The Legend of the Changi Tree

Adrian Loo and Hugh TW Tan

When the tree fell, so would SIngapore

Legend has it that there was once a very tall tree that stood in Changi. This tree must have been very significant as Corner (1988) noted that the tree had been marked on maps and had been used as a landmark for nearly a century before. The famous "Changi tree" marked the eastern approach to the Straits of Johore and was felled in 1942 to prevent the Japanese artillery from using it as a ranging point during World War II.

The Changi tree is most probably Sindora wallichii, a species belonging to the legume or peanut family. Ironically, the area Changi is probably named after another species, Neobalanocarpus helmii (Chengal), a tree belonging to the dipterocarp family which is well known for producing excellent timber trees like the meranti and seraya.

Sindora wallichii or sepetir daun tebal is also a well-known timber tree. It is a tree of inland or coastal primary forests. In Singapore, the Changi tree can be found in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Lazarus Island (only one individual left) and as survivors of pre-war deforestation in Changi (Loo and Tan, 1997). It has a columnar trunk, which is smooth and dark brown in colour. The leaves are compound and consist of about 3 pairs of leaflets arranged opposite to each other. Most characteristic of this species are the disc-shaped "pods" or to be more correct &endash; legumes, which are spiny. The legumes enclose a curious-looking aril-covered seed. The aril is a fleshy covering (not unlike the creamy flesh of the durian!), yellowish in colour and is eaten by rodents that help disperse them in the process (Ridley,1930).

The stature of the Changi tree was no myth. Testament to its great height is this photograph of it taken in 1936 by George Crouch and published on the cover of the Malayan Nature Journal (vol 22, 1969) [see the picture on the right]. The height of this tree can be appreciated by comparing the white building in the background of the photo [click to see enlarged photo of building].

The Changi tree met its end in February 1942. H.M., Burkill (1969), a former Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, remembered, as a P.O.W. in Changi, seeing it lying near the road side, its stump blasted by a cutting charge of explosive planted 10 feet above the ground.

Reid and Quaife (1970), in their Changi P.O.W. diary, give a more vivid account. "After several attempts the Sappers blew off the top 100 ft or so but they left 150 ft or more sticking up, bare and branch-less, like a factory chimney (J.A.R. Changi notes). After the fall of Singapore (which legend said would happen if the tree fell) and the imprisonment of the British forces in Changi, the trunk was climbed with ropes, severed with explosive about 10 to 20 ft above the ground and used for firewood as far as we remember. Some time later the 10&endash;20 ft stump was sawn off with difficulty a little away above the ground level where the buttresses commenced, at which point it was 11.5 ft in diameter (W.T.Q.). Some of the timber from this portion was made into souvenirs. So in January 1942 this magnificent Sindora (sepetir) was probably over 250 ft (76.2 m) and had a trunk 11.5 ft (3.5 m) in diameter."

Reid and Quaife also remembered finding the rounded, flattened and spiny legumes at the foot of the tree. Close-by, there were also some seedlings that he and company tried to encourage by clearing and fencing around them. "…, but whether they survived or not we do not know."

Perhaps the simple conservation efforts of Reid and Quaife have paid off. More than half a century later, we still find a Changi tree, perhaps an offspring, not as tall but nevertheless magnificent, standing within the compounds of a bungalow along Netheravon Road, Changi.

Sindora wallichi, Cranwell Bungalows, Netheravanon Road, 28th September 2002.

Photo by George T. Crouch, 1936. From the cover of the Malayan Nature Journal, vol. 22 (1969). Reproduced with permission from the Editor, MNJ, Malaysian Nature Society.


  • Burkill, H.M. 1969. Changi tree. Letter to the editor. Malayan Nature Journal, vol. 23, 33.
  • Corner, E.J.H. 1988. Wayside Trees of Malaya, 3rd ed. Malayan Nature Society; Kuala Lumpur; 396-446
  • Crouch, G.T. 1969. The "Changi tree". Letter to the editor. Malayan Nature Journal, vol. 22, 88.
  • Loo, A.H.B. and Tan, H.T.W. 1997. Caesalpiniaceae. The Angiosperm Flora of Singapore, Pt 6. Gardens' Bulletin of Singapore, vol. 49, 55&endash;106.
  • Reid J.A. and Quaife W.T. 1970. More about the Changi tree. Letter to the editor. Malayan Nature Journal, vol. 23, 177.
  • Ridley, H.N. 1930. The Dispersal of Plants throughout the World. L. Reeve, Asford, Kent; 744 pp.

For an acccount of Changi forests, read Squardron Leader's Prost's account
"Chapter 1 - Early Days" from his book "The history of Changi", 1965.

Changi, A Heritage