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]





On borrowed time: Mun Sun Fook Tuck Chee

19 06 2012

The Geylang area as many know is one that is associated with the seedier side of life, great food as well as the many houses of worship it plays host to. It is unfortunate that the seedier aspects does dominate the impressions we have collectively formed of the area. Geylang does, despite its appearance, have a lot more to offer than that, being rich not just in its architectural heritage, but also where some aspects of its history (as well as that of Singapore’s) have been preserved. Strategically located in the area where the Kallang and Geylang rivers meet, a large part of Geylang’s more recent history lies in the industrial development that took place around the Kallang Basin which also drew many from afar to seek their fortune to the area. The stories of these migrants and that of the area’s industrialisation are now all but lost and it is in the old buildings and in the houses of worship that these forgotten stories are to be discovered. One of the houses of worship that has a story to tell is a Taoist temple, Mun Sun Fook Tuck Chee (萬山福德祠), that now lies somewhat isolated in a quiet corner off the Geylang we now see – a story that all too soon may be totally forgotten. The temple is one that now sits on a site that it occupied since 1901 as a guest, a guest that may soon overstay its welcome. The site – an obscure corner of what used to be Geylang Lorong 17, now Sims Drive, is on land that the HDB now owns, land that will be possibly be redeveloped with the cluster of public flats next to it that find themselves the victims of the relentless pace of redevelopment in Singapore.

Mun Sun Fook Tuck Chee sits in a quiet corner at the end of what was Geylang Lorong 17 (the part that is now Sims Drive).

A portal to a forgotten past.

My introduction to the temple and its origins was via a guided tour of it that one of our local experts on temples in Singapore, Yik Han, was kind enough to give at the end of a short walk of discovery I did with some friends through Geylang’s streets of sin and salvation. The temple’s history, I was to learn, goes back beyond 1901, to the second half of the 19th Century (the 1860s). It owes its establishment to the Cantonese and Hakka coolie population that had found work in the brick kilns that thrived by the banks of the Kallang River due to the availability of clay that was of a quality suitable for brick making. The temple is closely associated with a village on the banks that was referred to as Sar Kong (沙崗) or ‘Sand Ridge’ and had moved a few times before finding itself in its current site.

Yik Han giving an introduction to the temple’s history.

A member of the temple’s committee speaking of the temple’s origins …

… some of which is captured on a tablet.

In the temple’s name, one can perhaps find a reference to its origins. The name ‘Mun Sun’ is thought to be transliteration of the malay word bangsal, the Malay word for ‘shed’ or ‘workshop’ – a reference to its industrial origins. The temple which is dedicated to the Taoist Earth God (土地公) does, besides its interesting history, contain several interesting articles that await discovery. One is a carved altar table that bears the markings of the craftsmen who made it. On closer inspection of one of its legs, there are the marks left by the craftsmen which include the Chinese characters ‘牛車水’ – ‘Ox-Cart Water’ or the Chinese name for what we call Chinatown today. What this points to is that the craft was carried out not as one might have expected in China – where there was a tendency to commission such work, but locally.

The main altar of the Earth God. The carved wooden altar table in the foreground is one that was crafted off the streets of ‘Ox-Cart Water’, 牛车水 or 牛車水 in the traditional script. A carved inscription on one of the legs bears evidence of this.

Close-up of characters carved on the table. The Chinese characters ‘牛車水’- ‘Ox-Cart Water’ or ‘Kreta Ayer’ or the Chinese name for Chinatown in Singapore, indicate that there were furniture craftsmen present in Singapore’s Chinatown who made the table at a time when a lot of such work would have been commissioned in China.

The temple plays host to several other deities including the Golden Flower Lady (金花夫人). That she is the patroness of child-bearing won’t escape notice with the 12 nannies tending to young children that accompany her on the altar. One deity whose name escaped meat the side of the temple takes a curious form – that of a mannequin that is used to represent it.

The patroness of child-bearing, the Golden Flower Lady (金花夫人) with some of the 12 nannies who flank her on the altar.

A close-up of one of the 12 nannies.

Te deity which has a mannequin representing him.

The temple’s building also holds a clue to its origins. In the course of his introduction, Yik Han pointed out a little known fact – that the building is one of the rare examples of Cantonese style temple architecture in Singapore. It is also interesting to note that the temple had also at some point, housed a school, as well as a sports club, the sports club being started to provide a channel for alternative pursuits other than addiction to opium.

The temple’s building is one of the rare examples of Cantonese temple architecture.

The part of the temple where the school operated, now houses the lion dance troupe that probably is the temple’s claim to fame. It is the troupe that performs the fire dragon dance which uses a dragon that is made out of padi straw and lit up with incense sticks. A fire dragon from the temple featured in this year’s Chingay parade. The dragon that was used lies quietly in a room on the right side of the temple.

A ‘fire’ dragon made from padi straw that was used in Chingay 2012. The temple is known for the Fire Dragon dance.

Despite the temple’s significant links with the history of immigration into and the industrial development of the area, the future of the temple on its current site is one that is uncertain. The blocks of Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats that have cast a shadow on it for over three decades have been vacated – part of a on-going programme to renew some of the older public housing neighbourhoods known as the Selective En-Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) that will see them demolished and replaced by newer apartment blocks. This may mean that the temple at its current site may soon see its final days and with that … one of the last reminders of the area’s early industrial history will be one that like the area’s past that it represents, be forever lost.

Coils of incense on the ceiling.

Blessings that will be attached to the incense coils.


See also: 19th-century temple at risk of demolition (Sunday Times 26 January 2014).









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