From a little street in Singapore – Hock Lam Beef 100 years on

11 10 2011

I first came to know of Hock Lam Street’s famous beef noodles back in heady days of the late 1960s. I must have been about three then when I willingly accompanied my mother on her regular shopping forays to the area around, an area that was the 1960s equivalent of today’s Orchard Road, only because of the promise of a reward of what had become my favourite bowl of beef balls floating in the piping hot rich brown broth of beef soup. The memory that I have is not of the stall in particular, which to be frank I don’t have a recollection of, but of sitting at a table laid out on a five-foot way on the outside of a coffee shop at the corner of North Bridge Road and Hock Lam Street, eargerly awaiting my reward which my mother would have placed an order for and the taste of the broth and bouncy beef balls which I somehow could never have enough of.

A long way away from the five-foot ways of the 1960s Hock Lam Street.

The Hock Lam Street where my first encounters with the piping hot bowl of beef ball soup was (photo source: http://picas.nhb.gov.sg).

Today, a little over four decades have passed since the last time I found myself at a table on that particular five-foot way, and it is comforting to know that it is not just that distant memory of a long lost Hock Lam Street that remains. And while the area in which it operated has undergone a complete transformation into a soulless and sober place that bears little resemblance to the bustling streets where shoppers came for the latest fashions and to indulge in some of their favuorite hawker fare – Hock Lam Street itself now buried under a shopping mall, the folks behind the beef noodle stall are still dishing out noodles in their signature beef broth. The business is still very much in the family and is now run by Ms Tina Tan who seeks to continue with a tradition that goes back three generations before her, albeit in the much more comfortable surroundings of the three outlets that she now operates under the name Hock Lam Beef. The business was featured on a television programme on Singapore’s food history in the years since independence, Foodage, which aired on Okto recently in which Tina recalls a very different environment that her father, Mr Anthony Tan operated his stall in – the hot and sweaty and rat infested streets of the old Hock Lam Street, has certainly come a long way. Last weekend, Hock Lam Beef which traces its history back to Tina’s great-grandfather, celebrated its 100th anniversary with a celebration which included lion dances in which all proceeds for the day was donated to the Make A Wish Foundation. For me, it was a reason to celebrate with Hock Lam Beef, not just because of its centenary, but also because it is wonderful knowing that one of the things that I remember my childhood for, is still around in a world that has changed too fast.

A lion dance to celebrate 100 years of Hock Lam Beef.

Inside the China Street outlet.

Ms Tina Tan and staff at Hock Lam's China Street outlet during the 100th Anniversary Celebration.

Mr Anthony Tan, Tina's father who ran the stall when it served my favourite bowl of beef ball soup.

Mr Anthony Tan and staff at the China Street outlet.

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A tour of Singapore’s food history in 8 hours

11 08 2011

Produced by Sitting In Pictures, Foodage is a series of eight 1 hour episodes shown on Okto at 10pm on Thursdays, which made its debut on 4 August 2011. Foodage traces Singapore’s food history in the years since independence through collective personal memories, home movies and photos, recapturing our lifestyle and food trends over the years.

Catch Ukelele Man, Dick Yip, better known as "Uncle Dicko" amongst his fans and readers of his blog The Wise Old Owl, as he entertains with his ukelele in Episode 2 of Foodage.

The second episode of Foodage, “Food to Roam”, will be on the air this evening (Thursday 11 August). A synopsis of the episode provided on its Facebook Page:

In the 60s, hawkers roamed the kampongs and the streets of urban Singapore. The children who grew up in this foodscape share their memories – the roving calls of these hawkers were music to their ears, and fed their seemingly insatiable appetites. Their memories – both pungent and poignant – are set against a turbulent backdrop of merger and independence, lawlessness and unemployment and the Big Fire. The food on offer in this episode includes, Indian rojak, wanton mee, kaya bread, mee siam and tuckshop tidbits. The Singaporeans sharing their stories, include Jerome Lim, Peter Chan, Shaik Kadir, Yeo Hong Eng, Andy Lim, Toh Paik Choo, James Seah, Lum Chun See, Aziza Ali, Dick Yip, Ong Yew Ghee, Ivy Lim-Singh, Geraldene Lowe-Ismail…. watch out for The Foodage sweet spot moment when the strains of the “lang tin ting” man of the 50s gives way to the “ukelele” man of the noughties.


