Key Historic Events in Pek Kio
A tranquil neigbourhood just outside the rigours of the city centre, Pek Kio’s slow rhythm of life echoes its swampland past. Yet beneath the serenity there is a rich history comprising of many events significant to Singapore.
From hosting the island’s first horse race in 1843, to the first flight demonstration in 1911, to its rise as an undisputed sporting capital, and finally to the encounter of one of the worst civil disasters in Singapore’s history, Pek Kio has experienced its fair share of historic events.
In Singapore toponymics, our street names clue us to an area’s history otherwise buried under the fast-changing cityscape due to redevelopment. Pek Kio is an area bordered by Balestier Road, Kampong Java Road, Moulmein Road, and Serangoon Road. It is Hokkien for white bridge, and the name is derived from a white bridge that once spanned Kampong Java Canal, where the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital stands today.
Pek Kio was also known as Little England. With many roads named after English counties and towns, such as Bristol, Cambridge, Carlisle, Dorset, Durham, Gloucester, Hampshire, and Oxford, it was not difficult to see why.
Race Course Road, a long street that runs parallel to Serangoon Road, is the last testimony to Pek Kio’s claiming rights of the site of the first horse race course in Singapore. The first horse race was held on 23 February 1843, symbolic as the 24th anniversary celebration of Raffles’ landing in Singapore. The prize money for that race was a grand total of $150. The race course, under the management of the Singapore Turf Club, was moved to Bukit Timah in 1933, before it was relocated to its present location in Kranji in 1999.
Horse racing was not the only event of the day at the race course. The grounds were occasionally used as an airstrip. More significantly, Singapore’s first flight demonstration happened right in Pek Kio. A Bristol Box-Kite biplane, piloted by Mr Joseph Christiaens, took off from the race course on 16 March 1911.
Pek Kio also became known as the unofficial sporting capital of Singapore. When the Farrer Park Athletic Centre was built in 1956 and the Farrer Park Swimming Complex a year later, the area became the training ground for some of Singapore’s most illustrious athletes, even to date. Some of the sporting icons, who have trained in Pek Kio include sprinter C Kunalan, swimmer Ang Peng Siong and footballers like Fandi Ahmad and Quah Kim Song.
Pek Kio was also the headquarters to the National Sports Promotion Board from 1971 to 1973, which eventually merged with the National Stadium Corporation to form the Singapore Sports Council.
For all the glories Pek Kio has also undergone a dark period in 1986, which came to be known as one of the worst civil disasters in Singapore’s history. On 15 March 1986, the Lian Yak Building, a six-storey building that housed the Hotel New World, collapsed.
It was a stressful period for the community over the next few days while rescue efforts commenced. Shophouses and coffee shops functioned as command centres for the rescue operation and waiting areas for relatives of the trapped victims. Helicopters were also stationed at Farrer Park to transport the rescued survivors to hospitals. 33 people were killed while another 17 people were rescued from the rubble.
The collapse led to several policy changes. The government empowered the Ministry of National Development to conduct structural checks on buildings. The Fire Service was also integrated into the Singapore Civil Defence Force to improve the latter’s response to future disaster situations. Interestingly, a new hotel was built on the site of the collapse five years later.
It may be a surprise that such momentous events have transpired in the quiet quarter of Pek Kio. As the older residents swap stories over a cup of teh at the mamak stall in the Pek Kio Food Centre, it is perhaps fitting to revisit a quote from the Prime Minister’s speech at the re-opening of the Pek Kio Community Centre on 28 July 2013:
“A bridge (Pek Kio), to the past, which reminds us what was here, what our previous generations did here, what our parents built here and what we have inherited and want to make here.”