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Van Kleef Aquarium: SG’s First Public Aquarium, Before We Had Underwater World in Sentosa

Van Kleef Aquarium, SG’s first public aquarium

Ask any of your peers, and they’d be familiar with the S.E.A Aquarium. But if you talk to your parents or grandparents, they’d probably mention Van Kleef Aquarium. And no, it’s not that Van Cleef that you’re thinking about.

It was Singapore’s first public aquarium that started in 1955 and shuttered in 1996. It closed before some Gen Zs were even born, so it’s unsurprising that none of our peers have heard about it when we asked around. Here’s what we learnt after doing some research:

What was the Van Kleef Aquarium?

van kleef exterior
Image credit: National Archives of Singapore

Similar to how Raffles City is named after Sir Stamford Raffles, Van Kleef Aquarium was also named after someone. Karl Willem Benjamin van Kleef was an established Dutch businessman in Singapore – but he was also a certified expert in mine drilling, a broker, and a commission agent.

When he died in 1930, he willed all of his assets and properties – which amounted to $160,000 – to the municipal government. The municipal government looked into various ways of using the money he left behind. Some considerations included installing drinking fountains, building clock towers, and renovating Empress Place, which is now the Asian Civilisation Museum.

Eventually, they decided to build a public aquarium at the foot of Fort Canning Hill as it was believed that it would be beneficial to Singapore educationally, commercially, and scientifically.

The construction of Van Kleef Aquarium

The construction of the Van Kleef Aquarium wasn’t smooth sailing from the get-go.

Firstly, the project was pushed back by quite a fair bit as there were doubts about whether it could be self-sustaining. Given that the admission fee for adults was a mere $0.30 – which is valued at around $3.50 today, it’s not hard to understand why people would question if the aquarium could keep up with the amount of money it’d take to keep going.

japanese occupation
Image credit: National Museum of Singapore collection 

The construction of the Van Kleef Aquarium started in 1940 but was quickly stopped during the Japanese Occupation which took place from 1942 to 1945. It took another 8 years before the construction went on as usual from 1953.

Apart from that, the other challenges which the aquarium faced included contamination that resulted in the death of many poor innocent fishies, polluted imported seawater which had to be discarded, and a delayed opening due to a strike.

What was Van Kleef Aquarium like during its peak?

van kleef interior
Image adapted from: NAS 1955

Against all odds, Van Kleef Aquarium finally opened on 8th September 1955 with over 180 fish species. All in all, the aquarium housed almost 6,500 fish in total and even had its own water supply. It also had mudskippers – unique to Southeast Asia – and as the years went by, more and more marine species were added, like crocodiles, piranhas, and lion fishes.

van kleef people looking at display
Image credit: NAS 1960

Van Kleef Aquarium was a booming success, attracting almost 150,000 people within its first 3 months. It continued being a popular spot among locals and tourists and brought in an average of 400,000 people annually.

With that said, there was a slight hiccup in 1956 when many fishes started dying. Fortunately, the curator of the aquarium then, Alec Fraser-Brunner, came in to save the day, and Van Kleef Aquarium continued to enjoy its title as “one of the best aquariums in Southeast Asia.”

Why did the Aquarium close?

jurong bird park
Entrance of Jurong Bird Park.
Image credit: Roots

This success was short-lived as newer attractions such as Jurong Bird Park and the Singapore Zoo started robbing Van Kleef Aquarium of its attention and fame in the 1980s.

construction of underwater world
Image credit: Singapore Tourist Promotion Board 

$750,000 was poured to revamp and restore the aquarium. Unfortunately, it still could not keep up with the newer attractions, especially with the introduction of Underwater World at Sentosa. Van Kleef Aquarium closed on 31st May 1991. From then till 1996, it was taken over and reopened a few times – yet, there wasn’t much success. It was finally demolished in 1998.

As for the fish, they were either sold or given away to the other animal attractions in Singapore.

Thank you Van Kleef Aquarium for your service

It’s sad that the younger generation never got a chance to experience older attractions like Asian Village and Fantasy Island. But if you’re FOMO-ing on not visiting Van Kleef Aquarium before, at least we still have S.E.A Aquarium in Sentosa and even, Qian Hu Fish Farm.

Cover image adapted from: National Archives of Singapore, NAS 1955