Do follow Foodage on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/foodage

See also:

Andy Lim: Sounds n Music Of Food Hawkers

Lam Chun See: Foodage Episode 2 (Okto Channel, Thursday 11 Aug, 10 pm)






Adventures in a pill box

3 08 2011

Sifting through some old photographs, I found one of a machine gun pill box that I had as a young boy had many adventures in. The pill box, was one of many that were scattered along the southern coastline of Singapore and one that has all but disappeared (save for the one at Labrador Park) from the southern shores – most having been demolished in the early part of the 1970s. The particular pillbox that is the subject of the photograph, was one that was located close to the fishing village of Mata Ikan, in the days before land reclamation work commenced which added the extension to our southern shores which provided part of the land on which Changi Airport is built on.

The Pill Box at Mata Ikan in 1970.

Mata Ikan, of which I have mentioned in previous posts on the holiday bungalows my family used to frequent, and also in a post on Somapah Village which I always saw as a gateway to Mata Ikan, was for a while a playground for me, having spent many holidays by the sea in and around the area. It was where I first used a fishing rod – a simple bamboo one with a fixed length of line and a hook at its end, fishing for catfish by tghe stream which ran to the west of the holiday bungalows. What the photograph of the pill box evokes is a few memories I have of playing in the pill box with friends, pretending to be soldiers with a piece of drift wood picked up from the beach serving as a rifle, peeping out towards the sea through the openings at the front. There is also that memory of the stench one got from the pillboxes, the stench that probably came from the litter that lay rotting on the ground within the pill boxes. It is a stench I will never forget, but one that brings with it the memories of my adventures in another lost part of Singapore’s past.





Fading faces from a once familiar place

22 07 2011

Those who frequented Tanjong Pagar Railway Station would probably remember the many faces that were associated with the station in one way or another. The people behind the once familiar faces are the ones who brought life and activity to the old station and with the station’s closure, may soon be forgotten. This is my attempt to capture some of the faces in the days that led up to the 30th of June 2011 just to help with the memory of what made Tanjong Pagar Railway Station a station that will forever be in our hearts.


Posts on the Railway through Singapore and on the Green Corridor:

I have also put together a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station which can be found through this page: “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Do also take a look at the proposal by the Nature Society (Singapore) to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, at the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page. My own series of posts on the Green Corridor are at: “Support the Green Corridor“.






The sun sets over the rail corridor

21 07 2011

The 17th of July was a day when the railway corridor would have been seen in its original state for the very last time. The corridor, having been one of the few places in Singapore where time has stood still – little has changed over the eight decades since the railway deviation of 1932, would after the 17th see an alteration to it that will erase much of the memory of the railway, barely two weeks after the cessation of rail services through Singapore and into Tanjong Pagar. It was a railway that had served to remind us in Singapore of our historical links with the states of the Malayan Peninsula – the land on which the railway ran through having been transferred to the Malayan Railway through a 1918 Ordinance, a reminder that has endured well into the fifth decade of our independence.

The 17th of July offered most in Singapore a last chance to walk the tracks ... removal work started the following day with only a short 3km stretch of the tracks opened to the public unitl the end of July.

It was in the pale light of the moon that my last encounter with the railway tracks in the Bukit Timah Station area began.

The corridor is one that I have had many memories of, having had many encounters with it from the numerous train journeys that I made through Tanjong Pagar, as well as some from encounters that I had from my younger days watching from the backseat of my father’s car and also those that I had in clothed in the camouflage green of the army during my National Service. There are many parts of it that are special in some way or another to me, having always associated them with that railway we will no longer see, and the last day on which I could be reminded of this warranted a last glance at it, one that got me up well before the break of dawn, so that I could see it as how I would always want to remember it.

A scene that would soon only be a memory - the rail corridor on the 17th of July 2011.

It was at a short but very pretty stretch of the corridor that I decided to have a last glance at – a stretch that starts at the now empty and silent building that once served as Bukit Timah Station and continues south for another two kilometres or so. It was one that is marked by some of the most abundant greenery one can find along the corridor which even from the vantage of the train, is always a joy to glance at. Arriving in the darkness of the early morning, it was only the glow of the light of the waning but almost full moon that guided me towards the station which is now encircled by a green fence which I could barely make out. I was greeted by a menacing red light that shone from the end of the building, one that came from the security camera that even in the dark seemed out-of-place on the quaint structure that been the last place along the line where an old fashioned practice of exchanging a key token took place. The crisp morning air and the peace and calm that had eluded the corridor over the two weeks that followed the cessation of railway operations was just what I had woken up for and I quickly continued on my way down towards the concrete road bridge over the railway at Holland Road.

