Tuesday, 23 Apr 2024

Century-old hospital wards added to expanded Balestier heritage trail

SINGAPORE – A row of eight single-storey hospital buildings with blue roofs stand on a hill at Moulmein Road. Although they would not look out of place in a war movie, few people in Singapore even know about their existence.

The National Heritage Board (NHB) is aiming to change that by including the pavilion wards as a stop on its expanded heritage trail of Balestier, which was launched on Thursday (Nov 22).

The wards housed Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s tuberculosis and dysentery patients from 1909.

In 1999 Ren Ci Nursing Home took over the site before moving out last year. Now vacant, the property falls under the Singapore Land Authority.

Built in the style of military hospitals designed by the mother of modern nursing Florence Nightingale, the wards feature a long central aisle, wide spacing between beds and a high ceiling. They were designed to allow in daylight and ventilation to improve the recovery process.

The Balestier heritage trail was originally launched in 2006 but the NHB conducted fresh research to add 30 new sites to the existing 26.

The NHB’s assistant chief executive of policy and community, Mr Alvin Tan, said: “We hope that Singaporeans will be encouraged to venture off the well-trodden path laid out by the previous trail and rediscover Balestier’s heritage anew.”

The trail is divided into three routes, each of which follows a different theme -Historical landmarks of Balestier Road; Faith, Film and Food; and Building Balestier.

Other highlights include Balestier Point – an 18-storey mixed-use building that was completed in 1986. It was inspired by Canadian architect Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 housing complex in Montreal which feature stacked modules of housing units.

Vegetarian halls, or “zhaitangs” in Mandarin, also feature. During colonial times, immigrant women with no family would take refuge in them after coming to Singapore to work as labourers, seamstresses, cooks or housekeepers. These Buddhist homes-cum-temples required their occupants to be vegetarian and remain single.

British cultural anthropologist Marjorie Topley described in a 1954 essay how such halls would provide “care while alive and a funeral at death”, therefore fulfilling an important social function, according to heritage blogger Jerome Lim’s research.

One such hall is the Chan Chor Min Tong, located off Balestier Rd. Mr Lim believes its last resident might have last walked its hallways in the 1970s. Such halls only open during Chinese New Year.

The trail also traces the evolution of the area’s built architecture. It notes for instance that it was once home to country bungalows from the 1800s which attracted “Europeans and Eurasians of slender means”. By 1901, much of Balestier Road was lined by these country bungalows.

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