Carless in the city

29 02 2016

It wasn’t a typical Sunday morning in Singapore’s Civic District. Freed of cars and the normal motorised traffic, claim to the streets was laid instead by hundreds of cyclists, joggers, walkers and roller-bladers for what was Singapore’s first Car-free Sunday.

The first of six car-free Sundays planned for the last Sunday of each month from February, the initiative aims to promote a car-lite culture in Singapore. Organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) in partnership with the National Parks Board (NParks), National Arts Council (NAC), Health Promotion Board (HPB) and Sport Singapore (SportSG), the event also saw a buzz come to some of the Civic District’s public spaces.

One public space that came alive was the newly completed Empress Lawn at Empress Place. The lawn, part of a Civic District public space enhancement drive initiated by the URA, was a venue for temporary food stalls  and mass exercise sessions – the food stalls perhaps a reminder of days when good and affordable food – now missing from much of the Civic District, had been one of the draws of the Empress Place area.

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A closed St. Andrew’s Road at first light.

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Representatives from the organisers together with Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure and Minister of Transport, Khaw Boon Wan and Minister for National Development, Lawrence Wong on the steps of City Hall for the flag-off.

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Car-free Anderson Bridge.

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Robinson Road, which was partially closed.

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On Robinson Road. Minister Khaw Boon Wan and Minister Lawrence Wong who both cycled two rounds around a car-free circuit.

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The dogs had their day too.

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The flag-off for the Love Cycling in Singapore group.

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URA CEO Ng Lang and Francis Chu of Love Cycling Singapore at the flag-off.

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Temporary tables and benches set up at Empress Lawn.

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The buzz at Empress Lawn.

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Mass aerobics at Empress Lawn.

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Mr Khaw Boon Wan at Empress Lawn.

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Public art on the lawn – giant saga seeds.

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A roller-blader, a jogger and a cyclist coming down St. Andrew’s Road.

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Beauty isn’t only skin deep

28 10 2015

There is nothing like the sheer elegance of a well crafted article of leather, especially one that comes from a house that has a long tradition of fine craftsmanship in skins. The house, Hermès, which had its beginnings as a master harness-maker and later as saddlemakers, has just that. Founded in Paris in 1837 by Thierry Hermès, the house has come a long way in the business of creating and crafting fine objects of desire from some of the most beautiful skins in the world.

Inside Hermès' wonderful Little Room of Wanders at Empress Place.

Inside Hermès’ wonderful Little Room of Wanders at Empress Place – a rare show of objects from Emile Hermès’ collection which is now a source of inspiration for the house’s designers.

As a treat specially crafted for this jubilee year, the house gives us in Singapore an opportunity to step into the world of fine leather craftsmanship in a exhibition Leather Forever that runs from 25 October to 13 December at the ArtScience Museum. The exhibition, which also includes a prelude to it at the Little Room of Wanders at Empress Place, takes visitors through some of the inspirations behind its creations, to the art and craft of leather working and to the house’s intriguing range of products that include some rather quirky looking items from its Special Orders  Workshop.

A side facing saddle for a woman in the Little Room of Wanders.

A side facing saddle designed to seat a woman in the Little Room of Wanders.

Equestrian objects such as spurs feature in the collection.

Equestrian objects such as spurs feature in the collection.

A intricately decorate trunk from Spain.

A intricately decorated trunk from Spain.

The Little Room of Wanders offers a rare peek into Emile Hermès' collection.

The Little Room of Wanders offers a rare peek into Emile Hermès’ collection.

Especially fascinating is Hermès’ Little Room of Wanders which contains a rare public display of a selection of objects from the incredible collection of Emile Hermès, the grandson of the founder. Emile Hermès, who took over the business in the early 1900s, had spent a lifetime assembling some a 15,000 item collection. Now housed in the private by-appointment-only Emile Hermès Museum, the collection of  objects of art, equestrian objects, ingenious mechanisms, books and the most unusual of knick-knacks has since become a source of inspiration for Hermès’ designers.

A camera shaped flask in the collection.

A camera shaped flask in the collection.

A close-up of a saddle from China.

A close-up of a saddle from China.

