St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Kuching

7 07 2013

The capital of the East Malaysian State of Sarawak, Kuching, has some rather unusual pieces of architecture, the recently completed DUN Sarawak being one. Another is the Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph, consecrated in 1969 as St. Joseph’s Church, replacing a much older Neo-Gothic style church which was built by Chinese labourers during the reign of Charles Brooke, the second White Rajah in 1891. Elevated to a cathedral in 1976 when the Kuching Archdiocese was established, the building features an unusual roof structure somewhat reminiscent of that of the Church of the Blessed  Sacrament in Singapore. The roof in this case is made up of very dense belian wood.

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Besides the cathedral’s building, what is also interesting is the parish cemetery next to it. The cemetery is where the graves of 21 Iban warriors who gave their lives during the Malayan Emergency, the remains of which have been recovered from various parts of Malaysia and Singapore for reburial at the cemetery in 2011.

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A colourful area in old KL

5 07 2013

One of the more interesting and colourful parts of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, affectionately referred to as “KL’ to wander around is the area around what used to be the heart of Chinatown. The area is one that is very much in transition, having discarded large bits of a past which has now been largely forgotten. The area is now better known for the street market at Jalan Petaling (Petaling Street), a modern interpretation of the street markets of old complete with the offering, typical of many modern street markets, of imitation goods.

Lychees on sale at the Petaling Street market. The area is one of the more colourful areas of KL.

Lychees on sale at the Petaling Street market. The area is one of the more colourful areas of KL.

A remnant of the past in the midst of stall selling fake goods -  real goods, in this case really good roast duck out of a push cabinet along Jalan Petaling.

A remnant of the past in the midst of stall selling fake goods – real goods, in this case really good roast duck out of a push cabinet along Jalan Petaling.

The area, as with much of the rapidly modernising city, finds itself in the throes of change. Walking around today, we find that there is increasing number of shophouses where the once thriving organic trades have abandoned, the businesses themselves having been abandoned by the modern society. Despite this, there are still pockets in which the area does cling on to its past, where reminders of a world which soon may pass can still be found.

One of two old textile shops still operating at Jalan Tun H S Lee. The shops once did a roaring trade in the days when it was common to have clothes tailored.

One of two old textile shops still operating at Jalan Tun H S Lee. The shops once did a roaring trade in the days when it was common to have clothes tailored.

An old photo studio along Jalan Sultan.

An old photo studio along Jalan Sultan.

One area which does hold tightly on to the past is found off Jalan Petaling /Jalan Sultan at Madras Lane. There a market, relatively quiet by yesterday’s standards, does still operate. It is in a section of the wet market, where some trades do still thrive can be found. That is where some of the best street food said to on and off the streets of  old KL is said to be found at. Besides the two famous laksa stalls which often sell out before lunch time, there is an extremely popular Ampang Yong Tau Foo stall at which even if one is there for an early lunch, one sees a snaking queue.

The wet market at Madras Lane is not as busy as it once might have been.

The wet market at Madras Lane is not as busy as it once might have been.

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The cooked food stalls at the market still however, do good business.

The cooked food stalls at the market still however, do good business.

The queue at the Ampang Yong Tau Foo stall.

The queue at the Ampang Yong Tau Foo stall.

A walk down Jalan Sultan and the other streets around, including those north of Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock around Old Market Square can also be pretty interesting. There is plenty of the old mixed with the new including textile shops, medicine shops, snack shops, eating places and other traditional businesses set among businesses which are more relevant to today’s society – including a whole area rich in colour that now caters to a group of migrant workers from Bangladesh. Jalan Sultan is particularly interesting, besides the back lanes there teeming with food stalls and one at the end of which a back lane barber operates, there is an old place where dentures are made.

A look down Jalan Sultan.

A look down Jalan Sultan.

A old idsused public telephone.

A old disused public telephone.

A back lane off Jalan Sultan.

A back lane off Jalan Sultan.

A shop in which dentures are made.

A shop in which dentures are made.

Another view around Jalan Sultan.

Another view around Jalan Sultan.

A hole-in-the-wall Chinese medicine shop along Jalan Tun H S Lee.

A hole-in-the-wall Chinese medicine shop along Jalan Tun H S Lee.

A hole-in-the-wall convenience shop along Jalan Sultan.

A hole-in-the-wall convenience shop along Jalan Sultan.

An old hardware shop and signboard along Jalan Petaling.

An old hardware shop and signboard along Jalan Petaling.

Along Lebuh Pudu - business have sprouted up catering to the migrant Bangladeshi population.

Along Lebuh Pudu – business have sprouted up catering to the migrant Bangladeshi population.

An area south of Jalan Sultan I have not previously explored is that around Jalan Balai Polis and Jalan Panggong – which seems now to be dominated by businesses catering to budget travellers. Besides the old shop houses and lanes which are full of character, that is also where some remnants of the old are still very much in evidence. One is an old abandoned houses standing at the corner of Jalan Panggong where Jalan Balai Polis turns into it next to which one is confronted by a now familiar sight in KL – a construction site. It is at Jalan Balai Polis where a memory which has survived for more than a century does exist – that of the Gurdwara Sahib Polis. This interestingly dates back to 1898, built to serve the community of Sikh policemen who were brought in from India by the British to serve in the police force – a throwback to a time when a large part of the police force was dominated by Sikh migrants from India not just in the then Federated Malayan States (FMS) but also in Singapore. More information on the Gurdwara Sahib Polis can be found at this link.

An old abandoned house along Jalan Panggong.

An old abandoned house along Jalan Panggong.

A Sikh police house of worship along Jalan Balai Polis.

A Sikh police house of worship, the Gurdwara Sahib Polis, along Jalan Balai Polis which dates back to 1898.

Lorong Panggong off Jalan Balai Polis.

Lorong Panggong off Jalan Balai Polis.

Lorong Panggong.

Lorong Panggong.





The Astana

1 07 2013

A nighttime view across the Sarawak River from Kuching of The Astana, now used as the official residence of the Governor of Sarawak. The palace was built by Charles Brooke, the second White Rajah of Sarawak for his wife, Margaret, as a wedding gift – although she is said to have spent much of the 50 years Charles was on the throne back in England.

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The Astana today serves as one of the many memories of that period in the history of the East Malaysian state, a period when three Englishmen ruled over it as Rajahs. The story of the White Rajahs, which has fascinated me since my childhood when I first learnt of them after coming across a ship, the “Rajah Brooke” in the Straits Steamship Company’s fleet, began with the reign of James Brooke, often depicted as a swashbuckling adventurer. He obtained sovereignty over the territory around Kuching then controlled by the Sultanate of Brunei, as a reward for quelling a rebellion against the Sultan. The last of the White Rajah’s Vyner, son of Charles who was the nephew of childless James Brooke, ceded the territory, which had been expanded substantially, to the British Crown in 1946, thus ending the reign of the White Rajahs.





