Finding a lost Singapore in the images of Paul Piollet

19 11 2018

Such is the pace at which change takes place that little exists of the Singapore those of my generation grew up with. It was one whose city streets and rural spaces, filled with life and colour, were places to discover. Lost to progress, that Singapore can never be revisited again – except perhaps through images that we are fortunate to see of them.

In Conversation with Paul Piollet.

I, for one, am especially grateful to the good folks behind these images. Several collections have been publicly available through their generous donations or in some cases, through donations made by family members. These images provide us, and our generations with a visual record that in many cases would not otherwise exist of places and more importantly a way of life from a time when few had the means to capture them.

The opportunity to hear from the donors of two of these visual collections came our way this November. The first, Dr Clifford Saunders, donated an extensive and very well documented collection of over 1,400 photographs to the National Heritage Board. The images were taken by his father, Ralph Charles Saunders in the late 1950s, when he was stationed here at RAF Seletar – with his family, which included a young Dr Saunders.

Just in the middle of the last week, we were graced by the visit of another donor, Mr Paul Piollet, with whom we were able to hold a “conversation” with at the Urban Redevelopment Authority as part of the Architectural Heritage Season. The unassuming Mr Piollet, now in his 80s, has certainly had a past. His career in oil took him across the world, and he found himself in Balikpapan in Kalimantan in 1970 as a result of that. It was there that he developed a fascination for Indonesia and its maritime heritage. He would also find himself in Singapore, where he immersed himself in much that went on around and on its lively streets.

Mr Piollet’s photos of a Singapore in transition are especially intriguing. We find in them a record of life and a way of life of a Singapore in transition. We can see what fascinated Mr Piollet from the many images of wayangs, the life that went on backstage, elaborate Chinese funerals and of life on Singapore’s living streets, which were not only full of life but also filled with children (an observation was made during the “conversation” of how children are now missing from our city streets). Images of street food vendors, which Mr Piollet regularly frequented (he rattled off a few Hokkien names of local fare he enjoyed), also features in his collection.

While the focus of the “conversation” may have been on his images of Singapore (more than 180 can be found in the National Archives of Singapore), I was fortunate to be able to hear about his efforts to document the Indonesian maritime world through a brief conversation we had just before the event started.  Of particular interest to him were the wooden sail boats and the people who crewed them. Much of the craft and skill in rigging and sailing these beautiful hand-crafted boats, once a backbone of trade across parts of the widely spread archipelago, have quite sadly been lost to motorisation.

Pages out of one of Mr Piollet’s books, “Équipages et voiliers de Madura”, documenting Indonesia’s lost maritime heritage.

Thankfully, there are at least thousands of photos taken by Mr Piollet, as well as several books that he authored. Along with photographs and sketches that Mr Piollet made, there are also registry records that he copied by hand. Mr Piollet’s books, of ways of life that have since been lost, can be found at the French Bookshop at 55 Tiong Bahru Road.

“Équipages et voiliers de Madura” or “The crews and boats of Madura”, which Mr Piollet very kindly gave me a copy of.


A selection of photographs from the Paul Piollet Collection

One of Mr Piollet’s photos from 1975. A lost corner of Singapore that was familiar to my parents and me – where Rangoon Road met Norfolk Road and Moulmein Green – see : Moulmein Road Journeys (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

I thought this looks similar to the hairdresser that my mother used to visit at Rangoon Road with me in tow. From its name, this wasn’t it and only closer examination, looks like it was located in the row of shophouses close to the Balestier Road end of Tessensohn Road (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

What looks like part of the row of shophouses close to the Balestier Road end of Tessensohn Road (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Life as it was, when streets were not complete without the sight of children playing (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Days of street wayangs. I thought this might have been a street in the Ellenborough Market area but it seems more likely to have been Chin Nam Street (parallel to Hock Lam Street) with a view towards Fort Canning Hill  (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Pau steamers – wgich caught the eye of Mr. Piollet (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

A scene now hard to imagine on Sungei Rochor (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).


 

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Dark clouds on the northern horizon

8 10 2018

I have long thought of the Sembawang area as a final frontier, and a last part of modern Singapore in which much of yesterday remains to be discovered. Progress is however eating away at these remnants of a soon to be forgotten time; the latest bit of Sembawang being absorbed into the brave new world is the area’s last forested hill on which the grand Admiralty House is perched. Now with almost the entire western slope of the hill denuded, the settings that provided the house with its charm and also its much needed isolation for its eight decades of existence, will never again be the same.

Dark clouds on a northern horizon … the denuded western slope of the last forested hill in Sembawang.

Completed in 1940, the house with its distinctive Arts and Crafts inspired flavour, was built as the residence of the Rear Admiral, Malaya. Its scale and appearance would have been most fitting to house the  commander of the then newly opened Naval Base – the largest and most important of Britain’s bases east of the Suez. It would only acquire the name best known to most, Admiralty House, when it became the residence of the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s Far East Station in 1958.

Another view showing the extent of the clearance on the western slope.

Handed over to the Singapore Government in 1975 after a spell as the residence of the Commander of the ANZUK Force, the house – and the hill has since resisted the advance of concrete that has seen a new HDB town sprout up around it. Time was finally called on the hill when plans for a sports and community hub surfaced in the 2014 Master Plan. At the project’s launch in 2016, an announcement was made that some 200 of the hill’s mature trees, just over a quarter of the existing trees, would be retained – with a greater number of new trees planted. While this may be the case – even with most of the hill’s western slope now stripped bare – the terracing necessary for the project and the construction of new structures and footpaths, will permanently alter the hill’s character and add much unwelcome concrete to an already heavily concretised area.</p?

The still forested hill, seen in July 2016.

The hub, which will feature a food centre, a swimming complex, other sports and recreational facilities, is due to be opened in phases from the first half of 2020. It will eventually incorporate the former Admiralty House, a National Monument since 2002. Work on this phase will commence when Furen International School, vacates the house in 2020.

Another view of the hill in 2016.

More on the hub and the former Admiralty House can be found at:


The front of the former Admiralty House.

The house has been likened to an English country manor.

The view the house commanded until fairly recently.


 





Parting glances: the “mini cantonment” with a view

25 09 2018

The time has come to bid farewell to Normanton Park, a housing estate with a military past in more ways than one. Built on part of the site of the Admiralty’s former Normanton Oil Depot, the estate initially housed regular military officers and their families in an attempt to build camaraderie.

HDB built private estate with a view – Normanton Park.

Completed in late 1977, Normanton Park offered a total of 488 “low-cost” housing units; 440 of which were in its five 23-storey high point-blocks. Another 48 were found in eight 3-storey walk-up apartment blocks. Prices ranged from $36,500 to $39,500 for the 122 square metre point-block units, which were laid out in the same fashion as HDB 5-room point-block flats of the mid-1970s). The larger 153 square metre walk-up apartments were sold at $65,000. These were offered to regular officers of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) with the thought that a cantonment like environment could be created to foster bonding among military officers in the same way officers’ messes did for the British military and also bring wives and families of military officers together.

Residents are in the midst of moving out (one of the eight 3-storey walk up apartment blocks is seen in the background).

Designed and built by the HDB, the estate was also provided with a community hall, space for a supermarket and kindergarten, a multi-storey car-park and recreational facilities such as a swimming pool and tennis courts. It was privatised in 1993 and that was the point when curbs on the sales of its units to non-military personnel were lifted. What made it an attractive prospect was its location and the wonderful views that the estate’s point-blocks offered of the lush green spaces around Alexandra Park and Kent Ridge.  It was sold under a collective-sale arrangement a year ago. Its residents have begun the exodus out of the estate with some saying goodbye to four decades of memories.

The swimming pool.

