Rediscover Singapore’s History on the refreshed Toa Payoh Heritage Trail

This public housing neighbourhood in Singapore is a pioneering “showpiece” that has seen many innovative “firsts”, a blueprint and model that serves as the development of future public housing residential towns all over Singapore. This is Toa Payoh, she also hosts an iconic playground, a town park that paved the way for future parks and other green spaces in public housing estates, the host village for the 1973 SEAP Games, and the location of the first NTUC Fairprice supermarket in Singapore. There are more to Toa Payoh than those listed above, how much do you know about Toa Payoh, its history, heritage, culture, and the role it played in Singapore’s history? Now you can rediscover Singapore’s history on the refreshed Toa Payoh Heritage Trail.

This refreshed Toa Payoh Heritage Trail is National Heritage Board (NHB)’s 11th heritage trail that was first launched in 2014. The refreshed edition will expound on the history of Singapore’s “model town”, telling more stories of Toa Payoh’s significant landmarks and locations. Toa Payoh transformed from a swampland, growing into a modern and role model residential housing estate  for Singapore, as well as home to iconic religious and community institutions. 

Refreshed Toa Payoh Heritage Trail 

The refreshed Toa Payoh Heritage Trail covers 29 heritage sites and features 10 heritage markers. There are two new marked sites namely Block 53 a.k.a. “VIP Block”, and the Iconic Toa Payoh Dragon Playground.

Those two sites join existing marked marked sites such as 

  • Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery, a National Monument and the oldest Buddhist monastery in Singapore
  • Masjid Muhajirin, the first mosque in Singapore to have been built with the support of contributions from the Mosque Building Fund (known as the Mosque Building and Mendaki Fund (MBMF) today) alongside community fundraising
  • Toa Payoh Town Park, home to a 25m tall look out tower which was accorded conservation status by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) in 2009
  • Four point HDB blocks which housed international athletes as part of the Former 1973 Southeast Asian Peninsular (SEAP) Games Village 

Mr Alvin Tan, Deputy Chief Executive (Policy & Community), NHB, said: “Through the refreshed Toa Payoh Heritage Trail, we hope to highlight new facets of the town’s history that very few Singaporeans know about, and present a more complete and updated story of Toa Payoh. In doing so, we hope to foster a greater sense of pride and belonging amongst residents, and encourage both residents and non-residents to re-explore Toa Payoh and rediscover the town’s heritage anew.”

The Toa Payoh Heritage Trail also incorporates contributions from the community and presents stories, memories and photographs contributed by former and current residents. Mdm Tang Mei Fong, a resident of Block 53 who contributed to the refreshed Toa Payoh Heritage Trail, shared her personal memories of Toa Payoh: “I vividly remember the day Queen Elizabeth II visited our block. We all gathered around our doorways to look out for her arrival. I am very proud that a queen visited, and that Toa Payoh is used as a model for Singapore’s public housing that we show to the world.”

Toa Payoh – Forerunner in design

Toa Payoh is a first for a number of things in Singapore, they are the first town designed and developed by HDB, they are the testbed for different architectural design styles and features of public housing, as well as community amenities that can be found in HDB towns today. 

Block 53 “VIP Block”

Completed in 1967, the 19 storey Block 53 not offers a panoramic view of Toa Payoh, they have a viewing gallery on its roof top that played host to many foreign and local dignitaries such as Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, then-Australian Prime Minister John Gorton, and Singapore’s second President Benjamin Sheares. With such a distinguished VIP list of visitors to Block 53, that is how it led to this iconic block being dubbed the “VIP Block”. 

1973 SEAP Games Village – Toa Payoh

More than just a model town, Toa Payoh became the host village for the first major international sporting competition to be held in Singapore – the 1973 Southeast Asian Peninsular (SEAP) Games. Toa Payoh town provided more than just venues for competition and training, they were the location of the 1973 SEAP Games Village, where Toa Payoh Central is today.

With the 1973 SEAP Games Village right in the heart of Toa Payoh, visiting athletes and officials from seven different countries were encouraged to socialise with the locals, providing them with an authentic Singaporean experience. 

There were a total of four HDB point blocks in Toa Payoh Central that were used to house athletes from the seven participating countries. Following the conclusion of the games, units in the blocks were sold to the public fully furnished. 

Iconic Dragon Playground

This is another icon of Toa Payoh, a much-celebrated landmark of  Toa Payoh, the iconic Dragon Playground, with its classic elements of a terrazzo-clad dragon’s head distinguished by bold lines and geometric features. 

This iconic Toa Payoh Dragon Playground was the creation of HDB architect Mr Khor Ean Ghee. This design proved to be so popular that it led to different versions of the dragon head in various colour schemes appearing in playgrounds across Singapore.    

