Commonwealth & Holland Village heritage tour traces the evolution of Queenstown’s colourful social history from a rubber plantation in the 1870s to a bustling military village in the 1930s and a renowned expatriate centre and tourist attraction in the 2000s.
The first residents in Holland and Commonwealth were gambier and rubber planters who worked on a 2859 acre land holding, purchased by prominent businessman, Tan Kim Seng (b.1805-d.1864) through its limited liability company, Kim Seng Land Co. Ltd., from the colonial government for 6,676 rupees in 1862. These pioneer rubber planters interplanted Hevea brasiliensis sapplings with the existing coffee and pineapple crops and employed a subservient labour force comprising indentured Chinese sinkeh coolies and ‘free’ Indian labour imported under the kangany system. By 1917, there were about 550 coolies working in the rubber plantation of approximately 80,000 trees, each earning up to $20 per month.
Adjacent to Kim Seng Land Co. Ltd’s Pasir Panjang Rubber Estate was an 88-acre burial ground owned by Hakka clan association Ying Fo Fui Kun (Chinese: 应和会馆). Bounded by Commonwealth Avenue and North Buona Vista Road near Holland Road, 5 miles, the ancestral hall and its surrounding cemetery was established in 1887 for clansmen from five townships in Jia Ying (Chinese: 嘉应) prefecture in Guangzhou to have a place for burial and ancestor worship. The Hakka community at Shuang Long Shan (Chinese:双龙山), where the burial ground was located, also set up a hospital, Jia Ying Wu Shu hospital (Chinese: 嘉应五属) near present Block 18, Holland Drive and Ying Xin school (Chinese: 应新) within the single-storey ancestral hall.
Villagers from the rubber estate and Shuang Long Shan gathered at a roadside market within Holland Village, where they sold their farming produce such as chickens, ducks and pigs for subsistence. The village expanded quickly after the installation of the British military bases at Alexandra and Pasir Panjang in the 1930s and 1940s and early retail outlets were started for the sole purpose of servicing the British soldiers and their families domiciled near Holland Village. For instance, a tattoo parlour, bars and nightclubs, art and crafts shops and tailors who made army uniforms and apparel, dotted the shop houses at Holland Village.
Holland Village expanded throughout the 1950s and 1960s as a consequence of the expanding suburban civilian and military population in Queenstown and Alexandra. Firstly, in 1946, itinerant hawkers at the roadside market were relocated to the shabby Holland Road market covered haphazardly by tin and zinc roofing. The market was extended in the early 1960s and comprised of modern market fixtures such as permanent food stalls, toilets and an office. Secondly, the open-air ‘makeshift’ Eng Wah theatre, located diagonally opposite the roadside market, was established in the mid-1950s. The theatre was popular for its Chinese wayangs. Thirdly, it was also during this period that the Chip Bee estate comprising six blocks of apartment flats, multiple semi detached houses and two rows of shop houses was established to house the British army personnel and families based in Pasir Panjang and Alexandra.
One group who visited Holland Village frequently was residents living in the nearby Commonwealth estate. Established between 1962 and 1964, Commonwealth was the first precinct in Singapore which launched HDB’s “Home Ownership for the People” scheme. The scheme was introduced in February 1964 by then Minister for National Development, Lim Kim San, to encourage a “property-owning democracy” in Singapore and enable Singaporeans in the lower middle-income group to purchase their own homes and “a stake in the country.” The scheme was piloted in Commonwealth where 2,068 two and three-room apartments were made available on 99-year leases.
The physical transformation of the village-scape in Commonwealth and Holland took place between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s when the Housing and Development Board (HDB) acquired four cemeteries near the original Queenstown satellite town, including three owned by Ying Fo Fui Kun, as a “logical extension of Queenstown; and the withdrawal of the British Armed Forces in 1971.
On the one hand, under the Housing and Development Ordinance and Land Acquisition Ordinance, the HDB acquired three burial grounds managed by Ying Fo Fui Kun to develop Queenstown’s seventh neighbourhood known as Buona Vista. Although Ying Fo Fui Kun “objected strongly to the compulsory acquisition,” and requested several concessions from the government including a license for another burial ground, a portion of about 4.5 acres of burial ground for constructing a memorial and reburial of existing graves and permission to keep their ancestral hall, the association did not “stand in the way of progress by the government.” The clearance of more than 500 squatters and exhumation of graves commenced in 1968 and the construction of Buona Vista estate began in 1969. Bigger flats (four-room and five-room flats) and point blocks were introduced in response to changes in family sizes, incomes and societal preferences, where Singaporeans preferred to pay a higher price to buy a larger unit. By 1974, 7,000 flats and shop houses were completed, including the neighbourhood centre comprising two clusters of four-storey shop buildings which had exposed red brick walls, colloquially known as red house or ang chu (Hokkien: 红屋).
On the other hand, the withdrawal of the British Armed Forces and the repatriation of thousands of British soldiers between 1971 and 1976 had led to a concerted effort from retailers at Holland Village to reorganise and adapt to the new demographic changes. While retailers at Holland Village and Chip Bee recalled the place as looking like a “ghost town” in the early 1970s, the British withdrawal provided an opportunity for them to reorganise and adapt to the new market, namely the local residents of Commonwealth and Buona Vista estates, the new tenants and inhabitants of the lower-middle class residential estate in Chip Bee and the high-income residential areas in Leedon Park and Oei Tiong Ham Park. Firstly, modern retail outlets, many of which are part of a larger chain, were established at Holland Village including Cold Storage, Guardian Pharmacy, The Body Shop, Watsons, etc. These businesses gave the village a more cosmopolitan image of a “mini Orchard” as many of the newly established outlets could also be found in Orchard Road. Secondly, improved access in Holland Village in the 1970s was provided by the construction of a car park which catered primarily to Buona Vista residents and pedestrian malls.
Today, Commonwealth (Neighbourhood 3) and Buona Vista/Holland Village (Neighbourhood 7) possessed distinctive identities even though they were located within Queenstown. The element of foreigners and tourists, the provision of bigger HDB flats which attracted a higher income group of residents, and the physical transformation of Holland Village from a rural centre to a bustling yuppie area, had separated effectively severed the area from the perceived boundaries of Queenstown.