By Marc Servos
Local areas that qualify as “home” to me encompass a vibrant history and past images I compare with today’s landscapes. My hometown, Fort Wayne, Indiana, has a history of Native American, French, British and American activity on the colonial frontier, and I was stationed with the US Army at the site of a former Luftwaffe base in Germany. Having lived overseas, now spending most of my time in Singapore since 2000, my exposure to such a myriad of cultures has fostered a greater appreciation, interest and understanding of the local historical landscape of my current environs.
Ample information about Singapore’s history is available in published and online sources, and a number of Heritage Trails organized by the National Heritage Board give a deeper perspective. If one wishes to explore, many different aspects of the Lion City’s history can be found across the island.
Arguably the most densely packed historical area is the Civic District, where modern Singapore began. Most structures established shortly after Sir Stamford Raffles’ time are gone, but the legacy of his 1822 Raffles Town Plan still continues; one example is Raffles Place, continuing to be a location of commerce as first intended. Perhaps the oldest surviving local building is the Arts House, originally the Old Parliament House, built in 1827. Late 19th and early 20th century buildings continue to operate in various capacities, including as museums that give detailed insight of local history. The Singapore River operated as an artery of the local economy with bum boats – reproductions of which are now used for tourism – transporting goods from anchored merchant vessels to the shop houses that now function as restaurants and pubs at Clarke and Boat Quays.
Fort Canning Park is situated prominently in this District. A few centuries before it was used by the British Army, a thriving settlement named Ban Zu existed here. Ruins of buildings still visible in early colonial times and artefacts uncovered in the 20th century excavations have further indicated this. Stamford Raffles completed his thatched atap roofed wooden home in early 1823 at this location, which was later expanded with the bricks and tile design to be used by the British as Government House, the modern version of which stands on the same very site today. The original was demolished in 1859 – its use replaced by what is today’s Istana on Orchard Road – to make way for the construction of its military facilities.
Also, in this District at the very site of the Fullerton Hotel, itself originally a post office, was Fort Fullerton. When its operation ended in the 1870s, construction of several installations commenced further away at what is now named Sentosa along with adjacent locales tasked to protect Keppel Harbour, including Fort Siloso. Remnants of Mount Imbiah Battery nearby Siloso and Fort Pasir Panjang at Labrador Park are relatively easy to access.
Another aspect of military history is Dempsey Hill. Today a quaint lifestyle enclave, it used to be the site of Tanglin Barracks, housing British troops after the site had been a nutmeg plantation. The Indian Mutiny occurred here in 1915.
People’s residences have gone through much change over the past 50 years in particular. Today’s HDBs and private condos occupy where kampongs and plantations once lay. Kampong life is still seen at Pulau Ubin, and remnants of the plantation also exist here and Pulau Tekong where rubber trees of uniform sizes are blended in the forests. Shop houses in town served as residents’ dwellings with businesses operating at street level. HDB’s forerunner, the Singapore Investment Trust (SIT), developed housing to address adverse living conditions of many of the shophouses. Tiong Bahru continues to be home of some of the oldest SIT estates, which encompass the Art Deco design popular when they were built in the 1930s. And of course, there are the charming black and white bungalows, most of which presently serve as residential and commercial buildings.
Before venturing out and seeing either the more visible or hidden pieces of history, you can absorb much information from dedicated websites:
National Heritage Board: nhb.gov.sg
National Library Board: eresources.nlb.gov.sg/history
Singapore Tourism Board: visitsingapore.com/travel-guide-tips/about-singapore