Monday, August 4, 2014

My Queenstown Heritage Trail

Media Invite

What comes to mind when we mention Queenstown?
Queensway Shopping Centre (1974). Former Queenstown Cinema & Bowling Alley (1977). Former Venus & Golden City Theatres (1965). Former Thye Hong Biscuit & Confectionary Factory (1935). Former Forfar House (1956).

Regardless of the generation we may be in, Queenstown is definitely a neighborhood with a rich culture and historical meaning. So when the Queenstown Heritage Trail was organized by My Community, I was more than happy to be invited to go on the guided tour.

Do you know that the first HDB block, the first polyclinic, the first branch library and the first sports complex are built in Queensway? The heritage tour will bring you around the vicinity and check out the history in this amazing neighborhood. Guided tours are free and is about 2 hours long, taking place on the last Sunday of each month, starting punctually at 9am from Queenstown MRT Station. More details and registration can be done at www.queenstown.org.sg. Take note that each tour is limited to 25 participants per session, on a first come first serve basis.

Our guide for the tour is Li Yong, who did the research for this heritage tour and he is very passionate about introducing Queenstown to all of us. Totally enjoyed his guide.

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First stop on the heritage trail, we came to this old former Queenstown Driving Test Centre. This was Singapore’s 2nd driving test centre, built at a cost of $285,000 and officially opened on 23 Feb 1969 by then Minister for Communications, Yong Nyuk Lin. By the late 1980s, three more driving test circuits were constructed in Ang Mo Kio, Jurong and Bukit Batok, and hence the Queenstown Driving Test Centre ceased its operations in 1995 and the premises were taken over by Queenstown Neighborhood Police Centre in 1997.

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A provisional license from Queenstown Driving Test Centre (Courtesy of Doris Koh)

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We stopped by this junction listening to the stories of the past, right behind the group once stood the former Queenstown Cinema and Bowling Alley.

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The former Queenstown Cinema and Bowling Alley was one of Queenstown’s favorite entertainment spots in the 1980s and 1990s. Opened in 1977 on a 1.4 hectare extension site of the Town Centre, the four storey entertainment complex comprised of two cinema halls, a bowling alley, KTV lounge, fast food restaurant and an arcade.

I remember the cinema halls vividly for the unique seats arrangement, hexagonally arranged so that the audience could have an unrestricted view of the the movie screen. And the Queenstown Bowling Alley was the first bowling place me and my friends went in the our school days, I will never forget how we had to manually record our scores on pieces of paper. KFC is a must after those games. Nostalgic.

(Courtesy of Housing and Development Board)

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Located next to the cinemas was the former Commonwealth Avenue Wet Market. Business has long ceased its operations in 2005 and the hawkers were relocated to other wet markets within the precinct. But the Wet Market was gazetted for conervation in 2013 to foster familiarity and identity as the estate undergoes renewal.

The former Commonwealth Avenue Wet Market is the only remaining market in Singapore that is designed by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT). Built as a cost of $240,000, the market was officially opened on 23 Oct 1960 by then Assemblyman for Queenstown, Dr Lee Siew Choh, to “keep the housing estate free of roadside hawkers.” The wet market features a bold, parabolic-vaulted roof that allows rainwater to drain quickly and high internal spaces for effective air flow. The dome-shaped facade earns the wet market a morbid colloquial name from the residents, “the Coffin Market,” for its resemblance to a traditional Chinese coffin.

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A short walk across the fields brought us to Queenstown Public Library. The two-storey building is Singapore’s first branch library, built at a cost of $595,000, the library was officially opened on 30 Apr 1970 by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to “provide access to books which most people could not afford to buy” and offset a severe shortage in van drivers for the National Library’s mobile library services.

The library has an austere front facade relieved by a refined “bow-tie” motif along the parapets and a pre-assembled sun-shading block on its concrete frame.

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The library was one of the first stops where we were given a brief tour of the place. We were showed the ongoing project of “I love my library”, and it was like walking down memory lane reading what some of the residents wrote about their experiences at the Queenstown Public Library. And the experiences are now passed on to the next generation with parents bringing their children back to the same exact library where they once spent their younger days.

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According to Li Yong, the library only opens at 10am but because of their passion and commitment to this Heritage project, the librarians were at the library preparing and waiting for us at 8:30am. So touched by the love of these people for their neighborhood and job.

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Remember the former Venus Theatre? Opened on 29 Sep 1965 by then President of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Soon Peng Yam. Back then the cinema used to screen popular Cantonese, Teochew and Hokkien films, however facing the competition from videotapes and color television in the early 1980s, the cinema’s monthly net collections dwindled and eventually ceased its operations in Aug 1984, and subsequently converted to the current Church of Our Saviour in 1985.

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Cross over from Margaret Drive to Stirling Road. We were greeted by rows of HDB Terraces, this 13 blocks of HDB Terraces are the remaining terrace apartments in Queenstown that are designed by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT). Completed in the years between 1959 and 1961, there are over 150 two-room and three-room apartments. These low-rise apartments were the brainchild of the SIT’s New Towns Working Party, who stipulated an optimal residential density of 200 persons per acre.

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We were so blessed to meet Mr. Mahmood, who had been a resident in one of the HDB Terraces since young and has been living here for more than 50 years.

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Mr. Mahmood shared many stories with us, and at times we can almost sense his “sadness” at the prospect of leaving the place one day. Just out of curiosity, we asked him how much did his parents paid for the house, it was $15,000 back in those days and now the HDB Terrace apartment can easily be sold for more than $800,000, but only with a 40-year land lease.

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And right behind the Terraces apartment, we were introduced to the first public housing blocks constructed by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). Completed in Oct 1960, the First HDB Blocks contained 331 one-room, two-room and three-room rental apartments with shopping provision at ground floor. The dominant presence of the seven storey blocks standing on an undeveloped piece of swampland earned the neighborhood an amusing colloquial name, Qik Lao (Hokken: 七楼; 7 storey).

Chua Soo Heng, 59, and her family were one of the first occupants at Block 48 Stirling Road. The Chuas were survivors of the devastating Bukit Ho Swee Fire in 1961 and they were resettled into the two-room apartment. She recalled, “The fire at Bukit Ho Swee spread very quickly and we lost our home overnight. The government brought us here in army trucks. We were lucky to get a flat.”

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Before we move over to Tanglin Halt portion of the trail, we stopped by at Queenstown Community Centre for a short break.

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Cross the overhead bridge and we are into Tanglin Halt. In less than 10 years’ time, the flats in Tanglin Halt will be among 31 blocks that will be cleared under the Selective En Bloc Redevelopment Scheme. Under the Master Plan 2014, the area has been zoned for mainly residential use. And when redeveloped, analysts say it can yield more than 5,000 homes – 50% more than the current number.

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Can you count how many storey are the flats here? Tanglin Halt consists of rows of ten storey flats, fondly remembered as Chap Lao Chu (Hokkien: 十搂).

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We visited two old barber shops around the vicinity. Both owners have been plying their businesses for more than 40 years. Check out some of the old equipment found in the two shops.

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Continuing our walk along Tanglin Halt Road, we reached the Church of the Blessed Sacrament. This is Queenstown’s first Catholic church, built at a cost of $200,000, the Church was officially opened on 9 May 1965 by then Archbishop, Michael Olcomendy. The Church comprised of a parish hall which served as a religious instruction centre, a kindergarten and a presbytery to house the priests.

Designed by YG Dowsett in the Modern style, the Church’s most striking feature is the dramatically structured slate roof, which was constructed in folds in the shape of a tent that symbolized the “tent of meeting” in the Old Testament of the Bible.

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We were brought towards the Green Corridor where the Malayan Railway used to run through this area. The flat you see below used to be where former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s residence.

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Beyond the Green Corridor, we will see the 3-storey buildings, flats designed by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT). Blocks 47, 51 & 67-73 Commonwealth Drive are the remaining apartment flats in Queenstown, completed in the years between 1961 and 1964, containing 120 three-room apartments.

