Revisiting Commonwealth and Holland Village

30 03 2016

Queenstown, where I spent the earliest days of my life, holds many wonderful memories for me. It is a place I enjoy going back to, which I regularly do in my attempts to rediscover memories the town holds of my childhood, discovering more often than not a fascinating side to Singapore’s first satellite town I had not known of before.

A window into a world in which one will discover the many layers of a rich and varied history.

A window into a world in which one will discover the many layers of a rich and varied history.

A chance to revisit Queenstown and learn more about it came recently when I participated in an introductory My Queenstown heritage tour of Holland Village and Commonwealth. The tour, which started at Chip Bee Gardens, took a path that ended in the unreal world of palatial homes that lies just across the town’s fringes at Ridout Road. Intended to provide participants with a glimpse into the area’s evolution from its gambier and rubber plantation days to the current mix of residential, commercial and industrial sites we see today, it also provided me an opportunity to revisit  the neighbourhood that I had spent my first three years in.

Jalan Merah Saga in Chip Bee Gardens.

Jalan Merah Saga in Chip Bee Gardens.

Adjacent to an ever-evolving Holland Village, Chip Bee Gardens – the starting point, is known today for its eclectic mix of food and beverage outlets and businesses, housed in a rather quaint looking row at Jalan Merah Saga. Many from my generation will remember it for a crêpe restaurant, Better Betters. In combining French inspired crêpes with helpings of local favourites such as rendang, the restaurant married east and west in a fashion that seemed very much in keeping with the way the neighbourhood was developing.

A view over Chip Bee Gardens.

A view over Chip Bee Gardens.

The shop lots, I was to learn, had rather different beginnings. Converted only in 1978, the lots had prior to the 1971 pull-out of British forces, served as messing facilities for the military personnel the estate had been built to accommodate in the 1950s. The growth of Holland Village into what it is today, is in fact tied to this development. Several businesses still found at Holland Village trace their roots back to this era.

Holland Road Shopping Centre, a familiar landmark in Holland Village.

Holland Road Shopping Centre, a familiar landmark in Holland Village.

The Thambi Magazine Store at Lorong Liput is one such business. Having its roots in the 1960s, when the grandfather of its current proprietor, delivered newspapers in the area, the so-called mama-shop, has grown to become a Holland Village institution. It would have been one of two such outlets found along Lorong Liput, previously occupying a space across from its current premises. Its well-stocked magazine racks once drew many from far and wide in search of a hard-to-find weekly and is now the sole survivor in an age where digital media dominates.

Sam, the current proprietor of the Thambi Magazine Store.

Sam, the current proprietor of the Thambi Magazine Store.

Magazine racks outside the store.

Magazine racks outside the store.

Lorong Liput would also have been where many of Holland Village’s landmarks of the past were once found. One was the Eng Wah open-air cinema, the site of which the very recently demolished Holland V Shopping Mall with its mock windmill – a more recent icon, had been built on. Lorong Liput was also where the demolished Kampong Holland Mosque once stood at the end of and where the old wet market, since rebuilt, served the area’s residents.

The windmill at Lorong Liput, which recently disappeared.

The windmill at Lorong Liput, which recently disappeared.

The rebuilt market.

The rebuilt market.

The site of the former Eng Wah open-air cinema and the Holland V Shopping Mall.

The site of the former Eng Wah open-air cinema and the since demolished Holland V Shopping Mall.

The Eng Wah open-air cinema (source: National Archives online).

From Lorong Liput, a short walk down Holland Avenue and and Holland Close, takes one to the next stop and back more than a century in time. The sight that greets the eye as one approaches the stop, which is just behind Block 32, is one that is rather strange of neatly ordered rows of uniformly sized grave stones of a 1887 Hakka Chinese cemetery, the Shuang Long Shan, set against a backdrop of blocks of HDB flats and industrial buildings. Visually untypical of an old Chinese cemetery – in which the scattering of burial mounds would seem almost random, the neat rows contain reburied remains from graves exhumed from an area twenty times the 4.5 acre plot that the cemetery once occupied.

