Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Heritage Trail@Balestier, it's not only about tau sar piah, bak kut teh & budget hotels...

Balestier is no stranger to me. During my school days, before school exams, my mum would bring me and my brothers to this temple in "or kio" (Balestier Road) to pray to the "Goh Chor Pek Kong" to bless us. I didn't mind the walking from "pek kio" (Cambridge Road, where we stayed) to "or kio" (Balestier Road) as I knew after the prayers, we would surely head for the bakery shop at Whampoa Drive for the freshly baked tau sar bun...

Balestier has a rich history and is known to many of us for its delicious local fare like tau sar piah, bak kut teh, chicken rice or when we need to get new lighting fixtures or book budget hotels. Many have heard of this area but would not probably know how this area got its name or that many of the roads located off Balestier Road are named after Burmese cities and towns.

Balestier Road was named after Joseph Balestier, the first American Consul to Singaopore. He resided in Singapore in early 1800s and owned a 1,000-acre of sugarcane plantation. This planation, located at Balestier Plain, was known as Balestier Plantation. Joseph Balestier was forced to sell his plantation due to industrial downfall and the death of his wife. He returned to the United States soon thereafter.

It was believed that the suggestion to name the roads after Burmese cities and towns came from an old and respected Burmese resident in the area. Others speculate that could be because of the proximity to the Burmese temple's original location at Kinta Road or even named after British conquests in parts of Burma! This is because British colonised Burma from 1824 to 1948.

Balestier rekindles many of my memories, thus I decided to revisit the place, especially the "Goh Chor Pek Kong" temple.

^ Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple (Wu Cao Da Bo Gong), No. 249 Balestier Road. This single storey temple was built in 1847 by the Chinese Hokkien labourers working on Joseph Balestier's sugar plantation. Balestier at the time was a swampy area infested with tigers and malarial mosquitoes. In 1843, many plantation workers were killed by tigers, as such, the other workers came together to establish the temple dedicated to be the guardian saint of overseas Chinese in SEA. These new migrants thus relied on him in the perilous early days to bring prosperity, cure disease, calm the ocean and avert danger. Besides Tua Pek Kong, the temple also has a collection of other deities. One of these is the tiger-lord, believed to help people seek redress from injustices.

During celebrations, there will be Chinese opera (wayang) or puppet shows on this freestanding wayang stage, the ONE and ONLY freestanding wayang stage on mainland Singapore.

^ Art Deco Shophouses, No. 230 & 246 Balestier Road. These 2 shophouses, both named Hoover, have a strong sense of similarity in its designs. They are of Art Deco style which was very popular in Singapore from 1930 to 1960. On the left, the Hoover Hotel (246 Balestier Rd) and Hoover Restaurant (230 Balestier Rd) were built in the 1950s. The Hoover Hotel and Restaurant are namesakes of the old Hoover Theatre that stood where Shaw Plaza is today. The 1st theatre in Balestier was opened in 1958 as the Ruby Theatre. Followed shortly was the Hoover Theatre in 1960. In 1973, the President Theatre also appeared on the scene.

^ Balestier Point, No. 279 Balestier Road. Built in 1986, Balestier Point is an award-winning residential cum commercial developement. Stacked like lego bricks, the local architetct attempted to balance the privacy of homes by separating the shops from the homes. Up till the early 1980s, this site was the old Ruby theatre, the 1st movie theatre in the area that opened in 1958 showing mainly Chinese films. Perhaps, this is the only reminder of the Ruby Theatre.

The birth of Singapore Eclectic Shophouse
In the colonial times, shophouses must be built with stone and tiled roofs to reduce the chances of fire. Buildings should face the public roads and built at right angles to the roads, ie. the grid-structure. At the same time to provide shade and protection against the weather, each house was to be built with a covered walkway (5 foot in width) along the street frontage, known commonly as 5-foot way. These distinct characteristics gave birth to the Singapore shophouses.
Between 1900-1930, due to rubber boom, many became rich very quickly. These newly rich started a building frenzy by showing off their wealth on their new builings. The more extravagant ornamentation and elements of European architectural styles and features a building had, the more it would reflect the owner's wealth. Many of these designs also have distinct Eastern influcence and local flavours. Today, this style is referred to as the "Chinese Baroque" or "Singapore Eclectic".
One classic example is the row of shophouses, located opposite Balestier Point, built in 1926 by a female developer called Mdm Sim Cheng Neo. It has the characteristic pastel-shaded walls with European glazed floral tiles, moulded capitals or pilasters, moulded from floral wreaths and festoons over windows. It is often referred as "Sim Kwong Ho" building as the name was inscribed on the front of the building.

