Bishan is an urban planning area located in the central region of Singapore. It covers an area of 743 ha bounded by Ang Mo Kio in the north, Toa Payoh in the south, the Central Expressway in the east and the Central Catchment Area in the west. The planning area is made up of three planning sub-zones: Bishan East, Marymount and Upper Thomson.1 “Bishan” commonly refers to Bishan New Town, a self-contained Housing and Development Board (HDB) estate built during the mid-1980s to 1990s. The residential district is connected to the rest of Singapore via a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) interchange that operates along the North-South and Circle lines, as well as a bus interchange. Sitting on the site of a former Chinese cemetery, the housing estate is equipped with a town centre, schools, public parks, sports and communal facilities.2
History and etymology
The name Bishan originates from a Chinese cemetery known as Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng (广惠肇碧山亭; Guanghuizhao bishanting) established in 1870 on the site of what is now Bishan New Town. Peck San Theng was originally built by a community of various clan associations collectively known as the Kwong Wai Siew to serve the burial needs of Cantonese and Hakka immigrants from China’s Guangdong province. The cemetery was later opened to the wider Chinese community.3
“Peck San Teng” means “pavilions on the jade hills”, in reference to the 10 pavilions that once dotted the sprawling grounds of the burial site. The large burial grounds were partitioned into 10 sections, each with a pavilion that provided shelter for visitors. The numbered pavilions also functioned as locality markers, helping family members identify ancestral graves in the thick undergrowth during the annual Qing Ming Festival, when the Chinese pay respects to their ancestors by visiting their graves. This iconic feature inspired the distinctive pitched roof seen on some HDB blocks in Bishan.4
By the 1970s, Peck San Theng had become the largest Chinese cemetery in Singapore with over 75,000 graves spread across a 121-hectare area.5 The cemetery stopped accepting new burials in 1973,6 and the land was acquired by the government six years later for S$4.95 million for the development of Bishan New Town.7 The Kwong Wai Siew retained 3.2 ha of land,8 where a temple and a new columbarium with at least 70,000 niches were built in the mid-1980s.9 Exhumation of the estimated 100,000 graves took place in stages between 1982 and 1984.10
Kampong San Teng
The site of Bishan was more than a cemetery; it was also home to Kampong San Teng, a Cantonese village that began as a small community of settlers engaged in the funeral trade. They included cemetery caretakers, peddlers of funeral paraphernalia, tombstone engravers and members of the various clan associations. Over time, the kampong (village) grew, and by the 1970s its population had increased to almost 2,000. The principal occupation of its residents was agriculture and livestock farming. Kampong San Teng was a self-sufficient village with its own school, market, teahouse, temple and cinema. The school was set up in 1936 by the Kwong Wai Siew to provide free education for the village children. It started with 60 students and moved to larger premises in 1956 to accommodate more students. The school closed in 1981 due to low enrolment, while the entire village was resettled in the 1980s to make way for Bishan New Town.11
Another landmark in the village was Peck San Tea House (碧山茶亭; Bishan chating) located at the entrance of the village and next to the temple. The eatery sold dim sum – a Cantonese-style cuisine served in bite-size portions in bamboo containers – and was a popular breakfast and meeting venue for families during the Qing Ming Festival.12 Village entertainment came in the form of the San Teng Community Centre, where residents played basketball and table-tennis, picked up cooking and sewing tips or watched television; and the open-air Nam Kok Cinema (南国戏院; Nanguo xiyuan) where residents watched movies in Cantonese and English at 30 to 50 cents a ticket. As the Peck San Teng cemetery was remote and secluded, it was also notorious for being a spot for illicit activities and violent clashes between rival gangs and secret societies.13
During the Malayan Campaign leading to the Japanese Occupation (1942–45), both the cemetery and Kampong San Teng were heavily bombed by the Japanese due to its proximity to MacRitchie Reservoir, which was of strategic importance to the Japanese military. The village suffered heavy casualties from the aerial bombing. The area was also the site of a fierce battle between British and Japanese forces in the final days before the fall of Singapore.14
Around Kampong San Teng
In the vicinity of Kampong San Teng was Soon Hock Village, a Hokkien kampong along Upper Thomson and Marymount roads known for its production of sesame oil and noodles.15 Today, the Jalan Pemimpin and Sin Ming industrial estates in the area are designated light industrial zones in the urban planning guidelines for Bishan.16 The 1950s saw the emergence of private housing enclaves such as Thomson Rise, Coral Park, Lauw & Sons Garden and Clover Park around Jalan Pemimpin, Jalan Binchang and Clover Way.17 In 1979, the government acquired Kampong San Teng and Soon Hock Village for the development of Bishan New Town. The latter is now the site of Shunfu estate.18 Most of the villagers were resettled in the neighbouring Ang Mo Kio housing estate and each household received S$500 as compensation.19
Although Kampong San Teng was renamed Bishan following development plans, the area was still referred to as Kampong San Teng well into the 1980s.20 The road known as Kampong San Teng leading to the cemetery was expunged, and Peck San Teng is accessed via Bishan Lane since 1989.21
