Days of Wonder

28 05 2021

Films containing familiar sights and sounds of the past have a wonderful effect of evoking feelings of nostalgia and a sense of coming home. Such was the case when I was provided with the opportunity to view a selection digitised 8mm home movies from the 1960s and 1970s that have been deposited in the National Archives of Singapore with a view to putting together segments of them in preparation for last Thursday’s “Archives Invites” online session “Days of Wonder: Fun and Leisure in 1960s and 1970s Singapore“. The session involved the screening of two videos, each containing scenes of the Singapore I was familiar with as a child, with a focus on sites, attractions and leisure activities that were popular among Singaporeans.

Fun for me in the late 1960s.

Among the activities that I put a spotlight on in the videos were those that took place by the coastal areas, which included scenes of Changi Beach – an extremely popular spot for picnics and dips in the sea at high tide – complete with kelongs in the near distance. Changi Beach, a regular destination for picnics right out the boot of the car (we could once drive right up to the beach), was where I first took a dip in the sea. The beach and the long sandy coastline that ran all the way towards Bedok, featured in many weekend outings and holidays through much of my childhood.

Ayer Gemuroh



It was the same for many in my generation. Changi Beach was often the place to chill out at during the weekend, especially when the timing of the high tide was favourable, which a quick check on tide tables published daily in the newspapers, could confirm. A friend of mine recounted how she looked forward to trips to Changi on the back of a borrowed lorry with the extended family whenever the timing of the tide was good. Pots of chicken curry and loafs of the local version of the baguette would also accompany the . If you were fortunate to have come with a car, there was also the option of driving right up to the beach and parking right under a shady tree to have your picnic right out of the car’s boot. Seeing cars with their wheels stuck in the sand was a pretty common sight because of this. And, if the chicken curry ran out or if one had come without food, there were several beachside cafés that one could visit. There was also the option of waiting for the fish and chips van, and the various itinerant food vendors that also visited the beach throughout the day such as the vadai man, the kacang putih man and the ice-cream vendors.

A small part of the segment on the coast, involved a holiday, taken locally by the sea – as was the fashion back in days when most of us could not afford to take a trip abroad. For me holidays involved the various government holiday facilities along the Tanah Merah coast, at long lost places with names like Mata Ikan and Ayer Gemuroh. A question that was put to me during the Q&A session was what do I miss most of those days. Mata Ikan, the Tanah Merah coast, and also how we seemed to have unlimited access to much of the length of Singapore’s coast, is probably what I miss most. Those were wonderful times for me, walking by the beach and along stretches of seawalls, poking my nose into the numerous pillboxes that lined the coast (boy, did they smell!), wading out when the tide went out, often as far as the kelongs were planted. The coastal regions are much more protected these days and in many parts, blocked off from the public.

Beside my interactions with the Tanah Merah coast, there were many other places in SIngapore that left an impression. I remember how places would come alive by night, as the scenes of an Orchard Road and Guillemard Circus illuminated by neon advertising boards seen in the videos show. Singapore had such a wonderful glow by night with the numerous fountains – many planted on the major roundabouts, also illuminated by night, and the occasional float parades and light-ups during National Day, often adding to the night lights. Adding to the lively scene by night were what would be termed as “pop-up” food centres. Several open-air car parks, such as the famous one on Orchard Road where Orchard Central, transformed themselves into places to indulge in some of the best hawker fare that could be found in Singapore.

The car park at Orchard Road that transformed into a hawker fare paradise by night (Paul Piollet Collection, National Archives of Singapore)



The one at Orchard Road, dubbed “Glutton’s Square” to provide it with greater tourism appeal, was an assault (in a pleasant way) on four of the five the senses. Evening time brought with it the disorderly rush of pushcarts, all of which would somehow be lined up in neat rows in double quick time. Lit by kerosene lamps in the dark, each contributed to the smoke that filled the air together with an unimaginable array of aromas. The sounds of the ladles scraping the bottoms of woks added to the atmosphere. Besides Orchard Road, there were also carparks at Prince Edward Road opposite the Singapore Polytechnic and the one in front of the railway station at which hawkers similarly gathered by night.

Among the other scenes were those of Orchard Road, which was in the 1960s, a place to perhaps shop for cars, to visit the western style supermarkets, which were uncommon then, and perhaps C K Tang. C K Tang, a pioneering departmental store on Orchard Road, was then housed in its rather iconic Chinese-roofed building and right nearby was Champion Motors on which Lucky Plaza now stands, Fitzpatrick’s Supermarket and Orchard Motors. The conversion of Orchard Motors into The Orchard – a shopping centre at which the infamous Tivoli Coffee House was located, possibly marked the beginning of the end for Orchard Road’s motoring days. There are perhaps two reminders left of those days, in the form of Liat Towers – built as a Mercedes Benz showroom and headquarters, and the delightful sunburst topped former Malayan Motors 1920s showroom that can be found opposite Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station.

The former Malayan Motors showroom seen in 1984 (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

Another of my favourite urban sites was Change Alley, which many locals – my grandmother included – seem to pronounce as something that sounded like “Chin-Charlie”. It was such a joy to wander through the alley, which in the late 1960s was filled with the sounds of the chorus of laughing bags being set off. The alley, which also provided correspondence between Collyer Quay and Raffles Place, was described by the BBC’s Alan Whicker in a 1959 newsreel as being “perhaps the most famous hundred yards in Southeast Asia”, a hundred yards of alley where one risked being “attacked in the pocket book”.

Whicker’s World with the BBC’s Alan Whicker wandering through Change Alley in 1959.

During the rather lively Q&A session at the end of the Archives Invites session, I believe that in view of the limited time we had, a number of questions posed went unanswered. Should you have been in that audience, and did not receive answers to the questions you may have posed, or have questions to which I was not able to adequately answer, you may leave them as comments to this post. I will try answering them as best as I can.





That Singapore that has been taken away from us

8 07 2017

Several screen-grabs  from a wonderful video montage put up by the Huntley Film Archives of that Singapore that has been taken away from us – a Singapore I called home. The video montage can also be found below.





Magical spaces : Bukit Brown in the rain

5 09 2016

A place so magical, there is no need for words ….


More magical Singapore spaces:

51 photographs taken in Singapore that will take you away from Singapore


 





Lessons from the tuck shop

12 04 2016

A guest post by Edmund Arozoo, now of Adelaide, but once of Jalan Hock Chye and Montfort School:


Greetings from Adelaide!

I started to write my memoirs of life in a kampong more than fifteen years ago but did put it on the back burner numerous times. However through Facebook I was fortunate to become friends with persons with similar interest in Singapore’s nostalgic past. On my visits back to Singapore I was privileged to meet and chat with two bloggers who have inspired me not only to contribute with posts and comments on fb but also rekindled my interest to finish what I had started. I like to extend a big THANK YOU to Jerome Lim and Lam Chun See. I also found Chun See’s book “Good Morning Yesterday” an inspiration. Here is a snippet that I penned recently that I like to share on their blogs. 


For the past month or so I have been watching an interesting TV series – “The Brain”. This series from China showcases the unbelievable potential of the mental abilities of the contestants.  Witnessing their mental recall capabilities was jaw dropping for me!  Fast approaching seventy my memory recall does pale in comparison – only a slight fraction of theirs indeed.

Often I do question my memories of the “old days”.  I deliberately left out the adjective “good”. I acknowledge that life was simple but challenging then, especially for those of us from humble beginnings. Reading the many posts and comments on the various Facebook group pages, I realised that there are many out there who remember their own “rustic” years. However nostalgic emotions sometimes do tend to colour our memories. Maybe we were young and saw things through childhood innocence.

The Montfort School tuck shop (1985 Montfort School Annual / Montfort Alumni-Singapore Facebook Page).

The Montfort School tuck shop (1985 Montfort School Annual / Montfort Alumni-Singapore Facebook Page).

Perhaps too as kids we were protected by our parents, who in their little ways tried their best, as we were growing up, not to make us feel that we were poor.  I may be wrong but I also feel that the society then was different. I don’t recall being snubbed by “the rich”. Maybe we knew our places and accepted each other.  A leveller at that time if I recall correctly was the beach.  The rich would drive their cars right up to the beaches like Tanah Merah, Changi etc . The other families would arrive by bus with their home cook meals and simple unchilled drinks etc.  But all the kids would have the time of their lives till it was time to return home either by car or bus, all sunburnt.

Changi Beach in the 1960s, when you could drive your car right up to the beach.

Having spent twelve years in the same school I should have more vivid memories of my school days. But all I have are snippets here and there and a few photographs as reminders. But what I clearly remember is that the majority of my schoolmates came from similar “rustic” backgrounds. Personally I was taught not to feel sorry for the limited “pocket money” I took to school each day being often reminded that some of my classmates had to contend with so much less. Looking back I often chuckle when I recall that if you dropped your coins through the holes in your pocket that were caused by the marbles you carried – the response would be “tough”. You learnt the hard way to cherish the few coins you were given. When the time came for school fees to be paid, the notes were carefully wrapped in a knot tied at the corner of a handkerchief. This was to ensure we did not lose the money easily.

For sure there would have been more memorable moments of those carefree schooldays but I cannot recall as much as I would like to. However there is one incident that has always been dominant in my mind and I am reminded of it whenever I witness poverty either first hand or on TV.

This occurred while I was in primary school. It was a normal “recess” break and the “monitors” or prefects were diligently performing their duties to ensure order and that we were safe in getting our hot meals to the tables in the tuck shop / canteen.  We were all having our meals when suddenly there was a shout followed by a commotion.  Looking out we saw the prefects running out and chasing a student. They soon caught him and brought him back to the canteen. Then we realised what had happened.

A school tuck shop typical of the old days (National Archives photograph).

The student was a classmate and his family if I remember correctly had a farm in Ponggol. On that day he did not have any money for a meal and probably did not even have breakfast at home. Unknown to us, this perhaps could have been the norm for him for most of his school days. But on that day the pangs of hunger overcame him and drove him to snatch a large triangular “curry puff” from the Indian stall that also sold bread, Indian cookies and of course our favourite “kachang puteh”.

Another of the Montfort School tuck shop (1985 Montfort School Annual / Montfort Alumni-Singapore Facebook Page).

Another of the Montfort School tuck shop (1985 Montfort School Annual / Montfort Alumni-Singapore Facebook Page).

As he was brought back to the canteen I witnessed the humiliation on his face and that expression I will never never forget! He was made to face the Indian stallholder probably to apologise and perhaps make arrangements for reimbursement for the curry puff. This was witness by everyone in the canteen.

A triangular curry puff.

A triangular curry puff.

What ensued always stands out from this unfortunate incident. I witness compassion. The Indian kachang puteh man, who possibly was by no means rich, looked at the poor unfortunate boy and saw the anguish on his face. Then in a typical Indian manner with a slanted twist of his head and a wave of his flat palm rolling at the wrist he signalled that it was okay – he did not want any payment and allowed the boy to keep the curry puff. The boy was then marched to the principal’s office and what happen after I cannot recall.

Earlier Montfort School tuck shop (Montfort School Alumini Facebook Page)

A tuck shop at Montfort School from earlier times but not the one Edmund has his lesson in (Montfort Alumini Singapore Facebook Page).

These are two striking lessons I learnt from this unfortunate incident that I will always remember.  Firstly how hunger can drive good persons to do things in desperation. I can understand when I read about people doing things they normally would not do, when they become desperate especially on seeing their children crying in hunger.

On the other side I also learnt that day that you do not have to be rich to be compassionate, understanding and benevolent. Perhaps this is in fact the essence of the “kampong spirit” that in our memories was prevalent in those days. I must confess that I often chuckle when I read of attempts to recreate this spirit which I feel was lost with the eradication of kampongs. It was the environment of the rustic surrounds and first hand observation of the everyday struggles of most families that were the basis of this spontaneous compassion. Observing the elders of the household – our parents, grandparents etc. and their empathy for the neighbours perhaps also does flow down and shape our own behaviour towards others. In addition experiencing the kindness our neighbours extended to our own family completes the cycle of goodwill.

The whole world has changed and with the current abundance of affluence and affordability the plight of those in need are often not obvious. The average person cannot relate to this and thus perhaps the spontaneous responses that were around in the past are not forthcoming. These are my perceptions. I may be right or completely wrong so I will leave you, the reader to make your own judgement. In my heart I will always cherish the lessons I learnt in the tuckshop.

