one-north: Talent Central

one-north

Fusionopolis – Solaris (Photo by Albert Lim)

Question: Where would you find the largest concentration of Singapore’s best and brightest?

Answer: Quite possibly at one-north, Singapore’s Research and Development (R&D) mini-city along North Buona Vista Road. Throw a stone and you will more than likely hit one of the thousands of research scientists working in the labs there.

A few years ago when I was working at a company located close to one-north, my colleagues and I would occasionally drive over to have lunch at one of its dining spots. I have to admit that coming from the decidedly low-tech transportation industry, we did feel a wee bit intimidated sharing the same lunch spaces with the Mensa types that populate one-north.

THE LOWDOWN

one-north (lower case please) is a state-of-the-art R&D hub cum business park cum education and training centre cum living space. Named for Singapore’s position 1 degree north of the equator, the self-contained mini-city is something of a combination of Silicon Valley and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the U.S. Unlike the Valley’s organic nature however, one-north has been meticulously master-planned, as is typical of most things in Singapore.

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Fusionopolis – Connexis and Symbiosis

First conceptualized in 1991, the dedicated facility is the lynchpin in the government’s grand and very gung-ho plan to catapult Singapore to the forefront of science and technology, particularly in the burgeoning field of biomedical science. The hub was designed by high-profile architectural consultant Zaha Hadid, and is being developed over a 20 year time span at an estimated cost of S$15 billion. The facilities are located over a 200 hectare (2 km square) site designed to accommodate over 130,000 staffers, working in either public or private organisations focused on research.

During the work week the mini-city hums from thousands of researchers beavering away on all manner of cutting-edge projects. From cancer research to nano-technology computing to visual effects artistry on Hollywood blockbusters, the amount of talent and brain-power concentrated in the area is surely impressive.

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Fusionopolis – Sandcrawler

one-north was officially launched in 2001, and the first buildings were completed in 2003. More than 10 years later the all-in-one R&D hub has already made waves in the scientific world, lauded as a success story and laying claim to a number of world-class breakthroughs.

The one-north mini-city is divided into 7 precincts, however its 3 core sections are:

  • Biopolis – biomedical and medicine related research hub
  • Fusionopolis – research hub for technology and engineering (officially termed Info-communications Technology or ICT) and media, and
  • Mediapolis – for all things digital media-related.

Other supporting precincts are Nepal Hill for training and development; Pixel, an education facility, and JTC Launchpad @ one-north, an incubator for start-ups. To ensure work life balance one-north also boasts a host of dining, recreational and entertainment facilities within the core complexes, and in the larger area there are also 2 malls, and housing options such as serviced apartments, condominiums and a hotel. With just about everything available in one-north, I wouldn’t be surprised if the research talent we’ve attracted to our shores never have to leave their labs and one-north at all.

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Fusionopolis – Sandcrawler

VISITING

The buildings in one-north all sport thematic names, which while clever is more than a little confusing, especially for hapless taxi drivers. To help you navigate the area and see how the mini-city has taken shape over the last decade, listed here are the core R&D buildings in one-north:

  1. Biopolis: This is where cutting edge (and sometimes controversial) stem-cell research takes place, along with other ground-breaking biomedical research in infectious diseases, cancer and other ills. Biopolis currently has 13 buildings:
    • Phase 1 (2003): Nanos, Genome, Helios, Chromos, Proteos, Matrix and Centros
    • Phase 2 (2006): Neuros and Immunos
    • Phase 3 (2011): Synapse and Amnios
    • Phase 4 (2014): Proctor and Gamble’s Innovation Centre (P&G SgIC)
    • Phase 5 (2014): Nucleos
  2. Fusionopolis: The buildings in the ICT research hub are:
    • Phase 1 (2008): Connexis (South and North) and Symbiosis
    • Phase 2B (2010): Solaris
    • Phase 3 (2013): Nexus
    • Phase 4 (2014): Walt Disney Lucas Film’s Sandcrawler Building
    • Phase 5 (2014): Galaxis
    • Phase 2A (2014 & 2015): Innovis, Kinesis and Synthesis
  3. Mediapolis: For digital media production and development:
    • (2014): Infinite Studios
    • (2015): MediaCorp

For those of us not working or living in the mini-city, the main reason to visit one-north’s core areas would be for its dining options. The area is home to a number of quality cafes (caffeine = brain fuel) and more than a few decent restaurants. Some interesting ones are:

one-north

The Lawn Cafe

  • The Lawn Café (Biopolis Nanos #01-07) attracts the health-conscious crowd with its grilled meat salad bowls
  • Raj Restaurant (Biopolis Centros #01-03) is well-established in Little India, and its outlet here is frequented by the many Indian and British expats working in one-north
  • Long Black Café (Biopolis Centros #01-02) serves connoisseur-grade coffee and café fare, a crowd favourite
  • Infuzi (Biopolis Chromos #01-01) is a more upmarket restaurant offering “fine European” cuisine, good if you want to get away from the crowds
  • Parkway@one-north (Biopolis Chromos #01-02) is probably not affiliated to the famed Parkway Thai restaurant of old, in spite of the similar sounding name. No matter as its modern Thai fare seems to be popular with the lunch time crowd

    https://www.facebook.com/weBreadsg

    Long Black Cafe

  • Bodacious Bar and Bistro (Biopolis P&G SgIC building) is a relative newcomer to the village. Started by the folks of Long Black Café to offer proper meal offerings, it was still pretty quiet when we visited although it seemed like a nice place to kick back in after work
  • WeBread (Biopolis P&G SgIC building #01-02) is an interesting looking quiet little place, serving simple homemade fare
  • Penang Place (Fusionopolis Connexis #B1-20/24) is a large restaurant that gets really crowded. Almost everyone is there for the eat-all-you-want buffet spread of Penang favourites
  • Rong Hua Bak Kut Teh (Fusionopolis Connexis #02-13) for that firm local favourite – pork rib soup

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    Bodacious Bar and Bistro

  • Across North Buona Vista Road you also have the charming Rochester Park featuring restaurants set in lovely conserved colonial houses. The restaurants suffer from the secluded location however, and only the Goodwood Park Hotel’s Min Jiang Chinese restaurant and the North Border American Bar and Grill have survived from the original raft of restaurants that opened in 2006.
  • Rochester Park is also home to Singapore’s “best looking Starbucks”, in a 2-storey Black-and-White colonial house next to Rochester Mall. The cafe is popular with students from the nearby learning institutions though so you’ll have to fight them for a much-hogged table.one-north
one-north

Never knew Yoda had claws on his feet

Other attractions: You can visit the Sky Garden on the 21st floor of the Symbiosis building in Fusionopolis. Although there are security gate posts at the entrances of all the offices and lab buildings, you can exchange your identity card for a visitor pass and proceed up to enjoy a vantage view of the southern coast.

Over at Lucasfilms’s gleaming Sandcrawler Building (inspired by the giant fortresses-on-wheels in the Star Wars movies) you can also explore the lovely atrium garden. Find you must try the statue of Yoda, Star Wars’ Grand Master of the Jedi Order.

LOCATION

Off North Buona Vista Road, between Commonwealth Avenue and Ayer Rajah Ave.

HOW MUCH TIME

You can drive through the area in under 15 minutes if you just want a look-see at the architecturally acclaimed main research buildings. Far better though to stop and have coffee or drinks or a meal within the one-north complexes in the company of uber talents.

TIDBITS

  • The Fusionopolis building names were picked from a contest held in 2008 which attracted close to 1600 entries. Winning entries were submitted by engineers, students, a film producer, and even a housewife.one-north
  • Indian movie goers may find that some of the buildings in one-north look familiar, as Hindi movie De Dana Dan, which was filmed in Singapore, featured shoots at Fusionopolis.
  • Zaha Hadid also designed the head-turning 1,715 unit d’Leedon condominium along Farrer Road.
  • In 2002 Singapore’s National Science and Technology Board (NSTB) was renamed to the more hip-sounding Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), to highlight the country’s new research emphasis. A*STAR’s many agencies are all housed within Fusionopolis.

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    Prof. Jackie Ying

  • An example of the calibre of global talent Singapore has attracted to the biomed industry and working in one-north is Prof. Jackie Ying, Executive Director of the A*STAR’s Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology. Prof. Ying is a 48 year old Taiwanese native and a Princeton University Ph.D. scholar, who interestingly converted to Islam in Singapore.
  • one-north is not without its detractors. While the generous research grants have attracted big name scientists (“whales”), some such as pre-eminent cancer research couple Neal Copeland and Nancy Jenkins have left citing the country’s infamous red tape, as well as disillusionment with the centre’s approach and the pressure to demonstrate commercial results.
  • One of A*STAR’s talents recently made the news for the wrong reasons: Bright young scholar scientist Dr Eng Kai Er, who is employed at A*STAR in virus research, spoke out about having to serve a 6 year bond, never mind that she enjoyed over S$1 million in scholarship monies. She also railed against her work, describing her scientific research as “narcissistic, masturbatory work”. Ouch.
  • In case you’re marvelling at how all the buildings sport so much lovely greenery and think that Singapore is so environmentally conscious, the truth is that government buildings have to incorporate greenery and ecological features according to government guidelines (in keeping with the country’s tagline of “A City in a Garden”), while private developers enjoy hefty incentives to incorporate green features in their buildings.
  • A friend of mind took a cab to Metropolis, an office building on the periphery of one-north. The cabbie could not make out what she meant by “Metropolis”, but understood where she wanted to go to when she pronounced it the local way: Metro-po-lis.

one-north

TAKE NOTE

  • Several buildings are still being worked on so parts of one-north are zoned construction areas.
  • If you plan to dine at any of the restaurants/cafes in the core areas do check their opening hours as not all are open throughout the weekend.

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.

Haw Pa Villa Mansion

Haw Pa Villa Mansion 1940

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.

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?

USEFUL LINKS

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