Saving Haw Par Villa from (certain) Death

16 11 2017

The unique, quirky and once immensely popular Singaporean attraction, Haw Par Villa, is probably best remembered for the journey it offers its visitors into hell. Its representation of the path to rebirth imagined by the Chinese in its Ten Courts of Hell is gory and uninhibited. With a full suite of the gruesome range of punishments that is thought to be meted out for earthly misdeeds, the experience is certainly one that is not easily forgotten.

Haw Par Villa in its heyday. It drew visitors from all walks of life and of all races. It was especially popular as a destination for an outing during Chinese New Year.

Hell aside, Haw Par Villa is a garden of many delights, which quite sadly seems to have well been forgotten in an age in which attention has shifted to air-conditioned malls and modern attractions. The crowds that Haw Par Villa once drew has reduced to a trickle; a trickle in which inquisitive tourists, and migrant workers who lack welcoming spaces in which to spend to their days off, far outnumber the locals.

The garden attracts hardly a crowd these days.

Haw Par Villa seems to have embarked on its own journey to damnation. Death, it appears, will soon arrive at hell’s doorstep. A museum, a showcase of rituals associated with death in various cultures, now threatens to swallow hell up. Visitors, for the price of a ticket, can come face to face with death and even have the experience of being put in a coffin. The Ten Courts of Hell, it seems, will become a part of that paid death experience.

Death comes to Haw Par Villa.

I had a peek at an exhibition put up of what is to be expected, sans the coffin that was promised. On the basis of what has been put up, it is hard to see how death could aid Haw Par Villa’s cause. Death, as we know, is quite a taboo subject in this part of the world. It is bad enough that Haw Par is already remembered more for its garish version of hell, an added association with death, serves not just to distract from its value and purpose, but may further erode the already negative image many have of Haw Par Villa.

Wielding justice without his hand, Qinguang the god of the underworld at the first court of hell.

Developed by Mr Aw Boon Haw and spread over the sprawling grounds of a magnificent seven-domed villa by the sea he had built in 1937 for his younger brother Boon Par, it was not Mr Aw’s intention to have hell or for that matter, death, celebrated in the garden. Mr Aw had the grounds decorated with figurines and tableaux with scenes from Chinese folklore and the Chinese classics. Displays also contained messages related to traditional values and moral standards and had Buddhist or Taoist themes. Even if it was a private garden, this was done with the public in mind as Mr Aw had planned to have the garden opened to the public to whom the illustrations could provide moral guidance. Mr Aw made a huge effort to ensure the illustrations were accurate in their depiction, personally supervising artisans involved. This also required Mr Aw to retell the stories associated with the scenes being created to his artisans.

The villa’s swimming pool and changing room, 1941 (source: Private George Aspinall via Australian War Memorial, public domain, copyright expired).

The changing room of the swimming pool c.1950 (Harrison Forman Collection).

The changing room displaced.

There have been several deviations from Mr Aw’s original garden. Boon Par had passed on in 1944 in Rangoon and with the house damaged, Mr Aw had it demolished in the early 1950s. With his initial plan to replace the villa with a “grand palace”, modelled along the lines of the Beijing’s Imperial Palace, as well as a subsequent proposal for a 200 feet high pagoda, rejected by local authorities, Mr Aw set out instead to expand the range of tableaux. It was also in the 1950s, that a purge against “yellow culture”, resulted in the modification and dressing up of several nude figurines.

The gardens, which was opened to the public, was popular with both locals and visitors alike. Here, Australian nurses are seen visiting it in September 1941 (source: Australian War Memorial, public domain, copyright expired).

Australian nurses visiting Haw Par Villa (with the villa seen in the background) in September 1941 (source: Australian War Memorial, public domain, copyright expired).

Boon Par’s son Cheng Chye introduced several displays that broke with the garden’s theme and its Chinese flavour after his uncle’s death in 1954. An avid traveller, Cheng Chye put up International Corners to mark his overseas trips, which contributed to the garden’s quirkiness, even if it altered its character. Judging from the numerous photographs found online, the figurines Cheng Chye introduced, were popular spots to have photographs taken at.

Yours truly mimicking the tiki at the New Zealand (International) corner in 1976. The tiki was removed during the remaking of the gardens into a theme park in the late 1980s.

The biggest change came to the garden in the late 1980s. Haw Par Villa, which had lost its lustre by this time, had come into the hands of the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, STPB (the current day Singapore Tourism Board, STB). At a cost of some S$80 million, a partnership formed by F&N and Times Publishing, turned the garden into the Haw Par Villa Dragon World. The theme park featured a water ride into a Ten Courts Of Hell that was swallowed by a dragon. The conversion resulted in several of the garden’s displays removed, including several of the International Corners. Haw Par Villa Dragon World, which opened in 1990, ran at a loss for most of its operational period and closed 11 years later in 2001.

The dragon that swallowed hell up – during its theme park days.

It would seem that Haw Par Villa has not recovered since, even the attempt to revive interest with a relaunch of it in 2014 as part of STB’s Tourism50 initiative. That promised much, but very little seems to have been delivered thus far. A contract, that if my memory serves me right was worth something to the order of $7 million, was awarded to a local operator in August 2015 for the running of the park and its rejuvenation. This, based  on a 15 October 2015 op-ed by Melody Zaccheus in the Straits Times, should have included the opening of five dining outlets and the transformation of the park into a place for art exhibitions, performances, flea markets, and yoga, taiji and wushu sessions. More than two years into this, little except that is for sketchy mentions of intent and promises for an application for UNESCO Heritage listing to be submitted, seems to have been done.

A view of the “Signature Pond” c.1950 (Harrison Forman Collection).

Drowning in sorrow – thin crowds and a now submerged Signature Pond .

Describing the garden as a “unique Chinese cultural resource”, “the only one of its kind left in the world”, the writer opined that urgent attention was needed with regards to its conservation. Little also seems to have moved in this respect since then. A heritage survey would have been conducted based on what was also mentioned. It would be interesting to see what, if anything, that could tell us about the park’s potential for conservation.

A display that has since been censored. A depiction of the Spider Spirits who attempted to impede the progress of the Monk Xuanzang in the story Journey to the West by trying to entice him through their transformation into beautiful maidens (source: G. Bertschinger on Flickr, Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 2.0).

The spider spirits were modified to appear less provocative and clothed in response to a movement against “yellow culture” in the 1950s.

The urgency to have Haw Par Villa conserved is certainly there with the development of the Greater Southern Waterfront looming over the horizon. That may not be due for some time yet, but this being Singapore, the planning effort for that would surely be carried out well in advance. Haw Par Villa, if it isn’t already in it, has to be part of that plan.

A Datuk Kong, who has quite clearly been resettled.

The park’s value from a heritage perspective, is not just in the lessons in Chinese values and culture it offers, but also for it as a showcase of a well forgotten side Chinese culture. Brought in by our less refined Chinese immigrant forefathers, it serves to remind us as well as tie us to a less refined side of a culture than isn’t necessary the same as the Chinese culture that is pervasive today. The garden is also a monument to the legacy of Mr Aw Boon Haw, who besides putting Singapore on the map with Tiger Balm, made significant contributions to society and was well regarded as a philanthropist. The park, built at a time when the municipality lacked public recreational spaces, is a reminder of this.

An ad for UTA French Airlines in 1965 suggesting a stopover in Singapore for its attractions, one of which was the “fantastic presentation of Chinese mythology at Haw Par Villa”.

The challenge in preserving Haw Par Villa for our future generations is in the revival and the subsequent maintenance of interest and relevance. In a letter written to the press on 31 Oct 2017, Mr Toh Cheng Seong expressed concern on the Death Museum and at the same time, provided several useful ideas. Rather than going on their own, STB and its operator will do well to seek input from the likes of Mr Toh, members of the wider community – young and old alike, and subject experts. For the attraction’s dying ambers to be rekindled, it has to be in the hearts and minds of all of us in Singapore. Any attempt to move ahead with none of us in mind will surely see the last of the 20,000 lights that Haw Par Villa once had a reputation for, extinguished.

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The machine gun pillbox café at Changi Beach

10 11 2017

How I miss my outings as a child to Changi Beach. High tides occurring on a Sunday morning often meant a trip to the beach for a dip. Trips to Changi Beach, which meant a long but scenic drive in days when the word “expressway” did not feature on a Singaporean driver’s vocabulary, were always looked to with much excitement and were not without preparation.

Changi Beach, 1965

A day at  Changi Beach, 1965.

Mum would often prepare a delicious tiffin. Mee goreng or chicken curry served with local versions of the French baguette were my favourites. Dad would ask to have his thermos filled with kopi-o from the nearby kopitiam. Straw hats and mats, tiny pails and spades for sand play, inflatable floats, my grandma, my sis and me could then be packed into the trusty Austin 1100 for the drive – part of which featured the seemingly never-ending and still very rural Tampines Road.

Picnics out of the Car Boot, Changi Beach, late 1960s.

Changi Beach had then a very different feel. It was uninterrupted for miles, running from the spit at the mouth of Changi Creek to the cliffs at Tanah Merah Besar. Ketapang (sea-almond), acacia, sea apple, coconut, and casuarina trees lined the beach and its popular stretches were lined with sampans for hire, and within sight of that, inner truck tire tubes for use as floats and deck chairs were displayed – also for hire.

Under an acacia tree, Changi Beach, early 1970s.

Sampans for hire (photo courtesy of Lies Strijker-Klaij and posted On A Little Street in Singapore).

One of the things also associated with the beach that I was recently reminded of from a posting of photographs by Mrs Lies Strijker-Klaij, were the beach-side cafes. Housed in wooden shacks – much like those now found in some beaches in the region – they served the delicious Malay fare and were popular with the beach crowd as were the mobile food vendors who made an appearance. The fish and chips van was a regular, as were several bell-ringing ice-cream vendors and the Indian men balancing delicious a tray of vadai or a rack of kacang putih.

The vadai vendor with a tray balanced on his head. The wooden base opened up as a folding support (photo courtesy of Lies Strijker-Klaij and posted On A Little Street in Singapore).

A vadai vendor and a beach-side café similar to the ones I remember at Changi Beach in the background (photo courtesy of Lies Strijker-Klaij and posted On A Little Street in Singapore).

Thinking about all that also reminds me of the machine gun pillboxes that lined the beach in my earlier years. Built to fend off would be invaders, they decorated the southward facing coastline. Many were filled with rotting matter and stank to high-heaven. There was also a pillbox along the beach that was a café operated out of. I don’t quite remember it but I recall my parents making reference to it as “chipot”. I never quite figured its name out, that is until quite recently. My dad explained that it was a name parents used for the want of a better name,  derived from how the Chinese lady who ran the café would repeated an order for a pot of tea, “chi pot” – a combination of the colloquial Hokkien word for one and the English pot!

A Pillbox at Changi Beach.

A similar pillbox at Mata Ikan in the 1970s.





A voice from View Road’s past

2 11 2017

A voice from the former View Road Hospital’s past: an ex-resident Roszelan Mohd Yusof from the days when it was the Naval Base Police Asian Quarters, revisits the units in which he lived from the 1960s up to 1972 (see video below).

Best known as a former mental hospital (used as a rehabilitation centre from 1975 to 2001 for long-term schizophrenia patients as well as to allow them to work, reintegrate and return to society), the building had prior to that been used as a quarters for Asian Naval Base Policemen and their families.

A large proportion of the residents of the quarters were Sikhs and Malays. There was also a Pakistani family, and a Bangladeshi family living there, as well as one Nepali family.  The lower floor of the north wing, which  housed the Chart Depot, was out of bounds to the residents, as well as the observation tower and the bomb-proof office.

The last Naval Base Police Force residents were allowed to vacate their flats in 1972, following the disbandment of the Naval Base Police Force a month after the British Pull-out.  More of what is known on the building’s history is also seen in the video.


More on the former View Road Hospital and the visit that was organised to it:

 





Lost Singapore: The hundred steps to a thousand Buddhas

1 11 2017

Of the many places in Singapore we have lost over the years, none might have possessed the magical quality of the Hall of A Thousand Buddhas standing at the top of Mount Washington. From its isolated perch, even if it was merely 80 metres above sea level, it would have seemed that heaven was a lot closer to it than was earth. A sanctuary for prayer, and perhaps for contemplation, the ascent to it would – at least for the devoted – involved a climb of a hundred steps.

A view from afar with the two 19th century Guanyin temples also seen (photo posted by Tan Chee Wee on On A Little Street in Singapore).

In as magical a fashion as the hall might have been, photographs of the temple have quite recently come to the surface – in the same wonderful photograph sets posted by Lies Strijker-Klaij On a Little Street in Singapore. The same set includes those of the Anchor Brewery and its railway siding that made an appearance in my previous post.

The Hall of A Thousand Buddhas, c. 1960s. Photo: TH. A. STRIJKER (potsed by Lies Strijker-Klaij on On A Little Street in Singapore).

The prayer hall, also referred to as a temple, was erected by the World Buddhist Society in 1966 to commemorate the first anniversary of Singapore’s independence. An accompanying pagoda, standing close to the hall, was actually built before the hall and had been in existence since 1957 when it was built in commemoration of the then Malaya’s Merdeka. Besides the pair, two other temple buildings – built onto the slope below the hall – were also found by the long staircase. Both were dedicated to Kwan In – the goddess of mercy, with the upper temple intended for male worshippers having been of a 1871 vintage and the lower temple – for women – thought to have been built in 1884. The complex of structures adorned the summit of Mount Washington, also known as Telok Blangah Hill or Thousand Buddha Hill until the late 1980s. That was when the land on which it stood was acquired to allow an extension to Mount Faber Park, across Henderson Road (a 1972 addition), to be built; despite the appeals that were made against it. The World Buddhist Society’s headquarters, housed in the Alkaff Mansion downslope since 1970, was also acquired during the same exercise.

The Hall of A Thousand Buddhas, c. 1960s. Photo: TH. A. STRIJKER (potsed by Lies Strijker-Klaij on On A Little Street in Singapore).

The Pagoda of A Thousand Buddhas, c. 1960s. Photo: TH. A. STRIJKER (potsed by Lies Strijker-Klaij on On A Little Street in Singapore).

A close-up of the Pagoda of A Thousand Buddhas, c. 1960s. Photo: TH. A. STRIJKER (posted by Lies Strijker-Klaij on On A Little Street in Singapore).

A postcard of the hall and the pagoda.

 





The beer train from the Anchor Brewery

30 10 2017

A wonderful set of photographs popped up On a Little Street in Singapore last week. The photographs were posted by Lies Strijker-Klaij and includes several of the old Anchor Brewery at which Mrs Strijker’s husband, the photographer, headed its Brewhouse and Bottling Hall in the 1960s as an employee of Heineken. The set of the brewery includes several rare photographs of the railway siding and the bonded store that was sited across Alexander Road (where IKEA stands today), as well as an overhead conveyor bridge that was used to convey beer across to the store. Together with the brewery, the bridge was a longtime landmark in the area.

An aerial view showing the brewery, the bridge , the bonded store, and the railway siding (photo: Th. A. Strijker).

The brewery, occupied the spot where Anchorpoint (the shopping mall) and the Anchorage (a condominium) stands today. It was one of two breweries along a partly industrialised Alexandra Road, the other brewery being the Malayan Breweries Limited (MBL), a venture between Fraser and Neave (F&N) and Heineken. The Anchor Brewery, producing Anchor Beer, began as a $1 million venture by the Dutch East Indies based Archipel Brouwerij Compagnie named the Archipelago Brewery Company (ABC) on 4 November 1933. As a rival to MBL, which produced Tiger Beer, it entered into a five-year pooling agreement in March 1938.  The agreement, secured for it a 40% share of the beer market and 70% of the stout market in Malaya, with the intention that it was to eventually be extended to the breweries’ other markets in Southeast Asia, India, Hong Kong and China.

The bridge to the bonded store over Alexandra Road, 1969, decorated for the 150th Anniversary of the founding of modern Singapore  (photo: Th. A. Strijker).

A turn of events in Europe just one and a half years later would lead to MBL’s acquisition of ABC. Britain had declared war with Germany following the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. ABC, which Germany’s Beck’s Brewery had an interest in, was then abandoned by its German management team and found itself in the hands of the government, who decided to keep the brewery running under their care before putting it up for sale in 1940. MBL submitted the winning bid and set up a subsidiary – the Archipelago Brewery Company (1941) – to run the brewery in 1941.  It wasn’t to be long however before another turn of events – the Japanese invasion and occupation – saw the brewery’s operators change hands once again when Dai Nippon, the producer of Asahi Beer in Japan, was asked to operate the brewery from late 1942.

The bonded store and a train leaving it (photo: Th. A. Strijker).

MBL returned to running the breweries after the war and it was in this post-war period in 1949 when the conveyor bridge, built 6 metres above Alexandra Road, was added along with a bonded storehouse (where IKEA is today). A private railway siding, connected the store with a pre-existing industrial branch line that connected with the main line across Jalan Bukit Merah. The industrial line was in use until the early 1980s, after which it was dismantled. The brewery closed in 1990 when MBL’s brewing operations were relocated to a new factory in Tuas and together with its iconic conveyor bridge and its store, were demolished in 1993 – except for a Arts and Crafts movement inspired house along Alexandra Road – the former residence of the brew master. The conservation building, now used as a restaurant, along with several hints of the former brewery found in the names of the mall and condominium that has replaced it (and also the ABC Brickworks Food Centre), are all that now remains of a brewery that introduced to Singapore what became until the 1980s at least, its favourite beer.

A loaded train leaving the siding (photo: Th. A. Strijker).

366A Alexandra Road – another Arts and Crafts styled house in the brewery compound – in which Mr and Mrs Strijker lived in (photo: Th. A. Strijker)  

The former Brewmaster’s House – conserved in 1993.





Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets : Visit to View Road Lodge

9 10 2017

See aslo : A Voice from View Road’s Past


The Singapore Land Authority (SLA) has kindly granted permission for a series of guided State Property visits, “Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets”, the seventh of which will be to the former View Road Lodge – best known perhaps for its time as the View Road (Mental) Hospital.

IMG_3515sa

View Road Lodge in January 2011.

As a branch of Woodbridge Hospital (now the Institute of Mental Health) that operated from 1975 to 2001, View Road Hospital was used to house and treat recovering patients from Woodbridge. Many of View Road’s patients were in fact well enough to find work in day jobs outside of the hospital, which also operated a laundry, a cafe and a day-care centre with patients’ help.

IMG_5376Thought to have been completed just prior to the outbreak of war in late 1941, it is also known that the building was put to use as accommodation for Asian policemen (with the Naval Base Police Force) and their families from the end of the 1950s to around 1972. During this time, the Gurdwara Sabha Naval Police – a Sikh temple, operated on the grounds. As View Road Lodge, the building was re-purposed on two occasions as a foreign workers dormitory.

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The visit will also include a rare opportunity to have a look at an above ground bomb-shelter that had been constructed as part of the complex in 1941.

Rimau “Bomb-Proof” Office, 1941 (National Archives UK).

The details of the visit are as follows:

Date : 21 October 2017
Time : 10 am to 12 noon
Address: 10 View Road Singapore 757918

Participants should be of age 18 and above.

Kindly register only if you are able to make the visit by filling the form in below.

Registrations will close when the event limit of 30 registrants has been reached or on 14 October 2017 at 2359 hours, whichever comes first.

More on the property : Rooms with more than a view


Further information on the series / highlights of selected visits:





Normal service resumes at Novena

30 09 2017

The long awaited reopening of Novena Church, after a three-year closure for the its impressive new church building, was greeted by a crowd of several thousands worshippers at its first mass celebrated at 6.30 pm yesterday. A queue to enter the church had formed some three hours before the church was due to open its at 4.30 pm and by 4.45 pm, the 1,500 seat capacity church was already filled.

A glimpse at the insides of the new church.

The celebration of the first mass at the church comes just over three years since the last mass was celebrated in the old church on 28 September 2014. The old church was closed from October of that year with masses held at SJI Junior and Novena services held at the Church of the Risen Christ in Toa Payoh in the interim. The popular Novena services, which have long coloured Saturdays along the stretch of Thomson Road at which the church is located, resumes today with and its first Sunday masses will be held tomorrow.


Mass and Novena Service Times


Photographs from the first mass

A first glimpse of the new next to the old.

Stairway to heaven.

The 1500 seat capacity new church building was filled in a matter of minutes.

And within 15 minutes of opening, the old section of the church was also filled.

A section of the crowd.

Stained glass windows.

The new church’s first mass, dedicated to the Archangels, begins at 6.30 pm.

The first sermon.

The choir.

The crowd waiting to get in to see the new church.








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