Van Kleef Aquarium
by Ho, Stephanie
The Van Kleef Aquarium was Singapore’s first public aquarium. Located at the foot of Fort Canning Hill, the aquarium was opened in 1955. It was a prominent landmark and a popular place of interest for Singaporeans and tourists alike. The aquarium underwent a series of revamps and was closed for good in 1996 with the building structure demolished in 1998.1
The Van Kleef Aquarium took its name from a Dutch businessman, Karl Willem Benjamin van Kleef, who lived in Singapore from the late 19th to the early 20th century. Van Kleef was a broker, commission agent and a certified expert in mine drilling. When he died in 1930, he bequeathed the net proceeds of his estates, valued at around $160,000, to the municipal government for the “embellishment of the town”.2
The municipal government formed a committee to look into the use of Van Kleef’s bequest and solicited suggestions from the public.3 Suggestions received included using the funds for enhancing Empress Place, establishing clock towers, a road circus with statues and fountains, and ornamental drinking fountains.4
The proposal for a public aquarium was also among the suggestions that were received. As early as 1922, the Natural History Society of Singapore had proposed the idea of establishing an aquarium in Singapore as it was believed to have significant scientific, educational and commercial value. In addition, it was thought that Singapore had a natural advantage in the establishment of an aquarium because of its proximity to the seas and rivers.5
In 1935, the municipal commissioners finally decided on a public aquarium to be built on a site near Bras Basah Road.6 However, there were ensuing disagreements over the proposed site. The location of the aquarium was only finalised in November 1935 when the municipal committee accepted a site on the western slopes of Fort Canning Hill between Tank Road and River Valley Road.7 The aquarium was to be a main feature of the proposed Fort Canning Park, which would include formal gardens as well as a museum and library.8
The project was further delayed by doubts over whether the revenue received from the admission fees would be sufficient to cover the running cost of the aquarium. This issue was only resolved when the government amended the Municipal Ordinance to allow for the use of the municipal fund to meet the recurring cost of upkeep.9 Construction of the aquarium begun in 1940 but was derailed by the Japanese Occupation (1942–1945) and the subsequent post-war reconstruction works.10
Work on the aquarium only restarted in 1953. By this time, the estimated cost for the construction of the aquarium had gone up to $470,000. Fortunately, Van Kleef’s bequest had grown in value to $375,000 and the city council agreed to provide the additional $100,000 needed.11
Due to a series of setbacks, it would be some time before the aquarium was officially opened. On 11 November 1954, The Straits Times reported that the fish tanks in the aquarium were almost empty as many fishes had died.12 The next day, the newspaper reported that there was no water in the tanks. The aquarium’s 70,000 tonnes of imported seawater had to be thrown away because of pollution caused by the turtles in the tanks.13
It was later discovered that all the salt-water fishes had died because of contamination caused by the noxious gas emitted by the coral displays in the tanks.14 The aquarium’s opening was also delayed by other incidents such as a strike by city council workers.15
The Van Kleef Aquarium officially opened on 8 September 1955. It was fully air-conditioned, had its own water supply, and housed nearly 6,500 fishes of more than 180 varieties. One of the special features of the aquarium was a swamp tank that held mudskippers, which were found in the Southeast Asian region. Admission to the aquarium was 30 cents for adults and 20 cents for children.16
The aquarium was a success from the start. Within the first three months of opening, 150,000 people had visited the attraction. It also received many accolades from visitors.17 Because of its popularity, the aquarium had earned almost enough to pay for its running costs in its first year of operation.18
Despite its popularity, the aquarium continued to face challenges in maintaining its fish exhibits. It was reported in January 1956 that the aquarium’s fishes were dying at an alarming rate.19 These issues were subsequently resolved by the aquarium’s curator, Alec Fraser-Brunner. Under his direction, the aquarium came to be regarded as one of the best aquariums in Southeast Asia. When Fraser-Brunner left in 1964, Teo Teck Siang was appointed as his successor.20
The aquarium continued to be popular up to the 1980s when it faced increasing competition from new attractions such as the Singapore Zoo and the Jurong Bird Park.21 In 1986, the average daily attendance was 856 visitors. In an effort to keep up with the times, the aquarium underwent a $750,000 restoration that year to improve the display cases and structure of the building. New species of marine life were also added. The revamped aquarium opened its doors to the public on 27 August 1987.22
Despite the renovations, the aquarium could not compete with the latest attractions, notably the Underwater World in Sentosa. In May 1991, the Ministry of National Development announced that the aquarium would be closed down. The plan was for the building to be leased out as a centre for the promotion and sale of ornamental fishes, and some of the aquarium’s fishes would be given to other local animal attractions.23
The Van Kleef Aquarium closed its doors on 31 May 1991. In October that year, the aquarium reopened as World of Aquarium, which was operated by a private company. Few changes were made to the aquarium besides a facelift to the building’s façade. As a commercial entity, the aquarium also bred and sold tropical fishes.24 The World of Aquarium closed in February 1993 due to poor business.25 Several months later, the aquarium was reopened as Fort Canning Aquarium. This endeavour was also short-lived. The aquarium closed its doors for the final time in 1996 and the building structure was subsequently demolished in 1998.26
In 2013, the National University of Singapore decided to name its water research facility the Van Kleef Centre in honour of the Dutchman whose bequest helped fund the building of the Van Kleef Aquarium.27
1930: Van Kleef died. Net proceeds of his estates bequeathed to the municipal government for the “embellishment of the town”.
1935: Municipal commissioners decided to build a public aquarium on the western slopes of Fort Canning Hill.
1940: Construction of aquarium started.
1953: Work on the aquarium restarted after the war.
8 September 1955: Opening of Van Kleef aquarium.
1964: Teo Teck Siang took over curatorship of aquarium from Alec Fraser-Brunner.
1986–1987: Aquarium underwent $750,000 restoration.
31 May 1991: Van Kleef Aquarium closed.
October 1991: Aquarium reopened as World of Aquarium.
1993: World of Aquarium closed in February. Reopened several months later as Fort Canning Aquarium.
1996: Fort Canning Aquarium closed.
1998: Aquarium building demolished.
2013: NUS water research facility named the Van Kleef Centre.
Stephanie Ho & Jaime Koh
1. Khoo, K. (April 2008). Remembering the Van Kleef Aquarium. BeMuse. Singapore: Education and Outreach Division of the National Heritage Board, p. 49. (Call no.: RSING 950 B)
2. Khoo, K. (April 2008). Remembering the Van Kleef Aquarium. BeMuse. Singapore: Education and Outreach Division of the National Heritage Board, p. 49. (Call no.: RSING 950 B)
3. Van Kleef bequest to Singapore. (1931, August 19). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. The Van Kleef bequest. (1931, February 6). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. An aquarium for Singapore. (1933, February 17). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Municipal commissioners want an aquarium. (1935, March 15). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Municipal Committee accepts Tank Road site for aquarium. (1935, November 23). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Fort Canning Park plans. (1937, August 1). The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Van Kleef aquarium plan criticised. (1939, May 27). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Work started on first Malayan aquarium. (1940, April 29). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), p. 5; Aquarium project must wait 2 years. (1946, November 10). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. $470,000 aquarium. (1953, April 29). The Singapore Free Press, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. The big aquarium secret. (1954, November 11). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Now there’s no water in the aquarium. (1954, November 12). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Truth about Van Kleef Aquarium. (1954, November 29). The Singapore Free Press, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. What a wait for those fish. (1955, August 26). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Another fine landmark for Singapore. (1955, September 8). The Singapore Free Press, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Dead fish or not, Van Kleef booms. (1955, December 28). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Aquarium pays its way. (1956, October 21). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. New curator sees hope for fish. (1956, January 2). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. He built up Van Kleef Aquarium to be best in S-E Asia. (1964, August 28). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. More visiting Van Kleef Aquarium. (1978, May 31). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Loh, E. (1987, April 2). Restored Van Kleef expects more visitors. The Straits Times, p. 13; Van Kleef Aquarium reopens today after $750,000 facelift. (1987, August 26). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Siow Y.-M. (1991, May 28). Van Kleef Aquarium to close from Saturday. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Van Kleef Aquarium to reopen on Friday. (1991, October 1). The Straits Times, p. 25. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Goh, E. (1993, February 9). Bad business forces aquarium to close. The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Khoo, K. (April 2008). Remembering the Van Kleef Aquarium. BeMuse. Singapore: Education and Outreach Division of the National Heritage Board, p. 51. (Call no.: RSING 950 B)
27. NUS names water research facility in honour of Dutchman. (2013, January 25). Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
The information in this article is valid as at 15 November 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.