All at sea

24 07 2014

The launch on Saturday of Singapore HeritageFest 2014, bring us to focus on one of the key reasons for Singapore’s being, the sea. This year’s festival much of which revolves around a maritime based theme, “Our Islands, Our Home” has us looking at our maritime past as well as our present as a maritime nation.

HeritageFest 2014 opens a window to Singapore's island heritage.

HeritageFest 2014 opens a window to Singapore’s island heritage.

It is to raise the profile of this heritage, one that goes back to times well before the arrival of Raffles, that is in fact what the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) and the National Heritage Board (NHB) hopes to achieve with the establishment of the S$500,000 Maritime Heritage Fund, which the two agencies will administer – for which a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by the two agencies at Saturday’s launch.

One of the highlights of this year's HeritageFest is a lighthouse trail that includes a stop on Pulau Satumu, Singapore's southernmost island, on top of which Raffles' Lighthouse is perched.

One of the highlights of this year’s HeritageFest is a lighthouse trail that includes a stop on Pulau Satumu, Singapore’s southernmost island, on top of which Raffles’ Lighthouse is perched.

Once a common scene in the waters off the Southern Islands. Boats such as the kolek on the right, are very much part of our maritime heritage (a similar kolek is on display at the Balik Pulau Exhibition at the National Museum).

Once a common scene in the waters off the Southern Islands. Boats such as the kolek on the right, are very much part of our maritime heritage (a similar kolek is on display at the Balik Pulau Exhibition at the National Museum).

The focus of the fund, which complements the NHB’s S$5 million Heritage Grant Scheme launched last year, will be on developing community-initiated projects related to Singapore’s maritime heritage that will promote a greater understanding and appreciation of Singapore’s maritime connections, as was touched on by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Community, Culture and Youth, in his speech at the festival’s launch.

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of NHB launching Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of NHB launching Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Mr Wong also spoke of the transformation that will soon take place at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), where the launch event was held. Besides a revamp of the museum with expanded galleries that will include a space allocated for the Tang Cargo and see new shops and dining outlets, the museum will be given a new entrance that will open it up to the river and give it a direct connection into the historic heart of Singapore.

Another lighthouse - the very pretty Sultan Shoal Lighthouse at the western extremities of Singapore's waters seen during the lighthouse trail as part of Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Another lighthouse – the very pretty Sultan Shoal Lighthouse at the western extremities of Singapore’s waters seen during the lighthouse trail as part of Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

The revamp is part of the ongoing effort to develop a civic and cultural belt around Singapore’s colonial civic district (see: The Old Vic’s ticking again) that involves also the newly refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, and the conversion of the Old Supreme Court and City Hall into National Gallery – due for completion in 2015.

The Old Vic's definitely back!

The newly refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall.

A cultural performance at the launch of Singapore HeritageFest2014.

A cultural performance at the launch of Singapore HeritageFest2014.

The launch also coincided with the first evening of a two-night series of programmes taking place around the ACM and the river, River Nights. The event, brought much life and colour to the river, and celebrated its changing identity over the years – in the same way the well received series of activities  for Singapore HeritageFest 2014 celebrates the islands.

A dragon dance performance at the start of River Nights at the ACM's front lawn.

A dragon dance performance at the start of River Nights at the ACM’s front lawn.

More information on the Maritime Heritage Fund, Singapore HeritageFest 2014, River Nights and on Balik Pulau: Stories from Singapore’s Islands (an exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore held in conjunction with HeritageFest 2014) can be found in the following links:





The Old Vic’s ticking once again

22 07 2014

The Old Vic’s finally back. Having seen it look increasingly tired over the years, it’s nice to see that it’s not just been freshened up during a four year hibernation, but has also been done up very nicely for its role as a mid-sized performing arts venue for the future.

Ticking once again is the clock at the Old Vic.

Ticking once again is the clock at the Old Vic.

The Old Vic's definitely back!

The Old Vic’ made new.

A passageway regained by the side of the concert hall.

A passageway regained by the side of the concert hall.

I had the opportunity to have a quick glance at the newly refurbished Vic at an exclusive tour organised for a group of bloggers over the weekend of the Open House, with a visit to the top of what to me has always been the mysterious clock tower thrown in; and I must say, there isn’t anything there is to dislike about its latest makeover – except that is that everyone now seems to want to refer to the well-loved monument by its acronym VTCH (for Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall). We in Singapore do have a penchant for using acronym, but extending the practice to our well loved icons, doesn’t seem quite right.

The queue at the opening of the Open House.

The queue at the opening of the Open House.

We got a peek at the inside of the clock tower.

We got a peek at the inside of the clock tower.

It will always the old Vic to me, a landmark that we have long identified with our Lion City. It is where the founder of modern Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles, has maintained his proud position – almost uninterrupted (the statue was removed from its position during the Japanese Occupation in 1942 and restored in 1946) since 1919, the centenary of him setting foot on the island at a point not far away on the river bank and setting the ball rolling on a chain of events that has brought us to where we are today. The chimes from its clock tower were ones that flavoured my childhood and it was something I looked forward to hearing on the many occasions I found myself in the area in the days of my childhood.

Inside the refurbished Old Vic - seen on the third level below the glass roof of the Central Atrium.

Inside the refurbished Old Vic – seen on the third level below the glass roof of the Central Atrium.

The refurbished theatre.

The refurbished theatre.

The section of the building that has served as the concert hall since the late 197os was of course the Victoria Memorial Hall back in the days of my youth, a name I still have the tendency, as with many of my generation, to use in referring to the National Monument. There were several occasions when I did have a chance to pop into it – it had been the site of many exhibitions in the days before the former World Trade Centre and the former Harbourfront took over as Singapore’s main exhibition venues.

The entrance to the former Victoria Memorial Hall - the area below the concert hall where the box office is located.

The entrance to the former Victoria Memorial Hall – the area below the concert hall where the box office is located.

The concert hall, which served as the home of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) from 1979 until the SSO shifted to the Esplanade in 2002, was actually a 1905 addition to the building, built in the memory of Queen Victoria. The original section, built as a town hall in 1862, was then remodelled to complement the memorial hall in a symmetrical fashion and reopened as a theatre in 1909. The clock tower, with chimes and clock by the Straits Trading Company, was completed in 1906.

A view from the clock tower.

A view from the clock tower.

Over the years, several modifications were made to the buildings. This included a significant makeover in the 1950s, which saw the two buildings air-conditioned, and the seating capacity of the theatre doubled. That makeover also saw the incorporation of the previously open courtyard between the two buildings into the structure with it being covered up – a modification that has to an extent, now been reversed.

The Central Atrium - where the courtyard between the two buildings had been.

The Central Atrium – where the courtyard between the two buildings had been.

A look through the old arches to the new relief etched panels of the theatre.

A look through the old arches to the new relief etched panels of the theatre.

A glass roof now allows light into a rather pleasant looking and air-conditioned courtyard, the Central Atrium, restored partially on the side of the concert hall. Not only does this allow a wonderful view of the clock tower, it allows it to serve as a through passageway from the front of the buildings to the back. At the back a magnificent view of Old Parliament House, now The Arts House, Singapore’s oldest government building, in its full glory awaits.

The Arts House - at the end of the passageway.

The Arts House – at the end of the passageway.

The Central Atrium is where we see a tasteful blend of old and new. The rolling back of the modifications made to maximise the capacities of both the theatre and the concert hall, sees the boundaries of both pushed back to the original locations, allowing the columns and arches to be brought out. On the side of the concert hall, we see how it may have been with its ornate archways and rusticated columns restored. It is however the side of the theatre that seems most interesting, it is there that we now see a reinterpretation of courtyard side of the old theatre, with the use of relief etched precast panels providing a modern and forward looking impression, partly to compensate for the absence of information relating to the original architectural details, in contrast to that on the side of the concert hall.

The precast etched relief panels.

The precast relief etched panels on the theatre side of the atrium.

It was also nice to see how Victoria Theatre has been redone – its seating arranged in the horseshoe shape as it might originally have been with a provision of an orchestral pit. This has reduced its capacity from 900  to 614, providing it with a more intimate setting. More importantly, the modifications must now give it much improved acoustics – one of the few impressions of the theatre that I have from watching Lea Salonga in a Singapore Repertory Theatre production of the musical “Into the Woods” sometime in the 1990s, was of its rather poor acoustics.

The refurbished theatre.

The refurbished theatre.

It is interesting to see that several items from the old theatre have been incorporated into the new – with the backs of the old seats decorating the entrance foyer, seen in a floating “Rubik’s Cube”. Frames and material from the old seating are now also seen in the remodelled theatre, such as the cast-iron components incorporated into the newly installed acoustic timber walls.

A re-used part of the frame of the old seating.

A re-used part of the frame of the old seating.

The 'Rubik's Cube' in the theatre's foyer and a reflection of it on a counter top.

The ‘Rubik’s Cube’ in the theatre’s foyer and a reflection of it on a counter top.

While some of us did not get to see the 673 seat concert hall, we did hear the glorious strains from Dr Margaret Chan’s masterful pipe-organ performance from the foyer where we got to see the suspended balcony – replacing the previously added balcony that had to be supported by intrusive structures, to free up volume and improve acoustics.

The refurbished concert hall (photo courtesy of Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall).

The refurbished concert hall (photo courtesy of Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall).

The suspended balcony.

The suspended balcony.

What we got to see that most visitors during the Open House didn’t was the clock tower (which incidentally has had its crown restored), which I had been curious about throughout  my childhood. The inside of the clock tower turned out to be quite different from the one I had envisaged – the clock’s mechanism and the five bells seemed a lot smaller than what I had imagined as a child.

The chime bells and a clock face on the platform below.

The chime bells and a clock face on the platform below.

The writing on the largest bell: 'This clock and chime of bells were presented to the Queen Victoria Memorial Hall by the Straits Trading Company, 1905'.

The writing on the largest bell: ‘This clock and chime of bells were presented to the Queen Victoria Memorial Hall by the Straits Trading Company, 1905′.

The clock has seen an improvement during the refurbishment – an automatic winding mechanism was added. Prior to this, the clock had to be rewound manually, requiring a winder and maintenance man to ascent up 176 steps once a week to spend up to an hour winding the clock.

The long road to the top - 176 steps for the winder who would have to ascend once a week.

The long road to the top – 176 steps for the winder who would have to make the acsent once a week.

An automatic winder has been added to the clock's mechanism.

An automatic winder has been added to the clock’s mechanism.

While the chimes I am told, can be heard as far away as the Esplanade, it didn’t quite sound as loud as one might have expected standing right by the bells, seemed minute compared to the bells that Quasimodo lent his hand in ringing. Beside the thrill of hearing the bells chime at 11 o’clock, there was also the bonus of taking in the magnificent views of the surroundings and the contrast of the old Padang surrounded by the architectural symbols of colonial power next to what architectural historian Lai Chee Kien, calls a new “liquid padang” – surrounded by the architectural symbols representing the new power.

The clock level.

The clock level.

The refurbishment of the old Vic coincides with an effort that will also see a renovation of the Asian Civilisations Museum and the transformation of the Old Supreme Court and City Hall into the National Gallery Singapore – all scheduled to be completed next year. That will complete the transformation of an area that had been at the heart of the colonial administration into an arts and cultural hub – what the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), in their 2014 Master Plan, terms as a “Civic and Cultural District by the Bay“.

For more information on what is envisaged for the Civic District as part of URA Master Plan 2014, do visit the following links:

More information on Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall and its recent refurbishment can be found on their website.


Some key dates relating to the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall:

17 March 1855

The foundation stone for the new Town Hall was laid by the Governor of Singapore, Colonel W. J. Butterworth.

1902 – 1905

Victoria Memorial Hall was built in memory of Queen Victoria’s reign. Victoria Memorial Hall and Tower were joined to the existing theatre by R. A. J. Bidwell of Swan and Maclaren, with passageway between the two buildings.

18 October 1905

Victoria Memorial Hall was officially opened by the Governor of the Straits Settlements, John Anderson.

1906

The construction of the signature clock tower was completed. This was later than expected due to the delay in donation of the clock and chimes by the Straits Trading Company.

1909

The first performance that took place in the newly completed Victoria Theatre was Sirs William S. Gilbert and Arthur S. Sullivan’s well-known and amusing opera, The Pirates of Penzance, staged by the Singapore Amateur Dramatic Committee.

6 February 1919

On Centenary Day, T. Woolner’s statue of Sir Stamford Raffles was moved from the Padang to Victoria Memorial Hall, taking the place of the bronze elephant presented to Singapore by King Chulalongkorn.

Early 1942

The Victoria Memorial Hall was used as a hospital for victims of bombing raids by the Japanese forces during World War II.

1946 – 1947

Victoria Memorial Hall was used as a location for war crimes courts.

21 November 1954

The inaugural meeting of the People’s Action Party was held at the Victoria Memorial Hall.

1954 – 1958

Major renovations were carried out including a complete restructuring of the interior of the theatre. Air-conditioning and sound-proofing was added and the courtyard covered up.

4 November 1957

The public had its first glimpse at television when William Jacks and Co presented a full length variety show on television at the annual Philips Radio Convention held at the Victoria Memorial Hall.

15 February 1963

Television Singapura (Singapore’s first TV station) was launched with a pilot monochrome service at the Victoria Memorial Hall.

1979

Victoria Memorial Hall was renamed the Victoria Concert Hall and named as the official home of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

1980s

A gallery was added to the Concert Hall, adding seating capacity and enclosing the second storey balconies on the front and back facades with glass.

1990s

Renovations were carried out to Victoria Theatre to make it a more efficient performing venue.

February 1992

Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall was gazetted as a national monument of Singapore.

2010

The Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall was closed for a $158 million renovation.

2014

Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall reopened its doors after a four-year renovation.


 





Lost places: The shrine across the Divine Bridge

7 04 2014

The Japanese couldn’t have picked a more divine setting in Singapore for the Syonan Jinja (昭南神社), the Light of the South Shrine that was to be the grandest of Shinto shirnes erected in the southern reaches of the empire. Even today, despite its site having been reclaimed by the forest , it is not difficult to find the beauty and peace the site was chosen for, in an area that even today does seem far removed from the urban world.

The site of the Syonan Jinja where remnants of what was once South-East Asia's  leading Japanese Shinto shrine is today an eerie yet peaceful spot. What is seen in the photograph is one of the more visible remnants, a sacred granite water trough for ritual purification.

The site of the Syonan Jinja where remnants of what was once South-East Asia’s leading Japanese Shinto shrine is today an eerie yet peaceful spot. What is seen in the photograph is one of the more visible remnants, a sacred granite water trough for ritual purification.

A worship ceremony involving Japanese troops at the opening of the Syonan Jinja in 1943 (source: http://www.himoji.jp/himoji/database/db04/images_db_ori/2200.jpg).

A worship ceremony involving Japanese troops at the opening of the Syonan Jinja in 1943 (source: http://www.himoji.jp/himoji/database/db04/images_db_ori/2200.jpg).

The shrine, built with labour provided by the Allied prisoners-of-war (POW), was one of several that came up in Singapore during the Japanese occupation. One of two of the more notable shrines – another was the Syonan Chureito on Bukit Batok, the Syonan Jinja stood on a slope of a hill that rose from the water’s edge around the western reaches of MacRitchie Reservoir, across a what from the evidence presented in photographs of it, was a beautifully crafted bridge, known as the Divine Bridge.

The Torii Gate at the bottom of the stairway leading up to the Syonan Jinja seen in 1943 (Showa History Vol. 10: Pacific War Breaks Out、Mainichi Newspapers Company, uploaded to http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3d/Shonan_Shrine.jpg).

The Torii Gate at the bottom of the stairway leading up to the Syonan Jinja as seen in 1943 with the Divine Bridge in the background (source: Mainichi Newspapers Company, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3d/Shonan_Shrine.jpg).

The shrine and its site and the grand plans for it, which was opened to commemorate the first anniversary of the fall of Singapore in 1943, have been described in the National Library’s infopedia page on the shrine:

a beautiful wooden structure that featured the clean, simple lines of classic Japanese architecture. It was built on a raised stone platform and it had a large granite ceremonial fountain for ritual purification. The surrounding area was designed to be a Japanese garden with gentle pebbled streams, stone lanterns, a stone-stepped path, small torii gates (traditional Japanese gates commonly found at the entrance of Shinto shrines), and landscaping featuring native and imported plants. Four to five tonnes of pebbles were imported from Borneo for this project, while religious artifacts and certain plants were sourced from Japan. The wood used for the shrine, however, was from Singapore”

The area around the shrine was to be transformed into a 1,000-acre park with public recreational and sporting facilities. These facilities were to include gardens, promenades, playgrounds and a lake for fishing and boating. The proposed sports compound was to feature a stadium, a swimming pool, wrestling arenas and public bandstands, and would be a possible venue for the Greater East Asiatic Olympic Games envisioned by the Japanese. The planners also declared that a new city would develop with the Syonan Jinja at its centre

General Yamashita and Japanese troops crossing the Divine Bridge at the opening of the shirne (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_207.jpg).

General Yamashita and Japanese troops crossing the Divine Bridge at the opening of the shirne (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_207.jpg).

What remains of the Divine Bridge today - wooden stumps in the water that were part of the columns that supported the bridge.

What remains of the Divine Bridge today – wooden stumps in the water that were part of the columns that supported the bridge.

Little today is left for us to see of what it might once have been – wooden stumps, only visible when the reservoir’s water levels are low enough, tell of of the location of the Divine Bridge and where the Torii gate and the stairway up to the shrine would have been. Across the reservoir, it is through the thick undergrowth of the secondary forest that has reclaimed the area, that one finds the flight of stairs, rising first to a terrace on which a water trough hewn out of a block of granite still stands. The trough would have served to hold water for the ritual purification asked of visitors to the shrine.

A concrete retaining wall around the terrace on which the trough is found.

A retaining wall around the terrace on which the trough is found.

A panorama of the site.

A panorama of the site (click to enlarge).

Beyond the trough, the stairway leads to another platform – the main site of the shrine and except for a few slabs of stone lying around and the platform itself, there is little but that sense of an uneasy calm that one does feel at the site of the shrine, which was destroyed before the Japanese surrender to prevent it from being desecrated.

Concrete slabs at the site.

Granite slabs at the site.

The platform for the shrine seen in the forest.

The platform for the shrine seen in the forest.

Some of what we do know of what did go on at the shrine, comes through the accounts of local residents who participated in some of the rituals that did go on. One practice that did get mentioned is that of the Japanese community’s visits first to the Syonan Jinja to participate in Shinto rites early in the morning on New Year’s Day, before they made their way to the Syonan Chureito to pay respects to the war dead, an observance that also involved employees of the Japanese and would be followed by a lavish lunch (see “The Last Days of the Japanese Occupation”, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 1976).

More stone slabs.

More stone slabs.

One of the things about the shrine does does come out in some of the accounts is of the pebbled streams in what must have been a beautifully landscaped area. The pebbles, ” four, five tons” of them, as is described in one account, were apparently ones that had been had been brought in from Borneo for the Bukit Timah rapid gravity filter beds that were being constructed.

A close up of the foundations.

A close up of the foundations.

A view of the stairway.

A view of the stairway.

The site does attract a fair amount of interest despite it being rather difficult to access. It has been designated as a Historic Site since September 2002 and a marker / information plaque on it can be found at the junction of Sime and Adam Roads – from which it is an over 2 kilometre walk that does take one through parts of the gravel paths in the MacRitchie forest, as well as along the water’s edge past what is some of the most picturesque landscapes to be found in Singapore.and for that alone, it is well worth the effort involved.

POWs provided the labour to build the shrine (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_206.jpg).

POWs provided the labour to build the shrine (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_206.jpg).





A vestige of 16th Century Singapura?

1 12 2013

Ravaged by the passage of time and probably neglect, a structure which harks back seemingly to the days of empire and dominion, sits somewhat obscurely and well forgotten on the southern slope of Bukit Purmei in Kampong Bahru. Dominated by the emblems near it of a Singapore that spares little thought for such vestiges of its past, the structure, a walled compound, with an entrance archway suggesting a European origin, hides a world that has much to do with the days of empire that is anything but European.

The well hidden reminder of a past we have long discarded.

The well hidden reminder of a past we have long discarded.

The walled compound, referred to in the past as Keramat Bukit Kasita, is well hidden from view. Located on what can probably be described as a short spur on the Bukit Purmei slope, it sits on the edge of a public housing estate, behind a disarray of zinc topped shacks. A narrow path leads through the shacks – home to the guardians of the compound, who perhaps are also the keepers of a past which  would otherwise have been discarded; rising up to where the archway is. Beyond the locked gates – a more recent addition to the archway, it is the unmistakeable sight of Malay graves – many have its headstones covered in the yellow cloth that is associated with Malay royalty, that greets the eye. There are also several on which green cloth is wrapped over – green being the colour of Islam.

The concrete jungle Keramat Bukit Kasita now finds itself in. The blocks of flats painted in light blue and white are of Bukit Purmei.

The concrete jungle Keramat Bukit Kasita now finds itself in. The blocks of flats painted in light blue and white are of Bukit Purmei.

One of the keepers of the tombs, a rather chatty lady who identified herself as “Umi”, tells the group of us standing by the archway that the tombs are those of the Riau-Lingga branch of the Johor Royal family, hence the yellow cloth and the name Tanah Kubor diRaja by which the site is also known as. The earliest grave there she says, is one which dates back to 1721. She also made mention of a “Sultan Iskandar Shah”, buried at the site, about which I was rather puzzled as I was intrigued. 

A look into the compound from the back of it.

A look into the compound from the back of it.

“Wouldn’t Sultan Iskandar Shah be buried in Melaka” I ask. Umi tells me there might have been more than one “Iskandar Shah”, as names are often recycled down the line.

A Berita Minggu article from Nov 1998 tells us of a notice which identifies the tomb of a "Sultan Iskandar Shah" under an awning.

A Berita Minggu article from Nov 1998 tells us of a notice which identifies the tomb of a “Sultan Iskandar Shah” under in a yellow shed.

Interestingly a Berita Minggu article published on 29 November 1998 also makes mention of “Sultan Iskandar Shah”, drawing reference to a notice put up at the site on which the words “terdapat sebuah makam seorang sultan, Almahurum Sri Sultan Iskandar Shah, di pondok tuning itu“, which translates into “there is a tomb of a sultan, the late Sri Sultan Iskandar Shah, in the yellow shed”.

A zinc topped dwelling, one which hides the walled compound from view.

A zinc topped dwelling, one which hides the walled compound from view.

The article which is written based on an interview the newspaper did with a previous keeper of the tombs, an En. Azmi Saipan, also mentions that this “Sultan Iskandar Shah”, was thought to have died some 400 years previously – placing him in the 16th Century, well after the passing of the Iskandar Shah, the last king of Sang Nila Utama’s Singapura and the founder of Melaka, that we know well from our history texts.

What greets the eye at the bottom of the spur.

What greets the eye at the bottom of the spur – used as a barber shop until very recently.

There is a suggestion that is offered by a Radin Mas heritage guide which is put together by the Radin Mas Citizens’s Consultative Community, that the burial site was set up in 1530 by Sultan Alaudin Riayat Shah II – who established the Johor Sultanate out of the ruins of the Melaka Sultanate which was deposed through the Portuguese conquest of Melaka in the early 16th Century. Whether or not Sultan Alaudin Riayat Shah II who ruled from 1528 to 1564 could be that “Sultan Iskandar Shah” the keepers speak of isn’t certain, although the association remains a possibility. This does also does date the burial grounds some two hundred years before the “oldest grave” which Umi made a mention of.

The grounds of the former De La Salle School which opened in 1952 are right next to the keramat.

The grounds of the former De La Salle School which opened in 1952 are right next to the keramat.

We also learn from Umi that she was from a family of caretakers appointed by a member of the Johor Royal family to take care of the Istana Woodneuk and the grounds of the former Istana Tyersall until some 15 years ago, before being asked by a “Tunku” to move to Bukit Purmei to look after the Bukit Kasita site, which she says is still in the hands of the State of Johor. A check on the Singapore Land Authority’s one map site shows however that Bukit Kasita is within a parcel of land which is owned by the Housing and Development Board – although I am given to understand that it is possible that the site itself could still be owned by the Johor State.

Query on ownership of land on which Keramat Bukit Kasita is on via SLA's One Map site.

Query on ownership of land on which Keramat Bukit Kasita is on via SLA’s One Map site.

While it is uncertain what origins of the site are, we do know that there is at least the graves of a branch of the Johor Royal line all of which can be traced back to Sang Nila Utama and his successors who ruled Singapura and subsequently the Sultanate of Melaka, is can be found behind the walls. This branch, are the descendants of the rulers of the Riau-Lingga Sultanate which was set up by the Dutch out of the remnants of the Johor-Riau-Lingga Sultanate they controlled through the appointment of the Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah the younger son of Sultan Mahmud Shah III following his death in 1812 and cemented by the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824.

The locked gates.

The locked gates.

It was Abdul Rahman’s elder half brother, Hussein who was set up by Raffles as Sultan of Johor and Singapore, in Kampong Glam – Hussein’s descendants are buried in another site at the Old Malay Cemetery in Jalan Kubor.

The 'Tomb of Malayan Princes'.

The ‘Tombs of Malayan Princes’ at Jalan Kubor.

The Riau Sultanate was abolished when the Dutch drove an uncooperative Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah II, the great-great-grandson of Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah through his great-granddaughter Tengku Fatimah, from his seat in Pulau Penyengat into exile in Singapore in 1911. Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah II, the very last Sultan of Riau-Lingga, died a poor man in 1930 and along with several of his descendants, is buried at Bukit Kasita. This does make the cluster, one of three connected, albeit distantly, with the Johor Royal family.

Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah II, the last sultan of Riau-Lingga who died in exile in Singapore in 1930 (source: www.royalark.net).

The other two are the Tanah Kubor Temenggong at Telok Blangah where the Temenggong with whom Raffles negotiated with in setting up the East India Company’s trading post in Singapore, and  from whom the current line of Johor Sultans descended,  Temenggong Abdul Rahman is buried; and the Old Malay Cemetery at Kampong Glam, where the “Tombs of Malayan Princes” – many of whom were descendants of Sultan Hussein, is found. Tanah Kubor Temenggong along with the Masjid Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim are on land owned by the State of Johor. The tomb of Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim after whom the mosque is named is also found in that burial site. It was Temmenggong Deang Ibrahim’s son, Abu Bakar, who established the current Johor Sultanate.

Another view of the Tanah Kubor diRaja / Keramat Bukit Kasita.

Another view of the Tanah Kubor diRaja / Keramat Bukit Kasita.

It is thought that the area where Bukit Kasita is, was where one of the oldest settlements in Singapore was established well before the arrival of Raffles and the resettlement of the Temenggong and his followers by Raffles to the Telok Blangah area. It might have been Abu Bakar as Temenggong who permitted the establishment of a settlement by followers of the ousted last Bendahara of Johor in Pahang Tun Mutahir in 1863, many of whom fled to Singapore and Johor at the end of the Pahang Civil War of 1857 to 1863. Tun Mutahir was defeated by the Bendahara’s younger half brother Tun Ahmad who established the Pahang Sultanate.  The settlement came to be known as Kampong Pahang – which is shown in a map of Singapore from 1907, one of several villages of the same name set up by fleeing followers of Tun Mutahir, another of which was on Pulau Tekong.

Detail of a 1907 map of Singapore showing Kampong Pahang at Bukit Purmei / Bukit Kasita.

Detail of a 1907 map of Singapore showing Kampong Pahang at Bukit Purmei / Bukit Kasita.

As to how the Bukit Kasita site came to be venerated as a keramat, a clue is found in a paper published in the Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 2003 by P.J. Rivers. Rivers identifies two graves which are venerated as keramats, one is of a Raja Ahmad which Rivers identifies as Keramat Bukit Kasita. The second grave is that of a Raja Tengku Fatimah which is venerated on the basis that the waters of spring next to the tomb which is said to have healing powers.

Another keramat, that of Radin Mas Ayu, just a stone's throw away on the slopes of Mount Faber.

Another keramat, that of Radin Mas Ayu, just a stone’s throw away on the slopes of Mount Faber.

Outside the gate two urns containing sticks of incense provide evidence of the veneration of the site, which the Berita Minggu article says attracts visitors of all races. Umi does confirm this, telling us that there are indeed visitors who come from as far as Europe, who offer prayers at the site.

Yellow is seen along with the colour green.

Yellow is seen along with the colour green.

Before we leave, we ask Umi about the significance of the green seen on some of the graves. Umi tells us that they are of descendants of “shaikhs” from Iraq, related to Muslim holyman Habib Noh (of Keramat Habib Noh). Whether it is completely true or not is hard to establish. She adds the grave of an infant seen under the tree in the middle of the compound, is that of a grandchild of Habib Noh. As we thank Umi for her information and turn to leave, Umi adds that the tree is a holy one which should never be cut down.

URA's Draft Master Plan 2013 shows the Keramat Bukit Kasita area as a reserve site.

URA’s Draft Master Plan 2013 shows the Keramat Bukit Kasita area as a reserve site.

Whether or not the tree will ever be cut down, would depend very on whether the site and the wealth of history that comes with it is discarded in the same way much of what made us who we as Singaporeans are has been sacrificed for the glitter of the soulless world we have come to embrace. What is known today, based on the latest (2013) draft of the URA Master Plan, is that the site is a reserved site for which there are no immediate plans. In that there is hope that what may be a link we have to a world we might otherwise have lost touch with, may somehow survive.


See also:

A Straits Times Article published on 6 Dec 2013:

HDB estate with grave links to the past. Muslim burial site in Bukit Purmei holds historical, spiritual significance.





Riding on in a world that will soon change

26 11 2013

One of the few places in central Singapore left untouched by the spread of the concrete jungle, the area bounded by Thomson, Whitley Road (Pan Island Expressway) and Lornie Road, will in the not so distant future, see the change it has long resisted.

The area bounded by Thomson Road, Lornie Road and Whitley Road, hides some beautiful sights which has long resisted the advance of the concrete world.

The area bounded by Thomson Road, Lornie Road and Whitley Road, hides some beautiful sights which has long resisted the advance of the concrete world.

The area, a large part of which Bukit Brown Cemetery and the cemeteries adjoining it occupies, is where a calm and peaceful world now exists, one not just of cemetery land reclaimed in part by nature, but of laid back open spaces, colonial era bungalows beautifully set in lush greenery, and where horses sometimes outnumber cars on a few of its roads.

Gates of Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Gates of Bukit Brown Cemetery.

While it may be a while before the concrete invasion arrives – much of the area has been earmarked for housing developments in the longer term, the winds of change have begun to pick up speed. Alien structures related to the MRT Station have already landed and exhumation of graves affected by the new road through Bukit Brown will commence soon.

Notices of exhumation at Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Notices of exhumation at Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Close-by, across Thomson Road, which will soon see construction work beginning on the North-South Expressway, Toa Payoh Rise has been widened and looks nothing like the quiet and peaceful road it once was.

Toa Payoh Rise losing its gentle feel in 2010 as work started to widen the once laid-back road.

Marymount Convent, a long time occupant of the mound next to Toa Payoh Rise, already once affected by the construction of Marymount Road, held its last mass – the convent will have to vacate the land on which it has occupied for some 63 years. Not far away – at the corner where Mount Pleasant Road runs through, the houses and the Old Police Academy another with a long association with the area, will also not be spared. The expansive grounds of the academy was where many would have spent a Sunday afternoon in simpler days watching grown men kicking a ball on the field. Besides football matches close-up, one could sometimes get a treat of a glimpse at a parade or a Police Tattoo practice session as one passed on the bus.

Riding off into a sunset - the Old Police Academy south of the Polo Club will be one of the victims of the winds of change will may soon blow into the area.

Riding off into a sunset – the Old Police Academy south of the Polo Club will be one of the victims of the winds of change will may soon blow into the area.

With the many changes about to descend on the area, one probably constant along that stretch of Thomson Road – or at least the hope is there that it would be, is the Singapore Polo Club. A feature in the area for more than seven decades, the club first moved to the location, just as the dark days of the Occupation were upon us in 1941.

The Polo Club's grounds as seen from Thomson Road.

The Polo Club’s grounds as seen from Thomson Road.

Sitting across the huge monsoon drain in which many boys would once have been seen wading in to catch tiny fishes, the grounds of the Polo Club – with it huge green playing field, is one that I almost always kept a look out for, in the hope of catching a glimpse of a match underway.

Some of us would have fond memories of catching fish from the huge monsoon drain running by the eastern edge of the Polo Club.

Some of us would have fond memories of catching fish from the huge monsoon drain running by the eastern edge of the Polo Club.

The grounds, the lease on which the club holds for another 20 years, wasn’t the club’s first. One of the oldest polo clubs in the region (as well as being one of the oldest sporting clubs in Singapore) dating back to 1886 by officers of the King’s Own Regiment – not too long after the rules of modern polo was formalised. The first grounds on which the sport was played at was one shared with golfers of the Singapore Golf Club at the Race Course or what is Farrer Park today.

The Polo Club's Indoor Arena and Stables.

The Polo Club’s Indoor Arena and Stables.

It does seem that from a 1938 newspaper article contributed by René Onraet, the Inspector General of the Straits Settlements Police from 1935 to 1939, who was a keen polo player and also a President of the club that the game was also played at the reclamation site across Beach Road in front of Raffles Hotel. This was where the NAAFI Britannia Club / SAF NCO Club and Beach Road Camp were to come up, a site currently being developed into the massive Foster + Partners designed South Beach residential and commercial complex.

The grounds at Balestier Road which hosted the Singapore Polo Club from 1914 to 1941.

The grounds at Balestier Road which hosted the Singapore Polo Club from 1914 to 1941.

The club sought new premises after being prevented from using the Race Course grounds in 1913 – moving to its first dedicated grounds at Balestier Road (Rumah Miskin) in June 1914 – grounds now occupied by the cluster of buildings which once were used by the Balestier Boys’s School, Balestier Mixed School and Balestier Girls’ School.

The Prince of Wales playing polo at the Balestier Road ground in 1922 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

The Prince of Wales playing polo at the Balestier Road ground in 1922 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

The grounds were unfortunately limited in size, and a search was initiated for a new ground at the end of the 1930s. It was the club’s President, René Onraet, who was instrumental in securing the current premises, which incidentally was right by what was the Police Training School – the Old Police Academy.

The Singapore Polo Club has occupied its current grounds since 1941.

The Singapore Polo Club has occupied its current grounds since 1941. The grounds were said to have been used as vegetable plots during the Japanese Occupation.

Although the grounds were ready at the end of 1941, it wasn’t until 1946 that the first game of polo was played on the grounds which by the time required some effort to restore it. The war had seen the grounds turned, as a couple of newspaper reports would have it, into vegetable plots – complete with drainage ditches and water wells. The club’s website makes mention of the Japanese Imperial Army converting the grounds into a gun emplacement area, before turning it into a squatter’s camp.

Prince Charles participating in a game on the Thomson Road ground in 1974 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Prince Charles participating in a game on the Thomson Road ground in 1974 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Over the years, the club has expanded it membership and now includes activities such as equestrian sports, as well as having facilities for other sports. Along with club, the area around the club, also plays host to the likes of the Riding for the Disabled Association and the National Equestrian Centre at Jalan Mashhor.

The sun rises on Jalan Mashhor, home of the RDA and National Equestrian Centre.

The sun rises on Jalan Mashhor, home of the RDA and National Equestrian Centre.

Another view of Jalan Mashhor.

Another view of Jalan Mashhor.

The Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA).

The Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA).

The National Equestrian Centre - with the Mediacorp Caldecott Broadcast Centre seen in the background. The Broadcast Centre is scheduled to move to Buona Vista in 2015.

The National Equestrian Centre – with the Mediacorp Caldecott Broadcast Centre seen in the background. The Broadcast Centre is scheduled to move to Buona Vista in 2015.

The area where a healthy cluster of horse related activity centres are located is one which based on the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Draft Master Plan 2013 will be retained for sports and recreation use in the future.

Masjid Omar Salmah, at Jalan Mashhor which was built in the 1970s and is now long abandoned by Kampong Jantai it was built to serve.

Masjid Omar Salmah, at Jalan Mashhor which was built in the 1970s and is now long abandoned by Kampong Jantai it was built to serve.

Another view of the National Equestrian Centre.

Another view of the National Equestrian Centre.

The area where the Polo Club is (in green) on the recently released URA Draft Master Plan, is designated for Sports and Recreation use, but the rest of the area around it may see a change.

The area where the Polo Club is (in green) on the recently released URA Draft Master Plan, is designated for Sports and Recreation use, but the rest of the area around it may see a change (http://www.ura.gov.sg/MS/DMP2013/draft-master-plan/map.html).

While it does look like this might remain a beautiful world for some time to come, time is being called on the gorgeous world which now surrounds it. It won’t be long before the wooded areas across Thomson Road are cleared for development. The greater loss will however be the places of escape to the west. That is the green and beautiful world of the cemetery grounds. Grounds where men and horses, and perhaps the good spirits of the world beyond us, have but a few precious moments in which they can continue to roam freely in.

Jalan Mashhor at sunrise.

Jalan Mashhor at sunrise.

The road to nowhere ... at least for the time being.

The road to nowhere … at least for the time being (MRT related structures are clearly visible).


More on the game of Polo and how it is played in Singapore: A Royal Salute to the sport of kings.





A Changi well hidden from sight

18 10 2013

Looking across a sun baked tarmac during a rare opportunity I had to pay a visit to Selarang Camp, it was quite difficult to imagine the square decorated by the shadows of rain trees along its its periphery, cast in the dark shadows of the war some 71 years ago.

The sun-baked Selarang Camp Parade Square decorated not by the shadows of yesterday, but by those of today.

The sun-baked Selarang Camp Parade Square decorated not by the shadows of yesterday, but by those of today.

Surrounded not by rain trees, by the buildings of Selarang Barracks, the shadows of yesterday were ones cast by the events of the early days of early September 1942, events for which the barracks completed some four years before to house a battalion of the Gordon Highlanders, would long be remembered for.

A model of the barrack buildings around the square as seen on a sand model in the Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

A model of the barrack buildings around the square as seen on a sand model in the Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

Little is left physically from the days of darkness in today’s Selarang Camp. One of the oldest camps still in use, it is now occupied by HQ 9th Division of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). There is little resemblance the tarmac and its surroundings bear to the infamous barrack square now half the size of the original where scenes, possibly descending on chaos from the thousands of Prisoners of War (POWs) – estimates put it at some 13,350 British and 2,050 Australian troops, a total of 15,400 (some estimates had its as high as 17,000) who were made to crowd into a square which measured some 800 by 400 feet (244 x 122 metres), and the seven buildings around it – each with an floor space of 150 by 60 feet (46 x 18 metres) – a density of 1 man for every 2.3 square metres not counting the kitchen tents which had to also be moved into the square and makeshift latrines which had to also be dug into the square!

The original square seen in a 1967 photograph.

The original square seen in a 1967 photograph.

The event, referred to as the Selarang Barracks Incident, is one which is well documented. What had triggered it was an escape attempt by four POWs, two Australian: Cpl Rodney Breavington and Pte Victor Gale, and two British: Pte Harold Waters, and Pte Eric Fletcher. To prevent similar attempts in the future, the Japanese captors, under the command of the newly arrived Major General Fukuei Shimpei (under whose charge the internment and POW camps in Malaya had been placed under), tried to persuade the men in captivity to sign a non-escape statement.

The barrack square during the incident (photograph taken off an information board at the parade square).

The barrack square during the incident (photograph taken off an information board at the parade square).

This was on 30 August 1942. The statement: “I, the undersigned, hereby solemnly swear on my honour that I will not, under any circumstances, attempt escape” – was in contravention to the Geneva Convention (of which Japan was not a signatory of) and the POWs were unanimous in refusing to sign it. This drew a response from the Japanese – they threatened all who refused to sign this undertaking on 1 September with “measures of severity”.

The Non-Escape Statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

The Non-Escape Statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

It was just after midnight on 2 September, that orders were given for all British and Australian POWs (except for the infirmed), who were being held in what had been an expanded Changi Gaol (which extended to Selarang and Roberts Barracks which was used as a hospital), to be moved to the already occupied Selarang barrack buildings which had been built to accommodate 800 men.

From Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1 – Army, Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (1st edition, 1957).

From Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1 – Army, Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (1st edition, 1957).

There was little the POWs could do but to make use of whatever space that was made available, spilling into the non-sheltered square around which the barrack buildings stood. The space was shared with kitchens which the captors insisted had to also be moved into the area. Conditions were appalling and access to water was restricted and rations cut (some accounts had it that no food at all was provided), and were certainly less than sanitary. With water cut-off to the few toilets in the barrack buildings rendering them unusable, trenches going as far down as 16 feet had to be dug into the hard tarmac of the parade square to provide much needed latrines.

The ‘Selarang Square Squueze’ as sketched by a POW, John Mennie, as seen on an online Daily Mail news article.

To put further pressure on the POWs to sign the statement, the Japanese had the four recaptured men executed by an Indian National Army firing squad. This was carried out in the presence of the POWs’ formation commanders on the afternoon of 2 September at the Beting Kusah (also spelt Betin Kusa) area of Changi Beach (now under an area of reclaimed land in the vicinity of the Changi Airport Cargo Complex). The execution and the escape attempt by the two Australians is described in detail in Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1 – Army, Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (1st edition, 1957), Chapter 23 (see link):

The four men executed included two Australians—Corporal Breavington and Private Gale—who had escaped from a camp at Bukit Timah on 12th May, obtained a small boat and rowed it about 200 miles to the island of Colomba. There in a semi-starved condition they had been rearrested, and at length returned to Singapore where Breavington was admitted to hospital suffering from malaria. At the execution ground Breavington, the older man, made an appeal to the Japanese to spare Gale. He said that he had ordered Gale to escape and that Gale had merely obeyed orders ; this appeal was refused. As the Sikh firing party knelt before the doomed men, the British officers present saluted and the men returned the salute. Breavington walked to the others and shook hands with them. A Japanese lieutenant then came forward with a handkerchief and offered it to Breavington who waved it aside with a smile, and the offer was refused by all men. Breavington then called to one of the padres present and asked for a New Testament, whence he read a short passage . Thereupon the order was given by the Japanese to fire.

Map of the Changi area in 1942.

Map of the Changi area in 1942.

Another account of the execution which also highlighted the bravery of Cpl Breavington was given during the trial of General Fukuei Shimpei in February 1946 at the Singapore War Crimes Court:

All four prisoners refused to be blindfolded, and 16 shots were fired before it was decided that the men were dead. One of the prisoners, Cpl Breavington, a big Australian, made a vain, last-minute plea to be allowed to bear alone the full responsibility and punishment for the attempt to escape. He dies reading the New Testament. The first two shots passed through his arm, and as he lay on the ground, he shouted: “You have shot me through the arm. For God’s sake, finish me this time.”

An aerial view of the Changi Airfield, the construction of which was initiated by the Japanese in 1943. The coastal end of the east-west intersecting strip was where the Beting Kusah area and Kampong Beting Kusah was located. The kampong was cleared in 1948 to allow an RAF expansion of the airstrip.

An aerial view of the Changi Airfield, the construction of which was initiated by the Japanese in 1943. The coastal end of the east-west intersecting strip was where the Beting Kusah area and Kampong Beting Kusah was located. The kampong was cleared in 1948 to allow an RAF expansion of the airstrip (photograph taken off a display at the Changi Air Base Heritage Centre).

After holding out for a few days, the fast worsening conditions became a huge cause for concern due to the threat of the disease and the potential it had for the unnecessary loss of lives. It was with this in mind that the Allied commander, Colonel Holmes, decided to issue an order for the POWs to sign that the non-escape document under duress. With the POWs signing the statement on 5 September 1945 – many were said to have signed using false names, they were allowed to return to the areas in which they had been held previously.

POWs signing the non-escape statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

POWs signing the non-escape statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

The incident was one which was certainly not forgotten. It was on two charges related to the incident that General Fukuei Shimbei was tried in the Singapore War Crimes Court after the Japanese surrender. The first charge related to the attempt to coerce the POWs in his custody to sign the documents of non-escape, and the ill-treatment of the POWs in doing so. The second was related to the killing of the four escapees. General Fukuei was sentenced to death by firing at the end of February 1946 and was executed on 27 April 1946, reportedly at a spot along Changi Beach close to where the four POWs had been executed.

A photograph of the executed General Fukuei Shimbei from the Selarang Camp Repository.

A photograph of the executed General Fukuei Shimbei from the Selarang Camp Repository.

Walking around the camp today, it is an air of calm and serenity that one is greeted by. It was perhaps in that same air that greeted my first visits to the camp back in early 1987. Those early encounters came in the form of day visits I made during my National Service days when I had been seconded to the 9th Division to serve in an admin party to prepare and ship equipment and stores for what was then a reserve division exercise in Taiwan. Then, the distinctive old barrack buildings around the square laid out on the rolling hills which had once been a feature of much of the terrain around Changi were what provided the camp with its character along with the old Officers’ Mess which was the Division HQ building.

The former Officers' Mess - one of two structures left from the original set of barrack buildings.

The former Officers’ Mess – one of two structures left from the original set of barrack buildings.

Another view of the former Officers' Mess.

Another view of the former Officers’ Mess.

It is in the a heritage room in the former Officers’ Mess, only one of two structures (the other a water tank) left from the wartime era that the incident is remembered. The Selarang Camp Heritage Centre is where several exhibits and photographs are displayed which provide information on the incident, as well as how the camp had been transformed over the years.

The Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

The Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

Pieces of the old barrack buildings on display in the former Officers' Mess.

Pieces of the old barrack buildings on display in the former Officers’ Mess.

Among the exhibits in the heritage room are old photographs taken by the POWs, a sand model of the barrack grounds and buildings which came up between 1936 to 1938, as it looked in September 1942. There are also exhibits relating to the camps occupants subsequent to the British withdrawal which was completed in 1971. The camp after the withdrawal was first used by the 42nd Singapore Armoured Regiment (42 SAR) before HQ 9th Division moved into it in 1984. It was during the HQ 9th Division’s occupancy that the camp underwent a redevelopment which took place from July 1986 to December 1989 which transformed the camp it into the state it is in today.

An exhibit - a card used by a POW to count the days of captivity.

An exhibit – a card used by a POW to count the days of captivity.

An exhibit from more recent times at the heritage centre.

An exhibit from more recent times at the heritage centre.

A photograph of a parade in the infamous square at the heritage centre.

A photograph of a parade in the infamous square at the heritage centre.

A view of the parade square today.

A view of the parade square today.

One more recent relic from the camp before its redevelopment is a bell which belong to a Garrison Church built in 1961. The church was built as a replacement for what had been a makeshift wartime chapel, the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier, which was, as was St. Luke’s where the Changi Murals were painted, a place which offered solace and hope to many POWs in extremely trying times.

The Garrison Church bell.

The Garrison Church bell.

The bell, now supported by a structure – said to resemble a 30 foot bell tower which originally held it up, can be found across the road from the parade square. The bell was transferred to Sungei Gedong Camp by 42 SAR before being returned to Selarang by HQ Armour in July 1999. It is close to the bell, where a mark of the new occupants of the camp, a Division Landmark which features a soldier next to a snarling panther (a now very recognisable symbol of the 9th Division) erected in 1991, is found standing at a corner of the new square. It stands watch over the square perhaps such that the dark shadows and ghosts of the old square do not come back to haunt us.

A sketch of the makeshift St. Francis Xavier Chapel.

A sketch of the makeshift St. Francis Xavier Chapel.

The division landmark.

The division landmark.

While there was a little disappointment I felt on not seeing the old square, I was certainly glad to have been able to see what’s become of it and also pay a visit to the heritage centre. This has certainly provided me with the opportunity to learn more about the camp, its history, and gain greater insights into events I might have otherwise have thought very little about for which I am very grateful to the MINDEF NS Policy Department who organised the visit.  It is in reflecting on events such as the Selarang Barracks Incident that I am reminded of why it is important for us in a world we have grown almost too comfortable in, to do all that is necessary to prevent the situations such as the one our forefathers and their defenders found ourselves in barely two generations ago.

Another photograph of the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier from the Selarang Camp Repository.

Another photograph of the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier from the Selarang Camp Repository.





A light where there was only darkness: The Changi Murals

20 09 2013

It an air of quiet calm that greeted me as I stepped into a room where the ghosts of a time we may otherwise have forgotten continue to haunt us. The room, bathed in the glow of light painted gold by the ochre of the walls the light reflected off, seemed to extend a warm welcome which it would have in the cold dark days when it offered hope when there might only have been despair.

The Chapel of St. Luke on the ground floor of Block 151.

The Chapel of St. Luke on the ground floor of Block 151.

The room, converted into the makeshift Chapel of St. Luke (dedicated to St. Luke the physician) during the Japanese Occupation, was where a Prisoner-of-War (POW) by the name of Stanley Warren who held the rank of Bombardier in the Royal Artillery, weakened by a severe bout of renal disorder and dysentery, drew on whatever reserves he had left in strength, to decorate, remarkably, two of the chapel’s walls with five paintings of biblical scenes from the New Testament which along with the chapel became a light in the darkness of days uncertain.

The chapel and murals were a light in the darkness of captivity during the dark days of World War II.

The chapel and murals were a light in the darkness of captivity for prisoners during the dark days of World War II.

The chapel which occupies a room in what was Barrack Block 151 in Roberts Barracks, which together with the neighbouring barracks and nearby Changi Prison became an extended gaol that the Japanese forces used to hold the large numbers of POWs they held. Block 151 was made part of the gaol’s hospital becoming part of a dysentery wing which included several other surrounding buildings.

Block 151 is one of a few structures from WWII which remain in the area.

Block 151 is one of a few structures from WWII which remain in the area.

Another view of Block 151.

Another view of Block 151.

Even if not for the weakened state of the painter, putting the paintings we now know as the ‘Changi Murals’ on the walls would have required an incredible effort. Based on information provided by the expert guide Mr. Vickna, we were told of how paints, pigments and even brushes were in extremely short supply, and they had to be procured through whatever means available – some which may have even put the men involved at risk.

A photograph of the late Stanley Warren who passed away in 1992.

A photograph of the late Stanley Warren who passed away in 1992.

There was also a huge degree of improvisation involved – the colour blue for example, was obtained from crushing chalk used on billiard cues.

A map of the POW camp sketched by Stanley Warren.

A map of the POW camp sketched by Stanley Warren.

Too ill to be sent to work on the Death Railway in Siam, which he is said to have said probably saved his life, Warren found himself recuperating in a ward above the chapel in 1942, Warren and many around him drew on the comfort provided by what could be heard of the strains of Merbecke’s arrangement of the Litany being sung in the chapel.

Mr Vickna the guide.

Mr Vickna the guide.

It was hearing the voices in song throughout his slow recovery which was to serve as an inspiration for Warren who was approached by the chaplain who knew of his artistic background to decorate the makeshift chapel. He struggled through the first, The Nativity, for over two months, managing to complete it in time for Christmas in 1942. Warren was to complete four more works – the last, a mural of St. Luke in Prison, was completed in May 1943.

The Nativity was the first mural painted. On a copy painted on a wallboard in 1963, Warren painted an albatross in place of the horse's head.

The Nativity was the first mural painted. On a copy painted on a wallboard in 1963, Warren painted an albatross in place of the horse’s head.

A feature of the murals is how Warren also used it depict what he did see around him – many of the faces were those of his fellow POWs and in the third mural, The Crucifixion, which I thought was the most moving, we do also see slaves dressed in loincloths in the same way the men around him were dressed in their rags. The words found above the mural “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” were we were told also a reference to his captors and the slaves crucifying Christ being the “slaves” many of his captors were to authority.

The Ascension - the second mural.

The Ascension – the second mural.

The murals were initially thought to have been destroyed – the Japanese later converted the room into a storeroom and were thought to have broken down walls as well as painting over the remaining murals. They were thought to have been discovered by Royal Air Force (RAF) personnel in 1958 and a search was made through the press in the UK for the painter – the name Stanley Warren cropping up only when a short description of the chapel and a reference to the murals was found in a book “The Churches of Captivity in Malaya”, which was discovered in the Far East Air Force Educational Library in Changi.

The Crucifixion, the third mural which was partly damaged by a doorway made in the wall - the evidence of which can still be seen.

The Crucifixion, the third mural which was partly damaged by a doorway made in the wall – the evidence of which can still be seen.

Then an art teacher in London, Warren was invited to restore the murals, first refusing to do so on the fear of having to confront the demons of the dark days in which he executed the work. He did eventually return after much soul searching – first just before Christmas in 1963, and then again in 1982 and 1988. One of the murals does remain unrestored – the last, the lower part of which was destroyed when the wall was knocked down by the Japanese.

The Last Supper - the fourth mural.

The Last Supper – the fourth mural.

It was one for which Warren did not have a copy of his original sketch of (which was found in the possession of a fellow prisoner later in 1985), and decided to leave what remains of in its original condition. Warren did paint a copy of it, a photograph of which can be seen below the mural in which he replaced one of the figures he orginally painted.

The unrestored upper portion of the fifth mural, St. Luke in Prison.

The unrestored upper portion of the fifth mural, St. Luke in Prison.

The Crucifixion is also one which was partly destroyed when a doorway was made in the wall – the evidence of which can still be seen.

A copy of the copy of the fifth mural which Warren painted.

A copy of the fifth mural which Warren painted.

Another interesting fact was one that we did learn about The Nativity mural – it was thought to have been destroyed and a copy was painted on a wallboard which was eventually removed by the RAF. The copy was one on which Warren replaced the head of the horse found on the original work with an albatross to as a symbol of flying men of the RAF which was using the barracks at the time. A part the original mural – that of the horse’s head, was found by one of the boys from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Boys School (which occupied the building in the 1980s) tasked with helping Warren to restore the murals in 1982.

A view of the chapel.

A view of the chapel.

The work, which is said to have offered solace and hope to the many prisoners who used the chapel, is today a reminder not just of a event we should never again want to find ourselves confronting, but also one of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. The building which houses the chapel, lies today in a restricted area within the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s (RSAF) Changi Air Base (West) and I am grateful to MINDEF’s NS Policy Department and the RSAF for the opportunity to be moved by the murals in its original setting. A copy of the murals to which members of the public have access to, can be found in the Changi Museum.

The chapel offered hope where there seemed to have been none.

The chapel offered hope where there seemed to have been none.

Mr Vickna speaking about The Ascension.

Mr Vickna speaking about The Ascension.

The corridor outside the chapel.

The corridor outside the chapel.


Information on Stanley Warren and the Changi Murals

* with photographs of it in the condition it when it was originally uncovered





50 years ago on 16 September 1963

16 09 2013

50 years ago on 16 September 1963, Singapore together with the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, became a part of Malaysia. For Singapore, it was a union which lasted less than two years – with Singapore separating from Malaysia on 9 August 1965. The date, is celebrated as Hari Malaysia or Malaysia Day by our northern neighbours.

(Photo: National Archives online catalogue http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/)

(Photo: National Archives online catalogue http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/)

Straits Times News articles on 16 September 1963:

The Straits Times front page

It’s here (Tengku Abdul Rahman’s Malaysia Day Message)





And when it did spill over in the good old days …

6 09 2013

Yesterday’s big flood was quite a major talking point. Floods have actually been a regular occurrence through much of Singapore’s history, two massive floods that did occur in my childhood were the big floods of 1969 and 1978. Most people were unfazed by the smaller floods – when the waters did spill over, it was always an opportunity for the kids of those days to have fun, any way they could, bringing out rubber tubes and in the case of the photograph of the flood of 1978 in the tabloid newspaper of those times, the New Nation, a giant wok.

1978 Flood

A contributor Yuen Hun to a post on Facebook Group “On a Little Street in Singapore” speaks of the big flood of 1969 and other flood experiences in Potong Pasir, a low-lying area where flooding was a fairly regular occurrence:

For me it was in a Potong Pasir farm village in 1969. The water was chest high after several days of continous rain. The entire village was submerged in yellow muddy water.

Villagers had to evacuate ourselves to higher grounds of Toa Payoh new town. How do we avoid falling into invisible ponds below the water and not get drowned ? Thanks to the men in the village. They led all the women and children to safety. All persons moved together in a linear manner holding on to bamboo poles. All the bamboo poles were linked together horizontally by the men . A selfless and courageous man led the group by testing the ground and avoided the invisible deep ponds below.

I can recall vividly that my father piggy-back me while my 2 years old brother sat on our neigbour ‘s shoulder. Cannot remembered what he looked like , but remembered he has an affectionat nick name ” Loa Di ( 老弟 in Hokkien . At that moment, it was still raining.

My older siblings went on to stay in a large community hall in a school building, while my mother and the younger siblings went to live with my mother’s cousin’s one-room flat in Lorong 7 , Toa Payoh.

We relished a dinner of hot Fried Hor Fun (Rice Noodles) served on those fragrant yellow tree bark wrappings.

Then there were smaller floods every December. The fish and tortoises were displaced from their ponds. Wonderful opportunities for children to capture and collect them into multiple large cement fish tanks. We would use white paint to write serial numbers on each tortoise collected. The number accumulate up to 400 over many years.  I had so many wonderful experience and playtime memories of those floods.





Kampong Wak Hassan: Memories of Times Past

3 09 2013

“It is sad to see that all that remains of it is just a road sign”, sighs Yunos Osman about the village of his birth, where he lived for the first three decades of his life. The sign bears the name ‘Kampong Wak Hassan’, now a 150-metre stretch of road named after the village and except for that there is indeed little to remind us of Yunos’ kampung by the sea.

The seawall at Kampong Wak Hassan.

The seawall at Kampong Wak Hassan.

This kampung was one of several coastal villages situated along a stretch of Singapore’s northern coastline along what is today Sembawang Road and southeast of Tanjong Irau, at the mouth of Sungei Simpang. The oldest of the villages, Kampong Wak Hassan, has a history that goes back to before the 1920s, when it was moved to the area.

The village had its origins in a coconut grove established in 1914 by Wak Hassan bin Ali, who lent his name to the village. Located where Sungei Sembawang had originally spilled into the Johor Strait (just west of what today is Sembawang Shipyard), it was relocated during the construction of the huge British naval base along the northern coastline (the base was to stretch some 6.5 kilometres along the coast from Woodlands to Sembawang).

Kampong Wak Hassan, photo courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

Kampong Wak Hassan, photo courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

The village was also the area’s longest surviving one, cleared only at the end of the 1990s. For Yunos, who left it in 1994, and other former residents, the attachment they have to the area is still strong. Many return from time to time to sit by the former village’s sea wall. A narrow strip of public land between the road and the wall serves as a place where bygone days can be relived.

Most of the village’s former residents now live in new kampungs, public housing estates with modern amenities. Another former resident and descendant of the village’s founder, Yazlyn Ishak, enjoys the convenient aspects of her new home. However, despite the conveniences they now enjoy, many would have preferred to not trade the days when the sea was their playground, when they woke to the sight of fishing boats returning to waters coloured by the sunrise, when their doors did not have locks, for the urban world they now live in.

New luxury housing development in the area.

New luxury housing development in the area.

For both Yunos and Yazlyn, who moved to Yishun in 1987, it is the ‘kampung spirit’ that set village life apart from their new environment. Yazlyn’s fondest memories are of the times the village came together during preparations for festive occasions and weddings.

The sea wall, now partially collapsed, is a physical reminder of their former home that both Yunos and Yazlyn hope will remain. The area is currently in the throes of redevelopment and the sea wall is the only remaining physical part of the kampung. On part of the land where the kampung once stood, a luxury residential development has already taken shape.

The sea wall still welcomes visitors very much in the same way as the village it protected once did and also serves to remind us of what walls in villages such as Kampong Wak Hassan were – they offered privacy and protection, but were never a barrier to the development of a community; something we find lacking in the new ‘villages’.

The area today.

The area today.

The changes we see taking place around the former Kampong Wak Hassan are perhaps also a reflection of how society has changed. In former times many would have lived by the sea out of necessity because it provided a livelihood. Living by the sea has now become a measure of the material success that the new society so craves.

NB. ‘Kampong’ is the older Malay spelling of ‘kampung’, usage of which has been retained in place names.


This article was published in the September/October 2013 edition of the Friends of the Museums bi-monthly magazine, Passage (see link).






The dragons live on

4 08 2013

It is indeed wonderful news that the last of the two dragon kilns in Singapore will see an extension to their tenure which should add at least nine more years to their lives. The future of the kilns, the Thow Kwang kiln and the Guan Huat kiln, beyond when their current leases run out (at end of 2014 and in early 2015 respectively), had very much been in doubt – the area is currently being developed into a CleanTech Park by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) (see also a previous post: A dragon draws breath).

A look into the belly of the dragon - the firing box aglow during a firing of the kiln.

A look into the belly of the dragon – the firing box aglow during a firing of the kiln.

What is perhaps more significant about the news is that the National Heritage Board (NHB) is behind the extension of the tenure, which will be for an initial term of three years and renewable for two further terms of three years each, giving due recognition to the heritage value of the kilns.

The Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln.

The Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln.

That the kilns are of heritage value, there certainly isn’t any doubt. They were once a feature of the area, as well as several other rural areas in Singapore, providing not only clay latex cups essential to the rubber plantations found across much of the rural landscape, but also employment opportunities which together with the estates, drew communities to the areas close to where they were set up.

The Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle is built around the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln which the Tan family has operated since 1965.

The kilns were established to satisfy demand for clay latex cups. Once demand fell as rubber plantations were cleared out for industrialisation, the kilns turned to making flower and orchid pots.

As many as nine such kilns were thought to have been established in the area, off a stretch of Jurong Road from the 13th to the 17th milestones. What did draw so many to the area was as much the demand for latex cups as it was the white Jurong clay which made a perfect raw material. The area where the two remaining kilns are found, do in fact have a pottery making history that goes beyond what essentially are kilns brought to Singapore by the Teochew community.  During a refurbishment of the Thow Kwang kiln a few years back, evidence was uncovered of what is thought was a Hokkien 3-chamber kiln next to the current kiln (see also: Into the belly of the dragon).

Stoke holes found of the earlier kiln on the site of the dragon kiln.

Stoke holes found of an earlier Hokkien kiln on the site of the Thow Kwang kiln.

Both the existence of kilns in the area and the evidence of the previous kiln does provide an important link to the rich heritage of the Jurong area, as well as to the area’s early development history, much of which has already been lost to the industrialisation of the area. For the owners of Thow Kwang kiln, Mr Tan Teck Yoke and his wife Mrs Yulianti Tan, the motivation is as much their interest in maintaining this link, as it is a desire to maintain a tradition passed down from Mr Tan’s father who bought the kiln in 1965.

Evidence of what is thought to be a Hokkien kiln.

Evidence of the stepped chamber of what is thought to be a Hokkien kiln.

The kiln is no longer commercially viable as it was when the elder Mr Tan purchased it – demand for latex cups vanished when the area’s rubber plantations did, and the Tan’s maintain it out of pure passion and it was with much happiness and relief with which they received the news which came at a press conferenced called by NHB at the kiln yesterday morning.

Fishing by a potter's hut.

A potter’s hut at Thow Kwang which was already demolished as it was on part of the land that was taken back by the Jurong Town Corporation.

At the press conference, which unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend as I was due to speak at a Queenstown Symposium, Mr Alvin Tan, Group Director (Policy) of the NHB, spoke of both the heritage and artistic value – the two remianing kilns being “a unique part of Singapore’s pottery history” as well as that the traditional wood-firing kilns are now used by clay artists to achieve a unique glaze on their work.

The natural beauty of wood fire kiln fired  pottery - the windward side is glazed by the ash and salt while the other side is left unglazed.

The natural beauty of wood fire kiln fired pottery – the windward side is glazed by the ash and salt while the other side is left unglazed.

The kilns are indeed a unique part of our history and it is my hope that they will remain a part of a Singapore in which we have already lost too much of.

Further information on Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln





The ‘Tombs of Malayan Princes’

16 07 2013

Lying somewhat obscurely and hidden at Jalan Kubor off Victoria Street is the Old Malay Cemetery. The cemetery, which is across Jalan Kubor from the Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah Cemetery, another old Muslim cemetery better know perhaps for an incident in 1972 involving two gunmen, is the oldest Malay burial ground in Singapore on record. Quite prominently identified on maps dating from the 1820s and 1830s, it is shown on J. B. Tassin’s Map (Map of The Town and Environs, Singapore) of 1836,  as the ‘Tombs of Malayan Princes’.

IMG_1525b

The burial grounds are described in a heritage trail guide put together by the National Heritage Board (NHB) on Kampong Glam:

MALAY BURIAL GROUNDS AT JALAN KUBOR

In the early maps of Singapore, these burial grounds were marked as “Mohamedan cemetery” and “Tombs of Malayan Princes”. According to 19th century reports, there were three distinct burial plots here – a 5 1/3 acre Malay cemetery, the 3-acre Sultan’s family burial grounds located within the Malay cemetery and a cemetery for Indian Muslims. In 1875, the municipality closed down the Malay cemetery but agreed to the Sultan’s request that his family could continue to use the royal burial grounds. The sultan’s burial grounds were walled in and the graves were situated in elevated plots. It was noted in the early 20th century that non-Muslims were not allowed to enter them.

An extract of Tassin's map of 1836 showing the location of the "Tombs of the Malayan Princes".

An extract of Tassin’s map of 1836 showing the location of the ‘Tombs of the Malayan Princes’.

More information on the cemetery also came to light during a recent talk by A/Prof Imran bin Tajudeen of the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Department of Architecture. A synopsis written for the talk also provides some insight into the area and the cemetery:

Several old settlements existed in Singapore besides the Temenggong’s estuarine settlement at Singapore River before Raffles’ arrival in 1819. Among these, Kampung Gelam and the Rochor and Kallang River banks were also sites of historic graveyards related to old settlements of Singapura both before and during colonial rule. The Jalan Kubor cemetery is the only sizable cemetery grounds still largely undisturbed. It belongs with Kampung Gelam history but has been excluded from the “Kampong Glam Conservation District” boundary, and is important for several reasons. It forms part of the old royal port town that was developed when Tengku Long of Riau was installed as Sultan Hussein in Singapore, and is aligned along the royal axis of the town. It is also the final resting place of several traders of diverse ethnicity from the old port towns of our region – neighbouring Riau, Palembang, and Pontianak, as well as Banjarmasin and the Javanese and Bugis ports further afield. Some of these individuals are buried in family enclosures, mausolea, or clusters. Conversely, there are also hundreds of graves of unnamed individuals from Kampung Gelam and surrounding areas. The tombstone forms and epigraphy reflect this immense socio-cultural diversity, and were carved in Kampung Gelam by Javanese and Chinese stone carvers, except for a number of special cases. Several large trees of great age are also found in this lush ‘pocket park’.





The Chinese Church – another National Monument in need

24 05 2013

The Bras Basah Road area is one blessed with several monuments which date back to the 1800s. It was at the heart of an area where four of these monuments were erected largely through the efforts of the early French Catholic missionaries. Built to serve the needs of the growing Catholic community in Singapore, as well as to provide education for those in need, the monuments were not built to be functional but also were expressions of the love and dedication that they had been built with. While two of the four, the buildings of the former St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI) and the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ), have since been converted for uses other than what they had been attended for, the other two, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd and the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, are still used as they had been meant to be.

The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Queen Street.

The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Queen Street.

The two are also ones which are also badly in need of repair and restoration. The plight of the Cathedral, Singapore’s oldest Catholic church building,  is of course a more dire one. Its structure, ravaged by both time and nearby construction activity, shows obvious signs of damage. Repairs which are due to commence sometime this year will cost the Cathedral  some S$40 million, of which it has raised only a quarter of. The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, the  second oldest Catholic church building, while less in need of repair, does still need to raise some S$10 million to have, among other work, its roof and termite infested wooden structures repaired.

An appeal for funds at the church's entrance.

An appeal for funds at the church’s entrance.

The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, built from 1869 to 1870, its steeple once featuring prominently in the area’s skyline alongside that of the Cathedral’s and the Chapel of CHIJ, and the dome of SJI, is one of several beautiful examples of the tropical adapted Neo-Gothic religious architecture the French Missionaries gave to Singapore (other examples include the CHIJ Chapel and Nativity Church). Built to house the growing Chinese and Tamil speaking Catholic community by a certain Fr. Pierre Paris (whose remains are buried in the church), the church also features some beautiful wrought iron work as well as stained glass panels (which are said to have been made by French artisans).

Ironwork at the church's entrance.

Ironwork at the church’s entrance.

A view towards the sanctuary behind which five long stained panels can be be seen.

A view towards the sanctuary behind which five long stained panels can be be seen.

A close-up of the five panels of stained glass.

A close-up of the five panels of stained glass.

A close-up of the central panel.

A close-up of the central panel.

A stained glass rose window.

A stained glass rose window.

The church is also one I have had many interactions with through the days of my youth. My parents who often referred to it as “Chinese Church” did on occasion take me there for mass and it was in this church as well as the Cathedral where I, as a schoolboy in SJI, would attend masses organised by the school – the school’s chapel was too small to accommodate the school’s population of Catholics. The church is also one I often associate with Catholic High School – the school having been housed at buildings within the church’s compound (now 222 Queen Street) and across the road (now SAM at 8Q).

A view through the grills of  the building which once housed Catholic High School.

A view through the grilles of the building which once housed Catholic High School.

The grills of the stairwell - the building is now used as an arts centre.

The grilles of the stairwell – the building is now used as an arts centre.

That it was commonly referred to as the “Chinese Church” stems from it having housed the Chinese Mission which saw to the needs of the various dialect speaking groups including the large number of Teochew speakers who remained with the church after the other communities moved out. The other communities included the Hakka and Cantonese speaking congregation who would in 1910 move to the Church of the Sacred Heart in Tank Road, and the small Hokkien Catholic community who moved to the Church of St. Teresa in 1929. Interestingly, the church also housed the the Tamil speaking community as Fr. Paris who built the church, also administered to that community having had a command of the Tamil language. The Tamil community was the first to move when the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes completed in 1888 was built to house them.

