Windows into the past: the mysterious house at Bassein Road

16 03 2016

In Singapore, change deprives many in my generation of the pure joy one finds in reconnecting with the places of one’s childhood. For many of us, we find our connections to a world that increasingly is hard to feel at home in, only through our precious memories and perhaps through fragments from our childhood that have somehow survived.

A window into the past.

A window into the past.

One very small fragment I was surprised to find intact, having not seen it for three and a half decades, is the house at No. 3 Bassein Road. While I may not have had any interactions with the house, it was one that I caught sight on numerous occasions from the car. The house, perhaps for the mystery it held, has somehow remained etched in my memory.

The house at No. 3 Bassein Road.

The house at No. 3 Bassein Road.

Much of the house lies hidden behind high walls. I would be driven past it on the many visits to my godmother’s place, which was up the hill at Akyab Road. As I passed, my attention would always be drawn to it. All I would get to see of it were the upper parts. Except for inscriptions in Chinese around a shut pair of red door and its octagonal windows, both of which suggested that it may have been a temple, there was little otherwise that hinted at what the house had been used as.

Much of the house lies hidden behind high walls. Once surrounded by other large house, the house is today surrounded by towering apartment blocks.

Much of the house lies hidden behind high walls. Once surrounded by other large houses, the house is today surrounded by towering apartment blocks.

With little reason for me to visit the area after my godmother moved away in the mid-1970s, it wasn’t until a random drive I took through the area some five years back that I was reacquainted with the house. With much of what surrounded it changed, it came as a pleasant surprised to see that the house was still intact three and a half decades or so since I last caught sight of it.

The grass roller.

With my godmother’s children at Akyab Road.

An article I was alerted to, was to help unlock the mystery of the house, which as it turns out was not a temple, but a Buddhist women’s vegetarian hall or zhaitang, the Chan Chor Min Tong.  Named after its founder, it was the sister lodge to article’s main subject, a men’s zhaitang at Jalan Kemaman, which shared the same founder and also the same name.

The men's hall at Jalan Kemaman.

The Chan Chor Min Tong at Jalan Kemaman.

This chai tong, as  its Cantonese speaking residents would have referred to it, was established in 1936. This came ten years after the hall at Jalan Kemaman was founded. While the latter provided lodging to men who might otherwise have to live their twilight years on their own, the Bassein Road hall catered to unattached women.  Both zhaitang have since ceased operating as places of lodging, and are today maintained by their trustees as religious halls.

An altar at the men's vegetarian hall at Jalan Kemaman.

An altar at the men’s vegetarian hall at Jalan Kemaman.

The opportunity to satisfy my curiosity about the place came with the Chinese New Year. The festival, I had been informed, is the only occasion during which the red doors are opened for visitors. This allows its beneficiaries, supporters and members of the public an opportunity to pay their respects to the hall’s deities and its elders.

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The main part of the hall inside the grounds.

Stepping through its red doors, the air of calm and contemplation, as one would expect of its seclusion, is evident. There was also a sense that it was a parallel world I had ventured into, one in which time seems to have been forgotten, and one rendered surreal by the shadows of the all too obvious emblems of the modern world that are cast on it.

Stepping into a world that time seems to have left behind.

Stepping into a world that time seems to have left behind.

Even if it is dwarfed by what now surrounds it, the generous proportions given to the two-storey hall does not escape notice. Of a design typical perhaps of the time of its construction, and yet untypical for its mix of styles, the house has verandahs running along its length on both levels, front and back. The insulation this provides its inner section, in combination with the ventilation of its ample openings, maximises cooling while allowing light to stream in – considerations no longer valued in the energy guzzling buildings of the modern world.

Stairs leading up to the verandah at the front of the house.

Stairs leading up to the verandah at the front of the house.

The front verandah on the upper level.

The front verandah on the upper level.

The house’s proportions gives away its communal purpose; evident also in how the house has been laid out. It is blessed with large common spaces, hallways and landings, around which smaller rooms affording a measure of privacy have been arranged. Service areas are equally spacious. One, a courtyard around which a wash area is arranged, for some reason, brought on a sense of deja-vu.

A hallway on the upper level.

A hallway on the upper level.

A landing.

A landing.

Dorrway to a bedroom.

A doorway to a bedroom.

The wash area.

The wash area.

Furnishings found scattered around the house are largely from an age of much simplicity. Some, the conveniences of yesterday, would by standards today, probably be taken as inconveniences, such as wooden washstands. Complete with decorated enamel washbasins in their recesses, several were set against the parapet of the back verandah. There were also meat safes from the now inconceivable pre-refrigerator age to be found.

A washstand.

A washstand.

A meat safe.

A meat safe.

Marketing fashion accessories from a forgotten age.

Marketing fashion accessories from a forgotten age.

A kitchen on the upper level.

A kitchen on the upper level of an auxiliary building.

While the last resident of the zhaitang, the zhaigu, may have last walked its hallways in the 1970s, there is no escaping their presence in the hall. Black and white photographs hung on the walls remind us of the women from Canton (Guangdong) province’s Shun Tak (Shunde) district who were the house’s occupants. I was also alerted to a white curtain in the main hall, behind which the urns of the zhaigu, as the residents were referred to, have each a place on the shelves.

The white curtain.

The white curtain.

The mention of Shun Tak, brings to mind the majie, who were also from the district. Identifiable by the white samfoo top and black trousers they wore, these amahs were one of several groups of women from Canton who were known to have taken vows of spinsterhood, vows some of those in the chai tong would also have taken.

A bedroom.

A bedroom.

This practice was apparently quite common in Shun Tak, a name once synonymous with the production of silk. The industry, which gave women from the district the independence necessary for some to turn their backs on the traditional family structure, collapsed in the 1930s. This prompted many women previously employed in the industry to brave the journey to the Nanyang.

Another landing.

Another landing.

For women who chose spinsterhood as a life’s path, or were forced by circumstances to live on their own, living outside the structure of the traditional family would have deprived them of the social support that the arrangement may have guaranteed. A place the chai tong, maintained either by payment or through services performed for the respective halls, or a combination of both, compensated for this.

Another space fitted out as a kitchen.

Another space fitted out as a kitchen.

A British cultural anthropologist Marjorie Topley described in a 1954 essay how such halls would provide “care while alive and a funeral at death”, thus fulfilling an important social function. Mrs. Topley, who was also a curator of anthropology at the Raffles Museum in the early 1950s, carried out studies on such halls in Singapore and in Hong Kong.

Openings the house is provided with.

Openings the house is provided with.

Remarkably, in a country where change now seems an only constant, the hall at No. 3 Bassein Road, despite remaining empty for as long as it had been in use, has also remained a constant. Time, which the hall has thus far resisted, as we know it, can be a cruel thing here in Singapore and it now may be just a question of when, not if, it goes. For now at least, it remains an oasis for the spirits and teh memory of the zhaigu and those who find peace in it. It also remains for me, one of a few places in which I can find sanity; the sanity that comes from knowing that what I remember from my days of wonder, is real and has not been imagined.

The back of a WC on the upper level of an auxiliary building - with openings once used for the collection of 'honey-pots'.

The back of a WC on the upper level of an auxiliary building – with openings once used for the collection of ‘honey-pots’.

More reminders of a forgotten time.

More reminders of a forgotten time.

Sandalwood incense sticks made from trees grown on the grounds.

Sandalwood incense sticks made from trees grown on the grounds.

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Wayang days

7 10 2015

Seeing a stage set up for a wayang, as street theatre has come to known in Singapore, is always a cause for celebration. Wayangs not only add much colour that is otherwise lacking on the street of the modern reinterpretation of Singapore, they also take me back to the happiest days of my childhood and ones spent in a Singapore that now seems a far away place.

Wayangs bring much colour to the now colourless streets.

Wayangs bring much colour to the now colourless streets.

The Chinese street opera, in its various genres would be the most common form of street threatre. Many of the troupes that started out as far back as in the mid 1800s would have had their origins in southern China. One pioneering troupe still around from those times is the Lao Sai Tao Yuan (老赛桃源), or Lau Sai Thor Guan in Teochew (Chaozhou), who arrived in the early 1850s. The troupe, which was already in existence some five decades prior to the move down the southern ocean, continued performing in Singapore during the occupation and would possibly be the oldest Chinese opera troupe still performing here in Singapore.

A Lao Sai Tao Yuan perfromer on stage.

A Lao Sai Tao Yuan perfromer on stage.

Wayang days today, sans what used to be the usual accompaniment of the aroma of steaming groundnuts and cobs of corn and the food laden pushcarts that were as much a crowd puller as the entertainment the wayangs provided, see much less of a crowd. There is also much less of an atmosphere as compared to the days in which wayang days were occasions everyone seemed to look forward to. The embrace of the modern world, and perhaps the abandonment of the vernacular, has resulted in a decline in interest in it as a form of entertainment. No longer a fashionable choice in today’s less unassuming climate, the troupes left today such as the Lao Sai Tao Yuan, survive only out of the passion and the determination of their members to keep a tradition that we in Singapore no longer have a need for, alive.

The stage at Tiong Bahru during Lao Sai Tao Yuan's recent performance. Wayangs today attract much less of a crowd.

The stage at Tiong Bahru during Lao Sai Tao Yuan’s recent performance. Wayangs today attract much less of a crowd.

The Lao Sai Tao Yuan troupe, whose members are all quite friendly, performs quite regularly. Their performances and back stage preparations are a joy to observe. Their next performances will take place on at 12 noon and 7 pm on 9 and 10 October 2015 at the Toa Payoh Seu Teck Sean Tong (修德善堂) at Lorong 2 and on 11 and 12 October 2015 at the Paya Lebar Nine Emperor Gods temple (Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng or 葱茅园九皇宫) at Arumugam Road.


Backstage with the Lao Sai Tao Yuan

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The season for wayang

9 09 2015

Public entertainment during the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, while intended for the special visitors of the netherworld, would once have attracted a large audience across Singapore. The crowds at such events, typically a getai in more modern times, or a Chinese opera or puppet performance in the past, have dwindled over the years. Perhaps this is more the case this year with the political hustings coinciding with the celebration of the hungry ghosts festival. It still is nice to come across them as they make not just for a colourful spectacle, but also because they tell us that the traditions of our forefathers, though modified, are very much still alive.

A 7th month Hokkien Opera performance at the Balestier Road Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple's free-standing stage - one of the last such stages left in Singapore.

A 7th month Hokkien Opera performance at the Balestier Road Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple’s free-standing stage – one of the last such stages left in Singapore.

A getai performance at Woodlands.

A getai performance at Woodlands.

Front row seats at such events are reserved for the guests from the netherworld.

Front row seats at such events are reserved for the guests from the netherworld.

The crowd at the getai performance.

The crowd at the getai performance.

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Another getai held in Sembawang,

Another getai held in Sembawang.

Which attracted a different kind of special guest.

Which attracted a different kind of special guest.

A performer at  the Sembawang getai.

A performer at the Sembawang getai.

And another.

And another.





Reliving the good old days

17 06 2015

Pulau Ubin, the Granite Island, is possibly the last place left in Singapore in which we are able to rediscover how life might once have been. The island, which provided material with which the early structures of modern Singapore were built, is where the last remnants of village life in a setting reminiscent of the rural world that seems to have become irrelevant to the now ultra-modern Singapore is now to be found.

A village house on Pulau Ubin.

A village house on Pulau Ubin.

A resident of Ubin, an oriental pied hornbill.

A resident of Ubin, an oriental pied hornbill.

Despite the goings-on at the various sports venues across Singapore, the island managed to grab some attention from Singaporeans over the weekend when an almost carnival-like atmosphere descended on it for Ubin Day 2015. The two-day event, which attracted boat loads of visitors, provided an opportunity for many to relive the good old days with a host of activities that ranged from a Malay wedding showcase, a tour of a traditional Chinese kampong house (House 363B), and traditional games to nature and outdoor related action.

A silat performance at the 'Malay wedding'.

A silat performance at the ‘Malay wedding’.

Minister of State, National Development at the opening of Ubin Day 2015.

Minister of State, National Development at the opening of Ubin Day 2015.

Windows into the past.

Windows into the past – the windows of a kampong house.

Among the “guests” of the Malay wedding, were several VIP visitors, including Minister for National Development, Mr Khaw Boon Wan and Minister of State for National Development Dr Maliki Osman – who rode a bicycle to the house. The VIPs, besides being treated to a silat performance, also dropped in on Mdm Kamiriah Abdullah in her century old kampong house.

Madam Kamariah's century old Malay kampong house on Ubin.

Madam Kamariah Abdullah’s century old Malay kampong house on Ubin …

... which received some VIP guests ...

… which received some VIP guests …

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It was especially encouraging to see the many kids in the crowd show interest in the various nature conservation groups who had their booths set up at the old basketball court. The kids were also given an opportunity to try their hands at some of the traditional games – although it did seem like the overgrown kids were having most of the fun in rediscovering their childhood days…

A boy playing a traditional game hopscotch.

A boy playing a traditional game hopscotch.

A kid grown up showing her amazing zero-point skills.

A kid grown up showing her amazing zero-point skills.





Digging the Empress up in search of Singapura

14 02 2015

Just six months or so after the dust seemed to have settled on Empress Place with completion of a four-year long refurbishment of the now almost too clean looking Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, the dust levels seem to be rising again. Since 2 February, a huge hole has appeared in the shadow old Vic, one that is being dug so as to find pieces of our buried past.

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The archaeological excavation, the largest ever undertaken in Singapore, is organised by the National Heritage Board (NHB) with the support of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as part of an effort to commemorate 31 years of archaeology in Singapore.

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The dig, right in a place that when I first came to know it was a car park, has unearthed artefacts that are thought to be highly significant that could possible date as far back as the 14th century. The finds in a previously archaeologically unexplored site, include pieces of porcelain and clay figurines that are thought to originate from as far away as China and  help provide an understanding of a Singapura that seemed to have been at the crossroads even before the British made it so.

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All at sea

24 07 2014

The launch on Saturday of Singapore HeritageFest 2014, bring us to focus on one of the key reasons for Singapore’s being, the sea. This year’s festival much of which revolves around a maritime based theme, “Our Islands, Our Home” has us looking at our maritime past as well as our present as a maritime nation.

HeritageFest 2014 opens a window to Singapore's island heritage.

HeritageFest 2014 opens a window to Singapore’s island heritage.

It is to raise the profile of this heritage, one that goes back to times well before the arrival of Raffles, that is in fact what the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) and the National Heritage Board (NHB) hopes to achieve with the establishment of the S$500,000 Maritime Heritage Fund, which the two agencies will administer – for which a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by the two agencies at Saturday’s launch.

One of the highlights of this year's HeritageFest is a lighthouse trail that includes a stop on Pulau Satumu, Singapore's southernmost island, on top of which Raffles' Lighthouse is perched.

One of the highlights of this year’s HeritageFest is a lighthouse trail that includes a stop on Pulau Satumu, Singapore’s southernmost island, on top of which Raffles’ Lighthouse is perched.

Once a common scene in the waters off the Southern Islands. Boats such as the kolek on the right, are very much part of our maritime heritage (a similar kolek is on display at the Balik Pulau Exhibition at the National Museum).

Once a common scene in the waters off the Southern Islands. Boats such as the kolek on the right, are very much part of our maritime heritage (a similar kolek is on display at the Balik Pulau Exhibition at the National Museum).

The focus of the fund, which complements the NHB’s S$5 million Heritage Grant Scheme launched last year, will be on developing community-initiated projects related to Singapore’s maritime heritage that will promote a greater understanding and appreciation of Singapore’s maritime connections, as was touched on by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Community, Culture and Youth, in his speech at the festival’s launch.

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of NHB launching Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of NHB launching Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Mr Wong also spoke of the transformation that will soon take place at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), where the launch event was held. Besides a revamp of the museum with expanded galleries that will include a space allocated for the Tang Cargo and see new shops and dining outlets, the museum will be given a new entrance that will open it up to the river and give it a direct connection into the historic heart of Singapore.

Another lighthouse - the very pretty Sultan Shoal Lighthouse at the western extremities of Singapore's waters seen during the lighthouse trail as part of Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Another lighthouse – the very pretty Sultan Shoal Lighthouse at the western extremities of Singapore’s waters seen during the lighthouse trail as part of Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

The revamp is part of the ongoing effort to develop a civic and cultural belt around Singapore’s colonial civic district (see: The Old Vic’s ticking again) that involves also the newly refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, and the conversion of the Old Supreme Court and City Hall into National Gallery – due for completion in 2015.

The Old Vic's definitely back!

The newly refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall.

A cultural performance at the launch of Singapore HeritageFest2014.

A cultural performance at the launch of Singapore HeritageFest2014.

The launch also coincided with the first evening of a two-night series of programmes taking place around the ACM and the river, River Nights. The event, brought much life and colour to the river, and celebrated its changing identity over the years – in the same way the well received series of activities  for Singapore HeritageFest 2014 celebrates the islands.

A dragon dance performance at the start of River Nights at the ACM's front lawn.

A dragon dance performance at the start of River Nights at the ACM’s front lawn.

More information on the Maritime Heritage Fund, Singapore HeritageFest 2014, River Nights and on Balik Pulau: Stories from Singapore’s Islands (an exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore held in conjunction with HeritageFest 2014) can be found in the following links:





Windows into Singapore: finding light in the darkness

20 05 2014

7.06 am under the Esplanade Bridge.

A sight that greets the eyes every morning under the Esplanade Bridge: a group of Falun Gong practitioners who seek spiritual enlightenment in the darkness of the shadows cast by the bridge …

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