Last rites, Sungei Road and the soul of Singapore

11 07 2017

The 10th of July, marked not just the final chapter for Sungei Road, but also for the generations of traders who once coloured the streets of Singapore. The closure of the popular and well-known flea market, also known as Thieves Market and Robinson Petang, saw what are technically Singapore’s last street hawkers moved off the streets. While hope for a new beginning for the collection of mostly small second-hand goods traders does exist, their continued existence is under threat by the fact they would now be scattered across town.

Hope also lies in an initiative by the President of the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods, Mr Koh Ah Koon, which was announced at a farewell of sorts organised for the market. Mr Koh hopes to resurrect the market on the sixth floor car park of Golden Mile Tower as early as on Saturday 15th July, 2017. Not all the traders however are making the move due to cost considerations and the location. There is also a chance that the move may not even be allowed to happen. Approval would be needed as it would involve a change in usage of a parking space. Whatever will be, the market as we knew it, will no longer be the one we came to know. The passing of this imperfect world modern Singapore has no place for, sees not just the loss of a place in the hearts of many of us, but also the loss of one of last places in which the soul of old and gentle Singapore could still be found.

Crowds were on hand to witness Sungei Road’s final moments.

Some traders decided to pack up early.

A lion dance to bid farewell.

Mr Koh Ah Koon, President of the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods speaks to members of the media.

The now famous Mr Kulasekaran Ramiah.

An emotional goodbye.

A final sale.

Packing up for the very last time.

Enforcement wardens move in – must say they were generally helpful and friendly.

All packed and ready to go.

Some made a quicker exit.

A last ride.

The final walk.

The closure of the flea market leaves Singapore like a head without body (and soul).

The cleaners are quickly sent in.

The closure gives many of the traders a feeling of being alone in the darkness.







Sungei Road, a last reflection

10 07 2017

As with all other places connected with the charming and less pretentious side of Singapore there is little place for in the Singapore version of Utopia our planners seem hellbent on creating, the second-goods bazaar at Sungei Road will become a thing of the past. The bazaar, referred commonly to by the name of the street it was centred on, is more of a gathering of hawkers setting up makeshift stalls and had once a reputation of offering goods that could not be commonly obtained. Rough, unpolished and certainly out of place in the brave new world, it will join the club of the Singapore that we miss come the 11th of July (see: 11 July 2017, the day the thieves of Sungei Road will be executed).

A last reflection on the bazaar.

The bazaar drew the crowds over the weekend, its last weekend of operations. The crowd was especially thick on Sunday as the streets along which it has been allowed to operated, filling with residents and visitors alike in search perhaps of a last bargain, and to get a last glimpse of yet another place being made to disappear. 

The fate of the hawkers post 10 July is quite uncertain. While several licensed ones have taken up stalls allocated to them in several markets,  the scattering of hawkers across several locations will not have the same impact as an entire bazaar dedicated to the trade. There are also those who either have not taken what has been offered or have nowhere to go. Hope for them exists in the form of a temporary solution to their inability to convince the authorities to allow the market to operate at an alternative site. A flyer being distributed over the weekend informs of a move to Golden Mile Tower. An announcement on this (see: post on the Save Sungei Road Market Facebook Page) will apparently be made this evening at 7.30 pm.

It will never be the same of course once the streets around Sungei Road are emptied. In no time there will be little to link the area to this and some of its rather colourful past and what it will surely become is just another piece in a jigsaw puzzle that is of a single shape and colour.


Last reflections, Sungei Road

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Parting Glances: Pasir Panjang Power Station Quarters

29 05 2017

Thanks to the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) and Mr Morhan Karup, representing the families of the former Pasir Panjang Power Station (PPPS) quarters, I found myself at a huge gathering of the PPPS quarters’ ex-residents. It provided an opportunity not just to have a look at the former quarters,  but also to be reminded of the community spirit missing in the brave new world Singapore has been forced to become .

A group photograph of the ex-residents. It was estimated that more than 600 former residents returned for the gathering.

