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.





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.





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!





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.





The streets of the Mahallah: Middle Road, where the Doh Jin Hospital once stood

24 03 2010

Continuing on my stroll through the streets of the Mahallah from Selegie Road, I came to what would have been another of the main streets of the Mahallah, Middle Road. What we see of Middle Road today bears little resemblance to the Middle Road that I had known in the 1970s, a Middle Road that I had passed by every weekday on the bus back from school, let alone having much to suggest that it was another thriving part of what was the Jewish Quarter all those years back. There is only the David Elias building, which I had mentioned in the previous post on the streets of the Mahallah, which reminds us of this forgotten past, and nothing much else.

The former Middle Road Hospital stands next to the David Elias Building along Middle Road.

The view down the middle of Middle Road. The road bears very little resemblance to the Middle Road of the 1970s that I was familiar with. There is very little there except for the David Elias building to suggest a Jewish past.

Next to the David Elias building, stands another building that has survived the extensive renewal that Middle Road has seen in the last few decades, not a reminder of the Jewish past, but of a past associated with another ethnic group – the Japanese. The building displays the letters “SIC” prominently at the top, standing next to an empty plot of land – which one could see as a suggestion perhaps, of its previous use. The building today houses Stansfield College, a private college, associated with a previous occupant, the Singapore Institute of Commerce (SIC), which is associated with Stansfield. The building was in fact, up to 1988, one that did house sick occupants, when it was used by the Middle Road Hospital. The building had actually started its life in 1940 as the Doh Jin Hospital, to serve what was a growing Japanese community in the area. The Japanese Consulate was in fact housed nearby, in the building that became Mount Emily Girls’ Home. The hospital became the Middle Road Hospital after the war in 1945, and was referred to by a rather antiquated sounding name, the Social Hygiene Hospital. During the 1970s, I remember my parents would refer to the hospital as a “skin hospital” – it was a centre for the treatment of skin diseases. Along with skin diseases, the hospital was notorious as the centre for treatment of venereal diseases (VD), which we now referred to commonly as STDs or sexually transmitted diseases.

A sign bearing the letters "SIC" perhaps giving a indication of the history of the building? The building had started its life as the Doh Jin Hospital in 1940 and became the Social Hygiene Hospital in 1945.

Another view of what was once the Social Hygiene Hospital.

There is also a little off-shot of Middle Road between the two buildings, which ends in a cul-de-sac, where, on the side of the David Elias building, stands a rather quaint looking building (254, 256 and 258 Middle Road) with a set of bay windows, and a façade very much in the style of the David Elias building. I am not certain of what the origin of this building is. There is in fact an identical building on the reverse side facing Short Street.

Off Middle Road between the David Elias Building and the former Middle Road Hospital, a rather quaint looking house with a set of bay windows stands at the cul-de-sac.

The David Elias building as seen from the cul-de-sac. Part of it was once used as the Sun Sun Hotel. There was a Sun Sun Bar that existed then at the bottom of the hotel.

Crossing Prinsep Street, there is now the IOI Plaza and Prime Centre which stands on a stretch occupied by a row of pre-war shop houses up to the 1980s – I remember this stretch particularly well for a colourful row of three sign makers housed in a rather ramshackle looking single storey shops, sandwiched in between double storey houses. The display of signs and vehicle number plates would catch my eye along with the “Rainbow Signs” signboard on one of the shops. There is still a sign maker, Sin Lian Hua Signcrafts in the area, housed across Middle Road in Sunshine Plaza. The shop has a display, which in a muted way, is reminiscent of the displays of the original shops on Middle Road.

Prime Centre and IOI Plaza stand where a row of shop houses where the colourful displays of three sign makers caught the eye.

Display at Sin Lian Hua Signcrafts in Sunshine Plaza - reminiscent of the displays of the row of three sign makers along Middle Road.

That there was concentration of the sign makers offering vehicle number plates along that stretch of Middle Road was  possibly due to the Registry of Vehicles (ROV) that was located on the opposite side of Middle Road, where Sunshine Plaza now stands, in a compound which also contained the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank (POSB). The ROV, which is now part of the Land Transport Authority (LTA) had occupied the premises since 1948, and it was only in 1983 that the department shifted to its new premises in Sin Ming. The building which the ROV occupied had been built as a court house in 1930. The POSB also occupied the premises in Middle Road up till 1983, when it shifted to new premises built on the site of the former Catholic Centre at the corner of Queen Street and Bras Basah Road. Across Prinsep Street from Sunshine Plaza an empty plot of land now stares glaringly at the observer, where once there were more pre-war shop houses, bringing me back to Selegie Road. I don’t remember there anything notable that stood on this plot of land, except for a five storey building which stood out among the mainly two storey shop houses around it like a sore thumb. This building housed the Straits Clinic, which is now in IOI Plaza.

Sunshine Plaza stands in the plot where the compound where the ROV and POSB was once housed.

Rain in the shadow of Sunshine: A couple stands in the rain looking at the David Elias building and Stansfield College in the shadow of Sunshine Plaza.

An empty plot of land between Prinsep Street and Selegie Road, where more shop houses once stood.





The magical hill with a fairy-tale like mansion that was Mount Sophia

19 03 2010

Taking a stroll through what were once the streets of the Mahallah, I was drawn to another area close by that I had been acquainted with in my younger days, Mount Sophia. Mount Sophia, back in the days as a SJI schoolboy was a place that I would occasionally visit with a few of my friends, not for the opportunities it presented for meeting the girls who went to school atop the hill, but as a means to get to Plaza Singapura, inaccessible then through Handy Road. The journey we took to Plaza Singapura would take us up the “100 steps” – a long flight of steps behind Cathay cinema which brought up to the top of the hill, also referred to by some as the “99 steps”. This would bring us right up close with Methodist Girls’ School (MGS), an area from where we would be able cross over to one of the upper floors of the multi-storey car park at the back of Plaza Singapura.

The rebuilt "100 steps" to the former magical world of Mount Sophia as it is today.

The former Methodist Girls' School atop Mount Sophia.

There were a few occasions that we chose to wander around the hill, the streets of which were lined with delightful villas and houses – many of which have since disappeared. I was of course previously acquainted with the area – my father had on several occasions, taken me swimming at Mount Emily Swimming Pool, Singapore’s first public swimming pool, built on the site of a municipal reservoir in 1930 on adjoining Mount Emily, which has also since, vanished without a trace. The area where the pool was is now part of the extended Mount Emily Park. It was certainly nice then to re-acquaint myself with the area, which seemed in my childhood, to be a like a magical hill where a fairy-tale like mansion of a very wealthy man had stood.

Another view of the former MGS.

An old Singapore Coat of Arms appears at the entrance to Mount Emily Park.

Mount Emily Park offers a peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of the city below the hill.

A lady in Punjabi dress stares into the space that was the Mount Emily Swimming Pool, the dome of the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Sikh Temple in the background.

An early timetable for Mount Emily Swimming Pool (c. 1930s).

Walking around Mount Sophia today, one is greeted by a mix of the old and new … the old seemingly overshadowed by the taller structures of the apartment blocks that have replaced the stately homes of which, many had belonged or had been lived in by the more successful Jewish immigrant families. It would have been convenient for these families to live in what was an upper and middle class area located just by the Mahallah, where many would have conducted their businesses and gone about their day-to-day activities. The girls’ school, MGS, on top of Mount Sophia was also where many would have sent their daughters to.

New apartment blocks being put up against the backdrop of the older structures on Mount Sophia.

Of the buildings that still exist, several have had connections to this past. On Wilkie Road, at the corner of Niven Road, we can see a delightful apartment block, the Sophia Flats, built in 1930, on the edge of the old Mahallah. This is where one of the prominent members of the local Jewish community, Frank Benjamin, had lived after the war. Frank’s father Judah had owned a thriving textile business and the family lived in a big house on Adis Road prior to the war. Returning from Bombay after the war, the Benjamin family moved to the more modest lodgings at the Sophia Flats. This was also where Frank set up an office to trade office stationery and photographic equipment in 1959, a business which has since grown into the international fashion retailer company F J Benjamin is today. F J Benjamin is associated with names such as Guess?, Banana Republic, La Senza, Céline, GAP and Girard-Perregaux, presently and had at one time held the license for names such as Gucci and Lanvin.

Sophia Flats, built in 1930, was where Frank Benjamin had lived in after the war and set up his first office in 1959.

At 81 Wilkie Road, there is also the Abdullah Shooker Welfare Home, housed in a bungalow once owned by an Iraqi Jew, Abdullah Shooker, who had come over to work in the offices of Manasseh Meyer, before opening his own successful business. Abdullah passed away in 1942 whilst being interned by the Japanese, bequeathing his bungalow for use as a home for the destitute in the community.

The Abdullah Shooker Welfare Home at 81 Wilkie Road.

There are also several other notable buildings that still stand, including several former schools: the buildings that were the MGS atop the hill alongside the former Trinity Theological College, the former Nan Hwa Girls’ High School at the corner of Sophia Road and Adis Road, and the former San Shan Chinese School off Mount Sophia – just down from the former Trinity Theological College. A mansion that was once used as the Mount Emily Girls’ Home, which is now Emily Hill, an arts centre, stands at the end of Upper Wilkie Road. One girls’ school that is still functioning at Mount Sophia is St. Margaret’s Primary School.

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

The buildings that used to be part of the Trinity Theological College on top of Mount Sophia.

The former San Shan Chinese School off Mount Sophia.

The former Mount Emily Girls' Home - now an arts centre.

There are several wonderful buildings, the stuff of fairy tales perhaps, that have sadly disappeared. One such building was the magnificent villa that belonged to Eu Tong Sen, Eu Villa that once dominated the landscape in the area – which as schoolboys we could get a glimpse of atop the high retaining wall just next to Peace Centre from where Wilkie and Sophia Roads met near the Sophia Flats. Eu Villa was in 1915, constructed on the site of Adis Lodge which, when it was built in 1907, was said to be one of the most magnificent mansions east of the Suez. Adis Lodge was owned by Nassim Nassim Adis, the owner of Hotel de L’Europe and sold to Eu Tong Sen in 1912. Another magnificent mansion that has vanished, was one owned by M. J. Nassim at 89 Wilkie Road.

Eu Villa - the magical home of Eu Tong Sen (Source: http://www.singapedia.com.sg).

Nestled amongst the magnificent buildings were several places of worship which still stand. These include the Church of Christ at the junction of Sophia and Wilkie Roads and the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Sikh Temple on Wilkie Road (the temple is now housed in a new building built in 1983 next to the older house next to it that was used as a temple from 1932). The buildings that we still see and those that now tower over the old mansions, schools and houses of worship, are certainly not the buildings that fairy-tales are made of. For that, I suppose, there is that fairy-tale like atmosphere that we can now find in Singapore – not up a magical hill, but on an island called Sentosa ….

The Sri Guru Singh Sabha Sikh Temple (1983) on Wilkie Road.

Old Building belonging to the Sikh Temple which was used as the temple from 1932 to 1983.

Information plaque of the building belonging to the Sikh Temple.

Afternote:

This photograph (click on link) on the Memories of Singapore site provides a good idea of the area in the 1960s. It would have been some time after Selegie House and Selegie School came up in 1963 as these are clearly visible in the photograph. Eu Villa stands out just to the right of Cathay Building and it is not hard to appreciate how the villa would have stood out on Mount Sophia before Peace Centre was built.





Before the calculator …

5 03 2010

These days, we have become so used to computers, mobile devices and hand held or calculators for our day-to-day activities, so much so that some of us may have forgotten how we got by doing the more complex calculations back in those days where the hand held calculator did not exist. I myself had almost forgotten this myself until I dug up a book which accompanied me during my secondary school days and when I sat for my “O” level examinations: a book of Logarithmic Tables or the “Log Book” as we used to refer to it in school. I am not sure how long they were used for, but by the time my sister was sitting for her “O” level examinations, she had already been using a hand-held calculator to help with the more complex multiplications, divisions, and trigonometric calculations.

Front and Back Covers of the "Log Book" that I used.

I think most of us back then had a wonderful time with it … some probably used it to sneak in mathematical formula for the exams. The Log Book actually helped many of us to appreciate some of the mathematical concepts better such as the use of logarithms and interpolation (of which we had to master to be able to successfully make use of the Log Book), where these days we are used to having numbers appear at the touch of a button without really putting much thought into it.

Contents of the Log Book.

Instructions on how to use the Log Book.

Complex multiplications (or divisions) could be done by converting numbers into a logarithm, being the exponent that a base number is raised to give the number. This simplified multiplications and divisions as the exponent could then be added or subtracted and the resultant being reconverted back (antilogarithm) to a number. There were also tables for sines, cosines and tangents as well as for square roots and hyperbolic functions in the Log Book. I know it sounds like a tedious process but it made a world of difference when access to a calculator was limited.

Table of Logarithms.

Table of Antilogarithms.

Table of Logarithms of Sines.

Table of Cosines.

Table of Square Roots.





Smokey’s and a Red House: Memories of Victoria Street from Bras Basah to Middle Road

28 02 2010

For the SJI schoolboy in the late 1970s, Victoria Street offered an appealing escape from the boredom of the classroom. It was not just for the two convent schools that stradled the ends of the stretch of Victoria Street in question (from Bras Basah Road to Middle Road), but also for the other distractions to the classroom that was on offer. The area around the corner of Bras Basah Road was perhaps where we were most familiar with. As we made our way from school or from the bus stop in front of the City Music outlet on Bras Basah Road roughly where the NTUC Income Centre is today, we would come to this corner where the window display of test tubes, beakers and laboratory supplies of the Central Medical Hall which occupied the corner unit of Victoria Building never failed to catch my eye.

A building belonging to the Singapore Management University stands in place of the two storey Victoria Building at the corner of Bras Basah Road and Victoria Street. The Central Medical Hall occupied the corner unit of the Victoria Building.

Around the medical hall, was the row of shops that included a coffee shop that we dubbed as “Smokey’s”, where many of us grabbed a cup of tea in the morning, motivated by the steady stream of convent school girls that dropped in on their way to school. I never found out why we called it Smokey’s and I understand that there were sumptuous beef brisket noodles on offer there, not that I noticed it then. Perhaps we did not have the time to dwell on all that, with the distractions offered by the comings and goings that we observed over the steaming hot cups of tea.

