Lost in Space

16 10 2012

The Bencoolen Street that I am familiar with is the one that I became acquainted with over the many trips on the bus to school at the end of the 1970s. The street today bears little resemblance to that street I knew. Much has since changed with many modern façades replacing the rows of what primarily were rather old pre-war shophouses that had populated much of the area around the street.

Lost in Space – the ceiling of the fire escape of The Villa at 81 Bencoolen Street. A magical new world set in an old.

Even if not for the ongoing work on the Downtown Line MRT which has closed the section of the street from Middle Road to Bras Basah Road, there seems little that is left to identify the street with the one I had been familiar with, including that Thai restaurant that could not be missed. A figurine on the face of its second level – that of a traditional Thai dancer, made it an instantly recognisable landmark in the area. That along with other landmarks including the old Bengkali Mosque on the other side; the shophouses where the Camera Hospital and K Ratna Sports were; and the Soon Chong Leong Building, have long since made way for the new.

Reflections of the old in the new.

Among the few that did survive, some, such as the former Asia Radio Building now reincarnated as a budget hotel (which has achieved notoriety with its association with a scandal of sorts that has recently been played out in the Courts), bear little resemblance to their former selves. One survivor is one that is immediately recognisable – a large two storey house closed to the junction of Bencoolen Street with Middle Road, No. 81 Bencoolen Street.

A 1982 photo of 81 Bencoolen Street – then the Kian Hua Hotel. From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009.

The new world that is today’s 81 Bencoolen Street.

It was a house which rather intrigued me. What did look like a very spacious two storey house, it was certainly one that must have seen better days. I imagined it to once have been the home of a rich merchant. Many similar houses in the area had been, including the ones found at nearby Waterloo Street which runs parallel to Bencoolen Street. Like a similar house next to the former Middle Road Church, the house was one which a hotel had occupied, the Kian Hua Hotel. On the hotel, I have found little information. Other than several newspaper advertisements in the National Library’s wonderful archives of newspapers that told me only that told me that the hotel had occupied the building at least as far back as 1953, the isn’t much on it except of an apparent suicide – a 26 year old ex-journalist had been found hanging from a ceiling fan in one of the hotel’s rooms one morning in early 1988, with a nylon rope around her neck.

A much grander looking 81 Bencoolen Street today – restored perhaps to its original glory.

The house is now in what has to be its fourth incarnation, having for a while after the hotel’s closure, masqueraded as the gaily decorated Cleopatra Karaoke Lounge. A lot more sober looking today, it does seem to have its former glory I imagined it to have been in, restored, having as part of a S$50 million makeover which involved extensive work on the cluster of old buildings at the corner of Prinsep Link and Bencoolen Street it is a part of to, to restore it as well as transform the house and the adjacent buildings – a more modern commercial building at No. 77, and two units of conservation shophouses at No. 71 and No. 73, into what is today the SPACE Asia Hub, a huge 40,000 sq. foot gallery for premium furniture.

The building at No. 81, as well as two sets of buildings: two storey conservation shophouses at Nos. 71 and 73; and also a modern building at No. 77 has been transformed into the 40,000 sq. ft. Space Asia Hub.

The work, undertaken by local architectural firm WOHA Architects Pte Ltd, is one that has won it an award in the 2012 edition of the URA Architectural Heritage Awards. It was because of this that I had a chance to join a very informative guided tour that was organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as part of a series of tours which also include guided tours of the other 2012 Architectural Heritage Awards winners.

A glass cube – the Glass Block has been created around the existing frame of No. 77 which is next to No. 81 and serves as the focal point of the spacious showroom.

While the tour did not provide me with the information I had hoped to obtain on the original owner or when the house at 81 Bencoolen Street was built, it did give me a chance to take a look at the interiors of the beautifully restored heritage buildings: No. 81 which is now called ‘The Villa’; and Nos. 71 and 73, the ‘Heritage Houses’, as well as the transformation of No. 77 into what is called the ‘Glass Block’ – the focal point of the gallery.

