A fiery September’s evening

12 09 2016

The fire dragon of Sar Kong came to life last night, making its way in a dizzying dance around the area of its lair at the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee temple.

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Last night’s dance of the fire dragon.

The dance of the dragon has its origins in Guangdong, from where many came from to work in the area’s brick kilns in the mid-1800s. The dance, rarely seen in a Singapore in which tradition has become an inconvenience, came at the close of the temple’s 150th Anniversary celebrations. The celebrations, held over a three day period, also saw a book on the temple’s history being launched. An exhibition on the history of the area is also being held in conjunction with this, which will run until 14 September 2016.

A book on the temple and the community's history was launched.

A book on the temple and the community’s history, A Kampong and its Temple, was launched.

Minister, Prime Minister's Office, Chan Chun Sing - a former resident of the area, being shown a model of the Sar Kong village area at the exhibition.

Minister, Prime Minister’s Office, Chan Chun Sing – a former resident of the area, being shown a model of the Sar Kong village area at the exhibition.

The parade of the straw dragon through the streets, is also thought to help dissipate anger caused by the disturbance of the land in the area of the temple being felt by the temple’s deities. The area, is once again in the midst of change – with a huge condominium development, Urban Oasis, just next door. The site of the development, incidentally, is linked to the current outbreak of the mosquito borne Zika virus in Singapore.

Lit joss sticks being placed on the straw dragon's body prior to the dance.

Lit joss sticks being placed on the straw dragon’s body prior to the dance.

There may perhaps be anger felt at the uncertainty for the future that temple itself faces. The land on which it sits on has long since been acquired for redevelopment by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and the temple operates on it only through a Temporary Occupation License. The parcel of land it sits on is one shared with HDB flats that were taken back by the HDB under the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) in the second half of the 2000s and it is left to be seen if the temple will be allowed to continue on the site when the area is eventually redeveloped.

The dragon offering respects to the altar prior to its dance.

The dragon offering respects to the altar prior to its dance.


The temple, Mun San Fook Tuck Chee (萬山福德祠), is thought to have its origins in the 1860s, serving a community of Cantonese and Hakka migrant workers employed by the area’s brick kilns, sawmills and sago making factories. The temple moved twice and came to its present site in 1901.

The dance of the fire dragon that is associated with the temple, although long a practice in its place of origin, only came to the temple in the 1980s. The dragon used for the dance is the result of a painstaking process that involves the making of a core using rattan and the plaiting of straw over three months to make the dragon’s body. Lit joss sticks are placed on the body prior to the dance and traditionally, the dragon would be left to burn to allow it to ascend to the heavens.

More information on the temple, its origins and its practices can be found in the following posts:


More photographs:

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A dragon awakens

5 09 2016

The fire dragon of Sar Kong, in a rare reprise of the its smoking performance earlier this year, will come alive once again this September on the occasion of the 150th anniversary celebrations of the temple its lair is found in, the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee (萬山福德祠) . The temple has its origins in Sar Kong (沙崗) or “Sand Ridge, where a community of Cantonese and Hakka coolies had settled in.

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The practice of parading the burning dragon has its origins in Guangdong – the origins of many in the community. Made of straw that has been imported from China, such a dragon would previously have been constructed for the feast day of the temple’s principal deity and sent in flames to the heavens.  In more recent times, such straw dragons would be paraded on an average of once every three years.  This particular dragon, which made for a more recent Chingay Parade, is not burnt but set alight only by the placement of joss sticks on its body.

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More information on the practice, as well as the historic setting for the village and the temple, can be found in the temple’s heritage room. More on the temple and its history can also be found at the post: On Borrowed Time: Mun San Fook Tuck Chee.


Schedule for the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee 150th Anniversary Celebrations

A number of events held in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee: Taoist priests from Ching Chung Koon in HK invited here to conduct rituals over 3 days, a seminar on Dabogong (Tua Pek Kong), a heritage exhibition, a book launch, and the finale – the one and only fire dragon dance in Singapore.

9 Sep 2016 (Fri)
0900-1145 Preparing ritual space
1400-1600 Rituals
1800-1900 Opening of heritage exhibition
1900-2100 Rituals

10 Sep 2016 (Sat)
0900-1145 Rituals
0930-1200 Seminar and discussion on Dabogong
1400-1600 Rituals
1900-2130 Rituals
2000-2100 Crossing the bridge for devotees

11 Sep 2016 (Sun)
0900-1145 Rituals
1000 Lion dance to welcome foreign visitors
1045-1145 Paying of respects by foreign visitors
1100-1400 Mid-autumn event for respecting elders in the community
1400-1600 Rituals
1600-1730 Salvation rituals
1930 Fire dragon performance / Book launch / Exchange of souvenirs with foreign guests


Photographs from the parade of the Fire Dragon in March 2016

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The Fire Dragon’s Lair

8 12 2014

It is in the last remnant of the village of sand that we find the lair of the fire dragon. The dragon, the only one in Singapore, lies in wait , its mouth wide open, expelling not a breath of fire, but of flames that reignite the memories of a time and place that might otherwise have been forgotten.

Inside the dragon's lair.

Inside the dragon’s lair.

The residence of the dragon, a small corner of the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee (萬山福德祠) – housed in a century old structure erected during the days of the now forgotten village, is the temple’s newly completed Sar Kong Heritage Room. The room is where the story of the dragon, that of the area’s heritage, and also of the humble origins of the temple and the community it served, now awaits discovery.

A view of the heritage room from the outside.

A view of the heritage room from the outside.

As with much of the Geylang that had developed along the banks of the rivers and tributaries of the area, the origins of the village of Sar Kong (沙崗) whose community the temple served, is one that is tied to the trades that thrived due to the geography of the area. In Sar Kong’s case, it was the kilns that fired the much needed building blocks for the fast developing Singapore, providing employment to a community of Cantonese and Hakka coolies. Established through the efforts of the community, the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee is unique in that among many early Chinese temples that has survived to this day, it owes its setting up not to an act of philanthropy by well-established individuals, but to the efforts of a coolie community.

Among the exhibits is a set of historical photos and building plans that is set against part of a wall that has its plaster removed to reveal its original brickwork.

Among the exhibits is a set of historical photos and building plans that is set against part of a wall that has its plaster removed to reveal its original brickwork.

Much of the information on geographical and historic setting for the village and the temple can be found within the exhibits of the heritage room, along with the background to some of the temple’s more interesting religious practices as well as the role it played from a social perspective. There also is information to be discovered about the dance of the fire dragon, which has its origins in Guangdong, Made of straw imported from China, the dragons previously made would have been constructed for the feast day of the temple’s principal deity Tua Pek Kong, and sent in flames to the heavens.  The dragon that is on display is one made for a more recent Chingay Parade.

Putting up the plaques.

Putting up the plaques.

More information on the temple, which is under threat from future development, can be found in a previous post, On Borrowed Time: Mun San Fook Tuck Chee. The newly completed heritage room is due to be opened officially in Jaunary 2015.

Early birds to the heritage room.

Early birds to the heritage room.

The fire dragon.

The fire dragon.

A one way ticket from a personal collection on display.

A one way ticket belonging to a personal collection on display.





Coloured corridors

13 11 2013

Conceived by the founder of modern Singapore Sir Stamford Raffles, the five-foot-way was a feature that was stipulated in the Jackson Town Plan of 1822 and is seen today in the shophouses which once dominated the urban landscape of Malaya and Singapore. In Singapore today, over 6000 of these shophouses have been conserved and their five-foot-ways remain colourful spaces through which I often enjoy a walk through. The photographs that follow, are ones from some of the more colourful areas of Singapore in which clusters of shophouses with five-foot-ways, old and new, can be found. More on the five-foot-way and the idea behind them can be found in two of my previous posts, the links to which are at the end of this post.

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Other five-foot-way adventures:





Geylang in the early light of day

12 11 2013

The new day brings with it freshness and hope. It is perhaps with fresh optimism (or maybe not) that Geylang, a neighbourhood in Singapore better known for what goes on after dark, wakes up to each morning as it wakens from a short and restless slumber, coming alive in a way that, because of its reputation, one might least expect.

Migrant workers lining the Geylang kerbside  - a common sight in first hour of daylight.

Migrant workers lining the Geylang kerbside – a common sight in the early light of day.

I often enjoy a walk through its streets, numerous lorongs and five-foot-ways, in the early light of day. Without the chaotic scenes that is all too often associated with the worn and tired neighbourhood and the accompanying vehicular clutter, Geylang’s less appreciated architectural treats can best be shown some appreciation. Also adding colour in the early light, is a parallel world, a world much of Singapore has denied an existence to, laying claim to the streets fresh with litter left behind by the world we know Geylang to be.

Geylang Road as the sun rises.

The waking Geylang Road as the sun rises.

The parallel world is one belonging to a large group  of the neighbourhood’s transient residents, migrant workers who come from far and wide. Drawn to the area by the availability of low cost accommodation shunned by the locals, the coolies hole themselves up in overcrowded lodgings squeezed into the upper floors of the neighbourhood’s many shophouses.

An area of modern Singapore society for which there is low interest in.

An area of modern Singapore society for which there is low interest in.

The migrant workers are ones who toil for meagre spoils in jobs necessary to keep Singapore going, menial jobs that are below most of us. These workers, the modern coolies of a modern Singapore, rouse as the extinguished lights that painted the previous night are still warm, spilling onto the streets and five-foot-ways in scenes that are reminiscent of coolies squatting in wait along the five-foot-ways of old.

Transporting the foreign legion.

Transporting the foreign legion.

Unlike the scenes of old, the new coolies wait not for the call, but for blue and silver trucks to ferry them to places of work at which they remain well into the dark of night. The blank stares accompanying the scene seem however the same, brought about not by the numbness that opium would once have provided, but by the lure of false hope for an unattainable material nirvana.

As night time Geylang goes to sleep, another side of Geylang awakes.

As night time Geylang goes to sleep, another side of Geylang awakes.

Migrant workers along the five-foot-way of a shophouse.

Migrant workers along the five-foot-way of a shophouse.

Material nirvana aside, the migrant workers who do find themselves in Geylang are perhaps the lucky ones in a country which chooses to conceal the bulk of the new coolies in faraway dormitories well hidden from sight. The migrant workers in Geylang do at least find themselves in an environment where the conveniences of the urban world are at their disposal – their presence has in fact drawn a slew of new business catering to their needs to the area. Interspersed among the KTV outlets, dingy looking massage parlours, pubs and well established food outlets are mobile phone and service vendors, new food outlets, budget clothing shops, mini-marts, and internet cafes to serve the demands of the wider migrant communities – many opening at the break of day to catch the very early birds.

Businesses open at the break of day to cater to migrant workers leaving for work.

Businesses open at the break of day to cater to migrant workers leaving for work.

Food stalls with offerings more appropriate for lunch do a roaring trade as many pack food for lunch.

Food stalls with offerings more appropriate for lunch do a roaring trade as many pack food for lunch.

It is the food stalls that do particularly well in the early light. Many are stocked not so much for that breakfast bite, but with offerings more appropriate for lunch. Taken away by many migrant workers, the contents of the white styrofoam containers serve a hurried lunch which is taken during the morning’s break, allowing the lunch hour to be used to catch up on much needed sleep.

Migrant workers queuing up at a cooked food stall.

Migrant workers queuing up with the odd local breakfast patron at a cooked food stall.

This parallel world is one we in Singapore, more often than not, choose not to see. It is a world that we can in fact draw many parallels to, one that opens a window into both Singapore’s and Geylang’s past – painted by stories not so different, only that … the stories do end in very different ways …

Seeking enlightenment - many houses of worship found in Geylang catered to the early immigrants community in the area.

Seeking enlightenment – many houses of worship found in Geylang catered to the early immigrants community in the area.

A scene along the foot-foot-way.

An early morning scene along the foot-foot-way.

Businesses catering to the needs of the migrant workers are in clear evidence.

Businesses catering to the needs of the migrant workers are in clear evidence.


