“Lenin’s Tomb” at Raffles Place

17 01 2020

Constructed in an effort to beautify the city, the “underground” car park topped with a roof garden that came to define the Raffles Place of post-independent Singapore, came in for some criticism as it was nearing completion. Likened to Lenin’s Mausoleum, its critics even went so far as to suggest that it be used for the repose of Singapore’s distinguished citizens. Despite the early reservations, Raffles Place Garden – as it was christened, was a quite a joy to behold. With its floral clock, fountain and a backdrop provided by Raffles Place’s characterful buildings, the garden became what could be thought of as the 1960s equivalent of an instagram-worthy spot.

Christmas 1966 on the roof garden at Raffles Place, with Robinson’s behind.

That Raffles Place was certainly a place I connected with.  My visits there usually coincided with the preparations for the year-end season of giving, which invariably led to Robinsons Department Store’s quite memorable toy department. Large and well stocked, the department was every child’s dream. I looked forward to visiting each year, even if that meant having to catch sight of Father Christmas, whom I was terrified of. Out of Robinson’s famous Christmas lucky dip, I once pulled out an orange coloured battery-operated submarine. It was a prized toy, even if I had to contend with using it once every three months during our seaside holidays at Mata Ikan – in the holiday bungalow’s bathtub!

The promise of good food was another thing to look forward to when visiting Raffles Place. Makan time would on a special occasion, lead me to the Honeyland Milk Bar at Battery Road, which was just around the square’s northeast corner. There was always a sense of anticipation that I got as the parting of the café’s heavy doors delivered a cold rush of Worcestershire sauce scented air. The café’s chicken pies were to die for. I enjoyed the pies with a dash of tomato ketchup – which I never could quite manage to cajole out from the sauce bottle without some help.

Raffles Place’s little “corners”, which included Change Alley, added much to area’s unique charm. “Chin Charlie” to me and many non-English speakers like my maternal grandmother, it was a fascinating place to wander through and one of the places that made the Singapore of the 1960s, Singapore. The famous alley, which featured in films and in a BBC newsreel,  seemed to be always be full of life and for a while, laughter – emanating from numerous laughing bags being set off in the alley by its many toy vendors as a form of advertisement. Popular at the end of the 1960s, the toys took the form of tiny drawstring bags that contained sound boxes.

The Raffles Place end of Change Alley, 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

Little did I know it as a young child, but the laughter, along with the Raffles Place that I knew and loved would soon to see lasting change. A tragic fire in November 1972, which resulted in the loss of nine lives, also saw to Robinsons losing its iconic Raffles Chambers home it had occupied since 1941. The subsequent move – of Robinson’s to Specialists Centre in Orchard Road – also severed the store’s connection with the square, which could be traced back to 1858.

Raffles Chambers – before Robinson’s moved in.

By the time of the fire, the area had in fact already been in the cusp of change. At the glorious waterfront – Raffles Place “backyard”, the grand old turret-topped 1923 built Ocean Building had come down in 1970 to make way for a towering third. The 1923 Ocean – the second to stand on the site – was the forerunner of a building frenzy that would shape Singapore’s bund at Collyer Quay, which by the 1930s possessed a quality that could be compared to Shanghai’s more famous embankment. The second Ocean’s demise set a reversal of the process in motion. Two more of the waterfront’s grand 1920s edifices erected a year after the Ocean, Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers and Maritime (ex-Union Insurance) Building, would also make way for the new.

John Little’s Building early in 1946 – when it was used temporarily as the Shackle Club [source: Lizzie Ellis on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)].

On the square, one of its famous landmarks – John Little’s Building – was sold in 1973. This would lead to Raffles Tower (now Singapore Land Tower) being put up in its place. Incidentally, Raffles Tower when it was still under construction,  was the scene of a dramatic aerial helicopter rescue – the first in Singapore’s history. The rescue on 21 October 1980 came at a time when 19 out of tower’s intended 48 floors were completed. A fire broke out on the 18th floor, which left a crane operator stranded on a tower crane perched on the top of the uncompleted building some 60 metres above ground. The daring rescue effort saw the operator plucked from the crane’s boom to safety by the crew of a RSAF Bell 212 helicopter .