Inside the Glass Block – the existing frame can be seen with floors and walls removed to create a sense of space.

The tour started off at the Glass Block, laid bare by the replacement of its exterior walls to create a beautiful space around its existing frame of concrete columns and beams. What was really interesting was the spaces and access routes that were created, which included a joyous courtyard at the rear with a glass ceiling and a glorious wall of green, an open terrace on its third level and the addition of a wide staircase and a glass encased lift shaft. What was nice to see was in the midst of all the glass, there is the warmth of the colour of bricks to be found – the original bricks of the wall that separates the Heritage Houses from the adjoining Glass Block.

The exposed bricks of the original wall separating No. 77 from No. 73.

The vertical garden at the glass topped courtyard of the Glass Block.

The reverse view of the courtyard.

The open terrace of the Glass Block.

The guide showing the interior of no. 77 prior to the work done on it.

The staircase added into No. 77.

What is notable on the work done on the Heritage Houses is the replacement of a concrete column and beam structure that held its roof up, with two sets of steel trusses which carry the weight of the roof’s now wooden structure over to the walls strengthened for the purpose. This not only frees the spaces below from the previous mess of supporting columns below, but also enables the creation of two very interesting and very usable spaces between each set of trusses, which were referred to as ‘hanging attics’.

The new timber roof supporting structure of the Heritage House at Nos. 71 and 73.

A view through one of the new trusses which free the space below of the numerous columns that had previously been used to support the roof.

One of the hanging attic created between a set of the new steel trusses.

The freed up space below the steel trusses.

The Villa was the last of the three buildings we visited, and the one that interested me the most. Now an exclusive showroom, access to which is only by appointment, the visit provided the opportunity not just to step inside the showroom, but also to have a view of its restored interior. There were a few details on the restoration that were of note, including that of the house’s roof in which the attic was removed to allow the newly installed timber trusses and original masonry structures to be seen. Another design feature of note is one that was added – that of a hollow column of rusted steel – à la Richard Serra I suppose, only thinner guage and supported by internal steel angles, which serves as a fire escape required by the building code. This was added to a glass extension to The Villa which also serves to connect it with the Glass Block next door. More information on the awards and on SPACE Asia Hub, which opened in November 2011, can be found at the SPACE website and also at the URA 2012 Architectural Heritage Awards website.

The upper level of The Villa.

Sliding shades are used for the upper level windows.

The lower level of The Villa.

The fire escape is built into a hollow rusted steel column.

The rusted steel column as seen from the outside.





Mapping memories of the Bras Basah area

8 06 2012

The streets around the Bras Basah Road area are ones that I am familiar with through my four years of interactions with them as a secondary schoolboy and also from going to church in the area in my early years. A lot has changed since those days – the school I went to and the many others in the area have all moved out along with the many businesses and household that were displaced when the wave of redevelopment swept through the area in the 1980s. Today, the world that I find is one that, without the buzz that all that has been displaced over the three decades since I left school, is silent and without colour.

The streets around the former SJI are ones that although is not devoid of life, now seem silent and without colour.

Silent, colourless and changed as the streets may seem, there is still the many memories of them embedded in the many places around the area – memories that I have attempted to capture through entries in this blog, as well as through photographs as a trigger of memory On a Little Street in Singapore – a little Facebook group that I started with the aim of sharing memories of a Singapore we have all left behind. On a Little Street in Singapore has proven not just to be a place to share memories, but has also turned out to be a repository of the memories of many, separated by circumstances, by time and by unfamiliarity, are connected by their interactions with the same places.

One that has resisted the wave of redevelopment – St. Joseph’s Church in Victoria Street, helps to connect the present with the past.

