A sunrise over the lost country estate

10 04 2014

6.57 am, 3 April 2014, the colours of the new day, as was seen from Mount Rosie Road, close to it junction with Chancery Lane. It was in this vicinity that what must have been a very grand wooden bungalow from which the area got its name, Mount Rosie, had once stood as the centrepiece of a vast country estate.

Mount Rosie Sunrise

Built in the 1880s as the residence of Mr. Theodore Heinrich Sohst, a German trader who once served as the Acting German Consul to Singapore as well as the Honorary President of the Teutonia Club, the bungalow, as was the country estate it stood as the centrepiece of, was named after Mrs Sohst, Rosie de Souza who was of Eurasian heritage and whom he married in 1868.

The grand residence, described as a “princely establishment”, was built to be spacious and airy with generously large verandahs arranged around it, in the fashion of the stately homes of the well-heeled that did come up in the early days of Singapore. It had a magnificent position from which it commanded a view of the expansive estate, having been placed “on top of a hill with a fine stretch of open country around it”, and it must have been been a sight to behold, a focal point not just of the estate, but also of social life as it had been known to be.

Coming ashore in 1865, Mr. Sohst’s career here spanned a significant proportion of the history of the trading firm, Puttfarcken, Rheiner and Company, having arrived just seven years after it was established, serving as its Managing Partner at the time of its liquidation in 1906 when it had been renamed Puttfarcken and Company.

With the passing of Mr Sohst in January 1912, there were to be several more occupants of the bungalow. One was a Mr. Frank Adam, the General Manager of the Straits Trading Company, before it was first leased, from the early 1920s to the War Office, reportedly at a large cost. This was for use as a temporary residence of the British General Officer Commanding (GOC) of Malaya and it was during this time that Mount Rosie was renamed as Flagstaff House, in 1925.

With the completion of a purpose built Flagstaff House in 1938 (now Command House), the bungalow passed into the hands of Raffles College. As Mount Rosie Hostel, it was used as to house female students at the college (and later the University of Malaya) until 1958. It was used temporarily as a home for old folks after this, when a place was needed to house residents of Nantina Home in Queen Street, when that was closed in 1959.

A view of what Mount Rosie did look like can be found in this article, $100,000 House for Malays’s G.O.C., in the 14 March 1937 edition of The Straits Times.





The end of the Middle

3 04 2014

Long abandoned, a reminder of a time we have well forgotten, the former Bras Basah Community Centre, lies crumbling as it awaits a fate that does seem almost inevitable. For the moment, it serves as a reminder of the once gentle world that the new world seems to have little place for, one in which humble urban spaces for the community such as these were ones we could celebrate.

Patterns of a discarded world - ventilation openings from simpler and less energy dependent times.

Patterns of a discarded world – ventilation openings from simpler and less energy dependent times.

More patterns from forgotten times.

More patterns from forgotten times.

The former community centre, with group of single-storey buildings is set in a very generously provided space - unlike the compact, cluttered and overly crowded ones we have gotten used to seeing today. Opened in November 1960 as the Middle Road Community Centre, it was built to provide the community, at a time when the area did host a large resident population, with a point of focus. It also provided a safe place where the young  could expand their energy in with the provision of facilities such as two basketball courts which could also be used for badminton and sepak-takraw, as well as those for games such as chess and table-tennis.

An aerial view of the former Middle Road / Bras Basah Community Centre - the Empress Hotel, where the National Library now stands, can be seen at the top of the left hand side of the photograph.

An aerial view of the former Middle Road / Bras Basah Community Centre – the Empress Hotel, where the National Library now stands, can be seen at the top of the left hand side of the photograph.

A view of the grounds of the former community centre from high above where the Empress once reigned.

A view of the grounds of the former community centre from high above where the Empress once reigned.

The former centre provides a contrast against the new and modern world that has come up around it.

The former centre provides a contrast against the new and modern world that has come up around it.

One of the basketball courts was indeed where some of the young did, in early 1963, expand some energy in. An article I did come across in the National Library’s newspaper archives from 20 April 1963′s edition of The Straits Times, tells us of children discovering a hoard of banknotes and coins – believed to have been buried by residents of the area prior to the fall of Singapore to the Japanese , in digging a hole for a game of marbles on one of the centre’s two basketball courts.

A stash of buried money was found under one of the centre's two basketball courts in 1963.

A stash of buried money was found under one of the centre’s two basketball courts in 1963.

One of the basketball courts today.

One of the basketball courts today.

The centre was closed in 1987, after the area was cleared of its residents in the decade of what I term as the Great Wipeout. It found use for a while as a kindergarten called the Kinder World Educare Centre, but has in more recent times, remained vacant and has suffered from neglect. With the state of the grounds of the community centre and its buildings are in, it perhaps may not be long before holes are dug to remove the former community centre, and with that what’s left to remind us of the various communities it did once serve.

A view of the centre from a service road..

A view of the centre from a service road.

Reminders of the use of the former community centre as a kindergarten.

Reminders of the use of the former community centre as a kindergarten.

 

 More views around the former Community Centre

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The mystery of Bukit Gombak

13 03 2014

An area of Singapore that does seem to have an air of mystery about it is Bukit Gombak. The location of what reputedly was one of Singapore’s most haunted places, Hillview Mansion, which once stood high on its eastward facing slope, the hill and its environs has also gained a somewhat sinister reputation for other ghostly encounters, some of which seem to have been attributed as the cause of several unfortunate incidents that have taken place in the hill’s disused water filled quarries.

A mysterious collapsed structure on the one of the western slopes at Bukit Gombak.

A mysterious collapsed structure on the one of the western slopes at Bukit Gombak.

The rainwater filled former Gammon Quarry, now part of a park known as Little Guilin, is one that seems to hide much in terms of mystery.

The rainwater filled former Gammon Quarry, now part of a park known as Little Guilin, is one that seems to hide much in terms of mystery.

Besides the supernatural, a mystery that is of a less sinister nature is that of a concrete structure. Now in a state of collapse, the structure stands at the top of a steep incline that runs up from a cut leading to the former Seng Chew Granite Quarry. The structure is one that was documented by my friends from the One° North Explorers, who had first stumbled upon it sometime in 2005 when it was in better shape and was being used to house a makeshift shrine (see: The Forsaken Quarry of the West And the Mysterious Shrine).

Little Guilin is an area of much beauty that some suspect hides several secrets.

Little Guilin is an area of much beauty that some suspect hides several ghostly secrets.

It was in the company of James Tann, a long time resident of the area, and Andrew Him and Chris Lee of One° North Explorers, that I was to  pay a visit to the structure over the weekend, with the intention to search for further clues as to what it may have been.  From James, we were to learn quite a fair bit that wasn’t just confined to the area’s history, but also to the area’s geology. It was from the depths of his vast local knowledge that I was to discover that the rocky ground on which I had been standing on was in fact one of the oldest rock formations that I could stand on in Singapore (see: Singapore Landscapes: the secret lake).

Gombak norite formations seen at Little Guilin.

Gombak norite formations seen at Little Guilin.

With the area being one that had a strong connection with the military – the British having maintained a military installation and radar station on the ridge line that ran from Bukit Gombak to Bukit Panjang, and the Japanese having set up camp on the hill during the occupation, James had suspected that the collapsed structure might have been a Japanese built pillbox from World War II. There was also a suggestion from the One° North Explorers that it could have been a blasting shelter, as one might have expected to find on the grounds of the quarry.

More of the structure.

More of the structure.

Part of the collapsed roof.

Part of the collapsed roof.

The former Seng Chew Granite Quarry.

The former Seng Chew Granite Quarry.

Bashing through.

Bashing through.

Standing on its foundation of Gombak norite and in its collapsed state, there wasn’t much more that the structure did give away. What did seem like its flat roof, had completely caved in, burying whatever clues that might otherwise have been discovered under it. The only remnant of the structure that seemed to be left standing was a wall of concrete bricks with little else but a semi-corroded steel backing plate that might have been used to act as a support for a mounting inside the structure.

Remnants of the concrete structure on Bukit Gombak.

Remnants of the concrete structure on Bukit Gombak.

A view of the wall through the trees.

A view of the wall through the trees.

A close-up of the wall.

A close-up of the wall.

Built into the contours of the slope on the side of the quarry, there was also evidence of what did seem to be a substantial concrete structure. That might possibly been erected to act as a blast barrier – supporting the suggestion that what was there may have been that blasting shelter, along with the fact that the collapsed structure had its entrance on the slope away from the quarry. Kim Frost, a WWII vehicle expert,  did also unearth a grove on the top of the thick layer of concrete that does resemble a drain – possibly to provide drainage from runoff flowing down the slope.

Another look at the wall.

Another look at the wall.

The substantial concrete structure built into the quarry side of the slope.

The substantial concrete structure built into the quarry side of the slope.

From another angle.

From another angle.

Kim Frost digging for further evidence.

Kim Frost digging for further evidence.

While all does seem to point to the structure being a blasting shelter, that is still this lingering suspicion that the structure could still be a military one, including it being an entrance to a tunnel – similar to what we do see of the tunnels at Marsiling that was recently in the news, especially so when a newspaper report I came across does give evidence of their construction at Bukit Gombak.

Kim Frost working on the top of the quarry-side concrete barrier.

Kim Frost working on the top of the quarry-side concrete barrier.

What appears to be a drain that Kim unearthed.

What appears to be a drain that Kim unearthed.

The report, in the 17 November 1953 edition of The Straits Times that was headlined “$50 MIL. OIL PIPE PLAN IS ABANDONED“, relates to the abandonment of  what it called a “top-secret project”, that is spite of half the budgeted sum already expanded in the twelve years of effort, interrupted by the war, put into carving out tunnels and oil storage tanks under Bukit Gombak. That was all part of an attempt to build what would have been a hidden storage facility, capable of holding “hundreds of thousands of gallons of petrol [sic]” to fuel the Far East Fleet based at the Naval Base.

A concrete block.

A concrete block.

The project would have seen some fourteen underground oil tanks built along with access and maintenance tunnels and a pumping station, and with a network of pipelines laid. From the report, we can surmise that work would have started in 1941 with the Japanese continuing with it during the occupation. The Royal Navy recommenced work on it in 1946 before abandoning the project in 1953. The report does mention that the tunnels and tanks were filled up after the project was stopped as well as “several miles of underground pipes” dug up.

The entrance to a service tunnel at what is believed to be an aviation fuel storage facility at Marsiling.

The entrance to a service tunnel at what is believed to be an aviation fuel storage facility at Marsiling, which may have been similar in construction to the Gombak storage facility.

This certainly is an interesting parallel to set of tunnels that have been found at Marsiling that was the subject of a recent WWII related tour organised by the National Heritage Board. While that, located on what was fringe of the Naval Base, is thought to have been built as an aviation fuel storage facility, the one at Bukit Gombak located away from the Naval Base, was being built to serve as a fuel storage for the naval fleet.

Pipelines inside the service tunnel at Marsiling.

Pipelines inside the service tunnel at Marsiling.

Pipelines at the boundary wall of the service tunnel at Marsiling.

Pipelines at the boundary wall of the service tunnel at Marsiling.

With the military presence continuing at Bukit Gombak and the developments that have taken place around the hill, there is little more evidence that can be found of what the structure might once have been. It may also not be long before the structure disappears completely - survey markers seen in the area do show signs there is recent interest in perhaps the redevelopment of the area, which does mean that we may never unravel the mystery of what the collapsed structure was.

Developments in the area mean little else is left that can be found.

Developments in the area mean little else is left that can be found.

Part of the slope is now a secret garden - probably planted by some of the nearby residents.

Part of the slope is now a secret garden – probably planted by some of the nearby residents.

More evidence of the secret garden.

More evidence of the secret garden.





Last impressions

4 03 2014

Time can be a cruel thing in Singapore. The passage of time brings with it the change that seems inevitable in Singapore denying us many places that we may have developed an attachment to.

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The last day of February this year, saw the passing of two well-loved places. One is a kopitiam (coffee-shop), set in an world older than itself for which time is being called on, and the other, a well used community space in the form of a public swimming pool complex we in Singapore seem to want to discard all to quickly.

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Just a stone’s throw away from each other, the two, are coincidentally from the same era. While this may be hard to see in the swimming complex, the Buona Vista Swimming Complex, the layout of the kopitiam, Chin Hin Eating House at Block 75 Commonwealth Drive, does take us back to the period when it was set-up in 1976 – when it was still the fashion to lay food stalls at the coffee-shop’s front, with a seating area in the back. A popular place for that traditional breakfast of buttered bread, soft-boiled eggs and coffee, the coffee-shop was located on the ground floor of a block of flats that will be a group of seven – among the earliest put up by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) in the early 1960s, that will be demolished under the HDB’s Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS).

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The swimming complex, which opened in September 1976 and the fourth to be designed by the Housing and Development Board (the others before it were Queenstown, Toa Payoh and Katong), is one that I do have a memory of. It was where on one evening in the complex’s first decade of operation, despite losing my glasses in any attempt to “rescue” a “swimmer in distress”, I managed to get my bronze medallion in life-saving that qualified me as a lifeguard. That was some 30 years ago in 1983, and probably some 30 kilogrammes ago in weight I have since seemed to have gained.

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While there is little I have in terms of sentimentality for the places concerned, they are still places for which I do feel a sense of loss, being reminders of unassuming times for which there is little place in the world we have been forced to love. There may be little time left for us to celebrate these remnants of the old world in which we find easy to feel at home in, before they become a remnant only in our memories.


A last waltz

- a final dance at Chin Hin Eating House (1976 to 2014) -

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La última Vista

- a final look at Buona Vista Swimming Complex (4 Sep 1976 to 28 Feb 2014) -

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A search for a lost countryside

27 02 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A link with the area's heritage.

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

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

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

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

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

The road to the former residence.

The road to the former residence.

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

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

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

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

Sembawang Road at its junction with Jalan Mata Ayer.

Sembawang Road at its junction with Jalan Mata Ayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The surviving well of the spring.

The surviving well of the spring.

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

Collecting water at the hot springs.

Collecting water at the hot springs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It now is a wooded area awaiting future development.

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

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

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





Windows into Singapore: A world we soon may forget

12 02 2014

A view from a block of new housing over to colonial bungalows that had once served as the somewhat grand residences of the senior officers of the British Admiralty stationed at the Naval Base in the north of Singapore. The base, which stretched from the old Seletar Road (which was renamed Sembawang Road in 1939) to where the causeway is, occupied some 2,300 acres or 930 ha. of land along the northern coastline. As was a feature of the British military bases set up in Singapore, generously sized bungalows as well as flats were built to serve as residences for the senior military personnel.

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The rolling hills of the area around which the bulk of the housing was built, on the eastern fringes of the base, did provide a wonderful setting that was close to the sea for the residences to be built on. Well spaced apart around the area, the former residences are set in the openness of lush green yards that would even then have been a luxury only the more fortunate would have been able to enjoy. The spacious and airy bungalows of the senior Admiralty, many of which are still around today, are particularly impressive, built in a style typical of the purpose – many were of single storey design and set on on a stilted foundation to allow added ventilation in the oppressive heat of the tropics, as well as to keep snakes and termites out.

The beautiful setting in which the 'black and white houses' of Sembawang find themselves in.

The beautiful setting in which the ‘black and white houses’ of Sembawang find themselves in.

These ‘black and white houses’ a term we in Singapore commonly use to refer to these bungalows due to their appearance (thought to be influenced by the Tudor revival movement that coincided with the first appearances of such bungalows in Singapore), are similar to those found other several areas in Singapore associated with former military bases. This includes the former RAF Seletar (Seletar Airbase) where 32 such bungalows are now slated for conservation at  (see: Straits Times report dated 11 Feb 2014).

Some 400 former residences including low-rise flats in the area were handed over to Singapore in 1971 when the British pulled their forces out. Many saw use by the ANZUK forces and later the New Zealand ForceSEA, with some currently used by the US Navy to house personnel based at the Commander, Logistics Group Western Pacific (COMLOG WESTPAC) and the Navy Region Center Singapore (NRCS) at the former Naval Stores Basin. Several units are also being rented out by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA).

The houses and the undulating and green landscape, provides the area not just with much of its laid back and somewhat old world charm, but also a feeling of space that is lacking in other parts of built-up Singapore. There is also that window the housing units, many of which came up during the construction the naval base in the 1930s, does also provide into a significant part of a past we might otherwise all too quickly forget.


More on the Naval Base 

A look at a ‘Black and White House’


 

 





More winds of change blowing through Queen Street

7 02 2014

Besides the stretch of Queen Street at the Cathedral end, another section of the street in the midst of change is the stretch between Bras Basah and Middle Roads. It is one that although is already much changed from the street that I was familiar with in my younger days, which is littered with reminders of a past when the European missionaries left what did once seem like an indelible mark on it.

A view of part of the area from the (new) National Library - the three blocks of Waterloo Centre can be seen at the top left of the photograph. St. Joseph's Church and the former St. Anthony's Convent can be seen in the foreground.

A view of part of the area from the (new) National Library – the three blocks of Waterloo Centre can be seen at the top left of the photograph. St. Joseph’s Church (the Portuguese Church) and the former St. Anthony’s Convent can be seen in the foreground.

One new addition to the stretch that will definitely leave a mark on the street will be the China Cultural Centre that is fast coming up (which got a mention in a post in March of last year). The centre, built as an effort on China’s part “to help people understand Chinese culture and deepen ties with the host country”, is one that will certainly change the character of an area once flavoured by schools which have since been moved out and two beautiful churches – legacies of the important contributions made by the French and the Portuguese missionaries to modern Singapore.

The China Cultural Centre  is seen rising up just beyond the burnt siena coloured Oxford Hotel.

