Uncovering one of Singapore’s oldest heartland towns
The National Heritage Board’s newest trail in Hougang shows off its sites of worship and institutions, as well as its architectural features and traditional businesses.
Have you ever wondered why Hougang is commonly pronounced as Au Kang, different from how it is spelt? Au Kang actually means “at the back of the river” in both Teochew and Hokkien, and is a reference to Sungei Serangoon at the end of Upper Serangoon Road, around which many Teochew-speaking inhabitants settled. In fact, the first documented use of this dialect name was from way back in 1856.
“Hougang” is its Mandarin version, introduced in 1980 for the new residential town which was being built at the time. While the old Teochew pronunciation has endured and the Teochew community continues to have a strong presence, much has changed. A strong, diverse mix of other communities and cultures has also developed and continues to accentuate the colourful character of one of Singapore’s oldest towns.
From tales of crocodile and pirate attacks, to Singapore’s first fast-food restaurant in a housing estate, the new National Heritage Board’s (NHB) Hougang Heritage Trail, consisting of 18 heritage sites with 10 trail markers, uncovers a treasure trove of lesser-known stories of an area steeped in history, over three thematic trail routes: Landmarks of Hougang, Institutions of Service and Architectural Gems. Through historical landmarks, important community institutions, as well as the personal memories and contributions from the community, the trail charts the journey of Hougang from a rural area with vast plantations and fruit orchards to a modern, thriving heartland estate.
NHB’s 20th heritage trail is part of its ongoing efforts to document and promote the distinct histories and social memories of different areas where Singaporeans live, work and play. It also features two National Monuments – the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Hougang Tou Mu Kung – making it the first heartland trail to do so.
Many of Hougang’s places of faith have origins dating back to the early kampung days. In the 1800s, the steady arrival of Catholic Teochew immigrants from China who came to Singapore eventually led to the establishment of religious institutions such as the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. St Paul’s Church was built in 1936 to serve Anglican Christians living in the Upper Serangoon area. Taoist and Buddhist temples were also established within the vicinity to serve devotees from different clans and dialect groups. The other place of worship found on the trail include the Masjid Haji Yusoff which was built in 1921 and now serves as a hub for the Malay-Muslim community living in the Hougang and Upper Serangoon areas.
Hougang is also home to a number of institutions established to serve the community. These institutions played important roles in providing medical care, education and social support, and advancing community bonding. Most were founded before the area was transformed into a modern housing town, and these include the Ramakrishna Mission along Bartley Road, and various Chinese clan associations.
The Hougang Heritage Trail also traces the transformation from rural Au Kang to a new housing town with modern schools and bustling markets. Unique architectural features, including HDB blocks with curved columns and the iconic Block 316 adorned with a sweeping rainbow mural, are highlighted. Traditional businesses that have served generations of residents and continue to flourish include Ah Seah Teochew Porridge, Ho Tit Coffee Powder Factory, Cheong Ann Watch Maker, Serangoon Lian Hin Tailor, and Chinese antique furniture and accessories store, Just Anthony.
The Hougang Heritage Trail’s companion guide and map are available in four languages, and can be downloaded from NHB’s heritage portal, Roots.sg. Printed copies of the guide will also be available at NHB museums, as well as the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (Hougang Office), Hougang Community Club, Punggol Community Club, Paya Lebar Kovan Community Club, The Serangoon Community Club, Aljunied Community Centre, Eunos Community Club and Kaki Bukit Community Centre.
To find out more on the other NHB trails, go to: https://roots.sg/visit/trails
7 FUN FACTS ABOUT HOUGANG:
- Various institutions in Hougang helped in the war effort during the Japanese Occupation. Institutions like Phoh Kiu Siang T’ng and the Church of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary became places of refuge and where medical assistance could be sought.
- The cost of building St Paul’s Church was borne by George Rae Oehlers, a prominent Eurasian contractor and the father of Sir George Edward Noel Oehlers, who was the first Eurasian in Singapore to have been knighted. Sir George Edward Noel Oehlers, better known as Geno Oehlers, was the first Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Singapore, and received his knighthood for outstanding public service in Singapore.
- Wolskel Road is closely connected to Lim Chee Gee, a pioneer businessman, and his son, war hero Lim Bo Seng. The Lim family owned much of the land around the area, and several of its businesses were located along Wolskel Road near the family home. When Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942, 200 Japanese soldiers surrounded the house in Upper Serangoon demanding for Lim Bo Seng, but he actually lived in a separate house with his family some distance away.
- Hougang used to offer a unique tourist attraction with its crocodile farms. Tan Moh Hong Reptile Skin and Crocodile Farm, often referred to simply as the Singapore Crocodile Farm, was established in 1945, and by the 1980s, had about 600 crocodiles. Other smaller crocodile farms also existed in Hougang.
- In the 1980s, HDB started to create a distinctive identity for different housing estates, and in Hougang, one of the ways they did this was to introduce curvatures to its buildings, with rounded balconies and curved columns. Some blocks were also decorated with murals, notably Block 316, which was painted with a sweeping rainbow mural. Over the years, the iconic block has been repainted a number of times, and while each iteration has resulted in a new design, it has always been adorned with a rainbow mural.
- Hougang became the first housing estate in Singapore to have a fast-food restaurant when McDonald’s opened an outlet in its town centre in 1984. The outlet remains in its original location today.
- Hougang Plaza, which was opened in 1993, was heralded as the first all-entertainment complex in a HDB estate. Up until its demolition in 2013, the Plaza provided residents with recreational facilities that included a bowling alley, billiards hall and cineplex.
(** PHOTO CREDIT: National Heritage Board)