Before the road system of modern-day Singapore was introduced, people meant it quite literally when they said they had reached a milestone.
They used to find their way across the island with the help of large stone markers found on roads. Standing erect a mile, or about 1.6km, apart, the milestones were labelled with numbers and led people to both rural and modern parts of the island.
For instance, a movie-goer might have directed a rickshaw puller to stop at Bukit Panjang’s 10 mile junction where an open-air cinema used to stand.
Singapore’s milestone system is now being documented by the National Heritage Board (NHB), after someone stumbled upon what could be the last such stone here.
In May last year, artist Akai Chew, 28, found the relic hidden among the roots of a tree on the side of the road between Geylang Lorong 6 and 8. A Facebook post he made about his discovery led film-maker Chang Soh Kiak, 56, to contact NHB, whose Impact Assessment and Mitigation team later started a study on milestones.
NHB researchers, who called the mile post a “rare” find, said the milestone system was implemented after the Singapore Municipal Committee started developing roads beyond the town centre.
Made of sandstone and then granite, they were likely introduced by the British around the 1840s. Markers were usually about 2m in height, with about 35cm exposed above ground.
The team identified popular roads associated with mile posts such as Hougang’s lark kok jio, or sixth milestone in Hokkien. Some names have stuck. For instance, a station on the Bukit Panjang LRT Line is called Tenth Mile Junction.
Mr Alvin Tan, assistant chief executive of policy and development at NHB, said the project is important as “milestones represent a key component of the history of public roads in Singapore”.
Freelance map consultant Mok Ly Yng, 47, said the milestone system was first mentioned in the Singapore Free Press in 1843. He said 25 milestones were purchased the year before by the British.
The General Post Office, where the Fullerton Hotel stands today, was point zero for measuring road distances. All roads here stemmed from this point, a system that can trace its roots to the Roman Empire. “It’s exactly as the saying goes – all roads lead to Rome,” said Mr Mok, who worked with the Singapore Armed Forces Mapping Unit and the National Archives of Singapore. “There had to be an address system for the authorities to react to reports of tigers and murders across Singapore,” he added.
The imperial system was replaced in the 1970s by the metric one using kilometres and mile posts were gradually removed.
The mile post discovered by Mr Chew has since become one of two markers that are part of the national collection, after it was removed by the Land Transport Authority last November due to road works. NHB worked closely with LTA to extract the marker. It also produced a video on the extraction process, which was uploaded today to its YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/yesterdaysg
Mr Chew thinks it was a pity the marker was removed: “Removing it removes it from its context.” However, now that it has been uprooted, heritage blogger Jerome Lim believes it might be more meaningful for the milestone “to be preserved in a museum for greater public access”.
They were once home to Chinese clan associations and private social clubs, and for decades, the rows of shophouses lining the streets of Ann Siang Hill would bustle with activity every night.
Between the 1950s and 1970s, scores of Chinese immigrants residing in nearby Chinatown would stroll up the hill to these associations to socialise over mahjong and opera performances.
These nights, a different sort of crowd winds up the sloping road. And the clack of mahjong tiles and the high-pitched nasal tones of opera singers have progressively given way to the clink of glasses and the babble of chatter of office workers from the nearby Central Business District.
Over the last two decades, many of the 20 or so Chinese clan associations along Ann Siang Road have sold their properties to eateries and watering holes.
Only a handful of associations, such as Fa Yun Wui Kwun and Ching Yoon Wooi Kwoon, are left. But with dwindling membership numbers and rising costs, they are barely holding on.
Change is inevitable, admits Mr James Lee, chairman of the Kwong Wai Siew Li Si She Shut clan association at 25 Ann Siang Road. The Cantonese clan has slightly more than a hundred members, down from about 600 about 50 years ago.
“We can’t remain like it was 50 years ago,” says the 61-year-old retiree, adding that some of the existing associations have chosen to rent out the ground floor to restaurants and bars, and moved to the upper floors. “We need the funds to keep our operations going.”
Next year, the 140-year-old association, which has been in Ann Siang Road since 1954, will lease out its second floor to an IT services company. Since last year, the space had been taken up by an abstract artist.
“We have no intention of selling this place. We have many good memories here,” says Mr Lee, adding that he has been approached by three
businesses wanting to buy over the building.
