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Balestier

History
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ABOUT

The Balestier area is primarily defined by Balestier Road, a long stretch of road that links Thomson Road to Serangoon Road where it continues on as Lavender Street. The road marks the North-East boundary of Balestier Hill. It is an area now synonymous with low-rise residential and commercial buildings and agglomerations of lighting and hardware shops. In more recent years, it has become associated with specialty foods such as ‘bak kut teh' and ‘tau sar piah’.

The protected historic street blocks in Balestier Conservation Area, largely centred along the main stretch of Balestier Road between Thomson and Serangoon Road are a mix of two-storey pre-war shophouses as well as more recent  shop/flat developments of the 1950s and 60s. Interspersed amongst these are a few high-rise commercial/residential complexes such as Balestier Point and Balestier Plaza. The buildings reflect the evolution of physical development since the 1840s and are reminders of the history of the area.

THE HISTORY

Balestier Road was named after Joseph Balestier. He was appointed by President Andrew Jackson as the first American Consul to Singapore in 1837. His wife, Maria Revere Balestier, was the daughter of American patriot Paul Revere, hero of the American Revolution. Maria brought with her, a cast iron bell from her father’s famous foundary. This bell is the only Revere Bell outside of the USA, and is now in the collection of the National Museum. Mr Balestier developed a large sugar plantation, which he called Balestier Plain. This was once a swampland (stretching all the way to today’s Toa Payoh Estate) before it was drained and cleared in the mid-1800s.

The development of the land into a plantation brought with it, labourers of many backgrounds who settled in the area. One group were the Hokkiens, who founded their local temple to the Earth Deity in 1847. Thus, the

Balestier Road was also known in Chinese as “Go Cho Tua Pek Kong” after the temple, ‘Go Cho’ being the Hokkien translation of the ‘Rochor’ – the other local (Malay) name of the area. Its Tamil name was “Thannir Kampam” or “Water Kampong” because water used to be drawn from the Balestier (or Rochor) River to be sold in town.

Many cottage industries were set up by pioneering immigrants. For example, by Whampoa river, there were many cottage industries dealing with rattan. There were also small sugarcane plantations, from which we have the name 'Jalan Ampas' (refers to the residue of crushed sugar cane).

In between these rural activities, by the early 1900s, the area also became established as a place for the wealthy to build bungalow houses away from the crowd and noise of the city. For example, Choa Kim Keat had one of his bungalows off Kim Keat Road. This was the period of urbanisation that saw the start of shophouses being built, which would have housed the services to support a growing local population.

Numerous roads in this area are named after Burmese places, such as Pegu, Martaban, Mandalay, Irrawaddy, Bhamo and Prome Roads. It is said that the suggestion to name roads after Burmese towns and kingdoms came from an old and respected Burmese resident in the area. Others speculate that it could be named after British conquests in Burma from 1924 to 1948.

While most of the road names on the odd-numbered side of Balestier Road are Burmese-inspired, the roads on the even-numbered side testify to the presence of Malay settlements that existed in the area until the mid-1960s. Many of these roads have Malay names such as Jalan Raja Udang (refers to a deep blue kingfisher), Jalan Dusun (Orchard road), Jalan Rama Rama (refers to a type of butterfly) and Jalan Bunga Raya (Hibiscus road).

In the 1950s, the Shaw Brothers Film Studios at Jalan Ampas produced many of the films that made up the Golden Age of Singapore and Malay language cinema. The well known Penang-born P. Ramlee — actor, musician and director — created his masterpieces, some starring his Singapore-born wife Saloma, in the studios off Balestier Road.

Further development in the 1960s saw the earlier styles of shophouses replaced with shop-flats of 3 to 4 storeys high, with individual apartments that met the ‘Modern’ lifestyle needs of a rapidly industrialising Singapore.  Entertainment and shopping outlets such as numerous cinemas and department stores were established. In more recent years, the land behind either side of Balestier Road has undergone further intensification of use with numerous high-rise apartments being built.

THE BUILDING

Through its buildings, Balestier Road today reflects its physical and social developmental history over time. Balestier Road is mainly characterised by two-storey shophouses of mixed architecture ranging from the Early to Art-Deco Style with scatterings of Modern-styled shophouses. Its street corners are prominently marked by ornate eclectic ‘Chinese Baroque’ style terraces like those at Kim Keat Road, Martaban Road, Pegu Road and Jalan Kemaman.

By the 1880s, bungalows were being built in the area for rich immigrants – archival plans show many ornate bungalows on stilts, to avoid the occasional flooding. A rare surivior of the era is the Sun Yat Sen Villa, formerly called ‘Wan Qing Yuan’, at 12 Tai Gin Road. Built in 1901 by businessman Boey Chuan Poh, this Victorian era bungalow was the headquarters of the ‘Tongmenhui’, the Chinese Anti-Manchu revolutionary movement in South-East Asia. Dr Sun Yat Sen met many of local supporters of the Chinese Revolution here. Gazetted as a National Monument in October 1994, it has been restored by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce as the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall [http://www.pmb.sg/?page_id=226], which is open for visiting.

The “Chinese Baroque” or “Singapore Eclectic” shophouse style, a favoured style of wealthy developers in the early 1920s can be observed at Nos. 292–312 Balestier Road. The buildings bear the characteristic pastel-shaded walls with European glazed floral tiles, moulded capitals or pilasters, ornate moulded floral wreaths and festoons over windows. This row of shophouses, designed by the firm of Westerhout & Oman, was built in 1926 by a female developer called Madam Sim Cheng Neo who also owned many other properties in the area with similar decorative elements. This particular block is often referred to as the “Sim Kwong Ho” building according to the name inscribed on the front of the building.