The China Cultural Centre is seen rising up just beyond the burnt siena coloured Oxford Hotel.

The centre stands on a plot of land that once had been occupied by the Stamford Community Centre, a place that I had been familiar with in my school days in nearby Saint Joseph’s Institution. The centre was where in May 1978, a balloting exercise was held for would be residents of the three residential Housing and Development Board (HDB) blocks of flats built over a lower podium block – a public housing complex that has for some 35 years now, dominate this stretch of the street. 

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.

The former Stamford Community Centre.

The development of Waterloo Centre, which was completed in 1978, could be considered to be a significant one from a public housing perspective. It was one of several mixed commercial and residential built in the city centre at the 1970s and in the early 1980s that were built to accommodate some of the many residents and businesses that were being displaced by what was a huge wave of redevelopment sweeping across urban Singapore. 

The Waterloo Centre Podium with its mix of old and new.

The Waterloo Centre Podium with its mix of old and new.

Taking a walk around Waterloo Centre’s podium these days, one can’t help but feel the sense of time standing very still there; the podium is one that still contains many remnants of its shop lots’ first occupants – the motor spare parts dealers that were moved into it having been displaced from the redevelopment of the Sungei Road and Rochor areas. 

Shops housing motor spare parts dealers.

Shops housing motor spare parts dealers.

Another look at the podium.

Another look at the podium.

Although there now is a mix of newer business with some of the original occupants, Waterloo Centre does seem a lot quieter compared to similar urban podium block complexes such as the nearby Albert Complex with its wet market and popular food centre, and Bras Basah Complex with its mix of bookshops and art supply shops and printing business. And that is perhaps why the complex is being given a makeover into Arts Place – a centre that perhaps fits into the vision set out for the area as a destination for the arts and culture.

Waterloo Centre seems to be in the middle of a transformation into ArtsPlace.

Waterloo Centre seems to be in the middle of a transformation into Arts Place.

SAM @ 8Q - formerly  the Catholic High School - now an extension to the art museum.

SAM @ 8Q – formerly the Catholic High School – now an extension to the art museum.

On part of the plot where Waterloo Centre stands today was where a private school, the Mercantile Institution did once stand. The school, which was started in the late 1920s, was where my father did once enroll in, in the mess that came with the end of war when many publicly run schools were still shut and places were in short supply. It was only to be for a short while though, my father did eventually get a place in Monk’s Hill Boys School. There were a couple of things he did tell me of his experiences in the Mercantile Institution – one was that as the war had disrupted the education of many, there were many older boys who had to enrolled into the entry level classes. Another was that the name of the school was often mispronounced – coming across sounding like “Makan-tahi Institution” – “makan tahi” many in Singapore would know as Malay for (pardon the crudeness) “eat shit”.

Area where Waterloo Centre is today, as seen in 1959 - the Mercantile Institution, a private school established in the 1920s, can be seen on the left right next to Nantina Home (ex Nantina Hotel) (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Area where Waterloo Centre is today, as seen in 1959 – the Mercantile Institution, a private school established in the 1920s, can be seen on the left right next to Nantina Home (ex Toyo Hotel) (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Further along from the Mercantile Institution, there were two other buildings that many familiar with the area would remember. One was the former Nantina Home, which functioned as the Japanese owned Toyo Hotel before the war (it was the second Toyo Hotel – the first was demolished in 1937 to make way for Cathay Building) . As the Nantina Hotel after the war, it was used to accommodate returning European internees who came back via India, before it was handed over to the Department of Social Welfare who turned it into a home for the aged and destitute. That operated until 1959 when the building was taken over by the Trades Union Congress.

The area in 1975 with the former Nantina Home still standing next to Queen Street Post Office (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

The area in 1975 with the former Nantina Home still standing next to Queen Street Post Office (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Right next to Nantina Home was another building many might remember – the Queen Street Post Office, housed in a four storey building. The building was demolished after the post office was closed in May 1978. What stands in its place (or at least partly in its place) today is the five storey Bylands Building of 1980s vintage, right next to Middle Road.

Queen Street Post Office which was to close in May 1978 is seen next to the already demolished former Nantina Home (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Queen Street Post Office which was to close in May 1978 is seen next to the already demolished former Nantina Home (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

The part of Queen Street where the Mercantile Institution, the Nantina Home, and Queen Street Post Office was, is where a spectacle does takes place once a year on Good Friday. That is when part of the street and the compound of Saint Joseph’s Church next to it, becomes a sea of candlelight as part of a procession. That is a time when the rich religious traditions of the Portuguese missionaries, who did leave us one of the most beautiful churches on the island, does manifest itself – a celebration that does serve to remind us of what the area should really be remembered for.





A walk along the ridge: Commemorating the Battle of Pasir Panjang

4 02 2014

Jerome Lim, The Wondering Wanderer:

A walk that is well worth the 4-5 hours, offering a peek into a part of Singapore many of us would never think of exploring on our own. This year, it will take place on 15 Feb at 7 am. To sign up for it, visit this link: http://habitatnews.nus.edu.sg/index.php.

(see also: Lost on the Ridge)

Also happening around the same time is a series of National Heritage Board Battle for Singapore Heritage Tours on 8/9 Feb and 15 Feb. More information can be found at the I Love Museums website

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Originally posted on The Long and Winding Road:

I took a walk with a group of about 50 yesterday morning, along a part of Singapore that I frequent only because of visits I make from time-to-time to the National University of Singapore (NUS) in the course of my work, and in doing so, I learnt quite a lot about the area where one of the fiercest battles took place as the impregnable fortress that the colonial masters of Singapore had thought the island was, capitulated to the invading Japanese Imperial Army in the dark days of the February of 1942. The walk had in fact been one that takes place on an annual basis to commemorate the battle, the Battle of Pasir Panjang, with took place over the 13th and 14th of February, in the final hours before General Percival did the unthinkable, being made to take a march of shame up the hill on which General Yamashita…

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A look down the Orchard Road of the early 1970s

20 01 2014

A photograph that would probably have been taken from the top of the Hilton in the early 1970s offers a view of that show how different Orchard Road was back then. The Mandarin Hotel, which was completed in 1971, and the two-way traffic system along the stretch from the junction with Scotts/Paterson Roads provides an indication of when the photograph would have been taken. This was period when I probably enjoyed Orchard Road the most, a time when the crowds we now cannot seem to escape from were non-existent, and a time before the modern shopping malls descended on what has since become a street well-known throughout the world for its shopping offerings.

Orchard Road early 1970s

Of some of the main landmarks seen in the photograph, only the Mandarin Hotel and Liat Towers stands today. In place of Orchard Road Police Station is the Orchard MRT Station and ION Orchard above it. Across the road, the complex that houses Tangs and Marriot Hotel (ex Dynatsy Hotel) now stands in place of the two rows of shophouses and the iconic old CK Tang Building.

Lucky Plaza (1978), one of the first malls to arrive on Orchard Road, stands where Champion Motors (a former Volkswagen dealer) used to be and Tong Building (1978) stands where the Yellow Pages Building and an Esso Petrol Station were, right next to the old Fitzpatrick’s Supermarket.

Fitzpatrick’s went for the Promenade Shopping Centre (1984) to be built. The Promenade, best remembered for its spiral walkway up, has since been demolished for an extension of Paragon (2003) to be built.

The original portion of Paragon (1997) would have been where The Orchard, a shopping centre that was converted from the former Orchard Motors showroom in 1970, had stood. The Orchard would be remembered for its famous Tivoli Coffee House.

Another icon along that old Orchard Road, would be Wisma Indonesia beyond Orchard Road Police Station and separated from the road by an uncovered Stamford Canal and a service road. That housed the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia, and was very recognisable for its Minangkabau styled roof. In its places stands Wisma Atria (1986).

Beyond the Wisma was Ngee Ann Building. It was where the once well-known Mont d’Or Cake Shop was located. The site of Ngee Ann Building (and the then empty land beyond it) is where Ngee Ann City (1993) stands today. The canal one had to cross both to Ngee Ann Building and the Wisma, was covered up in 1974 and its is on top of this that the wide pedestrian walkway running down that side of Orchard Road, now runs.

More related to Orchard Road in the 1970s and 1980s can be found in several posts:





The palace of an empire lost

10 01 2014

It was in the disorder of Kampong Glam of the late 1960s that I first became acquainted with the area. It was where I would occasionally find myself heading to on the back of a beca (trishaw) on the shopping trips my maternal grandmother made to the five-foot-ways of the Arab Street area, an area she referred to as Kampong Jawa, for her supply of batik sarongs and bedak sejuk in shops mixed into the colours of the many textile shops that lined the corridors.

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Surviving today as a conservation district, Kampong Glam is today a pale shadow of that Kampong Glam of the 1960s – a sanitised version of what once had been a huge bazaar, a trading place of many who brought goods into Singapore from far and wide. It is amid the order found in the seemingly disordered streets and back lanes that one can now seek a peace that does often seem elusive in the madness of concrete that surrounds the district, accentuated five times a day when the soothing strains of the Azan spreading out from the Sultan’s Mosque, brings about an air of contemplative calm.

