Four forgotten places of old Singapore

From a hidden hot spring to a HDB deity and a completely demolished theme park, these four attractions were once hugely popular with Singaporeans but have been forgotten over the years.

Do you remember the Tang Dynasty Village, with its majestic Chinese facades and hundreds of terracotta soldiers? Or the Monkey Tree God, which drew thousands of Singaporeans to a quiet estate in Jurong West in search of divine intervention?

Take a short trip down memory lane with us as we go in search of four forgotten places in Singapore and discover if they are gone for good.

Sembawang Hot Spring (Sembawang)

Bubbling quietly away in a rustic red-brick enclosure with plastic buckets placed near the well’s taps to collect water and with only a lone caretaker on most weekdays, Sembawang Hot Spring is one of Singapore’s lesser known treasures.

 Singapore’s only remaining natural hot spring is located at Gambas Avenue between Woodlands Avenue 12 and Sembawang Road.

Tucked away in a wooded area about 100m off the beaten track, you'll smell it before you see it (go down to find out why!).

Caretaker Mr Gao T K, 67, who has been cleaning the spring for the past two years, says that while visitor numbers are few, there have been regulars who come early in the morning and for daily showers who keep him company on his otherwise mundane job.

“Sometimes in the morning, Japanese ladies will come to soak their feet, sometimes people from China will come to take a shower in the afternoons, or some will just come to collect buckets of water,” said Gao.

Discovered in 1909 by Chinese merchant Seah Eng Keong on his pineapple estate in Sembawang, the Hot Spring actually started out as three separate springs which he eventually combined into one area for convenience and for the public to enjoy.

 It reached the peak of its popularity in 2002, when local Singaporeans flocked to collect buckets of water for bathing, touting its health benefits from the high amount of sulphur.

Today, the land it sits on is designated as a military air base and it has survived despite several attempts to redevelop the area.

Interesting Facts:

Local soft drinks bigwig Fraser and Neave acquired the Sembawang Hot Spring in 1922 and bottled the water, labeled “Seletaris”.

While owned by F&N, the spring was designated to be redeveloped into a bathhouse with restaurants but plans were eventually shelved.

During the Japanese Occupation, the area was used as a ‘onsen’ thermal baths for soldiers.

Yahoo Singapore understands that the land is now considered part of a military base but is open to the public from 7 am- 7 pm daily.

At the height of the “Money Tree” Jurong West phenomenon in 2007, thousands of Singaporeans were flocking to the non-descript HDB housing estate for a look at the famous tree and its “holy” calluses in the alleged shape of two monkeys.
At the height of the “Money Tree” Jurong West phenomenon in 2007, thousands of Singaporeans were flocking to the non-descript HDB housing estate for a look at the famous tree and its “holy” calluses in the alleged shape of two monkeys.

Monkey Tree God (Jurong West)

At the height of the “Money Tree” Jurong West phenomenon in 2007, thousands of Singaporeans were flocking to the non-descript HDB housing estate for a look at the famous tree and its “holy” calluses in the alleged shape of two monkeys.

The tree became a social phenomenon after someone put up a sign on a tree along Jurong West Street 42 claiming that a monkey had come to the tree three years ago in search of the Monkey God. The sign said that a car accident had split the bark of the tree, ‘releasing’ the Monkey God.

The news attracted hundreds from all over the island who came with offerings to pay their respects at the tree, covering the grass patch with peanuts, bananas, flowers, joss sticks and incense “hell” notes.

Finally, National Parks stepped in and explained that the “monkey” could have been formed by callusing, when new bark grows over the tree’s injured bark.

The expectation was that eventually the callus would become darker, rougher and less noticeable.

Today, this explanation seems to be the most likely reason for the appearance of the "monkey" – when Yahoo Singapore visited the site, all that was left were the tattered and torn remains of a red ceremonial ribbon tied around the bark, while the callus was barely noticeable. A bunch of rotting bananas sat at the base of the tree, a far cry from the peak of its popularity.

“Nobody comes here anymore, the tree doesn’t even look like a monkey anymore. Its better this way and quieter – I remember how noisy and crowded this place used to be, people littering and taking photos,” said Jurong West resident Ramesh G, 46.

Interesting facts:

Images of the monkey tree were sold at $3-$10 a photograph at one point.

Police had to be called in to manage the traffic jams and crowd control.

Haw Par Villa

Once one of Singapore’s top attractions, Haw Par Villa – with more than 1,000 statues and 150 dioramas with scenes both amazing and macabre from Chinese folklore – was a weekend destination of choice for many families.

Parents would drag their children into the Park’s 60m-long “10 levels of Hell” to instill the fear of sin in them, dragging them shivering past statues of unfortunate souls getting their tongues cut out before allowing them to play and run amok around brightly painted dragons and mythical creatures.

Originally called “Tiger Balm Gardens” and built in 1937 by the owners of Tiger Balm,  the park was “modernised” in 1986 with automated rides to turn it into an “East Meets West” Disneyland of sorts, sparking a peak in popularity.

In the past decade, however, the park has fallen into disrepair – its rides have been suspended or demolished, and families left for the bright lights of more modern theme parks in Sentosa and Pasir Ris.

When Yahoo Singapore visited the Park on a weekday afternoon, there were about 50-60 tourists, mostly Caucasian, exploring the statues and taking photos. While most of the restaurants and shops were shuttered, artisans were seen throughout the park touching up the paint on the statues and chatting to the visitors.

Tang Dynasty Village (Jurong)

During its development, the $100 million Tang Dynasty Village theme park in Jurong was touted as a magnificent life-size replica of the ancient Chinese capital, Chang’ An, famed for its terracotta soldiers.

Opened in 1992 to much fanfare, the 12ha theme park was surrounded by a 3m high fortress and filled with pagodas, temples and terracotta warriors. Gardens with bamboo plants and beautiful ponds built to historical precision were another attraction of the Village.

However, just five years later the Village closed its doors in 1997 during the Asian financial crisis. Despite several rounds of takeovers and discussions, the Village never found a new lease of life and slowly fell to ruin, becoming a magnet for ghost-hunters or hobby photographers who documented the overgrown gardens, broken statues and peeling temples.

Finally, in 2007, the entire village was demolished.

All that remains of the 18-football field-sized city today is an expanse of green field, dotted with markers of where the foundations of the once majestic Tang Village once stood.