A world of dreams


Xiang Yun and the stars of Kelvin Tong’s It’s A Great Great World remember the good old days at Great World Amusement Park



By Genevie Loh

TODAY, 26 January 2011





Memories are groovy.  Anyone who says otherwise probably just can’t remember.  Not only do they light the corners of your mind, misty watercolour memories are best way to remind us of the way we were.  (Thanks, Babs).

And with MediaCorp Raintree Picture’ Its’ A Great Great World opening on 27 January 2011. this always sentimental journey was more than ready to plunge into a golden sea of nostalgia and reminiscence about the legendary Great World Amusement Park and all its colourful attractions that director Kelvin Tong had to recreate.

Except for one little glitch:  This 1979 baby was born a whole year after Tua Seh Kai (as it was affectionately known in Hokkien) permanently shut its doors in 1979.  Darn it.

The only Great World I know of is the shopping mall that replaced it on Kim Seng Road, and I don’t think those exotic themed restrooms they have within count as “attractions”.  I so needed help.


Xiang Yun was sitting in the photo studio being worked on by no less than four individuals at once.  There’s the make-up artist, the hairstylist, the art director/stylist and me.  The veteran actress plays an aging but still glamourous songstresses who headlines at the infamous Flamingo Nite-Club in the moview, so she must know a thing or two.  You know, method acting and all.

MediaCorp TV Channel 8’s resident thesp, who will be turning 50 this year, is beyong resplendent in a figure-flattering, siren-red cheongsam by local designer Lai Chan, looking like a glamour puss from another, more glorious era.

“Being dressed up these outfits, and posing for these pictures makes me want to do even more ‘retro movies!” she giggled in Mandarin.


The mother-of-two agreed it was a “more romantic and sentimental era”, which is why her story in the film – that of a washed up diva who pines for an old lover while the club owner hides his own feeling for her – was especially memorable.  “I’ve always wanted to play a stage performer who sings and dances.  It’s been one of my biggest dreams.

Could it be that it was all so simple then?

The actress shared that she was even more intrigued with Great World Amusement Park after shooting her part, and went around asking “uncles” whether they’d been to the Flamingo Nite-Club.  “Everyone had differing stories!  Were the ‘Taxi-Girls’ all Cantonese?  Did they sing Chinese songs or English songs in the club?” she said, laughing.  “I’m guessing Great World had gone through so many different eras and each era bring about different memories for different people.”


She remembers stepping onto the movie set for the first time, saying how Tong’s detailed food stalls and flashing neon lights instantly brought her back to the era – and the delight of her childhood days.  “It was a wonderful rush of happiness.”

Chew Chor Meng understands Xiang Yun’s joy.  The 42-year-old actor – plays the reminiscing link in the movie’s sprawling, star-studded cast – remembers going to Great World Amusement Park with is relatives.

“I was just about 10 years old when it closed down, so I guess I was lucky enough to have been there about four or five times in total,” he said, recalling that it was only during special occasions like Chinese New Year or birthdays that he got to visit the park.  “Because that’s when you have the money to spend on food and games!” the affable actor laughed.

He patiently recounted to me all his fond memories of watching Bruce Lee movies at Sky Cinema and the many “tikam tikam” stalls.  His favourite attraction at Great World?  The Ghost Train ride.



“I cannot remember if it was 30 or 50 cents.  But I do remember going on the ride and screaming really loudly.  Just for fun because, actually, the ‘ghosts’ in there aren’t scary at all!” he said, laughing heartily.

“Those were good times,” sighed the Star Search-winning father-of-two and self-professed nostalgic.  “Good times”.

If we had the chance to do it all again …

For stalwart Channel 8 actor Chen Shu Cheng, those “good times” refer to his carefree days as a Primary 6 student when he and his friends used to “pontang” school to hang out at Great World all afternoon long.

“The park would be empty in the days, so it was really fun to go and sit on the tea cup ride and chit chat with my friends about anything and everything,” the 61-year-old shared in Mandarin.

The actor, who plays a father paying for his daughter’s wedding banquet at the famed Wing Chun Yuen restaurant, remembers it all.  Well, almost.


“I loved watching cowboy movies in English – those were my favourites!  I remember watching them in the Globe Cinema, which had air-con!  Or was it fan?  Oops, now I cannot remember … All I know is that it was nice and cool inside,” he recounted, laughing.


Chen will forever link Great World to his father, seeing how his days of truancy came to an abrupt ended after his teacher sent a letter to his parents asking why he was “sick” for so many days.

“My father took me out of the house because he knew my mother would cane me, and asked me very gently to explain why I skipped school.  He also reminded me of how much he had to struggle to come to Singapore from China to start a life here.  After that, I felt very guilty and never skipped school to go to Great World again!”

Actress Yvonne Lim might not have the same intricate memories of Great World.  In fact, seeing as she was only a toddler during the last days of Great World, she has no direct memories at all.  But that’s not to say her story is any less touching.

It was through her preparation for this move that the 34-year-old, who plays a sassy photographer in the film, discovered that it was where her parents met and courted.

“I had to speak Hokkien naturally and, as you know, our generation doesn’t speak dialect very well,” she shared, laughing.  “So I ended up asking my father to help me with some words.  And that was when he suddenly revealed that my mum used to work at Great World selling clothers!”

