A synagogue on Church Street

21 11 2012

A street in Singapore that I have long been familiar with from my many encounters with it throughout my childhood and my days going to school in the area is Waterloo Street. Well-known back in the 1970s for the ‘sarabat stalls’ – a row of food stalls which was a destination for not just good teh sarabat (ginger tea), but also where some of the best Indian rojak in Singapore was to be found, Waterloo Street was also where many rather stately looking buildings could be found – particularly along the stretch that is directly opposite the former St. Joseph’s Institution (now the Singapore Art Museum) which I attended. One which did stand out – was a white building with blue windows and a blue Star of David which we referred to as the synagogue, the Maghain Aboth Synagogue.

Glass at the synagogue’s porch.

The synagogue as seen from Waterloo Street today.

The synagogue was always a place that seemed mysterious to me, and one that has remained a mystery until very recently when I had an opportunity to see its insides through a Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB) Monument Open House walking tour. Maghain Aboth Synagogue, which translates as “Shield of our Fathers”, one of two Jewish houses of worship found in Singapore (the other being the Chesed-El), is the oldest existing synagogue not only in Singapore, but also in South-East Asia. Gazetted as a National Monument in 1998, the synagogue provides a link not just to a small but historically significant ethno-religious community in Singapore, but also to the trade motivated diaspora of Baghdadi Jews which saw the arrival from India of the first members of the community in Singapore in the 1830s.

Maghain Aboth Synagogue in 1982 (source: from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

The synagogue from inside the compound.

An aerial view of the Bras Basah area in the 1970s in which the Maghain Aboth Synagogue can be seen at the top (left) of the picture.

The Maghain Aboth wasn’t the first synagogue in Singapore. The first was one that was housed in a shophouse. Established in 1841, it was to give Synagogue Street its name and served the community until the 1870s. The limited to its capacity coupled with a fast growing Jewish population in Singapore required a larger building than the shophouse which house a congregation of forty. The land at Waterloo Street (which until 1858 had been known as Church Street) on which the present synagogue, the Maghain Aboth stands, was secured in the 1870s by Sir Manasseh Meyer (who later also built the Chesed-El as a private synagogue) and the Maghain Aboth was built. The synagogue designed in the neo-classical style was completed in 1878 with several extensions added over its 134 years, including a second level seating gallery to allow women to worship. It was close to the synagogue that a larger community of Baghdadi Jews began to settle around – giving rise to the Jewish quarter around the nearby Middle Road and Selegie Road area that came to be known as the Mahallah.

The entrance to the synagogue in the 1970s (source: National Archives of Singapore http://a2o.nas.sg/picas).

A map of the Bras Basah area in the mid 1800s well before the Maghain Aboth was built. Waterloo Street had then been named Church Street.

The layout of the synagogue is very similar to but is much less elaborated decorated than the Chesed-El. The centre of the hall which faces Jerusalem features a bimah, a raised wooden pulpit where the rabbi leads prayers and reads from Torah scrolls (Sefer Torah) during services. At the west end of the hall, the most sacred part of the synagogue, the the ahel or ark is arranged. The ark is where the Torah scrolls are kept, covered by a parochet or curtain.

The prayer hall points west towards Jerusalem. At the end of the hall is the ahel or ark. The pulpit or bimah is seen in the centre.

The eastward view of the prayer hall from the west end.

The ark or ahel behind the parochet or curtains is most sacred part of the synagogue and where the Torah scrolls are kept.

The bimah.

The part of the bimah on which the rabbi leads the prayers.

The ahel or ark.

A more recent extension to the compound on which the synagogue stands is where the stained glass fronted Jacob Ballas Centre now towers over the Maghain Aboth. Built as a community centre, the Jacob Ballas Centre is named after a very successful stock broker, the late Jacob Ballas, who was a prominent member of the community. The centre houses function rooms, offices and accommodation for the rabbis, a kosher slaughter room for fresh chicken, a kosher restaurant as well as a kosher shop. For more information on the Maghain Aboth and the Jacob Ballas Centre, do visit the links below.

Stained glass at the Jacob Ballas Centre.

Stained glass at the Jacob Ballas Centre.

