Scaling the heights of construction

10 06 2013

A sight that greeted me on a walk around Maxwell Road on a Sunday, was one I had not seen in Singapore for quite a while – that of wooden scaffolding being erected at the Airview Building just across from the URA Centre. Once a common sight and used extensively in the 1960s and 1970s for construction of many of our early high-rises as well as in building maintenance, the wooden scaffold has all but disappeared from sight here in Singapore.

A close-up of the lashing on a cross joint.

A close-up of the lashing on a cross joint of a wooden scaffold – these were common sights at construction sites in the 1960s and 1970s.

A bakau pole pile.

A bakau pole pile.

My first impressions of the wooden scaffolds were made during a repainting exercise at the end of 1971 on the exterior of the block of flats I had lived in, in anticipation of the visit of HM Queen Elizabeth II to the block that was to take place in February 1972. What was an amazing sight of fearless men, moving poles and planks up, as the scaffold poles were seemingly effortlessly tied up, floor-by-floor up all nineteen storeys of the block, has remained with me to this day.

Scaffolds along the corridor of the Airview Building.

Scaffolds along the corridor of the Airview Building.

Bakau wood scaffolds being put at the Airview Building.

Bakau wood scaffolds being put at the Airview Building.

The wooden scaffolds, made up of a framework of heavy bakau wood poles (a material which harvested from the numerous bakau mangrove forests in Singapore and Malaysia was readily available – the same wood was also used in the production of charcoal) arranged both horizontally and vertically with diagonals added for support, were then seen at construction sites everywhere. The poles would be manually hosited-up, and tied together using a natural fibre rope or strip, such as bamboo strips, with planks laid across the horizontal poles as a deck and ladders tied to provide vertical access. What was also amazing was the sight of the painters as they went about their business, starting from the top, they moved down floor by floor without so much as a safety line or belt attached to them.

Wooden scaffolds seen at HDB blocks of flats under construction in the mid 1960s (image source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas). They were used extensively in high-rise construction and maintenance up to the 1970s.

Wooden scaffolds seen at HDB blocks of flats under construction in the mid 1960s (image source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas). They were used extensively in high-rise construction and maintenance up to the 1970s.

Synthetic cords are now used where natural fibre cords were previously used.

Synthetic cords are now used where natural fibre cords were previously used.

The wooden poles are often handled manually and sometimes sawn on the spot to size.

The wooden poles are often handled manually and sometimes sawn on the spot to size.

The MSA Building (later SIA Building) under construction in the late 1960s with wooden scaffolds around the exterior (external photograph – source: http://sgarchperspectives.blogspot.sg/2012/02/malayan-architects-co-partnership-1960.html).

There were over the years many incidents not just involving falls from scaffolding, but also wooden scaffolds collapsing. This prompted the Authorities to regulate their use, restricting the maximum heights of wooden scaffolds used in construction in the early 1970s, and disallowing their use completely from high-rise construction in  the early 1980s.  This along with the introduction of modular metal scaffolding (which not only is much quicker to erect, but also has a better safety record) as well as gondolas which made their appearance in the early 1970s saw that they became a less of a common sight over the years.

An incident in 1972 during which wooden scaffolding at the construction site of Apollo Hotel collapsed resulting in the death of two workers.

An incident in 1972 during which wooden scaffolding at the construction site of Apollo Hotel collapsed resulting in the death of two workers (image source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas).

Lashing the diagonals.

Lashing the diagonals.

A scaffolding worker lashing the wooden poles.

A scaffolding worker lashing the wooden poles.

Ladders are tied to the scaffolds to provide vertical access.

Ladders are tied to the scaffolds to provide vertical access.

Another once common sight at the construction site which has disappeared, is that of the women with their signature red cloth headdresses, bearing loads their frail frames had seemed too tiny to support. A tribute to these women who came from Sanshui (Samsui) District of Guangdong Province in China to make a living here as menial workers at construction sites, is found across the road from the Airview Building at the side of the URA Centre.

A tribute to the women who built Singapore.

A tribute to the women who built Singapore.

The stories of these women who built Singapore –  most came over in the 1920s to the 1940s and were sworn to single-hood, and the resilience they demonstrated (many who by the time I saw them in the 1960s  and 1970s were in already well advanced in age), are well worth hearing. The story of one, Madam Ng Moey Chye, can be found at an exhibition currently being held at the National Museum’s Stamford Gallery. The exhibition runs until the 23rd of June 2013 and features the stories of six pioneering tradesmen. More information on the exhibition, Trading Stories: Conversations with Six Tradesmen, is available at a previous post on it, “Trading stories with six tradesmen“.

Exhibition panels featuring former Samsui woman, Mdm Ng Moey Chye, 81, who was actually the daughter of another Samsui woman.

Exhibition panels featuring former Samsui woman, Mdm Ng Moey Chye, at Trading Stories: Conversations with Six Tradesmen.





Trading stories with six tradesmen

15 03 2013

An often overlooked chapter in the Singapore story is the one that is written by our pioneering tradesmen. Many had little choice to turn to their trades as a means of income, but in doing so, they were able to contribute to society by serving the many important needs of the growing population in the early days of the development of Singapore. While many of these trades have fallen victim to the rapid pace of change, as well as perhaps to the globalisation, and have been forgotten about; there are some which have managed to stay relevant or have evolved to meet the changing needs of today’s society. An exhibition which opens to the public today at the National Museum of Singapore, Trading Stories: Conversations with Six Tradesmen, looks at some of the tales of these tradesmen, through personal accounts from six pioneering tradesmen, some who have retired from their trades, and some whose trades are still very much alive today.

Exhibition panels featuring former Samsui woman, Mdm Ng Moey Chye, 81, who was actually the daughter of another Samsui woman.

Exhibition panels featuring former Samsui woman, Mdm Ng Moey Chye, 81, who was actually the daughter of another Samsui woman.

Letter writer Mr Thangaraju s/o Singaram, who is 85 years old and was from Tamil Nadu, India.

Letter writer Mr Thangaraju s/o Singaram, who is 85 years old and was from Tamil Nadu, India.

Exhibition panels featuring tukang urut, Mdm Runtik Binti Murtono, a 53 year old immigrant from Surabaya.

Exhibition panels featuring tukang urut, Mdm Runtik Binti Murtono, a 53 year old immigrant from Surabaya.

The exhibition which will be on until 23 June 2013, features the stories of a traditional goldsmith, a movie poster painter, a tukang urut (or Malay confinement lady), a Samsui woman, a poultry farmer and a letter writer, recounting the colourful journeys taken and the experiences of these tradesmen.  In doing so, we do not only hear tales of sacrifice and struggle in the early days of Singapore, we also gain many insights into the trades themselves and perhaps in them, many other stories that would otherwise not have been told, such as that of the Achari craftsmen caste and the wows to remain single that many Samsui women took.

Mr Ho Seng Choon, of Lian Wah Hang Quail and Poultry Farm, one of the six tradesmen featured, speaking to Mr Sam Tan, Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth at the opening of the exhibition.

Mr Ho Seng Choon, of Lian Wah Hang Quail and Poultry Farm, one of the six tradesmen featured, speaking to Mr Sam Tan, Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth at the opening of the exhibition.

Panels featuring Mr Murugaian s/o Ratnaswami Asari, 72 a goldsmith who came as a carpenter from Tamil Nadu, India in 1957.

Panels featuring Mr Murugaian s/o Ratnaswami Asari, 72 a goldsmith who came as a carpenter from Tamil Nadu, India in 1957.

Former movie poster painter Mr Ang Hao Sai. Behind him is a hand-painted movie poster made for his 2008 film, My Magic.

Former movie poster painter Mr Ang Hao Sai. Behind him is a mock up of a traditional cinema on wheels (peep-show) and a hand-painted movie poster loaned by filmmaker Eric Khoo that was made for his 2008 film, My Magic.

Besides the six tradesmen, the exhibition also includes a community segment which features over 20 exhibits contributed by the community. These include private artefacts and keepsakes, locally produced documentaries and a community photography exhibit. One which caught my attention is khat calligrapher, Mr Faizal Somadi’s beautifully executed works of Jawi calligraphy. Jawi is a less often used traditional Malay script which in more recent times has been replaced by the romanised script. Visitors to the exhibition will also be encouraged to leave some of their personal memories of old trades behind by posting notes on a wall.

A reflection of a fan with Chinese calligraphy with a showcase of showing the tools of the trade.

A reflection of a fan with Chinese calligraphy with a showcase of showing the tools of the trade.

Mr Faizal Somadi, a khat calligrapher whose works are on display, speaking to Mr Sam Tan.

Mr Faizal Somadi, a khat calligrapher whose works are on display, speaking to Mr Sam Tan.

Visitors can leave some of their own memories of old trades behind.

Visitors can leave some of their own memories of old trades behind.

Also to look out for as part of the exhibition, is a series of street theatre performances and demonstrations of the old trades. This will take place at the museum on weekends in May and June. The museum has introduced programmes for primary and secondary school students. Trading Stories runs from 15 March to 23 June 2013 at the museum’s Stamford Gallery and opens from 10 am to 6 pm daily. Admission is free. More information can be found at www.nhb.gov.sg/tradingstories.

Photographs and memories of spaces where some of the trades once thrived - my personal contribution to the exhibition.

Photographs of spaces where some of the trades once thrived – my personal contribution to the exhibition.





Corridors of Trade

14 03 2013

A feature of the once ubiquitous shophouse is the five-foot-way. The corridors, conceived as shelter for pedestrians, also made an inexpensive space for many a tradesman to conduct business.

A mobile phone vendor along a five-foot-way at Serangoon Road.

A mobile phone vendor along a five-foot-way at Serangoon Road.

The five-foot-way was often what we visited to pick the newspaper up; get our hair done; have our shoes mended; and, where we could indulge in that favourite bowl of noodles.

A treat I would look forward to as a child was having my favourite bowl of beef-ball soup sitting at a table on a five-foot-way along Hock Lam Street.

My maternal grandmother might also have plied her trade on the five-foot-way – she sold appam in the vicinity of Simon Road Market in the uncertain days that followed the end of the war.

The surviving corridors are mostly silent, abandoned by tradesmen we no longer have need for, except for a few.

(A contribution to National Heritage Board’s “Trading Stories: Conversations with Six Tradesmen” exhibition which will be on at the National Museum of Singapore from 15 March to 23 June 2013)


Trading Stories: Conversations with Six Tradesmen is a community exhibition on old trade­­­­­­­s in Singapore and how tradesmen have coped with the challenge of changing times. Featuring the lives of six individuals who have made their living as a traditional goldsmith, movie poster painter, tukang urut or Malay confinement lady, Samsui woman, poultry farmer and letter writer, the exhibition sheds light on some of Singapore’s old trades through their personal stories – stories of sacrifices and struggles, of passion and fortitude, of entrepreneurial courage and adaptability.

This community exhibition at the Stamford Gallery also features numerous community contributions such as the loan of private keepsakes, locally produced documentaries and a community photography exhibit on old local trades. Members of the public are also invited to contribute to the exhibition by sharing their personal memories and stories of old trades in Singapore.








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