Barefoot in the park

16 04 2014

There was a time when there seemed to be little need for fancy footwear in playing the beautiful game. As kids, many of us ran around the field, kicking a ball with nothing but our bare feet. It was also common to see competitive games played with little in way of footwear, with each player wearing an ankle guard or two, as it was through my days in primary school in the early 1970s. Protection of our precious canvas school shoes  did then take precedence over protecting to our feet.

A friendly game between two great  primary school football rivals - St. John's Island School and St. Michael's School in the 1970s. 

A friendly game between two great  primary school football rivals – St. John’s Island School and St. Michael’s School in the 1970s (from a scan from the Christian Brothers’ School Annual) – notice the footwear used, or rather the lack of them.

 

 





We did once enjoy getting hit by a ball

28 03 2014

This photograph, which was taken at a school yard during my wanderings to Kathmandu in Nepal in April 2011, takes me back to my own days in primary school some four decades ago, when children looked forward to the opportunities for physical activity and outdoor play that presented itself during recess time as well as before and after school hours. It didn’t matter then that we would be sweaty, our uniforms often bearing the marks left by balls or through falling during play. It was pure fun and a perfect way to interact.

JeromeLim Kathmandu 2011 IMG_9271s

Many of the games we played in the expansive fields involved a good run around. Games such as “catching”, football, rounders were popular, as was the game that the photograph does remind me of, “hentam bola“, or as we did pronounce it, “hantam bola“.

Translated from Malay as “hit with (or by) a ball”, although grammatically not quite correct, the game involved a player, singled out as one who “pasang” - who initially would have drawn the short straw through a selection process that might have involved mini-games of chance (a common one used was “oh-bey-som“, similar to rock, paper, scissors).

Played in an open field, the objective of “hentam bola” for the “pasang” was to chase the other players (who would be trying to give the “pasang” a run around), and attempt to hit another player by throwing a ball with as much strength as one could muster. A successful hit would mean that the player hit would be the next to throw the ball. The ball we used was a small compressed air filled rubber ball, which could sometimes do some damage, not just to the players, but to glass panes in windows and doors.

It is sad that the outdoors feature less in children’s play in Singapore these days, not just due to the gadget age, but also with open space at a premium - many schools have sacrificed parts of their great outdoors for the greater indoors in the form of sports halls and the opportunity for such outdoor play does seem to be greatly reduced.





A search for a lost countryside

27 02 2014

Together with several jalan-jalan kaki, I set off on a Sunday morning from Khatib MRT Station in search of a lost countryside. The area in which we sought to find that lost world, is one, that in more recent times has been known to us as Nee Soon and Ulu Sembawang. It was a part of Singapore that I first became acquainted with it in my childhood back in the early 1970s, when an area of rural settlements and village schools that were interspersed with poultry, pig and vegetable farms that awaited discovery along its many minor roads. It was also an area where the British military did  leave much in terms of evidence of their former presence.

The group at Jalan Ulu Sembawang in search of a lost countryside.

The group at Jalan Ulu Sembawang in search of a lost countryside.

Fed by the waters of several rivers that spilled out into the Straits of Johor or Selat Tebrau, which included Sungei Seletar and its tributaries, Sungei Khatib Bongsu, Sungei Simpang and its tributaries and Sungei Sembawang, the area was to first attract gambier and pepper plantations in the mid 1800 with which came the first settlements. As with other plantation rich riverine areas of Singapore, the area attracted many Teochew immigrants, becoming one of several Teochew heartlands found across rural Singapore. Pineapple and rubber were to replace gambier and pepper in the 1900s – when the association with the likes of Bukit Sembawang and Lim Nee Soon, names which are now synonymous with the area, was to start.

Walking through a reminder of the lost countryside at Bah Soon Pah Road.

Walking through a reminder of the lost countryside at Bah Soon Pah Road.

Much has changed since the days of Chan Ah Lak’s gambier and pepper plantations – for which the area was originally known as Chan Chu Kang, the days of Lim Nee Soon’s pineapple and rubber cultivation and processing exploits, and even from the days when I made my first visits to the area. There are however, parts of it that in which some semblance of the countryside that did once exist can be found, parts where one can quite easily find that much needed escape from the concrete and overly manicured world that now dominates the island.

A map of the area showing the location of villages in the area in 1980s (scanned from A pictorial history of Nee Soon Community, 1987)".

A map of the area showing the location of villages in the area in 1980s (scanned from A pictorial history of Nee Soon Community, 1987)”.

One of two places where those reminders can be found is the area around Bah Soon Pah Road. The road, strange as it may seem, is in fact named after Lim Nee Soon – Bah Soon having been a nickname stemming from him being a Straits Born Chinese or “Baba”. These days, the truncated Bah Soon Pah Road, is still an area that is very much associated with agriculture, being an area that is at the heart of the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority’s (AVA) efforts to promote agrotechnology in Singapore. Playing host to the Nee Soon Agrotechnology Park, there are several farms to be found along the road, including one in which hydroponic vegetables for the local market are cultivated.

A link with the area's heritage.

Over the fence – a link with the area’s heritage.

An interesting sight along Bah Soon Pah Road is the building that now houses the AVA’s Horticulture Services Centre. The building – a huge bungalow built on stilts, in a style that resembles the “black and white” houses that the British built to house their administrators and senior military men and their families, probably built in the early 1900s with the arrival of the pineapple and rubber plantations, is in fact a physical link to Lim Nee Soon’s association with the area. Sitting atop a small hill – you do get a magnificent view of it from a distance from Yishun Avenue 1, the grand bungalow was I have been advised, a former residence of the assistant manager of Lim Nee Soon’s plantation, thus providing a link to a past that might otherwise have been forgotten.

The AVA's Horticulture Services Centre at Bah Soon Pah Road occupies a bungalow that served as the Assistant Plantation Manager's residence in Lim Nee Soon's estate.

The AVA’s Horticulture Services Centre at Bah Soon Pah Road occupies a bungalow that served as the Assistant Plantation Manager’s residence in Lim Nee Soon’s estate.

From the west end of Bah Soon Pah Road, we turned north at Sembawang Road – once named Seletar Road. While Seletar today is the area where the former Seletar Airbase, now Seletar Aerospace Park is, Seletar did once refer to a large swathe of land in the north in, particularly so in the days before the airbase was built. The name Seletar is associated the Orang Seletar who inhabited the Straits of Johor, Selat Tebrau, a group of the sea dwellers around the coast and river mouths of northern Singapore and southern Johor from the days before Raffles staked the East India Company’s claim to Singapore. Seletar is a word that is thought to have been derived from the Malay word for strait or selat. Seletar Road, which would have brought travellers on the road to the Naval Base, and to Seletar Pier right at its end, was renamed Sembawang Road in 1939 so as to avoid confusion to road users headed to Seletar Airbase (then RAF Seletar) which lay well to its east. 

The road to the former residence.

The road to the former residence.

The drive down Sembawang Road, up to perhaps the early 1980s, was one that did take you through some wonderful countryside we no longer see anymore. One of my first and memorable trips down the road was in a bus filled with my schoolmates – which turned out to be annual affair whilst I was in primary school. The destination was Sembawang School off Jalan Mata Ayer. where we would be bused to, to support the school’s football team when they played in the finals of the North Zone Primary Schools competition.

An old postcard of Lim Nee Soon's rubber factory and the surrounding area.

An old postcard of Lim Nee Soon’s rubber factory further south, and the surrounding area.

The school, the site of which is now occupied by a condominium Euphony Gardens, would be remembered for its single storey buildings – commonly seen in Singapore’s rural areas, as it would be for its football field. The field did somehow seem to have been laid on an incline, a suspicion that was to be confirmed by the difficulty the referee had in placing the ball and preventing it from rolling, when for a penalty kick was awarded during one of the matches.

Sembawang Road at its junction with Jalan Mata Ayer.

Sembawang Road at its junction with Jalan Mata Ayer.

The walk from Bah Soon Pah Road to Jalan Mata Ayer, did take us past two military camps. One, Khatib Camp as we know it today, is a more recent addition to the landscape. It would probably be of interest to some, that the original Khatib Camp was one used by the Malaysian military, housing the Tentera Laut Di-Raja Malaysia (TLMD) or Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) training school KD Pelandok from 1971 to 1980 and was known as Kem Khatib. The Malaysian association with it started in 1964 when it was first set up to house a Malaysian infantry battalion. This came at a time when Singapore was a part of Malaysia.

RMN officers in training at KD Pelandok in Singapore in the 1970s (photograph online at http://farm1.staticflickr.com/167/439314471_c932143651_o.jpg).

Apparently KD Pelandok was where the RMN, who in fact maintained their main base at Woodlands in Singapore until 1979, first carried out their own training of naval officers. Prior to this, naval officers had been sent to the UK to be trained. The camp was returned to Singapore on 2 February 1982, after the training school was shifted to the RMN’s main naval base in Lumut. A new Khatib Camp, now the home of the SAF’s Artillery, was built on the site and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) moved into it in 1983.

Sembawang Road looking north from its junction with Bah Soon Pah Road. Khatib Camp is just up the road with Dieppe Barracks across from it. The landscape will very soon change once the construction of an elevated portion of the North-South Expressway starts.

Sembawang Road looking north from its junction with Bah Soon Pah Road. Khatib Camp is just up the road with Dieppe Barracks across from it. The landscape will very soon change once the construction of an elevated portion of the North-South Expressway starts.

A LTA map of the area showing the North-South Expressway viaduct and an entrance ramp in the vicinity of Khatib Camp. Construction is expected to start next year.

A LTA map of the area showing the North-South Expressway viaduct and an entrance ramp in the vicinity of Khatib Camp. Construction is expected to start next year.

One of the things I remember about the new Khatib Camp in its early days was this helmet shaped roof of its sentry post. Khatib Camp in its early days also housed the SAF Boys School, which later became the SAF Education Centre (SAFEC). The school provided a scheme in which ‘N’-level certificate holders could continue their education fully paid to allow them to complete their ‘O’-levels, after which students would be have to serve a six-year bond out with the SAF. In more recent time, Khatib Camp has been made into one of the centres where NSmen (reservists) would take their annual fitness tests, the IPPT. It is also where the dreaded Remedial Training (RT) programmes are conducted for those who fail to pass the IPPT.

A southward view - there is still perhaps a feel of the countryside there once was in the area.

A southward view – there is still perhaps a feel of the countryside there once was in the area.

Across from Khatib Camp, is Dieppe Barracks. Built originally to house British military units, it is now used by the SAF’s HQ Guards, and is one the last former British army camps to retain the word “barracks” in its name – a reminder of its association with the British forces, and also the New Zealand forces. It housed the 1st Battalion of the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment from 1971 to 1989 leaving a distinctly New Zealand flavour on the area as well as in the areas of Sembawang up north. This was as part of the protection force first under the ANZUK arrangements that followed the British pullout in 1971. With the Australian forces pulling out in the mid 1970s, the New Zealanders stayed  on as the New Zealand Force South East Asia (NZ Force SEA). One of the things that was hard not to miss on the grounds of the barracks was how different the obstacle course in the open field in the north of the barrack grounds looked from those we did see in the SAF camps then.

Dieppe Barracks when it housed British units in the 1960s (online at http://www.nmbva.co.uk/keith%2012.jpg).

The entrance to Dieppe Barracks seen in the 1980s when it was used by 1 RNZIR with the fence that I so remember (online at http://anzmilitarybratsofsingapore.com/group/gallery/1_20_01_09_5_21_11.jpg).

Just north of Dieppe is where Jalan Mata Ayer can be found (where the school with the inclined football field was). The name “Mata Ayer” is apparently a reference to the source of the now quite well-known Sembawang Hot Springs. The once rural road led to a village called Kampong Mata Ayer, also known as Kampong Ayer Panas, close to the area where the hot spring, now within the boundaries of Chong Pang Camp, is.

Dieppe Barracks in 1975 (image online at http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/media/photo/new-zealand-defence-force-headquarters-singapore, Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 31-Jan-2014).

Continuing north along the road, there are several clusters of shophouses across the road from where Yishun New Town has come up. Several shops here do in fact have their origins in the villages of the area. One well known business is a traditional Teochew bakery, Gin Thye Cake Maker. Specialising in Teochew pastries, the bakery goes back to 1964 when Mdm. Ang Siew Geck started it in her village home at Bah Soon Pah Road. Described by The Straits Times as the Last of the Teochew bakeries, its biscuits are a popular choice amongst its customers. You would also be able to spot traditional wedding baskets lined up at the top of one of the shelves. The baskets are used by the bakery to deliver traditional sweets – as might have once been the case, for weddings. 

Traditional biscuits right out of the oven at Gin Thai Cake Maker.

Traditional biscuits right out of the oven at Gin Thai Cake Maker.

Not far up from the shophouses, we come to the area where a relatively new Chong Pang Camp is. The camp sits on what once was a very picturesque part of Singapore, Ulu Sembawang. What was visible of the area from Sembawang Road were the fishing ponds and the lush greenery that lay beyond them. The greenery did obscure an area that did lie beyond it, that was particularly rich in bird life and was up to the 1990s, a popular area for birding activities.

