Finding a lost Singapore in the images of Paul Piollet

19 11 2018

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

In Conversation with Paul Piollet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A selection of photographs from the Paul Piollet Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

5 11 2018

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

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

Dr. Clifford Saunders at the Indian Heritage Centre.

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

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

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

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

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


 





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

19 10 2018

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

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

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

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


Visit Details & Registration

When : 3 November 2018, 9 to 11 am

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

Participants should be of ages 18 and above.

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

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

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


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

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


More photos of St. George’s Church


News on the series:


 





Pilgrimage to an isle of legends

11 10 2018

The southern isles of Singapore are steeped in myths, legends and traditions. While most seem to lie buried in the sands that have expanded them, one that lives on is the pilgrimage to Pulau Tembakul – Kusu Island – that some accounts have as going back over two centuries to 1813.

Kusu during a pilgrimage season of the past – crossing the causeway at low tide. (photo: National Museum of Singapore on Facebook).

The annual event draws a steady stream of Taoist devotees. Although the numbers may have fallen from the highs of the 1960s and 1970s, thousands still make the short passage by sea every ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar (which began on 9 October this year) to seek favour and blessings at the island’s holy sites. The sites are a temple dedicated to the popular Taoist deity Tua Pek Kong, and three keramat-keramat, which in this case are the supposed graves of (Muslim) holy persons who are venerated. This practice has its roots in Sufism and is discouraged by mainstream Islam and has over the years found a following amongst the Chinese.

A devotee making her way to Kusu in 1971 (source: The Aged In Singapore: Veneration Collides With The 20th Century, Nada Skerly Arnold, 1971).

Two of the island’s three keramat-keramat (found at the top of 152 steps).

Perhaps the most popular of the island’s legends is one tied very much to the name Kusu. The island, which in its pre-reclamation days actually resembled a tortoise at high tide; its head, the outcrop on which the temple was built, and its body, the mound to which the head was linked by a natural causeway at low tide at the top of which the keramat-keramat are found. This legend, which also provides a basis for the pilgrimage, has it that a tortoise (or more correctly a turtle) had rescued two fishermen from drowning by turning itself into the island.  There are several more legends that provide an explanation for the origins of the pilgrimage, the keramat-keramat and the personalities that they are associated with – all of which are unverified (see: Kusu Island – on Infopedia).

Another perspective of the island: The tortoise in the early light of day

An old postcard showing Kusu Island before reclamation.

The Tua Pek Kong temple on the ‘head’ of the tortoise (source: The Aged In Singapore: Veneration Collides With The 20th Century, Nada Skerly Arnold, 1971).

The head of the tortoise (photo: Steffen Röhner on Panoramio).

The temple and the expanded island today.


The pilgrimage season in photographs

More on the pilgrimage in modern times: Keeping alive Kusu Island pilgrimage (The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2017).






The SS2 market

8 09 2018

Photographs taken during a walk around the SS2 market in Petaling Jaya. Operating under the shelter of parasols and tarpaulins, the market is  one of only a handful of open air wet markets in Petaling Jaya.

 

 





The best views of the western Singapore Strait

24 08 2018

From its perch by the sea, the block of flats that sits on an elevation next to the former Pasir Panjang ‘A’ Power Station provides what has to be the best views of the western Singapore Strait. Completed in late 1953, the block was followed on the development of the power station and was built to house expatriate senior officers of new station. 12-storeys high, the block contains a total of 42 housing units, It would have been among the colony’s tallest buildings at the point of its completion and was quite certainly the tallest residential building then to have been built with public funds.

Flats, built for Electricity Board employees, with a view one would pay a premium for these days.

The block of flats, or ‘housing units’, as they were referred to, on its perch. the elevation its stands on was cut and cemented before the block was built as that the power station could be constructed.

It is interesting to observe the progression that the development shows. The building of the flats to house senior staff represented a move away from from previous practice (a newspaper report described the housing units to be to “better than flats”). The most senior of officers would have been accommodated in the block’s two penthouses, the terraces of which provide a most stunning of views of the sea and the area around. Annexes to the block housed a clubhouse and six air-conditioned rooms that provided staff on night shift a place in the daytime to sleep in comfort. A void deck,  unusual in flats built in Singapore in the time, occupies most of the main block’s ground level.

The power station, and the apartment block (with the clubhouse on its left) as viewed from the sea, soon after their completion (online at https://roots.sg/).

A view of the former power station from one of the penthouses.

The development, which cost the City Council over $2 million, also included a 2-storey block to house the station’s workmen. Additional quarters were also to added east of the station through the 1950s and 1960s.

A view inside the former workmen’s quarters.

The workmen’s quarters can be seen at the bottom of the photograph.

The housing units appear likely to go once detailed planning for the Greater Southern Waterfront takes place. They were as quarters until the 1980s and subsequently rented out, first by the Public Utilities Board and then by the State before being vacated at the end of 2013. A tender exercise, carried out this year for interim use of the property as serviced apartments, attracted several bids. Based on information on the Singapore Land Authority’s website, an award was made to TS Home, who submitted a winning bid of S$48,800.00 per month.

A view of the block from its grounds.


More Photographs:

  

  

  

  

   

   


 





Expect an electrifying finale to the Singapore Night Festival this weekend

22 08 2018

The Singapore Night Festival draws to a close this weekend with several not-to-be-missed performances, including one that is quite literally electrifying. That, The Duel by the Lords of Lightning, takes place on Cathay Green and sees a high voltage battle fought with bolts generated with century old technology that takes the form of a Tesla coil.

The Duel by Lords of Lightning.

Other performances to look out for are the enchanting FierS à Cheval by the Compagnie des Quidams, Automatarium by David Berga and Elements – Water by a local Urban Dance company Six.5.

FierS à Cheval by the Compagnie des Quidams.

Automatarium by David Berga.

The performances take place on the evenings of 23, 24 and 25 August. Do note that 100% bag checks will be carried out at the Festival Village and Cathay Green and festival-goers are advised to head over to the festival bag-lite.

Elements – Water By Six.5.

More information on the performances can be found at :

https://www.nightfestival.sg/programmes

See also : Night Lights.


Performance Highlights


Automatarium By David Berga
23 Aug to 25 Aug
8:00 PM – 9:00 PM, 10:00 PM – 11:00 PM
Queen Street

     


FierS à Cheval By Compagnie des Quidams
23 Aug to 25 Aug
7:45 PM – 8:15 PM (Capitol)
9:15 PM – 9:45 PM (NMS/SMU Sch of Economics & Social Sciences)
10:30 PM – 11:00 PM (SMU Sch of Infosystems/Queen Street)

 


 

The Duel By Lords Of Lightning (UK)
23 Aug to 25 Aug
7:45 PM – 7:51 PM, 9:15 PM – 9:21 PM, 10:30 PM – 10:36 PM

 


 

Elements – Water By Six.5
23 Aug to 25 Aug
8:00 PM – 8:10 PM, 10:15 PM – 10:25 PM (23rd Aug);
7:30 PM – 7:40 PM, 8:40 PM – 8:50 PM, 10:00 PM- 10:10 PM (24th Aug);
7:20 PM – 7:30 PM, 9:45 PM – 9:55 PM (25th Aug)