Monday, February 21, 2011


Our Thoughts...

Balestier. I have never thought it held such a historical significance in Singapore.
In fact i've never known a balestier for anything other than its food.
for me, balestier was just yet another sleepy(read boring) town, like clementi or choa chu kang or the various parts of singapore I've been to in my life which can be counted by the fingers of one hand.
it did not struck me as particularly interesting.
I had thought we drew the short straw when we got balestier.
boring! my mind immediately wandered to the bak kut teh and chicken rice stalls.
To say that our trip there was an eye-opener is an understatement.
my impression of the sleepy(again read boring) town of balestier has been changed.
We had done some research before heading over there but as we trudged from place to place with the help of an iphone GPS, we discovered(or I did anyway) the many hidden wonders of balestier.
Certainly this heritage trail was interesting enough. Well, its been really long since I went on a heritage trail or an excursion or something like that for that matter.
perhaps it was the preconceived notion that balestier was boring, or that i made this trip with a group of great people. Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed this trip and my impression of balestier has certainly changed for the better.


I have always thought that Singapore is a boring place with concrete skyscrapers without much historical significance. Perhaps the only places I thought had the "history" feel about them was the museums. Furthermore, my trip to the UK last year further cemented that thinking into my head; the UK had magnificent structures built hundreds/thousands of years ago, steeped richly in history. Compared to our own, ours paled significantly (Or so I thought). However, that may have whetted my appetite for the heritage trail as I was inexplicably excited to discover more about my very own heritage. Alas, when I found out that we were going to Balestier, my excitement level went down a notch. I was hoping to get the CBD or even chinatown/kampong glam/little india. To be fair, I didn't know much about balestier so this would be good exposure to me as a history teacher-to-be.

Walking down the streets, I was quietly pleased to be proving myself wrong. Balestier had so many hidden gems waiting to be discovered by the ignorant like yours truly. What was once "inconspicuous" started screaming out to me as if wanting to make themselves known that they won't be belittled. I began to look at landmarks like single-storey shophouses in a new light (pun intended). It was almost like a trip down memory lane, except that these weren't mine but that of the older generation who had lived through the (limited) transformation of Balestier. Singapore is rich in culture and heritage in her own ways and I am game on to go discover more hidden gems which may have passed me by.

The commercial reuse of the single-storey shophouses for example, is a stroke of genius as it allows the facet of our past to be preserved but at the same time, put to good use. This conservation is done through the URA keeping the front of the shophouses untouched and unchanged and allows younger generations like us to witness for ourselves and to live and breathe a slice of history.


I was really excited when I heard about the Heritage Trail Assignment. It really didn't matter where we were assigned, I guess I just enjoy learning about the history of places. Maybe it's because my mum is a tour guide and I caught on some of that passion from her. I guess what's more interesting for me is when I found out that the place we were trailing is somewhere so familiar to me - Balestier.

Before the trail, I rarely paid any attention to the shophouses I past by so often when riding to church. I often took it for granted that this is just another building, failing to recognise the rich history behind the facets.

I must have been really ignorant to the places my feet trot upon. Before the trail, I didn't even know the significance behind the road names like Balestier, Kim Keat, Irawaddy etc. Hidden places like the traditional bakeries, Sun Yat Sen memorial hall, the water kiosk at Boon teck Road, the old Shaw studios etc. would continue to be hidden had I not have the opportunity to go on this heritage trail.

Now, passing by these same buildings give me a totally different 'feel'. When travelling with my friends, I now like to point out to these shophouses and give them a mini tour of the sites I discovered! (Makes me feel like my mum actually)

I also no longer take the places I see for granted. At the bus stop where I always wait for my bus, I 'suddenly' saw one of those heritage stones with a brief history on Lavender and how it got its name. Well, I actually took interest to read it, after not noticing it for the longest time. The same applied when I was at Outram Park station where they had one of these stones on the Outram Prison in the past.

I've learnt that history is really all around us. The difference between one who knows and one who is ignorant is his level of curiosity and initiative to find out!

