Finding a lost Singapore in the images of Paul Piollet

19 11 2018

Such is the pace at which change takes place that little exists of the Singapore those of my generation grew up with. It was one whose city streets and rural spaces, filled with life and colour, were places to discover. Lost to progress, that Singapore can never be revisited again – except perhaps through images that we are fortunate to see of them.

In Conversation with Paul Piollet.

I, for one, am especially grateful to the good folks behind these images. Several collections have been publicly available through their generous donations or in some cases, through donations made by family members. These images provide us, and our generations with a visual record that in many cases would not otherwise exist of places and more importantly a way of life from a time when few had the means to capture them.

The opportunity to hear from the donors of two of these visual collections came our way this November. The first, Dr Clifford Saunders, donated an extensive and very well documented collection of over 1,400 photographs to the National Heritage Board. The images were taken by his father, Ralph Charles Saunders in the late 1950s, when he was stationed here at RAF Seletar – with his family, which included a young Dr Saunders.

Just in the middle of the last week, we were graced by the visit of another donor, Mr Paul Piollet, with whom we were able to hold a “conversation” with at the Urban Redevelopment Authority as part of the Architectural Heritage Season. The unassuming Mr Piollet, now in his 80s, has certainly had a past. His career in oil took him across the world, and he found himself in Balikpapan in Kalimantan in 1970 as a result of that. It was there that he developed a fascination for Indonesia and its maritime heritage. He would also find himself in Singapore, where he immersed himself in much that went on around and on its lively streets.

Mr Piollet’s photos of a Singapore in transition are especially intriguing. We find in them a record of life and a way of life of a Singapore in transition. We can see what fascinated Mr Piollet from the many images of wayangs, the life that went on backstage, elaborate Chinese funerals and of life on Singapore’s living streets, which were not only full of life but also filled with children (an observation was made during the “conversation” of how children are now missing from our city streets). Images of street food vendors, which Mr Piollet regularly frequented (he rattled off a few Hokkien names of local fare he enjoyed), also features in his collection.

While the focus of the “conversation” may have been on his images of Singapore (more than 180 can be found in the National Archives of Singapore), I was fortunate to be able to hear about his efforts to document the Indonesian maritime world through a brief conversation we had just before the event started.  Of particular interest to him were the wooden sail boats and the people who crewed them. Much of the craft and skill in rigging and sailing these beautiful hand-crafted boats, once a backbone of trade across parts of the widely spread archipelago, have quite sadly been lost to motorisation.

Pages out of one of Mr Piollet’s books, “Équipages et voiliers de Madura”, documenting Indonesia’s lost maritime heritage.

Thankfully, there are at least thousands of photos taken by Mr Piollet, as well as several books that he authored. Along with photographs and sketches that Mr Piollet made, there are also registry records that he copied by hand. Mr Piollet’s books, of ways of life that have since been lost, can be found at the French Bookshop at 55 Tiong Bahru Road.

“Équipages et voiliers de Madura” or “The crews and boats of Madura”, which Mr Piollet very kindly gave me a copy of.


A selection of photographs from the Paul Piollet Collection

One of Mr Piollet’s photos from 1975. A lost corner of Singapore that was familiar to my parents and me – where Rangoon Road met Norfolk Road and Moulmein Green – see : Moulmein Road Journeys (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

I thought this looks similar to the hairdresser that my mother used to visit at Rangoon Road with me in tow. From its name, this wasn’t it and only closer examination, looks like it was located in the row of shophouses close to the Balestier Road end of Tessensohn Road (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

What looks like part of the row of shophouses close to the Balestier Road end of Tessensohn Road (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Life as it was, when streets were not complete without the sight of children playing (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Days of street wayangs. I thought this might have been a street in the Ellenborough Market area but it seems more likely to have been Chin Nam Street (parallel to Hock Lam Street) with a view towards Fort Canning Hill  (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Pau steamers – wgich caught the eye of Mr. Piollet (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

A scene now hard to imagine on Sungei Rochor (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).


 

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Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets : Healing in the Garrison

19 10 2018

November’s #SLASecretSpaces guided visit takes participants to the former Tanglin Barracks. There an introduction would be made to two of the barracks’ institutions of healing: physical healing in the form of the former military hospital, and spiritual, in the form of a beautiful garrison church.

The barracks traces its history to the early 1860s, when it was among the earliest that were purpose-built in Singapore. The design of the original barracks is attributed to Captain George Collyer (after whom Collyer Quay is named). Many of the structures that we see today are the interventions of the early 20th century when the current church building as well as what we see today of former military hospital were put up.

Singapore’s main military hospital before the completion of the modern hospital at Alexandra in 1940, the complex featured three main buildings. The larger two were where large and airy wards were laid out. The visit will end in St. George’s Church, which although is no longer a garrison church, is still very much in use. Completed in 1913, the history of the church actually dates back to the early days of the barracks. The church was gazetted as a National Monument on 10 November 1978.

More on the history of both institutions will be shared during the visit.


Visit Details & Registration

When : 3 November 2018, 9 to 11 am

Where : Loewen Cluster, Dempsey Hill (the visit will end inside St. George’s Church)

Participants should be of ages 18 and above.

A unique registration will be required for each participant and each registration admits only one (1) person.
(Duplicate registrations in the same name shall count as one registration).

Please register only if you are sure that you will be able to make the visit.

To register, please visit this link: https://goo.gl/forms/B8g3tDo5eGWfpTVl1 [Please note that all spaces for the visit have been taken up]


Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets #SLASecretSpaces is organised with the support and collaboration of the Singapore Land Authority.

Both St. George’s Church and Country City Investment (CCI), which manages Dempsey Hill, have also lent their support to this visit.


More photos of St. George’s Church


News on the series:


 





Dark clouds on the northern horizon

8 10 2018

I have long thought of the Sembawang area as a final frontier, and a last part of modern Singapore in which much of yesterday remains to be discovered. Progress is however eating away at these remnants of a soon to be forgotten time; the latest bit of Sembawang being absorbed into the brave new world is the area’s last forested hill on which the grand Admiralty House is perched. Now with almost the entire western slope of the hill denuded, the settings that provided the house with its charm and also its much needed isolation for its eight decades of existence, will never again be the same.

Dark clouds on a northern horizon … the denuded western slope of the last forested hill in Sembawang.

Completed in 1940, the house with its distinctive Arts and Crafts inspired flavour, was built as the residence of the Rear Admiral, Malaya. Its scale and appearance would have been most fitting to house the  commander of the then newly opened Naval Base – the largest and most important of Britain’s bases east of the Suez. It would only acquire the name best known to most, Admiralty House, when it became the residence of the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s Far East Station in 1958.

Another view showing the extent of the clearance on the western slope.

Handed over to the Singapore Government in 1975 after a spell as the residence of the Commander of the ANZUK Force, the house – and the hill has since resisted the advance of concrete that has seen a new HDB town sprout up around it. Time was finally called on the hill when plans for a sports and community hub surfaced in the 2014 Master Plan. At the project’s launch in 2016, an announcement was made that some 200 of the hill’s mature trees, just over a quarter of the existing trees, would be retained – with a greater number of new trees planted. While this may be the case – even with most of the hill’s western slope now stripped bare – the terracing necessary for the project and the construction of new structures and footpaths, will permanently alter the hill’s character and add much unwelcome concrete to an already heavily concretised area.</p?

The still forested hill, seen in July 2016.

The hub, which will feature a food centre, a swimming complex, other sports and recreational facilities, is due to be opened in phases from the first half of 2020. It will eventually incorporate the former Admiralty House, a National Monument since 2002. Work on this phase will commence when Furen International School, vacates the house in 2020.

Another view of the hill in 2016.

More on the hub and the former Admiralty House can be found at:


The front of the former Admiralty House.

The house has been likened to an English country manor.

The view the house commanded until fairly recently.


 





Parting glances: the “mini cantonment” with a view

25 09 2018

The time has come to bid farewell to Normanton Park, a housing estate with a military past in more ways than one. Built on part of the site of the Admiralty’s former Normanton Oil Depot, the estate initially housed regular military officers and their families in an attempt to build camaraderie.

HDB built private estate with a view – Normanton Park.

Completed in late 1977, Normanton Park offered a total of 488 “low-cost” housing units; 440 of which were in its five 23-storey high point-blocks. Another 48 were found in eight 3-storey walk-up apartment blocks. Prices ranged from $36,500 to $39,500 for the 122 square metre point-block units, which were laid out in the same fashion as HDB 5-room point-block flats of the mid-1970s). The larger 153 square metre walk-up apartments were sold at $65,000. These were offered to regular officers of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) with the thought that a cantonment like environment could be created to foster bonding among military officers in the same way officers’ messes did for the British military and also bring wives and families of military officers together.

Residents are in the midst of moving out (one of the eight 3-storey walk up apartment blocks is seen in the background).

Designed and built by the HDB, the estate was also provided with a community hall, space for a supermarket and kindergarten, a multi-storey car-park and recreational facilities such as a swimming pool and tennis courts. It was privatised in 1993 and that was the point when curbs on the sales of its units to non-military personnel were lifted. What made it an attractive prospect was its location and the wonderful views that the estate’s point-blocks offered of the lush green spaces around Alexandra Park and Kent Ridge.  It was sold under a collective-sale arrangement a year ago. Its residents have begun the exodus out of the estate with some saying goodbye to four decades of memories.

The swimming pool.

Plaque

Plaque unveiled by Dr Goh Keng Swee at the official opening of Normanton Park in April 1978 – being removed for safekeeping (photo: courtesy of a resident).


Parting glances …

Playground with the initials of the Normanton Park Residents Association (N.P.R.A.).

The entrance to Normanton Park.


Goodbye….Normanton Park (1978 – 2018) – a video made by an ex-resident


The Admiralty’s Normanton (Oil Fuel) Depot

The Normanton Oil Depot was set up on the grounds of Normanton Barracks and a rifle range in the 1920s to serve as fleet fuel reserves, just as the Naval Base was being established in the north of the island. The depot was set on fire on 12 February 1942 in the final days before the Fall of Singapore. This was to prevent the oil reserve falling into the hands of the enemy.

The Admiralty’s burning Normanton Fuel Oil Depot. The depot was set on fire on 12 February 1942 in the final days before the Fall of Singapore to prevent the oil reserve falling into the hands of the enemy (photo: Queenstown – My Community).

What could be remnants of the Oil Depot …

What may have been a valve pit belonging to the oil depot. Two can be found on the grounds of Normanton Park and one just beyond the perimeter fence.

 

A peek into the pit.

Another look inside.

 






The best views of the western Singapore Strait

24 08 2018

From its perch by the sea, the block of flats that sits on an elevation next to the former Pasir Panjang ‘A’ Power Station provides what has to be the best views of the western Singapore Strait. Completed in late 1953, the block was followed on the development of the power station and was built to house expatriate senior officers of new station. 12-storeys high, the block contains a total of 42 housing units, It would have been among the colony’s tallest buildings at the point of its completion and was quite certainly the tallest residential building then to have been built with public funds.

Flats, built for Electricity Board employees, with a view one would pay a premium for these days.

The block of flats, or ‘housing units’, as they were referred to, on its perch. the elevation its stands on was cut and cemented before the block was built as that the power station could be constructed.

It is interesting to observe the progression that the development shows. The building of the flats to house senior staff represented a move away from from previous practice (a newspaper report described the housing units to be to “better than flats”). The most senior of officers would have been accommodated in the block’s two penthouses, the terraces of which provide a most stunning of views of the sea and the area around. Annexes to the block housed a clubhouse and six air-conditioned rooms that provided staff on night shift a place in the daytime to sleep in comfort. A void deck,  unusual in flats built in Singapore in the time, occupies most of the main block’s ground level.

The power station, and the apartment block (with the clubhouse on its left) as viewed from the sea, soon after their completion (online at https://roots.sg/).

A view of the former power station from one of the penthouses.

The development, which cost the City Council over $2 million, also included a 2-storey block to house the station’s workmen. Additional quarters were also to added east of the station through the 1950s and 1960s.

A view inside the former workmen’s quarters.

The workmen’s quarters can be seen at the bottom of the photograph.

The housing units appear likely to go once detailed planning for the Greater Southern Waterfront takes place. They were as quarters until the 1980s and subsequently rented out, first by the Public Utilities Board and then by the State before being vacated at the end of 2013. A tender exercise, carried out this year for interim use of the property as serviced apartments, attracted several bids. Based on information on the Singapore Land Authority’s website, an award was made to TS Home, who submitted a winning bid of S$48,800.00 per month.

A view of the block from its grounds.


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The Sembawang sport and community hub

2 07 2018

Standing at the top of the southeastern-most hill in the former Naval Base for much of its 78 years in existence, Old Admiralty House is set to part with the quiet isolation that it was intended to have when it was built to house the Commander of the British Admiralty’s then newly completed Naval Base. An integrated sport and community hub, “Bukit Canberra”, will soon come up around it, bringing the hill it is perched on more in sync with the Singapore that we have come to know.

Old Admiralty House and the quiet isolation that was very much a part of why it was there, with modern Singapore knocking on its door.

Unveiling “Bukit Canberra”.

The hub will include amenities that are much desired by the sports and healthcare facilities deprived residents of the area. These include a hawker centre, indoor and outdoor sport facilities, a polyclinic, a senior care centre, green spaces for community farming and lifestyle related amenities – all “within a lush and naturalistic environment”. The first phase of the hub is due to be opened in the first half of 2020. Subsequent phases will involve the integration of Old Admiralty House – a National Monument – after its current occupant, Furen International School, vacates it in 2020.

A model of Bukit Canberra.

Old Admiralty House from the ground.

The “lush and naturalistic” environment the hub will feature is being built around the retention of a large proportion of the hills existing trees, with some 1600 additional trees added. One that has already been added – during a family carnival held to mark the launch of construction on Sunday – is a Sembawang tree (also Semawang tree) from which the area got its name. A “Fruit Orchard and Food Forest” will also feature in which a variety of fruit trees and food plants some grown in the early days of Singapore will be planted. Here a community garden will allow planting to be carried out by members of the community.

Sembawang GRC’s MPs at the groundbreaking.

Planting the Sembawang tree.

Heritage (or history as the case may be) will apparently not be forgotten with heritage story boards telling of Sembawang’s history as a former naval base. Along with Admiralty House, other features of historic interest that would be retained include a gate put up during Admiralty House’s days as ANZUK House (1971 to 1975) and a bomb shelter built before the war. A swimming pool thought to have been built by Japanese POWs after the war will however be going based on model on display at the family carnival.

The front of the former Admiralty House.

More on the former Admiralty House:


About Bukit Canberra (from Press Release)

Bukit Canberra is an integrated sports and community hub to be opened in phases from first half of 2020, it will provide the community with lifestyle related amenities, such as a hawker centre, indoor and outdoor sports facilities, a polyclinic, senior care centre, and green spaces for community activities.

‘Bukit Canberra’ is a name that the residents can easily relate to given the history of the area. Many of the streets in Sembawang have links to Commonwealth countries due to the naval communities residing in the area. For instance, Canberra Road was named in 1937 by Rear-Admiral R.H.O Lane-Poole, a Commander of the Royal Australian squadron, H.M.A.S. Canberra, that was visiting Singapore. The Former Admiralty House, built in 1940 was also known as Canberra House (not so sure about this) when it was first completed, after the adjacent Canberra Road. The hub is scheduled to open in phases from 2020.

Site size: 11.86 ha

Key Facilities/ Features:

Sports

  • A six-lane sheltered swimming pool, an eight-lane lap pool, a wading pool and a fun pool for children
  • Indoor sport hall with 500-seat gallery for sports like basketball and badminton
  • Inclusive gym, an outdoor forest gym and fitness studios
  • Running trails
  • Active Health Lab & Active Health Nutrition Studio

Greenery & Heritage

  • Community Gardening
  • Fruit Orchard
  • Food Forest
  • Heritage story boards

Healthcare

  • Polyclinic
  • Senior Care Centre

Food

  • Hawker Centre

 


Landscape design (from Press Release)

The landscape design for Bukit Canberra will leverage on and enhance the existing greenery, topography and heritage of the site to create unique experiences for visitors. Taking into consideration the existing site conditions and character, the landscape design for the site is divided into three zones: Forest, Agrarian and Hilltop. The landscaping will help to strengthen ecological links for biodiversity, allow users to enjoy the hub’s features in a natural setting and connect the community with flora and fauna.

Overview of landscape design for Bukit Canberra (Courtesy of SportSG).

Forest Zone

In the Forest Zone, the focus is on restoring habitats for fauna and enriching biodiversity. Existing healthy mature trees and vegetation will be retained and more native forest species will be added progressively to recreate the natural rainforest structure. Bukit Canberra is at the intersection of existing NParks Nature Ways and the species planted within the Forest Zone will include those found along the Nature Ways to help increase ecological connectivity.

Agrarian Zone

The existing vegetation in this zone is less dense and several community spaces are planned for within this zone, including the Food Forest, Fruit Orchard and community gardens. The landscaping surrounding these features will be themed similarly.

Hilltop Zone

The key feature at the Hilltop is the Former Admiralty House. The landscaping will frame the frontage of the building and provide an open and unobstructed view of the surroundings. The area around the house will be an open space suitable for a wide range of recreational activities, from events to picnics and gatherings.


