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    Jun 20, 2016

    Mandai was once home to refugees from China

    TO MANY people, Mandai may be associated only with the zoo but a recent study has found that the area has many human interest stories too.

    Just decades ago in the hilly Mandai jungle, there used to lie a settlement for Catholic refugees who had moved here to escape persecution and political unrest in Swatow, China.

    About 750 Teochew villagers found refuge here after arriving between 1927 and 1928.

    For this, they had to thank the late Catholic priest Father Stephen Lee, who wrote to the British government 50 times to ask for land in Mandai for the refugees to settle.

    This and other stories of Mandai were uncovered in a year-long study by a team from Singapore History Consultants (SHC), who were commissioned by developer Mandai Safari Park Holdings.

    The wholly owned unit of Temasek Holdings is building a 126ha nature precinct in Mandai in phases from 2020 to 2023.

    The plan is to use the research to help conceptualise the development plans and design, based on authentic historical research of the area, said the developer.

    The research could also be detailed in a heritage trail in the future.

    SHC director Jeya Ayadurai said: "Initially, we saw just a large green area. We wondered if we would be able to find anything to share beyond the natural heritage.

    "But we've uncovered this past world that was rich in layers of social, religious and economic history. Mandai has a story worth telling."

    According to old maps, Mandai was also home to several granite quarries such as the Singapore Granite Quarries Mill and Seng Kee Quarry.

    The granite from these places was used for the construction of the Causeway in the 1920s and the British Naval Base in Sembawang in the 1930s. It was also used in the foundation work for roads, canals and Housing Board projects, said SHC.

    The SHC team, which carried out 16 expeditions into the Mandai forest, also discovered, intact, remnant structures from the area's old kampungs and religious structures such as the Hu Tou Shan Temple.

    Mr Jeya said: "There are foundations of old kampung houses as well as pathways."

    The kampungs and community facilities were cleared in the 1980s as Singapore modernised. The land now belongs to Mindef while another portion, where the former Mandai Orchid Garden was sited, belongs to the Singapore Land Authority. The zoo opened in Mandai in 1973.

    Temasek's managing director of its enterprise development group Neo Gim Huay, who grew up in Mandai's Lorong Asrama, described the heritage trail as an "outdoor classroom".

    "Visitors will be able to walk the trails, visit the key landmarks and hear the stories of Mandai, perhaps, even learn how to pluck rambutan from the trees and draw water from the wells," she said.

    Said heritage blogger and naval architect Jerome Lim: "To most Singaporeans, Mandai is just the zoo. It is timely to weave aspects of the past there into a trail."