8 surprising hidden histories of our heartland


Ang Mo Kio was a rubber plantation

Ang Mo Kio might be home to some 143,800 HDB residents now, but it was largely uninhabited until the rubber boom of the early 20th century. Much of the New Town today is established on an area labelled as  Ang Mo Kio Forest Reserve in historical maps of Singapore. In fact, the whole of Ang Mo Kio Town Garden East was built on the former rubber plantation, and there are clues to this history as well: within the park, you will find specimens of cash crops such as nutmeg, cinnamon, cacao and, well, rubber. You would even spot sculptures of rubber seeds and nutmegs within the park

Will the real Ang Mo of Ang Mo Kio please stand up

Taxi drivers might tell you that this town is named after the Hokkien word for “white man’s gourd”, that is, a tomato. However, Ang Mo Kio actually translates to “red-haired man’s bridge” – and this ang mo – the colloquial term for a Caucasians – in concern would be 19th Century British civil engineer John Turnbull Thomson. Thomson, who was East India Company’s Government Surveyor for the Straits Settlement, played a big part in the infrastructure development of 19th Century Singapore and had a bridge built over the Kallang River, near the current junction of Upper Thomson Road and Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1. While that bridge might be no longer, Thomson’s work can still be seen around the island. These include the Dalhousie Obelisk at Empress Place, and parts of what are now Singapore General Hospital and Tan Tock Seng hospital. His last project in the region was Horsburgh Lighthouse – a working lighthouse that marks the eastern entrance into the Straits of Singapore.

The Dark Side of… Bedok

On the fringe of Bedok sits Siglap, alit in the evenings with packed bars and glitzy eateries. Yet the name of the neighbourhood suggests something quite the opposite. The roots of its name comes from the Behasa Melayu word “gelap”, meaning a darkness that obscures. Sounds like the setting of an Incredible Tales episode? Not quite. Some say that the name was given because sunlight is blocked by the thick canopy of many tall Gelam trees (incidentally, that which Kampong Glam is named after. Sorry to disappoint anybody who thinks that name refers to a village that was particularly glamorous) growing in the area. Others say that a solar eclipse in 1821 is the inspiration behind the name “si-gelap”, meaning “dark one” in Malay. 

The Prince of Siglap

Siglap was established in the early 19th century by Tok Lasam (also spelt “Lassam”). And he wasn’t an ordinary gent: historians believe that he was a prince from Pagaruyung, Minang, in Sumatra, and had travelled to our shores in search of fortune. The prince, whose original name was Raja Suffian, settled down in this area and developed it into a fishing village. His yellow grave – a privilege reserved for royalties – is situated at Jalan Sempadan, and was under threat of being exhumed during the areas redevelopment in the Nineties. However, it remains on the original site after petitions from community leaders and members of the public alike.

This little neighbourhood in Yishun with a sister city in China

Did you know that Chong Pang has a sister city called Xindu in Chengdu, China? The two cities signed an agreement in 1994 and embarked on various business, academic, and cultural exchange programmes. Mr K Shanmugam, the then-Member of Parliament for Sembawang GRC, visited Xindu that year and presented the county's residents with a Merlion statue as a gesture of friendship. In return, Mr Zao Dexi, Magistrate of Xindu County, visited Singapore for the bi-annual Chong Pang Day Celebrations in 1995, and presented local residents with this statue of a mother and baby panda. It is now displayed prominently outside Block 101, at the junction between Yishun Avenue 5 and Sembawang Road.

Chong Pang was named after was a film industry big wig
Previously called Westhill Estate, Chong Pang Village  was renamed after Lim Chong Pang, son of Lim Nee Soon (whom Yishun is named after) in 1956 – the year of his passing. He is remembered as one who was active in public service and who played a critical role in the evolution of the area since developing it in the 1930s. In between managing the family business and public duties, Mr Lim also set up South-East Asia Film Company during the golden years of Singapore’s film industry. He was a multiple-term president of the Indian Motion Picture Distributors Association of Singapore, and board member of the Cinematograph Exhibitors Association of Singapore and the Federation of Malaya. He probably would have been pleased that Yishun would be home to Asia's first Cineplex (The 2,552 seat Yishun 10 – now renamed GV Yishun – that cost $37 million to build was a game-changer when opened in 1992).

Clementi’s long colonial history

While Clementi New Town was developed by the Housing Development Board in the late Seventies, the area has been inhabited since colonial days. Along what is now known as Clementi Avenue 1 was

Sussex Estate, which housed senior British officers and their families during the Fifties. And where Clementi New Town is today was Colombo Camp, a military setup occupied by troops from the Singapore Guard Regiment from 1954 until the regiment was disbanded in 1971.

Jalan Besar’s stinking past
The Jalan Besar area radiated out from a single track cutting through the Norris Brothers’ betel nut and fruit orchard in the mid 19th century. However, despite its grand name – which means “big road” in Malay – the area was largely swampland and farms. In fact, it was infamous as one of the foulest smelling places in Singapore in the 19th century: the result  of an unfortunate combination of nightsoil used as plant fertiliser in the farms, and the odorous gas emitted from Kallang Gasworks – Singapore’s first site dedicated to manufacturing gas from coal for street lighting, operating from 1862 to 1998. Residents started referring to the stretch between Rochor Bridge and Serangoon Road as “Lavender Street” in irony, and the name became official in 1858.


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