A travel case in the collection.

A travel case in the collection.

The exhibition proper, Leather Forever, at the ArtScience Musuem is also well worth a look at. This starts with visitors having a look at some of the background work in Hermès’ creations in its leather reserve seen in the Savoire Faire section. Here an introduction is give to the classification, cutting and assembly of skins. What must certainly be a treat will be a chance to see artisans, flown specially in from the house’s Parisian workshops, at work in recreating some of the house’s iconic leather bags.

An artisan from Hermès' Paris workshop at work at the ArtScience Museum.

An artisan from Hermès’ Paris workshop at work at the ArtScience Museum.

Part of Hermès' Leather Reserve.

Part of Hermès’ Leather Reserve.

A demo of how the leather is prepared for cutting.

A demo of how the leather is prepared for cutting.

Finished objects of desire.

Finished objects of desire.

Speaking of icons, a selection of the house’s range of its legendary Kellys and Birkins, are also conspicuously on show along with variations as well as other leather crafted objects that the house’s icons have inspired. Among the variations of the Kelly, which was re-christened after Princess Grace (Kelly) of Monaco used it famously to conceal her pregnancy from the paparazzi, or as the house puts it, as a bodyguard for the future Princess Caroline, are five Kellydoll bags on display designed to each represent each decade of Singapore’s independence.

Variations on the legendary Kelly.

Variations on the legendary Kelly.

Horsing around with a rocking Kelly.

Horsing around with a rocking Kelly.

One of the five Kellydoll bags designed to each represent a decade of Singapore's independence.

One of the five Kellydoll bags designed to each represent a decade of Singapore’s independence.

The exhibitions are opened from 10am to 7pm from Saturday to Thursday and from 10am to 9pm on Friday and admission is free. More information on them can be found at http://lfe.hermes.com/sg/en.

The first ever bag with a zipper, aka the

The first ever bag with a zipper, aka the “Hermès Fastener,” fitted to it. Emile Hermès held a patent for the zipper which was fitted to a bag designed to be quickly secured for the age of the automobile.

A saddle leather bustier designed Jean Paul Gaultier for Hermès (notice the Kelly inspired straps).

A saddle leather bustier designed Jean Paul Gaultier for Hermès (notice the Kelly inspired straps).

A baseball glove out of the Special Orders Workshop.

A baseball glove out of the Special Orders Workshop.

An apple carrier (complete with knife and holder) on loan from its owner who commissioned it to allow him to carry his apple a day.

An apple carrier (complete with knife and holder) on loan from its owner who commissioned it to allow him to carry his apple a day.

A gift commissioned by the Duke of Windsor for Wallis Simpson, a leather wheelbarrow, inspired by his observation that the duchess already had

A gift commissioned in 1947 by the Duke of Windsor for Wallis Simpson, a leather wheelbarrow, inspired by the Duke’s observation that the duchess already had “wheelbarrows” of fragrances and gloves.

A winged saddle made at Hermès Sellerie workshop.

A winged saddle made at Hermès Sellerie workshop.

Zouzou, a ostrich skin rhino created by Leïla Menchari for the windows of the 24 Faubourg Saint Honoré store in 1978 at the entrance to the exhibition.

Zouzou, a ostrich skin rhino created by Leïla Menchari for the windows of the 24 Faubourg Saint Honoré store in 1978 at the entrance to the exhibition.

The exhibition gives visitors a chance to horse around.

The exhibition gives visitors a chance to horse around.

A case of miniatures.

A case of miniatures.

A door bolt inspired fastener.

A door bolt inspired fastener.

A flight of fancy on a motorcycle.

A flight of fancy on a motorcycle.

Travel cases from the days when the romance of travel was at its height.

Travel cases from the days when the romance of travel was at its height.

A travel wardrobe.

A travel wardrobe.

A dance inspired leather bag.

A dance inspired leather bag.





Singapore’s lost elegance

26 09 2015

Modern Singapore stands today, close to 200 years after it came into being as a trading post, as one of the most advanced cities in the world. Icons of the new age now dominate the metropolis, its financial district, much of which came up on land that was made out of marshland and water, is now an amazing maze of glass and steel for which the sky seems the only limit.