Henry Cordeiro UluSembawang

It was an area that we did once get a wonderful view of from Jalan Ulu Sembawang, a road that rose up from close to the back of the then Seletaris bottling plant at its junction with Sembawang Road towards another rural area of villages and farms. The view, from a stretch of the road that ran along a ridge, was what my father did describe as being the most scenic in Singapore that looked across a rolling landscape of vegetable farms for almost as far as the eye could see. Jalan Ulu Sembawang was also one of the roads that led to Lorong Gambas in the Mandai area – an area many who did National Service would remember it as a training area that was used up to perhaps the 1990s.

The end of the road - Jalan Ulu Sembawang used to continue into the Mandai area toward Lorong Gambas.

The end of the road – Jalan Ulu Sembawang used to continue into the Mandai area toward Lorong Gambas.

The rolling hills landscape at Ulu Sembawang in 1993 (photograph: From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

The rolling hills landscape at Ulu Sembawang in 1993 (photograph: From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

A stop along the way that we did spend some time at was the hot springs, around which there seems now to be much superstition. The spring, which was discovered by a municipal ranger on the property of a Seah Eng Keong in 1908. Seah Eng Keong was the son of gambier and pepper plantation owner Mr Seah Eu Chin who I understand from Claire Leow, one half of the female duo who maintains All Things Bukit Brown and who joined us on the walk, also owned gambier and pepper plantations in the area. Seah Eu Chin would also be well known as being the founder of the Ngee Ann Kongsi.

The surviving well of the spring.

The surviving well of the spring.

The spring water was over the years, bottled in various ways and under various names, first by Mr Seah, and then by Fraser and Neave (F&N) from 1921. One of the names its was bottled as was Zombun which was, on the evidence of a newspaper article, a source of a joke – with waiters referring to “Air Zombun” as a similar sounding “Air Jamban” or water from the toilet in Malay.

Collecting water at the hot springs.

Collecting water at the hot springs.

The caretaker splashing himself with water right out of the tap.

The caretaker splashing himself with water right out of the tap.

Bottling was to be disrupted by the war – the Japanese, known for their fondness for thermal baths, were said to have built such baths at the hot springs – the water, which flows out at around 66 degrees Celcius, with its strong sulphur content (which is evident from the unmistakable smell you would be able to get of it), is thought to have curative properties – especially for skin and rheumatic conditions.  It’s flow was disrupted by allied bombing in November 1944 and it was only in 1967 that F&N started re-bottling the water under a subsidiary Semangat Ayer Limited using the brand name Seletaris (now the name of a condominium that sits on the site of the plant).

Now flowing out of pipes and taps, the water comes out at about 66 degrees Celcius.

Now flowing out of pipes and taps, the water comes out at about 66 degrees Celcius.

The hot spring attracts many to it in search of cures for skin ailments and rheumatic conditions.

The hot spring attracts many to it in search of cures for skin ailments and rheumatic conditions.

While it did remain the property of F&N, many were known to have bathed at the spring before 1967 and also again after the plant was closed in the mid 1980s, when its land was acquired by the government. The spring – with water now running out of pipes and taps, in now within the boundaries of Chong Pang Camp – which initially meant that it was closed to the public. Since May 2002 however, after petitions were submitted to the authorities, the spring has been opened to the public. Access to the spring is now through a fenced pathway that cuts into the camp’s grounds. A warning is scribbled on the red brick structure that surrounds a surviving well that speaks of a curse – that anyone who vandalises the hot spring will be the subject of a curse.

The writing on the wall - a curse for any would be vandals.

The writing on the wall – a curse for any would be vandals.

From the spring and Jalan Ulu Sembawang, now a stub that leads to a wooded area where development doesn’t seem very far away – an international school is already being built there, we can to the end of the adventure. While it is sad to see how another place in Singapore which holds the memories of the gentle world I once enjoyed as a child has been transformed into another place I struggle to connect with; I did at least manage to find a few things that does, in some way remind of that old world that I miss. Developments in the area are however taking off at a furious pace and with the construction of elevated portion of the North-South Expressway that is due to start next year and will have a significant impact on the area’s landscape; it may not be long before it does become another place of beauty that we have abandoned in favour of a cold and overly manicured landscape in which there will be little left, except for “heritage” markers, to remind us of what it did once mean to us.

It now is a wooded area awaiting future development.

Jalan Ulu Sembawang is now is an area reclaimed by nature awaiting future development.

Where a school is now being built - the condominium in the background is the Seletaris.

Where a school is now being built – the condominium in the background is the Seletaris.





The journey home to Essex Road

4 06 2013

One of the experiences I am very grateful for, in a childhood blessed with many wonderful moments, is the six years that I spent in school at St. Michael’s School. The six years were some of the best years of my life. The years were ones which took me on the first part of a very fulfilling journey from being the wide-eyed child to who I am today. They were also when many of my friendships, which have survived to this day, some four decades later, were forged.

The six years spent in SMS were one which provided me with many fond memories. Oneis how we used to squat by the drains to brush our teeth after recess (photograph posted by Edward Lam on the SMSAA Facebook Group).

The six years spent in SMS were one which provided me with many fond memories. One is how we used to squat by the drains to brush our teeth after recess (photograph posted by Edward Lam on the SMSAA Facebook Group).

I often look back at those days with great fondness, reminiscing with schoolmates, now good friends, about what certainly were our days in the sun. There is much to walk back in time to, both in the classroom and out of it. It was probably the out of classroom ones that are best remembered.

P.E. time - it was probably the adventures outside the classrooms that are best remembered.

P.E. time – it was probably the adventures outside the classrooms that are best remembered (photograph posted by Kelvin Monteiro on the SMSAA Facebook Group).

It was a long time ago, but it does seem like it was only yesterday when we were combing the morning glory growing on the fence for spiders and ladybirds, splashing around in the frequent floods and rushing from class to the playing fields for a quick game of football or “hantam bola” at recess. One of the more endearing memories we do collectively have is of the epok-epok vendor armed with a bottle of chilli sauce which was used to inject a load of “shiok-ness” that made his potato filled curry puffs ones we looked forward to the end of the day for.

The school as I remember it.

The school as I remember it (photograph posted by Kelvin Monteiro on the SMSAA Facebook Group).

While the school doesn’t quite exist in name anymore – a rebranding exercise in 2007 saw it return to its roots as an extension to St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI), SJI Junior, the spirit of St. Michael’s School does live on. A St. Michael’s School (SMS) Alumni Fund Committee, spearheaded by ten members of the class of 1966 (all born in the year the school was founded in 1954) was formed back in January 2007, just as the change of name took effect, in part to help preserve the name but more as a means for ex-students to provide support to the school and its students.

The school today - the campus is currently closed due to the construction of a new sports hall.

The school today – the campus is currently closed due to the construction of a new sports hall.

The brainchild of Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who served as the SMS Alumni Fund Committee’s Patron, the committee was set up as a vehicle for fundraising efforts to help students in need with the aim that the less fortunate students are not deprived of participation in class or in school activities.

A new fence - where the old, overgrown with creepers and morning glory, was a source of spiders and ladybirds.

A new fence – where the old, overgrown with creepers and morning glory, was a source of spiders and ladybirds.

The funds, all raised within the committee and the alumni of the 1966 cohort, provides support for some 35 to 40 students every year, each receiving between $800 and $1000. Amounting to some $40,000 annually, this does provide assistance where the well-meaning SPH School Pocket Money Programme falls short, with some 200 families being assisted since 2007. The committee also funds an afterschool educare programme for the same students.

The spirit of SMS seen in the vociferous support we often provided to our sportsmen (photograph posted by Michael Gasper on the SMSAA Facebook Group).

The spirit of SMS seen in the vociferous support we often provided to our sportsmen (photograph posted by Michael Gasper on the SMSAA Facebook Group).

The committee was a private initiative driven by the ten committee members concerned. This year sees the efforts being taken one step further with the formation of the St. Michael’s School Alumni Association – A Heritage of SJI Junior, (SMSAA), which was registered in April. The formation sees the intention of the alumni of 1966 who are approaching their 60s, to be succeeded by a new Alumni Fund committee. The Pro Tem committee of SMSAA, formed formed to facilitate the registration of SMSAA under the Registrar of Societies, will serve until the first AGM next year when the first Executive Council will be elected and is made up of younger alumini with two members from the Alumni Fund committee, Mike Ang and Joseph Bong. Michael Ang is the President of the ProTem committee and Joseph Bong is the Chairman of the Alumni Fund committee.

Many will remember the little roundabout with statue of St. Michael slaying the serpent (photograph posted by Joseph Ow Yong on the SMSAA Facebook Group).

Many will remember the little roundabout with statue of St. Michael slaying the serpent (photograph posted by Joseph Ow Yong on the SMSAA Facebook Group).

The first initiative of the SMSAA Pro Tem committee was to launch a membership recruitment drive using Facebook and email. Part of this effort involves organising what is the SMSAA’s inaugural event “Journey Home to Essex”. This will be held on Saturday 29 June 2013 and is timed to coincide with the re-opening of the campus which SMS / SJI Junior has occupied since its founding. This follows a move out to temporary premises to allow a new sports hall to be built, which the SMS Alumni Fund Committee contributed the first $200,000 to.

A view of the school's campus in the late 1970s.

A view of the school’s campus in the late 1970s.

Badge

As of today membership of SMSAA (which is free with no joining fee, monthly or annual subscriptions), stands close to 400. The committee aims to increase this through the Journey Home to Essex event which will be held together with a symbolic journey home – a 4 kilometre walk undertaken by its current students from the temporary premises to the Essex Road campus in the morning. The lunchtime reunion or “Assembly” event will provide an opportunity for many old boys – many of whom have not been back, to reconnect with the school and more importantly, to extend the friendship and brotherhood that was forged in the spirit, culture and tradition of SMS, by joining the SMSAA. So if you are a member of the St. Michael’s School (or St. Joseph’s Institution Junior) alumni, you may like to hop on board.

More information on the event and the SMSAA can be found at the SMSAA’s Facebook Group page and on the Facebook event page. Alumni can sign-up as a member by filling up the Old Michaelians and Junior Joes Survey & Application to JOIN the St Michael’s School Alumni Association (A Heritage of SJI Junior) at this link.





Perspectives of the museum

4 05 2013

As a child, the Museum, as I referred to the National Museum of Singapore, was a dark, somewhat mysterious and not a particularly interesting place to me. My earliest encounters were ones which besides being filled with tales of the supernatural occurrences the museum had a reputation for, I would most remember for the overpowering smell of the museum preservatives which filled some of the galleries, and also for the huge skeleton of a whale suspended from its ceiling.

The museum today attracts a lot more visitors than it did in my younger days.

The museum today attracts a lot more visitors than it did in my younger days.

The encounters I had with the museum during my days attending nearby St. Joseph’s Institution were to be the ones I was to remember most. The time my schoolmates and I had in between technical workshop sessions on Tuesdays and a quick lunch before school, meant there was ample time to wander around. The museum, as was the MPH bookstore at the corner of Stamford Road and Armenian Street, was an obvious destination on days when it was a little too hot to out, because of the cool relief its air-conditioning provided.

The skeleton of a whale which hung inside the museum until 1974 when it was presented to the Muzium Negara in Kuala Lumpur.

The skeleton of a whale which hung inside the museum until 1974 when it was presented to the Muzium Negara in Kuala Lumpur (photograph: National Archives online catalogue http://a2o.nas.sg/picas).

A gallery we would frequent was one where full length portraits hung along its long hallway. Located in the museum’s west wing, it was part of the National Museum’s Art Gallery which had been opened at the end of 1974. The portraits which seemed to glow in their illuminations would at times appear to come alive – which could be a reason why that particular gallery did not receive many visitors. This made it a wonderful place to escape to and to read and find some quiet in, particularly with the generously wide cushioned benches found in the gallery which were especially comfortable.

A couple viewing a photography exhibit at "Being Together: Family & Portraits - Photographing with John Clang".

A couple viewing a photography exhibit at “Being Together: Family & Portraits – Photographing with John Clang”.

Another look at "Being Together: Family & Portraits - Photographing with John Clang".

Another look at “Being Together: Family & Portraits – Photographing with John Clang”.

The museum has undergone tremendous changes over the three and a half decades or so since my youthful encounters, and has certainly become a much more interesting destination. Physically, the museum was to undergo a makeover in the mid 2000s during which time a modern glass and steel extension was added to the existing neo-classical building which has been a landmark in the area. Gazetted as a National Monument in 1992, the original building built to house the Raffles Library and Museum, is one that dates back to 1887.

The National Museum of Singapore.

The original National Museum of Singapore building was gazetted as a National Monument in 1992.

Yet another look at "Being Together: Family & Portraits - Photographing with John Clang".

Yet another look at “Being Together: Family & Portraits – Photographing with John Clang”.

These days, it is not so much for the air-conditioning that I find myself visiting the museum. The museum’s many galleries which have been made a lot more interesting and changing exhibitions provide not just a reason to do that, but also an opportunity to take delight in the wonderful mix of old and new in its architecture. The permanent exhibitions in the Singapore Living Galleries and in the Singapore History Gallery provides a wonderful appreciation of what makes us who we are as Singaporean today and certainly ones which every Singaporean should visit. For me, the museum offers a little more than all this, it does also provide me with many opportunities to capture moments in photographs beyond what the streets outside do offer and what perhaps is another perspective of the building and its exhibits.

A glass ceiling added at the original buiding's rear.

A glass ceiling added at the original buiding’s rear.

Information portal.

Information portal?