Named after Malacca-born Hokkien merchant Chia Ann Siang, who used to own the land, Ann Siang Hill was formerly a nutmeg and clove estate, but saw the introduction of clan associations in the late 19th century as the Chinese population in the area rose.
Today, the hill, and the streets leading up to it, including Ann Siang Road, Erskine Road and Club Street, are taking in a new breed of businesses – mostly eateries and bars – such as gentleman speakeasy Manor Bar, and Oxwell and Co, a rustic multi-concept restaurant and bar.
They join long-time Ann Siang stalwarts like luxury boutique hotel The Scarlet Hotel, and The Screening Room, a food and beverage venue cum film theatre.
As an indication of the area’s popularity with drinkers and revellers, on Friday and Saturday evenings, Ann Siang Road and the adjacent Club Street are closed from 7pm to 2am. Dining tables are brought out and revellers pour out onto the two-way streets.
“The road closures create a really cool street party vibe that is hard to come by in a lot of other areas,” says British chef and restaurateur Ryan Clift, who heads restaurant and bar Ding Dong.
Quaint shophouses, first restored in 1993, now boast colourful shopfronts and painted-over timber window shutters. Most of them, constructed between 1903 and 1941, have retained pre-war features such as mosaic-tiled floors, double-leafed doors, and five-foot walkways.
However, many businesses have had to undergo extensive and often expensive restoration works to rewire cables, fix up roofs and reconfigure water pipes.
“Due to age, rainwater can sometimes seep through,” says Mr Zedy Ng, marketing manager of boutique hostel 5footway.inn in South Bridge Road.
“We have to identify these problems and patch them up to minimise inconvenience.”
But for shops in the former hipster enclave, a hit with the indie crowd in the late 2000s, a leaky roof is the least of their problems. Their very popularity was their own undoing.
With rising rental costs, some of the smaller stores and boutiques selling a variety of products, such as patisserie cake shop Kki and design- inspired shop The Little Drom Store, have been priced out and had to relocate out of Ann Siang.
In fact, most of the quirky little shops and boutiques have disappeared, leaving just a bunch of bars and restaurants, says Ms Samia Ahad, founder of The Screening Room.
In the last 10 years, rent has increased by 30 per cent to 50 per cent.
Mr Marc Nicholson, chief executive officer of the local franchise of old-style barbershop Truefitt and Hill, said: “Many of the buildings nearby have been bought over recently. The higher value is going to put even more pressure on rents.”
For some, the area has lost its magic.
“It is not as quirky and charming as it used to be. It is just rowdy with drinking crowds,” says Kki co-owner Delphine Liau. The cake shop operated out of its 990 sq ft unit for four years till it moved to its current space at the School of the Arts last year.
“It is getting more tourists for sure, but for locals, it is losing its charm as the quaint Ann Siang Hill we used to know.”
For 170 years, as Singapore went from a colony to a nation, trudging through war, riots and disasters, a little-known building stood quietly in Telok Ayer.
A clan of Hokkien Peranakan merchants, who called themselves the Keng Teck Whay association, occupied it and kept it private.
To the outside world, it was often mistaken as part of the adjacent Thian Hock Keng temple, a Unesco award winner.
But after more than two years of revamp work, the building, now a house of worship, is ready to rival its famous neighbour. It even bears a new name: the Singapore Yu Huang Gong, or Temple of the Heavenly Jade Emperor.
Gazetted a national monument in 2009, it will finally open to the public next month.
“We didn’t have the experience or the funds, but we’ve made something out of nothing,” said Taoist Mission president Lee Zhiwang, whose group acquired the building for an undisclosed sum in 2010. “Now we have a place we can call home, and we’ve preserved our heritage.”
Visitors will be greeted by a pair of dragons at the entrance and a newly replaced imperial treasure gourd at the top of a three-storey pagoda.
They will also see the restored roof truss, timber columns, balustrade walls, double-leafed doors and encaustic floor tiles.
A team of craftsmen, including sculptors from Quanzhou, in the southern Fujian province of China, were brought in to work on the interiors.
“Timber logs had to be lifted by hand as there wasn’t much space to bring in heavy machinery,” said Master Lee.
The timber beams and columns were transported log by log from Telok Ayer Street by six workers who hoisted them with just light tools like pulleys.
The work was onerous. Conditions were bad as the roof of the entrance had started to sink inwards. When restoration began in 2012, the site was declared unsafe for occupancy.