Other posts on Geylang:





Off a little street in Singapore

19 04 2013

Off the busy and lively streets and as much an ubiquitous part of Singapore’s urban landscape as shophouses were, the back lane often took on a life of its own in that Singapore seem almost to have forgotten about. The back lane, besides being a hangout for hoodlums and a centre for undesirable activities, as is often depicted in popular culture, were also where children played and where honest tradesmen conducted their businesses. Unsanitary as they may have appeared to be, the best makan (food) around could often be found from makeshift food stalls set up in the back lane – the back lanes close to Rex Cinema with nasi padang, chendol and Indian rojak to die for, comes immediately to mind.

A reminder of back lanes past? A charcoal stove sits silently in a back lane.

A reminder of back lanes past? A charcoal stove sits silently in a back lane.

Back lanes would once have been the centre of life off the streets.

Back lanes would once have been the centre of life off the streets.

Despite being associated with the shophouses that characterised urban Singapore, back lanes came into being after many of the shop houses were already up. Shophouses were initially built back-to-back and it was only following an amendment to the Municipal Ordinance in 1909 that back lanes came into being and back lanes had to be retrofitted at the back of existing shophouses in a massive scheme starting from 1910 which went on well past the end of the war. The scheme to part of the backs of  shophouses was seen as a necessity not just to provide much needed access for fire-fighting between the tinderboxes of the overpopulated shophouses, but also to allow for basic sanitation to be provided .

Bicycles parked along a back lane. Back lanes were added after many of the shophouses were already built following the passing of the Municipal Ordinance of 1909.

Bicycles parked along a back lane. Back lanes were added after many of the shophouses were already built following the passing of the Municipal Ordinance of 1909.

The back lanes which were to eventually allow space for water to be piped and sewer lines to be run, initially made it easier to conduct  the unpleasant business of nightsoil collection (which actually went on right up until 1987). As compensation for land lost due to the back lanes, the Municipality reconstructed the backs of the affected shophouses and the spiral staircases which served as secondary exits and fire escapes we see at the backs of shophouses today were added in as part of the reconstruction.

A (sealed-up) night soil port - would once have been covered with a flap through which night soil buckets were collected and replaced by nightsoil workers.

A remnant of a forgotten past: a (sealed-up) night soil port. It would once have been fitted with a flap through which night soil buckets were collected and replaced.

Back lanes offer a doorway into the past.

A back door – back lanes are more recent than the shophouses the backs of which now open into them, Many were fitted after the shophouses were built.

Back lanes do exist today, in the many places where shophouses have survived – over 6000 shophouses have been conserved on the island with large clusters of them found in areas such as Tanjong Pagar, Chinatown, Katong/Joo Chiat, Jalan Besar and Geylang. While there are a few that still are alive in one way or another, most are silent and devoid of the life we would once have seen in them. The back lane however is still a place I often find myself wandering in – many have a lot of character as well a sense of mystery about them, and they are often where, despite the air of silence which now hangs over them, much colour, texture and a few little surprises, missing on the overly sanitised streets of Singapore, can still be found.

The back lane is where much colour and texture can still be found.

The back lane is where much colour and texture can still be found.

An abandoned motorcycle.

An abandoned motorcycle.

Plastic basins left to be drained.

Plastic basins left to be drained.

A signs warning against the mistreatment of cats in the back lane. The alley cat is still very much a part of the back lane scene.

A signs warning against the mistreatment of cats in the back lane. The alley cat is still very much a part of the back lane scene.

Back lanes these days serve as storage spaces more than anything else.

Back lanes these days serve as storage spaces more than anything else.





Monoscapes: Kallang Basin

24 03 2013

More than a quarter of a century has passed since the ten-year effort to clean the Kallang Basin up was completed in 1987. Now part of body of freshwater cut-off by land reclaimed at Tanjong Rhu and Marina South, and the Marina Barrage, it is now hard to imagine a time when the waters of the Kallang Basin,  were dirty, murky and exuded a stench that would be hard not to take notice of. Fed by the Rochor, Geylang and Kallang Rivers, the waters before the cleanup were littered not just by the many boats that were anchored in the basin, but also by what the numerous slums, boatyards, sawmills, pig and poultry farms that had once populated the areas upriver deposited. The sight of carcasses of dead animals floating in the waters was not an uncommon sight. Today, as the area is being transformed, it is not the trading boats we see, but recreational boats which perhaps serve as a last reminder of what may not have been so distant a past.

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Previous posts related to Kallang Basin: