Located in the central region of Singapore, Balestier refers to the area around Balestier Road that runs between Thomson and Serangoon roads.1 Balestier was first developed as a sugarcane plantation in the mid-19th century by American Joseph Balestier. Wealthy individuals and families began moving into the area from the late 19th century onwards, turning the area into a residential district known for its shophouses and terrace houses incorporating various architectural styles. Balestier is also famous for its historical landmarks such as the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, the Shaw film studio on Jalan Ampas and a number of religious sites established by early settlers. Besides being a hotspot for local food such as chicken rice and bak kut teh (pork rib soup), present-day Balestier is also associated with its ubiquitous lighting shops.
Balestier is named after Joseph Balestier, who arrived in Singapore in 1834 and initially served as the United States consul to the neighbouring Riau Islands (now part of Indonesia).2 He was officially appointed the first United States consul to Singapore on 4 July 1836, while the appointment was recognised by the East India Company’s Court of Directors in London in November 1836. However, he only took up office in June 1837 after the company allowed American ships to trade in Singapore on equal terms.3
Balestier became a merchant, shipping agent and sugar planter to supplement his consular income, which was insufficient to support him and his family.4 He leased 1,000 ac (4 sq km) of land to build his family residence and used up 220 ac (0.8 sq km) to grow sugarcane.5 The land, bounded by Sungei Whampoa, Serangoon, Balestier and Kim Keat roads, became known as Balestier Plain.6
Despite his hard work, Balestier was dogged by misfortune. Tigers roamed the area around his plantation and killed two of his workers in 1842. His son, Joseph W. R. Balestier, died in 1844. Heavy rains destroyed his sugarcane fields in 1847, the same year that his wife of 30 years passed away. Balestier put his plantation up for sale in 1848 and left Singapore for the United States due to ill health. He returned to Singapore in 1849 and 1851 on government matters and finally resigned from his position as consul in 1852.7
After Balestier’s departure, the authorities acquired his estate and leased part of it to Chinese farmers. Sugarcane continued to be grown on small plots of land, giving birth to the street named Jalan Ampas (“Ampas” referring to the residue of crushed sugarcane) off Balestier Road. The early settlers in the area also cultivated lime and taro, and set up rattan-based cottage industries along Sungei Whampoa.8
The late 19th century saw large waves of immigrants arriving in Singapore. Most of the immigrants settled in the town centre, where diseases became widespread due to poverty, overcrowding and malnutrition. Those who had the means moved to the suburbs. The Europeans, especially the English who were drawn to life in a country bungalow, began erecting houses along Balestier Road. Some of these residents were unmarried working men who did not require large residences such as those found in Tanglin.9
Other affluent townsfolk who settled in the Balestier area included the Aljunieds (a prominent Arab merchant family), the sultan of Sulu and the sultan of Siak, whose mansion at 7 Jalan Rajah included stables and coach houses.10
Balestier Road is characterised by two-storey shophouses of mixed architectural influences. One example is the row of shophouses from 292 to 312 Balestier Road built in 1926 by a woman named Sim Cheng Neo. The row of shophouses is often referred to as “Sim Kwong Ho”, which is the name inscribed on the facade of the building near the roof. The architectural design of the shophouses combine European glazed floral tiles and elaborate festoons with Chinese-style flowers, birds, mythical beasts and even bats, which symbolise good fortune. It is a hybrid architectural style known as “Singapore Eclectic” or “Chinese Baroque” that arose during the rubber boom from the turn of the 20th century to the 1930s. During this period, many rich landowners engaged European architects who added Western features to the traditional Chinese iconography found on the shophouses.11
Other rows of shophouses – 315 to 321 and 329 to 333 Balestier Road – have decorative elements such as lions, plaster lotuses and birds. Because the design features of these shophouses are more austere and simpler compared with Sim’s shophouses, it is believed that they were built later in the 1930s by Sim’s family members during an economic downturn.12
Those erected in the 1950s along Balestier Road adopted the Art Deco style, which was popular from the 1930s to ’50s. The Art Deco movement favoured clear geometric shapes, so structural elements like arches, keystones and pediments were simplified and streamlined. The vertical fins found on the shophouses at 230 and 246 Balestier Road follow these design principles.13