I have been scratching my head on a way in which the captured can be connected – not just those on this blog, but also those on the Facebook Group – which isn’t as easy to navigate through as I would have liked it to be. It wasn’t until I decided to help a friend on a project to record memories of the Bras Basah precinct that I thought of doing what now seems obvious – place them on a map. With an available online tool such as Google Maps, that not only makes putting placemarks to mark the location of a memory possible, it is also possible to connect the places with captured memories through links to photographs, blog entries and even discussions on the Facebook Group. This I have done for the Bras Basah area – and maybe a little beyond it and with that (the navigable map can be found embedded below), it becomes not just a tool to capture and navigate through the memories of the area, but also to aid in the appreciation of the area’s recent and otherwise forgotten history and to discover little bits of the past that lies beneath the glass and steel edifices that now dominate the area.





A 20¢ ice-ball and one cool customer

10 12 2011

The 20 cent ice-ball makes a comeback this weekend (10 and 11 Dec 2011) at two locations in the Bras Basah – Bugis precinct, at the National Heritage Board’s (NHB) Heritage along Footpaths project. Once commonly found snack vendors such as ice-ball and kacang puteh seller, along with barbers, fortune tellers and cobblers, have been brought back for the project, and on the evidence of the crowds that turned up the last weekend, were a huge hit.

The 20 cent palm sugar (Gula Melaka) and syrup laden ice-ball makes a come back this weekend,

Evaporated milk is another favourite topping!

Seen amongst the crowds last weekend was one cool customer – a young lady, who discovered entirely on her own, how best to eat that 20 cent ice-ball. It was certainly not with the sheet of plastic that is used for hygienic reasons these days … but with her bare hands … allowing the sticky syrup laden melting liquid dribble down her chin and through her fingers. And when it did get too cold for her tiny fingers, she found herself a wonderful solution ….

Now, it doesn't quite feel right with the sheet of plastic ...

... now that feels a lot better ....

oops ... it's melting!

And, brrr ... it's cold!

But delicious!

Yummy!

My fingers are frozen ... now what do I do?

I guess that's what the pocket in my bib is for!

Now for a second bite.


About The Heritage Along Footpaths project:

The Heritage Along Footpaths project seeks to re-introduce trades that were once common at two designated sites within the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct – the Singapore Art Museum and Stamford Arts Centre (along the mural wall facing Middle Road). At each of the sites, tradesmen that were once commonly found along alleyways or five-foot ways – namely street barbers, cobblers, fortune tellers, ice-ball sellers and kachang puteh sellers – will ply their wares at prices of the past. Research conducted on these once-common trades will also be on display for the public to learn more about Singapore’s history and heritage.

Heritage Along Footpaths is part of the NHB’s initiative to inject greater vibrancy into the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct, an area rich in the arts and heritage. Said Mr Alvin Tan, Director, Heritage Institutions & Industry Development: “Through this project, NHB hopes to re-introduce once familiar street sights and businesses in the arts and cultural district and in doing so, re-acquaint Singaporeans with trades that were once an integral part of our community heritage. It also presents the perfect opportunity for younger Singaporeans to experience first-hand the early lives of their grandparents, and, in the process, reinforce bonding across the generations who share a common history and identity.”






Cobbler, Cobbler, Mend my Shoe

7 12 2011

Sidewalk cobblers, a rare breed now in Singapore, can still be found if one looks hard enough. Once a common sight along sidewalks, five-foot-ways and back lanes, the age of disposables and trends has seen a falling demand for the trade. My mother frequently visited the sidewalk cobbler to have her shoes mended or resoled. I remember many of them around the sidewalks and footpaths around Raffles Place back in the 1970s and they did a roaring trade with a steady stream of customers – particularly ladies whose shoes needed a broken heel fixed – seated patiently on a stool, and feet in flip-flops the cobbler provided, as the cobbler did a quick fix. The sidewalk cobbler is one of the trades that the National Heritage Board (NHB) has brought back to bring life back to the footpaths in their Heritage along Footpaths project which was launched last weekend – you would be able to catch them in action again for one more weekend (10 and 11 Dec 2011) at two locations in the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct – the Stamford Arts Centre and the Singapore Art Museum, where you would be able to have a pair of shoes fixed at prices that we have not seen since the good old days.

The sidewalk cobbler, once a common feature in Singapore, has seen falling demand for his services in the age of disposables and are now more commonly found in other parts of South East Asia like this one in Kluang, Malaysia.

Tools of the trade - now seldom seen in Singapore.

Replaced by modern conveniences such as roll-on shoe polish and ...

... the tin of glue.

The sidewalk cobbler at NHB's Heritage along Footpaths where you can have your shoes fixed at 50 cents a pair

The sidewalk cobbler at work.

A close-up of the cobbler.

The customer might have been provided with a pair of flip-flops and a stool to sit on by a sidewalk cobbler as she waits for that quick shoe fix.


About The Heritage Along Footpaths project:

The Heritage Along Footpaths project seeks to re-introduce trades that were once common at two designated sites within the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct – the Singapore Art Museum and Stamford Arts Centre (along the mural wall facing Middle Road). At each of the sites, tradesmen that were once commonly found along alleyways or five-foot ways – namely street barbers, cobblers, fortune tellers, ice-ball sellers and kachang puteh sellers – will ply their wares at prices of the past. Research conducted on these once-common trades will also be on display for the public to learn more about Singapore’s history and heritage.

Heritage Along Footpaths is part of the NHB’s initiative to inject greater vibrancy into the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct, an area rich in the arts and heritage. Said Mr Alvin Tan, Director, Heritage Institutions & Industry Development: “Through this project, NHB hopes to re-introduce once familiar street sights and businesses in the arts and cultural district and in doing so, re-acquaint Singaporeans with trades that were once an integral part of our community heritage. It also presents the perfect opportunity for younger Singaporeans to experience first-hand the early lives of their grandparents, and, in the process, reinforce bonding across the generations who share a common history and identity.”






The five-foot-way barber

6 12 2011

Once upon a time, in a Singapore we have long forgotten, you probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid seeing someone having his hair cut on the five-foot-way. These days, the five-foot-way, sidewalk, roadside or back alley barber, as he might be known as, is less of a common sight in a Singapore that has abandoned its previous life on the streets for the more comfortable air-conditioned premises we partake of most of our daily activities in. The sidewalk barber did made a reappearance at two locations last weekend in a part of Singapore that I will from my previous interactions always associate with that Singapore they were commonly found in. This was part of the National Heritage Board’s (NHB) Heritage along Footpaths initiative, which saw not just the once familiar sight of barber chairs and mirrors mounted on walls, but also the likes of cobblers, fortune-tellers and ice-ball vendors making an appearance along the five-foot-way.

Old style barbers - those along the sidewalks and in barbershops always started with the customary spray.

I myself have never had the experience of having my hair cut along a five-foot-way or in a back lane, my father preferring to take me to the more santised premises of the neighbourhood Indian barber shop with its mirror lined walls I loved to stare into and the unmistakable smell of talcum powder and hair oil. I certainly don’t remember prices that the NHB has set – 50 cents, for haircuts … remembering them to be $2 perhaps when I was able to make my own visits to the barber in the early 1970s. I do remember however that a neighbour of mine did frequent a five-foot-way barber in his old neighbourhood at Ah Hood Road at which he paid 70 cents for his monthly crop.

Closed cropped hairstyles were a standard of the sidewalk barbers.

I was never fond of the Indian barber – who on my father’s instructions never failed to give me a close-crop or a crew-cut and later in life when I could make my own choice, I preferred (as most of my peers did) to visit the Malay barber instead – one Bugs Bunny, in Toa Payoh opened at the start of the 1970s and is still right where it opened, with its decor not having changed in four decades. The Malay barbershop grew in popularity in the 1970s as they delivered crops that in line with the latest styles. Many of the popular Malay barbershops were as a matter of fact run by barbers that had come off the streets – one of the very successful chains – Sri Dewa was started by a certain Mr Ramadan bin Fahmi who had started his trade under a cherry tree in Thomson Road.

