The last rubber tree

17 04 2014

It is in a part of Singapore struggling to hold on to times the modern world has discarded that we find a remnant of forgotten days – a tree, said to be the last of the rubber trees, which is one of what were many more on the huge Bukit Sembawang plantation that had once dominated the area.

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There is much mystery that surrounds the tree, which towers over a mosque, described as be the “last kampung mosque in Singapore” - itself a remnant of a forgotten world. The 60 to 70-year-old tree is believed to have resisted all attempts to have it cut down – it is said that those who have attempted to cut it down had been struck ill in a fashion similar to many other trees found across the island that are believed to be inhabited by spirits.

On this, another story from the area does come to mind. The story is one that takes us back to the days when the huge King George IV graving dock  was being constructed – one that also involved a rubber tree that needed to be cleared to level the ground to build the dock. Workers had feared chopping the tree down for similar reasons, resulting in a delay in the construction. That tree did eventually get removed and act that was thought to be responsible for the deaths of several people involved in its removal that were to follow. More on this story can be found in a previous post, Last Post Standing.

Like the mosque beside it – which operates on a Temporary Occupation License, the tree is on State land and does face an uncertain future. While the area close to the mosque has so far been spared from development, the redevelopment of the area does seem to be gaining momentum. Not far away, we already see an area that once belonged to those who lived off the sea, given to those who in modern Singapore, are can pay the price it costs now to afford the luxury of living by the sea. It does seem to only be a matter of time before the brave new world does arrive in the area. Until then, we do for now, have the story of the tree to listen to, as well as the wealth of stories of times past that will be lost when the new world does eventually arrive.





The end of the Middle

3 04 2014

Long abandoned, a reminder of a time we have well forgotten, the former Bras Basah Community Centre, lies crumbling as it awaits a fate that does seem almost inevitable. For the moment, it serves as a reminder of the once gentle world that the new world seems to have little place for, one in which humble urban spaces for the community such as these were ones we could celebrate.

Patterns of a discarded world - ventilation openings from simpler and less energy dependent times.

Patterns of a discarded world – ventilation openings from simpler and less energy dependent times.

More patterns from forgotten times.

More patterns from forgotten times.

The former community centre, with group of single-storey buildings is set in a very generously provided space - unlike the compact, cluttered and overly crowded ones we have gotten used to seeing today. Opened in November 1960 as the Middle Road Community Centre, it was built to provide the community, at a time when the area did host a large resident population, with a point of focus. It also provided a safe place where the young  could expand their energy in with the provision of facilities such as two basketball courts which could also be used for badminton and sepak-takraw, as well as those for games such as chess and table-tennis.

An aerial view of the former Middle Road / Bras Basah Community Centre - the Empress Hotel, where the National Library now stands, can be seen at the top of the left hand side of the photograph.

An aerial view of the former Middle Road / Bras Basah Community Centre – the Empress Hotel, where the National Library now stands, can be seen at the top of the left hand side of the photograph.

A view of the grounds of the former community centre from high above where the Empress once reigned.

A view of the grounds of the former community centre from high above where the Empress once reigned.

The former centre provides a contrast against the new and modern world that has come up around it.

The former centre provides a contrast against the new and modern world that has come up around it.

One of the basketball courts was indeed where some of the young did, in early 1963, expand some energy in. An article I did come across in the National Library’s newspaper archives from 20 April 1963′s edition of The Straits Times, tells us of children discovering a hoard of banknotes and coins – believed to have been buried by residents of the area prior to the fall of Singapore to the Japanese , in digging a hole for a game of marbles on one of the centre’s two basketball courts.

A stash of buried money was found under one of the centre's two basketball courts in 1963.

A stash of buried money was found under one of the centre’s two basketball courts in 1963.

One of the basketball courts today.

One of the basketball courts today.

The centre was closed in 1987, after the area was cleared of its residents in the decade of what I term as the Great Wipeout. It found use for a while as a kindergarten called the Kinder World Educare Centre, but has in more recent times, remained vacant and has suffered from neglect. With the state of the grounds of the community centre and its buildings are in, it perhaps may not be long before holes are dug to remove the former community centre, and with that what’s left to remind us of the various communities it did once serve.

A view of the centre from a service road..

A view of the centre from a service road.

Reminders of the use of the former community centre as a kindergarten.

Reminders of the use of the former community centre as a kindergarten.

 

 More views around the former Community Centre

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We did once enjoy getting hit by a ball

28 03 2014

This photograph, which was taken at a school yard during my wanderings to Kathmandu in Nepal in April 2011, takes me back to my own days in primary school some four decades ago, when children looked forward to the opportunities for physical activity and outdoor play that presented itself during recess time as well as before and after school hours. It didn’t matter then that we would be sweaty, our uniforms often bearing the marks left by balls or through falling during play. It was pure fun and a perfect way to interact.

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Many of the games we played in the expansive fields involved a good run around. Games such as “catching”, football, rounders were popular, as was the game that the photograph does remind me of, “hentam bola“, or as we did pronounce it, “hantam bola“.

Translated from Malay as “hit with (or by) a ball”, although grammatically not quite correct, the game involved a player, singled out as one who “pasang” - who initially would have drawn the short straw through a selection process that might have involved mini-games of chance (a common one used was “oh-bey-som“, similar to rock, paper, scissors).

Played in an open field, the objective of “hentam bola” for the “pasang” was to chase the other players (who would be trying to give the “pasang” a run around), and attempt to hit another player by throwing a ball with as much strength as one could muster. A successful hit would mean that the player hit would be the next to throw the ball. The ball we used was a small compressed air filled rubber ball, which could sometimes do some damage, not just to the players, but to glass panes in windows and doors.

It is sad that the outdoors feature less in children’s play in Singapore these days, not just due to the gadget age, but also with open space at a premium - many schools have sacrificed parts of their great outdoors for the greater indoors in the form of sports halls and the opportunity for such outdoor play does seem to be greatly reduced.





Windows into Singapore: juxtapositions of time

27 03 2014

A view out of the window from the POD atop the National Library building, out towards what would once have been an almost clear view of the sea off the promenade that ran along Nicoll Highway.

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Part of what has been a landmark along Beach Road since its completion in 1976, Shaw Towers, can be seen on the right of the photograph. Built over a site that had previously been occupied by the Alhambra and Marborough cinemas, the 35 floor Shaw Towers was at the point of its completion, the tallest kid on the block at Beach Road. It was also the first building in Singapore to house two cinemas, Prince and Jade, built in a decade when cinema going took-off in Singapore. Prince was at its opening, the largest cinema in Singapore with its 1952 seats. Prince occupied the second to the seventh floors of one corner of the building’s podium. Its screen, at 28 metres wide, was the widest in the Far East. Jade was to provide a more intimate setting, holding less than half the crowd Prince would have held. The cinemas were converted in the late 1980s to cineplexes – the first multi-screen cinemas to make an appearance in Singapore.

A close up of the boats in the Kallang Basin close to Nicoll Highway (posted in Facebook group, On a Little Street in Singapore).

Nicoll Highway, Singapore’s first highway, did once run along the coast right behind Shaw Towers. Completed in 1956 - after the closure of Kallang Airport permitted a much needed link to be built along the coast, it provided an artery to take vehicular traffic from and to the populated eastern coast into and out of the city. Offering a view of the sea and the scatter of boats up to the early 1970s,  a drive today provides a view of a scattering of trees and isolated structures that herald the arrival of a brand new world - where the wooded patch is in the foreground of the first photograph.

Nicoll Highway, the Merdeka Bridge, Beach Road and the Kallang Basin, 1967 – before the 1970s land reclamation (posted in Facebook group, On a Little Street in Singapore).

A view down Nicoll Highway. A new development South Beach is seen rising beyond Shaw Tower.

A view down Nicoll Highway. A new development South Beach is seen rising beyond Shaw Towers.

Another view down Nicoll Highway during peak hour.

Another view down Nicoll Highway during peak hour.

The body of water beyond which we can see the Benjamin Sheares Bridge rising, is itself one that has seen a significant change. Where it once was the sea, it now is a body of fresh water, forming a part of the huge Marina Reservoir, having been cut-off from the sea by land reclamation and the construction of the Marina Barrage. The barrage, closes up the channel between Marina East and Marina South, Marina East being land reclaimed off Tanjong Rhu, a cape once referred to as a “curious ridge of sand” on which shipyards, the charcoal trade and a flour mill had once featured.

An advertisement for Khong Guan Flour Mills. The grain storage silos once dominated a landscape at Tanjong Rhu now dominated by condominiums.

An advertisement for Khong Guan Flour Mills. The grain storage silos once dominated a landscape at Tanjong Rhu now dominated by condominiums.

A more recent landmark on Beach Road, the 41-storey The Concourse and a view toward Tanjong Rhu beyond it.

A more recent landmark on Beach Road, the 41-storey The Concourse and a view toward Tanjong Rhu beyond it.

Reclaimed land by Nicoll Highway, the Kallang Basin area of Marina Reservoir and Tanjong Rhu beyond it.

Reclaimed land by Nicoll Highway, the Kallang Basin area of Marina Reservoir and the Marina South area beyond it.

It is at Tanjong Rhu, where Singapore first million-dollar condominium units were sold, that the eastern end of the iconic 1.8 km long Benjamin Sheares Bridge comes down to earth. Opened to traffic on 26 September 1981, it provided the final link for a coastal highway that had been built to take traffic around and not through the city centre, the planning for which went back to the end of the 1960s (see The Making of Marina Bay).

Land reclamation in the Kallang Basin / Tanjong Rhu area in 1973 (posted in Facebook group On a Little Street in Singapore).

This stretch of that coastal highway, East Coast Parkway (ECP), did take up much of the traffic that was being carried on what was becoming an increasingly congested Nicoll Highway that had been built some 25 years before it. Now, some 32 years later, as with the highway it took traffic away from, it sees its role taken up in a similar fashion by a new highway, the Marina Coastal Expressway (MCE). Built at the cost of S$4.3-billion, the 5 kilometre MCE runs mostly underground and partly under the sea and see the series of coastal highways move with the shifting of the coastline. The MCE features a 3.6 km tunnel and has a 420 metre stretch that runs under the sea.

Tanjong Rhu and the Benjamin Sheares Bridge.

Tanjong Rhu and the Benjamin Sheares Bridge.

The expressway, which opened to traffic on 29 December 2013, was built so as to remove the constraints that the ECP, in running right smack through the centre of Marina South, had placed on the development of Singapore’s new downtown (the expansion of the city to Marina South that was really an afterthought, having come after urban planners had realised the potential that land, which had initially been reclaimed for the construction of the ECP, had in providing much needed space for the expansion of the city). The availability of new and undeveloped land through reclamation did allow parts of old Singapore slated for redevelopment, to be spared the wreckers’ ball.

A view over the Marina Reservoir and Marina East, with the Benjamin Sheares Bridge seen to the left of the capsule.

A view over the Marina Reservoir and Marina East, with the Benjamin Sheares Bridge seen to the left of the capsule.

The deceptively blue waters in the first photograph’s background, is that of the Eastern Anchorage. It is at the anchorage that ships lie patiently in wait, far removed from the frenzy at the wharves of what is one of the world’s busiest ports. It is one place in Singapore where time does seem to stand very still, at least for now. Time doesn’t of course seem to stand very still in a Singapore constantly on the move, and time will certainly bring change to shape of the distribution of the shipping infrastructure along the coast- with the journey to west for the city shipping terminals, at Keppel, Pulau Brani and Tanjong Pagar, due to completed by 2030.

The Eastern Anchorage.

The Eastern Anchorage – where time does seem to stand still.

There is of course the potential that developments away from Singapore has for influencing change. One possible game-changing development we in Singapore are keeping our eyes on is the possibility that of a dream long held by Thailand, the cutting of a shipping canal through the Isthmus of Kra, coming true. If a recent report, purportedly from the Chinese media, is to be believed, work is already starting. The cutting of the so-called Kra Canal is an idea that was first mooted back in the late 17th Century (see: How a Thai Canal Could Transform Southeast Asia on http://thediplomat.com) and talk of building it does crop up from time to time – the effort required and the associated costs in recent times serving as a huge deterrent. If built, the canal would save shipping a 1,500 nautical mile journey through the Straits of Malacca and around Singapore.

The proposed canal does have the potential to undermine Singapore’s so far unchallenged strategic position with regards to shipping, although it would probably take a lot more than a canal to do that. In the meantime, it is the change that is driven within that we will see add to another area in Singapore in which change does seem to always be a constant.





New journeys to the west

20 03 2014

Once a place in Singapore that drew in the crowds, the gory, somewhat gaudy but mystical gardens that a tiger built, Haw Par Villa or Tiger Balm Gardens, has worn the look of another discarded icon of the past. It would have been a place that would have featured in many a childhood outing in simpler days. I for one, have an abundance of snapshots taken from times when I was held in my parents arms to the latter stages of my childhood. It really was such a shame to see an attraction that had once captured the imagination of local residents and tourists alike, suffer from neglect as our attention turned towards the new-age attractions of a Singapore we were not.

The gory Haw Par Villa - a one time favourite outing destination.

The gory Haw Par Villa – a one time favourite outing destination.

It is certainly a welcome sign to see that an attempt is now being made by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) to revive interest in the fascinating world that Aw Boon Haw, the “Tiger Balm King” had built around a villa erected for his brother Boon Par, especially in a way that is very much in keeping to the spirit of what Boon Haw had wished for, expressing just prior to his death in 1954 – that the gardens should be kept open to the public to enter for free.

A journey to the west.

A journey to the west.

Getting Singapore residents to reconnect with its attractions of the past is what the STB – the custodian of the grounds since the Singapore government’s acquisition of it in 1985, aims to do as it celebrates its fiftieth year of promoting tourism, starting with Haw Par Villa.  The effort sees a three-phased approach that will attempt to get us in Singapore to Reminisce, Rediscover, Celebrate.

Riding not the tiger but the leopard in 1976.

Riding not the tiger but the leopard in 1976 – Singapore residents are encourage to relive Haw Par Villa’s past.

Through the effort, Tourism50, STB hopes to raise awareness and appreciation of past as well as more recent tourism developments, and more importantly, encourage interest and participation. And as part of the series of events STB has planned for Tourism50, Haw Par Villa will host two weekends of activities, Reliving Haw Par Villa. The first on the weekend of 15/16 March, drawing the crowds – the very welcome downpour not at all dampening the spirits.

Haw Par Villa, a hidden treasure.

Haw Par Villa, a hidden treasure.

The weekend activities  - there is one more weekend to look forward to on 22 and 23 March 2014, include free guided tours from 9.30 am to 4 pm (registration is required at the Tour Registration booth). The tours will be conducted by local heritage tour specialist, Journeys, in both English and Mandarin. The will also be cultural performances such as storytelling, skits, puppet shows and acrobatic displays, to look forward to, as well as a vintage flea market and most importantly, food! On the subject of food – do keep a look out for the to-die-for Durian Creme Brulee, for which I would return to hell (one of the attractions Haw Par Villa is very well known for is the Ten Courts of Hell) many times over!

Reliving Haw Par Villa through food.

Reliving Haw Par Villa through food.

The activities do go on throughout the day with the first at 11 am and the last starting at 5 pm. Admission as is in more recent times is free. It does pay to be early though as the first 1,000 visitors each day can look forward to a Tourism50 goodie bag. If you do intend to visit, do note that car park will be closed during the event and getting there by public transport is probably the best option.

The popular cure-all balm being marketed at Reliving Haw Par Villa - must have cured Singapore of the long dry spell.

The popular cure-all balm being marketed at Reliving Haw Par Villa – must have cured Singapore of the long dry spell.

Besides the goodies in the bag, do also keep a look out for the Tourism50 postcards. Designed by local freelance illustrator and Architecture student Richard Li, the postcards feature icons of the past like Haw Par Villa, Sentosa Monorail and Raffles Hotel. Besides being made available at the event, you will also find the cards at the ZoCard racks, in all community libraries, at the Singapore Visitors Centre, the Chinatown Heritage Centre, all Sentosa ticketing counters and at the Singapore Tourism Board (Tourism Court) from 15 March 2014.

The Tourism50 Postcards.

The Tourism50 Postcards.

Local residents who mail the postcards to their friends and loved ones will get to enter a Lucky Draw that offers a top prize of a 2D1N Grand Hotel Suite Staycation at Raffles Hotel Singapore (includes Limousine Transfer + Breakfast & Dinner for 2). Other prizes on offer include 50 Sentosa Islander Family Membership (1 year), and 50 paris of FORMULA 1 SINGAPORE GRAND PRIX Walkabout Tickets.

The rain did deter not visitors over the first weekend.

The rain did deter not visitors over the first weekend.

More information on Tourism50, activities, on Haw Par Villa, the event at Haw Par Villa and also the lucky draw can be found at www.xinmsn.com/rediscoversg and at lifestyle.xin.msn.com/en/rediscoversg/reliving-haw-par-villa

Singapore's most photographed archway in the rain.

Singapore’s most photographed archway in the rain.



Haw Par Villa over the years
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Haw Par Villa did once feature in the lives of many of us in a Singapore. A place to head over to for a school excursion or a family outing, it must, judging from the many photographs of it over the years, possibly have been one of the most photographed attractions in Singapore in days well before the modern icons of tourist Singapore were created.
Once by the sea, Haw Par Villa has seen the shoreline gradually being moved away over the years. The Pasir Panjang terminal is now seen on more recently reclaimed land.

Once by the sea, Haw Par Villa has seen the shoreline gradually being moved away over the years. The Pasir Panjang terminal is now seen on more recently reclaimed land where the sea once was.

For me, it was one of the places from which I do possess an abundance of photographs taken through my childhood and a place I did enjoy that occasional visit to. This, in spite of it being the source of more than a few nightmares, that is, until the time a dragon gobbled it up.

A photograph from a visit in November 1976.

A photograph from a visit in November 1976.

Stupa-shaped memorials to the Aws are now seen in the grounds.

Stupa-shaped memorials to the Aws are now seen in the grounds.

The dragon, Haw Par Villa Dragon World, was a vain and rather costly attempt by the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB), which in its current incarnation is the STB, to turn the previously free to visit gardens, into a theme park.  The theme park had been an attempt to revive interest in an attraction for which time seemed to have left well behind – it was literally crumbling in the face of its huge maintenance costs, following the acquisition of it in 1985 by the Singapore government.

Spider spirits who have seen their levels of modesty adjusted through the years.

Spider spirits who have seen their levels of modesty adjusted through the years.

Some S$80 million was expanded during a two year makeover that took place from 1988 to 1990. That saw the gardens being refurbished and several displays removed. Rides were also installed, including what some of my younger friends tell me was a memorable water ride in their childhood, for the wrong reasons, into the horrifying ten courts of hell. Reopened as Haw Par Villa Dragon World in 1990, it did not live up to its promise and as soon as the novelty wore off, visitor numbers fell and huge running losses were incurred. It eventually closed in 2001 and with its closure, there were fears that the dying embers of an attraction that certainly was like none on the island, was soon to be extinguished.

Dioramas high on messages of morals and Confucian ethics are found ih the gardens,

Dioramas high on messages of morals and Confucian ethics are found in the gardens.

It was nice to see that the park not only was kept open by the STB, but also that admission to it was kept free in keeping with what Aw Boon Haw had wished. It does now draw a steady stream of visitors although not in anyway near the visitor numbers of its heyday when it would be packed with local residents especially on public holidays. It was initially on certain public holidays that Aw Boon Haw had opened what was really the private grounds of a villa that offered a magnificent view of the nearby sea in Pasir Panjang, which he had built for his younger brother Boon Par.

Hell freezing over. The second court in which being hell is frozen for sins such as robbery and corruption.

Hell freezing over. The second court of hell in which hell is frozen for sins such as robbery and corruption.

The actual villa, a model of which can be seen at Haw Par Villa today, was erected in 1937. Boon Haw filled the sprawling grounds with figurines and dioramas depicting scenes from Chinese mythology such as the 8 Immortals and the Journey to the West, along with many that offered lessons in Confucian values. The gardens were said to be badly damaged during the Japanese occupation during which time Boon Par passed away in Rangoon in 1944. Boon Haw was said to have demolished the villa out of anguish when he returned after the war.

Steps to a lost villa. The terrace where the villa that Aw Boon Haw built for his brother once stood.

Steps to a lost villa. The terrace where the villa that Aw Boon Haw built for his brother once stood.

The entrance archway leading to what had been Boon Par's villa.

The entrance archway leading to what had been Boon Par’s villa.

The archway seen in 1976.

The archway seen in 1976.

Boon Haw did however restore the gardens to it former glory adding to it over the years until his death in 1954. Following his death, new flavours were added to the grounds by his nephew, Aw Cheng Chye, creating “international corners” within the gardens. In the corners, Cheng Chye erected figurines associated with countries he had travelled, adding them through the 1960s until his death in 1971. While some of these are still around such as the Statue of Liberty and the Sumo Wrestlers all seemingly a curious addition to the largely Chinese themed gardens, several did get gobbled up by the dragon. One that did get removed was one of my favourites – a 4.5 metre Maori tiki (with two accompanying kiwis) at what had been a New Zealand corner that was installed in January 1966.

The tiki at the New Zealand corner in 1976.

The tiki at the New Zealand corner in 1976.

One part of Haw Par Villa that will be difficult for any visitor to forget is the Ten (previously eighteen) Courts of Hell. It was through the Ten Courts – stages through the Chinese interpretation of purgatory in the process of reincarnation, living souls were taken on a slow boat to see its many gruesome scenes, then tucked away in belly of the theme park’s dragon. It was seeing it on foot during the pre-dragon world visits that must have been the source of many of my nightmares, the scenes all very graphic in depicting the many horrible punishments that awaited the souls of sinners in their journey to reincarnation. 

A graphic journey through the Chinese interpretation of purgatory in the journey to reincarnation.

A graphic journey through the Chinese interpretation of purgatory in the journey to reincarnation.

It is perhaps a journey of reincarnation that Haw Par Villa is itself embarked on, one in which it has been punished for sins not entirely of its doing. It would certainly be wonderful if the journey is one in which we will see the return of what has for too long, been a lost and wandering soul.

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The mystery of Bukit Gombak

13 03 2014

An area of Singapore that does seem to have an air of mystery about it is Bukit Gombak. The location of what reputedly was one of Singapore’s most haunted places, Hillview Mansion, which once stood high on its eastward facing slope, the hill and its environs has also gained a somewhat sinister reputation for other ghostly encounters, some of which seem to have been attributed as the cause of several unfortunate incidents that have taken place in the hill’s disused water filled quarries.

A mysterious collapsed structure on the one of the western slopes at Bukit Gombak.

A mysterious collapsed structure on the one of the western slopes at Bukit Gombak.

The rainwater filled former Gammon Quarry, now part of a park known as Little Guilin, is one that seems to hide much in terms of mystery.

The rainwater filled former Gammon Quarry, now part of a park known as Little Guilin, is one that seems to hide much in terms of mystery.

Besides the supernatural, a mystery that is of a less sinister nature is that of a concrete structure. Now in a state of collapse, the structure stands at the top of a steep incline that runs up from a cut leading to the former Seng Chew Granite Quarry. The structure is one that was documented by my friends from the One° North Explorers, who had first stumbled upon it sometime in 2005 when it was in better shape and was being used to house a makeshift shrine (see: The Forsaken Quarry of the West And the Mysterious Shrine).

Little Guilin is an area of much beauty that some suspect hides several secrets.

Little Guilin is an area of much beauty that some suspect hides several ghostly secrets.

It was in the company of James Tann, a long time resident of the area, and Andrew Him and Chris Lee of One° North Explorers, that I was to  pay a visit to the structure over the weekend, with the intention to search for further clues as to what it may have been.  From James, we were to learn quite a fair bit that wasn’t just confined to the area’s history, but also to the area’s geology. It was from the depths of his vast local knowledge that I was to discover that the rocky ground on which I had been standing on was in fact one of the oldest rock formations that I could stand on in Singapore (see: Singapore Landscapes: the secret lake).

Gombak norite formations seen at Little Guilin.

Gombak norite formations seen at Little Guilin.

With the area being one that had a strong connection with the military – the British having maintained a military installation and radar station on the ridge line that ran from Bukit Gombak to Bukit Panjang, and the Japanese having set up camp on the hill during the occupation, James had suspected that the collapsed structure might have been a Japanese built pillbox from World War II. There was also a suggestion from the One° North Explorers that it could have been a blasting shelter, as one might have expected to find on the grounds of the quarry.

More of the structure.

More of the structure.

Part of the collapsed roof.

Part of the collapsed roof.

The former Seng Chew Granite Quarry.

The former Seng Chew Granite Quarry.

Bashing through.

Bashing through.

Standing on its foundation of Gombak norite and in its collapsed state, there wasn’t much more that the structure did give away. What did seem like its flat roof, had completely caved in, burying whatever clues that might otherwise have been discovered under it. The only remnant of the structure that seemed to be left standing was a wall of concrete bricks with little else but a semi-corroded steel backing plate that might have been used to act as a support for a mounting inside the structure.

Remnants of the concrete structure on Bukit Gombak.

Remnants of the concrete structure on Bukit Gombak.

A view of the wall through the trees.

A view of the wall through the trees.

A close-up of the wall.

A close-up of the wall.

Built into the contours of the slope on the side of the quarry, there was also evidence of what did seem to be a substantial concrete structure. That might possibly been erected to act as a blast barrier – supporting the suggestion that what was there may have been that blasting shelter, along with the fact that the collapsed structure had its entrance on the slope away from the quarry. Kim Frost, a WWII vehicle expert,  did also unearth a grove on the top of the thick layer of concrete that does resemble a drain – possibly to provide drainage from runoff flowing down the slope.

Another look at the wall.

Another look at the wall.

The substantial concrete structure built into the quarry side of the slope.

The substantial concrete structure built into the quarry side of the slope.

From another angle.

From another angle.

Kim Frost digging for further evidence.

Kim Frost digging for further evidence.

While all does seem to point to the structure being a blasting shelter, that is still this lingering suspicion that the structure could still be a military one, including it being an entrance to a tunnel – similar to what we do see of the tunnels at Marsiling that was recently in the news, especially so when a newspaper report I came across does give evidence of their construction at Bukit Gombak.

Kim Frost working on the top of the quarry-side concrete barrier.

Kim Frost working on the top of the quarry-side concrete barrier.

What appears to be a drain that Kim unearthed.

What appears to be a drain that Kim unearthed.

The report, in the 17 November 1953 edition of The Straits Times that was headlined “$50 MIL. OIL PIPE PLAN IS ABANDONED“, relates to the abandonment of  what it called a “top-secret project”, that is spite of half the budgeted sum already expanded in the twelve years of effort, interrupted by the war, put into carving out tunnels and oil storage tanks under Bukit Gombak. That was all part of an attempt to build what would have been a hidden storage facility, capable of holding “hundreds of thousands of gallons of petrol [sic]” to fuel the Far East Fleet based at the Naval Base.

A concrete block.

A concrete block.

The project would have seen some fourteen underground oil tanks built along with access and maintenance tunnels and a pumping station, and with a network of pipelines laid. From the report, we can surmise that work would have started in 1941 with the Japanese continuing with it during the occupation. The Royal Navy recommenced work on it in 1946 before abandoning the project in 1953. The report does mention that the tunnels and tanks were filled up after the project was stopped as well as “several miles of underground pipes” dug up.

The entrance to a service tunnel at what is believed to be an aviation fuel storage facility at Marsiling.

The entrance to a service tunnel at what is believed to be an aviation fuel storage facility at Marsiling, which may have been similar in construction to the Gombak storage facility.

This certainly is an interesting parallel to set of tunnels that have been found at Marsiling that was the subject of a recent WWII related tour organised by the National Heritage Board. While that, located on what was fringe of the Naval Base, is thought to have been built as an aviation fuel storage facility, the one at Bukit Gombak located away from the Naval Base, was being built to serve as a fuel storage for the naval fleet.

Pipelines inside the service tunnel at Marsiling.

Pipelines inside the service tunnel at Marsiling.

Pipelines at the boundary wall of the service tunnel at Marsiling.

Pipelines at the boundary wall of the service tunnel at Marsiling.

With the military presence continuing at Bukit Gombak and the developments that have taken place around the hill, there is little more evidence that can be found of what the structure might once have been. It may also not be long before the structure disappears completely - survey markers seen in the area do show signs there is recent interest in perhaps the redevelopment of the area, which does mean that we may never unravel the mystery of what the collapsed structure was.

Developments in the area mean little else is left that can be found.

Developments in the area mean little else is left that can be found.

Part of the slope is now a secret garden - probably planted by some of the nearby residents.

Part of the slope is now a secret garden – probably planted by some of the nearby residents.

More evidence of the secret garden.

More evidence of the secret garden.





Last rites for the Singaporean soul

8 03 2014

The transition from February into March was one where we in Singapore seemed to have lost years rather than a month. That bore witness to the passing of several remnants of times we seem to find little relevance for in the manufactured world we have embraced.

Backstage on the night of 104 year old Sin Sai Hong Hokkien opera troupe's very last performance.

Backstage on the night of 104 year old Sin Sai Hong Hokkien opera troupe’s very last performance.

The last day of February was an especially cruel for those who take joy in celebrating the reminders of those times we have all but forgotten. It was to see two places (see: Last impressions), both which have found their way into the hearts of those who knew them, shut their doors for the very last time. One was a 1970s style kopitiam, Chin Hin Eating House, and the other, Buona Vista Swimming Complex, which also is of the same vintage.

A last look at the script for a last ever performance.

A last look at the script for a last ever performance.

March was to start with further sadness as we heard the swan song of the Sin Sai Hong (新赛凤) Hokkien Opera troupe. Involving four generations of the family of the founder, the troupe has a history that goes back 104 years, and was Singapore’s oldest Hokkien Opera troupe.

A signature scene seen at the troupe's final night.

A signature scene seen at the troupe’s final night.

Dwindling interest in what was a traditional form of street entertainment that had its heyday before the 1970s, and the resulting reluctance of the next generation in continuing the family tradition, has seen to Sin Sai Hong’s passing. And, in spite of there being renewed consciousness in Singaporeans about their many lost or dying traditions, it is unlikely that it would be enough to see the phoenix (凤) in Sin Sai Hong rise from the ashes.

A final offering to the altar.

A final offering to the altar.

Chinese opera performances, or wayangs as they are referred to locally, did once bring in the crowds. Troupes such as Sin Sai Hong would move from village to village, town to town across Singapore and Malaysia, finding audiences not only across the language divide.

The crowd at the Chai Chee United temple where the last performances were held over four days.

The crowd at the Chai Chee United temple where the last performances were held over four days.

My grandmother, who could converse only in Bahasa Indonesia, would often be among the audience and the very first wayang performances I did attend when they did come to Toa Payoh, were ones where I sat beside her and it is always with fondness that I look back to those precious times that I remember more for the reward that did almost always come after.  That reward was one found in the many food and toy stalls that in accompanying the travelling wayangs, provided an almost carnival like atmosphere to neighbourhood.

The wayang stage under the glow of red lanterns at the Chai Chee United Temple.

The wayang stage under the glow of red lanterns at the Chai Chee United Temple.

For many of the opera troupes, the carnival was to end with rising affluence, the distractions of the modern world, and perhaps the self-inflicted crisis of identity that came with the attempts to redefine who we are that made us who we are not. With interest declining over the last four decades, a simplification of traditional religious practices at Chinese temples where wayangs were staged during important religious celebrations, there is little demand for the troupes today. This is seen especially during the month of the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival during which a somewhat kitsch, but more popular form of entertainment, the Getai, has largely replaced the street wayang.

Filmmaker Royston Tan who spent over a year with the troupe in the lead up to his 2006 short film on the troupe.

Filmmaker Royston Tan who spent over a year with the troupe in the lead up to his 2006 short film on the troupe.

Where in 1988, there were an average of four wayangs (including puppet troupes) being staged on any one day (see: “Weird, wonderful wayang”, The Straits Times, 23 June 1988, Page 3) which kept troupes busy for most of the year, it would be considered good if professional Chinese opera troupes are booked for a third to half of the year.

Another view of the stage.

Another view of the stage.

Hokkien opera, other street Chinese opera genres such as the Teochew and Cantonese opera, as well as the many once common sub-cultural expressions, have always played a huge part in giving Singapore its multi-faceted soul. It is in losing them and troupes that promote these expressions such as Sin Sai Hong that we lose a part of who we are, and sadly for all of us, it is only a matter of time before we lose that soul in its entirety. 

Tradition meets technology.

Tradition meets technology.


More backstage and onstage photographs from the final night

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Last impressions

4 03 2014

Time can be a cruel thing in Singapore. The passage of time brings with it the change that seems inevitable in Singapore denying us many places that we may have developed an attachment to.

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The last day of February this year, saw the passing of two well-loved places. One is a kopitiam (coffee-shop), set in an world older than itself for which time is being called on, and the other, a well used community space in the form of a public swimming pool complex we in Singapore seem to want to discard all to quickly.

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Just a stone’s throw away from each other, the two, are coincidentally from the same era. While this may be hard to see in the swimming complex, the Buona Vista Swimming Complex, the layout of the kopitiam, Chin Hin Eating House at Block 75 Commonwealth Drive, does take us back to the period when it was set-up in 1976 – when it was still the fashion to lay food stalls at the coffee-shop’s front, with a seating area in the back. A popular place for that traditional breakfast of buttered bread, soft-boiled eggs and coffee, the coffee-shop was located on the ground floor of a block of flats that will be a group of seven – among the earliest put up by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) in the early 1960s, that will be demolished under the HDB’s Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS).

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The swimming complex, which opened in September 1976 and the fourth to be designed by the Housing and Development Board (the others before it were Queenstown, Toa Payoh and Katong), is one that I do have a memory of. It was where on one evening in the complex’s first decade of operation, despite losing my glasses in any attempt to “rescue” a “swimmer in distress”, I managed to get my bronze medallion in life-saving that qualified me as a lifeguard. That was some 30 years ago in 1983, and probably some 30 kilogrammes ago in weight I have since seemed to have gained.

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While there is little I have in terms of sentimentality for the places concerned, they are still places for which I do feel a sense of loss, being reminders of unassuming times for which there is little place in the world we have been forced to love. There may be little time left for us to celebrate these remnants of the old world in which we find easy to feel at home in, before they become a remnant only in our memories.


A last waltz

- a final dance at Chin Hin Eating House (1976 to 2014) -

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La última Vista

- a final look at Buona Vista Swimming Complex (4 Sep 1976 to 28 Feb 2014) -

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Silhouettes of a joy we have forgotten

3 03 2014

Silhouettes of the morning in a place by the sea, the simple joy of which we have long forgotten. The place, Sembawang, is one that hangs on to one of the last stretches of natural beaches left in Singapore. It is where I often find myself celebrating the new day, being one of the few places left in Singapore that is able to take me back to days when finding joy did seem a lot less complicated.

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(photographs taken on the morning of 2 March 2014)





Recoloured waters

2 03 2014

A view of the Singapore River from my favourite bridge, the Cavenagh Bridge. The view is now very different one from the one I did when I first set my eyes on it as a child, with the river emptied of its seemingly overladen twakows – lighters that seemed to have non-existent freeboards. The twakows provided the means to bring goods from the ocean going ships anchored in the harbour to godowns upriver and were the backbone of trading business on which Singapore owes much of its early success to. 

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The once filthy waters of the river, spilling not anymore into the harbour, but into a body of sweet water – the Marina Reservoir, carved amazingly out from the sea and is now surrounded by the modern skyline that has come up at what is today Marina Bay, has since been cleaned up – the result of a huge ten year effort that began in 1977 that also saw it emptied of its twakowsIt is the new trades – that serving new temporary imports in the form of tourists, have replaced the old, and it is this that now recolours the river’s once dark and murky waters, bringing new life to the area. 

More on the Singapore River and the old harbour:





A search for a lost countryside

27 02 2014

Together with several jalan-jalan kaki, I set off on a Sunday morning from Khatib MRT Station in search of a lost countryside. The area in which we sought to find that lost world, is one, that in more recent times has been known to us as Nee Soon and Ulu Sembawang. It was a part of Singapore that I first became acquainted with it in my childhood back in the early 1970s, when an area of rural settlements and village schools that were interspersed with poultry, pig and vegetable farms that awaited discovery along its many minor roads. It was also an area where the British military did  leave much in terms of evidence of their former presence.

The group at Jalan Ulu Sembawang in search of a lost countryside.

The group at Jalan Ulu Sembawang in search of a lost countryside.

Fed by the waters of several rivers that spilled out into the Straits of Johor or Selat Tebrau, which included Sungei Seletar and its tributaries, Sungei Khatib Bongsu, Sungei Simpang and its tributaries and Sungei Sembawang, the area was to first attract gambier and pepper plantations in the mid 1800 with which came the first settlements. As with other plantation rich riverine areas of Singapore, the area attracted many Teochew immigrants, becoming one of several Teochew heartlands found across rural Singapore. Pineapple and rubber were to replace gambier and pepper in the 1900s – when the association with the likes of Bukit Sembawang and Lim Nee Soon, names which are now synonymous with the area, was to start.

Walking through a reminder of the lost countryside at Bah Soon Pah Road.

Walking through a reminder of the lost countryside at Bah Soon Pah Road.

Much has changed since the days of Chan Ah Lak’s gambier and pepper plantations – for which the area was originally known as Chan Chu Kang, the days of Lim Nee Soon’s pineapple and rubber cultivation and processing exploits, and even from the days when I made my first visits to the area. There are however, parts of it that in which some semblance of the countryside that did once exist can be found, parts where one can quite easily find that much needed escape from the concrete and overly manicured world that now dominates the island.

A map of the area showing the location of villages in the area in 1980s (scanned from A pictorial history of Nee Soon Community, 1987)".

A map of the area showing the location of villages in the area in 1980s (scanned from A pictorial history of Nee Soon Community, 1987)”.

One of two places where those reminders can be found is the area around Bah Soon Pah Road. The road, strange as it may seem, is in fact named after Lim Nee Soon – Bah Soon having been a nickname stemming from him being a Straits Born Chinese or “Baba”. These days, the truncated Bah Soon Pah Road, is still an area that is very much associated with agriculture, being an area that is at the heart of the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority’s (AVA) efforts to promote agrotechnology in Singapore. Playing host to the Nee Soon Agrotechnology Park, there are several farms to be found along the road, including one in which hydroponic vegetables for the local market are cultivated.

A link with the area's heritage.

Over the fence – a link with the area’s heritage.

An interesting sight along Bah Soon Pah Road is the building that now houses the AVA’s Horticulture Services Centre. The building – a huge bungalow built on stilts, in a style that resembles the “black and white” houses that the British built to house their administrators and senior military men and their families, probably built in the early 1900s with the arrival of the pineapple and rubber plantations, is in fact a physical link to Lim Nee Soon’s association with the area. Sitting atop a small hill – you do get a magnificent view of it from a distance from Yishun Avenue 1, the grand bungalow was I have been advised, a former residence of the assistant manager of Lim Nee Soon’s plantation, thus providing a link to a past that might otherwise have been forgotten.

The AVA's Horticulture Services Centre at Bah Soon Pah Road occupies a bungalow that served as the Assistant Plantation Manager's residence in Lim Nee Soon's estate.

The AVA’s Horticulture Services Centre at Bah Soon Pah Road occupies a bungalow that served as the Assistant Plantation Manager’s residence in Lim Nee Soon’s estate.

From the west end of Bah Soon Pah Road, we turned north at Sembawang Road – once named Seletar Road. While Seletar today is the area where the former Seletar Airbase, now Seletar Aerospace Park is, Seletar did once refer to a large swathe of land in the north in, particularly so in the days before the airbase was built. The name Seletar is associated the Orang Seletar who inhabited the Straits of Johor, Selat Tebrau, a group of the sea dwellers around the coast and river mouths of northern Singapore and southern Johor from the days before Raffles staked the East India Company’s claim to Singapore. Seletar is a word that is thought to have been derived from the Malay word for strait or selat. Seletar Road, which would have brought travellers on the road to the Naval Base, and to Seletar Pier right at its end, was renamed Sembawang Road in 1939 so as to avoid confusion to road users headed to Seletar Airbase (then RAF Seletar) which lay well to its east. 

The road to the former residence.

The road to the former residence.

The drive down Sembawang Road, up to perhaps the early 1980s, was one that did take you through some wonderful countryside we no longer see anymore. One of my first and memorable trips down the road was in a bus filled with my schoolmates – which turned out to be annual affair whilst I was in primary school. The destination was Sembawang School off Jalan Mata Ayer. where we would be bused to, to support the school’s football team when they played in the finals of the North Zone Primary Schools competition.

An old postcard of Lim Nee Soon's rubber factory and the surrounding area.

An old postcard of Lim Nee Soon’s rubber factory further south, and the surrounding area.

The school, the site of which is now occupied by a condominium Euphony Gardens, would be remembered for its single storey buildings – commonly seen in Singapore’s rural areas, as it would be for its football field. The field did somehow seem to have been laid on an incline, a suspicion that was to be confirmed by the difficulty the referee had in placing the ball and preventing it from rolling, when for a penalty kick was awarded during one of the matches.

Sembawang Road at its junction with Jalan Mata Ayer.

Sembawang Road at its junction with Jalan Mata Ayer.

The walk from Bah Soon Pah Road to Jalan Mata Ayer, did take us past two military camps. One, Khatib Camp as we know it today, is a more recent addition to the landscape. It would probably be of interest to some, that the original Khatib Camp was one used by the Malaysian military, housing the Tentera Laut Di-Raja Malaysia (TLMD) or Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) training school KD Pelandok from 1971 to 1980 and was known as Kem Khatib. The Malaysian association with it started in 1964 when it was first set up to house a Malaysian infantry battalion. This came at a time when Singapore was a part of Malaysia.

RMN officers in training at KD Pelandok in Singapore in the 1970s (photograph online at http://farm1.staticflickr.com/167/439314471_c932143651_o.jpg).

Apparently KD Pelandok was where the RMN, who in fact maintained their main base at Woodlands in Singapore until 1979, first carried out their own training of naval officers. Prior to this, naval officers had been sent to the UK to be trained. The camp was returned to Singapore on 2 February 1982, after the training school was shifted to the RMN’s main naval base in Lumut. A new Khatib Camp, now the home of the SAF’s Artillery, was built on the site and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) moved into it in 1983.

Sembawang Road looking north from its junction with Bah Soon Pah Road. Khatib Camp is just up the road with Dieppe Barracks across from it. The landscape will very soon change once the construction of an elevated portion of the North-South Expressway starts.

Sembawang Road looking north from its junction with Bah Soon Pah Road. Khatib Camp is just up the road with Dieppe Barracks across from it. The landscape will very soon change once the construction of an elevated portion of the North-South Expressway starts.

A LTA map of the area showing the North-South Expressway viaduct and an entrance ramp in the vicinity of Khatib Camp. Construction is expected to start next year.

A LTA map of the area showing the North-South Expressway viaduct and an entrance ramp in the vicinity of Khatib Camp. Construction is expected to start next year.

One of the things I remember about the new Khatib Camp in its early days was this helmet shaped roof of its sentry post. Khatib Camp in its early days also housed the SAF Boys School, which later became the SAF Education Centre (SAFEC). The school provided a scheme in which ‘N’-level certificate holders could continue their education fully paid to allow them to complete their ‘O’-levels, after which students would be have to serve a six-year bond out with the SAF. In more recent time, Khatib Camp has been made into one of the centres where NSmen (reservists) would take their annual fitness tests, the IPPT. It is also where the dreaded Remedial Training (RT) programmes are conducted for those who fail to pass the IPPT.

A southward view - there is still perhaps a feel of the countryside there once was in the area.

A southward view – there is still perhaps a feel of the countryside there once was in the area.

Across from Khatib Camp, is Dieppe Barracks. Built originally to house British military units, it is now used by the SAF’s HQ Guards, and is one the last former British army camps to retain the word “barracks” in its name – a reminder of its association with the British forces, and also the New Zealand forces. It housed the 1st Battalion of the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment from 1971 to 1989 leaving a distinctly New Zealand flavour on the area as well as in the areas of Sembawang up north. This was as part of the protection force first under the ANZUK arrangements that followed the British pullout in 1971. With the Australian forces pulling out in the mid 1970s, the New Zealanders stayed  on as the New Zealand Force South East Asia (NZ Force SEA). One of the things that was hard not to miss on the grounds of the barracks was how different the obstacle course in the open field in the north of the barrack grounds looked from those we did see in the SAF camps then.

Dieppe Barracks when it housed British units in the 1960s (online at http://www.nmbva.co.uk/keith%2012.jpg).

The entrance to Dieppe Barracks seen in the 1980s when it was used by 1 RNZIR with the fence that I so remember (online at http://anzmilitarybratsofsingapore.com/group/gallery/1_20_01_09_5_21_11.jpg).

Just north of Dieppe is where Jalan Mata Ayer can be found (where the school with the inclined football field was). The name “Mata Ayer” is apparently a reference to the source of the now quite well-known Sembawang Hot Springs. The once rural road led to a village called Kampong Mata Ayer, also known as Kampong Ayer Panas, close to the area where the hot spring, now within the boundaries of Chong Pang Camp, is.

Dieppe Barracks in 1975 (image online at http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/media/photo/new-zealand-defence-force-headquarters-singapore, Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 31-Jan-2014).

Continuing north along the road, there are several clusters of shophouses across the road from where Yishun New Town has come up. Several shops here do in fact have their origins in the villages of the area. One well known business is a traditional Teochew bakery, Gin Thye Cake Maker. Specialising in Teochew pastries, the bakery goes back to 1964 when Mdm. Ang Siew Geck started it in her village home at Bah Soon Pah Road. Described by The Straits Times as the Last of the Teochew bakeries, its biscuits are a popular choice amongst its customers. You would also be able to spot traditional wedding baskets lined up at the top of one of the shelves. The baskets are used by the bakery to deliver traditional sweets – as might have once been the case, for weddings. 

Traditional biscuits right out of the oven at Gin Thai Cake Maker.

Traditional biscuits right out of the oven at Gin Thai Cake Maker.

Not far up from the shophouses, we come to the area where a relatively new Chong Pang Camp is. The camp sits on what once was a very picturesque part of Singapore, Ulu Sembawang. What was visible of the area from Sembawang Road were the fishing ponds and the lush greenery that lay beyond them. The greenery did obscure an area that did lie beyond it, that was particularly rich in bird life and was up to the 1990s, a popular area for birding activities.

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It was an area that we did once get a wonderful view of from Jalan Ulu Sembawang, a road that rose up from close to the back of the then Seletaris bottling plant at its junction with Sembawang Road towards another rural area of villages and farms. The view, from a stretch of the road that ran along a ridge, was what my father did describe as being the most scenic in Singapore that looked across a rolling landscape of vegetable farms for almost as far as the eye could see. Jalan Ulu Sembawang was also one of the roads that led to Lorong Gambas in the Mandai area – an area many who did National Service would remember it as a training area that was used up to perhaps the 1990s.

The end of the road - Jalan Ulu Sembawang used to continue into the Mandai area toward Lorong Gambas.

The end of the road – Jalan Ulu Sembawang used to continue into the Mandai area toward Lorong Gambas.

The rolling hills landscape at Ulu Sembawang in 1993 (photograph: From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

The rolling hills landscape at Ulu Sembawang in 1993 (photograph: From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

A stop along the way that we did spend some time at was the hot springs, around which there seems now to be much superstition. The spring, which was discovered by a municipal ranger on the property of a Seah Eng Keong in 1908. Seah Eng Keong was the son of gambier and pepper plantation owner Mr Seah Eu Chin who I understand from Claire Leow, one half of the female duo who maintains All Things Bukit Brown and who joined us on the walk, also owned gambier and pepper plantations in the area. Seah Eu Chin would also be well known as being the founder of the Ngee Ann Kongsi.

The surviving well of the spring.

The surviving well of the spring.

The spring water was over the years, bottled in various ways and under various names, first by Mr Seah, and then by Fraser and Neave (F&N) from 1921. One of the names its was bottled as was Zombun which was, on the evidence of a newspaper article, a source of a joke – with waiters referring to “Air Zombun” as a similar sounding “Air Jamban” or water from the toilet in Malay.

Collecting water at the hot springs.

Collecting water at the hot springs.

The caretaker splashing himself with water right out of the tap.

The caretaker splashing himself with water right out of the tap.

Bottling was to be disrupted by the war – the Japanese, known for their fondness for thermal baths, were said to have built such baths at the hot springs – the water, which flows out at around 66 degrees Celcius, with its strong sulphur content (which is evident from the unmistakable smell you would be able to get of it), is thought to have curative properties – especially for skin and rheumatic conditions.  It’s flow was disrupted by allied bombing in November 1944 and it was only in 1967 that F&N started re-bottling the water under a subsidiary Semangat Ayer Limited using the brand name Seletaris (now the name of a condominium that sits on the site of the plant).

Now flowing out of pipes and taps, the water comes out at about 66 degrees Celcius.

Now flowing out of pipes and taps, the water comes out at about 66 degrees Celcius.

The hot spring attracts many to it in search of cures for skin ailments and rheumatic conditions.

The hot spring attracts many to it in search of cures for skin ailments and rheumatic conditions.

While it did remain the property of F&N, many were known to have bathed at the spring before 1967 and also again after the plant was closed in the mid 1980s, when its land was acquired by the government. The spring – with water now running out of pipes and taps, in now within the boundaries of Chong Pang Camp – which initially meant that it was closed to the public. Since May 2002 however, after petitions were submitted to the authorities, the spring has been opened to the public. Access to the spring is now through a fenced pathway that cuts into the camp’s grounds. A warning is scribbled on the red brick structure that surrounds a surviving well that speaks of a curse – that anyone who vandalises the hot spring will be the subject of a curse.

The writing on the wall - a curse for any would be vandals.

The writing on the wall – a curse for any would be vandals.

From the spring and Jalan Ulu Sembawang, now a stub that leads to a wooded area where development doesn’t seem very far away – an international school is already being built there, we can to the end of the adventure. While it is sad to see how another place in Singapore which holds the memories of the gentle world I once enjoyed as a child has been transformed into another place I struggle to connect with; I did at least manage to find a few things that does, in some way remind of that old world that I miss. Developments in the area are however taking off at a furious pace and with the construction of elevated portion of the North-South Expressway that is due to start next year and will have a significant impact on the area’s landscape; it may not be long before it does become another place of beauty that we have abandoned in favour of a cold and overly manicured landscape in which there will be little left, except for “heritage” markers, to remind us of what it did once mean to us.

It now is a wooded area awaiting future development.

Jalan Ulu Sembawang is now is an area reclaimed by nature awaiting future development.

Where a school is now being built - the condominium in the background is the Seletaris.

Where a school is now being built – the condominium in the background is the Seletaris.





The Gateway into the Lost World

25 02 2014

It is in a deserted and somewhat forgotten corner of Singapore, that you will find the Gateway into the Lost World. It stands alone – the space to which it opens into is one that nature has reclaimed, giving little away as to what it might once have been.

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Once surrounded by a world we now have sought to forget, that of a village of wooden dwellings that was serenaded by the songs of the nearby sea, the gateway stands all alone except for the mosque that does remind us of what might once have been.

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In surroundings that does take one well away from the madness of the urban world, it probably isn’t hard to imagine what might once have been – a space in which the joy and peace of  waking to the smell of the sea would quite easily be found. It also isn’t difficult to imagine it as a place that would have inspired one who lived there to paint, as a talented architect who I suspect did live in a house beyond the now lonesome gates (word is that the gateway was to a house in which an architect of European origin lived), did –  producing more than 50 seascapes with watercolours that were the subject of an exhibition at the Lone Pine Gallery at Ming Court Hotel (now Orchard Parade Hotel) in 1986.

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The architect, James Westwater Ferrie who started a well known local architectural firm James Ferrie and Partners, arrived in Singapore from the UK in 1948. Having described himself in an interview about the exhibition that was published in 27 January 1986 edition of The Straits Times, as having “always like the sea” and being “closely associated with water”, he was I an avid sailor who sought also to live by the sea. He also offered a brief description of where he had lived: “in Sembawang with a garden stretching down to the sea” in explaining that the focus of his paintings was on “the skies and boats” where he lived. 

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Ferrie passed away in the UK in February 1993, and it would only be in his paintings, that the memory of the world around him in Sembawang is preserved, with the boats he sought to depict having long disappeared along with the villagers the boats belong to. The area however does remain a place to seek that peace Ferrie would have sought in building his home by the sea, having been spared thus far from the sea of concrete that is fast spreading through what once might have been an island in the sun. It may however not be long before the sound of a silence that now complements the songs of the sea will, as with the world the gateway did lead to, be a thing we would only be able to imagine as the relentless march of concrete does seem now to be very close to its doorstep.

The nearby mosque in the woods (Masjid Petempatan Melayu).

The nearby mosque in the woods (Masjid Petempatan Melayu).

The greenery that now surrounds the area.

The greenery that now surrounds the area.





The ladies behind Avenue 1960s

21 02 2014

Meet Candy Tan Hui Shi (22), Koh Xin Yue Karen (22), Phang Su Hui (23), and Tan Huay Peng (22), the gang of four who are behind Avenue 1960s: Stories of Live, Laugh, Love in Singapore. Avenue 1960s is an initiative by the four undergraduates at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communications and Information at Nanayang Technological University to connect young Singaporeans with their heritage, as part of their final year project. The campaign, which runs from December 2013 to March 2014 and supervised by Associate Professor Dr Lee Chun Wah, seeks to reach out to some 10,000 youths to get them to develop an appreciation of where they did come from by encouraging conversations with their parents. 

Mr Hazawi Daipi and the four NTU undergraduates, taking a trip down the avenue to the 1960s.

Mr Hazawi Daipi and the four NTU undergraduates, taking a trip down the avenue to the 1960s.

How did the group get interested in heritage?

Between the four of us, we’re really interested in how Singapore was like in the past, and it never fails to amaze us. For example, Candy likes traditional toys, whereby Karen likes old photography and cameras, Huay Peng likes old maps and places, and Suhui thinks that kampong life was a very different experience.

What motivated the group to start this initiative?

It started from a group meeting that we had. Some of us were talking about how our parents came from the kampong, and Candy always thought that her dad lived in a HDB flat since young. But she later on found out that it wasn’t true! Although we laughed about it, it got us thinking whether young Singaporeans know about their parents’ stories, or even how Singapore was like in the past. So we started a heritage campaign that is focused on the youths, to help them know more about Singapore’s past and heritage by encouraging them to find out more through talking to their parents about it.

What do you hope to achieve through the effort?

As a youth-centric heritage campaign, we would say that our campaign is actually one of the first few times that heritage promotion is specially targeted at the younger Singaporeans.

Through this project, we hope to let more young Singaporeans know more about how life in the past was like and in the process, young Singaporeans would feel more connected towards our heritage.

With that, we hope to motivate them to start looking for more stories about Singapore heritage, starting from their closest and intimate source, their parents.

Why did you decide to focus on the 1960s to the 1980s?

We chose to focus on the 1960s because it was the nation-building years where, Singapore was in the midst of an important transition.

Also, our parents would find the 1960s familiar. They probably lived through the 1960s as young children, and they have seen how Singapore has changed, and now they’re in the best position to tell us about it.

How successful do you think you have been in meeting your objective of connecting youths with heritage thus far?

I guess the most useful indicator of our campaign’s success is really when we interact with young Singaporeans of our age during our outreach activities and our exhibition. We’ve heard good feedback from students saying that they really enjoyed our exhibits, and that they’ve actually learnt new things and have many takeaways from our campaigns.

Also, for those young Singaporeans who participated in our postcard competition (where they brought from postcards with several questions, which served as conversation starters to get them to ask about their parents’ childhood stories), the very interesting stories that we get from them also shows us that they actually did take the extra effort to find out more about Singapore back in the 1960s.

Our aim is to spark the curiousity of young Singaporeans towards Singapore’s past, and we feel satisfied with the positive responses we had thus far.

Singapore is evolving at a rapid pace and some say we shouldn’t dwell on the past but look towards the future. Who we are does evolve – for example the childhood games that my parents played are very different from me, and the same can be said for me and my children – and certain aspects of the past may not have a place in the future. What are your thoughts on this? 

It is true that with each coming generation, the stories of how life was like changes – but what my team is concerned about, is a seemingly lack of oral tradition between the parents/grandparents and the young Singaporeans of this generation. Knowing what happened in the past helps us understand that there was more that happened before we were born, and by knowing our parents’ stories, we think that this would also help us bond better as a family.

Why do you think it is necessary or important to connect with our heritage?

​We also strongly feel that our knowledge of Singapore’s past should not solely consist of history (significant dates, milestones, events), but also heritage – it is the Singaporean way of life, culture, food, etc.


To find out more on Avenue 1960s, do visit www.avenue1960.sg  or www.facebook.com/avenue1960s.






Rediscovering the romance of Chap Goh Mei

19 02 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

The search for romance.

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

The lantern parade.

The lantern parade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ann Siang Road.

Ann Siang Road.

Club Street.

Club Street.

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

Up Ann Siang Hill.

Up Ann Siang Hill.

The view at the top.

The view at the top.

The pathway down.

The pathway down.

Down Ann Siang Hill.

Down Ann Siang Hill.

Lantern bearers during a pause in the search for romance.

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

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

The 'watchful eyes' of the Hokkien Huay Kuan.

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

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

The Yueh Hai Ching temple.

The Yueh Hai Ching temple.

Through the doorway to the newly restored Yueh Hai Ching.

Through the doorway to the newly restored Yueh Hai Ching.

Incense coils.

Incense coils.

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

Inside the temple.

Inside the temple.

Another view inside the temple.

Another view inside the temple.

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

Smoke from large joss sticks in the compound.

Smoke from large joss sticks in the compound.





Windows into Singapore: A world we soon may forget

12 02 2014

A view from a block of new housing over to colonial bungalows that had once served as the somewhat grand residences of the senior officers of the British Admiralty stationed at the Naval Base in the north of Singapore. The base, which stretched from the old Seletar Road (which was renamed Sembawang Road in 1939) to where the causeway is, occupied some 2,300 acres or 930 ha. of land along the northern coastline. As was a feature of the British military bases set up in Singapore, generously sized bungalows as well as flats were built to serve as residences for the senior military personnel.

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The rolling hills of the area around which the bulk of the housing was built, on the eastern fringes of the base, did provide a wonderful setting that was close to the sea for the residences to be built on. Well spaced apart around the area, the former residences are set in the openness of lush green yards that would even then have been a luxury only the more fortunate would have been able to enjoy. The spacious and airy bungalows of the senior Admiralty, many of which are still around today, are particularly impressive, built in a style typical of the purpose – many were of single storey design and set on on a stilted foundation to allow added ventilation in the oppressive heat of the tropics, as well as to keep snakes and termites out.

The beautiful setting in which the 'black and white houses' of Sembawang find themselves in.

The beautiful setting in which the ‘black and white houses’ of Sembawang find themselves in.

These ‘black and white houses’ a term we in Singapore commonly use to refer to these bungalows due to their appearance (thought to be influenced by the Tudor revival movement that coincided with the first appearances of such bungalows in Singapore), are similar to those found other several areas in Singapore associated with former military bases. This includes the former RAF Seletar (Seletar Airbase) where 32 such bungalows are now slated for conservation at  (see: Straits Times report dated 11 Feb 2014).

Some 400 former residences including low-rise flats in the area were handed over to Singapore in 1971 when the British pulled their forces out. Many saw use by the ANZUK forces and later the New Zealand ForceSEA, with some currently used by the US Navy to house personnel based at the Commander, Logistics Group Western Pacific (COMLOG WESTPAC) and the Navy Region Center Singapore (NRCS) at the former Naval Stores Basin. Several units are also being rented out by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA).

The houses and the undulating and green landscape, provides the area not just with much of its laid back and somewhat old world charm, but also a feeling of space that is lacking in other parts of built-up Singapore. There is also that window the housing units, many of which came up during the construction the naval base in the 1930s, does also provide into a significant part of a past we might otherwise all too quickly forget.


More on the Naval Base 

A look at a ‘Black and White House’


 

 





The lost world

10 02 2014

With several friends that included some from the Nature Society (Singapore), I ventured into a lost world, one in which time and the urban world that surrounds us in Singapore seems to have well behind. The lost world, where the sounds are those of birds and the rustle of leaves, is one that does, strange as it might seem, have a connection with the success of the new Singapore.

A gateway into a lost world.

A gateway into a lost world.

A winged inhabitant of the lost world.

A winged inhabitant of the lost world.

Part of a stretch of the Jurong Railway Line that was laid in 1965 (it was only fully operational in March 1966), an effort that was undertaken by the Economic Development Board (EDB) to serve the ambitious industrial developments in the undeveloped west that became Jurong Industrial Estate, it last saw use in the early 1990s by which time the use of the efficient road transportation network in place on the island would have made more sense. The line, including this stretch, has since been abandoned, much of it lying largely forgotten.

Colours of the lost world.

Colours of the lost world.

More colours of the lost world.

More colours of the lost world.

