Tigers, elephants, rambutans and Xu Beihong in a garden of foolish indulgences

2 12 2016

Hidden in the thick vegetation in the swathe of land between Old Upper Thomson and Upper Thomson Roads are the remains of a forgotten community for whom the area was home. Interestingly, there is a lot more that lies hidden. Interwoven with the story of the lost community are also names, personalities and events that provided the area with a surprising amount of colour.

The remnants of a lost village are found in the forested area between Old Upper Thomson and Upper Thomson Roads.

The remnants of a lost village are found in the forested area between Old Upper Thomson and Upper Thomson Roads.

The stretch of Old Upper Thomson and Upper Thomson Roads is quite famously associated with the Singapore Grand Prix; not the current incarnation of the motoring race, but one that reflected humbler times. While that may be another subject altogether, the are the inevitable links the area and its community has to the event, and one of it is the references to the village at the now lost Jalan Belang as the “Grand Prix kampong”.

A concrete structure in the former “Grand Prix kampong”.

The “belang” in Jalan Belang, which translates in Malay to “stripes” is said to have been a reference to the stripes of a tiger and speculation has it that it may have been due to a tiger having been sighted there. One of two privately built roads in the area, it provided access into the narrow strip from the area of Old Upper Thomson known as the snakes. Another road, the Lorong Pelita (“pelita” is Malay for “oil lamp”) lay further north. Lorong Pelita, it would appear, was quite a fitting name as electricity supply only reached the area in the late 1960s.

A kerosene lamp at Lorong Pelita.

A kerosene lamp at Lorong Pelita.

While the remains of the village do not reveal much of their composition of its residents, it can be seen in the proportions of the concrete and brick structures that have survived, some would have been doing quite well. Interestingly there are also numerous concrete receptacles, large and small – seemingly for collection of rain water – and the conspicuous absence of wells.

A fallen electricity pole at the area where Jalan Belang was.

A fallen electricity pole at the area where Jalan Belang was.

There are lots of water receptacles.

There are lots of water receptacles.

What is perhaps most interesting is the links the land has with a certain Han Wai Toon. Han, a Hainanese immigrant who arrived at our shores in 1915, purchased 2 1/2 acres in 1936 for some $700 and embarked on a quest to cultivate trees that would yield the perfect rambutan – as research by various individuals including architectural historian, Dr. Lai Chee Kien reveals. A 1960 article in the Singapore Free Press, “The Long Search for Better Rambutans” also provides information on this. The orchard, which Han named “Silly Fun Garden”, or as a graphic novel set in the garden written by Oh Yong Hwee and illustrated by Koh Hong Teng, describes it in more poetic language as  “The Garden of Foolish Indulgences”.

There are lost of fruit trees in the area besides the remnants of the Han Rambutan Garden.

There are lost of fruit trees in the area besides the remnants of the Han Rambutan Orhcard.

A sketch of the 'Han Rambutan Orchard' by Lim Mu Hue (Singapore in Global History p. 164).

A sketch of the ‘Han Rambutan Orchard’ by Lim Mu Hue (Singapore in Global History p. 164).

Despite its frivolous sounding name, the garden attracted also serious cultural and artistic exchanges. Amongst its visitors was Xu Beihong, a famous Chinese artist with whom Han shared an interest in Chinese ceramics. One of the artistic works Xu executed during a stay in 1939 was “Put Down Your Whip”, which  fetched a record price for a Chinese art work of US$9.2 million in 2007. The painting, which has a strong anti-Japanese theme, was one of several that were Han had hidden on the grounds of his garden during the Japanese occupation. Another of Xu’s paintings in the stash, “Silly Old Man Moves a Mountain“, sold for US$4.12 million in 2006.

Put Down Your Whip by Xu Beihong.

Put Down Your Whip by Xu Beihong, which sold for a record US$9.2 million in 2007 (source: Wikipedia).

The garden of foolish indulgences?

The garden of foolish indulgences?

Han, who would make a name for himself in the study of art, ceramics and archaeology and was the author of 55 scholarly articles, made a permanent return to China in 1962 before passing away in 1970. Rather interestingly, a discovery attributed to Han during his time at Upper Thomson, was that of a Ming Dynasty Chinese tomb in the area in 1949. The tomb of a certain Chen Chow Guan, provided evidence that Chinese settlement in Singapore and the region went as far back as the 15th century. In addition to the tomb, a cluster of five Teochew graves from the early 19th century was also found by a group of archaeologists that included Han close by. It is not known what has become of the graves.

An edible flower, bunga kantan or torch ginger flower, better known here as rojak flower (its bud is used in the rojak dish).

An edible flower, bunga kantan or torch ginger flower, better known here as rojak flower (its bud is used in the rojak dish).

Yesterday no more.

Yesterday no more.

Those of my generation will probably remember Thai Handicraft, which was on the fringes of the area at Upper Thomson Road, and the family who were associated with it. It was hard to miss its showroom passing in the bus or a car with the attention the huge wooden cravings of elephants standing guard drew to the showroom. The shop, set in from the side of the road, dealt with imports of wooden cravings from Thailand and was owned by the Looi family whose links to the area also extended to the races.

There's pineapple too!

There’s pineapple too!

The location of the shop, which was right by the start and finish point of the Grand Prix circuit, was also where the Loois had operated a motorcycle shop, Looi Motors. The Loois also had racing in their blood and produced two generations of motorcycle racers. One member of the family, Gerry Looi, would become a household name in the motorcycle racing circuit in the 1970s and participated in the latter races of the Singapore Grand Prix with brother Fabian until its last race in 1973. Sadly, Gerry would meet a tragic end doing what he loved most and passed away at the age of 33 in October 1981 –  just a few days after a crash at the Shah Alam circuit had left him in a coma.

A red brick structure in the forest.

A red brick structure in the forest.

The privately held area was last inhabited in the mid-1980s when it was cleared out after its acquisition by the Housing and Development Board. While this would suggest that the intention then had been to give it to public housing, the site – now a wonderful oasis of green having been reclaimed by nature, will be where the future Thomson Nature Park will be. Work on the park will commence next year and is expected to be completed at the end of 2018.Part of the plan for the park involves the preservation of the site’s mature trees and the incorporation of the village ruins with the trails that will run through it and that will hopefully keep both the lush greenery and the rich history of the area alive.

Further information:

Online:

NParks announces plans for Upcoming Thomson Nature Park

NParks Factsheet (Thomson Nature Park)

History and nature meet at upcoming Thomson Nature Park, The Straits Times, 8 Oct 2016

The long search for better rambutans, The Singapore Free Press, 4 March 1960

Ming tomb claim in Singapore, The Singapore Free Press, 15 December 1949

‘Oldest Chinese cemetery’ find, The Straits Times, 11 January 1950

Han, 69 studies history from old China, The Singapore Free Press, 5 January 1961

Loois will make motor racing fans feel proud,The Straits Times, 15 April 1973

Daring racer was scared of the dark, New Nation, 24 October 1981

Offline:

Lai, Chee Kien 2011. “Rambutans in the Picture: Han Wai Toon and the Articulation of Space by the Overseas Chinese in Singapore”,  in Singapore in Global History,  edited by Heng, Derek and Aljunied, Syed Muhd Khairudin, 151-172, Amsterdam University Press.

Wong, Sharon 2009. “Negotiating Identities, Affiliations and Interests: The Many Lives of Han Wai Toon, an Overseas Chinese”,  in Reframing Singapore in Global History,  edited by Heng, Derek and Aljunied, Syed Muhd Khairudin, 155-174, Amsterdam University Press.


More photographs:

The remnants of quite a large house.

The remnants of quite a large house.

A room in the house.

A room in the house.

And the washroom.

And the washroom.

A forest stream.

A forest stream.

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Singapore’s oldest Catholic church now looks like its newest

28 11 2016

The beautifully restored Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, Singapore’s oldest Catholic church and a National Monument, re-opened on 20 November 2016 when it held its first mass in over three years. Sitting on a foundation of nothing more than compacted earth, its structure had been quite badly affected by ground disturbance caused by construction work in, around, and under it, which required it to be closed for repair work could be carried out.

As it turned out, the repair effort was quite timely. Columns supporting the pediment at the cathedral’s Victoria Street end gave way as the building was in the late stages of repair on 3 September 2015. Fortunately, the incident – which also saw the pediment come crashing down – happened at night and no one was hurt. The incident also led to the discovery that the supports, on which the weight of the steeple and bell tower also rests, were inadequate and required strengthening and a decision was taken to replace the original brick columns with stronger but lighter steel columns due to weight (which would increase structural load on the base) and time considerations. Another consequence of the collapse would have was in the discovery of the original time-capsule. This was placed beneath the cornerstone when that was laid on 18 June 1843. It was only found due to the work that was needed on the new structure. The time-capsule contained coins, newspapers and a service booklet from the time and its contents are now on display in the Cathedral Heritage Centre.

The entire project, which also involved restoration of the Cathedral and its rectory, as well as the construction of a new three-storey annex block – where the heritage centre is being housed – came at a cost of S$40 million. One of the key areas of repair required was in the underpinning of the cathedral building due to the lack of a suitable foundation. The intervention also allowed service ducts to be run under the building to carry both electrical cables and ducting for air-conditioning – a much welcome addition. The gallery pipe-organ  – Singapore’s oldest pipe-organ – was also restored. This required it to be shipped to the Philippines, which has a rich organ building. The restored pipe-organ also made its debut during the reopening mass when it so wonderfully accompanied the cathedral choir.

The Cathedral Choir making its entry before the opening mass on 20 Nov 2016.

The Cathedral Choir making its entry before the opening mass on 20 Nov 2016.

Standing room only. The opening drew a large crowd and pews were already filled as early as an hour and a half before mass.

Standing room only. The opening drew a large crowd and pews were already filled as early as an hour and a half before mass.

The sanctuary after the reopening.

The sanctuary after the reopening, with a new altar.

In 2013 with a large crack clearly visible on the wall behind it.

In 2013 with a large crack clearly visible on the wall behind it.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2016.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2016.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2013.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2013.

View down the nave, 2016.

View down the nave, 2016.

View down the nave, 2013.

View down the nave, 2013.

The repaired and restored Victoria Street end and the steeple.

The repaired and restored Victoria Street end and the steeple.

The view during the restoration, when steel columns were introduced (to be clad with masonry) for reasons of weight and time when the original structure gave way.

The view during the restoration, when steel columns were introduced (to be clad with masonry) for reasons of weight and time when the original structure gave way.

With its columns braced in 2010.

With its columns braced in 2010.

A close-up.

A close-up.

Archbishop William Goh after unveiling a new Pietà before the opening mass.

Archbishop William Goh after unveiling a new Pietà before the opening mass.

The old Pietà, seen in 2013.

The old Pietà, seen in 2013.

Another view of the new Pietà.

Another view of the new Pietà.

The old Pietà and the staircase to the choir gallery in 2013.

The old Pietà and the staircase to the choir gallery in 2013.

The choir organ in 2013, which has been removed.

The choir organ in 2013, which was in the north transept and has since been removed.

Where the choir organ was located.

Where the choir organ was located.

The cathedral in 2016.

The cathedral in 2016.

The Cathedral in 2013.

The Cathedral in 2013.

The Good Shepherd, 2016.

The Good Shepherd, 2016.

The Good Shepherd, 2013.

The Good Shepherd, 2013.

The annex building and the rectory as seen from Queen Street.

The annex building and the rectory as seen from Queen Street.

The view of the rectory from Queen Street in 2013.

The view of the rectory from Queen Street in 2013.

Balustrades, an original feature, were restored to the second level of the rectory turret.

Balustrades, an original feature, were restored to the second level of the rectory turret.

The turret before restoration.

The turret before restoration.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The garage, which was also demolished.

The garage, which was also demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The restoration was originally scheduled for two years,

The restoration was originally scheduled for two years,

Before the restoration.

Before the restoration.

During the restoration.

During the restoration.

Exposed brickwork of the columns seen during the restoration.

Exposed brickwork of the columns seen during the restoration.


More views of the beautifully restored cathedral

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A Merry Medley at the Flower Dome

21 11 2016

Coloured by poinsettias, amaryllis and Christmas roses and conifer trees, as well as several Christmas themed decorations and giant snow globes, the Christmas display at the Gardens by the Bay’s Flower Dome is especially pretty this year. The display, Merry Medley, runs until 5 January 2017 and is best view when illuminated at night.

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Fireworks tonight at the Singapore Discovery Centre

19 11 2016

A carnival-like atmosphere awaits visitors to the Singapore Discovery Centre (SDC) today as it celebrates its 20th anniversary with a big birthday bash that will culminate with a burst of fireworks at 8 pm this evening at the close of the party. As part of its celebrations, a special exhibition, the 20/20 Play @ SDC – that celebrates 20 years of National Education – was also launched earlier this afternoon by Dr Teo Ho Pin, Mayor of North West District. The exhibition features a play area that gets visitors to visit games the older folks may have played and provides a feel of the playgrounds of the late 1970s and 1980s.

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Dr Teo, Lowrence Chua, Executive Director of SDC, members of SDC’s staff and a new mascot, SingaPaw, at the launch of 20/20 Play.

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Dr Teo viewing exhibits.

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Dr Teo viewing a recreation of the iconic Toa Payoh Dragon Playground.

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Great music too!





We have lift-off, NASA – A Human Adventure opens today

19 11 2016

Space exploration, fuelled by the cold war rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, made significant progress in the 1950s and 1960s. As a child of the 1960s, I was caught up in its excitement of it and especially of its most significant outcome – the landing of the first man on the moon in July 1969. The space programmes that led to the landing had itself generated huge interest during the decade. It was a space exploration flavoured decade in many ways and I took great satisfaction in rocket shaped ice-lollies, ice-cream packed in a Mercury spacecraft inspired container and on getting my hands on moon-landing inspired action transfer sets. For a child it seemed a most exciting of times; times that certainly came back to me visiting a preview of NASA – A Human Adventure, which opens today (19 November 2016) at the ArtScience Museum.

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A Mercury Spacecraft, the first US manned spacecraft.

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The exhibition, which is arranged around five galleries, takes visitors into a fascinating journey through space exploration and starts with the dreams humankind had long had of venturing into the unknown. There is an amazing collection of over 200 artefacts on display, several of which have flown in space, connected with both the Soviet and the NASA efforts. There also is get a chance to get up close to several training modules and full or large scale reconstructions of space craft including one of the Space Shuttle’s front section in which the flight deck and the mid-deck – where the crew eats, sleeps and works, complete with a vacuum toilet.

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The first gallery – which tells us all about the Dreamers.

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A re-creation of the Space Shuttle’s Flight Deck.

The Space Race, prompted by the Cold War rivalry between the Soviet Union and the US, is well documented in the second gallery, Go Fever. The intense rivalry provided much impetus for the rapid progress made by both countries in  space exploration and resulted in the first manned flights and the eventual moon landing. A model of Sputnik, the first satellite, which started the Space Race in earnest is on display. The early lead that the Soviets took is also seen in several rarely seen Soviet space artefacts and in a remembrance of the first human in space, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

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A model of Sputnik – the very first artificial satellite, launched by the Soviet Union. The reflection on it is that of Go Fever, the second gallery.

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The Soviet Space programme put the first man in Space – Yuri Gagarin, who is remembered in Go Fever.

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Soviet space programme artefacts – including a briefcase carried by Yuri Gagarin into space.

The exhibition has three other galleries, Pioneers, Endurance and Innovation – tracing the evolution of rocket technology, how the challenges of space travel were overcome and how ground breaking technologies have been created through the programme. There is also a rather interesting art installation, The Indonesia Space Science Society by Indonesian artist, Venzha Christ that includes a 3 metre sculpture and invites visitors to listen to space.

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A scale-model of the very long Saturn V rocket.

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The Jupiter nose cone – launched into space and recovered from the sea – the experimental nose cone was a crucial step in development of re-entry vehicles – necessary for manned space flights.

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Titan I LR-87 rocket engine.

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The installation by Venzha Christ.

A highlight of the exhibition is the G-Force Astronaut Trainer ride, which simulates the flight of the 1961 Liberty Bell 7 with forces of up to 2G. The ride takes up to four and costs $6 on weekdays (Mondays to Thursdays) and $9 during the weekends.

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The G-Force Astronaut Trainer Ride.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the ArtScience Museum is also running the Art and Science of Space season. Several programmes are lined up including an Insights Tour during the opening weekend, given by Jukka Nurminen – an avid aeronautics enthusiast and the producer and curator of the exhibition. Two sessions will be held at 11.30am  lasting an hour on 19 and 20 Nov, which will be complimentary to ticket holders but limited to 25 per session (stickers will be given out 5 minutes before the tour begins). There are also public guided tours on 25 Nov at 3-4pm and on 27 Nov at 11.30am-12.30pm. A series of workshops will also be held. The exhibition runs until 19 March 2017 and more information on it, its programmes and ticketing can be found at the exhibition’s website.

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Jukka Nurminen, Producer and Curator of the exhibition.


More exhibits:

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Spacesuits.

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A Soviet lunar vehicle.

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Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicle.

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Moon rock collection case, bags, a glove and a boot.

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An Apollo survival kit.

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Command compartment of a Gemini Spacecraft.

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A command module.

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Apollo Command Module.

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Space Shuttle front section.

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An actual unused leg for the Apollo lunar landing module

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Film shot by Apollo astronauts.

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A Hasselblad camera of the type used for lunar operations.

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TV camera of type used for lunar operations.

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Lithium hydroxide canister for removing carbon dioxide. This featured in the Apollo 13 near tragedy that left the Command Module with limited electricity supply. To save power in the Command Module that was crucial for reentry, the Lunar Module was kept attached as a “lifeboat”. The Lunar Module did not have sufficient LiOH canisters and ground engineers very quickly found a way make join the rectangular canisters from the Command Module to the cylindrical canisters of the Lunar Module.

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An flight computer – which weighed about 100 kg.

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A photograph of the Apollo Lunar Module.

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A replica of the module with the triangular window seen in the photograph above.

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An actual Command Module parachute for descent back to earth – notice the burns from reentry on it.

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A heavily built Command Module front hatch.

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Models of Hubble and the ISS.





The road to perdition

18 11 2016

The relentless pace of development is fast catching up with the few bits of mainland Singapore that has been spared from the clutter found across too much of Singapore such as at so-called Canberra (displaced from Canberra Road from where its name would have been derived) at Sembawang. What was a wonderfully green open space just a few years back, is well on its way becoming more like the rest of Singapore: cluttered, overly built and concretised, and with all of its naturally occurring greenery replaced with orderly rows of trees planted in its sea of concrete. It is inevitable I suppose. The intent, as the rather unpopular 2013 Land Use Plan would suggest, is to fit a magical number of 6.9 million people into an already overcrowded Singapore – a future, given the strains the current population level is already putting on our mental well-being, that many like me, would not wish to contemplate.

The road to perdition.

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“Canberra” in 2012.

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Another view of “Canberra” in 2012.





Singapore on a rain washed morning

17 11 2016

They may cause some inconvenience, but the rains that come with the arrival of the northeast monsoons in Singapore are welcomed for the air of cool and freshness that they bring.  I am one who takes great joy in their arrival and find reason to celebrate the downpours as much as I did in the wondrous moments of my childhood. I recall splashing through the puddles the opening up of the skies left, an activity that often left me soaked, inviting a strong reprimand. I also recall the calls of “hor lai lor” – “rain is coming” in the Hokkien vernacular that accompanied the rains’ prelude. In days when the community spirit was much stronger, these calls were intended as a prompt for the mad scramble to get in the laundry that would follow.

Colours of a rain washed morning, 16 Nov 2016.

Colours of a rain washed morning, 16 Nov 2016.

One of the unfortunate consequences of the rain, especially in days before the efforts to improve drainage became effective, was flooding. There were many instances when flooding was especially severe, more often than not on days when the falling torrents coincided with high spring tides. Many low lying areas would be affected, including the places where I went to kindergarten and primary school. Wading through ankle or knee deep flood waters was quite a regular occurrence and  a fairly common sight that accompanied them was that of school children wading through the waters with what would probably have been an only pair of school shoes, tied together by their laces and slung over their shoulders.

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Colours of a rain washed morning, 16 Nov 2016.

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Colours of a rain washed morning, 16 Nov 2016.

There were also the monster floods. Two occasions when this happened that come to mind are in 1969 and 1978 when the waters rose to a level that only the roofs of houses in many of the low lying areas could be seen. The damage to property and people’s livelihood – when many were still involved in farming and rearing livestock – was tremendous.  The continuous effort made to improve drainage over the years has seen the incidence and severity of flooding reduce and the grumble most often heard these days is not of disruptions caused by floods but of ones caused instead by a less than reliable mass rapid transit system.

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Impression of a bus stop on rain washed morning, 16 Nov 2016.








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