Blog To Express

A blogosphere learning experience to express with blog

My Photo
Location: Singapore, Singapore

A "recycled teenager" learning to blog.

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."


Nov 3, 2019

People's Market - If Walls Could Talk

SundayLife! traces the 118 year history of Lau Pa Sat, which went from a wet market close to the sea to a foodcourt surrounded by skyscrapers.  Courtesy of NewspaperSG for the archived newspaper to share on this blog.

By Clarissa Oon

[Source: Straits Times, 22 July 2012]

With its cream-coloured clock tower, octagonal curve's and intricately crafted columns and arches, this grande dame of hawker centres is 118 years old, but has not experienced such sweeping changes as in the last four decades.

A feat of Victorian-era engineering, Lau Pa Sat - Old Market in Hokkien - was completed in 1894 at its present site at Raffles Quay, along Shenton Way.

Entirely prefabricated, the building is made up of more than 3,000 pieces of standardised cast iron which had been manufactured in Europe and shipped to Singapore in the early 1890s.

Were he still alive, architect and municipal engineer James MacRitchie, who also designed and gave his name to MacRitchie Reservoir, would have no trouble recognising the conserved exterior and internal skeleton of Lau Pa Sat, then also called Telok Ayer Market.

What would floor him would be its transformation from a rustic wet market close to the sea, to a food court dwarfed by the surrounding skyscrapers of a glittering financial district.

The metamorphosis began in 1973, when the Environment Ministry decided to turn it into a hawker centre.  The poultry sellers with their cages of live squawking fowl - slaughtered on the spot for customers - and fishmongers with tanks of iridescent fish and baskets of twitching shrimp gave way to cooked food stalls.

Around the market, attap huts and shophouses packed with residents, sundry shops and makeshift food stalls were replaced gradually by office buildings.

The sea was once barely 400m away from the market and, during high tide, would cause floods around the market.

But the land reclamation of the Telok Ayer Basin from the 1970s expanded the Central Business District and pushed Lau Pa Sat a would away from the seafront.

In the mid-1980s, a Mass Rapid Transit tunnel was laid under the building.  To protect the gazetted national monumnets, its hawkers were moved out and the entire cast-iron framework dismantled.  A few years later, the building was reassembled painstakingly, piece by piece.

After an early 1990s stab by private developer Scotts Holdings at turning Lau Pa Sat into a food hall and flea market - in the manner of London's Convent Garden - it is now a 24-hour food court run by food-court operator Kopitiam Group.

One of those with fond memories of the market before urban renewal left its mark is Mr Adron Loi, 58, executive chairman of kaya-toast chain Ya Kun International (photo above).

In the early 1940s, Mr Loi's father began selling crispy toast - slathered with homemade egg-and-coconut jam - at a stall in Telok Ayer Basin, across the road from Lau Pa Sat.

After the market became a hawker centre, the elder Loi moved the family business there in the late 1970s.  They stayed until 1985, when all the hawkers were relocated elsewhere due to the building's dismantling and reconstruction for MRT works.

Home for the Loi family of 10 in the 1950s and 1960s was in Cross Street, which faces one of Lau Pa Sat's eight entrances.  They share a cramped shophouse unit with five other families, where Hong Leong Building is now.

Mr Loi remembers, as a boy, playing badminton with friends in the compound around the market.  Back then, Lau Pa Sat had a gate and a fence around it, which kept out some of the flood water.

Mr Loi and other boys also used to catch small ornamental fish in the drains at the back of the market, that had been discarded by fish sellers.

It was quite a rough-and-tumble neighbourhood in those days.

There were a lot of gangsters in the Chinatown area and, occasionally, fights broke out in and outside the market.  From our house, we could see people chasing one another with a knife," he recalls.

By the 1950s, cooked food and drink stalls had popped up in and around the wet market, serving both workers and towkays who kept the many trading businesses and warehouses in Chinatown and Tanjong Pagar ticking round the clock.

Old-timers recall Lau Pa Sat as a hive of 24-hour activity.

In the daytime, housewives and domestic helpers would descend ont he market, leaving in trishaws armed with bags of groceries.  Businessmen would nurse their cups of black coffee and talk shop.
At night, coolies and labourers would congregate after finishing the day's work.

Food critic Violet Oon, 63, saw the market in the 1960s as an unlikely "millionaire's playground", and remembers eating "really good Hokkien zi char" at Lau Pa Sat with one of her school friends from CHIJ and her friend's towkay father.

She recalls: "His chauffeur would pick us up from school for lunch and we would have treats such as ngoh hiang and dark sauce Hokkien mee with fresh oysters, fresh crab meat and pee hee, or dried plaice."

But Lau Pa Sat was also a working man's joint, says Kopitiam chairman Lim Bee Huat, 60.  He started out at age nine as a drinks stall assistant at the then Esplanade Food Centre.

After knocking off at close to midnight, he would walk over to Lau Pa Sat and unwind over a five-cent cup of teh halia (ginger tea).

