Celebrating France in Singapore

16 11 2019

The contributions of the French to Singapore cannot be understated. Their connections go back to Raffles’ arrival in 1819. With him on the Indiana were two French nationals, Pierre-Médard Diard and Alfred Duvacel, naturalists whom Raffles met in Calcutta – whose renderings and documentation of the region’s flora and fauna were among the first to be made. The French would bring Catholic missionaries – responsible not just for building churches such as the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, but also schools that are now well established.

Much later, it was towards the French that Mrs Pamelia Lee of the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board would turn to for conservation expertise – resulting in the involvement of Chief Architect and Inspector of Historical Monuments in France, Mr Didier Repellin, in the restoration of No 53 Armenian Street – an effort that would extend to conservation projects such as CHIJMES and the structuring of our heritage strategy.  This cooperation was celebrated on Armenian Street this morning – as part of the commemoration of 30 years of conservation in Singapore as part of Architectural Heritage season and in conjunction with the French cultural festival Violah! – for which, a plaque was unveiled by His Excellency, Mr Marc Abensour, the Ambassador of France to Singapore and the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Ms Hwang Yu-Ning, Chief Planner and Deputy CEO.

Also unveiled today is an exhibition of twenty photographs from Mr Paul Piollet collection of close to 1000 photographs donated to Singapore on the National Museum front lawn. Taken over three decades from the 1970s, the photos are a record of life and a way of life of a Singapore in transition. The many images of wayangs, the life that went on backstage, elaborate Chinese funerals and of life on Singapore’s living streets, boats and maritime exchanges with the Indonesian Archipelago are full of life. Many also show streets filled with children – something we seem to see a lot less of in the Singapore of today. The exhibition runs until 16 December 2019.

Paul Piollet’s images of the maritime trade with Indonesia – in this case showing bakau poles being offloaded – capture a world now lost to us.


Mr Didier Repellin, Mrs Pamelia Lee, His Excellency Mr Marc Abensour, and Ms Hwang Yu-Ning.

Mr Kelvin Ang, Mr Alvin Tan, Mr Didier Repellin, Mrs Pamelia Lee, His Excellency Mr Marc Abensour, Ms Hwang Yu-Ning and Mr Liu Thai Ker.

The plaque unveiled this morning.

Mr Paul Piollet, His Excellency Mr Marc Abensour, and Ms Hwang Yu-Ning on the National Museum Front Lawn.

Mr Paul Piollet with His Excellency Mr Marc Abensour on the National Museum Front Lawn.

Mr Paul Piollet presenting a book of his photographs to His Excellency Mr Marc Abensour.

Exhibition panels for Mr Paul Piollet’s photographs.


Video mapping by French Artist Julien Nonnon – inspired by the work of Diard and Duvacel, “Revisiting Diard and Duvacel” on Armenian Street from 8 to 11 Nov as part of Violah!


 





Inside the new star of MacTaggart

29 11 2018

Uniquely shaped, the former Khong Guan factory stands out at the corner of MacTaggart and Burn Roads – especially so with a recent 8-storey extension that certainly added to the presence that its conserved façade has long commanded.

Having won an award for Restoration & Innovation at AHA 2018, its doors were recently opened for tours conducted by the URA, which provided an opportunity to have that much desired peek inside.

More on the factory and the restoration effort can be found at the following links:

2 MacTaggart Road : Stellar Landmark (URA)

The new star rising at MacTaggart Road

The fallen star of MacTaggart Road


Photographs of the interior and also of the restored exterior: 

The attention grabbing mosaic and iron grille work on the ground level of the triangular shaped building’s apex. The star is apparently a trademark of the maker of the iron grilles, Lea Hin Company (at the corner of Alexandra and Leng Kee Roads).

Inside what used to be a retail outlet that students from neighbouring Playfair School (across Burn Road) would frequent.

Iron grilles – very much a reminder of the days when the building came up in the 1950s. This one – a gate which the family used to gain access to their accommodation in the old building.

A view of the actual gate.

The reception – lit by a glass covered skylight.

The conjurer and his apprentice: Lee Yan Chang of URA showing the workings of the skylight’s blinds.

The skylight as seen from the terrace above.

Stairway to a new heaven.

The stairway, which leads from the lobby to the corporate offices of Khong Guan’s HQ.

The view from above.

A terrace on what used to be the roof deck of the old building.

A view of the extension from the terrace. Lightweight cladding, with aluminium honeycomb backing, is used on the exterior.

The former entrance to the building’s offices. What it looked like previously: please click.

A display window. What it looked like previously: please click.

 


 





The “attractive” 1940 built public-housing block in Little India

23 11 2018

I have long admired the building that houses The Great Madras, a boutique hotel on Madras Street. The edifice in its incarnations as a hotel has brought a touch of Miami to the shophouse lined streets of a busy corner of Serangoon. The opportunity to have a look beyond the building’s gorgeous Streamline-Moderne façade came this Architectural Heritage Season with tours organised by the URA. The hotel won an Architectural Heritage Award for the efforts made in the restoration of the building,

Deliciously decorated, the hotel’s common areas on the ground floor provide a great introduction to its well thought of interiors. The lobby and a restaurant and bar, which opens up to the outside is what first greets visitors. There is also a barber shop and a utility area at the building’s rear. A sliding privacy door hides the hostel-like accommodation on the same floor. Here, its private sleeping spaces carry the names of established travel influencers.

The reception area.

The hotel’s rooms are laid out across the building’s two upper floors. Corridors decorated with quirky neon signs and ventilated through the steel-framed glass windows of a forgotten era, provide correspondence to the rooms. It is along a corridor on the second floor that a pleasant surprise awaits. This takes the form of an especially delightful and photograph-able view of the hotel’s retrofitted swimming pool, framed by a circular opening in the pastel pink party wall that separates the pool from its sun deck.

A corridor on the upper levels.

The alterations made in the building’s interiors does make it hard to think of the building having been put to any other use other than the current, and quite certainly not as a public-housing block of flats it was built as in early 1940, There is of course that Tiong Bahru-esque appearance and quality that may give the fact away but the standalone nature of the block will mask the fact that it was the Singapore Improvement Trust or SIT that built it. The SIT – the predecessor to the HDB – besides having had the task of addressing the demand for public housing, also took on the role of town planner. The public housing projects that it embarked on tended to be built in clusters, such as in the case of Tiong Bahru.

The rear courtyard.

The swimming pool.

There is however a good reason for the Madras Street block’s isolation. A 1940 report made by the SIT holds the clue to this. It turns out that the block – erected to take in the area’s residents displaced by the demolition of older buildings – was meant to have been part of a larger improvement scheme that the SIT had planned for the area. The scheme was to have seen the demolition of a dozen “old and unsanitary” buildings in the months that would follow  to provide for a southeasterly extension of Campbell Lane past Madras Street. There was also to have been the metalling of the area’s roads and the construction of much-needed drains. The orientation and alignment of the 70 by 60 feet block does suggest that it was laid out with the extension of Campbell Lane in mind.

A view of the surroundings through steel framed windows.

The scheme’s overall aim was to provide accommodation in greater numbers, make an improvement in (transport) communication and the layout of of the very congested area. There was also a need to address the area’s poor sanitary conditions. It is quite evident from what we see around that the scheme did not go much further. Perhaps it may have been a lack of funds, as it was with many public schemes in those days. There was also the intervention of the war, which was already being fought in Europe by the time of the block was completed.

Another view of the hotel’s windows.

From the report, we also get a sense of the “attractive” building’s original layout. Three flats were found on each floor, hence the three addresses 28, 30 and 32, giving the building a total of nine flats. Each flat contained three rooms, one of which would have been a living room that opened to the balcony. A kitchen cum dining room was provided in each flat, as well as a bathroom and a toilet – “in accordance with Municipal Commissioners’ requirements”.

A spiral staircase in the rear courtyard.

The report also tells us of how much the flats, which were fully booked before the building’s completion, were rented out for: $23 per month for ground floor units and $26 per month for the units on the upper floors.

More on the restoration efforts that won the Great Madras Hotel the award: 28, 30 & 32 Madras Street Charming Revival.

Restored granolithic (Shanghai Plaster) finishing on the column bases.


More photographs:

 


 

 

 

 

 

 





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).