Days of Wonder

28 05 2021

Films containing familiar sights and sounds of the past have a wonderful effect of evoking feelings of nostalgia and a sense of coming home. Such was the case when I was provided with the opportunity to view a selection digitised 8mm home movies from the 1960s and 1970s that have been deposited in the National Archives of Singapore with a view to putting together segments of them in preparation for last Thursday’s “Archives Invites” online session “Days of Wonder: Fun and Leisure in 1960s and 1970s Singapore“. The session involved the screening of two videos, each containing scenes of the Singapore I was familiar with as a child, with a focus on sites, attractions and leisure activities that were popular among Singaporeans.

Fun for me in the late 1960s.

Among the activities that I put a spotlight on in the videos were those that took place by the coastal areas, which included scenes of Changi Beach – an extremely popular spot for picnics and dips in the sea at high tide – complete with kelongs in the near distance. Changi Beach, a regular destination for picnics right out the boot of the car (we could once drive right up to the beach), was where I first took a dip in the sea. The beach and the long sandy coastline that ran all the way towards Bedok, featured in many weekend outings and holidays through much of my childhood.

Ayer Gemuroh



It was the same for many in my generation. Changi Beach was often the place to chill out at during the weekend, especially when the timing of the high tide was favourable, which a quick check on tide tables published daily in the newspapers, could confirm. A friend of mine recounted how she looked forward to trips to Changi on the back of a borrowed lorry with the extended family whenever the timing of the tide was good. Pots of chicken curry and loafs of the local version of the baguette would also accompany the . If you were fortunate to have come with a car, there was also the option of driving right up to the beach and parking right under a shady tree to have your picnic right out of the car’s boot. Seeing cars with their wheels stuck in the sand was a pretty common sight because of this. And, if the chicken curry ran out or if one had come without food, there were several beachside cafés that one could visit. There was also the option of waiting for the fish and chips van, and the various itinerant food vendors that also visited the beach throughout the day such as the vadai man, the kacang putih man and the ice-cream vendors.

A small part of the segment on the coast, involved a holiday, taken locally by the sea – as was the fashion back in days when most of us could not afford to take a trip abroad. For me holidays involved the various government holiday facilities along the Tanah Merah coast, at long lost places with names like Mata Ikan and Ayer Gemuroh. A question that was put to me during the Q&A session was what do I miss most of those days. Mata Ikan, the Tanah Merah coast, and also how we seemed to have unlimited access to much of the length of Singapore’s coast, is probably what I miss most. Those were wonderful times for me, walking by the beach and along stretches of seawalls, poking my nose into the numerous pillboxes that lined the coast (boy, did they smell!), wading out when the tide went out, often as far as the kelongs were planted. The coastal regions are much more protected these days and in many parts, blocked off from the public.

Beside my interactions with the Tanah Merah coast, there were many other places in SIngapore that left an impression. I remember how places would come alive by night, as the scenes of an Orchard Road and Guillemard Circus illuminated by neon advertising boards seen in the videos show. Singapore had such a wonderful glow by night with the numerous fountains – many planted on the major roundabouts, also illuminated by night, and the occasional float parades and light-ups during National Day, often adding to the night lights. Adding to the lively scene by night were what would be termed as “pop-up” food centres. Several open-air car parks, such as the famous one on Orchard Road where Orchard Central, transformed themselves into places to indulge in some of the best hawker fare that could be found in Singapore.

The car park at Orchard Road that transformed into a hawker fare paradise by night (Paul Piollet Collection, National Archives of Singapore)



The one at Orchard Road, dubbed “Glutton’s Square” to provide it with greater tourism appeal, was an assault (in a pleasant way) on four of the five the senses. Evening time brought with it the disorderly rush of pushcarts, all of which would somehow be lined up in neat rows in double quick time. Lit by kerosene lamps in the dark, each contributed to the smoke that filled the air together with an unimaginable array of aromas. The sounds of the ladles scraping the bottoms of woks added to the atmosphere. Besides Orchard Road, there were also carparks at Prince Edward Road opposite the Singapore Polytechnic and the one in front of the railway station at which hawkers similarly gathered by night.

Among the other scenes were those of Orchard Road, which was in the 1960s, a place to perhaps shop for cars, to visit the western style supermarkets, which were uncommon then, and perhaps C K Tang. C K Tang, a pioneering departmental store on Orchard Road, was then housed in its rather iconic Chinese-roofed building and right nearby was Champion Motors on which Lucky Plaza now stands, Fitzpatrick’s Supermarket and Orchard Motors. The conversion of Orchard Motors into The Orchard – a shopping centre at which the infamous Tivoli Coffee House was located, possibly marked the beginning of the end for Orchard Road’s motoring days. There are perhaps two reminders left of those days, in the form of Liat Towers – built as a Mercedes Benz showroom and headquarters, and the delightful sunburst topped former Malayan Motors 1920s showroom that can be found opposite Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station.

The former Malayan Motors showroom seen in 1984 (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

Another of my favourite urban sites was Change Alley, which many locals – my grandmother included – seem to pronounce as something that sounded like “Chin-Charlie”. It was such a joy to wander through the alley, which in the late 1960s was filled with the sounds of the chorus of laughing bags being set off. The alley, which also provided correspondence between Collyer Quay and Raffles Place, was described by the BBC’s Alan Whicker in a 1959 newsreel as being “perhaps the most famous hundred yards in Southeast Asia”, a hundred yards of alley where one risked being “attacked in the pocket book”.

Whicker’s World with the BBC’s Alan Whicker wandering through Change Alley in 1959.

During the rather lively Q&A session at the end of the Archives Invites session, I believe that in view of the limited time we had, a number of questions posed went unanswered. Should you have been in that audience, and did not receive answers to the questions you may have posed, or have questions to which I was not able to adequately answer, you may leave them as comments to this post. I will try answering them as best as I can.





“Lenin’s Tomb” at Raffles Place

17 01 2020

Constructed in an effort to beautify the city, the “underground” car park topped with a roof garden that came to define the Raffles Place of post-independent Singapore, came in for some criticism as it was nearing completion. Likened to Lenin’s Mausoleum, its critics even went so far as to suggest that it be used for the repose of Singapore’s distinguished citizens. Despite the early reservations, Raffles Place Garden – as it was christened, was a quite a joy to behold. With its floral clock, fountain and a backdrop provided by Raffles Place’s characterful buildings, the garden became what could be thought of as the 1960s equivalent of an instagram-worthy spot.

Christmas 1966 on the roof garden at Raffles Place, with Robinson’s behind.

That Raffles Place was certainly a place I connected with.  My visits there usually coincided with the preparations for the year-end season of giving, which invariably led to Robinsons Department Store’s quite memorable toy department. Large and well stocked, the department was every child’s dream. I looked forward to visiting each year, even if that meant having to catch sight of Father Christmas, whom I was terrified of. Out of Robinson’s famous Christmas lucky dip, I once pulled out an orange coloured battery-operated submarine. It was a prized toy, even if I had to contend with using it once every three months during our seaside holidays at Mata Ikan – in the holiday bungalow’s bathtub!

The promise of good food was another thing to look forward to when visiting Raffles Place. Makan time would on a special occasion, lead me to the Honeyland Milk Bar at Battery Road, which was just around the square’s northeast corner. There was always a sense of anticipation that I got as the parting of the café’s heavy doors delivered a cold rush of Worcestershire sauce scented air. The café’s chicken pies were to die for. I enjoyed the pies with a dash of tomato ketchup – which I never could quite manage to cajole out from the sauce bottle without some help.

