Tag Archives: National Heritage Board

. tales of survivor heritage tour .

Ever since I started hitting the yoga studio on a very regular basis, I must say that it has been awhile since I took the weekends to explore Singapore beyond the usual hangout places. Just today, my ever-so-cool Mum, another friend and I spent a couple of hours with a volunteer guide from the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB) to uncover some of the gazetted National Monuments that are located right in the heart of the city! Well, I know that most people my age ain’t all that big on checking out historical places but for those who are keen to know more about the captivating stories of our country’s eventual past, do sign up for the mailing list to get updates on the upcoming monuments walking tours!


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Constructed in 1937, the Former Cathay Building (now The Cathay) used to house the famous Cathay Restaurant (still in existence in the current building), luxury apartments, as well as the flagship 1,300 seat Cathay cinema belonging to the Cathay Organization. At 79.5m high, this 17-storey building was the first skyscraper in Singapore and also the tallest building in Southeast Asia at that point of time. In fact, the building has ‘played’ many roles throughout its 77 years of existence.

During the country’s fight against the Japanese invasion, the building served as a Red Cross casualty station and shelter before the Japanese military took over during the Japanese Occupation and used it as a centre to broadcast wartime propaganda! Do you know that the Japanese military also stuck human heads belonging to beheaded looters onto the poles and had them placed outside of Cathay building? Haunting. In the post-war years, the building was converted into the 60-rooms Cathay Hotel which was frequented by the rich & famous during its hey days, and later on, an office space in the early 1970s. What you see in present day is a juxtaposition of the old Cathay Building and the newly furbished mall, a sight that shows that both old and new can co-exist together.
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For those of us who visit Orchard Road often, I’m sure that the MacDonald House needs no introduction. It is the last remaining office building in facing brick in town and is currently home to international companies such as Citibank Singapore and Mccann Worldwide. Ironically, did you know that it was first designed and built for another bank, Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC), back in 1949?

Anyway, this distinctive red brick building is more known for the MacDonald House blast and bombings that happened in 1965, which resulted in the death of 3 innocent civilians. The explosion was so powerful that all the glass windows in buildings located within 100m radius from the MacDonald House were shattered. It was an attack of retaliation by 2 Indonesian men during the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation, when Singapore was still part of Malaysia.

If you have been reading the news lately, you would have certainly read about the recent controversy of Indonesia naming a navy ship after the 2 Indonesian saboteurs, as well as the withdrawal of the Singapore Armed Forces delegation from the Jakarta International Defence Dialogue exhibition just a couple days’ ago. Sensitive issues.

Old-school ATM depository machine
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MacDonald House

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We have finally come to the highlight of our heritage walk – An opportunity to walk beyond the front doors of the House of Tan Yeok Nee. You can’t possibly miss this 129 years old oriental mansion that stands out like a sore thumb (in a good way) in the heart of town! Being a sucker for historic places, I have always been curious to explore the interior of this ancient house. When the opportunity to attend a heritage tour in the House of Tan Yeok Nee presented itself, I jumped at it immediately!

Do you know that this mansion is  1 of the last 2 surviving traditional Chinese mansions still in existence in Singapore? The other one is the River House in Clarke Quay, more famously known as The Forbidden City by IndoChine.

As the name clearly states, this house first belonged to a wealthy Teochew business man, Mr Tan Yeok Nee, who built his wealth through the pepper, spices, liquor and legal opium trades. It has since, changed hands many times: From a train station master’s residence (the then KTM railway),  an orphanage and school for Eurasian girls, the Headquarters for Salvation Army and now, the Asian campus for the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business!

Personally, my favourite spots of the house are the beautiful and tranquil courtyards, complete with lush greenery and water features. In fact, you can barely even hear the sounds of the passing cars despite the fact that the house is located in the middle of a busy junction!
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The main courtyard 
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Hand-painted Chinese drawings on the roof
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Door to the beautiful garden courtyard – Perfect spot of tranquility
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Elaborated carvings on the wall
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. adam park project .