Two rows of steel pillars now lines the row where Smokey's and the Shanghai Bookstore was.

Tea was always served piping hot there, in the thick walled kopi-tiam (coffee shop) cups and saucers of old, complete with green motifs and hairline cracks in the baked porcelain that appeared through the glazing. This offered us the opportunity to observe world within the confines of the white tiled walls of the coffee shop, across the marble table tops and wooden chairs typical of the coffee shops of old.

Further down the row, perhaps at the end of Victoria Building, was the Shanghai bookstore, with its two storeys of Chinese books, smelling as a bookstore of those days did – a smell that I can still recall to this day. The second floor of the shop had a stationery section where many of the white uniformed boys of SJI could be seen, cooling off in the coolest part of the air-conditioned bookshop.

The Shanghai Bookstore was a popular hangout.

A few doors away from the bookstore, the Victoria Hotel stood. Next to the lobby on the ground floor of the hotel, there was another place that offered respite from the heat – one of the few air-conditioned chicken rice restaurants in those days, the Victoria Restaurant, which was quite popular with Singaporeans, seeking an cooler dining alternative from the more popular Swee Kee Restaurant on nearby Middle Road.

The Victoria Restaurant on the ground floor of the Victoria Hotel was popular for its Chicken Rice and Air-conditioned premises.

The Victoria Restaurant was located on the ground floor of the Victoria Hotel.

The stretch where the Shanghai Book Store and the Victoria Restaurant was.

Further along, there was the Hotel New Hong Kong, which became the Hotel Tai-Pan when I went to school. This is where the Allson Hotel now stands. Next door to this is the rectory building of St. Joseph’s Church and the entrance to the compound which holds the Church, St. Anthony’s Boys School and St. Anthony’s Convent, before the junction with Middle Road.

The rectory of St. Joseph's Church along Victoria Street.

St. Joseph's Church as seen from Victoria Street.

St. Anthony's Convent (see here from Middle Road with the National Library in the background) used to look across Victoria Street to the Empress Hotel.

The view of St. Anthony's Convent in the 1950s from a similar vantage point.

My own memories of the area on the other side of the road, where the brand new National Library building now stands, are rather vague and on this I have been helped out by a reader Greg Lim, who lived in the area in the 1950s, as well as by my mother who was a boarder at St. Anthony’s Convent in the late 1940s and the 1950s. There was the Empress Hotel which stood at the corner, which was apparently known for its mooncakes. My mother describes a sign that she remembered, standing out of the hotel building, proclaiming that the “Queen of Mooncakes” was sold there. My mother describes the hotel as being a rather seedy place, to which the nuns at the convent forbade the boarders and orphans whose windows in the boarding house across the street from the hotel faced, to look at. Greg also mentions that the six storey Empress Hotel was also notorious for being a location that was popular with people attempting to commit suicide.

The National Library Building now dominates the area bounded by Middle Road, Victoria Street, North Bridge Road and Bain Street and stands where the Empress Hotel, Lorong Sidin and Holloway Lane once stood.

Holloway Lane in 1958 (Source: Ray Tyers Singapore Then & Now).

Moving on this side of the street back towards Bras Basah Road, there were two streets there which have since disappeared, Lorong Sidin and Holloway Lane, still within the parcel of land on which the National Library is built on. Both were lined with rows of shophouses. The area is described by Greg as being referred to as the Hylam streets, a reference to the Hainanese families and businesses that dominated the area. The area also featured many furniture shops, and my mother says that an uncle of mine had bought his first set of furniture from the area.

Bain Street today - devoid of the vibrancy that the area was once know for.

Bain Street on which Greg lived, which is still there, running along Bras Basah Complex, as Greg describes was dominated by a four storey building named Victoria Court, at the junction with Victoria Street. On the ground floor, there was a furniture shop called Comfort Furniture and on the opposite corner, there was a shop that made mattresses. Bras Basah complex, which was built in 1980, was built in the area between the once vibrant Bain, Cashin, Carver and Miller Streets that were known for bookshops and hawker food. The complex itself housed many of the bookshops and watch dealers that were moved out of Bras Basah Road and North Bridge Road areas. Greg mentions that most shops along Victoria Street were furniture shops. Bain St as Greg notes was famous for Hainanese coconut pastry and beef noodles in black sauce. Miller Street is dominated by the Siakson building and with Carver Street, served as the main access for many of us heading to Odeon Cinema which was along North Bridge Road – that was where I watched Star Wars in 1977.

Bras Basah complex, which was built in 1980, was built in the area between the once vibrant Bain, Cashin, Carver and Miller Streets that were known for bookshops and hawker food.

The Siakson Building dominates Miller Street.

The spiral staircase of the Siakson Building.

Past Miller Street, right at the end of this stretch of Victoria Street at the junction with Bras Basah Road, where the Carlton Hotel now stands, was the well known red painted shophouse that housed the popular Red House Bakery and Cafe which was popular which many students for the reasonably priced set meals on offer.

The corner where the Red House was.


Added on 14 April 2010:

Victoria Street c.1981. The four storey building would be Victoria Court which was at the corner of Victoria and Bain Streets. The HDB block of flats in the background is Bras Basah complex (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).






The far side of the hill

25 02 2010

The far side of Fort Canning Hill, as far as the schoolboys from SJI were concerned, was the area where the southern and western slopes of the hill were. It was an area that we would usually pass through on our jogs around the hill during Physical Education lessons (P.E.) – or on our way to River Valley Swimming Pool for the occasional swimming practice for our P.E. This was also how we could get across from school to watch the annual Thaipusam procession, which would make its way along Tank Road to its destination at the Sri Thandayuthapani Temple (also known as the Chettiar Temple).

The Sri Thandayuthapani Temple as seen from the foot of the western slope of Fort Canning Hill. Also known as the Chettiar Temple, the temple serves as the end point of the annual Thaipusam procession in Singapore.

The western slope which faces Clemenceau Avenue and Tank Road was an area which we would usually try to avoid – several of us had “close encounters” with the boys from the school facing the slope on Tank Road, Tuan Mong High School, which was housed in the distinctive Teochew Building. The Teochew Building built in the early 1960s on the site of the former Tuan Mong High School building, besides housing the school, also housed the Teochew clan associations: Ngee Ann Kongsi and the Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan, as well as the Ngee Ann College, the predecessor to Ngee Ann Polytechnic, when it was established in 1963, for a while until 1968.

The Teochew Building housed Tuan Mong High School, Ngee Ann Kongsi and the Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan, as well as the Ngee Ann College.

Tank road is also home to the Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart, built in the French Gothic style, which was completed in 1910. The church built by the French Catholic missionaries for the Cantonese and Hakka community, was designed by a Rev. Fr. Lambert who was apparently a well-known architect. Interestingly, the site of the church is also close to Singapore’s first railway station: the terminal station of the first railway line running from Kranji to Tank Road built in 1903. The station was demolished around 1939 when the line was dismantled. Drawn perhaps by the concise sermon and perhaps due to the proximity of the newly opened Japanese departmental store, Yaohan, at Plaza Singapura (which opened in 1974), my parents were fond of bringing us for mass at the church on Saturday evenings. We did this for a few years until 1977/78, and would visit Plaza Singapura for dinner and for a walk around the supermarket after mass.