^ No. 292 to 310 Balestier Road (opposite Balestier Point)

^ No. 312 at the junction of Balestier Road & Jalan Ampas.
The corner unit used to be a coffee shop with high back to back seats along the walls, with formica-topped narrow tables brought back many fond memories of traditional kopitiam. The coffee shop operated over 60 years but discontinued when it was passed to the younger generations. Now, it's just another 'new generation' coffee shop.

^ 'Or Kio' market or now Balestier market, opposite Boon Teck Road. The original market was built in the 1920s to cater to farmers who needed a place to sell their produce. It was usually bustling in the mornings with housewives doing their marketing. As time passed, the demand got lower and the market was closed in 2004. It is now opened as a food paradise.

^ Water Kiosk at the corner of Boon Teck Road. A small cart stands on the corner of Boon Teck Road, dispensing free water and tea for any thirsty passer-by. It was an act of charity to proivde clean water for the poorer folks, such as horse-carriage drivers, rickshaw men and others who were working in the area. This service is a legacy of earlier times when clean water was a luxury.

^ Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, No. 12 Tai Gin Road. Named after the prominent Chinese nationalist, Sun Yat Sen, this villa became a focal point of anti-Manchu activities outside China. Sun Yat Sen stayed at the villa on 3 occasions.

Originally called Bin Chang House and built around the year 1880s by Boey Chuan Poh for his mistress Bin Chang. It was renamed Wan Qing Yuan by the new owner, Teo Eng Hock who bought it in 1905 for his mother to enjoy her later years in peace and tranquility.

Teo was a keen supporter of the Nationalist movement in China and offered the place to Sun Yat Sen, as the Southeast Asian HQ of his revolutionary movement, then to Tong Meng Hui from February 1906. Unfortunately, the owner's fortunes suffered during the depression and the house was bought over by 6 Chinese businessmen - Lee Kong Chian, Tan Ean Kiam, Chew Hean Swee, Lee Chor Seng, Yeo Kiat Tiow & Lee Chin Tian - who then donated it to the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) to be preserved. After the war, SCCCI converted the villa into a museum called Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, exhibiting artifacts belonging to Dr Sun and victims of the war.

^ Maha Sasana Ramsi Burmese Buddhist Temple, No. 14 Tai Gin Road. Founded by U Kyaw Gaung, a Burma practitioner of traditional medicine in 1921. At that time, he brought to Singapore a 10-tonne, 11-feet high marble sculpture of the Buddha from Saygin Hill, a quarry north of Mandalay.

The sculpture was placed in the temple's original location at 17 Kinta Road and was only moved to 14 Tai Gin Road in 1990. The temple is now managed by the descendents of U Kyaw Gaung.

Did you notice that many of the roads on the "odd" side of Balestier Road are named after Burmese cities?

Akyab Road-named after a port in Burma
Bossein Road-named after a river town
Bhamo Road-named after a Burmese town
Irrawaddy Road-named after the Irrawaddy River
Mandalay Road-named after the royal capital of Myanmar from 1860 to 1885
Martaban Road-named in 1929 to continue the Burmese theme in the area
Pegu Road-named after a river town
Prome Road-named after one of the oldest cities which was a commercial town and port in 1952
Rangoon Road-named after the administrative capital of British Burma)


^ No. 418 Balestier Road, another Sim Kwong Ho building. This is another row of shophouses developed by Mdm Sim Cheng Neo that has since been restored, modernised and converted into a hotel in year 2000, but without losing its original charm and facade.

^ Former Shaw's Malay Film Studios, No. 8 Jalan Ampas. This studio was set up by the Shaw Brothers in 1947. The studio was a logical business decision by the Shaws who started with film distribution and then moved into screening the films as well. With the studio, they produced a lot of Malay shows to cater to the local clientele, making it the most prolific in the history of Singapore's cinema.