For many years, I have always wondered what lies beyond the NUSS Guild House located at 7 Adam Road but somehow, I never did get the chance to explore the 19 black-and-white colonial houses that make up the Adam Park estate. Lady luck was on my side when I found out that the National Heritage Board was organizing “limited edition” tours to bring visitors to Adam Park and discover for themselves the role that the estate had played during World War II.  And yours truly, along with my ever-adventurous mum, were fortunate enough to get ourselves the last couple of spaces left on the last tour! 🙂

Unlike the usual war attraction places that tend to focus on military warfare and buildings (forts/ tunnels), The Adam Park Project, or TAPP for short, is a battlefield archaeology project that aims to educate people about the wartime heritage of the Adam Park housing estate through the eyes of an archaeologist. Think about how the location of the remains of bullets and cartridge could show you where the actual fighting between the English Regiment and Japanese troops took place. Pretty cool, huh? Ironically, this project was founded not by a local but an Englishman battlefield archaeologist, Jon Cooper, who is in Singapore to accompany his wife who’s working here! I have learnt so much about Adam Park through Jon’s very passionate and detailed narration – This relatively hidden place is simply steeped in history and I would honestly encourage all who’s interested in our country’s history to join his tour. I promise you that there will not be a single dull moment on the tour with Jon around! 🙂

It will be a huge challenge for me to squeeze 1.5 hours worth of information into this entry without making it sound like a thesis paper or boring you out. So, I’ll try my best to capture just the main points and share a teaser of what to expect. Please get in touch with Jon through the project FB page and be ready to unearth little known facts about Adam Park!

A walk around adam park

That’s our tour guide, Jon, who’s extremely animated and passionate about the battlefield history behind Adam Park estate.
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The colonial house at 7 Adam Park was originally the HQ for the Battalion Cambridgeshire Regiment that was defending Singapore from the Japanese. This house was selected as it sits on a reverse slope and is thus hidden from a downhill view. Strategic location for the military troops to plan their attacks. It is categorized as a Class 3 house; Class 1 houses are located at the top of hill (better feng shui).
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House no. 17 served as a hospital during WWII. Unfortunately, it was heavily bombed thus leaving most of the original building burnt to the ground. The house that stands in its place now has been heavily restored and even comes with a private pool!
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Research shows that there used to be a POW’s chapel located in an upstairs room of 1 of the houses. In spite of its relatively simple set-up, it boosted a beautiful mural that was painted by 1 of the POW. The location of this chapel still remains a mystery to-date but Jon & team are in the midst of conducting more on-site investigation to solve this mystery. House no. 12 was once suspected to be home to this chapel; alas, research findings had proved otherwise. 

The group of us was also very fortunate to be invited by the expat owner for a tea break at her lovely and huge home! Super excited to be able to get a glimpse of life behind these colonial houses as it was once my dream to be able to live in 1 of the walk-up apartments at the quaint Wessex estate! 🙂 
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huge house
As much as I love to learn about the battlefield history of Adam Park, I must admit that a war-focused tour can be a tad dry for the ladies. So, thanks to an ingenious suggestion by his wife, Jon has incorporated elements of social history into his tours specially for the ladies.

At House no. 16, we learnt that it used to be home to a Dutch family that, unfortunately, died on their way to seek refuge in Australia and a German-Jewish family whose descendants had returned to Singapore from Australia for a visit. They even brought along original photographs of their grandparents living in this house back in the 1940s! Wow!
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bite-sized info

1. Do you know that this site was the last battle line before Singapore fell to the Japanese on 15 Feb 1942? There was an intense series of fights between the Battalion Cambridgeshire Regiment and Japanese 41st Regiment during the last 3 days in the battle for control of MacRitchie Reservoir (water source).

2. Adam Park also served as a camp for an estimated 1000 British and 2000 Australian POWS, who were tasked to build the Shinto shrine in MacRitchie Reservoir. Many of these POWs were later sent to work on the Thai Burma Railway that claimed the lives of many.

3. According to the personal accounts of some of these POWs, they felt that their existence at Adam Park was boring as the work that they did on local shores was a walk in the park compared to the harsher conditions that they had encountered in other countries.

4. The POWs were even paid a couple of cents a day for the work that they did to build the Shinto shrine. In addition, they were given about 625g of rice a day for their meals … Quite a big portion! What some of these resourceful men did, in their quest to survive, was to keep a portion of the rice to barter with the locals for extra food and supplement their diet. Smart eh.

5. Jon and a group of volunteers have held periodic archaeology digs at the estate over the past few years and managed to dig up about 1000 WWII artifacts, ranging from ammunition cartridges to military badges and even, vintage toothpaste tubes!

“Finding an artifact and piecing together a war narrative can be very addictive. It helps to verify historical accounts and shared memories of the battle site.”
– Mrs Helen Mummery, volunteer – 

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More Links!
The Adam Park Project (TAPP) in motion
The Adam Park Project FaceBook
Interview with TAPP Founder, Jon Cooper

. tiong bahru air raid shelter .

 Today, 8 Feb, marks the 72nd Anniversary of the battle for and eventual fall of Singapore during WWII. As part of the line-up of activities to commemorate the anniversary, the National Heritage Board has organised a series of heritage tours that will take participants to the historical sites to “relive” the WWII battles. Being a WWII history buff, my mum was so excited to discover more about these places that played such pivotal roles in the Japanese Occupation  that she actually signed up for all the tours within 5 minutes! Honestly, I think I have the coolest parents! 🙂  Now, you should know where I have inherited my sense of adventure and exploration from! Unfortunately, I was not able to join my parents for this heritage tour as I had already made prior appointments.

Nonetheless, I’m really looking forward to share with you guys about this relatively unknown historical spot – Singapore’s only remaining pre-war air raid shelter which is nestled in the heart of Tiong Bahru.
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Background: Built in 1939, the air raid shelter located at Blk 78 Guan Chuan Street is the only public housing building by the Singapore Improvement Trust (the housing organization before HDB) to be built with an air raid shelter as part of its design. It occupies an area of about 1,500 sqm (equivalent to the size of 13 5-room HDB flats) and could accommodate up to an estimated 1,600 pax. Forward 75 years later, this air raid shelter is the last remaining pre-war civilian bomb shelter still existing today! Click here to read up more about the history of this shelter.

Exterior: Entrance of the air raid shelter that is located below the flats
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Interior: Main corridor that leads you to more individual rooms within
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Interior: According to my mum, the interior of the shelter had been left pretty much the same condition as it was back during the pre-war days, thus giving visitors a better visualization of the original state.
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Do you know that the air raid shelter even witnessed its first birth back in 1942? A baby girl named Mary Magdeline Pereira was delivered when her mother and siblings sought for shelter during the bombings.
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Interior: Overhead wooden planks that serve as alternate escape doors for the residents to enter/exit. Kinda like the trapped doors that you often see in old American homes that have a basement!
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Interior: See the structure on the left side of the picture below? My first assumption was that these are bunk beds placed for the residents, in times of war. However, these turned out to be storage racks put in after WWII as the air raid shelter was temporarily used as an underground storage area in the 1950s.
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Notice the bricks labelled “Alexandra”? They are made by Alexandra Brickworks. That’s how ABC Brickworks Market & Food Centre in Bukit Merah got its name!
tiong bahru air raid shelter 5* all pictures credit to my AWESOME parents

Tiong Bahru Air Raid Shelter Tour:
Date/Time: 15 Feb, 2.30pm & 4pm

Meeting area: Entrance of shelter at Blk 78 Guan Chuan Street
Registration: Please register via email with jenny_tan@nhb.gov.sg