Finding a lost Singapore in the images of Paul Piollet

19 11 2018

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

In Conversation with Paul Piollet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A selection of photographs from the Paul Piollet Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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Discovering a “not quite central” Chinese bank headquarters

16 11 2018

Designed by an architect who can be said to have left his mark in Singapore, the Art Deco building that we know today as The Quadrant was originally built as a headquarters for a Chinese bank.

The main feature of the building’s interiors was its banking hall and a mezzanine – from which bank managers could supervise the goings on in the hall below. Both are very much in evidence today, as is a bank vault, even if the building has long been re-purposed. Another highlight is a working vintage lift. Although substantially rebuilt, it has quite a number of its original components such as its counterweight, still in use.

The visit will take place on 1 December 2018 from 9.30 am. As spaces are limited to 30 pax and participants over the age of 18 years, pre-registration is required. Please do so by filling the form found at this link (please click).

Do note that unique registrations are required and duplicate entries of the same particulars would count as one registration.


The visit is part of the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets series of State Property visits supported by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA). This visit to The Quadrant also has the support of the Homestead Group and The Black Swan.


The Quadrant at Cecil Street.

 

TBS_Venue_Dining 2

The former banking hall and the mezzanine from which the goings-on on the ground floor could be viewed by the bank’s supervising staff (courtesy of The Black Swan).

 

Up on the roof.

 

Stairway to heaven?

 

The gates of a heavenly vintage lift.

 

Some of the lift’s original mechanism.





A glimpse of Seletar’s past – the Ralph Charles Saunders Collection

5 11 2018

The generous donation of more than 1,400 images on photographic slides from the Ralph Charles Saunders Collection – of Singapore and Malaya (and maybe a few of Lima) taken in the late 1950s – made the news some months back (see : Rare glimpse into Singapore’s colourful past, The Straits Times, Mar 31, 2018). The photographs, many of which were put up by the donor, Dr. Clifford Saunders, on the Facebook group “On a Little Street in Singapore” currently and prior to the donation (the National Heritage Board, NHB, is the custodian), provides us with a peek into a world and a way of life we will never go back to.

Seletar Village, 1959 – from one of the more than 1,400 slides donated by Dr. Saunders.
(The Ralph Charles Saunders Collection – courtesy of Dr. Clifford Saunders / NHB).

Dr. Clifford Saunders at the Indian Heritage Centre.

Dr. Saunders. whose father was the genius behind the well taken and meticulously labelled slides, is currently in town as a guest of the NHB and was kind enough to meet with heritage enthusiasts and members of the Facebook group on Sunday to provide some insights into the images as well as his impressions of Singapore through the eyes of the young and inquisitive boy that he was when his father and family were based at RAF Seletar all those years ago.

Members of ‘On a Little Street in Singapore’ with Dr. Saunders.

The slides include a set of images involving an old lifeboat, the John Willie. Bought off a Dutchman coming out of Sumatra at the time of the Indonesian National Revolution for $200, the leaky lifeboat was repaired and provided the family with a means for offshore adventure – one of many activities that Dr. Saunders, now 69 described during his presentation. He also mentioned that his favourite island was Pulau Ubin, which I understand he will be trying to visit during his short stay here. Other experiences Dr. Saunders spoke of include fishing at fishing ponds, life at Poulden Court in Jalan Kayu, trips “up country” and his impressions of the causeway and river crossings (my own experiences: Crossing the river in days of old), and the rather alien smells and sounds of a then very foreign land.

James Seah seeing the funny side of Dr. Saunders’ story.

More on his wonderful experiences in Singapore – shared over the two hour session at the Indian Heritage Centre and which Clifford feels shaped his life and profession (he is now a neuroplastician) – can be found in these two recordings:


 





Dark clouds on the northern horizon

8 10 2018

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

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

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

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

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

The still forested hill, seen in July 2016.

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

Another view of the hill in 2016.

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


The front of the former Admiralty House.

The house has been likened to an English country manor.

The view the house commanded until fairly recently.


 





(Re)Discovering Old Changi Hospital

14 09 2018

Registration is closed as all slots have been taken up

Look out for next visit in the series to the Garrison Churches of Tanglin on 3 Nov 2018.


Pre-registration is necessary – no walk-ins will be permitted. As a condition for the visit, the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) requires a unique registration (with a unique name and particulars) for each participant, who should be of age 18 and above.


“Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets” makes a return to Old Changi Hospital on 29 September 2018 (9.30 to 11 am). The visit, aimed at those who missed the one last year, will provide participants with a rare opportunity to take a peek inside the former hospital and also learn about its much misunderstood past (sorry to disappoint you, but contrary to popular belief. nothing really much happened here during the Japanese Occupation – the hospital, when the Changi Garrison was used as an extended POW camp was set up at Roberts Barracks).

The former hospital, well regarded by RAF personnel and their families, traces its history back to 1947 when the RAF set it up in the newly established Air Station, RAF Changi. Two blocks built in the 1930s for the Royal Engineers’ Kitchener Barracks, were used. A new building was added in the 1960s. One of the things that the hospital was then well known for was its very busy maternity section.

The pull-out of the British forces in late 1971, saw it come under the command of the ANZUK Forces as the ANZUK Military Hospital. It briefly became the UK Military Hospital in 1975 with the withdrawal of the Australian ANZUK contingent. The Singapore Armed Forces then ran the hospital in 1975/76 before it was handed over to the Ministry of Health. It was operated as Changi Hospital from 1 July 1976 until it closed in January 1997.


Visit details
(All spaces have been taken up and registration is closed)


More on its history : A wander through old Changi Hospital

Photographs from last year’s visit: A visit to Old Changi Hospital


“Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets” guided State Property visits are organised by Jerome Lim, The Long and Winding Road, with the support of the Singapore Land Authority (SLA).

More on the series:






The best views of the western Singapore Strait

24 08 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A view inside the former workmen’s quarters.

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

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

A view of the block from its grounds.


More Photographs:

  

  

  

  

   

   


 





Discovering Keys’ Dutch-gabled houses

17 08 2018

Next in the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets series of guided State Property visits brings us to two delightful houses (one of which will be opened) designed by Major P. H. Keys.

Major Keys would be best known as the architect of the Fullerton Building, which turned 100 in June of this year.

The visit, which is supported by the Singapore Land Authority, will take place on Saturday 1 September 2018. Two sessions will be held from 10 – 10.45 am and from 11 – 11.45 am.


Registration (kindly register for only one session) :  

Participants need to be of ages 18 and above. Do also note that unique registrations are required and duplicate registrations shall be counted as a single registration.

[Registration has closed as of 17 Aug at 12.09 pm as all slots have been taken up]

Click here to register for Session 1 (10 to 10.45 am)

Click here to register for Session 2 (11 to 11.45 am)


More on the houses:


More on Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets: