Sophia, Caroline and Emily, and the spiced up Hills of Babylon

18 08 2016

Just north of a hill of much history known to the early inhabitants of Singaporeans as the Forbidden Hill or Bukit Larangan, is a cluster of low hills that are known today as Mounts Sophia, Emily, and Caroline.  The hills, three sisters if you like, go back a long way and have a rather storied past.

The value of these elevations, rising some 30 to 35 metres above the plain which Raffles designated as the new settlement’s European precinct, and the harbour that was the very reason for which the settlement was founded beyond it, had certainly been recognised in the early days. Two of the protagonists of the new trading post soon had their hands on parts of them. In a letter written by Singapore’s first resident, William Farquhar, to Raffles on 23 December 1822,  Raffles is told that parts of the hills had been cleared at government expense, with 33 acres of “Silligie” Hill  occupied by Captain William Flint, the Master Attendant, and 20 acres of the next hill to the north, “Bukit Cawah”, that the Resident had himself taken possession of.

William Farquhar.

William Farquhar.

In the letter, Farquhar also describes the state of the hills at the time of the founding – the “commencement of the establishment” as he had put it. “Silligie” was “occupied in the western side by a Chinese planter who had formed a Gambier Plantation there”. Its eastern side had been “a primitive forest” and “Bukit Cawah” had been “totally unoccupied and covered with primitive forest trees”.

Gambier, an extract from the leaves of the plant is used in dyes and in the tanning of leather and also in the chewing of betel nut. Gambier was planted in Singapore by the Chinese even before the British arrived.

Gambier, an extract from the leaves of the plant is used in dyes and in the tanning of leather and also in the chewing of betel nut. Gambier was planted in Singapore by the Chinese even before the British arrived.

Raffles, who was at odds with Farquhar over his handling of the affairs of new settlement, had allegations made that Farquhar had appropriated more (land) than he was entitled to on Bukit Cawah. In an essay  “William Farquhar, First Resident and Commandant of Singapore”1, one of the foremost authorities on Raffles, John Sturgus Bastin, informs us that Raffles had referred to what Farquhar had his hands on as his “Hills of Babylon” – a reference to the hills in the Book of Revelations that one of the beasts of the end times, Babylon, rests on.

From a map of Singapore dated 1822-23. Cawah is probably misspelt as Rawa.

From a map of Singapore dated 1822-23. Cawah is probably misspelt as Rawa.

We know of Bukit Cawah today as Mount Emily and Silligie Hill (or Bukit Selegie) as Mount Sophia. Early maps and documents use several variations in the spelling of the names, the origins of which, seem rather obscure. An attempt is made by Victor Savage and Brenda Yeoh in “Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics” to offer possible explanations. One relates to a Bugis chief with a band of followers called the “Orang Selegie”, while another gives Selegie, spelt Seligi, to be a reference to the nibong palm  used in the making of fishing stakes or of spears of the same name. There apparently is a sharpened wooden spear used by the Borneo based Iban tribe that is known a “seligi”. That is made of the trunk of the nibong palm.

From a map entitled "Part of Singapore Island", 1825, which identifies both Bukit Selegie and Bukit Kawah.

From a map entitled “Part of Singapore Island”, 1825, which identifies both Bukit Selegie and Bukit Kawah.

I should think that Selegie must have less exotic origins. A set of sketches of fishing implements employed by the Orang Laut seen in Cynthia Chou’s book on the Orang Suku Laut2, who were among the earliest inhabitants of Singapore, offers a possible clue. A multi-pronged tip of a fishing spear commonly used in “pre-settlement” daysis found in them, made not necessarily from the nibong palm that is identified as a “seligi“. How this seligi became mixed up with the hill is anybody’s guess. One explanation I can offer is that the two hills may have stuck out of the undeveloped pre-settlement landscape like the prongs of seligi.

Fishing spears employed by the orang laut.

Fishing spears employed by the orang laut.

As opposed to the Iban seligi, there should be little doubt that the seligi fishing spear would be ones that are readily recognisable in Singapura. Spearing of fish was the main method of fishing, as had been observed by Munshi Abdullah, a scholar and translator from Malacca, as is recorded in his autobiography, Hikayat Abdullah. The introduction of the hook and line by fishermen coming over from his native Malacca post-settlement put an end to the practice. It is not unimaginable that the two hills had collectively been referred to as Bukit Selegie. An indication of this is seen perhaps in G.D. Coleman’s 1836 Map of Town and Environs, which shows a Mount Sophia that had been marked in earlier maps as Bukit Selegie alongside a Mount Emily (Bukit Cawah) that is instead marked as “Bukit Selegie”.

From the 1836 Map of Town and Environs, based on a survey carried out by G D Coleman.

From the 1836 Map of Town and Environs, based on a survey carried out by G D Coleman (click to enlarge).

The name Cawah seems most obscure.

One explanation that has been offered is that Cawah is a variation in the spelling of Jawa or Java, and the hill was so named due to the proximity of a Javanese settlement at Kampong Jawa. The “C” in this case might have been pronounced as it is in modern Malay spelling, as a Ch. We do however see the name spelt with a K, Kawah, and what this means is that the name would more likely have been pronounced as Ka-wah rather than as Cha-wah.

The word Kawah finds widespread use in Indonesia to describe a volcanic crater. It also translates into English as a cauldron or even a large pot. As with the name Selegie, Kawah could have been a reference to the shape of a geographical feature, such as that of the depression found in between the two hills. But without no evidence to back this up, it would be hard to put a finger on it.

A crater, Kawah Sikadang, near Yogyakarta in Indonesia.

A crater, Kawah Sikadang, near Yogyakarta in Indonesia.

The hills’ modern day names are in themselves, a cause for much speculation. While it has been generally accepted that the Sophia in Mount Sophia was Raffles second wife Sophia Hull, who the Flints who moved up the hill were thought to have honoured;  there also are suggestions that it may have been one of several Sophias also connected with the hill, of which there are a few.

The Flints, Mary Ann, Raffles' sister and Captain William, the Master Attendant.

The Flints, Mary Ann, Raffles’ sister and Captain William, the Master Attendant.

One, is none other than the Flints’ daughter, Mary Sophia Anne, who was born in 1823, the year the Flints moved to their new address. The name Sophia Cooke also comes up. Cooke was an Anglican missionary who arrived in 1853 to run the Chinese Girls’ School on the hill that is now St. Margaret’s School. There is also Sophia Blackmore. Ms Blackmore founded Methodist Girls School in 1887. Although the school only moved up from Short Street to Mount Sophia in 1925, Ms Blackmore other connections with the hill date back to the 1890s.

The Deaconess Home (later Nind Home), acquired in 1894, was used by Ms. as a boarding house. The site at No.6 Mount Sophia (later No. 11), based on the details of the lease, could possibly be where Flint had his house.

The Deaconess Home (later Nind Home), acquired in 1894, was used by Ms. as a boarding house. The site at No.6 Mount Sophia (later No. 11), based on the details of the lease, could possibly be where Flint had his house.

One rather interesting suggestion that comes up from time to time is that the hills along with Mount Caroline, are named after the three daughters of Charles Robert Prinsep. This may have its origins in a Straits Times article from 10 May 1936. Charles Robert Prinsep, a barrister with the East India Company based in Calcutta, was also a plantation owner and the man behind the second phase of the hills’ development. He may have first purchased Bukit Cawah from the Farquhar estate in 1831,  adding to it a huge tract of land that extended to Mount Sophia and Mount Caroline, soon after.

View today over the three hills.

View today over what had once been the Prinsep estate.

All 270 acres of Prinsep’s sprawling estate, roughly the size of today’s Gardens by the Bay. was given to the cultivation of nutmeg. The arrival of nutmeg as a crop to our shores, and before that to Penang, was prompted by the desire of the British to challenge the monopoly the Dutch had on a spice that was worth more than its weight in gold.

The nutmeg fruit, seen on a tree on Fort Canning Hill.

The nutmeg fruit, seen on a tree on Fort Canning Hill.

By 1848, Prinsep’s estate was among 20 such plantations that were to alter the landscape of the previously forested hills on both sides of what we know today as Orchard Road. The estate of 6,700 trees had one of the highest yields and at its height produced some 22,000 nutmegs daily. Besides nutmeg, another spice Mace, is obtained from the “nuts”, ground from the seed’s aril. The spice nutmeg is from the seed itself. The plantations, by the way, were what gave Orchard Road its name.

Nutmeg, the only plant from which two spices are obtained. Mace from the red aril covering its seed and nutmeg from the seed itself.

Nutmeg, the only plant from which two spices are obtained. Mace from the red aril covering its seed and nutmeg from the seed itself.

It was around the time of the establishment of the Prinsep estate in 1831 that the name Mount Sophia first crops up (this on the basis of newspaper articles, the archives of which do not go further back than 1831 but the manner in which it does crop up points to its adoption around the same time). This was some five years before Coleman’s 1836 map was published. The mention is found in a letter to the Singapore Chronicle and Commercial Register, published  on 26 May 1831, in which the writer makes mention that “Flint’s Hill”, the location named of a fire that was the subject of an earlier report, should have been referred to as “Mount Sophia”.

A letter from Willaim Farquhar to Lt. Jackson making a request to have the identified hills, including Bukit Selegie and Bukit Cawah, surveyed. The various parties who were in possession of the hills are also identified.

A letter from Willaim Farquhar to Lt. Jackson making a request to have the identified hills, including Bukit Selegie and Bukit Cawah, surveyed. The various parties who were in possession of the hills are also identified.

By 1839, Prinsep’s estate had apparently been quite well established. Mention of the estate, and more importantly the three hills by name, is made in a published account of a visit paid by the crew of the United States frigate Columbia, to the estate. The Columbia, on a well documented round the world voyage, made a stopover in Singapore in February 1839. The accounts of the voyage were to be published in two volumes in 1840. On the visit to the states, the account states:

The first of these estates, that of Mr. Princeps, who resides in Calcutta, is laid out with excellent taste upon beautiful grounds. It occupies about two hundred and fifty acres, including three lovely hills, Mount Sophia, Mount Caroline and Mount Emily, each surmounted by a neat bungalow, from which avenues radiate and intersect all over the plantation.

When we were there, the superintendent, who politely show us every part and answered our inquiries, informed us that they had already planted four thousand nutmeg trees; twenty thousand coffee shrubs; two hundred orange trees; two hundred clove trees; and one hundred and fifty areka trees, besides a few of many other kinds.

– “Around the World: A Narrative of a Voyage in the East India Squadron under Commodore George C. Read”, Volume 2, 1840, Page 143.

The extent of the Prinsep Estate, seen in an 1870 map.

The extent of the Prinsep Estate, seen in an 1870 map. The 106 acres bought for Government House, is marked as “New Government Property”.

This account discounts that possibility of the hills being named after Prinsep’s daughters. The first, Sophia Catherine, only came into the world three years after the visit, in 1842. To add to the improbability of this, Prinsep, who married Louisa Anne White in 1837, was to have three other daughters, none of whom had the name Caroline. His other daughters were Annie Mary (b. 1848), Louisa Sophia (b. 1851), and Mary Emily (b. 1853). The account. plus the fact that Mount Sophia is mentioned as early as 1831, also puts paid to the suggestions concerning both Ms Cooke and Ms Blackmore.

Mary Emily Prinsep (Julia Margaret Cameron, photograph,1866). Could she have been the Emily in Mount Emily?

Mary Emily Prinsep (Julia Margaret Cameron, photograph,1866). Probably not the Emily in Mount Emily.

Further investigation does however throw up the possibility of a different set of sisters in the Prinsep family who are behind the names. Charles Robert, it turns out, had three sisters who coincidentally, were named Sophia, Caroline and Amelia (affectionately known as Emily). There is every likelihood that it was this set of sisters, who had been born before Charles Robert’s plantation came into being, lending their names to the hills. It could also have been the case that Prinsep, on finding that one of the hills had already carried the name of one of his sisters, had decided to follow on, naming the other two main hills of his estate after his other sisters. This is perhaps less likely as the report of 1831 tells us that the name Flint’s Hill for Bukit Selegie was very much still use three years after his unfortunate demise in 1828. Incidentally, there is also a less significant hill in the estate, Mount Louisa. This appears in some maps as Lock’s Hill and it is probable that the Louisa in the name is  that of Prinsep’s wife.

Nutmeg plantations in Singapore, mid 1800s..

Nutmeg plantations in Singapore, mid 1800s..

Prinsep’s plantation was to go the way of the island’s other nutmeg plantations. Despite thriving initially, disease was to dent the ambitions that the plantation owners held. By the time Prinsep had the lease on his estate extended in 1859, nutmeg as a crop had already been wiped out. This was to pave the way for the next phase of the development on the hills, one that saw it becoming an estate for the very well-heeled.

A sketch of a young Charles Robert Prinsep by his sister Emily, 1824.

A sketch of a young Charles Robert Prinsep by his sister Emily, 1824.

Sophia Charlotte Haldimand (née Prinsep) - another sketch by Emily Prinsep. Could she be the Sophia in Mount Sophia?

Sophia Charlotte Haldimand (née Prinsep) – another sketch by Emily Prinsep. Could she be the Sophia in Mount Sophia?

The estate was put up for sale in 1859 into the early 1860s, the evidence being advertisements placed in the newspapers. The sale in parts of the estate was allowed for and a familiar name in that of Mr (Lawrence) Niven features in the advertisements. Niven, after whom Niven Road at the foot of Mount Emily was named, is perhaps more well known for his efforts setting up of Singapore’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Singapore Botanical Gardens, as its very first superintendent. He had been the superintendent of Prinsep’s nutmeg estate prior to his appointment to the Botanical Gardens position and must have held both appointments concurrently at some point in time.

For Sale

In the immediate neighbourhood of the town of Singapore, the very desirable property of C. R. Prinsep, Esquire, lying between the Orchard and Bukit Timah Roads, consisting of Hills and Low grounds daily increasing in value.

This lands may be sold in lots to suit purchasers and all further particulars may be learned from Mr Niven, the Superintendent of the Estate or Messrto to be & Co.

Singapore, 13th April, 1859.

Well documented is the sale in 1867 of 106 acres of the western section of the estate,, covering Mount Caroline and Mount Louisa, to the Governor, Sir Harry St. George Ord. This was for a new Government House (now the Istana) to be erected. The placement of the fort on the original Government Hill, Bukit Larangan,  had displaced the Governor’s residence. The new Government House on the top of Mount Caroline was completed in 1869. Mount Caroline had in fact been identified in the 1850s by Army Engineer Captain George Chancellor Collyer, as a possible location to move Government House to. This came with the recommendations he made a 1858 report to fortify Bukit Larangan. Mount Caroline, was described by Collyer, as the “most commanding spot on the island”. Together with Government House, the Colonial Secretary’s residence (now Sri Temasek), was also completed at the same time at Mount Louisa.

A photograph of Government House perched on Mount Caroline in the 1880s, seen from Fort Canning. Mount Sophia is in the background on the left.

A photograph of Government House perched on Mount Caroline in the 1880s, seen from Fort Canning. Mount Sophia is in the background on the left.

The remaining parts of Mount Sophia and Mount Emily were to be subdivided and sold. Their elevation, and prime location in the vicinity of the heart of the thriving municipality, made the plots being offered a very attractive prospect. It did not take long before the exclusive neighbourhood that was to boast some of the grandest residences to be seen on the island, started to take shape and by the 1880s, several large residences occupied prime positions across the twin peaks.

An 1881 map showing the tops of the hills of the former Prinsep estate populated by newly built residences.

An 1881 map showing the tops of the hills of the former Prinsep estate populated by newly built residences.

A view across Mount Sophia towards Mount Caroline and Government House. The building in the foreground is Olson Building - the only one of the buildings of the former Methodist Girls School that is being conserved.

A view across Mount Sophia towards Mount Caroline and Government House. The building in the foreground is Olson Building – the only one of the buildings of the former Methodist Girls School that is being conserved.

There is little doubt that one had to be someone of means to move up to the hills, which would have been most accessible by horse and carriage. One of the first grand residences to secure a footing on the hills would have been Carrington House around 1873. Little is known about the house except for the fact that a panther was cornered and shot in it sometime in December 1883. The very brave man credited with making the killing, Mr Maurice Drummond, apparently received a reward of $25 for his troubles.

Carrington House, as seen from Osborne House, 1880.

Carrington House, as seen from Osborne House, 1880.

Carrington House, we can see from the 1880 photograph, found a perch in quite a prominent location on the slopes of Mount Sophia. One can only imagine the views it must have offered in days when one’s gaze could be cast across the settlement for as far as the eye could see. It is no wonder that two of the grandest mansions Singapore has seen were to be built on its site. Carrington House was to be replaced by the ostentatious Adis Lodge and then an even grander Eu Villa. It is in the days of Eu Villa that were are able to get an appreciation of what the view must have been like from a 1936 Straits Times article:

From Eu Villa the view on three sides, out over the harbour and away to Keppel Hatbour on one side and Katong on the other, is simply breathtaking, especially in the evening when the city takes on an indefinite soft and delicate colouring. This is not the highest point on the hill, but, because the house juts out with no encumbrance on either side, the view is better than on the actual brow of the hill above Eu Villa … it is a magical place to be on a moonlight night, overlooking the lights of the city and the junk anchorage.

– The Straits Times, 10 May 1936

Eu Villa and the view from it.

Eu Villa and the view from it.

A view over Mount Sophia towards the harbour c. late 1940s. Eu Villa can be seen in the lower left part of the photograph.

A view over Mount Sophia towards the harbour c. late 1940s. Eu Villa can be seen in the lower left part of the photograph. Cathay building, which came up in the late 1930s, Singapore’s “first skyscraper”  was the first tall building to block the view one got from the top of the hill.

Adis Lodge, which came up in 1907, was built by Nissim Nissim Adis. Adis was the proprietor of very grand Grand Hotel de L’Europe at the corner of St. Andrew’s Road and High Street, the location today of the old Supreme Court wing of the National Gallery. It was after him that Adis Road on Mount Sophia was named. Opulently furnished and decorated, Adis Lodge carried the reputation of being one of the “most magnificent of mansions east of the Suez”. It did not last long however. It was sold to the “king of tin” Eu Tong Sen in 1912. Eu had the lodge replace in 1915 with Eu Villa. Eu Villa, which had a fairy tale like quality, survived for quite a bit longer. It was sold in 1973 for S$8.19 million and was only demolished in the early 1980s.

Adis Lodge in 1908.

Adis Lodge in 1908.

Mount Sophia was also a name that was synonymous with the Methodist Mission and Methodist Girls’ School (MGS). The Methodist presence took root in the 1890s with its purchase of several of the grand houses at the top of the hill. Methodist Girls’ School, which started as a Tamil girls’ school in a shophouse on Short Street, made a move up the hill in 1925, staying until 1992. It wasn’t the first school to be established on the hill. That would have been St. Margaret’s whose presence on the hill as Chinese Girls’ School goes back to 1861.

Wesley House, at No. 5 Mount Sophia, which was acquired by the Methodist Mission in 1894.

The Methodist Girls School complex, used as a centre for the arts while awaiting redevelopment.

The former Methodist Girls School complex, used as a centre for the arts in 2010 while awaiting redevelopment.

On the other peak, Mount Emily, its rather flat and elongated top must have made it a perfect spot to play host to a service reservoir. One was put there in the late 1870s to supply treated water to the municipality. It was to be made redundant by the much larger Fort Canning Reservoir in 1929. The reservoir was then turned into Singapore’s first public swimming pool around which the beautifully set Mount Emily Park was established. The pool opened in 1931 and was in use until the early 1980s with it serving as the setting for the qualification of Singapore’s very first woman lifeguard, Miss Ann Tay, in February 1952.

Lambert Mount Emily

A G R Lambert photograph of the reservoir on top of Mount Emily taken from Osborne House.

A large residence, humble by the standards of Eu Villa or Adis Lodge, Osborne House, made its appearance near the top of Mount Emily about the same time the reservoir was completed. The house does have its fair share of stories. Perched on a part of the hill that could be seen from Middle Road, it served for a while as a symbol to the sizeable pre-war Japanese community who were centered on Middle Road (Chuo Dori to the community) as the Japanese consulate. There also seems a connection to the Sultan of Siak. More about Osborne House’s rather intriguing past can be found in an earlier post, A Last Reminder of an Old-fashioned Corner of Singapore.

Middle Road when it would have been referred to as Chuo Dori in the 1930s. Osborne House which was to serve as the Japanese Consulate from 1939 to 1941 can be seen atop Mount Emily at the end of the street.

Middle Road when it would have been referred to as Chuo Dori in the 1930s. Osborne House which was to serve as the Japanese Consulate from 1939 to 1941 can be seen atop Mount Emily at the end of the street.

Osborne House today, known to us now as "Emily Hill".

Osborne House today, known to us now as “Emily Hill”.

Farquhar’s “Hills of Babylon”, Mount Emily and neighbouring Mount Sophia, have a very different beast now to contend with these days. Much of the magic that motivated the construction of residences such as Adis Lodge and Eu Villa has sadly, long been lost, taken away by the wall of glass, steel and concrete that now surrounds much of the hills. The “trees” of the new estate are ones that are mostly grey. The yields they give is gold that is of great value in the concrete plantation that much of Singapore has become.

Tower House at the top of the southern slop of Mount Sophia. A wall of concrete, glass and still has obscured part of the view it once commanded.

Tower House at the top of the southern slope of Mount Sophia. A wall of concrete, glass and still has obscured part of the view it once commanded.

On the hill tops are but a few survivors of the high life, one Tower House on Mount Sophia is a conserved structure. The future of Osborne House on Mount Emily, is much less certain and it may be a matter of time before it and the many connections it has with an especially interesting past are forever lost.

The wall around Mount Sophia seen from Prinsep Street.

The wall around Mount Sophia seen from Prinsep Street. Flint’s house may have been located in the area now blocked by the School of the Arts (SOTA).

Walls of concrete, glass and steel around Mount Emily.

Walls of concrete, glass and steel around Mount Emily. The roofs of Olson Building and Tower House at the top of Mount Sophia at the upper left part of the photograph can barely be seen. Mount Emily is in the centre of the photo and Mount Caroline on the extreme right.


Notes:


Published in “Natural History Drawings: The Complete William Farquhar Collection, Malay Peninusla 1803-1818”.


“The Orang Suku Laut of Riau, Indonesia: The inalienable gift of territory”.


The Ellison Building at the foot of one of the three sisters, Mount Emily

A report in this morning’s edition of the Straits Times reveals that part of the Ellison Building, a very distinctive conserved building at the corner of Selegie Road and Bukit Timah Road near the foot of Mount Emily, will be demolished and reconstructed due to the construction of the North-South Corridor. The part that will be affected is along Bukit Timah Road with units 235, 237 and 239 to be demolished. This follows on an earlier report in the Chinese language Lianhe Zaobao article on 7 August 2016 that first broke the news of the building being affected. In the earlier report, it was mentioned that only “part of the (building’s) façade” would be affected. The Ellisons, Issac and Flora, had their home at 87 Wilkie Road, another of the grand residences that found their way on the slopes of Mounts Sophia and Emily. The residence, was demolished in the 1980s and a multi-storey residential development was put in its place and the Ellison Building is what’s left to remember them.

A view over the Selegie Road and Bukit Timah Road junction with the part of the Ellison Building (the curved building in the lower right) that will be affected facing the viewer.

A view over the Selegie Road and Bukit Timah Road junction with the part of the Ellison Building (the curved building in the lower right) that will be affected facing the viewer.

Incidentally, the entrance to the upper level one of the units being affected, 237, is where one find the words “I. Ellison” or Issac Ellsion – the man who had the building constructed, on a sign above it. This makes the demolition of this part of the building, even if it is to be reconstructed, even more tragic.

The five-foot-way of the Ellison Building where one of the units that will be demolished and then reconstructed, No. 237. A sign on top of the gateway is marked with "I. Ellison" or Issac Ellison - the man who had the building constructed.

The five-foot-way of the Ellison Building where one of the units that will be demolished and then reconstructed, No. 237. A sign on top of the gateway is marked with “I. Ellison” or Issac Ellison – the man who had the building constructed.


 





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.

Soonstead Mansion in Penang.

Soonstead Mansion 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 magazine under Talbot’s Hill

7 02 2015

An area of Singapore that still has much history buried under it is the area where the former British Naval Base was. Under parts of the former base, which covered an area stretching from the Causeway in Woodlands to what is today Sembawang Park, lies several underground structures, one of which is a the so-called Attap Valley bunker that has recently been brought to light.

The entrance to the Attap Valley bunker.

The entrance to the Attap Valley bunker below Talbot’s Hill.

Worshipping a new religion? Participants on a heritage tour to the site examining part of a ventilation system.

Worshipping a new religion? Participants on a heritage tour to the site examining part of a ventilation system.

The bunker, opened to the public for the first time today, is the last surviving structure of an armament depot constructed by the British within the huge Naval Base in the Talbot’s Hill and Attap Valley area. A ammunition and armament storage magazine, specifically Magazine No. 4, it was one of seven other bomb-proof magazines that were built into Talbot’s Hill by the British before 1942.

An extract of a 1945 map of the Naval Base showing the area and the layout of the ammunition depot, including the seven magazines under Talbot's Hill.

An extract of a 1945 map of the Naval Base showing the area and the layout of the ammunition depot, including the seven magazines under Talbot’s Hill (click to enlarge).

The National Heritage Board (NHB), which has been studying the site since April 2014, has also established with the help of a 1945 map of the Naval Base, that the magazines were part of a network of eighteen bunkers, warehouses and workshops spread over the Attap Valley site, that formed the Royal Naval Armament Depot.

The tour group being led into the bunker.

The tour group being led into the bunker.

The passage to the storage area.

The passage to the storage area.

Evidence points to the magazine, which is the size of two 5-room HDB flats, being used by the Japanese during the occupation – a cache of Japanese weapons and ammunition was found by MINDEF when they used the site for the Sembawang Ammunition Depot.

The storage area where  corrugated ceiling reinforcements can be seen along with a gantry hoist.

The storage area where corrugated ceiling reinforcements can be seen along with a gantry hoist.

What appears to be a light fitting from the time of the bunker's construction.

What appears to be a light fitting from the time of the bunker’s construction mounted on the ceiling.

According to NHB, part of the floor of the bunker, now a mess of mud and water, would have had rail tracks running over them to allow the ammunition to be moved in and out, accounting for the rusty colour of the mud and water in the bunker. While there is nothing left of the tracks to be found, there are several fixtures and fittings that might have originally been there at the time of its completion. This includes vents from an all important ventilation system, light fixtures, and pipes. A travelling gantry hoist, complete with a sign giving its Safe Working Load rating, can be seen in the inner chamber where the ammunition would have been stored. Access into the inner chamber is via a curved passageway designed so as explosions could be contained.

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Talbot’s Hill and the surviving magazine under it now lies well within a fenced up area of land, which was returned to the State by  MINDEF when the depot was decommissioned in 2002. Access to it is only via the NHB tours, being organised as part of a Battle of Singapore commemoration that coincides with the 73 anniversary of the Fall of Singapore and also the 70 anniversary of the liberation in September 1945. More information on this, including the Case Files from the Singapore War Crimes Tribunal Exhibition scheduled to open next week at the National Museum of Singapore, can be found at the NHB website.

More photographs of the bunker and its surroundings

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Postscript
An account relating to the last days of the Royal Naval Armament Depot before the Fall of Singapore: A Singapore Story – 1942.


 





Fragments of the old tiong

13 01 2015

In a Singapore where we seem to be fond of displacing both the living and the dead, it always is a nice surprise when bits and pieces of the displace turn up in a space whose use has evolved. A recent set of such discoveries on the grounds of the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) was made by Singapore’s foremost tomb hunters, Raymond and Charles Goh; discoveries that connect the land on which much is now done to aid the preservation of life, with a time when it served as a place where those whose life had passed were put to rest.

A recent discovery on the grounds of SGH.

A recent discovery on the grounds of SGH.

The elevated grounds of SGH, made it an obvious choice for a institution for treatment and convalescence; having been identified as “high and dry”, “admitting of easy drainage” and “open to all prevailing breezes”. And, it was where the General Hospital and also a Lunatic Asylum was moved to in the 1880s.

Participants on the trail negotiating the slopes of Tiong Lama.

Participants on the trail negotiating the slopes of Tiong Lama.

The terrain around the site, described by a 1875 Municipal Engineer’s Office report as one of undulating hills of clay and laterite, also made it a choice location as a Chinese burial site, 29 acres (about 12 ha.) of which had initially played host to a Hokkien cemetery, one of the first Chinese graveyards in Singapore, that came to be known as Tiong (or Teong) Lama. The report also stated that what it described as a well kept site, had been closed for 16 years and had “its joss-house and priests”.

A fragment of the past  found on the hills of Tiong Lama.

Another fragment of the past found on the hills of Tiong Lama.

The “old cemetery”, as tiong lama, a combination of Hokkien in the “tiong” (cemetery) and Malay in the “lama” (old), translates into; had by the time of the report been supplemented by a new cemetery to its east, referred to as “Tiong Bahru”, a name that now brings to mind its offerings for the living rather than ones intended for its early occupants.

A head stone of the grave of a member of the Khoo clan from 1842.

A head stone of the grave of a member of the Khoo clan from 1842.

I was to find out more of the Gohs’ discoveries during a walk organised by the Tiong Bahru Heritage volunteers that the brothers led over the weekend; discoveries that might perhaps have made the visits to hospital grounds, of which I made many as a child to see a relation in the nursing profession living in the nurses’ quarters, a little spicier.

Raymond speaking to the participants of the walk, with Charles looking on in the background.

On the eternal slope: Raymond speaking to the participants of the walk, with Charles looking on in the background.

Just a stone’s throw from one of the quarters, which I realise was very recently pulled down, is the area once referred to as Eternal Hill, Heng San (恆山). At the foot of its slope, which a stretch of Hospital Drive (previously a section of Silat Avenue) runs through down to Jalan Bukit Merah, stood the Heng San Teng (恆山亭).

Heng San Teng before its destruction (National Archives of Singapore).

The temple, founded in 1828, was the focal point for the Hokkien immigrant community in Singapore prior to the Thian Hock Keng assuming the role, and stood watch over the cemetery. The historic temple was destroyed by a 1992 fire, well after the cemetery was exhumed in the early 1900s. All that has survived, are a few pieces of the cemetery, discovered by the brothers, that have somehow been left behind.

Heng Sua today.

Eternal Hill today, eternising life.

Of the remnants of Tiong Lama, one is a head stone belonging to the grave of a lady from the Khoo clan that dates back to 1842. It now lies on a part of the slope, close to evidence of a more recent activity that took place on the slope: rectangular troughs of brick and cement. These, as confirmed by an ex-resident of the area, were water troughs used by an Indian dhobi, who took on laundry work provided by the hospital. A few blocks of concrete can also be found on a terrace just above the troughs which the ex-resident said were used to support laundry drying poles.

The troughs used by dhobis and a broken piece of relief from a grave.

The troughs used by dhobi, with a broken piece of relief that would have been from a former grave.

The loose headstone.

The loose headstone on the slope.

What is perhaps also interesting, is a curious little shrine against one of the trees lining the road. Painted in red, it bears the Chinese characters 黃姑娘 in gold, which Mandarin-ised, reads as Huang Ku Niang, reputedly a resident of a nearby village who had lived around the turn of the last century. Miss Huang or Ng, as she would have been known in Hokkien, had been a cleaner turned nurse, who had received her training from a doctor at the General Hospital. Her dedication to saving lives had apparently extended beyond her hospital duties and whilst attempting to rescue a fellow villager from a fire, the house she was in collapsed on her, ending her life prematurely.

The shrine to Huang Ku Niang.

The shrine to Huang Ku Niang.

Huang Ku Niang’s dedication seems to have also extended into the afterlife. Her spirit has often been sighted roaming the area of the slope, seeking to further her cruelly interrupted mission. Many afflicted with illnesses, offer a prayer at her shrine. The deitised Huang Ku Niang is reputed to have the ability to deliver her devotees, from their ailments.

The slope where the dhobi operated. Concrete blocks used to support laundry drying poles can be seen on the upper terrace.

The slope where the dhobi operated. Concrete blocks used to support laundry drying poles can be seen on the upper terrace.

From Hospital Drive, the walk continued east down Jalan Bukit Merah, to the slope where the old tiong met the new tiong. The area is close to where towering blocks of the newest additions an urbanised Tiong Bahru are now coming up, in stark contrast to an area of seemingly dense vegetation separating it from the hospital. In part of the green area, recently cleared of its trees, is the area where a cluster of uncleared graves from the second half of the 1800s, were also recently discovered by the Gohs.

An area of dense vegetation at the edge of the hospital's grounds.

An area of dense vegetation at the edge of the hospital’s grounds.

The graves, four of which are marked by simple single head stones (two of which has fallen) placed from the 1860s to 1878 (more information can be found in this link), also includes one that still lies hidden in the trees. The latter has a more elaborate structure bearing a closer resemblance to the Chinese graves we see today, and dates back to the 1890s. The graves are the remnants of a burial site belonging to the Chua clan, occupying a private strip of land sandwiched between Tiong Bahru and Tiong Lama that would have been referred to as Seh Chua Sua.

The first of the Chua graves.

The first of the Chua graves from the 1860s.

The second from 1872.

The second from 1872.

Raymond Goh showing how he uses flour to bring out the faint inscriptions on the third headstone.

Raymond Goh showing how he uses flour to bring out the faint inscriptions on the third headstone.

The flour enhanced inscriptions.

The flour enhanced inscriptions.

A fourth grave.

A fourth grave.

The Chua grave hidden in the trees.

The Chua grave hidden in the trees.

A tablet marking the altar to the earth deity placed next to the last grave.

A tablet marking the altar to the earth deity placed next to the last grave.

A fragment of the past.

One half of a pair of lion guards that has somehow merged into root of a tree.

Close by is one further discovery unrelated to the burial site made by the Gohs – a wall that is thought to have been the perimeter wall of the Lunatic Asylum that would have been built in 1887, part of which has recently been removed. What would have once been a wall that towered three metres high, it is only a section of the top of it that can now be seen.

What's left of the wall of teh Lunatic Asylum.

What’s left of the wall of the Lunatic Asylum.

Part of the wall lies partially hidden by the dense vegetation.

Part of the wall lies partially hidden by the dense vegetation.

Across Jalan Bukit Merah from the site of the Lunatic Asylum is Silat Estate, where Kampong Silat also known as Ku Ah Sua (龟仔山) – the village that Huang Ku Niang had apparently hailed from, was sited. A hillock, which gave the village its Hokkien name, which translates into Little Tortise Hill, was where the walk was to end.

Tai Yeong Kong on Ku Ah Sua.

Tai Yeong Kong on Ku Ah Sua.

Inside the Tai Yeong Kong.

Inside the Tai Yeong Kong.

Nestled on the hillock are two temples that connect the hill to the now missing village. Lying now in the shadow of a block of HDB flats, the hill is dominated by the yellow structure of the Tai Yeong Kong (太阳宫). Dedicated to the sun god, the syncretic temple is housed in part in a structure that resembles a beach side villa from the early 20th century. Within the temple, devotion extends beyond the Taoist deities, to a Hindu god along with ancestral deities and several images of bodhisattvas.

Inside the Tai Yeong Kong - a reminder of an old world.

Inside the Tai Yeong Kong – a reminder of an old world.

The dragon deity under the main altar.

The dragon deity under the main altar.

Ancestral tablets and deities, including one with a neck tie.

Ancestral tablets and deities, including one with a neck tie.

A Hindu deity outside the temple.

A tantric deity outside the temple.

The other temple on the hill, Chia Leng Kong (正龙宫), the main deity of which is the god of the North Star, Xuan Tian Shang Di (玄天上帝), actually sees several Taoist temples associated with Ku Ah Sua merged into one. The temples operate on Temporary Occupation Licenses on land that belongs to the Housing and Development Board and it may be possible that the links they have long provided to the area’s past, may in the future, be broken.

Xuan Tian Shang Di.

Xuan Tian Shang Di.

The crest of the little tortoise hill where a cemetery once existed.

The crest of the little tortoise hill where a cemetery once existed.

Extract of a 1920 map. The extent of the burial grounds at Tiong Bahru and Tiong Lama can be seen. The location of Heng San Teng is marked as "Temple" on the lower right of the map as is the Lunatic Asylum, which is seen in its vicinity.

Extract of a 1920 map. The extent of the burial grounds at Tiong Bahru and Tiong Lama can be seen. On the map is the Heng San Teng location, marked as “Temple” on the lower right. The Lunatic Asylum can also be seen in its vicinity.





All at sea

24 07 2014

The launch on Saturday of Singapore HeritageFest 2014, bring us to focus on one of the key reasons for Singapore’s being, the sea. This year’s festival much of which revolves around a maritime based theme, “Our Islands, Our Home” has us looking at our maritime past as well as our present as a maritime nation.

HeritageFest 2014 opens a window to Singapore's island heritage.

HeritageFest 2014 opens a window to Singapore’s island heritage.

It is to raise the profile of this heritage, one that goes back to times well before the arrival of Raffles, that is in fact what the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) and the National Heritage Board (NHB) hopes to achieve with the establishment of the S$500,000 Maritime Heritage Fund, which the two agencies will administer – for which a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by the two agencies at Saturday’s launch.

One of the highlights of this year's HeritageFest is a lighthouse trail that includes a stop on Pulau Satumu, Singapore's southernmost island, on top of which Raffles' Lighthouse is perched.

One of the highlights of this year’s HeritageFest is a lighthouse trail that includes a stop on Pulau Satumu, Singapore’s southernmost island, on top of which Raffles’ Lighthouse is perched.

Once a common scene in the waters off the Southern Islands. Boats such as the kolek on the right, are very much part of our maritime heritage (a similar kolek is on display at the Balik Pulau Exhibition at the National Museum).

Once a common scene in the waters off the Southern Islands. Boats such as the kolek on the right, are very much part of our maritime heritage (a similar kolek is on display at the Balik Pulau Exhibition at the National Museum).

The focus of the fund, which complements the NHB’s S$5 million Heritage Grant Scheme launched last year, will be on developing community-initiated projects related to Singapore’s maritime heritage that will promote a greater understanding and appreciation of Singapore’s maritime connections, as was touched on by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Community, Culture and Youth, in his speech at the festival’s launch.

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of NHB launching Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of NHB launching Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Mr Wong also spoke of the transformation that will soon take place at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), where the launch event was held. Besides a revamp of the museum with expanded galleries that will include a space allocated for the Tang Cargo and see new shops and dining outlets, the museum will be given a new entrance that will open it up to the river and give it a direct connection into the historic heart of Singapore.

Another lighthouse - the very pretty Sultan Shoal Lighthouse at the western extremities of Singapore's waters seen during the lighthouse trail as part of Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Another lighthouse – the very pretty Sultan Shoal Lighthouse at the western extremities of Singapore’s waters seen during the lighthouse trail as part of Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

The revamp is part of the ongoing effort to develop a civic and cultural belt around Singapore’s colonial civic district (see: The Old Vic’s ticking again) that involves also the newly refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, and the conversion of the Old Supreme Court and City Hall into National Gallery – due for completion in 2015.

The Old Vic's definitely back!

The newly refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall.

A cultural performance at the launch of Singapore HeritageFest2014.

A cultural performance at the launch of Singapore HeritageFest2014.

The launch also coincided with the first evening of a two-night series of programmes taking place around the ACM and the river, River Nights. The event, brought much life and colour to the river, and celebrated its changing identity over the years – in the same way the well received series of activities  for Singapore HeritageFest 2014 celebrates the islands.

A dragon dance performance at the start of River Nights at the ACM's front lawn.

A dragon dance performance at the start of River Nights at the ACM’s front lawn.

More information on the Maritime Heritage Fund, Singapore HeritageFest 2014, River Nights and on Balik Pulau: Stories from Singapore’s Islands (an exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore held in conjunction with HeritageFest 2014) can be found in the following links:





A return to our islands in the sun

27 06 2014

Balik Pulau: Stories from Singapore’s Islands, as the name of the exhibition currently on at the National Museum of Singapore does suggest, takes us back to the islands of Singapore. Many of more than 70 island had once been inhabited – with communities that numbered from the hundreds to the thousands who were moved to the main island as part of redevelopment efforts. These communities were not just a well forgotten part of Singapore’s history, but also of the culture and history of a wider society that existed well before the coming of the British that was spread across the Riau Archipelago.

Lazarus and St. John's Islands (Pulau Sekijang Pelepah and Pulau Sekijang Bendara), two islands, now joined by a causeway that were once inhabited.

Lazarus and St. John’s Islands (Pulau Sekijang Pelepah and Pulau Sekijang Bendara), two islands, now joined by a causeway that were once inhabited.

An old postcard showing Kusu Island before reclamation.

An old postcard showing Kusu Island before reclamation.

The exhibition, curated by Marcus Ng and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, revisits life as it was and now hard to imagine on several of the inhabited islands through a mix of artefacts of island life, archival images, and most interestingly, the experience of island life told through video interviews with some of the islands’ former inhabitants. One interview that I did find particularly interesting was that of a former resident of Pulau Seking (or Sakeng) – the last of the southern islands to be inhabited with its residents having been resettled as recently as 1994, the very emotional Mr Teo Yan Teck. The interview see Mr Teo, who have lived on the island for close to four decades, talk about how he came to settle on the island, the emotions he felt when told he had to leave and also of the burning of boats by the islanders before they were to leave the island and a way of life they were used to, for good.

A highlight of Balik Pulau is the video interviews with some of the islands' former residents.

A highlight of Balik Pulau is the video interviews with some of the islands’ former residents.

A kolek sauh from Pulau Seraya at the exhibition - boats were an integral part of island life and featured in races the islands played host to.

A kolek sauh from Pulau Seraya at the exhibition – boats were an integral part of island life and featured in races the islands played host to.

Mr Teo, when asked about how he felt about leaving the island.

Mr Teo, when asked about how he felt about leaving the island.

The fascinating exhibition, which runs until 10 August 2014, will also play an important part as a hub one of the focal points for the upcoming Singapore Heritage Festival (SHS). Now in its 11th edition, the SHS, the theme of which this year will be Our Islands, Our Home, will run from 18 to 27 July 2014 and sees over 60 programmes available for the participation of the public, put up with the help of 40 community groups, individuals and partners with the aim of drawing Singaporeans to connect with their shared history and heritage.

The festival offers an opportunity to explore some of the southern islands through excursions.

The festival this year offers an opportunity to explore some of the southern islands through excursions.

A sandy beach at Pulau Seringat - an enlarged island which incorporates the former reef island of Pulau Renggit.

A sandy beach at Pulau Seringat – an enlarged island which incorporates the former reef island of Pulau Renggit.

The sisters.

The sisters.

St. John's Island.

St. John’s Island.

Pulau Tekukor or Dove Island - hear stories of its past when it was known as Pulau Penyabong and its association with the origins of the former name of Sentosa, Pulau Blakang Mati.

Pulau Tekukor or Dove Island – hear stories of its past when it was known as Pulau Penyabong and its association with the origins of the former name of Sentosa, Pulau Blakang Mati.

Kusu Island today.

An enlarged Kusu Island today.

The highlight of this year’s SHS has to be without a doubt the opportunity it provides to reconnect with the islands, not just through the exhibition and through a series of talks that are being lined up, but also through an immersive experience that guided excursions to the islands will certainly provide. The excursions will include visits to St. John’s, Lazarus and Seringat Islands; a rare opportunity to visit one of Singapore’s lighthouses (Raffles Lighthouse) and have a look from the boat at another (Sultan Shoal); and a night of Nanyin at Kusu Island.  Space for the excursions will be limited and sign-ups will be possible from 1 July 2014 at www.heritagefest.sg. More information on the SHS is also available at www.heritagefest.sg and information on the exhibition at http://www.nationalmuseum.sg/.

The Tua Pek Kong temple on Kusu Island, the site of an annual pilgrimage.

The Tua Pek Kong temple on Kusu Island, the site of an annual pilgrimage.

The temple also sees Nanyin performances by the Siong Leng Musical Association during the ninth lunar month and will by special arrangement host a night of nanyin that sees young musicians performing an traditional music form.

The temple also sees Nanyin performances by the Siong Leng Musical Association during the ninth lunar month and will by special arrangement host a night of nanyin that sees young musicians performing an traditional music form.

Another look at the Tua Pek Kong Temple.

Another look at the Tua Pek Kong Temple.

