The “attractive” 1940 built public-housing block in Little India

23 11 2018

I have long admired the building that houses The Great Madras, a boutique hotel on Madras Street. The edifice in its incarnations as a hotel has brought a touch of Miami to the shophouse lined streets of a busy corner of Serangoon. The opportunity to have a look beyond the building’s gorgeous Streamline-Moderne façade came this Architectural Heritage Season with tours organised by the URA. The hotel won an Architectural Heritage Award for the efforts made in the restoration of the building,

Deliciously decorated, the hotel’s common areas on the ground floor provide a great introduction to its well thought of interiors. The lobby and a restaurant and bar, which opens up to the outside is what first greets visitors. There is also a barber shop and a utility area at the building’s rear. A sliding privacy door hides the hostel-like accommodation on the same floor. Here, its private sleeping spaces carry the names of established travel influencers.

The reception area.

The hotel’s rooms are laid out across the building’s two upper floors. Corridors decorated with quirky neon signs and ventilated through the steel-framed glass windows of a forgotten era, provide correspondence to the rooms. It is along a corridor on the second floor that a pleasant surprise awaits. This takes the form of an especially delightful and photograph-able view of the hotel’s retrofitted swimming pool, framed by a circular opening in the pastel pink party wall that separates the pool from its sun deck.

A corridor on the upper levels.

The alterations made in the building’s interiors does make it hard to think of the building having been put to any other use other than the current, and quite certainly not as a public-housing block of flats it was built as in early 1940, There is of course that Tiong Bahru-esque appearance and quality that may give the fact away but the standalone nature of the block will mask the fact that it was the Singapore Improvement Trust or SIT that built it. The SIT – the predecessor to the HDB – besides having had the task of addressing the demand for public housing, also took on the role of town planner. The public housing projects that it embarked on tended to be built in clusters, such as in the case of Tiong Bahru.

The rear courtyard.

The swimming pool.

There is however a good reason for the Madras Street block’s isolation. A 1940 report made by the SIT holds the clue to this. It turns out that the block – erected to take in the area’s residents displaced by the demolition of older buildings – was meant to have been part of a larger improvement scheme that the SIT had planned for the area. The scheme was to have seen the demolition of a dozen “old and unsanitary” buildings in the months that would follow  to provide for a southeasterly extension of Campbell Lane past Madras Street. There was also to have been the metalling of the area’s roads and the construction of much-needed drains. The orientation and alignment of the 70 by 60 feet block does suggest that it was laid out with the extension of Campbell Lane in mind.

A view of the surroundings through steel framed windows.

The scheme’s overall aim was to provide accommodation in greater numbers, make an improvement in (transport) communication and the layout of of the very congested area. There was also a need to address the area’s poor sanitary conditions. It is quite evident from what we see around that the scheme did not go much further. Perhaps it may have been a lack of funds, as it was with many public schemes in those days. There was also the intervention of the war, which was already being fought in Europe by the time of the block was completed.

Another view of the hotel’s windows.

From the report, we also get a sense of the “attractive” building’s original layout. Three flats were found on each floor, hence the three addresses 28, 30 and 32, giving the building a total of nine flats. Each flat contained three rooms, one of which would have been a living room that opened to the balcony. A kitchen cum dining room was provided in each flat, as well as a bathroom and a toilet – “in accordance with Municipal Commissioners’ requirements”.

A spiral staircase in the rear courtyard.

The report also tells us of how much the flats, which were fully booked before the building’s completion, were rented out for: $23 per month for ground floor units and $26 per month for the units on the upper floors.

More on the restoration efforts that won the Great Madras Hotel the award: 28, 30 & 32 Madras Street Charming Revival.

Restored granolithic (Shanghai Plaster) finishing on the column bases.


More photographs:

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

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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).


 





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. As spaces are limited to 30 pax and participants over the age of 18 years, pre-registration is required.

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.

 

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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.





Serendipity in the garrison church

8 11 2018

Places take on a greater meaning when we are made aware of the associations they have had; with people who have passed through them, or with their connection with significant events of our past.  Knowing these, and the stories that can be told of them, adds a new dimension to spaces and buildings to aid in our appreciation of them.

Saint George’s Church – the former Tanglin garrison church, one of the sites visited during November’s edition of #SLASecretSpaces.

Through the conduct of the series of guided State Property visits, “Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets“,  many of these associations have come of light. The series, which is supported by the Singapore Land Authority, provides an opportunity for members of the public to visit usually closed-off State-held properties and often sees the participants with connections that may not otherwise have come to light. Examples include the much misrepresented Old Changi Hospital, the also much misrepresented former View Road Hospital, Kinloss House, and 5 Kadayanallur Street – just to name a few.

Inside Saint George’s Church.

The first Saturday in November, when a visit to the former Tanglin Barracks took place, threw up a connection, albeit of a different kind, that was established quite by chance. That would never have been possible if not for a series of coincidences that culminated in a guest, Garth O’Connell, making a discovery that he might not otherwise have known about. This serendipitous find was made inside Saint George’s Church right at the end of the visit and is perhaps best summed up in Garth’s own words:

“Just had a superb heritage walk around the former Australian and British Army base of Tanglin Barracks … at the end I had a huge serendipitous event relating to Bob Page DSO1 which freaked me and our tour group out! 😮

Those on the tour were given a free hard copy of the church centenary book at the end of tour. I put it my half full plastic bag which had bottles of water, tissues, map and umbrella. As I’m walking around the church taking pics the bag broke after a few minutes so sat down right away as the contents are all about to spill out and cause a scene. I sit down on the pews at the closest seat and it’s the only one dedicated to Bob Page DSO. I’ve given talks on him at work, I met his widow before she died about 2 years ago and every time I come to Singapore I visit his grave at Kranji War Cemetery. Bloody huge coincidence me just sitting down next to him in that big church.”

1Capt. Robert Charles Page, DSO, an Australian war hero who was executed by the Japanese in July 1945 for his involvement in Operation Rimau.

Garth with the kneeling cushion on which a dedication to Capt. Robert Page DSO is found. The book and the broken plastic bag is seen next to him (photo courtesy of Simone Lee).

This all seems rather uncanny, especially when one considers some other coincidences. Garth, who is with the Australian War Memorial (AWM) and based in Canberra, would not have been able to participate if not for a stopover he was making en-route to Kanchanaburi (where he will be attending a Remembrance Sunday event). It also turns out that the event, on 3 November, came just two days after what would have been the Pages 75th wedding anniversary –  Capt. Page and his wife Roma married on 1 November 1943. The first day of November also happens to be the day in 1945 that Mrs. Page received the telegram with news confirming her husband’s death.

A close up of the dedication on the kneeling cushion of the seat.

The wartime exploits of Capt. Page as a member of ‘Z’ Special Unit, are well recorded. The outfit, set up to carry out operations behind enemy lines, made a daring raid into the waters of Singapore in September 1943. Six very brave men including the then Lt. Page, paddled in teams of two through Japanese held waters in and around the harbour in canoes to sabotage Japanese shipping. This operation, Operation Jaywick, the 75th anniversary of which was commemorated recently, met with great success and resulted in the sinking or the disabling of 7 ships.

Capt. Robert Charles Page’s headstone in Kranji War Cemetery.

While the operation was went smoothly for the members of ‘Z’ Special Force, it was not without any fallout. One consequence of it was the so-called “Double Tenth Incident” that saw 57 civilians, who were wrongly suspected of having aided the operation, arrested and tortured. Among those arrested was Elizabeth Choy. While Mrs. Choy lived to tell the horrendous tale, 15 of her comrades did not, perishing at the hands of the Kempeitai.

Group portrait after the completion of Operation Jaywick, “Z” Special Unit, Australian Services Reconnaissance Department, showing the personnel who carried out the operation. (Source: AWM, Copyright Expired).

Following on the success of Jaywick, a second operation, Operation Rimau, was planned and in September to October 1944, executed. This operation turned out quite differently and had to be aborted during its execution and 23 men lost their lives as a result. Twelve were killed in the attempt to escape through the islands of what had previously been the Dutch East Indies. The 11 who survived initially were hunted down and eventually captured in the islands of the Riau and moved to Singapore. One succumbed to malaria after being brought across, while the remaining 10, Capt. Page included, were tried, convicted of spying, and sentenced to death.

Then Lt. Robert Page, Major Ivan Lyon, MBE, and Lt Donald Montague Noel Davidson, seen after the successful completion of Operation Jaywick. (Source: AWM, Copyright expired – public domain).

The 10 were beheaded on 7 July 1945, just over a month before the war would end. The very courageous manner in which they met their deaths is captured in a headline of a 1960 Straits Times article, which read:  “The men who went to their death laughing“.

The historic marker at the Rimau Commandos execution site.

A historical marker now stands at the execution site and provides a grim reminder of the sacrifice that the men made. This marker can be found close to U-Town,  at the Clementi Road end of Dover Road. The remains of the men, which were located after the war, were transferred to a collective grave in Kranji War Cemetery. The grave is marked by a row of 10 headstones, each with a name of one of the executed men.

The 10 headstones at the grave of the ten executed commandos.

Another view of the headstone of Capt. Robert Charles Page DSO.


More on Capt. Robert Charles Page DSO, Jaywick and Rimau, and Mrs. Roma Page:


LEST WE FORGET
Remembrance Sunday 11 November 2018

Remembrance Sunday, which falls on the Sunday closest to 11 November – the anniversary of the end of the Great War, provides an opportunity to pay our respects  to and remember the Rimau heroes and the many, many more who made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of peace and freedom. The commemoration this year coincides with the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War.

Services will be held at various locations in Singapore on the day, including at Kranji War Cemetery. More information, provided by the British High Commission (which is co-hosting the Kranji commemoration with the Singapore Armed Forces Veterans’ League) can be found below.


 

The British High Commission in partnership with the Singapore Armed Forces Veterans’ League will be hosting the annual Remembrance Sunday service at Kranji War Cemetery on Sunday, 11 November 2018. The service starts at 7.30am, guest should arrive and be seated or in position by 7.15am.

The 30-minute ceremony will be attended by members of the diplomatic corps; Singapore and foreign military representatives and religious leaders and is held to pay tribute to all who died in wars so that the generations after them could live in peace.

In the UK, Remembrance Sunday is held on the Sunday nearest to Remembrance Day on 11 November; the date marks the official end of the First World War on 11 November 1918. This year, the dates also marks the 100th Anniversary of the end of World War 1.

Event details

Date : Sunday, 11 November 2018

Time : 7.30 am – Please arrive by 7.15am.

Venue: Kranji War Cemetery, 9, Woodlands Road, Singapore 738656

Dress code: Smart casual.

To note:

– Please carry an umbrella as shelter is limited in the event of rain.

– There are no restrooms on the cemetery grounds


 






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:


 





Journeys of faith and devotion from Kampong Gelam

13 10 2018

An insightful exhibition featuring the journeys of faith that Hajj pilgrims take in both body and in spirit, ‘Undangan ke Baitullah: Pilgrims Stories from the Malay World to Makkah’, was launched together with the Malay Culture Fest 2018 yesterday (12 Oct 2018).

 

A performance at the opening, reenacting a pilgrim’s journey of faith.

The exhibition, which runs from 13 October 2018 to 23 June 2019, takes a look at Kampong Gelam’s role in supporting the Hajj. The district, having been an important port town, saw Muslims from across the Nusantara congregate in preparation for the often difficult passage by sea to Mecca in days before air travel (the area around Busorrah Street was also known as ‘Kampong Kaji‘ – ‘kaji’ was apparently the Javanese pronunciation of ‘haji‘).

Mdm Halimah Yacob, President of the Republic of Singapore, launching the exhibition and the Malay Culture Fest.

Many businesses such the popular nasi padang outlet Hjh. Maimunah had its roots in the pilgrimage. The restaurant, which has an outlet at Jalan Pisang, is named after the founder’s mother Hajjah Maimunah, who was Singapore’s first female Hajj broker (or sheikh haji). The enterprising Hajjah Maimunah also ran a food business during the Hajj catering to pilgrims from this part of the world in Mecca.

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The Malay Culture Fest, which was opened together with the exhibition, runs from 12 to 28 October 2018 and will feature lectures and performances over the three weeks. More information can be found at :   https://peatix.com/group/40767/events.

Entrance to one of the exhibition’s galleries.

The hajj passport of a child pilgrim on display at the exhibition.

A trunk and a suitcase used by pilgrims on display.

 





Pilgrimage to an isle of legends

11 10 2018

The southern isles of Singapore are steeped in myths, legends and traditions. While most seem to lie buried in the sands that have expanded them, one that lives on is the pilgrimage to Pulau Tembakul – Kusu Island – that some accounts have as going back over two centuries to 1813.

Kusu during a pilgrimage season of the past – crossing the causeway at low tide. (photo: National Museum of Singapore on Facebook).

The annual event draws a steady stream of Taoist devotees. Although the numbers may have fallen from the highs of the 1960s and 1970s, thousands still make the short passage by sea every ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar (which began on 9 October this year) to seek favour and blessings at the island’s holy sites. The sites are a temple dedicated to the popular Taoist deity Tua Pek Kong, and three keramat-keramat, which in this case are the supposed graves of (Muslim) holy persons who are venerated. This practice has its roots in Sufism and is discouraged by mainstream Islam and has over the years found a following amongst the Chinese.

A devotee making her way to Kusu in 1971 (source: The Aged In Singapore: Veneration Collides With The 20th Century, Nada Skerly Arnold, 1971).

Two of the island’s three keramat-keramat (found at the top of 152 steps).

Perhaps the most popular of the island’s legends is one tied very much to the name Kusu. The island, which in its pre-reclamation days actually resembled a tortoise at high tide; its head, the outcrop on which the temple was built, and its body, the mound to which the head was linked by a natural causeway at low tide at the top of which the keramat-keramat are found. This legend, which also provides a basis for the pilgrimage, has it that a tortoise (or more correctly a turtle) had rescued two fishermen from drowning by turning itself into the island.  There are several more legends that provide an explanation for the origins of the pilgrimage, the keramat-keramat and the personalities that they are associated with – all of which are unverified (see: Kusu Island – on Infopedia).

Another perspective of the island: The tortoise in the early light of day

An old postcard showing Kusu Island before reclamation.

The Tua Pek Kong temple on the ‘head’ of the tortoise (source: The Aged In Singapore: Veneration Collides With The 20th Century, Nada Skerly Arnold, 1971).

The head of the tortoise (photo: Steffen Röhner on Panoramio).

The temple and the expanded island today.


The pilgrimage season in photographs

More on the pilgrimage in modern times: Keeping alive Kusu Island pilgrimage (The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2017).