Rediscovering the romance of Chap Goh Mei

19 02 2014

The fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year, Chap Goh Mei (Hokkien for 15th night) as it has been commonly referred to in Singapore, has traditionally been associated with romance. It was perhaps in the hope of rediscovering the romance of a festival that has been lost in the embrace of modernity that drew a healthy crowd of participants to a walk through the streets of Chinatown on the evening of the fifteenth day this year on what coincidentally was also the western day for the celebration of romance, St. Valentine’s Day that was organised by the Conservation Management Department of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

A romantic spot on the streets of Chinatown on Chap Goh Mei.

A romantic spot on the streets of Chinatown on Chap Goh Mei.

The fifteenth night of any Chinese lunar month is of course one that, weather conditions permitting, would be illuminated by the light of the full moon – a setting that certainly is ideal for romance. In the case of Chap Goh Mei, it is a night when Yuanxiao Jie (元宵节) is celebrated, providing an evening for romance to be found not only in the light of the moon, but also in the glow of colourful lanterns; it having been a tradition to have lanterns displayed outside homes and along five-foot-ways, as it was for children to take to the streets carrying lanterns in a fashion similar to the Mid-Autumn festival.

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The search for romance would take many eligible young men and women to the water’s edge – the waterfront along Esplanade was, I am told, a particularly popular spot, from which fruits would be aimed into the water. For the ladies, it would be oranges, representing good husbands, that would be thrown, and for men, good wives taking the form of apples – a practice that I actually did not know about until more recent times.

The lantern parade through the streets of Chinatown on what can be seen as a double Valentine's Day in search for a lost romance.

The search for romance.

While we did not get the chance to toss oranges or apples in the name of romance, we did however get an opportunity to rediscover the romance of Chap Goh Mei and of a Chinatown that would otherwise lie hidden behind the recoloured labyrinth of streets of what would once have been referred to as Tua Poh or the ‘Greater Town’.

The lantern parade.

The lantern parade.

The route we were to take, lanterns in hand, was one of many twists and turns, taking us through a complex of streets that in being referred to as Chinatown, belies the intra-ethnic divisions that did once exist within the greater Chinese immigrant community, divisions that would once have been apparent in moving across the area’s many streets.

Only a thin Ho may enter? The Thin Ho clan association on Ann Siang Road.

Only a thin Ho may enter? The Thin Ho clan association on Ann Siang Road.

The first pause we made was the Ann Siang Hill area where the Cantonese dialect group did have a strong presence. Besides the well known Yeung Ching School (now referred to in the Mandarin form of the name as Yangzheng School) that was perched on top of Ann Siang Hill, there were the many Cantonese clan associations – many of which are still present in the area. Amongst the school alumni are many well known names. This included one that is synonymous with the the lost art of story telling and Redifussion’s Cantonese broadcasts in the 1950s and 1960s, Lee Dai Soh. Another, perhaps lesser known in Singapore, is a certain Xian Xinghai, the composer of the Yellow River Cantata – a work which was to become used as a Chinese revolutionary song. The Yeung Ching foundation does still maintain a presence in the area as is evident from a signboard seen atop a building it owns along Club Street close to its junction with Ann Siang Hill.

The condo in the background would have been where the Yeung Ching school would have stood - atop a since levelled hill the base of which would have been at the condo's sixth floor.

The condo in the background would have been where the Yeung Ching school would have stood – atop a since levelled hill the base of which would have been at the condo’s sixth floor.

Ann Siang Road.

Ann Siang Road.

Club Street.

Club Street.

From Ann Siang Road and Club Street, the procession made its way up to Ann Siang Hill before continuing down to Amoy Street, once a predominantly a Hokkien street, as was Telok Ayer Street where the group was to make a stop in the glow of the beautifully restored Thian Hock Keng temple, a magnificent example of Hokkien temple architecture and a National Monument.

Up Ann Siang Hill.

Up Ann Siang Hill.

The view at the top.

The view at the top.

The pathway down.

The pathway down.

Down Ann Siang Hill.

Down Ann Siang Hill.

Lantern bearers during a pause in the search for romance.

Lantern bearers posing for a photograph outside the Thain Hock Keng temple in the search for romance.

The temple, which now stands across from the watchful eyes of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, is dedicated to the protector of seafarers, the Taoist goddess of the sea, Ma Zu, does point to the fact that the temple did once find itself by the sea, as did the street it is located at – Telok Ayer Street was in the early days of post-Raffles Singapore, a waterfront to which many immigrants would have come ashore at (it was also interesting to learn that the rebuilt Hokkien Huay Kuan, sitting on the site of the temple’s wayang or Chinese Opera stage built over the then shoreline, was designed with a wide through corridor on its ground floor to provide a symbolic passage from the temple to the now distant sea). This did provide the street with a flavour that went beyond the Hokkiens with several other houses of worship and immigrant reception point coming along the street that were put up by other groups of immigrants including a Hakka clan association, Ying Fo Fui Kuan (also a National Monument) and the former Hakka Fuk Tak Chi Temple which was also used by Cantonese immigrants.

The 'watchful eyes' of the Hokkien Huay Kuan.

The ‘watchful eyes’ of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan.

The rather interesting walk ended at another magnificent work of temple architecture, the very recently restored Yueh Hai Ching or Wak Hai Cheng temple at Phillip Street. Set inside a within a walled compound accessible through a narrow doorway from which the sight of coils of incense would first greet the eye, the temple (actually two temples side-by-side), also a National Monument, is another wonderful example of temple architecture, -this time in Teochew style. 

The Yueh Hai Ching temple.

The Yueh Hai Ching temple.

Through the doorway to the newly restored Yueh Hai Ching.

Through the doorway to the newly restored Yueh Hai Ching.

Incense coils.

Incense coils.

The oldest Teochew temple in Singapore (its building dates back to the 1850s), the Yueh Hai Ching features a elaborately decorated roof and is dedicated to Ma Zu and Xuan Tian Shang Di. The temple besides catering to the Teochew community, does also attract worshipers from the Cantonese community – especially during the Chinese New Year – the Cantonese and Teochew communities having an affinity with both having originated from Guangdong (Canton) province. More on the temple can be found at the Ngee Ann Kongsi’s website.

