Thursday, December 4, 2008


Recently I walked down memory lane along Joo Chiat Road where I once lived. I stared hard at the vacant field and visualised the scene as it was before. My thought went to second half of 1940. I was living at No 73 Joo Chiat Road then. No 71 was a coffee powder shop with a large grinding machine that was very noisy when the shop opened for business in the morning. Next came the Indian grinding mill that ground spices and rice into flour. The 2 grinding machines were equally noisy. Peace finally came when there was a change of trade to Chinses medical shop. The owner, a Teochew practised Traditional Chinese Medicine. The last trade for the shop was a mixed business. The original trade was selling of charcoal. He was from East Coast Road nearby Roxy Theatre. Then he built a shed extended from the shop front to sell fancy fishes. Selling of birds was later added to his business.

The shop front of my house was let out to a dentist. Between the road and the shop front was a vacant space that could park 3 cars. Every morning the area was occupied by illegal hawers selling vegetables, eggs and food for breakfast. My house was a refuge for them when the Hawkers Department raiding squad arrived.

No 75 was a tyre shop as well as a single pump Mobil brand petrol kiosk. The petrol pump was just by the side of the road, marked X in the picture. At that time there was only one grade of petrol. Later the owner changed the trade to selling and repairing of bicycles. The last business was an electrical shop. No 77 was a textile shop. In those days, very few Malays came to Joo Chiat for shopping. So the hard working shopkeeper took bales of textile on his shoulder and a measuring ruler in his hand to Geylang Serai to service his Malay customers.



Between house No 67 and No 71 was a lane that led to a kampong behind the shophouses. The lane was my playground and the sandy ground was my drawing board. The kampong had about 2 dozens attap huts with a mixed population of Chinese, Malay and Indian. There was a public standpipe for the people to draw water for drinking, cooking and washing. At the edge of the kampong were 3 communal bucket latrines. I went to the kampong quite often to play dum (a game of a chess board) with my Malay friends. I also learned to speak Malay from them.
I was still staring at the vacant land but there was no buildings, no hawkers and no kampong. It was only a memory of my growing up years. The same place but another scene.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Joo Chiat Road

In the 60s at Joo Chiat Road and Changi Road junction, the roadsides were always congested with illegal hawkers stalls as shown in the picture below. People crowding around the hawker stalls also contributed to traffic obstructions. As a result there were a number of minor accidents involving motor vehicles and pedestrians. When that happened, it was better for the motorist not to stop the car to assist the injured but to drive straight to the police station to make a report or returned to the place of accident with the police. There were instances where motorists were beaten up by hooligans who loitered around the area.

Joo Chiat Road and Changi Road junction.

My favourite gorent pisang (banana fritters) stall was in the coffee shop at the corner of Joo Chiat Road and Geylang Road. It was within walking distance from my house. The hawker's operating hours were very short. Customers who went there late were disappointed. There was no queque like we see today. People just crowded round his stall.

The sidelane between the 2 blocks of buildings were selling only muslim cooked food. A variety of Malay food were sold there such as satay, mee rebus, soto ayam, lonton and other cooked food. There was no piped water supply and no washing area. The hygiene was very poor and yet nobody complained.

Joo Chiat Road looking towards east coast.
Source: National Archives of Singapore

No 71 Joo Chiat Road shophouse with illegal extension.

The shop was originally selling charcoal. Due to poor business, an illegal shed was constructed in front of the shop to sell fancy fish and birds. The owner also had a similar stall at the side wall of Hollywood Theatre.

Joo Chiat Road towards Changi Road

No 73 Joo Chiat Road

Old timers living in Joo Chiat should remember that fronting this house was a hawker stall selling Hainanese satay and porridge at night till very late. It was an icon in Joo Chiat Road at night in those bygone days.

Joo Chiat Road shophouses before

The same site now without the shophouses

The background shows the Joo Chiat Complex multi-storey carpark. The open air Lily Cinema was located there. Movie goers had to sit on hard wooden benches. It was free sitting and seats were reserved by tying handkerchiefs to the benches. I had a friend living behind the cinema. His father had erected a timber platform high enough to watch the show. It was meant for his family members but friends and neighbours also went there to see the movie. As a result, it was always crowded. I went there only when I could not get a ticket to the cinema. They are all but a memory now.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Chew Joo Beng aka Chew Koh Beng

Chew Joo Beng and Chew Joo Chiat are brothers. Joo Beng was a wealthfy land and coconut plantation owner not only in Singapore but also in Indonesia. His family home was a bungalow at the junction of Joo Chiat Place and Everitt Road. It was bombed by a Japanese plane in WWII. During the Japanese occupation the land was used as a factory producing metal nails and screws. Now it is part of the Lengenda condominium. After the war some of the family members continued to live at Joo Chiat Place in one of the shophouses. Now they are not there anymore.
Site plan showing the location of Chew Joo Beng's bungalow
The two Chew brothers' family form a very large family tree which I am now building. Chew Joo Beng had 7 sons and many grandchildren and great grandchildren. I have many names of the family members but am unable to place them accordingly. Currently, I am communicating with one of his great grandson. I hope by this post, more of Chew Joo Beng's family members would contact me and help me to put up the tree in order. I shall share the family tree with them so that they can pass it on to their children and downwards as a heritage.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Roads to Chew Joo Chiat

Chew Joo Chiat

The audience

I traced my family history from the following sources:

1. Family members

My grandmother

My grandma brought me up at Joo Chiat family house. Living togther and being close to her,  I had the opportunity to hear from her about her father-in-law, Chew Joo Chiat. She said Chew came to Singapore at age 20 years. He had a wife and four children (2 male and 2 female) in China. She said that after 30 years in Singapore he sent for his 2 sons and their families to join him in Singapore. By then his eldest son (my grand-father) was married and had a daughter and a son. She only knew of Chew's properties in Joo Chiat, Kg Eunos, a rubber estate in Changi and a bank at Batu Pahat. She believed he had other businesses. In those days, kids were supposed to listen and not asked questions. Even when I was an adult, it did not occur to me find out more about my great grand-father. A few years ago I got interested in the story of my great grand-father and did some research.

2. Family documents

Batu Pahat Bank Pte Ltd noticeof meeting

I found 2 personal documents of Chew Joo Chiat. One was his personal cheque book and the other Batu Pahat Bank Pte Ltd notice of meeting to the shareholders dated 27 March 1925. The documents showed that he was one of the banks' Board of Directors. Therefore, he was a banker and a major shareholder of the bank. His cheque book was with a French bank.

3. Chew Joo Chiat's grave

From the grave of the deceased, his tombstone would show the names of his children and grand-children as in the case of Chew Joo Chiat. The tombstone also indicated the date of death as well as the place his home place in China.

4. Books, Publications and Webpages

A book 'Joo Chiat a living legacy' was published by the Joo Chiat Citizen Consultative Committee in association with the National Archives of Singapore. It is about Joo Chiat area in the early 19th century to the present time. There is also a section onl the story of Chew Joo Chiat.

5 Lee Kong Chiang Referene Library

My final  research was at Lee Kong Chiang Reference Library. There from the micro films I found that in 1898/9 Chew Joo Chiat built 3 shophouses and 3 attap houses at Geylang Road 3 1/2 ms. They were his earliest properties on record. He achieved this after 21 years in Singapore. There is no record of what business he was doing then. But in 1908, he was a ship chandler at No 5 Philip Street as well as a timber trader at Beach Road. There is also no record when he first owned property in Joo Chiat. But, by 1913 he already owned a large portion of land in Joo Chiat area. In 1916 he had 10 acres of land in Thomson Road and a shophouse at No 19 Weld Road.

You can read Chew Joo Chiat's story at:

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

My First Experience

In May 2008, I was invited by the National Library Board to give a talk on 'how I traced my family history'. It was organised to coincide with the launch of the National Library's Singapore Information Research (SIR)- Local History Service. It was scheduled to be held on 30th August 2008 at the National Library. I accepted the invitation without much thought. Then, I realised that it was a mistake. First, I never give a public talk before and therefore, had no experience. Second, I had not enough materials to go on. Third, I need slides to make my presentations. My family members got excited. They were afraid that I'd stammer and tongue tied. I was very calm and started preparing my talk from the middle of July 2008.

For additional materials for the talk, I went to the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library for my research. It has a collection of Singapore newspapers dating from early 1800s and available on microfilm. I spent many days collecting facts and informations about my great-grandfather, Chew Joo Chiat. With the data collected I was able to put my presentation with 22 slides.

