First launched in 2006, the Balestier Heritage Trail was been updated November last year, by the National Heritage Board to provide greater insights into the area’s lesser-known history. Before embarking on the trail, most people would probably admit to knowing little about Balestier’s rich past. For example — did you know that the region is home to the oldest Tan Tock Seng wards, that are over 100 years old? Or that it has a rich food and culinary heritage dating back decades?
Moreso than the new locations within Balestier Heritage Trail, the real highlight lies in the stories behind the region. Taking in the architectural sights and talking to Balestier’s residents who have been through both peaceful and tumultuous times keeps the history alive.
The healthcare heritage at the former grounds of Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), a new addition to the trail, left the deepest impression on me. The fact that these wards constructed more than a hundred years ago still stand today still stands on Balestier ground amidst all the modern buildings, preserved in its entirety other than the fresh coat of paint, is pretty amazing.
The first hospital established by the community in 1847 at Pearl’s Hill, TTSH catered to people of all classes and races (note that this was progressive for its time) till it moved to Balestier in 1860. In the war years during the 40s, as well as the 50s, the hospital played a crucial role in treating tuberculosis. Many generations of medical professionals were also trained on those grounds, including current Malaysian PM Dr Mahathir. The wards were built on high planes to prevent flooding, with well ventilated rooms — two of many other factors that put them amongst the best wards of their time. By the turn of the 21st century, the wards were briefly turned into nursery homes for Renci, before finally transitioning into its relic status.
A conversation with the 87 year old Professor Chew Chin Yin, former doctor of TTSH and long-term resident of Balestier, revealed the state of the hospital during the war years. Professor Chew was still a child when the war broke out. His father was an established doctor, and some medical interns attached to him died when bombs fell on the hospital. Professor Chew’s father also had a friend who almost died because the Japanese withheld penicillin treatment. Later on, as Chew himself became a doctor, he treated many patients with tuberculosis. Since then, the hospital and Balestier had been central to his life. Listening to his stories today, just a stone’s throw away from where the events took place, made the past feel more real and close to us.
Another highlight of Balestier lies in its architecture. The shophouses, temples and houses along Balestier tend to be colourful and and the result of cultural fusion, adding character to the area. The prime example of this architectural phenomenon lies in Sim Kwong Ho shophouses along 292-312 Balestier Rd, that come with a fusion style known as Chinese Baroque, a resultant of the combined Chinese and European influences on local architecture when it was constructed in 1926.
Besides colourful shophouses, Balestier Rd is also home to one of the oldest temples in Singapore, the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong, built by the Hokkien Huay Kuan in 1847. Besides the reconstruction process in 1920 and again in 1928 where the tent was added, there were no further changes made to the temple’s general facade.
The temple also happens to be one out of the last three temples in Singapore that has a stage for mainly traditional Hokkien plays. Every year in February on the Lunar calendar, the temple teems with visitors, with as many as 1,000 at its peak.
If you are simply in the mood for enjoying good food away from the usual tourist attractions like Lau Pa Sat, there is plenty to check out in the area too. The area’s reputation for good food started really early on, in the early 1900s. The Balestier Market, built in 1922, is Singapore’s only surviving rural market building known by names such as Tee Pa Sat and Or Kio Pa Sat. In what is now a well-known hawker food spot, a wet market bustled till the early 2000s. Much of its interior has been retained, despite the change in vendors.
There are many more heritage sites that you can check out on the Balestier Heritage Trail, including but not limited to the famous Wan Qing Yuan and Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall (the only pre-war villa that still stands today), the site of Malaya’s first film studio at 8 Jalan Ampas, and the Maha Sasanaramsi Burmese Buddhist Temple that has the largest known marble Buddha statue outside Myanmar.
The area’s rich history is also why it has left many great memories with its former and current residents. Former resident of Balestier, Ms Gerardine Donough-Tan, shared with us how there used to be more outdoor bonding and community closeness in her younger days.
She is now a freelance writer, editor, and associate lecturer. She asserts, “childhood in Balestier formed the most memorable years of my life”. A precocious child then, she recalled how she was heavily disappointed when the “red building” in the neighbourhood that used to be the library closed down for good. Her parents and grandparents had also resided in the region, leaving behind pictures of relatives’ children playing in the water after a flood in the 1930s.
Looking at the old pictures and listening to her recounts, it was as though the past and present reconnected. Heritage trails would have that effect on you.
Photos by Soloman Soh of the DANAMIC team.