Inside the temple.

Inside the temple.

Another view inside the temple.

Another view inside the temple.

While taking a walk in the company of strangers through now sanitised streets of an old world we in modern times may have seemed to have over-romanticised might not fit into everyone’s idea of how they would want to spend an evening businesses have turned into an excuse for money making, it was a walk in which I was rewarded with the rediscovery of the romance of a festival and of times I might not have otherwise been reminded of.

Smoke from large joss sticks in the compound.

Smoke from large joss sticks in the compound.





The celebrating of Spring in the greater town

27 01 2014

The arrival of spring, commemorated by the Chinese by the celebration of the new year, brings much colour and life to the streets of the “Greater Town”, tua poh, as it was known as to the local population. Besides the street market – long a popular source of goods necessary to welcome in the new year, the area since 1985, has also been livened up by the illuminations of an annual Chinese New Year light-up.

No horse run - this year's light-up is perhaps light years ahead ...

No horse run – this year’s light-up is perhaps light years ahead …

Crowds thronging the street market.

Crowds thronging the street market this year.

I managed to take in the festive atmosphere on the streets, packed with crowds that the weekend before  the new year brings, but not before I attended a rather interesting sharing session on the celebration of Chinese New Year held at the URA Centre. Entitled “Cakap Heritage: All About Chinese New Year in Kreta Ayer / Chinatown” and jointly organised by the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the session provided a view not just of how the festival in years past would have been celebrated in the area, but also of the many ways in which Chinese New Year was observed all across Singapore through the recollections of several of the session’s participants.

A bus passenger The an gazes out at the festive light-up. The annual light-up is now a spectacle not to be missed.

A bus passenger The an gazes out at the festive light-up. The annual light-up is now a spectacle not to be missed.

One topic that was discussed at length during the session was shopping. Besides shopping for festive goodies, cards and decorations, Chinese New Year is also when new clothes and shoes – a must for every Chinese, are bought. For some it would be the only occasion to splurge on a new outfit and while many had theirs tailored, clothes for children were often bought from the Tua Poh street market – although as one former Changi Village resident did testify, shopping wasn’t necessarily confined to the streets of Chinatown.

Festive goodies on offer at the street market.

Festive goodies on offer at the street market.

A seemingly popular shop to buy shoes from, was the Phoenix Shoes Company, located in a shophouse along South Bridge Road. Although the shop wasn’t one I was familiar with, it did bring back memories of another shoe shop – further east along South Bridge Road, from which my parents got their shoes from. That shop, the Crane Shoe Store, is one I well remember for how a light green box in which the pair of shoes in the size desired, would come rushing down a chute from the store room above – almost without delay whenever the shop assistant shouted an order out.

The streets come alive in the lead-up to Chinese New Year.

The streets of the greater town come alive in the lead-up to Chinese New Year.

Other experiences ranged from the buying gold jewellery (On Choeng – a goldsmith on South Bridge Road, seemed a popular choice), to waxed products and ducks eggs. A name synonymous with the prelude to Chinese New Year these days, Lim Chee Guan – known for the long queues for what is today a must-have Chinese New Year treat, bak kwa or long yuk (sometimes translated to pork jerky or barbecued dried pork), did also get a mention. A participant did make the observation that queues would have been non-existent back in the 1950s – when it would be difficult for many. Another luxury mentioned was feasting on bats – something that a restaurant by the name of Oriental in the 1950s, was along with monkeys and squirrels, apparently quite well known for.

Shoppers at the street market.

Shoppers at the street market.

One the subject of luxuries, mention was also made of how for some of the less well-off folks – such as the Samsui women, Chinese New Year would be one of the rare, if not only occasion on which they would put meat, in the form of chicken, on the table, saving through the year to do so.  The mention of chicken does take me back to the Chinese New Years of my early childhood, when the second day involved visiting a family friend who helped on a chicken farm in old Punggol – besides the squealing of pigs for their supper and perhaps an unfortunate incident in which I swallowed a loose teeth biting into an ang ku kueh, a memory that does linger from those visits is the sight of a headless chicken bound for the pot, scampering around on the sandy ground. 

The colour of gold.

The colour of gold.

A consequence of the decades of social engineering in Singapore, is perhaps the loss of the use of the Chinese dialects, along with dialect group specific cultural practices such as was observed in the celebrations of yesteryear. Besides dialect group specific such as the Hokkien practice of Bai Ti Gong (honouring the Jade Emperor) still seen today, there are dialect group specific practices that have been adopted by the wider community such as the tossing of raw fish salad, yu sheng - a widely practiced Chinese New Year custom now in Singapore. This was confined initially to the Cantonese –  a gentleman recalled his first experience of it that went back to 1955. Other dialect group specific practices included taboos associated with Chinese New Year such as not sweeping the floor, and not throwing rubbish out of the house on the first days of the new year. 

A young shopper.

A young shopper.

One practice that was common across the community was letting-off firecrackers. The thunderous burst of noise, the acrid smell of gunpowder that lingered in the air and the sea of red paper that littered the streets, would not be something the younger folks would of course remember. Firecrackers which were banned after 1972 in Singapore – the first modern version of the Chingay parade organised in 1973 was offered as to compensate for that. These were however very much an integral part of the celebration before the ban and several of the participants did share experiences from the 1950s and 1960s, before the ban kicked in, such as how as girls they would not dare venture out on their own out of fear of mischievous boys would would lie in wait to scare the girls by throwing lighted crackers at them.

Scenes from Chinese New Years of days gone by ... the smell of gun powder and smoke that filled the air, and the sea of red left behind .... (source: National Archives, www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

Scenes from Chinese New Years of days gone by … the smell of gun powder and smoke that filled the air, and the sea of red left behind …. (source: National Archives, http://www.archivesonline.nas,sg).

Still on the subject of firecrackers, a Danish couple shared how it was also common practice to let off crackers for the new year. Firecrackers are known there as “Chinese” – the smaller ones “one-cent Chinese” and the larger ones “two-cent Chinese” – a reference possibly to the origins of firecrackers.

Preserved fruits on offer,

Preserved fruits on offer.

