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various genres of Chinese opera practiced here have come to be referred to, has long since dwindled and have largely been replaced by entertainment forms that reflect the national desire to abandon age-old practices.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.





Lost on the ridge

23 05 2013

Perched at the edge of Pasir Panjang Ridge (a.k.a. Kent Ridge) facing south is a remnant of a time and place there is little memory of lying hidden and forgotten. The cluster of flat roofed buildings, designed such that they could quite easily be hidden, are what remains of an military outpost that was part of a defence line that had been established well before the war along the southern ridges – preserved only because they have long remained hidden from view.

A world that remains lost.

On a hill not so far away lies a world that remains lost.

The opportunity to visit the outpost, which is in more recent times closed-off to the public for safety reasons, came during a walk to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of Pasir Panjang I had participated in. Stepping through the vegetation which has it well camouflaged, and into the area through one of the buildings was like stepping through a doorway into a parallel world well lost in time.

Access to the buildings is through vegetation that has them well camouflaged.

Access to the buildings is through vegetation that has them well camouflaged.

A close-up of the writing on the wall giving an indication of when the outpost was built.

A close-up of the writing on the wall giving an indication of when the outpost was built.

A doorway into a parallel world.

A doorway into a parallel world.

That there were signs that life did once exist there added an air of, if I may call it, surreality. A room, its walls coloured green by algae, has the obvious signs that it was a kitchen. In another, a bath tub could be seen with a piece of debris that at first glance, resembled a body part. That we do see that is certainly evidence that the outpost was meant to operate on its own, as perhaps as a surveillance post perched on an isolated corner of the strategically important ridge.

The kitchen.

The kitchen.

The bathroom.

The bathroom.

It is along the stretch of Kent Ridge which runs from what now is Clementi Road east towards where it meets Marina Hill at South Buona Vista Road at a pass which had been known as The Gap occupied by the National University of Singapore (NUS) where we find the outpost, close to its high point. The ridge made a natural position from which the military installations in the Wessex Estate area could be defended from a ground assault from the south and it was on it that one of the last battles in the lead-up to the fall of Singapore in February 1942, was fought. That it was only rediscovered in more recent times is perhaps one reason that while much of paraphernalia associated with the former military presence on the ridge has been lost over time, the outpost has survived to this day, serving as a physical reminder of a past we perhaps have been too quick to forget.

A building on the upper terrace.

A building on the upper terrace.

A stairway.

A stairway.

A building on the lower terrace.

A view through the vegetation to a building on the lower terrace.

The buildings, arranged on two terraces, which might have remained abandoned following the war, do show signs perhaps of a more recent use. A tyre lies along a corridor littered with fallen leaves, as does a metal pail, which does somehow increase the sense of eeriness which takes over as soon as the initial sense of surreality fades. In the silence of the lost world, there perhaps were voices of the past to be heard. But with the little time there was to dwell in the silence of the forgotten world, the voices are ones which do remain unheard.

A closer look at the building on  the lower terrace.

A closer look at the building on the lower terrace.

A tyre along a corridor.

A tyre along a leaf strewn corridor.

A metal pail close by.

A metal pail close by.

A window into a forgotten world.

A window into a forgotten world.





The silence of a world forgotten

10 12 2012

I recently had a look in and around the former Bukit Timah Railway Station, lying quiet and abandoned while plans have not been made for its future use. The station, the last on the old Malayan Railway (known in more recent times as Keretapi Tanah Melayu or KTM), where the old key token exchange system was employed, was vacated on 1 July 2011 when the southern terminal of the railway was moved to Woodlands, and is now a conserved building.

A bridge that's now too far.

A bridge that’s now too far.

Bukit Timah Railway Station is now world that almost seems forgotten.

A world that almost seems forgotten.

The station is one that was built as part of the 1932 railway deviation. The deviation raised the line (hence the four bridges south of Bukit Panjang – one of which, a grider bridge over Hillview Road, has since been removed), as well as turned it towards Holland Road and the docks at Tanjong Pagar. Bukit Timah Railway Station in more recent times prior to its closure operated almost forgotten, seen mainly by passengers on passing trains, operated only in a signalling role. It was only as the closure of the railway line through Singapore loomed that more took notice of the station and the archaic practice of exchanging key tokens.

A window into the forgotten world.

A window into the forgotten world.

The ghost of station masters past?

The ghost of station masters past?

Together with the nearby truss bridge, one of two longer span railway bridges over the Bukit Timah area, which in some respects gives the area some of its character, the station lies today somewhat forgotten. The frenzy that accompanied the last days of the railway and the days that followed prior to the removal of the tracks has since died down – the post track removal turfing work intended to level the terrain and prevent collection of rain water has probably served to do the opposite and rendered the ground too soft and mushy to have a pleasant walk on).

The tracks along much of the rail corridor has since been removed with only short sections such as this one at the truss bridge at close to Bukit Timah Railway Station left behind.

The tracks along much of the rail corridor has since been removed with only short sections such as this one at the truss bridge at close to Bukit Timah Railway Station left behind.

The last half dozen or more than 30 levers that were once found in the signalling room of the station.

Through broken panes, the last half dozen of more than 30 levers that were once found in the signalling room of the station is seen.

While interest in the rail corridor seems to have faded with the passage of time, there may yet be motivation to pay a visit to it in the next month or so. A recent announcement (see Removal of structures along Rail Corridor dated 23 Nov 2012) made by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) points to the removal of unsound structures. These unsound structures include two of the signal huts at the former level crossings, one of which does have a memorial of sorts to the last day of railway operations and the last train. Besides the huts, some buildings that served as lodgings including the ones at Blackmore Drive, will also be demolished. Work on removal of the structures, based on the announcement, are to be completed by the end of January 2013 and this December probably offers the last opportunity to see the affected areas of the rail corridor as it might once have been.

A Brahminy Kite flies over the formaer railway station.

A Brahminy Kite flies over the formaer railway station.

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