A church once occupied by Sin

19 03 2013

I took a walk by what, for a short moment, appeared to be a church in the woods. In an area in which woods in any form would have long abandoned – the corner of Waterloo Street and Middle Road, the building which resembles a small village church has for the better part of a century not actually used as one. Together with an adjacent two storey building, the church is now part of the Sculpture Square complex, a space dedicated to the promotion and development of contemporary 3-dimensional (3D) art.

A church in the woods?

A church in the woods?

My memories of the buildings are ones which date back to my younger days (of which I have actually written about in a previous post). The church building itself was always a curious sight each time I passed through the area, whether on the way home from church in the late 1960s and early 1970s, or from school in the late 1970s, when it had been occupied by Sin. The walls of the building were then coloured not just by the colour of its fading coat of paint, but also by streaks of motor oil and grease, having been used by a motor workshop, the Sin Sin Motor Co. My mother remembers it being used as a motor workshop as far back as her own days in school (she went to St. Anthony’s Convent further down Middle Road in the 1950s). The building next to it, which is built in a similar layout as many in the area which might ones which have been homes of wealthy merchants, had in those days been used as the Tai Loke Hotel (previously Tai Loke Lodging House) – one of several rather seedy looking budget hotels found in the area.

The church building when it was used as a motor workshop and the Tai Loke Hotel next to it, 1987 (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/)

The church building when it was used as a motor workshop and the Tai Loke Hotel next to it, seen from Middle Road in 1987 (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/).

While not much is known about the building which the Tai Loke occupied, there is enough that is known about the church building which was erected from 1870 to 1875, based on information on a National Heritage Board (NHB) plaque at the site as well as on Sculpture Square’s website. It first saw use as the Christian Institute. The Methodists were in 1885, invited to use the building and it became the Middle Road Church (or Malay Church) after a transfer to the Methodists was made in 1892, until the church moved to Kampong Kapor in 1929. Interestingly, the building also housed the Methodist Girls’ School which was started at nearby Short Street for a while until 1900. According to information on Sculpture Square’s website, the building had apparently also seen life as a Chinese restaurant, the “May Blossom Restaurant” during the war.

A photograph of the abandoned church building in the 1990s - after the motor workshop had vacated it (from Sculpture Square's website).

A photograph of the abandoned church building in the 1990s – after the motor workshop had vacated it (from Sculpture Square’s website).

Following years of neglect, the former church building when it was vacated by the motor workshop possibly at the end of the 1980s, was left in rather a dilapidated condition and it was a local sculptor, Sun Yu Li, who saw its potential for use as an arts venue which was opened as Sculpture Square in 1999.





Finding the old in the new – a walk down part of Thomson Road

12 01 2013

The stretch of Thomson Road between Balestier Road and Moulmein Road is one that I am well acquainted with. It is a stretch that was an invariable part of the twelve years of almost daily bus journeys to kindergarten, primary and secondary school and best known perhaps for a religious landmark, the Catholic Church of St. Alphonsus, popularly known as ‘Novena Church’ – so much so that the church has lent its name to the area where it is located. The twelve years, from 1969 to 1980, were ones in which there were significant changes made to the road and its surroundings. One big change was the widening of the road which resulted in pieces of property on the west side of the road losing valuable frontages. Another was the addition of a private women’s and children’s hospital which has set the standards for maternity hospitals in Singapore.

Developments around Velocity have quickened the pace of change in a world where some semblance of the old can (at least for now) still be found.

Developments around Velocity have quickened the pace of change in a world where some semblance of the old can (at least for now) still be found.

The stretch has seen many significant changes including being widened, but does contain a few recognisable landmarks.

The stretch has seen many significant changes including being widened.

The hospital, Thomson Medical Centre, came up close to the end of the twelve years, occupying a plot of land at the start of the south end of the stretch. Known for its innovative approach towards the birth experience of mothers, it does today feature another innovation – the basement of the refurbished building hides one of the first mechanised car parks in Singapore which was added in the mid 2000s. The hospital is the brainchild of a well known gynaecologist, Dr. Cheng Wei Chen, better known as Dr. W. C. Cheng. Built at a cost of $10 million on a terrace on the western side of the road – one of the buildings it was built in place of was a glorious mansion which Dr. Cheng had used as his clinic, the hospital’s opening in 1979 saw a hospital built so to make delivery a less than clinical experience.

The mansion along Thomson Road in which Dr W C Cheng moved his obstetrics and gynaecology practice to from the 2nd floor of the old Cold Storage.

The mansion along Thomson Road in which Dr. W C Cheng moved his obstetrics and gynaecology practice to from the 2nd floor of the old Cold Storage (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book).

The house which Dr. Cheng used as his clinic was a landmark in the area for many years. Standing on a terrace behind a wall, it never failed to catch my attention over the many bus journeys I made. The house I was to discover, does have an interesting history that goes well beyond the clinic. Besides being the home of Dr. Cheng’s in-laws – Dr. Cheng had moved his practice to the house in the early 1970s from a clinic he operated on the second floor of the old Cold Storage on Orchard Road, the house, was also where the origins of Novena Church in Singapore could be traced to. That I will come to a little later. Besides the clinic, there was another landmark (or so it seemed) that was brought down in 1978 to make way for the hospital – a four storey building named Adam Court and an associated two storey building which served as a garage. Adam Court housed one of the first Yamaha Music Schools in Singapore which moved into it at the end of the 1960s. A check in the online newspaper archives reveals that there was also a private school, Adam Court Educational Centre, which operated for a while in the building at the start of the 1970s. (I have also since posting this learnt that another music school belonging to Mrs. Madeline Aitken, who had once been described as the ‘grand dame of piano teachers’ had occupied the building before Yamaha moved in).

Another view of the mansion - it had been the belong to Dr Cheng's in-laws prior to him setting up his clinic there.

Another view of the mansion – it had been the belong to Dr Cheng’s in-laws prior to him setting up his clinic there (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book). The mansion had also been the first premises of the Redemptorist mission which arrived in 1935 – the Redemptorists run the Novena Church in Singapore.

The four storey building, Adam Court, next to Dr. W. C. Cheng's clinic seen from Thomson Road before it was incorporated into TMC in 1979. The two storey building in the foreground was a parking garage for Adam Court.

The four storey building, Adam Court, next to Dr. W. C. Cheng’s clinic seen from Thomson Road before it was incorporated into TMC in 1979 (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book). The two storey building in the foreground was a parking garage for Adam Court.

What is perhaps today the most recognisable landmark in the area is Novena Church. Its origins can be traced back to the arrival from Australia of the Redemptorist mission in Singapore in 1935. The Redemptorist community is best known for its promotion of devotions to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, devotions referred to as ‘Novena’ from the Latin word ‘novem’ for nine – the devotions involve prayers made over nine consecutive occasions. Devotional prayer services or ‘Novena’ sessions held on Saturdays at the church have over the years proven to be very popular with both followers and non-followers of the faith and the current Redemptorist church, the Church of St. Alphonsus, has come to be referred to as ‘Novena Church’.

Thomson Medical Centre when it it opened in 1979. The bulk of it was built on the side which contained Adam Court.

Thomson Medical Centre when it it opened in 1979 (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book). The bulk of it was built on the side which contained Adam Court.

Thomson Medical Centre today.

Thomson Medical Centre today.

The Redemptorist community upon their arrival, rented the mansion where Dr. Cheng was to later set up his clinic and only moved from the premises after the Second World War ended, first up Thomson Road to where the Chequers Hotel once stood (which later became the ill-fated Europa Country Club Resort). It at the second premises where the first public Novena devotions were held, commencing in November 1945. It was in 1950 that they moved to their current premises. A new chapel which became the Church of St Alphonsus (after the founder of the order) designed by Swan and Maclaren was built and was blessed on 14 May 1950. Several structures have been added since: a bell tower and residences at the back of the Church were added in 1956; side verandahs in the 1980s; and the St. Clement Pastoral Centre and new residences in the 1990s.

Inside Novena Church - the church is always packed on Saturdays during Novena services and a much bigger church is now needed.

Inside Novena Church – the church is always packed on Saturdays during Novena services and a much bigger church is now needed.

Even with the more recent additions the appearance of the church is still as recognisable as it was during my younger days. The church building itself is one dominated by triple arc pediment at the front. There is however, a huge change that may soon render that as a less recognisable feature of the church. Although the building has been gazetted for conservation on 8 June 2011, it will soon see itself in the shadow of a new and much larger church building which will come up next to it. This is part of a necessary $45 million expansion which will not only see a much-needed expansion of the church’s seating capacity, it will also see the construction of a basement car park and a new pastoral centre (the present one will be demolished to make way for the new building). Work will commence once 70% of necessary funds have been raised.

The once familiar façade of Novena Church which has conservation status will soon be dominated by a much larger building.

The once familiar façade of Novena Church which has conservation status will soon be dominated by a much larger building (image source: http://novenachurch.com).

Besides the church, there are also several structures which date back to my days in the school or public bus. There are two sets of private apartment blocks on the same side of the church just north of it which seems to be a constant there. The block further from the church has a row of shops located beneath it. It was in that row of shops where one, Java Indah, had in the 1970s, sold the best lemper udang that I have bitten into. The cake shop was started by an Indonesian lady, Aunty Neo, sometime around 1973 – well before Bengawan Solo started. It was perhaps better known for its kueh lapis, which was also distributed through the various supermarkets. The shop was later run by Aunty Neo’s niece and moved for a while to Balestier Hill Shopping Centre before disappearing. The row of shops also contains a dive equipment shop which is still there after all these years – it was from the shop that I bought my first set of snorkeling equipment back in the late 1970s.

The block where Java Indah and the best lemper udang was once found.

The block where Java Indah and the best lemper udang was once found.

One of two private apartment blocks next to Novena Church.

One of two private apartment blocks next to Novena Church.

The dive equipment shop today.

The dive equipment shop today.

Speaking of Balestier Hill Shopping Centre, that was an addition made sometime midway through the twelve year period. Situated across from where Thomson Medical Centre is today, the low-rise Housing and Development Board (HDB) cluster is where the very first Sri Dewa Malay barber shop moved to from its original location further south opposite Novena Church. Sri Dewa possibly started the Malay barber craze in the late 1960s and early 1970s and at its height, boasted of some 22 outlets. That outlet is one that I visited on many occasions – I was (as many of my schoolmates were) often sent there by the discipline master of Balestier Hill Technical School which I went to for technical classes in Secondary 3 and 4. He did always seem to have very different standards for what short and neat hair meant than our own discipline master.

Balestier Hill Shopping Centre which was completed in 1977.

Balestier Hill Shopping Centre which was completed in 1977.

The cluster which a post office could once be found in has always seemed a rather quiet place. Work on it started sometime in 1975 and was completed in 1977, and it was built partly on land occupied by a row of terraced houses by Thomson Road. What perhaps was interesting was the land behind that row – it and the hill on which the technical school, the first to be purpose built (and two primary schools) came up in the early 1960s. That was once owned by the Teochew clan association Ngee Ann Kongsi and used as a Teochew cemetery around the turn of the 20th century. Evidence of this did surface during the clearing work to build Balestier Hill Shopping Centre – a coffin with some human remains was uncovered at the foot of the hill in December 1975.

The road up to Balestier Hill where three schools were located. The hill was once used as a Teochew cemetery.

The road up to Balestier Hill where three schools were located. The hill was once used as a Teochew cemetery.

Right next to the road up to Balestier Hill in between the shopping centre and the private flats is a Shell service station which has been there since I first became acquainted with it. My father was a regular at the station, Yong Kim Service Station, from the days when he drove his Austin 1300. Loyalty gifts were commonly given to customers then, and my parents do still have some of the sets of cups and drinking glasses that were given out back at the end of the 1960s.

The former Yong Kim Service Station.

The former Yong Kim Service Station.

Besides these structures, there are also several more which have not changed very much along the road. One is another religious complex, across from Novena Church, where the Seventh-day Adventist Chinese Church and the San Yu Adventist School can be found – which dates back to the 1950s. Not far from that is a house which has also been a constant there, retaining its original design over the years. The house is one that was affected by road widening – it once sat on a even larger plot of land which was lined with a row of palm trees along the road.

The Seventh Day Adventist Chinese Church and San Yu Adventist School.

The Seventh-day Adventist Chinese Church and San Yu Adventist School.

A house that was once fronted by a road of plam trees.

A house that was once fronted by a road of plam trees.

Just south of Novena Church, across what is today Irrawaddy Road, is another part of the area which had for seemed to be always there. That however is also soon about to change. The cluster of blue and white buildings and a red brick wall in the fenced off compound takes one back to the late 1950s / early 1960s and were once where stores of the Electricity Department of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) (before that became corporatised) were located. They have since fallen into disuse and a recent tender exercise conducted by the Urban Redevelopment Corporation means that it will soon see it being redeveloped. The tender was awarded to Hoi Hup Realty Pte Ltd, Sunway Developments Pte Ltd and Hoi Hup J.V. Development Pte Ltd and is slated for mixed use development which will include a hotel.

The former stores of the Electricity Department of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) before corporatisation will probably be the next to go.

The former stores of the Electricity Department of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) before corporatisation will probably be the next to go.

Adjacent to the former stores is where two storey shophouses which once lined the road and the Jewish Cemetery behind them have made way for a shopping mall, Novena Square (now Velocity @ Novena Square) and an Novena MRT station. The mall was completed in 2000 and was built by UOL. I remember the shophouses that lined the road for one thing – the image of an elderly man sitting on a chair outside the shophouse has remained in my memory from my upper primary school days. There was also a two storey house that had long stood at the corner of Thomson and Moulmein Roads which always seemed unoccupied and used as a storeroom during my primary school days which has since disappeared.