Church of the Sacred Heart along Tank Road.

The Church of the Sacred Heart painted brown in 1976.

Another view of Tank Road in front of the Church of the Sacred Heart in 1976. The shophouse on the left has since disappeared - the Oxley flyover and the Haw Par Glass Tower can be seen in the background.

The southern slope of Fort Canning Hill runs along River Valley Road. This was where four landmarks were located: the National Theatre, Van Kleef Aquarium, River Valley Swimming Pool and the Hill Street Police Station at the end, where River Valley Road meets up with Hill Street. Of these, possibly the two most loved ones, the National Theatre and the Van Kleef Aquarium have since disappeared, and the River Valley Swimming Pool sits disused, quietly awaiting its end.

An aerial view of the southern slope of Fort Canning Hill along River Valley Road in the 1960s on an old postcard.

The area would have been dominated by the National Theatre standing prominently at the foot of the hill where Clemenceau Avenue and River Valley Road met. This served as a proud symbol of self-reliance, being designed by a Singapore architect, Alfred Wong in a design competition. The construction of the 3420 seat open air theatre was jointly funded by the Singapore government and the public and the theatre was opened in 1964.

National Theatre located at the foot of Fort Canning Hill at the corner of Clemenceau Avenue and River Valley Road. The theatre was demolished in 1986 after it was found to be structurally unsound.

The theatre building was notable for a few features, including a 150 tonne cantilevered steel roof reaching to the slopes of Fort Canning. The façade featured a five pointed diamond shaped patterns, each of which represented one of the five stars on the Singapore flag. An outdoor fountain stood in front yard of the building, representing the crescent moon on the Singapore flag. The theatre had to be unceremoniously demolished in 1986 after it was found to be structurally unsound.

Another view of the National Theatre as seen on the cover of a photo album.

A reminder now stands at the site of the former National icon.

The area where the National Theatre once dominated the landscape.

Next to the theatre was one of my favourite places in the 1960s, the Van Kleef Aquarium. The Van Kleef Aquarium was built in the 1950s with funds bequeathed by a Karl Willem Benjamin van Kleef, a successful Dutch businessman who had settled in Singapore, who passed away in 1930 after returning to the Netherlands in 1913, hence the name of the aquarium. When the aquarium opened in 1955, it was one of the most impressive aquariums in the world. The building designed by the local municipal architects, was in itself, an impressive feat of engineering. It featured two underground reservoirs from which water could be pumped to the tanks housing the exhibits by a system of pumps. This was where I had my first glance of beautifully coloured marine fish, including the Lion Fish which was my favourite. While increasing interest in the first 25 years saw visitor numbers to the aquarium peak at 430,000 visitors in the 1979, interest waned in the 1980s, with visitor numbers falling to some 248,000 visitors in 1985, as newer attractions such as the zoo and the bird park became more fashionable. With the opening of Underwater World in Sentosa in 1991, a decision was made to close the aquarium. It finally closed its doors in 1996, and the building was demolished in 1998.

Van Kleef Aquarium seen on an old postcard.

Evidence of the staircase from Fort Canning Hill beside the former Van Kleef Aquarium.

A path along River Valley Road that led up to the Van Kleef Aquarium now leads to a grassy slope.

Next to the Van Kleef Aquarium, the River Valley Swimming Complex was built in the late 1950s by the Singapore City Council. It was designed by a British architect, M. E. Crocker and was opened in 1959. The Olympic sized pool was one of the pools we used as schoolboys for P.E. alternating with the one at the then SAF NCO club in Beach Road. Little did we know it then, but the complex was a haunt of men of an alternative orientation. The complex was closed in 2003.

The entrance area of the River Valley Swimming Complex.

The life guard post of the disused swimming complex as seen through the entrance.

The exit turnstile of the former River Valley Swimming Complex.

Further along the foot of the hill along River Valley Road, the magnificent Neo-Classical styled Hill Street Police Station building. The building was designed by the Public Works Department and when completed in 1934, it was the largest government building on the island. The building features a courtyard which served as a parade ground and has a total of 911 windows. The building housed Singapore’s earliest jail, as well as housing the police station and serving as the living quarters for police personnel. The Kempeitai was said to have used the building as a prison and torture chamber during the Japanese Occupation. The building was used by the police unitl 1980, and the National Archives used the building from 1983, before the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA) which now occupies the building moved in. One of the things that I clearly remember about the building was a sign which stuck out above a doorway on River Valley Road that I always made a point of looking out for when I was a boy of maybe 5 or 6. The sign had the words “Officers’ Mess” on it, and I was comforted in the knowledge that I wasn’t the only person around who lived with a “mess”! It was only when I was a little older that I came to realise what a “Mess” in that context was.

The magnificent neo-classical styled former Hill Street Police Station building which now houses MICA.

Possibly the door above which the "Officers' Mess" sign once stuck out from.

The building has been since renamed as the Hill Street Building and now sports brightly coloured windows.


Some pictures taken inside the old National Theatre during the SJI 125th Anniversary Celebrations in 1977:

National Theatre Staircase

SJI 125th Anniversary Celebrations at the National Theatre in 1977


An old postcard showing Tank Road Station:





Beautiful buildings and a tale of buried treasure under a bridge: Memories of Stamford Road

21 02 2010

I loved passing through Stamford Road as a child. This was the road that started with the sight of a needle like structure that is the Civilian War Memorial, rising up where Nicoll Highway and Connaught Drive merged, close to where the Satay Club and that semi-circular hawker centre at the end of the Esplanade were located. The brilliant white needle like structure for me evoked a sense of mystery, looking as if it was a rocket destined for the moon, or perhaps, put there by visitors from another world to serve as an observation post. The structure actually comprises four pillars rising each representing the four main race groups is dedicated to civilians who perished during the Japanese occupation, and was unveiled on 15 February 1967, the 25th anniversary of the fall of Singapore.

The Civilian War Memorial.

A new "needle" the 73 storey Swissôtel The Stamford now towers over the original across Beach Road. When it was built in 1986, the then Westin Stamford was the World's tallest hotel.

The old and the new. The 68m tall Civilian War Memorial at War Memorial Park was completed in 1967 is dwarfed by the 226m Swissôtel The Stamford.

Back then, the now undercover Stamford Canal, which runs parallel to Stamford Road, was open for all to see. On the canal side of the road, bridges over the canal could be found at the intersections of the roads that ran perpendicular to Stamford Road, with names such as Polglase Bridge (on North Bridge Road) and Malcolm Bridge (on Victoria Street). I remember an interesting story about Polglase Bridge sometime in the mid 1970s. An elderly lady sparked off a frantic dig for buried treasure on the bank of the canal underneath the bridge, after relating how while hiding under the bridge during the Japanese occupation, she had witnessed Japanese soldiers forcing some civilians to bury what she thought was gold there – I am not sure if anything was found.

The junction with Beach Road would have been the first intersection along Stamford Road heading north – this would be where the white-washed St. Andrew’s Cathedral would stare at me from the left, and, over the Stamford Canal, the buildings that housed Raffles Institution (RI) before it moved to Grange Road in 1972. For a while the disused buildings stood there looking somewhat tired and abandoned until it was demolished at the end of the 1970s to make way for the I.M. Pei designed Raffles City complex.

