Heritage-rich Balestier in new chapter

This story was first published in The Straits Times on July 12, 2013

Once a sleepy district that came alive only after sundown, Balestier is seeing the first waves of renewal through a new mall and two brand-name hotels.

In an area filled with old Art Deco shophouses, the new developments, along with an office building which was completed in March, provide a burst of modernity with their sleek marble floors and minimalist bamboo facades.

The Ramada and Days Hotels, which are run by the United States-based Wyndham Hotel Group, have added another 800 rooms to an area known for local budget hotels such as the Hotel 81 chain. And they are already starting to see a flurry of tourists from South-east Asia.

The two-storey Zhongshan Mall at Ah Hood Road will only officially open by the end of the year, but around 20 of its 30 tenants, including FairPrice Finest and a ThaiExpress food outlet, are already open for business.

Ms Charlotte Tan, group general manager of developer HH Properties, hopes the mall would not just cater to Balestier's residents, but also draw overseas and local visitors.

Still, the development does not forget Balestier's rich past.

The mall is named after the founding father of the Republic of China, Dr Sun Yat Sen, who is also known as Sun Zhongshan - paying homage to its close location to the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, a two-storey villa which Dr Sun once used to plan his revolution.

Balestier has seen a lot since Mr Joseph Balestier, the first United States consul to Singapore, set up a sugarcane plantation in what was once a swampy area in 1834.

Its iconic landmarks, from the famous Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong temple built by Chinese immigrants in 1847 to the Art Deco shophouses of the 1930s, show how the area was a melting pot of different cultures.

During its heyday between the 1940s and 1970s, the district bustled with night markets, cinemas and Chinese opera.

But the area started to fade in the 80s as people preferred the more popular shopping districts such as Orchard.

Balestier gained a reputation for being crime-infested and a venue for vice.

In 2002, the Urban Redevelopment Authority designated it a heritage area and conserved over 150 shophouses there.

Lighting shops provided many of the tenants. Condominiums also started to sprout. But business remained dull.

In 2008, the URA sold the land to HH Properties to build a hotel-commercial complex in hopes that it would also boost the profile of Balestier's unique character.

Residents from nearby condos and the Ah Hood housing estates have been taking advantage of the mall's new amenities.

"Before Zhongshan Mall was opened, we used to ride our bikes two bus stops down to Shaw Plaza to shop for groceries," said architect Miguel Ofilas, 33, who moved into the area three months ago.

"With the new mall, it's a lot more convenient."

But whether the new developments will spark a new buzz remains to be seen.

Some are hopeful, such as Madam Angelyn Lim, who opened a nail spa called VIP Nail Boutique at the new mall two months ago.

"Previously, the area was a little rundown and it was known only as a supper place," said Madam Lim, who lived in Balestier for more than eight years, until the beginning of this year.

"But with more condominiums and foreigners in the area, we saw the potential and decided to set up shop."

Ms May Lai is the co-owner of Paw Pets-radise next to Zhongshan Mall.

She said: "We hope that people will go shopping next door and leave their dogs for pet-sitting here."

Ms Christina Quek, a florist at Balestier Plaza, is not sure that the relatively small mall and the hotels will attract much interest.

"Although there are a lot of eateries, there is little shopping," she said, adding that the mall has also not generated the same buzz as other new developments, such as Jem at Jurong East.

"They need to increase the number of activities at Zhongshan mall," she added.

Full-time national serviceman Parry Lim, 22, who has lived in Balestier all his life, also does not think people will flock to Zhongshan Mall because it lacked an "X factor" such as a cinema.

Mr Lim Seah Seng, 58, owner of the 67-year-old Lim Kay Khee Optical House, an optical shop which sells glasses with spectacle frames that come in vintage designs and even have stocks from years ago, is not relying too heavily on the new mall and hotels to revitalise the district.

"Most of the tourists won't come all the way down to Balestier Road to visit our shop," he reckoned.

"At most, we'll have a 10 per cent increase because of tourists."

Traditional businesses also have another worry. They fear that they are being left out of Balestier's latest chapter.

Last month, Ann Soon Hong Bird Shop, a traditional songbird business, closed its shutters for good.

Mr Tan Bong Heong is the owner of Lam Yeo Coffee Powder Factory, which has been operating out of Balestier since 1960.

He sees his shop as among the last of a generation of small, traditional shophouse businesses.

"All the others were replaced by new ones, such as lighting shops," he said.

"It's sad to see the Singapore we knew change so much."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on July 12, 2013

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