New journeys to the west

20 03 2014

Once a place in Singapore that drew in the crowds, the gory, somewhat gaudy but mystical gardens that a tiger built, Haw Par Villa or Tiger Balm Gardens, has worn the look of another discarded icon of the past. It would have been a place that would have featured in many a childhood outing in simpler days. I for one, have an abundance of snapshots taken from times when I was held in my parents arms to the latter stages of my childhood. It really was such a shame to see an attraction that had once captured the imagination of local residents and tourists alike, suffer from neglect as our attention turned towards the new-age attractions of a Singapore we were not.

The gory Haw Par Villa - a one time favourite outing destination.

The gory Haw Par Villa – a one time favourite outing destination.

It is certainly a welcome sign to see that an attempt is now being made by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) to revive interest in the fascinating world that Aw Boon Haw, the “Tiger Balm King” had built around a villa erected for his brother Boon Par, especially in a way that is very much in keeping to the spirit of what Boon Haw had wished for, expressing just prior to his death in 1954 – that the gardens should be kept open to the public to enter for free.

A journey to the west.

A journey to the west.

Getting Singapore residents to reconnect with its attractions of the past is what the STB – the custodian of the grounds since the Singapore government’s acquisition of it in 1985, aims to do as it celebrates its fiftieth year of promoting tourism, starting with Haw Par Villa.  The effort sees a three-phased approach that will attempt to get us in Singapore to Reminisce, Rediscover, Celebrate.

Riding not the tiger but the leopard in 1976.

Riding not the tiger but the leopard in 1976 – Singapore residents are encourage to relive Haw Par Villa’s past.

Through the effort, Tourism50, STB hopes to raise awareness and appreciation of past as well as more recent tourism developments, and more importantly, encourage interest and participation. And as part of the series of events STB has planned for Tourism50, Haw Par Villa will host two weekends of activities, Reliving Haw Par Villa. The first on the weekend of 15/16 March, drawing the crowds – the very welcome downpour not at all dampening the spirits.

Haw Par Villa, a hidden treasure.

Haw Par Villa, a hidden treasure.

The weekend activities  – there is one more weekend to look forward to on 22 and 23 March 2014, include free guided tours from 9.30 am to 4 pm (registration is required at the Tour Registration booth). The tours will be conducted by local heritage tour specialist, Journeys, in both English and Mandarin. The will also be cultural performances such as storytelling, skits, puppet shows and acrobatic displays, to look forward to, as well as a vintage flea market and most importantly, food! On the subject of food – do keep a look out for the to-die-for Durian Creme Brulee, for which I would return to hell (one of the attractions Haw Par Villa is very well known for is the Ten Courts of Hell) many times over!

Reliving Haw Par Villa through food.

Reliving Haw Par Villa through food.

The activities do go on throughout the day with the first at 11 am and the last starting at 5 pm. Admission as is in more recent times is free. It does pay to be early though as the first 1,000 visitors each day can look forward to a Tourism50 goodie bag. If you do intend to visit, do note that car park will be closed during the event and getting there by public transport is probably the best option.

The popular cure-all balm being marketed at Reliving Haw Par Villa - must have cured Singapore of the long dry spell.

The popular cure-all balm being marketed at Reliving Haw Par Villa – must have cured Singapore of the long dry spell.

Besides the goodies in the bag, do also keep a look out for the Tourism50 postcards. Designed by local freelance illustrator and Architecture student Richard Li, the postcards feature icons of the past like Haw Par Villa, Sentosa Monorail and Raffles Hotel. Besides being made available at the event, you will also find the cards at the ZoCard racks, in all community libraries, at the Singapore Visitors Centre, the Chinatown Heritage Centre, all Sentosa ticketing counters and at the Singapore Tourism Board (Tourism Court) from 15 March 2014.

The Tourism50 Postcards.

The Tourism50 Postcards.

Local residents who mail the postcards to their friends and loved ones will get to enter a Lucky Draw that offers a top prize of a 2D1N Grand Hotel Suite Staycation at Raffles Hotel Singapore (includes Limousine Transfer + Breakfast & Dinner for 2). Other prizes on offer include 50 Sentosa Islander Family Membership (1 year), and 50 paris of FORMULA 1 SINGAPORE GRAND PRIX Walkabout Tickets.

The rain did deter not visitors over the first weekend.

The rain did deter not visitors over the first weekend.

More information on Tourism50, activities, on Haw Par Villa, the event at Haw Par Villa and also the lucky draw can be found at www.xinmsn.com/rediscoversg and at lifestyle.xin.msn.com/en/rediscoversg/reliving-haw-par-villa

Singapore's most photographed archway in the rain.

Singapore’s most photographed archway in the rain.



Haw Par Villa over the years
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Haw Par Villa did once feature in the lives of many of us in a Singapore. A place to head over to for a school excursion or a family outing, it must, judging from the many photographs of it over the years, possibly have been one of the most photographed attractions in Singapore in days well before the modern icons of tourist Singapore were created.
Once by the sea, Haw Par Villa has seen the shoreline gradually being moved away over the years. The Pasir Panjang terminal is now seen on more recently reclaimed land.

