All at sea

24 07 2014

The launch on Saturday of Singapore HeritageFest 2014, bring us to focus on one of the key reasons for Singapore’s being, the sea. This year’s festival much of which revolves around a maritime based theme, “Our Islands, Our Home” has us looking at our maritime past as well as our present as a maritime nation.

HeritageFest 2014 opens a window to Singapore's island heritage.

HeritageFest 2014 opens a window to Singapore’s island heritage.

It is to raise the profile of this heritage, one that goes back to times well before the arrival of Raffles, that is in fact what the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) and the National Heritage Board (NHB) hopes to achieve with the establishment of the S$500,000 Maritime Heritage Fund, which the two agencies will administer – for which a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by the two agencies at Saturday’s launch.

One of the highlights of this year's HeritageFest is a lighthouse trail that includes a stop on Pulau Satumu, Singapore's southernmost island, on top of which Raffles' Lighthouse is perched.

One of the highlights of this year’s HeritageFest is a lighthouse trail that includes a stop on Pulau Satumu, Singapore’s southernmost island, on top of which Raffles’ Lighthouse is perched.

Once a common scene in the waters off the Southern Islands. Boats such as the kolek on the right, are very much part of our maritime heritage (a similar kolek is on display at the Balik Pulau Exhibition at the National Museum).

Once a common scene in the waters off the Southern Islands. Boats such as the kolek on the right, are very much part of our maritime heritage (a similar kolek is on display at the Balik Pulau Exhibition at the National Museum).

The focus of the fund, which complements the NHB’s S$5 million Heritage Grant Scheme launched last year, will be on developing community-initiated projects related to Singapore’s maritime heritage that will promote a greater understanding and appreciation of Singapore’s maritime connections, as was touched on by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Community, Culture and Youth, in his speech at the festival’s launch.

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of NHB launching Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of NHB launching Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Mr Wong also spoke of the transformation that will soon take place at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), where the launch event was held. Besides a revamp of the museum with expanded galleries that will include a space allocated for the Tang Cargo and see new shops and dining outlets, the museum will be given a new entrance that will open it up to the river and give it a direct connection into the historic heart of Singapore.

Another lighthouse - the very pretty Sultan Shoal Lighthouse at the western extremities of Singapore's waters seen during the lighthouse trail as part of Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Another lighthouse – the very pretty Sultan Shoal Lighthouse at the western extremities of Singapore’s waters seen during the lighthouse trail as part of Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

The revamp is part of the ongoing effort to develop a civic and cultural belt around Singapore’s colonial civic district (see: The Old Vic’s ticking again) that involves also the newly refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, and the conversion of the Old Supreme Court and City Hall into National Gallery – due for completion in 2015.

The Old Vic's definitely back!

The newly refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall.

A cultural performance at the launch of Singapore HeritageFest2014.

A cultural performance at the launch of Singapore HeritageFest2014.

The launch also coincided with the first evening of a two-night series of programmes taking place around the ACM and the river, River Nights. The event, brought much life and colour to the river, and celebrated its changing identity over the years – in the same way the well received series of activities  for Singapore HeritageFest 2014 celebrates the islands.

A dragon dance performance at the start of River Nights at the ACM's front lawn.

A dragon dance performance at the start of River Nights at the ACM’s front lawn.

More information on the Maritime Heritage Fund, Singapore HeritageFest 2014, River Nights and on Balik Pulau: Stories from Singapore’s Islands (an exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore held in conjunction with HeritageFest 2014) can be found in the following links:

A return to our islands in the sun

27 06 2014

Balik Pulau: Stories from Singapore’s Islands, as the name of the exhibition currently on at the National Museum of Singapore does suggest, takes us back to the islands of Singapore. Many of more than 70 island had once been inhabited – with communities that numbered from the hundreds to the thousands who were moved to the main island as part of redevelopment efforts. These communities were not just a well forgotten part of Singapore’s history, but also of the culture and history of a wider society that existed well before the coming of the British that was spread across the Riau Archipelago.

Lazarus and St. John's Islands (Pulau Sekijang Pelepah and Pulau Sekijang Bendara), two islands, now joined by a causeway that were once inhabited.

Lazarus and St. John’s Islands (Pulau Sekijang Pelepah and Pulau Sekijang Bendara), two islands, now joined by a causeway that were once inhabited.

An old postcard showing Kusu Island before reclamation.

An old postcard showing Kusu Island before reclamation.

The exhibition, curated by Marcus Ng and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, revisits life as it was and now hard to imagine on several of the inhabited islands through a mix of artefacts of island life, archival images, and most interestingly, the experience of island life told through video interviews with some of the islands’ former inhabitants. One interview that I did find particularly interesting was that of a former resident of Pulau Seking (or Sakeng) – the last of the southern islands to be inhabited with its residents having been resettled as recently as 1994, the very emotional Mr Teo Yan Teck. The interview see Mr Teo, who have lived on the island for close to four decades, talk about how he came to settle on the island, the emotions he felt when told he had to leave and also of the burning of boats by the islanders before they were to leave the island and a way of life they were used to, for good.

A highlight of Balik Pulau is the video interviews with some of the islands' former residents.

A highlight of Balik Pulau is the video interviews with some of the islands’ former residents.

A kolek sauh from Pulau Seraya at the exhibition - boats were an integral part of island life and featured in races the islands played host to.

A kolek sauh from Pulau Seraya at the exhibition – boats were an integral part of island life and featured in races the islands played host to.

Mr Teo, when asked about how he felt about leaving the island.

Mr Teo, when asked about how he felt about leaving the island.

The fascinating exhibition, which runs until 10 August 2014, will also play an important part as a hub one of the focal points for the upcoming Singapore Heritage Festival (SHS). Now in its 11th edition, the SHS, the theme of which this year will be Our Islands, Our Home, will run from 18 to 27 July 2014 and sees over 60 programmes available for the participation of the public, put up with the help of 40 community groups, individuals and partners with the aim of drawing Singaporeans to connect with their shared history and heritage.

The festival offers an opportunity to explore some of the southern islands through excursions.

The festival this year offers an opportunity to explore some of the southern islands through excursions.

A sandy beach at Pulau Seringat - an enlarged island which incorporates the former reef island of Pulau Renggit.

A sandy beach at Pulau Seringat – an enlarged island which incorporates the former reef island of Pulau Renggit.

The sisters.

The sisters.

St. John's Island.

St. John’s Island.

Pulau Tekukor or Dove Island - hear stories of its past when it was known as Pulau Penyabong and its association with the origins of the former name of Sentosa, Pulau Blakang Mati.

Pulau Tekukor or Dove Island – hear stories of its past when it was known as Pulau Penyabong and its association with the origins of the former name of Sentosa, Pulau Blakang Mati.

Kusu Island today.

An enlarged Kusu Island today.

The highlight of this year’s SHS has to be without a doubt the opportunity it provides to reconnect with the islands, not just through the exhibition and through a series of talks that are being lined up, but also through an immersive experience that guided excursions to the islands will certainly provide. The excursions will include visits to St. John’s, Lazarus and Seringat Islands; a rare opportunity to visit one of Singapore’s lighthouses (Raffles Lighthouse) and have a look from the boat at another (Sultan Shoal); and a night of Nanyin at Kusu Island.  Space for the excursions will be limited and sign-ups will be possible from 1 July 2014 at More information on the SHS is also available at and information on the exhibition at

The Tua Pek Kong temple on Kusu Island, the site of an annual pilgrimage.

The Tua Pek Kong temple on Kusu Island, the site of an annual pilgrimage.

The temple also sees Nanyin performances by the Siong Leng Musical Association during the ninth lunar month and will by special arrangement host a night of nanyin that sees young musicians performing an traditional music form.

The temple also sees Nanyin performances by the Siong Leng Musical Association during the ninth lunar month and will by special arrangement host a night of nanyin that sees young musicians performing an traditional music form.

Another look at the Tua Pek Kong Temple.

Another look at the Tua Pek Kong Temple.

Besides the temple, the Keramats, graves of Malay saints that are venerated, are also visited by devotees.

Besides the temple, the Keramats, graves of Malay saints that are venerated, are also visited by devotees.

Another look at two of the keramats.

Another look at two of the keramats.


Lost places: The shrine across the Divine Bridge

7 04 2014

The Japanese couldn’t have picked a more divine setting in Singapore for the Syonan Jinja (昭南神社), the Light of the South Shrine that was to be the grandest of Shinto shirnes erected in the southern reaches of the empire. Even today, despite its site having been reclaimed by the forest , it is not difficult to find the beauty and peace the site was chosen for, in an area that even today does seem far removed from the urban world.

The site of the Syonan Jinja where remnants of what was once South-East Asia's  leading Japanese Shinto shrine is today an eerie yet peaceful spot. What is seen in the photograph is one of the more visible remnants, a sacred granite water trough for ritual purification.

The site of the Syonan Jinja where remnants of what was once South-East Asia’s leading Japanese Shinto shrine is today an eerie yet peaceful spot. What is seen in the photograph is one of the more visible remnants, a sacred granite water trough for ritual purification.

A worship ceremony involving Japanese troops at the opening of the Syonan Jinja in 1943 (source:

A worship ceremony involving Japanese troops at the opening of the Syonan Jinja in 1943 (source:

The shrine, built with labour provided by the Allied prisoners-of-war (POW), was one of several that came up in Singapore during the Japanese occupation. One of two of the more notable shrines – another was the Syonan Chureito on Bukit Batok, the Syonan Jinja stood on a slope of a hill that rose from the water’s edge around the western reaches of MacRitchie Reservoir, across a what from the evidence presented in photographs of it, was a beautifully crafted bridge, known as the Divine Bridge.

The Torii Gate at the bottom of the stairway leading up to the Syonan Jinja seen in 1943 (Showa History Vol. 10: Pacific War Breaks Out、Mainichi Newspapers Company, uploaded to

The Torii Gate at the bottom of the stairway leading up to the Syonan Jinja as seen in 1943 with the Divine Bridge in the background (source: Mainichi Newspapers Company,

The shrine and its site and the grand plans for it, which was opened to commemorate the first anniversary of the fall of Singapore in 1943, have been described in the National Library’s infopedia page on the shrine:

a beautiful wooden structure that featured the clean, simple lines of classic Japanese architecture. It was built on a raised stone platform and it had a large granite ceremonial fountain for ritual purification. The surrounding area was designed to be a Japanese garden with gentle pebbled streams, stone lanterns, a stone-stepped path, small torii gates (traditional Japanese gates commonly found at the entrance of Shinto shrines), and landscaping featuring native and imported plants. Four to five tonnes of pebbles were imported from Borneo for this project, while religious artifacts and certain plants were sourced from Japan. The wood used for the shrine, however, was from Singapore”

The area around the shrine was to be transformed into a 1,000-acre park with public recreational and sporting facilities. These facilities were to include gardens, promenades, playgrounds and a lake for fishing and boating. The proposed sports compound was to feature a stadium, a swimming pool, wrestling arenas and public bandstands, and would be a possible venue for the Greater East Asiatic Olympic Games envisioned by the Japanese. The planners also declared that a new city would develop with the Syonan Jinja at its centre

General Yamashita and Japanese troops crossing the Divine Bridge at the opening of the shirne (source:

General Yamashita and Japanese troops crossing the Divine Bridge at the opening of the shirne (source:

What remains of the Divine Bridge today - wooden stumps in the water that were part of the columns that supported the bridge.

What remains of the Divine Bridge today – wooden stumps in the water that were part of the columns that supported the bridge.

Little today is left for us to see of what it might once have been – wooden stumps, only visible when the reservoir’s water levels are low enough, tell of of the location of the Divine Bridge and where the Torii gate and the stairway up to the shrine would have been. Across the reservoir, it is through the thick undergrowth of the secondary forest that has reclaimed the area, that one finds the flight of stairs, rising first to a terrace on which a water trough hewn out of a block of granite still stands. The trough would have served to hold water for the ritual purification asked of visitors to the shrine.

A concrete retaining wall around the terrace on which the trough is found.

A retaining wall around the terrace on which the trough is found.

A panorama of the site.

A panorama of the site (click to enlarge).

Beyond the trough, the stairway leads to another platform – the main site of the shrine and except for a few slabs of stone lying around and the platform itself, there is little but that sense of an uneasy calm that one does feel at the site of the shrine, which was destroyed before the Japanese surrender to prevent it from being desecrated.

Concrete slabs at the site.

Granite slabs at the site.

The platform for the shrine seen in the forest.

The platform for the shrine seen in the forest.

Some of what we do know of what did go on at the shrine, comes through the accounts of local residents who participated in some of the rituals that did go on. One practice that did get mentioned is that of the Japanese community’s visits first to the Syonan Jinja to participate in Shinto rites early in the morning on New Year’s Day, before they made their way to the Syonan Chureito to pay respects to the war dead, an observance that also involved employees of the Japanese and would be followed by a lavish lunch (see “The Last Days of the Japanese Occupation”, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 1976).

More stone slabs.

More stone slabs.

One of the things about the shrine does does come out in some of the accounts is of the pebbled streams in what must have been a beautifully landscaped area. The pebbles, ” four, five tons” of them, as is described in one account, were apparently ones that had been had been brought in from Borneo for the Bukit Timah rapid gravity filter beds that were being constructed.

A close up of the foundations.

A close up of the foundations.

A view of the stairway.

A view of the stairway.

The site does attract a fair amount of interest despite it being rather difficult to access. It has been designated as a Historic Site since September 2002 and a marker / information plaque on it can be found at the junction of Sime and Adam Roads – from which it is an over 2 kilometre walk that does take one through parts of the gravel paths in the MacRitchie forest, as well as along the water’s edge past what is some of the most picturesque landscapes to be found in Singapore.and for that alone, it is well worth the effort involved.

POWs provided the labour to build the shrine (source:

POWs provided the labour to build the shrine (source:

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:

(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


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 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

A bay of plenty from which we came

7 03 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another view of the altar dedicated to Kuan Yin.

Another view of the altar dedicated to Kuan Yin.

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

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

A close-up of Ba Ye.

A close-up of Qi Ye.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chong Hock Pavilion.

The Chong Hock Pavilion.

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

The Chong Boon Gate and the Chung Wen Pagoda.

The Chong Boon Gate and the Chung Wen Pagoda.

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

The Fuk Tak Chi Museum.

The Fuk Tak Chi Museum.

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

Inside the Fuk Tak Chi Museum.

Inside the Fuk Tak Chi Museum.

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

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

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

The Al-Abrar Mosque.

The Al-Abrar Mosque built by the Chulias.

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

The former Nagore Durgha Shrine.

The former Nagore Durgha Shrine.

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

Inside the Nagore Durgha.

Inside the Nagore Durgha.

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

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

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

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

A last reminder of an old-fashioned corner of Singapore

27 11 2012

With the recent demolition of the house that had until 1991 served as the residence of the late Major Derrick Coupland, there stands one last remnant of a forgotten world that had once existed on Mount Emily in the form of the white villa at the end of Upper Wilkie Road that has come to be known as Emily Hill and is probably known more as the former Mount Emily Girls’ Home to many of my generation. Once described as a quiet, pleasant and old-fashioned corner of Singapore of Victorian villas and charming terrace rows, the face of Mount Emily, a spur that extends out from neighbouring Mount Sophia, has seen significant change since its glory days when it would have commanded a magnificent view of the developing city that lay some 100 feet below it. The villa itself bears testimony to the change, having been built as a grand residence which had not just a “beautiful view over the town and the harbour”, but also came with “2 tennis courts and stables for 5 horses and 4 carriages”, it has been put to a variety of use over its time.

A Victorian villa with a rather chequered past, the former Osborne House and what is today Emily Hill, stands as a reminder of Mount Emily’s glorious past.

I have not quite managed to establish when the villa was built. Referred to as Osborne House up to the point when the Japanese Consul-General’s offices shifted into it from Union House in April 1939, references to the villa before the turn of the twentieth century do exist – the earliest being an announcement of the birth of the daughter of Mr Heinrich Bock, Managing Director of the trading firm Katz Brothers in December 1891. This puts its completion at a date that precedes that of the former Tower House and makes it the oldest structure on both Mount Sophia and Mount Emily.

