Beautiful in its abandonment: the red-brick power station at Pasir Panjang

20 06 2017

There is a certain charm about the utilitarian, red-brick faced ‘A’ power station at Pasir Panjang. Comparable in appearance to the much-loved and now lost National Library at Stamford Road, the former station stands in relative obscurity in a neglected corner of Singapore.

Pasir Panjang ‘A’ Power Station. Commissioned in 1953, it was Singapore’s second power station. Decommisisoned in the early 1980s, it lost its two iconic 235 foot high chimneys in the 1990s.

‘A’ station, completed in 1952-53, acquired the designation ‘A’ when a second or ‘B’ station was added just adjacent to it in 1965. Built at a time when such red-brick faced constructions seemed the fashion, it is evocative of an age at which the foundations for Singapore’s huge transformation were being laid. The elegance that ‘A’ station wears, one that seems to be missing in the form of its nearby and more modern counterpart, belies the fact that the station had been built in desperate circumstances. At the point of its opening, Singapore’s second station, constructed almost three decades after the first, was badly needed due to an acute shortage in electricity supply. St. James, Singapore’s first power station, which had been built with an initial capacity of 2 MW in 1926., was producing a maximum of 37 MW by 1948 (see also Electricity in Singapore). However, by 1950, maximum demand stood at 43.5 MW, and with the supply clearly insufficient, load shedding was introduced. This affected one-third of the electrical consumers in the municipality turned city each night.

The red brick power station and its two 235 feet high chimneys in the early days of the station (online at https://roots.sg/).

‘A’ power station was opened by Governor Sir John Nicoll on 3 July 1953 to great promise. Two of the intended six 25 MW turbo-alternators had been commissioned by then. More were to be added and by 1958, it had reached it intended output of 150 MW – a number that was thought at the planning stage to be sufficient to meet power supply requirements for 20 years. In that time, 260 substations were also built, some 230 kilometres of 22kV distribution cables laid (there also was an upgrade from a 6.6 kV transmission system to a 22 kV one) and 34,700 consumers added. Bulk supply could also provided to Johor Bahru. Power supplied by the station also helped launch Singapore’s big industrial push in the 1960s. With demand already reaching 105.7 MW in at the point of the commissioning of the sixth alternator, an additional 25 kW was added to Pasir Panjang ‘A’ station’s capacity in 1962. With demand increasing,  the construction of a new station, the ‘B’ station, commenced soon after  in 1963.

The former Pasir Panjang ‘B’ Power Station, which was opened in October 1965.

‘B’ station opened with an initial capacity of 120 MW in October 1965, half of its planned capacity of 240 MW. Even this would not be enough to fuel the rapid growth in demand and a new 240 MW power station in Jurong Industrial Estate had to be planned for as the ‘B’ station was taking shape. The commissioning of ‘B’ Station also allowed electrical power supplied to the island of Pulau Bukom from November 1965. Power on the island, where Shell commissioned Singapore’s first refinery in the early 1960s, had to be drawn from the island’s own generating plant prior to this. The opening of the ‘B’ station also saw the transmission system upgraded to 66kV with the existing 22 kV system relegated to a sub-transmission system (the current high voltage transmission network, introduced in 1976, distributes electricity at 230 kV).

Inside the Turbine Hall of the ‘A’ power station (online at National Archives of Singapore Online).

The death knell for the stations was sounded in the late 1970s with more advanced, higher capacity, and cleaner (one common complaint was of soot falling from the sky in the area) power stations such as Senoko and Pulau Seraya being built. ‘A’ station was decommissioned in mid-1980 and ‘B’ in the late 1990s. The stations’ buildings were re-purposed following their decommissioning and are still standing today sans their iconic chimneys. While ‘A’ station is now left vacant, ‘B’ station’s main building is currently in use as the Pasir Panjang District Office of SP PowerGrid Ltd. It is not known what the future holds for the two sets of buildings as the only thing that the URA Master Plan tells us, is that the stations sit on a “reserve site”.

Related:


Note: My visit to the former Pasir Panjang Power Station was made with the kind permission of the Singapore Land Authority.


