How Balestier got its name

From 1920 to 1970, the old bungalow at 540 Balestier Road belonging to the Aljunieds, who were the first Arabs to settle here, was a regular haunt for Chinese, Indian and Eurasian women.

They went there to learn about midwifery and traditional Malay herbal medicine from Sharifah Alawiya Abu Bakar Aljunied, the household's matriarch.

Her great-granddaughter, psychologist Mariam Aljunied, 48, remembers visiting the house as a child. She recalls: "The house was always very busy, with lots of people coming and going. As part of our tradition, we would offer the sirei (betel leaf) to whoever came."

Vital to these social gatherings are an ancient betel chewing set and a spittoon - family heirlooms that Dr Aljunied has loaned to an exhibition on the Balestier neighbourhood, which runs till April 24 next year at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall.

Organised by the memorial hall, Balestier: A Hundred Years exhibition tells the history of the area from the mid-1800s to the 1960s, concentrating on local colour and personal stories.

Visitors can find out about the origins of the neighbourhood's name - the American consul Joseph Balestier lived here in colonial times - and the industries which sprung up there, such as sugar plantations, rattan factories and film studios, among others.

For the show, the organisers borrowed more than 130 artefacts and documents from community contributors and conducted interviews with these people. 

This was to "give an idea of the lives of people and what it was like working in Balestier in the past," says the exhibition's assistant curator, Ms Goh Yu Mei, who works at the memorial hall.

Such stories may not be known to Singaporeans today, who think of Balestier as a home to budget hotels, home and decor shops as well as a string of hipster cafes which have emerged in the area.

Ms Goh adds: "The exhibition portrays Balestier's development as a multi-cultural suburban area. We hope visitors get to understand how unique this area is and learn about its history."

An interesting exhibit is a medicinal herb pounder contributed by the Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital, established as a hospital in Balestier in 1910. It is set to undergo a $96-million transformation to become an integrated healthcare hub for the elderly and the community.

The hospital's board member Wan Shung Ming said that the hospital selected items that were donated or given by the public: "We have a lot of gifts that have been used for a long time. We have been here for 105 years and everyone in Balestier, not just the Chinese, know and trust us."

Other exhibits include old photographs of places such as the Singapore Indian Association's clubhouse and the Shaw Brothers' Malay Film Productions studio, located at Jalan Ampas off Balestier Road.

The memorial hall is also holding a series of activities to tie in with the exhibition, such as a two-hour guided Balestier heritage and food trail, which runs once every month from now till next April. It is fully booked.

Those interested in Balestier's heritage can attend talks next year by Dr Aljunied on her family, as well as the Urban Redevelopment Authority on its conservation efforts in the area.

This article was first published on Dec 5, 2015.
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