The 2007 Star Awards Best Actress choked up recounting her father’s story of how he’d wait for her mother to finish work at Great World every night to send her home, explaining how it meant a lot as her mum passed away when she was very young.

“We never really talk to our parents about how they met.  And because of this movie, I now know.  And because of this story, I feel even more attached to the movie.”

Lim shared how she loves the fashion of the era, from vintage clothes to bags and shoes.  “Maybe I should have been born in that era,” she laughed.

After hearing all these stories, I wish I had been, too.  You know, scattered pictures of the smile we left behind.  Smiles we gave to one another … for the way we were.

Please check out the related blog here .

Archived photos of former Great World Amusement Park shared on this blog with the courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.


Street cries that are no more


[Source:  New Nation, 25 November 1976]

By Sylvia Leow


One hot still afternoon, when the air was heavy with lethargy, I heard again the “tock, tock” call of the mee seller.


I had almost forgotten the sound, seldom heard these days with the springing up of hawker centres everywhere housing all hawkers from the streets.

It brought me way back into my childhood when the cry of each and every street hawker passing through the lorong where I lived as a child punctuated the stillness of the afternoon at home after school was out.

We used to wait in anticipation for these hawkers and they never failed us, passing the house regularly at a certain time so that we could even time our appetites accordingly!

I must have vexed my grandmother, who looked after me in those days, a great deal rushing back from school to demand 30 cents from her, grabbing an empty bowl from the cupboard and then dashing outside the house to wait impatiently for the “ap choek” (duck porridge) man to pass.

That was my lunch day after day through – strangely, I never tired of it although I did quickly enough of the rice and various dishes which she laid out in readiness for me every afternoon!

The “ap choek” man would come at 2.00 pm sharp.  At three, came the “ting-ting” man – he was the one who carried a tray of gooey sweet-till-your-teeth-fall-out-concoction so hard that he had to use literally a small-sized pick and hammer to chisel out pieces.  Now I wonder why I ever ate the stuff.


The other hawker plying sweetness (and tooth decay) was the Chinese treacle man.  To buy his sweet, you had to arm yourself with an odd chopstick first.  This you would solemnly hand to the hawker while he would as solemnly and very skillfully wind a lump of sticky treacle onto the chopstick for a mere few cents to lick your heart out!

But my earliest memory of the street hawkers who never pass anymore dates back, believe it or not, to when I was three years old.

I still remember myself seated on the uncomfortable blackwood chairs of the front hall (they had three halls in those days) waiting for the “eng chye ju hee” man to pass and when he did, screaming out loud to alert the household of his coming.  Although “eng chye ju hee” is still being sold nowadays, his was the best I’ve tasted!

Childish memories and tastes being what they are, I was probably wrong.  But not about the taste of the “loh kai sip”  sold by probably the original fat man who seemed to have patronised the same street hawkers in their childhood!

He was a personality in those days.  Where other hawkers walked trundling their pushcarts, this man sat in a tricycle with his pot of steaming stew of chicken wings, pig’s innards and kangkong in front of him.

He had someone to pedal the tricycle while he sat in front lording over his stewpot and calling out in a distinctive nasal voice that elongated every syllabus, “loh-kai-sip”.

When you caught his attention, he would motion his pedal partner to enter the compound of your house (those were also the days when most everybody had compounds).

And with a lightning chop, chop and snip, snip that were as much attraction as the food, he would portion out your orders.

Of course, “loh kai sip” is not sold today and even if it was, it would not be the same for it, would be minus the rich red colour which characterised the stew – much of that came from the red food colouring prohibited now, I’m afraid.

Food sellers of today take their business too seriously unlike a certain “char kway teow” man in Penang who drew so much publicity in the press years back because he used to do the a-go-go while frying his kway teow, renember?

In Singapore, we had the “loh ap” man carrying his stewed ducks in covered baskets suspended from a bamboo pole which he balanced on his shoulder and who would throw dice with you before chopping up your order.  If you win, you get your order of duck free, if you lose, well …..

Philip Chew posted his nostalgia related blog here . The YouTube video here to share.

And the Indian man selling kropok and candy floss who allowed you to draw straws with your purchase.  If you had a longer straw, you win an extra portion!

In those days of low-rise flats, even flat-dwellers did not miss out on the proffered delight of street hawkers.  In fact as a child, I used to envy those living in flats because they could then have a basket with a long rope attached, placed conveniently at the balcony so that when hawkers passed, all the fkat-dwellers need do is to attract his attention then lower the basket with money in it over the side of the balcony in exchange for the food.  There was then the added excitement of hauling up the basket full of goodies without spilling the contents.



There were others too – the iceball man handing out syrupy, colourful balls of ice concoction for five cents.  Nobody wondered in those days whether he washed his hands!


20190721_221516Photo courtesy of Harrison Forman

And the entire contingent of night hawkers with their plaintive cries who only piled at night.  Nothing could beat the taste of steaming hot “ee sang choek” (fish porridge), “char siew pow” and “yong tau fu” eaten in the dead of the

night huddled close to the wavering light of the kerosene pressure lamp.  You ate not because you were hungry but rather for the experience.

Hygiene apart, I’m afraid the antiseptic sterile atmosphere of the hawker centre brilliantly lit by garish flourescent tubes cannot quite match the excitement if the street hawker.

And with their passing, an entire chapter of Singapore life closed.

Archived photos of the peddler hawkers with courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.




Memories of “Tok Tok Mee” at Block 9, Jalan Bukit Ho Swee


The aged newspaper article (memory-aid) by Sylvia Leow 43 years ago triggered my memories of “tok tok mee” pushcart stall stationed at Block 9, Jalan Bukit Ho Swee where I lived in 1962.

The stall was located beside the top of the steps and railings in the photo above.  The HDB one-room ’emergency flat’ was built after the Bukit Ho Swee fire and allocated to the fire victims, including myself and my family.

How did I remember about the “tok tok mee”  stall so vividly?  The fish-ball noodle hawker was a 60+ Teochew uncle whom we called “Lau Chua”.  The stall was opened daily from about 7 pm to 10 or 11 pm.  Almost every night, I would eat Lau Chua’s “dry kway teow mee with more chillie”, my favorite supper for 20 cents.

He was helped by two grandsons, one in Secondary 1 and another in Secondary 2 on alternate days to be on duty.  Lau Chua’s grandsons helped to collect orders from the customers in the housing estate and then deliver their orders to them.

During those days, the sound of the “tok tok” on a bamboo instrument to alert customers of their presence, the way Lau Chua’s grandson did.  This was back when a bowl of fishball noodles cost 20 cents.

Thanks to “mothership.sg” for the “here’s the sound of the tok tok man bringer of good noodles” blog here .  Watch the YouTube video of the “Tok Tok Mee” here .


Professor Robert Chia posted the following to Singapore Memory Project on 2/10/2014:

As a young child aged eight, I was quite difficult to please especially with regards to food. Whilst I always remembered my mother (who was of a Nyonya  heritage and wore sarong regularly) as being an excellent cook capable of producing the most wondrous dishes especially on special occasions, on an everyday basis I did not much like what was served for dinner in those early days with rice and vegetables being the main diet. I longed for noodles which she rarely cooked. As a result, I found an alternative way to get what I wanted.  Each afternoon, after primary school, which ended about 12.30pm, I would run home, drop my school bag and go and help a local noodle hawker doing his regular rounds by serving as an ‘advance guard’. In those early days, like many street vendors, noodle hawkers came around the ‘kampong’ estates on their tricycle carts, usually from early afternoon until early evening, fully equipped with bottled gas cooking facilities, the various ingredients needed and all the necessary paraphernalia required for the noodle hawking business such as chopsticks and bowls in which the noodles were served. My ‘job’, as an advance guard, was to alert the residents of the impending arrival of the noodle hawker by producing a pattern of ‘tick tok’ sounds using a half-section of a large bamboo piece held loosely on one hand and a bamboo stick on the other that was used to tap on the former to produce a familiar rhythmic ‘tick tock, tick tick tock’ sound. This was sufficiently loud enough, especially in the hot and musty afternoons to inform residents of the impending arrival of the noodle man. I would then go and take orders, convey it back to the vendor and when the bowls of noodle were ready, it was my job to serve them to those who had ordered. When their meal was finished, they would leave the bowls outside on their doorsteps and I would then collect them together with the payment and bring it back to the hawker. This I did for approximately five hours each day. And my reward? Well it was a huge bowl of kway teow tng (flat rice noodle) with all the goodies that I had worked so hard for. That, then, became my dinner!!


How Grandma won a duck for dinner


Grace Ling Chan’s favorite story won the first prize in the Singapore Story contest in The Straits Times.  [Source:  The Straits Times, 29 October 2011]


Grace Ling Chan

Grace Ling Chan, 32, has Down syndrome and is a human resources clerk at Goodwood Park Hotel.

I love all types of meat.  My favourite is duck in all its forms – roasted, braised or stir-fried.  Today, Singaporeans can easily afford to eat it at every meal, but there was a time when the dish was a luxury.

Every time we eat duck, my mother will tell me stories about my grandmother’s efforts to win a cooked one for dinner.

My late maternal grandmother, Madam Sim Twa Boey, used to wait anxiously for the duck man to visit their neighbourhood of terrace houses near Little India.  He carried delicious braised duck in two baskets slung across a pole on his shoulders.

The man would call out: “Ark bak sio sio” – fresh braised duck.

It was the late 1940s and early 1950s, and those who could afford it would buy a duck straight from him; those who couldn’t would throw dice to win either half or a full bird.

Each throw of the dice would cost only 10 or 20 cents.  My grandmother would always try her luck with a couple of throws to win a duck for her family.

When her luck was good, dinner would be very, very special – like Christmas and Chinese New Year rolled into one.

My mother Rose Chan, 71, says:  “The story of old Singapore is all about people like my mother who brought up nine children on very little.

“In the old days, there were no degustation dinners costing $200.  Life was very simple.  Singapore’s gross domestic product has since grown from zilch to what it is today.”

Both my mother and my father Chin Bock, 78, have numerous growing-up stories.  I love the duck story best because it’s my favourite meat to eat with rice, noodle or by itself.

Actor as “Lor Arh” Hawker at Sitting in Pictures

In 2011, Chang Soh Kiak, Writer, Director, Producer of Sitting in Pictures invited me and our friends of “Friends of Yesterday” group to her studio to produce a video on “foodage”.  We shared our childhood memories of the food in the past that we remember.

Chang Soh Kiak graduated with an honours degree in Economics and Political Science, University of Toronto.  Her career in TV began as a producter for a Current Affaits show in Singapore’s national channel.  She ventured further afield into sub-tropical Africa where she was an audio-visual consultant to various NGOs.  Over the course of two decades, she went from deforestation to urban jungle to downunder where she produced media for the corporate world, became an independent documentary film maker and co-founded Sitting in Pictures.  With a base in Australia, she travels extensively as she assumes the role of thinker/doer for the company.

Philip Chew blog on “Lor Arh” here .  The screenshot photos of the filming below:
James the Lor Ark seller (9)
Lor Arh vendor

Please watch the Foodage ‘Lor Arh Dice Game’ video here .

How many pioneer generation Singaporeans remember the “lor arh” dice game?

Grandpa’s TV set and regret


Television sets are special to the writer’s grandfather Baharon Ali, seen here with granddaughter Haney Falisya, as they remind him of his late wife Rosiah Abdullah.  He cherishes a Toshiba set that he carted home in 2003 for her.  ST Photo:  Ng Sor Luan.

[Source:  The Straits Times, 29 October 2011]


Hanis Sofea Abdul Rauff

Hanis Sofea Abdul Rauff, 14, is a Secondary 2 student at Christ Church Secondary.  She wins $300 in shopping vouchers and a JVC Digital Videocam GZ-MS120S.

Many in our family regard the outdated Toshiba TV set stashed in the store-room of my aunt’s Sembawang flat as a piece of junk, but not my maternal grandfather Baharom Ali, 76.


It is special, reminding him of his abiding love for his late wife Rosiah Abdullah.

Theirs was a love marriage, celebrated in 1960, when she was 16 and he 24.

Grandma was a Chinese convert whose foster family were neighbours.  That was how they met and fell in love.

After they wed, Grandma, while doing her chores, would follow the broadcasts of popular Malay and Chinese soaps on the radio in the 1960s.  She wished she could watch the shows on television but Grandpa was a brick maker of modest means who had to provide for his wife and seven children.

He had to work even harder in the 1970s as the family upgraded from a rented room to a one-room flat that he bought in Kallang Bahru.

Grandma fell critically ill with kidney and heart problems in the late 1990s and Grandpa now had the added burden of his wife’s expensive medical treatment.

He decided to take on an extra job as a construction workder to make ends meet.  Eventually, he bought a tiny TV but always wanted a better set for her.

Then came the fateful day in 2003 when his boss at the construction site received a call informing him that Grandma was dying.

As Grandpa was rushing home, he spotted a decent, discarded Toshiba TV set near their flat.  Without a second thought, he carried it home, hoping to show his wife that he had fulfilled her wish, but it was too late.  She was 59.

Until today, Grandpa, who is now a school cleaner, blames himself for not being at his wife’s deathbed.

I am proud of him though.  To me, the TV set, which no longer works, shows the extent he would go for a loved one.  And I am sure Grandma knows how deeply he loves her still.

Memories of Bygone Days – Sale of the Century


“It’s been there ever since you can remember  – the Chinese roof, the stone lions in front of the red door.  But in September 1982, that Orchard Road landmark was demolished.  All that’s left of C. K. Tang would be our memories” – Yvonne Quah.

[Source:  The Straits Times, 24 September 1982].


Like any business, Tang’s has had its fair share of ups and downs over the last 50 years. Read more about C.K. Tang here .   Please watch the video with courtesy of the ‘Mustsharenews’ group on Facebook here .

Chiam Sum Guan, linen and bedding supervisor, can’t quite forget the sense of loss when Grandma Tang died.

He also remembers how Tang expanded from a mere 10 departments to 30 in one year and there were floods and bomb scares but infinitely more memorable were the shoplifters.

One shoplifter locked himself into the staff toilet, hoping to spend the night wrapping up his stolen goods.

He had hoped to surreptitiously slip out in the early morning rush for the restrooms.

However, he didn’t have long to wait before the security men caught up with him.

The visits of royalty and stars were always a high point.

Mr Tang Wee Sung, General Manager, remembers being awe-struck and terrified being presented to Prince Norodum Sihanouk and Princess Monique.

He was then a youngster in shorts clutching a Brownie camera.

Although he was dumb-founded he did manage to click his Brownie camera.

Recently, the same schoolboy took the Prince and Princess round the new store, self-assured and at ease.

The Christmas rush will always remain a significant memory for Alice Wee, Information Supervisor.


She used to have to package as many as 500 to 600 parcels a day.

And once, she had to choose $3,000 worth of Christmas presents for a customer who hadn’t any time to do his Christmas shopping.

Others have childhood memories of the stationery department as a haven for school children.

There were pencil boxes galore, coloured pencils in boxes of 42 colours, records, cards and hordes of other bargains.

We all must have our own peculiar memories over the years.

As an anniversary celebration, Tangs had a host of in-store activities to take us down memory lane (from 24 September, 1982 to 16 October, 1982).

Tangs recaptured the dying trades and vanishing crafts, a cooking demonstration.

Paper profile cutter, Mr Tan Yee Hong cut profiles for customers at minimal charge of $5.

Mr C.K. Tseng’s Red Lion Collection was on show.  Other exhibitions include Nonya ware, old clocks, Victorian items and the fashion of the 30s.

There was ikebana and bonsai demonstrations in addition to copper tooling and glass blowing.

Two cobblers were on hand to demonstrate making ladies’ shoes and the opportunity to order custom-made shoes.

And to really lure us back to the good old days, there would be a “five-stones” demonstration.


‘God Tree’ in Toa Payoh, Singapore


Then and Now ….. The ‘God Tree’ shrine at Toa Payoh Central

According to The Straits Times, 20 September 2013, the ‘god tree’ survived  and the site remained as a place of worship for devotees.

Beside Block 177, Toa Payoh Central, the towering tree trunk stood firm although the trees around the place felled by storm.

god tree edit3


Between Blocks 178 and 179, Toa Payoh Central, a majestic banyan tree stands in its compound with an altar for the devotees to worship.


For four decades, it bore witness to the prayers and dreams of devotees who worshipped at a Buddhist shrine at its foot.

The residents rebuild the shrine to be protected by the gods to bless the devotees.  Regarded by believers as a “shen shu” or ‘god tree’ in Mandarin, the tree was said to be more than a century old.  The mighty tree pre-dated Toa Payoh new town itself, on which work began in 1965.

Residents continued to linger at the tree, some out of sheer habit and others to trade tales and memories.

They shared stories of how the tree stood the test of time, weathering the occasional thunderstorm and dodging the developer’s axe.

Retiree Foo Ah Cheng, 78, remembered seeing bulldozers try in vain to fell the tree as the new town was being built.

He said monks even offered prayers calling for the tree to give way.

“They wanted to get rid of it, but it wouldn’t go,” he said in Mandarin.

From its precarious past grew longevity.  Over the past decades, a steady stream of devotees have offered prayers for goodwill each time they passed the shrine.  Some believe it was responsible for 4-D lottery windfalls.

Even the tree’s leafy crown seemed to extend goodwill to residents.

Mr Foo recalled how the tree became so lush that its leaves kept the shrine and devotees dry when it rained.

He said the original caretaker was a monk who brought the statue of Goddess of Mercy Guan Yin from China and had a habit of sleeping under the tree.

When the monk died in 1975, his son Chen Zhou Rong took over and stayed on-site come rain or shine – greeting visitors who arrived at all hours to seek solace from the tree and the gods lining the shine’s altar.

As well as attracting devotees, the shrine also used to elicit “oohs” and “ahhs” from the curious onlookers and tourists from afar.

“The trees was very, very beautiful and many would take photos of it,” said retiree Lu Siew Bao, 60, who lives in the block next door.

On the tree, pink flowers in full bloom fanned out across its long, hanging branches.

Heritage enthusiast Jerome Lim, who grew up in Toa Payoh, said the shrine was a significant part of the estate’s heritage.

The 48-year-old told The Straits Times it served as “a link to the past when much of the area was occupied by farms and Chinese kampungs.”

[Note:  Jerome Lim is a veteran heritage blogger at “The Long and Winding Road”.  People, places, events, words and images that have left an impression on him along the long and winding road …    Please check out the related blog about Toa Payoh here .]

For many, it was a meeting point, and praying there had become very much a part of their everyday routine.

Ms Agnes Pek, a 40-year-old sales assistant who works at a beauty shop a stone’s throw from the site, said she used to pray for safety and a good day before starting work every morning.

Saving trees that are rooted in an estate’s past

In ‘Heartland Happenings’ of The Straits Times, 17 July 2001, Neo Hui Min wrote “Even as new buildings crop up, efforts are being made to preserve old trees that have become part of a town.”

Ask any Toa Payoh resident about an old tree in the neighbourhood and you will probably be directed to the one next to Block 177, at Toa Payoh Town Central.

There, between two rows of Housing Board shophouses, a banyan tree, with its tangle of branches and aerial roots, stands tall, looking much older than the building around it.

Estimated to be at least 50 years old, it has a 3 m wide, 2 m tall shrine nestled among its branches and roots.

No one knows whether the shrine was there before the tree or vice versa, but some of the tree’s branches clasp a rather old-looking wall which forms the back part of the shrine.

Six of eight residents that The Straits Times spoke to believe that the tree is part of the town and must not be destroyed.  Madam Tan Boey Lin, 53, a housewife, drops by occasionally to offer incense at the shrine.  “This is a spiritual tree.  People say it can’t be cut down, otherwise bad things will come to our town.”

But university student Adrian Lee, 23, said:  “Sometimes, these trees become ‘mystified” for no reason.   I guess it depends on what the tree looks like.  Somehow, banyan trees just have a mysterious look.”

Urban legend has it that in the early 1960s, when the land here had to be cleared away for the development of Toa Payoh, an engineer who tried to remove the tree was crushed to death under his own vehicle.

After praying to the tree for several years, residents set up a shrine under it in 1969.  It houses the four-faced Buddha and the Goddess of Mercy, and attracts many devotees during the first and 15th days of each lunar month.

A sacred banyan, smack in the heart of Toa Payoh

By Bill Campbell

[ Source:  The Straits Times, 11 July 1971]

It must go, the authorities ruled.

Nothing, it seemed, could save the old banyan tree – long held sacred by Toa Payoh squatter families – from being uprooted.

But the bulldozer driver cajoled into the job “collapsed” at the wheel and yet another attempt to remove the tree was abandoned.

Now over two years later the unflinching banyan tree still stands undisturbed –  right in the heart of the Toa Payoh town centre development.

No longer is the tree – nor the dilipidated Chinese base -under threat of removal.

Because, as if to justify the faith devotees have in its powers, it so happens it fits ideally into the modern town centre layout.

“It is a happy coincidence that things have turned out this way,” says Mr Liu Thai Ker, Head of the Housing and Development Board’s design and research unit.

But devotees who continue to move over the construction site to pray for good fortune before their deity doubtless read more than coincidence into it.

Before earthwork began at the Toa Payoh new town site most of the country was undulating farm land.

Squatter families who once lived there have since dispersed leaving nothing to indicate how the tree first came to be regarded as sacrosanct.

Nothing is on record where the board is concerned.  It appears that there was once a more substantial shrine at the site, for parts of a wall in temple style – almost unnoticeable in the entanglement of roots – still exist.

Right from the outset, building workers are said to have kept a respectful distance from the tree and for as long as possible it was left untouched.

Not surprisingly as the new town grew space and orders went out to remove the tree workers balked at the task.

“It was just that the tree was considered sacred and no one was willing to take any risk by cutting it down,” says Mr Liu.

Even then, board planners disavow that the tree basically influenced the town centre design, though it was always in mind.

“The design was dictated by other factors far more important than the tree,” Mr Liu says.

It is primarily the location of the tree, including the line of the main pedestrian mall that is said to have saved it.

The board has a special plan to improve the general setting of the tree, including the paths around it.

Because of its ever-spreading “strangling” roots, maintenance promises to be “pretty tricky”, as Mr Liu puts it.

In particular, board engineers are concerned that the roots do not damage the foundation of the four-storey shophouses taking shape on three sides of the tree mound.

Upon the shrine’s  altar table, along with other paraphernalia, is a collection box and money collected has obviously gone to providing a few wooden benches and a fairly concrete pit for burning joss-paper.

Fresh stalks of orchids and food offering are among evidence that the shrine continues to be well frequented despite the construction activity all around.


Hearsay has it that devotees pray there for family happiness …… success in business …… for “numbers” or simply good luck.

No matter what the background of the tree, it is adding some welcome lore to the story of the new town itself.


20190624_143811.jpgA devotee praying earnestly

Long story short …

20190624_144253.jpgNew Paper, 16  August 2014

For over 40 years, a banyan tree which is said to be guarded by a spirit was a landmark at Toa Payoh Central.  It even had a small shrine at its foot for devotes to offer prayers.

In September, 2013, a violent form caused the tree beside Block 177, Toa Payoh Central, to fall.

For worshippers drawn to the shrine’s Goddess of Mercy and other deities, the collapse seemed to mark the end of an era.

However, the Singapore Toa Payoh Central Merchants’ Association felt there was a need to preserve whatever remained of the tree and its shrine, known as Ci Ern Ge.

They took over the management of the shrine’s daily operations and spent over $100,000 to spruce it up.

The vice-president of the association, Mr Lim Kok Siong, said in Mandarin:  “NParks (National Parks Board) wasn’t keen to keep the tree initially, but we managed to convince them eventually.”

Now, as a result of the storm, the tree is only about three storeys high, about half of what it used to be.  It has also lost its leafy crown.


Ci Ern Ge [  慈恩阁  ], however, boasts new flooring, lights, fans, fences and handrails after it re-opened in mid-June.

There is even a ramp providing easier access to the shrine for the disabled.

Retail assistant ET Teoh started praying at the shrine about five years ago.

The 40-year-old told The New Paper in Mandarin:  “The new shrine is better.  It is much cleaner and there is better ventilation.  You also won’t feel that it’s crowded, even when there are a lot of people.”

Ms Teoh works at a retail shop in the area and she would pray at the shrine whenever she walks past it.

She added:  “I hope that the shrine will always be there as it is convenient for me (to pray there). ”

Legend also has it that a bulldozer was overturned when its driver tried to ram the tree down.

This led to people to believe that the tree was guarded by the Na Tuk Kong spirit.  So a shrine was built.

In addition to having this spirit, which is said to reside in trees and other natural formations, the shrine also has a Tua Pek Kong and Goddess of Mercy.

The shrine’s owner, who wanted to be known as Madam Low, has been helping to spruce up the place whenever she is free.  She performs tasks such as wiping the chairs and altars clean and clearing the joss sticks.

Madam Low told TNP in Mandarin:  “Many people come here to pray for safety.  I also see many young people coming here to confide in Guan Yin (Goddess of Mercy).

Since it re-opened, more than 100 devotees have been visiting Ci Ern Ge daily and the Singapore Toa Payoh Central Merchants’ Association has pledged to use the donations for charity.

The president of the association, Mr Yeo Hiang Meng, said:  “I hope that it can become the centre of attraction for Toa Payoh and that the residents here can get to know its history.”

20190625_154553.jpgThe HDB Hub in the background of the “God Tree”.


Toa Payoh merchants to restore tree shrine

[Source:  Straits Times, 2 May 2014]

By Melody Zaccheus

A group of Toa Payoh merchants have banded together to restore a damaged Buddhist shrine at the foot of a tree that is believed to be divine.

The shrine, which houses statues of the Goddess of Mercy and the four faced Buddha, will get a new coat of paint, brighter lights and new flooring.

Funds for the renovation effort, estimated to cost about $70,000, came from members of the association and devotees.

The money will also go towards installing fencing and steel cables to stabilise the remnants of the tree, which toppled after a storm last September.

Mr Yeo Hiang Meng, chairman of the Toa Payoh Central Merchants’ Association, said they decided to save the tree shrine located in Toa Payoh Central because of its significance to the community.

“We want to do our part for residents and devotee to ensure that they will have a place to pray at,” said Mr Yeo.

Called a shen shu, or divine tree, in Chinese, the tree predates the estate and has, for decades, been a gathering point for residents, devotees and 4D punters hoping for a lucky number.  Hundreds stop by daily to pray before they go about their activities in the busy town centre.

….. Mr Yeo said the association will hire a full-time caretaker to oversee the day-to-day management of the site when it is ready.

It also engaged the help of an arborist, who suggested the stabilising measures for the Banyan tree, HDB said the tree will have to be checked regularly for safety reasons.  Moving forward, HDB will continue to work closely with the licensee to ensure that the site is well-maintained and safe,” said its spokesman.

The association plans to erect a heritage marker at the site to share with visitors and tourists its history and how the tree had stood tall in the face of bad weather and the developer’s axe.

For instance, residents believe the Government split the current development of shophouses into two to accommodate the tree.

Mr Yeo hopes HDB will consider awarding them a long-term licence to use the site.  “It has a rich heritage and strong links to the community.  We hope the site will be here for a long time to come.”

Devotee Foo Hock Seng, 79, who visits the shrine once a month, said he appreciates the efforts of the association.  He said:  “It used to be quite rundown.  I look forward to visiting the upgraded shrine.”


The school at Outram Road, Singapore


The former Outram Prison located beside Outram School (above) was demolished and replaced by the HDB flats and shops at Outram Park (below).


Little Red Dot walks you through some of the oldest schools in Singapore.

By Eisen Teo in The Straits Times, 13 March 2002.

One of the oldest … government schools in Singapore.

Founded: 1906 (106 years old).

Founded as:  A primary school that took in local pupils but used English as a medium of teaching, which was the exception for schools at that time.  Most schools taught in mother tongues like the Chinese dialects, Malay or Tamil.

The government, which was controlled by the British then, wanted to encourage the learning of English.

The school, named Outram Road School because it was located in Outram Road, was officially opened by the Governor of Singapore, Sir John Anderson.  It served as a feeder school for Raffles Institution, one of the top schools in Singapore at that time.

1939: The school was renamed Outram School.

Blast from the past:  In June 1939, Outram School headmaster R W Watson-Hyatt installed two traffic lights in the school – one of the front corridor and another over the main staircase, to regulate human traffic.  He decided to do so to educate pupils on heading traffic lights, which was introduced on Singaporean roads only a few years before.

Blast from the past:  In 1941, as the threat of a Japanese invasion of Singapore grew, the Education Ministry ordered Outram School to move its records to the nearby Pasir Panjang English School for safekeeping.

Unfortunately, while Outram School survived subsequent bombings, the Pasir Panjang school was destroyed – along with all of Outram School’s past record.

1954:  Outram School was converted to a secondary school.

1958:  Girls were admitted for the first time.

1961:  Outram School was renamed Outram Secondary.

1968:  The school moved to its present premises at York Hill, off Chin Swee Road.

1977:  The school opened a swimming pool – only the third school in Singapore to do so – and formed a Life Saving Society to teach students life-saving skills.

Famous Alumni

Former president Wee Kim Wee, former Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng and actor and host Gurmit Singh.





Outram Secondary School at York Hill

[Source:  The Straits Times, 20 May 1970].

Outram Secondary School was officially opened by Mr Hon Sui Sen. MP for Havelock on Friday, 22 May 1970.

The school, originally in Outram Road, was demolished in 1968 two years ago to make way for urban renewal and development of the Outram MRT station.

Now sited in York Hill, it is a multi-purpose secondary school offering academic education with  a commercial bias and technical education.

The new building has a centralised workshop for technical workshop practice, four science laboratories, facilities for home economics, art and crafts rooms, a shorthand and typewriting laboratory and a library.

Outram Secondary moves back home [Source:  The Straits Times, 29 August 1999].

By Leslie Koh

One of S’pore’s first English schools, it celebrated the opening of its new premises on 28 August 1999 night with 600 guests.






From Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng to actor-comedian Gurmit Singh, Outram Secondary School has groomed many well-known names in Singapore.


Last night, many of them went back to school – to celebrate the opening of the school’s new complex.

About 600 guests, including Mr Wong, Mr Koh Cher Siang, the commissioner of Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore, and Brigadier-General Patrick Choy, Singapore’s ambassador to Myanmar, had dinner in the school hall.

The entertainment was, of course, provided by old boy Gurmit Singh.

The school was rebuilt at a cost of $27 million.  It sits atop York Hill off Chin Swee Road, and boasts a 93-year history.

Founded in 1906, the school was one of the first English schools to be built by the colonial government.  Originally set up as a primary school, it used to groom students for Raffles Institution.

The new school complex is made up of six buildings, with some as high as six storeys.

There is also a large open-air amphitheatre, dance studios and s rock-climbing wall.

Its star facility, however, is the 25-m swimming pool, retained from the old complex.  The pool had helped the school build a reputation for excellence in swimming and water-polo in the past.

Outram Secondary is the only government school to have a swimming pool.

The 1,100 students and 60 teaching staff moved into the new premises in June last year, after it was completed.

For four years before that, classes were conducted in a school at Winstedt Road, while the rebuilding was being done.

Principal Chan Poh Meng said that the school’s strengths lay in its history as a school offering commerce subjects

Students used to graduate not with O-levels, but with a London Chamber of Commerce certificate of commercial education.

That was between 1957 and 1963, after the school had converted from a primary to a secondary school.

While the school no longer issues the LCC certificates, it has maintained its commerce roots.  Today, it has more students taking such subjects at O-levels than most other schools.

These subjects include commerce studies, office admimistration and accounting.

Outram Secondary was also ranked among the top 20 value-added schools for normal stream this year.

Said the principal:  “Outram has a history comparable to that of other top schools.  We want to maintain this tradition of an all-rounded education.

Memorable photos to remember










Can you recognise the buildings behind the school field in the background?

Outram Secondary rebuilt school

[Source:  The Straits Times, 14 May 1999]

By Sandra Davie


The old building was built in the 1960s.  It had 21 classrooms and a sports hall.  In 1977, the school advisory committee raised funds to build a 25-m swimming pool.




The new six-storey bulding, at about 20,000 sq m, is double the size of the old one.  It has 36 classrooms, each of which is about 20 sq m larger than the old ones.

There are also four computer rooms with 40 computers each, a larger staff room, an amphitheatre, a multi-purpose hall, an indoor sports hall and several special rooms, including a dance studio, sound-proof music room and a fitness room.

School has become a more lively and interesting place for Outram Secondary students since their big move into a new six-storey building.

Jevon Liew, 15, for one, looks forward to stepping inside his school at York Hill, off Chin Swee Road, every morning.

He enjoys his classroom lessons more now because they have become “less chalk and talk” and more activity-based.

He said:  “Before that, when we were in an old building at Newton, my lessons just had the teacher standing in front of blackboard and talking.

“Now, lessons are more fun.  My teachers use computers, we go out of the class for project work and we get to play-act our literature texts at the amphitheatre.”

The 93-year-old school was rebuilt at it original site at a cost of $27 million.

When its staff and 1,100 students moved into the new, larger premises last July, Outram started life as a single-session school.  Lessons are held in the morning, and enrichment activities, remedial classes and ECA take place in the afternoon.

But in the four years of waiting for their new building to be ready, staff and students were using the old Monk’s Hill Secondary School building at Winstedt Road in Newton.

Outram was one of 106 secondary schools rebuilt since 1988, to convert them into single-session school.

Outram Secondary principal Chan Poh Meng said that even before the move, his 70 teachers were edging towards more activity-centred teaching to infuse creative and thinking skills in their students.  But they were constrained by the facilities.

“The biggest obstacle was the shortage of classrooms.  We had to function as a double-session school.  That meant that a whole lot of enrichment and remedial classes could not take place because we just didn’t have any spare classrooms,” he said.

Despite the Education Ministry’s push towards IT-based teaching and learning, his teachers had found it difficult to incorporate the use of IT in their lessons, he said.

“The classrooms were not wired up.  To teach computer application, we had to convert two small classrooms into two small labs with 20 computers each and the teachers had to move from one classroom to the other.”

Outside of the classroom, the school could only provide for run-of-the-mill extra-curricular and enrichment activities, he added.

“We didn’t have the dance studio, the soundproof music room, amphitheatre and multi-purpose sports hall that we have now.”

Moving into a new building has made all the difference.  The teachers say the state-of-the-art facilities have allowed them to try out interesting new approaches to teaching.

Mr Derek Tan, an English Language teacher who uses IT in every other lesson, said:  “This is a new generation of young people.  They have been brought up on computers.  So when you use computers, it is half the battle won, because they associate it with fun and games.  You see the students sit up and listen.


Each classroom has been wired to allow for up to 11 computers.  Soon, notebook PCs will be available in classrooms for more computer-based lessons.

The head of English, Mr K. Selvakkrishnan, said that the bigger classrooms and the availability of more interaction spaces have also led to more group and project work.

“The bigger classroom space allow teachers to change the arrangement of tables and chairs for group work.  On top of that, there are many quiet, conducive spaces outside of the classroom that can be used.”

Mr Lee Khim Song, 29, head of science, said the six science labs and computers meant that teachers can get students to do more lab experiments on computers to demonstrate concepts.  Science has therefore become more “real and interesting” to the students, he added.

The school’s head of physical education and ECA, Mr Tan Tee Suan, who has been with Outram since 1970, said teachers could now offer more and interesting activities outside the classroom.

Rain or shine, the students play badminton, basketball, netball and football in the new multi-purpose sports hall.  Next to come is rock-climbing – once their $86,000 rockwall is ready.

“The new kind of teaching and learning methods demand new facilities – and it is good to have such facilities,” said Mr Tan.

Outram students agree totally.  Lee Yu Wei, 16, a secondary 4 student heading the students’ council, said:  “Using computers and doing project work and drama has made lessons even more interesting.  ECA and afternoon hour activities have also become more fun.”


Another archived photo (below) of the former Outram Secondary School at Outram Road, courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore and other unnamed contributors.