Once by the sea, Haw Par Villa has seen the shoreline gradually being moved away over the years. The Pasir Panjang terminal is now seen on more recently reclaimed land where the sea once was.

For me, it was one of the places from which I do possess an abundance of photographs taken through my childhood and a place I did enjoy that occasional visit to. This, in spite of it being the source of more than a few nightmares, that is, until the time a dragon gobbled it up.

A photograph from a visit in November 1976.

A photograph from a visit in November 1976.

Stupa-shaped memorials to the Aws are now seen in the grounds.

Stupa-shaped memorials to the Aws are now seen in the grounds.

The dragon, Haw Par Villa Dragon World, was a vain and rather costly attempt by the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB), which in its current incarnation is the STB, to turn the previously free to visit gardens, into a theme park.  The theme park had been an attempt to revive interest in an attraction for which time seemed to have left well behind – it was literally crumbling in the face of its huge maintenance costs, following the acquisition of it in 1985 by the Singapore government.

Spider spirits who have seen their levels of modesty adjusted through the years.

Spider spirits who have seen their levels of modesty adjusted through the years.

Some S$80 million was expanded during a two year makeover that took place from 1988 to 1990. That saw the gardens being refurbished and several displays removed. Rides were also installed, including what some of my younger friends tell me was a memorable water ride in their childhood, for the wrong reasons, into the horrifying ten courts of hell. Reopened as Haw Par Villa Dragon World in 1990, it did not live up to its promise and as soon as the novelty wore off, visitor numbers fell and huge running losses were incurred. It eventually closed in 2001 and with its closure, there were fears that the dying embers of an attraction that certainly was like none on the island, was soon to be extinguished.

Dioramas high on messages of morals and Confucian ethics are found ih the gardens,

Dioramas high on messages of morals and Confucian ethics are found in the gardens.

It was nice to see that the park not only was kept open by the STB, but also that admission to it was kept free in keeping with what Aw Boon Haw had wished. It does now draw a steady stream of visitors although not in anyway near the visitor numbers of its heyday when it would be packed with local residents especially on public holidays. It was initially on certain public holidays that Aw Boon Haw had opened what was really the private grounds of a villa that offered a magnificent view of the nearby sea in Pasir Panjang, which he had built for his younger brother Boon Par.

Hell freezing over. The second court in which being hell is frozen for sins such as robbery and corruption.

Hell freezing over. The second court of hell in which hell is frozen for sins such as robbery and corruption.

The actual villa, a model of which can be seen at Haw Par Villa today, was erected in 1937. Boon Haw filled the sprawling grounds with figurines and dioramas depicting scenes from Chinese mythology such as the 8 Immortals and the Journey to the West, along with many that offered lessons in Confucian values. The gardens were said to be badly damaged during the Japanese occupation during which time Boon Par passed away in Rangoon in 1944. Boon Haw was said to have demolished the villa out of anguish when he returned after the war.

Steps to a lost villa. The terrace where the villa that Aw Boon Haw built for his brother once stood.

Steps to a lost villa. The terrace where the villa that Aw Boon Haw built for his brother once stood.

The entrance archway leading to what had been Boon Par's villa.

The entrance archway leading to what had been Boon Par’s villa.

The archway seen in 1976.

The archway seen in 1976.

Boon Haw did however restore the gardens to it former glory adding to it over the years until his death in 1954. Following his death, new flavours were added to the grounds by his nephew, Aw Cheng Chye, creating “international corners” within the gardens. In the corners, Cheng Chye erected figurines associated with countries he had travelled, adding them through the 1960s until his death in 1971. While some of these are still around such as the Statue of Liberty and the Sumo Wrestlers all seemingly a curious addition to the largely Chinese themed gardens, several did get gobbled up by the dragon. One that did get removed was one of my favourites – a 4.5 metre Maori tiki (with two accompanying kiwis) at what had been a New Zealand corner that was installed in January 1966.

The tiki at the New Zealand corner in 1976.

The tiki at the New Zealand corner in 1976.

One part of Haw Par Villa that will be difficult for any visitor to forget is the Ten (previously eighteen) Courts of Hell. It was through the Ten Courts – stages through the Chinese interpretation of purgatory in the process of reincarnation, living souls were taken on a slow boat to see its many gruesome scenes, then tucked away in belly of the theme park’s dragon. It was seeing it on foot during the pre-dragon world visits that must have been the source of many of my nightmares, the scenes all very graphic in depicting the many horrible punishments that awaited the souls of sinners in their journey to reincarnation. 

A graphic journey through the Chinese interpretation of purgatory in the journey to reincarnation.

A graphic journey through the Chinese interpretation of purgatory in the journey to reincarnation.

It is perhaps a journey of reincarnation that Haw Par Villa is itself embarked on, one in which it has been punished for sins not entirely of its doing. It would certainly be wonderful if the journey is one in which we will see the return of what has for too long, been a lost and wandering soul.

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A town with a curious sounding name

3 01 2014

It was in late 1976 that I found myself moving to the Ang Mo Kio New Town. Built as part of a huge wave of public housing developments that took place in the mid-1970s, Ang Mo Kio located just north of then canalised Kallang River, and the huge cemetery at Peck San Theng (now Bishan), took its name from the surrounding area.

A window into a world I once knew. Ang Mo Kio was my third home to which I moved to in 1976. The area in the photograph is the car park in front of Block 217 which started life as a the first temporary bus terminal in Ang Mo Kio  from which I caught bus service number 166 to get to school.

A window into a world I once knew. Ang Mo Kio was my third home to which I moved to in 1976. The area in the photograph is the car park in front of Block 217 which started life as a the first temporary bus terminal in Ang Mo Kio from which I caught bus service number 166 to get to school.

The rather curious sounding name did fuel much speculation and debate amongst the early residents of the new town as to what its origins were. Explanations ranged from the plausible to the seemingly improbably, a common factor was that it was a Hokkien term. Many argued that it meant evolved from a similar sounding Hokkien term that meant “red tomato”, with suggestions that it might be a reference to an “ang mo” bridge (kio), not far behind.

HDB notice regarding the renaming of roads in 1977. Prior to that, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 would have referred to as Avenue 1, Ang Mo Kio.

HDB notice regarding the renaming of roads in 1977. Prior to that, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 would have referred to as Avenue 1, Ang Mo Kio.

“Ang mo” in Hokkien is of course a term that is commonly used in Singapore and in Malaysia to describe Caucasians. The term does have its origins in 16th or 17th century Fujian province, when references to the fair hair (ang mo translates to “red hair”) of hitherto unseen and unheard of new arrivals from distant shores, came to be used  in the absence of a non-existent proper word. The “ang mo”, it was though in the case of the “ang mo” bridge being a reference to an Englishman by the name of John Turnbull Thomson, the Government Surveyor who gave his name to Thomson Road (or Englishmen in general), who was credited with putting up a proper bridge (or bridges) across the Kallang River. Along with these, the National Heritage Board (NHB) in its heritage guide for Ang Mo Kio, does add another twist with regard to what the “ang mo” might have been a reference to:

A more plausible explanation was given by Douglas Hiorns, former General Manager of Bukit Sembawang Estates (1948-1995). According to Hiorns, there were two key tracks crossing Ang Mo Kio, an area with large expanses of swamps and tributaries of rivers running through it. Bridges carrying the tracks over the waterways gained a local importance as a result. In the north, a wooden bridge carried Jalan Hwi Yoh over Sungei Tongkang and was locally called pang kio, meaning “wooden bridge” in Hokkien. The bridge carrying Cheng San Road over the tributary of Kallang River was made of concrete, a material commonly referred to as ang mo he or “Western ash” in Hokkien. As such the area acquired the name “Ang Mo Kio”.

A 1861 British Admiralty Nautical Chart. Early maps of modern Singapore show an area close to where Ang Mo Kio today is named 'Amokiah' or 'Amokia'.

A 1861 British Admiralty Nautical Chart. Early maps of modern Singapore show an area close to where Ang Mo Kio today is named ‘Amokiah’ or ‘Amokia’ (click to enlarge).

To add to the confusion over the origins of the name, old maps and references to the area suggest that the name might after all have little to do with bridges, identifying an area close to where present day Ang Mo Kio is, as “Amokia” or “Amokiah”. While the British did have some difficultly in the Anglicisation of local place names, a suggestion that I did hear more recently was that the “kia” could indeed have been correctly Anglicised. The suggestion (attributed to a local cartographer) is that “kia” which can translate into “frightened” or “afraid” in Hokkien, refers to an incident in which J. T. Thomson on a survey in what would have been a wooded area, had taken fright at an unexpected appearance made by a tiger.

A Land Office newspaper advertisement offering plots in 'Amo Kia' for sale.

A Land Office newspaper advertisement offering plots in ‘Amo Kia’ for sale.

Except for a small pockets of trees and a cluster close to Mayflower Garden, it wasn’t a forest of trees but one of concrete structures that the new residents were to encounter in 1976 – and there certainly were no tigers and wild the new Ang Mo Kio certainly was not. Living in the new town in its early days, did however have one feeling very much like it was the wilderness one was living in, especially for my having gotten spoiled by the convenience that Toa Payoh, my previous home had offered.

An aerail view of Ang Mo Kio in the early 1980s, showing the early part of it in the foreground (photograph from a heritage marker).

An aerial view of Ang Mo Kio in the early 1980s, showing the early part of it in the foreground (photograph from a heritage marker) – click to enlarge.

Block 306 was where I had moved to, in an area as far east as lived-in Ang Mo Kio went at the end of 1976. Most of what had been completed centered around the partially completed roads in the area, which included parts of Avenue 1, Avenue 3 and Avenue 6. These were the roads that carried the new town’s traffic out via a stub of Avenue 1 to Upper Thomson Road.

