Toa Payoh – from swampland to the quintessential Singapore new town

Toa Payoh (大巴窑), means “big swamp”, & the name of this new town is very “Singaporean”, as it uses a mix of Hokkien/ Teochew dialect (“Toa” = big) as well as Malay language (“Paya” = swamp). 🙂 The area used to be an extensive swamp & notorious squatter district, mostly engaged in farming & rearing pigs.  In February 1960, after the People’s Action Party won the elections & formed the newly elected government, the HDB (Housing and Development Board) was established, taking over SIT (Singapore Improvement Trust, set up during the colonial times) to develop public housing & improve the quality of living environment for its residents.  After extensive negotiation with the villagers, the squatters began moving out in 1962 for clearance and development works.  In 1968, the first new town project fully developed by HDB – Toa Payoh New Town was completed.

I did not grow up or live in one of Singapore’s oldest satellite towns, but somehow, Toa Payoh has always been close to me.  Why?  Because all my life I have always been living in the North (from Ang Mo Kio to Yishun) so Toa Payoh, located in the northern part of central Singapore, is just a convenient 5 to 15 min ride away by train.  Furthermore, during my childhood years, my mum often brought my sisters & I to its town centre to visit the library, shop & eat.  For many years, my grandma’s birthday dinners were held at the venue where Swatow Seafood Restaurant is located now.  All these fond memories have connected the old new town close to my heart. 😉

Although Toa Payoh is not the first satellite town built in Singapore (first was Queenstown, then Toa Payoh), it is a new town that has pioneered many “firsts”, some of which as listed below:

  1. first air-conditioned bus interchange, the Toa Payoh Bus Interchange, commenced operation on 19 May 2002.
  2. first Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station to be built as part of the 6km North South Line from Yio Chu Kang to Toa Payoh) and officially opened on 7 November 1987.  I still have vivid memories of my uncle bringing his children & me to ride on the MRT from Ang Mo Kio to Toa Payoh that day! 😛
  3. first town to employ the neighbourhood police post (NPP) system from June 1983.
  4. first town to host the Southeast Asian Peninsular Games (SEAP Games, now known as the Southeast Asian Games) for over 2 weeks in 1973.
  5. first visit to public housing flats made by Queen Elizabeth II on 18 February 1972 at Blk 53 Toa Payoh Lorong 5, which features a prominent Y-shaped design, the only block of flats with this layout in Toa Payoh.

Did you know that on 19 August 2014, a Toa Payoh Heritage Trail was officially launched to preserve such historical milestones?  It was an accidental discovery of this trail during a recent visit to its town centre that triggered me to follow the trail & get to know more about Toa Payoh other than just the good food e.g. the famous rojak at HDB Hub basement foodcourt. 😉

Follow me to rediscover Toa Payoh, the archetypical grandpa of all public housing towns in Singapore, starting from Toa Payoh Central……

Les Patisseries cafe

OK folks, chill, this is not part of the heritage trail, but before you check out the long trail, you need to make sure you store lots of energy right? 😛 I’m not paid to advertise for this cafe, but since it was because of a groupon deal I bought for this cafe that brought me to Toa Payoh, I gotta give it a mention ya?  Les Patisseries is conveniently located at Blk 186 Toa Payoh Central, #01-428 (Mobile: 93838214/ 97440504), somewhere in the middle of Blk 186 beside Refresh Bodyworks, & Blk 186 is just next to the Courts building, about 5-10 min walk from Toa Payoh MRT/ Bus Interchange.

Shop front of Les Patisseries (top left) with its interiors

Shop front of Les Patisseries (top left) with its interiors

This cafe is pretty small, with only 24 indoor seats & 6 outdoor seats only.  Nonetheless it looks warm & cosy to me, except for the lady staff at the counter.  Another grouse was the service was quite slow, I waited for about 20 min before my beverage was served & it was another 15 min later before I got my mains, despite the fact that the other table of 4 were already eating shortly after I arrived. 😦

Owned by 3 young guys in their mid-20s who graduated from culinary schools At-Sunrise & Shatec, Les Patisseries seems to have gained a following for their freshly baked pastries.  After a filling lunch (*burp*) there, I agree with other online reviews that their beverages & pastries fared better than the savoury items.  Too bad I couldn’t try the tarts as they were excluded from the groupon deal.

An average tasting Egg Royale ($11.90, centre of pic), aromatic Green Tea Latte ($5.50) & delectable warm Bread Pudding ($6.50)

An average tasting Egg Royale ($11.90, centre of pic), aromatic Green Tea Latte ($5.50) & delectable warm Bread Pudding ($6.50)

FYI, as mentioned in point #4 above, because of the hosting of SEAP Games in 1973, there was a SEAP Games Village installed in the heart of Toa Payoh Central.  Not far away from Blk 186, was the games village secretariat at the building now known as the Toa Payoh Public Library, a dining hall for 1,800 people, as well as 4 point blocks in the area – Blk 175, 179, 191 & 193 to house the athletes.

Toa Payoh Town Park

Upon leaving the cafe, I turned left & walked down the street towards Toa Payoh Lorong 6, where Toa Payoh Town Park is just across the overhead bridge, at junction of Lorong 2 & 6.  Next to the town park are the Toa Payoh Swimming Complex & stadium, which served as competition & training venues during the SEAP Games in 1973.

Swimming Complex

Best known for its 25m-tall Observation Tower & willow-fringed ponds, Toa Payoh Town Park, known as Toa Payoh Town Garden in the 1970s, brings pleasant memories to many Singaporeans, particularly those who had their wedding photographs taken here in the 1970s & 1980s.  The popularity of the park also led HDB to provide green spaces in most of the housing estates that followed after Toa Payoh.  I vaguely remember that we used to enjoy family time here in the garden in my growing-up years.  Returning to the town park after so many years made me feel nostalgic upon seeing the familiar landmarks, although the iconic dragon playground in the park was removed since 1997.

The Oasis Taiwan Porridge restaurant sits beside the beautiful landscaped pond in the park

The Oasis Taiwan Porridge restaurant (left) sits beside the beautiful landscaped pond in the park

Part of the lovely cluster of artificial islands linked by bridges

Part of the lovely cluster of artificial islands linked by bridges

The iconic 25m-tall Observation Tower that is no longer open to the public

The iconic 25m-tall Observation Tower that is no longer open to the public

Brightly coloured flowers liven up the quiet town park

Brightly coloured flowers liven up the quiet town park

Toa Payoh Dragon Playground

The Dragon Playground along Lorong 6, about a 7-min walk from Toa Payoh Town Park (need to cross the road from the park), was designed & built in 1979 by HDB’s Mr Khor Ean Ghee.  This playground was part of the second wave of playgrounds built by HDB from late 1970s, to feature objects & concepts easily identifiable with local culture such as the bumboat & rickshaw designs.  There are only 2 dragon playgrounds remaining in Singapore, the other being located in Ang Mo Kio, but it is now covered with rubber mats while the one at Toa Payoh Lorong 6 retains its original sand surface.

Not sure if this had been modified before, but the playground looks very small to me now, although regrettably, I had never played in it when I was a kid, only passed by.  Or maybe because I have grown so big? 😛

Dragon Playground 1

Dragon Playground 2

Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery/ Shuang Lin Cheng Huang Temple

Cross the traffic junction in front of the dragon playground along Toa Payoh Lorong 6 towards Kim Keat Link, & you would be able to see the signboard that leads you to the famous Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery/ Shuang Lin Cheng Huang Temple (莲山双林寺/ 双林城隍庙), about 6 min away by foot.

As the oldest buddhist monastery in Singapore since the early 1900s, the Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery rose as a majestic beacon in the then-rural surrounds of Toa Payoh.  For their historical and architectural values, the Hall of Celestial Kings (Tian Wang Dian) and Mahavira Hall (Da Xiong Bao Dian) in the monastery were gazetted as national monuments in 1980.  I used to visit the temple with my mum regularly before the walk from the nearest bus stop near the dragon playground to the temple became tiring for her.  After so many years, this historical building has changed quite a fair bit due to the major restoration.

Lian Shan Shuang Lin 1

The monastery was built in the traditional Chinese courtyard (和院) concept

The monastery was built in the traditional Chinese courtyard (和院) concept

Chung Hwa Medical Institution

Moving back towards the town centre, I went to Toa Payoh Lorong 4 where the Chung Hwa Medical Institution (中华医院) headquarters is (640 Lorong 4 Toa Payoh).  Chung Hwa is a voluntary welfare organisation, established by the then-Singapore Chinese Medical Society [now the Singapore Chinese Physicians’ Association (SCPA)] in view of the poor state of Singapore’s health care facilities after World War II.  The institution offers free TCM consultations to help the poor & needy, & also serves as a venue to study & promote academic research & development in TCM.  I have never been there for consultation, but I heard the fees & medicine are much more affordable than what other TCM physicians typically charge.

Chung Hwa Medical Institution

Chung Hwa Medical Institution

Church of the Risen Christ

The last heritage landmark of the day was the Church of the Risen Christ, a Roman Catholic church officially opened on 3 July 1971, located at 91 Toa Payoh Central (it’s actually located at the junction of Toa Payoh Central & Toa Payoh Lorong 3).  I only took photo of the sky-blue coloured church from the outside & read the short writeup on the heritage signboard at the entrance, because the scorching sun / soaring high temperature (34 degrees celsius!) that day was really getting me quite tired from all the walking.  Hence I had to stop exploring the rest of the landmarks (3 left) on the heritage trail.

Church of the Risen Christ

If you are interested to explore this heritage trail, here is a photo of the map I took at 1 of the landmark signboards for your easy reference:

Toa Payoh heritage trail map

The filling lunch I took before I started the trail had long been digested, leaving me thirsty, hungry & tired, so I decided to settle somewhere to rest & recharge.  Finally, the January 2015 Sunday Times feature on Toa Payoh cafes came in handy & I referred to the map which I scanned into my mobile app for the nearest chill-spot:

Map of cafes in Toa Payoh that sprouted over the last year (extracted from Sunday Times Jan'15)

Map of cafes in Toa Payoh that sprouted over the last year (extracted from Sunday Times Jan’15)

Initially I decided on the Little Prince Creamery as it seems relatively near to Church of the Risen Christ.  But I lost my bearings, overshot & when I finally found the pretty little cafe, it was closed that day to my disappointment. 😦 So I ended up heading to Shrove Tuesday (Blk 94 Toa Payoh Lorong 4 #01-32, Tel: +65 62582254).

The cafe name sounds pretty interesting, & I discovered on the cafe wall that its name came from a Christian tradition – Shrove Tuesday, which is a day of repentance.  “Shrove Tuesday” is derived from the word “shrive”, which means to confess & receive absolution.  The name denotes a period of cleansing, wherein a person brings their lusts & appetites under subjection through abstention & self-sacrifice.  As rich food such as eggs, butter & milk were forbidden during Lent, one way of using them up would be to make, in the case of this cafe, awesome Waffles, Pastries & Ice Cream! 😉

Lovely cafe decor

Lovely cafe decor

I didn’t try their specialty waffles as it looked too big for one so I ordered a slice of the pretty rainbow cake ($6), as well as a pot of peach honeycomb tea with ice ($4.50, highly recommended by the staff).  Loved the fragrant sweet tea, but there’s definitely room for improvement for the rainbow cake as it was pretty dry, especially at the bottom.  Nonetheless commendable effort for trying to distinguish the different coloured layers with distinct flavours such as lime, at least it’s not just artificial colourings like most other rainbow cakes out there. 😉

A refreshing afternoon tea in a cosy cafe

A refreshing afternoon tea in a cosy cafe

Shrove Tuesday is located about 5 min away from Braddell MRT (at the exit opposite the SPH News Centre).  It’s worth making a visit there again given the reasonable prices, nice ambience & great waffles (so I heard) & tea!

Hope my long post provided you some insight into one of Singapore’s oldest towns & spur you to explore the neighbourhood.  Enjoy! 🙂

Getting to Toa Payoh New Town

MRT: Braddell (NS18) & Toa Payoh (NS19) on the North South (red) line

Bus: Toa Payoh Bus Interchange

[UPDATED JUNE 2015] I was back in Toa Payoh to run some errands recently & as I had some spare time in between errands, I headed to the Little Prince Creamery (Blk 47 Toa Payoh Lor 6 #01-134, Tel: +65 86848218; about 10 min walk away from Toa Payoh Central MacDonald’s) which was closed when I tried to visit the last round.  Upon entering the little 24-seater cafe, one would feel welcomed by the beautiful drawings all around, as if one has entered the poetic world of the Little Prince.

The Little Prince Creamery - taken on Tues when it's closed

The Little Prince Creamery – taken on Tues when it’s closed

As I already had my lunch prior to visiting the cafe, I decided to order its signature waffles with a scoop of its bestselling ice cream – earl grey Latte flavour ($6.50) to try.  Oh boy, the waffles was freshly baked upon ordering so it was warm & crispy, while the earl grey latte ice cream was fragrant & went well with the lovely waffles!  No wonder waffles is their signature & the earl grey latte a bestseller, price is reasonable too, compared to other cafes out there.  Hooray to myself for making a great choice hahaha!

Enter the world of the Little Prince & enjoy its signature waffles :)

Enter the world of the Little Prince & enjoy its signature waffles 🙂

I must give a thumbs up to the only staff in the cafe during the busy mealtime I visited for the efficiency.  Despite having to attend to 5 orders at the same time, my waffles was served rather promptly though I had to wait around 10 minutes before my order could be taken.  Personally I feel this is a cafe worth a visit, especially if you are in Toa Payoh. 😉

This was written after visiting the Toa Payoh New Town in April 2015, updated in June 2015.

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