"Tree of Time"

by Joseph Lai, Angie Ng, Chuah Ai Lin, Marilyn Cheng

Will the real Changi tree please stand up?

Changi, A Heritage - Habitatnews - Hopea sangal felled


Just suppose for a moment that the tree that gave Changi its name is not Neobalanocarpus heimii, or chengal (pronounced "chengai")? The link between "Changi" the place and chengal the tree was suggested by the legendary botanist H.N. Ridley; the story is now a standard part of local botanical lore. Although Ridley made an educated guess as to the origins of the place name, there is no direct evidence that the chengal was ever found Changi, or for that matter, anywhere else in Singapore. But if Ridley's guess was not entirely correct, what other tree could have lent its name to Changi?

One obvious way to investigate this possibility is to check the vernacular names of all the native trees recorded in the checklist of the flora of Singapore, to find a name that matches 'Changi' as closely as possible. That is reasonably easy to do, but putting up a convincing proposition to support it is not. Without historical accounts or botanical records that testify beyond a doubt that such a tree did occur once upon a time in Changi, the elusive origins of the name remain anyone's guess.

Given the paucity of historical accounts, where else should one look? The answer just may have presented itself.

One particular old tree, located near Halton Road in Changi, may be the key that unlocks this century-old puzzle. We discovered it recently while conducting a tree survey of the area, and as luck would have it, it was fruiting profusely. It proved to be a kind of dipterocarp (an important group of timber trees), a forest giant that is in all likelihood a remnant of the Changi Forest Reserve that existed in the area 100 years ago. Thanks to assistance provided by biologists Dr Shawn Lum (Natural Sciences Academic Group, NIE) and Dr Jim La Frankie (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute), we had it positively identified as Hopea sangal. A further check with botanical references led us to another exciting discovery -- its native name is "Chengal Pasir" or "Chengal mata kuching"!!

Could this be the tree species that gave its name to Changi?

The Singapore Red Data book (Ng and Wee, 1994) lists Hopea sangal as being extinct, but at least this one lone tree still remains in Singapore, having been overlooked all these years. This precious tree relic measures a respectable 330cm girth and has a height of about 35m. By conservative estimates, it could easily be 150 years old or more. What better form of evidence to rely on than a living testimony growing right in the heart of Changi. A tree of time doesn't tell lies!

We believe our discovery is yet another interesting, and perhaps significant, account in the colourful tree-history of Changi. Our tree survey has taught us how valuable the many giant trees in Changi are. As Singaporeans, we ought to cherish, care for and celebrate them as natural and national treasures to behold for generations to come.

Long live the trees!

Joseph Lai
Angie Ng
Chuah Ai Lin
Marilyn Cheng



  1. PROSEA (Plant Resources of Southeast Asia)
  2. Flora of Malay Peninsula
  3. Wayside Trees of Malaya
  4. Singapore Red Data Book


Hopea sangal tree at Halthon Road (left), and winged fruits (above). Photos taken on 26th October 2002 by Tan Beng Chiak.

The tree was tragically felled, without approval, on the morning of 20th November 2002 (above). For more information and photos,
click here.


For an early acccount of Changi forests,
read Squardron Leader's Prost's account of the
Early Years of Changi.

Back to Changi, A Heritage