The Past meets the Present: Heritage Discoveries in Modern Tanjong Pagar

Tanjong Pagar has changed dramatically over the years. A historical and culturally-rich district, it has evolved to become an integral part of Singapore’s Central Business District (CBD). Home to the site of Singapore's pilot restoration project, Tanjong Pagar is now home to a vibrant mix of cultural, retail and residential developments.

A seamless blend of old and new, Tanjong Pagar inspires visitors with its modern and heritage architecture. At the forefront is Tanjong Pagar Centre, Singapore's tallest building, which epitomises the importance of progress, innovation and sustainability as it ushers in a new era.

At the heart of this modern district are three heritage sites that provide a unique insight into Singapore’s rich cultural past. Discover a great day out visiting these iconic buildings.

Jinrikisha Station

The Jinrikisha Station is Singapore's last reminder of the once ubiquitous rickshaw, a light-weight cart with springs and large wheels operated by a rickshaw puller. In the late 1800s, rickshaws were a popular mode of transportation in Singapore, with their numbers rising from 2,000 to 13,000 over 10 years. The City Council, known then as the Municipal Commission, established the Jinrikisha Department in 1888 to register and inspect rickshaws on Singapore’s streets.

While the Department initially carried out its operations in rented houses across various locations, the growth of the industry led to the establishment of the Department’s headquarters in 1899 in a new building located in Middle Road. The continued expansion of the Department resulted in the construction of Jinrikisha Station in 1903.

Situated at the junction of Neil Road and Tanjong Pagar Road, Jinrikisha Station registered and inspected rickshaws until World War II. Its location was ideal for catering to customers from the nearby Tanjong Pagar Docks and the adjacent thoroughfare that led from the docks to the town.

After the war in 1945, rickshaws were phased out and replaced by trishaws which were considered less cruel and insulting. In 1947, government legislation banned the trade on humanitarian grounds and Jinrikisha Station became obsolete.

While the building has been used for other purposes since that time, in 1987, it was one of the early buildings in Tanjong Pagar to be restored by the Urban Redevelopment Authority. It was refurbished into a shopping and recreation centre and is now under the ownership of Hong Kong movie star, Jackie Chan.

The former Eng Aun Tong factory – Image source: Flickr / Nicolas Lannuzel

Tanjong Pagar Conservation Area

A part of the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Chinatown conservation project, 9 Neil Road served an important role as the site of Singapore’s first urban restoration project.

9 Neil Road is a two-storey shophouse located within the Tanjong Pagar area of Chinatown Historic District, an area rich in 19th century urban heritage. In 1987 the Urban Redevelopment Authority restored the unique vernacular architecture of 9 Neil Road to its previous grandeur. The revitalised shophouse is occupied by a tea house called Tea Chapter, which hosted Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II during her state visit to Singapore in 1989.

Another notable building restored under the conservation initiative is the Eng Aun Tong factory located at 89 Neil Road. It was once used by the Haw Par brothers to make their famous Tiger Balm ointment until their operations were shifted to factories in Jurong.

Chinatown also incorporates the Bukit Pasoh Conservation Area, part of the Tanjong Pagar Conservation Area which boasts several architectural gems. Set among the rows of colourful and beautifully conserved shophouses, are various cultural clans, associations and clubs such as the Chin Woo Athletic Association and Ee Hoe Hean Club – a millionaire’s club founded in 1895.

Image source: Flickr / Nicolas Mirguet

Baba House

A traditional Peranakan pre-war terrace house, it was once the ancestral home of a 19th Century shipping tycoon, Wee Bin. Built in the 1890s, it came into the Wee family when a matriarch of the family bought the building for her grandson.

The building was last owned by Wee Lin, a sixth-generation descendant of the late Wee, until the National University of Singapore received a donation to acquire and restore the house. After a two year restoration, NUS Baba House opened in 2008 and is managed by the university, which sent in researchers to preserve its exterior and interior architecture, including its furnishings and household wares.

Today, it’s a museum showcasing Peranakan history, architecture and heritage, by enabling visitors to experience how typical Peranakan homes looked and functioned in the 1920s - considered as the golden era of Peranakan culture in Singapore. It’s one of the few traditional Peranakan shophouses with its elaborate original interiors still intact.

Visits to the museum are by appointment only and visitors are required to sign up in advance for a heritage tour.

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