“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 town with a curious sounding name

3 01 2014

It was in late 1976 that I found myself moving to the Ang Mo Kio New Town. Built as part of a huge wave of public housing developments that took place in the mid-1970s, Ang Mo Kio located just north of then canalised Kallang River, and the huge cemetery at Peck San Theng (now Bishan), took its name from the surrounding area.

A window into a world I once knew. Ang Mo Kio was my third home to which I moved to in 1976. The area in the photograph is the car park in front of Block 217 which started life as a the first temporary bus terminal in Ang Mo Kio  from which I caught bus service number 166 to get to school.

A window into a world I once knew. Ang Mo Kio was my third home to which I moved to in 1976. The area in the photograph is the car park in front of Block 217 which started life as a the first temporary bus terminal in Ang Mo Kio from which I caught bus service number 166 to get to school.

The rather curious sounding name did fuel much speculation and debate amongst the early residents of the new town as to what its origins were. Explanations ranged from the plausible to the seemingly improbably, a common factor was that it was a Hokkien term. Many argued that it meant evolved from a similar sounding Hokkien term that meant “red tomato”, with suggestions that it might be a reference to an “ang mo” bridge (kio), not far behind.

HDB notice regarding the renaming of roads in 1977. Prior to that, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 would have referred to as Avenue 1, Ang Mo Kio.

HDB notice regarding the renaming of roads in 1977. Prior to that, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 would have referred to as Avenue 1, Ang Mo Kio.

“Ang mo” in Hokkien is of course a term that is commonly used in Singapore and in Malaysia to describe Caucasians. The term does have its origins in 16th or 17th century Fujian province, when references to the fair hair (ang mo translates to “red hair”) of hitherto unseen and unheard of new arrivals from distant shores, came to be used  in the absence of a non-existent proper word. The “ang mo”, it was though in the case of the “ang mo” bridge being a reference to an Englishman by the name of John Turnbull Thomson, the Government Surveyor who gave his name to Thomson Road (or Englishmen in general), who was credited with putting up a proper bridge (or bridges) across the Kallang River. Along with these, the National Heritage Board (NHB) in its heritage guide for Ang Mo Kio, does add another twist with regard to what the “ang mo” might have been a reference to:

A more plausible explanation was given by Douglas Hiorns, former General Manager of Bukit Sembawang Estates (1948-1995). According to Hiorns, there were two key tracks crossing Ang Mo Kio, an area with large expanses of swamps and tributaries of rivers running through it. Bridges carrying the tracks over the waterways gained a local importance as a result. In the north, a wooden bridge carried Jalan Hwi Yoh over Sungei Tongkang and was locally called pang kio, meaning “wooden bridge” in Hokkien. The bridge carrying Cheng San Road over the tributary of Kallang River was made of concrete, a material commonly referred to as ang mo he or “Western ash” in Hokkien. As such the area acquired the name “Ang Mo Kio”.

A 1861 British Admiralty Nautical Chart. Early maps of modern Singapore show an area close to where Ang Mo Kio today is named 'Amokiah' or 'Amokia'.

A 1861 British Admiralty Nautical Chart. Early maps of modern Singapore show an area close to where Ang Mo Kio today is named ‘Amokiah’ or ‘Amokia’ (click to enlarge).

To add to the confusion over the origins of the name, old maps and references to the area suggest that the name might after all have little to do with bridges, identifying an area close to where present day Ang Mo Kio is, as “Amokia” or “Amokiah”. While the British did have some difficultly in the Anglicisation of local place names, a suggestion that I did hear more recently was that the “kia” could indeed have been correctly Anglicised. The suggestion (attributed to a local cartographer) is that “kia” which can translate into “frightened” or “afraid” in Hokkien, refers to an incident in which J. T. Thomson on a survey in what would have been a wooded area, had taken fright at an unexpected appearance made by a tiger.

A Land Office newspaper advertisement offering plots in 'Amo Kia' for sale.

A Land Office newspaper advertisement offering plots in ‘Amo Kia’ for sale.

Except for a small pockets of trees and a cluster close to Mayflower Garden, it wasn’t a forest of trees but one of concrete structures that the new residents were to encounter in 1976 – and there certainly were no tigers and wild the new Ang Mo Kio certainly was not. Living in the new town in its early days, did however have one feeling very much like it was the wilderness one was living in, especially for my having gotten spoiled by the convenience that Toa Payoh, my previous home had offered.

An aerail view of Ang Mo Kio in the early 1980s, showing the early part of it in the foreground (photograph from a heritage marker).

