At last year’s inaugural Queenstown Heritage Trail led by volunteers, we explored parts of the Tanglin Halt and Duchess which proved to be an eye-opening, educational experience for me. Being a naturalised Singaporean, I’ve always been keen to discover more about my adopted country and hopefully enthuse my children to do the same – to appreciate the heritage that is their home.
So when the invitation came again to discover the other parts of the ‘Queenstown Heritage Trail’, I jumped at it. This time, however, I was far more prepared (see my survival tips) but no amount of preparation would be enough to prepare me for the tales I was about to hear.
Forfar House – The former Forfar House was once Singapore’s tallest public residential housing built by the predecessor to the Housing Development Board (HDB) – the SIT (Singapore Improvement Trust). It was opened in 1956 and had 106 apartments served by two lifts that stopped at intermediate floors. The flat had some pioneer technology which are now commonly used in all modern HDB flats today – the first to have modern sanitary system, the first cement refuse chute running the full 14-story height and modern plumbing to deliver fresh water supply to residents even at the highest floor.
However, what made it famous had nothing to do with technology nor design. Being 14 stories tall, it immediately drew parallel to the unlucky omen associated with the number ‘14’ (which in the local Hokkien and Cantonese dialects mean ‘sure death’). To make matters worse, as the tallest residential building during those days, it attracted a fair share of people with suicidal intent.
After undergoing demolition and rebuilding, today standing on the original site of Blk ’14’ is an impressive 40-storey modern cluster of HDB flats, among the first by HDB, named ‘Forfar Heights’ which was opened by none-other than our first Prime Minister Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. At ground level, an inviting and impressive garden welcomes her visitors with a statue and a plaque to commemorate its reopening in 1996.
‘Riot’ and ‘Royalty’
Turn the corner from the Forfar House site and we would have a brush with royalty. Princess House stands regally at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Alexandra Road as it has always stood. It has hosted many a dignitary and royalty such as Prince Phillip and Princess Margaret of UK (from whom the building is named after), all whom were eager to learn about Singapore’s public housing programme because it was in Princess House that the first HDB headquarters was situated. Today, Princess House is gazetted for conservation.
Walking pass Princess House and stopping just before Dawson Place is a nondescript junction with an infamous past. With no visible landmarks except for accounts in the annals of Singapore’s short history, here at the junction of Dawson Road and Alexandra road was where the infamous Hock Lee Bus Riot broke out in 1955. What started out as a peaceful demonstration demanding for better remuneration and working arrangement for bus drivers degenerated into an unthinkable, violent riot, which by the time it was over, had a police officer burned alive and another fatally beaten to death.
Veiled by the thick foliage of a forest I hardly knew existed, I saw what seemed like a pair of sinister claws tightly clenching a dilapidated structure of an old concrete wall. “We can only guess” added our guide, “that it was a remnant of an English bunker… No one really knows..”. A few steps further down lies another structure with an arch facade. Inside lies a dark room which, despite the harsh morning rays shining down, we had to strain our eyes to see the details within. Even then, we couldn’t quite make out what it is.
Imagine…just when you think that every inch of our tiny little red dot has been explored and earmarked for development, here lies a little piece of an uncharted forest right in the heart of Queenstown! And what joy, it has 2 mysterious old bunkers to boot! But be warned, getting into this forested area is not advisable for kids and those with walking difficulties. Good walking shoes (or boots) are recommended. The path, though short, is relatively unmarked, slippery and can be treacherous when wet but it certainly adds to the thrill of the trek and continues to intrigue me on what other secrets this tiny cosmopolitan island holds. Do note that this trek is not officially featured in the Heritage Trail yet (probably waiting for safety clearance). Do check with the guide when you join the trail.
Right after the forested trek, we were all very happy to see an air-conditioned bus waiting at the roadside to bring us to the next leg of our trail.
Along the way, our guide filled us in on one interesting, little known fact about Queenstown. Did you know that Queenstown is the only town, without a town center? All townships (or housing estates) in Singapore where majority of Singapore’s population are housed would have a town center where shops, eateries, facilities and people converge. All except Queenstown. You see, it was the first ‘experimental’ town where the first HDB flats were built and along the way, it saw many other trials. Among them was Forfar House. So it was difficult to demarcate where Queenstown starts and ends, except for certain landmarks.
Talking about landmarks, we’ve just reached the next point of our Heritage Trail.
A Butterfly, A Temple and a War we can’t forget.
The next leg of our late morning trek led us to some iconic structures in Queenstown that continue to define our young nation’s history.
We stopped at Tiong Ghee Temple, the oldest Taoist temple in Singapore whose roots go back to our nation’s post-independence days of 1968. Though the structure we see today was rebuilt in 1973, this very site drew the early post-war residents seeking direction and blessings from the deities from the uncertainties that lay before them.
