Tigers, elephants, rambutans and Xu Beihong in a garden of foolish indulgences

2 12 2016

Hidden in the thick vegetation in the swathe of land between Old Upper Thomson and Upper Thomson Roads are the remains of a forgotten community for whom the area was home. Interestingly, there is a lot more that lies hidden. Interwoven with the story of the lost community are also names, personalities and events that provided the area with a surprising amount of colour.

The remnants of a lost village are found in the forested area between Old Upper Thomson and Upper Thomson Roads.

The remnants of a lost village are found in the forested area between Old Upper Thomson and Upper Thomson Roads.

The stretch of Old Upper Thomson and Upper Thomson Roads is quite famously associated with the Singapore Grand Prix; not the current incarnation of the motoring race, but one that reflected humbler times. While that may be another subject altogether, the are the inevitable links the area and its community has to the event, and one of it is the references to the village at the now lost Jalan Belang as the “Grand Prix kampong”.

A concrete structure in the former “Grand Prix kampong”.

The “belang” in Jalan Belang, which translates in Malay to “stripes” is said to have been a reference to the stripes of a tiger and speculation has it that it may have been due to a tiger having been sighted there. One of two privately built roads in the area, it provided access into the narrow strip from the area of Old Upper Thomson known as the snakes. Another road, the Lorong Pelita (“pelita” is Malay for “oil lamp”) lay further north. Lorong Pelita, it would appear, was quite a fitting name as electricity supply only reached the area in the late 1960s.

A kerosene lamp at Lorong Pelita.

A kerosene lamp at Lorong Pelita.

While the remains of the village do not reveal much of their composition of its residents, it can be seen in the proportions of the concrete and brick structures that have survived, some would have been doing quite well. Interestingly there are also numerous concrete receptacles, large and small – seemingly for collection of rain water – and the conspicuous absence of wells.

A fallen electricity pole at the area where Jalan Belang was.

A fallen electricity pole at the area where Jalan Belang was.

There are lots of water receptacles.

There are lots of water receptacles.

What is perhaps most interesting is the links the land has with a certain Han Wai Toon. Han, a Hainanese immigrant who arrived at our shores in 1915, purchased 2 1/2 acres in 1936 for some $700 and embarked on a quest to cultivate trees that would yield the perfect rambutan – as research by various individuals including architectural historian, Dr. Lai Chee Kien reveals. A 1960 article in the Singapore Free Press, “The Long Search for Better Rambutans” also provides information on this. The orchard, which Han named “Silly Fun Garden”, or as a graphic novel set in the garden written by Oh Yong Hwee and illustrated by Koh Hong Teng, describes it in more poetic language as  “The Garden of Foolish Indulgences”.

There are lost of fruit trees in the area besides the remnants of the Han Rambutan Garden.

There are lost of fruit trees in the area besides the remnants of the Han Rambutan Orhcard.

A sketch of the 'Han Rambutan Orchard' by Lim Mu Hue (Singapore in Global History p. 164).

A sketch of the ‘Han Rambutan Orchard’ by Lim Mu Hue (Singapore in Global History p. 164).

Despite its frivolous sounding name, the garden attracted also serious cultural and artistic exchanges. Amongst its visitors was Xu Beihong, a famous Chinese artist with whom Han shared an interest in Chinese ceramics. One of the artistic works Xu executed during a stay in 1939 was “Put Down Your Whip”, which  fetched a record price for a Chinese art work of US$9.2 million in 2007. The painting, which has a strong anti-Japanese theme, was one of several that were Han had hidden on the grounds of his garden during the Japanese occupation. Another of Xu’s paintings in the stash, “Silly Old Man Moves a Mountain“, sold for US$4.12 million in 2006.

Put Down Your Whip by Xu Beihong.

Put Down Your Whip by Xu Beihong, which sold for a record US$9.2 million in 2007 (source: Wikipedia).

The garden of foolish indulgences?

The garden of foolish indulgences?

Han, who would make a name for himself in the study of art, ceramics and archaeology and was the author of 55 scholarly articles, made a permanent return to China in 1962 before passing away in 1970. Rather interestingly, a discovery attributed to Han during his time at Upper Thomson, was that of a Ming Dynasty Chinese tomb in the area in 1949. The tomb of a certain Chen Chow Guan, provided evidence that Chinese settlement in Singapore and the region went as far back as the 15th century. In addition to the tomb, a cluster of five Teochew graves from the early 19th century was also found by a group of archaeologists that included Han close by. It is not known what has become of the graves.

An edible flower, bunga kantan or torch ginger flower, better known here as rojak flower (its bud is used in the rojak dish).

An edible flower, bunga kantan or torch ginger flower, better known here as rojak flower (its bud is used in the rojak dish).

Yesterday no more.

Yesterday no more.

Those of my generation will probably remember Thai Handicraft, which was on the fringes of the area at Upper Thomson Road, and the family who were associated with it. It was hard to miss its showroom passing in the bus or a car with the attention the huge wooden cravings of elephants standing guard drew to the showroom. The shop, set in from the side of the road, dealt with imports of wooden cravings from Thailand and was owned by the Looi family whose links to the area also extended to the races.

There's pineapple too!

There’s pineapple too!

The location of the shop, which was right by the start and finish point of the Grand Prix circuit, was also where the Loois had operated a motorcycle shop, Looi Motors. The Loois also had racing in their blood and produced two generations of motorcycle racers. One member of the family, Gerry Looi, would become a household name in the motorcycle racing circuit in the 1970s and participated in the latter races of the Singapore Grand Prix with brother Fabian until its last race in 1973. Sadly, Gerry would meet a tragic end doing what he loved most and passed away at the age of 33 in October 1981 –  just a few days after a crash at the Shah Alam circuit had left him in a coma.

A red brick structure in the forest.

A red brick structure in the forest.

The privately held area was last inhabited in the mid-1980s when it was cleared out after its acquisition by the Housing and Development Board. While this would suggest that the intention then had been to give it to public housing, the site – now a wonderful oasis of green having been reclaimed by nature, will be where the future Thomson Nature Park will be. Work on the park will commence next year and is expected to be completed at the end of 2018.Part of the plan for the park involves the preservation of the site’s mature trees and the incorporation of the village ruins with the trails that will run through it and that will hopefully keep both the lush greenery and the rich history of the area alive.

Further information:

Online:

NParks announces plans for Upcoming Thomson Nature Park

NParks Factsheet (Thomson Nature Park)

History and nature meet at upcoming Thomson Nature Park, The Straits Times, 8 Oct 2016

The long search for better rambutans, The Singapore Free Press, 4 March 1960

Ming tomb claim in Singapore, The Singapore Free Press, 15 December 1949

‘Oldest Chinese cemetery’ find, The Straits Times, 11 January 1950

Han, 69 studies history from old China, The Singapore Free Press, 5 January 1961

Loois will make motor racing fans feel proud,The Straits Times, 15 April 1973

Daring racer was scared of the dark, New Nation, 24 October 1981

Offline:

Lai, Chee Kien 2011. “Rambutans in the Picture: Han Wai Toon and the Articulation of Space by the Overseas Chinese in Singapore”,  in Singapore in Global History,  edited by Heng, Derek and Aljunied, Syed Muhd Khairudin, 151-172, Amsterdam University Press.

Wong, Sharon 2009. “Negotiating Identities, Affiliations and Interests: The Many Lives of Han Wai Toon, an Overseas Chinese”,  in Reframing Singapore in Global History,  edited by Heng, Derek and Aljunied, Syed Muhd Khairudin, 155-174, Amsterdam University Press.


More photographs:

The remnants of quite a large house.

The remnants of quite a large house.

A room in the house.

A room in the house.

And the washroom.

And the washroom.

A forest stream.

A forest stream.

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Celebrating Singapore’s Biodiversity

4 09 2016

Great fun awaits visitors to the Festival of Biodiversity 2016 being held at the Singapore Botanic Gardens this weekend. There is much to do and learn about Singapore’s surprisingly impressive biodiversity at the fifth edition of an event held to celebrate of the community’s efforts to conserve Singapore’s natural heritage, as much as it is one to discover the island’s rich biodiversity (Singapore is home to more than 400 species of marine fishes and 250 species of hard corals – almost one third of the diversity found in the world!).

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The focus of this year’s festival is on native species as well as on recovery efforts aimed at the island nation’s rare flora and fauna. 46 species of land based and marine native flora and fauna have been targeted for these efforts, all of which have been identified as under threat in Singapore’s Red Data Book. Species that have been identified include the Raffles’ Banded Langur (also known as the Banded leaf monkey), the Sunda pangolin, the Hawksbill Turtle and the Giant clam. Previous successful recovery efforts include the propagation and introduction of epiphytic native orchids under the Orchid Conservation Programme and an increase in natural populations of the Oriental pied hornbill.

Threatened species such as the Sunda pangolin have been identified for recovery.

Threatened species such as the Sunda pangolin have been identified for recovery.

Held at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, Eco Lake Lawn, the festival features exhibitions on the Species Recovery programmes and the Sisters’ Islands Marine Park. Booths have also been set up by various groups including OtterWatch, The Pangolin Story and Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) – which will has a live reticulated python on display as part of the effort to educate the public on the cruel regional practice of skinning these reptiles alive for their skins.

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Also to look out for are a host of activities and arts and crafts workshops for the kids. More on the Festival of Biodiversity, which runs on 3 and 4 September 2016, can be found at the festival’s website.

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51 reasons why the sun rises in the north in Singapore

9 08 2016

A collection of 51 photographs taken at sunrise that show that the north may have some of the best spots in Singapore to greet the new day.


Sunrise, Selat Tebrau (Straits of Johor), 6.54 am, 16 April 2016.

Sunrise over Beaulieu Jetty, 6.41am, 7 May 2016.

Gambas Avenue, 7.08 am, 18 February 2012.

Through the trees at Gambas Avenue, 7.08 am, 18 February 2012.

Greeting the new day, Sembawang Park, 17 April 2016.

Kampong Wak Hassan, 6.35 am, 25 May 2014.

Silhouettes at Kampong Wak Hassan, 6.35 am, 25 May 2014.

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The angry sky over Beaulieu Jetty, 6.55 am, 16 April 2016.

Sunrise, through the incoming Sumatras, 6.30 am, 28 May 2016.

The forgotten shore, 6.47 am, 24 July 2013.

Colours of the forgotten shore, 6.47 am, 24 July 2013.

Through the storm, 7.09 am, 9 June 2013.

A sunrise through the storm, 7.09 am, 9 June 2013.

Kampong Wak Hassan, 22 May 2013.

Solitude, Kampong Wak Hassan, 22 May 2013.

The rising sun over the strait, 7.11 am, 30 March 2013.

Over the strait, 6.41am, Christmas Day 2014.

Over the strait, 6.41am, Christmas Day 2014.

Lower Seletar Reservoir, 6.34 am, 18 December 2013.

Colours of the morning, Lower Seletar Reservoir, 6.34 am, 18 December 2013.

Colours, 6.55 am 30 March 2013.

Colours of the morning, Kampong Tengah, 6.55 am 30 March 2013.

The straits, 7.00 am, 31 May 2013.

Rising of the sun, the straits, 7.00 am, 31 May 2013.

After the storm, 6.43 am, 9 October 2013.

Colours after the storm, 6.43 am, 9 October 2013.

Light through the darkness, 7.03 am, 18 August 2013.

Light through the darkness, 7.03 am, 18 August 2013.

The early harvest, 6.34 am, 2 May 2013.

The early harvest, 6.47 am, 2 May 2013.

The fence, 7.02 am, 2 February 2013.

The seawall, 7.02 am, 2 February 2013.

The view towards Pasir Gudang, 6.58 am, 21 November 2013.

The rising sun over Pasir Gudang, 6.58 am, 21 November 2013.

6.50 am, 24 June 2012.

Light rays, 6.50 am, 24 June 2012.

6.45 am, 7 June 2014.

Dark and light, 6.45 am, 7 June 2014.

Walking on water, 6.44 am, 14 June 2014.

Walking on water, 6.44 am, 14 June 2014.

The forgotten shore, 6.25 am, 15 June 2014.

First light, the forgotten shore, 6.25 am, 15 June 2014.

6.55 am, 22 June 2012.

Red clouds over the straits, 6.55 am, 22 June 2012.

Through the haze, 7.09am, 21 June 2016.

The rising sun through the haze, 7.09am, 21 June 2012.

7.19 am, 22 December 2012.

Morning glow, 7.19 am, 22 December 2012.

Sunrise over Mandai, 6.51 am, 3 October 2013

Sunrise over Mandai, 6.51 am, 3 October 2013.

6.54 am, 5 June 2014.

Colours of the new day, 6.54 am, 5 June 2014.

The seawall, 6.45 am, 7 June 2014.

The bench, 6.45 am, 7 June 2014.

The seawall, 6.31 am, 8 June 2014.

The bench, 6.31 am, 8 June 2014.

The incoming tide, 7.14 am, 14 June 2014.

The incoming tide, 7.14 am, 14 June 2014.

Happy campers at sunrise, 6.45 am, 19 June 2014.

Happy campers at sunrise, 6.45 am, 19 June 2014.

6.22 am, 31 May 2014.

A pastel shaded morning, 6.22 am, 31 May 2014.

The cyclist, 6.38 am, 30 May 2015.

The cyclist, 6.38 am, 30 May 2015.

The fisherman, 6.36 am, 5 June 2015.

The fisherman, 6.36 am, 5 June 2015.

The finger pier, Sembawang Shipyard, 6.41am, 9 June 2015.

The finger pier, Sembawang Shipyard, 6.41am, 9 June 2015.

Pretty in pink, 6.22am, 1 June 2015.

Pretty in pink, 6.22am, 1 June 2015.

On the jetty, 6.52 am, 28 February 2015.

On the jetty, 6.52 am, 28 February 2015.

The beach, 6.22 am, 28 March 2015.

The beach, 6.22 am, 28 March 2015.

