The old HDB flats on Stirling Road are still there today, a tell-tale sign of Queenstown’s long history. (Photos: Cheryl Marie Tay)
Singapore’s oldest satellite town has kept up with the times and seen many modern developments spring up across it. But even it progresses, pockets of history are still visible throughout the estate, and it is this mix of old and new that attracts many to Queenstown.
by Cheryl Marie Tay
Singapore may be only 51 years old, but its history began much earlier than 1965. And as the country’s oldest satellite town, Queenstown has certainly seen plenty of changes over the years.
Located on the south-westernmost edge of central Singapore, its very name is a rather transparent reference to Singapore’s heritage as a former British colony. Indeed, Queenstown was so christened after the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth II, to mark her coronation in 1952.
Thanks to the estate’s obvious association with British royalty, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge made a stop in Queenstown during their visit to Singapore in September 2012.
The estate is surrounded by Bukit Merah on its eastern and south-eastern sides, Bukit Timah on its northern side, Clementi on its western and north-western sides, Selat Pandan on its southern and south-western sides, and Tanglin on its north-eastern side.
Its 16 subzones include Buona Vista, Commonwealth, Dover, Ghim Moh, Holland Drive, Kent Ridge, Margaret Drive, Mei Chin, Pasir Panjang, Portsdown, Queensway and Tanglin Halt, while its main housing estates include Duchess Estate, Princess Estate and Queen’s Close.
A village in a valley
Before the 1950s, Queenstown was merely a swampy valley flanked by hills, with a rubber plantation on one side and a cemetery on the other. There was also a village in the area, called Bo Beh Kang, which was populated mainly by Hokkien- and Teochew-speaking inhabitants in attap huts.
Until 1942, these residents grew vegetables and fruits and reared chickens and pigs for a living. In 1947, however, the Housing Committee of Singapore published a report highlighting the problem of inadequate housing in the country.
As a solution, the report proposed having Singapore’s population decentralised away from city areas by establishing self-contained suburban residential estates. This was supposedly influenced by post-war Britain’s New Town initiative.
A successful start
The Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) eventually chose Queenstown for housing development, thanks to its proximity to Singapore’s first public housing project, Tiong Bahru, which had proven to be a success.
The construction of Queenstown’s first public housing neighbourhood, Princess Margaret Estate (named after Queen Elizabeth II’s younger sister), commenced in July 1952, with a preliminary batch of three-room flats ready for occupation by late 1953.
This grew to over 1,000 one-, two- and three-room flats and 68 terrace houses by 1956, and included the 14-storey Forfar House, which was the tallest HDB block in Singapore then. It was considered such a prominent landmark at the time, there was even a ceremony held in October 1956 in its honour.
Simply known as Block 39, it contained 106 three-room flats, four stores and a kopitiam. However, 40 years after it was first built, it was demolished under the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS).
Queenstown was fully developed as a public housing estate by 1970, and its success led to Buona Vista and Holland Village following the same route.
Into the 21st century
Today, Queenstown is still a thriving, self-sustaining residential estate. Its demographics have shifted somewhat since it was built, with more senior citizens residing in the area now than in most other estates in Singapore. They live mostly in the older two- and three-room HDB flats in the area.
Thanks to urban renewal efforts in the 2000s, residential developments such as SkyTerrace and SkyVille at Dawson (in Princess Estate) have drawn younger homebuyers to Queenstown. In fact, the SCDA Architects-designed SkyTerrace recently won an award from the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) for International Excellence. Margaret Drive has also been redeveloped, such that it is now a modern neighbourhood that affords residents a high level of convenience.
Of course, the older residents are still catered to; a new nursing home at Margaret Drive will open in 2017, and will provide care and rehabilitation to the elderly who have been discharged from the hospital but still require some medical care while recovering. It will also have a senior care centre to help families look after their elderly member in the day, while the former are at work.
There are many schools — including renowned educational institutions — in Queenstown, a plus point for parents of school-going children of any age. From primary (Fairfield, New Town and Queenstown) and secondary schools (Anglo-Chinese Independent, Fairfield Methodist, Queensway) to tertiary (Anglo-Chinese Junior College, the National University of Singapore, Singapore Polytechnic) and even international institutions (Anglo-Chinese International, Global Indian International School, United World College of Southeast Asia), the Queenstown Planning Area has no shortage of schools.
Other amenities include Alexandra Hospital, National University Hospital (NUH), Anchorpoint Shopping Centre, Queensway Shopping Centre, The Star Vista and of course, Queenstown MRT station.
Those who prefer to be away from large crowds can eschew the shopping malls for Kent Ridge Park and HortPark. If you’re in the mood for something a little different, go to Haw Par Villa, a theme park brimming with Chinese mythology and folklore; it features more than 1,000 statues and 150 giant dioramas depicting scenes from Chinese legend and history.
There is also plenty of food to be had here. The estates numerous hawker centres include ABC Brickworks Market, Alexandra Village Food Centre and Tanglin Halt Hawker Centre. Of course, there is also Singapore’s first IKEA outlet on Alexandra Road, where you can have the Swedish furniture giant’s famous meatballs after a day of furniture shopping.
Hankering for the past
Though Queenstown has kept up with the times and continued to attract both residents and visitors, some still miss the Queenstown of old.
For 32-year-old Singaporean filmmaker Sivaraj Pragasm, it was his first home. Born in 1984, he grew up in Queenstown. After spending the first 15 years of his life living there, his family moved in July 1999 to Sengkang, where he still lives today.
He reminisces about the reputed “kampong spirit” we’ve all heard about, but may not have experienced: “Queenstown was a world of its own. It had a lot of charm because the buildings were pretty old and the people there had been living there since the 1950s and 1960s, so neighbours knew one another.
“You could leave the front door open without any issues. Food there was great because you could either go to Tanglin Halt, Margaret Drive or Stirling Road, all within walking distance of each one another. I also remember spending a lot of time at Queenstown Shopping Centre when I was younger.”
Comparing life in Queenstown with that in Sengkang, he says: “(Life in Queenstown) has never been — and can ever be — replicated by living here in Sengkang, simply because the demographics are different and it’s very sterile, considering it’s an entirely new town.”
Pragasm still visits Queenstown these days, “for old time’s sake”, and is — perhaps unsurprisingly — rather saddened by the rapidly disappearing landmarks and symbols of his childhood.
He says, “Most of the Queenstown that I grew up with has disappeared. Entire blocks of flats are being torn down, and the stalls at the hawker centre that I used to go to are no longer around, except maybe that famous Western food stall at Tanglin Halt, which I think is called A1 Western.”
Pragasm’s mood does lighten considerably when asked to recommend what one should eat and do in Queenstown: “I would highly recommend A1 Western. There are some heritage trails and tours that are run by non-profit organisations in Queenstown, so I would recommend checking that out.
“There’s also a Facebook group called My Queenstown that brings Queenstown residents, past and present, together. There are a lot of old photos of Queenstown you can find on the site that really show the rich history of the place.”
Still, as it has been for a long time in Singapore, progress will continue, nostalgia notwithstanding. New developments continue to spring up all over the island, and Queenstown is no exception.
One of the upcoming residential projects in the estate is Queens Peak by MCC Land. Located on Dundee Road, the condominium development will contain 736 units across two towers. The unit types will range from one- to five-bedroom apartments and will also include penthouse units with private pools.
The development will also feature communal sky gardens within its curvilinear façade, and is situated just opposite Queenstown MRT station, as well as close to Alexandra Village Food Centre and ABC Brickworks Market, both of which offer a wide range of delectable local cuisines.
History amid modernity
Still, if you’re looking for some nostalgic indulgence, you can take a stroll along some of the older neighbourhoods in Queenstown, like those at Tanglin Halt and Stirling Road.
Also on Stirling is Tiong Ghee Temple, which was built in 1912 as a shrine to Guan Gong, the god of protection. Originally called Bo Beh Kang End Village Ghee Tiong Temple (after the aforementioned village where it was located), it was expanded in 1931, both physically and in terms of its roster of gods, with Tua Pek Kong joining the fold.
Tiong Ghee Temple’s history dates back to 1912, when it was located in Bo Beh Kang village.
Interestingly, Bo Beh Kang village remained mostly unharmed during World War II, and residents attributed this to the protection of the gods. As a result, every 12 May and 23 August on the lunar calendar, events are held at the temple so devotees can express gratitude to the gods through a series of rituals.
The temple was renamed Tiong Ghee temple in 1968, after a temple committee was formed and had it registered as a religious institution; it was then moved to its current location on Stirling Road.
You can see the temple and other such historical sites in Queenstown by signing up for heritage tours conducted by My Queenstown Heritage Trail (bit.ly/2gaEDMu).