Landmarks Of Singapore- A Heritage Trail Of Bukit Timah
Updated: May 19
Known for its pretty cafes and luxurious homes spread all over the land, Bukit Timah is one of the most attractive locations in all of Singapore, appealing to both locals and foreigners.
From luxury bungalows, condominiums, and terraces, to swanky restaurants and cafes with even more exotics prices, Bukit Timah is definitely a contributing factor to the popular claim, “West is Best,”
However, beneath the pretty surface, Bukit Timah has its fair share of historical ties with one of the most significant events in Singapore’s history -
World War 2 (WWll).
Back in 1942, when we lost Bukit Timah to Japan, it was considered the “last straw” for the British, as Bukit Timah held most of our supplies and food, they knew it was only a matter of time before things went downhill from there.
With bits and pieces of historical remnants and landmarks bearing our history, read on to find out more about how this premium residential district once used to be in the center of one of history’s most brutal wars.
1. BUKIT TIMAH NATURE RESERVE
Starting off strong with one of Singapore’s primary rainforests and a popular destination for Singaporeans and foreigners alike, the classified ASEAN Heritage park is a 1.64 square kilometer (400 acres) nature reserve with one of the richest and most diverse ecological systems, and home to many exotic plants and animals alike.
Along with its crown jewel, the Bukit Timah Hill, which stands at an altitude of 164 meters above sea level, making it the highest natural peak on our land, the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is a wonderland for many who want a break from the hectic and bustling life of Singapore.
However, what many don’t know is that, beyond the plethora of floral and faunal, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve was once a bloody battlefield, where a group of Chinese volunteers fought against the Japanese force before eventually falling to them.
This was eventually named, “The Battle of Bukit Timah,”
BATTLE OF BUKIT TIMAH
The battle of Bukit Timah occurred on 10-12 February 1942 and took place during the Japanese invasion of Singapore.
On the fateful night of 10th February, the Imperial Japanese Army attacked Bukit Timah, capturing it in the wee hours of the following day. This led to Lieutenant-General Arthur E. Percival, to lead a final retreat into the last defensive perimeter around Singapore.
The loss of Bukit Timah was considered one of the biggest reasons for our eventual surrender to Japan and was a major loss on our side at that time.
WHY WAS BUKIT TIMAH SO IMPORTANT?
Bukit Timah was recognized, by both the British and Japanese commanders, as an area that held extreme strategic importance in the defense of our land.
Lieutenant-General Percival, who was the General Officer commanding in Malaya, acknowledged Bukit Timah’s significance as an important road junction, and also served as the area where he placed his main supply of dumps and depots at.
The iconic Bukit Timah Hill, which is the highest point on the island, provided a commanding view into the city that could also be used to direct artillery fire.
Lastly, the main reason why Bukit Timah was such an important location was through the role it played in providing our local water supply, as both MacRitchie and Pierce reservoirs are located in the area.
Knowing this, Colonel Masanobu Tsuji, the Japanese staff officer that oversaw the attack of Bukit Timah, knew that the loss of the reservoirs would be fatal for the British.
THE GROUP OF CHINESE VOLUNTEERS
Of course, we didn’t just go down without a fight.
Although the British originally used soldiers from other parts of the British Empire, such as Australia and India, in light of the desperate situation, they decided to call for Chinese volunteers.
In January 1942, thousands of people turned up, answering the call for Chinese volunteers, to fight and protect the land. Around 3000 people were recruited, and not all of them were from Singapore. Some from Malaya crossed the Causeway to help in the war efforts as well.
The Chinese called this army “the Singapore Overseas Chinese Volunteer Army,” but the British nicknamed it Dalforce, under the name of the commander, John Dalley.
The newly forced army was only given 3 to 14 days of basic military training and was equipped with only basic items. They were not given a helmet, thus they wrapped a yellow cloth on their heads. Many of them were only armed with knives or parangs, shotguns and hunting rifles, some with as few as 7 bullets.
Despite the poor training and equipment, this 1,250 strong army instead used their plain tenacity and courage to fight, which was evident in every battle that they were sent in.
In Kranji, one Dalforce unit battled against a Japanese machine-gun battalion until all 200 of them were killed. In contrast, an Australian unit retreated from the location, even though it was armed with machine guns.
A GRANNY SOLDIER?
Among all these remarkably brave soldiers, there was one that was a little bit more outstanding, a 66-year old grandmother.
Nicknamed the legendary Passionaria of Malaya (after La Pasionaria of the Spanish Civil War), Madam Cheng Seang Ho was a grandmother who was part of the 1,250 people that made up of the Dalforce Army.
She fought alongside her husband, making their last stand at the battle of Bukit Timah, exchanging heavy fire with the Japanese among the thick trees and bushes.
Madam Cheng herself eventually survived the war. Unfortunately, her husband was caught by the Kempeitai, and later executed.
And In 1957, she attended the opening ceremony of the Kranji War Memorial. Refusing to wait for the British Governor to lay down his flowers, she walked in front of him instead, so she could mourn her husband and her fellow soldiers.
2. FORMER FORD FACTORY
The Ford Motor Factory was first established in Singapore in the year 1926, before moving to the state-of-the-art factory located in Upper Bukit Timah Road in 1941.
The factory was Ford’s first motor car assembly plant in Southeast Asia and bore witness to the booming manufacturing industry in Singapore.
IMPACT ON WORLD WAR II
Eventually, when the war came around, the ford factory also played it’s part by producing military vehicles from 1940, in order to support the British Empire.
During the Malayan Campaign in 1941, which began when the Japanese launched an offensive in Kota Bharu north of the Malayan peninsula, the Royal Air Force also used Ford Factory to assemble fighter planes.
However, just before Singapore fell, General Tomoyuki Yamashita, Commander of the Japanese 25th Army, seized Ford Factory and made it the Japanese military’s headquarters.
THE HISTORICAL SURRENDER
On the fateful day of February 15th 1942, A delegation was selected to go to the Japanese headquarters.
It consisted of a senior staff officer, the colonial secretary and an interpreter. The three set off in a motor car bearing a Union Jack and a white flag of truce toward the enemy lines to discuss a cessation of hostilities. They returned with orders that Percival himself proceed with staff officers to the Ford Motor Factory, where Yamashita would lay down the terms of surrender.
Soon after, Percival formally surrendered shortly after 17:15.
The former ford factory serves to be the bearer of one of the most humiliating defeats and surrenders of British Empire history and is also a reminder for us of how it feels like to be completely overwhelmed by an opposing force.
Today, the ford factory is now a public exhibition, presenting the events and memories surrounding the British surrender, the Japanese Occupation, and the legacies of the war.
Visitors will learn how the building evolved from its start as the Ford Motor Company’s first car assembly plant in Southeast Asia in 1929, to its relocation in the current site in 1941, and its status as a gazetted national monument in 2006.
The factory is open everyday, except Mondays, from 9AM to 530PM.
3. OLD BEAUTY WORLD
Before World War 2, right at the junction between Upper Bukit Timah Road and Jalan Jurong Kechil, was once a popular market and shopping destination for locals during weeknights and weekends, known as Bukit Timah Road 7.5 milestone.
This area was always packed full of people, snagging for the best deals on both food and merchandise each night.
AN AMUSEMENT PARK?
After we came under the Japanese occupation, some local businessmen collaborated with the Japanese in order to open an amusement park at Bukit Timah Road 7.5 milestone. The amusement park was called, “Tai Tong Ah Sai Kai”, after the Japanese’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere propaganda during World War 2.
This amusement park cost almost 1 million dollars to build, which is about 17,405,889 dollars today.
A grand opening of the amusement park was held in September 1944, opened by Japanese officers and several invited Overseas-Chinese Association members. The new recreational place was made up of singing stages, food and drink stalls, photo studios, medicine shops, a Japanese films-screening theater called Tiong Hwa Cinema and all types of gambling booths.
Powered by generators, the amusement park’s stalls were brightly lit at night and packed with people, making it stand out in an area shrouded by darkness. Thus, it was dubbed as the most “beautiful” place at Bukit Timah.
Hence, Tai Tong Ah was also known as Beauty World.
After the end of war in 1945, it was allowed to operate for another year with a temporary license granted by the returning British. The gambling booths, however, were banned, greatly affecting the park’s business. With the crowds not returning, a businessman and hotel owner Giam Kok Eng sought approval from the British authority to dismantle the park and convert the site into a marketplace.
END OF AN ERA
In 1947, Tai Tong Ah was officially named Beauty World and with it came a market, offering a variety of goods, all of which were under simple zinc and canvas roofs.
Eventually, Beauty world grew to include more than 160 market stalls, barber shops, a wet market and even a Chinese temple.
By the early 1980s, Beauty World had been ravaged by fire on five occasions. With the poor safety conditions of the place, it eventually led to talks of a new building as well as the development of the Beauty World Centre and Condominium for SGD 45 million in 1984.
Opened in the same year, the Beauty World Centre’s first three stories were reserved for the former shopkeepers at the old Beauty World and the remainder of the old Beauty World shopkeepers who did not move to the new location, mostly relocated to Clementi.
The current Beauty World Centre can still be found at the fittingly named MRT, Beauty World.
4. Cheong Chin Nam and Chun Tin Road
Singapore is very well-known to name our roads all around us in recognition towards people who have greatly contributed to our country in different aspects. For example, we have Raffles Avenue, after the great Sir Stamford Raffles, who is affectionately known as the father of modern Singapore.
In this case, down the streets of Bukit Timah, we have two unusually named roads, Cheong Chin Nam and Chun Tin roads.
Who exactly are they?
WHO IS CHEONG CHUN TIN?
Cheong Chun Tin, was the first certified Chinese practitioner of dentistry in Singapore. Born in Hong Kong, He studied in San Francisco to qualify as a dental surgeon and set up a dental practice at South Bridge Road.
In 1893, he was given the title of the Honorary President for the Straits Settlements by the World's Columbian Dental Congress which was held in Chicago, USA.
Cheong Chun Tin eventually passed away in 1898, and was taken over by his two sons, Cheong Chin Nam and Cheong Chin Heng, who renamed and continued the family practice as the “Cheong Brothers”.
Alongside running the dentistry practice, the Cheong brothers were also general merchants, rubber estate owners and owned many properties in the Bukit Timah area.
Their property included land in the Upper Bukit Timah and Beauty World area where Chun Tin Road and Cheong Chin Nam Road are now located.
Beneath the pretty surface lies a tragic past, and many parts of Bukit Timah are testament to that.
With something for everyone, head down to Bukit Timah and explore its rich heritage and culture today!
If you would love to bring your team or classes out for a fun day out to explore Singapore, feel free to check out our Customisable Learning Journey Tour! Do check out our previous article on the Sembawang Heritage Trail for its own route experience as you discover the prominence of Sembawang!