The last light-box on Keong Saik Road

30 07 2021

Taking a walk around Keong Saik Road recently, I could not help but marvel at its transformation into a hip and happening neighbourhood. It was certainly quite a different place when I caught my first glimpse of it back in the 1980s. A walk that I took with a former schoolmate around his neighbourhood, opened my eyes to what seemed to to illuminate the seemingly dimly lit Keong Saik Road by night. That hastily executed detour from the planned excursion route left a vague impression the well-known side of Keong Saik Road and what each of its many lamps on which unit numbers were marked on, identified. The street’s gentrification in more recent times has seen to the dimming of the old lights of Keong Saik Road to the extent that they have all now been completely extinguished. What does remain to remind us of the street’s colourful past is a now famous tale of it that has been wonderfully told by Charmaine Leung in “17A Keong Saik Road“, and in physical terms, a last light-box at No 8 Keong Saik Road found atop its back door. Housing one of the street’s last brothels to operate, it seems that the sushi restaurant that will soon occupy it, will be keeping the light-box for posterity.

Now hip and happening, the area around Keong Saik Road is a place with quite a past.

The triangular site formed by Keong Saik Road, Jiak Chuan Road and Teck Lim Road, which now features a collection of quite well patronised eating and drinking spots, was where Keong Saik’s was colloquially called Sam Zau Fu (三州府) in Cantonese. This was with reference to the “residences” lining the triangle of streets that made up the main sections of Keong Saik’s red light district. The district did have a long-held reputation as an area to indulge in the vices even before the brothels, as we knew them, came into being when Keong Saik was a haven for courtesans or entertainers who found employment in the area’s tea houses and rich gentlemen’s clubs.

The last light-box. Will it be kept?


The courtesans, many of whom were extremely young and trained in a manner not too dissimilar to but without the rigours of the geisha in Japan, were equipped with skills to perform with the yuetkam (月琴 or yueqin in Mandarin) and/or the peipa (琵琶 or pipa in Mandarin). It was for this reason that the term peipa chai (琵琶仔) or “young pipa player” was used to refer to them. In them the wealthy club-goers and tea-house patrons would find ready mistresses. These mistresses who might have been “bought-off”, were also housed in the area and the common name for Teo Hong and Bukit Pasoh Roads in Cantonese, which is Yi Nai Kai (二奶街) provides an indication of one of the areas in which this occurred. Yi nai, which translates literally from Cantonese into “second milk”, is a euphemism for “mistress”. The tea houses and entertainment venues began to morph into houses of ill-repute and by the end of the 1950s, Keong Saik Road acquired notoriety for being a place in which “high-class” brothels operated. The term pipa chai seemed at the same time to have been extended in its use to describe the brothels’ working ladies.

One of the last “lights” of Keong Saik – seen in March 2014.

While conversations we do seem to frequently have about Keong Saik Road’s past are all too often dominated by what did go on after dark, the street does have many other facets to it. It was only in 1926, that the street was given a name — after a founder of the Straits Steamship Company and a Municipal Commissioner Tan Keong Saik. Host to a number of associations and religious institutions, the street benefitted from the colour that religious festivals and celebrations injected into it. One festival that still enlivens the street is celebrated by the Chettiar community every January or February during Chetty Pusam on the eve of the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. The community’s temple at Keong Saik Road’s junction with Kreta Ayer Road, the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar, serves as a point to pause in the journey taken by the silver chariot carrying the image of Lord Murugan from the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple at Tank Road and back to it. The return leg of the chariot’s journey to Tank Road is accompanied by a colourful and lively procession of kavadis or “burdens” that takes a route down Keong Saik Road before making its way along Neil and South Bridge Roads on its way home.

Keong Saik Road and the Sir Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple during Chetty Pusam.

While the visible traditions of the Hindu temple still plays a big part in adding flavour to Keong Saik Road, the same cannot be said about a number of traditions associated with the Chinese community there, partly because of changing circumstances and demographics of the area’s population. One lively Chinese practice that has gone that way is da siu yan (打小人) —  “petty person beating”. Also translated as “villain hitting”, the rather interesting practice was enacted with great gusto at the site of the Oriental Theatre, which was right across Kreta Ayer Road from the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar temple. Out of sight, it has not been put out of mind by those who have witnessed the practice such as Richard Lee. A description of it that he provides is found in a Facebook post, which reads:

There was a perimeter wall of the old Oriental Theatre that served as a “prayer” wall for people to “打小人”.

Villain hitting, da siu yan (Chinese: 打小人), demon exorcising, or petty person beating, is folk sorcery popular in the Guangdong area of China, Hong Kong & Singapore (and is) primarily associated with (the) Cantonese. Its purpose is to curse one’s enemies using magic. Villain hitting is often considered a humble career, and the ceremony is often performed by older ladies, though some shops sell “DIY” kits.

Villain hitting (打小人)
Make use of a varieties of symbolic object such as the shoe of clients or the villain hitter or other religious symbolic weapons like incense sticks to hit or hurt the villain paper. Villain paper can also be replaced by other derivatives such as man paper, woman paper, five ghost paper etc.

Sacrifice to Bái Hǔ (祭白虎)
The hitters have to make sacrifice to Bái Hǔ if they want to hit the villain on Jingzhe. Use a yellow paper tiger to represent Bái Hǔ, there are black stripes on the paper tiger and a pair of tooth shapes in its mouth. During the sacrifice a small piece of pork is soaked with pig blood and then put inside the mouth of the paper tiger (to feed Bái Hǔ). Bái Hǔ won’t hurt others after being fed. Sometimes they will also smear greasy pork (a piece of lard) on Bái Hǔ’s mouth to make its mouth full of oil (so that it is) unable to open its mouth to hurt people. In some regional sacrifice the villain hitter would burn the paper tiger or cut off its head after making sacrifice to it.

Pray for blessings (祈福)
Use a red Gui Ren paper to pray for blessings and help from Gui Ren. The red 貴人紙 were pasted onto the wall nearby. The nearby perimeter wall also served a spot for a series of drying racks for drying pig rind in the sun. The man who did this is my friend’s Ser Huat Ho’s grandfather….. The dried pig rind were then deep fried and sold to food vendors.

– Richard Lee

Another widely observed religious practice on Keong Saik Street — at least for the womenfolk — that has gone in the same direction as villain hitting is the annual observation of the Seven Sisters Festival on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. Based on accounts in oral history interviews and descriptions provided by the prolific muralist Yip Yew Chong, it was quite a big occasion in Chinatown, especially along Keong Saik Road. The commemoration of the festival, which revolves around a folktale of star-crossed lovers who were permitted to meet across a bridge formed by swallows (or magpies depending on the locality) once a year, is sometimes thought of as a Chinese version of Valentine’s Day. It was especially popular among the unmarried womenfolk, which included the majie, for whom Keong Saik Road’s Cundhi Gong was a religious focal point. During the festival, paper offerings to the feminine half of the lovesick couple — the weaver fairy and the seventh of the seven fairy sisters that the festival is named for, are made. Offerings include ones representing vanity items such as combs and lipstick. Flowers were also made. Before being burnt, the offerings were put on display, some on a bowl fashioned out of paper together with miniature paper dresses, items of embroidery, as well as freshly made cakes and fresh fruits. Participation in the festival started to dwindle in the 1960s and by the 1970s, hardly any of the highly visual displays were seen on the street.

The five-foot-way of the Cundhi Gong.

The last of Keong Saik Road’s vanishing light-boxes:






Lost places: the Geylang house in which a 9 million dollar work of art was painted

22 07 2021

One of the unfortunate things about Singapore and its relentless quest to modernise, is the loss of places rich in stories of the past. One such place was the Huang Clan, which was housed in a two-storey bungalow at Lorong 35 Geylang. The house had a strong connection with the “Father of Modern Chinese Painting”, Xu Beihong (徐悲鸿). It was also where some of Xu’s exceptional works of art, several of which featured anti-Japanese themes were executed. Known as Jiangxia Tang (江夏堂), traditionally a name used to denote the Huang clan’s ancestral hall, it served as his place of abode and his studio during his many sojourns in Singapore as a guest of Huang Manshi (黄曼士). Huang, the General Manager of the Nanyang Brothers’ Tobacco Company, was also the General Secretary of the association and an avid collector of art. His association with Xu, came through his Paris-based elder brother Huang Menggui (黄孟圭). The elder Huang, lent support to Xu in Paris when funding for his Chinese government scholarship to the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts was cut. It was also on Huang Menggui’s recommendation that Xu first found himself coming to Singapore in 1925 as a guest of Huang Manshi. Xu returned on several occasions until 1942, during which time he painted quite a number of art pieces, including a portrait of Straits Settlements Governor Sir Shenton Thomas in 1939.

The former Huang Clan house at Lorong 35 Geylang.
Xu, with Huang Menggui and Huang Manshi at the Geylang house.

It was also in 1939 at the Jiangxia Tang, as Xu was about to depart for India for an exhibition he was putting up at poet Rabindranath Tagore’s urging, that he executed one of his best known works, “Put Down Your Whip“. The painting, which was bought for a record price for a Chinese art work of US$9.2 million in at an auction in Hong Kong in 2007, was done after Xu Beihong watched a play put up by visiting Chinese actress Wang Yin (王莹) and her theatre troupe in support for the anti-Japanese movement in China. The art work, which depicted Wang and the audience, was completed at the Jiangxia Tang in the same month of the performance. The work was also among a stash of artworks that was hidden on the grounds of Han Wai Toon’s rambutan orchard at Upper Thomson (where Thomson Nature Park today), during the Japanese occupation. Another of Xu’s paintings in the same stash that was also done at Jiangxia Tang, “Silly Old Man Moves a Mountain“, set the previous record of US$4.12 million in 2006.


The bungalow, as well as as neighbouring compound house, were acquired in 2018 and were demolished that same year to make way for an eight-storey residential development which will also house the clan association, Sixteen35 Residences.


The former Jiangxia Tang in 2018.
The neighbouring compound house that was also demolished.
The site of the former Jiangxia Tang in 2019.
Another view of the site of the former Jiangxia Tang in 2019.




A memory of the JTC flats at Kampong Java Teban

21 07 2021

Initially set aside for the resettlement of villagers displaced by the industrialisation of Singapore’s south-western coastline and its islands, Kampong Java Teban became the site of a Jurong Town Corporation or JTC developed housing estate that took on the name “Teban Gardens” in the course of this redevelopment. It was one of several major residential developments that the JTC undertook following its spin-off from the Economic Development Board or EDB in 1968 together with DBS Bank and Intraco. The JTC was given the task of real estate management and development, not just for industrial property, but also for housing in industrial estates; a task which had hitherto fallen to the Housing and Development Board (HDB), who constructed housing on behalf of EDB. This was before the management of JTC estates and their flats came under HDB’s purview on 1 May 1982, following the passing of the 1982 amendments to the Housing and Development Act.

Development work on Teban Gardens, Jurong Town’s third residential neighbourhood, commenced in 1973. By the third quarter of 1976, the estate’s first 625 three-room flats were put on sale through a ballot, with the bulk of the estate’s first 3776 units coming up for balloting through much of 1977. While the development was initially aimed at the industrial estate’s workforce, the anticipated demand fell short of expectations due to a slowdown in industrial expansion with the weak economic climate in the mid-1970s. This led to the sale of the flats in Teban Gardens being extended to the general public from June 1977.

The bulk of the flats in Teban Gardens being put on sale during this period were three-room flats. Comparable in size to HDB built three-room flats, the estate featured three-room flats that were quite unique in that they did not open to a common corridor unlike their HDB counterparts. The 10-storey slab-blocks with these flats had common corridors on the third, sixth and ninth levels, along which four-room flats were arranged. With a floor area of 766 sq. ft, the three room units were sold for $15,000, while the 866 sq. ft. four-room common corridor units went for $21,500. Along with the three and four-room units, there were also a number of slab blocks and point blocks with five-room units, measuring between 1147 and 1400 sq. ft. in floor area, which were sold between $30,000 and $35,000.

Among the flats from this first wave of Teban Gardens’ development, were a set of blocks that I last caught a glimpse of in the mid-2010s when they were already emptied of life, having come under HDB’s Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) in 2007. The flats, which numbered 2 to 11 and of which I had a passing familiarity with from my working days in Jurong and in the Pandan area from 1991 to 2008 and from my adventures along the former Jurong Railway line, are no more. All that I have to remember them by are these few photographs, which I captured in 2013.





Where durians and Chinese opera come together

13 07 2021

Once commonly found across Singapore, permanently erected free-standing Chinese opera (also commonly referred to in Singapore as “wayang”) stages have become quite hard to come by in Singapore. Erected to entertain the gods during their visits down to the mortal realm, the were also put to use in several other ways, doubling up as the clan, temple or village schools, depending on where they were built. Only three such stages are left in Singapore, two on the main island and one more on Pulau Ubin and it is always a treat to catch a Chinese opera performance being staged on one of them, especially if one is able to head backstage where in my opinion, the best “action” takes place.

The Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong temple is a place of devotion for many.

One occasion during which I had the good fortune of doing just this was during the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations at the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple at Balestier Road in September 2016 from which the photographs in this post were captured. The temple, having links to Hokkien plantation workers from Joseph Balestier’s venture to grow sugarcane by the Whampoa River, has a history that dates back to 1847. Its stage, which came up in 1906, was built by Tan Boo Liat — the great-grandson of Tan Tock Seng, and who is also well-known for erecting Golden Bell — the Edwardian-style mansion on Mount Faber that is now the Danish Seamen’s Church.

It is also a place where Chinese opera performances take place (at least pre-Covid) on one of Singapore’s last permanently erected free-standing wayang stages.

The temple, besides being a place of devotion and a place to catch a wayang, has also become a place that is synonymous with indulgence in the “king of all fruits” — durians. Durians have been sold in and around the area for, which was also known for its cinemas, for a long time and right by or in front of the temple ever since I can remember. Much of the area has changed, even if there is much that is is familiar physically. The durian stalls of old, are however, still very much a common sight every durian season. Not only do you see them just by temple, but also in the side lanes in the area. Like the temple, and the stage when it comes alive, they are among the last vestiges of the living side of the old Balestier Road, a side that long lives in my memory.

Durians and Chinese opera.
Another view of the temple.
Joss sticks at the temple.

Photographs of the Chinese Opera preparations and performance in September 2016






The Bidwell houses at Gallop Road

6 07 2021

Two beautiful conservation houses, Atbara and Inverturret at No 5 and No 7 Gallop Road, grace the newly opened Singapore Botanic Gardens Gallop Extension. Both wonderfully repurposed, Atbara as the Forest Discovery Centre and Inverturret as the Botanical Art Gallery, they are among the oldest and finest surviving examples of residential properties that English architect Regent Alfred John (R A J) Bidwell designed in Singapore.

Bidwell, who had an eventful but short two-year stint in the Selangor Public Works Department (PWD) as Chief Draughtsman and assistant to Government Architect A C Norman, came across to Singapore in 1895 to join pre-eminent architectural firm Swan and Maclaren. In a matter of four years, he became a partner in the firm; an arrangement that lasted until 1907. Bidwell would continue his association with the firm as an employee until 1912. His 17 years with Swan and Maclaren, was one marked by the string of notable contributions that he made to Singapore’s built landscape. His architectural works include many of Singapore’s landmarks of the early 20th century, which include the Goodwood Park Hotel — built as a clubhouse for the Teutonia Club; Victoria Theatre and Victoria Memorial Hall (the theatre component of the pair was a modification of a previously built Town Hall that also gave it an appearance similar to the 1905 erected Victoria Memorial Hall; and Stamford House — built as Whiteaway and Laidlaw Building in 1905. Also notable among his contributions were several buildings that have since been demolished, one of which was the old Telephone exchange on Hill Street that was designed in the Indo-Saracenic style.

The Indo-Saracenic style was something that Bidwell would have been extremely familiar with, having been heavily involved in the design of the Government Offices in Kuala Lumpur or KL, now the Sultan Abu Samad Building. Hints of the style are also found in one of the first design efforts in Singapore, which is seen in the unique set of piers on which Atbara is supported. The bungalow, along with several others that Bidwell had designed, is thought to have influenced the designs of numerous government, municipal and company residences, the bulk of which were constructed from the 1910s to the 1930s. Many of these are still around and are often erroneously referred to as “black and white houses”, a term that is more descriptive of their appearance — many are painted white with black trimmings — rather than a description of a their style or of a particular architectural style (see also: The Eastern Extension Telegraph Company’s Estate on Mount Faber).

Atbara has in fact earned the distinction of being Singapore oldest “black and white house” even if it does display a variety of architectural influences; influences that are also seen in many of the designs of the various residences. Built in 1898, apparently for lawyer John Burkinshaw, Atbara’s piers, timber floorboards and verandahs are among the features or adaptations applied to the residences of the early 20th century, all of which were intended to provide their occupants with a maximum of comfort in the unbearable heat and humidity of the tropics. Many of these adaptations were ones borrowed from the bungalows of the Indian sub-continent, from plantation style houses, and also the Malay houses found in the region. There was extensive use of pitched-roofs, a feature seen in the then popular Arts and Crafts style that the English architects of the era would have been familiar with. These roofs lent themselves to drainage and the promotion of ventilation through convection when combined with generous openings. Tropical interpretations of the Arts and Crafts style were in fact widely applied to several residences built during the era.

Atbara, which early “to-let” advertisements had as having seven rooms, five bathrooms, with a large compound and with extensive views, came into the possession of Charles MacArthur, Chairman of the Straits Trading Company, in 1903. MacArthur added the neighbouring Inverturret soon after in 1906. Also designed by Bidwell, Inverturret rests on a concrete base and is of a distinctively different style — even if verandahs, ample openings and the pitched roof found in Atbara are in evidence.

The two properties were eventually acquired by the Straits Trading Company in 1923, who held it until 1990, after which both were acquired by the State. The houses had several prominent tenants during this period. Just before the Second World War, Inverturret briefly served the official residence of the Air Officer Commanding (AOC), Royal Air Force Far East, from 1937 to 1939. During these two years, Inverturret saw two AOCs in residence, Air-Vice Marshal Arthur Tedder and Air-Vice Marshal John Babington. Their stay in Inverturret was in anticipation of a much grander residence — the third of a trio that was to have been built to house each of the senior commanders of the three military arms. Two, Flagstaff House (now Command House) to house the General Officer Commanding, Malaya and Navy House (now old Admiralty House) for the Rear Admiral Malaya, were known to have been built.

From 1939 to 1999, both Atbara and Inverturret were leased to the French Foreign Office by the Straits Trading Company up to 1990 and following their acquisition in 1990, by the State up to 1999. Except for the period of the Japanese Occupation (it is known that Inverturret was used as a residence for the Bank of Taiwan’s Manager during the Occupation) and shortly thereafter, Atbara served as the French Consular Office and later the French Embassy, and Inverturret as the French Consul-General’s / French Ambassador’s residence. It was during this period that those like me, who are of an age when travel to France required a visa, may remember visiting Atbara. The process of obtaining a visa involved submitting an application with your passport in the morning, and returning in the afternoon to pick the passport and visa up, a process that was not too dissimilar to obtaining an exit permit at the nearby CMPB!


Atbara


Inverturret


R A J Bidwell and Kuala Lumpur’s Sultan Abu Samad Building



Built as Government Offices for the Selangor Government from 1894 to 1897, the Sultan Abu Samad building – a landmark in Kuala Lumpur was described as the “most impressive building in the Federated Malay States”. Although the architectural work for it has been widely attributed to A C Norman, the Selangor Public Works Department’s Government Architect, it is widely accepted that it was R A J Bidwell who developed the finer architectural details of its eye-catching Indo-Saracenic lines. Bidwell, who was assistant to Norman from 1893 to 1895, developed the plans with input from C E Spooner – the State Engineer, who directed that initial plans for the building be redone in what he termed as the “Mohammedan style”.

Bidwell’s disaffection with his position and salary, saw to him resigning from the Selangor PWD — as is reflected in his correspondence relating to his resignation. The Selangor PWD’s loss would turn into Singapore’s gain, with Bidwell moving to Singapore in 1895 to join Swan and Maclaren .






A final journey through Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, 10 years ago

30 06 2021

Remembering the 30th of June 2011 – the last day of train operations involving Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. Intended to be a gateway from continental Asia to the Pacific and Indian Oceans when it was built in 1932, the grand old dame, said to have been modelled after the grand railway stations of Europe, was never to fulfil the promise that it was built with, closing for good ten years ago – its last day of operations being 30 June 2011.

On the last train into Tanjong Pagar

More on the station and its final day:

Parting glances: Tanjong Pagar Railway Station as it will never again be

Tanjong Pagar: a promise that we now know would never be fulfilled

A final journey: a tearful departure from Tanjong Pagar

A final journey: the last passage to the north

A final homecoming into Tanjong Pagar





A temporary Kempeitai HQ at Beach Road

23 06 2021

Convicted as a spy and imprisoned in Changi Prison during a stint as a press attaché with the Japanese Consulate in Singapore, Mamoru Shinozaki is also viewed in some circles as the “Oskar Schindler” of Singapore for the role he may have played in bringing the terrible Sook Ching Massacre to an end. While he remains a controversial even after his death in the 1990s, his accounts of the wartime Singapore remains a valuable resource. In oral history interviews contained in “My Wartime Experiences in Singapore” published by the Institute of South East Asian Studies in 1973, we learn that he was brought to Beach Road upon his release from in Changi Prison by the Japanese Army on 16 February 1942 – right after Singapore fell. Describing his arrival at Beach Road, Shinozaki said, “All along Beach Road, all the houses were closed and I did not see even a cat or dog. It was a ghost town.”

Since demolished buildings at the former Beach Road Police Station.

What was would to follow was his meeting with Lt. Col. Yokota, who had been placed in command of several units of the East Branch of the Kempeitai. “At Beach Road, now the temporary Voluntary Headquarters, the chief of the Yokota Kempei unit, Lt. Col. Yokota, was waiting. When I got down from the lorry he greeted me: “you have suffered so long, please take this.”” This very scene is, quite amazing, one that also exists in a visual record. A Japanese newsreel which contains the scenes that followed the Japanese Army’s taking of Singapore captured by Kameyama Matsutarō, Marē senki : shingeki no kiroku (Malaya War Record: A Record of the Onward March). This newsreel also contains a scene that shows Shinozaki being greeted by Yokata outside what can be identified as Beach Road Police Station (rather than the Volunteer Force Headquarters as identified by Shinozaki). The building, a conserved structure, is still around today and is currently being incorporated into Guocoland’s MidTown development.

While the former police station’s building may have been retained, the redevelopment of the plot as MidTown has resulted in the loss of two other buildings to the rear of the main structure that were part and parcel of the larger Beach Road Police Station complex that was completed in 1934. The construction of the station, came as part of a decade-long effort to upgrade the facilities of the Straits Settlements Police Force and bring about greater professionalism in the face of the high rates of crime in Singapore – or “Sin-Galore” as it may then have been known as. The state of disorder in the colony, also dubbed the “cesspool of iniquity”, even prompted comparisons to be made with Chicago! It was the through the same effort, initiated in the mid-1920s, that the Police Training School at Thomson Road – the old Police Academy – was established and Hill Street Police Station, was built along with several other stations.

A Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets visit to Beach Road Police Station in October 2017.

