My Dawson Heritage Tour

Tour Info

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Every first Saturday and Sunday of the month
8:30am to 11:30pm (approximately). Please arrive at 8:15am, 15mins before the start time for registration.
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Napier MRT Station Exit 2 Street Level (2 Napier Rd, Singapore 258511)
Queenstown MRT
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Difficulty Level


  • Expect three hours of walking
  • It is compulsory for a parent/guardian to accompany any child of/under the age of 12
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What should I bring
  • Wear comfortable clothes and suitable shoes for a four-hour-long walk
  • Bring along your headphones (compatible with headphone jack) Those without will have be charged S$2 per pair of earphones
  • Bring along insect repellent, an EZ-Link card, a bottle of water and an umbrella
  • Asthmatic individuals are encouraged to bring their inhaler


My Dawson heritage tour recounts the history of Singapore’s first satellite town, Queenstown, from a modern residential town in 1959 to the founding of the port city in 1819. The guided tour weaves in interesting stories from the nutmegs and rubber plantations, to botanic garden and military encampments.

Participants will explore the history of Queenstown through an assortment of iconic buildings including Phoenix Park, Former Tanglin Barracks, and the St George’s Church. Look forward to hearing a tapestry of colourful stories from long-time residents which makes Queenstown most endearing.

Site 1: Former Forfar House

The former Forfar House was Singapore’s tallest public residential building upon its completion. The 14-storey block of Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) flats was officially opened on 24 October 1956 by Inche Abdul Hamid bin Haji Jumat, who was then the Minister for Local Government, Lands and Housing.

Designed in the Modern style, Chap Si Lau (“14-storey” in Hokkien) had a distinct zigzag appearance which played an important structural role in resisting wind pressure. The block comprised of 106 rental apartments and four shops. Two lifts could take occupants to the top floor in 45 seconds.

The building also had a modern sanitary system. Each unit was served by a built-in asbestos cement refuse chutes that ran along the full height of the block and discharged waste into removable bins at ground level. Water was pumped to tanks at on the building’s roof and fed to each flat by gravitational force.

High-rise living was a challenge for former kampong residents. The building towered over Queenstown’s agricultural environment, and living in it was unnerving for many residents who were not used to its height.

Chee Sze Nam’s family resided in Forfar House between 1978 and 1999. He recalled, “There was a Consumers Cooperative Club which was extremely popular among the residents. The club was restricted to Queenstown residents, and it operated like a mini supermarket. Essential items such as sugar, rice and canned food were sold at 20 cents or 30 cents cheaper than market prices.”

The first Selective Enbloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) introduced in 1995 brought an end to the iconic landmark. It was demolished to make way for the 40-storey Forfar Heights cluster.

Site 2: Princess House

Built at a cost of $478,000, Princess House was opened in 1957 as a multi-purpose office building that housed the Singapore Improvement Trust. Upon its opening, Princess House housed the SIT’s Social Welfare and Licensing departments in the western wing, while offices in the eastern wing were rented to the public.

The building also features an innovative shallow “U-shaped” roof which can be used as a viewing deck. Various foreign dignitaries such as Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh; Princess Margaret; and Edward Health, then Prime Minister of Australia, have visited Princess House to learn about Singapore’s housing programme.

After Singapore gained internal self-governance in 1959, the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) was dissolved and the Housing and Development Board (HDB) was subsequently established. In May 1960, the HDB moved its main offices from Upper Pickering Street to Princess House. At Princess House, the HDB launched its “Home Ownership for the People” scheme in 1964, and an extended scheme which allowed Singaporeans to purchase a residential apartment using their Central Provident Fund (CPF) in 1968.

In 1972, the Ministry of Environment took over the premise and an adjacent four-storey complex. Mr Phoon Hon Sum, 65, a hawker at the former Commonwealth Avenue Cooked Food Centre for 38 years, recalled applying for a hawker license at the Hawker and Licensing Department in Princess House. “There were long queues in the room. When I collected my hawker license, I was extremely thrilled. I was allowed to rent a proper stall at a hawker centre,” he said.

The Ministry of Environment vacated Princess House in 1989. It was later gazetted for conservation in 2007. As the surrounding blocks of flats around Princess House are being developed, the conservation of Princess House serves as a lasting reminder of Queenstown’s history.

Site 3: Hock Lee Bus Riots

A few major riots occurred in Singapore during the 1950s, including the Hock Lee Bus Riots. The Riots started at a bus depot located at the junction of Dawson Road and Alexandra Road. The riots began as a peaceful demonstration on 23 April 1955.

Disgruntled bus drivers from the Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company were dissatisfied with long working hours, poor working conditions and low pay. They locked themselves in the bus depot and stopped buses from leaving it. Students from several Chinese middle schools supported the protests by offering food and money to these bus drivers.

The riots turned violent when the riot police attempted to disperse the drivers using water cannons and tear gas on 12 May 1955. Infuriated rioters threw stones at the policemen and torched vehicles along Alexandra Road. Two police officers died as a result, including a Detective Corporal who was burned to death, and a Constable who was severely beaten by the rioters. Hundreds of protestors were also injured.

The violent commotion ended the next morning when Hock Lee Bus Company and the Singapore Bus Workers’ Union reached an agreement to reinstate the bus drivers and increased their monthly remuneration.

Site 4: SkyVille and SkyTerrace @ Dawson

SkyVille @ Dawson and SkyTerrace @ Dawson are two iconic Build-to-Order (BTO) projects filled with intuitive design features by award-winning architecture firms in Queenstown.

Commissioned by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) as an exploration of new design possibilities in public housing, SkyVille and SkyTerrace embody three fundamental elements: housing in a park, connectivity to surroundings, and multigenerational living. The two projects were designed by WOHA and SCDA respectively and constructed between 2009 and 2015.

A central theme of the buildings is versatility – occupants can select from three layout configurations to suit their personal interior decoration tastes and preferences. Within the apartments, the spaces are free of columns and beams, allowing occupants to modify or customise their living spaces. Material wastage is reduced as a result, as features that owners do not want are not built.

Former HDB CEO Cheong Koon Hean said: “’The housing-in-a-park concept’ in Dawson will be worked into future projects. Overall, our new HDB estates will be greener and more gardenlike, with lusher landscaping to provide a conducive living environment for residents.”

Site 5: Lee Kong Chian Gardens School

Lee Kong Chian Gardens School is Singapore’s first permanent school for intellectually disabled children. Built at a cost of $250,000, the School was officially opened on 29 November 1969 by then Patron for the Singapore Association for Retarded Children (SARC) and First Lady, Puan Noor Aishah. The school provided employment training for intellectually disabled children and replaced three centres at borrowed premises in Ah Hood, Outram and Sims Avenue.

The campus comprised of three octagonal workshops, a tuck shop and an administrative office. One of the workshops had a small industrial assembly operation where students would assemble flexes for Philips electric irons. At each workstation along the assembly line, a student was required to perform a specific task, like taping or soldering.

Leong Chee Weng, 57, a former student at the school, was responsible for coiling, which was the last and most difficult step. He recalled: “I was a fast learner. Besides attending to my own station, I would move around the assembly line to help my fellow workers. Though our earnings were low, we derived satisfaction from taking money home to our families.”

In 1981, the school was extended to accommodate four new classrooms and its intake increased from 60 to 248 students. SARC changed its name to Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS) in 1985. The school received a facelift in 2000. Today, there are five MINDS centres including Lee Kong Chian Gardens School.

Site 6: Queenstown Secondary School

Queenstown Secondary School (former Queenstown Secondary Technical School) was Singapore’s first technical school. The million-dollar all-boys School was opened in 1956 to meet a “desperate need” for skilled workers as Singapore diversified its entrepot economy in the mid -1950s.

The original technical school consisted of three main blocks. The first block was a two-storey building with seven classrooms, two laboratories, a library and an administrative office. The second block contained the assembly hall, the recreation hall and a tuck shop. The third block was used as workshops for woodwork and metalwork. An extension wing was opened on 2nd April 1968.

Tan Wee Tin, 74, was one of 92 students from the pioneer batch who studied at Queenstown Secondary Technical School. He recalled, “When the School started in January 1957, there was a library but there were neither books nor periodicals. One of the teachers, Mr A.W. Basapa, brought magazines, periodicals and daily papers and they were properly indexed and ready for issue in the second term.”

