“Lenin’s Tomb” at Raffles Place

17 01 2020

Constructed in an effort to beautify the city, the “underground” car park topped with a roof garden that came to define the Raffles Place of post-independent Singapore, came in for some criticism as it was nearing completion. Likened to Lenin’s Mausoleum, its critics even went so far as to suggest that it be used for the repose of Singapore’s distinguished citizens. Despite the early reservations, Raffles Place Garden – as it was christened, was a quite a joy to behold. With its floral clock, fountain and a backdrop provided by Raffles Place’s characterful buildings, the garden became what could be thought of as the 1960s equivalent of an instagram-worthy spot.

Christmas 1966 on the roof garden at Raffles Place, with Robinson’s behind.

That Raffles Place was certainly a place I connected with.  My visits there usually coincided with the preparations for the year-end season of giving, which invariably led to Robinsons Department Store’s quite memorable toy department. Large and well stocked, the department was every child’s dream. I looked forward to visiting each year, even if that meant having to catch sight of Father Christmas, whom I was terrified of. Out of Robinson’s famous Christmas lucky dip, I once pulled out an orange coloured battery-operated submarine. It was a prized toy, even if I had to contend with using it once every three months during our seaside holidays at Mata Ikan – in the holiday bungalow’s bathtub!

The promise of good food was another thing to look forward to when visiting Raffles Place. Makan time would on a special occasion, lead me to the Honeyland Milk Bar at Battery Road, which was just around the square’s northeast corner. There was always a sense of anticipation that I got as the parting of the café’s heavy doors delivered a cold rush of Worcestershire sauce scented air. The café’s chicken pies were to die for. I enjoyed the pies with a dash of tomato ketchup – which I never could quite manage to cajole out from the sauce bottle without some help.

Raffles Place’s little “corners”, which included Change Alley, added much to area’s unique charm. “Chin Charlie” to me and many non-English speakers like my maternal grandmother, it was a fascinating place to wander through and one of the places that made the Singapore of the 1960s, Singapore. The famous alley, which featured in films and in a BBC newsreel,  seemed to be always be full of life and for a while, laughter – emanating from numerous laughing bags being set off in the alley by its many toy vendors as a form of advertisement. Popular at the end of the 1960s, the toys took the form of tiny drawstring bags that contained sound boxes.

The Raffles Place end of Change Alley, 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

Little did I know it as a young child, but the laughter, along with the Raffles Place that I knew and loved would soon to see lasting change. A tragic fire in November 1972, which resulted in the loss of nine lives, also saw to Robinsons losing its iconic Raffles Chambers home it had occupied since 1941. The subsequent move – of Robinson’s to Specialists Centre in Orchard Road – also severed the store’s connection with the square, which could be traced back to 1858.

Raffles Chambers – before Robinson’s moved in.

By the time of the fire, the area had in fact already been in the cusp of change. At the glorious waterfront – Raffles Place “backyard”, the grand old turret-topped 1923 built Ocean Building had come down in 1970 to make way for a towering third. The 1923 Ocean – the second to stand on the site – was the forerunner of a building frenzy that would shape Singapore’s bund at Collyer Quay, which by the 1930s possessed a quality that could be compared to Shanghai’s more famous embankment. The second Ocean’s demise set a reversal of the process in motion. Two more of the waterfront’s grand 1920s edifices erected a year after the Ocean, Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers and Maritime (ex-Union Insurance) Building, would also make way for the new.

John Little’s Building early in 1946 – when it was used temporarily as the Shackle Club [source: Lizzie Ellis on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)].

On the square, one of its famous landmarks – John Little’s Building – was sold in 1973. This would lead to Raffles Tower (now Singapore Land Tower) being put up in its place. Incidentally, Raffles Tower when it was still under construction,  was the scene of a dramatic aerial helicopter rescue – the first in Singapore’s history. The rescue on 21 October 1980 came at a time when 19 out of tower’s intended 48 floors were completed. A fire broke out on the 18th floor, which left a crane operator stranded on a tower crane perched on the top of the uncompleted building some 60 metres above ground. The daring rescue effort saw the operator plucked from the crane’s boom to safety by the crew of a RSAF Bell 212 helicopter .

Singapore’s first helicopter aerial rescue was over Raffles Place on 21 October 1980.

Raffles Place would also lose its car park and roof garden not so long after this incident. A well-loved feature by that time, the garden’s lifespan fell short of the “many, many decades” that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had predicted it would last when he opened it in November 1965. The construction of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system just two decades later, meant that the structure and its garden, went the way of Raffles Place’s older icons in mid-1984.

Raffles Place – still with its garden – in the late 1970s. The former Mercantile Bank can be seen at the end of the square.

The building of the MRT also took out the other landmarks that could be identified with old Raffles Place. The former Mercantile Bank (built 1929) was one. The building, which marked the square’s southern end, had been purchased by Chartered Bank to house its Singapore headquarters while its 6 Battery Road HQ at the square’s opposite end, was being rebuilt. Chartered Bank’s new premises at 6 Battery Road, which was put up at the start of the 1980s incorporated a provision for the MRT to be built at a time when the question of whether the MRT should be built was still being deliberated.

Over a CBD in transition at the end of the 1970s. Renewal, redevelopment and reclamation would change the face of a part of Singapore that at the point of independence, had a certain old world charm (photo source: Panoramio).

Raffles Place today, wears a look of modernity reflective of Singapore’s impressive progress since the car park and its roof garden was unveiled. Cold as it may have become enclosed by the wall of towering symbols of success, Lenin’s tomb it is not nor a place of repose for the distinguished – other than the distinguished past. There are the reminders of the square that was replaced if one looks hard enough – found in the names that are retained and in some of the new structures that have come to define the new Raffles Place.


 

Raffles Place over the years

 

 

Raffles Place stands on the site of a hill that was levelled in 1822 to provide filler for the reclamation in way of the south bank of the Singapore River that provided the grounds for Boat Quay.

 

Raffles Place in the late 1800s. The garden seen in this G. R. Lambert print was one of Commercial Square’s early features, which was laid out, planted with trees and enclosed by a low wall and a wooden fence in the mid-1830s. The marble drinking water fountain seen in the photograph was the one presented by John Gemmill in 1864. The donation involved more than just the fountain as it required the laying of pipes from Mr Gemmill’s property at Mount Erskine to Raffles Place. The fountain originally had metal cups chained to it. The fountain, which now stands outside the National Museum of Singapore, found its way to Empress Place, before being moved to the museum in the 1970s.

 

Gemmill’s fountain – at the National Museum of Singapore.

 

Another G R Lambert print from the late 1800s. Originally Commercial Square, it was named Raffles Place by the Municipal Commission in 1858.

 

By the 1900s Raffles Place was well developed into a commercial and banking centre. This postcard view of Raffles Place in the 1930s shows several banking institutions established around in the square such as (from left to right): Mercantile Bank of India, Banque de l’Indochine (French Bank) and Yokohama Specie Bank (YS Bank in Meyer Chambers).

 

Preparations for war, 1941. A machine gun pillbox seen in front of a John Little’s Building fitted with brick barricades.

 

Air raid wardens are dousing an incendiary bomb in Raffles Place in 1941 as part of a regular weekly mass demonstration to make Singaporean’s bomb conscious and informed (source: Library of Congress – no known copyright restrictions).

A bomb damaged Raffles Place following the first Japanese air raid on Singapore on 8 Dec 1941.

 

Raffles Place in the 1950s, by which time stores such as John Little – established in the 1840s and Robinson’s, founded in the 1850s, were already very well established and were household names.

 

Plans for a garden at Raffles Place were first announced in Nov 1963 during a State Government policy address made by Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak to the Legislative Assembly – the first with Singapore a State in Malaysia and the last ever. Work commenced on what was to be a 150 car capacity underground car park topped by a roof garden in July 1964. By the time LKY opened the carpark and roof garden in Nov 1965, Singapore was an independent country. LKY expressed his disappointment that the car park had to be elevated a metre above the ground for ventilation and access and observed that some had likened one end of the structure to Lenin’s tomb. He also noted that there were also suggestions that “we might perhaps repose the precious remains of some of our more distinguished citizens in one end of this square”.

 

Mr David Ayres’ capture of Raffles Place in 1966, which made its rounds around the internet in 2012. The photograph shows the roof garden and looks towards the northern end of the square with the Chartered Bank Chambers on Battery Road at the far end (source: David Ayres on Flickr).

 

Another northward view – this one in 1969 courtesy of Mr Kim Hocker (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

The five-foot-way along John Little’s Building in 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

Trishaw riders outside Oriental Emporium at Raffles Place in 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

A view of the car park from street level with a staircase to the roof garden (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

The Malacca Street end of the car park and its location today.

A view towards the north end with MRT construction work, 1987 (National Archives of Singapore).

 

A northward view today. The John Little’s Building is replicated on the main entrances to the MRT.

 

A southward view of Raffles Place today.

 

The Singapore Land tower (R) – where the rescue of the crane operator took place in 1980.

 

One Raffles Place – which occupies the site of Robinson’s and Meyer Chambers.


 





A postcard from the past: Shaw House and Lido

29 06 2017

Another landmark of the Orchard Road that I loved was the old Shaw House. That, stood at the corner of Orchard and Scotts Road through the 1960s to the 1980s. What made the building special was the branch of The Chartered Bank that was housed on its ground floor, a branch that my mother frequented and one at which I obtained my favourite piggy bank that was modelled after the Disney cartoon character Donald Duck. Completed in 1958, the modern 10-storey block was lit the path for the eventual transformation of Orchard Road. It was one of two that the Shaw Brothers built, the other being Lido Theatre next to it – a cinema at which I caught many Pink Panther movies. In its latter years, Shaw House was also where a popular restaurant Copper Kettle opened.





A time machine to the Singapore of the 60s

31 05 2016

 

It is wonderful that technology allows the wealth of photographs that exist of a Singapore we no longer see to be shared. Those especially taken by those whose stay in Singapore was temporary, offer perspectives of places as they were that the local might have thought little of capturing. One of my favourite sets of photographs are those of a David Ayres. Shared through a Flickr album Oldies SE Asia containing some 250 photographs, they take us back to Mr. Ayres’ days in the Royal Navy and include many scenes of places of the Singapore of my childhood that I would not otherwise have been able to ever see again.

A part of Singapore we can never go back to. The view is of the waterfront and the Inner Roads from a vantage point just across the mouth of the Stamford Canal from Esplanade or Queen Elizabeth Walk. Land reclamation has since taken this view away, replacing it with a view that will include One Raffles Link and Esplanade Theatres by the Bay (David Ayres on Flickr).

Mr. Ayres interactions in Singapore came from his two stints at HMS Terror (now Sembawang Camp) in the Naval Base. The first in 1963/64, just about the time I was born, and again in 1966/67. Now 71, he finally managed a trip that he said he he just had to make having not been back to Singapore since he last saw it almost 50 years ago at the end of his second stint in 1967.

A HMS Terror (now Sembawang Camp) barrack block, one that is familiar to me as it was the same block I was accommodated during my reservist in-camp training stints in the 1990s (David Ayres on Flickr).

I managed to say a quick hello to Mr. Ayres during his short visit, managing a short chat with him at a coffee shop in what had once been Sembawang Village, an area that is quite well represented in Mr. Ayres’ set of photographs.  Once a busy area of watering holes, shops and makeshift eating stalls located just across one of the main entrances to the huge Naval Base – an entrance used especially by personnel headed to HMS Terror,  all that it has since been reduced to is the row of two-storey shophouses in which the coffee shop was at.

David Ayres (R), with Phil and Nora, the founder of Old Sembawang Naval Base Facebook group.

David Ayres (R), with his mate Phil and Nora, the founder of Old Sembawang Naval Base Facebook group, in the shadow of the Nelson Bar of today.

The Nelson Bar as seen in 1967 (David Ayres on Flickr).

It was interesting to learn that there was much Mr. Ayres could still recognise from his walk earlier in the day around the former Naval Base, a walk he did with his mate Phil with the help of Nora of the Old Sembawang Naval Base Facebook group. It is perhaps fortunate for Mr. Ayres that Sembawang, a part of Singapore he would have been most familiar with, is one of few places left in Singapore in which much of its past is still to be found in the present.

The Red House, as the Fleet Sailing Centre was referred to because of its red roof (David Ayres on Flickr).

The Red House today as seen from SAF Yacht Club. It's red roof tiles have since been replaced by green ones and the sea pavilion is now in a rather dilapidated state.

The Red House today as seen from SAF Yacht Club. It’s red roof tiles have since been replaced by green ones and the sea pavilion is now in a rather dilapidated state.

A good part of the base housing still remains intact, as do the former dockyard and stores basin, both of which still operating under another guise. Part of HMS Terror is also still around, a part that is visible over its perimeter fence. There also is the former “Aggie Westons” on the hill across from the dockyard gates. This saw use as the Fernleaf Centre in the days when the NZ Force SEA had troops based in Sembawang and is now in use by HomeTeam NS as a recreation centre. A sea pavilion, which served as the Fleet Sailing Centre in the days of the Naval Base, is also still visible from the SAF Yacht Club. Referred to as the “Red House” for its red roof tiles, the pavilion has since been turned green and as observed by Mr. Ayres, now looks rather dilapidated.

‘Aggie Westons’ in David’s time in Sembawang, it became Fernleaf Centre during the days of the New Zealand Force SEA and is today used by HomeTeam NS as a recreation centre. David made a stop here during his recent visit to Sembawang (David Ayres on Flickr).

As we poured over some photographs Mr. Ayres had printed over glasses of lime juice, he also made mention that the row of shophouses we were at had not been around during his first stint at HMS Terror. One of the area’s last additions, it had been put up before Mr. Ayres came back for his second tour. It is in the row that several bars including the Nelson Bar were housed and was a popular drinking spot for servicemen up to the days when the New Zealand forces had a presence in the area. It is also worth mentioning that the cluster of stalls found in the area, popular as stopover for personnel looking for a quick bite, was where the improvised hawker dish we know as Roti John is said to have originated from.

The cluster of food stalls at Sembawang Village, where Roti John was said to have been invented (David Ayres on Flickr).

Besides those in and around the Naval Base, Mr. Ayres captures include many other places that featured in my younger days; places in and around the city centre, then referred to as Singapore, as well as a few far flung places such as Changi. There are also scenes found in the set taken in peninsula Malaysia that are familiar to me from the drives my father was fond of making north of the Causeway. The photographs of the city centre have proved to be particularly fascinating to younger Singaporeans. One taken of Raffles Place in its landscape car-park rooftop garden days  in the direction of Battery Road, made its rounds in 2012, going viral in Singapore. One impression of the modern city that had replaced the one in his photographs that Mr. Ayres and his friend Phil had, was of seeing very few elderly people in it; this perhaps is a manifestation of the disconnect with the brave new world that the city centre has become many in the older generation feel.

IMG_5830

Mr. Ayres’ capture of Raffles Place in 1966 made its rounds around the internet in 2012 (David Ayres on Flickr).

Mr Ayres’ photographs have a quality that goes beyond simple snapshots. Well composed and often offering a wider view of the places he found himself in, they not only take us back to the places we once knew but also immerse us into the scene being captured. The photographs are for me, a means to travel back in time, back to the places I could otherwise have little hope of seeing again, and back to a world I would not otherwise have been able to go home to.

A street that once came alive in the evenings with its food offerings – the section of Albert Street at its Selegie Road end where Albert Court Hotel is today (David Ayres on Flickr).

An “Ice Water Stall” outside what is today the National Museum (David Ayres on Flickr).

The gate post and the Indian Rubber tree today. The tree has since gained the status of a protected tree, having been listed as one of Singapore’s 256 Heritage Trees.

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Changi Creek, 1966 (David Ayres on Flickr).

Changi Creek today.

Changi Creek today.

A familiar scene along Canberra Road that Mr. Ayres captured in 1966. The convoy of dockyard (and later Sembawang Shipyard) workers rushing home was seen into the 1980s (David Ayres on Flickr).

Jalan Sendudok in Sembawang. Notice that the Chinese characters used for Sembawang differ from those used today. The road, which still exists, has since been realigned (David Ayres on Flickr).

Where Selegie met Serangoon over the Rochor Canal, 1966. This photograph helps take me back to visits to Tekka market, the roof of which can be seen on the left of the photo, with my mother whenever mutton curry was on the menu (David Ayres on Flickr).

The same area today, Sans the open canal and and unfamiliar buildings, it now looks completely different.

The same area today, Sans the open canal and and now unfamiliar buildings, it looks a completely different place.

1966. The North Bridge Road that I knew, close to its junction with Bras Basah Road, close to where Jubilee and Odeon Theatres were, which would have been behind the photographer (David Ayres on Flickr).

The same area today.

The same area today.

Further down North Bridge Road in 1966 – a back entrance to Raffles Institution is seen on the left and the walls of the former Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (now CHIJMES) can be seen on the other side of the road (David Ayres on Flickr).

The same area today.

The same area today.

A river crossing in Malaysia in 1967. Not in Singapore but many from Singapore who travelled up north by road would have had this experience before road bridges across the major rivers were completed. One such crossing was at Muar. This existed up to the 1960s. My own experience was of two crossings on the road up to Kuantan in the 1970s and early 1980s. One had been at Endau, at which a tow boat similar to what is seen here was used. The other was a narrower crossing at Rompin that utilised a ferry pulled by wire-rope (David Ayres on Flickr).





Singapore in the 1960s – three blasts from the past

25 05 2016

Footage found online that take us back to a Singapore we have all but forgotten.

The first is a video posted online by Gary Porter on the Memories of Singapore Facebook group that shows the National Theatre crescent-shaped fountain, the fountain at Holland Circus and a gathering of hawkers. The second is an excerpt from a French / Italian 1967 movie Cinq gars pour Singapour or Five Ashore in Singapore that was filmed in Singapore in 1966 that takes has us take walk through one of my favourite childhood places, Change Alley. The third is from the 1967 British film Pretty Polly, which starred Hayley Mills and Shashi Kapoor.

 





Where dogs, politicians and the postman once met

6 11 2012

One of the quieter stretches of today’s Orchard Road has to be the less trodden path that takes one from Killiney Road towards what is today a four way junction with Buyong Road, across from where the Concorde Hotel (ex Le Méridien Hotel) is. Walking down it I am often taken back to a time when Orchard Road was a very different place, a place lined with car showrooms, the odd supermarket, and lots of old shophouses that lined both sides of what has today become a sea of malls, and when the stretch that I speak of was where the headquarters of the ruling political party, the People’s Action Party or PAP, had been located.

Orchard Circus in days when Orchard Road was a much quieter place. To the left of the clump of palm trees is where the entrance to the Istana is.

Map of general area today with overlay of road layout in 1978.

Besides the PAP having their headquarters there until 1978 (when they moved to another of their former HQs at Napier Road), the stretch was home to headquarters of the Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). The SPCA occupied a premises the entrance of which was by the side of a building that was the former Orchard Road Post Office (across from where Buyong Road met Orchard Road) – a sign over its entrance could not be missed. The former Orchard Road Post Office which was built in 1902, had by the time I got to see the building, long moved out when the Killiney Road Post Office (which opened in 1963) was built to replace it when that magnificent building it occupied proved too small (there were initial thoughts to expand the building – but due to limitations of the site, a new building was instead planned).

The shophouse lined stretch of Orchard Road is seen between Specialist Centre at the top of the picture and United Motor Works (building seen with the AC Spark Plug Advertisement – with words “Hot Tip”) in 1974 (source: http://picas.nhb.gov,sg). The gap in the buildings just beyond United Motor Works is where the SPCA / former Orchard Road Post Office was.

The former Orchard Road Post Office building in 1982, with the entrance to the SPCA next to it (from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009). The post office closed in 1963 when the Killiney Road Post Office was opened.

Another photograph of the SPCA on Orchard Road from the SPCA’s website.

The premises of the SPCA were used since the organisation moved to into in 1965 (although they had maintained kennels behind it since 1954 when it was still the RPSCA), paying a nominal $1 in rent per year. The kennels were one that were regularly visited by student volunteers including some of my classmates in primary school – I recall my mother dropping me off at the premises on a few occasions in 1976 when I did accompany a classmate who helped out at the SPCA. The SPCA’s premises was acquired for redevelopment in 1983 and the SPCA moved into their current headquarters at Mount Vernon built at a cost of $1 million with money obtained from the organisation’s fund raising efforts.

The area where the SPCA / Orchard Road Post Office was.

Approximate position of the former post office building / SPCA seen against what the area is today (image of Orchard Road Post Office from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

The stretch today bears little resemblance to the stretch back when the SPCA was there. Cleared completely of the buildings that had occupied it as well as with the realignment of the roads in and around it, it is hard to imagine what is today a relatively quiet and pretty green stretch, lined with shophouses all along to where its junction was with Clemenceau Avenue (where the Orchard Circus, which went in 1967) had once been.





The Tunnel

15 06 2012

In a part of Singapore where the remnants of an old world finds itself cloaked in the garments of the new, lies a relic that even in the new garment that it wears, is one in which I am often reminded of halcyon days that accompanied what is now a lost childhood. The relic, a now underused and largely ignored pedestrian underpass, is one that I am well acquainted with from those days, days when family outings often involved visits to the sea shore to enjoy the cool of the evening breeze. The Esplanade or Queen Elizabeth Walk, as Esplanade Park was more commonly referred to then, was a popular choice with my parents. Its stone benches provided a wonderful place to sit and enjoy the breeze, as well as a vantage from where we could watch the dance of lights, flickering lights of the ships in the harbour that coloured the darkness for as far as the eye could see.

The pedestrian underpass under Connaught Drive today – corrugated metal sheathing once lined its walls.

I had always looked forward to visiting the Esplanade. It wasn’t just for the sights it offered and the cool evening breeze, but also where there was chendol (a sinful dessert made with shaved iced, coconut milk, bits of green jelly shaped like worms and sweetened with palm sugar) to die for which came from a semi-circular food centre located close to where the Stamford Canal spilled into the sea. There were also the itinerant vendors to look forward to – the kacang putih seller with a table load of nut filled canisters balanced on his head and the balloon vendor who held up a colourful bunch of balloons that in the days when helium filled balloons were rare, were air-filled and held up by a long tubular balloon. It was however not the chendol or the vendors that would most interest me, but the underpass under Connaught Drive which my sister and I would refer to as ‘the tunnel’, a passage through which was always necessary to take us from Empress Place where my father would leave his car to the Esplanade. I would never fail to take the opportunity to stamp my feet as I passed through it, not in a show of temper, but to hear the echoes of the sound it made that bounced off the corrugated metal sheathing that had then lined the walls of the tunnel.

Singapore’s first overhead bridge in Collyer Quay, opened a month and a half after the underpass at Connaught Drive (source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

The tunnel, I have discovered, was completed in the days when Singapore was a part of its now northern neighbours. It was built to ease the flow of traffic which in stopping to allow pedestrians to cross, was reported to have backed-up all the way to the Merdeka Bridge. Those were days when Connaught Drive served as a main thoroughfare that took traffic (reportedly some 4,200 vehicles and hour at its peak) from Nicoll Highway into the commercial heart of the city. Built at a cost of some $85,000, the 28 metre tunnel which is about the width of a road-lane at 2.4 metres, was opened on 23rd February 1964 – just before Singapore’s first overhead bridge at Collyer Quay was completed in April 1964. This makes the underpass a historic one, being the first non-conventional (non-surface) pedestrian crossing built in Singapore. That fact is today is largely forgotten, as is the underpass. The recent developments in the area involving roads, public transport, and use of buildings in Empress Place, has seen pedestrian traffic in the area falling off, as well as vehicular traffic on Connaught Drive and the underpass in the context of all that does seem rather irrelevant. What greets me today, is a tunnel that stripped of its corrugated lining, vendors and beggars, contains not the echoes of today’s footsteps, but the silence of one that is forgotten.





Back to a time I have forgotten

10 05 2012

My entry into the world came in the still of the morning, at a time when the world beyond the delivery room had been anything but still. Insulated from tumultuous events that accompanied the first year of Singapore’s merger with the Malayan Federation by the oblivion of early childhood, life as I would remember it seemed anything but calm in the world where I had spent the earliest years of my life.

Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

That world is one that I have of late tried to reconnect with. It is a world of which I remember very little of – most of what I remember is associated with the Commonwealth Crescent area where I lived and of the walks I took with my parents in the area. Beyond that, it is the physical structures of the places as I remember them that I sometimes see in my memory, and ones that I have sought as a reminder of my connection to the place. Of the physical structures that I have long identified with the wider area, there were two beside the residential blocks that remain etched in my memory, across Commonwealth Avenue in what is commonly referred to as the Tanglin Halt area. One, a blue cylindrical tank – the gas holding tank of what had been the Queenstown Gasholder Station at Tanglin Halt, has long since disappeared, falling victim to the switch from City Gas production in the 1990s to imported natural gas. The other, also dominated by the blue of a prominent part of its structure, is thankfully still there, unaltered by the passage of time. That structure is that of a building that which some say is “more roof than building” – the Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

The church’s interior.

The church, with a very distinctive blue slate roof that dominates its structure, is one that I very much have an attachment to, being where I had been baptised all those years back. Standing out in an area that would have otherwise been dominated by the ramp of the road that has expanded beside it, the building was designed by James Gordon Dowsett of the architectural firm Iversen, Van Sitteren and Partners. Dowsett was the creator of two buildings that also become well recognised in their time – the old Shaw House and Lido Theatre. The design of the roof, said to resemble paper being folded in the art of origami, was inspired by the shape of a tent. This, based on information on the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) page on the conservation of the church, was to symbolise  the “tent of meeting” in the Old Testament. The page provides further information elaborating further that “the roof dips downwards to wrap the interior with portions touching the ground, reminiscent of anchoring pegs” which functionally also serve as drainage points for rainwater. More information on the church’s architecture and interior can be found at the URA Conservation of Build Heritage web page. The church which was blessed and officially opened on 8 May 1965 by the Roman Catholic Archibishop of Malacca and Singapore, Monsignor Michael Olcomendy, was gazetted for conservation on 25 November 2005.

Father Odo Tiggeloven, one of the church’s two founding priests, signing the baptism register in the Damien Hall.

Stepping inside the church, the warmness of the visual greeting provided by the soft light filtering through that casts a warm glow over the wood flavoured interior seems to also extend a spiritual welcome. I realised then that it had been a long while since I visited the church – not since I shifted away as a child of three and a half. As I looked around me, it was nice to see that the church is one that has stayed very much the same as it had been at its beginnings close to half a century ago. In that, it is also nice to know that in a world in which we have been quick to forget the past, there is a place that I can come to where the past hasn’t been forgotten.

Soft light filters through into the interior of the church.

One more view of the inside of the church.





A face that I still see

9 04 2012

One of my favourite roads to take a journey on in Singapore is a stretch of Mandai Road that has got to be one of the more gorgeous drives in Singapore. It is a stretch that takes you past an area that is reminiscent of an older world at its junction with Sembawang road, around a bend where the road starts to rise northwards to an area where a short stretch of it runs along a body of water that in reflecting the colours of the setting sun takes on the appearance of a magical world. It is a drive I have enjoyed for four decades now – my first encounters with the stretch dating back to the end of the 1960s when the road was diverted around what had been a newly expanded body of water – what then was Seletar Reservoir (now Upper Seletar Reservoir). Those first encounters had been ones that would have involved a visit to the area around the large dam that contributed to the reservoir’s expansion – then a manicured area that offered some wonderful views of the reservoir not just from the top of the 20 metre high dam, but also the panorama one got of it from the top of a newly constructed lookout tower which still stands today.

The lookout tower at what is today Upper Seletar Reservoir Park.

The area which later was developed into a park and the expanded reservoir, was opened by HRH Princess Alexandra in August 1969. The work to expand of the capacity reservoir which traces it origins back to the 1920s, resulted in an increase in its capacity from a previous expansion in 1940 by some 35 times, giving the northern fringe of Singapore’s Central Catchment Reserve a large and very picturesque body of water. This was made possible by the erection of a larger dam across the Seletar valley which required a part of Mandai Road to be diverted. The reservoir started its life as a temporary source of water supply which was developed out of an abandoned effort in the 1920s to build a third impounding reservoir on the island. Work on that was halted when it became apparent that it was feasible to draw on the abundant sources of water across the Straits in Southern Johor with pipelines to feed much-needed resource integrated into the construction of the Causeway. It was in 1940 that the reservoir was made a permanent one having its capacity expanded to feed the island’s growing population.

The expansion was made possible by constructing a larger dam across the Seletar valley.

The expansion of the reservoir in 1969 increased the capacity of Seletar Reservoir by some 35 times.

The work which commenced in 1967 to expand the reservoir, also allowed its position on the northern fringe the Central Catchment Reserve to be exploited to provide a recreational area around it with access to large parts of it possible by road. Besides the park with its now iconic tower that was constructed, plans were also drawn up to use an area to the north-west of the reservoir for a zoological gardens what is today the highly acclaimed Singapore Zoo.

Upper Seletar Reservoir seen here along Mandai Road is one of the more scenic areas of Singapore takes on a magical glow during the sunset.

The setting of the sun over Upper Seletar Reservoir.

It is for the climbs up the lookout tower that I would look forward most to on my early visits to the area, my first visit being in October 1969 on the evidence of photographs that I have taken of my sister and me. It wasn’t however only the tower that occupied me during my visits to the park – the slope of the dam was a constant source of delight with the grasshoppers that seemed to thrive in the grass that lined the slope. The slope – or rather the road that ran down from the top of the dam where the tower is along the slop of the dam was also where I once, in the foolishness of youth, responded to a dare to go down the road on my roller-skates. Finding myself gaining momentum after setting off, it was probably fortunate that I decided not to go through with the dare and managed to pull out of it by turning into a turn-off not far from the top of the slope. Sliding across the rough surface as I lost my balance in turning off at speed, I was bloodied and bruised with abrasions that ran down the entire length of my right leg and a little embarrassed, but quite thankful that I had decided not to go through with the dare.

Adventures of a five-year-old around the lookout tower at Seletar Reservoir (now Upper Seletar Reservoir) Park not long after it first opened in 1969.

The road down from the top of the dam. I made an attempt to roller-skate down the road (which then did not have the gate we now see across it). I managed to turn at a turn-off to the car park (seen just beyond the gate).

The park today is one that I still frequent, not so much for the tower which does still somehow fascinate me, but for the escape it offers from the concrete world that I find myself now surrounded by. And, in those escapes that I take, it is comforting to find that in a Singapore where the relentless winds of change have rendered many places of my childhood for which I had a fondness for unrecognisable, the area beneath the changes it has seen in the four decades that have passed, is a face from that world that I still am able to see.





Under the Flyer

7 03 2012

One experience that many who lived in or visited Singapore back in the days when Policemen did wear shorts, often look fondly back to, is that of dining on the streets. In those days, whole streets and car parks would magically be transformed into bustling eating places as night fell. The invasion would first be led by the army of push-carts laden with the raw ingredients that would be turned into scrumptious street fare, and the load of stools and foldable tables that would seat hungry patrons. As day turned to night, the concentrations of pushcarts, with tables arranged in front of them, would turn the otherwise dark and dingy streets into a sea of light and shadow, as diners began to fill the tables that never quite seem to sit firmly on the ground, greedily wolfing down what lay in front of them. It was in this hot, sticky and less than sanitary environment, in the glow of kerosene pressure lamps, and flicker of flames that leapt from under the blackened woks against which the almost musical and somewhat rhythmic clang of spatulas being furiously moved would be made, that many popular hawkers acquired and perfected their art. For those who dared to brave not just the conditions, but also the often ill-mannered assistants one needed to shout orders at, the reward wasn’t just the fare on offer, but the unforgettable atmosphere that unfortunately could not be replicated in the more sanitary food centers the same hawkers were to eventually move to.

Silhouettes against the spotlight - the Singapore Food Trail livens up the recreation of the 1960s street dining atmosphere by brining in various forms of street entertainment - not necessarily from the 1960s, from time to time.

The Singapore Food Trail brings the experience of street dining back to Singapore.

