A golden moment for Golden Mile Complex

23 10 2021

Like it or loathe it, Golden Mile Complex (GMC) will remain a fixture in Singapore’s urban landscape, with its main building having been gazetted for conservation. Celebrated as an architectural icon of Singapore’s post-independence era by the architectural and heritage communities, the worth of the aging and decaying modernist mixed-use landmark has divided opinion with a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) having comparing the sixteen-storey building to a “vertical slum”, calling it “a terrible eyesore and a national disgrace” during a parliamentary debate in 2006.

Woh Hup Complex in the 1980s (URA Photograph)

While there is little doubt of that the unsightly nature of the extensions and deterioration of the building, prompting the remarks made by the NMP, as well as the fact that its quality as a social space to Singaporeans has somewhat diminished over the years, GMC does have a certain charm and architectural appeal  – which is best appreciated internally on its upper floors. Completed in 1973/74 as Woh Hup Complex, GMC was developed as part of the then Urban Redevelopment Department’s first batch of redevelopment sites sold in 1967 to private developers under its “Sales of Sites” programme. Built on parcel no. 9, one of four sites along the so-called Golden Mile, the Design Partnership (now DP Architects) designed complex was a bold experiment in design. Envisaged as a megastructure  – a self-contained vertical high-density city within a city, GMC featured a three-storey shopping centre above which offices and apartments were laid out in what was then quite a bold and innovative manner. with its residential units arranged as “stepped terraces” to maximise the views in both the horizontal and vertical sense.

Overgrowth? The best view of the stepped terraces is from the end Crawford Street end. This view will however will be lost should there be the development of an up to thirty-storey block at this end based on the conservation proposal.

One of the draws of GMC’s shopping centre today is the array of Thai food and products on offer. A gateway for express coaches to Malaysia and southern Thailand from the time it opened as Golden Mile Shopping Centre in 1972, it became a point of entry for Thai construction workers and traders coming in, and from the 1980s it started to take on a Siamese flavour with shops and restaurants catering to sojourners and workers from the Land of Smiles. Even today, the shopping centre has not discarded its Thai flavour with a large Thai supermarket, and restaurants and businesses such as hairdressers etc. catering to our friends from Thailand. It isn’t so much in what has become known as “Little Thailand”, where the decay of time and neglect in the building can largely be seen and which most will see, that one gets the true sense of what GMC has to offer from an aesthetic and architectural viewpoint, but on its hard to access upper levels. And, for this, it is probably best to let the images that follow to do the talking.


External Views

Interior Views and In and Around






Lost Places: the Killiney Road railway bridge

18 10 2021

Wouldn’t it be cool to have paraphernalia related to a conventional railway line in the Orchard Road area, such as the now well-known girder bridge that ran over Orchard Road, still in existence today? It may come as a surprise but the bridge was actually one of two bridges that were in very close proximity to one another, with a similar girder bridge running across Killiney Road following on the Orchard Road bridge in the direction of the Singapore and from 1907, Tank Road Station.

The railway bridge at Killiney Road.

From the Killiney Road bridge, the line – part of the 1903 Singapore Government Railway or Singapore to Kranji Railway, took ran down an incline towards the Oxley Road and then curving towards Tank Road level crossing and then towards Singapore Station. The line was extended towards the port and Pasir Panjang in 1907 forcing the shift of the station at the triangular clearing where the National Theatre once stood to Tank Road proper. The line would be absorbed into the Federated Malay States Railway (FMSR) in 1913. In 1932, a deviation turned the line from the Bukit Timah area towards Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

The road bridge at Neil Road – a remnant from the 1907 extension of the Singapore Government Railway.


Speaking of the extension, there is in fact a remnant of this extension – a road bridge at Neil Road that was built to carry the road over the railway which ran through what is today Duxton Plain Park and some of this, as well as the stations along the old Singapore and Kranji Railway is discussed here in this History’s Mysteries episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r1HStrNMxxE.





The last light-box on Keong Saik Road

30 07 2021

Taking a walk around Keong Saik Road recently, I could not help but marvel at its transformation into a hip and happening neighbourhood. It was certainly quite a different place when I caught my first glimpse of it back in the 1980s. A walk that I took with a former schoolmate around his neighbourhood, opened my eyes to what seemed to to illuminate the seemingly dimly lit Keong Saik Road by night. That hastily executed detour from the planned excursion route left a vague impression the well-known side of Keong Saik Road and what each of its many lamps on which unit numbers were marked on, identified. The street’s gentrification in more recent times has seen to the dimming of the old lights of Keong Saik Road to the extent that they have all now been completely extinguished. What does remain to remind us of the street’s colourful past is a now famous tale of it that has been wonderfully told by Charmaine Leung in “17A Keong Saik Road“, and in physical terms, a last light-box at No 8 Keong Saik Road found atop its back door. Housing one of the street’s last brothels to operate, it seems that the sushi restaurant that will soon occupy it, will be keeping the light-box for posterity.

Now hip and happening, the area around Keong Saik Road is a place with quite a past.

The triangular site formed by Keong Saik Road, Jiak Chuan Road and Teck Lim Road, which now features a collection of quite well patronised eating and drinking spots, was where Keong Saik’s was colloquially called Sam Zau Fu (三州府) in Cantonese. This was with reference to the “residences” lining the triangle of streets that made up the main sections of Keong Saik’s red light district. The district did have a long-held reputation as an area to indulge in the vices even before the brothels, as we knew them, came into being when Keong Saik was a haven for courtesans or entertainers who found employment in the area’s tea houses and rich gentlemen’s clubs.

The last light-box. Will it be kept?


The courtesans, many of whom were extremely young and trained in a manner not too dissimilar to but without the rigours of the geisha in Japan, were equipped with skills to perform with the yuetkam (月琴 or yueqin in Mandarin) and/or the peipa (琵琶 or pipa in Mandarin). It was for this reason that the term peipa chai (琵琶仔) or “young pipa player” was used to refer to them. In them the wealthy club-goers and tea-house patrons would find ready mistresses. These mistresses who might have been “bought-off”, were also housed in the area and the common name for Teo Hong and Bukit Pasoh Roads in Cantonese, which is Yi Nai Kai (二奶街) provides an indication of one of the areas in which this occurred. Yi nai, which translates literally from Cantonese into “second milk”, is a euphemism for “mistress”. The tea houses and entertainment venues began to morph into houses of ill-repute and by the end of the 1950s, Keong Saik Road acquired notoriety for being a place in which “high-class” brothels operated. The term pipa chai seemed at the same time to have been extended in its use to describe the brothels’ working ladies.

One of the last “lights” of Keong Saik – seen in March 2014.

While conversations we do seem to frequently have about Keong Saik Road’s past are all too often dominated by what did go on after dark, the street does have many other facets to it. It was only in 1926, that the street was given a name — after a founder of the Straits Steamship Company and a Municipal Commissioner Tan Keong Saik. Host to a number of associations and religious institutions, the street benefitted from the colour that religious festivals and celebrations injected into it. One festival that still enlivens the street is celebrated by the Chettiar community every January or February during Chetty Pusam on the eve of the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. The community’s temple at Keong Saik Road’s junction with Kreta Ayer Road, the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar, serves as a point to pause in the journey taken by the silver chariot carrying the image of Lord Murugan from the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple at Tank Road and back to it. The return leg of the chariot’s journey to Tank Road is accompanied by a colourful and lively procession of kavadis or “burdens” that takes a route down Keong Saik Road before making its way along Neil and South Bridge Roads on its way home.

Keong Saik Road and the Sir Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple during Chetty Pusam.

While the visible traditions of the Hindu temple still plays a big part in adding flavour to Keong Saik Road, the same cannot be said about a number of traditions associated with the Chinese community there, partly because of changing circumstances and demographics of the area’s population. One lively Chinese practice that has gone that way is da siu yan (打小人) —  “petty person beating”. Also translated as “villain hitting”, the rather interesting practice was enacted with great gusto at the site of the Oriental Theatre, which was right across Kreta Ayer Road from the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar temple. Out of sight, it has not been put out of mind by those who have witnessed the practice such as Richard Lee. A description of it that he provides is found in a Facebook post, which reads:

There was a perimeter wall of the old Oriental Theatre that served as a “prayer” wall for people to “打小人”.

Villain hitting, da siu yan (Chinese: 打小人), demon exorcising, or petty person beating, is folk sorcery popular in the Guangdong area of China, Hong Kong & Singapore (and is) primarily associated with (the) Cantonese. Its purpose is to curse one’s enemies using magic. Villain hitting is often considered a humble career, and the ceremony is often performed by older ladies, though some shops sell “DIY” kits.

Villain hitting (打小人)
Make use of a varieties of symbolic object such as the shoe of clients or the villain hitter or other religious symbolic weapons like incense sticks to hit or hurt the villain paper. Villain paper can also be replaced by other derivatives such as man paper, woman paper, five ghost paper etc.

Sacrifice to Bái Hǔ (祭白虎)
The hitters have to make sacrifice to Bái Hǔ if they want to hit the villain on Jingzhe. Use a yellow paper tiger to represent Bái Hǔ, there are black stripes on the paper tiger and a pair of tooth shapes in its mouth. During the sacrifice a small piece of pork is soaked with pig blood and then put inside the mouth of the paper tiger (to feed Bái Hǔ). Bái Hǔ won’t hurt others after being fed. Sometimes they will also smear greasy pork (a piece of lard) on Bái Hǔ’s mouth to make its mouth full of oil (so that it is) unable to open its mouth to hurt people. In some regional sacrifice the villain hitter would burn the paper tiger or cut off its head after making sacrifice to it.

Pray for blessings (祈福)
Use a red Gui Ren paper to pray for blessings and help from Gui Ren. The red 貴人紙 were pasted onto the wall nearby. The nearby perimeter wall also served a spot for a series of drying racks for drying pig rind in the sun. The man who did this is my friend’s Ser Huat Ho’s grandfather….. The dried pig rind were then deep fried and sold to food vendors.

– Richard Lee

Another widely observed religious practice on Keong Saik Street — at least for the womenfolk — that has gone in the same direction as villain hitting is the annual observation of the Seven Sisters Festival on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. Based on accounts in oral history interviews and descriptions provided by the prolific muralist Yip Yew Chong, it was quite a big occasion in Chinatown, especially along Keong Saik Road. The commemoration of the festival, which revolves around a folktale of star-crossed lovers who were permitted to meet across a bridge formed by swallows (or magpies depending on the locality) once a year, is sometimes thought of as a Chinese version of Valentine’s Day. It was especially popular among the unmarried womenfolk, which included the majie, for whom Keong Saik Road’s Cundhi Gong was a religious focal point. During the festival, paper offerings to the feminine half of the lovesick couple — the weaver fairy and the seventh of the seven fairy sisters that the festival is named for, are made. Offerings include ones representing vanity items such as combs and lipstick. Flowers were also made. Before being burnt, the offerings were put on display, some on a bowl fashioned out of paper together with miniature paper dresses, items of embroidery, as well as freshly made cakes and fresh fruits. Participation in the festival started to dwindle in the 1960s and by the 1970s, hardly any of the highly visual displays were seen on the street.

The five-foot-way of the Cundhi Gong.

