Rare photos give glimpse into 1950s miniature zoo

Rare photos give glimpse into 1950s miniature zoo
The Singapore Miniature Zoo in West Coast Road, started by the late Mr Tong Seng Mun in 1957. The 2ha zoo eventually closed in the early 1960s due to trade sanctions during Konfrontasi, and an international wildlife treaty which started regulating the trade.

SINGAPORE - Most children would have been happy with a dog or cat, but when Mr Tong Kok Kong was four, he had a tapir following at his heels.

The large pig-like animal had some exotic neighbours: lions, panthers, sun bears, sea lions, a rhinoceros, a baby elephant and birds of paradise, to name a few.

They were the residents of a miniature zoo in Pasir Panjang back in the 1950s and 1960s, owned by the boy's father, Mr Tong Seng Mun.

Almost 80 never-before-seen photos of the menagerie - one of six zoos that had sprung up at the time - can soon be seen by the public. They will be uploaded on the National Archives of Singapore's online database by September.

The late Mr Tong's three sons have loaned the photos from the family's private collection to the National Heritage Board (NHB) for digitisation and archiving. The rare photos are gems, said Mr Alvin Tan, the group director of policy at the board. "Such contributions help piece together a more complete picture of the country's history," he said.

The 2ha Singapore Miniature Zoo at 189 West Coast Road was started by the late Mr Tong in 1957, as the medicated oil business he had inherited from his grandfather was not doing well. So he decided to diversify into the lucrative wildlife trade.

Back then, Singapore was a thriving wildlife hub and tradesmen imported mainly tropical freshwater fish, birds and reptiles from countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. They would then export them to zoos, aquariums and research laboratories in Europe, America and Japan.

Mr Tong went a step further. He opened up his showroom to the public, charging a small fee to supplement the family's income.

The younger Mr Tong - now 68 and managing director of the family's medicated oil and balm business Chop Wah On - fondly remembers growing up among the menagerie.

"The tapir was my best friend for the few months it was with us before it was exported. It would follow me around the compound," he said.

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