Parting Glances: Khalsa Crescent, home turned prison

24 05 2022

Once home to a huge naval base that stretched from the Causeway to Sembawang Road, Singapore’s rather sleepy northern coast seems set for a huge transformation. Work to build a much-anticipated rail transit system link to Johor Bahru is already underway and the signs are that the ground is already being prepared for a role as key component of the future Woodlands Regional Centre. The demolition of much of the former KD Malaya complex is now already complete, and all that is left of the longtime landmark, sited in an area close to Woodlands North MRT Station is gone, save for the conserved administration building. One set of structures that may likely disappear is the former quarters at Khalsa Crescent, which many of us would only know as Khalsa Crescent Prison.

The former Khalsa Crescent Prison, which has a much storied past. Block 6 (Prison Block F) was used as accommodation for policemen and featured a recreational space below where lectures and police parties during Sikh religious festivals were held. The space also functioned as a games room.
The watchtowers of the former prison are what draws notice to the complex.

Built in 1950 on the site of the Torpedo Depot “coolie lines”, Khalsa Crescent (Asian) quarters provided Asian members of the naval base workforce and their families, with a roof over their heads. Among those who were housed on the site were members of the Naval Base Police Force and the Naval Base Fire Service, for whom the set of quarters was affectionately known as “Torpedo”, having been know initially as “Torpedo Depot Lines”. When built, the quarters comprised seven two-storey blocks cont laid out with some 170 rooms that could accommodate up to 180 families. Among the blocks were ones housing bachelors with common spaces such as rest and mess rooms and recreational spaces found on the ground floors. Flag Officer (Malaya), Rear Admiral Clifford Caslon, who opened the estate on 10 January 1950, described the construction of new housing units as evidence that interest to the welfare and comfort of the base’s civilian staff was being shown by the Admiralty.

The newly built accommodation blocks in 1950, with Blocks 1 and 2 (far end) on the left, and Blocks 3 (far end) and 4 on the right.
The scene today.

During its first years, the quarters accommodated a fair number of Sikhs families, who men served in the Naval Base Police Force. As a result of this, a gurdwara was established in the eastern section of the ground floor of Block 5. Due to this association with the Sikh members of the force, the road through the estate was named “Khalsa”, which means “pure” in Punjabi. Khalsa, which also describes the guiding principle of the Sikh religion community, is often used as a reference to the Sikh community. The gurdwara moved to View Road (Rimau), where an Asian Naval Base Police Barracks was established, together with the Sikh policemen and their families in 1959. Some naval base policemen continued to stay in Khalsa Crescent while there were others who also relocated to Cochrane Crescent at about the same time. In the 1960s, a surau for Muslim policemen and their families was established at Block 5.

The section of Block 5 where I am told the gurdwara was.

The British military pullout, which took place at the end of October 1971, also saw to the eventual disbandment of the various services associated with the naval base and while the quarters continued in their use as accommodation units, the winds of change would eventually blow through the estate. In late 1974, some three years after the pullout, several of the accommodation blocks at Khalsa Crescent were converted for use as a remand centre and the forerunner of the Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC) — the DRC system was apparently formalised in 1977, although the term was already in use – as part of a broader scheme to segregate drug inmates (also according to the number of times they were hauled in). But while this may have been the intention, one of the centre’s first uses was for the detention of illegal immigrants, more specifically a group of 56 who had fled South Vietnam as the situation deteriorated in the lead up to the Fall of Saigon in April 1975. The group of 56, with 18 women and 10 children among them, arrived on a stolen military plane on 3 April 1975. Having come without the necessary visas, they were detained as illegal immigrants and were held at Khalsa Crescent where they spent 3 weeks, after which they were sent on to Guam.

A view of the former prison.

This drug rehabilitation scheme saw further changes to it and by 1995, drug addicts would first be sent to Sembawang DRC, where they would be observed and further processing was carried out. They would then be placed based on their previous records. Khalsa Crescent DRC was where third time offenders were sent to. Khalsa Crescent’s capacity was increased from 500 to 1050 during a renovation exercise that was carried out in anticipation of this new arrangement. In June 2005, Khalsa Crescent DRC became simply Khalsa Crescent Prison.

Members of the Khalsa Crescent Sikh Community.

The modernisation and expansion of the Changi Prison complex in 2009, saw to the move of some 5000 inmates from prisons like Khalsa Crescent Prison, which was described as the “largest transfer of prisoners in local history”. What that also meant was that older facilities such as Khalsa Crescent Prison were made redundant and surplus to requirements. Decommissioned, the former prison lay hidden behind its tall green security fence — that is until 21 May 2022 when former residents of the one-time Asian quarters were allowed to take a short but sweet walk back in time in anticipation of the complex’s eventual demolition.

Memories of Khalsa Crescent.

Vietnamese Refugees in Singapore
Following the incident involving the 56 refugees arriving by plane, the opium treatment centre at St John’s Island was temporarily set aside for refugees. Addicts under treatment on the island displaced by the arrangements were then moved to Khalsa Crescent Remand Centre, where the 56 had been held. The island refugee camp would be closed in October 1975 and subsequent to that, Singapore took a strong stand against refugees who began to leave the former South Vietnam by boat. A policy of restocking refugee boats before towing the boats back out to sea was initially put in place. It would only be in 1978 at a time when the refugee crisis reached its peak that Singapore permitted refugees to land on the condition that a guarantee was made of resettlement in a third country within three months by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR was also allowed to set up and run a refugee camp at Hawkins Road, not far from Khalsa Crescent.


The evolution of the area through maps and aerials

Maps of the Torpedo Depot area showing the former coolie lines in 1945 and the blocks of the Asian quarters in 1968.
Plans of the site before and after the quarters were built.
Aerial views of the site during the time of the coolie lines and after the barracks were built (Maps from National Archives of Singapore)
What the crystal ball that is the URA Master Plan says that the Khalsa Crescent will be – a future residential development.

A walk around the former prison

The caged passageway built for the prison along the former Block 5, which became the prison’s Admin Block.
An Interview Room in the Admin Block.
A passageway between the Admin Block and the Workshop section of the prison.
A view towards the former RMN Sports Grounds, where the Rail Transit System link from Woodlands North to Bukit Chagar in Johor Bahru is being built.
Inside Workshop 2, one of two prison workshops that were added during the prison days.
Inside a second workshop.
Staircase at Block 7, which was apparently a bachelors’ block.
Block 7, which had bachelors’ accommodation on the top. A Sikh cook prepared meals for the bachelors according to one former resident.
The Kitchen at Block 7.
Potential weapons have to be kept safe.
The Housing Unit – the roof was added to allow the space between the former accommodation and service blocks to be usable.

Inside a “Housing Unit”


More views of the former prison






Glamour and scandal in the skies

16 05 2022

The 1920s in Singapore were exciting times for aviation. Late in 1919, Singapore witnessed its very first inbound flight, a Vickers Vimy which carried four men and which landed at the racecourse (now Farrer Park). In the excitement of seeing the Vimy land, many would have missed the sight of its mechanic, Jim Bennett, sliding along the fuselage toward the aircraft’s tail keep the nose up just before landing. The brave act — the equivalent of flaring on landing today, was quite necessary given the short landing distance required at the makeshift airfield. This would be a pattern for flights into Singapore that would follow, even after a dedicated but still makeshift landing ground had been prepared by filling Government sand pits at Balestier Plain in the early 1920s anticipation of an increase air traffic. 

The first ever flight into and out of Singapore was on a Vickers Vimy carrying four crew, which landed in Singapore in December 1919.

The lack of a proper airfield proved of little deterrence to the string of intrepid aviators that Singapore would see through the 1920s. Many, on their quests for fame, touched down here out of necessity more than anything else, as the technology of the day required multiple stopovers as flights could not take place in the dark and, due to the short range of aircraft then, required to be refuelled every few hundred miles.   

The location of Balestier Plain Aviation Ground

Among those who touched down at Balestier Plain was pioneering Australian aviator, Mrs Keith Miller (Jessie Maude “Chubby”) on 7 January 1928. The world had a fascination for the female aviator, who added a touch of femininity and glamour to the skies .She would be the first among several aviatrices to land in Singapore — although she did not actually pilot the Red Rose — a small Avro Avian that was owned and piloted by Captain Bill Lancaster. Capt Lancaster, an RAF pilot, described the aviation ground as a quagmire — something that could also describe the somewhat scandalous relationship that the pair, both of whom had spouses, would forge during the long and eventful journey from England to Australia. The pair, who took off from the racecourse (due to the unsuitability of the aviation ground) two days after landing on 9 January, survived a crash on the island of Muntok that resulted in them spending two months in Singapore having the Red Rose repaired. Repaired and tested, the Red Rose  took off once again on 14 March 1928 and arrived in Darwin on 19 March.

Bill Lancaster and Jessie Miller.

Some years later in August 1932, a murder trial involving the killing of a certain Haden Clarke, played out at the Miami Dade County Courthouse. Capt Lancaster had been charged with Clarke’s murder, which took place at a rented Miami home of Mrs Miller. During the trial, a sordid tale of love and betrayal emerged. Mrs Miller, who arrived in the United States with her lover Lancaster with the intent of having her autobiography written. She became romantically involved with Clarke, who she had employed to be a ghostwriter for the autobiography, and the allegation was that Lancaster had killed Clarke out of jealousy.  It also emerged during the trial that Clarke had deceived Mrs Miller and was a bigamist.  Lancaster was acquitted of the murder, and the pair, who were deemed to have overstayed in the US, were deported. 

The RAF aerodrome, and later the civil aerodrome at Kallang (terminal building pictured here) would be a big improvement on the “quagmire” that the Balestier Plain aviation ground was described as.

The development of RAF Seletar, and its opening to civil aviation, would write a new chapter for aviation here in Singapore. The military aerodrome, built to provide air cover for an intended naval base, would see the launch of the first regular air services to and from Singapore “Garbo of the skies”, Jean Batten  first between Singapore and the Dutch East Indies and eventually with Europe in 1933. The aerodrome would also serve as a staging ground for several other female aviators attempting to set records flying from England to Australia, who included the likes of Amy Johnson and the “Garbo of the skies”, Jean Batten. By the time of the arrival of Amelia Earhart in June 1937, who was perhaps the best known of teh aviatrices, RAF Seletar was forgotten as a dual-use airport and Singapore’s first civil aerodrome at Kallang, was in operation.


The first inbound flight
Piloted by brothers Ross and Keith Smith, a converted Vickers Vimy — a bomber built for use in the First World War but did not get to see action, touched down at the racecourse on 4 December 1919. Together with mechanics James (Jim) Bennett and Walter Shiers, the Smiths had their eye on a prize money of £10,000 — in excess of S$900,000 in today’s terms — being offered by the Commonwealth Government for being the first to fly from England to Australia. One condition was that the flight was to be done in less than 30 days and the four men were well on their way to achieving that, having arrived in Singapore some 22 days after taking off from Hounslow in London. The historic flight would land in Australian soil at Port Darwin on 10 December 1919, four days after taking off on 6 December from Singapore.


The contents of this post supplement that of my talk (cum virtual tour of old Kallang Airport), “An Aviation Journey“, for Singapore Heritage Festival held on 8 May 2022.





The Singapore debut of The Capitol of Singapore

4 05 2022

Anyone stepping into Capitol Theatre will get an immediate sense of a grace and elegance that is a reflection of the age that the theatre was built in and that and the building’s evolution over the years has been captured on film, through a documentary “The Capitol of Singapore” that makes its Singapore debut this Friday, 6 May 2022, at The Capitol! Two screenings of the film have been scheduled in conjunction with Singapore HeritageFest 2022, the other screening being on 7 May. Directed by French filmmaker Raphaël Millet, Friday’s screening of the film — also known as “Le Capitol de Singapour”, the film, will mark the first time that it will be seen outside of France. More information on the screenings and a link to the booking page can be found at this link.


Capitol Theatre

Built from 1929 to 1930, the theatre was designed by Keys and Dowdeswell at a time when the formerly government employed pair had ventured into private architectural practice. The cinema, the most progressive of the day in Singapore and Malaya, reflected the aspirations of the architect, as much that it did those of its wealthy owner, Mr Mirza Mohamed Ali (M A) Namazie — a Madras (Chennai) born Muslim of Persian origin who had substantial holdings in property and also in the rubber trade.

No expense seems to have been spared in the building of the Capitol. Not only was it large by the standards of the day, but the Capitol was also the first cinema hall in Singapore and Malaya to feature forced ventilation. Maximising the comfort of its patrons, the ventilation system reduced the necessity for large ventilation openings, thus keeping noise at a minimum. This would have been especially desirable, given that the cinema was built during the progression from the silent age of cinema to the new era of the talkies.

Before its refurbishment,

That Capitol Theatre is still with us over 90 years after it screened its first movie, is itself a remarkable story.  The cinema faced a string of challenges from very outset; its opening night plagued by the poor performance of its audio system due to Singapore’s high levels of humidity. Caught up in the excitement of watching Bebe Daniels and John Boles star in the musical production “Rio Rita” in a cinema of Capitol’s stature, not many apparently noticed.

At the end of its refurbishment in 2015.

The death of Mr M A Namazie in July 1931, and the effects of the Great Depression, prompted a change of ownership at the end of 1932. The Japanese Occupation of Singapore would see the cinema utilised as the Kyoei Gekizyo, opening in November 1942. Besides screening movies, the Kyoei also played host to recitals, concerts and other performances, as well as rallies and meetings, some of which were organised by the Overseas Chinese Association. Anti-Japanese saboteurs set off an explosion in early 1945, which caused sufficient damage to see that it would never used by the Japanese again. Capitol Theatre was given a new lease of life in January 1946 when it reopened, having been refurbished by the Shaw Brothers at a cost of half-a-million dollars. The cinema screened its last movie in December 1998 before being revived as a theatre in May 2015.

The Capitol’s elegant interior.


Synopsis

At the heart of Singapore’s Civic and Cultural District stands Capitol Theatre, a historical landmark that has borne witness to Singapore’s transformation over the years.

The documentary film, The Capitol of Singapore, traces the evolution of this historical building, from its founding in 1930 as a state-of-the-art theatre and shopping arcade; its requisition by the Japanese during the Second World War; its years as a top cinema where Hollywood blockbusters and local movie premieres were shown; its eventual decline into disuse and disrepair; and finally, its resurrection, after undergoing preservation and conservation works, to its present day incarnation as part of the integrated development Capitol Singapore, which is owned and managed by Perennial Holdings Private Limited. Capitol Singapore houses The Capitol Kempinski Hotel Singapore, Eden Residences Capitol as well as a retail mall and the iconic theatre.

The film delves into the heritage of Capitol Theatre through a look at the theatre’s original architecture and personal stories recounting what it has meant for many Singaporeans. Like a phoenix reborn, Capitol Theatre has stood the test of time, reinventing itself at every turn to stay relevant for each generation to come. In telling the story of Capitol Theatre, the film also explores, in parallel, the history of Singapore cinema, highlighting the golden years of film production when Singapore was at the centre of Southeast Asia’s film industry, producing films in Malay and the various Chinese dialects and drawing talent from across Asia.

During this period, Singapore was also a known locale for international film productions, attracting filmmakers from both Hong Kong and Hollywood. The Capitol Theatre made Singapore a top Asian destination for many film stars, with celebrity visits from the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Ava Gardner and Douglas Fairbanks who graced their film premieres in Singapore.

Through the story of Capitol Theatre, the film journeys into Singapore’s past and in doing so, reflects upon its present and future.






The joy of light

29 04 2022

If you are looking for something to light up the long long weekend, why not take in the sights of the last few days of the Ramadan bazaar to soak in the atmosphere of Kampung Gelam. The bazaar does end this Sunday (1 May 2022), but what you will be able to also see this weekend is a delightful light installation on the lawn of the Malay Heritage Centre, Rainbow Connection II.

Conceptualised by local artist Lee Yun Qin and co-created with members of the community, the effort is presented by the Malay Heritage Centre (MHC) in collaboration with Brighton Connection, a social service agency. Featuring 500 suspended solar light modules, each made from upcycled cookie containers, uniquely and colourfully decorated, the installation has its moment of magic as it comes to life in as day turns into night just as the strains of the azan — the Muslim call to prayer — fills the air with a sense of calm and peace.

The light modules of Rainbow Connection II, are decorated in two themes: “In the Woods” and “In the Deep” and lights up the lawn from 29 April to 29 May 2022, after which it will travel to MacPherson estate and Somerset Youth Park. The MHC’s grounds will remain open (Tuesdays to Sundays) until 9 pm during the period.





Merchants of misery

12 04 2022

The import, sale and distribution of opium contributed to a rather shameful episode in the history of modern Singapore. Cultivated in India by the (dis)Honourable East India Company to address the imbalance in trade, opium was became the scourge of China through the dependence it developed amongst its citizens. The drug was also distributed in Singapore up to the end of the Second World War. The Straits Settlements government would maintain a monopoly on its distribution, reaping a huge reward in terms of revenue from it.

A chandu shop, 1941 (Harrison Forman Collection, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee).

Opium consigned those who developed a dependence on it to a life of misery, poverty and loneliness; a life that we are able to visualise through a series of photographs taken by two American photographers, Carl Mydans for LIFE Magazine and Harrison Forman for National Geographic, in 1941. The photographs also provide a glimpse of the elaborate mechanism that was put in place to maintain the government’s hold on the monopoly of distribution. A government run packing plant at the foot of what is today Bukit Chandu is featured, as are the Government Chandu Shops — officially sanctioned opium retail outlets, initially through which the opium revenue farmers sold the drug and after 1910, taken over by the government.

People from all walks of life were addicted. For coolies, the drug often allowed them to work beyond the barrier of pain. While they may have been able to earn more this way, much of what they gained would be channelled back into the consumption of opium. [Photograph: © Time Inc. for which Personal and Non-Commercial Use is permitted].
The counter of a chandu shop, 1941 (Harrison Forman Collection, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee).
The counter of a chandu shop, 1941 (Harrison Forman Collection, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee).
A smoker registration card. Smoker registration was introduced in 1929 following the Geneva Convention on Opium to minimise the numbers of new addicts. [Photograph: © Time Inc. for which Personal and Non-Commercial Use is permitted]

A life of loneliness


More views of the Government Chandu Shops


Raids

Raids on opium dens were regularly carried out in an attempt to put a stop to illegal (non-registered) smokers of opium and smuggled opium.


The Chandu Factory (Packing Plant) at the foot of Bukit Chandu


Photographs:
Carl Mydans, © Time Inc. for which Personal and Non-Commercial Use is permitted.
Harrison Forman Collection, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


Singapore and Opium

Set up by the Honourable East India Company (HEIC) in 1819 as its emporium at the maritime crossroads between East and West Asia, modern Singapore lay at the heart of the trade between India and China in the early 19th century. Silks, porcelain and tea from China made their journey westwards through Singapore. Opium, cultivated in India, was sent to China in increasing quantities. While the HEIC may have lost its control over the opium trade in 1834, and Singapore its position as the main entrepôt for trade to China in 1842 with the ceding of Hong Kong to Britain, opium continued to pass through and also come to Singapore with the domestic consumption of it being a major revenue earner into the 1900s.

The sale and distribution of opium, or chandu, within Singapore (and Malaya) was indeed highly lucrative. A monopoly was maintained by the government, who assigned the rights to distribute the drug and collect tax to its agents through a revenue farm system. Retail was carried out through government chandu shops run by a franchisee, whose profits on sales following the deduction of rents and overheads paid to the government, was theirs to keep. Revenue farms were also established for the distribution of pork and liquor, and for gambling. These so-called farms were certainly a cash-cow for “farmers”, who made a fair amount of money, which often provided the capital to invest in property and to diversify into other businesses.

Opposition to the rather illicit trade grew towards the end of the 19th century. In 1906, Imperial China embarked on an ambitious ten-year plan to prohibit the cultivation and use of opium, helped by a pledge to gradually reduce the supply of Indian opium to China by the progressive Liberal government in Britain. At the urging of the United States, the International Opium Commission met in Shanghai in 1909. The meeting was to kickstart a process that would culminate in the regulation of use of the drug and its production. In response to the 1929 Geneva Convention on Opium, smoker registration was introduced in Singapore and Malaya. While the sale and use of opium would be made illegal after the Second World War, the complete eradication of the habit in Singapore would take many more years.


Description of Opium Treatment in Singapore in the 1950s
https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/bulletin/bulletin_1957-01-01_3_page004.html

Before war broke out in Malaya in 1941, the use and sale of opium was controlled as a government monopoly. An addict, having been examined by a medical officer and duly certified, was registered and then permitted to purchase an allowance of opium from a government shop. It was the policy of the monopoly to bring about a gradual reduction in the consumption of opium by addicts in accordance with the provisions of The Hague Convention, of 1912, and of the Geneva Opium Agreement of 11 February 1925, the recommendations of the League of Nations Commission to the Straits Settlements in 1929,*and the Bangkok Agreement of 1931. The registers were finally closed, except for medical cases, on 31 December 1934. In 1927, sales of opium through the monopoly totalled 30,000 lb. By 1935, they were reduced to 19,000 lb., and by 1938 to 15,000 lb. At the time of the Japanese invasion in 1942, there were 16,552 addicts on the Singapore registers, while in the Federation of Malaya the figure was probably quadrupled. During the Japanese occupation of this country from 1942 to 1945, the registers were ignored, and anyone who could pay for it was allowed to smoke. The campaign since 1925 to promote gradual reduction of opium consumption was thus largely nullified, and as opium addiction was openly encouraged, the number of smokers alive today can only be conjectured.

From the liberation of Singapore in September 1945, no opium was purchased or sold by the Government of Singapore, and all shops were closed. In February 1946, an Opium and Chandu Proclamation declared a total prohibition of the sale and use of opium except for medicinal purposes. In 1951, this proclamation was superseded by the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance, prohibiting the import, export, possession, manufacture or sale of opium. Any person contravening these provisions was liable to a fine not exceeding 10,000 Malayan dollars or imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years, or both. The use of premises, the possession of utensils for the administration of opium, and the consumption of prepared opium, were also punishable under the law. The customs and police departments were responsible for the enforcement of these provisions, the former being organized the better to prevent the import of opium by sea, air or land, while the police dealt with internal peddling, and endeavoured to suppress the opium divans. The customs department also operated – on behalf of enforcement authorities in the Malayan area – a Central Narcotics Intelligence Bureau for the dissemination and exchange of information on the traffic.

It was noted that many addicts, imprisoned for opium or other offences, showed a marked improvement in health as a result of prison routine, diet and treatment for their physical ailments, and it was decided that as an experiment a special penal institution for the treatment of addicts should be opened. Part of the quarantine station on St. John’s Island was selected for the purpose, because it offered a complete change of surroundings and living conditions and, as traffic to and from the island is controlled, a reasonable prospect of denying opium to the inmates.

The necessary legislation for the Opium Treatment Centre was enacted under the Dangerous Drugs (Temporary Provisions) Ordinance, 1954, which, inter alia, provides for the establishment of opium treatment centres, the appointment of officers, and the setting up of an advisory committee. The main centre on St. John’s Island was opened for the treatment of male addicts in February 1955. At the same time “C” Hall, the female prison and the hospital in the local prison on Singapore Island were gazetted as opium treatment centres, since addicts were kept there.

The Advisory Committee is an important link in this whole experiment. The offender, while on remand, is checked with a view to finding out the possibilities of rehabilitation. The reports of the medical and rehabilitation officers are laid before the Advisory Committee, consisting of the superintendent and medical officer of the Opium Treatment Centre and a rehabilitation officer. If it is found necessary that the offenders would benefit by admission to the centre, the Committee makes a recommendation accordingly to the magistrate, who, if he concurs, orders the addict’s detention in the centre for an undetermined period not exceeding twelve months. Otherwise, the offender is sentenced to three months’ imprisonment. Sentences under the existing legislation are mandatory, but there is an amendment being considered to provide for sentences to be discretionary.

The Advisory Committee considers a person’s suitability for treatment from the following aspects:
1. Age limit : 50 years, in general, but many cases are accepted up to the age of 55.
2. Disease : Active cases of organic disease, etc., are not accepted.
3. General physical condition : Chronic debility and extreme emaciation may be causes of rejection.
4. Length of addiction : Preference is given to more recent addicts.
5. Environment : If the addict is socially or thoroughly an undesirable character, he may be rejected for treatment.

The Opium Treatment Centre at St. John’s Island consists of twelve huts. They are used as follows: carpenters’ workshop, tailors’ workshop and laundry, rattan workshop, hospital, office and store, and attendants’ barracks. The remaining six huts have accommodation for inmates. (The maximum capacity of each hut is forty beds.)

On admission after withdrawal treatment, which is usually completed within three weeks in the remand prison on Singapore Island, the addict is interviewed by the superintendent, and provided with clothing, bedding, etc., all his personal belongings being taken from him. He is seen by a medical officer, either on admission or on the following morning. He is admitted to the sick bay, where he is detained for a minimum period of a week, and given extra food, including milk and eggs. At the end of the week, he is again seen by the medical officer, and if found fit for light duty is given a choice of acquiring knowledge and skill in several different trades, including carpentry, tailoring, rattan work, cooking, gardening and laundering.

While in the centre, the addicts are given the usual prison diet plus an extra 4 oz. of rice or wheat. If it is considered that any inmate should have additional nourishment such as eggs or milk – he is re-admitted to the sick bay. It is interesting to note that in only one case has there been a failure to gain weight during the period of detention. The average weight gained has been 13 lb.

It has been found that the inmates in the centre are very happy to be employed, and there have been few, if any, breaches of discipline. The rehabilitation officers visit the centre regularly, and keep in touch with each individual’s progress.

Though the addict is sentenced, as a rule, to be detained for a period of twelve months, it has been found that most of the inmates are fit to be released after a period of from six to seven months; and it has been noted that at the end of this period most of them realize that the addiction has gone. The rehabilitation officer ensures that they have employment waiting for them on release. Subsequent follow-up has shown that, in the case of skilled labourers, the majority stay in the employment which has been secured for them, and though the general trend is for unskilled labour to remain in employment, many change their jobs. However, the limited statistics so far available do not permit any firm conclusions. All business firms and branches of the services have been most sympathetic in taking the former addict employees back on the recommendation of the rehabilitation officers. There has been no instance of a firm’s refusing to re-employ such persons on discharge.

At the outset, it was considered that probably fifty per cent of the addicts appearing before the Advisory Committee might be found suitable for admission to the centre. So far, 396 males and 16 females have been released on licence, and the rehabilitation officers visit them regularly. There have been six known cases of relapse among the males, but the period is as yet too short for any conclusion to be drawn.

The follow-up of the released addict provides a problem. After a period of about three months or so all the addicts are referred to the medical officer for a check-up. It is not easy to diagnose a relapse. In most cases, however, addicts were able to keep away from the drug for a varying period of time; relapses if they do occur, generally come after a period of a few months, by which time the licence has expired, and past addicts are no longer obliged to attend for check-up. However, a number of patients do present themselves, long before their turn is due, seeking medical advice on minor complaints, and in some cases for help in the matter of finding work. A few have brought their personal and family problems to the doctor, and there have been a few who brought their addict companions for help or for admission as volunteers to the centre.

From the inception of this rehabilitative centre up to the end of 1956, a total of 425 patients have undergone rehabilitation and have been discharged. Out of all these, six persons were arrested a second time on a charge of possession of prepared opium or of possession of opium-smoking utensils. This does not mean that only 6 out of the 425 had relapsed into opium addiction. At the present time, it is not possible to make any exact estimate of the number who, having undergone treatment, have completely freed themselves from addiction. There is, however, ample evidence to suggest that the present procedure is well worth while.It has now been decided under section 1 (2) of the Dangerous Drugs (Temporary Provisions) Ordinance (cap. 138) to extend the operation of the ordinance until 8 February 1958. This will mean that the centre will run for at least another year. During 1956, the centre continued to prove its value. Many tributes have been paid to the establishment, including one from the World Health Organization.

The question of whether the centre should be made permanent and be expanded to provide for all opium addicts is being examined in some detail, and it is hoped that it will be possible to reach a decision within six months. The representations made by the Chinese Advisory Committee will be borne in mind while the review is being made.

The approximate cost of an accommodation hut for forty persons is 25,000 Malayan dollars, and as there are at present twelve such huts at the centre; the estimated cost of accommodation blocks is 300,000 Malayan dollars.






An enlightened space

4 04 2022

Voluminous spaces amply illuminated by natural light are often a visually treat. We have quite a number of these spaces in Singapore, including several that go back to a time when harnessing natural light and ventilation for interior spaces all seemed very logical.

A view of the main hall of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

One fine example of a such a voluminous space is the main hall of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. The hall features a high vaulted ceiling that rises to a height of some 21.6 metres to keep its users cool. A fair amount of natural light also streams into the space through windows placed at its roof’s gable ends and also along the sides, making it quite a joy to behold. The station is one of many designs that have flown off the drawing boards of architectural firm Swan and Maclaren. The design of the hall’s gable ends recalls the one of the firm’s earlier works, the Malayan Motors showroom on Orchard Road.

The former Malayan Motors showroom.

Designed in 1925, the building — like Tanjong Pagar Railway Station — can still be admired. It now stands at the end of a delightful row of conserved buildings opposite Dhoby Ghaut MRT station and looking at it, it is not hard to see how the former showroom must have been quite an attraction on Orchard Road when it was completed in early 1927. The showroom’s façade, which is effectively a gable end, is topped by a sunburst like decorative feature that seems very much to be a call for attention. The window arrangement on this face does also seem quite similar to that of the gable ends of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station’s main hall, although in being dressed to act as the showroom’s street facing façade, is much more elaborately designed.

Similarities can be seen between Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the former Malayan Motors showroom.

The former showroom, which now stands as a marker of a stretch of Orchard Road that was at the heart of Singapore’s motoring trade, has long fascinated me. Other than its showroom on the ground floor, which I had chance to visit as a child when my father purchased a Morris Marina in the 1970s, I’ve often wondered what lay behind the glorious face of building and its multitude of windows. I long imagined that was a showroom or perhaps a workshop on its upper floors and I was rather disappointed to learn from the building’s plans that what did lie under the rather elaborate roof were offices — at least at the point of design. Knowing this, what now intrigues me is why all that elaboration for a set of mere offices? Whatever it was however, it must have been quite a space to marvel at.

What lies behind the face of the Malayan Motors showroom’s gabled ends.

The showroom’s construction came at a time when the motoring trade was on the up and when Orchard Road had established its place a centre for the business of getting around. The street in its post-plantation era, had become a choice residential neighbourhood and both residents and visitors needed a means to move around, especially with Orchard Road being some distance from the commercial area. By the late 1800s, livery stables from which horses and carriages could be hired, lined the street. Hackney carriages plied the street as much as taxis now do, and carriages makers and horse traders set up shop.

Stables on Orchard Road.

The introduction of the motorcar would see a change of fortunes for those involved in the trade. Some of those involved in the business of horses and carriages would become among the first to trade instead in horsepower, leading to the area retaining its place as a hub as the private transportation business evolved. New entrants to the business, with a greater capacity to respond to shifting demands, soon dominated the scene, with names such as Cycle and Carriage and C F F Wearne (later Wearne Brothers) — now household names in the trade, setting up shop in the area in the early 1900s. By the end of the second decade of the twentieth century, at least a dozen car dealerships had been established in the area close to the entrance to Government House — something I touched on during the Age of Locomotion tour that I recently conducted as part of a series of four historical tours of Orchard Road for Design Orchard’s “The Non Season”.

The “motor” end of Orchard Road, a hundred years apart.

C F F Wearne and Co, one of many success stories associated with the motoring trade, was founded by two Western Australian brothers Charles Frederick Foster Wearne and his brother Theodore James Benjamin (T J B or Theo). The two had come across to Singapore in 1892 and worked their way up from being apprentices at the New Harbour Dock Company to qualify as marine engineers. In 1906, with a startup capital of 700 Straits dollars that Theo provided, C F F Wearne and Co was established as a motor garage in Theo’s brother-in-law’s coach house. This was a time when there were just a handful of cars on the island. In a matter of months, C F F Wearne and Co moved into two shophouse units in Orchard Road. Having secured the agency for Oldsmobiles, the company would expand its portfolio to include makes such as Morris, Rolls Royce, Bentley and Ford and in no time, established themselves as a main player in the business with C F F Wearne and Co becoming Wearne Brothers.

The 1910 built C F F Wearne Garage

By 1924, Wearne Brothers would be producing car bodies locally for assembly to Ford car chassis shipped to Singapore by Ford Canada for the local market. A small assembly plant was established at Penang Lane to handle the work. To avoid any conflict of interests between the Ford agency and other agencies under the Wearne Brothers umbrella, a subsidiary, Malayan Motors, was set up the same year acting as agents for agents for Armstrong-Siddley, Morris, Sunbeam, Packard, Rolls-Royce, Essex, Erksine and Standard motorcars. Malayan Motors operated out of the 1910 constructed C F F Wearnes’ garage, which stood on the site of the 1927 built Malayan Motors showroom at 14-20 Orchard Road. The 1927 building does in fact have the 1910 building appended to it, having been built in front of the older structure. This is quite evident from the difference in floor levels of the older back section and newer front section of the former showroom.

The difference in floor levels between the old and new sections of the building.

Wearne Brothers, which established the first local airline to operate out of Singapore in 1937, Wearnes Air Services (Charles Wearne was also a great aviation enthusiast), would be greatly affected by the war. War not only disrupted Wearnes Air Services operations just as it was about to see returns on the investment and Wearnes’ other businesses operations, war would affect the Wearne brothers in a very personal way. Whilst Charles and Theo made it out of the very last shipping convoy to leave Singapore just a few days before the inglorious Fall of Singapore, two of Charles’ sons would become Prisoners of War. Charles also passed on at the age of 71 in Mandurah, Western Australia, a year before the war ended.

Malayan Motors made its last sale in the showroom in August 1980, after which the company consolidated it operations at its Leng Kee Road branch. The showroom was renovated in 1988 and used by the Singapore Manufacturers’ Association as SMA House and from 2002 to 2020, the building was used by the private school Management Development Institute of Singapore or MDIS.

The former showroom was a witness to war.

Let there be light!






The haunted spiral staircase

28 03 2022

A tale most of us in Singapore would have heard, is that of the spiral staircase found in the National Museum of Singapore being haunted. Cohorts of visiting school children seem to have heard it, with the take seemingly taking a creative turn with each generation.

The mysterious spiral staircase.

One often retold version of the tale, which has found its way into print in Editions Didier Millet’s 2011 publication “Singapore at Random”, has it that the ghost that is associated with the staircase is that of a former museum director Carl A Gibson-Hill. Gibson-Hill’s death in 1963, just days before he was due to relinquish the museum directorship, was ruled to be a suicide. While the death took place at his residence at Seton Close, Gibson-Hill is said to haunt not just the staircase but has also been “sighted” in the museum’s other spaces.

Digging around, it does however seem that the tale of the haunted spiral staircase predates the unfortunate director’s death. In a newspaper article in 1979 in the New Nation, the author Terry Tan admits to not having visited the museum since 1959, giving two possible reasons for his reluctance to do so. One, was how the “pervading gloom of the whole place lent credence to the spiral staircase being haunted” – which does show that the rumours were already around in 1959, four years before Gibson-Hill’s death. In addition to that a member of the museum’s staff that Tan had spoken to, speculated there were the heads of Orang Asli stored on the museum’s roof (to which the old staircase led). Although there seems little possibility about that story about the heads being true, Tan felt that it might have been a possible reason for the rumour behind the spiral staircase.

There possibly are quite a few more versions of the tale. Whatever it is we can quite safely assume that it isn’t Gibson-Hill who is responsible for the sound of the footsteps on the spiral staircase that some of us might have heard. Who or what haunts the staircase, and the reasons why, is still to me as much as mystery as it was when I was first told the story as a schoolboy.








Breaking KD Malaya’s last ship up

11 03 2022

For those whose connection with Singapore’s far north go back to the 20th century, the road to the causeway was one littered with an interesting range of sights. One such sight that would certainly have caught the eye, was that of KD Malaya, a camp from which Malaysia’s navy – Tentera Laut DiRaja Malaysia (TLDM) or Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) had its fleet based at until 1979, and which was used as a TLDM training facility right until 1997.

KD Malaya from Admiralty Road West – the layout of the buildings gave an appearance of the bow of a huge ship.

The centrepiece of the base was it large parade ground, beyond which an administrative building and two barrack buildings took on the appearance of the bow of a huge ship with the camp’s flagstaff seemingly a foremast. This was quite a remarkable sight, as one came around an area of Admiralty Road West that contained Hawkins Road refugee camp and View Road Hospital (the area was featured in Secrets in the Hood Episode 5).

The former KD Malaya, seen in 2020 after Admiralty West Prison vacated it.

The wondrous sight of the former KD Malaya is now one has quite sadly been lost to the frenzy of redevelopment has now reached Singapore’s once sleepy north, with the Woodlands North Coast development beginning to take shape. While the camp’s streamline moderne inspired former administration block may have been kept for posterity, the two barrack buildings that contributed to the sight has since been demolished. Along with that, the parade square, which had provided the setback to take the wonderful view in, has also been consigned to history. This breaking of a link with our shared history with Malaysia, through the removal of a significant physical reminder of it seems especially ironic with the development nearby of a new link to Malaysia through the Rapid Transit System.

Only the administration block remains today (with a granite-faced staircase leading up to it).

I shall miss the sight of the former KD Malaya, with which I have been familiar with since my childhood. Together with the wonderful spaces and landmarks in and around it, it has provided great joy and comfort, especially with much of the rest of a Singapore being transformed in a way made it hard to identify with. While KD Malaya’s administration block is being kept, my fear is that it becomes just another building in a space overcrowded with a clutter of structures of a brave new world – as seems the case many other developments in which heritage structures are present. An example is the transformation of the joyously green space around old Admiralty House into the monstrous Bukit Canberra development into which a ridiculous amount of concrete has been poured in and around which a clutter of structures has conspired to reduce the presence of the stately arts and crafts movement inspired old Admiralty House.

A road is being built around the site.

There is also the matter of KD Malaya’s gateposts, which will have to be relocated. Whatever happens to it and wherever it will eventually be re-sited, my hope is that it doesn’t go the way of the old National Library’s gateposts. Originally left in situ to mark the site of a much loved Singaporean building, the gateposts have since suffered the indignity of being displaced and put in a position in which it has become …. just another part of the scene.

KD Malaya’s old gate.
The road to perdition. Work on the Rapid Transit System is taking place, which will cross over that body of water that is seen to Johor Bahru.
Will the former Rimau Offices / View Road Hospital (and its unusual above ground “bomb-proof” office) be the next to go?




A lost world

10 03 2022

Photographs of a lost world that exists in a part of Singapore that has been reclaimed by nature.





The first Royal Sailors’ Rest House outside of the UK

3 03 2022

Perched on an elevation right across from the dockyard gates, the attractive building that housed Aggie Weston’s Royal Sailors’ Rest stood as out as one of the more noticeable structures in the huge naval base in Sembawang. Designed by preeminent architectural firm Swan and Maclaren and completed in 1963, the Royal Sailors’ Rest featured 50 cabins, a restaurant, games rooms, tennis courts and a swimming pool. Established by a Royal Navy and Royal Marines charity established by Dame Agnes “Aggie” Weston whose history goes back to 1876, the sailors’ rest house was the very first to be established outside of the United Kingdom.

The former Aggie Weston’s

Endowed with a complete set of facilities to meet the needs of Royal Navy personnel, especially those coming in with the fleet being put up at nearby HMS Terror, the life of the first overseas Aggie Weston’s would close in a matter of eight years.


The Royal Sailors’ Rest opening to great fanfare in 1963

https://www.britishpathe.com/video/VLVA20B4RKED2RZ0IAJPPOEPUQFIG-SINGAPORE-BRITISH-NAVAL-RATINGS-IN-NEW-CLUB-HOUSE-16MM


The construction of the sailors’ rest came as part of a modernisation programme for the naval base initiated in the early 1960s with a view to the continued future use of the base. Singapore, along with Aden, had been identified as important bases to be retained by the Harold Macmillan led Conservative government then in power in the UK. This came even as Britain’s development of amphibious task forces minimised the need for overseas bases. The policy was however reversed in a matter of years by the Labour government led by Sir Harold Wilson which came into power in 1964. A defence white paper published in 1966 would lead to the eventual withdrawal of British forces based in Singapore at the end of October 1971, and this meant that the first overseas Aggie Weston’s would operate for a period of only eight years.

All was however not lost for the beautifully constructed recreational complex. With the pullout, a small Australian, New Zealand and UK joint force under the ANZUK pact was established in Singapore from which both the UK and the Australians would withdraw from, resulting with the deployment of the New Zealand Defence Forces as the sole foreign force stationed in Singapore to supplement its defence needs from 1975. New Zealand NZForSEA (New Zealand Force South Easr Asia) was formed in 1974 to take on this role and the former Aggie Weston’s would find use again as Fernleaf Centre, which would be used as a recreational space, a transit centre and as quarters for unmarried members of the force. As Fernleaf Centre, the former sailors’ rest would see good use for some fifteen more years until the departure of NZForSEA in 1989. During this time, the centre featured a library that boasted of some 20,000 books.

Fernleaf Centre as a transit centre.

Subsequent to the withdrawal, the former sailors’ rest found use BY CDans (Civil Defence Association for National Servicemen) as its Sembawang Clubhouse, which morphed into the HomeTeamNS Sembawang, from 2000 until the brand new HomeTeamNS Khatib clubhouse was completed in June 2020.

https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=337041284012522&t=4

Today, the site remains empty and its eventual fate remains uncertain. One can however look into the crystal ball that is the Master Plan, which has the site identified as a future housing site, possibly for high-rise public housing with a plot ratio of 3.5. Whatever it is, my hope is that the building, a landmark in Sembawang and a repository of many memories and of the area’s history since 1963, is kept.

What the Master Plan says about the future of the site.




The last memories of Chia Chwee Kang

24 02 2022

The stretch of Upper Thomson Road between Yio Chu Kang and Mandai Roads is one that has was filled with sights that held a fascination for me as a child. The two large carved wooden elephants that stood out at the front of the Thai Handicraft store close what is today the entrance of Thomson Nature Park, is one such sight that remains etched in my memory. Another that I remember was the standalone building, resembling one of those that served as rest stops on the main trunk road up country in which an Ampang Yong Tau Foo eating place operated, not far from Upper Thomson Road’s junction with Mandai Road.

The area near Springleaf MRT Station (on the northbound side of Upper Thomson Road), early 1990s – courtesy of Rolf Strohmann.

Much has changed since those days with the rural communities provided the area with much of its past flavour, having long been displaced. There is however as much that is familiar in the area as there is unfamiliar. The former Upper Thomson Secondary School complex, a remnant from the 1960s, is one that is familiar, as is the Ampang Yong Tau Foo outlet, which has since moved into the row of shophouses at Thong Soon Avenue.

The former Upper Thomson Secondary School (UTSS).

Known today as Springleaf, having borrowed its name from a private housing estate of that name, the area is now associated with nature park, and more recently, an MRT station. On the side of Upper Thomson Secondary School, the MRT station opens up to an empty plot of land that awaits future development, a plot that until the 1990s, held on to the memory of the name Chia Chwee Kang (汫水港), by a cluster of temples that were found on it.

A memory of a time and place forgotten – courtesy of Rolf Strohmann.

The name Chia Chwee Kang, which translates into “fresh water stream” from either Teochew or Hokkien, was a name that the area was known by from the early 1900s. The name was a reference to a stream at the source of Sungei Seletar – the river that brought settlers into the area as far back as the early 19th century when a riverside settlement named Chan Chu Kang was established.

The source of the Seletar River – now contained within a dam.

The cluster of temples were the Chia Chwee Kang Hong San See (汫水港凤山寺), Chia Chwee Kang Tou Mu Kong (汫水港斗母宫) or Kew Ong Yah, and the Nee Soon Village Tian Gong Tan 义顺村天公坛, for which an interesting set of photographs were sent over by a Rolf Strohmann recently. Taken in the early 1990s, the photographs include quite a few taken during the Nine Emperor Gods Festival being celebrated by the Chia Chwee Kang Tou Mu Kong temple. This was just before the cluster of temples and the Chia Chwee Kang Tua Pek Kong temple that was located across the road, moved out (eventually moving into the Chong Pang Combined Temple together with three other temples in 1996). The festival incidentally, is still celebrated in a big way by the temple from the end of the eight month to the first nine days of the ninth month of the Chinese calendar, which now involves elaborate ceremonies at Sembawang beach.

The Chong Pang Combined Temple at Yishun Ring Road.

Besides the buildings of the former Upper Thomson Secondary School and the Ampang Yong Tau Foo place, the Shell service station and a row of terraced shophouses (in which the Ampang Yong Tau Foo outlet now operates), and perhaps the Nee Soon (telephone) Exchange building are all that is left to serve as markers of my childhood memories. At the southern end of the shophouse row is a Han’s café that may also serve as a marker for others. Now a household name, the café began its business in the same shophouse row as bakery back in 1978. Of Chia Chwee Kang, while its name is remembered in the Chong Pang Combined Temple some distance away, as a place, it seems now all but forgotten.

Chia Chwee Kang erased – the area where the cluster of temples were located.

Photos (Courtesy of Rolf Strohmann):






A delightful song and dance about Katong

22 02 2022

Betel Box Tours must be applauded for its most recent effort at bringing out the wonderful tales that are connect with the especially colourful district of Katong. Titled Katong Dreaming: A Musical Tour, the tour involves a walk of discovery through the district’s much storied streets with its stories told through verse, through song and through dance. Created by August Lum, Marc Nair, Mark Nicodemus Tan and Valerie Lim, and produced by Jamie Lee, two of the wonderfully talent team – Mark Tan, who takes on the role of guide, narrator and singer (he dances too) and independent movement artist Valerie Lim, expertly provide a highly entertaining and refreshing take on Katong’s streets, back lanes, personalities, cultural and religious sites. The tour is certainly well worth the two hours and the price of the ticket!

The musical tour runs until the end of March 2022 and tickets (and further information) may be obtained through: https://katongdreaming.peatix.com/.

Katong Dreaming: A Musical Tour — performed by Mark Tan and Valerie Lim.

About Katong Dreaming: A Musical Tour

Katong is always a delight to visit, with its colourful houses, sleepy streets and culinary treasures. But Katong also holds a rich history, steeped in Peranakan culture and traditions, brimming with surprising stories.

Katong Dreaming: A Musical Tour, is a performance art tour created by August Lum, Marc Nair, Mark Nicodemus Tan, and Valerie Lim. It is produced by Jamie Lee for Betel Box Tours, supported under the STB-NAC Performing Arts Tours Pilot Grant, an initiative by the Singapore Tourism Board and National Arts Council to encourage the development and test-bedding of innovative performing arts tours by tour operators.

This two-hour walking tour begins at the southern border of Katong at East Coast Road before winding through Ceylon Road, Joo Chiat Road, Koon Seng Road, and Tembeling Road. In three broad chapters, familiar experiences of food, faith and historical landmarks are woven together through cross-disciplinary art forms into a groundbreaking blend of musical theatre, site-specific performance and tour guiding.


Valerie Lim and Mark Tan

About the Artists:

Marc Nair is a poet who works at the intersection of art forms. His work revolves around the ironies of everyday life. He has published ten collections of poetry.

Valerie is an independent movement artist. The mysteries of the human body, multi-disciplinary and immersive works deeply thrill her. She believes life must be spent pursuing what makes us feel the most alive.

August is a musical storyteller, who has been making sounds for a variety of mediums, from stage to film to theme parks as well. Included in his wish-list is the desire to write music for a dramatic series, as well as background music for certain public spaces.

Mark is a musician, writer, performer, and tourist guide. All of the aforementioned stages allow him to talk about his loves for art, music, history, football, and cricket, to audiences who have no choice but to listen.


Photographs taken during the tour





Singapore Airshow 2022

15 02 2022

The Singapore Airshow, probably the last large-scale trade event that was held in Singapore before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in early 2020, makes a return this year to position Singapore to tap on the anticipated strong recovery and growth in civil aviation especially in the Asia-Pacific region.

The ST Engineering stand

Held from 15 to 18 February 2022, the biennial event is being held in the midst of a still ongoing slowdown in civil aviation that even in its scaled-down eighth edition will see some 600 participating companies from more than 39 countries or regions. More than 70% of the top 20 global aerospace companies will be present and the show expects to see in excess of 13,000 trade attendees. This edition of the show will however not be open to the public and will be a trade visitor only event.

The Boeing 777-9 during the Flying Display

A key area of focus for the airshow will be sustainability. The inaugural “Sustainable Aviation Forum” is being held on 16 and 17 February to bring experts in to discuss challenges and opportunities within sustainable aviation and sustainability of future technology in areas of air mobility and aviation operations. The Singapore Airshow is also making its own efforts towards sustainability. Not only will it be largely paperless, the show is also being powered by solar energy. Some 15,000 solar panels have been installed on the roof of the Changi Exhibition Centre!

Airbus 350-1000 during the Flying Display

A popular feature of the airshow is the flying displays. This edition will feature a total of eight such displays that will see the participation of four air forces, as well as Airbus and Boeing. Aircraft that will be seen for the first time at the airshow will be the highly manoeuvrable and rather impressive Indian Air Force’s single engine Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), Tejas. The Airbus’ A350-1000 and Boeing’s wide-bodied B777-9 will also be making its show debut.

The Tejas on the ground

Returning to the flying displays will be Indonesia’s Jupiter Aerobatic Team, which was last seen in 2018. Also coming back are a F16C fighter jet displaying solo aerobatics, and a pair of AH-64D Apache attack helicopters from the Republic of Singapore Airforce and the United States Marine Corps’ F-35B Lightning II and a United States Air Force’s B-52 Stratofortress in a fly-by.

The Tejas doing what it does best in the air.

The flying displays will be held once a day at 12:30pm on 15 February, and 11:30am on 16, 17 and 18 February and the public can catch these displays via livestream at go.gov.sg/sa22live or on the Singapore Airshow’s Official Facebook page.

The F35-B Lightning II with up to 40,000 of thrust directed downwards (in hover mode)

Other highlights of the airshow include the many innovative defence and security products on show at the Singapore Technologies Engineering stand. This includes the Terrex 8×8 Infantry Fighting Vehicle, configured as a “mothership” or a launch pad for unmanned aerial vehicles and robots. Equipped with vehicle mounted cameras that give its operators an all round view through a virtual “windscreen” and “rear-view mirror”. It is also able to see through other eyes such as drones and robots and unmanned weapon mounted vehicles it operates remotely.

The hybrid drive system of the Terrex.

Another feature of the Terrex is its hybrid Diesel-DC electric drive system that features an externally mounted system which maximises space within the vehicle. The Terrex can operate silently with its diesel driven generator turned off using battery power. It has a range of 20 to 100 kilometres in this mode, depending on its configuration.

The “windscreen” inside the Terrex





Old Changi Hospital — a chance to visit for the 80th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore

9 02 2022

The three blocks that make up the former Changi Hospital are probably some of the most misunderstood buildings in Singapore. Much has been speculated about them and how they were used during the Second World War, leading to the buildings having gained a reputation for something that they are not.

A tour of the former hospital in 2017.

Just what role did two of the hospital’s original blocks play? Why were they built in Changi? How were they part of the overall strategy for the defence of Britain’s possessions in the Far East? What happened in them during the war? These are questions that I hope to answer during a specially arranged visit that will permit us to have a look at the buildings behind the security fence for a tour that I will be conducting in conjunction with Changi Chapel and Museum’s (CCM) programme being organised to mark the 80th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore.

Block 24. What role did it originally play?

Two sessions of the tour will be conducted on 19 Feb 2022, which will begin with a docent-led tour of CCM through which will provide participants with a better understanding of Changi as a military site, how it became associated with captivity – both military and civilian, and provide a deeper appreciation of the experience of the civilian and military internees. Following the docent-led tour at CCM, participants will travel by coach to the site of the former Changi Hospital where my section of the tour will begin.

In a hospital ward with a view that will change the perspective of what the hospital was and what it meant.

Registration for the tour will begin at 10 am on 10 February 2022. Please visit https://ccm1-och22.peatix.com/ for more information, tour times and to register. Information can also be found on the CCM website. I will also be doing two tours of the former Tanglin Barracks (Dempsey Hill) to explore its connections with the Second World War, one on 12 February and another on 5 March 2022, both from 9am to 10.30am (more at this link).





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.





The soon to be lost post office of old along Alexandra Road

15 12 2021

I have always enjoyed a visit to one of the few remaining standalone post offices of old, and make it a point to use one whenever I am able to. Quite unlike those of the new age, which tend to be tucked away in a hard-to-get-to location in the upper floors of a shopping mall or a community centre, they are much more accessible and conveniently position, with a small car park that makes running into one much less of a complicated task.

It was therefore sad to hear that one such post office — the Alexandra Post Office, whose services I used as recently as the 3rd of November, may soon be another one of to many things of the past. A joint HDB and SLA announcement issued this afternoon, has it that it is being acquired to permit public housing to be built on the narrow section of land between Alexandra Road and Prince Charles Crescent that the Post Office sits on.

Alexandra Post Office, as it was on 3 Nov 2021.

Built as Alexandra Road Post Office as part of a 5-year-plan launched in 1956 to develop a postal service that was “second to none” through the construction of some 22 new post offices and by improving efficiency and economy in operations, the post office was opened on 24 August 1957 by then Minister for Communications and Works, Mr Francis Thomas.

The post office now occupies a small section on the ground floor of the 1957 building, which at its opening, held the second largest postal delivery and distribution centre after the General Post Office.

Designed with a modern façade by architectural firm Chung and Wong — whose claim to fame were well-known buildings such as the Haw Par House of Jade at Nassim Road and the Tiger Balm Clock Tower Building at Selegie Road and Short Street and a firm at which Haw Par Villa’s actual villa’s architect, Ho Kwong Yew, had a stint in — the post office featured living quarters for its postmaster and family. It was also constructed to act as a postal distribution centre that was second in size to the General Post Office. The post office at its opening had a staff of 17 postmen, 2 clerks and was headed by postmaster Mr Horbex Singh.

Pat’s Schoolhouse, has occupied a larger portion of the building since 2008. One of the features of the building are the ventilation blocks that are reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s designed buildings.

With the push to move postmasters out of their co-located post office quarters in the 1970s, and with the decline in demand for postal services through the use of email and online communications, standalone post offices such as Alexandra Post Office have seen the space required for postal services greatly reduced. As such the few that are surviving have seen the excess floor area, popular with preschools, being rented out. Alexandra Post Office for example, which was the first to be used by a preschool, has had a greater proportion of its floor area occupied by Pat’s Schoolhouse since 2008.

While the announcement may spell the end for Alexandra Post Office, it will not be the last of the post offices of a time forgotten. Several post offices or old, or at least the buildings that housed them are still around. It would nice to at least see some of them kept to recall how these post offices and their postmasters provided an important service in the many rural communities scattered across the island.





The ghosts of Christmases past

13 12 2021

First turned-on 37 years ago today on 13th December 1984, Orchard Road’s annual Christmas Light-up is now in its 38th edition. Bringing cheer especially in the last two years with the uncertainty of the pandemic looming over us, the light-up has become a constant in Singapore bringing with it symbols of celebration that have actually little to do with Singapore or for that matter, with the celebration of Christmas. So, how did these symbols come to represent Christmas? When did the practice of lighting-up for Christmas even start? How did Christmas come to be commemorated with such zeal in in Christian minority Singapore? How did what is the only form of lighting-up we are now allowed along Singapore’s main shopping street come about? We may have to call up a few ghosts of Christmases past, to find the answer … 


Christmas is a religious holiday that has become a universal celebration. This is also the case in modern Singapore in which the year-end is now very much anticipated for its promise of cooler weather, as a time for holidays, and for the feeding and shopping frenzy that it seems to bring to Orchard Road –Singapore’s main shopping street. It is a time when the street is also transformed into a fairyland of Christmas lights and is filled with popular symbols that we now associate with the celebration of Christmas. It is not hard to miss a Christmas tree, that jolly and rather rotund figure whom we call Santa Claus or Father Christmas, and representations of wintery scenes and snow – all of which not only have nothing to do with balmy Singapore or for that matter, little to do with the Christmas message.  

Orchard Road during the Christmas Light-Up, 2016

The attempt on my part to tie all of these to the “Ghost of Christmas Past” – a character from Charles Dickens’ well-loved tale “A Christmas Carol” – is quite deliberate. Published in 1843, the tale served as the inspiration for how Christmas would be celebrated in Britain, and throughout the English speaking world. This ultimately, also set the expectations for what we in the modern world and in an urban setting, now consider to be Christmassy.

idPublished in 1843, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is thought to have given us the idea of that wintry Christmas.

Our rather unrealistic expectations in dreaming of that White Christmas, is one of the things that “A Christmas Carol” must surely have inspired. While such wintery scenes isn’t something we might immediately associate with London – the city in which Dickens’ tale is set, it was just what Dickens depicted in his tale drawing on his experience of Christmas in his formative years. It was a particularly cold decade into which Dickens was born into, during which the Thames actually froze over on more than one occasion, and this may just be why we now all dream of that white Christmas.  

A frost fair on the River Thames 1814.

The greeting “Merry Christmas” is another thing that “A Christmas Carol” is thought to have inspired. Used in abundance throughout the tale, the greeting would find its way to the very first Christmas cards, produced in the same year the book was published.

Christmas card designed by John Callcott Horsley, 1843.

One symbol that Dickens did not inspire was Santa Claus – that jolly and rather rotund representation of the Greek saint, Saint Nicholas, whom we often see getting stuck in the chimney. This version of how the saint is represented can be attributed to Thomas Nast, an American political cartoonist of German origins, whose sketch of “Merry Old Santa Claus” – published in Harper’s Weekly in 1881 – was what influenced how generations of children see the ancient saint. Saint Nicholas wasn’t quite depicted as a merry figure prior to this, or even in even in Nast’s initial renderings of the saint going back to the 1863.

Thomas Nast, an American political cartoonist of German origins, whose sketch of “Merry Old Santa Claus” was published in Harper’s Weekly in 1881

While Nast did provide the basis for how we see Santa Claus today, he was by no means the first to identify St Nicholas – Sinterklass to the Dutch – as Santa Claus in the English speaking world, nor the first to sketch him without his saintly robes. An 1823 poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore is often cited as the basis for the identification of Saint Nicholas as Santa Claus. There is however, an anonymous 8-verse poem that was published two years before Moore’s poem, in which “Santeclaus” was illustrated. This was perhaps the first publication in the English language to both identify and depict a modern “Santa”.

1821 depiction of “Santaclaus” accompanying an 8-verse poem.

For many homes, Christmas isn’t Christmas without a Christmas Tree, a tradition that has its roots in continental Europe, particularly in Germany. Like Santa and the idea of a White Christmas, this found its way into the English speaking world in the 1800s. The popularity of decorating fir trees in England took off with the publication of an image of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the royal family gathered around a decorated Christmas Tree in the Illustrated London News in December 1848. Prince Albert, who was of German origins, is said to have introduced the custom to the royal household. The custom seemed to have arrived to the shores of America, where there were also many settlers of German origin, a little earlier, as can seen in a picture published in 1845.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the royal family gathered around a decorated Christmas Tree (published in the Illustrated London News in December 1848).
Picture of a Christmas Tree published in Philadelphia in 1845.

Christmas trees were initially decorated with candles for illumination, a practice that was rather hazardous. An invention in 1879, one of humankind’s most important – the lightbulb – would lend itself to both greater safety and also to the street light-ups of the modern day. The lightbulb’s inventor, Thomas Edison is in fact also credited with inspiring electric Christmas lighting.  Edison’s business partner and friend, Edward Johnson, produced the first string of Christmas Lights in 1882, getting his idea from Edison’s display of lights outside his lab during Christmas two years earlier. It would however take a couple of decades, when electricity became widely available, that the invention would eventually achieve its potential. 

Thomas Edison inspired Edward Johnson’s String of Christmas Lights.

It would then take another couple of decades before lighting up for Christmas became an established practice. Initially, buildings were lit-up individually for Christmas – such as was the case of the Potomac Power Company’s building in 1920. However in 1923, America’s very first National Christmas tree was put up in by President Calvin Coolidge, which was lit by 3000 electric lights.  The decade would also see light-ups on streetwise scale being introduced, such as that of Christmas Tree Lane in Altadena, California in 1923 and by the 1930s, fairly elaborate Christmas street light-ups seem to be a norm in cities across the US.

Potomac Electric Power, Christmas greetings, 1920 / National Christmas Tree, 1923
(source: Library of Congress)
Christmas Tree Lane, Altadena, 1923 / Christmas Lights, Los Angeles, 1937
(sources Security Pacific National Bank Photo Collection / Herman J Schultheis Collection)

The practice of illuminating buildings also made its way across the “pond” to Britain in the 1930s, with large stores such as Selfridges on Oxford Street, lighting up for Christmas since 1935. Britain would only see its first organised street Christmas light-up in the post-World War 2 era. This was introduced in 1954, in an attempt to liven up a dreary post-war London. Lighting up Regent Street, the annual light-up continues to this very day.

Selfridges, Oxford Street, London, 1935.
Regent Street, London, 1955 / Regent Street, London, 2018
(2018 photo: Jerome Lim, The Long and Winding Road)

In Singapore, Christmases were initially celebrated in a big way only by Christians and among the colonial elite who brought with them traditions that included Christmas Trees and Santas, the spirit of giving, and also the excesses that came with the season. From the outset, Christmas seemed as much a religious event as it was a celebration for the shops and on the evidence of advertisements for the sale of Christmas goods that go as far back as the mid 1800s, stores would be stocked up for the season. What many had on offer were toys and other gifts, foodstuff, and ornaments as is the case today. It would seem that it was also very much a celebration for the children.

Christmas in Singapore
Eastern Daily Mail and Straits Morning Advertiser, 6 Dec 1906; The Straits Times, 26 Dec 1912; Daily Mercury, 27 Dec 1941

Homes, churches and certain offices, were initially the places that would be gaily decorated. Decoration -wise, stores that catered to the European clientele, would welcome Christmas in a big way only after the war. Decorations initially involved simple decorations, which on evidence of old photographs, became more elaborate as the years went by. The idea of fake snow, which we may think of as a more recent introduction, actually arrived here as far back as 1949. It was Robinsons in Raffles Place that provided the residents of Singapore with that very first “white Christmas”!

“Snow in Singapore”, Straits Times, 6 Dec 1949.
Christmas Decorations in Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s.

Singapore would have to wait until 1984 for its first Christmas street light-up. This came at the climax of the celebration of Singapore’s 25 years of Nation Building. The year was one when the economy was slowing. An energy-saving drive was in full swing. The light-up was however given the green light in an effort to boost Orchard Road’s flagging reputation as a tourism destination. With permission obtained to introduce the light-up, the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) looked to the light-ups in other Asian cities, particularly Hong Kong, for inspiration.

Christmas Light-up along Orchard road in the early days (Postcards via Roots.sg)

With the aim of promoting Singapore as a vibrant city, the board financed the project, which was the brainchild of Dr Wong Kwei Cheong, then Minister of State for Trade and Industry and chairman of STPB. Among the organisers of that first light up were the Singapore Hotel Association, Singapore Retail Merchants Association and National Association of Travel Agents, Singapore. Turned on by Dr Wong on 13 December 1984,  the light-up featured 100,000 light bulbs installed along a two kilometre stretch from Ming Court Hotel (now Orchard Rendezvous Hotel) to the Istana. The cost of lighting was kept to S$30 per hour and the display was said to have formed a “tunnel of light” through Orchard Road.

The Orchard Road Christmas Light-up in 2013

Encouraged by the success of the first light-up, which lasted a matter of just three weeks, STPB decided to continue with it on an annual basis. The success would also spawn similar light-ups for the major festivals: for Chinese New Year in Chinatown, for Ramadan/Hari Raya Puasa in Geylang Serai, and for Deepavali in Little India in 1985. 

Deepavali Light-up in Little India (2021)

Decorations for the light-ups were relatively simple initially. The introduction of the “Best Decorated Complex” – now the “Best Dressed Building” – would provide a spark for building owners such as Centrepoint – a regular winner – to come up with more elaborate decorations. One example is the Fairy Tale Castle, that Centrepoint was turned into in 1988. With the turn of the century attempts were also made to introduce different themes and colour schemes on an annual basis with each year’s light-up seemingly an improvement on the last. More recently, there have also been growing concerns about the choice of themes, with some feeling that they are a distraction and a deviation from the religious aspects of Christmas. An example of this was the Disney-themed ligh-up in 2018.

Fairy Tale Castle Centrepoint was turned into in 1988 (source: Roots.sg)

Since 2019, light-ups have also been scaled down, with the last two in 2020 and 2021 being put up during the time of the pandemic. As we moved towards the 40th year of the light-up in 2023, it would certainly be nice to see us move away from the tried and tested themes, and from the use of symbols that reflect a more tropical celebration, or perhaps one that will show Singapore as Singapore rather than the clone of any other big city anywhere in the rest of the world Singapore has seemed to become.





From “Chinatown” to “China Town”

3 12 2021

The development of Singapore’s Chinatown, its reason for being, and how it does not quite fit into the same mould as the Chinatowns found across the non-Chinese world, was the topic of my previous post. Chinatown’s evolution in more recent years, first into a conservation and a tourist site as one of three of Singapore’s “ethnic quarters”, does have a significant influence on what has become of Chinatown today as a go-to place for the newest additions to the Chinese community in Singapore.

Chinatown today is part tourist attraction, a place for Singaporeans to find traditional goods for the occasion and for the new Chinese to get a taste of home.

The “new Chinese”, if I may call those more recently arrived from China that, started arriving in the wake of the setting up of diplomatic ties between the People’s Republic of China and Singapore in 1990. That opened the doors for an inflow of much needed migrant workers, along with academics, professionals, students and “study-mamas” (or peidu mama) in large numbers. Recent estimates has it that there could be as many as 400,000 new Chinese who have come Singapore, some of whom have been naturalised. Similar ethnically with their long-time Singaporean Chinese cousins who have mainly descended from southern Chinese immigrants, the new Chinese have a wider diversity in their origins, have quite different values and cultural perspectives, speak differently and have differing tastes. A natural consequence of this is the appearance of the many businesses, eateries and stores that now cater to the tastes, wants and needs of this numerically significant group.

Well patronised Northern Chinese and Sichuan food eateries along New Bridge Road.

Chinatown, and in particular, People’s Park Complex, is now where a concentration of such business can be found. People’s Park Complex, perhaps for it long-time role as a place to purchase Chinese made products since its opening in 1970, and where several remittance agents were set up in the 1990s, would attract travel agents specialising in the Chinese market, food and snack stalls, stores dealing in Chinese foodstuffs, and most recently, supermarkets. These have more or less become permanent fixtures in the shopping centre. Beyond this, food outlets are also made an appearance in and around the area of the complex. People’s Park Food Centre has now a range of food stalls offering food representative of northeastern China and also from the numb and spicy (mala) food from the Sichuan area.

Eateries and food stalls lining People’s Park Complex and People’s Park Food Centre offer a taste of home for many new Chinese.

Nearby, a long-time Chinatown landmark in the form of the former Great Southern Hotel, has been the home of Yue Hwa Chinese Products, a Hong Kong store which brings in Chinese goods and foodstuffs since 1996. The store has been a go-to place for ingredients for the more exotic types of Chinese food. It has however seen the arrival of a new competition, Scarlett Supermarket, whose name in Chinese ShiJiaKe (思家客) translates into “homesick”. The supermarket, which brings in Chinese snacks and foodstuffs and offers them at very reasonable prices, has in the short time since it opened its Trengganu Street outlet in October 2020, become popular both with new Chinese and with many Singaporeans. It has since opened stores across Singapore, including a flagship store in People’s Park Complex and by January 2022, will have 10 stores in total.

Yue Hwa Chinese Products, a Hong Kong store that was established at the former Great Southern Hotel in 1996. It has long been a go-to place to obtain ingredients for more exotic Chinese cooking.
The new kid on the block – Scarlett Supermarket, which opened its first store in Oct 2020, and has since opened several other stores across Singapore, including a flagship store in People’s Park Complex in Feb 2021.

What has become especially lively is the Chinatown food scene. This isn’t just confined to the area in and around People’s Park Complex, but has also added flavour to the scene across Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road. That is where the heart of old Chinatown was. Now an area that is at the heart of the tourist side of Chinatown, new Chinese eateries can be found along with several others along Upper Cross Street, Mosque Street, Pagoda Street, and Smith Street.

Eateries lining Mosque Street.

While the eateries may have been set up with the aim of bringing a taste of home to the multitude of new Chinese here in Singapore, many have also found regular patrons elsewhere. Three northeastern (dongbei) Chinese restaurants along Upper Cross Street for example, have become popular with the Koreans and Japanese and are featured on websites and other social media channels not just here but also in their home countries. In this way perhaps, Chinatown could be seen as playing a role of bringing people together, much like it did in the past.

A dongbei restaurant along Upper Cross Street.

While the focus of this post is on Chinatown becoming “China Town”, Chinatown today a lot more than that. As we heard in the video attached to my previous post, it is also a place for Singaporeans, especially those with past connections to the place. The renewal of Chinatown has also brought with it a host of new attractions such as the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Although the authenticity of the relic that it houses has been questioned, and perhaps whether the temple’s place in Chinatown is appropriate, it is here to stay. The temple and much of today’s Chinatown could be thought of as a continuation of the Chinatown of the past. Although not quite the same, it is still very much a place that brings people and cultures together.

Not Chinatown and not Singapore? A structure that perhaps defines the new Chinatown, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Consecrated in 2008, it was built to hold what is claimed to be a tooth of Buddha that was housed in an earthquake damaged stupa in Myanmar. Questions have been asked about the authenticity of the relic.

From Chinatown to “China Town” (video)

From Chinatown to “China Town”





What makes Chinatown Chinatown in Chinese majority Singapore?

30 11 2021

That there is a place known as “Chinatown” in Singapore seems quite odd, with Chinese settlers and their descendants having been in the majority from the mid-1800s. The origins of the name lie possibly in Singapore’s very first Town Plan. Drawn up in 1822, the plan defined areas for settlement along ethnic lines. The area where Chinatown is today, corresponds to the plan’s “Chinese Campong” and an adjacent “Chuliah Campong” (“Chuliah” or “Chulia” is a reference to those from the south of India). The term “China town” to describe the district, as reports in the English language press going back to the 1830s show, found use very early on.

Chinatown, through the eyes of its former residents (a video).

While the use of the term does suggest a similarity with other Chinatowns or Chinese dominated streets or neighbourhoods found in urban centres across the non-Chinese world, that is where the similarity ends. Singapore’s Chinatown has never quite been a “Tong Yan Kai”, the “Street of Tang People” in Cantonese, as many of the other Chinatowns are often referred to. To most in the Chinese speaking community, Chinatown was “Greater Town”, “Tai Por” in Cantonese or “Tua Po” in Teochew and Hokkien.

A statement relating to the revenue obtained from the so-called Revenue Farms in Singapore published in 1838.
“A Street in Chinatown”, 1932, Leiden University (CC BY 4.0)

Another name that the district was, and still is, associated with is “Ngau Che Shui” (in Cantonese) or “Gu Chia Chwee” (in Hokkien) and “Kreta Ayer” (in Malay). Translating into “Water Bullock Cart”, the name is a reference to the section of Chinatown around Kreta Ayer Road and Spring Street, where there were fresh water springs from which bullock carts used for the sale and distribution of fresh water were once filled. The name is now also used to refer to the larger Chinatown area.

Smith and Trengganu Street corner, 1914 with the former Lai Chun Yuen on the left.

One unique feature of Singapore’s Chinatown, is its multi-ethnic flavour. Non-Chinese houses of worship are quite a conspicuous part of it. Two of Chinatown’s streets, Pagoda and Temple Streets do in fact take their names from a Hindu temple. Another, Mosque Street is name after the Jamae (Chulia) Mosque.

The shophouse dominated streets of Chinatown with a Hindu temple, the Sri Mariamman, after which two streets are named.

The multi-dimensional quality extended to the Chinese community in Chinatown, who divided themselves along lines of dialects. The Kreta Ayer section of Chinatown for example, was home to the Cantonese, and the area around Telok Ayer and Amoy Street was predominantly Hokkien. The Teochews lived and ran businesses in the areas closer to the Singapore river. The non-Chinese communities that were added to this mix were those from southern India and smaller pockets of other communities that included the Baweanese (or Boyan). Hailing from Pulau Bawean, the Baweanese were skilled horse handlers. Many found work as gharry-drivers and made the area of the stables at Erskine Road, home. 

A Silver Chariot procession along the Streets of Chinatown during the Hindu festival of Thaipusam.
Pondok Peranakan Gelam Club – set up by the Baweanese community in Club Street near Erskine Road

The South Indian community would come to include many who came during the expansion of the port that followed the opening of the Suez Canal. Areas such as Tanjong Pagar Road on the fringes of Chinatown, became home for some, so much so that the area came to be referred to as “Little India” — a term that is now attached to the Serangoon Road area.

Decorative arch along Cook Street by Kadayanallur Muslim League on occasion of Singapore being conferred the administrative status of a city, 1951. Courtesy of Singapore Kadayanallur Muslim League.

Singapore’s Chinatown was by no means the only “China town” found on the island. As the population of Chinese settlers grew, secondary settlements developed north of the Singapore River. One, known as “Sio Po” — the “Lesser Town”. The area of Sio Po, was allocated to the Europeans in the 1822 plan. As Singapore’s interior opened up, many in the Europeans found the inland areas more conducive as places to live in, and this paved the way for Chinese settlers, who could be thought of as latecomers to the Chinese diaspora began to move into the area. The Hainanese, were among the first to move in, establishing a Tin Hou or Mazu temple at Malabar Street (where Bugis Junction is today) in 1857.

Mooncakes from trishaws and tricycles – street vendors were a common sight even up to the 1980s in Chinatown.

Geylang, could be thought of as another secondary settlement, with many being drawn to the area when its plantations started to make way for industry from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Temples were set up to cater to spiritual and community needs, along with a number of clan associations. One addition to Geylang’s clan scene in the 1920s, the Huang Clan, at which the “Father of Modern Chinese Art”, Xu Beihong, painted his highest valued works (see also: Tigers, elephants, rambutans and Xu Beihong in a garden of foolish indulgences).

A temple in Geylang.

Chinatown proper, would develop into a collection of overcrowded streets and tenements. Nestled into this were some notable cultural institutions such as Lai Chun Yuen and the Majestic Theatre, the physical reminders of which in the form of the buildings that housed them, are still around. A feature of the place were the hawkers who filled many of the streets, with their offerings of fresh produce, cooked food items and sundry goods.

An already somewhat sanitised Chinatown in 1984, with some semblance of street life. The corner of Smith and Trengganu Streets is seen here.

The lively scene on the streets, concealed what may be thought to be a shadier side of Chinatown. Behind the laundry cluttered façades of Chinatown’s numerous shophouses were congested quarters, many shared by coolies, opium and gambling dens, and numerous houses of ill repute. Hints of what did go on in the streets and behind the scenes in the dimly lit shophouses were quite unambiguously described in the colloquial names attached to Chinatown’s many colourful streets.

Colloquial street names offer a peek into the past.

Unsurprisingly, the conditions in Chinatown, made it a prime area for the secret societies. Hideouts, and gang hangouts could be found aplenty in Chinatown, together with many inconspicuous places in which weapons were hidden. Some businesses became fronts for illegal activity, while others, including streets hawkers, became targets of secret society run protection rackets. Fights over territorial control, violent reprisals and settlements of disputes were a common occurrence and with Ineffective policing, murder and mayhem ruled the streets of mid-20th century Chinatown.  

A Chinatown shophouse with cubicles arranged on its upper floor.

That Chinatown is today, a thing of the past. Much has changed since the 1960s and 1970s, when life could still be seen on the streets. Property acquisition with a view to demolition and redevelopment, would see street hawkers, other business and residents being moved, some into Chinatown Complex and Hong Lim Complex in the 1980s. A rethink the urban renewal policy would result in the protection of much of what was left, building-wise, through the conservation of the Chinatown as a precinct in 1989, thus keeping the area’s built character. This paved the way for the development of Chinatown’s identity as an “ethnic quarter” for the promotion tourism and perhaps its evolution into what it is today, a place that some would say, is a reprise of its role as a “China Town” for the new diaspora from China..

Pagoda Street, 1971, Wilford Peloquin (CC BY 2.0)
Murals, through which mural artist Yip Yew Chong brings the past into the present, have become part of the modern day Chinatown scene.





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