Golden Mile Complex: Step into Little Thailand

With Thailand’s political unrest culminating in its coming under martial law in May of this year, Singaporeans have been putting off visits to one of their favourite destinations. For anyone having Thai withdrawal symptoms however there is always Golden Mile Complex, a.k.a. Little Thailand, for a quick fix of all things Thai.

Golden Mile Complex - Little Thailand

Photo by the Straits Times

THE LOWDOWN

Amid an endless stream of gleaming new shopping malls in Singapore lie a few older, derelict almost shopping centres, untouched by time and development.

One such centre is the Golden Mile Complex, which over time has evolved into an ethnic enclave for the Thai community in Singapore.

Golden Mile Complex - Little ThailandOpened in 1973, the mall boasts none of the trappings of its young, glitzy Orchard Road brethren. Dark, dingy even and dotted with small shops and eateries, many with signage only in Thai, the centre looks like a provincial Thai shopping mall. And it certainly sounds and smells like one too, with the strains of Thai pop music and the scent of Thai cooking and spices wafting throughout the centre.

Golden Mile Complex - Little ThailandThe Golden Mile Complex did have its glory days when it first opened however. Back in the late 1960s the strip of land between Nicoll Highway (completed in 1956) and Beach Road was conceived as Singapore’s “Golden Mile”, a wonderfully romantic name for a shopping and residential high-rise belt fronting the Kallang Basin. The 16-storey Golden Mile Complex (first named Woh Hup Complex, then the Golden Mile Shopping Centre) opened soon after, a grandly touted integrated commercial and residential complex with full bay views, and boasting of an innovative stepped architecture that was a first of its kind in Singapore.

As to how Golden Mile Complex became a Thai hub: The stretch of Beach Road in front of the complex has long served as a terminal for coaches operating the Singapore-Haadyai (Southern Thailand) route. As business grew the travel company opened a Thai eatery in the complex. They gradually expanded their travel and dining services, and also opened a provision shop, all catering to their Thai clientèle. Soon other Thai businesses opened there too tapping into the opportunity.

Golden Mile Complex - Little ThailandFast-forward to recent times however and the increasing crowds the centre draws has unfortunately created a problem for the complex. With the Thai community in Singapore largely made up of blue-collar manual workers, the complex gained a reputation as a sleazy haunt particularly on weekends, with rowdy intoxicated men and working girls frequenting the complex. In 2006 a member of Singapore’s parliament went so far as to describe the complex as a “vertical slum”, a “terrible eyesore” and a “national disgrace”. Residents and owners have since made several attempts to cash out and sell their building “en bloc” to a developer to tear it down, however all unsuccessful.

In spite of its rawness Little Thailand does have its charms though, especially if all you want is authentic Thai food in an unpretentious setting. Just look past the grittiness and tuck in.

VISITING

My friends and I go to the Golden Mile Complex every so often when a craving for “cheap and good” Thai food strikes. There are numerous small eateries offering all manner of Thai cuisine that are popular with the Thai nationals, however the non-Thais usually go to Diandin Leluk, prominently located around the open centre of the mall and the most fancy of all the restaurants at the complex. The eating place my friends and I go to however is the other sizeable restaurant in the complex, the BeerThai House Restaurant tucked away in the back. The food here is no-frills, but definitely authentic. There is an English menu and some of the servers do speak a smattering of English. The restaurant’s extensive menu is interesting and offers uncommon regional Thai fare, in addition to all the usual favourites.

In recent years with the popularity of “Mookata” combination Thai barbecue and steamboat dining in Singapore, the eateries offering Mookata at wallet-friendly prices in the centre of the complex have also been drawing the crowds.

Golden Mile Complex - Little Thailand

Golden Mile Complex - Little Thailand

Sai Ooah Northern  Thai Spicy Fermented Sausage

After a satisfying meal you can amble up the stairs to the large well-stocked supermarket on the second floor. Even if you don’t cook and have no use for the abundant fresh and packaged native Thai produce (they actually also stock Vietnamese and Filipino produce), chances are you will find some tantalizing Thai munchies to take home. There are also fresh fried banana fritters, grilled sausages and the “kanom berng” mini crepes on sale, all popular Thai street snacks.

