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.


 





Toa Payoh and a gunman called Hun Cher

5 07 2014

It probably is hard to imagine Toa Payoh holding a reputation for being a hotbed of criminal activity – so much so that it was labelled as the “Chicago of Singapore” – a reference to the US city’s long-held reputation as the crime capital of the world. While this reputation had its origins in the squatter settlements in pre-public housing estate Toa Payoh when the rural setting made it possible for gangsterism to thrive such that few from the outside dared to venture in; its reputation stuck with its name well into the first decade of its new life as the first Housing and Development Board (HDB) planned satellite town.

While much of Toa Payoh’s reputation did have its roots in the gangland activities that did go on, it wasn’t so much the incidents involving Toa Payoh’s gangsters that were perhaps most visible but those that did involve individuals or small groups of criminals in Toa Payoh. One of the Toa Payoh’s most famous crimes, the ritual murders committed in a Toa Payoh flat by Adrian Lim and his accomplices in 1983, did happen well after the satellite town had in fact shed its reputation.

It was well before that incident however that another that had the makings of a Hollywood style shootout, made the headlines in 1970, when Singapore’s second most wanted man, Tan Chiang Lai, found himself cornered in a flat in Lorong 5. Tan, who was also known by a nickname “Hun Cher”, was being hunted down by police after he had shot and killed a watch dealer and proprietor of Thim Lock Watchmakers, Mr Fong Tian Lock  in an attempt to rob Mr Fong’s North Bridge Road shop for which Tan and his five accomplices made away with just seven watches.

The robbery on 17 July 1970, was one of a series of armed robberies over a period of two months that Tan had been involved in, starting with a robbery of a shopkeeper of $4200 at Chulia Street on 6 June 1970. The list of robberies also involved a provision shop in Tanjong Pagar, gamblers in a house at 9th Mile Changi Road, the Golden Ringo Nightclub at Outram, and a gambling den in Lorong K Telok Kurau. Constantly on the move to avoid being caught, the Police finally caught up with him and an accomplice Sim Thiam Huat on 27 July, when in a desperate search for accommodation they fell for a trap that was laid by the police when they moved into a police detective’s flat in Block 64 Toa Payoh.

Having cleared the flats around the fourth storey unit of their occupants, the police had the flat surrounded late in the night and with the help of teargas grenades, they attempted to flush the two out just past midnight. Sim surrendered after being bundled out by Tan from the flat’s balcony at its rear. Tan himself chose not to surrender, shooting and killing himself, bringing to an end to his short but violent career in armed robbery. Sim, who was also Tan’s best friend, was sentenced to six years in jail and six strokes of the rotan in August 1970 for the role he played in the Outram Park robbery and a concurrent sentence of five years in jail for the Tanjong Pagar robbery.

There were to be several more incidents involving gunmen, including one the culminated in a showdown at a cemetery in Jalan Kubor in December 1972 and another involving the most wanted man, Lim Ban Lim, who was shot dead in a shootout at Margaret Drive in November 1972, having been on the run for nine years. The spate of violent robberies in the early 1970s led to the harsher penalties being introduced for gun offences. The new laws, introduced in 1973, stipulates a mandatory death penalty for anyone using or attempting to use a firearm to cause injury – this did seem to work and by the time Toa Payoh had shed its long time crime tainted image as the 1970s drew to a close, gun related offences did also appear to be on the wane.

One of these units at Block 64 was where Hun Cher took his life early one July morning in 1970.

One of these units at Block 64 in Toa Payoh was where Hun Cher took his life early one July morning in 1970.





A view from a sandbar

5 06 2014

It was against the backdrop of the drama of a passing storm playing out in the rapidly changing light of the morning, that I found myself standing on a sandbar four nautical miles out into the Singapore Strait.

Terumbu Pempang Laut and beyond, seen in the light storm coloured morning.

The view from a sandbar in the light of the storm coloured morning.

The view from a sandbar, four nautical miles out.

A rainbow appears as the weather clears.

Walking where few now thread.

Walking where few now tread.

Reflections on the morning.

Reflections on the morning.

The scene revealed by the transformation of night into day in the darkness and light of the storm coloured morning was one that did seem rather surreal, disfigured by the craggy interventions of the natural world juxtaposed against the human interventions that now dominate Singapore’s nearshore.

The morning's drama.

The morning’s drama.

Light in the darkness.

Light in the darkness.

Juxtapositions of the natural world against the human world.

Juxtapositions of the natural world against the human world.

Spot light on the interventions of men that now dominate Singapore's nearshore.

A natural spotlight on the interventions of men that now dominate Singapore’s nearshore.

It wasn’t quite what I had intended in interrupting that much needed weekend’s slumber. The excursion was one to have a feel for the patch reef, Terumbu Pempang Laut, to which the sandbar was a part of, as well as the island to its south, Pulau Sudong, regular visitors from which it would once have hosted.

The changing hues in the early hours of the day as seen from the boat.

The changing hues in the early hours of the day as seen from the boat that left at 6am.

A northward view across the reef.

A northward view across the reef.

The expanded Pulau Sudong, as seen from Terumbu Pempang Laut.

The expanded Pulau Sudong, as seen from Terumbu Pempang Laut.

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It was as close as one could get to Pulau Sudong, now part of a restricted military zone. The island, once itself not much more than perhaps a spit of sand that was part of the surrounding reefs, had been one of several islands off Singapore’s south-western shoreline on which stilted villages of the sea had decorated.

Pulau Sudong in the 1950s (source: National Archives of Singapore Online).

The dwellings on stilts arranged around the island’s foreshore, had been on that had evolved from buoyant mobile dwellings of those, the sea nomads from the pre-Raffles era, who the occupants had inherited the seas from. Living on the sea, the nomads and their descendants also lived off it; the waters and the reefs around the island, contributing much to their livelihoods.

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Even without there being a source of fresh water, the island at its height, supported a community of several hundred and boasted of schools (there apparently were two in the 1940s), a clinic, a community centre and a police post.

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The reefs, teeming with marine life and exposed as the tide receded, was where life on the islands might have often extended to. Men would be seen laying their bubu, traps made by the fishermen themselves out of strips of bamboo, weighing them down with corals that the reef did provide. The womenfolk also found their way to the reefs, seeking a harvest of both edible produce of the sea and items such as corals that could be sold.

Corals were harvested by the women of Pulau Sudong.

Corals were harvested by the women of Pulau Sudong.

Life as the reefs might have seen, is quite wonderfully captured in words by Chew Soo Beng, who in “Fishermen in Flats” (1982), describes the activity on a Terumbu Raya, a reef to Sudong’s west:

Groups of women row their kolek to different parts of the exposed portions of the reef to gather sea produce. In the past, this activity was performed with considerable gaiety, seeming to be an enjoyable activity. Everyone carried a basket and unmarried girls wore bunga raya (hibiscus flower) in their hair.

In teams of threes or fours, usually to form a line, they combed the reef for agar-agar (an edible seaweed), gulong, the trepang and a variety of beche-de-mer. When both the tide and sun were low, the gather chatter of the women at work would drift into the village where the men, excluded from the offshore merriment, conversed beneath their favourite pondok.

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The reefs see a different merriment today. The chatter of women gathering in the harvest is now replaced by the excitement of sea birds seeking a harvest of their own. Human chatter is now heard on occasion, of those who seek only to harvest what the reef can tell them – as an part of a continuous marine survey that the tireless Ria Tan of the Wild Shores of Singapore champions.

The merriment the reefs see today are those of the sea birds seeking their harvest from the sea.

The merriment the reefs see today are those of the sea birds seeking their harvest from the sea.

It was with the group that I ventured out to the sandbar. Of the finds of the morning’s harvest, the one that did perhaps trigger the greatest excitement was a sighting of a small giant fluted clam. This find, along with what else the reef did reveal, is described by Ria in Terumbu Pempang Laut check up in her blog, which is a glorious celebration of life on our shores.

The giant clam that raised the level of excitement.

The giant clam that raised the level of excitement.

On the reef's edge.

On the reef’s edge.

One thing that Ria does point out in her post that did get my attention, is that life around the shores of the reefs and the islands might to come to an end. The reefs, along with the cluster that it belongs to which also includes Terumbu Pempang Tengah to its immediate east and  Terumbu Pempang Darat, face an uncertain future. The Land Use Plan, released to support the less than popularly received Population White Paper in early 2013, does show that the area is one where future land reclamation work could take place.

Possible future reclamation poses a threat to the future of the reefs (and the islands).

Possible future reclamation poses a threat to the future of the reefs and the islands (source: Land Use Plan 2013).

If that does happen, the reefs will be incorporated into part of a land mass that will include the Bukom cluster of islands and the Hantu twins, leaving the only ghosts haunting our southern shores (hantu translates into “ghost” in Malay) – there was also another Pulau Hantu that has since been renamed as Keppel Island, that of lost islands and reefs, and of a people and a way-of-life that will never again be seen.

The future of many of the islands as individuals such as Pulau Jong, are also under threat from the Land Use Plan.

The future of many of the southern islands as individual islands, such as Pulau Jong (seen here with Pulau Sebarok), are also under threat from the Land Use Plan.

Life on Pulau Sudong, one of the last of the Southern Islands to host a resident population, did itself come to an abrupt end in early 1980. By then, reclamation that added some 174 ha. to its area, had already decimated the once rich fishing grounds that surrounded it, prompting a move for many in the late 1970s to seek a new beginning in Tanah Besar as the mainland was referred to, completing an assimilation into the Malay world.

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Initially intended as a recreational island, Pulau Sudong was closed to the public in mid-1982. Used since as part of an air force live-firing area that also includes Pulau Pawai and Pulau Senang to its south, what ghosts it may have inherited from its long discarded past, may also have abandoned it.

Reflections off a lagoon at low tide.

Reflections off a lagoon at low tide.

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The final mile

12 05 2014

A last reminder perhaps that’s left of an age when distance markers played an important role in Singapore is a milestone marker that was uncovered quite recently, having long been hidden behind a tree. Discovered by Akai Chew, who recently posted his findings ‘On a Little Street in Singapore‘, the granite marker lies half buried, it’s top half carved with the number ‘3’ – which does, in the position it is found in, correspond to the 3rd Milestone of what would have been a main thoroughfare taking one out of the city towards rural Singapore.

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The use of ‘milestones’ as markers of a location, had by the time I came into the world, become a widespread practice in Singapore. This was possibly somewhat of a necessity, given the absence of recognisable landmarks and a clear system for addresses in many of the rural areas. It was common to hear places referred to by where they were distance-wise along a particular thoroughfare, a practice that for many who developed a habit of doing it, is being carried to this very day (examples: 9th Milestone Bukit Timah, 6th Milestone Serangoon) long after the introduction of the metric system got us thinking in kilometres.

Milestones markers, when I did became aware of them from the many drives my father made across the causeway, were not quite as noticeable in Singapore as they were along the Malaysian trunk roads. There, the markers provided a measure of the distances along points along the road to the next main town or towns. This did help in estimating the time it would take to arrive at a destination, and making those seemingly endless drives a little less monotonous.

One thing that I did remember from those days, was that ‘Singapore’ was a distance of 17 miles by road from Johor Bahru – the distance being measured to the General Post Office or G.P.O. (what is today more commonly referred to as the Fullerton Building). For an interesting insight into how this did come about, please visit James Tann’s blog, which does have a post on the subject of ‘mile zero': The geographic centre of Singapore.





A window into a Singapore we have discarded

6 05 2014

It may well be on the island from which the early building blocks of modern Singapore was obtained that we will find the last reminders of a way of life the new world it built has rendered irrelevant. The island, Pulau Ubin or the granite island, is the last to support the remnants of a once ubiquitous village community, a feature not only of the island but also much of a rural Singapore we no longer see.

A window into a forgotten way of life.

A window into a forgotten way of life.

While in all probability, the days for what’s left of the island’s village communities are numbered; there remains only a handful of villagers who now number in their tens rather than in the low thousands at its height and who hold stubbornly on to a way of life that will have little appeal to the generations that will follow; there at least in a well preserved village house, House 363B, that little reminder of a time and place that does now seem all too far away.

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House 363B is typical of a Chinese village dwelling, with a zinc roof, and a cemented base supporting half cemented and half wooded walls. Outside it, rubber sheet rollers tell us of days when much of the rural landscape had been dominated by rubber trees. On the inside, there is a collection of once familiar household items. These include a food safe – complete with receptacles placed under its four legs to keep insects out (a necessity in homes in the pre-refrigerator era), classic furniture, foot-pedal sewing machines, dachings and other implements of that forgotten age. It is in the house where life as it might have been, sans life itself, is being showcased, providing the generations of the future with a glimpse of how we did once live.

