The Gateway into the Lost World

25 02 2014

It is in a deserted and somewhat forgotten corner of Singapore, that you will find the Gateway into the Lost World. It stands alone – the space to which it opens into is one that nature has reclaimed, giving little away as to what it might once have been.

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Once surrounded by a world we now have sought to forget, that of a village of wooden dwellings that was serenaded by the songs of the nearby sea, the gateway stands all alone except for the mosque that does remind us of what might once have been.

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In surroundings that does take one well away from the madness of the urban world, it probably isn’t hard to imagine what might once have been – a space in which the joy and peace of  waking to the smell of the sea would quite easily be found. It also isn’t difficult to imagine it as a place that would have inspired one who lived there to paint, as a talented architect who I suspect did live in a house beyond the now lonesome gates (word is that the gateway was to a house in which an architect of European origin lived), did –  producing more than 50 seascapes with watercolours that were the subject of an exhibition at the Lone Pine Gallery at Ming Court Hotel (now Orchard Parade Hotel) in 1986.

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The architect, James Westwater Ferrie who started a well known local architectural firm James Ferrie and Partners, arrived in Singapore from the UK in 1948. Having described himself in an interview about the exhibition that was published in 27 January 1986 edition of The Straits Times, as having “always like the sea” and being “closely associated with water”, he was I an avid sailor who sought also to live by the sea. He also offered a brief description of where he had lived: “in Sembawang with a garden stretching down to the sea” in explaining that the focus of his paintings was on “the skies and boats” where he lived. 

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Ferrie passed away in the UK in February 1993, and it would only be in his paintings, that the memory of the world around him in Sembawang is preserved, with the boats he sought to depict having long disappeared along with the villagers the boats belong to. The area however does remain a place to seek that peace Ferrie would have sought in building his home by the sea, having been spared thus far from the sea of concrete that is fast spreading through what once might have been an island in the sun. It may however not be long before the sound of a silence that now complements the songs of the sea will, as with the world the gateway did lead to, be a thing we would only be able to imagine as the relentless march of concrete does seem now to be very close to its doorstep.

The nearby mosque in the woods (Masjid Petempatan Melayu).

The nearby mosque in the woods (Masjid Petempatan Melayu).

The greenery that now surrounds the area.

The greenery that now surrounds the area.





A walk along the ridge: Commemorating the Battle of Pasir Panjang

4 02 2014

Jerome Lim, The Wondering Wanderer:

A walk that is well worth the 4-5 hours, offering a peek into a part of Singapore many of us would never think of exploring on our own. This year, it will take place on 15 Feb at 7 am. To sign up for it, visit this link: http://habitatnews.nus.edu.sg/index.php.

(see also: Lost on the Ridge)

Also happening around the same time is a series of National Heritage Board Battle for Singapore Heritage Tours on 8/9 Feb and 15 Feb. More information can be found at the I Love Museums website

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Originally posted on The Long and Winding Road:

I took a walk with a group of about 50 yesterday morning, along a part of Singapore that I frequent only because of visits I make from time-to-time to the National University of Singapore (NUS) in the course of my work, and in doing so, I learnt quite a lot about the area where one of the fiercest battles took place as the impregnable fortress that the colonial masters of Singapore had thought the island was, capitulated to the invading Japanese Imperial Army in the dark days of the February of 1942. The walk had in fact been one that takes place on an annual basis to commemorate the battle, the Battle of Pasir Panjang, with took place over the 13th and 14th of February, in the final hours before General Percival did the unthinkable, being made to take a march of shame up the hill on which General Yamashita…

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Riding on in a world that will soon change

26 11 2013

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

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

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

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

Gates of Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Gates of Bukit Brown Cemetery.

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

Notices of exhumation at Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Notices of exhumation at Bukit Brown Cemetery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Polo Club's Indoor Arena and Stables.

The Polo Club’s Indoor Arena and Stables.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another view of Jalan Mashhor.

