The tanks at Tanjong Berlayer

22 12 2014

The impressions I have long held of the Tanjong Berlayer area were ones formed by the road journeys to the area of my early years. That came at the end of the 1960s when the squat cylindrical tanks at the end of Alexandra Road would be the signal that I was close to my journey’s end.

Dawn over the land on which the Maruzen Toyo / BP refinery had once stood, a landscape once dominated by oil tanks.

Dawn over the land on which the Maruzen Toyo / BP refinery had once stood, a landscape once dominated by oil tanks.

An aerial view of Tanjong Berlayer in 1966, showing the BP refinery (source: National Archives of Singapore).

An aerial view of Tanjong Berlayer area in 1966, showing the BP refinery (source: National Archives of Singapore).

The storage tanks of the BP refinery seen in 1986 with the PSA Building under construction (photograph online at https://farm4.staticflickr.com/3754/9676198299_971cd7266f.jpg).

The end of the same journey is today greeted by very different landmarks. The tanks, emblazoned with what had been the recognisable British Petroleum (BP) shield, are no longer there, having belonged to a refinery that has since been shut. The land on which the refinery had operated on has been empty since the end of the 1990s, and it is now a host of other structures, including that of the 42 storey PSA building, that is what catches one’s attention.

PSA Building and not the oil tanks, is one structure that will now catch one's attention at the end of Alexandra Road.

PSA Building and not the oil tanks, is one structure that will now catch one’s attention at the end of Alexandra Road.

The opening in 1962 of the small 28,000 bpd refinery at Tanjong Berlayer, Singapore’s second, coincided with the industrialisation efforts of the early 1960s and came on the back of Shell establishing a refinery on Pulau Bukom in 1961. The refinery had started its operations, not as a BP run one, but as one operated by the Japanese partnership of Maruzen Toyo, supplying fuel to the nearby Pasir Panjang Power Station. What was significant about this was that it represented the first major Japanese industrial investment in Singapore. The Japanese interests in the refinery did not last very long however. It was sold to BP in June 1964, just over two years after it had opened.

An aerial view of the Maruzen Toyo refinery at its opening in 1962 (photograph online at http://www.kajima.co.jp/).

With the redesignation of the area’s land use preventing BP from extending its lease in the longer term, it decided to pull-out from the refining business in Singapore in the mid-1990s. Operations at the refinery stopped in 1995, with BP maintaining the site as a storage facility for a few more years before returning it to the State in 1998. Subsequently cleared, the site had been left empty until today, awaiting a transformation that is promised as part of the future Greater Southern Waterfront. And, as with the Keppel Bay area on which the former repair docks of the Harbour Board and later Keppel Shipyard were sited to the site’s immediate east, the transformation will erase what little has been left to remind us of a time and a place we seem only to want to forget.

A fire-fighting exercise at the BP Refinery in 1968 (source: National Archives of Singapore).

A fire-fighting exercise at the BP Refinery in 1968 (source: National Archives of Singapore).

The site today.

The site today.

The landscape will eventually be dominated by the futuristic structures of the Greater Southern Waterfront.

The landscape will eventually be dominated by the futuristic structures of the Greater Southern Waterfront.

 





Barefoot in the park

16 04 2014

There was a time when there seemed to be little need for fancy footwear in playing the beautiful game. As kids, many of us ran around the field, kicking a ball with nothing but our bare feet. It was also common to see competitive games played with little in way of footwear, with each player wearing an ankle guard or two, as it was through my days in primary school in the early 1970s. Protection of our precious canvas school shoes  did then take precedence over protecting to our feet.

A friendly game between two great  primary school football rivals - St. John's Island School and St. Michael's School in the 1970s. 

A friendly game between two great  primary school football rivals – St. John’s Island School and St. Michael’s School in the 1970s (from a scan from the Christian Brothers’ School Annual) – notice the footwear used, or rather the lack of them.

 

 





Windows into Singapore: juxtapositions of time

27 03 2014

A view out of the window from the POD atop the National Library building, out towards what would once have been an almost clear view of the sea off the promenade that ran along Nicoll Highway.

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Part of what has been a landmark along Beach Road since its completion in 1976, Shaw Towers, can be seen on the right of the photograph. Built over a site that had previously been occupied by the Alhambra and Marborough cinemas, the 35 floor Shaw Towers was at the point of its completion, the tallest kid on the block at Beach Road. It was also the first building in Singapore to house two cinemas, Prince and Jade, built in a decade when cinema going took-off in Singapore. Prince was at its opening, the largest cinema in Singapore with its 1952 seats. Prince occupied the second to the seventh floors of one corner of the building’s podium. Its screen, at 28 metres wide, was the widest in the Far East. Jade was to provide a more intimate setting, holding less than half the crowd Prince would have held. The cinemas were converted in the late 1980s to cineplexes – the first multi-screen cinemas to make an appearance in Singapore.

A close up of the boats in the Kallang Basin close to Nicoll Highway (posted in Facebook group, On a Little Street in Singapore).

Nicoll Highway, Singapore’s first highway, did once run along the coast right behind Shaw Towers. Completed in 1956 – after the closure of Kallang Airport permitted a much needed link to be built along the coast, it provided an artery to take vehicular traffic from and to the populated eastern coast into and out of the city. Offering a view of the sea and the scatter of boats up to the early 1970s,  a drive today provides a view of a scattering of trees and isolated structures that herald the arrival of a brand new world – where the wooded patch is in the foreground of the first photograph.

Nicoll Highway, the Merdeka Bridge, Beach Road and the Kallang Basin, 1967 – before the 1970s land reclamation (posted in Facebook group, On a Little Street in Singapore).

A view down Nicoll Highway. A new development South Beach is seen rising beyond Shaw Tower.

A view down Nicoll Highway. A new development South Beach is seen rising beyond Shaw Towers.

Another view down Nicoll Highway during peak hour.

Another view down Nicoll Highway during peak hour.

The body of water beyond which we can see the Benjamin Sheares Bridge rising, is itself one that has seen a significant change. Where it once was the sea, it now is a body of fresh water, forming a part of the huge Marina Reservoir, having been cut-off from the sea by land reclamation and the construction of the Marina Barrage. The barrage, closes up the channel between Marina East and Marina South, Marina East being land reclaimed off Tanjong Rhu, a cape once referred to as a “curious ridge of sand” on which shipyards, the charcoal trade and a flour mill had once featured.

An advertisement for Khong Guan Flour Mills. The grain storage silos once dominated a landscape at Tanjong Rhu now dominated by condominiums.

An advertisement for Khong Guan Flour Mills. The grain storage silos once dominated a landscape at Tanjong Rhu now dominated by condominiums.

A more recent landmark on Beach Road, the 41-storey The Concourse and a view toward Tanjong Rhu beyond it.

A more recent landmark on Beach Road, the 41-storey The Concourse and a view toward Tanjong Rhu beyond it.

Reclaimed land by Nicoll Highway, the Kallang Basin area of Marina Reservoir and Tanjong Rhu beyond it.

Reclaimed land by Nicoll Highway, the Kallang Basin area of Marina Reservoir and the Marina South area beyond it.

It is at Tanjong Rhu, where Singapore first million-dollar condominium units were sold, that the eastern end of the iconic 1.8 km long Benjamin Sheares Bridge comes down to earth. Opened to traffic on 26 September 1981, it provided the final link for a coastal highway that had been built to take traffic around and not through the city centre, the planning for which went back to the end of the 1960s (see The Making of Marina Bay).

Land reclamation in the Kallang Basin / Tanjong Rhu area in 1973 (posted in Facebook group On a Little Street in Singapore).

This stretch of that coastal highway, East Coast Parkway (ECP), did take up much of the traffic that was being carried on what was becoming an increasingly congested Nicoll Highway that had been built some 25 years before it. Now, some 32 years later, as with the highway it took traffic away from, it sees its role taken up in a similar fashion by a new highway, the Marina Coastal Expressway (MCE). Built at the cost of S$4.3-billion, the 5 kilometre MCE runs mostly underground and partly under the sea and see the series of coastal highways move with the shifting of the coastline. The MCE features a 3.6 km tunnel and has a 420 metre stretch that runs under the sea.

Tanjong Rhu and the Benjamin Sheares Bridge.

Tanjong Rhu and the Benjamin Sheares Bridge.

The expressway, which opened to traffic on 29 December 2013, was built so as to remove the constraints that the ECP, in running right smack through the centre of Marina South, had placed on the development of Singapore’s new downtown (the expansion of the city to Marina South that was really an afterthought, having come after urban planners had realised the potential that land, which had initially been reclaimed for the construction of the ECP, had in providing much needed space for the expansion of the city). The availability of new and undeveloped land through reclamation did allow parts of old Singapore slated for redevelopment, to be spared the wreckers’ ball.

A view over the Marina Reservoir and Marina East, with the Benjamin Sheares Bridge seen to the left of the capsule.

A view over the Marina Reservoir and Marina East, with the Benjamin Sheares Bridge seen to the left of the capsule.