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The house is perhaps symbolic of what we in Singapore hope for Ubin, not just an ready made escape from the brave new world we have embraced just a short boat ride away, but in its wild, undisturbed, and unmanicured state, a world where we can relive a life we have discarded.

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Ubin does of course offer potentially more than that. The authorities do seem to be committed to not only keeping it in its rustic state for our future generations, but are also taking efforts to regenerate and protect its natural environment. This along with the noises being heard on an interest to keep what is left of the island’s heritage, the efforts taken in developing environmentally friendly solutions in the provision of electrical power for the island, and the attempts to engage Singaporeans on what they would like to see of Ubin (see also Enhancing Pulau Ubin’s heritage and rustic charm), does give us hope that Ubin will not become another part of a forgotten Singapore that will be lost.

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On the subject of Pulau Ubin, the Tua Pek Kong Temple on Pulau Ubin (Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Ting Da Bo Gong Temple or 乌敏岛佛山亭大伯公庙), hosts an annual festival in honour of the deity over 6 days this year from 12 to 17 May 2014. It is well worth a visit there to soak up an atmosphere of a traditional religious celebration in a setting that is only available on the island.

The highlights of the celebration, besides the religious ceremonies, include Teochew Opera performances on each of the first five evenings (12 to 16 May) at 7pm and one in the morning of the last day at 10 am, as well as a Getai performance on the last evening that does draw a huge crowd. Free boat rides to Ubin will also be offered during the festival evenings from 6.30 pm (to Ubin) and up to 10 pm (from Ubin). More information on this year’s festival can be found at this site.

More information on previous Getai and Teochew Opera performances on Pulau Ubin can be found at the following posts:


 





A sunrise over the lost country estate

10 04 2014

6.57 am, 3 April 2014, the colours of the new day, as was seen from Mount Rosie Road, close to it junction with Chancery Lane. It was in this vicinity that what must have been a very grand wooden bungalow from which the area got its name, Mount Rosie, had once stood as the centrepiece of a vast country estate.

Mount Rosie Sunrise

Built in the 1880s as the residence of Mr. Theodore Heinrich Sohst, a German trader who once served as the Acting German Consul to Singapore as well as the Honorary President of the Teutonia Club, the bungalow, as was the country estate it stood as the centrepiece of, was named after Mrs Sohst, Rosie de Souza who was of Eurasian heritage and whom he married in 1868.

The grand residence, described as a “princely establishment”, was built to be spacious and airy with generously large verandahs arranged around it, in the fashion of the stately homes of the well-heeled that did come up in the early days of Singapore. It had a magnificent position from which it commanded a view of the expansive estate, having been placed “on top of a hill with a fine stretch of open country around it”, and it must have been been a sight to behold, a focal point not just of the estate, but also of social life as it had been known to be.

Coming ashore in 1865, Mr. Sohst’s career here spanned a significant proportion of the history of the trading firm, Puttfarcken, Rheiner and Company, having arrived just seven years after it was established, serving as its Managing Partner at the time of its liquidation in 1906 when it had been renamed Puttfarcken and Company.

With the passing of Mr Sohst in January 1912, there were to be several more occupants of the bungalow. One was a Mr. Frank Adam, the General Manager of the Straits Trading Company, before it was first leased, from the early 1920s to the War Office, reportedly at a large cost. This was for use as a temporary residence of the British General Officer Commanding (GOC) of Malaya and it was during this time that Mount Rosie was renamed as Flagstaff House, in 1925.

With the completion of a purpose built Flagstaff House in 1938 (now Command House), the bungalow passed into the hands of Raffles College. As Mount Rosie Hostel, it was used as to house female students at the college (and later the University of Malaya) until 1958. It was used temporarily as a home for old folks after this, when a place was needed to house residents of Nantina Home in Queen Street, when that was closed in 1959.

A view of what Mount Rosie did look like can be found in this article, $100,000 House for Malays’s G.O.C., in the 14 March 1937 edition of The Straits Times.





Light after dark: Twilight falls on West Hill

24 03 2014

7.44 pm, Sunday 23 March 2014. Night falls on an area around where West Hill had once stood, at  the end of extremely hot day in Singapore.

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The now forgotten West Hill was a relatively high point that rose above the swampy ground around Sungei Sembawang. It had lent its name to West Hill Village – a village that grew around the south-eastern fringes of the huge naval base that once dominated Singapore’s northern coast. The village that was in more recent times known to us as Chong Pang Village in which names of schools such as West Hill School and Si San (西山 – West Hill in Chinese)Public School served to remind us of the village’s original name. There is little that remains of this part of the area’s past and much of the area is now dominated by the public housing estate that has come up around the Sembawang area.





The mystery of Bukit Gombak

13 03 2014

An area of Singapore that does seem to have an air of mystery about it is Bukit Gombak. The location of what reputedly was one of Singapore’s most haunted places, Hillview Mansion, which once stood high on its eastward facing slope, the hill and its environs has also gained a somewhat sinister reputation for other ghostly encounters, some of which seem to have been attributed as the cause of several unfortunate incidents that have taken place in the hill’s disused water filled quarries.

A mysterious collapsed structure on the one of the western slopes at Bukit Gombak.

A mysterious collapsed structure on the one of the western slopes at Bukit Gombak.

The rainwater filled former Gammon Quarry, now part of a park known as Little Guilin, is one that seems to hide much in terms of mystery.

The rainwater filled former Gammon Quarry, now part of a park known as Little Guilin, is one that seems to hide much in terms of mystery.

Besides the supernatural, a mystery that is of a less sinister nature is that of a concrete structure. Now in a state of collapse, the structure stands at the top of a steep incline that runs up from a cut leading to the former Seng Chew Granite Quarry. The structure is one that was documented by my friends from the One° North Explorers, who had first stumbled upon it sometime in 2005 when it was in better shape and was being used to house a makeshift shrine (see: The Forsaken Quarry of the West And the Mysterious Shrine).

Little Guilin is an area of much beauty that some suspect hides several secrets.

Little Guilin is an area of much beauty that some suspect hides several ghostly secrets.

It was in the company of James Tann, a long time resident of the area, and Andrew Him and Chris Lee of One° North Explorers, that I was to  pay a visit to the structure over the weekend, with the intention to search for further clues as to what it may have been.  From James, we were to learn quite a fair bit that wasn’t just confined to the area’s history, but also to the area’s geology. It was from the depths of his vast local knowledge that I was to discover that the rocky ground on which I had been standing on was in fact one of the oldest rock formations that I could stand on in Singapore (see: Singapore Landscapes: the secret lake).