A familiar sight along Upper Thomson Road on the journey on service number 166. Area shown is close to the junction of Upper Thomson Road with Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 in 1980 (photograph by Ronni Pinsler as seen on the National Archives Online catalogue http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

A familiar sight along Upper Thomson Road on the journey on service number 166. Area shown is close to the junction of Upper Thomson Road with Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 in 1980 (photograph by Ronni Pinsler as seen on the National Archives Online catalogue http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

It was out to Upper Thomson Road – then the only link to the city centre, that the few bus services then serving the new town operated along. The services included numbers 168, which was the bus to take to Orchard Road, as well as a newly introduced 166 – an important link for me in the journeys to secondary school in Bras Basah Road that I would have to then make. A Blue Arrow semi-express bus service to Shenton Way, 308, did also help me save some time on the long journey home from its last stop in the city at Waterloo Street – saving up to 20 minutes in what would usually have been a journey that often exceed one hour.

Te stretch of Ang Mo Kio Avenue 6 where the temporary terminal moved to in the very late 1970s.

The stretch of Ang Mo Kio Avenue 6 where the temporary terminal moved to in the very late 1970s – probably late 1978.

The row of boarding stops along Avenue 3 in the 1980s to serve the new bus terminal.

The row of boarding stops along Avenue 3 in the 1980s to serve the new bus terminal that was built in 1980.

Staying at Block 306 also made it convenient to catch the bus, as I could board it at the first temporary bus terminal , which operated in a car park just across Avenue 6 in  front of Block 217 (before it moved even closer, probably at the end of 1978, to Avenue 6). Close-by the temporary terminal at Block 215, a row of shops lined the ground floor with the corner shop lot closest to the car park occupied by a coffee shop that due to the proximity of the bus terminal, became a hang out for resting bus drivers and conductors. The coffee shop, never quite recovered when the terminal did move across Avenue 6, with the lot being taken over McDonald’s, who did for a while operate a rather quiet outlet there. NTUC Fairprice currently runs an outlet in the same lot.

The NTUC Fairprice outlet occupies a shop lot that was originally a coffee shop frequented by bus drivers and conductors in the 1970s.

The NTUC Fairprice outlet at Block 215 occupies a shop lot that was originally a coffee shop frequented by bus drivers and conductors in the 1970s.

It was also close by where the only completed neighbourhood centre (in Neighbourhood 2) was found, and where the only market that had then been opened, was. It was in one of the shops in the two storey blocks surrounding the market, that I was to visit for my first haircuts in Ang Mo Kio. That was at an Indian barber shop at Block 226E, my father and I would frequent, until the Pink Panther Malay barber shop in my neighbourhood opened.

The first Neighbourhood Centre, now known as 'Kebun Baru Mall'.

The first Neighbourhood Centre, now known as ‘Kebun Baru Mall’.

The row of shops at Block 226E as seen today.

The row of shops at Block 226E as seen today.

Besides the shops at Block 215 and at the neighbourhood centre,  there were shops closer to where I lived. These were found at the bottom of Block 307 (since demolished) across the huge open car park. Besides a bicycle shop, a clinic, and a provision shop, the row also contained the coffee shop that I would have most patronised during my nine-year stay in the area in the new town.

It was across a large open car park, a large part of which has since been built over, that a block of flats with a row of shops, Block 307, was.

It was across a large open car park, a large part of which has since been built over (left of the photograph), that a block of flats with a row of shops, Block 307, was.

In its early days, there coffee shop wasn’t much to talk about, much of the food on offer was rather forgettable – although the Fishball Noodle and the Chicken Rice was to see much improvement over time. Most of my early visits there were motivated by the large glass fronted stainless steel refrigerator (as was common in coffee shops and many provision shops in those days) – then placed right against the back wall of the coffee shop (the coffee shop was laid out as were coffee shops of old – with stalls lining the entrance and tables and chairs arranged inside). It was from the fridge that ice-cold relief was found. This took the form of bottled soft drinks that were to be poured into ice-filled plastic bags – much needed in the heat and dust that seemed to accompany the early days of the neighbourhood.

Block 306 (and 305 behind it), with a more recently added concrete plaza next to it.

Block 306 (and 305 behind it), with a more recently added concrete plaza next to it.

With the relentless pace at which the town was being developed, it was not to be long before the feeling of being in the wilderness did somewhat subside.  The completion of new roads and addition of bus services did provide more links out, although one did have to spend more time on the road given the distance of the town from the city. One road that was useful in the early days was the extension of Avenue 1 out to Lorong Chuan, completed in March 1977, not too long after I moved in. That providing a link out to Serangoon Garden, where the only NTUC Fairprice (then NTUC Welcome) supermarket in the vicinity was to be found (until the branch in Ang Mo Kio Central was opened in 1979). The completion of the road also saw it being used by hell-riders , participants in the illegal motorcycle races that was a big problem in the late 1970s, the roar of their motorcycles were sometimes heard in the dead of the night.

