What makes Chinatown Chinatown in Chinese majority Singapore?

30 11 2021

That there is a place known as “Chinatown” in Singapore seems quite odd, with Chinese settlers and their descendants having been in the majority from the mid-1800s. The origins of the name lie possibly in Singapore’s very first Town Plan. Drawn up in 1822, the plan defined areas for settlement along ethnic lines. The area where Chinatown is today, corresponds to the plan’s “Chinese Campong” and an adjacent “Chuliah Campong” (“Chuliah” or “Chulia” is a reference to those from the south of India). The term “China town” to describe the district, as reports in the English language press going back to the 1830s show, found use very early on.

Chinatown, through the eyes of its former residents (a video).

While the use of the term does suggest a similarity with other Chinatowns or Chinese dominated streets or neighbourhoods found in urban centres across the non-Chinese world, that is where the similarity ends. Singapore’s Chinatown has never quite been a “Tong Yan Kai”, the “Street of Tang People” in Cantonese, as many of the other Chinatowns are often referred to. To most in the Chinese speaking community, Chinatown was “Greater Town”, “Tai Por” in Cantonese or “Tua Po” in Teochew and Hokkien.

A statement relating to the revenue obtained from the so-called Revenue Farms in Singapore published in 1838.
“A Street in Chinatown”, 1932, Leiden University (CC BY 4.0)

Another name that the district was, and still is, associated with is “Ngau Che Shui” (in Cantonese) or “Gu Chia Chwee” (in Hokkien) and “Kreta Ayer” (in Malay). Translating into “Water Bullock Cart”, the name is a reference to the section of Chinatown around Kreta Ayer Road and Spring Street, where there were fresh water springs from which bullock carts used for the sale and distribution of fresh water were once filled. The name is now also used to refer to the larger Chinatown area.

Smith and Trengganu Street corner, 1914 with the former Lai Chun Yuen on the left.

One unique feature of Singapore’s Chinatown, is its multi-ethnic flavour. Non-Chinese houses of worship are quite a conspicuous part of it. Two of Chinatown’s streets, Pagoda and Temple Streets do in fact take their names from a Hindu temple. Another, Mosque Street is name after the Jamae (Chulia) Mosque.

The shophouse dominated streets of Chinatown with a Hindu temple, the Sri Mariamman, after which two streets are named.

The multi-dimensional quality extended to the Chinese community in Chinatown, who divided themselves along lines of dialects. The Kreta Ayer section of Chinatown for example, was home to the Cantonese, and the area around Telok Ayer and Amoy Street was predominantly Hokkien. The Teochews lived and ran businesses in the areas closer to the Singapore river. The non-Chinese communities that were added to this mix were those from southern India and smaller pockets of other communities that included the Baweanese (or Boyan). Hailing from Pulau Bawean, the Baweanese were skilled horse handlers. Many found work as gharry-drivers and made the area of the stables at Erskine Road, home. 

A Silver Chariot procession along the Streets of Chinatown during the Hindu festival of Thaipusam.
Pondok Peranakan Gelam Club – set up by the Baweanese community in Club Street near Erskine Road

The South Indian community would come to include many who came during the expansion of the port that followed the opening of the Suez Canal. Areas such as Tanjong Pagar Road on the fringes of Chinatown, became home for some, so much so that the area came to be referred to as “Little India” — a term that is now attached to the Serangoon Road area.

Decorative arch along Cook Street by Kadayanallur Muslim League on occasion of Singapore being conferred the administrative status of a city, 1951. Courtesy of Singapore Kadayanallur Muslim League.

Singapore’s Chinatown was by no means the only “China town” found on the island. As the population of Chinese settlers grew, secondary settlements developed north of the Singapore River. One, known as “Sio Po” — the “Lesser Town”. The area of Sio Po, was allocated to the Europeans in the 1822 plan. As Singapore’s interior opened up, many in the Europeans found the inland areas more conducive as places to live in, and this paved the way for Chinese settlers, who could be thought of as latecomers to the Chinese diaspora began to move into the area. The Hainanese, were among the first to move in, establishing a Tin Hou or Mazu temple at Malabar Street (where Bugis Junction is today) in 1857.

Mooncakes from trishaws and tricycles – street vendors were a common sight even up to the 1980s in Chinatown.

Geylang, could be thought of as another secondary settlement, with many being drawn to the area when its plantations started to make way for industry from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Temples were set up to cater to spiritual and community needs, along with a number of clan associations. One addition to Geylang’s clan scene in the 1920s, the Huang Clan, at which the “Father of Modern Chinese Art”, Xu Beihong, painted his highest valued works (see also: Tigers, elephants, rambutans and Xu Beihong in a garden of foolish indulgences).

A temple in Geylang.

Chinatown proper, would develop into a collection of overcrowded streets and tenements. Nestled into this were some notable cultural institutions such as Lai Chun Yuen and the Majestic Theatre, the physical reminders of which in the form of the buildings that housed them, are still around. A feature of the place were the hawkers who filled many of the streets, with their offerings of fresh produce, cooked food items and sundry goods.

An already somewhat sanitised Chinatown in 1984, with some semblance of street life. The corner of Smith and Trengganu Streets is seen here.

The lively scene on the streets, concealed what may be thought to be a shadier side of Chinatown. Behind the laundry cluttered façades of Chinatown’s numerous shophouses were congested quarters, many shared by coolies, opium and gambling dens, and numerous houses of ill repute. Hints of what did go on in the streets and behind the scenes in the dimly lit shophouses were quite unambiguously described in the colloquial names attached to Chinatown’s many colourful streets.

Colloquial street names offer a peek into the past.

Unsurprisingly, the conditions in Chinatown, made it a prime area for the secret societies. Hideouts, and gang hangouts could be found aplenty in Chinatown, together with many inconspicuous places in which weapons were hidden. Some businesses became fronts for illegal activity, while others, including streets hawkers, became targets of secret society run protection rackets. Fights over territorial control, violent reprisals and settlements of disputes were a common occurrence and with Ineffective policing, murder and mayhem ruled the streets of mid-20th century Chinatown.  

A Chinatown shophouse with cubicles arranged on its upper floor.

That Chinatown is today, a thing of the past. Much has changed since the 1960s and 1970s, when life could still be seen on the streets. Property acquisition with a view to demolition and redevelopment, would see street hawkers, other business and residents being moved, some into Chinatown Complex and Hong Lim Complex in the 1980s. A rethink the urban renewal policy would result in the protection of much of what was left, building-wise, through the conservation of the Chinatown as a precinct in 1989, thus keeping the area’s built character. This paved the way for the development of Chinatown’s identity as an “ethnic quarter” for the promotion tourism and perhaps its evolution into what it is today, a place that some would say, is a reprise of its role as a “China Town” for the new diaspora from China..

Pagoda Street, 1971, Wilford Peloquin (CC BY 2.0)
Murals, through which mural artist Yip Yew Chong brings the past into the present, have become part of the modern day Chinatown scene.





Parting Glances: Old Police Academy

24 11 2021

The old Police Academy (OPA) off Thomson Road has a place in the hearts of many. This will include those from the police force who trained on its grounds, members of the National Police Cadet Corps (NPCC), and those who in one way or another, have found joy in its spacious grounds. The announcement about its redevelopment as a new public-housing estate does not come as a surprise with the knowledge that Mount Pleasant MRT station is already being constructed. Some, like me will however, lament its loss as a space that holds the memories of many and a space that has long escaped the inescapable advance of the clutter and concrete has covered much of this overcrowded island.

The expansive grounds of the old Police Academy.

The old academy’s presence along Thomson Road goes back to 1929, when it made its debut as the Police Training Depot. It setting up came as part of a greater effort to bring transformation to the then Straits Settlements Police Force (SSPF) in response to the growing level of lawlessness. Not only did Singapore come to be known as ”Sin-galore”, comparisons with mob-ruled Chicago were frequently made. To deal with this, an programme to modernise and instil professionalism in the SSPF was launched by it Inspector-General from 1925 to 1935, Harold Fairburn. Along with the setting up of a purpose-built training facility, modern police stations and living quarters being built. The new stations included the so-called “Police Skyscraper“, Hill Street Police Station, Maxwell Road Police Station, and also Beach Road Police Station.

One feature of the new depot was the expansive sports fields and parade grounds that it was provided with. The fields would see hockey, rugby and football matches being played with ones held on Sunday afternoons attracting a healthy crowd. The parade ground saw numerous parades, drills and event rehearsals taking place, some of which involved stunts on motorcycles, with many of spectators finding “seating” on the slope leading to the grounds.

A passing-out parade on the parade grounds with a view towards Block 2 and Block 1 (National Archives of Singapore online).
A view towards the parade ground, part of which is now a construction site.

With the academy having completed a move to the new Home Team Academy in Choa Chu Kang 2005, the death knell on the OPA site was sounded. While the recent announcement has confirmed much of what might have been expected, there is some consolation in the knowledge that the development will for the time being be confined to the OPA site along with an adjacent plot by Onraet Road currently occupied by a set of old police quarters and a former detention facility. That the Kopi Sua cemetery site has been spared, and any impact to its flora and fauna minimised, is a cause for some joy even if it may be temporary.

A view towards Onraet Road and the former police quarters, which will be within the redevelopment site.

All will also not be lost within the OPA site with six structures of historic value being slated for conservation. Among these six buildings, four are those whose time of completion coincided with the opening of the training depot. These are Block 1 and Block 28 within the boundaries of the future estate site, as well as Block 13 and 153 Mount Pleasant Road (the Senior Police Officers’ Mess) just outside of it. Two other buildings being conserved, the 1932 built Block 2, and the 1930 built block 27, are also found within the redevelopment site.

Block 1 in the foreground, which was among the first of the depot’s buildings erected. It originally featured a clock-tower. It and Block 2 (in the background) were more recently used by the Police National Service Department.

Among some structures still found on the site, several which will be lost to redevelopment also date to the period of the training depot’s opening. These include the drill shed, Block 7 and Block 8. Other structures that will have to go are accommodation blocks, a small firing range, a set of squash courts, and a 1976 completed swimming pool that was built at the suggestion of Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

A sign with safety rules at the firing range and a hand drawn “target”.

The eventual redevelopment will take away much that has been familiar about the place and the open spaces that have long been associated with OPA. Nearby, much is already changing as a result of the construction of the North-South Corridor. Even with their conservation, the six structures will probably give off quite a different vibe surrounded by the clutter of structures that the redevelopment promises to bring. Kopi Sua, with green spaces, much of the Singapore Polo Club (which does have a link to the Police Academy through Harold Fairburn’s successor as Inspector-General of the SSPF, René Onraet) and the luxuriously green area up Mount Pleasant Road will however still be there. But, for how long? Only time will tell.


Structures being conserved

Block 2, which was completed in 1932.

The SPF crest in front of Block 1

Block 28, completed in 1929, built on a “butterfly” plan.

Views in and around Block 28


Block 27, completed in 1930. It would have resembled Block 28 without the more recent modifications.

Block 13 – the “hospital” block, which is just outside the area of the development.

Views in and around Block 13.


Views around the Old Police Academy and of structures including the swimming pool, that will be demolished






Windows into Ulu Pandan Forest and Clementi Nature Corridor’s past

21 11 2021

Old maps are often able to offer us a peek into an area’s past. One area that is especially fascinating is the area around the Ulu Pandan forest, which was the subject of news in relation to the removal of a land boundary marker belonging to the huge Tan Kim Seng estate.

Windows into the area’s past.

The area, now dominated by major thoroughfares such as Clementi Road and Ulu Pandan Road, as well as the huge Ulu Pandan canal, has seen much change in the time between Tan Kim Seng’s days to the present day. The area north of Ulu Pandan Road, was where the Ulu Pandan Rubber Company’s estate was established around 1910. Owned by Choa Giang Thye, it counted the likes of Mr Lee Choon Guan, Mr Tigran Sarkies (of Raffles Hotel fame) and Mr Tan Kheam Hock as its investors. The 1900s also saw villages in the area being established. These included one in the are of the Ulu Pandan forest known as Tua Kang Lye, which accommodated a large number of settlers from the Anxi area of Fujian province. A temple in the area, Tan Kong Tian – where one of two remaining fixed temple Chinese opera stages left on Singapore’s main island is found – is associated with the former village.

