A Forgotten Past – A Zoo in Punggol

Contrary to popular belief, our famous Singapore Zoological Gardens (or Mandai Zoo), opened in 1973, was not the first zoo in Singapore. It is the first and only national zoo, but before it, there were already several private zoos operating in Singapore.

The Punggol Zoos

One of the early private zoos was located in Punggol. It was simply called Ponggol Zoo (some sources refer it as Babujan Zoo), and was owned by wealthy Indian trader William Lawrence Soma Basapa (1893-1943) between 1920s and 1940s.

Nicknamed the “Animal Man”, Basapa had his original zoo at 317 Serangoon Road. The animal lover saw it an opportunity to charge entrance fees to the increasing number of visitors, but his animal collection would grow so large that there were complaints to the Singapore Rural Board (abolished in 1965) about its stench, noise and overcrowding of animals.

In the 1920s, Basapa decided to move his animals to a 27-acre of land he bought at Punggol. His new zoo was considered modern then, equipped with power generators and had workers’ dormitories. Basapa’s own weekend resort was standing by the sea. As a major tourist attraction, he also had his own restaurant, probably serving exotic dishes. An American film company even visited the zoo in 1933 to shoot a fighting scene between a man and a python.

However, Basapa’s precious zoo would be destroyed before the Japanese invasion. Identifying the Punggol end as a potential landing site for the Japanese invaders, the British forces wanted to make use of the Ponggol Zoo as a defensive ground. With limited time, Basapa could not find an alternate place to relocate his zoo, prompting the British to shoot the animals and free the birds. After the fall of Singapore, the Japanese confiscated Basapa’s power generators and steel cages, using the site to store their supplies and ammunition. A devastated Basapa passed away in 1943.

Another zoo, also located in Punggol near the Seventeenth Avenue, was started by a landlord named Chan Kim Suan (unknown-1996). Also an animal lover, he converted his agricultural lands into a private zoo in 1958, and registered it as Singapore Zoo. During its heydays, the zoo showcased dozens of animals such as tigers, lions, baby elephants, pythons, baboons, tapirs, crocodiles and sea lions on a landsize of five football fields.

Also functioning as an animal breeding center, the Singapore Zoo (or popularly Punggol Zoo) was opened free to the public. Chan Kim Suan largely earned his fortune through animal trading, and one of his main trades was the export of rhesus monkeys to America for research.

A special feature of the Punggol Zoo was its boundary walls, which were made of hundreds of pickling urns and pots. When the Chan family left Punggol in the eighties, after failing in a legal battle against the land acquisition by the government in 1975, the earthenware walls were abandoned and partially covered by overgrown bushes. They laid unnoticed for decades until they were rediscovered by the Asia Paranormal Investigators in 2007.

Years after Punggol Zoo ceased to exist, the Singapore Zoological Gardens finally replaced it as the official Singapore Zoo.

By late 2011, the remaining earthenware walls were demolished by the bulldozers after the plot of land was designated for redevelopment (Editor note: Which explains why I failed to get any photos despite exploring the place twice in December 2011 and March 2012).

Other Early Private Zoos

In 1840, local Chinese businessman Hoo Ah kay (1816 – 1880) built a grand mansion at Serangoon called Whampoa Gardens or Nam Sang Fa Un (南生花园). It housed many rare exotic animals and was opened to the public during the Chinese New Years and other festivals. However, this privilege was discontinued after one of Hoo Ah Kay’s favourite birds was killed by a visitor.

There was a private zoo located at East Coast too, but information about it was rare and limited.

Before the independence of Singapore, local students, such as the early batch from Bukit Panjang Government School, would also travel freely to the Johore Zoo for excursions.

Animals in Circus

Circuses showcasing animals were extremely popular in the fifties and sixties. In 1968, the Great Royal Circus of India arrived at Singapore, bringing with them a group of tigers, lions, chimpanzees, bears, elephants and a rare liger (crossbreed of a lion and a tiger).

Another famous circus was the Great Tai Thean Kew Circus (大天球马戏团) started by Sze Bing Shen after the Second World War. During the fifties, the local circus travelled all over Malaya and Singapore with its elephants, entertaining many young and old.

Published: 19 March 2012

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21 Responses to A Forgotten Past – A Zoo in Punggol

  1. alvin says:

    Wow..u never cease to amaze bro..with this kind of information that puts us to shame…for we s’poreans never seem to know about what u always have here…
    how do u get all this info..?

    • Hey thanks! Actually the info is available all along, just that I did the consolidation of the materials plus some exploration of the places ;)

      The first Ponggol Zoo had completely vanished without a trace.. Anyone with more information please feel free to share here

    • Hungryass says:

      Yes Remember Singapore is always so steady bom bibi , to amaze us , I love RS very because i spent on RS every morning till noon , Thank every one and RS for Sharing of Singapore stories , Cheer :)

  2. Flora says:

    The part about the British killing all the animals at the Punggol Zoo is really sad. Zoos in general make me sad.

    Really fascinating post. I love learning about almost-forgotten Singapore history.

  3. There are some queries on the difference between Punggol and Ponggol:

    Both refer to the same place, but it’s now difficult to say which name existed first. Kampong Punggol, one of the oldest settlements in Singapore, was said to have existed before Raffles’ arrival. Punggol (or Ponggol) means “hurling sticks at branches of trees to make the fruits drop to the ground”.
    Most of the roads and places there are named Punggol, except Ponggol Seventeenth Avenue and Ponggol Twenty-Fourth Avenue.

  4. Alfred says:

    Hi there! When you mentioned about a private zoo located at East Coast…was it by any chance at Jln Tua Kong?

  5. Really love your posts. =)

  6. Lam Chun See says:

    Wow. You put me to shame. Born in 1952, I never knew about these Spore zoos until today. My earliest recollection of visiting a zoo was in JB. Must have been in the 1950s as I was quite small then.

    Thanks for this well-researched and skillfully-written post.

  7. rip von winkel (actually N Narayaan) says:

    A few days ago, an old friend (they are all necessarily old) very kindly sent me the link, and I sent it around to my circle of friends. Being of pre-war (WWII) vintage, myself, they are all ancient too.
    One response from Canada was “Thanks for the very interesting email. Illustrated with photos, it is one of the best I have ever seen. However, to add more nostalgic info, I think they should make a reference to the old spelling of Tampines!”
    He has a point, as it was originally ‘Tampenis’ before some sort of Victorian prudery led to the change to the present “Tampines’.
    That apart, I have visited (actually ‘was taken’) to the old Ponggol Zoo (I think that was the spelling in those days). Can vividly remember that the No 2 cage (on the left) when entering housed a huge python. Another now forgotten recreation centre was ‘Alkaff Gardens’ which gave way to the present Sennett Estate in the MacPherson Road area.
    In the early 1950s there was an attempt by a Mr G Mahmood to build a ‘Coney Island’ as an amusement park at the site of this zoo or somewhere nearby, . The venture faiied to take off and he was subsequently made a bankrupt, which in those days was a huge social stigma. The newspaper archives should have details of this.

  8. marshall chua says:

    the pots are actually human heads i once saw spi said…

  9. shun says:

    This is an amazing site ! Thank you for all these valuable information. didn’t know about the existence of the zoo in Punggol…..

  10. constance says:

    great for sharing for those born in 80s :)

  11. tingting says:

    Hi,
    I’ve saw in on tv that they manage to find the pillars of the 1st zoo in punggol…

    Here’s the story from what they had mention,The zoo was there since 1920s, was force to shoot the animals because of Jap invasion. in 1959, a malay family brought over that piece of land and rear goats.

  12. Kampongs and rows of coconut trees at Ponggol (Punggol) in 1932…

  13. Pingback: Location Scouting in “Bring ‘Em Back Alive”(1932), “Wild Cargo”(1934), “Fang and Claw”(1935) & “Jungle Cavalcade”(1941) « THE HUNTER

  14. A pictorial gallery of our Singapore Zoological Gardens in the 70s and 80s…
    http://www.straitstimes.com/through-the-lens/story/40-years-the-singapore-zoo

    1971 – The Singapore Zoological Gardens in Mandai under construction.

    1973 – Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, Dr Goh Keng Swee tries to wake up a furry lion cub which was born at the Singapore Zoological Gardens two weeks ago. It tried to oblige, but sleepily went back to slumberland. Dr Goh was at the opening of the Singapore Zoological Gardens in 1973.

    1973 – Two young tigers, Supee and Muthu at the Singapore Zoological Gardens. Curious spectators take a closer look from the enclosure’s wire fencing. Generally the tigers were in good mood as they basked or moved about in the sunshine.

    1974 – Two-year-old See Jen Ine standing infront of ‘Anusha’, the 19-year-old elephant at the Singapore Zoological Gardens. Jen Ine was on his usual rounds of the gardens, where his mother, Mrs See Juat Chin, works as a financial officer, when he was given the chance to come close to ‘Anusha’.

    1974 – ‘Congo’, the hippo at Singapore Zoological Gardens, trotted out of his ‘detention den’ where he had been kept since early March after his return from 47 days of AWOL in the Seletar Reservoir.

    1974 – Sonia Chu, 4 (seated left), could not resist the urge to stroke these latest arrivals at the Singapore Zoological Gardens, especially as the lioness was safely secured in her cage. The cubs were on show for the first time. Sonia was among the 1,000 visitors who spent Hari Raya at the zoo in Mandai.

    1975 – She is the outdoor type, Pauline Chin. Very much a “to-blazes-with-dresses-and-makeup” girl, she is the only female keeper at the zoo.

    1975 – Ismail Mohammed Said, 12, tries to feed a giraffe at the zoo with a branch of leaves he plucked from a nearby tree. About 10,000 staff from the Housing Development Board celebrated Christmas and New Year with their families at the Singapore Zoological Garden.

    1976 – 2,000 children aged between 6 and 10 taking part in the on-the-sport art competition at the Singapore Zoo. The competition is organised by the Ministry of Culture.

    1977 – Finance Minister Mr Hon Sui Sen (shaking hands with Ah Meng), officiates the opening of the Singapore Zoological Gardens’ sea lion exhibit.

    1977 – 63 deaf children spent the day at the Singapore Zoo. The trip organised by the Association for the Deaf was to help the deaf children to be less shy, since they had problems communicating with normal people. The children seen playing with the elephant.

    1977 – Ida, 3, the chimpanzee taking a walk with Ropiah Yasin, nine, and Anita Mansoor, five, two of many visitors at the Singapore Zoo. Children who visited the zoo yesterday, received a pleasant surprise when they were handed souvenir hats in animal colours and stripes at the gate.

    1977 – The whole fence was lined with people peering over and longing to feed Billy the sea-lion, but only one boy had the privilege. 12-year-old Edward de Silva was one of the 63 deaf children visiting the Singapore Zoo. The Association for the Deaf had planned for them to be entertained by dancing sea-lions, elephants, an orang utan and a hippopotamus.

    1977 – It was double joy at the Singapore Zoo when the birthdays of two of its orang-utans were celebrated. Jinak, turned two last Thursday and Inoki, cuddled in his adopted mother Ah Meng’s arms, will be one this Thursday. Zoo officials, however, decided to give the orang-utans a joint party with each receiving a 2.2 kg cake with pink icing and all. Also joining the celebrations were the visitors to the zoo.

    1979 – It was a grand feast of cake, honey, apples and soft drinks by baby bear Jumbo’s standards – but for little Vivian Hoo, nine, the moments were something to bear with. For coming face to face with a real life bear, even a young one, can be quite a different experience from the cuddly teddy bear of the toy kind. Vivian went towards the sunbear – which celebrated its first year at the zoo. While Jumbo devoured the yummies, Vivian held on to the young bear’s platter gingerly. And as Jumbo munched on – clearly oblivious to all the attention – Vivian relaxed a bit.

    1979 – Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Mr R Premadasa at the Singapore Zoological Gardens. Earlier, Mr Premadasa presented a dozen of painted storks, six pelicans and six spoonbills from his country to the zoo. Mr Premadasa is on a five-day official visit to Singapore. He was accompanied by Mrs Premadasa, the Minister for Youth and Employment, Mr R Wickremasinghe, and a team of 10 officials during his visit here.

    1980 – Large crowds “invaded” the Singapore Zoological Gardens in Mandai. Despite the rain, about 40,000 holiday-makers, most of whom were members of the 53 NTUC affiliate unions and their families, converged on the zoo as early as 9.30 am. Extra counters had to be set up as the enthusiastic crowd jostled to get in. Zoo officials finally decided to let the crowd in free to east the seemingly endless flow of human traffic.