Gombak norite formations seen at Little Guilin.

Gombak norite formations seen at Little Guilin.

With the area being one that had a strong connection with the military – the British having maintained a military installation and radar station on the ridge line that ran from Bukit Gombak to Bukit Panjang, and the Japanese having set up camp on the hill during the occupation, James had suspected that the collapsed structure might have been a Japanese built pillbox from World War II. There was also a suggestion from the One° North Explorers that it could have been a blasting shelter, as one might have expected to find on the grounds of the quarry.

More of the structure.

More of the structure.

Part of the collapsed roof.

Part of the collapsed roof.

The former Seng Chew Granite Quarry.

The former Seng Chew Granite Quarry.

Bashing through.

Bashing through.

Standing on its foundation of Gombak norite and in its collapsed state, there wasn’t much more that the structure did give away. What did seem like its flat roof, had completely caved in, burying whatever clues that might otherwise have been discovered under it. The only remnant of the structure that seemed to be left standing was a wall of concrete bricks with little else but a semi-corroded steel backing plate that might have been used to act as a support for a mounting inside the structure.

Remnants of the concrete structure on Bukit Gombak.

Remnants of the concrete structure on Bukit Gombak.

A view of the wall through the trees.

A view of the wall through the trees.

A close-up of the wall.

A close-up of the wall.

Built into the contours of the slope on the side of the quarry, there was also evidence of what did seem to be a substantial concrete structure. That might possibly been erected to act as a blast barrier – supporting the suggestion that what was there may have been that blasting shelter, along with the fact that the collapsed structure had its entrance on the slope away from the quarry. Kim Frost, a WWII vehicle expert,  did also unearth a grove on the top of the thick layer of concrete that does resemble a drain – possibly to provide drainage from runoff flowing down the slope.

Another look at the wall.

Another look at the wall.

The substantial concrete structure built into the quarry side of the slope.

The substantial concrete structure built into the quarry side of the slope.

From another angle.

From another angle.

Kim Frost digging for further evidence.

Kim Frost digging for further evidence.

While all does seem to point to the structure being a blasting shelter, that is still this lingering suspicion that the structure could still be a military one, including it being an entrance to a tunnel – similar to what we do see of the tunnels at Marsiling that was recently in the news, especially so when a newspaper report I came across does give evidence of their construction at Bukit Gombak.

Kim Frost working on the top of the quarry-side concrete barrier.

Kim Frost working on the top of the quarry-side concrete barrier.

What appears to be a drain that Kim unearthed.

What appears to be a drain that Kim unearthed.

The report, in the 17 November 1953 edition of The Straits Times that was headlined “$50 MIL. OIL PIPE PLAN IS ABANDONED“, relates to the abandonment of  what it called a “top-secret project”, that is spite of half the budgeted sum already expanded in the twelve years of effort, interrupted by the war, put into carving out tunnels and oil storage tanks under Bukit Gombak. That was all part of an attempt to build what would have been a hidden storage facility, capable of holding “hundreds of thousands of gallons of petrol [sic]” to fuel the Far East Fleet based at the Naval Base.

A concrete block.

A concrete block.

The project would have seen some fourteen underground oil tanks built along with access and maintenance tunnels and a pumping station, and with a network of pipelines laid. From the report, we can surmise that work would have started in 1941 with the Japanese continuing with it during the occupation. The Royal Navy recommenced work on it in 1946 before abandoning the project in 1953. The report does mention that the tunnels and tanks were filled up after the project was stopped as well as “several miles of underground pipes” dug up.

The entrance to a service tunnel at what is believed to be an aviation fuel storage facility at Marsiling.

The entrance to a service tunnel at what is believed to be an aviation fuel storage facility at Marsiling, which may have been similar in construction to the Gombak storage facility.

This certainly is an interesting parallel to set of tunnels that have been found at Marsiling that was the subject of a recent WWII related tour organised by the National Heritage Board. While that, located on what was fringe of the Naval Base, is thought to have been built as an aviation fuel storage facility, the one at Bukit Gombak located away from the Naval Base, was being built to serve as a fuel storage for the naval fleet.

Pipelines inside the service tunnel at Marsiling.

Pipelines inside the service tunnel at Marsiling.

Pipelines at the boundary wall of the service tunnel at Marsiling.

Pipelines at the boundary wall of the service tunnel at Marsiling.

With the military presence continuing at Bukit Gombak and the developments that have taken place around the hill, there is little more evidence that can be found of what the structure might once have been. It may also not be long before the structure disappears completely – survey markers seen in the area do show signs there is recent interest in perhaps the redevelopment of the area, which does mean that we may never unravel the mystery of what the collapsed structure was.

Developments in the area mean little else is left that can be found.

Developments in the area mean little else is left that can be found.

Part of the slope is now a secret garden - probably planted by some of the nearby residents.

Part of the slope is now a secret garden – probably planted by some of the nearby residents.

More evidence of the secret garden.

More evidence of the secret garden.





Windows into Singapore: A world we soon may forget

12 02 2014

A view from a block of new housing over to colonial bungalows that had once served as the somewhat grand residences of the senior officers of the British Admiralty stationed at the Naval Base in the north of Singapore. The base, which stretched from the old Seletar Road (which was renamed Sembawang Road in 1939) to where the causeway is, occupied some 2,300 acres or 930 ha. of land along the northern coastline. As was a feature of the British military bases set up in Singapore, generously sized bungalows as well as flats were built to serve as residences for the senior military personnel.

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The rolling hills of the area around which the bulk of the housing was built, on the eastern fringes of the base, did provide a wonderful setting that was close to the sea for the residences to be built on. Well spaced apart around the area, the former residences are set in the openness of lush green yards that would even then have been a luxury only the more fortunate would have been able to enjoy. The spacious and airy bungalows of the senior Admiralty, many of which are still around today, are particularly impressive, built in a style typical of the purpose – many were of single storey design and set on on a stilted foundation to allow added ventilation in the oppressive heat of the tropics, as well as to keep snakes and termites out.

The beautiful setting in which the 'black and white houses' of Sembawang find themselves in.

The beautiful setting in which the ‘black and white houses’ of Sembawang find themselves in.

These ‘black and white houses’ a term we in Singapore commonly use to refer to these bungalows due to their appearance (thought to be influenced by the Tudor revival movement that coincided with the first appearances of such bungalows in Singapore), are similar to those found other several areas in Singapore associated with former military bases. This includes the former RAF Seletar (Seletar Airbase) where 32 such bungalows are now slated for conservation at  (see: Straits Times report dated 11 Feb 2014).

Some 400 former residences including low-rise flats in the area were handed over to Singapore in 1971 when the British pulled their forces out. Many saw use by the ANZUK forces and later the New Zealand ForceSEA, with some currently used by the US Navy to house personnel based at the Commander, Logistics Group Western Pacific (COMLOG WESTPAC) and the Navy Region Center Singapore (NRCS) at the former Naval Stores Basin. Several units are also being rented out by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA).

The houses and the undulating and green landscape, provides the area not just with much of its laid back and somewhat old world charm, but also a feeling of space that is lacking in other parts of built-up Singapore. There is also that window the housing units, many of which came up during the construction the naval base in the 1930s, does also provide into a significant part of a past we might otherwise all too quickly forget.


More on the Naval Base 

A look at a ‘Black and White House’


 

 





Retracing the “Ice Ball” Trail

22 01 2014
A guest post by Edmund Arozoo who takes us on a walk back 50 years in time on the ice-ball trail to his kampung at Jalan Hock Chye

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Your whole life flashes in front of you when you experience a near death moment. Memories come flashing back. Memories of all the good times and bad – and times that one had forgotten or chose to forget come back vividly. Having been in that position almost two years ago there is one strange memory that strangely stood out in my mind and often came back to me after that.

It takes me back fifty or more years ago when I was in primary school at the then Holy Innocents School (which later became Montfort School). Those were the days when the Ponggol Bus Company or aka the “Yellow Bus” Company serviced routes in the Serangoon and Ponggol District. My generation of users of this service would remember the wooden louver windows these buses had in those early days!

Well, the average daily “pocket money” for school kids our age then was 30 cents. 10 cents for bus fare to and from school, 10 cents for a plate of Char Kuay Teow or Mee Siam etc, 5 cents for a drink and 5 cents for Kachang Puteh or sweets.

On certain days after our morning school sessions when the urge for a “cool” after-school treat was high a group of us, living close to each other, would decide that if we walked home we could use the 5 cents saved to buy the refreshing “ice ball” – shaved ice shaped into a ball (like a snowball) and sweeten with various coloured sweeteners and a dash of evaporated milk. This was handmade and looking back was pretty unhygienic but it was a special treat for most of us to quench our thirst.

Well the walk from our school, which was next to the Church of the Nativity, back to our homes in Jalan Hock Chye, off Tampines Road, covered a distance of about a mile. We were usually hot, sweaty and thirsty by the time we reach the “kaka” (Muslim Indian) shop that sold iceballs. However walking the last few yards home sucking on an iceball was simply “heavenly” then.

I was in Singapore recently and a strange urge came over me – I wanted to walk the iceball trail again! (I did not think it was the progression of a second childhood coming on).

Well on 10th August 2012 I and my wife caught a bus from Upper Thompson Road to Houggang Central to do the trail. Sadly my old school is no more there but the Church of the Nativity is still there and that was my starting point. With camera in hand I recaptured memories of various roads and lorongs that were landmarks then. Fifty years has seen lots of improvement on what was then on a whole a rural environment. Some lanes like St Joseph’s Lane have gone but it was nostalgic to recap what was and still is present. Very few landmarks of old remain. I knew we were getting close to our destination on approaching Lim Ah Pin Road. By then we were thirsty and welcomed a cool soya bean drink at a shop opposite Lim Ah Pin Road before heading for Kovan MRT station. This station used to be the terminus for the STC bus company that ran services into town and other parts of the island in those days.

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Sadly too Jalan Hock Chye is no more around, being replaced by Hougang Avenue 1. However other landmarks are still there to pinpoint precisely where we used to get our iceballs. The Kaka shop used to be directly in front of the start of Jalan Teliti which is still there; and where my old home used to be is where Block 230 now stands and diagonally across there was a small lane that is now the present Jalan Hock Chye.

Well fifty years on I am glad I still could do the ice ball trail again and to all the old Monfortians who did the walk with me then – life was very simple then but very much cherished. However no ice ball for me at the end of the walk this time – had to settle for an ice kachang as a substitute!

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Words and images by Edmund Arozoo, who now resides in Australia and whom I had the pleasure to meet last December.






Documentation work at Jalan Kubor

31 12 2013

Spotted by a friend at the cemetery at Jalan Kubor on the side of the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah – raffia string being strung around grave stones, sparking some concern that the site may be cleared soon. The site, along with the Old Malay Cemetery across the road, is of historical significance with links to the early days of modern Singapore and is slated for future residential development (see a previous post: Grave losses). As I now understand it, the laying of string and tags that is seen, is the beginnings of what is now a important documentation project that being undertaken by Dr Imran Tajudeen, that will map the site as well as involve a study of the inscriptions on the grave stones.

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P.S. For further information, kindly refer to a report in the 3 Jan 2014 edition of the Straits Times: NHB project to document Malay cemetery


More on the cemeteries at Jalan Kubor:


 





Grave losses

20 12 2013

Of late, I seem to have taken to wandering around spaces for the dead of late, spaces that my irrational fears would usually keep me well away from. I now find myself drawn to them, seeking out the stories they hold of a past we in Singapore have discarded, in the knowledge that the existence of such spaces in an island nation obsessed with building for a soulless future, can only be temporary.

The old Muslim cemeteries at Jalan Kubor provide a gateway to a discarded past.

A gate at a mausoleum like structure at the Old Malay Cemetery at Jalan Kubor – cemeteries provide gateways to a discarded past.

We in Singapore would be well aware of the brouhaha surrounding the former Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery. While that hasn’t prevented the intended construction of the road through it, which can perhaps be seen as the beginning of its probable end (work to exhume graves affected by the road has just started), it has raised awareness of the historical value of what may possibly be the largest concentration of Chinese graves outside of China. More significantly, found among the estimated 100,000 graves, are several of ethnic Chinese luminaries associated with modern Singapore’s development.

Tree clearing at Jalan Kubor. Several historic grave sites in Singapore are under threat of being cleared.

Tree clearing at Jalan Kubor. Several historic grave sites in Singapore are under threat of being cleared.