Tan Kong Tian temple and its Chinese opera stage at Jalan Kebaya.

In the 1930s, the railway deviation turned the train tracks through the area to Tanjong Pagar Railway Station (the section opened in 1932). Later in the decade, two huge 15″ “monster” guns of the Buona Vista Battery were installed for coastal defence (similar to those of the Johore Battery) in the area straddling Ulu Pandan Road close to its junction with Reformatory Road (what is Clementi Road today). Incidentally, the name Reformatory Road came from the reformatory that was established in the early 1900s in the area where SIM/SUSS is today. The reformatory became the Singapore / Gimson Boys Home in 1947 and the road was renamed following this late in 1947.

The post-war period saw much more change. Camps were established for Ceylonese troops, Gurkhas and others in the area and names such as Colombo Camp, Ulu Pandan Camp began making an appearance. Ulu Pandan Camp would become the home of the future 1SIR in 1957 and another, established in the 1960s, Temasek Camp, that of 2SIR. Temasek Camp, was at the centre of an incident sparked by the separation of Singapore and Malaysia following the return of 2SIR troops from Sabah in August 1965. Camp Temasek was then still occupied by a Malaysian Armed Forces unit that was still based in Singapore and Farrer Park was used as a temporary home for 2SIR with tents pitched on the sports fields..

One of the important developments the area would see is in the area of the canal. It was originally a marshy area, which, as the name Ulu Pandan does suggest, was the source of Sungei Pandan or Pandan River. There seems to have been some speculation online as to it having been the source of the Singapore River. This connection with the SIngapore River through Alexandra canal was however, only made in the 1950s, when the canal was constructed for use as a diversion canal to carry storm water away from the city and to Sungei Pandan as part of a flood alleviation scheme.

Part of the Flood Alleviation Scheme to divert storm water from the Bukit Timah Canal to the Pandan Reservoir.

As an expansion to the scheme, further work was also done to the canal to allow it to also serve as a diversion canal for the Bukit Timah canal in the 1960s and 1970s. This connection was made through a network of canals and tunnels constructed through the (old) Holland Road area in and around the rail corridor and under the area of Ulu Pandan Camp.

The part of the diversion canal leading to its underground section.

The 1960s would also see the construction of the Jurong Railway Line as part of the development of Jurong Industrial Estate, turning the line through part of what could be thought of as the Clementi Forest (the future Clementi Nature Corridor) and Maju Forest. Remnants of the tracks and a rebuilt tunnel, can be found in the area today.

JeromeLim ClementiTunnel 20180501-1825
A visit to the reconstructed tunnel under Clementi Road that belong to the Jurong Line in May 2018.





My Chinatown Home

17 11 2021

The idea of a “Chinatown” in Singapore, in which there is a large ethnic Chinese majority, seems quite a paradox. There due to its historical connection with the first area of settlement established by way of Singapore’s first town plan in 1822 for the incoming Chinese to the newly established trading post, the area could be thought of as the heart of the descendants of the early Chinese immigrants whose connections in Chinatown include its temples, clan associations and other cultural and religious institutions.

While Chinatown today may have its architectural character preserved through the conservation of many of its streets and shophouses, it does have quite a different flavour. Some say that it has morphed from Chinatown into becoming a “China Town” due to the proliferation of businesses and food outlets catering to the new Chinese community (migrants and new citizens who have arrived post-1990). While that may be so, Chinatown is in the heart of many of the old residents of Chinatown, who continually maintain that connection with it in one way or another.

One former resident, Yip Yew Chong has gone a little further, decorating the walls of Chinatown with murals depicting various bits of its past. For Yew Chong, a prolific mural artist who spent his first 14 years living in a shophouse in Sago Lane and who now maintains a studio in the area, the murals provide an opportunity for old residents of Chinatown, including himself and his family to re-live the past. He also hopes the murals, which incidentally have become popular as instagram-mable spots, will allow other visitors to Chinatown and tourists to find out what life in Chinatown was like back in the days when it served as home to him.

Among the murals Yew Chong has painted, is one “My Chinatown Home”, which as the title suggests, depicts he old home in Sago Lane. Here is a video in which he provides a short description of what he has shown in the mural:





Lost Places: the Killiney Road railway bridge

18 10 2021

Wouldn’t it be cool to have paraphernalia related to a conventional railway line in the Orchard Road area, such as the now well-known girder bridge that ran over Orchard Road, still in existence today? It may come as a surprise but the bridge was actually one of two bridges that were in very close proximity to one another, with a similar girder bridge running across Killiney Road following on the Orchard Road bridge in the direction of the Singapore and from 1907, Tank Road Station.

The railway bridge at Killiney Road.

From the Killiney Road bridge, the line – part of the 1903 Singapore Government Railway or Singapore to Kranji Railway, took ran down an incline towards the Oxley Road and then curving towards Tank Road level crossing and then towards Singapore Station. The line was extended towards the port and Pasir Panjang in 1907 forcing the shift of the station at the triangular clearing where the National Theatre once stood to Tank Road proper. The line would be absorbed into the Federated Malay States Railway (FMSR) in 1913. In 1932, a deviation turned the line from the Bukit Timah area towards Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

The road bridge at Neil Road – a remnant from the 1907 extension of the Singapore Government Railway.


Speaking of the extension, there is in fact a remnant of this extension – a road bridge at Neil Road that was built to carry the road over the railway which ran through what is today Duxton Plain Park and some of this, as well as the stations along the old Singapore and Kranji Railway is discussed here in this History’s Mysteries episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r1HStrNMxxE.





The soon to reopen Reflections at Bukit Chandu

3 09 2021

Among the places in which the echoes of a battle fought eight decades ago can still be heard is a point on Pasir Panjang Ridge that has since been named Bukit Chandu. It was where the final acts of heroism and sacrifice were enacted early in the afternoon of Valentine’s Day 1942 – at the culmination of a fierce two-day battle across the ridge we know today as Kent Ridge. The site today, is right next to where an interpretive centre “Reflections at Bukit Chandu” (RBC) can be found. Housed in a colonial bungalow of 1930s vintage, the centre recalls the battle and the acts of bravery of those defending the ridge. Having been closed for a revamp since October 2018, the centre is due to reopen at the end of next week.

Set up in 2002, the focus of RBC has been the retelling the story of the Malay Regiment and the stout but vain defence it put up on Pasir Panjang Ridge in what was one of the last major battles to be fought before Singapore’s fall during the Second World War. The regiment, formed in Port Dickson as an “experimental regiment”, played a key role in holding off the vastly superior and battle hardened Imperial Japanese Army troops as part of the 1st Malaya Infantry Brigade over two days; with its survivors taking a last stand at Point 226, as Bukit Chandu was identified as. A name now well known to us, Lieutenant Adnan Saidi, a war hero in both Malaysia and in Singapore, was also associated with the battle. Lt Adnan led a platoon of 42 of the regiment’s men and was among those who made that last stand. He would pay the ultimate price for refusing to remove his uniform after the Japanese overran his position in the cruelest of fashions. Hung upside down from a tree, Lt Adnan was bayonetted to death.

A view of the unique segmented arches that are a feature of the bungalow’s architecture.

The revamp sees little change to the central thrust of the centre, which is in remembering the Malay Regiment and the heroics of men such as Lt Adnan. Where change is seen, is in the way the story is told. An immersive 5-minute video projection now sees the battle is relived as part of the “Bukit Chandu: Battle Point 226” exhibition that sees the ground floor the the RBC now dedicated to. Along with this, the revamp also adds another dimension to the centre in providing greater context to the bungalow in which RBC is housed in, which was apparently built as part of a cluster of residences for senior members of staff of an opium or chandu packing plant established at the foot of the hill (after which the hill was named). To provide a more complete picture of the area’s rich history, exhibits found in the house and on its grounds have been added to tell the story of Pasir Panjang.

The headdress of the Malay Regiment with the badge.

For those familiar with the RBC prior to its revamp, one change that will be quite glaring as one enters its grounds, is the missing “mural”. In place of the “mural” – a replica of an oil painting by Malaysian artist Hoessein Enas that depicted the Battle of Pasir Panjang that was suspended across a segmented arch – is the revamped centre’s main entrance. Also noticeable will be the re-sited bronze sculpture dedicated to the Malay Regiment, which now has a more prominent position on the grounds, across from the entrance. Heading inside, the entrance lobby beckons, beyond which the “Bukit Chandu: Battle Point 226” exhibition begins. First up is an introduction to the Malay Regiment and its formation, presented in the exhibition’s first section “The Malay Regiment”. Rare footage of the Malay Regiment and of Lt Adnan undergoing training drills can be viewed here, as well as the regiment’s specially designed uniforms, weapons and kit items (which we are told were very well maintained by the regiment’s soldiers).

The (new) entrance to the centre.

The next section “Into Battle” is where the immersion into the battle takes place through a 5-minute video projection. Here a map on the floor traces the advance of the Japanese across the ridge over the course of the 13th and 14th of February 1942. Also on display in this section are items that were carried by both the Malay regiment’s soldiers as well as the Japanese. Spent rounds from the battle, dug up around the ridge by a resident in the 1970s, are also on display.

In the next section “Aftermath”, a bronze bust of Lt Adnan and a tin cup that belonged to Lt Ibrahim Sidek that was donated by his widow, are on display together with the names of those who fell in the battle. Lt Ibrahim is among the names on the wall, having also been killed by the Japanese for refusing to remove his uniform. His tin cup sits on display at a stand fitted with a speaker through which an excerpt of an interview with his widow in Malay can be played back.

The bronze bust of Lt Adnan and the tin cup that belonged to Lt Ibrahim Sidek.

Up the stairs on the bungalow’s second level, one comes to a verandah. Turning left along this is where the room containing an exhibition “Packing Chandu” can be found. It is one of several sections of the centre in which the bungalow’s and the area’s past can be rediscovered. In this section, an attempt is made to re-create the machinery of the chandu packing plant. Tin tubes, in which two-hoons of opium were sealed in as part of an effort to stem the “illegal” distribution of opium (on which the colonial government maintained a monopoly), along with scales are found next to the “machinery”. Paraphernalia connected to the packing and use of opium, photographs and leaflets connected to the opposition by prominent members of the community to the sale of opium, are also on display.

Packing Chandu.

At the centre of the verandah, “The Lounge” can be found. This recalls how the bungalow was used and lived in. The house, which is similar in design to many pre-war colonial bungalows built by the Public Works Department, features generous openings for ventilation and light, as well as verandahs. The lounge, an extension of the verandah, would have had great views of sea at Pasir Panjang. It would also have served as a living room and was where the house’s occupants would have chilled-out in during cool sea-breeze ventilated evenings. On display in “The Lounge”, are objects found during archeological digs around the house. These include a broken piece of Marseilles roof tile, as well as several other objects unrelated to the house. Cards from which the history of Bukit Chandu and Pasir Panjang is told through archival photographs, will also be on display.

The verandah and “The Lounge”.

The history of Pasir Panjang will also be discovered “On The Lawn”, through two installations laid out on the grounds of RBC. The first takes the form of a bronze replica of a boat used by the Orang Laut (who once inhabited the Singapore Strait), and this relates to Longyamen or Dragon’s Teeth Gate – the rocky outcrop that marked the entrance to what is now Keppel Harbour and appears in Chinese navigational maps of the 14th century. The second installation is a bronze pineapple cart, which recalls a more recent past when the ridge was home to Tan Kim Seng’s vast pineapple plantation. The plantation was well known for the superior quality of pineapples that it produced.

An installation on The Lawn – a replica of a Orang Laut boat.
Recalling Tan Kim Seng’s pineapple plantation.

The refreshing revamp now places the RBC back on the map of must-visit locations that will help us develop a better appreciation of the past, and more specifically, the sacrifice made by the men of the Malay Regiment (along with the others who fought alongside them including members of the 2nd Loyal Regiment, the 44th Indian Brigade and machine gunners from the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force). A visit to the centre will not be complete without a walk along at least part of the ridge. Across Pepys Road from the RBC lies the entrance to the canopy walk leading to Kent Ridge Park, which provides some wonderful views of the Alexandra Park area and provide an appreciation of the difficult terrain across which the battle was fought and the conditions that the troops defending the ridge must have faced.

The bronze sculpture dedicated to the Malay Regiment.

Reflections at Bukit Chandu reopens on 9 September 2021. It will be open from Tuesdays to Sundays from 9.30am to 5.30pm (last admission is 4.30 pm). Admission is free for all Singaporeans and Permanent Residents. Admission charges do apply to tourists and information on this is available at the centre’s website.


Opening and Opening Weekend Information

To commemorate the reopening of RBC, all visitors will enjoy free admission from 9 to 26 September 2021. Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents will continue to enjoy complimentary admission beyond this period. 

The opening weekend for RBC will take place from 11 to 12 September, which also coincides with the anniversary of the surrender of the Japanese on 12 September 1945. Visitors can look forward to a self-guided scavenger hunt through the RBC galleries and complimentary live-streamed tours by the curators of RBC and Changi Chapel and Museum on Facebook Live.

(See also: https://www.nhb.gov.sg/bukitchandu/whats-on/programmes).

Visitors are encouraged to pre-book their museum admission tickets and sign up for the opening weekend programmes ahead of their visit. Please visit www.bukitchandu.gov.sg for the latest updates on the museum. 


More photographs of RBC








The last light-box on Keong Saik Road

30 07 2021

Taking a walk around Keong Saik Road recently, I could not help but marvel at its transformation into a hip and happening neighbourhood. It was certainly quite a different place when I caught my first glimpse of it back in the 1980s. A walk that I took with a former schoolmate around his neighbourhood, opened my eyes to what seemed to to illuminate the seemingly dimly lit Keong Saik Road by night. That hastily executed detour from the planned excursion route left a vague impression the well-known side of Keong Saik Road and what each of its many lamps on which unit numbers were marked on, identified. The street’s gentrification in more recent times has seen to the dimming of the old lights of Keong Saik Road to the extent that they have all now been completely extinguished. What does remain to remind us of the street’s colourful past is a now famous tale of it that has been wonderfully told by Charmaine Leung in “17A Keong Saik Road“, and in physical terms, a last light-box at No 8 Keong Saik Road found atop its back door. Housing one of the street’s last brothels to operate, it seems that the sushi restaurant that will soon occupy it, will be keeping the light-box for posterity.

Now hip and happening, the area around Keong Saik Road is a place with quite a past.

The triangular site formed by Keong Saik Road, Jiak Chuan Road and Teck Lim Road, which now features a collection of quite well patronised eating and drinking spots, was where Keong Saik’s was colloquially called Sam Zau Fu (三州府) in Cantonese. This was with reference to the “residences” lining the triangle of streets that made up the main sections of Keong Saik’s red light district. The district did have a long-held reputation as an area to indulge in the vices even before the brothels, as we knew them, came into being when Keong Saik was a haven for courtesans or entertainers who found employment in the area’s tea houses and rich gentlemen’s clubs.

The last light-box. Will it be kept?


The courtesans, many of whom were extremely young and trained in a manner not too dissimilar to but without the rigours of the geisha in Japan, were equipped with skills to perform with the yuetkam (月琴 or yueqin in Mandarin) and/or the peipa (琵琶 or pipa in Mandarin). It was for this reason that the term peipa chai (琵琶仔) or “young pipa player” was used to refer to them. In them the wealthy club-goers and tea-house patrons would find ready mistresses. These mistresses who might have been “bought-off”, were also housed in the area and the common name for Teo Hong and Bukit Pasoh Roads in Cantonese, which is Yi Nai Kai (二奶街) provides an indication of one of the areas in which this occurred. Yi nai, which translates literally from Cantonese into “second milk”, is a euphemism for “mistress”. The tea houses and entertainment venues began to morph into houses of ill-repute and by the end of the 1950s, Keong Saik Road acquired notoriety for being a place in which “high-class” brothels operated. The term pipa chai seemed at the same time to have been extended in its use to describe the brothels’ working ladies.

One of the last “lights” of Keong Saik – seen in March 2014.

While conversations we do seem to frequently have about Keong Saik Road’s past are all too often dominated by what did go on after dark, the street does have many other facets to it. It was only in 1926, that the street was given a name — after a founder of the Straits Steamship Company and a Municipal Commissioner Tan Keong Saik. Host to a number of associations and religious institutions, the street benefitted from the colour that religious festivals and celebrations injected into it. One festival that still enlivens the street is celebrated by the Chettiar community every January or February during Chetty Pusam on the eve of the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. The community’s temple at Keong Saik Road’s junction with Kreta Ayer Road, the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar, serves as a point to pause in the journey taken by the silver chariot carrying the image of Lord Murugan from the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple at Tank Road and back to it. The return leg of the chariot’s journey to Tank Road is accompanied by a colourful and lively procession of kavadis or “burdens” that takes a route down Keong Saik Road before making its way along Neil and South Bridge Roads on its way home.

Keong Saik Road and the Sir Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple during Chetty Pusam.

While the visible traditions of the Hindu temple still plays a big part in adding flavour to Keong Saik Road, the same cannot be said about a number of traditions associated with the Chinese community there, partly because of changing circumstances and demographics of the area’s population. One lively Chinese practice that has gone that way is da siu yan (打小人) —  “petty person beating”. Also translated as “villain hitting”, the rather interesting practice was enacted with great gusto at the site of the Oriental Theatre, which was right across Kreta Ayer Road from the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar temple. Out of sight, it has not been put out of mind by those who have witnessed the practice such as Richard Lee. A description of it that he provides is found in a Facebook post, which reads:

There was a perimeter wall of the old Oriental Theatre that served as a “prayer” wall for people to “打小人”.

Villain hitting, da siu yan (Chinese: 打小人), demon exorcising, or petty person beating, is folk sorcery popular in the Guangdong area of China, Hong Kong & Singapore (and is) primarily associated with (the) Cantonese. Its purpose is to curse one’s enemies using magic. Villain hitting is often considered a humble career, and the ceremony is often performed by older ladies, though some shops sell “DIY” kits.

Villain hitting (打小人)
Make use of a varieties of symbolic object such as the shoe of clients or the villain hitter or other religious symbolic weapons like incense sticks to hit or hurt the villain paper. Villain paper can also be replaced by other derivatives such as man paper, woman paper, five ghost paper etc.

Sacrifice to Bái Hǔ (祭白虎)
The hitters have to make sacrifice to Bái Hǔ if they want to hit the villain on Jingzhe. Use a yellow paper tiger to represent Bái Hǔ, there are black stripes on the paper tiger and a pair of tooth shapes in its mouth. During the sacrifice a small piece of pork is soaked with pig blood and then put inside the mouth of the paper tiger (to feed Bái Hǔ). Bái Hǔ won’t hurt others after being fed. Sometimes they will also smear greasy pork (a piece of lard) on Bái Hǔ’s mouth to make its mouth full of oil (so that it is) unable to open its mouth to hurt people. In some regional sacrifice the villain hitter would burn the paper tiger or cut off its head after making sacrifice to it.

Pray for blessings (祈福)
Use a red Gui Ren paper to pray for blessings and help from Gui Ren. The red 貴人紙 were pasted onto the wall nearby. The nearby perimeter wall also served a spot for a series of drying racks for drying pig rind in the sun. The man who did this is my friend’s Ser Huat Ho’s grandfather….. The dried pig rind were then deep fried and sold to food vendors.

– Richard Lee

Another widely observed religious practice on Keong Saik Street — at least for the womenfolk — that has gone in the same direction as villain hitting is the annual observation of the Seven Sisters Festival on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. Based on accounts in oral history interviews and descriptions provided by the prolific muralist Yip Yew Chong, it was quite a big occasion in Chinatown, especially along Keong Saik Road. The commemoration of the festival, which revolves around a folktale of star-crossed lovers who were permitted to meet across a bridge formed by swallows (or magpies depending on the locality) once a year, is sometimes thought of as a Chinese version of Valentine’s Day. It was especially popular among the unmarried womenfolk, which included the majie, for whom Keong Saik Road’s Cundhi Gong was a religious focal point. During the festival, paper offerings to the feminine half of the lovesick couple — the weaver fairy and the seventh of the seven fairy sisters that the festival is named for, are made. Offerings include ones representing vanity items such as combs and lipstick. Flowers were also made. Before being burnt, the offerings were put on display, some on a bowl fashioned out of paper together with miniature paper dresses, items of embroidery, as well as freshly made cakes and fresh fruits. Participation in the festival started to dwindle in the 1960s and by the 1970s, hardly any of the highly visual displays were seen on the street.

The five-foot-way of the Cundhi Gong.

The last of Keong Saik Road’s vanishing light-boxes:






Pulau Ubin in the merry month of May

25 07 2021

One of the places in Singapore in which the memories of old are still alive is Pulau Ubin. It is where many in Singapore now find an escape from the staid and maddeningly overcrowded world in which Singaporeans have been made to call home.

Pulau Ubin — at least pre-Covid — comes alive every May, when the Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple honours its main deity Tua Pek Kong, around the time of the Buddhist Vesak Day holiday (which has little to do with the local Taoist deity). The manner in which the festival is celebrated, harks back to the days of village life, with the Ubin’s rural settings certainly lending itself to providing the correct atmosphere.

No village temple festival would of course be complete without a Chinese opera performance. Held to entertain the visiting deity more than the crowd, these performances would in the past draw large crowds and be accompanied by a a variety of night-market-like stalls offering anything from food, desserts, drink, masks and toys, and the tikam-tikam man. While the stalls are missing in the modern-day interpretations of village festivals, Chinese opera performances and these days, getai, are still held at selected temples during their main festivals over the course of several days. Such is the case with the festival on Pulau Ubin, which is commemorated with as much gusto as would village festivals of the past, even if it involves a largely non-resident population. What does complete the picture on Pulau Ubin, is its permanent free-standing Chinese opera stage — just one of three left in Singapore — on which both Chinese opera and getai performances are held.


Photographs taken during the Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple’s Tua Pek Kong festival in May 2014





Beautiful Ridley Park

18 07 2021

Among my favourite Public Works Department or PWD built houses is one at Ridley Park that I was able to photograph a couple of times (seen in the photographs attached to this post). Set in lush green surroundings, the house is among quite a few others found in an estate that took its name from the Singapore Botanic Gardens first director, Henry Ridley. Due to the fact that it was built adjacent to Tanglin Barracks, Ridley Park has often been mistaken as one that the War Office developed for their senior military officers. It however was one of a number that the PWD developed to house for senior government officers and their families.

Having been constructed from 1923 to 1935, a wide variety of PWD residence styles are on display at Ridley Park, which is a a wonderful showcase of the creativity of the PWD Architects’ Branch during what was their most productive of periods blueprint-wise. While many of these PWD houses are described as “black and white” homes or residences, they technically do not qualify as being “black and white” in style; the term being applied quite loosely as a matter of convenience, being perhaps a reference to the manner in which these houses are now painted. The houses in Ridley Park, which have been in government hands throughout their history, may be available for rent where unoccupied.






Where durians and Chinese opera come together

13 07 2021

Once commonly found across Singapore, permanently erected free-standing Chinese opera (also commonly referred to in Singapore as “wayang”) stages have become quite hard to come by in Singapore. Erected to entertain the gods during their visits down to the mortal realm, the were also put to use in several other ways, doubling up as the clan, temple or village schools, depending on where they were built. Only three such stages are left in Singapore, two on the main island and one more on Pulau Ubin and it is always a treat to catch a Chinese opera performance being staged on one of them, especially if one is able to head backstage where in my opinion, the best “action” takes place.

The Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong temple is a place of devotion for many.

One occasion during which I had the good fortune of doing just this was during the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations at the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple at Balestier Road in September 2016 from which the photographs in this post were captured. The temple, having links to Hokkien plantation workers from Joseph Balestier’s venture to grow sugarcane by the Whampoa River, has a history that dates back to 1847. Its stage, which came up in 1906, was built by Tan Boo Liat — the great-grandson of Tan Tock Seng, and who is also well-known for erecting Golden Bell — the Edwardian-style mansion on Mount Faber that is now the Danish Seamen’s Church.

It is also a place where Chinese opera performances take place (at least pre-Covid) on one of Singapore’s last permanently erected free-standing wayang stages.

