Where time stands very still in Macau

11 06 2013

One of the many life experiences that I am glad to have had is the opportunity provided to discover a world which might otherwise have remained hidden to me – that of the magical world of Coloane Village in Macau. The village is one I first got a glimpse of, on a stopover during a whirlwind trip to Macau with nine other bloggers, sponsored by the Macau Government Tourist Office (MGTO), as a prize for last year’s edition of the Singapore Blog Awards. The visit was brief, but enough to give me a yearning to return to the sleepy village and its labyrinth of narrow passageways and discover it in full.

Coloane on a sleepy afternoon.

Time seems to stand very still in Coloane Village on a sleepy afternoon.

The labyrinth of narrow lanes provides many opportunities for little discoveries.

The labyrinth of narrow lanes provides many opportunities for little discoveries.

The opportunity for a quick return came with the prize I got for winning the blogging contest for the first trip, which again was sponsored by the MGTO. This allowed me not just to make a second trip, but also to time it to include two of the former Portuguese colony’s more colourful festivals and plan my own itinerary around it, such that I could have the experience of two of the faces that the normally sleepy village of Coloane wears.

Eduardo Marques Square.

Eduardo Marques Square.

Coloane is now perhaps more of a tourist destination as a stopover for the sweet and irresistible treat which the famous Lord Stow’s Bakery provides and at the same time to see Eduardo Marques Square (Largo da Eduardo Marques) and its little chapel, which is a popular spot for wedding photography. There is however certainly much more of Coloane, both the island as well as the village, for any visitor to discover.

Life in Coloane, like the village itself, seems to come very much to a standstill.

Life in Coloane, like the village itself, seems to come very much to a standstill.

Villagers watching the world go by.

Villagers watching the world go by.

Just a short bus ride from the glitz of the Las Vegas like Cotai Strip, Coloane Village, tucked away in the rolling hills of the west of the island of the same name, does seem a world apart from the strip, and where time does seem long to have stood still. Much of the village is bathed in that old world charm that Macau seems to be slowly but surely losing, wearing the look of that the blending of east and west most of the first half of the  century that has passed – when most of the village’s development did take place.

There is very much an air of the old world, just a stone's throw away from the glitz of the Cotai Strip.

There is very much an air of the old world, just a stone’s throw away from the glitz of the Cotai Strip.

A house in Coloane.

A house in Coloane.

Laid out along the shoreline which looks across a narrow channel to the Zhuhai area of China – seemingly an arm’s length away, the village’s many narrow passages reveal quaint rows of pastel shaded houses, making it a photographer’s dream. In all of this, one stumbles on Eduardo Marques Square (Largo da Eduardo Marques) where a lovely little chapel, St. Francis Xavier’s (see a previous post), can be found. The chapel once housed the relics of the Catholic saint it is named after, a saint who is very much revered throughout Asia for his pioneering ministry to an area of the world which has largely resisted the many attempts at its Christian conversion.

The view across the channel to Zhuhai.

The view across the channel to Zhuhai.

The Chapel of St. Francis Xavier at one end of  Eduardo Marques Square with a monument erected to commemorate the victory of the Portuguese over pirates in 1910.

The Chapel of St. Francis Xavier at one end of Eduardo Marques Square with a monument erected to commemorate the victory of the Portuguese over pirates in 1910.

Shutters of a shop.

Shutters of a shop.

Besides the Portuguese influence being very much in evidence, there is much that is also to be found of Coloane’s origins as a village. A walk along the northern reaches of the seaside promenade takes one along zinc walled shelters built on stilts – shelters used by the village’s folk who lived off the harvest from the sea.  Their descendants of the village’s fishermen, are the ones perhaps who sit by the shelters, keeping watch on a world which may soon pass them by.

The Portuguese influence is very much in evidence.

The Portuguese influence is very much in evidence.

A passage through the village.

A passage through the village.

Zinc shelters on stilts can be found along the water's edge at the northern reaches of the village.

Zinc shelters on stilts can be found along the water’s edge at the northern reaches of the village.

Across the road there is more evidence of the once thriving trade. The tiniest of temples – the Sam Seng or Kam Fa temple which is dedicated to the goddess Kam Fa can be found. The temple traces its origins to a time some two hundred years ago, when a statue of the deity brought to the village by its fisher-folk.

Smoke trails from incense coils at the Sma Seng Temple.

Smoke trails from incense coils at the Sam Seng Temple.

A window into the past.

A window into the past.

Just up from the temple lies Coloane Pier (Ponte Cais de Coloane) around which several other reminders of the village’s past awaits. One is a coal tar coated anchor mounted on a circular pedestal close to the pier’s front. It is more however, the sight of salted fish on sale, which provides that link to the past which does sum the origins of the village up. Originally known as “Salt Stove Bay”, it was also where sea salt was farmed, as well as being a fishing village.

An anchor mounted on a pedestal near the Coloane Pier provides a link to the village's maritime past.

An anchor mounted on a pedestal near the Coloane Pier provides a link to the village’s maritime past.

Salted fish on sale also provides a link to Coloane's origins - the village was where sea salt was farmed as well as a fishing village.

Salted fish on sale also provides a link to Coloane’s origins – the village was where sea salt was farmed as well as a fishing village.

Turning right past the pier, I hear the sound of animated voices which punctures the calm and quiet on what was a sleepy afternoon. The voices are ones which come from a small crowd gathered in front of a building which has retained much of the flavour it must have had under the Portuguese. The women each bore loads of detergent and liquid soap, providing a clue as to why they had congregated by the building – one used by the Customs (Alfândega).  The loads they bore were typical of mainland Chinese headed home, as the women must surely have been and were probably standing in queue to purchase tickets for the ferry across to Zhuhai.

Benches line the wall of the Customs building which transports one straight into the colonial era.

Benches line the wall of the Customs building which transports one straight into the colonial era.

Coloane in the mid 20th century - taken off an exhibition of old photographs at the village square.

Coloane in the mid 20th century – taken off an exhibition of old photographs at the village square.

The road by the Customs building narrows running up an steep enough incline to have me huffing and puffing. It was an effort that was rewarded by the sight of rather a sad looking shack of wood and zinc.  It is under this structure, one of several which dot the coastline as it runs north-east, where the sheltered slips and berths of an abandoned boat yard can clearly be seen along with chains and blocks dangling seemingly precariously from age worn wooden beams. This again, provides a reminder another side of the village’s past. The village had once had the proud distinction of being one of the main centres in the Pearl River Delta area for traditional wooden boat and junk building.

The sheltered slip of a abandoned boat yard. The village was a main centre for traditional wooden boat building in the Pearl River delta.

The sheltered slip of a abandoned boat yard. The village was a main centre for traditional wooden boat building in the Pearl River delta.

While there is of course much more to Coloane – I got to see a gaier and festive side of it during the Tam Kung Festival (of which I will devote another post to), it is this side I was able to discover that does appeal most to me. Coming from a part of the world where there is little left to remind me of a beautiful world that did once exist there, it is always nice for me to find a place such as this which does show how progress and the gentler side of life is able to co-exist.

The Tam Kung Temple.

The Tam Kung Temple.





The curious ridge of sand which runs from Katong to Kallang Bay

25 11 2012

Taking a walk by the waterfront by the Singapore Indoor Stadium these days, it would be hard to imagine a time not so long ago when looking across to Tanjong Rhu, a very different scene would have greeted one’s eyes. Where million dollar condominium units housed in cream coloured blocks now dominate the view across, the scene a quarter of a century ago would have been one of wooden boats, wooden jetties, slipways and drab looking structures running along a body of water the surface of which would have been littered not just by rubbish that had found its way into the three rivers that flowed into the basin, but also by carcasses of dead animals that floated down from the many farms that has once been located upstream.

