Singapore City Gallery: (Scale) Model City

There’s something strangely compelling about miniature items, especially intricately detailed Lilliputian-sized scale models of cities. The fact that these painstakingly assembled cityscapes are actually real, functioning architectural models makes us drawn even more to these amazing works of art. Taking months and years to build, these “toy towns” are adored by kids, but often times more so by grown-ups.

Singapore City Gallery

THE LOW DOWN

The Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) Singapore City Gallery houses 3 architectural models. The flagship model is the Central Area Model, a 110 square metre (1184 sq ft) large 1:400 scale replica (1cm = 400cm) of Singapore’s downtown. The centre’s oldest model but also the most detailed and interesting, you can delight in viewing close-ups of Singapore’s sky scrapers and downtown areas in the exquisitely colourful model.

Singapore City Gallery

There is also a much smaller 1:1000 model of Singapore’s City Centre, crafted in plain balsa wood. The 3rd architectural model housed in the gallery is a flat, expansive Islandwide Model of Singapore capturing a macro-perspective of the terrain and almost every building on the island.

Singapore City Gallery

These architectural models are fascinating to “explore” for anyone living in Singapore, or anyone with an interest in the country’s landscape and development – property investors for instance.

The Central Area Model in fact also ranks among the largest scale model cities in the world. In Shanghai, a 1:500 scale model projecting what the downtown area of China’s second largest city would look like by 2020 measures just over 100 sq m (1000 sq ft), and is on display at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall.

Shanghai City Model

Shanghai City Model – Photo from Stuckincustoms.com

Also in China, the centerpiece of the Beijing Planning Exhibition Halls is a massive 1:750 scale 302 sq m large (3250 sq ft) extraordinarily detailed scale model of Beijing’s metropolitan areas. The replica buildings have been overlaid over aerial photographs of the city in some places, and new buildings depicting Beijing as envisioned in 2020 are also included.

Beijing City Model

Beijing City Model

The largest city scale model however is one of New York City. Built for the 1964 World’s Fair, the Panorama of the City of New York is a massive 867.2 sq m (9,335 sq ft) model built to a scale of 1:1200. The model, housed in the Queens Museum, has been updated over time and now contains every single one of the 895,000 of the buildings constructed before 1992.

Panorama of the City of New York

Panorama of the City of New York

Although not among the largest models, the one of Tokyo is surely the coolest. A wonderfully intricate 1:1000 scale model of Minato-Ku in Tokyo, the model was crafted over 14 months and was designed to showcase potential sites for Tokyo’s bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics, which it incidentally lost to London. Check out this project called “Tokyo City Symphony” which uses light to map 3D projections onto the miniature city model. You can even create your own version of the light show.

VISITING

Apart from the miniature scale models, the Singapore City Gallery also boasts a full-scale gallery dedicated to showcasing Singapore’s urban development.

Singapore City Gallery

Singapore has undergone a stunning transformation in the past 50 years, with the most pronounced changes taking place in the last 10-15 years alone. Although many middle-aged Singaporeans now seek a slowing down of this frenetic pace of change and are even hankering for some things to return to the way they were in the “good old days”, there is no denying that Singapore’s rapid development reflected in the dramatically changing urban landscape has been nothing short of remarkable.

To understand Singapore’s urban planning challenges, goals and strategies towards conservation, greenery etc one really needs to visit the URA’s showpiece gallery. Opened in 1999 and set over 3 floors, the gallery has 10 themed areas chock full of audiovisual and interactive exhibits, designed to take the audience through Singapore’s urban planning journey. There are interesting infographic displays with a wealth of information, such as one explaining Singapore’s strategy to reclaim space underground now that above ground space is already at a premium. From pedestrian malls and walkways, MRT tunnels and underground water and sewerage networks to ammunition storage facilities more than 100m below ground, there is actually a lot going on underneath our feet.

Singapore City Gallery

Singapore City Gallery

There is also an exhibition area on the ground floor just within the entrance. When I visited the gallery a couple of months ago the Draft Master Plan 2013 exhibition was being held. Very interesting stuff that.

LOCATION

Singapore City GalleryThe URA Centre
45 Maxwell Road

Open: Monday to Saturday 9.00am to 5.00pm
Closed on Sundays and Public Holidays.

HOW MUCH TIME

About an hour or even 2, depending on how much interest you have in Singapore’s urban planning.

TAKE NOTE

  • There is a canned “light and sound show” over the main Central Area Model every hour from 10am – 4pm. The narrative is in English, although there are also 4 Mandarin Chinese versions at 9.30am, 11.30am, 1.30pm and 3.30pm. Lasting all of approximately 2-3 minutes, the show introduces the areas of Singapore with spotlights highlighting the area on the scale model. I found it very underwhelming frankly.
  • The acclaimed Maxwell Food Centre is just across the road, so consider planning your visit to the Singapore City Gallery with lunch or dinner, or just teatime at the food centre.

TIDBITS

  • There is a “National Cycling Plan” in place for Singapore, with the aim of building 700 km of a pan-island cycling network (from the current 280km) to encourage cycling for recreational purposes, as well as provide an earth-friendly alternative mode of transportation. The expanded cycling network will bring the current 4km of cycling tracks per 100,000 population up to 12km.
  • Denmark tops the list of countries with the highest cycling tracks per capita at 80km per 100,000 population.
  • The decision to reclaim land off the waterfront of Singapore’s city to form the Marina Bay area was made way back in the 1970s. Land reclamation started soon after, and by 1992 more than 700 ha of new land had been reclaimed.
  • Singapore’s first land reclamation project was conducted by our founder Sir Stamford Raffles, in 1819. Swampy land off the main harbour was reclaimed to form what we know as Boat Quay today.
  • In the 1960s the land area of Singapore was approximately 580 km square. Singapore has since grown by more than 20%, or 17,000 football fields in size.
Singapore City Gallery

Old map of Singapore on display

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Old Airport Road Food Centre: An Institution

Old Airport Road Food Centre

TimeOut Singapore proclaimed it “possibly the most renowned hawker centre on the island” – quite a distinction for ye Old Airport Road Food Centre.

Together with Chinatown Complex Market and Food Centre, and Maxwell Food Centre, I’d say the 3 form the triumvirate of Singapore’s biggest and bestest real hawker centres. Old Airport Road Food Centre also happens to be my go-to place for authentic, good and cheap local eats, and that’s not just because I happen to live within 5 minutes of it.

THE LOWDOWN

Kallang airport circa 1950 - National Archives of Singapore

Kallang airport circa 1950 – Photo from National Archives of Singapore

For people wondering about the name of the food centre and the road it is located on: Old Airport Road refers to Singapore’s first civil airport, Kallang Airport, which was constructed by the colonial British government in 1937. The airport with its circular airfield was located near the Kallang Basin where our old national stadium was, and where the new national stadium is currently being built. The Kallang Airport boundary extended to where today’s Old Airport Road is, although checking through old maps I can’t tell if the road did indeed serve as the airport’s runway as claimed on Wikipedia.

The airport’s original 4-storey art deco terminal building is an architectural landmark that still stands today, albeit unoccupied after serving as the People’s Association (PA) headquarters from the early 1960s to 2009. The airport terminal building, office buildings, former hangar, lion-crested gate post and even the original street lamps on the driveway up to the airport were gazetted for conservation by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) in 2008. The conserved site these days is used occasionally for private events, or as an art space such as for the Singapore Biennale in 2011. Most of the time however it stands forlorn and empty, in the middle of all the chaotic road works going on in preparation for the Sports Hub’s opening.

Old Kallang Airport

Kallang Airport ceased operations in 1955 when the new Singapore International Airport opened at Paya Lebar. Paya Lebar airport in turn was shut when our present day Changi International Airport opened in 1980.

In 1973 the sprawling Old Airport Road Food Centre opened. The early 1970s was when the government went on a rampage building indoor open-air cooked food centres, an attempt to license and move the many thousands of street hawkers selling food on push carts into these centres. Called “hawker centres” in the early days, these purpose-built food centres often had wet markets and sundry shops attached, were properly managed and (relatively) clean, and offered food stalls at low rents to the hawkers so that hygienic and inexpensive food could continue to conveniently be made available to the man-in-the-street at all times during the day (and sometimes late into the night even). The government agencies renamed “hawker centres” to “food centres” in the 1990s in an attempt to modernize the image of these centres.

Old Airport Road Food Centre

Street food hawkers are still a regular feature in much of Asia even today actually, especially in Southeast Asia, and one has only to cross over the causeway to Johor in Malaysia to see what the food scene in Singapore was like in the 1970s and earlier.

Old Airport Road Food Centre will be turning 41 this year, and like many in their middle age the centre underwent a facelift in 2007, although it remains very much a no-frills, utilitarian hawker centre. The same TimeOut article described it as “a hawker centre from yesteryear, despite its 2007 upgrade – warm, sticky and barely cooled by the fans”. With 168 food stalls however, among them an overwhelming number of well-known and highly lauded stalls, most fans of the food centre are there for the food and don’t really care about the ambiance, or the lack there of.

Old Airport Road Food Centre

An ex-boss of mine, an American, used to call our local hawker centres “sewers”. Not surprisingly he only ate at proper restaurants and mostly hung out at the American Club in Singapore. Back in the U.S. now, he unfortunately never realised what great local food he was missing out on, not to mention a key part of the Singaporean culture and identity (Ted – if you’re reading this, I still think you’re a great guy and a wonderful boss!).

VISITING

Old Airport Road Hawker Centre - Map of food stalls - NEA

Map of stalls – By NEA (National Environment Agency)

Old Airport Road Food Centre

Navigating the many rows and stalls can be bewildering for first-timers, so try to remember landmarks to get your bearings. Otherwise you might see a stall you’re interested in but not be able to locate it again later when you actually want to order your food. Along with the requisite drinks and dessert stalls, most of the stalls sell local Chinese food although there is a corner with a handful of Malay food stalls which tend to open for lunch only.

I am not a food blogger so will leave reviews of the food stalls to the many food bloggers out there. Here however are some of the stalls with top billing that draw foodies from all over the island:

  • Nam Sing Hokkien Fried Mee (Hougang): #01-32
  • Lao Fu Zi Fried Kway Teow: #01-12
  • Freshly Made Chee Cheong Fun: #01-155Old Airport Road Food Centre
  • Whitley Rd Big Prawn Noodle: #01-98
  • Hua Kee Hougang Famous Wan Ton Mee: #01-02
  • Cho Kee Noodles: #01-04
  • Xin Mei Xiang Lor Mee: #01-116
  • Toa Payoh Rojak: #01-108 (Electronic queuing system so don’t be fooled by the lack of a queue)
  • To-Ricos Guo Shi (Kway Chap): #01-135
  • Sliced Fish/Fish Head Bee Hoon: #01-121
  • Chuan Kee Satay: #01-85 (Chinese Satay, so they serve Pork Satay and with the now hard to find pineapple sauce)
  • Katong Ah Soon Fried Oyster: #01-07

Not quite A-listers, but some of my faves:

  • Ah Kow Mushroom Minced Pork Mee: #01-124 Old Airport Road Food Centre
  • Dong Ji Fried Kway Teow: #01-138
  • Yi Ji Fried Hokkien Prawn Mee: #01-102
  • Ng Tong San Herb Tea: #01-50 (for herbal brews to go)

The 2nd floor upstairs is home to an odd array of shops, with many tailors offering clothing alteration services. For straightforward alterations such as to shorten pant legs ($3 only!), I go to the mother and son team at Kuah Ah Choo Alteration Services (#02-25), which is always busy. There is also an old-time barber shop (although he appears to be moving out), and a beading handicraft shop where you’ll see elderly folk sitting outside working on their creations.

LOCATION

51 Old Airport Road

Open 7 days a week. Most stalls open for lunch and dinner (some stalls open till almost midnight), although a few open for breakfast as well.

HOW MUCH TIMEOld Airport Road Food Centre

Meals at hawker centres are usually chop chop affairs. Most people finish their lunch in well under an hour.

TAKE NOTE

  • There is a large open-air car park and another multi-storey car park out back, so no need to fret about parking.
  • As with other food centres cleaners do come round to clear the tables, however at peak hours it is not uncommon to see stacks of used plates and someone else’s food remnants left on the tables. Stoic Singaporeans just clear enough space on the table to plonk their food down and start tucking into their meal, undeterred by the mess. For those new to Singapore however this admittedly takes some getting used to. If you eat at hawker centres, please be considerate and eat tidily. In light of the labour shortage many food centres now have self-service tray return stations and bins, although not at Old Airport Road Food Centre yet.
  • It is common to have to share tables in food centres especially at peak hours. Just ask politely if the seat is taken before joining the table.
  • Newton Food Centre is frequented only by tourists, sorry.
  • Food courts, the modern-day air-conditioned version of food centres is a staple in every mall nowadays. Run by chain operators who act as landlords and lease the stalls out to proprietors who seemingly don’t have pride in the food they serve, the stalls are also usually manned by foreign workers who are unfamiliar with the dishes and this is apparent in the food dished out. With profit being the main preoccupation of these stalls, food court fare is unfortunately usually a poor version of what real local food is supposed to taste like.

Old Airport Road Food Centre

TIDBITS

  • Old Airport Road Food Centre was ground-zero of the soy bean curd craze that took Singapore by storm in 2012. At the height of the madness there were 7 “tau huay” stalls selling the dessert at the food centre, and long lines of up to half an hour long snaked around the stalls. There are only a couple of stalls left now including ringleader Lao Ban’s, however the queues are long gone.
  • In the old days takeaway Rojak used to come served in fat newspaper cones lined with opeh leaves (actually the stalk from the betel nut palm). This was long before the advent of styrofoam boxes.
  • Today there are just over 100 government-run market cum hawker centres, housing some 6000 plus food stalls.
  • Chicken rice is our somewhat official national hawker dish. I say Bak Chor Mee can give it a run for its money.
Carbo goodness

Carby goodness

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Bidadari Park (and Future Housing Estate): Burying the Past

White-throated Kingfisher @ Bidadri - Lim Swee Kin

White-throated Kingfisher @ Bidadari – Photo by Lim Swee Kin

Unbeknown to many, a hilly wooded area off Upper Serangoon Road has become a bird sanctuary and popular birdwatching spot. An amazing 146 species of birds have been spotted in this 24 ha patch of green to date, including migratory birds and a few rare endangered species as well.

To those of us more used to garden-variety sparrows and pesky mynahs, learning about the beauty and diversity of the many birds in Singapore is an eye-opener, especially when these birds conveniently congregate in a single area.

This wooded bird park is actually part of what used to be Bidadari Cemetery, one of Singapore’s earliest cemeteries. The graves have since been exhumed though and the earth allowed to settle and rest. In its place a park has sprung up, however sadly this is all temporary. To the consternation of bird lovers, nature enthusiasts and conservationists, on this very site will rise the highly-touted and much anticipated Bidadari Housing Estate.

Blue-winged Ptta @Bidadari - Lim Swee Kin

Blue-winged Pitta @Bidadari – Photo by Lim Swee Kin

THE LOWDOWN

The land once belonged to the Sultan of Johor in the mid-1800s, and was the site of a grand residence – the Istana Bidadari (Bidadari House), from which the area takes its name. In later years, during the early 1920s wealthy Arabian family the Alkaffs built a magnificent Japanese-themed garden with a large lake nearby, called the Alkaff Garden.

Military burial @ Bidadari 1954 - National Archives of Singapore

Military burial @ Bidadari Cemetery circa 1954 – Photo from National Archives of Singapore

After the land was acquired by the Municipal Council of Singapore (the administrative body pre-Singapore’s independence) for use as a cemetery, the first burial at Bidadari Cemetery, a Christian one, took place in December 1907. A Muslim section was added 2 years later to the initial Protestant and Roman Catholic plots, and a Hindu section added eventually in 1925.When the cemetery closed 66 years later in 1973, there were altogether approximately 147,000 graves.

Many of early Singapore’s prominent members of the community were buried in Bidadari. Among them were Chinese physician and community leader Dr Lim Boon Keng (Boon Keng Road), known as the “grand old man” of Singapore’s Chinese society; Mr Ahmad Bin Ibrahim, Singapore’s Minister for Health and Labour in the 1950s and 1960s (Jalan Ahmad Ibrahim in Jurong); and Dr George Herbert Garlick, a prominent medical practitioner (Garlick Avenue in Bukit Timah). Accomplished architect Alfred John Bidwell didn’t get a road named after him, however he is well remembered in the iconic and much-loved buildings he designed that are preserved today – the Raffles Hotel, Goodwood Park Hotel, and the Victoria Theatre.

Bidadari Housing Estate

The graves in Bidadari Cemetery were exhumed from 2001 to 2006 however as the government had big plans for the site given its attractive central location. The Woodleigh MRT Station sitting right on the ex-cemetery grounds was opened in 2011.

In August 2013, the Ministry for National Development (MND) unveiled grand plans for an ecology and heritage-friendly housing estate. The 93 ha estate with 10,000 public housing (HDB) units and 1,000 private apartments was announced to be a “tranquil urban oasis” promoting “garden living at Bidadari”. The estate will feature a 10 ha Bidadari Park leveraging on the current park terrain, and with the beautiful raintrees thankfully left intact. At the centre of the park will be an Alkaff Lake reminiscent of the old Alkaff Garden lake in the area almost a century ago. Upper Aljunied Road cutting through the estate will be turned into a pedestrianised Heritage Walk, to help residents learn about the area’s rich heritage as they stroll along the leafy boulevard.

The first HDB flats will go on sale in 2015 and are likely to be completed by about 2018. Since many of Singapore’s popular housing estates were once cemeteries before too, chief of them Bishan which is now home to million dollar public housing flats, Bidadari’s past is not expected to deter eager house hunters and future residents.

VISITING

Bidadari

The park adjacent to Upper Serangoon Road is split into 2 sections by Upper Aljunied Road. The hilly wooded bird-haunt area is north of Upper Aljunied Road and used to be the Muslim part of the cemetery, while on the other side wide open green fields with paved paths in between stretch away where once the largely Christian cemetery stood.

Birdwatching @ Bidadari - Straits Times

Birdwatching at Bidadari – Photo by Straits Times

My friend and I sadly did not manage to see any of the more uncommon birds in the wooded area, although we did catch a glimpse of 2 hornbills in flight just as we were entering the park. We also heard bird songs aplenty throughout the park, but I guess you need the powerful binoculars birders typically lug around to be able to spot the birds, and you do have to know where to look for them.

The open parkland on the other side of the road was nice for a morning stroll especially among the large matured trees, and many resident joggers were enjoying a brisk run to start their day. Walking in the vast empty park, I imagined that this is what Bukit Brown Cemetery is going to be like once all the graves are exhumed, also to make way ultimately for a housing estate.

Bidadari Park

Bidadari Park

In any case, be sure to visit the Bidadari Memorial Garden next to the Mount Vernon funeral parlour as well. Opened in 2004, the garden commemorates the history of Bidadari Cemetery and some of Singapore’s early pioneers. 21 selected headstones have been preserved in the small memorial garden. The original iron gate and gate post of Bidadari Cemetery bearing the lion emblem of the Singapore Municipal Council were relocated and now front the memorial garden.

Bidadari Memorial Garden

LOCATION

Along Upper Serangoon Rood, junctions of Bartley Road and Upper Aljunied Road.

Best to take the train and alight at Woodleigh MRT station which is right at the doorstep of the park. Or if you really want to drive then you might be able to park at the entrance to the Mount Vernon funeral parlour as I did.

HOW MUCH TIME

Just to walk around both sides of the park will probably take you about an hour and a half. Many birdwatchers spend hours patiently waiting with their birdwatching gear at the park though.

Banded Woodpecker @Bidadari - Sheau Torng Lim

Banded Woodpecker @ Bidadri – Photo by Sheau Torng Lim

TIDBITS

  • According to NParks (National Parks Board of Singapore), there are over 300 species of birds that are native to Singapore.
  • Mount Vernon funeral parlour, Singapore’s private funeral parlour with 8 funeral halls run by 2 commercial operators – Mount Vernon Sanctuary and Singapore Casket, is also slated to make way for the new Bidadari Estate. There are low-rise columbariums as well as a 9-storey pagoda housing “niches” of cremated ashes. A total of 21,000 niches are being relocated to other more far-flung columbariums.
  • Woodleigh MRT station on the North-East Line was completed at the end of 2002, however only opened in June 2011 once the projected ridership of 2000 per station was supposedly achieved. Coincidentally however, the station opening happened 2 months after the township of Potong Pasir (which the station is in) was wrested back from opposition rule by the dominant People’s Action Party (PAP) after 8 years.
  • The British used Singapore as an Indian penal colony up until 1865. Many of the early Indian settlers in Singapore were convicts sent here to work as construction labourers, and they helped to build many of Singapore’s early buildings and monuments. Some of these early Indian labourers stayed on in Singapore, and when they passed away were buried in the Hindu section of Bidadari Cemetery.
Bidadari

Variable Squirrel or Finlayson’s Squirrel

TAKE NOTE

  • There are some small unpaved paths leading to quieter areas in the wooded section. Do not go to these areas of the park when it is dark as it is pretty quiet in there, and for women especially don’t go alone.
  • The more uncommon Variable Squirrel or Finalayson’s Squirrel is resident at Bidadari. Originally from Thailand and Myanmar, they too may have to be relocated out of Bidadari.

USEFUL LINKS

Bidadari Map

Map shows the housing estate as “Under Construction” although construction has not begun yet