Van Kleef Aquarium (SG 50 Submission)


Singapore Memory Project
Singapore Memory Project

Van Kleef Aquarium, one of the earlier aquaria in Singapore, 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 201th 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.

When my father was a primary school student, his teachers had often brought his school 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 September 1951 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 aquaria 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. 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 had explained that he always looked forward to the visit 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 had been 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.

Written by: Jenica Tan
From: Raffles Girls' Primary School