A reading room at the Jacob Ballas Centre.


Resources on the Jewish Community, Sir Manasseh Meyer and the Maghain Aboth Synagogue:

Jewish Community in Singapore (on The Jewish Community of Singapore)
Jewish Community in Singapore (on The Jewish Times Asia)
Sir Manasseh Meyer (on infopedia)
Maghain Aboth (on infopedia)
Maghain Aboth Synagogue (on The Jewish Community of Singapore)
Maghain Aboth Synagogue (on PMB’s website)


More views around the Maghain Aboth





The synagogue at Belle Vue

19 10 2012

One of the wonderful things about Singapore is the diverse cultural and religious practices, some modified with time, some influenced by the environment, but many that remain distinct reflecting the many lands far and wide from which immigrants to Singapore have arrived from. Besides the myriad of festivals that seem to go on all year around, this diversity is also reflected in its architectural heritage – some 28 of its 64 National Monuments are places of worship which are very much in use today.

A page from religious diversity of Singapore – a Sefer Torah at the Chesed-El Synagogue.

Two of the 64 that I had an opportunity to visit during a recent Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB) walking tour were the Hong San See Temple and the Chesed-El Synagogue. The Hong San See or Temple on Phoenix Hill is one that I already am familiar with from a previous visit. A magnificent and beautifully restored example of Fujian Lam Ann (Nan’an) religious architecture, its last restoration effort from 2007 to 2009 earned a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2010. More information on the temple can be found in my previous post The Temple on Phoenix Hill.

The Chesed-El Synagogue at Oxley Rise was one of two religious monuments I recently had an opportunity to see as part of a Monumental Walking Tour organised by the PMB.

The main motivation for my participation in the tour was more for the opportunity it provided to visit a synagogue as I had never in stepped into one. While there are two such places of worship in Singapore, such opportunities are rare, especially due to more recent security concerns and this provided me with a look of what it was like behind the façade of a religious building belonging to a small and sometimes lesser known local community which has made a significant contribution to Singapore.

Opportunities to visit a synagogue are rare especially with more recent security concerns.

A look beyond the Chesed-El’s façade. The wooden pulpit or bimah is seen in the centre of the hall with the ahel or ark at the end.

The Jews in Singapore have certainly made a huge contribution to its development with many notable names through Singapore’s history, members of the community. One of its prominent members in the early days of Singapore was a certain Sir Manasseh Meyer, a highly successful businessman and property owner, who counted among his properties, the Sea View Hotel and the Adelphi Hotel, lending his name to Meyer Road. It was also Manasseh Meyer who built the Chesed-El, Singapore’s second synagogue (after Maghain Aboth in Waterloo Street).

Participants on the walking tour had a chance to look at the second of two synagogues in Singapore.

The Chesed-El completed in 1905 on Manasseh Meyer’s sprawling estate in Oxley Rise, Belle Vue, was designed by Regent Alfred John Bidwell of architectural frim Swan & Maclaren (which was responsible for many of the monumental works of architecture in Singapore) in the Palladian style. What had prompted Manasseh Meyer to build Chesed-El, which translates as the “bountiful mercy and goodness of God” were differences of opinions which members of the community from differing backgrounds had at the Maghain Aboth, which was built as a private synagogue.

The synagogue was completed in 1905.

The building was built in the grand Palladian style.

Besides providing the opportunity to have a look into the synagogue, the visit also allowed a better appreciation of the layout of a synagogue. Placed in a westward facing direction to Judaism’s eternal city, Jerusalem, a wooden pulpit rises at centre of the hall. The pulpit or bimah, is where prayers where the rabbi leads the prayers, and where the Torah scrolls (Sefer Torah) are placed and read during services.

The entrance to the synagogue.

A closer look at the bimah.

The entrance and the balconies on the upper gallery.

Inside the lower gallery.

A reminder.

The visit also allowed us a peek at the upper gallery where the women are kept separated from the men during services. The balconies on the upper gallery feature iron work that we were told were imported from Scotland which provided an appreciation of the effort taken in the building of the house of worship for the greater glory of the Maker.

The balconies on the upper gallery, reserved for women, feature beautifully crafted ironwork imported from Scotland.

The staircase to the upper gallery.

A view through an arch on the upper gallery.

The women’s perspective.

A quiet room on the upper gallery.

Another view from the upper gallery.

The upper gallery.

The highlight of the visit was a close-up look we had at Sefer Torah as well as a look into the holiest part of the synagogue, the ark or ahel – a room where the Sefer Torahs are stored. The sefers or scrolls are made from specially handwritten parchment and are ones donated by members of the congregation, and includes one that is a hundred years old.

The ahel at the front end of the hall is behind three curtains.

A rabbi opening a Sefer Torah.

A hundred year old Sefer Torah in the ahel.

Floor tiles.

The ahel’s entrances are covered by a curtain or parochet.

Ironwork above the ahel.

The look at the synagogue was one that provided not only an insight into the religious practices of a small but important community in Singapore, but also one which offered a window into the role the many successful immigrants who came from far and wide played in building and supporting their respective communities. It is these communities which have provided the foundation on which Singapore’s success is built and which makes Singapore that wonderful celebration of cultures and religions that it is today.

The grounds of the synagogue.


Resources on the Jewish Community, Sir Manasseh Meyer and the Chesed-El Synagogue:

Jewish Community in Singapore (on The Jewish Community of Singapore)
Jewish Community in Singapore (on The Jewish Times Asia)
Sir Manasseh Meyer (on infopedia)
Chesed-El Synagogue (on infopedia)
Chesed-El Synagogue (on The Jewish Community of Singapore)
Chesed-El Synagogue (on PMB’s website)






Order out of the chaos on Hill Street

8 06 2011

The Preservations of Monuments Board (PMB) would be conducting a series of 20 Mounmental Walking Tours of Singapore’s National Monuments in the civic and cultural district during the weekends commencing Saturday 11th June up until the end of July, with an intended aim of bringing history to the whole family. I had the opportunity to have a special preview of the upcoming tours yesterday morning as part of a group yesterday made up of members of the mainstream which was led by Volunteer Guide Ms Jill Wong, during which we were given not just an insight into two of the monuments covered, but also into the background and history of the public institutions that the two monuments were built to house.

The PMB is organising Monumental Walking Tours starting 11th June 2011.

At the starting point of the brief tour, now a pavement outside Funan Centre, which is directly opposite the first of the two monuments we were to cover, the Central Fire Station, we were transported by our guide Jill into a very different Singapore. It was a Singapore of the early years where large gangs of Chinamen with darkened faces had, in the darkness of night, created mischief on the first streets or a new and fast growing colony, taking advantage perhaps of the lack of order that the Singapore of today has come to be known for. It was a Singapore that struggled to cope with the pressures of sudden urbanisation, as the colony grew around the first paved street, High Street, just a stone’s throw away from where we stood, listening to Jill. Indeed, it was a Singapore or “Sin-Galore” as it was known then where chaos had reigned, and one in desperate need for the public institutions that the monuments we were to learn about that morning (the other being the former Hill Street Police Station and now MICA Building), were built to house – hence the name of the tour “Order out of Chaos” from which I borrowed the title of this post.

The Central Fire Station, completed in 1909, features a 110 feet high watchtower which also served as a hose-drying tower.

One of the public institutions that was certainly sorely needed on the congested streets was a fire brigade, which the Central Fire Station was later built to serve. It was only some fifty years after the founding of modern Singapore that the first brigade was formed – a volunteer fire brigade in 1869, developing into a professional outfit close to two decades later. Even with the establishment of a professional force of fire-fighters, the fire brigade was still ill-equipped and ill-prepared to deal with many situations that arose, a fact highlighted by a news article in the 24th September 1890 edition Straits Times (excerpts of which can be found below) relating to a fire on Hock Lam Street – which had once met Hill Street at right angles at the very spot on the pavement on which we stood, which Jill read from. The article makes for interesting reading and in it we are told of a crowd that had gathered to witness a fire that had broken out at a house at No. 8 Hock Lam Street, which, “had the pleasure of watching a fire work its own way without let or hindrance”. What comes out from the article is that it took an hour before water could be doused on the fire, having been delayed partly by the inability of the fire-fighters to locate hydrants on a street just across from where they were based.

Volunteer Guide Ms Jill Wong describing the construction of the Central Fire Station.

The construction of the red and white fire station which was completed in 1909, a National Monument gazetted in December 1998 and the most recognisable in Singapore, represented a change in fortunes of the fire brigade, having being prompted by the arrival of the first professionally trained Superintendent of the Fire Brigade, Montague William Pett from England in 1905. The construction also prompted a modernisation of the brigade’s equipment with motorised fire engines being introduced, which is evident in the various size of exit doors of the station. The station, with its distinctive red and white brick façade, a style often described as “blood and bandages”, also features a 110 feet high watch tower, which when was the tallest structure in the city when it was built, providing a vantage from which a 24 hour watch could then be kept over the city. It also served as a hose drying tower – a feature in many fire stations. The station was later expanded, with a new wing added as well as quarters expanded on land purchased at the corner of Hill Street and Coleman Street from the Chinese Girls’ School which moved to Emerald Hill in the 1920s.

A feature of the pavement outside the Central Fire Station that was explained is that there is no kerb where it meets the road allowing it to be flushed for the passage of emergency vehicles coming out of the station.

The second (and last) stop in the short introductory tour was the former Hill Street Police Station, a six storey Neo-Classical styled building designed by PWD Chief Architect Frank Dorrington Ward completed in 1934, which was also gazetted as a National Monument at the same time as the Central Fire Station. Where the fire station is still used in a function that the building was built for, the Hill Street Police Station is now used by the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA). The building, when built, was an imposing structure which was described as the “Police Skyscraper” and was in fact the largest structure in Malaya. The building featured two open courtyards (now enclosed by a glass roof) and numerous windows (that one can’t help but notice) that opened to the outside as well as into the courtyards, giving the rooms in the building a airy and bright feel – a feature of Frank Dorrington Ward designed municipal buildings. The structure besides serving a function as a police station, also provided housing to policemen and their families with accommodation for up to a thousand people.

Another, an imposing structure that, at the time of its completion, was the largest man made structure in Malaya.

The once largest structure in Malaya, despite being dwarfed by the modern buildings that have come up in the area, is still pretty imposing.

The once open-air courtyard of the former Hill Street Police Station is now encased by a glass roof.

The construction of the building, built at a cost of $494,000, had in the case of the fire station, heralded a change of fortunes for the force, which started as a police force of 12 men in 1820 who weren’t, we were told, too well paid – a combined monthly salary of some $300 was put together by William Farquhar raised through licensing fee for the sale of opium and liquor. The force had apparently attracted the likes of desperate men, stranded sailors for one, seeking a means to obtain money for a passage home, and was poorly equipped unitl the 1930s when improved funding allowed the force was expanded to some 2000 and modern equipment to be introduced. Our attention was also drawn to a series of wall mounted information panels at the second smaller courtyard which provided some of the history of the building as well as provided insights into how life in the separate quarters for the families of the rank and file and the senior policemen was. All in all it was certainly an hour well spent, allowing me to discover more of the monuments in question and some of the conditions that existed when they were built as well as learning a little more on the history of Singapore. Information on the series of Monumental Walking Tours that the PMB has organised can be found below, as well as on the PMB’s website.

A feature of Frank Dorrington Ward designed buildings is the light and airy feel in interiors ventilated and brightened by generous windows which even in the less colourful days of the building, never goes unnoticed.

The Neo-Classical style is commonly seen in municipal buildings in Singapore and has features such as symmetry, the use of columns and pediments such as is seen over the main entrance of the former Hill Street Police Station.



PMB Media Release:

LEARN ABOUT HISTORY THE MONUMENTAL WAY
Monumental Walking Tours and My Monumental Playground offer fun for the whole family

7 June 2011 – History comes alive for the whole family as the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB) launches 20 new Monumental Walking Tours of Singapore’s National Monuments in the civic and cultural district and My Monumental Playground at the Esplanade Park Memorials.

