Saving Haw Par Villa from (certain) Death

16 11 2017

The unique, quirky and once immensely popular Singaporean attraction, Haw Par Villa, is probably best remembered for the journey it offers its visitors into hell. Its representation of the path to rebirth imagined by the Chinese in its Ten Courts of Hell is gory and uninhibited. With a full suite of the gruesome range of punishments that is thought to be meted out for earthly misdeeds, the experience is certainly one that is not easily forgotten.

Haw Par Villa in its heyday. It drew visitors from all walks of life and of all races. It was especially popular as a destination for an outing during Chinese New Year.

Hell aside, Haw Par Villa is a garden of many delights, which quite sadly seems to have well been forgotten in an age in which attention has shifted to air-conditioned malls and modern attractions. The crowds that Haw Par Villa once drew has reduced to a trickle; a trickle in which inquisitive tourists, and migrant workers who lack welcoming spaces in which to spend to their days off, far outnumber the locals.

The garden attracts hardly a crowd these days.

Haw Par Villa seems to have embarked on its own journey to damnation. Death, it appears, will soon arrive at hell’s doorstep. A museum, a showcase of rituals associated with death in various cultures, now threatens to swallow hell up. Visitors, for the price of a ticket, can come face to face with death and even have the experience of being put in a coffin. The Ten Courts of Hell, it seems, will become a part of that paid death experience.

Death comes to Haw Par Villa.

I had a peek at an exhibition put up of what is to be expected, sans the coffin that was promised. On the basis of what has been put up, it is hard to see how death could aid Haw Par Villa’s cause. Death, as we know, is quite a taboo subject in this part of the world. It is bad enough that Haw Par is already remembered more for its garish version of hell, an added association with death, serves not just to distract from its value and purpose, but may further erode the already negative image many have of Haw Par Villa.

Wielding justice without his hand, Qinguang the god of the underworld at the first court of hell.

Developed by Mr Aw Boon Haw and spread over the sprawling grounds of a magnificent seven-domed villa by the sea he had built in 1937 for his younger brother Boon Par, it was not Mr Aw’s intention to have hell or for that matter, death, celebrated in the garden. Mr Aw had the grounds decorated with figurines and tableaux with scenes from Chinese folklore and the Chinese classics. Displays also contained messages related to traditional values and moral standards and had Buddhist or Taoist themes. Even if it was a private garden, this was done with the public in mind as Mr Aw had planned to have the garden opened to the public to whom the illustrations could provide moral guidance. Mr Aw made a huge effort to ensure the illustrations were accurate in their depiction, personally supervising artisans involved. This also required Mr Aw to retell the stories associated with the scenes being created to his artisans.

The villa’s swimming pool and changing room, 1941 (source: Private George Aspinall via Australian War Memorial, public domain, copyright expired).

The changing room of the swimming pool c.1950 (Harrison Forman Collection).

The changing room displaced.

There have been several deviations from Mr Aw’s original garden. Boon Par had passed on in 1944 in Rangoon and with the house damaged, Mr Aw had it demolished in the early 1950s. With his initial plan to replace the villa with a “grand palace”, modelled along the lines of the Beijing’s Imperial Palace, as well as a subsequent proposal for a 200 feet high pagoda, rejected by local authorities, Mr Aw set out instead to expand the range of tableaux. It was also in the 1950s, that a purge against “yellow culture”, resulted in the modification and dressing up of several nude figurines.

The gardens, which was opened to the public, was popular with both locals and visitors alike. Here, Australian nurses are seen visiting it in September 1941 (source: Australian War Memorial, public domain, copyright expired).

Australian nurses visiting Haw Par Villa (with the villa seen in the background) in September 1941 (source: Australian War Memorial, public domain, copyright expired).

Boon Par’s son Cheng Chye introduced several displays that broke with the garden’s theme and its Chinese flavour after his uncle’s death in 1954. An avid traveller, Cheng Chye put up International Corners to mark his overseas trips, which contributed to the garden’s quirkiness, even if it altered its character. Judging from the numerous photographs found online, the figurines Cheng Chye introduced, were popular spots to have photographs taken at.

Yours truly mimicking the tiki at the New Zealand (International) corner in 1976. The tiki was removed during the remaking of the gardens into a theme park in the late 1980s.