Barber chairs making a reappearance on the five-foot-way.

The barbers would be returning to the two locations this weekend (Sat 10 Dec 2011 and Sun 11 Dec 2011 – 10 am to 5 pm), the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and at the Stamford Arts Centre. Based on what a satisfied customer I met at the SAM said, be prepared for a queue which he said had already formed before the start of business at 10 am for a crop at prices which the gentlemen said “you can’t find in Singapore anymore”.

Tools of the trade being used - a comb and a pair of scissors.

Giving a shave - no longer used is a blade sharpened on a strap of leather but one with a disposable razor.


About The Heritage Along Footpaths project:

The Heritage Along Footpaths project seeks to re-introduce trades that were once common at two designated sites within the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct – the Singapore Art Museum and Stamford Arts Centre (along the mural wall facing Middle Road). At each of the sites, tradesmen that were once commonly found along alleyways or five-foot ways – namely street barbers, cobblers, fortune tellers, ice-ball sellers and kachang puteh sellers – will ply their wares at prices of the past. Research conducted on these once-common trades will also be on display for the public to learn more about Singapore’s history and heritage.

Heritage Along Footpaths is part of the NHB’s initiative to inject greater vibrancy into the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct, an area rich in the arts and heritage. Said Mr Alvin Tan, Director, Heritage Institutions & Industry Development: “Through this project, NHB hopes to re-introduce once familiar street sights and businesses in the arts and cultural district and in doing so, re-acquaint Singaporeans with trades that were once an integral part of our community heritage. It also presents the perfect opportunity for younger Singaporeans to experience first-hand the early lives of their grandparents, and, in the process, reinforce bonding across the generations who share a common history and identity.”






Putting life back on the footpaths

2 12 2011

An interesting project that is being rolled out by the National Heritage Board (NHB) this weekend is Heritage Along Footpaths, which seeks to re-introduce trades that were once common at two designated sites within the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct – the Singapore Art Museum and Stamford Arts Centre (along the mural wall facing Middle Road). On this weekend and on the next, members of the public will find tradesmen such as traditional street barbers, ice-ball sellers, fortune tellers and kacang puteh sellers peddling their trades and wares at prices that we were used to in the heyday of street tradesmen – a haircut will cost a mere 50 cents and a stick of kacang puteh will go for 20 cents. The tradesmen will be present at the two locations on 3 and 4 December 2011 as well as 10 and 11 December 2011 from 10.00am to 5.00pm each day (more information including a map of the locations of the two sites can be found at www.nhb.gov.sg/brasbasahbugis/BBB_KeyEvents.html). See also more recent posts on the Five-Foot-Way Barber and Cobbler.

The Heritage Along Footpaths project seeks to re-introduce trades that were common in the past such as traditional street barbers ...

... fortune tellers ....

... and cobblers.

About The Heritage Along Footpaths project:

The Heritage Along Footpaths project seeks to re-introduce trades that were once common at two designated sites within the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct – the Singapore Art Museum and Stamford Arts Centre (along the mural wall facing Middle Road). At each of the sites, tradesmen that were once commonly found along alleyways or five-foot ways – namely street barbers, cobblers, fortune tellers, ice-ball sellers and kachang puteh sellers – will ply their wares at prices of the past. Research conducted on these once-common trades will also be on display for the public to learn more about Singapore’s history and heritage.

Heritage Along Footpaths is part of the NHB’s initiative to inject greater vibrancy into the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct, an area rich in the arts and heritage. Said Mr Alvin Tan, Director, Heritage Institutions & Industry Development: “Through this project, NHB hopes to re-introduce once familiar street sights and businesses in the arts and cultural district and in doing so, re-acquaint Singaporeans with trades that were once an integral part of our community heritage. It also presents the perfect opportunity for younger Singaporeans to experience first-hand the early lives of their grandparents, and, in the process, reinforce bonding across the generations who share a common history and identity.”








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