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

23 11 2018

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

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

The reception area.

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

A corridor on the upper levels.

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

The rear courtyard.

The swimming pool.

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

A view of the surroundings through steel framed windows.

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

Another view of the hotel’s windows.

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

A spiral staircase in the rear courtyard.

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

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

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


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Thaipusam 2018 at The Sri Srinivasa Perumal in photographs

1 02 2018

Thaipusam at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal in photographs:


Posts related to past celebrations of Thaipusam in Singapore:


 





Photographs of Thaipusam 2017

9 02 2017

Today’s Thaipusam, an annual Hindu festival celebrated in Singapore that being a most colourful of spectacles, is perhaps also a most photographed. The festival sees a procession of kavadis – burdens carried by devotees of Lord Murugan – from the Sri Srinivas Perumal Temple at Serangoon Road to the Sri Thendayuthapani (Chettiars) Temple in Tank Road.

More information on the festival can be found at: http://sttemple.com/pages/16~thaipusam and at the following links:


Photographs taken at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple this morning:

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Canal-less Rochor

8 08 2016

Even if it is probably for the better, I shall miss seeing the now covered up Rochor Canal in my drives down the Tekka area. Buried under a temporary roadway deck for much of the period during which the Downtown MRT line was being constructed, it has already been all but forgotten and it was only the sight of the green grass that now grows on top of a permanent deck that has given me the realisation that I will never see the open canal at this stretch.

A view over the now hidden canal.

Never a pretty sight even after the river cleanup initiative launched in 1977 took away the smell that was the source of many a joke, the canal was however, one of the sights that broke the monotony of the long ride to school on the public bus. That always seemed much to take in around the area by the canal, particularly on its then stepped sides, including the sight of squatting people scrubbing their laundry.

The once open Rochor Canal, seen at the meeting of Serangoon, Selegie, Sungei, Rochor Canal and Bukit Timah Roads (National Archives Photo).

The deck of green grass is the latest addition to an area that already looks very different to the one I passed as a schoolboy. The transformation of the area, which has seen the likes of the familiar old Tekka market, Kandang Kerbau Police Station, and Stamford Estate go, as well as Kandang Kerbau Hospital move – its former premises now occupied by the Land Transport Authority, is however not complete.

An online Straits Times photo of the canal with the old Tekka Market on the right.

The canal with its stepped sides (Raymond Morris on Flickr). The SIT flats of Stamford Estate, Albert House and Rochor House can also be seen.

In a city that never rests – from a construction viewpoint, the next upheaval planned for the area is already on the cards – the construction of the North-South Expressway (NSE). That will see the much loved Rochor Centre demolished. It does also seem that, from the a Zaobao article on 7 August 2016, the NSE’s construction will also see one of the more recognisable old structures in the area still standing – the Ellison Building affected. Part of the façade of the conserved building, built by Issac or Ike Ellison for his wife Flora in 1924, will apparently have to be removed and will have to be restored. The NSE is expected to be completed in 2026.

The Ellison Building will have part of its façade removed and restored for the NSE construction.

The Ellison Building will have part of its façade removed and restored for the NSE construction.

The open Rochor Canal at the Tekka area with the Ellison Building in the background c. 1969 (Bill Strong on Flickr).





The full moon of Thai

25 01 2016

Yesterday, the day of the full moon of the Tamil month of Thai, saw the most lively and colourful of festivals, Thaipusam, being celebrated by the Hindu community. A very visible part of the festival is a procession of devotees carrying kavadis. In Singapore, the kavadis, some weighing as much as 40 kilogrammes, are carried along a route from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road to the Chettairs’ or Sri Thendayuthapani Temple at Tank Road.

The annual procession remains as one of the most colourful religious and cultural celebrations in Singapore even without the chanting, singing, music and dancing, which would have flavoured it in its pre-1973 days. This year, a total ban on music was lifted, and this saw musical instruments allowed at designated points along the procession route. The festival is one of two occasions during which kavadis are carried, the other being the Panguni Uthiram festival celebrated during the full moon of the month of Panguni. 