Against all of this, it probably will be difficult to imagine Singapore as having been anything other than a city of skyscrapers – even if some fragments of the past are still found within the modern world; certainly not the elegant municipality it seemed to be a century ago as postcards and photographs from the era certainly depict. Having the air, almost, of a European urban centre, the commercial centre of the municipality had by the centenary of its founding, already taken on the appearance of the “great commercial emporium” its founder, Stamford Raffles, had envisioned of it.

Progress has seen that that charming and dignified old Singapore could not survive. The 1950s was probably when the beginning of the end came with the addition of the first “skyscrapers” to the waterfront (interestingly there was an attempt to limit the height of buildings at the waterfront back in the 1920s to a height of 96′ 6″). Much was also to follow, especially in the post independent years and by the 1970s the face of the financial district would drastically be changed.  The 1970s also saw substantial amounts of land being reclaimed, creating the land on which Singapore has built its city of future.


Empress Place and Princess Square

The statue of the founder of modern Singapore, Raffles, was moved to (its current location at) Empress Place from the Padang on the occasion of the centenary of British Singapore's founding.

The statue of the founder of modern Singapore, Raffles, was moved to (its current location at) Empress Place from the Padang on the occasion of the centenary of British Singapore’s founding. The colonnade seen around it was damaged and removed during the war years.

Another view of Empress Place, with the Fullerton Building (completed 1928) already constructed.

Another view of Empress Place, with the Fullerton Building (completed 1928) already constructed.

Princess Square - looking up High Street towards Fort Cannin Light. The Singapore Cricket Club is on the right and the Hotel de L'Europe stands where the old Supreme Court (now part of the National Gallery) now stands.

Princess Square – looking up High Street towards Fort Canning Light. The Singapore Cricket Club is on the right and the Hotel de L’Europe stands at the location of old Supreme Court (now part of the National Gallery).


Battery Road / Fullerton Square

Fullerton Square, before the Fullerton Building came up. Part of the first HongKong Bank Chambers can be seen on the left. The Exchange and the old General Post Office on the right is where the Fullerton now stands.

Fullerton Square, before the Fullerton Building came up. Part of the first HongKong Bank Chambers can be seen on the left. The Exchange and the old General Post Office on the right is where the Fullerton now stands.

Battery Road, seen with the Tan Kim Seng fountain (now at Esplanade Park).

Battery Road, seen with the Tan Kim Seng fountain (since moved to Esplanade Park).

Another view of Battery Road at Fullerton Square.

Another view of Battery Road at Fullerton Square. The Medical Hall is where the Straits Trading Building now stands.

Battery Road at the turn of the century.

Battery Road at the turn of the century. The Dispensary, at the corner of Bonham Street is where 6 Battery Road (Chartered Bank) now stands.

Another view up Battery Road.

Another view up Battery Road.


Finlayson Green

Finlayson Green at the turn of the last century. The Straits Times offices can be seen on the left with the offices of the Dutch shipping company Koninklijke Paketvaart Maatshappij on the right along with the three storey headquarters of Behn Meyer.

Another view of Finlayson Green.

Another view of Finlayson Green.


Anson Road / Robinson Road

Anson Road, with the once iconic Boustead Institute at the meeting of Anson and Tanjong Pagar Roads.

Anson Road, with the once iconic Boustead Institute at the meeting of Anson and Tanjong Pagar Roads.

Robinson Road. Part of Telok Ayer market can be seen on the left.

Robinson Road. The Neo-Classical former Eastern Extension Telegraph Company Building (1927) and part of Telok Ayer market can be seen on the left.

Another view of Robinson Road.

Another view of Robinson Road.


Collyer Quay and the lost waterfront

Built along a bund constructed by convict labour in the mid-1800s, Collyer Quay was completed in 1864 and was soon lined with rather grand looking edifices. By the time the road was widened in the second decade of the 1900s through further reclamation, buildings such as the Alkaff’s Arcade and the five storey St. Helen’s Court had already been erected.

Now around which some of the tallest buildings are found, limits on the height of buildings along the waterfront was a subject of much discussion in the 1920s. In 1921, the Municipal Commission took a decision to limit the height of buildings along the waterfront to 96′ 6″ (about 29.5 metres), the height of St. Helen’s Court. This was to permit “much needed circulation of air at ground”. This was to however be challenged by the architects for soon to be built Union Building, who were successful in having the restrictions relaxed despite objections. One objection raised by John Little’s positioned behind the new building was motivated by a concern that the height of the Union Building would be of “disadvantage and inconvenience to them in the matter of light” (see: The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 30 January 1922).

Collyer Quay in the late 19th century. The first HongKong and Shanghai Bank chambers can be seen at the near end.

Collyer Quay in the late 19th century. The first HongKong and Shanghai Bank chambers (completed in 1892) can be seen at the near end.

A view from the far end of Collyer Quay at Finlayson Green.

A view from the far end of Collyer Quay at Finlayson Green. Princes Building, the 1909 built Alkaff’s Arcade can be seen along with 5 storey St. Helen’s Court. St. Helen’s Court, which was later to be renamed Shell House and subsequently Clifford House after the new 15 storey Shell House was built, was then the tallest building along Collyer Quay.

Collyer Quay in the 1920s.

Collyer Quay in the 1930s, with the second Ocean Building (built in 1924) along with Princes Building, the Arcade, St. Helen’s Court, Union Building (1924) and the Fullerton Building (GPO, 1928) already up. Trolley buses had by that time replaced trams as public transport.

The waterfront in the late 1920s with Johnston's Pier.

The waterfront in the late 1920s with Johnston’s Pier.

Clifford Pier, built in 1933, in uncluttered settings.

Clifford Pier, built in 1933, in uncluttered settings.

The view of the waterfront from the inner roads.

The view of the waterfront from the inner roads with the Union Building, HongKong and Shanghai Bank Chambers and the Fullerton Building.

A view of the Fullerton Road end of the waterfront.

A view of the Fullerton Road end of the waterfront.

The waterfront in the 1960s. By this time, taller buildings such as the Asia Insurance Building, had already begun to transform the skyline.

The waterfront in the 1960s. By this time, taller buildings such as the Asia Insurance Building, had already begun to transform the skyline.


The Esplanade

The Esplanade.

The Esplanade, late 1920s.

Anderson Bridge, when first completed.

Anderson Bridge, when first completed.

Connaught Drive, possibly in the late 1920s.

Connaught Drive, possibly in the late 1920s.


 

 

 

 

 

 





Digging the Empress up in search of Singapura

14 02 2015

Just six months or so after the dust seemed to have settled on Empress Place with completion of a four-year long refurbishment of the now almost too clean looking Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, the dust levels seem to be rising again. Since 2 February, a huge hole has appeared in the shadow old Vic, one that is being dug so as to find pieces of our buried past.

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The archaeological excavation, the largest ever undertaken in Singapore, is organised by the National Heritage Board (NHB) with the support of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as part of an effort to commemorate 31 years of archaeology in Singapore.

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The dig, right in a place that when I first came to know it was a car park, has unearthed artefacts that are thought to be highly significant that could possible date as far back as the 14th century. The finds in a previously archaeologically unexplored site, include pieces of porcelain and clay figurines that are thought to originate from as far away as China and  help provide an understanding of a Singapura that seemed to have been at the crossroads even before the British made it so.

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The Old Vic’s ticking once again

22 07 2014

The Old Vic’s finally back. Having seen it look increasingly tired over the years, it’s nice to see that it’s not just been freshened up during a four year hibernation, but has also been done up very nicely for its role as a mid-sized performing arts venue for the future.

Ticking once again is the clock at the Old Vic.

Ticking once again is the clock at the Old Vic.

The Old Vic's definitely back!

The Old Vic’ made new.

A passageway regained by the side of the concert hall.

A passageway regained by the side of the concert hall.

I had the opportunity to have a quick glance at the newly refurbished Vic at an exclusive tour organised for a group of bloggers over the weekend of the Open House, with a visit to the top of what to me has always been the mysterious clock tower thrown in; and I must say, there isn’t anything there is to dislike about its latest makeover – except that is that everyone now seems to want to refer to the well-loved monument by its acronym VTCH (for Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall). We in Singapore do have a penchant for using acronym, but extending the practice to our well loved icons, doesn’t seem quite right.

The queue at the opening of the Open House.

The queue at the opening of the Open House.

We got a peek at the inside of the clock tower.

We got a peek at the inside of the clock tower.

It will always the old Vic to me, a landmark that we have long identified with our Lion City. It is where the founder of modern Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles, has maintained his proud position – almost uninterrupted (the statue was removed from its position during the Japanese Occupation in 1942 and restored in 1946) since 1919, the centenary of him setting foot on the island at a point not far away on the river bank and setting the ball rolling on a chain of events that has brought us to where we are today. The chimes from its clock tower were ones that flavoured my childhood and it was something I looked forward to hearing on the many occasions I found myself in the area in the days of my childhood.

Inside the refurbished Old Vic - seen on the third level below the glass roof of the Central Atrium.

Inside the refurbished Old Vic – seen on the third level below the glass roof of the Central Atrium.

The refurbished theatre.

The refurbished theatre.

The section of the building that has served as the concert hall since the late 1970s was of course the Victoria Memorial Hall back in the days of my youth, a name I still have the tendency, as with many of my generation, to use in referring to the National Monument. There were several occasions when I did have a chance to pop into it – it had been the site of many exhibitions in the days before the former World Trade Centre and the former Harbourfront took over as Singapore’s main exhibition venues.

The entrance to the former Victoria Memorial Hall - the area below the concert hall where the box office is located.

The entrance to the former Victoria Memorial Hall – the area below the concert hall where the box office is located.

The concert hall, which served as the home of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) from 1979 until the SSO shifted to the Esplanade in 2002, was actually a 1905 addition to the building, built in the memory of Queen Victoria. The original section, built as a town hall in 1862, was then remodelled to complement the memorial hall in a symmetrical fashion and reopened as a theatre in 1909. The clock tower, with chimes and clock by the Straits Trading Company, was completed in 1906.

A view from the clock tower.

A view from the clock tower.

Over the years, several modifications were made to the buildings. This included a significant makeover in the 1950s, which saw the two buildings air-conditioned, and the seating capacity of the theatre doubled. That makeover also saw the incorporation of the previously open courtyard between the two buildings into the structure with it being covered up – a modification that has to an extent, now been reversed.

The Central Atrium - where the courtyard between the two buildings had been.

The Central Atrium – where the courtyard between the two buildings had been.

A look through the old arches to the new relief etched panels of the theatre.

A look through the old arches to the new relief etched panels of the theatre.

A glass roof now allows light into a rather pleasant looking and air-conditioned courtyard, the Central Atrium, restored partially on the side of the concert hall. Not only does this allow a wonderful view of the clock tower, it allows it to serve as a through passageway from the front of the buildings to the back. At the back a magnificent view of Old Parliament House, now The Arts House, Singapore’s oldest government building, in its full glory awaits.

The Arts House - at the end of the passageway.

The Arts House – at the end of the passageway.

The Central Atrium is where we see a tasteful blend of old and new. The rolling back of the modifications made to maximise the capacities of both the theatre and the concert hall, sees the boundaries of both pushed back to the original locations, allowing the columns and arches to be brought out. On the side of the concert hall, we see how it may have been with its ornate archways and rusticated columns restored. It is however the side of the theatre that seems most interesting, it is there that we now see a reinterpretation of courtyard side of the old theatre, with the use of relief etched precast panels providing a modern and forward looking impression, partly to compensate for the absence of information relating to the original architectural details, in contrast to that on the side of the concert hall.

The precast etched relief panels.

The precast relief etched panels on the theatre side of the atrium.

It was also nice to see how Victoria Theatre has been redone – its seating arranged in the horseshoe shape as it might originally have been with a provision of an orchestral pit. This has reduced its capacity from 900  to 614, providing it with a more intimate setting. More importantly, the modifications must now give it much improved acoustics – one of the few impressions of the theatre that I have from watching Lea Salonga in a Singapore Repertory Theatre production of the musical “Into the Woods” sometime in the 1990s, was of its rather poor acoustics.

