A time machine to the Singapore of the 60s

31 05 2016

It is wonderful that technology allows the wealth of photographs that exist of a Singapore we no longer see to be shared. Those especially taken by those whose stay in Singapore was temporary, offer perspectives of places as they were that the local might have thought little of capturing. One of my favourite sets of photographs are those of a David Ayres. Shared through a Flickr album Oldies SE Asia containing some 250 photographs, they take us back to Mr. Ayres’ days in the Royal Navy and include many scenes of places of the Singapore of my childhood that I would not otherwise have been able to ever see again.

A part of Singapore we can never go back to. The view is of the waterfront and the Inner Roads from a vantage point just across the mouth of the Stamford Canal from Esplanade or Queen Elizabeth Walk. Land reclamation has since taken this view away, replacing it with a view that will include One Raffles Link and Esplanade Theatres by the Bay (David Ayres on Flickr).

Mr. Ayres interactions in Singapore came from his two stints at HMS Terror (now Sembawang Camp) in the Naval Base. The first in 1963/64, just about the time I was born, and again in 1966/67. Now 71, he finally managed a trip that he said he he just had to make having not been back to Singapore since he last saw it almost 50 years ago at the end of his second stint in 1967.

A HMS Terror (now Sembawang Camp) barrack block, one that is familiar to me as it was the same block I was accommodated during my reservist in-camp training stints in the 1990s (David Ayres on Flickr).

I managed to say a quick hello to Mr. Ayres during his short visit, managing a short chat with him at a coffee shop in what had once been Sembawang Village, an area that is quite well represented in Mr. Ayres’ set of photographs.  Once a busy area of watering holes, shops and makeshift eating stalls located just across one of the main entrances to the huge Naval Base – an entrance used especially by personnel headed to HMS Terror,  all that it has since been reduced to is the row of two-storey shophouses in which the coffee shop was at.

David Ayres (R), with Phil and Nora, the founder of Old Sembawang Naval Base Facebook group.

David Ayres (R), with his mate Phil and Nora, the founder of Old Sembawang Naval Base Facebook group, in the shadow of the Nelson Bar of today.

The Nelson Bar as seen in 1967 (David Ayres on Flickr).

It was interesting to learn that there was much Mr. Ayres could still recognise from his walk earlier in the day around the former Naval Base, a walk he did with his mate Phil with the help of Nora of the Old Sembawang Naval Base Facebook group. It is perhaps fortunate for Mr. Ayres that Sembawang, a part of Singapore he would have been most familiar with, is one of few places left in Singapore in which much of its past is still to be found in the present.

The Red House, as the Fleet Sailing Centre was referred to because of its red roof (David Ayres on Flickr).

The Red House today as seen from SAF Yacht Club. It's red roof tiles have since been replaced by green ones and the sea pavilion is now in a rather dilapidated state.

The Red House today as seen from SAF Yacht Club. It’s red roof tiles have since been replaced by green ones and the sea pavilion is now in a rather dilapidated state.

A good part of the base housing still remains intact, as do the former dockyard and stores basin, both of which still operating under another guise. Part of HMS Terror is also still around, a part that is visible over its perimeter fence. There also is the former “Aggie Westons” on the hill across from the dockyard gates. This saw use as the Fernleaf Centre in the days when the NZ Force SEA had troops based in Sembawang and is now in use by HomeTeam NS as a recreation centre. A sea pavilion, which served as the Fleet Sailing Centre in the days of the Naval Base, is also still visible from the SAF Yacht Club. Referred to as the “Red House” for its red roof tiles, the pavilion has since been turned green and as observed by Mr. Ayres, now looks rather dilapidated.

‘Aggie Westons’ in David’s time in Sembawang, it became Fernleaf Centre during the days of the New Zealand Force SEA and is today used by HomeTeam NS as a recreation centre. David made a stop here during his recent visit to Sembawang (David Ayres on Flickr).

As we poured over some photographs Mr. Ayres had printed over glasses of lime juice, he also made mention that the row of shophouses we were at had not been around during his first stint at HMS Terror. One of the area’s last additions, it had been put up before Mr. Ayres came back for his second tour. It is in the row that several bars including the Nelson Bar were housed and was a popular drinking spot for servicemen up to the days when the New Zealand forces had a presence in the area. It is also worth mentioning that the cluster of stalls found in the area, popular as stopover for personnel looking for a quick bite, was where the improvised hawker dish we know as Roti John is said to have originated from.

The cluster of food stalls at Sembawang Village, where Roti John was said to have been invented (David Ayres on Flickr).

Besides those in and around the Naval Base, Mr. Ayres captures include many other places that featured in my younger days; places in and around the city centre, then referred to as Singapore, as well as a few far flung places such as Changi. There are also scenes found in the set taken in peninsula Malaysia that are familiar to me from the drives my father was fond of making north of the Causeway. The photographs of the city centre have proved to be particularly fascinating to younger Singaporeans. One taken of Raffles Place in its landscape car-park rooftop garden days  in the direction of Battery Road, made its rounds in 2012, going viral in Singapore. One impression of the modern city that had replaced the one in his photographs that Mr. Ayres and his friend Phil had, was of seeing very few elderly people in it; this perhaps is a manifestation of the disconnect with the brave new world that the city centre has become many in the older generation feel.

Mr. Ayres’ capture of Raffles Place in 1966 made its rounds around the internet in 2012 (David Ayres on Flickr).

Mr Ayres’ photographs have a quality that goes beyond simple snapshots. Well composed and often offering a wider view of the places he found himself in, they not only take us back to the places we once knew but also immerse us into the scene being captured. The photographs are for me, a means to travel back in time, back to the places I could otherwise have little hope of seeing again, and back to a world I would not otherwise have been able to go home to.

A street that once came alive in the evenings with its food offerings – the section of Albert Street at its Selegie Road end where Albert Court Hotel is today (David Ayres on Flickr).

An “Ice Water Stall” outside what is today the National Museum (David Ayres on Flickr).

The gate post and the Indian Rubber tree today. The tree has since gained the status of a protected tree, having been listed as one of Singapore’s 256 Heritage Trees.

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Changi Creek, 1966 (David Ayres on Flickr).

Changi Creek today.

Changi Creek today.

A familiar scene along Canberra Road that Mr. Ayres captured in 1966. The convoy of dockyard (and later Sembawang Shipyard) workers rushing home was seen into the 1980s (David Ayres on Flickr).

Jalan Sendudok in Sembawang. Notice that the Chinese characters used for Sembawang differ from those used today. The road, which still exists, has since been realigned (David Ayres on Flickr).

Where Selegie met Serangoon over the Rochor Canal, 1966. This photograph helps take me back to visits to Tekka market, the roof of which can be seen on the left of the photo, with my mother whenever mutton curry was on the menu (David Ayres on Flickr).

The same area today, Sans the open canal and and unfamiliar buildings, it now looks completely different.

The same area today, Sans the open canal and and now unfamiliar buildings, it looks a completely different place.

1966. The North Bridge Road that I knew, close to its junction with Bras Basah Road, close to where Jubilee and Odeon Theatres were, which would have been behind the photographer (David Ayres on Flickr).

The same area today.

The same area today.

Further down North Bridge Road in 1966 – a back entrance to Raffles Institution is seen on the left and the walls of the former Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (now CHIJMES) can be seen on the other side of the road (David Ayres on Flickr).

The same area today.

The same area today.

A river crossing in Malaysia in 1967. Not in Singapore but many from Singapore who travelled up north by road would have had this experience before road bridges across the major rivers were completed. One such crossing was at Muar. This existed up to the 1960s. My own experience was of two crossings on the road up to Kuantan in the 1970s and early 1980s. One had been at Endau, at which a tow boat similar to what is seen here was used. The other was a narrower crossing at Rompin that utilised a ferry pulled by wire-rope (David Ayres on Flickr).

 

 





Singapore in the 1960s – three blasts from the past

25 05 2016

Footage found online that take us back to a Singapore we have all but forgotten.

The first is a video posted online by Gary Porter on the Memories of Singapore Facebook group that shows the National Theatre crescent-shaped fountain, the fountain at Holland Circus and a gathering of hawkers. The second is an excerpt from a French / Italian 1967 movie Cinq gars pour Singapour or Five Ashore in Singapore that was filmed in Singapore in 1966 that takes has us take walk through one of my favourite childhood places, Change Alley. The third is from the 1967 British film Pretty Polly, which starred Hayley Mills and Shashi Kapoor.

 





Windows into the past: where Percival and a President once resided

11 05 2016

A rare opportunity to have a look inside the former Command House came over the weekend when it was opened to the public. Organised by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) as part of their Celebrating Places and Memories photo contest, the open house, unlike a previous visit I had previously arranged, allowed me the freedom to roam through the interior of the beautifully restored former residence, the last occupant of which would have been Mr. Ong Teng Cheong in his capacity as the President of the Republic of Singapore.

A window into a rather interesting past.

A window into a rather interesting past.

Now in use as the UBS Business University, the house has had a colourful past that goes far back beyond its use by the Republic’s Head of State, much of which can be found in a previous post: The very grand house that Brewer built. Built in 1938 in a style influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, it is one of the grander residences built by Singapore’s colonial masters. As a replacement for Flagstaff House, the official residence of the GOC, Malaya’s chief military officer, it was to see a string of top military commanders take up residence, the last leaving at the point of the British pullout in 1971. This was however not before the second GOC to be accommodated, Lieutenant-General Arthur E. Percival, put all delusions the British may had held of their invincibility to an abrupt end  in a conference room in Bukit Timah one February’s afternoon in 1942.

As Flagstaff House in 1957, when it housed the most senior British Military Commander in the Far East (online at the Royal Green Jackets and Former Regiments Photographic History pages).

The pullout, by which time the house had already taken on the name Command House, saw ownership pass on to the Government of Singapore. The house first became the official residence of the Speaker of Parliament. Only one Speaker, Dr Yeoh Ghim Seng,  would use it. Two of Dr Yeoh’s successors declined the use of the house before renovations to the Istana prompted its temporary use as the official residence of the President from 1996 to 1998.

The road up to the former Command House.

The guardhouse on the road up to the former Command House.

The guardhouse in 1957 (online at the Royal Green Jackets and Former Regiments Photographic History pages).

Much of what we see of the house today, would be from its days as the President’s residence. Even with the interventions made by its tenant since 2007, Swiss based financial services company, UBS, for use as a place of instruction, much of the grandeur and dignity the house must held had during the days of the President, is still very much in evidence.

A view from the second floor.

A view from the second floor.

The entrance hallway, which one steps into entering the house, is dominated by a grand staircase coloured by the earthy hues the wood of its wall and balustrade panels that are thought to have been added in during its time as the President’s house. The hallway opens up on either side to what would have been a verandah, typically seen in the many examples of colonial architecture adapted  for the hot and steamy tropics, that provide access, ventilation and insulation to the rooms found in each of the house’s two wings. Two large rooms dominate each wing and that would have been where the house’s dining and reception areas would have been arranged.

The grand staircase.

The grand staircase.

A large room that may originally have served as a dining room.

A large room that may originally have served as a dining room.

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Another room in its wings.

A room at the end of one of its wings.

A room at the end of one of its wings.

The verandah in the wing.

The lower floor verandah in the east wing.

One of the large rooms found in the wings.

One of the large rooms found in the wings.

On the right side of  the staircase, a door separates what is intended to be seen from the unseen – spaces used by hired help that is hidden on both levels at the back of the house. The spaces, connected between floors by a narrow staircase, would have had access to kitchens, larders, cleaning and maintenance stores and the servants quarters, housed in the annexes and in separate buildings at the back of the main building and on the terrace below.

The servant's staircase.

The servant’s staircase.

A view down the servant's staircase.

A view down the servant’s staircase.

A garage on the lower terrace.

A garage on the lower terrace.

Buildings that could have served as servant's quarters on the lower terrace.

Buildings that could have served as servant’s quarters on the lower terrace.

The back of the house - an external staircase has been added at each wing for escape purposes.

The back of the house – an external staircase has been added at each wing for escape purposes.

At the top of the grand staircase, the most beautifully furnished of the house’s spaces, a very homely looking lounge, comes into sight. Arranged in the space above the house’s porch,  three of the space’s furniture – a television cabinet and two chests, are thought to have survived from the days of the President. As with the hallway below, access to the rooms in each wing, is provided by a what would have been a verandah that is now enclosed by windows. The President’s private rooms, a study, a walk-in wardrobe and a bedroom, as I understand it, were located in the east wing. The west wing on the other hand would have been where a guest room and a children’s bedroom would have been found.

The lounge area.

The lounge area.

A view out the front windows.

A view out the front windows.

A window at the side of the lounge.

A window at the side of the lounge.

A view down the grand staircase.

A view down the grand staircase.

The balcony outside the former President's bedroom.

The balcony outside the former President’s bedroom.

The verandah on the upper floor.

What would have been a verandah on the upper floor.

What would have been the President's bedroom.

What would have been the President’s bedroom.

A view from the bedroom into the verandah.

A view from the bedroom into the verandah.

The view through one of its original windows.

The view through one of its original windows.

Exposed brickwork on its arches and voussoirs is clearly evident in the house. It is a feature that Frank W. Brewer employed in his Arts and Crafts influenced designs.

Exposed brickwork on its arches and voussoirs is clearly evident in the house. It is a feature that Frank W. Brewer employed in his Arts and Crafts influenced designs.

More exposed brickwork.

More exposed brickwork.

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Besides the former Command House open house, the will be open houses at two more venues that SLA is holding this month. One is the regular public holiday open house at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station on Vesak Day. The second will be at old Kallang Airport on Sunday (15 October 2016) from 10 am to 1 pm. The open houses and the Celebrating Places and Memories photo contest (details here) are being held to create awareness and appreciation of State Buildings. Details on how to register for the Old Kallang Ariport open house can be found in this post on SLA’s Facebook Page. More information on the contest and State Buildings can also be found in this post: Celebrating Places and Memories – a photo contest by SLA.

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Celebrating Places and Memories – a photo contest by SLA

29 04 2016

The Singapore Land Authority (SLA), the agency that oversees the management of State Land and Property in Singapore will be opening Tanjong Pagar Railway Station to the public on Labour Day, 1 May 2016. In conjunction with this, SLA will also be launching a photo contest themed “Celebrating Places and Memories”.

A celebration of space and memory at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station in its days of glory.

The contest, for which members of the public are encouraged to share their memories of State properties such as the former railway station, will run from 1 May to 12 June 2016. Intended to create greater awareness and appreciation of State buildings, many of which are rich in heritage and character, there will be two contest categories: Open and Instagram.

Light streaming through a former barrack block at the former Tanglin Barracks at Loewen Road.

The Open category will offer top 3 cash prizes of $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000, with 10 merit prizes each worth $250. 10 prizes will be awarded for the Instagram of $200 each.

Windows into a time forgotten.

Windows into the past – Old Admiralty House.

Submissions may involve any State property, and participants will be directed to the Land query service on Onemap to confirm that the property belongs to the State. A caption (of 50 words or less) should accompany each submission, stating why the State land or building holds significant meaning to the participant. Bonus points will also be awarded for Open category submissions that are also uploaded on SLA’s one Historical Map app.

Command House at 17 Kheam Hock Road.

Command House at 17 Kheam Hock Road.

Submissions may be made from 1 May onwards. For the Open category, this should be emailed to slacontest@spoc.com.sg. For Instagram, intended entries should include the hashtag #SLAplacesandmemories. Further details on the contest will be available on the SLA contest microsite.

The last E&O Express train to depart from Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, seen at Bukit Timah Railway Station in June 2011.


Open Houses at State Property:

Note: Other than the open house at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station (another will be held on Vesak Day, 21 May 2016), SLA will hold open houses at two other properties to allow would be participants of the photo contest to photograph them.

These will be at the very grand former Command House , now the UBS Business University campus at 17 Kheam Hock Road on 7 and 8 May from 10 am to 1 pm, and parts of Old Kallang Airport on 15 May from 10 am to 1 pm.  Pre-registration is required.

Do look out for the announcement and further information that will be posted on the SLA’s Facebook Page.

(For information relating to registration for the Command House open house, kindly visit this link)


A non-exhaustive list of State Land and Buildings for which submissions are encouraged:
1 Bukit Timah Railway Station including Truss Bridge
2 Alkaff Mansion (10 Telok Blangah Green)
3 The Grandstand (200 Turf Club Road)
4 Johore Battery (27 Cosford Road)
5 Former Bukit Timah Fire Station (260 Upper Bukit Timah Road)
6 Former Admiralty House (345 Old Nelson Road)
7 Old Kallang Airport (19 Old Airport Road)
8 Red Dot Museum (28 Maxwell Road)
9 Seletar Black & White houses (inside former Seletar airbase)
10 Tanglin Village (Dempsey Road, Loewen and Minden Road)
11 Phoenix Park (within Kay Siang and Tanglin Road)
12 Raintr3 Hotel (33 Hendon Road)
13 Dragon Kilns (85 and 97L Lorong Tawas)
14 Bukit Timah Saddle Club (51 Fairways Drive)
15 Tanjong Pagar Railway Station
16 Former Central Police Station (99 Beach Road)
17 Former British Council Branch Office & Training Centre (362 Holland Road)
18 Former Watch Tower (50 Tanjong Rhu Place)
19 Former Da Qiao Primary School (10 Ang Mo Kio Street 54)
20 Community Use Site @ Junction of Tanjong Rhu View & Rhu Cross (popular community use site)
21 Community Use Site along Tuas South Ave 3 (popular community use site)
22 Viaduct @ Commonwealth Ave West (space for street art)
23 Shop houses at 14-38 Orchard Road
24 Former Station HQ of the Royal Air Force Base and Barracks Blocks for RAF (179 & 450 Piccadilly Road)
25 Ascott centre for excellence (2 Anthony Road)
26 BNP Paribus Training Centre (34 & 35 Hendon Road)
27 AXA University Asia Pacific Campus (3 Ladyhill Road)
28 UBS Business University (17 Kheam Hock Road)
29 La Salle College of Arts Campus (9 Winstedt Road)
30 Alexandra Park ( Winchester Rd & Canterbury Rd)
31 Adam Park (preferably 7, 8 & 11 Adam Park)
32 Goodwood Hill (preferably 4A, 5C/D, 15 Goodwood Hill)
33 Tudor Court (123 – 145 Tanglin Road)

Also at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station:

‘WOMEN: New Portraits’, an exhibition by Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz, through the crowd of reporters and photographers at the ArtScience Museum.

Annie Leibovitz, seen through the crowd of reporters and photographers in Singapore in 2014.

‘WOMEN: New Portraits’, an exhibition of newly commissioned photographs by renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz feature women of outstanding achievement. Commissioned by UBS, the exhibition will be open to the public from 29 April 2016 to 22 May 2016 at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station’s Main Hall, a stop that is part of a 10-city global tour.  Admission is free. Opening hours for the exhibition, including the day of the Open House, is on Monday to Sunday from 10am – 6pm, except for Fridays when the exhibition hours is extended to 8pm. More information is available at www.ubs.com/annieleibovitz.






The Japanese school at Waterloo Street

27 04 2016

The Middle Road area, despite it transformation over the years, is still where reminders of the colourful chapters of its history await discovery. At one end, hints of one chapter can be found in its stars – the stars of David decorating the David Elias building, which tell us of the days of the Mahallah, home to the diaspora of Baghdadi Jews some of whom feature prominently in Singapore’s history.

A passageway into the past.

A passageway into the past.

For another migrant community the stars on Middle Road might have shone on, the Japanese, the reminders are less obviously Japanese.  These also take the form of old buildings, two of them.  One is the former Middle Road Hospital, which has its origins in the Japanese Doh-jin hospital. The other can be found just off Middle Road, at 155 Waterloo Street. Used as the National Arts Council (NAC) run Stamford Arts Centre since 1988, the building or rather, cluster of buildings, originally had been the Japanese community’s elementary school.

The buildings now housing the Stamford Arts Centre were put up to house an elementary school for the Japanese community in 1920.

The buildings now housing the Stamford Arts Centre were put up to house an elementary school for the Japanese community in 1920.

A conserved building since 1994, the original buildings had been erected in 1920 with the support of the Japan Club or what would be the equivalent of the Japanese Association today. The existence of the club, which was founded in 1915 and the school, was perhaps an indication of the growing presence of the Japanese, many of whom established themselves in the area around Middle Road, which was the community’s Chuo Dori or Central Street.

The Japanese Elementary School in its early days.

The Japanese Elementary School at Waterloo Street. The three-storey extension was added in 1931 (source: The Japanese Association).

The extension block today.

The extension block today.

The origins of the school were in the classes a teacher Mr. Miyamura first held in 1912 in a room in the Toyo Hotel, which was on Middle Road. From a group of some 26 to 28 students (accounts differ), enrollment quickly grew. This saw the school moving to Wilkie Road in 1915, before it was to find a permanent home at Waterloo Street.