The DUN across the river

29 06 2013

The wonderfully blue skies over the capital of the East Malaysian State of Sarawak, Kuching and one of its iconic landmarks, the State Legislative Assembly or Dewan Undangan Negeri (DUN) Sarawak Building across the Sarawak River from the city makes for a perfect picture postcard scene. The nine storey building which features a very distinctive roof structure referred to locally as the “payung” or “umbrella”, is located at Petra Jaya close to another landmark, the Astana. It was completed in May 2009 and combines elements of the different local styles of architecture. More information on the building can be found on Wikipedia.

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Kaki lima

27 06 2013

The kaki lima or the five-foot-way, is a feature of the shophouse, which was once dominant in the urban landscapes across much of British influenced South-East Asia. Sheltered from the blazing tropical sun and the frequent torrential downpours, they made an ideal communal space, as well as one in which many trades thrived.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Tun H S Lee.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Tun H S Lee.

The five-foot-ways I encountered in my childhood, full of bustle, colour and texture, were ones I found to be thoroughly fascinating. I never did have a dull moment walking along one, even in the evenings – the corridors, even those emptied of life and traders, found other uses. It was common to see bicycles and tricycles parked as well as other clutter. A common sight that we don’t see today is that of the jaga, more often than not an elderly turbaned Sikh man, seated on a charpoy – a wooden framed rope bed, outside the business premises he was to guard. It would also have been, especially in the smaller towns across the Causeway, common to hear a noisy chorus of swallows who built their nests overhead in the corners of the ceiling.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Sultan with a hole-in-the-wall shop still commonly found along many such corridors.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Sultan with a hole-in-the-wall shop still commonly found along many such corridors.

The kaki lima of today, particlarly those we find in Singapore, are much less lively versions of those of yesterday. They are still however wonderful places to explore and can often offer as enjoyable an experience as they might have in the days of my youth, throwing up a surprise every now and again. One area where I did find myself wandering through the kaki lima recently, was around the Jalan Sultan and Jalan Petaling area, in the heart of old Kuala Lumpur, where the set of photographs in this post were taken.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Tun H S Lee north of Jalan Pudu just outside a now quiet textile shop which must have once done a roaring trade.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Tun H S Lee north of Jalan Pudu just outside a now quiet textile shop which must have once done a roaring trade.

The shophouses in this part of the Malaysian capital once contained many traditional businesses. With many abandoned by the organic businesses which had brought much life to them and their sheltered corridors, the rows of shophouses seem to be in the throes of a slow death. It is a sense of sadness that I am filled with finding little reminders of what did once used to be as well as businesses still there for which time has obviously passed.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Petaling. A sign for a tailor shop which has closed reminds us of a time forgotten.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Petaling. A sign for a tailor shop which has closed reminds us of a time forgotten.

In Singapore, with over 6000 shophouses conserved, the more colourful shophouse five-foot-ways are still easy to find even as vast areas of its urban landscape are now populated with modern buildings. The ones around several conservation areas including in Little India, Kampong Glam, Geylang and Chinatown, are still rather interesting. These five-foot-ways were the subject of a contribution of photographs I made to a recently concluded three-month long exhibition on vanishing trades held at the National Museum of Singapore which looks at how spaces some of the early traders were commonly found it have evolved.

Another five-foot-way along Jalan Petaling where the remnants of an "old trade" was spotted.

Another five-foot-way along Jalan Petaling where the remnants of an “old trade” was spotted.

The idea of the five-foot-way as an architectural feature to provided a continuous sheltered walkway and as a space where trades could operate has been attributed to Sir Stamford Raffles who had it stipulated in the 1822 Jackson Town Plan that he oversaw that “all houses constructed of brick or tile should have a uniform type of front, each having a verandah of a certain depth, open at all times as a continuous and covered passage on each side of the street”. It is thought that Raffles’ got this idea from buildings in Dutch administered Batavia he had observed during his time as the Governor of Java, influenced it is suggested by verandahs found around squares in southern Europe. From Singapore, the five-foot-way spread to other parts of South-East Asia.

Watching time slowly pass on a five-foot-way along Jalan Sultan.

Watching time slowly pass on a five-foot-way along Jalan Sultan.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Panggong.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Panggong.





Paradise found?

23 06 2013

Not quite what I would consider to be paradise, but the Damai Puri Resort sure does look close enough to being one – at least in the off-season. Located at Teluk Penyuk Santubong, some 30 kilometres north of Kuching, the resort does apparently get crowded during the peak season and the best time to enjoy the resort set in a secluded bay with its own private beach is during the quiet periods – when, if not for anything else, it does offer that escape one might be looking for. The resort is also located very close to the Sarawak Cultural Village – a must visit destination for any visitor interested in having an appreciation of the culture of the various ethnic groups and tribes found in the East Malaysian State, as well as on the peninsula where the legendary Mount Santubong is located.

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The wet market at SS2 Petaling Jaya

23 06 2013

Wet markets in Singapore, although still very interesting and colourful, do pale in comparison to the wet markets found around much of Asia. Wet markets are very often, around where life in the community it serves revolves. It is often where, when on the road, I would try to visit to provide me with a sense of a place and its people. I managed a visit to two markets during a recent trip across the Causeway, not perhaps to give me a feel of the place, but more to remind me of how we in Singapore used to be.

A "carrot cake" vendor.

A “carrot cake” vendor – markets are always where a burst of colour can be found.

A fishmonger.

A fishmonger.

One of the markets I visited, a very popular one at Sea Park in SS2 Petaling Jaya,  is an open air market – its hawkers operating under colourful shelters of large parasols and tarpaulins, is perhaps reminiscent of some of the street markets which once did exist on the streets of Singapore, minus perhaps the smell one never failed to catch a whiff of.

The SS2 wet market is reminiscent of the street markets found on the old streets of Singapore.

The SS2 wet market is reminiscent of the street markets found on the old streets of Singapore.

A dry goods vendor.

A dry goods vendor.

The market, as many in Asia, is also where live produce is sold – clucking and quacking poultry, wriggling eels and frogs in cages a common sight. A sight that is not for the faint hearted is the sight of the frog vendor skinning frogs alive.

Live frogs on sale.

Live frogs on sale.

The market does perhaps lack the disorder of the street markets of old – licensed hawker stalls are organised in sections depending on what they sold and orderly queues forming at the popular ones have increasingly become a common sight, although there were a few where the crowd seemed to be in the disordered order that would once have been commonplace.

A poultry seller with freshly slaughtered chickens and ducks on offer.

A poultry seller with freshly slaughtered chickens and ducks on offer.

A cooked food section next to a dry sundry section.

A cooked food section next to a dry sundry section.

In my wanderings around wet markets in Singapore and Malaysia, I often look for specific reminders of the wet markets I do remember. One trade which did fascinate me when I was young was the Indian wet rempah (spice paste) mixer, who would get to work mixing a paste made of some of the colourful array of pasty spice arranged around him or her, depending on what the customer related as to what he/she wanted to prepare. That I have not thus far been successful in locating, although I have come across a few spice powder mixers around. One Chinese vendor in the SS2 market did come close, she did have in addition to the colourful selection of dry powdered spices, have a few pre-mixed pastes of wet spice on offer.

The rempah vendor at SS2.

The rempah vendor at SS2.

Bamboo pau (steamed buns) steamers.

Bamboo pau (steamed buns) steamers.

Walking around I did catch a glimpse of a sight which did always catch my eye as a child – the preparation of dough fritters. Although this can still be observed in Singapore, the cubicles our market hawkers now operate in are opened to prying eyes only from one end and it is hard to observe the preparation in the same way I would have as that wide-eyed boy.

One other sight which did fascinate me as a child was the how dough fritters would be prepared and fried.

Preparing the dough for making dough fritters (You Tiao or U Char Kway)  - one other sight which did fascinate me as a child was the how dough fritters would be prepared and fried.

Cutting the dough.

Cutting the dough.

Deep frying the dough in hot oil.

Deep frying the dough in hot oil.

Dough fritters almost ready to be drained and sold.

Nicely browned dough fritters almost ready to be drained and sold.

It is perhaps a matter of time before wet markets in Malaysia, as they are in SS2, fall victim to progress as many such markets in Singapore have. Until that time, however, they will be there for some of us in Singapore to remember how life for us might once been.





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.





Fairy Cave

19 06 2013

An amazing sight close to Kuching in Sarawak not far from the Bau gold mining area is this huge cave opening into Fairy Cave. It does take a bit of effort getting up the flight of 200 steps to the entrance to the cave, but it is certainly all worth the effort …

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Monoscapes: Dawn on the strait

18 04 2013

7.20 am on the last day of March 2013, a man is seen casting a net, dwarfed by the silhouettes of towering structures of the approaching new world. The casting of the net, was an economic activity on the strait which was common in times past. Economic activities of the modern world have in the last four decades or so, made their appearance on the strait, and have made the activities of the old world less relevant.

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The Straits of Johor where this photograph was taken, also known as the Tebrau Strait or Selat Tebrau, was once the domain of a group of sea dwellers, a nomadic people referred to as the Orang Laut (which translates to “Sea People”) or Sea Gypsies. The sub-group of the Orang Laut,  referred to as the Orang Seletar or in their own language, Kon Seletar, moved around on boats which also served as homes through mangroves which once dominated both sides of the strait, living off the waters. The boats they lived on were about 20 feet long with a stove at one end and their dwellings at the other end under an awning of sorts.

The suggestions are that the group, who had already established themselves in the area well before Raffles landed in 1819 – it was reported that there were an estimated 200 Orang Seletar living on some 30 boats in Singapore when Raffles landed, took its name from the Sungei Seletar or Seletar River – which once spilled into the strait (it has since been dammed at its mouth).

Another suggestion is that the group had in fact given their name to the river. Seletar is also a name that the northern coastal area of Singapore which included what is Sembawang today (Sembawang Road was originally called Seletar Road) became known as. Seletar Island which is close to the mouth of Sungei Simpang, had in fact hosted a community of Orang Seletar up to 1967 or so.

One of the last to settle on land, the Orang Seletar have today largely assimilated into the larger Malay society and a greater number of them now live on the Johor side of the strait. In Singapore, there were several individuals from the community who intermarried and settled in Kampong Tanjong Irau. The kampong was also known to be the home of some Orang Kallang, another Orang Laut group who were originally from the mouth of the Kallang River who had initially been displaced from places such as Kampong Kallang Rokok on the Kallang River, moving first to the Seletar area. The construction of the airbase at Seletar meant they had to move again and some chose to move westwards to Tanjong Irau.





A sunrise from 5 years ago

20 01 2013

It was close to the time of when this photograph of the sunrise over the South Channel separating the island of Penang from the mainland was taken that I wrote the first words of this blog. That was some five years ago today on 20 January 2008, which does make it the blog’s 5th Anniversary today (although I only began actively maintaining it from May 2009).

A sunrise 5 years ago.

A sunrise 5 years ago.





Strolls through less familiar streets of old

13 01 2012

Another wonderful place where I have been able to take a step back into the old world is the city of Ipoh in the northern Malaysian state of Perak. It is a place that I sometimes stop by on my drives up north, one that I may have had less of a connection with than perhaps Georgetown, Kuala Lumpur or Malacca, but one that I always enjoy a visit to. Ipoh does draw a crowd of visitors during the holiday season in Singapore, with many having relations or friends there, some having orginated from a city that has somewhat of a reputation for being a “sleepy town”. It isn’t hard to see why Ipoh acquired the reputation as even on the busiest of days, other than at the crowded eating places and streets crowded with cars, the five-foot-ways of the many pre-war shop houses that dominate the old town are eerily silent, with many of the shop units shuttered shut. However, sleepy as the city that rose from the wealth gained from tin deposits found in the limestone hills that surround it may seem, there is a lot more than the famous food and a break from the fast paced world that Ipoh has to offer.

The pouring rain brings an otherwise sleepy side lane in Ipoh to life - Ipoh has acquired a reputation for being a sleepy town.

A durian seller - another signs of life along the otherwise silent five-foot way.

Despite redevelopment in some areas of Ipoh, there is still a wealth of pre-war architecture to admire in the sleepy town.

One is the Art Deco styled former Ruby Theatre.

Arriving in the pouring rain one afternoon in late December, there wasn’t much I could do except head for Jalan Yau Tet Shin for lunch. The food that the city and its residents are very proud of does without a doubt, make an excellent starting point for any visitor to the city (although finding a parking space can prove a challenge). It is at Jalan Yau Tet Shin that two Steamed Chicken and Beansprout outlets that Ipoh’s residents swear by (read more about this in a previous post) can be found. The location of the two, Onn Kee (安記) and an old Ipoh favourite Lou Wong (老黄) also makes an excellent staging point to make a raid on the confectionery shops the city is equally famous for and to discover some of the old world I am always fond of strolling through – something that as a result of the rain I wasn’t really able to, choosing to wait out the afternoon’s deluge indulging myself in the offerings of another of Ipoh’s food institutions – Funny Mountain Beancurd, a stone’s throw from where I had lunch. The beancurd was exceptionally smooth but all too sweet for me and institution or not, I prefer the ones I am used to back home.

Ipoh's succulent and crunchy beansprouts - a great dish to accompany its equally famous steamed chicken.

There wasn't much to do but wait the afternoon's deluge out.

That is unless one has a toy windmill.

Funny Mountain Beancurd.

Perhaps with the sugar rush the beancurd gave me, the energy had to be expanded in doing some walking and not having previously explored another old part of town down Jalan Raja Ekram close to where another of Ipoh’s food institutions, Foh San (富山) can be found at “Dim Sum Kai” or Dim Sum Street – Jalan Leong Sin Nam. Foh San serves another of the city’s culinary must-trys, Dim Sum, which I did have the opportunity to try this time around. Having also previously tasted the Dim Sum across the street at Ming Court (明阁), I wasn’t quite convinced that what I did taste this time around was better than that.

Dim Sum at Foh San - another Ipoh favourite.

Another well known Chicken restaurant - Cowan Street along Jalan Raja Ekram.

The area around is one where there are several old streets and architectural gems hidden away. On a side street running parallel to Jalan Raja Ekram, Jalan Lau Ek Ching, is one which was a delight to discover. The street has apparently, had quite a bit of history – with a somewhat sleazy past based on news articles that I’ve found in the online newspaper archives of the National Library in Singapore. The is one report that caught my attention, with the explosions in Kuala Lumpur being very much in the news this week – that of a bomb that ripped through a bus that had been parked overnight on a side lane off the street during the Emergency in 1965. What drew me to the street was a row of gorgeous double storey pre-war buildings at the north end which I spotted from Jalan Raja Ekram, which, sadly, would have seen much better times. The signs for the houses are good though, with the obvious attempts at restoration and reuse by new and seemingly trendy businesses already having moved into a few of the units. On the other side of this row is another equally gorgeous row, one that is elevated. Each has a flight of stairs lined by curved balustrades leading up through stone pillars to a small compound.

A row of pre-war houses along Jalan Lau Ek Ching which is receiving a new lease of life.

The inside of one of one of the houses under renovation - a pub and a bridal studio are among the new tenants of the row of houses.

Another look at the exterior.

A staircase leading to another row of houses along Jalan Lau Ek Ching.

A row of pillars along the same row of houses.

Running parallel to Jalan Lau Ek Ching is Jalan Raja Musa Aziz (the former Anderson Road). At the junction of this street with Jalan Sultan Abdul Jalil (Clarke Street), is another beautiful sight to behold – that of the Art Deco building that once housed the Ruby Theatre, which again, is one that would have seen much better times. The building was completed in 1938 and leased to a Kuala Lumpur based cinema magnate Mr Ong Ee Lim who housed the Ruby in it. The building was also known as the Lau Ek Ching Building on the evidence of an old postcard, having been owned by the Ipoh gentleman who gave his name to the street I had just walked through, Mr Lau Ek Ching. Based on a report in an issue of the Straits Times dated 2 January 1938, I learnt that the building was built at a cost of $100,000 and designed by an Ipoh based Architect firm Boutcher and Company. It had a seating capacity of 800 at its opening and had its ground floor used as a covered carpark. Today it houses a furniture shop, looking somewhat forlorn and out-of-place even with much of the old that still surrounds it. There was much more to see than the two hours I had permitted. The two hours did feel like too short a time of course, but it wasn’t something that I minded. It did mean that I would have another reason to return to a city that is more old world than new and one which allows me to get away to into a world in which I am always able to find a lot more comfort than the one that I have found myself growing into.

An old postcard of The Ruby in 1960.

The former Ruby today.

A building belonging to the True Jesus Church.

A back lane in Ipoh I found myself wandering through.

The yellow world that Ipoh seems to be.


More of Ipoh
Posts from a previous visit

A stroll around the streets of Old Ipoh

Ipoh’s grand old railway station

The church of St. John the Divine

The flavours of Ipoh

Ipoh’s Spooner Road






Seeking an old world over the New Year

5 01 2012

Strange as it may seem, I found myself wandering around streets some 350 kilometres away during the lead up to the New Year, thinking for a while that I was in a Singapore that I had my wonderful childhood in. The streets of Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur where I was has been a source of fascination for me since my first visit there as a child of six and it has also become, along with other parts of the country, a place where I often search for that world – the Singapore of my childhood that is now lost to me. The streets of Kuala Lumpur today and those of the Singapore of yesterday are undeniably two very different worlds – worlds far apart in many ways. Both cities have seen dramatic changes in four decades since my first visit and are today hardly recognisable from the cities they had emerged from. There is however one key difference in how either city have gone through their respective transformations. Where with Singapore, much of what made Singapore, Singapore, has now been lost – replaced in many cases by the cold hard stare of glass, steel and concrete, there is still the buzz of daily life that can be discovered nestled in between the towering edifices of modern Kuala Lumpur.

There are places I remember ... that resemble this. A back lane off the streets of Kuala Lumpur.

An area that I take particular joy in wandering around has become known as the city’s Chinatown – centred on Petaling Street or Jalan Petaling, once a must-go destination on my almost annual visits to the city to savour some of its culinary offerings. The street market it is well known for has unfortunately seen the inevitable invasion of stalls that provide a wider apppeal to a tourist than the local, but there is still in and around the area a world much like that old world we have left behind in Singapore to stumble upon. It is in the five-foot ways and narrow alleyways off the main street that this older world I seek is tucked away. One, alleyway which runs parallel to Petaling Street off Madras Lane (or Jalan Sultan) is home to what must be a well known wet market, teeming in the early hours of daylight with many from the area and beyond, in search for the day’s supply of fresh produce. I first came to know of the market on a trip to Kuala Lumpur that coicided with my very first journey out of the now forgotten Tanjong Pagar Railway Station some two decades ago – and it nice to see that it still is set in that wet, slippery and less than pleasant smelling passageway that leads to what must seem like a reward at the end of it.

The wet market at Madras Lane.

A butcher's assistant at the wet market.

What lies at the end of the wet market is a cluster of food stalls – ones that have a reputation for being amongst the best in a city where sumptous street fare is never hard to find. Despite the less than pleasant demeanour with which customers of some of the stalls are served, the cluster never fails to draw a steady stream of hungry customers in the mornings and the very popular Chee Cheong Fun, Yong Tau Foo and Assam Laksa usually sells out by the time one arrives for a late lunch.

Madras Lane is also famous for its street fare.

The early morning crowd at the Yong Tau Foo stall.

Enjoying a bowl of noodles at Madras Lane.

After a bowl of the irresistable Assam Laksa and a glass of warm soya bean milk the morning I found myself there, there was still time to discover what else Madras Lane had to offer. The five-foot ways and crowded back lanes was certainly a joy to wander through -a hole-in-the-wall shop with colourful magazines strung up for sale, as well as a shop lot where one could have an offending mole removed caught my eye as did a back lane strewn with pushcarts awaiting use to serve the evening’s dining crowd, a back lane barber, a sidewalk fortune-teller, and a cobbler waiting patiently for his next customer.

A bowl of Assam Laksa I had to have.

A sidewalk fortune teller along Jalan Sultan.

A hole-in-the-wall shop.

A five-foot way along Jalan Sultan.

Have that offending mole removed.

I suppose I would have spent the entire day immersing myself in that old world – but that unfortunately wasn’t that Singapore that I had sought, although it did in many ways remind me of it. It was time then to transport myself to the new world – first for lunch and for a look at another area I was familiar with from my early visits to the city – the Bukit Bintang area which has also seen tremendous change. And as darkness descended on the city for the last time in the old year, it was time to embrace the new – in a way that even an old world cannot escape from – with a blast of colours in the sky, but perhaps in a gentler and quieter way than it would have been if I had stayed at home. With that there is a realisation that much of the old ways will soon be forgotten … but there is that hope that the city I found myself in, would cling tightly on to those little reminders of its past which would allow me many more opportunities to seek the familiarity and comfort of the old world that I can no longer find in the place I grew up in.

A somewhat quieter welcome to 2012 than I would have expected in Singapore - fireworks over Bandar Utama in Malaysia.

The finale after the 10 minute dispay over Bandar Utama.





Segamat on a sleepy afternoon

20 08 2011

I always enjoy a walk around any old part of any town. They usually offer a window into a world that might have once existed, sometimes throwing a few surprises. Taking a quick walk around sleepy old Segamat on a Thursday afternoon took me into that world, a world that may have once existed in Singapore that is now lost to us. It is in walking into gateways into that lost world, where windows into the soul of the place can be peeked into, opening up passageways through the heart of the place, that one can reflect on the world that surrounds you. It was a world that I found myself immersed in in what little time I had, and one that made an impression on me.

Gateways

Windows

Passageways

Reflections

Signs of the times

Patterns





A storm in the southern seas

16 08 2011

A mini storm hit the otherwise sleepy southern seas on the last Thursday in June – a storm of train passengers intent on catching the last train back into Tanjong Pagar on the last day of the station’s operations on the 30th of June. It wasn’t of course the sea that the storm hit but the Nan Yang, which translates into the Southern Seas, in the sleepy town of Segamat in the southern Malaysian state of Johor. The Nan Yang is the name of a coffee shop that is perhaps one of the main tourist attractions in Segamat for the want of one in a place where a single tower block that dominates the town and which has since found use as a tower in which swiftlets are allowed to weave the much sought after nests with their saliva probably serves as a curiosity.

The Nan Yang Coffee Shop in Segamat.

The Nan Yang Coffee Shop is a favourite of the locals, who seek their once or even twice a day caffeine fix. The coffee shop offers more than the thick black liquid that the locals seem to rave about, and also serves as a place where one can get a quick breakfast or snack of toasted buns or slices of bread served with a generous helping of kaya (a sweetened spread made from coconut and egg and flavoured with pandan leaves and butter), and soft boiled eggs, typical of coffee shop breakfast fare in days when life was a lot simpler, and has now become big business so much so that chains of similar coffee shops are now thriving in the larger towns and cities in Malaysia and also in Singapore.

The Nan Yang Coffee Shop can be found in the old part of town in the corner of a two storey pre-war shophouse along Jalan Awang.

The coffee shop is set in the corner of a row of pre-war shop houses in the old part of town on a street, Jalan Awang, that resembles that of many of the smaller towns in Malaysia and perhaps a Singapore we have left behind, just across from the Kedai Kopi Sin Tong Ah. Just a stone’s throw away from the Segamat Railway Station and Police Station, stepping into the Nan Yang takes you back immediately in time to a world that even with its somewhat sanitised appearance, is one that was typical of a world we in Singapore have forgotten. It is for this, if not the excellent cup of coffee the coffee shop serves, that made the Nan Yang, well worth the visit.

Supposedly the best cup of coffee in Segamat.

The storm in the southern seas.

Offerings that excited the hungry Singaporeans ...

Another view of the Coffee Shop.

An old safe.

Locals enjoying a cup of coffee.





When time did stand still on June 30th

10 08 2011

The 30th of June 2011 was a day on which I was to have taken a final journey out of Tanjong Pagar and had a final homecoming into the station that was at midnight of the following day, cease to function as one. The day was one in which I was caught up in a frenzy of activity that started with me stepping through the grand arches of the station early in the morning and being almost immediately accosted by a media team from a local television channel, having been identified as the perpetrator of the so-called party on the last train into Tanjong Pagar. The journey up to Segamat was no less frenzied as I tried to first catch my last daytime glimpse of the rail corridor from the open door of the train carriage, and then on the way up catching up with friends and acquaintances that had come on the train.

A reflection of the Sin Tong Ah Hotel entrance off a mirror in the Kedai Kopi Sin Tong Ah along Jalan Awang in Segamat.

It was only at Segamat that peace finally reigned as the various groups decided to head out on their own. After a leisurely lunch in the cool comfort of a restaurant that was recommended by a local friend of one on the train, a coffee and toast at the must visit Kedai Kopi Nan Yang, there was time to wander around and make a few interesting discoveries. It was after all this that most of the group somehow congregated at another coffee shop just across from the Nan Yang to wile the rest of the afternoon away, and it was at that where I suddenly found myself immersed in a fascinating world where time seemed to stand still.

Time stands still over the marble tops of Kedai Kopi Sin Tong Ah in Segamat.

Sitting at the marble top table with its heavy wooden leg, reminiscent of the tables we were used to seeing in the kopi-tiam (coffee shop) of old, I was also for a while, transported back to days when I could sit and watch the world go by in that half an hour I had before school started some three decades ago. It has probably been as long ago as that since I last thought of passing time in a kopi-tiam as I did at one we referred to as “Smokey’s” along the row of shops of Victoria Building (since demolished) facing Victoria Street, that with a few friends, I would sit, surrounded by walls tiled to half their height. And just as it would have been then, I found my eyes trained on the preparation counter. And just as it might have been back then, half obscured steam which rose from a cauldron of boiling water beside the counter, I watched as the assistant at the counter fulfilled the orders of kopi (coffee), teh (tea), as well as that for toast and half-boiled eggs – a popular choice for breakfast at the kopi-tiam.

A half boiled egg ... a popular item for breakfast in the kopi-tiam of old.

Black sauce often accompanies the eggs.

Busy at the counter - a scene reminiscent of the kopi-tiam where I wasted half an hour away, five days a week.

Reflection off another mirror in the kopi-tiam.

Electrical fittings that take one back in time.

Melamine plates stacked at a stall in the kopi-tiam.

Empty bottles in a crate stacked over crates of unopened bottles of softdrink.

A schoolgril watches her father as he sip on his cup of tea.

Sitting at the table, it felt as time, for a while, seemed to stand very still, as the world within the kopi-tiam moved as if I was watching it pass by me in the slowest of motion. The hour that we were to spend there, did eventually pass, accompanied by the excitement of another group of passengers who had descended on the kopi-tiam to purchase some food for the journey home. It was then time to head back to the train station for that final journey, a journey that was to be the last back through the length (north to south) of Singapore and the last into a station that a little more than 79 years after the first train it saw pulled into one of its platform, was on that evening see a last slow and sad final homecoming.

The passage of time quickened at the end of the hour with many descending on the kopi-tiam to take food away for the return journey.





Drinks, keropok, kuaci: Malek Awab on the last time ever we saw the cup

31 07 2011

There is probably some level of excitement over the news of Singapore’s re-entry into the Malaysia Cup competition amongst the older football fans who have since 1994, been starved of an annual football tournament that brought a nation together. It was in supporting the Singapore team bringing people from all walks of life, as many as 70,000 of them, on the terraces of the National Stadium and many more who in the comfort and safety of their homes, felt one with those in the crowd. It was in lending support to what had effectively been the National team, and in the experience of the numerous lows and the few highs when the pinnacle was reached, participating singing and chanting both on the stands and at home, that fans wholeheartedly stood as one, as Singaporeans and football fans first.

Malek Awab today. Malek was a key member of the 1994 team that won the Malaysia Cup.

The 1994 season which was to turn out to be the final season for Singapore in the Malaysia Cup, was one during which the more highs than lows were experienced. It was a season that had commenced with the uncertainty of the gaping hole left in the coaching department by the departure of Ken Worden as a coach just a week before the tournament had started, had as the days progressed, turned out well, the pre-tournament efforts of Worden proving pivotal as the fitness levels of the members of the squad improved by Worden carried the Lions through winning the league and finding themselves pitted against their archrivals and bogey team Selangor in the semi-finals. The semi-finals played on a home and away format saw Singapore overcoming Selangor and knocking on the door of a cup that had in the previous 13 years proved to be an elusive target.