The refurbished theatre.

The refurbished theatre.

It is interesting to see that several items from the old theatre have been incorporated into the new – with the backs of the old seats decorating the entrance foyer, seen in a floating “Rubik’s Cube”. Frames and material from the old seating are now also seen in the remodelled theatre, such as the cast-iron components incorporated into the newly installed acoustic timber walls.

A re-used part of the frame of the old seating.

A re-used part of the frame of the old seating.

The 'Rubik's Cube' in the theatre's foyer and a reflection of it on a counter top.

The ‘Rubik’s Cube’ in the theatre’s foyer and a reflection of it on a counter top.

While some of us did not get to see the 673 seat concert hall, we did hear the glorious strains from Dr Margaret Chan’s masterful pipe-organ performance from the foyer where we got to see the suspended balcony – replacing the previously added balcony that had to be supported by intrusive structures, to free up volume and improve acoustics.

The refurbished concert hall (photo courtesy of Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall).

The refurbished concert hall (photo courtesy of Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall).

The suspended balcony.

The suspended balcony.

What we got to see that most visitors during the Open House didn’t was the clock tower (which incidentally has had its crown restored), which I had been curious about throughout  my childhood. The inside of the clock tower turned out to be quite different from what I had envisaged – the clock’s mechanism and the five bells seemed a lot smaller than what I had imagined as a child.

The chime bells and a clock face on the platform below.

The chime bells and a clock face on the platform below.

The writing on the largest bell: 'This clock and chime of bells were presented to the Queen Victoria Memorial Hall by the Straits Trading Company, 1905'.

The writing on the largest bell: ‘This clock and chime of bells were presented to the Queen Victoria Memorial Hall by the Straits Trading Company, 1905’.

The clock has seen an improvement during the refurbishment – an automatic winding mechanism was added. Prior to this, the clock had to be rewound manually, requiring the clock winder to climb 176 steps once a week at the top of which he would have had to spend up to an hour winding the clock.

The long road to the top - 176 steps for the winder who would have to ascend once a week.

The long road to the top – 176 steps for the winder who would have to make the acsent once a week.

An automatic winder has been added to the clock's mechanism.

An automatic winder has been added to the clock’s mechanism.

The clock’s chimes, so I am told, are audible as far away as the Esplanade. However, its sounded a lot softer than one might have would have expected it to, standing right by the bells. Beside the thrill of hearing the bells chime at 11 o’clock, there was also the bonus of taking in the magnificent views of the surroundings and the contrast of the old Padang surrounded by the architectural symbols of colonial power next to what architectural historian Lai Chee Kien, calls a new “liquid padang” – surrounded by the architectural symbols representing the new power.

The clock level.

The clock level.

The refurbishment of the old Vic coincides with an effort that will also see a renovation of the Asian Civilisations Museum and the transformation of the Old Supreme Court and City Hall into the National Gallery Singapore – all scheduled to be completed next year. That will complete the transformation of an area that had been at the heart of the colonial administration into an arts and cultural hub – what the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), in their 2014 Master Plan, terms as a “Civic and Cultural District by the Bay“.

For more information on what is envisaged for the Civic District as part of URA Master Plan 2014, do visit the following links:

More information on Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall and its recent refurbishment can be found on their website.


Some key dates relating to the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall:

17 March 1855

The foundation stone for the new Town Hall was laid by the Governor of Singapore, Colonel W. J. Butterworth.

1902 – 1905

Victoria Memorial Hall was built in memory of Queen Victoria’s reign. Victoria Memorial Hall and Tower were joined to the existing theatre by R. A. J. Bidwell of Swan and Maclaren, with passageway between the two buildings.

18 October 1905

Victoria Memorial Hall was officially opened by the Governor of the Straits Settlements, John Anderson.

1906

The construction of the signature clock tower was completed. This was later than expected due to the delay in donation of the clock and chimes by the Straits Trading Company.

1909

The first performance that took place in the newly completed Victoria Theatre was Sirs William S. Gilbert and Arthur S. Sullivan’s well-known and amusing opera, The Pirates of Penzance, staged by the Singapore Amateur Dramatic Committee.

