The three last stages of Singapore

17 09 2014

A structure that often featured in the rural landscape during the days of my childhood, was the wayang stage. Constructed usually out of wood, the wayang stage was often found in the vicinity of a rural Chinese community’s temple and together with the temple, such stages became focal points for the village folk during important festive celebrations.

A wayang performance on one of the last permanent wayang stages left in Singapore.

A wayang performance on one of the last permanent wayang stages left in Singapore.

The festivals often required that the gods be kept amused. Entertainment often took the form of the retelling of traditional tales through the strained voices of garishly dressed performers with gaudily painted faces, all of which played out on the stage, attracting not just the gods but also many non- celestial beings.

A permanent wayang stage in Tuas, 1978 (source: Ronni Pinsler / http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Interest in the tradition, wayangs  – as the various genres of Chinese opera practiced here have come to be referred to, has long since dwindled and have largely been replaced by entertainment forms that reflect the national desire to abandon age-old practices. But this isn’t quite what is to blame for the disappearance of the (permanent) wayang stage. The displacement the rural world by urban townships and the dispersion of the members of the rural communities in the process, meant that many of the temples equipped with such stages have had to vacate their once generous spaces. The squeeze put on new spaces has made it less practical to have occasionally utilised permanent stages on the temples’ premises these days and today, only there are only a handful of such stages that can be found in Singapore.

Another permanent structure that was located in a village in Choa Chu Kang (source: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

The brightly coloured century-old stage at the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple along Balestier Road, would be one that many would have noticed. The temple is one that has long been a very recognisable part of the road’s landscape having been established as far back as 1847. An article in the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Jan/Feb 2012 edition of Skyline gives us the background on the temple as well as on the wayang stage:

Historically, Balestier had been a swampy area infested with tigers and malarial mosquitoes. In a bid to ward off these dangers, Chinese Hokkien immigrants built the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong temple in 1847, asking deity Tua Pek Kong for protection. Years later, Tan Boon Liat, grandson of philanthropist Tan Tock Seng, funded the creation of a free-standing wayang (theatrical performance) stage in 1906.

Seventh-month festivities at the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong's with a performance on the wayang stage.

Seventh-month festivities at the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong’s with a performance on the wayang stage.

A second permanent stage, is one found in a less obvious location, well hidden deep inside a private housing estate in Ulu Pandan. The concrete world that now dominates the area was where the Chua or Tua Kang Lai village had once been spread across at which the Tan Kong Tian temple, to which the stage belongs to, was established at the turn of the last century. The stage, built together with the current temple’s building in 1919, based on information at the Beokeng.com site, was rather interestingly also used as a classroom when a school, Li Qun, was setup in 1927:

Tan Kong Tian Temple (yuan fu dian) was founded in 1904 in the old village Tua Kan Lai, which means ‘near the Big Canal ( Sungei Ulu Pandan)’, and for this reason, Tan Kong Tian is also known as Tua Kang Lai Temple. Majority of Tua Kan Lai’s residents go by the surname Chua, which gave rise to another name Chua Village Temple.

The statue of Dong Gong Zhenren was brought over from Jin Fu Dian temple in Anxi county of Fujian province. The temple was rebuilt in 1919 with a opera stage, which was also used as classroom for Li Qun School setup in 1927. The school was closed in 1980 but the stage is still standing today beside the temple.

The wayang stage at Tan Kong Tian in the Ulu Pandan area.

The wayang stage at Tan Kong Tian in the Ulu Pandan area.

The approach to Tan Kong Tian and the wayang stage.

The approach to Tan Kong Tian and the wayang stage.

The two, are the last to be found on Singapore’s main island. A third is found at the Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple on Pulau Ubin. The three, now serve as a reminder, not only of  tradition we are fast losing, but also of a time and a way of life that has long passed us.

A view of the wayang stage during the evening's performance.

The wayang stage in Pulau Ubin.





The dragon comes alive for Mid-Autumn

9 09 2014

The Dragon has been brought to life for the third time this year, being fired up this time around for an international gathering of clay artists in Singapore for the International Chawan Exposition. The 16th edition of the exposition is being held in Singapore from 6 to 14 September 2014 and includes a wood firing event from 8 to 10 September at the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln.

