The beautiful campus at Hyderabad Road

19 03 2015

A good reason to visit the S P Jain School of Global Management’s campus at 10 Hyderabad Road, I am told, is the great naan and curries that the canteen there serves. Set in generous and lusciously green surroundings with two glorious old buildings from the 1930s, even if not for the naan, the school and its grounds are well worth a visit.

The Singapore campus of the S P Jain School of Global Management is surrounded by lush greenery,

The Singapore campus of the S P Jain School of Global Management is surrounded by lush greenery,

The S P Jain School of Global Management with a bust of its founder.

The S P Jain School of Global Management with a bust of its founder.

S P Jain’s Singapore campus, one of Asia’s top ranked business schools, lies on the fringe of Alexandra Park, an area with a distinctively colonial flavour, seen in the structures and in the street names. That is, except for Hyderabad Road. Curiously out of place next to Berkshire, Bury, and Cornwall, it seems that Hyderabad became so due to a connection it has with the Nizam of Hyderabad.

The canteen, where good naan is served.

The canteen, where good naan is served.

The Nizams, a line of princes that stretched back to the days of Mughal India, held great wealth during their reign, all of which was to come to an abrupt end with the passing of the British Raj. The last Nizam, once labelled as the world’s wealthiest man, is said to have owned property along the road (see The Hindu, 10 April 2007), and so the road was named after the then princely state.

JeromeLim-9959

Whatever the case may have been, the links the road has with the subcontinent has now been reaffirmed with the Mumbai based business school having established one of its three international campuses there in 2007. The school, which came to Singapore at the invitation of the Singapore government, runs both graduate and undergraduate programmes and students enrolled in its MBA courses get to spend a term at its beautiful Singapore campus and a term each at its two other campuses in Sydney and Dubai.

A portal for learning that is also a portal into the past.

A portal for learning that is also a portal into the past.

Having taken over the tennancy for the premises from the Singapore Land Authority in 2006, the school set off by refurbishing the buildings for its use. The work also involved restoration on the two heritage buildings. Having been left vacant since 1998 when its previous occupants, the Institute of Dental Health (IDH), moved out, the structures needed quite a fair bit of effort to bring them back to their original glory.

The condition of the heritage building before S P Jain refurbished it (photographs courtesy of S P Jain School of Global Business.

The condition of the heritage building before S P Jain refurbished it (photographs courtesy of S P Jain School of Global Management).

The current boundaries of the property would probably have been defined in the early 1970s when the Ministry of Health (MOH) took over. It housed the Dental Health Education Unit in 1973 and then the IDH, into which the Dental Education Unit would be incorporated into. The setting up of the IDH in 1975 was to allow for the centralisation of training for dental therapists, nurses, dental assistants and technicians, and in doing so, also provided outpatient dental health facilities. A six-storey third building on the grounds was constructed in 1976 for this purpose, for which two older buildings were demolished. This new annex is the same building that the business school now uses as a learning centre (where it holds its classes) as well as a hostel.

The IDH gate still graces one of the exits that is now used as a service gate.

The IDH gate still keeps one of the exits that is now used as a service gate, closed.

At its opening in 1977, the annex housed administrative offices, demonstration surgeries, X-Ray rooms, dispensaries, laboratories, sterilising rooms, teaching facilities, as well as two dental surgery wings. It also played host to the Ministry of Health (MOH), when that had to be moved there temporarily in 1978 after a fire had damaged the building MOH was using in Palmer Road.

The 1977 annex, seen from the corridors of the heritage buildings.

The 1977 annex, seen from the corridors of the heritage buildings.

JeromeLim-9852

It is the two older buildings that have more of a story. The two, one probably an annex of the other, provide the clearest hint of what the grounds were before the MOH took over. Visually, they can very quickly be identified as the remnants of the British military build-up in the Far East that took place between the wars, the height of which was in the 1930s. The build-up was part of a strategy of deterrence the British adopted against what was seen to be an increasingly aggressive Japan. This saw airbases and a naval base established on the island with buildings with identical appearances, replicated in the several other barracks established during the era across the island.

The heritage buildings are recognisable as structures put up by the British military.

The heritage buildings are recognisable as structures put up by the British military.

The two buildings, built in 1935, feature a Classical style adapted for the tropics. Featuring large windows or doors and provided with generous ventilation openings and corridors, the rooms buildings were light and airy, keeping their occupants cool in the oppressive tropical heat. The two-storey design, is one seen in at least two other buildings from the era we still see, each built as an Officers’ Mess. One, the former Tanglin Barracks Officers’ Mess, is now used by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Another is the former Officers’ Mess of Selarang Barracks, now Selarang Camp. This is still in active military service and is now the home of the army’s 9th Division HQ.

A front to back corridor in the middle of the main heritage building - very much the same as a similarly designed building at Selarang Camp.

A front to back corridor in the middle of the main heritage building – very much the same as a similarly designed building at Selarang Camp.

JeromeLim-9958

JeromeLim-9928

JeromeLim-9926

The buildings at Hyderabad Road, were built to be used as the Officers’ Mess for Gillman Barracks, a large part of which was on the opposite side of Alexandra Road. Together with other military propetry, they were handed over to the Singapore government when the pull out of British forces was completed in 1971. Initial thoughts on the reuse of these two structure included their conversion for use a motel or a rest house – something that perhaps one of the buildings is now partly used as.

The upper corridors where rooms for visiting faculty are laid out.

The upper corridors where rooms for visiting faculty are laid out.

A visiting faculty room.

A visiting faculty room.

JeromeLim-9924

The transformation of the buildings by S P Jain has seen twenty very comfortable rooms on the upper level of the main heritage building fitted out so that visiting faculty could be put up on the premises. Along with this, a beautifully decorated lounge and banquet hall has been provided on the lower level. The buildings also see rooms fitted out for staff as well as students such as administrative offices, faculty offices, discussion rooms, a music room, a really cool chill-out lounge and a library, which is on the upper level of the smaller building.

The music room.

The music room.

The Banquet Hall.

The Banquet Hall.

The Lounge.

The Lounge.

The Library.

The Library.

Beautifully bright office space created by closing the arches along the corridor of the smaller building with glass.

Beautifully bright office space created by closing the arches along the corridor of the smaller building with glass.

Having visited the campus, I must say it is the nicest belonging to an institution of higher learning that I have come across in Singapore. The grounds and its buildings, is a perfect fit with the school, providing an environment that is well-suited to learning that seems far away from the urban word – an wonderful example of how old places and buildings that have lost their original purpose can be retained and made relevant to a world that would rather have them forgotten.

Discussion room.

Discussion room.

JeromeLim-9935

JeromeLim-9930

JeromeLim-9916

JeromeLim-9859

The greenery that the school's campus is set in.

The greenery that the school’s campus is set in.

What I am told are mounds that hide underground bunkers that were used for storage.

On the grounds: what I am told are mounds that hide underground bunkers that were used for storage.

 





Mount Washington, an old world restored

17 02 2015

It will probably come as no surprise the elevated and lush green surroundings provided by the south facing slopes of Singapore’s southern ridges, with the magnificent views of the coastline it offers, plays host to several palatial residences of an old and forgotten Singapore. One that has seen some of its lost glory recently restored, is a majestic two-storey house perched on Telok Blangah Hill, Alkaff Mansion. Once a weekend escape belonging to the very prominent Alkaff family, the mansion stands today as reminder of a world we long have left behind.

The Alkaff Mansion, restored to its former glory.

The Alkaff Mansion, restored to its former glory.

The mansion, referred to as “merely one of the Alkaff family’s weekend bungalows” and situated “at the end of a long road winding from Pasir Panjang Road through the country”, is described in an article in the 16 September 1934 edition of The Straits Times:

It commands a unique view of the coast, the city and indeed, almost the entire island … Viewed from the bottom of a steep drive leading through the well-kept grounds to the foot of a long flight of stone steps, Mount Washington looks large. It has a broad façade and at each end are two turrets. On the ground floor, a verandah leads to a long narrow dining room. Behind the dining room are the servants’ quarters. On the second floor is another verandah, another long room and behind it one large and two small bedrooms … 

It is not very liberally furnished but the verandah on the first floor is a most refreshing retreat, armchairs and settees of teak having blue tapestry fittings. There are many gilt-framed photographs on easels in the house, also many heavy gilt and Venetian mirrors …

With its semi-circular white stone balustrade at the top of the bank on which it is built, its stately firs and its view, it is a most tempting place to live.

Alkaff house seen in its heyday in the 1920s (National Archives of Singapore online catalogue).

Standing on the terrace where the house stands today, it would not be difficult to imagine how grand appearance it might have appeared at the time of the article, when it was known as Mount Washington – the name the hill also seemed at some point in time to have been referred to. The article also makes mention of a garden party the Alkaffs hosted in June of that year. The party, which had over 400 guests on Mount Washington’s grounds, was held to celebrate the appointment as a Justice of the Peace, of the Alkaffs’ General Manager, Haji Shaikh Yahya bin Ahmad Afifi.

The staircase leading up to the terrace.

The staircase leading up to the terrace.

While there have several suggestions that property had so been named due to the close relations the Alkaffs had with the American community, it does seem that its had been called Mount Washington even before Syed Abdulrahman Alkaff purchased the property for $32,000 in 1916 (see “Property Sale“, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 21 June 1916, Page 12). Advertisements placed in the local press show that a mortgagee had made several attempts since the end of 1913 to dispose of Mount Washington, several years before it was purchased by Syed Abdulrahman Alkaff.

A newspaper advertisement for the sale of Mount Washington in 1916.

A newspaper advertisement for the sale of Mount Washington in 1916.

Whether it was from the property, the grounds of which was “planted with rubber trees and also coconut trees”, that the name of hill would be derived from, is also a source of debate. Previously known as Bukit Jagoh, there are several references made to the hill as Mount Washington in newspaper reports that go back to 1908.

A view of the building's side.

A view of the building’s side.

The mansion, as is laid out today, is thought to originate to 1926 and since its heydays in the 1920s and 1930s has experienced a mixed bag of fortunes, having been abandoned after the war. It was to see use again in 1970  when it served as the headquarters of the World Buddhist Society. In 1984, the society had to vacate the premises when it was acquired for an extension to Mount Faber Park and it was only at the end of the 1980s that some of its former majesty was to be restored, when it was converted into a restaurant.

The former weekend residence of the Alkaffs is now a fine-dining Italian restaurant.

The former weekend residence of the Alkaffs is now a fine-dining Italian restaurant.

Unfortunately, the restaurant closed in 2003 and it was left vacant until an exercise in 2010 by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) resulted in a lease being taken up by the LHN Group. The group has since restored the now conserved mansion (it was gazetted for conservation by the URA in 2005) beautifully and since the end of 2011, has operated a fine dining Italian restaurant on the premises – serving to reminds us of days of glory that might otherwise have been forgotten.

The former Alkaff house in the 1980s after the World Buddhist Society vacated it (National Archives of Singapore online catalogue).

The former Alkaff House used as the headquarters  of the World Buddhist Society.

The former Alkaff House was used as the headquarters of the World Buddhist Society (Radin Mas Heritage Guide).





The tallest building in Southeast Asia

9 12 2014

Standing tall at 82 metres when it was completed in 1955, the former Asia Insurance Building had the distinction of being not just the tallest building in Singapore, but also in Southeast Asia. Wearing an art-deco façade, the building, now the Ascott Raffles Place, was the creation of Dr Ng Keng Siang, who also designed it as Southeast Asia’s first “earthquake proof” building.

The view from the one-time tallest building in Singapore towards what is today the tallest building.

The view from the one-time tallest building in Singapore towards what is today one of three tallest buildings in Singapore that is almost  3.5 times its height.

JeromeLim-8770

Soon after it was completed in the mid-1950s (source: National Archives of Singapore).

Soon after it was completed in the mid-1950s (source: National Archives of Singapore).

While it is dwarfed today by the towers of glass and steel that now dominate the financial district that has grown around it, the beautiful building maintains a majestic presence at its location at the corner of Finlayson Green and Raffles Quay having undergone a huge restoration effort from 2006 to 2008. The effort, a huge part of which involved the painstaking restoration of the 20,000 pieces of its Travertine marble face, saw the building being awarded with the URA Architectural Heritage Award in 2009, with it being gazetted for conservation in 2007.

Singapore’s tallest buildings over the years (source: URA’s Facebook Page).

70sAdThe building, put up by the Asia Insurance Company at a cost of $8 million, was officially opened by the then Governor of Singapore, Sir Robert Brown Black, on 10 December 1955. Besides the Asia Insurance Company, which occupied the second and third levels of the 18 storey building; the Royal Dutch Airlines, KLM and the Belgian and Indonesian Consulates were among the building’s first tenants.

Construction of the building seen during the year of the Coronation, 1953.

Construction of the building seen during the year of the Coronation, 1953 (source: National Archives of Singapore).

Besides the marble face, other features of note include the black Nero Portaro Italian marble found at the base of the building including two Nero Portaro pillars on which inscriptions commemorating the laying of the foundation stone by Commissioner-General for South-east Asia, Sir Malcolm MacDonald, in the year of the coronation of the Queen in 1953, and for the official opening of the building in 1955. The building also wears a crown of stainless steel, placed at its top to commemorate the 1953 coronation.

JeromeLim-2708

JeromeLim-2707

The building, was acquired by the Ascott Group in July 2006 for $109.5 million, and has since been converted as the hospitality group’s flagship building offering 146 luxury suites. More information on the building and its conservation can be found at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) conservation website. What may also be of interest are the memories of interactions with the building through the six decades of its existence. This can be found in several posts on the On a Little Street in Singapore Facebook Group (see Post1, Post2, Post3).

The stainless steel crown at the top of the building.

The stainless steel crown at the top of the building.

The staircase to the roof terrace.

The staircase to the roof terrace.

Despite being in teh shadows of the taller buildings around, the roof terrace of the Ascott offers a great view of the surroundings, including Raffles Place.

Despite being in the shadows of the taller buildings around, the roof terrace of the Ascott offers a great view of the surroundings, including Raffles Place.

The James Cutler 15 storey brass mail chute that was originally installed in the building.

The James Cutler 15 storey brass mail chute that was originally installed in the building.


A look inside the Brown Suite during a recent URA Architectural Heritage Award Tour:

JeromeLim-2715-2

JeromeLim-2718

JeromeLim-2724


Additions to the existing building include a swimming pool, a drop-off point and a curved staircase in the lobby:

JeromeLim-2750

JeromeLim-2744

JeromeLim-2713-2

JeromeLim-2712






One hundred steps to a new heaven?

28 10 2014

It has been a while since I last ventured to the once magical world of Mount Sophia. Perched one hundred feet above the city, scaling its heights was best done on foot via a flight of one hundred steps (and a little more these days), taking you into a world that seemed to me to be the closest thing that there might have been to heaven on earth.

The new world reflecting on a past being erased..

The new world reflecting on a past being erased.

What remains of the former MGS.

All that remains of an old school.

Heaven, as it might have been when I made the first of my wanderings through the area in the 1970s, was much changed place by the time I was reacquainted with the hill in more recent times. Much of its magic faded when Eu Villa, a mansion that was the stuff of which fairy tales are made, was demolished at the start of the 1980s. Scarred today by the barbs that have replaced its once wondrous architectural landscape, much of the charm of its days of glory, has never been seen again.

Eu Villa - the magical home of Eu Tong Sen (Source: www.singapedia.com.sg).

Eu Villa – the magical home of Eu Tong Sen (Source: http://www.singapedia.com.sg).

The triumph of the weapons of past destruction.

The triumph of the weapons of past destruction.

A more recent loss was that of the large cluster of buildings that has collectively been referred to as “Old School”, leaving but a few reminders of a yesterday that has largely been forgotten. The complex of buildings was where over six decades of the memories of old girls of Methodist Girls School (MGS), until 1992, had been made. All that remains today is a lone building, abandoned by its companions, but soon to forge new friendships.

Last one standing - Olson building, abandoned by the other buildings of old MGS.

Last one standing – Olson building, abandoned by the other buildings of old MGS.

And the walls come tumbling down. A retaining wall belonging to the former MGS being demolished.

And the walls come tumbling down. A retaining wall belonging to the former MGS being demolished.

The lone structure, now sitting forlornly surrounded by a scene of devastation, the Olson building, dates back to 1928 – having been built to facilitate the school’s move up the hill from nearby Short Street that had been attributed to the then principal Mary Olson, after whom the building was named. Destined now to be a clubhouse within the Sophia Hills residential development that will colonise a good part of Mount Sophia, it is one of four reminders of an enchanted past that have been conserved on the hill.

Olson building will become a clubhouse as part of the Sophia Hills development.

The sprawling condominium development, spread not only over the grounds of the former MGS, but will also include the former premises of Nan Hwa Girls’ School at the junction of Adis Road and Sophia Road, and the area next to Old School that was used by Trinity Theological College (TTC), will also include two of the remanining three conserved structures. One is the pre-war building that housed Nan Hwa, which will be put to use as a kindergarten cum childcare centre. The other is the former TTC chapel, which is intended for use as a fine-dining restaurant.

The former Nan Hwa Girls' School.

The former Nan Hwa Girls’ School.

The former Nan Hwa will be leased out as a kindergarten cum childcare centre.

The former chapel of TTC - being turned into a fine-dining restaurant.

The former chapel of TTC – being turned into a fine-dining restaurant.

The chapel, which has stood out on the hill since the 1960s, is recognisable from its very distinctive roof structure, which takes the form of the Chinese character representing people or人 (ren), when viewed from the front. A fourth conserved structure on the hill that is not part of the development, is the former Tower House, which now houses House on the Hill, a childcare centre.

An artist’s impression of what the fine-dining restaurant will look like.

House on the Hill across the road from the Sophia Hills development.

House on the Hill across the road from the Sophia Hills development.

With the chill brought by the winds of change sweeping through a once familiar part of Singapore, comes much pain. We have to be numb as there is little room to be sentimental in a Singapore where looking to the future makes us forget the past. There are the small reminders of yesterday we sometimes hold on to. These, however, often lose their meaning in being made into a part of tomorrow.

The once magical hilltop of Mount Sophia being cleared for new magic to be created.

The once magical hilltop of Mount Sophia being cleared for new magic to be created.

There is the promise of a new magic. But to feel its enchantment, we have to fall out of love with the Singapore we have grown to love. It is only then that we can fall in love again, with a Singapore where love for anything else but all that now glisters, is hard to find.

The promised land as seen on a hoarding at the site.

The promised land as seen on a hoarding at the site.





145 Neil Road

27 10 2014

145 Neil Road, a transitional-style shophouse, stands right next to the house where Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, spent part of his childhood. It was quite recently in the spotlight, not because of any association it may have had with the adjacent dwelling, but as one of two Category B winners of the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) Architectural Heritage Awards (AHA) this year.

A stairway into a heavenly old world.

A new stairway into a heavenly old world.

There is little not to admire about the very tastefully restored house. Owned by Ms Ho Ren Yung, the restoration efforts were the work of architects Ong and Ong Pte Ltd. While it may be the gaudy shade of blue of the house’s exterior – thought to be close to the colour of its original coat of paint (determined through a process that required stripping off each layer of paint added over the years) that first draws attention to the two storey dwelling; it is what’s seen in the inside that is a joy to behold.

The exterior of 145 Neil Road, wearing what has been determined to have been the colour of its original coat of paint.

The exterior of 145 Neil Road, wearing what has been determined to have been the colour of its original coat of paint.

A window into the past in the present.

A window from the past into the present.

The house’s interior is a wonderful recreation that blends easy on the eye new elements with the reminders of the past. It is where we find a space celebrated even with the separation of the spaces on the ground level through the clever use of features such as the new staircase, the old in the open courtyard, and the kitchen in the extension beyond the courtyard. It is the courtyard where we see the old take centrestage with the retention of its beautiful fish shaped waterspout, carved relief wall panels and wall tiles on the ground level, above which the shuttered windows into the past tells a story of its own.

The joy of space, even with the separation of space.

The joy of space, even with the separation of space.

The open courtyard with its fish-spout.

The open courtyard with its fish spout, carved relief wall panels and antiquated pigmented wall tiles.

 

The wooden shuttered windows overlooking the courtyard.

The wooden shuttered windows overlooking the courtyard.

The kitchen.

The kitchen.

Space is also delightfully celebrated on the house’s upper levels. On the second level this is seen especially in the living area. One also finds a very nicely furnished landing area, a study and a bedroom on the floor, beyond which the staircase leads to the attic. There is also a lovely little terrace behind the original roof – a perfect place to escape to that is also accessible through a red-brick wall encased new spiral staircase at the house’s rear. Used as a screen at the top of the staircase are two memories of the past. One is a section of the old iron front gate and the other a shuttered wooden window, a wonderful example of how the house in being transformed for the future, hangs on it what must have been a glorious past. For more information on the house and its restoration, a detailed write up can be found on the URA’s AHA site.

The second level living area.

The second level living area.

JeromeLim-2100

JeromeLim-2101

A study on the second level.

A study on the second level.

The roof terrace.

The roof terrace.

A new spiral staircase to the roof terrace.

A new spiral staircase to the roof terrace.

The view upwards.

The view upwards.

Reminders of the past: the old iron front gate and shuttered windows.

Reminders of the past: the old iron front gate and shuttered windows.

145 Neil Road in 1982 with its cast iron gate (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

145 Neil Road in 1982 with its old iron front gate (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

The attic.

The attic.

 

Ms Ho Ren Yung receiving the AHA Award on 2 October 2014.

Ms Ho Ren Yung receiving the AHA Award on 2 October 2014.

JeromeLim-2077

JeromeLim-2065

JeromeLim-2110

 





A paddle through the magical watery woods

30 07 2014

The process of acquainting myself with the shores of Singapore for a project I am working on, Points of Departure, has provided me with some incredible experiences. One that I was especially grateful to have had was the experience of paddling through a green watery space that is almost magical in its beauty. Set in the relatively unspoilt lower reaches of Sungei Khatib Bongsu, one of Singapore’s last un-dammed rivers, the space is one that seems far out of place in the Singapore of today and holds in and around its many estuarine channels, one of the largest concentration of mangroves east of the Causeway along the island’s northern coast.

Paddling through the watery forest at Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

Paddling through the watery forest at Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

The much misunderstood mangrove forest, is very much a part of Singapore’s natural heritage. The watery forests, had for long, dominated much of Singapore’s coastal and estuarine areas, accounting for as much as an estimated 13% of Singapore’s land area at the time of the arrival of the British. Much has since been lost through development and reclamation and today, the area mangrove forests occupy amount to less that 1% of Singapore’s expanded land area. It is in such forests that we find a rich diversity of plant and animal life. Mangroves, importantly, also serve as nurseries for aquatic life as well as act as natural barriers that help protect our shorelines from erosion.

Khatib Bongsu is a watery but very green world.

Khatib Bongsu is a watery but very green world.

The island’s northern coast was especially rich in mangrove forests. Much has however, been cleared through the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, with large tracts being lost during the construction of the airbase at Seletar and the naval base at Sembawang in the early 1900s. The mangroves of the north, spread along the coast as well as inland through its many estuaries, along with those found across the strait in Johor, were once the domain of the Orang Seletar. A nomadic group of boat dwellers, the Orang Seletar had for long, featured in the Johor or Tebrau Strait, living off the sea and the mangroves; finding safe harbour in bad weather within the relatively sheltered mangrove lined estuaries.

Mangrove forests had once dominated much of coastal Singapore.

Mangrove forests had once dominated much of coastal Singapore.

Boat dwelling Orang Seletar families could apparently be found along Singapore’s northern coast until as recently as the 1970s. While the Orang Seletar in Singapore have, over the course of time, largely been assimilated into the wider Malay community, the are still communities of Orang Seletar across the strait in Johor. Clinging on to their Orang Seletar identity, the nine communities there live no longer on the water, but on the land in houses close to the water.

Safe harbour in the watery woods.

Safe harbour in the watery woods.

It is the labyrinth of tree shaded channels and the remnants of its more recent prawn farming past that makes the side of the right bank of Sungei Khatib Bongsu’s lower reaches an especially interesting area to kayak through. Much has since been reclaimed by the mangrove forest and although there still is evidence of human activity in the area, it is a wonderfully green and peaceful space that brings much joy to to the rower.

The canalised upper part of Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

The canalised upper part of Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

The area around Sungei Khatib Bongsu today, as seen on Google Maps.

The area around Sungei Khatib Bongsu today, as seen on Google Maps.

Paddling through the network of channels and bund encircled former prawn ponds – accessible through the concrete channels that once were their sluice gates, the sounds that are heard are mostly of the mangrove’s many avian residents. It was however the shrill call of one of the mangrove’s more diminutive winged creatures, the Ashy Tailorbird, that seemed to dominate, a call that could in the not too distant future, be drowned out by the noise of the fast advancing human world.  It is just north of Yishun Avenue 6, where the frontier seems now to be, that we see a wide barren patch. The patch is one cleared of its greenery so that a major road – an extension of Admiralty Road East, can be built; a sign that time may soon be called on an oasis that for long has been a sanctuary for a rich and diverse avian population.

The walk into the mangroves.

The walk into the mangroves.

The beginnings of a new road.

The beginnings of a new road.

The Sungei Khatib Bongsu mangroves, lies in an area between Sungei Khatib Bongsu and the left bank of Sungei Seletar at its mouth that lies beyond the Lower Seletar Dam that has been designated as South Simpang; at the southern area of a large plot of land reserved for public housing that will become the future Simpang New Town. The area is one that is especially rich in bird life, attracting a mix of  resident and migratory species and was a major breeding site for Black-crowned Night Herons, a herony that has fallen victim to mosquito fogging. While there is little to suggest that the herons will return to breed, the area is still one where many rare and endangered species of birds continue to be sighted and while kayaking through, what possibly was a critically endangered Great-billed Heron made a graceful appearance.

Evidence of the former prawn ponds.

Evidence of the former prawn ponds.

Kayaking into the ponds.

Kayaking into the former ponds.

It is for the area’s rich biodiversity that the Nature Society (Singapore) or NSS has long campaigned for its preservation and a proposal for its conservation was submitted by the NSS as far back as in 1993. This did seem to have some initial success and the area, now used as a military training area into which access is largely restricted, was identified as a nature area for conservation, as was reflected in the first issue of the Singapore Green Plan. Its protection as a nature area seemed once again confirmed by the then Acting Minister for National Development, Mr Lim Hng Kiang, during the budget debate on 18 March 1994 (see: Singapore Parliament Reports), with the Minister saying: “We have acceded to their (NSS) request in priorities and we have conserved Sungei Buloh Bird Sanctuary and Khatib Bongsu“. 

JeromeLim-7437

Unfortunately, the area has failed to make a reappearance in subsequently releases of the list of nature area for conservation, an omission that was also seen in subsequent editions of the Singapore Green Plan. What we now see consistently reflected in the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Master Plans (see: Master Plan), is that as part of a larger reserve area for the future Simpang, the area’s shoreline stands to be altered by the reclamation of land. Along with land reclamation, plans the Public Utilities Board (PUB) appears to have for Sungei Khatib Bongsu’s conversion into a reservoir that will also include the neighbouring Sungei Simpang under Phase 2 of the Seletar-Serangoon Scheme (SRSS), does mean that the future of the mangroves is rather uncertain.

A resident that faces an uncertain future.

A resident that faces an uncertain future.

Phase 2 of the SRSS involves the impounding of Sungei Khatib Bongsu, Sungei Simpang and Sungei Seletar to create the Coastal Seletar Reservoir. Based on the 2008 State of the Environment Report, this was to be carried out in tandem with land reclamation along the Simpang and Sembawang coast. The reclamation could commence as early as next year, 2015 (see State of the Environment 2008 Report Chapter 3: Water).

JeromeLim-7503

In the meantime, the NSS does continue with its efforts to bring to the attention of the various agencies involved in urban planning of the importance of the survival of the mangroves at Khatib Bongsu. Providing feedback to the URA on its Draft Master Plan in 2013 (see Feedback on the Updated URA Master Plan, November 2013), the NSS highlights the following:

Present here is the endangered mangrove tree species, Lumnitzera racemosa, listed in the Singapore Red Data Book (RDB). Growing plentifully by the edge and on the mangrove is the Hoya diversifolia. On the whole the mangrove here is extensive and healthy, with thicker stretches along Sg Khatib Bongsu and the estuary of Sg Seletar. 

A total of 185 species of birds, resident and migratory, have been recorded at the Khatib Bongsu  area. This comes to 49 % of the total number of bird species in Singapore (376, Pocket Checklist 2011, unpublished  )  – almost comparable to that at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. 13 bird species found here are listed in the RDB  and among these are:  Rusty-breasted Cuckoo, Straw-headed Bulbul, Ruddy Kingfisher, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Changeable Hawk Eagle, White-chested Babbler, etc. The Grey-headed Fish Eagle  and the Changeable Hawk eagle are nesting in the Albizia woodlands in this area.

The mangrove dependent species present are : Crab-eating Frog, Dog-faced Water Snake & Malaysian Wood Rat. The Malaysian Wood Rat is regarded is locally uncommon.   In 2000, Banded Krait (RDB species) was found here near the edge mangrove. Otters, probably the Smooth Otter, have been sighted by fishermen and birdwatchers in the abandoned fish ponds and the Khatib Bongsu river. 

URA Master Plan 2014, showing the reserve area at Simpang.

URA Master Plan 2014, showing the reserve area at Simpang.

JeromeLim-7484
It will certainly be a great loss to Singapore should the PUB and the Housing and Development Board (HDB) proceed with their plans for the area. What we stand to lose is not just another regenerated green patch, but a part of our natural heritage that as a habitat for the diverse array of plant and animals many of which are at risk of disappearing altogether from our shores, is one that can never be replaced.

The present shoreline at Simpang, threatened by possible future land reclamation.

The present shoreline at Simpang, threatened by possible future land reclamation.

The white sands at Tanjong Irau, another shoreline under threat of the possible future Simpang-Sembawang land reclamation.

The white sands at Tanjong Irau, another shoreline under threat of the possible future Simpang-Sembawang land reclamation.





Rediscovering the romance of Chap Goh Mei

19 02 2014

The fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year, Chap Goh Mei (Hokkien for 15th night) as it has been commonly referred to in Singapore, has traditionally been associated with romance. It was perhaps in the hope of rediscovering the romance of a festival that has been lost in the embrace of modernity that drew a healthy crowd of participants to a walk through the streets of Chinatown on the evening of the fifteenth day this year on what coincidentally was also the western day for the celebration of romance, St. Valentine’s Day that was organised by the Conservation Management Department of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

A romantic spot on the streets of Chinatown on Chap Goh Mei.

A romantic spot on the streets of Chinatown on Chap Goh Mei.

The fifteenth night of any Chinese lunar month is of course one that, weather conditions permitting, would be illuminated by the light of the full moon – a setting that certainly is ideal for romance. In the case of Chap Goh Mei, it is a night when Yuanxiao Jie (元宵节) is celebrated, providing an evening for romance to be found not only in the light of the moon, but also in the glow of colourful lanterns; it having been a tradition to have lanterns displayed outside homes and along five-foot-ways, as it was for children to take to the streets carrying lanterns in a fashion similar to the Mid-Autumn festival.

JeromeLim 277A8099

The search for romance would take many eligible young men and women to the water’s edge – the waterfront along Esplanade was, I am told, a particularly popular spot, from which fruits would be aimed into the water. For the ladies, it would be oranges, representing good husbands, that would be thrown, and for men, good wives taking the form of apples – a practice that I actually did not know about until more recent times.

The lantern parade through the streets of Chinatown on what can be seen as a double Valentine's Day in search for a lost romance.

The search for romance.

While we did not get the chance to toss oranges or apples in the name of romance, we did however get an opportunity to rediscover the romance of Chap Goh Mei and of a Chinatown that would otherwise lie hidden behind the recoloured labyrinth of streets of what would once have been referred to as Tua Poh or the ‘Greater Town’.

The lantern parade.

The lantern parade.

The route we were to take, lanterns in hand, was one of many twists and turns, taking us through a complex of streets that in being referred to as Chinatown, belies the intra-ethnic divisions that did once exist within the greater Chinese immigrant community, divisions that would once have been apparent in moving across the area’s many streets.

Only a thin Ho may enter? The Thin Ho clan association on Ann Siang Road.

Only a thin Ho may enter? The Thin Ho clan association on Ann Siang Road.

The first pause we made was the Ann Siang Hill area where the Cantonese dialect group did have a strong presence. Besides the well known Yeung Ching School (now referred to in the Mandarin form of the name as Yangzheng School) that was perched on top of Ann Siang Hill, there were the many Cantonese clan associations – many of which are still present in the area. Amongst the school alumni are many well known names. This included one that is synonymous with the the lost art of story telling and Redifussion’s Cantonese broadcasts in the 1950s and 1960s, Lee Dai Soh. Another, perhaps lesser known in Singapore, is a certain Xian Xinghai, the composer of the Yellow River Cantata – a work which was to become used as a Chinese revolutionary song. The Yeung Ching foundation does still maintain a presence in the area as is evident from a signboard seen atop a building it owns along Club Street close to its junction with Ann Siang Hill.

The condo in the background would have been where the Yeung Ching school would have stood - atop a since levelled hill the base of which would have been at the condo's sixth floor.

The condo in the background would have been where the Yeung Ching school would have stood – atop a since levelled hill the base of which would have been at the condo’s sixth floor.

Ann Siang Road.

Ann Siang Road.

Club Street.

Club Street.

From Ann Siang Road and Club Street, the procession made its way up to Ann Siang Hill before continuing down to Amoy Street, once a predominantly a Hokkien street, as was Telok Ayer Street where the group was to make a stop in the glow of the beautifully restored Thian Hock Keng temple, a magnificent example of Hokkien temple architecture and a National Monument.

Up Ann Siang Hill.

Up Ann Siang Hill.

The view at the top.

The view at the top.

The pathway down.

The pathway down.

Down Ann Siang Hill.

Down Ann Siang Hill.

Lantern bearers during a pause in the search for romance.

Lantern bearers posing for a photograph outside the Thain Hock Keng temple in the search for romance.

The temple, which now stands across from the watchful eyes of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, is dedicated to the protector of seafarers, the Taoist goddess of the sea, Ma Zu, does point to the fact that the temple did once find itself by the sea, as did the street it is located at – Telok Ayer Street was in the early days of post-Raffles Singapore, a waterfront to which many immigrants would have come ashore at (it was also interesting to learn that the rebuilt Hokkien Huay Kuan, sitting on the site of the temple’s wayang or Chinese Opera stage built over the then shoreline, was designed with a wide through corridor on its ground floor to provide a symbolic passage from the temple to the now distant sea). This did provide the street with a flavour that went beyond the Hokkiens with several other houses of worship and immigrant reception point coming along the street that were put up by other groups of immigrants including a Hakka clan association, Ying Fo Fui Kuan (also a National Monument) and the former Hakka Fuk Tak Chi Temple which was also used by Cantonese immigrants.

The 'watchful eyes' of the Hokkien Huay Kuan.

The ‘watchful eyes’ of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan.

The rather interesting walk ended at another magnificent work of temple architecture, the very recently restored Yueh Hai Ching or Wak Hai Cheng temple at Phillip Street. Set inside a within a walled compound accessible through a narrow doorway from which the sight of coils of incense would first greet the eye, the temple (actually two temples side-by-side), also a National Monument, is another wonderful example of temple architecture, -this time in Teochew style. 

The Yueh Hai Ching temple.

The Yueh Hai Ching temple.

Through the doorway to the newly restored Yueh Hai Ching.

Through the doorway to the newly restored Yueh Hai Ching.

Incense coils.

Incense coils.

The oldest Teochew temple in Singapore (its building dates back to the 1850s), the Yueh Hai Ching features a elaborately decorated roof and is dedicated to Ma Zu and Xuan Tian Shang Di. The temple besides catering to the Teochew community, does also attract worshipers from the Cantonese community – especially during the Chinese New Year – the Cantonese and Teochew communities having an affinity with both having originated from Guangdong (Canton) province. More on the temple can be found at the Ngee Ann Kongsi’s website.

Inside the temple.

Inside the temple.

Another view inside the temple.

Another view inside the temple.

While taking a walk in the company of strangers through now sanitised streets of an old world we in modern times may have seemed to have over-romanticised might not fit into everyone’s idea of how they would want to spend an evening businesses have turned into an excuse for money making, it was a walk in which I was rewarded with the rediscovery of the romance of a festival and of times I might not have otherwise been reminded of.

Smoke from large joss sticks in the compound.

Smoke from large joss sticks in the compound.








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,720 other followers

%d bloggers like this: