Sembawang is one of the Landmarks of Singapore which is known as the largest residential area in the North region, with plenty of amenities such as the Sembawang Shopping Centre and Sembawang Beach, a beautiful natural beach and also one of the most popular ones here in Singapore.
Although voted as one of the quietest places to live in Singapore, however it might come to a surprise to some that this peaceful town area was also once one of the busiest and most happening districts in the entire island, but it might not be for a reason that you expect.
Back in the 1900s, Sembawang was a core region for the British Empire, using the place as a military hub, which held not just not just a major naval base, but also industrial and recreational facilities.
From a hot spring well, to an abandoned underground bunker, here are some things that you might not have known were right under your nose!
1. Sembawang Hot Spring Park
Located in Gambas Avenue, the Sembawang Hot Spring Park was officially reopened on the 4th of January 2020, by the National Heritage Boards.
With cascading pools and a water collection point, there are also educational panels where visitors can learn more about Singapore’s only hot spring park’s history.
In 1909, a Chinese merchant named Seah Eng Keong, the son of Chinese pioneer Seah Liang Seah, discovered hot springs in his estate in Sembawang. The three springs were channeled into one, so that the water would be concentrated into one area.
A well was built along with the spring, which became popular with the villagers, who frequently sought the waters for their supposed healing powers.
The spring's fame spread, resulting in the village becoming known as Kampong Ayer Panas, which means "Village of Hot Water" in Malay.
The place was also once owned by the popular soft drink brand, Fraser & Neave (F&N), who acquired the site in 1922, of which they then set up a bottling plant at nearby Semangat Ayer to tap the mineral water.
Finally, In 1988, the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) acquired the land containing the spring for the expansion of the nearby Sembawang Air Base. However, In January 2002, locals' started to get interested in the hot spring. Sembawang community leaders then gathered signatures to petition Mindef, who was going to fence off the area, to preserve and develop the hot spring for the general public.
Eventually, Mindef gave the green light and opened a small side gate pavement for the public to access the spring.
The place was named Sembawang Hot Spring, and was a simple barricaded area of roughly 100m, with a couple of pipes right in the middle, where visitors could collect the water using pails or buckets, and soak their feet in it.
There were also chairs provided for visitors to sit around, but they were on a first-come-first-serve basis.
During its peak, up to 1000 people visited this small site, but as time went by, the number of visitors slowly dwindled.
There were also numerous complaints about the tiny area, with the lack of rules and instructions, and visitors could often hear the loud bangs of rifles going off in the nearby army base.
After a public consultation in late 2017, the National Parks Board (NParks) incorporated the feedback, and in 2018, closed the area for renovation.
The park then reopened to the public on Saturday, January 4th of 2020.
Now renamed “Sembawang Hot Springs Park”, the vicinity went through a complete make-over.
Unlike the small side gate that served as the old entrance, now when you walk into the park, you will be greeted by a beautiful floral and fauna walkway with fruit trees and edible plants such as ginger, rambutan and chiku.
With additional land and facilities, they got rid of the pipes and replaced it with a giant communal area, for everyone to share and sit around at.
They also added toilets, an egg cooking station as well as a cafe, which served local delights such as dim sum and zi char, all at affordable prices.
Hot springs, being a rich source of sulfur, have healing benefits such as treating skin irritations and infections such as rashes and eczema. Sulfur-rich hot springs are said to also treat dry scalp, arthritic pain and even internal problems such as menopausal symptoms and digestive disorders.
The park is open everyday from 7AM TO 7PM, and be sure to bring eggs to make your very own onsen tamago! (a.k.a. Soft boiled egg, hot spring style)
2. Sembawang Presbyterian Church
Just down across from the hot spring park, at 10B Jalan Jeruju, we have the Sembawang Presbyterian Church, a building that stands out with its green facade, and a rather striking bell tower.
Founded in 1974 by the Presbyterian Christian community in Sembawang, this church was built on land donated by one of their church elders, Mr. Ang Oon Hue. Up to the 1980s, the church was still surrounded by old rubber trees as the site used to be a rubber plantation. The early worshippers were villagers from nearby kampungs, and the church served as a spiritual as well as social center for them.
It was only in 1990 that the church was officially registered. In 2005, the church underwent re-development and the new building was completed in 2006.
Today, its most outstanding feature is the bell tower. The bells were imported from France and are sounded at noon everyday to remind its worshippers to reflect on religious teachings.
3. Old Admiralty House
At 345 Old Nelson Road lies the only national monument in both Yishun and Sembawang, with its alluring red color and beautiful structure, is the Old Admiralty House, or previously known as, the Canberra House.
When it was built in 1939 by His Majesty’s Navy Works Department of the British Royal Navy, it was called Canberra House.
The Singapore Naval Base extended from here to Sembawang's coast, and this house served as the accommodation for the Commodore Superintendent of the Royal Navy Dockyard.
Before Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942, Canberra House was the strategic planning headquarters of the British armed forces. After the war, it was renamed Nelson House, possibly after H.M.S. Nelson, a British battleship which arrived in Singapore in 1945 during the surrender of the Japanese forces.
In 1958, the house was again renamed, this time as Admiralty House. It served as the residence for the Commander of the Far East Fleet till the withdrawal of British forces from Singapore in 1971.
SECRET UNDERGROUND BUNKER?
In the 1990, while landscaping was being carried out on the premises, the ground under an excavator collapsed, leading to the discovery of a 30m underground bunker, believed to have been a bomb shelter for the Commodore Superintendent’s workers.
There are even rumors of a separate bomb shelter for the Commodore exists and that a tunnel connects Admiralty House to Sembawang Shipyard as part of a network of as yet unexplored tunnels.
A PUBLIC LIBRARY
This historical house was transformed and used for many different purposes over the years. It has previously been a golf club, a restaurant and even an international school.
However in 2020, Educational Minister Ong Ye Kung, after getting feedback and input, revealed his plan during an e-rally on Sunday that he plans to turn the area into a public library, featuring a cafe, reading areas and lawns for community events and activities.
So do look forward to the brand new “Canberra House Library”, which is set to open by the end of 2022!
4. Masjid Assyafaah
Undoubtedly the most outstanding landmark in all of Sembawang is the Masjid Assyafaah, with its iconic minaret and stunning facade, this Sembawang Mosque has won accolades for its stunning architecture.
When a local company, Forum Architects, took on the project, they wanted the design to fit into a multi-racial and multi-religious community. At the same time, the building had to stand out as a mosque so that Muslims could recognise it.
The result was an architecturally contemporary mosque which creatively made use of space while integrating traditional Islamic symbols.
The first thing most people notice about the mosque is the ten-storey minaret, made of rusted metal plates for its natural tones. At night, the minaret ‘disappears’, leaving the lit crescent and star symbol to hover over the mosque.
Another feature is the re-interpretation of the arabesque, a traditional symbol in Islamic art. Arabesque screens create an interesting play of light and shadows while ensuring ventilation. The carpet, too, is designed with arabesque motifs.
What makes the mosque even more interesting is that the history of the Muslim community here goes back to the 1920s.
Masjid Assyafaah originates from two older mosques in Sembawang; the Masjid Jumah Sembawang and Masjid Naval Base. Masjid Jumah Sembawang was established in the 1920s by Indian Muslim migrants who came here to work in the Naval Base. It was a well-known landmark along Sembawang Road before it was demolished in 1995.
Masjid Naval Base began as a surau (small prayer house) for Muslim naval dockyard personnel. As the Muslim community grew larger, the surau could no longer meet their needs.
Therefore, In 1968, Masjid Naval Base was built with the support of the British and officially opened by Commodore F. C. W. Lawson.
The mosque, located at the junction of Canberra Road and Delhi Road (now defunct) became open to the public in 1972, after the British withdrawal.
It was demolished in the mid-2000s, after Masjid Assyafaah was built.
5. Black & White Bungalows
Affectionately coined as the “Black & White Bungalows” for its painted black timber frames and white walls, these beauties can be spotted along the side of Queen’s Avenue, Gibraltar Crescent, St. Helena Road and Cyprus Road.
These bungalows were built by the British from the 1920s onwards to house their personnel working in the Naval Base and other military installations nearby.
They constitute the bulk of bungalows built during the last phase of the black and white architectural style, which flourished from the 1900s to the 1930s in Singapore.
WHAT IS A BUNGALOW?
The term ‘bungalow’ actually came from the Bengali word ‘bangala’, which refers to houses built in the Bengali style. When the British colonized Bengal in 1700s, they picked up the idea of adapting bangalas, or Bengali-style houses, to design dwellings which were suited for tropical climate and heat.
Most of the colonial houses are double-storey buildings; their designs were influenced by Tudor, Art Deco and Arts and Crafts architectural styles but have adopted certain local features such as high ceilings and stilts, for better ventilation in Singapore’s hot climate.
Over the decades, several of the colonial houses were demolished due to their dilapidated conditions or to make way for new developments.
From Singapore’s only (technically) hot spring, to an underground war bunker, despite being a residential town, Sembawang sure has more to offer than just your regular shopping malls and skyscrapers.
With rich heritage, culture and places still shrouded in mystery, Sembawang is definitely a place you do not want to miss out!
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!