Recoloured waters

2 03 2014

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

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

More on the Singapore River and the old harbour:


The Temple on Phoenix Hill

4 03 2012

Sitting up on an incline overlooking Mohamed Sultan Road, is a gem of a Chinese temple that is well worth the climb up the incline to. The temple, a wonderfully restored work of Chinese Minnan temple architecture, is the Hong San See (凤山寺) which translates into “Temple on Phoenix Hill” in the Hokkien (or Fujian) dialect, is a gazetted National Monument which dates back a century. The Temple on Phoenix Hill is one that has undergone several renovations over the years – the last was a restoration effort that was undertaken from 2007 to 2009 for which the temple earned a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2010.

The main courtyard of the Hong San See Temple.

The temple traces its history back 175 years to 1836 when a pioneer from the Lam Ann clan, Neo Lim Kwee, built a temple at the Wallich Road area in Tanjong Pagar which was based on the Hong San See temple at Lam Ann (Nan’an) in China, dedicated to the deity Guang Ze Zun Wang (广泽尊王) who is also referred to by several names including Guo Sheng Wang (郭圣王) and Guo Sheng Gong (郭圣公). The land on which the original temple was built was however, acquired in 1907, and the temple moved to its present location on which the current temple was built from 1908 to 1913. Amongst the clan leaders involved in the rebuilding of the temple was a certain Lim Loh who was the father of a World War II hero, Lim Bo Seng. The new temple was built at a cost of $56,000 and was laid out in the traditional Min-nan style with its alignment in a North-South axis, and features courtyards and walled enclosures.

A door god seen on a door panel. Door gods are painted on temple doors to stop evil spirits from entering.

The names of those who contributed to the building of the temple can be found inscribed in the elaborately decorated pillars of the temple. Lim Bo Seng's father Lim Loh, also known as Lim Hoon Leong's (Lin Yun Long or 林云龙 - 林雲龍 in traditional Chinese script) name is seen inscribed on one of the pillars.

I have not previously taken much interest in the wealth of Chinese temples we have in Singapore, and it was during a guided visit to the temple back in November last year, that I was to learn of the temple. The tour, which was expertly guided by Yik Han, also touched on the interesting history of the temple, its architecture, the early Lam Ann immigrants who brought the temple to Singapore, and also about the very interesting story behind the deity Guang Ze Zun Wang. There were also several Taoist customs that were shared which were very new to me. One interesting one was that there is a proper way to enter the temple – which is through the Dragon Door on the right, through which one should step over (and not on) the threshold. The exit is through the Tiger Door on the left and a centre door – which is usually kept closed, is reserved for the passage of the gods.

The entrance to the temple consists of three doors - the Dragon Door on the right through which one should enter, the Tiger Door on the left which one uses to exit and a Centre Door which is reserved for the gods.

It is at the entrance to the temple that attention was drawn by Yik Han to the exquisite wood carvings painted in red lacquer and gold leaf and the elaborately decorated stone dragon and phoenix columns. Materials for these, as with most of the materials for construction, based on the temple’s records, were imported from China, as were the two teams of skilled craftsmen from Quanzhou in Fujian Province – each to work on the carvings on one of the left or right sides. This apparently was a standard practice that is referred to as “Corresponding Workmanship” (对场作) where the two teams in friendly competition provides a result that is not just different but gets the best out of the two teams.

Elaborate wooden carvings decorate the temple - two competing teams from Quanzhou were used to get the best results for the temple.

More of the exquisite wooden carvings that decorate the temple.

Reliefs on the stone pillar - the legend of a carp passing through the Dragon Gate and transforms into a dragon.

One interesting fact that I was also to learn was that a school had once operated within the temple. Temples in the early days had become focal points for the respective communities they had catered to making them natural for them to function as social and welfare centres for the communities. It wasn’t any different for Hong San See which not just brought the Lam Ann community in Singapore together, but also became a centre that served the welfare needs and for a brief period of about 10 years, provided free education to the children of poor Chinese migrants in the community with the Nan Ming School that opened in 1914 and operated at the sides of the temple. Lessons were conducted primarily in the Hokkien dialect. The school unfortunately closed due to a lack of funds to continue running it – evidence of the school does still exist in the wooden benches at a open room at the side of the temple that were once used by the school.

Wooden benches that were once used by a school that briefly operated in the temple's grounds.

A lantern in the temple.

The recent restoration of the temple involved a massive and meticulous effort that took three years to complete. The restoration committee included a consultant for the Beijing Palace Museum and required extensive historical research to ensure the effort, including additions, are true to the original structure. The restoration not just restored the temple to what it must have been at the height of its glory, but also has given the temple’s aging structure a new lease of life – an effort that will ensure that the beauty of the work that has been with us for over a hundred years, can be appreciated for many more generations to come.

A dragon sits atop the roof of the temple.

A coil of incense burns at the altar.

Resources on Hong San See:

Preservation of Monuments Board’s entry on Hong San See.

Hong San See in its glory – Straits Times 25 September 2010.

Wikipedia page on Hong San See.

Infopedia article on Hong San See.

Wikipedia on Guang Ze Zun Wang.

The river I once knew

7 07 2011

I first set eyes on the Singapore River in my very early years when I accompanied my mother on her regular forays to the department stores in Raffles Place. To get to them, we would cross the river on the wonderfully designed Cavenagh Bridge. The open balustrades of the bridge offered an excellent view of the comings and goings on the busy river. It was fascinating to the curious child that I was, to watch the heavily laden wooden twakows (cargo boats) straining upriver with the cargoes that their much larger, steel-hulled cousins in the inner harbour had fed them. Even more fascinating to me was the spirited movement downriver of the boats whose bellies had been emptied by the industrious coolies at the many godowns (warehouses) lining the river.

Cavenagh Bridge.

Watching the coolies at work fascinated me more than seeing the passing of the twakows. I would stop and stare at the men as they took small but quick steps across the narrow planks that linked the boats to the stepped, concrete banks of the river. The planks would strain under the weight – not so much that of the bare-bodied men themselves, but of the load that each balanced on one shoulder. The loads seemed not just to outweigh the men who bore them, but to also be larger than the coolies’ lightly built frames. At times it looked as if the planks were too narrow, but I never once saw those men lose the ability to balance themselves and the offset loads that they carried.

A scan from an old postcard showing the river in busier days, filled with the twakows that transported goods from their steel hulled cousins upriver to the numerous godowns that lined the river.

In those days, besides the colourful distractions that the twakows, godowns and coolies provided, the waterway had a reputation for its less than pleasant smell. In fact, many visitors who arrived prior to the late 1980s remember Singapore for the river’s smells. It was an odour that I well remember myself and was reason enough for my mother to avoid stopping by the very popular Boat Quay food stalls. These had fitted themselves onto the narrow strip of land between the back of the buildings that lined the river (one was the Bank of China Building) and the river itself.

The (old) bank of China Building set against the new building has been one of the few survivors of the area around the river since I first became acquainted with the area in the late 1960s.

Much of what went on in and around the river had indeed contributed to how it smelled, as well as to the murky waters that the twakows ploughed through. A massive effort to clean up the river began in 1977 and meant that life in and around the river as it was, would soon be a thing of the past. The twakows, a feature of the river for over a hundred years, disappeared in the early 1980s, an event that I somehow missed. By the time I got around to visiting the river again, they had vanished from the waters that had once held hundreds of them. Soon, the river was to be cut off from the sea that had given it life, with reclamation work at Marina South and the construction of the Marina Barrage. The river did not go quietly, however, and is now entering its second life, integrated into a potential source of fresh water for the modern metropolis that has grown around it.

A massive effort to clean up the river began in 1977 and the twakows, a feature of the river for over a hundred years, disappeared in the early 1980s, Many of the godowns along Boat Quay (seen here dwarfed by the steel and glass of new Singapore) have since been transformed into food and entertainment outlets.

Nevertheless, the river will always evoke its colourful past for me. I still look at it through the eyes of the child, and what I see are images of the twakows, coolies and godowns that are today all but forgotten.

This post has been published in the July / August 2011 issue of Passage, a Friends of the Museums, Singapore publication as “Singapore River Reminisces, Boat Quay in the 1970s”.

The Wonderland at Battery Road

10 09 2010

There were two places with the name “Wonderland” that I enjoyed visiting as a child, one was of course the Wonderland Amusement Park that used to sit in what is now the open car URA car park next to Kallang Leisure Park. The other wasn’t so much a wonderland of fun, but one of pies and shakes – it was a little cafe on Battery Road just around the corner from Raffles Place that I never, whenever I had a chance, pass up on going to, the name of which I had forgotten about until a recent conversation with my parents. One thing that I certainly remembered the cafe for was what it had smelt like – it was a smell that would greet me as the heavy metal framed glass doors opened, one that was laden with the delicious aroma of baking pastry with a lingering smell of vinegar that came from the HP sauce and tomato ketchup that somehow always seemed a great complement to the delectable pastries that were served. It was actually a smell that familiar in many ways, being very much similar to the ones that came with the many coffee houses and snack bars that were popular back then. The aroma would always be met with a sense of anticipation – the anticipation of the sumptuous treat that was to follow … one that would certainly have seemed to be a just reward for the hours spent with walking behind my mother as she navigated her way through the shelves and racks of Robinson’s or John Little’s at nearby Raffles Place (not that I was an unwilling accomplice – as it alway meant a stopover the wonderful toy department in Robinson’s). That treat was none other than a tasty mush of potatoes, carrots, peas and pieces of diced chicken wrapped in a crust of fresh puff pastry that made the taste buds crave for more. It was Wonderland’s wonderful chicken pie, which for a while, seemed all I lived for and my love affair with it probably fueled my passion for all kinds of pies …

An aerial view of the Singapore River area in the 1950s ... Battery Road as it was is seen on the left of the photograph (source: Over Singapore 50 Years Ago).

Battery Road today ... the area where the Wonderland Cafe was ... just around the corner from the area of Raffles Place where John Little's was.

Another view down the same stretch of Battery Road.

Battery Road and adjoining Raffles Place and Fullerton Square back in the days of Wonderland’s chicken pie (the late 1960s) featured some of the best architectural treasures we had in Singapore, amongst them the very grand Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building across from the Fullerton Building (the General Post Office then and now the Fullerton Hotel), the Chartered Bank Building at 6 Battery Road, and the glorious buildings that lined Raffles Place – a wonderland of beautiful buildings. Most of those buildings have sadly vanished today, in part due to a lack of appreciation for what was our architectural heritage, and in part due to the pressing need to modernise the city in which there wasn’t much time for us to stop and think about what we were losing. What is left today is the Fullerton Building, and the once towering 16 storey Bank of China Building which was the tallest bank building when it was erected in the early 1950s as well as being the tallest building in the area until the mid 1970s. Now the building is part of the Bank of China complex there which includes a newer taller building behind it and is dwarfed by the concrete, steel and glass towers of the neighbouring bank buildings which is somehow seen as defining Singapore’s economic success since gaining independence.

Collyer Quay, 1976. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building is across from the Fullerton Building at the corner of Fullerton Square and Collyer Quay (source: Ray Tyers' Singapore Then & Now)

A view of Collyer Quay from the Harbour, July 1974. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building can be seen on the left of the Fullerton Building (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

The new 21 storey high HSBC building that replaced the old building after that was demolished in 1979.

Raffles Place had been where some of the best shops of those days were found – Robinson’s and John Little’s being two that my parents frequented. The former commercial heart of Singapore was then dominated by an underground carpark (it was partly underground with windows that served as vents lining the part of it that stuck out of the ground. Its roof top had a well landscaped roof garden which was accessible via a short flight of steps from the street level and was a place where I had many a photograph taken. Robinson’s for me represented another type of wonderland – one of toys in the toy department that provided me with much amusement and also with many of my acquisitions … toy soldiers, a go-kart, building blocks and one of my favourites – a Red Indian costume complete with a feathered head dress.

Raffles Place in 1966 was dominated by an underground car park with a landscaped roof top garden and some wonderful buildings which have now been replace by the cold of concrete, steel and glass.

An MRT station sits underground where there was once an underground car park at Raffles Place, surrounded by skyscrapers that have replace some of the architectural treasures that have been lost.

Besides the wonderland of pies and buildings, Battery Road did also have another attraction for the young boy in those days – a pair of stone lions that still stand guard outside the entrance of the old Bank of China building at the corner of Battery Road and Flint Street. For some reason, I would always look up the lions whenever I am in the area, and approach them with the same sense of fascination I had as that young boy. These days however, there are no more pies … somehow, but for the stone lions, the area would seem cold and distant, and it makes me wish I could be that boy again back in a place that now only remains in photographs, a place that perhaps I did not have much of a chance to say good-bye to.

Once the tallest bank building in Singapore, the Bank of China is now dominated by the towering bank buildings that have sprouted up around it.

One of the two lions standing guard in front of the Bank of China Building at the corner of Battery Road and Flint Street.

A view of Raffles Place with the Chartered Bank Building at 6 Battery Road seen at the end of Raffles Place. The Bank of China Building is seen towering over the rest of the area on the right (source: Over Singapore 50 Years Ago).

The 44 storey building at 6 Battery Road, a new Chartered Bank that replaced the old which was demolished in 1981.

The Raffles walkabout

9 07 2010

The black statue of modern Singapore’s founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, which stands in the shadow of the beautiful clock tower which I have always seen as the Big Ben of Singapore belonging to the wonderful building which houses the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall in Empress Place, has always been one of the things that I have a fascination for in Singapore. The statue would be one of the things I would always make a point of seeking out whenever my parents ventured to the area, be it to visit the government offices housed in the Empress Place Building next door, to visit an exhibition at the Victoria Memorial Hall which now is used as the Victoria Concert Hall, or to make use of the car park in Empress Place for a walk down the Esplanade. I had referred to Raffles and the statue of our modern founder as “Stir” Stamford Raffles in my early childhood, and somehow imagined that it stood guard over the Victoria Memorial Hall. It seemed like they were always one and it never occurred to me that they weren’t always together.

The statue of Sir Stamford Raffles that I held a fascination for as a child.

The Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall (formerly known as the Victoria Theatre and Memorial Hall) in Empress Place, where the black statue of modern Singapore's founder is located at.

A close-up of the statue.

It therefore surprised me when I learnt later in life that the statue wasn’t always were I thought it had been all along. Its original location was right smack in the middle of the Padang, strange as it may seem, facing the sea. Based on the infopedia article on the statue, it was placed there on Jubilee Day, which was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the reign of Queen Victoria at the Padang. The undignified location in the middle of a sports field called for a respectable location to be found and it was only on the occasion of Singapore’s centenary celebrations in February of the year 1919, that it was relocated to its present location and placed with a grand semi-circular colonnade. The colonnade disappeared at the end of the Japanese occupation, during which the statue was moved. Popular belief has it that the Japanese had intended for it to be melted for the bronze that it was made of and we are very fortunate that it wasn’t eventually, being placed back in its location after the war.

The Statue of Stamford Raffles at its original location on the Padang (c. 1914) - the Hotel de L'Europe where the old Supreme Court Building now stands can be seen in the background to the right of the statue (from an old postcard).

Original location of the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles on the Padang, with St. Andrew's Cathedral in the background (from an old postcard).

Postcard of Empress Place in 1950 showing the statue back in its position without the colonnade (Courtesy of Mr Low Kam Hoong)

It is interesting to see that the original 123 year old black statue isn’t actually the statue of Raffles that attracts most attention these days. This honour belongs to a copy of it, a white statue of polymarble made from a cast of the black statue. This stands by the Singapore River near Empress Place at a spot which marks what is believed to be Raffles’ original landing site, placed in 1972 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the founding of modern Singapore, and draws hordes of tourists to it. For me, there is nothing like the original, the black statue that I used to know as “Stir” Stamford Raffles.

Tourists are attracted to the white statue of Raffles' by the river, placed to mark Raffles' landing site on the banks of the Singapore River, not the original 123 year old statue.

It's no fun being a statue!