The Horse-Shoe Block

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The Horse Shoe Block
These distinctive curved ‘horse-shoe’ shaped flats at Moh Guan Terrace and Guan Chuan Street were built between 1939 and 1940. Block 78 is the largest block of flats in Tiong Bahru and is unique for two reasons. First, this single block of flats actually straddles both Moh Guan Terrace and Guan Chuan Street; and second, the section on Guan Chuan Street features a purpose-built air raid shelter, the first to be included in a public housing project.

The earliest air raid shelters in Singapore were built sometime between 1936 and 1937 in Bukit Tunggal in Novena. At the time, there were no further plans to build more of such shelters because the outbreak of war in Singapore was considered a distant possibility. However, when war broke out in Europe in 1939, members of the public began urging the government to build more air raid shelters. The government was generally reluctant to do so because most of Singapore’s buildings were built on low flat land close to the water table. This meant that the building of underground bunkers and shelters would be difficult and expensive. The government then encouraged people to build their own air raid shelters and offered plans for such shelters. Commercial concerns like the Alexandra Brick Factory also advertised their products for use in such shelters. 

On 28 June 1939, SIT announced that a new housing scheme at Guan Chuan Street would include ‘a basement floor’ that would be used as a covered play area, but which could, in times of emergency ‘readily be converted into an effective air raid shelter.’ This air raid shelter is significant because it is the only public housing building to have been built with the shelter as part of its design. According to Nicholas Tang (1939–2012) who lived in the Tiong Bahru estate as a child, the entrance to the shelter was located at 41 and 43 Guan Chuan Street, in front of a coffee shop then owned by a man named Yeo Swee Hong. Once an air raid siren was sounded, the two doors to the shelter would open and a ladder at each doorway led into the shelter. 

Like many of the other blocks in Tiong Bahru, the ground floor of Block 78 is a mix of residences and shops. One of the oldest surviving coffee shops in Tiong Bahru, Hua Bee, is located at the base of the block where Moh Guan Terrace meets Guan Chuan Street. This coffee shop was started sometime in the 1940s and was established by the uncle of its current operator, Tony Tiang, who now runs the coffee shop on behalf of his cousin who inherited the premises from his father. As far as Tiang can remember, the coffee shop only served drinks, bread, eggs and fishball noodles. It is one of the few remaining coffeeshops in Singapore that still serves coffee with a slice of butter in the cup. The fishball stall owner is called Ong Ngah (Hokkien for ‘baby’). The noodle stall has been in operation since the 1960s. This coffeeshop was the set for Eric Khoo’s 1995 movie, Mee Pok Man.