How Balestier got its name

An exhibition on the neighbourhood tells the history of the area from the mid-1800s to the 1960s and features more than 130 artefacts and documents

From 1920 to 1970, the old bungalow at 540 Balestier Road belonging to the Aljunieds, who were the first Arabs to settle here, was a regular haunt for Chinese, Indian and Eurasian women.

They went there to learn about midwifery and traditional Malay herbal medicine from Sharifah Alawiya Abu Bakar Aljunied, the household's matriarch.

Her great-granddaughter, psychologist Mariam Aljunied, 48, remembers visiting the house as a child. She recalls: "The house was always very busy, with lots of people coming and going. As part of our tradition, we would offer the sirei (betel leaf) to whoever came."

Vital to these social gatherings are an ancient betel chewing set and a spittoon - family heirlooms that Dr Aljunied has loaned to an exhibition on the Balestier neighbourhood, which runs till April 24 next year at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall.

Organised by the memorial hall, Balestier: A Hundred Years exhibition tells the history of the area from the mid-1800s to the 1960s, concentrating on local colour and personal stories.

  • VIEW IT/BALESTIER: A HUNDRED YEARS

    WHERE: Sun Yat SenNanyang Memorial Hall, 12 Tai Gin Road
    WHEN: Till April 24. 10am to 5pm, Tuesday to Sunday, closed on Monday
    ADMISSION: Free
    INFO: Go to www.wanqingyuan.org.sg

  • Exhibition Highlights

  • 1. A family portrait of the Aljunieds who lived in Balestier

    This picture shows the Aljunieds, who descended from the first Arabs to arrive in Singapore from Yemen. For generations, the family lived in a bungalow in Balestier, including household matriarch Sharifah Alawiya Abu Bakar Aljunied (seated on left). She was the wife of Syed Abdul Rahman Aljunied, the grandson of Syed Sharif Omar Ali Aljunied, a spice and cotton trader. The exhibition showcases their lives in Balestier through a series of photos.

    2. Rattan tote bag

    This rattan woven tote bag with a floral design is from the collection of the National Museum of Singapore. During the 1950s, several rattan factories could be found to the north of Balestier Road.

    3. Medicinal herb pounder from Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital

    This pounder, which was used in the past for traditional Chinese medicine, is on display in a section on healthcare in Balestier. The area was also home to theTan Tock Seng Hospital,named after the Chinese philanthropist who donated money to build it.When Tan Tock Seng Hospital moved to Novena,Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital moved into its old premises.

    4. Interactive map of Balestier 

    The exhibition includes an interactive display of the roads in the Balestier area, from the main Balestier Roadthoroughfare to the roads branching off it, such asAhHoodRoad, Tai Gin Road andWhampoaDrive. Each sign has a sliding panel that reveals fun facts.

Visitors can find out about the origins of the neighbourhood's name - the American consul Joseph Balestier lived here in colonial times - and the industries which sprung up there, such as sugar plantations, rattan factories and film studios, among others.

For the show, the organisers borrowed more than 130 artefacts and documents from community contributors and conducted interviews with these people.

This was to "give an idea of the lives of people and what it was like working in Balestier in the past," says the exhibition's assistant curator, Ms Goh Yu Mei, who works at the memorial hall.

Such stories may not be known to Singaporeans today, who think of Balestier as a home to budget hotels, home and decor shops as well as a string of hipster cafes which have emerged in the area.

Ms Goh adds: "The exhibition portrays Balestier's development as a multi-cultural suburban area. We hope visitors get to understand how unique this area is and learn about its history."

An interesting exhibit is a medicinal herb pounder contributed by the Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital, established as a hospital in Balestier in 1910. It is set to undergo a $96-million transformation to become an integrated healthcare hub for the elderly and the community.

The hospital's board member Wan Shung Ming said that the hospital selected items that were donated or given by the public: "We have a lot of gifts that have been used for a long time. We have been here for 105 years and everyone in Balestier, not just the Chinese, know and trust us."

Other exhibits include old photographs of places such as the Singapore Indian Association's clubhouse and the Shaw Brothers' Malay Film Productions studio, located at Jalan Ampas off Balestier Road.

The memorial hall is also holding a series of activities to tie in with the exhibition, such as a two-hour guided Balestier heritage and food trail, which runs once every month from now till next April. It is fully booked.

Those interested in Balestier's heritage can attend talks next year by Dr Aljunied on her family, as well as the Urban Redevelopment Authority on its conservation efforts in the area.


Other events

Here is the line-up of activities related to the Balestier: A Hundred Years exhibition and the Wan Qing CultureFest, an annual arts and cultural event organised by the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall.

1. Public Lecture: Food & Social Media

What: Alex Ortega, who moderates the photography website Clubsnap, talks about food photography on social media and gives tips on how to capture and present food well. Part of Wan Qing CultureFest.

When: Today, 1.30 to 3.30pm

2. Closing Ceremony, Wan Qing CultureFest

What: The festival's closing cere- mony will have a variety show showcasing clothing from the past 50 years, as well as a mini pasar malam with games and snacks.

When: Today, 7 to 9pm

3. Protecting Balestier Road - a look behind the scenes

What: Conducted by Mr Kelvin Ang, director of conservation management at the Urban Redevelopment Authority, this talk will shed light on the authority and its partners' conservation efforts, such as a decision to gazette more than 160 buildings for conservation in 2003.

When: Jan 16, 2.30 to 4.30pm

4. The Aljunieds of Singapore

What: Dr Mariam Aljunied, a descendant of Syed Sharif Omar Ali Aljunied, the first Arab to land in Singapore in 1819, will share her family history and heritage, as well as the time they spent living in Balestier.

When: March 12, 2.30 to 4.30pm

All activities are free and held at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall. For more information, go to www.sysnmh.org.sg/en

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2015, with the headline 'How Balestier got its name'. Print Edition | Subscribe