I schooled there for four years from the mid-70s onwards. How I got there is a long family story. But just a couple of months before, I had secured a place in a very good school in Katong with my PSLE results. And because I had moved up north to Marsiling, going to that school became neigh impossible. My family did the next best thing, i.e. they found me a place in an English-speaking mission school nearer home. And thus Assumption English School in Boys Town I went.
On the map, the distance from my home in Marsiling to Bukit Panjang is not far. Roughly 10km, which is certainly not a far journey by bus. But remember, this was in the 1970s. No shortcut like the BKE. The only road to town was via Woodlands Road and then Upper Bukit Timah Road (which cuts through Bukit Panjang town. There was no such road as Bukit Panjang Road. (Even today, many people think Upper Bukit Timah Road stopped at 7th Mile. The road in front of AES is Bukit Panjang Road. The road was only created after Zheng Hua Estate was founded.) Heck, where Ten-Mile Junction mall is now was only a three-prong road. One going to Choa Chu Kang, another to Woodlands and the other to Upper Bukit Timah. There was no road going into the present Zheng Hua Estate. What's there was open farmland spreading all the way to Mandai and Ulu Sembawang (where the hot springs are presently, and where the old Seletaris mineral bottling plant was.) This route became a topo march for us NS men some years later, starting from Jalan Malai (opp Ten Mile Junction) and ending in Ulu Sembawang.
The junction then was a circus, not a cross. It had a giant tree in the middle. I know because I used to drive to school when I was in Sec 4, in my father's red Mazda with him sitting beside me. By then my younger sister had also joined AES and in Sec 2. Together, we would head to Bukit Panjang for breakfast and then school. Driving round a circus required skill entering and exiting. Otherwise you would be stuck going round and round in circles hoping someone will give way. I think Newton Circus is one of two left in Singapore.
Where Ten-Mile Junction mall is now was a police station and behind that, Bukit Panjang English (Primary) School. It was a charming little school made of panel wood painted green and topped with a black tar roof.
Home being at Marsiling Lane (2nd phase of the HDB estate), I had to pass by Bukit Panjang everyday to get back. Bus number was either 180 or 182. Both stopped at a make-shift terminus by the roadside opposite Blk 2 (along Marsiling Drive). It was beside a cluster of rubber trees and big granite stones. The trees and stones are still there. A proper terminus was later built beside the hawker centre in front of shops at Blk 19.
Every morning going to school was a rush to get a place on either of these two bus service numbers. No. 180 went all the way to Tanjong Pagar; No. 182 all the way to SGH. - Both very long journeys! Not surprisingly, many office workers also jostled for a place on these buses with us students. JB students usually traveled to AES in school buses (the old bug-eyed Austin-Morris JU250 kind) or took bus service number 170 which was the only Singapore bus that went all the way into Johor Bahru from Queen Street. It still does. (Together with those Singapore-Johore Bahru direct buses that used to charge $1.70 (later $2.20) per trip). They were a common sight passing by AES/Boys Town.)
Attending AES was an eye-opener. For one thing, the school itself was quite physically different from any secondary school common at the time. These were mostly of the Chestnut Drive Secondary School variety, you know, four-storey types of brickworks and metal panels. A canteen below and an assembly hall cum badminton court upstairs.
AES during my time was made up of the old Boys Town School buildings many of which were built for trade school use originally. They were then converted to classrooms when Boys Town Vocational Institute was built. Brother Roger Venne was personally involved in the renovation himself, driving a red truck of supplies up and down that circuit road that ringed BT. He was also a photography enthusiast and to him we are indebted for many of the early photos of BT when it was just a toddler. He even went all the way up to Bukit Gombak hill to get a panoramic shot of the BT estate.
The other surprising thing about attending AES for a city boy like me was that many of my classmates lived on farms or in kampungs. I was born in Jalan Sayang not far from present day Kembangan MRT station and lived in a terrace house. As such, my early childhood days were spent around that area. The only kampungs I visited were the ones in Bedok (Malay) and Chai Chee (Chinese). A relative lived near the Malay kampung and so we had plenty of occasion to visit.
Later, because of termite infestation, my family moved to Sims Avenue, Geylang. You can read my Growing Up In Geylang blog for my impressions of growing up there.
As a city boy, I had never seen a farm or been to one. Many of my classmates in AES then came from farms in Lim Chu Kang, Choa Chu Kang, Woodlands Road, and Mandai. They grew vegetables, reared pigs and cultivated orchids.
They also lived in kampungs on either side of Woodlands Road, such as Lengkok Saga and Yew Tee. Or Gali Batu.
And quite a few lived in Bukit Panjang itself. Either up Jalan Cheng Hwa or opposite in Lorong Ah Thia, which was a bustling place with a cinema and popular kopitiam. A primary school friend actually had a relative who lived there and was well-known for selling their family recipe kuehs.
Chye Khian, for instance, was from Jalan Cheng Hwa. We were both from the NPCC and I remember vividly one time waiting for him just a little into that narrow road that led upwards into his kampung. I did not dare venture in because of the sound of barking dogs. After some minutes, Chye Khian did finally appear, in his usual swagger and curious smile. He also always had his shirt tucked out in that "pai kia" way. Chye Khian was slightly built and fair; and girls were utterly jealous of his rose bud lips.
I would always remember this scene of him walking down Jalan Cheng Hwa because in those days, mists would form in the morning due to the much vegetation around. So him walking down from those kampung houses surrounded by mists was something out of a Chinese painting. You don't get this anymore unless you visit Bukit Timah Hill early in the morning or go Cameron Highlands in Malaysia.
Boon Hong was another classmate from our AES NPCC unit. His family owned a timber and paint business in a shophouse row some three bus stops away from school. (Aik Huat Timber and Paint Pte Ltd, I think.) They now live opposite Assumption Pathways but during our time at AES, his family home was a large house just by Jalan Taluki outside Hillview. It was a nice, big kampung house of brick with a zinc roof. And well, of course. I used to go to his house to study and revise for exams.
Boon Hong was especially good in math.
This 10-mile point of Upper Bukit Timah Road called Bukit Panjang must have been like the last civilized outpost in Singapore's ulu north before people headed up to Johor Bahru. That's what it felt like for me when I moved up to Marsiling. I still remember that fateful day very clearly. I sat atop the lorry that was ferrying my family's belongings and furniture to our new place. I was like a scout looking out for our final destination. Passing through, the feeling was the same as travelling through Malaysia in the 80s - when small towns mattered and before multistoried shopping centres "choped" their place and reared their often ugly concrete facades. Little did I know then that I would soon get to know this place quite intimately.
As mentioned, Boon Hong father's shop was in the last section of a long row of shophouses farthest from Jalan Cheng Hwa near our school. His family did not live there but in a zinc-roofed house not far from Hillview Road entrance. That place was for a long time recognisable for one entity that stood the test of time: a Standard Chartered Bank branch. Unlike modern banks, this one was smallish and approachable. I remember going there once to deposit a large sum of money - workers' wages to be precise, some $25k or so when I first started work. It was probably the biggest sum of money I've ever "kiap" under my armpit so that no one would snatch it away!
Outside this bank was a very popular bus-stop that served many bus numbers. Buses that came from town and heading to Bukit Panjang, Choa Chu Kang, Lim Chu Kang and Woodlands. Residents in Hillview HDB Estate often alighted there to walk that short distance (and under the railway bridge) back to their flats. These numbers should sound familiar - 170 (JB/Queen Street), 171 (Mandai/Queen Street), 172 (Lim Chu Kang/?), 173 (Hillview/Stevens Road etc), 180 (Marsiling/Prince Edward Rd), 181 (to Queensway and Beach Road), 182 (Marsiling/Orchard Rd etc), 178 (connect at 7th Mile), etc. Man, you have to tip your head to the bus drivers for such long routes they have to traverse on a daily basis. It's quite crazy, actually. And the piles they must have suffered too. OMG!
Classmate Maria Tan, an all-Chinese girl with surprisingly dark skin and a perpetually sunny disposition, lived in one of these HDB flats now demolished. Her family ran a fruit business nearby in Princess Elizabeth Estate. When visiting Maria, we often climbed the hill behind where she lived. We found out soon enough why the place was called Hillview! Some time later, a large defence camp was built and part of this hill area was then cordoned off. The military put up red signs were put up threatening to shoot anyone who did not stay away!
Badminton teammate Thiam Chuan's family ran a motorbike repair business from an atap house next to this Hillview/Upper Bukit Timah road junction. It was part of a small cluster of ataps that was the first kampong houses to go. Thiam Chuan was a big, mature chap with a sunny personality and a killer smash.
The shops along Bukit Panjang were two-storey types, the kind you would find in the oldest parts of Singapore. After school, me and my classmates would sometimes wander along the five-foot ways. The corner coffeeshops were all traditional with their tables of marble tops and teak-wood legs. I liked looking at watches and a watch retail shop there was a favourite haunt. Another shop that fascinated was one that sold record players and styluses - the needle points that give voice to vinyl records. A good, sensitive stylus would cost a lot of money. I believed the top brand then was Shure.
Over at the opposite side of the road, in a shophouse, was a shoe shop that I also frequented to buy my school canvas shoes. This shop was situated near an overhead bridge after Lor Ah Thia. Classmate Sutjianto, an Indonesian, often took a shortcut through this lorong to his home in Phoenix Gardens, a bungalow estate. His family seemed pretty well off, and if there was a new digital watch from Casio, he was the first to wear it.
Sutjianto and I got along. He was smart and good in Math. He had also a keen interest in badminton (his countryman Rudy Hartono was king then). But he was not very athletic. I think his pampered upbringing had something to do with it. In person, he was fair and soft-spoken and walked with a slight hunch. Sutjianto seemed more mature than the rest of us though. I often had the feeling that our school was just a temporary stop for him. He was not alone in that regard as there were others like him. Quite a few of my schoolmates were from Johor Bahru. They told me that our school was the only decent English medium one nearest to the Causeway and that most of them had plans to leave for overseas study once they completed their O-levels. Eventually, quite a few did do just that.
Sutjianto also liked to play table tennis and we, together with Ser Yang, his brother Sze Heng, Kheng Huy, Kok Hock and Boon Hong used to bat around in either the large indoor school hall or at the more open Boys Town Home hall (where we often hosted prize-giving ceremonies, dinners and fundraiser cinema shows). Ser Yang was good enough to be a national player and I remember the last thing he taught me was how to top-spin. I in turn gave him and his brother tuition in Geography and other subjects.
(A primary school classmate of mine who lived in Geylang had grandparents living in a kampong high up in Jalan Cheng Hwa. For generations, her grandpa sold his famous Teochew kueh in Lor Ah Thia - in that food area around Sin Hwa cinema. Another acquaintance's wife grew up in a kampong along the lower stretches of Jalan Cheng Hwa, right next to a wide longkang/river. In December, the heavy rains would flood the place - why they call their kampong, Lift Up Sarong Kampong. Haha, quite funny.)
Kok Leong was a Malaysian like them. He was another good friend of mine and an active scout. After his O-levels, he went to the UK to further his studies. He was the one I gave my tube of kuti-kuti collection to as a token of our good friendship. Sadly, we lost touch with each other and I do hope he is keeping well. A senior of his, Kam Loon, whose sister was my sister's classmate, was also sent to the UK to study. He was quite the orator and was a good inter-school debater. School debate competitions were a big thing then in the 70s and 80s. He was someone I looked up to. Last I heard, he is residing in S'pore and has started his own consultancy and listing firm. Seems to be doing quite well judging from what his sister tells me. That's great to know.
The changes that has happened to Bukit Panjang are plenty. First, the junction that connects Upper Bukit Timah Road, Woodlands Road and Choa Chu Kang Road used to be a circus. I should know because I drove to school when I was 14 and that circus was my first roundabout. Bukit Panjang Road did not exist then. There was a police station where Ten Mile Junction Shopping Centre now stands. Behind it was Bukit Panjang English School, a quaint little primary school housed in a brick and teakwood building. It was painted in shades of natural green.
Across the road from this school was a post office that was converted from a childcare clinic. Beside this, a windowless Telecom switch building that looked like a solid block of concrete (they always were like that). A narrow metal track road (Lor Malai) ran between these two buildings. Before the BKE was built, we NS men used to start one topo exercise from this spot. We would then hike across vast farmlands all the way to Ulu Sembawang, near where the former Seletaris mineral water processing plant was at the time. It was quite the distance. Stray dogs were plenty and there were also treacherous (but pretty) 'pandan kueh' ponds. We often kept to the tracks just so we wouldn't fall into one by misstep. And clutching map and compass, we would plod on from one landmark to the next.
That Seletaris factory later became a Coca-Cola bottling plant. It was situated previously along a now defunct road called Jalan Ulu Sembawang. This snaked from the main road near Chong Pang Village into farmland and kampong. Folks often traveled on this backroad to search out a No Signboard restaurant.
Over the years, Bukit Panjang town started to show its age when traffic increased and kampongs got cleared. It was irrevocably changed when a few rows of its shophouses were demolished in 2005 to make way for an up-market condominium. This condo looks like one of the many steel and green-glass ones along Paterson Road. Why it was built in ulu Bukit Panjang town and so close to the main road left me scratching my head. Maybe the developers knew something I didn't. The answer became apparent in the last three years when much more development occurred around it, turning the place into a mini Hong Kong condo city.
The first condos in Bukit Panjang sprang up in Diary Farm near Hillview. Highrises in Cashew Road soon followed in the early 90s.
The areas near Diary Farm were mostly wild nature back then. Its boundary linked Chestnut Drive which besides having a private bungalow estate (some fancy units there) it was also home to a few tobacco leaf farms. That place became a popular cross-country route for my school. We often joked about making cigars with those plants but we never did. I often joined my school's scouts (esp Kok Leong's troop) on hikes around the area and would end up munching on wild pink jambu fruits. That area is vast and runs all the way to Bukit Timah Hill. If you knew your way, you could hike past a quarry to its base at Hindhede Road.
Hindhede Road itself was home to a well-ordered Chinese kampong that stood on a network of canals. The houses there were zinc-roofed and slated and puntuated with glass louvre windows. I remember the slats were painted black, why the place was called "orh choo" or black houses. Classmate Ser Yang and his brother Sze Heng lived there, as well as Oon Chin Teik, a fellow NPCC mate. Ser Yang was a very good table tennis player and he taught me quite a few tricks, including how to topspin. Sze Heng was more the ladies' man. One was in NPCC while the other joined the Red Cross. But both were in the school table tennis team.
Bukit Panjang New Town sprang up at a time when I was busy with my career so I didn't see it evolve. I didn't like the place much because the area was low and the flats were close to one another. Come May, it felt warm and stuffy living there. For years it was as isolated as nearby Jalan Teck Whye HDB Estate... until the LRT was built. That gave birth to the Ten Mile Junction station and shopping centre. Naturally, the police station that was there had to make way, as did that quaint primary school.
Now, if you visit Bukit Panjang town, you will be greeted with more construction and road works. A future MRT station will open there. You can still catch glimpses of the old town if you look hard enough. Boon Hong father's shophouse row is still there, the last surviving stretch. An iconic clan association building is not lost and sits not far across the road. A restaurant there is famous for its crab tanghoon (if it has not moved). The areas around Lor Ah Thia has long been demolished and tarred over. It was home to a cinema and kampong and one time, whilst on my way to buy Dragon Fly badminton shoes, I recall seeing a Chinese wayang set up near its entrance. It must have been Hungry Ghost month. With so many physical changes to the town these days, I doubt even the ghosts of yesteryear will recognise the place. Like me, they will wander and wonder to find familiar landmarks of an era that has now slipped quite permanently into the past.
Afternote: Classmate Swee Lak, who was a kaki friend of mine in Marsiling, grew up in a kampong in Bukit Panjang. His said his father sold cloth at a pasar malam on Friday nights along the main road. The market would open on Sunday mornings. Swee Lak recalls two opposing groups of gangsters on either side of Bukit Panjang Road that often created havoc for the folks living there (gangsterism had been a part of Bukit Panjang since the mid-19th century, something the brothers/priests of Boys Town had hoped to eradicate). In fact, Swee Lak said he once witnessed a primary school boy from Boys Town being knifed there (near the clan building) and died. Another classmate, Nancy Ng, who was a Red Cross member, used to do Red Cross duty in the area. Apparently they were often on standby on Friday evenings in case fights broke out and people got hurt, fights that involved some of the more rowdy boys from Boys Town Vocational Institute, for example. I didn't know my schoolmates had to do that sort of stressful thing. I only knew that fights broke out sometimes in our shared canteen with the VI boys. Our canteen was also our school badminton court and we often practiced there on Saturday morning. So at times, we would arrive to find blood and broken bottles on the floor.
About Lorong Ah Thia:
This road is named after a rich Chinese businessman, Chia Ah Thia (d.1930), who came from China at a young age. Chia Ah Thia had houses and property in Bukit Timah (near Bukit Panjang Police Station), Buffalo Road and in Kranji. Between 1912 and 1914, Chia Ah Thia owned rubber plantations and carp rearing ponds in the Bukit Panjang and Mandai areas. He later also acquired landed properties on the 10th milestone of Bukit Timah Road in Bukit Panjang, which became known as Lorong Ah Thia. The road name was decided by the Singapore Rural Board at a meeting in August 1938.
Chia Ah Thia married a Peranakan, Sim Guek Kee (d. 1941) the daughter of a goldsmith in Upper Circular Road. They had two sons and two daughters. His eldest son, Chia Yong Hoe was educated in St Andrews School, and was the first Asiatic Inspector in the Police force in 1925. During the Japanese Occupation, the children sold all their parents' heirlooms. Ah Chia's grand-daughter is with the Peranakan Voices, a choral group of the Peranakan Association. - Source: Singapore Street Names - A study of Toponymics.
Next story: Woodlands Road