From “Chinatown” to “China Town”

3 12 2021

The development of Singapore’s Chinatown, its reason for being, and how it does not quite fit into the same mould as the Chinatowns found across the non-Chinese world, was the topic of my previous post. Chinatown’s evolution in more recent years, first into a conservation and a tourist site as one of three of Singapore’s “ethnic quarters”, does have a significant influence on what has become of Chinatown today as a go-to place for the newest additions to the Chinese community in Singapore.

Chinatown today is part tourist attraction, a place for Singaporeans to find traditional goods for the occasion and for the new Chinese to get a taste of home.

The “new Chinese”, if I may call those more recently arrived from China that, started arriving in the wake of the setting up of diplomatic ties between the People’s Republic of China and Singapore in 1990. That opened the doors for an inflow of much needed migrant workers, along with academics, professionals, students and “study-mamas” (or peidu mama) in large numbers. Recent estimates has it that there could be as many as 400,000 new Chinese who have come Singapore, some of whom have been naturalised. Similar ethnically with their long-time Singaporean Chinese cousins who have mainly descended from southern Chinese immigrants, the new Chinese have a wider diversity in their origins, have quite different values and cultural perspectives, speak differently and have differing tastes. A natural consequence of this is the appearance of the many businesses, eateries and stores that now cater to the tastes, wants and needs of this numerically significant group.

Well patronised Northern Chinese and Sichuan food eateries along New Bridge Road.

Chinatown, and in particular, People’s Park Complex, is now where a concentration of such business can be found. People’s Park Complex, perhaps for it long-time role as a place to purchase Chinese made products since its opening in 1970, and where several remittance agents were set up in the 1990s, would attract travel agents specialising in the Chinese market, food and snack stalls, stores dealing in Chinese foodstuffs, and most recently, supermarkets. These have more or less become permanent fixtures in the shopping centre. Beyond this, food outlets are also made an appearance in and around the area of the complex. People’s Park Food Centre has now a range of food stalls offering food representative of northeastern China and also from the numb and spicy (mala) food from the Sichuan area.

Eateries and food stalls lining People’s Park Complex and People’s Park Food Centre offer a taste of home for many new Chinese.

Nearby, a long-time Chinatown landmark in the form of the former Great Southern Hotel, has been the home of Yue Hwa Chinese Products, a Hong Kong store which brings in Chinese goods and foodstuffs since 1996. The store has been a go-to place for ingredients for the more exotic types of Chinese food. It has however seen the arrival of a new competition, Scarlett Supermarket, whose name in Chinese ShiJiaKe (思家客) translates into “homesick”. The supermarket, which brings in Chinese snacks and foodstuffs and offers them at very reasonable prices, has in the short time since it opened its Trengganu Street outlet in October 2020, become popular both with new Chinese and with many Singaporeans. It has since opened stores across Singapore, including a flagship store in People’s Park Complex and by January 2022, will have 10 stores in total.

Yue Hwa Chinese Products, a Hong Kong store that was established at the former Great Southern Hotel in 1996. It has long been a go-to place to obtain ingredients for more exotic Chinese cooking.
The new kid on the block – Scarlett Supermarket, which opened its first store in Oct 2020, and has since opened several other stores across Singapore, including a flagship store in People’s Park Complex in Feb 2021.

What has become especially lively is the Chinatown food scene. This isn’t just confined to the area in and around People’s Park Complex, but has also added flavour to the scene across Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road. That is where the heart of old Chinatown was. Now an area that is at the heart of the tourist side of Chinatown, new Chinese eateries can be found along with several others along Upper Cross Street, Mosque Street, Pagoda Street, and Smith Street.

Eateries lining Mosque Street.

While the eateries may have been set up with the aim of bringing a taste of home to the multitude of new Chinese here in Singapore, many have also found regular patrons elsewhere. Three northeastern (dongbei) Chinese restaurants along Upper Cross Street for example, have become popular with the Koreans and Japanese and are featured on websites and other social media channels not just here but also in their home countries. In this way perhaps, Chinatown could be seen as playing a role of bringing people together, much like it did in the past.

A dongbei restaurant along Upper Cross Street.

While the focus of this post is on Chinatown becoming “China Town”, Chinatown today a lot more than that. As we heard in the video attached to my previous post, it is also a place for Singaporeans, especially those with past connections to the place. The renewal of Chinatown has also brought with it a host of new attractions such as the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Although the authenticity of the relic that it houses has been questioned, and perhaps whether the temple’s place in Chinatown is appropriate, it is here to stay. The temple and much of today’s Chinatown could be thought of as a continuation of the Chinatown of the past. Although not quite the same, it is still very much a place that brings people and cultures together.

Not Chinatown and not Singapore? A structure that perhaps defines the new Chinatown, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Consecrated in 2008, it was built to hold what is claimed to be a tooth of Buddha that was housed in an earthquake damaged stupa in Myanmar. Questions have been asked about the authenticity of the relic.

From Chinatown to “China Town” (video)

From Chinatown to “China Town”





What makes Chinatown Chinatown in Chinese majority Singapore?

30 11 2021

That there is a place known as “Chinatown” in Singapore seems quite odd, with Chinese settlers and their descendants having been in the majority from the mid-1800s. The origins of the name lie possibly in Singapore’s very first Town Plan. Drawn up in 1822, the plan defined areas for settlement along ethnic lines. The area where Chinatown is today, corresponds to the plan’s “Chinese Campong” and an adjacent “Chuliah Campong” (“Chuliah” or “Chulia” is a reference to those from the south of India). The term “China town” to describe the district, as reports in the English language press going back to the 1830s show, found use very early on.

Chinatown, through the eyes of its former residents (a video).

While the use of the term does suggest a similarity with other Chinatowns or Chinese dominated streets or neighbourhoods found in urban centres across the non-Chinese world, that is where the similarity ends. Singapore’s Chinatown has never quite been a “Tong Yan Kai”, the “Street of Tang People” in Cantonese, as many of the other Chinatowns are often referred to. To most in the Chinese speaking community, Chinatown was “Greater Town”, “Tai Por” in Cantonese or “Tua Po” in Teochew and Hokkien.

A statement relating to the revenue obtained from the so-called Revenue Farms in Singapore published in 1838.
“A Street in Chinatown”, 1932, Leiden University (CC BY 4.0)

Another name that the district was, and still is, associated with is “Ngau Che Shui” (in Cantonese) or “Gu Chia Chwee” (in Hokkien) and “Kreta Ayer” (in Malay). Translating into “Water Bullock Cart”, the name is a reference to the section of Chinatown around Kreta Ayer Road and Spring Street, where there were fresh water springs from which bullock carts used for the sale and distribution of fresh water were once filled. The name is now also used to refer to the larger Chinatown area.

Smith and Trengganu Street corner, 1914 with the former Lai Chun Yuen on the left.

One unique feature of Singapore’s Chinatown, is its multi-ethnic flavour. Non-Chinese houses of worship are quite a conspicuous part of it. Two of Chinatown’s streets, Pagoda and Temple Streets do in fact take their names from a Hindu temple. Another, Mosque Street is name after the Jamae (Chulia) Mosque.

The shophouse dominated streets of Chinatown with a Hindu temple, the Sri Mariamman, after which two streets are named.

The multi-dimensional quality extended to the Chinese community in Chinatown, who divided themselves along lines of dialects. The Kreta Ayer section of Chinatown for example, was home to the Cantonese, and the area around Telok Ayer and Amoy Street was predominantly Hokkien. The Teochews lived and ran businesses in the areas closer to the Singapore river. The non-Chinese communities that were added to this mix were those from southern India and smaller pockets of other communities that included the Baweanese (or Boyan). Hailing from Pulau Bawean, the Baweanese were skilled horse handlers. Many found work as gharry-drivers and made the area of the stables at Erskine Road, home. 

A Silver Chariot procession along the Streets of Chinatown during the Hindu festival of Thaipusam.
Pondok Peranakan Gelam Club – set up by the Baweanese community in Club Street near Erskine Road

The South Indian community would come to include many who came during the expansion of the port that followed the opening of the Suez Canal. Areas such as Tanjong Pagar Road on the fringes of Chinatown, became home for some, so much so that the area came to be referred to as “Little India” — a term that is now attached to the Serangoon Road area.

Decorative arch along Cook Street by Kadayanallur Muslim League on occasion of Singapore being conferred the administrative status of a city, 1951. Courtesy of Singapore Kadayanallur Muslim League.

Singapore’s Chinatown was by no means the only “China town” found on the island. As the population of Chinese settlers grew, secondary settlements developed north of the Singapore River. One, known as “Sio Po” — the “Lesser Town”. The area of Sio Po, was allocated to the Europeans in the 1822 plan. As Singapore’s interior opened up, many in the Europeans found the inland areas more conducive as places to live in, and this paved the way for Chinese settlers, who could be thought of as latecomers to the Chinese diaspora began to move into the area. The Hainanese, were among the first to move in, establishing a Tin Hou or Mazu temple at Malabar Street (where Bugis Junction is today) in 1857.

Mooncakes from trishaws and tricycles – street vendors were a common sight even up to the 1980s in Chinatown.

Geylang, could be thought of as another secondary settlement, with many being drawn to the area when its plantations started to make way for industry from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Temples were set up to cater to spiritual and community needs, along with a number of clan associations. One addition to Geylang’s clan scene in the 1920s, the Huang Clan, at which the “Father of Modern Chinese Art”, Xu Beihong, painted his highest valued works (see also: Tigers, elephants, rambutans and Xu Beihong in a garden of foolish indulgences).

A temple in Geylang.

Chinatown proper, would develop into a collection of overcrowded streets and tenements. Nestled into this were some notable cultural institutions such as Lai Chun Yuen and the Majestic Theatre, the physical reminders of which in the form of the buildings that housed them, are still around. A feature of the place were the hawkers who filled many of the streets, with their offerings of fresh produce, cooked food items and sundry goods.

An already somewhat sanitised Chinatown in 1984, with some semblance of street life. The corner of Smith and Trengganu Streets is seen here.

The lively scene on the streets, concealed what may be thought to be a shadier side of Chinatown. Behind the laundry cluttered façades of Chinatown’s numerous shophouses were congested quarters, many shared by coolies, opium and gambling dens, and numerous houses of ill repute. Hints of what did go on in the streets and behind the scenes in the dimly lit shophouses were quite unambiguously described in the colloquial names attached to Chinatown’s many colourful streets.

Colloquial street names offer a peek into the past.

Unsurprisingly, the conditions in Chinatown, made it a prime area for the secret societies. Hideouts, and gang hangouts could be found aplenty in Chinatown, together with many inconspicuous places in which weapons were hidden. Some businesses became fronts for illegal activity, while others, including streets hawkers, became targets of secret society run protection rackets. Fights over territorial control, violent reprisals and settlements of disputes were a common occurrence and with Ineffective policing, murder and mayhem ruled the streets of mid-20th century Chinatown.  

A Chinatown shophouse with cubicles arranged on its upper floor.

That Chinatown is today, a thing of the past. Much has changed since the 1960s and 1970s, when life could still be seen on the streets. Property acquisition with a view to demolition and redevelopment, would see street hawkers, other business and residents being moved, some into Chinatown Complex and Hong Lim Complex in the 1980s. A rethink the urban renewal policy would result in the protection of much of what was left, building-wise, through the conservation of the Chinatown as a precinct in 1989, thus keeping the area’s built character. This paved the way for the development of Chinatown’s identity as an “ethnic quarter” for the promotion tourism and perhaps its evolution into what it is today, a place that some would say, is a reprise of its role as a “China Town” for the new diaspora from China..

Pagoda Street, 1971, Wilford Peloquin (CC BY 2.0)
Murals, through which mural artist Yip Yew Chong brings the past into the present, have become part of the modern day Chinatown scene.





Parting Glances: Old Police Academy

24 11 2021

The old Police Academy (OPA) off Thomson Road has a place in the hearts of many. This will include those from the police force who trained on its grounds, members of the National Police Cadet Corps (NPCC), and those who in one way or another, have found joy in its spacious grounds. The announcement about its redevelopment as a new public-housing estate does not come as a surprise with the knowledge that Mount Pleasant MRT station is already being constructed. Some, like me will however, lament its loss as a space that holds the memories of many and a space that has long escaped the inescapable advance of the clutter and concrete has covered much of this overcrowded island.

The expansive grounds of the old Police Academy.

The old academy’s presence along Thomson Road goes back to 1929, when it made its debut as the Police Training Depot. It setting up came as part of a greater effort to bring transformation to the then Straits Settlements Police Force (SSPF) in response to the growing level of lawlessness. Not only did Singapore come to be known as ”Sin-galore”, comparisons with mob-ruled Chicago were frequently made. To deal with this, an programme to modernise and instil professionalism in the SSPF was launched by it Inspector-General from 1925 to 1935, Harold Fairburn. Along with the setting up of a purpose-built training facility, modern police stations and living quarters being built. The new stations included the so-called “Police Skyscraper“, Hill Street Police Station, Maxwell Road Police Station, and also Beach Road Police Station.

One feature of the new depot was the expansive sports fields and parade grounds that it was provided with. The fields would see hockey, rugby and football matches being played with ones held on Sunday afternoons attracting a healthy crowd. The parade ground saw numerous parades, drills and event rehearsals taking place, some of which involved stunts on motorcycles, with many of spectators finding “seating” on the slope leading to the grounds.

A passing-out parade on the parade grounds with a view towards Block 2 and Block 1 (National Archives of Singapore online).
A view towards the parade ground, part of which is now a construction site.

With the academy having completed a move to the new Home Team Academy in Choa Chu Kang 2005, the death knell on the OPA site was sounded. While the recent announcement has confirmed much of what might have been expected, there is some consolation in the knowledge that the development will for the time being be confined to the OPA site along with an adjacent plot by Onraet Road currently occupied by a set of old police quarters and a former detention facility. That the Kopi Sua cemetery site has been spared, and any impact to its flora and fauna minimised, is a cause for some joy even if it may be temporary.

A view towards Onraet Road and the former police quarters, which will be within the redevelopment site.

All will also not be lost within the OPA site with six structures of historic value being slated for conservation. Among these six buildings, four are those whose time of completion coincided with the opening of the training depot. These are Block 1 and Block 28 within the boundaries of the future estate site, as well as Block 13 and 153 Mount Pleasant Road (the Senior Police Officers’ Mess) just outside of it. Two other buildings being conserved, the 1932 built Block 2, and the 1930 built block 27, are also found within the redevelopment site.

Block 1 in the foreground, which was among the first of the depot’s buildings erected. It originally featured a clock-tower. It and Block 2 (in the background) were more recently used by the Police National Service Department.

Among some structures still found on the site, several which will be lost to redevelopment also date to the period of the training depot’s opening. These include the drill shed, Block 7 and Block 8. Other structures that will have to go are accommodation blocks, a small firing range, a set of squash courts, and a 1976 completed swimming pool that was built at the suggestion of Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

A sign with safety rules at the firing range and a hand drawn “target”.

The eventual redevelopment will take away much that has been familiar about the place and the open spaces that have long been associated with OPA. Nearby, much is already changing as a result of the construction of the North-South Corridor. Even with their conservation, the six structures will probably give off quite a different vibe surrounded by the clutter of structures that the redevelopment promises to bring. Kopi Sua, with green spaces, much of the Singapore Polo Club (which does have a link to the Police Academy through Harold Fairburn’s successor as Inspector-General of the SSPF, René Onraet) and the luxuriously green area up Mount Pleasant Road will however still be there. But, for how long? Only time will tell.


Structures being conserved

Block 2, which was completed in 1932.

The SPF crest in front of Block 1

Block 28, completed in 1929, built on a “butterfly” plan.

Views in and around Block 28


Block 27, completed in 1930. It would have resembled Block 28 without the more recent modifications.

Block 13 – the “hospital” block, which is just outside the area of the development.

Views in and around Block 13.


Views around the Old Police Academy and of structures including the swimming pool, that will be demolished






Who’s the Murderer?

23 11 2021

A social activity that has become quite a huge craze amongst the youth in China is jubensha (剧本杀). Interest in the game, which started off as a type of board game, or one played using a mobile app, seemed to have been sparked by a popular murder-solving celebrity reality TV series in China that is known in English as “Who’s the Murderer”. 明星大侦探 in Chinese, which translates directly into “Star Detective”, the series made its debut in 2016. The TV show was in turn, inspired by the Japanese manga series Case Closed or Detective Conan.

A game room.

How the game is played has since evolved into one that could see players dressing up to take on a role for the game. Some of the more elaborately executed games now also involved very fancily set up rooms. As an industry, jubensha has grown in leaps and bounds since its popularity started rising in 2017, with value of the industry in China thought to be worth in excess of US$2 billion in 2021.