First light on the 17th along the corridor near Holland Green.

It wasn’t long before first light transformed the scene before me into a scene that I desired, one that through the lifting mist, revealed a picture of calm and serenity that often eludes us as we interact with our urban world. It is a world that I have developed a fondness for and one in which I could frolic with the colourful butterflies and dragonflies to the songs of joy that the numerous bird that inhabit the area entertain us with. It was a brief but joyous last glance – it wasn’t too long before the calm with which the morning started descended into the frenzy of that the crowds that the closing of the railway had brought. That did not matter to me as I had that last glance of the corridor just as I had wanted to remember it, with that air of serenity that I have known it for, leaving it with that and the view of the warm glow of the silent tracks bathed in the golden light of the rising sun etched forever in my memory.

First signs of the crowd that the closing of the railway brought.

A last chance to see the corridor as it might have been for 79 years.

For some, it was a last chance to get that 'planking' shot.

Signs of what lay ahead ... the secondary forest being cleared in the Clementi woodland area to provide access for removal works on the railway tracks in the area.

Weapons of rail destruction being put in place.

The scene at the truss bridge over Bukit Timah Road as I left ...

Despite coming away with how I had wanted to remember the rail corridor, I did take another look at another area of it that evening. It was at a that stretch that is just north of the level crossing at Kranji, one that would in the days that have passed us by, would have led to a village on stilts that extended beyond the shoreline, one of the last on our northern shores. The village, Kampong Lorong Fatimah, now lies partly buried under the new CIQ complex today, and had stood by the side of the old immigration complex. Today, all that is left of it beyond the CIQ complex is a barren and somewhat desolate looking piece of land, one that feels cut-off from the rest of Singapore. The stretch is where the last 2 kilometres of the line runs before it reaches Woodlands Train Checkpoint, an area that is restricted and one where it would not be possible to venture into. And it is there where the all train journeys now end – a cold and imposing place that doesn’t resemble a station in any way.

What's become of the last level crossing to be used in Singapore - the scene at Kranji Level Crossing with road widening works already underway.

Another view of the former level crossing, concrete blocks occupy the spot where the yellow signal hut once stood.

An outhouse - the last remnant of the crossing left standing.

Walking through the area, it would not be hard to notice what is left of the huge mangrove swamp that once dominated the area – evidence of which lies beyond a girder bridge (the northernmost railway bridge in Singapore and one of three that would be removed) that crosses Sungei Mandai Besar some 700 metres north of the level crossing. The corridor here for the first kilometre or so is rather narrow with a green patches and cylindrical tanks to the east of it and an muddy slope that rises to what looks like an industrial area to the west. It is through the area here that I pass what was a semaphore signal pole – the northernmost one, before coming to the bridge.

The scene just north of the crossing.

The northernmost semaphore signal for the crossing in Singapore.

The last trolley on the tracks?

The northernmost railway bridge - the girder bridge over Sungei Mandai Besar. The bridge is one of three along the line that will be removed.

Sungei Mandai Besar.

It is about 200 metres beyond the bridge that the corridor starts to fan out to accommodate a loop line which looked as if it had been in a state of disuse with sleepers and rails missing from it. To the east of this widened area, tall trees and a grassland line the corridor and to the west, line of dense trees and shrubs partailly obscures part of the mangrove that had once stretched down to the Sungei Kadut. It is just north of this that the relatively short trek comes to an abrupt end. On the approach to Woodlands Train Checkpoint, sandbags over what had been the main line and a huge red warning sign serving as a reminder of what lay ahead. It is at the approach to the checkpoint that two signs serve as barriers to entry. It is beyond this that one can see a newly installed buffer at the end of the main line, and it is in seeing this that the realisation that that now is the end of a line, not just for the railway that ran through Singapore, but also for that grand old station which now lies cut-off from the railway that was meant to elevate it to a status beyond all the stations of the Far East. With the physical link now severed, that promise would now never be fulfilled, and all that is left is a building that has lost its sould and now stands in solitude, looking somewhat forlorn.

200 metres north of the bridge, the corridor widens to accommodate a loop line.

Evidence of the mangrove that once dominated the area right down to Sungei Kadut.

The northernmost stretch of the corridor.

Walking the bicycle over the wide strecth just short of Woodlands checkpoint.

Dismantling work that was already in evidence.

Sandbags on what was the main line and a warning posted ...

The end of the line- Woodlands Train Checkpoint lies beyond the signs.

It was at this point that I turned back, walking quietly into the glow that the setting sun had cast on the railway corridor. It is at Kranji that the setting sun and the skies above seemed to have conspire to provide a fitting and brilliant show over the place where there had once been an equally colourful crossing with its yellow hut and old fashioned gate. It was in the golden glow of the sunset that I spotted a fmailiar face, one of a fellow traveller on that tearful final journey out of Tanjong Pagar on the morning of the last day of train operations through Singapore, Mr Toh. Mr Toh is one who has been travelling on the trains out of and back into Tanjong Pagar since he was one, was on his final nostalgia motivated journey that final day just as I was, and was at Kranji to complete a final leg of his own exploration of the entire length of the tracks through Singapore. We exchanged our goodbyes, at the same time saying one last goodbye to the railway, as night fell on the last level crossing that was used in Singapore, and on the railway corridor as we had known it for one last time.

A track back into the colours of the setting sun.

A final look south towards Kranji Road.

The view of the setting of the sun over the railway at Kranji Road.

Night falls over the railway corridor as we knew it for one last time.


Posts on the Railway through Singapore and on the proposal on the Green Corridor:

I have also put together a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station which can be found through this page: “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Do also take a look at the proposal by the Nature Society (Singapore) to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, at the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page. My own series of posts on the Green Corridor are at: “Support the Green Corridor“.






Lend your support to the Green Corridor – take a walk with the Minister of State (National Development)

8 07 2011

In a note on his Facebook Page, the Minister of State for National Development, BG Tan Chuan-Jin, revealed his plan to walk along the entire length of the former railway corridor from Tanjong Pagar Railway Station to Woodlands with “friends who feel passionately about this piece of land and the life around it” and has apparently invited members of the public to join him on his walk. He will commence his walk at 6am from the area of the tracks just by the Silat Estate area and in his note indicates some possible timings. This provides a wonderful opportunity for all who feel passionately about retaining what is now the former railway corridor as a continuous Green Corridor through Singapore that is accessible to everyone, to let yourselves be seen and have your voices heard. Do join the walk or parts of the walk with the Minister of State if you have the time. Based on information provided on the Facebook note, the schedule for the walk is as follows:

The walk is scheduled for Saturday 9 July 2011.

6.00am Silat Estate: Starts trek at Silat Estate [please click for map]
6.30am Should commence after hanging around and sorting ourselves out.
9.00am (6km from Start Pt): Reach Buona Vista MRT
10.30am (10.8km from Start Pt): Reach Bt Timah Railway Station
12.30am (13.6km from Start Pt): Reach Rail Mall
1.30pm Proceed with rest of the trek along the corridor
7.00pm End at Kranji Road (23km from start point). Easier access from here to exit.

To obtain updates directly from the BG Tan Chuan-Jin, do follow his twitter feed @chuanjin1.

I will also be tweeting as we go along, so do follow @JeromeKG on twitter to receive updates on the walk.

Join the MOS(ND) on a walk through the railway corridor to lend your support to the Green Corridor proposal this Saturday.


The Green Corridor:

The Green Corridor is an idea that is mooted by the Nature Society (Singapore) (NSS) to keep the railway corridor which extends through much of Singapore as a continuous green corridor, one that the railway has allowed thrive amidst the wave of urbanisation that has swept across much of the Singapore that the railway corridor runs through. A proposal was submitted to the Government of Singapore last October in which the NSS proposes that the corridor be allowed to be retained once railway operations through Singapore stops with the shifting of the terminal station of the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) in Singapore, to Woodlands. The idea also extends to the disused Jurong extension, part of which is currently under threat from the construction of a new road in the Faber Heights area near Clementi.

The NSS’ proposal can be found at this link. More information on the Green Corridor can also be found at The Green Corridor (website). You can also show your support for the Green Corridor by “liking” the We Support the Green Corridor Facebook Page.






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”.