Where dogs, politicians and the postman once met

6 11 2012

One of the quieter stretches of today’s Orchard Road has to be the less trodden path that takes one from Killiney Road towards what is today a four way junction with Buyong Road, across from where the Concorde Hotel (ex Le Méridien Hotel) is. Walking down it I am often taken back to a time when Orchard Road was a very different place, a place lined with car showrooms, the odd supermarket, and lots of old shophouses that lined both sides of what has today become a sea of malls, and when the stretch that I speak of was where the headquarters of the ruling political party, the People’s Action Party or PAP, had been located.

Orchard Circus in days when Orchard Road was a much quieter place. To the left of the clump of palm trees is where the entrance to the Istana is.

Map of general area today with overlay of road layout in 1978.

Besides the PAP having their headquarters there until 1978 (when they moved to another of their former HQs at Napier Road), the stretch was home to headquarters of the Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). The SPCA occupied a premises the entrance of which was by the side of a building that was the former Orchard Road Post Office (across from where Buyong Road met Orchard Road) – a sign over its entrance could not be missed. The former Orchard Road Post Office which was built in 1902, had by the time I got to see the building, long moved out when the Killiney Road Post Office (which opened in 1963) was built to replace it when that magnificent building it occupied proved too small (there were initial thoughts to expand the building – but due to limitations of the site, a new building was instead planned).

The shophouse lined stretch of Orchard Road is seen between Specialist Centre at the top of the picture and United Motor Works (building seen with the AC Spark Plug Advertisement – with words “Hot Tip”) in 1974 (source: http://picas.nhb.gov,sg). The gap in the buildings just beyond United Motor Works is where the SPCA / former Orchard Road Post Office was.

The former Orchard Road Post Office building in 1982, with the entrance to the SPCA next to it (from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009). The post office closed in 1963 when the Killiney Road Post Office was opened.

Another photograph of the SPCA on Orchard Road from the SPCA’s website.

The premises of the SPCA were used since the organisation moved to into in 1965 (although they had maintained kennels behind it since 1954 when it was still the RPSCA), paying a nominal $1 in rent per year. The kennels were one that were regularly visited by student volunteers including some of my classmates in primary school – I recall my mother dropping me off at the premises on a few occasions in 1976 when I did accompany a classmate who helped out at the SPCA. The SPCA’s premises was acquired for redevelopment in 1983 and the SPCA moved into their current headquarters at Mount Vernon built at a cost of $1 million with money obtained from the organisation’s fund raising efforts.

The area where the SPCA / Orchard Road Post Office was.

Approximate position of the former post office building / SPCA seen against what the area is today (image of Orchard Road Post Office from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

The stretch today bears little resemblance to the stretch back when the SPCA was there. Cleared completely of the buildings that had occupied it as well as with the realignment of the roads in and around it, it is hard to imagine what is today a relatively quiet and pretty green stretch, lined with shophouses all along to where its junction was with Clemenceau Avenue (where the Orchard Circus, which went in 1967) had once been.





The Tunnel

15 06 2012

In a part of Singapore where the remnants of an old world finds itself cloaked in the garments of the new, lies a relic that even in the new garment that it wears, is one in which I am often reminded of halcyon days that accompanied what is now a lost childhood. The relic, a now underused and largely ignored pedestrian underpass, is one that I am well acquainted with from those days, days when family outings often involved visits to the sea shore to enjoy the cool of the evening breeze. The Esplanade or Queen Elizabeth Walk, as Esplanade Park was more commonly referred to then, was a popular choice with my parents. Its stone benches provided a wonderful place to sit and enjoy the breeze, as well as a vantage from where we could watch the dance of lights, flickering lights of the ships in the harbour that coloured the darkness for as far as the eye could see.

The pedestrian underpass under Connaught Drive today – corrugated metal sheathing once lined its walls.

