The knight whose works enriched a “cultural desert”

16 06 2017

I have long been fascinated by Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli, the Italian sculptor who spent a better part of his life in Southeast Asia. Over a period spanning 35 years, his mastery in pre-cast decorative mouldings and finishes provided many of Singapore’s buildings with a finishing touch. All in all he would spend 42 years away from his native Italy, leaving his mark not just in Singapore, but also in Siam, Malaya and Brunei.

Collyer Quay at the end of the 1920s, a world that Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli had a hand in decorating.

Of the numerous structures Cavaliere Nolli lent a hand to in Singapore, it is on the old Supreme Court that we see his impressive works. Built in 1939, the old Supreme Court features the largest concentration of Cavaliere Nolli’s efforts now found in the city-state. His decorative and finishing touches cover the grand old dame’s exterior with the exception of the friezes on the porch and a now missing coat of arms. It is however the massive sculptural pieces that adorn its pediment that is most eye-catching. Weighing a total of 13 tons, and measuring 2.7 metres high at the apex and 11 metres wide, the sculptural depiction of the Allegory of Justice in very classical form is the grandest of works that Cavaliere Nolli has here to his name. It is not just the sheer scale of the work that will impress, but also the display of artistic mastery found in the sculptures.

Much of the exterior decorative work on the old Supreme Court (now the Supreme Court Wing of the National Gallery) can be attributed to Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli.

Cavaliere Nolli considered his efforts on the old Supreme Court to be his “proudest achievement”. They would have provided him with at least some measure of having achieved an ambition he had hoped to achieve by coming across to Asia in 1913 – to make a name as a famous sculptor. Once here, he found Singapore especially to be a “cultural desert” and most of what he did would be in a capacity as a stonework contractor.

A map showing the reach of Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli’s work in Southeast Asia (Exhibtion panel from “The Italian Connection”).

As a stonework contractor, Cavaliere Nolli worked tirelessly. He excelled in plasterwork – a skill he picked up working on the finishing on the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall in Bangkok – and also in casting artificial stone. There was particularly in high demand for the latter driven by the use of new building techniques such as the use of reinforced concrete. He produced artificial stone finishing tiles to clad these new edifices. These granolithic tiles, made from cement with aggregate mixed in, gave the new buildings the appearance of having been built out of solid granite without the expense involved. The lightweight tiles were made very economically through the use of moulds. This allowed both repeatability and consistency necessary for mass production.

The Billiard Room of the Singapore Club – showing the exquisite plasterwork of Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli on its barrel vaulted ceiling. The room is now the Straits Room in the Fullerton Hotel (The Fullerton Heritage).

The technique could also extended to produce stone-like ornamental pieces and other decorative elements such as crests and coats of arms. It was for such work, commissioned for the completion of the (second) Ocean Building, that drew Cavaliere Nolli from Bangkok in 1921. Cavaliere Nolli was also employed to provide similar finishes for the Union Building and the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers, two more additions made to Collyer Quay in the 1920s.

A close-up of the smooth granolithic finish on the exterior of the old Supreme Court.

Nolli was heavily involved in the decorations of many more of the decade’s new buildings such as the David Elias Building, Connell House and the Netherlands Trading Society Building. Castings of crests, coats of arms and semi-sculptural work were also popular and that same decade, the Edward VII College of Medcine, Elgin Bridge, Crawford Bridge, and the Fullerton Building were beneficiaries of this work. Much, much more was to follow. Granolithic finishes produced by Nolli found their way to numerous new erections, one of which was the old Supreme Court.

One of the works of Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli on the (Edward VII) College of Medicine Building – an eagle with spread wings (a symbol of protection).

Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli’s skills in casting, also extended to the production of artificial stone columns and their capitals. The Ionic capitals he produced for the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers was one of the first he worked on. Also out of Cavaliere Nolli’s Scotts Road workshop were the huge columns and intricate Corinthian capitals that we see on the old Supreme Court.

Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli at the top of the old Supreme Court with a close up of the columns and the intricate Corinthian capitals that were cast by him (Lina Brunner Collection, National Archives of Singapore).

Cavaliere Nolli was bestowed with the Order of the Crown of Italy – a form of knighthood that carried with it the title Cavaliere – in 1925. While his life here may have appeared to have gone on rather smoothly, it was not without incident or setback. A motoring accident, early one Sunday morning in October 1934 at Meyer Road, left him seriously injured. Both of the sculptor’s arms were fractured and he required surgery on the right arm. A citizen of one of the Axis states, Cavaliere Nolli was also interned in Australia during the Second World War from 1941 to 1945. On his return to Singapore in 1946, he found his Scotts Road studio and workshop in a rather poor state. All that he had left in it was also missing, including a collection of over 300 art books and his set of tools.

One of the first postwar works Cavaliere Nolli produced was this precast crest for Hongkong and Shanghai Bank on MacDonald House in Orchard Road.

Cavaliere Nolli overcame that setback and received several commissions before his retirement in 1956. Among his last works in Singapore were a pair of sculptured stone lions for the Bank of China and a coloured sculptured plaque for Van Kleef Aquarium. The last large scale project he worked on before his retirement was the decorative stonework for the magnificent Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Bandar Seri Bagawan, Brunei. He returned to his native Italy following his retirement and passed away in December 1963 at the age of 75. He left a daughter, the then Hong Kong based Mrs Lina Brunner, behind.

One of Cavaliere Nolli’s last works in Singapore was a pair of lions for the Bank of China. Left: Cavaliere Nolli with one of the lions in his studio (Lina Brunner Collection, National Archives of Singapore). Right: The pair of lions seen today.

To discover more on Cavaliere Nolli’s life and work and his reach outside of Singapore, do visit The Italian Connection, which I had a hand in curating for The Fullerton Hotel. Held at the East Garden Foyer of The Fullerton Hotel, the exhibition has been put up as part of the Fullerton Building’s 89th Anniversary this June. Besides providing a glance at Cavaliere Nolli’s life, the exhibition also looks at the Italian community and  its connections with modern Singapore that go back to the early 19th century. There is also that connection that the Fullerton Building has, through Cavaliere Nolli at its very beginnings and today through the illustrious General Manager of The Fullerton Heritage, Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale.

One of Cavaliere Nolli’s more obscure works – reliefs of angels made for the chapel of St. Anthony’s Convent in 1952.


More on the exhibition and the works Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli can also be found at:


The old Supreme Court’s Allegory of Justice

Cavaliere Nolli’s Allegory of Justice in the tympanum of the old Supreme Court.

The old Supreme Court’s sculptures, which took Cavaliere Nolli more than a year to complete, are as interesting as they are impressive. Its centrepiece is Lady Justice, which alone weighs 4 tons. Quite noticeably missing is the blindfold, an attribute thought to be central to the depictions of Justice representing impartiality.

There has been many suggestions as to why this may be so, but Justice’s depiction in this manner is actually quite consistent with many classical representations through history, which Cavaliere Nolli would have drawn inspiration from. A beautifully executed example of this is Luca Giordano’s 1680s Allegory of Justice. The blindfold, the use of which was apparently popularised in the 16th century, is also missing from several well-known depictions of Lady Justice, such as in the Old Bailey.

Two other attributes of Lady Justice, a pair of scales and a sword turned downwards, are in plain sight. The scales, weighing evidence, are positioned well above the sword delivering punishment; the symbolism of this being that evidence and court takes precedence above punishment in the administration of justice.

As with many classical representations, deceit, discord and strife is counterbalanced by the order and security that the administration of the law achieves. Deceit, represented by the the two-headed snake, is seen biting a man far to Justice’s right. Legislators and the bent figure of a supplicant, begging for mercy, are also depicted and represent the administration of justice. The fruits of order and security – abundance and prosperity – can be seen in the bull and a farmer leading a rich harvest of wheat on Justice’s left.


The old Supreme Court friezes and works incorrectly attributed to Nolli

The old Supreme Court friezes, which some have attributed to Cavaliere Nolli, are the work of Alec Wagstaff. They were based on designs made by George Thomas Squires as part of a competition. The son of the illustrious Hong Kong based British sculptor W W Wagstaff, Alec was killed in action during the Second World War. Squires, who lived at the Crescent Flats in Meyer Road, as it turns out was the father of Isabel Mary Ferrie – the wife of James Westwater Ferrie. Ferrie was a well-known figure in the field of architecture as well as being an artist known for his watercolours of local seascapes. Many were painted at his house by the sea in Sembawang, His architectural firm, James Ferrie & Partners, is now run by a son Alasdair. 

A number of other prominent sculptural works have also been incorrectly attributed to Cavaliere Nolli. These include the triumphal figures on the façade of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, as well as the two lions of the Merdeka Bridge monument now hidden away in SAFTI Military Institute. Both sets of works were in fact contracted to Signor Raoul Bigazzi, a Florence based sculptor and businessman. Signor Bigazzi ran a successful marble supply and sculptural business and took on quite a fair bit of work in Asia. The railway station’s sculptures were crafted by his firm’s artistic director Professor Angelo Vannetti. The Merdeka Bridge lions were sculptured in the Philippines based on a design made by Mr L W Carpenter of the Public Works Department.

The friezes seen on the porch of the old Supreme Court are the works of Alec Wagstaff, the son of Hong Kong based sculptor W W Wagstaff.






The Italian captain who bought Pulau Bukom …

10 06 2017

Except perhaps for sculptor Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli, whose magnificent work adorns the old Supreme Court, little is known of Singapore’s many connections with the Italian community – except perhaps of the community’s many culinary offerings we are now able to find. It may therefore come as a surprise that the connections do go well back –  even before Italy as an entity existed and that Singapore’s Pulau Bukom was once owned by an Italian man.

Explore Singapore’s surprising Italian connections at The Italian Connection at the Fullerton Hotel.

Pulau Bukom is perhaps better known to us as the island on which Singapore’s successful journey into the oil refining trade, had its beginnings. Shell, who built and operate the refinery, has long been associated with the island. 20 acres of it was bought by the company in 1891 for the purpose of kerosene storage. The transaction netted the island’s owner,  Capitano Giovanni Gaggino a tidy profit. Gaggino, an Italian master mariner, shipowner and adventurer, purchased the island for $500 in 1884 with the intention to supply freshwater to shipping. His purchase of “Freshwater Island” as it was informally known as, was one of many of Gaggino’s ventures here. He would spend 42 of his 72 years in Singapore from 1876 and passed on in 1918, whilst on a trip to Batavia. Capitano Gaggino was also known to have authored several books, one of which was the very first Malay-Italian dictionary.

Capitano Giovanni Gaggino, who once owned Pulau Bukom (source: Reproduction of “La Vallata del Yang-Tse-Kiang” by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Open source).

Even before Gaggino, Italians – many of whom were involved in shipping and trade, made landfall. One rather famous Italian, the renowned botanist and contemporary of Charles Darwin, Odoardo Beccari, used Singapore as a stepping stone to his well documented explorations of the region’s forests. Credited with the discovery of the giant corpse flower, Beccari also documented a month he spent in March 1866 at the “wooden bungalow” of the Italian Consul, Signor Giovanni Leveson (a.k.a. Edward John Leveson) on the Johor Strait. The bungalow is thought to be where Woodlands in Singapore’s north got its name from.

Odoardo Beccari (source: Sailko, Creative Commons License 3.0).

Like Capitano Gaggino, Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli spent a substantial part of his life in Singapore. He arrived from Bangkok in 1921 and remained – except for a period of internment during the Second World War (as a citizen of Italy, one of the Axis states, he was interned in Australia from 1941 to 1945), until his retirement in 1956 . He worked tirelessly and amassed a huge portfolio of work that began with the second Ocean Building on which he provided the decorative artificial stone facings.

Composite image of Rodolfo Nolli and the main (south) entrance of the GPO. Two sets of works – the coat of arms and a pair of flambeau compositions, went missing during the Japanese Occupation (source of images: National Archives of Singapore).

The majestic Ocean Building did not only launch Nolli’s career in Singapore, it also spelled a new era for the bund along Collyer Quay. Before the end of a decade, three even grander edifices would be added: the Union Building, a second generation Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers, and the grandest of them all, the Fullerton Building. The additions, all of which Nolli had work done on, provided the bund with an appearance that could be compared to Shanghai’s more famous embankment.

Ocean Building in the 1920s (Source: W. A. Laxton, The Straits Steamship Fleets)..

Built to house the General Post Office, several municipal offices as well as the exclusive Singapore Club, the Fullerton was decorated with some of Nolli’s more exquisite pieces of the era. Two precast sculptural works: a pair of flambeau compositions and a royal coat of arms – symbols of enlightenment and empire – adorned the main entrance to the GPO. Sadly, these disappeared during the Japanese Occupation and all that can now be seen of Nolli’s contributions in the building is the magnificent plasterwork of the barrel vaulted ceiling of the Singapore Club’s Billiard Hall. The hall is now the Straits Room of The Fullerton Hotel. The hotel has occupied the Fullerton Building since 2001.

The Straits Room is now where the only works of Rodolfo Nolli’s in the Fullerton Building to have survived can be found.

The historic waterfront, 1932, to which Nolli added decorative finishing touches, and the waterfront today (source: top image, Singapore Philatelic Museum; lower image, Jerome Lim).

Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli, whose works are also found in Bangkok – where he spent 7 years of his life, in parts of Malaysia and also in Brunei, was bestowed with a knighthood by the Italian Crown in 1925. This is an honour that another Italian gentleman connected with the Fullerton Building, Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale, has also received. Cavaliere Viterale, the GM of Fullerton Heritage, is a well respected member of the hospitality industry and it was for his contributions to it that he received the honour. The building, which was opened in June 1928, celebrates its 89th anniversary this month.

Nuns of the Canossian order speaking to Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale at the exhibition opening. The order, which has origins in Italy, first arrived in Singapore in 1894 (source: The Fullerton Heritage).

More on the Italian Community, including on an Italian order of missionaries whose work in tending to those in need continues to this very day, the Canossian Daughters of Charity, can be discovered at an exhibition that I curated with Zinke Aw, “The Italian Connection”. The exhibition, The Fullerton Hotel’s East Garden Foyer, runs until 18 July 2017. Information on the exhibition can also be found at The Fullerton Heritage’s website and through the official press release.

 

 

 





Good Friday at the Portuguese Church

15 04 2017

Good Friday, which for believers marks the day Jesus Christ was crucified, has been commemorated in a very visible way on the grounds of St. Joseph’s Church for more than a century. Conducted  very much in the fashion of the Iberian peninsula, the elaborate procession takes place at the end of the church’s Good Friday service during which the crucifixion is reenacted using a life-sized image of Christ that is lowered and placed on a bier for the procession.

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The church, known also as the Portuguese Church due to its origin in the Portuguese Mission and it having been a parish of the Diocese of Macau until 1981, is the spiritual home of the Portuguese Eurasian community. The community is one of the oldest migrant linked communities in the region. It is on Good Friday, when the religious traditions of the community are most visible, that we are perhaps reminded of this. The procession, the holding of which goes back more than a century, attracts large numbers of worshippers from all across Singapore and at its height in the 1960s and 1970s, saw thousands packed into the church’s compound with many more spilling onto Queen Street.



More on the procession and the Portuguese Church:






Singapore’s oldest Catholic church now looks like its newest

28 11 2016

The beautifully restored Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, Singapore’s oldest Catholic church and a National Monument, re-opened on 20 November 2016 when it held its first mass in over three years. Sitting on a foundation of nothing more than compacted earth, its structure had been quite badly affected by ground disturbance caused by construction work in, around, and under it, which required it to be closed for repair work could be carried out.

As it turned out, the repair effort was quite timely. Columns supporting the pediment at the cathedral’s Victoria Street end gave way as the building was in the late stages of repair on 3 September 2015. Fortunately, the incident – which also saw the pediment come crashing down – happened at night and no one was hurt. The incident also led to the discovery that the supports, on which the weight of the steeple and bell tower also rests, were inadequate and required strengthening and a decision was taken to replace the original brick columns with stronger but lighter steel columns due to weight (which would increase structural load on the base) and time considerations. Another consequence of the collapse would have was in the discovery of the original time-capsule. This was placed beneath the cornerstone when that was laid on 18 June 1843. It was only found due to the work that was needed on the new structure. The time-capsule contained coins, newspapers and a service booklet from the time and its contents are now on display in the Cathedral Heritage Centre.

The entire project, which also involved restoration of the Cathedral and its rectory, as well as the construction of a new three-storey annex block – where the heritage centre is being housed – came at a cost of S$40 million. One of the key areas of repair required was in the underpinning of the cathedral building due to the lack of a suitable foundation. The intervention also allowed service ducts to be run under the building to carry both electrical cables and ducting for air-conditioning – a much welcome addition. The gallery pipe-organ  – Singapore’s oldest pipe-organ – was also restored. This required it to be shipped to the Philippines, which has a rich organ building. The restored pipe-organ also made its debut during the reopening mass when it so wonderfully accompanied the cathedral choir.

The Cathedral Choir making its entry before the opening mass on 20 Nov 2016.

The Cathedral Choir making its entry before the opening mass on 20 Nov 2016.

Standing room only. The opening drew a large crowd and pews were already filled as early as an hour and a half before mass.

Standing room only. The opening drew a large crowd and pews were already filled as early as an hour and a half before mass.

The sanctuary after the reopening.

The sanctuary after the reopening, with a new altar.

In 2013 with a large crack clearly visible on the wall behind it.

In 2013 with a large crack clearly visible on the wall behind it.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2016.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2016.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2013.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2013.

View down the nave, 2016.

View down the nave, 2016.

View down the nave, 2013.

View down the nave, 2013.

The repaired and restored Victoria Street end and the steeple.

The repaired and restored Victoria Street end and the steeple.

The view during the restoration, when steel columns were introduced (to be clad with masonry) for reasons of weight and time when the original structure gave way.

The view during the restoration, when steel columns were introduced (to be clad with masonry) for reasons of weight and time when the original structure gave way.

With its columns braced in 2010.

With its columns braced in 2010.

A close-up.

A close-up.

Archbishop William Goh after unveiling a new Pietà before the opening mass.

Archbishop William Goh after unveiling a new Pietà before the opening mass.

The old Pietà, seen in 2013.

The old Pietà, seen in 2013.

Another view of the new Pietà.

Another view of the new Pietà.

The old Pietà and the staircase to the choir gallery in 2013.

The old Pietà and the staircase to the choir gallery in 2013.

The choir organ in 2013, which has been removed.

The choir organ in 2013, which was in the north transept and has since been removed.

Where the choir organ was located.

Where the choir organ was located.

The cathedral in 2016.

The cathedral in 2016.

The Cathedral in 2013.

The Cathedral in 2013.

The Good Shepherd, 2016.

The Good Shepherd, 2016.

The Good Shepherd, 2013.

The Good Shepherd, 2013.

The annex building and the rectory as seen from Queen Street.

The annex building and the rectory as seen from Queen Street.

The view of the rectory from Queen Street in 2013.

The view of the rectory from Queen Street in 2013.

Balustrades, an original feature, were restored to the second level of the rectory turret.

Balustrades, an original feature, were restored to the second level of the rectory turret.

The turret before restoration.

The turret before restoration.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The garage, which was also demolished.

The garage, which was also demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The restoration was originally scheduled for two years,

The restoration was originally scheduled for two years,

Before the restoration.

Before the restoration.

During the restoration.

During the restoration.

Exposed brickwork of the columns seen during the restoration.

Exposed brickwork of the columns seen during the restoration.


More views of the beautifully restored cathedral

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What’s propping a mid 1800s pagoda up on Telok Ayer Street

27 09 2016

A curious sight found at one of Telok Ayer Street’s two beautifully restored mid-19th century Chinese pagodas, the Chung-Wen pagoda or Chong-Wen Ge (崇文阁), are eight figures that are seen propping up the pagoda’stop tier. Referred to rather disparagingly in  colloquial Hokkien as “dim-witted foreigners”, these figures carved from wood have no structural function and are purely decorative features. Similar figures, which are also sometimes made of clay, are apparently, quite commonly used in Minnan architecture and are thought to have their origins in the Tang Dynasty when they may have been used to commemorate the efforts of foreign labourers who were often involved in building projects.

The Chung Wen Pagoda.

The Chung Wen Pagoda.

Support beams for the uppermost tier of the pagoda, which feature carvings of non-Chinese men depicted as lending support to the structure.

Support beams for the uppermost tier of the pagoda, which feature carvings of non-Chinese men depicted as lending support to the structure.

A night-time view of the pagoda.

A night-time view of the pagoda.

The eight wooden cravings are just some of an amazing array of decorative work found in the incredibly beautiful pagoda. Built between 1849 and 1852, the pagoda, besides it features that define a strong Chinese flavour, also has features that speak of the influences present in the 18th century Singapore such as a wrought iron sprial staircase that was put in during a restoration effort in 1880 and encaustic floor tiles, which can also be found in other Chinese buildings in the country.

Decorative details.

Decorative details.

The second tier.

The second tier.

The reverse view.

The reverse view.

The wrought iron staircase.

The wrought iron staircase.

Linked with the Hokkien community, whose spiritual centre was at the next door Thian Hock Keng temple, the Chung-Wen pagoda apparently also had the support of other groups within the wider Chinese community. This is evident in one of three steles found on the site. The stele, which commemorates the pagoda’s construction, sees the names of Teochew leader Seah Eu Chin as well as that of a Hakka, Liew Lok Teck, alongside names associated such as Tan Kim Seng, Ang Choon Seng, Wee Chong Sun and Cheang Sam Teo from the Hokkien community.

The stele commemorating its construction.

The stele commemorating its construction.

A view of the entrance doorway to the Chong-wen Ge from the upper tier of the pagoda.

A view of the entrance doorway to the Chong-wen Ge from the upper tier of the pagoda.

We also see on the stele that a shrine dedicated to Zitong Dijun (梓潼帝君) was placed on the pagoda’s second tier. Zitong Dijun, also known as Wenchang (文昌), is considered to be the Chinese god of culture and literature, and is a patron deity of scholars. This is a clear indication of the Chung-Wen pagoda’s intended purpose as a place given to promoting learning, although not all experts agree on the manner in which it was done. What is clear however, is that the Chong-Wen Ge was where the written word was venerated. This was carried out through the practice of the burning of papers on which words have been written, in honour of the inventor of Chinese characters, Cangjie (倉頡). The installation of a small paper burning pagoda on the site for this purpose is also recorded on the stele.

A view from the pagoda across to the Thain Hock Keng and the former Keng Teck Whay.

Old world gods now surrounded by the gods of the new world  – a view from the pagoda across to the Thain Hock Keng and the former Keng Teck Whay and the financial centre of the city beyond it.

The building which housed the Chong Hock School.

The building which housed the Chong Hock School.

The practice of burning the written word ended in 1910 when the trustees of the Chong-Wen Ge handed control of it over to the Thian Hock Keng temple, although it can be said that the written word was then celebrated in a different manner with the founding of the Chong Hock School for girls in 1915. The school operated in the simple but lovely two storey building adjacent to the pagoda and only moved out in 1985 as Chongfu School.  The school’s building have seen several uses since and now houses the Singapore Musical Box Museum on its upper level. An encaustic tile shop and a Peranakan café is also now found on its ground level.

A view of the Chong Hock School building from the pagoda.

A view of the Chong Hock School building from the pagoda.

The Chong-Wen Ge, which translates as the Institute for the Veneration of Literature, was gazetted as a National Monument in 1973 with the Thian Hock Keng. Its wonderfully restored state is the result of its last major restoration effort which was undertaken between 2001-2003. More information on it and other conserved former school buildings can be found in a URA Heritage Schools Pamphlet.

Decorative detail on a door on the pagoda's second level.

Decorative detail on a door on the pagoda’s second level.

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A view from Telok Ayer Street.

A view from the cafe.

A view from the cafe.


A close-up of the eight “dim-witted foreigners”

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Mid-autumn at the Siong Lim

15 09 2016

Illuminated by the glow of a one of the more tasteful displays of lanterns I have seen in Singapore, the Siong Lim temple in Toa Payoh (or Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery) provides a most beautiful setting in which to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. The display, at what is Singapore’s oldest Buddhist monastery, and celebrations held in conjunction with the festival, have been on since Saturday. It will end this evening, the Mid-Autumn Festival proper, with a dragon dance and a mei hua zhuang display, more information on which can be found at the temple’s website.

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Lanterns outside the Mahavira Hall. The hall, which dates back to 1904, is one of two structures within the monastery complex that has been gazetted as a National Monument.

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The 1905 Tian Wang Dian, the second of two structures within the monastery complex gazetted as a National Monument.

The courtyard of the Tian Wang Dian.

The courtyard of the Tian Wang Dian.

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Parting glances: Tanjong Pagar Railway Station as it will never again be

25 08 2016

The time has come to say goodbye, albeit a temporary one, to another old friend. The former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station is set to be closed come the new year so that the extension of the Circle Line MRT and the construction of a MRT station can go on beneath it. If all goes well, it will only be reopened in 2025, by which time it will have a feel that will be very different  that which has existed at the station through the grand art-deco inspired station’s 84 year history.

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The famous façade of the station features four triumphal figures sculptured by Angelo Vannetti of the Raoul Bigazzi Studios in Florence that represent the then four pillars of the Malayan economy.

The former station holds the memories of many. The railway’s mostly Malaysian staff still speak fondly of their days in what has to be one of the grander stations to serve along the Malayan railway. There also are the memories of the numerous passengers who passed through its especially grand vaulted main hall; many depended on the railway not just for forays across the causeway, but also as a well used link for the thousands who commuted from the homes in southern Johor to Singapore for their work and even to attend school.

Murals decorate the main hall. The hall also features two booths made of teak wood that have since been painted over.

Murals decorate the main hall. The hall also features two booths made of teak wood that have since been painted over.

A view of the main hall.

A view of the main hall without the clutter of the last days.

As part of the Request for Proposals (RFP) to develop a concept plan for the Rail Corridor, which was returned to Singapore on 1 July 2011, a concept design was sought for the adaptive reuse of the former station for an interim period of 20 years. During this period, the nearby port facility the station had been positioned to serve, will make a westward move, following which plans for the Greater Southern Waterfront, into which the former station will be incorporated, will be firmed up.

The end of the line. This year is the last year we get to take in this perspective. It is one that has greeted three generations of travellers coming by train to Singapore for some 79 years before the closure of the railway at the end of June 2011.

The end of the line. This year is the last year we get to take in this perspective. It is one that has greeted three generations of travellers coming by train to Singapore for some 79 years before the closure of the railway at the end of June 2011.

The completion of the Circle Line also dovetails into this and the tunnels for the line will run directly under the station to minimise the potential for uneven ground settlement and the risk of damage to the precious structure of the National Monument. A MRT station, Cantonment Station (its working name), is also being built under a part of the station’s platforms. For this, sections of the platforms, which had apparently been assembled in a modular manner, will be removed and stored to allow excavation work to be carried out for the MRT stations’s construction. The intention will be to reinstate the removed platform sections and refurbish them after the work for the MRT station is completed.

Gaps in the station's platforms, said to be amongst the longest in the Malayan Railway's stations, point to where the modular sections come together.

Gaps in the station’s platforms, said to be amongst the longest in the Malayan Railway’s stations, point to where the modular sections come together.

One of the things that is apparently being looked at by the winning team for the RFP’s adaptive reuse of the former station, is how, besides the use of the station as a gateway into the Rail Corridor as a community space, is the integration of the MRT station under its platforms into it. This may see an additional MRT station entrance between the platforms that will see traffic of passengers of the new train line over the platforms and through the former station’s main building.

An impression of the MRT station’s entrance between the platforms produced by MKPL. New platforms are shown in this impression as it was initially thought that the sections of the platforms in way of the MRT station would have to be demolished to allow excavation work.

The reverse view of the proposed MRT station’s entrance between the platforms. A canopy over it will be one of the interventions that will be necessary.

While this may necessitate several interventions that will alter the feel the former station once provided, it will be a rather meaningful outcome for the former railway station that in the words of the winning team MKPL Architects Pte Ltd and Turenscape International Ltd, will have “the former station, connecting Singapore’s past, present and future”. Another thing being looked at is the beautifying of the space fronting the station currently used as a car park as a “Station Green” – a landscaped garden intended to allow a better appreciation of the station’s grand façade.

MKPL/Turenscape proposes to replace the car park, currently in front of the former station, with a landscaped garden.

MKPL/Turenscape proposes to replace the car park, currently in front of the former station, with a landscaped garden.

For those who want to take a last look at the former station before it closes and is forever altered, only three opportunities possibly remain. These coincide with the anticipated open houses that will be held over the year’s three remaining public holidays. The last will be Christmas Day, a widely commemorated holiday that for the members of one of the larger religious communities here in Singapore, is one of promise. Built with a promise that could never be fulfilled, the grand old station will close after Christmas Day, with a new promise for its future.

The platforms, were of a length to accommodate the longest mail trains.

The length of the platforms, said to be among the longest in the FMSR’s stations, were to accommodate the longest mail trains.

A look up what in the station's last days, was the departure platform.

A look up what in the station’s last days, was the departure platform.

Immigration counters last used by Malaysian immigration officers. These will surely be removed.

Immigration counters on the departure platform last used by Malaysian immigration officers. These will surely be removed.

One of two hydraulic stops at the

One of two hydraulic stops at the end of the tracks – one was returned following the handover of the station.

Memories of teh tarik.

Memories of teh tarik.

Rooms that were used by logistics companies at the former station - these possibly will be converted for use by F&B or retail outlets in the future.

Rooms that were used by freight forwarders at the former station – these possibly will be converted for use by F&B or retail outlets in the future.

Another look into a freight forwarders' storeroom.

Another look into a freight forwarders’ storeroom.

A booth. Last used by the auxiliary police at the station, the booth had in its early days, been used by the convenience shop that operated at the station.

A booth. Last used by the auxiliary police at the station, the booth had in its early days, been used by the convenience shop that operated at the station.

The inside of the former ticketing booth.

The inside of the former ticketing booth.

Beautiful soft light illuminates some of the rooms along the main hall.

Beautiful soft light illuminates some of the rooms along the main hall.

A part of the platforms where one could watch the world go slowly by over a cup of teh tarik in the station's last days.

A part of the platforms where one could watch the world go slowly by over a cup of teh tarik in the station’s last days.

Another view of the main hall. There are lots of stories related to the haunting of the third level (section under the letters FMSR at the far end), used previously by the Station Hotel.

Another view of the main hall. There are lots of stories related to the haunting of the third level (section under the letters FMSR at the far end), used previously by the Station Hotel.

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

The clutter of the main hall in the station’s last days.

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

The crowd witnessing Tanjong Pagar’s last moments as a station late on 30 June 2011.

Last journeys.

A final glance at the main hall.

A final glance at the main hall.


A look back at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

Gazetted as a National Monument in its final days as the southern terminal of the Malayan Raliway, the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station was built in 1932 as a centrepiece that would underline Singapore’s growing importance as an economic centre in the British Far East. Its position was carefully considered for its envisaged role as a gateway from the southernmost point in continental Asia to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Sir Cecil Clementi the Governor of Singapore, in his address at the station’s opening on 2 May 1932, made the observation that it was “a natural junction between land-borne and sea-borne traffic”, adding that it was “where every facility will be afforded for interchange between railway and ocean shipping”.

It was a promise that was not to be fulfilled. Sir Cecil could not have predicted that the railway’s importance as a means of transportation in the Malayan peninsula would diminish and just a little over 79 years since the 5.1.5 pm arrival of the first train from Bukit Panjang Station, the whistle of the last train to depart was heard late into the night of 30 June 2011. An agreement between the governments of Singapore and Malaysia (who through the administration of the railway, also owned the station and the land on which the railway operated through Ordinance 22 of 1918 or the Singapore Railway Transfer Ordinance 1918), which had taken two decades to sort out, saw to the move of the railway’s terminal to Woodlands and with that the transfer ownership  the station and much of the railway land on the island to the Singapore government on 1 July 2011.

Since its closure, the station fell into disuse with the odd event held in the space, and in more recent times, a series of open houses held during public holidays. The location of the former station in what will become the Greater Southern Waterfront has put permanent plans for it on hold. A concept plan for an interim use is however being developed as part of the Rail Corridor RFP by a team led by MKPL Architects and landscape designers Turenscape International. An MRT station for the final stretch of the Circle Line is also being constructed under a section of the platforms, together with the line being run under the station. The work being carried out means that the former station closed to the public for a substantial period of time with the completion of the MRT scheduled for 2025.

The station found use after its closure as a temporary event space.

The station found use after its closure as an event space.

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The rush by the staff at the station to leave on the last train at the end of the final day of operations.

The final journey on the Malayan Railway on 30 June 2011.

A final journey on the Malayan Railway on 30 June 2011.

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

A last breakfast on 30 June 2011.

A reflection on the convenience store and the main hall in the last days.

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

The very hardworking last Station Master at the station, En. Ayub.

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The arrival platform with its meal time crowd.

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Coming home.

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 welcome. One of the first things that would greet passengers after mid 1998 when the Singapore CIQ was relocated to Woodlands. Prior to the move, it would have been necessary to pass through Singapore Immigration, Customs and a narrow fenced passageway where dogs (behind the fence) would sniff passengers for narcotics.

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The wait for a loved one.

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Watching the world go slowly by over a cup of teh tarik.

Tickets would be checked and punched at the departure gate.

The departure gate.

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Leaving on the 8am.

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The walk to Spooner Road.

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Platform end.

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Saying goodbye.

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A welcome home.

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.

The very friendly En. Azmi. He was posted to the station on 1st July 1990 and completed a full 21 years of service at the station when it ceased operations on 30th June 2011.

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

Mr Mahmoodul Hasan, the M. Hasan in the name of the station’s makan place. He ran the station’s two canteens before its closure.

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

Catwalk – one of the many cats the station played host to.

The platforms were constructed in a modular manner and LTA is looking at removing the platforms in way of the excavation site in sections and reinstating them.

A view down the platform.

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

The ticketing counter.

Especially when the ticketing computer is down - that in my experience often happened.

An all too common occurrence at the ticketing counter.

A train at the platform.

The last Eastern and Oriental Express train to depart.

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

The Ramly Burger stand. Food was one of the draws of the station.

By 12.45 pm, the Briyani had been sold out, brining to an end a chapter for Ali Nacha at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

The day the music died. 12.45 pm on 24 June 2011, when the last plate of Briyani from the popular Ali Nacha stall at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station was served.

The arrival.

The arrival.

The festive crowd - when queues formed for tickets in the lead up to Chinese New Year. Many with roots in Malaysian would return by train to their home towns for the important holiday (photo source: National Archives online)

The festive crowd – when queues formed for tickets in the lead up to Chinese New Year. Many with roots in Malaysian would return by train to their home towns for the important holiday (photo source: National Archives online).

The main vaulted hall of the station in its early days. An impressive integration of public

The main hall of the station in its early days. The station was built in 1932 to serve as a gateway to the oceans, through the wharves at Tanjong Pagar.  Its opening on 2 May 1932 was marked by the 5.15 pm arrival of a train from Bukit Panjang. The first the public saw of it however, was several months prior to this, when it was used for a Manufacturer’s Exhibition in January 1932.









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