In early August 2008, I got a second invitation from the National Library. It was a life talk show with the Media Corp DJ on radio 93.8 FM. The topic was 'Joo Chiat' and was to go 'life' on the morning of 28th August 2008. I gave an affirmative answer and went on the air at the scheduled date and time. Many friends and relatives heard my conversation with the Media Corp DJ over radio 93.8 FM. They congratulated me for talking so clearly and calmly. The success over the radio morning talk show was an encouragement. I also treat it as a trial run for my talk at the National Library two days later.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

As I remember

Picture from Joo Chiat a living legacy

I am blogging the history of the area between Joo Chiat Road and Tembling Road for misterpo who moved in to Joo Chiat about 4 years ago and wanted to know its history. The area is a rectangular piece of land is bounded by Tembling Road/Joo Chiat Terrace/Joo Chiat Road/Joo Chiat Place. It has a very interesting history as the famous Katong laksa and the ever popular 'poh piah' skins came from there. My grand aunt lived at No 3 Tembling Road at Junction with Joo Chiat Terrace. It was a bungalow house with a large compound. The architectural design is similar to the picture above. Adjoining the other side wall of the house at Tembeling Road was a row of 5 single storey attap huts. The huts and the piece of land behind them belonged to my grand father. Diagonally opposite the huts was a roadside public standpipe where the people living nearby collected water for drinking, cooking and washing. In the morning it was very crowded with housewives, queue up for water. Empty pails and empty kerosine tins lining up from the standpipe and snaking about 10 metres long was a common sight. Within the row of attap huts was a dwelling cum joss sticks manufacturing business. The joss sticks were all hand made. The finished products were dried on the vacant land across the road opposite the hut. The famous Katong laksa hawker lived in one of the huts. He started as an itinerant hawker. He carried his pot of laksa gravy over a stove and the paraphernalia on each side of a pole across his shoulder. He moved from place to place in Joo Chiat area and finally settled on the five foot way of an eating house at East Coast Road/Ceylon Road junction. The Peranakan in Katong called him 'jangok' whereas the Hokkien referred to him as 'goh ki chiew' because he had a few strands of long hair growing downwards on his chin. When the Hawkers Department took action against unlicensed hawkers in 1970s, he moved inside the eating house to continue his business because the people in Katong loved to eat his laksa. After his demise, his family members branched out along East Coast Road, competing with each other. Now we have a few Katong laksa stalls, all claiming to be the original. Indeed, they are as they came from the same family.

Another well known eatery is the popular 'ang moh' koloh mee. His stall was located at an eating house between Joo Chiat Place and Tembling Road corner. The shop's eating area was small and with a long queue, one must have the patience to wait. At the corner of Joo Chiat Place and Joo Chiat Road was the Chop Ban Seng Wine Merchant. Besides liquor and beer, soft drinks and provisions were also available in the shop. The owner's family lived in the upper floor. I remembered a mama stall behind the wine shop. At Joo Chiat Place there was a Chinese barber shop that cleaned your ears and gave you haircut as well. There were 3 furniture shops. One was owned by a man nick named 'panjang' (meaning long or tall in Malay).

At Joo Chiat Road, opposite the mosque was a timber yard selling building materials. Beside it a narrow lane provided access to the Chinses temple. Next to the timber yard and moving towards Joo Chiat Terrace was a row of 2 storey shophouses. There was an electrical/plumbing shop that also made duplicate keys too. The well known 'poh piah' skins business occupied one of the shops. Next was a shop that provided clothes dyeing services. The clothes were dyed either black or blue for mourners. A carpentary shop that provided carpentary works was also there. The last building was a small coffee shop at the junction of Joo Chiat Road and Joo Chiat Terrace.

The public standpipe at Tembling Road was the first to disappear when piped water was provided in the area. Then the bungalow and the attap huts made way for new buildings.
History of other areas between Joo Chiat and Tembling Road are covered by blog 'Joo Chiat Changing Scene 1 & 2'.

Monday, March 10, 2008

My Chew Joo Chiat Story Part II

Chew Joo Chiat's Other Businesses

In 1904 he had a shop Chop Seng Chiong at Beach Road. In 1908 he was a ship chandler with an office at Philip Street. He supplied provisions and spare parts to ships that called at Singapore. In the same year he had a timber trading business with a saw mill at Beach Road. He imported logs from  mainland Malaya and Indonesia and exported them to the west.

