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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.