The bonds of community were very much in evidence at the reunion, which attracted some 600 ex-residents from a total of 340 families who once called PPPS quarters home – despite a separation of over three decades. The former quarters, built in the 1950s and 1960s, comprised five high-rise blocks and another five 3-storey blocks and were vacated at the end of the 1980s when many were encouraged to apply for HDB flats. The quarters were for long one of the area’s landmarks, which also included the chimneys of the power station and the storage tanks of the BP (and former Maruzen Toyo – see: The tanks at Tanjong Berlayer) refinery. The refinery, which opened in 1962, was in fact well positioned, and had been where fuel for the power station’s prime movers, were supplied from.

A parting glance.

What we see today of the quarters is one built to supplement accommodation originally erected in 1952 to 1953. The then new power station, built to supply the colony’s electricity needs for the two decades that were to follow, was to be further expanded from a an initial capacity of 25 MW at the end of 1952 to 175 MW in 1962 to meet surging demand. It did not stop there and a second station, B Station, was built adjacent to the first (A Station) in the mid-1960s, adding a total of 240 MW to the station’s capacity. All this required workers to be recruited from India and Malaya, all of whom needed to be accommodated. The erection of new and taller blocks in the 1960s, also allowed the families of the workers to be accommodated more comfortably. These had larger two-room, one-hall units, compared to single bedroom units in the older blocks. The larger units were then allocated to those with families and smaller ones (in the three-storey blocks) to newly married workers and those who were single. The units were rented out for some $10 to $16 to the families.

An eight-storey block built in the 1960s. The layouts are very similar to some of the later SIT flat designs. The high-rise blocks had two-room, one-hall units and were allocated to married workers with families.

Older 3-storey blocks with one-room, one-hall flats allocated to singles or workers who were newly married.

One who came from far was the father of Mr Selvam, a long-time former resident (1954 to 1986) who was born on the premises in 1954 (in a unit in three-storey Block D). Mr Selvam’s father, Mr Sockalingam, came over from India in the 1950s to work as a turbine driver and married a local lady. With a twinkle in his eye, Mr Selvam – known to those in the community as “Thambi’ (younger brother in Tamil), recalled days spent in the football field, at Labrador Primary School and taking a shortcut through World War Two tunnels to take a dip at the beach. The tunnels, remembered by all who lived there in the 1960s and 1970s, were apparently filled with the artefacts of war and included the rusty remnants of Japanese weapons. With Mr Selvam, was his friend Mr Yusof whose wife was a former resident. Mr Yusof described the estate as a “concrete kampung”, a description that seemed to be used by many of the estate’s former residents.

L – R: Ex-residents Mr Thangavelu, Mr Omar, Mr Selvam (a.k.a. ‘Thambi’), and the husband of an ex-resident, Mr Yusof. Mr Thangavelu, lived with an uncle who worked at PPPS, while Mr Omar was a turbine driver who was transferred from Jurong Power Station in 1970.

One of the memories Mr Selvam and his friends who were sitting around him were especially keen to talk about, were of the row of food stalls across the road just outside the compound. It was there where many would gather, share a meal or a drink in the evening break out into song – something that the gathering yesterday, also seemed to encourage with quite a few joining in an impromptu song and dance with many in the crowd cheering on.

The organising team, with Mr Bernard Loh of the SLA.

The get-together, at which the bonds forged over the years were very much in evidence despite the length of time the community ‘s members have been kept apart, follows on another organised in 2014 that was attended by 300 ex-residents. The 2014 reunion was prompted by re-connections made possible through social media, after many in the community had lost touch with each other after moving from the quarters, and also with the decommissioning of the station (A-Station in mid-1980 and B-Station in 1997). The group is planning a dinner at the end of the year, which on the basis of what was seen – would certainly not be the last.

Sisters Manchula and Sita posing at the same spot a photo was taken of them in 1975.

Two of three Chia sisters, whose family lived in the quarters from 1956 to 1971.

Last reflections.

The gated compound of the estate provided security, although none seemed to be needed and residents often left their doors opened or unlocked.

The winds of change are sweeping through the area.

The proximity to the power station allowed workers to come home for lunch.

An area once occupied by older flats, which were demolished.

Old estates often have nice shady trees, something that new estates lack and it is a shame to see them go.


Video of Ex-Residents breaking out in dance


A last look


Signs of More Recent Times


 

 

 





Parting glances: Rochor Centre in its last days

19 05 2016

Renewal and redevelopment are words that some in Singapore dread hearing. They often translate to the loss of places we lived in or grew up with, and the break-up of communities associated with those places.  One such place that will soon join the growing list of disappearing communities is Rochor Centre (photographs below). One of several city-centre podium complexes put up by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) from the mid-1970s into the 1980s, it seems to have served its purpose and will now have to make way so that an underground expressway can be built.

Fading light, Rochor Centre, May 2016.

Many will remember the complex for the multi-coloured coat of paint it has in more recent times been given. For much of its 39 year history however, it has worn a less attention grabbing coat, looking its part as an aesthetically unappealing mid-1970s public housing development, lost in the confused clutter of structures built to replace the one-time shophouse dominated landscape of the area.

Rochor Centre in less colourful days (source: Online Forum / Berita Harian)

Rochor Centre in less colourful days (source: Online Forum / Berita Harian)

Built in a hurry to take in residents and businesses being displaced by the huge wave of redevelopment that was sweeping across the city, mixed-use podium complexes sprouted in double quick time across densely populated districts of the city. A feature of such complexes is the multi-level podium block in which shop and office lots, or in some instances, wet markets and food centres are housed. Residential blocks of flats, built in the same mould as the HDB flats of those days, sit on top of the podiums with the well-proportioned podium roof decks providing space to serve residents’ recreational and social needs.

Rochor Centre features a podium with three levels of shop lots.

Rochor Centre features a podium with three levels of shop lots.

As is typical of HDB podium developments = the roof deck of the podium provides space for the recreational needs of the residents.

As is typical of HDB podium developments = the roof deck of the podium provides space for the recreational needs of the residents.

A kindergarten at roof deck level.

A kindergarten at roof deck level.

One of the larger complexes in the area, the diverse mix of businesses that Rochor Centre’s podium housed, brought much more of a buzz to it than nearby complexes such as Bras Basah Complex and Waterloo Centre. Both the latter complexes housed a concentration of specialised trades; bookstores, stationery shop and watch dealers from the North Bridge Road and Bras Basah Road area in the case of Bras Basah, and motor spare parts dealers from the Rochor area in the case of Waterloo.

Not the first supermarket at Rochor Centre, Fairprice will be one of the last shops to go.

Not the first supermarket at Rochor Centre, the Fairprice outlet, which is still operating, will be one of the last shops to go.

Rochor Centre, after its completion in 1977, saw three banks, POSB, DBS and Tat Lee, set up shop. A branch of Oriental Emporium and its supermarket also moved in, as did a post office, which shifted from Queen Street. There were also many other shops, food outlets, pawnshops, goldsmith shop and due to its proximity to the popular Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple down Waterloo Street, shops dealing with religious offerings. While many shops and businesses came and went over the year, there are several that either kept relevant or managed to adapt to changing times that have stayed on.

Another of the original occupants of the shop lots - Tenpo Goldsmith and Jewellers, showing obvious signs of adapting to changing times.

Another of the original occupants of the shop lots – Tenpo Goldsmith and Jewellers, showing obvious signs of adapting to changing times.

A reminder of the centre's DBS Bank branch - one of the original occupants of the podium block.

A reminder of the centre’s DBS Bank branch – one of the original occupants of the podium block.

With the death knell being sounded on Rochor Centre, much of the buzz it was once known for has been replaced by a deafening silence. Having been acquired by the government in November 2011 as its stands in the way of the construction of the future North-South Expressway, many of its occupants have moved out well ahead of the third quarter 2016 deadline to vacate the complex.

Many businesses have moved well in advance of the deadline to vacate.

Many businesses have moved well in advance of the deadline to vacate.

The emptiness and silence that has replaced the buzz.

The emptiness and silence that has replaced the buzz.

Demolition is expected to start soon after its last tenants move out and all that will remain of it will be memories; memories that, as with those of the flood-prone but colourful Hokchia dominated neighbourhood that occupied the site before Rochor Centre, time will surely erase.

A site soon to be recycled.

A site soon to be recycled.

Possession Notice pasted on the door of a residential unit.

Possession Notice pasted on the door of a residential unit.



What occupied the site before Rochor Centre:

Rochor Centre was built over a neighbourhood with streets such as Tiwary Street, Muar Road and Angullia Road. Despite the diverse origins of its street names, the area where members of the Hokchia (also Futsing or Fuqing) community settled into. Many in the community found work as trishaw riders or coolies and as with others involved in the trades, found solace in opium and in gambling. The area, as a result, gained notoriety for its opium and gambling dens.

An extract of a street map of the area, 1969 (source: SLA Singapore Historical Map).

An extract of a street map of the area, 1969 (source: SLA Singapore Historical Map).


Parting Glances: Photographs of Rochor Centre in its last days

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Daybreak over Rochor Centre on which the sun will soon set.

Last flights at sunrise.

Last flights at sunrise.

A last delivery.

A last collection.

Last light.

Last light.

A last morning walk.

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A last walk to kindergarten.

A last ride.

A last ride.

A last wait.

A last wait.

The last roasts.

The last roasts.

A last cup of coffee.

A last cup of coffee.

A last breakfast.

A last breakfast.

A last haircut.

A last customer.

A last reflection.

A last reflection.

Last shops.

Last shops.

Last cups of coffee.

Last chill-outs.

A last elevator ride.

A last elevator ride.

A last check of the letterbox.

A last check of the letterbox.

A last Christmas.

A last Christmas.

A last Chinese New Year.

A last Chinese New Year.

A last wash.

A last wash.

Last ;pieces of laundry.

Last poles of laundry.

A last offering.

A last offering.

A last reunion dinner.

A last reunion dinner.

Last Chinese New Year visits.

A last Chinese New Year visit.

A last ride.

A last ride.

A last hamper.

A last hamper.

A last mail delivery.

A last mail delivery.

A last delivery.

A last delivery.

A last look at the basement.

A last look at the basement.

A last look before the colours fade.

A last look before the colours fade.

A last twilight.

A last twilight.






The Japanese school at Waterloo Street

27 04 2016

The Middle Road area, despite it transformation over the years, is still where reminders of the colourful chapters of its history await discovery. At one end, hints of one chapter can be found in its stars – the stars of David decorating the David Elias building, which tell us of the days of the Mahallah, home to the diaspora of Baghdadi Jews some of whom feature prominently in Singapore’s history.

A passageway into the past.

A passageway into the past.

For another migrant community the stars on Middle Road might have shone on, the Japanese, the reminders are less obviously Japanese.  These also take the form of old buildings, two of them.  One is the former Middle Road Hospital, which has its origins in the Japanese Doh-jin hospital. The other can be found just off Middle Road, at 155 Waterloo Street. Used as the National Arts Council (NAC) run Stamford Arts Centre since 1988, the building or rather, cluster of buildings, originally had been the Japanese community’s elementary school.

The buildings now housing the Stamford Arts Centre were put up to house an elementary school for the Japanese community in 1920.

The buildings now housing the Stamford Arts Centre were put up to house an elementary school for the Japanese community in 1920.

A conserved building since 1994, the original buildings had been erected in 1920 with the support of the Japan Club or what would be the equivalent of the Japanese Association today. The existence of the club, which was founded in 1915 and the school, was perhaps an indication of the growing presence of the Japanese, many of whom established themselves in the area around Middle Road, which was the community’s Chuo Dori or Central Street.

The Japanese Elementary School in its early days.

The Japanese Elementary School at Waterloo Street. The three-storey extension was added in 1931 (source: The Japanese Association).

The extension block today.

The extension block today.

The origins of the school were in the classes a teacher Mr. Miyamura first held in 1912 in a room in the Toyo Hotel, which was on Middle Road. From a group of some 26 to 28 students (accounts differ), enrollment quickly grew. This saw the school moving to Wilkie Road in 1915, before it was to find a permanent home at Waterloo Street.

The first anniversary in 1913 of the school started by Mr. Miyamura. Mr Miyamura is seen seated in the front row.

The first anniversary in 1913 of the school started by Mr. Miyamura. Mr Miyamura is seen seated in the front row (source: The Japanese Association).

Known as the Japan Elementary School (日本小学校) during its days at Waterloo Street, the school was one of the community’s focal points. Several notable personalities were reported to have visited the school, including two of the late Emperor Showa’s (Hirohito) brothers. Prince Chichibu, visited in 1925 and Prince Takamatsu, who visited with his wife, the Princess Takamatsu, came in 1930. The school was also where the community held a memorial service for Emperor Taisho (the visiting princes father) in 1927.

The Main Hall (on the second floor of the main building) in 1927.

The Main Hall (on the second floor of the main building) in 1927 (source: The Japanese Association).

The school was closed at the outbreak of hostilities in 1941, before being restarted as the Syonan First Peoples’ School during the occupation. Taken over by the British Military Administration after the surrender in 1945, it was used temporarily to house a recreation centre for soldiers, the Shackle Club, when that was made to vacate the de-requisitioned John Little’s building in January 1947. The Shackle Club occupied the premises very briefly, and moved in July 1947 to fleet canteen at Beach Road so as to allow the buildings to be made available to Gan Eng Seng School (Gan Eng Seng’s own building had been damaged during the war). Stamford Girls School, which was formed in 1951, was next to move in, spending a lot more time on the grounds than its intended occupant and vacating it only in 1986.

As the Shackle Club, January to July 1947.

As the Shackle Club, January to July 1947.

As the Stamford Girls’ School, 1972 (source: URA Conservation Portal).

Time, it seems, is now being called for the arts centre – at least in the form we have known. A report carried in the Today newspaper last week, tells us of the departure of its tenants in anticipation of its closure for a much needed revamp scheduled to start at the end of the year. A reminder not just of the Japanese community, but also of the post-war drive to extend the reach of primary education to the growing population of children in Singapore, it would be nice to see the charm and laid back atmosphere of it spaces – often lost in the modern day refurbishment of many conserved buildings, somehow retained.

Students and staff posing at the back of the school (it appears that this was taken before the extension was added) – (source: National Archives of Singapore).

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The back of the main building today.


Parting Glances – Stamford Arts Centre

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The rail corridor at the halt at Tanglin

30 03 2016

Change is about to come to the Rail Corridor. Its southern half will be closed from the second quarter of 2016 to allow a water pipe to be laid under it, and I suppose that before it can recover from this intervention, we could see work being started on transforming parts of the corridor into a space that will have an appeal to the wider community.

The stretch of the corridor in the days of the railway at the former Tanglin Halt - a place that could transport you far from the madness that is Singapore.

The stretch of the corridor in the days of the railway (c. 2010) at the former Tanglin Halt – a place that could transport you far from the madness that is Singapore.

I wish to remember the corridor as it was in days when it attracted little interest. Ignored and left to the railway, the space grew into one that had a magical feel to it, a space one could quite easily lose oneself in. While the space still serves as an escape some four and a half years after the railway ceased operating through it, its magic has diminished. Stripped of most of its railway paraphernalia, turfed over, trampled on and worked on, there is now quite a different feel to the corridor.

The Rail Corridor in greener days.

The Rail Corridor, near the Clementi woodland, in greener days.

One stretch of the railway I would like to remember as it was is what, if the planners have their way, will become a “Cultural Valley”, “a vibrant activity space where workers and nearby residents can enjoy activities such as outdoor film screenings”. It is what I hope will not be, a transformation that threatens to have us forget the joy the space would once have given us.

What parts of the same stretch look like today.

Already in a state of flux – parts of the same stretch near the Clementi woodland have temporarily taken on the appearance of the concretised world that the railway has long kept away.

Already, we have all but forgotten it as a train stop, Tanglin Halt; even if this is remembered in the name of the adjacent public housing neighbourhood. Lines also branched off in the area, serving the British military at Wessex Estate and at Ayer Rajah. The stop, the branch lines, and its platform, had disappeared by the time I first set eye on the stretch. All that was left of the halt was a rather worn looking building, decorated as all abandoned buildings outside of Singapore might be (technically it stood on a piece of Malaysia). That vanished from sight almost immediately after the land was handed back; an aberration perhaps in the landscape that needed to be removed once it had become incorporated into the overly manicured Singaporean landscape.

A 1945 map showing the train halt.

A 1945 map showing the train halt.

The Tanglin Halt area today.

The Tanglin Halt area today.

The Cultural Valley being proposed at Buona Vista.

It is strange that similar renderings found on the missing structure, have, with official sanction, decorate the structures under a road bridge just a stone’s throw away. The Rail Corridor Art Space, thought up by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) and the National Arts Council (NAC), which was launched in December 2013, provided would be graffiti artists with an outlet to add colour to what would otherwise have been the grey of dull concrete.

The southward view.

The southward view.

And a northward view.

And a northward view.

Like the corridor, the space will soon lose its colour. Work to lay the pipe will require the corridor south of Holland Road, including this Buona Vista stretch, to be closed. While we can look forward to sections of it progressively reopened from the fourth quarter of 2017, this stretch of the corridor would probably bear no resemblance at all to the magical world I might once have found an escape in.

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Coloured concrete under the Commonwealth Avenue viaduct.





The Rail Corridor that will be forgotten

16 11 2015

I miss the days of the railway.

Those were days when the rail corridor, long insulated by the wave of modernisation that swept across Singapore, had a special and a somewhat magical appeal. Free from the fuss and clutter of the maddingly ordered world there is little escape from in Singapore, the corridor was where time seemed to have long stood still.

It still is a place to run off as its awaits its future. Even with the reminders of the railway dismantled, its still bears some semblance to the corridor in the days of passing trains. The  relatively undisturbed world will however, soon see a disturbance that threatens to have us forget the joy that was the corridor of old. Soon to commence work will see a large portion of the corridor dug up to allow the laying of a water pipe that will carry water from the Murnane Service Reservoir off Rifle Range Road into the city (see: Another new journey along the Rail Corridor).

Along with the digging, scheduled to be completed at the end of 2019, the corridor is also the subject of an effort to expand its use by a wider community. A concept plan, which attempts to integrate the hopes and wishes of various interest groups and stakeholders, is currently under public scrutiny. This plan is being exhibited at the URA Centre and proposes several interventions.

The former well-loved railway terminal at Tanjong Pagar will also not be spared from upheaval. The former station, part of which has been gazetted as a National Monument, will see part of its iconic platforms – dimensioned for the longest mail trains, removed to allow a Circle Line 6 MRT station to be built. Studies are being done to determine if the removed sections can be reinstated upon the MRT station’s completion. Work for will start in 2017. It will only be in 2025, when the MRT station is completed, that we can hope once again to admire the wonderful perspective that the platforms provide.

All that is intended will deprive us of access to some of the best parts of the former railway and its land. We must hope that the corridor, as well as the former station’s platforms, are returned to the state at which they were best appreciated. The fear though is that by the time we can once again enjoy the corridor and its structures in their entirety, the world that used to be will be little more than a distant memory.

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We waved goodbye to the Malayan Railway trains through Singapore close to 4 years ago on 30 June 2011.

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The approach to the end point of my morning after walk .... the truss bridge near the Rail Mall.

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0856: The very green corridor near Hindhede Quarry ...

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