^ Not sure when the studio was closed! Anyway, I managed to slip my hand through a gap in the gate to snap this picture.

^ Masjid Hajjah Rahimabi Kebun Limau, No.76 Kim Keat Road. In 1959, the Muslim residents gathered to discuss the need for a surau (Muslim prayer hall) in Kebun Limau. They requested for land on Kim Keat Rd and the government granted 573 sq metres in 1961. The 1st surau was a simple 2-storey concrete and wood building. As the Malay community expanded in the 1970s, fund raising began for the expansion of the surau. In 1981, Mrs Hajjah Rahimabi Ahmad Angullia donated $1.6 million, an inheritance from her late father to the building of a new mosque in the memory of her daughter who passed away in 1976. A new mosque was then built on the existing site and renamed Masjid Hajjah Rahimabi Ahmad Angullia in honour of the generosity of Mrs Hajjah Rahimabi.
Did you notice while most of the road names on the "odd" side of Balestier Road are named after Burmese cities, the roads on the "even" side testify to the presence of Malay Kampongs that existed in the area until the mid-1960s? Most of these roads have Malay names like:
Jalan Raja Udang (refers to a deep blue kingfisher)
Jalan Dusun (means Orchard Road)
Jalan Rama Rama (refers to a type of butterfly)
Jalan Bunga Raya (means Hibiscus Road)
Jalan Ampas (connected to sugar cane plantations)

^ Novena Church, No. 300 Thomson Road. One of the first Churches to be built after WWII, the Novena Church is today a landmark with its neo-classical semi-ciruclar pediment and central stained glass window. The Church of St. Alphonsus or Novena Church is dedicated to St. Alphonsus of Italy. The novenas are a mission given by Pope Pious IX to the Redemptorist fathers to make Our Lady of Perpetual Succour well known throughout the world.
Traditional Bakeries
The 2 famous bakeries of Balestier are Sweetlands Confectionary (No.10/12 Kim Keat Lane) and Sing Hon Loong Bakery (No.4 Whampoa Drive). For the last 50 years, these 2 bakeries have been producing freshly-baked traditional brown bread loaves straight from archaic ovens. These ovens churn out thousand of loaves everyday!

^ Sweetlands Confectionary & Bakery. They have not started production when I was there.

^ Sing Hon Loong Bakery. I visited this bakery since I was in primary school. Before school exam, mum would bring us to the "Goh Chor Pek Gong" to pray. Thereafter, stop at this bakery for freshly baked buns. I missed the old uncle, he used to give us the "head" and "tail" of the white loaves FOC.

^ This row of shophouses, No.328 to 342 Balestier Road has been in business for many, many years. Here are some of the shops:

^ Lam Yeo Coffee Powder, No. 328 Balestier Road. This is another famous landmark of the area since 1959. The shop sells coffee powder roasted to suit the Singaporean taste.

^ Lee Huat Tyre & Battery, No. 250 Balestier Road.

^ Heng Hua Metal - see how a metal sheet turn into useful tools & equipments.

^ Ba Kut Teh @ No. 347 Balestier Road. Opens at 6pm. Queueing is a common practice if you want to eat here.

^ Balestier Road is also known as the Street of Lights. There are almost 40 lighting shops on both sides of the road. It started with a few shops and their businesses were very good. Soon, many others started to move into the area. They sell to general public as well as to lighting contractors.

^ Single storey shophouses No. 601 to 639 Balestier Road. This row has been conserved by the URA, which means that the shopfront cannot be altered. Although simple in form, there are still some designs in the form of an Art Deco pediment above the 5-foot way to make it look more substantial
Perhaps the most notable feature of these shophouses is the 4 Tau Sar Piah shops along this stretch.

The boom of Tau Sar Piah shops started from the success of the original Tau Sar Piah shop, Loong Fatt Confectionary at No.369 Balestier Road. Tau Sar Piah is a popular confectionery item with a sweet or salty bean based filling covered with an outer skin of flour. Best eaten while it's still hot.

No comments: