Singapore Infopedia


Changi is an area located at the easternmost part of Singapore. Its name is believed to be derived from the Chengai tree, a tall tree that used to grow in the district. Landmarks in the area include Changi International Airport, Changi Prison and Changi Village, with Changi Point at its heart. Changi is also a popular recreation area.1

Origin of name
Changi stretches from Kampong Kembangan to Telok Paku on the eastern extremity of Singapore. It was referred to as Tanjong Rusa on the 1604 E. G. de Eredia map of Singapore, and became known as Changi in the early 19th century. In the Franklin and Jackson’s 1828 map, the extreme southeastern tip of Singapore was referred to as Tanjong Changi. Vessels using the Johor Straits would have to pass Changi.2

During early surveys of Singapore island from the 1820s to 1830s, Changi was also named Franklin Point, after Captain Franklin who was one of the early surveyors. It seemed colonial authorities had given their own place name in addition to the existing Malay name for Changi.3

There are various versions of the etymological roots of the name Changi. Henry Ridley suggested that it was derived from the Changal (also written and pronounced as “Chengai”) tree (Neobalanocarpus heimii, also known as Balanscorpus heimii or Balano scorpas). This heavy local timber, valued for its strength, was commonly used in the construction of buildings and furniture. It was also renowned for its deep rich colour. Others suggested that the name Changi may have been derived from the climbing scrub Apama corymbosa or Changi Ular (Hopea sangal), locally referred to as Chengal Asir or Chengal Mata Kuching, which grew in the area.4 One specimen of this tree, thought to be extinct, was found growing in the Changi area but was mysteriously felled in 2002.5 Due to the lack of written literature on Changi, the origin of its name remains unclear.

Flora and fauna
Although Changi was famous for its coconut plantations in the 1800s, it was also a fashionable resort area from as early as 1845, when government- and private-owned holiday bungalows were available for recreation. The open space, shady trees and sandy beach along Nicoll Drive made for a peaceful hideaway. In the 1860s, Changi was famous for its sago plantations. Its attractive coast, which included the beach Pantai Chantik, was a popular picnic site.6

Generally a flat terrain, Changi had three main hills: Battery Hill, Fairy Point Hill and Temple or Changi Hill.7 Around 1901, Changi was also the haunt of tigers. The females were said to swim over from Johor, making a stop at Pulau Ubin (possibly attracted by the wild pigs and deer) before completing their journey to Singapore. They would arrive at Fairy Point and give birth in the neighbourhood. The tigers on the island were, hence, generally young.8

Colonial military heritage
Changi Prison was built in 1936 to house civilians. During World War II, approximately 50,000 British, Australian and other Allied prisoners-of-war, as well as 3,500 civilians were interned there – in the main prison and at Selarang Barracks. Bombardier Stanley Warren filled a chapel there with unforgettable Christian-inspired wall paintings now called the Changi Murals.9

Most of the Chengai trees, plantations and steep cliffs off the Changi coast were cleared in 1926 to make way for the Royal Air Force Base. Only one Chengai tree was left standing as a guide to mark the base before the Pacific War. However, its top was chopped off in 1942 to prevent identification by enemy fliers during World War II.10 

Changi Point is located in the Changi Village area, and has been the focal point of activities since colonial times when it served as a military barrack and provided administrative quarters, as well as entertainment and recreational facilities. Lloyd Leas was a well-known estate housing British military personnel and their families.11 The Singapore Armed Forces took over the military installation after the British pull-out in 1967.

Changi’s beaches and holiday bungalows were popular weekend retreats between the 1950s and 1970s, until land reclamation for Changi Airport began. Construction work on the airport began in June 1975. Officially operational on 1 July 1981,12 Singapore Changi Airport is one of the most renowned airports in the world today.

A new ferry terminal was opened in 2005, replacing the old dilapidated jetties from which visitors would take bum boats out to Pulau Ubin or Pengerang in Johor.13 

In 2006, several improvement works to the infrastructure in the Changi Point area, undertaken by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, were completed.14 One of these was a new 2.6-kilometre Changi Point Coastal Walk, which opened in that year. Stretching from Changi Village to Changi Beach Club, nature lovers can enjoy the flora and fauna while walking along a well-lit boardwalk, designed to enhance the rustic and natural features of the area. A cliff walk following the terrain and contours of the land was also built. Existing trees and boulders next to the boardwalks were left untouched.15

The environmental improvement works for Changi Point – including the boardwalks and improvements to the ferry terminal – cost approximately S$16.7 million.16

Vernon Cornelius

1. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Changi Planning Area: Planning Report 1994 (Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1994), 12–13. (Call no. RSING 711.4095957 SIN)
2. Tommy Koh et al., eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Heritage Board, 2006), 91 (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 70. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
3. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 71.
4. Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 91.
5. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 71; Angie Ng, et al., “Changi Legacy Stems from Tree,” Today, 4 October 2002, 47. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Changi Planning Area, 12; Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 12. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); S. Ramachandra, Singapore Landmarks, Past and Present (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 1961), 22. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 RAM)
7. H. A. Probert, History of Changi (Singapore: Prison Industries in Changi Prison, 1970), 8. (Call no. RCLOS 959.51 PRO)
8. Ramachandra, Singapore Landmarks, Past and Present, 22; Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 71; Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 91.
9. Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 91; Probert, History of Changi, 37; Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 71.
10. Probert, History of Changi, 7.
11. Probert, History of Changi, 72.
12. “Goodbye Paya Lebar, Here We Come Changi,” Straits Times, 1 July 1981, 12 (From NewspaperSG); “Our History,” Changi Airport Group, n.d.
13. David Chew, “New-Look Changi Point Retains Rustic Charm,” Today, 16 October 2006, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Uma Shankari, “Changi Point Shaping Up as a Charming Seaside Resort,” Business Times, 16 October 2006, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Chew, “New-Look Changi Point.” 
16. Chew, “New-Look Changi Point”; Shankari, “Changi Point Shaping Up.”

Further resource
H. A. Probert, History of Changi (Singapore: Prison Industries in Changi Prison, 1970). (Call no. RCLOS 959.51 PRO)

The information in this article is valid as of 5 July 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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