Parting glances: the last of the 1G overhead bridges

26 05 2020

Singapore’s first pedestrian overhead bridge, a simple structure of steel tubing and timber plank decking, was installed over Collyer Quay in 1964. A dozen more with improved first generation structures were to be added between 1965 and 1967, including one at 3 ms Serangoon Road – by its junction with St Michael’s Road that was long, like the nearby National Aerated Water bottling plant, a familiar sight.

The newly installed bridge at Serangoon 3 ms in 1967.

These first generation bridges were quite a familiar sight in my childhood and one of the things I have associated them, were beggars – another familiar childhood sight. Over the years, these simple structures were improved and strengthened where possible. Many were replaced as wider roads meant increased bridge spans for which the use of reinforced concrete structures made better sense. One of the last of these bridges – over Bukit Timah Road was damaged by a vehicle mounted crane in 2010 and dismantled, leaving the bridge along Serangoon Road as the last of a kind, until that is, its removal in June 2019.


The bridge in more recent times


Removal of the bridge in June 2019


 





Death of The President

23 03 2020

A look back at Serangoon Plaza, which was built as President Shopping Centre at the end of the 1960s. Developed by South Union Co Ltd, the President began operations in 1970 – a hotel, which became President Merlin Hotel, New Park Hotel and more recently Park Royal on Kitchener, was part of the development.

A 1970 advertisement for The President in Tengah Times (posted by Terence Bettesworth on On a Little Street in Singapore in 2013).

At its opening, the shopping centre featured President Emporium (and supermarket) on its ground floor, and shops on its upper floors. Some would also remember it for the Singing Palace – which featured acts by comic duo Wang Sa and Ye Fong. It was most recently connected with Mustafa, whose connection with it went back to 1985. It closed in February 2017 and was demolished for Centrium Square, which is currently under construction.

 


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Thaipusam 2020

9 02 2020

Photographs of Thaipusam, taken in and around the Sri Srinvasa Perumal Temple. The colourful annual festival, celebrated by the South Indian Hindu community, sees a procession of kavadis carried along a 4 kilometre route from the Sri Srinvasa Temple on Serangoon Road to the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple (Chettiars Temple) on Tank Road.



Posts related to past celebrations of Thaipusam in Singapore:





The “attractive” 1940 built public-housing block in Little India

23 11 2018

I have long admired the building that houses The Great Madras, a boutique hotel on Madras Street. The edifice in its incarnations as a hotel has brought a touch of Miami to the shophouse lined streets of a busy corner of Serangoon. The opportunity to have a look beyond the building’s gorgeous Streamline-Moderne façade came this Architectural Heritage Season with tours organised by the URA. The hotel won an Architectural Heritage Award for the efforts made in the restoration of the building,

Deliciously decorated, the hotel’s common areas on the ground floor provide a great introduction to its well thought of interiors. The lobby and a restaurant and bar, which opens up to the outside is what first greets visitors. There is also a barber shop and a utility area at the building’s rear. A sliding privacy door hides the hostel-like accommodation on the same floor. Here, its private sleeping spaces carry the names of established travel influencers.

The reception area.

The hotel’s rooms are laid out across the building’s two upper floors. Corridors decorated with quirky neon signs and ventilated through the steel-framed glass windows of a forgotten era, provide correspondence to the rooms. It is along a corridor on the second floor that a pleasant surprise awaits. This takes the form of an especially delightful and photograph-able view of the hotel’s retrofitted swimming pool, framed by a circular opening in the pastel pink party wall that separates the pool from its sun deck.

A corridor on the upper levels.

The alterations made in the building’s interiors does make it hard to think of the building having been put to any other use other than the current, and quite certainly not as a public-housing block of flats it was built as in early 1940, There is of course that Tiong Bahru-esque appearance and quality that may give the fact away but the standalone nature of the block will mask the fact that it was the Singapore Improvement Trust or SIT that built it. The SIT – the predecessor to the HDB – besides having had the task of addressing the demand for public housing, also took on the role of town planner. The public housing projects that it embarked on tended to be built in clusters, such as in the case of Tiong Bahru.

The rear courtyard.

The swimming pool.

There is however a good reason for the Madras Street block’s isolation. A 1940 report made by the SIT holds the clue to this. It turns out that the block – erected to take in the area’s residents displaced by the demolition of older buildings – was meant to have been part of a larger improvement scheme that the SIT had planned for the area. The scheme was to have seen the demolition of a dozen “old and unsanitary” buildings in the months that would follow  to provide for a southeasterly extension of Campbell Lane past Madras Street. There was also to have been the metalling of the area’s roads and the construction of much-needed drains. The orientation and alignment of the 70 by 60 feet block does suggest that it was laid out with the extension of Campbell Lane in mind.

A view of the surroundings through steel framed windows.

The scheme’s overall aim was to provide accommodation in greater numbers, make an improvement in (transport) communication and the layout of of the very congested area. There was also a need to address the area’s poor sanitary conditions. It is quite evident from what we see around that the scheme did not go much further. Perhaps it may have been a lack of funds, as it was with many public schemes in those days. There was also the intervention of the war, which was already being fought in Europe by the time of the block was completed.

Another view of the hotel’s windows.

From the report, we also get a sense of the “attractive” building’s original layout. Three flats were found on each floor, hence the three addresses 28, 30 and 32, giving the building a total of nine flats. Each flat contained three rooms, one of which would have been a living room that opened to the balcony. A kitchen cum dining room was provided in each flat, as well as a bathroom and a toilet – “in accordance with Municipal Commissioners’ requirements”.

A spiral staircase in the rear courtyard.

The report also tells us of how much the flats, which were fully booked before the building’s completion, were rented out for: $23 per month for ground floor units and $26 per month for the units on the upper floors.

More on the restoration efforts that won the Great Madras Hotel the award: 28, 30 & 32 Madras Street Charming Revival.

Restored granolithic (Shanghai Plaster) finishing on the column bases.


More photographs:

 


 

 

 

 

 

 





Thaipusam 2018 at The Sri Srinivasa Perumal in photographs

1 02 2018

Thaipusam at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal in photographs:


Posts related to past celebrations of Thaipusam in Singapore:


 





Finding joy in a space in which Joy was bottled

21 12 2017

The photographs of the site of the former National Aerated Water Co. used in this post were taken during a private visit organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) for invited guests and have been used with the kind permission of the site’s current owner. Do note that the site is not opened to the public.


Disused spaces bring great joy, even as in the case of the former National Aerated Water Co’s bottling plant at 3MS Serangoon Road, the paraphernalia associated its use has long been removed. There is much to learn from the spaces, especially those that were conceived with little in way of frills in an age of greater simplicity. The disused plant, fronted by an art-deco-esque tw0-strorey structure placed along a thoroughfare that would have been hard to miss, last saw use some two decades ago. Associated with the bottling of two popular soft-drink labels, Sinalco and the joy in a green bottle that was the comic strip inspired Kickapoo Joy Juice,  there are many now who look back fondly at the now empty building that is one of few constants in an area that has seen much change.

The art-deco front of the former factory is a rare constant in an area that has seen much change.

The good news we heard just last week was that a portion of the former plant – its front – is being conserved. Selangor Dredging purchased the site for residential redevelopment just last year and has over the year been working with the URA on the conservation of the former plant’s most recognisable feature and its face – the art-deco main building.

The disused factory offers us a window into the past.

The factory, of a 1954 vintage, last saw operations some two decades ago. Built at a time of increasing demand for soft drinks, the home-grown company’s new plant found immediate success. The investment in the state-of-the-art factory and bottling equipment on the company’s 25th Anniversary was motivated by Sinalco’s 1952 award of exclusive bottling and distribution rights. An interesting nugget of information was shared by the URA about the rather peculiar name of the German drink was that it was derived from the words “sine alcohol” or without (in Latin) alcohol. More on the plant and the company can be found in a previous post: Losing its fizz: the third milestone without the former National Aerated Water plant.

Writings on the wall: soft drinks bottled at the plant … plus a secret formula perhaps.

The L-shaped building being conserved was where the company was run from. Offices and a mixing room were located on the upper floor and a reception, the storage area and distribution spaces on the lower level. The conserved building has several interesting features. These include a purpose designed “signage tower” on which the Sinalco logo was emblazoned, a tapering balcony at the front with a fair-faced brick parapet facing the road on which the company’s name is mounted, and a built-in sun shade projecting out from the building’s side that spirals out of a circular window (see: Conserved features of the building at “Former National Aerated Water Factory building to be gazetted for conservation” identified by URA). Parts of the building will have to be rebuilt. This includes the southeast corner, which will have to be knocked-down to permit vehicular entry to the site for construction.

A sun shade or concrete, spiraling out of a circular window.

The signage tower.

Office space on the upper floor.

Redevelopment will take place on the site just to the rear of the conserved building and this will see several structures removed, including the wide-span steel truss supported roof structure under which the main shopfloor of the plant was sited. This roof construction, topped with corrugated roofing sheets, has ample window covered openings built in to it to maxmise the entry of light and ventilation. An auxiliary building, that would have contained service spaces including toilets that can still be seen, can be found close to the rear perimeter of the site.

The shopfloor and the roof structure through which light into the factory was maximised.

The building at the rear of the site.


A look around …

A last reflection. The reception area at the southeast side of the building.

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The fair-faced brick parapet.

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Windows from the past into the present.

The main staircase.

The tapered front facing balcony.

The rear of the office space – which overlooked the shopfloor. Part of the roof structure can be seen.

Timber doors and matching ventilation grilles above are seen on the outward facing boundaries of the main building.

A view from the former shopfloor towards the main building. The right portion of the building was where crates of soft drinks were stored and dispatched.

The southwest side of the building.

The part of the building that will be reconstructed.

The office space on the upper floor.

The mixing room.

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Joyful switches.

A view out the back of the office space towards the roof and the shopfloor below.

A close-up of the corrugated roofing sheets.

Frosted or textured glass is in evidence throughout to filter light that would otherwise have been too harsh.

Close-up of a textured glass panel.

Up on the roof.

A view over the top.

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Textured glass windows.

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A ventilation house?

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Dead slow ahead. The part of the factory that will be demolished as seen from the driveway.

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The pump at the driveway, which is visible from the outside.

Comfort facilities at the rear.


 





Yay! The former National Aerated Water Co. plant is being conserved!

15 12 2017

Notices in the back pages of the press can sometimes bring joy.

An notice that gave me a sense of happiness appeared in today’s edition of the Straits Times, which contained a list of proposed amendments to the Master Plan being made by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). One is the re-designation of part of a certain Lot 05052P, Mukim 17 at Serangoon Road as a Conservation Area, which OneMap identifies as the site of the former National Aerated Water Company’s bottling plant. The possibility of its conservation was actually discussed a year back after the site was purchased by property developer Selangor Dredging. The developer intends to redevelop the site for residential use, which interestingly appears as the “Jui Residences” – a play I suppose on the Hokkien word for water Jui or 水, on OneMap. What is now left to be seen is how much of the former factory can be retained.*

More on the plant, the social memories connected with it, and its history can be found in this post: Losing its fizz: the third milestone without the former National Aerated Water plant.

The notice on page C16 of today’s Straits Times and the lot as identified on OneMap.

The former National Aerated Water plant by the Kallang River.


*A press release issued by the URA indicates that the conservation will be of the two-storey L-shaped main building facing Serangoon Road. Part of the conserved building (I suppose the corner where the road access now is) will however have to be demolished and reconstructed to allow vehicular access to the rear of the site.

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The corner of the building that would have to be reconstructed.


More photos previously taken of the plant

(see also: https://thelongnwindingroad.wordpress.com/2016/12/11/losing-its-fizz-the-third-milestone-without-the-former-national-aerated-water-plant/):


Update 15 Dec 2017, 11.30 am

URA Press Release (link):
Former National Aerated Water Factory building to be gazetted for conservation

Published Date: 15 Dec 2017

The main building of the former National Aerated Water Factory at 1177 Serangoon Road will be gazetted for conservation by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

Recognising the building’s heritage value, its role as a landmark in the area and the social memories it holds for the community, the building owner, Selangor Dredging Berhad (SDB) is supportive of the conservation efforts and is working closely with URA to keep the building as part of our national history.

Ms Teh Lip Kim, Managing Director of SDB said, “As the building owner and a responsible community stakeholder, Selangor Dredging Berhad is pleased to support the conservation effort on the former National Aerated Water Factory, a well-known heritage landmark in the Serangoon area. We are glad to partner URA on this conservation journey to retain the building and integrate it as part of the new development. The building will be transformed into a unique and lively commercial area located next to a park connector, adjacent to the Kallang River. We are keen to contribute to sustainable projects where we can, and will put in our best effort to make these projects distinctive.”

Contributing to the heritage of Kallang River

Completed in 1954, this Art Deco Style building is a well-known local landmark along Serangoon Road. It was the bottling factory that produced popular soft drinks such as Sinalco, Kickapoo Joy Juice and Royal Crown Cola.  It is also one of the last few remaining structures along the stretch of Kallang River that reflect the area’s rich industrial past, and contribute to the heritage of the Kallang River.

