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.


Other possible Open Houses:

Note: Other than the open house at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station (another will be held on Vesak Day, 21 May 2016), SLA intends to 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 may be required. Do look out for the announcement and further information that will be posted on the SLA’s Facebook Page.


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 charcoal shop

11 04 2016

I was reminded of the charcoal shop, a sight I would come across every now and again in my childhood, when I stumbled upon one on the old streets of Ipoh about five years ago.

Occupying the ground unit of an old shophouse and with walls and floors darkened in varying degrees by carbon dust, the shop bore many similarities with the ones that I remember; the only clues of the time and the place were in the more modern looking implements used to sort, weigh and pack the charcoal and the sacks and bags that the charcoal was being packed into.

The charcoal shop -this one seen in Ipoh in 2010, was once a common sight in Singapore.

The charcoal shop, this one spotted in Ipoh in late 2010, was once a common sight in Singapore. The shop has since stopped operating.

Shops such these were commonplace in days when charcoal fired just about anything. From stoves and clothing irons in homes, to the ovens and furnaces of commercial establishments, the reach of charcoal then exceeded beyond that of gas and electricity. Demand fell with resettlement and redevelopment, electricity and gas were more suited for use in the public housing units the population was being moved into, and the use of charcoal was reduced to the occasional barbecue, and to the rare occasions when the charcoal stove would be dusted off for the making of festive snacks. From a high of 300 shops, the numbers were reduced to about a hundred by the time 1980 had arrived. Those that did survive, were to disappear over the two decades that followed.

The shop's interior.

The shop’s interior.

Besides the supply of charcoal for domestic use, trade in charcoal in Singapore also extended to a thriving import and export business. Based initially in the Rochor area, the trade moved to Kampong Arang at Tanjong Rhu when Nicoll Highway and the Merdeka Bridge were built. With the clean-up of the Kallang Basin reaching their final stages in the late 1980s, the trade was to be moved once again, this time to Lorong Halus (more information: The curious ridge of sand which runs from Katong to Kallang Bay).

Little remains of the charcoal trade today. Like many of the trades that added life and colour to our world, it has since been replaced by the grey of the economy of the new age; remembered only by a few, whose memories will soon fade.





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.





Revisiting Commonwealth and Holland Village

30 03 2016

Queenstown, where I spent the earliest days of my life, holds many wonderful memories for me. It is a place I enjoy going back to, which I regularly do in my attempts to rediscover memories the town holds of my childhood, discovering more often than not a fascinating side to Singapore’s first satellite town I had not known of before.

A window into a world in which one will discover the many layers of a rich and varied history.

A window into a world in which one will discover the many layers of a rich and varied history.

A chance to revisit Queenstown and learn more about it came recently when I participated in an introductory My Queenstown heritage tour of Holland Village and Commonwealth. The tour, which started at Chip Bee Gardens, took a path that ended in the unreal world of palatial homes that lies just across the town’s fringes at Ridout Road. Intended to provide participants with a glimpse into the area’s evolution from its gambier and rubber plantation days to the current mix of residential, commercial and industrial sites we see today, it also provided me an opportunity to revisit  the neighbourhood that I had spent my first three years in.

Jalan Merah Saga in Chip Bee Gardens.

Jalan Merah Saga in Chip Bee Gardens.

Adjacent to an ever-evolving Holland Village, Chip Bee Gardens – the starting point, is known today for its eclectic mix of food and beverage outlets and businesses, housed in a rather quaint looking row at Jalan Merah Saga. Many from my generation will remember it for a crêpe restaurant, Better Betters. In combining French inspired crêpes with helpings of local favourites such as rendang, the restaurant married east and west in a fashion that seemed very much in keeping with the way the neighbourhood was developing.

A view over Chip Bee Gardens.

A view over Chip Bee Gardens.

The shop lots, I was to learn, had rather different beginnings. Converted only in 1978, the lots had prior to the 1971 pull-out of British forces, served as messing facilities for the military personnel the estate had been built to accommodate in the 1950s. The growth of Holland Village into what it is today, is in fact tied to this development. Several businesses still found at Holland Village trace their roots back to this era.

Holland Road Shopping Centre, a familiar landmark in Holland Village.

Holland Road Shopping Centre, a familiar landmark in Holland Village.

The Thambi Magazine Store at Lorong Liput is one such business. Having its roots in the 1960s, when the grandfather of its current proprietor, delivered newspapers in the area, the so-called mama-shop, has grown to become a Holland Village institution. It would have been one of two such outlets found along Lorong Liput, previously occupying a space across from its current premises. Its well-stocked magazine racks once drew many from far and wide in search of a hard-to-find weekly and is now the sole survivor in an age where digital media dominates.

Sam, teh current proprietor of the Thambi Magazine Store.

Sam, teh current proprietor of the Thambi Magazine Store.

Magazine racks outside the store.

Magazine racks outside the store.

Lorong Liput would also have been where many of Holland Village’s landmarks of the past were once found. One was the Eng Wah open-air cinema, the site of which the very recently demolished Holland V Shopping Mall with its mock windmill – a more recent icon, had been built on. Lorong Liput was also where the demolished Kampong Holland Mosque once stood at the end of and where the old wet market, since rebuilt, served the area’s residents.

The windmill at Lorong Liput, which recently disappeared.

The windmill at Lorong Liput, which recently disappeared.

The rebuilt market.

The rebuilt market.

The site of the former Eng Wah open-air cinema and the Holland V Shopping Mall.

The site of the former Eng Wah open-air cinema and the since demolished Holland V Shopping Mall.

The Eng Wah open-air cinema (source: National Archives online).

From Lorong Liput, a short walk down Holland Avenue and and Holland Close, takes one to the next stop and back more than a century in time. The sight that greets the eye as one approaches the stop, which is just behind Block 32, is one that is rather strange of neatly ordered rows of uniformly sized grave stones of a 1887 Hakka Chinese cemetery, the Shuang Long Shan, set against a backdrop of blocks of HDB flats and industrial buildings. Visually untypical of an old Chinese cemetery – in which the scattering of burial mounds would seem almost random, the neat rows contain reburied remains from graves exhumed from an area twenty times the 4.5 acre plot that the cemetery once occupied.

A view across the grave stones to the roofs of the Shuang Long Shan Wu Shu ancestral hall.

A view across the grave stones to the roofs of the Shuang Long Shan Wu Shu ancestral hall.

Run by the Ying Fo Fui Kun clan association, Shuang Long Shan was acquired by the HDB in 1962. A concession made to the clan association permitted the current site to be retained on a lease. The site also contains the clan’s ancestral hall, the Shuang Long Shan Wu Shu Ancestral Hall and a newer memorial hall. The ancestral hall, which also goes back to 1887, is now the oldest building in Queenstown.

Offerings placed for the Ching Ming festival.

Offerings placed for the Ching Ming festival.

Ancestral tablets inside the hall.

Ancestral tablets inside the hall.

A close-up of the ancestral hall.

A close-up of the ancestral hall.

My old neighbourhood nearby was up next. Here I discovered how easy it was to be led astray in finding myself popping into Sin Palace – one of the several old shops found in the neighbourhood centre in which time seems to have long stood still.  The shops offer a fascinating glimpse of the world four, maybe five decades past, days when I frequented the centre for my favourite bowl of fishball noodles and the frequent visits to the general practitioner the coughs I seemed to catch would have required. The neighbourhood is where a rarity from a perspective of church buildings can be found in the form of the Queenstown Lutheran Church. It is one of few churches from the era that retains much of its original look.

Commonwealth Crescent Neighbourhood Centre and the Lutheran Church as it looked when I lived there (source: My Community).

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Inside Sin Palace – an old fashioned barber shop.

Another area familiar to me is the chap lak lau chu (16 storey flats) at Commonwealth Close, which we also visited. A friend of my mother’s who we would visit on occasion, lived there at Block 81, a block from which one can look forward to an exhilarating view from its perch atop a hillock. The view was what gave Block 81 the unofficial status of a “VIP block” to which visiting dignitaries would be brought to – much like the block in Toa Payoh to which I moved to. Among the visitors to the block were the likes of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and Indian Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi.

Also at Commonwealth Close, the space between Blocks 85 and 86 where the iconic photograph of Singapore's first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was taken.

Also at Commonwealth Close, the space between Blocks 85 and 86 where the iconic photograph of Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was taken.

Before visiting Block 81, a stop was made at Commonwealth Drive, where the MOE Heritage Centre and Singapore’s first flatted factories are found. The flatted factory, an idea borrowed from Hong Kong, allowed space for small manufacturers to be quickly and inexpensively created  during the period of rapid industrialisation and the block at Commonwealth Drive (Block 115A) was the first to be constructed by the Economic Development Board (EDB) as part of a pilot programme launched in 1965 (more on the development of flatted factories in Singapore can be found on this post: The Anatomy of an Industrial Estate). Among the first tenants of the block were Roxy Electric Industries Ltd. The company took up 10,000 square metres on the ground floor for the assembly of Sharp television sets under licence.

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Block 115 A (right) – the first flatted factory building that was erected by the EDB in 1965/66 as part of a pilot programme.

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A resident of Queenstown, Mdm Noorsia Binte Abdul Gani, found work assembling hairdryers at an electrical goods factory, Wing Heng, between 1994 and 2003. Wing Heng was located at Block 115A Commonwealth Drive.

Housed in a school building typical of schools built in the 1960s used previously by Permaisura Primary School, the MOE Heritage Centre was established in 2011. With a total of 15 experiential galleries and heritage and connection zones arranged on the building’s three floors, the centre provides visitors with an appreciation of the development of education and schools in Singapore, from the first vernacular and mission schools to where we are today.

The MOE Heritage Centre.

The MOE Heritage Centre.

A blast from the past - a schoolbag from days when I started attending school at the MOE Heritage Centre.

A blast from the past – a schoolbag from days when I started attending school at the MOE Heritage Centre.

Of particular interest to me were the evolution of school architecture over the years and the post-war period in the early 1950s when many new schools and the Teachers’ Training College were established. The centre is opened to the public on Fridays during term time and on weekdays during school holidays. More information can be found at http://www.moeheritagecentre.sg/public-walk-ins.html.

Inside the MOE Heritage Centre.

Inside the MOE Heritage Centre’s New Nation, New Towns & New Schools gallery.

The Ridout Tea Garden lies across Queensway from the Commonwealth Close area. The garden rose out of the ashes of what many would remember as a Japanese styled garden, the Queenstown Japanese Garden. Opened in 1970, a few years before the Seiwaen in Jurong, the garden would have been the first post-independence Japanese styled public garden (the Alkaff Lake Gardens, which opened in 1930 would have been the first). A fire destroyed the garden in 1978 and the HDB redeveloped it as a garden with a teahouse (hence Tea Garden) tow years later. Well visited today for its McDonalds outlet, it was actually a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet that first operated at the tea house.

A brick wall, which once belonged to the Japanese Garden.

A brick wall, which once belonged to the Japanese Garden.

The Queenstown Japanese Garden (source: My Community).

The tea garden forms part of the boundary between Queenstown and a world that literally is apart at the Ridout Road/Holland Park conservation area. Home to palatial good class bungalows, 27 of which are conserved, many of the area’s houses have features that place them in the 1920s and the 1930s. This was teh period which coincided with the expansion of the British military presence on the island, and it was during this time that the nearby Tanglin Barracks was built. Several, especially those in the mock Tudor or “Black and White” style – commonly employed by the Public Works Department, would have served to house senior military officers .

A mock Tudor bungalow at 31 Ridout Road.

A mock Tudor bungalow at 31 Ridout Road.

Besides the “Black and White” style, another style that is in evidence in the area is that of the Arts and Crafts movement. Several fine examples of such designs exist on the island, two of which are National Monuments. One is the very grand Command House at Kheam Hock Road, designed by Frank W. Brewer. Brewer was also responsible for the lovely house found at 23 Ridout Road. Distinctly a Brewer design, the house had prior to the war, been the residence of L. W. Geddes. A board member of Wearnes Brothers and a Municipal Commissioner, Mr Geddes left Singapore upon his retirement in late 1941. After the war, the house was used as the Dutch Consul-General’s and later Ambassador’s residence.

Distinctively Frank W. Brewer - an Arts and Crafts design that was once the home of L.W. Geddes at 23 Ridout Road. The house now serves as the residence of the Dutch Ambassador.

Distinctively Frank W. Brewer – an Arts and Crafts design that was once the home of L.W. Geddes at 23 Ridout Road. The house now serves as the residence of the Dutch Ambassador.

A recent addition to the area is the mansion at 2 Peirce Drive. Owned by Dr. Lye Wai Choong, the house is thought to have been modelled after the Soonstead Mansion in Penang. Other notable bungalows in the area include 35 Ridout Road, which sold recently for S$91.69 million and also India House at 2 Peirce Road, thought to have been commissioned by Ong Sam Leong in 1911. Mr Ong, who made his fortune from being the sole supplier of labour to the phosphate mines on Christmas Island, passed away in 1918 and is buried with his wife in the largest grave in Bukit Brown cemetery.

A more recent addition to the area, a mansion owned by Dr. Lye Wai Choong, which is modelled after another one in Penang.

A more recent addition to the area, a mansion owned by Dr. Lye Wai Choong, which is modelled after another one in Penang.

The good-class bungalow at 35 Ridout Road that was sold very recently for S$91.69 million.

The good-class bungalow at 35 Ridout Road that was sold very recently for S$91.69 million.

Ridout Road.

A very green Ridout Road.

The Commonwealth and Holland Village heritage tour runs every third Sunday of the month. Those interested can register for the free guided tour at www.queenstown.evenbrite.sg or via myqueenstown@gmail.com. My Community, which runs the tours is also carrying out a volunteer recruitment exercise to run their tours. Workshops are being held on 24 and 30 April 2016 for this and would be volunteers can email volunteer@mycommunity.org.sg to register.





The full moon of Panguni

23 03 2016

The full moon of the Tamil month of Panguni paints the Sembawang area with the colours of a Hindu festival, Panguni Uthiram, celebrated by the Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple. The celebration of the festival, which involves a street procession of kavadis, is a tradition that dates back to 1967 during the days of the British Naval Base.

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The temple back then was off Canberra Road within the base and the procession took a route from the laundry shop at the junction of Canberra and Ottawa Roads, down Canberra Road, left into Dehli Road and into Kowloon Road, before continuing back up Canberra Road, ending at the temple.

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The procession this year, as with the one last year, took a shortened route from Canberra Drive, down Canberra Lane to Canberra Link and to Yishun Industrial Park A. Now surrounded by the obvious signs of urbanisation and change, the procession now has a very different feel to it than it did in the good old days.JeromeLim-8636

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More information on the celebration, as well as some photographs of the celebration of the festival at its original site, can be found at the following links on the temple’s website:

Posts and photographs from the celebrations of the previous years’ that I managed to catch can be found at the following links:

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More photographs from Panguni Uthiram 2016

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The end point was at the temporary temple as the temple building is being rebuilt and will only be ready later this year.

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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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