Bishan New Town
The plan of Bishan New Town consisted of four neighbourhoods – Shunfu, Bishan East, Bishan North and Bishan West (later renamed as Sin Ming Garden)22 – with over 23,000 flats ranging from three-bedrooms to executive maisonettes and spanning an area of 132 ha.23 Construction of the estate was carried out in stages between 1983 and 1989, beginning with Shunfu, its smallest neighbourhood.24 The precinct – a cluster of blocks with a common space and shared basic facilities where residents could mingle and interact – was used as the basic planning unit in the estate layout.25 The concept was introduced by the HDB in the 1980s in the planning of new estates as a way to promote cohesive community living.26
The 1980s also saw a departure from the uniform slab-block design seen in public housing of earlier decades. Concerted efforts were made by urban planners and architects to infuse Bishan New Town with a distinctive identity and character by injecting variety into its architecture. These features include pitched roofs, 25-storey point blocks with rounded balconies, as well as a mix of high-rise and low-rise blocks.27 Bishan was also the first estate to feature HDB flats with open roof terraces.28
Although there were initial fears that Bishan might be unpopular with homebuyers because of its past as a cemetery ground, the concerns have proven to be unfounded as Bishan is now considered a prime residential estate.29 This is attributed to the estate’s proximity to major highways and the reputable schools located there.30
Infrastructure and amenities
As a satellite town, Bishan has a robust transportation system and is well equipped with amenities such as shopping and neighbourhood centres, parks, schools and communal and sport facilities. When the estate first came up in 1985, it only had a temporary bus terminal. In 1987, Bishan MRT station, initially named “San Teng”,31 opened as part of the first stage of the North-South Line. This was followed by the opening of the S$5.5-million bus interchange in 1989.32 In 2009, the MRT station was upgraded to an interchange with the launch of the Circle Line. Junction 8 shopping centre, situated beside the train station, is named after the Bishan MRT station code, NS8, when it opened on 22 January 1994. However, the station code has since been renamed NS17.33
The recreational needs of the residents are met by Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park (1988), Bishan Community Club (1998)34 and Bishan Sports Complex (1998).35 The 62-hectare park, one of the largest urban parks in Singapore, runs along the Kallang riverine system. As part of the Public Utilities Board’s Active, Beautiful and Clean Waters programme, the park underwent a S$76-million revamp between 2009 and 2012. The works included reconstructing the concrete canal at the park to resemble a meandering river for recreational purposes.36
There are a number of schools located in Bishan, such as Raffles Institution, Catholic High School, Whitley Secondary School and Ai Tong School. The land on which the Raffles Institution campus now occupies was originally meant for Bishan Junior College. However, the junior college was not built as there were sufficient junior colleges subsequently. The land was thus released for the relocation of Raffles Institution.37
1. Urban Redevelopment Board (Singapore), Bishan Planning Area: Planning Report 1994 (Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Board, 1994), 4, 6. (Call no. RSING 711.4095957 SIN)
2. Becoming Bishan Team, Becoming Bishan (Singapore: The Becoming Bishan Team, 2015), 49–61. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BEC-[HIS])
3. “History,” Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng, 2012; Kevin Y. L. Tan, ed., Spaces of the Dead: A Case from the Living (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2011), 11–12. (Call no. RSING 363.75095957 SPA)
4. Becoming Bishan Team, Becoming Bishan, 9. 14; Paul Wee, “Govt Acquires Site for Housing Scheme to Link Toa Payoh, Ang Mo Kio Estates,” Straits Times, 30 April 1979, 8 (From NewspaperSG); Singapore Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng, Bishan Heritage Trail: 10 Places to See (Singapore: Singapore Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng, 2009), 11. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BIS-[HIS])
5. Tan, Spaces of the Dead, 12.
6. “Cemetery Officials Will Look for Other Sites,” Straits Times, 20 September 1973, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “$4.9M Compensation,” Straits Times, 11 June 1980, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “Clan Gets Land at Peck San Teng,” New Nation, 30 January 1980, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Chong Wing Hong, “New Home for the Dead,” Straits Times, 9 April 1986, 4; “Rising from the Ashes,” Straits Times, 10 December 2004, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “Notice of Exhumation of Graves at Pavilions 3 and 6 at Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Teng Cemetery,” Straits Times, 2 September 1982, 1; “Final Notice of Exhumation of Graves at Pavilion no 8, 9 & 10 at Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Eng Cemetery off Marymount Road,” Straits Times, 7 June 1984, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Grace Wong, “Educator Recalls Old Days,” Straits Times, 7 January 1981, 1; “School Hears the Death Knell,” New Nation, 14 August 1981, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Chan Kwee Sung, “Teahouses Catered to Rural Folk in Past,” Straits Times, 3 December 1993, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Becoming Bishan Team, Becoming Bishan, 9. 18–29.