A view across the grave stones to the roofs of the Shuang Long Shan Wu Shu ancestral hall.

A view across the grave stones to the roofs of the Shuang Long Shan Wu Shu ancestral hall.

Run by the Ying Fo Fui Kun clan association, Shuang Long Shan was acquired by the HDB in 1962. A concession made to the clan association permitted the current site to be retained on a lease. The site also contains the clan’s ancestral hall, the Shuang Long Shan Wu Shu Ancestral Hall and a newer memorial hall. The ancestral hall, which also goes back to 1887, is now the oldest building in Queenstown.

Offerings placed for the Ching Ming festival.

Offerings placed for the Ching Ming festival.

Ancestral tablets inside the hall.

Ancestral tablets inside the hall.

A close-up of the ancestral hall.

A close-up of the ancestral hall.

My old neighbourhood nearby was up next. Here I discovered how easy it was to be led astray in finding myself popping into Sin Palace – one of the several old shops found in the neighbourhood centre in which time seems to have long stood still.  The shops offer a fascinating glimpse of the world four, maybe five decades past, days when I frequented the centre for my favourite bowl of fishball noodles and the frequent visits to the general practitioner the coughs I seemed to catch would have required. The neighbourhood is where a rarity from a perspective of church buildings can be found in the form of the Queenstown Lutheran Church. It is one of few churches from the era that retains much of its original look.

Commonwealth Crescent Neighbourhood Centre and the Lutheran Church as it looked when I lived there (source: My Community).

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Inside Sin Palace – an old fashioned barber shop.

Another area familiar to me is the chap lak lau chu (16 storey flats) at Commonwealth Close, which we also visited. A friend of my mother’s who we would visit on occasion, lived there at Block 81, a block from which one can look forward to an exhilarating view from its perch atop a hillock. The view was what gave Block 81 the unofficial status of a “VIP block” to which visiting dignitaries would be brought to – much like the block in Toa Payoh to which I moved to. Among the visitors to the block were the likes of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and Indian Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi.

Also at Commonwealth Close, the space between Blocks 85 and 86 where the iconic photograph of Singapore's first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was taken.

Also at Commonwealth Close, the space between Blocks 85 and 86 where the iconic photograph of Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was taken.

Before visiting Block 81, a stop was made at Commonwealth Drive, where the MOE Heritage Centre and Singapore’s first flatted factories are found. The flatted factory, an idea borrowed from Hong Kong, allowed space for small manufacturers to be quickly and inexpensively created  during the period of rapid industrialisation and the block at Commonwealth Drive (Block 115A) was the first to be constructed by the Economic Development Board (EDB) as part of a pilot programme launched in 1965 (more on the development of flatted factories in Singapore can be found on this post: The Anatomy of an Industrial Estate). Among the first tenants of the block were Roxy Electric Industries Ltd. The company took up 10,000 square metres on the ground floor for the assembly of Sharp television sets under licence.

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Block 115 A (right) – the first flatted factory building that was erected by the EDB in 1965/66 as part of a pilot programme.

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A resident of Queenstown, Mdm Noorsia Binte Abdul Gani, found work assembling hairdryers at an electrical goods factory, Wing Heng, between 1994 and 2003. Wing Heng was located at Block 115A Commonwealth Drive.

Housed in a school building typical of schools built in the 1960s used previously by Permaisura Primary School, the MOE Heritage Centre was established in 2011. With a total of 15 experiential galleries and heritage and connection zones arranged on the building’s three floors, the centre provides visitors with an appreciation of the development of education and schools in Singapore, from the first vernacular and mission schools to where we are today.

The MOE Heritage Centre.

The MOE Heritage Centre.

A blast from the past - a schoolbag from days when I started attending school at the MOE Heritage Centre.

A blast from the past – a schoolbag from days when I started attending school at the MOE Heritage Centre.

Of particular interest to me were the evolution of school architecture over the years and the post-war period in the early 1950s when many new schools and the Teachers’ Training College were established. The centre is opened to the public on Fridays during term time and on weekdays during school holidays. More information can be found at http://www.moeheritagecentre.sg/public-walk-ins.html.

Inside the MOE Heritage Centre.

Inside the MOE Heritage Centre’s New Nation, New Towns & New Schools gallery.

The Ridout Tea Garden lies across Queensway from the Commonwealth Close area. The garden rose out of the ashes of what many would remember as a Japanese styled garden, the Queenstown Japanese Garden. Opened in 1970, a few years before the Seiwaen in Jurong, the garden would have been the first post-independence Japanese styled public garden (the Alkaff Lake Gardens, which opened in 1930 would have been the first). A fire destroyed the garden in 1978 and the HDB redeveloped it as a garden with a teahouse (hence Tea Garden) tow years later. Well visited today for its McDonalds outlet, it was actually a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet that first operated at the tea house.

A brick wall, which once belonged to the Japanese Garden.

A brick wall, which once belonged to the Japanese Garden.

The Queenstown Japanese Garden (source: My Community).

The tea garden forms part of the boundary between Queenstown and a world that literally is apart at the Ridout Road/Holland Park conservation area. Home to palatial good class bungalows, 27 of which are conserved, many of the area’s houses have features that place them in the 1920s and the 1930s. This was the period which coincided with the expansion of the British military presence on the island, and it was during this time that the nearby Tanglin Barracks was built. Several, especially those in the mock Tudor or “Black and White” style – commonly employed by the Public Works Department, would have served to house senior military officers .

A mock Tudor bungalow at 31 Ridout Road.

A mock Tudor bungalow at 31 Ridout Road.

Besides the “Black and White” style, another style that is in evidence in the area is that of the Arts and Crafts movement. Several fine examples of such designs exist on the island, two of which are National Monuments. One is the very grand Command House at Kheam Hock Road, designed by Frank W. Brewer. Brewer was also responsible for the lovely house found at 23 Ridout Road. Distinctly a Brewer design, the house had prior to the war, been the residence of L. W. Geddes. A board member of Wearnes Brothers and a Municipal Commissioner, Mr Geddes left Singapore upon his retirement in late 1941. After the war, the house was used as the Dutch Consul-General’s and later Ambassador’s residence.

Distinctively Frank W. Brewer - an Arts and Crafts design that was once the home of L.W. Geddes at 23 Ridout Road. The house now serves as the residence of the Dutch Ambassador.

Distinctively Frank W. Brewer – an Arts and Crafts design that was once the home of L.W. Geddes at 23 Ridout Road. The house now serves as the residence of the Dutch Ambassador.

A recent addition to the area is the mansion at 2 Peirce Drive. Owned by Dr. Lye Wai Choong, the house is thought to have been modelled after the Soonstead Mansion in Penang. Other notable bungalows in the area include 35 Ridout Road, which sold recently for S$91.69 million and also India House at 2 Peirce Road, thought to have been commissioned by Ong Sam Leong in 1911. Mr Ong, who made his fortune from being the sole supplier of labour to the phosphate mines on Christmas Island, passed away in 1918 and is buried with his wife in the largest grave in Bukit Brown cemetery.

A more recent addition to the area, a mansion owned by Dr. Lye Wai Choong, which is modelled after another one in Penang.

A more recent addition to the area, a mansion owned by Dr. Lye Wai Choong, which is modelled after another one in Penang.

Soonstead Mansion in Penang.

Soonstead Mansion in Penang.

The good-class bungalow at 35 Ridout Road that was sold very recently for S$91.69 million.

The good-class bungalow at 35 Ridout Road that was sold very recently for S$91.69 million.

Ridout Road.

A very green Ridout Road.

The Commonwealth and Holland Village heritage tour runs every third Sunday of the month. Those interested can register for the free guided tour at www.queenstown.evenbrite.sg or via myqueenstown@gmail.com. My Community, which runs the tours is also carrying out a volunteer recruitment exercise to run their tours. Workshops are being held on 24 and 30 April 2016 for this and would be volunteers can email volunteer@mycommunity.org.sg to register.

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Last(ing) impressions

6 10 2015

Sunday, 4 October 2015, was the day we said our farewells to an old neighbourhood at Blocks 74 to 80 Commonwealth Drive, which will soon be demolished. The farewell to neighbourhood built at a time of great need during the transition from statehood to nationhood and known affectionately as the ‘Chap Lau Chu’, Hokkien for ‘Ten Storey House’ for its 10 storey flats, would have left a last and perhaps lasting impression on the large numbers of people who turned up for Sunday’s farewell party

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A last stroll.

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A last hurrah.

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A last peek.

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A last song.

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The last photographs.

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A last hello.

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A last toss.

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A last pat.

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A last sit down.

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A last reflection.

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A last look (1).

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A last look (2).

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A last look (3).

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A last visit.

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The last hydrant.

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The last hydrant.

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The last tall tree.

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A last descent.

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A last show.

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A last walk.

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The last days.

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A last boundary (the boundary wall between the former Malayan Railway land and Singapore).

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A last look at Block 75.

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A last sunset.

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The last smiles.

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A last glance.

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A last gathering.

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A last stop.

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A last laugh.

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The last goodbye.

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A last shot.

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The last game.





Parting glances: Blocks 74 to 80 Commonwealth Drive

2 10 2015

Change has become an inevitable aspect of life in Singapore. Places we cherish go in a flash and are quickly replaced by unfamiliar. For some, the passing of a neighbourhood in which they may have spent most of their lives in can be an traumatic experience. The loss is not just of the familiarity of a place one calls home, but also the break up of the communities in which ties may have been forged over several decades.

A window into the past. Inside an early HDB flat at Commonwealth Drive soon to be demolished.

A window into the past. Inside an early HDB flat at Commonwealth Drive soon to be demolished.

One old neigbourhood that has been emptied of life was the one at Commonwealth Drive , an area, at least from a public housing perspective, that goes back half a century. The area, also known as Tanglin Halt, is where some of the earliest planned Housing and Development Board (HDB) blocks of flats are to be found. The cluster of 10-storey blocks of flats also referred to as Chap Lau Chu (10-storey houses in Hokkien), while not aesthetically pleasing in the context of today’s public housing designs, served as the face of the HDB’s public housing efforts and were featured on the backs of the new nation’s very first one dollar currency note.

The back of Singapore's first one dollar note.

The back of Singapore’s first one dollar note.

Sadly, the neighbourhood will soon lose its note-worthy blocks. The now vacant blocks will soon be demolished and all that will be left of them will be dust and some of our memories. We do get to bid farewell to them before that happens though. A carnival to say goodbye is being organised by My Community and the Queenstown Citizens’ Consultative Committee on Saturday (3 October 2015) to say our goodbyes to blocks 74 to 80.

Block 74 Commonwealth Drive, 1968 (Courtesy of Jasmine Cheng).

Block 74 Commonwealth Drive, 1968 (Courtesy of Jasmine Cheng).

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The carnival will not only allow access to an area soon to be hoarded up. One of the blocks (Block 74) will be opened up to the public as well as two of the block’s units on the second level. Visitors can also look forward to a photography exhibition “Forget Me Not” by Nicky Loh and Erwin Tan, which looks at the estate in its glory days, the past and the present. One of the photographers Nicky Loh, lived at block 79 and has fond memories of the Chin Hin Eating House, a kopitiam at Block 75 that closed its doors last year (see a previous post on it: Last Impressions).

The carnival will allow access to Block 74 and two of its units.

The carnival will allow access to Block 74 and two of its units.

Formerly occupied by Chin Hin Eating House.

Formerly occupied by Chin Hin Eating House.

Reminders of yesterday - retrofitted 2nd generation HDB letter boxes.

Reminders of yesterday – retrofitted 2nd generation HDB letter boxes.

The common corridor - the slot in the original door found on many of the vacated flats were for mail - a reminder of when the postman used to deliver mail door to door.

The common corridor – the slot in the original door found on many of the vacated flats were for mail – a reminder of when the postman used to deliver mail door to door.

Along with the exhibition there will also be performances by local favourites ShiGGa Shay, Tay Kexin and the Switch, as well as a public screening of the highly acclaimed “7 letters”. Three of the seven films, Royston Tan’s “Bunga Sayang,” Boo Jun Feng’s “Parting” and Eric Khoo’s “Cinema” were shot in the neighbourhood.

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It will perhaps be a fitting goodbye to an area that was also associated among other things with the railway (the rail corridor runs by it and the name Tanglin Halt came from a train halt or stop located in the area) and the industrial area to its immediate north that was crowned not only with the huge gas holder (the giant blue city gas cylindrical tank similar to the one that used to dominate the Kallang landscape), but was also where Singapore’s homegrown television brand, Setron – once a household name, had its first factory. The mix of light industries and a residential neighbourhood – there also were factories and artisans operating in the ground floor shop lots allowed residents to find work around where they lived in days when folks were less mobile and perhaps when we were less fussy about where we lived.

The gas holder (photo: National Archives of Singapore).

The gas holder (photo: National Archives of Singapore).

The site of the former gas holder.

The site of the former gas holder.

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The area is a popular shortcut during lunch ... the masks are not because of the long gone gas tank that used to also be remembered for the smell behind them but due to the current haze.

The area is a popular shortcut during lunch … the masks are not because of the long gone gas tank that used to also be remembered for the smell behind them but due to the current haze.

More on Saturday’s carnival can be found at the My Queenstown Facebook Page.

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Goodbye 74 to 80 Commonwealth Drive Programme

Date: Saturday, 3 October 2015
Time: 1100 to 1900 hrs
Venue: Block 74 carpark (next to Tanglin Halt Wet Market)

What to expect:

  1. Access to Block 74 (1100-1900)
  2. Screening of “Singapore Dreaming” (1200) “Taxi Taxi” (1430) “7 letters” (1700)
  3. A photography exhibition by Nicky Loh Photography and Erwin Tan (1100-1900)
  4. Performances by White Ribbon Live Music (1200) ShiGGa Shay (1500), Tay Kexin (郑可欣) and the Switch (1600)
  5. Free flow of drinks and ice cream ! (1100-1700)

Note : Times are subject to weather conditions and outdoor events will be cancelled in the event the PSI exceeds 201


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Some may remember this bathroom door - a standard one-time HDB fitting.

Some may remember this bathroom door – a standard one-time HDB fitting.

A close up of the door with the manufacturer's name.

A close up of the door with the manufacturer’s name.

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Signs of the times.

Signs of times forgotten.

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Last impressions

4 03 2014

Time can be a cruel thing in Singapore. The passage of time brings with it the change that seems inevitable in Singapore denying us many places that we may have developed an attachment to.

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The last day of February this year, saw the passing of two well-loved places. One is a kopitiam (coffee-shop), set in an world older than itself for which time is being called on, and the other, a well used community space in the form of a public swimming pool complex we in Singapore seem to want to discard all to quickly.

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Just a stone’s throw away from each other, the two, are coincidentally from the same era. While this may be hard to see in the swimming complex, the Buona Vista Swimming Complex, the layout of the kopitiam, Chin Hin Eating House at Block 75 Commonwealth Drive, does take us back to the period when it was set-up in 1976 – when it was still the fashion to lay food stalls at the coffee-shop’s front, with a seating area in the back. A popular place for that traditional breakfast of buttered bread, soft-boiled eggs and coffee, the coffee-shop was located on the ground floor of a block of flats that will be a group of seven – among the earliest put up by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) in the early 1960s, that will be demolished under the HDB’s Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS).

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The swimming complex, which opened in September 1976 and the fourth to be designed by the Housing and Development Board (the others before it were Queenstown, Toa Payoh and Katong), is one that I do have a memory of. It was where on one evening in the complex’s first decade of operation, despite losing my glasses in any attempt to “rescue” a “swimmer in distress”, I managed to get my bronze medallion in life-saving that qualified me as a lifeguard. That was some 30 years ago in 1983, and probably some 30 kilogrammes ago in weight I have since seemed to have gained.

JeromeLim 277A9733The area where I sought to lose my glasses.

While there is little I have in terms of sentimentality for the places concerned, they are still places for which I do feel a sense of loss, being reminders of unassuming times for which there is little place in the world we have been forced to love. There may be little time left for us to celebrate these remnants of the old world in which we find easy to feel at home in, before they become a remnant only in our memories.


A last waltz

a final dance at Chin Hin Eating House (1976 to 2014) –

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La última Vista

– a final look at Buona Vista Swimming Complex (4 Sep 1976 to 28 Feb 2014) –

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Back to a time I have forgotten

10 05 2012

My entry into the world came in the still of the morning, at a time when the world beyond the delivery room had been anything but still. Insulated from tumultuous events that accompanied the first year of Singapore’s merger with the Malayan Federation by the oblivion of early childhood, life as I would remember it seemed anything but calm in the world where I had spent the earliest years of my life.

Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

That world is one that I have of late tried to reconnect with. It is a world of which I remember very little of – most of what I remember is associated with the Commonwealth Crescent area where I lived and of the walks I took with my parents in the area. Beyond that, it is the physical structures of the places as I remember them that I sometimes see in my memory, and ones that I have sought as a reminder of my connection to the place. Of the physical structures that I have long identified with the wider area, there were two beside the residential blocks that remain etched in my memory, across Commonwealth Avenue in what is commonly referred to as the Tanglin Halt area. One, a blue cylindrical tank – the gas holding tank of what had been the Queenstown Gasholder Station at Tanglin Halt, has long since disappeared, falling victim to the switch from City Gas production in the 1990s to imported natural gas. The other, also dominated by the blue of a prominent part of its structure, is thankfully still there, unaltered by the passage of time. That structure is that of a building that which some say is “more roof than building” – the Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

The church’s interior.

The church, with a very distinctive blue slate roof that dominates its structure, is one that I very much have an attachment to, being where I had been baptised all those years back. Standing out in an area that would have otherwise been dominated by the ramp of the road that has expanded beside it, the building was designed by James Gordon Dowsett of the architectural firm Iversen, Van Sitteren and Partners. Dowsett was the creator of two buildings that also become well recognised in their time – the old Shaw House and Lido Theatre. The design of the roof, said to resemble paper being folded in the art of origami, was inspired by the shape of a tent. This, based on information on the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) page on the conservation of the church, was to symbolise  the “tent of meeting” in the Old Testament. The page provides further information elaborating further that “the roof dips downwards to wrap the interior with portions touching the ground, reminiscent of anchoring pegs” which functionally also serve as drainage points for rainwater. More information on the church’s architecture and interior can be found at the URA Conservation of Build Heritage web page. The church which was blessed and officially opened on 8 May 1965 by the Roman Catholic Archibishop of Malacca and Singapore, Monsignor Michael Olcomendy, was gazetted for conservation on 25 November 2005.

Father Odo Tiggeloven, one of the church’s two founding priests, signing the baptism register in the Damien Hall.

Stepping inside the church, the warmness of the visual greeting provided by the soft light filtering through that casts a warm glow over the wood flavoured interior seems to also extend a spiritual welcome. I realised then that it had been a long while since I visited the church – not since I shifted away as a child of three and a half. As I looked around me, it was nice to see that the church is one that has stayed very much the same as it had been at its beginnings close to half a century ago. In that, it is also nice to know that in a world in which we have been quick to forget the past, there is a place that I can come to where the past hasn’t been forgotten.

Soft light filters through into the interior of the church.

One more view of the inside of the church.