A view through the main entrance. The villa was probably built at the end of the 1880s or early 1890s, making it the oldest structure on Mount Sophia and Mount Emily – the earliest reference to it is a birth announcement in 1891.

That Osborne House had served as the residence of Mr Bock, and his at least two of successors at Katz Brothers’, Mr Frederick Lederer and Mr Arthur Loeb, does suggest that the villa had been in the possession of Katz Brothers at the time. Further evidence of this is seen in an advertisement in The Straits Times on 28 February 1910 in which the house, described as having “4 large bedrooms with dressing rooms attached, dining room, saloon; 2 tennis courts, stables for 5 horses and 4 carriages” was put up to be let with applications to be made to Mr Loeb, c/o Katz Brothers.

The wooden staircase and the landing. The villa served as the residence of the Managing Directors of the trading firm Katz Brothers in its early days.

One interesting reference to the villa is one that involves the sale of it in 1935 to a Mr Jukichi Ikeda, a Singapore based Japanese dentist who had a practice opposite the Central Fire Station in Hill Street. Mr Ikeda is reported to have paid what must have been a tidy sum then of $22,000 to buy the property from a certain Mr Shariff Kassim bin Hashim. Mr Kassim was probably better known in those days as the reigning Sultan of Siak Sri Indrapura, or the Sultan of Siak in short, Siak being a sultanate which was then under the protection of the Dutch in Riau Province in Sumatra. It is known that the Mr Kassim’s father, the previous Sultan of Siak, Syed Hashim bin Kassim, who resided at Jalan Rajah in Singapore, had substantial holdings in property in Singapore and had been in debt to Katz Brothers and also to Mr Loeb and it could very well have been Syed Hashim would had the rather stately Osborne House constructed at the end of the nineteenth century.

Another view of the villa’s front. There is a suggestion that the house could have been built by the Sultan of Siak, Sultan Syed Hashim bin Kassim. What is known is that the villa was sold by the Syed Hashim’s successor, Shariff Kassim to a Singapore based Japanese dentist Jukichi Ikeda in 1935 for $22,000.

The view west from the villa at the rest of Mount Emily. The villa is the last of the Victorian era houses that used to occupy the spur from Mount Sophia that is Mount Emily.

It is from the point of Mr Ikeda’s purchase of the property in 1935 that the villa’s history becomes a little less murky. What is known is that Mr Ikeda had additions and alterations done to Osborne House from the Cartographic and Architectural Records database of the National Archives of Singapore. It was under Mr Ikeda’s ownership when the Japanese Consul-General’s offices moved to the villa on 27 April 1939, serving three Consul-Generals, the first being Issaku Okamoto who was replaced by Kaoru Toyoda in September 1939 who in turn was replaced in November 1940 by the last Japanese Consul-General to serve in Singapore before the Japanese Occupation, Ken Tsurumi. Mr Tsurumi was recalled to Japan in November 1941 – his intended replacement, Suemasa Okamoto, never arrived as events that led to an unfortunate episode in Singapore’s history unfolded. It was only in 1953 that the next Japanese diplomatic representative, Ken Ninomiya was to be appointed.

Middle Road when it would have been referred to as Chuo Dori in the 1930s. Osborne House which was to serve as the Japanese Consulate from 1939 to 1941 can be seen atop Mount Emily at the end of the street.

A spacious space on the upper floor. The house was thought to have had 4 large bedrooms with dressing rooms attached, dining room, saloon; 2 tennis courts, and stables for 5 horses and 4 carriages.

The siting of the Japanese Consulate-General at Osborne House in 1939, came at a time when a community of Japanese had established themselves in the Middle Road area, with Middle Road being referred to as “Chuo Dori” or “Central Street”. A remnant of this Japanese presence on Middle Road are the buildings belonging to the former Middle Road Hospital which began as a Japanese built hospital Doh-Jin in 1940. Osborne House does in fact rise at the end of Chuo Dori, lying along its axis. The house passed into the hands of the Department of Social Welfare following the end of the war and served as an orphanage, a home for boys home, a halfway house for the rehabilitation of young prostitutes up to the age of 21, and girls’ home and finally the Wilkie Road Children’s Home in the 1980s, before falling into disuse and becoming Emily Hill, an arts centre in 2007.

Light through coloured glass panels on the landing of the staircase.

Once described as a quiet, pleasant and old-fashioned corner of Singapore, Mount Emily is still offers a pleasant escape escape from the city 100 feet below it.

In trying to dig up the villa’s rather chequered past, I stumbled upon another interesting fact that had not been known to me. Down the slope east of the villa’s rear is a cul-de-sac at the end of Wilkie Terrace to the right of which the Christian Assembly Hall now stands. The Christian Assembly Hall sits on what before the war was a Shinto Shrine. Mention is made of this in a report relating to an Official Secrets Case in which charges were brought against several members of the Japanese community in 1940 where the shrine is referred to as a “Japanese Temple”. The report makes for interesting reading and further reports on the case do suggest that there was a path that led from the shrine uphill to what had at the time been the Japanese Consulate. All traces of the shrine and the path to the consulate have of course been erased over time. What does remain of that past which many may wish not to remember is a reminder that also is one of a time we should not want to forget.

Wilkie Terrace down the eastern slope from the villa, does hold some interesting finds.

The land on which the Christian Assembly Hall stands at the end of Wilkie Terrace was once the site of a Shinto Shrine.

An article in Japanese on Emily Hill and the former Osborne House: 「日本人街」の歴史も知る丘の上の邸宅シンガポール、 Emily Hill(エミリー・ヒル.

The making of Marina Bay

8 11 2012

The decades that followed Singapore’s somewhat reluctant independence from Malaysia were ones of enormous growth and development which has led to an amazing transformation of a city state, with a burgeoning population, the threat of unemployment and facing much uncertainty into the modern city that it is today. One place where that transformation is very apparent is in and around the city centre, particularly in the Marina Bay area which has seen it morph from the old harbour on which Singapore’s wealth was built into the city of the future built around what has become Singapore’s 15th fresh water reservoir that it is today.

The dawn of a new Singapore at Marina Bay.

View of Clifford Pier, the Inner Roads and the Breakwater in the 1950s from an old postcard (courtesy of Mr. Low Kam Hoong).

Map of Singapore Harbour in the 1950s showing the Detached Mole, Inner Roads and Outer Roads.

The transformation that took place was a story that began in the years that followed independence. Singapore embarked on the State and City Planning Project (SCP) in 1967, assisted by the United Nations under the UN Development Programme’s special assistance scheme for urban renewal and development for emerging nations. The SCP which was completed in 1971, Singapore’s first Concept Plan, identified the need to build an adequate road transportation network. This included a coastal highway to divert traffic that would otherwise have to go through the city. For this land was to be reclaimed, with the construction of what is today Benjamin Sheares Bridge providing a vital link. Initial thoughts were that a green belt could be created on the reclaimed land with space created providing for a future expansion of the city. What did become of the plan and further developments over the years was to give us not just the highway which is the East Coast Parkway (ECP), but in addition to that a city of the future, a city in a garden, and certainly what is a truly amazing new part of Singapore we celebrate today.

Singapore’s City in a Garden concept is very much evident in the transformation of Marina Bay.

The last decade has seen the many developments which were the result of decades of planning take shape around Marina Bay.

You can find out more about this transformation and how it took place by participating in a guided walk this weekend or the next, ‘The Making of Marina Bay‘ which be conducted by Zinkie Aw, held as part of a month long ‘Loving Marina Bay‘ event organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). Details of the walk (and also one more that I will be conducting on 25 Nov 2012 entitled ‘A Walk Around the Old Harbour’) can be found at The Loving Marina Bay site. To sign up for the walks, do visit the Eventbrite signup page. The month long event will also feature a street museum exhibition at Clifford Square (in between Clifford Pier and One Fullerton) in which photographs of the old have been superimposed on the new to provide an appreciation of the changes around the bay through which you can also discover where places such as the Satay Club once were.