Monumental Walking Tours
Presented with distinct storylines and unique perspectives, Monumental Walking Tours cast our National Monuments in a new light, weaving in stories of Singapore’s diverse immigrant communities. The 20 tours, conducted in English, will be introduced each weekend from 11 June to end July. Along with two existing tours, these will form PMB’s stable of Monumental Walking Tours which will be offered weekly for the rest of the year. Leading the tours are PMB’s adult Volunteer Guides and student Monument Ambassadors who have a strong background and interest in heritage. For the month of June, the Monumental Walking Tours will be available at a special rate of $5 per adult and will feature colonial buildings such as The Arts House and Peranakan Museum.

My Monumental Playground
Specially planned for the little ones, My Monumental Playground will reveal little-known facts about the Esplanade Memorials through storytelling sessions, silent precision drill performances, a treasure hunt and more. Held on 11 and 12 June, this event is part of Children’s Season 2011. Through these exciting events, PMB hopes to develop greater public interest and appreciation for Singapore’s 64 National Monuments. More information on the upcoming events can be found Annexes, and members of the public can refer to www.pmb.sg.

PMB Monumental Walking Tour and My Monumental Playground Programmes:

Administrative Information

Monumental Walking Tour Programme 11th – 12th June 2011

Monumental Walking Tour Programme 18th – 26th June 2011

Monumental Walking Tour Programme to be released in July 2011

My Monumental Playground



Excerpts from the article “Fire on Hocklam Street” from the 24th September 1890 edition of the Straits Times:

“About 9.30 p.m. a fire began in a house No. 8 Hocklam Street, and a crowd immediately commenced to gather and found that they had the pleasure of watching a fire work its own way without let or hindrance. Very soon Chief Inspector Jennings arrived, and pending the arrival of the fire engines did all he could, i.e. watched the crowd. At 10 o’clock the fire had obtained complete possession of the house, and the flames lapped round the casements, and mounted high into the air illuminating the whole town”.

The article goes on to describe how the crowd had admired the uniform of the superintendent as he watched on horseback as the fire made its progress, with water arriving only an hour after the fire by which time No. 8 and 9 were “completely gutted” and added that the “organisation did not know where the nearest hydrants were situated” in spite of the “barracks of the Fire Brigade” being “in the same street as, and exactly opposite to, the burnt houses”.






A final look at Tanjong Pagar Station

24 05 2011

Together with a group of yesterday.sg fans, I had another look around Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, on a 45 minute tour run by the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB), to provide participants with a better appreciation of Singapore’s latest National Monument, before operations end on the 1st of July this year. Besides meeting with yesterday.sg’s Shaun Wong, from whom I learnt that the inspiration for the name of the website was the Beatles song “Yesterday”, I also had the pleasure of meeting fellow blogger P.Y. of Oceanskies, who incidentally has provided a comprehensive account of the tour, and Belinda Tan who I am grateful to for stirring up quite a fair bit of interest in my blog by posting links to my set of railway memories. The short but informative tour was led by a PMB volunteer, Rosanne, who provided a fair bit of information on the background to the station, the reasons for its establishment and the choice of location. What interested me in particular, was the information that related to the station’s architecture, which provided me with a better appreciation of the station.

I had the opportunity to join a PMB tour of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station courtesy of yesterday.sg.

The station we were told by Rosanne, was built to provide a grand station that was to be the terminal of what the British had envisaged as a intercontinental transport network that was to span from Singapore at the southern tip of the Asian continent to the British Isles. The choice of the location close to the docks at Tanjong Pagar signaled the ambitious extent of the British Empire’s intent in expanding transport and communication links between the British Isles with Asia and further afield, with Singapore’s strategic location being seen as the gateway (by sea) to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Designed by Swan and MacLaren, the station is thought to have been designed after Helsinki’s Central Station and sharing elements with Washington D. C.’s Union Station. The style of architecture, Art Deco, that was selected was one that it was felt combined both Western and Eastern elements and influences. Art Deco is in fact very much in evidence around the station – geometric patterns in the details of the ceiling and arches of the portico an example. Another example of the Art Deco style that is evident is use of triumphal figures in the form of the four Angelo Vannetti sculptures at the façade that represent the four pillars of the Malayan economy, being Agriculture, Commerce, Transport and Industry. Our attention was also drawn to portions of the roof which featured a green tile structure inspired by the roofs of Chinese Temples.