Fr. Paris' remains are buried in the church.

Fr. Paris’ remains are buried in the church.

In silent prayer.

In silent prayer.

There are several interesting facts about the church. One is that it once housed a pipe organ built by the renowned 19th Century French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1877 which unfortunately fell into disrepair and was removed in the 1960s. Another is that the boundary wall is thought to have been paid for by Napoleon III based on a 1914 report attributed to the then Bishop of Malacca (the diocese of which included Singapore), Monseigneur  Emile Barillon who served as Bishop of Malacca from 1904 to 1933.  The building as we see it today is also one that has been enlarged – the transept, sacristy and sanctuary were added in 1891-92. More on the building and the history of the church can be found at:

The boundary wall seen on Waterloo Street today - the original wall was said to have been paid for by Napoleon III of France.

The boundary wall seen on Waterloo Street today – the original wall was said to have been paid for by Napoleon III of France.

A look down the nave - the nave had originally had three sections, separated by huge hardwood columns which were removed in the 1890s.

A look down the nave – the nave had originally had three sections, separated by huge hardwood columns which were removed in the 1890s.

The choir loft at the end of the nave.

The choir loft at the end of the nave.

A wooden door at the transept entrance.

A wooden door at the transept entrance.

A view across the transept - the transept was added in 1891-92.

A view across the transept – the transept was added in 1891-92.

Another view down the nave.

Another view down the nave.

The tropical adapted neo-gothic design features windows which allow both light and ventilation into the church.

The tropical adapted neo-gothic design features windows which allow both light and ventilation into the church.

The statue of St. Peter at the entrance.

A statue of St. Peter at the entrance.

And one of St. Paul.

And one of St. Paul.





The King that lost its glory

23 04 2013

Seen from the top of Mount Faber is what once was a glorious King. The former King’s Dock, the pride and glory of the Singapore Harbour Board and the “largest dock east of the Suez” when it was completed a century ago, now lies abandoned, somewhat forgotten and never to be drained again; a cruise ship, the Superstar Virgo, making an assisted turn in front of it, seems to be facing it and mocking it.

IMG_1852

The dock, named King’s Dock (it had previously been referred to as “Admiralty Dock”), at its opening at 4.30 pm on 26 August 1913, by Sir Arthur Young the then Governor of Singapore, was undoubtedly a giant in its time. At its opening, there had only been one graving dock in the world that was larger – the Gladstone Dock in Liverpool. Over the four and the half years that it took to construct the dock, some 92,500 cubic metres of concrete weighing some 203,000 tonnes had been used. Some 21,300 tonnes of cement had also been used – it was said that if all the barrels of cement were laid out in a line, it would have stretched some 51 miles. In the Far East, the closest dock then in size to King’s Dock which measured 272 metres long by 30.5 metres wide and had a maximum flooded depth at its sill of 25.6 metres, was  the Admiralty Dock in Hong Kong. That measured 240 metres by 27 metres and was slightly deeper with 25.8 metres of water at its sill. The dock was indeed an amazing feat of engineering – at its completion, its 101.4 million litres of water could be discharged in just two hours by two huge steam engine driven pumps at a rate of 85,000 litres a minute.

IMG_1854

The dock came under the PSA when it was formed in 1963, following which shiprepair activities at Keppel Harbour came under the control of the then newly formed  Keppel Shipyard in 1968. The yard operated the dock up until 1996 when it moved to Tuas. The areas around the former shipyard have since undergone redevelopment as a luxury waterfront residential community and marina (see also: A sun rise on another strange horizon), and the plot around the former King’s Dock will be one of the last to be redeveloped as Corals at Keppel Bay, a 367 unit waterfront condominium project which will be developed by Keppel Land and designed by architect Daniel Libeskind. The project is expected to be launched in May 2013.

King's Dock at the time of its completion in 1913.

King’s Dock at the time of its completion in 1913.





Monoscapes: Dawn on the strait

18 04 2013

7.20 am on the last day of March 2013, a man is seen casting a net, dwarfed by the silhouettes of towering structures of the approaching new world. The casting of the net, was an economic activity on the strait which was common in times past. Economic activities of the modern world have in the last four decades or so, made their appearance on the strait, and have made the activities of the old world less relevant.

IMG_0200

The Straits of Johor where this photograph was taken, also known as the Tebrau Strait or Selat Tebrau, was once the domain of a group of sea dwellers, a nomadic people referred to as the Orang Laut (which translates to “Sea People”) or Sea Gypsies. The sub-group of the Orang Laut,  referred to as the Orang Seletar or in their own language, Kon Seletar, moved around on boats which also served as homes through mangroves which once dominated both sides of the strait, living off the waters. The boats they lived on were about 20 feet long with a stove at one end and their dwellings at the other end under an awning of sorts.

The suggestions are that the group, who had already established themselves in the area well before Raffles landed in 1819 – it was reported that there were an estimated 200 Orang Seletar living on some 30 boats in Singapore when Raffles landed, took its name from the Sungei Seletar or Seletar River – which once spilled into the strait (it has since been dammed at its mouth).

Another suggestion is that the group had in fact given their name to the river. Seletar is also a name that the northern coastal area of Singapore which included what is Sembawang today (Sembawang Road was originally called Seletar Road) became known as. Seletar Island which is close to the mouth of Sungei Simpang, had in fact hosted a community of Orang Seletar up to 1967 or so.

One of the last to settle on land, the Orang Seletar have today largely assimilated into the larger Malay society and a greater number of them now live on the Johor side of the strait. In Singapore, there were several individuals from the community who intermarried and settled in Kampong Tanjong Irau. The kampong was also known to be the home of some Orang Kallang, another Orang Laut group who were originally from the mouth of the Kallang River who had initially been displaced from places such as Kampong Kallang Rokok on the Kallang River, moving first to the Seletar area. The construction of the airbase at Seletar meant they had to move again and some chose to move westwards to Tanjong Irau.





Monoscapes: Kampong Wak Hassan beach

2 04 2013

What is possibly one of the last natural accessible stretches of sand along the coastline of the island of Singapore lies along the northern shoreline off Sembawang Park, stretching to the area off the former coastal villages of Kampong Wak Hassan and Kampong Tengah. Except for the attempt to “renew” the area around Sembawang Park which will result in it losing much of its previous charm, the shoreline in the area is one that is relatively untouched. Left in an almost natural state, the beach is one rich in character and in which the memories of a world that has ceased to exist can still be found. With property developments gaining pace in the area, it probably will not be long before the memories provided by the old but falling seawall and the natural beach, are paved over in the same way much of our previously beautiful coastline has.  Until then, it is one of the few places close to a world I would otherwise find hard to remember, in which I can find a rare escape from the concretised world that Singapore has too quickly become.

IMG_0171


About the former Kampong Wak Hassan:

The former village (kampong or kampung as it is spelt today), was one of several coastal villages that were found just to the east of Sembawang Road and the former British Naval Base, running along the coastline to Tanjong Irau at the mouth of Sungei Simpang. While the coastline played host to the nomadic inhabitants of the Straits of Johor, the Orang Laut, specifically the Orang Seletar, the kampong, stands as the oldest of the settlements in the stretch.

The village came to the location after work to build the huge naval base which ran along the northern coast from what is today Sembawang Road west to to the Causewayin the late 1920s displaced the the original Kampong Wak Hassan which grew from a coconut grove founded by Wak Hassan bin Ali at the original mouth of Sungei Sembawang (the area just west of what is today Sembawang Shipyard) in the 1914 (being granted rights by the Straits Settlements’ Commissioner of Lands to the use of the land stretching from the mouth of the river to Westhill Estate – which became Chong Pang Village).

While the base did provide residents of the village with employment opportunities, most of the villagers who may have originally been employed in rubber plantations which once occupied the lands around the coast and in the coconut groves, were involved in fishing.

The village besides being the oldest in the area, was also the longest lasting. While most of the inhabitants of the other villages were resettled at the end of the 1980s, the last inhabitants of Kampong Wak Hassan only moved out as recently as in 1998.


Previous posts related to Kampong Wak Hassan and the greater Sembawang area:

A place to greet the new day:






A sun rise on another strange horizon

23 03 2013

Another strange horizon where the sun has risen on is one to the west of the city, and one which includes the island of Sentosa, once a military garrison named Pulau Blakang Mati and now a playground on which one of Singapore’s two integrated resorts has been built. It is across from the western end of the island – close to the area where the western rock of the “Dragon’s Teeth Gate” or “Batu Berlayer” at Tanjong Berlayer which together with another rocky outcrop, marked the ancient entrance to the harbour, that we now see the rising of the sun against silhouettes which are of another strange and unfamiliar world.

Another strange horizon that the sun rises on is at the historic Keppel Harbour.

Another strange horizon that the sun rises on is at the historic Keppel Harbour. 6.51 am 22 March 2013.

Dominating the view across the horizon, are the six distinctive towers of the recently completed residential development “Reflections at Keppel Bay”, seemingly bowing to welcome the new day. That is the last of the developments to be completed on a 32 hectare site that was originally what may have been seen as a dirty and grimy shiprepair yard, Keppel Shipyard. The yard, besides being Singapore’s most established repair yard, boasted of having the oldest graving (dry) docks in Singapore, inheriting the docks from Port of Singapore Authority when its shiprepair operations were privatised in 1968.

Keppel Shipyard post 1983. Pulau Keppel in the foreground was developed after the land on which Victoria and Albert Docks to the east were taken over for an expansion of the Tanjong Pagar Container Terminal.

Keppel Shipyard post 1983. Pulau Keppel in the foreground was developed after the land on which Victoria and Albert Docks to the east were taken over for an expansion of the Tanjong Pagar Container Terminal (photo on the Keppel Offshore and Marine website).

At the point that the yard vacated the area , which was in 1996 to move to Tuas allowing the land on which it stood to be redeveloped, four graving docks remained. This included Singapore’s very first graving dock, Dock No. 1. This was built by a British mariner, Captain William Cloughton, on land purchased in 1855 from the Temenggong of Singapore at what had been called  Pantai Chermin or “Mirror Beach”. Completed in 1859, it was Cloughton’s second attempt at constructing a dock there. The dock came under the Patent Slip and Dock Company when that was formed in 1861. A second dock company, the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company, added a second dock close by at Tanjong Pagar in 1868, Victoria Dock. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 also saw demand for ship repair increase. Patent build their second dock, Dock No. 2 in 1870. Tanjong Pagar followed with Albert Dock in 1879. Both Albert and Victoria Docks were filled in at the end of 1983, when the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) took them over to allow an expansion of the container terminal at Tanjong Pagar.

Map of Singapore Harbour in the 1950s showing the Detached Mole, Inner Roads and Outer Roads.

Map of Singapore Harbour in the 1950s. The location of the Victoria and Albert Docks as well as Docks No. 1, No. 2 and King’s Dock can be seen in relation to the coastline.

The two rival dock companies were to merge in 1881. Patent, which had been renamed New Harbour Dock Company, came under the control of Tanjong Pagar. This private entity was expropriated by the colonial authorities in 1905, passing control of the docks to the Tanjong Pagar Dock Board. The Singapore Harbour Board took over the operations of the shipping related activities along the waterfront in 1913, launching King’s Dock, in the same year. At 272 metres in length, it was reportedly the largest graving dock east of Suez and the second largest graving dock in the world at the time of its build. A last graving dock was to be added in 1956 – the Queen’s Dock. The PSA took over from the Harbour Board in 1963, before control of the shiprepair docks were transferred to Keppel Shipyard in 1968.

Kings Dock at the time of its completion in 1913.

Kings Dock at the time of its completion in 1913.

The development of Reflections at Keppel Bay, on the plot of land west of Queen’s Dock, was preceded by other developments in the area vacated by Keppel Shipyard. On Keppel Island (or Pulau Keppel), a marina, the Marina at Keppel Bay was completed in 2008. The island is linked to the mainland by Keppel Bay Bridge, completed in 2007.  Pulau Keppel, which was previously known as Pulau Hantu (one of two Pulau Hantu or “Ghost Islands” in our southern islands group), was itself a more recent development. An extension to the shipyard was built on it in 1983 when Victoria and Albert Docks were transferred to the PSA for redevelopment. It was renamed Pulau Keppel at the same time. Another development in the area is another residential one, the Carribbean at Keppel Bay. This was completed in 2004 and occupies the area around the oldest docks, No. 1 and No. 2. The four rather historic docks, have been retained in some form, and are now water channels within the developments.

Singapore Harbour Board Map, c. 1920s.

Singapore Harbour Board Map, c. 1920s.

For the area, the year 1983 is one that will probably be remembered less for the development of the former Pulau Hantu or the loss of the historically significant Victoria and Albert Docks, but for the tragic events of the evening of the 29th of January.  On the evening of the fateful day, a drillship, the Eniwetok, leaving Keppel Shipyard, drifted into the Sentosa cable car system. Its drilling derrick became entangled in a cable causing two cabins to fall into the sea killing seven people. Another four were left dangling precariously with some 13 terrified passengers trapped inside. A daring but successful rescue attempt directed by our present Prime Minister, then Colonel Lee Hsien Loong, was mounted involving the use of two helicopters operating in high winds from which rescue personnel were winched down to the cabins to pull the 13 to safety, one-by-one.

It is no longer cranes, workshops, keel blocks and large ships around the dock that we see today (a photograph of a graving dock at the former Keppel Shipyard posted on the Captain’s Voyage Forum).

Waking up to a Keppel Harbour today in which there is little to remind us of the world that once was. With the docks now disguised to blend into the new world that has been built around them, we will soon forget what they were and the contribution they made to the development of the port on which much of Singapore’s early success was built. The four docks (as well as the two to the east) were also very much the stepping stones over which the shiprepair industry, an important source of jobs in the post independent economy of Singapore, was built. It is a fate that will probably befall the place where another leading pioneer shiprepair company, Sembawang Shipyard, now operates at. That yard, together with its historic docks built to support the huge British Naval Base, was the subject of a recent Land Use Plan released to support the much talked about Population White Paper. It is mentioned in the plan that “new waterfront land along the Sembawang Coastline being freed up once existing shipyard facilities are phased out” to provide land for new business activities and it may not be far away before we would have yet another strange horizon for the sun to rise up to.





