The ghosts on Forbidden Hill

27 11 2015

Fort Canning Hill, the scene of many a schoolboy adventure, is a place I constantly find myself drawn to. The attraction of the hill, where mortals once feared to tread in its days as Bukit Larangan – the Forbidden Hill, is perhaps the air of mystery that surrounds it. Its slopes were believed to be the abode of the kings of ancient Singapura, in life and in death. Even with the interventions of the ever changing world, it still is where the ghosts of a Singapore well forgotten, are ever present.

Not a typical ghost seen at Fort Canning Green.

Not a typical ghost seen at Fort Canning Green.

The area of the forbidden hill (what Bukit Larangan, its name in Malay, translates into) that I find the greatest fascination for is its north-eastern slope. Here, the opportunities for an encounter with a ghost of the past, are plenty. The slope is where a mysterious a tomb is found, purportedly that of the last of the kings of old Singapura, Iskandar Shah.

The Keramat, which some believe to be the tomb of the last king of Singapura, Iskandar Shah.

The Keramat, which some believe to be the tomb of the last king of Singapura, Iskandar Shah.

This tomb, venerated as a keramat, gained the attention of John Crawfurd on his first visit to the hill, just three years after the East India Company’s settlement was established. Crawfurd, who was later to be appointed Singapore’s second Resident, made a note of his walk around the hill in his diary. The interest he had on the hill was motivated perhaps by the observation that the “only remains of antiquity at Singapore, besides the (Singapore) stone, are contained on the hill”.

On the eastern slopes of Fort Canning Hill.

On the eastern slopes of Fort Canning Hill.

Crawfurd describes the ruins that were observed on “a greater part of the west and northern side of the hill”. Going further , he takes note of “another terrace, on the north declivity of the hill … said to have been the burying place of of Iskandar Shah“, a claim he suggested was apocryphal for good reason.  It should be noted that Crawfurd was mistaken in his assumption that the long axis of the hill ran east-west instead of north-northwest to south-southeast and he would have been referring to the eastern slope of the hill in relation to the location of the tomb.

An artist’s impression of Parameswara, thought to also be Iskandar Shah (source: Wikipedia).

The tomb seemed already a place of veneration even then. Crawfurd also takes note of the “rude structure” raised over the tomb, to which “since the formation of the new Settlement … Mohammedans, Hindoos, and Chinese equally resort to do homage”.  The tomb has certainly added much to the mystery and superstition that has surrounded the hill over the intervening years. One rumour has it that unexplained events that led to occupying Japanese troops abandoning the British Military built barrack blocks on the hill during the war, had be due to the intervention of the tomb’s occupant.

The barrack block at Cox Terrace with the cemetery in the foreground (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

The barrack block at Cox Terrace with the old Christian cemetery in the foreground (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

One of these barrack blocks, lies just northwest of the tomb at Cox Terrace. A squash centre in my schooldays and and arts centre after, it now masquerades as the fancy sounding Singapore Pinacothèque de Paris, a private art museum. The museum overlooks what is today a most wonderful of space we know as Fort Canning Green. It comes to life occasionally when events such as theatre and musical performances under the stars, are held on it. And when it is kept clear,  it is a place, as it was in the days of my youth, where an escape could be found in.

Fort Canning Green today, well manicured, but still where many ghosts of the past are to be found.

Fort Canning Green today, well manicured, but still where many ghosts of the past are to be found.

A stage set for the spirits of a Shakespearean play, The Tempest, at Fort Canning Green.

A stage set for the spirits of a Shakespearean play, The Tempest, at Fort Canning Green.

There is much on and surrounding the green that will remind us of its previous use. A brick wall that encompasses most of the grounds around much of its perimeter give very clear hints of its days as an old Christian cemetery, as do the two cross adorned Gothic style gates intended as entry points. Information on the cemetery, the second Christian cemetery to be used in Singapore, is mostly contained in a 1912 register compiled by H. A. Stallwood. The register was published in the Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (JSBRAS) and was an attempt to create on as no register of burials for the cemetery could then be found.

A general view of the cemetery in the 1912 JSBRAS paper.

A general view of the cemetery in the included with the 1912 register.

The south east corner of the cemetery in 1921 (The cemetery seen in 1912 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

The south east corner of the cemetery in 1921 (The cemetery seen in 1912 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

We see from the register that the cemetery was divided down its east-west axis by a wall. The cemetery’s Anglican section was located south of this division, with the northern half allocated to the burials of other Christian denominations. The background to the cemetery is also given:

The Cemetery stands on the slope of Fort Canning Hill, and is approached from the South by Fort Canning Road, through a gateway designed partly in the Gothic style of Architecture. It was opened in 1822 to take the place of the first Christian Cemetery which was situated close to where the flag-staff at Fort Canning now stands. It was closed when the Cemetery in Bukit Timah Road was opened in 1865.

One of the two gothic gates that serve as the entrances to the old Christian cemetery at Fort Canning (source: JSBRAS paper). The gates are still standing.

One of the two gothic gates that serve as the entrances to the old Christian cemetery at Fort Canning – also from the 1912 register. The gates are still standing.

Possibly one of the last burials to have taken place, that of young Ada Sutcliffe (year of death incorrectly recorded in the JSBRAS paper as 1865).

Possibly one of the last burials to have taken place, that of young Ada Sutcliffe (year of death incorrectly recorded in the 1912 Regsiter as 1865).

Close-up of a tomb, possibly taken in the late 1940s by Richard Stone (online: http://www.stone-family.info/stone-richard-photos.html).

Close-up of a tomb, possibly taken in the late 1940s by Richard Stone (online: http://www.stone-family.info/stone-richard-photos.html).

The register makes mention of the attraction of the grounds to “those who appreciate quiet, contemplative surroundings“, something that as mentioned above, is the case even today. We are also reminded of the cemetery’s historical value, what perhaps was the main motivation for Stallwood’s effort:

To those who feel an interest in Singapore and its history, few places in the Settlement offer so much of interest.  Many old residents lie buried here, and many tombstones testify to the number of lives sacrificed by members of the Civil Service, who were called to rest at a very early age, whilst taking their share in the administration of this Settlement, of which we are all so proud. The United Services also yield their quota of names, unfortunately, some well-known, if not illustrious, in the annals of their country.

Fort Canning Green is still an attraction for those who appreciate quiet, contemplative surroundings.

