Chinese New Year at Eng Hoon Street

9 02 2016

The best lion dance, dragon dance and giant flag performance on the streets of Singapore during the Chinese New Year takes place every year on the morning of the second day in front of Bao Sheng Trading at Eng Hoon Street. Photographs from this year’s performance follow:

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Spring is in the air

9 02 2016

Every eve of the Lunar New Year, we are reminded of the old Chinatown when the now sanitised streets and the annual festive bazaar that comes up in the lead up to the New Year, comes alive. Chinatown is at its most atmospheric then as crowds throng its streets in search of festive goods being disposed off at a bargain – much like it was in the days of old. The eve also sees Taoist temples getting ready for the crowds – it is customary for Chinese of the Taoist faith to visit the temple in the early hours of the New Year to offer respects to the deities. One temple that gets busy is the oldest Hokkien temple, the Thian Hock Keng, where festivities this year were accompanied by Hokkien marionette puppet shows and stilt walkers – part of a series of events for the Lunar New Year that will also see a getai held on 15 February. The temple is also holding a series of guided tours during the period, more information on which can be found at http://www.thianhockkeng.com.sg/events_2016_cny.html.

Crowds on the streets of Chinatown late on the eve of Chinese New Year in search of a bargain.

Crowds on the streets of Chinatown late on the eve of Chinese New Year in search of a bargain.

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Monkeys were everywhere.

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The Sri Mariamman hindu temple.

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Stilt walkers outside the Thian Hock Keng.

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The Singapore Yu Huang Gong.

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The puppet show stage at the Thian Hock Keng.

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Calligraphy.

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A puppeteer in action.





Moulmein Road journeys

6 02 2016

Moulmein Road, a road that has come to be associated with Tan Tock Seng Hospital, has for me, been a road of many journeys. It was in the area where my journey in education began, as well as one which served as a focal point for bus journeys with my mother in my early childhood.

The entrance gate to Tan Tock Seng that once stood along Moulmein Road.

The entrance gate to Tan Tock Seng that once stood along Moulmein Road at Jalan Tan Tock Seng.

My earliest memories of Moulmein Road are of these bus journeys; journeys taken at the end of the 1960s in days when Moulmein Green was still where bus rides for many started and terminated. It was at Moulmein Road that a journey on the notoriously unreliable STC bus service number 1 to the city would begin and where the journey taken to accompany my mother to the hairdresser would have ended.

Corner of Moulmein Green and Rangoon Road (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

Corner of Moulmein Green and Rangoon Road (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

Sadly for me, little is left of the area to connect me with days now almost forgotten. The green has long since disappeared, as has the end of Rangoon Road that brought traffic out to the green. It was at the same stretch of Rangoon Road that the hairdresser’s shop would have been found, in a row of shophouses set in from the road. All that I now remember of the hairdresser is of the hours spent keeping myself entertained with only the multi-coloured strings of the string chairs, typical of the hair salons of the era, for company.

Moulmein Green was once a starting point or destination for many a bus journey (National Archives photograph).

Another structure that has since gone missing, one that I developed a fascination for, was the rather quaint looking gatehouse (if I may call it that) of Middleton Hospital. Standing prominently across the green from Rangoon Road, it had long been a landmark in the area. It was the hospital’s crest, a black lion displayed over the entrance archway, that lent the area its name in the Hokkien vernacular, “or-sai”, Hokkien for “black lion”.

The entrance to Middleton Hospital at Moulmein Green.

The entrance gatehouse to Middleton Hospital at Moulmein Green (source: https://www.ttsh.com.sg).

The hospital, sans the gatehouse, has since 1985, become Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s Communicable Disease Centre (CDC). For the time being, the cluster of buildings of the facility still serves its intended purpose having been set up as a hospital to isolate patients suffering from highly infectious diseases. The hospital, as the Infectious Disease Hospital, was established in 1907 and move to the site in 1913. It acquired the name Middleton in September 1920 when the Municipal Council  thought it fit to recognise the contributions of Dr W.R.C. Middleton. Dr Middleton’s long years of service as the Municipality’s Health Officer from 1893 to 1920, 27 to be precise, was marked by the huge improvements made in living conditions within the Municipality in the effort to contain the spread of diseases such as cholera.

The black lion - still seen at the entrance of the CDC.

The black lion – still seen at the entrance of the CDC.

The hospital, laid out as hospitals in the days when natural ventilation and separation mattered most in preventing of the spread of infectious diseases, features widely spaced and generously airy wards set in calm and green surroundings. Very much a thing of the past in land scarce Singapore, the CDC is now the last such hospital facility still functioning in Singapore. This may not be for very much longer though. It does seem that the facility will soon fall victim to the modern world that Singapore finds hard to escape from. The site has been earmarked for future residential development and the CDC will have to move out by 2018, by which time its new site adjacent to Tan Tock Seng Hospital should be up. With that, the CDC will become the National Centre for Infectious Diseases and the little that is still left to remind us of the legacy of Dr. Middleton is at threat of being further diluted.

The view down Moulemin Road towards the area of the former Moulmein Green .

Two notable buildings that have thankfully escaped the wreckers’ ball, both of which are associated with the control of tuberculosis, are to be found up Moulmein Road from the CDC. The two rather gorgeous buildings are now used by the Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s Tuberculosis Control Unit. One is the grand looking turreted structure that recently found fame through a Straits Times article at 144 Moulmein Road.

144 Moulmein Road.

144 Moulmein Road.

The house had once been the home of a Chinese towkay, Mr Lim Soo Ban. Mr Lim was the proprietor of a goldsmith’s shop in Hill Street, maintained interests in a pawnshop and was on the board of Chung Khiaw Bank. He was also a prominent member of the Hakka community and contributed to the upkeep of the since exhumed Fong Yun Thai Hakka cemetery at Holland Plain. Mr Lim passed away in December 1952 as a bankrupt. Already ill with diabetes and tuberculosis, Mr Lim’s death came just two days after the bankruptcy adjudication order was delivered. Despite an order from the Official Assignee’s office to have funeral expenses capped at $5,000, Mr Lim was given a rather grand sendoff. The “grand funeral” is one which my mother, who then lived next door, well remembers. The funeral was reported to have cost $12,000 with a procession that was said to have stretched a mile long.

Lim Soo Ban, second from the right, photographed with Tan Kah Kee in May 1949 (National Archives of Singapore photograph).

The house, I am told, was to remain empty for several years. Attempts were made by the Official Assignee to dispose of it before it came into the possession of Tan Tock Seng Hospital. It apparently saw use as a chapel for hospital staff before housing the Department for Tuberculosis Control, later the Tuberculosis Control Unit.

144 and 142 Moulmein Road.

144 and 142 Moulmein Road, both gazetted for conservation in 2014.

The house next door, 142 Moulmein Road, used more recently by the Department of Clinical Epidemiology, has also a rather interesting past. A residence for the Government Pathologist prior to the war and later a convent, it does in fact have a longer connection with the control TB as compared to no. 144. As the Mount Alvernia convent, it was where the journey in Singapore for the nuns of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood was to begin. The order answering a call to serve at the TB wards at Tan Tock Seng, which was later run by the nuns as the Mandalay Road Hospital, arrived in 1949 and established their first dedicated residence and convent at No. 142.

142 Moulmein Road as Mount Alvernia in 1949.

Buildings of the former Mandalay Hospital.

Buildings of the former Mandalay Road Hospital at Mandalay Road.

The order of English nuns were also to be involved in the care of leprosy sufferers in Singapore. With the help of donations, the order would go on to establish Mount Alvernia Hospital in 1961.  My maternal grandmother had worked for the nuns at no. 142 and had accommodation for the family provided in the servants’ rooms behind the house and it was during this time that my mother witnessed the grand funeral next door.

Another view of 142 Moulmein Road today.

Another view of 142 Moulmein Road today.

Both 142 and 144 Moulmein Road have since been gazetted for conservation as part of the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s 2014 Master Plan. The 2014 Master Plan, a crystal ball into the future, does also predict a journey of transformation for Moulmein Road that may only have just begun.





The full moon of Thai

25 01 2016

Yesterday, the day of the full moon of the Tamil month of Thai, saw the most lively and colourful of festivals, Thaipusam, being celebrated by the Hindu community. A very visible part of the festival is a procession of devotees carrying kavadis. In Singapore, the kavadis, some weighing as much as 40 kilogrammes, are carried along a route from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road to the Chettairs’ or Sri Thendayuthapani Temple at Tank Road.

The annual procession remains as one of the most colourful religious and cultural celebrations in Singapore even without the chanting, singing, music and dancing, which would have flavoured it in its pre-1973 days. This year, a total ban on music was lifted, and this saw musical instruments allowed at designated points along the procession route. The festival is one of two occasions during which kavadis are carried, the other being the Panguni Uthiram festival celebrated during the full moon of the month of Panguni. 


Photographs from Thaipusam 2016

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More information on the festival from the Hindu Endowments Board’s website:

Thaipusam which falls in the Tamil month of Thai (usually January/ February) is an annual foot procession by Hindu devotees seeking blessings, fulfilling vows and offering thanks. Thaipusam is celebrated in honour of Lord Subrahmanya (also known as Lord Murugan) who represents virtue, youth and power to Hindus and is the destroyer of evil.

On the day before Thaipusam, a statue of Lord Subrahmanya decorated with jewels and finery and together with his two consorts, Valli and Devayani, is placed on a chariot and brought in procession. In Singapore, the chariot procession begins from the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple to Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple at Keong Siak Road. The procession symbolizes the blessings sought by Lord Subrahmanya from his elder brother Lord Vinayagar.

Thaipusam ceremony starts in the early hours of the morning when the first batch of devotees of Lord Subrahmanya carrying milk pots and wooden kavadis leave Sri Srinvasa Perumal Temple for Sri Thendayuthapani Temple at Tank Road. The milk in the pots they carry are offered to the deity of Lord Subrahmanya at Sri Thendayuthapani Temple. Some devotees pierce their tongues with skewers and carry a garlanded wooden arch across their shoulders. Others devotees may carry a kavadi (semi circular metal structure decorated with peacock feathers, flowers and plam leaves). The spiked kavadis which require elaborate preparations leave the temple in the later part of the morning and continue till 6pm.

Carrying kavadi is a popular form of devotion for Hindus. It is usually carried in fulfillment of a vow that a devotee would have taken. Placing a kavadi at the end of the foot procession at the altar of Lord Subrahmanya and making an offering of milk symbolizes the cleansing of the mind and soul and seeking of blessings.

In preparation for carrying a kavadi, a devotee has to prepare himself spiritually. For a period of about a month, the devotee must live a life of abstinence whilst maintaining a strict vegetarian diet. It is believed that only when the mind is free of material wants and the body free from physical pleasures that a devotee can undertake the sacred task without feeling any pain.


More information on the kavadi, its origins and some of the various forms it takes from the Thaipusam.sg site:

There are many types of offerings, which the devotee makes to his beloved deity Sri Murugan. A special offering is the carrying of kavadi and there is a Puranic legend behind this practice.

There was once a great saint called Agasthya who rested at Mount Pothikai. Agasthya dispatched one of his students, Idumban, to Mount Kailai Range instructing him to bring back two hills called Sivagiri and Shakthigiri belonging to Lord Murugan.

As instructed, Idumban having arrived at Mount Kailai, picked up both the hills, tied them and swung them across his shoulders.

Lord Murugan had other plans. He wanted the two hills to be placed at Thiruvavinankudi (Palani) and at the same time test the devotion and tenacity of purpose of Idumban.

Idumban who was on his way back with the hills suddenly found himself lost. Lord Murugan appeared as a king, riding a horse led Idumban to Thiruvavinankudi (Palani) and requested Idumban to rest there so that he could continue his journey later.

Having rested, Idumban tried to carry the two hills but strangely found that he could not do so. A perplexed Idumban looked up and saw a child in loincloth standing atop one of the hills. Idumban requested the child to get down, however, the child refused claiming that the hills belonged to him. An angered Idumban attempted to attack the child but found himself falling like an uprooted tree. A scuffle ensued and Idumban was defeated. Only then did Idumban realize that the child was none other than Muruga or Subrahmanya Himself – the ruling deity of the region. Idumban craved the pardon of the divine child and also sought the boon that anyone who comes to the hills to worship Sri Muruga with an object similar to the two hillocks suspended by a load bearing pole, may be granted his heart’s desire. Idumban’s wish was granted. Murugan also said that he would bless those who bring sandal, milk, flowers, etc. in a kavadi to His shrine. Hence, the practice of carrying a kavadi.

At the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple, one can see a small sanctum dedicated to Idumban. Devotees who usually fast for Thaipusam break their fast one day later after offering their prayers to Idumban.