Tossing the crab trap, 7.02 am, 1 March 2015.

Tossing the trap, 7.02 am, 1 March 2015.

The last trees of the Sungei Seletar mangrove forest, 7.06 am, 26 May 2016.

The last trees of the Sungei Seletar mangrove forest, 7.06 am, 26 May 2016.

Dreamy, 6.39 am, 24 November 2016.

Dreamy morning, 6.39 am, 24 November 2014.

Three's company, 6.36 am, 13 November 2014.

Three’s company, 6.36 am, 13 November 2014.

Where once there were trees, 6.52 am, 30 October 2014.

The sun rises on a changing landscape, 6.52 am, 30 October 2014.

The new world, 6.55 am, 21 November 2014.

The new world, 6.55 am, 21 November 2014.

Bubu man, 6.49 am, 13 November 2014.

Bubu man, 6.49 am, 13 November 2014.

The rising sun, 6.50 am, 24 November 2014.

The rising sun, 6.50 am, 24 November 2014.

Play, 6.53 am, 24 November 2014.

Play, 6.53 am, 24 November 2014.

Through the storm.

Under the clouds, 22 November 2013.

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Over the last forested hill, 9 July 2016, 6.24 am.






Drama on the Straits of Johor

28 05 2016

The Sumatras, squalls that blow rapidly in from the west, can sometimes add to the drama of the lightening skies at dawn. Such was the case this morning on the Straits of Johor, as observed from Beaulieu Jetty in Sembawang at first light. It didn’t take long however for the scene to turn from the magical one pictured at 6.28 am to one of darkness and gloom. More on the Sumatras can be found on the National Environment Agency’s website: Sumatras. Other encounters I have had with Sumatras at dawn can be found at the following posts:

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Clouds being blown in by the Sumatras at daybreak, 6.28am 28 May 2016.

6.36 am, just two minutes before the sky opened up its floodgates.

6.36 am, just two minutes before the sky opened up its floodgates.

 





More northern light

19 04 2016

Another dramatic show of light captured along Singapore’s northern coast, this one after sunset at 7.18 pm on the 15th of June 2014. The view is towards the Shell Woodlands jetty and across the Straits of Johor over to Johor Bahru. The point at which this was captured is in the are of Woodland Waterfront where the Royal Malaysian Navy maintained their main naval base, KD Malaya, until 1979.





Launch of the Ubin Living Lab at the former Celestial Resort

28 02 2016

The first phase of the transformation of the former Celestial Resort into the Ubin Living Lab (ULL), an initiative announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as part of The Ubin Project on November 2014, has been completed with the launch of the ULL (Phase 1) on Saturday by Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee.

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A Singapore conversation taking place by the mangrove tree lined Sungei Puaka?

Set in the midst of the mangroves of Sungei Puaka – one of the largest patches of mangroves left in Singapore, the ULL, intended as an integrated facility for field studies, education and research, and community outreach, will also see a mangrove arboretum set up. The arboretum will see eight critically-endangered local mangrove tree species re-introduced as part of NParks’ ongoing reforestation and habitat enhancement efforts on Ubin.

SMS Desmond Lee at the launch - with ITE College East staff and students working on setting up nesting boxes around the island for the Blue-throated Bee-eater.

SMS Desmond Lee at the launch – with ITE College East staff and students working on setting up nesting boxes around the island for the Blue-throated Bee-eater.

JeromeLim-9942The first phase sees the restoration of two buildings on the site to accommodate a field study laboratory, seminar rooms for up to 100 people and basic accommodation facilities. An outdoor campsite is also being set up to take up to 100. The first users of the ULL will be students from the Republic Polytechnic and ITE College East who are looking at setting up roosting boxes in Ubin for insect eating bat species and nesting boxes for the Blue-throated Bee-eater as part of a biodiversity enhancement and species recovery programme.

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The setting for the ULL – the former Celestial Resort.

The Ubin Project is an engagement initiative launched by the Singapore Government aimed at enhancing the natural environment of the island, protecting its heritage and also its rustic charm, involving a Friends of Ubin Network (FUN) that has been set up. More information on the project’s initiatives can be found at the Nparks website. Members of the public can look forward to a series of activities organised by NParks and the National Heritage Board – who have recently concluded an anthropology study on the island, aimed at bring the rich natural and cultural heritage to a wider audience. Information on the activities NParks already has planned can be found at a NParks news release Celebrating Ubin.

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Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee, launching Phase 1 of the ULL.

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SMS Lee putting the finishing touches on a nesting box.





Monday not so blue

20 05 2015

It has been a long while since we a celebration of the new day as spectacular as the one seen on Monday.

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Colours of the new day, Monday, 18 May 2015, 6.48 am as seen from the beach at Kg Wak Hassan.








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