Finding a lost Singapore in the images of Paul Piollet

19 11 2018

Such is the pace at which change takes place that little exists of the Singapore those of my generation grew up with. It was one whose city streets and rural spaces, filled with life and colour, were places to discover. Lost to progress, that Singapore can never be revisited again – except perhaps through images that we are fortunate to see of them.

In Conversation with Paul Piollet.

I, for one, am especially grateful to the good folks behind these images. Several collections have been publicly available through their generous donations or in some cases, through donations made by family members. These images provide us, and our generations with a visual record that in many cases would not otherwise exist of places and more importantly a way of life from a time when few had the means to capture them.

The opportunity to hear from the donors of two of these visual collections came our way this November. The first, Dr Clifford Saunders, donated an extensive and very well documented collection of over 1,400 photographs to the National Heritage Board. The images were taken by his father, Ralph Charles Saunders in the late 1950s, when he was stationed here at RAF Seletar – with his family, which included a young Dr Saunders.

Just in the middle of the last week, we were graced by the visit of another donor, Mr Paul Piollet, with whom we were able to hold a “conversation” with at the Urban Redevelopment Authority as part of the Architectural Heritage Season. The unassuming Mr Piollet, now in his 80s, has certainly had a past. His career in oil took him across the world, and he found himself in Balikpapan in Kalimantan in 1970 as a result of that. It was there that he developed a fascination for Indonesia and its maritime heritage. He would also find himself in Singapore, where he immersed himself in much that went on around and on its lively streets.

Mr Piollet’s photos of a Singapore in transition are especially intriguing. We find in them a record of life and a way of life of a Singapore in transition. We can see what fascinated Mr Piollet from the many images of wayangs, the life that went on backstage, elaborate Chinese funerals and of life on Singapore’s living streets, which were not only full of life but also filled with children (an observation was made during the “conversation” of how children are now missing from our city streets). Images of street food vendors, which Mr Piollet regularly frequented (he rattled off a few Hokkien names of local fare he enjoyed), also features in his collection.

While the focus of the “conversation” may have been on his images of Singapore (more than 180 can be found in the National Archives of Singapore), I was fortunate to be able to hear about his efforts to document the Indonesian maritime world through a brief conversation we had just before the event started.  Of particular interest to him were the wooden sail boats and the people who crewed them. Much of the craft and skill in rigging and sailing these beautiful hand-crafted boats, once a backbone of trade across parts of the widely spread archipelago, have quite sadly been lost to motorisation.

Pages out of one of Mr Piollet’s books, “Équipages et voiliers de Madura”, documenting Indonesia’s lost maritime heritage.

Thankfully, there are at least thousands of photos taken by Mr Piollet, as well as several books that he authored. Along with photographs and sketches that Mr Piollet made, there are also registry records that he copied by hand. Mr Piollet’s books, of ways of life that have since been lost, can be found at the French Bookshop at 55 Tiong Bahru Road.

“Équipages et voiliers de Madura” or “The crews and boats of Madura”, which Mr Piollet very kindly gave me a copy of.


A selection of photographs from the Paul Piollet Collection

One of Mr Piollet’s photos from 1975. A lost corner of Singapore that was familiar to my parents and me – where Rangoon Road met Norfolk Road and Moulmein Green – see : Moulmein Road Journeys (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

I thought this looks similar to the hairdresser that my mother used to visit at Rangoon Road with me in tow. From its name, this wasn’t it and only closer examination, looks like it was located in the row of shophouses close to the Balestier Road end of Tessensohn Road (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

What looks like part of the row of shophouses close to the Balestier Road end of Tessensohn Road (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Life as it was, when streets were not complete without the sight of children playing (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Days of street wayangs. I thought this might have been a street in the Ellenborough Market area but it seems more likely to have been Chin Nam Street (parallel to Hock Lam Street) with a view towards Fort Canning Hill  (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Pau steamers – wgich caught the eye of Mr. Piollet (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

A scene now hard to imagine on Sungei Rochor (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).


 

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Discovering a “not quite central” Chinese bank headquarters

16 11 2018

Designed by an architect who can be said to have left his mark in Singapore, the Art Deco building that we know today as The Quadrant was originally built as a headquarters for a Chinese bank.

The main feature of the building’s interiors was its banking hall and a mezzanine – from which bank managers could supervise the goings on in the hall below. Both are very much in evidence today, as is a bank vault, even if the building has long been re-purposed. Another highlight is a working vintage lift. Although substantially rebuilt, it has quite a number of its original components such as its counterweight, still in use.

The visit will take place on 1 December 2018 from 9.30 am. As spaces are limited to 30 pax and participants over the age of 18 years, pre-registration is required. Please do so by filling the form found at this link (please click).

Do note that unique registrations are required and duplicate entries of the same particulars would count as one registration.


The visit is part of the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets series of State Property visits supported by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA). This visit to The Quadrant also has the support of the Homestead Group and The Black Swan.


The Quadrant at Cecil Street.

 

TBS_Venue_Dining 2

The former banking hall and the mezzanine from which the goings-on on the ground floor could be viewed by the bank’s supervising staff (courtesy of The Black Swan).

 

Up on the roof.

 

Stairway to heaven?

 

The gates of a heavenly vintage lift.

 

Some of the lift’s original mechanism.





Remembering the volunteers on Remembrance Day

14 11 2018

Among the thousands whose names are inscribed on headstones and memorial walls at Kranji, are several hundred volunteers who gave their lives during the Second World War. Members of the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force (SSVF), their names reflect the diverse ethnic make-up found in Singapore, among which those of Eurasians, Malays, Indians, and Chinese volunteers cannot be missed. Along with the names of European origin, there is also of a Czech employee of Bata who was among those killed in the massacre at Alexandra Hospital.

Remembrance Sunday at Kranji.

While it has been some 70 years since we left the dark and dreadful days of the early 1940s behind us, it is important that the sacrifices made by these volunteers and by many more non-military volunteers whose names are known only to members of their respective families, are not forgotten. Thankfully, there are efforts to remember them such as in the observance that was held at 11 am on Remembrance Day at the former SSVF Drill Hall on Beach Road, at which a wreath was laid in their memory. The hall was once part of the former SSVF HQ and is now one of several conserved buildings within the complex at South Beach.

Two minutes of silence for the volunteers at the SSVF Drill Hall.

Two moving stories emerged during the observance, which was attended by a small group of folks, some of whom lost family members who volunteered during the war.

Áunty’Mary – Mary Magdelene Pereira placing a wreath for the volunteers at the Drill Hall,

One was told by “Aunty” Mary – Mary Magdelene Pereira – who laid the wreath. Born just after midnight on 22 January 1942 in an air-raid shelter in Tiong Bahru, Aunty Mary was the daughter her father wished for having already had two sons in the family. Her father, Callistus Raymond Pereira, would however, never get to see his daughter.

The air raid shelter at the bottom of Block 78 Guan Chuan Street – where Aunty Mary was born.

Answering the call of duty as Japanese bombs fell on Singapore on 20 January 1942, the Civil Defence volunteer – a devout Catholic – presented his heavily pregnant wife with an image of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour as he left; with the assurance that Our Lady would take care of his wife and the family in event that he did not return.  Mr Pereira never did return and late on 21 January 1942 – just hours before Aunty Mary was born –  he died after having been hit by shrapnel while helping with the evacuation of casualties from the bombings at Beach Road. More on Mr Pereira, Aunty Mary and the family, can be found at this link: Let Your Light Shine.

Another view inside the air raid shelter.

The other story involved two Eurasian brothers who were never seen again after reporting, as members of the SSVF, to the YMCA (which was used by the Kempeitai). All the family would know of the fate of the brothers was what the certificates of their deaths issued after the war, stated. Their presumed deaths were put down as an “alleged massacre” at the YMCA on 8 March 1942.

The old YMCA building at 1 Orchard Road – used by the Kempeitai during the Japanese Occupation.

What actually happened to them, when and how they perished, would probably never be known. There is however an account in which the circumstances of leading to their disappearance with some 70 others are explained – found in an April 1947 letter to the Straits Times. Using the pseudonym “A Comrade-In-Arms”, the writer of the letter described how the volunteers who reported on 8 March 1942 had been split into 3 groups, depending on when they had first reported. The first group, in which it should be assumed the brothers were, had been marched off and none in the group were never seen again.

The writer was in the second group, which along with the third group, escaped a similar fate when they were released.

The crest of the Singapore Volunteer Corps, the predecessor of the SSVF, at the Drill Hall.


Memorials visited after the observance

Civilian War Memorial


The Cenotaph

Memorial to the victims of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1915


 


Remembrance Day / Remembrance Sunday 

The guns of the Great War – the First World War, fell silent at 11 am on the 11th day of November 1918. Its anniversary is commemorated as Remembrance Day – or Armistice Day prior to the Second World War. An observance of Remembrance Day is now held on the Sunday closest to the 11th of November –  Remembrance Sunday – across the Commonwealth to remember those who died in both wars. Remembrance Sunday this year coincided with actual anniversary and took on a greater significance with it being the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War.

Remembrance Sunday at Kranji.

More on the observance:


 

 

 

 

 





Serendipity in the garrison church

8 11 2018

Places take on a greater meaning when we are made aware of the associations they have had; with people who have passed through them, or with their connection with significant events of our past.  Knowing these, and the stories that can be told of them, adds a new dimension to spaces and buildings to aid in our appreciation of them.

Saint George’s Church – the former Tanglin garrison church, one of the sites visited during November’s edition of #SLASecretSpaces.

Through the conduct of the series of guided State Property visits, “Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets“,  many of these associations have come of light. The series, which is supported by the Singapore Land Authority, provides an opportunity for members of the public to visit usually closed-off State-held properties and often sees the participants with connections that may not otherwise have come to light. Examples include the much misrepresented Old Changi Hospital, the also much misrepresented former View Road Hospital, Kinloss House, and 5 Kadayanallur Street – just to name a few.

Inside Saint George’s Church.

The first Saturday in November, when a visit to the former Tanglin Barracks took place, threw up a connection, albeit of a different kind, that was established quite by chance. That would never have been possible if not for a series of coincidences that culminated in a guest, Garth O’Connell, making a discovery that he might not otherwise have known about. This serendipitous find was made inside Saint George’s Church right at the end of the visit and is perhaps best summed up in Garth’s own words:

“Just had a superb heritage walk around the former Australian and British Army base of Tanglin Barracks … at the end I had a huge serendipitous event relating to Bob Page DSO1 which freaked me and our tour group out! 😮

Those on the tour were given a free hard copy of the church centenary book at the end of tour. I put it my half full plastic bag which had bottles of water, tissues, map and umbrella. As I’m walking around the church taking pics the bag broke after a few minutes so sat down right away as the contents are all about to spill out and cause a scene. I sit down on the pews at the closest seat and it’s the only one dedicated to Bob Page DSO. I’ve given talks on him at work, I met his widow before she died about 2 years ago and every time I come to Singapore I visit his grave at Kranji War Cemetery. Bloody huge coincidence me just sitting down next to him in that big church.”

1Capt. Robert Charles Page, DSO, an Australian war hero who was executed by the Japanese in July 1945 for his involvement in Operation Rimau.

Garth with the kneeling cushion on which a dedication to Capt. Robert Page DSO is found. The book and the broken plastic bag is seen next to him (photo courtesy of Simone Lee).

This all seems rather uncanny, especially when one considers some other coincidences. Garth, who is with the Australian War Memorial (AWM) and based in Canberra, would not have been able to participate if not for a stopover he was making en-route to Kanchanaburi (where he will be attending a Remembrance Sunday event). It also turns out that the event, on 3 November, came just two days after what would have been the Pages 75th wedding anniversary –  Capt. Page and his wife Roma married on 1 November 1943. The first day of November also happens to be the day in 1945 that Mrs. Page received the telegram with news confirming her husband’s death.

A close up of the dedication on the kneeling cushion of the seat.

The wartime exploits of Capt. Page as a member of ‘Z’ Special Unit, are well recorded. The outfit, set up to carry out operations behind enemy lines, made a daring raid into the waters of Singapore in September 1943. Six very brave men including the then Lt. Page, paddled in teams of two through Japanese held waters in and around the harbour in canoes to sabotage Japanese shipping. This operation, Operation Jaywick, the 75th anniversary of which was commemorated recently, met with great success and resulted in the sinking or the disabling of 7 ships.

Capt. Robert Charles Page’s headstone in Kranji War Cemetery.

While the operation was went smoothly for the members of ‘Z’ Special Force, it was not without any fallout. One consequence of it was the so-called “Double Tenth Incident” that saw 57 civilians, who were wrongly suspected of having aided the operation, arrested and tortured. Among those arrested was Elizabeth Choy. While Mrs. Choy lived to tell the horrendous tale, 15 of her comrades did not, perishing at the hands of the Kempeitai.

Group portrait after the completion of Operation Jaywick, “Z” Special Unit, Australian Services Reconnaissance Department, showing the personnel who carried out the operation. (Source: AWM, Copyright Expired).

Following on the success of Jaywick, a second operation, Operation Rimau, was planned and in September to October 1944, executed. This operation turned out quite differently and had to be aborted during its execution and 23 men lost their lives as a result. Twelve were killed in the attempt to escape through the islands of what had previously been the Dutch East Indies. The 11 who survived initially were hunted down and eventually captured in the islands of the Riau and moved to Singapore. One succumbed to malaria after being brought across, while the remaining 10, Capt. Page included, were tried, convicted of spying, and sentenced to death.

Then Lt. Robert Page, Major Ivan Lyon, MBE, and Lt Donald Montague Noel Davidson, seen after the successful completion of Operation Jaywick. (Source: AWM, Copyright expired – public domain).

The 10 were beheaded on 7 July 1945, just over a month before the war would end. The very courageous manner in which they met their deaths is captured in a headline of a 1960 Straits Times article, which read:  “The men who went to their death laughing“.

The historic marker at the Rimau Commandos execution site.

A historical marker now stands at the execution site and provides a grim reminder of the sacrifice that the men made. This marker can be found close to U-Town,  at the Clementi Road end of Dover Road. The remains of the men, which were located after the war, were transferred to a collective grave in Kranji War Cemetery. The grave is marked by a row of 10 headstones, each with a name of one of the executed men.

The 10 headstones at the grave of the ten executed commandos.

Another view of the headstone of Capt. Robert Charles Page DSO.


More on Capt. Robert Charles Page DSO, Jaywick and Rimau, and Mrs. Roma Page:


LEST WE FORGET
Remembrance Sunday 11 November 2018

Remembrance Sunday, which falls on the Sunday closest to 11 November – the anniversary of the end of the Great War, provides an opportunity to pay our respects  to and remember the Rimau heroes and the many, many more who made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of peace and freedom. The commemoration this year coincides with the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War.

Services will be held at various locations in Singapore on the day, including at Kranji War Cemetery. More information, provided by the British High Commission (which is co-hosting the Kranji commemoration with the Singapore Armed Forces Veterans’ League) can be found below.


 

The British High Commission in partnership with the Singapore Armed Forces Veterans’ League will be hosting the annual Remembrance Sunday service at Kranji War Cemetery on Sunday, 11 November 2018. The service starts at 7.30am, guest should arrive and be seated or in position by 7.15am.

The 30-minute ceremony will be attended by members of the diplomatic corps; Singapore and foreign military representatives and religious leaders and is held to pay tribute to all who died in wars so that the generations after them could live in peace.

In the UK, Remembrance Sunday is held on the Sunday nearest to Remembrance Day on 11 November; the date marks the official end of the First World War on 11 November 1918. This year, the dates also marks the 100th Anniversary of the end of World War 1.

Event details

Date : Sunday, 11 November 2018

Time : 7.30 am – Please arrive by 7.15am.

Venue: Kranji War Cemetery, 9, Woodlands Road, Singapore 738656

Dress code: Smart casual.

To note:

– Please carry an umbrella as shelter is limited in the event of rain.

– There are no restrooms on the cemetery grounds


 






A glimpse of Seletar’s past – the Ralph Charles Saunders Collection

5 11 2018

The generous donation of more than 1,400 images on photographic slides from the Ralph Charles Saunders Collection – of Singapore and Malaya (and maybe a few of Lima) taken in the late 1950s – made the news some months back (see : Rare glimpse into Singapore’s colourful past, The Straits Times, Mar 31, 2018). The photographs, many of which were put up by the donor, Dr. Clifford Saunders, on the Facebook group “On a Little Street in Singapore” currently and prior to the donation (the National Heritage Board, NHB, is the custodian), provides us with a peek into a world and a way of life we will never go back to.

Seletar Village, 1959 – from one of the more than 1,400 slides donated by Dr. Saunders.
(The Ralph Charles Saunders Collection – courtesy of Dr. Clifford Saunders / NHB).

Dr. Clifford Saunders at the Indian Heritage Centre.

Dr. Saunders. whose father was the genius behind the well taken and meticulously labelled slides, is currently in town as a guest of the NHB and was kind enough to meet with heritage enthusiasts and members of the Facebook group on Sunday to provide some insights into the images as well as his impressions of Singapore through the eyes of the young and inquisitive boy that he was when his father and family were based at RAF Seletar all those years ago.

Members of ‘On a Little Street in Singapore’ with Dr. Saunders.

The slides include a set of images involving an old lifeboat, the John Willie. Bought off a Dutchman coming out of Sumatra at the time of the Indonesian National Revolution for $200, the leaky lifeboat was repaired and provided the family with a means for offshore adventure – one of many activities that Dr. Saunders, now 69 described during his presentation. He also mentioned that his favourite island was Pulau Ubin, which I understand he will be trying to visit during his short stay here. Other experiences Dr. Saunders spoke of include fishing at fishing ponds, life at Poulden Court in Jalan Kayu, trips “up country” and his impressions of the causeway and river crossings (my own experiences: Crossing the river in days of old), and the rather alien smells and sounds of a then very foreign land.

James Seah seeing the funny side of Dr. Saunders’ story.

More on his wonderful experiences in Singapore – shared over the two hour session at the Indian Heritage Centre and which Clifford feels shaped his life and profession (he is now a neuroplastician) – can be found in these two recordings:


 





Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets : Healing in the Garrison

19 10 2018

November’s #SLASecretSpaces guided visit takes participants to the former Tanglin Barracks. There an introduction would be made to two of the barracks’ institutions of healing: physical healing in the form of the former military hospital, and spiritual, in the form of a beautiful garrison church.

The barracks traces its history to the early 1860s, when it was among the earliest that were purpose-built in Singapore. The design of the original barracks is attributed to Captain George Collyer (after whom Collyer Quay is named). Many of the structures that we see today are the interventions of the early 20th century when the current church building as well as what we see today of former military hospital were put up.

Singapore’s main military hospital before the completion of the modern hospital at Alexandra in 1940, the complex featured three main buildings. The larger two were where large and airy wards were laid out. The visit will end in St. George’s Church, which although is no longer a garrison church, is still very much in use. Completed in 1913, the history of the church actually dates back to the early days of the barracks. The church was gazetted as a National Monument on 10 November 1978.

More on the history of both institutions will be shared during the visit.


Visit Details & Registration

When : 3 November 2018, 9 to 11 am

Where : Loewen Cluster, Dempsey Hill (the visit will end inside St. George’s Church)

Participants should be of ages 18 and above.

A unique registration will be required for each participant and each registration admits only one (1) person.
(Duplicate registrations in the same name shall count as one registration).

Please register only if you are sure that you will be able to make the visit.

To register, please visit this link: https://goo.gl/forms/B8g3tDo5eGWfpTVl1 [Please note that all spaces for the visit have been taken up]


Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets #SLASecretSpaces is organised with the support and collaboration of the Singapore Land Authority.

Both St. George’s Church and Country City Investment (CCI), which manages Dempsey Hill, have also lent their support to this visit.


More photos of St. George’s Church


News on the series:


 





Journeys of faith and devotion from Kampong Gelam

13 10 2018

An insightful exhibition featuring the journeys of faith that Hajj pilgrims take in both body and in spirit, ‘Undangan ke Baitullah: Pilgrims Stories from the Malay World to Makkah’, was launched together with the Malay Culture Fest 2018 yesterday (12 Oct 2018).

 

A performance at the opening, reenacting a pilgrim’s journey of faith.

The exhibition, which runs from 13 October 2018 to 23 June 2019, takes a look at Kampong Gelam’s role in supporting the Hajj. The district, having been an important port town, saw Muslims from across the Nusantara congregate in preparation for the often difficult passage by sea to Mecca in days before air travel (the area around Busorrah Street was also known as ‘Kampong Kaji‘ – ‘kaji’ was apparently the Javanese pronunciation of ‘haji‘).

Mdm Halimah Yacob, President of the Republic of Singapore, launching the exhibition and the Malay Culture Fest.

Many businesses such the popular nasi padang outlet Hjh. Maimunah had its roots in the pilgrimage. The restaurant, which has an outlet at Jalan Pisang, is named after the founder’s mother Hajjah Maimunah, who was Singapore’s first female Hajj broker (or sheikh haji). The enterprising Hajjah Maimunah also ran a food business during the Hajj catering to pilgrims from this part of the world in Mecca.

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The Malay Culture Fest, which was opened together with the exhibition, runs from 12 to 28 October 2018 and will feature lectures and performances over the three weeks. More information can be found at :   https://peatix.com/group/40767/events.

Entrance to one of the exhibition’s galleries.

The hajj passport of a child pilgrim on display at the exhibition.

A trunk and a suitcase used by pilgrims on display.