Ponggol Zoo gone, but not forgotten

The new Punggol Point Crown housing precinct will have an animal-themed heritage walk dotted with signboards displaying interesting facts about Ponggol Zoo's history, animals and significant visitors.
The new Punggol Point Crown housing precinct will have an animal-themed heritage walk dotted with signboards displaying interesting facts about Ponggol Zoo's history, animals and significant visitors.PHOTO: HOUSING BOARD

One of Singapore's earliest zoos, the Ponggol Zoo's first home was actually in Serangoon.

Owner William Lawrence Soma Basapa, a Singaporean Indian landowner, set up the private zoo in 1920 on the grounds of his family residence at 317 Serangoon Road.

As his collection of animals and birds grew, he acquired 11ha of seafront land in Punggol roughly corresponding to where the new Punggol Point Crown housing precinct will be built. The zoo relocated to Punggol in 1928. According to the National Heritage Board's Roots.sg website, Mr Basapa's collection eventually grew to about 200 animals and 2,000 birds.

He brought in exotic animals from South Africa, South America and Australia. He also owned a Bengal tiger called Apay which followed him around on a leash.

"This animal became a principal figure in family stories, but none of us knows exactly what happened to Apay," said Mr Lawrence Basapa, 73, the owner's grandson.

The site was taken over by British forces during World War II in 1942. Mr William Lawrence Soma Basapa was given just 24 hours to vacate the area with his animals and birds, and was unable to save many of them. The British freed the birds and animals deemed harmless and shot the more dangerous ones.

Mr Basapa died in 1943 but he and his zoo will live on in spirit through the Punggol Point Crown housing project. "The fact that (the project) will permanently capture aspects of his zoo... brings pride to me and my family," said his grandson. "The zoo was part of our heritage and, more importantly, part of Singapore's heritage."

Lester Wong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2019, with the headline 'Ponggol Zoo gone, but not forgotten'. Print Edition | Subscribe