The temple, besides being a place of devotion and a place to catch a wayang, has also become a place that is synonymous with indulgence in the “king of all fruits” — durians. Durians have been sold in and around the area for, which was also known for its cinemas, for a long time and right by or in front of the temple ever since I can remember. Much of the area has changed, even if there is much that is is familiar physically. The durian stalls of old, are however, still very much a common sight every durian season. Not only do you see them just by temple, but also in the side lanes in the area. Like the temple, and the stage when it comes alive, they are among the last vestiges of the living side of the old Balestier Road, a side that long lives in my memory.

Durians and Chinese opera.
Another view of the temple.
Joss sticks at the temple.

Photographs of the Chinese Opera preparations and performance in September 2016






The last charcoal shop in Singapore?

7 06 2021

Photographs taken in 2018
©Jerome Lim





Days of Wonder

28 05 2021

Films containing familiar sights and sounds of the past have a wonderful effect of evoking feelings of nostalgia and a sense of coming home. Such was the case when I was provided with the opportunity to view a selection digitised 8mm home movies from the 1960s and 1970s that have been deposited in the National Archives of Singapore with a view to putting together segments of them in preparation for last Thursday’s “Archives Invites” online session “Days of Wonder: Fun and Leisure in 1960s and 1970s Singapore“. The session involved the screening of two videos, each containing scenes of the Singapore I was familiar with as a child, with a focus on sites, attractions and leisure activities that were popular among Singaporeans.

Fun for me in the late 1960s.

Among the activities that I put a spotlight on in the videos were those that took place by the coastal areas, which included scenes of Changi Beach – an extremely popular spot for picnics and dips in the sea at high tide – complete with kelongs in the near distance. Changi Beach, a regular destination for picnics right out the boot of the car (we could once drive right up to the beach), was where I first took a dip in the sea. The beach and the long sandy coastline that ran all the way towards Bedok, featured in many weekend outings and holidays through much of my childhood.

Ayer Gemuroh



It was the same for many in my generation. Changi Beach was often the place to chill out at during the weekend, especially when the timing of the high tide was favourable, which a quick check on tide tables published daily in the newspapers, could confirm. A friend of mine recounted how she looked forward to trips to Changi on the back of a borrowed lorry with the extended family whenever the timing of the tide was good. Pots of chicken curry and loafs of the local version of the baguette would also accompany the . If you were fortunate to have come with a car, there was also the option of driving right up to the beach and parking right under a shady tree to have your picnic right out of the car’s boot. Seeing cars with their wheels stuck in the sand was a pretty common sight because of this. And, if the chicken curry ran out or if one had come without food, there were several beachside cafés that one could visit. There was also the option of waiting for the fish and chips van, and the various itinerant food vendors that also visited the beach throughout the day such as the vadai man, the kacang putih man and the ice-cream vendors.

A small part of the segment on the coast, involved a holiday, taken locally by the sea – as was the fashion back in days when most of us could not afford to take a trip abroad. For me holidays involved the various government holiday facilities along the Tanah Merah coast, at long lost places with names like Mata Ikan and Ayer Gemuroh. A question that was put to me during the Q&A session was what do I miss most of those days. Mata Ikan, the Tanah Merah coast, and also how we seemed to have unlimited access to much of the length of Singapore’s coast, is probably what I miss most. Those were wonderful times for me, walking by the beach and along stretches of seawalls, poking my nose into the numerous pillboxes that lined the coast (boy, did they smell!), wading out when the tide went out, often as far as the kelongs were planted. The coastal regions are much more protected these days and in many parts, blocked off from the public.

Beside my interactions with the Tanah Merah coast, there were many other places in SIngapore that left an impression. I remember how places would come alive by night, as the scenes of an Orchard Road and Guillemard Circus illuminated by neon advertising boards seen in the videos show. Singapore had such a wonderful glow by night with the numerous fountains – many planted on the major roundabouts, also illuminated by night, and the occasional float parades and light-ups during National Day, often adding to the night lights. Adding to the lively scene by night were what would be termed as “pop-up” food centres. Several open-air car parks, such as the famous one on Orchard Road where Orchard Central, transformed themselves into places to indulge in some of the best hawker fare that could be found in Singapore.

The car park at Orchard Road that transformed into a hawker fare paradise by night (Paul Piollet Collection, National Archives of Singapore)



The one at Orchard Road, dubbed “Glutton’s Square” to provide it with greater tourism appeal, was an assault (in a pleasant way) on four of the five the senses. Evening time brought with it the disorderly rush of pushcarts, all of which would somehow be lined up in neat rows in double quick time. Lit by kerosene lamps in the dark, each contributed to the smoke that filled the air together with an unimaginable array of aromas. The sounds of the ladles scraping the bottoms of woks added to the atmosphere. Besides Orchard Road, there were also carparks at Prince Edward Road opposite the Singapore Polytechnic and the one in front of the railway station at which hawkers similarly gathered by night.

Among the other scenes were those of Orchard Road, which was in the 1960s, a place to perhaps shop for cars, to visit the western style supermarkets, which were uncommon then, and perhaps C K Tang. C K Tang, a pioneering departmental store on Orchard Road, was then housed in its rather iconic Chinese-roofed building and right nearby was Champion Motors on which Lucky Plaza now stands, Fitzpatrick’s Supermarket and Orchard Motors. The conversion of Orchard Motors into The Orchard – a shopping centre at which the infamous Tivoli Coffee House was located, possibly marked the beginning of the end for Orchard Road’s motoring days. There are perhaps two reminders left of those days, in the form of Liat Towers – built as a Mercedes Benz showroom and headquarters, and the delightful sunburst topped former Malayan Motors 1920s showroom that can be found opposite Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station.

The former Malayan Motors showroom seen in 1984 (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

Another of my favourite urban sites was Change Alley, which many locals – my grandmother included – seem to pronounce as something that sounded like “Chin-Charlie”. It was such a joy to wander through the alley, which in the late 1960s was filled with the sounds of the chorus of laughing bags being set off. The alley, which also provided correspondence between Collyer Quay and Raffles Place, was described by the BBC’s Alan Whicker in a 1959 newsreel as being “perhaps the most famous hundred yards in Southeast Asia”, a hundred yards of alley where one risked being “attacked in the pocket book”.

Whicker’s World with the BBC’s Alan Whicker wandering through Change Alley in 1959.

During the rather lively Q&A session at the end of the Archives Invites session, I believe that in view of the limited time we had, a number of questions posed went unanswered. Should you have been in that audience, and did not receive answers to the questions you may have posed, or have questions to which I was not able to adequately answer, you may leave them as comments to this post. I will try answering them as best as I can.





The revamped Changi Chapel and Museum – a quick walkthrough

18 05 2021

This walkthrough follows on to my previous post on the revamped Changi Chapel and Museum, which will reopen to the public tomorrow (19 May 2021).


Booking of visits slots to Changi Chapel and Museum:

https://nhb.vouch.sg/ccm




More on …

The museum: The Refreshingly Revamped Changi Chapel and Museum

Changi and its history: History Misunderstood: Changi Point

Selarang Barracks: A Changi Well Hidden from Sight

Roberts Barracks and the Changi Murals: A Light where there was only darkness: The Changi Murals


A quick 15-minute walkthrough





The refreshingly revamped Changi Chapel and Museum

12 05 2021

Booking of visits slots to Changi Chapel and Museum:

https://nhb.vouch.sg/ccm




Located close to Changi Prison and in the Changi area where tens of thousands of Allied Prisoners-of-War (POWs) and civilians were held captive during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945, Changi Chapel and Museum (CCM) is a place to remember the experiences of those held and a site of pilgrimage for the families of those held captive. Closed for a huge revamp since 2018, CCM will reopen on 19 May 2021 with a with a refreshingly new feel, a new logo, and offer an experience that will be a lot more immersive.

The new look Changi Chapel and Museum – a huge improvement from its previous incarnation. The visitor services area, which spots a new look logo, with the CCM monogram shaped like a POW chapel. The logo is also designed to resemble prison bars.

For those held in Changi, the period of captivity, was marked by immense suffering and pain, and for some, death. Disease, malnutrition and the inhumane and overcrowded conditions under which both POWs and civilian internees were subjected to, contributed to this. In all that adversity, there are also many stories of resilience and resourcefulness, of hope, and ultimately, of survival. Some of these stories have been brought out by CCM through a combination of artefacts, personal accounts and through the use of multimedia. On display are 114 artefacts, and in them the individual stories of hope and resilience. Of the 114, 82 are newly acquired or loaned. These new artefacts also include 37 that have been obtained through donations or loans from the public, including several that have very generously come from the families of former internees.

A morse code transmitting device hidden in a matchbox, which shows the ingenuity of prisoners held in Changi.

The revamped museum features eight exhibition zones, as compared to five in the CCM’s previous incarnation as the Changi Museum. Some of the highlights found within these eight zones are given below. Another highlight of the museum is the replica chapel featuring the Changi Cross. The replica chapel, representative of the various chapels of captivity and modelled after St George’s Church, was constructed in 1988 and was originally on the grounds of Changi Prison. This was moved to the present site in 2001. Made from the casing of a 4.5” howitzer shell and strips of brass from camp workshops, the Changi Cross was a feat of the POWs’ resourcefulness and ingenuity. Designed by Reverend Eric Cordingly, it was made by Staff Sergeant Harry Stogden with Sapper Tim Hemmings using a sharpened steel umbrella spike to engrave the badges of the four regiments making up the congregation of St George’s POW Church. The cross has been loaned on a permanent basis to Changi Chapel and Museum by Reverend Cordingly’s family.

The Replica Chapel.

Opening and Admission

CCM will open from Tuesdays to Sundays from 9.30 am to 5.30 pm (Last Admission is at 5 pm).

Admission to CCM will be free for all Singaporeans and Permanent Residents.

Tourists and Foreign Residents will be charged $8 for adults and $5 for students, and Special Access. Children 6 years and below enjoy free entry. and above senior citizens (60 years and above). Visitors will enjoy $2 off admission with a valid ticket stub from the National Museum of Singapore. There is also a family package of $24 for a family of 5 with a maximum of 3 adults.

For the period of the opening from 19 to 30 May 2021 when all visitors will enjoy free entry.


Changi Chapel and Museum Opening Weekend (22 and 23 May 2021)

Priority Admission with Pre-booked Timeslots


Due to crowd regulation for safe-distancing, visitors are advised to pre-book their admission by timeslots (930am, 1130am, 130pm and 330pm) for opening weekend on 22 and 23 May.

Visitors with pre-booked admission slots will be given priority admission to the museum, but will however be required to visit during the selected time. Timeslots can be booked for up to a maximum of 5 person. Booking opens on 17 May 2021, 12 noon.

Crowd levels can be check via the museum website or chatbot before their visit and those without pre-booked entry timeslots may be required to return at a later time.

Do note that there is limited paid parking lots available at the Changi Chapel and Museum and there is also no public parking available in the vicinity. As such, visitors will be advised to take public transport or private car hire to the museum.

Opening Weekend Programmes include guided tours of the gallery and a recorded orchestral performance based on the experiences of prisoners of war for which pre- registration is required.
Registration for Opening Weekend programmes will also allow priority admission to the museum and there is not need to further pre-book admission by timeslots separately. Registration of programmes will begin on 17 May.

More information is available on the opening weekend programmes and registration details, please visit www.changichapelmuseum.gov.sg and CCM’sFacebook and Instagram pages.


The Eight Zones

Zone 1: Changi Fortress

The first zone, Changi Fortress, provides some context for how Changi became a place of internment in tracing how Changi developed from an area of swamp and forest, into a place for leisure and then into a military cantonment, setting the scene for the role that Changi played during the war. Here the visitor will be greeted by a projection that sets the context for the museum’s narrative as well as maps, and photographs related to Changi’s early days.

Changi Fortress.
The Changi Fortress zone, where visitors will encounter a projection show that sets the context of the museum’s narrative.
A view of a forested Changi in 1869 – a print View in Changi that was published in Skizzen aus Singapur und Djohor (Sketches of Singapore and Johore) by Austrian diplomat and naturalist Eugen von Ransonnet.

Zone 2: Fallen Fortress

The next zone, Fallen Fortress, looks at the Fall of Singapore and its aftermath. Among the artefacts of interest is a well preserved chronometer from the HMS Bulan, a cargo ship that was involved in the evacuation. It left Singapore on 11 February 1942 with a load of civilian evacuees, arriving safely in Batavia after steaming for four days during which time it was attacked.

Fallen Fortress
Chronometer from the HMS Bulan

Zone 3: The Interned

The third zone looks a the stories of the men, women and children who were interned. Some 48,000 of whom were marched to Changi in the days after the surrender with the civilians interned in Changi Prison and the troops in various camps in the area.

Among the artefacts of note is a 1941 Christmas dinner menu from the USS Joseph T. Dickman, a troopship carrying Private Albert Riley of the 195th Field Ambulance Unit, Royal Army Medical Corps, provides a sense of how blissfully unaware and unprepared the troops arriving in Singapore were for the ordeal that was to follow. Also of interest is signed shirt with some 30 names written on it, 22 of whom were known to have survived the war. Found on the shirt is an attempt to document what went on, such a an incident involving Pte Lewer’s fall into a sewer.

The display of artefacts in the third zone.
A Christmas dinner menu from the USS Joseph T. Dickman, which carried Private Albert Riley of the 195th Field Ambulance Unit, Royal Army Medical Corps.
A shirt with names written on it. Out of 30 names found on the shirt, 22 were known to have survived the war.
A close-up of the shirt shows an attempt to also document some of what went on, such as an unfortunate incident involving a Pte Lewer falling into a sewer.

Zone 4: Life as a POW

The Life as a POW recalls how life would have been as a prisoner. Changi Prison is a focal point with remnants of the prison — a place of civilian internment up to May 1944 when civilians were moved to Sime Road Camp. The prison served as the POW camp after this.

The highlight of the zone is a recreation of a Changi Prison cell complete with an actual door from the since demolished old prison. The small cell, intended to hold a single prisoner, held up to four prisoners during the period of internment. The re-created cell includes speakers at various points at which historical recordings of conversations between the internees.

A Changi Prison door. A mirror placed beside the door gives the impression of a long row of cells.
A recreation of the Changi Prison cell.
Historical recordings of conversations between the internees at various points in the cell offer a glimpse into their living conditions and daily experiences.
A captors-eye view through the peephole of the prison cell door.

Zone 5: Resilience in Adversity

The Resilience in Adversity zone provides a look at the hardship that the internees faced and how they responded to it. Among the hardships recalled in this zone are the work camps that the POWs were sent away to, including those on the so-called Death Railway on the Thai-Burma border. Also recalled was the Double Tenth Incident which began on 10 October 1943, involving the interrogation of civilian internees by the Kempeitai in Changi Prison and the likes of Elizabeth Choy in the old YMCA. The incident occurred after the successful Allied commando raid behind enemy lines in the harbour known as Operation Jaywick.

The zone is probably where the most visually impactful section of the CCM also is — where the replica Changi Murals are found. The original murals, five of which were painted, were the work of Stanley Warren from September 1942 to May 1943. Warren, who was down with dysentery and renal disease and a patient in the POW hospital at Roberts Barracks, summoned what little reserves were left in his strength to paint the biblical scenes. This became a source of hope and solace for his fellow POWs. The display, which I am glad has been retained (there was some thought initially of using video projections instead) is supplemented by multimedia panels that tell their story. I was fortunate to have visited the actual murals, which are in Block 151 in the former Roberts Barracks — now within Changi Air Base (West). More on my visit in 2013 and the Changi Murals can be found in “A light where there was only darkness”.

Also on display in the zone are objects fashioned by prisoners out of available materials such as toothbrushes and several other new highlights of the museum such as a Kodak Baby Brownie Camera and a 400 page diary that was maintained by civilian internee Arthur Westrop. The diary, “A Letter to My Wife”, contains entries written as if they were actual letters to his wife, who was in Rhodesia. The diary, which Westrop kept hidden under the floorboards, survived a raid on his cell during the Double Tenth Incident.

Resilience in Adversity looks at some of the hardships faced. One of the worst periods in POW life came when POWs were sent away from Changi to work camps which included the Thai-Burma or Death Railway (notice the representation of the rail tracks on the ground).
Also recalled was the Double Tenth Incident, involving the interrogation of civilian internees by the Kempeitai in Changi Prison and the likes of Elizabeth Choy in the old YMCA. The incident occured after the successful Allied commando raid behind enemy lines in the harbour known as Operation Jaywick.
Diary of Arthur Westrop 1942−1945, Gift of the family of Arthur Westrop, Collection of the National Museum of Singapore.
Toothbrushes made by prisoners.
The replica murals.
The multimedia panel.

Zone 6: Creativity in Adversity

Creativity in Adversity looks at how creative expression played a huge role in helping prisoners cope with their circumstances. Art and craft, theatrical performances, music, sports and even educational pursuits, played an important role in the process and the zone showcases some of the efforts in this area.

Among the internees were womenfolk, who found comfort in sewing quilts for the wounded. The quilts were also an ingenious method of messaging, as it allowed the women to tell their husbands that they were alive. In each personalised embroidered square, were expressions also of love patriotism, and identity.

Also found in the zone are works of art, efforts to create props for theatre, books that were used for learning including a Malay-English dictionary, and a word map of names of numerous places and objects, written on this piece of paper by Leading Aircraftman Ronald Bailey that provides an insight into a life cut short by a stint on the Death Railway. Bailey died aged 23, in 1943.

Creativity in Adversity
An exact replica of the British Changi Quilt made in2003 by the Asian Women’s Welfare Association. The original quilt is with the British Red Cross.
An interactive panel showing how a ventriloquist’s dummy was made by prisoners.
The Changi University provided education for many POWs in the early days of internment.
A Malay- English dictionary.
A message sent by a wife that tells a story of hope and love.
The word map of names of numerous places and objects, written on this piece of paper by Leading Aircraftman Ronald Bailey. This provides an insight into Bailey’s life and the places that he connect with. Bailey died in 1943 on the Death Railway aged 23.

Zone 7: Liberation

Liberation, which followed the surrender of Japan on 15 August 1945 and the subsequent British reoccupation of Singapore, brought a three and a half year chapter of captivity to an end. The zone is where the immediate aftermath and its impact on internees is looked at. Artefacts in the zone include a samurai sword presented to a POW and a letter from King George VI to POWs.

Liberation
A letter from King George VI addressed to captives.
A samurai sword presented to a POW by a Japanese officer at the end of the war.

Zone 8: Legacies

In the final zone, Legacies, the legacy of Changi as a prison camp, is remembered. Here, the names and stories of the internees call be called up on interactive screens. There is also a running count of internees and view some artefacts that were produced to remember how they had survived the internment.







Middle Road and the (un)European Town

26 04 2021

Street names, especially ones in common use, often tell an interesting tale. Such is the case with Middle Road. Constructed late in the first decade that followed British Singapore’s 1819 founding by Sir Stamford Raffles, parts of Middle Road have become known by a mix of names in the various vernaculars. Each provide a glimpse into the streets fascinating past, the communities it played host to and the trades and institutions that marked it. It is its official name, Middle Road, that seems to have less to reveal and what Middle Road the middle, is a question that has not been quite as adequately answered.


The Jackson Plan of 1822. Middle Road is not marked on it. Its location on this map correspond to the road passing through ‘Rocher Square’ right smack in the middle of the European quarter.

Often the resource of choice in seeking a better understanding of a Singapore street name and its origins is the book ‘Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics’, authored by Victor Savage and Brenda Yeoh. The book however, does not quite provide the answer to the question of what made Middle Road the middle in explaining that the street was (or may have been) a line of demarcation between the trading post’s European Town and a designated ‘native’ settlement to its east. Reference has to be made to the 1822 Town Plan, for which Raffles’ provided a specific set of instructions, in the allocation of areas of settlement along ethnic lines with the civic and mercantile districts at the town’s centre. A set of written instructions was also provided by Raffles to members of the Town Committee. Based on the plan and the written instructions, the European Town was to have extended eastwards from the cantonment for “as far generally as the Sultan’s (settlement)”, with an ‘Arab Campong’ in between. This meant that the line demarcating the two districts was not Middle Road, but would have been Rochor Road or a parallel line to its northeast.


Middle Road is shown in the 1836 Map drawn by J B Tassin based on an 1829 survey by G D Coleman. On this I have superimposed the boundaries of the various districts based on the 1822 Town Plan. On this map, Middle Road seems to be a street that no only ran through the middle of the European Town, but was quite literally the middle road of the European Town three parallel roads.

There is an older attempt to explain what the ‘middle’ in Middle Road might have been. This was made in 1886 by T J Keaughran, a one-time employee of the Government printing office and resident of Singapore in the late 1800s. In a Straits Times article, ‘Picturesque and busy Singapore’, Keaughran described Middle Road as being “perhaps more appropriately, the central division or section of the city”. There may be some merit in this suggestion based on the 1822 Town Plan. What seems however to be more obvious is that Middle Road ran right down the middle of the European quarter. Middle Road was also, quite literally, the middle road of three parallel roads running northwest to southeast through the European Town.  

The Portuguese tradition is kept very much alive at St. Joseph’s Church (which is now under renovation).

It would appear that the European Town, or at least the section that was allocated to it, never quite developed as Raffles had envisaged. Middle Road would turn out to be the centre of many communities, none of which was quite European. Hints of European influences do however exist in the Portuguese Church and in the former St Anthony’s Convent. The Portuguese Church — as it was once commonly referred to, or St Joseph’s Church, long a focal point of Singapore’s Portuguese Eurasian community, traces it roots to the Portuguese Mission’s Father Francisco da Silva Pinto e Maia, a one time Rector of St Joseph’s Seminary in Macau and owes much to the generosity of Portuguese physician turned settler, merchant and plantation owner, Dr Jose D’Almeida. It was in D’Almeida’s exclusive beach front house in the area that Liang Seah Street is today, that the mission’s first masses were held in 1825 – a year in which both Father Maia and Dr D’Almeida set foot on a permanent basis in Singapore.

An old letter box and signboard for the church.

The land on which the Beach Road house stood, had been procured by Dr D’Almeida during a stopover whilst on a voyage to Macau in 1819 with the help of Francis James Bernard, acting Master Attendant, son-in-law of Singapore’s first resident William Farquhar, and perhaps more famously, the great, great, great, great grandfather of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. D’Almeida also had a house built on the plot, which Bernard occupied whilst the physician was based in Macau. Political events in Portugal, and its delayed spread to Macau, would bring both Father Maia and D’Almeida to Singapore via Calcutta. D’Almeida’s Beach Road house was used to celebrate masses until 1833. A permanent church building for the Church of São José (St Joseph) would eventually be established at the corner of Victoria Street and Middle Road in the mid-1800s. What stands on the site today is a 1912 rebuild of this church. Initially administered by the Diocese of Goa and later, by the Diocese of Macau, the church’s links with Portugal were only broken in 1981, although parish priest appointments continued to be made by the Diocese of Macau until 1999 when Macau reverted to Chinese rule and the Portuguese Mission was dissolved. The church has since 1981, come under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore.

A touch of Iberia can be found in the Portuguese Church, especially during festival days.

The Portuguese Mission would also establish St Anna’s School in 1879. The school for children of poor parishioners, is the predecessor to St Anthony’s Boys’ School (now St Anthony’s Primary School) and St Anthony’s Convent (now St. Anthony’s Canossian Primary School). A spilt into a boys’ and a girls’ school in 1893 saw the two sections going their separate ways. The setting up of the girls’ school would see to an Italian flavour being added to Middle Road, when four nuns of the Italian-based Canossian order came over from Macau in 1894 to run the girls’ section. Two of the nuns were Italian and another two Portuguese and in the course of its time in Middle Road, many more nuns of Italian origin would arrive. Those who were boarders or schoolgirls from the old convent days in Middle Road will remember how old-fashioned methods of discipline that the nuns brought with them were administered in heavily accented English with a certain degree of fondness.

The first Canossians. Top – M. Giustina Sequeira, M. Matilde Rodriguez, M. Marietta Porroni, and bottom extreme right –  M. Teresa Rossi. Two others were the superiors M. Teresa Lucian and M. Maria Stella, who accompanied the four.

While the convent may have moved in 1995, the buildings that were put up over the course of the 20th century along Middle Road to serve it are still there and stands as a reminder of the work of the Canossian nuns. Now occupied by the National Design Centre, its former chapel building is also where the legacy of another Italian, Cav Rodolfo Nolli has quite literally been cast in stone. In the former convent’s chapel, now the centre’s auditorium, watchful angels in the form of cast stone reliefs made by Nolli — Nolli’s angels as I refer to them — count among the the last works that the sculptor executed here before his retirement. The angels have watched over the nuns, boarders, orphans and schoolgirls since the early 1950s and are among several lasting reminders of Cav Nolli. The Italian craftsman spent a good part of his life in Singapore, having first arrived from Bangkok in 1921. Except for a period of internment in Australia during the Second World War, Nolli was based in Singapore until 1956. His best known work in Singapore is the magnificent set of sculptures, the Allegory of Justice, found in the tympanum of the Old Supreme Court.

St. Anthony’s Convent in the 1950s.

Among the common names associated with Middle Road is a now a rather obscure one in the Hokkien vernacular, 小坡红毛打铁 (Sio Po Ang Mo Pah Thi). This is another that could be thought of as providing a hint of another of the street’s possible ‘ang mo’ (红毛) or European connections. The Sio Po (小坡) in the name is a reference to the ‘lesser town’ or the secondary Chinese settlement that developed on the north side of the Singapore River (as opposed to 大坡 tua po — the ‘greater town’ or Chinatown). A literal translation of Pah Thi (打铁) would be “hit iron” — a reference to an iron-working establishment, which in this case was the J M Cazalas et Fils’ (J M Cazalas and Sons’) iron and brass foundry. Established in 1856 by Mauritius born Frenchman Jean-Marie Cazalas, the foundary occupied an area bounded by Middle Road, Victoria Street, the since expunged Holloway Lane, and North Bridge Road, a site on which part of the National Library now stands.

Central Engine Works, the successor to the lesser town’s European ironworks.

The business survived in one form or another in the area right up to 1920. J M’s son, Joseph, who inherited the business, renamed it Cazalas and Fils. In 1887, Chop Bun Hup Guan bought the foundry over and had it renamed Victoria Engine Works. The last name that the business was known by was Central Engine Works, a name it acquired when it again changed hands in the 1900s. Central Engine Works’ move in 1920 to new and “more commodious” premises in Geylang, paved the way for the site’s redevelopment and saw to the removal of all traces of the foundry.  The name Central Engine Works would itself fade into oblivion when it became a victim of the poor economic conditions that persisted through much of the 1920s. The firm went into voluntary liquidation in the early 1930s. The Empress Hotel, which opened in 1928, was erected on part of the former foundry’s site and became a landmark in the area. It was known for its restaurant which produced a popular brand of mooncakes, the ‘Queen of the Mooncakes’. Looking tired and worn, the Empress Hotel came down in 1985, when the wave of urban redevelopment swept through the area.

Empress Hotel (roots.SG).

The setting up of the Cazalas foundry up came at a time when the European Town was already on its way to becoming the ‘Lesser Town’. One of the reasons contributing to the change in status of the designated European area and its choice beachfront plots may have been the preference amongst the settlement’s European ‘gentry’ for the more pleasant inland area of the island as places of residence as the interior opened up. Among the larger groups contributing to the influx of non-European settlers in the area were the Hainanese — who could be thought of as ‘latecomers’ to the Chinese Nanyang diaspora. The Hainanese established clan or bang boarding houses in the area and by 1857, a temple dedicated to Mazu was erected at Malabar Street. Middle Road became the Hainanese 海南一街 or Hylam Yet Goi. The area is today still thought of as a spiritual home to the community, who today form the fifth largest of the various Chinese dialect groups in Singapore. The Singapore Hainan Hwee Kuan and the Tin Hou Kong (the since relocated Mazu temple) is also present in the area at Beach Road. The area can also be thought of as the home of the Singapore brand of Hainanese Chicken Rice having been were it was conceived and for many years served by its inventor.

The house of the rising sun (take not of the pediment) — a reminder of the Japanese Community, which made Middle Road home from the end of the 1800s to 1941. At its height, the community numbered several thousands.

Among other names associated with Middle Road was 中央通り(Chuo Dori), Japanese for ‘Central Street’ and the محلة (Mahallah) — an Arabic term meaning ‘place’ and used by the Sephardic Jewish community who came through Baghdad to describe the Jewish neighbourhood that formed at the end of the 19th century in and around the northwest end of Middle Road. There were also a host of names in Hokkien that refer to Mangkulu 望久鲁 or Bencoolen — a reference to the Kampong Bencoolen, which was established in the area.

A marker of the Mahallah, the David Elias Building with its star of David.

One name that includes the name is 望久鲁车馆 or Mangkulu Chia Kuan — the jinrikisha registration station in the area that later became the Registry of Vehicles (where Sunshine Plaza is today. As with the station at Neil Road, a station was established in the Middle Road area due to the proliferation rickshaw coolie kengs or quarters and rickshaw operators in the area, many of which were run by other groups of late arrivals among the Chinese migrants, the Hokchia and the Henghwa. Also mixed into the area around the Lesser Town as the years went by were other migrant communities, who included Hakkas, the people of Sam Kiang (the three ‘kiangs‘ or ‘jiangs‘ — Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Jiangxi) who are sometimes described as Shanghainese, South Indians and Sikhs. The people of Sam Kiang were quite prominent and featured in the furniture making and piano trading businesses, books and publishing, and tailoring — Chiang Yick Ching, who founded CYC Shirts at Selegie Road was an immigrant from Ningbo in Zhejiang as was Chou Sing Chu, the founder of Popular Book Store at North Bridge Road. The Hakkas were involved in the canvas trade, and were opticians and watch dealers. They were also the shoe making and shoe last making factories around Middle Road, which was once a street known for it Chinese shoe shops.

Right next to the David Elias Building is the former Dojin Hospital, which was erected before the war to serve the Japanese Community.

Various communities and institutions populating the post-1850s ‘European Town’





A beautiful campus by the sea

20 04 2021

A peek into the beautiful BNP Paribas Asia-Pacific Campus. Established in 2014, the campus occupies two beautifully restored former barrack blocks of the former (Royal Engineers) Kitchener Barracks in Changi. The two blocks, currently Block 34 and 35 and formerly B an C Blocks, were among the first to be built in the Changi Cantonment that was developed from the end of the 1920s into the late 1930s and provide an excellent example of how such buildings could be restored and repurposed in the light of the recently announced Ideas Competition for Changi Point and old Changi Hospital (see also: Ideas sought to repurpose Old Changi Hospital, enhance surrounding Changi Point area).

The former B-Block, together with the former H-Block (now Block 24, which in 1947 was repurposed as RAF Hospital, Changi), were in fact the first barrack blocks to constructed in Changi and were completed by 1930. The cantonment also included barracks for the Royal Artillery at Roberts Barracks — now within Changi Air Base (West) and for the infantry at Selarang Barracks, as well as smaller camps for various Indian Army units.

In the 1920s, Britain had moved to establish a large naval base in Sembawang to defend its Far East interests in the face of rising Japanese ambition. The setting up of the cantonment followed this decision and was carried out to install, maintain, man and secure coastal artillery being placed around the eastern mouth of the Tebrau or Johor Strait to protect the naval base against naval attack.

The cantonment, which sustained some damage in the lead up to the Fall of Singapore but remain largely intact, was evacuated on 12 February 1942. Singapore fell on 15 February 1942 and with Japanese forces overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of surrendering Allied troops in Singapore, they found a solution to accommodating some of these troops in the emptied barracks in Changi. On 17 February 1942, close to 50,000 British and Australian Prisoners-of-War (POWs) were marched to Changi and placed in the various camps. The troops forming the last line of defence in Singapore, the Singapore Fortress Southern Area troops, which included some volunteer units, were allocated Kitchener Barracks. The Australians were kept separately in Selarang. POW hospitals, which were set up in former field hospitals in Roberts and Selarang, were consolidated at Roberts Barracks — this is where the Changi Murals were painted.

The POWs would initially have little contact with their captors, who got them to wire themselves into the various camps. Discipline was maintained by the officers among the POWs, who also took it upon themselves to keep the morale up. Sports, theatrical performances and even university classes were organised — there were several professional sportsmen amongst the ranks and also lecturers from Raffles College who were with the volunteer units and in Kitchener Barracks, the Southern Area College operated. With the Fortress troops — who were not involved in the retreat down Malaya — being amongst the fittest of the POWs, the men of the camp at Kitchener were among the first to be picked for the Japanese organised work teams, many of which would be sent to provide labour in places like the Thai-Burma ‘Death’ Railway. The numbers in Kitchener dwindled to the point that it could be closed as a POW camp in May 1943, followed by Roberts in September 1943. In May 1944, the POWs, which included those who had survived the Death Railway, were concentrated at Changi Prison, which had previously been used as a civilian internment camp (the civilians were moved to Sime Road Camp).

The two camps would then be occupied by Japanese units involved in the construction of the Japanese airstrip at Changi (operational at the end of 1944), around which the Royal Air Force would establish RAF Air Station Changi (RAF Changi) in 1946. The blocks of the former Kitchener Barracks were then used by the RAF, with RAF Hospital Changi being established in 1947. Among the renumbered blocks, Block 35, housed HQ Far East Air Force (FEAF) Command. The various roads within the former Kitchener Barracks were renamed after RAF Air Stations. Following the British pull-out in October 1971, the barrack buildings (except for Block 24 and 37), were used by the Singapore Armed Forces as Commando Camp. Of the various barrack developments, only the former Kitchener remains largely intact today.





Escape from Tanglin Barracks

16 04 2021

Tanglin Village or Dempsey Hill, a spacious and joyous site on the fringes of Singapore’s city centre, has a history that goes back more than a hundred and fifty years. Established as Singapore’s first purpose-built military camp, Tanglin Barracks, it is a place with stories abound. There are quite a few that I find especially intriguing, including one which has as its leading protagonist a rather flamboyant German mariner by the name of Julius Lauterbach, whose exploits on and off the high seas make for quite an interestIng read.

Tanglin Village today

Lauterbach’s chapter in Tanglin’s history is set against the backdrop of the First World War, a conflict which pitted his native Germany against Singapore’s colonial master, Great Britain. Almost overnight, friends found themselves on opposing sides and even if the war may have been raging far from Singapore’s shores, its fallout extended to the island in one way or another. On 24 October 1914, some three months into the conflict, nationals of Germany and Austria in Singapore received an order to report to the P&O Wharf. There were a number of prominent members of the mercantile community amongst the group. Initially interned on St John’s Island, the group would be moved into Tanglin Barracks‘ vacant blocks and were joined by internees who had been detained in Malaya.

St. John’s Island.

The choice of Tanglin Barracks as a place of internment was only possible as the British infantry units who would have normally be quartered at the barracks were most — in Europe. This arrangement however, would leave Singapore with threadbare defences, although there seemed to be little of concern with the main threat to the island’s security having been ascertained as internal rather than external. The responsibility for maintaining order was placed squarely on the shoulders of the officers and men of a British Indian Army infantry regiment — the 5th Light Infantry, which was quartered at Alexandra Barracks.

The former Gillman Barrack’s officers’ mess – close to the site where the first shot was fired to signal the start of the mutiny.

At Tanglin Barracks, a total of about 250 civilians were held, accommodated in a cluster of barrack buildings which had been ‘wired in’ with scaffolding used as watch towers. The 5th Light Infantry provided the camp’s security details together with a handful of men from the volunteer units. Within the confines of the camp boundary was also a ‘small bungalow’ that was converted for use as a hospital for internees. Tanglin Barracks’ Teutonic flavour was also to be enhanced by a group of about sixty Prisoners of War (POWs) from the German naval cruiser, SMS Emden, which brought the total number of internees at the camp to 309. The POWs were housed separately within the confines of the camp in a barrack block that acquired the name ‘Emden Villa’.

The cricket field and P-Block.

The Emden must have been quite well known in Singapore, having gained notoriety for the damage and disruption to Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea that it had inflicted in the early months of the war. Among the cruiser’s exploits was a daring raid on Penang harbour during which two ships — a Russian cruiser and a French destroyer — were sunk. The Emden, as did many naval vessels on both sides, also employed tactics that could be compared to pirate ships in sending boarding parties to storm merchant ships, either to scuttle them, or if the cargo was valuable enough, to commandeer these vessels as a ‘prize’. The men of the Emden who had found their way to Tanglin were in fact members of ‘prize crews’ of three ships that were recaptured by the Allies, the most senior of whom was Reserve Lieutenant Julius Lauterbach. Lauterbach was taken along with the prize crew of the collier, Exford, which was carrying a cargo of 6000 tons of coal when it was recaptured by the armed auxiliary cruiser, HMS Empress of Japan, off Sumatra on 11 December 1914.

Postcard, S.M.S. Emden, circa 1914, Germany, maker unknown. Te Papa (GH002110)

Lauterbach was already well known in many circles in Singapore in his days as a master mariner who was based at the port of Tsingtao (Qingdao), which Germany held as a concession port from 1898 to 1914. He had been an established fixture on the merchant marine scene and many among the civilian internees had made the passage on ships that Lauterbach had captained. His arrival at Tanglin was said to have been greeted with a loud cheer because of his fame. Being the highest ranking officer among the POWs, Lauterbach was afforded with a degree of respect by his captors, who put him in a three-room house on his own within the camp perimeter and close to the Emden Villa.

Julius Lauterbach at Tanglin

As soon as Leuterbach arrived in Tanglin, he set out plotting an escape and after having observed security arrangements at the camp, he determined that a tunnel would best serve his purpose. On 27 January 1915, with help from a group of trusted men he started on his dig right under the noses of the camp guards, under the guise of doing gardening. It could also have been that the members of 5th Light Infantry who were guarding the camp and who were free to interact with the internees, was under Lauterbach’s influence. Lauterbach was also able to have the company of a French-Chinese Eurasian admirer during his internment, albeit with a locked gate in between them. The young lady, according to a boast that Lauterbach made, had come to Singapore to see to his wellbeing having made her way from her native Shanghai once she got wind of his plight and was also able to hand information such as maps to him to aid in his intended escape.

A very special ward.

Mutiny

All this while, unhappiness was fermenting (some say fermented by Lauterbach and company) among members of the 5th Light Infantry. In January 1915, a decision was made to deploy the 5th to Hong Kong. The destination was however not communicated to the troops. There were rumours abound that the destination was not East, but West in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). With it large Muslim contingent, many among the rank and file were incensed by the prospect of having to fight fellow Muslims. In a move to quell the growing sense of unease, the transfer was brought forward. With the 5th due to be sent out on 16 February 1915 — the day after the three day Chinese New Year holiday weekend, the unit stood down from its duties at Tanglin on 14 February 1915 and camp security was left in the hands of one British and three native officers and twelve men of the Johore Military Forces, who were without ammunition, and a deployment of volunteers.

Remembering the victims of the Mutiny – a plaque at the Victoria Concert Hall.

The growing sense of unhappiness and the impending move to what was rumoured to be Mesopotamia provoked members of the 5th Light Infantry into action and just after 3 pm on the afternoon of 15 February 1915, members of the regiment’s Right Wing — numbering just over 400 men, mutinied (infantry regiments were then split into two wings, each with four companies). A group of about eighty rebels headed to Tanglin, intent on freeing German prisoners in the hope that they would lend support to the rebellion. At 3.45 pm, the mutineers reached Tanglin with a group among the eighty laying siege to Tanglin Military Hospital and firing into its administration building. In spite of coming under fire, Staff Sergeant Vickers, RAMC, managed to make his way to the medical officers bungalow some 300 yards away (270 metres). Finding the Medical Officer out, he was able to raise the alarm to the police, Fort Canning and a Dr Fowlie. A group of fifteen men reached the POW camp about half an hour later around 4.15 pm and also fired on the guards. The lock to the gate was then blown up. In the chaos of the attack, four officers were killed along with ten men. One German prisoner was also fatally wounded.

Buildings of the former Tanglin Military Hospital.

An eyewitness, Corporal J F Bray, RAMC, who was stationed at the prisoner hospital recalled being roused by the firing. German prisoners then told him that a mutiny had broken out. He then rushed to the POW hospital’s dispensary to get dressings in order to attend to the wounded, one of whom was a prisoner in W-Block (now Block 17). Inside W-Block, Bray witnessed six to seven members of the 5th freeing German prisoners before moving them into Y-Block (Block 26). Bray also witnessed the leader of the mutineers shaking hands with the German prisoners. Unsuccessful in their attempts to enlist the help of the Germans, the mutineers then left, promising to return with arms and ammunition. The bulk of the German prisoners, including Lauterbach, had in fact refused to take up arms; some went on to help in attending to the wounded, and transport the more seriously hurt to Tanglin Military Hospital.

Block 17 – a block that many who served National Service in the army will remember as the Enlistment Centre

Lauterbach’s Epic Escape

In the commotion of the disturbance at Tanglin, Lauterbach made a final push to finish the tunnel that he had been working on. Determined to get away unnoticed, he decided against walking out the open camp gate and use the tunnel he had worked on. Selecting a handful of prisoners to go with him for their ability to speak English made the escape as the darkness fell, having to making a vault over a final set of barbed-wire that lay beyond the tunnel exit. Leaving at around 8pm, the group decided that the main roads were to be avoided and took a route through grass, lallang and rubber plantation — a decision that got their guide and themselves lost. With some further help obtained through a handsome bribe, the group eventually found their way to the coast, some five hours after leaving Tanglin. There the scene was set for a voyage to Karimun. The long twelve hours that it would take them to get to the islands, which lay on the neutral Dutch side of the Melaka Strait, would only be the first leg of what was to become an epic journey of escape. The journey was to involve trudging through the jungles of Sumatra, a journey from Padang to Batavia (Jakarta) to Surabaya, a passage on a Dutch steamer to the Celebes (Sulawesi), a five day passage across the Celebes Sea to Mindanao in a leaking boat that required water to be bailed out by hand continuously, a voyage disguised as a Dutchman from Manila to China’s north coast where he made his way down to Shanghai. From Shanghai, he would head east to Japan, then Hawaii, and San Francisco from where he boarded a train for New York. At Hoboken — across the Hudson from Manhattan, Lauterbach signed on to a Oslo bound Danish ship as a Swedish stoke. Making landfall in Europe, he made his way to Copenhagen before finding himself on German soil on 10 October 1915 — some eight months after his escape from Singapore and ten months after his capture onboard the Exford.





History Misunderstood: Changi Point

5 04 2021

Set in scenic surroundings in Singapore’s rustic north-eastern corner, the area we refer to as Changi Point, is one in which I have found great joy in. It is an area of much beauty with much of its natural geographical features intact and wears a charm that is little changed from the time I first interacted with it more than half a century ago. Over the years, I have also discovered that the area is one with quite a history; a history that is even recorded in maps of a 17th century battle off Changi. Also as fascinating is Changi Point and its more recent past, one that goes back to the early decades of Singapore as a British East India Company trading port.

Changi today – with a view towards Pulau Ubin

Remote and inhospitable and with its surroundings dominated by mangrove and terrestrial forests in British Singapore’s earliest years, Changi Point’s charm must have already been in evidence then; so much so that several adventurous souls amongst the gentry recognised its potential as a spot for a retreat.  Among the first to see this was Mr Gottlieb, who put up Fairy Point bungalow on what could be thought of as the prime of prime locations on the seaward side of an elevation he christened Fairy Point Hill.

Fairy Point – the site of Mr Gottlieb’s Bungalow

In addition to Mr Gottlieb’s place of escape, the government had also had a bungalow built. Besides serving as a stay-over location for officers sent to the remote area for surveys, its use was extended for leisure purposes.  By the mid-1840s, Changi Bungalow – as it had come to be known, had gained the reputation of being a “fashionable resort for picnic parties”. Constructed of wood, the bungalow had to be rebuilt several times over the years with its last iteration being demolished in 1965. The expansive grounds of the bungalow is an area that until today, has been in the hands of Singapore’s successive governments and amongst the structures now found on it is the 1950 built Changi Cottage, as well as several other holiday facilities.

Changi Cottage

One holiday home from Changi’s past that is still standing is a bungalow that belonged to Mr Ezekiel S Manasseh, who is often confused with Sir Manasseh Meyer. A founder of Goodwood Park Hotel, Mr E S Manasseh is better known for his mansion in Tanglin, Eden Hall, which is the British High Commissioner’s residence today. Mr Manasseh also maintained a holiday home in Changi Point. Located on the left bank of Changi Creek, he often extended its use to newlyweds for their honeymoon early in the 1900s. The bungalow stands today as the CSC Clubhouse.

Muslim graves at the foot of Batu Puteh Hill – a reminder perhaps of Kampong Batu Puteh.

Around this time (the early 1900s), a Japanese owned hotel also made an appearance along the beach just east of Fairy Point in the area of a Malay kampung named Kampong Batu Puteh.  The wooden hotel, which was perched on stilts that extended across the foreshore, was rumoured to have offered more than a getaway and was rumoured to have been a place of ill repute. Whatever the hotel may have offered, time would soon be called on it with events on the world’s stage setting a new course for Changi Point.

While the Great War of 1914 to 1918 did not affect Singapore directly, its impact was and would be felt in many ways, not least through the fluctuations in the price of rubber through the war. There was also that episode of the insurrection that began at Alexandra Barracks during Chinese New Year in 1915 that was founded partly on a rumour being spread among the Sepoy Muslim mutineers  that they were being sent to Mesopotamia to fight fellow Muslims. Among Britain’s allies who responded to calls for help were some 190 Japanese resident volunteers, and another force of 142 from two Japanese naval ships.

Memorial to the victims of the 1915 Mutiny at Victoria Concert Hall

The Imperial Japanese Navy had been on the rise for a number of decades. Having acquired knowhow to build its own naval hardware as well as in naval tactics from Britain and France, by the time the war started, the Japanese navy was in a good position to support its allies in the Entente. Japan actions in the naval arena would also however lay its ambitions bare, especially in regard to German held territory in China. The sense of discomfort in Britain grew in the post-war period with Japan having the third largest navy in the world after the United States and Britain. By 1921, a decision had been taken by Britain to protect its Far East interests through the construction of a huge naval base in Singapore.

HMS Bulwark off the northwall of the Naval Base in the 1960s – the northwall is where the far end of the shipyard is today (source: http://www.acig.org/artman/publish/article_203.shtml).

A consequence of building the naval base in Singapore, and having it sited in Seletar – as the Sembawang area was also known as, was in the placement of coastal artillery around Changi to defend the base against naval attack. Changi, located at the eastern entrance to the Tebrau or Johor Strait, was hence, strategically sited at the entrance to the naval base. With the need to install, man, maintain and protect the guns, Changi was also developed as a military cantonment.

An extract from a 1935 map showing positions or intended positions of Defence Electric Lights at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Johor (including those at Pengerang) and their coverage (National Archives of Singapore online).

The first section of the cantonment was built at Changi Point. Work progressed in in a stop-start manner, first from 1927 to 1930 and again from 1933 to 1935, due to the evolving political situation in Britain.  Being the first barracks on site and located in a prime location, this section became the home of Royal Engineers’ units as Kitchener Barracks. There would also be barracks constructed for the Royal Artillery at Roberts Barracks and for infantry units at Selarang Barracks. In addition to these, a few other camps were also established for the rank and file among the British Indian Army troops protecting the area.

Selarang Barracks Officers’ Mess

The huge investment in the base and in facilities at Changi and elsewhere across the island did little in terms of doing what it was meant to do and on 15 February 1942, the “impregnable fortress” that Singapore had been touted as, fell into the hands of Japanese forces – a mere two months after Japan launched its invasion of Malaya. Except for the feint assault on Pulau Ubin on the eve of the Imperial Japanese Army’s 8 February 1942 invasion of Singapore, and the firing of Changi’s huge coastal guns against advancing Japanese troops, Changi would see little in terms of military action in the lead up to this inglorious fall. Contrary to popular belief, the guns were used with at least one of the monster guns of the Johore Battery firing about eighty rounds before its rifling started to protrude. Although the guns were fired, they did little to stop the advance. The armour piercing rounds that they were supplied with in anticipation of a naval assault, were ineffective against ground forces. On 12 February 1942, with Japanese forces made rapid progress coming down the down and west, the order was given to units defending Changi to pull back to Singapore’s urban centre. The cantonment and its lightly damaged buildings were left empty, and Changi’s guns destroyed. It would be some days later, on 17 February 1942, that Changi would come into the spotlight.

The spiked No 2 Gun, one of three 15″ guns of the Johore Battery.

The Fall of Singapore left the Japanese invasion forces with quite a big headache. With tens of thousands of surrendering British and Australian led personnel from units that made the retreat down Malaya and troops defending Singapore, they were overwhelmed. There was the need to accommodate, secure and maintain the discipline among the Prisoners of War (POWs) and a solution provided by Changi and its abandoned cantonment. On 17 February 1942, some 50,000 prisoners-of-war or POWs, were made to march to Changi to occupy its various barracks and camps.

Barrack Hill in Kitchener Barracks – part of the POW camp for Southern Area forces from Feb 1942 to May 1943.

The former Kitchener Barracks was used to accommodate members of the Southern Area forces with some 15,000  Australian POWs occupying Selarang.  The POW hospital was also to be centralised in Roberts Barracks on 26 February 1942, one of two sites – the other being Selarang – at which hospitals were established prior to the Fall of Singapore and immediately after the POWs were moved to Changi.  It would be in the chapel at Roberts Hospital that the famous Changi Murals would be painted. The murals still exist today. Found in Block 151 in Changi Air Base West, they are quite unfortunately out of bounds to members of the public. In the early part of camp life, there had apparently been minimal contact with their captors, with prisoners being tasked with wiring themselves into the various barrack areas as well as taking care of their own discipline.

Block 151. Now in Changi Air Base West, this was one of the Roberts Barracks blocks that served as the POW Hospital from February 1942 until September 1943.

Life as a POW in Changi, and in Kitchener Barracks was tough for many reasons and not least through the lack of food and nutrition as well as the diseases that the POWs were exposed to due to conditions in captivity. Still, many found the strength to go on through the activities that were organised. Sports became a means to provide distractions to the routine of life as a POW – at least in the first year of captivity. Among the ranks were several professional sportsmen, including Johnny Sherwood, a footballer who played in the war time FA Cup final.  The sports fields and facilities that the barracks in Changi had been provided with proved useful with cricket and football matches being played on them. Theatrical performances were also organised and college level courses. In Kitchener, classes of the Southern Area College were taught by academics, some of whom were from Raffles College. Several were members of volunteer units which had been placed under the Fortress Singapore command.

The Changi Padang – it was used for sporting activities during the first year of POW captivity.

In the many comparisons that were made by POWs at Changi, there is a consistent theme of how life may have been hard, but was in fact “heaven” compared to what many were to face elsewhere. Throughout the initial period of captivity starting in April 1942, work teams were organised and sent to various of Singapore to work on building and construction projects. Teams would also be sent to the Thai-Burma Railway, which the Japanese were constructing to provide a supply line to support their push into Burma and towards the Indian subcontinent. Often described as the “Death Railway” it was where the POWs really suffered, being put to hard labour. Besides an extreme lack of nutrition, POWs also suffered from deliberating diseases, with many succumbing to them.  

River Kwai, Kanchanaburi in Thailand in Dec 1984, the area was where many POWs were sent from Singapore to work on the Death Railway .

Kitchener Barracks, being where the bulk of the troops defending Singapore were being held – as opposed to troops that had made the retreat down Malaya – had the healthiest POWs and hence, was where many of the members of the first working teams were drawn from. By May 1943, POW numbers had dwindled to the point that Kitchener Barracks was closed as a POW camp and in September 1943, Roberts was similarly closed, with the POWs and the POW Hospital being concentrated at Selarang Barracks. Both Kitchener and Roberts Barracks were taken over by Imperial Japanese Army units who were involved in the construction of an airstrip at Changi. This started with POW labour in September 1943 and by the end of 1944, the airstrip was operational.

While all this was happening, returning POWs from the Death Railway were placed at Selarang Camp and also at Sime Road Camp. A change in POW administration would however see the POWs concentrated in Changi Prison and its grounds from May 1944. Civilian internees, who were being held at Changi Prison from February 1942 to May 1944 were moved to Sime Road to make way for the POWs.

The main Changi Prison gate – one of the structures of the prison that has been kept. The prison was a site of civilian internment from Feb 1942 until May 1944, following which POWs were moved in.

One of the myths that have been spread about Changi and the POW experience is that of the hospital in Kitchener Barracks being a place of torture by the Kempeitai. There is however no basis for this myth. Not only was there no functioning hospital in Kitchener Barracks during the period of captivity, there are certainly not reports or accounts that exist. Instances of torture by the Kempeitai did however take place in the wake of Operation Jaywick, which involved a commando raid on Japanese shipping in Singapore harbour. During what has been termed as the “Double-Tenth Incident”, civilian internees at Changi Prison were suspected of aiding the commandos through radio transmissions. Several were interrogated and executed in exercise that would involve the arrest and subsequent torture of Elizabeth Choy at the YMCA in Orchard Road.

Changi would find a new purpose after the war. The Royal Air Force (RAF) found the airstrip that the Japanese had added particularly useful in landing transport aircraft bringing in much needed supplies. This would lead to the strengthening and subsequent use of the runway for the RAF’s heavy aircraft and the setting up of RAF Changi, an air station that would become the RAF’s principal air station in the Far East. The former Kitchener Barracks, would become the headquarters of the Far East Air Force (FEAF) command, with Barrack Hill, renamed FEAF Hill. The roads in the area, were also renamed after RAF air stations.

A view from FEAF Hill

To support the new air station, more accommodation was also added across the area, starting with several single floor bungalows. A number of semi-detached accommodation would also be added. Many of these buildings can still be found. In addition to this, a hospital was set up for the RAF on FEAF Hill. This initially involved the former sick quarters on top of the hill (renamed Block 37) and the former H-Block – a three-storey barrack block of Kitchener Barracks which was turned into a ward block 24. Separated by a flight of 91 steps, transfer pf patients between the two blocks required an ambulance. The construction of a third block – the six storey Block 161 (with four usable floors) – with lifts and walkways to connect the two older blocks in 1962, helped ease that burden.    

Blocks 161 and 24 of the former Changi Hospital.

Following the pull-out of British Forces in 1971, the former barracks were put to use in several ways with the barrack blocks along Hendon Road accommodating Singapore’s Commando Unit and several of the accommodation units being turned into holiday facilities for civil servants. Sports and recreation clubs, such as the Changi Swimming Club, the Beach Club and the Sailing Club were also established using existing facilities left by the RAF. One outcome of the development of the air base, is the idea of developing Changi also for civil aviation. There were in fact plans announced in 1948 to develop a world class airport in Changi . That did not quite happen, but the idead came up once more in the 1970s leading to the development of Changi Airport.

One of the post WW2 semi-detached additions, seen in September 1987. These served as married quarters during the RAF days and were converted for use as government holiday chalets in the 1970s.

Today, much of the area of the former Kitchener Barracks and the RAF camp is still intact. Many of the sites and structures completed from 1928 to 1935, including barrack blocks and residences are still standing. Some, such as have gain prominence having been used by Raintr33 Hotel and Changi Hospital. There are also some still in use, such as BNP Paribas APAC Training Centre, Coastal Settlement, and the recreational spaces such as the former Officers’ Club – now the Beach Club and the Yacht Club – now Changi Sailing Club. There are also the oldest structures – the officers’ residences at Batu Puteh Hill and Fairy Point Hill, including one, that sits on the site of Mr Gottlieb’s demolished bungalow. The collection of barrack structures of the former Kitchener Barracks, are perhaps the last, almost complete set of structures from the interwar militarisation of Singapore that is still around, structures which tell a story of Changi’s development, of war, and of how through a series of twists and turns, it became a key aviation staging ground for the RAF and then for Singapore.





Remembering Dakota (Crescent)

5 01 2021

Dakota Crescent — part of the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) 1958 development that was known as Old Kallang Airport Estate — will not be forgotten for two reasons. The first, is that six out of seventeen of its block that are representative of the former estate, including a 1970s playground that the six are arranged around, are being kept as part of a future housing development.

The second reason is the widely circulated myth that the fatal Dakota DC-3 crash that Dakota Crescent is said to have been named after, occured at Kallang Airport in a thunderstorm on 29 June 1946. While it can be established that DC-3 carrying 22 crew and Royal Air Force personnel that originated from Kallang on the date did crash in bad weather, it can also be established that where the crash happened was not at Kallang but in northern Malaya and after the aircraft had taken off at Butterworth on its way to Mingaladon.

How I will remember Dakota, is through the various visits that I made to the old estate and through the photographs that I took of it. My impressions of it was that the estate was worn, tired looking and had seen much better days. Still there was much to take in and much to capture and in this post are a few that I wish to share.


Remembering Dakota





Discovering the “China” in Singapore’s Chinatown

23 12 2020

Unlike many other cities around the world where “Chinatowns” exist, a “Chinatown” in Singapore — where three in four of its population are ethnic Chinese — does seem rather odd.

The roots of the Chinese quarter do of course lie in Singapore’s very first urban plan, the so-called Jackson Plan of 1822, hatched at a time when the settlement was still very much in its infancy. That plan, placed the main settlement for migrants from China in the area where Chinatown is today also had a “Chuliah campong” for settlers from the Indian sub-continent adjacent to it. To the Chinese speaker, Chinatown had long been known as Tua Poh (大坡) or “the greater town”, or Ngau Che Shui or Gu Chia Chwee (牛车水) — a reference to bullock-drawn water carts carrying supplies of fresh water to the settlement in its early days. It is perhaps in recent times that the notion of the former settlement being Chinatown has taken root, and this seems rather ironically to have coincided with the quarter losing its original Chinese-ness through resettlement and redevelopment, and its subsequent association with the modern Chinese immigrant and the tourist crowd from modern day China.

The Town Plan of 1822.

These developments do in a way, mimic the evolution of the Singaporean Chinese identity — something that the “Not China Town” tour that has been put together by The Real Singapore Tours — seeks to examine. The tour, which I had the opportunity to attend a preview of, involved a long but leisurely walk through Singapore’s Chinatown. Together with the realisation of how widely spread Singapore’s so-called Chinese quarter is, the tour provides its participants through the stories told at various touch points and through songs, is a much deeper understanding of what the “China” in Singapore’s Chinatown is really all about.

Chinatown at the Crossroads – Cross Street was in the area where the “Chuliah Campong” was.

The tour, which can be forgiven for being too long due to the depth into which its guides expertly explore the evolving Chinese identity and for the refreshment stop — is certainly a must do — if the question of what shapes the Chinese Singaporean identity does bug you. Do look out for them at The Real Singapore Tours.


Highlights of Not China Town

Guide Jamie Lee giving an overview of what Singapore’s Chinatown is all about.
Listening to the first song – before the continuation of the “dance” through Chinatown.
Why Pagoda Street?
Another of the guides, Mark Tan (who sings very well), explaining the politics in the simplification of the Chinese character “sheng” in taking the king (王) out and giving power to the ground (土). The simplification of Chinese characters was an effort initiated by the Peoples’ Republic of China in the mid 20th century.
Celebrating the recent addition of hawker culture in Singapore to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage at the new age and very touristy hawker street on Smith Street?
A modern addition to Chinatown – around where the street of the dead was. The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple may have little to do with the collective memory the Chinese Singaporean may have of Chinatown, but it is an example of Tang architecture — the dynasty with which the Chinese immigrants of the past from Southern China identify with. Many descendants of the earlier Chinese immigrants to Singapore would have been identified as T’ng Lang, T’ng Nang or Tong Yan – 唐人- or Tang Ren in Mandarin or People of the Tang, rather than as Han Chinese.
Mark Loon – on the ma-jie and their vows of spinsterhood.
Of animistic practices and the natuk kong.
On the visit of Deng Xiaoping and the sinification of the Chinese in Singapore.
Clues that point to the migration from Amoy (E-m’ng or Xiamen).