6 February 1919

On Centenary Day, T. Woolmer’s statue of Sir Stamford Raffles was moved from the Padang to Victoria Memorial Hall, taking the place of the bronze elephant presented to Singapore by King Chulalongkorn.

Early 1942

The Victoria Memorial Hall was used as a hospital for victims of bombing raids by the Japanese forces during World War II.

1946 – 1947

Victoria Memorial Hall was used as a location for war crimes courts.

21 November 1954

The inaugural meeting of the People’s Action Party was held at the Victoria Memorial Hall.

1954 – 1958

Major renovations were carried out including a complete restructuring of the interior of the theatre. Air-conditioning and sound-proofing was added and the courtyard covered up.

4 November 1957

The public had its first glimpse at television when William Jacks and Co presented a full length variety show on television at the annual Philips Radio Convention held at the Victoria Memorial Hall.

15 February 1963

Television Singapura (Singapore’s first TV station) was launched with a pilot monochrome service at the Victoria Memorial Hall.

1979

Victoria Memorial Hall was renamed the Victoria Concert Hall and named as the official home of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

1980s

A gallery was added to the Concert Hall, adding seating capacity and enclosing the second storey balconies on the front and back facades with glass.

1990s

Renovations were carried out to Victoria Theatre to make it a more efficient performing venue.

February 1992

Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall was gazetted as a national monument of Singapore.

2010

The Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall was closed for a $158 million renovation.

2014

Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall reopened its doors after a four-year renovation.


 





The Tunnel

15 06 2012

In a part of Singapore where the remnants of an old world finds itself cloaked in the garments of the new, lies a relic that even in the new garment that it wears, is one in which I am often reminded of halcyon days that accompanied what is now a lost childhood. The relic, a now underused and largely ignored pedestrian underpass, is one that I am well acquainted with from those days, days when family outings often involved visits to the sea shore to enjoy the cool of the evening breeze. The Esplanade or Queen Elizabeth Walk, as Esplanade Park was more commonly referred to then, was a popular choice with my parents. Its stone benches provided a wonderful place to sit and enjoy the breeze, as well as a vantage from where we could watch the dance of lights, flickering lights of the ships in the harbour that coloured the darkness for as far as the eye could see.

The pedestrian underpass under Connaught Drive today – corrugated metal sheathing once lined its walls.

I had always looked forward to visiting the Esplanade. It wasn’t just for the sights it offered and the cool evening breeze, but also where there was chendol (a sinful dessert made with shaved iced, coconut milk, bits of green jelly shaped like worms and sweetened with palm sugar) to die for which came from a semi-circular food centre located close to where the Stamford Canal spilled into the sea. There were also the itinerant vendors to look forward to – the kacang putih seller with a table load of nut filled canisters balanced on his head and the balloon vendor who held up a colourful bunch of balloons that in the days when helium filled balloons were rare, were air-filled and held up by a long tubular balloon. It was however not the chendol or the vendors that would most interest me, but the underpass under Connaught Drive which my sister and I would refer to as ‘the tunnel’, a passage through which was always necessary to take us from Empress Place where my father would leave his car to the Esplanade. I would never fail to take the opportunity to stamp my feet as I passed through it, not in a show of temper, but to hear the echoes of the sound it made that bounced off the corrugated metal sheathing that had then lined the walls of the tunnel.

Singapore’s first overhead bridge in Collyer Quay, opened a month and a half after the underpass at Connaught Drive (source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

The tunnel, I have discovered, was completed in the days when Singapore was a part of its now northern neighbours. It was built to ease the flow of traffic which in stopping to allow pedestrians to cross, was reported to have backed-up all the way to the Merdeka Bridge. Those were days when Connaught Drive served as a main thoroughfare that took traffic (reportedly some 4,200 vehicles and hour at its peak) from Nicoll Highway into the commercial heart of the city. Built at a cost of some $85,000, the 28 metre tunnel which is about the width of a road-lane at 2.4 metres, was opened on 23rd February 1964 – just before Singapore’s first overhead bridge at Collyer Quay was completed in April 1964. This makes the underpass a historic one, being the first non-conventional (non-surface) pedestrian crossing built in Singapore. That fact is today is largely forgotten, as is the underpass. The recent developments in the area involving roads, public transport, and use of buildings in Empress Place, has seen pedestrian traffic in the area falling off, as well as vehicular traffic on Connaught Drive and the underpass in the context of all that does seem rather irrelevant. What greets me today, is a tunnel that stripped of its corrugated lining, vendors and beggars, contains not the echoes of today’s footsteps, but the silence of one that is forgotten.





