The haunted island in Northwest Singapore and its laird

17 11 2017

Pulau Sarimbun, a little known island tucked away in the northwest corner of the Johor or Tebrau Strait, has quite an interesting chapter in its history. Now forlorn and isolated due to the area’s heightened security, it was once a picnic spot and later a place of retirement for a Boer War veteran turned planter, tin miner and waterworks engineer, Mr W A Bates Goodall.

1932 Malaya, Jahore Straits, Pulau Serimban near Lim Chu Kang

Mr Goodall’s bungalow on Pulau Sarimbun in 1932 (photo courtesy of Mr Stephen Downes-Martin).

Mr Goodall arrived at our shores as part of his deployment when he was in the service with the Manchester Regiment in the early 1900s but left soon after as “soldiering in the east did not appeal to me”.  He visited the island regularly for picnics from 1923 to 1932 and as the “Robinson Crusoe life” appealed to him, decided to live in a bungalow perched on a cliff on the island upon his retirement after 13 years in the waterworks department in 1932. Mr Goodall was sometimes also referred to as the Laird of Sarimbun Island and “ruled” over four “subjects”: a Cambridge educated Chinese clerk, a Malay boatman and two Chinese servants and rented the island for some $35 annually. Mr Goodall lived on the island until his passing in October 1941 – just a few months before the Japanese invaded.

Pulau Sarimbun as seen on a 1938 map.

Interestingly, Mr Goodall wasn’t the island’s first inhabitant. There was apparently a mysterious Russian who lived in a hut on the island, who paid  a rent of “three peppercorns” annually at the end of the 1800s. Sarimbun Island was described in a The Straits Times 15 March 1936 article as “sunny, shady and delightful a spot as can be imagined” and commanding a view “embracing the Jalan Scudai waterfront of Johore, and the Pulai, and Plentong Hills”. The same articles also explains that its name means “shady island” in Malay*, which the people of the strait thought was haunted. A rare indigenous fossil fern thought to have been extinct in Singapore, the Dipteris, was found on the island in 2003.


Mr Max Bevilacqua Bell and the attempt to cross breed Friesian cows with Indian cows in Lim Chu Kang 

It is hard to imagine that Singapore had an agricultural past. The northwest corner, while we know was given to rubber (see also: A Lost World in Lim Chu Kang), was apparently also where cattle was reared.

The very rare photograph of Pulau Sarimbun was sent to me by Mr Stephen Downes-Martin in October 2015. Mr Downes-Martin, who lived in Singapore as a child in 1959, 1960, and then again in 1970, was the stepson of Mr Max Bevilacqua Bell,  a businessman whose association with Singapore began from the early 1920s and lasted until the 1970s. Among Mr Bell’s ventures in Singapore was in cattle rearing. Mr Bell had a farm in Lim Chu Kang on which he attempted to cross breed Friesian cows with Indian cows but the war put a halt to that venture. A photograph of Mr Bell’s house in Lim Chu Kang also came in the same email.

Mr Bell’s farm in Lim Chu Kang in the 1930s (photo courtesy of Mr Stephen Downes-Martin).


* Sarimbun probably follows the naming convention adopted for Singapore’s islands by the Orang Laut, which have a prefix sa- or se-. Rimbun in Malay translates to “lush” from a perspective of vegetation – which well describes the island.

 

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A short history of public Swimming Pools in Singapore

6 10 2017

With Singapore’s tropical climate and balmy waters, an affinity for swimming as a recreational activity would be expected. It wasn’t however until the arrival of the first swimming pool, a century into modern Singapore’s founding, that the pursuit’s appeal among the masses really took off.

Singapore Swimming Club’s sea ‘diving stage’ in the early 1900s (National Archives Online).

The Chinese Swimming Club’s Bathing Pagar.

Recreational swimming had very much been the domain of the colonial elite, and the handful of well-off non-Europeans through much of modern Singapore’s first century. Several seaside villas featured private bathing pagars – swimming enclosures that extended out from the shore. Clubs were also organised to promote the activity, the first of which was the very exclusive Singapore Swimming Club set up in the 1890s. Its members, limited to those from the European expatriate community, plunged into the sea from a disused jetty at Tanjong Rhu before the club built a pagar in the 1900s. The wealthy non-Europeans also established clubs of their own such as the 1905 Chinese Swimming Club.

The (public) Bathing Pagar at Katong Park – built at the same time as Mount Emily Swimming Pool as part of a 1920s to 1930s drive to built sporting facilities for public use (from a set of slides obtained from Mr Kim Hocker).

With neither the luxury of time nor the means to travel, the working class population contended themselves to the occasional dip in the less sanitary waters closer to their places of abode. It would not be until the opening of the first municipal swimming pool, at Mount Emily in 1931, that swimming’s reach extended to the masses.

An early timetable for Mount Emily Swimming Pool (c. 1930s).

Mount Emily was not Singapore’s first pool. The Y.M.C.A. opened one in a disused salt water tank on Fort Canning Hill in 1919. While this pool may have introduced the sport to a selection of school children, it was out of reach to much of the urban population.

The 1919 YMCA Swimming Pool at Fort Canning.

Mount Emily’s opening came on the back of a boom in the establishment of public sporting facilities, which started in the 1920s. The growing municipality, whose population had exceeded 600,000, was in need of such spaces. There was a growing awareness of the benefits “wholesome sport” to the health and well-being of the working classes and this provided the Municipal Commissioners with the impetus to make the provision of playing spaces a priority.

The drive to build sporting facilities also saw the former Race Course transformed into the Farrer Park Playing Fields in the mid-1930s, which was touted as a “new lung for the city” (photo: National Archives Online).

Set in an elevated exclusive neighbourhood that provided some of the best views of the town, Mount Emily Swimming Pool’s location may have seemed odd. A ready made excavation – in the form of a decommissioned service reservoir’s tank – must have the deciding factor. One of the reservoir’s two tanks was turned into the pool, which given deep main section and a shallow children’s sub-section.

A G R Lambert photograph of the reservoir on top of Mount Emily taken from Osborne House. Mount Emily’s elevation and its rather flat and elongated top made it a perfect for the placement of the service reservoir, which was put there in the late 1870s. This supplied treated water to the municipality until it was made redundant by the much larger Fort Canning Reservoir in 1929.

It was with the children that the pool proved to be a hit. This was due in part to periods during which school children were provided with free entry. This brought about many positive outcomes. It not only provided a much needed outlet for the expansion of youthful energy, it also kept children from mischief. There would however be the nuisance that would be caused by overcrowding – due to the pool’s popularity – combined with the over-exuberance of many of the schoolboys. Secret society members were also known to frequent the pool, often harassing swimmers. The pool would prove especially popular after the war. Its reopening, in December 1949 following an 18 month closure during a polio epidemic, drew such an unruly crowd that the police had to be called in.

Mount Emily Swimming Pool was in use until the early 1980s. It was where Singapore’s very first woman lifeguard, Miss Ann Tay, passed her test in February 1952.

The public would have to wait until 1952 for its second pool, which was at Yan Kit Road. Farrer Park in 1957 and River Valley in 1959 would add to the list of pools. Yan Kit was especially popular, having been set up in a highly populated area, requiring a two hour limit had to be imposed on pool users soon after it opened.

Yan Kit, Singapore’s second public pool (National Archives Online).

Swimming’s popularity would increase further in the 1960s, when schemes that were introduced to promote swimming. With Independence, the promotion of sports became a National priority. Sports, seen as a means to build self-discipline and a healthy and “rugged society”, was to serve as a foundation for a disciplined workforce. The promotion of swimming, a sport that lent itself as a social unifier, was put high on that agenda. This and the success of Singapore swimmers at regional competitions, led to increased in pool usage. Admissions grew to some 987,000 annually by 1969.

River Valley Swimming Pool.

The 1970s would see swimming pools being built further away. Much of the population was being moved into newly built public housing estates and satellite towns to which amenities to promote healthy and gracious living were added. The first suburban pools were at Queenstown and Jurong, which came up in 1970. The hosting of the SEAP Games in 1973 and the continued success of local swimmers led to a growing belief that the sport was one Singapore could excel in and many more would take it up. By 1975, attendance at public swimming pools topped 3.5 million.

Buona Vista Swimming Pool (1976), which closed in 2014. I took a very eventful Bronze Medallion Life Saving test here in 1983.

In spite of the proliferation of pools with more clubs and condominiums being built, public pools continue to serve an important social function. Singapore has a total of 25 public pools today. These provide the population not only with a place for physical activity and social interaction; the social use of pools has been extended through the use of unique designs as a means to provide the neighbourhoods they are being built in with a statement of identity.

 





The dark days of 1942 revisted

22 09 2017

This year marks the 75th Anniversary of the fall of Singapore, which the National Museum of Singapore is commemorating with an international exhibition Witness to War: Remembering 1942. The exhibition, which opens tomorrow, revisits the unfortunate period in Singapore’s history through artefacts that have not been seen on our shores since the war, as well as new takes on the darkest of days through previously untold stories of survivors. To add to that, artefacts from our own National Collection, including a recently acquired 25-Pounder Field Gun used by British and Commonwealth armies in World War Two, as well as never displayed before Japanese Army bugle, an Enfield No. 2 Mk. 1 revolver and personal artefacts of the war survivors, make their appearance. The exhibition is centred on the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942 and its immediate aftermath with a section that also explores the lead up to the fall.

The recently acquired 25-Pounder Field Gun.

What is possibly one of the highlights will be a ceremonial sword that belonged to General Tomoyuki Yamashita. This, on display in its sheath, is on public display outside the United States for the first time since the war ended in 1945. The sword, the blade of which was made by a famed swordsmith, Fujiwara Kanenaga, sometime between 1640 and 1680, was surrendered to the Americans on 2 September 1945 in Luzon, Philippines and was given to the United States Military Academy at West Point. This will be the first time that the sword is being displayed outside the United States since it got there in 1945.

Yamashita’s ceremonial samurai sword.

What makes the exhibition worth the visit isn’t just the numerous artefacts but also the never heard before accounts, the collection of which rather interestingly involved school children, from war survivors and veterans. Speaking of the kids, there is a special family activity space, entitled “A Child’s Perspective”, that will appeal to the young ones – the interactive activity space includes a mock-up of a bomb-shelter which will allow the young ones a feel of what it may have been like.

School children were involved in the process of collecting previously untold stories of survivors.

Witness to War: Remembering 1942 is open to public from 23 September 2017 to 25 March 2018, and is chronicled on social media via the hashtag #remembering1942. More information on the exhibition and events related to it can be found at http://www.nationalmuseum.sg.

Poster of Hong Kong entrepreneur Ho Kom-Tong (Bruce Lee’s maternal grandfather) performing at a Hong Kong St. John Ambulance charity show Drunk Overlord in the Pavilion of a Hundred Flowers, 18 January 1941 (on loan from Hong Kong Museum of History, Leisure and Cultural Services Department).

The portrait of Sir Shenton Whitelegge Thomas painted by artist Xu Beihong, which was previously displayed in the Singapore History Gallery, makes its return in Witness to War after a period of conservation.

Artefacts from the pre-war Japanese community, who were centred on Chuo-Dori or Middle Road.

A family from the pre-war Japanese community, who were centred on Chuo-Dori or Middle Road.

Personal belongings of victims of war.

A Japanese bugle from the National Collection.

A Union Jack captured by Japanese troops marked with the date of the fall.

Changi Prison key.

Inside the mock-up of the bomb shelter.

The mock-up.

A mock-up of a kitchen.

Contributors of some of the stories.

 





The real story behind Old Changi Hospital

11 09 2017

The real story behind Old Changi Hospital, isn’t about what the place seems to have got an unfortunate reputation more recently for.  The former hospital, which has its roots in the RAF Hospital set up after the war in 1947, is a place that many who were warded or who worked there remember with fondness.

The hospital, with a reputation of being one of the best military medical facilities in the Far East, is also well remembered for the wonderful views its wards provided of the sea and that it was felt aided in rest and recovery.

Members of the public got to learn about the background to the hospital and how some of the basis for the more recently circulated myths are quite clearly false during a visit to the site as part of the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets series of State Property Visits organised with the support of the Singapore Land Authority. More on the visit and the series can also be found at the links below.

More on the visit:

More on Old Changi Hospital / Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets:

Also of interest:





Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets: The house on Admiral’s Hill

1 09 2017

Update
1 September 2017 4.25 pm

Registration for the event has been closed as of 1621 hours, 1 September 2017. All slots have been taken up.

Do look out for the next visit in the series, which will be to the former Central Police Station (Beach Road Police Station) scheduled for 7 October 2017 at 10 am to 12 noon. More details will be released two weeks before the visit.


The fifth visit in the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets State Property Visits at takes us to the only tenanted property in the series, Old Admiralty House, at 345 Old Nelson Road, Singapore 758692. This visit is supported by Furen International School (FIS), the property’s occupant, and the Singapore Land Authority (SLA).

Visit details
Date: Saturday 16 September 2017
Time: Session 1: 9 to 9.45 am; Session 2: 10 to 10.45 am
Address: 345 Old Nelson Road, Singapore 758692
Participants should be of ages 12 and above.

Registration link for Session 1, 9 to 9.45 am:
https://goo.gl/forms/9Iom36FbbYfsLSFb2

Registration link for Session 2, 10 to 10.45 am:
https://goo.gl/forms/3TGG1oy2ppyyNUMh1

Registrations are on a first-come-first-served basis and will close for each session when all spaces are taken up.


JeromeLim-9465s

Old Admiralty House, perched atop the last forested hill in Sembawang.


Background to Old Admiralty House

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The façade of the lovely Arts and Crafts Movement inspired house.

Built at the end of the 1930s as one of three intended residences for the most senior commanders of the British military’s three arms, the lovely Arts and Crafts styled house sits atop a hill situated at the edge of the Admiralty’s massive Naval Base. Meant to house the Commander of His Majesty’s Naval Establishments in Singapore, it only saw one as resident before the war broke out. It became the residence of the Flag Officer, Malayan Area as ‘Nelson House’ in September 1948 and then the residence of the Commander-in-Chief (C in C), Far East Station, as ‘Admiralty House’ in 1958 until the pullout of British forces in 1971.

Admiralty House become the residence of the Commander of the ANZUK Force post pullout. As part of a visit to ANZUK forces, Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh had lunch at the house during a visit to Singapore in 1972.  As the official residence of the ANZUK forces commander (only two were resident), it became known as ANZUK House. Following the withdrawal of the Australian forces from the ANZUK arrangements in 1975 saw the keys to the house passed to the Singapore government.

Much has happened since the house left the service of the military. It opened as restaurant and guest house in 1978. In 1988, plans were announced to turn the building and its grounds into a country club with a caravan park. This use was however rejected and it was relaunched in mid 1989 as the Admiralty Country House. The house and its grounds would eventually play host to a country club, Yishun Country Club, in 1991. From 2001 to 2006, it became the Karimun Admiralty Country Club, during which time the building was gazetted as a National Monument (in 2002). It is slated to become part of the planned Sembawang Integrated Sports and Community Hub after FIS vacates it in 2020.

More on the history of the house can be found at: An ‘English Country manor’ in Singapore’s north once visited by the Queen.

(See also: Abodes of Singapore’s military history, The Straits Times, 6 October 2016)

JeromeLim-2163

Windows into the past.






Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets: Visit to Old Changi Hospital

25 08 2017

Update
26 August 2017 8.20 am

A 2nd tour has been added at 1pm on 9 September 2017.

Details on registration will be posted at 1 pm today.


Update
25 August 2017 9.07 am

Registration for the event has been closed as of 0835 hours, 25 August 2017. All slots have been taken up. Do look out for the next visit in the series, which will be to Old Admiralty House being scheduled for 16 September 2017 at 9 am to 11 am (rescheduled due to Presidential election on 23 September). More details will be out two weeks before the visit.


The fourth in the series of State Property visits that is being supported by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) will present participants with a rare opportunity to visit the former Changi Hospital.

For this visit, participants will have to be 18 years old and above.

Registration is closed as all slots have been taken up. An email will be sent to registered participants with admin instructions a week prior to the visit.


Old Changi Hospital

The hospital traces its origins to the Royal Air Force(RAF) Hospital Changi. That was set up in 1947 to serve the then newly established RAF Station, Singapore’s third. The hospital operated out of two Barrack Hill buildings, one of which was actually designated for use as a medical centre in the context of the military camps of today. The buildings were built as part of the Changi garrison’s 1930s vintage Kitchener Barracks, which housed the Royal Engineers. Separated by a flight of 91 steps, it took quite an effort to move from one wing to the other.

Despite its less than ideal layout, the hospital gained a reputation of being one of the best medical facilities in the Far East. It was well liked by those who were warded there with its proximity to the sea. The hospital also played an important role during the Korean War. A ward was set up for use as a stopover for the “Flying Ambulance” service the RAF mounted. The service allowed wounded UN Command troops to be repatriated to their home countries via Singapore and London.

The hospital was also an important maternity hospital that served families with all arms of the military (not just the RAF) who were stationed in Singapore and counted more than 1000 new arrivals during its time as the RAF Hospital. An expansion exercise in 1962 gave the hospital a third block.

RAF Hospital Changi became the ANZUK Military Hospital following the 1971 pullout of British forces, then the UK Military Hospital, the SAF Hospital, and finally Changi Hospital. It closed in 1997 and the buildings have been left empty since. I will be sharing more on the hospital, its buildings and the history of the Changi garrison during the visit.






Gambling at the original sands at Marina Bay

24 08 2017

Gambling at the sands at Marina Bay actually started well before Marina Bay Sands landed – on the evidence of the accounts of Munshi Abdullah. In his autobiography, “Hikayat Abdullah“, Munshi Abdullah describes the events at the time of modern Singapore’s founding in 1819 to which he had not been witness to. He did however have a reliable enough source in the form of  William Farquhar. Farquhar’s observations, as recorded by Abdullah, extended to the physical landscape around the mouth of the Singapore River and the adjacent shoreline and rather interestingly to some of what seemed to go on around the shores.

Especially interesting is a description of mouth of the river in its natural state and the superstitions the local population held of a particular stone at which offerings were made:

In the mouth of the Singapore River there were a great many large rocks, but there was a channel in between the rocks, which was as crooked as a snake when it is beaten. Among all those stones there was one with a sharp point like the snout of a swordfish, and that was called by the sea-gypsies Batu Kepala-Todak (Sword-fish-head Rock), and they believed that that stone had an evil spirit or ghost. It was at that stone that they all paid their vows, and that was the place they feared, and they set up banners and paid it honor: for they said, “If we do not honor it, when we go in and out of the straits it will certainly destroy us all”. So every day they brought offerings and placed them on that stone.

Also interesting is what must have been a most gruesome of sights greeting the newly arrived of skulls, some with hair still on them, rolling about the edge of  the shoreline. The shoreline and its sands, two centuries before it was made into part of Marina Bay and the Sands casino arrived, was also a location for what must have been some of the earliest instances of gambling in Singapore:

And all along the edge of the shore there were rolling hundreds of human skulls in the sand, some old and some new, some with the hair still remaining on them, some with the teeth filed, and others not, skulls of all kinds. Mr. Farquhar was informed of this, and when he saw them, he had them picked up and thrown out to sea; so they were put in sacks and thrown into the sea. At that time the sea-gypsies were asked, “Whose skulls are all these?”‘ And they said, “These are the heads of the victims of piracy, and this is where they were killed.” Wherever native vessels or ships were attacked, the pirates came here and divided the plunder; in some eases they killed one another in struggling for the booty; in other cases it was those whom they had bound. It was on the shore here that they tried their weapons, and here also they had gambling and cock-fighting.

A very different shoreline and river, 1819 (source: The Singapore River: A Social History, 1819-2002 by Stephen Dobbs).

Boat Quay – the site of a swamp when Raffles first landed on the opposite bank. Soil from a hill at what is today’s Raffles’ Place was used to fill the swamp (what would be the very first reclamation to take place in Singapore).

Marina Bay today, a body of fresh water where the sea had once washed up to.








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