Rediscovering the romance of Chap Goh Mei

19 02 2014

The fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year, Chap Goh Mei (Hokkien for 15th night) as it has been commonly referred to in Singapore, has traditionally been associated with romance. It was perhaps in the hope of rediscovering the romance of a festival that has been lost in the embrace of modernity that drew a healthy crowd of participants to a walk through the streets of Chinatown on the evening of the fifteenth day this year on what coincidentally was also the western day for the celebration of romance, St. Valentine’s Day that was organised by the Conservation Management Department of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

A romantic spot on the streets of Chinatown on Chap Goh Mei.

A romantic spot on the streets of Chinatown on Chap Goh Mei.

The fifteenth night of any Chinese lunar month is of course one that, weather conditions permitting, would be illuminated by the light of the full moon – a setting that certainly is ideal for romance. In the case of Chap Goh Mei, it is a night when Yuanxiao Jie (元宵节) is celebrated, providing an evening for romance to be found not only in the light of the moon, but also in the glow of colourful lanterns; it having been a tradition to have lanterns displayed outside homes and along five-foot-ways, as it was for children to take to the streets carrying lanterns in a fashion similar to the Mid-Autumn festival.

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The search for romance would take many eligible young men and women to the water’s edge - the waterfront along Esplanade was, I am told, a particularly popular spot, from which fruits would be aimed into the water. For the ladies, it would be oranges, representing good husbands, that would be thrown, and for men, good wives taking the form of apples – a practice that I actually did not know about until more recent times.

The lantern parade through the streets of Chinatown on what can be seen as a double Valentine's Day in search for a lost romance.

The search for romance.

While we did not get the chance to toss oranges or apples in the name of romance, we did however get an opportunity to rediscover the romance of Chap Goh Mei and of a Chinatown that would otherwise lie hidden behind the recoloured labyrinth of streets of what would once have been referred to as Tua Poh or the ‘Greater Town’.

The lantern parade.

The lantern parade.

The route we were to take, lanterns in hand, was one of many twists and turns, taking us through a complex of streets that in being referred to as Chinatown, belies the intra-ethnic divisions that did once exist within the greater Chinese immigrant community, divisions that would once have been apparent in moving across the area’s many streets.

Only a thin Ho may enter? The Thin Ho clan association on Ann Siang Road.

Only a thin Ho may enter? The Thin Ho clan association on Ann Siang Road.

The first pause we made was the Ann Siang Hill area where the Cantonese dialect group did have a strong presence. Besides the well known Yeung Ching School (now referred to in the Mandarin form of the name as Yangzheng School) that was perched on top of Ann Siang Hill, there were the many Cantonese clan associations – many of which are still present in the area. Amongst the school alumni are many well known names. This included one that is synonymous with the the lost art of story telling and Redifussion’s Cantonese broadcasts in the 1950s and 1960s, Lee Dai Soh. Another, perhaps lesser known in Singapore, is a certain Xian Xinghai, the composer of the Yellow River Cantata – a work which was to become used as a Chinese revolutionary song. The Yeung Ching foundation does still maintain a presence in the area as is evident from a signboard seen atop a building it owns along Club Street close to its junction with Ann Siang Hill.

The condo in the background would have been where the Yeung Ching school would have stood - atop a since levelled hill the base of which would have been at the condo's sixth floor.

The condo in the background would have been where the Yeung Ching school would have stood – atop a since levelled hill the base of which would have been at the condo’s sixth floor.

Ann Siang Road.

Ann Siang Road.

Club Street.

Club Street.

From Ann Siang Road and Club Street, the procession made its way up to Ann Siang Hill before continuing down to Amoy Street, once a predominantly a Hokkien street, as was Telok Ayer Street where the group was to make a stop in the glow of the beautifully restored Thian Hock Keng temple, a magnificent example of Hokkien temple architecture and a National Monument.

Up Ann Siang Hill.

Up Ann Siang Hill.

The view at the top.

The view at the top.

The pathway down.

The pathway down.

Down Ann Siang Hill.

Down Ann Siang Hill.

Lantern bearers during a pause in the search for romance.

Lantern bearers posing for a photograph outside the Thain Hock Keng temple in the search for romance.

The temple, which now stands across from the watchful eyes of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, is dedicated to the protector of seafarers, the Taoist goddess of the sea, Ma Zu, does point to the fact that the temple did once find itself by the sea, as did the street it is located at – Telok Ayer Street was in the early days of post-Raffles Singapore, a waterfront to which many immigrants would have come ashore at (it was also interesting to learn that the rebuilt Hokkien Huay Kuan, sitting on the site of the temple’s wayang or Chinese Opera stage built over the then shoreline, was designed with a wide through corridor on its ground floor to provide a symbolic passage from the temple to the now distant sea). This did provide the street with a flavour that went beyond the Hokkiens with several other houses of worship and immigrant reception point coming along the street that were put up by other groups of immigrants including a Hakka clan association, Ying Fo Fui Kuan (also a National Monument) and the former Hakka Fuk Tak Chi Temple which was also used by Cantonese immigrants.

The 'watchful eyes' of the Hokkien Huay Kuan.

The ‘watchful eyes’ of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan.

The rather interesting walk ended at another magnificent work of temple architecture, the very recently restored Yueh Hai Ching or Wak Hai Cheng temple at Phillip Street. Set inside a within a walled compound accessible through a narrow doorway from which the sight of coils of incense would first greet the eye, the temple (actually two temples side-by-side), also a National Monument, is another wonderful example of temple architecture, -this time in Teochew style. 

The Yueh Hai Ching temple.

The Yueh Hai Ching temple.

Through the doorway to the newly restored Yueh Hai Ching.

Through the doorway to the newly restored Yueh Hai Ching.

Incense coils.

Incense coils.

The oldest Teochew temple in Singapore (its building dates back to the 1850s), the Yueh Hai Ching features a elaborately decorated roof and is dedicated to Ma Zu and Xuan Tian Shang Di. The temple besides catering to the Teochew community, does also attract worshipers from the Cantonese community – especially during the Chinese New Year – the Cantonese and Teochew communities having an affinity with both having originated from Guangdong (Canton) province. More on the temple can be found at the Ngee Ann Kongsi’s website.

Inside the temple.

Inside the temple.

Another view inside the temple.

Another view inside the temple.

While taking a walk in the company of strangers through now sanitised streets of an old world we in modern times may have seemed to have over-romanticised might not fit into everyone’s idea of how they would want to spend an evening businesses have turned into an excuse for money making, it was a walk in which I was rewarded with the rediscovery of the romance of a festival and of times I might not have otherwise been reminded of.

Smoke from large joss sticks in the compound.

Smoke from large joss sticks in the compound.





Welcomed winds of change blowing through Queen Street

5 02 2014

The winds of change sweeping through Singapore will soon blow through yet another place that is familiar to me. This time around, it is perhaps a change that perhaps will be welcomed and one that will perhaps see the oldest Catholic church in Singapore, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, restored to its former glory.

The yard behind the rectory - a once familiar world that is now in the midst of change.

The yard behind the rectory – a once familiar world that is now in the midst of change.

The Cathedral and its grounds are now closed and hoarded up.

The Cathedral and its grounds are now closed and hoarded up.

The Cathedral, its structure ravaged by age and nearby construction activity,  has long been in dire need of repair; a large crack in the wall behind the sanctuary, has clearly been in evidence, as have crumbling plaster work and  temporary wooden shoring at columns supporting the Victoria Street end of the building where the steeple and bell-tower is.

The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, gazetted as a National Monument in 1973, is Singapore's oldest Catholic church.

The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, gazetted as a National Monument in 1973, is Singapore’s oldest Catholic church.

Shoring can be seen supporting the steeple and bell tower.

Shoring can be seen supporting the steeple and bell tower.

With limited public funding available through the Preservation of Sites and Monuments for such repair work, a huge effort was required to raise sufficient funds to start on the much needed repairs, and it wasn’t until November 2013 that work did eventually commence, with the last mass before the Cathedral’s closure for repairs taking place on 27 October 2013.

Another looks at the shoring under the steeple.

Another look at the shoring under the steeple.

Fr. Adrian Anthony, who is in charge of the Restoration Fund, posing with Hospitality Ministers and members of the congregation during one of the last masses held on 27 Oct 2013.

Fr. Adrian Anthony, who is in charge of the Restoration Fund, posing with Hospitality Ministers and members of the congregation during one of the last masses held on 27 Oct 2013.

The repair and restoration efforts will also see a new 3-storey annex block, housing a heritage centre on its thrid floor, being erected, as well as restoration of the Cathedral’s century old Gallery pipe organ, the work for which will be carried out in the Philippines. Besides the structural restoration efforts on the Cathedral building’s supporting structure which will also include work on the gallery floor, the roof and the bell-tower  and on the masonry, work will also be carried out to add air-conditioning to the Cathedral. Works will take place over a two-year period during which will see the Cathedral and its grounds, long an oasis in the midst of the city, closed.

The Gallery Organ.

The Gallery and the Gallery Pipe Organ.

More on the Cathedral and the work expected to be carried out during its closure can be found at the following links:


Artist Impressions of the restored Cathedral and its new annex

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More photographs of the Cathedral and its grounds

The annex building that is being demolished to allow the new three-storey annex to be built.

The annex building that is being demolished to allow the new three-storey annex to be built.

The yard behind the rectory will also be going.

The yard behind the rectory will also be going.

The view of the yard and rectory from Queen Street.

The view of the yard and rectory from Queen Street.

Another view of the yard and the building that will be demolished.

Another view of the yard and the building that will be demolished.

The rectory, behind which a new annex housing a heritage centre will be built.

The rectory, behind which a new annex housing a heritage centre will be built.

A passage that will be transformed.

A passage that will be transformed.

The sheltered walkway between the rectory and the old annex building.

The sheltered walkway between the rectory and the old annex building.

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A gold crowned pagoda bathed in a golden glow

4 11 2013

7.05 am, 4 November 2013, the rising sun paints the sky behind a gilt-crowned pagoda. The seven-storey pagoda, the Dragon Light Pagoda (龙光宝塔), is a recent addition to the century old Siong Lim Temple off the Jalan Toa Payoh stretch of the Pan Island Expressway, having been completed in 2002. The Buddhist temple and monastery complex which is a well-recognised landmark in Toa Payoh, is better known these days as Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery (莲山双林寺) and has been gazetted as a National Monument. The complex, which contains several buildings of architectural significance, underwent a massive restoration effort which commenced in 1999 which was completed in 2001. The pagoda is a copy of the 800 year old Shanfeng temple pagoda in Fujian province, was also constructed during the period. The monastery itself is modelled after the Yi Shan Xi Chan Si Monastery (怡山西禅寺) in Fuzhou.

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More information on the Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery, its history and the restoration effort can be found at the following links on the monastery’s website:





Work resumes at St. Joseph’s Church

9 09 2013

Great news delivered over the weekend – the much delayed work on the stained glass restoration at St. Joseph’s Church will be resuming today. The work will restart at the south (or west) transept where the first batch of stained glass windows were taken down in the second half of last year. Work on this batch of windows has in fact been completed and that does mean we shall soon have a first glimpse of some of the beautiful windows restored to its full glory when the windows are finally re-installed.

A look across to the west transept.

A look across to the west transept.

Part of the west transept seen to the right of the sanctuary.

Part of the west transept seen to the right of the sanctuary.

Close up of the window at the end of the west transept.

Close up of the window at the end of the west transept.





Motoring Heritage Day at Tanjong Pagar

5 09 2013

Motoring Heritage Day is back once again at the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. This year’s event will be held on Sunday 15 September 2013 from 10 am to 5 pm. Besides a rare display of some 50 vintage cars, there will also be lots of other activities including guided tours of the station by volunteer guides from the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB), an exhibition on the former railway station that I would be assisting the National Heritage Board (NHB) to put up, and talks (see programme below). The event is jointly organised by the Malaysia Singapore Vintage Car Register (MSVCR) and the NHB. More information can be found at the MSVCR’s site and at NHB’s website. I will also follow up with some further information soon.

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Exposing the Convent

6 07 2013

Work has begun on a facelift which will see another significant change occur to a place I will always see as the convent, a lifestyle complex we now know as CHIJMES. The convent was one which dates back to February 1854, when three nuns from the religious order of the Sisters of the Infant Jesus arrived to set it up, with a French Catholic missionary, Fr. Jean Marie Beurel, who is also credited with work to establish St. Joseph’s Institution two years before that, instrumental in bringing them here, having purchased Caldwell House for the purpose. The current work, expected to be completed next year, based on news reports, is aimed at turning it into an upmarket venue and will see part of a wall which has featured through much of the convent’s history, come down to provide an almost full frontal exposure of the former convent – in particularly two of its buildings, the gloriously designed French Gothic style former chapel and Caldwell House, both of which have been gazetted as a National Monument.

Caldwell House and the beautiful former chapel of the convent.

Caldwell House and the beautiful former chapel of the former convent – both buildings have since 1990 been gazetted as National Monuments.

Based on the same news reports, the top part of the wall will be replaced by a grille. While this does permit a fuller exposure of the monument from Victoria Street, it does also mean that what little has been left of the character of the former convent, already significantly altered by the redevelopment on the side along Stamford Road as the SMRT Headquarters, and the digging of a huge hole in the ground behind the chapel to create the sunken courtyard, will soon be lost.

A postcard showing the convent and its walls in the early 1900s.

A postcard showing the convent and its walls in the early 1900s.

While the attempts to restore and conserve many of the buildings of the old convent, once bound by walls along Victoria Street, Bras Basah Road, North Bridge Road and the side of Stamford Canal across from Stamford Road through its redevelopment as CHIJMES in 1996, should be commended, one of the unfortunate outcomes of it is that it does take much of the dignity as well as the soul of the place away – a dignity which will be eroded further with the lowering of its walls. The convent, which was forced out of it premises by land acquisition for urban redevelopment after some 130 years in 1983, had been one established to be of service to those in dire need – providing care and education for the numerous orphans, the unwanted, and the destitute. In its place today is a very different institution – one with which the aim is serve and reap profits for those already well off by the standards of the society.

The former convent seen along Victoria Street and the part of the walls which will come tumbling down.

The former convent seen along Victoria Street and the part of the walls which will come tumbling down.

An artist's impression of how the boundary wall with the wrought iron grille will look like.

An artist’s impression of how the boundary wall with the wrought iron grille will look like.

The alteration to the boundary wall will very much change the way we see CHIJMES. What is a shame is the way conservation in Singapore does seem to focus not on the buildings in their environment, but on the individual buildings as it is the case of CHIJMES. With it this way, there will be little that we will remember, not just of what may the buildings what they were, but what it was that put them there.

A view of the Gate of Hope - and the boundary wall further down which will come tumbling down.

A view of the Gate of Hope – and the boundary wall further down which will come tumbling down.

Unholy spirits being delivered to a former holy place.

Unholy spirits being delivered to a former holy place.

A view of the offending wall through the arches.

A view of the offending wall through the arches of its walkways.

Another view through the archways.

Another view through the archways.

The out-of-character staircase from the sunken courtyard.

The out-of-character staircase from the sunken courtyard.

A view along the walkway leading to the former chapel.

A view along the walkway leading to the former chapel.

A hole where there wasn't - the sunken courtyard over which a glass cover will be put up.

A hole where there wasn’t – the sunken courtyard over which a glass cover will be put up.

The beautiful interior of CHIJMES Hall with its stained glass.

The beautiful interior of CHIJMES Hall with its stained glass.


The upper part of the boundary wall being hacked away as seen on Saturday 6 July 2013.

The upper part of the boundary wall being hacked away as seen on Saturday 6 July 2013.






The Chinese Church – another National Monument in need

24 05 2013

The Bras Basah Road area is one blessed with several monuments which date back to the 1800s. It was at the heart of an area where four of these monuments were erected largely through the efforts of the early French Catholic missionaries. Built to serve the needs of the growing Catholic community in Singapore, as well as to provide education for those in need, the monuments were not built to be functional but also were expressions of the love and dedication that they had been built with. While two of the four, the buildings of the former St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI) and the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ), have since been converted for uses other than what they had been attended for, the other two, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd and the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, are still used as they had been meant to be.

The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Queen Street.

The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Queen Street.

The two are also ones which are also badly in need of repair and restoration. The plight of the Cathedral, Singapore’s oldest Catholic church building,  is of course a more dire one. Its structure, ravaged by both time and nearby construction activity, shows obvious signs of damage. Repairs which are due to commence sometime this year will cost the Cathedral  some S$40 million, of which it has raised only a quarter of. The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, the  second oldest Catholic church building, while less in need of repair, does still need to raise some S$10 million to have, among other work, its roof and termite infested wooden structures repaired.

An appeal for funds at the church's entrance.

An appeal for funds at the church’s entrance.

The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, built from 1869 to 1870, its steeple once featuring prominently in the area’s skyline alongside that of the Cathedral’s and the Chapel of CHIJ, and the dome of SJI, is one of several beautiful examples of the tropical adapted Neo-Gothic religious architecture the French Missionaries gave to Singapore (other examples include the CHIJ Chapel and Nativity Church). Built to house the growing Chinese and Tamil speaking Catholic community by a certain Fr. Pierre Paris (whose remains are buried in the church), the church also features some beautiful wrought iron work as well as stained glass panels (which are said to have been made by French artisans).

Ironwork at the church's entrance.

Ironwork at the church’s entrance.

A view towards the sanctuary behind which five long stained panels can be be seen.

A view towards the sanctuary behind which five long stained panels can be be seen.

A close-up of the five panels of stained glass.

A close-up of the five panels of stained glass.

A close-up of the central panel.

A close-up of the central panel.

A stained glass rose window.

A stained glass rose window.

The church is also one I have had many interactions with through the days of my youth. My parents who often referred to it as “Chinese Church” did on occasion take me there for mass and it was in this church as well as the Cathedral where I, as a schoolboy in SJI, would attend masses organised by the school – the school’s chapel was too small to accommodate the school’s population of Catholics. The church is also one I often associate with Catholic High School – the school having been housed at buildings within the church’s compound (now 222 Queen Street) and across the road (now SAM at 8Q).

A view through the grills of  the building which once housed Catholic High School.

A view through the grilles of the building which once housed Catholic High School.

The grills of the stairwell - the building is now used as an arts centre.

The grilles of the stairwell – the building is now used as an arts centre.

That it was commonly referred to as the “Chinese Church” stems from it having housed the Chinese Mission which saw to the needs of the various dialect speaking groups including the large number of Teochew speakers who remained with the church after the other communities moved out. The other communities included the Hakka and Cantonese speaking congregation who would in 1910 move to the Church of the Sacred Heart in Tank Road, and the small Hokkien Catholic community who moved to the Church of St. Teresa in 1929. Interestingly, the church also housed the the Tamil speaking community as Fr. Paris who built the church, also administered to that community having had a command of the Tamil language. The Tamil community was the first to move when the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes completed in 1888 was built to house them.

Fr. Paris' remains are buried in the church.

Fr. Paris’ remains are buried in the church.

In silent prayer.

In silent prayer.

There are several interesting facts about the church. One is that it once housed a pipe organ built by the renowned 19th Century French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1877 which unfortunately fell into disrepair and was removed in the 1960s. Another is that the boundary wall is thought to have been paid for by Napoleon III based on a 1914 report attributed to the then Bishop of Malacca (the diocese of which included Singapore), Monseigneur  Emile Barillon who served as Bishop of Malacca from 1904 to 1933.  The building as we see it today is also one that has been enlarged – the transept, sacristy and sanctuary were added in 1891-92. More on the building and the history of the church can be found at:

The boundary wall seen on Waterloo Street today - the original wall was said to have been paid for by Napoleon III of France.

The boundary wall seen on Waterloo Street today – the original wall was said to have been paid for by Napoleon III of France.

A look down the nave - the nave had originally had three sections, separated by huge hardwood columns which were removed in the 1890s.

A look down the nave – the nave had originally had three sections, separated by huge hardwood columns which were removed in the 1890s.

The choir loft at the end of the nave.

The choir loft at the end of the nave.

A wooden door at the transept entrance.

A wooden door at the transept entrance.

A view across the transept - the transept was added in 1891-92.

A view across the transept – the transept was added in 1891-92.

Another view down the nave.

Another view down the nave.

The tropical adapted neo-gothic design features windows which allow both light and ventilation into the church.

The tropical adapted neo-gothic design features windows which allow both light and ventilation into the church.

The statue of St. Peter at the entrance.

A statue of St. Peter at the entrance.

And one of St. Paul.

And one of St. Paul.





An oasis that will be lost for two years

7 05 2013

Serving the faithful for more than 165 years, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd on Queen Street, will soon see its gates closed. The last of several surviving structures lining Bras Basah Road from the 1800s that is still used in the role it had been built for, the closure is thankfully not a permanent one. The Cathedral is taking a much needed two-year break so that repairs can be carried out on its long suffering structure.

A reflection of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd which will be closed for two years to allow repair work on its structure to be carried out.

Not a mirage of an oasis but a reflection of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd which is a spiritual oasis for many in the city. The Cathedral will be closed for two years to allow much repair work on its structure to be carried out.

Gates which will soon be closed.

Gates which will soon be closed.

Closing gates at the Queen Street side.

Closing gates at the Queen Street side.

That the building (see a previous post: Whispers of an otherwise silent world), bears the marks of age as well as the scars left by recent construction activity in the area. Large cracks, crumbling plaster work, and shoring at the end facing Victoria Street are all very visible. With the Cathedral requiring a huge effort to raise sufficient funds to cover the repairs, (public funding available for such work is limited – see Whispers of an otherwise silent world), estimated to cost somewhere in the order of S$40 million, repair work could only commence once sufficient funds were available to cover the initial costs.  The amount raised thus far through private donations and fund raising activities is well short of the target and much more is needed to cover the entire cost.

The steeple. Cracks at this end of the building and shoring erected to provide support is very visible.

The steeple. Cracks at this end of the building and shoring erected to provide support is very visible.

Crumbling plaster work can also be seen.

Crumbling plaster work can also be seen.

The Cathedral building, built originally as the Church of the Good Shepherd in the Renaissance style, is probably less interesting as a building than several other Gothic inspired Catholic buildings in the vicinity. The church, which originally stood at the site of the former St. Joseph’s Institution (now Singapore Art Museum), was erected on the present site through the efforts of a tireless French missionary, Fr. Jean Marie Beurel. Fr. Beurel was also responsible for setting up St. Joseph’s Institution and the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in the mid 1850s. What is perhaps most interesting about the Cathedral is one of the Cathedral’s two pipe organs, the older Gallery Organ which was installed in 1912. Restored in the early 1980s (completed in 1984), the organ is now the oldest working pipe organ in Singapore. The second organ, the Choir Organ was set up in 1994 by Robert Navaratnam who also lent his hand in the restoration of the Gallery Organ. More on the Cathedral’s architecture and pipe organs can be found on a Wikipedia page on the Cathedral.

A view down the nave. The gallery on the upper level and the Gallery Organ can be seen at the end of the nave.

A view down the nave. The gallery on the upper level and the Gallery Organ can be seen at the end of the nave.

Interestingly, the Cathedral holds the relics of a Saint, that of St. Laurent Imbert. Fr. Imbert was a French missionary who had been martyred in Korea in 1839 and his remains found its way to the Cathedral. The  name of Cathedral (then church) is in fact attributed to the Saint, who is thought to be the first Catholic priest to set foot on our shores, arriving in December 1821 on his way from Penang to China. The dedication of the church to the Good Shepherd is explained in an article in a July 2006 edition of The Catholic News:

The dedication of the church to the Good Shepherd stems from a note written by St. Laurent Imbert to his fellow missionaries, Fathers Jacques Chastan and Pierre Maubant, asking them to surrender to the authorities to save their flocks from extermination during a period of Christian persecution in Korea. He had written, “In desperate circumstances, the Good Shepherd lays down His Life for His Sheep”. They did and the three of them were beheaded on Sep 21, 1839.  

News of this and their martyrdom reached Singapore at a time when Father Beurel and company were considering an appropriate name for the church. Father Rene Nicolas, the current Procurator of the Paris Foreign Missions (MEP) in Singapore, discovered a little casket with the relics of Father Imbert all but forgotten on the first floor of the sacristy of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd when he was its Vice-Rector.

 A proper memorial with the relics was installed on a wall of the Cathedral in the left transept of the building. It was felt that this was only appropriate as it was through Father Imbert that the first Catholic contact was made in Singapore. While on his way from the Penang College General to his mission in China, he visited Singapore in December 1821 and reported to the Apostolic Vicar of Siam that he had found a dozen Catholics here.

A tablet laid to commemorate the consecration of the church as a Cathedral in 1897.

A tablet laid to mark the corner stone with information on the consecration of the church as a Cathedral in 1897.

The Cathedral, due to its central location, does offer many, including myself, a spiritual oasis – its grounds are particularly calm and peaceful and an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, which during the two years will be lost. It has also played host to many groups including migrants communities who as a result of the temporary closure would have to find a new or temporary home. One, the Korean Catholic Community has since found a new home at the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Several others including the resident choir, the Cathedral Choir of the Risen Christ, will be using the premises of the Church of St. Joseph (Portuguese Church) nearby in Victoria Street.

The Cathedral played host to the local community of Korean Catholics who have since found a new home at Nativity Church in Hougang.

The Cathedral played host to the local community of Korean Catholics who have since found a new home at Nativity Church in Hougang.

A statue of the late Pope John Paul II put up in 2006 to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of ties between the Vatican and Singapore and the 20th Anniversary of the Papal visit.

A statue of the late Pope John Paul II put up in 2006 to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of ties between the Vatican and Singapore and the 20th Anniversary of the Papal visit.

The Cathedral has always been a spiritual oasis in the heart of the city.

The Cathedral has always been a spiritual oasis in the heart of the city …

... rain or shine ...

… rain or shine …

The main entrance. Two iron spiral staircases to the gallery and the statues of St. Anthony of Padua and St. Francis Xavier welcome the visitor.

The main entrance. Two iron spiral staircases to the gallery and the statues of St. Anthony of Padua and St. Francis Xavier welcome the visitor.

The more recently installed Choir Organ in the North Transept and the choir stalls.

The more recently installed Choir Organ in the North Transept and the choir stalls.

A view through a window along the nave.

A view through a window along the nave.

A  Pietà at the entrance.

A Pietà at the entrance.

The statue of St. Joseph seen against the glass of the windows.

The statue of St. Joseph seen against the glass of the windows.

Detail of the glass.

Detail of the glass.

A view towards the Sanctuary - a large crack on the upper part of the wall behind it can clearly be seen.

A view towards the Sanctuary – a large crack on the upper part of the wall behind it can clearly be seen.

More views around the Cathedral:

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Perspectives of the museum

4 05 2013

As a child, the Museum, as I referred to the National Museum of Singapore, was a dark, somewhat mysterious and not a particularly interesting place to me. My earliest encounters were ones which besides being filled with tales of the supernatural occurrences the museum had a reputation for, I would most remember for the overpowering smell of the museum preservatives which filled some of the galleries, and also for the huge skeleton of a whale suspended from its ceiling.

The museum today attracts a lot more visitors than it did in my younger days.

The museum today attracts a lot more visitors than it did in my younger days.

The encounters I had with the museum during my days attending nearby St. Joseph’s Institution were to be the ones I was to remember most. The time my schoolmates and I had in between technical workshop sessions on Tuesdays and a quick lunch before school, meant there was ample time to wander around. The museum, as was the MPH bookstore at the corner of Stamford Road and Armenian Street, was an obvious destination on days when it was a little too hot to out, because of the cool relief its air-conditioning provided.

The skeleton of a whale which hung inside the museum until 1974 when it was presented to the Muzium Negara in Kuala Lumpur.

The skeleton of a whale which hung inside the museum until 1974 when it was presented to the Muzium Negara in Kuala Lumpur (photograph: National Archives online catalogue http://a2o.nas.sg/picas).

A gallery we would frequent was one where full length portraits hung along its long hallway. Located in the museum’s west wing, it was part of the National Museum’s Art Gallery which had been opened at the end of 1974. The portraits which seemed to glow in their illuminations would at times appear to come alive – which could be a reason why that particular gallery did not receive many visitors. This made it a wonderful place to escape to and to read and find some quiet in, particularly with the generously wide cushioned benches found in the gallery which were especially comfortable.

A couple viewing a photography exhibit at "Being Together: Family & Portraits - Photographing with John Clang".

A couple viewing a photography exhibit at “Being Together: Family & Portraits – Photographing with John Clang”.

Another look at "Being Together: Family & Portraits - Photographing with John Clang".

Another look at “Being Together: Family & Portraits – Photographing with John Clang”.

The museum has undergone tremendous changes over the three and a half decades or so since my youthful encounters, and has certainly become a much more interesting destination. Physically, the museum was to undergo a makeover in the mid 2000s during which time a modern glass and steel extension was added to the existing neo-classical building which has been a landmark in the area. Gazetted as a National Monument in 1992, the original building built to house the Raffles Library and Museum, is one that dates back to 1887.

The National Museum of Singapore.

The original National Museum of Singapore building was gazetted as a National Monument in 1992.

Yet another look at "Being Together: Family & Portraits - Photographing with John Clang".

Yet another look at “Being Together: Family & Portraits – Photographing with John Clang”.

These days, it is not so much for the air-conditioning that I find myself visiting the museum. The museum’s many galleries which have been made a lot more interesting and changing exhibitions provide not just a reason to do that, but also an opportunity to take delight in the wonderful mix of old and new in its architecture. The permanent exhibitions in the Singapore Living Galleries and in the Singapore History Gallery provides a wonderful appreciation of what makes us who we are as Singaporean today and certainly ones which every Singaporean should visit. For me, the museum offers a little more than all this, it does also provide me with many opportunities to capture moments in photographs beyond what the streets outside do offer and what perhaps is another perspective of the building and its exhibits.