Right next to Tiong Ghee Temple is another historic building that still stands and houses residents – along Mei Ling Street are Blocks 160 and 161 are Singapore’s very first HDB point blocks. Point blocks are types of HDB flats that have no rooms lined along a common corridor. Instead, each floor is shared exclusively by just about 4 units whose doors face each other. At that time, the exclusive layout together with its larger floor space drew quite a premium in housing prices.
Continuing our short trek, we came across The Butterfly Block. This huge block of twin 20-storey flats which was inaugurated in 1973, was HDB’s attempt to provide more variety in housing design by building two curved blocks with a central ‘stem’ running through its middle (therefore making it look like a butterfly with wings outstretched). We spoke to Mr. Fernandez, a retired teacher and one of the residents who have been staying there for 45 years. He remembered that though the ceiling’s paint was peeling and there were hairline cracks along the walls, he, like most residents, had no complaints. On the contrary, they were overjoyed to be able to afford a home in the early years in their careers. This was testament of Singapore’s commitment to enable every working citizen the ability to own a home and which HDB, at one time, was reputed to be building about 55 homes every day!
Finally, as the early afternoon’s sun started to creep in while the familiar heat and humidity reminding us to get to a shade soon, we made our way to our final stops for the day. But not before I chanced upon two ladies, old friends as they were who were just sitting there chatting with each other. They were curious about who we were – we looked like tourists but spoke like locals. After explaining who we are and why we are here, I found out that they are best of friends who have been living at this very same estate since 1970. They are very contented living in Queenstown and have never contemplated moving away from the estate or from each other. The shared a light-hearted moment with me before I took my leave, my heart warmed by their decades of friendship and the ties that bind them to Queenstown.
En route to our second last stop, we passed by Queenstown Shopping Centre. I was surprised that the trail included this iconic shopping center synonymous with sports gears and equipments. As it turns out, Queenstown Shopping Centre was one of the earliest large shopping malls in Singapore (along with the likes of Katong Mall and Golden Mile). Adjacent to Queenstown Shopping Center (at where Anchor Point now stands), used to be ABC – Archipelago Brewery Company where its covered wooden conveyor belt which used to stretch overhead across to the other side of Alexandra Road (where IKEA is today) transporting crates of brewed beer across to its cannery at the opposite site to be canned. Now we know why the hawker centre opp Queensway is also colloquially known as ‘ABC Market’!
Our last stop for the day transported us to a scenic, serene and tranquil compound where we could hear birds chirp and sing. But truth to be told, it has witnessed one of the most horrific times in Singapore History – The Japanese Occupation. Alexandra Hospital, formerly a British Military Hospital, was opened in 1941 and served to heal the wounded at war. In fact, the KTM (Malaysian Rail) tracks was built alongside it so that the wounded can be transported here for treatment in the fastest time possible. In the early hours where Singapore fell to the Japanese, Alexandra Hospital saw ‘the largest massacre of British troops in World War 2’. Today, Alexandra Hospital is well-known to be a colonial-styled hospital set within lush, mature greenery, unmatched by any other hospital surroundings in Singapore. It’s a unique and special feeling to be able to walk through corridors flanked by some of the oldest tree trunks.
Throughout the trail, we have heard many tales that tell of how our young country started out but of how the people then had only one common goal in life which is to unite to survive. We’ve also heard narratives of how after the war, the early pioneer generation rallied together to rebuild their home – Singapore.
Queenstown was once called ‘Boh Beh Kang’ which meant ‘No Tail River’ because the source of the river that ran past it did not seem to have a start and end. Today, this ‘experimental’ town houses both old and new HDB flats which dot its skyline, making it as diverse a landscape as the tales told by the residents. Most impressive of all are the tales of resilience, resolve and a ‘can-do’ spirit that made Singapore what it is today. It is my hope that with the trail and these tales we hear, we will be inspired to carry on the baton from these pioneers to run the next lap for our country’s future – just like the river whose inspiration and influence know no end.
The Dawson and Alexandra Heritage Tour is part of the ‘My Queenstown Heritage Trail’ series. Interested participants can register for the free guided tour which takes place on the last Saturday of every month, through www.myqueenstown.eventbrite.sg, [email protected] or call Queenstown Community Centre at 64741681.
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)
P.S. We’ve received news that registration is full for the rest of 2015 since the trail’s official launch on 4 April 2015. You may still email your particulars to be wait listed or download the map to attempt the trail with your families/friends at your own pace. Do pop by these parenting blogs to read what they have to say about the Queenstown Heritage Trail: