our nation hurtles forth in development.
The site across the road is significant because it used to house a bus depot at the junction of Dawson and Alexandra Road. This infamous bus depot was the site of the violent Hock Lee Bus Riots in 1955. Two police officers died at the hands of the protestors, hundreds of whom were also injured. If not for this trail, I would have passed this junction many times, never knowing that this was such a historical site.
Being one of the first satellite towns to be built to tackle overcrowding woes in Chinatown, Queenstown has traces of the earliest history of public housing in Singapore.
In our walk, we visited the former site of Forfar House (old images in top right photo of collage below), which at fourteen storeys, was Singapore’s tallest public residential building in 1956. Called Chap Si Lau colloquially in Hokkien, it was one of the first blocks with build-in refuse chutes in each unit, and clean water supplied to taps in each home. Interesting that this was already made possible in the late 1950s, so we were already not much of a mudflat then…
In 1996, Forfar House was demolished as part of the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS), a form of estate renewal, to ensure that structures are not allowed to turn decrepit.
An interesting part of this heritage trail, is how they have managed to arrange for residents to be present at various sites, so that we can have primary accounts of how life was then. At Forfar House, we talked to Dr Chee Sze Nam who lived there from 1978-1999, and reminisced about how his family kept chickens in their bathroom, after buying them as chicks from the nearby wet market.
Thankfully, another historical block still stands, and we were able to visit this “Butterfly Block” at 168A Queensway, built in 1973, as well as speak to pioneer resident, 73 year old Mr Paul Fernandez, a former teacher, who is still living there. He candidly shared about how he wasn’t very pleased to find many cracks when he first moved in, but the authorities did not repair them, even upon repeated behest. Finally, he had to spend $200-$300 of his own money (then a princely sum) to resolve the issues. Our guide explained that the HDB was building 55 flats a day in the 1970s, which is quite amazing given that they were not made of pre-fab and we probably didn’t have access to many foreign workers then.
The block has such a cute name because it is the only one with a curved facade in Queenstown. The photo below shows its centre “insect body”, from which two wings fan gently out.
Whilst the old blocks have their charm, reality is that most Singaporeans prefer to live in apartments with swanky facades these days. And the HDB is certainly keeping up, for I was quite shocked that the development below was not a private one.
I had to take a photo of the sign below, as proof that this was a HDB project, albeit a
Design Build Sell Scheme (DBSS) premium BTO (as a reader kindly updated me) one.
From Forfar House, the Butterfly Block and the first point blocks in the nation (Blocks 160-161 Mei Ling Street built in 1970), these are the kinds of public housing launched today.
The development on the right is also by HDB – called Skyville at Dawson, it is similarly a premium Built To Order (BTO) project. The only downside of these developments is probably the small floor area of each unit (83 square metres for a 3-room flat).
From Dawson Road, we walked to what was probably the most fascinating segment of the trail – three abandoned bunkers in the midst of thick vegetation that was only a 3 minute walk from Kay Siang Road.
The bottom right photo in the collage above marks the ‘entry point’, which one would walk right past on a normal day, since there is nothing to indicate
creepy houses wartime bunkers inside.
My Community’s research threw up information that these might have functioned as military storage facilities, since they exist in close proximity to Buller Camp, which was built in Dawson Estate in 1945 to house Japanese Prisoners of War. It was the first time I had seen buildings thus ‘overtaken’ by trees! Somewhat our very own mini Angkor Wat.
The organisers kindly made arrangements for a mini-bus to transport us from Kay Siang Road to Stirling Road (point 4 to point 9), so that we could visit Tiong Ghee Temple (which first existed as an altar in an attap hut in 1931).
The field at the side of the temple still hints at how the temple was built on a slight hill. We had a chance to speak to former residents of Boh Beh Kang (“No tail river” in Hokkien, because the villagers could not identify the source of the stream that flowed through the hill),a village which was demolished in 1968 to develop the current Mei Ling estate.
An 86 year old former resident spoke of how the temple was a gathering place for villagers, and how some of them still come back here to meet old friends even though they have since moved away.
Another interesting juxtaposition of old and new comes in the form of these two coffee shops which exist side by side. The shop on the left is an old-school traditional coffee bean shop, and we learnt the hipster cafe next to it was set up by the second-generation owners.
From the signs, Tiong Hoe Gim Kee Trading (the original) prided himself in selling pure coffee, unadulterated by additives. Carrying on this tradition, is Tiong Hoe Specialty Coffee, a very welcoming air-conditioned cafe that you might want to check out if you’re in the area. We had no time and had to quickly scoot off to our next landmark!
Our last landmark for the day was Alexandra Hospital. We trekked there from Queensway, and learnt about how it was an important military installation during the colonial period. Opened in 1940, it was originally called the British Military Hospital and was the most advanced medical institution in Malaya then. This site was chosen due to its close proximity to the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) railway tracks so that the wounded could be quickly transported there, to obtain swift medical attention.
In 1971, when the British decided to pull out all troops from their ex-colonies due to rising costs of maintenance, the hospital was handed over to the Singapore Government for a nominal fee of 1 pound. It was subsequently converted to a civilian hospital, and has been functioning as a “hospital in a garden” ever since.
With that, our My Queenstown Heritage Trail came to a close. I was glad to have come on this trail, since it does make a difference to walk the sites, instead of simply reading about events and buildings from books.
Personally, I do believe that it’s very important to be well-acquainted with our own history, and to seek out the most unbiased view possible, by consulting multiple sources, and analysing events and reports with a critical mind. History helps us define our identity, as a nation, as a people, as individuals. Without knowing one’s own history, one is easily a sapling with shallow roots, easily bent this way and that.
The Dawson and Alexandra Heritage Tour is part of the My Queenstown Heritage Trail series and the trail is opened to the public and interested participants can register for the free guided tour, which takes place on the last Saturday of every month, through www.myqueenstown.eventbrite.sg, firstname.lastname@example.org or call Queenstown Community Centre at 64741681.
[Registration is full for the rest of 2015, and I understand that these trails have been over-subscribed to, with a waiting list of 400+ people, since the official launch on 4 April! You can still submit your details to the gmail address above, to be added to the waiting list, in case some people pull out. Great to see how many people are interested in learning more about our local history!]
My Queenstown Heritage Trail
Trail 1: Dawson & Alexandra (Every last Saturday of the month)
Trail 2: Tanglin Halt & Duchess (Every last Sunday of the month)
Here are other posts on the trail by participants that day:
Note: We received an honorarium for this review. Apart from the last flyer image, all photographs are by me.