Fort Canning Green is still an attraction for those who appreciate quiet, contemplative surroundings.

The layout of the cemetery from the 1912 Register.

The layout of the cemetery from the 1912 Register.

The oldest tomb identified by Stallwood, one from 1821, belongs to a John C. Collingwood of the ship “Susan”. Its presence in the cemetery, which was only opened in 1822, was attributed to it having been relocated from the original cemetery. The last burial was however incorrectly identified as being that of two year old Marie Dominica Scott in 1868. A check against the register’s listing of graves has the child’s death occurring instead in 1858. The 1858 death was also confirmed by the brother of the deceased in a letter published in the Straits Times on 17 July 1912, written to point the error out.

A photograph from the JSBRAS paper. The memorial to the men of HMS Niger mentioned in the paper, is in the centre of the picture.

A photograph from the 1912 Register. A memorial to the men of HMS Niger that is also mentioned in the paper, is in the centre of the picture.

The cemetery seen in 1912 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

The cemetery seen in 1912 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Within the walls, two noticeable structures that belonged to the cemetery remain. Both are in the southwest corner. The larger of the two, said to have been the largest in the former cemetery, is dedicated to the memory of James Brooke Napier, the infant son of William Napier. It was after William, a lawyer and the founder of the Singapore Free Press, that Napier Road was named.

A photograph of the memorial to James Brooke Napier from the JSBRAS paper.

A photograph of the memorial to James Brooke Napier from the 1912 Register.

The Napier Memorial and a former barrack block turned art museum at the top of Fort Canning Green.

The Napier Memorial and a former barrack block turned art museum at the top of Fort Canning Green.

William Napier was for a short while the Lieutenant-Governor of Labuan. He serve under Governor James Brooke, who is better known to us as the first of the white Rajahs of Sarawak. It was after Brooke that the infant was named. James Brooke Napier died at sea on 17 February 1848 at the age of 5 months and 24 days. His mother was Maria Frances Napier was the widow of the illustrious George D. Coleman, who Napier married not long after Coleman’s death in October 1844.

The memorial today.

The memorial today.

George Coleman, Singapore’s first public works architect, is best known to us as the man behind the beautiful Armenian Church and for lending his name to the street on which he had his house and to a bridge over the Singapore river. There is much of the former cemetery connected to him. The Gothic gates are ones that Coleman designed, along with the second set of the large structures mentioned, the two cupolas. Located just down the slope from the Napier memorial, the cupolas are of ornamental value, intended it is suggested, to provide shelter for rest and for contemplation.

The southwest area of the cemetery with the cuploas clearly visible. Possibly taken in the late 1940s it is from a wonderful online collection of photographs taken in Singapore from 1948 to the mid-1950s by Richard Stone (online: http://www.stone-family.info/stone-richard-photos.html).

The southwest area of the cemetery with the cuploas and the memorial to James Brooke Napier visible. Possibly taken in the late 1940s, it is from a wonderful online collection of photographs taken in Singapore from 1948 to the mid-1950s by Richard Stone (online: http://www.stone-family.info/stone-richard-photos.html).

The cupolas today.

The cupolas today.

Coleman was also laid to rest in the cemetery. An Irishman, he was believed to have been a member of the Church of Ireland. A mausoleum to Coleman, who died in 1844, was located at the non-Anglican section, in the cemetery’s northwest corner. All that remains of that is its memorial tablet, which can be found embedded in the western wall of Fort Canning Green, not far from where his mausoleum was located.

Coleman's cupolas with a view towards the northern Gothic gate.

Coleman’s cupolas with a view towards the northern Gothic gate.

The tablet belonging to the grave of George D. Coleman on the western wall - just below Fort Canning Centre.

The tablet belonging to the tomb of George D. Coleman on the western wall – just below Fort Canning Centre.

George D. Coleman's tomb in the northwest corner seen in 1956. The tomb was one of about 120 graves retained when the cemetery was converted into a 'Garden of Memory' in 1954 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

George D. Coleman’s tomb in the northwest corner seen in 1956. The tomb was one of about 120 graves retained when the cemetery was converted into a ‘Garden of Memory’ in 1954 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Coleman’s tomb was one of those that stood until the early 1970s. It was one of some 120 tombs identified for preservation by the Committee for the Preservation of Historic Sites when a decision was taken in the 1950s to turn the cemetery into a “garden of memory” in the early 1950s. The decision, prompted by the state of neglect and ruin the historic site was in, resulted in the exhumation of more than four hundred graves. An effort was also made to preserve the memory of those buried in the exhumed graves by embedding the headstones and memorial tablets of the removed graves into the walls of the cemetery. An extension to the existing wall had also to be constructed at then open eastern perimeter to permit this and the work was completed in 1954.

The garden, still with a scattering of graves, in 1974 ( (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

The garden, still with a scattering of graves, in 1974 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Another view of the former cemetery in 1974 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Another view of the former cemetery in 1974 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Gravestones embedded into the walls.

Gravestones embedded into the walls.

The writing on the walls now include grave stones from a mid-1970s exercise that saw all remaining graves exhumed and yields a rather interesting mix of stories from the former graves. In it we see many who came from far and wide bringing a diversity to the new settlement. We also see many names of notable personalities from the settlement’s earliest days. Examples of both include names such as Aristake Sarkies, who was Singapore’s first Armenian merchant, and also Jose D’Almeida, who was to be knighted by the Queen of Portugal and who was to become the first Portuguese Consul General to the Straits Settlements. D’Almeida Street is named after him.

The memorial tablets embedded in the walls tell us of many who came from far and wide in the early decades of British Singapore.

The memorial tablets embedded in the walls tell us of many who came from far and wide in the early decades of British Singapore.

A tablet belonging to the grave of Aristake Sarkies.

A tablet belonging to the grave of Aristake Sarkies.

From the grave of Charles Spottiswoode, a merchant after whom Spottiswoode Park is named.

From the grave of Charles Spottiswoode, a merchant after whom Spottiswoode Park is named.

There are also the stories of those who are less recognisable. One name that I could not help but notice on the walls is that of Emily Louisa Ottoson. Ottoson is a name that I am familiar with as that of Singapore’s first Japanese resident, John Matthew, also known as Otokichi Yamamoto. Behind the name is a fascinating tale that begins with Otokichi’s unitended departure from the country of his birth (a previous post on the Japanese Cemetery touches on the story). Emily Louisa it turns out, was John Matthew’s young daughter. She died in November 1852, a few months short of her fifth birthday.