 





A Dutch flavoured corner in the former Chasseriau Estate

5 06 2018

With what could be described as Dutch gables prominently displayed, the pair of houses right at end of Watten Estate Road gives the area a distinct feel. The houses are what remain of a cluster of six. Erected from the late 1920s (when four were constructed) and into the mid-1930s (when another two were added), the houses occupied a plot of land that had once been part of the vast Chasseriau Estate1. All similar in design, the houses were each given a uniquely shaped gable Dutch gable. Perched on a small hill and with its verdant surroundings, the setting for the cluster of houses could quite easily have resembled a Dutch or Flemish country village.

One of two Dutch-gable topped houses at Watten Estate Road.

The architect behind the designs for the houses, I was pleasantly surprised to learn, was the preeminent Major Percy Hubert Keys. Major P. H. Keys is best known for efforts that were quite significantly larger in scale and included the likes of the Fullerton Building, the Bowyer Block of Singapore General Hospital and the (King Edward VII) College of Medicine, all of which stand today as National Monuments. While the designs of the three were carried out in Keys’ capacity as a Government Architect, the work that he carried out through his private architectural practice, Keys and Dowdeswell, is also well thought of. Examples of these are the 1929 Oversea Chinese Bank at Cecil Street (now the Quadrant) and the 1930 Namazie Mansions (now the Capitol Building) and Capitol Theatre.

Once the home of Major P. H. Keys. An architect best known for the Fullerton Building and the College of Medicine, Major Keys also designed this house.

One of Keys’ first undertakings with Keys and Dowdeswell, which he founded in partnership with Frank Dowdeswell in June 1927, would have been the design of the Watten Estate2 cluster. One of the houses, No. 130 (as it was renumbered in the late 1960s), was to serve as Keys’ home; a move that was necessary as he would have had to vacate the government residence he occupied in the Labrador area. Art-deco influences can be seen in the design of the houses. The influence can also be seen in much of Keys’ later work in Singapore, such as in the post 1927 buildings identified above.

A peek inside one of the houses.

The “Wheatley”, as Keys’ had named his home, was described as a “European Compound house” with “modern sanitation, four bedrooms, servants quarters, a garage for two cars, two tennis courts”.  The house, comfortable and with a design well adapted for the hot and humid tropics, would however serve as his residence for only a matter of  five years from its completion possibly in 1928 or 1929 until 1934 – when Keys moved both home and practice to Shanghai.

Inside one of the four bedrooms.

The house was put up for rent soon after Keys’ move. Together with No. 1263, the other surviving house, it came into the hands of the government after the war. Among No. 130’s post-war occupants was Mr. H. W. Nightingale. Mr. Nightingale, a government official, served as an Acting Secretary for Economic Affairs in the 1950s. A well-known postwar occupant of No. 126 was Justice T. A. Brown. Justice Brown was a High Court judge who held the position of Acting Chief Justice when the Chief Justice went on leave in 1951. He also played a prominent role in the chain of events that would lead to the Maria Hertogh riots in December 1950, delivering the verdict that declared her marriage illegal and restored custody of Maria to her birth parents.

See also: Story of a lift nearing 90 (Sunday Times, 27 May 2018)


Notes:

1Frenchman Leopold Chasseriau established the estate in 1872 for the planting of tapioca. This would eventually be sold to the founding interests of the Bukit Timah Rubber Estate in 1895 following which it would be split-up. The Municipality purchased a portion – the catchment for the (MacRitchie) reservoir, soon after, followed by the Bukit Tinggi area being purchased by the Swiss (Rifle Shooting) Club. A significant portion of the estate was also sold to the Turf Club in the late 1920s.

While the cluster of houses may have occupied a corner of the former Chasseriau Estate, they acquired addresses connected with the unrelated Watten Estate from the road through it, which was extended to the corner of the former Chasseriau. Watten Estate was a 47-acre estate on which Alexander James Gunn, a one time Secretary for the Singapore Chamber of Commerce, had his residence. Gunn named his residence and estate Watten after his Scottish home village.

The grounds of No. 126 was the subject of an archeological dig conducted by Jon Cooper as part of the Adam Park (battlefield archaeology) Project. It is believed that the cluster of houses housed British POWs as an extension to Adam Park POW Camp (which housed POWs put to work on the construction of the Syonan Jinja) in the early part of the Japanese Occupation.


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