There are many who lived through those heady days of a Singapore in transition who now look back and realise that the relentless pace of change has consigned much of what made Singapore, Singapore, to seemingly distant memories. There is a current wave of nostalgia that sees attempts to bring some of the experiences that would otherwise be lost back. One such attempt is the Singapore Food Trail at the Singapore Flyer, a 800-seat themed food court which attempts to take the diner back to the days of dining on the streets of the 1960s Singapore. Walking through the Singapore Food Trail, it is easy imagine that you are where the setting aims to place you in. Old style tables and chairs – maybe not the type you might have found used on the streets, set against a disordered backdrop of push-carts that are the food stalls, each different to give a feel of what it might once have been like, arranged in front of what appears to be shop houses and five-foot ways. No effort has been spared in trying to recreate the atmosphere – all around, there are those reminders of that forgotten world that many would recall with fondness – the very recognisable logos of famous brands, old style signboards, bamboo chicks (blinds) painted with logos that were commonly seen providing shade to coffee shops and sundry shops, and lots of paraphernalia from those days of old. Help was enlisted from the likes of clan associations as well as some of the owners of the famous brands (including Nestlé Singapore in recreating signboards and signs to lend an air of authenticity to them. The push-carts serve up fare from what perhaps are the who’s-who of today’s hawkers – hand picked from over 100 who applied. It is also amongst the stalls where some old time favourites – ice-balls, kacang putih and bird’s nest drink, await rediscovery.

It is easy to imagine that one is immersed in the atmosphere of the 1960s street dining scene at the 800 seat Singapore Food Trail.

One of the things I enjoy about dining “under the flyer” (some may recall a very popular hawker – the Whitley Road Food Centre which was located in the shadows of the Thomson Road flyover which was commonly referred to as “Under the Flyover“), are the attempts to also liven up the “streets” with various forms of entertainment – some of which would have been a common feature of the 1960s, as well as some forms which are more common these days that have evolved from some of what we did occasionally see on the streets. This included the very well received Teochew Opera performances by the Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association in July of last year, and over the last weekend, a Getai Extravaganza.

吴佩芝 (Wu Pei Zhi) on stage. Kitsch as it may seem, Getai has a wide reach in Singapore.

Love it or hate it – some find the form of entertainment crude and even kitsch, Getai (歌台) has firmly established itself as a very popular form of street entertainment in modern day Singapore. It had its roots not in the 1960s, but in the 1970s when waning interest in Chinese puppet shows and opera performances which were features of temple festivals and seventh month (Hungry Ghosts festival) auctions saw them being replaced by live variety shows which came to be referred to as Getai, which translates into “Song Stage”.

A pair of twins, the Shinning Sisters (闪亮姐妹) were among the performers for the night.

吴佩芝 (Wu Pei Zhi).

The 3 day Getai Extravaganza brought in by the Singapore Food Trail was one that saw many well know personalities in the getai scene – both emcees and performers, and based on the the crowd it attracted and the reaction of the crowd which counted both young and old in it, was a huge success. Sunday’s show was hosted by Marcus Chin (陈建彬) and Lin Kai Li (林凯莉), and featured performances by Zhan Yuling (詹玉玲), Shun Qiang (孙强), the Shining Sisters (闪亮姐妹), Desmond Ng (黄振隆), Ting Ting (婷婷), Wu Pei Zhi (吴佩芝), Zhang Xiong (张雄), as well as an impersonation of the comedy pair Lao Fu Zi and Da Fan Shu (老夫子与大番薯). Most of the audience at Sunday’s show were glued to their seats throughout the evening which also attracted a large number of bystanders as well as had those manning the stalls off their seats. Although I am not a huge fan of Getai myself, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the entertainment provided at the show and it definitely was for me, a Sunday evening that was well spent.

Emcees for the evening, Marcus Chin (陈建彬) and 林凯莉 (Lin Kai Li).

Marcus Chin had many in stitches.

Desmond Ng (黄振隆).

The Shinning Sisters on stage.

Some of the members of the audience were off their feet.

The impersonation of Lao Fu Zi and Da fan Shu had many laughing ...

... including those manning the stalls.





A long forgotten place

24 02 2012

I have had a wonderful childhood that has filled me with many memories of a world of which very little still exists and I am always glad when I am able to rediscover a place from the past that I am able to feel a connection with. While much of my memories of growing-up are associated with that wonderful and eventful time I spent in Toa Payoh, it wasn’t Toa Payoh that I first called home, but what was Singapore’s very first satellite town, Queenstown.

The block of flats that I lived in from 1964 to 1967 along Commonwealth Crescent in Queenstown.

Commonwealth Crescent in 1967 - the blocks of flats including the one that I lived in are still around - except that upgrading has given them a new face.

It was in a flat rented from the Housing and Development Board (HDB) in Queenstown – 104E, Block 102 Commonwealth Crescent, in which I had spent my earliest days. It was a flat that served as home for 3 years or so, while my parents were in a queue for the flat that was to be my home in Toa Payoh. It was one that I have but vague memories of – remembering only how simply furnished the flat was and the linoleum sheet flooring that was used to cover the cement floor. There are also a few memories that I have always held with fondness – those of my interactions with my maternal grandfather with whom I had been very close to and who passed on not long after we moved to Toa Payoh. One involved my first memory of pressing the buttons in the lift from the safety of my grandfather’s arms as we made way home from the daily walks that I always enjoyed.

The part of the block of flats that I lived in for the three earliest years of my life.

The simply furnished flat with the linoleum flooring that was commonly found then.

Wandering around the area recently, I was hit with the realisation of the time that has passed since I had last interacted with it. There is very little left to remind me of the place I had once called home, even the blocks of flats in the neighbourhood – all of which are still there bear little resemblance to the ones that I have known, having been through a round of upgrading which has also seen a new market building built in place of the old.

The Commonwealth Crescent area today has changed from the one that I lived in.

The Commonwealth Crescent market has been rebuilt.

There is one unit in the rows of shops (which are still there) that surround the market that I have particular memories of – that of a General Practitioner’s clinic, probably due to the frequency with which I must have visited it – being prone to bouts of coughs on the basis of what my parents have told me. Sadly I was to discovered that the clinic – the Lim Clinic, is no longer there where it was Block 117 – the unit is now occupied by a bakery. On the basis of what two contributors to “On a little street in Singapore” mentioned, the clinic closed with Dr. Lim’s passing not too long ago. In spite of a distaste I had developed for any liquid that was held in those cork topped small glass bottles that Dr. Lim dispensed, I somehow looked forward to the visits to the clinic – the large glass jar filled with colourful sweets that stood on his table would probably have been responsible for that.

Lim Clinic I understand closed with the passing on of Dr. Lim - a bakery now occupies the unit.

There is this one memory that I have of my interactions with my neighbours – that of playing in the home of a boy of about my age a few doors away. I don’t remember anything of the boy except that he was my one and only friend from my brief stay in the neighbourhood and it was with him that I remember crawling under the dining table and a cot in his flat.

Commonwealth Crescent, 1967.

Beyond the neighbourhood, one of the places I visited was the town centre in the Margaret Drive area that was just across Queensway from where we lived. My parents took many evening strolls to the area with me in tow. What I do remember of the strolls is that they usually involved a visit to Tah Chung Emporium which must have been the place to go to in the area at that time. I probably recall the visits to the emporium more than anything else for the growth of my marble collection they were responsible for – marbles which my father would buy to line the bottom of his the tropical fish tank he maintained – a part of which would be given to me.

Much of the Margaret Drive area where the Queenstown Town Centre was has been flattened.

Speaking of Queensway, there is something unrelated to my stay in the area that comes to mind – ‘White Discs’ as my father would refer to them, or Vehicle Entry Permits. There was a time when Singapore registered vehicles crossing over the Causeway to Malaysia were required to have a valid permit – a white disc about the size of our road tax disc which a driver needed to display on the windscreen in the same way as a road tax disc. It was at the crest of the road at which a colonial bungalow had stood in what was Holland Park – one that would have belonged to the Malaysian High Commission and one in which a Malaysian Registrar of Motor Vehicles’ Office was located that saw queues of Singaporean motorists forming – particularly in and around the holiday season, waiting in line to apply for a permit. The need for the permit was scrapped by the Malaysian Authorities as of the 1st of May 1986.

Motorists waiting in line to apply for a Vehicle Entry Permit at the Malaysian Registrar of Motor Vehicle's office at Holland Park in the 1970s. The entrance to the bungalow in which the office was housed in was off Queensway (source: National Archives of Singapore).

Although time has erased or altered much of what I do remember in the area – there is still that bit of it that’s left to remind me of that different world in which I had spent my early years. It is nice to see that most of the buildings of the neighbourhood, although wearing different faces, are very much still there – something that cannot be said for the area around where Tah Chung was. In that area though, there is a cluster of buildings that’s left that bring back memories of encounters that perhaps I wish not to be reminded off – the cluster that was premises of the Queenstown Combined Clinics – buildings to which I would visit for only one reason – that dreaded inoculation. That would probably explain the reluctance I have long had for visiting the long forgotten area which I have sought to rediscover all too late.

The former Queenstown Combined Clinics.





A night at the Opera

4 07 2011

Teochew that is! I had the opportunity to do something I’ve always wanted to do … get up close and personal with the performers at the back of the wayang stage, and with the kind invitation of the URA’s Marina Bay Singapore and the Select Group’s Singapore Food Trail, I got to do just that over the weekend. The behind the scenes visit allowed a group of us to watch and photograph performers of the Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association backstage (on an authentic wayang stage borrowed from the Pulau Ubin opera troupe) as they went through their routines in getting dolled up for the evening’s performance. The performances were part of the Singapore Food Trail’s initiatives to bring back the good old days of Singapore in what was termed as “A Night of Nostalgia” to bring us back to the heyday of Teochew Opera on the streets of Singapore in the 1960s.

The Singapore Food Trail aims to bring the atmosphere of the streets of the Singapore of the 1960s with authentic street hawker fare in a 1960s setting under the Singapore Flyer.

The colours that the various genres of Chinese operas (often referred to locally as “wayang”) brought to the streets of the Singapore of old, if not for anything else, always were a visual treat. They were a huge draw, bringing with them the entourage of mobile vendor providing a carnival like atmosphere each time they came to the area. My maternal grandmother with her lack of the command of any other language other than her native Bahasa Indonesia was a huge fan, often dragging me along in my early years as her companion. And even when I could never sit quite still below the wayang stage as the performers went about their routines, I was a more than willing companion to my grandmother as I could never resist the reward of a drink from the bird’s nest drink vendor which more often than not was a sweetened drink with bits of jelly in it which was made to taste like the real thing, and also a visit to the toy vendor from which I could get my hands on items such as a sword made of paper mache that split into two lengthwise when it came out of the paper mache scabbard.

Street operas were a favourite of my maternal grandmother. Performers from the Thau Yong Amateur Musical Associationare seen performing an excerpt from The Fragrant Handkerchief on an authentic stage at the Singapore Food Trail.

What sometimes fascinated me on the stage were the costumes and the make-up of that the performers had on. The painted faces sometimes terrified me, so much so that back then, I never could never muster up the courage to peek backstage where the performers would have their make-up done well before the performances started, even as many boys in my neighbourhood did. That was something that I thought I would never be able to do again as I grew up, wayangs became less common as Singapore’s rapid urbanisation resulted in many traditions being lost to modernisation. When I had heard of the troupe that is still performing on Pulau Ubin earlier, I had actually wanted to visit Pulau Ubin, even though I am not what one might consider to be a big fan, to immerse myself in atmosphere of being around once again, which perhaps I hope will transport me back to the carefree days of my childhood, and I was plesantly surprised when I got an invitation to watch one at the Singapore Food Trail and at the same time sample the street fare that I imagined was long lost. What was a huge bonus was the opportunity provided by the organisers as well as with the kind permission of the Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association, to watch and photograph the performers as they got their faces painted and hair done up on an authentic wayang stage. Being backstage was fascinating and I took it all in with the excitement of a child … taking lots of photographs some of which I have added to this post. What was equally fascinating was watching the performances which I thoroughly enjoyed and have perhaps Pei Yun of Oceanskies to thank for enlightening me on the excerpts that were being performed. I can also say that at the end of the evening performances I have become a little bit of a fan … Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association I understand in celebrating the 80th anniversary this year – I do hope that they are able to see at least another 80 and many more years to allow them to continue the excellent effort in keeping what is a dying tradition alive for our future generations.

The scene backstage about 3 hours before the performances.

A make-up artist helping a performer with her make-up.

The eyes have it ...

Two performers having their initial make-up done. Lipstick would be applied after dinner.

A peek backstage ...

A performer having make-up around her eyes done.

A peek outside ...

More eye work ...

A mirror to the face of a performer.

The hair is done after the initial make-up is applied.

Make-up and hair done ... but not the lips yet.

A male performer having his make-up done.

A female performer applying her initial make-up.

The hair being done for another performer.

Finishing touches on the hair.

Two performers sharing a lighthearted moment ...

Another performer relaxing during the preparations.

Putting her headdress on.

The female lead performer all dolled up.

The scholar ...

A female performer.

Full battle order.

The audience were treated to Teochew melodies before the Teochew Opera performance.

The performances were on an authentic wayang stage borrowed from the Pulau Ubin troupe.

Audiences young and old were enthralled.





That plain looking building that got us to stop …

24 03 2011

(at two that is!)

Passing by Dunearn Road the other day, I noticed a building that had I had forgotten about that once stood prominently close to the junction with Newton Circus. It was a building that stood out not so much as a great piece of architectural work, but one that was built on simple lines that reflected the frugality of the uncertain times during the era in which it was built. I was pleasantly surprised to find it still there, as many of its fellow buildings of the era had since made way for the wave of modernisation that has swept through Singapore.

The plain white building at the corner of Dunearn Road and Gilstead Road.

The building was when I was growing up, occupied by the Singapore Family Planning Board, serving as the board’s headquarters, right up until 1985, when the Board was closed and its work passed on to the Ministry of Health. The Board itself was formed in 1966, taking over the work of a voluntary organisation, the Singapore Family Planning Association (formed in 1949), which the building was originally built for, having been allocated the plot of land at the corner of Duneran and Gilstead Roads in 1963. The building was completed in 1968 by which time the Board had taken over from the Family Planning Association.

The building which now houses several health support groups including the Breast Cancer Foundation and the National Stroke Association, started its life as the headquarters of the Singapore Family Planning Board in 1968.

A side view of the building.

I suppose that most of my generation would remember the Board’s efforts in the 1970s more than the building, with its distinctive logo and its slew of posters and slogans which one really couldn’t miss, which sought to remind us with what was usually a picture of two girls, that, “Girl or Boy, Two is Enough”. This was everywhere, and with the powers of persuasion that most couldn’t really afford to ignore, the programme was one of the more successful ones, which many now feel contributed to the current low birth rate amongst Singaporeans. The campaign had been part of the Board’s second (of three) five year plans, launched in 1971, the first being aimed at selling the idea of family planning to 60 percent of married women aged between 15 and 44, and the third being to persuade the young to delay marriage and have children later. Based on available statistics, the success of the policies initiated by the Board can be seen in the total fertility rate falling from 3.07 in 1970 to 1.82 at the start of the 1980s. The total fertility rate in 2010 was 1.16.

Posters produced by the Family Planning Board over the years (source: National Archives of Singapore).

The National Family Planning Programme was launched with the formation of the Board in 1966 (source: http://www.healthcare50.sg).

The building which today houses several health support groups that includes the Breast Cancer Foundation, the Singapore National Stroke Association and the Epilepsy Care Group Singapore, has for a while, faded into its surroundings despite having once had a prominent position close to Newton Circus, being in the shadow of the flyovers over Newton Circus that now dominate the area. Chances are, it will soon fade altogether, being in a prime residential area … to be replaced by a luxury apartment block that the area seems to have welcomed, and with it, some of the memories we have of a programme that went too well …

A signboard belonging to the National Stroke Association in front of the building.

The porch at the entrance to the building.





Reflections on Old Kallang Airport (Singapore Biennale 2011)

18 03 2011

[Do note that if you are planning a visit to the Biennale at Old Kallang Airport, the entrance is at Stadium Link, off Geylang Road, a short walk away from Kallang MRT Station. A link to a Google Map with the specific location of the entrance can be found at the end of this post].


Glancing at the headline of yesterday’s article on page 2 of the Life section of the Straits Times, which read “Biennale’s Kallang site not ideal. Visitors say that Old Kallang Airport, one of four venues for the art event, is difficult to get to and very stuffy”, and the lack of interest that is apparent at the venue so far with the exception of Saturday’s Open House Opening Party, one certainly can’t help but have a feeling that the choice of the site of the Singapore’s first civil airport, Old Kallang Airport, wasn’t a good one. I for one, did not mind the absence of a crowd, as that provided me with an opportunity to explore the marked historic site at leisure taking in as much as I could, grateful for the opportunity to explore buildings that I had previously only glanced at from behind a fence. In walking around, I couldn’t help but feel that it was a brilliant idea to do so, not just from the perspective of providing the public access to what had for long otherwise been a closed-off site, but also that the site was ideal for such an event, providing the spatial requirements required that does not exist in the confines of the museum buildings and sites in the city centre. Yes, maybe the site does seem a world away from the convenience of the city, but it isn’t really too far away and readily accessible via public transport, with the Kallang MRT station being a short enough walk away from the entrance to the site. Perhaps what is lacking isn’t the convenience that some have voiced their opinions about, but the information that the public needs to know.

The sign at the entrance of Old Kallang Airport.

The entrance of Old Kallang Airport.

I guess I am one for old places, especially the few that reamin that I can identify in some way from the childhood I had in a Singapore time has erased. The distinctive terminal building of the old airport with its control tower, which by the time I arrived in the world, was used by the People’s Association (PA) as its headquarters, had always been one that I had associated with Kallang and the Nicoll Highway, rising on the left of the east bound carriageway of Singapore’s first highway built after the airport had ceased operations. That would be the approach to the old Guillemard Circus and the wonderful neon signs that I somehow associate with the roundabout. There were many times that I had passed the building on foot as well, cutting on the side of it through from Kallang Road on the way to the National Stadium to catch a match or in the two months that I would have walked by on an almost daily basis on the way to Jalan Bennan Kapal. The tower adorned with the rings of the PA’s logo, had always caught my eye, rising somewhat defiantly and proudly to remind us of its past as Singapore’s first civil airport all those years back.

The distinctive terminal building which is a landmark in the area.

Another view of the terminal building.

The entrance gate to the terminal building.

Perhaps the inspiration for this set of photographs ... a work on display in the terminal building.

The reminders of its previous role had been everywhere, with names such as “Old Airport Road” and Dakota Crescent around. So even with me not having seen it used as an airport, I had been aware of it since I could remember … The airport had I was to discover, was built as an airfield on the site of land reclaimed from the swampy Kallang Basin in 1937 at the cost of S$9 million. It was opened very grandly by the then Govenor of Singapore, Sir Shenton Thomas, who flew in from Seletar for the occasion with some 70 aircraft there to mark the occasion. The location next to the Kallang Basin proved useful as it also allowed seaplanes to land. It was used by the Japanese who built a paved runway during the occupation, and refurbished by the British on their return. And although there were plans to expand and upgrade the airport the the end of the 1940s and early 1950s, it was thought that effort involved would prove too costly and Kallang was abandoned for a new inetrnational airport at Paya Lebar. Paya Lebar started operations in 1955 and that saw the last of Kallang as a civil airport, with the PA moving into the site in 1960. On the evidence of old photographs, the hangars were used by the Public Works Department (PWD) after the airport closed. The bulk of the location of the main runway was then transformed into Kallang Park one which the Oasis Restaurant, Wonderland Amusement Park and later the National Stadium, Indoor Stadium and Kallang Leisuredrome was built.

The main hangar next to the West Block.

The West Block and the main hangar off the window of the terminal building.

A smaller hangar, once used as a second hand car showroom.

An auxiliary building.

Another view of the smaller hangar.

It was certainly nice to walk around the old site and reflect on this, and hence the theme of this post … much of the old airport grounds that are left have been left in not so much its original state, but in a state that perhaps the PA had left them in – which I thought wonderfully complemented the exhibits. That also meant a lot of the wear and tear was evident from not just the use of the buildings by the PA, but the hangars by used car dealers at some point in time – I remember seeing them still at the end of the 1990s passing by after a concert at the Indoor Stadium. That provided me with an alternative view of the buildings – reflected off puddles of water and off windows and mirrors. I certainly did not get enough of it on the two occasions that I visited and I will certainly return for more.

A Toast Box cafe set up in one of the smaller hangars.

The side of a hangar.

The roof of the smaller hangar.

The main hangar.

Ventilation openings on the side of the main hangar.

The inside of the main hangar.

Roof of the main hangar.

Windows on the side of the main hangar.

Windows on the side of the main hangar.

Some of the auxiliary buildings on the premises - I understand that these were used by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra in the 1990s.

A newer auxiliary building ... perhaps added in the 1950s as an expanded air traffic control centre.

A peek under a marquee.

Another view of the terminal building and an auxiliary building.

A reflection of the East Block on a mirror mounted on an auxiliary building.

A last look ....

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What’s to become of Old Kallang Airport? Thankfully, we should see that it is conserved for our future generations – it would be nice to see it turned into some kind of aviation museum though:

URA Letter to the Strait Times, 5 Mar 2010

URA has plans for old Kallang Airport site

I THANK Mr Edwin Pang for his Forum Online letter last Friday, 'Turn site into civil aviation heritage centre'.

The former Kallang Airport is located within Kallang Riverside, which is envisioned to be a new lifestyle hub at the fringe of the city area under the Urban Redevelopment Authority's (URA) 2008 Master Plan.

The former Kallang Airport passenger terminal building with its distinctive art deco structure, as well as the office buildings, former hangar, Old Airport Square and other historical structures, was designated a heritage area and conserved in 2008 to preserve memories while allowing for a new lease of life.

In future, they will be adapted to new uses as part of a future development centred on the conserved Old Airport Square, offering a wide range of lifestyle, entertainment and retail facilities.

In January, the Singapore Biennale committee announced that it was considering the former Kallang Airport as a venue for the festival next year. URA and the Singapore Land Authority are glad that the artistic community has found heritage buildings to be suitable venues for contemporary art events. Past editions of the Biennale were also held in heritage environments.

The synergy between heritage buildings and contemporary arts is useful in bringing the awareness of our conservation buildings to the wider public and helps to endear our heritage buildings to Singaporeans.

Hwang Yu-Ning (Ms)
Group Director (Physical Planning)
Urban Redevelopment Authority


Getting to Old Kallang Airport:

The entrance to Old Kallang Airport is located at Stadium Link, off Geylang Road and is a ten minute walk from Kallang MRT Station. Please click on this link for the specific location.






The Changi Village that I loved

29 10 2010

One of the places that I would always have a place in my heart for, is the Changi Village that had occupied the many weekends of my early childhood. It was a place that, like much of the Singapore that I had developed a fondness for in my childhood, exists only in the memories of those who had known it as had once been. It was a place which offered many an escape from the hustle and bustle of the expanding city, a world set far apart somehow from the rest of Singapore with a laid back attitude and a sense of calm that was starting to disappear from much of the rest of Singapore. The main street of the village was lined with the two distinctive rows of mainly zinc topped wooden shops, almost like a scene perhaps from the Wild West, offering more than an escape to some such as my mother, who often enjoyed a lazy Sunday afternoon stroll trawling through the often colourful displays of goods at the front of the shops before heading to the beach to bathe in the cool evening breeze. For many, there was the draw of chilling-out after the exertions of trawling the five-foot ways, not so much in Wild West styled saloons we might had imagined were there, but in the many chilling-out spots such as the Millie’s Coffee House, a household name in Changi Village in those days.

The five-foot way of a row of shops which one could take a lazy Sunday afternoon stroll along, c.1972 (photo courtesy of Derek Tait).

It would probably be hard to visualise how Changi Village might once have been without the photographs that exist, and what we do see of the remake of the village that (if we ignore the weekend crowds), still offers an escape from the concrete jungle that Singapore has become, bears little resemblance to that old laid back village. Now, four low-rise blocks of HDB flats that replaced the wooden shacks in the mid 1970s dominate the village. Despite the more urban feel that Changi Village now exudes, it is still for many, a place to chill-out, with the many food and beverage outlets and the ever popular hawker centre a big draw. There are also those little reminders of the good old days when the village was a hub of activity being a destination for the many RAF servicemen and their families stationed at the airbase in Changi. Some of the shops that had existed then are still present in one form or another. There are also similar shops that existed as before, offering supplies for the beach or for a spot of fishing, set amongst the new world shops such as the convenience stores that are more commonly seen these days, and the sight of inflatable floats and toys colouring the shop fronts, much as they did in the days gone by still greet the visitor today.

How Changi Village had looked like before the four low-rise HDB blocks of flats replaced the two rows of mainly zinc roofed wooden shop houses (source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

The village is today dominated by the four low-rise HDB blocks that came up in the later part of the 1970s, replacing the wooden shacks that were demolished in 1973.

The present hawker centre is popular with many visitors to Changi Village.

The colourful sight of displays of inflatable floats and toys still greet the visitor to the remake of Changi Village, much as they might have done in the good old days.

The memories that I have of the village come from my frequent trips there with my parents, and besides the lazy Sunday afternoon strolls, there were also many stopovers to pick up supplies for a beach picnic or the odd butterfly net with which we could harvest the fruits of the sea that the seaweed, sea cucumber and starfish decorated sandy seabed offered those who did not mind walking with a soggy pair of sneakers. On several occasions, trips there would have been on the excursions from the holiday bungalows that my parents often stayed at during the school holidays at Mata Ikan and Tanah Merah before the idyllic coastline they were set in was lost to land reclamation that allowed Changi Airport to be built. There are still some of the souvenirs of the strolls, which, in the form of the photo albums that hold some memories of not just my days in the idyllic coastline, but also of much of my childhood, are some of my most treasured possessions.

A shop in Changi Village shop c.1972 (photo courtesy of Derek Tait).

The cover of one of the photo albums that are souvenirs of the lzay Sunday afternoon strolls along the five foot ways of the wooden shacks that lined the main street of Changi Village.

One of the shops that I remember – possibly for the unusual name it had, was a shop named “L Gee Lak” – as kids, some of the children of my parents friends with whom we sometimes went on picnics with and I would often poke fun at the name, referring to the shop as “Lembu Gila“, Malay for “Mad Cow” – having one particular memory of sitting in the back seat of a yellow Saab 96 that one of the parents owned that was parked right in front of the shop and laughing along to the chorus of “Lembu Gila” that rang out from my companions seated beside me. There were also quite a number of shops that offered tailoring services as well – there would have been a big demand for such from the members of the British Forces that frequented the village … there was one that I remember – with a signboard that read “Singh Tailor” and at the bottom of the signboard, there were the words “Proprietor: Baboo Singh”. The tailor shop later moved into one of the shop units at the foot of the HDB flats just opposite the popular Changi Village hawker, with a signboard that till today still reads “Singh Tailor” – which of late has the word “Proprietor: Baboo Singh” removed.

L Gee Lak – not so much as how I remember it – I seem to remember a painted signboard with a white background with the words “L GEELAK” painted in red (source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

A survivor from the Changi Village of old.

Another thing that gave the village of old its distinct character were some of the older buildings around – the Changi Cinema, a 500 seat old style village cinema which stood at the site of the present bus terminus. Another was the old police station, at the junction of Lorong Bekukong and what was Upper Changi Road, one that had a distinct country flavour which served as a gateway to another world that lay to the north of the village – an exclusive area where senior civil servants holidayed at which would have only been accessible with a visit to the station, where one could get a pass to enter the restricted area by sitting across a wooden counter or desk from a police officer to whom the identity card of the person intending to make that visit would have to be surrendered. What lay beyond a fence that restricted access across Netheravon Road was certainly another world, maybe not quite the fairy land that the names of one of the places within the area, Fairy Point, would suggest, but one that was a wonderful world nonetheless  and one that I will certainly touch on in a future post.

Changi Cinema, which stood at the site of the current bus terminus, c.1972 (photo courtesy of Derek Tait).

The site of the present bus terminus is where the Changi Cinema once stood.


A photograph of Mr. Baboo Singh taken in 1995 by Mr. Peter Stubbs.





Revisiting Clifford Pier

13 10 2010

Having spent a few hours of my weekend in Rotunda Library of the former Supreme Court, I was able to have a last feel of what must be considered to be the greatest work of Frank Dorrington Ward. This certainly allowed me to have a better appreciation for the genius of the architect who gave us some of the magnificent structures we have inherited from our colonial past, including one that my attention was turned to last evening, Clifford Pier. Ward’s contribution towards the beautiful pier was as the Chief Architect of the team of architects at the Public Works Department that provided the design for what must be the finest pier to be built in Singapore, in which the Art-Deco style features prominently. The pier, which may have looked a little worse for wear in the latter part of its life as a public pier from which many people made their journeys to the southern islands and the gateway for many seamen coming ashore to Singapore, has been wonderfully restored and a large part of it given to use as an exclusive restaurant “One on the Bund”, and the front end of it being converted into an entrance to the very posh Fullerton Bay Hotel.

Clifford Pier at its opening in 1933 (source: Woh Hup 80, Building with Integrity).

The front end of the pier now serves as the entrance to the posh Fullerton Bay Hotel.

The magnificent pier, built to replace Johnston’s Pier in 1933, never seemed to go to sleep and was always alive with activity in the 1970s when I was growing up. It was a place that I certainly have many fond memories of, having visited on many occasions to watch the comings and goings of the passengers of the launches that bobbled up and down the sides of the pier. There was always a frenzy of activity as passengers would scramble up and down the precariously slippery steps to or from the spacious deck of the pier. Already busy as it was, the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar would bring with it the frenzy crowd of pilgrims heading to Kusu Island for the annual pilgrimage. The pier was also where I had embarked on several adventures of my own – to the islands that lay beyond the southern shores of Singapore and also on to the high seas. It would have been nice if the pier had kept its place as a gateway to the southern islands and beyond – a focal point close to the old heart of the city from which a doorway opened to the shores that lay beyond Singapore – an area that is significant to the history of Singapore as one being where many of the our forefathers – the early immigrants who made Singapore what it is would have first set foot on the island. This sadly wasn’t to be as the conversion of what is now known as Marina Bay into a fresh water reservoir with the construction of the Marina Barrage put paid to any thoughts some of us might have harboured on this. The pier ceased operations in 2004 as the Marina Barrage had cut off what had once been the Inner Roads of the harbour to the sea.

An early view of Clifford Pier (c. 1950) from an old postcard (courtesy of Mr. Low Kam Hoong).

The pier is perhaps best known for the beautiful concrete trusses which support its roof structure, which provided a wide unsupported span of the roof supports, allowing a clear and unobstructed space across much of the expansive deck of the once well used pier – another piece of architectural genius given to Singapore by Frank Dorrington Ward and his team. While the trusses have perhaps escaped the eyes of many in the hundreds of thousands who might have passed under the roof they provide support for during the 71 years of the pier’s operation, it was (and still is) a sight to behold.

Deck of Clifford Pier with the beautiful concrete arched trusses of the roof structure above (source: Woh Hup 80, Building with Integrity).

Clifford Pier as it appears today as "One on the Bund".

The beautifully illuminated concrete trusses of the roof structure - not everybody gets to get close up and personal with them anymore.

Another view of the setting of the restaurant that now occupies Clifford Pier.

The restoration and conversion of the use of the pier does provide an opportunity to savour the beauty of the truss structure, particularly in the evenings when the effects of the varied and changing hues provided by the coloured illumination which does seem to bring the beauty of structures out brilliantly. However, it is unfortunate for many of us that much of the pier within the exclusive restaurant remains inaccessible to the general public to allow an up close and personal appreciation of the wonderfully design roof structure. I had in the past attempted to capture the trusses on camera but was prevented from doing so and only got a chance to do it as a guest of an event held at the restaurant last evening. While it is nice to see the restoration of buildings that are our monuments and heritage and the use of them in a very dignified manner as is the case with Clifford Pier, and with the consideration that certainly must be made from a commercial perspective, it would still be nice if at least some parts of it are made accessible to the general public who like me, have a link or a memory to a past that might be worth a revisit from time to time. I do hope that whatever is planned for some of the future heritage sites such as the grand station at Tanjong Pagar that consideration be put in to allow parts of them to at least remain accessible to us.


The beautiful setting inside the restaurant.


More views of the restaurant.

Maybe other ideas on conservation are required to allow the general public to fully appreciate some of our heritage buildings?

The entrance to the Fullerton Bay Hotel at the front end of the pier.

The view of the restaurant from the entrance.

Views of the wonderful structure of the pier.

A close-up of the trusses ...

Air-conditioning vents blend in with the existing structure.


The decor of the restaurant does include many reminders of the past.

More views of last evening’s event:

Dough figurines that were commonly found amongst the vendors that accompanied the the wayangs (street Chinese Operas) of old.

The open air deck at the far end of the pier.





An Oasis lost

3 10 2010

With the news carried by the local print media on Thursday that the demolition of the National Stadium has started, there has been much focus on the stadium itself and how it would remain in the hearts of the many Singaporeans who have sat on its terraces since it was built for the 7th South East Asian Peninsula (SEAP) Games in 1973. Having been a landmark in the Kallang area for close to four decades, the area would probably look a little bare once the grey icon and its four floodlight towers makes an exit from the landscape off Nicoll Highway and Mountbatten Road.

The Today report on the start of demolition at the National Stadium on 30 Sep 2010.

Demolition work has began in earnest and access to roads in the vicinity of the stadium are now restricted (seen on 1 Oct 2010).

For me, the stadium always seemed an invariable part of the landscape in the Kallang area, one that stood firm despite the many changes that have overtaken the area around it since the days when it first dominated the area. Some of the sights familiar to me that had kept the stadium company in the earlier days of the stadium had since abandoned the Grand Old Lady. One of these was the bright and lively Guillemard Circus that I had always been fond of passing … with its colourful neon signs that transformed it into a wonderland of light at night – one that somehow I recall being dominated by the huge Knife Brand Cooking Oil advertisement. There was of course the old Wonderland Amusement Park that had my favourite ride – a roller coaster that I would persuade my parents to return to the park for time and time again – the Wonderland was in fact how I had first become acquainted with the area. Years later, I was to spend a short period of time at a shipyard on the banks of the Geylang River just by the area where the Wonderland was located, walking past the stadium from a bus stop in Kallang everyday to get to the area around Jalan Benaan Kapal which has since been transformed in a way that makes it had to imagine slipways lining what were dirty and muddy river banks.

The newly constructed stadium was the most modern in South East Asia and provided an ideal setting for the birth of the Kallang Roar. The stadium had stood as a landmark in the area since it opened in 1973.

The stadium being prepared for demolition on 28 Sep 2010.

I have had over the 37 years had a love affair with the Grand Old Lady, one that started in 1974 with the first leg of the Malaysia Cup semi-final match played between Singapore and Penang. It was where I had first watched a football match live … and became part of the frenzied atmosphere that accompanied the matches played in the stadium featuring Singapore which became known as the much Kallang Roar. In its heyday, as many as 70,000 pairs of feet would stamp on the terraces combined with 70,000 voices that gave the stadium that thunderous blare that put fear in many visiting teams at the stadium.

A reflection on an icon that will soon be a mirage ...

The stadium had often in its life been referred to as the “Lions’ Den”, not after the pair of stone Merdeka Lions that had once stood guard at the ends of the span of the Merdeka Bridge, being moved to stand guard at the area on which Stadium Boulevard had been constructed, but after the national football team which besides being referred to as the “Boys in Blue” – a reference to the sky blue jerseys they wore in the 1970s and 1980s, were also referred to as the “Lions”. The pair of lions also abandoned the stadium – sometime perhaps at the end of the 1980s.

One of the floodlight towers that dominated the Kallang landscape.

A lion watches sadly from across Nicoll Highway as the former Lions Den is being torn down.

Whilst there were many that abandoned the Grand Old Lady, there had been a few that managed to stay with it throughout its life. Among those that have kept the stadium company were the nearby Police Coast Guard (Marine Police) headquarters which moved to Pulau Brani with the construction of the Marina Barrage, and a somewhat forgotten icon of the area: the Oasis Restaurant complex. The Oasis would be going the way of the stadium as well, having stood where it was for some forty years. Indeed the Oasis had been as much of an icon in the Kallang Park area since it was opened in 1969 as the Oasis Theatre Restaurant, Cabaret and Nightclub. Comprising a three storey main building and three auxiliary buildings built on stilts extending out some 100 metres over the Kallang Basin, the complex was a popular night spot for many years. The octagonal shaped auxiliary buildings which housed restaurants provided the complex with its distinctive character which Singaporeans immediately identified with the complex and provided a unique dining experience for many were completed in 1970 and operated until the closure of the complex a few years back. The octagonal shaped buildings and the three storey main building are also in the process of being torn down, and a feature that will also be missing from the area very soon.

The former Police Coast Guard HQ near the stadium.

The distinctive octagonal structures on stilts that used to be part of the Oasis Restaurant complex over the Kallang Basin.

The 3-storey main building of the former Oasis being demolished (as seen on 28 Sep 2010).

The octagonal buildings being reflected off the Kallang Basin. Once giving a distinctive character to the basin, the reflections of the basin will soon reflect only the sky (as seen on 28 Sep 2010).

One of the octagonal buildings being demolished (as seen on 28 Sep 2010).

With the icons of its past being dismantled, Kallang will no doubt never look the same again. That change is inevitable in land scarce Singapore is something that we as Singaporeans have come to accept. In the case of Kallang, the change is certainly necessary – one that will give Singapore a sorely needed modern sports hub that is sorely lacking at the moment. Still, there is that part of me that doesn’t want to let go … the part that will always remember Kallang fondly for the roller coaster rides not just that Wonderland brought with it, but the ones that the Lions took us on in the thrills and spills that accompanied their exploits in the Malaysia Cup.

Vanishing scenes around Nicoll Highway.

The north east floodlight tower looks like it would be the first of the four to come down.

More views around the stadium and its environs taken on 28 Sep 2010:
















When Sands wasn’t at Marina Bay

24 09 2010

There is a lost world that lies where the Central Expressway (CTE) passes under Orchard Road cutting Clemenceau Avenue into two, what is now referred to as Clemenceau Avenue North and Clemenceau Avenue. This world was in the area just where the CTE passes in between the Istana and the Holiday Inn Orchard City Centre, revolving around an approximately one kilometre stretch of Clemenceau Avenue that is now part of the CTE Chin Swee Tunnel (from where the Istana Park is) and the stretch that extends to part of the Kampong Java Tunnel. It was an area that included some pre-war houses, including a row of walk-up terrace houses that faced Clemenceau Avenue at the end of which was a unit that my best friend in kindergarten, Eddie, had lived in. What is probably left of the pre-war houses these days is perhaps only the Sian Teck Tng Temple at the end of Cuppage Road with the rest of the area altered by the modernisation of the Orchard Road area that began at the end of the 1970s and the construction of the CTE at the end of the 1980s.

The area which has been altered by the construction of the CTE just by where the Holiday Inn Orchard City Centre is.

Cuppage Road now ends at a new section of Cavenagh Road … further to the right of this on the CTE was the junction of Cuppage Road and Clemenceau Avenue.

The Sian Teck Tng Temple at the end of Cuppage Road is the only reminder of the past still left in the area.

The Sian Teck Tng Temple’s structure is very typical of the houses in the area before it was modernised.

Looking at what’s there today, it would be hard to imagine what the area had once been like. It had been the back door to the area of Orchard Road that my parents had frequently visited, coming through Cavenagh Road f to get to the likes of Cold Storage for supermarket shopping, and Glutton’s Square and Koek Lane which provided some of the best hawker fare around. My first impression of the lost stretch of Clemenceau Avenue and the area around it, however, was shaped very much by the rides home in the minibus that delivered me to my home in Toa Payoh from the kindergarten I attended in Cambridge Road. That involved a detour via Cavenagh Road to Clemenceau Avenue to drop Eddie off, before heading north towards Newton Circus and on to Toa Payoh via Thomson Road.

The lost Section of Clemenceau Avenue and the lost roads around what was the back door to Orchard Road.

The recessed part of the CTE between the Chin Swee and Kampong Java Tunnels and part of the tunnels runs below what had been Clemenceau Avenue. Looking north to the area where the Chao Yang Chinese School and the Highway Inn was towards Newton Circus.

Clemenceau Avenue back then besides being the back door to Orchard Road, was also associated with the Scouting and Girl Guides movements in Singapore, Guide House, the home of the Singapore Girl Guide Association being at the stretch that is now Clemenceau Avenue North, and Sands House, the headquarters of the Singapore Scout Association, in the area that is now the CTE, just by where the Holiday Inn Orchard City Centre is. Sands House was a two storey purpose built building standing at the corner of Cavenagh Road and Clemenceau Avenue that was opened in 1959, replacing the original Sands House (the former St. Andrew’s House) which was on Armenian Street. Sands House was a popular destination not just for Scouts, but for many shopping for camping and outdoor gear (camping being a relatively popular activity in those days) such as ponchos, ground sheets, tents, gas lamps and stoves, and even compasses and maps at the Scout Shop which was in a bright and airy room on the ground floor of the building. The headquarters of the Scout Association moved to a temporary premises in Tanglin Road, when Sands House was acquired in 1987.

Looking at the area where the south section of Cavenagh Road met Clemenceau Avenue. The junction lay where the CTE runs today, just by where the northbound slip road runs into the CTE. Sands House stood just to the right of the gantry.

Looking down at what used to be below Clemenceau Avenue towards the grounds of the Istana … Sands House was on the right of this area.

Along with Sands House, quite a lot of property along Clemenceau Avenue was also acquired, including the Highway Inn, a hotel which I somehow imagined to be a popular nightspot. The construction work on the tunnels and the CTE began in 1988, and by the time this section of the CTE was completed in 1991, the area had completely been transformed, leaving no trace of the lost section of Clemenceau Avenue that had existed some years back. Along with Clemenceau Avenue, the area that had served as the back door to Orchard Road had itself been transofrmed. Gone were the pre-war shop units and houses, the old Cold Storage building, and also the former Orchard Market and the food stalls along Koek Road and Koek Lane (the lane itself has also disappeared), moving to Cuppage Centre which was a mixed use development at the end of the 1970s. Cuppage Centre included a wet market on the lower floors and a food centre on the upper floor, with offices above it. Then, there was such a stench from the wet market housed in the centre that many referred to it as “Garbage Centre”. The building has since been refurbished and is now Starhub Centre – the market and food stalls moving out in the late 1990s. Part of Cuppage Road is also now a pedestrian mall, and the portion of Koek Road that joined with the lost stretch of Clemenceau Avenue has also disappeared, buried under the Holiday Inn Orchard City Centre, leaving very little to remind us of what had once been around the area.