Plaque

Plaque unveiled by Dr Goh Keng Swee at the official opening of Normanton Park in April 1978 – being removed for safekeeping (photo: courtesy of a resident).


Parting glances …

Playground with the initials of the Normanton Park Residents Association (N.P.R.A.).

The entrance to Normanton Park.


Goodbye….Normanton Park (1978 – 2018) – a video made by an ex-resident


The Admiralty’s Normanton (Oil Fuel) Depot

The Normanton Oil Depot was set up on the grounds of Normanton Barracks and a rifle range in the 1920s to serve as fleet fuel reserves, just as the Naval Base was being established in the north of the island. The depot was set on fire on 12 February 1942 in the final days before the Fall of Singapore. This was to prevent the oil reserve falling into the hands of the enemy.

The Admiralty’s burning Normanton Fuel Oil Depot. The depot was set on fire on 12 February 1942 in the final days before the Fall of Singapore to prevent the oil reserve falling into the hands of the enemy (photo: Queenstown – My Community).

What could be remnants of the Oil Depot …

What may have been a valve pit belonging to the oil depot. Two can be found on the grounds of Normanton Park and one just beyond the perimeter fence.

 

A peek into the pit.

Another look inside.

 






The Sembawang sport and community hub

2 07 2018

Standing at the top of the southeastern-most hill in the former Naval Base for much of its 78 years in existence, Old Admiralty House is set to part with the quiet isolation that it was intended to have when it was built to house the Commander of the British Admiralty’s then newly completed Naval Base. An integrated sport and community hub, “Bukit Canberra”, will soon come up around it, bringing the hill it is perched on more in sync with the Singapore that we have come to know.

Old Admiralty House and the quiet isolation that was very much a part of why it was there, with modern Singapore knocking on its door.

Unveiling “Bukit Canberra”.

The hub will include amenities that are much desired by the sports and healthcare facilities deprived residents of the area. These include a hawker centre, indoor and outdoor sport facilities, a polyclinic, a senior care centre, green spaces for community farming and lifestyle related amenities – all “within a lush and naturalistic environment”. The first phase of the hub is due to be opened in the first half of 2020. Subsequent phases will involve the integration of Old Admiralty House – a National Monument – after its current occupant, Furen International School, vacates it in 2020.

A model of Bukit Canberra.

Old Admiralty House from the ground.

The “lush and naturalistic” environment the hub will feature is being built around the retention of a large proportion of the hills existing trees, with some 1600 additional trees added. One that has already been added – during a family carnival held to mark the launch of construction on Sunday – is a Sembawang tree (also Semawang tree) from which the area got its name. A “Fruit Orchard and Food Forest” will also feature in which a variety of fruit trees and food plants some grown in the early days of Singapore will be planted. Here a community garden will allow planting to be carried out by members of the community.

Sembawang GRC’s MPs at the groundbreaking.

Planting the Sembawang tree.

Heritage (or history as the case may be) will apparently not be forgotten with heritage story boards telling of Sembawang’s history as a former naval base. Along with Admiralty House, other features of historic interest that would be retained include a gate put up during Admiralty House’s days as ANZUK House (1971 to 1975) and a bomb shelter built before the war. A swimming pool thought to have been built by Japanese POWs after the war will however be going based on model on display at the family carnival.

The front of the former Admiralty House.

More on the former Admiralty House:


About Bukit Canberra (from Press Release)

Bukit Canberra is an integrated sports and community hub to be opened in phases from first half of 2020, it will provide the community with lifestyle related amenities, such as a hawker centre, indoor and outdoor sports facilities, a polyclinic, senior care centre, and green spaces for community activities.

‘Bukit Canberra’ is a name that the residents can easily relate to given the history of the area. Many of the streets in Sembawang have links to Commonwealth countries due to the naval communities residing in the area. For instance, Canberra Road was named in 1937 by Rear-Admiral R.H.O Lane-Poole, a Commander of the Royal Australian squadron, H.M.A.S. Canberra, that was visiting Singapore. The Former Admiralty House, built in 1940 was also known as Canberra House (not so sure about this) when it was first completed, after the adjacent Canberra Road. The hub is scheduled to open in phases from 2020.

