The Yew Tee we know today is a large housing estate, but in the past it used to be a village in the north. Its name means “oil pond” in Teochew, because the Japanese used to store oil in the area during the Japanese Occupation. The village was once home to 300 families, many of whom were small-time farmers, rearing poultry and growing vegetables.
Similarly, the earliest residents in Ulu Pandan were Malay fishermen who made their living catching prawns and crabs along the river, and harvesting coconuts, bananas and other tropical fruit. The area is named after Ulu Pandan River, or Sungei Ulu Pandan. The word “ulu” means “upstream” in Malay, in reference to how the river flows westward towards the Pandan River. The many wild screwpine trees, or pandan, along the river bank contributed to the other half of Ulu Pandan’s name.
A wave of Javanese fishermen soon joined the community, followed by the Hokkiens who came from Anxi county in Fujian, China. The Hokkiens were farmers who grew durians, rambutans and most notably, rubber trees. In 1909, Ulu Pandan Rubber Estates Limited was established, and became a major rubber producer in the area, having bought over many of the existing rubber estates.
The nearby area of Bukit Panjang, meaning “long hill” in Malay in reference to the low hills that lined the vicinity, also comprised rural settlements in the early 1900s.
The town was initially known as Zhenghua, after Jalan Cheng Hwa, a nearby road, but was renamed by the Housing Development Board in 1987 because “Bukit Panjang” was more familiar to the public.
Land in the area was largely used for agriculture, with one example being the establishment of the Cold Storage Dairy Farm around 1930. The farm produced fresh milk and ice cream, and was in operation till the 1970s.
Bukit Panjang was always known for its community spirit. In 1950, the Bukit Panjang Child Welfare Clinic opened its doors as the first rural health clinic built in Singapore using funds contributed by the locals. The centre provided free milk, vaccinations and inoculations, and birth delivery services. Residents only needed to pay the cost of transporting nurses to and from the confinement area. According to a 1951 article, the centre served between 150 to 200 mothers from various ethnic groups.
Travelling further down the road, we come to Yishun, named after Lim Nee Soon. In the 1930s, his son, businessman Lim Chong Pang, established Chong Pang Village. It was originally called Westhill village but the colonial government renamed it Chong Pang Village in 1956 in honour of Lim Chong Pang’s contributions.
Chong Pang Village was centred around a row of shophouses, the village’s business, commercial and residential core. Towards the west and the south lay vegetable and fruit farming regions. While the initial majority of the village populations were Indians, they were soon outnumbered by the Chinese after the construction of the Paya Lebar Airport around 1954, which led to an exodus of Chinese families who left Paya Lebar for Chong Pang.
During the Japanese invasion, many villagers fled their homes for fear of being killed by the Japanese soldiers. The area around Sultan Theatre was converted into a red-light district, while the theatre itself became an ammunitions house.
Between the early 1900s and 1970s, the two main commercial centres in this part of Singapore were Chong Pang Village and the neighbouring Nee Soon Village. However, the village was razed to the ground in 1989, and today Sembawang New Town stands in its place.