It was a new tourist attraction that was successful from the time it opened in 1955. Attracting local and regional tourists, the Van Kleef Aquarium was the first public aquarium in Singapore that continued to be popular until competition from newer attractions such as the Underwater World in Sentosa saw its visitorship decline, and it ultimately closed in 1991. Not long after, it re-opened as a commercial entity but then it closed as well, and in 1998, the building was demolished.
This short video filmed in 1969 shows people who picnicked at King George V Park and visit the Van Kleef Aquarium nearby.
Here in King George V Park, a small green belt in the crowded part of the city, the new National Theatre is to be built. This is already a popular spot. People come here for picnics and play, and to relax a while. Many come to visit the fine Van Kleef Aquarium.
Run by the government, it is the only aquarium in this part of the world. For a few cents, you can see a wonderful collection of the fish and other marine creatures that live in our tropical waters. It is a great delight and education too, to thousands of visitors young and old.
Yes, you will find it well worthwhile to visit the Van Kleef Aquarium in King George V Park. And like many others, you want to go again.
Jenica Tan’s father was one of them. He shared that it was a pity the later generations did not have the opportunity to visit this aquarium. He grew up in the 1970s and can vividly recount his visits to the Van Kleef Aquarium. Originally contribued to the Singapore Memory Project, we share Jenica’s account of her father’s memory below:
Van Kleef Aquarium, had been ‘wiped off’ the Singapore map in 1998. According to my father, he had visited the iconic building regularly as a young boy. He narrated his happy times there and what he observed, but most unfortunately, the aquarium had its life cut short.
The aquarium was named after Karl Willem Benjamin van Kleef, who was a Dutchman residing in Singapore during the late 19th and early 20th century. He had been a successful and generous businessman, who made dealings in property and stocks, resulting in his great wealth. Upon his death in 1930, it was stated in his will that most of the money would be bequeathed to the Municipal Government of Singapore to help with the embellishment of the Singapore town.
Over the years, it had shown that the aquarium was very successful, and had gained a reputation as being one of the best aquarium by aquarium experts.
When my father was a primary school student, his teachers had often organised school trips to visit the Van Kleef Aquarium as it was in close proximity to his school. Both facilities were located at Fort Canning. It had been a cultural landmark for many Singaporeans for almost half a century which was located at the foot of Fort Canning Hill facing River Valley Road, whereas his primary school was at Fort Canning Hill near Armenian Street.
The aquarium was first opened to Singaporeans in 1955 and attracted large curious crowds especially since there were few other interesting tourist attractions in Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s. Over the years, it had shown that the aquarium was very successful, and had gained a reputation as being one of the best aquarium by aquarium experts.
My father went to this aquarium regularly, as he had a special liking for animals, such as fishes and other marine species. The aquarium housed many fascinating sea creatures, such as piranhas, crocodiles, electric eels and various exotic fishes from all over the world. Once, Van Cleef Aquarium had been an icon of Singapore’s cityscape and a source of great joy to many families and young adults.
It was especially delightful to see marine life in the flesh because there were hardly any interesting documentaries in the 1970s, there were no colour television sets and of course, no internet or YouTube at that time.
According to my father, there were also park events and parties at the greenery outside the aquarium. Families with young children frequented the aquarium to view the colourful marine exhibits. My father explained that he had always looked forward and found each trip interesting and rewarding. It was especially delightful to see marine life in the flesh because there were hardly any interesting documentaries in the 1970s, there were no colour television sets and of course, no internet or YouTube at that time.
My father said that he felt quite sad when the government decided to demolish the Van Kleef Aquarium in 1998. According to reports, it was due to falling visitor numbers and the government’s plan to shift the marine life interest to the Underwater World Aquarium in Sentosa Island as part of a large scale tourism project.
Unfortunately, many Singaporeans would forget about this important tourist attraction of the past and we have lost a fraction of our national history. In fact, I would not have even known about it and its significance to Singapore if not for my father’s sharing. It is truly a pity that people in our generation did not even have a chance to know about this aquarium.
Jenica Tan had contributed this memory here on the Singapore Memory Project portal.
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