    1981 – Zoo icon Ah Meng having “tea” with model Margaret Pye for a Canon camera advertisement photoshoot in 1981. With them were creative director Catherina Ng, from the advertising agency behind the concept, and Ms Ng’s daughter.

    1982 – Tommy is a giant Galapagos tortoise presented to the Mandai Zoo by the Honolulu Zoo. Galapagos tortoises, the largest specie of tortoises in the world, are endangered animals and can only be found on a few islands such as the Galapagos and Albemale in Ecuador. Tommy will be shown in a new reptile garden together with several tortoises.

    1982 – Ah Meng, the star orang utan from the Singapore Zoological Gardens up a tree at MacRitchie Reservoir. She went out of reach of her keeper and everybody else during the shooting of a tourist promotion filmlet. She has refused to come down despite several efforts by the zookeepers and zoo director, Mr Bernard Harrison. They tried to lure her down by offering bananas, oranges, apples and coffee, but failed.

    (Source: The Straits Times Through the Lens)

  15. “王味村(Ong Lee Village) – 已消失。为纪念地主王可味(又名王味)而取名,原籍南安翔云,在裕廊路10英里和蔡厝港地段拥有大片土地,据知其住家附近设有小型动物园,园内有象、猴、驴、孔雀及牛羊等动物。”

    Anyone heard of Ong Lee Village (at Jurong Road 10 Milestone) and its “zoo”?

  16. James says:

    My mum always tell us about the story when she and my grandma used to stay in the old Punggol Zoo, together with a with another lady (neighbour). They are located in the centre of the zoo. (next to a cage which held 3 lions)

  17. Whampoa’s descendant donates rare whale tusk
    The Straits Times
    Sunday, Jun 22, 2014

    The sword-like tusk of a whale known as the “unicorn of the ocean” will take pride of place at the new Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum when it opens next year.

    The narwhal tusk, which is at least 200 years old, had belonged to businessman “Whampoa” Hoo Ah Kay, one of Singapore’s pioneers of the 1800s. On Wednesday, his great-granddaughter Hoo Miew Oon, 79, donated the family heirloom to the museum, formerly known as the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research.

    The 2.7m-long tusk, which when placed upright is as tall as the tallest human in history, had been given to Whampoa in the 1860s by the Russian government, for whom he was consul in Singapore. It then remained in his family for four generations. It is considered a rare specimen, as these tusks grow only as long as 3m.

    “I will miss it,” Madam Hoo said at her Dempsey home, as professional movers engaged by the museum packed the spirally tusk. But she insisted this was the right time to give it up. “The museum holds more than 500,000 specimens. I know it will be in its good hands.” The artefact is her “treasured birthday gift” to the nation for its 50th year of independence next year, she added, happy that the public will finally be able to see it.

    The narwhal tusk is actually an extremely long tooth of the male of the species. The mammals have other teeth that usually remain much shorter. While scientists are uncertain of the tusk’s exact purpose, they believe it to be used for mating rituals, and for males to fight off rival suitors. Narwhals are considered a moderately threatened species, with an estimated 75,000 still alive in waters around the Arctic circle. The Inuit people in northern Canada and Greenland have hunted them for their tusks and skin for more than a thousand years.

    The museum’s project manager, Dr Tan Swee Hee, called the donation “unprecedented”, and said it takes on added importance because of its provenance. “We have never had anything so spectacular donated to us.”

    The tusk – believed to be the only one here – will be on permanent display in the museum’s mammal zone. It was first kept at Whampoa Gardens, where Whampoa displayed his rare animal and bird species, then in the Club Street home of his son Hoo Keng Tuck, Madam Hoo’s late grandfather. During World War II, it escaped the notice of Japanese soldiers as her grandfather, a lawyer, hid it behind a giant four-poster bed covered with mosquito netting.

    The museum has received other prominent donations in the past, including from Whampoa. In 1877, three years before he died, he gave the then Raffles Museum a tooth from a stegodon, a prehistoric animal similar to elephants and mammoths.

    The museum also has in its collection the skins of gibbons, orang utans and sun bears. They were donated by animal trader William Lawrence Soma Basapa, who set up the now long-gone Punggol Zoo in 1928.

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