Mr Lim Eng Hwee, Chief Executive Officer of URA said, “This building is not only historically significant as a familiar landmark along the Kallang River, it also holds fond memories for Singaporeans for the popular soft drinks it produced from 1950s to 1990s. We are heartened that Selangor Dredging Berhad sees the significance of the building and supports its conservation. The conservation of this heritage-rich building would not have been possible without the support from the owner and recognition of the building’s significance from the community.”

Conserved features of the building

The two-storey L-shaped main building facing Serangoon Road will be conserved. This includes the signage tower, a representative feature that many will be familiar with.  Other significant features are the balcony with fair faced brick parapets, the Art Deco timber transom panels and the concrete sun shading ledge that spirals out of a circular window.

Retaining heritage while meeting Singapore’s development needs in land-scarce Singapore requires a delicate balance. The conserved building will be integrated into a new residential development, allowing the story of the building to be brought to life through adaptive re-use. The conserved building will be kept fenceless along the main road and the river, giving the public a chance to get up close and personal with this heritage gem from Singapore’s past.

To facilitate adaptive re-use of the conserved building and allow vehicular access to the rear of the site, reconstruction of a corner of the building and the internal floors will be required. URA will work closely with the building owner to guide the reconstruction when the residential development is completed.

As part of its efforts to celebrate Singapore’s built heritage, URA works with owners of developments, stakeholders and the larger community to tell stories of days gone by involving our built heritage, such as for this National Aerated Water Factory building. Members of the public who wish to be our partners in promoting the heritage of this building or share their memories of this building can write to us at URA_Cons_Portal@ura.gov.sg.






Losing its fizz: the third milestone without the former National Aerated Water plant

11 12 2016

It seems that time may finally be called on the former National Aerated Water Company’s bottling plant at 1177 Upper Serangoon Road. Long a landmark at the 3rd Milestone, it sits on a valuable freehold site that has just been sold for quite a tidy sum to a Malaysian developer according to on a report in yesterday’s Straits Times. One of a handful of structures left along a stretch of the Kallang River that recall the river and the area’s rich industrial past.

An icon at the 3rd Milestone.

An icon at the 3rd Milestone (Nov 2016).

Those of my vintage will remember the plant with fondness. Built with hints of an Art Deco influence, it will not only be for its unique and “un-industrial” appearance in the context of the industrial buildings of a more recent age, but also for its production of Kickapoo Joy Juice and Sinalco. Kickapoo in its signature green bottle and inspired by the comic strip Li’l Abner – which had a lengthy run in the local newspapers, was an especially popular choice. Sinalco, of German origin,  might have been less so, but had its fans. A third drink that would be introduced by the plant in the 1970s, Royal Crown or RC Cola, had much less of an impact.

A view through the fence to a reminder of the past.

A view through the fence to a reminder of the past (April 2012).

While one could quite easily miss noticing the row of shophouses just up the road with its stone working shops that catered to the demand for headstones and religious statues from Bidadari cemetery just a mile down the road and an oddly located shop hawking Czechoslovakian Petrof pianos; the factory and another iconic structure nearby, the Serangoon Fire Station, would have caught the attention of most who passed through. The rather notorious Woodsville junction or previously roundabout just down the road, where chaos reigned with its confluence of six major roads, brought traffic to a slow enough crawl, allowing for more than just a cursory glance at the plant.

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Locked gates (Nov 2016).

naw-petaling-jaya-2012The factory added its presence in 1954, the same year the National Aerated Water Company had marked its 25th anniversary. The investment, amounting to some S$500,000, gave the company an output to 48,000 bottles a day – more than twice what its previous plant at Hamilton Road could manage (see New $500,000 soft drinks factory opens in Oct, The Straits Times, 23 July 1954). The motivation for the new plant was the exclusive rights the company had won in 1952 to bottle and distribute Sinalco in the region.  Sales of the company’s products grew at a phenomenal rate, increasing 30% year-on-year through the new facility’s first decade. A second plant would built in 1964. Located in Petaling Jaya near the “Rothmans Roundabout”, it catered to the growing demand up north.

A peek inside.

A peek inside (Apr 2012).

Things began however to head south at the end of the 1970s. The death knell for the plant would be sounded in the 1990s when the Kickapoo licensor, Monarch Beverage, cancelled the agreement it had with the company. The company would also face a suit for copyright infringement, which it lost  (see : Infopedia page on the National Aerated Water Company) and the plant ceased production at the end of the 1990s. The site was left abandoned with a clutter of crates and empty bottles at its front yard for what seemed the longest of times.

The front yard cleared of its clutter.

The front yard cleared of its clutter (Apr 2012).

That the buildings are still around has very much to do with the fact that the sale and redevelopment of the site had been prevented by a long standing tussle over shares one of its shareholders, the late Ching Kwong Kuen (see: Ching Chew Weng Paul v Ching Pui Sim and Others [2009] SGHC 277) had placed in trust with one of his brothers and a niece. The Chings, whose roots were in steel work and ship repair business with Kwong Soon Engineering, interests in the bottling company began in 1953. Connected with Kwong Soon Engineering are two other industrial buildings with a non-industrial appearance including a 1933 Art Deco style foundry where it started. Both buildings are still around and found  at Cavan Road, which is just next to Hamilton Road where National Aerated’s first plant had been located.

Kwong Soon Engineering's two buildings at Cavan Road, including its former foundry on the left.

Kwong Soon Engineering’s two buildings at Cavan Road, including its former foundry on the left.

Kwong Soon Engineering, some might remember, made the news in January 1996 when the RV Calypso, the famous mine-sweeper turned research vessel used by the legendary oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, sank at its yard in Tuas. The vessel was hit by a barge that had broken free of its moorings and left under 4.8 metres of water with only part of its superstructure and mast exposed.

Another look at the former foundry.

Another look at the former foundry.

With the privately held site long marked for residential development (with a plot area of 2.8), there seems little chance of anything being kept even if there are renewed calls being made for its conservation.  It will certainly be a shame to lose an icon that has long been part of the area’s identity and representative of a past being too rapidly forgotten to just another towering apartment block the area seems to already have much too much of.

The third milestone is being colonised by towering apartment blocks.

The third milestone is being colonised by towering apartment blocks (Nov 2016).


More photographs:

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The full moon of Thai

25 01 2016

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

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


Photographs from Thaipusam 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photographs from previous Thaipusam celebrations:






Colours of the harvest

15 01 2016

The Tamil month of Thai brings much celebration to Singapore where a large majority of its Indian population is of Tamil ancestry. One festival that brings colour to the streets of Little India is Pongal, the celebration of the winter harvest over four days. The streets are particularly lively in the lead-up to the festival as decorated clay pots, sweets, flower garlands and sugar-cane (which I am told signifies sweetness and longevity) fill up Campbell Street – where the annual Pongal bazaar is set up.

Sugarcane - signifying sweetness and longevity.

Sugarcane – signifying sweetness and longevity.

More on the festival can be found on my previous posts, as well as on Your Singapore. A description of the festival by Mr Manohar Pillai is also provided on a post on the Facebook Group “On a Little Street in Singapore“:

Pongal is the biggest and most important festival for the Tamilians, since ancient times and transcends all religious barriers since it signifies thanks giving to nature and domestic animals. Cattle, cows, goats, chickens are integral part of a farmer in India. It is celebrated for three days in Tamilnadu starting from 15th to 17th. Jan’, 2016. and strictly vegetarian food will be served only in all Hindu households. Thanks giving prayers will be offered to the Sun, Earth, Wind, Fire, Water and Ether, without these life cannot be sustained on Mother Earth. The celebrations comes on close to the harvest season which just ended and Jan,15, is the beginning of the new Tamil calendar.

Clay Pots are used to cook flavoured rice with traditional fire wood in the open air and facing the early morning Eastern Sun. The Sun’s early morning rays are supposedly to bring benevolence to the household. The cooked rice is distributed to all the members of the household and with it the festivities begins. Everyone wears new clothes and very old and useless clothes are burnt the previous night.

The next day the farmer turns his attention to the animals especially the Cattle and Cows.

The third day all people celebrate it with gaiety and grandly.

Decorated Clay Pots.

Decorated Clay Pots.

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Sweets for the sweet.

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A bazaar stall doing a roaring trade.

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A well stocked shop.

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A dairy cow.

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Campbell Lane dressed for Pongal.

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More sugarcane.

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Flower garlands on sale.

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The festive atmosphere also spill over to the nearby streets.





What colours the full moon of Thai

4 02 2015

Colouring the full moon during the Tamil month of Thai, which fell yesterday,  is the Hindu festival of Thaipusam.

The festival is celebrated with much fervour by the southern Indian communities of Singapore and in the Peninsula and is one of the last religious festivals in Singapore that brings crowds, colour, and what seems very much in evidence these days, a massive police presence and snap happy locals and tourists, to the streets.

More on the festival, including photographs taken at previous Thaipusam celebrations, can be found in the following posts:

Vel, Vel, Vadivel: Thaipusam in Singapore (2010)
Sights Sans Sounds of Thaipusam in Singapore (2011)
Thaipusam at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Templ (2012)
An Annual Walk of Faith (2013)
Faces of Thaipusam 2014 (2014)


Photographs from the 2015 Thaipusam celebrations at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple

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Faces of Thaipusam 2014

18 01 2014

Photographs from this year’s Hindu festival of Thaipusam. The festival, which is commemorated by the southern Indian community in both Malaysia and Singapore is celebrated with much zeal and passion bringing much life and colour to the streets of a Singapore. In Singapore, the festival involves a procession of kavadi bearing devotees down a 4 kilometre route from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road to the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple (Chettiars’ Temple) at Tank Road, which starts at midnight on Thaipusam and continues through much of the day and into the late evening. More on the festival and photographs taken at previous Thaipusam celebrations, can be found in several posts I have previously put up:

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An annual invasion of sugarcane

14 01 2014

Photographs taken in the heart of the Serangoon area on the eve of Pongal, one of the many colourful expressions of the various cultures found in Singapore that living on the island provides an opportunity to immerse oneself in. Pongal is a harvest festival that is celebrated over four days. Originating in southern India, the festival sees the streets off Serangoon Road come alive with celebration with much of the activity centered on a Campbell Lane invaded seemingly by stalks of sugarcane.

Campbell Lane is where a Pongal bazaar annually paints the street in the colours of the harvest, seen in the purple of black sugarcane, the green of bananas, ginger and turmeric leaves, as well as in the colours of the earth from traditional clay pots. Hard to miss is also the orange and gold of sweet treats and the burst of joy that the floral garlands bring, mixed with the hues of the many who throng the streets in search of the essentials for the festival. 

More on the festival and how it is being commemorated in Singapore can be found at the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association’s website.

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Soonambu Kambam welcomes the month of Thai

11 01 2014

Soonambu Kambam, the “Village of Lime” or “Little India” as the people in the tourism board would like us to know it takes on a festive appearance this time of the year as it prepares to welcome the Tamil month of Thai, the first day of which falls on 14 January 2014, a day when Thai Pongal is celebrated. Another festival to look out for in the month of Thai is Thaipusam, which falls on 17 January this year.

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Pongal is a harvest festival that is celebrated mainly by the Tamil community in Singapore and brings Campbell Lane (and Hastings Road this year) to life – with a bazaar coloured by steel and earthen pots, as well as lots of festivities in the lead up to the festival – which is celebrated over a four day period, and during the festival to look out for. The celebrations in the Village of Lime starts today along with a street light-up along Serangoon Road (the light-up will be up to the end of January). For more information on the festival and festivities, do visit the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association’s website.

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Multilevel conversations

28 12 2013

Conversations, taking place at different levels, as observed at the Masjid Angullia (Anguilla Mosque) located at Serangoon Road. The mosque was built on wakaf land donated by the prominent Angullia family. Although the main building we see today is one that is from rather recent times, having been put up in 1970, the entrance gatehouse we do also see today is one which is associated with the previous building (which was demolished in September 1969) and has been put up for conservation under the recently released URA Draft Master Plan 2013. The previous building was thought to have been put up before 1898 on land provided in 1890 by Mohammed Salleh Eussoof Angullia, a trader who had come to Singapore in 1850 from Gujarat in India. More information on the mosque can be found at the MUIS website.

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The call to prayer.

The call to prayer.

The gatehouse which has been put up for conservation, seen with the crowd after sunset prayers.

The gatehouse which has been put up for conservation, seen with the crowd after sunset prayers.

The main mosque building - put up in 1970.

The main mosque building – put up in 1970.





A look at a dump

30 10 2013

Travelling down the Tampines Road of old back in the 1970s and 1980s, it was hard not to miss the convoys of trucks on their eastward journeys down the road.  The trucks, laden with much of what Singapore discarded, were headed to what then became Singapore’s last onshore dumping ground, occupying some 234 hectares of land on the right bank of Sungei Serangoon, which before the conversion to a rubbish dump site in 1970, was a large swamp (mangrove swamps lined much of Singapore’s original coastline, particularly along the northern coast) rich in bird life.

A very natural looking man made stream close to the area where a village, Kampong Beremban, once was.

A very natural looking man made stream close to the area where a village, Kampong Beremban, once was.