- Carmen

Singapore history and her cultural heritage were often destroyed and demolished to make way for urbanization and development. Before the heritage trail, I was not aware that there were actually so many places which still preserve the cultural heritage of Singapore History. After all, many people commonly thought that Singapore is a modern city with few preserved cultural heritage.

More so, I had no idea that Balestier Road is a cultural heritage site. In fact, when I knew we were going to do a heritage trail at Balestier, I wondered what exactly is there for me to explore. However, after the trail, I realized that there are many hidden histories behind Balestier. It is definitely not just old, undemolished buildings. This heritage experience made me realize that Singapore’s cultural heritage is actually quite rich and diverse.

Through conservation and commercial reuse of historical sites, many of these sites avoided the fate of being destroyed and demolished. As Singapore has limited land area for use and a growing population, our government often had to redevelop land areas even if they are of historic value. This is sadly to say, the costly price we have to pay for urbanization. However, initiative of conservation and commercial reuse of heritage site can serve the dual purpose of preserving our heritage and effectively making use of limited land area. As evidently shown in our Balestier Heritage Trail, the government successfully integrated the preservation of Balestier as a heritage site, and at the same time, commercial activities are carried out in that area and there are also people living in that area, maximizing land usage. Other historical sites such as Jalan Besar also made use of similar way to preserve their traditional heritage.

However, although historical sites are being preserved in this way, many Singaporeans are still extremely unaware of these places as traditional heritage sites. They often regard places like Balestier and Jalan Besar as ‘old’ neighbourhood instead. Few people know the history and value of these sites and more so, appreciate the existence of these sites as a representation to Singapore’s history. This is an aspect in what conservation and commercial reuse is unsuccessful.

I personally feel that Singapore has done her part in trying to preserve her historical heritage. However, there is a need to educate Singaporeans so that there is value in preserving these sites, otherwise these historical sites would be no different from other places.

--Sebastian Thng

Talk about Balestier and the first thing that comes to mind is Bak Kuh Teh. In fact, that Balestier is more synonymous with its Bak Kuh Teh, Tau Sar Piah, Chicken Rice and the dozens of lighting stores that dot the area tells one just how much of our heritage Singaporeans really know.

Indeed, the "gar-ment" has done its upmost to promote our "Singaporean heritage", especially with all this preservation of historical sites and what not, but it would seem that for the average Singaporean, our understanding of our historical heritage is limited to the Social Studies textbooks and various excursions we take while in primary school.

Unfortunately, I must profess that I fall into that boat, my knowledge of Singapore's past being vastly limited to what I've learnt in school, and that's when I was awake to listen to my teachers. Talk to me about History and I can go on and on about the Greeco-Roman world and it's lasting impact on modern society, I can talk about Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, I even know more about Communist China, but when it comes to our little island, Sukarno's little red dot, I can put my hand up and say I know peanuts about our history.

And sadly, despite having been on this heritage trail, my interest in Singapore history still has yet to be kindled. I understand that I am largely to blame for this kind of perception, as it is my personal opinion, but looking at these various sites, I can't help but have the same feeling that I reflect the opinion of Singapore society as a whole.

Despite the conservation and commercial re-use of these sites, it almost seems as if they take a back seat to ever the forward-moving change of this city. Afterall, beyond the odd mention in our textbooks, these heritage sites just sit there quietly, camouflaged in the vast modern landscape that is 21st Century Singapore. In fact, it can almost be said that if not for the need to give tourists something historical to look at, these heritage sites would probably just fall off the map, such is the level of ignorance from the general populace.

Adding to that point, as I was walking along the trail, I was reminded of an episode of Discovery Channel's Living Cities: Singapore, where they touched on the struggles we face as a living, breathing, rapidly growing city in holding on to our past; when the machinations of economic growth and modernisation seem to be propelling us forward at breakneck speed, how do we grab our past tightly enough that we can bring it along. Important questions that we as Singaporeans need to answer.

In a way it's almost like saying, so what if our buildings are conserved, look at the art deco shophouses, they just look out of place. It would seem that preservation of our historical heritage needs to go beyond just saving these locations.