Saint Andrew's Cathedral as seen from Stamford Road.

The former Raffles Institution as seen from Beach Road, 1975 (Photo source: Ray Tyers Singapore Then & Now).

Stamford Road in 1976 at the junction with Beach Road. On the area on the right of the picture now stands Raffles City (Photo source: Ray Tyers Singapore Then & Now).

The same junction today with the Swissôtel The Stamford towering over the area.

My favourite stretch of the road began at the junction with North Bridge Road. This was of course where Capitol Building stood, with its façade dominated by a colourful hand-painted canvas mural which brightly advertised what was being screened at the cinema theatre that stood hidden behind the building. The building itself was put up in 1933 and was designed in eclectically in a neo-Classical style. Capitol is in fact one of the five iconic cinema buildings that were featured in a stamp set “Cinema Theatres of Yesteryear” issued by Singpost in 2009, and would deserve more detailed mention in a post on its own.

Capitol building with its façade dominated by a colourful hand-painted canvas mural featuring what was being screened at the cinema that stood hidden behind the building (Photo courtesy of Mr Derek Tait).

Capitol Building today.

The building housing the actual cinema hidden behind the Capitol Building.

This stretch that brings us past the junction with Victoria Street right up to the junction with Armenian Street and Queen Street also featured some wonderful examples of architecture on the left-hand side: Stamford House, Eu Court and the MPH Building. Stamford House, next to Capitol Building, stands at the junction of Stamford Road built in the Venetian Renaissance-style in the early 1900s, was originally the Oranjie Building, and for a while was the Oranjie Hotel in 1930s. The art deco styled Eu Court across Hill Street from Stamford House was built in the late 1920s as an apartment block. Sadly the beautiful building was demolished in 1992 to make way for the widening of Victoria and Hill Streets, being replaced by Stamford Court, a building that seems out of sync with the architecture of the area, sticking out like a sore thumb. MPH building, which was built in 1908 in an Edwardian commercial street style is one that I frequently visited and have fond memories of, housed the MPH bookstore until 2003.

A refurbished Stamford House as seen from the junction of Stamford Road and Victoria Street.

Stamford Court (on the left) sticking out like a sore thumb at the junction of Hill Street and Stamford Road was built over the site of the former Art Deco Styled Eu Court.

Over the canal on the canal side of the street at the section between North Bridge Road and Victoria Streets was the walled compound of the Holy Infant Jesus Convent (CHIJ). A three storey building lined the canal behind the wall. This housed the convent’s secondary school. Looking up on the background of the area, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this was built on the site of what were several bungalows which once were used by a Hotel van Wijk, established to serve Dutch travellers to Singapore in the early 1900s. The bungalows were taken over by the convent in 1933 when the hotel ceased operations, and were used to house St. Nicholas Girls School. The three storey building replaced the bungalows in the early 1950s. In the place of the building, the SMRT headquarters now stands, another building that seems to destroy the character of the area. Along the next stretch, another girls school – the Raffles Girls School was located over the canal between Victoria and Queen Streets. A building belonging to the Singapore Management University (SMU) now stands in its place.

The bungalows that housed the Hotel van Wijk were demolished to make way for a three storey building which housed the CHIJ secondary school in the early 1950s (Photo source: Ray Tyers Singapore Then & Now).

The SMRT Headquarters stands in place of the CHIJ Secondary School Building at the site of the former Hotel van Wyjk.

Past the junction with Armenian Street and Queen Street, the was a row of shop houses on the left – one of the shops there dealt with crocodile skin products and had a glass display of bags, boots, shoes, wallets and a stuffed crocodile, one that I could not help but peer at every time I waited for a bus at the bus stop which was in front of the row of shops. This is the stretch that led up to the iconic red brick National Library building, which sadly, modern Singapore has no place for. The library which closed in 2004 and the stretch of road just that led up towards the end of Stamford Road where the National Museum is has since been swallowed up by the Fort Canning Tunnel. Stamford Road being realigned around the tunnel as a result of this, meeting up with a part of the original stretch in front of the National Museum to where the road ends at Bencoolen Street and Fort Canning Road.

The red-brick National Library building along Stamford Road (Source: National Library http://www.nl.sg)

Left as a reminder of the former National Library, the red-brick posts that stood at the entrance to the library.

Fort Canning Link leading up to the newly constructed Fort Canning Tunnel runs over what used to be the stretch of Stamford Road that led to the National Library.

Fort Canning Link leading up to the Fort Canning Tunnel swallowing up the stretch of Stamford Road that ran past the National Library. Evidence of the bus stop in the form of a bus bay from where I caught service number 166 home still exists. The area along the lower left of the picture along the road used to be lined with a row of shop houses.

Another view of Fort Canning Link.

On the canal side, there was of course the SJI school field between Queen Street and what was Waterloo Street. The basketball court was located at this end of the field and there was a story that circulated then that involved the ghost of a person who was said to have hanged himself at the posts of the basketball court there. I seem to remember that there was a car park on the canal side on the stretch from Waterloo Street to Bencoolen Street, filling the space between the former CYMA and the canal.

The neo-classical National Museum Building was completed in 1887 and marks the end of Stamford Road.

Looking up from the junction where Stamford Road merged into a disjointed section of Orchard Road then, there was a beautiful mansion like building that was the YMCA that would stare at you. The building had served as the headquarters of the Japanese Kempetai during the Second World War and we were told it held prisoners who were tortured by the Kempetai, the much feared Military Police. The old YMCA building which had the distinction of a being at No. 1, Orchard Road, sadly has had to make way for the newer, bigger and more modern premises of the YMCA, being demolished in 1981.

The beautiful old YMCA building on 1 Orchard Road (Photo source: YMCA Singapore).





Schools, churches and a candlelight procession: Memories of Queen Street

18 02 2010

As a schoolboy in Saint Joseph’s Institution (SJI), the sections of Queen Street that I was most familiar with were the two sections of the street closest to the school. These were the stretches that ran southwards past the Cathedral towards the Armenian Street end which led to the MPH book store, and the other that ran along the school canteen northwards towards the junction with Middle Road.

The part of the street that I most saw was of course the southern section, the all important route to MPH, the bus stop along Stamford Road to catch bus service number 166 home, the National Library, and the little place by the library where there were a few hawker stalls including a wan ton noodle stall and ice kacang. This ran from the Cathedral, past the Cathedral Rectory, the little garden with stone tables and chairs by the Rectory and grounds of the primary section of Raffles Girls School on the east side of the street, before coming to a little road bridge over the then open Stamford Canal at the junction with Stamford Road. On the west side of the street, was the fence of the SJI school field along which there was a row of trees from which flying foxes were frequently constructed by the scouts. The footpath along the fence would be the route to Fort Canning Hill for the occasional jog or cross country training held during P.E. lessons, which many of us returning from the jogs would use to race in a mad dash to the junction with Bras Basah Road.

The Armenian Street end of Queen Street in 1976 (looking at Armenian Street at the junction with Stamford Road). Notice the bridge over the then open Stamford Canal which you don't see today (Photo source: Ray Tyers Singapore Then and Now).

The view southwards today toward Armenian Street.