Besides Bukit Brown, another concentration of graves under threat that is thought to be of historical value, can be found close to the heart of the city, straddling Jalan Kubor, on the fringe of the historic Kampong Glam district. While much of the Kampong Glam area, once the seat of Sultan Hussein – the British installed Sultan of Johor and Singapore, has been identified as a conservation area, the two cemeteries at Jalan Kubor are located on the wrong side of Victoria Street – which delineates the northern boundary of the conservation area.

A view from the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery across to the Kampong Glam conservation area.

A view from the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery across to the Kampong Glam conservation area.

Keeping a watchful eye on history?

Keeping a watchful eye on history?

On the eastern side of Jalan Kubor is the plot of land on which what is referred to as the Old Malay Cemetery lies, along with what has become a very distinctive Masjid Malabar at its southeastern corner. While the recently released URA Draft Master Plan 2013 does identify the mosque as being considered for conservation, the land on which the cemetery rests has for several revisions of the 5 yearly Master Plan including the current draft, along with the second cemetery across Jalan Kubor (which translates from Malay into “Grave Street”) from it, been identified for future residential development (with a plot ratio of 4.9).

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The cemetery, is also the plot identified in early maps of British Singapore, as the “Tomb of Malayan Princes”  – a reference perhaps to the raised burial plot found in the site that is reserved for the family of Sultan Hussein. There are also several graves of significance on the site, about which Dr. Imran Tajudeen, an academic who has devoted much time to the study of the area and the cemeteries, has shed some light on in a talk on 7 July 2013 (which has been posted on YouTube).

The "Tombs of Malayan Princes".

The “Tombs of Malayan Princes”.

Amongst Dr Imran’s findings, are the links the graveyard does have with the early immigrants from the Islamic world around us, including connections with the Bugis and Banjarese traders who were prominent members of the communities that grew around the Sultan’s compound. He also mentioned finding gravestones bearing inscriptions written in the Bugis script, Lontara – a indication perhaps of the use of the Bugis language in the early days of the settlement of Kampong Glam.

Inscriptions on a gravestone.

Inscriptions on a gravestone.

Older wooden grave markers are also found amongst the gravestones.

Older wooden grave markers are also found amongst the gravestones.

Another wooden grave marker.

Another wooden grave marker.

The are several interesting structures, otherwise mysterious, that Dr Imran has also identified during his talk. One, is the house-like structure under a banyan tree just behind Masjid Malabar. That contains the graves of a Bugis merchant, Haji Omar Ali and his wife. The grave of Haji Omar’s son, Haji Ambo Sooloh, is also found there, placed under an awning at the structure’s entrance. 

The back of the structure housing the grave of Bugis merchant Haji Omar Ali and his wife.

The back of the structure housing the grave of Bugis merchant Haji Omar Ali and his wife.

A view of the front of the structure where Haji Omar Ali's son, Haji Ambo Sooloh can be found.

A view of the front of the structure where Haji Omar Ali’s son, Haji Ambo Sooloh can be found.

The mausoleum like structure above the grave of another Bugis merchant.

The walled compound which contains the second cemetery at Jalan Kubor does also have several rather interesting stories. Referred to as the Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah Cemetery, after the Islamic School nestled in its northwest corner, the land on which this (and the Madrasah) sits on a Wakaf that was donated by Syed Sharif Omar bin Ali Aljunied, a prominent Arab pioneer of modern Singapore. Besides being where Syed Omar and many of his descendants were buried (Dr. Imran mentions that the family has since exhumed the graves), the cemetery was also where Ngah Ibrahim of Perak was buried. Implicated in the murder of the first British Resident of Perak, James Birch, in 1875, Ngah Ibrahim died in exile in Singapore. His remains have since been moved back to Perak. 

The presence of the grave sites close to the city does draw the curiosity of visitors to the area.

The presence of the grave sites close to the city does draw the curiosity of visitors to the area.

Structures which once contained the graves of the Aljunieds.

Structures which once contained the graves of the Aljunieds.

The cemetery is also associated with an incident in 1972 during which two gunmen, brothers at the top of Singapore’s most wanted list, took their lives  after being cornered by the police. More on this incident can be found in a previous post: When gunmen roamed the streets of Singapore: a showdown at Jalan Kubor.

A view of the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery.

A view of the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery, which was the scene of an incident in December 1972.

It probably is only a matter of time before the two sites, and the links to history they do hold, are erased from a Singapore that is reluctant to recognise the significance of its pre-independence past. As mentioned above, the URA Masterplan including a current draft, does point to the land on which the sites are on accommodating future high-rise residential developments. A check on the land ownership status with the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) maintained OneMap site, does also show that the land is already in the hands of the State. With the acceleration seen in pace of development that is taking place in and around it area, it is likely that time will soon be called on a world that takes us back two hundred years.

A view down Jalan Kubor - the pace of development in the area is gathering pace.

A view down Jalan Kubor – the pace of development in the area is gathering speed.

Another view towards the structure housing the graves of Haji Omar Ali and his wife.

Another view towards the structure housing the graves of Haji Omar Ali and his wife.


Some spaces for the dead that are under threat:


 

 





Fast fading memories of a world we want only to forget …

16 12 2013

Besides the lost coastline running along the Changi and Tanah Merah areas, another place by the sea that I was acquainted with as a young child was the seaside parks around the Pasir Panjang area. One was Pasir Panjang Park, a rather small park west of Pasir Panjang Power Station and a cluster of schools (the buildings of some are still around) fanned by the breeze of the sea, one of which was Batu Berlayer School at which my mother taught at for a short while in the later half of the 1960s.

The sea fronted Pasir Panjang Park in 1967.

The sea fronted Pasir Panjang Park in 1967.

The area today, is one no longer fanned by the sea breeze, having for long been abandoned by the sea. The shoreline in the area, initially altered by the reclamation in the early 1970s, has since been moved well away by land on which a new container terminal is being built on as an expansion of the capacity of the Port of Singapore (this before all port facilities are eventually consolidated in the far west of the island in some 20 years time).

The container port being developed on land reclaimed more recently.

The container port being developed on land reclaimed more recently beyond the reclamation of the 1970s.

Visiting what remains of the park, which took on the face of how I had known it around 1956/57, I realise that that is little evidence of what I had known that remains. In place of the metal railing by the seawall is a concrete balustrade that looks now well worn with age and also neglect and one for which the future is probably rather bleak. Sitting on what would have been the edge of a seawall beyond which a rather unattractive stretch of beach was exposed when the tide receded, it would have been put up in the late 1960s or very early 1970s .   

