Toa Payoh Heritage Trail: Tales of Toa Payoh [Local Guide]

An English idiom goes: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
I’d like to further add: “Take some time to read the pages!”
Toa Payoh, a cosy, heartland town in the centre of Singapore, is one fine example. Today, it is a bustling neighbourhood, a mature residential estate with well-developed amenities and facilities. But did you know the estate was once hailed as the ‘Chicago of Singapore’, feared by residents for being rife with gang fights and organised crime?
In the early 1960s, the exponential growth of Singapore’s population amid unsanitary conditions meant that large policy strides had to be taken to solve health and housing crises. The HDB faced challenges in developing Toa Payoh as the second satellite town to house the citizens. These included relocating kampong (village) dwellers and farmers living in Singapore’s central region.
Even after multiple solutions were provided ­– cash compensation or resettlement to other HDB developments or farming areas – new problems emerged. In the 1970s, secret societies began running rackets in the estate, selling moonshine (illegally distilled liquor) and collecting protection money within their fiercely guarded turfs. As a result, several community initiatives were pioneered, such as the first Residents’ Association (known as Residents’ Committee today) to create a safer and more inclusive estate for all.
Join me as I go on a deep dive into the rich and storied past of Toa Payoh via a stroll along the Toa Payoh Heritage Trail. We will start at the God Tree Shrine and end at the Singapore Chung Hwa Medical Institution.
Map of Toa Payoh Heritage Trail Photo credits: Google Maps

1. The God Tree Shrine at Block 177

Situated along a nondescript stretch of Toa Payoh shophouses is the Ci Ern Ge (慈恩阁) or
God Tree Shrine at Toa Payoh Block 177. During the heavy redevelopment of the land during the 1960s, the Banyan tree was claimed by workers to be indestructible. Bulldozers would malfunction, they said, shifting in reverse instead of towards the direction of the tree. Religious leaders were invited to pray for the successful removal of the tree, to...