Bukit Ho Swee tells the story of a country desperate to modernize. Historically a squatter settlement in the midst of a changing and modernizing Singapore, Bukit Ho Swee was also the location of the biggest fire in the island's history. In 1961, the fire destroyed an entire kampung (a Malay word for village) with more than 2,200 houses. It rendered thousands of families homeless overnight.
Tan Choo Kuan. New Beginnings after Bukit Ho Swee Disaster. 1962. Collection of National Gallery Singapore
The significance of the unprecedented tragedy was underscored by the response of the government: to provide proper dwellings for all affected by the fire, in emergency public housing estates. It was a chance to get rid of the old and make way for the new. Follow us as we journey through Bukit Ho Swee, uncovering Singapore's past and present.
Phase 1: History - The Inferno
Multi-storey car park at Blk 44A, Beo Crescent
Formally a mud-track from Havelock Road directly to Tiong Bahru Road, the multi-storey car park is a favourite starting point for local heritage guides to tell the story of the Bukit Ho Swee fire, which happened 56 years ago. The carpark marks the beginning of the mud-track that leads to where the fire first broke.
The Former Malayan Chinese Association building
Now a row of shophouses, the former Malayan Chinese Association building was the only one to survive the blaze then - though many of the units were gutted. The building, built before the war, was home to all sorts of of economic activity. The ground level was packed with coffee shops, a bank, provision shops and a few other small businesses.
Boon Tiong Apartments
Emergency housing was built to rehabilitate and house the victims of the fire. The process started on the night of the fire, and was completed within nine months.
The Boon Tiong Apartments (photographed) that exist today served to replace these 'emergency flats' that were demolished in 1988.
Phase 2: Transforming and Preserving
HDB Flats at Jalan Klinik
There remains 3 existing blocks of HDB Flats at Jalan Klinik that were built in the 1960s, under an elaborate plan to establish the Bukit Ho Swee estate. In Singapore's relentless pursuit of progress and modernity, those blocks of HDB flats that still remain visibly stand out for it's short stature - especially in the midst of towering sky-scrappers. While the rest of the area has undergone significant facelifts, the residents of these 3 blocks have resisted the change for decades.
Former Equation Building
Taman Ho Swee flats
The road 'Taman Ho Swee' and the apartment blocks that were built there were the government's initiatives to rebuilding the neighborhood after the fire. Walking around Taman Ho Swee, one will see the colorful blocks that are much shorter. It was also one of the very first blocks of HDB flats to undergo the upgrading program.
Phase 3: Attracting Younger Generations
Sin Lee Foods
The unassuming Sin Lee foods is tucked away in a corner of one of the Taman Ho Swee flats. What stands out about the cafe is the original wooden signboard from yesteryears. Sin Lee attracts Singaporeans, young and old, who want to savour a little bit of the past, captured in the surrounding blocks of housing estates.
Take a spin around the neighborhood (every site is walking distance between one another) to witness history unfolding before your eyes. Here is a map to help you explore the area.
Bukit Ho Swee is just around 10 minutes by taxi from Four Points by Sheraton Singapore, Riverview. You can also take bus 123 from the bus stop opposite the hotel and alight at the second bus stop and cross the road towards the public housing. Do approach our Concierge for any assistance you need or query.