Finding a lost Singapore in the images of Paul Piollet

19 11 2018

Such is the pace at which change takes place that little exists of the Singapore those of my generation grew up with. It was one whose city streets and rural spaces, filled with life and colour, were places to discover. Lost to progress, that Singapore can never be revisited again – except perhaps through images that we are fortunate to see of them.

In Conversation with Paul Piollet.

I, for one, am especially grateful to the good folks behind these images. Several collections have been publicly available through their generous donations or in some cases, through donations made by family members. These images provide us, and our generations with a visual record that in many cases would not otherwise exist of places and more importantly a way of life from a time when few had the means to capture them.

The opportunity to hear from the donors of two of these visual collections came our way this November. The first, Dr Clifford Saunders, donated an extensive and very well documented collection of over 1,400 photographs to the National Heritage Board. The images were taken by his father, Ralph Charles Saunders in the late 1950s, when he was stationed here at RAF Seletar – with his family, which included a young Dr Saunders.

Just in the middle of the last week, we were graced by the visit of another donor, Mr Paul Piollet, with whom we were able to hold a “conversation” with at the Urban Redevelopment Authority as part of the Architectural Heritage Season. The unassuming Mr Piollet, now in his 80s, has certainly had a past. His career in oil took him across the world, and he found himself in Balikpapan in Kalimantan in 1970 as a result of that. It was there that he developed a fascination for Indonesia and its maritime heritage. He would also find himself in Singapore, where he immersed himself in much that went on around and on its lively streets.

Mr Piollet’s photos of a Singapore in transition are especially intriguing. We find in them a record of life and a way of life of a Singapore in transition. We can see what fascinated Mr Piollet from the many images of wayangs, the life that went on backstage, elaborate Chinese funerals and of life on Singapore’s living streets, which were not only full of life but also filled with children (an observation was made during the “conversation” of how children are now missing from our city streets). Images of street food vendors, which Mr Piollet regularly frequented (he rattled off a few Hokkien names of local fare he enjoyed), also features in his collection.

While the focus of the “conversation” may have been on his images of Singapore (more than 180 can be found in the National Archives of Singapore), I was fortunate to be able to hear about his efforts to document the Indonesian maritime world through a brief conversation we had just before the event started.  Of particular interest to him were the wooden sail boats and the people who crewed them. Much of the craft and skill in rigging and sailing these beautiful hand-crafted boats, once a backbone of trade across parts of the widely spread archipelago, have quite sadly been lost to motorisation.

Pages out of one of Mr Piollet’s books, “Équipages et voiliers de Madura”, documenting Indonesia’s lost maritime heritage.

Thankfully, there are at least thousands of photos taken by Mr Piollet, as well as several books that he authored. Along with photographs and sketches that Mr Piollet made, there are also registry records that he copied by hand. Mr Piollet’s books, of ways of life that have since been lost, can be found at the French Bookshop at 55 Tiong Bahru Road.

“Équipages et voiliers de Madura” or “The crews and boats of Madura”, which Mr Piollet very kindly gave me a copy of.


A selection of photographs from the Paul Piollet Collection

One of Mr Piollet’s photos from 1975. A lost corner of Singapore that was familiar to my parents and me – where Rangoon Road met Norfolk Road and Moulmein Green – see : Moulmein Road Journeys (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

I thought this looks similar to the hairdresser that my mother used to visit at Rangoon Road with me in tow. From its name, this wasn’t it and only closer examination, looks like it was located in the row of shophouses close to the Balestier Road end of Tessensohn Road (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

What looks like part of the row of shophouses close to the Balestier Road end of Tessensohn Road (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Life as it was, when streets were not complete without the sight of children playing (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Days of street wayangs. I thought this might have been a street in the Ellenborough Market area but it seems more likely to have been Chin Nam Street (parallel to Hock Lam Street) with a view towards Fort Canning Hill  (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Pau steamers – wgich caught the eye of Mr. Piollet (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

A scene now hard to imagine on Sungei Rochor (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).


 





The machine gun pillbox café at Changi Beach

10 11 2017

How I miss my outings as a child to Changi Beach. High tides occurring on a Sunday morning often meant a trip to the beach for a dip. Trips to Changi Beach, which meant a long but scenic drive in days when the word “expressway” did not feature on a Singaporean driver’s vocabulary, were always looked to with much excitement and were not without preparation.

Changi Beach, 1965

A day at  Changi Beach, 1965.

Mum would often prepare a delicious tiffin. Mee goreng or chicken curry served with local versions of the French baguette were my favourites. Dad would ask to have his thermos filled with kopi-o from the nearby kopitiam. Straw hats and mats, tiny pails and spades for sand play, inflatable floats, my grandma, my sis and me could then be packed into the trusty Austin 1100 for the drive – part of which featured the seemingly never-ending and still very rural Tampines Road.

Picnics out of the Car Boot, Changi Beach, late 1960s.

Changi Beach had then a very different feel. It was uninterrupted for miles, running from the spit at the mouth of Changi Creek to the cliffs at Tanah Merah Besar. Ketapang (sea-almond), acacia, sea apple, coconut, and casuarina trees lined the beach and its popular stretches were lined with sampans for hire, and within sight of that, inner truck tire tubes for use as floats and deck chairs were displayed – also for hire.

Under an acacia tree, Changi Beach, early 1970s.

Sampans for hire (photo courtesy of Lies Strijker-Klaij and posted On A Little Street in Singapore).

One of the things also associated with the beach that I was recently reminded of from a posting of photographs by Mrs Lies Strijker-Klaij, were the beach-side cafes. Housed in wooden shacks – much like those now found in some beaches in the region – they served the delicious Malay fare and were popular with the beach crowd as were the mobile food vendors who made an appearance. The fish and chips van was a regular, as were several bell-ringing ice-cream vendors and the Indian men balancing delicious a tray of vadai or a rack of kacang putih.

The vadai vendor with a tray balanced on his head. The wooden base opened up as a folding support (photo courtesy of Lies Strijker-Klaij and posted On A Little Street in Singapore).

A vadai vendor and a beach-side café similar to the ones I remember at Changi Beach in the background (photo courtesy of Lies Strijker-Klaij and posted On A Little Street in Singapore).

Thinking about all that also reminds me of the machine gun pillboxes that lined the beach in my earlier years. Built to fend off would be invaders, they decorated the southward facing coastline. Many were filled with rotting matter and stank to high-heaven. There was also a pillbox along the beach that was a café operated out of. I don’t quite remember it but I recall my parents making reference to it as “chipot”. I never quite figured its name out, that is until quite recently. My dad explained that it was a name parents used for the want of a better name,  derived from how the Chinese lady who ran the café would repeated an order for a pot of tea, “chi pot” – a combination of the colloquial Hokkien word for one and the English pot!

A Pillbox at Changi Beach.

A similar pillbox at Mata Ikan in the 1970s.





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 postcard from the past: a view over the Killiney Road area in the 1970s

22 06 2017

Another postcard from the past: a view over the Killiney Road and River Valley area in the early 1970s. What can quite clearly be made out is Killiney Road, Dublin Road, Lloyd Road, Tiverton Lane and Devonshire Road at the bottom of the picture. Some of the buildings that are identifiable in the foreground include the old Killiney Road Market (from its roof), Mitre Hotel, and if you look hard enough, the roof of 38 Oxley Road!

What this postcard brings to mind is in fact 38 Oxley Road, which has been very much in the news of late. I was first made aware of it being the house of the then Prime Minister from the backseat of the car of a neighbour, Uncle Singh. We were in the vicinity one evening and Uncle Singh decided to drive through the short stretch of Oxley Road (that was before entry to the stretch was restricted to residents) just to show his son and me where the Prime Minister lived, pointing the Gurkha guards manning the sentry posts out as he drove past. This would have been sometime in 1969 or 1970 as I was in kindergarten then. What I don’t recall was why we were in the area (we were living in Toa Payoh), or what I was doing in his car. I do remember the car, an old and rather beat up Austin Cambridge, which had a corroded floorboard and torn PVC upholstery on its backseat – so much so that the coconut husk used for the filling of its cushion was showing through.





A postcard from the past: Fitzpatrick’s on Orchard Road

21 06 2017

I miss the old Orchard Road. Laid back, when compared to the madness that now consumes the street, little remains of it except for a few memories and some precious photographs, which when they crop up are like postcards sent from the past.

One photograph that I was quite excited to come across is the one below. A scan that a new found friend kindly permitted me to scan, it is a rare shot taken inside Fitzpatrick’s supermarket in the very early 1970s, just as I remember it. The scene, complete with the inside ends of the checkout aisles and the cigarette display racks, brought back an instant recall of a place, its smell and of the brown paper bags the shopping would be packed into. I remember the latter especially well and a time when plastic bags, now a scourge to the environmental, were much less used widely used. Much was also reused and recycled such as the cartons that one picked up from a pile on the left after the checkouts that the shopping, particularly the heavier items were sometimes packed into.



 





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.