Rediscovering the Pearl of Chinatown

21 02 2013

Stumbling across an old world nestled in the new brings great delight to me. It in a little pocket of space, not so distant from the rush and rumble of the streets of the urban world, where I did rediscover one, Pearl’s Terrace, set at the foot of the south facing slope of Pearl’s Hill.

A world seemingly far from the rush and rumble of the busy streets of nearby Chinatown.

A world seemingly far from the rush and rumble of the busy streets of nearby Chinatown.

Pearl’s Hill Terrace is a place one might have been reluctant to visit in times not so long ago. It was where the men in blue had ruled – where not just the home of the Police Force’s Headquarters as well as some important divisions of the force were located, but a place where police officers had called home.

Just a stone's throw away from the rush and rumble of Chinatown is a world that awaits rediscovery.

Just a stone’s throw away from the rush and rumble of Chinatown is a world that awaits rediscovery.

Towering over the slope today, one sees a long slab block of apartments, seemingly an isolated block of public housing that lay forgotten. Built by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) for, it is one of several physical reminders of a world that had existed in the days before we last saw the snake (the last Chinese Year of the Snake, 2001). That block today, 201 Pearl’s Hill Terrace, has seen new life breathed into it. Not longer are its mix of 1 and 2 bedroom apartments rented to the junior police officers it was built in the late 1960s to house, it has since 2006 been turned into a hostel. Its 336 units are now offered to white-collared workers and students for rent.

View of Chinatown 1973 showing the newly completed People's Park Complex. Beside and behind it the slab block of flats that served as the Police Quarters for junior officers, as well as the Upper and Lower Barracks, can be seen.

View of Chinatown 1973 showing the newly completed People’s Park Complex. Beside and behind it the slab block of flats that served as the Police Quarters for junior officers, as well as the Upper and Lower Barracks, can be seen.

The former Police Quarters at 201 Pearl's Hill Terrace.

The former Police Quarters at 201 Pearl’s Hill Terrace.

It isn’t so much in that block where the charms of the old and perhaps where the reminders of the previous world can be discovered, but in the two lower but grander looking large edifices it overlooks. One, the Upper Barracks, set on a terrace immediately below the block of flats is 195 Pearl’s Hill Terrace. The other is a slightly taller building, the Lower Barracks which is at street level facing Eu Tong Sen Street. As their names suggest, both had also served as policemen’s quarters. Completed in 1934, and built in a simplified Neo-Classical style typical of public buildings of the era, the Public Works Department erected the two to house the Sikh Contingent of the then Straits Settlements Police (SSP).

Windows from the past to the present.

The Upper Barracks provides a look through windows from the past to the present.

The Upper Barracks now looks a little run down and is perhaps is accorded with a little less dignity than it deserves having been, since 2007, turned into offices spaces for lease. It is however where many ghosts not just of its past, but also of Singapore’s colonial past await discovery. Built to house married policemen, it is laid out in a bright and airy way – reminiscent perhaps of the Old Hill Street Police Station, with its six spacious courtyards, open corridors, and generous ventilation openings – giving a sense of light and space within the confines of its stern looking exterior.

The Upper Barracks as seen today.

The Upper Barracks as seen today.

Wandering around the Upper Barracks certainly takes one back to a time when air-conditioned public building was a rarity with its generously provided ventilation openings and open corridors.

Wandering around the Upper Barracks certainly takes one back to a time when air-conditioned public building was a rarity with its generously provided ventilation openings and open corridors.

With the disbanding of the SSP soon after the war, the two barracks were turned over to other civic uses. More recently serving as the Police Headquarters, the Upper Barracks had in the time since also served to house the Ministry of Interior and Defence, from Singapore’s independence to 1970, when the Ministry was split into the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The MHA continued to be housed at the Upper Barracks until 1977 when it moved to Phoenix Park.

Courtyards were a common feature of buildings of the good old days.

Courtyards were a common feature of buildings of the good old days – the pull up bars left behind provides a reminder of the building’s past.

The Lower Barracks, to which there is currently no access to, is one which most would be familiar with being at street level. Built for unmarried policemen, the barracks housed several divisions of the law enforcement agencies under the MHA, the most recent being the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Other units it served as a home to include the Police ‘A’ Division, the Registry of Societies, the Anti-Vice Unit, and the Central Narcotics Bureau. Both the Upper and Lower Barracks were vacated in 2001 when the new Police Cantonment Complex opened. The Lower Barracks is at the present being refurbished for use as a students’ hostel which is opening this year.

The Lower Barracks around the time of it opening in 1934 (source: http://www.hometeam.sg/cmsmedia/).

The Lower Barracks around the time of it opening in 1934 (source: Singapore Police Force at http://www.hometeam.sg/cmsmedia/).

The Lower Barracks.

The Lower Barracks.

While the Upper and Lower Barracks have been put to what does seem like less than dignified uses, both have in fact been given conservation status. More on this and as well as an architectural description of the buildings can be found at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Conservation of Built Heritage website, excerpts of which follow:

Upper Barracks

“The 3-storey Upper Barracks was built at a higher level on the hill, facing towards the Singapore River. At almost 160 metres in length, it is one of the longest pre-war civic buildings in existence. The combination of its impressive length and elevated position gives it a commanding presence overlooking the Chinatown area. The overall design treatment is more geometrical, with the details of the building articulated to greater emphasize the length of the thirty-one bays of the building. The building also has its ends emphasised through the protrusion of the building bays, while the central entrance is made prominent with the use of pairs of pilasters, in contrast with the single pilasters elsewhere. The features combine to give an overall appearance of palatial grandeur”.

The Upper Barracks from a Singapore Land Authority tender document  in 2007 (source: http://www.sla.gov.sg/doc/new/AnnexB-5Feb2007.jpg).

The Upper Barracks from a Singapore Land Authority tender document in 2007 (source: http://www.sla.gov.sg/doc/new/AnnexB-5Feb2007.jpg).

Lower Barracks

“The 5-storey Lower Barracks are on street level. Set back from Eu Tong Sen Street with a generous plaza, it creates an impressive contrast to the prevalent two and three storey shophouses of Chinatown across the road. The building follows the Classical tradition of having the three parts of the building clearly articulated. The first storey gives a sense of firmness of appearance by having rusticated horizontal bands in the plaster-work. The top of the building is completed with a deep overhanging entablature with a strongly articulated geometric linear cornice line. The centre of the building is given greater emphasis through a shallow triangular pediment, surmounted by flag-poles”.

Branches on an exterior wall of the Lower Barracks. It is a reminder of a time when less was concealed and perhaps of the building's history serving several  branches of law enforcement agencies over the years.

Branches on an exterior wall of the Lower Barracks. It is a reminder of a time when less was concealed and perhaps of the building’s history serving several branches of law enforcement agencies over the years.

Besides the two barracks, there is also a smaller reminder of the old world close by that deserves to also be looked at, a two-storey villa which based on information at the URA Conservation of Built Heritage site, is though to have been built in the 1920s. Currently housing a education centre, the building at 18 Pearl’s Hill Terrace is also thought to have been built as accommodation for a higher ranking officer of the Police Force (or perhaps a high ranking prison warder – the terrace is known to have been where quarters of warders at the nearby Outram Prison (located where the former Outram Park flats were) were located. Most recently housing the Scene of Crime Unit, it has also housed a CID Training Centre and also from 1978 to 1988, the Syariah Court.

18 Pearl's Hill Terrace today.

18 Pearl’s Hill Terrace today.

There is more of the old world to be found just up the hill close to where the somewhat iconic and very distinctive Pearl’s Bank Apartments stands. The block erected in 1976, a subject matter all on itself, stands next to the crest of the hill where a Victorian era service reservoir is located. It is around it where a green oasis in the midst of the city can be found offering an escape which can be hard to find in the overcrowded streets below it. That, together with the four buildings which have found a new lease of life, is where a reminder of world that we have forgotten to appreciate does seem to exist – for the time being at least. While we do know that three of the buildings are being conserved, it may not be very long before the urban world stakes a claim on it.

A linkway from Pearl's Hill Terrace to the Lower Barracks.

A linkway from Pearl’s Hill Terrace to the Lower Barracks.

The area was part of a wider area which had been the subject of a URA planning exercise in the early 2000s. While in the plans developed then the area would still very much be a green space, developments planned for the area around – particularly at neighbouring York Hill across the Central Expressway (CTE) project that some 5,500 new homes will be built, together with landscaped deck across the CTE to link the two hills. While it is good to see that there are plans to open the wonderful green space up to the wider community, it does also mean that we may be seeing the last of a quiet and insulated space where the remnants of a charming and old world can still be found.

A jungle of letter boxes at 201 Pearl's Hill Terrace.

A jungle of letter boxes at 201 Pearl’s Hill Terrace.

Information on Pearl’s Hill and Pearl’s Terrace:

Previous planning considerations for the area:

Patterns of an old world.

Patterns of an old world.





Voices from a forgotten past

18 12 2012

I was fortunate to have been able to catch Royston Tan’s sequel to Old Places, Old Romances, at its premiere on Saturday morning. Old Romances, described by the director as ‘45 personalised love letters to forgotten places’, is not just about personal romances in and with each of the 45 places featured, but about continuing a love affair that has been rekindled by the making of Old Places for a Singapore we might otherwise have forgotten about. The 45 places are all, on their own, fascinating. They are places that many must have deep in their hearts in one way or another. While some, in the two years it took to complete the documentary, have become like that lost love, painfully present in our distant memories; there are many that are there for us to discover a love we might have not known is there.

The serenity of the grounds of the Japanese Cemetery Park.

The serenity of the grounds of the Japanese Cemetery Park.

An iron fence around a grave.

An iron fence around a grave.

One place that is featured in which I took the opportunity to find a new love in is the Japanese Cemetery at Chuan Hoe Avenue. The cemetery, said to be the largest burial ground for Japanese outside of Japan (it has also become the resting place for an estimated 10,000 war dead), is a space that I have found to be extremely interesting as a link to a world that we largely have forgotten about. It is however the tales that the sleeping residents tell that thoroughly fascinates me. The 910 graves found on the grounds does each have an interesting story to tell, and among it you will find tales of many extraordinary lives as well as insights into the early Japanese community in Singapore.

The peaceful setting of the Japanese Cemetery Park's grounds.

The peaceful setting of the Japanese Cemetery Park’s grounds.

Headstones in the cemetery.

Headstones in the cemetery.

The cemetery now serves as a memorial park, having been closed to burials in 1973. It does have a long history and counts as one of the oldest cemeteries still in existence in Singapore, tracing its history to the end of the 1800s. Its owes its founding to three brothel owners, Futaki Takajiro, Shibuya Ginji and Nakagawa Kikuzo, who in 1891 sought the colony’s approval to convert up to 12 acres of land including some of their own (they owned rubber estates in the area too) into a cemetery for the burial of destitute Japanese prostitutes, the Karayuki-san. Burials in the grounds do however predate its official establishment, Shibuya and Futaki had reportedly moved the remains of 27 Japanese from a mass grave to the grounds in 1888. Also in 1981, a survey conducted found three gravestones which dated back to 1889.

A Hinomoto Gurdian Deity erected as a memorial to 41 civilians who died under internment at Jurong while awaiting repatriation after the Japanese surrender.

A Hinomoto Gurdian Deity erected as a memorial to 41 civilians who died under internment at Jurong while awaiting repatriation after the Japanese surrender.

Another view around the cemetery.

Another view around the cemetery.

The cemetery is interesting also in contrasting it to the largest cemetery in Japan at Mount Koya or Koyasan which I also had the opportunity to visit recently. While many of the 200,000 graves in Koyasan are those who had a high station in life, many of the graves in the cemetery in Singapore are of those with a humble social status – at least a third of the graves belong to Karayuki-san.

A memorial to the war dead said to be intended as a representation of the Syonan Chureito that was erected during the occupation at Bukit Batok.

A memorial to the war dead said to be intended as a representation of the Syonan Chureito that was erected during the occupation at Bukit Batok.

A grave in the cemetery.

A grave in the cemetery.

The Japanese cemetery today occupies a 3 ha. (about a 7 acre) site. No longer set amongst rubber trees (a reminder of that is perhaps a cluster of rubber trees found in the grounds), it today finds itself in the middle of a residential neigbourhood. Stepping into the grounds, an air of serenity greets you. The well-kept cemetery is quietly beautiful and takes one far from the hustle of the urban world that is now at its doorstep. Much of what we see of the very well-kept grounds today is the result of effort undertaken in 1987 by the Japanese Association (which has maintained the cemetery since 1969) to beautify the cemetery in commemoration of its (the association’s) 30th Anniversary (post-war) using donations from the community as well as with assistance from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The serenely beautiful grounds of the cemetery draws many in search of a quiet place to read or to study.

The serenely beautiful grounds of the cemetery draws many in search of a quiet place to read or to study.

While the cemetery has a substantial number of graves of those of humble social status, there also also many graves of those of high social standing that can be found.

While the cemetery has a substantial number of graves of those of humble social status, there also also many graves of those of high social standing that can be found.

The largest structure we see in the grounds, is that of the beautifully constructed Prayer Hall or Worship Hall, built in 1986 on the site of two previous Saiyuji temple buildings. The Saiyuji was a Soto sect temple which traces its history to the arrival of its founding monk, Shakushu Baisen of Hyogo in 1892. The first building which was constructed in 1912 and was pulled down in 1960. It was replaced by a second building in which the altars of two disused temples in the city had found a home in. It is the second building that the secular Prayer Hall was built to replace.

The largest structure is a Prayer Hall built in 1986 which replaced a Saiyuji Temple.

The largest structure is a Prayer Hall built in 1986 which replaced a Saiyuji Temple.

Another view around the cemetery.

Another view around the cemetery.

The small cluster of rubber trees are the remnants perhaps of the 1000 trees the monk Baisen is said to have planted. That was done to honour the act of philanthropy of the cemetery’s founders, as well as to provide an income for the temple. The cluster can be found in the cemetery’s south-west corner. The corner is also where a set of three memorial stones erected by Japanese Prisoners of War in memory of those who lost their lives during the Pacific War can be found. Behind the memorial, a single concrete gravestone stands, marking the spot where the ashes of the 10,000 war dead, recovered from the Syonan Chureito in Bukit Batok, lie buried. The largest of the rubber trees is one of two heritage trees found on the grounds. The other is a non-fruiting lychee tree found at the side of the Prayer Hall (next to the caretaker’s quarters).

The three memorial stones erected by erected by Japanese Prisoners of War in memory of those who lost their lives during the Pacific War.

The three memorial stones erected by erected by Japanese Prisoners of War in memory of those who lost their lives during the Pacific War.

The concrete marker where the remains of the 10,000 war dead are buried.

The concrete marker under which the remains of the 10,000 war dead are buried.

The cluster of rubber trees - the largest has been designated a heritage tree.

The cluster of rubber trees – the largest has been designated a heritage tree.

The heritage lychee tree.

The heritage lychee tree.

It is in the gravestones of the voiceless that perhaps have the loudest voices. It is thought that a large proportion of the 494 graves of the identifiable graves which do not bear a date are those of the Karayuki-san. There probably were a lot more – a 1947 survey did show that there were 1270 graves and many of the graves of the Karayuki-san had simple wooden grave-markers (before they were replaced with stone) which could have decayed with age.

A substantial number of the graves with small headstones are thought to be those of the Karayuki-san, many of whom died penniless.

A substantial number of the graves with small headstones are thought to be those of the Karayuki-san, many of whom died penniless.

That a substantial number of the graves belonged to the Karayuki-san, provides an insight into the first Japanese nationals to arrive in Singapore – their first recorded arrival in 1877 coinciding with a period of development which began in the 1870s that provided opportunities which attracted many male immigrants to Singapore. The brothels that the Karayuki-san worked in were centered mainly in what is today the Bugis area (Bugis Junction), first on Malay Street, before spreading to Malabar, Hylam and Bugis Streets with as many as 109 brothels recorded in 1905 employing some 633 Karayuki-san. It was in the area that the early Japanese community was also to establish themselves – Middle Road was referred to by the community as ‘Chuo Dori‘ or ‘Central Street’.

Malay Street at the turn of the 20th century. The street hosted the first brothels with Karayuki-san.

Malay Street at the turn of the 20th century. The street hosted the first brothels in which Karayuki-san worked.

The entire area including Hylam Street soon became a red-light area.

The entire area including Hylam Street soon became a red-light area.

Besides the many graves of the voiceless, there are several (some are memorials rather than graves) which belong to notable personalities. One is the grave of Count Hisaichi Terauchi, a Field Marshal who was the Supreme Commander of Southern Command of the Japanese Imperial Army which swept across South-East Asia. Count Terauchi died in Johor as a Prisoner of War in 1946 and his ashes were sent back to his family in Japan. It is thought however that some of his remains and his insignia is however buried in the cemetery.

The grave of Count Hisaichi Terauchi, a Field Marshal who was the Supreme Commander of Southern Command of the Japanese Imperial Army.

The grave of Count Hisaichi Terauchi, a Field Marshal who was the Supreme Commander of Southern Command of the Japanese Imperial Army.

One grave that does have a fascinating story to tell is that of a certain John Matthew Ottoson. Described as an adventurer, Ottoson is does seem to have been almost a legendary life of adventure. Better known by his native name Otokichi, his adventures started at the age of fourteen in 1832 when he found himself cast adrift off the coast of Japan on a storm damaged ship, the Hojunmaru, on which he was a deckhand. He survived, but not before a fourteen month ordeal which took him across the Pacific to the shores of what is today Washington State. He and two other survivors found washed ashore and soon found themselves in the care of the native Makah tribe.

The Prayer Hall built in 1986.

The Prayer Hall.

The next chapter in his adventures took him first to London, then to Macau, and on to Shanghai. It was in Macau that he is thought to have had a hand in the first translation of the Bible into Japanese. He became a British subject in the process, returning to Japan twice as a translator in the service of the British. His second return in late 1854 is significant in that it led to the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Amity between the United Kingdom and Japan. He married a Malay woman later in life and eventually found himself residing in Singapore where he was a trader in local farm products from 1862 until his death in 1867 at the age of 49. In 2004, Otokochi’s remains which had been relocated from the original burial site were found to be at Choa Chu Kang. The remains were exhumed and cremated. Some of his ashes were brought to Japan with a portion is kept in the charnel next to the Prayer Hall at the Japanese Cemetery Park. More about the life of Otokichi can be found in this Japan Times article (click here).

A charnel containing the remains of the first Japanese resident of Singapore Otokichi alias John M. Ottoson.

A charnel containing the remains of the first Japanese resident of Singapore Otokichi alias John M. Ottoson.

Among the other graves and memorial stones of the notable is one that is a memorial to novelist Futabatei Shimei (二葉亭 四迷) in the south-eastern corner of the grounds close to Count Terauchi’s grave. Futabatei Shimei’s work published in 1887, Ukigumo (Floating Clouds) is regarded as Japan’s first modern novel and he was returning from Russia as a special correspondent for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper at the time of his untimely death in 1909. The memorial has apparently been a venerated spot, particularly with visiting Japanese newsmen. Next to the memorial, the unique gravestone belonging to the grave of Kantaro Ueyama can be found. Kantaro Ueyama, who perished in a plane crash at Sembawang in 1942, was the first son of inventor of the mosquito coil, Eiichiro Ueyama.

The memorial to novelist Futabatei Shimei.

The memorial to novelist Futabatei Shimei.

The unique lantern like gravestone of Kantaro Ueyama who died in a plane crash at Sembawang in 1942.

The unique lantern like gravestone of Katano Ueyama who died in a plane crash at Sembawang in 1942.

Along the northern boundary of the grounds is the memorial plaza where there is a cluster of memorial stones placed to commemorate several well known figures. One is that of another somewhat legendary figure, a Terengganu born Japanese bandit popularly known as Harimau (Malay for Tiger), Harimau Malaya (Tiger of Malaya), Raja Harimau (King Tiger). Immortalised by the 1943 Japanese film Marai No Tora (マライの虎) or ‘Tiger of Malaya’, he was apparently notorious along the East Coast of Malaya and Southern Thailand where he led a band of some 3,000 Malay bandits and portrayed as a Robin Hood like character. Harimau, whose family had run a barber shop in Terengganu’s motivation in leading the bandits was to seek revenge for a sister Shizuko who was murdered by a Chinese mob angered by the Manchurian Incident. He later served as an agent for a Japanese Imperial Army intelligence unit and succumbed to Malaria at Tan Tock Seng Hospital in Singapore at the age of 32 on 17 March 1942. His remains are thought to have been buried in a Muslim cemetery near the hospital.

The memorial to Harimau Tani Yutaka.

The memorial to Harimau Tani Yutaka.

Besides the grave-markers that have vanished with time and the Saiyuji over which the Prayer Hall has been built, there would have also been a two chamber crematorium in the grounds of the cemetery that was also used for non-Japanese cremations and a Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, of which there are no more traces of. The crematorium which began as a wood-fired one is possibly the first crematorium to be built in Singapore having come up in the first decade of the 1900s. For a period of time following the end of the war, the crematorium was leased to the Singapore Casket Company.

The crematorium at the Japanese Cemetery seen prior to the war (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas).

The crematorium at the Japanese Cemetery seen prior to the war (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas).

Despite not being fond of hanging around cemeteries, I did spend 3 hours or so at this one. The cemetery is one that I will certainly visit again for the little piece of calm in the storm that has swept across modern Singapore it offers and to perhaps seek more tales that the gravestones hold. The Japanese Cemetery Park (日本人墓地公園 or Nihonjin Bochi Koen) is located at 22 Chuan Hoe Avenue and is about a 300 metre walk in from the junction of Chuan Hoe Avenue with Yio Chu Kang Road. The park is open to visitors from 8 am to 7 pm daily.

Stone slabs with the names of army officers killed during the war.

Stone slabs with the names of army officers killed during the war.

Dressed jizo statues at the entrance to the cemetery.

Dressed jizo statues at the entrance to the cemetery.

The park is popular with Japanese visitors to Singapore.

The park is popular with Japanese visitors to Singapore.





Chasing the dragon

3 05 2011

(Liao Jiekai’s Red Dragonflies that is)!

I recently attended a special screening of Liao Jiekai’s celebrated Red Dragonflies, which starts a theatrical run at Filmgarde Iluma from 5 May 2011, during which an introduction was given by the Director himself and the two Co-Producers Tan Bee Thiam and Lyn-Anne Loy, who provided a little insight to the background and making of the low budget film. What was interesting to learn was that Liao, sees himself as a teacher rather than a filmmaker (he lectures at the School of the Arts), and considers filmmaking a hobby of sorts. That I guess frees him from the conventions of commercially driven filmmaking, and allowing him to focus on the expression of himself in the 96 minute movie. The movie is by no means one that can be described as entertaining, it is, as Tan mentioned, not a movie that is very watchable if it is entertainment that one is after, and the absence of much dialogue does make it a little heavy going at times.

Red Dragonflies, a film by Liao Jiekai that revolves around three teenagers' exploration of a disused railway line, with begin a theatrical run on 5 May 2011 at Filmgarde, Iluma.

The film does start off with giving the audience the sense that it would be painfully slow-moving. The opening scene brings in the main character, a young artist Rachel, who has returned to Singapore from New York. It is the scene that sets the tone for the rest of the movie, in which a lack of dialogue did is offset by the mood the scenes sought to convey. The next scene had Rachel walking by a old shop stepping into it and sitting on a chair, a primer perhaps for the theme of the movie which the following scene in which she visits her grandmother, does bring in. The scene in which past is juxtaposed with the present, centres on memories evoked by the familiarity of what was around her. In that laughter and the carefree days of Rachel childhood, seemed to be held in contrast with the almost melancholic silence of the present which Rachel finds herself in.

It wasn’t difficult for me to identify with the movie or its theme. A large part of the blog I maintain does touch on much of the same theme: a juxtaposition of past and present, and an attempt to reconcile the carefree days of a softer and very different Singapore that I interacted with in younger days with the cold modern it has become in my adulthood in which very little is left in which I can identify with. My relationship with my surroundings has in fact changed in a way that provokes a longing to go back to that world in which I had planted my roots in.

The juxtaposition of past and present is used to convey the contrasts in relationships and the strain that time and space may have had on them.

A significant part of the movie revolves around an attempt to rediscover the joys and the carefree days of youth, centring on the exploration of a disused railway track, a track that I have myself taken to discover in the present day to rekindle memories of a greener and rural Singapore that has long disappeared. We are taken through what has become for me scenes that are familiar as well as ones through a dense forested part of the old Jurong Railway Line that has been overtaken by nature. It is not so much in the scenes that bring the movie out, but in going back to the adventures of simpler days of youth, that a contrast is made with the a rediscovery of the past in the complication of living the present, as Rachel seeks to rediscover and rekindle relationships that have changed with once familiar faces and surroundings. Overall, it is a movie that will be appreciated for its expression and one that perhaps can be appreciated only for what it is and what it represents. It is a movie that captivated me throughout as I sought to discover the mystery behind each and every scene, and one that left me spellbound and intoxicated in a way that perhaps one that chasing the dragon would.


Synopsis

Rachel and her two friends explore an abandoned railway track that runs through a dense forest, but an unforeseen incident brings their little adventure to an abrupt end. Elsewhere, 26-year-old Rachel rekindles an old friendship with a high school friend. When a little boy from her past reappears, Rachel finds herself retracing a trail of iron and wood. Wistful and mysterious, the film depicts a world littered with incongruity, absences and traces of childhood dreams.

(from BAFICI programme notes)
A young artist goes back to Singapore from New York. She returns home, to old friends and familiar places. Not everything fits in. Memories and friendships are like roots but also like mysteries, and like such, they’re inexact, slippery, at times revealing, at times mere detours. Two teenage boys and a girl, all in their school uniforms, walk near a train track around an area of abundant vegetation; their gait is an exploratory one, charged with fears, amazements and new things (yes, there’s echoes of Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me) One of them gets lost. In that loss, and in the memories of a grown woman, there’s a sense of unease, a search, and the chance of meeting with the past and the people from it. A film of derivations with a subtle and singular sensibility, Liao Jiekai’s opera prima leads us to discuss the always hard to accomplish –even to mention– idea of cinema as poetry, which in this case is made of soft connections, juxtapositions, rhymes, and bars, that seem as free as necessary.

Awards:

Special Jury Prize, International Competition: Jeonju International Film Festival 2010
International Competition: Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Films 2010 (BAFICI)
FIPRESCI Competition: Hong Kong International Film Festival 2010
Winds of Asia Competition: Tokyo International Film Festival 2010
Göteborg International Film Festival 2011


Filmmaker Biography
Liao Jiekai is an award-winning filmmaker and artist based in Singapore. He received his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and lectures at the School of the Arts. His debut feature length film, Red Dragonflies won the Special Jury Prize at the Jeonju International Film Festival, especially noted for discovering independent filmmakers. The film was also selected for international competition in the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Films (BAFICI), Asia New Talent competition in the Shanghai International Film Festival and Winds of Asia-Arab Competition, Tokyo International Film Festival. Most recently, he is the contributing artist to Nedko Solakov’s The Flying Method of an Artist with a Fear of Flying at the Singapore Biennale 2011. He is a founding member of 13 Little Pictures and his active involvement in the Singapore film scene brought him credentials as producer and editor of several independent films.

About 13 Little Pictures
Driven by a love of cinema, 13 Little Pictures is a film collective bound by the spirit of collaboration and shared hope of creating films with unique directorial visions. Making films and friends at the same time, 13 Little Pictures works together in the belief that taking this journey together—challenging, inspiring, helping, and supporting each other—fosters a sense of community in our individual exploration of the possibilities of cinema. To date, 13 Little Pictures has made more than 15 feature and short films that have screened to international audiences in Rotterdam, Berlin, Vancouver, Tokyo, Bueno Aires, and more.


Red Dragonflies opens 5 May 2011 exclusively at Filmgarde Cineplex, Iluma. Tickets are available for online booking from today (3 Mat 2011).


[Photos and trailer courtesy of 13 Little Pictures]








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