Another view of Jalan Mashhor.

The Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA).

The Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA).

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

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

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

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

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

Another view of the National Equestrian Centre.

Another view of the National Equestrian Centre.

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

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

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

Jalan Mashhor at sunrise.

Jalan Mashhor at sunrise.

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

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


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





Watching the stars under the stars

29 05 2013

The last place in Singapore to soak in the atmosphere of the festivities which accompany a religious festival in a setting most of us may not seen for a quarter of a century is Pulau Ubin, the last island off Singapore (save for Sentosa) which has a community of residents. It is in the remnants of a village close to the island’s jetty where a Chinese Taoist temple, the Tua Pek Kong temple (Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Ting Da Bo Gong Temple or 乌敏岛佛山亭大伯公庙) dedicated to the Earth Deity 土地公 (Tu Di Gong in Mandarin) who is also commonly referred to in Singapore as 大伯公 – Tua Pek Kong in Hokkien or Da Bo Gong in Mandarin, is found. It setting is very much one that is reminiscent of many of the rural Chinese villages which were common on the main island of Singapore up until the 1980s, with a village temple at its centre with a permanent Chinese Opera (referred to locally as “wayang”) stage often located across a clearing from it.

Devotees offering candles at the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple. The temples celebrates two festivals in a big way.

Devotees offering candles at the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple. The temples celebrates two festivals in a big way.

Colours painted by the setting sun - setting the tone for a colourful night of entertainment under the stars.

Colours painted by the setting sun – setting the tone for a colourful night of entertainment under the stars.

The temple plays host twice a year to a series of festivities which are held to commemorate two important Chinese festivals which the temple celebrates in a big way. The bigger of the two is the Tua Pek Kong festival, celebrated to commemorate the birthday of the Earth Deity around the 15th day of the 4th Chinese month, while the Hungry Ghost festival which is celebrated with an auction around the 15th day of the 7th month, is a relatively quieter affair.

An image of the Earth Deity, Tua Pek King at the main altar of the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple.

An image of the Earth Deity, Tua Pek King at the main altar of the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple.

It is during both the festivals that the wayang stage sees use. Wayangs in the form of Teochew opera performed by the island’s Teochew Opera Troupe  (which I photographed at last year’s Hungry Ghosts Festival – click on this link for the post) based at the temple, are staged for the entertainment of the temple’s devotees (also for the visiting spirits in the case of the Hungry Ghost Festival)  providing a wonderful opportunity for Singaporean’s to revisit an almost forgotten tradition. In keeping up with the times, the stage also plays host to what perhaps is the new-age wayang – the getai (歌台), a somewhat kitsch (some even consider it crude) form of entertainment which by and large have replaced the wayangs of old during similar celebrations around Singapore.

A brightly dressed dancer on stage - getai is often seen as kitsch and somewhat crude, but it does have a huge following in Singapore.

A brightly dressed dancer on stage – getai is often seen as kitsch and somewhat crude, but it does have a huge following in Singapore.

I had the opportunity to see the new wayang in action in the old village like setting provided by Pulau Ubin’s stage last evening. The getai was held on the last evening of the series of festivities held over six days from 23 to 28 May this year and saw a huge turnout  - boats worked like clockwork ferrying a steady stream of visitors to the temple and the festivities – which certainly made the atmosphere very festival like. Under the stars in in the comfort of the cool breeze, the audience had the seats provided already filled as the stage came alive with lights and action matched by the brilliant colours provided by the of rays of the setting sun.

The large crowd seated in front of the stage.

The large crowd seated in front of the stage.

While I would not be one to admit to being a fan of getai, I will admit that the experience of watching the gaudily dressed stars of the song stage, entertain with song many which were could well be tunes of yesteryear, as well as converse and joke in Hokkien on a stage under the stars, was one that I thoroughly enjoyed. It was particularly heartening to see the large crowd – many who broke out into smiles and laughter as the evening entertainment progressed, enjoy themselves. The atmosphere was such that it did also seem to free both young and old from the distractions we have to much of in the modern world (I must have been the only one not taking a photograph or a video clip with a mobile device who was seen to be fiddling with my mobile phone).

Marcus Chin (陈建彬) on stage.

Marcus Chin (陈建彬) on stage.

Members of the audience had their eyes glued to the stage throughout most of the evening.

Members of the audience had their eyes glued to the stage throughout most of the evening.

The getai show which was hosted by Xu Qiong Fang (浒琼芳) and Wang Lei (王雷) saw a string of getai stars appear on stage. Not having admitted to being a fan, there is also no need for me to pretend to know who I was being entertained by. I did however recognise one of the stars from a previous experience watching getai under the Flyer. That was veteran entertainer Marcus Chin (陈建彬). I was able to identify the Babes in the City (宝贝姐妹) pairing, only through a comment left on my instagram post  by filmaker Royston Tan (the pair featured in a video he produced, “The Happy Dragon“, to promote Safe Sex) .

Babes in the City (宝贝姐妹).

Babes in the City (宝贝姐妹).

Host Wang Lei (王雷) also entertained - standing next to him is Lee Bao En (李宝恩 ), a young getai star from Johor.

Host Wang Lei (王雷) also sang – standing next to him is Lee Bao En (李宝恩), a young getai star from Johor.

A relatively more recently introduced  form of festival entertainment, the getai does in fact have a long enough tradition, having gained in popularity during the 1970s as interest in the traditional forms of entertainment such as the Chinese Opera and Puppet Shows was waning. On the evidence of the turnout, it does seem that, love it or hate it, it does have a following and being more adaptable than the more traditional street theatre, it certainly is here to stay.  It was nice to be out under the stars in a setting one can otherwise no longer find. It felt as if it was yesterday … almost. It would have been nice to see just one thing more – the mobile food vendors (particularly the bird’s nest drink and the steamed sweet corn seller) who never were very far away whenever the wayang came to town.

The view backstage.

The view backstage.

A view through a window of the permanent wayang stage.

A view through a window of the permanent wayang stage.

More photographs of the stage and audience:

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A reminder of a world we long have discarded

10 05 2013

A road which featured in the many drives my father took us on to wonderful coastline at the eastern tip of Singapore was Tampines Road. Once Singapore’s longest road, the road is today 5 kilometres shorter than it was, truncated in part by the construction of the Tampines Expressway (TPE) on the eastern end of the road. While much of the road bears little resemblance to the rural road off which the fencing of the northern boundary of the then Paya Lebar International Airport featured, as did many kampongs and fishing ponds, there are still some reminders of the world which except for the airport which is now used by the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF), has long since vanished.

A peek at a world left behind.

A window into a little piece of Tampines Road which the time seems to have been left behind.

A motor and tyre workshop dominates much of an area where time seems to stand very still.

A motor and tyre workshop dominates much of an area where time seems to stand very still.

One reminder is a little pocket of a more recent past, which seems to lie well forgotten, at what was the 9¾ milestone of the old Tampines Road. Close to where a cluster of huge temple complexes which if memory serves me right started to crop up in the 1970s is, the reminder is a remnant of what once was Hun Yeang Village – the name of which is remembered only by that little bit of Hun Yeang Road which still does exist. The area lining Tampines Road around Hun Yeang Road was where in the 1970s the Hun Yeang Community Centre and the Tampines Veterinary Clinic could also be found, all which have since disappeared, leaving only a rather dilapidated looking row of shophouses from the village’s more recent past behind. The row houses businesses dominated by a tyre and motor workshop, all of which does seem to be wedged in between the past and the present – a reminder of the suburban Singapore of the 1970s that we have discarded.

The row of shophouses at Hun Yeang Road.

The row of shophouses at Hun Yeang Road.

A scene which resembles that of the semi-urban rural world of the 1970s.

A scene which resembles that of the semi-urban rural world of the 1970s.

The area to the left was where the Community Centre once was, and to the right where the vet clinic was.

The area to the left was where the Community Centre once was, and to the right where the vet clinic was.

Interestingly, the man who gave his name to Hun Yeang Road (as well as the village) was Mr Khoo Hun Yeang, a prominent Penang born businessman who lived from 1860 to 1917. Mr Khoo, whose father owned a coconut plantation on the mainland side of Penang, had in his time run the coconut plantation as well as making a name in other businesses. He was also later to join the Opium and Spirit revenue farm in Penang in which his father was a partner in, and later serve as a Managing Partner (from 1899) and Managing Director (from 1902 to 1906) of the Opium and Spirit Farm in Singapore. The farms – which were licenses granted through a tender for the collection of taxes on behalf of the then Straits Settlements government for items on which the government regulated and had a monopoly on, particularly that related to Opium and spirits were highly lucrative. Mr Khoo left the Opium and Spirit Farm in 1906, moving to Kuching (there is also a street in Kuching named after him) where he was involved in the construction business. Mr Khoo’s association with the area came about through his purchase of a 81 ha. fruit and rubber plantation here in 1913. Tragically, Mr Khoo passed away in a motor accident in Medan to which he has gone to to seek medical treatment in 1917 and is buried in Penang.

Truck tyres dominate the scene in front of the row of shophouses.

Truck tyres in front of the row of shophouses.

That time would catch up with what’s left of the former Hun Yeang Village, there is little doubt. But until that happens, this little piece of the past will be one I will hold on to, not so much as a place I have interacted with, but one in which I am reminded of that more familiar and gentler world I grew up in – a world that much as I would like to, I would never be able to return to.

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Images related to Tampines Primary School / Hun Yeang Village provided by hoosiers:

Tampines Primary School Crest / Badge.

Tampines Primary School Crest / Badge.

Members of the Staff, 1968.

Members of the Staff, 1968.

Members of the Staff, 1982.

Members of the Staff, 1982.

This gentleman was our senior assistant then. I got to meet him during this CNY for the first time since 1977 (37 yrs later). Pretty overwhelming..

This gentleman was our senior assistant then.
I got to meet him during this CNY for the first time since 1977 (37 yrs later). Pretty overwhelming..

The mere sight of this turquoise Ford Anglia will strike fear in every pupil of TPS as it means the Senior Assistant cum Discipline Master is around somewhere in the school..

The mere sight of this turquoise Ford Anglia will strike fear in every pupil of TPS as it means the Senior Assistant cum Discipline Master is around somewhere in the school..

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Map showing location of Hun Yeang Village.

Map showing location of Hun Yeang Village.

Excursion to Paya Lebar Airport.

Excursion to Paya Lebar Airport.






Strange Horizons: The giant spinning tops off Tampines Road

9 05 2013

What does look like two giant spinning tops from the bottom of a grassy slope along Tampines Road are actually two concrete inverted cone shaped storage tanks built to each hold 8448 cubic metres of NEWater – water recycled from waste treated to become drinking quality water. The elevated tanks which measure 43 metres in diameter at the top, make up the Tampines NEWater Service Reservoir maintained by the Public Utilities Board (PUB) provide storage for NEWater produced nearby for use by nearby electronic chip manufacturing factories which require very clean water.

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Off a little street in Singapore

19 04 2013

Off the busy and lively streets and as much an ubiquitous part of Singapore’s urban landscape as shophouses were, the back lane often took on a life of its own in that Singapore seem almost to have forgotten about. The back lane, besides being a hangout for hoodlums and a centre for undesirable activities, as is often depicted in popular culture, were also where children played and where honest tradesmen conducted their businesses. Unsanitary as they may have appeared to be, the best makan (food) around could often be found from makeshift food stalls set up in the back lane – the back lanes close to Rex Cinema with nasi padang, chendol and Indian rojak to die for, comes immediately to mind.

A reminder of back lanes past? A charcoal stove sits silently in a back lane.

A reminder of back lanes past? A charcoal stove sits silently in a back lane.

Back lanes would once have been the centre of life off the streets.

Back lanes would once have been the centre of life off the streets.

Despite being associated with the shophouses that characterised urban Singapore, back lanes came into being after many of the shop houses were already up. Shophouses were initially built back-to-back and it was only following an amendment to the Municipal Ordinance in 1909 that back lanes came into being and back lanes had to be retrofitted at the back of existing shophouses in a massive scheme starting from 1910 which went on well past the end of the war. The scheme to part of the backs of  shophouses was seen as a necessity not just to provide much needed access for fire-fighting between the tinderboxes of the overpopulated shophouses, but also to allow for basic sanitation to be provided .

Bicycles parked along a back lane. Back lanes were added after many of the shophouses were already built following the passing of the Municipal Ordinance of 1909.

Bicycles parked along a back lane. Back lanes were added after many of the shophouses were already built following the passing of the Municipal Ordinance of 1909.

The back lanes which were to eventually allow space for water to be piped and sewer lines to be run, initially made it easier to conduct  the unpleasant business of nightsoil collection (which actually went on right up until 1987). As compensation for land lost due to the back lanes, the Municipality reconstructed the backs of the affected shophouses and the spiral staircases which served as secondary exits and fire escapes we see at the backs of shophouses today were added in as part of the reconstruction.

A (sealed-up) night soil port - would once have been covered with a flap through which night soil buckets were collected and replaced by nightsoil workers.

A remnant of a forgotten past: a (sealed-up) night soil port. It would once have been fitted with a flap through which night soil buckets were collected and replaced.

Back lanes offer a doorway into the past.

A back door – back lanes are more recent than the shophouses the backs of which now open into them, Many were fitted after the shophouses were built.

Back lanes do exist today, in the many places where shophouses have survived – over 6000 shophouses have been conserved on the island with large clusters of them found in areas such as Tanjong Pagar, Chinatown, Katong/Joo Chiat, Jalan Besar and Geylang. While there are a few that still are alive in one way or another, most are silent and devoid of the life we would once have seen in them. The back lane however is still a place I often find myself wandering in – many have a lot of character as well a sense of mystery about them, and they are often where, despite the air of silence which now hangs over them, much colour, texture and a few little surprises, missing on the overly sanitised streets of Singapore, can still be found.

The back lane is where much colour and texture can still be found.

The back lane is where much colour and texture can still be found.

An abandoned motorcycle.

An abandoned motorcycle.

Plastic basins left to be drained.

Plastic basins left to be drained.

A signs warning against the mistreatment of cats in the back lane. The alley cat is still very much a part of the back lane scene.

A signs warning against the mistreatment of cats in the back lane. The alley cat is still very much a part of the back lane scene.

Back lanes these days serve as storage spaces more than anything else.

Back lanes these days serve as storage spaces more than anything else.





A church once occupied by Sin

19 03 2013

I took a walk by what, for a short moment, appeared to be a church in the woods. In an area in which woods in any form would have long abandoned – the corner of Waterloo Street and Middle Road, the building which resembles a small village church has for the better part of a century not actually used as one. Together with an adjacent two storey building, the church is now part of the Sculpture Square complex, a space dedicated to the promotion and development of contemporary 3-dimensional (3D) art.

A church in the woods?

A church in the woods?

My memories of the buildings are ones which date back to my younger days (of which I have actually written about in a previous post). The church building itself was always a curious sight each time I passed through the area, whether on the way home from church in the late 1960s and early 1970s, or from school in the late 1970s, when it had been occupied by Sin. The walls of the building were then coloured not just by the colour of its fading coat of paint, but also by streaks of motor oil and grease, having been used by a motor workshop, the Sin Sin Motor Co. My mother remembers it being used as a motor workshop as far back as her own days in school (she went to St. Anthony’s Convent further down Middle Road in the 1950s). The building next to it, which is built in a similar layout as many in the area which might ones which have been homes of wealthy merchants, had in those days been used as the Tai Loke Hotel (previously Tai Loke Lodging House) – one of several rather seedy looking budget hotels found in the area.

The church building when it was used as a motor workshop and the Tai Loke Hotel next to it, 1987 (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/)

The church building when it was used as a motor workshop and the Tai Loke Hotel next to it, seen from Middle Road in 1987 (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/).

While not much is known about the building which the Tai Loke occupied, there is enough that is known about the church building which was erected from 1870 to 1875, based on information on a National Heritage Board (NHB) plaque at the site as well as on Sculpture Square’s website. It first saw use as the Christian Institute. The Methodists were in 1885, invited to use the building and it became the Middle Road Church (or Malay Church) after a transfer to the Methodists was made in 1892, until the church moved to Kampong Kapor in 1929. Interestingly, the building also housed the Methodist Girls’ School which was started at nearby Short Street for a while until 1900. According to information on Sculpture Square’s website, the building had apparently also seen life as a Chinese restaurant, the “May Blossom Restaurant” during the war.

A photograph of the abandoned church building in the 1990s - after the motor workshop had vacated it (from Sculpture Square's website).

A photograph of the abandoned church building in the 1990s – after the motor workshop had vacated it (from Sculpture Square’s website).

Following years of neglect, the former church building when it was vacated by the motor workshop possibly at the end of the 1980s, was left in rather a dilapidated condition and it was a local sculptor, Sun Yu Li, who saw its potential for use as an arts venue which was opened as Sculpture Square in 1999.





A dying tradition lives under the light of the silvery moon

3 09 2012

The seventh month in the Chinese calendar is a month that is held with much superstition in a predominantly Chinese Singapore. It is a month when, as beliefs would have it, the gates of hell are opened and it’s residents return to the earthly world. It is a time when the air fills with the smell of offerings being burned and when tents and stages appear in many open spaces all across Singapore to host dinners during which lively seventh month auctions are held during which entertainment (for both the returning spirits and the living), more often than not, in the form of Getai(歌台) – a live variety show, is often a noisy accompaniment.

Offerings are made to the spirit world when the gates of hell are opened during the seventh month.

Getai, popular as it is today, is however, a more recent addition as entertainment to accompany seventh month dinners. Before its introduction in the 1970s, it would have been more common to see Chinese opera performances and various forms of Chinese puppet shows at such events and during festive occasions at the various Taoist temples in Singapore.

Chinese opera was a common sight at seventh month festivities in the 1960s and 1970s.

The various forms of Chinese opera back in the 1960s and 1970s as I remember them, were always looked forward to with much anticipation by the young and old. My maternal grandmother, despite her not understanding a word of the Chinese dialects that were used in the performances was a big fan, bringing me along to the opera whenever it hit town. Travelling opera troupes were common then, moving from village to village setting up temporary wooden stages on which served not only as a performance stage but also as a place to spend the night. The travelling opera troupes brought with them a whole entourage of food and toy vendors with them and it was that more than the performances that I would look forward to whenever I was asked to accompany my grandmother to the wayangs as Chinese opera performances are often referred to in Singapore and in Malaysia.

A temporary opera stage set up during a Teochew Opera performance at the Singapore Flyer.

It was also common then to see more permanent structures that served as stages back then – they were a feature of many Chinese villages and were also found around temples. Perhaps the last permanent stage in Singapore is one that is not on the main island but one found in what must be the last bastion of ways forgotten that has stubbornly resisted the wave of urbanisation that has changed the landscape of the main island, Pulau Ubin, an island in the north-east of Singapore. Although many of the island’s original residents have moved to the mainland and many of their wooden homes and jetties that once decorated the island’s shoreline have been cleared, there is still a small reminder of how life might once have been on the island – a small community still exists, mainly to provide services to the curious visitors from the main island who come to get a taste of a Singapore that has largely been forgotten.