The deceptively blue waters in the first photograph’s background, is that of the Eastern Anchorage. It is at the anchorage that ships lie patiently in wait, far removed from the frenzy at the wharves of what is one of the world’s busiest ports. It is one place in Singapore where time does seem to stand very still, at least for now. Time doesn’t of course seem to stand very still in a Singapore constantly on the move, and time will certainly bring change to shape of the distribution of the shipping infrastructure along the coast- with the journey to west for the city shipping terminals, at Keppel, Pulau Brani and Tanjong Pagar, due to completed by 2030.

The Eastern Anchorage.

The Eastern Anchorage – where time does seem to stand still.

There is of course the potential that developments away from Singapore has for influencing change. One possible game-changing development we in Singapore are keeping our eyes on is the possibility that of a dream long held by Thailand, the cutting of a shipping canal through the Isthmus of Kra, coming true. If a recent report, purportedly from the Chinese media, is to be believed, work is already starting. The cutting of the so-called Kra Canal is an idea that was first mooted back in the late 17th Century (see: How a Thai Canal Could Transform Southeast Asia on http://thediplomat.com) and talk of building it does crop up from time to time – the effort required and the associated costs in recent times serving as a huge deterrent. If built, the canal would save shipping a 1,500 nautical mile journey through the Straits of Malacca and around Singapore.

The proposed canal does have the potential to undermine Singapore’s so far unchallenged strategic position with regards to shipping, although it would probably take a lot more than a canal to do that. In the meantime, it is the change that is driven within that we will see add to another area in Singapore in which change does seem to always be a constant.





The celebrating of Spring in the greater town

27 01 2014

The arrival of spring, commemorated by the Chinese by the celebration of the new year, brings much colour and life to the streets of the “Greater Town”, tua poh, as it was known as to the local population. Besides the street market – long a popular source of goods necessary to welcome in the new year, the area since 1985, has also been livened up by the illuminations of an annual Chinese New Year light-up.

No horse run - this year's light-up is perhaps light years ahead ...

No horse run – this year’s light-up is perhaps light years ahead …

Crowds thronging the street market.

Crowds thronging the street market this year.

I managed to take in the festive atmosphere on the streets, packed with crowds that the weekend before  the new year brings, but not before I attended a rather interesting sharing session on the celebration of Chinese New Year held at the URA Centre. Entitled “Cakap Heritage: All About Chinese New Year in Kreta Ayer / Chinatown” and jointly organised by the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the session provided a view not just of how the festival in years past would have been celebrated in the area, but also of the many ways in which Chinese New Year was observed all across Singapore through the recollections of several of the session’s participants.

A bus passenger The an gazes out at the festive light-up. The annual light-up is now a spectacle not to be missed.

A bus passenger The an gazes out at the festive light-up. The annual light-up is now a spectacle not to be missed.

One topic that was discussed at length during the session was shopping. Besides shopping for festive goodies, cards and decorations, Chinese New Year is also when new clothes and shoes – a must for every Chinese, are bought. For some it would be the only occasion to splurge on a new outfit and while many had theirs tailored, clothes for children were often bought from the Tua Poh street market – although as one former Changi Village resident did testify, shopping wasn’t necessarily confined to the streets of Chinatown.

Festive goodies on offer at the street market.

Festive goodies on offer at the street market.

A seemingly popular shop to buy shoes from, was the Phoenix Shoes Company, located in a shophouse along South Bridge Road. Although the shop wasn’t one I was familiar with, it did bring back memories of another shoe shop – further east along South Bridge Road, from which my parents got their shoes from. That shop, the Crane Shoe Store, is one I well remember for how a light green box in which the pair of shoes in the size desired, would come rushing down a chute from the store room above – almost without delay whenever the shop assistant shouted an order out.

The streets come alive in the lead-up to Chinese New Year.

The streets of the greater town come alive in the lead-up to Chinese New Year.

Other experiences ranged from the buying gold jewellery (On Choeng – a goldsmith on South Bridge Road, seemed a popular choice), to waxed products and ducks eggs. A name synonymous with the prelude to Chinese New Year these days, Lim Chee Guan – known for the long queues for what is today a must-have Chinese New Year treat, bak kwa or long yuk (sometimes translated to pork jerky or barbecued dried pork), did also get a mention. A participant did make the observation that queues would have been non-existent back in the 1950s – when it would be difficult for many. Another luxury mentioned was feasting on bats – something that a restaurant by the name of Oriental in the 1950s, was along with monkeys and squirrels, apparently quite well known for.

Shoppers at the street market.

Shoppers at the street market.

One the subject of luxuries, mention was also made of how for some of the less well-off folks – such as the Samsui women, Chinese New Year would be one of the rare, if not only occasion on which they would put meat, in the form of chicken, on the table, saving through the year to do so.  The mention of chicken does take me back to the Chinese New Years of my early childhood, when the second day involved visiting a family friend who helped on a chicken farm in old Punggol – besides the squealing of pigs for their supper and perhaps an unfortunate incident in which I swallowed a loose teeth biting into an ang ku kueh, a memory that does linger from those visits is the sight of a headless chicken bound for the pot, scampering around on the sandy ground. 

The colour of gold.

The colour of gold.

A consequence of the decades of social engineering in Singapore, is perhaps the loss of the use of the Chinese dialects, along with dialect group specific cultural practices such as was observed in the celebrations of yesteryear. Besides dialect group specific such as the Hokkien practice of Bai Ti Gong (honouring the Jade Emperor) still seen today, there are dialect group specific practices that have been adopted by the wider community such as the tossing of raw fish salad, yu sheng – a widely practiced Chinese New Year custom now in Singapore. This was confined initially to the Cantonese –  a gentleman recalled his first experience of it that went back to 1955. Other dialect group specific practices included taboos associated with Chinese New Year such as not sweeping the floor, and not throwing rubbish out of the house on the first days of the new year. 

A young shopper.

A young shopper.

One practice that was common across the community was letting-off firecrackers. The thunderous burst of noise, the acrid smell of gunpowder that lingered in the air and the sea of red paper that littered the streets, would not be something the younger folks would of course remember. Firecrackers which were banned after 1972 in Singapore – the first modern version of the Chingay parade organised in 1973 was offered as to compensate for that. These were however very much an integral part of the celebration before the ban and several of the participants did share experiences from the 1950s and 1960s, before the ban kicked in, such as how as girls they would not dare venture out on their own out of fear of mischievous boys would would lie in wait to scare the girls by throwing lighted crackers at them.

Scenes from Chinese New Years of days gone by ... the smell of gun powder and smoke that filled the air, and the sea of red left behind .... (source: National Archives, www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

Scenes from Chinese New Years of days gone by … the smell of gun powder and smoke that filled the air, and the sea of red left behind …. (source: National Archives, http://www.archivesonline.nas,sg).

Still on the subject of firecrackers, a Danish couple shared how it was also common practice to let off crackers for the new year. Firecrackers are known there as “Chinese” – the smaller ones “one-cent Chinese” and the larger ones “two-cent Chinese” – a reference possibly to the origins of firecrackers.

Preserved fruits on offer,

Preserved fruits on offer.

Without the sound of firecrackers going off through the night, and perhaps with the distractions of the modern world and the dilution of cultural practices, Chinese New Year does seem a quieter affair these days. Chinese New Year, is however, very much still an occasion for the family to gather – the family reunion dinner is still very much an important part of the celebration for many families. And if one does brave the crowds on the streets of the Greater Town, streets that while perhaps are over sanitised and modernised, are where one does discover that the spirit of Chinese New Years past is one that is very much alive in the present. 

A view over the sanitised Chinatown and the modern city that has grown around it.

A view over the sanitised Chinatown and the modern city that has grown around it.

A view of the busy New Bridge Road with the galloping horses of the light-up.

A view of the busy New Bridge Road with the galloping horses of the light-up.





Retracing the “Ice Ball” Trail

22 01 2014
A guest post by Edmund Arozoo who takes us on a walk back 50 years in time on the ice-ball trail to his kampung at Jalan Hock Chye

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Your whole life flashes in front of you when you experience a near death moment. Memories come flashing back. Memories of all the good times and bad – and times that one had forgotten or chose to forget come back vividly. Having been in that position almost two years ago there is one strange memory that strangely stood out in my mind and often came back to me after that.

It takes me back fifty or more years ago when I was in primary school at the then Holy Innocents School (which later became Montfort School). Those were the days when the Ponggol Bus Company or aka the “Yellow Bus” Company serviced routes in the Serangoon and Ponggol District. My generation of users of this service would remember the wooden louver windows these buses had in those early days!

Well, the average daily “pocket money” for school kids our age then was 30 cents. 10 cents for bus fare to and from school, 10 cents for a plate of Char Kuay Teow or Mee Siam etc, 5 cents for a drink and 5 cents for Kachang Puteh or sweets.

On certain days after our morning school sessions when the urge for a “cool” after-school treat was high a group of us, living close to each other, would decide that if we walked home we could use the 5 cents saved to buy the refreshing “ice ball” – shaved ice shaped into a ball (like a snowball) and sweeten with various coloured sweeteners and a dash of evaporated milk. This was handmade and looking back was pretty unhygienic but it was a special treat for most of us to quench our thirst.

Well the walk from our school, which was next to the Church of the Nativity, back to our homes in Jalan Hock Chye, off Tampines Road, covered a distance of about a mile. We were usually hot, sweaty and thirsty by the time we reach the “kaka” (Muslim Indian) shop that sold iceballs. However walking the last few yards home sucking on an iceball was simply “heavenly” then.

I was in Singapore recently and a strange urge came over me – I wanted to walk the iceball trail again! (I did not think it was the progression of a second childhood coming on).

Well on 10th August 2012 I and my wife caught a bus from Upper Thompson Road to Houggang Central to do the trail. Sadly my old school is no more there but the Church of the Nativity is still there and that was my starting point. With camera in hand I recaptured memories of various roads and lorongs that were landmarks then. Fifty years has seen lots of improvement on what was then on a whole a rural environment. Some lanes like St Joseph’s Lane have gone but it was nostalgic to recap what was and still is present. Very few landmarks of old remain. I knew we were getting close to our destination on approaching Lim Ah Pin Road. By then we were thirsty and welcomed a cool soya bean drink at a shop opposite Lim Ah Pin Road before heading for Kovan MRT station. This station used to be the terminus for the STC bus company that ran services into town and other parts of the island in those days.

Rd signsa

Sadly too Jalan Hock Chye is no more around, being replaced by Hougang Avenue 1. However other landmarks are still there to pinpoint precisely where we used to get our iceballs. The Kaka shop used to be directly in front of the start of Jalan Teliti which is still there; and where my old home used to be is where Block 230 now stands and diagonally across there was a small lane that is now the present Jalan Hock Chye.

Well fifty years on I am glad I still could do the ice ball trail again and to all the old Monfortians who did the walk with me then – life was very simple then but very much cherished. However no ice ball for me at the end of the walk this time – had to settle for an ice kachang as a substitute!

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Words and images by Edmund Arozoo, who now resides in Australia and whom I had the pleasure to meet last December.






50 years ago on 16 September 1963

16 09 2013

50 years ago on 16 September 1963, Singapore together with the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, became a part of Malaysia. For Singapore, it was a union which lasted less than two years – with Singapore separating from Malaysia on 9 August 1965. The date, is celebrated as Hari Malaysia or Malaysia Day by our northern neighbours.

(Photo: National Archives online catalogue http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/)

(Photo: National Archives online catalogue http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/)

Straits Times News articles on 16 September 1963:

The Straits Times front page

It’s here (Tengku Abdul Rahman’s Malaysia Day Message)





Critically endangered

29 08 2013

With the recent death of the neglected but beautiful dove in the island’s west, there is only one that’s left to remember one of several terrazzo and mosaic creations that many who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s would have had fond memories of playing in. The dove, is one of several playground designs – the work of the Housing and Development Board’s Mr Khor Ean Ghee, with a uniquely and very distinctly Singaporean flavour that decorated Singapore’s public housing estates in the late 1970s and through the 1980s and 1990s.

Beyond a wall with decorative ventilation openings from a bygone era lies a critically endangered dove.

Beyond a wall with decorative ventilation openings from a bygone era lies a critically endangered dove.

The surviving dove at Dakota  Crescent.

The surviving dove at Dakota Crescent.

The dove at Dakota Crescent is one which although well worn and exhibiting obvious signs of age, is remarkably preserved – a testament perhaps to play structures put up in times when they were built to last. Still with its sand-pit, a feature of the playgrounds of  the era, it does also feature rubber tyre swings and a slide. There are several more of these structures left behind, including the well-loved dragon of Toa Payoh, which many hope will be preserved, not just to preserve the many memories there are of happy childhood moments, but also because they are structures which we can quite easily identify with Singapore, from a time when we did not yet forget to express who we are.

The dove's last surviving sibling was reduced to rubble very recently.

The dove’s last surviving sibling was reduced to rubble very recently.

What is also nice about the very last dove, is that it resides in a rather charming old neighbourhood, one Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) built flats which came up in the late 1950s, well before the dove was put there. The estate it is in, Kallang Airport Estate, was developed in the area at the end of the extended Kallang Airport runway – land which was freed after 1955, when the airport was closed. Some 21 seven-storey and 20 four-storey blocks were built from 1956 to 1959. The estate was officially opened in July 1958 and the cluster of flats the dove finds itself in the midst of, are amongst the few that have survived.

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A quick glance around the dove

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