Without the sound of firecrackers going off through the night, and perhaps with the distractions of the modern world and the dilution of cultural practices, Chinese New Year does seem a quieter affair these days. Chinese New Year, is however, very much still an occasion for the family to gather – the family reunion dinner is still very much an important part of the celebration for many families. And if one does brave the crowds on the streets of the Greater Town, streets that while perhaps are over sanitised and modernised, are where one does discover that the spirit of Chinese New Years past is one that is very much alive in the present. 

A view over the sanitised Chinatown and the modern city that has grown around it.

A view over the sanitised Chinatown and the modern city that has grown around it.

A view of the busy New Bridge Road with the galloping horses of the light-up.

A view of the busy New Bridge Road with the galloping horses of the light-up.





Devotion II

10 07 2013

A photograph of a single person kneeling in prayer before the closed doors of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in South Bridge Road, Singapore, at 7.50 pm on 13 June 2013. The temple is a fairly new addition to the area’s landscape, once dominated by crowded shophouses and street markets, having been opened in 2007.

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A bay of plenty from which we came

7 03 2013

One of Singapore’s urban spaces in which there is always much to discover is what we have come to know as Chinatown. It may seem that Chinatown today, cleansed of the people and business that made it what it was, is without a soul. It does indeed seem in many parts like a neighbourhood that has been conserved and revived more to draw the tourist dollar than to preserve the memories it holds, but it is in some of the quieter streets of the area designated as a Chinese settlement by Raffles not long after modern Singapore’s founding, that we do find many traces, some still very much alive, of a world that for most part has ceased to exist.

Part of the Thian Hock Keng Temple on Telok Ayer Street.

Part of the Thian Hock Keng Temple on Telok Ayer Street – one of the traces left behind by a long forgotten time.

One especially quiet area, seemingly in an area cut off from the busier streets of the neighbourhood, is where there is a wealth of these reminders. It was on a street in the area, now caught between the past and the present, Telok Ayer Street, where in fact the first chapters in the story of Singapore from the perspective of our forefathers did in fact begin in the early days that followed the arrival of the British. The street’s name, Telok Ayer, suggests proximity to the sea – “telok” being Malay for “bay” and “ayer” the word for “water”, although a field of glass and steel and beyond that, the makings of a future city, puts some distance between it and the waters of the Straits of Singapore. Given that, it may surprise some that the land on which the street was built was one where waves of Telok Ayer Bay might have washed up to – and it was where many who made the long and perilous journey in search of fortune in the early days of Singapore, would have first set foot on the island.

Non-organic business now occupy many of the conserved shophouses in the area today.

Non-organic business now occupy many of the conserved shophouses in the area today.

Telok Ayer Street today would in all likelihood, look little like the street the early immigrants made landfall on. But despite the many changes that have come about including the land reclamation exercise that took place from 1879 to 1887 during which its lost its shoreline and more recent urban redevelopment and conservation efforts during which its residents and organic businesses were moved out, it still very much alive with many reminders left by our early founders and very much a living monument to their memory, one which perhaps can serve in place of that intended monument to our early founders that was never built.

The Jackson Plan of 1822 shows the location of Telok Ayer Street relative to the shoreline.

The Jackson Plan of 1822 shows the location of Telok Ayer Street relative to the shoreline.

A diorama of Telok Ayer Street in the early days of modern Singapore showing where the shoreline was. The low building across from the Chinese Opera stage is the Fuk Tak Chi Temple.

A diorama of Telok Ayer Street in the early days of modern Singapore showing where the shoreline was. The low building across from the Chinese Opera stage is the Fuk Tak Chi Temple built by Hakka immigrants and used by both Hakkas and Cantonese. It is now the Fuk Tak Chi Museum.

The most significant reminder that we find on the street would be the Taoist Temple the name in Chinese of which translates into of Heavenly Bliss (Thian Hock Keng, 天福宫, in the Hokkien or Fujian dialect). The temple is probably the most popularly visited religious site for tourists coming to Singapore and is a joy to behold. Dedicated to the protector of sailors and fishermen, the Taoist Goddess of the Sea, MaZu (妈祖), the temple’s origins can be traced to the earliest days of modern Singapore. It was built on the site of a joss house put up around 1820/21 by early Hokkien immigrants close to the first landing points to allow thanks to be offered to the goddess for protection provided over the long sea voyage.

The side of the main hall of the temple. The temple is a fine example of Minan arhcitecture, characterised by its curved "swallow-tail" roof ridge.

The side of the main hall of the temple. The temple is a fine example of Minan arhcitecture, characterised by its curved “swallow-tail” roof ridge.

The temple we see today, even with alterations made during a 1906 renovation in which western style floor and wall tiling was added), must be counted as one of the best examples of Southern Chinese Minan temple architecture (found on many Hokkien built temples such as the Hong San See) in Singapore. Distinctive features of Minan temple architecture are the curved “swallow tail” roof ridge and the intricate timber post and beam structure. Completed in 1842, the main altar (of which photographs of are not permitted) has two statues of Ma Zu. One – the darker and smaller of the two, which dates to building’s construction, is said to have been blackened by burning incense offered at the altar over the many years of the temple’s existence.

Lanterns for the Chinese New Year at the Thian Hock Keng.

Lanterns for the Chinese New Year at the Thian Hock Keng.

The temple is also home to several other deities and provides the visitor with a good appreciation of the folk religious practices the Hokkien (and other southern Chinese) immigrants brought in with them. One of the deities, is the popularly worshiped Bodhisattva of Thousand Hands and Thousand Eyes, more commonly referred to as the Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin. The altar dedicated to her is found behind the main altar, housed in a beautiful part of the temple complex. Other deities include Kai Zhang Seng Wang (The Sacred Governor Kai Zhang), Cheng Huang Ye (City God) flanked by the Da Er Ye Bo (The Two Great Generals, 大二爷伯), or, Qi Ye Ba Ye, 七爷八爷 (which translates to Seventh and Eight Lords). More on the deities can be found at the temple’s website.

The altar dedicated to Kuan Yin in the Thian Hock Keng.

The altar dedicated to Kuan Yin in the Thian Hock Keng.

Another view of the altar dedicated to Kuan Yin.