I had always looked forward to visiting the Esplanade. It wasn’t just for the sights it offered and the cool evening breeze, but also where there was chendol (a sinful dessert made with shaved iced, coconut milk, bits of green jelly shaped like worms and sweetened with palm sugar) to die for which came from a semi-circular food centre located close to where the Stamford Canal spilled into the sea. There were also the itinerant vendors to look forward to – the kacang putih seller with a table load of nut filled canisters balanced on his head and the balloon vendor who held up a colourful bunch of balloons that in the days when helium filled balloons were rare, were air-filled and held up by a long tubular balloon. It was however not the chendol or the vendors that would most interest me, but the underpass under Connaught Drive which my sister and I would refer to as ‘the tunnel’, a passage through which was always necessary to take us from Empress Place where my father would leave his car to the Esplanade. I would never fail to take the opportunity to stamp my feet as I passed through it, not in a show of temper, but to hear the echoes of the sound it made that bounced off the corrugated metal sheathing that had then lined the walls of the tunnel.

Singapore’s first overhead bridge in Collyer Quay, opened a month and a half after the underpass at Connaught Drive (source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

The tunnel, I have discovered, was completed in the days when Singapore was a part of its now northern neighbours. It was built to ease the flow of traffic which in stopping to allow pedestrians to cross, was reported to have backed-up all the way to the Merdeka Bridge. Those were days when Connaught Drive served as a main thoroughfare that took traffic (reportedly some 4,200 vehicles and hour at its peak) from Nicoll Highway into the commercial heart of the city. Built at a cost of some $85,000, the 28 metre tunnel which is about the width of a road-lane at 2.4 metres, was opened on 23rd February 1964 – just before Singapore’s first overhead bridge at Collyer Quay was completed in April 1964. This makes the underpass a historic one, being the first non-conventional (non-surface) pedestrian crossing built in Singapore. That fact is today is largely forgotten, as is the underpass. The recent developments in the area involving roads, public transport, and use of buildings in Empress Place, has seen pedestrian traffic in the area falling off, as well as vehicular traffic on Connaught Drive and the underpass in the context of all that does seem rather irrelevant. What greets me today, is a tunnel that stripped of its corrugated lining, vendors and beggars, contains not the echoes of today’s footsteps, but the silence of one that is forgotten.





Back to a time I have forgotten

10 05 2012

My entry into the world came in the still of the morning, at a time when the world beyond the delivery room had been anything but still. Insulated from tumultuous events that accompanied the first year of Singapore’s merger with the Malayan Federation by the oblivion of early childhood, life as I would remember it seemed anything but calm in the world where I had spent the earliest years of my life.

Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

That world is one that I have of late tried to reconnect with. It is a world of which I remember very little of – most of what I remember is associated with the Commonwealth Crescent area where I lived and of the walks I took with my parents in the area. Beyond that, it is the physical structures of the places as I remember them that I sometimes see in my memory, and ones that I have sought as a reminder of my connection to the place. Of the physical structures that I have long identified with the wider area, there were two beside the residential blocks that remain etched in my memory, across Commonwealth Avenue in what is commonly referred to as the Tanglin Halt area. One, a blue cylindrical tank – the gas holding tank of what had been the Queenstown Gasholder Station at Tanglin Halt, has long since disappeared, falling victim to the switch from City Gas production in the 1990s to imported natural gas. The other, also dominated by the blue of a prominent part of its structure, is thankfully still there, unaltered by the passage of time. That structure is that of a building that which some say is “more roof than building” – the Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

The church’s interior.

The church, with a very distinctive blue slate roof that dominates its structure, is one that I very much have an attachment to, being where I had been baptised all those years back. Standing out in an area that would have otherwise been dominated by the ramp of the road that has expanded beside it, the building was designed by James Gordon Dowsett of the architectural firm Iversen, Van Sitteren and Partners. Dowsett was the creator of two buildings that also become well recognised in their time – the old Shaw House and Lido Theatre. The design of the roof, said to resemble paper being folded in the art of origami, was inspired by the shape of a tent. This, based on information on the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) page on the conservation of the church, was to symbolise  the “tent of meeting” in the Old Testament. The page provides further information elaborating further that “the roof dips downwards to wrap the interior with portions touching the ground, reminiscent of anchoring pegs” which functionally also serve as drainage points for rainwater. More information on the church’s architecture and interior can be found at the URA Conservation of Build Heritage web page. The church which was blessed and officially opened on 8 May 1965 by the Roman Catholic Archibishop of Malacca and Singapore, Monsignor Michael Olcomendy, was gazetted for conservation on 25 November 2005.