Built at a cost of $319,743, the Beach Road complex replaced an earlier station that had been located further east along Beach Road at Clyde Terrace. The two demolished buildings at the station’s rear were all built at the same time to serve as modern quarters in an attempt to provide improve policemen’s living standards. A three-storey block accommodated 64 married man and their families, while 80 single men and NCOs were accommodated in another three storey single-men’s block. The latter also contained a mess and recreation room on its ground floor. Along with this, the most senior ranking officers at the station were accommodated in its three-storey main building, which was described as being of a “pretentious type”. The building was laid out to provide quarters for two European and two “Asiatic” Inspectors on the second and third levels, while its ground floor was where the offices of the station, a guard room, an armoury and a number of stores were located. Immediately behind the main block – right behind the guard room, was an annex cell block in which the lock-up was located and “approached from it (the guardroom) by a covered way”.

Besides the episode involving Shinozaki, the station’s played several other wartime roles. A hundred or so Japanese “aliens” were rounded up and held in it following the outbreak of hostilities with Japan on 8 December 1941, before they were moved to Changi Prison. The scene was to repeat itself upon Singapore’s inglorious fall, when civilians from the other side were held with the station serving as a holding facility for civilian internees prior to them being sent to Changi Prison. The civilians rounded up by the Japanese Army included Jews and individuals of various European backgrounds and nationalities, along with members of the Chinese and Indian communities.

Beach Road Police Station also found itself in the thick of action in the tumultuous period that followed the end of the Second World War. During the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950, policemen from the station were amongst paramilitary personnel sent to quell disturbances in nearby Kampong Glam. The policemen involved were however forced into retreat with the station serving as a refuge for them along with scores of civilians seeking safe refuge.

Following independence, the station served as the Police ‘C’ Division headquarters until May 1988 – when the division HQ was moved into new premises at Geylang Police Station. The buildings were then used as Central Police Division headquarters from November 1992 until 2001, after which the division HQ moved into Cantonment Police Complex. The decommissioning of the station led to its use by the Raffles Design Institute for some six years. During this time, two sets of newer quarters that had been added on an adjacent piece of land – two four-storey blocks that were built in the 1950s, and a 12 storey block in erected in 1970, were demolished.

Sitting on a prime 2-hectare reserve site, the former station and barracks was sold for a whopping $1.62 million in 2017 and members of the public got to see it for the last time as it was during a “Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets” visit in October 2017.


A last look at the former Beach Road Police Station as it was in 2017.






Reflections on Singapore

22 06 2021

Reflections have captivated me since I was a child, when I used to think of mirrors as portals into a parallel world. That is perhaps why I take great joy from capturing reflections with the camera, be it one taken off a shop window, a mirror, and especially off puddles of water. In the set of photographs seen below are 37 reflections taken across Singapore. They include ones of places that we see everyday, ones that are a little harder to get to, and a few of places that no longer exist.





History Misunderstood: Changi Point

5 04 2021

Set in scenic surroundings in Singapore’s rustic north-eastern corner, the area we refer to as Changi Point, is one in which I have found great joy in. It is an area of much beauty with much of its natural geographical features intact and wears a charm that is little changed from the time I first interacted with it more than half a century ago. Over the years, I have also discovered that the area is one with quite a history; a history that is even recorded in maps of a 17th century battle off Changi. Also as fascinating is Changi Point and its more recent past, one that goes back to the early decades of Singapore as a British East India Company trading port.

Changi today – with a view towards Pulau Ubin

Remote and inhospitable and with its surroundings dominated by mangrove and terrestrial forests in British Singapore’s earliest years, Changi Point’s charm must have already been in evidence then; so much so that several adventurous souls amongst the gentry recognised its potential as a spot for a retreat.  Among the first to see this was Mr Gottlieb, who put up Fairy Point bungalow on what could be thought of as the prime of prime locations on the seaward side of an elevation he christened Fairy Point Hill.

Fairy Point – the site of Mr Gottlieb’s Bungalow

In addition to Mr Gottlieb’s place of escape, the government had also had a bungalow built. Besides serving as a stay-over location for officers sent to the remote area for surveys, its use was extended for leisure purposes.  By the mid-1840s, Changi Bungalow – as it had come to be known, had gained the reputation of being a “fashionable resort for picnic parties”. Constructed of wood, the bungalow had to be rebuilt several times over the years with its last iteration being demolished in 1965. The expansive grounds of the bungalow is an area that until today, has been in the hands of Singapore’s successive governments and amongst the structures now found on it is the 1950 built Changi Cottage, as well as several other holiday facilities.

Changi Cottage

One holiday home from Changi’s past that is still standing is a bungalow that belonged to Mr Ezekiel S Manasseh, who is often confused with Sir Manasseh Meyer. A founder of Goodwood Park Hotel, Mr E S Manasseh is better known for his mansion in Tanglin, Eden Hall, which is the British High Commissioner’s residence today. Mr Manasseh also maintained a holiday home in Changi Point. Located on the left bank of Changi Creek, he often extended its use to newlyweds for their honeymoon early in the 1900s. The bungalow stands today as the CSC Clubhouse.

Muslim graves at the foot of Batu Puteh Hill – a reminder perhaps of Kampong Batu Puteh.

Around this time (the early 1900s), a Japanese owned hotel also made an appearance along the beach just east of Fairy Point in the area of a Malay kampung named Kampong Batu Puteh.  The wooden hotel, which was perched on stilts that extended across the foreshore, was rumoured to have offered more than a getaway and was rumoured to have been a place of ill repute. Whatever the hotel may have offered, time would soon be called on it with events on the world’s stage setting a new course for Changi Point.

While the Great War of 1914 to 1918 did not affect Singapore directly, its impact was and would be felt in many ways, not least through the fluctuations in the price of rubber through the war. There was also that episode of the insurrection that began at Alexandra Barracks during Chinese New Year in 1915 that was founded partly on a rumour being spread among the Sepoy Muslim mutineers  that they were being sent to Mesopotamia to fight fellow Muslims. Among Britain’s allies who responded to calls for help were some 190 Japanese resident volunteers, and another force of 142 from two Japanese naval ships.

Memorial to the victims of the 1915 Mutiny at Victoria Concert Hall

The Imperial Japanese Navy had been on the rise for a number of decades. Having acquired knowhow to build its own naval hardware as well as in naval tactics from Britain and France, by the time the war started, the Japanese navy was in a good position to support its allies in the Entente. Japan actions in the naval arena would also however lay its ambitions bare, especially in regard to German held territory in China. The sense of discomfort in Britain grew in the post-war period with Japan having the third largest navy in the world after the United States and Britain. By 1921, a decision had been taken by Britain to protect its Far East interests through the construction of a huge naval base in Singapore.

HMS Bulwark off the northwall of the Naval Base in the 1960s – the northwall is where the far end of the shipyard is today (source: http://www.acig.org/artman/publish/article_203.shtml).

A consequence of building the naval base in Singapore, and having it sited in Seletar – as the Sembawang area was also known as, was in the placement of coastal artillery around Changi to defend the base against naval attack. Changi, located at the eastern entrance to the Tebrau or Johor Strait, was hence, strategically sited at the entrance to the naval base. With the need to install, man, maintain and protect the guns, Changi was also developed as a military cantonment.

An extract from a 1935 map showing positions or intended positions of Defence Electric Lights at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Johor (including those at Pengerang) and their coverage (National Archives of Singapore online).

The first section of the cantonment was built at Changi Point. Work progressed in in a stop-start manner, first from 1927 to 1930 and again from 1933 to 1935, due to the evolving political situation in Britain.  Being the first barracks on site and located in a prime location, this section became the home of Royal Engineers’ units as Kitchener Barracks. There would also be barracks constructed for the Royal Artillery at Roberts Barracks and for infantry units at Selarang Barracks. In addition to these, a few other camps were also established for the rank and file among the British Indian Army troops protecting the area.

Selarang Barracks Officers’ Mess

The huge investment in the base and in facilities at Changi and elsewhere across the island did little in terms of doing what it was meant to do and on 15 February 1942, the “impregnable fortress” that Singapore had been touted as, fell into the hands of Japanese forces – a mere two months after Japan launched its invasion of Malaya. Except for the feint assault on Pulau Ubin on the eve of the Imperial Japanese Army’s 8 February 1942 invasion of Singapore, and the firing of Changi’s huge coastal guns against advancing Japanese troops, Changi would see little in terms of military action in the lead up to this inglorious fall. Contrary to popular belief, the guns were used with at least one of the monster guns of the Johore Battery firing about eighty rounds before its rifling started to protrude. Although the guns were fired, they did little to stop the advance. The armour piercing rounds that they were supplied with in anticipation of a naval assault, were ineffective against ground forces. On 12 February 1942, with Japanese forces made rapid progress coming down the down and west, the order was given to units defending Changi to pull back to Singapore’s urban centre. The cantonment and its lightly damaged buildings were left empty, and Changi’s guns destroyed. It would be some days later, on 17 February 1942, that Changi would come into the spotlight.

The spiked No 2 Gun, one of three 15″ guns of the Johore Battery.

The Fall of Singapore left the Japanese invasion forces with quite a big headache. With tens of thousands of surrendering British and Australian led personnel from units that made the retreat down Malaya and troops defending Singapore, they were overwhelmed. There was the need to accommodate, secure and maintain the discipline among the Prisoners of War (POWs) and a solution provided by Changi and its abandoned cantonment. On 17 February 1942, some 50,000 prisoners-of-war or POWs, were made to march to Changi to occupy its various barracks and camps.

Barrack Hill in Kitchener Barracks – part of the POW camp for Southern Area forces from Feb 1942 to May 1943.

The former Kitchener Barracks was used to accommodate members of the Southern Area forces with some 15,000  Australian POWs occupying Selarang.  The POW hospital was also to be centralised in Roberts Barracks on 26 February 1942, one of two sites – the other being Selarang – at which hospitals were established prior to the Fall of Singapore and immediately after the POWs were moved to Changi.  It would be in the chapel at Roberts Hospital that the famous Changi Murals would be painted. The murals still exist today. Found in Block 151 in Changi Air Base West, they are quite unfortunately out of bounds to members of the public. In the early part of camp life, there had apparently been minimal contact with their captors, with prisoners being tasked with wiring themselves into the various barrack areas as well as taking care of their own discipline.

Block 151. Now in Changi Air Base West, this was one of the Roberts Barracks blocks that served as the POW Hospital from February 1942 until September 1943.

Life as a POW in Changi, and in Kitchener Barracks was tough for many reasons and not least through the lack of food and nutrition as well as the diseases that the POWs were exposed to due to conditions in captivity. Still, many found the strength to go on through the activities that were organised. Sports became a means to provide distractions to the routine of life as a POW – at least in the first year of captivity. Among the ranks were several professional sportsmen, including Johnny Sherwood, a footballer who played in the war time FA Cup final.  The sports fields and facilities that the barracks in Changi had been provided with proved useful with cricket and football matches being played on them. Theatrical performances were also organised and college level courses. In Kitchener, classes of the Southern Area College were taught by academics, some of whom were from Raffles College. Several were members of volunteer units which had been placed under the Fortress Singapore command.

The Changi Padang – it was used for sporting activities during the first year of POW captivity.

In the many comparisons that were made by POWs at Changi, there is a consistent theme of how life may have been hard, but was in fact “heaven” compared to what many were to face elsewhere. Throughout the initial period of captivity starting in April 1942, work teams were organised and sent to various of Singapore to work on building and construction projects. Teams would also be sent to the Thai-Burma Railway, which the Japanese were constructing to provide a supply line to support their push into Burma and towards the Indian subcontinent. Often described as the “Death Railway” it was where the POWs really suffered, being put to hard labour. Besides an extreme lack of nutrition, POWs also suffered from deliberating diseases, with many succumbing to them.  

River Kwai, Kanchanaburi in Thailand in Dec 1984, the area was where many POWs were sent from Singapore to work on the Death Railway .

Kitchener Barracks, being where the bulk of the troops defending Singapore were being held – as opposed to troops that had made the retreat down Malaya – had the healthiest POWs and hence, was where many of the members of the first working teams were drawn from. By May 1943, POW numbers had dwindled to the point that Kitchener Barracks was closed as a POW camp and in September 1943, Roberts was similarly closed, with the POWs and the POW Hospital being concentrated at Selarang Barracks. Both Kitchener and Roberts Barracks were taken over by Imperial Japanese Army units who were involved in the construction of an airstrip at Changi. This started with POW labour in September 1943 and by the end of 1944, the airstrip was operational.

While all this was happening, returning POWs from the Death Railway were placed at Selarang Camp and also at Sime Road Camp. A change in POW administration would however see the POWs concentrated in Changi Prison and its grounds from May 1944. Civilian internees, who were being held at Changi Prison from February 1942 to May 1944 were moved to Sime Road to make way for the POWs.

The main Changi Prison gate – one of the structures of the prison that has been kept. The prison was a site of civilian internment from Feb 1942 until May 1944, following which POWs were moved in.

One of the myths that have been spread about Changi and the POW experience is that of the hospital in Kitchener Barracks being a place of torture by the Kempeitai. There is however no basis for this myth. Not only was there no functioning hospital in Kitchener Barracks during the period of captivity, there are certainly not reports or accounts that exist. Instances of torture by the Kempeitai did however take place in the wake of Operation Jaywick, which involved a commando raid on Japanese shipping in Singapore harbour. During what has been termed as the “Double-Tenth Incident”, civilian internees at Changi Prison were suspected of aiding the commandos through radio transmissions. Several were interrogated and executed in exercise that would involve the arrest and subsequent torture of Elizabeth Choy at the YMCA in Orchard Road.

Changi would find a new purpose after the war. The Royal Air Force (RAF) found the airstrip that the Japanese had added particularly useful in landing transport aircraft bringing in much needed supplies. This would lead to the strengthening and subsequent use of the runway for the RAF’s heavy aircraft and the setting up of RAF Changi, an air station that would become the RAF’s principal air station in the Far East. The former Kitchener Barracks, would become the headquarters of the Far East Air Force (FEAF) command, with Barrack Hill, renamed FEAF Hill. The roads in the area, were also renamed after RAF air stations.

A view from FEAF Hill

To support the new air station, more accommodation was also added across the area, starting with several single floor bungalows. A number of semi-detached accommodation would also be added. Many of these buildings can still be found. In addition to this, a hospital was set up for the RAF on FEAF Hill. This initially involved the former sick quarters on top of the hill (renamed Block 37) and the former H-Block – a three-storey barrack block of Kitchener Barracks which was turned into a ward block 24. Separated by a flight of 91 steps, transfer pf patients between the two blocks required an ambulance. The construction of a third block – the six storey Block 161 (with four usable floors) – with lifts and walkways to connect the two older blocks in 1962, helped ease that burden.    

Blocks 161 and 24 of the former Changi Hospital.

Following the pull-out of British Forces in 1971, the former barracks were put to use in several ways with the barrack blocks along Hendon Road accommodating Singapore’s Commando Unit and several of the accommodation units being turned into holiday facilities for civil servants. Sports and recreation clubs, such as the Changi Swimming Club, the Beach Club and the Sailing Club were also established using existing facilities left by the RAF. One outcome of the development of the air base, is the idea of developing Changi also for civil aviation. There were in fact plans announced in 1948 to develop a world class airport in Changi . That did not quite happen, but the idead came up once more in the 1970s leading to the development of Changi Airport.

One of the post WW2 semi-detached additions, seen in September 1987. These served as married quarters during the RAF days and were converted for use as government holiday chalets in the 1970s.

Today, much of the area of the former Kitchener Barracks and the RAF camp is still intact. Many of the sites and structures completed from 1928 to 1935, including barrack blocks and residences are still standing. Some, such as have gain prominence having been used by Raintr33 Hotel and Changi Hospital. There are also some still in use, such as BNP Paribas APAC Training Centre, Coastal Settlement, and the recreational spaces such as the former Officers’ Club – now the Beach Club and the Yacht Club – now Changi Sailing Club. There are also the oldest structures – the officers’ residences at Batu Puteh Hill and Fairy Point Hill, including one, that sits on the site of Mr Gottlieb’s demolished bungalow. The collection of barrack structures of the former Kitchener Barracks, are perhaps the last, almost complete set of structures from the interwar militarisation of Singapore that is still around, structures which tell a story of Changi’s development, of war, and of how through a series of twists and turns, it became a key aviation staging ground for the RAF and then for Singapore.





Colonial Changi – a virtual tour

8 11 2020

Join me on a virtual tour of Colonial Changi (including Old Changi Hospital) during Temasek Polytechnic’s Global Community Day, from 9 to 15 November 2020 (public virtual tours available on 15 November at this link).

The former RAF Hospital Changi – a point of interest on the virtual tour.

Changi, a promontory at the eastern tip of the main island of Singapore is marked in maps that date back to the early seventeenth century. It is however, its development during the colonial era that is perhaps most significant. That saw its transformation from a remote, forested and swampy corner of the island into one of Britain’s most important air bases after the second world war.

Pagar Beach

While a large portion of the area is today used by the air force as an air base, for leisure and recreation, there is much that exists that tells us the story of colonial Changi development. A wealth of information does in fact exist in structures still around such as former barrack blocks, former holiday homes, and purpose-built military residences as well as objects, sites and geographical features.

Married Soldiers’ Quarters – developed as part of Changi’s militarisation

The virtual tour will trace Changi’s development from a village and recreational retreat through the 1800s into the early 1900s into a military cantonment — that featured in the early part of the Japanese Occupation during the Second World War as an Prisoner-of-War camp — and beyond that into a principal air base and the aviation hub that is well-known today.

More information can be obtained at this link.






Northern journeys: where Admiralty Road’s East meets West

22 07 2020

Thought of as “ulu” or remote, Sembawang is still a place where much of the past seems still to be around. It is for this reason that it is still one of the prettiest area of Singapore even if some of its beauty spots — such as the once beautifully wooded hill on which old Admiralty House is perched, have since yielded to the march of urbanisation.

I always enjoy a walk around the lesser developed parts of the area and a stroll along its still natural shoreline. Mornings are especially pleasant by the sea, when it can serve as a very nice backdrop for an especially dramatic sunrise. The area’s lush greenery, found not only in Sembawang Park, but also in the areas where the residences of the former naval base still stand, should also be celebrated — especially with the threat of redevelopment now looming over it.

Where Admiralty Road East and West meets – an area around which some of the oldest residences built for the former naval base can be found.

An area that has been spared from redevelopment is the stretch of Admiralty Road East and Admiralty Road West that runs between Canberra Road and Sembawang Road.  Much of the area has been today marked out either for future residential redevelopment or as a reserve site (see Master Plan 2019). The use of the area to serve existing military arrangements, as a port and the continued use of the former naval base dockyard by Sembawang Shipyard has seen that its flavour has been kept, although some of its old structures fronting the road were lost to a road widening exercise that took place at the end of the 1980s. The end of the lease that the shipyard holds on the what it calls Admiralty Yard is however, on the horizon. That will expire in 2028, although the yard does intend to move its operations to Tuas by 2024. Detailed planning for the area will likely take place to coincide with this move and until then, it would not be known what the future for a still green area will hold.

Among the earliest residences to be built for the naval base were these 1929 built dockyard chargemen’s residences along Wellington Road. Many of the area’s roads are named after cities in the Commonwealth.


More photographs:

 

A 2013 photograph showing the beautiful settings in which the old residences of the former naval base in Sembawang have been given.

 

A bridge built by Japanese Surrendered Personnel on the grounds of the former residence of the dockyard’s Commodore Superintendent.

 

The former vicarage of the Dockyard Church of St Peter. The old church, which fronted this along Admiralty Road East, was consecrated in the 1950s and was demolished in the late 1980s to allow the road to be widened.

 

Timber walled residences – built in the 1940s.

 

Canada Road.

 

Many of the residences built in the 1930s are of designs adapted from PWD plans.

 

Another view of a 1930s built residence.

 

Admiralty Road West – there used to be visible entrances to underground bunkers in the area opposite the dockyard entrance.

 


 





Parting glances: the Siglap flats

25 05 2020

A final look at the set of four Housing and Development Board (HDB) built blocks of flats that have long been a curious sight at the junction of Upper East Coast Road and Siglap Road. Each five-storeys tall, the blocks were completed in early 1964 to rehouse families  displaced by a fire that had destroyed wooden dwellings on the same site during Chinese New Year in February 1962. More than 450 people from 82 families were rendered homeless by the fire. The four blocks, which contained some 119 units and 10 shop units when built, will be demolished under the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) and were vacated some time in 2015.


How the blocks looked originally


 





The second iteration of the Singapore Art Museum

19 01 2020

A set of buildings in Singapore close to my heart are those that belong to the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) on Bras Basah Road. I spent four memorable years at them at the end of the 1970s, when the structures that have been protected as a National Monument, belong to St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI). With the school vacating the site it had occupied since 1852 in 1987 and urban redevelopment having already then arrived at Bras Basah Road’s doorstep, the former campus and the world around it has changed almost beyond recognition. I am grateful for at least the familiar sight of the school’s protected façade, which with its curved wings appearing like the arms of a mother to embrace her children with a warmest of welcomes. Another thing that I am grateful for, is the dignified manner in which the school’s old buildings have been repurposed.

Singapore Art Museum, which is undergoing redevelopment, will only reopen in 2023.

We should soon seen a second iteration of SAM in the former SJI, since the first that came in its 1996 conversion.  Several structures of the old school were torn down in the 1996 iteration, which included the much loved Brothers’ Quarters on Queen Street. The quarters’ building, the bottom of which contained the school’s tuck shop, was replaced with a service block which has been demolished to accommodate the set of changes that will come next. The proposed interventions, which will perhaps take a bit of taking to, will include an entrance plaza at Queen Street, the addition of a floating box over the two courtyards known as the Sky Gallery, and a gallery bridge that will link the set of structures on the SJI side of the SAM to the SAM @ 8Q section on site of the former Catholic High School (CHS).

Mr Chan Soo Kian of SCDA Architects presenting the proposed new entrance plaza at Queen Street.

In isolation and on first impressions, the new additions will seem almost monstrous in proportions, and the gallery bridge does seem to give the impression of an archway into Queen Street — where several other structures that I refer to as “monsters in our midst”, now seem to dominate. Having had the opportunity to hear from the creators of the proposed new additions and a chance to look at the artist impressions of the structures together with the parts that make the National Monument up  – the conserved main façade, the former Anderson Building on Waterloo Street, and the chapel block, it does seem that as a whole the additions are for the better.

An artist impression of the proposed Queen Street entrance plaza with the Sky Gallery also seen (©Singapore Art Museum).

The Sky Gallery was the addition that grated most on the senses — at first glance and seemingly something that would stick out like the proverbial sore thumb that will overwhelm the monument’s landmark façade. On closer inspection, the feature does however serve to provide a backdrop that could help in neutralising the effect of clutter currently behind the SAM. This could have the effect of drawing greater focus on the façade. The gallery will also series of reflective glass panels running its length, with each angled towards the dome — which does seem a brilliant touch. The effect to the observer is the shifting of reflections as one moves past, reflecting both the old but with the dynamism of the continuously changing and multi-faceted new — something that the museum hopes to do to enhance its position as a showcase of present and future contemporary Southeast Asian art.

An artist impression of SAM’s façade with the proposed Sky Gallery (©Singapore Art Museum).

The façade seen in May 2019.

The additions will not only create space as the SAM seeks to enhance its position as a show case of Southeast Asian contemporary art, but also make the old and new spaces much more usable. The additions will help to increase gallery space, which will grow some 30% area-wise. The more significant impact is to also have space created that will have greater height and volume – as will be seen in the two courtyards. Once spaces for assembly and play and now covered by the “floating” Sky Gallery, they will see large volume and column-free gallery space being created. Although not ideal for the old boy that I am looking to reminisce about things such as the aerial threat that was carried by the pigeons with seemingly overactive digestive systems who inhabited the rafters above, the change will make the space a lot more usable, more comfortable and perhaps much better appreciated.

An artist impression of the view from Queen Street of the former buildings of CHS with the gallery bridge and the proposed interventions at CHS (©Singapore Art Museum).

The gallery bridge — along which more gallery space will be created — will help integrate the isolated former CHS section fo the museum. To be erected over Queen Street, it will seem very much like a gateway into street from Bras Basah Road and place a focus on the street at street-level.

An artist impression of the gallery bridge (©Singapore Art Museum).

Another change that I thought will be positive, is the removal of glass panels along the previously open verandahs of the main building. It will give me a chance to walk the corridors as I once did and gaze at the statue of St. John the Baptist de la Salle – the founder of the religious order behind the school. The statue, a feature that was used as a navigation landmark, is a replica of a marble sculpture by Cesare Aureli in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican that was donated to the school on the occasion of its Diamond Jubilee.

An artist impression of the Queen Street Courtyard (©Singapore Art Museum).

 

An artist impression of the Waterloo Street Courtyard (©Singapore Art Museum).

The reopening of SAM, has been moved to 2023 due to the restoration effort that is required on the old buildings. On the evidence of what is in store, it would be well worth the added wait. The redeveloped museum will see learning studios and a library, public art spaces and promises “exciting” retail and café spaces. SAM will however continue to remain active during the extended period of closure through partnerships with both Singapore and overseas art spaces and museums. More information on SAM related events in 2020 can be found at the calendar of events on the SAM website.

Dr Eugene Tan, Director, SAM and an old boy of SJI.

 


 





“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.


 





Lost Places: the park at the new cemetery

28 10 2019

In a Singapore where spaces for the dead are often repurposed to meet the needs to the living, it will come as no surprise to find new life being welcomed on a site once devoted to eternal rest at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital – Singapore’s largest maternity hospital. The hospital’s grounds since its move in 1997 from across Kampong Java Road, it was part of a larger site that was occupied by Bukit Timah Cemetery. Singapore’s third Christian cemetery, it was also referred to as “New Cemetery” when it opened in 1865 after the old Christian Cemetery on Fort Canning Hill had reached its capacity.

A view of Bukit Timah Cemetery from the Singapore Heritage Society publication “Spaces of the Dead, a case from the living”.

The cemetery closed to new burials from 1 January 1910, after Bidadari – for which land was acquired by the Municipality in the 1903 – had been opened, but not before a small northwest expansion in 1906 saw its area increased by 0.24 ha. Burials however continued on reserved plots well into the 20th century. Among the graves at the cemetery, were those belonging to Russian and German sailors, and interestingly, that of Singapore’s first Japanese resident, Yamamoto Otokichi a.k.a. John Matthew Ottoson.    

Kampong Java Park and its pond.

“Eternal” in the case of the rest that was afforded to those interred in Bukit Timah, was a maximum of a hundred years. The cemetery was exhumed in 1970 to make way for Kampong Java Park – part of which would in the 1990s, be redeveloped for the hospital.  The park – the first in Singapore to be provided with lighting – was where Kentucky Fried Chicken opened a well-patronised drive-in outlet in 1979 together with the Kampong Java Squash Complex that it developed. The park has since made way and is now the site of tunnelling work for the future North-South Expressway.

Kampong Java Park with a view to KKH.

Reminders of the Bukit Timah Cemetery can be found on the site of the cemetery at Fort Canning Hill that it replaced, where 12 gravestones deemed to be of historical value were moved to following the exhumation. These stand at the northeast corner of Fort Canning Green. 


Gravestones from Bukit Timah Cemetery at Fort Canning Green

Gravestones moved from the ‘New Cemetery’ at the northeastern corner of Fort Canning Green.

 

 

 


 





Lost places: Woodlands Town Centre

24 10 2019

The old Woodlands Town Centre, with its proximity to the checkpoint and the causeway, could have been thought of as a border post.

It certainly felt like it, with scores of folks crossing the causeway from Johor Bahru – many on foot – thronging the busy bus terminal and the shops in the old centre.  Completed in 1980/81, the centre belonged to the generation of Housing and Development Board (HDB) designs that followed on the second generation Ang Mo Kio, Bedok and Clementi New Town projects.

A unique feature the town centre was given was a bazaar, which house 88 shops resettled from the length of Woodlands Road. The town centre’s air-conditioned shopping complex could also be thought of as a pioneering attempt by the HDB to venture into shopping complex development.

Vacated in 2017, its proximity to the causeway was probably a contribution to its demise – part the the site which the now demolished centre occupies will be used to build an extension to the especially busy Woodlands Checkpoint.

A plan of Woodlands Town Centre (source: HDB).


Photographs:


The old bus terminal.

 

Woodlands Cinema.

 

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Deporting the port

15 10 2019

Change often seems the only constant in Singapore. Its relentless pace has altered its face, so much so that many in my generation feel that home is foreign place. Nothing seems sacred, places that we have grown accustomed to and build ties with can disappear in the blink in an eye.

JeromeLim-2089

Vanishing scenes at Tanjong Pagar.

One change Singapore is in the midst of, the redevelopment of the Greater Southern Waterfront. This, while positive in the longer term, has the impact of removing places that are not only familiar, but are also markers of significance to Singapore’s past. The port, which the city has long been associated with, and the reason for uch of the development along the southern shores, is being moved in two stages to the far west. The closure of Tanjong Pagar Terminal, the cradle of Singapore’s shipping container revolution, has already been effected. Cleared of most of its container handling paraphernalia, the terminal seems to have been put to use for handling Ro-Ro cargo.

JeromeLim-1935

The container terminal has been stripped of it container handling paraphernalia and is being temporarily put to use as Ro-Ro cargo reception facility.

Tanjong Pagar – a promontory on which the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company, formed in 1864, would establish wharfs and graving docks. The company initially constructed a wharf of 229 metres in length in 1866, capable of berthing 4 ships of “ordinary size”, a graving dock, Victoria Dock would also be built in 1868. The opening of the Suez Canal late in 1869, brought with it increased steamship traffic and more wharfage was added. Albert Dock was also built in 1879.

Victoria Dock 1890s

A G. R. Lambert print of Victoria Dock in the 1890s. A ship in Albert Dock can also be seen in the background.

By 1885, the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company would acquire the Borneo Company. This gave the company access to 2 kilometres of wharves. The 1899 acquisition of the (older) New Harbour Dock Company at New (now Keppel) Harbour, formerly the Patent Slip and Dock Company, which built No. 1 and No. 2 Docks at New Harbour, made it a monopoly. In 1905, the company was expropriated and the Tanjong Pagar Dock Board, the predecessor to the Singapore Harbour Board and PSA, took over.

Borneo Wharf

Borneo Wharf, which Tanjong Pagar Dock Company acquired from the Borneo Company in 1885. The extended Tanjong Pagar promontory can be seen in the background.

Keppel Shipyard would assumed control of the PSA repair facilities, when the former was formed in 1968. Centred at Keppel Harbour, it continued using the historic Victoria and Albert docks until they were filled in during the 1983 PSA expansion of  Tanjong Pagar Container Terminal during. Keppel Island (the near shore Pulau Hantu) came into Keppel Shipyard’s hands in exchange.

The container terminal goes back to 1972. Its first berths, at Tanjong Pagar’s East Lagoon, came into use on 23 June 1972, when the M.V. Nihon – the first container vessel to call here came alongside. This was an especially significant event, which launched the Port of Singapore’s journey into a mode of cargo transport that now dominates sea trade.

Now that Tanjong Pagar has been emptied of the containers, its container cranes and the container ships that have become synonymous with the name, the area hasn’t looked the same. The container terminal at Keppel are also being cleared, with Brani to follow. The container terminals built at great expense at Pasir Panjang, now operational, will also eventually be cleared. A huge southern extension created out of the sea southwards from Singapore’s western reaches, the Tuas South reclamation, will house the Tuas Mega Port. This will gradually be put into service from 2021, and by 2040 will be where port operations will be concentrated. The extension will also be the future home of the ship-repair and ship-building industry.


Parting glances:

Juxtapositions (2014).

 

A mega-container vessel, the APL Mexico City coming into port (2014) – the increased sizes of container vessels require larger and deeper berths, prompting the need to develop newer terminals.

 

Another view of a Tanjong Pagar still in operation (2014)


More views of the since deported port:

In 2012.

In 2012.

Keppel Terminal in 2018.

Keppel Terminal in 2018.

Keppel Terminal in 2018.


 





Parting Glances: Losing a Pearl

11 10 2019

Pearls Centre 1977A look back at Pearls Centre, which was demolished back in 2016 due to the construction of the Thomson-East Coast Line. The site for the mixed-use development was sold as part of the second wave of the Urban Renewal Department’s (later URA or Urban Redevelopment Authority) “Sale of Sites” programme. Initiated in 1967, the programme was an initiative to move urban redevelopment and renewal through the sale of sites acquired by the Government to private developers. and was initiated in 1967. Completed in 1977 – in an era of similarly designed buildings, Pearls Centre featured a 10-storey podium block with four floors of retail space and a multi-storey car park. A 12-floor block of luxury apartments was put up above the podium. The developers for the building was Outram Realty and the architect, Architectural Design Group. Its cinema would gain notoriety for screening R(A) movies.

The photographs below were taken in 2014/2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





Gone-block: discarding Eunosville

11 09 2019

A look back at Eunosville, seen in its final days about a year ago …

The cranes and earth movers taking over Eunosville, a former HUDC estate built in the 1980s.

The almost empty estate seen in August last year.


Built by the Housing and Urban Development Company (HUDC) as it was in a period of transition in the mid-1980s, Eunosville differed from the HUDC developed estates that were built before it. Laid out – quite intentionally as part of a larger HDB development, the estate took on an appearance that made it a lot less exclusive as compared to the HUDC estates of the decade that preceded it.

Eunosville.

Among the last HUDC estates to be erected, it was privatised in 2011 with a view to a collective (or en-bloc) sale. The sale eventually went through in June 2017 for a price of S$765.78 million. The estate was vacated in August 2018 and has since been demolished for the Parc Esta condo development that is expected to be completed in 3 years time.

The divide. An amenity shared prior to its privatisation with the HDB side of the estate, split right down the middle.


The HUDC Scheme

The HUDC scheme was initiated in 1974. Its aims were to offer publicly developed housing to what may have been thought of as a sandwich class of middle-income wage earners who were not eligible for public housing and found private property out of reach. Among the first estates built were Farrer Court in 1976, Laguna Park, the first phase of Braddell View (1977) and Lakeview – all in 1977.

A shift in thinking, which saw a move to locate HUDC developments in areas of public housing rather than in private estates in the mid-1980s, saw estates such Eunosville being built before the HUDC programme was stopped altogether in 1987. The mid-1990s brought about the privatisation programme, which also saw all but one of the former HUDC estates go en-bloc. The last, Braddell View, relaunch a bid to go en-bloc in August this year.

Eunosville making its exit.


Discarding Eunosville – and seemingly, just about everything else …


Final Days


 





Going, going, gone … the tiger of Short and Selegie

29 05 2019

A building that has long marked the corner of Short Street and Selegie Road, the former “Tiger Balm Building”1, is no more. Topped once by a tiger as a mark of its association with the Haw Par Brothers famous cure-all ointment, the uniquely shaped building was demolished quite recently to allow a luxury car “vending machine” to take its place.

Going … going … gone … 2016, 2018, 2019.

Laid on an isosceles-trapezoid plan, the edifice came up in the 1930s as Eng Aun Tong’s “The Tiger Medical Hall”. Well photographed even in its early days, a rather iconic image captured of it by the legendary Carl Mydans in 1941 made its way into LIFE Magazine’s 21 July edition of that year in a feature on Singapore under the title “Singapore is a Modern City of Self-Made Millionaires”. Captioned “Singapore’s most picturesque millionaire sells his patent medicine under a clock tower”, the “picturesque millionaire” in question, Mr. Aw Boon Haw, was the man largely responsible for Tiger Balm’s and Haw Par Brothers’ success. The “picturesque” side of him was the tiger-striped car he drove, questionable (or “illicit” as alleged by LIFE) enterprises, and most certainly Tiger Balm Garden – a.k.a. Haw Par Villa.

A photograph in LIFE Magazine’s 21 Jul 1941 edition, captioned “Singapore’s most picturesque millionaire sells his patent medicine under a clock tower” [Carl Mydans, © Time Inc. for which Personal and Non-Commercial Use is permitted]

Known also as “Tiger Balm Clock-Tower Building” in its early days, the tower – by the time the late 1960s had arrived – was made much less distinct through the addition of a fourth floor to what the building’s original three-levels. This came well after the building had already been repurposed in 1955 as Chung Khiaw Bank’s second Singapore branch. Chung Khiaw Bank, another of Aw Boon Haw’s ventures, was a “small man’s bank” that Boon Haw established to allow those in the lower income groups to gain access to financing.

Another one from the 1930s. From the Collectors Gallery, Mad on Collections (https://madoncollections.com/).

Occupants of the building’s two upper floor “flats” in its early days as the Tiger Medical Hall, included Narayanswamy & Sons – the sole distributor of Mysore Sandal(wood) Soap, and, the Butterfly Permanent Wave (salon). The only plans I have been able to locate thus far are for the addition of cubicles on the building’s second floor in 1937, drawn up and submitted by a Chan Yee Lim2 on behalf of Haw Par Brothers’ Ltd.  Once of Booty and Edwards and later of J. B. Westerhout, Chan – who came over who came over from Hong Kong in 1888 and qualified as an architect in 1915 – was already on his own by the time. His work included Catholic High School at 222 Queen Street, and the Carmelite Convent at Bukit Teresa. While it may be possible that Chan had also been the building’s architect, the plans do not conclusively say that he was.

The building in 2010.

The building in 2014.

On the subject of plans, it seems interesting that a “Tiger Theatre” was to have been built on the site adjacent to the Tiger Balm Building around the same period, separated by a backlane. Designed by Frank W. Brewer for Peter Chong, the idea for the 856-seat cinema was rejected by the Municipal Commissioners on grounds that there was no provision for parking. Despite its name, the cinema had no apparent association to Tiger Balm.

The building seen in a late 1945 Imperial War Museums photograph of a victory procession of Indian Muslims following the end of the war © IWM (SE 5096).

The tiger that topped the building – a familiar sight through much of my childhood – disappeared some time in the late 1970s when United Overseas Bank (UOB) raised a symbol of their own.  UOB had by that time, acquired a majority interest in the bank. Chung Khiaw Bank would however retained its name through much of the period, when became a fully owned subsidiary in 1988, and until it was fully absorbed by UOB in 1999.

The building topped by the UOB symbol in 1980 (NAS).

Among the businesses that had been housed in the building after the branch closed, were the offices and a small food court of Banquet Holdings Pte. Ltd. (the operator of halal food courts that has since gone under). A string of food and beverage outlets made brief appearances in more recent time. These included the Tea Culture Academy and Rayz Bistro. The building had in fact been threatened with demolition as far back as 2009. A 12 storey entertainment hub, named “10 Square”, was then proposed. Autobahn Motors, who had been behind this earlier proposal, now aims to put up the 20-deck “vending machine” – also named Ten Square. This looks to be along the lines of the one Autobahn already operates in Jalan Kilang with the exception of its shape and capacity. This, based on information on the site, should be completed by early next year.


Notes:
1
See also : When did the tiger at the corner of Selegie Road and Short Street go missing?

2 What may also be interesting about Chan Yee Lim, a prominent member of the congregation of the Church of Sacred Heart in Tank Road was that one of his eight children, Monsignor Francis Chan, was the Roman Catholic Diocese of Penang’s first Bishop from 1955 until his death in 1967. Monsignor Chan was succeeded as Bishop of Penang by Monsignor Gregory Yong, who we know as the Archbishop of Singapore from 1977 to 2000.