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These three-storey flats feature clean and rational architectural facades such as thin horizontal slabs and ventilation holes.

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Sad to say, these flats are now all vacant and set to be demolished for future private housing plans.

Lim Ang Ah, 71, was one of the ex-residents at the flats, and she recalled, “I lived on the ground floor with my family. There was a huge field in front of my house and my daughter would always play hide and seek with our neighbors there.”

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Last but not least, we walked to Tanglin Halt Neighborhood Centre. Built at a cost of $160,000, the Tanglin Halt Neighborhood Centre was opened in 1962 by then Assemblyman for Queenstown, Dr Lee Siew Chor. The Neighborhood Centre comprised of 26 shop units arranged around a quadrangle and 84 stalls in the wet market. A shopping centre which composed of a hawker centre and three rows of shop houses was added later in 1967.

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The sundry shop at Tanglin Halt, “Thin Huat,” has a long history which dates back to the 1920s. The brothers running the business now, followed their grandfather’s footsteps, kept the traditions alive by selling a wide assortment of goods ranging from spices to canned food to cater to the needs of their customers.

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And before we end the morning, some of us tried out the recommended stalls at the besides hawker. The Delicious Duck Noodle or Original Peanut Pancake.

(Courtesy of Caroline Chia)

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The Story of Queenstown
The story of Queenstown began on 27 Sep 1953 when British officials from the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) named the new town after Queen Elizabeth II to mark her coronation a year ago. The colony suburb was the most ambitious project initiated by SIT to tackle overcrowding woes in Chinatown. Bounded by Ridout Road, Tanglin Road, Alexandra Road, Holland Road and the Malayan Railway, the self-contained estate would comprise of 11,000 apartment flats housing 70,000 people and cost some $80,000,000.

Construction of the new satellite town began at the former Buller Camp in Princess Estate. The former burial ground and farmland at Boh Bek Kang village (Hokkien: 无尾港; No Tail River) were later cleared to make way for public housing. When the Housing and Development Board (HDB) took over from the colonial government’s Singapore Improvement Trust in Feb 1960, work has begun in three our of the five planned neighborhoods in Queenstown, namely Neighborhood 1 (Princess Estate), Neighborhood 2 (Duchess Estate) and Neighborhood 5 (Queens’ Crescent). The Board added two more neighborhoods in Mei Ling and Buona Vista.

There were seven neighborhoods with distinct identity in Queenstown. As a satellite estate, each neighborhood came with its own amenities while larger facilities such as the library and sports complex were shared by the entire town.

A myriad of social institutions were pioneered in Singapore’s first satellite town. In 1956, the first technical school was opened to equip future generations of Singaporeans with technical knowledge and skills to ride Singapore through industrialization. In 1963, Singapore’s first polyclinic was built along Margaret Drive to provide access to subsidized healthcare. In 1970, the first branch library and sports complex were ushered in the estate.

By 1980, Queenstown’s oldest flats were 30 years old. Sparse and offering scant niceties, the estate were mirroring the greying of their original occupants. The next generation of residents who grew up in Queenstown, were heading towards newer estates due to a lack of development and various restrictions to own flats in mature estates. Demolition works in landmarks such as Tah Chung Emporium, Queenstown Japanese Gardens, Queenstown Remand Prison and Margaret Drive Hawker Centre were torn down.

Rejuvenation in Queenstown takes place in the form of Selective Enbloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) where high-density precincts are inserted in Queenstown’s older again, Queenstown has become a desirable address for Singaporeans.

My Queenstown Heritage Trail
My Queenstown Heritage Trail recounts the story of Queenstown and visits the iconic landmarks which define the Queenstown skyline for the past 60 years. As the first satellite estate, the trail also tells you about the evolution of public housing in Singapore through personal stories of older residents.

My Queenstown Heritage Trail is broken down into 5 smaller trails based on location clusters. The five smaller trails are:

Commonwealth Trail
Tanglin Halt & Wessex Trail
Duchess Trail
Princess Trail
Mei Ling & Alexandra Trail

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