Bishan was site of bloody WWII battle

Bishan was site of bloody WWII battle

Instead of rows of red-brick housing blocks, there were rows of gravestones.

Before Bishan became one of the most sought-after places to live in, it was the site of a bloody battle during World War II and, before that, a gigantic 155ha Chinese cemetery called Peck San Theng - to which the town owes its name.

These are some facts from an SG50 project done by a group of students documenting Bishan's 145-year history.

Ten former Raffles Institution (RI) students and a current RI student banded together and dedicated hundreds of hours to dig up Bishan's past.

They analysed hundreds of historical photographs, artefacts and documents. They also conducted many interviews and even went on a day trip to Malaysia.

Entitled Becoming Bishan, the project was started last April as a result of their desire to know more about the history of the land on which their alma mater sits.

It is part of an SG50 collaboration with 10 other schools.

Their efforts will culminate in a publication and an exhibition, to be launched on July 11 at Bishan Public Library by Senior Minister of State for Finance and Transport Josephine Teo, who is also an MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC.

Team member Ying Yilun, 19, said that the project hoped to create a "sense of rootedness" in current Bishan residents.

"A result of new town planning and development is that many current residents do not have strong emotional ties to where they live," he noted.


The team enlisted the help of several experts, including an archaeologist, a maps specialist and a World War II historian.

Their research even led them to Johor Baru, Malaysia, where they tracked down the descendant of a donor to the Peck San Theng cemetery that existed over a century ago, at what is now Bishan.

Bishan today is associated with million-dollar public housing flats and some of the top schools in Singapore, such as RI and Catholic High.

But for old-timers like Mr Loh Soo Har, 73, Bishan was a gigantic cemetery - a playground for children as well as a resting place for the dead.

"There were not many places to play then, and we were surrounded by the dead. We (children) climbed and chased each other among the graves. But we were not scared. I never saw a ghost," said Mr Loh, who lived for more than 30 years in a kampung near the cemetery.

The cemetery, which was established in 1870 by the Cantonese and Hakka, began to attract people to set up their homes in a kampung nearby.

Kampong San Teng, situated near where RI stands today, was a hive of activity during Chinese festivals, such as Qing Ming.

Visitors from as far away as Malaysia flocked to the cemetery to pay respects to the dead. By the start of the 20th century, the kampung's residents had swelled to nearly 2,000.

"We even had a school... It was beautiful, made of concrete, very good for its time. We led a hard, but also more laid-back life," said Mr Chua Eik Chuan, 77, who had stayed most of his life in the kampung.

But those carefree times were not to last.

Blood was spilled on the hallowed grounds of the cemetery when it became a violent battlefield during World War II. The British and Japanese fought among the graves for the nearby MacRitchie Reservoir, a strategic site.

Hundreds of soldiers on both sides were killed. The Japanese cruelly bombed Kampong San Teng, resulting in heavy civilian casualties.


War historian Jon Cooper said that soldiers from the 2nd Battalion of the Cambridgeshire Regiment were still holding out along Braddell Road when the fighting stopped.

"They were an experienced British unit, as they had been fighting in Malaya before, but they were also somewhat depleted," he added.

The short but fierce battle lasted just over a day before Singapore fell to the Japanese on Feb 15, 1942.

After the war, life slowly returned to normal. But the days of the kampung and cemetery were numbered.

With plans for the development of Bishan New Town in the works, the Government started to resettle the villagers to nearby housing flats in the late 70s to mid-80s, mostly to Ang Mo Kio. The cemetery was also exhumed and by 1986, neither the graves nor the kampung remained.

Indeed Bishan, like the rest of the nation, has changed rapidly in just a few decades.

Few will recall its past as a sprawling cemetery, with its current bustling shopping centre and busy public transport interchange.

But for long-time residents, like Mr Chua, and the team of RI students, preserving the past is as crucial as building the future

"When drinking water, one should remember its source. Without such efforts, all this progress is meaningless. Our country's history will fade away. Who will bother to remember?" he said.

Ms Leong Yee Ting, 19, a member of the project team, said that the history of Bishan is the history of Singapore.

"In Singapore, many people assume there is not much history, or it is a blank slate. That is not true. There is always something for us to be grateful for, and be inspired by, even today."

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This article was first published on June 14, 2015.
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