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Mar 23, 2019

A Fish-Bowl of Childhood Memories

First Aquarium in Singapore

The $470,000 Van Kleef Aquarium at King George V Memorial Park (now known as Fort Canning Park) was planned by the Colony of Singapore City Council of the British colonial administration  in 1954.

For 24 years, Singapore has planned a magnificient aquarium by Mr K.W.B Van Kleef , a former Singapore resident for the embellishment of the city.  It was stocked with fish from Malayan, African and South American waters.

The naming of the aquarium, after Van Kleef who left $370,000 for the "embellishment" of the City to express the gratitude of the citizens for this generous gift.  The Singapore Municipal Commissioners have agreed to name the aquarium located off Tank Road.

Fish watching at the Van Kleef Aquarium was part of many a family's weekend outing for over 3 decades.  The aquarium opened in September 1955.

Located at the foot of Fort Canning Hill along River Valley Road, Singapore's first aquarium was home to more than 6,000 aquatic creatures and was a favorite stop on school excursions or family outings during the school holidays.

Entrance fees were 30 cents for adults and 20 cents for children when it first opened.  These went up to $1 and 50 cents respectively by the 1990s.

It was maintained by the Primary Production Department, the predecessor of the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore.

The aquarium saw close to 400,000 visitors annually in the 70s.  British author Somerset Maugham was so impressed with it on a visit to Singapore in 1960 that he called Van Kleef "easily one of the best in this part of the world".

After a $750,000 facelift in 1986, the popular tourist spot reopened 18 months later to greet visitors with 50 new rare species such as a baby freshwater shark, fire eels and hairy turtles.

But the revamped Van Kleef met with mixed reactions.  Visitors complained about the lack of information on the creatures on display, and asked for leaflets - which the management said it could not afford.

Van Kleef eventually closed in May 1991, two weeks after the $20-million Underwater World Singapore opened at Sentosa.

The Van Kleef Aquarium reopened its doors to visitors under a new name - World of Aquarium and managed by a private company with the same name.  World of Aquarium was officially handed over to the new local company on 1 October, 1991.  The company, "World of Aquarium" was an import and export business and a breeding centre for tropical fishes.  Visitors bought fishes for their own aquarium at home.

The aquarium did not expect many local visitors but special entrance fees and free educational kits were offered to attract more students.

Bright, bold aquatic murals at the 35-year-old building's entrance (photo above) was about the only changes to this landmark.

The old-world charm of the aquarium with its dimly lit narrow corridors was retained, as was the original marine residents.

The company did not undertake any major renovation to the building, apart from giving its façade a colourful facelift with fish murals and better lighting for the aquarium's 75 tanks.  The aquarium is an old and historic building.

World of Aquarium was not worried about the competition from the Sentosa's Underwater World.

It was quite a different concept.  Unlike Underwater World, 50 per cent of World of Aquarium's exhibits were fresh water.  The smaller tanks allowed visitors to have a close-up view of the fishes.  At Sentosa, the fishes have more space to swim away from view.

Please watch a special unique video of the Van Kleef Aquarium posted on YouTube by the National Archive of Singapore here .

VIPs visit the Van Kleef Aquarium

The photo below of Princess Norodom Monineath of Cambodia and Puan Noor Aishah walking towards the Van Kleef Aquarium.  In the background was the former buildings which were demolished and rebuilt by the present Daimaru shopping centre.

Princess Norodom Monineath of Cambodia and Puan Noor Aishah watching the fishes in the tanks at Van Kleef Aquarium on 19 December, 1962.

Visit to Singapore - Princess Norodom Monineath of Cambodia leaving Van Kleef Aquarium, accompanied by Puan Noor Aishah on 19 December, 1962.

The closure of Van Kleef Aquarium

The 35-year-old Van Kleef Aquarium was closed in Jun 1991 - a victim of Singapore's new aquatic attraction, the Underwater World at Sentosa.

With the concept and design of public aquariums changing tremendously over the years, Van Kleef became outmoded.

Modern aquariums like Underwater World was better equipped and offer the visitors more in terms of variety as well as experience and information on aquatic life.

The Van Kleef Aquarium building and its grounds was leased out to a successful tender in the private sector for commercial use as a centre for the promotion, sale and display of ornamental fish.

The archived photos shared on this blog with acknowledgement of the National Archives of Singapore, National Library Board, National Heritage Board and unidentified contributors with thanks.

The photos with captions and descriptions for information included on the blog with thanks of The Straits Times, courtesy of The Singapore Press Holdings.



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