Telok Blangah: Testament to Singapore's History

5 min read

Telok Blangah has its name inspired by the bay's cooking pot shapetelok means 'bay' in Malay and blanga refers to a clay cooking pot used by the southern Indians. The refreshing view of nature and sea may have played a part in the naming process as well, since it is such a feast for the eyes.

Also known as sit lat mng which means 'Singapore gate' or 'north west gate' in Hokkien, this expanse of land is situated in the southern part of Singapore. The area dates back to the 13th-century when Singapore was still known as Temasek. Legend has it that the Prince of Palembang, Sang Nila Utama, landed just off Telok Blangah beach after throwing his crown and everything else overboard when he ran into a storm. Presents: The Mythical Origins of Singapura

But beyond legends and hearsay, Telok Blangah's prominence and significance to become what it is today was sparked by our colonisation.

Under British Rule

Sir Stamford Raffles assigned 200 acres of land to Temenggong Abdul Rahman and his followers in 1823. The main purpose of the land, known as Kampung Bahru, was to serve as their residence and cemetery, but the Temenggong went ahead to maximise it. Before his death in 1825, the area flourished because of his monopoly over the Gutta-percha trade - which was a lucrative trade since thermoplastic latex was being produced from the sap of these trees.

View of the Temenggong's village at Telok Blangah and St. James, 1870s.
Collection of National Museum of Singapore.

The area was passed on for generations, with the final authority being Maharaja Abu Bakar - Temenggong Abdul Rahman’s grandson. His younger brother, Ungku Mohamed Khalid, was the last to be buried on that land.

Though certain graves can still be seen, the only identifier of the land will be the nearby landmark Mount Faber.

Mount Faber and the Abandoned Reservoir

Mount Faber, previously known as Telok Blangah Hill, has a height of about 106 metres and overlooks Telok Blangah as well as western parts of the Central Area. The hill was renamed after Captain Charles Edward Faber of the Madras Engineers.

View from Mount Faber, 1920s-1950s.
Collection of National Museum of Singapore.

As the figure of authority of the construction that took place, the local newspaper The Free Press criticised Captain Faber’s choice of the narrow winding road that led up to the signal station. It snaked along the slope of the hill and was said that "two persons meeting can barely pass each other".

The hill went through another transformation in 1857 once the initial construction was done. The Straits Settlement government decided to convert the hill into a fort out of fear that the local Indian sepoys might revolt. This decision was made after Indian sepoys mutinied against their British Officers in India.

A sepoy posing outside the barracks at Seletar Airbase, 1938-1939.
Collection of National Museum of Singapore.

Granite emplacements for guns and defence work was carried out halfway up the hill, but the fort was never completed. In the end, an observatory was built in its place in 1905.

Today, Mount Faber is a popular tourist attraction and the Signal Station is still there - a monument of the past that serves as a gateway to the present; for tourists to board a cable car to Sentosa.

Mount Faber Hill, 1960s-1998s.
Collection of National Museum of Singapore.

But beyond the signal station, the more recent discovery of an abandoned reservoir dating back to 1905 is bringing Telok Blangah back into the spotlight.

Discovered by the National Heritage Board in 2014, the reservoir is about one-third the size of an Olympic-sized swimming pool and is nestled in the Mount Faber forest. Though it currently has a working infiltration system, you will not find it marked out in maps today; keeping it a mystery even after its discovery.

It is said to have served as a source of water for residents of a nearby settlement, the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company - the forerunner of today’s Port of Singapore Authority and even a swimming pool throughout its lifetime.

Tanjong Pagar Docks, 1980s.
Collection of National Museum of Singapore.

Labrador Park

Besides Mount Faber, Labrador Park is another key highlight that sits within the bounds of Telok Blangah. After all, it is the only rocky sea-cliff and coral reef on the island that is open to the public.

The cliff’s high vantage point also made this location one of the crucial parts of the entire British defence system for Singapore during the Second World War. A fort was built at the peak of the park to protect the entrance to Keppel Harbour and the South-West coastline of the island. Underground tunnels have also been discovered to exist within the park, though closed to the public, that served as storage for military supplies and a base-camp for British troops guarding the fort.

Keppel Harbour

One of the tunnels is said to travel under the waters of Keppel Harbour’s entrance and arrive at present-day Sentosa, but no concrete evidence has been discovered as of yet to prove this hearsay.

Though the fort was not fully utilised in the end since the Japanese attacked Singapore from the Northern coast instead, you can still witness the historical relics and some artefacts left behind by the British today.

Past and Present of Telok Blangah

Though modernised and revamped over time, Telok Blangah still is a place that reminds us about Singapore’s colonial past. Be it in the forms of abandoned reservoirs or traces of land reclaimed, this generous land of greenery is a living testament of how far the country has come.

It is a place that holds steadfastly onto our history, beckoning our curious souls to venture into its nature and rediscover the country all over again - at the intersection of past and present.