13 May 2018

Delving into the heritage of Bukit Panjang, Singapore

Jane's Walk, the annual movement of free, citizen-led walking tours inspired by Jane Jacobs, a journalist, author, and activist whose work has influenced urban studies, sociology, and economics, has continued to receive enthusiastic support in Singapore. According to organisers, walks were getting sold out within hours of their unveiling.

The walks, held around Jacobs' birthday in early May, get people to tell stories about their communities, explore the city and connect with neighbours.

I attended a sold-out walk on May 5, At the Crossroads: Bukit Panjang, this year. The extremely knowledgeable walk guides Eisen (@Eisen), a senior history researcher and docent with a Singapore-based heritage consultancy, and Jinhua (@Kuekj), a translator and a former lifestyle writer and editor, spent three hours bringing the past, present and future of the neighbourhood to life. As @Eisen said, "Every building has a story and so has every road."

Bukit Panjang, so named after a nearby chain of low hills, has seen much change. The beginning of the walk centred the road junction around which Bukit Panjang village spung up over a hundred years ago. There were a number of stops here, including malls - the Hillion mall used to be a market - the terminus of the 42 km Downtown Line, and the Murugan Hill Temple, part of which evolution has been directed by dreams. Of major landmarks in Bukit Panjang, only the Esso Station has remained.

There would have been a village cinema nearby, Sin Wah Theatre. It had no air-conditioning, and a zinc roof and walls. Tickets used to cost just 50 cents. Bukit Panjang's entertainment centre was demolished in the 1980s.

The "MBS of Bukit Panjang", the Linear condominium's concept was designed by architect Kenzo Tange.
The "MBS of Bukit Panjang" and the longest condominium in Singapore, the Linear condominium's concept was designed by architect Kenzo Tange.  

The confluence of Upper Bukit Timah Road, Woodlands Road and Choa Chu Kang Road was called 10-mile junction, and one of the malls is still called Junction 10. There is also a Tennery condominium. @Eisen and @Kuekj shared that the "10th mile" is 10 miles away from from the General Post Office (now Fullerton Hotel), and would have been the way people located parts of Singapore in the past. Singapore moved to kilometres to measure road distances in the 1970s, our guides said.

There was also a roundabout nearby, Bukit Panjang Circus (roundabout), which lasted 23 years. It was converted into a traffic signal junction in 1980. In the 1960s, there were over 40 roundabouts, with no need for traffic lights or police.

Bukit Panjang is an integrated transport hub today, hosting not only the mass rapid transit but also a light rail system and a bus interchange. Trains used to run through the area as well.

The light rail transit (LRT) system was first announced in 1991, with the system launched in 1999. It is Singapore's first driverless and fully automated system. The train windows have privacy filters when passing Housing Development Board blocks.

What we learned:

There was a private road named Jalan Cheng Hwa, and a school also called Cheng Hwa in the area.
The original Cheng Hwa school had 1,600 enrolment in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which was high for Singapore in those days. It closed in 1985.

The name lives on as the Pinyinised Zhenghua, used in the names of a primary and a secondary school, as well as a nature park. There used to be a neighbourhood called Zhenghua but the public did not like the Pinyin name. In 1987 the HDB renamed Zhenghua New Town to Bukit Panjang New Town.

An overseas Chinese support association, 武裕平民互助会, with Lee Huat Motoring just behind the tree.
An overseas Chinese support association, 武裕平民互助会, with Lee Huat Motoring just behind the tree. 

We also stopped at 10 Mile Junction station. This LRT station is the only one that is air conditioned, has full height platform screen doors, fare gates on the same level as the platform, and only one track. It is also closing this year because of insufficient demand.
The flats in Bukit Panjang have blocks in varying heights to reflect the hilly terrain of the area.

Pang Sua Pond has the 2nd-largest floating wetlands in Singapore. @KuekJ discussed the origins of the name of the place. If "sua" is hill, then "pang" might mean "beside" or "fragrant"; "pang sua" could also mean "weighing sand" or "offloading sand", he said.

The adjoining Senja Cashew Community Club has an infinity pool and a jacuzzi. A number of roads are named after nuts in the neighbourhood, including the almond, hazel and chestnut.

Another area is within Bukit Panjang is known as Dairy Farm, after an actual air-conditioned dairy farm in the 1930s. We still have a Dairy Farm Group, which runs pharmacies, convenience stores and supermarkets in Asia.

The Bukit Panjang Post Office, marked by where the blue strip is, used to be a smaller, standalone building. Although it is now in Choa Chu Kang after constituency lines were redrawn, it is still known as Bukit Panjang Post Office.

This area used to have rubber plantations. There is no road sign, but road directories named this as Lorong Ah Thia.

In 1903, a train ran from Singapore to Thailand, passing by Bukit Panjang. The train company eventually became KTM (Keretapi Tanah Melayu). The train from Singapore to Malaysia closed for good in 2011. By 2011, the train crossing in Bukit Panjang was 108 years old.

The Rail Corridor Test Track features four different types of surfaces that could be used for a permanent track. The feedback site is down, @Kuekj said.


Look out for updates for 2019 in Singapore on the Jane's Walk Singapore Facebook page

Jane's Walks around the world can be found in a city near you.

Visit Bukit Panjang's website - the blog for this was last updated in 2013

Read the history-oriented Long and Winding Road blog about the 10th mile

Read recollections of 10th mile area in the past (Chinese)

Watch the video of the removal of a milestone marker by the National Heritage Board

Read the WorkSmart Asia blog post about 2018 Jane's Walks

Hashtag: #JanesWalkSG, #JanesWalkBPJ