Each month in our Expat Living print magazine, our regular “Singapore Pages” feature presents a grab-bag of interesting facts, tips and trivia, covering everything from Singapore history to current news. Here are some snippets from our most recent issues, covering everything from the Second World War to natural science, Guiness World Records and more. Check back regularly for new stories!
Last year, we previewed the new Hougang Heritage Trail in our Singapore Pages. Now, there’s another new trail to explore! The National Heritage Board’s Sembawang Heritage Trail launched in August 2021 and features 21 historic sites across three different routes, each taking a couple of hours. Here’s a taste of what you’ll discover.
#1 Giant Dock
Sembawang boasted the world’s largest dry dock in the 1930s. Named the King George VI Dry Dock, it was over 300 metres long and could fit the Royal Navy’s largest battleship. Once a ship entered, water was pumped from the dock so repair works could be carried out on dry land. When Britain withdrew its military forces from Singapore in the late 1960s, the dockyard became a commercial operation, the Sembawang Shipyard.
#2 House on the Coast
Sembawang’s Former Admiralty House is a gazetted National Monument and was once home to the most senior officer at the former Sembawang Naval Base. Called Nelson House for a time, after Lord Nelson, it’s been renamed Canberra House and is being developed as a community hub and library, opening in 2022.
Sembawang fact file
- Located at Singapore’s pointy northern end, east of Woodlands, north of Yishun.
- First mentioned in maps from the early 1800s (as “River Tambuwang”)
- Named after the pokok sembawang, a tall tree found in various parts of Southeast Asia, and still in Sembawang Park today.
- Once a major rubber-growing area (early 1900s), then an important naval facility for Britain’s Far East Fleet.
#3 Scoring Goals
A famous Sembawangian (if that’s a word!) is Singapore former national football player Quah Kim Song; he used to live in a coastal kampong in the area and play football with the dockyard workers at the Deptford Road field (pictured). Renowned as a fast striker, he scored two goals in the 1977 Malaysia Cup Final in Kuala Lumpur to help Singapore claim a 3-2 victory over Penang.
#4 Boiled Eggs
Singapore’s only natural hot spring park is in Sembawang. It was converted into an onsen during the Japanese Occupation, before becoming a popular spot in the 1950s to cook eggs or soak sore muscles. (Bathing during horseracing season would apparently bring good luck.) You can visit today – and still cook eggs! Check nparks.gov.sg for updates around COVID restrictions.
#5 From Tree to Temple
The Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple dates to 1962, when a dockyard worker had a dream about a Hindu god and a golden cobra under a jujube tree. The worker then saw the same tree from his dream near Canberra Road and began to pray at it. A simple altar was built, then a wooden shed, and finally, in 1971, a proper temple.
If you’re a history buff, there are 20 other official trails and walks to follow in Singapore – from Tampines to Tiong Bahru – taking you past points of interest and information signs. Find out more and download maps at roots.gov.sg/visit/trails.
At the recent Tokyo Olympic Games, Singapore unfortunately didn’t come away with a medal. While there was a bit of fuss about this from some corners, it’s worth keeping in mind that the Team SG was only 23 strong. America sent 657 athletes to the Games!
Here are some other stats:
Singapore at the Games
Number of Olympic appearances: 17 (1948-2020)
Number of Olympics with no medals: 13
First medal of any colour: Silver, 1960 Rome
First gold: Joseph Schooling, 2016, Rio
Total medal haul over 72 years: 5 (1 gold, 2 silver, 2 bronze)
Rather than dwell on numbers, though, let’s focus on the stories – and we’re sure the athletes who performed their hearts out in Tokyo have a few to tell. For now, though, here’s the tale of Singapore’s first ever medallist, Tan Howe Liang.
Tan was a weightlifter whose two Olympic appearances were dramatic, to say the least! At the 1956 Games in Melbourne, he blacked out while attempting a particularly heavy lift. The team manager tried to retire him from the competition, but he insisted on finishing, coming a very respectable ninth.
In Rome, four years later, Tan suffered pain in his legs after his first lift, and the authorities tried to shuffle him off to the athletes’ village for treatment. Tan didn’t give up. He went on to beat 33 competitors on his way to claiming silver for Singapore. Oh, and he also broke a world record for the clean and jerk in the lightweight category!
Another nine Olympic Games would pass before the country won another medal, a silver in table tennis at the Beijing Olympics.
100th Anniversary of Amber Road
It’s interesting what you find when you dig into the past. In one of our recent Street Talk columns in our print magazine, we chatted to a family who lived in Amber Gardens. When we took a casual look in the books to see if it had any historical significance, we quickly discovered it does!
Located in Tanjong Katong, Amber Gardens runs perpendicular to the L-shaped Amber Road, at the western end of Marine Parade Road. It was built exactly a century ago this year. The word “Amber” appears in various placenames in the neighbourhood and elsewhere in Singapore from that time, and while its direct origin is unknown, it’s almost certainly connected to the family of Joseph (“Joe”) Aaron Elias (1881-1949). (His mother was sometimes referred to as Mrs Sarina Elias Amber.)
According to Singapore Infopedia, Elias was a prominent Jewish businessman of the day; he owned one of Singapore’s first shopping centres, Amber Mansions. It was located near where Dhoby Ghaut MRT is today, and was demolished in 1984.
The area around Amber Road was also the site of an earlier Malay kampong, Kampong Amber, which was active in the 1940s and 1950s, and known for the multiculturalism of its Chinese, Indian and Malay villagers.
Another piece of trivia: Mandalay Villa was a prominent house on Amber Road, and apparently the place where Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew proposed to his wife, Kwa Geok Choo!
The Chinese Swimming Club, which is still on Amber Road today, was launched in 1905 as a swimming group for Straits Chinese who couldn’t join the Singapore Swimming Club set up for European members by the British. Some superb swimmers launched their careers at the club, including Patricia Chan, Singapore’s flag bearer at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, and Mark Chay, who swam at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics (and who was recently appointed a new Nominated Member of Parliament.
Check out the Chiku
Singapore is a goldmine for fans of tropical fruit. Go to any food centre and you’ll find an amazing array of fruit that you can enjoy either fresh on a stick, or in juices, ice creams and more. We’ve tried most of them, from rambutan and mangosteen, to durian and dragon fruit, but we admittedly know less about chiku (also “ciku” and “chikoo”). If you’re in the dark, too, here are 10 fast facts!
- Native to Central and South America, chiku came to Singapore via the Philippines, where it was introduced during Spanish colonisation.
- It’s commonly known in many Englishspeaking countries as sapodilla.
- The fruit is round or egg-shaped, and up to 10 centimetres in diameter. It has a thin, brownish-grey skin and a light brown-orange flesh with large black seeds.
- The taste of chiku has been described as “caramel-like” – or “pear sprinkled with sugar”!
- In an official tree-planting campaign of the 1970s and 1980s, chiku was one of the fruit trees chosen to be planted around housing estates in Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew planted a chiku tree at Spottiswoode Park Road on 3 November 1985.
- In the first half of the 20th century, an area of the East Coast had its streets renamed after tropical fruit. Chiku Road is still there today – it’s a short dead-end street running off Joo Chiat Place.
- Chiku trees are known to attract bats, so you’ll often see the fruit wrapped in newspaper as it hangs from the branches
- Known as chicle, the sap from the chiku tree and other similar tree varieties was once used as the base for making chewing gum.
- The plant is said to have medicinal qualities, with the bark used in the Philippines to treat fever and diarrhoea, and the flowers in Indonesia in a body ointment for women after childbirth.
- The dark and durable wood of the chiku tree can be used to make furniture.
The reviews are in. And they’re … mixed. To commemorate National Day in August 2021, McDonald’s launched a new Crispy Hainanese Chicken Burger, inspired by Singapore’s “national dish”, chicken rice. It features a crispy chicken patty with crunchy salad and three sauces (ginger, garlic chilli and a sweet dark sauce). YouTube has a feast of reviews where the burger’s pros and cons are discussed at mind-numbing length! In the meantime, here are a few other factoids about the popular hawker favourite.
- An average serve of chicken rice has around 600 calories. We couldn’t find a calorie count for the new McDonald’s burger, but a Big Mac has 1,020 calories.
- Chicken rice has inspired at least two Singapore films. Chicken Rice War (2000) is a rom-com featuring young lovers from different chicken rice-making families. (Loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, apparently!) And Rice Rhapsody (2004; Jackie Chan executive producer) is set in a successful chicken rice restaurant in Chinatown.
- There’s a chicken rice franchise in Japan called Mr Chicken, launched by a couple of young Japanese foodies who grew up in Singapore.
- The late Anthony Bourdain did a segment on chicken rice for a show, and the place he chose to eat at was … drumroll … Tian Tian Chicken Rice at Maxwell Food Centre. The stall opened in 1987 and continues to be popular today. (Having said that, everyone has their own “best chicken rice” stall, right?!)
Who would be a snake?
Egerton K Laird was an Englishman (born in Birkenhead in Cheshire) who wrote about his leisure travels around the world in the 1870s. One of these trips brought him to Singapore for a couple of weeks, the details of which he recounted in his 1875 book, The Rambles of a Globe Trotter. There are some interesting perspectives in its pages, including this reflection on Laird’s encounter with one of Singapore’s most confronting animals.