The first anniversary in 1913 of the school started by Mr. Miyamura. Mr Miyamura is seen seated in the front row.

The first anniversary in 1913 of the school started by Mr. Miyamura. Mr Miyamura is seen seated in the front row (source: The Japanese Association).

Known as the Japan Elementary School (日本小学校) during its days at Waterloo Street, the school was one of the community’s focal points. Several notable personalities were reported to have visited the school, including two of the late Emperor Showa’s (Hirohito) brothers. Prince Chichibu, visited in 1925 and Prince Takamatsu, who visited with his wife, the Princess Takamatsu, came in 1930. The school was also where the community held a memorial service for Emperor Taisho (the visiting princes father) in 1927.

The Main Hall (on the second floor of the main building) in 1927.

The Main Hall (on the second floor of the main building) in 1927 (source: The Japanese Association).

The school was closed at the outbreak of hostilities in 1941, before being restarted as the Syonan First Peoples’ School during the occupation. Taken over by the British Military Administration after the surrender in 1945, it was used temporarily to house a recreation centre for soldiers, the Shackle Club, when that was made to vacate the de-requisitioned John Little’s building in January 1947. The Shackle Club occupied the premises very briefly, and moved in July 1947 to fleet canteen at Beach Road so as to allow the buildings to be made available to Gan Eng Seng School (Gan Eng Seng’s own building had been damaged during the war). Stamford Girls School, which was formed in 1951, was next to move in, spending a lot more time on the grounds than its intended occupant and vacating it only in 1986.

As the Shackle Club, January to July 1947.

As the Shackle Club, January to July 1947.

As the Stamford Girls’ School, 1972 (source: URA Conservation Portal).

Time, it seems, is now being called for the arts centre – at least in the form we have known. A report carried in the Today newspaper last week, tells us of the departure of its tenants in anticipation of its closure for a much needed revamp scheduled to start at the end of the year. A reminder not just of the Japanese community, but also of the post-war drive to extend the reach of primary education to the growing population of children in Singapore, it would be nice to see the charm and laid back atmosphere of it spaces – often lost in the modern day refurbishment of many conserved buildings, somehow retained.

Students and staff posing at the back of the school (it appears that this was taken before the extension was added) – (source: National Archives of Singapore).

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The back of the main building today.


Parting Glances – Stamford Arts Centre

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The rail corridor at the halt at Tanglin

30 03 2016

Change is about to come to the Rail Corridor. Its southern half will be closed from the second quarter of 2016 to allow a water pipe to be laid under it, and I suppose that before it can recover from this intervention, we could see work being started on transforming parts of the corridor into a space that will have an appeal to the wider community.

The stretch of the corridor in the days of the railway at the former Tanglin Halt - a place that could transport you far from the madness that is Singapore.

The stretch of the corridor in the days of the railway (c. 2010) at the former Tanglin Halt – a place that could transport you far from the madness that is Singapore.

I wish to remember the corridor as it was in days when it attracted little interest. Ignored and left to the railway, the space grew into one that had a magical feel to it, a space one could quite easily lose oneself in. While the space still serves as an escape some four and a half years after the railway ceased operating through it, its magic has diminished. Stripped of most of its railway paraphernalia, turfed over, trampled on and worked on, there is now quite a different feel to the corridor.

The Rail Corridor in greener days.

The Rail Corridor, near the Clementi woodland, in greener days.

One stretch of the railway I would like to remember as it was is what, if the planners have their way, will become a “Cultural Valley”, “a vibrant activity space where workers and nearby residents can enjoy activities such as outdoor film screenings”. It is what I hope will not be, a transformation that threatens to have us forget the joy the space would once have given us.

What parts of the same stretch look like today.

Already in a state of flux – parts of the same stretch near the Clementi woodland have temporarily taken on the appearance of the concretised world that the railway has long kept away.

Already, we have all but forgotten it as a train stop, Tanglin Halt; even if this is remembered in the name of the adjacent public housing neighbourhood. Lines also branched off in the area, serving the British military at Wessex Estate and at Ayer Rajah. The stop, the branch lines, and its platform, had disappeared by the time I first set eye on the stretch. All that was left of the halt was a rather worn looking building, decorated as all abandoned buildings outside of Singapore might be (technically it stood on a piece of Malaysia). That vanished from sight almost immediately after the land was handed back; an aberration perhaps in the landscape that needed to be removed once it had become incorporated into the overly manicured Singaporean landscape.

A 1945 map showing the train halt.

A 1945 map showing the train halt.

The Tanglin Halt area today.

The Tanglin Halt area today.

The Cultural Valley being proposed at Buona Vista.

It is strange that similar renderings found on the missing structure, have, with official sanction, decorate the structures under a road bridge just a stone’s throw away. The Rail Corridor Art Space, thought up by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) and the National Arts Council (NAC), which was launched in December 2013, provided would be graffiti artists with an outlet to add colour to what would otherwise have been the grey of dull concrete.

The southward view.

The southward view.

And a northward view.

And a northward view.

Like the corridor, the space will soon lose its colour. Work to lay the pipe will require the corridor south of Holland Road, including this Buona Vista stretch, to be closed. While we can look forward to sections of it progressively reopened from the fourth quarter of 2017, this stretch of the corridor would probably bear no resemblance at all to the magical world I might once have found an escape in.

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Coloured concrete under the Commonwealth Avenue viaduct.





Windows into the past: the mysterious house at Bassein Road

16 03 2016

In Singapore, change deprives many in my generation of the pure joy one finds in reconnecting with the places of one’s childhood. For many of us, we find our connections to a world that increasingly is hard to feel at home in, only through our precious memories and perhaps through fragments from our childhood that have somehow survived.

A window into the past.

A window into the past.

One very small fragment I was surprised to find intact, having not seen it for three and a half decades, is the house at No. 3 Bassein Road. While I may not have had any interactions with the house, it was one that I caught sight on numerous occasions from the car. The house, perhaps for the mystery it held, has somehow remained etched in my memory.

The house at No. 3 Bassein Road.

The house at No. 3 Bassein Road.

Much of the house lies hidden behind high walls. I would be driven past it on the many visits to my godmother’s place, which was up the hill at Akyab Road. As I passed, my attention would always be drawn to it. All I would get to see of it were the upper parts. Except for inscriptions in Chinese around a shut pair of red door and its octagonal windows, both of which suggested that it may have been a temple, there was little otherwise that hinted at what the house had been used as.

Much of the house lies hidden behind high walls. Once surrounded by other large house, the house is today surrounded by towering apartment blocks.

Much of the house lies hidden behind high walls. Once surrounded by other large houses, the house is today surrounded by towering apartment blocks.

With little reason for me to visit the area after my godmother moved away in the mid-1970s, it wasn’t until a random drive I took through the area some five years back that I was reacquainted with the house. With much of what surrounded it changed, it came as a pleasant surprised to see that the house was still intact three and a half decades or so since I last caught sight of it.

The grass roller.

With my godmother’s children at Akyab Road.

An article I was alerted to, was to help unlock the mystery of the house, which as it turns out was not a temple, but a Buddhist women’s vegetarian hall or zhaitang, the Chan Chor Min Tong.  Named after its founder, it was the sister lodge to article’s main subject, a men’s zhaitang at Jalan Kemaman, which shared the same founder and also the same name.

The men's hall at Jalan Kemaman.

The Chan Chor Min Tong at Jalan Kemaman.

This chai tong, as  its Cantonese speaking residents would have referred to it, was established in 1936. This came ten years after the hall at Jalan Kemaman was founded. While the latter provided lodging to men who might otherwise have to live their twilight years on their own, the Bassein Road hall catered to unattached women.  Both zhaitang have since ceased operating as places of lodging, and are today maintained by their trustees as religious halls.

An altar at the men's vegetarian hall at Jalan Kemaman.

An altar at the men’s vegetarian hall at Jalan Kemaman.

The opportunity to satisfy my curiosity about the place came with the Chinese New Year. The festival, I had been informed, is the only occasion during which the red doors are opened for visitors. This allows its beneficiaries, supporters and members of the public an opportunity to pay their respects to the hall’s deities and its elders.

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The main part of the hall inside the grounds.

Stepping through its red doors, the air of calm and contemplation, as one would expect of its seclusion, is evident. There was also a sense that it was a parallel world I had ventured into, one in which time seems to have been forgotten, and one rendered surreal by the shadows of the all too obvious emblems of the modern world that are cast on it.

Stepping into a world that time seems to have left behind.

Stepping into a world that time seems to have left behind.

Even if it is dwarfed by what now surrounds it, the generous proportions given to the two-storey hall does not escape notice. Of a design typical perhaps of the time of its construction, and yet untypical for its mix of styles, the house has verandahs running along its length on both levels, front and back. The insulation this provides its inner section, in combination with the ventilation of its ample openings, maximises cooling while allowing light to stream in – considerations no longer valued in the energy guzzling buildings of the modern world.

Stairs leading up to the verandah at the front of the house.

Stairs leading up to the verandah at the front of the house.

The front verandah on the upper level.

The front verandah on the upper level.

The house’s proportions gives away its communal purpose; evident also in how the house has been laid out. It is blessed with large common spaces, hallways and landings, around which smaller rooms affording a measure of privacy have been arranged. Service areas are equally spacious. One, a courtyard around which a wash area is arranged, for some reason, brought on a sense of deja-vu.

A hallway on the upper level.

A hallway on the upper level.

A landing.

A landing.

Dorrway to a bedroom.

A doorway to a bedroom.

The wash area.

The wash area.

Furnishings found scattered around the house are largely from an age of much simplicity. Some, the conveniences of yesterday, would by standards today, probably be taken as inconveniences, such as wooden washstands. Complete with decorated enamel washbasins in their recesses, several were set against the parapet of the back verandah. There were also meat safes from the now inconceivable pre-refrigerator age to be found.

A washstand.

A washstand.

A meat safe.

A meat safe.

Marketing fashion accessories from a forgotten age.

Marketing fashion accessories from a forgotten age.

A kitchen on the upper level.

A kitchen on the upper level of an auxiliary building.

While the last resident of the zhaitang, the zhaigu, may have last walked its hallways in the 1970s, there is no escaping their presence in the hall. Black and white photographs hung on the walls remind us of the women from Canton (Guangdong) province’s Shun Tak (Shunde) district who were the house’s occupants. I was also alerted to a white curtain in the main hall, behind which the urns of the zhaigu, as the residents were referred to, have each a place on the shelves.

The white curtain.

The white curtain.

The mention of Shun Tak, brings to mind the majie, who were also from the district. Identifiable by the white samfoo top and black trousers they wore, these amahs were one of several groups of women from Canton who were known to have taken vows of spinsterhood, vows some of those in the chai tong would also have taken.

A bedroom.

A bedroom.

This practice was apparently quite common in Shun Tak, a name once synonymous with the production of silk. The industry, which gave women from the district the independence necessary for some to turn their backs on the traditional family structure, collapsed in the 1930s. This prompted many women previously employed in the industry to brave the journey to the Nanyang.

Another landing.

Another landing.

For women who chose spinsterhood as a life’s path, or were forced by circumstances to live on their own, living outside the structure of the traditional family would have deprived them of the social support that the arrangement may have guaranteed. A place the chai tong, maintained either by payment or through services performed for the respective halls, or a combination of both, compensated for this.

Another space fitted out as a kitchen.

Another space fitted out as a kitchen.

A British cultural anthropologist Marjorie Topley described in a 1954 essay how such halls would provide “care while alive and a funeral at death”, thus fulfilling an important social function. Mrs. Topley, who was also a curator of anthropology at the Raffles Museum in the early 1950s, carried out studies on such halls in Singapore and in Hong Kong.

Openings the house is provided with.

Openings the house is provided with.

Remarkably, in a country where change now seems an only constant, the hall at No. 3 Bassein Road, despite remaining empty for as long as it had been in use, has also remained a constant. Time, which the hall has thus far resisted, as we know it, can be a cruel thing here in Singapore and it now may be just a question of when, not if, it goes. For now at least, it remains an oasis for the spirits and teh memory of the zhaigu and those who find peace in it. It also remains for me, one of a few places in which I can find sanity; the sanity that comes from knowing that what I remember from my days of wonder, is real and has not been imagined.

The back of a WC on the upper level of an auxiliary building - with openings once used for the collection of 'honey-pots'.

The back of a WC on the upper level of an auxiliary building – with openings once used for the collection of ‘honey-pots’.

More reminders of a forgotten time.

More reminders of a forgotten time.

Sandalwood incense sticks made from trees grown on the grounds.

Sandalwood incense sticks made from trees grown on the grounds.








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