A Refresh with Fresh Stories

How much do you know about the history of Toa Payoh? With this updated Toa Payoh Heritage Trail, we can know more about the lesser-known stories of the town.

Toa Payoh – A Hub of Manufacturing Activity 

Toa Payoh was a hub of manufacturing activity in the 1960s when Singapore underwent rapid industrialisation, women formed the majority of the pioneer generation of young factory workers. They played a significant tole in the employment and output growth in the labour-intensive manufacturing sector in Singapore. 

National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) Welcome Supermarket – 1st NTUC Fairprice Supermarket 

The NTUC Fairprice located at 192 Lorong 4 Toa Payoh, gets its landmark status from the first National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) Welcome Supermarket in Singapore. It was opened to counter inflation and supplier profiteering. During its opening, the supermarket attracted huge numbers of shoppers upon its opening, and even had to close its doors every 3 to 4 hours to prevent overcrowding.

3 newly curated thematic routes of the refreshed Toa Payoh Heritage Trail

There are 3 newly curated thematic routes for you to rediscover Singapore’s history on the refreshed Toa Payoh Heritage Trail. They are self-guided routes which trail-goes can embark on in their own time, and according to their interests. 

Rediscover Toa Payoh through three thematic routes

  • Of Public Housing & Shared Spaces (1.5 hours on foot, 4.5 km) 

Explore architectural development and changes of HDB blocks, communal spaces and town planning over the decades, that reflected the needs and aspirations of Singaporean homeowners. 

  • Of Faiths & Beliefs (2 hours with public transport, 6 km)

Explore the various faiths and beliefs in Singapore through the temples, mosques, churches and institutions that represent the diverse communities which live, work, and worshipped in Toa Payoh.

  • Of Community Institutions & Common Spaces (0.5 hrs on foot, 1.5 km)

Explore the institutions and spaces that continue to play an active role in the sporting, cultural and social lives of Toa Payoh residents.

Where can I get Toa Payoh Heritage Trail companion guide and map?

If you like to know more about the refreshed Toa Payoh Heritage Trail, you can download the companion map and guide from NHB’s heritage portal 

There are limited printed copies of the guide and map that will also be available at various locations including the National Museum of Singapore, Asian Civilisations Museum, Toa Payoh East Community Club, Toa Payoh South Community Club, Toa Payoh Central Community Club, Toa Payoh West Community Club, and NHB headquarters at Stamford Court.

Check out this video of highlights of the Toa Payoh Heritage Trail on YouTube, for more information please visit 

Rediscover and Explore Singapore’s History and Heritage on Toa Payoh Heritage Trail 

I have previously explored Toa Payoh, starting from my old playgrounds personal visual story telling documentation project, photographing the iconic Toa Payoh Dragon Playground, as well as the Toa Payoh Baby Dragon Playground and Dinosaur Playground at Kim Keat Avenue, forming part of my OurSGHeritage/Old Places personal visual storytelling, documentation and photography project for the past decade (and still counting).

Thereafter, a few more trips to explore the local neighbourhoods, the iconic VIP Block 53, as well as Block 116, Central Horizon (Blocks 79A to 79E) for its bird’s eye view sceneries of Singapore, from the nearby heartlands around Toa Payoh, to green spaces and downtown Singapore. 


After rediscovering and exploring the refreshed Toa Payoh Heritage Trail, I realised that I still have more of Toa Payoh’s history, heritage, culture, spaces and sceneries to learn, explore and document them in my visual stories. With that in mind, I have consolidated my Toa Payoh earlier visual storytelling photos into an album on Flickr, for both locals and international visitors to visit and know more about Toa Payoh.

Last but not least, a special mention to Jerome Lim of The Long and Winding Road, whom I got to know (from a decade back) when I first started my old places documentation. We shared a common interest and passion in history, heritage and culture sectors, going for walks, talks, events. Jerome’s knowledge and passion in Singapore’s history, heritage and culture sectors are well-known and well-respected. 

Jerome is a former Toa Payoh resident, he has a unique and priceless connection with Toa Payoh and Block 53 “VIP Block”. If you know, you know, if you don’t know, why not visit Jerome’s website and discover it for yourself? Do also check out this video of Jerome being interviewed by Straits Times on his childhood adventures at the Toa Payoh Dragon Playground.  

I would like to encourage you, my fellow local Singaporeans and international visitors, to embark on a local and iconic neighbourhood heritage, history and culture tour in Singapore to rediscover and explore Singapore’s history and heritage on the refreshed Toa Payoh Heritage Trail.  

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