Nowadays Balestier road in known as the place to go when you want to purchase some lighting but once upon a time it was an area used for sugar cane plantations. Even the street names remind us of this, Jalan Ampas refers to the fibrous pulp that remains after sugar cane has been crushed to extract the juice, which is ampas tebu in Malay. The area also played an important role in the 1911 Chinese revolution, due to the presence of the elegant villa on Tai Gin Road, now the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall.
Sun Yat Sen and his supporters were responsible for bringing down the last Chinese dynasty and founding the Republic of China. The villa was purchased by a supporter of the Chinese Nationalist Movement in 1905 and gifted to Sun Yat Sen in 1906 to use as a base for the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance. It became an essential headquarters for the Southeast Asian operations of this Alliance and many uprisings were planned during Sun Yat Sen’s visits. After the 1911 Revolution it became the headquarters of the Chinese National Party. The memorial hall is well worth a visit and their one hour guided tours are very much worthwhile.
Right next door to the memorial hall is this beautiful Burmese Buddhist Temple, Maha Sasana Ramsi. A feature of the temple is the tiered roof made with 19 tonnes of Burmese teak and on the third floor a mural depicting the story of the temple. Inside they have used LED lights to literally make the Buddha radiant and outside grows a Bodhi tree with a small shrine beneath. The Buddha attained enlightenment while meditating under such a tree.
Also in Balestier are the former Shaw Malay Film Studios. The Shaw name is one you might be familiar with as it can still be seen on various buildings around Singapore. Shaw Studios was founded in Shanghai in 1924 by six brothers, two of whom (Runme and Run Run Shaw) later moved to Singapore. From the 1930s to the 1980s, Shaw Studios was a major force in Asian cinema with production houses in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. In addition to their movie making business the Shaw brothers also ran cinemas and amusement parks. The Shaw film studios were on Jalan Ampas alongside sites which were used as production centres. After producing more than 160 films the Golden Age of Malay Cinema came to an end when the studio closed in 1967. By this time interest in Malay movies was on the wane due to the rising popularity of imported films and television.
Balestier Road and its side streets also offer many beautiful pre-war terrace and shop houses, once renowned for their sweet treats, coffee and traditional bakeries. The majority of these building are now under conservation and the single storey shop houses near the Thompson Road end of Balestier offer a glimpse of life outside the city centre in the 1950s and 60s.