The abandoned Pasir Panjang ‘A’ Power Station

The cleared out Turbine Hall.

Tall steel columns of the Turbine Hall – part of the metal skeleton of the building.

Reflections on the Turbine Hall.

The building has a generous amount of windows to allow natural light in.

Space under the platform of the Turbine Hall.

Reflections of the skylight in the Turbine Hall.

A steel beam, marked with its origin.

Electricity was distributed at 6. 6 kV before Pasir Panjang was built, when high-voltage transmission was done at 22 kV. The Pasir Panjang generators produced electricity at distribution voltage, and this be fed directly into the transmission network.

Transmission was switched to a higher voltage of 66 kV when the ‘B’ station was completed in 1965 and the 22 kV transmission network was used as a sub-distribution system.

Colour coded fire hydrant.

Stairway to the platform level.

The Boiler Hall.

Steel columns on the platform level.

Another view of the platform level.

Bracing on the steel framework.

Storage tanks for the power station’s oil fired boilers.

A weighbridge.

A last look at the Turbine Hall.


Some ‘B’ station facilities

‘B’ station’s pump house – the cooling plant, originally supplied by Mather and Platt Ltd, could supply 50,000 gallons of water a minute.

Inside the pump house.

Inside the pump house.

The added capacity of the ‘B’ power station permitted the supply of power to Pulau Bukom in Nov 1965. The commissioning to the ‘B’ power station also saw a shift to a 66 kV high voltage distribution network with the 22 kV network relegated to a sub-transmission system.

A room inside the chlorine handling facility.

Inside the chlorine handling facility.


Electricity in Singapore

The use of electricity for the purposes of lighting in Singapore goes back to 1897 when the Tanjong Pagar Dock company introduced electric lighting to its machine shops. It would be some years before the Municipality would adopt electric street lighting, which was introduced to Raffles Place, North Bridge Road and Boat Quay in 1906. This move coincided with the installation of a generator by the Singapore Tramways Company (later Singapore Traction Company) at MacKenzie Road for the purposes of powering its electric trams. Excess electricity distributed via a 460 V D.C. three-wire network, was sold in bulk to the Municipality, who in turn also sold electricity to some 42 consumers. This grew to 110 consumers in the first year and expanded rapidly thereafter.

The generating station at Singapore Tramways Company’s MacKenzie Road depot.

This arrangement went on for some 20 years, with supply also provided by the Singapore Harbour Board from 1924, until the coal fired St. James Power Station was built in 1926. The construction of the station were on the recommendations of a commission appointed by the Municipal Commission. The site at the promontory at St. James was selected due to its location by the coast as well as its proximity to the railway line, which ran to Pasir Panjang. This allowed the coal required to fire the station’s boilers to be delivered either by sea or by rail.





The knight whose works enriched a “cultural desert”

16 06 2017

I have long been fascinated by Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli, the Italian sculptor who spent a better part of his life in Southeast Asia. Over a period spanning 35 years, his mastery in pre-cast decorative mouldings and finishes provided many of Singapore’s buildings with a finishing touch. All in all he would spend 42 years away from his native Italy, leaving his mark not just in Singapore, but also in Siam, Malaya and Brunei.

Collyer Quay at the end of the 1920s, a world that Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli had a hand in decorating.

Of the numerous structures Cavaliere Nolli lent a hand to in Singapore, it is on the old Supreme Court that we see his impressive works. Built in 1939, the old Supreme Court features the largest concentration of Cavaliere Nolli’s efforts now found in the city-state. His decorative and finishing touches cover the grand old dame’s exterior with the exception of the friezes on the porch and a now missing coat of arms. It is however the massive sculptural pieces that adorn its pediment that is most eye-catching. Weighing a total of 13 tons, and measuring 2.7 metres high at the apex and 11 metres wide, the sculptural depiction of the Allegory of Justice in very classical form is the grandest of works that Cavaliere Nolli has here to his name. It is not just the sheer scale of the work that will impress, but also the display of artistic mastery found in the sculptures.

Much of the exterior decorative work on the old Supreme Court (now the Supreme Court Wing of the National Gallery) can be attributed to Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli.

Cavaliere Nolli considered his efforts on the old Supreme Court to be his “proudest achievement”. They would have provided him with at least some measure of having achieved an ambition he had hoped to achieve by coming across to Asia in 1913 – to make a name as a famous sculptor. Once here, he found Singapore especially to be a “cultural desert” and most of what he did would be in a capacity as a stonework contractor.

A map showing the reach of Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli’s work in Southeast Asia (Exhibtion panel from “The Italian Connection”).

As a stonework contractor, Cavaliere Nolli worked tirelessly. He excelled in plasterwork – a skill he picked up working on the finishing on the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall in Bangkok – and also in casting artificial stone. There was particularly in high demand for the latter driven by the use of new building techniques such as the use of reinforced concrete. He produced artificial stone finishing tiles to clad these new edifices. These granolithic tiles, made from cement with aggregate mixed in, gave the new buildings the appearance of having been built out of solid granite without the expense involved. The lightweight tiles were made very economically through the use of moulds. This allowed both repeatability and consistency necessary for mass production.

The Billiard Room of the Singapore Club – showing the exquisite plasterwork of Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli on its barrel vaulted ceiling. The room is now the Straits Room in the Fullerton Hotel (The Fullerton Heritage).

The technique could also extended to produce stone-like ornamental pieces and other decorative elements such as crests and coats of arms. It was for such work, commissioned for the completion of the (second) Ocean Building, that drew Cavaliere Nolli from Bangkok in 1921. Cavaliere Nolli was also employed to provide similar finishes for the Union Building and the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers, two more additions made to Collyer Quay in the 1920s.

A close-up of the smooth granolithic finish on the exterior of the old Supreme Court.

Nolli was heavily involved in the decorations of many more of the decade’s new buildings such as the David Elias Building, Connell House and the Netherlands Trading Society Building. Castings of crests, coats of arms and semi-sculptural work were also popular and that same decade, the Edward VII College of Medcine, Elgin Bridge, Crawford Bridge, and the Fullerton Building were beneficiaries of this work. Much, much more was to follow. Granolithic finishes produced by Nolli found their way to numerous new erections, one of which was the old Supreme Court.

One of the works of Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli on the (Edward VII) College of Medicine Building – an eagle with spread wings (a symbol of protection).

Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli’s skills in casting, also extended to the production of artificial stone columns and their capitals. The Ionic capitals he produced for the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers was one of the first he worked on. Also out of Cavaliere Nolli’s Scotts Road workshop were the huge columns and intricate Corinthian capitals that we see on the old Supreme Court.

Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli at the top of the old Supreme Court with a close up of the columns and the intricate Corinthian capitals that were cast by him (Lina Brunner Collection, National Archives of Singapore).

Cavaliere Nolli was bestowed with the Order of the Crown of Italy – a form of knighthood that carried with it the title Cavaliere – in 1925. While his life here may have appeared to have gone on rather smoothly, it was not without incident or setback. A motoring accident, early one Sunday morning in October 1934 at Meyer Road, left him seriously injured. Both of the sculptor’s arms were fractured and he required surgery on the right arm. A citizen of one of the Axis states, Cavaliere Nolli was also interned in Australia during the Second World War from 1941 to 1945. On his return to Singapore in 1946, he found his Scotts Road studio and workshop in a rather poor state. All that he had left in it was also missing, including a collection of over 300 art books and his set of tools.

One of the first postwar works Cavaliere Nolli produced was this precast crest for Hongkong and Shanghai Bank on MacDonald House in Orchard Road.

Cavaliere Nolli overcame that setback and received several commissions before his retirement in 1956. Among his last works in Singapore were a pair of sculptured stone lions for the Bank of China and a coloured sculptured plaque for Van Kleef Aquarium. The last large scale project he worked on before his retirement was the decorative stonework for the magnificent Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Bandar Seri Bagawan, Brunei. He returned to his native Italy following his retirement and passed away in December 1963 at the age of 75. He left a daughter, the then Hong Kong based Mrs Lina Brunner, behind.

One of Cavaliere Nolli’s last works in Singapore was a pair of lions for the Bank of China. Left: Cavaliere Nolli with one of the lions in his studio (Lina Brunner Collection, National Archives of Singapore). Right: The pair of lions seen today.

To discover more on Cavaliere Nolli’s life and work and his reach outside of Singapore, do visit The Italian Connection, which I had a hand in curating for The Fullerton Hotel. Held at the East Garden Foyer of The Fullerton Hotel, the exhibition has been put up as part of the Fullerton Building’s 89th Anniversary this June. Besides providing a glance at Cavaliere Nolli’s life, the exhibition also looks at the Italian community and  its connections with modern Singapore that go back to the early 19th century. There is also that connection that the Fullerton Building has, through Cavaliere Nolli at its very beginnings and today through the illustrious General Manager of The Fullerton Heritage, Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale.

One of Cavaliere Nolli’s more obscure works – reliefs of angels made for the chapel of St. Anthony’s Convent in 1952.


More on the exhibition and the works Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli can also be found at:


The old Supreme Court’s Allegory of Justice

Cavaliere Nolli’s Allegory of Justice in the tympanum of the old Supreme Court.

The old Supreme Court’s sculptures, which took Cavaliere Nolli more than a year to complete, are as interesting as they are impressive. Its centrepiece is Lady Justice, which alone weighs 4 tons. Quite noticeably missing is the blindfold, an attribute thought to be central to the depictions of Justice representing impartiality.

There has been many suggestions as to why this may be so, but Justice’s depiction in this manner is actually quite consistent with many classical representations through history, which Cavaliere Nolli would have drawn inspiration from. A beautifully executed example of this is Luca Giordano’s 1680s Allegory of Justice. The blindfold, the use of which was apparently popularised in the 16th century, is also missing from several well-known depictions of Lady Justice, such as in the Old Bailey.

Two other attributes of Lady Justice, a pair of scales and a sword turned downwards, are in plain sight. The scales, weighing evidence, are positioned well above the sword delivering punishment; the symbolism of this being that evidence and court takes precedence above punishment in the administration of justice.

As with many classical representations, deceit, discord and strife is counterbalanced by the order and security that the administration of the law achieves. Deceit, represented by the the two-headed snake, is seen biting a man far to Justice’s right. Legislators and the bent figure of a supplicant, begging for mercy, are also depicted and represent the administration of justice. The fruits of order and security – abundance and prosperity – can be seen in the bull and a farmer leading a rich harvest of wheat on Justice’s left.


The old Supreme Court friezes and works incorrectly attributed to Nolli

The old Supreme Court friezes, which some have attributed to Cavaliere Nolli, are the work of Alec Wagstaff. They were based on designs made by George Thomas Squires as part of a competition. The son of the illustrious Hong Kong based British sculptor W W Wagstaff, Alec was killed in action during the Second World War. Squires, who lived at the Crescent Flats in Meyer Road, as it turns out was the father of Isabel Mary Ferrie – the wife of James Westwater Ferrie. Ferrie was a well-known figure in the field of architecture as well as being an artist known for his watercolours of local seascapes. Many were painted at his house by the sea in Sembawang, His architectural firm, James Ferrie & Partners, is now run by a son Alasdair. 

A number of other prominent sculptural works have also been incorrectly attributed to Cavaliere Nolli. These include the triumphal figures on the façade of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, as well as the two lions of the Merdeka Bridge monument now hidden away in SAFTI Military Institute. Both sets of works were in fact contracted to Signor Raoul Bigazzi, a Florence based sculptor and businessman. Signor Bigazzi ran a successful marble supply and sculptural business and took on quite a fair bit of work in Asia. The railway station’s sculptures were crafted by his firm’s artistic director Professor Angelo Vannetti. The Merdeka Bridge lions were sculptured in the Philippines based on a design made by Mr L W Carpenter of the Public Works Department.

The friezes seen on the porch of the old Supreme Court are the works of Alec Wagstaff, the son of Hong Kong based sculptor W W Wagstaff.