The biggest change came to the garden in the late 1980s. Haw Par Villa, which had lost its lustre by this time, had come into the hands of the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, STPB (the current day Singapore Tourism Board, STB). At a cost of some S$80 million, a partnership formed by F&N and Times Publishing, turned the garden into the Haw Par Villa Dragon World. The theme park featured a water ride into a Ten Courts Of Hell that was swallowed by a dragon. The conversion resulted in several of the garden’s displays removed, including several of the International Corners. Haw Par Villa Dragon World, which opened in 1990, ran at a loss for most of its operational period and closed 11 years later in 2001.

The dragon that swallowed hell up – during its theme park days.

It would seem that Haw Par Villa has not recovered since, even the attempt to revive interest with a relaunch of it in 2014 as part of STB’s Tourism50 initiative. That promised much, but very little seems to have been delivered thus far. A contract, that if my memory serves me right was worth something to the order of $7 million, was awarded to a local operator in August 2015 for the running of the park and its rejuvenation. This, based  on a 15 October 2015 op-ed by Melody Zaccheus in the Straits Times, should have included the opening of five dining outlets and the transformation of the park into a place for art exhibitions, performances, flea markets, and yoga, taiji and wushu sessions. More than two years into this, little except that is for sketchy mentions of intent and promises for an application for UNESCO Heritage listing to be submitted, seems to have been done.

A view of the “Signature Pond” c.1950 (Harrison Forman Collection).

Drowning in sorrow – thin crowds and a now submerged Signature Pond .

Describing the garden as a “unique Chinese cultural resource”, “the only one of its kind left in the world”, the writer opined that urgent attention was needed with regards to its conservation. Little also seems to have moved in this respect since then. A heritage survey would have been conducted based on what was also mentioned. It would be interesting to see what, if anything, that could tell us about the park’s potential for conservation.

A display that has since been censored. A depiction of the Spider Spirits who attempted to impede the progress of the Monk Xuanzang in the story Journey to the West by trying to entice him through their transformation into beautiful maidens (source: G. Bertschinger on Flickr, Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 2.0).

The spider spirits were modified to appear less provocative and clothed in response to a movement against “yellow culture” in the 1950s.

The urgency to have Haw Par Villa conserved is certainly there with the development of the Greater Southern Waterfront looming over the horizon. That may not be due for some time yet, but this being Singapore, the planning effort for that would surely be carried out well in advance. Haw Par Villa, if it isn’t already in it, has to be part of that plan.

A Datuk Kong, who has quite clearly been resettled.

The park’s value from a heritage perspective, is not just in the lessons in Chinese values and culture it offers, but also for it as a showcase of a well forgotten side Chinese culture. Brought in by our less refined Chinese immigrant forefathers, it serves to remind us as well as tie us to a less refined side of a culture than isn’t necessary the same as the Chinese culture that is pervasive today. The garden is also a monument to the legacy of Mr Aw Boon Haw, who besides putting Singapore on the map with Tiger Balm, made significant contributions to society and was well regarded as a philanthropist. The park, built at a time when the municipality lacked public recreational spaces, is a reminder of this.

An ad for UTA French Airlines in 1965 suggesting a stopover in Singapore for its attractions, one of which was the “fantastic presentation of Chinese mythology at Haw Par Villa”.

The challenge in preserving Haw Par Villa for our future generations is in the revival and the subsequent maintenance of interest and relevance. In a letter written to the press on 31 Oct 2017, Mr Toh Cheng Seong expressed concern on the Death Museum and at the same time, provided several useful ideas. Rather than going on their own, STB and its operator will do well to seek input from the likes of Mr Toh, members of the wider community – young and old alike, and subject experts. For the attraction’s dying ambers to be rekindled, it has to be in the hearts and minds of all of us in Singapore. Any attempt to move ahead with none of us in mind will surely see the last of the 20,000 lights that Haw Par Villa once had a reputation for, extinguished.

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The sun rises in Singapore’s north

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.






The Singapore Garden Festival 2016

28 07 2016

The sixth edition of the Singapore Garden Festival is back! Running from from 23 – 31 July 2016 at the Gardens by the Bay, this year’s event covering an area of some 9.7 hectares, is the largest ever. The highlight of the festival is probably at The Meadow. Here visitors will be treated to eye-catching creations by some of the world’s gardening greats including the nine Landscape Show Gardens, six Fantasy Show Gardens, fourteen Floral Windows to the World and five Balcony Gardens – all of which are crowd favourites.