The site of the former Raffles Girls School (RGS) on what was Queen Street (now a section of the realigned Stamford Road with the construction of the Fort Canning Tunnel) near the junction with Stamford Road. The building that stands on the site is part of the Singapore Management University (SMU) campus. The wide walkway that can be seen on the bottom right of the photograph runs over what used to be an open Stamford Canal

The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd along Queen Street.

A view of the south end of Queen Street looking North. Buildings belonging to the SMU campus stands where the SJI field was on the left and RGS on the right.

The next section of the street was where the building that housed the Brother’s quarters on the upper floors and the school canteen on the ground floor ran along. On the street side of the building there was a little door which the canteen stall holders would use to enter and exit the canteen. It was through this door that outsiders could make purchases from the canteen, with Char Kway Teow and Mee Siam being a popular choice. The Mee Siam seller also parked his cart next to the door, on which he would load his pot of gravy onto at the end of each day and continue his business along the streets.

The Brothers Quarters of SJI along Queen Street (as seen from the courtyard inside the school). The ground floor of the block housed the school canteen which had a back door to Queen Street from which outsiders make food purchase through. The Mee Siam seller parked his cart next to the door (Photo source: SJI 125th Anniversary Magazine).

Opposite the Brother’s quarters on the east side, there was the Kum Yan Methodist Church (which is still there) and the buildings that housed the Catholic High School, part of which was also housed across the street in the compound of the “Chinese Church”, the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul. Further along the west side there was this tall narrow building which housed Stamford College, a private college which was popular with students sitting for their GCE “A” Level examinations privately, which is now used as the Oxford Hotel. Sited next to this building was the Stamford Community Centre and its compound. With some of my schoolmates, desperate for a place to kick a ball around before school, I had on occasion, climbed over the gate which was opened only in the evenings to have our game of street football on the basketball court.

The former Catholic High School building.

The building that housed Stamford College.

The former Stamford Community Centre. I had climbed over the gate a few times with several of my classmates to play street football on the basketball court.

Close to the junction with Middle Road on the east side of the street is where the back entrance is to the beautiful St. Joseph’s Catholic Church which is also known as the Portuguese church, having been established by the Portuguese missionaries . The church was run by the Diocese of Macau up to 1999 when it was handed over to the Archdiocese of Singapore. Within the compound of the church, were St. Anthony’s Convent and St. Anthony Boys School. My memories of the church deserves mention in another post, but the reason I have brought the church up is that having been run in the Portuguese tradition, many of the practices have endured and on Good Friday every year, a candlelight procession is held in the church compound. Besides the participants within the compound, there would be many others who would gather beyond the wall of the church on Queen Street with tall lighted candles in hand. This evenings on Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday) and Good Friday would probably be the time of the year when these two stretches of Queen Street comes to life. Besides the procession, on Good Friday where many candle vendors and hawkers would line the street, on Maundy Thursday when many local Catholics practice visiting of churches to say prayers, with the concentration of Catholic churches along the street, the street would be bustling with people as well as hawker stalls.

The beautiful Portuguese Church (St. Joseph's Church).

The building on the right housed St. Anthony's Boys School within the compound of the Portuguese Church.

The buildings that housed St. Anthony's Convent within the compound of the Portuguese Church.





Where you could once have your car fixed in a church: Memories of Waterloo Street

13 01 2010

I have memories aplenty of Waterloo Street from my days spent as a school boy on Bras Basah Road. At the south end between Stamford and Bras Basah Roads, which was the perhaps the most happening part of the street for us school boys, were, of course, the “sarabat stalls” that most people of my generation would remember. It was in this row of food and drink stalls where arguably, the best Indian Rojak in Singapore could be found. It was also the place to go for my favourite plate of Mee Rebus and where I could get my craving for an ice cold refreshment satisfied at the end of a hot day as I made my way to the bus stop from which I caught the Blue Arrow semi-express bus home. There was also the CYMA compound in which there was a basketball court where we would sometimes play our version of street football, without a goalkeeper, in which we made use of the posts supporting the basketball hoop as goal posts (which we referred to as “small goal posts”), and where a dog named Mani did a fair share of barking at us. This street in this area has since disappeared, converted into pedestrian walkway beside a building belonging to the Singapore Management University (SMU) which stands in place of the former CYMA building and compound.

The end of the road: The intersection of Waterloo Street with Bras Basah Road is now a T-junction. It used to be a four way junction which would have lead to the branch between Bras Basah and Stamford Roads where the "Sarabat" Stalls were located.

The Singapore Management University (SMU) stands where the CYMA building once stood

The area where the "Sarabat" Stalls were located and the bus stop from which I took the bus home from is now a pedestrian walkway beside a building of the SMU

It was on the next section of Waterloo Street where I had a close encounter with the undercarriage of a car – at the junction with Bras Basah Road, where on one rainy day when I was in Secondary 2, a decision to make a dash across from the five-foot way of the shop houses where the Plaza by the Park building is today, almost resulted me being run over by a car. This stretch from Bras Basah Road towards Middle Road was perhaps the quietest part of the street, occupied by a synagogue and several dilapidated pre-war bungalows on the east side of the street.

The junction of Waterloo Street and Bras Basah Road looking very different from when I had a close encounter with an undercarriage of a car

Plaza By The Park stands at the junction of Waterloo Street and Bras Basah Road in place of the row of bookshops and sporting goods shops

The synagogue, the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, built in 1878, is apparently the oldest Synagogue in South East Asia, a fact which escaped me back then, and stands close to the junction with Bras Basah Road. We referred to it as the “Synagogue on Waterloo Street”. Opposite the synagogue just behind the former SJI which is now the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) stands a Catholic place of worship: the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, which was referred to as the “Chinese Church” – it was considered to be the seat of the Chinese Catholic community in Singapore. The back end of the church faces Waterloo Street. Special masses were often held on feast days in the church for the Catholic population of SJI, when the school chapel would not have been big enough to accommodate everyone.

Maghain Aboth Synagogue on Waterloo Street: constructed in 1878, is the oldest Jewish synagogue in Southeast Asia.

An alternative view of the Maghain Aboth Synagogue

An angel watches over the observer at the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul opposite the Maghain Aboth Synagogue: The church was known as the Chinese Church as it was the unofficial seat of the Chinese Catholic community in Singapore.

The stretch on the synagogue side of the street was where the dilapidated looking pre-war bungalows with overgrown gardens and houses could be found. The bungalows had once been the lavish homes of Jewish families who settled in the area – which have since been restored and are now used as Centres for the Arts, forming part of the Waterloo Street Arts Belt.

A pre-war bungalow along the stretch of Waterloo Street between Bras Basah Road (42 Waterloo Street) and Middle Road which has found a new lease of life as the Action Theatre.

Another pre-war bungalow along the stretch of Waterloo Street between Bras Basah Road and Middle Road (48 Waterloo Street) which is now used as the Singapore Calligraphy Centre.

A pre-war shophouse among a cluster of three shophouses along the stretch of Waterloo Street between Bras Basah Road and Middle Road (54 Waterloo Street) now houses the YMS Arts Centre.