- Orson

Balestier. Not a place that springs to mind when you feel like having a good time. That was the sentiment shared by my entire group. We felt as though we had the worst luck of the draw, all thanks to Carmen. We got off to a slow start, being turned away from a palm reading because the temple was already closing (at 3 in the afternoon!), while we were waiting for the rest of the group to arrive. We hardly even saw anyone else on streets as we went about our trail, and even the cars seemed to be travelling slower. Again, this was at 3 in the afternoon. Balestier was like a huge time warp and we were sucked right into it.

Everywhere we went, stores were either closed or closing. The first bakery we went to was already down to their last few loaves of bread. These weren't of the Gardenia variety, but real rustic and hearty loaves of bread that few of us had ever seen before. At least, not at this stage of the baking process. The hawker centre we visited next was only sparsely populated by the elderly, chit-chatting and idling away their time. Wherever we went, we were only followed by a peaceful silence.

A peaceful silence that was punctuated by the jarring staccato of Jiahui's voice. If there was anything I hated about Balestier, it was probably the stillness in the air. It wasn't loud enough to mask her surprise at everything, nor the loud peals of laughter that ensued.

Balestier was an old place. Building after building, none seemed to reach skyward like those in the city area had. Sure, there were a few likely skyscrapers going up, but these stood out against a backdrop of a clear sky. The views from the top would be magnificent. The olden architecture was a reminder of a long forgotten time in Singapore's past, one that we seldom re-visit in our constant pursuit of perfection. Balestier was a gem, albeit an aged and unpolished gem.

Contrary to what my groupmates might think, and what the pictures suggest, the highlight of Balestier for me was not the food (granted, those were delicious bonuses). It was the opportunity to be in the presence of these old buildings, to soak up the sleepy atmosphere and the still air. To walk along the giant longkang with friends, like I imagine they did back when buses and cars were not so common. For me, the heritage trail had brought me back to the past, to a simpler time, for that short three hours.

- Daryl

When Carmen picked the envelope which contained the trail that we are supposed to take on, I was hoping that it would be somewhere that I've not been to, or at least somewhere which had good food. True enough, it turned out to be Balestier and it's probably a place that I've had passed by but never really ventured into. Yes, I'm that much of a countryside pumpkin. Excitement would be an understatement.

It was sunny in the west when we set off but unfortunately, it was raining cats and dogs on our way. That would take away some fun for sure. Luckily, I had the company of freshly baked bread to munch on throughout the trail, even though it was probably the leftovers. Nonetheless, they were so delicious and reminded me of days when I was still a kid.

As it was late in the afternoon, we did not experience the hustle and bustle that one would expect during the meal times. Balestier certainly boasts a plethora of food choices for the Singaporean. As we walked down the street, I truly enjoyed appreciating the intricate carvings on the various shophouses, some painted with colors that could not withstand the test of time and of course some that were very eye-catching and that you knew that it got a fresh coat of paint, probably for the impending festivity.

I can safely say that everyone had an enjoyable time marveling at the colonial architecture, the temples and of course the food! The trail was a rejuvenating one and despite the rain at its start, we all had fun rediscovering history and it is heartening to see that attempts to preserve our heritage is being carried out. The renovation for Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall and the Masjid Haijh Rahimabi Kebun Limau would be a case in point. (:


To begin with, you can approach any average east-sider and expect to draw a blank/blur/confused look when you enquire about Balestier, unless they might know that's one of the best places to find the best tau sah piah in Singapore.

Other than that, Balestier is a hot bed of many things you might not actually see around in Singapore anymore. For instance, the free water dispenser at the corner of Balestier and Boon Teck Road. These water dispensers used to be common and were provided by Clans and Religious centers for the servants and drivers of the rich, while they waited for their employers.

