Last rites, Sungei Road and the soul of Singapore

11 07 2017

The 10th of July, marked not just the final chapter for Sungei Road, but also for the generations of traders who once coloured the streets of Singapore. The closure of the popular and well-known flea market, also known as Thieves Market and Robinson Petang, saw what are technically Singapore’s last street hawkers moved off the streets. While hope for a new beginning for the collection of mostly small second-hand goods traders does exist, their continued existence is under threat by the fact they would now be scattered across town.

Hope also lies in an initiative by the President of the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods, Mr Koh Ah Koon, which was announced at a farewell of sorts organised for the market. Mr Koh hopes to resurrect the market on the sixth floor car park of Golden Mile Tower as early as on Saturday 15th July, 2017. Not all the traders however are making the move due to cost considerations and the location. There is also a chance that the move may not even be allowed to happen. Approval would be needed as it would involve a change in usage of a parking space. Whatever will be, the market as we knew it, will no longer be the one we came to know. The passing of this imperfect world modern Singapore has no place for, sees not just the loss of a place in the hearts of many of us, but also the loss of one of last places in which the soul of old and gentle Singapore could still be found.

Crowds were on hand to witness Sungei Road’s final moments.

Some traders decided to pack up early.

A lion dance to bid farewell.

Mr Koh Ah Koon, President of the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods speaks to members of the media.

The now famous Mr Kulasekaran Ramiah.

An emotional goodbye.

A final sale.

Packing up for the very last time.

Enforcement wardens move in – must say they were generally helpful and friendly.

All packed and ready to go.

Some made a quicker exit.

A last ride.

The final walk.

The closure of the flea market leaves Singapore like a head without body (and soul).

The cleaners are quickly sent in.

The closure gives many of the traders a feeling of being alone in the darkness.







A postcard from the past: Shaw House and Lido

29 06 2017

Another landmark of the Orchard Road that I loved was the old Shaw House. That, stood at the corner of Orchard and Scotts Road through the 1960s to the 1980s. What made the building special was the branch of The Chartered Bank that was housed on its ground floor, a branch that my mother frequented and one at which I obtained my favourite piggy bank that was modelled after the Disney cartoon character Donald Duck. Completed in 1958, the modern 10-storey block was lit the path for the eventual transformation of Orchard Road. It was one of two that the Shaw Brothers built, the other being Lido Theatre next to it – a cinema at which I caught many Pink Panther movies. In its latter years, Shaw House was also where a popular restaurant Copper Kettle opened.





A postcard from the past: a view over the Killiney Road area in the 1970s

22 06 2017

Another postcard from the past: a view over the Killiney Road and River Valley area in the early 1970s. What can quite clearly be made out is Killiney Road, Dublin Road, Lloyd Road, Tiverton Lane and Devonshire Road at the bottom of the picture. Some of the buildings that are identifiable in the foreground include the old Killiney Road Market (from its roof), Mitre Hotel, and if you look hard enough, the roof of 38 Oxley Road!

What this postcard brings to mind is in fact 38 Oxley Road, which has been very much in the news of late. I was first made aware of it being the house of the then Prime Minister from the backseat of the car of a neighbour, Uncle Singh. We were in the vicinity one evening and Uncle Singh decided to drive through the short stretch of Oxley Road (that was before entry to the stretch was restricted to residents) just to show his son and me where the Prime Minister lived, pointing the Gurkha guards manning the sentry posts out as he drove past. This would have been sometime in 1969 or 1970 as I was in kindergarten then. What I don’t recall was why we were in the area (we were living in Toa Payoh), or what I was doing in his car. I do remember the car, an old and rather beat up Austin Cambridge, which had a corroded floorboard and torn PVC upholstery on its backseat – so much so that the coconut husk used for the filling of its cushion was showing through.





The Italian captain who bought Pulau Bukom …

10 06 2017

Except perhaps for sculptor Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli, whose magnificent work adorns the old Supreme Court, little is known of Singapore’s many connections with the Italian community – except perhaps of the community’s many culinary offerings we are now able to find. It may therefore come as a surprise that the connections do go well back –  even before Italy as an entity existed and that Singapore’s Pulau Bukom was once owned by an Italian man.

Explore Singapore’s surprising Italian connections at The Italian Connection at the Fullerton Hotel.

Pulau Bukom is perhaps better known to us as the island on which Singapore’s successful journey into the oil refining trade, had its beginnings. Shell, who built and operate the refinery, has long been associated with the island. 20 acres of it was bought by the company in 1891 for the purpose of kerosene storage. The transaction netted the island’s owner,  Capitano Giovanni Gaggino a tidy profit. Gaggino, an Italian master mariner, shipowner and adventurer, purchased the island for $500 in 1884 with the intention to supply freshwater to shipping. His purchase of “Freshwater Island” as it was informally known as, was one of many of Gaggino’s ventures here. He would spend 42 of his 72 years in Singapore from 1876 and passed on in 1918, whilst on a trip to Batavia. Capitano Gaggino was also known to have authored several books, one of which was the very first Malay-Italian dictionary.

Capitano Giovanni Gaggino, who once owned Pulau Bukom (source: Reproduction of “La Vallata del Yang-Tse-Kiang” by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Open source).

Even before Gaggino, Italians – many of whom were involved in shipping and trade, made landfall. One rather famous Italian, the renowned botanist and contemporary of Charles Darwin, Odoardo Beccari, used Singapore as a stepping stone to his well documented explorations of the region’s forests. Credited with the discovery of the giant corpse flower, Beccari also documented a month he spent in March 1866 at the “wooden bungalow” of the Italian Consul, Signor Giovanni Leveson (a.k.a. Edward John Leveson) on the Johor Strait. The bungalow is thought to be where Woodlands in Singapore’s north got its name from.

Odoardo Beccari (source: Sailko, Creative Commons License 3.0).

Like Capitano Gaggino, Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli spent a substantial part of his life in Singapore. He arrived from Bangkok in 1921 and remained – except for a period of internment during the Second World War (as a citizen of Italy, one of the Axis states, he was interned in Australia from 1941 to 1945), until his retirement in 1956 . He worked tirelessly and amassed a huge portfolio of work that began with the second Ocean Building on which he provided the decorative artificial stone facings.

Composite image of Rodolfo Nolli and the main (south) entrance of the GPO. Two sets of works – the coat of arms and a pair of flambeau compositions, went missing during the Japanese Occupation (source of images: National Archives of Singapore).

The majestic Ocean Building did not only launch Nolli’s career in Singapore, it also spelled a new era for the bund along Collyer Quay. Before the end of a decade, three even grander edifices would be added: the Union Building, a second generation Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers, and the grandest of them all, the Fullerton Building. The additions, all of which Nolli had work done on, provided the bund with an appearance that could be compared to Shanghai’s more famous embankment.

Ocean Building in the 1920s (Source: W. A. Laxton, The Straits Steamship Fleets)..

Built to house the General Post Office, several municipal offices as well as the exclusive Singapore Club, the Fullerton was decorated with some of Nolli’s more exquisite pieces of the era. Two precast sculptural works: a pair of flambeau compositions and a royal coat of arms – symbols of enlightenment and empire – adorned the main entrance to the GPO. Sadly, these disappeared during the Japanese Occupation and all that can now be seen of Nolli’s contributions in the building is the magnificent plasterwork of the barrel vaulted ceiling of the Singapore Club’s Billiard Hall. The hall is now the Straits Room of The Fullerton Hotel. The hotel has occupied the Fullerton Building since 2001.

The Straits Room is now where the only works of Rodolfo Nolli’s in the Fullerton Building to have survived can be found.

The historic waterfront, 1932, to which Nolli added decorative finishing touches, and the waterfront today (source: top image, Singapore Philatelic Museum; lower image, Jerome Lim).

Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli, whose works are also found in Bangkok – where he spent 7 years of his life, in parts of Malaysia and also in Brunei, was bestowed with a knighthood by the Italian Crown in 1925. This is an honour that another Italian gentleman connected with the Fullerton Building, Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale, has also received. Cavaliere Viterale, the GM of Fullerton Heritage, is a well respected member of the hospitality industry and it was for his contributions to it that he received the honour. The building, which was opened in June 1928, celebrates its 89th anniversary this month.

Nuns of the Canossian order speaking to Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale at the exhibition opening. The order, which has origins in Italy, first arrived in Singapore in 1894 (source: The Fullerton Heritage).

More on the Italian Community, including on an Italian order of missionaries whose work in tending to those in need continues to this very day, the Canossian Daughters of Charity, can be discovered at an exhibition that I curated with Zinke Aw, “The Italian Connection”. The exhibition, The Fullerton Hotel’s East Garden Foyer, runs until 18 July 2017. Information on the exhibition can also be found at The Fullerton Heritage’s website and through the official press release.

 

 

 





Making the cut (rubber and the forgotten art of rubber tapping)

6 06 2017

The cultivation of rubber, once the mainstay of the Malayan economy, has left a mark not just on our northern neignbours, Malaysia, but also here in Singapore. Clusters of aging rubber trees or even individual trees in Singapore’s less developed parts mark former rubber plantations, the largest of which are found on Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong. In the northwest, a pier turned sea pavilion, built to move rubber out of a long isolated area of Singapore in the 1920s, also recalls a business on which many fortunes were made (and lost) and in the west, two surviving dragon kilns speak of the pottery making trade fed by the demand for clay latex cups from the many plantations. There is also a little corner of a former rubber plantation in the northeast in which its past is commemorated by five old rubber trees found in a corner. The five are all that remain of hundreds that a Japanese monk had planted to acknowledge the donation of the plot by the plantation’s owners – to be used as a burial place for hundreds of karayuki-san who died penniless.

Latex being collected in a clay latex cup – many kilns were established across Singapore, including the two surviving dragon kilns at Jalan Bahar, to produce these cups.

One of the things I found fascinating as a child was the sight of rubber tappers moving from tree to tree that I would catch on the many drives to Malaysia. From comfort breaks taken in and around rubber estates – due to their isolation – I could see the results of the tappers’ actions. The cuts made on the trees’ bark were quite visible as were the cups of latex. What I was not able to see close up however was how the tapper actually made the cut; that is, until just a few days ago when I was able to catch a demonstration of the art. The live demo (see video below) was performed by a retired rubber tapper, Uncle Ah Ha, as part of an Outward Bound School (OBS) UBiNavigate 2017 trail organised for Pesta Ubin 2017.

An old rubber press in the OBS area of Pulau Ubin – in surprisingly good condition.

UBiNavigate also gave its participants the opportunity to explore the western part of Pulau Ubin. An area in which OBS operates, the area is normally off-limits to the general public. Once where Ong Seng Chew owned a rubber estate, this corner of the island is still filled with many reminders of that past such as an old rubber press lying in a bed of tree fall, broken bottles that once held the enzymes required for the rubber production process, and rubber trees that have long been abandoned.

Part of the UBiNavigate trail taking participants through the relatively unexplored western side of Ubin.

Several aspects of Ubin’s much storied past were also in evidence, some of which were related to the quarrying activities that provided much of the granite used to build modern Singapore. Besides the sight of a former quarry – just beyond the fence of OBS Camp 1, two concrete storage rooms could be seen, fitted with heavy steel doors. These storerooms were apparently used for the storage of dynamite that the nearby quarry used for blasting.

A dynamite store that used by a nearby quarry.

Several other interesting “discoveries” tell us of the the island’s previous inhabitants: a solitary tomb of a Madam Goh that is still tended to by her descendants, a disused well, a concrete communal stove, and the concrete base of a Chinese village-style dwelling. More on UBiNavigate, which was held on 3 June 2017, can be found at https://ubinavigate.wixsite.com/2017.

Latex dripping into a clay latex cup.

Remains of narrow necked enzyme bottles used in rubber processing.


Other rubbery posts:


More views around the western end of Pulau Ubin

An abandoned well.

Coconut shells were also utilised as latex cups.

The OBS Reservoir.

A beach on the southwestern shoreline of Ubin.

A solitary tomb of a Madam Goh.

Remains of an old communal stove.

A shrine built in 1979.

Another of the shrine.






Schooldays in Bras Basah

5 06 2017

Sent by a fellow old boy, this video is one that brings back the most wonderful of days – my schooldays at St. Joseph’s Institution when that was in Bras Basah Road. Produced for the school’s 15oth  anniversary in 2002, it is filled with familiar scenes from the old school: the assemblies we had in the courtyard facing the Brothers’Quarters, Anderson Bridge connecting the Anderson Building to the main wing, the fountain in the front yard, the old grandfather’s clock that made the trip east with the first brothers, the Hippo Scout den and the Co-op Society room at the far end of the courtyard, a classroom, the school field across the road …

Now repurposed occupied as the Singapore Art Museum, what remains is the main wing, Anderson Building along Waterloo Street, and the block that housed the chapel on the upper floor and the school hall (now the Glass Hall) on the ground floor.

More on my schooldays in Bras Basah Road and other recollections of the area can be found at:





Parting Glances: Pasir Panjang Power Station Quarters

29 05 2017

Thanks to the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) and Mr Morhan Karup, representing the families of the former Pasir Panjang Power Station (PPPS) quarters, I found myself at a huge gathering of the PPPS quarters’ ex-residents. It provided an opportunity not just to have a look at the former quarters,  but also to be reminded of the community spirit missing in the brave new world Singapore has been forced to become .

A group photograph of the ex-residents. It was estimated that more than 600 former residents returned for the gathering.

The bonds of community were very much in evidence at the reunion, which attracted some 600 ex-residents from a total of 340 families who once called PPPS quarters home – despite a separation of over three decades. The former quarters, built in the 1950s and 1960s, comprised five high-rise blocks and another five 3-storey blocks and were vacated at the end of the 1980s when many were encouraged to apply for HDB flats. The quarters were for long one of the area’s landmarks, which also included the chimneys of the power station and the storage tanks of the BP (and former Maruzen Toyo – see: The tanks at Tanjong Berlayer) refinery. The refinery, which opened in 1962, was in fact well positioned, and had been where fuel for the power station’s prime movers, were supplied from.

A parting glance.

What we see today of the quarters is one built to supplement accommodation originally erected in 1952 to 1953. The then new power station, built to supply the colony’s electricity needs for the two decades that were to follow, was to be further expanded from a an initial capacity of 25 MW at the end of 1952 to 175 MW in 1962 to meet surging demand. It did not stop there and a second station, B Station, was built adjacent to the first (A Station) in the mid-1960s, adding a total of 240 MW to the station’s capacity. All this required workers to be recruited from India and Malaya, all of whom needed to be accommodated. The erection of new and taller blocks in the 1960s, also allowed the families of the workers to be accommodated more comfortably. These had larger two-room, one-hall units, compared to single bedroom units in the older blocks. The larger units were then allocated to those with families and smaller ones (in the three-storey blocks) to newly married workers and those who were single. The units were rented out for some $10 to $16 to the families.

An eight-storey block built in the 1960s. The layouts are very similar to some of the later SIT flat designs. The high-rise blocks had two-room, one-hall units and were allocated to married workers with families.

Older 3-storey blocks with one-room, one-hall flats allocated to singles or workers who were newly married.

One who came from far was the father of Mr Selvam, a long-time former resident (1954 to 1986) who was born on the premises in 1954 (in a unit in three-storey Block D). Mr Selvam’s father, Mr Sockalingam, came over from India in the 1950s to work as a turbine driver and married a local lady. With a twinkle in his eye, Mr Selvam – known to those in the community as “Thambi’ (younger brother in Tamil), recalled days spent in the football field, at Labrador Primary School and taking a shortcut through World War Two tunnels to take a dip at the beach. The tunnels, remembered by all who lived there in the 1960s and 1970s, were apparently filled with the artefacts of war and included the rusty remnants of Japanese weapons. With Mr Selvam, was his friend Mr Yusof whose wife was a former resident. Mr Yusof described the estate as a “concrete kampung”, a description that seemed to be used by many of the estate’s former residents.

L – R: Ex-residents Mr Thangavelu, Mr Omar, Mr Selvam (a.k.a. ‘Thambi’), and the husband of an ex-resident, Mr Yusof. Mr Thangavelu, lived with an uncle who worked at PPPS, while Mr Omar was a turbine driver who was transferred from Jurong Power Station in 1970.

One of the memories Mr Selvam and his friends who were sitting around him were especially keen to talk about, were of the row of food stalls across the road just outside the compound. It was there where many would gather, share a meal or a drink in the evening break out into song – something that the gathering yesterday, also seemed to encourage with quite a few joining in an impromptu song and dance with many in the crowd cheering on.

The organising team, with Mr Bernard Loh of the SLA.

The get-together, at which the bonds forged over the years were very much in evidence despite the length of time the community ‘s members have been kept apart, follows on another organised in 2014 that was attended by 300 ex-residents. The 2014 reunion was prompted by re-connections made possible through social media, after many in the community had lost touch with each other after moving from the quarters, and also with the decommissioning of the station (A-Station in mid-1980 and B-Station in 1997). The group is planning a dinner at the end of the year, which on the basis of what was seen – would certainly not be the last.

Sisters Manchula and Sita posing at the same spot a photo was taken of them in 1975.

Two of three Chia sisters, whose family lived in the quarters from 1956 to 1971.

Last reflections.

The gated compound of the estate provided security, although none seemed to be needed and residents often left their doors opened or unlocked.

The winds of change are sweeping through the area.

The proximity to the power station allowed workers to come home for lunch.

An area once occupied by older flats, which were demolished.

Old estates often have nice shady trees, something that new estates lack and it is a shame to see them go.


Video of Ex-Residents breaking out in dance


A last look


Signs of More Recent Times


 

 

 








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