Father Odo Tiggeloven, one of the church’s two founding priests, signing the baptism register in the Damien Hall.

Stepping inside the church, the warmness of the visual greeting provided by the soft light filtering through that casts a warm glow over the wood flavoured interior seems to also extend a spiritual welcome. I realised then that it had been a long while since I visited the church – not since I shifted away as a child of three and a half. As I looked around me, it was nice to see that the church is one that has stayed very much the same as it had been at its beginnings close to half a century ago. In that, it is also nice to know that in a world in which we have been quick to forget the past, there is a place that I can come to where the past hasn’t been forgotten.

Soft light filters through into the interior of the church.

One more view of the inside of the church.





A face that I still see

9 04 2012

One of my favourite roads to take a journey on in Singapore is a stretch of Mandai Road that has got to be one of the more gorgeous drives in Singapore. It is a stretch that takes you past an area that is reminiscent of an older world at its junction with Sembawang road, around a bend where the road starts to rise northwards to an area where a short stretch of it runs along a body of water that in reflecting the colours of the setting sun takes on the appearance of a magical world. It is a drive I have enjoyed for four decades now – my first encounters with the stretch dating back to the end of the 1960s when the road was diverted around what had been a newly expanded body of water – what then was Seletar Reservoir (now Upper Seletar Reservoir). Those first encounters had been ones that would have involved a visit to the area around the large dam that contributed to the reservoir’s expansion – then a manicured area that offered some wonderful views of the reservoir not just from the top of the 20 metre high dam, but also the panorama one got of it from the top of a newly constructed lookout tower which still stands today.

The lookout tower at what is today Upper Seletar Reservoir Park.

The area which later was developed into a park and the expanded reservoir, was opened by HRH Princess Alexandra in August 1969. The work to expand of the capacity reservoir which traces it origins back to the 1920s, resulted in an increase in its capacity from a previous expansion in 1940 by some 35 times, giving the northern fringe of Singapore’s Central Catchment Reserve a large and very picturesque body of water. This was made possible by the erection of a larger dam across the Seletar valley which required a part of Mandai Road to be diverted. The reservoir started its life as a temporary source of water supply which was developed out of an abandoned effort in the 1920s to build a third impounding reservoir on the island. Work on that was halted when it became apparent that it was feasible to draw on the abundant sources of water across the Straits in Southern Johor with pipelines to feed much-needed resource integrated into the construction of the Causeway. It was in 1940 that the reservoir was made a permanent one having its capacity expanded to feed the island’s growing population.

The expansion was made possible by constructing a larger dam across the Seletar valley.

The expansion of the reservoir in 1969 increased the capacity of Seletar Reservoir by some 35 times.

The work which commenced in 1967 to expand the reservoir, also allowed its position on the northern fringe the Central Catchment Reserve to be exploited to provide a recreational area around it with access to large parts of it possible by road. Besides the park with its now iconic tower that was constructed, plans were also drawn up to use an area to the north-west of the reservoir for a zoological gardens what is today the highly acclaimed Singapore Zoo.

Upper Seletar Reservoir seen here along Mandai Road is one of the more scenic areas of Singapore takes on a magical glow during the sunset.

The setting of the sun over Upper Seletar Reservoir.

It is for the climbs up the lookout tower that I would look forward most to on my early visits to the area, my first visit being in October 1969 on the evidence of photographs that I have taken of my sister and me. It wasn’t however only the tower that occupied me during my visits to the park – the slope of the dam was a constant source of delight with the grasshoppers that seemed to thrive in the grass that lined the slope. The slope – or rather the road that ran down from the top of the dam where the tower is along the slop of the dam was also where I once, in the foolishness of youth, responded to a dare to go down the road on my roller-skates. Finding myself gaining momentum after setting off, it was probably fortunate that I decided not to go through with the dare and managed to pull out of it by turning into a turn-off not far from the top of the slope. Sliding across the rough surface as I lost my balance in turning off at speed, I was bloodied and bruised with abrasions that ran down the entire length of my right leg and a little embarrassed, but quite thankful that I had decided not to go through with the dare.

Adventures of a five-year-old around the lookout tower at Seletar Reservoir (now Upper Seletar Reservoir) Park not long after it first opened in 1969.

The road down from the top of the dam. I made an attempt to roller-skate down the road (which then did not have the gate we now see across it). I managed to turn at a turn-off to the car park (seen just beyond the gate).

The park today is one that I still frequent, not so much for the tower which does still somehow fascinate me, but for the escape it offers from the concrete world that I find myself now surrounded by. And, in those escapes that I take, it is comforting to find that in a Singapore where the relentless winds of change have rendered many places of my childhood for which I had a fondness for unrecognisable, the area beneath the changes it has seen in the four decades that have passed, is a face from that world that I still am able to see.





Under the Flyer

7 03 2012

One experience that many who lived in or visited Singapore back in the days when Policemen did wear shorts, often look fondly back to, is that of dining on the streets. In those days, whole streets and car parks would magically be transformed into bustling eating places as night fell. The invasion would first be led by the army of push-carts laden with the raw ingredients that would be turned into scrumptious street fare, and the load of stools and foldable tables that would seat hungry patrons. As day turned to night, the concentrations of pushcarts, with tables arranged in front of them, would turn the otherwise dark and dingy streets into a sea of light and shadow, as diners began to fill the tables that never quite seem to sit firmly on the ground, greedily wolfing down what lay in front of them. It was in this hot, sticky and less than sanitary environment, in the glow of kerosene pressure lamps, and flicker of flames that leapt from under the blackened woks against which the almost musical and somewhat rhythmic clang of spatulas being furiously moved would be made, that many popular hawkers acquired and perfected their art. For those who dared to brave not just the conditions, but also the often ill-mannered assistants one needed to shout orders at, the reward wasn’t just the fare on offer, but the unforgettable atmosphere that unfortunately could not be replicated in the more sanitary food centers the same hawkers were to eventually move to.

Silhouettes against the spotlight - the Singapore Food Trail livens up the recreation of the 1960s street dining atmosphere by brining in various forms of street entertainment - not necessarily from the 1960s, from time to time.

The Singapore Food Trail brings the experience of street dining back to Singapore.

There are many who lived through those heady days of a Singapore in transition who now look back and realise that the relentless pace of change has consigned much of what made Singapore, Singapore, to seemingly distant memories. There is a current wave of nostalgia that sees attempts to bring some of the experiences that would otherwise be lost back. One such attempt is the Singapore Food Trail at the Singapore Flyer, a 800-seat themed food court which attempts to take the diner back to the days of dining on the streets of the 1960s Singapore. Walking through the Singapore Food Trail, it is easy imagine that you are where the setting aims to place you in. Old style tables and chairs – maybe not the type you might have found used on the streets, set against a disordered backdrop of push-carts that are the food stalls, each different to give a feel of what it might once have been like, arranged in front of what appears to be shop houses and five-foot ways. No effort has been spared in trying to recreate the atmosphere – all around, there are those reminders of that forgotten world that many would recall with fondness – the very recognisable logos of famous brands, old style signboards, bamboo chicks (blinds) painted with logos that were commonly seen providing shade to coffee shops and sundry shops, and lots of paraphernalia from those days of old. Help was enlisted from the likes of clan associations as well as some of the owners of the famous brands (including Nestlé Singapore in recreating signboards and signs to lend an air of authenticity to them. The push-carts serve up fare from what perhaps are the who’s-who of today’s hawkers – hand picked from over 100 who applied. It is also amongst the stalls where some old time favourites – ice-balls, kacang putih and bird’s nest drink, await rediscovery.

It is easy to imagine that one is immersed in the atmosphere of the 1960s street dining scene at the 800 seat Singapore Food Trail.

