On 19 August 2007, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong introduced the Punggol 21+ initiative to transform Punggol, located in Northeast Singapore, into “a waterfront town of the 21st century”.

The word Punggol is derived from the Malay word pengger (dead branches) and is expressed by some as ‘hurling sticks at the branches of fruit trees to bring them down to the ground’. Punggol was initially coined Tanjong Rangon on a map under the Jackson Plan of 1822. The Jackson Plan, also known as the "Plan of the Town of Singapore”, was devised by Sir Stamford Raffles as a blueprint for rapid urbanisation and order in the colony of Singapore. The plan, named after Lieutenant Philip Jackson, the colony's engineer and land surveyor, divided Singapore into ethnic functional subdivisions and laid the land out in a grid pattern.

Unbeknownst to many, Punggol was also home to Singapore’s first public zoo owned by wealthy Indian trader William Lawrence Soma Basapa, between 1920s and 1940s. Basapa, nicknamed ‘Animal Man’, was often accompanied by a big Bengal tiger named Apay. Punggol Zoo or Babujan Zoo as it was sometimes called, had a collection of 200 animals and 2,000 birds. The press called it a “Noah’s Ark”. Albert Einstein, the father of modern physics, was one of its first visitors in 1922 and said it was “ a wonderful zoological garden”.

The zoo was eventually taken over and destroyed by the British Army to fight the Japanese invasion in 1942. The British shot the animals and freed the birds. 'Animal Man' was devastated and passed away a year later in 1943. Nearby at Punggol Beach, 400 Chinese civilians were also massacred by the invading Japanese Hojo Kempei firing squad. The victims were detainees arrested from nearby Upper Serangoon Road. China-born migrants who came to Malaya after the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) were amongst those targeted as ‘undesirables’. The massacre is referred to as Sook Ching 肅清, meaning "purge through cleansing”.

Today, fifty years into independence, Punggol and its surrounding land is a frontier in a nation’s continuing dream towards a modern, civilised world.

NORTHEAST HINTERLAND is a series of nocturnes of the area, when sleep and sight are paradoxical, when histories, mythologies and legacies of the land play hide and seek with the past, present and future of its custodianship.


Photographs by Kevin WY Lee in residency with Exactly Foundation.

Sources: The Straits Times, Remember Singapore Blog, Wikipedia

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