Another view of the altar dedicated to Kuan Yin.

The altar where Cheng Huang Ye (City God) is, flanked by the two Great Generals.

The altar where Cheng Huang Ye (City God) is, flanked by the two Great Generals.

A close-up of Ba Ye.

A close-up of Qi Ye.

The temple’s construction which started in 1839 could not have been done without the generous donations made by the members of the early Hokkien Chinese community. Chief among the donors was Tan Tock Seng, a well known philanthropist and an early immigrant from Malacca, best known perhaps for the paupers’ hospital he helped set up and which is now named after him. As was the case with many early temples, Thian Hock Keng served to also provide social support for the community. It initially housed the oldest Hokkien clan, the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan (Hokkien Clan Association), which has since moved across the street (it was apparently where a Chinese opera or wayang had been positioned in the early days of the temple). The Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan still runs the Thian Hock Keng.

Two types of Door Gods guard the entrance to the Thian Hock Keng.

Two types of Door Gods guard the entrance to the Thian Hock Keng.

Two types of Door Gods guard the entrance of the Thian Hock Keng.

Besides the commonly found ones, there the the more passive looking eunuch Door Gods more to welcome the good – commonly found in temples where the main deity is a goddess.

On the temple’s right (seen from the deity’s perspective), on what is considered part of the temple complex is the beautifully built Chong Hock Pavilion and Chung Wen (or Chong Boon) Pagoda. Access is via a normally closed separate entrance, the Chong Boon Gate, on Telok Ayer Street. The pagoda (and gate) was built in 1849 and housed what is said to be the earliest Chinese private school in Singapore, the Chong-Wen Ge (or the “Institute for the Veneration of Literature”). The Chong Hock Pavilion, built in 1913, housed the Chong Hock Girls’ School which was set up in 1915. The school in 1930 was moved partly across the street (where the Hokkien Association Building is today). It has since been renamed Chongfu school and is now located in Yishun.

The entrance to the Chong Hock Pavilion and the Chung Wen Pagoda.

The entrance to the Chong Hock Pavilion and the Chung Wen Pagoda, the Chong Boon Gate .

The Chong Hock Pavilion.

The Chong Hock Pavilion.

The temple complex, which was gazetted as a National Monument in 1973, went through a major restoration effort from 1998 to 2000, during which craftsmen from China were employed. Those efforts won it an Honourable Mention for the UNSECO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards in 2001. An important discovery made during that restoration was a calligraphic scroll, with the imperial seal of Emperor Guang Xu of the Qing Dynasty. Placed in a previously unidentified scroll holder on a panel, which incidentally is a display copy of the scroll placed above the main altar, the scroll was presented to the temple by the Emperor in 1907.

The Chong Boon Gate and the Chung Wen Pagoda.

The Chong Boon Gate and the Chung Wen Pagoda.

Besides the Thian Hock Keng, several other important religious or clan buildings established by the immigrants can also be found along the same street. One was a Hakka built temple, the Fuk Tak Chi temple, dedicated to the Earth God Da Bo Gong. Although the temple has since ceased to operate, its building can be still found and is part of the Far East Square complex and is a reconstruction built in the Hokkien style with a curved roof ridge. Its main hall and entrance is said to have been constructed in the style of a Chinese Magistrate’s Court as a symbol of power and authority.

The Fuk Tak Chi Museum.

The Fuk Tak Chi Museum.

The temple which dates back to 1824, served both the Hakka and Cantonese communities (which tells of the close relationship between the two communities in Singapore). Closed in 1994, it has since been restored and converted into a museum. A important artifact that is still housed in the building is a wooden screen found at its entrance. Just a few doors away from the Fuk Tak Chi, is another important link to the early Hakka immigrants, the Ying Fo Fui Kun. This is a Hakka clan association which was founded in 1822. “Ying Fo” translates into “mutual co-operation for peaceful co-existence” which provides a clue to why clan associations were established. The building which dates back to a reconstruction in 1843/44, underwent renovation in 1997 and was gazetted as a National Monument in 1998.

Inside the Fuk Tak Chi Museum.

Inside the Fuk Tak Chi Museum.

The wooden screen at the entrance of the Fuk Tak Chi.

The wooden screen at the entrance of the Fuk Tak Chi.

Odd as it may seem, being on the fringe of Chinatown, one finds on the very same street, two structures erected by Chulia Muslim immigrants who originated from the Coromandel Coast of India. The structures are of course not out-of-place – the Chulias, many of whom were merchants, very naturally found spaces to conduct their businesses amongst the Chinese traders along what was the seafront. The area would also have been close to the original area Raffles has set aside for the Chulia settlement just north of the Chinese settlement.

The Al-Abrar Mosque.

The Al-Abrar Mosque built by the Chulias.

One of these structures, the Al-Abrar Mosque which sometimes is referred to as Masjid Chulia or Chulia Mosque, is still in use (not to be confused with another Chulia Mosque Masjid Jamae in South Bridge Road). The mosque was first set up in 1827 by Tamil Muslim immigrants, and is also known in Tamil as the Kuchu Palli (kuchu means “hut”, palli means “mosque’). The current building was completed in 1855 and was gazetted as a National Monument in 1974.

The former Nagore Durgha Shrine.

The former Nagore Durgha Shrine.

The other structure built by the community, the former Nagore Durgha Shrine, is one that will certainly catch the eye. Sitting prominently at the corner of Telok Ayer and Boon Tat Streets, it had long been closed to the public. The former mashhad or memorial, has since May 2011 been reopened as the Nagore Dargah Heritage Centre. Built between 1827-1830, the Nagore Durgha was built as a memorial to a Sayyid Abdul Qadir Shahul Hamid, a holy man from Northern India based at Nagore in Tamil Nadu. The mashhad, originally known as Shahul Hamid Durgha, is rather distinctive from an architectural viewpoint. It features a mix of east and west – Palladian features on the lower part of the building, topped with an Islamic style upper part, and is thought to be an attempt to replicate the original Nagore Durgha shrine in Negapatnam (Nagapattinam) which is just south of Nagore. The heirtage centre is well worth a visit. Besides the insights it offers to the early days of the Indian Muslim community in Singapore, and their cultural and religious practices, there is also an opportunity to enjoy the beautiful column and arch lined interior that is illuminated by light streaming through its stained glass windows. The now beautifully restored Nagore Durgha has been a National Monument since 1974.