The permanent stage at Pulau Ubin – it was common to see such stages around temples and in Chinese villages up until the 1980s.

The permanent stage at Pulau Ubin is one that sits across a clearing from the village’s temple which is dedicated to the popular Taoist deity, Tua Pek Kong (大伯公). It is also one that is still used, playing host to Teochew Opera performances by the temple’s opera troupe twice a year – once during the Tua Pek Kong Festival and once during the seventh month festivities. I have long wanted to catch one of the performances in a setting that one can no longer find elsewhere in Singapore, but never found the time to do it – until the last weekend when I was able to find some time to take the boat over for the seventh month festivities which were held on Friday and Saturday evening.

The Tua Pek Kong Temple on Pulau Ubin.

The clearing in front of the temple at Pulau Ubin with the tent set up for the seventh month auction.

For me, it is always nice to take the slow but short boat ride to the island – something I often did in my youth, not just because Pulau Ubin offers a wonderful escape for the urban jungle, but also because it takes me back to a world that rural Singapore once had been. We do have a few places to run off to on the main island, but it is only on Pulau Ubin that one gets a feel that one is far removed from the cold concrete of the urban world in which I can return to the gentler times in which we once lived.

On the slow boat to Ubin.

Ubin in sight – all it takes is a short boat ride to find that a little reminder of a Singapore that has long been forgotten.

Pulau Ubin offers an escape from the maddening urban sprawl.

Although the festivities on the island are now a quieter and a less crowded affair than it might once have been here and in similar celebrations that once took place across the island, it is still nice to be able to witness a dying tradition held in a traditional setting that we would otherwise not be able to see in Singapore any more. While it still is difficult for me to understand and appreciate what was taking place on stage, especially with the amplified voice of the auctioneer booming over the shrill voices of the performers on stage, it was still a joy to watch the elaborately made-up and kitted-out performers go through their routines. It was also comforting to see that the members of the troupe included both the young and the old, signalling that there is hope that a fading tradition may yet survive.

The stage manager calling lines from the script out to the performers – a necessity as the troupe members are all doing this part-time.

The treat that comes with any wayang performance is that it brings with it the opportunity to go backstage. It is here where we get to see the performers painstaking preparations in first doing up their elaborate make-up and in dressing up in the costumes, as well as watch the musicians who provide the characteristic wind, string and percussion sounds that Chinese Opera wouldn’t be what it is without.

Going backstage is always a treat. A performer gets ready as a drummer adds his sounds to the opera in the background.

A performer preparing for the evening’s performance backstage.

The same performer doing her make-up.

Another putting a hair extension on.

The fifteen year old little drummer boy.

Performers also double up as musicians as the troupe is short of members.

I would have liked to have spent the whole night at the festivities, but as I was feeling quite worn out having only returned to Singapore early that morning on a late night flight, I decided to leave after about two hours at the wayang. The two hours and the hour prior to that on the island were ones that helped me not just to reconnect with a world I would otherwise have forgotten, but also to the many evenings I had spent as a child catching the cool breeze in my hair by the sea. Those are times the new world seems to want us to forget, times when the simple things in life mattered a lot more … There will be a time that I hope will never come when this world we find on Pulau Ubin will cease to exist. I will however take comfort in it as long as it is there … and as long as there are those who seek to keep traditions such as the Teochew opera we once in a while are able to see there, alive.

The light of the silvery moon seen on Pulau Ubin – the festivities are held during the full moon of the seventh month.

A section of the audience and participants in the seventh month dinner.


Close-ups of performers and scenes from the Teochew Opera:








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