Days of Wonder

28 05 2021

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

Fun for me in the late 1960s.

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

Ayer Gemuroh



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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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





Saying hello to an old acquaintance

20 04 2010

A grey granite block balanced on a red brick plinth stands on the grounds of the former Anglo Chinese School (ACS) at Coleman Street. Hidden from view even on its perch, the stone and its significance seems to have been well forgotten.

The stone had once occupied a position of greater prominence and one fitting of its intended purpose. Placed along the seaside promenade by Fullerton Road, the stone was unveiled by the late President Yusof Ishak in 1970 as the foundation for a monument to Singapore’s early founders. With its foundation stone laid in the 12 month period during which the 150th anniversary of Raffles’ landing was being commemorated, the monument was to honour the many immigrants whose names and faces we know little of, but whose toil and endeavour contributed as much to the Singapore of modern times.

The foundation stone for a monument intended to honour the early immigrants who contributed much to the development of modern Singapore at its current location outside the lobby of the National Archives.

It was through the numerous walks I made as a child along the same promenade that I became acquainted with the stone. Although I was guilty of ignoring it or passing no more than a cursory glance at it on most occasions, there were times when I would stop to trace the inscriptions on its faces with my fingers, wondering if the promise the words spoke of would ever be fulfilled. The walks became less frequent with the passing of my childhood and with strolls around the area made much less enjoyable with its development, they stopped altogether and forgotten with time was the stone – until I was reminded of its existence quite recently.

Inscription on the foundation stone reads: THE FOUNDATION STONE OF THE MONUMENT IN TRIBUTE TO THE EARLY FOUNDERS OF SINGAPORE WAS LAID BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC OF SINGAPORE ON THE 18TH DAY OF JANUARY 1970.

I found my old acquaintance just outside the entrance to what is today the National Archives of Singapore – a temporary home since the turn of the century. Sitting in the shadows of the plants it now finds company in, it seems to hide from a Singapore that just like me, has chosen to forget it.  Although it does look none the worse for wear, it looked worn and tired and wears little of the promise with which it was laid – a promise that after forty years remains unfulfilled.

Inscription in Chinese.

When the idea for the monument was mooted by the Alumni International Singapore, it seemed that it would only be a matter of time before $200,000 required to build it would be raised. A temporary site was selected for its forerunner, the foundation stone. Its position at the end of the seafront along which many immigrants would have come ashore was one of significance. However, attempts at finding a suitable design through a competition and to raise the necessary funds, proved unsuccessful. Neither a suitable design was arrived at nor were sufficient funds raised and in time. The Alumni International would make an about turn on the monument and the funds raised were channelled instead into other areas in 1985.

View from the street through the fence of the National Archives.

That the monument was never built and that the foundation stone now lies in relative obscurity, is perhaps a reflection of who we have become as Singaporeans; lacking in the sense of who we really are and also of how we have got to where we are. We now embrace the new, the modern adornments we have decorated our city with, and have discarded much of what connected us with our humble past.

Not all of course has been lost. In what we have held on too we find a glimmer of hope, as the case for the stone may be. What would certainly be good to see is the monument built in time perhaps for the bicentennial in 2019 of modern Singapore’s founding – a milestone that is certainly an opportune time to remember those who came from far and wide to make Singapore what it is today.

Another view of the early founders’ stone from the inside of the National Archives compound.

The stone is located somewhat hidden from view in front of the lobby of the National Archives.


Update (July 2010):

The Foundation Stone was returned to the Collyer Quay area in July 2010, placed outside the Singapore River end of the Fullerton Building.

JeromeLim-0025

Its new position as of July 2010, by the Fullerton Building.