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In the shadow of the complex of the grand mosque, is where an oasis from what might have been a disorderly past, once an abode for would be kings, can be found. Set in a beautifully landscaped compound and the building that once was the Istana Kampong Glam, does take on an appearance that hints at its regal beginnings, as the royal home of a prince who became Sultan Ali Iskandar Shah, one who sought to live as a king he would never be.

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The oasis would turn out to be a mirage to the sultan’s descendents. They were to occupy the building for some 12 decades that followed his death in 1877, with the last descendants leaving in 1999. This was when the State, as the successor of the Crown to whom the ownership of the property long had reverted, decided to repossess the property for its conversion into the Malay Heritage Centre.

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The building had by 1999, long lost any hint that there might have been of its regal origins, wearing instead a worn and tired appearance and feeling the strain of its 170 occupants. This perhaps was a reflection of the fortunes of a once proud royal line, a line that descended from the rulers of territories that had stretched across the southern Malay Peninsula to the Riau and Lingga Archipelagos, fortunes that diminished progressively with the passing of each generation.

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Sitting in the quiet of the serene forecourt of the restored and resplendent yellow coated Malay Heritage Centre and bathed in its golden glow, it is the whispers of its many ghosts that I hear. The whispers are ones that remind me of the golden days of my grandmother’s Kampong Jawa, and ones that speak of gold that has for long lost its lustre. While it may seem that the gold is one we find is now best to forget, it is also one in telling us of who we in Singapore are, that we should never be made to forget.


About Istana Kampong Glam and its history:

The two-storey former Istana Kampong Glam was erected in the 1840s, work on it starting some five years after the death in 1835 of Sultan Hussein Shah in Melaka. Built in the Neo-Palladian style, the palace was built on what was said to be a palace of attap used by Sultain Hussein Shah on land that was allotted to him by the British East India Company in 1823 in exchange for the sultan’s ceding of Singapore to the British.

The istana in 1960 (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

Sultan Hussein’s act would have taken place in only a matter of four years from when the sultan had assumed the throne of the Johor-Singapura Sultanate. It was a manoeuvre that had been orchestrated by the British East India Company in the disarray that followed the death in 1812 of the last sultan of the great Johor-Riau-Lingga empire, Hussein’s father Sultan Mahmud Shah III, to allow them a foothold on the island.

The forecourt of the istana in 1968 (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

Descended from a proud line of rulers of a sultanate that had once stretched across much of the southern Malay Peninsula and the Riau and Lingga Archipelago, Sultan Hussein Shah could only serve as a pawn to one of the European powers that had sought to carve the huge empire his father had left, dying somewhat dispiritedly, a year after he had moved to Melaka.

The istana in 1968 (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

It was to the promise that was the territory of Johor that Tengku Ali (later Sultan Ali Iskandar Shah), Hussein’s son, probably arrived in Singapore to stake his claim on his late father’s estate. While he was successful in seeking recognition as his father’s successor, the title of Sultan initially proved to be an elusive one on which Tengku Ali was conferred only in 1855. The price Ali did pay for that was huge – he signed away his rights to sovereignty over Johor to the favoured Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim and this would have repercussions on the succession rights of his descendants – cutting them off from ruling a territory that if not for the events of the early 19th century, might still have been in their hands.

Sultan Gate and the istana in 1968 (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

It was in 1897 that a court ruling to a succession dispute brought to the courts had it that no one would be able to claim rights they may have had to succession following Sultan Ali’s passing in 1877. That also meant the 56 acres or 23 ha. property on which the istana stood with the ownership of the istana and its grounds reverting back to the Crown.  An ordinance, the Sultan Hussain Ordinance of 1904, was subsequently passed to allow descendants of Sultan Hussein to instead receive a stipend from the Crown. The descendents were also allowed to continue staying at the istana, vacating it only in 1999, when attempts in 1999 by the State (as a successor to the Crown) to repossess the building and its grounds, for conversion into the Malay Heritage Centre, were to be met with resistance.

The istana in 1971 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

While some of its 170 residents, some living in makeshift extensions, were happy to accept the resettlement benefits and move out of the istana’s desperately overcrowded premises, there were also many who objected (see: Letter of Appeal signed by 32 of the istana’s residents – on the Gedung Kuning website).

The istana in 1982 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

There was also much controversy that was to follow when several media organisations in Malaysia decided to weigh in on the issue. Coming at a time when tensions between Malaysia and its former state were at a high with several highly contentious bilateral issues lying unresolved, this was to lead to several angry exchanges. Singapore was accused of attempting to erase a part of its history, and with the istana being referred to as “benteng terakhir Melayu Singapura” or the “last bastion of Malay Singapore” in several instances (see Utusan Malaysia report dated 8 July 1999; and also, Main Point of Remarks by Minister S Jayakumar on 6 July 1999 and Speech by Mr Yatiman Yusof  on 6 July 1999).

Other sources of information:

Other posts related to the Johor-Riau-Lingga Sultanate and to Sultan Hussein Shah:






Memories and Lost Spaces

30 12 2013

A small crowd was present on Saturday, to witness the return of a ghost that has haunted us in Singapore for close to a quarter of a century. The ghost is of a much loved icon, the National Theatre, which having been completed in 1963, would have celebrated its 50th birthday this year.

The ghost of the National Theatre - National Theatre@50 an installation for the Singapore Biennale by Lai Chee Kien.

The ghost of the National Theatre – National Theatre@50 an installation for the Singapore Biennale by Lai Chee Kien.

Designed by pioneering architect Alfred Wong, the theatre was built with funds partly contributed by members of the public. What became for a while a symbol of Singapore’s statehood, the much photographed and very distinctive building, had stood for some 2 decades before it was closed, as we were told, due to structural defects in its cantilevered roof (it turned out that it was to be demolished to allow the construction of two tunnels for the CTE and for the MRT (to connect Chinatown with Dhoby Ghaut).

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 National Theatre  which was demolished in 1986 would have celebrated its 50th birthday this year.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the National Theatre, a scaled replica of its very recognisable façade, was put up at Tank Road, across from its original site, by architect Lai Chee Kien, for the Singapore Biennale (entitled National Theatre@50). And it was at the installation on Saturday that perhaps some of our ghosts, not only of the National Theatre, did return in a collective lament for lost spaces and a lost past, in a poetry sharing session.

The National Theatre@50, with the audience gathering in front of the "stage".

The National Theatre@50, with the audience gathering in front of the “stage”.

The enjoyable session involved with many of the who’s who in the local arts and literary scene and included a selection of works (some impromptu and some sung) that revolved around the theme of Memories and Lost Spaces. The session was jointly organised by Chee Kien and poet Alvin Pang and also featured Isa Kamari, Simon Tay, Kim Cheng Boey, Pooja Nansi, Christine Chia, Verena Tay, Jollin Tan, Cyril Wong, Felix Cheong, Hao Guang, Joshua Ip, Leonard Ng, Zai Ruda Kuning, Thirunalan Sasitharan, Vikas Bhatt Kailankaje, Emelda Jumari, Annaliza Bakri and Goh Beng Choo.

Another view of the installation and Saturday's audience.

Another view of the installation and Saturday’s audience.

More photographs from Memories and Lost Spaces

Lai Chee Kien opens the session.

Lai Chee Kien opens the session.

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Pooja Nansi.

Pooja Nansi.

Christine Chia.

Christine Chia.

Varena Tay.

Varena Tay.

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Jollin Tan.

Jollin Tan.

Cyril Wong.

Cyril Wong.

Hao Guang.

Hao Guang.

Ng Yi-Sheng.

Ng Yi-Sheng.

Simon Tay.

Simon Tay.

An animated Joshua Ip.

An animated Joshua Ip.

Thirunalan Sasitharan, who mentioned sitting on the shoulders of his father by the road on the side of the former theatre as a child to watch the Silver Chariot make its way to the Chettairs Temple on Tank Road on the eve of Thaipusam.

Thirunalan Sasitharan, who mentioned sitting on the shoulders of his father by the road on the side of the former theatre as a child to watch the Silver Chariot make its way to the Chettairs Temple on Tank Road on the eve of Thaipusam.

Isa Kamari, who sang.

Isa Kamari, who sang.

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JeromeLim iPhone Pano Memories and Lost Places 28 Dec 2013





A vestige of 16th Century Singapura?

1 12 2013

Ravaged by the passage of time and probably neglect, a structure which harks back seemingly to the days of empire and dominion, sits somewhat obscurely and well forgotten on the southern slope of Bukit Purmei in Kampong Bahru. Dominated by the emblems near it of a Singapore that spares little thought for such vestiges of its past, the structure, a walled compound, with an entrance archway suggesting a European origin, hides a world that has much to do with the days of empire that is anything but European.

The well hidden reminder of a past we have long discarded.

The well hidden reminder of a past we have long discarded.

The walled compound, referred to in the past as Keramat Bukit Kasita, is well hidden from view. Located on what can probably be described as a short spur on the Bukit Purmei slope, it sits on the edge of a public housing estate, behind a disarray of zinc topped shacks. A narrow path leads through the shacks – home to the guardians of the compound, who perhaps are also the keepers of a past which  would otherwise have been discarded; rising up to where the archway is. Beyond the locked gates – a more recent addition to the archway, it is the unmistakeable sight of Malay graves – many have its headstones covered in the yellow cloth that is associated with Malay royalty, that greets the eye. There are also several on which green cloth is wrapped over – green being the colour of Islam.

The concrete jungle Keramat Bukit Kasita now finds itself in. The blocks of flats painted in light blue and white are of Bukit Purmei.

The concrete jungle Keramat Bukit Kasita now finds itself in. The blocks of flats painted in light blue and white are of Bukit Purmei.

One of the keepers of the tombs, a rather chatty lady who identified herself as “Umi”, tells the group of us standing by the archway that the tombs are those of the Riau-Lingga branch of the Johor Royal family, hence the yellow cloth and the name Tanah Kubor diRaja by which the site is also known as. The earliest grave there she says, is one which dates back to 1721. She also made mention of a “Sultan Iskandar Shah”, buried at the site, about which I was rather puzzled as I was intrigued. 

A look into the compound from the back of it.

A look into the compound from the back of it.

“Wouldn’t Sultan Iskandar Shah be buried in Melaka” I ask. Umi tells me there might have been more than one “Iskandar Shah”, as names are often recycled down the line.

A Berita Minggu article from Nov 1998 tells us of a notice which identifies the tomb of a "Sultan Iskandar Shah" under an awning.

A Berita Minggu article from Nov 1998 tells us of a notice which identifies the tomb of a “Sultan Iskandar Shah” under in a yellow shed.

Interestingly a Berita Minggu article published on 29 November 1998 also makes mention of “Sultan Iskandar Shah”, drawing reference to a notice put up at the site on which the words “terdapat sebuah makam seorang sultan, Almahurum Sri Sultan Iskandar Shah, di pondok tuning itu“, which translates into “there is a tomb of a sultan, the late Sri Sultan Iskandar Shah, in the yellow shed”.

A zinc topped dwelling, one which hides the walled compound from view.

A zinc topped dwelling, one which hides the walled compound from view.

The article which is written based on an interview the newspaper did with a previous keeper of the tombs, an En. Azmi Saipan, also mentions that this “Sultan Iskandar Shah”, was thought to have died some 400 years previously – placing him in the 16th Century, well after the passing of the Iskandar Shah, the last king of Sang Nila Utama’s Singapura and the founder of Melaka, that we know well from our history texts.

What greets the eye at the bottom of the spur.

What greets the eye at the bottom of the spur – used as a barber shop until very recently.

There is a suggestion that is offered by a Radin Mas heritage guide which is put together by the Radin Mas Citizens’s Consultative Community, that the burial site was set up in 1530 by Sultan Alaudin Riayat Shah II – who established the Johor Sultanate out of the ruins of the Melaka Sultanate which was deposed through the Portuguese conquest of Melaka in the early 16th Century. Whether or not Sultan Alaudin Riayat Shah II who ruled from 1528 to 1564 could be that “Sultan Iskandar Shah” the keepers speak of isn’t certain, although the association remains a possibility. This does also does date the burial grounds some two hundred years before the “oldest grave” which Umi made a mention of.

The grounds of the former De La Salle School which opened in 1952 are right next to the keramat.

The grounds of the former De La Salle School which opened in 1952 are right next to the keramat.

We also learn from Umi that she was from a family of caretakers appointed by a member of the Johor Royal family to take care of the Istana Woodneuk and the grounds of the former Istana Tyersall until some 15 years ago, before being asked by a “Tunku” to move to Bukit Purmei to look after the Bukit Kasita site, which she says is still in the hands of the State of Johor. A check on the Singapore Land Authority’s one map site shows however that Bukit Kasita is within a parcel of land which is owned by the Housing and Development Board – although I am given to understand that it is possible that the site itself could still be owned by the Johor State.

Query on ownership of land on which Keramat Bukit Kasita is on via SLA's One Map site.

Query on ownership of land on which Keramat Bukit Kasita is on via SLA’s One Map site.

While it is uncertain what origins of the site are, we do know that there is at least the graves of a branch of the Johor Royal line all of which can be traced back to Sang Nila Utama and his successors who ruled Singapura and subsequently the Sultanate of Melaka, is can be found behind the walls. This branch, are the descendants of the rulers of the Riau-Lingga Sultanate which was set up by the Dutch out of the remnants of the Johor-Riau-Lingga Sultanate they controlled through the appointment of the Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah the younger son of Sultan Mahmud Shah III following his death in 1812 and cemented by the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824.

The locked gates.

The locked gates.

It was Abdul Rahman’s elder half brother, Hussein who was set up by Raffles as Sultan of Johor and Singapore, in Kampong Glam – Hussein’s descendants are buried in another site at the Old Malay Cemetery in Jalan Kubor.

The 'Tomb of Malayan Princes'.

The ‘Tombs of Malayan Princes’ at Jalan Kubor.

The Riau Sultanate was abolished when the Dutch drove an uncooperative Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah II, the great-great-grandson of Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah through his great-granddaughter Tengku Fatimah, from his seat in Pulau Penyengat into exile in Singapore in 1911. Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah II, the very last Sultan of Riau-Lingga, died a poor man in 1930 and along with several of his descendants, is buried at Bukit Kasita. This does make the cluster, one of three connected, albeit distantly, with the Johor Royal family.

Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah II, the last sultan of Riau-Lingga who died in exile in Singapore in 1930 (source: www.royalark.net).

The other two are the Tanah Kubor Temenggong at Telok Blangah where the Temenggong with whom Raffles negotiated with in setting up the East India Company’s trading post in Singapore, and  from whom the current line of Johor Sultans descended,  Temenggong Abdul Rahman is buried; and the Old Malay Cemetery at Kampong Glam, where the “Tombs of Malayan Princes” – many of whom were descendants of Sultan Hussein, is found. Tanah Kubor Temenggong along with the Masjid Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim are on land owned by the State of Johor. The tomb of Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim after whom the mosque is named is also found in that burial site. It was Temmenggong Deang Ibrahim’s son, Abu Bakar, who established the current Johor Sultanate.

Another view of the Tanah Kubor diRaja / Keramat Bukit Kasita.

Another view of the Tanah Kubor diRaja / Keramat Bukit Kasita.

It is thought that the area where Bukit Kasita is, was where one of the oldest settlements in Singapore was established well before the arrival of Raffles and the resettlement of the Temenggong and his followers by Raffles to the Telok Blangah area. It might have been Abu Bakar as Temenggong who permitted the establishment of a settlement by followers of the ousted last Bendahara of Johor in Pahang Tun Mutahir in 1863, many of whom fled to Singapore and Johor at the end of the Pahang Civil War of 1857 to 1863. Tun Mutahir was defeated by the Bendahara’s younger half brother Tun Ahmad who established the Pahang Sultanate.  The settlement came to be known as Kampong Pahang – which is shown in a map of Singapore from 1907, one of several villages of the same name set up by fleeing followers of Tun Mutahir, another of which was on Pulau Tekong.

Detail of a 1907 map of Singapore showing Kampong Pahang at Bukit Purmei / Bukit Kasita.

Detail of a 1907 map of Singapore showing Kampong Pahang at Bukit Purmei / Bukit Kasita.

As to how the Bukit Kasita site came to be venerated as a keramat, a clue is found in a paper published in the Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 2003 by P.J. Rivers. Rivers identifies two graves which are venerated as keramats, one is of a Raja Ahmad which Rivers identifies as Keramat Bukit Kasita. The second grave is that of a Raja Tengku Fatimah which is venerated on the basis that the waters of spring next to the tomb which is said to have healing powers.

Another keramat, that of Radin Mas Ayu, just a stone's throw away on the slopes of Mount Faber.

Another keramat, that of Radin Mas Ayu, just a stone’s throw away on the slopes of Mount Faber.

Outside the gate two urns containing sticks of incense provide evidence of the veneration of the site, which the Berita Minggu article says attracts visitors of all races. Umi does confirm this, telling us that there are indeed visitors who come from as far as Europe, who offer prayers at the site.

Yellow is seen along with the colour green.

Yellow is seen along with the colour green.

Before we leave, we ask Umi about the significance of the green seen on some of the graves. Umi tells us that they are of descendants of “shaikhs” from Iraq, related to Muslim holyman Habib Noh (of Keramat Habib Noh). Whether it is completely true or not is hard to establish. She adds the grave of an infant seen under the tree in the middle of the compound, is that of a grandchild of Habib Noh. As we thank Umi for her information and turn to leave, Umi adds that the tree is a holy one which should never be cut down.

