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Jun 20, 2017

The Desolation-to-Progress - History of Bukit Ho Swee

The memories of Bukit Ho Swee kampong may be forgotten by many people, but to me, it's in my blood, in my mind because I was born in this little known place in Singapore.  My memories would then die with me ...

It is not newsworthy to share on the blog, but I just come across news stuff to me.  Thanks to a 34-year-old newspaper article on BUKIT HO SWEE published on 6 November, 1983 in the former Singapore Monitor.  Thanks to NewspaperSG of the National Library Board of Singapore to share on the blog.


There aren't many places like Bukit Ho Swee in Singapore.  It's disaster-prone.  In 40 years from successive "biggest-fires-ever" have swept through it.  But residents there are now confident their estate will not catch the headlines again with another blaze.  There are no huts anymore; only Housing Board flats.  The highly combustible huts were wiped out in the mid-1920s, rebuilt and burnt down again in 1934.  Then in 1961 disaster struck again.  This time the Government moved in to ensure that no more huts would rise again from the ashes, instead "emegency" flats were built for the squatters.  In 1968, the untouched part of squatter colony at the Kim Seng Road end was razed, leaving 100 families homeless.

A poignant photo of a fire victim with only his clothes in his hand, staring at the dark smoke in the sky during the Bukit Ho Swee fire on 25 May, 1961.  What was in his thoughts at that moment?
Was it the end of the world for him?

At the Bukit Ho Swee Fire Relief Centre after the fire

"Even the younger residents undestand better than most others elsewhere how much our Government has done for us," says 62 year old school tuckshop operator Mr Woon Teng Hin.

Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at the opening ceremony of the Jalan Bukit Ho Swee Housing Estates on 23 September, 1961.  He kept his promise to the homeless fire victims that the fire site would be developed and built within 1 year.  The 1-room "emergency" flats were completed in 9 months.

With rising affluence and younger residents getting married, many of the original squatters have moved out.  Only 30 per cent of those squatters are left so the Kim Seng Citizens' Consultative Committee, the HDB, Archives and Oral History Department and Singapore News and Publishers Limited sponsored a week-long pictorial exhibition on "The Emergence of Bukit Ho Swee Estate - from desolation to progress" from November 15, 1983.

The exhibits cover a period of almost 150 years, back to the days of junks, opium farms and Tay Ho Swee who gave his name to the estate.  Those were also the days of the Chinese-style, walled-in mansions with farmers cultivating vegetable plots and rearing pigs outside.


Ho Swee owned junks which were built in the creeks in nearby Covent Garden and which made regular sailings to Trengganu and Singgora in southern Thailand.  The family estate below the hill was let out to vegetable farmers.  As the population grew, more people "squatted" on these farms.  Three separate kampongs developed on this and adjoining estates.

Mr Lee Boon Eng, 66, remembers that some time in the 1920s most of the huts in the area were burnt down.  "I was very young then, can't remember how it all happened.  No Social Welfare then.  And the British Government didn't care much about such things.  The victims came back, rebuilt their huts and carried.

"There was a big cemetery here, stretching all the way to Tiong Bahru.  Ho Swee was buried here.  His grave was a landmark here."

On 9 August, 1934, fire broke out at the Tiong Bahru end.  Fanned by a strong wind, the blaze fanned 1.6 km through huts to the edge of the Singapore River, making 5,000 people homeless with a couple of hours.

But this time there was better organisation.  The whole fire brigade turned out to fight the flames which threatened to sweep through the godown along the river bank.

The police also turned out in force because almost the whole population seemed to have turned out to watch the fire.  The area for 4.8 km around was a "seething crowd" the Chinese newspaper of the day reported.

The Chinese Chamber of Commerce moved in with aid.  They requisitioned the Great World Cabaret to house some of the victims,  The rest put up temporary shelters on the fire-site after firemen had doused the embers.

The chamber distributed food and money to the victims the next day.  The Hokkien Huay Kuan organised a variety show at the amusement park to raise funds for them.  With the proceeds new huts were built.  The post-war housing shortage and the population growth brought more people into the area; the three kampungs became one huge squatter colony stretching from Tiong Bahru to Covent Garden.

"It was a terrible place.  No roads inside.  To go through other people's living rooms or even in the bedroom." Mr Lee recalls.

Mr Woon, then jobless, remembers:  "All the people here were very poor.  We had to spend so much time fetching water from the standpipes.  And so many people sharing the toilets.  The toilets had buckets.

"There were several secret societies: 08, 24, 36.  They had their headquarters in the Baba Kongsi, a row of 10 brick houses at Havelock Road.  All the factory owners, shopkeepers, even hawkers and trishaw riders had to pay them for protection.  And these gangs were always fighting each other.  A lot of killings.  Even the police didn't dare to come inside this kampung."

Says Mr Lee: "During the Hock Lee riots most of the students escaped through this place.  The police didn't dare to follow."

Many of the men worked as labourers on the river side, building boats or carrying produce between the tongkangs and the godowns.  The women worked in the kampung's cottage industries, packing melon seeds (kway chee), making wooden boxes, or working in the sauce, sago, candle factories or the big coconut oil factory at Beo Lane.

Most families reared pigs to supplement their meagre earnings.  Many others could not find jobs and turned to the gangs for help.

Then came 25 May, 1961.  A  hot, windy Hari Raya Haji.  In a hut behind Baba kongsi a kerosene stove was turned on.  The flame was turned on too high, the dry rotting and heavily papered kitchen wall caught fire.

Within minutes, the fire was running wild, engulfing the kongsi, three Chinese schools, timber yards, the oil mill and hundreds of shacks in its path.  Flames were carried by the wind from one end to the other and old women knelt by the roadside shrines to pray for relief from such "divine fire."

At day's end with troops, hundreds of policemen and 22 fire engines called out, the big countless of homeless was made.  This time 16,000 lost everything and had nowhere to go.

A rag-and-bone man was killed and 15 others, including several firemen, were injured.

Mr Tan Phong Sai, 66, who has now moved to a bigger flat in Clementi Estate, remembers vividly that nightmare.  

[Source: Singapore Monitor.  JACKIE SAM reports.]

The Progress of Bukit Ho Swee over the Decades

The Drama Box featured the story of Bukit Ho Swee here .

Participants in the "Drama Box Bukit Ho Swee Project".

The most thoroughly researched video at Suria Channel Terbit 03 - Bukit Ho Swee and Tiong Bahru Area fires (in Malay with English Subtitles) here .  Thanks to the Tiong Bahru Secondary School to post the video at YouTube.


Blogger Unknown said...

I lived 10 mins from Bukit Ho Swee and have read a lot about the fire. Are there any maps to show where the fire started and its progress in the kampong. It would be great if we can superimpose this infomation onto the current map to give us a sense of history and understanding of this major event.

November 19, 2017 at 3:07 AM  

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