Discovering Punggol Zoo

In 1928, a man by the name of William Lawrence Soma Basapa (1893-1943) acquired 27 hectares of land along Track 22 Punggol Road to setup the first full size public zoo and bird park, which would later become better known as Punggol Zoo.

W.L.S. Basapa and Mdm Alberta Maddox among his zebras. Image taken from singaporebasapa.com

W.L.S. Basapa and Mdm Alberta Maddox among his zebras. Image taken from singaporebasapa.com

The Punggol Zoo was a hit in pre-war Singapore, largely because of its nominal entrance fee of 40 cents and an extensive array of over 200 animals and 2,000 birds ranging from Black Panthers and Arabian Camels, to Shetland Horses and even Basapa’s very own Bengal Tiger, better known as “Apay”.

Basapa and his favourite pet, the Bengal tiger 'Apay'. Image taken from singaporebasapa.com

Basapa and his favourite pet, the Bengal tiger ‘Apay’. Image taken from singaporebasapa.com

Basapa’s profession as an animal trader and zoo owner soon led him to become the first Singaporean to be inducted into the Zoological Society of Great Britain as well as the nickname ‘ Animal  Man ‘. He even contributed a large portion of around 80 dead animals to the Raffles Museum (now National Museum of Singapore), many of which have since been transferred to the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research located at the National University of Singapore.

The beginnings of Basapa’s Punggol Zoo however started back in his inherited house along 317 Serangoon Road (though some say it was 549 Serangoon Road) where Basapa began collecting an array of birds and animals from 1920-1922. Many visitors including even Albert Einstein visited this premise, but Basapa soon found the stench and crowds too overpowering and hence the move to the muddy but coastal settlement in Punggol.

317 Serangoon Road at Potong Pasir MRT. The supposed former site of Basapa's first Zoo

317 Serangoon Road at Potong Pasir MRT. The supposed former site of Basapa’s first Zoo

549 Upper Serangoon Road, the other possible site of where Basapa's Zoo was

549 Upper Serangoon Road, the other possible site of where Basapa’s Zoo was

The Japanese Occupation however would put a quick end to the Punggol Zoo as the British forces, having identified Punggol Beach as a possible landing site of the enemy, took over the Punggol Zoo and gave Basapa 24-hours to rehome all the animals, those that weren’t were eventually shot. A devastated Basapa passed away in 1943.

Malayan Tapirs at the Punggol Zoo. Image taken from singaporebasapa.com

Malayan Tapirs at the Punggol Zoo. Image taken from singaporebasapa.com

30 foot python. Image taken from singaporebasapa.com

30 foot python. Image taken from singaporebasapa.com

A journey and some research led me to where the supposed site of Punggol Zoo was previously located. Considering it was 27ha and started along Track 22, it is perhaps plausible that it occupies a large portion of what we know today as Punggol Pormenade or Punggol Point.

A rusted bridge found after a little walk through the vegetation

A rusted bridge found after a little walk through the vegetation

A possible vantage point to look at the animals from above

A possible vantage point to look at the animals from above

A wider view of where Punggol Zoo could possibly have been

A wider view of where Punggol Zoo could possibly have been

Not too far off to say that this river might have been used to house some water based animals

Not too far off to say that this river might have been used to house some water based animals

I also paid particular attention to the riverfront area of Sungei Dekar (now called Coney Channel) with Coney Island just across and even managed to discover a rusty bridge in the rather dense undergrowth that might possibly have been a vantage point for viewing animals in the zoo.

Another view of the bridge

Another view of the bridge

A peek out onto Punggol Promenade with Pasir Gudang across the sea.

A peek out onto Punggol Promenade with Pasir Gudang across the sea.

The punggol zoo was located along the waterfront of what now is Punggol Promenade and close to Coney Island as seen on the right

The punggol zoo was located along the waterfront of what now is Punggol Promenade and close to Coney Island as seen on the left

Interestingly the area of Punggol Point, including the former site of Punggol Zoo looks set to be developed as part of the ongoing Punggol 21 project, let’s just hope something memorable about the Punggol Zoo pops up while all that development is going on.

Punggol point is one of the many sites set for development under Punggol 21

Punggol point is one of the many sites set for development under Punggol 21

15 comments

  1. Nice to see someone write up on my family history. Good work dude. The locations are almost exactly correct. Interesting to know you manage to get your hands on some of the analogue images as well. Cheers.

