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Jalan Besar

History
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ABOUT

The Jalan Besar Conservation Area has a rich history and exudes much old world charm. It is characterised by its numerous clan associations, eating houses, entertainment outlets, engineering workshops, hostels, places of worship and small offices that contribute to its vibrancy. Although the area has witnessed numerous changes, the distinctive streetscape of Jalan Besar remain familiar and memorable to many locals.

THE HISTORY

Jalan Besar (or “big road” in Malay) started as a track through a betel nut and fruit orchard opened by the Norris Brothers in the 1830s. In the 1880s and 1890s, the Municipality expanded the road and aptly named it Jalan Besar.

Initially, the area was largely a swampland. The area near Lavender Street was dotted with vegetable farms. In 1858, Lavender Street was named as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the stink of the nightsoil (human excreta from latrines contained in pails) used as fertilisers by the many vegetable farms in the area.

Urbanisation in the area took off after World War I in the form of ribbon-developments where agricultural land gave way to shophouses. Ribbon developments involve the building of houses along communication routes such as roads and railway lines. New roads, such as Kitchener Road, Jellicoe Road and Flanders Square, were laid and named after key personalities and battle sites of World War I.

In the area, there were many rubber processing and pineapple canning factories. The most notable ones were owned by Rubber & Pineapple King and well-known philanthropist, Lee Kong Chian (1893-1967). Perhaps due to the area’s then-expanding industrial sector, numerous engineering workshops were also established, many of which still remain today.

A prominent landmark to the north of Kitchener Road was the New World Amusement Park which offered an exciting array of entertainment options. It opened in 1923 and was built by Ong Sam Leong’s two sons, Boon Tat and Peng Hock. Although it closed down in 1987, many continue to associate it with the area. Today, the site has been redeveloped into a condominium, public park and shopping mall. As a reminder of its vibrant past, the original gate to the former New World Amusement Park has been reconstructed at the entrance to the public park.

Another key feature in the area is the Jalan Besar Stadium. Built in 1932, it is considered the birthplace of Singapore football. It was here that the Malaya Cup (1932-1966) and later, the Malaysia Cup (1967-1973), was held for over four decades before moving to the National Stadium.

THE BUILDING

The main roads of Jalan Besar are largely lined with two-storey shophouses and a handful of modern four-storey shop/flat developments. The architecture of the shophouses reflect the wide variety of architectural styles that were prevalent in Singapore then – Late, Transitional and Art Deco styles are evident.

Due to the rubber boom from 1900 to 1930, the newly-rich started a building frenzy in a bid to show off their wealth through their new buildings. The owner’s wealth was reflected in the extent of façade ornamentation and elements of European architectural styles and features used. In addition, many of these designs also featured distinct Eastern and local influences. A good example can be found along 10 to 44 Petain Road where the row of Late style shophouses feature façades decorated with imported European and Japanese tiles and plaster reliefs of birds, flowers and other motifs.

On the south side of Serangoon Road and Lavender Street, uniform Art Deco style shophouses create an attractive and well-defined streetscape. 486 to 588 Serangoon Road feature fair-faced brickwork and symmetrical corner facades that seem to reflect Flemish/Dutch vernacular architecture. The two streetblocks at 592 to 624 Serangoon Road and 217 to 269 Lavender Street, are linked by an upper floor over a backlane and terminates at both ends with an Art Deco pediment which feature the year 1928 – the year of their construction.

The Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hall at 3 Race Course Lane was built to commemorate Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), the father of modern India who led the struggle to free India from the British rule. The Hall’s construction costs came from donations from the Indian community as well as other races in Singapore and Malaya. Designed in the Modern-style with Art-Deco influence, its foundation stone was laid in 1950 by Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. It was officially opened in 1953 by Malcolm MacDonald, the United Kingdom Commissioner General to South East Asia.

THE LEGACY

The area was first given conservation status on 25 October 1991. This later included shophouses along Jellicoe Road on 21 February 2000, and Lavender Street and Serangoon Road on 1 December 2003. On 2 February 2005, a 4-storey Art Deco style building at 27 Maude Road was conserved and the conservation of the former Victoria School followed on 2 April 2007. Shophouses at Roberts Lane, Birch Road and Townshend Road were conserved on 21 January 2008. The Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hall was conserved on 30 April 2010.

To further enhance the heritage character of the area, additional buildings were conserved on 23 November 2010. These included landmark buildings such as the former International Hotel at 290 Jalan Besar and the Lee Clan Association at 363 Jalan Besar. In addition to buildings, two Art Deco style façade structures at Tyrwhitt Road were also conserved as identity markers that serve as reminders of the area’s industrial sector.

Today, many roads in Jalan Besar still retain their low-rise and finegrain streetscape while the development potential of the building site can still be maximised through the creation of new and additional floor spaces at the rear. Jalan Besar continues to be a thriving area of living culture with its charm and myriad of commercial and institutional uses drawing visitors from beyond the local area.

A row of 11 beautifully tiled and plastered Art Deco style shophouses at 161 Lavender Street was originally the premises of the Lee Rubber Company and owned by Lee Kong Chian. Lee was a supporter of Dr Sun Yat Sen’s Nationalist cause and this explains the plaster reliefs of soldiers carrying the Nationalist flag of the Republic of China on one corner façade pediment. This project won a URA Architectural Heritage Award in 1995 and demonstrates the sensitive integration of a new 4-storey rear extension.

A row of 16 Art Deco style shophouses at 82 Jellicoe Roadwas built in the late 1920s by a Swiss civil engineer - Heinrich Rudolf Arbenz. Previously a row of motor workshops, these shophouses have been transformed into high-end townhouses anchoring a modern highrise residential development, Citylights. The building façade features a rare zig-zag roof profile of individual gabled roofs, and protruding balconies with an attractive crosshatch lattice pattern. This project won a URA Architectural Heritage Award in 2008.

The Former Victoria School at 9 King George’s Avenue is a prominent urban and community landmark built in 1933. It features two school buildings from the pre- and post-war period on a single site and the prototype 1967 hall-cum-canteen building is the only known school hall left of this style and configuration in Singapore. Now home to the People’s Association Headquarters, the buildings have been masterfully conserved and sensitively adapted for reuse. For its exemplary efforts in conservation, the project won a URA Architectural Heritage Award in 2009.

Feel free to rediscover the old world charm of Jalan Besar with a walking map and follow the heritage trail that winds through the area.

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