Site size: 11.86 ha

Key Facilities/ Features:

Sports

  • A six-lane sheltered swimming pool, an eight-lane lap pool, a wading pool and a fun pool for children
  • Indoor sport hall with 500-seat gallery for sports like basketball and badminton
  • Inclusive gym, an outdoor forest gym and fitness studios
  • Running trails
  • Active Health Lab & Active Health Nutrition Studio

Greenery & Heritage

  • Community Gardening
  • Fruit Orchard
  • Food Forest
  • Heritage story boards

Healthcare

  • Polyclinic
  • Senior Care Centre

Food

  • Hawker Centre

 


Landscape design (from Press Release)

The landscape design for Bukit Canberra will leverage on and enhance the existing greenery, topography and heritage of the site to create unique experiences for visitors. Taking into consideration the existing site conditions and character, the landscape design for the site is divided into three zones: Forest, Agrarian and Hilltop. The landscaping will help to strengthen ecological links for biodiversity, allow users to enjoy the hub’s features in a natural setting and connect the community with flora and fauna.

Overview of landscape design for Bukit Canberra (Courtesy of SportSG).

Forest Zone

In the Forest Zone, the focus is on restoring habitats for fauna and enriching biodiversity. Existing healthy mature trees and vegetation will be retained and more native forest species will be added progressively to recreate the natural rainforest structure. Bukit Canberra is at the intersection of existing NParks Nature Ways and the species planted within the Forest Zone will include those found along the Nature Ways to help increase ecological connectivity.

Agrarian Zone

The existing vegetation in this zone is less dense and several community spaces are planned for within this zone, including the Food Forest, Fruit Orchard and community gardens. The landscaping surrounding these features will be themed similarly.

Hilltop Zone

The key feature at the Hilltop is the Former Admiralty House. The landscaping will frame the frontage of the building and provide an open and unobstructed view of the surroundings. The area around the house will be an open space suitable for a wide range of recreational activities, from events to picnics and gatherings.


 





The forest that will be making way for the “Forest Town”

5 05 2018

One of the things that I quite dearly miss are the seemingly long road journeys of my childhood to the far flung corners of Singapore. The journeys, always an adventure, provided an opportunity to the many different sides that Singapore then had; places that had each a unique charm and character.

A stream running through the now forested area, close to what would have been the 12th Milestone.

One especially long journey was the one to would take me to the “wild west”. The journey to the west, along a slow and dusty Jurong Road that meandered from the 8th milestone of Bukit Timah past wooded areas, settlements, graveyards, rubber plantations, and a rural landscape that is hard to imagine as having ever existed in the brave new world that we now live in.

There is a reminder of that journey, an old stretch of the road that, even stripped of rural human existence and its paraphernalia, bears some resemblance to the old road. Found just north of the Pan Island Expressway (PIE) between Bukit Batok Road and Jurong West Avenue 2, it has been relegated to a service road and has been all but forgotten.

12 Milestone Jurong Road today.

The stretch, now shaded by its overgrown trees, would have corresponded to the 11th to 12th milestones of Jurong Road – an area that went by the name “Hong Kah” before the name was appropriated by a public housing precinct across the PIE in Jurong West. Hong Kah Village itself stood right smack where the 12th milestone was and it wasn’t one that would have easily been missed in the old days, just as the old Chinese burial site nearby, Bulim Cemetery, on the road just past the village that gave me the chills on night drives past the area.

12 Milestone in 1986 (source: National Archives Online)

The odd sounding “Hong Kah” quite interestingly translates to “bestowing a religion” in the Hokkien or Teochew dialects. It was a term that apparently, in colloquial usage, was also used to refer to Christians (Chinese converts to Christianity I suppose). “Hong Kah Choon” was thus the “Christian Village”, so named due to its association with the Anglican St. Andrew’s Mission, which had carried out missionary work in the area since the 1870s (see page 45-46 of NHB’s Jurong Heritage Trail booklet). The mission also built a nearby church, St. John’s Church Jurong, located at 11th milestone at the top of 105 steps on a hillock. Put up in 1884, the church operated until 1992. That was when it was acquired together with the rest of the area for redevelopment.

The track leading to SJJ at 11 MS Jurong.

Cleared and left untouched, except for its use as military training grounds until very recently, nature has since reclaimed much of the area – which stretches up north to the Kranji Expressway. Today, the site hosts a lush secondary forest, complete with fresh water streams and a thriving birdlife. Redevelopment, will however soon clear much of what is now there, to be replaced by a forest of concrete that will be called Tengah – Singapore’s 24th “new town”.

One of the forest’s winged residents – a (male) common flameback woodpecker.

Dubbed, rather ironically, as the “Forest Town“, Tengah  will feature a fair bit of greenery. Much of which, however, will quite saldy be manufactured and put in once the existing forest has been cleared and a fair bit of concrete has been introduced – which is the Singapore way.

Another resident – a St. Andrew’s Cross spider.

Also manufactured will be a “real” forest that will take the form of a 100 metre wide and 5 kilometre long “forest corridor”. Running by the Kranji Expressway, it will serve to connect the Western Water Catchment Area and the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. And again, in the Singapore way, the corridor will be one that is “planted with rainforest tree species to transform it into a rich forest habitat”.

More views of the forest 





Parting Glances: the boxing gym at Farrer Park

30 04 2018

The Farrer Park Boxing Gym, the home of Singapore boxing and its stable, is hanging up it gloves after half a century. Its premises, which it moved into in 1968 after another had burned down, has long been a very recognisable fixture that stood along the famous playing fields at Farrer Park; it does in fact date back to Farrer Park’s pre-playing fields days when the grounds were put to use as a horse racing course, having originally been been built as a horse stable.

Farrer Park Boxing Gym’s gloves are being hung up.

The gym, which also served as the home of the Singapore Amateur Boxing Association (SABA), would have been where Syed Abdul Kadir – Singapore’s first Commonwealth Games Boxing medallist and the only boxer to have represented Singapore at the Olympics, trained at in the lead up to his participation in the international events. Besides bringing a chapter in Singapore boxing to an end, the closure of the gym also spells the start of a what would eventually be a complete disconnection of Farrer Park from its sporting roots. The grounds, which Sports Singapore will have to give up by 2020, would eventually be redeveloped as a residential site.

A last reflection – the building which houses the gym was built as a horse stable for the Race Course.

The gym was opened in 1968 after its previous premises burned down.

Part of the furniture – a bench that has been with the gym since 1968.

A final training session at the gym.

Final punches being thrown.

A peak inside the gym – the walls between blue pillars were not part of the original horse stable structure.

Trainees from the final training session with Coach Bala – who is also the Secretary of SABA.

Coach Bala closing up for what may be the final time.


Farrer Park

Named in honour of Mr Roland John Farrer, who presided over the Municipal Commission from 1919 to 1931and had played a key role in procuring the former racing ground of the Singapore Turf Club for the Singapore Improvement Trust, much of the grounds at Farrer Park was converted into much needed sporting grounds as part of a drive by the Commission to provide public sporting facilities for the fast growing municipality in the 1920s and 1930s. This drive, motivated by a growing awareness of the benefits “wholesome sport” to the health and well-being of the working classes, also saw Singapore’s first public swimming pool built at Mount Emily (see: A Short History of Public Swimming Pools in Singapore).

As the race course, which was established in 1843, the grounds also played host to other sporting pursuits including golf and polo. It was also where the first aeroplane seen in Singapore, took off and landed on 16 March 1911. The plane, a Bristol Boxkite bi-plane, was piloted by French aviator Josef Christiaens. Christiaens was granted the rights for distribution of the Colonial Aeroplane Company’s aircraft in the region and required the help of the Royal Engineers to assemble the plane for the demonstration flight.

As sporting grounds Farrer Park – with its 8 football pitches – had also a strong connection with football. Besides being a venue for many matches, its grounds were also where coaching workshops and training sessions were held. The late great Uncle Choo or Choo Seng Quee, one of Singapore football’s best loved coaches, was once a fixture, together with many household names such as the likes of Dollah Kassim, the Quah brothers and Fandi Ahmad, to name a few.

Heather Siddons (Merican) at an Inter Schools Athletics Meet at Farrer Park in 1967 (source: National Archives Online).

Farrer Park was also a name associated with school sports meets – many of which took place at Farrer Park Stadium / Athletic Centre. The centre, which opened in 1957 at the northern end of Farrer Park (straddling Gloucester Road around where Blocks 11 and 12 are today), had a simple grandstand added along with a bitumen track (originally cinder) added in for the second meeting of the Malaysian Amateur Athletic Union in July 1965. The stadium was also were hockey matches were held and where Farrer Park United – a now defunct football club through the ranks of which the likes of Malek Awab rose – played its home matches at from 1975.

Many will also remember Farrer Park for its food stalls at Northumberland Road – across from where the SIT built flats were. Two stalls that I recall were one selling one of the best Indian Mee Siam around and a drinks stall run by a Chinese lady that served bandung with bits of jelly in it.

Farrer Park also became camp for the 2nd Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment (2SIR) in 1966. Having returned from a deployment in Sabah in August 1965 as part of the Malaysian Armed Forces with their base at Ulu Pandan Road (Camp Temasek) still occupied by a Malaysian unit still based here, the unit made Farrer Park a temporary home with tents pitched on the sports fields (more at this link).

Three storey blocks of SIT Flats being built across Northumberland Road from the playing fields (source: National Archives Online).

A more recent sporting introduction to Farrer Park – Frisbee.

Football training – long associated with Farrer Park.

The boxing gym with a view towards the are where the Farrer Park Stadium was.






The passing of an old neighbourhood

5 04 2018

Old HDB neighbourhoods are a joy. Their many reminders of a gentler age, some found in old shops and kopitiams in which time seems to have left well behind, extend a welcome clearly absent in the brave new that modern Singapore has become. Sadly, it won’t be long before modernity catches up on these places. Our national obsession with renewal does mean that it will only be a question of when that these spaces will forever be lost.

One old neighbourhood experiencing a slow death by renewal is Tanglin Halt. Built in the early 1960s, its old flats – among the first that the HDB built – have already begun to make way for the new. Even before this several of the neighbourhood’s landmarks were already lost. These included the rather iconic blue city gas holder and the factories that were home to several household names such as Setron. Many of the factories, which provided the neighbourhood’s folk with employment, went in the 1990s at the end of the sites’ respective leases.  A cluster of towering new flats now mark the neighbourhood. Used in part to house the first residents displaced by the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) in the neighbourhood, the cluster has also introduced a dash of modernity to the old neighbourhood with modern shops, an air-conditioned food court, and a supermarket.  The flats that were affected by SERS, referred to collectively as the “Chap Lau Chu“, were only very recently demolished with a new batch of flats soon to fill the space .

Renewal, even gradual, is taking its toll on the businesses housed in the neighbourhood centre. Many of the surviving businesses, with the displacement of their customer base, have been left with little motivation to continue operating. A recent casualty was a provision shop by the name of Thin Huat, which closed its doors for good over the weekend. Having been set up 1964 – 54 years ago – Thin Huat is one of the neighbourhood’s oldest businesses. That makes it especially sad to see it go.

Thin Huat – a few days before its closure.

Empty shelves and a photograph of its proprietor and his wife.