Detective Conan in Chinatown, a mural by Yip Yew Chong. The Japanese manga character may have provided the spark for much more than this mural!

Jubensha‘s — the literal translation of which is “scripted murder”, is often referred to as a “murder mystery game”, and sometimes, “live-action role-play”. It is difficult to find a direct comparison of what the game is about and may be thought of as a take on the board game Cluedo or Clue, in that the game’s goal is to establish the character in the game responsible for committing a murderous act. Jubensha in China finds a following with a youthful crowd of students and young professionals. It seems to also be making inroads into Singapore. Some twenty jubensha outlets have been set up here in the matter of just two years since 2020. While jubensha here may initially have attracted students and young working adults arriving from China, there has also been a fair bit of interest from Malaysians working or studying in Singapore.

A jubensha script can involve some props.

With Singaporeans, the attraction seemed to have been a lot less at the start, which could be put down to a lack of mastery among Singaporeans of the Mandarin language. This is essential to in playing the various roles demanded by the games’ scripts in Chinese. To overcome this barrier, several outlets are looking to innovate by introducing scripts translated into English. This would certainly enable jubensha’s reach to be extended in Singapore. Well-written scripts form the basis of playing the game, with each character in the game having a different script. For the game, each player takes up a role with the number of players determined by the number of characters in the game. A dungeon or game master, who is a member of staff of the outlet involved, leads the game, which can last several hours. Besides players dressing up for the role, some outlets have specially decorated rooms to play the game in and props that can increase the immersive experience. One newly opened outlet even goes as far as having dedicated rooms to play each of its two script-based games with very real looking life-sized props and rooms that are appropriately decorated.

Inside a very elaborately decorated jubensha outlet.

To find out more about jubensha, what it is about and how it is played, the video clip below is of a visit to a jubensha outlet TopWE. Unfortunately, it was not possible to show parts of an actual game in progress due to the pandemic restrictions in force during the visit. Located at 195 Pearls Hill Terrace, TopWE is run by a group of jubensha enthusiasts, which includes a Singaporean, Sim Jun An, who takes us through the outlet and provides an explanation of how the game is played.






Windows into Ulu Pandan Forest and Clementi Nature Corridor’s past

21 11 2021

Old maps are often able to offer us a peek into an area’s past. One area that is especially fascinating is the area around the Ulu Pandan forest, which was the subject of news in relation to the removal of a land boundary marker belonging to the huge Tan Kim Seng estate.

Windows into the area’s past.

The area, now dominated by major thoroughfares such as Clementi Road and Ulu Pandan Road, as well as the huge Ulu Pandan canal, has seen much change in the time between Tan Kim Seng’s days to the present day. The area north of Ulu Pandan Road, was where the Ulu Pandan Rubber Company’s estate was established around 1910. Owned by Choa Giang Thye, it counted the likes of Mr Lee Choon Guan, Mr Tigran Sarkies (of Raffles Hotel fame) and Mr Tan Kheam Hock as its investors. The 1900s also saw villages in the area being established. These included one in the are of the Ulu Pandan forest known as Tua Kang Lye, which accommodated a large number of settlers from the Anxi area of Fujian province. A temple in the area, Tan Kong Tian – where one of two remaining fixed temple Chinese opera stages left on Singapore’s main island is found – is associated with the former village.

Tan Kong Tian temple and its Chinese opera stage at Jalan Kebaya.

In the 1930s, the railway deviation turned the train tracks through the area to Tanjong Pagar Railway Station (the section opened in 1932). Later in the decade, two huge 15″ “monster” guns of the Buona Vista Battery were installed for coastal defence (similar to those of the Johore Battery) in the area straddling Ulu Pandan Road close to its junction with Reformatory Road (what is Clementi Road today). Incidentally, the name Reformatory Road came from the reformatory that was established in the early 1900s in the area where SIM/SUSS is today. The reformatory became the Singapore / Gimson Boys Home in 1947 and the road was renamed following this late in 1947.

The post-war period saw much more change. Camps were established for Ceylonese troops, Gurkhas and others in the area and names such as Colombo Camp, Ulu Pandan Camp began making an appearance. Ulu Pandan Camp would become the home of the future 1SIR in 1957 and another, established in the 1960s, Temasek Camp, that of 2SIR. Temasek Camp, was at the centre of an incident sparked by the separation of Singapore and Malaysia following the return of 2SIR troops from Sabah in August 1965. Camp Temasek was then still occupied by a Malaysian Armed Forces unit that was still based in Singapore and Farrer Park was used as a temporary home for 2SIR with tents pitched on the sports fields..

One of the important developments the area would see is in the area of the canal. It was originally a marshy area, which, as the name Ulu Pandan does suggest, was the source of Sungei Pandan or Pandan River. There seems to have been some speculation online as to it having been the source of the Singapore River. This connection with the SIngapore River through Alexandra canal was however, only made in the 1950s, when the canal was constructed for use as a diversion canal to carry storm water away from the city and to Sungei Pandan as part of a flood alleviation scheme.

Part of the Flood Alleviation Scheme to divert storm water from the Bukit Timah Canal to the Pandan Reservoir.

As an expansion to the scheme, further work was also done to the canal to allow it to also serve as a diversion canal for the Bukit Timah canal in the 1960s and 1970s. This connection was made through a network of canals and tunnels constructed through the (old) Holland Road area in and around the rail corridor and under the area of Ulu Pandan Camp.

The part of the diversion canal leading to its underground section.

The 1960s would also see the construction of the Jurong Railway Line as part of the development of Jurong Industrial Estate, turning the line through part of what could be thought of as the Clementi Forest (the future Clementi Nature Corridor) and Maju Forest. Remnants of the tracks and a rebuilt tunnel, can be found in the area today.

JeromeLim ClementiTunnel 20180501-1825
A visit to the reconstructed tunnel under Clementi Road that belong to the Jurong Line in May 2018.





My Chinatown Home

17 11 2021

The idea of a “Chinatown” in Singapore, in which there is a large ethnic Chinese majority, seems quite a paradox. There due to its historical connection with the first area of settlement established by way of Singapore’s first town plan in 1822 for the incoming Chinese to the newly established trading post, the area could be thought of as the heart of the descendants of the early Chinese immigrants whose connections in Chinatown include its temples, clan associations and other cultural and religious institutions.

While Chinatown today may have its architectural character preserved through the conservation of many of its streets and shophouses, it does have quite a different flavour. Some say that it has morphed from Chinatown into becoming a “China Town” due to the proliferation of businesses and food outlets catering to the new Chinese community (migrants and new citizens who have arrived post-1990). While that may be so, Chinatown is in the heart of many of the old residents of Chinatown, who continually maintain that connection with it in one way or another.

One former resident, Yip Yew Chong has gone a little further, decorating the walls of Chinatown with murals depicting various bits of its past. For Yew Chong, a prolific mural artist who spent his first 14 years living in a shophouse in Sago Lane and who now maintains a studio in the area, the murals provide an opportunity for old residents of Chinatown, including himself and his family to re-live the past. He also hopes the murals, which incidentally have become popular as instagram-mable spots, will allow other visitors to Chinatown and tourists to find out what life in Chinatown was like back in the days when it served as home to him.

Among the murals Yew Chong has painted, is one “My Chinatown Home”, which as the title suggests, depicts he old home in Sago Lane. Here is a video in which he provides a short description of what he has shown in the mural:





Gathering Spaces: touches of China in Singapore

12 11 2021
A touch of China in Singapore?

The constant flow of people into Singapore through much of its modern history, has been of great benefit to Singapore, not just in economic terms but also in cultural terms. The coming together of peoples from far and wide has resulted in the multi-cultural society we in Singapore live in and in what Singaporeans eat, say and do.

Among the wonderful mix of communities we have are the Chinese. Many are descendants of Chinese immigrants, who came over in large numbers from parts of the region and from southern China through much of the 19th and the early 20th century. The community or I should say collection of communities, formed a majority in a little more than two decades after the British East India Company set up their trading post, and have since 1930, accounted for some three-quarters of Singapore’s population, give or take a few percentage points.

A section of Chinatown that a long-time resident regards as “North China”.

In 1990, twelve years after Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s November 1978 visit to Singapore shortly before China launched the Open Door policy, ties were established between the two countries. Much has happened since then, including an influx of migrant workers, students and emigrees from the People’s Republic in large enough numbers that makes it hard not to notice.

Today, there may be as many as four to five hundred thousand Chinese migrant workers, students, members of the academia, researchers, businesspersons, and others, together with new citizens of the post-1990 era in Singapore; a number that is certainly significant enough to have an impact. This influx, of whom I shall call “New Chinese” (as opposed to their much longer-settled Singaporean Chinese cousins), is seen in many ways. The New Chinese bring with them very different perspectives, a culture that has been tempered by the political and social developments in 20th century China, very different accents and a taste in food that draws influences from a greater part of China as compared to that of the early Chinese settlers in Singapore, and a preference for certain goods and foodstuffs from home. This is clearly evident in spaces that have become focal points for the New Chinese, where a concentration of businesses and trades aimed at this new group of Chinese can clearly be seen.

A row of Chinese Restaurants along North Bridge Road

I shall be having a look at these New Chinese focal points, what I shall call “gathering places”, this November as part of Temasek Polytechnic’s Global Community Day 2021 (GCD 2021), through a virtual session titled “聚会场所 Gathering Places – Exploring Chinese Community in Singapore“. Through a “virtual tour”, I will attempt to identify gathering places for the New Chinese, try to establish how they became so and what makes them so, and also look at how they may or may not have become spaces for a new chapter in the coming together of peoples and cultures that has so enriched Singapore. I have completed two sessions for students and will be hosting a third that is open to the public on Saturday 20 November 2021 at 2 to 3 pm. To register for the session, and also other public programmes for GCD 2021, please visit this link: https://www.gevme.com/temasek-polytechnic-global-community-day-2021-24422801.

A “new-age” gathering space riding on a current craze in China – will it be a gathering space fro the future?







A golden moment for Golden Mile Complex

23 10 2021

Like it or loathe it, Golden Mile Complex (GMC) will remain a fixture in Singapore’s urban landscape, with its main building having been gazetted for conservation. Celebrated as an architectural icon of Singapore’s post-independence era by the architectural and heritage communities, the worth of the aging and decaying modernist mixed-use landmark has divided opinion with a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) having comparing the sixteen-storey building to a “vertical slum”, calling it “a terrible eyesore and a national disgrace” during a parliamentary debate in 2006.

Woh Hup Complex in the 1980s (URA Photograph)

While there is little doubt of that the unsightly nature of the extensions and deterioration of the building, prompting the remarks made by the NMP, as well as the fact that its quality as a social space to Singaporeans has somewhat diminished over the years, GMC does have a certain charm and architectural appeal  – which is best appreciated internally on its upper floors. Completed in 1973/74 as Woh Hup Complex, GMC was developed as part of the then Urban Redevelopment Department’s first batch of redevelopment sites sold in 1967 to private developers under its “Sales of Sites” programme. Built on parcel no. 9, one of four sites along the so-called Golden Mile, the Design Partnership (now DP Architects) designed complex was a bold experiment in design. Envisaged as a megastructure  – a self-contained vertical high-density city within a city, GMC featured a three-storey shopping centre above which offices and apartments were laid out in what was then quite a bold and innovative manner. with its residential units arranged as “stepped terraces” to maximise the views in both the horizontal and vertical sense.

Overgrowth? The best view of the stepped terraces is from the end Crawford Street end. This view will however will be lost should there be the development of an up to thirty-storey block at this end based on the conservation proposal.

One of the draws of GMC’s shopping centre today is the array of Thai food and products on offer. A gateway for express coaches to Malaysia and southern Thailand from the time it opened as Golden Mile Shopping Centre in 1972, it became a point of entry for Thai construction workers and traders coming in, and from the 1980s it started to take on a Siamese flavour with shops and restaurants catering to sojourners and workers from the Land of Smiles. Even today, the shopping centre has not discarded its Thai flavour with a large Thai supermarket, and restaurants and businesses such as hairdressers etc. catering to our friends from Thailand. It isn’t so much in what has become known as “Little Thailand”, where the decay of time and neglect in the building can largely be seen and which most will see, that one gets the true sense of what GMC has to offer from an aesthetic and architectural viewpoint, but on its hard to access upper levels. And, for this, it is probably best to let the images that follow to do the talking.


External Views

Interior Views and In and Around






Lost Places: the Killiney Road railway bridge

18 10 2021

Wouldn’t it be cool to have paraphernalia related to a conventional railway line in the Orchard Road area, such as the now well-known girder bridge that ran over Orchard Road, still in existence today? It may come as a surprise but the bridge was actually one of two bridges that were in very close proximity to one another, with a similar girder bridge running across Killiney Road following on the Orchard Road bridge in the direction of the Singapore and from 1907, Tank Road Station.

The railway bridge at Killiney Road.

From the Killiney Road bridge, the line – part of the 1903 Singapore Government Railway or Singapore to Kranji Railway, took ran down an incline towards the Oxley Road and then curving towards Tank Road level crossing and then towards Singapore Station. The line was extended towards the port and Pasir Panjang in 1907 forcing the shift of the station at the triangular clearing where the National Theatre once stood to Tank Road proper. The line would be absorbed into the Federated Malay States Railway (FMSR) in 1913. In 1932, a deviation turned the line from the Bukit Timah area towards Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

The road bridge at Neil Road – a remnant from the 1907 extension of the Singapore Government Railway.


Speaking of the extension, there is in fact a remnant of this extension – a road bridge at Neil Road that was built to carry the road over the railway which ran through what is today Duxton Plain Park and some of this, as well as the stations along the old Singapore and Kranji Railway is discussed here in this History’s Mysteries episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r1HStrNMxxE.





The soon to reopen Reflections at Bukit Chandu

3 09 2021

Among the places in which the echoes of a battle fought eight decades ago can still be heard is a point on Pasir Panjang Ridge that has since been named Bukit Chandu. It was where the final acts of heroism and sacrifice were enacted early in the afternoon of Valentine’s Day 1942 – at the culmination of a fierce two-day battle across the ridge we know today as Kent Ridge. The site today, is right next to where an interpretive centre “Reflections at Bukit Chandu” (RBC) can be found. Housed in a colonial bungalow of 1930s vintage, the centre recalls the battle and the acts of bravery of those defending the ridge. Having been closed for a revamp since October 2018, the centre is due to reopen at the end of next week.

Set up in 2002, the focus of RBC has been the retelling the story of the Malay Regiment and the stout but vain defence it put up on Pasir Panjang Ridge in what was one of the last major battles to be fought before Singapore’s fall during the Second World War. The regiment, formed in Port Dickson as an “experimental regiment”, played a key role in holding off the vastly superior and battle hardened Imperial Japanese Army troops as part of the 1st Malaya Infantry Brigade over two days; with its survivors taking a last stand at Point 226, as Bukit Chandu was identified as. A name now well known to us, Lieutenant Adnan Saidi, a war hero in both Malaysia and in Singapore, was also associated with the battle. Lt Adnan led a platoon of 42 of the regiment’s men and was among those who made that last stand. He would pay the ultimate price for refusing to remove his uniform after the Japanese overran his position in the cruelest of fashions. Hung upside down from a tree, Lt Adnan was bayonetted to death.

A view of the unique segmented arches that are a feature of the bungalow’s architecture.

The revamp sees little change to the central thrust of the centre, which is in remembering the Malay Regiment and the heroics of men such as Lt Adnan. Where change is seen, is in the way the story is told. An immersive 5-minute video projection now sees the battle is relived as part of the “Bukit Chandu: Battle Point 226” exhibition that sees the ground floor the the RBC now dedicated to. Along with this, the revamp also adds another dimension to the centre in providing greater context to the bungalow in which RBC is housed in, which was apparently built as part of a cluster of residences for senior members of staff of an opium or chandu packing plant established at the foot of the hill (after which the hill was named). To provide a more complete picture of the area’s rich history, exhibits found in the house and on its grounds have been added to tell the story of Pasir Panjang.

The headdress of the Malay Regiment with the badge.

For those familiar with the RBC prior to its revamp, one change that will be quite glaring as one enters its grounds, is the missing “mural”. In place of the “mural” – a replica of an oil painting by Malaysian artist Hoessein Enas that depicted the Battle of Pasir Panjang that was suspended across a segmented arch – is the revamped centre’s main entrance. Also noticeable will be the re-sited bronze sculpture dedicated to the Malay Regiment, which now has a more prominent position on the grounds, across from the entrance. Heading inside, the entrance lobby beckons, beyond which the “Bukit Chandu: Battle Point 226” exhibition begins. First up is an introduction to the Malay Regiment and its formation, presented in the exhibition’s first section “The Malay Regiment”. Rare footage of the Malay Regiment and of Lt Adnan undergoing training drills can be viewed here, as well as the regiment’s specially designed uniforms, weapons and kit items (which we are told were very well maintained by the regiment’s soldiers).