Koek Road now stops short … it used to run through what is now the Holiday Inn Orchard City Centre on to Clemenceau Avenue.

Where the junction of Koek Road and Clemenceau Avenue once was – right in front of the main entrance to the Holiday Inn Orchard City Centre.

Starhub Centre was once the Cuppage Centre which housed a market on its lower floors and a food centre above the market.


Picture of Sands House from a pack of cards posted in Facebook Group “On a Little Street in Singapore” on 9 October 2011 by David Donnelly:

Sands House

A photograph of the Highway Inn from 1983 (from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

Highway Inn  general view





Toa Payoh on the Rise

15 09 2010

Rising gradually and somewhat obscurely off Lorong 1 in Toa Payoh, a somewhat lonely and forgotten little road that starts between an old school building and an empty plot of land leads to the crest of a little hill on top of which once stood one of the major public hospitals in Singapore. Part of the road – the section that leads from the former hospital down to Thomson Road, had probably been the first named after the area that was to be one of the first planned satellite towns in Singapore, Toa Payoh. It had been named Toa Payoh Road prior to 1961 and was subsequently renamed Toa Payoh Rise, to avoid confusing it with what was to become a main thoroughfare, Jalan Toa Payoh, now part of the Pan Island Expressway.

Toa Payoh Rise today.

I had first been acquainted with the area in the late 1960s, as a somewhat reluctant companion to my mother who taught at the school on Lorong 1, aptly named First Toa Payoh Primary School being the first school to be built for the new satellite town (the word back then was that the subsequent schools being planned would be named in the order of build). I would accompany my mother on Saturday mornings, when I was home as kindergarten was on only five days a week. Back then, Alternate Saturdays were school days and the other Saturdays working days, so what it meant was that school teachers would be in school for at least half a day. I suppose it was common then for teachers to bring their children along on Saturdays, as I remember having many companions – fellow children of school teachers with me in the school’s staff room.

First Toa Payoh Primary School in 1968 soon after it opened. On the left of the photograph, a 10 storey block of flats, Block 167, typical of the early Toa Payoh, can be seen - that stand on what is now an empty plot of land.

The main school building had been one that was typical of those that were built post-independence – a U-shaped four storey high building – the three sections surrounded a little quadrangle that with its two flag poles right smack in the front of the centre section, formed an assembly area. The paved area extended further back to the fence and served as a car park. Behind the main building, the school canteen with its long rows of tables and benches, doubled up as a school hall and with badminton courts marked on the floor and a stage at one end, the food stalls being at the other. The pathway to this building also led down to the expansive school field behind the school – that was down a steep slope via a long flight of stairs to a field that not only served the student population, but what had seemed a resident population of pythons and cobras that were frequently sighted in the drains that surrounded the school field. The buildings and the field are still there today, now the temporary premises of St. Nicholas Girls’ School.

The former First Toa Payoh Primary School building is today the temporary premises of St. Nicholas Girls' School.

Across the road from the school, there was a cluster of flats that have since disappeared – blocks 164, 165, 166 and 167. The blocks had stood on a raised table of land and accessible from Lorong 1 by several flights of stairs. The flats had hidden a cluster of low rise buildings further up the road, one that was well protected by a fence around it that told perhaps of its use. That was the Toa Payoh Girls’ Home, which was opened 1968 to replace the York Hill Home, and was meant to serve as a refuge for destitute girls as well as for the rehabilitation of young offenders and delinquents. The home was in operation up to 2006 when it moved to new premises and was renamed the Singapore Girls’ Home. These days, the cluster of buildings sits silently behind the fence, awaiting perhaps redevelopment in what must be a prime piece of land.

Up the slope from Lorong 1, where Blocks 164, 165, 166 and 167 had once towered over much of Toa Payoh, an empty landscape now greets the observer.

The former Toa Payoh Girls' Home, seen through the locked gate.

The cluster of buildings of the former girls' home now sits silently behind a fence and locked gate which now keeps people out rather than keeping girls in.

Beyond the home, lies the crest of the small hill which Toa Payoh Rise rises up to – a clearing there these days with quite a fair bit of construction activity going on for a Circle Line MRT station, erasing any evidence of its past as the site of one of Singapore’s public hospitals – the Toa Payoh Hospital, and before it was renamed on 1 April 1975, the Thomson General Hospital or Thomson Road Hospital. The hospital had been set up in 1959, opening in May of that year, as a hospital for the chronic sick and included a nursing school as part of its complex. Set in a quiet and somewhat secluded area, the only means of access to it in the early days was via Toa Payoh Rise from Thomson Road. It had been a hospital that I visited on many occasions … my maternal grandmother in her later years had frequent stays there and I myself had been a patient, having been warded whilst I was in Secondary 2 with an illness that deprived me of 8 months of playing football. I had on two occasions visited the A&E Department as well, once when I had a nasty spill taking a corner on a racing bicycle in 1980 that had half my tee-shirt covered in blood and required several stitches to be put in my head … and another time when I had an extremely high fever after returning home from an overseas trip in 1991. The hospital closed its doors in 1997 and moved, lock, stock and barrel to Simei as the New Changi Hospital which is now known as the Changi General Hospital (CGH). More information on the history of Toa Payoh Hospital can be found at CGH’s website.

The former Thomson Road Hospital and its nursing school in its early days.

Another view of the former Toa Payoh Hospital (source: http://www.healthcare50.sg).

The top of Toa Payoh Rise, once a quiet spot - ideal for the former Toa Payoh / Thomson General Hospital which had once stood there.

Where a main public hospital once stood, an empty plot of land now stands. The construction activity going on for the Circle Line MRT station will erase all traces of what might still be left as a reminder.

The view from the grounds of the former hospital towards the fence of the former girls' home and beyond to Toa Payoh.

At the crest of the hill where the road that led to the hospital is, there is another building that still serves its intended function – the School for the Visually Handicapped, and a little beyond that, the Association for the Visually Handicapped. Beyond the crest and the area where the hospital had stood, the road rolls downward towards its junction with Thomson Road. That had been a nice shady and wooded area – one through which I enjoyed my frequent walks through – not just for the peace and calm it provided me, but as a “short-cut” when I was older, to Thomson Road where I could hop on the many buses which could take me down Thomson Road and to the city. That would take me past a cluster of flats beyond the line of trees which are still there today, marked by a sign on the road. Further down at the junction, there used to be a Mobil Service Station – one that stood as a landmark for many years – which has quite recently disappeared. Much has changed in the area around the junction over the years and it is hard to imagine now what it might have been like … something I guess might soon be said as well about Toa Payoh Rise.

A road sign at the crest of the hill seeks silence for the School for the Visually Handicapped and also previously for the hospital that had stood nearby.

What had once been a quiet wooded area now sees much construction activity which involves the construction of an MRT station and the widening of the road that will completely disfigure what had once been an escape from the concrete jungle.

A sign off Toa Payoh Rise pointing towards the cluster of low-rise flats that are still there today.

The junction of Toa Payoh Rise and Thomson Road ... looking to where the Mobil Service Station had once stood.





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.





A trip back in time to the Singapore of the sixties

27 06 2010

For anyone looking to take a trip down memory lane, or perhaps a trip back in time to catch a glimpse of what life might have been like in the Singapore of the 1960s, the Singapore 1960 exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore offers a chance to do just that. The exhibition which opened on 3 June, the anniversary of self-government, runs up to 22 August and features a display of more than 300 items from the 1960s. The exhibits include items which were commonly found in the 1960s as well as scenes of the life replayed in black and white providing a view into the vibrant cultural and entertainment scene of Singapore in the 1960s, including a view of the different “worlds”: Gay World, Great World, and New World, which played a big role in keeping Singaporeans amused and entertained.

The Singapore 1960 exhibition offers the visitor a glimpse into life in the different world that was Singapore back in the 1960s.

Scenes from the 1960s including a glimpse into the different "worlds" are replayed in black and white.

It was a trip back in time for me as well, as I browsed through the exhibits. Some were familiar to me, transporting me back to the Singapore of my childhood, to a Singapore that was a very different place from the one we know of today. There were many reminders of the era, as well as the place, in which I had spent my early years in. One such reminder was in the form of a cigarette tin. I remember tins such as the one on display particularly well. This was from being sent regularly to the provision shop to buy a couple of sticks of cigarettes by my father. Cigarettes could then be purchased individually over the counter and this would be taken out of a tin. At that time, my father was trying then to curb his smoking habit and decided not to have a packet at his disposal at home, and so I would invariably be sent to the shops below whenever he felt like a cigarette (something that was possible then as there were no restrictions on minors buying cigarettes, and something I never enjoyed doing) to buy two sticks at a time.

The very familiar cigarette tin with which I was well acquainted with.

There were many of the other exhibits that were familiar to me: a metal Player’s Navy Cut ashtray commonly found on the marble topped tables of coffee shops which brought with it memories of the coffee shops of old and spittoons that I never seemed to avoid kicking below the marble topped tables. There were two Magnolia soft drink bottles which brought memories of the Magnolia Grape soft drink that was one of my favourites once upon a time, as well reminded me of how Magnolia Milk was sold in similar bottles. A Smith Corona typewriter displayed on a desk brought back memories of how offices were once like when the constant sound of the clickaty-clack of the typewriters would always be heard in the background.

A Player's Navy Cut ashtray which was a common sight on the marble top coffee shop tables in the 1960s and 1970s.

A Smith Corona typewriter - commonly found in the offices of the 1960s and 1970s.

There are also pages from the newspapers of the era to browse through, providing an insight into a turbulent and violent decade in Singapore’s history, as well as images of a time some half a century ago, which provides an appreciation of how it once had been before Singapore became the clean and sanitised world that is the Singapore that we now know.

Pages from the newspapers provide an insight into a turbulent and violent decade in Singapore's history.

The Magnolia soft drink bottle - my favourite was Magnolia Grape! Magnolia also sold milk, normal, strawberry and chocolate flavoured ones in similar bottles.

Images of life in the 1960s are also captured in the photographs on display. A close-up of a photograph of a satay seller by Lee Sow Kim taken in the 1950s.

The Neptune - a popular cabaret along Collyer Quay in the 1960s and 1970s.

Fashion on display: colourful sarong kebayas commonly seen in the 1960s.

The cover of an issue of Her World from 1962.

A reminder of a forgotten fact: the National Language of Singapore.

Words from the National Anthem of Singapore.

Close up of a record sleeve. The music recording industry had its heyday in the 1960s in Singapore.

Also on display are pieces from the Aw Boon Haw jade collection which were donated to the National Museum of Singapore in 1979 and contain pieces from the late Qing period.