Prewar terrace houses
The conserved prewar terrace houses along Pegu and Martaban roads reflect another type of architectural style. Built in the 1920s and 1930s, the facades of these houses are decorated with pilasters, architraves and cornices in the European neoclassical style of the period. Local adaptations include high-level vents for better ventilation and the use of coloured glass to diffuse the strong outside light entering the building. The terrace house at 13 Martaban Road used to be a dormitory for attendants working at the nearby Tan Tock Seng Hospital. It has since been restored into a contemporary home, but has retained many of the original roof rafters, timber doors and windows.14
Balestier Point is an apartment and shopping complex built in 1984 by architecture firm Regional Development Consortium. The complex has a unique pyramid structure that has been said to resemble “children’s play blocks stacked haphazardly one on top of the other”. The building’s design was inspired by American architect Moshe Safdie’s housing project, Habitat 67, built for the 1967 Montreal World Expo. Balestier Point houses shops on the first two floors, carparks on the next two levels, and 13 floors of apartments. It was built on the site of the former Ruby Theatre, which operated from 1958 to the early 1980s.15
Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall
The two-storey villa on Tai Gin Road in Balestier is famed as the regional headquarters for Sun Yat Sen’s Tongmenghui, the Chinese revolutionary movement, and later Sun’s Kuomintang political party following the successful Chinese revolution in 1911.16 The house was completed by 1902 and originally owned by Boey Chuan Poh, who named it Bin Chan House.17
It was gazetted as a national monument on 28 October 1994 and given its present name in 1997.18 Currently managed by the National Heritage Board, the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall features exhibitions related to Singapore’s role in the Chinese revolution as well as Sun’s life and significant Chinese community leaders in the early 20th century in Singapore.19
Shaw film studio
Shaw Brothers’ film production centre was set up in 1947 on Jalan Ampas, off Balestier Road. Known as Malay Film Productions Ltd, the studio produced many hits and launched the careers of Malay film stars such as P. Ramlee. The studio closed down in 1967 as interest in Malay movies waned with the advent of imported films and television. Shaw moved its Malay film production to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, but the former studio building stills stands on its original site on Jalan Ampas.20
Besides the studio building, two nearby sites at 9A and 9B Jalan Ampas served as production centres where artificial sets such as an entire kampong (village) were created for film shoots.21 The studio grounds also extended to Kampong Seniman (Artiste Village), where the stars and technicians lived.22
Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple
The origins of the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple at 249 Balestier Road can be traced back to the Hokkien labourers who worked on the northern fringes of sugar plantations in Balestier. They established the temple in 1847 to house Tua Pek Kong, a Taoist deity popular among the overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia for his ability to grant good fortune, cure diseases and ward off storms and other dangers.23 The temple has a single forecourt with a low, tiled roof built in the southern Chinese style that is decorated with dragons, birds, fish, blazing pearls, phoenixes and flowers. The temple also features a freestanding Chinese wayang (opera) stage – one of two that still exists on mainland Singapore. Teochew and Hokkien operas are still performed there during important festivals.24
Church of St Alphonsus (Novena Church)
The Church of St Alphonsus was started in 1935 by the Redemptorists, a Catholic missionary order founded in Italy by Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori. It is popularly known as Novena Church after the novenas – devotional prayers done in exchange for the granting of petitions – that are held there. Originally located on 339 Thomson Road (present site of Thomson Medical Centre), the Redemptorists obtained a plot of land on its current site at 300 Thomson Road from Chinese businessman Wee Kah Kiat after the Japanese Occupation (1942–45).25 The church building was completed in 1950 and gazetted for conservation on 8 June 2011.26
Masjid Hajjah Rahimabi Kebun Limau
The mosque, located at the end of Kim Keat Road across Sungei Whampoa, dates back to 1961 when it started as a surau (prayer hall) to hold Friday prayers. While the government granted the 573-square-metre plot of land, the Muslim community living in the area contributed S$20 per household to fund the building of the surau, which became known as Surau Kebun Limau. In 1981, Hajjah Rahimabi Ahmad Angullia, who was from a prominent Indian Muslim family, donated S$1.6 million to the surau to fund its expansion into a mosque. The mosque was completed in 1984 and renamed Masjid Hajjah Rahimabi Kebun Limau in honour of its donor.27
