She held her breath, curled up into a ball and managed to float. Yet, Jocelyn Lau couldn’t quite figure out how to coordinate her strokes ’til she attended swimming classes in junior college. Thanks to her father who took the family to Toa Payoh Swimming Complex and Katong Swimming Complex regularly, Jocelyn went on to participate in lifesaving competitions, and clock in at least two swim sessions a week.
“There are lots of memories that I have of swimming in public pools, and I’m not the only one,” she explains of her decision to launch the illustrated book Great Lengths: Singapore’s Swimming Pools. With the aim of chronicling pools both past and present, Jocelyn and her husband Lucien Low sought out illustrator Favian Ee. The trio then scoured the island to speak to citizens and sketch each pool’s unique architecture.
Mount Emily swimming pool © Ng Yong Chiang
“They might be a common sight in every neighbourhood, but I believe pools are more than just convenient amenities,” said Jocelyn. “They promote bonding in the community, hold rich layers of history and are an important part of our collective memories.” Here’s what the team has unearthed.
Public pools in Singapore can be traced all the way back to the 1930s. Built in 1931, Mount Emily Swimming Complex was the very first one. Converted from a municipal reservoir, it was hugely popular with locals, with about 8,000 visitors a month. It also served as a training ground for competitive swimmers. “I trained at Mount Emily with the police swim team thrice a week,” recalled former national swimmer Chan Kee Cheng, whose team nabbed two silver medals in the 1967 Southeast Asian Peninsular Games.
Entrance to former Yan Kit swimming pool © Terence Ong
Also popular were the Yan Kit Swimming Complex and Farrer Park Swimming Complex – both were a hit in the ’50s and ’60s. “Sometimes, we’d see people scaling the walls to try to get into [the Farrer Park pool],” said executive Donald Goh. Glass bits embedded at the top of those walls clearly didn’t deter them.
These old complexes also had gender-specific days, a norm for pools in that era. “It was opened only for boys [the day I visited], so I was denied entry. As a consolation, my mother brought me an ice lolly from a bent old lady outside,” laughed pastor-writer Jenni Ho-Huan.
These pioneering pools were rich with insider anecdotes. According to the retired pool manager of River Valley Swimming Complex, Ong Poh Soon, the late Lee Kuan Yew’s father often swam alone in the pool. “Sometimes, after the pool closed for the day at 9pm, we would accompany the senior Mr Lee to have supper at the famous Hong Lim open-air hawker centre nearby.”
Though all four pools have since closed due to dwindling visitor numbers, the memories of them remain alive. Yan Kit was thrust into the spotlight after the recent announcement of plans to build a sports complex on the site, with many Tanjong Pagar residents expressing their hopes of a new pool being constructed.
March of the past
Not all pools catered to the locals. Areas such as Gillman, Sembawang and Changi were frequented by British military men. The Royal Navy enjoyed taking regular dips at Sembawang Swimming Complex – which used to be the Dockyard Swimming Pool. The complex also held the nickname of “Terror Club”, a reference to the H.M.S. Terror, a British warship once based in Singapore.
Farrer Park swimming pool © Favian Ee
In 1957, the British Royal Air Force built Changi Swimming Pool. John Harper, whose father was the Warrant Officer running the station workshops, describes the pool’s rudimentary construction: tiling, pool filling, and finally using copper sulphate to disinfect the water that was pumped from the sea. “While waiting for the pool to be opened, we used a fenced-in section of the seafront next to the Changi Yacht Club called the pagar,” he said. Today, this pagar (Malay for “fence”) is part of the Changi Boardwalk.
In the fast lane
As the island transformed rapidly in the ’70s and ’80s, so did its public pools. The Housing Development Board (HDB) developed plans for self-contained housing estates, each with its own swimming facility. This started with Queenstown and was followed by Toa Payoh, Katong, Buona Vista and Geylang East – all of them joined the club of HDB-built pools.
Jurong East swimming pool © Favian Ee
The designs of the complexes went beyond the utilitarian: “There was a beautiful mosaic wall of sea creatures spouting streams of cool water into the pool [in Queenstown Swimming Complex],” recalled URA architect Kelvin Ang. Those animal fountains were also replicated in Katong. Geylang East was also among the first to feature slides for children, a family-friendly touch we still see today in pools in Sengkang, Jurong and Pasir Ris.
Ang Mo Kio swimming pool © Favian Ee
Besides the interiors, pool façades took on a more stylish bent. With its red brick building and unique tetrahedral lights, the Ang Mo Kio Swimming Complex won the Singapore Institute of Architects’ Architectural Design Award in 1986. And the dome-shaped pavilions of Bukit Merah Sports Complex soon grew to become its defining feature.
Making a splash
Today’s contemporary pools are a far cry from the rectangular blocks of old – they are packed with theme-park-like features such as gigantic slide towers, wave pools, Jacuzzis and ‘lazy rivers’. “I would lounge on a donut float and people-watch along the Lazy River,” described writer Kane Wheatley-Holder. “I witnessed many illegal back flips, bickering children and whispering lovers.” Gyms, F&B outlets and shops often accompany these pools, too, positioning these complexes as an integrated lifestyle experience that attracts families in droves.
But even as newer complexes get bigger and better, their older counterparts are slowly retiring. “It’s even more crucial, then, to tell the story of our pools,” says Favian Ee. “Who remembers the swimming meets at River Valley? After a decade or two, who will tell the young how it felt to be there?”
Great Lengths: Singapore’s Swimming Pools is available at all major bookstores or from www.kucintabooks.com.
Banner image: Katong swimming pool © Favian Ee