As the structures are made of wood, termite infestation was a concern, said Dr Yeo Kang Shua, the project’s architectural conservator.
The roof was taken apart to access the timber components below, and these were disassembled to check for damage and repaired before re-assembly.
Said Master Lee: “It was challenging because we are not constructing a new building but restoring an old one.”
On Jan 1, a stretch of Telok Ayer Street will be closed to traffic from 1pm to 9pm for the opening celebration. The public can visit the monument from Jan 2. Admission is free.
All, however, is not complete. The cost of the revamp is about $3.8 million and the mission is short of $400,000.
It has raised about $3.4 million, including from Singaporeans of other faiths and tourists from countries such as Indonesia.
Said Master Lee: “When people realised the temple was in need of a facelift, they came forward to help.”
An ambitious heritage corridor project in Upper Serangoon Road, estimated to cost $9.5 million, has raised concerns over its hefty price tag.
Conservation experts and activists have questioned the need for the Housing Board to spend so much money to tell the area’s history.
Some described it as an “infrastructure upgrade in the name of heritage”, which neglects the intangible aspects of the 160-year-old stretch.
“It seems like an awfully large sum to be spent on heritage markers and storyboards in an attempt to recreate what has been lost to redevelopment over the decades,” said heritage blogger and naval architect.
The project was first announced in 2011 as part of the second phase of the billion-dollar Remaking Our Heartland facelift, where three mature estates will be spruced up over five years.
Its cost, however, was listed only recently in expression-of-interest documents dated Oct 27.
The HDB said enhancing the corridor will allow residents and visitors to appreciate the “myriad of townscape” which includes old shophouses and places of worship.
A spokesman for the HDB said that the $9.5 million sum is a “rough project budget”.
“The actual project sum will depend on the final detailed proposals.”
The plan is to transform Upper Serangoon Road through its “rich history and existing attributes”.
For instance, the road will be getting a market square, which could host outdoor movie screenings and other activities to “reintroduce the social memories” of the post-war Simon Road Market which was demolished in 1999.
The heritage corridor will also pay homage to the historical shoreline of the former Kangkar Port, near Buangkok East Drive, through markings on the pavement and storyboards. The port used to be a thriving fishing village up till 1984.
But it will be difficult to re-create the old-world charm of Kangkar.
And, said architectural and urban historian, putting up commemorative structures such as plaques and sculptures, which are part of the project, are not necessary.
“Information on the rich heritage of the area, such as how Upper Serangoon – the first road leading from the town centre to Singapore’s northern outskirts – was named, can be presented in a book or shared in a community museum which brings history alive.”
But some experts agree with the HDB that the budget is reasonable, given the infrastructure upgrading.
The upgrading includes improved footpaths, pedestrian bridges and bus stops, said Singapore Heritage Society honorary secretary.
But the HDB must “ensure that the spaces dedicated to heritage, such as the Market Square, have good programming so they do not become white elephants”.
Two freehold properties will be up for auction as a result of an estate sale, said property firm and consultancy Colliers International yesterday.
The properties up for sale, resulting from the owner’s death, are a two-storey conservation shophouse in Beach Road and a terraced house in Devonshire Road.
This comes amid a rebound in the number of mortgagees who have put properties up for auction, as more borrowers default on loans. The home owners find it harder to sell their properties on their own.
But, as a whole, the auction market has not fared as well, thanks to government measures such as the additional buyer’s stamp duty.
So far, $57.6 million worth of properties has gone under the hammer in the first three quarters, well down from the $87.7 million that changed hands over the same period last year, according to earlier reports.
The shophouse, which has tenants, has an indicative price of $5.1 million and a land area of 1,381 sq ft.
Values of shophouses in the area have registered healthy growth, according to data from the Urban Redevelopment Authority. The average transacted price of shophouses in the Kampong Glam district was $4,700 per sq ft (psf) this year, up 20 per cent from a year ago.
The two-storey terraced house to be auctioned also has tenants, and has an indicative price of $4.4 million.
The property’s land area is 1,405 sq ft, with a plot ratio of 2.8, said Colliers.
“The property has a unique facade, which will appeal to a niche group of buyers who appreciate properties that are architecturally distinct,” said Ms Grace Ng, deputy managing director of Colliers.
Both properties will be auctioned on Oct 29, at Amara Hotel.