Edmund Arozoo

April 2016


 





The bloodstained cliffs south of Sentosa

7 08 2014

Unlike its better known northern companion, the isle of Peace and Tranquility, Sentosa, the island of Pulau Tekukor is one that rarely gets a mention. Named in Malay after the rather benign spotted-neck dove – tekukur (as it is spelt today) is derived from the sound the bird makes, the name, so it seems, masks quite a sinister past.

A tekukur in flight.

A tekukur in flight.

Pulau Tekukor or Dove Island - hear stories of its past when it was known as Pulau Penyabong and its association with the origins of the former name of Sentosa, Pulau Blakang Mati.

Pulau Tekukor or Dove Island.

If one of the forgotten stories of our shores are to be believed, a curse was said to have been placed on Pulau Tekukor and despite the island’s welcoming sandy beaches, the island is one that unlike its immediate neighbours, has never been inhabited. The curse, one that left its soil incapable of supporting any useful plant life as well as leaving it without a source of freshwater, as the story goes, is a result of the island’s violent past, a past that does provide a possible explanation as to how the nearby island of Sentosa acquired its mysterious previous name,  Pulau Blakang Mati (the island of death at the back).

The eastern end of Sentosa today with Terumbu Buran in the foreground.

The paradise end of Sentosa today with Terumbu Buran in the foreground, now an isle for the living.

Pulau Tekukor was once itself, known by another name, Pulau Penyabong. Penyabung (as penyabong is spelt today), as is used in more recent times, has connotations of bloody confrontations, having been associated with the cruel but once popular sport of cockfighting. The fights, however, that were thought to have taken place on the island, so that blood not stain the soils of the more sacredly held islands, involved creatures not of the feathered kind. Pitting keris wielding Malay and Bugis warriors of the old world, these confrontations were duels to the death, for which the reward for the vanquished, was a final journey to be buried on an island that now for some, does seem like paradise on earth.

Another view of Tekukor a.k.a. Penyabong, Sisters' Islands can be seen to its south-west. The channel on the west of the island, Sisters Fairway is also known as Selat Tanjong Hakim.

Another view of Tekukor a.k.a. Penyabong, Sisters’ Islands can be seen to its south-west. The channel on the west of the island, Sisters Fairway is also known as Selat Tanjong Hakim.

Besides the curiously named Pulau Blakang Mati, another name that is thought to be linked to the bloody battles, is Selat Tanjong Hakim (now more commonly referred to Sisters’ Fairway in navigation charts). Hakim being the Malay word for judge – the selat or strait west of Penyabong, would have watched over the duels, in the same way a judge might have presided over the fights.

Another view of the former Pulau Blakang Mati.

Another view of the former Pulau Blakang Mati.

As Pulau Tekukor, the island became a commercial explosives storage facility for the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) in the 1980s- after the island was enlarged by reclamation of its western shores. There was also a proposal to turn it into a sanctuary for long-tailed macaques that surfaced in the mid 2000s that did not take off and as of today, there are no known plans for the island and the island remains as mysterious as it long has been.

The sandy beaches and 'bloodstained' cliff faces of Tekukor.

The sandy beaches and ‘bloodstained’ cliff faces of Tekukor.

In its cliff faces that are still seen today – stained by the blood of the fallen, there perhaps is the only reminder of the story of the island; a tale that, as with the many stories from our islands handed down through the generations telling us of a past we long have discarded, may never again be told.





A window into a Singapore we have discarded

6 05 2014

Update, 3 December 2016:

The house featured, Teck Seng’s Place, will be open on the 2nd and 4th weekend of the month and public holidays, from 10.00am – 2.00pm from. The house is also one of the highlights in NParks’ Kampung Tour, which is held on every third Saturday of the month. The house together with the Ubin Fruit Orchard will also feature in NParks’ new Rustic Reflections Tour, which will commence next year on every third Saturday of the month. More information on the tours can be found at https://www.nparks.gov.sg/ubin.


It may well be on the island from which the early building blocks of modern Singapore was obtained that we will find the last reminders of a way of life the new world it built has rendered irrelevant. The island, Pulau Ubin or the granite island, is the last to support the remnants of a once ubiquitous village community, a feature not only of the island but also much of a rural Singapore we no longer see.

A window into a forgotten way of life.

A window into a forgotten way of life.

While in all probability, the days for what’s left of the island’s village communities are numbered; there remains only a handful of villagers who now number in their tens rather than in the low thousands at its height and who hold stubbornly on to a way of life that will have little appeal to the generations that will follow; there at least in a well preserved village house, House 363B, that little reminder of a time and place that does now seem all too far away.

JeromeLim 277A3532

House 363B is typical of a Chinese village dwelling, with a zinc roof, and a cemented base supporting half cemented and half wooded walls. Outside it, rubber sheet rollers tell us of days when much of the rural landscape had been dominated by rubber trees. On the inside, there is a collection of once familiar household items. These include a food safe – complete with receptacles placed under its four legs to keep insects out (a necessity in homes in the pre-refrigerator era), classic furniture, foot-pedal sewing machines, dachings and other implements of that forgotten age. It is in the house where life as it might have been, sans life itself, is being showcased, providing the generations of the future with a glimpse of how we did once live.

JeromeLim 277A3530

The house is perhaps symbolic of what we in Singapore hope for Ubin, not just an ready made escape from the brave new world we have embraced just a short boat ride away, but in its wild, undisturbed, and unmanicured state, a world where we can relive a life we have discarded.

JeromeLim 277A3529

Ubin does of course offer potentially more than that. The authorities do seem to be committed to not only keeping it in its rustic state for our future generations, but are also taking efforts to regenerate and protect its natural environment. This along with the noises being heard on an interest to keep what is left of the island’s heritage, the efforts taken in developing environmentally friendly solutions in the provision of electrical power for the island, and the attempts to engage Singaporeans on what they would like to see of Ubin (see also Enhancing Pulau Ubin’s heritage and rustic charm), does give us hope that Ubin will not become another part of a forgotten Singapore that will be lost.

JeromeLim 277A3510

JeromeLim 277A3515

JeromeLim 277A3526

JeromeLim 277A3518

JeromeLim 277A3523


On the subject of Pulau Ubin, the Tua Pek Kong Temple on Pulau Ubin (Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Ting Da Bo Gong Temple or 乌敏岛佛山亭大伯公庙), hosts an annual festival in honour of the deity over 6 days this year from 12 to 17 May 2014. It is well worth a visit there to soak up an atmosphere of a traditional religious celebration in a setting that is only available on the island.

The highlights of the celebration, besides the religious ceremonies, include Teochew Opera performances on each of the first five evenings (12 to 16 May) at 7pm and one in the morning of the last day at 10 am, as well as a Getai performance on the last evening that does draw a huge crowd. Free boat rides to Ubin will also be offered during the festival evenings from 6.30 pm (to Ubin) and up to 10 pm (from Ubin). More information on this year’s festival can be found at this site.

More information on previous Getai and Teochew Opera performances on Pulau Ubin can be found at the following posts:


About house 363B, Teck Seng’s Place (information from NParks)

Overlooking the Sensory Trail ponds, House 363B has been refurbished and conserved as a model of a Chinese kampung house. Built in the 1970s, the house was owned by Mr Chew Teck Seng who used to operate a provision shop in the village centre known as ‘Teck Seng Provision Shop’. When Mr Chew’s family resettled to mainland Singapore mainland in 2005, the house was returned to the state.

Renamed ‘Teck Seng’s Place’, the house offers visitors a nostalgic trip back in time to life on Pulau Ubin during the 1970s. The interpretive signs and memorabilia, like retro furniture and old photographs, centre around the fictional narrative of the Tan family, highlighting key milestones such as the grandfather’s first voyage to Pulau Ubin from China, the family’s struggles to eke out a sustainable living, as well as the growth of the family.

The house will be open on the 2nd and 4th weekend of the month and public holidays, from 10.00am – 2.00pm. Teck Seng’s Place is currently one of the highlights in NParks’ Kampung Tour, held on every third Saturday of the month. Ubin Fruit Orchard and Teck Seng’s Place will also be highlights in NParks’ new Rustic Reflections Tour, which will commence next year on every third Saturday of the month. Members of the public can visit NParks’ website (https://www.nparks.gov.sg/ubin) for updates and more information on how to register for these guided tours.