Before I bore you out with the repeated emphasis on the nostalgic feel of the place, no seriously the place has a feel somewhat like in Malaysia, those kinda old shophouses in Penang, Ipoh, etc and that doesn't really fit into the modern landscaping of Singapore these days. In lieu of rising land prices and scarcity, how long will Balestier remain a "protected" area? A quick check online shows that throughout Singapore, there are currently 71 areas that have been accorded the "protected" by government status (though one wonders for how long?) So I personally feel that while these areas still possess the bulk of their original elements, we should really make it a point to check them out, document the experience first hand so that it will never be lost forever and inevitably to future government "developmental" upgrades/plans.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Starting out on our journey

We had mixed feelings, after we randomly picked out the Balestier route for our Heritage Trail assignment. Some of us thought, "What's so nice about Balestier?", others were elated not about the place, but the good food we could find along the Balestier stretch. It turned out, Balestier was no where near boring! The Shophouses and sites, stood the test of time to tell of our past.

Allow us to be your 'virtual guides' down this memory lane where our Burmese Community once settled.

Yours Truly; Daryl, Sebastian, Jocelyn, Jia Hui, Orson, Dennis, (Prinya & Carmen)

Joseph Balestier was the first man who developed this area in 1834 and hence, Balestier Road was named after him. Balestier used to be an area filled with sugarcane plantation and was named Balestier Plain by the founder himself.

So what's so great about this Joseph Balestier guy? Well, he was actually the first American Consul to Singapore. Besides that, we see that 'behind every successful man is a good wife'. In Balestier's case, his wife's background is worth mentioning.

He was married to Maria Revere, the daughter of Paul Revere. Paul Revere is a hero in the American History as he is best remembered for his 'Midnight Ride'. Paul Revere, prior to the Revolutionary War, was able to warn his fellow statesmen about the planned attacks by the British. He is also associated with the famous Liberty Bell in Philidelphia. This 'bell legacy' carried on with his daughter. In 1843, Maria Revere presented the Revere Bell to the church of Saint Andrew. The bell was rung right after the curfews at 8:00pm in the past to warn residents to be alert wasn't a safe place then.

#1 Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple, 249 Balestier Road

So our very first stop on this heritage trail was the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple. As we were making our way from the dark, forsaken recesses of Pulau NTU, the heavens decided that it was a good time to shower us with its blessings. Needless to say, none of us were thrilled with the prospect of walking in the rain, but as fate would have it, the sky cleared as we reached our destination.

Anyway, this single-storey temple was built in 1847 by the Hokkien labourers working on Balestier's sugar plantation. At that time, the area was rather swampy and infested with tigers and malaria mosquitoes. In fact, workers' deaths caused by tiger attacks had reached its peak in 1843, imagine getting eaten by tigers! To help deal with such dangerous working environments, the workers established the temple, dedicating it to the deity Tua Pek Kong (Grand Old Man), who they believed was the guardian of overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, who was capable of bringing prosperity, curing diseases, calming the ocean and averting danger. Till today, devotees come to the temple to pray for peace and tranquillity. The temple also houses a variety of other deities, including a tiger-lord who is believed to help people seek redress from injustices.

Just to divert from the temple for a bit, an interesting thing we noticed was that some enterprising businessman had set up a stall next to the temple, selling of all things DURIANS! I mean, sure we could understand the selling of fruits to be used for offerings, but durians? What a peculiar place to sell the King of Fruits.

- Orson

#2 Art Deco Shophouses, 230/246 Balestier Road

Situated just across the road from the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple is the row of shophouses famous for their Art Deco style. In fact, looking at the shophouses, they are a stark contrast from their surrounding buildings, almost as if someone had transplanted these buildings from 1930s America and stuck them in the middle of Balestier Road. Truly, they stick out like the proverbial "sore thumb". Though if we ignore that they look so out of place in the Balestier "skyline", one cannot help but admire the clean, sharp styles that these buildings are famous for.

The Art Deco architecture style was developed in Europe and the United States during the 1920s-1930s. What distinguishes this style is its simple, clean shapes and streamline looks. The Empire State Building in New York is perhaps one of the best known examples of this style. In Singapore, this style was very prevalent/popular during the 1930s-1960s, mainly because that despite being very simple, it gives off an subtle air of sophistication. The shophouses, including the Hoover Hotel and Hoover Restaurant were built in 1950s, and are the remnants of this once popular architecture style.