Further up the east side of the street, at the end of the stretch at the junction with Middle Road, a rather fascinating sight would greet us: a light-coloured building in the shaped of a church, with its walls covered in streaks of oil from the business that was being carried out in the building. The building had indeed once had been put to more dignified use: as the Middle Road Church. Somewhere along the way, however, it had been converted into a car workshop, complete with a yard scattered with fenders and exhaust pipes! The building has since been restored and has found a new lease of life as a bright orange painted Arts Centre called Sculpture Square.

Information plate on the history of Sculpture Square

The upper (north) end of Waterloo Street from Middle Road towards Rochor Road is the area I least visited during my school days. I suppose this would have be probably been the liveliest part of the street, where the hundreds, perhaps thousands of devotees would throng on a visit to the Kwan Im Temple (Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple) to seek blessings from the Goddess of Mercy. Beside the Kwan Im Temple, stands a Hindu temple – the Sri Krishnan Temple, where many devotees from the Kwan Im Temple would light joss sticks at, stands. The only time I could remember visiting the area was when I had to do my shopping for school books: I remember there being a bookshop just across from what was the Stamford Girls School (what is the Stamford Arts Centre today), where the Fortune Centre is today, where school books could be bought at prices lower than that of the established bookshops along Bras Basah Road.

The junction of Waterloo Street and Middle Road: There used to be a row of shophouses on the left where Fortune Centre is which housed a bookshop where I sometimes got my school books at a bargain

Stamford Arts Centre: The building housed the Stamford Girls Primary School in my school days and was built originally as a Japanese School in the 1900s.

Stamford Arts Centre

An example of religious harmony in Singapore: The Sri Krishnan Temple (or Sri Krishna Temple) on Waterloo Street which was built in 1870 - many Chinese devotees visiting the Kwan Im temple next door also light joss sticks at the Sir Krishnan Temple.

The Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple on Waterloo Street attracts many devotees seeking blessings from the Goddess of Mercy, especially on feast days.





I’ve got a ticket to ride: Bus Passes and Endless Bus Journeys

11 01 2010

The earliest memory I have of the public bus is the Singapore Traction Company’s (STC) service number 1A, in the distinctive Isuzu buses painted silver and green, that my mother used to make her journey to and from Rangoon Road from our home in Toa Payoh in, on her regular trips to the hairdresser, to which I was an unwilling accomplice. Buses used to be painted with colours to identify the bus companies they belonged to: red (Associated Bus Services), blue (Amalgamated Bus Company), yellow (United Bus Limited) or green (STC). That is, until they became the red striped Singapore Bus Service (SBS) buses that by the time I was old enough to venture into taking the bus on my own,  the various bus companies had merged into. I was in Primary 4 then, and having finally persuaded my parents to allow me what I had craved for – the freedom of going to school by the public bus, I was on my own against the world, that was, only for the journey to school – as my parents were concerned about me having to cross the busy Thomson Road in the evening to catch the bus back.

I had a choice of two bus services then, 149 and 150, which would bring me from the bus stop along Lorong 4 Toa Payoh to my school in Thomson Road. Service number 150 would take a longer route that went past Bradell Road and Marymount Convent. On one of my first trips by bus, I recall that my ticket was blown out of my hand by a gust of wind that came through the opened windows of the bus as I held it in my hand having just collected it from the bus conductor – I looked at the conductor who just shrugged his shoulders as if to tell me I was on my own … it left me terrified for the rest of my journey, fearful that a ticket inspector would board the bus.

Full freedom came with what we referred to as the “bus pass”, that with a monthly concession stamp which we purchased for $4 affixed to the designated spot on the pass, allowed us the freedom of the buses – unlimited travel! Then, we could do what we wanted. Hop on and off at will, and discover where we could go with the buses.

This was particularly useful, as it was then possible for me to join my friends with whom I used to play football with for games against other teams outside of Toa Payoh, as well on a particular trip I remember making to a sports shop along Bras Basah Road to pick a team jersey.

The freedom of the buses offered by a monthly concession stamp affixed to a bus pass

It was when I was in Secondary school that we got our first double decker buses, but it wasn’t until maybe I was in Secondary 3 when they were introduced to the route that served the area where my school was, from my new home in Ang Mo Kio. I would catch the service number 166 bus from the makeshift terminal located at a large carpark down the slope from Block 215. In the evenings, after a few weeks of taking the 166 service back from the bus stop along Stamford Road close to what used to be the National Library, near a corner shop which sold crocodile skin products which fascinated me, I discovered I could half the journey by taking the semi-express Blue Arrow service 308 which ran from its last stop in the Central Business District at Waterloo Street just by what used to be the CYMA, all the way to Ang Mo Kio – and the best part was that it was air-conditioned! By the time we got to catch the double decker buses, the bus terminal in Ang Mo Kio had moved to another temporary location – along Avenue 6 by block 304.

Somehow as time progressed, the journeys became longer and longer, and where journeys took not more than an hour when I was in Secondary school, by the time I started my tertiary education, journeys meant queuing up for ages at yet another temporary terminal location along Avenue 3, just across from where Ang Mo Kio central is, and being squeezed into a bus filled with school children, factory workers and the many tertiary students from the institutions along Ayer Rajah Road and Dover Road, for over an hour. Pretty unbearable … and I used to arrive drenched in perspiration. The longest journey by bus I made would seem to be the journey I would tke home I when doing my national service at SAFTI in Pasir Laba and at Jurong Camp nearby, off Upper Jurong Road. Then, we could only catch service number 175, which would meander through what was then a winding Upper Jurong Road, through the winding Jurong Road to Bukit Batok or Upper Bukit Timah, where I could get a bus home. I was always in a hurry then, trying to make use of the precious few hours we were given at the end of each week, and the journey on the 175 seemed to be endless – it could take me an hour just to get to Upper Bukit Timah, making the entire bus journey home a two hour journey. Sometimes instead of the bus, I would try to hitch a ride on the back of a pick up or lorry on its way back to civilisation from the factories in the Tuas area which passed by Upper Jurong Road – we could save as much as half an hour by doing this. By the time I had finished my national service, the MRT had been introduced, and trips on buses did not seem to be so much fun anymore.





Seeing the former SJI in a different light …

4 01 2010

Illuminations that were on until 3 January 2010 on the façade of the former SJI building which is now the Singapore Art Museum to celebrate the season … thought it is a great way to see and appreciate the old building where I had spent four wonderful years as a secondary schoolboy, and look at it in a light different from how I had looked at it as a schoolboy some 30 years ago.

A photograph from the souvenir magazine commemorating the opening of the new SJI campus at Malcolm Road, April 1989 of how the school building looked back in the good old days (perhaps not as how we saw it – but maybe how some of the pigeons we used to share our kacang putih with in the courtyard of the school would have looked at it)…

And one maybe as how we would have looked at the building as schoolboys …

How it looked to us back then - from the SJI Annual 1980





The Forbidden Hill

20 12 2009

A walk around Fort Canning Hill with two of my schoolmates from SJI on a quiet Sunday evening brought back memories of the Fort Canning Hill of that many of us were fond of wandering around as schoolboys back when we attended SJI in the late 1970s. The hill for many of us then, was shrouded in much mystery, as it had been when it was once referred to as “Bukit Larangan” or Forbidden Hill by the locals at the time of the arrival of the British to Singapore. The locals believed the hill to be haunted, being the burial ground of the former kings of what was once Temasek. We sometimes also went to Fort Canning Hill for our Physical Education (P.E.) lessons – the shady tracks on the hill and the gentle slopes were ideal for cross country practice.