    • nickyeo

      Nice to meet someone from the family as well 🙂 May i ask how are you related to Mr Basapa? Oh and the locations are really thanks to some info i got off a site here: https://sgfilmhunter.wordpress.com/tag/punggol-zoo/ , together with some of my cycling expeditions to the area.

      I used to actually head to Punggol End for seafood dinners so was really interested to find out more of where this zoo was. 🙂

  2. William Lawrence Soma Basapa niece is my grandmother. His wife was a very rich lady, she once owned both North and South Bridge Roads and later sold it to the Singapore government.

    My great grand father (Mr. Veragoo)’s wife is the sister of William Lawrence Soma Basapa, Vergagoo also owned several estates in Singapore and later sold it to the government where HDBs, schools and many other buildings stand today.

    The only remaining plot of land that bears Veragoo’s name is a lane opposite St. Paul’s church at Kovan. The very recent land sold by the grand children of Soma Basapa is where Singapore University of Technology and Design is today.

    There are many other lands that were sold throughout the years but were never really disclosed properly because Vergaoo and the other families had some dispute. There is a list of 2nd (probably still around), 3rd, 4th and 5th generation children of the Basapas and Veragoos that are still around today either in Singapore or outside.

    • nickyeo

      Thanks for all the insights, learning a lot more about your familiy lineage as well as Singapore history along the way as well! And i am quite fond of Veragoo lane as i do stay quite near to Kovan myself.

  3. ben

    Hi, may i know how to enter to the rusty bridge? have been trying to figure out from ur pictures but guess its best to asked you. Thanks bro.

    • nickyeo

      Hi Ben, if you look at the last picture where you can see the bridge linking Punggol Promendade to Coney Island, there’s a small canal that leads in from the sea intowards the land, just head to some of the bushes beside and there should be a couple of paths that head inside. It’s less than a minutes walk after that!

  4. DT

    Hi there, just confirm, walking from the jetty to the new link between main land and conney island, you’re saying to bash in straight to see the rusty bridge? any chance if you know the place where this link is talking about too?

    http://remembersingapore.wordpress.com/2012/03/19/a-zoo-in-punggol/

    • nickyeo

      Hi there,

      The area with the rusty bridge is through some vegetation about 20m before the bridge that links to coney island. As for the area indicated in the link you posted, I’ve never managed to get a chance to discover it but if you head into Punggol end you will notice that the different avenues increase as you near punggol jetty. My best guess is that the tombs are currently some distance before the horse riding area at punggol end now 🙂

  5. Haz

    Looks like a nice place to explore. Is it okay to go there or is there some “No Trespassing” sign in the area?

    • nickyeo

      I’m not too sure about now as there are a lot of construction going on but the area i went to at least didn’t have any no trespassing signs 🙂

  6. Shirleen

    Hey Nicky, I really like your blog! As a Singaporean living abroad, it always feels close to the heart being able to read and feel connected to home. Keep up the good work!! 🙂

  7. Jirada Hutasing

    Just two things seems wrong…317 Serangoon Road was, In fact, a renumbering of 549 by the authorities in 1958 or 59. In short, it was 549 when Basapa built the house. That’s the second error: he didn’t inherit it. He built it. His daughter Dorothy was a dear friend of mine since childhood, so I know!

    • nickyeo

      Thanks for the info, didn’t know about the renumbering of the place. Interesting to know that Basapa built the house as well, thanks again for the correction!

  8. Great website Nicky. I grew up in Lorong Basapa, a short road to your right as you turned from Upper Serangoon into old Tampenis Road. (Yes, it was spelled Tampenis then.) I used to go with schoolmates from Holy Innocents School to play on that zoo land at the end of Track 22. We’d cycle there and back. Did you know that someone, supposedly a Russian, built and lived in a little stone house next to that stream in one of your photos? That was in maybe 1956 or 57. The guy was found murdered. He had no family. This was told to us by some people who lived nearby, vegetable farmers. So we never went near that house. Anyway, that zoo land has never been developed into anything so far. Pity. It should be a park with some signage to indicate that its housed this proud nation’s first public zoo and bird park.

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