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Nov 14, 2019

Our Forgotten Zoo

Singapore's first zoo, housed on the grounds of a family bungalow, had so many exotic animals like seals, tapirs, zebras and orang utans that even a visiting Albert Einstein was impressed.

By Yuen Sin

[Source:  New Paper, 15 July 2012]

Mention a local zoo and the world-renowned Singapore Zoo, established in 1973, is probably the only one come to mind.

Yet, back in the early part of the last century, a collection of animals here was already making waves around the world.

It was situated on the grounds of a large family bungalow in Upper Serangoon Road in the 1920s.  A wealthy animal; trader of Indian descent, Mr William Lawrence Soma Basapa (1893-1943), had housed an extensive private collection of 200 animals and 2,000 birds there.

It came to be known popularly as the Ponggol Zoo.

After it began to pull in the crowds on the weekends, an entry fee was charged, and it had to move to a 10-ha plot near the Punggol seafront in 1928 to accomodate the large number of both animals and visitors.

It was later renamed the Singapore Zoological Gardens and Bird Park (not related to the current zoo).  It was offficially granted a licence by the now-defunct Rural Board in 1937.

Mr Lawrence Basapa, 66, grandson of the late Mr W.L.S. Basapa, recalls tales about the famed zoo as told by his family.

"They told me that many people came on the weekends - locals from all walks of life, and British expatriates because they like nature," says Mr Basapa, a corporate director on the board of two private companies.

"My father had fond memories of weekends at that house by the sea, swimming and watching the crowds."

Mr W.L.S. Basapa was a flamboyant character who knew how to live life to the fullest, says his grandson.

"He owned a Bengal tiger called Apay (ah pek) and it used to follow him around like a dog.

"He loved animals, lived in a carefree way and was able to make a living out of what he loved," says Mr Basapa.

Famed scientist Albert Einstein visited in 1922.

According to press reports of the time, Einstein was in Singapore to raise funds for the Hebrew University.  He noted in his travel diaries that he came across "a wonderful zoological garden".

Today, little remains of this amazing, if little-known, part of Singapore's history.

In 1942, just before the Japanese invasion, the zoo was ordered by the British to close and the authorities were given just 24 hours to clear the area of birds and animals.

The dangerous varieties of animals were killed, while harmless ones were released into the forest.

The skins of some of these animals were donated to the then-Raffles Library and Museum (now the National Museum of Singapore).

Around 80 of these were moved to the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research at the National University of Singapore in the 1970s.  And they are still there, says the museum's collections manager Kelvin Lim.

"The specimens have been preserved for scientific use and research," he says.

The land, inherited by trustees after Mr W.L.S. Basapa's death in 1943, was sold to a private investor in 1948.

The site has now become part of the Punggol Promenade (photos below).

Says Punggol resident of 10 years Chew Xin Yu, 20:  "It's hard to imagine that such a zoo actually existed in this fast-paced environment, and though I've lived here for so long, I never really heard about it."

For Mr Basapa, who lives in East Coast, retaining the memory of places that once existed is an important step in nation-building.

"It's part of our heritage, for us to remember our roots and what the Asian immigrants contributed to Singapore," he says.

"People of humble backgrounds from China, India and the Middle East came, and in the process we built a nation."

First zoo in Singapore rated 'wonderful" by Albert Einstein
By Melody Zaccheus

[Source:  Straits Times, 6 April 2013]

Albert Einstein

Nation's status as a hub for animal collectors is featured in exhibition

Singapore's first zoo, which had its beginnings at a family bungalow in Serangoon Road, has at least one unique bragging right.

Albert Einstein, the father of modern physics, was among the first visitors to the private zoo, which was run by animal lover William Lawrence Soma Basapa from 1920 to 1922.

His zoo and the history of Singapore's status as a hub for animal collectors in the late 18th and early 19th century, are part of a travelling exhibition by the National Heritage Board.

The month-long exhibition, held in conjunction with the Singapore Zoo's 40th anniversary, was launched on 5 April, 2013.  It will include the Woodlands and Jurong regional libraries and Central Public Library.

The board's director of heritage institutions, Mr Alvin Tan, said it hopes to raise public awareness about Singapore's "little known early zoos".

According to press reports from the period, Einstein was in Singapore to raise funds for The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  He had written in his travel diary that he had come across " a wonderful zoological garden".

With its role as a trading centre, Singapore was the port of call for collectors and officials from zoological societies in Britain and the US who traelled here to source rare local specimens.

Zoological enthusiasts included Singapore-based Chinese businessman Hoo Ah Kay, who kept rare animal and bird species at his mansion at Whampoa Gardens in the mid-1800s, and Haji Marip, who ran an exotic animal trade shop from 1880 to 1915.

But it was Singaporean-Indian landowner Basapa, who captured the hearts of local residents.

Basapa, who was often accopanied by a full-grown Bengal tiger named Apay, moved his collection of animals and birds from his Serangoon home to an 11ha seafront estate in Punggol.

Networking with international zoos, he was the first in Singapore to import seals.  He also brought in Arabian cames, black wans and Shetland ponies from South Africa, America and Australia respectively.

With a collection of 200 animals and 2,000 birds, Punggol Zoo became a major attraction both nationally and internationally in pre-war Singapore.

The zoo which cost $35 a day to run, charged visitors 40 cents.

But Badapa's foray into zoo-keeping was short-lived.  At the start of World War II, the British moved their forces to the north of Singapore in anticipation of invading Japanese forces.

Basapa was given 24 hours to relocate his animals and birds.

The time-frame was too tight so the British took the land, released the birds, and shot the rest, said his grandson Lawrence Basapa, 66, a company director.

"It makes us very sad till today that the animals were slaughtered and sacrificed.

"My grandfather died a broken-hearted man."

He said, however, that he is glad the efforts of Singapore's pioneers are being remembered.

"It's a good way to refresh our memory of what our zoos used to be like - simple but with a lot of heart."



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