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One garden, many gardens

It has long been established that Singapore is a “Garden City” - or at least, aspires to be one - but what about the “Garden” as a place name in the city-state?


A casual glance of the map reveals that most “Gardens” in Singapore, as place names, are in fact housing estates or neighbourhoods. Most of them are HDB neighbourhoods, in which a cluster of blocks are given a name to bequeath them a collective identity. These neighbourhoods are spread around the island.


Some examples: In the west, we have Boon Lay Gardens in Jurong West town, Hong Kah East Garden in Jurong East town, and Teban Gardens and Pandan Gardens by Pandan Reservoir. In the north, there are Marsiling Gardens and Yishun Gardens. Around the geographical centre of the island lie Farrer Gardens along Farrer Road, and Shunfu Gardens in Bishan. In the south, there is Blangah Gardens in Telok Blangah town. In the east, we can find Marine Drive Gardens and Marine Crescent Gardens in Marine Parade. And so on.

Teban Gardens in Jurong East. Credit: Google Maps.
Farrer Gardens, along Farrer Road. Credit: Google Maps.

A handful are private housing estates - the likes of Yunnan Gardens in Jurong West, Mayflower Gardens in Ang Mo Kio, Thomson Garden Estate in Bishan, and Tai Keng Gardens in the Upper Paya Lebar Road area. And of course, there’s the famous Serangoon Gardens in the northeast of the island.

Serangoon Gardens. Credit: Google Maps.

What’s left are actual gardens. Jurong Lake has the Japanese Garden and the Chinese Garden, also the name of an MRT station, and who can leave out our only UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Botanic Gardens.

The Botanic Gardens. Credit: National Parks Board.

Historically, it was the Botanic Gardens that came first, established on its present site in 1859. Its name was taken from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London.


Then we have to move forward half a century to 1915, when a lane off Kim Seng Road near the Singapore River was named Covent Garden. Again, its name was taken from London, the name of a famous West End market. The road Covent Garden was expunged by the early 1970s for an HDB estate, Covent Garden Estate, although the blocks’ addresses were 88 to 92 Zion Road. However, the estate was torn down about half a dozen years ago under the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme.

Covent Garden in the 1954 street directory.
The shuttered shops of Covent Garden Estate before demolition. Credit: Singapore Lost & Filed.

The first truly Asian “Garden” opened in 1937 - Tiger Balm Garden along Pasir Panjang Road, known today as Haw Par Villa. The park was the fruit of business magnate Aw Boon Haw’s rich imagination.


Thereafter, numerous private housing estates followed, starting with Serangoon Garden from 1952, then the likes of Thomson Garden Estate in the early 1960s, and Tai Keng Gardens and Mayflower Gardens in the 1970s, among others.


Finally, the HDB neighbourhoods appeared from the 1970s as New Towns spread around the island.


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What has troubled me is the lack of clarity as to whether some “Gardens” are singular or plural.


The most troubling of all is my very workplace - the Tiger Balm Garden.


It’s clear from historical photos that when it opened in 1937, it was a garden, no plural. That’s because the name on the Entrance Archway was “Tiger Balm Garden”.

The Entrance Archway of Tiger Balm Garden around 1938. The signboard reads "Tiger Balm Garden", not "Tiger Balm Gardens". Credit: Alamy.

And indeed, it was just one garden, which surrounded the villa known as Haw Par Villa. After the villa was torn down sometime after World War II, the garden survived.


However, as early as 1951, it began to be known as “Tiger Balm Gardens” in the newspapers. Eventually, this name - in the plural - caught on more than the original, even though the garden remained as one entity.


In 1995, when the garden was a theme park run by a private consortium, it was named “Haw Par Villa - The Original Tiger Balm Gardens”. And when Haw Par Villa MRT Station opened as part of the Circle Line in 2011, directional signs in the station gave “Tiger Balm Gardens” as an alternative name to Haw Par Villa. These acts solidified the plurality of its name. Today, “Tiger Balm Gardens” has appeared 440 times in the newspaper archives, while “Tiger Balm Garden” has appeared just 108 times.

Signs in Haw Par Villa MRT Station use the place name "Tiger Balm Gardens".

As for Serangoon Garden, probably the oldest and largest of housing estates with the name “Garden”, it was first named as such in 1952 - in the singular. But it also appeared in the plural the following year, in 1953. Today, there are almost 30,000 mentions of “Serangoon Garden” in the newspaper archives, while “Serangoon Gardens” appears almost 17,000 times. It’s both “Serangoon Garden Estate” and “Serangoon Gardens”, with landmarks such as Serangoon Garden Secondary School, and Serangoon Gardens Country Club.

Here, there's just one Garden. Credit: Serangoon Garden Secondary School Facebook page.

Perhaps, people have used - and continue to use - “Garden” and “Gardens” interchangeably because of the original “Garden” in Singapore - the Botanic Gardens. On one hand, it is one garden, but on the other, it comprises numerous gardens, so both singular and plural are correct. (It’s the same for London’s Royal Botanic Gardens.) Over time, the average person - not a stickler for little things like grammar in place names - did not see a serious distinction between “Garden” and “Gardens”, no matter where the name was applied.

Many gardens inside one Botanic Gardens. Credit: National Parks Board.

Today, the newer Gardens - mostly HDB neighbourhoods - are mostly in the plural. One exception I’ve found so far is Hong Kah East Garden. I wonder why it’s a Garden while almost all the others are Gardens. Or perhaps it doesn’t matter to the folks who had named it.

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