A look into the Portuguese Church’s beautiful Parochial House

31 07 2016

In the shadows of clutter of structures that has descended on Victoria Street post 1970s, it is easy to miss the beautiful 104 year old Parochial House that sits just across the street from Bras Basah Complex. Built with a hint of old Portugal, the building speaks of its links to a old Southeast Asian community that has its origins in the days of the Portuguese conquest of Malacca.

Parochial House, seen through an arch of St. Joseph's Church.

Parochial House, seen through an arch of St. Joseph’s Church, was designed by Donald McLeod Craik.

Parochial House was designed by Donald McLeod Craik (who also designed the beautiful Moorish arched Alkaff’s Arcade in Collyer Quay, Wesley Methodist Church, the Masonic Hall and Jinrikisha Station) in the Portuguese Baroque style, and adorned with Gothic accents. Part of a rebuilding programme that involved its more noticeable neighbour, the current St. Joseph’s Church (also known locally as the Portuguese Church), it was completed together with the church in 1912. It replaced an older parish house that was also the headquarters of the Portuguese Mission. That had been given over to the Canossian Sisters in 1899 to allow the expansion of the convent at Middle Road that became known as St. Anthony’s Convent.

Seen in 2014 before it was refurbished.

Seen in 2014 before it was refurbished.

The Mission, which operated under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Macau, first came to Singapore in 1825. It served a parish of Portuguese and Portuguese Eurasian Catholics until 1981, after which the Portuguese Church was transferred to the Archdiocese of Singapore. Links were however maintained until 1999 when the last Macau appointed parish priest completed his term.

An old letter box and signboard for the church now displayed in Parochial House.

An old letter box and signboard for the church now displayed in Parochial House.

Along with providing a home to priests appointed to the parish, Parochial House also served as the residence of the Bishop of Macau on his visits to Singapore. A reminder of this is found in the still intact spartanly furnished room used by the Bishops on the second floor, last used in 1999. Also intact is the tiny chapel of the Bishop on the third floor. Based on an article in the 24 July 2016 edition of the Catholic News, it seems that bone fragment relics of the 12 apostles are kept in the chapel.

Windows at the end of the second level hallway, which would have a view down Bain Street across Victoria Street.

Windows at the end of the second level hallway, which would have a view down Bain Street across Victoria Street.

The Bishop of Macau's room.

The Bishop of Macau’s room.

An example of a trunk used by missionaries coming over from Europe.

An example of a trunk used by missionaries coming over from Europe, now placed in the Bishop’s room.

The Bishop's chapel.

The Bishop’s chapel.

The approach to the chapel.

The approach to the chapel.

Up until Parochial House was opened for the series of guided visits that were held on the weekend following the announcement of its conservation on 30 June 2016 (coinciding with the church building’s 104th anniversary), not many would have seen its wonderfully preserved upper floors. Many parishioners would however have seen its ground floor, where communal activities were held and where a canteen operates to serve churchgoers on Sundays since 1960. Some evidence of the type of communal activities are found in the room in which the church’s registers are maintained on the second floor across the hallway from the Bishop’s room. Items from the church’s past are displayed on an old wooden table here include film projectors used for the screening movies for the community.

A movie projector.

A movie projector.

A seal press from the days of the Portuguese Mission.

A seal press from the days of the Portuguese Mission.

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The baptism record of the grandfather of Singapore National Swimmer Joseph Schooling.

The communal space on the ground floor.

The communal space on the ground floor.

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Encaustic floor tiles.

Several interesting features are found through the building. One is the grand staircase that takes one up from the ground floor to the upper levels, which is decorated with a carved wooden balustrade. There are also several instances of interesting tile work such as the encaustic floor tiles with patterns rich in religious symbolism. There also are nine sets of decorative tin glazed blue and white Azulejo wall tiles typical of the Iberian peninsula found both in the buildings interior and exterior. More information on the building’s history and architecture can be found on the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Facebook Page.

The carved wooden balustrades of the grand staircase.

The carved wooden balustrades of the grand staircase.

Azulejo tile work depicting St. Anthony of Padua, a patron saint of Portugal.

Azulejo tile work depicting St. Anthony of Padua, a patron saint of Portugal.

The stairway to heaven.

The stairway to heaven.