Velocity as seen close to the junction of Moulmein and Thomson Roads where a two storey house once stood.

Velocity as seen close to the junction of Moulmein and Thomson Roads where a two storey house once stood.

One of the things I should perhaps mention is how busy the sidewalk down the slope from Novena Church were in the 1960s and early 1970s on Saturdays when hourly Novena services are held. Many among the thousands of church-goers that came and went thronged the sidewalks in search of treats from the food and snack stalls set up to cater for the crowd. Among the food vendors there were some who were to set up successful baking businesses later after the stalls were cleared.

The sidewalks just below the slope up to Novena Church were always busy on Saturdays when many stalls selling food and snacks were set up to cater for the church going crowd.

The sidewalk just below the slope up to Novena Church were always busy on Saturdays when many stalls selling food and snacks were set up to cater for the church going crowd.


Afternote:

It has been brought to my attention by Mr William Cheng, the architect of Thomson Medical Centre (TMC) that the old Adam Centre or Adam Court (Yamaha Music School) was not demoished but incorporated into the Right Wing Consultant Suite Block. That is where Dr. Cheng has his consultant suites on the ground floor. In addition, a new elevator core for 2 low speed lifts was added and annexed to the new TMC building with an extra floor was added.

Mr Cheng has also added that the TMC Building was designed and built in a record time of 8-9 months. During the construction Dr. Cheng did not maintained his practice at the renovated consultant suite on the ground of the old Adam Centre which he moved to from the old house and has remained there until today.

Mr Cheng also pointed out that iconic arches were introduced to the top of the TMC building’s façades to “maintain the spirit of the old 339 Thomson Road house”. These were moved to the new façades when the TMC building was extended in 2000 to 2002. The “innovative first-of-its kind in Singapore automatic computer controlled mechanical underground carpark” was built to provide additional car parking spaces.






Whispers of an otherwise silent world

26 03 2012

The streets around the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) are ones that once spoke to me. It was on these streets and some that are no more that as a schoolboy, I had spent four years wandering through a little more than three decades ago, developing a strong attachment to them as they were back then. My schooldays in the area ended at the end of 1980, and leaving that behind me, I did not realise that that it was the world around it that I so loved that I was to leave behind as well.

The streets around the Singapore Art Museum are ones that were familiar to me from my school days at the end of the 1970s. The streets are colourless and silent now, a silence that is broken by the sounds of traffic that pass it by.

I often wander down the same streets today, hoping to find that world that in the distractions of my passage into adulthood was swept away by the winds of change that blew over the area in the decade that followed my last days of school. It is not the voices that I had been familiar with that now greet me, but the screams of a deafening silence that I am unable to close my ears to. The world that was coloured by the uniforms of school children scurrying to school or thronging the many book shops the area had a reputation for; its silence broken by the passing of those who lived, worked and shopped along the well worn sidewalks and five-foot ways; is but a pale shadow of its former self, rendered silent and colourless by the world we have chosen to embrace.

A world that has changed.

Once a world dominated by the towering spires and domes that flavoured the area, it is now a world where the same spires and domes have become mere reflections on the glass and steel edifices that now tower over the area. It is in these reflections that the voices of that old world are sometimes heard. They no longer are the loud and confident voices I had grown accustomed to, but fading whispers which I struggle to hear over the loudness of the silence that has befallen the area.

A world once dominated by the spires and domes, is now one where the spires and domes have become mere reflections of that world in the glass and steel of the new world.

A reflection on a world that I once knew - the SAM reflected on the polished walls of the NTUC INCOME Centre.

One whose whispers I can sometimes hear is the soul of the magnificent domed building that is today’s SAM. The building, gazetted as a National Monument in 1992, was where I attended school – St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI), one that I spent four wonderful years going to. Although a lot has changed since it held airy classrooms behind the green louvered wooden doors that are now painted grey, it is a building that I still have a deep attachment to. Beyond the coolness of the climate controlled galleries that now fill the spaces behind the grey doors, there are many areas in which I can hear those whispers of its forgotten past.

The buildings of the former St. Joseph's Institution now houses the Singapore Art Museum.

It is no longer through gates manned by school prefects identifiable by the green ties that stood out against the all white uniforms we wore that I now pass through – the half height walls on which iron grilles had stood are no more, but across a lawn that I rebelliously can now walk across to arrive at the portico on top of which a famous statue stands. The lawn had been a garden populated not just by shrubs, but also a weather station and a fountain that I don’t remember seeing come on.

SJI in the 1970s

St. Joseph's Institution by night in the 1970s.

The garden in front of the school building in the 1980s.

The famous statue is that of St. John the Baptist de la Salle, showing what seems to be the way to two boys beside him. St. John the Baptist de la Salle was the founder of the De La Salle Brothers – a Catholic missionary organisation dedicated to the education of boys from poor backgrounds. Aside from the many jokes we heard about the statue that wore a coat of silver paint back then, it was famous as a landmark for the area, having stood in its place above the portico since 1913. The bronze statue was cast with money donated, coincidentally it may seem, by an old boy of the school John La Salle on the occasion of the school’s Diamond Jubilee in 1912. The statue is a replica a marble sculpture by Cesare Aureli that stands in Saint Peter’s Basilica.

The statue of St. John the Baptist de la Salle above the portico of the former school building (seen here in 1980), served as a landmark for the area.

To the right of the portico is another area that whispers loud enough to be heard. The shallow fishpond coloured green by algae lay and the guava tree which lent its shade to the pond is now an area that has been paved. The pond had been a convenient point for several of us to meet. Immediately behind the area where the pond was, the corridor beyond the arches of the building had been one that led towards first the staff room and turning left at the end of it, the tuck-shop. The tuck-shop was on the ground level of a building which had above it, the Brothers’ Quarters, along Queen Street. The building is one that has since been replaced by a new building. The Brothers’ Quarters with flagpoles mounted on the ledge on the second level was where we faced as we said our prayers, sung the National Anthem and recited the Pledge during our school assemblies that were held on the tarred surface of a courtyard that has now been made much smaller. At right angles to the Brothers’ Quarters with its back to the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, was another building that lined the courtyard that has been replaced. This held rooms for several societies including the Co-op and the 2013 Hippo Scout troupe’s den.

Assembly at the Courtyard.

The 2103 Hippo Scout Unit had its den at a building that lined one side of the courtyard.

Prize giving during school assembly. The doors led to the school's tuck-shop on the ground level of the building that housed the Brothers' Quarters.

Across from the Brothers’ Quarters was the building (still there) which held the dark school hall (now the very bright Glass Hall) on the lower floor, and the school’s chapel (now the Chapel) on the upper floor. The chapel was where as schoolboys we could sit in quiet contemplation. The chapel stripped of its benches and Sanctuary does still fill me with a sense of calm and peace. It does still thankfully bear some reminders of its days as the school’s chapel: the floor tiles; the ceiling panels; and the plaques that served as the 14 Stations of the Cross a Catholic place of worship is never usually without.

The chapel in 1977.

The building we see today, wasn’t always how it had looked like. It took on its distinctive appearance in 1903 when the curved wings and the portico were added. The school the building was home to dates back long before 1903. It started its illustrious life as Saint John’s School on 1 May 1852 on the premises of an old Catholic church on the same grounds. It establishment in 1852 was due largely to the efforts of a French missionary priest, Father Jean Marie Beurel. Father Beurel, who arrived in Singapore in October 1839, had spared no effort in the early years of his posting to Singapore in trying to enlist the services of the De La Salle Brothers to set up what was to be the first De La Salle school in the Far East. Father Beurel was also instrumental in the construction of the new prior to that – the Church of the Good Shepherd (which is the present Cathedral of the Good Shepherd) and also in bringing the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) to our shores two years later in 1854.

Fr Jean Marie Beurel, a French priest whose efforts were instrumental in the setting up of not just SJI, but also the setting up of the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus and the construction of the Church (now Cathedral) of the Good Shepherd.

A view of CHIJ as it was in its early days. Father Beurel is credited with bringing the Convent in two years after his efforts brought the De La Salle Brothers to our shores.

The complex of buildings that housed CHIJ and also the Cathedral are ones where the spires that dominated the area stands, along with that of the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul (then referred to as ‘Chinese Church’) on Queen Street. The three (or parts of then in the case of CHIJ) have also been gazetted as National Monuments. The most beautiful of the buildings that hold up the spires is the beautiful Gothic styled former chapel of CHIJ – now the CHIJMES complex. It is however the other two whose whispers I hear, having interacted with them both as a child and during my days in school when we attended many school Masses in both churches. The earliest of the buildings to be gazetted as a National Monument, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd (gazetted in 1973) is one that is perhaps one that is most in need of attention. The structure of the building has suffered not just from its age (it was opened on 6 June 1847), but also from more recent construction activity in the area – ironically ones that were to have a minimal impact on the character of the area, the tunnelling work for the MRT as well as the construction of the Singapore Management University campus which was to blend in with the surroundings (some think it otherwise).

Temporary shoring of the Cathedral's structure is obvious when seen from Victoria Street.

Stepping into the Cathedral, one can’t help but notice the large crack at the wall at the far end to the right above the Sanctuary, and behind that – very obvious temporary shoring can be seen supporting the building’s structure on the outside. Being a National Monument that is run by a religious or non-profit organisation, the Cathedral is only able to draw on the limited public funds available to such monuments badly in need of repair. Based on information on the Preservation of Monuments Board’s (PMB) website, the funds available for the 29 monuments run by a religious or non-profit organisations for such urgent repair work is limited to a total of $5 million that is to be distributed to qualifying monuments over a five-year period (i.e. $1 million per year) from 2009. A pre-requisite for monuments to qualify for the funding is that the organisations involved must first have the means to fund the required work. The amount does seem rather misery considering the amounts being spent on some of the other National Monuments. The repair has been estimated to cost up to some $35 million. As of now only a fifth of the amount needed has been raised. The Cathedral is attempting to raise the remainder of the much-needed funds privately with fund raising activities organised at the Cathedral.

A large crack is clearly visible on the wall of the Cathedral's Sanctuary.

The Cathedral is attempting to raise much needed money - some S$35 million is needed, to repair and restore the building.

A close-up of an information board providing the progress of the fund raising shows that only about a fifth of the money required had been rasied as of December 2011.

As I leave behind the whispers of familiar voices, the contrast that the silent new world is becomes apparent. In the coldness and greyness and in the hush of that new world, I can sometimes hear the silent screams of the faces of the old. The screams are ones that fade with the passage of time. The whispers are ones that in the decrescendo of voices that I hope I would still be able to listen to, in a world where the only other sounds are the sounds of traffic that passes it by, much as the new world that has now passed it by.

The Cathedral is an oasis of calm in a sea of deafening silence.





A 40 year journey from Essex Road

28 04 2011

I made a journey recently with a group of friends. It could be said that it was a journey that had started some forty years ago, one that had started with the forging of bonds in the classrooms and on the schoolyards at Essex Road in Singapore. Yes, we were schoolmates, seven of us, making a journey in mid-life that was as much motivated by a common passion, as it was by the camaraderie we developed in the course of our Christian Brothers’ education that kept us in touch with each other well into our teenage years.

Flying the flag of our Alma Mater: Seven schoolmates and one we adopted ...

Some of us in Primary 6, St. Michael's School.

The journey we took was one that brought us to the shadow of the roof of the world. An excursion, as one put it, an extension of those we used to look forward to at the end of the year during our primary school days. Having a common interest in photography, we sought to capture, through seven pairs of eyes, how we saw the wonderful world in which we found ourselves immersed in for a few days, coming back not just with a multitude of images, but touched by the beauty and warmth in the simplicity of the people, fond memories of the colourful sights that unfolded before our eyes, and most importantly with the spirit that the ten (some twelve) years in St. Michael’s School (now St. Joseph’s Institution Junior) and St. Joseph’s Institution had imparted on us.

Life on the streets in Kathmandu makes it a wonderful place to see and discover.

Along the three hundred steps to enlightenment: A statue of Buddha on the ascent up the pilgrim path to Swayambunath, a stupa which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the outskirts of Kathmandu.

The ancient capital of the Kathmandu Valley, Bhaktapur, seen during the Bisket Jatra festival held during the Nepali New Year in April.

The trip involved not just a visit to Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, but also to some of the areas that surround the city, places that have a magical or mythical charm, as well as one that would, on a clear day, have given us a magnificent view of the roof of the world. Kathmandu and the Kathmandu Valley, is certainly blessed with some magnificent cultural treasures, a few which have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including two stupa sites, Swayambunath and Boudhanath, and a former capital, Bhaktapur, and it was these that we focused our cameras on. Along the way, we also visited a Roman Catholic church, the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, in Lalitpur on the outskirts of Kathmandu, and along with it the Parish School, the Regina Amoris School, set up and run by the Sisters of Cluny for the children of the needy. All in all, it was a huge and meaningful adventure for us, and one, that I would be touching on in detail in separate posts to come on each part of our visit.

The long, narrow and winding road up to Nagarkot, a hill station near Kathmandu.

Boudhanath, a UNSECO World Heritage Site and the largest stupa in Nepal, is also a centre of Tibetan life.

Durbar Square in Kathmandu, a concentration of monuments which is another UNSECO World Heritage Site.

The Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Lalitpur.





