Last year, I explored a part of Queenstown and learnt so much about the history of the place by listening to stories shared by long-time residents during the walking tour. On Saturday, I visited several historical landmarks in the Dawson & Alexandra area and even did a bit of bashing through the forest!
The former Forfar House was built in 1956 and known as Chap Si Lau because it was once the tallest residential building in Singapore at 14 stories in height. A former resident, Chee Sze Nam, shared that he lived there between 1978 and 1999 and remembered rearing chicks in his bathroom.
Princess House along Alexandra Rd was opened in 1957 and has a unique U-shaped roof. The building was the office for Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) and later the headquarters for HDB. From the old photo below, you can see that the Ministry of Enviroment was also located in Princess House at some point of time in history before the building was gazetted for conservation in 2007.
In 1955, the junction of Alexandra Rd and Dawson Rd was the scene of the violent Hock Lee Bus Riots that left 4 people dead and 31 injured. The riots began as peaceful demonstrations by bus drivers who locked themselves in the bus depot and stopped buses from leaving the depot. Eventually, students from several Chinese schools joined in and things turned bloody when the riot police attempted to break up the riots.
On our way to the next point of interest, we passed SkyTerrace@Dawson and I really cannot believe that these are HDB flats because they look so much like private apartments. This is a bit of a digression, but I’m really proud of the public housing we have in Singapore.
For me, the most interesting part of the Dawson & Alexandra trail was when we entered a forested area at Kay Siang Rd to look at some abandoned bunkers. There are three military buildings altogether but we only managed to see the first two.
The roof of the first building was completely gone and it was just the main facade with the supporting walls and window frames to either side. What was left of the building had been overtaken by the roots of the vegetation. It was all very surreal and simply fascinating.
The second building was still intact and appears to have been used to store ammunition. I took a quick look inside with someone’s flashlight but backed out when I saw several lizards frolicking around. Around the area, we spotted military-style water canteens, army boots, and even the remnants of police barricade tape.
On returning to civilisation, we headed to Tiong Ghee Temple where long-time residents shared their memories of Boh Beh Kang (literally no tail river), so named because the villagers could not identify the source of the stream that passed through the area. I’m quite proud of the fact that I could understand almost everything the residents said in Hokkien!
Blk 168A Queensway was the first curved block constructed by HDB in the 1970s to reduce uniformity in public housing. For obvious reasons, the residents call it the ‘Butterfly block’. I think it’s pretty amazing how far we have progressed since in terms of the aesthetics of public housing and SkyTerrace@Dawson (mentioned above) is clear evidence of that.
Queensway Shopping Centre is one of Singapore’s first multi-purpose shopping complexes and I just found out that the building has an auspicious octogonal layout. It holds a special place in my heart because I have been buying my sporting goods from that place since I was a teenager. Just a few days ago, I was there with one of the kids trying to buy sports stuff for him and I felt such a strong sense of nostalgia. It’s nice to know that some things haven’t changed.
Our final stop for the day was Alexandra Hospital. Built in 1938 as the British Military Hospital, the hospital was the most advanced and best equipped in Singapore. It was chosen for its close proximity to the KTM railway line so that wounded could be transported to the hospital quickly.
In 1942, it was the tragic scene of the largest massacre of British troops where 200 patients and personnel were killed by the Japanese within 30 minutes.
All 900 tickets for both the upcoming monthly Dawson & Alexandra and Tanglin Halt & Duchess tours in 2015 are sold out and the next available tour is in 2016. For those who are unable to sign up for the trails, please drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, contact number, 3 preferred dates and number of tickets. You will be put on the waiting list but please note that there are currently more than 400 people on the list.
I strongly encourage those who are not able to get a place on the guided tours, but are still very keen to explore the Queenstown area, to refer to the map and attempt it at their own pace and convenience. Although you will not get to hear the stories by the long-time residents, at least you will be able to check out some of the landmarks before they are demolished or gone forever.