Tanjong Rhu (left), seen across the Kallang Basin today.

Tanjong Rhu translates from Malay into the Cape of Casuarina (Trees). Once described as a “curious ridge of sand which runs across from Katong to Kallang Bay”, its tip, known as “Sandy Point” has had a long association with the boat building and repair trade, having been an area designated for the trade by Sir Stamford Raffles as far back as 1822, with Captain Flint being the first to set a company to do that in the same year. By the 1850s, the trade was already well established around Sandy Point and the trade continued to thrive in the area even after the first graving dock was constructed in New Harbour (Keppel Harbour) in 1859. Over the years, among the business that found their way to Sandy Point were the well established names such as British boatbuilder J I Thornycroft which set up in 1923 and United Engineers. Thornycroft became Vosper Thornycroft in 1967 following the 1966 merger of the parent company with Vosper Limited in the UK. Vosper Thornycroft’s Singapore operations in turn merged with United Engineer’s in 1967. The yard unfortunately got into financial difficulties due to the mid 1980s recession and went into voluntary liquidation in early 1986.

The end of Tanjong Rhu was home to several shipyards including Vosper Thornycroft (seen here), the parent company of which is an established builder of Naval craft in the UK and Singapore Slipway (which became Keppel Singmarine), established as far back as 1887.

A slipway of a boatyard on the Geylang River

A well established organisation involved in shipbuilding still around that can trace its history to Sandy Point is the newbulding arm of Keppel Corporation, Keppel Singmarine. The subsidiary of what is now Keppel Offshore and Marine is a merger of Singmarine and Singapore Slipway. It was Singapore Slipway that had been established at Sandy Point in 1887 when a group of merchants bought William Heard and partner Campbell Heard and Co’s slipway which was set up earlier in the decade and formed the Slipway and Engineering Company. Keppel Singmarine’s yard operated at Tanjong Rhu until the early 1990s.

A boat littered Kallang Basin in 1973 at the time of the completion of the National Stadium (Singapore Sports Council Photo). Land reclamation along the Nicoll Highway promenade can be clearly seen.

Besides the shipyards, another area of Tanjong Rhu a short distance away from its tip that wasn’t very pretty was at the area known as Kampong Arang. That had been an area that was dominated by wooden jetties, used by charcoal traders to offload charcoal from tongkangs (wooden lighters) coming in from Indonesia and Thailand. The charcoal trade was established in the area in 1954 when charcoal traders were uprooted from the waterfront along the reclaimed land south of Beach Road to allow for the construction of Merdeka Bridge and the Nicoll Highway. The once thriving charcoal trade operated at Tanjong Rhu up until January 1987 when the trade was already in decline. At its height in the late 1950s, as many as 300 tongkangs plied between the two countries and Tanjong Rhu, falling to 60 by the time the 1970s had arrived when demand fell as many households had by then already switched to using gas and electric stoves. The traders were relocated to Lorong Halus (only 15 of the 40 that operated at Tanjong Rhu continued at Lorong Halus with demand mainly from the reexport of charcoal than from the local market) in early 1987 at the tail end of the decade long Kallang Basin cleanup efforts.

Another view of Kallang Basin and Tanjong Rhu today.

Beyond the cleanup efforts, the face of Tanjong Rhu has also been altered by the land reclamation south of the cape which has increased its land mass. The land reclamation, started in the early 1970s, was originally intended to allow for the construction of the East Coast Parkway and was further expanded to give the area now referred to as Marina East – at the tip of which the Marina Barrage now closes the channel between it and Marina South which has turned Marina Bay and the Kallang Basin into a huge reserve of a much needed resource, fresh water. The shifting out of the trades from the area were complete by the time the mid 1990s had arrived and allowed much of the northern waterfront area of Tanjong Rhu to be developed into a residential area and the basin into a recreational area that it is today.

[see also: Where slipways once lined the muddy banks of the Geylang River: Jalan Benaan Kapal]








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