Finding a lost Singapore in the images of Paul Piollet

19 11 2018

Such is the pace at which change takes place that little exists of the Singapore those of my generation grew up with. It was one whose city streets and rural spaces, filled with life and colour, were places to discover. Lost to progress, that Singapore can never be revisited again – except perhaps through images that we are fortunate to see of them.

In Conversation with Paul Piollet.

I, for one, am especially grateful to the good folks behind these images. Several collections have been publicly available through their generous donations or in some cases, through donations made by family members. These images provide us, and our generations with a visual record that in many cases would not otherwise exist of places and more importantly a way of life from a time when few had the means to capture them.

The opportunity to hear from the donors of two of these visual collections came our way this November. The first, Dr Clifford Saunders, donated an extensive and very well documented collection of over 1,400 photographs to the National Heritage Board. The images were taken by his father, Ralph Charles Saunders in the late 1950s, when he was stationed here at RAF Seletar – with his family, which included a young Dr Saunders.

Just in the middle of the last week, we were graced by the visit of another donor, Mr Paul Piollet, with whom we were able to hold a “conversation” with at the Urban Redevelopment Authority as part of the Architectural Heritage Season. The unassuming Mr Piollet, now in his 80s, has certainly had a past. His career in oil took him across the world, and he found himself in Balikpapan in Kalimantan in 1970 as a result of that. It was there that he developed a fascination for Indonesia and its maritime heritage. He would also find himself in Singapore, where he immersed himself in much that went on around and on its lively streets.

Mr Piollet’s photos of a Singapore in transition are especially intriguing. We find in them a record of life and a way of life of a Singapore in transition. We can see what fascinated Mr Piollet from the many images of wayangs, the life that went on backstage, elaborate Chinese funerals and of life on Singapore’s living streets, which were not only full of life but also filled with children (an observation was made during the “conversation” of how children are now missing from our city streets). Images of street food vendors, which Mr Piollet regularly frequented (he rattled off a few Hokkien names of local fare he enjoyed), also features in his collection.

While the focus of the “conversation” may have been on his images of Singapore (more than 180 can be found in the National Archives of Singapore), I was fortunate to be able to hear about his efforts to document the Indonesian maritime world through a brief conversation we had just before the event started.  Of particular interest to him were the wooden sail boats and the people who crewed them. Much of the craft and skill in rigging and sailing these beautiful hand-crafted boats, once a backbone of trade across parts of the widely spread archipelago, have quite sadly been lost to motorisation.

Pages out of one of Mr Piollet’s books, “Équipages et voiliers de Madura”, documenting Indonesia’s lost maritime heritage.

Thankfully, there are at least thousands of photos taken by Mr Piollet, as well as several books that he authored. Along with photographs and sketches that Mr Piollet made, there are also registry records that he copied by hand. Mr Piollet’s books, of ways of life that have since been lost, can be found at the French Bookshop at 55 Tiong Bahru Road.

“Équipages et voiliers de Madura” or “The crews and boats of Madura”, which Mr Piollet very kindly gave me a copy of.


A selection of photographs from the Paul Piollet Collection

One of Mr Piollet’s photos from 1975. A lost corner of Singapore that was familiar to my parents and me – where Rangoon Road met Norfolk Road and Moulmein Green – see : Moulmein Road Journeys (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

I thought this looks similar to the hairdresser that my mother used to visit at Rangoon Road with me in tow. From its name, this wasn’t it and only closer examination, looks like it was located in the row of shophouses close to the Balestier Road end of Tessensohn Road (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

What looks like part of the row of shophouses close to the Balestier Road end of Tessensohn Road (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Life as it was, when streets were not complete without the sight of children playing (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Days of street wayangs. I thought this might have been a street in the Ellenborough Market area but it seems more likely to have been Chin Nam Street (parallel to Hock Lam Street) with a view towards Fort Canning Hill  (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Pau steamers – wgich caught the eye of Mr. Piollet (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

A scene now hard to imagine on Sungei Rochor (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).


 

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A new light at the end of the old railway tunnel

7 05 2018

Looking quite good is the “new” railway tunnel along the abandoned and largely forgotten old Jurong railway line. The original tunnel was one of three built as part of an industrial line in the early 1960s, allowing goods trains to pass under Clementi Road. All three tunnels are quite surprisingly still intact. Significant bits of the line’s other paraphernalia, such as a truss bridge, five girder bridges, bits of sleepers, rusting tracks, as well as several railway signs, can also still be found.

The light at the end of the “new” tunnel.

A view from the inside in 2014.

The “new” tunnel, actually the old tunnel refurbished with an extension added is part of a preserved stretch of the Jurong Line. The stretch that is being kept runs from the point at which the line branched off just south of Bukit Timah Railway Station over to the very visible truss bridge over the Ulu Pandan River.

An eastward view of the tunnel entrance.

Waterlogged tracks leading to the tunnel entrance in 2014.

An extension to the tunnel was required due to the widening of Clementi Road. An effort seems to have been made to also maintain the tunnel’s original character with the retention of its corrugated lining (even if that may have had to be replaced) and also the extension into the extended length of the tunnel. Tracks, and substitute concrete sleepers have also been laid in way of the extension. What is also good to see that the water collected in the previously flooded tunnel has also been drained as part of this effort.

Remnants of the line’s tracks on the western side of the tunnel.

More on the tunnel, the Jurong Line and its remnants, can be found in the following posts:

More on the railway can also be found at : Journeys through Tanjong Pagar


A May Day walk to the tunnel.


 





The forest that will be making way for the “Forest Town”

5 05 2018

One of the things that I quite dearly miss are the seemingly long road journeys of my childhood to the far flung corners of Singapore. The journeys, always an adventure, provided an opportunity to the many different sides that Singapore then had; places that had each a unique charm and character.

A stream running through the now forested area, close to what would have been the 12th Milestone.

One especially long journey was the one to would take me to the “wild west”. The journey to the west, along a slow and dusty Jurong Road that meandered from the 8th milestone of Bukit Timah past wooded areas, settlements, graveyards, rubber plantations, and a rural landscape that is hard to imagine as having ever existed in the brave new world that we now live in.

There is a reminder of that journey, an old stretch of the road that, even stripped of rural human existence and its paraphernalia, bears some resemblance to the old road. Found just north of the Pan Island Expressway (PIE) between Bukit Batok Road and Jurong West Avenue 2, it has been relegated to a service road and has been all but forgotten.

12 Milestone Jurong Road today.

The stretch, now shaded by its overgrown trees, would have corresponded to the 11th to 12th milestones of Jurong Road – an area that went by the name “Hong Kah” before the name was appropriated by a public housing precinct across the PIE in Jurong West. Hong Kah Village itself stood right smack where the 12th milestone was and it wasn’t one that would have easily been missed in the old days, just as the old Chinese burial site nearby, Bulim Cemetery, on the road just past the village that gave me the chills on night drives past the area.

12 Milestone in 1986 (source: National Archives Online)

The odd sounding “Hong Kah” quite interestingly translates to “bestowing a religion” in the Hokkien or Teochew dialects. It was a term that apparently, in colloquial usage, was also used to refer to Christians (Chinese converts to Christianity I suppose). “Hong Kah Choon” was thus the “Christian Village”, so named due to its association with the Anglican St. Andrew’s Mission, which had carried out missionary work in the area since the 1870s (see page 45-46 of NHB’s Jurong Heritage Trail booklet). The mission also built a nearby church, St. John’s Church Jurong, located at 11th milestone at the top of 105 steps on a hillock. Put up in 1884, the church operated until 1992. That was when it was acquired together with the rest of the area for redevelopment.

The track leading to SJJ at 11 MS Jurong.

Cleared and left untouched, except for its use as military training grounds until very recently, nature has since reclaimed much of the area – which stretches up north to the Kranji Expressway. Today, the site hosts a lush secondary forest, complete with fresh water streams and a thriving birdlife. Redevelopment, will however soon clear much of what is now there, to be replaced by a forest of concrete that will be called Tengah – Singapore’s 24th “new town”.

One of the forest’s winged residents – a (male) common flameback woodpecker.

Dubbed, rather ironically, as the “Forest Town“, Tengah  will feature a fair bit of greenery. Much of which, however, will quite saldy be manufactured and put in once the existing forest has been cleared and a fair bit of concrete has been introduced – which is the Singapore way.

Another resident – a St. Andrew’s Cross spider.

Also manufactured will be a “real” forest that will take the form of a 100 metre wide and 5 kilometre long “forest corridor”. Running by the Kranji Expressway, it will serve to connect the Western Water Catchment Area and the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. And again, in the Singapore way, the corridor will be one that is “planted with rainforest tree species to transform it into a rich forest habitat”.

More views of the forest 





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.

 





Lost Singapore: The hundred steps to a thousand Buddhas

1 11 2017

Of the many places in Singapore we have lost over the years, none might have possessed the magical quality of the Hall of A Thousand Buddhas standing at the top of Mount Washington. From its isolated perch, even if it was merely 80 metres above sea level, it would have seemed that heaven was a lot closer to it than was earth. A sanctuary for prayer, and perhaps for contemplation, the ascent to it would – at least for the devoted – involved a climb of a hundred steps.

A view from afar with the two 19th century Guanyin temples also seen (photo posted by Tan Chee Wee on On A Little Street in Singapore).

In as magical a fashion as the hall might have been, photographs of the temple have quite recently come to the surface – in the same wonderful photograph sets posted by Lies Strijker-Klaij On a Little Street in Singapore. The same set includes those of the Anchor Brewery and its railway siding that made an appearance in my previous post.

The Hall of A Thousand Buddhas, c. 1960s. Photo: TH. A. STRIJKER (potsed by Lies Strijker-Klaij on On A Little Street in Singapore).

The prayer hall, also referred to as a temple, was erected by the World Buddhist Society in 1966 to commemorate the first anniversary of Singapore’s independence. An accompanying pagoda, standing close to the hall, was actually built before the hall and had been in existence since 1957 when it was built in commemoration of the then Malaya’s Merdeka. Besides the pair, two other temple buildings – built onto the slope below the hall – were also found by the long staircase. Both were dedicated to Kwan In – the goddess of mercy, with the upper temple intended for male worshippers having been of a 1871 vintage and the lower temple – for women – thought to have been built in 1884. The complex of structures adorned the summit of Mount Washington, also known as Telok Blangah Hill or Thousand Buddha Hill until the late 1980s. That was when the land on which it stood was acquired to allow an extension to Mount Faber Park, across Henderson Road (a 1972 addition), to be built; despite the appeals that were made against it. The World Buddhist Society’s headquarters, housed in the Alkaff Mansion downslope since 1970, was also acquired during the same exercise.

The Hall of A Thousand Buddhas, c. 1960s. Photo: TH. A. STRIJKER (potsed by Lies Strijker-Klaij on On A Little Street in Singapore).

The Pagoda of A Thousand Buddhas, c. 1960s. Photo: TH. A. STRIJKER (potsed by Lies Strijker-Klaij on On A Little Street in Singapore).

A close-up of the Pagoda of A Thousand Buddhas, c. 1960s. Photo: TH. A. STRIJKER (posted by Lies Strijker-Klaij on On A Little Street in Singapore).

A postcard of the hall and the pagoda.

 





Parting Glances: Hup Lee Kopitiam

23 08 2017

Just like the remnants of Robinson Petang flea market at Sungei Road, just a stone’s throw away, the old world Hup Lee kopitiam at Jalan Besar was a reminder of a Singapore that has all but been consigned to the past. Its closing, just this week, just over a month after the decades old flea market was shut for good, is perhaps no surprise; the old coffeeshop’s fortunes were very much tied to the flea market from which it drew quite a fair proportion of its patrons.

Going back to the 1950s, Hup Lee was one of a rare breed of old-world coffee shops in which time seemed to have stood very still. The touch of nostalgia that its provided was a huge draw. An oasis in the desert of modernity that Singapore has become, its closure will be mourned by those for whom Singapore has moved much, much too fast.

See also:

The small crowd that gathered at Hup Lee on its last day of business on 21 August 2017.

The last pot of coffee.

Washing up for the last time.

A customer having the very last cup of coffee that was served, as the coffee shop emptied just after 8 pm on Monday.

Closed for business.

A last look.

Gates closed for good.

The morning after.





Tanah Merah, 1965

22 05 2017

Old photographs, of much cherished places that are no longer with us in Singapore, are a godsend. They help me to hold on to my sanity in a country that due to the relentless pace of change, feels much less like home with each passing day.

A set of such photos arrived in my inbox over the weekend. Taken in 1965 and sent by Ian Brooks, the photos are first in colour that I have come across of the Tanah Merah Besar area of my early childhood. The photos are especially precious for two reasons. One, the show a house perched on a set of cliffs (yes, cliffs!) and two, they also show one of many machine-gun pillbox that were then a fairly common sight.

The area in which these were taken – where the seaward end of Tanah Merah Besar Road turned northeast or left into Nicoll Drive and right or southwest to Wing Loong Road – was a gateway into a most magical of places, the Tanah Merah of my early childhood. That Tanah Merah was one of seaside kampungs, coconut groves, beach-side villas – one of which belonged to Singapore’s first Chief Minister, David Marshall – and holiday bungalows (see also: Once Tanah Merah and also Mata Ikan) and one that provided me with some of the most memorable moments of my early childhood.

Sadly, nothing is left of it except for a Tanah Merah Besar Road that now ends at a fence (belonging to Changi Airport’s western perimeter), and the memories of a world that if not for the photographs that still exist, would surely fade away.