All images by Eunice Sng for RICE Media
Above The Grandstand shopping mall, a clock tower’s hands remain frozen in place. It overlooks faded signages and rusty poles surrounding football fields.
This defunct timepiece sets the tone for Turf City, a place in Bukit Timah that feels stuck in time and out of sync with the rest of modern Singapore. But that will soon change.
Turf City’s 140-hectare site—the size of 200 football fields—comprising The Grandstand, sports facilities and a bunch of bungalows, will close by December 31 to make way for housing development.
The Singapore Turf Club occupied this space from 1933 to 1999 for horse racing activities before moving to Kranji. There are still remnants of the past at the Bukit Timah site, from horses’ stables to labourers’ quarters—albeit overgrown with weeds.
Some may recall enjoying meals at Turf City’s seafood restaurants. Or shopping at the old Giant hypermarket years ago. For most, it’s aptly ulu—a remote, forgotten place more easily accessible by car than public transport. It will depart quietly as 2024 beckons, blockaded and surrendering to construction dust.
From a top-down perspective, knocking down this racecourse-turned-recreational site makes sense. But beyond the lens of practicality, it reveals a nation hyper-fixated on efficient land use, where there’s no breathing room for communities to flourish on their own since places are demolished and rebuilt with the snap of an executive finger.
We see communities simply being manufactured into existence, zones designated for specific uses (Singapore Sports Hub, *SCAPE, etc). It raises the question of why everything in our urban landscape has to fit neatly into boxes.
Since 2000, Turf City has grown into a sports playground and more. There’s an axe-throwing range, a polo-riding academy and a go-karting arena. You can even find a row of antique stores selling wooden furniture from yesteryear, flanked by lush greenery.
Together, this potpourri of businesses has given Turf City a unique character, transforming old racecourse facilities into a social space for those craving an out-of-town experience. It feels organic. Unpolished. Real.
It was a place carved by people who wanted to build pockets of space in our concrete jungle to pursue their hobbies and interests—and it also oozes historical value.
All this will disappear in the name of progress.
As the Cross Island line’s new Turf City MRT station is under construction, tenants must vacate their premises to make way. They were left in limbo.
“Everyone’s gutted about it. There’s nothing we can do,” remarks Zac Mirza, the 47-year-old co-owner of indie bar Kult Kafe.
“Over here, it’s nice to see kids, mums, dads and dogs come together.”
“It’s a great place for families to experience a whole variety of sports and things that they might not have discovered,” 61-year-old Monica Lim, director of Rosebrook Developmental Centre, chimes in.
But redevelopment plans have been a long time coming. The central plot of land was already set aside for residential use in the 1998 Master Plan.
For years, the communities that made Turf City their home knew at the back of their minds that they would be asked to leave one day. They just didn’t know when.
The death knell finally rang in September 2021, when the SLA announced that they would grant one final lease extension, expiring in December 2023.
One unfortunate leaseholder is the Ronnie O’Sullivan Snooker Academy (Rossa). The professional cue sports academy opened in June 2022 before being forced to close just over a year later.
“At that time, there was talk that The Grandstand would shut, but that had happened twice before, and the leases got extended,” says Rossa’s 70-year-old former technical director, Jason Colebrook.
“So we took the gamble that it would be extended again [beyond 2023]. And we’ve lost that gamble.”
Tenants and patrons alike accepted the news with heavy hearts. Many of them love the open spaces and look forward to visiting Turf City to escape city life.
Turf City is home to multiple football pitches, including those owned by local football facility company Premier Pitch. Senior engineer Tay Zar Min, 41, has been coming here for nine years to play football with his Burmese friends.
“The whole week, I am working and am under high pressure. But when we are playing football, I have peace of mind. We meet all our friends and chit-chat together here,” he offers.
Being somewhere far away from residential areas means they can shout and cheer without fear of disturbing others, so they have “more freedom”, he says.
“If we play at places near HDBs, then we worry that we might be disturbing the residents.”
Sheds beside the pitches allow players to sit down and take breaks in between games. The sheds are made from zinc and wood, giving it a kampung feel. I observe players laugh and eat meals together after a sweat session.
Premier Pitch managing director and former national footballer Faruk Alkaff shared that he used to plant banana and coconut trees in the area. The 56-year-old is happy to see workers dropping by at times to pluck the coconuts.
Since he opened Premier Pitch in 2007, many customers have become his friends. “Sometimes we play with them, sit there and do nothing, or tend to the trees that I planted.”
Another tenant that finds the environment irreplaceable is Rosebrook Developmental Centre, which serves as an inclusive community helping children with special needs. Rosebrook shares its space with Paisano Polo Academy, and the latter offers the children horse riding lessons.
“This place is amazing because of the outdoor environment, and there was the bonus of the horses being here as well. It was a match made in heaven,” says Monica.
“[Turf City] gives the children a lot of visual inspiration, and they feel open. That feeling of space helps them to feel like, ‘Wow, I can explore and discover’, which is what learning should be about. It’s been a place of healing, and they have become stronger,” she remarks.
Monica recalls how Rosebrook’s facilitators brought the children to a nearby brook. Walking through the forested knoll, the children would interact with the insects and animals they saw.
“Our kids love it.”
It is this atmosphere at Turf City that appeals to 58-year-old Alan Wong, owner of an antique store just further down the road. He recalls watching horses from the Bukit Timah Saddle Club—which has since relocated to Kranji—trot past his warehouse.
But construction for the new MRT has begun. Instead of horses, trucks carrying cement trundle past every few minutes, encroaching into Alan’s workspace.
The sound of cawing chickens interrupts our conversation. A jungle fowl approaches Alan, and he picks it up and starts stroking it tenderly.
It’s Alan’s two-year-old pet chicken, Harry. Alan keeps four chickens and lets them roam the nearby forest in the afternoon before they automatically return to his store when the sky turns dark. He would then carefully place them into his van and drive home, concluding a day of business.
Relocating is a struggle for the tenants. Few other places offer spaces as large as Turf City. Plus, they’re put off by higher rental costs elsewhere. Although The Straits Times reported that 75 per cent of the tenants managed to find new spaces, it came with significant challenges. Some closed for good.
Cue sports academy Rossa paid $3 per square foot per month at The Grandstand, but it is “impossible to find any other place under $5 per square foot that had either parking or a nearby MRT”, according to Jason.
Jason added that since snooker rooms in Singapore operate on a public entertainment license, which lumps them in the same category as nightclubs and karaoke bars (even when Rossa was a “serious training facility”, he protests), it limits where they can relocate.
Some buildings that would have been suitable for Rossa did not allow tenants with public entertainment licenses. Out of options, Rossa chose to cease operations in Singapore until a suitable opportunity presents itself.
Similarly, Italian F&B joint Ristorante Da Valentino intends to close for now. Chef-owner Valentino Valtulina, 49, faces problems with staffing. Combined with high rents at other locations, Valtulina opted to “put a stop”.
“It’s good to take a one-year break, then maybe during the year, the prices of food and transportation will stabilise. Maybe even when the manpower situation improves because of a change in policies, then we will be very lucky to restart again with a better condition.”
Gallop Stable, a horse-riding school, decided to relocate to 8 Admiralty Road East. But the space is only 2 hectares, a mere fifth of the space they own in Bukit Timah. It’s also more expensive to rent.
Gallop founder ‘Jackuda’ Shanker says they are doing their best to fit approximately 150 horses in the Admiralty site. They also have to consider altering their business model since Gallop currently collects rent from subtenants who use parts of their 10-hectare site. This is not possible in Admiralty due to space constraints.
Meanwhile, Rosebrook is still hunting for a new location.
“The staff, friends, parents and lots of people are looking out for places. Some are trying to help with money, some are trying to make connections,” Monica remarks.
“Everyone is doing what they can.”
‘Where To Find This Kind of Place in Singapore?’
Monica expressed frustration about the lack of ground-up spaces in Singapore where communities can thrive organically.
“Here, this place has a very natural coming together. There’s just too much control and planning elsewhere,” she sighs.
“It becomes very stifling, very artificial and very orchestrated. And it doesn’t have that same life. That same spirit, essence and liveliness. If you want ground-up initiatives, you’ve got to allow ground-up initiatives,” she adds.
A few places in Singapore have benefited from lesser control. For example, Peace Centre recently became a playground for artists in its final months.
Zac from Kult Kafe shares Monica’s sentiment. The bar’s colourful space at The Grandstand hosted independent art exhibitions, queer parties, dance performances and other cultural events for over two years. It was a place where artists could come together, affirms Zac.
“Singapore doesn’t offer any more soulful places,” he bemoans. “If it does, it’s very clinical. Or it’s been renovated very clinically to suit (officials).”
Zac wants to focus his business on Kult’s other outlet at Pearl’s Hill Terrace for now. But at the end of the day, he’s playing a whack-a-mole game—Pearl’s Hill is also slated for redevelopment by 2025.
He has not given up on finding new spaces, though. “We’re here to make an impact. Who knows, maybe there will be somewhere in the future where it’s open space and not too atas.”
The Final Lap
As tenants load their items into lorries and say their goodbyes, I think about the cheers of amateur football teams when they score a goal. I think about horses’ hooves clattering across the old Bukit Timah racecourse. I think about late-night parties at Kult Kafe, where creatives gather to drink speciality cocktails with like-minded peers.
Turf City not only holds strong memories for the people who set foot in the area but is also a site laden with heritage. In a few years, a new neighbourhood will appear, and residents will move in, carrying scant knowledge of Turf City’s old, rustic charm save for photographs displayed at future exhibitions.
When plans are drawn and redrawn, landscapes are changed beyond recognition, and new areas are reclaimed from thin air, I wonder if today’s legacies will soon become lost in the maps of tomorrow.