The (new) entrance to the centre.

The next section “Into Battle” is where the immersion into the battle takes place through a 5-minute video projection. Here a map on the floor traces the advance of the Japanese across the ridge over the course of the 13th and 14th of February 1942. Also on display in this section are items that were carried by both the Malay regiment’s soldiers as well as the Japanese. Spent rounds from the battle, dug up around the ridge by a resident in the 1970s, are also on display.

In the next section “Aftermath”, a bronze bust of Lt Adnan and a tin cup that belonged to Lt Ibrahim Sidek that was donated by his widow, are on display together with the names of those who fell in the battle. Lt Ibrahim is among the names on the wall, having also been killed by the Japanese for refusing to remove his uniform. His tin cup sits on display at a stand fitted with a speaker through which an excerpt of an interview with his widow in Malay can be played back.

The bronze bust of Lt Adnan and the tin cup that belonged to Lt Ibrahim Sidek.

Up the stairs on the bungalow’s second level, one comes to a verandah. Turning left along this is where the room containing an exhibition “Packing Chandu” can be found. It is one of several sections of the centre in which the bungalow’s and the area’s past can be rediscovered. In this section, an attempt is made to re-create the machinery of the chandu packing plant. Tin tubes, in which two-hoons of opium were sealed in as part of an effort to stem the “illegal” distribution of opium (on which the colonial government maintained a monopoly), along with scales are found next to the “machinery”. Paraphernalia connected to the packing and use of opium, photographs and leaflets connected to the opposition by prominent members of the community to the sale of opium, are also on display.

Packing Chandu.

At the centre of the verandah, “The Lounge” can be found. This recalls how the bungalow was used and lived in. The house, which is similar in design to many pre-war colonial bungalows built by the Public Works Department, features generous openings for ventilation and light, as well as verandahs. The lounge, an extension of the verandah, would have had great views of sea at Pasir Panjang. It would also have served as a living room and was where the house’s occupants would have chilled-out in during cool sea-breeze ventilated evenings. On display in “The Lounge”, are objects found during archeological digs around the house. These include a broken piece of Marseilles roof tile, as well as several other objects unrelated to the house. Cards from which the history of Bukit Chandu and Pasir Panjang is told through archival photographs, will also be on display.

The verandah and “The Lounge”.

The history of Pasir Panjang will also be discovered “On The Lawn”, through two installations laid out on the grounds of RBC. The first takes the form of a bronze replica of a boat used by the Orang Laut (who once inhabited the Singapore Strait), and this relates to Longyamen or Dragon’s Teeth Gate – the rocky outcrop that marked the entrance to what is now Keppel Harbour and appears in Chinese navigational maps of the 14th century. The second installation is a bronze pineapple cart, which recalls a more recent past when the ridge was home to Tan Kim Seng’s vast pineapple plantation. The plantation was well known for the superior quality of pineapples that it produced.

An installation on The Lawn – a replica of a Orang Laut boat.
Recalling Tan Kim Seng’s pineapple plantation.

The refreshing revamp now places the RBC back on the map of must-visit locations that will help us develop a better appreciation of the past, and more specifically, the sacrifice made by the men of the Malay Regiment (along with the others who fought alongside them including members of the 2nd Loyal Regiment, the 44th Indian Brigade and machine gunners from the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force). A visit to the centre will not be complete without a walk along at least part of the ridge. Across Pepys Road from the RBC lies the entrance to the canopy walk leading to Kent Ridge Park, which provides some wonderful views of the Alexandra Park area and provide an appreciation of the difficult terrain across which the battle was fought and the conditions that the troops defending the ridge must have faced.

The bronze sculpture dedicated to the Malay Regiment.

Reflections at Bukit Chandu reopens on 9 September 2021. It will be open from Tuesdays to Sundays from 9.30am to 5.30pm (last admission is 4.30 pm). Admission is free for all Singaporeans and Permanent Residents. Admission charges do apply to tourists and information on this is available at the centre’s website.


Opening and Opening Weekend Information

To commemorate the reopening of RBC, all visitors will enjoy free admission from 9 to 26 September 2021. Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents will continue to enjoy complimentary admission beyond this period. 

The opening weekend for RBC will take place from 11 to 12 September, which also coincides with the anniversary of the surrender of the Japanese on 12 September 1945. Visitors can look forward to a self-guided scavenger hunt through the RBC galleries and complimentary live-streamed tours by the curators of RBC and Changi Chapel and Museum on Facebook Live.

(See also: https://www.nhb.gov.sg/bukitchandu/whats-on/programmes).

Visitors are encouraged to pre-book their museum admission tickets and sign up for the opening weekend programmes ahead of their visit. Please visit www.bukitchandu.gov.sg for the latest updates on the museum. 


More photographs of RBC








Jurong’s “imposing shopping complex”

16 08 2021

It had been a while since I’d headed into Taman Jurong and I decided to drop by the area on National Day this year, having found myself in the vicinity. An area of Singapore in which I had my first experiences of watching a movies from a car and also, of skating on ice back in the 1970s, I only got to know it a little better in the early 1990s when I started working in the Jurong area. The estate became an occasional lunch destination and a place to get some banking done. Since I stopped working in Jurong in 2007, I had only been back once. That was in 2014 when I managed to get a few photographs of the estate’s now well-known “diamond block”. One of few constants in an area across which much has changed, the block was in the news last year when it was used during the height of the spread of Covid-19 through Singapore’s foreign worker dormitories, as temporary housing for non-infected dormitory residents.

A view from the inside of the diamond.

Even before 2020, the “diamond block”, or a set of four residential blocks (numbered 63 to 66) at Yung Kuang Road and so called due to the fact that they are arranged to form the four sides of the diamond shape in plan view, had a connection with Singapore’s transient workforce. A number of flats were used as quarters under the “Dormitory Housing Scheme” from the late 1970s — just a matter of years after they were built, which permitted approved companies to rent public flats to house members of their foreign workforce. A report in 1978, revealed that one-third of the blocks’ residents were not Singapore citizens or permanent residents, over half of whom were Malaysians.

Another view with the supermarket block.

Among the last structures of 1970s Taman Jurong left standing, the blocks offer us a glimpse of a time when the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) took on the task of building homes for Jurong’s then fast growing workforce. Completed in early 1974, the oddly designed but immediately identifiable set of blocks were described as an “imposing 21-Storey shopping complex cum flats” by the JTC, with the agency envisioning it as “an attraction in Jurong”. As the tallest buildings in Jurong, they were intended to provide the estate with a focal point, much like what the ‘Y’-shaped block of flats that I grew up in was intended as in Housing and Development Board (HDB) Toa Payoh. Residents of the diamond block’s 456 3-room rental units also had the benefit of having an unobstructed view of the fast developing industrial west of the island. A “shopping centre” was also found at the blocks’ two lowest levels, the first tenants of which included a coffee house, a noodle shop, a textile shop, bookshops, and a barbershop. There were also banks and clinics found among the shopping centre’s 38 shop units.

The Taman Jurong radio taxi service cabin. Many working in Jurong at odd hours had to rely on the service as it was extremely difficult to get a taxi willing to come to the Jurong area.

The jewel in the crown of the shopping centre, was perhaps a two storey building found in its courtyard. Arranged right smack in in the centre of the diamond-shaped internal yard formed by the four blocks, which interestingly had their common corridors face it, it was where the Pioneer Industries’ Employees Union (PIEU) Multi-Purpose Cooperative Society’s opened its very first supermarket and emporium in December 1974. The supermarket was set up along similar lines as other supermarkets run by the cooperative societies of the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) — NTUC Welcome — and the Singapore Industrial Labour Organisation (SILO), with the aim of countering profiteering in the wake of the 1973 Oil Crisis. A merger of these labour union run supermarkets in 1983, saw to the creation of NTUC Fairprice, now a household name in local supermarkets.

A view of the since demolished Jurong Stadium from the diamond block in 2014.

Built as the first residential area for Jurong Industrial Estate with its first blocks constructed in the 1960s, the task of developing Taman Jurong fell initially to the Housing and Development Board (HDB). This arrangement changed with the establishment of Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) in 1968, who then took over the task of housing the Jurong workforce. From this point on, the estate began to take on quite a unique quality in terms of its architecture. A commercial and recreational hub for the residents of Jurong, a host of amenities were also built in and around the estate, with the aim of improving the liveability of Jurong residents. Stand-alone bank buildings and cinemas soon appeared as did facilities for leisure. Some came up nearby along the banks of Jurong lake on the opposite side of Yuan Ching Road. The lake, formed by the construction of a dam to close off the upper stretches of the Jurong River in 1971, was among the generous set of green and blue spaces that Jurong was provided with to make it an attractive place to live in. Among the attractions were Singapore’s first and only drive-in cinema and a water adventure park in the form of Mitsukoshi Garden. Singapore’s first ice-skating rink was also established at Jurong Family Sports Centre and eventually in the 1990s the area would see a short-lived Chinese-style theme park and movie set, Tang Dynasty City. The lakeside attractions, have all since closed and the area that they were in has morphed into the wonderful Jurong Lake Gardens.

The former cinema at Taman Jurong.

The “diamond block”, which by the time I got to know Taman Jurong better in the 1990s, had quite a run down appearance. A New Paper report in 2003, described the blocks as a “ghost town” with just six units being occupied. The same report cited the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis as being the point at which the blocks began emptying of residents, with companies hit by the crisis sending many of the members of their foreign workforce back home. In 2001, the HDB (which took on the running of residential estates from JTC in 1982) began moving existing residents out with the six families still living in the blocks in 2003, resisting the move. The blocks were subsequently used to house flat-buyers under a interim housing scheme and were refurbished in 2014 for use under the HDB’s Parenthood Provisional Housing Scheme, before being used to temporary house healthy foreign workerslast year. While the blocks are still standing, it is not known what the future holds for the unfashionable and roughly cut, but yet unique diamond of Taman Jurong.


Views of the diamond block taken in 2014






The last light-box on Keong Saik Road

30 07 2021

Taking a walk around Keong Saik Road recently, I could not help but marvel at its transformation into a hip and happening neighbourhood. It was certainly quite a different place when I caught my first glimpse of it back in the 1980s. A walk that I took with a former schoolmate around his neighbourhood, opened my eyes to what seemed to to illuminate the seemingly dimly lit Keong Saik Road by night. That hastily executed detour from the planned excursion route left a vague impression the well-known side of Keong Saik Road and what each of its many lamps on which unit numbers were marked on, identified. The street’s gentrification in more recent times has seen to the dimming of the old lights of Keong Saik Road to the extent that they have all now been completely extinguished. What does remain to remind us of the street’s colourful past is a now famous tale of it that has been wonderfully told by Charmaine Leung in “17A Keong Saik Road“, and in physical terms, a last light-box at No 8 Keong Saik Road found atop its back door. Housing one of the street’s last brothels to operate, it seems that the sushi restaurant that will soon occupy it, will be keeping the light-box for posterity.

Now hip and happening, the area around Keong Saik Road is a place with quite a past.

The triangular site formed by Keong Saik Road, Jiak Chuan Road and Teck Lim Road, which now features a collection of quite well patronised eating and drinking spots, was where Keong Saik’s was colloquially called Sam Zau Fu (三州府) in Cantonese. This was with reference to the “residences” lining the triangle of streets that made up the main sections of Keong Saik’s red light district. The district did have a long-held reputation as an area to indulge in the vices even before the brothels, as we knew them, came into being when Keong Saik was a haven for courtesans or entertainers who found employment in the area’s tea houses and rich gentlemen’s clubs.

The last light-box. Will it be kept?


The courtesans, many of whom were extremely young and trained in a manner not too dissimilar to but without the rigours of the geisha in Japan, were equipped with skills to perform with the yuetkam (月琴 or yueqin in Mandarin) and/or the peipa (琵琶 or pipa in Mandarin). It was for this reason that the term peipa chai (琵琶仔) or “young pipa player” was used to refer to them. In them the wealthy club-goers and tea-house patrons would find ready mistresses. These mistresses who might have been “bought-off”, were also housed in the area and the common name for Teo Hong and Bukit Pasoh Roads in Cantonese, which is Yi Nai Kai (二奶街) provides an indication of one of the areas in which this occurred. Yi nai, which translates literally from Cantonese into “second milk”, is a euphemism for “mistress”. The tea houses and entertainment venues began to morph into houses of ill-repute and by the end of the 1950s, Keong Saik Road acquired notoriety for being a place in which “high-class” brothels operated. The term pipa chai seemed at the same time to have been extended in its use to describe the brothels’ working ladies.

One of the last “lights” of Keong Saik – seen in March 2014.

While conversations we do seem to frequently have about Keong Saik Road’s past are all too often dominated by what did go on after dark, the street does have many other facets to it. It was only in 1926, that the street was given a name — after a founder of the Straits Steamship Company and a Municipal Commissioner Tan Keong Saik. Host to a number of associations and religious institutions, the street benefitted from the colour that religious festivals and celebrations injected into it. One festival that still enlivens the street is celebrated by the Chettiar community every January or February during Chetty Pusam on the eve of the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. The community’s temple at Keong Saik Road’s junction with Kreta Ayer Road, the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar, serves as a point to pause in the journey taken by the silver chariot carrying the image of Lord Murugan from the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple at Tank Road and back to it. The return leg of the chariot’s journey to Tank Road is accompanied by a colourful and lively procession of kavadis or “burdens” that takes a route down Keong Saik Road before making its way along Neil and South Bridge Roads on its way home.

Keong Saik Road and the Sir Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple during Chetty Pusam.

While the visible traditions of the Hindu temple still plays a big part in adding flavour to Keong Saik Road, the same cannot be said about a number of traditions associated with the Chinese community there, partly because of changing circumstances and demographics of the area’s population. One lively Chinese practice that has gone that way is da siu yan (打小人) —  “petty person beating”. Also translated as “villain hitting”, the rather interesting practice was enacted with great gusto at the site of the Oriental Theatre, which was right across Kreta Ayer Road from the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar temple. Out of sight, it has not been put out of mind by those who have witnessed the practice such as Richard Lee. A description of it that he provides is found in a Facebook post, which reads:

There was a perimeter wall of the old Oriental Theatre that served as a “prayer” wall for people to “打小人”.

Villain hitting, da siu yan (Chinese: 打小人), demon exorcising, or petty person beating, is folk sorcery popular in the Guangdong area of China, Hong Kong & Singapore (and is) primarily associated with (the) Cantonese. Its purpose is to curse one’s enemies using magic. Villain hitting is often considered a humble career, and the ceremony is often performed by older ladies, though some shops sell “DIY” kits.

Villain hitting (打小人)
Make use of a varieties of symbolic object such as the shoe of clients or the villain hitter or other religious symbolic weapons like incense sticks to hit or hurt the villain paper. Villain paper can also be replaced by other derivatives such as man paper, woman paper, five ghost paper etc.

Sacrifice to Bái Hǔ (祭白虎)
The hitters have to make sacrifice to Bái Hǔ if they want to hit the villain on Jingzhe. Use a yellow paper tiger to represent Bái Hǔ, there are black stripes on the paper tiger and a pair of tooth shapes in its mouth. During the sacrifice a small piece of pork is soaked with pig blood and then put inside the mouth of the paper tiger (to feed Bái Hǔ). Bái Hǔ won’t hurt others after being fed. Sometimes they will also smear greasy pork (a piece of lard) on Bái Hǔ’s mouth to make its mouth full of oil (so that it is) unable to open its mouth to hurt people. In some regional sacrifice the villain hitter would burn the paper tiger or cut off its head after making sacrifice to it.

Pray for blessings (祈福)
Use a red Gui Ren paper to pray for blessings and help from Gui Ren. The red 貴人紙 were pasted onto the wall nearby. The nearby perimeter wall also served a spot for a series of drying racks for drying pig rind in the sun. The man who did this is my friend’s Ser Huat Ho’s grandfather….. The dried pig rind were then deep fried and sold to food vendors.

– Richard Lee

Another widely observed religious practice on Keong Saik Street — at least for the womenfolk — that has gone in the same direction as villain hitting is the annual observation of the Seven Sisters Festival on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. Based on accounts in oral history interviews and descriptions provided by the prolific muralist Yip Yew Chong, it was quite a big occasion in Chinatown, especially along Keong Saik Road. The commemoration of the festival, which revolves around a folktale of star-crossed lovers who were permitted to meet across a bridge formed by swallows (or magpies depending on the locality) once a year, is sometimes thought of as a Chinese version of Valentine’s Day. It was especially popular among the unmarried womenfolk, which included the majie, for whom Keong Saik Road’s Cundhi Gong was a religious focal point. During the festival, paper offerings to the feminine half of the lovesick couple — the weaver fairy and the seventh of the seven fairy sisters that the festival is named for, are made. Offerings include ones representing vanity items such as combs and lipstick. Flowers were also made. Before being burnt, the offerings were put on display, some on a bowl fashioned out of paper together with miniature paper dresses, items of embroidery, as well as freshly made cakes and fresh fruits. Participation in the festival started to dwindle in the 1960s and by the 1970s, hardly any of the highly visual displays were seen on the street.

The five-foot-way of the Cundhi Gong.

The last of Keong Saik Road’s vanishing light-boxes:






Pulau Ubin in the merry month of May

25 07 2021

One of the places in Singapore in which the memories of old are still alive is Pulau Ubin. It is where many in Singapore now find an escape from the staid and maddeningly overcrowded world in which Singaporeans have been made to call home.

Pulau Ubin — at least pre-Covid — comes alive every May, when the Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple honours its main deity Tua Pek Kong, around the time of the Buddhist Vesak Day holiday (which has little to do with the local Taoist deity). The manner in which the festival is celebrated, harks back to the days of village life, with the Ubin’s rural settings certainly lending itself to providing the correct atmosphere.

No village temple festival would of course be complete without a Chinese opera performance. Held to entertain the visiting deity more than the crowd, these performances would in the past draw large crowds and be accompanied by a a variety of night-market-like stalls offering anything from food, desserts, drink, masks and toys, and the tikam-tikam man. While the stalls are missing in the modern-day interpretations of village festivals, Chinese opera performances and these days, getai, are still held at selected temples during their main festivals over the course of several days. Such is the case with the festival on Pulau Ubin, which is commemorated with as much gusto as would village festivals of the past, even if it involves a largely non-resident population. What does complete the picture on Pulau Ubin, is its permanent free-standing Chinese opera stage — just one of three left in Singapore — on which both Chinese opera and getai performances are held.


Photographs taken during the Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple’s Tua Pek Kong festival in May 2014





Pagoda Street’s pagoda was probably not the Sri Mariamman Temple’s gopuram

23 07 2021

One of the fascinating things about the streets of Singapore is the stories that are attached to how they were named, either colloquially or officially. One example is Pagoda Street, along which a pagoda — at least in the modern sense of the word — seems quite conspicuously absent.

While is certainly puzzling to Singapore’s visitors, we in Singapore have been schooled to hold the belief that the pagoda in question is the gopuram of the Sri Mariamman temple, Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple. Depending on how creatively this story is told, the temple’s prominent located gopuram at the corner of South Bridge Road and Pagoda Street, might have been mistaken by the common folk as a pagoda or for the want of a better description, identified as one. Whatever the story may have been, they all seem to have ignored the fact that the word “pagoda” in the context of the early 19th century when the street got its name, was one that was in use in the English language in making reference to both Hindu and Buddhist temples in India and in Southeast Asia.

The gopuram of the Sri Mariamman Temple

Historically, the use of the term “pagoda” is quite interesting. Its origins as many would have it is said to lie in the Persian word “butkada”, which is said to translate into “temple of idols”. There are also strong suggestions that it may instead have been derived from Chinese, or at least the Chinese dialects — some would argue, languages — that were in use in the past. The combination of Chinese words describing a “tower of bones of the dead” (白骨塔) or literally “white-bone tower”, is often cited as a possible source of the word, or even “octagonal tower” (八角塔) or literally “eight-cornered tower”. Both combinations, when said in one or several commonly spoken southern Chinese dialects, are similar sounding to the pronunciation of “pagoda” in the English language.

A Chinese-styled pagoda at Haw Par Villa (a personal photograph from November 1976). One suggestion is that the origin of the word “pagoda” is Chinese. The word “pagode” was however already in use in the 16th Century in Portuguese India to describe Hindu and Buddhist temples.

Interestingly, the Portuguese version of the word, “pagode”, was already in use as early as the early 16th century, during a time when Portugal established its presence in India after Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a hitherto elusive sea route from Europe to the subcontinent. The word was utilised to describe the Indian temple complexes, both Hindu and Buddhist, that fascinated the Portuguese and the Europeans that were to follow. One example of this use was in the descriptions of the rock-cut Buddhist temple complex on Salsette Island near Mumbai or as it would have been called by the Portuguese, Bom Bahia. The complex came to be known as “Pagode de Canarim” (also”Pagoda de Canarin”), which the British would later name “Canari Pagoda”. The word “pagode” in the English form would also come also to be widely used, as is evidenced through official accounts, literature and correspondence through the 17th to 19th centuries, to describe either a Hindu or Buddhist temple and in some cases, even a mosque. There is in fact a description of the Sri Mariamman Temple, on a 1846 sketch made by John Turnbull Thomson of the temple and the Jamae Chulia Mosque on South Bridge Road, that does refer to the Sri Mariamman Temple as a “Hindoo Pagoda”. The mosque is referred to in the same description as a “Kling Mosque”.

“View in Singapore town; Hindoo Pagoda; Kling Mosque”; 1846
Thomson, John Turnbull, ourheritage.ac.nz

Descriptions of Hindu temples as “Hindoo pagodas”, were in fact used rather widely in English accounts of explorations and travels of the 19th and early 20th century. It therefore is quite probable that Pagoda Street was named, not because of Sri Mariamman Temple’s gopruam having erroneously been looked upon as a pagoda, but the Sri Mariamman Temple in whole, was to the English speakers of the day a “Hindoo pagoda”.

The Sri Mariamman, which is Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple, seen here during the Navaratri festival in 2015, would probably have been thought of as a “Hindoo pagoda”. The term was used in 19th century English to describe Hindu temples.
Sri Mariamman Temple’s gopuram, seen above the rooftops of the streets of Chinatown.

Various illustrations of “pagodas” found in India in 19th century Portuguese and English literature

An illustration of a Hindu temple in the Damāo Pequeno north of Mumbai in “A India Portugueza” published in 1886.
Another illustration of an Indian temple complex, named “Pagode de Chandrenate” in “A India Portugueza”.
A Hindu temple described as a “Hindoo Pagoda” in an illustration found in “India, historical and descriptive: revised and enlarged from “Les Voyages Celebres” with an account of the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857-8, published in 1876.





Lost places: the Geylang house in which a 9 million dollar work of art was painted

22 07 2021

One of the unfortunate things about Singapore and its relentless quest to modernise, is the loss of places rich in stories of the past. One such place was the Huang Clan, which was housed in a two-storey bungalow at Lorong 35 Geylang. The house had a strong connection with the “Father of Modern Chinese Painting”, Xu Beihong (徐悲鸿). It was also where some of Xu’s exceptional works of art, several of which featured anti-Japanese themes were executed. Known as Jiangxia Tang (江夏堂), traditionally a name used to denote the Huang clan’s ancestral hall, it served as his place of abode and his studio during his many sojourns in Singapore as a guest of Huang Manshi (黄曼士). Huang, the General Manager of the Nanyang Brothers’ Tobacco Company, was also the General Secretary of the association and an avid collector of art. His association with Xu, came through his Paris-based elder brother Huang Menggui (黄孟圭). The elder Huang, lent support to Xu in Paris when funding for his Chinese government scholarship to the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts was cut. It was also on Huang Menggui’s recommendation that Xu first found himself coming to Singapore in 1925 as a guest of Huang Manshi. Xu returned on several occasions until 1942, during which time he painted quite a number of art pieces, including a portrait of Straits Settlements Governor Sir Shenton Thomas in 1939.

The former Huang Clan house at Lorong 35 Geylang.
Xu, with Huang Menggui and Huang Manshi at the Geylang house.

It was also in 1939 at the Jiangxia Tang, as Xu was about to depart for India for an exhibition he was putting up at poet Rabindranath Tagore’s urging, that he executed one of his best known works, “Put Down Your Whip“. The painting, which was bought for a record price for a Chinese art work of US$9.2 million in at an auction in Hong Kong in 2007, was done after Xu Beihong watched a play put up by visiting Chinese actress Wang Yin (王莹) and her theatre troupe in support for the anti-Japanese movement in China. The art work, which depicted Wang and the audience, was completed at the Jiangxia Tang in the same month of the performance. The work was also among a stash of artworks that was hidden on the grounds of Han Wai Toon’s rambutan orchard at Upper Thomson (where Thomson Nature Park today), during the Japanese occupation. Another of Xu’s paintings in the same stash that was also done at Jiangxia Tang, “Silly Old Man Moves a Mountain“, set the previous record of US$4.12 million in 2006.


The bungalow, as well as as neighbouring compound house, were acquired in 2018 and were demolished that same year to make way for an eight-storey residential development which will also house the clan association, Sixteen35 Residences.


The former Jiangxia Tang in 2018.
The neighbouring compound house that was also demolished.
The site of the former Jiangxia Tang in 2019.
Another view of the site of the former Jiangxia Tang in 2019.




A memory of the JTC flats at Kampong Java Teban

21 07 2021

Initially set aside for the resettlement of villagers displaced by the industrialisation of Singapore’s south-western coastline and its islands, Kampong Java Teban became the site of a Jurong Town Corporation or JTC developed housing estate that took on the name “Teban Gardens” in the course of this redevelopment. It was one of several major residential developments that the JTC undertook following its spin-off from the Economic Development Board or EDB in 1968 together with DBS Bank and Intraco. The JTC was given the task of real estate management and development, not just for industrial property, but also for housing in industrial estates; a task which had hitherto fallen to the Housing and Development Board (HDB), who constructed housing on behalf of EDB. This was before the management of JTC estates and their flats came under HDB’s purview on 1 May 1982, following the passing of the 1982 amendments to the Housing and Development Act.

Development work on Teban Gardens, Jurong Town’s third residential neighbourhood, commenced in 1973. By the third quarter of 1976, the estate’s first 625 three-room flats were put on sale through a ballot, with the bulk of the estate’s first 3776 units coming up for balloting through much of 1977. While the development was initially aimed at the industrial estate’s workforce, the anticipated demand fell short of expectations due to a slowdown in industrial expansion with the weak economic climate in the mid-1970s. This led to the sale of the flats in Teban Gardens being extended to the general public from June 1977.

The bulk of the flats in Teban Gardens being put on sale during this period were three-room flats. Comparable in size to HDB built three-room flats, the estate featured three-room flats that were quite unique in that they did not open to a common corridor unlike their HDB counterparts. The 10-storey slab-blocks with these flats had common corridors on the third, sixth and ninth levels, along which four-room flats were arranged. With a floor area of 766 sq. ft, the three room units were sold for $15,000, while the 866 sq. ft. four-room common corridor units went for $21,500. Along with the three and four-room units, there were also a number of slab blocks and point blocks with five-room units, measuring between 1147 and 1400 sq. ft. in floor area, which were sold between $30,000 and $35,000.

Among the flats from this first wave of Teban Gardens’ development, were a set of blocks that I last caught a glimpse of in the mid-2010s when they were already emptied of life, having come under HDB’s Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) in 2007. The flats, which numbered 2 to 11 and of which I had a passing familiarity with from my working days in Jurong and in the Pandan area from 1991 to 2008 and from my adventures along the former Jurong Railway line, are no more. All that I have to remember them by are these few photographs, which I captured in 2013.





Beautiful Ridley Park

18 07 2021

Among my favourite Public Works Department or PWD built houses is one at Ridley Park that I was able to photograph a couple of times (seen in the photographs attached to this post). Set in lush green surroundings, the house is among quite a few others found in an estate that took its name from the Singapore Botanic Gardens first director, Henry Ridley. Due to the fact that it was built adjacent to Tanglin Barracks, Ridley Park has often been mistaken as one that the War Office developed for their senior military officers. It however was one of a number that the PWD developed to house for senior government officers and their families.

Having been constructed from 1923 to 1935, a wide variety of PWD residence styles are on display at Ridley Park, which is a a wonderful showcase of the creativity of the PWD Architects’ Branch during what was their most productive of periods blueprint-wise. While many of these PWD houses are described as “black and white” homes or residences, they technically do not qualify as being “black and white” in style; the term being applied quite loosely as a matter of convenience, being perhaps a reference to the manner in which these houses are now painted. The houses in Ridley Park, which have been in government hands throughout their history, may be available for rent where unoccupied.






The “ruins” by Kallang Airport’s gates

16 07 2021

Right by the old gates of the former Kallang Airport, is a crumbling set of structures that pre-date the construction of Singapore’s first civil airport. With a little imagination, the sight of the rather mysterious looking structures could to transport the travel-starved observer to a place like Siem Reap. A closer inspection of the structures will however reveal that the crumbling walls belong not to an ancient temple … or for that matter anything like a palace or istana as recent suggestions have had it as, but to a raised burial plot.

The raised former burial plot, seen in August 2018.

The plot, which shared a boundary with the former Firestone Factory that was established in the 1920s (some may remember the former factory building on the banks of the Kallang River near Sir Arthur Bridge being used by electrical good and furniture retailer Courts in the 1990s), is marked in a 1930 survey map as a “Mohammedan Cemetery” and in a 1936 plan for the new Civil Aerodrome (i.e. Kallang Airport) quite simply as “graves”. An explanation as to why the graves were placed on a raised plot can be found in a 1939 letter to the Straits Times. The writer, who described its location to a tee in saying that an elevated plot of graves could be “seen just inside the entrance to the civil aerodrome, on the right”, recalled seeing them on small eyots or “patches of higher ground” in the mangrove swamp “before the place was reclaimed”. Reclamation work for the airport, it should be noted, was carried out in the 1930s.

The plot in January 2014, with the old airport gates in the background.

While there are no traces of the graves today — they were exhumed sometime in the late 1980s, there is still an item of physical evidence that still exists, if one looks for it along the base on which the structures rests. There, a tablet with inscriptions in the Tamil script can be found and that does in fact confirm that the site was indeed a burial plot — at least based on a translation provided by a local urban exploration group on Facebook in 2019. This translation dates the tablet to 1854, as a burial site for the “kith and kin” of Chinnakkani” — a descendant of “Hajji Ismail of Thiruvarur”.

The tablet seen in September 2018.
The plot in September 2018.
The plot shown in a 1930 survey map (NAS).
The plot shown in a 1936 plan for the aerodrome (NAS).




Where durians and Chinese opera come together

13 07 2021

Once commonly found across Singapore, permanently erected free-standing Chinese opera (also commonly referred to in Singapore as “wayang”) stages have become quite hard to come by in Singapore. Erected to entertain the gods during their visits down to the mortal realm, the were also put to use in several other ways, doubling up as the clan, temple or village schools, depending on where they were built. Only three such stages are left in Singapore, two on the main island and one more on Pulau Ubin and it is always a treat to catch a Chinese opera performance being staged on one of them, especially if one is able to head backstage where in my opinion, the best “action” takes place.

The Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong temple is a place of devotion for many.

One occasion during which I had the good fortune of doing just this was during the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations at the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple at Balestier Road in September 2016 from which the photographs in this post were captured. The temple, having links to Hokkien plantation workers from Joseph Balestier’s venture to grow sugarcane by the Whampoa River, has a history that dates back to 1847. Its stage, which came up in 1906, was built by Tan Boo Liat — the great-grandson of Tan Tock Seng, and who is also well-known for erecting Golden Bell — the Edwardian-style mansion on Mount Faber that is now the Danish Seamen’s Church.

It is also a place where Chinese opera performances take place (at least pre-Covid) on one of Singapore’s last permanently erected free-standing wayang stages.

The temple, besides being a place of devotion and a place to catch a wayang, has also become a place that is synonymous with indulgence in the “king of all fruits” — durians. Durians have been sold in and around the area for, which was also known for its cinemas, for a long time and right by or in front of the temple ever since I can remember. Much of the area has changed, even if there is much that is is familiar physically. The durian stalls of old, are however, still very much a common sight every durian season. Not only do you see them just by temple, but also in the side lanes in the area. Like the temple, and the stage when it comes alive, they are among the last vestiges of the living side of the old Balestier Road, a side that long lives in my memory.

Durians and Chinese opera.
Another view of the temple.
Joss sticks at the temple.

Photographs of the Chinese Opera preparations and performance in September 2016






Giving back the Sacred Heart a right heart

12 07 2021

For years, the central stained-glass panel above the sanctuary of the Portuguese Church, depicting the Sacred Heart, spotted a piece of green coloured glass in the place where the Sacred Heart’s heart us represented – as a crude replacement. The series of photographs below show the Sacred Heart given back its heart back in 2014.