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

By Lynn Han
/ EdgeProp Singapore |
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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
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 no avail. The layout of the pedestrian mall was thus amended to accommodate the tree. Eventually, a shrine dedicated to the Guan Yin goddess and the Four-faced Buddha was set up at the site. Many residents would visit it to pray for protection, blessings and even lottery windfalls.
The God Tree Shrine at Block 177 Photo Credits:
The God Tree Shrine at Block 177 Photo Credits:

2. Dragon Playground (A Singapore heritage icon)

Location: 28 Lorong 6 Toa Payoh, Singapore 310028
One of the most beloved icons in Toa Payoh is the Dragon Playground at Block 28 at Toa Payoh Lorong 6. Since most kampongs based in Toa Payoh were predominantly Chinese, it is unsurprising to find symbols of Chinese culture such as dragons featured in the town. In Chinese mythology, dragons are revered as divine mystical creatures that bring wealth and good fortune.
When the HDB introduced locally-designed playgrounds in the 1970s, its goal was to build camaraderie and a sense of identity around common local themes. The Dragon Playground, conceptualised by former HDB designer Khor Ean Ghee, was functional and included slides, swings and colourful steel rings for the children to play with. The charming landmark has since stood the test of time and is now recognised as an outstanding monument of local design and architecture.
Dragon Playground in Toa Payoh Photo Credits: Flickr
Dragon Playground in Toa Payoh. Photo Credits: Flickr
Rediscover Toa Payoh Today!
#FINDYOURSPOT in our beloved city island
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3. The Queen’s Visit to

Block 53 Toa Payoh

Location: 53 Lorong 5 Toa Payoh, Singapore 310053
An aerial view of Block 53 Photo credits:
An aerial view of Block 53 Photo credits:
Did you know among all the estates in Singapore, Toa Payoh has played host to the rich and the famous – and even royalty? The UK’s Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom graced the block with her presence in 1972!
Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the viewing gallery in 1972 Photo
As Toa Payoh became known as an example of Singapore’s effective public housing programme, foreign and local dignitaries were invited to visit the estate, in particular, the unique Block 53. It was also called the “Y-Shaped Block” as the architecture forms a Y when viewed from the top (see picture above/below). Perched on the roof of Block 53 is a viewing gallery, where several foreign and local guests have enjoyed sweeping views of the estate.

4. Chung Hwa Medical Institutio

n in Toa Payoh Lorong 4

Chung Hwa Medical Institution in Toa Payoh Photo credits: Flickr
Location: 640 Lorong 4 Toa Payoh, Singapore 319522
The final highlight of the Toa Payoh Heritage Trail is the Chung Hwa Medical Institution, first established in 1978. Currently the headquarters of the Singapore Chinese Physicians’ Association (SCPA), it houses a clinic providing affordable Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) treatments to patients from all walks of life. There are also research institutes and a college offering courses on TCM drugs and acupuncture.
Funds to construct the building were raised through a massive community effort, with over 5,000 taxi drivers and 500 trishaw riders donating their savings. Together, over $5 million were raised through charity sales, musicals, performances and dinners for the clinic, which drew about 400 patients on its first day of opening.
Today, some ninety TCM physicians staff the clinic on a voluntary basis. The clinic provides free medicine and herbs for those unable to afford medical treatment, with some paying only a token 50-cent registration fee. A laudable act!
The Toa Payoh Heritage Trail reveals the many tales behind the mature residential neighbourhood of Toa Payoh. I hope you have enjoyed the journey and that it has given you much food for thought!
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