A glass ceiling added at the original buiding's rear.

A glass ceiling added at the original buiding’s rear.

Information portal.

Information portal?





A cross at a crossroad

15 04 2013

The long and somewhat winding road journeys of my childhood are ones I now look back with much fondness. They are ones that were to put in touch with a Singapore that I grew to love, and a Singapore we have long forgotten. One of these drives which would take place during the Chinese New Year and on the occasions we ventured to one of the “ends of Singapore” to indulge in seafood, was to Punggol. Punggol was then a world away where the livestock population would in all probability have outnumbered the area’s human inhabitants.

A church which was one of two landmark which marked the start of Punggol.

A church which was one of two landmark which marked the start of Punggol.

Punggol for me began at the junction where we would have to make a left turn from a busy Upper Serangoon Road even then to Punggol Road. It was at this point that it felt we would leave the built-up world behind and turn-off into what could probably have been considered a countryside we no longer have. It was where coconut trees seem to dominate the landscape (that at least was my impression) – that I noticed them more than anything else was probably because of the curious sight of many of them without their lightning struck tops – a sight that was in fact common throughout rural Singapore.

Coconut trees with their tops struck off by lightning were once a common sight in much of rural Singapore, including in Punggol.

Coconut trees with their tops struck off by lightning were once a common sight in much of rural Singapore, including in Punggol.

The junction was one which was marked by two structures. One was the St. Francis Xavier Minor Seminary and the other a beautiful church which seemed out of place in the environment around it. And while much of the landscape of the area has been altered beyond recognition – the trees and high-density dwellings of pigs and poultry have now been replaced by towering blocks of high-density human dwellings and the stretch of Punggol Road where the junction is has been renamed as Hougang Avenue 8, the two structures – now looking further out of place in the new environment, are still there to serve as reminders of a time and place we would otherwise have little memories of.

Windows into a world we have forgotten.

Windows into a world we have forgotten.

The church, the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary – Nativity Church in short, is one that is hard to miss, with its steeple rising high above the structures around it. One of several beautiful examples of a legacy that the French Catholic Missionaries left behind in South-East Asia, the church is of a form we seem to have forgotten to appreciate. Several examples of the style, commonly used in Catholic houses of worship built by the French missionaries in the 1800s and in early 1900s exhibit, do exist on the island. These include the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, the de-consecrated CHIJ Chapel (now part of the CHIJMES complex) and the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, all of which now feature in the growing list of Singapore’s National Monuments.

The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of several examples of the French Gothic church architecture adapted for the tropics.

The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of several examples of Neo-Gothic church architecture adapted for the tropics. The marble statue of Mary in the foreground is interestingly a gift from Sultan Ibrahim of Johor in 1946.

Built in what can possibly be described as a European inspired Neo-Gothic style adapted for the tropics, the buildings are very similar in appearance. Nativity Church which was completed in 1901, is however, the only one that was placed in a rural setting – pointing not just to a pattern of faith of the community in the area, but also perhaps of a pattern of immigration to and settlement on the island of Singapore.

The transept which was an addition to the original church building illuminated by the soft natural light of the morning.

The transept which was an addition made in 1933 to the original church building illuminated by the soft natural light of the morning.

The area is of course one of several rural areas in which the Teochew community, the second largest group of Chinese immigrants to Singapore, was dominant. The community, many of whom converted to the Catholic faith as well as to other forms of Christianity, were involved in fishing, in farming, as well as in the rubber (and before that pineapple) plantations through much of the countryside along the northern coast of Singapore. With the community and the adoption of faith, missionaries erected several houses of worship – and there are, as a result, several reminders of this in the form of churches, or in the absence of them, parishes which had their origins in these rural Teochew communities. These include the Nativity Church, the Parish of St. Anthony (now in Woodlands) which was previously based off Stephen Lee Road in Mandai, and also a church with a very distinct Teochew flavour in its architecture, St. Joseph’s Church at Upper Bukit Timah Road.

Seeing the light - the soft light illuminating the nave - part of the original structure.

Seeing the light – the soft light illuminating the nave – part of the original structure.

The background to the parish community, the church, as well as on the architecture of the beautiful building is well documented. Much of this information is available on the church’s website, as well as on the Preservation of Monuments Board’s page on the building. Being a Catholic myself, buildings such as these represent a time when architecture and much of what when on around the church, was dedicated to the greater glory of the maker. On a personal level, my interactions with the parish and church are limited, coming to the church only on occasion – the last time I did spend some time in it was on the occasion of my sister’s wedding at the church some years ago. The opportunity to step in to the church again came recently when I found myself nearby with some time to spare.

A holy water font at the entrance of the church.

A holy water font at the entrance of the church.

The nave of the church.

The nave of the church.

Churches are always places where I find a great sense of peace in and in the quiet of the Saturday morning I was there, it was just that I found in stepping through the huge doors at the entrance, finding the interior bathed in the soft natural light of the morning streaming through the generous openings typically found in the tropically adapted Neo-Gothic church design. The church both internally and externally is a visual treat. On the insides, its high vaulted ceiling is accompanied by the rows of arches which would typically line the nave. Focus is drawn towards the Sanctuary bathed in the coloured light of stained glass a building such as this would look bare without.

Some of the church's stained glass windows.

Some of the church’s stained glass windows.

The interior with its adornments and furnishings, is a wonderful reminder of how Catholic churches used to be. The dark stained carved wooden pews is a rare find now with most churches around having been built in more modern times. The walls of the transept are where the statues representing the various saints are placed. These are typical of most Catholic churches and in the older ones it would be in purpose built niches as the ones found in this church in which the statues are placed. The windows, which can be opened, provide not just natural ventilation, but also light – typical of architecture adapted for the tropically environment which we do not see in modern buildings built to be air-conditioned.

A view down the aisle.

A view down the aisle.

A statue of St. Vainney placed in a niche at the transept.

A statue of St. John Vianney placed in a niche at the transept.

There is a lot as well that is interesting about the church’s history, including that a statue of Mary was donated by Sultan Ibrahim of Johor (the great grandfather of the current Sultan of Johor). Placed in a prominent position in front of the church, that is a reminder of the close ties bewteen the southern sultanate and colony which was once a part of it. The church today, while serving the needs of the parish community – which is still predominently Teochew, has also reached out to newer migrants – since the end of last year, it is also where the Korean Catholic community has been based at.

Coloured glass windows.

Coloured glass windows which can be opened allow the church to be naturally illuminated and ventilated.

The church in continuing to serve the spiritual needs of the evolving community does stand as a reminder of the purpose it was built to serve. Gazetted as a National Monument since 2005, it is one that will also stand as a reminder of the area’s past, a past which with the spread of the urban world to the area, is one which is increasing hard to remember.





Recoloured memories

21 03 2013

It is in the silence of a once familiar world disfigured by the winds of change, that I often wander, clinging on to what little there is to remember of a forgotten time that the winds have not swept away. The memories I have are plenty. They are of wonderful times past painted in the colours of a world we have sought to discard. They are today, recoloured by bright hues that mask the grayness painting the world today.

A recoloured memory seen silos that seek to recolour another memory -  the former Stamford College repainted in the colours of the Oxford Hotel, seen through construction storage silos on the site of the former Stamford Community Centre.

A recoloured memory seen silos that seek to recolour another memory – the former Stamford College on Queen Street repainted in the colours of the Oxford Hotel, seen through construction storage silos on the site of the former Stamford Community Centre.

Along with the recoluring of the reminders, a gust from the winds of change has recently blown through, taking buildings which once belonged to the community which since has been dispersed – that of the former Stamford Community Centre on Queen Street. Rising in place of that will be a building that looks like another that will take attention away from the ones we should really be paying attention to.

The former Stamford Community Centre - where with schoolmates I often climbed into to kick a football on the basketball court has been demolished - in its place, a China Cultural Centre is bing built.

A window into a changing world. The former Stamford Community Centre – where with schoolmates I often climbed into to kick a football on the basketball court has been demolished – in its place, a China Cultural Centre is bing built.

The new building will be the home of the China Cultural Centre, intended to promote the understanding of Chinese culture and deepen ties with between China, which is setting it up with Singapore. The setting up of the centre in the heart of a historically rich district of Singapore is representative perhaps of the growing influence of an economically powerful and increasingly influential China and the influx of the new Chinese immigrants from that new China which all have the effect of recolouring the rich mix of Chinese cultures and sub-cultures that were brought in by the early Chinese immigrants who gave Singapore a huge part of its culturally rich and diverse flavour.

Signs of the times - the growing influence of a people descends on a world once built for the people.

Signs of the times – the growing influence of a people descends on a world once built for the people.

The school that I spent four wonderful years in, has also since moved, a contemporary art museum now occupies the buildings which were left behind. The main building – with its beautiful façade, its curved wings and portico giving it a very distinct and welcoming appearance, was one that welcomed the many white uniformed schoolboys – as many as 2200 were enrolled at its peak. Gazetted as a National Monument in 1992, it is one that I am thankful is being preserved, allowing me to keep some of my memories of the space intact, recoloured or otherwise.

A building that was the school I went to - recoloured as a museum for contemporary art. The far corner to the right of the portico was where a fish pond shaded by a guava tree was in my schooldays.

A building that was the school I went to – recoloured as a museum for contemporary art. The far corner to the right of the portico was where a fish pond shaded by a guava tree was in my schooldays.

A view recoloured - looking towards at the end of the wing where the 2104 Pelandok Scout Den had been.

A view recoloured – looking towards at the end of the wing where the 2104 Pelandok Scout Den had been.

Another that is recoloured, the former Middle Road Church at the corner of Middle Road and Waterloo Street, thankfully in this case for the better, is a favourite of mine for the curious sight it offered in my younger days – a motor workshop. That is the subject of a very recent post and a memory that, as with the others I am still fortunate to have, I will long hold on to.

The recoloured former church which was coloured by the oil and grease of a motor workshop in the days of my childhood.

The recoloured former church which was coloured by the oil and grease of a motor workshop in the days of my childhood.





A synagogue on Church Street

21 11 2012

A street in Singapore that I have long been familiar with from my many encounters with it throughout my childhood and my days going to school in the area is Waterloo Street. Well-known back in the 1970s for the ‘sarabat stalls’ – a row of food stalls which was a destination for not just good teh sarabat (ginger tea), but also where some of the best Indian rojak in Singapore was to be found, Waterloo Street was also where many rather stately looking buildings could be found – particularly along the stretch that is directly opposite the former St. Joseph’s Institution (now the Singapore Art Museum) which I attended. One which did stand out – was a white building with blue windows and a blue Star of David which we referred to as the synagogue, the Maghain Aboth Synagogue.

Glass at the synagogue’s porch.

The synagogue as seen from Waterloo Street today.

The synagogue was always a place that seemed mysterious to me, and one that has remained a mystery until very recently when I had an opportunity to see its insides through a Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB) Monument Open House walking tour. Maghain Aboth Synagogue, which translates as “Shield of our Fathers”, one of two Jewish houses of worship found in Singapore (the other being the Chesed-El), is the oldest existing synagogue not only in Singapore, but also in South-East Asia. Gazetted as a National Monument in 1998, the synagogue provides a link not just to a small but historically significant ethno-religious community in Singapore, but also to the trade motivated diaspora of Baghdadi Jews which saw the arrival from India of the first members of the community in Singapore in the 1830s.

Maghain Aboth Synagogue in 1982 (source: from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

The synagogue from inside the compound.

An aerial view of the Bras Basah area in the 1970s in which the Maghain Aboth Synagogue can be seen at the top (left) of the picture.

The Maghain Aboth wasn’t the first synagogue in Singapore. The first was one that was housed in a shophouse. Established in 1841, it was to give Synagogue Street its name and served the community until the 1870s. The limited to its capacity coupled with a fast growing Jewish population in Singapore required a larger building than the shophouse which house a congregation of forty. The land at Waterloo Street (which until 1858 had been known as Church Street) on which the present synagogue, the Maghain Aboth stands, was secured in the 1870s by Sir Manasseh Meyer (who later also built the Chesed-El as a private synagogue) and the Maghain Aboth was built. The synagogue designed in the neo-classical style was completed in 1878 with several extensions added over its 134 years, including a second level seating gallery to allow women to worship. It was close to the synagogue that a larger community of Baghdadi Jews began to settle around – giving rise to the Jewish quarter around the nearby Middle Road and Selegie Road area that came to be known as the Mahallah.

The entrance to the synagogue in the 1970s (source: National Archives of Singapore http://a2o.nas.sg/picas).

A map of the Bras Basah area in the mid 1800s well before the Maghain Aboth was built. Waterloo Street had then been named Church Street.

The layout of the synagogue is very similar to but is much less elaborated decorated than the Chesed-El. The centre of the hall which faces Jerusalem features a bimah, a raised wooden pulpit where the rabbi leads prayers and reads from Torah scrolls (Sefer Torah) during services. At the west end of the hall, the most sacred part of the synagogue, the the ahel or ark is arranged. The ark is where the Torah scrolls are kept, covered by a parochet or curtain.

The prayer hall points west towards Jerusalem. At the end of the hall is the ahel or ark. The pulpit or bimah is seen in the centre.

The eastward view of the prayer hall from the west end.

The ark or ahel behind the parochet or curtains is most sacred part of the synagogue and where the Torah scrolls are kept.

The bimah.

The part of the bimah on which the rabbi leads the prayers.

The ahel or ark.

A more recent extension to the compound on which the synagogue stands is where the stained glass fronted Jacob Ballas Centre now towers over the Maghain Aboth. Built as a community centre, the Jacob Ballas Centre is named after a very successful stock broker, the late Jacob Ballas, who was a prominent member of the community. The centre houses function rooms, offices and accommodation for the rabbis, a kosher slaughter room for fresh chicken, a kosher restaurant as well as a kosher shop. For more information on the Maghain Aboth and the Jacob Ballas Centre, do visit the links below.

Stained glass at the Jacob Ballas Centre.

Stained glass at the Jacob Ballas Centre.

A reading room at the Jacob Ballas Centre.


Resources on the Jewish Community, Sir Manasseh Meyer and the Maghain Aboth Synagogue:

Jewish Community in Singapore (on The Jewish Community of Singapore)
Jewish Community in Singapore (on The Jewish Times Asia)
Sir Manasseh Meyer (on infopedia)
Maghain Aboth (on infopedia)
Maghain Aboth Synagogue (on The Jewish Community of Singapore)
Maghain Aboth Synagogue (on PMB’s website)


More views around the Maghain Aboth





The synagogue at Belle Vue

19 10 2012

One of the wonderful things about Singapore is the diverse cultural and religious practices, some modified with time, some influenced by the environment, but many that remain distinct reflecting the many lands far and wide from which immigrants to Singapore have arrived from. Besides the myriad of festivals that seem to go on all year around, this diversity is also reflected in its architectural heritage – some 28 of its 64 National Monuments are places of worship which are very much in use today.

A page from religious diversity of Singapore – a Sefer Torah at the Chesed-El Synagogue.

Two of the 64 that I had an opportunity to visit during a recent Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB) walking tour were the Hong San See Temple and the Chesed-El Synagogue. The Hong San See or Temple on Phoenix Hill is one that I already am familiar with from a previous visit. A magnificent and beautifully restored example of Fujian Lam Ann (Nan’an) religious architecture, its last restoration effort from 2007 to 2009 earned a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2010. More information on the temple can be found in my previous post The Temple on Phoenix Hill.

The Chesed-El Synagogue at Oxley Rise was one of two religious monuments I recently had an opportunity to see as part of a Monumental Walking Tour organised by the PMB.

The main motivation for my participation in the tour was more for the opportunity it provided to visit a synagogue as I had never in stepped into one. While there are two such places of worship in Singapore, such opportunities are rare, especially due to more recent security concerns and this provided me with a look of what it was like behind the façade of a religious building belonging to a small and sometimes lesser known local community which has made a significant contribution to Singapore.

Opportunities to visit a synagogue are rare especially with more recent security concerns.

A look beyond the Chesed-El’s façade. The wooden pulpit or bimah is seen in the centre of the hall with the ahel or ark at the end.

The Jews in Singapore have certainly made a huge contribution to its development with many notable names through Singapore’s history, members of the community. One of its prominent members in the early days of Singapore was a certain Sir Manasseh Meyer, a highly successful businessman and property owner, who counted among his properties, the Sea View Hotel and the Adelphi Hotel, lending his name to Meyer Road. It was also Manasseh Meyer who built the Chesed-El, Singapore’s second synagogue (after Maghain Aboth in Waterloo Street).

Participants on the walking tour had a chance to look at the second of two synagogues in Singapore.

The Chesed-El completed in 1905 on Manasseh Meyer’s sprawling estate in Oxley Rise, Belle Vue, was designed by Regent Alfred John Bidwell of architectural frim Swan & Maclaren (which was responsible for many of the monumental works of architecture in Singapore) in the Palladian style. What had prompted Manasseh Meyer to build Chesed-El, which translates as the “bountiful mercy and goodness of God” were differences of opinions which members of the community from differing backgrounds had at the Maghain Aboth, which was built as a private synagogue.

The synagogue was completed in 1905.

The building was built in the grand Palladian style.

Besides providing the opportunity to have a look into the synagogue, the visit also allowed a better appreciation of the layout of a synagogue. Placed in a westward facing direction to Judaism’s eternal city, Jerusalem, a wooden pulpit rises at centre of the hall. The pulpit or bimah, is where prayers where the rabbi leads the prayers, and where the Torah scrolls (Sefer Torah) are placed and read during services.

The entrance to the synagogue.

A closer look at the bimah.

The entrance and the balconies on the upper gallery.

Inside the lower gallery.

A reminder.

The visit also allowed us a peek at the upper gallery where the women are kept separated from the men during services. The balconies on the upper gallery feature iron work that we were told were imported from Scotland which provided an appreciation of the effort taken in the building of the house of worship for the greater glory of the Maker.

The balconies on the upper gallery, reserved for women, feature beautifully crafted ironwork imported from Scotland.

The staircase to the upper gallery.

A view through an arch on the upper gallery.

The women’s perspective.

A quiet room on the upper gallery.

Another view from the upper gallery.

The upper gallery.

The highlight of the visit was a close-up look we had at Sefer Torah as well as a look into the holiest part of the synagogue, the ark or ahel – a room where the Sefer Torahs are stored. The sefers or scrolls are made from specially handwritten parchment and are ones donated by members of the congregation, and includes one that is a hundred years old.

The ahel at the front end of the hall is behind three curtains.

A rabbi opening a Sefer Torah.

A hundred year old Sefer Torah in the ahel.

Floor tiles.

The ahel’s entrances are covered by a curtain or parochet.

Ironwork above the ahel.

The look at the synagogue was one that provided not only an insight into the religious practices of a small but important community in Singapore, but also one which offered a window into the role the many successful immigrants who came from far and wide played in building and supporting their respective communities. It is these communities which have provided the foundation on which Singapore’s success is built and which makes Singapore that wonderful celebration of cultures and religions that it is today.

The grounds of the synagogue.


Resources on the Jewish Community, Sir Manasseh Meyer and the Chesed-El Synagogue:

Jewish Community in Singapore (on The Jewish Community of Singapore)
Jewish Community in Singapore (on The Jewish Times Asia)
Sir Manasseh Meyer (on infopedia)
Chesed-El Synagogue (on infopedia)
Chesed-El Synagogue (on The Jewish Community of Singapore)
Chesed-El Synagogue (on PMB’s website)






Tanjong Pagar: a promise that we now know would never be fulfilled

11 07 2012

Standing silently and somewhat forgotten is a building that, only a year ago, attracted many people’s attention in Singapore. This building, the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, a magnificent architectural achievement once described as having a “palatial appearance”, recently joined Singapore’s list of National Monuments. Completed in 1932, the station was built as a centrepiece to underline Singapore’s growing importance as an economic centre in the British Far East, serving as a gateway for the southernmost point in continental Asia to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Located opposite the docks at Tanjong Pagar, the station was one that had been well-considered. The then Governor of Singapore, Sir Cecil Clementi, in his address at the station’s opening on 2 May 1932, had made the observation that it was “a natural junction between land-borne and sea-borne traffic” and mentioned that it was “where every facility will be afforded for interchange between railway and ocean shipping”. The promise was, however, not fulfilled – Sir Cecil could not have predicted that the railway’s importance as a means of transportation in the Malayan peninsula would diminish.

The station’s opening that day was marked by the 5.15 pm arrival, from Bukit Panjang Station, of its first train. This train carried several dignitaries, including the Governor, the Sultan of Perak and Mr J Strachan, the General Manager of the Federated Malay States Railway. Several months prior to the opening (on 2 January 1932), the station had already made its public debut – by playing host to a Manufacturers’ Exhibition – an indication perhaps of its eventual destiny.

The station’s façade with the four large triumphal figures.

My first encounters with the station took place at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s. My parents often drove past, drawn by the hawker stalls which operated in the evenings in a car-park facing the station’s entrance. It was while sitting at the tables in the car-park that I would gaze across to the station’s façade and stare at the four large, triumphal figures that flanked the portico’s arches. The figures were the work of Angelo Vannetti of the Raoul Bigazzi Studios Florence and represented the pillars of the Malayan economy. These triumphal figures are evidence of the Art Deco style chosen by its architects, Swan and MacLaren. Thought to have been inspired by Helsinki’s Central Station, it is believed the station also shares some of Washington DC’s Union Station’s design features. In fact Tanjong Pagar Station’s architectural elements reveal both western and eastern influences; the green-tiled roof structures were inspired by the roofs of Chinese Temples.

The main hall of the station. Part of the vaulted ceiling and batik-style mosaic panels can be seen.

On the rare occasions when I found myself in the main hall, the high vaulted ceiling that rises some 22 metres above the ground caught my attention, as did the six sets of mosaic panels that resemble giant batik paintings. The mosaic panels, which contain a total of 9,000 tiles, looked very much like the batik prints hanging in my home. The panels depict scenes that represent the economies of the then Federated Malay States. At that time, the station had also housed a hotel on the upper floors, around the main hall. A huge sign in the north-east corner of the hall made sure this did not go unnoticed.

It was in the 1990s that I first took a train out of the station. Seemingly in defiance of its location, a huge blue “Welcome to Malaysia” sign stood above the station’s entrance. A Points of Agreement (POA) had been signed in 1990 between the Malaysian Government and their Singapore counterparts. This was to pave the way for the eventual moving of the station from Tanjong Pagar and would involve its handover along with the land the railway ran through (whose ownership was transferred to the railway administration through a 1918 ordinance – effectively making it part of Malaysia).

Two decades of protracted negotiations followed the 1990 POA before the differences in its interpretation resulted in a renegotiation of land swap arrangements between the two governments. The moving of the station from Tanjong Pagar and the handover of land was agreed on only in May 2010.

It was perhaps at the beginning of 2011 that interest in the station and in train journeys from Tanjong Pagar started to build. The realisation that the station was soon to close drew crowds not previously seen at the station. Many turned up for a final look, to make a last departure or to have a last meal at the station, joined by a frenzy of photographers and members of both the local and overseas media, who seemed intent on recording the station’s last days.

A few former food stall operators having a last breakfast on 30 June 2011.

The final day of operations at the station, 30 June 2011, came all too soon. It was an especially poignant day for the station’s railway staff and also for the food-stall operators – some were seen having a last breakfast in the almost empty room that only days before had been filled with food-stalls and tables filled with diners. Well before the first train was to depart, a crowd had already gathered in the main hall. Many had come to witness the final moments. Some had come to start a journey that would end with a final homecoming to the station on the very last train that evening.

The crowds grew as the day passed. As night fell, many more gathered to witness the historic departure of the last train out, to be driven by the Sultan of Johor. I had come on the very last in-bound train and was prepared for the reception at the station by the scenes I had seen along the way. Huge crowds had gathered at Bukit Timah Station and at each of the five level crossings, to bid goodbye. After the train finally pulled in following a long delay at Bukit Timah, I lingered a while before stepping out onto the platform. I turned back for a final glance at the platform, realising that would be the last of my many homecomings into Tanjong Pagar.

The crowd at Tanjong Pagar late on 30 June 2011 to witness the departure of the last train.

As I stepped through the barrier, a crowd of would-be passengers heading towards the same train that had pulled in (now the last train out) almost swept me along with them. I managed to squeeze my way out while a frenzy was developing in the public areas. Through the crowd I spotted the Sultan, dressed in a checked shirt and speaking to reporters with tears in his eyes. At the final hour a huge cheer could be heard as the train pulled out, driven by the Sultan. In a daze I stared after it as the train faded into the darkness. It was then that I heard the silence that was there despite the noise coming from the crowd. It was one that filled the air – a silence that after some 79 years would never again be broken by the once-familiar sounds, a silence that spoke of the promise that we now know would never be fulfilled.


This article was written to coincide with the first anniversary of the closure of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and has been published as “Tanjong Pagar Railway Station” in the July / August issue of Passage, a bi-monthly magazine produced by the Friends of the Museums (FOM).


Further information on Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and on the anniversary of the handover:

  • Photographs of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station on the anniversary of its handover can be found at my post Tanjong Pagar One Year On.
  • A complete series of posts related to my encounters with Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, the railway and the journeys I have made through the station can be found at my “Journeys Through Tanjong Pagar” page.
  • Article (in Chinese) that may be of interest published in the Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao on the 1st of July in which some my views connected with the Rail Corridor were sought can be found at this link.




Faces from a forgotten place

3 07 2012

This post features a selection of photographs intended to capture part of what had made the much loved Tanjong Pagar Railway Station what it was just prior to its closure, one to celebrate the many faces that provided the station with its heart and soul. The faces are ones that would be familiar, and are not just of the people who were part of the fabric the station, but also of the many that came and went and of the sights and sounds that gave the station its unique flavour, a flavour that, despite the conservation of the building as a National Monument, will fade as memories fade. The photographs are the same ones which were presented during a sharing session at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station open house held on the afternoon of 1st July 2012 – the first anniversary of the handover of the station and the railway land to the Singapore government. The open house was held as part of the Rail Corridor Open Day and also included guided walks around Bukit Timah Railway Station.

While the building, now gazetted as a National Monument still stands, it is the memory of what had made the station what it was – the familiar sights, the people that came and went, and most of all the people who were very much a part of the fabric of the station that will with time fade.

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station as it was is a place that always will be dear to me. I have many fond memories of the station from my previous encounters, encounters that go back to the earliest days of my life. Then, it was the food stalls that magically appeared in the evenings at a car park the lights of which dimly illuminate the station’s grand façade and its four triumphal figures. That was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was after the latter half of the 1970s that the station would become a feature in my Chinese New Year reunion dinners – my aunt who hosted the dinners moved to a flat in Spottiswoode Park just by the station and reunion dinners would not be the same without the accompaniment of the sounds of whistles and of the noisy diesel locomotives from the station. The 1990s brought me my many encounters with the station through which I made numerous trips up to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur and back – journeys that would forever be etched in my memory. These encounters with the station, and the memorable journeys I made through it, I have attempted to capture through a series of blog posts which many of you might have already read. However if they are of interest, the posts can be found through the page “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Once familiar sights

A car belonging to the Malayan Railway, KTM, parked in front of the building.

The main hall as it looked at eye level in its latter days – a Tourism Malaysia hut was placed right in the middle of the hall.

The ticket counter in quieter days – well before the madness of the last two months descended on the station.

Waiting to buy a ticket often required some patience.

Especially when the ticketing system is down – that in my experience often happened.

Another sign one might encounter ….

We were always reminded that we had to pay not the equivalent in the local currency for the price of a ticket but one unit of the local currency for every unit of the weaker Ringgit.

And when you did finally get your hands on the ticket, you could find a seat in the main hall to pass your time away …

… which provides many opportunities for people watching …

… or as I often do, have a cup of teh tarik at the platform – a popular spot for watching the coming and going of not just the trains and the locomotives.

Access to the departure platform was through a gate that would only be opened about half an hour prior to the scheduled departure of the trains to facilitate immigration clearance. On the commuter services on which seating is not assigned, passengers would often crowd at the gate prior to departure, ready to make a dash first for the Immigration counters. After clearing Immigration and Customs, the same thing would happen at a barrier which when opened will see a mad rush of passengers to the train carriages.

Tickets would be checked and punched at the departure gate.

From which one would proceed to the immigration counters.

With the shift of Singapore’s CIQ to Woodlands in mid 1998 and the Malaysian authorities maintaining their Immigration and Customs counters at the station, passengers would effectively enter Malaysia before leaving Singapore.

Passengers boarding the last luxury E&O train to depart from Tanjong Pagar posing next to Malaysian Immigration booths.

The last E&O train to depart at the platform.

Returning home, one of the first things that would greet you (post mid 1998) as you walked to the end of the platform was the barrier before you got into the public area. Prior to the move of the SIngapore CIQ, you would first have to pass through Singapore Immigration, Customs and a narrow passage through a fenced area where K9 unit dogs would sniff passengers for smuggled narcotics.

The next thing one would encounter would be the canteen / coffee shop at which one could stop to have a meal or a drink prior to leaving. I often picked up my breakfast from the canteen after coming in on the overnight train from KL.

The canteen would also be a great place to wait for returning members of the family and friends.

It was also a wonderful place to catch up with friends over a cup of tea ….

.. or to have dinner with the family.

It would be common to see passengers with large pieces of luggage leaving the station.

The station had a hotel which closed in the 1980s. Towards the end of its life, it hosted a hostel with dormitory type double bunk bed accommodation which offered a cheap place to spend the night or even take a short rest – this closed in late 2010.

Trying to get a taxi home was always a challenge as many taxi drivers did not like to wait at the station as trains arrival times were unpredictable.

Once familiar faces

One of the first faces one would encounter driving to the station’s car park.

And if one needed to use the rest room.

One that you might have seen at the Habib Railway Book Store and Money Changer, Mr Syed Ahmad.

Mr Syed’s nephew – ‘Nazir’ would probably have been seen more frequently.

The hardworking last Station Master at Tanjong Pagar – En. Ayub.

A very helpful ticketing clerk, En. Azmi, who was posted to the station on 1st July 1990. He completed a full 21 years at the station when it ceased operations on 30th June 2011.

A few more of the familiar faces (and less familiar ones) …

Mr Mahmoodul Hasan who ran the two canteens in the station before its closure.

Some of those who assisted him at the drinks counter and the popular Ramly Burger stand.

One of the ladies from the food stall at the corner of M Hasan 2.

One of the stall assistants at the platform.

The chapati man at M Hasan 2.

One who is always ready with a smile – the Satay stall’s assistant at M Hasan 2.

And last of all one that should not be forgotten – one of the many cats the station was home to.





Tanjong Pagar one year on

2 07 2012

I stepped into the eerie silence of a world that a little over a year ago, had been one that had seen the frenzy that accompanied the last moments of the old Malayan Railway’s operations through Singapore. The now silent world, Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, is now but an empty shell, abandoned by the trains that regularly punctured the air with the deafening roar of their diesel locomotives as well as by the people who made the station what it was – the hardworking staff of the railway, those who saw to providing it with essential services, and those who came and went with the comings and goings of the trains.

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station 1 year on.

The station was able to momentarily break out of its solitude due to a kind offer by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) to the Nature Society Singapore (NSS) and the Friends of the Rail Corridor to open up both Tanjong Pagar Railway Station to the public on the first anniversary of the handover of the station and the Rail Corridor to the Government of Singapore. As a result of this, a Rail Corridor Open Day was very quickly put together. This included a guided walk in the morning held at Bukit Timah Station which was followed by an open house at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station in the afternoon. The handful of people that did turn up at Tanjong Pagar, probably numbering about a hundred during the course of the afternoon comprising rail enthusiasts, familiar faces that I met during last year’s frenzy, the curious and some who hail from distant shores, got an opportunity to participate in a guided tour conducted by Dr Lai Chee Kien and learn more about the station and its and the railway’s history.

The main hall during the guided tour – now clear of the Tourism Malaysia hut that had got in the way of achieving a nice perspective in photographs that were taken before the handover.

The open house also allowed some to share some of what they have put together on the station. This included a poignant and very interesting documentary made in 2008, Project 1932, by Zinkie Aw that touches on some of the people who were part of the station’s history. I also had to opportunity to share a series of photographs that I had captured to help me reconnect with the station as it once had been. The series which I named ‘Faces from a forgotten place’ includes once common scenes and once familiar faces, ones that we see now only in the memories we have of a little over a year ago. It is these very memories that I tried to find as I took the opportunity that was presented to explore what I could of the silence. In its emptiness and abandonment, it was not the memories that I was able to find, but ironically, the beauty of the station that I would otherwise not have known – spaces previously occupied and closed to us that even in the state of the two decades of neglect during which time its status had been in limbo is still obvious.

The station in its solitude was able to reveal some of its otherwise hidden beauty.

This beauty that we can still see takes us back to a time when the world had been a different place, to a time when it was thought the station would take its place as the grand southern terminal of the Malayan Railway and the gateway to the Pacific and Indian oceans – a promise that a little over 79 years after it was opened has proven to be one that was never to be fulfilled. What will become of the former station we do not know, its possible second life will be explored in a Design Competition that aims to develop concepts for the future use of the station which has been gazetted as a National Monument, Bukit Timah Railway Station (which has conservation status), and the 26 kilometres of the former Rail Corridor. What I do hope to see would be a use that will not just preserve the memory of the role it was meant to assume and the memories we have of the railway, but also one that with minimum intervention will see it retain not just the beauty that we have seen but also the beauty that has until now been one that has been hidden.

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station in its solitude

The emptiness that now fills the station offers another perspective of its beauty.

Once hidden spaces that in the station’s abandonment can now be seen, reveal a side of the station that has until now has not been seen by many.

A view out of the window at the white iron fence that lines the station’s boundary with Keppel Road.

The writing on the wall … a memory in an otherwise hidden space of what the station once was …

Recent writings on the wall … collection of wishes for the station written by visitors to the open house.

View through what was a freight forwarder’s office.

A storage area that was used by the canteen operator.

Windows to a forgotten world.

The silence of a once busy space.

More silence ….

Signs of a forgotten time.

The silence of departure (photo taken with Sony Xperia S).

Last act of the day – security personnel trying to close a platform gate that just refused to be closed …


Do visit my series of posts on my previous encounters with the station, the railway and the journeys I have made through the station which can be found at the “Journeys Through Tanjong Pagar” page on this site.


An article of that may be of interest in the Chinese newspaper Zaobao published on the 1st of July in which some my views on the preservation of memories connected with the Rail Corridor were sought: http://www.zaobao.com.sg/sp/sp120701_020_2.shtml … I’ll try to get that translated and posted here for the benefit of those that don’t read Chinese.






A one hundred year old beauty

26 06 2012

Of the places that remain of a childhood in a Singapore that I will never be able to see again, there is one which carries not just the memories of yesterday, but also the memory of an emotion that has almost been forgotten. The place, a church – St. Joseph’s Church in Victoria Street, which is housed in a building which on the 30th of June will celebrate its centenary, is one that takes me back to years which hold my earliest memories. It was a place where I had spent many Sunday mornings at mass after which I could look forward to sitting by tables and chairs laid by St. Anthony’s Boys’ School in the church’s compound where I could enjoy a bowl fishball noodles from the enterprising school canteen vendor who opened just to serve churchgoers on Sunday. It was also a place to which my grandmother would take me to every Good Friday, when arriving early to get a seat inside the church for its very popular Good Friday service, I would spend hours seated next to my grandmother as she sat in quiet contemplation.

St. Joseph’s Church, Victoria Street.

The church was known then to me as the ‘Portuguese Church’, a name which pointed to its origins in the Portuguese Mission in Singapore and its administration by Dioceses in the Portuguese colony of Goa and later in the Portuguese colony of Macau. The mission’s presence had dated back to the early 1820s – not long after Raffles founded modern Singapore, and predated the French Mission under which the Catholic churches in Singapore were later to come under. The Portuguese presence was to continue through the church which came under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Macau until 1981 and after through priests appointed to the church until 1999 by the Bishop of Macau. This long association with the Portuguese Mission has not only provided us with the beautiful building that houses the church, but also with a little bit of Portugal that manifests itself in the Iberian flavour of the church’s interior as well as traditions and practices that are unique to St. Joseph’s Church which even to this day is still very much in evidence.

The portico of the church with the marble statues of St. Joseph in the centre, flanked by St. John de Brito and St. John of God.

The rectory of the church seen through one of the arches at the entrance portico of the church.

The current church building was blessed by the Bishop of Macau, Dom João Paulino Azevedo e Castro on the 30th of June 1912. The grand ceremony had commenced at 7 am with a procession during which various points around the exterior of the church were blessed before the congregation was admitted into the new church building’s interior in which as newspaper reports would have it “nearly every available space” was occupied.

The interior of St. Joseph’s Church dressed up in red for Easter this year. Newspaper reports mention that ‘nearly every available space’ in the church was occupied for its opening solemnities.

Darkness and light – the beautiful illuminated interior of the church.

The congregation that morning would have been the first to marvel at the splendour that was the new church building’s interior, one that even with the worn appearance that it now wears, is still very much a sight to behold. It is this interior, and its 14th Century style Gothic design that for me makes the church the most beautiful in Singapore. The interior is one that at time of the day is illuminated by a soft and beautiful pale green light that streams through the generous panels of stained glass it is provided with that casts both light and shadow on the many niches that line the walls of the church. The niches are ones which contain statues of Saints – statues which in the Catholic tradition are not as is popularly believed, idols, but reminders of ordinary people who have achieved the pinnacle of holiness. It is a statue of one of the Saints high up on the south wall in the middle of the church’s nave that in my childhood I had a fascination with – that of St. Sebastian depicted as he popularly is, bloodied and tied to a tree.

The church is naturally illuminated by the soft green light that streams through the generously provided stained glass windows.

Windows on the south wall of the nave. The upper windows catch the light beautifully. The upper walls of the nave are lined with niches in which the statues of Saints are placed.

The statue of St. Sebastian on the south wall of the nave.

The church is laid out as was the tradition on a plan in the shape of a cross – a Latin cross in this instance. The nave which ends with the apse in the shape of five sides of an incomplete hexagon in the west which houses the Chancel and the main entrance to the east, is crossed by a transept. The high ceiling allows the provision of the many stained glass windows along the upper levels of the nave and the transept and those that attended the blessing ceremony would have seen this but not the stained glass that has to be seen as the church’s crowning glory – the beautiful panels in the Chancel which although now in a state of disrepair, can still be appreciated as one of the more elaborate works of such kind found in Singapore. The panels were the work of Belgian artisans from Jules Dobbelaere’s studio in Bruges. The church’s stained glass which are now in an obvious state of disrepair will be part of a restoration effort that will commence soon after the church celebrates the building’s 100th Anniversary. The work which will take two years of painstaking effort to complete will be carried out by a Singaporean stained glass artist, Bee Liang, who has extensive experience in the work from her stints in Canada and training in Germany.

The exterior of the south transept – even the exterior of the building catches the light beautifully at certain times of the day.

Closer inspection of a stained soft green glass window on the south transept, illuminated partially by another window across on the rear wall of the transept.

Stained glass panels in the Chancel – work of Belgian artisans from Jules Dobbelaere’s studio in Bruges.

Looking towards the east end of the nave – the gallery can be seen on the upper level.

Another view of the east end of the nave.

The central panels depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus flanked by Our Lady and St. Joseph.

A stained glass panel depicting St. John Berchmans.

A panel depicting St. Francis Xavier.

A panel depicting St. Agnes.

Five panel stained glass window at the end of the south transept.

Morning light streaming into the north transept.

Besides the beautiful stained glass – the very elaborate high altar of white and coloured marble dedicated to St. Joseph is another that is worth taking a notice of. The church also features some excellent carved teak wood pieces – one which runs along the transept is a 40 metre long altar rail along which the faithful would once have knelt to receive Holy Communion. The carved piece that will certainly be noticed is the ornamented teak pulpit with its canopy, one that I never failed to notice every time I visited the church.

The stained glass of the Chancel and the high altar dedicated to St. Joseph.

The ornamented craved teak pulpit and canopy.

The church which once shared its compound with two schools – St. Anthony’s Boys’ School and St. Anthony’s Convent, is the last of the three to remain and having been gazetted as a National Monument in 2005, will be one that will certainly be there for a much more than the 100 years it has stood, for which a mass will be held at 10.30 am on 30th June 2012. Besides the work on the stained glass, there is much more repair work that needs to be done – the ravages not just of time, but also of nearby construction activity are clearly evident which will require funds to be raised. It will not just be the magnificent building and all that it holds that will with its restoration and conservation be retained, but also of a tradition that its has been proud to maintain that dates back to the early days of Singapore.

More views around the church in the morning light

Seeing the light.

Darkness and light.

Statue of St. Anthony of Padua.

The nave windows of the church.

Floor tiles in the church.

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The Temple on Phoenix Hill

4 03 2012

Sitting up on an incline overlooking Mohamed Sultan Road, is a gem of a Chinese temple that is well worth the climb up the incline to. The temple, a wonderfully restored work of Chinese Minnan temple architecture, is the Hong San See (凤山寺) which translates into “Temple on Phoenix Hill” in the Hokkien (or Fujian) dialect, is a gazetted National Monument which dates back a century. The Temple on Phoenix Hill is one that has undergone several renovations over the years – the last was a restoration effort that was undertaken from 2007 to 2009 for which the temple earned a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2010.

The main courtyard of the Hong San See Temple.

The temple traces its history back 175 years to 1836 when a pioneer from the Lam Ann clan, Neo Lim Kwee, built a temple at the Wallich Road area in Tanjong Pagar which was based on the Hong San See temple at Lam Ann (Nan’an) in China, dedicated to the deity Guang Ze Zun Wang (广泽尊王) who is also referred to by several names including Guo Sheng Wang (郭圣王) and Guo Sheng Gong (郭圣公). The land on which the original temple was built was however, acquired in 1907, and the temple moved to its present location on which the current temple was built from 1908 to 1913. Amongst the clan leaders involved in the rebuilding of the temple was a certain Lim Loh who was the father of a World War II hero, Lim Bo Seng. The new temple was built at a cost of $56,000 and was laid out in the traditional Min-nan style with its alignment in a North-South axis, and features courtyards and walled enclosures.

A door god seen on a door panel. Door gods are painted on temple doors to stop evil spirits from entering.

The names of those who contributed to the building of the temple can be found inscribed in the elaborately decorated pillars of the temple. Lim Bo Seng's father Lim Loh, also known as Lim Hoon Leong's (Lin Yun Long or 林云龙 - 林雲龍 in traditional Chinese script) name is seen inscribed on one of the pillars.

I have not previously taken much interest in the wealth of Chinese temples we have in Singapore, and it was during a guided visit to the temple back in November last year, that I was to learn of the temple. The tour, which was expertly guided by Yik Han, also touched on the interesting history of the temple, its architecture, the early Lam Ann immigrants who brought the temple to Singapore, and also about the very interesting story behind the deity Guang Ze Zun Wang. There were also several Taoist customs that were shared which were very new to me. One interesting one was that there is a proper way to enter the temple – which is through the Dragon Door on the right, through which one should step over (and not on) the threshold. The exit is through the Tiger Door on the left and a centre door – which is usually kept closed, is reserved for the passage of the gods.

The entrance to the temple consists of three doors - the Dragon Door on the right through which one should enter, the Tiger Door on the left which one uses to exit and a Centre Door which is reserved for the gods.

It is at the entrance to the temple that attention was drawn by Yik Han to the exquisite wood carvings painted in red lacquer and gold leaf and the elaborately decorated stone dragon and phoenix columns. Materials for these, as with most of the materials for construction, based on the temple’s records, were imported from China, as were the two teams of skilled craftsmen from Quanzhou in Fujian Province – each to work on the carvings on one of the left or right sides. This apparently was a standard practice that is referred to as “Corresponding Workmanship” (对场作) where the two teams in friendly competition provides a result that is not just different but gets the best out of the two teams.

Elaborate wooden carvings decorate the temple - two competing teams from Quanzhou were used to get the best results for the temple.

More of the exquisite wooden carvings that decorate the temple.

Reliefs on the stone pillar - the legend of a carp passing through the Dragon Gate and transforms into a dragon.

One interesting fact that I was also to learn was that a school had once operated within the temple. Temples in the early days had become focal points for the respective communities they had catered to making them natural for them to function as social and welfare centres for the communities. It wasn’t any different for Hong San See which not just brought the Lam Ann community in Singapore together, but also became a centre that served the welfare needs and for a brief period of about 10 years, provided free education to the children of poor Chinese migrants in the community with the Nan Ming School that opened in 1914 and operated at the sides of the temple. Lessons were conducted primarily in the Hokkien dialect. The school unfortunately closed due to a lack of funds to continue running it – evidence of the school does still exist in the wooden benches at a open room at the side of the temple that were once used by the school.

Wooden benches that were once used by a school that briefly operated in the temple's grounds.

A lantern in the temple.

The recent restoration of the temple involved a massive and meticulous effort that took three years to complete. The restoration committee included a consultant for the Beijing Palace Museum and required extensive historical research to ensure the effort, including additions, are true to the original structure. The restoration not just restored the temple to what it must have been at the height of its glory, but also has given the temple’s aging structure a new lease of life – an effort that will ensure that the beauty of the work that has been with us for over a hundred years, can be appreciated for many more generations to come.

A dragon sits atop the roof of the temple.

A coil of incense burns at the altar.


Resources on Hong San See:

Preservation of Monuments Board’s entry on Hong San See.

Hong San See in its glory – Straits Times 25 September 2010.

Wikipedia page on Hong San See.

Infopedia article on Hong San See.

Wikipedia on Guang Ze Zun Wang.






A Ramadan trail at the Sultan’s Mosque

28 08 2011

I had the privilege of participating in a Ramadan trail at the Sultan’s Mosque or Masjid Sultan recently during which I was able to not just learn more about Islam, but also appreciate the observance of Ramadan and the significance of the practices involved a lot better. Islam I guess for me is somthing that I have understood only on the surface, having lived and worked amongst people of the faith all my life, but nothing more, and the short but informative programme at Singapore’s main mosque and one that traces its history to the early days of modern Singapore.

The Sultan's Mosque lighted up during Ramadan. The mosque traces its history to the early days of modern Singapore.

Ramadan as most of us in Singapore know, is a month during which Muslims observe a strict fast or Puasa from sunrise to sunset, an observance that culminates in the celebration of what is known locally as Hari Raya Puasa or Eid-ul-Fitr. I was to learn that the month is a lot more than just the observation of a fast, but a special month, the significance of which is that Ramandan is the month during which the Angel Gabriel revealed the Holy Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammed. Besides the fast, the month is also one of repentance, increased prayer, and increased charity for Muslims, and a month which Muslims believe every good and beneficial action is spiritually multiplied.

Ramadan is a special month in the Islamic calendar during which the Angel Gabriel revealed the Holy Qur'an to the Prophet Muhammed. Besides the observation of a fast, the month is also one of reflection, repentance, increased prayer, and increased charity for Muslims.

For Muslims, the motivation for fasting, is to attain Taqwa or “God consciousness“ through self-discipline, the word “Taqwa” is in Arabic and comes from the root word “wiqaya” which means prevention or protection. Fasting brings with it spiritual benefits and helps Muslims to be drawn closer to God through the increased recitation and reflection of the Qur’an and additional prayers, aiding with the increase of iman (faith) and ihsan (sincerity and righteousness) as well as humility and in the purification of the heart and soul. And it is in the practice of Ramadan and fasting that a believer is trained to act with charity, kindness, generosity, patience and forgiveness. One of the beautiful things about Ramadan that was brought to attention is that it is in fasting that a person experiences some of the hardships of the less fortunate in the world, those especially in the context of Singapore where food is in abundance, we often forget.

A lamp in the Masjid Sultan.

The main prayer hall of the Masjid Sultan.

Fasting for a Muslim begins at the break of dawn and ends at sunset and depending on where it is practiced in the world, can vary from 12 to 17 hours. It is not just food that one denies oneself in the observation of a fast, but also from drink and intimacy during fasting hours, and from blameworthy thoughts and acts at all times. Fasting is applicable to all Muslims with the exception of children, unhealthy adults (mentally or physically), adults travelling long distances, and women who are menstruating, in post-childbirth care, pregnant or breast-feeding.

Islam is about a relationship with God and one of peace through surrender to the will of God.

A typical day during Ramadan for a Muslim begins before dawn with the Sahoor, during which one has a meal and says the first prayer of the day. The breaking of the fast Iftar is at sunset and coincides with the fourth daily prayer (a Muslim says a minimum of five prayers daily). Other activities after the Iftar, includes Ziarat – social gatherings during which visits are made to relatives, food is shared with neighbours, friends, and the poor; and also the Tarawih (optional Prayers in early night), Qiraat; the reading of the Qur’ãn during free time; Qiyam (optional late-night prayers during the last 10 days).

Ramadan is an observance that revolves around prayer and fasting.

The trail, which is held during Ramadan every year, also offers the participant an opportunity to participate in the breaking of fast, during which food is eaten from a common plate using the hands, a practice that symbolises brotherhood, and is run by a team of docents at the mosque, one of whom, Brother Ibrahim or Jason, who hails from the state of Indiana in the U.S. was kind enough to share the information contained in this post with me. Besides Ramadan trails, the mosque also allows visits from tourists and members of the public who may enter the mosque daily from 10 am to Noon and from 2 pm to 4 pm (except on Friday afternoons) and docents like Jason would be on hand to take questions, provide guidance and share a little history of the mosque. More information on the Sultan’s Mosque is also available at the Masjid Sultan’s website.

Jason Wilson whose Muslim name is Ibrahim is a docent at the mosque and guides visitors on mosque tours and Ramadan trails.









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