Interesting, while much evidence of the main railway line that ran from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands up to the end of June 2011 has disappeared,  and beyond the two very visible bridges in the Clementi area, there are portions of the Jurong line that does lie largely intact. Although largely reclaimed by nature, it is in this lost world, where some of the lost railway line’s paraphernalia does still lie in evidence. This includes a tunnel - one of five tunnels that were built along the line that branched-off just south of Bukit Timah Railway Station that was built at a cost of some S$100,000. Work on the tunnel, which was to take trains (running on a single track) under Clementi Road, took some two months to complete with work starting on it some time at the end of 1964 – close to 50 years ago.

A view through the former railway tunnel under Clementi Road.

A view through the former railway tunnel under Clementi Road.

A light at the end of the tunnel.

A light at the end of the tunnel.

Waterlogged tracks leading to the tunnel.

Waterlogged tracks leading to the tunnel.

Along the abandoned railway track now reclaimed by nature.

Along the abandoned railway track now reclaimed by nature.

The tunnel, now lying forgotten, is not anymore that gateway to a future that might have been hard to imagine when it was built, but to a Singapore we in the modern world now find hard to recall. It is a world in which the joy not just of discovery but one of nature’s recovery does await those willing to seek out the simple pleasures it offers. Now incorporated as part of the former rail corridor that will see its preservation in now unknown ways as a green corridor, it is one where the madding world we live in can very quickly be left behind. It is my wish that whatever the future does hold for the rail corridor as a meaningful space for the community, the pockets of wooded areas such as this lost world, does remain ones in which we can still lose ourselves in.

A view inside the tunnel.

A view inside the tunnel.

A non-native cockatoo - the area now plays host to nesting cockatoos.

A non-native cockatoo – the area now plays host to nesting cockatoos.

More photographs of the lost world:

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A granite rock face along the cut - part of the cut had made by blasted through granite rocks in the area.

A granite rock face along the cut – part of the cut had made by blasted through granite rocks in the area.

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More winds of change blowing through Queen Street

7 02 2014

Besides the stretch of Queen Street at the Cathedral end, another section of the street in the midst of change is the stretch between Bras Basah and Middle Roads. It is one that although is already much changed from the street that I was familiar with in my younger days, which is littered with reminders of a past when the European missionaries left what did once seem like an indelible mark on it.

A view of part of the area from the (new) National Library - the three blocks of Waterloo Centre can be seen at the top left of the photograph. St. Joseph's Church and the former St. Anthony's Convent can be seen in the foreground.

A view of part of the area from the (new) National Library – the three blocks of Waterloo Centre can be seen at the top left of the photograph. St. Joseph’s Church (the Portuguese Church) and the former St. Anthony’s Convent can be seen in the foreground.

One new addition to the stretch that will definitely leave a mark on the street will be the China Cultural Centre that is fast coming up (which got a mention in a post in March of last year). The centre, built as an effort on China’s part “to help people understand Chinese culture and deepen ties with the host country”, is one that will certainly change the character of an area once flavoured by schools which have since been moved out and two beautiful churches – legacies of the important contributions made by the French and the Portuguese missionaries to modern Singapore.

The China Cultural Centre  is seen rising up just beyond the burnt siena coloured Oxford Hotel.

The China Cultural Centre is seen rising up just beyond the burnt siena coloured Oxford Hotel.

The centre stands on a plot of land that once had been occupied by the Stamford Community Centre, a place that I had been familiar with in my school days in nearby Saint Joseph’s Institution. The centre was where in May 1978, a balloting exercise was held for would be residents of the three residential Housing and Development Board (HDB) blocks of flats built over a lower podium block – a public housing complex that has for some 35 years now, dominate this stretch of the street. 

The former Stamford Community Centre. I had climbed over the gate a few times with several of my classmates to play street football on the basketball court.

The former Stamford Community Centre.

The development of Waterloo Centre, which was completed in 1978, could be considered to be a significant one from a public housing perspective. It was one of several mixed commercial and residential built in the city centre at the 1970s and in the early 1980s that were built to accommodate some of the many residents and businesses that were being displaced by what was a huge wave of redevelopment sweeping across urban Singapore. 

The Waterloo Centre Podium with its mix of old and new.

The Waterloo Centre Podium with its mix of old and new.

Taking a walk around Waterloo Centre’s podium these days, one can’t help but feel the sense of time standing very still there; the podium is one that still contains many remnants of its shop lots’ first occupants – the motor spare parts dealers that were moved into it having been displaced from the redevelopment of the Sungei Road and Rochor areas. 

Shops housing motor spare parts dealers.

Shops housing motor spare parts dealers.

Another look at the podium.

Another look at the podium.

Although there now is a mix of newer business with some of the original occupants, Waterloo Centre does seem a lot quieter compared to similar urban podium block complexes such as the nearby Albert Complex with its wet market and popular food centre, and Bras Basah Complex with its mix of bookshops and art supply shops and printing business. And that is perhaps why the complex is being given a makeover into Arts Place – a centre that perhaps fits into the vision set out for the area as a destination for the arts and culture.

Waterloo Centre seems to be in the middle of a transformation into ArtsPlace.

Waterloo Centre seems to be in the middle of a transformation into Arts Place.

SAM @ 8Q - formerly  the Catholic High School - now an extension to the art museum.

SAM @ 8Q – formerly the Catholic High School – now an extension to the art museum.

On part of the plot where Waterloo Centre stands today was where a private school, the Mercantile Institution did once stand. The school, which was started in the late 1920s, was where my father did once enroll in, in the mess that came with the end of war when many publicly run schools were still shut and places were in short supply. It was only to be for a short while though, my father did eventually get a place in Monk’s Hill Boys School. There were a couple of things he did tell me of his experiences in the Mercantile Institution – one was that as the war had disrupted the education of many, there were many older boys who had to enrolled into the entry level classes. Another was that the name of the school was often mispronounced – coming across sounding like “Makan-tahi Institution” – “makan tahi” many in Singapore would know as Malay for (pardon the crudeness) “eat shit”.

Area where Waterloo Centre is today, as seen in 1959 - the Mercantile Institution, a private school established in the 1920s, can be seen on the left right next to Nantina Home (ex Nantina Hotel) (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Area where Waterloo Centre is today, as seen in 1959 – the Mercantile Institution, a private school established in the 1920s, can be seen on the left right next to Nantina Home (ex Toyo Hotel) (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Further along from the Mercantile Institution, there were two other buildings that many familiar with the area would remember. One was the former Nantina Home, which functioned as the Japanese owned Toyo Hotel before the war (it was the second Toyo Hotel – the first was demolished in 1937 to make way for Cathay Building) . As the Nantina Hotel after the war, it was used to accommodate returning European internees who came back via India, before it was handed over to the Department of Social Welfare who turned it into a home for the aged and destitute. That operated until 1959 when the building was taken over by the Trades Union Congress.

The area in 1975 with the former Nantina Home still standing next to Queen Street Post Office (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

The area in 1975 with the former Nantina Home still standing next to Queen Street Post Office (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Right next to Nantina Home was another building many might remember – the Queen Street Post Office, housed in a four storey building. The building was demolished after the post office was closed in May 1978. What stands in its place (or at least partly in its place) today is the five storey Bylands Building of 1980s vintage, right next to Middle Road.

Queen Street Post Office which was to close in May 1978 is seen next to the already demolished former Nantina Home (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Queen Street Post Office which was to close in May 1978 is seen next to the already demolished former Nantina Home (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

The part of Queen Street where the Mercantile Institution, the Nantina Home, and Queen Street Post Office was, is where a spectacle does takes place once a year on Good Friday. That is when part of the street and the compound of Saint Joseph’s Church next to it, becomes a sea of candlelight as part of a procession. That is a time when the rich religious traditions of the Portuguese missionaries, who did leave us one of the most beautiful churches on the island, does manifest itself – a celebration that does serve to remind us of what the area should really be remembered for.





Changing Landscapes: The end of the roadway

29 01 2014

One of the remnants of Singapore’s first civil airport at Kallang, a dual carriageway roadway lined with reminders of a time that has been forgotten, is no more. The roadway, left behind perhaps as a reminder of lead-in and exit to and from the airport for over half a century after the airport ceased operations in 1955, seems now itself one Singapore wishes to forget. It is now cut-off from vehicular traffic that in times more recent, would have used it as an access to or from the National Stadium or Nicoll Highway, with a larger capacity and more direct road having been built to take traffic to the new National Stadium and the Singapore Sports Hub which is scheduled to be completed in May 2014.

The wonderful cover of trees over the old road.

The wonderful cover of trees over the old road.

The former entrance pillars to Singapore's first civil airport.

The former entrance pillars to Singapore’s first civil airport.

The now closed roadway seen today.

The now closed roadway seen today.

Looking towards the former junction with Geylang Road.

Looking towards the former junction with Geylang Road.

The roadway at the airport's opening in 1937 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

The roadway to the airport in 1945 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).





The celebrating of Spring in the greater town

27 01 2014

The arrival of spring, commemorated by the Chinese by the celebration of the new year, brings much colour and life to the streets of the “Greater Town”, tua poh, as it was known as to the local population. Besides the street market – long a popular source of goods necessary to welcome in the new year, the area since 1985, has also been livened up by the illuminations of an annual Chinese New Year light-up.

No horse run - this year's light-up is perhaps light years ahead ...

No horse run – this year’s light-up is perhaps light years ahead …

Crowds thronging the street market.

Crowds thronging the street market this year.

I managed to take in the festive atmosphere on the streets, packed with crowds that the weekend before  the new year brings, but not before I attended a rather interesting sharing session on the celebration of Chinese New Year held at the URA Centre. Entitled “Cakap Heritage: All About Chinese New Year in Kreta Ayer / Chinatown” and jointly organised by the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the session provided a view not just of how the festival in years past would have been celebrated in the area, but also of the many ways in which Chinese New Year was observed all across Singapore through the recollections of several of the session’s participants.

A bus passenger The an gazes out at the festive light-up. The annual light-up is now a spectacle not to be missed.

A bus passenger The an gazes out at the festive light-up. The annual light-up is now a spectacle not to be missed.

One topic that was discussed at length during the session was shopping. Besides shopping for festive goodies, cards and decorations, Chinese New Year is also when new clothes and shoes – a must for every Chinese, are bought. For some it would be the only occasion to splurge on a new outfit and while many had theirs tailored, clothes for children were often bought from the Tua Poh street market – although as one former Changi Village resident did testify, shopping wasn’t necessarily confined to the streets of Chinatown.

Festive goodies on offer at the street market.