One hundred steps to Heaven

1 03 2011

If heaven was to be a place in Singapore, there would probably not be a better candidate for a suitable location than the Mount Sophia that previously existed. These days of course, Mount Sophia is associated more with sought after high-rise residential units in a prime location close to the heart of the city. However, back in the early part of the 20th century, it must certainly have been a truly magical and heavenly place, dominated by the magnificent Eu Villa that commanded a view of much of the surrounding areas of the fast growing city that lay on the areas some 100 feet below, and the many other grand bungalows and mansions, paticularly around Adis and Wilkie Roads. By the time I was going to school in Bras Basah Road and wandering curiously around the area, many of the heavenly places were still around, albeit in dilapidated condition – and mostly I guess crumbling to a point that it would have taken a monumental effort to preserve them. Still one could easily imagine how grand the area, which seemed a world apart from the rough and tumble of the mixed residential and commercial districts that lay below, would have been.

An aerial view of Mount Sophia and the surrounding area in the 1960s. It is easy to see why the well heeled would choose to build their magnificent mansions on the geographical feature which commanded an excellent view of the area around it. The Cathay Building can be seen on the south of Mount Sophia and the castle like Eu Villa to the top and right of it. The Istana and its grounds, which together with Mount Sophia and adjoining Mount Emily were part of Charles Robert Prinsep's huge nutmeg plantation can be seen on the left of the photo (Photo Source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

I was fortunate to be able to have seen all that I guess and place myself in that magical world, then accessible either via Sophia Road or by the so-called one hundred steps up from Handy Road. Given the choice of access options, the adventurous schoolboy that I was would certainly have chosen the latter route – after all, it was a shortcut we occasionally took to get to Plaza Singapura, then not accessible through Handy Road, which would involve climbing into the upper level of the car park at Plaza Singapore right next to western slopes of Mount Sophia, where Yaohan and a popular hangout for teens then, the Yamaha Music School run Do Re Mi cafe, beckoned. These days, much of that magic that I felt back then, is absent, with the manisons, most of which went in the 1980s and 1990s, with Eu Villa itself being demolished in 1981 after being sold by the Eu family for a princely sum of S$ 8.19M in 1973 to a property development company, having given way to a mess of monstrous apartment blocks, and it’s difficult to return to that magical world that I once wandered around.

The fairy-tale like Eu Villa, once the home of Eu Tong Sen. It was built in 1915 at a cost of S$1M on the site of Adis Lodge which Eu had purchase from Nissim Nissim Adis, the owner of the Grand Hotel de L'Europe in 1912.

I had an opportunity to do just that, return to the magical world that is, taking a walk with the National Library Board around the area, and trying to transport not just myself, but also a group of 30 participants to that world that I once knew. It was good to have on board two ladies who attended two of the schools in the area, who were able to share their experiences as well of going to Nan Hwa Girls’ School and Methodist Girls School (MGS). Both described ascending the one hundered steps to get to their schools, describing how it rose precariously up the steep slope from Handy Road with no railings to speak of and the steps being uneven in height – far different from the reconstructed steps in the vicinity of the original we see today. The ex MGS girl described how her schoolmates and her would race down the steps … something I am sure many would have not been able to resist in impetuosity of youth. We also confirmed that there were actually 100 steps – something I never thought of trying to establish in the many occasions on which I ascended the steps.

The one hundred steps offered a short cut for the adventurous to Plaza Singapura (seen here in its very early days - source: http://www.picas.gov.nhb.sg).

The walk started with a short introduction at the library, after which we were transported to the magical hill not by the one hundred steps, but by air-conditioned coach to the top of Mount Emily, I guess in keeping with the new age. What we saw were some remnants of there area that I loved, including the former Mount Emily Girls’ home which for a while was used as the Japanese Consulate prior to the war, becoming a halfway house for underage street prostitutes before becoming the girls’ home in 1969 and later the Wilkie Road Children’s Home in the 1980s. There was also the location of the first public swimming pool in Singapore, built on the site of the waterworks on Mount Emily, a pool that I visited in my younger days, being one of my father’s favourite pools, across from which we could see the hoardings surrounding the former bungalow of the late Major Derrick Coupland who passed away in 1991. Major Coupland was well known as a World War II veteran and the President of the Ex-Services Association heading it for some 20 years prior to his death from bone cancer in June 1991. I understand from a reader that the bungalow has been left empty since and the deterioration from 20 years of abandonment was evident before the hoardings came up some time at the end of last year – I suppose that the building is being prepared for demolition right at this moment.

The hoardings havve come up around the crumbling former residence of Major Derrick Coupland.

From the original coat of arms, used during the years of self-govenrment that can be seen on the structure at the entrance to Mount Emily Park, we made our way down Wilkie Road, past the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Sikh Temple. The current temple with its distinctive white dome, is a later one, built in 1983, next to an old house which as a plaque indicates, was purchased in 1932 (I was told from a Jewish gentleman), and originally housed the temple. Most of the magnificent mansions, including one owned by M J Nassim, that lined Wilkie Road have been replaced by apartment blocks … one that remains is the Abdullah Shooker Welfare Home at 81 Wilkie Road which is described in a previous post.

Wilkie Road used to be lined with magnificent mansions including one that still stands - the Abdullah Shooker Welfare Home, left by the late Abdullah Shooker, a Baghdadi Jew who died during internment by the Japanese in 1942, to the Jewish community.

Further down Wilkie Road, the participants were introduced to the Sophia Flats, once the home of the illustrious F J Benjamin, across from which we could once get a glimpse of the roofs of the magical Eu Villa over a retaining wall which marked the edge of the table on which the villa and its huge grounds once stood. Sadly the wall has come down, perhaps the last reminder of the villa that was left, along with the table which is being levelled for what is probably a commercial/residential project.

And the wall came tumbling down ... the last reminder of Eu Villa comes down - a retaining wall that marked the edge of the table of land on which the villa once stood (as seen in January 2011).

The last bit of the wall next to Peace Centre on Sophia Road.

At the corner of Adis and Sophia Roads, the excited chatter of a former student of Nan Hwa Girl’s School was heard, as she reminisced about her schooldays. The building which was completed in 1941, before being used by the Japanese during the war and the British forces after before being returned to Nan Hwa in 1947, is now used as a student hostel – and as one participant on the walk pointed out, the flag poles in front of the basketball courts which also served as an assembly area were still very much in evidence. Besides this, we learnt of a popular ice-kacang stall that both the girls of Nan Hwa and MGS patronised after school which was at the corner opposite Nan Hwa.

The former Nan Hwa Girls' High School at the corner of Adis and Sophia Roads.

A former student at Nan Hwa Girls' School sharing her experiences of going to school outside the former Nan Hwa Girls' School.

The corner of Adis Road and Sophia Road at which the ice kacang stall that both girls of Nan Hwa and MGS patronised, was located.

Before we hit the new one hundred steps, we stopped by the Art Deco styled building which housed San Shan Public School which was built in the 1950s by the Foochow Association, which ran the school up to the 1970s when the running of it was handed to the Ministry of Education. The school after moving from its Mount Sophia premises in the 1980s has stopped functioning. Next was the former Trinity Theological College which was established in 1948. The cluster of buildings that belonged to the college including the church with the distinctive roof shaped to the Chinese character for people, 人 (Ren), were built in the 1960s. The college moved in the 1990s to its current location along Upper Bukit Timah Road – and the roof of the church there is identical to the one on Mount Sophia. Next to the college, the cluster of buildings (now Old School) that house MGS still stands. The former pupil of MGS spoke of how she could see the gardens of Eu Villa from her class window, and how the classes were organised, C being the best class and A for the weakest students, of the three classes that each form had in the 1960s.

A view of the former MGS.

From the hundred steps down, we made our way to the corner of what used to be Dhoby Ghaut and Bras Basah Road, now dominated by another monstrous piece of architecture which did not agree with most of the participants – one remarked that it “stuck out like a sore thumb”. Where that building which is the School of the Arts (SOTA) stand, there was what had been Dhoby Ghaut, gone as a road that carried the name in an area that once was used by the Indian Dhobis to gain access to the fresh water stream that has since become the Stamford Canal. What survives of that Dhoby Ghaut which hold memories of the row of shops which included the Red Sea Aquarium and an A&W outlet that I frequented as a schoolboy and another row of houses up behind on Kirk Terrace which included a Sikh temple, is only the name of the MRT station in the vicinity.

The row of shops at Dhoby Ghaut next to Cathay Building was where the Red Sea Aquarium as well as the A&W was. Today the SOTA building stands on top of the area where Dhoby Ghaut was (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

We then walked up Prinsep Street, named after Charles Robert Prinsep, the owner of the nutmeg plantation which once included Mount Emily, Mount Sophia and Mount Caroline and extended to the Istana grounds (100 acres were purchased in 1867 for the Governor’s House which became the Istana). There were suggestions that the three mounts were named after three daughters of Prinsep, but what is more likely was that when Prinsep purchased the land, Mount Sophia (which appears earlier as Bukit Selegi) would have already been named after the second wife of Raffles, modern Singapore’s founder, Sophia Hull, and if anything, Prinsep named the two adjoining hills after two other daughters, having been part of the former estate of Raffles’ brother-in-law and Singapore’s first Master Attendant, Captain Flint.

Kirk Terrace over Dhoby Ghaut (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

It was then a leisurely stroll back to the library via Middle Road, where we stopped by the site of the former POSB headquarters facing Prinsep Street and the Registry of Vehicles (ROV) facing Bencoolen Street, where Sunshine Plaza stands, but not before introducing the former Tiger Balm Building, the David Elias Building and the former Middle Road hospital. At Sunshine Plaza, we saw a few signcraft shops – remnants of those that featured in the area when demand for vehicle number plates existed due to the presence of the ROV in the vicinity. Then it was past the former Middle Road Church (now Sculpture Square), used as a motor workshop when I went to school in the area in the 1970s, and the former St. Anthony’s Convent, before hitting the site of the former Queen of the Mooncakes (Empress Hotel) – our destination where the Central Library building now stands.

Middle Road once featured sign craft shops serving the demand from the nearby ROV, including Rainbow Signs which I well remember from passing many times on the bus home from school (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

It was the end of a rather enjoyable walk for me, and I hope the participants had as good a time as I had. Before what was left of the participants dispersed, there was still time to exchange a story, one about the sighting of an Orang Minyak (translated from Malay as “Oily Man” – one that is said to be cursed to an existence as an dark oil coated being that possesses supernatural powers, but more likely as a participant Jeff pointed out, was a man coated in oil to ensure a smooth getaway), reputed as one that terrorises the fairer sex. I had heard about one which was reportedly known to lurk in the compound of St. Joseph’s Church across Victoria Street, through a reader Greg Lim, who lived in Holloway Lane in the 1950s. My mother who boarded at St. Anthony’s Convent in the 1950s could not confirm this, but did mentioned that there were rumours of one lurking in the stairwell. Jeff, who himself lived on nearby Cashin Street in the 1950s confirmed that there was indeed sightings reported, and he was in one of the crowds that had gathered to try to catch a glimpse of the Orang Minyak. Another participant, the mother of Ms Thiru (who is with the NLB and organised the walk), also confirmed that she was aware of the story. It was certainly an interesting end to the walk, one that took a little longer than anticipated, but one that was thoroughly enjoyable.

The Empress Hotel at the corner of Middle Road and Victoria Street which was demolished in 1985.





The horrors that awaited on excursions to Pegu Road

9 02 2011

One of the few things I really hated when I was attending primary school was the regular visits I made to Pegu Road. It was for me, something that seemed to be too regular for my liking, and the appearance of the dreaded sight of the white bus that was used to ferry us there parked in the school car park wasn’t something that I looked forward to. It was to Pegu Road that as school children, we would be brought over to by the class, spending part of the morning or afternoon as it may be, in an excursion that usually resulted in some pain and discomfort.

An trip out of school to this group of buildings at Pegu Road wasn't one of our favourite excursions in school.

Pegu Road then had been home to one of the schools’ dental clinics set up specifically to provide dental care to primary school children, which was supplemented by mobile dental clinics on buses which I guess were used to reach out to schools beyond the vicinity of the few schools’ dental clinics that existed then. It was actually the very first of the schools’ dental clinics that was set up, being opened by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, just a week or so before the merger of Singapore with Malaya in September 1963. By the time I had started my primary schooling in the early 1970s, there were two such clinics in operation, the other being set up at the Institute of Health in Outram Road. More soon came along in the mid 1970s and there were apparently ten such clinics that were added in 1973 – I remember that there was one at the corner of Aljunied Road and MacPherson Road as well – a classmate’s father was a dentist at that particular clinic.

How the inside of Pegu Road Dental Clinic had looked like (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

Speaking of dental care, many would also remember being issued with a plastic tumbler and a small toothbrush as school children, part of a scheme to introduce good dental care habits to school children that was introduced in 1969. A tooth brushing drill would take place every day after recess and we would line up against a small drain with the tumbler filled with water and brush our teeth over the drain.

Pegu Road today doesn't hold the horrors that awaited us anymore ... but somehow, I am still filled with a sense of trepidation whenever I find myself in the area.

Visits to the dental clinic would have taken place every half a year or so, and for those with cavities to be filled, follow up visits were sometimes required. For many of us, that meant having to sit in the chair and have the dreaded drill shake the daylights out of you. Worse was when extractions were required and the sight of the long needle at the end of the syringe filled with anesthetic was enough to bring the look of horror on the face of many. Many times, dentists would attempt to placate the terrified child in his/her chair with a little plastic boxes or cases that would have been used to hold items such as drill bits – and that worked for some … but never for me … and to this day, a sense of trepidation still fills me whenever I am in and around Pegu Road.





Yesterday once more: The Green Hornet

31 01 2011

My first encounters with the masked superhero wannabe, the Green Hornet, and his trusty (and more able) sidekick Kato, had been during a re-run of the 1960s television series which starred Van Williams as the title character, and non other than the still popular Bruce Lee, as Kato and accompanied by a jazzed up version of The Flight of the Bumblebee. The re-runs that I could remember catching were screened over 1979 and 1980, on Tuesday evenings at 7, during a time when I was completing my secondary schooling, when I should really have been distracted by the preparations that I needed to make for the finishing examinations, then by the antics of the two masked men over half an hours of evening television, once a week before the Malay news came on.

There was actually a lot more to distract us during those days, despite the apparent lack of gadgetry and the wired-up world that keeps our young connected these days. It was exciting times brought about by gyrations inspired by the falsettos of Bee Gees and John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and with Michael Jackson going Off The Wall, amongst other things, as bell bottoms and butterfly collars gave way to pleated pants. It was a time when perhaps the childhood fascination with the superheroes in tights had waned to the extent that the die-cast Batmobile that I had held on to since I was five, with it’s paintwork chipped and damaged from the many occasions that it answered the call of duty in its many years of service it provided, went out with the trash (I now wish I had kept it). Despite that, the Green Hornet, when it remade an appearance, somehow drew us schoolboys to it. Perhaps it was it chance to watch the exploits of a Bruce Lee that had remained a cult hero to many of us, in a language that wasn’t alien to many of my friends, or perhaps it was it cool 1965 Chrysler Imperial known as the Black Beauty that caught our attention, but it had an effect on us that was similar to watching Erik Estrada in CHiPs, so much so that it often came up as a hot topic of conversation on the long bus journeys that we took to school.

I got to re-live my youth watching the Green Hornet courtesy of Domino's Pizza. I was an avid follower of the re-run of the television series screened on Tuesdays at 7pm in 1979 and 1980.

With that in mind, I approached a preview of the newly released remake of the Green Hornet in 3D, courtesy of Domino’s Pizza, with a bit of hesitation. This time around, the Green Hornet had at his disposal, not just a few clones of the Black Beauty, but with a garage full of cool automobiles that would have any one watching drooling, not that the female lead Cameron Diaz, who plays Lenore Case the secretary to the lead character, Britt Reid, a.k.a. the Green Hornet, wouldn’t. In this version, we do not just have the marvels of technology to keep our eyes glued to the screen, but also the silliness of Britt Reid’s character played by Seth Rogen and also of the bad guy, Chudnowsky (Christoph Waltz) who comes across as one who is as much as an narcissistic egomaniac as Britt Reid is, adding to the amusement. My favourite character in the 1960s television series, Kato, is played by the sullen Jay Chou, who somehow seems to mumble through some of his lines with good effect. Overall, watching it in 3D doesn’t seem to have made the experience any more spectacular, even with the generous dose of destruction that the audience is provided with, and I didn’t really think that Seth Rogen did justice to the character, but I guess audiences would still be drawn to the kick-the-bad-guy’s-ass theme, the car-chases to which Kato puts the accessories of the Black Beauty to good use, and the glass breaking and explosive sequences that is always popular with audiences. However, despite having reservations about Seth Rogen portrayal of of the masked Superhero wannabe and the lack of the spectacular, I must admit that not only I wasn’t disappointed with Green Hornet 3D, I did actually enjoy watching it as much as I did the television series.





Now from the outside looking in and from the inside looking out …

6 09 2010

From the world apart at Little India, my ex-schoolmates and me made our way back to Bras Basah Road by MRT for the final part of a walkabout which had started right where we found ourselves back to. Tired from what was a hot afternoon’s stroll, this leg was thankfully (for me at least), more of a winding down session. Emerging from the trains at Bras Basah Station, we found ourselves right below what had been the school field all those years back, on which we would have had a good time at kicking footballs. These days, a glass bottomed pool serves as a skylight of sorts, sits right where the part of the field closest to the school had been on what is now SMU Green.

A skylight where we had once kicked footballs on a grassy field.

Aerial view of the former SJI and the SJI Field (c. late 1960s).

Once on street level we were welcomed by the familiar sight of the building which had been school, Saint Joseph’s Institution (SJI) for four wonderful years of our schooling life. With its two curved wings which had always appeared to arms reaching out to protect us as school boys. These days, as the Singapore Art Museum, it still stands as a reminder to the many school boys who it nurtured over the years, and with the statue of Saint John the Baptist de La Salle serving to remind us of what the school had once stood for. There are of course the many jokes about the statue … one has it that La Salle in pointing in the direction of Stamford Road, is reminding the two boys standing beside him that if they are not diligent in their studies, they might end up in the rival school at the foot of Fort Canning Hill (which in our days, had a reputation for having producing boys who had female tendencies).

The former SJI building, which now houses the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), is a landmark along Bras Basah Road as it was back when we were in school.

Bras Basah Road (seen here in the 1950s) has been completely transformed over the last three decades. Three landmarks that are left along the road are the former SJI, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, and the former CHIJ.

The statue of Saint John the Baptist de La Salle.

We took the opportunity to wander into the courtyard where we had once had our assemblies. It had been a lot bigger in our school days, able to take in the 30 or so classes of 45, assembled in rows of two. The courtyard had been for many of us back in school, the focal point of the school, and most would stand around the courtyard during recess or before classes. A popular activity had been feeding the pigeons with kacang putih bought from the tuck shop, an act that the pigeons sometimes repaid by blessing a few unfortunate boys with the digested bits of the feed that were expelled from their perch on the rafters above.

Reflection of a courtyard which had once been where. as school boys, we had assembled.

The passage way that had once been a main thoroughfare to get to the courtyard and tuck shop, running by what was once the staff room.

The kacang putih seller, seen in an old school annual.

There were some familiar sights, the green louvered wooden doors seemed very much like it was back then, which I guess helped in bringing a few memories back to us, transporting us back some 30 years in time. Somehow, we could picture ourselves in the place as it was back then, seeing sights and hearing sounds that we were once familiar with. It is always nice to relive old memories from time to time, and I guess we as students of SJI and one of the few with the privilege to do so at leisure, primarily because of what the buildings that were the school is used as today.

Back to school seeing what was yesterday reflected in what is today.

Another reflection of what once was.

Familiar sights ...

and maybe some less familiar ... but even then, some things never change ... the school building has a reputation for ghostly apparitions ...

An unfamiliar sight in a familiar place.

Leaving the Art Museum, we made our way through the compound of the Cathedral, where mass was going on. We were of course very familiar with the cathedral as boys, having attended mass there many times in the white of our school uniform. It was always on the agenda as well for my family for our church visits for Maundy Thursday. I had in fact visit the cathedral on several occasions as a young boy with my parents for mass as well. Each Sunday morning that we were there, we would encounter this rather impossible person who was the warden in charge of directing cars parking in the compound, which even then always seemed to fill up. The warden, a certain Mr Prince, never failed to find himself as a source of displeasure to church goers in his attempts to convince them to park their cars in the tightest of spots. The Cathedral, a gazetted national monument, is these days sadly in need of repair, having been damaged by much of the construction activity including tunneling work for the Circle Line which runs underneath Bras Basah Road. It is quite sad to see part of the structure needing to be propped by wooden shoring, and hopefully the damage and be completely repaired.

The spire of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd is now dwarfed by the buildings that have come up around it.

Shoring now supports part of the cathedral's structure which has suffered damage from all the construction activity that has gone on around the national monument.

Across Victoria Street from the Cathedral, what was the walled compound that used to house the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) stands. Back when we were school boys, much of what went on behind the walls was a big mystery to us. Looking at CHIJ then from the streets around it, one would have been confronted by what appeared to be a rather thick wall, almost as if it was some kind of fortification, parts of which were topped off by broken pieces of glass cemented in with sharp edges facing up. Along two sides of it, running along Bras Basah and North Bridge Roads, were rooms ventilated by small openings in the walls that I understand, had housed rooms which were used by the nuns who ran the convent. Along the Stamford Canal, another wall concealed much revealing only the secondary school building. The only glimpse we could get of what it was like beyond the walls was along Victoria Street, through the tall iron main gate, and perhaps by peeking through the small opening in the so called “Gate of Hope” close to the junction with Bras Basah Road.

From the outside looking in ... what was behind the walls were a mystery to many of us schoolboys.

The Gothic styled chapel dominated the compound.

A view of CHIJ as it was in its early days.

The view port on the Gate of Hope, where abandoned babies where left. The nuns ran an orphanage which took these unwanted babies in.

The wall of the former CHIJ along Bras Basah Road.

As boys we were always curious to know what was beyond the walls that swallowed up many of the pretty faces we had encountered each morning going to school, not being able to see beyond the magnificent structure of the Gothic styled chapel that proudly stood just behind the tall iron gate. I did have some first hand accounts from my sister who spent the first two years of her school life there before deciding that leaving for school at 5.30 each morning was something she could do without, but being at that age, she didn’t really have too much to share about the school. I did have an opportunity to see what did go on behind the walls, having been chosen to attend a girl guides campfire as a scout. I guess what the flickering glow of the campfire didn’t reveal much of the convent’s secrets as I do not not much of an impression of what was within the premises besides the field where the sunken courtyard we see today is, and the buildings that surrounded the field making it seem almost like a cloister of sorts.

The Gothic styled former chapel as seen on our recent walk.

The field that was behind the chapel ... now the sunken courtyard of CHIJMES.

Times have changed I guess, and the usage of the buildings of the former convent has as well. The convent moved to its present premises in Toa Payoh in 1982 before the complex of buildings were restored and transformed into what we see today … a dining, entertainment and shopping venue that in keeping with its past (only in name) has been named CHIJMES (pronounced “chimes”). So, now the once unadulterated grounds have been overrun by establishments that maybe serve some of what the nuns may have frowned upon. The complex is dominated by the sunken courtyard behind the former chapel that was once the school field, perhaps telling of how low the use of the premises has sunk to (from a spiritual viewpoint). That knowledge did not stop us from enjoying a couple of beers in the now unholy cloister.  What is nice about the place is that the sunken courtyard that provides a very Mediterranean feel about it.

The former cloister now houses food and entertainment outlets.

Mass being celebrated in the chapel.

The building that housed St. Nicholas Girls' School from 1949 to 1983.


The building today.

Although CHIJMES is today used in a manner that is perhaps not what the buildings were originally intended for, what is nice about it is that we are now able to see and appreciate efforts placed in giving us the magnificent examples of art and architecture erected to the “greater glory of God”. There is certainly an opportunity to savour what has to be some of the best examples of European style religious architecture in the this part of the world, works that were once only seen by those who lived and went to school within the closed compound. What must certainly stand out in this respect is the former chapel, built in the gothic style complete with flying buttresses that support the spire, which was completed in 1904. The chapel’s splendid architecture is complemented by what has to be some of the best examples of the medieval art of stained glass making in this region, made by a master craftsman, a certain Jules Dobbelaere, schooled in the Bruges tradition. Burges is a city which has received a lot of attention for some of the best preserved medieval edifices, in particular the many churches and the works of stained glass that seek to leave those fortunate enough to bathe in the glow in total awe. More information on the stained glass windows in the former chapel can be found on the CHIJMES website. On thing that would really be nice if the interior of the former chapel, now a private function hall, can be made accessible to allow the general public with an opportunity to have a close up view of the magnificence of the stained glass windows.

The stained glass windows above the altar area.

Stained glass in one of the side chapels.

Close up of the Nativity scene over the former altar area.

Stained glass above the entrance.

Another pane inside the chapel.

A pane at the entrance area ...

The chapel and the Neo-Gothic gallery flanking the chapel.

The grounds are full of delights waiting to be found … that in the brick and mortar of the buildings, in the glass work as previously described, and also in some wonderful pieces of ironwork that can be found in the gates and spiral staircases that lead up to what were the primary school classrooms above the Neo-Gothic galleries that flank the chapel. It’s certainly nice to have the opportunity to be able to discover all these and to savour the treat to the eyes that, for so long, the nuns at CHIJ had kept as a secret to the world outside.

Besides the wonderful chapel ... there's a lot more delightful work to be discovered ...

particularly in the Neo-Gothic galleries flanking the former chapel ...

including some delightful ironwork ...

on the spiral staircases ...

and floor tiles ... we had similar tiles when we were in SJI.





Back to school in many ways …

9 08 2010

It was back to school for some of my old schoolmates and me yesterday. With our old school building as a focal point, we wandered around much of the area we might have in the all whites of our school uniform all those years ago, when the area was so different from what it is today. It was for us a journey not just back in time, but one in which we were able to rediscover and catch up with some of the parts of Singapore around our old school grounds that we might have once been familiar with, but have since forgotten.

The old school building served as our focal point on a walk to rediscover the areas we were once familiar with.

The walk first took us down Waterloo Street, past the mansions and buildings of old, looking grander than they would have when we were in school. Much has changed since then, memories of what had been around flooded back: the hole-in-the-wall “mama” shop around the corner of Bras Basah Road, where boys would have obtained many items including banned cigarettes came to mind; the infamous toilet block across the street of which the then sealed second level we were given to believe was used as a Japanese torture chamber …

A window in the Sculpture Square complex. Wandering around the old church building that was used as a motor workshop when we were in school opened up a window into past and present.

A vice at Sculpture Square ... perhaps a reminder of what it once had been used as ...

Arriving at what is now Sculpture Square, of which the former Middle Road Church building which during our days as schoolboys was used as a motor workshop, we stumbled upon Ngim Kum Thong’s world of Deconstruction, Destruction and Destination, in a rather interesting exhibition of contemporary art. Ngim has apparently worked with the highly regarded educator and sculptor, the late Brother Joseph McNally, founder of the LA SALLE College of the Arts and someone who as schoolboys we were very fond of, having been associated with the La Salle brothers who ran the La Salle Christian Brothers’ Schools of which St. Joseph’s Institution was a part of.  The first impression I had was that the artist’s theme seemed a little strange as most would focus on creation rather than on destruction, but wandering through the exhibits with the artist himself as a guide, one wonders if he is indeed actually making sense of how he sees the world we live in. One particular exhibit caught my attention, the Third Hand that perhaps is the unseen force that controls our lives … we “live” looking in once direction and face “evil” looking from the other … “evil” being “live” spelt backwards. Looking at it, maybe the artist is correct in his observation of things around, the inevitability of deconstruction and destruction in the destination of all that we create, in how evil can be seen to dominate how we live … still, it is all a little too abstract for me …


Deconstruction, destruction and destination ... the inevitability of life?


Evil in the eyes of the artist ...

The potential world of knowledge that is in the internet ... and what it

A third hand in our lives? We "live" and looking back ... "evil"?

Moving further, past Middle Road to the Camera Hospital at Sunshine Plaza which we used to see around Bencoolen Street where we were greeted by the bodies of old cameras that perhaps were reminiscent of those we would have been familiar with as schoolboys, we talked about what had once been there … the old Registry of Vehicles and Post Office Savings Bank headquarters and the host of sign makers we would see across the street. We then moved on to Prinsep Street … down to the newly opened LaSalle College of the Arts on the new aptly named McNally Street, unique in the sense of its clean appearance on the outsides with shape and form expressed within the clean exterior … the college is perhaps what links the past … being boys from a school that is associated with the name and the founder, the present in the sense of our brush with the works of Ngim, a student of Brother McNally, and the future … being the future that the college represents for the arts in Singapore.

LaSalle College of the Arts on McNally Street.

With the intention to make our way to the new Thieves Market near Sungei Road, close to where the original Thieves Market would have been on Sungei Road, we wandered past Albert Mall at the end of Waterloo Street. This section of Waterloo Street, now a pedestrian mall, is perhaps one of the most delightful corners of Singapore that I have stumbled upon. Crawling with devotees to the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple and Sri Krishnan Temple, street vendors and many offering services of all kinds fill the streets along with street performers, adding colour and life to the mall … a verve that is missing in much of Singapore these days.

The walk to Thieves Market took us past Albert Mall at the end of Waterloo Street.

Seen on Albert Mall, a British man who plies his trade as a traditional Chinese fortune teller ...

... and is apparently popular with the locals ...

Floral offerings are a colourful sight outside the well attended Sri Krishnan and Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temples on Waterloo Street.

Many services are also offered along the mall.


See along Albert Mall ...

Having made our way pass the mall, we took a route along the old Sungei Road, much less foul smelling than it would have been back in our schooldays towards the mentioned Thieves Market, a flea market which in the days as a schoolboy, had also been referred to by many names such as “Robinson Petang” or literally “Afternoon Robinson” (with reference to the popular Robinson’s Department Store where one could shop for just about anything), popularly amongst us schoolboys as “Sungei Road” and of course “Thieves Market” (with reference to the contraband and stolen goods that were once thought to have been sold there). That was where we could then get just about anything … my mother was fond of visiting to buy large bottles which she could then mosaic and many other used items for arts and craft which she taught in school … later in life, it was where I could get our coveralls for my stints in shipyards required by the course of study that I was doing at the Polytechnic. These days, I am told there are other thieves to be careful of … petty thefts such as pickpocketing is apparently common there. Looking at the range and quality of items on offer there, perhaps it is one place that I would give a miss in future … Next, it was across Jalan Besar … which will be covered in another post to follow …

The joke back in the days when we were schoolboys was that if you ever had a bicycle stolen ... you would be able to find it being sold at Thieves Market ... one wonders if it may still be the case today ...

Laser Discs on sale ... from not too distant a past ... but forgotten all the same.

A deal that would blow you away!





Not worth the 5 cents?

14 07 2010

Rummaging through a set of old coins, I found a few coins that I had almost forgotten about … limited circulation coins that were minted in 1971, and issued in February 1972 in conjunction with Singapore’s participation in the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) Educational Coin Programme. When the coins were first issued, it was during a time when dud or counterfeit coins were quite common and many of the older folk who received these coins as change had assumed that these were counterfeit as well, being a lighter at 1.26 grammes (although they were larger 21.23mm in diameter) as they were minted in aluminium alloy, as opposed to the smaller cupro-nickel coins (1.41 g and 16.26 mm) that were in circulation then (one of the things you would look for in trying to identify a counterfeit coin was how light it felt). The coin features a reverse side that is similar in design to the coins in circulation then, with a pomfret shown on the obverse with the words “INCREASE PRODUCTION” and “MORE FOOD FROM THE SEA” at the edges.

The aluminium alloy 5 cent coins in between the old 5 cent coins (on the left) and the ones that are currently in circulation (on the right).

When the FAO coins were issued, I suppose due to the novelty, many of my schoolmates held on to them instead of using them, and due to the limited circulation, were quite difficult to come by. I guess I must have held on to a few myself, which is why I still have a few of them around. These days the 5 cent coins in circulation are also quite distinct, having a gold coloured finish, being made of Aluminium Bronze. Slightly larger in diameter than the old cupro-nickel coins at 16.75 mm, they are also heavier at 1.56g.





Adventures with numbers

19 05 2010

No, I don’t mean math! But I did have a lot of adventures associated with numbers back in the days of my childhood. It was back when we had the likes of Stanley Kramer’s madcap It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and the lovable Volkswagen Beetle named Herbie that Disney gave us in the Love Bug (numbered 53), which perhaps laid the ground for my own adventures on wheels, or so I imagined. It was cretainly with the numbers on wheels that seemed to be the source of many an adventure then, from the ones I got with the long drives my father took us for in his Austin 1100 numbered 793 (that being the number on the car registration plate, SM 793) to the far flung corners of Singapore and to the hills and beaches that lay across the Causeway, to the adventures of my own on the minibus that carried me to school, numbered 388 (being CB 388). While sitting on the backseat (and roof) of the 793 did provide a fair bit of adventure, it was on the 388 that perhaps made life for a boy of school-going age a lot more fun, and looking back, school days at St. Michael’s School would certainly not have been complete and made all the more exciting if it wasn’t for the 388. It was on the 388 where we, the closet mischievous school boys that many of us were, could express this inclination, free from the watchful and critical eyes of our parents and teachers. There was a big adventure each day for us to look forward to; adventures through which bonds were built that have survived to this day.

On the roof of my father's SM 793, Changi Beach, early 1970s ... adventures weren't just confined to sitting on the backseat, but also on the roof. However, it was on the school bus CB 388 that I had most fun on.

For five out of the six years I spent in primary school, with the exception of Primary 4 during which my parents allowed me to venture on the public bus for the journey to school, the 388 was what carried me to and from school. There were a few occasions when I did skip taking the 388, as I did when my parents did decide to drop me off or pick me up, and that one occasion in Primary 3 when I made my way home on foot, having missed the bus (for reasons that have escaped me).

The staircase at the foot of Block 53 where the 388 would pick me up from.

The route that took me from the foot of Block 53 Toa Payoh where I lived, to St. Michael’s School each school day, brought me and my fellow passengers around much of Toa Payoh, with the last stop being the curved block (Block 157) at the corner of Lorong 1 and 2. Following this, the journey that would take us over the flyover to Jalan Toa Payoh, and out to the slip road that connected with Thomson Road non-stop to school. We would usually have to spend some time at the corner, having to wait in the traffic that often crawled into Thomson Road, during which I remember being fascinated by the comings and goings of the compound on which a zinc building stood (I can’t remember if it was built completely in zinc sheets, but it at least has a zinc roof), which gave me an impression of being used as a sawmill (or at least where wooden planks were stored), which I got from the numerous wooden planks that lay in stacks in the yard. This building occupied the little strip of land wedged between the slip road and the canalised Sungei Whampoa, on which perhaps the apartment block that occupies the space at the same corner has been built. It was from this point where our adventures would usually end, our mischievousness returning to the closets they came out from.

The area by the slip road from Jalan Toa Payoh to Thomson Road by Sungei Whampoa where the zince building stood.

Through the stops and starts of most of the journey through Toa Payoh, with the driver usually distracted by having to focus on negotiating through the busy road, and the slower speeds that the bus could travel at, we had the perfect opportunity to get away with almost anything. And got away we very often did with our weapons of mass irritation: water pistols, rubber bands and paper bullets, self-fashioned “pea-shooters” from straws with which a mouthful of green beans could be discharged through, with which we could take aim, and rain a barrage of beans, paper bullets and streams of water at unsuspecting motorists and pedestrians, from the relative security offered by the narrow windows of the minibus. There were a few occasions when, out of ammunition, some of the boys would aim a short shout of “chicken shit” or the like at a pedestrian, catching them off-guard and drawing nothing more serious than a bewildered stare. When the exercise of mischievousness did catch the eye of the driver, he did usually try to discipline us with his thin whip of rattan when traffic conditions permitted. This sometimes ended up going through the window or being broken in two. He would sometimes have to deal in the same way with the fights that often broke out between some of the boys, cheered on by the rest of the juvenile occupants of the minibus, with the cane often losing out in the same way.

Rubber Bands and Paper Bullets

Once out of Toa Payoh and onto Thomson Road, things usually settled down. For one, there was less pedestrian traffic along the short stretch of Thomson Road to school. This would also mean a relatively short journey which remained, putting us greater risk of incurring the wrath of the driver once we got to our destination. Back to our best behaviour, all we could do then was stare silently out the window, as we impatiently looked forward to getting to school where a different set of adventures would await us.

The rest of the journey down Thomson Road, which looked very different then, would be accompanied by a calm after the storm.





Macaroni under the flyover

18 05 2010

On the subject of some of our lost makan (food or eating) places, there would be many that we can collectively remember, which could be the many stalls that lined much of the old streets of Singapore, or the ones that appeared in car parks in the evenings as they emptied of their day time occupants. In an effort to clean up the streets of Singapore and to improve hygiene of street food vendors, many of the hawkers were taken off the streets in the 1970s, moved to purpose the built food or hawker centres we are familiar with these days. With the food centres, proper rubbish disposal facilities and running water could be provided, as well as well maintained food preparation areas – a huge improvement on the pushcarts that were used, where leftovers could have been tossed into the drains, and the lack of running water often meant that water for washing was often reused. One such food centre that my parents were fond of going to, being close to where we lived in Toa Payoh, was the one that my parents referred to as “Under the Flyover” along Whitley Road. This was built to house hawkers at the end of Balestier Road near its junction with Thomson Road, and came into being sometime in the 1970s.

Under the flyover which once was a bustle of food stalls and diners. The original flyover is the one on the right of the picture.

The food Centre was referred to by my parents as “Under the Flyover” as it was literally located under the flyover that connected Jalan Toa Payoh to Whitley Road (now all part of the Pan Island Expressway or PIE – the original flyover is the one that now carries the west bound traffic on the expressway). Popular particularly with taxi drivers, it was well known for the stall which sold Prawn Noodles with large prawns, and another which served Pork Porridge and Macaroni Soup, Singapore style (usually Macaroni boiled in clear chicken broth, served with shredded pieces of chicken or with minced pork). My favourite stalls there were however the one that served cut fruits, for the triangular colourful pieces of jelly that was sold, the Won Ton noodle stall and the Char Siew Rice stall.

The location of the food centre under the flyover ...

Once a haunt of diners looking to fill their stomachs with their favourite hawker fare is now a forgotten plot of emptiness under the Thomson flyover.

During the year that I was in Primary Six, and equipped with a monthly bus pass, I had the freedom of hopping on and off the public buses as and when I wanted, and as the food centre was located conveniently along the public bus route home, I could often stop over at the food centre with my schoolmates on my way home from school. We would always head straight for the cut fruit stall – for its refreshing iced pineapple juice, displayed in a clear plastic container in which cut pieces of boiled cubed pineapple could be seen at the bottom of. Another favourite of ours was the Indian convenience store that operated out of one of the units close to the entrance from the bus stop where we could pick up Shoot! and our favourite snacks.

Part of the area where the food centre was is now a heavy vehicle parking area.

The food centre remained a popular choice of my parents for dinner or a late night supper even after we had moved further away from Toa Payoh. Sadly, the food centre has gone the way of many other things I loved about Singapore, disappearing sometime in the early 1990s, and what is left in its place is an empty plot of land which is used as a heavy vehicle park, and now, not one, but two flyovers (a newer flyover was constructed to carry eastbound traffic on the PIE) cross over the what had once been the food centre that had a hand in feeding the growing appetite of my youth.





My Days in the Sun. Part 2: Epok-Epok, sports days and the marvels of MILO

4 05 2010

My second year at primary school provided me with a very different experience from the one I had in my first year. This was possibly because of two things, the first being having to attend school in the afternoon session (I had hitherto only attended school and kindergarten in the mornings); and the other was that I was able to relate much better to my fellow classmates and surroundings, having spent a year with them. While going to school in the morning session had provided me with the rest of the afternoon to finish up my homework and still have the time to have a game of football and watch Vic Morrow in Combat! after dinner, the afternoon session seemed to rob me of the day, having to spend a greater part of the morning finishing up homework and getting ready for school, with barely enough time to have an early lunch. I could on many days also squeeze a visit to my neighbour, Mr. Singh’s flat on the seventeenth storey, where for tea time promptly at four each afternoon, I would be greeted by wonderfully rich smell of strong tea being brewed and of heated ghee on chapati, as Mrs. Singh rolled the balls of dough out into flat circular shapes that was to become chapati as it heated on the flat iron pan manned by one of her daughters.

St. Michael's School has an especially large field for us to play football on.

The afternoon session, despite robbing me of much of my play time, did provide other opportunities for fun. Arriving earlier before school started than would have been possible with the morning session, did allow us to have that game of football that many of us itched to have. Playing under the gaze of the midday sun didn’t seem to cause us any discomfort as it would probably have today, and many of us would arrive for class drenched in perspiration brought about by the midday exertions, and a little too disheveled for the liking of our disapproving form teacher. This was possibly a contributing factor to it being more difficult to keep one’s concentration in the afternoons. The afternoon heat also played its part – I would sometimes feel inclined to indulge in a siesta, even though I did not have the habit of taking an afternoon nap. The afternoons seemed to drag on forever, broken only by too short a recess time during which the field rather than the tuckshop appealed to most of us. In any case, by the logic of a seven year old, the 30 cents that I got for my daily allowance would better spent on the Jolly Lolly from the ice cream vendor at the end of the day.

The end of the school day was always looked to in anticipation for most of us, not just for the release it provided from the shackles of the classroom, but for the chance to grab that tied up plastic bag of sweet coloured and flavoured cold drinks, or what is till this day, the best epok-epok (fried puffs of pastry with potato or sardine curry fillings) that I had ever sunk my teeth into. This could be when requested, filled with a generous amount of chilli sauce that made the epok-epok taste just so good! I always watched with keen interest as the epok-epok man dispensed the chilli sauce from a bottle topped with a spout, which he violently poked into the potato curry filled cavity of the epok-epok. The vendors lined the fence which ran along the edge of the car park where the school buses waited for their passengers, along the big drain, and the place always seemed to be bustling with activity, almost like a market place. There we would have had to tread carefully to avoid stepping on the foul smelling noni fruit that seemed to litter the ground. Besides ice cream, cold drinks and epok-epok, there was this man who sometimes came on a bicycle with a glass fronted tin mounted at the back of his bicycle. The tin had three compartments, each filled with keropok (crackers) of a different flavour: fish, prawn and tapioca. That I would rather spend my allowance on epok-epok rather than the keropok that everyone seemed to associate me with, is probably a testament to how good the epok-epok really was!

I was, somewhere through the year in Primary 2, conferred with the nick name of Keropok by the driver of the mini bus I took to school. He explained later that it was because I was always seen clasping a packet of keropok – my favourite being the rounded fish flavoured keropok that I still enjoy these days. My bus mates caught on to it, and would later take to chanting “Keropok, Keropok, Keropok” as the bus passed on the other side of the road before making a U-turn to pick me up.

The Sack Race was a favourite event during lower primary school sports days.

The year spent in Primary 2 was also memorable for the introduction it provided me to sports. Our Physical Education (P.E.) lessons had, in Primary 1, been something less than enjoyable. In Primary 2,  Mr. George Kheng our P.E. teacher, a keen football fan, organised the four houses into teams named after popular English clubs. There was Everton, Tottenham Hotspurs, another team which I can’t quite remember (could have been Coventry City) and Liverpool (Thomas or Blue house which I belonged to). I suppose that this contributed greatly to me supporting Liverpool Football Club. P. E. lessons besides becoming a lot more football centered, also became a lot more fun.

Relay race with a ball.

Primary 2 was a year for which Sports Day was something to look forward to. Where in Primary 1, I was caught up in the awe and excitement of the occasion, I was probably able to take it all in a little better in Primary 2. We had all kinds of events that allowed mass participation, such as the sack race and another which had us balancing an egg on a teaspoon as we raced across the field. Sports day was for many of us, best remembered for the MILO van, which seemed to be a feature of every sports day then. Somehow, sports days just wouldn’t be sports days without it being around. I can’t quite remember if it actually a van or a small truck which was opened up at the sides, but what was certain was that it always meant the little green paper cups of chilled chocolate flavoured fluid that we would gratefully quench our thirsty throats with. It certainly felt marvellous what MILO could do for us!

Ice Cold Milo served in little green paper cups was a great thirst quencher during our school sports days.





Park Lane, Mayfair and Hyde Park

29 04 2010

The mention of Park Lane and Mayfair would bring memories of the many evenings spent in my childhood playing the board game of Monopoly with the family. The two properties on the Monopoly board are of course the most expensive and sought after, guaranteed to give one an excellent chance of winning the game. Having acquired the game at Marican and Sons which was located along East Coast Road when I was maybe six or seven, it was was one of those things I were grateful to have as a child, as it was able to keep me entertained in a time when the world that did not have the distractions that the world today brings to her children. It was perhaps my favourite game, as it was one which maybe depended less on skill and age for a fair chance of winning.

It was only later in life, that I would associate Mayfair and Park Lane with the exclusive district in London of the same name. Mayfair bounded by Oxford Street to the North, Regent Street to the East, Piccadilly and Pall Mall to the South and Park Lane to the West, would be an area where I would often find myself wandering around during a sojourn in London in 1990, being close to Hyde Park (Park Lane runs along the eastern boundary of Hyde Park) and Speaker’s Corner. Well before I got to wander around the streets of London, we did have a Mayfair, Park Lane and even a Hyde Park here, close to the area where I went to school, not perhaps the exclusive areas that the parts of London they were named after, but names that were familiar to many nonetheless. We had the Mayfair Hotel along Armenian Street, Park Lane Shopping Mall built in the late 1970s, and Hyde Park Café.

The Mayfair Hotel by the time I was growing up, had been a hotel that had seen better times. Housed in an art deco styled building that has recently been refurbished along Armenian Street, the hotel opened in 1950 and was quite a decent enough establishment to play host to the BOAC (now British Airways) air crew on their stopovers. The hotel closed due to poor business in 1976, and reopened in 1979 as the New Mayfair Hotel. By that time, the hotel had become quite a sleazy place and it wasn’t too long before it closed its doors again.

The art deco building that once housed the Mayfair Hotel along Armenian Street.

A short walk from Armenian Street, down to Bras Basah Road and pass the row of now demolished shop houses that housed the well known Rendezvous Nasi Padang restaurant at the corner of Bras Basah Road and Prinsep Street and another row of now demolished shop houses that housed the Tiong Hoa Hotel along Prinsep Street, there is a quaint little row of conservation shop houses that we see today known as Prinsep Court. You will see at the end of this row, just beside what is now the Elections Department building, the Hyde Park Café. The café had its origins across Selegie Road at a shopping complex that has also seen better times, Park Lane Shopping Mall. Hyde Park Café is of course associated with a Singapore food institution, Soon Heng Fish Head Curry and was started by the daughter of the founder of Soon Heng.

The Elections Department Building along Prinsep Street.

The corner of Bras Basah Road and Prinsep Street in the 1950s (Source: national Archives of Singapore).

Selegie Road and Prinsep Street in the 1950s (Source: National Archives of Singapore).

To get to Park Lane from where Hyde Park is today, one will pass by a bright yellow coloured building at the corner of Selegie Road and Prinsep Street – this was something we always noticed from the bus – I can’t quite remember what it was used as before and I don’t quite know when it was built – perhaps one of you can enlighten me … but I am glad it still stands today as a reminder of what was once like.

The distinctive Selegie Arts Centre Building at the corner of Prinsep Street and Selegie Road.

View of Selegie Road and Prinsep Street - Park Lane Shopping Mall is on the left of the photograph.

Prinsep Court - a row of conservation shop houses.

Hyde Park Cafe.





My islands in the sun

13 04 2010

There was a time for me when my “Islands in the Sun”, borrowing the title of Harry Belafonte’s rendition of the theme song from the 1957 movie, Island in the Sun, were the group of islands that lay to the south of Singapore. I am not sure why I called them that, but I always looked forward to a trip to one of these islands, perhaps for the chance to visit Clifford Pier and descend the slippery steps to one of the boats, or perhaps for the chance to feel the sea breeze against my face as the boat chugged along the southern seas of Singapore. It more likely though, that it was the chance to sail the high seas, as my imagination would have it, to the sheltered bays of the islands that lay beyond the Roads, where the likes of Blackbeard and Captain Hook would await, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting vessel, on their brigs with the skull and crossbones fluttering atop the main mast.

The Southern Islands of Singapore were once bustling with village life. Several, including Pulau Ayer Chawan, Pulau Ayer Merbau, Pulau Merlimau, Pulau Pesek, Pulau Pesek Kecil, Pulau Sakra and Pulau Seraya in the south western group, have been joined together as Jurong Island and have ceased to exist.

That pirates once roamed the seas around the islands was once true, the islands having been the domain of the gypsies of the sea, the Orang Laut, who living off the sea. The Orang Laut, translated into “Sea People”, were known, well before Munshi Abdullah made a mention of them in his autobiography Hikayat Abdullah, in which he describes hundreds of skulls rolling at the entrance to the Singapore River, skulls which were said to belong to the victims of the priates, to turn to piracy, roaming around much of the seas of the Malay Archipelago in boats called “Perahu Pucok”, translated into “sprout boats” that doubled up as their homes. The Orang Laut had in fact been present at the time of Raffles landing on the river, and were said to have scampered at the sight of the landing party. By the time I had got to visit the seas though, piracy had been a thing of the past, suppressed largely through the efforts of a Captain Samuel Congalton of the East India Company, and remained only as a figment of a child’s overactive imagination. The Orang Laut by then, had by then, also ceased to exist as an community, having largely assimilated into the greater Malay communities of South-East Asia, the last known communities of Orang Laut being recorded in the 1960s. This included the communities who inhabited some of the southern islands such as Pulau Brani and Pulau Bukom.

My imagination aside, the southern islands of Singapore were certainly in a world apart from the one that I lived in – one may say that it is even today where one can be transported from the hustle and bustle of the island city, into the empty silence of a deserted dolled up islands, or into the huge mess of steel and concrete that is a petrochemical complex, but back then it was a different but living world, where communities of people who would in going about their day-to-day activities, give the islands a special charm.

On the slow boat to Pulau Sekijang Pelepah, 1970.

A trip I made to the islands in 1970 that I have some memories of, maybe because of the photographs that I still have, was one on which I had accompanied my mother, who being a school teacher, was taking her class on an excursion (excursions were what school children always looked forward to at the year’s end – I am not sure if they still do) to one of the islands, Pulau Sekijang Pelepah, now known as Lazarus Island. I made it a point to sit by the opened access door of the ferry to catch the salt scented wind on my face as the ferry broke through the waves stirred up by the north east monsoons. The seemingly long and slightly uncomfortable passage, which may have caused discomfort to several of the ferry’s passengers, was finally broken by the sight of the green islands that lay ahead. As the ferry approached, the wooden structures of the houses on stilts that lined the shoreline, some extending well into the sea, connected by raised wooden walkways that doubled as kelongs beneath them, came into view.

On the jetty, Pulau Sekijang Pelepah.

Arriving alongside the rickety jetty that looked as if it was about to topple over, the tide meant that we had to step out onto the slippery narrow steps that led up to the walkway above, aided by a boatman. Stepping onto the walkway, I was overcome by a sense of fear, brought about not by the pirates of my imagination, but by having to walk over the rickety walkway of the jetty, on which gaps from missing planks featured prominently, giving me a clear view of the murky sea that lay beneath the jetty.

The land’s end of the rickety jetty complete with missing planks.

Having lived mostly off the sea for generations, modern society caught up on the islanders by the time the 1970s had arrived. Many were forced to commute to Singapore to make a living and to receive their education. There was the odd primary school that was built, including one on St. John’s Island (Pulau Sekijang Bendara) – I remember a national primary school level football competition in which the team from the school I attended, St. Michael’s School, played against opponents from St. John’s Island School in the final, narrowly losing 1-2 to the islanders, but post-primary schooling had to be for all on the main island. The island villages which were run by a headman, a Penghulu, disappeared mostly in the 1970s and 1980s due to resettlement (a few were resettled earlier due to the setting up and expansion of the Shell refinery complex on Pulau Bukom), and many who had spent almost their entire lives on the islands, were forced to adapt to the confines of the small public flat.

Today, the islands are mostly uninhabited, wiped clean of the life that once existed. Many of the islands have also since disappeared, some absorbed into larger entities like Jurong Island, where a huge petrochemical complex now stands. Jurong Island through a series of land reclamations in the 1990s, joins together several islands to the south west of Singapore, including the main islands of Pulau Ayer Chawan, Pulau Ayer Merbau, Pulau Merlimau, Pulau Pesek, Pulau Pesek Kecil, Pulau Sakra and Pulau Seraya, increasing the total land area of the former individual islands there by three times.

Island village on stilts – Pulau Brani, early 20th Century.








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