Orchard Road, half a century ago

14 06 2021

Glitzy and glamourous, Singapore’s Orchard Road is sold today as a fashionable destination to find a hotel in, to shop and to have a meal. With much of its two kilometres lined with modern malls, it is no wonder. It however, wasn’t this way when I first got to know the street as a child. This was in the second half of the 1960s, when Orchard Road still wore a rather sleepy aura, lined with shophouses, a multitude of car showrooms, among which two supermarkets were nestled.

 A view down Orchard Road in 1971.
A view down Orchard Road in 1971.

Two of the motor showrooms that would often catch my attention were Champion Motors – a VW dealer, located where Lucky Plaza is today, and Orchard Motors – which sold Vauxhalls and Chevrolets on the site of the older section of Paragon. The latter, stood right next to one of the supermarkets, Fitzpatrick’s, which was the younger of the two supermarkets, having opened in August 1958.

1958 was also the year that the rather famous Orchard Road outlet of C K Tang – housed in a Chinese-styled building that would become quite an Orchard Road icon – opened. The rags to riches tale of C K Tang or Tang Choon Keng, who came as a poor immigrant from China in 1923 is one that has frequently been told. His bold decision, to move from River Valley Road to the more centrally located Orchard Road might be thought of as a stroke of genius. To the superstitious, the site of the new store might have been thought of as being inauspicious, with it facing the former Teochew burial site, Tai Swa Teng, just across the road. Tang’s move, with a view to catching the growing tourist crowd, eventually paid off and was possibly the spark that lit the fire. By 1965, Metro – another household name today – found its way to the street, opening its Metrotex store at Liat Towers, and in 1967, Chinese Emporium opened its outlet at International Building.

By the early 1970s, what could be thought of as the first modern mall – fashioned out of the former Orchard Motors showroom, The Orchard, opened. The mall, housed some upmarket shops such as Charles Jourdan, The Elizabeth Arden Salon, Diethelm Furniture, Jade Palace Restaurant and Thong Sia, a branch of Robina Department Store and was perhaps best known for Tivoli Coffee House. Several large scale mall developments were to follow with Tanglin Shopping Centre at nearby Tanglin Road being completed in 1972 and Plaza Singapura, at which Yaohan became an instant hit, in 1974. The conversion of the former Orchard Motors car showroom may also have spelt the beginning of the end for the motorcar trade on Orchard Road. Orchard Motors’ companion, Champion Motors, soon also gave way to Lucky Plaza, which opened in 1978.





Another glimpse of Singapore in 1941

11 06 2021


More of Singapore in 1941 (and also 1942) – from an album of photographic prints taken Colin Keon-Cohen that was donated to Museums Victoria. All photographs Public Domain (Licensed as Public Domain Mark), Museums Victoria Collections.

See also:

A glimpse of Singapore in 1941

Singapore in 1941 from the Harrison Forman Collection


An album of photographs by Pilot Officer Colin Keon-Cohen or life in Singapore with 205 Sqn RAF, then 77 Sqn RAAF, World War II era.






The beautiful Masjid Sultan as you may not have seen it

10 06 2021

Designed in the Indo-Islamic1 style by the prolific Denis Santry of Swan and Maclaren in 1924, the beautiful Masjid Sultan or Sultan’s Mosque stands today as a focal point of the Muslim community here in Singapore. Work commenced in 1928 and the first part of the mosque was completed around 1930. T he mosque replaced an older mosque that was built in a style that is commonly found across the Malay archipelago featuring a multi-tiered roof. The older mosque was built for Sultan Hussein Shah around 1824 with a contribution of 3,000 Spanish dollars from Sir Stamford Raffles. The photographs below, many of which were taken from the roof, belong to a set that I took in 2016 during a visit to it organised in conjunction with the URA 2016 Architectural Heritage Awards – at which the mosque restoration project was awarded a prize for restoration.


Note:

1 The style of the Sultan’s Mosque has widely been described as Indo-Saracenic. However, architect and historian LaI Chee Kien would rather have the style described as Indo-Islamic rather than Saracenic. The reason provided was that the British used more elements from the Mughal period there in India than in Arab-Muslim or Turkish-Muslim areas.



The older Sultan’s Mosque

Masjid Sultan, 1846, by John Turnbull Thomson
Hocken Pictorial Collections – 92/1155 a12134 https://otago.ourheritage.ac.nz/items/show/4675.





Parting Glances: Shaw Towers

9 06 2021

Shaw Towers, a landmark along Beach Road since its completion in 1976, is now in the process of coming down. Built on a site that had partly been occupied by the old and popular Alhambra and Marlborough cinemas, the 35-floor building was, at the point of its completion, the tallest on Beach Road.

Designed by Iversen, van Sitteren and Partners and built during a time when cinema-going was a popular activity in Singapore, Shaw Towers was the first building in Singapore to house two cinemas, Prince and Jade. Occupying the second to the seventh floors of one corner of the building’s 13-storey podium, the 1952 seater Prince Theatre was then the largest cinema in Singapore. Its screen, at 28 metres wide, was the widest in the Far East. The cinema was where Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws drew the crowds in Singapore, making its debut with the cinema’s opening on 14 July 1976. Following a run of 128 days, Jaws raked in some $1.25 million in box office receipts at Prince – setting a record at the time.

Occupying the ground to third floor of the podium’s extension towards Nicoll Highway, Jade opened in November 1976 and provided a more intimate setting, with less than half the seating capacity of Prince with a capacity of 844. The cinemas were converted in the late 1980s to cineplexes and were the first multi-screen cinemas to make an appearance in Singapore.

The opening of Jade also coincided with the completion of Shaw Towers. At its completion, the first two levels of the podium featured some 242 shops. The podium also featured a carpark from the third to eleventh levels and offices from the 12th to 35th levels. Over the years, the building’s office space attracted a host of advertising firms stung by increasing rents in the Shenton Way area and also broadcasting companies. Among the latter were names such as NHK and the BBC, which moved in when its regional HQ was moved to Singapore in the year 2000.

The building, which featured the innovative use of more than 2,500 specially designed precast and pre-finished concrete units, is being replaced by a much taller building that will rise some 66 metres higher which is expected to be completed by 2024.






The last charcoal shop in Singapore?

7 06 2021

Photographs taken in 2018
©Jerome Lim





Days of Wonder

28 05 2021

Films containing familiar sights and sounds of the past have a wonderful effect of evoking feelings of nostalgia and a sense of coming home. Such was the case when I was provided with the opportunity to view a selection digitised 8mm home movies from the 1960s and 1970s that have been deposited in the National Archives of Singapore with a view to putting together segments of them in preparation for last Thursday’s “Archives Invites” online session “Days of Wonder: Fun and Leisure in 1960s and 1970s Singapore“. The session involved the screening of two videos, each containing scenes of the Singapore I was familiar with as a child, with a focus on sites, attractions and leisure activities that were popular among Singaporeans.

Fun for me in the late 1960s.

Among the activities that I put a spotlight on in the videos were those that took place by the coastal areas, which included scenes of Changi Beach – an extremely popular spot for picnics and dips in the sea at high tide – complete with kelongs in the near distance. Changi Beach, a regular destination for picnics right out the boot of the car (we could once drive right up to the beach), was where I first took a dip in the sea. The beach and the long sandy coastline that ran all the way towards Bedok, featured in many weekend outings and holidays through much of my childhood.

Ayer Gemuroh



It was the same for many in my generation. Changi Beach was often the place to chill out at during the weekend, especially when the timing of the high tide was favourable, which a quick check on tide tables published daily in the newspapers, could confirm. A friend of mine recounted how she looked forward to trips to Changi on the back of a borrowed lorry with the extended family whenever the timing of the tide was good. Pots of chicken curry and loafs of the local version of the baguette would also accompany the . If you were fortunate to have come with a car, there was also the option of driving right up to the beach and parking right under a shady tree to have your picnic right out of the car’s boot. Seeing cars with their wheels stuck in the sand was a pretty common sight because of this. And, if the chicken curry ran out or if one had come without food, there were several beachside cafés that one could visit. There was also the option of waiting for the fish and chips van, and the various itinerant food vendors that also visited the beach throughout the day such as the vadai man, the kacang putih man and the ice-cream vendors.

A small part of the segment on the coast, involved a holiday, taken locally by the sea – as was the fashion back in days when most of us could not afford to take a trip abroad. For me holidays involved the various government holiday facilities along the Tanah Merah coast, at long lost places with names like Mata Ikan and Ayer Gemuroh. A question that was put to me during the Q&A session was what do I miss most of those days. Mata Ikan, the Tanah Merah coast, and also how we seemed to have unlimited access to much of the length of Singapore’s coast, is probably what I miss most. Those were wonderful times for me, walking by the beach and along stretches of seawalls, poking my nose into the numerous pillboxes that lined the coast (boy, did they smell!), wading out when the tide went out, often as far as the kelongs were planted. The coastal regions are much more protected these days and in many parts, blocked off from the public.

Beside my interactions with the Tanah Merah coast, there were many other places in SIngapore that left an impression. I remember how places would come alive by night, as the scenes of an Orchard Road and Guillemard Circus illuminated by neon advertising boards seen in the videos show. Singapore had such a wonderful glow by night with the numerous fountains – many planted on the major roundabouts, also illuminated by night, and the occasional float parades and light-ups during National Day, often adding to the night lights. Adding to the lively scene by night were what would be termed as “pop-up” food centres. Several open-air car parks, such as the famous one on Orchard Road where Orchard Central, transformed themselves into places to indulge in some of the best hawker fare that could be found in Singapore.

The car park at Orchard Road that transformed into a hawker fare paradise by night (Paul Piollet Collection, National Archives of Singapore)



The one at Orchard Road, dubbed “Glutton’s Square” to provide it with greater tourism appeal, was an assault (in a pleasant way) on four of the five the senses. Evening time brought with it the disorderly rush of pushcarts, all of which would somehow be lined up in neat rows in double quick time. Lit by kerosene lamps in the dark, each contributed to the smoke that filled the air together with an unimaginable array of aromas. The sounds of the ladles scraping the bottoms of woks added to the atmosphere. Besides Orchard Road, there were also carparks at Prince Edward Road opposite the Singapore Polytechnic and the one in front of the railway station at which hawkers similarly gathered by night.

Among the other scenes were those of Orchard Road, which was in the 1960s, a place to perhaps shop for cars, to visit the western style supermarkets, which were uncommon then, and perhaps C K Tang. C K Tang, a pioneering departmental store on Orchard Road, was then housed in its rather iconic Chinese-roofed building and right nearby was Champion Motors on which Lucky Plaza now stands, Fitzpatrick’s Supermarket and Orchard Motors. The conversion of Orchard Motors into The Orchard – a shopping centre at which the infamous Tivoli Coffee House was located, possibly marked the beginning of the end for Orchard Road’s motoring days. There are perhaps two reminders left of those days, in the form of Liat Towers – built as a Mercedes Benz showroom and headquarters, and the delightful sunburst topped former Malayan Motors 1920s showroom that can be found opposite Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station.

The former Malayan Motors showroom seen in 1984 (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

Another of my favourite urban sites was Change Alley, which many locals – my grandmother included – seem to pronounce as something that sounded like “Chin-Charlie”. It was such a joy to wander through the alley, which in the late 1960s was filled with the sounds of the chorus of laughing bags being set off. The alley, which also provided correspondence between Collyer Quay and Raffles Place, was described by the BBC’s Alan Whicker in a 1959 newsreel as being “perhaps the most famous hundred yards in Southeast Asia”, a hundred yards of alley where one risked being “attacked in the pocket book”.

Whicker’s World with the BBC’s Alan Whicker wandering through Change Alley in 1959.

During the rather lively Q&A session at the end of the Archives Invites session, I believe that in view of the limited time we had, a number of questions posed went unanswered. Should you have been in that audience, and did not receive answers to the questions you may have posed, or have questions to which I was not able to adequately answer, you may leave them as comments to this post. I will try answering them as best as I can.





The revamped Changi Chapel and Museum – a quick walkthrough

18 05 2021

This walkthrough follows on to my previous post on the revamped Changi Chapel and Museum, which will reopen to the public tomorrow (19 May 2021).


Booking of visits slots to Changi Chapel and Museum:

https://nhb.vouch.sg/ccm




More on …

The museum: The Refreshingly Revamped Changi Chapel and Museum

Changi and its history: History Misunderstood: Changi Point

Selarang Barracks: A Changi Well Hidden from Sight

Roberts Barracks and the Changi Murals: A Light where there was only darkness: The Changi Murals


A quick 15-minute walkthrough





The refreshingly revamped Changi Chapel and Museum

12 05 2021

Booking of visits slots to Changi Chapel and Museum:

https://nhb.vouch.sg/ccm




Located close to Changi Prison and in the Changi area where tens of thousands of Allied Prisoners-of-War (POWs) and civilians were held captive during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945, Changi Chapel and Museum (CCM) is a place to remember the experiences of those held and a site of pilgrimage for the families of those held captive. Closed for a huge revamp since 2018, CCM will reopen on 19 May 2021 with a with a refreshingly new feel, a new logo, and offer an experience that will be a lot more immersive.

The new look Changi Chapel and Museum – a huge improvement from its previous incarnation. The visitor services area, which spots a new look logo, with the CCM monogram shaped like a POW chapel. The logo is also designed to resemble prison bars.

For those held in Changi, the period of captivity, was marked by immense suffering and pain, and for some, death. Disease, malnutrition and the inhumane and overcrowded conditions under which both POWs and civilian internees were subjected to, contributed to this. In all that adversity, there are also many stories of resilience and resourcefulness, of hope, and ultimately, of survival. Some of these stories have been brought out by CCM through a combination of artefacts, personal accounts and through the use of multimedia. On display are 114 artefacts, and in them the individual stories of hope and resilience. Of the 114, 82 are newly acquired or loaned. These new artefacts also include 37 that have been obtained through donations or loans from the public, including several that have very generously come from the families of former internees.

A morse code transmitting device hidden in a matchbox, which shows the ingenuity of prisoners held in Changi.

The revamped museum features eight exhibition zones, as compared to five in the CCM’s previous incarnation as the Changi Museum. Some of the highlights found within these eight zones are given below. Another highlight of the museum is the replica chapel featuring the Changi Cross. The replica chapel, representative of the various chapels of captivity and modelled after St George’s Church, was constructed in 1988 and was originally on the grounds of Changi Prison. This was moved to the present site in 2001. Made from the casing of a 4.5” howitzer shell and strips of brass from camp workshops, the Changi Cross was a feat of the POWs’ resourcefulness and ingenuity. Designed by Reverend Eric Cordingly, it was made by Staff Sergeant Harry Stogden with Sapper Tim Hemmings using a sharpened steel umbrella spike to engrave the badges of the four regiments making up the congregation of St George’s POW Church. The cross has been loaned on a permanent basis to Changi Chapel and Museum by Reverend Cordingly’s family.

The Replica Chapel.

Opening and Admission

CCM will open from Tuesdays to Sundays from 9.30 am to 5.30 pm (Last Admission is at 5 pm).

Admission to CCM will be free for all Singaporeans and Permanent Residents.

Tourists and Foreign Residents will be charged $8 for adults and $5 for students, and Special Access. Children 6 years and below enjoy free entry. and above senior citizens (60 years and above). Visitors will enjoy $2 off admission with a valid ticket stub from the National Museum of Singapore. There is also a family package of $24 for a family of 5 with a maximum of 3 adults.

For the period of the opening from 19 to 30 May 2021 when all visitors will enjoy free entry.


Changi Chapel and Museum Opening Weekend (22 and 23 May 2021)

Priority Admission with Pre-booked Timeslots


Due to crowd regulation for safe-distancing, visitors are advised to pre-book their admission by timeslots (930am, 1130am, 130pm and 330pm) for opening weekend on 22 and 23 May.

Visitors with pre-booked admission slots will be given priority admission to the museum, but will however be required to visit during the selected time. Timeslots can be booked for up to a maximum of 5 person. Booking opens on 17 May 2021, 12 noon.

Crowd levels can be check via the museum website or chatbot before their visit and those without pre-booked entry timeslots may be required to return at a later time.

Do note that there is limited paid parking lots available at the Changi Chapel and Museum and there is also no public parking available in the vicinity. As such, visitors will be advised to take public transport or private car hire to the museum.

Opening Weekend Programmes include guided tours of the gallery and a recorded orchestral performance based on the experiences of prisoners of war for which pre- registration is required.
Registration for Opening Weekend programmes will also allow priority admission to the museum and there is not need to further pre-book admission by timeslots separately. Registration of programmes will begin on 17 May.

More information is available on the opening weekend programmes and registration details, please visit www.changichapelmuseum.gov.sg and CCM’sFacebook and Instagram pages.


The Eight Zones

Zone 1: Changi Fortress

The first zone, Changi Fortress, provides some context for how Changi became a place of internment in tracing how Changi developed from an area of swamp and forest, into a place for leisure and then into a military cantonment, setting the scene for the role that Changi played during the war. Here the visitor will be greeted by a projection that sets the context for the museum’s narrative as well as maps, and photographs related to Changi’s early days.

Changi Fortress.
The Changi Fortress zone, where visitors will encounter a projection show that sets the context of the museum’s narrative.
A view of a forested Changi in 1869 – a print View in Changi that was published in Skizzen aus Singapur und Djohor (Sketches of Singapore and Johore) by Austrian diplomat and naturalist Eugen von Ransonnet.

Zone 2: Fallen Fortress

The next zone, Fallen Fortress, looks at the Fall of Singapore and its aftermath. Among the artefacts of interest is a well preserved chronometer from the HMS Bulan, a cargo ship that was involved in the evacuation. It left Singapore on 11 February 1942 with a load of civilian evacuees, arriving safely in Batavia after steaming for four days during which time it was attacked.

Fallen Fortress
Chronometer from the HMS Bulan

Zone 3: The Interned

The third zone looks a the stories of the men, women and children who were interned. Some 48,000 of whom were marched to Changi in the days after the surrender with the civilians interned in Changi Prison and the troops in various camps in the area.

Among the artefacts of note is a 1941 Christmas dinner menu from the USS Joseph T. Dickman, a troopship carrying Private Albert Riley of the 195th Field Ambulance Unit, Royal Army Medical Corps, provides a sense of how blissfully unaware and unprepared the troops arriving in Singapore were for the ordeal that was to follow. Also of interest is signed shirt with some 30 names written on it, 22 of whom were known to have survived the war. Found on the shirt is an attempt to document what went on, such a an incident involving Pte Lewer’s fall into a sewer.

The display of artefacts in the third zone.
A Christmas dinner menu from the USS Joseph T. Dickman, which carried Private Albert Riley of the 195th Field Ambulance Unit, Royal Army Medical Corps.
A shirt with names written on it. Out of 30 names found on the shirt, 22 were known to have survived the war.
A close-up of the shirt shows an attempt to also document some of what went on, such as an unfortunate incident involving a Pte Lewer falling into a sewer.

Zone 4: Life as a POW

The Life as a POW recalls how life would have been as a prisoner. Changi Prison is a focal point with remnants of the prison — a place of civilian internment up to May 1944 when civilians were moved to Sime Road Camp. The prison served as the POW camp after this.

The highlight of the zone is a recreation of a Changi Prison cell complete with an actual door from the since demolished old prison. The small cell, intended to hold a single prisoner, held up to four prisoners during the period of internment. The re-created cell includes speakers at various points at which historical recordings of conversations between the internees.

A Changi Prison door. A mirror placed beside the door gives the impression of a long row of cells.
A recreation of the Changi Prison cell.
Historical recordings of conversations between the internees at various points in the cell offer a glimpse into their living conditions and daily experiences.
A captors-eye view through the peephole of the prison cell door.

Zone 5: Resilience in Adversity

The Resilience in Adversity zone provides a look at the hardship that the internees faced and how they responded to it. Among the hardships recalled in this zone are the work camps that the POWs were sent away to, including those on the so-called Death Railway on the Thai-Burma border. Also recalled was the Double Tenth Incident which began on 10 October 1943, involving the interrogation of civilian internees by the Kempeitai in Changi Prison and the likes of Elizabeth Choy in the old YMCA. The incident occurred after the successful Allied commando raid behind enemy lines in the harbour known as Operation Jaywick.

The zone is probably where the most visually impactful section of the CCM also is — where the replica Changi Murals are found. The original murals, five of which were painted, were the work of Stanley Warren from September 1942 to May 1943. Warren, who was down with dysentery and renal disease and a patient in the POW hospital at Roberts Barracks, summoned what little reserves were left in his strength to paint the biblical scenes. This became a source of hope and solace for his fellow POWs. The display, which I am glad has been retained (there was some thought initially of using video projections instead) is supplemented by multimedia panels that tell their story. I was fortunate to have visited the actual murals, which are in Block 151 in the former Roberts Barracks — now within Changi Air Base (West). More on my visit in 2013 and the Changi Murals can be found in “A light where there was only darkness”.

Also on display in the zone are objects fashioned by prisoners out of available materials such as toothbrushes and several other new highlights of the museum such as a Kodak Baby Brownie Camera and a 400 page diary that was maintained by civilian internee Arthur Westrop. The diary, “A Letter to My Wife”, contains entries written as if they were actual letters to his wife, who was in Rhodesia. The diary, which Westrop kept hidden under the floorboards, survived a raid on his cell during the Double Tenth Incident.

Resilience in Adversity looks at some of the hardships faced. One of the worst periods in POW life came when POWs were sent away from Changi to work camps which included the Thai-Burma or Death Railway (notice the representation of the rail tracks on the ground).
Also recalled was the Double Tenth Incident, involving the interrogation of civilian internees by the Kempeitai in Changi Prison and the likes of Elizabeth Choy in the old YMCA. The incident occured after the successful Allied commando raid behind enemy lines in the harbour known as Operation Jaywick.
Diary of Arthur Westrop 1942−1945, Gift of the family of Arthur Westrop, Collection of the National Museum of Singapore.
Toothbrushes made by prisoners.
The replica murals.
The multimedia panel.

Zone 6: Creativity in Adversity

Creativity in Adversity looks at how creative expression played a huge role in helping prisoners cope with their circumstances. Art and craft, theatrical performances, music, sports and even educational pursuits, played an important role in the process and the zone showcases some of the efforts in this area.

Among the internees were womenfolk, who found comfort in sewing quilts for the wounded. The quilts were also an ingenious method of messaging, as it allowed the women to tell their husbands that they were alive. In each personalised embroidered square, were expressions also of love patriotism, and identity.

Also found in the zone are works of art, efforts to create props for theatre, books that were used for learning including a Malay-English dictionary, and a word map of names of numerous places and objects, written on this piece of paper by Leading Aircraftman Ronald Bailey that provides an insight into a life cut short by a stint on the Death Railway. Bailey died aged 23, in 1943.

Creativity in Adversity
An exact replica of the British Changi Quilt made in2003 by the Asian Women’s Welfare Association. The original quilt is with the British Red Cross.
An interactive panel showing how a ventriloquist’s dummy was made by prisoners.
The Changi University provided education for many POWs in the early days of internment.
A Malay- English dictionary.
A message sent by a wife that tells a story of hope and love.
The word map of names of numerous places and objects, written on this piece of paper by Leading Aircraftman Ronald Bailey. This provides an insight into Bailey’s life and the places that he connect with. Bailey died in 1943 on the Death Railway aged 23.

Zone 7: Liberation

Liberation, which followed the surrender of Japan on 15 August 1945 and the subsequent British reoccupation of Singapore, brought a three and a half year chapter of captivity to an end. The zone is where the immediate aftermath and its impact on internees is looked at. Artefacts in the zone include a samurai sword presented to a POW and a letter from King George VI to POWs.

Liberation
A letter from King George VI addressed to captives.
A samurai sword presented to a POW by a Japanese officer at the end of the war.

Zone 8: Legacies

In the final zone, Legacies, the legacy of Changi as a prison camp, is remembered. Here, the names and stories of the internees call be called up on interactive screens. There is also a running count of internees and view some artefacts that were produced to remember how they had survived the internment.







Colouring Edo and a monochromatic take on a colourful side of Kyoto

8 05 2021

Japan and the rather unique experiences it has to offer, has captured the imagination of many image makers over the history of image-making. How this has evolved over time is wonderfully presented in an exhibition Life in Edo | Russel Wong in Kyoto, which opened at the Asian Civilisations Museum on 16 April 2021. Running until 19 September 2021, the exhibition provides a wonderful walk-through of the various aspects of Japanese art of woodblock print making — a popular medium of expression during the Edo period. The art form is also placed in contrast with the modern art of photography, seen through the skilfully and very patiently captured work of renowned Singaporean photographer Russel Wong in the forbidden world of Kyoto’s Gokagai (five kagai).

The exhibition starts with a study of the Japanese art of ukiyo-e or woodblock printing. Ukiyo-e, which translates into “pictures of the transient world”, or as the Britannica has it, “pictures of the floating world”, came to the fore during a period of cultural and social renaissance in 18th and 19th century Edo, with the term “transient world” or “floating world” being a euphemism for Edo’s popular entertainment quarters. Produced for the mass market, ukiyo-e, with its depictions of popular theatre artistes, courtesans, and maybe the seedier aspects of life in the pleasure quarters, could be thought of as a platform for the social influencers of the day — much like what social media and the likes of Instagram is, in the world of today.

Different class of travel in the age of the ukiyo-e.

Comparing ukiyo-e to Instagram may devalue the craft and effort that goes into the production of ukiyo-e. The value of its craft is thankfully not lost in the journey that the exhibition takes visitors through with 157 expertly made prints on show that provide a glimpse of life during the Tokugawa shogunate, themed according to the subjects of travel, beauty, food, entertainment and even the keeping of pets. The production of ukiyo-e would have involved a publisher; artists to draw the design, carve the woodblocks, and to ink, align and press the various blocks individually to add each of the various colours to the prints. The display of a complete set of mid-20th century woodblocks made by the Kyoto Hanga Institute to reprint Hokusai’s “South Wind, Clear Sky” — popularly known as “Red Fuji”, provides visitors with a better understanding of the skill and labour involved in the craft. Overtaken by machine printing and photography, interest in the tedious method of printing would decline in the late 1800s. It is only through the efforts of artisans and institutes such as the Hanga, that the craft has been preserved.

It is probably apt the the transition from the traditional to the modern in the exhibition takes place through the crossing of a bridge and a journey from Edo to Kyoto. The starting point in this journey is the display of Utagawa’s Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e print of Nihonbashi – at the beginning of the coastal Tokaido Road from Edo to Kyoto and the first of 53 halting or rest stations (which included the start and end points) Hiroshige depicted in his print series “The 53 Stations of the Tokaido”. This will be replaced (as will the other woodblock prints on display due to their sensitivity to light) in the second half of the exhibition period with a print of the last station, the Sanjo Bridge in Kyoto, which is also depicted at the point where the journey into Russel Wong’s Kyoto begins. Hiroshige’s series provided the inspiration for some of Wong’s work in Japan and Wong’s photograph of the Sanjo Bridge that is on display, was taken with very much the same craft and care that went into Hiroshige’s efforts.

Wong’s captures of the secluded world of the tea houses of the Gokagai, is for the photographer in me, the draw of the exhibition. The story that is seen in his masterfully taken photographs of the Geiko (how Geishas in Kyoto are referred to) and the apprentice Maiko, is as much about the unseen aspects of life in the tea houses, as it is about Wong’s craft and patience. An effort some 13 years in the making, it involved establishing the right connections and a wait of five years before he was even able to step into a tea house. This incredible journey, is supplemented by his efforts to capture the colours of the Kyoto that most of us will only get to see, but in a way few would have the patience for. Seen in his work in colour of Kyoto through the four seasons in the public space where the journey into Edo and Kyoto begins, it is also seen in the monochromatic display of the crowd-free Kinkaku-ji in winter taken through falling snow just as the alarm levels on Covid-19 were being raised and just before travel restrictions were put in place in early 2020.

The Kinkaku-ji in winter as captured by Russel Wong

Life in Edo | Russel Wong in Kyoto runs until 19 September 2021 at the Asian Civilisations Museum. Tickets are priced at $12 for Singaporeans and Permanent Residents and $20 for Foreign Residents and Tourists. For more information, visit https://www.nhb.gov.sg/acm/whats-on/exhibitions/life-in-edo-russel-wong-in-kyoto.


A ukiyo-e depiction of a brothel room with hidden messages.
Beauty techniques – offered by the “influencers” of the day on ukiyo-e.
Interactions with pets was a popular ukiyo-e subject.
Utagawa’s Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e print of Nihonbashi – the first of “The 53 stations of the Tokaido”
Russel Wong on using black and white and more …





Middle Road and the (un)European Town

26 04 2021

Street names, especially ones in common use, often tell an interesting tale. Such is the case with Middle Road. Constructed late in the first decade that followed British Singapore’s 1819 founding by Sir Stamford Raffles, parts of Middle Road have become known by a mix of names in the various vernaculars. Each provide a glimpse into the streets fascinating past, the communities it played host to and the trades and institutions that marked it. It is its official name, Middle Road, that seems to have less to reveal and what Middle Road the middle, is a question that has not been quite as adequately answered.


The Jackson Plan of 1822. Middle Road is not marked on it. Its location on this map correspond to the road passing through ‘Rocher Square’ right smack in the middle of the European quarter.

Often the resource of choice in seeking a better understanding of a Singapore street name and its origins is the book ‘Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics’, authored by Victor Savage and Brenda Yeoh. The book however, does not quite provide the answer to the question of what made Middle Road the middle in explaining that the street was (or may have been) a line of demarcation between the trading post’s European Town and a designated ‘native’ settlement to its east. Reference has to be made to the 1822 Town Plan, for which Raffles’ provided a specific set of instructions, in the allocation of areas of settlement along ethnic lines with the civic and mercantile districts at the town’s centre. A set of written instructions was also provided by Raffles to members of the Town Committee. Based on the plan and the written instructions, the European Town was to have extended eastwards from the cantonment for “as far generally as the Sultan’s (settlement)”, with an ‘Arab Campong’ in between. This meant that the line demarcating the two districts was not Middle Road, but would have been Rochor Road or a parallel line to its northeast.


Middle Road is shown in the 1836 Map drawn by J B Tassin based on an 1829 survey by G D Coleman. On this I have superimposed the boundaries of the various districts based on the 1822 Town Plan. On this map, Middle Road seems to be a street that no only ran through the middle of the European Town, but was quite literally the middle road of the European Town three parallel roads.

There is an older attempt to explain what the ‘middle’ in Middle Road might have been. This was made in 1886 by T J Keaughran, a one-time employee of the Government printing office and resident of Singapore in the late 1800s. In a Straits Times article, ‘Picturesque and busy Singapore’, Keaughran described Middle Road as being “perhaps more appropriately, the central division or section of the city”. There may be some merit in this suggestion based on the 1822 Town Plan. What seems however to be more obvious is that Middle Road ran right down the middle of the European quarter. Middle Road was also, quite literally, the middle road of three parallel roads running northwest to southeast through the European Town.  

The Portuguese tradition is kept very much alive at St. Joseph’s Church (which is now under renovation).

It would appear that the European Town, or at least the section that was allocated to it, never quite developed as Raffles had envisaged. Middle Road would turn out to be the centre of many communities, none of which was quite European. Hints of European influences do however exist in the Portuguese Church and in the former St Anthony’s Convent. The Portuguese Church — as it was once commonly referred to, or St Joseph’s Church, long a focal point of Singapore’s Portuguese Eurasian community, traces it roots to the Portuguese Mission’s Father Francisco da Silva Pinto e Maia, a one time Rector of St Joseph’s Seminary in Macau and owes much to the generosity of Portuguese physician turned settler, merchant and plantation owner, Dr Jose D’Almeida. It was in D’Almeida’s exclusive beach front house in the area that Liang Seah Street is today, that the mission’s first masses were held in 1825 – a year in which both Father Maia and Dr D’Almeida set foot on a permanent basis in Singapore.

An old letter box and signboard for the church.

The land on which the Beach Road house stood, had been procured by Dr D’Almeida during a stopover whilst on a voyage to Macau in 1819 with the help of Francis James Bernard, acting Master Attendant, son-in-law of Singapore’s first resident William Farquhar, and perhaps more famously, the great, great, great, great grandfather of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. D’Almeida also had a house built on the plot, which Bernard occupied whilst the physician was based in Macau. Political events in Portugal, and its delayed spread to Macau, would bring both Father Maia and D’Almeida to Singapore via Calcutta. D’Almeida’s Beach Road house was used to celebrate masses until 1833. A permanent church building for the Church of São José (St Joseph) would eventually be established at the corner of Victoria Street and Middle Road in the mid-1800s. What stands on the site today is a 1912 rebuild of this church. Initially administered by the Diocese of Goa and later, by the Diocese of Macau, the church’s links with Portugal were only broken in 1981, although parish priest appointments continued to be made by the Diocese of Macau until 1999 when Macau reverted to Chinese rule and the Portuguese Mission was dissolved. The church has since 1981, come under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore.

A touch of Iberia can be found in the Portuguese Church, especially during festival days.

The Portuguese Mission would also establish St Anna’s School in 1879. The school for children of poor parishioners, is the predecessor to St Anthony’s Boys’ School (now St Anthony’s Primary School) and St Anthony’s Convent (now St. Anthony’s Canossian Primary School). A spilt into a boys’ and a girls’ school in 1893 saw the two sections going their separate ways. The setting up of the girls’ school would see to an Italian flavour being added to Middle Road, when four nuns of the Italian-based Canossian order came over from Macau in 1894 to run the girls’ section. Two of the nuns were Italian and another two Portuguese and in the course of its time in Middle Road, many more nuns of Italian origin would arrive. Those who were boarders or schoolgirls from the old convent days in Middle Road will remember how old-fashioned methods of discipline that the nuns brought with them were administered in heavily accented English with a certain degree of fondness.

The first Canossians. Top – M. Giustina Sequeira, M. Matilde Rodriguez, M. Marietta Porroni, and bottom extreme right –  M. Teresa Rossi. Two others were the superiors M. Teresa Lucian and M. Maria Stella, who accompanied the four.

While the convent may have moved in 1995, the buildings that were put up over the course of the 20th century along Middle Road to serve it are still there and stands as a reminder of the work of the Canossian nuns. Now occupied by the National Design Centre, its former chapel building is also where the legacy of another Italian, Cav Rodolfo Nolli has quite literally been cast in stone. In the former convent’s chapel, now the centre’s auditorium, watchful angels in the form of cast stone reliefs made by Nolli — Nolli’s angels as I refer to them — count among the the last works that the sculptor executed here before his retirement. The angels have watched over the nuns, boarders, orphans and schoolgirls since the early 1950s and are among several lasting reminders of Cav Nolli. The Italian craftsman spent a good part of his life in Singapore, having first arrived from Bangkok in 1921. Except for a period of internment in Australia during the Second World War, Nolli was based in Singapore until 1956. His best known work in Singapore is the magnificent set of sculptures, the Allegory of Justice, found in the tympanum of the Old Supreme Court.

St. Anthony’s Convent in the 1950s.

Among the common names associated with Middle Road is a now a rather obscure one in the Hokkien vernacular, 小坡红毛打铁 (Sio Po Ang Mo Pah Thi). This is another that could be thought of as providing a hint of another of the street’s possible ‘ang mo’ (红毛) or European connections. The Sio Po (小坡) in the name is a reference to the ‘lesser town’ or the secondary Chinese settlement that developed on the north side of the Singapore River (as opposed to 大坡 tua po — the ‘greater town’ or Chinatown). A literal translation of Pah Thi (打铁) would be “hit iron” — a reference to an iron-working establishment, which in this case was the J M Cazalas et Fils’ (J M Cazalas and Sons’) iron and brass foundry. Established in 1856 by Mauritius born Frenchman Jean-Marie Cazalas, the foundary occupied an area bounded by Middle Road, Victoria Street, the since expunged Holloway Lane, and North Bridge Road, a site on which part of the National Library now stands.

Central Engine Works, the successor to the lesser town’s European ironworks.

The business survived in one form or another in the area right up to 1920. J M’s son, Joseph, who inherited the business, renamed it Cazalas and Fils. In 1887, Chop Bun Hup Guan bought the foundry over and had it renamed Victoria Engine Works. The last name that the business was known by was Central Engine Works, a name it acquired when it again changed hands in the 1900s. Central Engine Works’ move in 1920 to new and “more commodious” premises in Geylang, paved the way for the site’s redevelopment and saw to the removal of all traces of the foundry.  The name Central Engine Works would itself fade into oblivion when it became a victim of the poor economic conditions that persisted through much of the 1920s. The firm went into voluntary liquidation in the early 1930s. The Empress Hotel, which opened in 1928, was erected on part of the former foundry’s site and became a landmark in the area. It was known for its restaurant which produced a popular brand of mooncakes, the ‘Queen of the Mooncakes’. Looking tired and worn, the Empress Hotel came down in 1985, when the wave of urban redevelopment swept through the area.

Empress Hotel (roots.SG).

The setting up of the Cazalas foundry up came at a time when the European Town was already on its way to becoming the ‘Lesser Town’. One of the reasons contributing to the change in status of the designated European area and its choice beachfront plots may have been the preference amongst the settlement’s European ‘gentry’ for the more pleasant inland area of the island as places of residence as the interior opened up. Among the larger groups contributing to the influx of non-European settlers in the area were the Hainanese — who could be thought of as ‘latecomers’ to the Chinese Nanyang diaspora. The Hainanese established clan or bang boarding houses in the area and by 1857, a temple dedicated to Mazu was erected at Malabar Street. Middle Road became the Hainanese 海南一街 or Hylam Yet Goi. The area is today still thought of as a spiritual home to the community, who today form the fifth largest of the various Chinese dialect groups in Singapore. The Singapore Hainan Hwee Kuan and the Tin Hou Kong (the since relocated Mazu temple) is also present in the area at Beach Road. The area can also be thought of as the home of the Singapore brand of Hainanese Chicken Rice having been were it was conceived and for many years served by its inventor.

The house of the rising sun (take not of the pediment) — a reminder of the Japanese Community, which made Middle Road home from the end of the 1800s to 1941. At its height, the community numbered several thousands.

Among other names associated with Middle Road was 中央通り(Chuo Dori), Japanese for ‘Central Street’ and the محلة (Mahallah) — an Arabic term meaning ‘place’ and used by the Sephardic Jewish community who came through Baghdad to describe the Jewish neighbourhood that formed at the end of the 19th century in and around the northwest end of Middle Road. There were also a host of names in Hokkien that refer to Mangkulu 望久鲁 or Bencoolen — a reference to the Kampong Bencoolen, which was established in the area.

A marker of the Mahallah, the David Elias Building with its star of David.

One name that includes the name is 望久鲁车馆 or Mangkulu Chia Kuan — the jinrikisha registration station in the area that later became the Registry of Vehicles (where Sunshine Plaza is today. As with the station at Neil Road, a station was established in the Middle Road area due to the proliferation rickshaw coolie kengs or quarters and rickshaw operators in the area, many of which were run by other groups of late arrivals among the Chinese migrants, the Hokchia and the Henghwa. Also mixed into the area around the Lesser Town as the years went by were other migrant communities, who included Hakkas, the people of Sam Kiang (the three ‘kiangs‘ or ‘jiangs‘ — Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Jiangxi) who are sometimes described as Shanghainese, South Indians and Sikhs. The people of Sam Kiang were quite prominent and featured in the furniture making and piano trading businesses, books and publishing, and tailoring — Chiang Yick Ching, who founded CYC Shirts at Selegie Road was an immigrant from Ningbo in Zhejiang as was Chou Sing Chu, the founder of Popular Book Store at North Bridge Road. The Hakkas were involved in the canvas trade, and were opticians and watch dealers. They were also the shoe making and shoe last making factories around Middle Road, which was once a street known for it Chinese shoe shops.

Right next to the David Elias Building is the former Dojin Hospital, which was erected before the war to serve the Japanese Community.

Various communities and institutions populating the post-1850s ‘European Town’





A beautiful campus by the sea

20 04 2021

A peek into the beautiful BNP Paribas Asia-Pacific Campus. Established in 2014, the campus occupies two beautifully restored former barrack blocks of the former (Royal Engineers) Kitchener Barracks in Changi. The two blocks, currently Block 34 and 35 and formerly B an C Blocks, were among the first to be built in the Changi Cantonment that was developed from the end of the 1920s into the late 1930s and provide an excellent example of how such buildings could be restored and repurposed in the light of the recently announced Ideas Competition for Changi Point and old Changi Hospital (see also: Ideas sought to repurpose Old Changi Hospital, enhance surrounding Changi Point area).

The former B-Block, together with the former H-Block (now Block 24, which in 1947 was repurposed as RAF Hospital, Changi), were in fact the first barrack blocks to constructed in Changi and were completed by 1930. The cantonment also included barracks for the Royal Artillery at Roberts Barracks — now within Changi Air Base (West) and for the infantry at Selarang Barracks, as well as smaller camps for various Indian Army units.

In the 1920s, Britain had moved to establish a large naval base in Sembawang to defend its Far East interests in the face of rising Japanese ambition. The setting up of the cantonment followed this decision and was carried out to install, maintain, man and secure coastal artillery being placed around the eastern mouth of the Tebrau or Johor Strait to protect the naval base against naval attack.

The cantonment, which sustained some damage in the lead up to the Fall of Singapore but remain largely intact, was evacuated on 12 February 1942. Singapore fell on 15 February 1942 and with Japanese forces overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of surrendering Allied troops in Singapore, they found a solution to accommodating some of these troops in the emptied barracks in Changi. On 17 February 1942, close to 50,000 British and Australian Prisoners-of-War (POWs) were marched to Changi and placed in the various camps. The troops forming the last line of defence in Singapore, the Singapore Fortress Southern Area troops, which included some volunteer units, were allocated Kitchener Barracks. The Australians were kept separately in Selarang. POW hospitals, which were set up in former field hospitals in Roberts and Selarang, were consolidated at Roberts Barracks — this is where the Changi Murals were painted.

The POWs would initially have little contact with their captors, who got them to wire themselves into the various camps. Discipline was maintained by the officers among the POWs, who also took it upon themselves to keep the morale up. Sports, theatrical performances and even university classes were organised — there were several professional sportsmen amongst the ranks and also lecturers from Raffles College who were with the volunteer units and in Kitchener Barracks, the Southern Area College operated. With the Fortress troops — who were not involved in the retreat down Malaya — being amongst the fittest of the POWs, the men of the camp at Kitchener were among the first to be picked for the Japanese organised work teams, many of which would be sent to provide labour in places like the Thai-Burma ‘Death’ Railway. The numbers in Kitchener dwindled to the point that it could be closed as a POW camp in May 1943, followed by Roberts in September 1943. In May 1944, the POWs, which included those who had survived the Death Railway, were concentrated at Changi Prison, which had previously been used as a civilian internment camp (the civilians were moved to Sime Road Camp).

The two camps would then be occupied by Japanese units involved in the construction of the Japanese airstrip at Changi (operational at the end of 1944), around which the Royal Air Force would establish RAF Air Station Changi (RAF Changi) in 1946. The blocks of the former Kitchener Barracks were then used by the RAF, with RAF Hospital Changi being established in 1947. Among the renumbered blocks, Block 35, housed HQ Far East Air Force (FEAF) Command. The various roads within the former Kitchener Barracks were renamed after RAF Air Stations. Following the British pull-out in October 1971, the barrack buildings (except for Block 24 and 37), were used by the Singapore Armed Forces as Commando Camp. Of the various barrack developments, only the former Kitchener remains largely intact today.





Escape from Tanglin Barracks

16 04 2021

Tanglin Village or Dempsey Hill, a spacious and joyous site on the fringes of Singapore’s city centre, has a history that goes back more than a hundred and fifty years. Established as Singapore’s first purpose-built military camp, Tanglin Barracks, it is a place with stories abound. There are quite a few that I find especially intriguing, including one which has as its leading protagonist a rather flamboyant German mariner by the name of Julius Lauterbach, whose exploits on and off the high seas make for quite an interestIng read.

Tanglin Village today

Lauterbach’s chapter in Tanglin’s history is set against the backdrop of the First World War, a conflict which pitted his native Germany against Singapore’s colonial master, Great Britain. Almost overnight, friends found themselves on opposing sides and even if the war may have been raging far from Singapore’s shores, its fallout extended to the island in one way or another. On 24 October 1914, some three months into the conflict, nationals of Germany and Austria in Singapore received an order to report to the P&O Wharf. There were a number of prominent members of the mercantile community amongst the group. Initially interned on St John’s Island, the group would be moved into Tanglin Barracks‘ vacant blocks and were joined by internees who had been detained in Malaya.

St. John’s Island.

The choice of Tanglin Barracks as a place of internment was only possible as the British infantry units who would have normally be quartered at the barracks were most — in Europe. This arrangement however, would leave Singapore with threadbare defences, although there seemed to be little of concern with the main threat to the island’s security having been ascertained as internal rather than external. The responsibility for maintaining order was placed squarely on the shoulders of the officers and men of a British Indian Army infantry regiment — the 5th Light Infantry, which was quartered at Alexandra Barracks.

The former Gillman Barrack’s officers’ mess – close to the site where the first shot was fired to signal the start of the mutiny.

At Tanglin Barracks, a total of about 250 civilians were held, accommodated in a cluster of barrack buildings which had been ‘wired in’ with scaffolding used as watch towers. The 5th Light Infantry provided the camp’s security details together with a handful of men from the volunteer units. Within the confines of the camp boundary was also a ‘small bungalow’ that was converted for use as a hospital for internees. Tanglin Barracks’ Teutonic flavour was also to be enhanced by a group of about sixty Prisoners of War (POWs) from the German naval cruiser, SMS Emden, which brought the total number of internees at the camp to 309. The POWs were housed separately within the confines of the camp in a barrack block that acquired the name ‘Emden Villa’.

The cricket field and P-Block.

The Emden must have been quite well known in Singapore, having gained notoriety for the damage and disruption to Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea that it had inflicted in the early months of the war. Among the cruiser’s exploits was a daring raid on Penang harbour during which two ships — a Russian cruiser and a French destroyer — were sunk. The Emden, as did many naval vessels on both sides, also employed tactics that could be compared to pirate ships in sending boarding parties to storm merchant ships, either to scuttle them, or if the cargo was valuable enough, to commandeer these vessels as a ‘prize’. The men of the Emden who had found their way to Tanglin were in fact members of ‘prize crews’ of three ships that were recaptured by the Allies, the most senior of whom was Reserve Lieutenant Julius Lauterbach. Lauterbach was taken along with the prize crew of the collier, Exford, which was carrying a cargo of 6000 tons of coal when it was recaptured by the armed auxiliary cruiser, HMS Empress of Japan, off Sumatra on 11 December 1914.

Postcard, S.M.S. Emden, circa 1914, Germany, maker unknown. Te Papa (GH002110)

Lauterbach was already well known in many circles in Singapore in his days as a master mariner who was based at the port of Tsingtao (Qingdao), which Germany held as a concession port from 1898 to 1914. He had been an established fixture on the merchant marine scene and many among the civilian internees had made the passage on ships that Lauterbach had captained. His arrival at Tanglin was said to have been greeted with a loud cheer because of his fame. Being the highest ranking officer among the POWs, Lauterbach was afforded with a degree of respect by his captors, who put him in a three-room house on his own within the camp perimeter and close to the Emden Villa.

Julius Lauterbach at Tanglin

As soon as Leuterbach arrived in Tanglin, he set out plotting an escape and after having observed security arrangements at the camp, he determined that a tunnel would best serve his purpose. On 27 January 1915, with help from a group of trusted men he started on his dig right under the noses of the camp guards, under the guise of doing gardening. It could also have been that the members of 5th Light Infantry who were guarding the camp and who were free to interact with the internees, was under Lauterbach’s influence. Lauterbach was also able to have the company of a French-Chinese Eurasian admirer during his internment, albeit with a locked gate in between them. The young lady, according to a boast that Lauterbach made, had come to Singapore to see to his wellbeing having made her way from her native Shanghai once she got wind of his plight and was also able to hand information such as maps to him to aid in his intended escape.

A very special ward.

Mutiny

All this while, unhappiness was fermenting (some say fermented by Lauterbach and company) among members of the 5th Light Infantry. In January 1915, a decision was made to deploy the 5th to Hong Kong. The destination was however not communicated to the troops. There were rumours abound that the destination was not East, but West in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). With it large Muslim contingent, many among the rank and file were incensed by the prospect of having to fight fellow Muslims. In a move to quell the growing sense of unease, the transfer was brought forward. With the 5th due to be sent out on 16 February 1915 — the day after the three day Chinese New Year holiday weekend, the unit stood down from its duties at Tanglin on 14 February 1915 and camp security was left in the hands of one British and three native officers and twelve men of the Johore Military Forces, who were without ammunition, and a deployment of volunteers.

Remembering the victims of the Mutiny – a plaque at the Victoria Concert Hall.

The growing sense of unhappiness and the impending move to what was rumoured to be Mesopotamia provoked members of the 5th Light Infantry into action and just after 3 pm on the afternoon of 15 February 1915, members of the regiment’s Right Wing — numbering just over 400 men, mutinied (infantry regiments were then split into two wings, each with four companies). A group of about eighty rebels headed to Tanglin, intent on freeing German prisoners in the hope that they would lend support to the rebellion. At 3.45 pm, the mutineers reached Tanglin with a group among the eighty laying siege to Tanglin Military Hospital and firing into its administration building. In spite of coming under fire, Staff Sergeant Vickers, RAMC, managed to make his way to the medical officers bungalow some 300 yards away (270 metres). Finding the Medical Officer out, he was able to raise the alarm to the police, Fort Canning and a Dr Fowlie. A group of fifteen men reached the POW camp about half an hour later around 4.15 pm and also fired on the guards. The lock to the gate was then blown up. In the chaos of the attack, four officers were killed along with ten men. One German prisoner was also fatally wounded.

Buildings of the former Tanglin Military Hospital.

An eyewitness, Corporal J F Bray, RAMC, who was stationed at the prisoner hospital recalled being roused by the firing. German prisoners then told him that a mutiny had broken out. He then rushed to the POW hospital’s dispensary to get dressings in order to attend to the wounded, one of whom was a prisoner in W-Block (now Block 17). Inside W-Block, Bray witnessed six to seven members of the 5th freeing German prisoners before moving them into Y-Block (Block 26). Bray also witnessed the leader of the mutineers shaking hands with the German prisoners. Unsuccessful in their attempts to enlist the help of the Germans, the mutineers then left, promising to return with arms and ammunition. The bulk of the German prisoners, including Lauterbach, had in fact refused to take up arms; some went on to help in attending to the wounded, and transport the more seriously hurt to Tanglin Military Hospital.

Block 17 – a block that many who served National Service in the army will remember as the Enlistment Centre

Lauterbach’s Epic Escape

In the commotion of the disturbance at Tanglin, Lauterbach made a final push to finish the tunnel that he had been working on. Determined to get away unnoticed, he decided against walking out the open camp gate and use the tunnel he had worked on. Selecting a handful of prisoners to go with him for their ability to speak English made the escape as the darkness fell, having to making a vault over a final set of barbed-wire that lay beyond the tunnel exit. Leaving at around 8pm, the group decided that the main roads were to be avoided and took a route through grass, lallang and rubber plantation — a decision that got their guide and themselves lost. With some further help obtained through a handsome bribe, the group eventually found their way to the coast, some five hours after leaving Tanglin. There the scene was set for a voyage to Karimun. The long twelve hours that it would take them to get to the islands, which lay on the neutral Dutch side of the Melaka Strait, would only be the first leg of what was to become an epic journey of escape. The journey was to involve trudging through the jungles of Sumatra, a journey from Padang to Batavia (Jakarta) to Surabaya, a passage on a Dutch steamer to the Celebes (Sulawesi), a five day passage across the Celebes Sea to Mindanao in a leaking boat that required water to be bailed out by hand continuously, a voyage disguised as a Dutchman from Manila to China’s north coast where he made his way down to Shanghai. From Shanghai, he would head east to Japan, then Hawaii, and San Francisco from where he boarded a train for New York. At Hoboken — across the Hudson from Manhattan, Lauterbach signed on to a Oslo bound Danish ship as a Swedish stoke. Making landfall in Europe, he made his way to Copenhagen before finding himself on German soil on 10 October 1915 — some eight months after his escape from Singapore and ten months after his capture onboard the Exford.





History Misunderstood: Changi Point

5 04 2021

Set in scenic surroundings in Singapore’s rustic north-eastern corner, the area we refer to as Changi Point, is one in which I have found great joy in. It is an area of much beauty with much of its natural geographical features intact and wears a charm that is little changed from the time I first interacted with it more than half a century ago. Over the years, I have also discovered that the area is one with quite a history; a history that is even recorded in maps of a 17th century battle off Changi. Also as fascinating is Changi Point and its more recent past, one that goes back to the early decades of Singapore as a British East India Company trading port.

Changi today – with a view towards Pulau Ubin

Remote and inhospitable and with its surroundings dominated by mangrove and terrestrial forests in British Singapore’s earliest years, Changi Point’s charm must have already been in evidence then; so much so that several adventurous souls amongst the gentry recognised its potential as a spot for a retreat.  Among the first to see this was Mr Gottlieb, who put up Fairy Point bungalow on what could be thought of as the prime of prime locations on the seaward side of an elevation he christened Fairy Point Hill.

Fairy Point – the site of Mr Gottlieb’s Bungalow

In addition to Mr Gottlieb’s place of escape, the government had also had a bungalow built. Besides serving as a stay-over location for officers sent to the remote area for surveys, its use was extended for leisure purposes.  By the mid-1840s, Changi Bungalow – as it had come to be known, had gained the reputation of being a “fashionable resort for picnic parties”. Constructed of wood, the bungalow had to be rebuilt several times over the years with its last iteration being demolished in 1965. The expansive grounds of the bungalow is an area that until today, has been in the hands of Singapore’s successive governments and amongst the structures now found on it is the 1950 built Changi Cottage, as well as several other holiday facilities.

Changi Cottage

One holiday home from Changi’s past that is still standing is a bungalow that belonged to Mr Ezekiel S Manasseh, who is often confused with Sir Manasseh Meyer. A founder of Goodwood Park Hotel, Mr E S Manasseh is better known for his mansion in Tanglin, Eden Hall, which is the British High Commissioner’s residence today. Mr Manasseh also maintained a holiday home in Changi Point. Located on the left bank of Changi Creek, he often extended its use to newlyweds for their honeymoon early in the 1900s. The bungalow stands today as the CSC Clubhouse.

Muslim graves at the foot of Batu Puteh Hill – a reminder perhaps of Kampong Batu Puteh.

Around this time (the early 1900s), a Japanese owned hotel also made an appearance along the beach just east of Fairy Point in the area of a Malay kampung named Kampong Batu Puteh.  The wooden hotel, which was perched on stilts that extended across the foreshore, was rumoured to have offered more than a getaway and was rumoured to have been a place of ill repute. Whatever the hotel may have offered, time would soon be called on it with events on the world’s stage setting a new course for Changi Point.

While the Great War of 1914 to 1918 did not affect Singapore directly, its impact was and would be felt in many ways, not least through the fluctuations in the price of rubber through the war. There was also that episode of the insurrection that began at Alexandra Barracks during Chinese New Year in 1915 that was founded partly on a rumour being spread among the Sepoy Muslim mutineers  that they were being sent to Mesopotamia to fight fellow Muslims. Among Britain’s allies who responded to calls for help were some 190 Japanese resident volunteers, and another force of 142 from two Japanese naval ships.

Memorial to the victims of the 1915 Mutiny at Victoria Concert Hall

The Imperial Japanese Navy had been on the rise for a number of decades. Having acquired knowhow to build its own naval hardware as well as in naval tactics from Britain and France, by the time the war started, the Japanese navy was in a good position to support its allies in the Entente. Japan actions in the naval arena would also however lay its ambitions bare, especially in regard to German held territory in China. The sense of discomfort in Britain grew in the post-war period with Japan having the third largest navy in the world after the United States and Britain. By 1921, a decision had been taken by Britain to protect its Far East interests through the construction of a huge naval base in Singapore.

HMS Bulwark off the northwall of the Naval Base in the 1960s – the northwall is where the far end of the shipyard is today (source: http://www.acig.org/artman/publish/article_203.shtml).

A consequence of building the naval base in Singapore, and having it sited in Seletar – as the Sembawang area was also known as, was in the placement of coastal artillery around Changi to defend the base against naval attack. Changi, located at the eastern entrance to the Tebrau or Johor Strait, was hence, strategically sited at the entrance to the naval base. With the need to install, man, maintain and protect the guns, Changi was also developed as a military cantonment.

An extract from a 1935 map showing positions or intended positions of Defence Electric Lights at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Johor (including those at Pengerang) and their coverage (National Archives of Singapore online).

The first section of the cantonment was built at Changi Point. Work progressed in in a stop-start manner, first from 1927 to 1930 and again from 1933 to 1935, due to the evolving political situation in Britain.  Being the first barracks on site and located in a prime location, this section became the home of Royal Engineers’ units as Kitchener Barracks. There would also be barracks constructed for the Royal Artillery at Roberts Barracks and for infantry units at Selarang Barracks. In addition to these, a few other camps were also established for the rank and file among the British Indian Army troops protecting the area.

Selarang Barracks Officers’ Mess

The huge investment in the base and in facilities at Changi and elsewhere across the island did little in terms of doing what it was meant to do and on 15 February 1942, the “impregnable fortress” that Singapore had been touted as, fell into the hands of Japanese forces – a mere two months after Japan launched its invasion of Malaya. Except for the feint assault on Pulau Ubin on the eve of the Imperial Japanese Army’s 8 February 1942 invasion of Singapore, and the firing of Changi’s huge coastal guns against advancing Japanese troops, Changi would see little in terms of military action in the lead up to this inglorious fall. Contrary to popular belief, the guns were used with at least one of the monster guns of the Johore Battery firing about eighty rounds before its rifling started to protrude. Although the guns were fired, they did little to stop the advance. The armour piercing rounds that they were supplied with in anticipation of a naval assault, were ineffective against ground forces. On 12 February 1942, with Japanese forces made rapid progress coming down the down and west, the order was given to units defending Changi to pull back to Singapore’s urban centre. The cantonment and its lightly damaged buildings were left empty, and Changi’s guns destroyed. It would be some days later, on 17 February 1942, that Changi would come into the spotlight.

The spiked No 2 Gun, one of three 15″ guns of the Johore Battery.

The Fall of Singapore left the Japanese invasion forces with quite a big headache. With tens of thousands of surrendering British and Australian led personnel from units that made the retreat down Malaya and troops defending Singapore, they were overwhelmed. There was the need to accommodate, secure and maintain the discipline among the Prisoners of War (POWs) and a solution provided by Changi and its abandoned cantonment. On 17 February 1942, some 50,000 prisoners-of-war or POWs, were made to march to Changi to occupy its various barracks and camps.

Barrack Hill in Kitchener Barracks – part of the POW camp for Southern Area forces from Feb 1942 to May 1943.

The former Kitchener Barracks was used to accommodate members of the Southern Area forces with some 15,000  Australian POWs occupying Selarang.  The POW hospital was also to be centralised in Roberts Barracks on 26 February 1942, one of two sites – the other being Selarang – at which hospitals were established prior to the Fall of Singapore and immediately after the POWs were moved to Changi.  It would be in the chapel at Roberts Hospital that the famous Changi Murals would be painted. The murals still exist today. Found in Block 151 in Changi Air Base West, they are quite unfortunately out of bounds to members of the public. In the early part of camp life, there had apparently been minimal contact with their captors, with prisoners being tasked with wiring themselves into the various barrack areas as well as taking care of their own discipline.

Block 151. Now in Changi Air Base West, this was one of the Roberts Barracks blocks that served as the POW Hospital from February 1942 until September 1943.

Life as a POW in Changi, and in Kitchener Barracks was tough for many reasons and not least through the lack of food and nutrition as well as the diseases that the POWs were exposed to due to conditions in captivity. Still, many found the strength to go on through the activities that were organised. Sports became a means to provide distractions to the routine of life as a POW – at least in the first year of captivity. Among the ranks were several professional sportsmen, including Johnny Sherwood, a footballer who played in the war time FA Cup final.  The sports fields and facilities that the barracks in Changi had been provided with proved useful with cricket and football matches being played on them. Theatrical performances were also organised and college level courses. In Kitchener, classes of the Southern Area College were taught by academics, some of whom were from Raffles College. Several were members of volunteer units which had been placed under the Fortress Singapore command.

The Changi Padang – it was used for sporting activities during the first year of POW captivity.

In the many comparisons that were made by POWs at Changi, there is a consistent theme of how life may have been hard, but was in fact “heaven” compared to what many were to face elsewhere. Throughout the initial period of captivity starting in April 1942, work teams were organised and sent to various of Singapore to work on building and construction projects. Teams would also be sent to the Thai-Burma Railway, which the Japanese were constructing to provide a supply line to support their push into Burma and towards the Indian subcontinent. Often described as the “Death Railway” it was where the POWs really suffered, being put to hard labour. Besides an extreme lack of nutrition, POWs also suffered from deliberating diseases, with many succumbing to them.  

River Kwai, Kanchanaburi in Thailand in Dec 1984, the area was where many POWs were sent from Singapore to work on the Death Railway .

Kitchener Barracks, being where the bulk of the troops defending Singapore were being held – as opposed to troops that had made the retreat down Malaya – had the healthiest POWs and hence, was where many of the members of the first working teams were drawn from. By May 1943, POW numbers had dwindled to the point that Kitchener Barracks was closed as a POW camp and in September 1943, Roberts was similarly closed, with the POWs and the POW Hospital being concentrated at Selarang Barracks. Both Kitchener and Roberts Barracks were taken over by Imperial Japanese Army units who were involved in the construction of an airstrip at Changi. This started with POW labour in September 1943 and by the end of 1944, the airstrip was operational.

While all this was happening, returning POWs from the Death Railway were placed at Selarang Camp and also at Sime Road Camp. A change in POW administration would however see the POWs concentrated in Changi Prison and its grounds from May 1944. Civilian internees, who were being held at Changi Prison from February 1942 to May 1944 were moved to Sime Road to make way for the POWs.

The main Changi Prison gate – one of the structures of the prison that has been kept. The prison was a site of civilian internment from Feb 1942 until May 1944, following which POWs were moved in.

One of the myths that have been spread about Changi and the POW experience is that of the hospital in Kitchener Barracks being a place of torture by the Kempeitai. There is however no basis for this myth. Not only was there no functioning hospital in Kitchener Barracks during the period of captivity, there are certainly not reports or accounts that exist. Instances of torture by the Kempeitai did however take place in the wake of Operation Jaywick, which involved a commando raid on Japanese shipping in Singapore harbour. During what has been termed as the “Double-Tenth Incident”, civilian internees at Changi Prison were suspected of aiding the commandos through radio transmissions. Several were interrogated and executed in exercise that would involve the arrest and subsequent torture of Elizabeth Choy at the YMCA in Orchard Road.

Changi would find a new purpose after the war. The Royal Air Force (RAF) found the airstrip that the Japanese had added particularly useful in landing transport aircraft bringing in much needed supplies. This would lead to the strengthening and subsequent use of the runway for the RAF’s heavy aircraft and the setting up of RAF Changi, an air station that would become the RAF’s principal air station in the Far East. The former Kitchener Barracks, would become the headquarters of the Far East Air Force (FEAF) command, with Barrack Hill, renamed FEAF Hill. The roads in the area, were also renamed after RAF air stations.

A view from FEAF Hill

To support the new air station, more accommodation was also added across the area, starting with several single floor bungalows. A number of semi-detached accommodation would also be added. Many of these buildings can still be found. In addition to this, a hospital was set up for the RAF on FEAF Hill. This initially involved the former sick quarters on top of the hill (renamed Block 37) and the former H-Block – a three-storey barrack block of Kitchener Barracks which was turned into a ward block 24. Separated by a flight of 91 steps, transfer pf patients between the two blocks required an ambulance. The construction of a third block – the six storey Block 161 (with four usable floors) – with lifts and walkways to connect the two older blocks in 1962, helped ease that burden.    

Blocks 161 and 24 of the former Changi Hospital.

Following the pull-out of British Forces in 1971, the former barracks were put to use in several ways with the barrack blocks along Hendon Road accommodating Singapore’s Commando Unit and several of the accommodation units being turned into holiday facilities for civil servants. Sports and recreation clubs, such as the Changi Swimming Club, the Beach Club and the Sailing Club were also established using existing facilities left by the RAF. One outcome of the development of the air base, is the idea of developing Changi also for civil aviation. There were in fact plans announced in 1948 to develop a world class airport in Changi . That did not quite happen, but the idead came up once more in the 1970s leading to the development of Changi Airport.

One of the post WW2 semi-detached additions, seen in September 1987. These served as married quarters during the RAF days and were converted for use as government holiday chalets in the 1970s.

Today, much of the area of the former Kitchener Barracks and the RAF camp is still intact. Many of the sites and structures completed from 1928 to 1935, including barrack blocks and residences are still standing. Some, such as have gain prominence having been used by Raintr33 Hotel and Changi Hospital. There are also some still in use, such as BNP Paribas APAC Training Centre, Coastal Settlement, and the recreational spaces such as the former Officers’ Club – now the Beach Club and the Yacht Club – now Changi Sailing Club. There are also the oldest structures – the officers’ residences at Batu Puteh Hill and Fairy Point Hill, including one, that sits on the site of Mr Gottlieb’s demolished bungalow. The collection of barrack structures of the former Kitchener Barracks, are perhaps the last, almost complete set of structures from the interwar militarisation of Singapore that is still around, structures which tell a story of Changi’s development, of war, and of how through a series of twists and turns, it became a key aviation staging ground for the RAF and then for Singapore.





An Abundant Celebration

14 01 2021

2020 could be thought of having been a lean year. Much of the year was dominated by the global COVID-19 pandemic and the economic fallout as a result of it. As we move towards the halfway point in the first month of the new year, there is renewed hope. It is perhaps apt that the first cultural festival that we celebrate in 2021, the Tamil harvest festival of Pongal, is all about celebrating abundance.

The Tamil harvest festival of Pongal brings life and colour to Singapore’s Little India.

One thing that Pongal brings to Singapore and in particular to the streets of Singapore’s Little India is great colour. Even if the situation on the ground does seem much less subdued, this seems to also be the case this year. A walk around Campbell Lane, Clive Street and Dunlop Street last evening — the eve of the festival, the colourful displays of festival essentials such as decorated clay pongal pots, floral garlands, stalks of sugarcane, de-husked coconuts and fresh produce, could be seen. The festival, which heralds the arrival of the Tamil month of Thai is celebrated over a four day period in mid-January. The first day of Thai, the festival day proper, falls on 14 January this year.


Sights and sounds of Pongal on the streets of Little India





The Last Christmas

12 01 2021

Robinsons, which shut down over the weekend, had a long association with Christmas and had Singapore dreaming of its very first white Christmas in 1949.


Robinsons’ last Christmas, 2020.

For a while, Christmas in Singapore wouldn’t be Christmas without a visit to Robinsons. The store — a long time Singaporean retail institution, which had a strong link with the year end season of cheer, had its long and eventful history brought to a sad end when it shut its doors for good on 9 January 2021 – just a few weeks short of its 163 birthday.

Robinsons – building it occupied at Raffles Place from 1891 to 1941, prior to moving across the square to Raffles Chambers.

Growing up, Robinsons was certainly the place to go to get a feel of Christmas. The prospect of having to say hello to Father Christmas, of whom I was terrified, did not stop me from visiting the toy department. Robinsons vast array of toys made its toy department possibly the largest in Singapore at that time. Even if there wasn’t much prospect of getting my hands on what I truly desired, it made it the place to be at, if only to gawk at the toy selection and a model railway that never failed to have me enthralled. There was also the Christmas lucky dip to turn towards if all manners of persuasion at getting a toy that I badly wanted failed. For the price of what may have been two bowls of noodles, the gifts that one pulled out of the dip did sometimes surprise and I obtained one of my favourite toys in this manner, an orange battery operated submarine.

Raffles Chambers, Christmas 1966.

Those were days when Robinsons occupied its rather iconic Raffles Chambers premises in a building that, quite tragically, was destroyed in a huge fire that claimed nine lives in November 1972. The old building in Raffles Place was not Robinsons first store. It moved to it late in 1941, just a month or so before the war came to Singapore. It was however a location that was Robinsons’ most recognised and remembered in its stores right up to the point at which it closed. Raffles Chambers was also where Robinson’s introduced some of its more elaborate ways to welcome the season — a season that for Robinsons must have had the cash registers ringing for many years. Among the innovative ways in which Christmas came to Robinsons at Raffles Chambers was with Singapore’s very first “White Christmas” — when a movie set snowstorm blew in a Christmas themed display in a shop window. Snow made from chemically treated fibre was brought over from England for this with fans used to blow fake snow around the set.

A 1930s newspaper advertisement – Robinsons has had a long association with Christmas.

The history of Robinsons went back to February 1858, when Philip Robinson — who had arrived from Melbourne just the year before, and James Gaborian Spicer, established Spicer and Robinson. The “family warehouse” dealt in a large assortment of imported household goods, outfitting and foods from its premises at 9 and 10 Commercial Square or Raffles Place. The partnership did not last very long. In October 1858, Spicer pulled out of the arrangement and as Robinson and Co, the store continued operating with Robinson and a new found partner George Rappa Jr at the helm. The store prospered, and after being on the move and moving out of Raffles Place, eventually found a large “warehouse” back in Raffles Place in 1891. By that time Robinson and Co operated departments for drapery, hosiery, haberdashery, furnishings, motors and cycles, photographic apparatus and sports requisites. The store also dealt with arms and ammunition, as sole agents for Messrs Kynochs, a Birmingham based ammunition manufacturer.

Raffles Places in the late 1800s.

Soon after its move across the square to Raffles Chambers, the first Japanese bombs fell on Singapore in December 1941. The building would be partially damaged by the air raids twice — on 8 December 1941 and on 13 February 1942, even if it continued operations before eventually closing when Singapore fell. The occupation years brought a different occupant in the form of a Japanese department store, Matsuzakaya, which moved into the premises on 21 March 1943 after extensive repairs that were partially paid for by the Japanese military were made to the building. Robinsons would only return in June 1946, operating first on the ground floor and the basement before the building was fully returned by the British Military. A Royal Air Force amenities store in the interim following the reoccupation of Singapore in September 1945.

The iconic Raffles Chambers, which was topped by a statue of Mercury, was built to house another store, Katz Brothers, in 1912 (postcard: roots.sg).

The post war years would see Robinsons prosper further and lead the way in innovations. In June 1955, the store became the first department store in Malaya and Singapore to be fitted with full air-conditioning. The tragic fire of 1972 brought an end to Robinsons connection with Raffles Place and perhaps heralded the beginning of the end for the long time shopping icon. The store was able to reestablish itself on Orchard Road — first at Specialists Shopping Centre before making a move to Centrepoint in 1983. Several changes of ownership and the store’s opening of several branches did little to stem Robinsons slow slide into obscurity. In 2013, Robinsons moved its flagship store to The Heeren, which was given a more upmarket feel. That perhaps put the final nail in its coffin for the old store. In October 2020, Robinsons announced its intention to close and on 16 December 2020 it closed its flagship store and on 9 January 2020, its last store at Raffles City.

When Robinsons had its flagship store at Centrepoint
Its flagship store at The Heeren
Its last window display at its Raffles City store
Its iconic Raffles Chambers store remembered in the Raffles City outlet

Parting Glances – A Last Look at Robinsons





Shadow Play

8 01 2021

Growing up at a time when, and in space where my cultural experiences had little to do with the state prescribed definition of my ethnicity, has given me a wonderful set of childhood memories. There was much that I took joy from in a household were the languages used and the food we enjoyed was anything but what one might have expected. Some of my fondest memories were of the interactions with my grandmother. Having come across from the Dutch East Indies before the war and being conversant only in Bahasa Indonesia, she had a penchant for watching reruns of P Ramlee movies on black and white television, doing her shopping at Kampong Jawa (Arab Street) and catching screenings of Kelantanese wayang kulit or shadow puppet performances that aired on Radio Television Malaysia 2 (RTM2 — or Channel 10 as its was then better known as).

Wayang kulit, which has its origins in pre-Islamic Java, is something I still enjoy watching, although what we see now of it in Malaysia and in Singapore seems quite different from the performances that I caught seated next to my grandmother all those years back. That would have been in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the ancient art form — used for generations as a vehicle for the handing down of oral traditions — was still expressed in a manner that was little changed, and featured characters and stories rooted in the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. A rise in religious consciousness, particularly in Kelantan where the art form had a particularly large following where a ban was imposed in the wayang kulit performances in the 1990s, saw to a gradual changed to a more modern form that we tend to see today with non-religious and contemporary characters and stories being introduced.

While the tradition has been greatly modified here, it is still very much alive in its spiritual home in Central Java — assisted perhaps by its inscription as one of several forms of Indonesian wayang theatre on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List since 2008. It is not only possible to watch performances there, but also see how the puppets are made from water buffalo hide. The process of making a puppet from a piece of cured hide is a painstaking one and involves carefully cutting the hide to shape, hand-punching patterns and painting each character over a period of up to two months.

The following are some photographs taken at a workshop in Yogyakarta during a visit in 2013, a visit that included a bonus in the form of an impromptu performance put up by a dalang or master puppeteer:





Remembering Dakota (Crescent)

5 01 2021

Dakota Crescent — part of the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) 1958 development that was known as Old Kallang Airport Estate — will not be forgotten for two reasons. The first, is that six out of seventeen of its block that are representative of the former estate, including a 1970s playground that the six are arranged around, are being kept as part of a future housing development.

The second reason is the widely circulated myth that the fatal Dakota DC-3 crash that Dakota Crescent is said to have been named after, occured at Kallang Airport in a thunderstorm on 29 June 1946. While it can be established that DC-3 carrying 22 crew and Royal Air Force personnel that originated from Kallang on the date did crash in bad weather, it can also be established that where the crash happened was not at Kallang but in northern Malaya and after the aircraft had taken off at Butterworth on its way to Mingaladon.

How I will remember Dakota, is through the various visits that I made to the old estate and through the photographs that I took of it. My impressions of it was that the estate was worn, tired looking and had seen much better days. Still there was much to take in and much to capture and in this post are a few that I wish to share.


Remembering Dakota





Geylang, through the eyes of a long time “street-walker”

4 01 2021


I have been walking the streets of Geylang for close to a decade now. As much as it is a destination for a gluttonous excursion, and, if that isn’t sinful enough for the disreputable indulgences that Geylang has gained a certain notoriety for, the district’s main roads and numerous lorong-lorong (lanes) running off the main streets, are also full of colour — having been spared from the level of development that has robbed much of modern Singapore of character. An amazing array of religious institutions and houses of worship exist in the area, which has also become an abode for many transient workers. There is certainly no shortage of what the explorer and the photographer in me can take joy in. Here are some of what I have captured of Geylang, seen in quite different light, in fifty photographs:


1 | Seeing the light | 14 Nov 2014
Geylang is possibly home to Singapore’s largest concentration of religious institutions. This photograph shows one of them, the Masjid Khadijah and particularly its minaret, brought to prominence by the light of the rising sun as dark rain clouds cast a shadow on Geylang Road.
2 | Playing with Fire | 11 Sep 2016
The Mun San Fook Tuck Chee temple, a temple with more than a century of history and is threatened by redevelopment, lies off Sims Drive and what used to be an extension of Geylang’s Lorong 17. One of its traditions, albeit relatively recently introduced in the 1980s, is the fire dragon dance – for more information on the dance, and the temple, do click on the photograph.
3 | Rain Coloured Streets | 16 Nov 2016
The rain-coloured Geylang Road.
4 | Seeing the light II | 11 Oct 2018
Like much of Singapore, Geylang Road is constantly under repair and maintenance. This sometimes presents rather unique opportunities for the photographer.
5 | Breakfast / Fast Break | 7 Jun 2019
Home to many migrant workers, Geylang comes to life almost as soon as its nocturnal side comes to a rest,
6 | Light and Shadow | 16 Oct 2018
Patrons at a coffeeshop partially illuminated by the light of the rising sun.
7 | Restocking | 26 Sep 2018
Breakfast time at a metal section supplier — just after the day’s supply of hollow metal sections of various cross-sectional shapes have been delivered.
8 | Shelter from the Storm | 8 Aug 2018
A five-foot-way illuminated by the neon signs of the Buddhist Art Centre.
9 | The Rain Again | 16 Nov 2016
10 | Lorong 34 | 17 Jan 2018
A view down Lorong 34, one of Geylang’s prettier lorong-lorong.
11 | Lorong 34 II | 26 Jul 2019
A set of pretty conservation shophouses along Lorong 34 – seen in the morning light,
12 | Old Made New | 20 Jun 2012
“Conservation” work to turn shophouses along Lorong 41 into The Lotus.
13 | Green Lane | 1 Oct 2018
Geylang may be greener than you think!
14 | Survivor | 17 Jan 2018
Hidden in Geylang’s lorong-lorong are a few survivors of Geylang’s past.
15 | Survivor II | 30 Aug 2017
Another house temple, this one set in a compound house that is a reminder not only of Geylang’s past, but also of a rural Singapore that we no longer see.
16 | A New Old World | 30 Aug 2017
A replica of a two-storey conservation bungalow that was demolished by the developer of a condominium at 5 Lorong 26. A photograph of the actual bungalow can be viewed by clicking on the photograph.
17 | A New World in an Old | 22 Jun 2012
A view of a conservation shophouse along Lorong 24A – from another.
18 | Back Alley Colours | 11 Jun 2012
Geylang’s back lanes can be especially colourful.
19 | SG50 | 7 Sep 2015
A lorong dressed up for National Day.
20 | Reflections on Geylang | 14 Nov 2014
A reflection of Geylang Road off a bus window.
21 | Portals into the Past | 18 Oct 2018
Night soil ports seen in a Geylang back lane.
22 | Backstage Colours | 10 Mar 2016
Backstage at a Cantonese opera performance at the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee temple.
23 | Backstage Colours II | 10 Mar 2016
A Cantonese opera performer at the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee temple.
24 | Off to School | 9 Oct 2016
A grandparent accompanying a child to school — Geylang is also home to many families.
25 | Against the Tide| 23 Feb 2016
Another set of rules does seem to apply in Geylang.
26 | Seeing No Light | 7 Sep 2015
The day begins when the night has not ended for some.
27 | Festive Light | 23 Jan 2017
Bee Cheng Hiang opening early for the Chinese New Year shopper.
28 | Painted Face | 23 Feb 2016
One of the most photographed corners of Geylang.
29 | Door Guardians | 22 Oct 2018
Entrance to a temple in Geylang.
30 | Stairway to Heaven| 12 Jan 2017
A long vacant house that has recently been renovated.
31 | Kopitiam | 9 Oct 2018
An early morning Geylang coffeeshop scene.
32 | A Different Light | 25 Oct 2014
Inside a conservation shophouse along Lorong 24A.
33 | Crossing | 16 Oct 2018
Madrasah Al-Ma’arif students crossing Geylang Road.
34 | Teamwork| 26 Sep 2018
Unloading a delivery truck.
35 | Light of a New Day | 26 Sep 2018
With an east-west alignment, Geylang Road is well positioned to welcome the new day.
36 | Milestone | 1 May 2014
The last mile(stone) — a reminder of days when roads were marked with milestones. The milestone was removed by the National Heritage Board in 2014 and is now in the Heritage Conservation Centre.
37 | Upward Spiral | 22 Nov 2018
Colourful reminders of the “back lane” scheme in Singapore.
38 | Overgrowth | 17 May 2018
Conservation in Geylang often involves the addition of taller apartment blocks — within height limits – to the rear of conservation shophouses.
39 | Pretty in Pink | 30 Aug 2017
Geylang Road was once lined with private residences such as this bungalow — built possibly c. 1920. This is now used as a hotel.
40 | Takeaway | 15 Jan 2015
Members of the migrant workforce waiting for transport by the roadside, seen with packets of takeaway food bought from Geylang’s enterprising food vendors, many of whom open before the sun rises.
41 | Backend | 17 May 2018
Much of the Geylang’s streetscape is dominated by conservation shophouses.
42 | Rush Hour| 22 Nov 2018
Geylang’s bus-stops are especially busy during morning rush hour. The pillars of shophouses by the bus stops serve as convenient advertising board for accommodation and services that the transient population in Geylang may require.
43 | A Geylang Tragedy I| 9 Mar 2017
The Huang Clan house, which has since been demolished for a residential development. The house was where the “Father of Modern Chinese Art”, Xu Beihong, painted some of his most famous works, whilst a guest at the clan house in the 1930s. Some of the paintings, which expressed Xu’s anti-Japanese sentiments, were hidden away in Han Wai Toon’s rambutan orchard in Upper Thomson (now Thomson Nature Park).
44 | A Geylang Tragedy II | 9 Mar 2017
The former house of a Banjarese diamond merchant, which was earmarked for conservation but had deteriorated to a point that it is being rebuilt as part of a new residential development.
45 | Spillover | 18 Oct 2018
A worker getting preparing for the work day in a Geylang back lane.
46 | Gatepost Guardian| 2 Oct 2015
The qilin is commonly seen across the district.
47 | Unclothed| 15 Feb 2016
A break in the plaster of a shophouse exposing the red bricks — possibly from the kilns of the Geylang area — used in its construction.
48 | Rush Hour II | 15 Feb 2016
Geylang’s bus-stops during the morning rush hour are often very photographable.
49 | The Promised Land| 26 Jul 2019
All roads lead to a new residential development, or so it seems.
50 | Seeing the Light II | 15 Nov 2018
Masjid Khadijah in the light of another new day.





Parting Glances: the slow boat to Penang

30 12 2020

There is something magical about the Penang ferry. Much like stepping onto one of the passenger ferries crossing Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, the magic is perhaps how time seems to stand absolutely still from the moment one drives onto a ferry to or from Penang for the twenty minutes or so that the journey takes.

A ferry making the crossing to Penang island at sunrise.

Sadly, the ferries — at least how I knew them — are being retired at the end of December. I would have made a long drive up to Penang just to have a last ride on one if not for the current restrictions on travel. Not having been able to do that, I am thankful that I did take a few photographs the last time I found myself on a Penang ferry in June 2016, some of which I will be including in this post.

A ferry approaching George Town.

A ferry service between Penang and the mainland has apparently been around since 1893/94. That was introduced at a time when the motorcar had not been seen in this part of the world. The first vehicle ferries were only introduced on 1 May 1925. Two lighters, onto which vehicles could be loaded onto were initially used, each pulled by a steam powered boat. A third craft, the Seberang — the first to be purposed built for the service and which had been on order with the Singapore Harbour Board’s (SHB) dockyard at Keppel — was added at the end of the same year. The Seberang, which had a length of 116′ and a beam of 22′, had a capacity of up to five vehicles and up to some 300 passengers.

Two ferries going in opposite directions.

The phenomenal growth in motorcar traffic across the channel, which doubled in the first year of operation, saw to orders for two larger vessels placed wth the SHB in 1928. The two, the SS Kulim and SS Tanjong, with a length of 128′ and a beam of 31′ had a capacity of 16 cars and 360 passengers.

The Penang Bridge, which was completed in the 1980s. The bridge is one of two that takes the bulk of the road traffic making the crossing between Penang and the mainland.

With two bridges linking the mainland to Penang island, taking up the bulk of vehicular traffic, it would only have been a matter of time that the vehicle carrying ferry service would eventually outlive its purpose. With the condition of the current fleet of vehicular ferries, which were built from 1975 to 2002 deteriorating, the vehicle ferry service will be withdrawn just a few years short of 100th year of operation. What will replace the aging roll-on/roll-off ferries will be faster and perhaps cheaper to operate passenger only ferries that lack the charm and grace of the old slow boats to Penang.

The vehicle deck.
The passenger deck.

More photographs taken in 2016: