Mention “heartland” and Ang Mo Kio comes to mind for many Singaporeans. Planned and developed in the 1970s, Ang Mo Kio is a quintessential Housing and Development Board (HDB) heartland with its mature neighborhoods, good hawker food, strong neighborly relationships and small businesses that have been operating since the early days of the town.
Before the town came about, this area was largely covered with secondary forest, swamps and farmland. A 1936 map shows that part of it was marked as a forest reserve under the colonial government. One of the earliest references to this area is in an 1849 report written by J T Thomson, Government Surveyor, which mentioned that Amokiah, the name for Ang Mo Kio then, contained sandstone. Early maps of Singapore refer to the area as Amokiah as well. By the 1900s, the area was referred to as Ang Mo Kio.
Multiple theories about the origins of the name Ang Mo Kio have been proposed. Some say that it is the Hokkien term for tomatoes. Others say that it refers to a bridge purportedly built by Thomson as ang mo is a Hokkien term for Caucasians, and kio means “bridge”. Former villagers in the area, however, report that tomatoes were not planted in the area and the name Ang Mo Kio was not used by locals as a place name. Instead, there were various kampongs (“villages” in Malay) with Hokkien names, such as Cheng Sua Lai (“Green Hills Interior”), Jio Sua (“Stone Hill”) and Kow Tiow Kio (“Nine Bridges”).
A more plausible explanation was given by Douglas Hiorns, former General Manager of Bukit Sembawang Estates. According to Hiorns, there were two key tracks crossing Ang Mo Kio, an area with large expanses of swamps and tributaries of rivers running through it. As a result, bridges carrying the tracks over the waterways gained a local importance. The bridge carrying Cheng San Road over the tributary of Kallang River was made of concrete, a material commonly referred to as ang mo he or “Western ash” in Hokkien. In the north, a wooden bridge carried the road Jalan Hwi Yoh over the river Sungei Tongkang and was locally called pang kio, meaning “wooden bridge” in Hokkien.
As such, the area acquired the name “Ang Mo Kio”. Today, the swamps, bridges and farmlands are the things of the past. Ang Mo Kio is one of the most sought-after housing estates in Singapore by home-buyers and the modern town has its own stories to tell and places to show. Some examples include the one and only block of circular flats in Singapore by the Housing and Development Board, temples with interesting histories, and town gardens where the original vegetation forms part of the landscape.
We are working on new research for the Ang Mo Kio Heritage Trail, and look forward to telling these new stories when they’re ready.