One of the things I enjoy about dining “under the flyer” (some may recall a very popular hawker – the Whitley Road Food Centre which was located in the shadows of the Thomson Road flyover which was commonly referred to as “Under the Flyover“), are the attempts to also liven up the “streets” with various forms of entertainment – some of which would have been a common feature of the 1960s, as well as some forms which are more common these days that have evolved from some of what we did occasionally see on the streets. This included the very well received Teochew Opera performances by the Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association in July of last year, and over the last weekend, a Getai Extravaganza.

吴佩芝 (Wu Pei Zhi) on stage. Kitsch as it may seem, Getai has a wide reach in Singapore.

Love it or hate it – some find the form of entertainment crude and even kitsch, Getai (歌台) has firmly established itself as a very popular form of street entertainment in modern day Singapore. It had its roots not in the 1960s, but in the 1970s when waning interest in Chinese puppet shows and opera performances which were features of temple festivals and seventh month (Hungry Ghosts festival) auctions saw them being replaced by live variety shows which came to be referred to as Getai, which translates into “Song Stage”.

A pair of twins, the Shinning Sisters (闪亮姐妹) were among the performers for the night.

吴佩芝 (Wu Pei Zhi).

The 3 day Getai Extravaganza brought in by the Singapore Food Trail was one that saw many well know personalities in the getai scene – both emcees and performers, and based on the the crowd it attracted and the reaction of the crowd which counted both young and old in it, was a huge success. Sunday’s show was hosted by Marcus Chin (陈建彬) and Lin Kai Li (林凯莉), and featured performances by Zhan Yuling (詹玉玲), Shun Qiang (孙强), the Shining Sisters (闪亮姐妹), Desmond Ng (黄振隆), Ting Ting (婷婷), Wu Pei Zhi (吴佩芝), Zhang Xiong (张雄), as well as an impersonation of the comedy pair Lao Fu Zi and Da Fan Shu (老夫子与大番薯). Most of the audience at Sunday’s show were glued to their seats throughout the evening which also attracted a large number of bystanders as well as had those manning the stalls off their seats. Although I am not a huge fan of Getai myself, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the entertainment provided at the show and it definitely was for me, a Sunday evening that was well spent.

Emcees for the evening, Marcus Chin (陈建彬) and 林凯莉 (Lin Kai Li).

Marcus Chin had many in stitches.

Desmond Ng (黄振隆).

The Shinning Sisters on stage.

Some of the members of the audience were off their feet.

The impersonation of Lao Fu Zi and Da fan Shu had many laughing ...

... including those manning the stalls.





A long forgotten place

24 02 2012

I have had a wonderful childhood that has filled me with many memories of a world of which very little still exists and I am always glad when I am able to rediscover a place from the past that I am able to feel a connection with. While much of my memories of growing-up are associated with that wonderful and eventful time I spent in Toa Payoh, it wasn’t Toa Payoh that I first called home, but what was Singapore’s very first satellite town, Queenstown.

The block of flats that I lived in from 1964 to 1967 along Commonwealth Crescent in Queenstown.

Commonwealth Crescent in 1967 - the blocks of flats including the one that I lived in are still around - except that upgrading has given them a new face.

It was in a flat rented from the Housing and Development Board (HDB) in Queenstown – 104E, Block 102 Commonwealth Crescent, in which I had spent my earliest days. It was a flat that served as home for 3 years or so, while my parents were in a queue for the flat that was to be my home in Toa Payoh. It was one that I have but vague memories of – remembering only how simply furnished the flat was and the linoleum sheet flooring that was used to cover the cement floor. There are also a few memories that I have always held with fondness – those of my interactions with my maternal grandfather with whom I had been very close to and who passed on not long after we moved to Toa Payoh. One involved my first memory of pressing the buttons in the lift from the safety of my grandfather’s arms as we made way home from the daily walks that I always enjoyed.

The part of the block of flats that I lived in for the three earliest years of my life.

The simply furnished flat with the linoleum flooring that was commonly found then.