“I saw a boa-constrictor brought into town today, 25 feet long; it was caught only 6 miles from here and was killed whilst in a state of stupor, having just demolished a large sow weighing about 200 pounds [90kg]. It’s not pleasant to think that there are such customers here at hand. I only weigh 118 lbs [53kg], so I would have been a mere pastime for it; but I flatter myself that I would have been somewhat angular and more difficult of digestion; however, if he had, as they always do, covered me with saliva I dare say I would have glided down easily enough – what a curious idea. I was told that one was once found with the head of a deer sticking out of its mouth, as the horns were rather too much of a good thing, even for a boa; so it would have slept until the horns gradually dropped from decay. Who would be a snake?”
Singapore commemorates Anzac Day (25 April) each year with an annual service at Kranji War Memorial in remembrance of Australians and New Zealanders who served their countries. (See cwgc.org for more info.) Here, we take a look at a key event featuring Australian soldiers in Singapore’s Second World War history.
In December 2020, a Japanese flag made by Australian and British troops in 1943 sold at auction, together with some WWII medals, for around S$70,000. The flag had been used to help conceal a boat, the MV Krait (pictured), during an Allied mission in Singapore titled Operation Jaywick.
That mission saw a 14-man crew disguise themselves as Malay fisherman and sail the Krait – named after a type of snake – all the way from Western Australia and into Japanese-occupied Singapore Harbour in September 1943.
On the night of 26 September, six soldiers in three canoes paddled into the harbour and placed explosives on the hulls of a group of Japanese ships. The men escaped safely. When the explosives were detonated, at least three of the ships were destroyed, with three more damaged in some way.
The raid was considered a success by Allied forces – not only from a strategic viewpoint, as it further stretched the already thin Japanese resources, but also from a morale standpoint. However, there would be unfortunate ramifications for those on the ground in Singapore. Since the operation took the Japanese by surprise, they believed it had been carried out by the civilian population. In what became known as the Double Tenth Incident, more than 50 people were arrested and tortured. Though, of course, they also had no idea how the ships came to be destroyed.
Among this group was Elizabeth Choy (1910-2006). Together with her husband, she had been risking her life smuggling messages and food to prisoners-of-war at Changi. She somehow survived the Double Tenth ordeal, going on to become an educator and politician, and known as one of Singapore’s war heroines (swhf.sg/profiles/elizabeth-choy).
New Chapter at Changi
Exciting news for history buffs: after closing in 2018 for a major redevelopment, Changi Chapel and Museum (CCM) reopened recently (May 2021). There’s a whole bunch of interesting new stu to see, including fascinating artefacts donated and loaned from families of internees at the infamous Changi prison camp.
The 114 artefacts are showcased across eight galleries highlighting the daily lives of internees, and how they responded to the hardships they faced. Over 80 of these items have never been displayed before – here’s a glimpse at just four!
#1 Toothbrush Fashioned From Scratch
These toothbrushes were made between 1942 and 1945 in a broommaking workshop at Changi. POWs used their skill and innovation to produce 30,000 items during the workshop’s operation. Coconut fibres were used as bristles, and attached to a bamboo handle by bitumen from roadways.
#2 A 400-page Diary
Arthur Westrop was a civilian internee at Changi who risked retribution by keeping a diary, with entries styled as letters to his wife (in Rhodesia at the time). He took care to hide the diary under the floorboards of his cell, and it was never found by the Japanese.
#3 Christmas Dinner Menu
When Private Albert Riley of the Royal Army Medical Corps was interned at Changi, he had in his possession a Christmas menu he’d enjoyed aboard the US troopship that brought him to Singapore in 1941. The menu features roast turkey, giblet gravy, cranberry sauce, plum pudding and other goodies, and includes the following poem: “We’re way out here upon the sea And not where we should like to be / But don’t complain on Christmas Day / Just smile and to each other say / ‘Merry Xmas’ – that’s the way / To be real happy all the day”.
#4 An Old-school Camera
Like Arthur Westrop’s diary, this metal Kodak Brownie Camera was painstakingly hidden from Japanese troops by internees for the duration of their time at Changi. It belonged to Sergeant John Ritchie Johnston, and was given to him by his wife.
Other highlights include a section of the Changi Wall, a Morse code device hidden in a matchbox that was used by internees to transmit messages, and replicas of biblical murals that were painted for spiritual comfort.