Making offerings to the kiln god at the start of the firing.

Making offerings to the kiln god to mark the start of the firing.

The firing event, the opening of which coincided with the Mid-Autumn Festival last evening, is open to the public on 9 and 10 September. More information on the International Chawan Exposition can be found at http://www.chawanexpo.com/singapore.html. More information on the kiln and its history can be found in some of my previous posts on Thow Kwang.

More photographs from last evening’s opening:

The packed kiln.

The packed kiln.

Sealing the access opening.

Sealing the access opening.

Sealing the access opening.

Sealing the access opening.

Preparing offerings to the kiln god.

Preparing offerings to the kiln god.

Offering a prayer to the kiln god.

Offering a prayer to the kiln god.

The gathering of artists with Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of the National Heritage Board.

The gathering of artists with Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of the National Heritage Board.

Lighting the fire.

Lighting the fire.

The initial flames ... the fire is fed slowly to allow a gradual build up of temperature.

The initial flames … the fire is fed slowly to allow a gradual build up of temperature.

Paper offerings being burnt in the kiln.

Paper offerings being burnt in the kiln.

The full autumn moon graced the occasion.

The full autumn moon graced the occasion.

Lanterns for the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Lanterns for the Mid-Autumn Festival.

The firing is being held for the 16th edition of the International Chawan Expo.

The firing is being held for the 16th edition of the International Chawan Expo.

Good music went with the good food at the opening.

Good music went with the good food at the opening.

Flames seen through an opening in the firing box.

Flames seen through an opening in the firing box.





Strange Horizons: Past, present and the probable future

14 08 2014

One of the last untouched islands of Singapore, Pulau Jong, is seen with the first to be developed for industrial use, Pulau Bukom Besar (on the right), and its smaller neighbour Pulau Bukom Kechil – a juxtaposition perhaps of past, present, and perhaps the probable future.

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Pulau Bukom Besar’s development goes back to the 1890s when Shell established a kerosene storage facility on the island, then deemed a safe distance away from the main island of Singapore, outside the then port limits. The age of industrialisation in Singapore brought with it the refinery that Shell built – which heralded the start of Singapore involvement with the oil refining business, in 1961. The expansion into Pulau Bukom Kechil began in the 1970s. More on this can be found on a previous post: Snake Island at dawn through the darkness of the storm.

Sadly for Pulau Jong and its large fringing reef, a 2013 Land Use Plan seems to show that future plans could involve its absorption into a larger land mass through reclamation, joining it with the islands of Pulau Sebarok to its southeast and the enlarged Pulau Semakau (now Singapore’s offshore landfill) to its southwest.





The bloodstained cliffs south of Sentosa

7 08 2014

Unlike its better known northern companion, the isle of Peace and Tranquility, Sentosa, the island of Pulau Tekukor is one that rarely gets a mention. Named in Malay after the rather benign spotted-neck dove – tekukur (as it is spelt today) is derived from the sound the bird makes, the name, so it seems, masks quite a sinister past.

A tekukur in flight.

A tekukur in flight.

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.

If one of the forgotten stories of our shores are to be believed, a curse was said to have been placed on Pulau Tekukor and despite the island’s welcoming sandy beaches, the island is one that unlike its immediate neighbours, has never been inhabited. The curse, one that left its soil incapable of supporting any useful plant life as well as leaving it without a source of freshwater, as the story goes, is a result of the island’s violent past, a past that does provide a possible explanation as to how the nearby island of Sentosa acquired its mysterious previous name,  Pulau Blakang Mati (the island of death at the back).

The eastern end of Sentosa today with Terumbu Buran in the foreground.

The paradise end of Sentosa today with Terumbu Buran in the foreground, now an isle for the living.

Pulau Tekukor was once itself, known by another name, Pulau Penyabong. Penyabung (as penyabong is spelt today), as is used in more recent times, has connotations of bloody confrontations, having been associated with the cruel but once popular sport of cockfighting. The fights, however, that were thought to have taken place on the island, so that blood not stain the soils of the more sacredly held islands, involved creatures not of the feathered kind. Pitting keris wielding Malay and Bugis warriors of the old world, these confrontations were duels to the death, for which the reward for the vanquished, was a final journey to be buried on an island that now for some, does seem like paradise on earth.

Another view of Tekukor a.k.a. Penyabong, Sisters' Islands can be seen to its south-west. The channel on the west of the island, Sisters Fairway is also known as Selat Tanjong Hakim.

Another view of Tekukor a.k.a. Penyabong, Sisters’ Islands can be seen to its south-west. The channel on the west of the island, Sisters Fairway is also known as Selat Tanjong Hakim.

Besides the curiously named Pulau Blakang Mati, another name that is thought to be linked to the bloody battles, is Selat Tanjong Hakim (now more commonly referred to Sisters’ Fairway in navigation charts). Hakim being the Malay word for judge – the selat or strait west of Penyabong, would have watched over the duels, in the same way a judge might have presided over the fights.

Another view of the former Pulau Blakang Mati.

Another view of the former Pulau Blakang Mati.

As Pulau Tekukor, the island became a commercial explosives storage facility for the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) in the 1980s- after the island was enlarged by reclamation of its western shores. There was also a proposal to turn it into a sanctuary for long-tailed macaques that surfaced in the mid 2000s that did not take off and as of today, there are no known plans for the island and the island remains as mysterious as it long has been.

The sandy beaches and 'bloodstained' cliff faces of Tekukor.

The sandy beaches and ‘bloodstained’ cliff faces of Tekukor.

In its cliff faces that are still seen today – stained by the blood of the fallen, there perhaps is the only reminder of the story of the island; a tale that, as with the many stories from our islands handed down through the generations telling us of a past we long have discarded, may never again be told.





A paddle through the magical watery woods

30 07 2014

The process of acquainting myself with the shores of Singapore for a project I am working on, Points of Departure, has provided me with some incredible experiences. One that I was especially grateful to have had was the experience of paddling through a green watery space that is almost magical in its beauty. Set in the relatively unspoilt lower reaches of Sungei Khatib Bongsu, one of Singapore’s last un-dammed rivers, the space is one that seems far out of place in the Singapore of today and holds in and around its many estuarine channels, one of the largest concentration of mangroves east of the Causeway along the island’s northern coast.

Paddling through the watery forest at Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

Paddling through the watery forest at Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

The much misunderstood mangrove forest, is very much a part of Singapore’s natural heritage. The watery forests, had for long, dominated much of Singapore’s coastal and estuarine areas, accounting for as much as an estimated 13% of Singapore’s land area at the time of the arrival of the British. Much has since been lost through development and reclamation and today, the area mangrove forests occupy amount to less that 1% of Singapore’s expanded land area. It is in such forests that we find a rich diversity of plant and animal life. Mangroves, importantly, also serve as nurseries for aquatic life as well as act as natural barriers that help protect our shorelines from erosion.

Khatib Bongsu is a watery but very green world.

Khatib Bongsu is a watery but very green world.

The island’s northern coast was especially rich in mangrove forests. Much has however, been cleared through the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, with large tracts being lost during the construction of the airbase at Seletar and the naval base at Sembawang in the early 1900s. The mangroves of the north, spread along the coast as well as inland through its many estuaries, along with those found across the strait in Johor, were once the domain of the Orang Seletar. A nomadic group of boat dwellers, the Orang Seletar had for long, featured in the Johor or Tebrau Strait, living off the sea and the mangroves; finding safe harbour in bad weather within the relatively sheltered mangrove lined estuaries.

Mangrove forests had once dominated much of coastal Singapore.

Mangrove forests had once dominated much of coastal Singapore.

Boat dwelling Orang Seletar families could apparently be found along Singapore’s northern coast until as recently as the 1970s. While the Orang Seletar in Singapore have, over the course of time, largely been assimilated into the wider Malay community, the are still communities of Orang Seletar across the strait in Johor. Clinging on to their Orang Seletar identity, the nine communities there live no longer on the water, but on the land in houses close to the water.

Safe harbour in the watery woods.

Safe harbour in the watery woods.

It is the labyrinth of tree shaded channels and the remnants of its more recent prawn farming past that makes the side of the right bank of Sungei Khatib Bongsu’s lower reaches an especially interesting area to kayak through. Much has since been reclaimed by the mangrove forest and although there still is evidence of human activity in the area, it is a wonderfully green and peaceful space that brings much joy to to the rower.