A ‘Street Museum’ panel at Clifford Square.

Discover where places such as the Satay Club were through the street museum.

About Loving Marina Bay

See the story of Marina Bay through our AmBAYssadors

Located at the heart of Singapore’s city centre, Marina Bay is the centrepiece of Singapore set to be a thriving 24/7 destination with endless exciting events and a necklace of attractions where people from all walks of life come together to live, work and play.

This photography exhibition showcases the different facets of the Marina Bay precinct through over 100 enthralling photos taken by 20 of our beloved AmBAYssadors made up of Singapore’s popular bloggers and photographers.

Heritage is very much part of the precinct’s foundation, captured in key historical landmarks such as Merlion Park and Collyer Quay.

An interesting Street Museum section chronicles Marina Bay’s story over its first few decades since the 1960s, telling a story of strategic, far-sighted and meticulous planning and committed engagement to reach its present state through archive photos superimposed on its modern-day context.

Join us during the month-long event where every weekend is full of exciting activities such as heritage walks and photography workshops led by our very own AmBAYssadors. We want you to be part of Loving Marina Bay too – submit a photo taken at Marina Bay anywhere, anytime to win prizes; or simply pen a Love Note to your family/friends, drop it into the red pillar post boxes at The Fullerton Hotel Singapore and we will send it anywhere in the world for you! Visit for more details.

A walk down Neil Road

30 10 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conserved three storey shophouses along Neil Road.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A dying tradition lives under the light of the silvery moon

3 09 2012

The seventh month in the Chinese calendar is a month that is held with much superstition in a predominantly Chinese Singapore. It is a month when, as beliefs would have it, the gates of hell are opened and it’s residents return to the earthly world. It is a time when the air fills with the smell of offerings being burned and when tents and stages appear in many open spaces all across Singapore to host dinners during which lively seventh month auctions are held during which entertainment (for both the returning spirits and the living), more often than not, in the form of Getai(歌台) – a live variety show, is often a noisy accompaniment.

Offerings are made to the spirit world when the gates of hell are opened during the seventh month.

Getai, popular as it is today, is however, a more recent addition as entertainment to accompany seventh month dinners. Before its introduction in the 1970s, it would have been more common to see Chinese opera performances and various forms of Chinese puppet shows at such events and during festive occasions at the various Taoist temples in Singapore.

Chinese opera was a common sight at seventh month festivities in the 1960s and 1970s.

The various forms of Chinese opera back in the 1960s and 1970s as I remember them, were always looked forward to with much anticipation by the young and old. My maternal grandmother, despite her not understanding a word of the Chinese dialects that were used in the performances was a big fan, bringing me along to the opera whenever it hit town. Travelling opera troupes were common then, moving from village to village setting up temporary wooden stages on which served not only as a performance stage but also as a place to spend the night. The travelling opera troupes brought with them a whole entourage of food and toy vendors with them and it was that more than the performances that I would look forward to whenever I was asked to accompany my grandmother to the wayangs as Chinese opera performances are often referred to in Singapore and in Malaysia.

A temporary opera stage set up during a Teochew Opera performance at the Singapore Flyer.

It was also common then to see more permanent structures that served as stages back then – they were a feature of many Chinese villages and were also found around temples. Perhaps the last permanent stage in Singapore is one that is not on the main island but one found in what must be the last bastion of ways forgotten that has stubbornly resisted the wave of urbanisation that has changed the landscape of the main island, Pulau Ubin, an island in the north-east of Singapore. Although many of the island’s original residents have moved to the mainland and many of their wooden homes and jetties that once decorated the island’s shoreline have been cleared, there is still a small reminder of how life might once have been on the island – a small community still exists, mainly to provide services to the curious visitors from the main island who come to get a taste of a Singapore that has largely been forgotten.

The permanent stage at Pulau Ubin – it was common to see such stages around temples and in Chinese villages up until the 1980s.

The permanent stage at Pulau Ubin is one that sits across a clearing from the village’s temple which is dedicated to the popular Taoist deity, Tua Pek Kong (大伯公). It is also one that is still used, playing host to Teochew Opera performances by the temple’s opera troupe twice a year – once during the Tua Pek Kong Festival and once during the seventh month festivities. I have long wanted to catch one of the performances in a setting that one can no longer find elsewhere in Singapore, but never found the time to do it – until the last weekend when I was able to find some time to take the boat over for the seventh month festivities which were held on Friday and Saturday evening.

The Tua Pek Kong Temple on Pulau Ubin.

The clearing in front of the temple at Pulau Ubin with the tent set up for the seventh month auction.

For me, it is always nice to take the slow but short boat ride to the island – something I often did in my youth, not just because Pulau Ubin offers a wonderful escape for the urban jungle, but also because it takes me back to a world that rural Singapore once had been. We do have a few places to run off to on the main island, but it is only on Pulau Ubin that one gets a feel that one is far removed from the cold concrete of the urban world in which I can return to the gentler times in which we once lived.

On the slow boat to Ubin.

Ubin in sight – all it takes is a short boat ride to find that a little reminder of a Singapore that has long been forgotten.

Pulau Ubin offers an escape from the maddening urban sprawl.

Although the festivities on the island are now a quieter and a less crowded affair than it might once have been here and in similar celebrations that once took place across the island, it is still nice to be able to witness a dying tradition held in a traditional setting that we would otherwise not be able to see in Singapore any more. While it still is difficult for me to understand and appreciate what was taking place on stage, especially with the amplified voice of the auctioneer booming over the shrill voices of the performers on stage, it was still a joy to watch the elaborately made-up and kitted-out performers go through their routines. It was also comforting to see that the members of the troupe included both the young and the old, signalling that there is hope that a fading tradition may yet survive.

The stage manager calling lines from the script out to the performers – a necessity as the troupe members are all doing this part-time.

The treat that comes with any wayang performance is that it brings with it the opportunity to go backstage. It is here where we get to see the performers painstaking preparations in first doing up their elaborate make-up and in dressing up in the costumes, as well as watch the musicians who provide the characteristic wind, string and percussion sounds that Chinese Opera wouldn’t be what it is without.

Going backstage is always a treat. A performer gets ready as a drummer adds his sounds to the opera in the background.

A performer preparing for the evening’s performance backstage.

The same performer doing her make-up.

Another putting a hair extension on.

The fifteen year old little drummer boy.

Performers also double up as musicians as the troupe is short of members.

I would have liked to have spent the whole night at the festivities, but as I was feeling quite worn out having only returned to Singapore early that morning on a late night flight, I decided to leave after about two hours at the wayang. The two hours and the hour prior to that on the island were ones that helped me not just to reconnect with a world I would otherwise have forgotten, but also to the many evenings I had spent as a child catching the cool breeze in my hair by the sea. Those are times the new world seems to want us to forget, times when the simple things in life mattered a lot more … There will be a time that I hope will never come when this world we find on Pulau Ubin will cease to exist. I will however take comfort in it as long as it is there … and as long as there are those who seek to keep traditions such as the Teochew opera we once in a while are able to see there, alive.

The light of the silvery moon seen on Pulau Ubin – the festivities are held during the full moon of the seventh month.

A section of the audience and participants in the seventh month dinner.

Close-ups of performers and scenes from the Teochew Opera:

A one hundred year old beauty

26 06 2012

Of the places that remain of a childhood in a Singapore that I will never be able to see again, there is one which carries not just the memories of yesterday, but also the memory of an emotion that has almost been forgotten. The place, a church – St. Joseph’s Church in Victoria Street, which is housed in a building which on the 30th of June will celebrate its centenary, is one that takes me back to years which hold my earliest memories. It was a place where I had spent many Sunday mornings at mass after which I could look forward to sitting by tables and chairs laid by St. Anthony’s Boys’ School in the church’s compound where I could enjoy a bowl fishball noodles from the enterprising school canteen vendor who opened just to serve churchgoers on Sunday. It was also a place to which my grandmother would take me to every Good Friday, when arriving early to get a seat inside the church for its very popular Good Friday service, I would spend hours seated next to my grandmother as she sat in quiet contemplation.

St. Joseph’s Church, Victoria Street.

The church was known then to me as the ‘Portuguese Church’, a name which pointed to its origins in the Portuguese Mission in Singapore and its administration by Dioceses in the Portuguese colony of Goa and later in the Portuguese colony of Macau. The mission’s presence had dated back to the early 1820s – not long after Raffles founded modern Singapore, and predated the French Mission under which the Catholic churches in Singapore were later to come under. The Portuguese presence was to continue through the church which came under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Macau until 1981 and after through priests appointed to the church until 1999 by the Bishop of Macau. This long association with the Portuguese Mission has not only provided us with the beautiful building that houses the church, but also with a little bit of Portugal that manifests itself in the Iberian flavour of the church’s interior as well as traditions and practices that are unique to St. Joseph’s Church which even to this day is still very much in evidence.

The portico of the church with the marble statues of St. Joseph in the centre, flanked by St. John de Brito and St. John of God.

The rectory of the church seen through one of the arches at the entrance portico of the church.

The current church building was blessed by the Bishop of Macau, Dom João Paulino Azevedo e Castro on the 30th of June 1912. The grand ceremony had commenced at 7 am with a procession during which various points around the exterior of the church were blessed before the congregation was admitted into the new church building’s interior in which as newspaper reports would have it “nearly every available space” was occupied.

The interior of St. Joseph’s Church dressed up in red for Easter this year. Newspaper reports mention that ‘nearly every available space’ in the church was occupied for its opening solemnities.

Darkness and light – the beautiful illuminated interior of the church.

The congregation that morning would have been the first to marvel at the splendour that was the new church building’s interior, one that even with the worn appearance that it now wears, is still very much a sight to behold. It is this interior, and its 14th Century style Gothic design that for me makes the church the most beautiful in Singapore. The interior is one that at time of the day is illuminated by a soft and beautiful pale green light that streams through the generous panels of stained glass it is provided with that casts both light and shadow on the many niches that line the walls of the church. The niches are ones which contain statues of Saints – statues which in the Catholic tradition are not as is popularly believed, idols, but reminders of ordinary people who have achieved the pinnacle of holiness. It is a statue of one of the Saints high up on the south wall in the middle of the church’s nave that in my childhood I had a fascination with – that of St. Sebastian depicted as he popularly is, bloodied and tied to a tree.

The church is naturally illuminated by the soft green light that streams through the generously provided stained glass windows.

Windows on the south wall of the nave. The upper windows catch the light beautifully. The upper walls of the nave are lined with niches in which the statues of Saints are placed.

The statue of St. Sebastian on the south wall of the nave.

The church is laid out as was the tradition on a plan in the shape of a cross – a Latin cross in this instance. The nave which ends with the apse in the shape of five sides of an incomplete hexagon in the west which houses the Chancel and the main entrance to the east, is crossed by a transept. The high ceiling allows the provision of the many stained glass windows along the upper levels of the nave and the transept and those that attended the blessing ceremony would have seen this but not the stained glass that has to be seen as the church’s crowning glory – the beautiful panels in the Chancel which although now in a state of disrepair, can still be appreciated as one of the more elaborate works of such kind found in Singapore. The panels were the work of Belgian artisans from Jules Dobbelaere’s studio in Bruges. The church’s stained glass which are now in an obvious state of disrepair will be part of a restoration effort that will commence soon after the church celebrates the building’s 100th Anniversary. The work which will take two years of painstaking effort to complete will be carried out by a Singaporean stained glass artist, Bee Liang, who has extensive experience in the work from her stints in Canada and training in Germany.

The exterior of the south transept – even the exterior of the building catches the light beautifully at certain times of the day.

Closer inspection of a stained soft green glass window on the south transept, illuminated partially by another window across on the rear wall of the transept.

Stained glass panels in the Chancel – work of Belgian artisans from Jules Dobbelaere’s studio in Bruges.

Looking towards the east end of the nave – the gallery can be seen on the upper level.

Another view of the east end of the nave.

The central panels depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus flanked by Our Lady and St. Joseph.

A stained glass panel depicting St. John Berchmans.

A panel depicting St. Francis Xavier.

A panel depicting St. Agnes.

Five panel stained glass window at the end of the south transept.

Morning light streaming into the north transept.

Besides the beautiful stained glass – the very elaborate high altar of white and coloured marble dedicated to St. Joseph is another that is worth taking a notice of. The church also features some excellent carved teak wood pieces – one which runs along the transept is a 40 metre long altar rail along which the faithful would once have knelt to receive Holy Communion. The carved piece that will certainly be noticed is the ornamented teak pulpit with its canopy, one that I never failed to notice every time I visited the church.

The stained glass of the Chancel and the high altar dedicated to St. Joseph.

The ornamented craved teak pulpit and canopy.

The church which once shared its compound with two schools – St. Anthony’s Boys’ School and St. Anthony’s Convent, is the last of the three to remain and having been gazetted as a National Monument in 2005, will be one that will certainly be there for a much more than the 100 years it has stood, for which a mass will be held at 10.30 am on 30th June 2012. Besides the work on the stained glass, there is much more repair work that needs to be done – the ravages not just of time, but also of nearby construction activity are clearly evident which will require funds to be raised. It will not just be the magnificent building and all that it holds that will with its restoration and conservation be retained, but also of a tradition that its has been proud to maintain that dates back to the early days of Singapore.

More views around the church in the morning light

Seeing the light.

Darkness and light.

Statue of St. Anthony of Padua.

The nave windows of the church.

Floor tiles in the church.

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On borrowed time: Mun Sun Fook Tuck Chee

19 06 2012

The Geylang area as many know is one that is associated with the seedier side of life, great food as well as the many houses of worship it plays host to. It is unfortunate that the seedier aspects does dominate the impressions we have collectively formed of the area. Geylang does, despite its appearance, have a lot more to offer than that, being rich not just in its architectural heritage, but also where some aspects of its history (as well as that of Singapore’s) have been preserved. Strategically located in the area where the Kallang and Geylang rivers meet, a large part of Geylang’s more recent history lies in the industrial development that took place around the Kallang Basin which also drew many from afar to seek their fortune to the area. The stories of these migrants and that of the area’s industrialisation are now all but lost and it is in the old buildings and in the houses of worship that these forgotten stories are to be discovered. One of the houses of worship that has a story to tell is a Taoist temple, Mun Sun Fook Tuck Chee (萬山福德祠), that now lies somewhat isolated in a quiet corner off the Geylang we now see – a story that all too soon may be totally forgotten. The temple is one that now sits on a site that it occupied since 1901 as a guest, a guest that may soon overstay its welcome. The site – an obscure corner of what used to be Geylang Lorong 17, now Sims Drive, is on land that the HDB now owns, land that will be possibly be redeveloped with the cluster of public flats next to it that find themselves the victims of the relentless pace of redevelopment in Singapore.

Mun Sun Fook Tuck Chee sits in a quiet corner at the end of what was Geylang Lorong 17 (the part that is now Sims Drive).

A portal to a forgotten past.

My introduction to the temple and its origins was via a guided tour of it that one of our local experts on temples in Singapore, Yik Han, was kind enough to give at the end of a short walk of discovery I did with some friends through Geylang’s streets of sin and salvation. The temple’s history, I was to learn, goes back beyond 1901, to the second half of the 19th Century (the 1860s). It owes its establishment to the Cantonese and Hakka coolie population that had found work in the brick kilns that thrived by the banks of the Kallang River due to the availability of clay that was of a quality suitable for brick making. The temple is closely associated with a village on the banks that was referred to as Sar Kong (沙崗) or ‘Sand Ridge’ and had moved a few times before finding itself in its current site.

Yik Han giving an introduction to the temple’s history.

A member of the temple’s committee speaking of the temple’s origins …

… some of which is captured on a tablet.

In the temple’s name, one can perhaps find a reference to its origins. The name ‘Mun Sun’ is thought to be transliteration of the malay word bangsal, the Malay word for ‘shed’ or ‘workshop’ – a reference to its industrial origins. The temple which is dedicated to the Taoist Earth God (土地公) does, besides its interesting history, contain several interesting articles that await discovery. One is a carved altar table that bears the markings of the craftsmen who made it. On closer inspection of one of its legs, there are the marks left by the craftsmen which include the Chinese characters ‘牛車水’ – ‘Ox-Cart Water’ or the Chinese name for what we call Chinatown today. What this points to is that the craft was carried out not as one might have expected in China – where there was a tendency to commission such work, but locally.