In 1919 he founded the Pacific Bank and was the bank's first chairman. He presided at the meeting. The following year he and his friends opened the Batu Pahat bank in Johore. He was one of the Board of Directors and a major shareholder. In 1920 he founded two tin mines. They were the Trengganu Corporation and the Ulu Pacca Corporation. He was their chairman and presided in all their meetings. They were incorporated in Singapore and their office was at 96 Market Street Singapore.

Above document is a page from a publication on The Developing Economies of Malaysia. It showed that in 1919 Chew Joo Chiat was the first Board Chairman of the Pacific Bank

My great-grand father, Chew Joo Chiat became a very wealthy land and property owner, not only in Joo Chiat but also in Eunos, Changi, Thomson Road and Weld Road. He also owned a rubber estate (64 acres) at Bukit Timah Road and another at Changi Road. Inspite of his wealth  he never own a car. He rather walked to his estates and back daily.

Chew Joo Chiat's Family
After the turn of the century he had his residence at No 65 Joo Chiat Road to be near his plantations. His house was a unique three storey building with a front balcony overlooking the road. It had a fenced in forecourt and a gate with steps leading to the road. There was an air-well in the centre part of the building for natural lighting and ventialation. At the air well was a well and the water was used for cooking, drinking and washing. He also built a permanent opera stage across the road so that he could engage Teochew opera troupe to stage  shows during his birthdays and Chinese festivals. The opera show was his only entertainment. During his birthdays he invited his business associates for dinner and a few chosen friends to view with him the opera show from the balcony.

His family in China enjoyed his prosperity as he remitted regularly money to them. Their lives had been upgraded to the upper class. It enabled his eldest son Chew Cheng Liam to marry a rich family's daughter. She had bounded feet and a maid (slave girl) to attend to all her needs. In 1915 Chew Joo Chiat sent for his two sons Chew Cheng Liam and Chew Cheng Swee and Cheng Liam's family (his wife, 2 children and a maid) to join him in Singapore. They lived with Chew Joo Chiat in his three storey house. Later the two sons built their own homes along Joo Chiat Road and moved out. Like most Chinaman of his era, he was addicted to the persuit of wealth but never enjoy the luxury of life inspite of his wealth.  He died on 5th February 1926 leaving behind 2 sons, Cheng Liam 请廉 and Cheng Swee 请水, 3 daughters Gui Neo桂娘,Xian Neo羡娘,Su Lan素蘭, 5 grandsons Ann Sim安心, Ann Chi安持,Ann Siong安相,Ann Fu安扶,Ann Jing安静 and 3 grand-daughters Choo Neo珠娘,Pen Zhi盆治,Dan Zhi丹治。

Chew Joo Chiat never return to his homeland at Her San 和山, Fujian福建 province in China since he came to Singapore. His root in China had been cut off permanently. On the other hand, he left a living legacy in his adopted land, Singapore. In Joo Chiat area many roads are named after him, such as Joo Chiat Road, Joo Chiat Place, Joo Chiat Terrace, Joo Chiat Lane, Joo Chiat Avenue and Joo Chiat Walk, and Joo Chiat Square. Joo Chiat market at Joo Chiat Road had demolished and replaced by Joo Chiat Complex. Joo Chiat Police Station was at East Coast Road. It had stopped functioning as a police station but the building is still there. Today Joo Chiat is a living legacy. In February 2011 Joo Chiat was awarded the first Heritage Town in Singapore.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

My Chew Joo Chiat Story Part I

My name is Philip Chew and Chew Joo Chiat 周如切 is my great grand-father. His eldest son, Chew Cheng Liam 周清廉 and his family were living at No. 73 Joo Chiat Road. I was brought up there. In the house, there was an ancestral worship altar with a copper urn containing a few burned joss sticks. Chew Joo Chiat's photo was hung against the wall, above the altar. Each morning my uncle (my father's half brother) paid the family's respects by offering 2 small cups of Chinese tea on the altar and prayed with 2 lighted joss sticks. But to commemorate his death anniversary each year, there would be an array of food,  fruits and kuey kuey (nonya cakes) for him to 'eat'. The altar was extended with a table to accommodate the articles displayed for offering. I was too young to understand the ritual and my relationship to this man. I came to know my ancestry when I was older.

Today there are websites, books and articles published about Chew Joo Chiat. Quite rightly the authors based their research on archival records, memories of old residents, but scan informations could be gleaned about my great grand-father from these writings. Futhermore, I discovered inaccuracies or gaps in these publications. I thought then that I should find out as much as I can for my children and grand children. Thus began the journey 'My road to Chew Joo Chiat'.

Chew Joo Chiat was born in 1857 at a place called HeShan (和山) in Fujian Province, China. His father was a peasant and he married very young. At age 20 he already had 2 sons Chew Cheng Lian 周请廉 Chew Cheng Swee 周请水 and 2 daughters Chew Xian Neo 周羡娘 Chew Su Lan素蘭.

In 1877 at the age of 20 years, Chew Joo Chiat left his family in China and sailed to Singapore which took about 10 days by sailing boat. The boat was overcrowded and the people was badly treated. He landed in Singapore as a young man penniless. He experienced poverty and aimed to make a fortune for himself and also to better the lives of his family back home. He worked very hard to achieve his dream. Starting from a small business and  endowed with resourcefulness and business acumen he became a successful businessman.

He married a Peranakan girl Tan Quan Neo 陈颧娘 in 1890 and a daughter Chew Quee Neo 周桂娘 was born in 1891. They were then living at No 475 Geylang Road. Towards the end of the 19th century he became a housing developer submitting plans to the authority to build shophouses and residential houses at Geylang Road 3 1/2 ms. opposite Paya Lebar Road.  He went eastwards towards Changi Road and bought a piece of  forested land owned by the Alsagoff family to grow spices such as gambier, nutmeg and pepper. Spices were in great demand by the Europeans then. He cleared the area of trees, short brushwood and lallang. The fallen trees were used as firewood to boil the gambier leaves in order to extract its commercial product. About 1900 he purchased the Confederate estate lands from the families of Dr Robert Little and others. His final foray of land for his spice plantation was in 1903. He bought more than one acre of land for $35,000.00 from Henry William Crane at Joo Chiat Place and Crane Road area. It is believed that Crane Road is named after HW Crane. When copra became the cash crop he turned his land into coconut plantations (The flesh inside the nut when dried became copra. Oil extracted from copra was used to manufacture many kinds of products from food to soap and shampoo).In 1913 he bought many freehold building allotments fronting the Confederate Estate Road to increase his land bank for housing development.

The east coast beach then was very popular with foreign expatriats as well as the rich and wealthy locals. Some of them had houses for their mistresses or concubines. As a result the shore line was dotted with seaside houses and holiday bungalows. There were sea pavalions with living quarters along the coast. Chew Joo Chiat owned one of them. Access to them was through a dirt track consisting of Joo Chiat Road, a short stretch of dirt track from Geylang Serai to Joo Chiat Terrace and Confedrate Estate Road from Joo Chiat Terrace all the way to the sea. It was owned and maintained by Chew Joo Chiat. In 1916 the Municipality wanted to buy from Chew the dirt track for the construction of a motor roadway. Initially he refused to sell it but on hindsight he saw the benefits of a road infra structure going through his coconut plantations. He not only could transport his copra to town faster for export but also increase the value of his land and properties. So, he bequeathed it to the Municipality without a compensation. In 1917 after the road had been paved, the Confederate Estate Road was renamed as Joo Chiat Road after Chew Joo Chiat for his generosity.

Construction of the new road to the east coast beach also coincided with the population growth in Singapore. The town area had become ovecrowded. The increased in population and the subsequent demand for housing resulted in the gradual fragmentation of the coconut plantations. Chew foresaw a housing boom and divided his land into building plots for the development of shophouses, terraced houses and bungalows. He also laid roads there. Many people moved to live in the east especially near the east coast. The Peranakans and the Eurasians form their enclave in Joo Chiat. The area became the best residential suburbs for the middle class, and is second only to Tanglin area.

By 1920, Chew was a well known landed property, coconut and rubber estates owner, principally in the districts of Siglap and Changi. The district of Siglap, was bounded by Joo Chiat Road/Marine Parade Road/Telok Kurau Road/Changi Road thus making one square area of his land.

The Singapore house, 1819-1942 by Lee Kip Lin
Notice (NL microfilm) 16 June 1908 Straits Times p.10
Property Sales (NL microfilm) 7 November 1913 Straits Times p.10
Property Sales (NL microfilm) 15 March 1916 Straits Times p.10
Joo Chiat Road (NL microfilm) 27 March 1917 Straits Times
Joo Chiat A Singapore name (NL microfilm) 8 October1948 p.4
History of Joo Chiat - June/July 1998 Contact p.18
Bukit Timah Rubber Estate (NL 1761)