The last of Keong Saik Road’s vanishing light-boxes:






Lost places: the Geylang house in which a 9 million dollar work of art was painted

22 07 2021

One of the unfortunate things about Singapore and its relentless quest to modernise, is the loss of places rich in stories of the past. One such place was the Huang Clan, which was housed in a two-storey bungalow at Lorong 35 Geylang. The house had a strong connection with the “Father of Modern Chinese Painting”, Xu Beihong (徐悲鸿). It was also where some of Xu’s exceptional works of art, several of which featured anti-Japanese themes were executed. Known as Jiangxia Tang (江夏堂), traditionally a name used to denote the Huang clan’s ancestral hall, it served as his place of abode and his studio during his many sojourns in Singapore as a guest of Huang Manshi (黄曼士). Huang, the General Manager of the Nanyang Brothers’ Tobacco Company, was also the General Secretary of the association and an avid collector of art. His association with Xu, came through his Paris-based elder brother Huang Menggui (黄孟圭). The elder Huang, lent support to Xu in Paris when funding for his Chinese government scholarship to the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts was cut. It was also on Huang Menggui’s recommendation that Xu first found himself coming to Singapore in 1925 as a guest of Huang Manshi. Xu returned on several occasions until 1942, during which time he painted quite a number of art pieces, including a portrait of Straits Settlements Governor Sir Shenton Thomas in 1939.

The former Huang Clan house at Lorong 35 Geylang.
Xu, with Huang Menggui and Huang Manshi at the Geylang house.

It was also in 1939 at the Jiangxia Tang, as Xu was about to depart for India for an exhibition he was putting up at poet Rabindranath Tagore’s urging, that he executed one of his best known works, “Put Down Your Whip“. The painting, which was bought for a record price for a Chinese art work of US$9.2 million in at an auction in Hong Kong in 2007, was done after Xu Beihong watched a play put up by visiting Chinese actress Wang Yin (王莹) and her theatre troupe in support for the anti-Japanese movement in China. The art work, which depicted Wang and the audience, was completed at the Jiangxia Tang in the same month of the performance. The work was also among a stash of artworks that was hidden on the grounds of Han Wai Toon’s rambutan orchard at Upper Thomson (where Thomson Nature Park today), during the Japanese occupation. Another of Xu’s paintings in the same stash that was also done at Jiangxia Tang, “Silly Old Man Moves a Mountain“, set the previous record of US$4.12 million in 2006.


The bungalow, as well as as neighbouring compound house, were acquired in 2018 and were demolished that same year to make way for an eight-storey residential development which will also house the clan association, Sixteen35 Residences.


The former Jiangxia Tang in 2018.
The neighbouring compound house that was also demolished.
The site of the former Jiangxia Tang in 2019.
Another view of the site of the former Jiangxia Tang in 2019.




The “ruins” by Kallang Airport’s gates

16 07 2021

Right by the old gates of the former Kallang Airport, is a crumbling set of structures that pre-date the construction of Singapore’s first civil airport. With a little imagination, the sight of the rather mysterious looking structures could to transport the travel-starved observer to a place like Siem Reap. A closer inspection of the structures will however reveal that the crumbling walls belong not to an ancient temple … or for that matter anything like a palace or istana as recent suggestions have had it as, but to a raised burial plot.

The raised former burial plot, seen in August 2018.

The plot, which shared a boundary with the former Firestone Factory that was established in the 1920s (some may remember the former factory building on the banks of the Kallang River near Sir Arthur Bridge being used by electrical good and furniture retailer Courts in the 1990s), is marked in a 1930 survey map as a “Mohammedan Cemetery” and in a 1936 plan for the new Civil Aerodrome (i.e. Kallang Airport) quite simply as “graves”. An explanation as to why the graves were placed on a raised plot can be found in a 1939 letter to the Straits Times. The writer, who described its location to a tee in saying that an elevated plot of graves could be “seen just inside the entrance to the civil aerodrome, on the right”, recalled seeing them on small eyots or “patches of higher ground” in the mangrove swamp “before the place was reclaimed”. Reclamation work for the airport, it should be noted, was carried out in the 1930s.

The plot in January 2014, with the old airport gates in the background.

While there are no traces of the graves today — they were exhumed sometime in the late 1980s, there is still an item of physical evidence that still exists, if one looks for it along the base on which the structures rests. There, a tablet with inscriptions in the Tamil script can be found and that does in fact confirm that the site was indeed a burial plot — at least based on a translation provided by a local urban exploration group on Facebook in 2019. This translation dates the tablet to 1854, as a burial site for the “kith and kin” of Chinnakkani” — a descendant of “Hajji Ismail of Thiruvarur”.

The tablet seen in September 2018.
The plot in September 2018.
The plot shown in a 1930 survey map (NAS).
The plot shown in a 1936 plan for the aerodrome (NAS).




Where durians and Chinese opera come together

13 07 2021

Once commonly found across Singapore, permanently erected free-standing Chinese opera (also commonly referred to in Singapore as “wayang”) stages have become quite hard to come by in Singapore. Erected to entertain the gods during their visits down to the mortal realm, the were also put to use in several other ways, doubling up as the clan, temple or village schools, depending on where they were built. Only three such stages are left in Singapore, two on the main island and one more on Pulau Ubin and it is always a treat to catch a Chinese opera performance being staged on one of them, especially if one is able to head backstage where in my opinion, the best “action” takes place.

The Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong temple is a place of devotion for many.

One occasion during which I had the good fortune of doing just this was during the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations at the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple at Balestier Road in September 2016 from which the photographs in this post were captured. The temple, having links to Hokkien plantation workers from Joseph Balestier’s venture to grow sugarcane by the Whampoa River, has a history that dates back to 1847. Its stage, which came up in 1906, was built by Tan Boo Liat — the great-grandson of Tan Tock Seng, and who is also well-known for erecting Golden Bell — the Edwardian-style mansion on Mount Faber that is now the Danish Seamen’s Church.

It is also a place where Chinese opera performances take place (at least pre-Covid) on one of Singapore’s last permanently erected free-standing wayang stages.

The temple, besides being a place of devotion and a place to catch a wayang, has also become a place that is synonymous with indulgence in the “king of all fruits” — durians. Durians have been sold in and around the area for, which was also known for its cinemas, for a long time and right by or in front of the temple ever since I can remember. Much of the area has changed, even if there is much that is is familiar physically. The durian stalls of old, are however, still very much a common sight every durian season. Not only do you see them just by temple, but also in the side lanes in the area. Like the temple, and the stage when it comes alive, they are among the last vestiges of the living side of the old Balestier Road, a side that long lives in my memory.

Durians and Chinese opera.
Another view of the temple.
Joss sticks at the temple.

Photographs of the Chinese Opera preparations and performance in September 2016






The stilt supported bungalow growing out of the sea

10 07 2021

Influenced by the many tales that were told of lighthouses and their keepers, any mention of the word “lighthouse” through much of my younger days would conjure up images of large waves breaking against a lighthouse’s rocky foundations, and of lighthouse keepers with weather-worn faces dressed in their oilskins. I have formed quite a different impression of lighthouses over the years — at least of the ones in Singapore where it isn’t quite as chilly enough to be comfortable in oilskins and where the seas, with the exception of that around Horsburgh Lighthouse during the Northeast Monsoons, are much less tempestuous. What has helped in forming that altered impression were visits to Raffles Lighthouse at Singapore’s southernmost island Pulau Satumu and the numerous occasions on which I had set eyes on the lighthouse on Sultan Shoal, which I first spotted from the days when I was involved in ship trail trips as a naval architect.

The two lighthouses, Raffles and Sultan Shoal, are among four conventionally styled lighthouses that Singapore’s Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) operates. A less conventional fifth, is perched on the top of a high-rise building along the east coast. Together they play a crucial role as aids to navigation in an area of the world in which the sea lanes are among the most congested. Raffles and Sultan Shoal lighthouse are also part of a trio of lighthouses marking key points around the western entrance to the Singapore Strait. The third lighthouse of the trio is one on Pulau Pisang, an island off southwest Johor. The fourth conventionally styled lighthouse, Horsburgh Lighthouse, marks the eastern entrance to the Singapore Strait.

The lighthouse on Sultan Shoal is one that fascinates me. Built in 1895, the lighthouse wears quite distinct look and is quite eye-catching. While it now finds itself perched on a 0.6 ha island, the lighthouse originally rested on a shoal and looked like it was in the middle of nowhere when the tide had the shoal submerged. Having been built on a shoal, a two-storey house that has been described as a “stilt supported bungalow growing out of the sea” — to accommodate its keeper and a lascar as well as for stores and water that wraps around the lighthouse, has also given it quite a distinct external appearance.

Plans for Sultan Shoal Lighthouse (National Archives of Singapore)

Locally known as Terumbu Karimum (Trumbu Carimon) and named by British navigators after a ship that ran aground on it in 1789, Sultan Shoal was quite a treacherous spot close to the western entrance to the Singapore Strait. This prompted a tripod beacon to be placed on it before it was converted into one with a granite base. Even with the lights, the shoal made the news frequently for groundings occurring on and around it. One occasion in which this happened was in 1869, when the Mata Mata, a ship that had set sail for Penang to provide accommodation for the visiting Duke of Edinburgh, ran aground on the shoal. By the 1880s, a lightship or a ship used as a lighthouse, appeared on the scene. Used to mark the equally dangerous Ajax Shoal, one nautical mile south east by east half east of Sultan Shoal, the lightship served also as a navigational marker for ships entering the western entrance of the Singapore Strait. Ajax Shoal was named in quite a similar manner as Sultan Shoal, with Ajax being the name of a steamship which scrapped its bottom on the shoal in 1877. Commissioned in 1896, the lighthouse on Sultan Shoal took over the lightship’s role in marking the northwestern entry point to the Singapore Strait. Being quite remotely located and surrounded by little but the sea, the lighthouse was also armed. Two rifles, each of which was fitted with a bayonet, were kept in it in case of pirate attacks.

Sultan Shoal before reclamation.

Sultan Shoal would come into the spotlight in February 1942 when a troopship – part of a convoy of three ships that included the City of Canterbury and Felix Roussel, came under attack as it was approaching Ajax Shoal. The ship, which bore the brunt of the attack, caught fire. As the fires burnt uncontrollably, anchors were dropped off Sultan Shoal to keep the ship in position to permit evacuation. The ship eventually sank several days later and its wreck remained in place until last year. In all, just sixteen out of the 2235 troops and 416 crew on board lost their lives – a remarkable low number given the severity of the attack. An anchor salvaged from the wreck is currently on display at the National Museum of Singapore to remind us of this incident.

The Empress of Asia burning after an Imperial Japanese Army Air Force attack on it off Sultan Shoal on the morning of 5 Feb 1942. Sultan Shoal Lighthouse can be seen on the right of the photograph.
Blue Mountains Library, (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The anchor from the RMS Empress of Asia troopship on display.

The face of the shoal would change with land reclamation around the shoal in the 1970s. With an island to rest on, a holiday bungalow could be added for use by senior officers with the Port of Singapore Authority and in the Civil Service. That change pales in comparison in what has been happening in the seas around the former shoal since 1995, with reclamation extending Jurong Island — created from the reclamation around a cluster of southwestern islands that has brought it well within sight of Sultan Shoal to the east.

To the shoal’s west and immediately to its south, work reclamation work on the fingers of the already reclaimed Tuas South extension that will accommodate the future mega-port is taking place at relentless pace. Phase 2 of the work, which involves the construction of a finger that will come almost within touching distance of Sultan Shoal is well underway with a large section of the massive caisson seawalls being installed having already been put in place. The reclamation, which will create some 26 km of deepwater wharves that would accommodate mega-container ships of up to the hypothetical “Malaccamax” size – the largest size vessels that the 25 metre deep Malacca Strait would be able to accommodate. On the evidence of the extent of reclamation work it does look like that Sultan Shoal Lighthouse, having played a key role in the development of Singapore’s port for over a century, may no longer be relevant to the port it has nurtured. The port has certainly grown too big for the lighthouse and what the future now holds for it and the expanded shoal that it rests on, is anybody’s guess.

The caisson seawalls for the Tuas Mega-Port Phase 2 reclamation, with Sultan Shoal in close proximity.
A chart showing the relative position of Sultan Shoal (the black dot on the left on top of the second finger being reclaimed).
Another chart showing the proximity of Sultan Shoal to the second finger being reclaimed.



Sultan Shoal Lighthouse in 2014.
A closeup of the lighthouse in July 2021.
A southward view, with the caisson seawall behind the expanded shoal.





The Bidwell houses at Gallop Road

6 07 2021

Two beautiful conservation houses, Atbara and Inverturret at No 5 and No 7 Gallop Road, grace the newly opened Singapore Botanic Gardens Gallop Extension. Both wonderfully repurposed, Atbara as the Forest Discovery Centre and Inverturret as the Botanical Art Gallery, they are among the oldest and finest surviving examples of residential properties that English architect Regent Alfred John (R A J) Bidwell designed in Singapore.

Bidwell, who had an eventful but short two-year stint in the Selangor Public Works Department (PWD) as Chief Draughtsman and assistant to Government Architect A C Norman, came across to Singapore in 1895 to join pre-eminent architectural firm Swan and Maclaren. In a matter of four years, he became a partner in the firm; an arrangement that lasted until 1907. Bidwell would continue his association with the firm as an employee until 1912. His 17 years with Swan and Maclaren, was one marked by the string of notable contributions that he made to Singapore’s built landscape. His architectural works include many of Singapore’s landmarks of the early 20th century, which include the Goodwood Park Hotel — built as a clubhouse for the Teutonia Club; Victoria Theatre and Victoria Memorial Hall (the theatre component of the pair was a modification of a previously built Town Hall that also gave it an appearance similar to the 1905 erected Victoria Memorial Hall; and Stamford House — built as Whiteaway and Laidlaw Building in 1905. Also notable among his contributions were several buildings that have since been demolished, one of which was the old Telephone exchange on Hill Street that was designed in the Indo-Saracenic style.

The Indo-Saracenic style was something that Bidwell would have been extremely familiar with, having been heavily involved in the design of the Government Offices in Kuala Lumpur or KL, now the Sultan Abu Samad Building. Hints of the style are also found in one of the first design efforts in Singapore, which is seen in the unique set of piers on which Atbara is supported. The bungalow, along with several others that Bidwell had designed, is thought to have influenced the designs of numerous government, municipal and company residences, the bulk of which were constructed from the 1910s to the 1930s. Many of these are still around and are often erroneously referred to as “black and white houses”, a term that is more descriptive of their appearance — many are painted white with black trimmings — rather than a description of a their style or of a particular architectural style (see also: The Eastern Extension Telegraph Company’s Estate on Mount Faber).

Atbara has in fact earned the distinction of being Singapore oldest “black and white house” even if it does display a variety of architectural influences; influences that are also seen in many of the designs of the various residences. Built in 1898, apparently for lawyer John Burkinshaw, Atbara’s piers, timber floorboards and verandahs are among the features or adaptations applied to the residences of the early 20th century, all of which were intended to provide their occupants with a maximum of comfort in the unbearable heat and humidity of the tropics. Many of these adaptations were ones borrowed from the bungalows of the Indian sub-continent, from plantation style houses, and also the Malay houses found in the region. There was extensive use of pitched-roofs, a feature seen in the then popular Arts and Crafts style that the English architects of the era would have been familiar with. These roofs lent themselves to drainage and the promotion of ventilation through convection when combined with generous openings. Tropical interpretations of the Arts and Crafts style were in fact widely applied to several residences built during the era.

Atbara, which early “to-let” advertisements had as having seven rooms, five bathrooms, with a large compound and with extensive views, came into the possession of Charles MacArthur, Chairman of the Straits Trading Company, in 1903. MacArthur added the neighbouring Inverturret soon after in 1906. Also designed by Bidwell, Inverturret rests on a concrete base and is of a distinctively different style — even if verandahs, ample openings and the pitched roof found in Atbara are in evidence.

The two properties were eventually acquired by the Straits Trading Company in 1923, who held it until 1990, after which both were acquired by the State. The houses had several prominent tenants during this period. Just before the Second World War, Inverturret briefly served the official residence of the Air Officer Commanding (AOC), Royal Air Force Far East, from 1937 to 1939. During these two years, Inverturret saw two AOCs in residence, Air-Vice Marshal Arthur Tedder and Air-Vice Marshal John Babington. Their stay in Inverturret was in anticipation of a much grander residence — the third of a trio that was to have been built to house each of the senior commanders of the three military arms. Two, Flagstaff House (now Command House) to house the General Officer Commanding, Malaya and Navy House (now old Admiralty House) for the Rear Admiral Malaya, were known to have been built.

From 1939 to 1999, both Atbara and Inverturret were leased to the French Foreign Office by the Straits Trading Company up to 1990 and following their acquisition in 1990, by the State up to 1999. Except for the period of the Japanese Occupation (it is known that Inverturret was used as a residence for the Bank of Taiwan’s Manager during the Occupation) and shortly thereafter, Atbara served as the French Consular Office and later the French Embassy, and Inverturret as the French Consul-General’s / French Ambassador’s residence. It was during this period that those like me, who are of an age when travel to France required a visa, may remember visiting Atbara. The process of obtaining a visa involved submitting an application with your passport in the morning, and returning in the afternoon to pick the passport and visa up, a process that was not too dissimilar to obtaining an exit permit at the nearby CMPB!


Atbara


Inverturret


R A J Bidwell and Kuala Lumpur’s Sultan Abu Samad Building



Built as Government Offices for the Selangor Government from 1894 to 1897, the Sultan Abu Samad building – a landmark in Kuala Lumpur was described as the “most impressive building in the Federated Malay States”. Although the architectural work for it has been widely attributed to A C Norman, the Selangor Public Works Department’s Government Architect, it is widely accepted that it was R A J Bidwell who developed the finer architectural details of its eye-catching Indo-Saracenic lines. Bidwell, who was assistant to Norman from 1893 to 1895, developed the plans with input from C E Spooner – the State Engineer, who directed that initial plans for the building be redone in what he termed as the “Mohammedan style”.

Bidwell’s disaffection with his position and salary, saw to him resigning from the Selangor PWD — as is reflected in his correspondence relating to his resignation. The Selangor PWD’s loss would turn into Singapore’s gain, with Bidwell moving to Singapore in 1895 to join Swan and Maclaren .






A temporary Kempeitai HQ at Beach Road

23 06 2021

Convicted as a spy and imprisoned in Changi Prison during a stint as a press attaché with the Japanese Consulate in Singapore, Mamoru Shinozaki is also viewed in some circles as the “Oskar Schindler” of Singapore for the role he may have played in bringing the terrible Sook Ching Massacre to an end. While he remains a controversial even after his death in the 1990s, his accounts of the wartime Singapore remains a valuable resource. In oral history interviews contained in “My Wartime Experiences in Singapore” published by the Institute of South East Asian Studies in 1973, we learn that he was brought to Beach Road upon his release from in Changi Prison by the Japanese Army on 16 February 1942 – right after Singapore fell. Describing his arrival at Beach Road, Shinozaki said, “All along Beach Road, all the houses were closed and I did not see even a cat or dog. It was a ghost town.”

Since demolished buildings at the former Beach Road Police Station.

What was would to follow was his meeting with Lt. Col. Yokota, who had been placed in command of several units of the East Branch of the Kempeitai. “At Beach Road, now the temporary Voluntary Headquarters, the chief of the Yokota Kempei unit, Lt. Col. Yokota, was waiting. When I got down from the lorry he greeted me: “you have suffered so long, please take this.”” This very scene is, quite amazing, one that also exists in a visual record. A Japanese newsreel which contains the scenes that followed the Japanese Army’s taking of Singapore captured by Kameyama Matsutarō, Marē senki : shingeki no kiroku (Malaya War Record: A Record of the Onward March). This newsreel also contains a scene that shows Shinozaki being greeted by Yokata outside what can be identified as Beach Road Police Station (rather than the Volunteer Force Headquarters as identified by Shinozaki). The building, a conserved structure, is still around today and is currently being incorporated into Guocoland’s MidTown development.

While the former police station’s building may have been retained, the redevelopment of the plot as MidTown has resulted in the loss of two other buildings to the rear of the main structure that were part and parcel of the larger Beach Road Police Station complex that was completed in 1934. The construction of the station, came as part of a decade-long effort to upgrade the facilities of the Straits Settlements Police Force and bring about greater professionalism in the face of the high rates of crime in Singapore – or “Sin-Galore” as it may then have been known as. The state of disorder in the colony, also dubbed the “cesspool of iniquity”, even prompted comparisons to be made with Chicago! It was the through the same effort, initiated in the mid-1920s, that the Police Training School at Thomson Road – the old Police Academy – was established and Hill Street Police Station, was built along with several other stations.

A Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets visit to Beach Road Police Station in October 2017.

Built at a cost of $319,743, the Beach Road complex replaced an earlier station that had been located further east along Beach Road at Clyde Terrace. The two demolished buildings at the station’s rear were all built at the same time to serve as modern quarters in an attempt to provide improve policemen’s living standards. A three-storey block accommodated 64 married man and their families, while 80 single men and NCOs were accommodated in another three storey single-men’s block. The latter also contained a mess and recreation room on its ground floor. Along with this, the most senior ranking officers at the station were accommodated in its three-storey main building, which was described as being of a “pretentious type”. The building was laid out to provide quarters for two European and two “Asiatic” Inspectors on the second and third levels, while its ground floor was where the offices of the station, a guard room, an armoury and a number of stores were located. Immediately behind the main block – right behind the guard room, was an annex cell block in which the lock-up was located and “approached from it (the guardroom) by a covered way”.

Besides the episode involving Shinozaki, the station’s played several other wartime roles. A hundred or so Japanese “aliens” were rounded up and held in it following the outbreak of hostilities with Japan on 8 December 1941, before they were moved to Changi Prison. The scene was to repeat itself upon Singapore’s inglorious fall, when civilians from the other side were held with the station serving as a holding facility for civilian internees prior to them being sent to Changi Prison. The civilians rounded up by the Japanese Army included Jews and individuals of various European backgrounds and nationalities, along with members of the Chinese and Indian communities.

Beach Road Police Station also found itself in the thick of action in the tumultuous period that followed the end of the Second World War. During the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950, policemen from the station were amongst paramilitary personnel sent to quell disturbances in nearby Kampong Glam. The policemen involved were however forced into retreat with the station serving as a refuge for them along with scores of civilians seeking safe refuge.

Following independence, the station served as the Police ‘C’ Division headquarters until May 1988 – when the division HQ was moved into new premises at Geylang Police Station. The buildings were then used as Central Police Division headquarters from November 1992 until 2001, after which the division HQ moved into Cantonment Police Complex. The decommissioning of the station led to its use by the Raffles Design Institute for some six years. During this time, two sets of newer quarters that had been added on an adjacent piece of land – two four-storey blocks that were built in the 1950s, and a 12 storey block in erected in 1970, were demolished.

Sitting on a prime 2-hectare reserve site, the former station and barracks was sold for a whopping $1.62 million in 2017 and members of the public got to see it for the last time as it was during a “Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets” visit in October 2017.


A last look at the former Beach Road Police Station as it was in 2017.






Orchard Road, half a century ago

14 06 2021

Glitzy and glamourous, Singapore’s Orchard Road is sold today as a fashionable destination to find a hotel in, to shop and to have a meal. With much of its two kilometres lined with modern malls, it is no wonder. It however, wasn’t this way when I first got to know the street as a child. This was in the second half of the 1960s, when Orchard Road still wore a rather sleepy aura, lined with shophouses, a multitude of car showrooms, among which two supermarkets were nestled.

 A view down Orchard Road in 1971.
A view down Orchard Road in 1971.

Two of the motor showrooms that would often catch my attention were Champion Motors – a VW dealer, located where Lucky Plaza is today, and Orchard Motors – which sold Vauxhalls and Chevrolets on the site of the older section of Paragon. The latter, stood right next to one of the supermarkets, Fitzpatrick’s, which was the younger of the two supermarkets, having opened in August 1958.

1958 was also the year that the rather famous Orchard Road outlet of C K Tang – housed in a Chinese-styled building that would become quite an Orchard Road icon – opened. The rags to riches tale of C K Tang or Tang Choon Keng, who came as a poor immigrant from China in 1923 is one that has frequently been told. His bold decision, to move from River Valley Road to the more centrally located Orchard Road might be thought of as a stroke of genius. To the superstitious, the site of the new store might have been thought of as being inauspicious, with it facing the former Teochew burial site, Tai Swa Teng, just across the road. Tang’s move, with a view to catching the growing tourist crowd, eventually paid off and was possibly the spark that lit the fire. By 1965, Metro – another household name today – found its way to the street, opening its Metrotex store at Liat Towers, and in 1967, Chinese Emporium opened its outlet at International Building.

By the early 1970s, what could be thought of as the first modern mall – fashioned out of the former Orchard Motors showroom, The Orchard, opened. The mall, housed some upmarket shops such as Charles Jourdan, The Elizabeth Arden Salon, Diethelm Furniture, Jade Palace Restaurant and Thong Sia, a branch of Robina Department Store and was perhaps best known for Tivoli Coffee House. Several large scale mall developments were to follow with Tanglin Shopping Centre at nearby Tanglin Road being completed in 1972 and Plaza Singapura, at which Yaohan became an instant hit, in 1974. The conversion of the former Orchard Motors car showroom may also have spelt the beginning of the end for the motorcar trade on Orchard Road. Orchard Motors’ companion, Champion Motors, soon also gave way to Lucky Plaza, which opened in 1978.





Parting Glances: Shaw Towers

9 06 2021

Shaw Towers, a landmark along Beach Road since its completion in 1976, is now in the process of coming down. Built on a site that had partly been occupied by the old and popular Alhambra and Marlborough cinemas, the 35-floor building was, at the point of its completion, the tallest on Beach Road.

Designed by Iversen, van Sitteren and Partners and built during a time when cinema-going was a popular activity in Singapore, Shaw Towers was the first building in Singapore to house two cinemas, Prince and Jade. Occupying the second to the seventh floors of one corner of the building’s 13-storey podium, the 1952 seater Prince Theatre was then the largest cinema in Singapore. Its screen, at 28 metres wide, was the widest in the Far East. The cinema was where Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws drew the crowds in Singapore, making its debut with the cinema’s opening on 14 July 1976. Following a run of 128 days, Jaws raked in some $1.25 million in box office receipts at Prince – setting a record at the time.

Occupying the ground to third floor of the podium’s extension towards Nicoll Highway, Jade opened in November 1976 and provided a more intimate setting, with less than half the seating capacity of Prince with a capacity of 844. The cinemas were converted in the late 1980s to cineplexes and were the first multi-screen cinemas to make an appearance in Singapore.

The opening of Jade also coincided with the completion of Shaw Towers. At its completion, the first two levels of the podium featured some 242 shops. The podium also featured a carpark from the third to eleventh levels and offices from the 12th to 35th levels. Over the years, the building’s office space attracted a host of advertising firms stung by increasing rents in the Shenton Way area and also broadcasting companies. Among the latter were names such as NHK and the BBC, which moved in when its regional HQ was moved to Singapore in the year 2000.

The building, which featured the innovative use of more than 2,500 specially designed precast and pre-finished concrete units, is being replaced by a much taller building that will rise some 66 metres higher which is expected to be completed by 2024.






Middle Road and the (un)European Town

26 04 2021

Street names, especially ones in common use, often tell an interesting tale. Such is the case with Middle Road. Constructed late in the first decade that followed British Singapore’s 1819 founding by Sir Stamford Raffles, parts of Middle Road have become known by a mix of names in the various vernaculars. Each provide a glimpse into the streets fascinating past, the communities it played host to and the trades and institutions that marked it. It is its official name, Middle Road, that seems to have less to reveal and what Middle Road the middle, is a question that has not been quite as adequately answered.


The Jackson Plan of 1822. Middle Road is not marked on it. Its location on this map correspond to the road passing through ‘Rocher Square’ right smack in the middle of the European quarter.

Often the resource of choice in seeking a better understanding of a Singapore street name and its origins is the book ‘Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics’, authored by Victor Savage and Brenda Yeoh. The book however, does not quite provide the answer to the question of what made Middle Road the middle in explaining that the street was (or may have been) a line of demarcation between the trading post’s European Town and a designated ‘native’ settlement to its east. Reference has to be made to the 1822 Town Plan, for which Raffles’ provided a specific set of instructions, in the allocation of areas of settlement along ethnic lines with the civic and mercantile districts at the town’s centre. A set of written instructions was also provided by Raffles to members of the Town Committee. Based on the plan and the written instructions, the European Town was to have extended eastwards from the cantonment for “as far generally as the Sultan’s (settlement)”, with an ‘Arab Campong’ in between. This meant that the line demarcating the two districts was not Middle Road, but would have been Rochor Road or a parallel line to its northeast.


Middle Road is shown in the 1836 Map drawn by J B Tassin based on an 1829 survey by G D Coleman. On this I have superimposed the boundaries of the various districts based on the 1822 Town Plan. On this map, Middle Road seems to be a street that no only ran through the middle of the European Town, but was quite literally the middle road of the European Town three parallel roads.

There is an older attempt to explain what the ‘middle’ in Middle Road might have been. This was made in 1886 by T J Keaughran, a one-time employee of the Government printing office and resident of Singapore in the late 1800s. In a Straits Times article, ‘Picturesque and busy Singapore’, Keaughran described Middle Road as being “perhaps more appropriately, the central division or section of the city”. There may be some merit in this suggestion based on the 1822 Town Plan. What seems however to be more obvious is that Middle Road ran right down the middle of the European quarter. Middle Road was also, quite literally, the middle road of three parallel roads running northwest to southeast through the European Town.  

The Portuguese tradition is kept very much alive at St. Joseph’s Church (which is now under renovation).

It would appear that the European Town, or at least the section that was allocated to it, never quite developed as Raffles had envisaged. Middle Road would turn out to be the centre of many communities, none of which was quite European. Hints of European influences do however exist in the Portuguese Church and in the former St Anthony’s Convent. The Portuguese Church — as it was once commonly referred to, or St Joseph’s Church, long a focal point of Singapore’s Portuguese Eurasian community, traces it roots to the Portuguese Mission’s Father Francisco da Silva Pinto e Maia, a one time Rector of St Joseph’s Seminary in Macau and owes much to the generosity of Portuguese physician turned settler, merchant and plantation owner, Dr Jose D’Almeida. It was in D’Almeida’s exclusive beach front house in the area that Liang Seah Street is today, that the mission’s first masses were held in 1825 – a year in which both Father Maia and Dr D’Almeida set foot on a permanent basis in Singapore.

An old letter box and signboard for the church.

The land on which the Beach Road house stood, had been procured by Dr D’Almeida during a stopover whilst on a voyage to Macau in 1819 with the help of Francis James Bernard, acting Master Attendant, son-in-law of Singapore’s first resident William Farquhar, and perhaps more famously, the great, great, great, great grandfather of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. D’Almeida also had a house built on the plot, which Bernard occupied whilst the physician was based in Macau. Political events in Portugal, and its delayed spread to Macau, would bring both Father Maia and D’Almeida to Singapore via Calcutta. D’Almeida’s Beach Road house was used to celebrate masses until 1833. A permanent church building for the Church of São José (St Joseph) would eventually be established at the corner of Victoria Street and Middle Road in the mid-1800s. What stands on the site today is a 1912 rebuild of this church. Initially administered by the Diocese of Goa and later, by the Diocese of Macau, the church’s links with Portugal were only broken in 1981, although parish priest appointments continued to be made by the Diocese of Macau until 1999 when Macau reverted to Chinese rule and the Portuguese Mission was dissolved. The church has since 1981, come under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore.

A touch of Iberia can be found in the Portuguese Church, especially during festival days.

The Portuguese Mission would also establish St Anna’s School in 1879. The school for children of poor parishioners, is the predecessor to St Anthony’s Boys’ School (now St Anthony’s Primary School) and St Anthony’s Convent (now St. Anthony’s Canossian Primary School). A spilt into a boys’ and a girls’ school in 1893 saw the two sections going their separate ways. The setting up of the girls’ school would see to an Italian flavour being added to Middle Road, when four nuns of the Italian-based Canossian order came over from Macau in 1894 to run the girls’ section. Two of the nuns were Italian and another two Portuguese and in the course of its time in Middle Road, many more nuns of Italian origin would arrive. Those who were boarders or schoolgirls from the old convent days in Middle Road will remember how old-fashioned methods of discipline that the nuns brought with them were administered in heavily accented English with a certain degree of fondness.

The first Canossians. Top – M. Giustina Sequeira, M. Matilde Rodriguez, M. Marietta Porroni, and bottom extreme right –  M. Teresa Rossi. Two others were the superiors M. Teresa Lucian and M. Maria Stella, who accompanied the four.

While the convent may have moved in 1995, the buildings that were put up over the course of the 20th century along Middle Road to serve it are still there and stands as a reminder of the work of the Canossian nuns. Now occupied by the National Design Centre, its former chapel building is also where the legacy of another Italian, Cav Rodolfo Nolli has quite literally been cast in stone. In the former convent’s chapel, now the centre’s auditorium, watchful angels in the form of cast stone reliefs made by Nolli — Nolli’s angels as I refer to them — count among the the last works that the sculptor executed here before his retirement. The angels have watched over the nuns, boarders, orphans and schoolgirls since the early 1950s and are among several lasting reminders of Cav Nolli. The Italian craftsman spent a good part of his life in Singapore, having first arrived from Bangkok in 1921. Except for a period of internment in Australia during the Second World War, Nolli was based in Singapore until 1956. His best known work in Singapore is the magnificent set of sculptures, the Allegory of Justice, found in the tympanum of the Old Supreme Court.

St. Anthony’s Convent in the 1950s.

Among the common names associated with Middle Road is a now a rather obscure one in the Hokkien vernacular, 小坡红毛打铁 (Sio Po Ang Mo Pah Thi). This is another that could be thought of as providing a hint of another of the street’s possible ‘ang mo’ (红毛) or European connections. The Sio Po (小坡) in the name is a reference to the ‘lesser town’ or the secondary Chinese settlement that developed on the north side of the Singapore River (as opposed to 大坡 tua po — the ‘greater town’ or Chinatown). A literal translation of Pah Thi (打铁) would be “hit iron” — a reference to an iron-working establishment, which in this case was the J M Cazalas et Fils’ (J M Cazalas and Sons’) iron and brass foundry. Established in 1856 by Mauritius born Frenchman Jean-Marie Cazalas, the foundary occupied an area bounded by Middle Road, Victoria Street, the since expunged Holloway Lane, and North Bridge Road, a site on which part of the National Library now stands.

Central Engine Works, the successor to the lesser town’s European ironworks.

The business survived in one form or another in the area right up to 1920. J M’s son, Joseph, who inherited the business, renamed it Cazalas and Fils. In 1887, Chop Bun Hup Guan bought the foundry over and had it renamed Victoria Engine Works. The last name that the business was known by was Central Engine Works, a name it acquired when it again changed hands in the 1900s. Central Engine Works’ move in 1920 to new and “more commodious” premises in Geylang, paved the way for the site’s redevelopment and saw to the removal of all traces of the foundry.  The name Central Engine Works would itself fade into oblivion when it became a victim of the poor economic conditions that persisted through much of the 1920s. The firm went into voluntary liquidation in the early 1930s. The Empress Hotel, which opened in 1928, was erected on part of the former foundry’s site and became a landmark in the area. It was known for its restaurant which produced a popular brand of mooncakes, the ‘Queen of the Mooncakes’. Looking tired and worn, the Empress Hotel came down in 1985, when the wave of urban redevelopment swept through the area.

Empress Hotel (roots.SG).

The setting up of the Cazalas foundry up came at a time when the European Town was already on its way to becoming the ‘Lesser Town’. One of the reasons contributing to the change in status of the designated European area and its choice beachfront plots may have been the preference amongst the settlement’s European ‘gentry’ for the more pleasant inland area of the island as places of residence as the interior opened up. Among the larger groups contributing to the influx of non-European settlers in the area were the Hainanese — who could be thought of as ‘latecomers’ to the Chinese Nanyang diaspora. The Hainanese established clan or bang boarding houses in the area and by 1857, a temple dedicated to Mazu was erected at Malabar Street. Middle Road became the Hainanese 海南一街 or Hylam Yet Goi. The area is today still thought of as a spiritual home to the community, who today form the fifth largest of the various Chinese dialect groups in Singapore. The Singapore Hainan Hwee Kuan and the Tin Hou Kong (the since relocated Mazu temple) is also present in the area at Beach Road. The area can also be thought of as the home of the Singapore brand of Hainanese Chicken Rice having been were it was conceived and for many years served by its inventor.

The house of the rising sun (take not of the pediment) — a reminder of the Japanese Community, which made Middle Road home from the end of the 1800s to 1941. At its height, the community numbered several thousands.

Among other names associated with Middle Road was 中央通り(Chuo Dori), Japanese for ‘Central Street’ and the محلة (Mahallah) — an Arabic term meaning ‘place’ and used by the Sephardic Jewish community who came through Baghdad to describe the Jewish neighbourhood that formed at the end of the 19th century in and around the northwest end of Middle Road. There were also a host of names in Hokkien that refer to Mangkulu 望久鲁 or Bencoolen — a reference to the Kampong Bencoolen, which was established in the area.

A marker of the Mahallah, the David Elias Building with its star of David.

One name that includes the name is 望久鲁车馆 or Mangkulu Chia Kuan — the jinrikisha registration station in the area that later became the Registry of Vehicles (where Sunshine Plaza is today. As with the station at Neil Road, a station was established in the Middle Road area due to the proliferation rickshaw coolie kengs or quarters and rickshaw operators in the area, many of which were run by other groups of late arrivals among the Chinese migrants, the Hokchia and the Henghwa. Also mixed into the area around the Lesser Town as the years went by were other migrant communities, who included Hakkas, the people of Sam Kiang (the three ‘kiangs‘ or ‘jiangs‘ — Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Jiangxi) who are sometimes described as Shanghainese, South Indians and Sikhs. The people of Sam Kiang were quite prominent and featured in the furniture making and piano trading businesses, books and publishing, and tailoring — Chiang Yick Ching, who founded CYC Shirts at Selegie Road was an immigrant from Ningbo in Zhejiang as was Chou Sing Chu, the founder of Popular Book Store at North Bridge Road. The Hakkas were involved in the canvas trade, and were opticians and watch dealers. They were also the shoe making and shoe last making factories around Middle Road, which was once a street known for it Chinese shoe shops.

Right next to the David Elias Building is the former Dojin Hospital, which was erected before the war to serve the Japanese Community.

Various communities and institutions populating the post-1850s ‘European Town’





A beautiful campus by the sea

20 04 2021

A peek into the beautiful BNP Paribas Asia-Pacific Campus. Established in 2014, the campus occupies two beautifully restored former barrack blocks of the former (Royal Engineers) Kitchener Barracks in Changi. The two blocks, currently Block 34 and 35 and formerly B an C Blocks, were among the first to be built in the Changi Cantonment that was developed from the end of the 1920s into the late 1930s and provide an excellent example of how such buildings could be restored and repurposed in the light of the recently announced Ideas Competition for Changi Point and old Changi Hospital (see also: Ideas sought to repurpose Old Changi Hospital, enhance surrounding Changi Point area).

The former B-Block, together with the former H-Block (now Block 24, which in 1947 was repurposed as RAF Hospital, Changi), were in fact the first barrack blocks to constructed in Changi and were completed by 1930. The cantonment also included barracks for the Royal Artillery at Roberts Barracks — now within Changi Air Base (West) and for the infantry at Selarang Barracks, as well as smaller camps for various Indian Army units.

In the 1920s, Britain had moved to establish a large naval base in Sembawang to defend its Far East interests in the face of rising Japanese ambition. The setting up of the cantonment followed this decision and was carried out to install, maintain, man and secure coastal artillery being placed around the eastern mouth of the Tebrau or Johor Strait to protect the naval base against naval attack.

The cantonment, which sustained some damage in the lead up to the Fall of Singapore but remain largely intact, was evacuated on 12 February 1942. Singapore fell on 15 February 1942 and with Japanese forces overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of surrendering Allied troops in Singapore, they found a solution to accommodating some of these troops in the emptied barracks in Changi. On 17 February 1942, close to 50,000 British and Australian Prisoners-of-War (POWs) were marched to Changi and placed in the various camps. The troops forming the last line of defence in Singapore, the Singapore Fortress Southern Area troops, which included some volunteer units, were allocated Kitchener Barracks. The Australians were kept separately in Selarang. POW hospitals, which were set up in former field hospitals in Roberts and Selarang, were consolidated at Roberts Barracks — this is where the Changi Murals were painted.

The POWs would initially have little contact with their captors, who got them to wire themselves into the various camps. Discipline was maintained by the officers among the POWs, who also took it upon themselves to keep the morale up. Sports, theatrical performances and even university classes were organised — there were several professional sportsmen amongst the ranks and also lecturers from Raffles College who were with the volunteer units and in Kitchener Barracks, the Southern Area College operated. With the Fortress troops — who were not involved in the retreat down Malaya — being amongst the fittest of the POWs, the men of the camp at Kitchener were among the first to be picked for the Japanese organised work teams, many of which would be sent to provide labour in places like the Thai-Burma ‘Death’ Railway. The numbers in Kitchener dwindled to the point that it could be closed as a POW camp in May 1943, followed by Roberts in September 1943. In May 1944, the POWs, which included those who had survived the Death Railway, were concentrated at Changi Prison, which had previously been used as a civilian internment camp (the civilians were moved to Sime Road Camp).

The two camps would then be occupied by Japanese units involved in the construction of the Japanese airstrip at Changi (operational at the end of 1944), around which the Royal Air Force would establish RAF Air Station Changi (RAF Changi) in 1946. The blocks of the former Kitchener Barracks were then used by the RAF, with RAF Hospital Changi being established in 1947. Among the renumbered blocks, Block 35, housed HQ Far East Air Force (FEAF) Command. The various roads within the former Kitchener Barracks were renamed after RAF Air Stations. Following the British pull-out in October 1971, the barrack buildings (except for Block 24 and 37), were used by the Singapore Armed Forces as Commando Camp. Of the various barrack developments, only the former Kitchener remains largely intact today.





History Misunderstood: Changi Point

5 04 2021

Set in scenic surroundings in Singapore’s rustic north-eastern corner, the area we refer to as Changi Point, is one in which I have found great joy in. It is an area of much beauty with much of its natural geographical features intact and wears a charm that is little changed from the time I first interacted with it more than half a century ago. Over the years, I have also discovered that the area is one with quite a history; a history that is even recorded in maps of a 17th century battle off Changi. Also as fascinating is Changi Point and its more recent past, one that goes back to the early decades of Singapore as a British East India Company trading port.

Changi today – with a view towards Pulau Ubin

Remote and inhospitable and with its surroundings dominated by mangrove and terrestrial forests in British Singapore’s earliest years, Changi Point’s charm must have already been in evidence then; so much so that several adventurous souls amongst the gentry recognised its potential as a spot for a retreat.  Among the first to see this was Mr Gottlieb, who put up Fairy Point bungalow on what could be thought of as the prime of prime locations on the seaward side of an elevation he christened Fairy Point Hill.

Fairy Point – the site of Mr Gottlieb’s Bungalow

In addition to Mr Gottlieb’s place of escape, the government had also had a bungalow built. Besides serving as a stay-over location for officers sent to the remote area for surveys, its use was extended for leisure purposes.  By the mid-1840s, Changi Bungalow – as it had come to be known, had gained the reputation of being a “fashionable resort for picnic parties”. Constructed of wood, the bungalow had to be rebuilt several times over the years with its last iteration being demolished in 1965. The expansive grounds of the bungalow is an area that until today, has been in the hands of Singapore’s successive governments and amongst the structures now found on it is the 1950 built Changi Cottage, as well as several other holiday facilities.

Changi Cottage

One holiday home from Changi’s past that is still standing is a bungalow that belonged to Mr Ezekiel S Manasseh, who is often confused with Sir Manasseh Meyer. A founder of Goodwood Park Hotel, Mr E S Manasseh is better known for his mansion in Tanglin, Eden Hall, which is the British High Commissioner’s residence today. Mr Manasseh also maintained a holiday home in Changi Point. Located on the left bank of Changi Creek, he often extended its use to newlyweds for their honeymoon early in the 1900s. The bungalow stands today as the CSC Clubhouse.

Muslim graves at the foot of Batu Puteh Hill – a reminder perhaps of Kampong Batu Puteh.

Around this time (the early 1900s), a Japanese owned hotel also made an appearance along the beach just east of Fairy Point in the area of a Malay kampung named Kampong Batu Puteh.  The wooden hotel, which was perched on stilts that extended across the foreshore, was rumoured to have offered more than a getaway and was rumoured to have been a place of ill repute. Whatever the hotel may have offered, time would soon be called on it with events on the world’s stage setting a new course for Changi Point.

While the Great War of 1914 to 1918 did not affect Singapore directly, its impact was and would be felt in many ways, not least through the fluctuations in the price of rubber through the war. There was also that episode of the insurrection that began at Alexandra Barracks during Chinese New Year in 1915 that was founded partly on a rumour being spread among the Sepoy Muslim mutineers  that they were being sent to Mesopotamia to fight fellow Muslims. Among Britain’s allies who responded to calls for help were some 190 Japanese resident volunteers, and another force of 142 from two Japanese naval ships.

Memorial to the victims of the 1915 Mutiny at Victoria Concert Hall

The Imperial Japanese Navy had been on the rise for a number of decades. Having acquired knowhow to build its own naval hardware as well as in naval tactics from Britain and France, by the time the war started, the Japanese navy was in a good position to support its allies in the Entente. Japan actions in the naval arena would also however lay its ambitions bare, especially in regard to German held territory in China. The sense of discomfort in Britain grew in the post-war period with Japan having the third largest navy in the world after the United States and Britain. By 1921, a decision had been taken by Britain to protect its Far East interests through the construction of a huge naval base in Singapore.

HMS Bulwark off the northwall of the Naval Base in the 1960s – the northwall is where the far end of the shipyard is today (source: http://www.acig.org/artman/publish/article_203.shtml).

A consequence of building the naval base in Singapore, and having it sited in Seletar – as the Sembawang area was also known as, was in the placement of coastal artillery around Changi to defend the base against naval attack. Changi, located at the eastern entrance to the Tebrau or Johor Strait, was hence, strategically sited at the entrance to the naval base. With the need to install, man, maintain and protect the guns, Changi was also developed as a military cantonment.

An extract from a 1935 map showing positions or intended positions of Defence Electric Lights at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Johor (including those at Pengerang) and their coverage (National Archives of Singapore online).

The first section of the cantonment was built at Changi Point. Work progressed in in a stop-start manner, first from 1927 to 1930 and again from 1933 to 1935, due to the evolving political situation in Britain.  Being the first barracks on site and located in a prime location, this section became the home of Royal Engineers’ units as Kitchener Barracks. There would also be barracks constructed for the Royal Artillery at Roberts Barracks and for infantry units at Selarang Barracks. In addition to these, a few other camps were also established for the rank and file among the British Indian Army troops protecting the area.

Selarang Barracks Officers’ Mess

The huge investment in the base and in facilities at Changi and elsewhere across the island did little in terms of doing what it was meant to do and on 15 February 1942, the “impregnable fortress” that Singapore had been touted as, fell into the hands of Japanese forces – a mere two months after Japan launched its invasion of Malaya. Except for the feint assault on Pulau Ubin on the eve of the Imperial Japanese Army’s 8 February 1942 invasion of Singapore, and the firing of Changi’s huge coastal guns against advancing Japanese troops, Changi would see little in terms of military action in the lead up to this inglorious fall. Contrary to popular belief, the guns were used with at least one of the monster guns of the Johore Battery firing about eighty rounds before its rifling started to protrude. Although the guns were fired, they did little to stop the advance. The armour piercing rounds that they were supplied with in anticipation of a naval assault, were ineffective against ground forces. On 12 February 1942, with Japanese forces made rapid progress coming down the down and west, the order was given to units defending Changi to pull back to Singapore’s urban centre. The cantonment and its lightly damaged buildings were left empty, and Changi’s guns destroyed. It would be some days later, on 17 February 1942, that Changi would come into the spotlight.

The spiked No 2 Gun, one of three 15″ guns of the Johore Battery.

The Fall of Singapore left the Japanese invasion forces with quite a big headache. With tens of thousands of surrendering British and Australian led personnel from units that made the retreat down Malaya and troops defending Singapore, they were overwhelmed. There was the need to accommodate, secure and maintain the discipline among the Prisoners of War (POWs) and a solution provided by Changi and its abandoned cantonment. On 17 February 1942, some 50,000 prisoners-of-war or POWs, were made to march to Changi to occupy its various barracks and camps.

Barrack Hill in Kitchener Barracks – part of the POW camp for Southern Area forces from Feb 1942 to May 1943.

The former Kitchener Barracks was used to accommodate members of the Southern Area forces with some 15,000  Australian POWs occupying Selarang.  The POW hospital was also to be centralised in Roberts Barracks on 26 February 1942, one of two sites – the other being Selarang – at which hospitals were established prior to the Fall of Singapore and immediately after the POWs were moved to Changi.  It would be in the chapel at Roberts Hospital that the famous Changi Murals would be painted. The murals still exist today. Found in Block 151 in Changi Air Base West, they are quite unfortunately out of bounds to members of the public. In the early part of camp life, there had apparently been minimal contact with their captors, with prisoners being tasked with wiring themselves into the various barrack areas as well as taking care of their own discipline.

Block 151. Now in Changi Air Base West, this was one of the Roberts Barracks blocks that served as the POW Hospital from February 1942 until September 1943.

Life as a POW in Changi, and in Kitchener Barracks was tough for many reasons and not least through the lack of food and nutrition as well as the diseases that the POWs were exposed to due to conditions in captivity. Still, many found the strength to go on through the activities that were organised. Sports became a means to provide distractions to the routine of life as a POW – at least in the first year of captivity. Among the ranks were several professional sportsmen, including Johnny Sherwood, a footballer who played in the war time FA Cup final.  The sports fields and facilities that the barracks in Changi had been provided with proved useful with cricket and football matches being played on them. Theatrical performances were also organised and college level courses. In Kitchener, classes of the Southern Area College were taught by academics, some of whom were from Raffles College. Several were members of volunteer units which had been placed under the Fortress Singapore command.

The Changi Padang – it was used for sporting activities during the first year of POW captivity.

In the many comparisons that were made by POWs at Changi, there is a consistent theme of how life may have been hard, but was in fact “heaven” compared to what many were to face elsewhere. Throughout the initial period of captivity starting in April 1942, work teams were organised and sent to various of Singapore to work on building and construction projects. Teams would also be sent to the Thai-Burma Railway, which the Japanese were constructing to provide a supply line to support their push into Burma and towards the Indian subcontinent. Often described as the “Death Railway” it was where the POWs really suffered, being put to hard labour. Besides an extreme lack of nutrition, POWs also suffered from deliberating diseases, with many succumbing to them.  

River Kwai, Kanchanaburi in Thailand in Dec 1984, the area was where many POWs were sent from Singapore to work on the Death Railway .

Kitchener Barracks, being where the bulk of the troops defending Singapore were being held – as opposed to troops that had made the retreat down Malaya – had the healthiest POWs and hence, was where many of the members of the first working teams were drawn from. By May 1943, POW numbers had dwindled to the point that Kitchener Barracks was closed as a POW camp and in September 1943, Roberts was similarly closed, with the POWs and the POW Hospital being concentrated at Selarang Barracks. Both Kitchener and Roberts Barracks were taken over by Imperial Japanese Army units who were involved in the construction of an airstrip at Changi. This started with POW labour in September 1943 and by the end of 1944, the airstrip was operational.

While all this was happening, returning POWs from the Death Railway were placed at Selarang Camp and also at Sime Road Camp. A change in POW administration would however see the POWs concentrated in Changi Prison and its grounds from May 1944. Civilian internees, who were being held at Changi Prison from February 1942 to May 1944 were moved to Sime Road to make way for the POWs.

The main Changi Prison gate – one of the structures of the prison that has been kept. The prison was a site of civilian internment from Feb 1942 until May 1944, following which POWs were moved in.

One of the myths that have been spread about Changi and the POW experience is that of the hospital in Kitchener Barracks being a place of torture by the Kempeitai. There is however no basis for this myth. Not only was there no functioning hospital in Kitchener Barracks during the period of captivity, there are certainly not reports or accounts that exist. Instances of torture by the Kempeitai did however take place in the wake of Operation Jaywick, which involved a commando raid on Japanese shipping in Singapore harbour. During what has been termed as the “Double-Tenth Incident”, civilian internees at Changi Prison were suspected of aiding the commandos through radio transmissions. Several were interrogated and executed in exercise that would involve the arrest and subsequent torture of Elizabeth Choy at the YMCA in Orchard Road.

Changi would find a new purpose after the war. The Royal Air Force (RAF) found the airstrip that the Japanese had added particularly useful in landing transport aircraft bringing in much needed supplies. This would lead to the strengthening and subsequent use of the runway for the RAF’s heavy aircraft and the setting up of RAF Changi, an air station that would become the RAF’s principal air station in the Far East. The former Kitchener Barracks, would become the headquarters of the Far East Air Force (FEAF) command, with Barrack Hill, renamed FEAF Hill. The roads in the area, were also renamed after RAF air stations.

A view from FEAF Hill

To support the new air station, more accommodation was also added across the area, starting with several single floor bungalows. A number of semi-detached accommodation would also be added. Many of these buildings can still be found. In addition to this, a hospital was set up for the RAF on FEAF Hill. This initially involved the former sick quarters on top of the hill (renamed Block 37) and the former H-Block – a three-storey barrack block of Kitchener Barracks which was turned into a ward block 24. Separated by a flight of 91 steps, transfer pf patients between the two blocks required an ambulance. The construction of a third block – the six storey Block 161 (with four usable floors) – with lifts and walkways to connect the two older blocks in 1962, helped ease that burden.    

Blocks 161 and 24 of the former Changi Hospital.

Following the pull-out of British Forces in 1971, the former barracks were put to use in several ways with the barrack blocks along Hendon Road accommodating Singapore’s Commando Unit and several of the accommodation units being turned into holiday facilities for civil servants. Sports and recreation clubs, such as the Changi Swimming Club, the Beach Club and the Sailing Club were also established using existing facilities left by the RAF. One outcome of the development of the air base, is the idea of developing Changi also for civil aviation. There were in fact plans announced in 1948 to develop a world class airport in Changi . That did not quite happen, but the idead came up once more in the 1970s leading to the development of Changi Airport.

One of the post WW2 semi-detached additions, seen in September 1987. These served as married quarters during the RAF days and were converted for use as government holiday chalets in the 1970s.

Today, much of the area of the former Kitchener Barracks and the RAF camp is still intact. Many of the sites and structures completed from 1928 to 1935, including barrack blocks and residences are still standing. Some, such as have gain prominence having been used by Raintr33 Hotel and Changi Hospital. There are also some still in use, such as BNP Paribas APAC Training Centre, Coastal Settlement, and the recreational spaces such as the former Officers’ Club – now the Beach Club and the Yacht Club – now Changi Sailing Club. There are also the oldest structures – the officers’ residences at Batu Puteh Hill and Fairy Point Hill, including one, that sits on the site of Mr Gottlieb’s demolished bungalow. The collection of barrack structures of the former Kitchener Barracks, are perhaps the last, almost complete set of structures from the interwar militarisation of Singapore that is still around, structures which tell a story of Changi’s development, of war, and of how through a series of twists and turns, it became a key aviation staging ground for the RAF and then for Singapore.





Remembering Dakota (Crescent)

5 01 2021

Dakota Crescent — part of the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) 1958 development that was known as Old Kallang Airport Estate — will not be forgotten for two reasons. The first, is that six out of seventeen of its block that are representative of the former estate, including a 1970s playground that the six are arranged around, are being kept as part of a future housing development.

The second reason is the widely circulated myth that the fatal Dakota DC-3 crash that Dakota Crescent is said to have been named after, occured at Kallang Airport in a thunderstorm on 29 June 1946. While it can be established that DC-3 carrying 22 crew and Royal Air Force personnel that originated from Kallang on the date did crash in bad weather, it can also be established that where the crash happened was not at Kallang but in northern Malaya and after the aircraft had taken off at Butterworth on its way to Mingaladon.

How I will remember Dakota, is through the various visits that I made to the old estate and through the photographs that I took of it. My impressions of it was that the estate was worn, tired looking and had seen much better days. Still there was much to take in and much to capture and in this post are a few that I wish to share.


Remembering Dakota





Geylang, through the eyes of a long time “street-walker”

4 01 2021


I have been walking the streets of Geylang for close to a decade now. As much as it is a destination for a gluttonous excursion, and, if that isn’t sinful enough for the disreputable indulgences that Geylang has gained a certain notoriety for, the district’s main roads and numerous lorong-lorong (lanes) running off the main streets, are also full of colour — having been spared from the level of development that has robbed much of modern Singapore of character. An amazing array of religious institutions and houses of worship exist in the area, which has also become an abode for many transient workers. There is certainly no shortage of what the explorer and the photographer in me can take joy in. Here are some of what I have captured of Geylang, seen in quite different light, in fifty photographs:


1 | Seeing the light | 14 Nov 2014
Geylang is possibly home to Singapore’s largest concentration of religious institutions. This photograph shows one of them, the Masjid Khadijah and particularly its minaret, brought to prominence by the light of the rising sun as dark rain clouds cast a shadow on Geylang Road.
2 | Playing with Fire | 11 Sep 2016
The Mun San Fook Tuck Chee temple, a temple with more than a century of history and is threatened by redevelopment, lies off Sims Drive and what used to be an extension of Geylang’s Lorong 17. One of its traditions, albeit relatively recently introduced in the 1980s, is the fire dragon dance – for more information on the dance, and the temple, do click on the photograph.
3 | Rain Coloured Streets | 16 Nov 2016
The rain-coloured Geylang Road.
4 | Seeing the light II | 11 Oct 2018
Like much of Singapore, Geylang Road is constantly under repair and maintenance. This sometimes presents rather unique opportunities for the photographer.
5 | Breakfast / Fast Break | 7 Jun 2019
Home to many migrant workers, Geylang comes to life almost as soon as its nocturnal side comes to a rest,
6 | Light and Shadow | 16 Oct 2018
Patrons at a coffeeshop partially illuminated by the light of the rising sun.
7 | Restocking | 26 Sep 2018
Breakfast time at a metal section supplier — just after the day’s supply of hollow metal sections of various cross-sectional shapes have been delivered.
8 | Shelter from the Storm | 8 Aug 2018
A five-foot-way illuminated by the neon signs of the Buddhist Art Centre.
9 | The Rain Again | 16 Nov 2016
10 | Lorong 34 | 17 Jan 2018
A view down Lorong 34, one of Geylang’s prettier lorong-lorong.
11 | Lorong 34 II | 26 Jul 2019
A set of pretty conservation shophouses along Lorong 34 – seen in the morning light,
12 | Old Made New | 20 Jun 2012
“Conservation” work to turn shophouses along Lorong 41 into The Lotus.
13 | Green Lane | 1 Oct 2018
Geylang may be greener than you think!
14 | Survivor | 17 Jan 2018
Hidden in Geylang’s lorong-lorong are a few survivors of Geylang’s past.
15 | Survivor II | 30 Aug 2017
Another house temple, this one set in a compound house that is a reminder not only of Geylang’s past, but also of a rural Singapore that we no longer see.
16 | A New Old World | 30 Aug 2017
A replica of a two-storey conservation bungalow that was demolished by the developer of a condominium at 5 Lorong 26. A photograph of the actual bungalow can be viewed by clicking on the photograph.
17 | A New World in an Old | 22 Jun 2012
A view of a conservation shophouse along Lorong 24A – from another.
18 | Back Alley Colours | 11 Jun 2012
Geylang’s back lanes can be especially colourful.
19 | SG50 | 7 Sep 2015
A lorong dressed up for National Day.
20 | Reflections on Geylang | 14 Nov 2014
A reflection of Geylang Road off a bus window.
21 | Portals into the Past | 18 Oct 2018
Night soil ports seen in a Geylang back lane.
22 | Backstage Colours | 10 Mar 2016
Backstage at a Cantonese opera performance at the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee temple.
23 | Backstage Colours II | 10 Mar 2016
A Cantonese opera performer at the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee temple.
24 | Off to School | 9 Oct 2016
A grandparent accompanying a child to school — Geylang is also home to many families.
25 | Against the Tide| 23 Feb 2016
Another set of rules does seem to apply in Geylang.
26 | Seeing No Light | 7 Sep 2015
The day begins when the night has not ended for some.
27 | Festive Light | 23 Jan 2017
Bee Cheng Hiang opening early for the Chinese New Year shopper.
28 | Painted Face | 23 Feb 2016
One of the most photographed corners of Geylang.
29 | Door Guardians | 22 Oct 2018
Entrance to a temple in Geylang.
30 | Stairway to Heaven| 12 Jan 2017
A long vacant house that has recently been renovated.
31 | Kopitiam | 9 Oct 2018
An early morning Geylang coffeeshop scene.
32 | A Different Light | 25 Oct 2014
Inside a conservation shophouse along Lorong 24A.
33 | Crossing | 16 Oct 2018
Madrasah Al-Ma’arif students crossing Geylang Road.
34 | Teamwork| 26 Sep 2018
Unloading a delivery truck.
35 | Light of a New Day | 26 Sep 2018
With an east-west alignment, Geylang Road is well positioned to welcome the new day.
36 | Milestone | 1 May 2014
The last mile(stone) — a reminder of days when roads were marked with milestones. The milestone was removed by the National Heritage Board in 2014 and is now in the Heritage Conservation Centre.
37 | Upward Spiral | 22 Nov 2018
Colourful reminders of the “back lane” scheme in Singapore.
38 | Overgrowth | 17 May 2018
Conservation in Geylang often involves the addition of taller apartment blocks — within height limits – to the rear of conservation shophouses.
39 | Pretty in Pink | 30 Aug 2017
Geylang Road was once lined with private residences such as this bungalow — built possibly c. 1920. This is now used as a hotel.
40 | Takeaway | 15 Jan 2015
Members of the migrant workforce waiting for transport by the roadside, seen with packets of takeaway food bought from Geylang’s enterprising food vendors, many of whom open before the sun rises.
41 | Backend | 17 May 2018
Much of the Geylang’s streetscape is dominated by conservation shophouses.
42 | Rush Hour| 22 Nov 2018
Geylang’s bus-stops are especially busy during morning rush hour. The pillars of shophouses by the bus stops serve as convenient advertising board for accommodation and services that the transient population in Geylang may require.
43 | A Geylang Tragedy I| 9 Mar 2017
The Huang Clan house, which has since been demolished for a residential development. The house was where the “Father of Modern Chinese Art”, Xu Beihong, painted some of his most famous works, whilst a guest at the clan house in the 1930s. Some of the paintings, which expressed Xu’s anti-Japanese sentiments, were hidden away in Han Wai Toon’s rambutan orchard in Upper Thomson (now Thomson Nature Park).
44 | A Geylang Tragedy II | 9 Mar 2017
The former house of a Banjarese diamond merchant, which was earmarked for conservation but had deteriorated to a point that it is being rebuilt as part of a new residential development.
45 | Spillover | 18 Oct 2018
A worker getting preparing for the work day in a Geylang back lane.
46 | Gatepost Guardian| 2 Oct 2015
The qilin is commonly seen across the district.
47 | Unclothed| 15 Feb 2016
A break in the plaster of a shophouse exposing the red bricks — possibly from the kilns of the Geylang area — used in its construction.
48 | Rush Hour II | 15 Feb 2016
Geylang’s bus-stops during the morning rush hour are often very photographable.
49 | The Promised Land| 26 Jul 2019
All roads lead to a new residential development, or so it seems.
50 | Seeing the Light II | 15 Nov 2018
Masjid Khadijah in the light of another new day.





Discovering the “China” in Singapore’s Chinatown

23 12 2020

Unlike many other cities around the world where “Chinatowns” exist, a “Chinatown” in Singapore — where three in four of its population are ethnic Chinese — does seem rather odd.

The roots of the Chinese quarter do of course lie in Singapore’s very first urban plan, the so-called Jackson Plan of 1822, hatched at a time when the settlement was still very much in its infancy. That plan, placed the main settlement for migrants from China in the area where Chinatown is today also had a “Chuliah campong” for settlers from the Indian sub-continent adjacent to it. To the Chinese speaker, Chinatown had long been known as Tua Poh (大坡) or “the greater town”, or Ngau Che Shui or Gu Chia Chwee (牛车水) — a reference to bullock-drawn water carts carrying supplies of fresh water to the settlement in its early days. It is perhaps in recent times that the notion of the former settlement being Chinatown has taken root, and this seems rather ironically to have coincided with the quarter losing its original Chinese-ness through resettlement and redevelopment, and its subsequent association with the modern Chinese immigrant and the tourist crowd from modern day China.

The Town Plan of 1822.

These developments do in a way, mimic the evolution of the Singaporean Chinese identity — something that the “Not China Town” tour that has been put together by The Real Singapore Tours — seeks to examine. The tour, which I had the opportunity to attend a preview of, involved a long but leisurely walk through Singapore’s Chinatown. Together with the realisation of how widely spread Singapore’s so-called Chinese quarter is, the tour provides its participants through the stories told at various touch points and through songs, is a much deeper understanding of what the “China” in Singapore’s Chinatown is really all about.

Chinatown at the Crossroads – Cross Street was in the area where the “Chuliah Campong” was.

The tour, which can be forgiven for being too long due to the depth into which its guides expertly explore the evolving Chinese identity and for the refreshment stop — is certainly a must do — if the question of what shapes the Chinese Singaporean identity does bug you. Do look out for them at The Real Singapore Tours.


Highlights of Not China Town

Guide Jamie Lee giving an overview of what Singapore’s Chinatown is all about.
Listening to the first song – before the continuation of the “dance” through Chinatown.
Why Pagoda Street?
Another of the guides, Mark Tan (who sings very well), explaining the politics in the simplification of the Chinese character “sheng” in taking the king (王) out and giving power to the ground (土). The simplification of Chinese characters was an effort initiated by the Peoples’ Republic of China in the mid 20th century.
Celebrating the recent addition of hawker culture in Singapore to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage at the new age and very touristy hawker street on Smith Street?
A modern addition to Chinatown – around where the street of the dead was. The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple may have little to do with the collective memory the Chinese Singaporean may have of Chinatown, but it is an example of Tang architecture — the dynasty with which the Chinese immigrants of the past from Southern China identify with. Many descendants of the earlier Chinese immigrants to Singapore would have been identified as T’ng Lang, T’ng Nang or Tong Yan – 唐人- or Tang Ren in Mandarin or People of the Tang, rather than as Han Chinese.
Mark Loon – on the ma-jie and their vows of spinsterhood.
Of animistic practices and the natuk kong.
On the visit of Deng Xiaoping and the sinification of the Chinese in Singapore.
Clues that point to the migration from Amoy (E-m’ng or Xiamen).
A last song – at where it all began for many early immigrants from China.





A memory of Changi Chalet Hospital

23 09 2020

A guest post by Edmund Arozoo.

Once of Jalan Hock Chye, Edmund takes us on a walk back in time from Adelaide in South Australia, to his days as a radiographer in the small and little known Changi Chalet Hospital. The hospital, which was set up in 1974 in the former RAF Changi Chalet Club, became part of Changi Hospital in 1976.


Changi Chalet Hospital

It is surprising what you may accidentally uncover (discover) when you are searching for certain specific items, and how you then get distracted from the task at hand. Usually these surprise discoveries are memory joggers, leading you onto different tangents altogether as they remind you of certain memorable (or unpleasant) times of yesteryear.

I was going through some old photographic slides in the hope of finding slides I wanted to use for a particular project, when I came across two slides that I had forgotten about. And that was it –– my focus was disrupted as I started to reflect on these two images that have withstood the passing of time. Both slides have retained their quality in colour and detail thanks to the arid climate of Adelaide.

One of these slides brought me back to the early 1970s when I was working as a Radiographer I/C at Changi Chalet Hospital. I was also the unofficial resident photographer then and captured memories of staff etc.  The slide shows the Nursing staff getting ready for our Christmas Celebration Lunch. The Kodachrome slide processed in Australia was marked as Jan 1975. So I am sure this would be the celebrations of Christmas 1974.

Christmas Staff Party 1974.

On seeing the slide I was then diverted in trying to locate other images of Changi Chalet Hospital. Unfortunately most show the faces of staff members, as such without their permission I am reluctant to share these on the internet.  Nor am I known for posting and sharing images of me on the various social media sites with this guest post being an exception.

>In 2015, I did take a trip down memory lane to try and see what changes had taken place since I last worked at the hospital. My, what changes indeed there has been. A good friend drove me there and I was surprised that I could not get my bearings of the area that I was so familiar with, a long time ago. Trying to fit the missing links in my memory banks, I seem to have lost all my bearings.

As we drove slowly along the leafy roads, memories of the squads of SAF commandoes going through their daily exercise drills along the roads, came back to me. Most of all the tranquillity surrounding the old buildings and tall trees and the greenery was striking then and this was still there.

Fond memories of the Chalet Hospital still remain despite being more than 44 years old. It was a “mini” self-contained hospital with a pharmacy, laboratory and radiology services. Workload was not that heavy and I must confess that on a number of occasions when the tide was right I took a dip in the sea during my lunch break.

I was fortunate to be an owner of a second hand green Ford Anglia and used to drive to work from home which was near the start of Tampines Rd and the journey took me to the end of the road then veering left at the junction of the old Changi Air Force Airport into Upper Changi Road. Then after passing the old Changi Village turn left again on to Netheravon Road then into Turnhouse Road.

It was a long drive but almost halfway I used to pick up the Junior Photographic Assistant (my Darkroom Technician) who lived along Tampines Road on the way to work in the mornings and drop him off after work, so I had company for most of the journey to and fro. It was also a long walk from the bus terminus at the Changi Village to the Hospital, so me and other staff who had cars used  to pick up other hospital staff who were seen walking to work from the bus stop. It did foster a “family” atmosphere and environment.

As I started this blog thanks to the Onemap Singapore website https://hm.onemap.sg/ I was able to take a walk or rather a “drive” down memory lane. The old maps help put pieces together.

My daily commute from home to work and back (Map from the 1975 Map collection of old maps from the OneMap Singapore website).

There were still sand quarries along Tampines Road then and often you would share the narrow road with lorries carting sand. The spillage from the load of these lorries often presented a road hazard especially after a light shower. The mixture of sand and water was a recipe for skidding. Imprinted in my mind is the sight of the lorry I was trailing do a 360 degree spin. Thankfully I had kept my distance from it and was able to ease off without my car going into a spin too.

Another memory along the route was the turnoff to Kampong Loyang. In my early school days the whole family clan used to spend a week of the August School holidays in a holiday kampong shack in Kampong Loyang. Passing this turnoff always reminded me of those carefree days.

1975 Map showing Kampong Loyang turn off from the OneMap Singapore website.

Part of my duties was to provide x-ray services for the newly established Changi Prison Hospital. So with my JPA I used to drive to the prison on allocated days when x-rays of inmates were requested. The workload was not heavy but the challenges were very different to that of a hospital based X-ray Department. One of the benefits however was the ability to access some of the services of the Prison Industries that were organised to assist in the rehabilitation of inmates by teaching them skills they could utilise on their release and be employable. I remember getting my computer notes and books hardbound for a small sum. And these lasted me for the duration of the Computer studies I was undertaking then and beyond. The hard cover binding was of a professional level.

But the proximity of Changi Village shops was a bonus for us Hospital staff with cars. It was place we frequented for lunch and the occasional shopping.  I was just starting into serious photography then and the friendly Photographic shop owner became a great friend. I cannot remember the name of the shop but if my memory serves me well I think his name was Mr Lim. He was a great salesperson and very knowledgeable.  I still having gear bought from those days more than 40 years ago. Those were “film” camera days but most of these are still useable though some lenses do need adapters to be used with today’s digital cameras.

Changi Village – map from the OneMap Singapore website.

Recollection of the old Changi Village Shops.

Another memory that resurfaced was the change of plans of upgrading The International Airport at Paya Lebar to the establishment of the current Changi Airport.  Driving along Tampines Road we did skirt around the perimeter of the existing Paya Lebar Airport and I do remember seeing the row of terrace houses that were acquired to make way for the initial plan to extend the Airport. These were left vacant after the plans were changed. Likewise there was another beachside newly built hotel along Nicoll Drive, Tanah Merah that was never opened because of the switch to Changi. Most of the hospital staff were looking forward to having a meal at the new premises. This never eventuated. More recently after trying to research the name of the hotel and without coming up with any answers I was beginning to doubt my memory, and wondered if it was a figment of my imagination. However during a recent viewing of this Youtube video https://youtu.be/r26M_Lryu6Y, there was a brief mention of the razing of the hotel. It was great to receive this confirmation indeed.

Changi Chalet Hospital

Main Entrance to Hospital.

? Same Tree – 45 years later.

Panorama of the old “Padang” Sports Field.

Chalet Building erased – sigh………

Fond Memories.

Belonging to the various nostalgia-themed facebook groups has been great for me. There members share photos and experiences of places now mostly all gone. One group I am glad to be part of is the “Memories of Changi Village” group. A “wave” is sent to Ms Geraldine Soh, the administrator. Like the present Changi Airport this fb group platform is the crossroads where members from all corners of the world come together to share their precious memories and photos keeping our own flickering memories of Changi alive.






(Book launch) My Father’s Kampung: A History of Aukang and Punggol

17 09 2020

Aukang (or Owkang), as Hougang was called before the adoption of hanyin-pinyin names forced a reset, is one of several previously rural parts of Singapore that is associated with the Teochew community. It is also an area where there is a very noticeable Roman Catholic presence.  It is where rural Singapore’s oldest Catholic building – a gorgeously built one at that in the form of the tropical gothic Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary or “Nativity Church” in short – can be found. It is also where a Catholic seminary was set, along with several Catholic institutions and schools.  The area is also where Kangkar – a fishing port associated with auctions of fish that took place in the wee hours of the morning – was. It also served as a gateway to Punggol – a part of Singapore known for its seafood restaurants (at Punggol Point) and its numerous farms – particularly pig and chicken farms.

Nativity Church.

Hougang today does seem very different. The enforced change of name also coincided with its metamorphosis from a rural district which fed Singapore, into yet another part of the new Singapore. In that maze of Housing and Development Board (HDB) neighbourhoods however, there is still bits of the old Aukang and its much storied past that can be discovered.

There is perhaps no better person to take us on a journey of discovery than a son of the soil – so to speak – such as Shawn Seah. Shawn, who traces his ancestry to the illustrious Teochew pioneer, Seah Eu Chin, explores his Aukang roots in “My Father’s Kampung: A History of Aukang and Punggol” – due to be released later this month.

The book, which Shawn says, “is basically my journey of how I came to appreciate my father’s kampung better”, takes the reader through its early development to 1975 — before it became Hougang, Sengkang, Buangkok and (HDB) Punggol. Along the way, stops are made to look at the influence of the Catholic missions and its schools such as Holy Innocent and Monfort, its multi-ethnic and multi-religious makeup (it wasn’t exclusive Teochew / Catholic), the memories of its rural centres and kampungs, as well as the impact of war and the Japanese occupation.

The book will be launched at a “kopi talk” Zoom event on 19 Sep 2020 at 3pm (details in the infographic above, which is jointly organised by World Scientific and Montfort Alumni. The event will also feature Mr Ng Kok Song and Brother Dominic Yeo Koh, both old boys of Montfort and as Shawn puts it, “essentially the quintessential Aukang nang”.


Written by Shawn Seah and supported by the National Heritage Board, “My Father’s Kampung: A History of Aukang and Punggol, tells the story of historical Aukang and Punggol from the 1850s, before the area’s transformation into Hougang, Sengkang, Buangkok, and Punggol.






Cashin’s Pier, lost and found

19 08 2020

Built by Alexander Cashin in 1906 to provide for the transportation of rubber from the Cashin estate to Kranji, The Pier in Lim Chu Kang became a retreat for the Cashin family in the 1920s when it was converted into a sea pavilion. As one of two sea pavilions to have survived intact to this day, it is a rare example of an age of seaside retreats as well as a reminder of a time when there were boundaries between Singapore and its northern neighbour meant little — the Sultan of Johor made visits to it on his boat.

The Pier in 2011.

The pavilion, which saw action during the invasion of Singapore — it was one of the landing points during the first wave of attacks the Japanese launched on Singapore on the night of 8 Feb 1942 — became a home to Howard Cashin and family in the 1960s. Among the work that Howard Cashin had to carry out to transform The Pier into a home was the removal of a Shinto shrine that the Japanese had erected.

Another view of The Pier from 2011.

The house has been left vacant since 2009 following Mr Cashin’s passing. In 2013 it was announced that the house was to be a gateway to and expanded Sungei Buloh Nature Park and we hear from NParks today that it will now be part of what has been rebranded as Lim Chu Kang Nature Park.

More on The Pier: A Lost World in Lim Chu Kang

From NParks Press Release
(Full Press release here)

Lim Chu Kang Nature Park – a new nature area towards the west of Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

The 18-hectare green corridor that forms a continuous coastal extension west of the Reserve towards the Lim Chu Kang nature area, will be conserved as Lim Chu Kang Nature Park. It comprises a variety of habitats such as mangroves, woodlands, scrublands and grasslands. The diversity of habitats provides homes to coastal birds such as the Grey-headed Fish Eagle and grassland dwellers like the Baya Weaver. The new Nature Park, formerly referred to as Western Extension, will feature outdoor nature-play spaces inspired by the various habitats and its inhabitants, encouraging children and youths to spend more time outdoors and reconnect with nature.

Lim Chu Kang Nature Park will also encompass Cashin House, a building that will be enhanced sensitively for both natural and built heritage and will be used for educational programmes. Cashin House will include new facilities such as an exhibition space, seminar rooms for workshops and a seaview terrace. The surrounding area will be kept rustic and existing vegetation retained and sensitively enhanced. Visitors will be able to enjoy exploring Cashin House and its surroundings while learning about the historical significance of the area.

NParks will shortly be calling a tender for works on Cashin House and its surrounding areas. Works are expected to commence in 4Q 2020, and slated to be completed in early 2022, subject to the evolving COVID-19 situation.