Taking a look around the former Lorong Halus dumping grounds these days, it is hard to imagine that it as a dump site for close to three decades (it was closed on 31 March 1999 and incinerated refuse has since been dumped offshore at Pulau Semakau). Part of the area today has been remade and is now a man-made wildlife sanctuary, the Lorong Halus Wetland. Despite the obvious signs of human intervention, the area (including that beyond the sanctuary) does have an aesthetic value from a natural environment (albeit man made) perspective, and offers that escape that can be hard to find in an island overgrown with too much concrete.

Another part of the former dump site.

Another part of the former dump site.

The wetland, is also linked to a bridge across what has since the mouth of the river was dammed, become Singapore’s 17th reservoir, the Serangoon Reservoir. The bridge provides access to what was the left bank of Sungei Serangoon, where the new public housing estate of Punggol has been developed, via the Punggol Promenade Riverside Walk.

Sungei Serangoon today.

Sungei Serangoon today.

For those familiar with the area, the area of Sungei Serangoon upstream from Lorong Halus at the end of Upper Serangoon Road was where old Kangkar Village was. Kangkar Village was a fishing port and once a base for fish traders and also Singapore’s fishing fleet, which numbered some ninety vessels in 1984 when it was closed to be moved to Punggol. The location of Kangkar today would be close to where Buangkok East Drive is.

Punggol Estate looming in the background on the left bank of Sungei Sernagoon.

Punggol and Sengkang public housing estates looming in the background on the left bank of Sungei Serangoon – Sengkang was the area where Kangkar Village was.

Interestingly, Lorong Halus was also where Singapore’s last night soil collection centre was located. The practice of collecting night soil (human waste) using buckets in both urban and rural areas, was carried out from the 1890s up to early 1987 when the last rural outhouses were used. Besides the rufuse that was generated by Singapore, also buried at Lorong Halus is the remains of a false killer whale which was stranded in shallow waters off Tuas in early 1994. The wetland was opened in 2011 and more information can be found at this link.

The bridge across the reservoir.

The bridge across the reservoir.

The view on the bridge.

The view on the bridge.

A resident of the wetland.

A resident of the wetland.

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More than just fishy business

16 01 2013

The wet markets we find in Singapore today are much more orderly versions of the wet markets in that Singapore I that grew up in. Yesterday’s markets were always lively, serving not only as places to obtain fresh produce during a time when refrigerators were less common, but also as places where people could come together at a social level. In the age of refrigerators and supermarkets, wet markets are today a lot quieter and are now much less of a focal point. Many come to life only during the weekends and just before festive occasions. Despite this, wet markets are however still very much a sensory treat and wonderful places to discover the texture, colour and smell of a Singapore which through these markets we cling on to. One market I particularly enjoy visiting is Tekka Market. The market had in its previous incarnation been one I have long held a fascination for, its passageways filled with the wonderful aroma of spices and the sight of mutton vendors standing over logs which served as chopping blocks. Finding itself across the road from where it originally was, the market is one which still attracts shoppers from across the island in search of some of best cuts of beef and mutton; the wide selection of fish its fishmongers seem to have more of than those in other markets do; and the exotic offerings such as buah keluak that seem to only be found there.

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Voices from a forgotten past

18 12 2012

I was fortunate to have been able to catch Royston Tan’s sequel to Old Places, Old Romances, at its premiere on Saturday morning. Old Romances, described by the director as ‘45 personalised love letters to forgotten places’, is not just about personal romances in and with each of the 45 places featured, but about continuing a love affair that has been rekindled by the making of Old Places for a Singapore we might otherwise have forgotten about. The 45 places are all, on their own, fascinating. They are places that many must have deep in their hearts in one way or another. While some, in the two years it took to complete the documentary, have become like that lost love, painfully present in our distant memories; there are many that are there for us to discover a love we might have not known is there.

The serenity of the grounds of the Japanese Cemetery Park.

The serenity of the grounds of the Japanese Cemetery Park.

An iron fence around a grave.

An iron fence around a grave.

One place that is featured in which I took the opportunity to find a new love in is the Japanese Cemetery at Chuan Hoe Avenue. The cemetery, said to be the largest burial ground for Japanese outside of Japan (it has also become the resting place for an estimated 10,000 war dead), is a space that I have found to be extremely interesting as a link to a world that we largely have forgotten about. It is however the tales that the sleeping residents tell that thoroughly fascinates me. The 910 graves found on the grounds does each have an interesting story to tell, and among it you will find tales of many extraordinary lives as well as insights into the early Japanese community in Singapore.

The peaceful setting of the Japanese Cemetery Park's grounds.

The peaceful setting of the Japanese Cemetery Park’s grounds.

Headstones in the cemetery.

Headstones in the cemetery.

The cemetery now serves as a memorial park, having been closed to burials in 1973. It does have a long history and counts as one of the oldest cemeteries still in existence in Singapore, tracing its history to the end of the 1800s. Its owes its founding to three brothel owners, Futaki Takajiro, Shibuya Ginji and Nakagawa Kikuzo, who in 1891 sought the colony’s approval to convert up to 12 acres of land including some of their own (they owned rubber estates in the area too) into a cemetery for the burial of destitute Japanese prostitutes, the Karayuki-san. Burials in the grounds do however predate its official establishment, Shibuya and Futaki had reportedly moved the remains of 27 Japanese from a mass grave to the grounds in 1888. Also in 1981, a survey conducted found three gravestones which dated back to 1889.

A Hinomoto Gurdian Deity erected as a memorial to 41 civilians who died under internment at Jurong while awaiting repatriation after the Japanese surrender.

A Hinomoto Gurdian Deity erected as a memorial to 41 civilians who died under internment at Jurong while awaiting repatriation after the Japanese surrender.

Another view around the cemetery.

Another view around the cemetery.

The cemetery is interesting also in contrasting it to the largest cemetery in Japan at Mount Koya or Koyasan which I also had the opportunity to visit recently. While many of the 200,000 graves in Koyasan are those who had a high station in life, many of the graves in the cemetery in Singapore are of those with a humble social status – at least a third of the graves belong to Karayuki-san.

A memorial to the war dead said to be intended as a representation of the Syonan Chureito that was erected during the occupation at Bukit Batok.

A memorial to the war dead said to be intended as a representation of the Syonan Chureito that was erected during the occupation at Bukit Batok.

A grave in the cemetery.

A grave in the cemetery.

The Japanese cemetery today occupies a 3 ha. (about a 7 acre) site. No longer set amongst rubber trees (a reminder of that is perhaps a cluster of rubber trees found in the grounds), it today finds itself in the middle of a residential neigbourhood. Stepping into the grounds, an air of serenity greets you. The well-kept cemetery is quietly beautiful and takes one far from the hustle of the urban world that is now at its doorstep. Much of what we see of the very well-kept grounds today is the result of effort undertaken in 1987 by the Japanese Association (which has maintained the cemetery since 1969) to beautify the cemetery in commemoration of its (the association’s) 30th Anniversary (post-war) using donations from the community as well as with assistance from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The serenely beautiful grounds of the cemetery draws many in search of a quiet place to read or to study.

The serenely beautiful grounds of the cemetery draws many in search of a quiet place to read or to study.

While the cemetery has a substantial number of graves of those of humble social status, there also also many graves of those of high social standing that can be found.

While the cemetery has a substantial number of graves of those of humble social status, there also also many graves of those of high social standing that can be found.

The largest structure we see in the grounds, is that of the beautifully constructed Prayer Hall or Worship Hall, built in 1986 on the site of two previous Saiyuji temple buildings. The Saiyuji was a Soto sect temple which traces its history to the arrival of its founding monk, Shakushu Baisen of Hyogo in 1892. The first building which was constructed in 1912 and was pulled down in 1960. It was replaced by a second building in which the altars of two disused temples in the city had found a home in. It is the second building that the secular Prayer Hall was built to replace.

The largest structure is a Prayer Hall built in 1986 which replaced a Saiyuji Temple.

The largest structure is a Prayer Hall built in 1986 which replaced a Saiyuji Temple.

Another view around the cemetery.

Another view around the cemetery.

The small cluster of rubber trees are the remnants perhaps of the 1000 trees the monk Baisen is said to have planted. That was done to honour the act of philanthropy of the cemetery’s founders, as well as to provide an income for the temple. The cluster can be found in the cemetery’s south-west corner. The corner is also where a set of three memorial stones erected by Japanese Prisoners of War in memory of those who lost their lives during the Pacific War can be found. Behind the memorial, a single concrete gravestone stands, marking the spot where the ashes of the 10,000 war dead, recovered from the Syonan Chureito in Bukit Batok, lie buried. The largest of the rubber trees is one of two heritage trees found on the grounds. The other is a non-fruiting lychee tree found at the side of the Prayer Hall (next to the caretaker’s quarters).

The three memorial stones erected by erected by Japanese Prisoners of War in memory of those who lost their lives during the Pacific War.

The three memorial stones erected by erected by Japanese Prisoners of War in memory of those who lost their lives during the Pacific War.

The concrete marker where the remains of the 10,000 war dead are buried.

The concrete marker under which the remains of the 10,000 war dead are buried.

The cluster of rubber trees - the largest has been designated a heritage tree.

The cluster of rubber trees – the largest has been designated a heritage tree.

The heritage lychee tree.

The heritage lychee tree.

It is in the gravestones of the voiceless that perhaps have the loudest voices. It is thought that a large proportion of the 494 graves of the identifiable graves which do not bear a date are those of the Karayuki-san. There probably were a lot more – a 1947 survey did show that there were 1270 graves and many of the graves of the Karayuki-san had simple wooden grave-markers (before they were replaced with stone) which could have decayed with age.

A substantial number of the graves with small headstones are thought to be those of the Karayuki-san, many of whom died penniless.

A substantial number of the graves with small headstones are thought to be those of the Karayuki-san, many of whom died penniless.

That a substantial number of the graves belonged to the Karayuki-san, provides an insight into the first Japanese nationals to arrive in Singapore – their first recorded arrival in 1877 coinciding with a period of development which began in the 1870s that provided opportunities which attracted many male immigrants to Singapore. The brothels that the Karayuki-san worked in were centered mainly in what is today the Bugis area (Bugis Junction), first on Malay Street, before spreading to Malabar, Hylam and Bugis Streets with as many as 109 brothels recorded in 1905 employing some 633 Karayuki-san. It was in the area that the early Japanese community was also to establish themselves – Middle Road was referred to by the community as ‘Chuo Dori‘ or ‘Central Street’.

Malay Street at the turn of the 20th century. The street hosted the first brothels with Karayuki-san.

Malay Street at the turn of the 20th century. The street hosted the first brothels in which Karayuki-san worked.

The entire area including Hylam Street soon became a red-light area.

The entire area including Hylam Street soon became a red-light area.

Besides the many graves of the voiceless, there are several (some are memorials rather than graves) which belong to notable personalities. One is the grave of Count Hisaichi Terauchi, a Field Marshal who was the Supreme Commander of Southern Command of the Japanese Imperial Army which swept across South-East Asia. Count Terauchi died in Johor as a Prisoner of War in 1946 and his ashes were sent back to his family in Japan. It is thought however that some of his remains and his insignia is however buried in the cemetery.

The grave of Count Hisaichi Terauchi, a Field Marshal who was the Supreme Commander of Southern Command of the Japanese Imperial Army.

The grave of Count Hisaichi Terauchi, a Field Marshal who was the Supreme Commander of Southern Command of the Japanese Imperial Army.

 

One grave that does have a fascinating story to tell is that of a certain John Matthew Ottoson. Described as an adventurer, Ottoson is does seem to have been almost a legendary life of adventure. Better known by his native name Otokichi, his adventures started at the age of fourteen in 1832 when he found himself cast adrift off the coast of Japan on a storm damaged ship, the Hojunmaru, on which he was a deckhand. He survived, but not before a fourteen month ordeal which took him across the Pacific to the shores of what is today Washington State. He and two other survivors found washed ashore and soon found themselves in the care of the native Makah tribe.

The Prayer Hall built in 1986.

The Prayer Hall.

The next chapter in his adventures took him first to London, then to Macau, and on to Shanghai. It was in Macau that he is thought to have had a hand in the first translation of the Bible into Japanese. He became a British subject in the process, returning to Japan twice as a translator in the service of the British. His second return in late 1854 is significant in that it led to the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Amity between the United Kingdom and Japan. He married a Malay woman later in life and eventually found himself residing in Singapore where he was a trader in local farm products from 1862 until his death in 1867 at the age of 49. In 2004, Otokochi’s remains which had been relocated from the original burial site were found to be at Choa Chu Kang. The remains were exhumed and cremated. Some of his ashes were brought to Japan with a portion is kept in the charnel next to the Prayer Hall at the Japanese Cemetery Park. More about the life of Otokichi can be found in a 2004 Japan Times article at the text of which has been reproduced at the bottom of this post (click here).

A charnel containing the remains of the first Japanese resident of Singapore Otokichi alias John M. Ottoson.

A charnel containing the remains of the first Japanese resident of Singapore Otokichi alias John M. Ottoson.

Among the other graves and memorial stones of the notable is one that is a memorial to novelist Futabatei Shimei (二葉亭 四迷) in the south-eastern corner of the grounds close to Count Terauchi’s grave. Futabatei Shimei’s work published in 1887, Ukigumo (Floating Clouds) is regarded as Japan’s first modern novel and he was returning from Russia as a special correspondent for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper at the time of his untimely death in 1909. The memorial has apparently been a venerated spot, particularly with visiting Japanese newsmen. Next to the memorial, the unique gravestone belonging to the grave of Kantaro Ueyama can be found. Kantaro Ueyama, who perished in a plane crash at Sembawang in 1942, was the first son of inventor of the mosquito coil, Eiichiro Ueyama.

The memorial to novelist Futabatei Shimei.

The memorial to novelist Futabatei Shimei.

The unique lantern like gravestone of Kantaro Ueyama who died in a plane crash at Sembawang in 1942.

The unique lantern like gravestone of Katano Ueyama who died in a plane crash at Sembawang in 1942.

Along the northern boundary of the grounds is the memorial plaza where there is a cluster of memorial stones placed to commemorate several well known figures. One is that of another somewhat legendary figure, a Terengganu born Japanese bandit popularly known as Harimau (Malay for Tiger), Harimau Malaya (Tiger of Malaya), Raja Harimau (King Tiger). Immortalised by the 1943 Japanese film Marai No Tora (マライの虎) or ‘Tiger of Malaya’, he was apparently notorious along the East Coast of Malaya and Southern Thailand where he led a band of some 3,000 Malay bandits and portrayed as a Robin Hood like character. Harimau, whose family had run a barber shop in Terengganu’s motivation in leading the bandits was to seek revenge for a sister Shizuko who was murdered by a Chinese mob angered by the Manchurian Incident. He later served as an agent for a Japanese Imperial Army intelligence unit and succumbed to Malaria at Tan Tock Seng Hospital in Singapore at the age of 32 on 17 March 1942. His remains are thought to have been buried in a Muslim cemetery near the hospital.

The memorial to Harimau Tani Yutaka.

The memorial to Harimau Tani Yutaka.

Besides the grave-markers that have vanished with time and the Saiyuji over which the Prayer Hall has been built, there would have also been a two chamber crematorium in the grounds of the cemetery that was also used for non-Japanese cremations and a Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, of which there are no more traces of. The crematorium which began as a wood-fired one is possibly the first crematorium to be built in Singapore having come up in the first decade of the 1900s. For a period of time following the end of the war, the crematorium was leased to the Singapore Casket Company.

The crematorium at the Japanese Cemetery seen prior to the war (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas).

The crematorium at the Japanese Cemetery seen prior to the war (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas).

Despite not being fond of hanging around cemeteries, I did spend 3 hours or so at this one. The cemetery is one that I will certainly visit again for the little piece of calm in the storm that has swept across modern Singapore it offers and to perhaps seek more tales that the gravestones hold. The Japanese Cemetery Park (日本人墓地公園 or Nihonjin Bochi Koen) is located at 22 Chuan Hoe Avenue and is about a 300 metre walk in from the junction of Chuan Hoe Avenue with Yio Chu Kang Road. The park is open to visitors from 8 am to 7 pm daily.

Stone slabs with the names of army officers killed during the war.

Stone slabs with the names of army officers killed during the war.

Dressed jizo statues at the entrance to the cemetery.

Dressed jizo statues at the entrance to the cemetery.

The park is popular with Japanese visitors to Singapore.

The park is popular with Japanese visitors to Singapore.


Otokichi: a life lost and found
By SETSUKO KAMIYA, The Japan Times, Aug 29, 2004

The Onoura area of Mihama, on the rural west coast of the Chita Peninsula in Aichi Prefecture, is a peaceful spot whose beaches in summer attract both locals and trippers from nearby Nagoya.

Onoura is, however, still blessed with an atmosphere of serenity that must have been even more marked 172 years ago. Then, in December 1832, a 14-year-old boy named Otokichi was among the crew of a cargo ship there that set sail for Edo, present-day Tokyo.

Little did Otokichi know that he would never return to his home, though he would visit and live in countries all over the world at a time when Japanese were barred from leaving their homeland, and Japan itself was closed to almost all foreigners. Little did he know either that he was to help with the first translation of the Bible into Japanese — at a time when Christianity was banned; or that he would serve as a bridge between languages and cultures when, in 1854, Japan signed a watershed international treaty with the United Kingdom.

But the remarkable, dramatic and colorful life of Otokichi has long lain almost unperceived in the shadows of conventional history.

That day in December 1832, the Hojunmaru was loaded with local rice and pottery as its 14 crew cast off from the quay. At first it was plain sailing out of Ise Bay, but as the ship entered the Sea of Enshu off present-day Aichi and Shizuoka prefectures, a storm blew up and swept it off course and far out into the Pacific. With no contact for months, the crew’s families eventually gave them up for dead.

However, as their grieving relatives erected a memorial tomb in the graveyard of the village’s Ryosanji Temple, the Hojunmaru, by now dismasted and rudderless, was being carried on the Black Current out into the middle of the vast ocean — with all its crew alive.

Knowing how to desalinate seawater, and with their cargo of rice, the crew was able to eat and drink. But with no vitamins in their diet, scurvy soon set in and began to claim lives. Miraculously, though, after an astonishing 14 months adrift in the open ocean, three crew members were still alive when the battered hulk of the Hojunmaru made landfall at Cape Alava, in present-day Washington state in the United States. Those three survivors were Iwakichi, 29, Kyukichi, 16, and Otokichi, then 15.

At first, the lucky trio were looked after by villagers of the Makah tribes, but soon after they were passed into the care of John McLaughlin, the British leader of a group of Hudson’s Bay Company fur traders. McLaughlin at once sought commercial advantage from the Japanese castaways, as a means of his company establishing links with the Tokugawa Shogunate. As a result, he arranged for the three to be put aboard a ship called the Eagle, which reached London in 1835 — almost certainly making the Onoura sailors the first Japanese to visit the English capital, according to Hikomitsu Kawai, the author of “Nihonjin Hyoryuki (Chronicle of Japanese Castaways)”(Shakai Shisousha, 1967).

However, the men didn’t have much chance to see the hub of the British Empire, as for 10 days they were confined to the ship on the River Thames, before being allowed one final day to see the sights. Then, contrary to McLaughlin’s expectations, the British government declined the opportunity to use the men as keys to unlocking trade with Japan, and they were dispatched instead to Macao on board the General Palmer, with a view to them returning home from there.

After reaching Macao later that year, Otokichi, Kyukichi and Iwakichi were put into the care of Karl Gutzlaff, a German missionary who also served as a Chinese translator for the British government. Gutzlaff, who apparently wanted to engage in missionary work in Japan, enthusiastically learned the language from Otokichi and the others, soon even managing to make a translation of the Gospel According to John, which is believed to be the earliest extant biblical work in Japanese.

Meanwhile, in Macao the three were joined by four other Japanese sailors whose ship from present-day Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyushu had also been storm-damaged and drifting until it reached Luzon Island in the Philippines. Together, the seven waited there for a chance to return home.

That chance came in the shape of one Charles W. King, an American merchant who, like McLaughlin before him, reckoned that the humanitarian act of repatriating them might pay off through opening trade links with a country whose official sakoku (closed-door) policy surely made the prospect of such links potentially profitable. So, in July 1837, the seven Japanese were put aboard an American merchant ship called the Morrison, which sailed to Uraga at the mouth of Edo Bay.

Cannon-fire targeted the Morrison as it approached the Miura Peninsula in present-day Kanagawa Prefecture. This barrage was in line with an 1825-42 shogunal order that all lords across the country were to fire at any approaching Western ships, apart from Dutch ones. As a result, the Morrison sailed down to Kagoshima in Kyushu — only to be fired on there as well.

Under the circumstances, according to accounts by Westerners aboard the Morrison recounted in the award-winning nonfiction book by Toru Haruna, “Nippon Otokichi Hyoryuki (Chronicle of Otokichi)” (Shobunsha, 1979), there was little for it but to return to Macao. Fearing punishment if they set foot again in their homeland, the Japanese seemed to have no alternative but to accept life in exile.

* * * From the scant records that exist, it seems the seven then set about making their own livings in Macao. Although a few of them are known to have served as translators for the British trade legation and British missionaries, only Otokichi’s life is well recorded.

Even so, Otokichi’s progress from Macao in 1837 to him working for the British trading company Dent & Co. in Shanghai in 1843 is only sketchily traced by history. Though it seems likely that he spent time as a crewman on an American ship, he is mainly known in this period for supporting the repatriation of Japanese castaways from Macao and Shanghai by urging them to try returning home on Chinese ships. That was because, along with Holland, China was the only country with which the shogunate authorized trade links.

At some point, Otokichi married an Englishwoman, though where this occurred is not known. However, after losing her through illness, he married a Malay woman and they had a son and three daughters. Meanwhile, he became a naturalized British subject, taking the name John Matthew Ottoson.

The erstwhile Japanese sailor is known to have returned to Japan twice. On the first occasion, he was a translator on board the H.M.S. Mariner, which entered Uraga Port to conduct a topographical survey in 1849. Then, though, he had to disguise himself as a Chinese man, telling Japanese officials that he had learned their language from his father, who often went to Nagasaki on business.

The second time he returned, as Ottoson, was in September 1854, with a British fleet under Adm. James Stirling. This docked at Nagasaki to conduct negotiations that led to the signing there on Oct. 14 of the Treaty of Peace and Amity between the United Kingdom and Japan. That time, Otokichi met and was seen by many Japanese, including Fukuzawa Yukichi, the founder of Keio University. Indeed, shogunal officials apparently offered to repatriate him, though he opted instead to return to his family in Shanghai.

In the final years of his life, Otokichi aka Ottoson, moved from Shanghai to Singapore, his wife’s home country, where he died at the age of 49 in 1867 — the year feudalism ended in Japan.

For the people of Mihama, the story of the Hojunmaru and the local crew lost in 1832 appears to have sunk into oblivion — no doubt along with countless other seafaring tragedies. That was until 1960, when researchers from the Japan Bible Society turned up there on the trail of the three Japanese they believed may have been from a place called Onoura on the Chita Peninsula. The tomb dedicated to the crew of the Hojunmaru was the proof they had sought, and a monument honoring the three was duly erected the following year.

Since then, a few others have been instrumental in digging out what details of Otokichi’s life are now known, including Haruna and Ayako Miura, a Christian novelist who wrote about him in “Kairei (Ocean Ridge)” (Asahi Shimbunsha, 1981).

What really propelled the long-lost young sailor into a kind of limelight, though, was when Koichi Saito, the mayor of Mihama, decided about 10 years ago to seriously research Otokichi’s life.

“History is usually a tale of winners, but when I learned about Otokichi, I thought it wasn’t right that such an admirable person’s life should remain unrecognized,” said Saito, 65, who has now been in office at the head of the 25,000-strong community for 13 years.

Accordingly, Saito became the driving force behind an enthusiastic effort to gather information from all the people and places connected with Otokichi and the others, including Gutzlaff. In doing so, he said, the cooperation of Japanese groups and organizations around the world has been of vital importance to access local authorities and individuals.

To date, the project has led to several short trips abroad by Mihama citizens tracing the footsteps of Otokichi — to Washington State, London and Singapore. On their travels, all paid for out of their own pockets, these interested locals have engaged in warm and productive grassroots exchanges with many new friends and acquaintances. Closer to home, in 1993 the Nagoya-based Theatre Weekend produced “Nippon Otokichi Monogatari (The Otokichi Story),” a musical based on the life of Otokichi that has since been staged several times in Japan and to coincide with group tours overseas — with many Mihama citizens playing minor roles.

Among those who have particularly enjoyed this historical quest is Junji Yamamoto, 73, a descendant of Otokichi’s younger sister who is one of only two known living relatives of any of the Hojunmaru’s 14 crew still living in Mihama (the other is a descendant of the ship’s captain, Higuchi Juemon).

“I’m reminded that Otokichi is my ancestor when people ask me how I feel about him, but the truth is, I can’t really say, although I wish I had more time to find out more,” said a grinning Yamamoto, whose family has a Japanese-style inn in Noma, the neighboring district to Onoura. Nonetheless, Yamamoto is interested enough in his forebear to have joined seven of the eight tours there have been already, including one in June to Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macao with 76 other locals.

In March, meanwhile, a Singaporean official who had become interested in Otokichi finally located his grave site — something that had been a mystery since 1993, when Saito’s efforts yielded the burial registry entry for John M. Ottoson in Singapore. However, the original grave turned out to have been relocated from its original site, on which a hospital now stands. Another recent finding through Singaporean links has been an official directory covering 1863 and 1866, which gives Otokichi’s address there and suggests he was a trader in local farm products.

“Bit by bit, we’re finding evidence to fill in more of the blanks in Otokichi’s life,” said Saito, happily adding that the town is now on the trail of his son, who seems to have come to Japan and been naturalized, and to have died in Taiwan.

Saito is looking forward to a group tour to Singapore. It’s no mere pleasure trip, though, as he has asked the government of the city-state for permission to relocate Otokichi’s grave from the precincts of the exhumed remains to a Japanese cemetery.

As well, he has asked for permission to take some of his remains — or at least some soil from the grave — back home to be interred in the Yamamoto family grave and the memorial tomb to Hojunmaru’s crew at the Ryosanji Temple in Onoura.

“We are going to take the first flight out of the new airport to Singapore in February to bring him home,” Saito said, his voice full of feeling for someone many around Mihama are truly coming to regard as a long-lost son.