Fading faces from a once familiar place

22 07 2011

Those who frequented Tanjong Pagar Railway Station would probably remember the many faces that were associated with the station in one way or another. The people behind the once familiar faces are the ones who brought life and activity to the old station and with the station’s closure, may soon be forgotten. This is my attempt to capture some of the faces in the days that led up to the 30th of June 2011 just to help with the memory of what made Tanjong Pagar Railway Station a station that will forever be in our hearts.


Posts on the Railway through Singapore and on the Green Corridor:

I have also put together a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station which can be found through this page: “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Do also take a look at the proposal by the Nature Society (Singapore) to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, at the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page. My own series of posts on the Green Corridor are at: “Support the Green Corridor“.






The river I once knew

7 07 2011

I first set eyes on the Singapore River in my very early years when I accompanied my mother on her regular forays to the department stores in Raffles Place. To get to them, we would cross the river on the wonderfully designed Cavenagh Bridge. The open balustrades of the bridge offered an excellent view of the comings and goings on the busy river. It was fascinating to the curious child that I was, to watch the heavily laden wooden twakows (cargo boats) straining upriver with the cargoes that their much larger, steel-hulled cousins in the inner harbour had fed them. Even more fascinating to me was the spirited movement downriver of the boats whose bellies had been emptied by the industrious coolies at the many godowns (warehouses) lining the river.

Cavenagh Bridge.

Watching the coolies at work fascinated me more than seeing the passing of the twakows. I would stop and stare at the men as they took small but quick steps across the narrow planks that linked the boats to the stepped, concrete banks of the river. The planks would strain under the weight – not so much that of the bare-bodied men themselves, but of the load that each balanced on one shoulder. The loads seemed not just to outweigh the men who bore them, but to also be larger than the coolies’ lightly built frames. At times it looked as if the planks were too narrow, but I never once saw those men lose the ability to balance themselves and the offset loads that they carried.

A scan from an old postcard showing the river in busier days, filled with the twakows that transported goods from their steel hulled cousins upriver to the numerous godowns that lined the river.

In those days, besides the colourful distractions that the twakows, godowns and coolies provided, the waterway had a reputation for its less than pleasant smell. In fact, many visitors who arrived prior to the late 1980s remember Singapore for the river’s smells. It was an odour that I well remember myself and was reason enough for my mother to avoid stopping by the very popular Boat Quay food stalls. These had fitted themselves onto the narrow strip of land between the back of the buildings that lined the river (one was the Bank of China Building) and the river itself.

The (old) bank of China Building set against the new building has been one of the few survivors of the area around the river since I first became acquainted with the area in the late 1960s.

Much of what went on in and around the river had indeed contributed to how it smelled, as well as to the murky waters that the twakows ploughed through. A massive effort to clean up the river began in 1977 and meant that life in and around the river as it was, would soon be a thing of the past. The twakows, a feature of the river for over a hundred years, disappeared in the early 1980s, an event that I somehow missed. By the time I got around to visiting the river again, they had vanished from the waters that had once held hundreds of them. Soon, the river was to be cut off from the sea that had given it life, with reclamation work at Marina South and the construction of the Marina Barrage. The river did not go quietly, however, and is now entering its second life, integrated into a potential source of fresh water for the modern metropolis that has grown around it.

A massive effort to clean up the river began in 1977 and the twakows, a feature of the river for over a hundred years, disappeared in the early 1980s, Many of the godowns along Boat Quay (seen here dwarfed by the steel and glass of new Singapore) have since been transformed into food and entertainment outlets.

Nevertheless, the river will always evoke its colourful past for me. I still look at it through the eyes of the child, and what I see are images of the twakows, coolies and godowns that are today all but forgotten.


This post has been published in the July / August 2011 issue of Passage, a Friends of the Museums, Singapore publication as “Singapore River Reminisces, Boat Quay in the 1970s”.






A night at the Opera

4 07 2011

Teochew that is! I had the opportunity to do something I’ve always wanted to do … get up close and personal with the performers at the back of the wayang stage, and with the kind invitation of the URA’s Marina Bay Singapore and the Select Group’s Singapore Food Trail, I got to do just that over the weekend. The behind the scenes visit allowed a group of us to watch and photograph performers of the Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association backstage (on an authentic wayang stage borrowed from the Pulau Ubin opera troupe) as they went through their routines in getting dolled up for the evening’s performance. The performances were part of the Singapore Food Trail’s initiatives to bring back the good old days of Singapore in what was termed as “A Night of Nostalgia” to bring us back to the heyday of Teochew Opera on the streets of Singapore in the 1960s.

The Singapore Food Trail aims to bring the atmosphere of the streets of the Singapore of the 1960s with authentic street hawker fare in a 1960s setting under the Singapore Flyer.

The colours that the various genres of Chinese operas (often referred to locally as “wayang”) brought to the streets of the Singapore of old, if not for anything else, always were a visual treat. They were a huge draw, bringing with them the entourage of mobile vendor providing a carnival like atmosphere each time they came to the area. My maternal grandmother with her lack of the command of any other language other than her native Bahasa Indonesia was a huge fan, often dragging me along in my early years as her companion. And even when I could never sit quite still below the wayang stage as the performers went about their routines, I was a more than willing companion to my grandmother as I could never resist the reward of a drink from the bird’s nest drink vendor which more often than not was a sweetened drink with bits of jelly in it which was made to taste like the real thing, and also a visit to the toy vendor from which I could get my hands on items such as a sword made of paper mache that split into two lengthwise when it came out of the paper mache scabbard.

Street operas were a favourite of my maternal grandmother. Performers from the Thau Yong Amateur Musical Associationare seen performing an excerpt from The Fragrant Handkerchief on an authentic stage at the Singapore Food Trail.

What sometimes fascinated me on the stage were the costumes and the make-up of that the performers had on. The painted faces sometimes terrified me, so much so that back then, I never could never muster up the courage to peek backstage where the performers would have their make-up done well before the performances started, even as many boys in my neighbourhood did. That was something that I thought I would never be able to do again as I grew up, wayangs became less common as Singapore’s rapid urbanisation resulted in many traditions being lost to modernisation. When I had heard of the troupe that is still performing on Pulau Ubin earlier, I had actually wanted to visit Pulau Ubin, even though I am not what one might consider to be a big fan, to immerse myself in atmosphere of being around once again, which perhaps I hope will transport me back to the carefree days of my childhood, and I was plesantly surprised when I got an invitation to watch one at the Singapore Food Trail and at the same time sample the street fare that I imagined was long lost. What was a huge bonus was the opportunity provided by the organisers as well as with the kind permission of the Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association, to watch and photograph the performers as they got their faces painted and hair done up on an authentic wayang stage. Being backstage was fascinating and I took it all in with the excitement of a child … taking lots of photographs some of which I have added to this post. What was equally fascinating was watching the performances which I thoroughly enjoyed and have perhaps Pei Yun of Oceanskies to thank for enlightening me on the excerpts that were being performed. I can also say that at the end of the evening performances I have become a little bit of a fan … Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association I understand in celebrating the 80th anniversary this year – I do hope that they are able to see at least another 80 and many more years to allow them to continue the excellent effort in keeping what is a dying tradition alive for our future generations.

The scene backstage about 3 hours before the performances.

A make-up artist helping a performer with her make-up.

The eyes have it ...

Two performers having their initial make-up done. Lipstick would be applied after dinner.

A peek backstage ...

A performer having make-up around her eyes done.

A peek outside ...

More eye work ...

A mirror to the face of a performer.

The hair is done after the initial make-up is applied.

Make-up and hair done ... but not the lips yet.

A male performer having his make-up done.

A female performer applying her initial make-up.

The hair being done for another performer.

Finishing touches on the hair.

Two performers sharing a lighthearted moment ...

Another performer relaxing during the preparations.

Putting her headdress on.

The female lead performer all dolled up.

The scholar ...

A female performer.

Full battle order.

The audience were treated to Teochew melodies before the Teochew Opera performance.

The performances were on an authentic wayang stage borrowed from the Pulau Ubin troupe.

Audiences young and old were enthralled.





The “bright” lights of Prince Edward Road and the Polytechnic by the sea

16 05 2010

There was a time when my parents used to take us, my sister and me, to Mount Faber on quite a regular basis. The excursions were almost always, done in the evenings when it was a lot more pleasant, and would more often than not, culminate in a drive down Keppel Road for  dinner. Then, there were plenty of choices of street food, that seemed to taste a lot better then than it somehow does in the food centres of today. For reasons that have escaped me, my parents avoided going to nearby Chinatown, and Keppel Road seemed an obvious choice, as it was well known for the two dimly lit car parks which would came to life each evening, illuminated by the relatively bright lights of hawker stalls, the bustle of a hungry crowd and the metallic sounds of noodles being violently tossed in the wok. One of these was the car park in front of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, one that we didn’t frequent as much as the one down by the east end of Keppel Road, at the large car park on Prince Edward Road.

Looking down Shenton Way and the former Quays towards Prince Edward Road in the early 1960s. The Singapore Polytechnic buildings can be seen at the top of the photograph (Source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

The car park that hosted the hawker stalls of the early 1970s?

I only have vague memories of where it was exactly, unable perhaps to make very much of the visual picture presented, beyond the distraction provided by the mess of hawker stalls, tables and chairs, seen in the half light that was filtered by the greasy smoke that filled the air with its pungent lard laden aroma. The car park I suppose would be the one opposite the old Singapore Polytechnic campus that we see today, or perhaps not, but what I did remember were the rows of lighted pushcarts from which there would have been a choice of everything the Singaporean hawkers were known to conjure up. There was the tomato ketchup stained mee goreng that I so loved, the starch laden oyster omelette that was a favourite of my father, and the spicy piping hot sup kambing that was my favourite. That was a place that perhaps I took for granted, never for once imagining that it would disappear one day. It did eventually, I don’t quite remember when, and in going the way of the many other street food places, flavour somehow gets lost in the relocation to the sanitised premises of the new food centres which were built to get the hawkers off the streets. Perhaps it was with the sanitary conditions that made the difference, where dish washing would have been done in basins of water next to opened drains into which flowed not just the washing water, but the contents of that were on the plates and bowls on which the drain’s residents would have thought of as a feast.

The Singapore Polytechnic operated at its former premises on Prince Edward Road from 1958 to the mid 1970s (photo courtesy of Mr Ma Yoke Long).

Prince Edward Road then, was also home to the premises of Singapore’s first Polytechnic, the unimaginatively named Singapore Polytechnic. The Polytechnic was established in 1954 with the passing of the Singapore Polytechnic Ordinance and classes began with an initial enrollment of 2800 students when the building was completed in late 1958 (it was officially opened in early 1959). The Polytechnic initially offered 58 different courses to train a pool of technicians for the developing economy of the island and remained at Prince Edward Road until the mid 1970s when it moved in stages to its present campus at Dover Road. The building that housed the Polytechnic still stands today as the Bestway Building, offering us a glimpse of an architectural style that is very typical of the era during which it was built. It was designed by Swan and MacLaren, which has had a hand in designing much of Singapore’s magnificent colonial buildings and civil infrastructure, and remains somewhat forgotten in a little pocket of land that time seems to have forgotten, at odds with the skyscraper infested financial centre that has sprouted up next to it. Whether it and the area around it would stand the test of time that many of the older buildings in the area have yielded to, perhaps only time will tell.

The original Singapore Polytechnic building has a new lease of life as the Bestway Building.

Another view of the building that was once the Singapore Polytechnic.

The premises of the former Singapore Polytechnic is still used as an education centre.

The basketball court of the former premises of the Singapore Polytechnic.

A view of one of the buildings that housed the Singapore Polytechnic.

Another view of the façade.