My favourite landscape show garden - The Treasure Box by Inch Lim of Malaysia.

My favourite landscape show garden – The Treasure Box by Inch Lim of Malaysia.

Modern Day Maui - a Fantasy Show Garden by Adam Shuter of New Zealand.

Modern Day Maui – a Fantasy Show Garden by Adam Shuter of New Zealand.

Another favourite will have to be the burst of colours in the Flower Dome provided by the Orchid Extravaganza. On display are a rich heritage of orchids that will provide an appreciation of what the world’s most diverse botanical family has to offer.

An award winning Rawdon Jester 'Great Bee' at the Orchid Extravaganza at the Flower Dome.

An award winning Rawdon Jester ‘Great Bee’ at the Orchid Extravaganza at the Flower Dome.

More unusual orchids.

More unusual orchids.

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A host of other displays and activities are also lined up for the festival including a Learning Garden, a Landscape Design Challenge featuring teams of students, the World Of Terrariums which sees more than 100 creative displays of terrariums put up by students, hobbyists and community gardeners. There is also a Vibrant Marketplace in the non-ticketed area to look out for. This sees over 100 booths offering both sustenance and items such as plants, gardening and landscape products and services, and arts and crafts.

A pineapple plant, one of the many useful plants - kitchen-wise at the Learning Garden.

A pineapple plant, one of the many useful plants – kitchen-wise at the Learning Garden.

The festival also features a photo and an Instagram contest.  The “Tropical Floral Wonderland” Photography Contest offers prizes such as a Nikon D750 kit set, Nikon D7200 (18 – 105mm) kit set and Nikon D5500 (18 – 55mm) kit set. To enter, photos should be submitted by email to sggardenfest@gmail.com by 1 August 2016. For mobile phone photographers, uploading a photo to Instagram with the hashtag #sggardenfest (post has to be set as public) or via the contest page on the SGF Facebook page during the Festival period, will qualify entrants for a chance to win Nikon COOLPIX S7000 cameras.

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The festival runs until Sunday. More information, including ticketing can be found at the Singapore Garden Festival website.


More photographs from the festival:

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More Fantasy Gardens – Mystical Depths by Hugo Bugg of the UK.

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A Garden in a Flower, a Fantasy Garden by Michael Petrie of the US.

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Dare to Dream, a Fantasy Garden by John Tan and Raymond Toh of Singapore.

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Another crowd favourite – Nature’s Resolution, a Fantasy Garden by Stefano Passerotti of Italy.

Power of the Earth, a Fantasy Garden by Katsuhiko Koga and Kazuhiro Kagae of Japan.

Power of the Earth, a Fantasy Garden by Katsuhiko Koga and Kazuhiro Kagae of Japan.

Another view of Modern Day Maui.

Another view of Modern Day Maui.

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The Sugarcane Maze – a Landscape Garden by Kong Jian Yu of China.

The Sugarcane Maze - a Landscape Garden by Kong Jian Yu of China.

Another view of the Sugarcane Maze – a Landscape Garden by Kong Jian Yu of China.

Back to Nature - a Landscape garden by a South African / New Zealand team.

Back to Nature – a Landscape garden by a South African / New Zealand team.

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Benny’s Sunflower Farm.

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Gary’s Musical Flower Field.

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Another view of Gary’s Musical Flower Field.

Winter Wonderland.

Winter Wonderland.

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A Balcony Garden.

Galaxy Floristic - Floral Windows into the World.

Galaxy Floristic – Floral Windows into the World.

Another Floral Windows into the World display.

Another Floral Windows into the World display.

A Celebration Floral Table.

A Celebration Floral Table.


More photographs from the Orchid Extravaganza:
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The last forested hill in Sembawang

11 07 2016

Sitting in relative isolation and surrounded by a lush forest of greenery for much of the 77 years of its existence, Old Admiralty House may soon find itself in less than familiar settings. The National Monument, built as a home away from home for the officer in command of the British Admiralty’s largest naval base this side of the Suez, will soon find itself become part of Sembawang’s sports and community hub.

Dawn over a world on which the sun will soon set on. Old Admiralty House in its current isolation on top of a hill, with the fast invading sea of concrete in the background.