Wandering around the area recently, I was hit with the realisation of the time that has passed since I had last interacted with it. There is very little left to remind me of the place I had once called home, even the blocks of flats in the neighbourhood – all of which are still there bear little resemblance to the ones that I have known, having been through a round of upgrading which has also seen a new market building built in place of the old.

The Commonwealth Crescent area today has changed from the one that I lived in.

The Commonwealth Crescent market has been rebuilt.

There is one unit in the rows of shops (which are still there) that surround the market that I have particular memories of – that of a General Practitioner’s clinic, probably due to the frequency with which I must have visited it – being prone to bouts of coughs on the basis of what my parents have told me. Sadly I was to discovered that the clinic – the Lim Clinic, is no longer there where it was Block 117 – the unit is now occupied by a bakery. On the basis of what two contributors to “On a little street in Singapore” mentioned, the clinic closed with Dr. Lim’s passing not too long ago. In spite of a distaste I had developed for any liquid that was held in those cork topped small glass bottles that Dr. Lim dispensed, I somehow looked forward to the visits to the clinic – the large glass jar filled with colourful sweets that stood on his table would probably have been responsible for that.

Lim Clinic I understand closed with the passing on of Dr. Lim - a bakery now occupies the unit.

There is this one memory that I have of my interactions with my neighbours – that of playing in the home of a boy of about my age a few doors away. I don’t remember anything of the boy except that he was my one and only friend from my brief stay in the neighbourhood and it was with him that I remember crawling under the dining table and a cot in his flat.

Commonwealth Crescent, 1967.

Beyond the neighbourhood, one of the places I visited was the town centre in the Margaret Drive area that was just across Queensway from where we lived. My parents took many evening strolls to the area with me in tow. What I do remember of the strolls is that they usually involved a visit to Tah Chung Emporium which must have been the place to go to in the area at that time. I probably recall the visits to the emporium more than anything else for the growth of my marble collection they were responsible for – marbles which my father would buy to line the bottom of his the tropical fish tank he maintained – a part of which would be given to me.

Much of the Margaret Drive area where the Queenstown Town Centre was has been flattened.

Speaking of Queensway, there is something unrelated to my stay in the area that comes to mind – ‘White Discs’ as my father would refer to them, or Vehicle Entry Permits. There was a time when Singapore registered vehicles crossing over the Causeway to Malaysia were required to have a valid permit – a white disc about the size of our road tax disc which a driver needed to display on the windscreen in the same way as a road tax disc. It was at the crest of the road at which a colonial bungalow had stood in what was Holland Park – one that would have belonged to the Malaysian High Commission and one in which a Malaysian Registrar of Motor Vehicles’ Office was located that saw queues of Singaporean motorists forming – particularly in and around the holiday season, waiting in line to apply for a permit. The need for the permit was scrapped by the Malaysian Authorities as of the 1st of May 1986.

Motorists waiting in line to apply for a Vehicle Entry Permit at the Malaysian Registrar of Motor Vehicle's office at Holland Park in the 1970s. The entrance to the bungalow in which the office was housed in was off Queensway (source: National Archives of Singapore).

Although time has erased or altered much of what I do remember in the area – there is still that bit of it that’s left to remind me of that different world in which I had spent my early years. It is nice to see that most of the buildings of the neighbourhood, although wearing different faces, are very much still there – something that cannot be said for the area around where Tah Chung was. In that area though, there is a cluster of buildings that’s left that bring back memories of encounters that perhaps I wish not to be reminded off – the cluster that was premises of the Queenstown Combined Clinics – buildings to which I would visit for only one reason – that dreaded inoculation. That would probably explain the reluctance I have long had for visiting the long forgotten area which I have sought to rediscover all too late.

The former Queenstown Combined Clinics.





A night at the Opera

4 07 2011

Teochew that is! I had the opportunity to do something I’ve always wanted to do … get up close and personal with the performers at the back of the wayang stage, and with the kind invitation of the URA’s Marina Bay Singapore and the Select Group’s Singapore Food Trail, I got to do just that over the weekend. The behind the scenes visit allowed a group of us to watch and photograph performers of the Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association backstage (on an authentic wayang stage borrowed from the Pulau Ubin opera troupe) as they went through their routines in getting dolled up for the evening’s performance. The performances were part of the Singapore Food Trail’s initiatives to bring back the good old days of Singapore in what was termed as “A Night of Nostalgia” to bring us back to the heyday of Teochew Opera on the streets of Singapore in the 1960s.

The Singapore Food Trail aims to bring the atmosphere of the streets of the Singapore of the 1960s with authentic street hawker fare in a 1960s setting under the Singapore Flyer.

The colours that the various genres of Chinese operas (often referred to locally as “wayang”) brought to the streets of the Singapore of old, if not for anything else, always were a visual treat. They were a huge draw, bringing with them the entourage of mobile vendor providing a carnival like atmosphere each time they came to the area. My maternal grandmother with her lack of the command of any other language other than her native Bahasa Indonesia was a huge fan, often dragging me along in my early years as her companion. And even when I could never sit quite still below the wayang stage as the performers went about their routines, I was a more than willing companion to my grandmother as I could never resist the reward of a drink from the bird’s nest drink vendor which more often than not was a sweetened drink with bits of jelly in it which was made to taste like the real thing, and also a visit to the toy vendor from which I could get my hands on items such as a sword made of paper mache that split into two lengthwise when it came out of the paper mache scabbard.

Street operas were a favourite of my maternal grandmother. Performers from the Thau Yong Amateur Musical Associationare seen performing an excerpt from The Fragrant Handkerchief on an authentic stage at the Singapore Food Trail.

What sometimes fascinated me on the stage were the costumes and the make-up of that the performers had on. The painted faces sometimes terrified me, so much so that back then, I never could never muster up the courage to peek backstage where the performers would have their make-up done well before the performances started, even as many boys in my neighbourhood did. That was something that I thought I would never be able to do again as I grew up, wayangs became less common as Singapore’s rapid urbanisation resulted in many traditions being lost to modernisation. When I had heard of the troupe that is still performing on Pulau Ubin earlier, I had actually wanted to visit Pulau Ubin, even though I am not what one might consider to be a big fan, to immerse myself in atmosphere of being around once again, which perhaps I hope will transport me back to the carefree days of my childhood, and I was plesantly surprised when I got an invitation to watch one at the Singapore Food Trail and at the same time sample the street fare that I imagined was long lost. What was a huge bonus was the opportunity provided by the organisers as well as with the kind permission of the Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association, to watch and photograph the performers as they got their faces painted and hair done up on an authentic wayang stage. Being backstage was fascinating and I took it all in with the excitement of a child … taking lots of photographs some of which I have added to this post. What was equally fascinating was watching the performances which I thoroughly enjoyed and have perhaps Pei Yun of Oceanskies to thank for enlightening me on the excerpts that were being performed. I can also say that at the end of the evening performances I have become a little bit of a fan … Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association I understand in celebrating the 80th anniversary this year – I do hope that they are able to see at least another 80 and many more years to allow them to continue the excellent effort in keeping what is a dying tradition alive for our future generations.

The scene backstage about 3 hours before the performances.

A make-up artist helping a performer with her make-up.

The eyes have it ...

Two performers having their initial make-up done. Lipstick would be applied after dinner.

A peek backstage ...

A performer having make-up around her eyes done.

A peek outside ...

More eye work ...

A mirror to the face of a performer.

The hair is done after the initial make-up is applied.

Make-up and hair done ... but not the lips yet.

A male performer having his make-up done.

A female performer applying her initial make-up.

The hair being done for another performer.

Finishing touches on the hair.

Two performers sharing a lighthearted moment ...

Another performer relaxing during the preparations.

Putting her headdress on.

The female lead performer all dolled up.

The scholar ...

A female performer.

Full battle order.

The audience were treated to Teochew melodies before the Teochew Opera performance.

The performances were on an authentic wayang stage borrowed from the Pulau Ubin troupe.

Audiences young and old were enthralled.








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