Ten 100 year old places in Singapore and the little stories they hide

9 07 2017

Surprising as it may seem, places that go back more than a hundred years are not uncommon in the midst of urban Singapore’s gleaming modernity. Not unexpectedly, many of these places hide a story or two, stories that relate to their history, and also ones that speak of Singapore’s linkages with the wider world. Here is a pick of ten such places with rather interesting tales to tell:


(1) The pagoda supported by eight “dimwits” 

Telok Ayer Street, a landing point for early immigrants in days when the sea washed up to it, is littered with the reminders of the forgotten days of adventure. The street is dotted with religious structures aplenty. Now reconstructions of the simple prayer houses put up by those whom came from distant lands so as to permit thanks to be offered to their gods for the safe passage, they offer insights into the origins of some of modern Singapore’s early settlers.

A cluster of Chinese structures from the mid 19th century, with two well ornamented pagodas, is found in the middle section of the street. The structures, which display the distinctive Minnan style of architecture, tell us of two waves of Hokkien settlers not just to Singapore but also to the region.

One of the pagodas is the Chung-Wen pagoda. Built initially for the worship of the god of literature, and used later as a school, it displays a little noticed but a rather interesting ornamental feature that was introduced to Minnan architecture during the Tang dynasty that takes the form of craved wooden figures of men with distinctively non-Chinese facial features dressed in colourful robes. The carved figures, appended in a corbel like fashion to the junctions of the beams and columns supporting the topmost tier of the pagoda, appear to be propping the structure up. The pieces, of which eight are found on the pagoda, are referred to in a rather disparaging manner as “dim-witted foreigners” in the vernacular. They have no structural function and are apparently a fairly commonly used decorative element in Minnan architecture. Rather than being an attempt to belittle, they are thought instead to have been a commemoration of the efforts of non-native workmen during the Tang period.

More on the Chung-Wen pagoda at : What’s propping a mid 1800s pagoda up on Telok Ayer Street


(2) A mosque with a leaning church steeple

Now fronted by a recently planted grove of gelam or Eucalyptus trees of a type from which Kampong Gelam (or Glam) got its name, is a mosque with an untypical minaret built into its boundary wall, the Hajjah Fatimah Mosque.

While the minaret’s claim to fame may be its tilt of 6 degrees –  for which it is known as the “Leaning Tower of Singapore”, what seems more noticeable is the minaret’s resemblance to a church’s steeple. Strange as it may sound, it may actually have been the steeple of the original St. Andrew’s Church (now the Cathedral) that served as an inspiration. The church  got its steeple in 1842, just a few years before the mosque was built.

Now stabilised, the tilt of the minaret has been attributed to the settlement of the less compact structure of the hand-made bricks employed in its construction. The mosque finds itself in an odd position as a shophouse-lined road, Java Road, once ran along its walls.

More photographs of the mosque and its unique minaret can be found at this link.


(3) A temple with furniture “made in Ngau Che Shui” 

Close-up of characters carved on the table. The Chinese characters ‘牛車水’ indicate that there were furniture craftsmen present in Singapore at a time when a lot of such commissioned work would have been carried out in China.

The Mun San Fook Tuck Chee temple has its roots in the Cantonese and Hakka coolie community who settled around the banks of the Kallang River in the mid-1800s. Many in the community found work in the brick kilns near the village of Sar Kong (or Sand Ridge) and helped established the temple in the 1860s. The term “Mun San” found in the temple’s name, is thought to be a corruption of the Malay word bangsal or shed or workshop and points to the area’s industrial origins.

The temple, which moved to its current premises in the early 1900s, is also a rare example of Cantonese style religious architecture in Singapore. What is perhaps more interestingly, is its furniture. A table used in the temple has the words “牛車水” carved into it, as a mark of its origin. “牛車水”, or ngau-che-shui as it would have been pronounced in Cantonese, translates literally to “Ox-Cart Water” and means “Bullock Water Cart”. This of course is a local reference to what we know today as Chinatown. The table is rather unusual in the sense that such items were then more commonly imported from China and what it does show is that wood craftsmen were then already present in Singapore’s Chinatown.

