There are plenty of outstanding buildings in Singapore, so why the fuss over Golden Mile Complex, People’s Park Complex and Pearl Bank Apartments?

Heritage specialists and architects say that they reflect visionary architecture, designed entirely by Singaporean architects, and are large-scale megastructures that have shaped the visual character of our built landscape.


Golden Mile Complex: Built in 1973

Completed in 1973, this 16-storey building is a mish-mash of 400 shops, 220 offices and 70 apartments.

Golden Mile used to be called Woh Hup Complex

Originally called Woh Hup Complex, it was designed by William Lim, Tay Kheng Soon and Gan Eng Oon, who were part of Design Partnership, now known as DP Architects.

Located along Beach Road, the building, together with Golden Mile Tower next door and The Plaza, were intended to raise a ‘Golden Mile’ of modern skyscrapers.

First Stepped Terrace Building in Singapore

Golden Mile Complex was designed as a high-density, vertical ‘self-contained’ city. The building has a ‘stepped-back terrace’ form, the first of its kind in Singapore.

Scenic views of the sea, shaded from direct sun

On one side, it gave offices and apartments unobstructed views of the seafront, with terraces for small gardens, and on the other side, the reversed tiers meant that each floor shaded the floor below from the sun.

The shallow, staggered profile also allowed for better ventilation and lighting.

Golden Mile En Bloc in 2018

In August 2018, it was announced that the building is going en bloc as 724 owners of 550 units have signed the collective sale agreement – representing 80.83 per cent of the total share value of the development – and the required approval of 80 per cent has been met.

In October 2021, Minister for National Development Desmond Lee announced that Golden Mile Complex has been gazetted as a conserved building.

In May 2022, news broke that Golden Mile Complex was sold to a trio of Perennial Holdings, Sino Land, and Far East Organization for $700 million. Shop and business owners were also asked to move out by May 2023.

Golden Mile Complex was completed in 1973 and has since become known as Little Thailand. Aerial view of the building

Golden Mile Complex: Thai mookata, supermarket, shops

Stepping into Golden Mile Complex in Beach Road is akin to entering a typical mall in Thailand.

Brightly lit shop signs are lettered entirely in Thai, while the scent of incense, herbs and spices wafts through the walkways. A wide, winding staircase leads to the basement where a neon sign marks the entrance of a disco.

The complex, informally known as Little Thailand, bears the familiarity of home for the predominantly Thai shop owners and shoppers.

But the 16-floor development is also known for its rough edge. Recent reports of rowdy behaviour include an incident in October 2017 that left a 25-year-old man with facial injuries after he was repeatedly kicked and stomped on.

Golden Mile Complex: Thai Songkran Water Festival Celebrations

The most special thing, she said, is the annual Songkran celebrations usually held at Golden Mile Complex. Songkran, a water festival, is celebrated during the Thai New Year from April 13 to 15.

During the festival, the first level of the mall would be turned into an arena for “water fights” where people splash each other with water.

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People’s Park Complex: Built in 1973

This yellow and green building is such an icon in Chinatown that it is hard to imagine it not being there. The site where People’s Park Complex stands was formerly the People’s Park Market, which comprised makeshift stalls and single-storey shops.

After a major fire broke out in 1966, the government reparcelled the site for sale to a private developer in 1967, under the Sales of Sites Programme. People’s Park Complex came as part of the Government’s first Land Sales Programme beginning in 1967 where land parcels were offered for sale with 99-year leases.

Occupying 1ha, People’s Park Complex was once the largest shopping complex in Singapore. It also featured the country’s first atrium in a shopping centre where a large number of shops and kiosks generated a bazaar-like atmosphere.

The architects behind it are William Lim, Tay Kheng Soon and Koh Seow Chuan, of Design Partnership, now known as DP Architects.

Mixed Use Building: Residential, shops, offices

The 31-storey building, completed in 1973, is divided into two zones – a six-storey podium block for shops and offices, and a 25-storey slab block of apartments.

A three-storeyed atrium in the podium block with a sunken plaza was accessible from all sides of the building, with all shops visible at once. The public atrium was intended as “the people’s living room”, open at all hours for Chinatown residents to eat, shop and play. Residents in the high-rise block had a roof deck to mingle in.

Singapore’s first public atrium

At the time, People’s Park Complex was the largest and tallest shopping-cum-residential complex ever built in Singapore and the atrium was the first in Asia. It was internationally hailed as a masterpiece of 1970s experimental architecture.

People’s Park Centre En Bloc 2022

In 2022, People’s Park Centre’s en bloc was put up for a collective sale with $1.8 billion reserve price – but failed to attract any buyers with no bids at all.

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Pearl Bank Apartments: Built in 1976

Heritage and architecture buffs had better head down to Pearl Bank Apartments to take the last shots of the 41-storey horseshoe-shaped building before it gets demolished.

In February 2018, it was sold to CapitaLand in a collective sale for $728 million. CapitaLand said it plans to redevelop the site into a high-rise project of around 800 units, to be completed in early 2023.

Pearl Bank Apartments designed by architect Tan Cheng Sion

Rather than follow the standard model of shorter tower blocks clustered together, architect Tan Cheng Sion created a single skyscraper which would allow apartments to have privacy and yet have panoramic views.

Its C-shaped cylinder design came with an opening for better ventilation and shade against the afternoon sun.

Another distinctive feature of the building would be the interlocking, split-design apartments which maximised the number of apartments and allowed for a variety of 288 two-, three- and four-bedroom units.

When it was completed in 1976, it had the largest number of apartments in a single block, was the tallest apartment block in South-east Asia, and the highest density for a residential development.

Pearl Bank Demolished

Pearl Bank Apartments was demolished in March 2020, making way for the new One Pearl Bank condominium.

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Mr Kea has worked and lived in Golden Mile Complex, People's Park Centre, and People's Park Complex

Residents & Tenants Affected by Buildings’ En Bloc

Mr Kea Chee Tong opened his first shop at Golden Mile Tower in 1972 at the age of 29, selling stainless steel Seiko watches.

A year later, he moved to the livelier People’s Park Centre in the heart of Chinatown and diversified his business to gemstones and gold jewellery.

Mr Kea Chee Tong, Jewellery shop owner

The building became his home in the same year when he bought an apartment in the residential block above the commercial complex and moved in with his father, wife, two sons and in-laws. In 1988, his shop, Golden Watch Gold & Jewellery, relocated again, this time three buildings down to People’s Park Complex where it remains today.

For Mr Kea, 80, each of the landmarks – People’s Park Complex, People’s Park Centre and Golden Mile Tower – holds a significant place in his life. But he may soon see all of them disappear from the Republic’s landscape.

The three buildings, along with Golden Mile Complex, have each been sold, demolished, or is about to be. But Mr Kea is pragmatic about the potential loss of his home and his shop. “Time waits for no man. One must know how to let go of things, otherwise it becomes too painful. I will miss the buildings, but the leases are shortening and I will let go if the price is reasonable,” he added.

People's Park Complex in Chinatown
People’s Park Centre is painted in red, not to be mistaken for the yellow and green People’s Park Complex adjacent

Mr Lee Chin Chee, Bags & luggage shop owner

Mr Lee Chin Chee, 69, has also spent most of his life in the two prominent buildings in Chinatown. In the 1970s, he and three siblings started a business at People’s Park Complex and People’s Park Centre. They sold bags, luggage and shoes.

His family had a shop and an office unit at People’s Park Centre and five stores at People’s Park Complex. In 1974, his family moved into a 2,200 sq ft apartment in the Centre. All its four bedrooms each came with an attached toilet.

“I am thankful for this place but it is time to cash out. The buildings are ageing and repair and maintenance costs will rise,” said Mr Lee, who listed a litany of problems, ranging from unreliable lifts to leaking water tanks and air-conditioning systems.