In addition to artefacts, you’ll find new multimedia offerings in the revamped CCM, which help to convey stories of the time. These include a projection show of the key events of the three-and-a-half year Japanese Occupation; you can also step inside a recreated Changi cell to get a sense of the cramped living confines, while listening to historical recordings of internees’ conversations.
Did you know? The logo of the Changi Chapel and Museum incorporates the site’s acronym (“CCM”) in a way that shows the silhouette of the chapel’s architectural shape, while also representing prison bars. It’s a clever nod to the site’s history and significance.
Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 9.30am to 5.30pm. For info and tickets, visit changichapelmuseum.gov.sg or CCM’s Facebook and Instagram pages.
One of Singapore’s earliest hotels
Today, there are over 400 hotels in Singapore, including dozens of big-name international brands. Back in the 19th century, however, only a handful of lodgings existed. The best known were Raffles (of course!), the Adelphi Hotel, Hotel de la Paix and the one we’re looking at here, Hotel de l’Europe.
Originally built on Hill Street in 1857 by a French entrepreneur, the premises shifted to its final location – the spot now occupied by the Old Supreme Court Building (the current National Gallery) – in 1865. In the early 1900s, it was rebranded as the Grand Hotel de l’Europe. By this time, it had over 100 luxury rooms, with all the “mod cons”, including electric lights and fans. There was even a roof garden.
In the 1930s, the hotel was demolished, and replaced by the courthouse of the Supreme Court, which opened in 1939.
About the photo: The image dates to around 1900, with the Hotel de l’Europe front and centre. The Padang is in the foreground, with Fort Canning Hill in the distance. Out of shot are St Andrews Cathedral, to the right, and the Cricket Club, in the left foreground.
A review of Hotel de l’Europe
Here’s what American author and travel writer Frank Vincent had to say about the hotel in his 1882 book, The Land of the White Elephant.
“This hotel we find to be very large and comfortable, situated in the midst of beautiful gardens, facing ‘the green’ and commanding a fine view of the straits, the large island of Bintang [sic] in the distance, and the Chinese junks and foreign shipping in the harbour. Attached to the establishment, which is kept by a German, is that ‘peculiar institution’, an American barroom, where California mixed drinks are served. There is also a ‘regular down east’ Boston Arctic soda-water fountain; a billiard-room; and a reading-room, where one will find papers and journals in four or five languages, from New York, London, Bombay, Calcutta, Batavia, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Yokohama and San Francisco.”
4 world records
We have our fair share of world beaters in Singapore. Here’s a handful just to begin with!
#1 Fluoro Flowers
Anyone who’s strolled in the Botanic Gardens knows that Singapore does a great orchid. The national flower is a type of orchid. And the country leads the world in creating new hybrids of orchids. But have you ever seen one that glows? Back in 1999, Professor Chia Tet Fatt from the National Science Academic Group produced the first ever successful bioluminescent flowers – orchids, of course – and set a Guinness World Record in the process.
The professor used a white-petalled strain of orchid known as the “Dendrobium White Fairy #5” and transferred biologically active DNA containing a gene from the firefly into the orchid’s tissues. He then propagated them, and was eventually able to grow stable orchids that retained the firefly gene. The flowers emitted a greenish-white glow from petals, roots, stem and leaves that lasted up to five hours at a time.
#2 Yoga Guru
A more recent record was achieved in Singapore by Jeyaseelan Venkadasamy of India. On 4 December 2020, he set a new Guinness World Record for the “longest time to hold the tree pose”. His time of 1 hour, 12 minutes and 59 seconds eclipsed the old record by around six minutes. Known as Vrikshasana and named after the Sanskrit word for “tree”, this balancing yoga pose is centuries old. It involves placing one foot on the inside of the opposite thigh, while leaving the other foot on the ground.
#3 Longest Satay
The world record for the longest satay stands at just over 140 metres. (That’s nearly the length of one and a half football pitches!) The Kopitiam Group of Companies (Singapore) set the record at famous food centre Lau Pa Sat on 21 July 2007. Around 150kg of chicken was marinated with cumin, coriander, fennel, ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, onion, sugar and salt, and then grilled over charcoal by 150 staff.
#4 Largest Game of Pass the Parcel
A record-breaking 3,918 students gathered at Nanyang Technological University on 28 February 1998, where they played a 2.5-hour game of Pass the Parcel, removing 2,200 wrappers from an enormous parcel (1.5m x 1.5m x 0.5m). Though they still hold the record for the most participants, the record for the largest parcel used in Pass the Parcel was set in the UK in 2014. It was the size of a car!
This article first appeared in Expat Living. Purchase the latest issue or subscribe so you never miss a copy!
For more interesting facts and trivia about Singapore, see our Things To Do section.