A journey through Tanjong Pagar in 1970

23 02 2018

There is always and element of romance connected with train journeys, especially the leisurely paced journeys of the past with which one can take in the magical scenes along the way that one can only get from railway journeys. LIFE Magazine’s Carl Mydans, a legendary photograph whose work spans several decades and includes an extensive coverage of Singapore prior to the war (see “A glimpse of Singapore in 1941, the year before the darkness fell“), took one such journey out of an independent Singapore some 3 decades later, capturing a Singapore we can no longer see but through photographs of the era. The set, also includes scenes along the journey to Bangkok, along with those captured at stopovers made in West Malaysia’s main urban centres.

The photographs of Singapore are particularly interesting. There are some of the old harbour, and quite a few of the twakow decorated Singapore River along which much of Singapore’s trade passed through. There are also several street scenes, once familiar to us in the area of North Bridge Road. A couple of quite rare shots were also taken at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station including one showing a steam locomotive of a 1940s vintage, which the Malayan Railway operated until the early 1970s. There are also images of the steam locos captured during the journey.

The photographs of West Malaysia are also interesting. The replacement of rubber trees with oil palm as a crop, which had been taking place in parts of the peninsula from the 1960s to reduce Malaysia’s reliance on rubber and tin was in evidence. This is something that I well remember from the road trips to Malaysia of my early childhood. Another familiar scene from those trips were of the padi fields, which the trunk road passing through Malacca seemed to weave through. This is something Mr. Mydans also seemed to have captured quite a fair bit of.

The departure platform at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station with a prewar relic of a steam locomotive.

Malaysian Customs Inspection at the Departure Platform.

The Supreme Court and the Padang.

Hock Lam Street.

Corner of Hock Lam Street and North Bridge Road.

North Bridge Road.


The old harbour (Marina Bay today)

View of Clifford Pier and the Inner Road, and Outer Roads beyond the Detached Mole. The view today would be towards Marina Bay Sands and Marina South.

Another view of the harbour – where Marina Bay Sands and Marina South is today. The Harbour Division of the Preventive Branch of the Department of Customs and Excise (Customs House today) can be seen at the lower right hand corner.

A rainbow over the harbour.


Boat Quay and the Singapore River

Walking the plank. Coolies loaded and unloaded twakows by balancing items that were often bulkier than their tiny frames over narrow and rather flimsy planks that connected the boats to the quayside.

A view of the stepped sides of the river around where Central is today.

Boat Quay.

Coolies sliding crates that were too bulky and heavy along the plank.

Lorry cranes were sometimes used instead.

But more often than not manual labour was used.

A view of the “belly of the carp”.


The Journey North

(with stops in Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Bangkok)

A steam locomotive at what looks like Gemas Railway Station.

More steam locomotives (at Gemas?).

Inside the train cabin.

Train along a shunt line.

Rubber estates and rubber tappers were a common sight – even along the roads up north.

So were water buffaloes and padi fields.

Padi field.

Another view of a padi field.

Oil palms taking root. A drive to reduce Malaysia’s dependence on rubber and tin from the 1960s would see oil palms colour a landscape once dominated by rubber trees.

Another cabin view.

A break in the journey – a view of the Stadthuys Malacca.

Jalan Kota in Malacca.

View of the Malacca River.

The Arthur Benison Hubback designed (old) KL Railway Station .

Another view of the south end of the KL Railway Station – with a view also of the KL Railway Administration Building.

A southward view down Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin (ex Victory Avenue) with the KL Railway Station on the left and the KL Railway Administration Building on the right, also designed by Arthur Bennison Hubback.

The Railway Administration Building and Masjid Negara.

A view down Jalan Raja in KL with the BagunanSultan Abdul Samad on the left.

Another view down Jalan Raja in KL with the BagunanSultan Abdul Samad on the left and Dataran Merdeka on the right.

Sungai Siput Railway Station.

The Penang Ferry from Butterworth.

A view of Butterworth.

George Town – with a view towards the clan jetties.

The Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang.

Air Itam and the Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang.

What looks like the Leong San Tong in the Khoo Kongsi in George Town.

The Penang Hill funicular railway.

More padi fields.

Possibly southern Thailand.

Bangkok.

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Gambling at the original sands at Marina Bay

24 08 2017

Gambling at the sands at Marina Bay actually started well before Marina Bay Sands landed – on the evidence of the accounts of Munshi Abdullah. In his autobiography, “Hikayat Abdullah“, Munshi Abdullah describes the events at the time of modern Singapore’s founding in 1819 to which he had not been witness to. He did however have a reliable enough source in the form of  William Farquhar. Farquhar’s observations, as recorded by Abdullah, extended to the physical landscape around the mouth of the Singapore River and the adjacent shoreline and rather interestingly to some of what seemed to go on around the shores.

Especially interesting is a description of mouth of the river in its natural state and the superstitions the local population held of a particular stone at which offerings were made:

In the mouth of the Singapore River there were a great many large rocks, but there was a channel in between the rocks, which was as crooked as a snake when it is beaten. Among all those stones there was one with a sharp point like the snout of a swordfish, and that was called by the sea-gypsies Batu Kepala-Todak (Sword-fish-head Rock), and they believed that that stone had an evil spirit or ghost. It was at that stone that they all paid their vows, and that was the place they feared, and they set up banners and paid it honor: for they said, “If we do not honor it, when we go in and out of the straits it will certainly destroy us all”. So every day they brought offerings and placed them on that stone.

Also interesting is what must have been a most gruesome of sights greeting the newly arrived of skulls, some with hair still on them, rolling about the edge of  the shoreline. The shoreline and its sands, two centuries before it was made into part of Marina Bay and the Sands casino arrived, was also a location for what must have been some of the earliest instances of gambling in Singapore:

And all along the edge of the shore there were rolling hundreds of human skulls in the sand, some old and some new, some with the hair still remaining on them, some with the teeth filed, and others not, skulls of all kinds. Mr. Farquhar was informed of this, and when he saw them, he had them picked up and thrown out to sea; so they were put in sacks and thrown into the sea. At that time the sea-gypsies were asked, “Whose skulls are all these?”‘ And they said, “These are the heads of the victims of piracy, and this is where they were killed.” Wherever native vessels or ships were attacked, the pirates came here and divided the plunder; in some eases they killed one another in struggling for the booty; in other cases it was those whom they had bound. It was on the shore here that they tried their weapons, and here also they had gambling and cock-fighting.

A very different shoreline and river, 1819 (source: The Singapore River: A Social History, 1819-2002 by Stephen Dobbs).

Boat Quay – the site of a swamp when Raffles first landed on the opposite bank. Soil from a hill at what is today’s Raffles’ Place was used to fill the swamp (what would be the very first reclamation to take place in Singapore).

Marina Bay today, a body of fresh water where the sea had once washed up to.





Recoloured waters

2 03 2014

A view of the Singapore River from my favourite bridge, the Cavenagh Bridge. The view is now very different one from the one I did when I first set my eyes on it as a child, with the river emptied of its seemingly overladen twakows – lighters that seemed to have non-existent freeboards. The twakows provided the means to bring goods from the ocean going ships anchored in the harbour to godowns upriver and were the backbone of trading business on which Singapore owes much of its early success to. 

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The once filthy waters of the river, spilling not anymore into the harbour, but into a body of sweet water – the Marina Reservoir, carved amazingly out from the sea and is now surrounded by the modern skyline that has come up at what is today Marina Bay, has since been cleaned up – the result of a huge ten year effort that began in 1977 that also saw it emptied of its twakowsIt is the new trades – that serving new temporary imports in the form of tourists, have replaced the old, and it is this that now recolours the river’s once dark and murky waters, bringing new life to the area. 

More on the Singapore River and the old harbour:





The 5footway.inn at Boat Quay

28 06 2013

An interesting experience I had recently was a stay I had at the conservation shophouses along Boat Quay. The shophouse, or rather the upper floors of it at No. 76 Boat Quay and the next door unit No. 75, now plays host to a rather chic looking hostel, the 5footway.inn. The hostel at Boat Quay is the latest in a series of boutique hostel chain 5footway.inn’s four properties. Two are found in Chinatown and another in the Bugis area, all conveniently located within conservation districts in Singapore.

The Terrace - a lounge area which allows interaction or relaxation over a cup of coffee which also serves as the breakfast room.

The Terrace is where one can interact, relaxation over a cup of coffee, and have breakfast at.

The 5footway.inn at Boat Quay.

The 5footway.inn at Boat Quay.

I must admit that my motivation for accepting the kind offer extended by the hostel to spend a night, was have a peek inside the conservation unit and to discover how it has transformed since its earlier days when living in one of the overly crowded shophouses, many of the lower floors of which might have been used as warehouses and offices, might not have provided as pleasant an experience – especially in days when the river was better recognised for its smell rather than anything else. And with my last hostel experience going back to the well forgotten days of my lost youth, it did seem like if would also be interesting to see how hostels and the experience of staying in one has changed over the years.

The reception area. Computers are provided for use by the guests.

The reception area. Computers are provided for use by the guests.

My night’s accommodation was in a comfortable private room. Simply furnished as one might expect, it did have under a high loft bed, a small desk as well as a key-card operated locker. The desk proved to be useful –  being where I could enjoy the high speed wireless internet connection with my laptop in the privacy of the room. The wireless connections are one of the things the 5footway.inns I am told have a reputation for and pretty neat especially for one who does spend a fair bit of time in cyberspace.

The private rooms are furnished with a Queen sized loft bed.

The private rooms are furnished with a Queen sized loft bed.

Under the loft - a keycard operated locker and a desk.

Under the loft – a keycard operated locker and a desk.

The common spaces around the hostel are also rather pleasant spaces to relax in in which one can also interact with other hostel guests. The reception area is one – a row of desks arranged along one wall is where desktop computers are provided for use by the guests. The space, illuminated by both natural and artificial lighting, is decorated with Edwin Koo’s black and white prints which provide a flavour of what one does find in a gallery, Gallery 76, of the award winning photographer’s provoking images.

Another view of the reception area.

Another view of the reception area.

Another view of the terrace - which offers great views of the river ...

Another view of the terrace – which offers great views of the river …

And beyond it ... it is also a wonderful location to observe the rising of the sun.

… and beyond it … it is also a wonderful location to observe the rising of the sun.

The gallery which has a permanent display of 30 of Koo’s works, forms part of a larger common space which opens up to a terrace which provides wonderful views of the Singapore River. The common space serves both as a lounge at which seating is arranged, and where complimentary machine dispensed hot beverages and water is available, as well as a breakfast area. Breakfast is provided to guests is simple but adequate and includes cereal, toast and fruits. If one is an early bird, and if Mother Nature does oblige, breakfast can be taken at the terrace from which one is able to watch the  changing hues of the break of day. Once the sun does come up, it is in its warm golden rays that breakfast can be enjoyed in.

The view at breakfast.

The view at breakfast.

The Terrace lounge area is also where a gallery featuring award winning photojournalist Edwin Koo's works.

The lounge area is also where a gallery, Gallery 76, featuring 30 of award winning photojournalist Edwin Koo’s works is found.

One of the great things about the hostel has to be its location. Set in a row of former godowns to twakows carrying goods from sea going vessels emptied their cargo, the area the hostel finds itself in is one which has been transformed into one of the island’s destinations for food and entertainment. It is also within walking distance of shopping malls, Chinatown, the historic Civic District, the commercial district with its towering blocks of glass and steel and most importantly to the MRT and public bus stops. The location is also where some stunning nighttime views of the river and the illuminated buildings around the river can be seen – and makes it a very convenient location from which one can do an unmolested night shoot in the wee hours of the morning – after the area is emptied of its night time crowds.

A nighttime view of the river and the skyline around it from the nearby Elgin Bridge.

A nighttime view of the river and the skyline around it from the nearby Elgin Bridge.

The Elgin Bridge.

The Elgin Bridge and the north bank of the river across from Boat Quay.

A view from he terrace of the 5footway.inn.

A view from the terrace of the 5footway.inn.

Boat Quay is also close to the skyscrapers of the commercial district.

Boat Quay is also close to the skyscrapers of the commercial district.

During my stay the one thing I would have liked to have had during my stay would have been the convenience of ensuite facilities in its private rooms which it didn’t have. Having said that, I do have to also add that I do not have any negative impressions of  its common toilet and bathroom facilities. A female area is found on the lower level and a male area on the upper level – for which I can say, at least for the male facilities, quite clean and adequately sized. All in all, I found the 5footway.inn at Boat Quay, which does also have dormitory like accommodation available, to be clean and comfortable with its free high speed wireless internet, great location and affordable prices all great plus points. Certainly a stay at the 5footway.inn at Boat Quay, for anyone looking for a clean and no-frills place to stay whilst in Singapore, is one which should be considered.