Singapore’s first helicopter aerial rescue was over Raffles Place on 21 October 1980.

Raffles Place would also lose its car park and roof garden not so long after this incident. A well-loved feature by that time, the garden’s lifespan fell short of the “many, many decades” that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had predicted it would last when he opened it in November 1965. The construction of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system just two decades later, meant that the structure and its garden, went the way of Raffles Place’s older icons in mid-1984.

Raffles Place – still with its garden – in the late 1970s. The former Mercantile Bank can be seen at the end of the square.

The building of the MRT also took out the other landmarks that could be identified with old Raffles Place. The former Mercantile Bank (built 1929) was one. The building, which marked the square’s southern end, had been purchased by Chartered Bank to house its Singapore headquarters while its 6 Battery Road HQ at the square’s opposite end, was being rebuilt. Chartered Bank’s new premises at 6 Battery Road, which was put up at the start of the 1980s incorporated a provision for the MRT to be built at a time when the question of whether the MRT should be built was still being deliberated.

Over a CBD in transition at the end of the 1970s. Renewal, redevelopment and reclamation would change the face of a part of Singapore that at the point of independence, had a certain old world charm (photo source: Panoramio).

Raffles Place today, wears a look of modernity reflective of Singapore’s impressive progress since the car park and its roof garden was unveiled. Cold as it may have become enclosed by the wall of towering symbols of success, Lenin’s tomb it is not nor a place of repose for the distinguished – other than the distinguished past. There are the reminders of the square that was replaced if one looks hard enough – found in the names that are retained and in some of the new structures that have come to define the new Raffles Place.


 

Raffles Place over the years

 

 

Raffles Place stands on the site of a hill that was levelled in 1822 to provide filler for the reclamation in way of the south bank of the Singapore River that provided the grounds for Boat Quay.

 

Raffles Place in the late 1800s. The garden seen in this G. R. Lambert print was one of Commercial Square’s early features, which was laid out, planted with trees and enclosed by a low wall and a wooden fence in the mid-1830s. The marble drinking water fountain seen in the photograph was the one presented by John Gemmill in 1864. The donation involved more than just the fountain as it required the laying of pipes from Mr Gemmill’s property at Mount Erskine to Raffles Place. The fountain originally had metal cups chained to it. The fountain, which now stands outside the National Museum of Singapore, found its way to Empress Place, before being moved to the museum in the 1970s.

 

Gemmill’s fountain – at the National Museum of Singapore.

 

Another G R Lambert print from the late 1800s. Originally Commercial Square, it was named Raffles Place by the Municipal Commission in 1858.

 

By the 1900s Raffles Place was well developed into a commercial and banking centre. This postcard view of Raffles Place in the 1930s shows several banking institutions established around in the square such as (from left to right): Mercantile Bank of India, Banque de l’Indochine (French Bank) and Yokohama Specie Bank (YS Bank in Meyer Chambers).

 

Preparations for war, 1941. A machine gun pillbox seen in front of a John Little’s Building fitted with brick barricades.

 

Air raid wardens are dousing an incendiary bomb in Raffles Place in 1941 as part of a regular weekly mass demonstration to make Singaporean’s bomb conscious and informed (source: Library of Congress – no known copyright restrictions).

A bomb damaged Raffles Place following the first Japanese air raid on Singapore on 8 Dec 1941.

 

Raffles Place in the 1950s, by which time stores such as John Little – established in the 1840s and Robinson’s, founded in the 1850s, were already very well established and were household names.

 

Plans for a garden at Raffles Place were first announced in Nov 1963 during a State Government policy address made by Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak to the Legislative Assembly – the first with Singapore a State in Malaysia and the last ever. Work commenced on what was to be a 150 car capacity underground car park topped by a roof garden in July 1964. By the time LKY opened the carpark and roof garden in Nov 1965, Singapore was an independent country. LKY expressed his disappointment that the car park had to be elevated a metre above the ground for ventilation and access and observed that some had likened one end of the structure to Lenin’s tomb. He also noted that there were also suggestions that “we might perhaps repose the precious remains of some of our more distinguished citizens in one end of this square”.

 

Mr David Ayres’ capture of Raffles Place in 1966, which made its rounds around the internet in 2012. The photograph shows the roof garden and looks towards the northern end of the square with the Chartered Bank Chambers on Battery Road at the far end (source: David Ayres on Flickr).

 

Another northward view – this one in 1969 courtesy of Mr Kim Hocker (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

The five-foot-way along John Little’s Building in 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

Trishaw riders outside Oriental Emporium at Raffles Place in 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

A view of the car park from street level with a staircase to the roof garden (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

The Malacca Street end of the car park and its location today.

A view towards the north end with MRT construction work, 1987 (National Archives of Singapore).

 

A northward view today. The John Little’s Building is replicated on the main entrances to the MRT.

 

A southward view of Raffles Place today.

 

The Singapore Land tower (R) – where the rescue of the crane operator took place in 1980.

 

One Raffles Place – which occupies the site of Robinson’s and Meyer Chambers.


 





The abandoned beauty of Canfranc

30 09 2019

For more photographs, please visit:

https://jeromekg.wixsite.com/flymetothemoon/post/the-abandoned-beauty-of-canfranc


Set against a backdrop of snow-capped Pyrenean peaks and in a quiet village in Spanish foothills of the range that forms much of the Franco-Spanish border, the majestic and long-disused Canfranc International Railway Station looks well out of place. Often described as Europe’s most opulent station, it is as much its Beaux-arts styled appearance as is the scale in which it was built that has earned it this reputation.

The beautiful and somewhat mysterious Canfranc International Railway Station seen against the backdrop of the Pyrenees.

Built from 1921 to 1925, it was as much a symbol of Franco-Spanish cooperation at is opening in 1928 as it was to have been the terminal building of an elevated railway line that triumphed over the challenging Pyrenean terrain that separated the two countries. This required, among other efforts, the digging of a tunnel – the Somport tunnel that took six years to complete. It was in use until March 1970 when a train accident, which damaged the Estanguet bridge beyond repair, closed the Pau-Canfranc line for good.

The station has been abandoned since an accident in March 1970 closed the line.

Much intrigue and mystery has surrounded the station since its closure. Over the years, details have emerged of the station having been a transit point for Nazi loot, including some 86 tons of gold stolen from Jews to obtain much needed tungsten in the Iberian peninsula. Tungsten was need to as an alloying element in steel used in tank armour. Details have also emerged of how a French Customs Officer based at the station, Albert Le Lay, posed as a double agent and in doing so, facilitated the escape of hundreds of refugees – many of them Jews into Spain from 1940 to 1942. Dubbed the “Spanish Schindler”, Le Lay, was part of a spy network based at the station that also helped in the transmission of messages and equipment for the French Resistance.

A view through one of the station’s 365 windows.

The station, which measures 241 metres in length, is 12.5 metres wide and has a total of 150 doors – 75 one each side. It also has 365 windows – one as they say – for each day of the year. Operated jointly by France and Spain, it contained a restaurant, a hotel, post and telegraph offices and the offices of the railway operators and immigration and customs officials for both countries.


For more photographs, please visit:

https://jeromekg.wixsite.com/flymetothemoon/post/the-abandoned-beauty-of-canfranc





The ghosts of Kallang’s past

12 05 2019

Like ghosts, a familiar pair of figures from Kallang’s past have made a reappearance. The pair, fibreglass replicas of the Merdeka Bridge Monument lions, were unveiled this afternoon at Stadium Roar as part of the launch of The Kallang Story, a Sports and Heritage Trail that uncovers many other aspects of the area’s rich and colourful history through 3 suggested walking routes featuring 18 heritage markers.

The unveiling of the replica lions at Stadium Roar at the National Stadium.

The lions, commissioned by the Public Works Department during the construction of the bridge, were designed based on sketches by Mr. L. W. Carpenter of its Architect’s Branch. The full design was completed by Signor Raoul Bigazzi (not by Cav. Rodolfo Nolli as has been widely reported), who had them made in Manila at a cost of $14,200.

The bridge, built at a cost of $8M, was touted as “the longest and largest of its type in South East Asia”. Its construction, along with that of Nicoll Highway was possible by the move of the civil airport from Kallang to Paya Lebar in 1955. The proposal to name the bridge “Merdeka” or “Independence” was made in June 1956 by the then Minister of Works and Communications Mr Francis Thomas under the Lim Yew Hock administration, “to express the confidence and aspirations of the people”. This came after the first round of Merdeka talks for full self-government stalled and Singapore first Chief Minister, David Marshall, resigned. Some 60,000 people crossed the bridge at its opening on 17 August 1956 – at which Mr Lim Yew Hock referred to it as a “Symbol of Our Path to Freedom”.

The monument, was placed at each end of the bridge with a lion at its base. The monument and the lions were removed during the widening and conversion of the Nicoll Highway from a dual to a treble carriageway in 1966. The lions were initially placed at Kallang Park and are now display out of sight to most of us at SAFTI Military Institute.


Will the (Kallang) roar now return?

 

A Wushu display during the unveiling of the replica lions.


 

 





The north-south trail of destruction

4 01 2017

We seemed to have said too many goodbyes in the year we have just left behind; goodbyes to those who coloured the world, goodbyes to political certainty, and in Singapore, goodbyes- once again – to too many bits of what makes our city-state unique. The year we have just welcomed, brings the end for many of the places we have said goodbye to, either through their complete erasure or through alteration. Two, Rochor Centre and the Ellison Building, both of which are affected by the construction of the North-South expressway due to commence this year, have received more than a fair share of attention.  The former will  be completely demolished as it stands in the way of exit and entry points of the southern end of the expressway, while the latter, a conserved structure, will lose some of its original façade. While there is an intention to have its lost face rebuilt, the news was met with quite a fair bit of displeasure, prompting an effort to have the extent of the façade affected minimised.

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The “Rainbow Flats”, or Rochor Centre, will be demolished this year for the construction of the North-South expressway.

The expressway will be built overground at its northern end. The impact this will have may not in the loss of buildings or parts of them, but the much altered vistas the parts the viaduct is being built over would have. One area in which this would be painfully obvious will be in Sembawang Road between Mandai Avenue and Khatib Camp. Taking a path through a landscape recalling a countryside we have largely discarded, the road and the pleasing vistas it has long provided, will surely be missed once the expressway is built. My acquaintance with the road goes back to the early 1970s when as a schoolboy, I would find myself bused down the road, to support my school’s football team playing in the north zone primary schools finals at Sembawang School. The road’s charm hasn’t changed very much since its more rural days, despite its subsequent widening and the building of Yishun New Town and Khatib Camp just down the road.

A beautiful stretch of Sembawang Road near its 11th milestone that recalls a rural past will soon have a very different and much more urban feel to it.

A beautiful stretch of Sembawang Road – near its 11th milestone, recalls a rural past. A viaduct for the North-South expressway, will give it a very different and a much more urban feel.

The road is set against a landscape that recalls a huge rubber and pineapple plantation. The former plantation's Assistant Manager's residence - is still seen atop one of the landscape's high points.

The road is set against a charming landscape that recalls its days as part of the huge Nee Soon plantation. The former plantation’s Assistant Manager’s residence – still stands prominently atop one of the areas’s high points.

An area affected by the expressway that has already lost its charm is Toa Payoh Rise. I often enjoyed walks along the quiet and well shaded tree-lined road in more youthful days when the air of calm it provided was supplemented by the chorus of its tree lizards. The then much narrower road, an access point to Toa Payoh Hospital, has seen much of its magic taken away. Associated also with institutions for the visually handicapped, it has since been given a completely different feel with its upgrade into a main access path in and out of Toa Payoh and the building of a Circle Line MRT station, Caldecott. Several structures of the past can still be found such as the former Marymount Convent complex and four low-rise blocks of flats that served as quarters for hospital staff. The former convent buildings and two of the four blocks of flats are  however set to disappear just so our world could be kept moving.

Flats at Toa Payoh Rise - two will be demolished for the North-South expressway to be built.

Flats at Toa Payoh Rise – two will be demolished for the North-South expressway to be built.

The Marymount Convent complex.

The Marymount Convent complex.

At the other end of Thomson Road, there are also two reminders of more youthful times that are also set to make a partial disappearance. Here, the expressway’s tunnel will burrow through soil once intended to provide eternal rest – that of the former New or Bukit Timah Cemetery – already disturbed by the exhumation of the cemetery in the 1970s. The tunnel will also swallow up several units from a delightful collection of old houses at Kampong Java and Halifax Roads. Built around the 1930s as municipal quarters, these are of two designs and have very much been a feature of the area. The area was where I attended kindergarten (at Cambridge Road) and also primary school (at Essex Road). While the demolition would involve a few units close to the side of the Central Expressway, it will have the impact of further reducing the area’s already eroded charm.

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Former municipal quarters at Kampong Java Road that will make way for the expressway.

Former Municipal Quarters at Halifax Road, several of which will also fall victim to the North South expressway.

Former municipal quarters at Halifax Road, several of which will also fall victim to the North South expressway.

Two other major road transport projects – involving the MRT – also adds to the destruction brought on by the need to keep our world moving. One, the final phase of the Circle Line, has seen part of the Singapore Polytechnic first campus demolished and the levelling of what had been left of the very historic Mount Palmer. Another big change the project will bring is to the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. The line will run under the former station with an MRT station, Cantonment, built under its platforms. This will see the well-loved National Monument closed to the public for a period of nine years during which time it will acquire an entirely different feel. One of the MRT station exits will bring commuters up to the former station’s platforms and into the former station building, which will by the time it reopens, may feature a mix of retail and food and beverage outlets.

A last Christmas at Tanjong Pagar, before a lengthy closure during which it will be changed forever.

A last Christmas at Tanjong Pagar, before a lengthy closure during which it will be changed forever.

Not everything however, is going due to the need to keep us mobile, as is the case for what is left of Old Kallang Airport Estate or Dakota Crescent – as it is now commonly referred to. The well-loved neighbourhood is a a last remnant of an estate built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) – the predecessor to the HDB, that features the first attempts at high-rise public housing blocks. Built at the end of the 1950s, parts of the estate has already been lost to redevelopment. The part of it that is still left features four block designs arranged around two spacious courtyards and a playground introduced in the 1970s. Some of the blocks were designed to also include units intended for commercial and artisanal use – a feature of the SIT estates of the era. A group is currently seeking to have parts of the estate, which offers an insight into the public housing programme of the pre-HDB era, conserved, supported by the Member of Parliament for the area.

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Dakota at the crossroads.

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Will the estate and the last of the dove (playgrounds), like many of the SIT estates of the past, be discarded?


See also:

Some places that will be affected by the North-South Expressway

Some places that are affected by the Circle Line’s Final Phase

More Winds of Change:






Update on closure of the Rail Corridor

24 06 2016

The first stretch of the Rail Corridor affected by the Murnane Pipeline Project, will be hoarded up and closed from Monday 27 June 2016. The stretch is  from Holland Rd (near Greenleaf Estate) to Tanglin Halt Road (including the former Rail Corridor Art Space). Exact dates for the closure of the remaining stretches affected (see graphic below), which are scheduled for the third quarter of 2016, are still being worked out. The corridor will be reopened in parts as work is completed from the end of 2017 to the end of 2019. More information on the project and the how the Rail Corridor could be affected is available in some of my earlier posts:

And a northward view.

A view of the first stretch of the Rail Corridor to close for the pipeline project.

Updated schedule for closure of the southern stretch of the Rail Corridor (click to expand).

 





The 16th century sailor seen wandering at the National Museum

30 01 2016

With all that’s been rumoured about the National Museum, the curious sight of a lost soul dressed in the manner of a 16th century Portuguese sailor wandering around one of its galleries would not be unexpected. Strangely though, rather than stay well away from the sailor – as one might expect, those present in the gallery seemed instead to be drawn to him.

The Level 2 galleries.

The National Museum – where the past comes alive in more ways than one.

There is little that is sinister about the sailor who roams the basement gallery with two muses in tow. On a quest to find what he thinks will offer an escape from the curse of his long but lonely existence – attributed to the consumption of the Elixir of Life, the sailor enlists the help of those around. The sailor, the two muses, and his quest – to find the greatest treasure in the world, is all part of the fun of an experiential play, “The Greatest Treasure in the World”.

A muse and Aesop (as well as several other characters from the past), also help Afonso in his quest.

A pair of muses and several other characters from the past, also help Afonso in his quest.

The experiential play also has the audience take part.

The experiential play also has the audience take part.

The play, created by Peggy Ferroa, has the audience, embark on a rather enjoyable adventure through time with Afonso, the Portuguese sailor – whose full name sounds as long as the life he has had. The search for the treasure takes place in the in the Treasures of the World from the British Museum exhibition –  where Afonso suspects he would, with the help of the audience, find what he seeks.

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Tickets to join Afonso on his quest cost $38 and can be booked through SISTIC. Two sessions of the hour-long experience will be held on the evenings of 30 January, 25, 26 and 27 February, 24, 25, and 26 March and 28, 29 and 30 April 2016. More information on the The Greatest Treasure in the World can be found at the National Museum of Singapore’s website.

The cast with Peggy Ferroa (standing second from right).

The cast with Peggy Ferroa (standing second from right).

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Parting glances, Church of St. Alphonsus

8 10 2014

In Singapore, the familiar becomes unfamiliar in the blink of an eye. The end of September brought with it more than a fair share of goodbyes to places some of us have grown attached to. One that was especially hard to say goodbye to was a place I have grown especially fond of through my interactions with it over a period of almost half a century, the Church of St. Alphonsus, which closed at the end of September for redevelopment.

A final prayer outside the locked gates of the closed church the morning after.

A final prayer outside the locked gates of the closed church the morning after.

In the case of St. Alphonsus, popularly known as Novena Church, it isn’t of course a complete goodbye. The building that housed the church, very recognisable through its distinctive triple-arc pediment – a landmark along Thomson Road, will not be torn down as it has been gazetted for conservation in 2011. It will however, be dominated by a much larger structure once the redevelopment is complete – that being a new and much larger church building that will come up in place of the site occupied by St. Clement’s Pastoral Centre and another very recognisable structure, the church’s bell tower.

A parting glance ...

A parting glance …

Better known perhaps for the devotional services it holds through the course of the day every Saturday that brings a crowd to the area – the Novena sessions that gives the church and the area (including an MRT station) their names, the church came into being on its current site in May 1950, when it was consecrated as the new Redemptorist chapel – the order having moved from a site down the road currently occupied by Thomson Medical Centre at which it started the Novena services after the war in 1945.

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The chapel as it had originally looked (Novena Church on Twitter).

The building as we know it today, took on its current form in the latter half of the 1950s. A bell tower and the Redemptorist Residence was added in 1956 and the pediment and a circular stained glass panel of Our Mother of Perpetual Help was added in 1959.

The circular stained glass panel seen through the closed gates of the church.

The circular stained glass panel seen through the closed gates of the church.

The bell tower.

The bell tower.

The weekly services is what gives the area its flavour, when huge crowds descend on the area every Saturday, crowds that will certainly be missed during the two-year redevelopment period when Novena services are held instead in the Church of Risen Christ in Toa Payoh. I remember it being particularly lively at the end of the 1960s and perhaps the early 1970s – when crowds thronged the sidewalks down the slope from the church where many food vendors would be found.

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An aerial view showing the church with its new pediment and the Redemptorist Residence in 1959 (Novena Church on Twitter).

Also missed will be the burst of colour that the area sees once a year over the first weekend in September, when the church’s façade is very brightly decorated with a flowers for the annual Novena procession, although the scale of the decorations have become more modest in its latter years. The procession, the 61st of which was held in September, sees crowds in excess of 10,000 spilling into the open car park space that is arrange on two terraces – a space that will be largely altered due to the construction of an underground car park.

Decorations during the annual procession in 1987.

Decorations during the annual procession in 1987.

The church held its last services over the weekend of the 27th and 28th September and its grilled gates were closed following the last service. Besides hosting Novena services, the Church of the Risen Christ will also host weekday masses. Sunday masses will during the period of closure be held at St. Joseph’s Institution Junior in Essex Road. More information can be found at the Novena Church website.

Silent corridors at the Redemptorist Residence the morning after.

Silent corridors at the Redemptorist Residence the morning after.


Parting glances …

The morning after

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The Bell Tower

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The Church

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The Redemptorist Residence and St. Clement’s Pastoral Centre

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The last Novena

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The last procession and processions past

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