The main altar of the Earth God. The carved wooden altar table in the foreground is one that was crafted off the streets of ‘Ox-Cart Water’, 牛车水 or 牛車水 in the traditional script. A carved inscription on one of the legs bears evidence of this.

Close-up of characters carved on the table. The Chinese characters ‘牛車水’- ‘Ox-Cart Water’ or ‘Kreta Ayer’ or the Chinese name for Chinatown in Singapore, indicate that there were furniture craftsmen present in Singapore’s Chinatown who made the table at a time when a lot of such work would have been commissioned in China.

The temple plays host to several other deities including the Golden Flower Lady (金花夫人). That she is the patroness of child-bearing won’t escape notice with the 12 nannies tending to young children that accompany her on the altar. One deity whose name escaped meat the side of the temple takes a curious form – that of a mannequin that is used to represent it.

The patroness of child-bearing, the Golden Flower Lady (金花夫人) with some of the 12 nannies who flank her on the altar.

A close-up of one of the 12 nannies.

Te deity which has a mannequin representing him.

The temple’s building also holds a clue to its origins. In the course of his introduction, Yik Han pointed out a little known fact – that the building is one of the rare examples of Cantonese style temple architecture in Singapore. It is also interesting to note that the temple had also at some point, housed a school, as well as a sports club, the sports club being started to provide a channel for alternative pursuits other than addiction to opium.

The temple’s building is one of the rare examples of Cantonese temple architecture.

The part of the temple where the school operated, now houses the lion dance troupe that probably is the temple’s claim to fame. It is the troupe that performs the fire dragon dance which uses a dragon that is made out of padi straw and lit up with incense sticks. A fire dragon from the temple featured in this year’s Chingay parade. The dragon that was used lies quietly in a room on the right side of the temple.

A ‘fire’ dragon made from padi straw that was used in Chingay 2012. The temple is known for the Fire Dragon dance.

Despite the temple’s significant links with the history of immigration into and the industrial development of the area, the future of the temple on its current site is one that is uncertain. The blocks of Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats that have cast a shadow on it for over three decades have been vacated – part of a on-going programme to renew some of the older public housing neighbourhoods known as the Selective En-Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) that will see them demolished and replaced by newer apartment blocks. This may mean that the temple at its current site may soon see its final days and with that … one of the last reminders of the area’s early industrial history will be one that like the area’s past that it represents, be forever lost.

Coils of incense on the ceiling.

Blessings that will be attached to the incense coils.

See also: 19th-century temple at risk of demolition (Sunday Times 26 January 2014).

Streets of sin and salvation

13 06 2012

Passing through the Geylang area of Singapore, it is probably hard to imagine it as anything other than a destination to indulge in two of the seven deadly sins. The two ‘sins’, gluttony and lust, is a reputation that the district has acquired – gluttony in that it is a destination to search for some of the best food in Singapore; and lust that can be satisfied in the glow of the red lights of some of its lorongs (streets). It is perhaps not the ‘sins’ that meets the eye down Geylang Road but the rows of shophouses that line the busy thoroughfare. Although there are many that have been spruced up of late, it is the tired look that many wear that you would first notice.

A green light at a traffic junction in Geylang. There is more to Geylang than the red lights that is has acquired a reputation for.

Much of Geylang wears a worn and tired look.

The tired veneer hides a world that awaits discovery such as this five-foot-way of a Late style unit along Lorong Bachok.

The area does seem to be well policed and is a relatively safe area to explore. However, it’s best (especially for ladies) to avoid walking alone.

It is easy to forget where you are in Geylang, there streets bear no resemblance to the futuristic looking city centre just a few kilometres to the west, having a look and feel of perhaps the main street of one of the larger towns across the causeway. A large proportion of the area’s architecture, is made up of buildings that date back to the turn of the last century, seemingly at odds with the futuristic looking city centre that lies at the end of the main street that has all but discarded the same buildings that dominate Geylang’s landscape. Within the landscape, it is the less familiar accents that seem to be heard – the area draws many who have come to seek their fortune – a reprise of a role that it once, interestingly enough, played, a role that perhaps gave the area some of the attractions we are about to discover.

The streets bear very little resemblance to the ones of the futuristic city just a few kilometres to the west.

Migrant workers from China line the sidewalks to await transport to their work sites – Geylang with its cheap lodgings attracts many migrant workers – a reprise of a role it played in the pre-war years for those coming from China seeking a fortune.

It is in peeling the tired and worn veneer that Geylang wears, and looking beyond the reputation it has acquired, that you will find that Geylang does have a lot more to offer. It is a district that is rich in history, having traced its origins to the resettlement of the sea gypsies that once lived around much of our shoreline – the Orang Laut from their homes in and around the swamps that dominated much of the Kallang Basin. Over time, as the city to the west expanded outwards, being close to the banks of two large rivers, it naturally drew many industries to the area, and with them, the immigrant population needed to keep the factories running as well as businesses that supported both the industries and the growing population. One thing that is also very apparent in and around the area is the ample sprinkling of places to perhaps seek salvation in – mosques, temples and churches, nestled in between Geylang’s buildings, that were established to support the spiritual needs of Geylang’s booming population and have survived till today.

Geylang has historically attracted many factories to the area, being close to the banks of the Geylang and Kallang Rivers and as a result many spiritual and commercial enterprises – many of which survive until today.

Besides having a reputation for its streets of sin, Geylang’s streets are also streets of salvation in the form of the many houses of worship that were established to meet the spiritual needs of the area’s diverse population.

One of many temples along Geylang Road.

Several mosques can be found in the area. The photo shows Masjid Khadijah along Geylang Road built in the early 1900s.

A more recent introduction – a temple housed in a conservation double storey Late style shophouse in Lorong 25.

Geylang’s history is well represented in its architecture, a lot of which, fortunately for our future generations, has received conservation status. The area is rich particularly in shophouses built from the early 1900s to just before the war – many are in the Late style that dominated in first four decades of the 1900s and also in the Late Transitional style of the late 1930s. There is also many delightful buildings that feature elements of the Art Deco style that was popular in buildings in Singapore just before and after the war. Many are hidden away in Geylang’s lorongs along with some other charming discoveries that can only be found in walking the many streets – which with a small group in tow I attempted to do over the weekend.

A row of Art Deco style shophouses built in 1939 between Lorong 30 and Lorong 28. The architectural landscape of Geylang is representative of its history of settlement and development which took-off at the turn of the century up to the pre-war years.

Late Transitional style shophouses along Geylang Road.

The back alleys around the Lorongs can be quite colourful – in more ways than one.

The spiral staircase is common architectural feature found at the back of many of the shophouses.

A discovery that awaits in one of the many lorongs of Geylang – colourful tiles behind the barbed wire of a fence.

One street that I take particular delight in is Lorong 24A. Here, two rows of beautifully conserved and brightly (but tastefully) decorated Late style terrace shophouses stand across from each other and is a must-see if one is in the area. The cluster of lorongs around Lorong 24A (and even the main road) is blessed with some other gems as well. Running parallel to Lorong 24A, Lorong 26 has a few. One is a two storey bungalow that sits at the junction of Geylang Road and Lorong 26 – used by the Meng Yew Hotel. Further in, there is also a two storey bungalow at No. 5 for which conservation takes the form of it being incorporated as part of a condominium development that is fast changing the architectural landscape of Geylang’s lorongs. Also on Lorong 26, there is a temple to be discovered – one that is in a setting that harks back to a time when much of the area around would have been in a similar setting – a time we have chosen to forget.

Lorong 24A contains two delightful rows of very well conserved and brightly decorated Late style houses.

Another two storey Late style house along Lorong 24A.

Close-up of a Late style house in Lorong 24A.

Meng Yew Hotel at the junction of Lorong 26 with Geylang Road.

Gek Hong Temple at No. 14 Lorong 26 takes us back to a forgotten time.

A view of the temple building housed in a single storey bungalow of a type that was found all over the area in a setting that harks back to the good old kampong days.

The side of the temple’s building that is raised on stilts – a measure made necessary by frequent flooding.

A two storey bungalow at Lorong 26 which is being conserved within a larger condominium development that it will be a part of.

In the same area on Geylang Road, there are some noteworthy buildings. One is the conservation of Late style shophouses at Lorong 28 / Geylang Road as part of a residential / commercial development ‘The Sunflower’. Another is a pink building that bears not just the history of the building on its face, but also points to a time when the many small players in the soft drink manufacturing were able to compete alongside the big boys for a share of the market. The words on the Art Deco building tell that it was once the home of the Eastern Aerated Water Company, which had moved its factory here in 1951 from its former premises in Middle Road. The shift of the factory here represented a milestone for the company which produced ‘Ship Brand’ carbonated drinks with the introduction of automated production. The company stopped production in the 1980s. Across the road at Lorong 25, there are a few temples and a church. However, it will again probably be the row of beautiful Late style houses that will catch the eye.

The Sunflower at the junction of Geylang Road and Lorong 28.

The Art Deco style former premises of Eastern Aerated Water Company close to the junction of Geylang Road with Aljunied Road.

A row of conservation Late style houses along Lorong 25.

Crossing Aljunied Road, the very obvious sale of items that are linked to the area’s seedy side reminds us of where we are. We quickly walk past and over to what were the premises of Geylang English School and Geylang West School – now put to commercial use. We had taken the route to bring us towards Lorong 17, where we were to meet up with someone who was going to introduce us to a spiritual gem – a temple that is a physical marker of the area’s industrial past and one that lives on borrowed time. That I will come to in another post. There was still time to walk along Lorong Bachok where at the corner of the street and Lorong 19, there is a very fancifully decorated set of two storey Late style shophouses from 1929 that are rather interesting.

The former Geylang English School and Geylang West School premises.

A gaily decorated Late style house along Lorong Bachok.

This brought a thoroughly enjoyable two-hour walk of discovery to its end. We stopped by a kopi-tiam (coffeeshop) to grab a much needed drink and for some rest before we embarked on the next part of the journey of discovery … The walk provided a glimpse of what the often misunderstood lorongs of Geylang has to offer. There are many more streets that will take more than a few walks to discover and that will certainly ones that I will look forward to.

Decoration on the pillar at the corner unit at Lorong Bachok / Lorong 19.

Decoration on the complementing pillar.

Online Resources on Geylang:

75 feet above the harbour

30 03 2012

From a vantage point 75 feet (about 23 metres) over Singapore’s former harbour, officers with the Harbour Division of the Preventive Branch of the Department of Customs and Excise (which later became Singapore Customs), stood watch over the Inner Roads of the harbour for more than three decades. The vantage point, a panoramic lookout tower that we still today, was part of the Customs Harbour Branch Building built over an L-shaped pier along the waterfront at the end of Collyer Quay. The building and pier, built at a cost of S$1.8 million, was completed in October 1969. The complex housed the 300 strong force of the then Harbour Division, as well as provided berths and maintenance facilities (which included a slipway) for some 35 launches and speedboats of the Division when it first opened. The building also provided cargo examination facilities and its construction allowed the Division to move from its somewhat makeshift premises in a godown in Telok Ayer Basin.

What is today a posh dining destination, Customs House, with its very distinct 75 foot lookout tower, was formerly the Customs Harbour Branch Building. It was completed in October 1969 and housed the Harbour Division of the Customs Preventive Branch.

The Customs Harbour Branch Building in 2006 (source: URA site on Conservation Matters).

Collyer Quay in July 1974 seen beyond the Detached Mole, a breakwater that sheltered the Inner Roads from the opened Outer Roads. The Customs Harbour Branch Building and its distinct 75 foot tower is seen on the extreme left of the photograph (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

While 75 feet in the context of what now surrounds the former Customs complex, the tower allowed customs officers to keep a round-the-clock watch over the harbour for small boats attempting to sneak dutiable goods into Singapore. The octagonal shaped and fully air-conditioned watch tower which is supported by a cylindrical base provided a panoramic view which extended beyond the Inner Roads to the mouth of the Singapore River, the Geylang River and Tanjong Rhu. Officers spotting a suspicious boat could then alert their colleagues manning the speedboats which were on standby by the pier who would then head out to intercept the suspicious boat.

A side elevation of the former Customs Harbour Branch Building with its very distinct lookout tower (source: URA site on Conservation Matters).

At the bottom of the 75 feet climb up a spiral staircase to the lookout tower - reminiscent of climbs up several lighthouses I've visited.

In between heavy panting, I managed to appreciate the view halfway up.

At the end of the 75 feet climb - a view of the lookout tower's ceiling.

Looking down at the cause of my heavy breathing.

Use for the building and the pier in its intended role ended with the construction of the Marina Barrage which cut what were the Inner Roads of the old harbour off from the sea and the building then under the Maritime and Port Authority’s charge was passed over to the Singapore Land Authority in 2006. Customs House was given conservation status in 2007 and was reopened as a dining destination under the management of Fullerton Heritage, which also manages the former Clifford Pier and the Fullerton Hotel. The tower itself is however disused and remains inaccessible to the general public.

At the top of the lookout tower.

The lookout tower no longer commands a view of a harbour littered with bumboats, twakows and tongkangs, but of the new world that is Marina Bay.

Show me the money! An interpretation perhaps of the new view - as seen in the reflection of a window of the lookout tower offered by one of the installations for i Light Marina Bay 2012 - Teddy Lo's MEGAPOV.

Seeing double - BIBI's Bibigloo and a reflection of it as viewed from the lookout tower.

A new face to a once familiar place

24 11 2011

Some might remember a time when Punggol Point lay at the end of a somewhat long and winding road – the old Punggol Road that meandered through a countryside that we have since lost. The road, which started at its junction with Upper Serangoon Road where the St. Francis Xavier Minor Seminary served as a landmark, took one past some five miles of the many tracks of Punggol, villages and farms with attap and zinc roofed houses and a lot of which I don’t quite remember. What I did remember was the unmistakeable pong that hung in the air – one that was fed by the numerous poultry and pig farms that had thrived in the area, and perhaps the evening’s chorus of squeals – that of pigs calling for their dinner.

The beach at Punggol Point - now cleaned up and freed of the boatels and boats that added colour to the landscape.

The end of the road offered a lot to those who did brave the journey. There was first and foremost the cluster of seafood restaurants that drew many with the reward of reputedly some of the best and freshest seafood dishes on the menu in which service always seemed to begin with the customary basin in which one found the table’s utensils and teacups, cleansed in the water that the basin held. There was also the weekend crowd that came: those armed with rods to fish at the jetty, or board a boat to attempt to reel in a bigger catch offshore – which invariably included a lot of Ikan Sembilang; and those who sought to satisfy a need for speed planing over the water on waterskis – either off Punggol Point or at nearby Coney Island. For some, Punggol Point also offered a quiet escape from the fast moving concrete world that was taking over much of the rest of Singapore – the fishing village it hosted by the sea adding to the rustic charm that the area already held.

Punggol Point before the big change that took place at the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s (source:

The last I saw of that Punggol Point and of Punggol Road was at a time when I was still in my youth, and with the distractions of a decade when I made the transition from being a curious child to adulthood, a decade that probably saw the most significant change in Singapore’s rural landscape – the 1980s, the clearing of Punggol as it was at the end of the 1980s seemed to have passed me by. Some business at Punggol Point like the seafood restaurants and boatels did have an extended lease of life, but they too went in the early 1990s, and Punggol, as with much of Singapore, was to be changed forever.

Looking west today towards what was the area close to the mouth of Sungei Punggol.