An interesting footnote, the restaurant and the hotel are namesakes of the old Hoover Theatre that stood where Shaw Plaza is today. In fact, the Hoover Theatre was the second theatre to be opened in Balestier, opening in 1960, after the Ruby Theatre which opened in 1958! Today, there remains a Hoover Theatre situated inside Shaw Plaza, as a tribute to the old theatre.

- Orson

#3 Balestier Point, 279 Balestier Road

Depite having won a Singapore Institute of Architects Honourable Mention Award in 1987, Balestier Point is now an old and dusty grey building. Built in 1986, Balestier Point was an award-winning residential cum shopping development which derives its inspiration from the original cellular housing project called Habitat 67 designed by renowned architect Moshe Safdie in Montreal, Canada.

Stacked like Lego bricks, local firm RDC Architects attempted to balance the privacy of homes with the density of community living by separating the shops from the homes in this mixed-use development, where commercial and residential spaces are combined into one. A unique feature of this development is that all the homes have their own terraces and gardens in the sky. This takes advantage of our tropical climate to create high-rise greenery. However, we do have to take note that all these features are considered passe now due to changes in our modern landscaping. Up till the early 1980s, this site was the old Ruby Theatre, the first movie theatre in the area that opened in 1958 showing mainly Chinese films. Perhaps the only reminder of the Ruby Theatre today would be the many namesakes in the area such as Ruby Plaza up the street and Ruby Apartments directly across the road.

Currently, Balestier Point is regarded as a development with en bloc potential, and given the types of shops in there, such as the sleazy “Kai Xuan Men” as well as a few “Lup Sup Bars” (LSB), I'm not surprised if the government is actually encouraging private developers to come in and do something about it. However, it does offer another view of the Singaporean night-life which is otherwise confined to places like “Clark Quay”, “Mohammed Sultan”, etc. For tourists who wish to have another look at Singapore's hidden night life, Balestier Point is another alternative.

- Prinya

#4 Sim Kwong Ho Shophouse(i), 292-310 Balestier Road

Designed by the architect firm of Westerhout and Oman, this row of shophouses was built in 1926 by a female developer called Madam Sim Cheng Neo who also owned several other properties in the area.

Located just opposite Balestier Point,It is often referred to as the “Sim Kwong Ho” building as the name is inscribed on the front of the building. According to residents in the area, there used to be a dog centrepiece feature that had gone missing, but they have no idea when it disappeared.

The corner unit (No. 312) used to house a 1960s-styled, old school coffee-shop with high back to back seats along the walls, with formica-topped narrow tables that was a common characteristic among all the old-generation of coffee-shops, very unlike the kopitiams that we see today. This coffee shop had been operating for at least 60 years before the third generation of owners stopped the business. Now it is merely another normal modern coffee-shop with stainless steel stalls and plastic furniture.


#5 Balestier Market

According to the Balestier Heritage Trail Booklet which accompanied us on our trip, Balestier was a rural area and this market was built in the 1920s to cater to farmers nearby who needed a place to sell their produce. It was also known locally as the Or Kio market, which translates to "black bridge" market, as there was a black bridge along Whampoa River that connected Ah Hood road (off Balestier Road) to Lorong 8 Toa Payoh. Many shops in the area are also named after the bridge.

However, despite renovation in 1999, it eventually lost out to its "big brother", the bigger Whampoa market. Also known affectionately as the Tua Pah Sat, it literally translates to the big market. Many stallholders decided to retire when the market closed in 2004. Today, it is the only remaining 'rural' market on mainland Singapore but is now converted to some sort of coffeehouse, selling delicious local fare.

Along with the closure of this historical landmark, it led to the disappearance of a piece of history, such as the wet dirty floors, farmers selling their produce and small metal huts with pitched zinc roofs. It is such a shame that future generations will never see this again.