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:





Discovering the “China” in Singapore’s Chinatown

23 12 2020

Unlike many other cities around the world where “Chinatowns” exist, a “Chinatown” in Singapore — where three in four of its population are ethnic Chinese — does seem rather odd.

The roots of the Chinese quarter do of course lie in Singapore’s very first urban plan, the so-called Jackson Plan of 1822, hatched at a time when the settlement was still very much in its infancy. That plan, placed the main settlement for migrants from China in the area where Chinatown is today also had a “Chuliah campong” for settlers from the Indian sub-continent adjacent to it. To the Chinese speaker, Chinatown had long been known as Tua Poh (大坡) or “the greater town”, or Ngau Che Shui or Gu Chia Chwee (牛车水) — a reference to bullock-drawn water carts carrying supplies of fresh water to the settlement in its early days. It is perhaps in recent times that the notion of the former settlement being Chinatown has taken root, and this seems rather ironically to have coincided with the quarter losing its original Chinese-ness through resettlement and redevelopment, and its subsequent association with the modern Chinese immigrant and the tourist crowd from modern day China.

The Town Plan of 1822.

These developments do in a way, mimic the evolution of the Singaporean Chinese identity — something that the “Not China Town” tour that has been put together by The Real Singapore Tours — seeks to examine. The tour, which I had the opportunity to attend a preview of, involved a long but leisurely walk through Singapore’s Chinatown. Together with the realisation of how widely spread Singapore’s so-called Chinese quarter is, the tour provides its participants through the stories told at various touch points and through songs, is a much deeper understanding of what the “China” in Singapore’s Chinatown is really all about.

Chinatown at the Crossroads – Cross Street was in the area where the “Chuliah Campong” was.

The tour, which can be forgiven for being too long due to the depth into which its guides expertly explore the evolving Chinese identity and for the refreshment stop — is certainly a must do — if the question of what shapes the Chinese Singaporean identity does bug you. Do look out for them at The Real Singapore Tours.


Highlights of Not China Town

Guide Jamie Lee giving an overview of what Singapore’s Chinatown is all about.
Listening to the first song – before the continuation of the “dance” through Chinatown.
Why Pagoda Street?
Another of the guides, Mark Tan (who sings very well), explaining the politics in the simplification of the Chinese character “sheng” in taking the king (王) out and giving power to the ground (土). The simplification of Chinese characters was an effort initiated by the Peoples’ Republic of China in the mid 20th century.
Celebrating the recent addition of hawker culture in Singapore to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage at the new age and very touristy hawker street on Smith Street?
A modern addition to Chinatown – around where the street of the dead was. The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple may have little to do with the collective memory the Chinese Singaporean may have of Chinatown, but it is an example of Tang architecture — the dynasty with which the Chinese immigrants of the past from Southern China identify with. Many descendants of the earlier Chinese immigrants to Singapore would have been identified as T’ng Lang, T’ng Nang or Tong Yan – 唐人- or Tang Ren in Mandarin or People of the Tang, rather than as Han Chinese.
Mark Loon – on the ma-jie and their vows of spinsterhood.
Of animistic practices and the natuk kong.
On the visit of Deng Xiaoping and the sinification of the Chinese in Singapore.
Clues that point to the migration from Amoy (E-m’ng or Xiamen).
A last song – at where it all began for many early immigrants from China.





Adis Lodge – another Crazy-Rich-Asian mansion near Dhoby Ghaut

10 12 2020

In my previous post, I identified one of Singapore’s real Crazy-Rich-Asian residences which was at Dhoby Ghaut – the mansion of Mr Teo Hoo Lye. That was only one of a few that came up in and around the area. The elevation that Mr Teo’s mansion stood at the foot of, Mount Sophia, with its proximity to the urban centre and the wonderful views that it offered, was in fact littered with the opulent homes of the well-to-do. One of these was the residence of Mr Nissim Nissim Adis. Built in 1907, it was thought of as “one of the most magnificent of mansions east of the Suez”. It was after Mr Adis, that Adis Road at Mount Sophia, was named.

Adis Lodge

Mr Adis, who owned the very grand Grand Hotel de l’Europe (where old Supreme Court — the Supreme Court Wing of the National Gallery now stands) and was also the man behind the stockbroking firm of Adis and Co. A Baghdadi Jew who was originally from Calcutta – where he was an aspiring lawyer before deciding to venture in 1876 — at the age of nineteen into stockbroking. He did not have much luck after brief success and decided to move to Hong Kong in 1888, having lost much of what he had made. The story was to be repeated in Hong Kong and this prompted Mr Adis to move to Singapore in 1893. He found greater success in Singapore, not so much from his stockbrokerage but from the investments that he made in property.

Adis Lodge in 1908.

Adis Lodge, which was designed by Tomlinson and Lermit and built at a cost of $300,000 Straits Dollars (approximately SGD 5½ million in today’s terms), boasted of eight bedrooms — each fitted with a dressing room and a bathroom with running hot and cold water (a big deal in those days). The house also had a “well-appointed” billiard room, spacious verandahs, and a beautifully furnished dining room on the ground level — where two of the bedrooms were arranged. Six bedrooms were laid out on the upper level along with a breakfast room and a drawing room. The mansion did not stand for very long. It was sold to Mr Eu Tong Sen in 1912 – just five years after it came up. Mr Eu, had the lodge replaced by what could be thought of as an even more magnificent mansion, Eu Villa, in 1915.





The Crazy-Rich-Asian mansion at Dhoby Ghaut

8 12 2020

Described as a Victorian-style mansion, the mansion of shipowner Teo Hoo Lye once graced the site that is now occupied by The Cathay. Built in 1913 and demolished in the late 1930s, the mansion was — at some points in its short history — also used in parts by several tenants, one of which was the Royal English School, a private school.

Teo Hoo Lye’s mansion – as seen from the Raffles Museum and Library.

The school moved into part of the premises in 1925 before being evicted in 1931 — after Teo had lent his name to the Teo Hoo Lye Institution. Established by a Methodist minister, Chanan Singh, the school took the name in 1929 through a mutual arrangement which saw Teo providing part of his mansion for the school’s use rent-free.

A postcard of the mansion c.1920 (National Archives of Singapore)

Teo passed on in 1933 and the grand house came down about four years later in 1937, when Mrs Loke Yew and Loke Wan Tho purchased the site for Cathay Cinema.





Still an enchanted space

5 12 2020

As Singapore seeks to “Singaporeanise” the once magical former rail corridor, another former railway space belonging to the former Jurong Line in the form of the (now extended and spruced up) railway tunnel under Clementi Road, is attracting quite a fair bit of attention — probably for being what the former rail corridor now isn’t. The space, even if it has been cleaned up and made safe in the only way Singapore knows how, has still that “wow” quality for being what is has been for about three decades — wild, relatively untouched and as unSingaporean as it can be.

Here are some photographs taken of it (and the area it leads to) just yesterday:

From the past

The tunnel in 2014.
A visit on May Day 2018.





Motoring Days on Orchard Road

26 11 2020

It is hard to imagine it today, but Singapore’s famous main shopping street, Orchard Road, was once lined with car showrooms and motor workshops. Car brands such as Volkswagen, Mercedes Benz, Austin, Morris, Ford, Vauxhall, Fiat … and even Rolls Royce, had a presence there. It was certainly the go-to place to do a test drive and place an order for the still affordable family car, or to send the car for servicing and repair.

Orchard Motors, which was at the corner of Orchard and Bideford Road, became The Orchard in the early 1970s — the home of the (in)famous Tivoli Coffee House (Orchard Motors photo used with the kind permission of Mr Bryan Soh).

Two showrooms that were rather prominent in the regular journeys that I made as a child along Orchard Road between C K Tang and Cold Storage, were Champion Motors and Orchard Motors. Champion, which was then a dealer for Volkswagen is today where Lucky Plaza stands, while Orchard Motors — which dealt with Vauxhalls and Chevrolets, was first converted into The Orchard — a small shopping mall that was better known as the location of the (in)famous Tivoli Coffee House, before being replaced by the Paragon’s original wing.

The Orchard, seen with Lucky Plaza coming up on the site of the former Champion Motors showroom.

Today, only two buildings that bear testament to Orchard Road’s motoring past still stand. One is the wonderfully designed sunburst gabled no 14 to 20 Orchard Road — now used by MDIS, which has a history that goes back to Orchard Road’s early motoring days when it was purpose-built as showroom cum office building for Malayan Motors, a Morris dealer. That stands in a conserved row now opposite Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station — along a stretch of Orchard Road that attracted a host of showrooms and workshops in the early days of motoring and was where Ford motorcars were initially assembled in Singapore. Names such as Universal Cars, a Ford dealer and Borneo Motors, an Austin dealer turned Toyota agent, were also connected with the stretch.

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

While it does seem quite well established that the former Malayan Motors showroom is still around, much less has been said about Liat Towers, which was constructed as the headquarters and showroom of Mercedes Benz. Its construction came at a time when the street was on the cusp of its transformation into the world-renowned retail destination that it is today. It would not be long before shopping malls such as Plaza Singapura (1974) and Lucky Plaza (1978) launched the transformation of the street into a retail destination.






Colonial Changi – a virtual tour

8 11 2020

Join me on a virtual tour of Colonial Changi (including Old Changi Hospital) during Temasek Polytechnic’s Global Community Day, from 9 to 15 November 2020 (public virtual tours available on 15 November at this link).

The former RAF Hospital Changi – a point of interest on the virtual tour.

Changi, a promontory at the eastern tip of the main island of Singapore is marked in maps that date back to the early seventeenth century. It is however, its development during the colonial era that is perhaps most significant. That saw its transformation from a remote, forested and swampy corner of the island into one of Britain’s most important air bases after the second world war.

Pagar Beach

While a large portion of the area is today used by the air force as an air base, for leisure and recreation, there is much that exists that tells us the story of colonial Changi development. A wealth of information does in fact exist in structures still around such as former barrack blocks, former holiday homes, and purpose-built military residences as well as objects, sites and geographical features.

Married Soldiers’ Quarters – developed as part of Changi’s militarisation

The virtual tour will trace Changi’s development from a village and recreational retreat through the 1800s into the early 1900s into a military cantonment — that featured in the early part of the Japanese Occupation during the Second World War as an Prisoner-of-War camp — and beyond that into a principal air base and the aviation hub that is well-known today.

More information can be obtained at this link.






Robinsons – after 162 years it has sadly come to this

6 11 2020

Robinsons, long a feature on Singapore’s retail scene, is a store that I have always associated with Christmas shopping. I loved the fabulous toy department as a child – when the store was at its iconic Raffles Chambers location in Raffles Place. Terrified as I may have been of Father Christmas (or Santa Claus is he is more commonly known these days), the toy department held many more pleasant memories for me. I was especially fond of their pre-Christmas lucky dips. I once obtained a wonderful childhood toy once from it in the form of an orange battery operated submersible. Sadly I could only find use of that in the bathtub of a government holiday bungalow in the Tanah Merah area of Singapore.



Founded in 1858, the store moved into Raffles Chambers just before the Second World War came to Singapore. That burned down just before Christmas in 1972 — after which, the store became associated with the fast developing Orchard Road shopping scene, opening at Specialists Centre, before moving into Centrepoint – which it co-developed with Cold Storage. The evolving retail scene has however put pressure on the brand and the . COVID-19 pandemic proved to be the tipping point.

So sadly, after 162 years in business, the legendary name is making an exit in a rather inglorious fashion — with a closing down sale at its two remaining stores at The Heeren and Raffles City Shopping Centre.

Subject to confirmation, the liquidators are hoping the stores will remain open for the coming weeks to facilitate final sales for customers before they are shuttered.  A spokesperson for Robinsons said, “There are some fantastic deals to be found in-store, we encourage customers to visit stores as everything is now reduced and we expect ranges to sell out fast.”





A hundred and more steps to an unexplored heaven

2 11 2020

Have you ever wondered what lies behind Singapore’s most famous clock face, or what keeps the clock ticking?

Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall – and it famous clock tower, lies atthe heart of the civic district (photo: Arts House Limited).

The chance to discover all that comes with Trafalgar’s Near Not Far “Singapore’s Heritage Highlight” 2D1N staycation, which I am glad to say that I am involved in. For this I will introduce guests to two of the historic civic district’s iconic monuments — The Arts House, and Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall — and uncover some fascinating stories of the buildings and their spaces.

Inside Victoria Theatre, a venue for a key historical event in Singapore’s nation building (Photo: Arts House Limited).

The highlight of the tour will be a never-done-before visit to VTVCH’s clock tower — exclusive to Trafalgar’s guests. There I will enlighten guests about the clock, its history, and its connection to London’s Big Ben. One of the things that will also be apparent in the over 100 step climb up the tower is the sheer simplicity of the clock.

More information on the Trafalgar staycation package can be found below. Details can be obtained through the Trafalgar website at https://www.trafalgar.com/staycations.

See also:

Holidaying without your passport: Trafalgar’s new tour of Singapore makes local heritage more alive and kicking than it has any right to be (Business Times 30 Oct 2020).

Stairway to a strange heaven?
A highlight of the tour – a look at what lies inside the clock tower.
The Arts House chamber (photo : Arts House Limited)
Read the rest of this entry »




A memory of Changi Chalet Hospital

23 09 2020

A guest post by Edmund Arozoo.

Once of Jalan Hock Chye, Edmund takes us on a walk back in time from Adelaide in South Australia, to his days as a radiographer in the small and little known Changi Chalet Hospital. The hospital, which was set up in 1974 in the former RAF Changi Chalet Club, became part of Changi Hospital in 1976.


Changi Chalet Hospital

It is surprising what you may accidentally uncover (discover) when you are searching for certain specific items, and how you then get distracted from the task at hand. Usually these surprise discoveries are memory joggers, leading you onto different tangents altogether as they remind you of certain memorable (or unpleasant) times of yesteryear.

I was going through some old photographic slides in the hope of finding slides I wanted to use for a particular project, when I came across two slides that I had forgotten about. And that was it –– my focus was disrupted as I started to reflect on these two images that have withstood the passing of time. Both slides have retained their quality in colour and detail thanks to the arid climate of Adelaide.

One of these slides brought me back to the early 1970s when I was working as a Radiographer I/C at Changi Chalet Hospital. I was also the unofficial resident photographer then and captured memories of staff etc.  The slide shows the Nursing staff getting ready for our Christmas Celebration Lunch. The Kodachrome slide processed in Australia was marked as Jan 1975. So I am sure this would be the celebrations of Christmas 1974.

Christmas Staff Party 1974.

On seeing the slide I was then diverted in trying to locate other images of Changi Chalet Hospital. Unfortunately most show the faces of staff members, as such without their permission I am reluctant to share these on the internet.  Nor am I known for posting and sharing images of me on the various social media sites with this guest post being an exception.

>In 2015, I did take a trip down memory lane to try and see what changes had taken place since I last worked at the hospital. My, what changes indeed there has been. A good friend drove me there and I was surprised that I could not get my bearings of the area that I was so familiar with, a long time ago. Trying to fit the missing links in my memory banks, I seem to have lost all my bearings.

As we drove slowly along the leafy roads, memories of the squads of SAF commandoes going through their daily exercise drills along the roads, came back to me. Most of all the tranquillity surrounding the old buildings and tall trees and the greenery was striking then and this was still there.

Fond memories of the Chalet Hospital still remain despite being more than 44 years old. It was a “mini” self-contained hospital with a pharmacy, laboratory and radiology services. Workload was not that heavy and I must confess that on a number of occasions when the tide was right I took a dip in the sea during my lunch break.

I was fortunate to be an owner of a second hand green Ford Anglia and used to drive to work from home which was near the start of Tampines Rd and the journey took me to the end of the road then veering left at the junction of the old Changi Air Force Airport into Upper Changi Road. Then after passing the old Changi Village turn left again on to Netheravon Road then into Turnhouse Road.

It was a long drive but almost halfway I used to pick up the Junior Photographic Assistant (my Darkroom Technician) who lived along Tampines Road on the way to work in the mornings and drop him off after work, so I had company for most of the journey to and fro. It was also a long walk from the bus terminus at the Changi Village to the Hospital, so me and other staff who had cars used  to pick up other hospital staff who were seen walking to work from the bus stop. It did foster a “family” atmosphere and environment.

As I started this blog thanks to the Onemap Singapore website https://hm.onemap.sg/ I was able to take a walk or rather a “drive” down memory lane. The old maps help put pieces together.

My daily commute from home to work and back (Map from the 1975 Map collection of old maps from the OneMap Singapore website).

There were still sand quarries along Tampines Road then and often you would share the narrow road with lorries carting sand. The spillage from the load of these lorries often presented a road hazard especially after a light shower. The mixture of sand and water was a recipe for skidding. Imprinted in my mind is the sight of the lorry I was trailing do a 360 degree spin. Thankfully I had kept my distance from it and was able to ease off without my car going into a spin too.

Another memory along the route was the turnoff to Kampong Loyang. In my early school days the whole family clan used to spend a week of the August School holidays in a holiday kampong shack in Kampong Loyang. Passing this turnoff always reminded me of those carefree days.

1975 Map showing Kampong Loyang turn off from the OneMap Singapore website.

Part of my duties was to provide x-ray services for the newly established Changi Prison Hospital. So with my JPA I used to drive to the prison on allocated days when x-rays of inmates were requested. The workload was not heavy but the challenges were very different to that of a hospital based X-ray Department. One of the benefits however was the ability to access some of the services of the Prison Industries that were organised to assist in the rehabilitation of inmates by teaching them skills they could utilise on their release and be employable. I remember getting my computer notes and books hardbound for a small sum. And these lasted me for the duration of the Computer studies I was undertaking then and beyond. The hard cover binding was of a professional level.

But the proximity of Changi Village shops was a bonus for us Hospital staff with cars. It was place we frequented for lunch and the occasional shopping.  I was just starting into serious photography then and the friendly Photographic shop owner became a great friend. I cannot remember the name of the shop but if my memory serves me well I think his name was Mr Lim. He was a great salesperson and very knowledgeable.  I still having gear bought from those days more than 40 years ago. Those were “film” camera days but most of these are still useable though some lenses do need adapters to be used with today’s digital cameras.

Changi Village – map from the OneMap Singapore website.

Recollection of the old Changi Village Shops.

Another memory that resurfaced was the change of plans of upgrading The International Airport at Paya Lebar to the establishment of the current Changi Airport.  Driving along Tampines Road we did skirt around the perimeter of the existing Paya Lebar Airport and I do remember seeing the row of terrace houses that were acquired to make way for the initial plan to extend the Airport. These were left vacant after the plans were changed. Likewise there was another beachside newly built hotel along Nicoll Drive, Tanah Merah that was never opened because of the switch to Changi. Most of the hospital staff were looking forward to having a meal at the new premises. This never eventuated. More recently after trying to research the name of the hotel and without coming up with any answers I was beginning to doubt my memory, and wondered if it was a figment of my imagination. However during a recent viewing of this Youtube video https://youtu.be/r26M_Lryu6Y, there was a brief mention of the razing of the hotel. It was great to receive this confirmation indeed.

Changi Chalet Hospital

Main Entrance to Hospital.

? Same Tree – 45 years later.

Panorama of the old “Padang” Sports Field.

Chalet Building erased – sigh………

Fond Memories.

Belonging to the various nostalgia-themed facebook groups has been great for me. There members share photos and experiences of places now mostly all gone. One group I am glad to be part of is the “Memories of Changi Village” group. A “wave” is sent to Ms Geraldine Soh, the administrator. Like the present Changi Airport this fb group platform is the crossroads where members from all corners of the world come together to share their precious memories and photos keeping our own flickering memories of Changi alive.






(Book launch) My Father’s Kampung: A History of Aukang and Punggol

17 09 2020

Aukang (or Owkang), as Hougang was called before the adoption of hanyin-pinyin names forced a reset, is one of several previously rural parts of Singapore that is associated with the Teochew community. It is also an area where there is a very noticeable Roman Catholic presence.  It is where rural Singapore’s oldest Catholic building – a gorgeously built one at that in the form of the tropical gothic Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary or “Nativity Church” in short – can be found. It is also where a Catholic seminary was set, along with several Catholic institutions and schools.  The area is also where Kangkar – a fishing port associated with auctions of fish that took place in the wee hours of the morning – was. It also served as a gateway to Punggol – a part of Singapore known for its seafood restaurants (at Punggol Point) and its numerous farms – particularly pig and chicken farms.

Nativity Church.

Hougang today does seem very different. The enforced change of name also coincided with its metamorphosis from a rural district which fed Singapore, into yet another part of the new Singapore. In that maze of Housing and Development Board (HDB) neighbourhoods however, there is still bits of the old Aukang and its much storied past that can be discovered.

There is perhaps no better person to take us on a journey of discovery than a son of the soil – so to speak – such as Shawn Seah. Shawn, who traces his ancestry to the illustrious Teochew pioneer, Seah Eu Chin, explores his Aukang roots in “My Father’s Kampung: A History of Aukang and Punggol” – due to be released later this month.

The book, which Shawn says, “is basically my journey of how I came to appreciate my father’s kampung better”, takes the reader through its early development to 1975 — before it became Hougang, Sengkang, Buangkok and (HDB) Punggol. Along the way, stops are made to look at the influence of the Catholic missions and its schools such as Holy Innocent and Monfort, its multi-ethnic and multi-religious makeup (it wasn’t exclusive Teochew / Catholic), the memories of its rural centres and kampungs, as well as the impact of war and the Japanese occupation.

The book will be launched at a “kopi talk” Zoom event on 19 Sep 2020 at 3pm (details in the infographic above, which is jointly organised by World Scientific and Montfort Alumni. The event will also feature Mr Ng Kok Song and Brother Dominic Yeo Koh, both old boys of Montfort and as Shawn puts it, “essentially the quintessential Aukang nang”.


Written by Shawn Seah and supported by the National Heritage Board, “My Father’s Kampung: A History of Aukang and Punggol, tells the story of historical Aukang and Punggol from the 1850s, before the area’s transformation into Hougang, Sengkang, Buangkok, and Punggol.






Aviation Milestones: first regular intercontinental flights out of Singapore

7 09 2020

The first regular flights from/to Singapore to/from Europe operated out of RAF Seletar. The RAF air station, which was completed in 1930, played host to the first regular air services connecting Singapore with the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) from 1930. Connections with Europe would take a few more years and in May 1933, the Royal Dutch airlines, KLM – the world’s oldest airline in May 1933 introduced regular services from Singapore to Europe. Using a Fokker F.XVIII, the outbound journey took seven days and inbound eight days – with multiple stops.

Flying then was not for everyone of course. It would have cost an arm and a leg and maybe a little more with a single ticket from Singapore to London priced in excess of £164. That would be the equivalent of £11,815 or more than SGD 21,000 in 2020!

Air Travel between Southeast Asia and Europe in the 1930s.





Cashin’s Pier, lost and found

19 08 2020

Built by Alexander Cashin in 1906 to provide for the transportation of rubber from the Cashin estate to Kranji, The Pier in Lim Chu Kang became a retreat for the Cashin family in the 1920s when it was converted into a sea pavilion. As one of two sea pavilions to have survived intact to this day, it is a rare example of an age of seaside retreats as well as a reminder of a time when there were boundaries between Singapore and its northern neighbour meant little — the Sultan of Johor made visits to it on his boat.

The Pier in 2011.

The pavilion, which saw action during the invasion of Singapore — it was one of the landing points during the first wave of attacks the Japanese launched on Singapore on the night of 8 Feb 1942 — became a home to Howard Cashin and family in the 1960s. Among the work that Howard Cashin had to carry out to transform The Pier into a home was the removal of a Shinto shrine that the Japanese had erected.

Another view of The Pier from 2011.

The house has been left vacant since 2009 following Mr Cashin’s passing. In 2013 it was announced that the house was to be a gateway to and expanded Sungei Buloh Nature Park and we hear from NParks today that it will now be part of what has been rebranded as Lim Chu Kang Nature Park.

More on The Pier: A Lost World in Lim Chu Kang

From NParks Press Release
(Full Press release here)

Lim Chu Kang Nature Park – a new nature area towards the west of Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

The 18-hectare green corridor that forms a continuous coastal extension west of the Reserve towards the Lim Chu Kang nature area, will be conserved as Lim Chu Kang Nature Park. It comprises a variety of habitats such as mangroves, woodlands, scrublands and grasslands. The diversity of habitats provides homes to coastal birds such as the Grey-headed Fish Eagle and grassland dwellers like the Baya Weaver. The new Nature Park, formerly referred to as Western Extension, will feature outdoor nature-play spaces inspired by the various habitats and its inhabitants, encouraging children and youths to spend more time outdoors and reconnect with nature.

Lim Chu Kang Nature Park will also encompass Cashin House, a building that will be enhanced sensitively for both natural and built heritage and will be used for educational programmes. Cashin House will include new facilities such as an exhibition space, seminar rooms for workshops and a seaview terrace. The surrounding area will be kept rustic and existing vegetation retained and sensitively enhanced. Visitors will be able to enjoy exploring Cashin House and its surroundings while learning about the historical significance of the area.

NParks will shortly be calling a tender for works on Cashin House and its surrounding areas. Works are expected to commence in 4Q 2020, and slated to be completed in early 2022, subject to the evolving COVID-19 situation.





Tanglin’s 1884 garrison chapel?

18 08 2020

There is little doubt that The White Rabbit, an exclusive dining destination in the former Tanglin Barracks, occupies a building that was built as a small church. The only question is when. Little does seem to have been documented about the building, or its history other than the fact that it was used in the post-British military pull-out era as a chapel — the Ebenezer Chapel — for two different Protestant denominations, before its conversion. There is also that suggestion that the church building dates back to the 1930s, although it does seem to predate that. One less known but well established fact, is that it served the barracks’ Roman Catholic congregation in its post-second-world-war era until the pull-out as the Church of Christ the King (no relation to the Roman Catholic church in Ang Mo Kio of the same name, a period of time when it play host to quite a few weddings.

The White Rabbit at 39C Harding Road.

It is its location, relative to the former Tanglin Barracks’ garrison church of St George — across what used to be the barracks’ parade ground, that holds a clue to its origins. Now a parish church of the Anglican church’s diocese of Singapore and a National Monument, St George’s was built in the second decade of the twentieth century to replace an older and smaller garrison church that based on the church’s publications was erected in 1884 and was located west of St George’s. The position of The White Rabbit, on the western edge of the parade grounds — a venue for the church parade services that the British military had a tradition of — and on a site that is shown in pre-St George’s era maps (including one produced in 1892) to be occupied by a similarly proportioned structure, provides a strong hint that The White Rabbit was that older 1884 church. Along with this, the existence of a photograph taken in 1903 in Tanglin Barracks provides further evidence that the structure, in what is more or less its current form and possessing identical architectural features, was very likely to be that of the 1884 garrison church. The structure is identified as a “Chapel School” in maps of the barracks during the interwar period — a possible carry over from its use prior to St George’s being built. The use is consistent with that of buildings built to serve the religious needs of servicemen and their children in various other late 19th and early 20th century military barracks across the Commonwealth.

A view of the east end of the building with what is possibly the remodelled north side where the 1903 photograph could have been taken.

While St George’s continued in its use as a church following the late 1971 pull-out of British forces, the older church fell into disuse before becoming the Hebron Bible-Presbyterian Church’s chapel in 1979 until 1983 and then the New Life Baptist Church’s chapel from the late 1985 to 1993. It wasn’t until 2007 that the delightful old church saw life breathed into it again, when The White Rabbit took up tenancy. The restaurant opened the following year in 2008 and it hasn’t looked back since.

A view through the grilles of one of the lancet windows. The grille-work dates back to the building’s days as the Roman Catholic garrison church.

A westward view across the former parade grounds to The White Rabbit.

An eastward view across the former parade grounds to St George’s Church.

Another view of The White Rabbit.


A comparison of the building seen in a Tanglin Barracks photograph dated 1903 with The White Rabbit today. Several of the building’s external features such the position of the pair of lancet windows with respect to a gothic arched doorway at what would have been the altar of the church, the gothic arched windows next to it and the label moulds and label stops above the openings match quite perfectly. (Do note that the top image is flipped along the horizontal axis – one explanation for this is that the photograph is taken on the other side of the building which has since been remodelled. This would also explain the slight differences in the structural column).

 

An 1892 map showing a building on the site of the present day The White Rabbit (just west of the Parade Ground) that is thought to have been the same building.


 





Northern journeys: where Admiralty Road’s East meets West

22 07 2020

Thought of as “ulu” or remote, Sembawang is still a place where much of the past seems still to be around. It is for this reason that it is still one of the prettiest area of Singapore even if some of its beauty spots — such as the once beautifully wooded hill on which old Admiralty House is perched, have since yielded to the march of urbanisation.

I always enjoy a walk around the lesser developed parts of the area and a stroll along its still natural shoreline. Mornings are especially pleasant by the sea, when it can serve as a very nice backdrop for an especially dramatic sunrise. The area’s lush greenery, found not only in Sembawang Park, but also in the areas where the residences of the former naval base still stand, should also be celebrated — especially with the threat of redevelopment now looming over it.

Where Admiralty Road East and West meets – an area around which some of the oldest residences built for the former naval base can be found.

An area that has been spared from redevelopment is the stretch of Admiralty Road East and Admiralty Road West that runs between Canberra Road and Sembawang Road.  Much of the area has been today marked out either for future residential redevelopment or as a reserve site (see Master Plan 2019). The use of the area to serve existing military arrangements, as a port and the continued use of the former naval base dockyard by Sembawang Shipyard has seen that its flavour has been kept, although some of its old structures fronting the road were lost to a road widening exercise that took place at the end of the 1980s. The end of the lease that the shipyard holds on the what it calls Admiralty Yard is however, on the horizon. That will expire in 2028, although the yard does intend to move its operations to Tuas by 2024. Detailed planning for the area will likely take place to coincide with this move and until then, it would not be known what the future for a still green area will hold.

Among the earliest residences to be built for the naval base were these 1929 built dockyard chargemen’s residences along Wellington Road. Many of the area’s roads are named after cities in the Commonwealth.


More photographs:

 

A 2013 photograph showing the beautiful settings in which the old residences of the former naval base in Sembawang have been given.

 

A bridge built by Japanese Surrendered Personnel on the grounds of the former residence of the dockyard’s Commodore Superintendent.

 

The former vicarage of the Dockyard Church of St Peter. The old church, which fronted this along Admiralty Road East, was consecrated in the 1950s and was demolished in the late 1980s to allow the road to be widened.

 

Timber walled residences – built in the 1940s.

 

Canada Road.

 

Many of the residences built in the 1930s are of designs adapted from PWD plans.

 

Another view of a 1930s built residence.

 

Admiralty Road West – there used to be visible entrances to underground bunkers in the area opposite the dockyard entrance.