The hub, it seems from what’s been said about it, will feature swimming pools, multi-play courts, a hawker centre, a polyclinic and a senior care centre; quite a fair bit of intervention in a quiet, isolated and of late, a welcome patch of green in the area’s fast spreading sea of concrete. Plans for this surfaced during the release of what became the 2014 Master Plan, which saw a revision on the intended location of Sembawang’s sports and recreation complex from the corner of Sembawang Avenue and Sembawang Road to the parcel of land on which the monument stands.

The original intended location of the sports and recreation complex in Sembawang (area shaded in light green) [URA Master Plan 2008].

The original intended location of the sports and recreation complex in Sembawang (area shaded in light green) [URA Master Plan 2008].

The monument, a beautifully designed Arts and Crafts movement inspired house, is without a doubt the grandest of the former base’s senior officers’ residences built across the naval base.  Set apart from the other residences, it occupies well selected position placed atop a hill in the base’s southwestern corner, providing it with an elevation fitting of it,  a necessary degree of isolation and privacy, and the most pleasing of surroundings – all of which will certainly be altered by the hub, notwithstanding the desire to “incorporate the natural environment and heritage of the area”.

A day time view.

A day time view.

The revised location of the sports and recreation complex in Sembawang (area shaded in light green) [URA Master Plan 2014]

The revised location of the sports and recreation complex in Sembawang (area shaded in light green) [URA Master Plan 2014].

The naval base that Old Admiralty House recalls is one to which colonial and post-colonial Singapore owes much economically. With the last working remnants of the base are being dismantled, the area is slowly losing its links to a past that is very much a part of it and Singapore’s history and whatever change the creation of the sports and community hub brings to Old Admiralty House and its settings, it must be done in a way that the monument at the very least maintains its dignity, and not in a way in which it is absorbed into a mess of interventions that will have us forget its worth.

Detail of a 1945 Map of the Naval Base showing the area where ‘Admiralty House’ is. The house is identified as the ‘Admiral Superintendent’s Residence’ in the map.


More on Old Admiralty House: An ‘English country manor’ in Singapore’s north once visited by the Queen


Around Old Admiralty House

The former Admiralty House, likened by some to an English country manor.

The former Admiralty House, likened by some to an English country manor.

The swimming pool said to have been constructed by Japanese POWs.

A swimming pool said to have been constructed by Japanese POWs.

Evidence of the through road seen in an old lamp post. The post is one of three that can be found on the premises.

An old concrete lamp post on the grounds.

What remains of a flagstaff moved in May 1970 from Kranji Wireless Station.

What remains of a flagstaff moved in May 1970 from Kranji Wireless Station.

Inside the bomb shelter.

An air-raid shelter found on the grounds.





Another Ubin celebration

24 05 2016

Just as the festivities in honour of the Taoist deity Tua Pek Kong are taking place at Pulau Ubin, a celebration of a different kind was being held in another part of the island at the Ubin Living Lab. Graced by Senior Minister of State (Home Affairs and National Development) Desmond Lee, the event, held in conjunction with the International Day of Biological Diversity on 22nd May, was marked by the planting of mangrove saplings by volunteers of all ages at  the lab’s rather muddy mangrove arboretum.

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The former Celestial Resort, now used as the Ubin Living Lab.

The mangrove arboretum.

The mangrove arboretum.

Those present for the event also learnt of several important and timely initiatives – all part of the Ubin Project, to enhance the island’s biodiversity and to protect its badly eroded northern shoreline from further damage. These include species recovery efforts aimed at increasing the diversity of insect eating bats on the island and the Oriental Small-clawed Otters. Native to Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong, this species of otters are less commonly seen than the Smooth-coated Otters that have been making waves across Singapore and are critically endangered.

Senior Minister of State (Home Affairs and National Development) Desmond Lee speaking.

Senior Minister of State (Home Affairs and National Development) Desmond Lee speaking.

The effort to rehabilitate the northern shoreline, which includes the badly eroded Noordin Beach – once a popular camping spot, will also see a 500 metre coastal boardwalk being built (see photographs below). Work on this will commence in 2017 and more information on this and on the species recovery efforts can be found at the NParks website.

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Volunteers planting trees at the mangrove arboretum at the Ubin Living Lab.

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The younger ones got involved too.

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Posters on display at the event with information on the initiatives

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Ubin’s biodiversity.

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Species recovery efforts on Pulau Ubin.

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Restoration of the shoreline.

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Restoration of the shoreline.

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The proposed boardwalk off Noordin Beach.


 





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.





The ghosts on Forbidden Hill

27 11 2015

Fort Canning Hill, the scene of many a schoolboy adventure, is a place I constantly find myself drawn to. The attraction of the hill, where mortals once feared to tread in its days as Bukit Larangan – the Forbidden Hill, is perhaps the air of mystery that surrounds it. Its slopes were believed to be the abode of the kings of ancient Singapura, in life and in death. Even with the interventions of the ever changing world, it still is where the ghosts of a Singapore well forgotten, are ever present.

Not a typical ghost seen at Fort Canning Green.

Not a typical ghost seen at Fort Canning Green.

The area of the forbidden hill (what Bukit Larangan, its name in Malay, translates into) that I find the greatest fascination for is its north-eastern slope. Here, the opportunities for an encounter with a ghost of the past, are plenty. The slope is where a mysterious a tomb is found, purportedly that of the last of the kings of old Singapura, Iskandar Shah.

The Keramat, which some believe to be the tomb of the last king of Singapura, Iskandar Shah.

The Keramat, which some believe to be the tomb of the last king of Singapura, Iskandar Shah.

This tomb, venerated as a keramat, gained the attention of John Crawfurd on his first visit to the hill, just three years after the East India Company’s settlement was established. Crawfurd, who was later to be appointed Singapore’s second Resident, made a note of his walk around the hill in his diary. The interest he had on the hill was motivated perhaps by the observation that the “only remains of antiquity at Singapore, besides the (Singapore) stone, are contained on the hill”.

On the eastern slopes of Fort Canning Hill.

On the eastern slopes of Fort Canning Hill.

Crawfurd describes the ruins that were observed on “a greater part of the west and northern side of the hill”. Going further , he takes note of “another terrace, on the north declivity of the hill … said to have been the burying place of of Iskandar Shah“, a claim he suggested was apocryphal for good reason.  It should be noted that Crawfurd was mistaken in his assumption that the long axis of the hill ran east-west instead of north-northwest to south-southeast and he would have been referring to the eastern slope of the hill in relation to the location of the tomb.

An artist’s impression of Parameswara, thought to also be Iskandar Shah (source: Wikipedia).

The tomb seemed already a place of veneration even then. Crawfurd also takes note of the “rude structure” raised over the tomb, to which “since the formation of the new Settlement … Mohammedans, Hindoos, and Chinese equally resort to do homage”.  The tomb has certainly added much to the mystery and superstition that has surrounded the hill over the intervening years. One rumour has it that unexplained events that led to occupying Japanese troops abandoning the British Military built barrack blocks on the hill during the war, had be due to the intervention of the tomb’s occupant.

The barrack block at Cox Terrace with the cemetery in the foreground (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

The barrack block at Cox Terrace with the old Christian cemetery in the foreground (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

One of these barrack blocks, lies just northwest of the tomb at Cox Terrace. A squash centre in my schooldays and and arts centre after, it now masquerades as the fancy sounding Singapore Pinacothèque de Paris, a private art museum. The museum overlooks what is today a most wonderful of space we know as Fort Canning Green. It comes to life occasionally when events such as theatre and musical performances under the stars, are held on it. And when it is kept clear,  it is a place, as it was in the days of my youth, where an escape could be found in.

Fort Canning Green today, well manicured, but still where many ghosts of the past are to be found.

Fort Canning Green today, well manicured, but still where many ghosts of the past are to be found.

A stage set for the spirits of a Shakespearean play, The Tempest, at Fort Canning Green.

A stage set for the spirits of a Shakespearean play, The Tempest, at Fort Canning Green.

There is much on and surrounding the green that will remind us of its previous use. A brick wall that encompasses most of the grounds around much of its perimeter give very clear hints of its days as an old Christian cemetery, as do the two cross adorned Gothic style gates intended as entry points. Information on the cemetery, the second Christian cemetery to be used in Singapore, is mostly contained in a 1912 register compiled by H. A. Stallwood. The register was published in the Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (JSBRAS) and was an attempt to create on as no register of burials for the cemetery could then be found.

A general view of the cemetery in the 1912 JSBRAS paper.

A general view of the cemetery in the included with the 1912 register.

The south east corner of the cemetery in 1921 (The cemetery seen in 1912 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

The south east corner of the cemetery in 1921 (The cemetery seen in 1912 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

We see from the register that the cemetery was divided down its east-west axis by a wall. The cemetery’s Anglican section was located south of this division, with the northern half allocated to the burials of other Christian denominations. The background to the cemetery is also given:

The Cemetery stands on the slope of Fort Canning Hill, and is approached from the South by Fort Canning Road, through a gateway designed partly in the Gothic style of Architecture. It was opened in 1822 to take the place of the first Christian Cemetery which was situated close to where the flag-staff at Fort Canning now stands. It was closed when the Cemetery in Bukit Timah Road was opened in 1865.

One of the two gothic gates that serve as the entrances to the old Christian cemetery at Fort Canning (source: JSBRAS paper). The gates are still standing.

One of the two gothic gates that serve as the entrances to the old Christian cemetery at Fort Canning – also from the 1912 register. The gates are still standing.

Possibly one of the last burials to have taken place, that of young Ada Sutcliffe (year of death incorrectly recorded in the JSBRAS paper as 1865).

Possibly one of the last burials to have taken place, that of young Ada Sutcliffe (year of death incorrectly recorded in the 1912 Regsiter as 1865).

Close-up of a tomb, possibly taken in the late 1940s by Richard Stone (online: http://www.stone-family.info/stone-richard-photos.html).

Close-up of a tomb, possibly taken in the late 1940s by Richard Stone (online: http://www.stone-family.info/stone-richard-photos.html).

The register makes mention of the attraction of the grounds to “those who appreciate quiet, contemplative surroundings“, something that as mentioned above, is the case even today. We are also reminded of the cemetery’s historical value, what perhaps was the main motivation for Stallwood’s effort:

To those who feel an interest in Singapore and its history, few places in the Settlement offer so much of interest.  Many old residents lie buried here, and many tombstones testify to the number of lives sacrificed by members of the Civil Service, who were called to rest at a very early age, whilst taking their share in the administration of this Settlement, of which we are all so proud. The United Services also yield their quota of names, unfortunately, some well-known, if not illustrious, in the annals of their country.

Fort Canning Green is still an attraction for those who appreciate quiet, contemplative surroundings.

Fort Canning Green is still an attraction for those who appreciate quiet, contemplative surroundings.

The layout of the cemetery from the 1912 Register.

The layout of the cemetery from the 1912 Register.

The oldest tomb identified by Stallwood, one from 1821, belongs to a John C. Collingwood of the ship “Susan”. Its presence in the cemetery, which was only opened in 1822, was attributed to it having been relocated from the original cemetery. The last burial was however incorrectly identified as being that of two year old Marie Dominica Scott in 1868. A check against the register’s listing of graves has the child’s death occurring instead in 1858. The 1858 death was also confirmed by the brother of the deceased in a letter published in the Straits Times on 17 July 1912, written to point the error out.

A photograph from the JSBRAS paper. The memorial to the men of HMS Niger mentioned in the paper, is in the centre of the picture.

A photograph from the 1912 Register. A memorial to the men of HMS Niger that is also mentioned in the paper, is in the centre of the picture.

The cemetery seen in 1912 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

The cemetery seen in 1912 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Within the walls, two noticeable structures that belonged to the cemetery remain. Both are in the southwest corner. The larger of the two, said to have been the largest in the former cemetery, is dedicated to the memory of James Brooke Napier, the infant son of William Napier. It was after William, a lawyer and the founder of the Singapore Free Press, that Napier Road was named.

A photograph of the memorial to James Brooke Napier from the JSBRAS paper.

A photograph of the memorial to James Brooke Napier from the 1912 Register.

The Napier Memorial and a former barrack block turned art museum at the top of Fort Canning Green.

The Napier Memorial and a former barrack block turned art museum at the top of Fort Canning Green.

William Napier was for a short while the Lieutenant-Governor of Labuan. He serve under Governor James Brooke, who is better known to us as the first of the white Rajahs of Sarawak. It was after Brooke that the infant was named. James Brooke Napier died at sea on 17 February 1848 at the age of 5 months and 24 days. His mother was Maria Frances Napier was the widow of the illustrious George D. Coleman, who Napier married not long after Coleman’s death in October 1844.

The memorial today.

The memorial today.

George Coleman, Singapore’s first public works architect, is best known to us as the man behind the beautiful Armenian Church and for lending his name to the street on which he had his house and to a bridge over the Singapore river. There is much of the former cemetery connected to him. The Gothic gates are ones that Coleman designed, along with the second set of the large structures mentioned, the two cupolas. Located just down the slope from the Napier memorial, the cupolas are of ornamental value, intended it is suggested, to provide shelter for rest and for contemplation.

The southwest area of the cemetery with the cuploas clearly visible. Possibly taken in the late 1940s it is from a wonderful online collection of photographs taken in Singapore from 1948 to the mid-1950s by Richard Stone (online: http://www.stone-family.info/stone-richard-photos.html).

The southwest area of the cemetery with the cupolas and the memorial to James Brooke Napier visible. Possibly taken in the late 1940s, it is from a wonderful online collection of photographs taken in Singapore from 1948 to the mid-1950s by Richard Stone (online: http://www.stone-family.info/stone-richard-photos.html).

The cupolas today.

The cupolas today.

Coleman was also laid to rest in the cemetery. An Irishman, he was believed to have been a member of the Church of Ireland. A mausoleum to Coleman, who died in 1844, was located at the non-Anglican section, in the cemetery’s northwest corner. All that remains of that is its memorial tablet, which can be found embedded in the western wall of Fort Canning Green, not far from where his mausoleum was located.

Coleman's cupolas with a view towards the northern Gothic gate.

Coleman’s cupolas with a view towards the northern Gothic gate.

The tablet belonging to the grave of George D. Coleman on the western wall - just below Fort Canning Centre.

The tablet belonging to the tomb of George D. Coleman on the western wall – just below Fort Canning Centre.

George D. Coleman's tomb in the northwest corner seen in 1956. The tomb was one of about 120 graves retained when the cemetery was converted into a 'Garden of Memory' in 1954 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

George D. Coleman’s tomb in the northwest corner seen in 1956. The tomb was one of about 120 graves retained when the cemetery was converted into a ‘Garden of Memory’ in 1954 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Coleman’s tomb was one of those that stood until the early 1970s. It was one of some 120 tombs identified for preservation by the Committee for the Preservation of Historic Sites when a decision was taken in the 1950s to turn the cemetery into a “garden of memory” in the early 1950s. The decision, prompted by the state of neglect and ruin the historic site was in, resulted in the exhumation of more than four hundred graves. An effort was also made to preserve the memory of those buried in the exhumed graves by embedding the headstones and memorial tablets of the removed graves into the walls of the cemetery. An extension to the existing wall had also to be constructed at then open eastern perimeter to permit this and the work was completed in 1954.

The garden, still with a scattering of graves, in 1974 ( (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

The garden, still with a scattering of graves, in 1974 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Another view of the former cemetery in 1974 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Another view of the former cemetery in 1974 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Gravestones embedded into the walls.

Gravestones embedded into the walls.

The writing on the walls now include grave stones from a mid-1970s exercise that saw all remaining graves exhumed and yields a rather interesting mix of stories from the former graves. In it we see many who came from far and wide bringing a diversity to the new settlement. We also see many names of notable personalities from the settlement’s earliest days. Examples of both include names such as Aristake Sarkies, who was Singapore’s first Armenian merchant, and also Jose D’Almeida, who was to be knighted by the Queen of Portugal and who was to become the first Portuguese Consul General to the Straits Settlements. D’Almeida Street is named after him.

The memorial tablets embedded in the walls tell us of many who came from far and wide in the early decades of British Singapore.

The memorial tablets embedded in the walls tell us of many who came from far and wide in the early decades of British Singapore.

A tablet belonging to the grave of Aristake Sarkies.

A tablet belonging to the grave of Aristake Sarkies.

From the grave of Charles Spottiswoode, a merchant after whom Spottiswoode Park is named.

From the grave of Charles Spottiswoode, a merchant after whom Spottiswoode Park is named.

There are also the stories of those who are less recognisable. One name that I could not help but notice on the walls is that of Emily Louisa Ottoson. Ottoson is a name that I am familiar with as that of Singapore’s first Japanese resident, John Matthew, also known as Otokichi Yamamoto. Behind the name is a fascinating tale that begins with Otokichi’s unitended departure from the country of his birth (a previous post on the Japanese Cemetery touches on the story). Emily Louisa it turns out, was John Matthew’s young daughter. She died in November 1852, a few months short of her fifth birthday.

The memorial tablet for Emily Louisa Ottoson, the four year old daughter of John Matthew Ottoson a.k.a. Otokichi. A resident of Japanese origin, Otokichi had a very eventful life out of Japan that started with him being lost at sea fro 14 months (see: https://thelongnwindingroad.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/voices-from-a-forgotten-past/).

The memorial tablet for Emily Louisa Ottoson, the four year old daughter of John Matthew Ottoson a.k.a. Otokichi. A resident of Japanese origin, Otokichi had a very eventful life out of Japan that started with him being lost at sea for 14 months (see: Voices from a Forgotten Past).

The young ages of many who were interred in the cemetery is also hard not to notice. Many names in the walls are those of children and infants. There are also many who passed on in their prime, which the 1912 register touches on, saying: “many tombstones testify to the number of lives sacrificed by members of the Civil Service, who were called to rest at a very early age, whilst taking their share in the administration of this Settlement, of which we are all so proud“.

A tablet from the grave of Edward Presgrave, a civil servant who passed away at the age of 35.

A tablet from the grave of Edward Presgrave, a civil servant who passed away at the age of 35.

One in this category was an Edward Presgrave. A contemporary of John Crawfurd, Presgrave served as the Registrar of Imports and Exports and concurrently as the Deputy Resident of Singapore. He reportedly died from a sudden attack of paralysis in 1830. On the basis of the register, he shared a vault with the Rev. Robert Burn. The Reverend, who died in 1833, was the first Anglican Resident Chaplain in Singapore and his appointment in 1826 is significant from the perspective that it marks the founding of the Anglican Church in Singapore.

A tablet belonging to Rev. Robert Burn, Chaplain of the Settlement, who apparently shared the same vault as Edward Presgrave in the Anglican section at the top of the slope.

A tablet belonging to Rev. Robert Burn, Chaplain of the Settlement, who apparently shared the same vault as Edward Presgrave in the Anglican section at the top of the slope.

There are many more stories that are to be found in the walls. Estimates of the number buried in the cemetery vary greatly. The 1912 register has list of over 550 names, while a Straits Times report in September 1952 has it as more than 700. The vast majority of those buried would have been of those of European descent. There are however a substantial number of Chinese, early converts to Christianity, who were also buried there, evident from the embedded grave stones with Chinese inscriptions. From these we can also see that the tradition was maintained in the manner the graves were inscribed, even with the embrace of a non-traditional faith.

A tablet in Chinese.

A Chinese head stone.

An example of an early Chinese Christian grave in which the Chinese tradition is maintained found another old cemetery in Singapore.

An example of an early Chinese Christian grave in which the Chinese tradition is maintained found another old cemetery in Singapore.

Mixed into the reminders of the old (Christian Cemetery), there are also the reminders of the new (Christian Cemetery). The “New Cemetery” or the Bukit Timah Christian Cemetery, replaced the Fort Canning cemetery as a Christian burial site and it was from the new cemetery that the cluster of gravestones seen in the northeast corner of the grounds had been moved from. The move was made when the graves in the new cemetery, located at what is today Kampong Java Park, were exhumed in 1970. The twelve graves stones that were moved were ones deemed to be of historical value by the then sub-committee on the Preservation of Buildings and Sites of Architectural and Historical Interest.

Gravestones moved from the 'New Cemetery' at the northeastern corner of Fort Canning Green.

Gravestones moved from the ‘New Cemetery’ at the northeastern corner of Fort Canning Green.

The exhumation of the remaining graves, undertaken in the mid 1970s, was part of an exercise to turn turn the hill into a huge park and green lung in the city. Named Central Park, it extended the reach of a previous public park, King George V Park on the west side of the hill, across to the east of the hill and incorporated parts of which had previously been used by the military, as well as the former cemetery site. Plans then included a roller skating rink, which was built, and also a cascading founding. The latter would have occupied the grounds of the cemetery and was fortunately not built, leaving us with a space in which the ghosts of the past are not forgotten.

King George V Park.

King George V Park.

A southward view through the James Brooke Napier memorial.

A southward view through the James Brooke Napier memorial.

JeromeLim-7938

 

 

 








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