The crumbling concrete balustrade.

The crumbling concrete balustrade.

Stairs which once would have led to the beach and the sea are also clearly in evidence off the seawall. The stairs now lead not to the wide expense of water which once played host to many sea sports events, but to an even more unattractive body of water, the reach of which is limited by a concrete canal wall that runs parallel to the seawall. 

The former seawall and the canal where the sea once was.

The former seawall and the canal where the sea once was.

One item which belonged to the park that I was hoping to see, is a cannon that featured prominently in photographs I had taken of me in the park in later part of the 1960s. That, sadly, along with the playground where I did spend many moments on the swings and see-saws on, is now, like the long forgotten sea shore, only a very distant memory – although the cannon, on the evidence of this November 2010 post on Victor Koo’s “Taking Up the Challenge” blog, seemed to have been there until not so long ago.

The metal railings before the concrete balustrade came up.

The metal railings before the concrete balustrade came up.

The post does identify how the cannon came to be placed at the park, being a gift from a Mr. H J C Kulasingha, an immigrant from Sri Lanka, who came to Singapore in 1941 by way of Kuala Lumpur. A long time resident of Pasir Panjang, Mr. Kulasingha, who passed away in 1982, had quite an illustrious life in serving the community.

Developments which has erased much of what we remember of the area include an elevated highway over Pasir Panjang Road ...

Developments which has erased much of what we remember of the area include an elevated highway over Pasir Panjang Road …

And the construction of the MRT.

And the construction of the MRT.

Besides being a prominent politician (he represented the Progressive Party, the Liberal Socialist Party and in 1959 stood as an independent candidate) and a member of the Legislative Council from 1951 to 1955, Mr Kulasingha also held many other public appointments including serving on the Rural Board and as a Director of the Jurong Bird Park in the early 1970s. Thinking about all this, what would really be nice is if the old cannon that Mr Kulasingha donated, is restored to the area to commemorate Mr Kulasingha’s life and to celebrate the many important contributions an otherwise forgotten pioneer has made to our society.

A view of a world and memories attached to it which is fading with the rising of the new Singapore sun.

A view of a world and memories attached to it which is fading with the rising of the new Singapore sun.





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.





Coloured corridors

13 11 2013

Conceived by the founder of modern Singapore Sir Stamford Raffles, the five-foot-way was a feature that was stipulated in the Jackson Town Plan of 1822 and is seen today in the shophouses which once dominated the urban landscape of Malaya and Singapore. In Singapore today, over 6000 of these shophouses have been conserved and their five-foot-ways remain colourful spaces through which I often enjoy a walk through. The photographs that follow, are ones from some of the more colourful areas of Singapore in which clusters of shophouses with five-foot-ways, old and new, can be found. More on the five-foot-way and the idea behind them can be found in two of my previous posts, the links to which are at the end of this post.

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Other five-foot-way adventures:





A world apart

26 09 2013

A look down Orchard Road at its junction with Killiney Road close to 40 years apart. The view in 1975 was dominated by the towering Mandarin Hotel which opened in 1971, but it was probably Cold Storage, the longest established supermarket in Singapore, which would have served as a landmark. Across the road from the Cold Storage was what became known later as “Gluttons’ Square”, a car park which would be transformed as night fell, into a sea of pushcarts, tables and stools – a food lovers’ paradise of local hawker fare which was popular with many. The area did in fact feature more than just the car park, but also across Cuppage Road from Cold Storage – with many popular hawker stalls found around the old Orchard Road Market area at Koek Road and Koek Lane.

The junction of Orchard Road and Killiney Road some 4 decades apart, as seen in 1975 and today (source of 1975 photograph: Ray Tyers' Singapore Then & Now).

The junction of Orchard Road and Killiney Road some 4 decades apart, as seen in 1975 and today (source of 1975 photograph: Ray Tyers’ Singapore Then & Now).

Another landmark in the area was of course the Specialists’ Shopping Centre which opened in 1972. That housed the main outlet of a retail institution, Robinson’s, after a huge fire on 21 November 1972 had destroyed its main premises. Intending initially to open a branch on a single floor at the Specialists’ Centre in late 1972 / early 1973, the long established departmental store opened on two floors on 11 December 1972. The Specialist Centre Robinson’s would be remembered for the St. Michael’s (a brand name used by Marks and Spencer’s) outlet within it on the ground floor which was popular particularly for its biscuits.

The old Cold Storage on Orchard Road.

The old Cold Storage on Orchard Road.

The area now sees huge developments taking place, dominated by new shopping malls such as Orchard Central and 313 @ Somerset. One that isn’t completed which will certainly add to the clutter will be Orchard Gateway which will straddle Orchard Road with a tubular glass pedestrian link bridge between its two parts positioned diagonally across from each other.

The stretch now sees many new retail developments such as Orchard Central on the left and under construction Orchard Gateway with its link bridge which will further alter the area's flavour.

The stretch now sees many new retail developments such as Orchard Central on the left and under construction Orchard Gateway with its link bridge which will further alter the area’s flavour.

Orchard Central as seen at the corner of Orchard and Killiney Roads.

Orchard Central as seen at the corner of Orchard and Killiney Roads.

The competition from the new malls has also seen one which has seen its popularity wane in its three decades of existence. Centrepoint, to which Robinson’s moved its fashion departments into in June 1983 – which then became its flagship store after it shut down its outlets (including John Little’s keeping only the St. Michael’s outlet) at Specialists’ Centre in June 1984, underwent a recent makeover. It will soon also see its anchor tenant moving out – Robinson’s has announced it would be moving to The Heeren next year, ending what will be a 30 year association with Centrepoint.

One side of Orchard Gateway with part of the link bridge. The conserved shophouse seen below it is fronting Orchard Road where a new Singapore Visitors' Centre will open.

One side of Orchard Gateway with part of the link bridge. The conserved shophouse seen below it is fronting Orchard Road where a new Singapore Visitors’ Centre will open.

The changes that are taking place, are ones which will render the area unrecognisable even from what it would have been like a decade ago. For me, however, it will always be the gentler times of four decades past I am taken back to, times of the old Cold Storage with its deli counter which never failed to interest me – times when our shopping went into brown paper bags and used cartons rather than in the non environmentally friendly plastic bags we use too much of these days. They were also times when not only having a malted milkshake in the cool comfort of the vinegar scented air of the Magnolia Snack Bar was as much a treat as a bowl of beef noodles at Koek Lane or a plate of oyster omelette at the car park would have been. It is that simpler world I often wish I can return to, a world unlike the one I find myself in today in which the a lot more than we have does somehow seem like a lot less.