The canalised upper part of Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

The canalised upper part of Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

The area around Sungei Khatib Bongsu today, as seen on Google Maps.

The area around Sungei Khatib Bongsu today, as seen on Google Maps.

Paddling through the network of channels and bund encircled former prawn ponds – accessible through the concrete channels that once were their sluice gates, the sounds that are heard are mostly of the mangrove’s many avian residents. It was however the shrill call of one of the mangrove’s more diminutive winged creatures, the Ashy Tailorbird, that seemed to dominate, a call that could in the not too distant future, be drowned out by the noise of the fast advancing human world.  It is just north of Yishun Avenue 6, where the frontier seems now to be, that we see a wide barren patch. The patch is one cleared of its greenery so that a major road – an extension of Admiralty Road East, can be built; a sign that time may soon be called on an oasis that for long has been a sanctuary for a rich and diverse avian population.

The walk into the mangroves.

The walk into the mangroves.

The beginnings of a new road.

The beginnings of a new road.

The Sungei Khatib Bongsu mangroves, lies in an area between Sungei Khatib Bongsu and the left bank of Sungei Seletar at its mouth that lies beyond the Lower Seletar Dam that has been designated as South Simpang; at the southern area of a large plot of land reserved for public housing that will become the future Simpang New Town. The area is one that is especially rich in bird life, attracting a mix of  resident and migratory species and was a major breeding site for Black-crowned Night Herons, a herony that has fallen victim to mosquito fogging. While there is little to suggest that the herons will return to breed, the area is still one where many rare and endangered species of birds continue to be sighted and while kayaking through, what possibly was a critically endangered Great-billed Heron made a graceful appearance.

Evidence of the former prawn ponds.

Evidence of the former prawn ponds.

Kayaking into the ponds.

Kayaking into the former ponds.

It is for the area’s rich biodiversity that the Nature Society (Singapore) or NSS has long campaigned for its preservation and a proposal for its conservation was submitted by the NSS as far back as in 1993. This did seem to have some initial success and the area, now used as a military training area into which access is largely restricted, was identified as a nature area for conservation, as was reflected in the first issue of the Singapore Green Plan. Its protection as a nature area seemed once again confirmed by the then Acting Minister for National Development, Mr Lim Hng Kiang, during the budget debate on 18 March 1994 (see: Singapore Parliament Reports), with the Minister saying: “We have acceded to their (NSS) request in priorities and we have conserved Sungei Buloh Bird Sanctuary and Khatib Bongsu“. 

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Unfortunately, the area has failed to make a reappearance in subsequently releases of the list of nature area for conservation, an omission that was also seen in subsequent editions of the Singapore Green Plan. What we now see consistently reflected in the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Master Plans (see: Master Plan), is that as part of a larger reserve area for the future Simpang, the area’s shoreline stands to be altered by the reclamation of land. Along with land reclamation, plans the Public Utilities Board (PUB) appears to have for Sungei Khatib Bongsu’s conversion into a reservoir that will also include the neighbouring Sungei Simpang under Phase 2 of the Seletar-Serangoon Scheme (SRSS), does mean that the future of the mangroves is rather uncertain.

A resident that faces an uncertain future.

A resident that faces an uncertain future.

Phase 2 of the SRSS involves the impounding of Sungei Khatib Bongsu, Sungei Simpang and Sungei Seletar to create the Coastal Seletar Reservoir. Based on the 2008 State of the Environment Report, this was to be carried out in tandem with land reclamation along the Simpang and Sembawang coast. The reclamation could commence as early as next year, 2015 (see State of the Environment 2008 Report Chapter 3: Water).

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In the meantime, the NSS does continue with its efforts to bring to the attention of the various agencies involved in urban planning of the importance of the survival of the mangroves at Khatib Bongsu. Providing feedback to the URA on its Draft Master Plan in 2013 (see Feedback on the Updated URA Master Plan, November 2013), the NSS highlights the following:

Present here is the endangered mangrove tree species, Lumnitzera racemosa, listed in the Singapore Red Data Book (RDB). Growing plentifully by the edge and on the mangrove is the Hoya diversifolia. On the whole the mangrove here is extensive and healthy, with thicker stretches along Sg Khatib Bongsu and the estuary of Sg Seletar. 