Balestier was gazetted as a conservation area by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) on 1 December 2003. The protected buildings – including shophouses in the Singapore Eclectic style, terrace houses with Art Deco influences and modernist shop-flats – are mainly situated along the main stretch of Balestier Road between Thomson and Serangoon roads.28
Balestier Road has attracted several hotel developments in recent decades. By 2004, there were six budget hotels in the area. While businesses welcomed the increased human traffic that the hotels had brought, residents were afraid the neighbourhood would acquire an unsavoury reputation.29 In 2008, a large parcel of land in front of the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall between Balestier Road and Ah Hood Road was put up for sale by the URA to be developed into a park and hotel.30 An integrated development – comprising Zhongshan Mall, a commercial tower and two hotels – now stands at the site.31
Food and lighting shops
Loy Kee and Boon Tong Kee are two prominent eateries selling chicken rice along Balestier Road. Loy Kee, established in 1953 by immigrants from Hainan Island, China, sell steamed chicken served on rice cooked in chicken broth together with a garlic-chilli dip. Boon Tong Kee started business in 1979 and moved from Chinatown to Balestier Road in 1983. It offers a Cantonese rendition of the dish, where tender poultry is served with a chilli dip containing lime. Besides these, there are other chicken rice stalls in the area such as Hock Nam at Teng Seng Coffeeshop.32
Bak kut teh
There are at least eight eating places on Balestier Road where one can find bak kut teh – a Hokkien dish of pork rib soup served with rice, pickled vegetables and fried dough fritters. The most famous among them is Founder Bak Kut Teh, opened by a former pig farmer in 1975.33
Besides food, Balestier is also known for the numerous lighting shops along both sides of Balestier Road. It started with a few pioneers who were attracted by the neighbourhood’s low rentals. Their success drew more competitors until Balestier became synonymous with lighting supplies.34
Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC
Balestier lies primarily in the Bishan-Toa Payoh Group Representation Constituency (GRC), except for the northeastern region of the lower section of Balestier Road, between Jalan Ampas and Serangoon Road, which comes under the Whampoa division of the Jalan Besar GRC.35 It was previously part of the Moulmein-Kallang GRC as well as the Whampoa Single Member Constituency, until both constituencies were dissolved ahead of the 2015 general election.36
Or kio (black bridge): early-20th-century Hokkien reference to the dark wooden bridge that spanned Sungei Whampoa, near the Thomson Road end of Balestier Road.
Goh chor tua peh kong koai: referring to the Tua Pek Kong temple. Goh Chor is the Hokkien transliteration of “Rochor”, what the district was known as in the mid-19th century. Koai means “street” in the Hokkien dialect.
Wu-hap thong (taro pond): early-20th-century Cantonese name in reference to the taro crops grown in the area.
Thannir kampam (water village): old Tamil name describing the bullock carts that ferried water from the nearby Sungei Whampoa to the city centre.
Kebun limau (citrus garden): Malay name for the area around the present Lorong Limau, where lime gardens once flourished.
1. Periplus Editions (HK) Ltd, Singapore Island & City Map ([Hong Kong]: Periplus Editions, 2009) (Call no. RSING 912.5957 PER); Mighty Minds Singapore Street Directory (Singapore: Mighty Minds Pub., 2015), maps 88, 89, 110, 111. (Call no. RSING 912.5957 MMSSD-[DIR])
2. “Balestier – the First American Businessman in Singapore,” Straits Times, 1 December 1967, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
3. “Consulate of the United States,” Straits Times, 17 June 1837, 1; “Saturday Evening, June 17th, 1837,” Singapore Chronicle and Commercial Register, 17 June 1837, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, eds., One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 2 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 504. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
4. “Balestier – the First American Businessman in Singapore.”
5. “A Sugar Plantation for Sale,” Straits Times, 8 April 1848, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
6. National Heritage Board Singapore, Balestier: A Heritage Trail (Singapore: National Heritage Board, 2006), 4. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BAL-[HIS])
7. “Balestier – the First American Businessman in Singapore.”