The other end of the second floor hallway - the part beyond the brown door would once have led to a walkway to the former St. Anthony's Boys' School next door.

The other end of the second floor hallway – the part beyond the brown door would once have led to a walkway to the former St. Anthony’s Boys’ School next door.

The keystone of the house, a statue of Our Lady of Fatima.

The keystone of the house, a statue of Our Lady of Fatima. Gothic pinnacles decorated with crockets top the roof structure of the building.

Parochial House in 2010.

Parochial House in 2010.

Following its refurbishment this year.

Following its refurbishment this year.

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The PM seen in the roundel along Victoria Street refers to the Portuguese Mission.

Photographs of the Archbishops of Singapore since the handover as well as the last Bishop of Macau the church was under the jurisdiction of.

Photographs of the Archbishops of Singapore since the handover as well as the last Bishop of Macau the church was under the jurisdiction of.

A balustrade along the third floor hallway.

A balustrade along the third floor hallway.

A view down the second floor hallway.

A view down the second floor hallway.

A side stairway down from the second floor to the exterior.

A side stairway down from the second floor to the exterior.

A view out the window to St. Joseph's Church.

A view out the window to St. Joseph’s Church.

 





The last forested hill in Sembawang

11 07 2016

Sitting in relative isolation and surrounded by a lush forest of greenery for much of the 77 years of its existence, Old Admiralty House may soon find itself in less than familiar settings. The National Monument, built as a home away from home for the officer in command of the British Admiralty’s largest naval base this side of the Suez, will soon find itself become part of Sembawang’s sports and community hub.

Dawn over a world on which the sun will soon set on. Old Admiralty House in its current isolation on top of a hill, with the fast invading sea of concrete in the background.

The hub, it seems from what’s been said about it, will feature swimming pools, multi-play courts, a hawker centre, a polyclinic and a senior care centre; quite a fair bit of intervention in a quiet, isolated and of late, a welcome patch of green in the area’s fast spreading sea of concrete. Plans for this surfaced during the release of what became the 2014 Master Plan, which saw a revision on the intended location of Sembawang’s sports and recreation complex from the corner of Sembawang Avenue and Sembawang Road to the parcel of land on which the monument stands.

The original intended location of the sports and recreation complex in Sembawang (area shaded in light green) [URA Master Plan 2008].

The original intended location of the sports and recreation complex in Sembawang (area shaded in light green) [URA Master Plan 2008].

The monument, a beautifully designed Arts and Crafts movement inspired house, is without a doubt the grandest of the former base’s senior officers’ residences built across the naval base.  Set apart from the other residences, it occupies well selected position placed atop a hill in the base’s southwestern corner, providing it with an elevation fitting of it,  a necessary degree of isolation and privacy, and the most pleasing of surroundings – all of which will certainly be altered by the hub, notwithstanding the desire to “incorporate the natural environment and heritage of the area”.

A day time view.

A day time view.

The revised location of the sports and recreation complex in Sembawang (area shaded in light green) [URA Master Plan 2014]

The revised location of the sports and recreation complex in Sembawang (area shaded in light green) [URA Master Plan 2014].

The naval base that Old Admiralty House recalls is one to which colonial and post-colonial Singapore owes much economically. With the last working remnants of the base are being dismantled, the area is slowly losing its links to a past that is very much a part of it and Singapore’s history and whatever change the creation of the sports and community hub brings to Old Admiralty House and its settings, it must be done in a way that the monument at the very least maintains its dignity, and not in a way in which it is absorbed into a mess of interventions that will have us forget its worth.

Detail of a 1945 Map of the Naval Base showing the area where ‘Admiralty House’ is. The house is identified as the ‘Admiral Superintendent’s Residence’ in the map.


More on Old Admiralty House: An ‘English country manor’ in Singapore’s north once visited by the Queen


Around Old Admiralty House

The former Admiralty House, likened by some to an English country manor.

The former Admiralty House, likened by some to an English country manor.

The swimming pool said to have been constructed by Japanese POWs.

A swimming pool said to have been constructed by Japanese POWs.

Evidence of the through road seen in an old lamp post. The post is one of three that can be found on the premises.

An old concrete lamp post on the grounds.

What remains of a flagstaff moved in May 1970 from Kranji Wireless Station.

What remains of a flagstaff moved in May 1970 from Kranji Wireless Station.

Inside the bomb shelter.

An air-raid shelter found on the grounds.





Parting glances: Rochor Centre in its last days

19 05 2016

Renewal and redevelopment are words that some in Singapore dread hearing. They often translate to the loss of places we lived in or grew up with, and the break-up of communities associated with those places.  One such place that will soon join the growing list of disappearing communities is Rochor Centre (photographs below). One of several city-centre podium complexes put up by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) from the mid-1970s into the 1980s, it seems to have served its purpose and will now have to make way so that an underground expressway can be built.

Fading light, Rochor Centre, May 2016.

Many will remember the complex for the multi-coloured coat of paint it has in more recent times been given. For much of its 39 year history however, it has worn a less attention grabbing coat, looking its part as an aesthetically unappealing mid-1970s public housing development, lost in the confused clutter of structures built to replace the one-time shophouse dominated landscape of the area.

Rochor Centre in less colourful days (source: Online Forum / Berita Harian)

Rochor Centre in less colourful days (source: Online Forum / Berita Harian)

Built in a hurry to take in residents and businesses being displaced by the huge wave of redevelopment that was sweeping across the city, mixed-use podium complexes sprouted in double quick time across densely populated districts of the city. A feature of such complexes is the multi-level podium block in which shop and office lots, or in some instances, wet markets and food centres are housed. Residential blocks of flats, built in the same mould as the HDB flats of those days, sit on top of the podiums with the well-proportioned podium roof decks providing space to serve residents’ recreational and social needs.

Rochor Centre features a podium with three levels of shop lots.

Rochor Centre features a podium with three levels of shop lots.

As is typical of HDB podium developments = the roof deck of the podium provides space for the recreational needs of the residents.

As is typical of HDB podium developments = the roof deck of the podium provides space for the recreational needs of the residents.

A kindergarten at roof deck level.

A kindergarten at roof deck level.

One of the larger complexes in the area, the diverse mix of businesses that Rochor Centre’s podium housed, brought much more of a buzz to it than nearby complexes such as Bras Basah Complex and Waterloo Centre. Both the latter complexes housed a concentration of specialised trades; bookstores, stationery shop and watch dealers from the North Bridge Road and Bras Basah Road area in the case of Bras Basah, and motor spare parts dealers from the Rochor area in the case of Waterloo.

Not the first supermarket at Rochor Centre, Fairprice will be one of the last shops to go.

Not the first supermarket at Rochor Centre, the Fairprice outlet, which is still operating, will be one of the last shops to go.

Rochor Centre, after its completion in 1977, saw three banks, POSB, DBS and Tat Lee, set up shop. A branch of Oriental Emporium and its supermarket also moved in, as did a post office, which shifted from Queen Street. There were also many other shops, food outlets, pawnshops, goldsmith shop and due to its proximity to the popular Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple down Waterloo Street, shops dealing with religious offerings. While many shops and businesses came and went over the year, there are several that either kept relevant or managed to adapt to changing times that have stayed on.

Another of the original occupants of the shop lots - Tenpo Goldsmith and Jewellers, showing obvious signs of adapting to changing times.

Another of the original occupants of the shop lots – Tenpo Goldsmith and Jewellers, showing obvious signs of adapting to changing times.

A reminder of the centre's DBS Bank branch - one of the original occupants of the podium block.

A reminder of the centre’s DBS Bank branch – one of the original occupants of the podium block.

With the death knell being sounded on Rochor Centre, much of the buzz it was once known for has been replaced by a deafening silence. Having been acquired by the government in November 2011 as its stands in the way of the construction of the future North-South Expressway, many of its occupants have moved out well ahead of the third quarter 2016 deadline to vacate the complex.

Many businesses have moved well in advance of the deadline to vacate.

Many businesses have moved well in advance of the deadline to vacate.

The emptiness and silence that has replaced the buzz.

The emptiness and silence that has replaced the buzz.

Demolition is expected to start soon after its last tenants move out and all that will remain of it will be memories; memories that, as with those of the flood-prone but colourful Hokchia dominated neighbourhood that occupied the site before Rochor Centre, time will surely erase.

A site soon to be recycled.

A site soon to be recycled.

Possession Notice pasted on the door of a residential unit.

Possession Notice pasted on the door of a residential unit.