Avenue 1 where it meets Avenue 3, at its completion in March 1977 - the area to the right was largely occupied by the sprawling Peck San Theng cemetery (photograph: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Avenue 1 where it meets Avenue 3, at its completion in March 1977 – the area to the right was largely occupied by the sprawling Peck San Theng cemetery (photograph: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

The completion of Marymount Road in August 1979 provided a faster and more direct route southwards towards the city. The construction of the road, which was to see Marymount Convent lose its original frontage along Thomson Road, took a route that cut through parts of the massive Peck San Theng cemetery – and one thing that I very vividly remember was seeing the exhumation work in progress on the part of the cemetery close to Sin Ming Estate that was just by Marymount Road – probably sometime in 1980.

The clutter of renewal in spaces where my friends and I would once have enjoyed an afternoon kicking a ball in.

The clutter of renewal in spaces where my friends and I would once have enjoyed an afternoon kicking a ball in.

With the masses that the further development of Ang Mo Kio brought in, the town took on a more impersonal feel and what there certainly wasn’t, was the sense of the community that was present in Toa Payoh – the lack of common corridors and open front doors possibly a contributory factor. There were however, open and many grassy spaces to celebrate, spaces that allowed the freedom of play, to kick a ball, and to have a run around … spaces there seem to be a lot less of these days. It did come as a shock to see that many of the spaces I played in, have since been lost to the clutter of renewal that upgrading works seem to do to a place, on a recent visit to the area.

The huge open space that provided room to breathe is now gone.

The huge open space that provided room to breathe is now gone.

Gone also, is that open space that provided breathing room between the block where I had lived in, the blocks it has since been made to face – a seemingly towering wall of concrete that has hidden that wonderful view I once did get from the bedroom window of the 16th storey flat I had lived in.

More cluttered spaces where open fields once provided the freedom to run.

More cluttered spaces where green and open fields once provided the freedom to run.

Walking around once familiar places that I now find hard to connect with, I did at least stumble upon a consolation. That came in the form of a bowl of ice-kacang, done just the way I like it and as it might have been all those years ago – a simple pleasure from what once was a much less complicated place.

One thing that I hope never changes - finding a great bowl of ice-kacang in the nighbourhood.

One thing that I hope never changes – being able to stumble upon that great bowl of ice-kacang in the changing neighbourhoods.





Fast fading memories of a world we want only to forget …

16 12 2013

Besides the lost coastline running along the Changi and Tanah Merah areas, another place by the sea that I was acquainted with as a young child was the seaside parks around the Pasir Panjang area. One was Pasir Panjang Park, a rather small park west of Pasir Panjang Power Station and a cluster of schools (the buildings of some are still around) fanned by the breeze of the sea, one of which was Batu Berlayer School at which my mother taught at for a short while in the later half of the 1960s.

The sea fronted Pasir Panjang Park in 1967.

The sea fronted Pasir Panjang Park in 1967.

The area today, is one no longer fanned by the sea breeze, having for long been abandoned by the sea. The shoreline in the area, initially altered by the reclamation in the early 1970s, has since been moved well away by land on which a new container terminal is being built on as an expansion of the capacity of the Port of Singapore (this before all port facilities are eventually consolidated in the far west of the island in some 20 years time).

The container port being developed on land reclaimed more recently.

The container port being developed on land reclaimed more recently beyond the reclamation of the 1970s.

Visiting what remains of the park, which took on the face of how I had known it around 1956/57, I realise that that is little evidence of what I had known that remains. In place of the metal railing by the seawall is a concrete balustrade that looks now well worn with age and also neglect and one for which the future is probably rather bleak. Sitting on what would have been the edge of a seawall beyond which a rather unattractive stretch of beach was exposed when the tide receded, it would have been put up in the late 1960s or very early 1970s .   

The crumbling concrete balustrade.

The crumbling concrete balustrade.

Stairs which once would have led to the beach and the sea are also clearly in evidence off the seawall. The stairs now lead not to the wide expense of water which once played host to many sea sports events, but to an even more unattractive body of water, the reach of which is limited by a concrete canal wall that runs parallel to the seawall. 

The former seawall and the canal where the sea once was.

The former seawall and the canal where the sea once was.

One item which belonged to the park that I was hoping to see, is a cannon that featured prominently in photographs I had taken of me in the park in later part of the 1960s. That, sadly, along with the playground where I did spend many moments on the swings and see-saws on, is now, like the long forgotten sea shore, only a very distant memory – although the cannon, on the evidence of this November 2010 post on Victor Koo’s “Taking Up the Challenge” blog, seemed to have been there until not so long ago.

The metal railings before the concrete balustrade came up.

The metal railings before the concrete balustrade came up.

The post does identify how the cannon came to be placed at the park, being a gift from a Mr. H J C Kulasingha, an immigrant from Sri Lanka, who came to Singapore in 1941 by way of Kuala Lumpur. A long time resident of Pasir Panjang, Mr. Kulasingha, who passed away in 1982, had quite an illustrious life in serving the community.

Developments which has erased much of what we remember of the area include an elevated highway over Pasir Panjang Road ...

Developments which has erased much of what we remember of the area include an elevated highway over Pasir Panjang Road …

And the construction of the MRT.

And the construction of the MRT.

Besides being a prominent politician (he represented the Progressive Party, the Liberal Socialist Party and in 1959 stood as an independent candidate) and a member of the Legislative Council from 1951 to 1955, Mr Kulasingha also held many other public appointments including serving on the Rural Board and as a Director of the Jurong Bird Park in the early 1970s. Thinking about all this, what would really be nice is if the old cannon that Mr Kulasingha donated, is restored to the area to commemorate Mr Kulasingha’s life and to celebrate the many important contributions an otherwise forgotten pioneer has made to our society.

A view of a world and memories attached to it which is fading with the rising of the new Singapore sun.

A view of a world and memories attached to it which is fading with the rising of the new Singapore sun.





The ‘sunken temple’ of Toa Payoh

18 09 2013

A curious sight that greeted anyone travelling down Lorong 6 close to the Temple / Kim Keat Estate area of Toa Payoh in its early days and one I well remember was a temple that at road level, appeared to be have buried in the ground. The temple, Poh Tiong Keng 普忠宫 (Pu Zhong Gong), which I would refer to as the ‘sunken temple’, was one which went back to the village origins of the area, well before the towering public housing blocks of flats arrived.

The only photograph I have managed to find of the Poh Tien Keong with Block 33 seen behind it (online photograph at http://aliciapatterson.org/stories/aged-singapore-veneration-collides-20th-century).

The area where the 'Poh Tien Keong was as seen today.

The area where the ‘Poh Tien Keong was as seen today.

The Block 33 view of the area where the 'sunken temple' was.

The Block 33 view of the area where the ‘sunken temple’ was.

Set in what would have been an undulating area, the levelling of the surrounding ground to put up blocks of flats in the late 1960s, it found itself in a hole in the ground with the 11 storey block 33 towering above it, surrounded by retaining walls put up by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) to protect the temple from being buried. The temple was one of three existing temples which were left untouched by the HDB in clearing the land in the area for the development of the new housing estate. The other two were the Siong Lim Temple and the  Seu Teck Sean Temple.

The temple finding itself in a hole in the ground as work on the new public housing estate of Toa Payoh was being carried out in 1968.

The temple finding itself in a hole in the ground as work on the new public housing estate of Toa Payoh was being carried out in 1968 (Source: online catalogue of the National Archives of Singapore http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Another photograph taken during the development of Toa Payoh in 1968.

Another photograph taken during the development of Toa Payoh in 1968 (Source: online catalogue of the National Archives of Singapore http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Sadly the sight is one we no longer see. The temple was demolished in late 1977, not long after I moved out of Toa Payoh. The area where the temple was will now also see a huge change – the block of flats behind where the temple was along with several others in the area – some of which were leased out temporarily to Resorts World Sentosa to house their workers after residents were moved out, are due to be demolished (one of the blocks which will be demolished is Block 28, in front of which the iconic dragon of  Toa Payoh can be found).

The hole in the ground after the temple was demolished in 1977 (Source: online catalogue of the National Archives of Singapore http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/)

The hole in the ground after the temple was demolished in 1977 (Source: online catalogue of the National Archives of Singapore http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/)

A last look around Block 33

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Afternote:

It has been brought to my attention that the Poh Tiong Beo (普忠庙) located diagonally across the road from this site was built to replace the ‘sunken temple’ as drainage was poor in the recess the original temple sat in and that would get flooded everytime it rained heavily.






The swastika at the tenth mile

9 07 2013

One very distinct memory from a childhood of many wonderful moments to remember is of the red swastika at Somapah Village. The village was one I had many encounters with in the late 1960s and very early 1970s, stopping by or passing through it on the many journeys we made to Mata Ikan at the other end of Somapah Road where a favourite holdiay destination for my family – the Mata Ikan Government Holiday Bungalows was located.

A photograph of the old Red Swastika School along Somapah Road (source: Red Swastika School's website).

The red swastika along Somapah Road (source: Red Swastika School’s website).

The swastika belonged to the Red Swastika School, just down the road from the main part of the village. It adorned the simple single storey zinc-roofed  school building, rising above it over the entrance and never failed to catch my attention from my vantage in the back seat of the car – a symbol I would always associate with the now lost village. The memories I do have of the village and the school are largely contained in a post I had put up at the end of 2010 on the village:  Memories of the lost world that was Somapah Village. What motivated me to touch on this again is a few old photographs of the school, apparently taken during a school sports day in the 1970s, sent by a reader Mr. Alvin Lee, which follows.

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The school traces its history back to the founding of the Wan Tzu School by the World Red Swastika Society at the village in 1951, built to serve residents of the rural community in the Changi 10th Mile area where Somapah Village was located and provided free education to them. Sometime in the 1950s, the name of the school was changed to the Red Swastika School – a name now well respected for its academic achievements.  Its enrollment was to grow quickly, from 300 at its starting, it had by the end of its first decade a population of some 1000 students who were accommodated in its 12 classrooms over two sessions. With the days of the village coming to an end in the 1980s the school moved to new premises in Bedok North Avenue 3 in 1981 where it still operates today.

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The first drive-in in Malaysia and Singapore

22 06 2013

For many of my generation, the very first encounters with American style fast-food would have probably consisted of root beers, hamburgers, fries and hotdogs at one of two A&W restaurants present in Singapore – at least mine was. That was at the drive-in at Dunearn Road, straddling the Bukit Timah canal close to the University of Singapore, which my parents brought my sister and me to for a treat (fast-food was relatively expensive in those days). It was also my one and only drive-in dining experience for which I remember the ice-cream that came at the end of the treat more than anything else.

A&W would have given the first American fast-food experience to many of my generation.

A&W would have given the first American fast-food experience to many of my generation.

Drive-in restaurants, or drive-ins were huge in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. The arrival of Singapore’s first – the A&W at Dunearn Road in 1970, two years after the first A&W outlet opened at the MSA Building (later SIA Building) in 1968, came at the end of a decade when we were to receive much greater exposure to American popular culture, of which both fast-food and drive-ins were very much a representation of, through the introduction of television (introduced to Singapore in 1963).

For some of us, nothing comes close to having a root beer at A&W in a mug chilled in a freezer.

For some of us, nothing comes close to having a root beer at A&W in a mug chilled in a freezer.

While the A&W outlet was the first drive-in in Singapore, it wasn’t the first drive-in to come to this part of the world. That distinction lies with the A&W drive-in that opened in Petaling Jaya, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur in neighbouring Malaysia, in 1967 – four years after the first A&W outlet opened its doors at Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman in the Malaysian capital. The drive-in, which incidentally is still operating (although not as a drive-in), is one I have long familiar with. I would probably have developed an impression of it from one of the many driving trips I made in the back of my father’s car to the “Federation” – as my father often referred to Malaysia, as it was close to Shah’s Hotel – another long time landmark in the Taman Jaya area where the drive-in is located.

The first drive-in restaurant in Malaysia and Singapore - the A&W at Taman Jaya in Petaling Jaya, which is still operating (albeit not as a drive-in).

The first drive-in restaurant in Malaysia and Singapore – the A&W at Taman Jaya in Petaling Jaya, which is still operating (albeit not as a drive-in).

The hot and humid climate we do get in Malaysia and Singapore was possibly a reason that the popularity of the drive-in, a feature of life of American suburbia, did not really take-off. A few more drive-ins did appear on both sides of the Causeway over the years, including one that opened at Kallang near the stadium (where the cluster of fast-food restaurants is today) in 1978 – around the time I was chasing Coney Dogs, Root Beers and A&W straws at their outlet in Dhoby Ghaut close to Cathay. Sadly for us in Singapore who do have memories of drive-ins and first fast-food experiences at A&W restaurants, both have disappeared. The drive-in at Kallang was converted not long after it opened to a sit-in only restaurant. The original A&W drive-in closed in 1986, making way for a canal widening exercise. The restaurant itself, despite its ambitious expansion in the 1980s, could not compete with the big names in fast-food, who by the 1980s, had established themselves in Singapore. In 2001, it closed seven of its twelve outlets, when the last franchise holder in Singapore, KUB Holdings of Malaysia, took over. With losses amounting to an estimated 1.5 million dollars, KUB decided to shut A&W’s operations on the island in 2003, with the last outlet to be shut being the one at the airport. With that, the only way we in Singapore could get that root beer fix was across the Causeway. Looking at the state of the outlets in Malaysia, it doesn’t look that there is much time left for us to do that – and with it, the days of the Root Beer and Coney Dog (now in its 50th year) and more recently introduced A&W offerings such as the waffle and curly fries, will soon be days which have passed.





A new circus comes to Toa Payoh

20 06 2013

A once familiar world fast turning to one that is unfamiliar, is Toa Payoh, the urban kampong where I had spent a good part of my formative years living in. Back then, what was Singapore’s second satellite town – the first planned as a whole by the Housing and Development Board (HDB), was the pride of Singapore’s highly successful public housing programme. It was built in part to showcase the effort with a purpose built “VIP block”, Block 53, built with a viewing gallery on its roof so that the success story could be shown-off to visiting dignitaries to Singapore. That was some four decades ago, and while the face of Toa Payoh is still very much that of the public housing estate it had been built to be, its prime location close to the city does mean that the land on which it does stand, can be sold off at a premium and increasingly, larger chunks of the estate’s land, originally intended for public housing, is now being diverted towards private residential development. This does have the effect of slowly, but surely, changing how we see Toa Payoh.

Block 53 seen today.

Block 53 seen today with the Seu Teck Sean Tong Temple complex across from it.

Block 53 in June 1969.

Block 53 in June 1969.

One pieces of land which will see private residential developments coming up, is one which has somehow remained almost vacant all the years – since Toa Payoh’s life as a public housing estate began. Now cleared of an Esso Service Station which stood at a corner of it since the early 1970s, the plot, bounded by Lorong 6, Lorong 4, Lorong 5 and the huge Seu Teck Sean Tong Temple complex, is currently being sold with a tender having been called by the HDB for it. The plot, being right across Lorong 5 from where I lived at Block 53 from 1967 to 1976 , is one in which I do have some of the more memorable memories of my days in Toa Payoh in. It was where the circus once came to as well as serving as a location of several Trade Fairs held in the early days of Toa Payoh.

A sign foretells the fate of a plot of land which has stood empty since the beginning of Toa Payoh's days as a public housing estate.

A sign tells of the fate about to befall a plot of land which has stood empty since the beginning of Toa Payoh’s days as a public housing estate.

The highlight of my time in Toa Payoh – at least before the Queen visited, was the Great Royal Circus of India coming to town in 1970. Not only did it serve as a distraction that was very different from the travelling wayangs (Chinese operas as they are locally referred to) and the pasar malams (night markets) that they brought with them, it provided me with an opportunity not just to watch the circus for the first time, it also allowed me the chance to see the circus’ travelling caravan (which I often heard stories about) up close. The caravan was stationed adjacent to the big top that had been set up on the same plot of land closer to Lorong 6, just next to Lorong 5 and right across from where I lived in Block 53.

A lion seen in a Royal Circus of India caravan cage in 1968. The circus was based at the plot of land in Toa Payoh in 1970 and brought with it the opportunity to see the animals up close.

A lion seen in a Royal Circus of India caravan cage in 1968. The circus was based at the plot of land in Toa Payoh in 1970 and brought with it the opportunity to see the animals up close (image source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/).

Those were indeed exciting times for me, the caravan which would have arrived by ship and moved around the Malayan Peninsula, included the cages of the circus’ animals and it was a huge treat to see the fierce looking Lions, Tigers and the curiously fascinating Ligers in their cages, not on the page of a magazine or book, but from a relatively safe position just an arm’s length away. Another huge treat was getting close the huge elephants – a few were chained to poles in the ground, and being washed and tended to by the keepers, although it is the rather unpleasant smell and sight associated of one of the elephants answering the call of nature in a big way that does seem to remain etched in my memory more than anything else.

The location plan on the HDB Land Sales web page (click to enlarge).

The unoccupied plot of land, along with the one across Lorong 4 on which the Toa Payoh Police Station (now Police Security Command) was to be built on, were ideal places to host the travelling Trade Fairs, popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The fairs, entrance to which would have cost some 20 cents for adults back then, contained many stalls selling a range of goods and cooked food, as well as having a fun fair of sorts. The fun fair was where rides, similar to the ones set by by Uncle Ringo these days, were found along with many other game stalls set up. It was this part of the fairs I was often drawn to, and on one  rare occasion I was allowed to go with an older neighbour (those were days when there were many warnings of children disappearing, many from similar fairs across the island, presumably kidnapped and never again seen). That was a visit, for which my grandmother stored the few coins I was given to spend in a knotted handkerchief, I well remember. It was probably more for what did happen – in participating in a game in which darts were thrown at inflated balloons so as to burst them, one of the projectiles I launched missed the girl who was manning the stall very narrowly.

A view northwards across the plot of land from where the Esso Service Station was. The Toa Pyoah Police Station (now Police Security Command) can be seen across Lorong 4 on the left - both that piece of land and the empty plot played host to trade fairs in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

A view northwards across the plot of land from where the Esso Service Station was. The Toa Pyoah Police Station (now Police Security Command) can be seen across Lorong 4 on the left – both that piece of land and the empty plot played host to trade fairs in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Another thing I do remember of the plot of land was a large grass fire in the early 1970s which happened during a dry spell. The sight of firemen smothering the still smoking grass with gunny sacks after the fire was put out, as well as the sight of the charred black field is that I still well remember. It is however, the (Toa Payoh) Seu Teck Sean Tong (修德善堂), a Buddhist temple perched on the hillock on the eastern side of the plot of land, and a landmark in Toa Payoh which was there well before the public housing estate came up – which would probably be what most would identify with the plot of land. The huge temple complex, most of which was rebuilt in the early 1990s, as I would have known it back in the 1960s and 1970s, was completed in 1959, and was where a previous wooden attap roofed structure was said to have been put up in 1942. The temple’s location also marks where the first block of flats in Toa Payoh proper did come up – the first block of flats completed is Block 52, which still stands next to the temple and overlooks the temple complex.

The (Toa Payoh) Seu Teck Sean Ton seen on a small hillock at the eastern edge of the empty plot of land. The first block of flats completed in Toa Payoh, Block 52, can be seen just beyond the temple complex.

The (Toa Payoh) Seu Teck Sean Ton seen on a small hillock at the eastern edge of the empty plot of land. The first block of flats completed in Toa Payoh, Block 52, can be seen just beyond the temple complex.

With the new development that will soon take place, the temple’s position as a landmark overlooking the northern gateway to Toa Payoh (via the flyover at Bradell Road), will probably diminish. The development will add to growing list of private residential property in Toa Payoh and will further tip the balance in the mix of public and private flats in the area and it may be a matter of time before Toa Payoh will shed an image it was built to have – that of the jewel in the crown of what did become a very successful effort to house Singapore’s once homeless masses.

The rising of the sun over a new Toa Payoh.

The rising of the sun over a new Toa Payoh.








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