The simplest kavadi consists of a short wooden pole surmounted by a wooden arch. Pictures or statues of Lord Murugan or other deities are fixed onto the arch. The kavadi is decorated with peacock feathers and a small pot of milk is attached to each end of the pole.

There are more elaborate kavadis that devotees carry. The alagu and ratha kavadi are common forms of kavadi carried by devotees during Thaipusam. Kavadis are affixed on a bearer’s body by long sharpened rods or by chains and small hooks. A kavadi bearer not only carries a gift for God but the whole kavadi is seen as a shrine for God Himself.

Devotees who intend to carry kavadis are customarily required to observe strict physical and mental discipline. Purification of the body is a necessity. This includes taking just simple vegetarian meals and observing celibacy. According to orthodox doctrine, rigid fasting and abstinence have to be observed over a 48-day period prior to the offering of the kavadi on Thaipusam Day.

Piercing the skin, tongue or cheeks with vel skewers is also common. This prevents the devotees from speaking and gives them great powers of endurance.


Photographs from previous Thaipusam celebrations:






Monkeys, monkeys everywhere

14 01 2016

Monkeys, lots of them, promise to set Chinatown alight come Saturday. For 53 days, some 406 of them, in the form of lanterns, will add to the crowd of monkeys that is already very evident on the streets of Chinatown. The lanterns are part of a record setting display of 2688 lanterns that include ones depicting longevity in the form of peaches, prosperity in the abundance of gold zodiac coins and spring blossoms to celebrate the arrival of Spring and the lunar year of the Monkey. The lanterns on display, the centrepiece of which is a 12 metre tall peach tree, have all been hand-crafted and were designed in partnership with final-year students from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).

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Monkeys have already invaded Chinatown in anticipation of the arrival Chinese new year of the monkey.

Monkey lanterns - some 406 of them will add to the monkey madness.

Monkey lanterns – some 406 of them will add to the monkey madness.

The twelve-metre tall peach tree lantern.

The twelve-metre tall peach tree lantern.

Along with the light-up, there will also be much to look forward to during this year’s Chinatown Chinese New Year Celebrations. Organised by the Kreta Ayer – Kim Seng Citizens’ Consultative Committee, the lead up to the Chinese community’s main festival will see events involving the community, performances, a lion-dance competition and a festive bazaar and carnival. The lion dance competition (a ticketed event) features 14 teams from 8 countries will take place at Hong Lim Park on the weekend of 23-24 January.

There will be a lion dance competition to look forward to.

There will be a lion dance competition to look forward to.

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Along with performances that will feature both local and foreign performers.

Along with performances that will feature both local and foreign performers.

The Festive Street Bazaar, which runs from 15 January to 7 February, is always well worth a walk through. Lining Pagoda, Smith, Temple and Trengganu Streets – much as the street and festive markets of old Chinatown did, the bazaar adds much to the festive atmosphere. This bazaar will see some 440 stalls this year and on offer will be a range of festive goods such as decorative items and traditional delicacies and snacks.

The Festive Street Bazaar, where items such as traditional Chinese New Year snacks can be purchased, will feature 440 stalls.

The Festive Street Bazaar, where items such as traditional Chinese New Year snacks can be purchased, will feature 440 stalls.

Stalls already stocked to welcome the year of the Monkey.

Stalls already stocked to welcome the year of the Monkey.

More monkeys in evidence.

More monkeys in evidence.

Colour will also be added to Kreta Ayer Square. Nightly stage performances featuring festive songs, cultural music and dance will be held from 8 to 10.30 pm. Other modern interpretations of the celebration include a “Mother Tree” that will respond to postings on social media. Set up by students from the SUTD on the Garden Bridge, the pink tree reacts to every count of 18 posts on platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter that are hash-tagged #CNY2016SG, and give an 18 second show of lights. Another “tree”, the Wishing Tree at Chinatown Point, is where one’s wishes can be hung. Wishing cards are available at $2 each and proceeds will be donated to the Kreta Ayer Seniors ‘ Activity Centre.

The Mother Tree.

The Mother Tree.

There will also be an attempt to recall the traditions of our forefathers – in an exhibition, My Father Tongue. This would be held at the newly revamped Chinatown Heritage Centre from 28 January to 6 March 2016. The exhibition will look at the three main Chinese dialect influenced sub-cultures in Singapore and their festive practices. There would also be dialect workshops conducted during the period of the exhibition.

Dr Lily Neo, Grassroots Adviser and MP for Jalan Besar GRC, penning her wishes at the Wishing Tree.

Dr Lily Neo, Grassroots Adviser and MP for Jalan Besar GRC, penning her wishes at the Wishing Tree.

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The celebrations 2016 and the light-up will be  launched on 16 January 2016. The event will see a retelling of “Journey to the West” that will involve both local and foreign performers Fireworks and firecrackers are expected at both this an at the Chinese New Year Countdown Party on 7 February. More information on the events can be found at http://chinatownfestivals.sg/chinatown-chinese-new-year-celebrations-2016/.

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A reminder of a time and place forgotten

12 01 2016

Masjid Omar Salmah, which stands on an elevation overlooking Jalan Mashhor, is one of only a handful of village style mosques left in Singapore today. The mosque, and its surroundings, remind us simpler times now forgotten. Built in the early 1970s to serve Kampong Jantai, which has since abandoned it – its inhabitants were resettled in the 1980s with a large proportion going to the then developing Ang Mo Kio New Town, the mosque and its surroundings remain relatively undisturbed and hark back to days difficult now to imagine.

JeromeLim-3312During a recent visit to the mosque, I learnt that curious sounding Kampong Jantai, was actually a transliteration of the name of a Chinese village, Gian Thye, which the area had also been home to. The occupants of Kampong Jantai, were apparently largely of Boyanese (or Baweanese) descent, and included a certain Haji Buang Masadin, who was instrumental in obtaining the plot of land to build the mosque.  Haji Buang, who took the name Haji Mashhor after embarking on the Hajj, also lent his name to the road, Jalan Mashhor, which runs by the mosque.

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The building of the mosque was prompted by the large numbers of non-villagers working in the vicinity who descended on the village’s surau (prayer hall) for Friday prayers. It was constructed in 1973-1974, with support coming financially through a prominent member of the Alsagoff family, Syed Ibrahim bin Omar Alsagoff. It was after Syed Ibrahim’s parents, Syed Omar and Salmah, that the mosque was named. The mosque, besides serving the villagers and workers in the vicinity, also served the nearby Kampong Nekat at Onraet RoadJeromeLim-3175

The mosque today, is an expanded version of the original mosque; an expansion that was carried out in the 1980s through the donation of a food caterer, who had used part of its grounds for his business. Today, it is through generous donations and a team of unpaid volunteers that the mosque, which now operates on a Temporary Occupation License, survives.
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The area, which includes Bukit Brown cemetery, is intended for future housing. The signs of this are already upon us. An eight lane road cutting through the cemetery, the plans for which sparked some controversy, is fast taking shape. Along with that, a future Circle Line MRT station, Bukit Brown, is already ready under Jalan Mashhor. Plans are also there for another future MRT station on the soon-to-be-constructed Thomson Line, Mount Pleasant, not far away. It does seems that when the time for that comes, the mosque will have to go and with it a precious piece of a past that we today, already find hard to remember.

Jalan Mashhor - whith structures belonging to the already constructed future Bukit Brown MRT station clearly visible.

Jalan Mashhor – whith structures belonging to the already constructed future Bukit Brown MRT station visible in the distance.





Possibly the last village style sundry shop on mainland Singapore

5 01 2016

Hidden in a corner of a quiet residential neighbourhood at Rosyth Road, it is easy to miss the Tee Seng Store. Stepping into the store, a village style sundry shop, has one taking a step back some 4, 5 or perhaps even 6 decades back in time.

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The shop is set in a stand alone building – much like the village shops of old. Little changed since the 1950s, the inside of the store is fitted out with wooden ventilation grilles, louvres, doors and even wooden framed glass cabinets and is very much reminiscent of the shops in the countryside that for many a parched National Serviceman out in the field, were a lifeline.

The last rural sundry shop, Tee Seng Store.

Mr Ang Lu Heng, the proprietor of the store – who started work in the shop in 1955 and has run it since 1960.

The shop, owned by Mr Ang Lu Heng who is in his 70s, is possibly last of its kind in Singapore – there are several other “traditional” sundry or provision shops  but not with a village shop like setting. It probably will be a matter of time before it becomes forgotten, much like the other reminders of the gentle days of Singapore that have been lost.

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