What occupied the site before Rochor Centre:

Rochor Centre was built over a neighbourhood with streets such as Tiwary Street, Muar Road and Angullia Road. Despite the diverse origins of its street names, the area where members of the Hokchia (also Futsing or Fuqing) community settled into. Many in the community found work as trishaw riders or coolies and as with others involved in the trades, found solace in opium and in gambling. The area, as a result, gained notoriety for its opium and gambling dens.

An extract of a street map of the area, 1969 (source: SLA Singapore Historical Map).

An extract of a street map of the area, 1969 (source: SLA Singapore Historical Map).


Parting Glances: Photographs of Rochor Centre in its last days

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Daybreak over Rochor Centre on which the sun will soon set.

Last flights at sunrise.

Last flights at sunrise.

A last delivery.

A last collection.

Last light.

Last light.

A last morning walk.

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A last walk to kindergarten.

A last ride.

A last ride.

A last wait.

A last wait.

The last roasts.

The last roasts.

A last cup of coffee.

A last cup of coffee.

A last breakfast.

A last breakfast.

A last haircut.

A last customer.

A last reflection.

A last reflection.

Last shops.

Last shops.

Last cups of coffee.

Last chill-outs.

A last elevator ride.

A last elevator ride.

A last check of the letterbox.

A last check of the letterbox.

A last Christmas.

A last Christmas.

A last Chinese New Year.

A last Chinese New Year.

A last wash.

A last wash.

Last ;pieces of laundry.

Last poles of laundry.

A last offering.

A last offering.

A last reunion dinner.

A last reunion dinner.

Last Chinese New Year visits.

A last Chinese New Year visit.

A last ride.

A last ride.

A last hamper.

A last hamper.

A last mail delivery.

A last mail delivery.

A last delivery.

A last delivery.

A last look at the basement.

A last look at the basement.

A last look before the colours fade.

A last look before the colours fade.

A last twilight.

A last twilight.






Windows into the past: where Percival and a President once resided

11 05 2016

A rare opportunity to have a look inside the former Command House came over the weekend when it was opened to the public. Organised by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) as part of their Celebrating Places and Memories photo contest, the open house, unlike a previous visit I had previously arranged, allowed me the freedom to roam through the interior of the beautifully restored former residence, the last occupant of which would have been Mr. Ong Teng Cheong in his capacity as the President of the Republic of Singapore.

A window into a rather interesting past.

A window into a rather interesting past.

Now in use as the UBS Business University, the house has had a colourful past that goes far back beyond its use by the Republic’s Head of State, much of which can be found in a previous post: The very grand house that Brewer built. Built in 1938 in a style influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, it is one of the grander residences built by Singapore’s colonial masters. As a replacement for Flagstaff House, the official residence of the GOC, Malaya’s chief military officer, it was to see a string of top military commanders take up residence, the last leaving at the point of the British pullout in 1971. This was however not before the second GOC to be accommodated, Lieutenant-General Arthur E. Percival, put all delusions the British may had held of their invincibility to an abrupt end  in a conference room in Bukit Timah one February’s afternoon in 1942.

As Flagstaff House in 1957, when it housed the most senior British Military Commander in the Far East (online at the Royal Green Jackets and Former Regiments Photographic History pages).

The pullout, by which time the house had already taken on the name Command House, saw ownership pass on to the Government of Singapore. The house first became the official residence of the Speaker of Parliament. Only one Speaker, Dr Yeoh Ghim Seng,  would use it. Two of Dr Yeoh’s successors declined the use of the house before renovations to the Istana prompted its temporary use as the official residence of the President from 1996 to 1998.

The road up to the former Command House.

The guardhouse on the road up to the former Command House.

The guardhouse in 1957 (online at the Royal Green Jackets and Former Regiments Photographic History pages).

Much of what we see of the house today, would be from its days as the President’s residence. Even with the interventions made by its tenant since 2007, Swiss based financial services company, UBS, for use as a place of instruction, much of the grandeur and dignity the house must held had during the days of the President, is still very much in evidence.

A view from the second floor.

A view from the second floor.

The entrance hallway, which one steps into entering the house, is dominated by a grand staircase coloured by the earthy hues the wood of its wall and balustrade panels that are thought to have been added in during its time as the President’s house. The hallway opens up on either side to what would have been a verandah, typically seen in the many examples of colonial architecture adapted  for the hot and steamy tropics, that provide access, ventilation and insulation to the rooms found in each of the house’s two wings. Two large rooms dominate each wing and that would have been where the house’s dining and reception areas would have been arranged.

The grand staircase.

The grand staircase.

A large room that may originally have served as a dining room.

A large room that may originally have served as a dining room.

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Another room in its wings.

A room at the end of one of its wings.

A room at the end of one of its wings.

The verandah in the wing.

The lower floor verandah in the east wing.

One of the large rooms found in the wings.

One of the large rooms found in the wings.

On the right side of  the staircase, a door separates what is intended to be seen from the unseen – spaces used by hired help that is hidden on both levels at the back of the house. The spaces, connected between floors by a narrow staircase, would have had access to kitchens, larders, cleaning and maintenance stores and the servants quarters, housed in the annexes and in separate buildings at the back of the main building and on the terrace below.

The servant's staircase.

The servant’s staircase.

A view down the servant's staircase.

A view down the servant’s staircase.

A garage on the lower terrace.

A garage on the lower terrace.

Buildings that could have served as servant's quarters on the lower terrace.

Buildings that could have served as servant’s quarters on the lower terrace.

The back of the house - an external staircase has been added at each wing for escape purposes.

The back of the house – an external staircase has been added at each wing for escape purposes.

At the top of the grand staircase, the most beautifully furnished of the house’s spaces, a very homely looking lounge, comes into sight. Arranged in the space above the house’s porch,  three of the space’s furniture – a television cabinet and two chests, are thought to have survived from the days of the President. As with the hallway below, access to the rooms in each wing, is provided by a what would have been a verandah that is now enclosed by windows. The President’s private rooms, a study, a walk-in wardrobe and a bedroom, as I understand it, were located in the east wing. The west wing on the other hand would have been where a guest room and a children’s bedroom would have been found.

The lounge area.

The lounge area.

A view out the front windows.

A view out the front windows.

A window at the side of the lounge.

A window at the side of the lounge.

A view down the grand staircase.

A view down the grand staircase.

The balcony outside the former President's bedroom.

The balcony outside the former President’s bedroom.

The verandah on the upper floor.

What would have been a verandah on the upper floor.

What would have been the President's bedroom.

What would have been the President’s bedroom.

A view from the bedroom into the verandah.

A view from the bedroom into the verandah.

The view through one of its original windows.

The view through one of its original windows.

Exposed brickwork on its arches and voussoirs is clearly evident in the house. It is a feature that Frank W. Brewer employed in his Arts and Crafts influenced designs.

Exposed brickwork on its arches and voussoirs is clearly evident in the house. It is a feature that Frank W. Brewer employed in his Arts and Crafts influenced designs.

More exposed brickwork.

More exposed brickwork.

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Besides the former Command House open house, the will be open houses at two more venues that SLA is holding this month. One is the regular public holiday open house at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station on Vesak Day. The second will be at old Kallang Airport on Sunday (15 October 2016) from 10 am to 1 pm. The open houses and the Celebrating Places and Memories photo contest (details here) are being held to create awareness and appreciation of State Buildings. Details on how to register for the Old Kallang Ariport open house can be found in this post on SLA’s Facebook Page. More information on the contest and State Buildings can also be found in this post: Celebrating Places and Memories – a photo contest by SLA.

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The Japanese school at Waterloo Street

27 04 2016

The Middle Road area, despite it transformation over the years, is still where reminders of the colourful chapters of its history await discovery. At one end, hints of one chapter can be found in its stars – the stars of David decorating the David Elias building, which tell us of the days of the Mahallah, home to the diaspora of Baghdadi Jews some of whom feature prominently in Singapore’s history.

A passageway into the past.

A passageway into the past.

For another migrant community the stars on Middle Road might have shone on, the Japanese, the reminders are less obviously Japanese.  These also take the form of old buildings, two of them.  One is the former Middle Road Hospital, which has its origins in the Japanese Doh-jin hospital. The other can be found just off Middle Road, at 155 Waterloo Street. Used as the National Arts Council (NAC) run Stamford Arts Centre since 1988, the building or rather, cluster of buildings, originally had been the Japanese community’s elementary school.