URA's Draft Master Plan 2013 shows the Keramat Bukit Kasita area as a reserve site.

URA’s Draft Master Plan 2013 shows the Keramat Bukit Kasita area as a reserve site.

Whether or not the tree will ever be cut down, would depend very on whether the site and the wealth of history that comes with it is discarded in the same way much of what made us who we as Singaporeans are has been sacrificed for the glitter of the soulless world we have come to embrace. What is known today, based on the latest (2013) draft of the URA Master Plan, is that the site is a reserved site for which there are no immediate plans. In that there is hope that what may be a link we have to a world we might otherwise have lost touch with, may somehow survive.


See also:

A Straits Times Article published on 6 Dec 2013:

HDB estate with grave links to the past. Muslim burial site in Bukit Purmei holds historical, spiritual significance.





Coloured corridors

13 11 2013

Conceived by the founder of modern Singapore Sir Stamford Raffles, the five-foot-way was a feature that was stipulated in the Jackson Town Plan of 1822 and is seen today in the shophouses which once dominated the urban landscape of Malaya and Singapore. In Singapore today, over 6000 of these shophouses have been conserved and their five-foot-ways remain colourful spaces through which I often enjoy a walk through. The photographs that follow, are ones from some of the more colourful areas of Singapore in which clusters of shophouses with five-foot-ways, old and new, can be found. More on the five-foot-way and the idea behind them can be found in two of my previous posts, the links to which are at the end of this post.

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Other five-foot-way adventures:





Thorns in the urban landscape

22 10 2013

Intended to be an icon of a new Singapore, a building topped with a crown of thorns blocks the view from a once well-loved part of Singapore where many enjoy a meal of satay by the sea. The building, which houses Esplanade – Theaters on the Bay, which was completed in 2002, steals its name from the once popular promenade from which we could gaze out into the openness of the old harbour we can no longer see.

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The building is one some of us in Singapore struggle to find a connection in the same we have connected with the old National Library and the National Theatre and even that wonderful promenade by the sea that the real Esplanade was. Those icons, now erased from the new urban landscape, were ones which for many of us symbolised Singapore’s coming into the world as a nation, and point to humbler times we now seem not to want to be reminded of. This does perhaps exemplify what the new Singapore has become for some of us – a place we struggle to recognise and connect with, and one which has become a  Singapore we find hard to call home.





A Changi well hidden from sight

18 10 2013

Looking across a sun baked tarmac during a rare opportunity I had to pay a visit to Selarang Camp, it was quite difficult to imagine the square decorated by the shadows of rain trees along its its periphery, cast in the dark shadows of the war some 71 years ago.

The sun-baked Selarang Camp Parade Square decorated not by the shadows of yesterday, but by those of today.

The sun-baked Selarang Camp Parade Square decorated not by the shadows of yesterday, but by those of today.

Surrounded not by rain trees, by the buildings of Selarang Barracks, the shadows of yesterday were ones cast by the events of the early days of early September 1942, events for which the barracks completed some four years before to house a battalion of the Gordon Highlanders, would long be remembered for.

A model of the barrack buildings around the square as seen on a sand model in the Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

A model of the barrack buildings around the square as seen on a sand model in the Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

Little is left physically from the days of darkness in today’s Selarang Camp. One of the oldest camps still in use, it is now occupied by HQ 9th Division of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). There is little resemblance the tarmac and its surroundings bear to the infamous barrack square now half the size of the original where scenes, possibly descending on chaos from the thousands of Prisoners of War (POWs) – estimates put it at some 13,350 British and 2,050 Australian troops, a total of 15,400 (some estimates had its as high as 17,000) who were made to crowd into a square which measured some 800 by 400 feet (244 x 122 metres), and the seven buildings around it – each with an floor space of 150 by 60 feet (46 x 18 metres) – a density of 1 man for every 2.3 square metres not counting the kitchen tents which had to also be moved into the square and makeshift latrines which had to also be dug into the square!

The original square seen in a 1967 photograph.

The original square seen in a 1967 photograph.

The event, referred to as the Selarang Barracks Incident, is one which is well documented. What had triggered it was an escape attempt by four POWs, two Australian: Cpl Rodney Breavington and Pte Victor Gale, and two British: Pte Harold Waters, and Pte Eric Fletcher. To prevent similar attempts in the future, the Japanese captors, under the command of the newly arrived Major General Fukuei Shimpei (under whose charge the internment and POW camps in Malaya had been placed under), tried to persuade the men in captivity to sign a non-escape statement.

The barrack square during the incident (photograph taken off an information board at the parade square).

The barrack square during the incident (photograph taken off an information board at the parade square).

This was on 30 August 1942. The statement: “I, the undersigned, hereby solemnly swear on my honour that I will not, under any circumstances, attempt escape” – was in contravention to the Geneva Convention (of which Japan was not a signatory of) and the POWs were unanimous in refusing to sign it. This drew a response from the Japanese – they threatened all who refused to sign this undertaking on 1 September with “measures of severity”.

The Non-Escape Statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

The Non-Escape Statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

It was just after midnight on 2 September, that orders were given for all British and Australian POWs (except for the infirmed), who were being held in what had been an expanded Changi Gaol (which extended to Selarang and Roberts Barracks which was used as a hospital), to be moved to the already occupied Selarang barrack buildings which had been built to accommodate 800 men.

From Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1 – Army, Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (1st edition, 1957).

From Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1 – Army, Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (1st edition, 1957).

There was little the POWs could do but to make use of whatever space that was made available, spilling into the non-sheltered square around which the barrack buildings stood. The space was shared with kitchens which the captors insisted had to also be moved into the area. Conditions were appalling and access to water was restricted and rations cut (some accounts had it that no food at all was provided), and were certainly less than sanitary. With water cut-off to the few toilets in the barrack buildings rendering them unusable, trenches going as far down as 16 feet had to be dug into the hard tarmac of the parade square to provide much needed latrines.

The ‘Selarang Square Squueze’ as sketched by a POW, John Mennie, as seen on an online Daily Mail news article.

To put further pressure on the POWs to sign the statement, the Japanese had the four recaptured men executed by an Indian National Army firing squad. This was carried out in the presence of the POWs’ formation commanders on the afternoon of 2 September at the Beting Kusah (also spelt Betin Kusa) area of Changi Beach (now under an area of reclaimed land in the vicinity of the Changi Airport Cargo Complex). The execution and the escape attempt by the two Australians is described in detail in Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1 – Army, Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (1st edition, 1957), Chapter 23 (see link):

The four men executed included two Australians—Corporal Breavington and Private Gale—who had escaped from a camp at Bukit Timah on 12th May, obtained a small boat and rowed it about 200 miles to the island of Colomba. There in a semi-starved condition they had been rearrested, and at length returned to Singapore where Breavington was admitted to hospital suffering from malaria. At the execution ground Breavington, the older man, made an appeal to the Japanese to spare Gale. He said that he had ordered Gale to escape and that Gale had merely obeyed orders ; this appeal was refused. As the Sikh firing party knelt before the doomed men, the British officers present saluted and the men returned the salute. Breavington walked to the others and shook hands with them. A Japanese lieutenant then came forward with a handkerchief and offered it to Breavington who waved it aside with a smile, and the offer was refused by all men. Breavington then called to one of the padres present and asked for a New Testament, whence he read a short passage . Thereupon the order was given by the Japanese to fire.

Map of the Changi area in 1942.

Map of the Changi area in 1942.

Another account of the execution which also highlighted the bravery of Cpl Breavington was given during the trial of General Fukuei Shimpei in February 1946 at the Singapore War Crimes Court:

All four prisoners refused to be blindfolded, and 16 shots were fired before it was decided that the men were dead. One of the prisoners, Cpl Breavington, a big Australian, made a vain, last-minute plea to be allowed to bear alone the full responsibility and punishment for the attempt to escape. He dies reading the New Testament. The first two shots passed through his arm, and as he lay on the ground, he shouted: “You have shot me through the arm. For God’s sake, finish me this time.”

An aerial view of the Changi Airfield, the construction of which was initiated by the Japanese in 1943. The coastal end of the east-west intersecting strip was where the Beting Kusah area and Kampong Beting Kusah was located. The kampong was cleared in 1948 to allow an RAF expansion of the airstrip.

An aerial view of the Changi Airfield, the construction of which was initiated by the Japanese in 1943. The coastal end of the east-west intersecting strip was where the Beting Kusah area and Kampong Beting Kusah was located. The kampong was cleared in 1948 to allow an RAF expansion of the airstrip (photograph taken off a display at the Changi Air Base Heritage Centre).

After holding out for a few days, the fast worsening conditions became a huge cause for concern due to the threat of the disease and the potential it had for the unnecessary loss of lives. It was with this in mind that the Allied commander, Colonel Holmes, decided to issue an order for the POWs to sign that the non-escape document under duress. With the POWs signing the statement on 5 September 1945 – many were said to have signed using false names, they were allowed to return to the areas in which they had been held previously.