The memorial tablet for Emily Louisa Ottoson, the four year old daughter of John Matthew Ottoson a.k.a. Otokichi. A resident of Japanese origin, Otokichi had a very eventful life out of Japan that started with him being lost at sea fro 14 months (see: https://thelongnwindingroad.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/voices-from-a-forgotten-past/).

The memorial tablet for Emily Louisa Ottoson, the four year old daughter of John Matthew Ottoson a.k.a. Otokichi. A resident of Japanese origin, Otokichi had a very eventful life out of Japan that started with him being lost at sea for 14 months (see: Voices from a Forgotten Past).

The young ages of many who were interred in the cemetery is also hard not to notice. Many names in the walls are those of children and infants. There are also many who passed on in their prime, which the 1912 register touches on, saying: “many tombstones testify to the number of lives sacrificed by members of the Civil Service, who were called to rest at a very early age, whilst taking their share in the administration of this Settlement, of which we are all so proud“.

A tablet from the grave of Edward Presgrave, a civil servant who passed away at the age of 35.

A tablet from the grave of Edward Presgrave, a civil servant who passed away at the age of 35.

One in this category was an Edward Presgrave. A contemporary of John Crawfurd, Presgrave served as the Registrar of Imports and Exports and concurrently as the Deputy Resident of Singapore. He reportedly died from a sudden attack of paralysis in 1830. On the basis of the register, he shared a vault with the Rev. Robert Burn. The Reverend, who died in 1833, was the first Anglican Resident Chaplain in Singapore and his appointment in 1826 is significant from the perspective that it marks the founding of the Anglican Church in Singapore.

A tablet belonging to Rev. Robert Burn, Chaplain of the Settlement, who apparently shared the same vault as Edward Presgrave in the Anglican section at the top of the slope.

A tablet belonging to Rev. Robert Burn, Chaplain of the Settlement, who apparently shared the same vault as Edward Presgrave in the Anglican section at the top of the slope.

There are many more stories that are to be found in the walls. Estimates of the number buried in the cemetery vary greatly. The 1912 register has list of over 550 names, while a Straits Times report in September 1952 has it as more than 700. The vast majority of those buried would have been of those of European descent. There are however a substantial number of Chinese, early converts to Christianity, who were also buried there, evident from the embedded grave stones with Chinese inscriptions. From these we can also see that the tradition was maintained in the manner the graves were inscribed, even with the embrace of a non-traditional faith.

A tablet in Chinese.

A Chinese head stone.

An example of an early Chinese Christian grave in which the Chinese tradition is maintained found another old cemetery in Singapore.

An example of an early Chinese Christian grave in which the Chinese tradition is maintained found another old cemetery in Singapore.

Mixed into the reminders of the old (Christian Cemetery), there are also the reminders of the new (Christian Cemetery). The “New Cemetery” or the Bukit Timah Christian Cemetery, replaced the Fort Canning cemetery as a Christian burial site and it was from the new cemetery that the cluster of gravestones seen in the northeast corner of the grounds had been moved from. The move was made when the graves in the new cemetery, located at what is today Kampong Java Park, were exhumed in 1970. The twelve graves stones that were moved were ones deemed to be of historical value by the then sub-committee on the Preservation of Buildings and Sites of Architectural and Historical Interest.

Gravestones moved from the 'New Cemetery' at the northeastern corner of Fort Canning Green.

Gravestones moved from the ‘New Cemetery’ at the northeastern corner of Fort Canning Green.

The exhumation of the remaining graves, undertaken in the mid 1970s, was part of an exercise to turn turn the hill into a huge park and green lung in the city. Named Central Park, it extended the reach of a previous public park, King George V Park on the west side of the hill, across to the east of the hill and incorporated parts of which had previously been used by the military, as well as the former cemetery site. Plans then included a roller skating rink, which was built, and also a cascading founding. The latter would have occupied the grounds of the cemetery and was fortunately not built, leaving us with a space in which the ghosts of the past are not forgotten.

King George V Park.

King George V Park.

A southward view through the James Brooke Napier memorial.

A southward view through the James Brooke Napier memorial.

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The National Gallery Singapore: a sneak peek

23 11 2015

After five long years, the transformation of two of Singapore most recognisable National Monuments, the former Supreme Court and City Hall into the National Gallery Singapore, is finally complete. The new cultural institution, which oversees the largest collection of modern art in Southeast Asia, will open its doors to the public tomorrow – an event that is being accompanied with a big bash.

Visitors to the gallery can expect to see a display of Singapore and Southeast Asian art drawn from Singapore’s huge National Collection in the permanent exhibitions, Siapa Nama Kamu? – featuring close to 400 works of Singapore art since the 19th Century, and Between Declarations and Dreams, which features close to 400 works of Southeast Asian art from the same period.   There will also be two special exhibitions that can be caught from 26 Nov 2015 to 3 May 2016. One, Beauty Beyond Form, features the donated works of traditional Chinese painter, Wu Guanzhong. The other After the Rain, will see 38 works of one of Singapore’s leading ink painters, Chua Ek Kay on display. Also on display will be the beautifully restored interiors of the two buildings, and the stunning impact the architectural interventions have had on them (see also : The National Gallery, Naked).

More information on the National Museum’s opening celebrations and visitor information can be found on the celebrations brochure (pdf) and also at the National Gallery Singapore’s website. Admission to the National Gallery Singapore will be free for all visitors from 24 November to 6 December 2015.


A Sneak Peek at the National Gallery Singapore

The former Supreme Court, which houses the galleries of the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery

Art in a former courtroom.

Art in a former courtroom.

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The former Courtroom No. 1.

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Manit Sriwanichpoom’s Shocking Pink Collection.

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Reflections on the Rotunda Dome.

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The former Courtroom No. 1.

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The spiral staircase to the main Supreme Court dome.

An art resource centre in the former Rotunda Library.

An art resource centre in the former Rotunda Library.

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Inside the resource centre.

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City Hall, which houses the DBS Singapore Gallery, the Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery, the Wu Guanzhong Gallery and several education centres

The Keppel Centre for Art Education.

The Keppel Centre for Art Education.

Chua Mia Te's Epic Poem of Malaya.