Golden Mile Complex - Little Thailand

There are different brands and types of Sriracha hot sauce apparently

Golden Mile Complex - Little Thailand

Ready-packed green preparations

Golden Mile Complex - Little Thailand

I have no idea what this is – some kind of tripe??

If you are male and enjoy the charms of Thai ladies then you might be tempted to linger at any of the cafe/pubs after dinner over a few bottles of Singha, the ubiquitous Thai beer. If you are a party animal to boot then check out the action late night/early morning at the Butterfly Thai disco. Thai discos have become “hot” in Singapore in recent years, and the Butterfly Thai Disco at the complex (previously named Pure Thai Disco, and before that Thai Disco 2) is one of the biggest and oldest. Open till 4am and sometimes later, you can listen to a live Thai band belt out cover songs, as well as sponsor garlands of plastic flowers or more expensive sashes to shower your appreciation on your favourite singers. This is clearly for generous (and gullible) free-spenders only.

Golden Mile Complex - Little Thailand

Kanom Berng mini crepes

LOCATION

5001 Beach Road (Near Crawford Street)
Open:  Late morning till late night

HOW MUCH TIME

About an hour and a half for a meal and a quick stroll through the ethnic supermarket.

TIDBITS

  • Golden Mile Complex was designed by local architectural firm Design Partnership, which has since grown to become Singapore’s preeminent architectural firm DP Architects.
  • Conservationists have started to clamour that the building, viewed by most as an ugly monstrosity, is actually an architectural wonder with too much historical merit to be torn down.
  • Songkran, the Thai/South East Asian new year “water festival” is also celebrated in Little Thailand each April. Revellers douse each other with water in a symbolic cleansing ritual that is fun if a little messy. The celebrations this year were muted however as Singapore experienced one of its worst droughts earlier this year.
  • The Golden Mile Food Centre across the road has a few notable local food stalls. Upstairs, the Army Market is also fun to trawl through.

TAKE NOTE

  • The complex is super crowded on Sundays when scores of Thai foreign workers get their day off and throng the shopping centre. Visit during the day or early evening, before the atmosphere turns rowdy.
  • Don’t get confused with the neighbouring Golden Mile Tower, a far more prosaic looking office and retail building. Although there are some Thai cafes in that building too including Beer Thai Restaurant’s more upmarket outlet, the tower is better known for its Golden Digital Theatre which screens Indian movies.
Golden Mile Complex - Little Thailand

Water Mimosa – great stir-fried

USEFUL LINKS

 

Haw Par Villa:  Haunting Memories

There’s nothing quite like this anywhere else in the world – a wildly bizarre, macabre even theme park devoted to ancient Chinese legends and fables. The park has been described by some as “grotesque”, “gruesome”, and “garish”, a fantasy world borne of a trippy imagination perhaps.

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Many a middle-aged Singaporean would remember a trip as a kid to the then Tiger Balm Gardens during its heydays in the ’70s and ’80s. Few however ever returned to the park, so disturbing were their memories of their childhood visit.

I re-visited the theme park recently, some 30 odd years after my one and only visit to it in the 1970s.

THE LOWDOWN

The original theme park was built as part of a large residence by the wealthy Myanmar-Chinese Aw family in 1937, on a prime hilltop plot of land overlooking the Pasir Panjang harbour. Haw Par Villa, named after the brothers Boon Haw and Boon Par, was a huge circular motif mansion featuring 7 domes with gold-plated ceilings, and was quite the architectural delight of the time. Larger-than-life elder brother Boon Haw was a fan of Chinese culture and history, and decided to build a garden featuring life-sized statues of famous Chinese figures in the grounds of the mansion. He envisioned the park as a way to impart Chinese morality and values. He opened the gardens to the public in 1937, calling it Tiger Balm Gardens after the famous camphor-menthol rub his family made their fortunes on.