8. National Heritage Board Singapore, Balestier: A Heritage Trail, 5–6; “Balestier,” Urban Redevelopment Authority Singapore, accessed 13 May 2016.
9. Norman Edwards, The Singapore House and Residential Life 1819–1939 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1990), 54, 55, 57. (Call no. RSING 728.095957 EDW)
10. National Heritage Board Singapore, Balestier: A Heritage Trail, 6.
11. National Heritage Board Singapore, Balestier: A Heritage Trail, 12; Urban Redevelopment Authority Singapore, “Balestier.”
12. National Heritage Board Singapore, Balestier: A Heritage Trail, 16.
13. National Heritage Board Singapore, Balestier: A Heritage Trail, 10.
14. National Heritage Board Singapore, Balestier: A Heritage Trail, 15–16.
15. “Balestier Point – The New Boy on the Block,” Straits Times, 26 January 1988, 18 (From NewspaperSG); National Heritage Board Singapore, Balestier: A Heritage Trail, 14.
16. Tan Ban Huat, “Villa Where Dr. Sun Stayed,” Straits Times, 16 June 1978, 34 (From NewspaperSG); National Heritage Board Singapore, Balestier: A Heritage Trail, 36.
17. “Page 1 Advertisements Column 5,” Straits Times, 8 March 1902, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
18. National Heritage Board Singapore, Balestier: A Heritage Trail, 36; Leong Weng Kam, “Sun-Kissed Shrine,” Straits Times, 12 November 2001, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Natasha Ann Zachariah, Sun’s Villa Gets New Life,” Straits Times, 2 October 2010, 2 (From NewspaperSG); “The Building,” Sun Yat Sun Memorial Hall, accessed 24 May 2016.
20. National Heritage Board Singapore, Balestier: A Heritage Trail, 24.
21. National Heritage Board Singapore, Balestier: A Heritage Trail, 24.
22. “Spirit of Jalan Ampas,” Straits Times, 4 February 1990, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
23. National Heritage Board Singapore, Balestier: A Heritage Trail, 7–8; Evelyn Lip, Chinese Temple Architecture in Singapore (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1983), 77. (Call no. RCLOS 726.1951095957 LIP)
24. National Heritage Board Singapore, Balestier: A Heritage Trail, 8.
25. National Heritage Board Singapore, Balestier: A Heritage Trail, 39–40.
26. Grace Foo, ed., Make Her Known: The Novena Story, 80 Years of Love (1935 to 2015) (Singapore: Church of St. Alphonsus, 2014), 4 (Call no. RSING 232.91 MAK); “Church of St. Alphonsus (Novena Church),” Urban Redevelopment Authority Singapore, accessed 16 May 2016.
27. “Woman Gives $2M for Mosque,” Straits Times, 29 September 1981, 38 (From NewspaperSG); National Heritage Board Singapore, Balestier: A Heritage Trail, 39–22.
28. Urban Redevelopment Authority Singapore, “Balestier.”
29. Irena Josoeb, “The Next Geylang?” Straits Times, 4 April 2004, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Fiona Chan, “Sprawling Hotel Site in Balestier Put Up for Sale,” Straits Times, 1 April 2008, 46. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Joyce Teo, “Just Three Lacklustre Bids for Balestier Hotel Site,” Straits Times, 17 July 2008, 43; Ng Zhuo Yang, Y. (2013, May 10). “Hiap Hoe’s Zhongshan Park Project Complete,” Business Times, 10 May 2013, 30. (From NewspaperSG)
32. National Heritage Board Singapore, Balestier: A Heritage Trail, 28.
33. National Heritage Board Singapore, Balestier: A Heritage Trail, 32.
34. National Heritage Board Singapore, Balestier: A Heritage Trail, 14.
35. “Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC Boundary,”Bishan-Toa Payoh Town Council, accessed 16 May 2016; “Whampoa Division,” Jalan Besar Town Council, accessed 16 May 2016.
36. Zakir Hussain, “New Electoral Boundaries Announced: 13 SMCs, 16 GRCs, One in five Voters Will See Shift,” Straits Times, 24 July 2015. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
37. National Heritage Board Singapore, Balestier: A Heritage Trail, 3.
The information in this article is valid as at 24 May 2016 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.
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