Digging the Empress up in search of Singapura

14 02 2015

Just six months or so after the dust seemed to have settled on Empress Place with completion of a four-year long refurbishment of the now almost too clean looking Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, the dust levels seem to be rising again. Since 2 February, a huge hole has appeared in the shadow old Vic, one that is being dug so as to find pieces of our buried past.

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The archaeological excavation, the largest ever undertaken in Singapore, is organised by the National Heritage Board (NHB) with the support of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as part of an effort to commemorate 31 years of archaeology in Singapore.

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The dig, right in a place that when I first came to know it was a car park, has unearthed artefacts that are thought to be highly significant that could possible date as far back as the 14th century. The finds in a previously archaeologically unexplored site, include pieces of porcelain and clay figurines that are thought to originate from as far away as China and  help provide an understanding of a Singapura that seemed to have been at the crossroads even before the British made it so.

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All at sea

24 07 2014

The launch on Saturday of Singapore HeritageFest 2014, bring us to focus on one of the key reasons for Singapore’s being, the sea. This year’s festival much of which revolves around a maritime based theme, “Our Islands, Our Home” has us looking at our maritime past as well as our present as a maritime nation.

HeritageFest 2014 opens a window to Singapore's island heritage.

HeritageFest 2014 opens a window to Singapore’s island heritage.

It is to raise the profile of this heritage, one that goes back to times well before the arrival of Raffles, that is in fact what the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) and the National Heritage Board (NHB) hopes to achieve with the establishment of the S$500,000 Maritime Heritage Fund, which the two agencies will administer – for which a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by the two agencies at Saturday’s launch.

One of the highlights of this year's HeritageFest is a lighthouse trail that includes a stop on Pulau Satumu, Singapore's southernmost island, on top of which Raffles' Lighthouse is perched.

One of the highlights of this year’s HeritageFest is a lighthouse trail that includes a stop on Pulau Satumu, Singapore’s southernmost island, on top of which Raffles’ Lighthouse is perched.

Once a common scene in the waters off the Southern Islands. Boats such as the kolek on the right, are very much part of our maritime heritage (a similar kolek is on display at the Balik Pulau Exhibition at the National Museum).

Once a common scene in the waters off the Southern Islands. Boats such as the kolek on the right, are very much part of our maritime heritage (a similar kolek is on display at the Balik Pulau Exhibition at the National Museum).

The focus of the fund, which complements the NHB’s S$5 million Heritage Grant Scheme launched last year, will be on developing community-initiated projects related to Singapore’s maritime heritage that will promote a greater understanding and appreciation of Singapore’s maritime connections, as was touched on by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Community, Culture and Youth, in his speech at the festival’s launch.

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of NHB launching Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of NHB launching Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Mr Wong also spoke of the transformation that will soon take place at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), where the launch event was held. Besides a revamp of the museum with expanded galleries that will include a space allocated for the Tang Cargo and see new shops and dining outlets, the museum will be given a new entrance that will open it up to the river and give it a direct connection into the historic heart of Singapore.

Another lighthouse - the very pretty Sultan Shoal Lighthouse at the western extremities of Singapore's waters seen during the lighthouse trail as part of Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Another lighthouse – the very pretty Sultan Shoal Lighthouse at the western extremities of Singapore’s waters seen during the lighthouse trail as part of Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

The revamp is part of the ongoing effort to develop a civic and cultural belt around Singapore’s colonial civic district (see: The Old Vic’s ticking again) that involves also the newly refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, and the conversion of the Old Supreme Court and City Hall into National Gallery – due for completion in 2015.

The Old Vic's definitely back!

The newly refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall.

A cultural performance at the launch of Singapore HeritageFest2014.

A cultural performance at the launch of Singapore HeritageFest2014.

The launch also coincided with the first evening of a two-night series of programmes taking place around the ACM and the river, River Nights. The event, brought much life and colour to the river, and celebrated its changing identity over the years – in the same way the well received series of activities  for Singapore HeritageFest 2014 celebrates the islands.

A dragon dance performance at the start of River Nights at the ACM's front lawn.

A dragon dance performance at the start of River Nights at the ACM’s front lawn.

More information on the Maritime Heritage Fund, Singapore HeritageFest 2014, River Nights and on Balik Pulau: Stories from Singapore’s Islands (an exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore held in conjunction with HeritageFest 2014) can be found in the following links:





Motoring Heritage Day at Tanjong Pagar

5 09 2013

Motoring Heritage Day is back once again at the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. This year’s event will be held on Sunday 15 September 2013 from 10 am to 5 pm. Besides a rare display of some 50 vintage cars, there will also be lots of other activities including guided tours of the station by volunteer guides from the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB), an exhibition on the former railway station that I would be assisting the National Heritage Board (NHB) to put up, and talks (see programme below). The event is jointly organised by the Malaysia Singapore Vintage Car Register (MSVCR) and the NHB. More information can be found at the MSVCR’s site and at NHB’s website. I will also follow up with some further information soon.

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Celebrating Orchard on National Day

10 08 2013

Celebrating Orchard is an exhibition of photographs I helped the National Heritage Board (NHB) put together for a National Day event. The one day exhibition at the Ngee Ann City Civic Plaza offers perspectives of Singapore’s well known shopping district, commonly referred to as ‘Orchard’ through  a series of photographs – those of eight individuals including myself who have made first impressions of the street and its environs at different periods of its development, post-independence.


Photographs I exhibited:

Reflections

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I love how reflections can sometimes offer interesting perspectives such as these reflections I captured off an Orchard Road shop window, which does represent how I see Orchard’s transformation over the years since my first impressions were formed. The street is now one that is rich in flavour and colour. Full of excitement, it now has an appeal which goes far beyond the shopping and dining venues it is known for and is very much where Singapore comes alive.


The Motor End

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An early impression I had of Orchard was of its car showrooms. Several were found at the ‘Motor End’. It was where my father was to purchase the first five cars he owned from. Three were from Borneo Motors (two Austins and later a Toyota), as well as one from Universal Cars (a Ford) and another from Malayan Motors (a Morris). The building which housed Malayan Motors is one which has survived and is currently occupied by MDIS.


Runway Orchard

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Orchard has always been one to celebrate fashion. Back in the 1960s it became home to trendsetting designer and hairstylist Roland Chow when Roland’s opened on the street. The internationally recognised fashion hub now celebrates in a big way, shutting itself to traffic one evening a year when it transforms itself into a fashion runway for Fashion Steps Out @ Orchard.


About Celebrating Orchard

Orchard Road or ‘Orchard’, as the street and its surroundings is commonly referred to, has over the years offered very different experiences to its many visitors. Lined with car showrooms and several memorable places to shop at the point of Singapore’s independence, it has become a focal point of the new and exciting Singapore. It is where the heart and soul of Singapore can perhaps be found.

Celebrating Orchard explores the famous street through the eyes of eight photographers, who having had their first impressions of the street made during different periods of its development, offer a different take on Orchard Road.

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Other photographers who exhibited:






The dragons live on

4 08 2013

It is indeed wonderful news that the last of the two dragon kilns in Singapore will see an extension to their tenure which should add at least nine more years to their lives. The future of the kilns, the Thow Kwang kiln and the Guan Huat kiln, beyond when their current leases run out (at end of 2014 and in early 2015 respectively), had very much been in doubt – the area is currently being developed into a CleanTech Park by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) (see also a previous post: A dragon draws breath).

A look into the belly of the dragon - the firing box aglow during a firing of the kiln.

A look into the belly of the dragon – the firing box aglow during a firing of the kiln.

What is perhaps more significant about the news is that the National Heritage Board (NHB) is behind the extension of the tenure, which will be for an initial term of three years and renewable for two further terms of three years each, giving due recognition to the heritage value of the kilns.

The Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln.

The Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln.

That the kilns are of heritage value, there certainly isn’t any doubt. They were once a feature of the area, as well as several other rural areas in Singapore, providing not only clay latex cups essential to the rubber plantations found across much of the rural landscape, but also employment opportunities which together with the estates, drew communities to the areas close to where they were set up.

The Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle is built around the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln which the Tan family has operated since 1965.

The kilns were established to satisfy demand for clay latex cups. Once demand fell as rubber plantations were cleared out for industrialisation, the kilns turned to making flower and orchid pots.

As many as nine such kilns were thought to have been established in the area, off a stretch of Jurong Road from the 13th to the 17th milestones. What did draw so many to the area was as much the demand for latex cups as it was the white Jurong clay which made a perfect raw material. The area where the two remaining kilns are found, do in fact have a pottery making history that goes beyond what essentially are kilns brought to Singapore by the Teochew community.  During a refurbishment of the Thow Kwang kiln a few years back, evidence was uncovered of what is thought was a Hokkien 3-chamber kiln next to the current kiln (see also: Into the belly of the dragon).

Stoke holes found of the earlier kiln on the site of the dragon kiln.

Stoke holes found of an earlier Hokkien kiln on the site of the Thow Kwang kiln.

Both the existence of kilns in the area and the evidence of the previous kiln does provide an important link to the rich heritage of the Jurong area, as well as to the area’s early development history, much of which has already been lost to the industrialisation of the area. For the owners of Thow Kwang kiln, Mr Tan Teck Yoke and his wife Mrs Yulianti Tan, the motivation is as much their interest in maintaining this link, as it is a desire to maintain a tradition passed down from Mr Tan’s father who bought the kiln in 1965.

Evidence of what is thought to be a Hokkien kiln.

Evidence of the stepped chamber of what is thought to be a Hokkien kiln.

The kiln is no longer commercially viable as it was when the elder Mr Tan purchased it – demand for latex cups vanished when the area’s rubber plantations did, and the Tan’s maintain it out of pure passion and it was with much happiness and relief with which they received the news which came at a press conferenced called by NHB at the kiln yesterday morning.

Fishing by a potter's hut.

A potter’s hut at Thow Kwang which was already demolished as it was on part of the land that was taken back by the Jurong Town Corporation.

At the press conference, which unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend as I was due to speak at a Queenstown Symposium, Mr Alvin Tan, Group Director (Policy) of the NHB, spoke of both the heritage and artistic value – the two remianing kilns being “a unique part of Singapore’s pottery history” as well as that the traditional wood-firing kilns are now used by clay artists to achieve a unique glaze on their work.

The natural beauty of wood fire kiln fired  pottery - the windward side is glazed by the ash and salt while the other side is left unglazed.

The natural beauty of wood fire kiln fired pottery – the windward side is glazed by the ash and salt while the other side is left unglazed.

The kilns are indeed a unique part of our history and it is my hope that they will remain a part of a Singapore in which we have already lost too much of.

Further information on Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln





Trading stories with six tradesmen

15 03 2013

An often overlooked chapter in the Singapore story is the one that is written by our pioneering tradesmen. Many had little choice to turn to their trades as a means of income, but in doing so, they were able to contribute to society by serving the many important needs of the growing population in the early days of the development of Singapore. While many of these trades have fallen victim to the rapid pace of change, as well as perhaps to the globalisation, and have been forgotten about; there are some which have managed to stay relevant or have evolved to meet the changing needs of today’s society. An exhibition which opens to the public today at the National Museum of Singapore, Trading Stories: Conversations with Six Tradesmen, looks at some of the tales of these tradesmen, through personal accounts from six pioneering tradesmen, some who have retired from their trades, and some whose trades are still very much alive today.

Exhibition panels featuring former Samsui woman, Mdm Ng Moey Chye, 81, who was actually the daughter of another Samsui woman.

Exhibition panels featuring former Samsui woman, Mdm Ng Moey Chye, 81, who was actually the daughter of another Samsui woman.

Letter writer Mr Thangaraju s/o Singaram, who is 85 years old and was from Tamil Nadu, India.

Letter writer Mr Thangaraju s/o Singaram, who is 85 years old and was from Tamil Nadu, India.

Exhibition panels featuring tukang urut, Mdm Runtik Binti Murtono, a 53 year old immigrant from Surabaya.

Exhibition panels featuring tukang urut, Mdm Runtik Binti Murtono, a 53 year old immigrant from Surabaya.

The exhibition which will be on until 23 June 2013, features the stories of a traditional goldsmith, a movie poster painter, a tukang urut (or Malay confinement lady), a Samsui woman, a poultry farmer and a letter writer, recounting the colourful journeys taken and the experiences of these tradesmen.  In doing so, we do not only hear tales of sacrifice and struggle in the early days of Singapore, we also gain many insights into the trades themselves and perhaps in them, many other stories that would otherwise not have been told, such as that of the Achari craftsmen caste and the wows to remain single that many Samsui women took.

Mr Ho Seng Choon, of Lian Wah Hang Quail and Poultry Farm, one of the six tradesmen featured, speaking to Mr Sam Tan, Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth at the opening of the exhibition.

Mr Ho Seng Choon, of Lian Wah Hang Quail and Poultry Farm, one of the six tradesmen featured, speaking to Mr Sam Tan, Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth at the opening of the exhibition.

Panels featuring Mr Murugaian s/o Ratnaswami Asari, 72 a goldsmith who came as a carpenter from Tamil Nadu, India in 1957.

Panels featuring Mr Murugaian s/o Ratnaswami Asari, 72 a goldsmith who came as a carpenter from Tamil Nadu, India in 1957.

Former movie poster painter Mr Ang Hao Sai. Behind him is a hand-painted movie poster made for his 2008 film, My Magic.

Former movie poster painter Mr Ang Hao Sai. Behind him is a mock up of a traditional cinema on wheels (peep-show) and a hand-painted movie poster loaned by filmmaker Eric Khoo that was made for his 2008 film, My Magic.

Besides the six tradesmen, the exhibition also includes a community segment which features over 20 exhibits contributed by the community. These include private artefacts and keepsakes, locally produced documentaries and a community photography exhibit. One which caught my attention is khat calligrapher, Mr Faizal Somadi’s beautifully executed works of Jawi calligraphy. Jawi is a less often used traditional Malay script which in more recent times has been replaced by the romanised script. Visitors to the exhibition will also be encouraged to leave some of their personal memories of old trades behind by posting notes on a wall.

A reflection of a fan with Chinese calligraphy with a showcase of showing the tools of the trade.

A reflection of a fan with Chinese calligraphy with a showcase of showing the tools of the trade.

Mr Faizal Somadi, a khat calligrapher whose works are on display, speaking to Mr Sam Tan.

Mr Faizal Somadi, a khat calligrapher whose works are on display, speaking to Mr Sam Tan.

Visitors can leave some of their own memories of old trades behind.

Visitors can leave some of their own memories of old trades behind.

Also to look out for as part of the exhibition, is a series of street theatre performances and demonstrations of the old trades. This will take place at the museum on weekends in May and June. The museum has introduced programmes for primary and secondary school students. Trading Stories runs from 15 March to 23 June 2013 at the museum’s Stamford Gallery and opens from 10 am to 6 pm daily. Admission is free. More information can be found at www.nhb.gov.sg/tradingstories.

Photographs and memories of spaces where some of the trades once thrived - my personal contribution to the exhibition.

Photographs of spaces where some of the trades once thrived – my personal contribution to the exhibition.





Corridors of Trade

14 03 2013

A feature of the once ubiquitous shophouse is the five-foot-way. The corridors, conceived as shelter for pedestrians, also made an inexpensive space for many a tradesman to conduct business.

A mobile phone vendor along a five-foot-way at Serangoon Road.

A mobile phone vendor along a five-foot-way at Serangoon Road.

The five-foot-way was often what we visited to pick the newspaper up; get our hair done; have our shoes mended; and, where we could indulge in that favourite bowl of noodles.

A treat I would look forward to as a child was having my favourite bowl of beef-ball soup sitting at a table on a five-foot-way along Hock Lam Street.

My maternal grandmother might also have plied her trade on the five-foot-way – she sold appam in the vicinity of Simon Road Market in the uncertain days that followed the end of the war.

The surviving corridors are mostly silent, abandoned by tradesmen we no longer have need for, except for a few.

(A contribution to National Heritage Board’s “Trading Stories: Conversations with Six Tradesmen” exhibition which will be on at the National Museum of Singapore from 15 March to 23 June 2013)


Trading Stories: Conversations with Six Tradesmen is a community exhibition on old trade­­­­­­­s in Singapore and how tradesmen have coped with the challenge of changing times. Featuring the lives of six individuals who have made their living as a traditional goldsmith, movie poster painter, tukang urut or Malay confinement lady, Samsui woman, poultry farmer and letter writer, the exhibition sheds light on some of Singapore’s old trades through their personal stories – stories of sacrifices and struggles, of passion and fortitude, of entrepreneurial courage and adaptability.

This community exhibition at the Stamford Gallery also features numerous community contributions such as the loan of private keepsakes, locally produced documentaries and a community photography exhibit on old local trades. Members of the public are also invited to contribute to the exhibition by sharing their personal memories and stories of old trades in Singapore.








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