Losing its fizz: the third milestone without the former National Aerated Water plant

11 12 2016

It seems that time may finally be called on the former National Aerated Water Company’s bottling plant at 1177 Upper Serangoon Road. Long a landmark at the 3rd Milestone, it sits on a valuable freehold site that has just been sold for quite a tidy sum to a Malaysian developer according to on a report in yesterday’s Straits Times. One of a handful of structures left along a stretch of the Kallang River that recall the river and the area’s rich industrial past.

An icon at the 3rd Milestone.

An icon at the 3rd Milestone (Nov 2016).

Those of my vintage will remember the plant with fondness. Built with hints of an Art Deco influence, it will not only be for its unique and “un-industrial” appearance in the context of the industrial buildings of a more recent age, but also for its production of Kickapoo Joy Juice and Sinalco. Kickapoo in its signature green bottle and inspired by the comic strip Li’l Abner – which had a lengthy run in the local newspapers, was an especially popular choice. Sinalco, of German origin,  might have been less so, but had its fans. A third drink that would be introduced by the plant in the 1970s, Royal Crown or RC Cola, had much less of an impact.

A view through the fence to a reminder of the past.

A view through the fence to a reminder of the past (April 2012).

While one could quite easily miss noticing the row of shophouses just up the road with its stone working shops that catered to the demand for headstones and religious statues from Bidadari cemetery just a mile down the road and an oddly located shop hawking Czechoslovakian Petrof pianos; the factory and another iconic structure nearby, the Serangoon Fire Station, would have caught the attention of most who passed through. The rather notorious Woodsville junction or previously roundabout just down the road, where chaos reigned with its confluence of six major roads, brought traffic to a slow enough crawl, allowing for more than just a cursory glance at the plant.

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Locked gates (Nov 2016).

naw-petaling-jaya-2012The factory added its presence in 1954, the same year the National Aerated Water Company had marked its 25th anniversary. The investment, amounting to some S$500,000, gave the company an output to 48,000 bottles a day – more than twice what its previous plant at Hamilton Road could manage (see New $500,000 soft drinks factory opens in Oct, The Straits Times, 23 July 1954). The motivation for the new plant was the exclusive rights the company had won in 1952 to bottle and distribute Sinalco in the region.  Sales of the company’s products grew at a phenomenal rate, increasing 30% year-on-year through the new facility’s first decade. A second plant would built in 1964. Located in Petaling Jaya near the “Rothmans Roundabout”, it catered to the growing demand up north.

A peek inside.

A peek inside (Apr 2012).

Things began however to head south at the end of the 1970s. The death knell for the plant would be sounded in the 1990s when the Kickapoo licensor, Monarch Beverage, cancelled the agreement it had with the company. The company would also face a suit for copyright infringement, which it lost  (see : Infopedia page on the National Aerated Water Company) and the plant ceased production at the end of the 1990s. The site was left abandoned with a clutter of crates and empty bottles at its front yard for what seemed the longest of times.

The front yard cleared of its clutter.

The front yard cleared of its clutter (Apr 2012).

That the buildings are still around has very much to do with the fact that the sale and redevelopment of the site had been prevented by a long standing tussle over shares one of its shareholders, the late Ching Kwong Kuen (see: Ching Chew Weng Paul v Ching Pui Sim and Others [2009] SGHC 277) had placed in trust with one of his brothers and a niece. The Chings, whose roots were in steel work and ship repair business with Kwong Soon Engineering, interests in the bottling company began in 1953. Connected with Kwong Soon Engineering are two other industrial buildings with a non-industrial appearance including a 1933 Art Deco style foundry where it started. Both buildings are still around and found  at Cavan Road, which is just next to Hamilton Road where National Aerated’s first plant had been located.

Kwong Soon Engineering's two buildings at Cavan Road, including its former foundry on the left.

Kwong Soon Engineering’s two buildings at Cavan Road, including its former foundry on the left.

Kwong Soon Engineering, some might remember, made the news in January 1996 when the RV Calypso, the famous mine-sweeper turned research vessel used by the legendary oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, sank at its yard in Tuas. The vessel was hit by a barge that had broken free of its moorings and left under 4.8 metres of water with only part of its superstructure and mast exposed.

Another look at the former foundry.

Another look at the former foundry.

With the privately held site long marked for residential development (with a plot area of 2.8), there seems little chance of anything being kept even if there are renewed calls being made for its conservation.  It will certainly be a shame to lose an icon that has long been part of the area’s identity and representative of a past being too rapidly forgotten to just another towering apartment block the area seems to already have much too much of.

The third milestone is being colonised by towering apartment blocks.

The third milestone is being colonised by towering apartment blocks (Nov 2016).


More photographs:

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Singapore’s oldest Catholic church now looks like its newest

28 11 2016

The beautifully restored Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, Singapore’s oldest Catholic church and a National Monument, re-opened on 20 November 2016 when it held its first mass in over three years. Sitting on a foundation of nothing more than compacted earth, its structure had been quite badly affected by ground disturbance caused by construction work in, around, and under it, which required it to be closed for repair work could be carried out.

As it turned out, the repair effort was quite timely. Columns supporting the pediment at the cathedral’s Victoria Street end gave way as the building was in the late stages of repair on 3 September 2015. Fortunately, the incident – which also saw the pediment come crashing down – happened at night and no one was hurt. The incident also led to the discovery that the supports, on which the weight of the steeple and bell tower also rests, were inadequate and required strengthening and a decision was taken to replace the original brick columns with stronger but lighter steel columns due to weight (which would increase structural load on the base) and time considerations. Another consequence of the collapse would have was in the discovery of the original time-capsule. This was placed beneath the cornerstone when that was laid on 18 June 1843. It was only found due to the work that was needed on the new structure. The time-capsule contained coins, newspapers and a service booklet from the time and its contents are now on display in the Cathedral Heritage Centre.

The entire project, which also involved restoration of the Cathedral and its rectory, as well as the construction of a new three-storey annex block – where the heritage centre is being housed – came at a cost of S$40 million. One of the key areas of repair required was in the underpinning of the cathedral building due to the lack of a suitable foundation. The intervention also allowed service ducts to be run under the building to carry both electrical cables and ducting for air-conditioning – a much welcome addition. The gallery pipe-organ  – Singapore’s oldest pipe-organ – was also restored. This required it to be shipped to the Philippines, which has a rich organ building. The restored pipe-organ also made its debut during the reopening mass when it so wonderfully accompanied the cathedral choir.

The Cathedral Choir making its entry before the opening mass on 20 Nov 2016.

The Cathedral Choir making its entry before the opening mass on 20 Nov 2016.

Standing room only. The opening drew a large crowd and pews were already filled as early as an hour and a half before mass.

Standing room only. The opening drew a large crowd and pews were already filled as early as an hour and a half before mass.

The sanctuary after the reopening.

The sanctuary after the reopening, with a new altar.

In 2013 with a large crack clearly visible on the wall behind it.

In 2013 with a large crack clearly visible on the wall behind it.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2016.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2016.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2013.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2013.

View down the nave, 2016.

View down the nave, 2016.

View down the nave, 2013.

View down the nave, 2013.

The repaired and restored Victoria Street end and the steeple.

The repaired and restored Victoria Street end and the steeple.

The view during the restoration, when steel columns were introduced (to be clad with masonry) for reasons of weight and time when the original structure gave way.

The view during the restoration, when steel columns were introduced (to be clad with masonry) for reasons of weight and time when the original structure gave way.

With its columns braced in 2010.

With its columns braced in 2010.

A close-up.

A close-up.

Archbishop William Goh after unveiling a new Pietà before the opening mass.

Archbishop William Goh after unveiling a new Pietà before the opening mass.

The old Pietà, seen in 2013.

The old Pietà, seen in 2013.

Another view of the new Pietà.

Another view of the new Pietà.

The old Pietà and the staircase to the choir gallery in 2013.

The old Pietà and the staircase to the choir gallery in 2013.

The choir organ in 2013, which has been removed.

The choir organ in 2013, which was in the north transept and has since been removed.

Where the choir organ was located.

Where the choir organ was located.

The cathedral in 2016.

The cathedral in 2016.

The Cathedral in 2013.

The Cathedral in 2013.

The Good Shepherd, 2016.

The Good Shepherd, 2016.

The Good Shepherd, 2013.

The Good Shepherd, 2013.

The annex building and the rectory as seen from Queen Street.

The annex building and the rectory as seen from Queen Street.

The view of the rectory from Queen Street in 2013.

The view of the rectory from Queen Street in 2013.

Balustrades, an original feature, were restored to the second level of the rectory turret.

Balustrades, an original feature, were restored to the second level of the rectory turret.

The turret before restoration.

The turret before restoration.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The garage, which was also demolished.

The garage, which was also demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The restoration was originally scheduled for two years,

The restoration was originally scheduled for two years,

Before the restoration.

Before the restoration.

During the restoration.

During the restoration.

Exposed brickwork of the columns seen during the restoration.

Exposed brickwork of the columns seen during the restoration.


More views of the beautifully restored cathedral

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Ancient music in Jackie Chan’s ancient houses

20 10 2016

A most delightful gift to Singapore made by Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan is the set of four structures that now grace the campus of the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) at Somapah. Dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties, the structures were originally from Zhejiang province in China. A chance to have a look at them came with a Nanyin performance by the Siong Leng Musical Association held in the structures that I was invited to recently.

Ancient music in ancient structures. A performance by the Siong Leng Musical Association held in a main hall that was part of a house from Zhejiang.

Ancient music in ancient structures. A performance by the Siong Leng Musical Association held in a main hall that was part of a house from Zhejiang.

Part of a collection of ten ancient structures purchased by martial arts star with the intention that they be dismantled and re-erected as a home for his parents, the structures were put in storage for much longer than was intended. Little was documented on the assembly of the structures, which proved a challenge when the university looked at reassembling them.

The pavilion.

The pavilion.

The structures feature some rather interesting and previously unseen features in Singapore in which many Chinese structures are of the Minnan style. An examples of this is the exquisitely carved oversized wooden corbels seen in one of the structures, a late Qing dynasty pavilion. The pavilion, interestingly, also features a mix of styles seen in the wooden balustrades with a Suzhou flavour.

The Suzhou style is also seen in some of the features of the pavilion.

The Suzhou style is also seen in some of the features of the pavilion.

Close to the pavilion, another of the structures – an opera stage, has an interesting feature on its ceiling – a dome of sorts that acts to enhance the stage acoustics.

A feature on the ceiling of the opera stage that enhances the stage's acoustics.

A feature on the ceiling of the opera stage that enhances the stage’s acoustics.

Hokkien opera on an ancient opera stage.

Hokkien opera on an ancient opera stage.

A close-up.

A close-up.

There are also two structures, complementing parts of a Ming dynasty house and a Qing dynasty house, that have been put together in the setting of a lake. Featuring a mix of old and new in the glass panels that keep the air-conditioning in, the parts which have only a small difference in width, find harmony even if they were from different houses and from different times. The parts are a main hall and an inner hall where bedrooms would have been located. An interesting contrast between the two are the finished wooden columns seen in the main hall where guests would be entertained and the coarser looking (and less costly) unfinished columns in the inner more private area.

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In the inner hall.

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The two parts of two houses, complementing each other in the setting of a lake.

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The opera stage by night.

A carved corbel on the stage.

A carved corbel on the stage.

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What’s propping a mid 1800s pagoda up on Telok Ayer Street

27 09 2016

A curious sight found at one of Telok Ayer Street’s two beautifully restored mid-19th century Chinese pagodas, the Chung-Wen pagoda or Chong-Wen Ge (崇文阁), are eight figures that are seen propping up the pagoda’stop tier. Referred to rather disparagingly in  colloquial Hokkien as “dim-witted foreigners”, these figures carved from wood have no structural function and are purely decorative features. Similar figures, which are also sometimes made of clay, are apparently, quite commonly used in Minnan architecture and are thought to have their origins in the Tang Dynasty when they may have been used to commemorate the efforts of foreign labourers who were often involved in building projects.

The Chung Wen Pagoda.

The Chung Wen Pagoda.

Support beams for the uppermost tier of the pagoda, which feature carvings of non-Chinese men depicted as lending support to the structure.

Support beams for the uppermost tier of the pagoda, which feature carvings of non-Chinese men depicted as lending support to the structure.

A night-time view of the pagoda.

A night-time view of the pagoda.

The eight wooden cravings are just some of an amazing array of decorative work found in the incredibly beautiful pagoda. Built between 1849 and 1852, the pagoda, besides it features that define a strong Chinese flavour, also has features that speak of the influences present in the 18th century Singapore such as a wrought iron sprial staircase that was put in during a restoration effort in 1880 and encaustic floor tiles, which can also be found in other Chinese buildings in the country.

Decorative details.

Decorative details.

The second tier.

The second tier.

The reverse view.

The reverse view.

The wrought iron staircase.

The wrought iron staircase.

Linked with the Hokkien community, whose spiritual centre was at the next door Thian Hock Keng temple, the Chung-Wen pagoda apparently also had the support of other groups within the wider Chinese community. This is evident in one of three steles found on the site. The stele, which commemorates the pagoda’s construction, sees the names of Teochew leader Seah Eu Chin as well as that of a Hakka, Liew Lok Teck, alongside names associated such as Tan Kim Seng, Ang Choon Seng, Wee Chong Sun and Cheang Sam Teo from the Hokkien community.

The stele commemorating its construction.

The stele commemorating its construction.

A view of the entrance doorway to the Chong-wen Ge from the upper tier of the pagoda.

A view of the entrance doorway to the Chong-wen Ge from the upper tier of the pagoda.

We also see on the stele that a shrine dedicated to Zitong Dijun (梓潼帝君) was placed on the pagoda’s second tier. Zitong Dijun, also known as Wenchang (文昌), is considered to be the Chinese god of culture and literature, and is a patron deity of scholars. This is a clear indication of the Chung-Wen pagoda’s intended purpose as a place given to promoting learning, although not all experts agree on the manner in which it was done. What is clear however, is that the Chong-Wen Ge was where the written word was venerated. This was carried out through the practice of the burning of papers on which words have been written, in honour of the inventor of Chinese characters, Cangjie (倉頡). The installation of a small paper burning pagoda on the site for this purpose is also recorded on the stele.

A view from the pagoda across to the Thain Hock Keng and the former Keng Teck Whay.

Old world gods now surrounded by the gods of the new world  – a view from the pagoda across to the Thain Hock Keng and the former Keng Teck Whay and the financial centre of the city beyond it.

The building which housed the Chong Hock School.

The building which housed the Chong Hock School.

The practice of burning the written word ended in 1910 when the trustees of the Chong-Wen Ge handed control of it over to the Thian Hock Keng temple, although it can be said that the written word was then celebrated in a different manner with the founding of the Chong Hock School for girls in 1915. The school operated in the simple but lovely two storey building adjacent to the pagoda and only moved out in 1985 as Chongfu School.  The school’s building have seen several uses since and now houses the Singapore Musical Box Museum on its upper level. An encaustic tile shop and a Peranakan café is also now found on its ground level.

A view of the Chong Hock School building from the pagoda.

A view of the Chong Hock School building from the pagoda.

The Chong-Wen Ge, which translates as the Institute for the Veneration of Literature, was gazetted as a National Monument in 1973 with the Thian Hock Keng. Its wonderfully restored state is the result of its last major restoration effort which was undertaken between 2001-2003. More information on it and other conserved former school buildings can be found in a URA Heritage Schools Pamphlet.

Decorative detail on a door on the pagoda's second level.

Decorative detail on a door on the pagoda’s second level.

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A view from Telok Ayer Street.

A view from the cafe.

A view from the cafe.


A close-up of the eight “dim-witted foreigners”

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The rainbow connection

16 09 2016

A rainbow appears over the “Rainbow Flats”, as Rochor Centre is sometimes referred to, as if to say goodbye on the morning of 14 September 2016. Built to house residents and business displaced by urban redevelopment in the late 1970s, the Housing and Development Board built podium residential cum commercial development is due to make way very soon for the construction of the North-South Expressway.  For more on the complex and its last days, do visit an earlier post: Parting Glances: Rochor Centre in its last days.








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