He recalls that the market in the 1960s "was the meeting place for labourers looking for work.  Coolies would gather in groups, waiting for stevedoring jobs to be distributed.  They would then take the sampans to reach big ships docked just outside Telok Ayer Basin, and carry the goods back to land".

Today, the food court he turned Lau Pa Sat into is more likely to serve Shenton Way office workers than millionaires or labourers, but its architecture remains more or less the same.

The building was gazetted as a national monument in 1973, which means its roof, facade and cast-iron structure cannot be altered.  Any changes have to be approved by the Preservation of Monuments Board.

Back in the 19th century, the building was designed by MacRitchie with high ceilings, airwells and an absence of interior partitions to maximise air circulation.

Nonetheless, observers say Lau Pa Sat is more open and better ventilated today than before the 1990.  Apart from the addition of electric ceiling fans, timber louvres that used to cover the exterior walls have been removed.

The sides of Lau Pa Sat are now largely exposed, aside from tilted glass panels or cloth awnings to keep out rain.

The building's first major renovation in 1973 came as the Government felt a wet market was an incongruilty in the emerging business district.

It was outfitted as a proper hawker centre with 144 stalls.  Tables, stools, electrical fittings and a new mosaic floor were installed, as were sewers so waste water would not flow into open drains.

The taking apart and reconstruction of Lau Pa Sat from 1985 to 1989 was unprecedented for any building here.

Architect Lam Kin Chong, 58, who headed he Public Works Department team tasked by the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board with the project, recalls:  "The building is one of a kind and I had to do a lot of research to figure out how to conserve it."

Now deputy managing director of ST Architects and Engineers, he says that before the cast-iron structure was dismantled, each of its mroe than 3,000 parts had to be labelled, the number logged into a computer and then carefully stored.  Broken parts had to be replicated.

In 1990, Scotts Holdings took over the reconstructed building with an ambitious $10-million plan to turn it into a festival market - a concept coming out of places such as Boston where old waterfron structures had been transformed into vibrant food and flea markets offering retail as well as live entertainment.

A 3,853 sq m pavilion with a mezzanine level was created inside Lau Pa Sat, housing a pub, four restaurants, 14 local and international food outlets, 41 retail stalls and 24 trolley carts.

However, the venture did not take off.

Scotts executive director Rafiq Jumabhoy conceded in a 1993 interview with Business Times that the concept  felt "artificial" when transplanted here. The comapany was torn apart by a family feud two years later.

The inside of  Lau Pa Sat underwent further surgery after Kopitiam took over in 1995.  An expansive food court was created by removing the mezzanine floor and increasing the number of seats to more than 2,000 and food stalls to 88.  It reopened a year later after renovations costing more than $5 million.

The stalls as well as the ornate trusses and arches are now looking faded, but Kopitiam has plans to rejuvenate the building next year.

Architecture aside, a handful of hawkers have also weathered the test of time and plied their trade at Old Market for nearly two decades.

One of them, kway chap seller Goh Soon Chwee, has run his stall since 1988 at the now-defunct Telok Ayer Transit Food Centre across the road, and then a Lau Pa Sat from 1997.

What has kept hom moored to the historic neighbourhood?  "A lot of the customers know me and keep coming back, I don't have many years left in me to be braising pig intestines and pork belly over a hot stove, but I'd like to spend it here," says the 62-year-old in Mandarin, with a big grin.


1894:  The present Lau Pa Sat, then also know as Telok Ayer Market, was completed on reclaimed land at Raffles Quay.  It was designed by British architect and municipal engineer James MacRitchi.
It replaced an earlier demolished wet market at the same name, also octagonal and built around 1824 at the western end of nearby Market Street.  That was commissioned by Sir Stamford Raffles a few years after establising Singapore as a trading outpost.

1942-1945:  The market survived the Japanese Occupation.

1973:  Renovated at a cost of more than $650,000 to become a food centre.  Gazetted as a national monument.
1985-1989:  The building was dismantled to protect its Victorian-era architecture while an MRT tunnel that ran beneath it was laid.  Hawkers were moved to the now-defunct Telok Ayer Transit Food Centre across the street.  The more than 3,000 pieces that made up Lau Pa Sat's cast-iron structure were tagged, logged into a computer and stored.  They were later reassembled for $6.8 million.

1990-1995:  Developer Scotts Holdings won the tender for a 30-year lease of the building.  Following renovations costing around $10 million, it became a Festival Market (above) - a food hall-cum-flea-market with live entertainment - in 1992.  But the venture incurred losses and Scotts then sold the building to Kopitiam Investments, now known as the Kopitiam Group, for $8 million.
1996:  Lau Pa Sat reopened as a 24-hour food court after more than $5 million in renovations.

"The building is one of a kind and I had to do a lot of research to figure out how to conserve it."

     -  MR LAM KIN CHONG, the architect who headed the Public Works Department team tasked to take apart and reconstruct the Lau Pa Sat in the 1980s.

Way Done in the Past - Lau Pa Sat

Please check the related blog on the ways done in the past at Lau Pa Sat here .