More on the temple at : On Borrowed Time: Mun San Fook Tuck Chee


(4) The graveyard of the would be successors of the Riau-Lingga Empire

Keramat Bukit Kasita on the slopes of Bukit Purmei, surrounded by block of HDB flats, is quite a curious sight. The old cemetery, with walls that give it an appearance of a fortified compound, has graves dressed both in the yellow of Malay royalty and green of holy men. Although it is quite unlikely, there are those who believe that the graveyard dates back to the 16th century. Even less likely is the claim that one of the graves purportedly belongs to “Sultan Iskandar Shah”.

What seems evident however, is that the oldest tomb goes back to 1721, which is well before Raffles and the British arrived. The cemetery is also known to be the burial place of Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah II, who was the very last sultan of Riau-Lingga, the Dutch influenced remnant of the once great Johor-Riau-Lingga empire. Uncooperative, Abdul Rahman II was driven out by the Dutch in 1911 and died a pauper in Singapore in 1930. Several of his descendants are also buried in the cemetery.

More at : A vestige of 16th Century Singapura?

The Riau-Lingga sultanate was formed in the wake of the death of Sultan Mahmud Shah III – the last ruler of the once great Johor-Riau-Lingga Sultanate. Supported by the Dutch, the half-brother of the would be Sultan Hussein Shah of Singapore – Abdul Rahman (I) was installed as its sultan; a move that would be cemented by the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. The sultanate would see five sultans reign before it was dissolved by the Dutch in 1911.


(5) The house of the rising sun

Emily Hill, a villa that dates back to the end of the 19th century, has had quite an eventful past. It has seen its ownership passed from the hands of the Sultan of Siak, first to a dentist and then to the Department of Social Welfare and its occupants include Managing Directors of a trading firm, dentists, the Consul-General of Japan and former prostitutes. In more recent times, the National Arts Council has taken over and it has been used as an arts school as well as a venue for the arts.

With the clutter that has been added to the area in the last 30 to 40 years, it is hard now to imagine that the house actually occupied a prominent position overlooking Middle Road. The road was the heart of a sizeable Japanese community in the early part of the 20th century, and was known as Chuo Dori (or Central Street) to the Japanese. Because of its position, it was chosen by an increasingly militant Japan to serve as a focal point for the community here as the office of its Consul-General in 1939. As the Japanese Consulate, it flew the flag of the rising sun from a position that was almost as lofty as Government House, perched atop nearby Mount Caroline. This continued until 1941 when the Japanese were expelled from Singapore.

Another aspect of the house that few seem to know about, was the misfortune that befell several of its early occupants in the form of a spate of premature deaths in the 1890s. One unfortunate victim was on of the Katz Brothers’s MDs who took up residence there, the 45 year old Mr Heinrich Bock. His death, from a fall off a balcony on 31 May 1896, occurred in rather mysterious circumstances and was ruled by the coroner to be due to “suicide whilst temporarily insane”.

More on Emily Hill at : A Last Reminder of an Old-Fashioned Corner of Singapore

Middle Road when it would have been referred to as Chuo Dori in the 1930s. Osborne House, the Japanese Consulate from 1939 to 1941 can be seen atop Mount Emily, beyond at the northwest end of the street.


(6) The Portuguese Bishop’s Palace

Built in 1912, the 3-storey rectory of St. Joseph’s Church, wears the appearance described as Portuguese Baroque. Intended to provide a parish hall and well as accommodation for the church’s clergymen, the house also has a room on its second floor and a small chapel on the third, reserved for the Roman Catholic Bishop of Macau. The church’s origins was in the Portuguese Mission. Rather uniquely in Singapore, it was a parish first of the diocese of Goa and later of Macau – both of which were Portuguese colonies. As such, the Bishop of Macau, visited regularly as the head of the diocese and this made it a palace of sorts for the Macanese Primate until the church’s links with Macau ceased in 1999 with the former colony’s transfer to China (the anticipation of Macau’s transfer to China saw St. Joseph’s Church transferred to the Archdiocese of Singapore in 1981, although the Bishop of Macau continued to appoint its priests until 1999).

More on Parochial House, as the rectory building is now known, at: A look into the Portuguese Church’s beautiful Parochial House


(7) A final hiding place among the old gravestones 

The Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery, is one of two old Muslim cemeteries from the 19th century that straddle “Grave Road” or Jalan Kubor in Kampong Gelam. It’s links go back to the prominent Yemeni-Arab Aljunied family with its patriarch, Syed Omar Ali having been buried on the grounds, which he bought and donated to the community as a burial ground, in 1852. The cemetery is also associated with an incident in December 1972 during which two gunmen at the top of Singapore’s most wanted list, who were brothers, took their own lives after being cornered by the police. This came at a time when gun crime was not uncommon in Singapore and when several gunmen were on the loose. The two brothers involved in this case, Abdul and Mustapha Wahab, were especially daring and trigger-happy and the incident brought to a one-and-a-half month reign of terror to a close.

More on this incident can be found in a previous post: When gunmen roamed the streets of Singapore: a showdown at Jalan Kubor.


(8) A grave that holds the remains of 10,000 fallen soldiers

With graves that date back to 1889, the Japanese Cemetery in Chuan Hoe Avenue counts as one of the oldest un-exhumed non-Muslim burial sites in Singapore. Established by Japanese rubber plantation owners who were also brothel keepers to allow hundreds of karayuki-san (women who came over from impoverished parts of Japan to work in the vice trade in the late 1800s and into the early 1900s), the cemetery has not just the simple headstones marking where these unfortunate women are buried but also the graves of several interesting characters. A charnel containing part of the remains of Singapore’s first Japanese resident, Yamamoto Otokichi or John M. Ottoson, is one. Otokichi had quite an eventful life. He survived a 14 month long ordeal in a drifting wreck of a ship to become the first translator of the bible into Japanese and settled eventually in Singapore.

The cemetery is also linked somehow to Singapore’s darkest of days. Besides being where Field Marshal Count Hisaichi Terauchi, the Supreme Commander of Southern Command of the Japanese Imperial Army during the war, was first buried; the cemetery is also where a grave containing the ashes of 10,000 Japanese soldiers who fell during the war in the Pacific is found. The ashes were moved to the site after the Japanese ritually destroyed a war memorial erected at the top of Bukit Batok at which the ashes were originally placed, the Syonan Chureito, in the days leading up to their surrender.

More on the cemetery at : Voices from a forgotten past.


(9) A church building occupied by Sin

Now occupied by Objectifs, visual arts centre, the oldest building now on Middle Road has distinctively church-like features. Built in the 1870s, it originally housed a Christian Institute before turning into a church, the “Malay Church”, from 1885 to 1929. It has for the longest of time however not been used as a church, housing a restaurant during the war before being used from the 1950s to the 1980s as – of all things – a motor vehicle workshop by the name of Sin Sin!
More on the building: A church once occupied by Sin,


(10) A bridge that was a tomb for over 20 years

Anderson Bridge, completed in 1910 so that Cavenagh Bridge could be replaced, seems to have had quite a gruesome past. Known as the “Bridge of Death” in the 1950s for the spate of deaths from accidents involving motorcyclists, it was also one of several locations at which the heads of beheaded criminals were put on display in the early days of the Japanese Occupation to instill fear in the general population.

The bridge also became a tomb for over two decades from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s, without anyone knowing. The skeleton of a man, Mr Ong Choon Lim, was discovered  by a worker carrying out maintenance in February 1987.  Ong, who would have been in his 50s when he died, had last been seen alive by members of his family in 1960. The skeleton was found with two rings, a watch, $9 in currency notes issued prior to 1967, an identity card issued in 1948 and a certificate issued in July 1961. Ong was thought to have died sometime in between 1962 and 1967, which meant that his remains would have lain undiscovered for over 20 years.

The bridge is one of five bridges over the Singapore River that were given conservation status in 2009. More on its conservation: Singapore River Bridges


 





What’s propping a mid 1800s pagoda up on Telok Ayer Street

27 09 2016

A curious sight found at one of Telok Ayer Street’s two beautifully restored mid-19th century Chinese pagodas, the Chung-Wen pagoda or Chong-Wen Ge (崇文阁), are eight figures that are seen propping up the pagoda’stop tier. Referred to rather disparagingly in  colloquial Hokkien as “dim-witted foreigners”, these figures carved from wood have no structural function and are purely decorative features. Similar figures, which are also sometimes made of clay, are apparently, quite commonly used in Minnan architecture and are thought to have their origins in the Tang Dynasty when they may have been used to commemorate the efforts of foreign labourers who were often involved in building projects.

The Chung Wen Pagoda.

The Chung Wen Pagoda.

Support beams for the uppermost tier of the pagoda, which feature carvings of non-Chinese men depicted as lending support to the structure.

Support beams for the uppermost tier of the pagoda, which feature carvings of non-Chinese men depicted as lending support to the structure.

A night-time view of the pagoda.

A night-time view of the pagoda.

The eight wooden cravings are just some of an amazing array of decorative work found in the incredibly beautiful pagoda. Built between 1849 and 1852, the pagoda, besides it features that define a strong Chinese flavour, also has features that speak of the influences present in the 18th century Singapore such as a wrought iron sprial staircase that was put in during a restoration effort in 1880 and encaustic floor tiles, which can also be found in other Chinese buildings in the country.

Decorative details.

Decorative details.

The second tier.

The second tier.

The reverse view.

The reverse view.

The wrought iron staircase.

The wrought iron staircase.

Linked with the Hokkien community, whose spiritual centre was at the next door Thian Hock Keng temple, the Chung-Wen pagoda apparently also had the support of other groups within the wider Chinese community. This is evident in one of three steles found on the site. The stele, which commemorates the pagoda’s construction, sees the names of Teochew leader Seah Eu Chin as well as that of a Hakka, Liew Lok Teck, alongside names associated such as Tan Kim Seng, Ang Choon Seng, Wee Chong Sun and Cheang Sam Teo from the Hokkien community.

The stele commemorating its construction.

The stele commemorating its construction.

A view of the entrance doorway to the Chong-wen Ge from the upper tier of the pagoda.

A view of the entrance doorway to the Chong-wen Ge from the upper tier of the pagoda.

We also see on the stele that a shrine dedicated to Zitong Dijun (梓潼帝君) was placed on the pagoda’s second tier. Zitong Dijun, also known as Wenchang (文昌), is considered to be the Chinese god of culture and literature, and is a patron deity of scholars. This is a clear indication of the Chung-Wen pagoda’s intended purpose as a place given to promoting learning, although not all experts agree on the manner in which it was done. What is clear however, is that the Chong-Wen Ge was where the written word was venerated. This was carried out through the practice of the burning of papers on which words have been written, in honour of the inventor of Chinese characters, Cangjie (倉頡). The installation of a small paper burning pagoda on the site for this purpose is also recorded on the stele.

A view from the pagoda across to the Thain Hock Keng and the former Keng Teck Whay.

Old world gods now surrounded by the gods of the new world  – a view from the pagoda across to the Thain Hock Keng and the former Keng Teck Whay and the financial centre of the city beyond it.

The building which housed the Chong Hock School.

The building which housed the Chong Hock School.

The practice of burning the written word ended in 1910 when the trustees of the Chong-Wen Ge handed control of it over to the Thian Hock Keng temple, although it can be said that the written word was then celebrated in a different manner with the founding of the Chong Hock School for girls in 1915. The school operated in the simple but lovely two storey building adjacent to the pagoda and only moved out in 1985 as Chongfu School.  The school’s building have seen several uses since and now houses the Singapore Musical Box Museum on its upper level. An encaustic tile shop and a Peranakan café is also now found on its ground level.

A view of the Chong Hock School building from the pagoda.

A view of the Chong Hock School building from the pagoda.

The Chong-Wen Ge, which translates as the Institute for the Veneration of Literature, was gazetted as a National Monument in 1973 with the Thian Hock Keng. Its wonderfully restored state is the result of its last major restoration effort which was undertaken between 2001-2003. More information on it and other conserved former school buildings can be found in a URA Heritage Schools Pamphlet.

Decorative detail on a door on the pagoda's second level.

Decorative detail on a door on the pagoda’s second level.

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A view from Telok Ayer Street.

A view from the cafe.

A view from the cafe.


A close-up of the eight “dim-witted foreigners”

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Celebrating SG50 and a heritage gem

14 08 2015

One of the joys of living in Singapore, a melting pot of immigrant cultures for over two centuries, is the diverse influences seen in the architecture on display across the city-state.  One area where a concentration of this can be admired is in and around Telok Ayer Street, a street once fronting the bay after which it was named and a point of landing for many of modern Singapore’s earliest immigrants.  Along the street, stand two gorgeously adorned pagodas, possibly the oldest in Singapore, both of which were erected by Hokkien immigrants, one of which takes one from earth to heaven and houses an altar to the Heavenly Jade Emperor within what was once the home of the Keng Teck Whay.

The former Keng Teck Whay, now the Singapore Yu Huang Gong.

The former Keng Teck Whay, now the Singapore Yu Huang Gong.

A second pagoda - Thian Hock Keng's Chong Wen pagoda, seen across the roofs of the Hokkien temple from the Keng Teck Way's pagoda.

A second pagoda – Thian Hock Keng’s Chong Wen pagoda, seen across the roofs of the Hokkien temple from the Keng Teck Way’s pagoda.

The Keng Teck Whay, a mutual-aid society, was founded in 1831 by 36 Hokkien Peranakan (Straits Chinese) businessmen from Malacca whose origins can be traced back to Chiang Chew (Zhangzhou), China. The association, membership of which passed from father to eldest son, erected what can be said to be a clan complex around the mid 19th century. Being a very exclusive association, the complex and the fine example of southern Chinese architecture found within it, was kept well hidden from the public eye for much of its long existence.

The ancestral hall where a tablet bearing the names of 35 of the 36 founders - one was apparently ejected. 36 places are however set at the table where food offerings to the ancestors are laid out during the sembayang abu or ancestral prayer sessions - a practice that is now continued by the Taoist. Mission

The ancestral hall where a tablet bearing the names of 35 of the 36 founders – one was apparently ejected. 36 places are however set at the table where food offerings to the ancestors are laid out during the sembayang abu or ancestral prayer sessions – a practice that is now continued by the Taoist. Mission

A National Monument since 2009, the former Keng Teck Whay building – the only surviving example of a Straits Chinese clan complex, has since been taken over by the Taoist Mission. The complex, which was in a state of disrepair when the mission took possession in 2010, was painstakingly restored over a two and a half year period by a team of experts appointed by the Taoist Mission at a cost of some $3.8 million. Having first opened its doors to the public as the Singapore Yu Huang Kong or Temple of the Heavenly Jade Emperor early this year, the newly restored complex was officially opened on 9 August, the day independent Singapore celebrated its golden jubilee.

A view of the central door and the door gods.

A view of the central door (reserved for the Deity) and the door gods.

A view through the opened Deity door.

A view through the opened Deity door.

The opening of the former Keng Teck Whay as the Yu Huang Kong, which was officiated by Mr Sam Tan, Minister of State, Prime Minister’s Office and Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, was a celebration in many ways. Marking the the end of the restoration effort, the ceremony, which also included the commemoration of National Day, was also a celebration of Singapore’s unity in diversity with representatives from Singapore’s many faiths also in the audience.

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There is also much to celebrate about the beauty of the complex and its traditionally constructed structures and decorations. Laid out along a north-south axis, the complex features two courtyards, separated by its rather interesting pagoda. The beautifully constructed pagoda, laid out on a square base with octagonal plan upper tiers, said to represent Earth and Heaven respectively, is thought to have been modelled after the pagoda structures seen in temples to Confucius. It is on the second level of the three tier pagoda that the altar dedicated to the Heavenly Jade Emperor is found. The ancestral hall, housed on the lower level of the rear two storey building, lies across the inner courtyard from the pagoda.

Another view of the pagoda.

Another view of the pagoda.

The entrance building.

The entrance hall.

The altar to the Heavenly Jade Emperor.

The altar to the Heavenly Jade Emperor.

The iron spiral staircase of the pagoda.

The iron spiral staircase of the pagoda.

Doors, frescos and architectural details of the pagoda, beautifully restored.

Doors, frescos and architectural details of the pagoda, beautifully restored.

The ancestral hall, would have been where the main focus of the gathering of members five times a year to conduct ancestral prayers or sembayang abu, was. The hall is where a tablet inscribed with the 35 names of the association’s founding members can be found. While the name of the 36th founder, who was ejected for reasons unknown, is missing from the tablet, 36 places were still somehow set at the sembayang abu food offering table – a practice that the Taoist Mission continues with. More information on the Keng Teck Whay and the sembayang abu food offerings be found at this link:  http://peranakan.s3.amazonaws.com/2005/2005_Issue_2.pdf.

The curved roof ridge of the entrance hall.

The curved roof ridge of the entrance hall.

The upper level of the rear hall.

The upper level of the rear hall.

Further information on the Keng Teck Whay can be also found at the following links:


More photographs of the Opening and SG50 National Day Commemoration ceremony

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More photographs of the beautifully restored Singapore Yu Huang Kong

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