Aw Boon Haw villa - Raymond Morris

Haw Par Villa circa late 1930s – colourised photo from Raymond Morris

Although the mansion was a gift by Boon Haw to his beloved younger brother Boon Par, neither of the brothers stayed in Haw Par Villa for long. When the Japanese wrested Singapore from the British during WWII they also forcefully took over the mansion, using it as a strategic lookout to watch over the southern coast. The brothers fled Singapore, and after the war much of the mansion and its gardens were destroyed. Boon Haw did return in the later years, and painstakingly rebuilt the gardens together with Boon Par’s son.

In 1985 the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) bought over the gardens, expanding the park to 5 times its size, adding Disney style rides and making it a ticketed attraction. Over the years however the popularity of the park waned, seeing fewer and fewer visitors as the park fell into disrepair.

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In March of this year the park saw a comeback of sorts, part of a larger campaign by the STB to revive interest in local attractions some of which lay forgotten. The park’s 1,000 statues were repaired and re-painted, and free talks and tours were organised in an event called Reliving Haw Par Villa.

VISITING

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You climb up the slope and enter the iconic grand entranceway. Once inside, you’ll come across a little museum with some history about the Aw brothers, and the mansion that used to stand on the site. There is also a replica of the bizarre tiger-headed car the flamboyant Boon Haw used to drive through small towns in Malaya promoting his brand.

Further ahead however is the star attraction of the park, the infamous Ten Courts of Hell. After entering a cave-like structure, you walk through a sort of “House of Horrors” on a meandering path lined with tableaux depicting the punishments in hell for various sins committed in one’s life time. These range from having your “head and arms chopped off” for murders, robbery and rape, being “thrown into a tree of knives” for cursing, having your “body sawn into two” for wasting food, and your “intestines and organs pulled out” should you demonstrate a lack of filial obedience. All of this is depicted in 3D gruesomeness in the darkish cave. Shudders. If you want to scare your kids into good behaviour as parents of yesteryears did, this might be an effective method, although adults will probably find the tableaux amusing and somewhat comical even. The depictions do provide an insight into traditional Chinese ethics and moral values however – making for a morality theme park if there is such a thing.

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Apart from the Ten Courts of Hell cave the rest of the park is open-air. Statues and more dioramas pepper the sprawling grounds. Unless you are well-versed in Chinese mythology, you will probably find the figurines bizarre and baffling – human-headed animals, or just humanized animals in general. And more gory scenes galore.

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Other tableaux depict scenes and characters from renowned fables Journey to the West, Madam White Snake, and the 8 Immortals.

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LOCATIONkP1060954

262 Pasir Panjang Road
Open daily: 9am – 7pm (admission is free)

The Circle Line MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) goes right by it and you can even alight at the (no surprise) Haw Par Villa station.

HOW MUCH TIME

About an hour and a half to 2 to tour the whole place. If you’re really interested in Chinese mythology however and want to read all the explanatory signs, you’ll need a little more time.

TAKE NOTE

  • The park is set on a slope, not wheelchair friendly at all.
  • The carpark charges $5 per entry.
  • The Hua Song Museum, off the side near the carpark, is now closed.

TIDBITS

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  • Boon Haw’s name means “gentle tiger”, and Boon Par’s means “gentle leopard”. The brothers were originally from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma).
  • The original Haw Par Villa mansion was designed by architect Ho Kwong Yew, one of the leading architects of Singapore’s Modern Movement in the 1930s.
  • There was also a Tiger Balm Gardens Aw Boon Haw had set up in Hong Kong. Equally garish, this was demolished in 2004 however. Another Tiger Balm Gardens exists in Fujian province, China.
  • Aw Boon Par’s daughter, Datin Aw Cheng Hu (Datin is a Malaysian honorific title) died quietly in an HDB flat (government housing) in 2010. She was also the widow of the founder of Chung Khiaw Bank, which is part of today’s United Overseas Bank (UOB).
  • Lee May Chu, great grand-daughter of Aw Boon Par, wrote a controversial expose about the family’s fall from riches, Escape from Paradise.
Haw Par Villa

A Mannish Woman in a Bikini Reading her iPad?