Critically endangered

29 08 2013

With the recent death of the neglected but beautiful dove in the island’s west, there is only one that’s left to remember one of several terrazzo and mosaic creations that many who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s would have had fond memories of playing in. The dove, is one of several playground designs – the work of the Housing and Development Board’s Mr Khor Ean Ghee, with a uniquely and very distinctly Singaporean flavour that decorated Singapore’s public housing estates in the late 1970s and through the 1980s and 1990s.

Beyond a wall with decorative ventilation openings from a bygone era lies a critically endangered dove.

Beyond a wall with decorative ventilation openings from a bygone era lies a critically endangered dove.

The surviving dove at Dakota  Crescent.

The surviving dove at Dakota Crescent.

The dove at Dakota Crescent is one which although well worn and exhibiting obvious signs of age, is remarkably preserved – a testament perhaps to play structures put up in times when they were built to last. Still with its sand-pit, a feature of the playgrounds of  the era, it does also feature rubber tyre swings and a slide. There are several more of these structures left behind, including the well-loved dragon of Toa Payoh, which many hope will be preserved, not just to preserve the many memories there are of happy childhood moments, but also because they are structures which we can quite easily identify with Singapore, from a time when we did not yet forget to express who we are.

The dove's last surviving sibling was reduced to rubble very recently.

The dove’s last surviving sibling was reduced to rubble very recently.

What is also nice about the very last dove, is that it resides in a rather charming old neighbourhood, one Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) built flats which came up in the late 1950s, well before the dove was put there. The estate it is in, Kallang Airport Estate, was developed in the area at the end of the extended Kallang Airport runway – land which was freed after 1955, when the airport was closed. Some 21 seven-storey and 20 four-storey blocks were built from 1956 to 1959. The estate was officially opened in July 1958 and the cluster of flats the dove finds itself in the midst of, are amongst the few that have survived.

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A quick glance around the dove

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Light after dark (The West End)

28 08 2013

A view along the Straits of Johor, in the area where the Malaysian Navy had once maintained a base which served as their main base until 1979, some 15 years following the separation of Singapore from Malaysia. The view, taken at 7.41 pm on 25 August 2013, is one taken across what would have been the west end of the huge British naval base towards what would have been Rotherham Gate to the left of the picture, the Causeway in the middle and Johor Bahru in Malaysia to the right. The jetty seen in the photograph is the Shell or Woodlands Jetty which is still in use. The area is one I made a first acquaintance with back in the early 1970s, after the area had been opened up following the withdrawal of British forces in 1971. That was when the since demolished derelict Ruthenia Oiling Jetty, served as one of two places along Singapore’s northern coastline to which my father would take me to drop crab nets from. The area has since been remade and is now referred to as the Woodlands Waterfront.

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Taming the elephant

19 08 2013

Photographs I took of another one of the surviving few mosaic and terrazzo playgrounds left in Singapore, one that is very well preserved and free of vandalism (probably because of its location at the Home Team NS Pasir Ris Chalets). The playground is another one of the series of playgrounds designed by Mr Khor Ean Ghee that has a very uniquely Singaporean flavour.

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A picture from the past

6 08 2013

Looking through old photographs of what perhaps was a lost decade for me, the 1980s, I stumbled upon a rare one of Changi Beach, taken some time in 1987. The beach, one on which I have had many experiences of going back to the late 1960s, had by that time already lost its popularity as a place for a family outing – missing were the beach side cafes, the wooden sampans, deck chairs and rubber tubes from a time when you could drive right up to the edge of the beach and find a shady spot under a ketapang tree to park your car under.

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The coarse sand beach in the 1980s was one abandoned by many in Singapore for the man-made beach lining the reclaimed land at East Coast Park. It is perhaps beyond the foreshore that does make the photograph interesting. Along the horizon two kelongs, structures erected to harvest fish from the sea, can be seen. The structures which once dominated the seascape off much of Singapore, are now a rare sight.

Knobbly sea stars.

Knobbly sea stars seen at Pulau Semakau – once a common sight on the seabed off Changi Beach at low tide.

The kelongs remind me of happier times past, when wading out to them at low tide was possible, across knee deep water over a seabed of sea grass meadows abundant with sea life.  It was on the many walks my parents took me on in the late 1960s and 1970s that I was to catch my first glimpse of knobby sea stars, fiddler crabs, gong-gong and sea cucumber – marine creatures that are rarely seen in our waters these days (we do also have to head to our offshore islands such as Pulau Ubin and Pulau Semakau to see them).

The shallow waters during low tide off Changi Beach provided hours of endless fun with the creatures that lived amongst the sea grass. A fiddler crab is seen here.

A fiddler crab seen at Chek Jawa off Pulau Ubin.

Sea cucumber.

Sea cucumber – also once a common sight off Changi Beach.

There are also several less than happy memories I can find in the photograph. Scanning the horizon, a glimpse of Pulau Tekong is seen on the right. It just west of this spot where I would board a Ramp Powered Lighter (RPL) from the beach as a National Service recruit for a dreaded 40 minute ride on an open deck to the island. The RPLs were the means by which personnel were ferried to and from the two Basic Military Training camps on Pulau Tekong in those days. Having to beach also meant the RPLs could only come in at high tide – which translated into shortened weekends for us as when we could get back and had to go back in, was very much determined by the time when the tide was high. That meant we would sometimes get out only in the afternoon, only to have to get back to the beach on the morning of the following day. It is a lot easier these days, recruits leave from and arrive at a purpose built ferry terminal, and without having to wait for the tide, all it does take to get to Pulau Tekong is a less than 15 minute ride on a fast ferry.

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As with the means by which personnel are sent over to Pulau Tekong, much about Changi Beach has changed. Many of the ketapang, acacia, pong pong and casuarina trees under which we might once have found Malay ladies weaving ketupat pouches from young coconut leaves, have since been uprooted. In their place, we now see a footpath with stone benches and trees carefully arranged where cars could once drive up to. The beach, littered with the deposits of the tide: seashells, mangrove propagules and drift wood, and the trunk of a coconut palm, is otherwise empty as is the horizon. It is reflective of the world we now find ourselves in, a world in which we have discarded much of who we were and one which we fill with the emptiness we now seek for our souls.








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