Festive goodies on offer at the street market.

A seemingly popular shop to buy shoes from, was the Phoenix Shoes Company, located in a shophouse along South Bridge Road. Although the shop wasn’t one I was familiar with, it did bring back memories of another shoe shop – further east along South Bridge Road, from which my parents got their shoes from. That shop, the Crane Shoe Store, is one I well remember for how a light green box in which the pair of shoes in the size desired, would come rushing down a chute from the store room above – almost without delay whenever the shop assistant shouted an order out.

The streets come alive in the lead-up to Chinese New Year.

The streets of the greater town come alive in the lead-up to Chinese New Year.

Other experiences ranged from the buying gold jewellery (On Choeng – a goldsmith on South Bridge Road, seemed a popular choice), to waxed products and ducks eggs. A name synonymous with the prelude to Chinese New Year these days, Lim Chee Guan – known for the long queues for what is today a must-have Chinese New Year treat, bak kwa or long yuk (sometimes translated to pork jerky or barbecued dried pork), did also get a mention. A participant did make the observation that queues would have been non-existent back in the 1950s – when it would be difficult for many. Another luxury mentioned was feasting on bats – something that a restaurant by the name of Oriental in the 1950s, was along with monkeys and squirrels, apparently quite well known for.

Shoppers at the street market.

Shoppers at the street market.

One the subject of luxuries, mention was also made of how for some of the less well-off folks – such as the Samsui women, Chinese New Year would be one of the rare, if not only occasion on which they would put meat, in the form of chicken, on the table, saving through the year to do so.  The mention of chicken does take me back to the Chinese New Years of my early childhood, when the second day involved visiting a family friend who helped on a chicken farm in old Punggol – besides the squealing of pigs for their supper and perhaps an unfortunate incident in which I swallowed a loose teeth biting into an ang ku kueh, a memory that does linger from those visits is the sight of a headless chicken bound for the pot, scampering around on the sandy ground. 

The colour of gold.

The colour of gold.

A consequence of the decades of social engineering in Singapore, is perhaps the loss of the use of the Chinese dialects, along with dialect group specific cultural practices such as was observed in the celebrations of yesteryear. Besides dialect group specific such as the Hokkien practice of Bai Ti Gong (honouring the Jade Emperor) still seen today, there are dialect group specific practices that have been adopted by the wider community such as the tossing of raw fish salad, yu sheng - a widely practiced Chinese New Year custom now in Singapore. This was confined initially to the Cantonese –  a gentleman recalled his first experience of it that went back to 1955. Other dialect group specific practices included taboos associated with Chinese New Year such as not sweeping the floor, and not throwing rubbish out of the house on the first days of the new year. 

A young shopper.

A young shopper.

One practice that was common across the community was letting-off firecrackers. The thunderous burst of noise, the acrid smell of gunpowder that lingered in the air and the sea of red paper that littered the streets, would not be something the younger folks would of course remember. Firecrackers which were banned after 1972 in Singapore – the first modern version of the Chingay parade organised in 1973 was offered as to compensate for that. These were however very much an integral part of the celebration before the ban and several of the participants did share experiences from the 1950s and 1960s, before the ban kicked in, such as how as girls they would not dare venture out on their own out of fear of mischievous boys would would lie in wait to scare the girls by throwing lighted crackers at them.

Scenes from Chinese New Years of days gone by ... the smell of gun powder and smoke that filled the air, and the sea of red left behind .... (source: National Archives, www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

Scenes from Chinese New Years of days gone by … the smell of gun powder and smoke that filled the air, and the sea of red left behind …. (source: National Archives, http://www.archivesonline.nas,sg).

Still on the subject of firecrackers, a Danish couple shared how it was also common practice to let off crackers for the new year. Firecrackers are known there as “Chinese” – the smaller ones “one-cent Chinese” and the larger ones “two-cent Chinese” – a reference possibly to the origins of firecrackers.

Preserved fruits on offer,

Preserved fruits on offer.

Without the sound of firecrackers going off through the night, and perhaps with the distractions of the modern world and the dilution of cultural practices, Chinese New Year does seem a quieter affair these days. Chinese New Year, is however, very much still an occasion for the family to gather – the family reunion dinner is still very much an important part of the celebration for many families. And if one does brave the crowds on the streets of the Greater Town, streets that while perhaps are over sanitised and modernised, are where one does discover that the spirit of Chinese New Years past is one that is very much alive in the present. 

A view over the sanitised Chinatown and the modern city that has grown around it.

A view over the sanitised Chinatown and the modern city that has grown around it.

A view of the busy New Bridge Road with the galloping horses of the light-up.

A view of the busy New Bridge Road with the galloping horses of the light-up.





The palace of an empire lost

10 01 2014

It was in the disorder of Kampong Glam of the late 1960s that I first became acquainted with the area. It was where I would occasionally find myself heading to on the back of a beca (trishaw) on the shopping trips my maternal grandmother made to the five-foot-ways of the Arab Street area, an area she referred to as Kampong Jawa, for her supply of batik sarongs and bedak sejuk in shops mixed into the colours of the many textile shops that lined the corridors.

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Surviving today as a conservation district, Kampong Glam is today a pale shadow of that Kampong Glam of the 1960s – a sanitised version of what once had been a huge bazaar, a trading place of many who brought goods into Singapore from far and wide. It is amid the order found in the seemingly disordered streets and back lanes that one can now seek a peace that does often seem elusive in the madness of concrete that surrounds the district, accentuated five times a day when the soothing strains of the Azan spreading out from the Sultan’s Mosque, brings about an air of contemplative calm.

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In the shadow of the complex of the grand mosque, is where an oasis from what might have been a disorderly past, once an abode for would be kings, can be found. Set in a beautifully landscaped compound and the building that once was the Istana Kampong Glam, does take on an appearance that hints at its regal beginnings, as the royal home of a prince who became Sultan Ali Iskandar Shah, one who sought to live as a king he would never be.

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The oasis would turn out to be a mirage to the sultan’s descendents. They were to occupy the building for some 12 decades that followed his death in 1877, with the last descendants leaving in 1999. This was when the State, as the successor of the Crown to whom the ownership of the property long had reverted, decided to repossess the property for its conversion into the Malay Heritage Centre.

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The building had by 1999, long lost any hint that there might have been of its regal origins, wearing instead a worn and tired appearance and feeling the strain of its 170 occupants. This perhaps was a reflection of the fortunes of a once proud royal line, a line that descended from the rulers of territories that had stretched across the southern Malay Peninsula to the Riau and Lingga Archipelagos, fortunes that diminished progressively with the passing of each generation.

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Sitting in the quiet of the serene forecourt of the restored and resplendent yellow coated Malay Heritage Centre and bathed in its golden glow, it is the whispers of its many ghosts that I hear. The whispers are ones that remind me of the golden days of my grandmother’s Kampong Jawa, and ones that speak of gold that has for long lost its lustre. While it may seem that the gold is one we find is now best to forget, it is also one in telling us of who we in Singapore are, that we should never be made to forget.


About Istana Kampong Glam and its history:

The two-storey former Istana Kampong Glam was erected in the 1840s, work on it starting some five years after the death in 1835 of Sultan Hussein Shah in Melaka. Built in the Neo-Palladian style, the palace was built on what was said to be a palace of attap used by Sultain Hussein Shah on land that was allotted to him by the British East India Company in 1823 in exchange for the sultan’s ceding of Singapore to the British.

The istana in 1960 (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

Sultan Hussein’s act would have taken place in only a matter of four years from when the sultan had assumed the throne of the Johor-Singapura Sultanate. It was a manoeuvre that had been orchestrated by the British East India Company in the disarray that followed the death in 1812 of the last sultan of the great Johor-Riau-Lingga empire, Hussein’s father Sultan Mahmud Shah III, to allow them a foothold on the island.

The forecourt of the istana in 1968 (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

Descended from a proud line of rulers of a sultanate that had once stretched across much of the southern Malay Peninsula and the Riau and Lingga Archipelago, Sultan Hussein Shah could only serve as a pawn to one of the European powers that had sought to carve the huge empire his father had left, dying somewhat dispiritedly, a year after he had moved to Melaka.

The istana in 1968 (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

It was to the promise that was the territory of Johor that Tengku Ali (later Sultan Ali Iskandar Shah), Hussein’s son, probably arrived in Singapore to stake his claim on his late father’s estate. While he was successful in seeking recognition as his father’s successor, the title of Sultan initially proved to be an elusive one on which Tengku Ali was conferred only in 1855. The price Ali did pay for that was huge – he signed away his rights to sovereignty over Johor to the favoured Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim and this would have repercussions on the succession rights of his descendants – cutting them off from ruling a territory that if not for the events of the early 19th century, might still have been in their hands.

Sultan Gate and the istana in 1968 (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

It was in 1897 that a court ruling to a succession dispute brought to the courts had it that no one would be able to claim rights they may have had to succession following Sultan Ali’s passing in 1877. That also meant the 56 acres or 23 ha. property on which the istana stood with the ownership of the istana and its grounds reverting back to the Crown.  An ordinance, the Sultan Hussain Ordinance of 1904, was subsequently passed to allow descendants of Sultan Hussein to instead receive a stipend from the Crown. The descendents were also allowed to continue staying at the istana, vacating it only in 1999, when attempts in 1999 by the State (as a successor to the Crown) to repossess the building and its grounds, for conversion into the Malay Heritage Centre, were to be met with resistance.

The istana in 1971 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

While some of its 170 residents, some living in makeshift extensions, were happy to accept the resettlement benefits and move out of the istana’s desperately overcrowded premises, there were also many who objected (see: Letter of Appeal signed by 32 of the istana’s residents – on the Gedung Kuning website).

The istana in 1982 (source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

There was also much controversy that was to follow when several media organisations in Malaysia decided to weigh in on the issue. Coming at a time when tensions between Malaysia and its former state were at a high with several highly contentious bilateral issues lying unresolved, this was to lead to several angry exchanges. Singapore was accused of attempting to erase a part of its history, and with the istana being referred to as “benteng terakhir Melayu Singapura” or the “last bastion of Malay Singapore” in several instances (see Utusan Malaysia report dated 8 July 1999; and also, Main Point of Remarks by Minister S Jayakumar on 6 July 1999 and Speech by Mr Yatiman Yusof  on 6 July 1999).

Other sources of information:

Other posts related to the Johor-Riau-Lingga Sultanate and to Sultan Hussein Shah:









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