An aerial view of Ang Mo Kio in the early 1980s, showing the early part of it in the foreground (photograph from a heritage marker) – click to enlarge.

Block 306 was where I had moved to, in an area as far east as lived-in Ang Mo Kio went at the end of 1976. Most of what had been completed centered around the partially completed roads in the area, which included parts of Avenue 1, Avenue 3 and Avenue 6. These were the roads that carried the new town’s traffic out via a stub of Avenue 1 to Upper Thomson Road.

A familiar sight along Upper Thomson Road on the journey on service number 166. Area shown is close to the junction of Upper Thomson Road with Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 in 1980 (photograph by Ronni Pinsler as seen on the National Archives Online catalogue http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

A familiar sight along Upper Thomson Road on the journey on service number 166. Area shown is close to the junction of Upper Thomson Road with Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 in 1980 (photograph by Ronni Pinsler as seen on the National Archives Online catalogue http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

It was out to Upper Thomson Road – then the only link to the city centre, that the few bus services then serving the new town operated along. The services included numbers 168, which was the bus to take to Orchard Road, as well as a newly introduced 166 – an important link for me in the journeys to secondary school in Bras Basah Road that I would have to then make. A Blue Arrow semi-express bus service to Shenton Way, 308, did also help me save some time on the long journey home from its last stop in the city at Waterloo Street – saving up to 20 minutes in what would usually have been a journey that often exceed one hour.

Te stretch of Ang Mo Kio Avenue 6 where the temporary terminal moved to in the very late 1970s.

The stretch of Ang Mo Kio Avenue 6 where the temporary terminal moved to in the very late 1970s – probably late 1978.

The row of boarding stops along Avenue 3 in the 1980s to serve the new bus terminal.

The row of boarding stops along Avenue 3 in the 1980s to serve the new bus terminal that was built in 1980.

Staying at Block 306 also made it convenient to catch the bus, as I could board it at the first temporary bus terminal , which operated in a car park just across Avenue 6 in  front of Block 217 (before it moved even closer, probably at the end of 1978, to Avenue 6). Close-by the temporary terminal at Block 215, a row of shops lined the ground floor with the corner shop lot closest to the car park occupied by a coffee shop that due to the proximity of the bus terminal, became a hang out for resting bus drivers and conductors. The coffee shop, never quite recovered when the terminal did move across Avenue 6, with the lot being taken over McDonald’s, who did for a while operate a rather quiet outlet there. NTUC Fairprice currently runs an outlet in the same lot.

The NTUC Fairprice outlet occupies a shop lot that was originally a coffee shop frequented by bus drivers and conductors in the 1970s.

The NTUC Fairprice outlet at Block 215 occupies a shop lot that was originally a coffee shop frequented by bus drivers and conductors in the 1970s.

It was also close by where the only completed neighbourhood centre (in Neighbourhood 2) was found, and where the only market that had then been opened, was. It was in one of the shops in the two storey blocks surrounding the market, that I was to visit for my first haircuts in Ang Mo Kio. That was at an Indian barber shop at Block 226E, my father and I would frequent, until the Pink Panther Malay barber shop in my neighbourhood opened.

The first Neighbourhood Centre, now known as 'Kebun Baru Mall'.

The first Neighbourhood Centre, now known as ‘Kebun Baru Mall’.

The row of shops at Block 226E as seen today.

The row of shops at Block 226E as seen today.

Besides the shops at Block 215 and at the neighbourhood centre,  there were shops closer to where I lived. These were found at the bottom of Block 307 (since demolished) across the huge open car park. Besides a bicycle shop, a clinic, and a provision shop, the row also contained the coffee shop that I would have most patronised during my nine-year stay in the area in the new town.

It was across a large open car park, a large part of which has since been built over, that a block of flats with a row of shops, Block 307, was.

It was across a large open car park, a large part of which has since been built over (left of the photograph), that a block of flats with a row of shops, Block 307, was.

In its early days, there coffee shop wasn’t much to talk about, much of the food on offer was rather forgettable – although the Fishball Noodle and the Chicken Rice was to see much improvement over time. Most of my early visits there were motivated by the large glass fronted stainless steel refrigerator (as was common in coffee shops and many provision shops in those days) – then placed right against the back wall of the coffee shop (the coffee shop was laid out as were coffee shops of old – with stalls lining the entrance and tables and chairs arranged inside). It was from the fridge that ice-cold relief was found. This took the form of bottled soft drinks that were to be poured into ice-filled plastic bags – much needed in the heat and dust that seemed to accompany the early days of the neighbourhood.

Block 306 (and 305 behind it), with a more recently added concrete plaza next to it.

Block 306 (and 305 behind it), with a more recently added concrete plaza next to it.

With the relentless pace at which the town was being developed, it was not to be long before the feeling of being in the wilderness did somewhat subside.  The completion of new roads and addition of bus services did provide more links out, although one did have to spend more time on the road given the distance of the town from the city. One road that was useful in the early days was the extension of Avenue 1 out to Lorong Chuan, completed in March 1977, not too long after I moved in. That providing a link out to Serangoon Garden, where the only NTUC Fairprice (then NTUC Welcome) supermarket in the vicinity was to be found (until the branch in Ang Mo Kio Central was opened in 1979). The completion of the road also saw it being used by hell-riders , participants in the illegal motorcycle races that was a big problem in the late 1970s, the roar of their motorcycles were sometimes heard in the dead of the night.

Avenue 1 where it meets Avenue 3, at its completion in March 1977 - the area to the right was largely occupied by the sprawling Peck San Theng cemetery (photograph: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Avenue 1 where it meets Avenue 3, at its completion in March 1977 – the area to the right was largely occupied by the sprawling Peck San Theng cemetery (photograph: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

The completion of Marymount Road in August 1979 provided a faster and more direct route southwards towards the city. The construction of the road, which was to see Marymount Convent lose its original frontage along Thomson Road, took a route that cut through parts of the massive Peck San Theng cemetery – and one thing that I very vividly remember was seeing the exhumation work in progress on the part of the cemetery close to Sin Ming Estate that was just by Marymount Road – probably sometime in 1980.

The clutter of renewal in spaces where my friends and I would once have enjoyed an afternoon kicking a ball in.

The clutter of renewal in spaces where my friends and I would once have enjoyed an afternoon kicking a ball in.

With the masses that the further development of Ang Mo Kio brought in, the town took on a more impersonal feel and what there certainly wasn’t, was the sense of the community that was present in Toa Payoh – the lack of common corridors and open front doors possibly a contributory factor. There were however, open and many grassy spaces to celebrate, spaces that allowed the freedom of play, to kick a ball, and to have a run around … spaces there seem to be a lot less of these days. It did come as a shock to see that many of the spaces I played in, have since been lost to the clutter of renewal that upgrading works seem to do to a place, on a recent visit to the area.

The huge open space that provided room to breathe is now gone.

The huge open space that provided room to breathe is now gone.

Gone also, is that open space that provided breathing room between the block where I had lived in, the blocks it has since been made to face – a seemingly towering wall of concrete that has hidden that wonderful view I once did get from the bedroom window of the 16th storey flat I had lived in.

More cluttered spaces where open fields once provided the freedom to run.

More cluttered spaces where green and open fields once provided the freedom to run.

Walking around once familiar places that I now find hard to connect with, I did at least stumble upon a consolation. That came in the form of a bowl of ice-kacang, done just the way I like it and as it might have been all those years ago – a simple pleasure from what once was a much less complicated place.

One thing that I hope never changes - finding a great bowl of ice-kacang in the nighbourhood.

One thing that I hope never changes – being able to stumble upon that great bowl of ice-kacang in the changing neighbourhoods.

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.








A quick glance around the dove




Final days for the dove?

20 08 2013

It does look as if the dove, on which I put in an entry on just last week (see: A dove that’s dying), may be in its final days. Work is commencing on a Neighbourhood Renewal Programme (NRP)in the area it has resided in for some three decades or so and hoardings have already come up around what is one of two remaining dove playgrounds designed by Mr Khor Ean Ghee in Singapore. A notice relating to the work being carried out does not give any clues to the fate of the long neglected playground, other than stating “the upgrading works includes the construction of facilities such as Covered Linkways, Drop-off Points, Pavillion, Recreation Park, Playground, …”


It would be a shame if the dove is indeed going as it does stand as a reminder of a significant point of time in the evolution of Singapore’s highly successful public housing programme. It also is one of the last of the much celebrated playgrounds built using Mr Khor’s uniquely Singaporean designs left for us to admire.


Update on 21 August 2013

Work to demolish the playground commenced on 20 August 2013 …

s seen on the morning of 21 August 2013.

As seen on the morning of 21 August 2013.

A dove that’s dying

13 08 2013

One of possibly two of a kind left in Singapore, the dove, is one in danger of extinction. Wearing the look of having been used, probably abused, and possibly neglected, it lies forgotten, unwanted by a Singapore obsessed with  the need to renew, even where renewal is not required or appreciated.  The dove I speak of, is a playground design – one of several with a distinctly Singapore flavour designed by the Housing and Development Board’s Mr Khor Ean Ghee in the late 1970s, put up in public housing estates from 1979. Probably not as well known as its iconic cousin, the orange Dragon of Lorong 6, the dove does have some of the very distinctive features of Mr Khor’s designs – the dominant terrazzo and mosaic structures that give the playgrounds a unique flavour.


What’s missing in this particular dove, is the sand pit which was another feature of the play areas, play areas which did seem rather sedate compared to the ones I never could get enough of in my childhood.  Those to me were the real playgrounds, ones in which having the wonderful scent of rust, and a few splinters in my shorts, was all part of the fun.


What I miss most of the playgrounds of my early years is probably the slide, with its slideway of steel, polished smooth by the numerous times the slides did get used – the polished steel surface making for a much smoother and quicker (and very often steeper) ride down the slide as compared with the  ones on slides of terrazzo.


It is probably that those in their thirties who would have grown up with these playgrounds – which were found throughout the island, that there has been a that wave of remembering playgrounds such as these we most of Singapore wants to forget, now that only a few are left.


It will probably be a matter of time before the dove and several other of such playgrounds which are left are replaced as they probably are terribly out of fashion in the brave new world we now embrace, There is hope that the dragon is saved, and hopefully with it a few more, if not for anything else, at least to remember an important era in our public housing story, having coincided with a time when the monster estates such Clementi, Bedok and Ang Mo Kio were at the peak of their development.



A picture from the past

6 08 2013

Looking through old photographs of what perhaps was a lost decade for me, the 1980s, I stumbled upon a rare one of Changi Beach, taken some time in 1987. The beach, one on which I have had many experiences of going back to the late 1960s, had by that time already lost its popularity as a place for a family outing – missing were the beach side cafes, the wooden sampans, deck chairs and rubber tubes from a time when you could drive right up to the edge of the beach and find a shady spot under a ketapang tree to park your car under.

JeromeChangiBeach 1987s

The coarse sand beach in the 1980s was one abandoned by many in Singapore for the man-made beach lining the reclaimed land at East Coast Park. It is perhaps beyond the foreshore that does make the photograph interesting. Along the horizon two kelongs, structures erected to harvest fish from the sea, can be seen. The structures which once dominated the seascape off much of Singapore, are now a rare sight.

Knobbly sea stars.

Knobbly sea stars seen at Pulau Semakau – once a common sight on the seabed off Changi Beach at low tide.

The kelongs remind me of happier times past, when wading out to them at low tide was possible, across knee deep water over a seabed of sea grass meadows abundant with sea life.  It was on the many walks my parents took me on in the late 1960s and 1970s that I was to catch my first glimpse of knobby sea stars, fiddler crabs, gong-gong and sea cucumber – marine creatures that are rarely seen in our waters these days (we do also have to head to our offshore islands such as Pulau Ubin and Pulau Semakau to see them).

The shallow waters during low tide off Changi Beach provided hours of endless fun with the creatures that lived amongst the sea grass. A fiddler crab is seen here.

A fiddler crab seen at Chek Jawa off Pulau Ubin.

Sea cucumber.

Sea cucumber – also once a common sight off Changi Beach.

There are also several less than happy memories I can find in the photograph. Scanning the horizon, a glimpse of Pulau Tekong is seen on the right. It just west of this spot where I would board a Ramp Powered Lighter (RPL) from the beach as a National Service recruit for a dreaded 40 minute ride on an open deck to the island. The RPLs were the means by which personnel were ferried to and from the two Basic Military Training camps on Pulau Tekong in those days. Having to beach also meant the RPLs could only come in at high tide – which translated into shortened weekends for us as when we could get back and had to go back in, was very much determined by the time when the tide was high. That meant we would sometimes get out only in the afternoon, only to have to get back to the beach on the morning of the following day. It is a lot easier these days, recruits leave from and arrive at a purpose built ferry terminal, and without having to wait for the tide, all it does take to get to Pulau Tekong is a less than 15 minute ride on a fast ferry.


As with the means by which personnel are sent over to Pulau Tekong, much about Changi Beach has changed. Many of the ketapang, acacia, pong pong and casuarina trees under which we might once have found Malay ladies weaving ketupat pouches from young coconut leaves, have since been uprooted. In their place, we now see a footpath with stone benches and trees carefully arranged where cars could once drive up to. The beach, littered with the deposits of the tide: seashells, mangrove propagules and drift wood, and the trunk of a coconut palm, is otherwise empty as is the horizon. It is reflective of the world we now find ourselves in, a world in which we have discarded much of who we were and one which we fill with the emptiness we now seek for our souls.

A church once occupied by Sin

19 03 2013

I took a walk by what, for a short moment, appeared to be a church in the woods. In an area in which woods in any form would have long abandoned – the corner of Waterloo Street and Middle Road, the building which resembles a small village church has for the better part of a century not actually used as one. Together with an adjacent two storey building, the church is now part of the Sculpture Square complex, a space dedicated to the promotion and development of contemporary 3-dimensional (3D) art.

A church in the woods?

A church in the woods?

My memories of the buildings are ones which date back to my younger days (of which I have actually written about in a previous post). The church building itself was always a curious sight each time I passed through the area, whether on the way home from church in the late 1960s and early 1970s, or from school in the late 1970s, when it had been occupied by Sin. The walls of the building were then coloured not just by the colour of its fading coat of paint, but also by streaks of motor oil and grease, having been used by a motor workshop, the Sin Sin Motor Co. My mother remembers it being used as a motor workshop as far back as her own days in school (she went to St. Anthony’s Convent further down Middle Road in the 1950s). The building next to it, which is built in a similar layout as many in the area which might ones which have been homes of wealthy merchants, had in those days been used as the Tai Loke Hotel (previously Tai Loke Lodging House) – one of several rather seedy looking budget hotels found in the area.

The church building when it was used as a motor workshop and the Tai Loke Hotel next to it, 1987 (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/)

The church building when it was used as a motor workshop and the Tai Loke Hotel next to it, seen from Middle Road in 1987 (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/).

While not much is known about the building which the Tai Loke occupied, there is enough that is known about the church building which was erected from 1870 to 1875, based on information on a National Heritage Board (NHB) plaque at the site as well as on Sculpture Square’s website. It first saw use as the Christian Institute. The Methodists were in 1885, invited to use the building and it became the Middle Road Church (or Malay Church) after a transfer to the Methodists was made in 1892, until the church moved to Kampong Kapor in 1929. Interestingly, the building also housed the Methodist Girls’ School which was started at nearby Short Street for a while until 1900. According to information on Sculpture Square’s website, the building had apparently also seen life as a Chinese restaurant, the “May Blossom Restaurant” during the war.

A photograph of the abandoned church building in the 1990s - after the motor workshop had vacated it (from Sculpture Square's website).

A photograph of the abandoned church building in the 1990s – after the motor workshop had vacated it (from Sculpture Square’s website).

Following years of neglect, the former church building when it was vacated by the motor workshop possibly at the end of the 1980s, was left in rather a dilapidated condition and it was a local sculptor, Sun Yu Li, who saw its potential for use as an arts venue which was opened as Sculpture Square in 1999.

The shortlived French invasion of Singapore

8 02 2013

I was looking through some of my old (and rather badly taken) photographs of Chingay when I stumbled upon a sign which brought to mind events of the 1980s. The decade was a time when the world around us was very much in transition and a time when the French decided on an invasion of Singapore. The invasion was one not involving any form of military force, but by forces of an entirely different nature – those of two of their well established retail giants, Galeries Lafayette and Printemps – department stores which are landmarks on one of Paris’ famous shopping streets, Boulevard Haussmann (it was a photograph with the Printemps sign that brought this to mind).

The Printemps Store along on the ground level of Hotel Le Meridien at Orchard Road.

The Printemps Store along on the ground level of Hotel Le Meridien at Orchard Road.

The entrance of the two stores into the local retail market came at the start of a decade in which Singapore was too see massive changes. Much of the resident population of the city centre had been or was to be moved out, and once bustling districts of shophouses which coloured much of the urban landscape was over the period, reduced to rubble. The 1980s also saw Orchard Road establishing itself as Singapore’s main shopping street and the economic success of Singapore – one of the four “Tigers” of the Asian economies, provided for the rising affluence among Singaporeans and with that a greater awareness of fashion trends. This influenced shopping habits and preferences and many overseas based retailers saw an opportunity to gain a foothold into the Singapore market, with two Japanese based retailers having by then already established themselves. Isetan came in 1972 and Yaohan in 1974.

It was Galeries Lafayette which lead the French charge, opening a 5574 square metre store in out-of-town Goldhill Square (since renamed United Square) in December 1982. Printemps followed soon after, taking up 4000 square metres of space on Orchard Road on the ground floor of the newly constructed Hotel Le Méridien (now Concorde Hotel) in September 1983. It was Printemps which perhaps had the greater impact – projecting an image not so much of Parisian chic but one of being hip, colourful and affordable – it was Printemps which introduced the colourful canvas espadrilles which for a while seemed to catch on with Singaporean shoppers (trendy as they might have been, they unfortunately were not the most ideal form of footwear for the local climate). Printemps colourful and cheap polo-tees were also rather a hit with the young.

Despite the apparent popularity of some of what the stores had to offer, both did have great difficulty in making inroads and were making losses. Galeries (as it was referred to by Singaporeans) closed its Goldhill Square store in May 1986. The news of that did not come as a shock as it had been plagued by rumours of its closing for several months before that even as it had expressed interest in taking up a space either at Crown Prince Hotel or the space previously occupied by Mohan’s at Orchard Shopping Centre. It was perhaps a poor decision made to open their store at a location far from the main retail scene in Singapore. The closure did turn out to be a temporary move. Some ten months after closing the Goldhill Square store, Galeries opened a 4460 square metre store at Liat Towers on Orchard Road and not long after that, a smaller 400 square metre outlet at Raffles Place. In spite of the problems the two stores faced in what was perhaps becoming a saturated retail market, the two did last a little longer. Printemps operated ntil December 1989 when it shut its doors. Galeries after its second coming lasted a little longer – it was in March 1996 when they did finally close again.

Galeries Lafayette's second coming which was at Liat Towers, seen here in the 1990s, in March 1987 (source: http:// a2o.nas.sg/picas/).

Galeries Lafayette’s second coming which was at Liat Towers, seen here in the 1990s, in March 1987 (source: http:// a2o.nas.sg/picas/).

The curious ridge of sand which runs from Katong to Kallang Bay

25 11 2012

Taking a walk by the waterfront by the Singapore Indoor Stadium these days, it would be hard to imagine a time not so long ago when looking across to Tanjong Rhu, a very different scene would have greeted one’s eyes. Where million dollar condominium units housed in cream coloured blocks now dominate the view across, the scene a quarter of a century ago would have been one of wooden boats, wooden jetties, slipways and drab looking structures running along a body of water the surface of which would have been littered not just by rubbish that had found its way into the three rivers that flowed into the basin, but also by carcasses of dead animals that floated down from the many farms that has once been located upstream.

Tanjong Rhu (left), seen across the Kallang Basin today.

Tanjong Rhu translates from Malay into the Cape of Casuarina (Trees). Once described as a “curious ridge of sand which runs across from Katong to Kallang Bay”, its tip, known as “Sandy Point” has had a long association with the boat building and repair trade, having been an area designated for the trade by Sir Stamford Raffles as far back as 1822, with Captain Flint being the first to set a company to do that in the same year. By the 1850s, the trade was already well established around Sandy Point and the trade continued to thrive in the area even after the first graving dock was constructed in New Harbour (Keppel Harbour) in 1859. Over the years, among the business that found their way to Sandy Point were the well established names such as British boatbuilder John I. Thornycroft which set up in 1926 and United Engineers – which had a longer history. Thornycroft became Vosper Thornycroft in 1967 following the 1966 merger of the parent company with Vosper Limited in the UK. Vosper Thornycroft’s Singapore operations in turn merged with United Engineer’s in 1967. The yard unfortunately got into financial difficulties due to the mid 1980s recession and went into voluntary liquidation in early 1986.

The end of Tanjong Rhu was home to several shipyards including Vosper Thornycroft (seen here), the parent company of which is an established builder of Naval craft in the UK and Singapore Slipway (which became Keppel Singmarine), established as far back as 1887.

A slipway of a boatyard on the Geylang River

A well established organisation involved in shipbuilding still around that can trace its history to Sandy Point is the newbulding arm of Keppel Corporation, Keppel Singmarine. The subsidiary of what is now Keppel Offshore and Marine is a merger of Singmarine and Singapore Slipway. It was Singapore Slipway that had been established at Sandy Point in 1887 when a group of merchants bought William Heard and partner Campbell Heard and Co’s slipway which was set up earlier in the decade and formed the Slipway and Engineering Company. Keppel Singmarine’s yard operated at Tanjong Rhu until the early 1990s.

A boat littered Kallang Basin in 1973 at the time of the completion of the National Stadium (Singapore Sports Council Photo). Land reclamation along the Nicoll Highway promenade can be clearly seen.

Besides the shipyards, another area of Tanjong Rhu a short distance away from its tip that wasn’t very pretty was at the area known as Kampong Arang. That had been an area that was dominated by wooden jetties, used by charcoal traders to offload charcoal from tongkangs (wooden lighters) coming in from Indonesia and Thailand. The charcoal trade was established in the area in 1954 when charcoal traders were uprooted from the waterfront along the reclaimed land south of Beach Road to allow for the construction of Merdeka Bridge and the Nicoll Highway. The once thriving charcoal trade operated at Tanjong Rhu up until January 1987 when the trade was already in decline. At its height in the late 1950s, as many as 300 tongkangs plied between the two countries and Tanjong Rhu, falling to 60 by the time the 1970s had arrived when demand fell as many households had by then already switched to using gas and electric stoves. The traders were relocated to Lorong Halus (only 15 of the 40 that operated at Tanjong Rhu continued at Lorong Halus with demand mainly from the reexport of charcoal than from the local market) in early 1987 at the tail end of the decade long Kallang Basin cleanup efforts.

Another view of Kallang Basin and Tanjong Rhu today.

Beyond the cleanup efforts, the face of Tanjong Rhu has also been altered by the land reclamation south of the cape which has increased its land mass. The land reclamation, started in the early 1970s, was originally intended to allow for the construction of the East Coast Parkway and was further expanded to give the area now referred to as Marina East – at the tip of which the Marina Barrage now closes the channel between it and Marina South which has turned Marina Bay and the Kallang Basin into a huge reserve of a much needed resource, fresh water. The shifting out of the trades from the area were complete by the time the mid 1990s had arrived and allowed much of the northern waterfront area of Tanjong Rhu to be developed into a residential area and the basin into a recreational area that it is today.

[see also: Where slipways once lined the muddy banks of the Geylang River: Jalan Benaan Kapal]

The making of Marina Bay

8 11 2012

The decades that followed Singapore’s somewhat reluctant independence from Malaysia were ones of enormous growth and development which has led to an amazing transformation of a city state, with a burgeoning population, the threat of unemployment and facing much uncertainty into the modern city that it is today. One place where that transformation is very apparent is in and around the city centre, particularly in the Marina Bay area which has seen it morph from the old harbour on which Singapore’s wealth was built into the city of the future built around what has become Singapore’s 15th fresh water reservoir that it is today.

The dawn of a new Singapore at Marina Bay.

View of Clifford Pier, the Inner Roads and the Breakwater in the 1950s from an old postcard (courtesy of Mr. Low Kam Hoong).

Map of Singapore Harbour in the 1950s showing the Detached Mole, Inner Roads and Outer Roads.

The transformation that took place was a story that began in the years that followed independence. Singapore embarked on the State and City Planning Project (SCP) in 1967, assisted by the United Nations under the UN Development Programme’s special assistance scheme for urban renewal and development for emerging nations. The SCP which was completed in 1971, Singapore’s first Concept Plan, identified the need to build an adequate road transportation network. This included a coastal highway to divert traffic that would otherwise have to go through the city. For this land was to be reclaimed, with the construction of what is today Benjamin Sheares Bridge providing a vital link. Initial thoughts were that a green belt could be created on the reclaimed land with space created providing for a future expansion of the city. What did become of the plan and further developments over the years was to give us not just the highway which is the East Coast Parkway (ECP), but in addition to that a city of the future, a city in a garden, and certainly what is a truly amazing new part of Singapore we celebrate today.

Singapore’s City in a Garden concept is very much evident in the transformation of Marina Bay.

The last decade has seen the many developments which were the result of decades of planning take shape around Marina Bay.

You can find out more about this transformation and how it took place by participating in a guided walk this weekend or the next, ‘The Making of Marina Bay‘ which be conducted by Zinkie Aw, held as part of a month long ‘Loving Marina Bay‘ event organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). Details of the walk (and also one more that I will be conducting on 25 Nov 2012 entitled ‘A Walk Around the Old Harbour’) can be found at The Loving Marina Bay site. To sign up for the walks, do visit the Eventbrite signup page. The month long event will also feature a street museum exhibition at Clifford Square (in between Clifford Pier and One Fullerton) in which photographs of the old have been superimposed on the new to provide an appreciation of the changes around the bay through which you can also discover where places such as the Satay Club once were.

A ‘Street Museum’ panel at Clifford Square.

Discover where places such as the Satay Club were through the street museum.

About Loving Marina Bay

See the story of Marina Bay through our AmBAYssadors

Located at the heart of Singapore’s city centre, Marina Bay is the centrepiece of Singapore set to be a thriving 24/7 destination with endless exciting events and a necklace of attractions where people from all walks of life come together to live, work and play.

This photography exhibition showcases the different facets of the Marina Bay precinct through over 100 enthralling photos taken by 20 of our beloved AmBAYssadors made up of Singapore’s popular bloggers and photographers.

Heritage is very much part of the precinct’s foundation, captured in key historical landmarks such as Merlion Park and Collyer Quay.

An interesting Street Museum section chronicles Marina Bay’s story over its first few decades since the 1960s, telling a story of strategic, far-sighted and meticulous planning and committed engagement to reach its present state through archive photos superimposed on its modern-day context.

Join us during the month-long event where every weekend is full of exciting activities such as heritage walks and photography workshops led by our very own AmBAYssadors. We want you to be part of Loving Marina Bay too – submit a photo taken at Marina Bay anywhere, anytime to win prizes; or simply pen a Love Note to your family/friends, drop it into the red pillar post boxes at The Fullerton Hotel Singapore and we will send it anywhere in the world for you! Visit www.marina-bay.sg/lovingmb for more details.

Where a car once plunged into the sea

22 03 2010

What was once a rickety jetty at the end of Sembawang Road, once referred to as Mata or Beaulieu Jetty, was the base from which I partook of many of my memorable childhood adventures in and around the beach. The jetty then was in a state of disrepair … a few burnt planks greeting the visitor, along with a few missing and loose planks that made it rather hazardous to tread one’s way over the jetty, not to mention the absence of any form of barriers to prevent one from falling into the sea or the rocky seabed at low tide. The jetty was built in the 1940s, started by the British and completed by the Japanese, then served as a popular place to fish and catch crabs.

The once rickety Mata Jetty at the end of Sembawang – still a popular spot for fishing and crabbing – now with safety railings. Back in the 1970s and 1980s the jetty had a few burnt, loose and missing planks and no safety railings.

The sea then brought a rather bountiful harvest of crabs to anyone willing to put up with the stench of rotting fish that was thought to attract crabs when used as bait, as well as the dangerous conditions on the jetty. A night spent could yield as much as two 5 gallon pails filled with a bounty of flower crabs of reasonable maturity, and a few large clawed mud crabs, unlike the tiny ones we see being caught these days. The implements would include a few square nets with a bamboo frame weighed down with lead sheets wrapped around the lower ends of the frame, a piece of wire to serve as a hook to attach the rotting fish to the top of the frame, and a ball of string, mostly nylon, but raffia was sometimes used as well, one end to be attached to the net, and the other to the kerb at the jetty’s side which allowed the nets to be raised or lowered.

A crab net being raised from the seabed.

Around the jetty, the beach was rather filthy. A stench, from the mix of rotting seaweed, washed up debris and dead fish, greeted whoever dared venture onto the beach. To the left of the jetty was the rockier part of the beach, where wading into the murky waters with a torch or a kerosene lamp in one hand, and a butterfly net in the other, we were able to scoop prawns – visible due to the eyes which could be seen in the light of the lamp, along with some kind of puffer fish – which would bloat itself up when caught, and inadvertently jellyfish. Sea snakes and eels (sometimes we could tell) could be seen darting around in the light sometimes. Wading in the sea along the sandy side on the right side of the jetty, besides prawns, we could sometimes see crabs darting across the sand which could be also be scooped up using the butterfly net.

The beach is a lot cleaner now than it was back in the 1970s and 1980s.

A trip to the jetty would always be accompanied by some kind excursion, whether it was to the row of Indian hawker stalls close to the row of bars down Sembawang Road to get our supper of mee goreng and teh tarik, or maybe a stroll in the dark along the dark winding what was once Kelopak, Mata and Beaulieu Roads that led to the jetty from Sembawang Road, with a sharing of tales of the supernatural. There were two muslim graves near the final bend of the road that led to the jetty – somewhere along where the Sembawang Wharf fence which somehow made the stories feel even more real!

A view of the beach in the 1970s – the remnants of a boat slip seen in the photograph has since been removed (photograph posted by Kamal Abu Serah on the Old Sembawang Naval Base Nostalgic Lane Facebook Group).

Back then, we were also able to build open fires on the beach. With a few twigs, some charcoal, a few red bricks or small rocks, a piece of grill, a few skewers and some oil, we could have a barbecue which had already been prepared or one that involved the harvest from the sea … I can still smell the aroma of the crabs turning orange over the ambers!

Having said that the jetty was rather dangerous … there were actually several incidents, including several drowning incidents involving the jetty that I remember which had not much to do with the safety of the jetty itself, although in one instance, the lack of any barriers along the jetty’s edges made it possible for the incident to happen. In that incident which happened in 1975, a car had been driven off the jetty at high speed, resulting in the death of a woman passenger. It turned out that the accident was deliberately staged and that the driver who was the husband of the passenger, had entered into a suicide pact with his wife – pulling out at the last minute, leaving his wife to drown … the driver of the car was eventually charged with murder and was convicted on a reduced charge of manslaughter.

View of the Jetty, the shipyard in the background. A car once plunged into the sea being driven off the jetty at high speed.