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Singapore’s Black-and-White Houses: Colonial Splendour with a Dash of History

Alexandra Park Black and White BungalowsTucked away in little-known genteel housing enclaves around Singapore lie throwbacks to the country’s colonial past. Back in the late 1800s to early 1900s, Singapore’s British rulers built lavish villas, called bungalows, all over the island to house their high-ranking officials and civil servants. Today, a mere 500 or so out of the thousands of the grand mansions built still remain, the rest casualties of urban development.

Affectionately called “Black-and-White” bungalows because of their predominant use of dark timbre beams and white-washed walls, these charming holdovers from Singapore’s colonial past are now accorded conservation protection by the URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority). While the interior of the house can be modernised, the general architecture and exterior including all doors and windows must be restored and retained. The houses can also only be painted in black and white.

The Black-and-Whites are now mostly owned and managed by the State and are leased primarily to expatriates, ironically many from the UK who are keen to experience colonial-style living. These expat residents adore the charm and feel of these century-old houses, although not many may realize that each and every one of these Black-and-Whites has a history indelibly tied to the war years.

THE LOWDOWN

The Black-and-White bungalows are 2-storey villas boasting sprawling gardens on large plots of land. Architecturally distinct, their style has been described as “Tropical Tudorbethan”, with shades of influence from the Arts and Crafts and Art Deco design styles of the time.

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

The bungalows incorporate local and tropical design elements into otherwise very stately British homes. Many of the houses are built on elevated foundations, a nod to the indigenous Malay style of houses built on stilts. The ground floor is open and spacious, while the main living quarters are on the upper floor. The reason is practical – to isolate the living space from wild critters, as well as ensure the house is above any flood waters.

Large verandahs feature prominently in the front and sides, and the bungalows were capped with broad overhanging sloping roofs, all of which served to prevent direct sunlight from entering and thus heating up the house. The pitched roofs also channel rainwater from the frequent tropical showers away. In addition to the high ceilings, the bungalows feature plenty of balconies, open spaces and louvred windows to amplify cross-flow breezes, an important consideration given Singapore’s tropical climate – in the days before air-conditioning.

Most of the bungalows had a main house, accompanied by a separate structure which served as the servants’ quarters.

At Alexandra Par - pic by Expat Living

Alexandra Park Black-and-White – pic by Expat Living

The Black-and-White bungalows are today located mainly in the south-central areas of Singapore, in tony areas such as Nassim Road, Goodwood Hill, Dempsey Road, Rochester Park, Adam Park and Alexandra Park, to outlying areas in the north such as Seletar, Sembawang and Changi where troops used to be stationed.

Fewer than 100 of the mansions are privately owned, with the majority now owned by the government and managed by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) and its appointed real estate firms such as DTZ. Interested residents may bid to lease specific properties, at rates which range from under S$5000 a month to S$25,000 or more for a lavish property.

VISITING

Alexandra Park is a wonderful example of a colonial residential estate. My friend and I visited it early one morning and had a most pleasant walk touring the estate.

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

The estate is off Alexandra Road, a busy road which was constructed in 1864 and named after Queen Alexandra (1844-1925), the wife of King-Emperor Edward VII (1841-1910). The leafy winding roads within the estate appropriately sport names like Canterbury Road, Winchester Road and Cornwall Road, lending a very British air to the area. Stately Black-and-Whites dot the landscape, some hidden behind lush foliage. With the rolling hills and forest greenery of Hort Park nearby and Kent Ridge Park in the distance, you’ll find it pretty hard to believe you’re in Singapore.

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

According to historian and author Julian Davison in his book “Black and White: The Singapore House 1898-1941”, the oldest house in the estate is 6 Russels Road, also known as the Plantation House, and was built just after the turn of the century in 1900. The next oldest houses are at 5 and 7 Royal Road, with the latter also known as Bukit Damai and was once the residence of a commanding officer. The stately mansion is now home to a retired British oil man, Neil Franks and his family. Winchester Place, a large building on Winchester Road which used to be the officers’ mess and is now also a private residence, was built some time before 1910.

Most of the houses in the estate were built between 1935 and 1940 however, by the Far East Land, Air and Sea Forces to accommodate their military personnel. Prior to the bungalows being built the area had been home to a pepper plantation. Incidentally, further up Alexandra Road is Alexandra Hospital which used to be the British Military Hospital. When the hospital opened in 1940 some hospital staff were also housed at Alexandra Park.

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

On the tranquil walk my friend and I took through the winding estate, quite a few of the houses seemed to be unoccupied, although most showed signs of an idyllic expat lifestyle. The tree-lined lanes made for a lovely neighbourhood, with the nearby green forests a bird sanctuary as well. We heard and saw a multitude of birds, and even came across a bird watcher with his telescopic lens trained on one of the houses, or rather a bird perched on a tree in the compound of the house. Well we hope he was watching the bird.

We also saw this interesting little fella, a Fir Tussock Moth caterpillar. In the background you can hear the cicadas.


Other discoveries we chanced upon were 3 majestic mature trees protected under NParks’ (National Parks Board) Heritage Tree Scheme – the Penaga Laut at the junction of Canterbury and Berkshire Roads; a Bodhi tree further along Canterbury Road and the Common Pulai on Royal Road.

Heritage Tree: Penaga Laut

Heritage Tree: Penaga Laut

During the war years from 1942 – 1945, the Japanese troops took over these Black-and-White bungalows all over Singapore. In other Black-and-White estates such as Adam Park, there is evidence that the Japanese used the houses as Prisoner-of-War (POW) camps. Given the houses’ past, it is no wonder then that locals, especially the older set, are generally not keen on living in these Black-and-Whites and are more than happy for this to remain the preserve of expat society.

LOCATION

Here are where the Black-and-Whites are concentrated around Singapore now.

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Black-and-White Bungalows around Singapore – graphic from Honeycombers Singapore

Here’s a map of the Alexandra Park enclave.

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

HOW MUCH TIME

About an hour and a half to 2 for a leisurely stroll around the lovely Alexandra Park estate.

TAKE NOTE

There is no parking along the residential roads, so best to park in the Hort Park carpark when you enter the neighbourhood. This is where you can also use the bathroom and have a drink from the water cooler.

TIDBITS

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

  • There are 4 old clay tennis courts on Winchester Road in Alexandra Park, believed to be the only clay courts in Singapore. Built in the 1930s for the British residents, the courts have over the years been leased by different organisations, most recently the Clay Court Tennis Academy. The courts unfortunately appear to be disused now.
  • Alexandra Hospital, the ex-British Military Hospital, has a gruesome bit of history. In 1942 during the war when the Japanese forces occupied Singapore, some 200 staff and war patients were brutally massacred by the Japanese troops who stormed the hospital one day, in retaliation against Allied forces who had fired at the Japanese from the hospital grounds. Staff at the hospital now swear that the hospital is haunted.

USEFUL LINKS

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

1. Singapore Land Authority’s (SLA) State Property Information Online (SPIO): Bid to rent a Black-and-White bungalow.
2. Gereldene’s Tours: Septuagenarian historian Geraldine Lowe-Ismail conducts popular Singapore heritage tours, including tours of Black-and-White houses.
3. URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority) overview of a conservation Black-and-White bungalow
4. Magazine article on Singapore’s Black-and-Whites
5. Expat Living: Interview with Singapore war historian Jonathan Cooper on unearthing the history of Singapore’s Black-and-Whites
6. Expat Living: Index of articles on Singapore’s Black-and-Whites