Another row of shophouses developed by Madam Sim Cheng Neo is at 412-418 Balestier Road. The buildings were designed and built by architect Kwan Yow Luen in 1928 with a distinct blend of East and West. The European-inspired style is matched with moulded figures of Asian symbolism such as bats, which are auspicious to the Chinese. Instead of Chinese warriors that are typically depicted on doors of Chinese homes as symbolic guardians, the corner shophouse at no. 412 has Sikh figures as its door guards as they were often employed as policemen in the colonial times. Also of note for this building are the figurines of Buffalos anchoring the pediment, and the plaster flags of the (then new) Republic of China – illustrating the sympathies of the building owner. The other moulded figures along the façade also include scenes that are said to reflect episodes from the life of Dr Sun Yat Sen. This row of buildings can be seen in parts of the films of P. Ramlee.

Nos. 312 and 412 are also fine examples of how corners of buildings are given special architectural treatment in response to the geometry of the road, to act as landmarks for an area.

Balestier Market was built in 1922 for the local farmers to sell their produce. During World War II, it was a centre for the distribution of food rations in the area. Conserved, it is now the only 'rural' market still standing. Recently revamped as a 24-hours food centre, it remains an established landmark in the area.

Single-storey terraced units at Nos. 601-639 Balestier Road were a typical built form found in many parts of pre-1965 Singapore, especially in the suburban and rural areas. Built by early developers of a newly settled area for sale as shops and homes for new settlers to the rural areas, most have made way for more modern and higher buildings that make more efficient use of land. Although simple in form, there are still some designs in the form of an Art Deco pediment above the five-foot way to make it look more substantial. This row is a key landmark for the entrance to Balestier Road from Thomson Road.

High Rise Flats  at 328-342 and 224-250 Balestier Road are good examples of the move towards the use of ‘Modern’ architecture in terms of styles and materials that took off on a large scale after WW2. Of reinforced concrete construction, and with the accommodation in the form of individual self-contained flats with modern services (such as a flushing toilets), and fire-proof - they were seen as a huge improvement from the traditional housing of shophouses and village houses. The five-foot way was however not abandoned as a design feature, while the ground floor also retained its role as a commercial space for shops and services. Unlike the pre-War mixed-use shophouses, the commercial and residential uses did not share the same staircase. Such apartments were then quite sought after by a growing middle class. In terms of style and appearance, 328-342 Balestier Road exemplifies the Modernist approach where no ‘unnecessary’ ornament was used, visual interest, if any, were to be created through the provision of functional details such as sun-shading ledges, pre-cast ventilation blocks and the placement of steel framed windows in a well balanced composition of solid, void and shadow. 224-250 Balestier Road is somewhat unusual for this style, as effort has been taken to treat the pair of splay corners with some flair. Full height vertical fins over 3 storeys terminate at the top floor to create a shallow pediment for each corner, and serve to lift the eye of the viewer upwards.  One could see these two corners as an echo of the more ornate corners of the ‘Chinese Baroque’ buildings of the 1920s. They also have the same effect of presenting a more attractive visual terminus as one proceeds along the curve of Balestier Road.

Go Chor Tua Pek Kong was established in 1847 by Chinese Hokkien labourers working on Joseph Balestier’s sugar plantation on the northern fringe of his estate. ‘Go Chor’ is the Chinese transliteration of ‘Rochor’ and the temple was dedicated to the deity ‘Tua Pek Kong’ (Grand Old Man) who is believed to be the guardian saint and Earth Deity of overseas Chinese in South-East Asia. The early Chinese labourers referred to this area by this Chinese temple, testifying to the importance of the temple to the community - it was one of the main centres of religious and social activity for the locals. The temple is a single-storey masonry Hokkien-styled temple with gable roofs and a courtyard in front. The red walls are typical of Hokkien buildings. The main ridges are of elaborately molded plaster with bands of deep relief. A permanent wayang stage for the temple was erected by Tan Boo Liat (descendant of pioneer Tan Tock Seng) in 1906. It is the only remaining free-standing wayang stage in Singapore and is still hosts many Chinese operas presented to the deity by devotees.

THE LEGACY

Balestier today has a special mix of the old and new buildings, with an interesting streetscape, a colourful past and a vibrant present. The shophouses and terraces have since given way in part to newer developments such as apartment blocks and shopping centres. Through its buildings and activities — some decades old, some newly established — Balestier Road today reflects its physical and social developmental history of an important suburban area over a century and a half. The conservation of the more significant older buildings allows for its rich history to be told and passed on to future generations.

The area was gazetted for conservation on 1 December 2003.

 

References:

http://www.ura.gov.sg/skyline/skyline02/skyline02-06/text/balestiernewandold1.html

http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_96_2005-01-24.html

http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_951_2004-12-23.html

http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_537__2009-01-07.html?s=Wan%20Qing%20Yuan

http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_1490_2009-03-23.html?s=P%20Ramlee

http://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/publications/lifestyle-reads/walking-maps-trails/central/balestier.aspx

http://heritagetrails.sg/content/254/Goh_Chor_Tua_Pek_Kong_Temple.html

 

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