“These are landmarks and they hold sentimental value for me… but the retail scene is evolving and it’s time for change,” he added.

People’s Park Complex, comprising a mall and a 25-storey residential block, was completed in 1973

Mr Chan Chor Sun, Subletting booths

Mr Chan Chor Sun, 73, has been leasing People Park Complex’s atrium space since 2003. He sublets seven booths. “Some stay for six months, others for eight years, such as that booth which sells safe deposit boxes. So you get both variety and familiarity,” said Mr Chan.

Architects say the complex layering of space created by the tiered floors and dramatic staircases was a favourite arena for people who wanted to watch and be seen.

“You can get anything you want here. It is here that I bought the calculators used in my shop, battery-operated games for my son and medicinal herbs when we fall sick,” said Mr Kea, who has formed close friendships with several customers who work or live in the building.

People’s Park Complex used to be crowded

In its heyday, People’s Park Complex was a popular gathering point for people on the weekends, he recalled. “The corridors would be so packed with people that it was impossible to walk through. There was an opera theatre on the second floor that showcased big stars like Taiwanese singer Yao Su Rong.”

Over the years, the buildings deteriorated

However, both buildings have deteriorated over the years. In People’s Park Complex, for instance, there were calls for the escalators to be upgraded following breakdowns in 2006. In 2016, all three lifts broke down at the same time.

Prostitutes descended, atmosphere changed

Retired factory worker Tang Yen Yen, 64, who has been frequenting Chinatown for decades, said: “I have seen prostitutes loitering outside the massage and foot reflexology shops. The atmosphere has changed.”

Mr Wang KC, Bookshop owner

Mr Wang K.C., 75, who used to own a bookshop in the Complex, said local seniors hardly hang out at the mall now. “It’s mostly Chinese nationals here and the food stalls and remittance agencies have moved in to suit their palates and needs,” said Mr Wang, who prefers to have his coffee at the newer Chinatown Point a stone’s throw away.

Mdm Long Wai Yen, Seamstress

While shoppers have continued patronising the mall, which is home to massage and tattoo services as well as several boutiques and small pharmacies, footfall has declined over the years, noted seamstress Long Wai Yen, 77, who has been operating her clothes alteration service there since 1992.

“What I miss about this place is back in the day when it was packed with people,” she said. “It used to be very popular. Even I used to shop and watch movies here in the past.”

Although the Singaporean has fond memories of her 26 odd years there and has even learnt to speak some basic Thai, she was ambivalent about the collective sale.

Business has been on a steep slide over the years, said Madam Long. “If you don’t believe me, just come on a weekend – it really is empty.” And if the mall is deserted on weekends, business is worse during the week.

Madam Sukkrom Khwanmuang with her son Tay Phing Ha at her minimart in Golden Mile Complex

Mdm Sukkrom Khwanmuang, Minimart owner

Madam Sukkrom Khwanmuang, 53, who runs River Kwai Minimart, said: “I can open only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays now. There aren’t that many people any more.” Were the shutters to come down, the single mother plans to find a job elsewhere.

But her son, Tay Phing Ha, who used to head to the shop after school, would have no one to take care of him if she were to work. “Maybe I can put him in childcare. It’s really tough,” she fretted.

Ms Chutanard Phakdisomsakun, Hairdresser

Some shop owners are uncertain about where they can go in the future as some of them speak only Thai, said hairdresser Chutanard Phakdisomsakun, 57, who has been working at Golden Mile Complex for over a decade.

Completed in 1974, Golden Mile Tower was also used to house Golden Theatre, Singapore’s largest cinema at the time

Ms Sae-Chu Mueaichi, Thai Amulet Shop owner

Although the 22-storey building is even less vibrant than its neighbour, Ms Sae-Chu Mueaichi, 44, who runs a small Thai-Buddhist amulet shop in the building’s three-storey commercial complex, said she would miss the friendly atmosphere.

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This article first appeared in The Business Times in 2018, The Straits Times in 2018.