The National Stadium built in 1973, went on to be the home of the famous Kallang Road which spurred players such as Malek Awab and Fandi Ahmad on.

For a whole generation of players, it was an opportunity to end the drought, twice in the 1990s having lost to Kedah at the old Merdeka Stadium. This time around, a new arena beckoned – the 81,000 seat Shah Alam Stadium. It was one that the Lions had done well enough in to see off the threat posed by Selangor whose home was the Shah Alam Stadium. Many in the team had not tasted success, the last coming in 1980 when the skipper of the 1994 team, Fandi Ahmad scored the winning goal. Amongst those who had not won with the Singapore team was a certain Malek Awab, a diminutive midfielder who was once told he was too small to play the game competitively. Malek had since his introduction to the competitive game as a fifteen year old through the youth ranks of Farrer Park United, grown in stature on the pitch and had become one of the more recognisable players both on and off the pitch, plying his trade in Kuala Lumpur, before coming back to play for the Singapore Malaysia Cup team in 1994. I had an opportunity to interview Malek, who I was a big fan of as a Memory Ambassador for the National Library Board as part of the Singapore Memory Project.

Fandi Ahmad who scored the winning goal the last time Singapore had won the cup in 1980, skippered the Singapore side in the 1994 finals.

Malek had come a long way since his early encounters with the game which included seeking permission to leave early from school on match days to vend “drinks, keropok, kuaci” on match days, longing to be that guy on the pitch his customers were yelling their support for. He had, in his first Malaysia Cup season in 1981, the experience of reaching the final only to lose at the final hurdle, in a game he could not influence having spent the 90 minutes on the bench. It was for him, a chance to win the cup in Singapore’s colours, having previously won it with Kuala Lumpur.

The terraces which were often packed with up to 70,000 fanatical spectators during Malaysia Cup matches in the 1970s and where Malek Awab started his 'career' at the stadium selling drinks and snacks.

There was an air of quiet confidence within the team, having played well in the lead-up to the final despite the hiccups of seeing Michael Vana hauled up to answer questions on possible match fixing and promptly jumping bail and strongman in defence Jang Jung being suspended. The team travelled up to Shah Alam the day before staying at a hotel close to the stadium, and arrived at the stadium to a sea of red – three quarters of the stadium had been filled with Singapore supporters, some 50,000 of them in a crowd of 81,000 in the stadium. There was none of the antics of supporters on some of the travels around the Malaysian states – Malek recounted one incident in Kuching, Sarawak when spectators let a gunny sackful of cats (kuching being Malay for cats) during the warm-up. Malek knew that he and the team just had to do it for all those supporters who had made the journey to Shah Alam and had placed faith in the team to deliver.

Meeting a hero of 1994.

The game itself was all a blur for Malek – he can’t remember much of what happened on the field. What he could recall was how tense the game was, despite Singapore scoring the first goal through Abbas Saad early enough in the first half. The second half opened with Pahang pressing for a goal, hitting the underside of the bar before Singapore scored a second 8 minutes into the half through an on fire Abbas in a counter attack. The team welcomed that goal and certainly the many supporters in the stands and those who like me, watched it live on the television welcomed it to. With Pahang very much focused on trying to get a quick goal, spaces were left at the back for Abbas and Fandi to exploit which resulted in Abbas completing his hat-trick just 12 minutes later and with a quick fourth goal, all that was left was to hold out against a visibly deflated Pahang side. When the final whistle did come, the magnitude of the occasion finally got to Malek. He broke down, thinking to himself that he had finally in the twilight of his career, won the cup in the colours of the team of his home country – it was the first time he had done it, and was possibility the last opportunity for him to have won it. Having his hand on the Malaysia Cup and holding it high for all to see, was a feeling for Malek that he can’t describe, but one that meant a lot to him and to the thousands of proud Singapore fans in the stadium that night and watching back in Singapore on the television.





Join the party at Tanjong Pagar this June!

2 06 2011

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station for many of us, has come to be that sleepy, somewhat laid-back and old world escape from the crowded ultra-modern Singapore that now surrounds us. But, if you have been there of late, the station, you would have noticed that the crowds which the glorious work of architecture that the station’s building is deserves, missing for several decades, have returned. It is perhaps ironic that they have in what is now the last month of the building’s use the southern terminal of the Malayan Railway, that we see crowds that perhaps are reminiscent of those in the earlier days when the appeal of rail travel went far beyond the romance of taking the train.

A party is happening at the station this last month with many hoping to get a last ride on the trains which have passed through Singapore for 108 years.

Interest in rail travel from Singapore to Malaysia has indeed waned over the years as other modes of travel have become not just affordable, but a lot more convenient. Where it might have been a norm for Singaporean families to take a trip our of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station back in the 1960s and 1970s, the construction of the North South Highway has made road travel for one, a lot quicker than the trains, which for most part, run on a single track, and rail became somewhat of a forgotten and less used means of travel (although it is still popular with Malaysian residents along the line working in Singapore as a means to travel back home during the weekends).

A party from years gone by: crowds queuing up for tickets in the lead up to the Lunar New Year in the 1970s (photo source: http://picas.nhb.gov.sg)

The impending shift of the southern terminal station of the Malayan Railway has certainly increased interest in rail travel over the last few months, with many who had not taken the train out of Tanjong Pagar doing so for the first time as well as many like me, who are doing it out of pure nostalgia. The trains will of course still be around with us as a means of transport come the 1st of July when they will pull out of and into Woodlands Checkpoint instead, but there is nothing that compares to embarking on a train journey from and returning to a station of the stature of Tanjong Pagar, which was to have been the southern terminal of a grand rail transport network that was to have spanned the continents of Europe and Asia, that never was completed.

The party will end when Tanjong Pagar Railway Station sees its last train pull in and leave on the night of the 30th of June.

The terminal, which opened on 2nd May 1932, and after a 79 years and a month of operations, is now into its last month of its life as a railway station. That also means that after some 108 years since the railway started making its way through the railway corridors of Singapore, first in 1903 through much of Bukit Timah (part on which Dunearn Road now runs) to Tank Road and then in 1932 when a deviation at Bukit Timah turned it towards the docks at Tanjong Pagar, we would soon see no more of the trains chug along the various visible parts of the line (a friend related how he had learnt to count by counting trains passing by the window of his flat in Tanglin Halt), across the two black truss bridges over Bukit Timah Road, the various simple girder bridges, the prominent ones being the ones across Hindhede Road and Hillview Road, the five remaining level crossings. What I guess many of us will miss more is sitting on a train as it weaves its way on that half an hour journey that brings us into another world – the hidden parts of Singapore that we might have only seen from window of the train … In a little less than a month, it would not be the old world Tanjong Pagar that greets the train passenger coming back into Singapore, but, a stone cold platform surrounded by high wire fences and manned by blue uniformed personnel, and with that, the wonderful experience of passing over the old railway tracks and bridges and through some very charming parts of Singapore that would otherwise be hidden, will be a thing of the past. That, is reason in itself, to join the crowds that have descended on the usually sleepy Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, for what must surely its farewell party, and hop on a train out or back into the station before the opportunity to have that wonderful experience passes by.

29 days before the final farewell ....

The Malayan Railway (now KTM) which has provided a rail service to Singapore since 1903 and maintained the grand station at Tanjong Pagar since May 1932, will after the 1st of July, terminate at Woodlands, the entry point from the Causeway into Singapore.


Ticketing information:

Tickets for the Express services, which can be purchased up to 30 days in advance, to and from Singapore this June are fast selling, with trains for most weekends already quite full. Tickets can be obtained at the station (advance bookings open from 8.30 am daily) or online at the KTMB website. If you are interested to join a party on the last train into Singapore on the 30th of June, there are several of us who would be having one on Train 15 Ekspres Sinaran Timur. Most of us are in Coach 2 and will be getting on that at Segamat. If you have you tickets, you may drop an email to Notabilia or me with the subject line “Strangers on a Train”.


Further information of interest:

Information related to the station and its architecture can be found on a previous post: “A final look at Tanjong Pagar Station“. In addition to that, I have also put together a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station which can be found through this page: “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Do also take a look at the proposal by the Nature Society (Singapore) to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, at the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page. My own series of posts on the Green Corridor are at: “Support the Green Corridor“.






A final look at Tanjong Pagar Station

24 05 2011

Together with a group of yesterday.sg fans, I had another look around Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, on a 45 minute tour run by the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB), to provide participants with a better appreciation of Singapore’s latest National Monument, before operations end on the 1st of July this year. Besides meeting with yesterday.sg’s Shaun Wong, from whom I learnt that the inspiration for the name of the website was the Beatles song “Yesterday”, I also had the pleasure of meeting fellow blogger P.Y. of Oceanskies, who incidentally has provided a comprehensive account of the tour, and Belinda Tan who I am grateful to for stirring up quite a fair bit of interest in my blog by posting links to my set of railway memories. The short but informative tour was led by a PMB volunteer, Rosanne, who provided a fair bit of information on the background to the station, the reasons for its establishment and the choice of location. What interested me in particular, was the information that related to the station’s architecture, which provided me with a better appreciation of the station.

I had the opportunity to join a PMB tour of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station courtesy of yesterday.sg.

The station we were told by Rosanne, was built to provide a grand station that was to be the terminal of what the British had envisaged as a intercontinental transport network that was to span from Singapore at the southern tip of the Asian continent to the British Isles. The choice of the location close to the docks at Tanjong Pagar signaled the ambitious extent of the British Empire’s intent in expanding transport and communication links between the British Isles with Asia and further afield, with Singapore’s strategic location being seen as the gateway (by sea) to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Designed by Swan and MacLaren, the station is thought to have been designed after Helsinki’s Central Station and sharing elements with Washington D. C.’s Union Station. The style of architecture, Art Deco, that was selected was one that it was felt combined both Western and Eastern elements and influences. Art Deco is in fact very much in evidence around the station – geometric patterns in the details of the ceiling and arches of the portico an example. Another example of the Art Deco style that is evident is use of triumphal figures in the form of the four Angelo Vannetti sculptures at the façade that represent the four pillars of the Malayan economy, being Agriculture, Commerce, Transport and Industry. Our attention was also drawn to portions of the roof which featured a green tile structure inspired by the roofs of Chinese Temples.

Transport, one of the four pillars of the Malayan economy is seen carrying a stone block, with a wheel behind, stepping on a bow of a ship. The use of triumphal figures is common in Art Deco architecture

The Chinese temple inspired green tiled part of the station's roof.

Lions on the window details at the station's side are meant to represent Singapore.

Inside the hall, our attention was drawn to the six sets of batik style mosaic mural panels which feature some 9000 tiles that represent the economies of the Federated Malay States (FMS), as well as to the two crests – one being the crest of the Federated Malay States – which comprised of the four British protected states of Selangor, Perak, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang, and the Straits Settlements. Closer inspection of the coat of arms reveals a shield that is coloured with a colour from each of the four state flags in the case of the FMS, and in the case of the Straits Settlements, the shield is made up of four quadrants each representative of the three settlements, Penang, Malacca and Singapore, and also Christmas Island which was annexed to the Straits Settlements in 1889. The station when it was built was designed to maximise the comfort, particularly of first and second class passengers embarking on what was to be a long journey (Rosanne mentioned it took something like 29 hours to reach the Siamese border by train from Tanjong Pagar and the Japanese during the occupation, improved the speed of the passenger trains to 60 km/h and goods trains to 50 km/h, cutting the journey time by some 5 hours), equipped with amenities such as passenger waiting rooms, refreshment rooms, dining rooms, a hairdresser’s shop, dressing rooms and lavatories. Based on news reports of the opening of the station, we are also told that there were other rooms such as a telegraph office, parcel room, offices for the necessary station staff and included a few bedrooms.

Batik painting style mosaic mural panels in the main hall depict the economies of the FMS.

The coat-of-arms of the Federated Malay States - the shield features colours of the four protected states of the FMS.

The coat-of-arms of the Straits Settlements with each quadrant of the shield representing the each of the Straits Settlements which then also included the Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island.

The 45 minute tour ended at the start of the departure platform which now features immigration counters introduced after the separation of Singapore from Malaysia, when travel across the Johor Straits required a passport. When I first started taking the trains in the 1990s, we would have to pass through the Singapore Immigration counters at the near end before going through Malaysian Immigration and Customs further down the platform … this practice was discontinued from mid 1998 when Singapore shifted its immigration to the CIQ Complex in Woodlands, insisting that the Malaysian authorities do the same. This has been resisted right up until today – and up to the 30th of June, one of the things you can still do is to enter Malaysia before leaving Singapore (for a more detailed explanation on this please read my previous post “A final journey from Tanjong Pagar: into Malaysia before leaving Singapore“. The platforms we were also told were some 1,200 feet long, built to cater to the longest of mail trains. We were also shown some of the features around the platform of historical value that would be retained – this included the hydraulic buffer stops at the end which apparently are the only ones found in the stations operated by the Malaysn Railway. The tour ended with a little excitement – first from the animated voiced coming from Malaysian immigration officers who tried to tell us we had strayed a little too far along the platform. It was then time for a quick catch up over some teh-tarik at the cafeteria with my fellow participants and new found friends ….

What used to be immigration counters used by the Singapore authorities ... and apparently reclaimed by Malaysia since mid 1998 ...

A train on the departure platform - the platforms are 1,200 feet in length to accommodate the longest of the mail trains. We were also told that 3rd Class passengers had to use a side access to the platforms.

One of the two hydraulic buffers.

The roof over the platforms also show art deco features in the geometric patterns found on them.


For a comprehensive account of the tour, do drop by PY’s post “The Tanjong Pagar Railway Station Tour on 21 May 2011“. And if any of you are keen to hop onto the last train into Singapore and have a party … do drop by Notabilia’s post “All Aboard? Party on the Last Train Through Singapore” and indicate your interest there. I also have a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station and if you care to read about them, do drop by my page “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“. Lastly, if you are keen to find out and support the Nature Society’s (Singapore) proposal to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, do drop by the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page … I do also have a series of posts on the Green Corridor if that is of interest – please visit them at “Support the Green Corridor“.


Rosanne, the volunteer guide with the PMD who led the tour.

A last look at the station ....

Capturing memories and the station's last days of the station seems to be very much fashion these days.





A colourful journey in black and white

14 03 2011

I have always been one for train rides, taking one every opportunity I get whenever I find myself with time to spare, be it from the grand stations of the great European cities, or from stations closer to home, with a particular liking for the old style railways that I sometimes stumble upon. In Singapore, the opportunity had presented itself throughout my life I guess, but somehow, I never embarked on a journey from the grand old station at Tanjong Pagar until I was well into my adulthood, making many trips in the 1990s. Trains always present themselves as a convenient means to get around from one city to another, taking one from the centre of the city right into the heart of another. So it is with the Malayan Railway as well – for another few months at least when Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTMB or KTM) moves the terminal station from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands. With that, we will bid goodbye to the old railway lines which has served Singapore since the turn of the last century, as well as an old railway station in the heart of the city.

The last opportunity to take a train from an old style station in the heart of Singapore, on a line that has served Singapore since 1932 (parts of it date back to the turn of the last century), through Singapore's countryside, before train services terminate at Woodlands by the time the 1st of July arrives.

As mentioned in my previous post, I took another ride recently, just for the sake of reliving my previous journeys before the chance to do so evaporates once KTM moves operations to Woodlands. It will be a shame not to have had that experience, one that involves arriving or departing from the platforms which had served as the southern terminal to the Malayan Railway for eight decades from its days as the FMSR. Once the move is made, Singapore would lose not just another historical link it has had with the Malay States in the Malayan Peninsula, but also a proper train station to take a romantic journey on a train from. What will also go are the well worn tracks that served us so well, laid over a corridor of land that probably due to the railway, has remained untouched and relatively green; as well as the many markers left behind by the railway including the railway bridges, signal posts, railway buildings and control huts, distance markers and the last remaining level crossings in Singapore.

The platforms that have served as the southern terminal point of the Malayan Railway for eight decades.

The choice of the destination for the journey, was one that involved a short trip to one of the main towns in the southern Malaysian State of Johore which borders Singapore, some 90 kilometres north. The town is close enough for a slow paced day trip, and close enough that train tickets to and from are sold as “shuttle” or commuter train tickets available 24 hours prior to the journey. Kluang, along with the destination of my previous outing, Gemas, featured prominently in the final push through Malaya by the Japanese invading forces and was General Yamashita’s headquarters during the dark days at the end of January 1942. It had been a place that I knew about since the early days of my childhood being a town which my grandmother disappeared to leaving me without the stories she would relate to me as a young boy for a weekend.

The platform at Kempas Baru.

Container carriages at Kempas Baru Station.

Passengers boarding the train at Kulai Station.

Train rides, especially through the stations along the Johore length of the railway and walkabouts in Malaysian towns can be very colourful experiences, so much so that they sometimes distract one from the old world charm of the journey and the towns. I thought it would be nice to show another side of the journey and Kluang itself without colour as the images would capture a mood that would otherwise be lost in full colour.

The gentle rocking of the train gives the carriages a sleepy feel ...

A passenger at the end of the carriage.

The conductor.

Arriving at Kluang Station.

Kluang Station.

Kluang itself presents itself as a sleepy town, with the station being perhaps one of the busier places in the town, coming alive as passengers and well wishers gather on the platforms. The station itself hosts an institution in the town, a coffee shop, the Kluang Rail Coffee, that seems to be the star attraction of the town.

Kluang Station is the location of a well known and well patronised coffee shop.

The five foot way of a row of shophouses along Jalan Station.

A closed gate of a shop.

Kluang is a destination for photographers.

The town has an old world feel that maybe could have been that of the Singapore of half a century ago. Beyond its sleepy façade, the town does present some interesting finds. We stumbled upon an old Chinese medicine shop in a row of old shophouses along Jalan Mersing with seedy looking second storey hotels served by well worn wooden staircases, which we later learnt were places one would find ladies of the night. At then end of the row was a coffee shop which had some wonderful tasting treats and quite good coffee, and it was on the recommendation of a passer-by that we made a pit stop there, observing that the tables and floor of the old coffee shop were much cleaner than what we had become accustomed to in Singapore where tables are often cleaned with a swipe of an oily rag.

Not one of the staircases with a seedy destination.

The proprietor of the Chinese Medicine Shop.

Cabinets at the Chinese Medicine Shop.

Tools of the trade (at a Chinese Medicine Shop which has been at its location on Jalan Mersing since the 1950s).

The coffee shop along Jalan Mersing.

The beef noodle seller.

Won Tan Mee man.

Coffee Powder seller.

The slow pace of life extends to the coffee shop.

Leaving the coffee shop, we stepped out into a pretty hot day, which thankfully wasn’t accompanied by much humidity. Still that perhaps made the lazy stroll through town even lazier, and the first chance we got, we stepped into a modern shopping centre and the reward of some bubble tea, right across from a herbal tea vendor on his tricycle. The bubble tea outlet was crawling with customers as was the fast food outlet inside the shopping centre, leaving the streets outside deserted and somewhat forlorn.

A streetside tailor.

Typical street in Kluang.

From the shopping centre, we decided to visit the church that my grandmother visited all those years back – a plaque confirming that Archbishop Olcomendy of Malacca and Singapore (a throw back to the pre-independence archdiocesan boundaries that once existed), had consecrated the church in 1964. The airy little church at the end of Jalan Omar near the station is reminiscent of some of the village churches that once existed in Singapore and is simple in form and architecture.

Church of St. Louis, built in 1964.

Stained glass inside the Church of St. Louis.

Pews inside the church.

It was a short walk to the station next, to sit down at the much touted Railway Coffee shop. It was packed when we arrived just after it opened again at 2 pm, leaving us with a little wait … It was more for the atmosphere that sitting in that old cafe in an old railway station that might have been built in the early 1900s provided than maybe the fare the coffee shop offered. Soon, it was time to take the journey back … another one into Tanjong Pagar, where food stalls that remind us of days gone would soon be seeing their final days. Even if it is not for the train ride it is still worth a visit to the station to visit the makan stalls for chances are when the station finds a second life it might be where only the well heeled would dine. To top a visit to what is still very much a part of Malaysia as is the railway line, why not have something at the station that has become synonymous with street fare across the Causeway … a greasy but very tasty Ramly burger.

Like much of the world we live in ... old is being replaced by the new.

Back at Kluang Station.

Passengers waiting at the platform.

Another scene at the station.

Inside the Kluang Rail Coffee shop.

Having a conversation over a cup of coffee inside the Kluang Rail Coffee shop.

The busiest part of town?

On the 1543 shuttle into Tanjong Pagar ...

A locomotive.

The train ride provides an opportunity to catch up on some sleep.

A last chance to grab a Ramly burger at Tanjong Pagar ...

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To read my series of posts on Journeys through Tanjong Pagar, please click on this link.









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