Balestier’s little known medical and aviation history is now part of the neighborhood’s heritage walking trail

Shop houses along Balestier Road at the Pegu Road junction, 1982. Photo: Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board
Shop houses along Balestier Road at the Pegu Road junction, 1982. Photo: Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board

Did you know that Balestier Market, which was built in 1922, is the country’s only surviving rural market? Or that it used to be the industrial site for a sugarcane and rum production house, timber yards, rubber and rattan factories, and even a brick kiln?

Kwan Yow Luen shop houses, 2018. Photo: National Heritage Board
Kwan Yow Luen shop houses, 2018. Photo: National Heritage Board

If these facets of the neighborhood’s history are new to you, perhaps it’s time you delve into a deeper exploration of the area, beyond its famous food stalls and lighting shops. The refreshed Balestier Heritage Trail, now updated after its launch in 2006, takes a clearer look at the obscure side of its medical past. Like how healthcare places aided the wounded in WWII and played a huge part in bringing the outbreaks of tuberculosis in the 1950s and Sars in 2003 under control.

Former kopitiam at the junction of Ava Road, 1982. Photo: Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board
Former kopitiam at the junction of Ava Road, 1982. Photo: Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board

From its origins as a plantation in the 1840s, Balestier eventually developed into a place of residence, home to shop houses, religious sites, educational institutions, and medical facilities. It’s named after the first American Consul to Singapore, Joseph Balestier, who owned a significant plot of sugarcane plantation land in the area.

Mandalay Road Hospital’s nursing class conducted by Franciscan nun, 1959. Photo: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, National Archives of Singapore
Mandalay Road Hospital’s nursing class conducted by Franciscan nun, 1959. Photo: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, National Archives of Singapore

With 30 new sites and three new trail markers, the National Heritage Board trail has been expanded into the Novena area to include healthcare institutions, former country homes, and public housing estates. All this additional information is the result of a year-long process of research, interviews with the community, and public calls for images and memories.

Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s pavilion wards, undated. Photo: Tan Tock Seng Hospital
Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s pavilion wards, undated. Photo: Tan Tock Seng Hospital

Highlights include the former grounds of Tan Tock Seng Hospital, which was established in 1847 at Pearl’s Hill before moving to Balestier in 1860, and the first public housing estate called Artisans’ Quarters, built by the Singapore Improvement Trust at Lorong Limau in 1932. There’s also the aviation landing field on Balestier Plain, which saw the first commercial flight to Singapore land there in 1927 – it’s since been converted into a sports field because the stretch was deemed too short for takeoff.

Former Artisans’ Quarters, 1952. Photo: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, National Archives of Singapore
Former Artisans’ Quarters, 1952. Photo: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, National Archives of Singapore
Art Deco apartment blocks at 230 and 246 Balestier Road, 2018. Photo: National Heritage Board
Art Deco apartment blocks at 230 and 246 Balestier Road, 2018. Photo: National Heritage Board

Divided into three themed routes, the trail appeals to history buffs with its 45-minute route of Balestier’s heritage and key landmarks; architectural enthusiasts with its two-hour tour of shop houses, temples, and other building structures; and the food-obsessed with its 90-minute journey through places of worship and traditional food spots.

Pre-war terrace houses at Martaban Road, 1988. Photo: National Heritage Board
Pre-war terrace houses at Martaban Road, 1988. Photo: National Heritage Board

Other new sites cover the former Mandalay Road Hospital, Middleton Hospital (the current Communicable Disease Centre), Dover Park Hospice, the former nurses’ quarters (now Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine), the former Jewish cemetery at Thomson Road, and Whampoa Makan Place.

Middleton Hospital, 1954. Photo: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, National Archives of Singapore
Middleton Hospital, 1954. Photo: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, National Archives of Singapore

It’s free to download from NHB’s heritage platform, or you can just grab a copy of the guide at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall. And when you’re done exploring and sweating it out under the relentless Singapore sun, it’s always good to know you’ll be surrounded by a bounty of good hawker food joints in the neighborhood.

Balestier Market, 2018. Photo: National Heritage Board
Balestier Market, 2018. Photo: National Heritage Board

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