In 1965, a Pre-University class was started to equip students for entry into Singapore Polytechnic. Girls were admitted to the School in 1971. The school was renamed Queenstown Secondary School in 1993 when both academic and technical education was offered at the school.

The Quests
The Quests, named after the Queenstown Secondary Technical School school magazine, was a popular band in Singapore during the 1960s. The band was formed by Queenstown Secondary Technical School students Jap Chong and Raymond Leung, along with their friends Henry Chua and Lim Wee Guan in 1961. Guitarist Reggie Verghese and singer Vernon Cornelius later joined the band.

The Quests first shot to fame at a Talentime programme. Inspired by music acts such as the Shadows and Cliff Richard, the quartet clinched a recording contract with EMI in 1964 and produced two original compositions, Shanty and Gallopin. Shanty became the first single by a local band to reach the top of the Singapore charts, displacing The Beatles “I Should Have Known Better” and staying at No.1 for 12 weeks.

By the mid-1960s, the band was extremely popular in Southeast Asia. In 1964, the Quests toured Malaysia with Maori-Hi Five, followed by tours in Brunei and the Philippines. Their appearances in some countries almost caused riots. On some occasions, hysterical fans ripped clothing off band members.

The Quests officially disbanded in 1971.

Site 7: Jamek Queenstown Mosque

Jamek Queenstown Mosque is Queenstown’s second mosque. Built to house a growing number of devotees in the estate, it was officially opened on 25 December 1964 by former Malayan Minister for Agriculture and Co-operatives, Mohamed Khir Johari.

Designed in the traditional Javanese style, the single-storey mosque is characterised by its imposing minaret and pitched roof above the prayer hall. The Mosque had a miniature garden filled with tropical decorative plants and wooden fences which ran along its perimeters.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the mosque was particularly susceptible to flooding because it was located in a low-lying area next to Alexandra Canal. The road next to the mosque was subsequently raised six times and the mosque’s garden had to make way for a larger drainage system. Johari bin Pardi, 61, a long-time worshipper at the iconic mosque, recalled: “The area surrounding Margaret Drive was extremely prone to flooding. There was once when the flood was knee-deep and animal carcasses were floating around.”

Today, Jamek Queenstown Mosque remains an important religious and social centre for Muslim residents in Queenstown.

Photo Captions:
Insert 1: Jamek Queenstown Mosque in 1964.
Insert 2: Malaysian Minister of Agriculture and Co-operatives Mohamed Khir Johari opens the mosque in 1964.
Insert 3: Prayers at the mosque in 2007
Insert 4: Haji Ahmad posing at the garden in front of the mosque.
Insert 5: Johari bin Pardi and his friends clearing the floods at the mosque in 1977.
Insert 6: Jamek Queenstown Mosque today.

Site 8: Kay Siang Bunkers

The Kay Siang Bunkers were used by the British military as storage for ammunition and military equipment. They were possibly built alongside the now-demolished Buller Camp, which made way for the building of Queenstown in 1952. The bunkers have features such as double doors to reinforce them against bombings.

Site 9: Phoenix Park

Completed in 1949, the Phoenix Park Complex in Tanglin Road was constructed by the British colonial administration to house several key institutions including the British Information Services, the headquarters of the Commissioner-General, headquarters of the Far East Land Forces (later known as British Far East Command) and the Special Branch.

Nicknamed, “Little Whitehall,” the $1.3 million complex covered 14 acres on a former Japanese racecourse and comprised 180 offices and rooms. The first commissioner-general of the complex was Malcolm Macdonald.

In the initial years, the administrative complex hosted numerous international conferences. These included conferences to discuss economic activity in Southeast Asia and education development.

Three-power talks involving Far Eastern military commanders of Britain, France and America took place in May 1951, and eight-nation talks on military cooperation involving Britain, France, America, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Thailand and Philippines was hosted by the complex in July 1955.

Singapore’s fight against communism began at Phoenix Park. In the 1950s, Singapore was inundated with communal riots and waves of demonstrations against the colonial authorities. Concerned with communist infiltration, its “easy appeal to the idealism of young people,” and the rise in the defence of Chinese culture in the 1950s, a number of think tanks were established.

A series of key round-table talks on the formation of Malaysia was held at Phoenix Park in the early 1960s. In June 1961, the complex hosted representatives from Singapore, Malaya, North Borneo, Sarawak and Brunei to discuss Malaysian prime minister Tengku Abdul Rahman’s “Mighty Malaysia” plan of economic and political union. After Singapore attained independence, the British High Commission moved to the complex in 1969.

The premises were handed over to the Singapore Government when the British withdrew in 1971. In February 1973, the immigration departments moved from its Empress Place quarters to Phoenix Park. The Work Permits Office of the Ministry of Labour then moved to Block G of Phoenix Park in July that year. After the different departments of the Ministry of Labour relocated to Braddell Rise, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) moved into Block A of the complex in 1977.

At Phoenix Park, the Internal Security Department of MHA was involved in the investigating a series of high-profile security cases. These included Singapore Liberation Organisation’s activities in 1982, the local network of Sri Lanka-based Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s operations in 1985, the activities of 22 Pro-Marxist activists during Operation Spectrum in 1987 and the hijack of Singapore Airlines Flight 117 by four Pakistanis in 1991.

The Home Team concept was formed at the complex on 24 February 1997. The Home Team consists of ten agencies, namely the Ministry Headquarters, Singapore Police Force, Internal Security Department (ISD), Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), Singapore Prison Service (SPS), Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB), Singapore Immigration, National Registration Department, Commercial and Industrial Security Corporation (CISCO) and Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises (SCORE).

After MHA vacated the complex in 2001, Phoenix Park was put up for lease as office space in 2008.

Site 10: Chatsworth Park Conservation Area

Chatsworth Park is a conserved Good Class Bungalow area, that consists of 27 bungalows. Many of the bungalows, built in the 1920s and 1930s after the end of World War I, were designed in the “black and white” style that characterised pre-war architecture. Others followed an Art Deco style. Prominent British and American firms like the Straits Trading Company, Cable & Wireless, and the Fire One Rubber Company owned many of these houses in the Chatsworth Park and used them to house their expatriate staff.

Large nutmeg, gambier and pepper plantations filled Tanglin from the 17th to 19th century. Teochews and Europeans who had plantations in the area established their residences there. Today, Chatsworth Park forms part of the greater Tanglin area, and is known for its luxurious residences and five-star hotels. The area also houses many embassies, consulates and High Commissions of various countries.

Tanglin is derived from Chinese dialect word Tang Leng, which means “East Hill Peaks”. This name alludes to the area’s location east of Chinatown, as well as its hilly nature. Roads like Ardmore, Dalvey and Chatsworth within Tanglin were named after the estates of early European owners.

Site 11: Henry Ridley (Ridley Park)

Henry Nicholas Ridley was born on 10 December 1855 in Norfolk, England. He entered Exeter College, Oxford, in 1875 and obtained a second class in science in 1878. Ridley’s first appointment was in the Botanical Department of the British Museum where he spent eight years, during which he published several zoological and botanical papers. He also developed his interest in the distribution of plants.

In 1888, Ridley came to Singapore and was appointed the Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens (SBG), where he worked for 23 years. He was one of the first to make extensive trips around Southeast Asia, he collected living plants for the gardens and dried plants for the Herbarium, which he established at the Botanical Gardens. He remained active after his retirement, and published his monumental five-volume work, Flora of the Malay Peninsula between 1922 and 1925.

Ridley is most widely known for establishing the rubber industry in the Malay Peninsula. During the 1890s and early 1900s, he devised successful propagation methods and also discovered a way of harvesting commercial quantities of latex without harming or killing the rubber trees. He advocated for the large-scale cultivation of rubber in Malaya just before the demand for rubber soared. As Ridley had turned the forest clearings and wasteland in the SBG over to growing rubber, he had a ready source of seeds when demand surged.

Site 12: Tanglin Barracks

Completed in 1862, the Tanglin Barracks served the British garrison infantry battalion until Singapore’s fall in 1942. Following World War II, it was home to the General Headquarters of the Far East Land Forces until the withdrawal of British troops from Singapore in 1971. The site then became the headquarters of the Ministry of Defence and the Central Manpower Base from 1972 to 1989. The area was subsequently redeveloped into Tanglin Village – a commercial cluster that focuses on lifestyle, education services and the arts.

The land on which Tanglin Barracks was built used to be a nutmeg plantation in the 1840s and 50s, owned by William E. Willan, a clerk in the Land Office. Prolific Chinese businessman Hoo Ah Kay, better known as Whampoa, also owned land in the area. Nutmeg cultivation thrived in the area before a disease outbreak overcame plantations in 1857.

Before troops moved into Tanglin, they were stationed at Fort Canning and the areas around the waterfront and city-centre. These barracks’ close proximity to the commercial district concerned merchants, who felt that their warehouses would be in danger during a military attack.

Work on the new barracks began in 1860 and ended in 1862. The original barracks consisted of 10 spacious attap-roof and timber buildings that could each accommodate 50 men. They barracks were built for the tropical climate, with raised wooden floorboards and airy structures. Outer walls of the building stretched out to an open veranda, and multiple windows and doorways allowed for good ventilation.

Due to delay in deployment, the barracks remained unoccupied until the late 1860s. Before troops arrived, the barracks underwent renovation, including re-roofing and the building of a new hospital. Facilities including a cricket ground, gymnasium, and gardens provided recreation for the soldiers, keeping them from drunkenness and boredom.

Many of the roads around Tanglin Barracks hint at Singapore’s colonial history in the area. These include Napier, Minden, Camp and Sherwood roads. The barracks served the British garrison infantry battalion until Singapore’s fall to the Japanese in 1942. It became the General Headquarters of the Far East Land Forces until the withdrawal of British troops in 1971. The Ministry of Defence and the Central Manpower Base were subsequently headquartered at the site from 1972 to 1989.

Site 13: St George’s Church

St George’s Church started its Christian ministry soon after the construction of Tanglin Barracks in 1861. Under Reverend Samuel Dingley, a church building was erected in 1884 on a site further to the west of the current church. As the British military presence in Singapore grew in the early 20th century to protect their economic interests and the trade routes from Britain to Australia and China, a larger church was needed to accommodate the soldiers in the barracks.

Constructed between 1910 and 1912, the new garrison church sat on a site off Holland Road and had a seating capacity for 650 worshippers. The church offered regular Bible classes, prayer meetings, choir rehearsals and confirmation preparation mainly for soldiers.

The church choir was accompanied by the military band which played from the back of the church. The church was closed for three months in 1915 because of a mutiny involving Sikh and Indian battalions in the British force at the Alexandra and Tanglin barracks.

When Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942, St George’s Church was used by the Japanese forces as an ammunition store whereas the other buildings in the vicinity were converted into storage depots for medical supplies. The chaplain was abducted as a prisoner-of-war (POW) and succumbed to the harsh conditions in the camps.

The church was rededicated on its first Remembrance Sunday service on 10 November 1946 after the war. The church also resumed its bible classes and worship services. When the British government withdrew from Singapore in 1971, the Synod of the Diocese of Singapore obtained a temporary occupation license (TOL) for the church to continue its operations as an Anglican civilian church. The last military service took place on Sunday, 24 October 1971.

St George’s became a civilian church under the incorporation into the Diocese of Singapore and held its first civilian services a week later on 31 October 1971. The church was gazetted as a national monument in 1978.

Designed by Captain William Henry Stanbury, the church followed the classical Basilica style of the Romanesque tradition which prevailed in Europe during the 4th and 5th century, featuring a broad rectangular barn and compact without a spire or tower.

Built using red bricks from India and Marseilles roof tiles, the nave of St George’s church measured 102 feet by 49 feet. The building features a pitched roof, triangular and symmetrical gables and arcaded columns and arches surmounted by clerestory openings above the side aisles. These aisles are flanked by open arched windows and resemble arcaded verandas. The arched windows are marked by intricately patterned pilasters in brick and the openings of the windows are in the shape of Greek crosses.

In choosing this architectural style, Stanbury had considered the hot and humid tropical climate by ensuring ventilation and coolness in the church building.