The buildings now housing the Stamford Arts Centre were put up to house an elementary school for the Japanese community in 1920.

The buildings now housing the Stamford Arts Centre were put up to house an elementary school for the Japanese community in 1920.

A conserved building since 1994, the original buildings had been erected in 1920 with the support of the Japan Club or what would be the equivalent of the Japanese Association today. The existence of the club, which was founded in 1915 and the school, was perhaps an indication of the growing presence of the Japanese, many of whom established themselves in the area around Middle Road, which was the community’s Chuo Dori or Central Street.

The Japanese Elementary School in its early days.

The Japanese Elementary School at Waterloo Street. The three-storey extension was added in 1931 (source: The Japanese Association).

The extension block today.

The extension block today.

The origins of the school were in the classes a teacher Mr. Miyamura first held in 1912 in a room in the Toyo Hotel, which was on Middle Road. From a group of some 26 to 28 students (accounts differ), enrollment quickly grew. This saw the school moving to Wilkie Road in 1915, before it was to find a permanent home at Waterloo Street.

The first anniversary in 1913 of the school started by Mr. Miyamura. Mr Miyamura is seen seated in the front row.

The first anniversary in 1913 of the school started by Mr. Miyamura. Mr Miyamura is seen seated in the front row (source: The Japanese Association).

Known as the Japan Elementary School (日本小学校) during its days at Waterloo Street, the school was one of the community’s focal points. Several notable personalities were reported to have visited the school, including two of the late Emperor Showa’s (Hirohito) brothers. Prince Chichibu, visited in 1925 and Prince Takamatsu, who visited with his wife, the Princess Takamatsu, came in 1930. The school was also where the community held a memorial service for Emperor Taisho (the visiting princes father) in 1927.

The Main Hall (on the second floor of the main building) in 1927.

The Main Hall (on the second floor of the main building) in 1927 (source: The Japanese Association).

The school was closed at the outbreak of hostilities in 1941, before being restarted as the Syonan First Peoples’ School during the occupation. Taken over by the British Military Administration after the surrender in 1945, it was used temporarily to house a recreation centre for soldiers, the Shackle Club, when that was made to vacate the de-requisitioned John Little’s building in January 1947. The Shackle Club occupied the premises very briefly, and moved in July 1947 to fleet canteen at Beach Road so as to allow the buildings to be made available to Gan Eng Seng School (Gan Eng Seng’s own building had been damaged during the war). Stamford Girls School, which was formed in 1951, was next to move in, spending a lot more time on the grounds than its intended occupant and vacating it only in 1986.

As the Shackle Club, January to July 1947.

As the Shackle Club, January to July 1947.

As the Stamford Girls’ School, 1972 (source: URA Conservation Portal).

Time, it seems, is now being called for the arts centre – at least in the form we have known. A report carried in the Today newspaper last week, tells us of the departure of its tenants in anticipation of its closure for a much needed revamp scheduled to start at the end of the year. A reminder not just of the Japanese community, but also of the post-war drive to extend the reach of primary education to the growing population of children in Singapore, it would be nice to see the charm and laid back atmosphere of it spaces – often lost in the modern day refurbishment of many conserved buildings, somehow retained.

Students and staff posing at the back of the school (it appears that this was taken before the extension was added) – (source: National Archives of Singapore).

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The back of the main building today.


Parting Glances – Stamford Arts Centre

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The unseen passageway in the National Gallery

4 04 2016

One of the functional spaces now can a glimpse of within the former Supreme Court in its reincarnation as a wing of the National Gallery Singapore, are the two prisoner cells. Once part of what I often refer to as the caged passageway – a unseen network of spaces under the courtrooms through which defendants in criminal cases could be bought for their court appearances with a minimum of fuss and away from public spotlight, the cells are the most visible of the parts of this network that are still with us today.

The entrance to the Holding Cells.

The Holding Cells today – a popular spot for a photograph to be taken.

Much of it, including interview rooms and office spaces arranged around the cells, have since been converted. Part of a corridor, I am told, and the two cells – once part of a row of twelve, are all that is left today to remind us of the unseen passageway. Now a popular spot to have a photograph taken at, the two cells are now the unseen passageway’s most visible part, serving to remind us of the building and its short but eventful history.

The caged passageway seen with indicted Japanese soldiers being tried for war crimes being led to the courtroom from the holding cells (source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4999).

The caged passageway seen during the post-war war crimes trials (source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4999).


Photographs of the “caged passageway” taken in 2010

The entrance - the steel doors opened up to the service road being the courthouse and ii was through them that vehicles ferrying defendants from prison to the Supreme Court entered.

The entrance – the steel doors opened up to the service road being the courthouse and ii was through them that vehicles ferrying defendants from prison to the Supreme Court entered.

Entry to an office space.

Entry to an office space.

Another office space.

Another office space.

A filing cabinet.

A filing cabinet.

A caged stairway.

A caged stairway.

The row of cells.

The row of cells – there would have been twelve such cells.

Inside a cell.

Inside a cell.

The WC inside the cell.

The WC inside the cell.

The passageway leading to the courtrooms.

The passageway leading to the courtrooms.

The stairway up to a courtroom, entry to which was through a trapdoor (which can still be seen in their closed positions).

The stairway up to a courtroom, entry to which was through a trapdoor (which can still be seen in their closed positions) placed behind the dock.


 

 





Windows into the past: the mysterious house at Bassein Road

16 03 2016

In Singapore, change deprives many in my generation of the pure joy one finds in reconnecting with the places of one’s childhood. For many of us, we find our connections to a world that increasingly is hard to feel at home in, only through our precious memories and perhaps through fragments from our childhood that have somehow survived.

A window into the past.

A window into the past.

One very small fragment I was surprised to find intact, having not seen it for three and a half decades, is the house at No. 3 Bassein Road. While I may not have had any interactions with the house, it was one that I caught sight on numerous occasions from the car. The house, perhaps for the mystery it held, has somehow remained etched in my memory.

The house at No. 3 Bassein Road.

The house at No. 3 Bassein Road.

Much of the house lies hidden behind high walls. I would be driven past it on the many visits to my godmother’s place, which was up the hill at Akyab Road. As I passed, my attention would always be drawn to it. All I would get to see of it were the upper parts. Except for inscriptions in Chinese around a shut pair of red door and its octagonal windows, both of which suggested that it may have been a temple, there was little otherwise that hinted at what the house had been used as.

Much of the house lies hidden behind high walls. Once surrounded by other large house, the house is today surrounded by towering apartment blocks.

Much of the house lies hidden behind high walls. Once surrounded by other large houses, the house is today surrounded by towering apartment blocks.

With little reason for me to visit the area after my godmother moved away in the mid-1970s, it wasn’t until a random drive I took through the area some five years back that I was reacquainted with the house. With much of what surrounded it changed, it came as a pleasant surprised to see that the house was still intact three and a half decades or so since I last caught sight of it.

The grass roller.

With my godmother’s children at Akyab Road.

An article I was alerted to, was to help unlock the mystery of the house, which as it turns out was not a temple, but a Buddhist women’s vegetarian hall or zhaitang, the Chan Chor Min Tong.  Named after its founder, it was the sister lodge to article’s main subject, a men’s zhaitang at Jalan Kemaman, which shared the same founder and also the same name.

The men's hall at Jalan Kemaman.

The Chan Chor Min Tong at Jalan Kemaman.

This chai tong, as  its Cantonese speaking residents would have referred to it, was established in 1936. This came ten years after the hall at Jalan Kemaman was founded. While the latter provided lodging to men who might otherwise have to live their twilight years on their own, the Bassein Road hall catered to unattached women.  Both zhaitang have since ceased operating as places of lodging, and are today maintained by their trustees as religious halls.

An altar at the men's vegetarian hall at Jalan Kemaman.

An altar at the men’s vegetarian hall at Jalan Kemaman.

The opportunity to satisfy my curiosity about the place came with the Chinese New Year. The festival, I had been informed, is the only occasion during which the red doors are opened for visitors. This allows its beneficiaries, supporters and members of the public an opportunity to pay their respects to the hall’s deities and its elders.

JeromeLim-7858

The main part of the hall inside the grounds.

Stepping through its red doors, the air of calm and contemplation, as one would expect of its seclusion, is evident. There was also a sense that it was a parallel world I had ventured into, one in which time seems to have been forgotten, and one rendered surreal by the shadows of the all too obvious emblems of the modern world that are cast on it.

Stepping into a world that time seems to have left behind.

Stepping into a world that time seems to have left behind.

Even if it is dwarfed by what now surrounds it, the generous proportions given to the two-storey hall does not escape notice. Of a design typical perhaps of the time of its construction, and yet untypical for its mix of styles, the house has verandahs running along its length on both levels, front and back. The insulation this provides its inner section, in combination with the ventilation of its ample openings, maximises cooling while allowing light to stream in – considerations no longer valued in the energy guzzling buildings of the modern world.

Stairs leading up to the verandah at the front of the house.

Stairs leading up to the verandah at the front of the house.

The front verandah on the upper level.

The front verandah on the upper level.

The house’s proportions gives away its communal purpose; evident also in how the house has been laid out. It is blessed with large common spaces, hallways and landings, around which smaller rooms affording a measure of privacy have been arranged. Service areas are equally spacious. One, a courtyard around which a wash area is arranged, for some reason, brought on a sense of deja-vu.

A hallway on the upper level.

A hallway on the upper level.

A landing.

A landing.

Dorrway to a bedroom.

A doorway to a bedroom.

The wash area.

The wash area.

Furnishings found scattered around the house are largely from an age of much simplicity. Some, the conveniences of yesterday, would by standards today, probably be taken as inconveniences, such as wooden washstands. Complete with decorated enamel washbasins in their recesses, several were set against the parapet of the back verandah. There were also meat safes from the now inconceivable pre-refrigerator age to be found.

A washstand.

A washstand.

A meat safe.

A meat safe.

Marketing fashion accessories from a forgotten age.

Marketing fashion accessories from a forgotten age.

A kitchen on the upper level.

A kitchen on the upper level of an auxiliary building.

While the last resident of the zhaitang, the zhaigu, may have last walked its hallways in the 1970s, there is no escaping their presence in the hall. Black and white photographs hung on the walls remind us of the women from Canton (Guangdong) province’s Shun Tak (Shunde) district who were the house’s occupants. I was also alerted to a white curtain in the main hall, behind which the urns of the zhaigu, as the residents were referred to, have each a place on the shelves.

The white curtain.

The white curtain.

The mention of Shun Tak, brings to mind the majie, who were also from the district. Identifiable by the white samfoo top and black trousers they wore, these amahs were one of several groups of women from Canton who were known to have taken vows of spinsterhood, vows some of those in the chai tong would also have taken.

A bedroom.

A bedroom.

This practice was apparently quite common in Shun Tak, a name once synonymous with the production of silk. The industry, which gave women from the district the independence necessary for some to turn their backs on the traditional family structure, collapsed in the 1930s. This prompted many women previously employed in the industry to brave the journey to the Nanyang.

Another landing.

Another landing.

For women who chose spinsterhood as a life’s path, or were forced by circumstances to live on their own, living outside the structure of the traditional family would have deprived them of the social support that the arrangement may have guaranteed. A place the chai tong, maintained either by payment or through services performed for the respective halls, or a combination of both, compensated for this.

Another space fitted out as a kitchen.

Another space fitted out as a kitchen.

A British cultural anthropologist Marjorie Topley described in a 1954 essay how such halls would provide “care while alive and a funeral at death”, thus fulfilling an important social function. Mrs. Topley, who was also a curator of anthropology at the Raffles Museum in the early 1950s, carried out studies on such halls in Singapore and in Hong Kong.

Openings the house is provided with.

Openings the house is provided with.

Remarkably, in a country where change now seems an only constant, the hall at No. 3 Bassein Road, despite remaining empty for as long as it had been in use, has also remained a constant. Time, which the hall has thus far resisted, as we know it, can be a cruel thing here in Singapore and it now may be just a question of when, not if, it goes. For now at least, it remains an oasis for the spirits and teh memory of the zhaigu and those who find peace in it. It also remains for me, one of a few places in which I can find sanity; the sanity that comes from knowing that what I remember from my days of wonder, is real and has not been imagined.

The back of a WC on the upper level of an auxiliary building - with openings once used for the collection of 'honey-pots'.

The back of a WC on the upper level of an auxiliary building – with openings once used for the collection of ‘honey-pots’.

More reminders of a forgotten time.

More reminders of a forgotten time.

Sandalwood incense sticks made from trees grown on the grounds.

Sandalwood incense sticks made from trees grown on the grounds.








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