Inside the Nagore Durgha.

Inside the Nagore Durgha.

Walking around today, it would be easy to miss one of more recently gazetted monuments on the street, the last of the monuments I wish to mention. That, the former Keng Teck Whay, lies hidden behind hoardings, somewhere between the Nagore Durgha and the Thian Hock Keng. With a distinguishing three tiered pagoda which has octagonal plan upper floors on a square base, it would certainly be one to admire – if not for the much needed restoration work that is going on at the moment. Built to house the Keng Teck Whay, a self-help association set up by Hokkien-Peranakan merchants from Malacca in 1831, the buildings we see today came up between 1847 and 1875 and were constructed by traditional Chinese craftsmen in the Minan style. The building at the rear which is said to feature details borrowed from Teochew style architecture and was used as an ancestral hall. The Taoist Mission has since taken over the buildings which were in rather a dilapidated state. Repairs and restoration of the buildings are currently being done and the mission will run the complex as the Singapore Yu Huang Gong, 新加坡玉皇宫, or Temple of Heavenly Jade Emperor.

An aerial view of the former Keng Teck Whay (source: http://pictures.nl.sg). All rights reserved. Preservation of Monuments Board Singapore 2010).

An aerial view of the former Keng Teck Whay (source: http://pictures.nl.sg). All rights reserved. Preservation of Monuments Board Singapore 2010).

With the pace of change not just robbing us, residents of what has become an increasing congested island, of places and experiences that help us connect with a country we call home, but also replacing many familiar places with that brave new world we find hard to identify with, it is perhaps only in places such as this we can hold on to. While they perhaps do not hold the personal memories and experiences we may hold dear, they do hold the memory of who we are as a nation, of where we came from and how we got here, and most importantly, of what made Singapore, Singapore.





Rediscovering the Pearl of Chinatown

21 02 2013

Stumbling across an old world nestled in the new brings great delight to me. It in a little pocket of space, not so distant from the rush and rumble of the streets of the urban world, where I did rediscover one, Pearl’s Terrace, set at the foot of the south facing slope of Pearl’s Hill.

A world seemingly far from the rush and rumble of the busy streets of nearby Chinatown.

A world seemingly far from the rush and rumble of the busy streets of nearby Chinatown.

Pearl’s Hill Terrace is a place one might have been reluctant to visit in times not so long ago. It was where the men in blue had ruled – where not just the home of the Police Force’s Headquarters as well as some important divisions of the force were located, but a place where police officers had called home.

Just a stone's throw away from the rush and rumble of Chinatown is a world that awaits rediscovery.

Just a stone’s throw away from the rush and rumble of Chinatown is a world that awaits rediscovery.

Towering over the slope today, one sees a long slab block of apartments, seemingly an isolated block of public housing that lay forgotten. Built by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) for, it is one of several physical reminders of a world that had existed in the days before we last saw the snake (the last Chinese Year of the Snake, 2001). That block today, 201 Pearl’s Hill Terrace, has seen new life breathed into it. Not longer are its mix of 1 and 2 bedroom apartments rented to the junior police officers it was built in the late 1960s to house, it has since 2006 been turned into a hostel. Its 336 units are now offered to white-collared workers and students for rent.

View of Chinatown 1973 showing the newly completed People's Park Complex. Beside and behind it the slab block of flats that served as the Police Quarters for junior officers, as well as the Upper and Lower Barracks, can be seen.

View of Chinatown 1973 showing the newly completed People’s Park Complex. Beside and behind it the slab block of flats that served as the Police Quarters for junior officers, as well as the Upper and Lower Barracks, can be seen.

The former Police Quarters at 201 Pearl's Hill Terrace.

The former Police Quarters at 201 Pearl’s Hill Terrace.

It isn’t so much in that block where the charms of the old and perhaps where the reminders of the previous world can be discovered, but in the two lower but grander looking large edifices it overlooks. One, the Upper Barracks, set on a terrace immediately below the block of flats is 195 Pearl’s Hill Terrace. The other is a slightly taller building, the Lower Barracks which is at street level facing Eu Tong Sen Street. As their names suggest, both had also served as policemen’s quarters. Completed in 1934, and built in a simplified Neo-Classical style typical of public buildings of the era, the Public Works Department erected the two to house the Sikh Contingent of the then Straits Settlements Police (SSP).

Windows from the past to the present.

The Upper Barracks provides a look through windows from the past to the present.

The Upper Barracks now looks a little run down and is perhaps is accorded with a little less dignity than it deserves having been, since 2007, turned into offices spaces for lease. It is however where many ghosts not just of its past, but also of Singapore’s colonial past await discovery. Built to house married policemen, it is laid out in a bright and airy way – reminiscent perhaps of the Old Hill Street Police Station, with its six spacious courtyards, open corridors, and generous ventilation openings – giving a sense of light and space within the confines of its stern looking exterior.

The Upper Barracks as seen today.

The Upper Barracks as seen today.

Wandering around the Upper Barracks certainly takes one back to a time when air-conditioned public building was a rarity with its generously provided ventilation openings and open corridors.

Wandering around the Upper Barracks certainly takes one back to a time when air-conditioned public building was a rarity with its generously provided ventilation openings and open corridors.

With the disbanding of the SSP soon after the war, the two barracks were turned over to other civic uses. More recently serving as the Police Headquarters, the Upper Barracks had in the time since also served to house the Ministry of Interior and Defence, from Singapore’s independence to 1970, when the Ministry was split into the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The MHA continued to be housed at the Upper Barracks until 1977 when it moved to Phoenix Park.

Courtyards were a common feature of buildings of the good old days.

Courtyards were a common feature of buildings of the good old days – the pull up bars left behind provides a reminder of the building’s past.

The Lower Barracks, to which there is currently no access to, is one which most would be familiar with being at street level. Built for unmarried policemen, the barracks housed several divisions of the law enforcement agencies under the MHA, the most recent being the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Other units it served as a home to include the Police ‘A’ Division, the Registry of Societies, the Anti-Vice Unit, and the Central Narcotics Bureau. Both the Upper and Lower Barracks were vacated in 2001 when the new Police Cantonment Complex opened. The Lower Barracks is at the present being refurbished for use as a students’ hostel which is opening this year.

The Lower Barracks around the time of it opening in 1934 (source: http://www.hometeam.sg/cmsmedia/).

The Lower Barracks around the time of it opening in 1934 (source: Singapore Police Force at http://www.hometeam.sg/cmsmedia/).

The Lower Barracks.

The Lower Barracks.

While the Upper and Lower Barracks have been put to what does seem like less than dignified uses, both have in fact been given conservation status. More on this and as well as an architectural description of the buildings can be found at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Conservation of Built Heritage website, excerpts of which follow:

Upper Barracks

“The 3-storey Upper Barracks was built at a higher level on the hill, facing towards the Singapore River. At almost 160 metres in length, it is one of the longest pre-war civic buildings in existence. The combination of its impressive length and elevated position gives it a commanding presence overlooking the Chinatown area. The overall design treatment is more geometrical, with the details of the building articulated to greater emphasize the length of the thirty-one bays of the building. The building also has its ends emphasised through the protrusion of the building bays, while the central entrance is made prominent with the use of pairs of pilasters, in contrast with the single pilasters elsewhere. The features combine to give an overall appearance of palatial grandeur”.

The Upper Barracks from a Singapore Land Authority tender document  in 2007 (source: http://www.sla.gov.sg/doc/new/AnnexB-5Feb2007.jpg).

The Upper Barracks from a Singapore Land Authority tender document in 2007 (source: http://www.sla.gov.sg/doc/new/AnnexB-5Feb2007.jpg).

Lower Barracks

“The 5-storey Lower Barracks are on street level. Set back from Eu Tong Sen Street with a generous plaza, it creates an impressive contrast to the prevalent two and three storey shophouses of Chinatown across the road. The building follows the Classical tradition of having the three parts of the building clearly articulated. The first storey gives a sense of firmness of appearance by having rusticated horizontal bands in the plaster-work. The top of the building is completed with a deep overhanging entablature with a strongly articulated geometric linear cornice line. The centre of the building is given greater emphasis through a shallow triangular pediment, surmounted by flag-poles”.

Branches on an exterior wall of the Lower Barracks. It is a reminder of a time when less was concealed and perhaps of the building's history serving several  branches of law enforcement agencies over the years.

Branches on an exterior wall of the Lower Barracks. It is a reminder of a time when less was concealed and perhaps of the building’s history serving several branches of law enforcement agencies over the years.

Besides the two barracks, there is also a smaller reminder of the old world close by that deserves to also be looked at, a two-storey villa which based on information at the URA Conservation of Built Heritage site, is though to have been built in the 1920s. Currently housing a education centre, the building at 18 Pearl’s Hill Terrace is also thought to have been built as accommodation for a higher ranking officer of the Police Force (or perhaps a high ranking prison warder – the terrace is known to have been where quarters of warders at the nearby Outram Prison (located where the former Outram Park flats were) were located. Most recently housing the Scene of Crime Unit, it has also housed a CID Training Centre and also from 1978 to 1988, the Syariah Court.

18 Pearl's Hill Terrace today.

18 Pearl’s Hill Terrace today.

There is more of the old world to be found just up the hill close to where the somewhat iconic and very distinctive Pearl’s Bank Apartments stands. The block erected in 1976, a subject matter all on itself, stands next to the crest of the hill where a Victorian era service reservoir is located. It is around it where a green oasis in the midst of the city can be found offering an escape which can be hard to find in the overcrowded streets below it. That, together with the four buildings which have found a new lease of life, is where a reminder of world that we have forgotten to appreciate does seem to exist – for the time being at least. While we do know that three of the buildings are being conserved, it may not be very long before the urban world stakes a claim on it.

A linkway from Pearl's Hill Terrace to the Lower Barracks.

A linkway from Pearl’s Hill Terrace to the Lower Barracks.

The area was part of a wider area which had been the subject of a URA planning exercise in the early 2000s. While in the plans developed then the area would still very much be a green space, developments planned for the area around – particularly at neighbouring York Hill across the Central Expressway (CTE) project that some 5,500 new homes will be built, together with landscaped deck across the CTE to link the two hills. While it is good to see that there are plans to open the wonderful green space up to the wider community, it does also mean that we may be seeing the last of a quiet and insulated space where the remnants of a charming and old world can still be found.

A jungle of letter boxes at 201 Pearl's Hill Terrace.

A jungle of letter boxes at 201 Pearl’s Hill Terrace.

Information on Pearl’s Hill and Pearl’s Terrace:

Previous planning considerations for the area:

Patterns of an old world.

Patterns of an old world.





A walk down Neil Road

30 10 2012

Tucked away in a rather quiet but no less interesting corner of a district of Singapore that has come to be called Chinatown is an area which is often overlooked. The area, in Chinatown’s south-western corner incorporates the Bukit Pasoh Conservation Area, part of the Tanjong Pagar Conservation Area and boasts several architectural gems, which have unfortunately been cast in the shadow of a towering 50 storey public housing development, The Pinnacle@Duxton at nearby Duxton Plain.

Several conservation gems can be found along Neil Road, including what would have been the houses of the very wealthy (judging from the enclosed front yards these units at No. 56 – 60) were provided with.

Units 56 – 60 Neil Road seen in 1983 (from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

The area is certainly one that is worth exploring, not just for the notable clan associations and clubs – one is the Ee Hoe Hean Club, a millionaires’ club dating back to 1895 that is associated with many luminaries including the illustrious Tan Kah Kee, set amongst the many rows of beautifully conserved shophouses. Running partly along the area’s southern boundary is Neil Road which can perhaps be said to lie at the heart of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) conservation efforts – the pilot shophouse conservation project undertaken by the URA stands at No. 9 Neil Road.

The Bukit Pasoh Conservation Area boasts many architectural conservation gems and is also one that has been cast in the shadow of a towering public housing development at nearby Duxton Plain.

The Ee Hoe Hean Club, a millionaires’ club dating back to 1895 that is associated with many of Singapore’s luminaries.

Neil Road starts off where South Bridge Road ends at its junction with Maxwell and Tanjong Pagar Roads, rising up towards the Bukit Pasoh area. It is at this point that a gorgeous and very recognisable piece of architecture, the Jinrikisha Station, greets one’s eye. Built in 1903 in the Edwardian style on a triangular plan with a fairfaced brickwork exterior, the building is one that certainly needs no introduction and is now owned by Hong Kong Jackie Chan. It is just up the road from the Jinrikisha Station that No. 9, which now serves as a home to a Chinese tea shop Tea Chapter, lies.

The Jinrikisha Station at the start of Neil Road – built as a registration centre for rickshaws is now owned by Jackie Chan.

The conservation of No. 9 Neil Road was undertaken as part of a pilot URA shophouse restoration project that took place from 1987 to 1988 that involved a total of 32 shophouses built at the end of the 19th century, with No. 9 selected as a demonstration unit. The restored unit at No. 9 was where HM Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip had tea at during a visit in 1989. The successful conservation project involving the 32 houses was the first phase of a larger effort to conserve a total of 220 government owned shophouses in the Tanjong Pagar area and intended to demonstrate the technical and commercial viability of shophouse conservation. The effort was one that was welcomed by conservationists as it had come at a time when large parts of the city had already been cleared of the pre-war shophouses which once dominated the cityscape.

No. 9 Neil Road – the very first conservation shophouse.

The 220 shophouses are on a 4.1 hectare site that was acquired from 1981 to 1984 by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). The units had contained a mix of businesses and residents including many traditional businesses – one was Chan Pui Kee, an antique dealer and antique furniture restorer which had operated at No. 7 since 1913 (and has since moved to a restored shophouse at Lorong 24A Geylang). The residents of the houses had lived mainly on the upper floors, some at the point of acquisition, having lived there for much of their lives. Many were trishaw riders, craftsmen, and even prostitutes who worked in the area, living in very crowded spaces, renting rooms or cubicles for as little as $4 a month. The acquired houses, many of which had once been in the hands of Arab property owners, were to be demolished to make way for public housing, but a shift in thinking of our urban planners on high density public housing in the city centre saved them from that fate.

Conserved three storey shophouses along Neil Road.

Walking up the incline of the road, there are further examples of the conservation efforts that eventually was to involve a greater part of Chinatown, including several voluntary conservation initiatives. One such initiative is the conservation of the former Eng Aun Tong factory building at 89 Neil Road. As many familiar with the area would be aware of, Eng Aun Tong was a name used by the Haw Par brothers and the factory was where the most famous of their products, Tiger Balm, was once made. Based on information on the URA conservation of built heritage site, the building was built in 1924 in the Neoclassical Style. The starting up of the factory coincided with the Aw family’s move to Singapore from Rangoon (Yangon) in the 1920s. The factory operated until 1971 when production operations were contracted out and production of the famous ointment was moved to the Jack Chia group’s factories in Jurong.

The conserved former Eng Aun Tong factory building – where Tiger Balm had once been made.

The Eng Aun Tong factory building as seen depicted in a 1920s advertisement for Tiger Balm (source: National Archives of Singapore).

Walking past the former Eng Aun Tong factory, one will notice the blue balustrades of a concrete bridge. The bridge is one that passes over what is technically the first rail corridor conservation project. The corridor – now a linear park named Duxton Plain Park was where an extension to the original rail line (pre-1932 Deviation) had been constructed in 1907 to connect the terminal at Tank Road to connect with the waterfront, extending to Pasir Panjang. Operations on the extension were short-lived and the line was dismantled in between 1912 to 1914. A stretch from Yan Kit Road to New Bridge Road was retained as a public park. The park is one that is associated with one of the clubs in the area, a martial arts association – the Chin Woo Athletic Association (精武體育會or 精武体育会), as is evident from a steel sign erected on one of the bridge’s balustrades which reads “精武體育會操場” – the park had long served as a training ground for the association which has had a presence in the area since its formation here in 1922. It has been reported that our first Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew had often watched the association practice lion and dragon dances at the park in his younger days (he had lived as a boy in his paternal grandfather’s residence at nearby 147 Neil Road).

The bridge over the first rail corridor conservation project – now Duxton Plain Park. A sign tells us that it had served as a training ground for the Chin Woo Athletic Association. Living at nearby 147 Neil Road, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had as a young boy often caught many of the associations lion and dragon dance practice sessions at the park.

From this point, Neil Road soon crosses Cantonment Road and takes one west out of the Chinatown district towards another quiet and delightful conservation area, the Blair Plain Conservation Area. Crossing Cantonment Road, I am reminded of the many horror stories I have heard in my younger days that was associated with balancing the clutch on the slope at the junction during driving tests. Those were days when tests were conducted out of the former Maxwell Road driving test centre when the Traffic Police had its headquarters at the building which is today the Red Dot Design Museum. These days, it is across Cantonment Road that we notice a huge police presence – that of a towering new law enforcement complex named the Police Cantonment Complex.

A look into the compound of a conserved row of three shophouses at 56 – 60 Neil Road.

It might be a little hard to notice a little Victorian building that stands beneath the towering complex along Neil Road – especially now with its covered up for restoration work. The very pretty building, despite being very compact, once housed a school, and was where the Fairfield Girls’ School (which later became Fairfield Methodist School and is now Fairfield Methodist School) had operated at from 1912 to 1983. The building, built with the donation of a Mr Fairfield (hence the name of the school) is now part of the Police complex, although intended originally as a childcare centre for staff at the Police complex, the building will now house a Police recruitment centre.

The former Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School (photo on the URA website).

It is beyond the former Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School on the opposite side of the road that we come to the cluster of terrace houses which contains the unit that Mr Lee had spent some of his boyhood years at. Just down from that unit at No. 147, is No. 157 which is probably the jewel in the crown of the conservation efforts along Neil Road. That painted blue in an attempt to restore it to its original colour isn’t only a house which has seen it exterior restored but also one which has had much its fittings and furniture retained and restored and is possibly the best example of a Peranakan or Straits-born Chinese house from the turn of the 20th Century that exists today. The house, thought to have been built in the 1890s, had once belonged to shipping magnate Wee Bin and his descendants, has its interior retained through the conservation efforts of the National University of Singapore (NUS) (which owns the house having purchased it for the historical value of it and its contents) and the URA. Among the wonderfully preserved fittings is a very ornate carved wooden screen which separates the main hall from the interior of the house. The Baba House as it is called now, has some of its original furniture and flooring is well worth a visit. Visits are strictly by appointment only and advance arrangements for heritage tours are required. More information can be found at the NUS website. Do note that photography is not permitted inside the Baba House.

Baba House at 157 Neil Road – now owned by NUS and managed by NUS Museum was beautifully restored from 2006 to 2008.

Units 157 Neil Road (Baba House) seen in 1982 (from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).


The walk along Neil Road was part of a guided walk “Neil Road/NUS Baba House Walking Tour“, one in a series of tours conducted by the URA in conjunction with the URA Architectural Heritage Awards 2012. While registration for two of the remaining tours are closed, there is an ongoing exhibition at the URA Centre Atrium until 10 November 2012 which showcases the five award winners. The exhibition is open Mondays to Fridays from 8.30am to 7pm and on Saturdays from 8.30am to 5pm. It is closed on Sundays and Public Holidays.






The other side of the moon

15 09 2012

In a fast changing world in which there often are just little reminders of the past to cling on to, it is always good to come across old world traditions that have not been displaced by the new. One area in which we are able to see this is in the making of mooncakes by some of the established mooncake bakeries, one of which is Chop Tai Chong Kok. I was able to visit the bakery very recently just as the making of mooncakes was being ramped-up as the Chinese eight month, in which the Mooncake or Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated, approaches.

Mooncakes are still made in the traditional way at Chop Tai Chong Kok.

Having been in the business for some 77 years, the shop has long been one of the popular brands in traditional Cantonese style mooncakes, attracting long queues for the sweet delectable treats it produces in the lead-up to the Mid-Autumn festival. It now produces the mooncakes it is well-known for, as well as other Cantonese style pastries and confectionery, in a shop lot in Ubi Avenue 1, having had to move its business in 34 Sago Street when Chinatown was being cleaned-up during the conservation efforts which have given us the sanitised version of Chinatown we see today. The shop has since opened a retail outlet back in the shophouse in which the business started – one that is now rented.

Long queues seen at the original shop at Sago Street in the lead-up to the Mid-Autumn Festival (photo taken off one displayed on the wall of the shop).

Having had to move out of their Sago Street premises during the remaking of Chinatown, the business now rents the same unit and operates a retail outlet there.

Although now made in newer premises, little has changed in the production of Chop Tai Chong Kok mooncakes since the days of the late Mr Tham Kah Chee who arrived from China in 1935 and started his business at Sago Street. The preparation of the dough as well as the lotus and bean paste fillings to the pressing of dough wrapped balls of paste into the round shaped mooncakes in wooden moulds that the late Mr Tham himself would have used is still very much done by hand. I was able to observe part of this process which involved five persons standing around a wooden topped table, very quickly transforming flat pieces of dough and pre-prepared balls of paste into unbaked paler versions of the famous mooncakes. The sounds of wooden moulds on the wooden table top took me back to the days of my youth when I would wander around the old streets of Chinatown to catch a glimpse of shop fronts brightly coloured by cellophane lanterns and for a chance to watch unbaked mooncakes being made on tables lined along the five-foot ways as the Mid-Autumn Festival approached.

Little has changed in the preparation of ingredients and in the way the mooncakes are made even with the mooncake maker operating in newer premises. The mooncakes are still considered to be the best among the best of traditional Cantonese mooncakes in Singapore.

The business is now in the hands of the second and third generations of the late Mr Tham’s family, with a grandson, Weng Seng, now involved in the running of business. Facing many challenges including he arrival of many new players in the market, the introduction of newer variations of the traditional pastry, changing tastes, the small local market, as well as in employing people willing to labour in the bakery, their mooncakes continue to remain popular with Singaporeans due to their commitment to tradition and quality. Being one of a few organic businesses that has reclaimed a place in a Chinatown where many other businesses have found it hard to return to, the desire of the new generation taking over to maintain the relevance of the business in the face of new challenges does spell hope that they will, for some time to come, continue to serve as a reminder of a world that would otherwise have long been forgotten.

The business in now in the hands of the Mr Tham Kah Chee’s children and the next generation. His son Mr Tham Wing Thong seen here is still very much involved in making the pastries.

Fillings (lotus paste with egg yolk seen here) prepared by hand are rolled into a ball and placed on trays ready to be wrapped in a skin of dough.

Trays of fillings for the morning’s mooncake making.

A flat round piece of dough is rolled and used to wrap the pre-prepared fillings. Lotus Paste, Red Bean Paste and Green Bean Paste with lotus seeds are traditional fillings used.

Covering up the filling …

A ball of dough wrapped around the filling ready to be pressed into a mould.

Pressing a dough into a wooden mould – the moulds used are those handed down by the late Mr Tham Kah Chee.

A fully pressed mooncake in the mould.

Knocking out the mooncake from the mould.

Voilà!

The mooncake is then placed in a baking tray destined for the oven.

Trays of unbaked mooncakes.

A close-up.

Mid-way through, the baking mooncakes are taken out to be glazed using egg-yolk.

Glazing the mooncakes.

A tray of freshly baked mooncakes just out of the oven.

Once out of the oven, the freshly baked mooncakes are transferred to wooden paper lined trays to cool down.

And given a light brush over.

Customers can opt to have their mooncakes wrapped in a traditional way.

Traditionally packed mooncakes.

And take them home in traditional brown paper bags – we used to call these chicken paper bags as such bags came in handy in bringing live chickens home.

A stack of paper bags … customers can also opt to have the mooncakes packed in square boxes and brought home in plastic bags or corporate gift paper bags.

A favourite with the kids … ‘piglets’ in baskets …

Similar methods are employed in the making of piglets.

Other traditional pastries are also on sale at the retail outlet.

Almond cookies.

Mooncakes on sale at the Sago Street retail outlet.








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