Photographs from Thaipusam 2016

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More information on the festival from the Hindu Endowments Board’s website:

Thaipusam which falls in the Tamil month of Thai (usually January/ February) is an annual foot procession by Hindu devotees seeking blessings, fulfilling vows and offering thanks. Thaipusam is celebrated in honour of Lord Subrahmanya (also known as Lord Murugan) who represents virtue, youth and power to Hindus and is the destroyer of evil.

On the day before Thaipusam, a statue of Lord Subrahmanya decorated with jewels and finery and together with his two consorts, Valli and Devayani, is placed on a chariot and brought in procession. In Singapore, the chariot procession begins from the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple to Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple at Keong Siak Road. The procession symbolizes the blessings sought by Lord Subrahmanya from his elder brother Lord Vinayagar.

Thaipusam ceremony starts in the early hours of the morning when the first batch of devotees of Lord Subrahmanya carrying milk pots and wooden kavadis leave Sri Srinvasa Perumal Temple for Sri Thendayuthapani Temple at Tank Road. The milk in the pots they carry are offered to the deity of Lord Subrahmanya at Sri Thendayuthapani Temple. Some devotees pierce their tongues with skewers and carry a garlanded wooden arch across their shoulders. Others devotees may carry a kavadi (semi circular metal structure decorated with peacock feathers, flowers and plam leaves). The spiked kavadis which require elaborate preparations leave the temple in the later part of the morning and continue till 6pm.

Carrying kavadi is a popular form of devotion for Hindus. It is usually carried in fulfillment of a vow that a devotee would have taken. Placing a kavadi at the end of the foot procession at the altar of Lord Subrahmanya and making an offering of milk symbolizes the cleansing of the mind and soul and seeking of blessings.

In preparation for carrying a kavadi, a devotee has to prepare himself spiritually. For a period of about a month, the devotee must live a life of abstinence whilst maintaining a strict vegetarian diet. It is believed that only when the mind is free of material wants and the body free from physical pleasures that a devotee can undertake the sacred task without feeling any pain.


More information on the kavadi, its origins and some of the various forms it takes from the Thaipusam.sg site:

There are many types of offerings, which the devotee makes to his beloved deity Sri Murugan. A special offering is the carrying of kavadi and there is a Puranic legend behind this practice.

There was once a great saint called Agasthya who rested at Mount Pothikai. Agasthya dispatched one of his students, Idumban, to Mount Kailai Range instructing him to bring back two hills called Sivagiri and Shakthigiri belonging to Lord Murugan.

As instructed, Idumban having arrived at Mount Kailai, picked up both the hills, tied them and swung them across his shoulders.

Lord Murugan had other plans. He wanted the two hills to be placed at Thiruvavinankudi (Palani) and at the same time test the devotion and tenacity of purpose of Idumban.

Idumban who was on his way back with the hills suddenly found himself lost. Lord Murugan appeared as a king, riding a horse led Idumban to Thiruvavinankudi (Palani) and requested Idumban to rest there so that he could continue his journey later.

Having rested, Idumban tried to carry the two hills but strangely found that he could not do so. A perplexed Idumban looked up and saw a child in loincloth standing atop one of the hills. Idumban requested the child to get down, however, the child refused claiming that the hills belonged to him. An angered Idumban attempted to attack the child but found himself falling like an uprooted tree. A scuffle ensued and Idumban was defeated. Only then did Idumban realize that the child was none other than Muruga or Subrahmanya Himself – the ruling deity of the region. Idumban craved the pardon of the divine child and also sought the boon that anyone who comes to the hills to worship Sri Muruga with an object similar to the two hillocks suspended by a load bearing pole, may be granted his heart’s desire. Idumban’s wish was granted. Murugan also said that he would bless those who bring sandal, milk, flowers, etc. in a kavadi to His shrine. Hence, the practice of carrying a kavadi.

At the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple, one can see a small sanctum dedicated to Idumban. Devotees who usually fast for Thaipusam break their fast one day later after offering their prayers to Idumban.

The simplest kavadi consists of a short wooden pole surmounted by a wooden arch. Pictures or statues of Lord Murugan or other deities are fixed onto the arch. The kavadi is decorated with peacock feathers and a small pot of milk is attached to each end of the pole.

There are more elaborate kavadis that devotees carry. The alagu and ratha kavadi are common forms of kavadi carried by devotees during Thaipusam. Kavadis are affixed on a bearer’s body by long sharpened rods or by chains and small hooks. A kavadi bearer not only carries a gift for God but the whole kavadi is seen as a shrine for God Himself.

Devotees who intend to carry kavadis are customarily required to observe strict physical and mental discipline. Purification of the body is a necessity. This includes taking just simple vegetarian meals and observing celibacy. According to orthodox doctrine, rigid fasting and abstinence have to be observed over a 48-day period prior to the offering of the kavadi on Thaipusam Day.

Piercing the skin, tongue or cheeks with vel skewers is also common. This prevents the devotees from speaking and gives them great powers of endurance.


Photographs from previous Thaipusam celebrations:






Colours of the harvest

15 01 2016

The Tamil month of Thai brings much celebration to Singapore where a large majority of its Indian population is of Tamil ancestry. One festival that brings colour to the streets of Little India is Pongal, the celebration of the winter harvest over four days. The streets are particularly lively in the lead-up to the festival as decorated clay pots, sweets, flower garlands and sugar-cane (which I am told signifies sweetness and longevity) fill up Campbell Street – where the annual Pongal bazaar is set up.

Sugarcane - signifying sweetness and longevity.

Sugarcane – signifying sweetness and longevity.

More on the festival can be found on my previous posts, as well as on Your Singapore. A description of the festival by Mr Manohar Pillai is also provided on a post on the Facebook Group “On a Little Street in Singapore“:

Pongal is the biggest and most important festival for the Tamilians, since ancient times and transcends all religious barriers since it signifies thanks giving to nature and domestic animals. Cattle, cows, goats, chickens are integral part of a farmer in India. It is celebrated for three days in Tamilnadu starting from 15th to 17th. Jan’, 2016. and strictly vegetarian food will be served only in all Hindu households. Thanks giving prayers will be offered to the Sun, Earth, Wind, Fire, Water and Ether, without these life cannot be sustained on Mother Earth. The celebrations comes on close to the harvest season which just ended and Jan,15, is the beginning of the new Tamil calendar.

Clay Pots are used to cook flavoured rice with traditional fire wood in the open air and facing the early morning Eastern Sun. The Sun’s early morning rays are supposedly to bring benevolence to the household. The cooked rice is distributed to all the members of the household and with it the festivities begins. Everyone wears new clothes and very old and useless clothes are burnt the previous night.

The next day the farmer turns his attention to the animals especially the Cattle and Cows.

The third day all people celebrate it with gaiety and grandly.

Decorated Clay Pots.

Decorated Clay Pots.

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Sweets for the sweet.

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A bazaar stall doing a roaring trade.

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A well stocked shop.

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A dairy cow.

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Campbell Lane dressed for Pongal.

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More sugarcane.

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Flower garlands on sale.

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The festive atmosphere also spill over to the nearby streets.





An annual invasion of sugarcane

14 01 2014

Photographs taken in the heart of the Serangoon area on the eve of Pongal, one of the many colourful expressions of the various cultures found in Singapore that living on the island provides an opportunity to immerse oneself in. Pongal is a harvest festival that is celebrated over four days. Originating in southern India, the festival sees the streets off Serangoon Road come alive with celebration with much of the activity centered on a Campbell Lane invaded seemingly by stalks of sugarcane.

Campbell Lane is where a Pongal bazaar annually paints the street in the colours of the harvest, seen in the purple of black sugarcane, the green of bananas, ginger and turmeric leaves, as well as in the colours of the earth from traditional clay pots. Hard to miss is also the orange and gold of sweet treats and the burst of joy that the floral garlands bring, mixed with the hues of the many who throng the streets in search of the essentials for the festival. 

More on the festival and how it is being commemorated in Singapore can be found at the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association’s website.

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