A total of 185 species of birds, resident and migratory, have been recorded at the Khatib Bongsu  area. This comes to 49 % of the total number of bird species in Singapore (376, Pocket Checklist 2011, unpublished  )  – almost comparable to that at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. 13 bird species found here are listed in the RDB  and among these are:  Rusty-breasted Cuckoo, Straw-headed Bulbul, Ruddy Kingfisher, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Changeable Hawk Eagle, White-chested Babbler, etc. The Grey-headed Fish Eagle  and the Changeable Hawk eagle are nesting in the Albizia woodlands in this area.

The mangrove dependent species present are : Crab-eating Frog, Dog-faced Water Snake & Malaysian Wood Rat. The Malaysian Wood Rat is regarded is locally uncommon.   In 2000, Banded Krait (RDB species) was found here near the edge mangrove. Otters, probably the Smooth Otter, have been sighted by fishermen and birdwatchers in the abandoned fish ponds and the Khatib Bongsu river. 

URA Master Plan 2014, showing the reserve area at Simpang.

URA Master Plan 2014, showing the reserve area at Simpang.

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It will certainly be a great loss to Singapore should the PUB and the Housing and Development Board (HDB) proceed with their plans for the area. What we stand to lose is not just another regenerated green patch, but a part of our natural heritage that as a habitat for the diverse array of plant and animals many of which are at risk of disappearing altogether from our shores, is one that can never be replaced.

The present shoreline at Simpang, threatened by possible future land reclamation.

The present shoreline at Simpang, threatened by possible future land reclamation.

The white sands at Tanjong Irau, another shoreline under threat of the possible future Simpang-Sembawang land reclamation.

The white sands at Tanjong Irau, another shoreline under threat of the possible future Simpang-Sembawang land reclamation.





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:





The Old Vic’s ticking once again

22 07 2014

The Old Vic’s finally back. Having seen it look increasingly tired over the years, it’s nice to see that it’s not just been freshened up during a four year hibernation, but has also been done up very nicely for its role as a mid-sized performing arts venue for the future.

Ticking once again is the clock at the Old Vic.

Ticking once again is the clock at the Old Vic.

The Old Vic's definitely back!

The Old Vic’ made new.

A passageway regained by the side of the concert hall.

A passageway regained by the side of the concert hall.

I had the opportunity to have a quick glance at the newly refurbished Vic at an exclusive tour organised for a group of bloggers over the weekend of the Open House, with a visit to the top of what to me has always been the mysterious clock tower thrown in; and I must say, there isn’t anything there is to dislike about its latest makeover – except that is that everyone now seems to want to refer to the well-loved monument by its acronym VTCH (for Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall). We in Singapore do have a penchant for using acronym, but extending the practice to our well loved icons, doesn’t seem quite right.

The queue at the opening of the Open House.

The queue at the opening of the Open House.

We got a peek at the inside of the clock tower.

We got a peek at the inside of the clock tower.

It will always the old Vic to me, a landmark that we have long identified with our Lion City. It is where the founder of modern Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles, has maintained his proud position – almost uninterrupted (the statue was removed from its position during the Japanese Occupation in 1942 and restored in 1946) since 1919, the centenary of him setting foot on the island at a point not far away on the river bank and setting the ball rolling on a chain of events that has brought us to where we are today. The chimes from its clock tower were ones that flavoured my childhood and it was something I looked forward to hearing on the many occasions I found myself in the area in the days of my childhood.

Inside the refurbished Old Vic - seen on the third level below the glass roof of the Central Atrium.

Inside the refurbished Old Vic – seen on the third level below the glass roof of the Central Atrium.

The refurbished theatre.

The refurbished theatre.

The section of the building that has served as the concert hall since the late 197os was of course the Victoria Memorial Hall back in the days of my youth, a name I still have the tendency, as with many of my generation, to use in referring to the National Monument. There were several occasions when I did have a chance to pop into it – it had been the site of many exhibitions in the days before the former World Trade Centre and the former Harbourfront took over as Singapore’s main exhibition venues.

The entrance to the former Victoria Memorial Hall - the area below the concert hall where the box office is located.

The entrance to the former Victoria Memorial Hall – the area below the concert hall where the box office is located.

The concert hall, which served as the home of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) from 1979 until the SSO shifted to the Esplanade in 2002, was actually a 1905 addition to the building, built in the memory of Queen Victoria. The original section, built as a town hall in 1862, was then remodelled to complement the memorial hall in a symmetrical fashion and reopened as a theatre in 1909. The clock tower, with chimes and clock by the Straits Trading Company, was completed in 1906.

A view from the clock tower.

A view from the clock tower.

Over the years, several modifications were made to the buildings. This included a significant makeover in the 1950s, which saw the two buildings air-conditioned, and the seating capacity of the theatre doubled. That makeover also saw the incorporation of the previously open courtyard between the two buildings into the structure with it being covered up – a modification that has to an extent, now been reversed.

The Central Atrium - where the courtyard between the two buildings had been.

The Central Atrium – where the courtyard between the two buildings had been.

A look through the old arches to the new relief etched panels of the theatre.

A look through the old arches to the new relief etched panels of the theatre.

A glass roof now allows light into a rather pleasant looking and air-conditioned courtyard, the Central Atrium, restored partially on the side of the concert hall. Not only does this allow a wonderful view of the clock tower, it allows it to serve as a through passageway from the front of the buildings to the back. At the back a magnificent view of Old Parliament House, now The Arts House, Singapore’s oldest government building, in its full glory awaits.

The Arts House - at the end of the passageway.

The Arts House – at the end of the passageway.

The Central Atrium is where we see a tasteful blend of old and new. The rolling back of the modifications made to maximise the capacities of both the theatre and the concert hall, sees the boundaries of both pushed back to the original locations, allowing the columns and arches to be brought out. On the side of the concert hall, we see how it may have been with its ornate archways and rusticated columns restored. It is however the side of the theatre that seems most interesting, it is there that we now see a reinterpretation of courtyard side of the old theatre, with the use of relief etched precast panels providing a modern and forward looking impression, partly to compensate for the absence of information relating to the original architectural details, in contrast to that on the side of the concert hall.

The precast etched relief panels.

The precast relief etched panels on the theatre side of the atrium.

It was also nice to see how Victoria Theatre has been redone – its seating arranged in the horseshoe shape as it might originally have been with a provision of an orchestral pit. This has reduced its capacity from 900  to 614, providing it with a more intimate setting. More importantly, the modifications must now give it much improved acoustics – one of the few impressions of the theatre that I have from watching Lea Salonga in a Singapore Repertory Theatre production of the musical “Into the Woods” sometime in the 1990s, was of its rather poor acoustics.

The refurbished theatre.

The refurbished theatre.

It is interesting to see that several items from the old theatre have been incorporated into the new – with the backs of the old seats decorating the entrance foyer, seen in a floating “Rubik’s Cube”. Frames and material from the old seating are now also seen in the remodelled theatre, such as the cast-iron components incorporated into the newly installed acoustic timber walls.

A re-used part of the frame of the old seating.

A re-used part of the frame of the old seating.

The 'Rubik's Cube' in the theatre's foyer and a reflection of it on a counter top.

The ‘Rubik’s Cube’ in the theatre’s foyer and a reflection of it on a counter top.

While some of us did not get to see the 673 seat concert hall, we did hear the glorious strains from Dr Margaret Chan’s masterful pipe-organ performance from the foyer where we got to see the suspended balcony – replacing the previously added balcony that had to be supported by intrusive structures, to free up volume and improve acoustics.

The refurbished concert hall (photo courtesy of Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall).

The refurbished concert hall (photo courtesy of Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall).

The suspended balcony.

The suspended balcony.

What we got to see that most visitors during the Open House didn’t was the clock tower (which incidentally has had its crown restored), which I had been curious about throughout  my childhood. The inside of the clock tower turned out to be quite different from the one I had envisaged – the clock’s mechanism and the five bells seemed a lot smaller than what I had imagined as a child.

The chime bells and a clock face on the platform below.

The chime bells and a clock face on the platform below.

The writing on the largest bell: 'This clock and chime of bells were presented to the Queen Victoria Memorial Hall by the Straits Trading Company, 1905'.

The writing on the largest bell: ‘This clock and chime of bells were presented to the Queen Victoria Memorial Hall by the Straits Trading Company, 1905′.

The clock has seen an improvement during the refurbishment – an automatic winding mechanism was added. Prior to this, the clock had to be rewound manually, requiring a winder and maintenance man to ascent up 176 steps once a week to spend up to an hour winding the clock.

The long road to the top - 176 steps for the winder who would have to ascend once a week.

The long road to the top – 176 steps for the winder who would have to make the acsent once a week.

An automatic winder has been added to the clock's mechanism.

An automatic winder has been added to the clock’s mechanism.

While the chimes I am told, can be heard as far away as the Esplanade, it didn’t quite sound as loud as one might have expected standing right by the bells, seemed minute compared to the bells that Quasimodo lent his hand in ringing. Beside the thrill of hearing the bells chime at 11 o’clock, there was also the bonus of taking in the magnificent views of the surroundings and the contrast of the old Padang surrounded by the architectural symbols of colonial power next to what architectural historian Lai Chee Kien, calls a new “liquid padang” – surrounded by the architectural symbols representing the new power.

The clock level.

The clock level.

The refurbishment of the old Vic coincides with an effort that will also see a renovation of the Asian Civilisations Museum and the transformation of the Old Supreme Court and City Hall into the National Gallery Singapore – all scheduled to be completed next year. That will complete the transformation of an area that had been at the heart of the colonial administration into an arts and cultural hub – what the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), in their 2014 Master Plan, terms as a “Civic and Cultural District by the Bay“.

For more information on what is envisaged for the Civic District as part of URA Master Plan 2014, do visit the following links:

More information on Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall and its recent refurbishment can be found on their website.


Some key dates relating to the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall:

17 March 1855

The foundation stone for the new Town Hall was laid by the Governor of Singapore, Colonel W. J. Butterworth.

1902 – 1905

Victoria Memorial Hall was built in memory of Queen Victoria’s reign. Victoria Memorial Hall and Tower were joined to the existing theatre by R. A. J. Bidwell of Swan and Maclaren, with passageway between the two buildings.

18 October 1905

Victoria Memorial Hall was officially opened by the Governor of the Straits Settlements, John Anderson.

1906

The construction of the signature clock tower was completed. This was later than expected due to the delay in donation of the clock and chimes by the Straits Trading Company.

1909

The first performance that took place in the newly completed Victoria Theatre was Sirs William S. Gilbert and Arthur S. Sullivan’s well-known and amusing opera, The Pirates of Penzance, staged by the Singapore Amateur Dramatic Committee.

6 February 1919

On Centenary Day, T. Woolner’s statue of Sir Stamford Raffles was moved from the Padang to Victoria Memorial Hall, taking the place of the bronze elephant presented to Singapore by King Chulalongkorn.

Early 1942

The Victoria Memorial Hall was used as a hospital for victims of bombing raids by the Japanese forces during World War II.

1946 – 1947

Victoria Memorial Hall was used as a location for war crimes courts.

21 November 1954

The inaugural meeting of the People’s Action Party was held at the Victoria Memorial Hall.

1954 – 1958

Major renovations were carried out including a complete restructuring of the interior of the theatre. Air-conditioning and sound-proofing was added and the courtyard covered up.

4 November 1957

The public had its first glimpse at television when William Jacks and Co presented a full length variety show on television at the annual Philips Radio Convention held at the Victoria Memorial Hall.

15 February 1963

Television Singapura (Singapore’s first TV station) was launched with a pilot monochrome service at the Victoria Memorial Hall.

1979

Victoria Memorial Hall was renamed the Victoria Concert Hall and named as the official home of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

1980s

A gallery was added to the Concert Hall, adding seating capacity and enclosing the second storey balconies on the front and back facades with glass.

1990s

Renovations were carried out to Victoria Theatre to make it a more efficient performing venue.

February 1992

Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall was gazetted as a national monument of Singapore.

2010

The Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall was closed for a $158 million renovation.

2014

Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall reopened its doors after a four-year renovation.


 








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