Pek Kio, a small town located adjacent to Singapore’s city centre, has a relaxed pace of life that resembles its marshy history. The realm of tranquillity is only the surface, however. Underneath the calm lies a deep history with several significant events for Singapore.
Pek Kio has seen its fair share of historical events, from staging the island’s first horse race in 1843 to the first flight demonstration in 1911 to becoming an undisputed sporting capital and culminating with one of Singapore’s worst civil catastrophes.
In Singapore, toponymic reveals a city’s history that has been buried beneath the fast-changing landscape owing to development. Pek Kio is a district in Singapore located to the west of Serangoon Road and the east of Balestier Road. White bridge is Hokkien for “white bridge,” and the name comes from a white bridge that formerly spanned Kampong Java Canal, where the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital now stands.
Pek Kio is another name for Little England. With so many streets bearing the names of English counties and towns, such as Bristol, Cambridge, Carlisle, Dorset, Durham, Gloucester, Hampshire, and Oxford, it was only natural.
The final evidence of Pek Kio’s rights to the site of Singapore’s first horse racecourse is Race Course Road, a long thoroughfare that parallels Serangoon Road. The first horse race was held on February 23, 1843, to commemorate the 24th anniversary of Sir Stamford Raffles’ arrival in Singapore. The grand total for that race was $150. The Singapore Turf Club takes care of the racecourse, which was relocated to Bukit Timah in 1933 before being moved to its current location in Kranji in 1999.
At the racecourse, there was also a footrace. The site was occasionally used as an airfield. More significantly, Singapore’s first flight demonstration took place in Pek Kio. On March 16, 1911, Mr Joseph Christiaens piloted a Bristol Box-Kite biplane from the racecourse.
Pek Kio also became known as Singapore’s unofficial sports capital. The Farrer Park Sports Centre was built in 1956, and the Farrer Park Swimming Complex a year later. The region became the training ground for some of Singapore’s most illustrious athletes, even to this day. C Kunalan, a sprinter who trained at Pek Kio, is another athletic hero. Ang Peng Siong, a swimmer, and Fandi Ahmad and Quah Kim Song are two footballers who have trained there.
Pek Kio was also the seat of the National Sports Promotion Board from 1971 to 1973, which eventually joined with the National Stadium Corporation to become Singapore Sports Council.
For the glories Pek Kio has seen, it has also gone through a terrible time in 1986 when it was dubbed one of Singapore’s worst civil catastrophes. On March 15, 1986, the Lian Yak Building—a six-story structure that housed the Hotel New World—collapsed.
After the storm, however, residents were relieved when they learnt that all sections of Hawaii and its surrounding islands had been completely devastated. The next few days were a time of great strain for the community as rescue efforts began. The lobbies of the shophouses and coffee shops acted as command centres for the rescue effort and waiting areas for relatives of trapped individuals. Two helicopters were used to airlift the survivors to hospitals in case of additional medical care. The injured people were taken by helicopter to hospitals across Melbourne. The death toll is expected to rise as the search for survivors continues. More than 100 people were killed, and 17 others were pulled alive from the ruins.
The collapse resulted in several policy changes. The Ministry of National Development was granted the authority to carry out structural inspections on structures. To enhance the Singapore Civil Defence Force’s response to future calamities, it was also incorporated into the Fire Service. Surprisingly, a new hotel was constructed on the site of the collapse five years later.
It may come as a surprise that such momentous events have taken place in Pek Kio’s peaceful area. The earliest residents of Pek Kio, in their 90s and 100s, swap stories at the Mamak stall in the Pek Kio Food Centre, perhaps it’s fitting to revisit a passage from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s speech when the Pek Kio Community Centre reopened on July 28, 2013:
“To the past, a bridge (Pek Kio) connects us to what was here before, what our forefathers did here and what we have inherited and wish to preserve.”