As schoolboys in SJI, we sometimes went to Fort Canning for a jog for P.E. (Physical Education)

The British perhaps made the hill a little less mysterious, with the hill being referred to as Government Hill with the establishment of Government House on the hill in 1822, the same year Sir Stamford Raffles built his residence on the southern slope of the hill.  Its current name, Fort Canning Hill, comes from the fort that was established at the site of Government House (which was demolished to make way for the fort), in 1859. The fort was named after Viscount Charles John Canning, the Governor-General of India at that time and its first Viceroy.

Much of the mystery that surrounded the hill for us schoolboys had to do with the stories we had heard of the spirits of the inhabitants of the cemeteries that had existed, haunting the hill. There was of course the Keramat Iskandar Shah, purportedly the tomb of Raja Iskandar Shah, the last king of Singapore who ruled in the 14th Century, located on the eastern slope, to add further mystery. It could have been due to an overactive imagination, but somehow we always felt like we were being watched whenever we walked passed the Keramat. The fascination we had for some of the strange structures and features we discovered on our trips around the hill also added to the mystery: walls with gravestones, a cluster of tombstones nestled in a corner, two Cupolas, a solitary Gate at the top of the hill …

The Keramat Iskandar Shah with a roof erected over it. Back then when we were schoolboys, the Keramat was not covered.

Starting our walk from the escalators beside the National Museum, we were reminded of the red bricked National Library building that once stood there next to the Museum building, and the little shed next to it which housed a Wonton noodle stall that many of would frequent for lunch when we were bored of the food at the Sarabat stalls along Waterloo Street, or at the coffee shop along Victoria Street close to the junction with Bras Basah Road we used to refer to as “Smokey”.

The view from Fort Canning Hill over the area where the National Library used to stand, over to what is now the SMU, which sits on what used to be the SJI school field ...

Next we came to the grounds of a former Christian cemetery, now the Fort Canning Green, with the cluster of tombstones standing in the northeast corner. Fort Canning Green, bounded by the Fort Canning Centre at the top of the slope, and the Gothic gates and walls on two sides on which had the tablets of the gravestones that once stood embedded into them, is these days a popular venue for open air concerts, looks very much as it did in the 1970s, except for the immaculately groomed lawn where there was once an unkempt field of overgrown grass. The Cupolas designed by George Coleman still stand proudly close to the southwest corner, as it did back then.

The reverse side of the Gothic Gate which served as the entrance to the Christian Cemetery

Tablets of gravestones embedded in the wall of Fort Canning Green

Gravestones that still stand in the northeast corner of Fort Canning Green

The immaculate lawn of Fort Canning Green today

Fort Canning Centre and George Coleman's Cupolas on Fort Canning Green

Fort Canning Centre, a magnificently grand building that served as a barracks for the British Army stands at the top of the slope of Fort Canning Green. The building is used as a dance centre housed squash courts where there are now dance studios, as a squash centre back in the days when squash was one of the most popular sports and when Singapore dominated the regional squash scene.

Fort Canning Centre was a Squash Centre in the late 1970s

Further up near the top of the hill, just by the summit where there is a covered reservoir, Fort Canning Gate with its two sets of heavy doors, stands as it did in the 1970s. The top of the gate is still accessible through an iron gate and a narrow flight of stairs as it was back then. It is of course much cleaner now, smelling a lot less foul than it did when we were scrambling around in the all whites of our school uniform. Where the clearing adjacent where the gate is, is now stands, there was a cemented skating rink where some of us would come with our skateboards. Skateboards were thought of as a public nuisance then and were banned from use in most public places then.

The clearing where there was once a skating rink

Fort Canning Gate

The heavy doors of Fort Canning Gate

The narrow stairway to the top of Fort Canning Gate

The walk around also took us to the area where maybe as schoolboys we frequented less – the western slope along Clemenceau Avenue, where we sometimes encountered schoolboys from a rival school, and the southern side, where Raffles had his residence and where the Fort Canning Lighthouse stands. This brought us back to the eastern slope, where the Spice Garden is located, as well as where the Archaeological Excavation Site from which artefacts from the 14th Century have been uncovered – not that we knew anything about it back when we were in school, near the area where the Keramat is, and back to Fort Canning Green.

Fort Canning Light - A lighthouse on Fort Canning Hill





Hujan Datang, Kambing Lari

18 09 2009

The rain brings a freshness to the day, a welcome relief to the sweltering heat of tropical Singapore. As a child I imagined the trees dancing in glee and laughing as the rain fell. As a child I also enjoyed playing in the rain, splashing through puddles of water, often arriving home drenched, my white school shoes soaked brown with muddy water, much to the consternation of my mother and my grandmother.

A rhyme my granmother would recite each time it rained rings through my head with the rain – it starts with the line “Hujan datang, kambing lari”, which translates to “(as) the rain comes, the goat runs (away)”. Besides this I remember the shouts of “hor lai lor” or “rain is coming” in Hokkien, puncturing the air, followed by the commotion of the neighbours’ scampering to bring their laundry in and the shutting of windows. Often with the wind, you would also hear the sound of doors slamming shut.

The Rain

The Rain

Flooding was a common occurance in Singapore then. The vantage point offered by the flat in which I lived in provided views of the flooding of the low lying areas around Toa Payoh, especially by the banks of the Kallang River which ran through Potong Pasir, a farming area adjoining Toa Payoh. There was one occasion when there was massive flooding and from the flat, we could only see the roofs of the houses in Potong Pasir,and through the binoculars, pink carcasses of pigs floating amidst the debris.

I have on several occasions, been caught in a flood, as well. I attended a kindergarten in a low area along the banks of the Rochor canal along Kampong Java Road. I remember my father having to wade waist deep in the flood waters as he ferried me to the car, when he picked me up from the kindergarten on one occasion. Drainage in Singapore has certainly improved tremendously over the three decades that followed and flooding isn’t as common as it was back then.

The rain also provided me with some frightening moments, with lightning having struck an area of the sea where some of my friends and I were playing in moments before. When I was in Secondary 2, I had a lucky escape in the rain at the junction of Waterloo Street and Bras Basah Roads. It was one of those days when I had technical classes at the McNair Road Technical Institute and having had lunch at the Waterloo Street sarabat stalls in between technical classes in the morning and regular classes at school in the afternoon, I was making my way back to school when the heavy downpour had eased somewhat. With the light at the pedestrian crossing on Waterloo Street at its junction with Bras Basah Road in my favour, I had started to dash across from the sheltered five foot way of the shophouses to get across to the other side of the road where school was, when at the corner of my eye, I saw a car turning left from Bras Basah Road. I tried to stop, but too late, my momentum had already taken me onto the crossing, and before I could blink my eye, I was staring at up at the bumper of the car! I had slipped as the braking car was about to hit me and somehow, I had landed on the road partially underneath the car without any part of the car touching me. The driver rushed out to check on me, and I remember telling him that I was okay. He did offer to bring me to the hospital to check that all was well, but other than the shock of realising what had happened and a wet and dirty school uniform, I was indeed alright!








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