Transport, one of the four pillars of the Malayan economy is seen carrying a stone block, with a wheel behind, stepping on a bow of a ship. The use of triumphal figures is common in Art Deco architecture

The Chinese temple inspired green tiled part of the station's roof.

Lions on the window details at the station's side are meant to represent Singapore.

Inside the hall, our attention was drawn to the six sets of batik style mosaic mural panels which feature some 9000 tiles that represent the economies of the Federated Malay States (FMS), as well as to the two crests – one being the crest of the Federated Malay States – which comprised of the four British protected states of Selangor, Perak, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang, and the Straits Settlements. Closer inspection of the coat of arms reveals a shield that is coloured with a colour from each of the four state flags in the case of the FMS, and in the case of the Straits Settlements, the shield is made up of four quadrants each representative of the three settlements, Penang, Malacca and Singapore, and also Christmas Island which was annexed to the Straits Settlements in 1889. The station when it was built was designed to maximise the comfort, particularly of first and second class passengers embarking on what was to be a long journey (Rosanne mentioned it took something like 29 hours to reach the Siamese border by train from Tanjong Pagar and the Japanese during the occupation, improved the speed of the passenger trains to 60 km/h and goods trains to 50 km/h, cutting the journey time by some 5 hours), equipped with amenities such as passenger waiting rooms, refreshment rooms, dining rooms, a hairdresser’s shop, dressing rooms and lavatories. Based on news reports of the opening of the station, we are also told that there were other rooms such as a telegraph office, parcel room, offices for the necessary station staff and included a few bedrooms.

Batik painting style mosaic mural panels in the main hall depict the economies of the FMS.

The coat-of-arms of the Federated Malay States - the shield features colours of the four protected states of the FMS.

The coat-of-arms of the Straits Settlements with each quadrant of the shield representing the each of the Straits Settlements which then also included the Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island.

The 45 minute tour ended at the start of the departure platform which now features immigration counters introduced after the separation of Singapore from Malaysia, when travel across the Johor Straits required a passport. When I first started taking the trains in the 1990s, we would have to pass through the Singapore Immigration counters at the near end before going through Malaysian Immigration and Customs further down the platform … this practice was discontinued from mid 1998 when Singapore shifted its immigration to the CIQ Complex in Woodlands, insisting that the Malaysian authorities do the same. This has been resisted right up until today – and up to the 30th of June, one of the things you can still do is to enter Malaysia before leaving Singapore (for a more detailed explanation on this please read my previous post “A final journey from Tanjong Pagar: into Malaysia before leaving Singapore“. The platforms we were also told were some 1,200 feet long, built to cater to the longest of mail trains. We were also shown some of the features around the platform of historical value that would be retained – this included the hydraulic buffer stops at the end which apparently are the only ones found in the stations operated by the Malaysn Railway. The tour ended with a little excitement – first from the animated voiced coming from Malaysian immigration officers who tried to tell us we had strayed a little too far along the platform. It was then time for a quick catch up over some teh-tarik at the cafeteria with my fellow participants and new found friends ….

What used to be immigration counters used by the Singapore authorities ... and apparently reclaimed by Malaysia since mid 1998 ...

A train on the departure platform - the platforms are 1,200 feet in length to accommodate the longest of the mail trains. We were also told that 3rd Class passengers had to use a side access to the platforms.

One of the two hydraulic buffers.

The roof over the platforms also show art deco features in the geometric patterns found on them.


For a comprehensive account of the tour, do drop by PY’s post “The Tanjong Pagar Railway Station Tour on 21 May 2011“. And if any of you are keen to hop onto the last train into Singapore and have a party … do drop by Notabilia’s post “All Aboard? Party on the Last Train Through Singapore” and indicate your interest there. I also have a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station and if you care to read about them, do drop by my page “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“. Lastly, if you are keen to find out and support the Nature Society’s (Singapore) proposal to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, do drop by the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page … I do also have a series of posts on the Green Corridor if that is of interest – please visit them at “Support the Green Corridor“.


Rosanne, the volunteer guide with the PMD who led the tour.

A last look at the station ....

Capturing memories and the station's last days of the station seems to be very much fashion these days.








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