A Bangsawan revival by the river

16 04 2012

The Singapore River has played a vital role in the settlement and early development of Singapore, long-serving as a gateway for the arrival of influences which has given Singapore its rich cultural diversity. While that role has since been minimised by the shift in the means by which people arrive to our shores as well as with the cutting-off of the river from the sea, it is nice to see that it still, as a venue, has a role to play in keeping the traditions that it previously played a role in bringing in, alive with an initiative ‘Regenerating Communities at Empress Place’. The initiative, conceived by The Old Parliament House Limited which runs The Arts House at Empress Place saw a three-instalment programme curated by Jeremiah Choy that featured performances of fading performing art-forms which were once common on our streets. This included a Chinese puppet theatre show and in its third and last instalment, a very rare Bangsawan performance by Singapore’s last exclusive Bangsawan troupe, Sri Anggerik Bangsawan at the ACM Green.

The third instalment of the first series of the 'Regenerating Communities at Empress Place' initiative saw a rare performance of Bangsawan or Malay Opera.

The first series of 'Regenerating Communities at Empress Place' was curated by Jeremiah Choy who is seen introducing Noor Azhar Mohamed of the Sri Anggerik Bangsawan troupe.

A Bangsawan performer before the performance.

Bangsawan or Malay Opera, is an art form that has its origins in commercial 19th Century Parsi theatre, arriving first in Penang at the end of the 19th Century via travelling troupes coming from Bombay. The name ‘Bangsawan’ is a combination of two words, ‘bangsa’ which means ‘race’ or ‘a group of people’ in Malay, and ‘wan’ which is a reference to ‘stature’. Being performed purely for entertainment, Bangsawan was always an evolving form that adapted very much to the taste of the audiences it attracted and at the height of its popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, drew audiences which included those from the other races across society. The typical Bangsawan performance would include both dialogue and song and dance segments which incorporates influences across several cultures and involves very elaborate stage sets, make-up and costumes, making the performances a very colourful and musical experience.

Bangsawan involves very elaborate stage sets as well as make-up and costumes - and requires quite a fair bit of preparation prior to each performance.

A performer having her make-up applied.

The clasped hands of a performer waiting for her make-up to be done.

The performance over two evenings over the weekend was of an excerpt from Dang Anum, the retelling of a touching tale which revolves around the unfortunate Dang Anum, the daughter of Sang Rajuna Tapa – a Minister in the court of Sultan Iskandar Shah (who ruled Singapore from 1399 to 1402). The performance was a special one for the troupe, Sri Anggerik Bangsawan, which traces its origins to 1986, when its founder, the late Haji Hamid Ahmad, formed it with the aim of preserving what was already then a vanishing art form. The performance of the excerpt represents a comeback for the troupe which took a two-year break due to Pak Haji Hamid’s(as he is affectionately known) illness and eventual passing last year. The performance, though brief, required much love and effort to put together, was one that the troupe dedicated as a tribute to their late founder.

Performers in full costume.

On the evidence of the thoroughly enjoyable performance, it would be certainly be a wonderful experience to be able to see a full performance of Dang Anum, which the troupe has previously performed twice – once in the early 2000s and a second time as part of a larger performance in 2007. The troupe which does not have any immediate plans to stage a full performance, does hope to be in a position to put what must be an ambitious attempt at a large scale in one to two years. It one we are told that which will be very elaborate, featuring a Javanese epic tale that was written by Pak Haji Hamid, and one on which the troupe certainly would require support of various bodies and groups supporting the performing arts, as well as sponsors on.

The opening of the performance.

Scenes from the performance.

More scenes from the performance.

The audience was captivated by the performance.