14. Becoming Bishan Team, Becoming Bishan, 36–41.
15. B. H. Chua, et al., “Resettling Soon Hock Village: A Longitudinal Study,” in Housing a Nation: 25 Years of Public Housing in Singapore, ed., Aline K. Wong and Stephen H.K. Yeh (Singapore: Published by Maruzen Asia for Housing & Development Board, 1985), 335–74 (Call no. RSING 363.5095957 HOU); Becoming Bishan Team, Becoming Bishan, 26.
16. Urban Redevelopment Board (Singapore), Bishan Planning Area, 20.
17. Colin Cheong, I Love Bishan: Celebrating Community Building in Bishan (Singapore: Times Edition, 2001), 26. (Call no. RSING 307.1416095957 CHE)
18. Oei Sin Geok, “Unique HDB Designs for Bishan,” Singapore Monitor, 30 November 1984, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Becoming Bishan Team, Becoming Bishan, 44; Chua, et al., “Resettling Soon Hock Village: A Longitudinal Study,” 335–74.
20. Parliament of Singapore, Development of Kampong San Teng (Particulars), vol. 41 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 5 March 1982, col. 510 (Call no. RCLOS 328.5957 SIN); Chong, “New Home for the Dead.”
21. “Page 8 Advertisements Column 4,” Straits Times, 28 April 1989, 8; “Traffic Alert,” Straits Times, 5 February 1994, 30. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “Bishan West’s New Name,” Straits Times, 17 April 1988, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Mathew Yap, “First Few Newly-Built Bishan Blocks Snapped Up,” Straits Times, 28 May 1985, 14; Sam Ran, “Bishan New Town’s Unique Feature,” Straits Times, 1 December 1984, 16; “Bishan Estate to Have 23,000 Flats,” Straits Times, 14 January 1984, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
24. “Bishan New Town Will Have Distinctive Features,” Business Times, 1 December 1984, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “Precinct Concept for Hougang and Bishan,” Straits Times, 3 December 1983, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Limin Hee and Chye Kiang Heng, “Transformations of Space: A Retrospective on Public Housing in Singapore,” in Suburban Form: An International Perspective, ed. Kiril Stanilov and Brenda Case Scheer (London: Routledge, 2004), 140–42. (Call no. R 307.74 SUB)
27. Oei, “Unique HDB Designs for Bishan.”
28. “Bishan to Have First Open Roof Terrace Flats,” Straits Times, 12 January 1985, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
29. “Bishan: From Sleepy Backwater Estate to Dynamic New Town,” Straits Times, 22 May 2003, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Yap, “First Few Newly-Built Bishan Blocks Snapped Up”; “Bishan: Back to the Kampong Days,” New Paper, 21 January 1998, 35. (From NewspaperSG)
31 Lim Soon Neo, “Full Steam Ahead for the MRT,” Business Times, 23 April 1984, 8; “What’s in a Name? Plenty, Says MRTC,” Singapore Monitor, 21 September 1984, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
32. “Bus Interchange in Bishan Catches the Eye,” New Paper, 18 November 1988, 3; “Bishan’s New Bus Interchange to Operate from Today,” Straits Times, 30 April 1989, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
33. Becoming Bishan Team, Becoming Bishan, 54–55, 60; Wong Kan Seng, “Official Opening of Junction 8,” speech, Bishan Place, 22 January 1994, transcript, Ministry of Information and the Arts. (From National Archives of Singapore document no. wks19940122as)
34. “Bishan: Back to the Kampong Days.”
35. “Bishan Sports Complex Open,” Straits Times, 4 April 1998, 45 (From NewspaperSG); Becoming Bishan Team, Becoming Bishan, 58.
36. Ong Dai Lin, “Bishan Park Undergoes $76M Facelift,” Today, 2 October 2009, 6; Victoria Vaughan, “Bishan Park Canal Reshaped Into River,” Straits Times, 2 October 2009, 47. (From NewspaperSG); Lee Hsien Loong, “Opening of Bishan Park – ABC Waters,” speech, 17 March 2012, transcript, Prime Minister’s Office.
37. Becoming Bishan Team, Becoming Bishan, 53.
Bo Wen, “Troupe Revives Kampung Spirit,” Straits Times, 15 March 1985, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
“D-Day Tomorrow for Plan to Convert Cemetery into Housing,” New Nation, 22 May 1976, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
Goh Yue Yun, “Open-Air Parties in HDB flats,” Straits Times, 30 August 1988, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
“New Names for Eight Stations,” Singapore Monitor, 30 November 1982, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
Oei Sin Geok, “Roof-Top Terraces for Bishan Maisonettes,” Singapore Monitor, 11 January 1985, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
“Then & Now,” Straits Times, 27 September 2004, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article is valid as at 28 December 2015 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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