Besides the temple, the Keramats, graves of Malay saints that are venerated, are also visited by devotees.

Besides the temple, the Keramats, graves of Malay saints that are venerated, are also visited by devotees.

Another look at two of the keramats.

Another look at two of the keramats.

 





Lost places: The shrine across the Divine Bridge

7 04 2014

The Japanese couldn’t have picked a more divine setting in Singapore for the Syonan Jinja (昭南神社), the Light of the South Shrine that was to be the grandest of Shinto shirnes erected in the southern reaches of the empire. Even today, despite its site having been reclaimed by the forest , it is not difficult to find the beauty and peace the site was chosen for, in an area that even today does seem far removed from the urban world.

The site of the Syonan Jinja where remnants of what was once South-East Asia's  leading Japanese Shinto shrine is today an eerie yet peaceful spot. What is seen in the photograph is one of the more visible remnants, a sacred granite water trough for ritual purification.

The site of the Syonan Jinja where remnants of what was once South-East Asia’s leading Japanese Shinto shrine is today an eerie yet peaceful spot. What is seen in the photograph is one of the more visible remnants, a sacred granite water trough for ritual purification.

A worship ceremony involving Japanese troops at the opening of the Syonan Jinja in 1943 (source: http://www.himoji.jp/himoji/database/db04/images_db_ori/2200.jpg).

A worship ceremony involving Japanese troops at the opening of the Syonan Jinja in 1943 (source: http://www.himoji.jp/himoji/database/db04/images_db_ori/2200.jpg).

The shrine, built with labour provided by the Allied prisoners-of-war (POW), was one of several that came up in Singapore during the Japanese occupation. One of two of the more notable shrines – another was the Syonan Chureito on Bukit Batok, the Syonan Jinja stood on a slope of a hill that rose from the water’s edge around the western reaches of MacRitchie Reservoir, across a what from the evidence presented in photographs of it, was a beautifully crafted bridge, known as the Divine Bridge.

The Torii Gate at the bottom of the stairway leading up to the Syonan Jinja seen in 1943 (Showa History Vol. 10: Pacific War Breaks Out、Mainichi Newspapers Company, uploaded to http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3d/Shonan_Shrine.jpg).

The Torii Gate at the bottom of the stairway leading up to the Syonan Jinja as seen in 1943 with the Divine Bridge in the background (source: Mainichi Newspapers Company, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3d/Shonan_Shrine.jpg).

The shrine and its site and the grand plans for it, which was opened to commemorate the first anniversary of the fall of Singapore in 1943, have been described in the National Library’s infopedia page on the shrine:

a beautiful wooden structure that featured the clean, simple lines of classic Japanese architecture. It was built on a raised stone platform and it had a large granite ceremonial fountain for ritual purification. The surrounding area was designed to be a Japanese garden with gentle pebbled streams, stone lanterns, a stone-stepped path, small torii gates (traditional Japanese gates commonly found at the entrance of Shinto shrines), and landscaping featuring native and imported plants. Four to five tonnes of pebbles were imported from Borneo for this project, while religious artifacts and certain plants were sourced from Japan. The wood used for the shrine, however, was from Singapore”

The area around the shrine was to be transformed into a 1,000-acre park with public recreational and sporting facilities. These facilities were to include gardens, promenades, playgrounds and a lake for fishing and boating. The proposed sports compound was to feature a stadium, a swimming pool, wrestling arenas and public bandstands, and would be a possible venue for the Greater East Asiatic Olympic Games envisioned by the Japanese. The planners also declared that a new city would develop with the Syonan Jinja at its centre

General Yamashita and Japanese troops crossing the Divine Bridge at the opening of the shirne (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_207.jpg).

General Yamashita and Japanese troops crossing the Divine Bridge at the opening of the shirne (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_207.jpg).

What remains of the Divine Bridge today - wooden stumps in the water that were part of the columns that supported the bridge.

What remains of the Divine Bridge today – wooden stumps in the water that were part of the columns that supported the bridge.

Little today is left for us to see of what it might once have been – wooden stumps, only visible when the reservoir’s water levels are low enough, tell of of the location of the Divine Bridge and where the Torii gate and the stairway up to the shrine would have been. Across the reservoir, it is through the thick undergrowth of the secondary forest that has reclaimed the area, that one finds the flight of stairs, rising first to a terrace on which a water trough hewn out of a block of granite still stands. The trough would have served to hold water for the ritual purification asked of visitors to the shrine.

A concrete retaining wall around the terrace on which the trough is found.

A retaining wall around the terrace on which the trough is found.

A panorama of the site.

A panorama of the site (click to enlarge).

Beyond the trough, the stairway leads to another platform – the main site of the shrine and except for a few slabs of stone lying around and the platform itself, there is little but that sense of an uneasy calm that one does feel at the site of the shrine, which was destroyed before the Japanese surrender to prevent it from being desecrated.

Concrete slabs at the site.

Granite slabs at the site.

The platform for the shrine seen in the forest.

The platform for the shrine seen in the forest.

Some of what we do know of what did go on at the shrine, comes through the accounts of local residents who participated in some of the rituals that did go on. One practice that did get mentioned is that of the Japanese community’s visits first to the Syonan Jinja to participate in Shinto rites early in the morning on New Year’s Day, before they made their way to the Syonan Chureito to pay respects to the war dead, an observance that also involved employees of the Japanese and would be followed by a lavish lunch (see “The Last Days of the Japanese Occupation”, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 1976).

More stone slabs.

More stone slabs.

One of the things about the shrine does does come out in some of the accounts is of the pebbled streams in what must have been a beautifully landscaped area. The pebbles, ” four, five tons” of them, as is described in one account, were apparently ones that had been had been brought in from Borneo for the Bukit Timah rapid gravity filter beds that were being constructed.

A close up of the foundations.

A close up of the foundations.

A view of the stairway.

A view of the stairway.

The site does attract a fair amount of interest despite it being rather difficult to access. It has been designated as a Historic Site since September 2002 and a marker / information plaque on it can be found at the junction of Sime and Adam Roads – from which it is an over 2 kilometre walk that does take one through parts of the gravel paths in the MacRitchie forest, as well as along the water’s edge past what is some of the most picturesque landscapes to be found in Singapore.and for that alone, it is well worth the effort involved.

POWs provided the labour to build the shrine (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_206.jpg).

POWs provided the labour to build the shrine (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_206.jpg).


Note: I have been advised that the area around the Syonan Jinja has since been rendered out of bounds by NParks. This is in an effort to protect the pristine forest found around the site of the former jinja.








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