POWs signing the non-escape statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

POWs signing the non-escape statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

The incident was one which was certainly not forgotten. It was on two charges related to the incident that General Fukuei Shimbei was tried in the Singapore War Crimes Court after the Japanese surrender. The first charge related to the attempt to coerce the POWs in his custody to sign the documents of non-escape, and the ill-treatment of the POWs in doing so. The second was related to the killing of the four escapees. General Fukuei was sentenced to death by firing at the end of February 1946 and was executed on 27 April 1946, reportedly at a spot along Changi Beach close to where the four POWs had been executed.

A photograph of the executed General Fukuei Shimbei from the Selarang Camp Repository.

A photograph of the executed General Fukuei Shimbei from the Selarang Camp Repository.

Walking around the camp today, it is an air of calm and serenity that one is greeted by. It was perhaps in that same air that greeted my first visits to the camp back in early 1987. Those early encounters came in the form of day visits I made during my National Service days when I had been seconded to the 9th Division to serve in an admin party to prepare and ship equipment and stores for what was then a reserve division exercise in Taiwan. Then, the distinctive old barrack buildings around the square laid out on the rolling hills which had once been a feature of much of the terrain around Changi were what provided the camp with its character along with the old Officers’ Mess which was the Division HQ building.

The former Officers' Mess - one of two structures left from the original set of barrack buildings.

The former Officers’ Mess – one of two structures left from the original set of barrack buildings.

Another view of the former Officers' Mess.

Another view of the former Officers’ Mess.

It is in the a heritage room in the former Officers’ Mess, only one of two structures (the other a water tank) left from the wartime era that the incident is remembered. The Selarang Camp Heritage Centre is where several exhibits and photographs are displayed which provide information on the incident, as well as how the camp had been transformed over the years.

The Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

The Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

Pieces of the old barrack buildings on display in the former Officers' Mess.

Pieces of the old barrack buildings on display in the former Officers’ Mess.

Among the exhibits in the heritage room are old photographs taken by the POWs, a sand model of the barrack grounds and buildings which came up between 1936 to 1938, as it looked in September 1942. There are also exhibits relating to the camps occupants subsequent to the British withdrawal which was completed in 1971. The camp after the withdrawal was first used by the 42nd Singapore Armoured Regiment (42 SAR) before HQ 9th Division moved into it in 1984. It was during the HQ 9th Division’s occupancy that the camp underwent a redevelopment which took place from July 1986 to December 1989 which transformed the camp it into the state it is in today.

An exhibit - a card used by a POW to count the days of captivity.

An exhibit – a card used by a POW to count the days of captivity.

An exhibit from more recent times at the heritage centre.

An exhibit from more recent times at the heritage centre.

A photograph of a parade in the infamous square at the heritage centre.

A photograph of a parade in the infamous square at the heritage centre.

A view of the parade square today.

A view of the parade square today.

One more recent relic from the camp before its redevelopment is a bell which belong to a Garrison Church built in 1961. The church was built as a replacement for what had been a makeshift wartime chapel, the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier, which was, as was St. Luke’s where the Changi Murals were painted, a place which offered solace and hope to many POWs in extremely trying times.

The Garrison Church bell.

The Garrison Church bell.

The bell, now supported by a structure – said to resemble a 30 foot bell tower which originally held it up, can be found across the road from the parade square. The bell was transferred to Sungei Gedong Camp by 42 SAR before being returned to Selarang by HQ Armour in July 1999. It is close to the bell, where a mark of the new occupants of the camp, a Division Landmark which features a soldier next to a snarling panther (a now very recognisable symbol of the 9th Division) erected in 1991, is found standing at a corner of the new square. It stands watch over the square perhaps such that the dark shadows and ghosts of the old square do not come back to haunt us.

A sketch of the makeshift St. Francis Xavier Chapel.

A sketch of the makeshift St. Francis Xavier Chapel.

The division landmark.

The division landmark.

While there was a little disappointment I felt on not seeing the old square, I was certainly glad to have been able to see what’s become of it and also pay a visit to the heritage centre. This has certainly provided me with the opportunity to learn more about the camp, its history, and gain greater insights into events I might have otherwise have thought very little about for which I am very grateful to the MINDEF NS Policy Department who organised the visit.  It is in reflecting on events such as the Selarang Barracks Incident that I am reminded of why it is important for us in a world we have grown almost too comfortable in, to do all that is necessary to prevent the situations such as the one our forefathers and their defenders found ourselves in barely two generations ago.

Another photograph of the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier from the Selarang Camp Repository.

Another photograph of the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier from the Selarang Camp Repository.





A world apart

26 09 2013

A look down Orchard Road at its junction with Killiney Road close to 40 years apart. The view in 1975 was dominated by the towering Mandarin Hotel which opened in 1971, but it was probably Cold Storage, the longest established supermarket in Singapore, which would have served as a landmark. Across the road from the Cold Storage was what became known later as “Gluttons’ Square”, a car park which would be transformed as night fell, into a sea of pushcarts, tables and stools – a food lovers’ paradise of local hawker fare which was popular with many. The area did in fact feature more than just the car park, but also across Cuppage Road from Cold Storage – with many popular hawker stalls found around the old Orchard Road Market area at Koek Road and Koek Lane.

The junction of Orchard Road and Killiney Road some 4 decades apart, as seen in 1975 and today (source of 1975 photograph: Ray Tyers' Singapore Then & Now).

The junction of Orchard Road and Killiney Road some 4 decades apart, as seen in 1975 and today (source of 1975 photograph: Ray Tyers’ Singapore Then & Now).

Another landmark in the area was of course the Specialists’ Shopping Centre which opened in 1972. That housed the main outlet of a retail institution, Robinson’s, after a huge fire on 21 November 1972 had destroyed its main premises. Intending initially to open a branch on a single floor at the Specialists’ Centre in late 1972 / early 1973, the long established departmental store opened on two floors on 11 December 1972. The Specialist Centre Robinson’s would be remembered for the St. Michael’s (a brand name used by Marks and Spencer’s) outlet within it on the ground floor which was popular particularly for its biscuits.

The old Cold Storage on Orchard Road.

The old Cold Storage on Orchard Road.

The area now sees huge developments taking place, dominated by new shopping malls such as Orchard Central and 313 @ Somerset. One that isn’t completed which will certainly add to the clutter will be Orchard Gateway which will straddle Orchard Road with a tubular glass pedestrian link bridge between its two parts positioned diagonally across from each other.

The stretch now sees many new retail developments such as Orchard Central on the left and under construction Orchard Gateway with its link bridge which will further alter the area's flavour.

The stretch now sees many new retail developments such as Orchard Central on the left and under construction Orchard Gateway with its link bridge which will further alter the area’s flavour.

Orchard Central as seen at the corner of Orchard and Killiney Roads.

Orchard Central as seen at the corner of Orchard and Killiney Roads.

The competition from the new malls has also seen one which has seen its popularity wane in its three decades of existence. Centrepoint, to which Robinson’s moved its fashion departments into in June 1983 – which then became its flagship store after it shut down its outlets (including John Little’s keeping only the St. Michael’s outlet) at Specialists’ Centre in June 1984, underwent a recent makeover. It will soon also see its anchor tenant moving out – Robinson’s has announced it would be moving to The Heeren next year, ending what will be a 30 year association with Centrepoint.

One side of Orchard Gateway with part of the link bridge. The conserved shophouse seen below it is fronting Orchard Road where a new Singapore Visitors' Centre will open.

One side of Orchard Gateway with part of the link bridge. The conserved shophouse seen below it is fronting Orchard Road where a new Singapore Visitors’ Centre will open.

The changes that are taking place, are ones which will render the area unrecognisable even from what it would have been like a decade ago. For me, however, it will always be the gentler times of four decades past I am taken back to, times of the old Cold Storage with its deli counter which never failed to interest me – times when our shopping went into brown paper bags and used cartons rather than in the non environmentally friendly plastic bags we use too much of these days. They were also times when not only having a malted milkshake in the cool comfort of the vinegar scented air of the Magnolia Snack Bar was as much a treat as a bowl of beef noodles at Koek Lane or a plate of oyster omelette at the car park would have been. It is that simpler world I often wish I can return to, a world unlike the one I find myself in today in which the a lot more than we have does somehow seem like a lot less.





A light where there was only darkness: The Changi Murals

20 09 2013

It an air of quiet calm that greeted me as I stepped into a room where the ghosts of a time we may otherwise have forgotten continue to haunt us. The room, bathed in the glow of light painted gold by the ochre of the walls the light reflected off, seemed to extend a warm welcome which it would have in the cold dark days when it offered hope when there might only have been despair.

The Chapel of St. Luke on the ground floor of Block 151.

The Chapel of St. Luke on the ground floor of Block 151.

The room, converted into the makeshift Chapel of St. Luke (dedicated to St. Luke the physician) during the Japanese Occupation, was where a Prisoner-of-War (POW) by the name of Stanley Warren who held the rank of Bombardier in the Royal Artillery, weakened by a severe bout of renal disorder and dysentery, drew on whatever reserves he had left in strength, to decorate, remarkably, two of the chapel’s walls with five paintings of biblical scenes from the New Testament which along with the chapel became a light in the darkness of days uncertain.

The chapel and murals were a light in the darkness of captivity during the dark days of World War II.

The chapel and murals were a light in the darkness of captivity for prisoners during the dark days of World War II.

The chapel which occupies a room in what was Barrack Block 151 in Roberts Barracks, which together with the neighbouring barracks and nearby Changi Prison became an extended gaol that the Japanese forces used to hold the large numbers of POWs they held. Block 151 was made part of the gaol’s hospital becoming part of a dysentery wing which included several other surrounding buildings.

Block 151 is one of a few structures from WWII which remain in the area.

Block 151 is one of a few structures from WWII which remain in the area.

Another view of Block 151.

Another view of Block 151.

Even if not for the weakened state of the painter, putting the paintings we now know as the ‘Changi Murals’ on the walls would have required an incredible effort. Based on information provided by the expert guide Mr. Vickna, we were told of how paints, pigments and even brushes were in extremely short supply, and they had to be procured through whatever means available – some which may have even put the men involved at risk.

A photograph of the late Stanley Warren who passed away in 1992.

A photograph of the late Stanley Warren who passed away in 1992.

There was also a huge degree of improvisation involved – the colour blue for example, was obtained from crushing chalk used on billiard cues.

A map of the POW camp sketched by Stanley Warren.

A map of the POW camp sketched by Stanley Warren.

Too ill to be sent to work on the Death Railway in Siam, which he is said to have said probably saved his life, Warren found himself recuperating in a ward above the chapel in 1942, Warren and many around him drew on the comfort provided by what could be heard of the strains of Merbecke’s arrangement of the Litany being sung in the chapel.

Mr Vickna the guide.

Mr Vickna the guide.

It was hearing the voices in song throughout his slow recovery which was to serve as an inspiration for Warren who was approached by the chaplain who knew of his artistic background to decorate the makeshift chapel. He struggled through the first, The Nativity, for over two months, managing to complete it in time for Christmas in 1942. Warren was to complete four more works – the last, a mural of St. Luke in Prison, was completed in May 1943.

The Nativity was the first mural painted. On a copy painted on a wallboard in 1963, Warren painted an albatross in place of the horse's head.

The Nativity was the first mural painted. On a copy painted on a wallboard in 1963, Warren painted an albatross in place of the horse’s head.

A feature of the murals is how Warren also used it depict what he did see around him – many of the faces were those of his fellow POWs and in the third mural, The Crucifixion, which I thought was the most moving, we do also see slaves dressed in loincloths in the same way the men around him were dressed in their rags. The words found above the mural “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” were we were told also a reference to his captors and the slaves crucifying Christ being the “slaves” many of his captors were to authority.

The Ascension - the second mural.

The Ascension – the second mural.

The murals were initially thought to have been destroyed – the Japanese later converted the room into a storeroom and were thought to have broken down walls as well as painting over the remaining murals. They were thought to have been discovered by Royal Air Force (RAF) personnel in 1958 and a search was made through the press in the UK for the painter – the name Stanley Warren cropping up only when a short description of the chapel and a reference to the murals was found in a book “The Churches of Captivity in Malaya”, which was discovered in the Far East Air Force Educational Library in Changi.

The Crucifixion, the third mural which was partly damaged by a doorway made in the wall - the evidence of which can still be seen.

The Crucifixion, the third mural which was partly damaged by a doorway made in the wall – the evidence of which can still be seen.

Then an art teacher in London, Warren was invited to restore the murals, first refusing to do so on the fear of having to confront the demons of the dark days in which he executed the work. He did eventually return after much soul searching – first just before Christmas in 1963, and then again in 1982 and 1988. One of the murals does remain unrestored – the last, the lower part of which was destroyed when the wall was knocked down by the Japanese.

The Last Supper - the fourth mural.

The Last Supper – the fourth mural.

It was one for which Warren did not have a copy of his original sketch of (which was found in the possession of a fellow prisoner later in 1985), and decided to leave what remains of in its original condition. Warren did paint a copy of it, a photograph of which can be seen below the mural in which he replaced one of the figures he orginally painted.

The unrestored upper portion of the fifth mural, St. Luke in Prison.

The unrestored upper portion of the fifth mural, St. Luke in Prison.

The Crucifixion is also one which was partly destroyed when a doorway was made in the wall – the evidence of which can still be seen.

A copy of the copy of the fifth mural which Warren painted.

A copy of the fifth mural which Warren painted.

Another interesting fact was one that we did learn about The Nativity mural – it was thought to have been destroyed and a copy was painted on a wallboard which was eventually removed by the RAF. The copy was one on which Warren replaced the head of the horse found on the original work with an albatross to as a symbol of flying men of the RAF which was using the barracks at the time. A part the original mural – that of the horse’s head, was found by one of the boys from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Boys School (which occupied the building in the 1980s) tasked with helping Warren to restore the murals in 1982.

A view of the chapel.

A view of the chapel.

The work, which is said to have offered solace and hope to the many prisoners who used the chapel, is today a reminder not just of a event we should never again want to find ourselves confronting, but also one of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. The building which houses the chapel, lies today in a restricted area within the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s (RSAF) Changi Air Base (West) and I am grateful to MINDEF’s NS Policy Department and the RSAF for the opportunity to be moved by the murals in its original setting. A copy of the murals to which members of the public have access to, can be found in the Changi Museum.

The chapel offered hope where there seemed to have been none.

The chapel offered hope where there seemed to have been none.

Mr Vickna speaking about The Ascension.

Mr Vickna speaking about The Ascension.

The corridor outside the chapel.

The corridor outside the chapel.


Information on Stanley Warren and the Changi Murals

* with photographs of it in the condition it when it was originally uncovered





The lost waterfront

19 09 2013

The former waterfront at Collyer Quay is certainly one place which exemplifies how Singapore has transformed over the years, discarding much of what made Singapore a Singapore which was full of character and flavour, to the sea of glass, steel and concrete Singapore has become today.

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The waterfront we inherited from our colonial masters was one of wonderfully designed buildings which might have rivaled Shanghai’s Bund. Even in 1971 after the Overseas Union Shopping Centre (see image above) did spoil some of that flavour, it still retained much of its original character. Then, the three “skyscrapers” that came up in the 1950s: the modern looking 15 storey Shell House (1959); the Bank of China Building (1954); and the Asia Insurance Building (1954) (out of picture), still dominated. It was however the grand looking edifices – several of them attributed to architecture firm Swan and MacLaren which designed many notable buildings from our past, which would have been noticed. This included the Maritime Building (former Union Building) with its tower and the HongKong Bank Chambers (1924) next to it. The Fullerton Building (1928) which housed the General Post Office also wouldn’t have been missed.

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The beginning of the end for the old waterfront came at the end of the decade with the demolition of the HongKong Bank building notable not just for its English Renaissance style design, but also for its stained glass skylight over its main banking hall and huge bronze entrance doors, in 1979. The Maritime Building, built originally for the Union Insurance Society of Canton and which once housed the Far East headquarters of the Royal Air Force, soon followed in the early 1980s. What we do see today is a towering skyline of glass and steel against which the surviving “skyscrapers” of the 1950s are now dwarfed. The buildings along old waterfront which did survive are the Fullerton Building (Fullerton Hotel), Clifford Pier (part of Fullerton Bay Hotel), Bank of China Building, Customs House, and the Asia Insurance Building (Ascott Raffles Place).

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The ‘sunken temple’ of Toa Payoh

18 09 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A last look around Block 33

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Afternote:

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






Rooms with more than a view

28 07 2013

Tucked away on a hill some 38 metres above street level in an obscure corner of Singapore, is a building with a reputation for being one of the scariest places in Singapore. The building, better known to most who are familiar with it as the former View Road Hospital, was in fact once used as a barracks to house Asians serving in the Naval Base Police. The Naval Base Police, which was disbanded when the British forces vacated the Naval Base in 1971, recruited its members from far and wide and had a large contingent of Sikh policemen which does explain why there was once a Sikh temple located next to the barracks. The building’s history does seem to go a little further back – a 1968 map of the Naval Base has it also as the “Old Maritime HQ”, of which I have not been able to find out anything on.

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Following the pullout of the British forces, the building was converted for use as an secondary hospital to supplement the overcrowded Woodbridge Hospital, providing rehabilitation for recovering mental patients, particularly those with chronic schizophrenia. The first batch of 34 patients were moved into the 250 bed hopsital in September 1975. The rehabilitation  programme included providing skills training to the patients to allow them to return to society. The hospital was shut in 2001 and the building was converted into the View Road Lodge – a foreign workers’ dormitory which functioned until a few years back. The building today lies unoccupied.

View Road Lodge in January 2011.

View Road Lodge in January 2011.








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