I was to discover how much has changed as I made my way over the weekend for the first time in over two decades to Punggol Point for the official opening of Punggol Point Walk and Punggol Point Park. The journey was there of course now made a lot easier by the Tampines Expressway (TPE) which runs below an elevated stretch of Punggol Road, no longer was there a need to make one’s way over Upper Serangoon Road to the start of that long and narrow Punggol Road. There wasn’t much that I had expected to see that would have reminded me of the old Punggol Road and Punggol Point, as I tirelessly drove along what is now a wide dual carriageway, flanked not by attap and zince roofed houses and greenery, but by the new HDB estate that has risen out of the ashes of the old Punggol. A surprise awaited at the last stretch of the road – the dual carriageway merged, after a wide junction into a stretch on which for a moment, gave me a feeling that I was on my way to that old Punggol Point. Flanked by a line of trees which provided cover to the short but winding stretch of road, it did look as if I was heading down the old Punggol Road – which this stretch was a part of, kept almost as it might have been as a heritage road. Althought the ‘Tracks’ of Punggol Road were gone, there is still a couple of familar streets – one Ponggol Seventeenth Avenue brings with it memories I have of campfires and walks by a narrow beach that led to the mouth of Sungei Punggol. It is after the next familiar name, Ponggol Twenty-Fourth Avenue, that the realisation sinks in that it is not to that old Punggol Point that I was heading to, as the break in the cover of trees reveals the brand new world which will attempt to retain some of that rustic charm that the old Punggol Point had been known for.

The tree lined stretch of road that leads to the end - reminiscent of the Punggol Road of the days gone by.

Past the Outward Bound School, I soon arrived at the end of the road. Desperate to see what Punggol Point has become, I quickly make my way up a viewing deck, which I was to find out later, shaped like a ship. The viewing deck offered a wonderful panorama of the Straits of Johor and Pasir Gudang beyond the jetty which it overlooked, where stakes used to moor boats and the boats tied to them would have once greeted the eye. On both sides, a beach that looked a lot cleaner than the one I remembered ran up and down the coastline, cleared of the boatels and the stilted houses of a Malay kampung that once stood close to the water’s edge. The beach, and perhaps the jetty are perhaps what can connect us with the past, and a reminder in the form of a National Heritage Board sign of an unfortunate and tragic episode in our history that took place on the beach – the Sook Ching Massacre.

The jetty today.

The lookout that I stepped on to, is part of what is a 1.2 km promenade and park, the Punggol Point Walk and Punggol Point Park, which is one of three thematic zones of the $16.7 million 4.9 km long Punggol Promenade project undertaken by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) that was officially opened by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean on 20 Nov 2011. This is a component of its Parks and Waterbodies and Identities Plans which aims to open up and introduce new recreational activities and amenities to coastal areas, and also preserve the laid-back and village-like appeal that the areas are known for. Punggol Promenade will link up two recreational clusters at Punggol Point and Punggol East, as well as link to the park connectors along Punggol Reservoir and Serangoon Reservoir. This will form a continuous 17 km loop around the north-eastern part of Singapore. The two other thematic zones are the 1.3 km Riverside Walk which anchors a growing recreational cluster at Punggol East which opened in March this year and a 2.5 km Nature Walk, scheduled to be completed next year.

Punggol Point Walk and Punggol Point Walk was officially opened by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean on 20 Nov 2011.

Ms Penny Low, Member of Parliament for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, speaking at the opening.

Location Plan of Punggol Promenade and Punggol Point Walk and Punggol Point Park. © Urban Redevelopment Authority. All rights reserved.

A dragon who's eyes were painted by DPM Teo used in a dragon dance performance at the opening.

Dragon dance performance by Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC residents.

The Punggol Point Park offers a lot more besides the viewing deck and the beach, there are also the calm of Lily Ponds, a 81 metre by 10 metre Event Plaza and a Children’s Playground to draw families to enjoy the newly opened park. There is certainly more to look forward to – a reserve site has been released by the URA for sale by tender for food and beverage development – which will perhaps see the return of seafood to the area, and a horse-riding school will also soon open. The Promenade at Punggol Point Walk will feature both a 3 metre wide cycling track for use by cyclists and roller skaters and a parallel 3 metre wide footpath constructed of simulated timber. A sustainable approach is in fact adopted in the selection of materials for use in the project that also involves the use of permeable Tegula pavers on hard scaped area which eliminate the need for drainage systems, the use of bio-swales to filter surface run-offs and the use of Laterite earth.

The Lily Pond.

Besides the mobile ice-cream vendor - there is now a lot more to attract those with children to visit the park and promenade.

The Children's Playground. © Urban Redevelopment Authority. All rights reserved.

Footpaths and cycling paths at the waterfront promenade. © Urban Redevelopment Authority. All rights reserved.

I must say that although I didn’t really find much of the old Punggol Point that I might have hoped for, I am grateful to have taken the opportunity to visit the area. The drive through the heritage road did help trigger a few memories that I have stored away, as did my walk around the new park. While much of the old world rustic charm has inevitably been lost, there is still some of that charm that is left to draw vistors to the area and to also draw me back not just for the chance to escape from the urban world, but also for the opportunity it offers me to rediscover and reconnect with a part of Singapore I have might have almost forgotten about.

A Kranji Heritage Trail

10 11 2011

The name Kranji brings to mind many things. Kranji War Memorial is one, named after an area in the far north of the island that is also associated with the beginnings of the railway through Singapore at the start of the twentieth century. There is a lot more to Kranji than that – Kranji Dam is another landmark associated with the area – part of a scheme launched in the early 1970s to increase Singapore’s fresh water resources and probably the first dam to be constructed across a river in Singapore for that purpose. The greater Kranji area – which the Kranji Countryside Association (KCA) covers, does of course offer a lot more than that. Besides the area being one of the last areas accessible to the public in Singapore least affected by the rapid development of post independent Singapore where one can cycle or drive along country roads that once dominated much of rural Singapore, and the area which is now associated with re-establishing some level of self-sufficiency in food, the area is now the subject of the latest National Heritage Board (NHB) supported initiative to work with the private sector to develop the heritage industry – The Kranji Heritage Trail.

The Kranji Heritage Trail includes 14 markers which will each have a QR Code to access information on the spot via a smart phone.

The trail, developed under the NHB’s HI2P programme, and is the proud effort of the KCA with sponsorship by NTUC Fairprice Foundation, was launched at Yew Tee Point yesterday. The launch, which was graced by Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Law, Mr K Shanmugam, was led by the President of KCA, Mrs Ivy Singh-Lim, KCA Patron Howard Shaw, Mr Seah Kian Peng – the CEO of NTUC Fairprice, and Mr Alvin Tan – Director, NHB.

Present at the launch were Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Law, Mr K Shanmugam, President of KCA Mrs Ivy Singh-Lim, KCA Patron Howard Shaw, Mr Seah Kian Peng - the CEO of NTUC Fairprice, and Mr Alvin Tan - Director, NHB.

The Kranji Heritage Trail intends to bridge past and present through a history of early farming in the area, besides the developing interest in historical sites such as the first Japanese invasion sites on the north-western shoreline in the dark days of February 1942 that led to the eventual fall of Singapore. The trail will comprise 14 trail markers, each of which will incorporate a QR Code – the first of Singapore’s heritage trails to do so. This will enable instant access to information relating to the sites with a QR Code reader installed on any smart-phone.

The former Kranji Level Crossing is among the 14 landmarks on the Heritage Trail.

The landmarks that would feature in the Kranji Heritage Trail are:

  1. Kranji War Memorial
  2. WWII First Landing Site of the Japanese
  3. Kranji Army Barracks
  4. Kranji Railway Train Crossing
  5. Neo Tiew
  6. Bollywood Veggies
  7. Hay Dairies
  8. Hausmann Marketing Aquarium
  9. Jurong Frog Farm
  10. Kok Fah Technology
  11. Lian Wah Hang Quail & Poultry Farm
  12. Nye Phoe
  13. Sungei Buloh
  14. Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle

The Pier, the house of the late Howard Cashin is on a World War II landing site where the Japanese invasion force suffered a number of casualties.

The Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle is built around the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln which the Tan family has operated since 1965 is another of the 14 sites.

For those interested in exploring the trail this weekend, complimentary shuttle bus services and guided tours will be offered on 12 and 13 November 2011. Members of the public can register for tickets at the Information Counter of Yew Tee Point. Pick up would be at Yew Tee Point at 9am and 1pm on both days.


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