Raffles Place’s little “corners”, which included Change Alley, added much to area’s unique charm. “Chin Charlie” to me and many non-English speakers like my maternal grandmother, it was a fascinating place to wander through and one of the places that made the Singapore of the 1960s, Singapore. The famous alley, which featured in films and in a BBC newsreel,  seemed to be always be full of life and for a while, laughter – emanating from numerous laughing bags being set off in the alley by its many toy vendors as a form of advertisement. Popular at the end of the 1960s, the toys took the form of tiny drawstring bags that contained sound boxes.

The Raffles Place end of Change Alley, 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

Little did I know it as a young child, but the laughter, along with the Raffles Place that I knew and loved would soon to see lasting change. A tragic fire in November 1972, which resulted in the loss of nine lives, also saw to Robinsons losing its iconic Raffles Chambers home it had occupied since 1941. The subsequent move – of Robinson’s to Specialists Centre in Orchard Road – also severed the store’s connection with the square, which could be traced back to 1858.

Raffles Chambers – before Robinson’s moved in.

By the time of the fire, the area had in fact already been in the cusp of change. At the glorious waterfront – Raffles Place “backyard”, the grand old turret-topped 1923 built Ocean Building had come down in 1970 to make way for a towering third. The 1923 Ocean – the second to stand on the site – was the forerunner of a building frenzy that would shape Singapore’s bund at Collyer Quay, which by the 1930s possessed a quality that could be compared to Shanghai’s more famous embankment. The second Ocean’s demise set a reversal of the process in motion. Two more of the waterfront’s grand 1920s edifices erected a year after the Ocean, Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers and Maritime (ex-Union Insurance) Building, would also make way for the new.

John Little’s Building early in 1946 – when it was used temporarily as the Shackle Club [source: Lizzie Ellis on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)].

On the square, one of its famous landmarks – John Little’s Building – was sold in 1973. This would lead to Raffles Tower (now Singapore Land Tower) being put up in its place. Incidentally, Raffles Tower when it was still under construction,  was the scene of a dramatic aerial helicopter rescue – the first in Singapore’s history. The rescue on 21 October 1980 came at a time when 19 out of tower’s intended 48 floors were completed. A fire broke out on the 18th floor, which left a crane operator stranded on a tower crane perched on the top of the uncompleted building some 60 metres above ground. The daring rescue effort saw the operator plucked from the crane’s boom to safety by the crew of a RSAF Bell 212 helicopter .

Singapore’s first helicopter aerial rescue was over Raffles Place on 21 October 1980.

Raffles Place would also lose its car park and roof garden not so long after this incident. A well-loved feature by that time, the garden’s lifespan fell short of the “many, many decades” that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had predicted it would last when he opened it in November 1965. The construction of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system just two decades later, meant that the structure and its garden, went the way of Raffles Place’s older icons in mid-1984.

Raffles Place – still with its garden – in the late 1970s. The former Mercantile Bank can be seen at the end of the square.

The building of the MRT also took out the other landmarks that could be identified with old Raffles Place. The former Mercantile Bank (built 1929) was one. The building, which marked the square’s southern end, had been purchased by Chartered Bank to house its Singapore headquarters while its 6 Battery Road HQ at the square’s opposite end, was being rebuilt. Chartered Bank’s new premises at 6 Battery Road, which was put up at the start of the 1980s incorporated a provision for the MRT to be built at a time when the question of whether the MRT should be built was still being deliberated.

Over a CBD in transition at the end of the 1970s. Renewal, redevelopment and reclamation would change the face of a part of Singapore that at the point of independence, had a certain old world charm (photo source: Panoramio).

Raffles Place today, wears a look of modernity reflective of Singapore’s impressive progress since the car park and its roof garden was unveiled. Cold as it may have become enclosed by the wall of towering symbols of success, Lenin’s tomb it is not nor a place of repose for the distinguished – other than the distinguished past. There are the reminders of the square that was replaced if one looks hard enough – found in the names that are retained and in some of the new structures that have come to define the new Raffles Place.


 

Raffles Place over the years

 

 

Raffles Place stands on the site of a hill that was levelled in 1822 to provide filler for the reclamation in way of the south bank of the Singapore River that provided the grounds for Boat Quay.

 

Raffles Place in the late 1800s. The garden seen in this G. R. Lambert print was one of Commercial Square’s early features, which was laid out, planted with trees and enclosed by a low wall and a wooden fence in the mid-1830s. The marble drinking water fountain seen in the photograph was the one presented by John Gemmill in 1864. The donation involved more than just the fountain as it required the laying of pipes from Mr Gemmill’s property at Mount Erskine to Raffles Place. The fountain originally had metal cups chained to it. The fountain, which now stands outside the National Museum of Singapore, found its way to Empress Place, before being moved to the museum in the 1970s.

 

Gemmill’s fountain – at the National Museum of Singapore.

 

Another G R Lambert print from the late 1800s. Originally Commercial Square, it was named Raffles Place by the Municipal Commission in 1858.

 

By the 1900s Raffles Place was well developed into a commercial and banking centre. This postcard view of Raffles Place in the 1930s shows several banking institutions established around in the square such as (from left to right): Mercantile Bank of India, Banque de l’Indochine (French Bank) and Yokohama Specie Bank (YS Bank in Meyer Chambers).

 

Preparations for war, 1941. A machine gun pillbox seen in front of a John Little’s Building fitted with brick barricades.

 

Air raid wardens are dousing an incendiary bomb in Raffles Place in 1941 as part of a regular weekly mass demonstration to make Singaporean’s bomb conscious and informed (source: Library of Congress – no known copyright restrictions).

A bomb damaged Raffles Place following the first Japanese air raid on Singapore on 8 Dec 1941.

 

Raffles Place in the 1950s, by which time stores such as John Little – established in the 1840s and Robinson’s, founded in the 1850s, were already very well established and were household names.

 

Plans for a garden at Raffles Place were first announced in Nov 1963 during a State Government policy address made by Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak to the Legislative Assembly – the first with Singapore a State in Malaysia and the last ever. Work commenced on what was to be a 150 car capacity underground car park topped by a roof garden in July 1964. By the time LKY opened the carpark and roof garden in Nov 1965, Singapore was an independent country. LKY expressed his disappointment that the car park had to be elevated a metre above the ground for ventilation and access and observed that some had likened one end of the structure to Lenin’s tomb. He also noted that there were also suggestions that “we might perhaps repose the precious remains of some of our more distinguished citizens in one end of this square”.

 

Mr David Ayres’ capture of Raffles Place in 1966, which made its rounds around the internet in 2012. The photograph shows the roof garden and looks towards the northern end of the square with the Chartered Bank Chambers on Battery Road at the far end (source: David Ayres on Flickr).

 

Another northward view – this one in 1969 courtesy of Mr Kim Hocker (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

The five-foot-way along John Little’s Building in 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

Trishaw riders outside Oriental Emporium at Raffles Place in 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

A view of the car park from street level with a staircase to the roof garden (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

The Malacca Street end of the car park and its location today.

A view towards the north end with MRT construction work, 1987 (National Archives of Singapore).

 

A northward view today. The John Little’s Building is replicated on the main entrances to the MRT.

 

A southward view of Raffles Place today.

 

The Singapore Land tower (R) – where the rescue of the crane operator took place in 1980.

 

One Raffles Place – which occupies the site of Robinson’s and Meyer Chambers.


 





Singapore in the 1960s – three blasts from the past

25 05 2016

Footage found online that take us back to a Singapore we have all but forgotten.

The first is a video posted online by Gary Porter on the Memories of Singapore Facebook group that shows the National Theatre crescent-shaped fountain, the fountain at Holland Circus and a gathering of hawkers. The second is an excerpt from a French / Italian 1967 movie Cinq gars pour Singapour or Five Ashore in Singapore that was filmed in Singapore in 1966 that takes has us take walk through one of my favourite childhood places, Change Alley. The third is from the 1967 British film Pretty Polly, which starred Hayley Mills and Shashi Kapoor.