Chua Mia Tee’s Epic Poem of Malaya.

Liu Kang's Life by the River.

Liu Kang’s Life by the River.

The DBS Singapore Gallery.

The DBS Singapore Gallery.

Lots to think about ...

Lots to think about …

City Hall Chamber.

City Hall Chamber.

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The red SG50 Steinway.

The red SG50 Steinway.

Not quite a permanent display.

Not quite a permanent display.


Miscellaneous Views (see also: The National Gallery, naked)

The columns of City Hall.

The columns of City Hall.

Corridors of the former Supreme Court - the original rubber tiles, which contained asbestos, had to be replaced.

Corridors of the former Supreme Court – the original rubber tiles, which contained asbestos, had to be replaced.

Another view.

Another view.

The former City Hall Courtyard.

The former City Hall Courtyard.

Roof terrace bars at City Hall.

The roof terrace bars at City Hall …

... provides stunning views of the cityscape.

… provide stunning views of the cityscape.

The view of the Padang, the Esplanade and Marina Bay Sands from the roof terrace.

The view of the Padang, the Esplanade and Marina Bay Sands from the roof terrace.

 

 





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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Celebrating the Botanics

5 08 2015

In a Singapore caught up in the frenzy of celebrating the abandonment of the past, being given an opportunity to celebrate a piece of our pre-independent history, the Singapore Botanic Gardens (SBG), is a welcome distraction. The 74 hectare green space, recently inscribed as the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one that connects the generations as a community space, a constant in a Singapore in which change seems to be the only other constant, for which alone it deserves to be celebrated.

The bandstand and its iconic gazebo, one of several conserved sites within the SBG.

The bandstand and its iconic gazebo, one of several conserved sites within the SBG.

The inscription into the UNESCO list gives us a lot more reason to celebrate. The Gardens has long played a role not just as a community space, but as a centre for botanical research, it has made immense contributions even to Singapore’s (and Malaya’s) early economy. The rise of rubber as an economic crop and the spread of rubber plantations, once dominant across our island’s rural areas, across much of Malaya, owes much to the work carried out in the SBG and Henry Ridley, the SBG’s first scientific director. The rural landscape while now conquered by the sea of concrete, owes much of its green colouring, a product of the efforts to transform Singapore into a Garden City, also to the SBG.

Henry Ridley and his work on rubber is remembered in the SBG Heritage Centre.

Henry Ridley and his work on rubber is remembered in the SBG Heritage Centre.

Green is a colour that paints the Botanics is beautifully. Home to numerous heritage trees, it also is a showcase of more than 10,000 tropical plants. Offers an escape many seek from the insanity and clutter of the urban world, its wide open lawns provide our young with the space necessary to learn that life is not just about virtual play. The same lawns have given great service to society. One, was to provide the space for the first Aneka Ragam Ra’ayat or People’s Variety Show that drew a crowd of 22,000. The shows were an initiative to help unify Singaporeans in the early days of full self-government and started in 1959. 

Space to run free.

Space to run free.

One of several heritage trees.

One of several heritage trees.

My first acquaintance with the Gardens came about in my earliest of years. On the evidence of my childhood albums and the long lasting fascination I had with sundials and black swans, many of my early interactions with the SBG would have taken place in the Tanglin Core, the oldest part of the gardens. This part of the Gardens is where many of its heritage sites are to be found, including Singapore’s the first ornamental body of water, Swan Lake, which was completed in 1866. Several of the Gardens’ icons can be found close to the lake such as the famous tembusu tree that has found its way to the back of our five-dollar note, the Bandstand – a popular spot for wedding photographs to be taken at, and Swan Lake Gazebo. The cast iron gazebo harks back to a forgotten age and is one that graced the Royal Navy’s Commander-in-Chief’s one time residence (at old Admiralty House on Grange Road, which was demolished in the 1960s to allow the 2nd Raffles Institution campus to be built).

My introduction to the sundial at the Botanical Gardens in 1966.

When I first met the acquaintance of the sundial.

The iconic tembusu tree attracts large crowds.

The iconic tembusu tree attracts large crowds.

Dynamic supports developed by ST Kinetics now support the outstretched branch of the tembusu on which many previously posed for photographs.

Dynamic supports developed by ST Kinetics now support the outstretched branch of the tembusu on which many previously posed for photographs.

Swan Lake, Singapore's first ornamental lake.

Swan Lake, Singapore’s first ornamental lake.

One of the tiniest species of bats, the bamboo bat, can be found roosting in the Gardens.

A bamboo clump – one of the tiniest species of bats, the bamboo bat, can be found roosting in the Gardens.

A wider view of Swan Lake.

A wider view of Swan Lake.

The Bandstand is a popular spot for wedding photography.

The Bandstand is a popular spot for wedding photography.

The cast iron Victorian Swan Lake Gazebo, previously of Old Admiralty House at Grange Road.

The cast iron Victorian Swan Lake Gazebo, previously of Old Admiralty House at Grange Road.

Also within the Tanglin Core, is an old building that offers cool relief, especially on a hot day, Holttum Hall. Built in 1920, the two storey bungalow, one of four conserved bungalows found on the site (more information on which can be found at the Urban Redevelopment Authorty (URA) Conservation Portal), now houses the SBG Heritage Museum.  The hall is close to the Botany Centre – one of the visitor gateways into the Gardens and holds a wealth of information in its interactive and multimedia exhibits on the work that went on in the gardens and its role in the proliferation of rubber as a crop.

The SBG Heritage Centre in Holttum Hall.

The SBG Heritage Centre in Holttum Hall.

An exhibit showing the herringbone pattern developed by Ridley to tap rubber.

An exhibit showing the herringbone pattern developed by Ridley to tap rubber.

One of the things I was surprised to learn about the SBG, was that what is thought to be the oldest and largest orchid plant in the world, can be found on its grounds. The plant, a clump of tiger orchid, wears a rather undignified appearance. Measuring some 5 metres in diameter, it is thought to be the one planted in 1861 by Lawrence Niven, the SBG’s first superintendent who is credited with its development, just two years after the Gardens was established.

The oldest orchid?

The oldest orchid?

Flowers belonging to the world's oldest orchid plant.

Flowers belonging to the world’s oldest orchid plant.

Another interesting site is at Plant House. Here, arrows can be found marked into several of the red bricks of its steps, the significance of which only came to light in 1995, when a group of former prisoners of war visiting from Australia told of how the arrows got on the bricks. Apparently the arrows, a symbol then commonly used to mark government property, were marked by the POWs involved, as an act of defiance. More on this story (and also of Lawrence Niven) can be found here.

The steps of plant house.

The steps of plant house.

A close-up of the bricks used to make the steps - with arrows seen on some of them.

A close-up of the bricks used to make the steps – with arrows seen on some of them.

Adjoining the Tanglin Core and to its north is the Central Core. Here, laid out over the highest point of the grounds, one finds the National Orchid Garden. Opened by Singapore’s first prime minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 1995, the National Orchid Garden celebrates its 20th anniversary on 20 October.  In it, the visitor will find over 1000 species and 2000 hybrids of orchids on display, making it an especially colourful site. Nestled in the midst all that colour is is another of the SBG’s four conserved bungalows, Burkill Hall. A former plantation owner’s bungalow built in 1886, it now is rented out as an event venue. The National Orchid Garden is also where the most vandalised tree in Botanics can be found. As part of the celebration of its 20th anniversary, SG50 and SBG’s UNESCO World Heritage Site inscription, admission into the National Orchid Garden will be free until the 31st of August for all resident in Singapore (this includes Singapore citizens, permanent residents and others residing in Singapore such as EP, Work Permit and Dependent Pass holders).

Burkill Hall.

Burkill Hall.

The most vandalised tree.

The most vandalised tree.

A close-up of it.

A close-up of it.

The National Orchid Garden is a riot of colour with some 1000 species of orchids on display.

The National Orchid Garden is a riot of colour with some 1000 species of orchids on display.

SBG Director Dr Nigel Taylor with National Orchid Garden nursery manager David Lim.

SBG Director Dr Nigel Taylor with National Orchid Garden nursery manager David Lim.

The National Orchid Garden seen through the porch of Burkill Hall.

The National Orchid Garden seen through the porch of Burkill Hall.

It seems these days that no attraction in Singapore is compelete without something to tempt the palate. The SBG these days certainly isn’t short of this with its range of gastronomical delights found in the abundance of the food and beverage outlets now found in the Gardens. One of these outlets can be found close to the National Orchid Garden, set in the tranquility of the Ginger Garden. This, the ginger themed restaurant Halia at Singapore Botanic Gardens, seems to have been caught up in the celebratory mood and has come up with a special SG50 menu of orchid inspired desserts and beverages. Orchid tea blends from the SBG Gardens Shop feature in the beverages, two cocktails, Yam Seng and 1965, and a mocktail, Singapore Jubilee.

A ginger plant inspired mural at the Ginger Garden.

A ginger plant inspired mural at the Ginger Garden.

Halia at SBG.

Halia at SBG.

Ginger and Gold at Halia.

Ginger and Gold at Halia.

White and Lapis.

White and Lapis.

SG50 Cocktails at Halia.

SG50 Cocktails at Halia.

Nassim Gate Visitor Centre, which lies northeast of the Ginger Garden, are where another two F&B outlets can be found. One, the Casa Verde, which touts itself as a “casual trattoria”, offers casual dining. On its menu over the National Day period (from 3rd to 17th August 2015, served from 12pm to 2.45pm but not on weekends and public holidays), several local favourites curated by its chef Danny Tan, can be selected. The dishes, Singapore Laksa, Mee Siam, Mee Rebus, and Char Kway Teow, are priced reasonably and have a soft drink thrown in. Diners at the tratorria can also look forward to its National Day celebration when its fresh oven baked pizzas come with a 50% discount on 9 August from 11.30 am to 5.45 pm. Casa Verde will also run a Kids Pizza Making workshop on 7 August at 2 pm as part of the celebration.

Offerings at Casa Verde for the National Day period.

Offerings at Casa Verde for the National Day period.

A stone’s throw away from the “green house”, we find Corner House, set in a beautifully restored conserved two-storey bungalow, E J H Corner House. The fine-dining restaurant offers the Gastro-Botanica creations of Chef Jason Tan and to mark the country’s 5oth birthday and the restaurant’s first anniversary, Chef Tan is presenting his Celebratory Discovery Menu (available until 16 August 2015 – for dinner only). The menu takes diners on an eight course journey that traces the various stages in the development of Singapore’s culinary scene. Each course reinterprets the chef’s favourite dishes along that journey, which I must say is pretty impressively on the basis of two items on the menu I got to have a taste of, one of which the Remembering Oyster Omelette. That does have me recall the flavour of the real hawker dish, and one with which I found myself transported back at first bite to that car park opposite Cold Storage that became known as Gluttons’ Square.

Corner House.

Corner House – The Verandah.

The Reading Room.

The Reading Room.

The Claret Corner.

The Claret Corner.

The Claret Corner.

The Claret Corner.

Remembering Oyster Omelette.

Remembering Oyster Omelette.

Chef Jason Tan.

Chef Jason Tan.

My Corner of the World - Durian Bread and Butter Pudding.

My Corner of the World – Durian Bread and Butter Pudding.

Delightful salted egg macarons served after each meal.

Delightful salted egg macarons served after each meal.

For those for whom only the real hawker fare will complete an outing to Botanics, one can, rather surprisingly, find a food court on the grounds of the SBG, Food Canopy. While it may not offer the same fare as the food centre at Taman Serasi many from my generation miss, the food court, tucked away in a quiet corner of the Bukit Timah Core (close to the MOE  Co-Curricular Activities Branch, CCAB), offers a choice of hawker fare with its seven stalls. One of these, is the Di Wei Teo Chew Restaurant, which offers Teochew classics such as cold crab, chye poh kway teow, pan-fried pomfret, yam rings and Teochew yam strips.

Cold crab and chye poh kway teow.

Cold crab and chye poh kway teow.

For the those with a sweet tooth, Teochew yam strips.

For the those with a sweet tooth, Teochew yam strips.

Besides the food on offer, visitors to the SBG over the so-named Jubilee Weekend (7 to 9 August 2015), will find a host of activities to celebrate independent Singapore’s 5oth anniversary, including a carnival at the Bandstand and Orchid Plaza with activities and food offerings that include some that bring back the good old days.  There will also be a reenactment of the People’s Variety Show, movie screenings and concerts to look forward to. The SBG’s Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage will, on the evening of 9 August, provide an alternative site to catch a live-screening of the National Day Parade from. More information on the activities over the weekend can be found at the NParks SBG Jubilee Weekend page.

The Gardens Shop.

Offerings at the Gardens Shop – no visit is complete without dropping by.





The National Gallery, naked

7 05 2015

It has been a long four and a half years since two architectural icons of a lost age went into hiding, cloaked for a large part in a dark shroud. That was to permit a huge and costly transformation of the two, the old Supreme Court and the City Hall, to be performed, a transformation that would turn the two  into a jewel that will crown Singapore’s coming of age. The massive 64,000 square metres of floor area that the two buildings share will provide Singapore with the grandest of showcases its huge National collection as the new National Gallery Singapore. The collection numbers some 10,000 works. Composed primarily of the art of Singapore and of Southeast Asia, it is the largest collection of its kind in the world.

The restored historical lobby of the Old Supreme Court.

The restored historical lobby of the Old Supreme Court.

The re-tiled corridors of the Old Supreme Court.

The new shine of the re-tiled corridors of the Old Supreme Court.

The buildings, both National Monuments and ones that for long characterised the city-scape, hark back to the days of the empire. With significant chapters of our history written within their walls, the two are monuments not just of the nation, but also to the nation and what is nice about the transformation, although it may have altered some of the buildings’ characters, is that its does allows an  appreciation of the buildings’s historic and architectural value by providing us and our future generations with access to them and more importantly to their many conserved spaces.

My favourite space in the two buildings, the Rotunda Library, seen in a new light.

My favourite space in the two buildings, the Rotunda Library, seen in a new light.

I had a chance to look at how the transformation has been managed when the buildings made their debut as the National Gallery without the art during the recent series of Naked Museum tours. Having had a look at the two during the open house held just prior to the closure in late 2010, I was especially interested to see how the character of the many conserved spaces within the two have been preserved.

The gathering of local artists and guests at the launch of the National Gallery Open House in 2010 prior to the renovations (National Gallery photo).

The beautifully restored Foyer of the Old Supreme Court.

The beautifully restored Foyer of the Old Supreme Court.

The old stairway that now leads to a new heaven.

The old stairway that now leads to a new heaven.

One of the first things that did catch my eye however, was how the two have been made to become one. A large part of this, is seen in the interface between the two at the former open plaza. Here, we see one of the larger intervention of the architect, Mr Jean François Milou, in the large enclosed space that has been created, encased by glass panels on a framework of steel. The framework is suspended over the two monuments through the use of a rather intriguing looking tree-like support structure. The space is best seen when the sun shines. That is when it takes on an almost magical quality in the soft light that filters through the specially designed screen of perforated aluminium panels.

The atrium between the two buildings.

The atrium between the two buildings.

The moment of inspiration for the screen came on a sun baked afternoon as the architect pondered over how the buildings could be unified sitting on a plastic chair in the Padang. The play of light and shadow through the patchwork of glass and steel, its tree-like support that is also replicated up on the roof of the old Supreme Court, and the sky bridges that allow communication between the two buildings finds meaning as a whole in providing a stunning visual spectacle in which the new is very much in harmony with the old.

A view of the sky bridges between in the atrium created the two buildings.

A view of the sky bridges between in the atrium created the two buildings.

The upper level sky bridge that connects at Level 4.

The upper level sky bridge that connects at Level 4.

The interventions on the roofs of the two buildings, are also best appreciated from the inside. On the previously empty roof of the City Hall, we now see two reflecting pools over the building’s former courtyards. This, found on Level 5, will be lined with F&B outlets. The upper level (Level 6), is where one can now gaze across the Padang to where the generations before once gazed at the lights of the old harbour from a viewing deck that will be opened to the public.

The lower level (Level 5) of City Hall Rooftop will see F&B outlets lining two reflection pools.

The lower level (Level 5) of City Hall Rooftop will see F&B outlets lining two reflection pools.

The view across the reflecting pool of the City Hall Rooftop towards the new Supreme Court.

The view across the reflecting pool of the City Hall Rooftop towards the new Supreme Court.

The City Hall Rooftop viewing deck on Level 6.

The City Hall Rooftop viewing deck on Level 6.

The view through the aluminium panels of the roof.

The view through the aluminium panels of the roof.

It was the roof across the sky bridge that I found especially appealing. Previously an inaccessible are of the old Supreme Court, it is where one finds the minor dome. The skylights on the dome is what casts the delightful glow on the beautifully Rotunda Library below it. The now covered space has a roof similar in construction to the glass enclosure of the atrium between the two buildings, and it is here that in the sunshine, that we also are able to see the gorgeous play of shadow and light it can create.

The Supreme Court Terrace.

The Supreme Court Terrace.

Another view of the terrace with the rotunda dome.

Another view of the terrace with the rotunda dome.

Reflections on the Supreme Court Terrace.

Reflections on the Supreme Court Terrace.

It is under the two domes of the old Supreme Court that one finds the most wonderful of conserved spaces, including what certainly is my favourite of all spaces, the beautiful Rotunda Library. Also conserved and restored are spaces such as Courtroom No. 1, the beautiful corridors on the second level and their skylights, the main staircase, the Historical Lobby and the Grand Foyer.

The Rotunda Library.

The Rotunda Library.

The Rotunda, see from the ground.

The Rotunda, see from a lower angle.

Courtroom No. 1.

Courtroom No. 1.

The beautiful light of the Old Supreme Court main staircase.

The beautiful light of the Old Supreme Court main staircase.

A skylight.

A skylight.

The corridors now feature gleaming marble floor tiles, laid out in a pattern that mimic that of the toxic asbestos filled rubber tiles that had to be replaced. In the area to the left of the staircase one also finds two holding cells, the only ones that have been retained. In the cells, we see a hint of a very necessary sanitary fitting, its opening sealed in cement. When operational, that could only be flushed outside the cells. What would have been nice to see conserved are the narrow caged passageways along which the cells’ occupants could be led, via a trap door, to the courtrooms. These however, were nowhere to be found.

The eight sided foundation stone under which there is a time-capsule that is meant to be opened in the year 3000.

The eight sided foundation stone under which there is a time-capsule that is meant to be opened in the year 3000.

The entrance to the Holding Cells.

The entrance to the Holding Cells.

Inside one ofthe two holding cells that have been retained.

Inside one ofthe two holding cells that have been retained.

Prisoner holding area.

The caged passageway through which a prisoner would be led to the courtroom.

The caged passageway seen with indicted Japanese soldiers being tried for war crimes being led to the courtroom from the holding cells (source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4999).

The caged passageway seen with indicted Japanese soldiers being tried for war crimes being led to the courtroom from the holding cells during the War Crime trials (source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4999).

Another caged relic I would have liked to see, was the cage lift that I remember from a visit I accompanied my mother on in my childhood to a verbatim reporter friend she would sometimes have lunch with. This proved once again to be to be elusive, although I am told that the lift is still there and in working condition.

A look up to the underside of the main dome.

A look up to the underside of the main dome.

One part of the court building I did not have a chance to see previously is the underside of the empty main copper clad dome. That I got to see by special arrangement. With the ceiling that previously obscured it now removed, there is no more need to ascend the spiral staircase to have a glance at its bare underneath and the riveted steel beams that provides support. This view will be one of the treats we can look forward to when the new gallery opens its doors in November.

A voew of the distinctive copper dome from City Hall Rooftop. The dome is said to be a smaller scale version of the famous dome of London's St. Paul's Cathedral.

A view of the distinctive copper dome from City Hall Rooftop. The dome is said to be a smaller scale version of the famous dome of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral.

A view from the balcony towards the pediment. The space left by a missing coat of arms, thought to be removed during the Japanese Occupation, will be left as it is.

A view from the balcony towards the pediment. The space left by a missing coat of arms, thought to be removed during the Japanese Occupation, will be left as it is.

New galleries in the old building. The old Supreme Court wing will be used to house the South-East Asian collection.

New galleries in the old building. The old Supreme Court wing will be used to house the South-East Asian collection.

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The pediment of the old Supreme Court on which Justice is not blind in Singapore.

The pediment of the old Supreme Court on which Justice is not blind in Singapore.

A pigeon's eye view from the balcony of the old Supreme Court.

A pigeon’s eye view from the balcony of the old Supreme Court.

The City Hall also has several conserved spaces of importance, the most important of which is City Hall Chamber. Once said to be the grandest of rooms in all of Singapore, the chamber witnessed several momentous events of our past, one of which was the surrender of Japanese forces in 1945. Another significant event that took place there was the swearing in of our first Prime Minister in 1959. In its refurbished state, the chamber retains much of its character. The entrance to it is now via side doors that previously were windows to the courtyard.

City Hall CHamber, a.k.a. the Surrender Chamber.

City Hall CHamber, a.k.a. the Surrender Chamber.

The courtyard the doors now lead to had been an open-air served car park. It now finds itself under a reflecting pool (the same pool on the roof terrace) and air-conditioned. As the DBS Singapore Courtyard, it will be used for the permanent display of a collection of Singapore art from the 19th century to the present when the gallery opens.

The former courtyard of City Hall.

The former courtyard of City Hall.

The courtyard will be a new exhibition space.

Shadows from the steel framework of the glass roof over the courtyard.

Moving stairways to the new heaven.

Moving stairways to the new heaven.

The Cor­inthian columns of the former City Hall's façade.

The Cor­inthian columns of the former City Hall’s façade.

The central staircase of City Hall.

The central staircase of City Hall.

In a year during which there is much to look forward to in a Singapore that celebrates its 50th year of independence, the gallery’s opening in November is something that will certainly enhance the celebration. The gallery will by itself be a celebration, one not just of art and culture, but also of our nationhood and of our history and heritage.More information on the National Gallery and the history of the buildings can be found at the National Gallery’s website and some of my previous posts, which contain photographs of how some of the spaces looked before the refurbishment.

A last look at the Rotunda Library.

A last look at the Rotunda Library.





The last of the grand Teochew mansions

4 05 2015

Occupying a prominent position at the corner of Penang Road and Clemenceau Avenue, an old temple like structure stands on its own, seemingly out of place in the surroundings of the modern city. The structure, a house that in its past has often been referred to as “Temple House” for its resemblance to a southern Chinese house of worship, will for those of my generation, be remembered as the headquarters of the Salvation Army.

The last of the "four grand mansions", the House of Tan Yeok Nee on Penang Road.

The house once known as “Temple House”, once served as the Headquarters of the Salvation Army.

The house is a traditional southern Chinese courtyard house, one of a handful that were built in Singapore in the 19th century, a fact that makes its survival all that more remarkable. Built from 1882-1885 for a wealthy Teochew merchant, Tan Yeok Nee, its stands today as the last of its kind on the island, the last of four houses of Teochew merchants that have collectively been referred to as the “four grand mansions and has since 1974, been listed as one of Singapore’s National Monuments.

The House of Tan Yeok Nee, the last of four grand mansions of Teochew merchants.

The House of Tan Yeok Nee, the last of four grand mansions of Teochew merchants.

The three other grand Teochew mansions have over the course of the 20th century, all made way for redevelopment, the last being the former Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce (SCCCI) building on Hill Street, which in 1964 was replaced by the current one. That, had started its life in 1878 as the House of Wee Ah Hood.

House of Wee Ah Hood used as the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce, c. 1930s. (Photo online at the National Archives of Singapore catalogue).

The first to go was Tan Seng Poh’s 1869 house at the corner of Hill Street and Loke Yew Road, which came down in 1904. The second to be built, the 1872 house of Seah Cheo Seah (one of the sons of Seah Eu Chin) was along North Boat Quay.

House of Seah Cheo Seah along North Boat Quay, c. 1913 (Photo online at the National Archives of Singapore catalogue).

It is probable that Tan Yeok Nee’s house might have suffered the fate of the other three, well before its architectural and historical value could be recognised in 1974, if not for the transfer of its ownership following Tan’s 1902 passing (some would attribute its survival to the house’s good feng shui). Acquired for use by Singapore’s first railway, it served as the residence of the stationmaster from 1903 when the first section of the Singapore Kranji Railway, which terminated at Tank Road, opened. That lasted until 1912, after which it passed into the hands of the Church of England when it was used as a home and girls’  school. The Salvation Army was to take over in 1938. Except for an enforced break during the Japanese Occupation, the house was where the organisation had its headquarters until 1981.

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The house must surely have been a symbol of its owner’s wealth and standing at the time of its completion, both of which Tan Yeok Nee had no shortage of. Having had humble beginnings as a cloth peddler, Tan was quick to find success, making his fortune from the gambier and pepper trade as well as the lucrative opium, spirit and gambling franchises or farms in Singapore and in Johor.

The first courtyard.

The first courtyard.

Tan’s successes in Johor were possible due to close relationship he had established with the man who would be the first modern day Sultan of Johor, Maharaja Abu Bakar. This had its roots in Tan’s days as a cloth peddler, when the then heir to Temenggong Ibrahim, resided at Telok Blangah.

A side courtyard.

A side courtyard.

Tan held multiple rights to kangchus in Johor, all of which were granted by the ambitious Abu Bakar and served at one point as a Major China. He was also conferred a “Dat0-ship” by Abu Bakar and is also known as Dato’ Tan Hiok Nee across the Causeway. A street, Jalan Tan Hiok Nee in Johor Bahru, is named after him.

Layout of the House of Tan Yeok Nee.

Layout of the House of Tan Yeok Nee.

The Central Hall

The Central Hall as seen from the first courtyard.

Temple House, as one would expect, has its halls laid out symmetrically along a central axis as is typical of southern Chinese architecture. Also typical of such structures are the elaborate decoration work that the house is known for, seen in places such as the walls, roof ridges and supporting structures. An example of this is found on the wooden beams in the Central Hall, which feature gold painted decorations as well as intricately carved creatures. One such creature is the aoyu (鳌鱼), a carp with a dragon head that as myth would have it, is one of few carps who are transformed after successfully swimming against the flow and leaping the waterfall of the Dragon Gate.  The creature is often is used to symbolise courage, determination and accomplishment.

The mythical aoyu (鳌鱼) craved on a wooden beam bracket in the Central Hall.

The mythical aoyu (鳌鱼) craved on a wooden beam bracket in the Central Hall.

The entrance into the first courtyard, as seen from the courtyard. The roof ridges of the house are decorated with a particular method referred to as 'inlaying porcelain'.

The entrance into the first courtyard, as seen from the courtyard. The roof ridges of the house are decorated with a particular method referred to as ‘inlaying porcelain’.

A side courtyard.

A side courtyard.

The Inner Courtyard.

The Inner Courtyard.

Seeing the house, there will be little doubt of Tan Yeok Nee’s accomplishment. This can be seen not just in the symbolism of its decorative elements, but also in a rather explicit expression of it that is seen above the house’s entrance portal. There, the characters 资政第 “Zi Zheng Di” are prominently displayed, giving us a sense of its occupant’s high ranking. The characters, which tell us that the house is a residence of a Qing Dynasty Second Ranked Official, also remind us of one more thing – how ties with the lands of the ancestors were maintained by many who embarked on their journeys into the new world, all with the hope that they would find success and bring that back home with them.

The main entrance with the words 资政第 of Zi Zheng Di, denoting it as the residence of a second-ranked official of the Qing dynasty.

The main entrance with the words 资政第 of Zi Zheng Di, denoting it as the residence of a second-ranked official of the Qing dynasty.

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A window into its roof supports.

A window into its roof supports.





The oldest public library building, conservation, and a hornbill

27 04 2015

One of the few reminders of the old Queenstown town centre still left standing, the Queenstown Public Library commemorated a milestone on Saturday when it celebrated it 45th birthday.  The library, Singapore’s oldest branch library, is also housed in a conserved public building that, unusually for Singapore, is still being used for the purpose it was built for. The opening of the library in 1970, was a major step in making books available to the masses through the decentralisation of library services.

Guest of Honour Dr Chia Shi-Lu speaking at the opening of the Queentown Library's 45th Anniversary celebrations.

Guest of Honour Dr Chia Shi-Lu speaking at the opening of the Queentown Library’s 45th Anniversary celebrations.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew at the opening of the library on 30 April 1970.

Opened officially on 30th April 1970 by the then Prime Minister, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the library, as described by Mr Lee in his opening address, was meant not just to bring books to the masses, but was also intended to be a sanctuary of peace and quiet.

The library at its opening in 1970.

The library has indeed been a sanctuary to many, based on what was shared during the “Cakap Heritage” session that preceded the main celebrations. The session saw members of the community, librarians and members of the Friends of the Library speak of their personal experiences and connections to the library, how outreach to children was done and what the library meant to them. One of the things that did come out was how the library crowd at Queenstown was quieter and better behaved as compared to the National Library in Stamford Road.

Librarians speaking about their experiences in the Queenstown Public Library.

Librarians speaking about their experiences in the Queenstown Public Library at the Cakap Heritage session.

A member of the Friends of the Library speaking about the formation of the group by four undergraduates as part of a project to study group dynamics.

A member of the Friends of the Library speaking about the formation of the group by four undergraduates as part of a project to study group dynamics.

The celebrations also saw the introduction of two publications by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). The first is a wonderful poster of conserved buildings in the Queenstown area. Besides the library, the conserved buildings include the nearby former Commonwealth Avenue Wet Market and Food Centre and the Church of  the Blessed Sacrament. An “e-version” of the poster can be downloaded at the URA’s website.

Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

The church's interior.

The church’s interior.

The second publication that was launched is a picture book on heritage buildings, Looking at Heritage Buildings, aimed at the young. Produced by John Koh and supported by the URA, the book features the 75 buildings gazetted for conservation as part of the URA Master Plan 2014, taking a look the the buildings through the eyes of Billie the hornbill.

John Koh speaking on how hornbills and dragons are linked to conservation buildings.

John Koh speaking on how hornbills and dragons are linked to conservation buildings.

The idea for the book came as a result of John’s interactions with the URA in finding a home for a dragon, a sculpture the author acquired in producing another children’s picture book, Marco Goes East. One of the challenges the author spoke of, during a brief chat I had with him, was in defining the age group of its target audience. I thought that the book, in which the buildings are organised into five groups according to their location, with strong visuals that is accompanied by very concise information on the histories and unique architectural features, does make the book, even if it is intended for the young, a useful walking trail resource even for the less youthful.

The cover of the book.

The cover of the book.

The buildings are organised into 5 groups.

The 75 conservation buildings are organised into 5 groups.

The book is available both in print and in e-book format. The 26 page print version is available at the Singapore City Gallery and at public libraries and the e-book can be downloaded from the URA website.

A peek inside the book.


HeritageBuildings4
A peek inside the book.








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