Yishun and its links to a 1847 secret society attack off Batam

21 12 2021

Yishun is a satellite town in modern Singapore with a reputation for being in the news for the wrong reasons. It does seem that this may also have been the case in its earliest days — at least as the settlement that the town traces its roots to. The settlement would eventually to be known as “Nee Soon”, Yishun’s name in Teochew and the name of a since-erased village that through its association with the illustrious Lim Nee Soon in the early 20th century, was named after him.

Yishun, on the left bank of what is today Lower Seletar Reservoir. The reservoir was created through the construction of a dam across the mouth of Sungei Seletar.

Located on what could be thought of as the left bank of Sungei Seletar — now Lower Seletar Reservoir, Yishun occupies one of several riverine areas of Singapore that attracted pioneering pepper and gambier planters in Singapore’s earliest days as a East India Company factory (or some say even before). The early planters were almost exclusively from the Teochew dialect group, and had links to the secret societies whose assistance and protection were essential to survival in the early days. The secret societies were however, also a constant source of trouble, with violence often being used as a means towards resolving disputes.

A beautiful sight along the Springleaf Park Connector, this now spruced up upper section of the Sungei Seletar permitted the area to be accessed and provided for its development for gambier and pepper cultivation.

In 1847, the discovery of six boats armed with cannons along with a huge cache of arms in a plantation by Sungei Seletar by a police party, led to them to the arrest of Neo Yang Kwan (Neo Liang Quan). Neo, who was described to have been of “doubtful character”, had come over from the Riau islands and was affiliated with Ngee Heng Kongsi, a Teochew secret society. It was also discovered that he had been behind a well planned and brutal attack on plantations on Galang Island south Batam from Singapore just prior to the discovery, which resulted in the destruction of twenty-eight plantations and the violent deaths of over a hundred.

Still waters do run deep.
It was in a plantation by the river that a cache of arms and cannon-armed boats belonging to a Secret Society affiliated Teochew planter were discovered by the police in 1847. The weapons and boats were apparently used in a brutal reprisal attack on an island off Batam.

Neo’s exit from the plantation scene, possibly after he was taken into custody, nor the issue of land titles that J T Thomson’s 1846 survey of Singapore’s interior provided for, did little to end the disputes that were often over control of land. The first land title that was taken up was in fact related to the area in which Neo had his plantation. Allocated to another Teochew man by the name of Chan Ah Lak in 1850, the settlement came to be known as Chan Chu Kang (曾厝港) [chu kangs (厝港) were river clan settlements that were established up several rivers in Singapore].

Locations of Kangkars (riverside landing areas) and Bangsals (plantation plots) related to chu kangs in Singapore in 1885 (source: Chinese Agricultural Pioneering in Singapore and Johore)

Chan, who seemed well connected and of apparently good standing, was another who was affiliated with Ngee Heng Kongsi. Among the contributions he made was a sum of money that went towards the construction of the temple of literature, Chong Wen Ge, at Telok Ayer Street. As with his predecessor, Neo, Chan cultivated gambier and pepper, on his land allocation, which amounted to some 44 acres (17.8 ha).

A gambier plantation, c. 1900.

Despite the legitimacy of land occupation that the land title offered, secret society activities continued and continued to be a source of trouble. The anti-Catholic disturbances in 1851, during which Catholic owned plantation were targeted, was an example of this. Although not directly affecting Chan Chu Kang, an outcome of this would be the erection of a police thannah (a station or outpost) in Chan Chu Kang that same year. The presence of the thannah however, did little to prevent Chan Chu Kang from being drawn into an even more serious disturbance in 1854 that would leave some four to five hundred dead across Singapore and over three hundred houses destroyed. Remote areas, including Chan Chu Kang, were especially badly affected, and reports had a number of ”wholesale murders” along with the burning of homes taking place at Chan Chu Kang.

An 1865 Map of Singapore showing locations of settlements such as Chan Chu Kang.

While the apparent trigger for the riots may have been a dispute over the price of rice between a Teochew buyer and a Hokkien shopkeeper, tensions between the two dominant Chinese communities had been brewing for some time. Reasons for the rift were wide ranging and included control of gambier and pepper plantations, into which the Hokkiens were making inroads. An influx of an unusually large number of Chinese fleeing China in the wake of the Small Sword Society’s uprising in 1853 together with the disputes that arose over contributions between the two communities to the effort to oust the Qing emperor could also be added to this mix.

A poster depicting the Small Sword Society’s uprising in Shanghai (source: https://chineseposters.net/posters/e37-374)

The troubles in Chan Chu Kang, did not end with the quelling of the riots. On the basis of newspaper articles throughout much of the 1800s and early 1900s, murders, riots, instances of arson, fights between members of rival secret societies or communities and break-ins kept the police thannah very especially busy. Chan Chu Kang’s transformation into Nee Soon Village, which followed Lim Nee Soon’s establishing a rubber processing plant in the village around 1912 and his subsequent purchase of the estate, did little to stop news of murder and crime being reported with regularity.

Besides rubber, Lim Nee Soon’s ventures in the area also included pineapple cultivation and canning. This, together with its location at a three-way junction, made Nee Soon village a significant rural centre for the agricultural north of Singapore. Its position would be further augmented with the development of Singapore as a military garrison from the late 1920s. Not only was huge naval base built at the end of Chan Chu Kang / Seletar Road, which passed through Nee Soon, the village would also benefit from the construction of Nee Soon Barracks late in the 1930s. At the same time, a fully equipped post office was also added to the village late in 1939.

Not long after the construction of the barracks was completed, it became the scene of a murder. In March 1941, an Indian soldier with the Royal Artillery quartered in the camp’s H-Block was brutally killed with a machete. A suspect, a fellow soldier, was charged for the murder but was acquitted. War and occupation was on the horizon, during which time Nee Soon Camp become a POW camp for British Indian Army soldiers.

Nee Soon
A view down Transit Road towards Nee Soon Village in the 1960s (David Ayres on Flickr).

The end of the war in 1945, saw Nee Soon Barracks turned into a holding camp for Dutch and Javanese refugees, and as No.1 British Transit Camp transit camp for demobolised military personnel being sent home. Its role as a transit camp would continue, serving for personnel and their families arriving from Britain (hence the name Transit Road). Just before the British pullout in 1971, it became a camp for the Royal New Zealand Army. Australian units, were housed in it as part of the ANZUK force deployed in Singapore post-British-pull-out, after which it became the Singapore Armed Forces’ School of Basic Military Training (SBMT) from 1975. All through this post-war period, murders, gangland activities, and violent crime, continued to make the news — even as the village was being vacated in the early 1980s.

Today, little is left to remind us of a place whose very colourful and eventful modern chapter in its history goes back to the early 1800s. The much altered camp is still around, as its the former post office. The building that house the post office, could be thought of as quite literally having gone to the dogs, having been repurposed as a veterinary clinic. At least it is still there. Also in the area is Springleaf Nature Park. The beautifully spruced-up waterway that is a feature of the park and of the Springleaf Park Connector, could be thought of as a reminder of the waterway that first brought settlement to the area. The use of the former village’s name for the new town does also provide a connection to the past, although this comes through a difficult to relate to and rather different sounding “Yishun”. The physical displacement of the place name by several kilometres, and the subsequent use of the name “Springleaf” to describe the area of the former village, does however, minimise that link that the area has with its colourful and somewhat eventful past.





Parting Glances: Old Police Academy

24 11 2021

The old Police Academy (OPA) off Thomson Road has a place in the hearts of many. This will include those from the police force who trained on its grounds, members of the National Police Cadet Corps (NPCC), and those who in one way or another, have found joy in its spacious grounds. The announcement about its redevelopment as a new public-housing estate does not come as a surprise with the knowledge that Mount Pleasant MRT station is already being constructed. Some, like me will however, lament its loss as a space that holds the memories of many and a space that has long escaped the inescapable advance of the clutter and concrete has covered much of this overcrowded island.

The expansive grounds of the old Police Academy.

The old academy’s presence along Thomson Road goes back to 1929, when it made its debut as the Police Training Depot. It setting up came as part of a greater effort to bring transformation to the then Straits Settlements Police Force (SSPF) in response to the growing level of lawlessness. Not only did Singapore come to be known as ”Sin-galore”, comparisons with mob-ruled Chicago were frequently made. To deal with this, an programme to modernise and instil professionalism in the SSPF was launched by it Inspector-General from 1925 to 1935, Harold Fairburn. Along with the setting up of a purpose-built training facility, modern police stations and living quarters being built. The new stations included the so-called “Police Skyscraper“, Hill Street Police Station, Maxwell Road Police Station, and also Beach Road Police Station.

One feature of the new depot was the expansive sports fields and parade grounds that it was provided with. The fields would see hockey, rugby and football matches being played with ones held on Sunday afternoons attracting a healthy crowd. The parade ground saw numerous parades, drills and event rehearsals taking place, some of which involved stunts on motorcycles, with many of spectators finding “seating” on the slope leading to the grounds.

A passing-out parade on the parade grounds with a view towards Block 2 and Block 1 (National Archives of Singapore online).
A view towards the parade ground, part of which is now a construction site.

With the academy having completed a move to the new Home Team Academy in Choa Chu Kang 2005, the death knell on the OPA site was sounded. While the recent announcement has confirmed much of what might have been expected, there is some consolation in the knowledge that the development will for the time being be confined to the OPA site along with an adjacent plot by Onraet Road currently occupied by a set of old police quarters and a former detention facility. That the Kopi Sua cemetery site has been spared, and any impact to its flora and fauna minimised, is a cause for some joy even if it may be temporary.

A view towards Onraet Road and the former police quarters, which will be within the redevelopment site.

All will also not be lost within the OPA site with six structures of historic value being slated for conservation. Among these six buildings, four are those whose time of completion coincided with the opening of the training depot. These are Block 1 and Block 28 within the boundaries of the future estate site, as well as Block 13 and 153 Mount Pleasant Road (the Senior Police Officers’ Mess) just outside of it. Two other buildings being conserved, the 1932 built Block 2, and the 1930 built block 27, are also found within the redevelopment site.

Block 1 in the foreground, which was among the first of the depot’s buildings erected. It originally featured a clock-tower. It and Block 2 (in the background) were more recently used by the Police National Service Department.

Among some structures still found on the site, several which will be lost to redevelopment also date to the period of the training depot’s opening. These include the drill shed, Block 7 and Block 8. Other structures that will have to go are accommodation blocks, a small firing range, a set of squash courts, and a 1976 completed swimming pool that was built at the suggestion of Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

A sign with safety rules at the firing range and a hand drawn “target”.

The eventual redevelopment will take away much that has been familiar about the place and the open spaces that have long been associated with OPA. Nearby, much is already changing as a result of the construction of the North-South Corridor. Even with their conservation, the six structures will probably give off quite a different vibe surrounded by the clutter of structures that the redevelopment promises to bring. Kopi Sua, with green spaces, much of the Singapore Polo Club (which does have a link to the Police Academy through Harold Fairburn’s successor as Inspector-General of the SSPF, René Onraet) and the luxuriously green area up Mount Pleasant Road will however still be there. But, for how long? Only time will tell.


Structures being conserved

Block 2, which was completed in 1932.

The SPF crest in front of Block 1

Block 28, completed in 1929, built on a “butterfly” plan.

Views in and around Block 28


Block 27, completed in 1930. It would have resembled Block 28 without the more recent modifications.

Block 13 – the “hospital” block, which is just outside the area of the development.

Views in and around Block 13.


Views around the Old Police Academy and of structures including the swimming pool, that will be demolished






A golden moment for Golden Mile Complex

23 10 2021

Like it or loathe it, Golden Mile Complex (GMC) will remain a fixture in Singapore’s urban landscape, with its main building having been gazetted for conservation. Celebrated as an architectural icon of Singapore’s post-independence era by the architectural and heritage communities, the worth of the aging and decaying modernist mixed-use landmark has divided opinion with a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) having comparing the sixteen-storey building to a “vertical slum”, calling it “a terrible eyesore and a national disgrace” during a parliamentary debate in 2006.

Woh Hup Complex in the 1980s (URA Photograph)

While there is little doubt of that the unsightly nature of the extensions and deterioration of the building, prompting the remarks made by the NMP, as well as the fact that its quality as a social space to Singaporeans has somewhat diminished over the years, GMC does have a certain charm and architectural appeal  – which is best appreciated internally on its upper floors. Completed in 1973/74 as Woh Hup Complex, GMC was developed as part of the then Urban Redevelopment Department’s first batch of redevelopment sites sold in 1967 to private developers under its “Sales of Sites” programme. Built on parcel no. 9, one of four sites along the so-called Golden Mile, the Design Partnership (now DP Architects) designed complex was a bold experiment in design. Envisaged as a megastructure  – a self-contained vertical high-density city within a city, GMC featured a three-storey shopping centre above which offices and apartments were laid out in what was then quite a bold and innovative manner. with its residential units arranged as “stepped terraces” to maximise the views in both the horizontal and vertical sense.

Overgrowth? The best view of the stepped terraces is from the end Crawford Street end. This view will however will be lost should there be the development of an up to thirty-storey block at this end based on the conservation proposal.

One of the draws of GMC’s shopping centre today is the array of Thai food and products on offer. A gateway for express coaches to Malaysia and southern Thailand from the time it opened as Golden Mile Shopping Centre in 1972, it became a point of entry for Thai construction workers and traders coming in, and from the 1980s it started to take on a Siamese flavour with shops and restaurants catering to sojourners and workers from the Land of Smiles. Even today, the shopping centre has not discarded its Thai flavour with a large Thai supermarket, and restaurants and businesses such as hairdressers etc. catering to our friends from Thailand. It isn’t so much in what has become known as “Little Thailand”, where the decay of time and neglect in the building can largely be seen and which most will see, that one gets the true sense of what GMC has to offer from an aesthetic and architectural viewpoint, but on its hard to access upper levels. And, for this, it is probably best to let the images that follow to do the talking.


External Views

Interior Views and In and Around






Jurong’s “imposing shopping complex”

16 08 2021

It had been a while since I’d headed into Taman Jurong and I decided to drop by the area on National Day this year, having found myself in the vicinity. An area of Singapore in which I had my first experiences of watching a movies from a car and also, of skating on ice back in the 1970s, I only got to know it a little better in the early 1990s when I started working in the Jurong area. The estate became an occasional lunch destination and a place to get some banking done. Since I stopped working in Jurong in 2007, I had only been back once. That was in 2014 when I managed to get a few photographs of the estate’s now well-known “diamond block”. One of few constants in an area across which much has changed, the block was in the news last year when it was used during the height of the spread of Covid-19 through Singapore’s foreign worker dormitories, as temporary housing for non-infected dormitory residents.

A view from the inside of the diamond.

Even before 2020, the “diamond block”, or a set of four residential blocks (numbered 63 to 66) at Yung Kuang Road and so called due to the fact that they are arranged to form the four sides of the diamond shape in plan view, had a connection with Singapore’s transient workforce. A number of flats were used as quarters under the “Dormitory Housing Scheme” from the late 1970s — just a matter of years after they were built, which permitted approved companies to rent public flats to house members of their foreign workforce. A report in 1978, revealed that one-third of the blocks’ residents were not Singapore citizens or permanent residents, over half of whom were Malaysians.

Another view with the supermarket block.

Among the last structures of 1970s Taman Jurong left standing, the blocks offer us a glimpse of a time when the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) took on the task of building homes for Jurong’s then fast growing workforce. Completed in early 1974, the oddly designed but immediately identifiable set of blocks were described as an “imposing 21-Storey shopping complex cum flats” by the JTC, with the agency envisioning it as “an attraction in Jurong”. As the tallest buildings in Jurong, they were intended to provide the estate with a focal point, much like what the ‘Y’-shaped block of flats that I grew up in was intended as in Housing and Development Board (HDB) Toa Payoh. Residents of the diamond block’s 456 3-room rental units also had the benefit of having an unobstructed view of the fast developing industrial west of the island. A “shopping centre” was also found at the blocks’ two lowest levels, the first tenants of which included a coffee house, a noodle shop, a textile shop, bookshops, and a barbershop. There were also banks and clinics found among the shopping centre’s 38 shop units.

The Taman Jurong radio taxi service cabin. Many working in Jurong at odd hours had to rely on the service as it was extremely difficult to get a taxi willing to come to the Jurong area.

The jewel in the crown of the shopping centre, was perhaps a two storey building found in its courtyard. Arranged right smack in in the centre of the diamond-shaped internal yard formed by the four blocks, which interestingly had their common corridors face it, it was where the Pioneer Industries’ Employees Union (PIEU) Multi-Purpose Cooperative Society’s opened its very first supermarket and emporium in December 1974. The supermarket was set up along similar lines as other supermarkets run by the cooperative societies of the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) — NTUC Welcome — and the Singapore Industrial Labour Organisation (SILO), with the aim of countering profiteering in the wake of the 1973 Oil Crisis. A merger of these labour union run supermarkets in 1983, saw to the creation of NTUC Fairprice, now a household name in local supermarkets.

A view of the since demolished Jurong Stadium from the diamond block in 2014.

Built as the first residential area for Jurong Industrial Estate with its first blocks constructed in the 1960s, the task of developing Taman Jurong fell initially to the Housing and Development Board (HDB). This arrangement changed with the establishment of Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) in 1968, who then took over the task of housing the Jurong workforce. From this point on, the estate began to take on quite a unique quality in terms of its architecture. A commercial and recreational hub for the residents of Jurong, a host of amenities were also built in and around the estate, with the aim of improving the liveability of Jurong residents. Stand-alone bank buildings and cinemas soon appeared as did facilities for leisure. Some came up nearby along the banks of Jurong lake on the opposite side of Yuan Ching Road. The lake, formed by the construction of a dam to close off the upper stretches of the Jurong River in 1971, was among the generous set of green and blue spaces that Jurong was provided with to make it an attractive place to live in. Among the attractions were Singapore’s first and only drive-in cinema and a water adventure park in the form of Mitsukoshi Garden. Singapore’s first ice-skating rink was also established at Jurong Family Sports Centre and eventually in the 1990s the area would see a short-lived Chinese-style theme park and movie set, Tang Dynasty City. The lakeside attractions, have all since closed and the area that they were in has morphed into the wonderful Jurong Lake Gardens.

The former cinema at Taman Jurong.

The “diamond block”, which by the time I got to know Taman Jurong better in the 1990s, had quite a run down appearance. A New Paper report in 2003, described the blocks as a “ghost town” with just six units being occupied. The same report cited the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis as being the point at which the blocks began emptying of residents, with companies hit by the crisis sending many of the members of their foreign workforce back home. In 2001, the HDB (which took on the running of residential estates from JTC in 1982) began moving existing residents out with the six families still living in the blocks in 2003, resisting the move. The blocks were subsequently used to house flat-buyers under a interim housing scheme and were refurbished in 2014 for use under the HDB’s Parenthood Provisional Housing Scheme, before being used to temporary house healthy foreign workerslast year. While the blocks are still standing, it is not known what the future holds for the unfashionable and roughly cut, but yet unique diamond of Taman Jurong.


Views of the diamond block taken in 2014






Pulau Ubin in the merry month of May

25 07 2021

One of the places in Singapore in which the memories of old are still alive is Pulau Ubin. It is where many in Singapore now find an escape from the staid and maddeningly overcrowded world in which Singaporeans have been made to call home.

Pulau Ubin — at least pre-Covid — comes alive every May, when the Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple honours its main deity Tua Pek Kong, around the time of the Buddhist Vesak Day holiday (which has little to do with the local Taoist deity). The manner in which the festival is celebrated, harks back to the days of village life, with the Ubin’s rural settings certainly lending itself to providing the correct atmosphere.

No village temple festival would of course be complete without a Chinese opera performance. Held to entertain the visiting deity more than the crowd, these performances would in the past draw large crowds and be accompanied by a a variety of night-market-like stalls offering anything from food, desserts, drink, masks and toys, and the tikam-tikam man. While the stalls are missing in the modern-day interpretations of village festivals, Chinese opera performances and these days, getai, are still held at selected temples during their main festivals over the course of several days. Such is the case with the festival on Pulau Ubin, which is commemorated with as much gusto as would village festivals of the past, even if it involves a largely non-resident population. What does complete the picture on Pulau Ubin, is its permanent free-standing Chinese opera stage — just one of three left in Singapore — on which both Chinese opera and getai performances are held.


Photographs taken during the Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple’s Tua Pek Kong festival in May 2014





Pagoda Street’s pagoda was probably not the Sri Mariamman Temple’s gopuram

23 07 2021

One of the fascinating things about the streets of Singapore is the stories that are attached to how they were named, either colloquially or officially. One example is Pagoda Street, along which a pagoda — at least in the modern sense of the word — seems quite conspicuously absent.

While is certainly puzzling to Singapore’s visitors, we in Singapore have been schooled to hold the belief that the pagoda in question is the gopuram of the Sri Mariamman temple, Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple. Depending on how creatively this story is told, the temple’s prominent located gopuram at the corner of South Bridge Road and Pagoda Street, might have been mistaken by the common folk as a pagoda or for the want of a better description, identified as one. Whatever the story may have been, they all seem to have ignored the fact that the word “pagoda” in the context of the early 19th century when the street got its name, was one that was in use in the English language in making reference to both Hindu and Buddhist temples in India and in Southeast Asia.

The gopuram of the Sri Mariamman Temple

Historically, the use of the term “pagoda” is quite interesting. Its origins as many would have it is said to lie in the Persian word “butkada”, which is said to translate into “temple of idols”. There are also strong suggestions that it may instead have been derived from Chinese, or at least the Chinese dialects — some would argue, languages — that were in use in the past. The combination of Chinese words describing a “tower of bones of the dead” (白骨塔) or literally “white-bone tower”, is often cited as a possible source of the word, or even “octagonal tower” (八角塔) or literally “eight-cornered tower”. Both combinations, when said in one or several commonly spoken southern Chinese dialects, are similar sounding to the pronunciation of “pagoda” in the English language.

A Chinese-styled pagoda at Haw Par Villa (a personal photograph from November 1976). One suggestion is that the origin of the word “pagoda” is Chinese. The word “pagode” was however already in use in the 16th Century in Portuguese India to describe Hindu and Buddhist temples.

Interestingly, the Portuguese version of the word, “pagode”, was already in use as early as the early 16th century, during a time when Portugal established its presence in India after Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a hitherto elusive sea route from Europe to the subcontinent. The word was utilised to describe the Indian temple complexes, both Hindu and Buddhist, that fascinated the Portuguese and the Europeans that were to follow. One example of this use was in the descriptions of the rock-cut Buddhist temple complex on Salsette Island near Mumbai or as it would have been called by the Portuguese, Bom Bahia. The complex came to be known as “Pagode de Canarim” (also”Pagoda de Canarin”), which the British would later name “Canari Pagoda”. The word “pagode” in the English form would also come also to be widely used, as is evidenced through official accounts, literature and correspondence through the 17th to 19th centuries, to describe either a Hindu or Buddhist temple and in some cases, even a mosque. There is in fact a description of the Sri Mariamman Temple, on a 1846 sketch made by John Turnbull Thomson of the temple and the Jamae Chulia Mosque on South Bridge Road, that does refer to the Sri Mariamman Temple as a “Hindoo Pagoda”. The mosque is referred to in the same description as a “Kling Mosque”.

“View in Singapore town; Hindoo Pagoda; Kling Mosque”; 1846
Thomson, John Turnbull, ourheritage.ac.nz

Descriptions of Hindu temples as “Hindoo pagodas”, were in fact used rather widely in English accounts of explorations and travels of the 19th and early 20th century. It therefore is quite probable that Pagoda Street was named, not because of Sri Mariamman Temple’s gopruam having erroneously been looked upon as a pagoda, but the Sri Mariamman Temple in whole, was to the English speakers of the day a “Hindoo pagoda”.

The Sri Mariamman, which is Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple, seen here during the Navaratri festival in 2015, would probably have been thought of as a “Hindoo pagoda”. The term was used in 19th century English to describe Hindu temples.
Sri Mariamman Temple’s gopuram, seen above the rooftops of the streets of Chinatown.

Various illustrations of “pagodas” found in India in 19th century Portuguese and English literature

An illustration of a Hindu temple in the Damāo Pequeno north of Mumbai in “A India Portugueza” published in 1886.
Another illustration of an Indian temple complex, named “Pagode de Chandrenate” in “A India Portugueza”.
A Hindu temple described as a “Hindoo Pagoda” in an illustration found in “India, historical and descriptive: revised and enlarged from “Les Voyages Celebres” with an account of the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857-8, published in 1876.





Beautiful Ridley Park

18 07 2021

Among my favourite Public Works Department or PWD built houses is one at Ridley Park that I was able to photograph a couple of times (seen in the photographs attached to this post). Set in lush green surroundings, the house is among quite a few others found in an estate that took its name from the Singapore Botanic Gardens first director, Henry Ridley. Due to the fact that it was built adjacent to Tanglin Barracks, Ridley Park has often been mistaken as one that the War Office developed for their senior military officers. It however was one of a number that the PWD developed to house for senior government officers and their families.

Having been constructed from 1923 to 1935, a wide variety of PWD residence styles are on display at Ridley Park, which is a a wonderful showcase of the creativity of the PWD Architects’ Branch during what was their most productive of periods blueprint-wise. While many of these PWD houses are described as “black and white” homes or residences, they technically do not qualify as being “black and white” in style; the term being applied quite loosely as a matter of convenience, being perhaps a reference to the manner in which these houses are now painted. The houses in Ridley Park, which have been in government hands throughout their history, may be available for rent where unoccupied.






The “ruins” by Kallang Airport’s gates

16 07 2021

Right by the old gates of the former Kallang Airport, is a crumbling set of structures that pre-date the construction of Singapore’s first civil airport. With a little imagination, the sight of the rather mysterious looking structures could to transport the travel-starved observer to a place like Siem Reap. A closer inspection of the structures will however reveal that the crumbling walls belong not to an ancient temple … or for that matter anything like a palace or istana as recent suggestions have had it as, but to a raised burial plot.

The raised former burial plot, seen in August 2018.

The plot, which shared a boundary with the former Firestone Factory that was established in the 1920s (some may remember the former factory building on the banks of the Kallang River near Sir Arthur Bridge being used by electrical good and furniture retailer Courts in the 1990s), is marked in a 1930 survey map as a “Mohammedan Cemetery” and in a 1936 plan for the new Civil Aerodrome (i.e. Kallang Airport) quite simply as “graves”. An explanation as to why the graves were placed on a raised plot can be found in a 1939 letter to the Straits Times. The writer, who described its location to a tee in saying that an elevated plot of graves could be “seen just inside the entrance to the civil aerodrome, on the right”, recalled seeing them on small eyots or “patches of higher ground” in the mangrove swamp “before the place was reclaimed”. Reclamation work for the airport, it should be noted, was carried out in the 1930s.

The plot in January 2014, with the old airport gates in the background.

While there are no traces of the graves today — they were exhumed sometime in the late 1980s, there is still an item of physical evidence that still exists, if one looks for it along the base on which the structures rests. There, a tablet with inscriptions in the Tamil script can be found and that does in fact confirm that the site was indeed a burial plot — at least based on a translation provided by a local urban exploration group on Facebook in 2019. This translation dates the tablet to 1854, as a burial site for the “kith and kin” of Chinnakkani” — a descendant of “Hajji Ismail of Thiruvarur”.

The tablet seen in September 2018.
The plot in September 2018.
The plot shown in a 1930 survey map (NAS).
The plot shown in a 1936 plan for the aerodrome (NAS).




Where durians and Chinese opera come together

13 07 2021

Once commonly found across Singapore, permanently erected free-standing Chinese opera (also commonly referred to in Singapore as “wayang”) stages have become quite hard to come by in Singapore. Erected to entertain the gods during their visits down to the mortal realm, the were also put to use in several other ways, doubling up as the clan, temple or village schools, depending on where they were built. Only three such stages are left in Singapore, two on the main island and one more on Pulau Ubin and it is always a treat to catch a Chinese opera performance being staged on one of them, especially if one is able to head backstage where in my opinion, the best “action” takes place.

The Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong temple is a place of devotion for many.

One occasion during which I had the good fortune of doing just this was during the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations at the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple at Balestier Road in September 2016 from which the photographs in this post were captured. The temple, having links to Hokkien plantation workers from Joseph Balestier’s venture to grow sugarcane by the Whampoa River, has a history that dates back to 1847. Its stage, which came up in 1906, was built by Tan Boo Liat — the great-grandson of Tan Tock Seng, and who is also well-known for erecting Golden Bell — the Edwardian-style mansion on Mount Faber that is now the Danish Seamen’s Church.

It is also a place where Chinese opera performances take place (at least pre-Covid) on one of Singapore’s last permanently erected free-standing wayang stages.

The temple, besides being a place of devotion and a place to catch a wayang, has also become a place that is synonymous with indulgence in the “king of all fruits” — durians. Durians have been sold in and around the area for, which was also known for its cinemas, for a long time and right by or in front of the temple ever since I can remember. Much of the area has changed, even if there is much that is is familiar physically. The durian stalls of old, are however, still very much a common sight every durian season. Not only do you see them just by temple, but also in the side lanes in the area. Like the temple, and the stage when it comes alive, they are among the last vestiges of the living side of the old Balestier Road, a side that long lives in my memory.

Durians and Chinese opera.
Another view of the temple.
Joss sticks at the temple.

Photographs of the Chinese Opera preparations and performance in September 2016






Giving back the Sacred Heart a right heart

12 07 2021

For years, the central stained-glass panel above the sanctuary of the Portuguese Church, depicting the Sacred Heart, spotted a piece of green coloured glass in the place where the Sacred Heart’s heart us represented – as a crude replacement. The series of photographs below show the Sacred Heart given back its heart back in 2014.





A place from my childhood: Port Dickson

11 07 2021

It is sad that many places that featured in our childhoods, collectively as Singaporeans who grew up in the first three decades of independence, have all but disappeared. Even if they are around, they would have changed in an unrecognisable way. There are times when I feel more at home in parts of Peninsular Malaysia that I connected with as a child, than in Singapore, the country of my birth and I have on more than one occasion sought out these places to get a sense of coming home that is absent in much of Singapore.

One place in which I found some of my childhood memories intact is the Lido Hotel in Port Dickson. It was a place that featured regularly in numerous driving trips “up country” that my parents were fond of taking in the 1970s. Port Dickson was often a stopover on the way to, or on the way back from, destinations further up north and one that was made even more special because of the beach.

Beach in front of Lido Hotel, Port Dickson, 1971

I found an opportunity to revisit the area in which the Lido Hotel was during a driving trip up the peninsula some years back, making a small detour from the North-South Highway. The sight of the old hotel was a pleasant surprise. Located right where it was at the 8th mile of Port Dickson’s well known 11 mile stretch of beach, the hotel’s road entrance was certainly a welcome sight as was the building in which the small hotel operated despite the developments that have sprouted up all along the beach. The hotel, when it featured in my childhood trips, had already looked that it had left its glory days far behind, and it came as not surprise to see it in a dilapidated state, reduced to being a place for beach goers to have their showers. Much was however, still familiar. The dining space at which we sometimes had lunch at was recognisable, even if it had been emptied of the tables and chairs that once filled it. The hotel’s two wings in which its rooms were located even if emptied of life, had the grilles and green cement floors that I remember well.

Prior to this visit, the I last time I must have set eyes on this side of Port Dickson would have been in the early 1980s. The opening of the first southern stretches of the North-South Highway, from Kuala Lumpur or KL to Seremban and its extension to Ayer Keroh in the 1980s put paid for the need for stopovers. It used to take 6 hours to drive from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore on the old trunk or coastal road, parts of which were slow, winding, and rather treacherous. Traffic would often be held up by slow-moving trucks loaded with cargo such as the lori-lori balak or logging trucks. The highway may have made it a lot easier to take that drive to KL, but what it may have also done is have us forget some truly charming places along the way such as Port Dickson, that may have featured in the drives we took in the past.





The Bidwell houses at Gallop Road

6 07 2021

Two beautiful conservation houses, Atbara and Inverturret at No 5 and No 7 Gallop Road, grace the newly opened Singapore Botanic Gardens Gallop Extension. Both wonderfully repurposed, Atbara as the Forest Discovery Centre and Inverturret as the Botanical Art Gallery, they are among the oldest and finest surviving examples of residential properties that English architect Regent Alfred John (R A J) Bidwell designed in Singapore.

Bidwell, who had an eventful but short two-year stint in the Selangor Public Works Department (PWD) as Chief Draughtsman and assistant to Government Architect A C Norman, came across to Singapore in 1895 to join pre-eminent architectural firm Swan and Maclaren. In a matter of four years, he became a partner in the firm; an arrangement that lasted until 1907. Bidwell would continue his association with the firm as an employee until 1912. His 17 years with Swan and Maclaren, was one marked by the string of notable contributions that he made to Singapore’s built landscape. His architectural works include many of Singapore’s landmarks of the early 20th century, which include the Goodwood Park Hotel — built as a clubhouse for the Teutonia Club; Victoria Theatre and Victoria Memorial Hall (the theatre component of the pair was a modification of a previously built Town Hall that also gave it an appearance similar to the 1905 erected Victoria Memorial Hall; and Stamford House — built as Whiteaway and Laidlaw Building in 1905. Also notable among his contributions were several buildings that have since been demolished, one of which was the old Telephone exchange on Hill Street that was designed in the Indo-Saracenic style.

The Indo-Saracenic style was something that Bidwell would have been extremely familiar with, having been heavily involved in the design of the Government Offices in Kuala Lumpur or KL, now the Sultan Abu Samad Building. Hints of the style are also found in one of the first design efforts in Singapore, which is seen in the unique set of piers on which Atbara is supported. The bungalow, along with several others that Bidwell had designed, is thought to have influenced the designs of numerous government, municipal and company residences, the bulk of which were constructed from the 1910s to the 1930s. Many of these are still around and are often erroneously referred to as “black and white houses”, a term that is more descriptive of their appearance — many are painted white with black trimmings — rather than a description of a their style or of a particular architectural style (see also: The Eastern Extension Telegraph Company’s Estate on Mount Faber).

Atbara has in fact earned the distinction of being Singapore oldest “black and white house” even if it does display a variety of architectural influences; influences that are also seen in many of the designs of the various residences. Built in 1898, apparently for lawyer John Burkinshaw, Atbara’s piers, timber floorboards and verandahs are among the features or adaptations applied to the residences of the early 20th century, all of which were intended to provide their occupants with a maximum of comfort in the unbearable heat and humidity of the tropics. Many of these adaptations were ones borrowed from the bungalows of the Indian sub-continent, from plantation style houses, and also the Malay houses found in the region. There was extensive use of pitched-roofs, a feature seen in the then popular Arts and Crafts style that the English architects of the era would have been familiar with. These roofs lent themselves to drainage and the promotion of ventilation through convection when combined with generous openings. Tropical interpretations of the Arts and Crafts style were in fact widely applied to several residences built during the era.

Atbara, which early “to-let” advertisements had as having seven rooms, five bathrooms, with a large compound and with extensive views, came into the possession of Charles MacArthur, Chairman of the Straits Trading Company, in 1903. MacArthur added the neighbouring Inverturret soon after in 1906. Also designed by Bidwell, Inverturret rests on a concrete base and is of a distinctively different style — even if verandahs, ample openings and the pitched roof found in Atbara are in evidence.

The two properties were eventually acquired by the Straits Trading Company in 1923, who held it until 1990, after which both were acquired by the State. The houses had several prominent tenants during this period. Just before the Second World War, Inverturret briefly served the official residence of the Air Officer Commanding (AOC), Royal Air Force Far East, from 1937 to 1939. During these two years, Inverturret saw two AOCs in residence, Air-Vice Marshal Arthur Tedder and Air-Vice Marshal John Babington. Their stay in Inverturret was in anticipation of a much grander residence — the third of a trio that was to have been built to house each of the senior commanders of the three military arms. Two, Flagstaff House (now Command House) to house the General Officer Commanding, Malaya and Navy House (now old Admiralty House) for the Rear Admiral Malaya, were known to have been built.

From 1939 to 1999, both Atbara and Inverturret were leased to the French Foreign Office by the Straits Trading Company up to 1990 and following their acquisition in 1990, by the State up to 1999. Except for the period of the Japanese Occupation (it is known that Inverturret was used as a residence for the Bank of Taiwan’s Manager during the Occupation) and shortly thereafter, Atbara served as the French Consular Office and later the French Embassy, and Inverturret as the French Consul-General’s / French Ambassador’s residence. It was during this period that those like me, who are of an age when travel to France required a visa, may remember visiting Atbara. The process of obtaining a visa involved submitting an application with your passport in the morning, and returning in the afternoon to pick the passport and visa up, a process that was not too dissimilar to obtaining an exit permit at the nearby CMPB!


Atbara


Inverturret


R A J Bidwell and Kuala Lumpur’s Sultan Abu Samad Building



Built as Government Offices for the Selangor Government from 1894 to 1897, the Sultan Abu Samad building – a landmark in Kuala Lumpur was described as the “most impressive building in the Federated Malay States”. Although the architectural work for it has been widely attributed to A C Norman, the Selangor Public Works Department’s Government Architect, it is widely accepted that it was R A J Bidwell who developed the finer architectural details of its eye-catching Indo-Saracenic lines. Bidwell, who was assistant to Norman from 1893 to 1895, developed the plans with input from C E Spooner – the State Engineer, who directed that initial plans for the building be redone in what he termed as the “Mohammedan style”.

Bidwell’s disaffection with his position and salary, saw to him resigning from the Selangor PWD — as is reflected in his correspondence relating to his resignation. The Selangor PWD’s loss would turn into Singapore’s gain, with Bidwell moving to Singapore in 1895 to join Swan and Maclaren .






A temporary Kempeitai HQ at Beach Road

23 06 2021

Convicted as a spy and imprisoned in Changi Prison during a stint as a press attaché with the Japanese Consulate in Singapore, Mamoru Shinozaki is also viewed in some circles as the “Oskar Schindler” of Singapore for the role he may have played in bringing the terrible Sook Ching Massacre to an end. While he remains a controversial even after his death in the 1990s, his accounts of the wartime Singapore remains a valuable resource. In oral history interviews contained in “My Wartime Experiences in Singapore” published by the Institute of South East Asian Studies in 1973, we learn that he was brought to Beach Road upon his release from in Changi Prison by the Japanese Army on 16 February 1942 – right after Singapore fell. Describing his arrival at Beach Road, Shinozaki said, “All along Beach Road, all the houses were closed and I did not see even a cat or dog. It was a ghost town.”

Since demolished buildings at the former Beach Road Police Station.

What was would to follow was his meeting with Lt. Col. Yokota, who had been placed in command of several units of the East Branch of the Kempeitai. “At Beach Road, now the temporary Voluntary Headquarters, the chief of the Yokota Kempei unit, Lt. Col. Yokota, was waiting. When I got down from the lorry he greeted me: “you have suffered so long, please take this.”” This very scene is, quite amazing, one that also exists in a visual record. A Japanese newsreel which contains the scenes that followed the Japanese Army’s taking of Singapore captured by Kameyama Matsutarō, Marē senki : shingeki no kiroku (Malaya War Record: A Record of the Onward March). This newsreel also contains a scene that shows Shinozaki being greeted by Yokata outside what can be identified as Beach Road Police Station (rather than the Volunteer Force Headquarters as identified by Shinozaki). The building, a conserved structure, is still around today and is currently being incorporated into Guocoland’s MidTown development.

While the former police station’s building may have been retained, the redevelopment of the plot as MidTown has resulted in the loss of two other buildings to the rear of the main structure that were part and parcel of the larger Beach Road Police Station complex that was completed in 1934. The construction of the station, came as part of a decade-long effort to upgrade the facilities of the Straits Settlements Police Force and bring about greater professionalism in the face of the high rates of crime in Singapore – or “Sin-Galore” as it may then have been known as. The state of disorder in the colony, also dubbed the “cesspool of iniquity”, even prompted comparisons to be made with Chicago! It was the through the same effort, initiated in the mid-1920s, that the Police Training School at Thomson Road – the old Police Academy – was established and Hill Street Police Station, was built along with several other stations.

A Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets visit to Beach Road Police Station in October 2017.

Built at a cost of $319,743, the Beach Road complex replaced an earlier station that had been located further east along Beach Road at Clyde Terrace. The two demolished buildings at the station’s rear were all built at the same time to serve as modern quarters in an attempt to provide improve policemen’s living standards. A three-storey block accommodated 64 married man and their families, while 80 single men and NCOs were accommodated in another three storey single-men’s block. The latter also contained a mess and recreation room on its ground floor. Along with this, the most senior ranking officers at the station were accommodated in its three-storey main building, which was described as being of a “pretentious type”. The building was laid out to provide quarters for two European and two “Asiatic” Inspectors on the second and third levels, while its ground floor was where the offices of the station, a guard room, an armoury and a number of stores were located. Immediately behind the main block – right behind the guard room, was an annex cell block in which the lock-up was located and “approached from it (the guardroom) by a covered way”.

Besides the episode involving Shinozaki, the station’s played several other wartime roles. A hundred or so Japanese “aliens” were rounded up and held in it following the outbreak of hostilities with Japan on 8 December 1941, before they were moved to Changi Prison. The scene was to repeat itself upon Singapore’s inglorious fall, when civilians from the other side were held with the station serving as a holding facility for civilian internees prior to them being sent to Changi Prison. The civilians rounded up by the Japanese Army included Jews and individuals of various European backgrounds and nationalities, along with members of the Chinese and Indian communities.

Beach Road Police Station also found itself in the thick of action in the tumultuous period that followed the end of the Second World War. During the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950, policemen from the station were amongst paramilitary personnel sent to quell disturbances in nearby Kampong Glam. The policemen involved were however forced into retreat with the station serving as a refuge for them along with scores of civilians seeking safe refuge.

Following independence, the station served as the Police ‘C’ Division headquarters until May 1988 – when the division HQ was moved into new premises at Geylang Police Station. The buildings were then used as Central Police Division headquarters from November 1992 until 2001, after which the division HQ moved into Cantonment Police Complex. The decommissioning of the station led to its use by the Raffles Design Institute for some six years. During this time, two sets of newer quarters that had been added on an adjacent piece of land – two four-storey blocks that were built in the 1950s, and a 12 storey block in erected in 1970, were demolished.

Sitting on a prime 2-hectare reserve site, the former station and barracks was sold for a whopping $1.62 million in 2017 and members of the public got to see it for the last time as it was during a “Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets” visit in October 2017.


A last look at the former Beach Road Police Station as it was in 2017.






Reflections on Singapore

22 06 2021

Reflections have captivated me since I was a child, when I used to think of mirrors as portals into a parallel world. That is perhaps why I take great joy from capturing reflections with the camera, be it one taken off a shop window, a mirror, and especially off puddles of water. In the set of photographs seen below are 37 reflections taken across Singapore. They include ones of places that we see everyday, ones that are a little harder to get to, and a few of places that no longer exist.





Another glimpse of Singapore in 1941

11 06 2021


More of Singapore in 1941 (and also 1942) – from an album of photographic prints taken Colin Keon-Cohen that was donated to Museums Victoria. All photographs Public Domain (Licensed as Public Domain Mark), Museums Victoria Collections.

See also:

A glimpse of Singapore in 1941

Singapore in 1941 from the Harrison Forman Collection


An album of photographs by Pilot Officer Colin Keon-Cohen or life in Singapore with 205 Sqn RAF, then 77 Sqn RAAF, World War II era.