A time machine to the Singapore of the 60s

31 05 2016

 

It is wonderful that technology allows the wealth of photographs that exist of a Singapore we no longer see to be shared. Those especially taken by those whose stay in Singapore was temporary, offer perspectives of places as they were that the local might have thought little of capturing. One of my favourite sets of photographs are those of a David Ayres. Shared through a Flickr album Oldies SE Asia containing some 250 photographs, they take us back to Mr. Ayres’ days in the Royal Navy and include many scenes of places of the Singapore of my childhood that I would not otherwise have been able to ever see again.

A part of Singapore we can never go back to. The view is of the waterfront and the Inner Roads from a vantage point just across the mouth of the Stamford Canal from Esplanade or Queen Elizabeth Walk. Land reclamation has since taken this view away, replacing it with a view that will include One Raffles Link and Esplanade Theatres by the Bay (David Ayres on Flickr).

Mr. Ayres interactions in Singapore came from his two stints at HMS Terror (now Sembawang Camp) in the Naval Base. The first in 1963/64, just about the time I was born, and again in 1966/67. Now 71, he finally managed a trip that he said he he just had to make having not been back to Singapore since he last saw it almost 50 years ago at the end of his second stint in 1967.

A HMS Terror (now Sembawang Camp) barrack block, one that is familiar to me as it was the same block I was accommodated during my reservist in-camp training stints in the 1990s (David Ayres on Flickr).

I managed to say a quick hello to Mr. Ayres during his short visit, managing a short chat with him at a coffee shop in what had once been Sembawang Village, an area that is quite well represented in Mr. Ayres’ set of photographs.  Once a busy area of watering holes, shops and makeshift eating stalls located just across one of the main entrances to the huge Naval Base – an entrance used especially by personnel headed to HMS Terror,  all that it has since been reduced to is the row of two-storey shophouses in which the coffee shop was at.

David Ayres (R), with Phil and Nora, the founder of Old Sembawang Naval Base Facebook group.

David Ayres (R), with his mate Phil and Nora, the founder of Old Sembawang Naval Base Facebook group, in the shadow of the Nelson Bar of today.

The Nelson Bar as seen in 1967 (David Ayres on Flickr).

It was interesting to learn that there was much Mr. Ayres could still recognise from his walk earlier in the day around the former Naval Base, a walk he did with his mate Phil with the help of Nora of the Old Sembawang Naval Base Facebook group. It is perhaps fortunate for Mr. Ayres that Sembawang, a part of Singapore he would have been most familiar with, is one of few places left in Singapore in which much of its past is still to be found in the present.

The Red House, as the Fleet Sailing Centre was referred to because of its red roof (David Ayres on Flickr).

The Red House today as seen from SAF Yacht Club. It's red roof tiles have since been replaced by green ones and the sea pavilion is now in a rather dilapidated state.

The Red House today as seen from SAF Yacht Club. It’s red roof tiles have since been replaced by green ones and the sea pavilion is now in a rather dilapidated state.

A good part of the base housing still remains intact, as do the former dockyard and stores basin, both of which still operating under another guise. Part of HMS Terror is also still around, a part that is visible over its perimeter fence. There also is the former “Aggie Westons” on the hill across from the dockyard gates. This saw use as the Fernleaf Centre in the days when the NZ Force SEA had troops based in Sembawang and is now in use by HomeTeam NS as a recreation centre. A sea pavilion, which served as the Fleet Sailing Centre in the days of the Naval Base, is also still visible from the SAF Yacht Club. Referred to as the “Red House” for its red roof tiles, the pavilion has since been turned green and as observed by Mr. Ayres, now looks rather dilapidated.

‘Aggie Westons’ in David’s time in Sembawang, it became Fernleaf Centre during the days of the New Zealand Force SEA and is today used by HomeTeam NS as a recreation centre. David made a stop here during his recent visit to Sembawang (David Ayres on Flickr).

As we poured over some photographs Mr. Ayres had printed over glasses of lime juice, he also made mention that the row of shophouses we were at had not been around during his first stint at HMS Terror. One of the area’s last additions, it had been put up before Mr. Ayres came back for his second tour. It is in the row that several bars including the Nelson Bar were housed and was a popular drinking spot for servicemen up to the days when the New Zealand forces had a presence in the area. It is also worth mentioning that the cluster of stalls found in the area, popular as stopover for personnel looking for a quick bite, was where the improvised hawker dish we know as Roti John is said to have originated from.

The cluster of food stalls at Sembawang Village, where Roti John was said to have been invented (David Ayres on Flickr).

Besides those in and around the Naval Base, Mr. Ayres captures include many other places that featured in my younger days; places in and around the city centre, then referred to as Singapore, as well as a few far flung places such as Changi. There are also scenes found in the set taken in peninsula Malaysia that are familiar to me from the drives my father was fond of making north of the Causeway. The photographs of the city centre have proved to be particularly fascinating to younger Singaporeans. One taken of Raffles Place in its landscape car-park rooftop garden days  in the direction of Battery Road, made its rounds in 2012, going viral in Singapore. One impression of the modern city that had replaced the one in his photographs that Mr. Ayres and his friend Phil had, was of seeing very few elderly people in it; this perhaps is a manifestation of the disconnect with the brave new world that the city centre has become many in the older generation feel.

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Mr. Ayres’ capture of Raffles Place in 1966 made its rounds around the internet in 2012 (David Ayres on Flickr).

Mr Ayres’ photographs have a quality that goes beyond simple snapshots. Well composed and often offering a wider view of the places he found himself in, they not only take us back to the places we once knew but also immerse us into the scene being captured. The photographs are for me, a means to travel back in time, back to the places I could otherwise have little hope of seeing again, and back to a world I would not otherwise have been able to go home to.

A street that once came alive in the evenings with its food offerings – the section of Albert Street at its Selegie Road end where Albert Court Hotel is today (David Ayres on Flickr).

An “Ice Water Stall” outside what is today the National Museum (David Ayres on Flickr).

The gate post and the Indian Rubber tree today. The tree has since gained the status of a protected tree, having been listed as one of Singapore’s 256 Heritage Trees.

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Changi Creek, 1966 (David Ayres on Flickr).

Changi Creek today.

Changi Creek today.

A familiar scene along Canberra Road that Mr. Ayres captured in 1966. The convoy of dockyard (and later Sembawang Shipyard) workers rushing home was seen into the 1980s (David Ayres on Flickr).

Jalan Sendudok in Sembawang. Notice that the Chinese characters used for Sembawang differ from those used today. The road, which still exists, has since been realigned (David Ayres on Flickr).

Where Selegie met Serangoon over the Rochor Canal, 1966. This photograph helps take me back to visits to Tekka market, the roof of which can be seen on the left of the photo, with my mother whenever mutton curry was on the menu (David Ayres on Flickr).

The same area today, Sans the open canal and and unfamiliar buildings, it now looks completely different.

The same area today, Sans the open canal and and now unfamiliar buildings, it looks a completely different place.

1966. The North Bridge Road that I knew, close to its junction with Bras Basah Road, close to where Jubilee and Odeon Theatres were, which would have been behind the photographer (David Ayres on Flickr).

The same area today.

The same area today.

Further down North Bridge Road in 1966 – a back entrance to Raffles Institution is seen on the left and the walls of the former Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (now CHIJMES) can be seen on the other side of the road (David Ayres on Flickr).

The same area today.

The same area today.

A river crossing in Malaysia in 1967. Not in Singapore but many from Singapore who travelled up north by road would have had this experience before road bridges across the major rivers were completed. One such crossing was at Muar. This existed up to the 1960s. My own experience was of two crossings on the road up to Kuantan in the 1970s and early 1980s. One had been at Endau, at which a tow boat similar to what is seen here was used. The other was a narrower crossing at Rompin that utilised a ferry pulled by wire-rope (David Ayres on Flickr).





The temporary building which stood for 35 years

26 06 2013

A rather uninteresting and unremarkable building which was recently demolished was the Capitol Centre. Built b the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as the Capitol Shopping Centre in 1976 on the site of the former National Showroom along North Bridge Road – well known as a landmark due to its towering neon advertisement tower (which came down in 1974), it was a meant as a structure intended to temporarily house the businesses and food stalls from the Hock Lam Street area which were displaced by urban renewal while they awaited resettlement.

Capitol Centre located across from the iconic Capitol Theatre was demolished at the end of 2011 to make way for a new development which will incorporate the Capitol, the Capitol Building and Stamford House.

Capitol Centre located across from the iconic Capitol Theatre was demolished at the end of 2011 to make way for a new development which will incorporate the Capitol, the Capitol Building and Stamford House.

The National Tower on North Bridge Road (source: Derek Tait)

The National Tower on North Bridge Road (source: Derek Tait)

Over the years the building was to see several transformations which did prolong its useful life. The first was in 1985. With the last of the building’s occupants moving to Hill Street Centre and Funan Centre in January of that year, the Capitol Shopping Centre was available for conversion into a car park to help solve the city’s parking woes. The conversion was completed in August 1985 and the centre became the Capitol Car Park Station which had a capacity of some 300 car park lots and 150 motorcycle lots.

A more significant transformation took place in 1992. That saw it become The Design Centre, an initiative by the Trade Development Board (TDB) to promote local product design capabilities. The Design Centre  included an exhibition space to showcase both local and international designs and a shop on the lower level, as well as a design library. The building also housed several offices of the TDB and the TDB run Export Institute of Singapore. The centre was opened in April 1992 by then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade and Industry, Lee Hsien Loong. The Design Centre played a part in organising overseas trade mission to promote local design as well as the International Design Forum.

A large part of the building after its conversion back to a commercial building was still used as a parking space.

A large part of the building after its conversion back to a commercial building was still used as a parking space.

A car park information board with parking charges listed seen just before the centre's closure.

A car park information board with parking charges listed seen just before the centre’s closure.

The Hock Lam Street area (in the foreground) in 1976 from which businesses were moved temporarily to the Capitol Shopping Centre - the flat roofed building seen at the top of the picture (image source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/).

The Hock Lam Street area (in the foreground) in 1976 from which businesses were moved temporarily to the Capitol Shopping Centre – the flat roofed building seen at the top of the picture (image source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/). Funan centre (Hock Lam is Hokkien for Funan) sits on top of the area today.

The Design Centre seen in 1993 (image source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/).

The Design Centre seen in 1993 (image source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/).

Despite the heavy investment in developing the building as The Design Centre, the centre closed not long after in 1995. The building then became the Capitol Centre which had the likes of bargain shops and private educational institutions using the space until it more recent closure to allow for its demolition to allow work on a redevelopment project which includes both the Capitol Building (and Theatre) and Stamford House to be carried out.

A notice of the closure of the road leading to the car park prior to work starting on the Capitol project.

A notice of the closure of the road leading to the car park prior to work starting on the Capitol project.

Capitol Centre just before its demolition.

Capitol Centre just before its demolition.

The front portion of of the upper level that was more recently used by a private education provider.

The front portion of of the upper level that was more recently used by a private education provider.

An air well in the building.

An air well in the building.

Even with its conversion for commercial use, The Design Centre and later the Capitol Centre, did feature quite a large car park with on the front area of it used by the tenants of the building. In its latter years, the spaces around the car park which being well shaded and airy, served as a popular hangout for the Myanmarese migrant community – with Peninsula Plaza next to it being where many businesses and eateries catering to the community were found.

Myanmarese migrants found the car park a cool and convenient space to hang out in.

Myanmarese migrants found the car park a cool and convenient space to hang out in.

The well shaded ground level of the car park.

The well shaded ground level of the car park.

Another view of the ground level - I often used the car park as a short cut.

Another view of the ground level – I often used the car park as a short cut.

An Auto Pay Station seen after the closure provides an indication of when the car park would last have been used.

An Auto Pay Station seen after the closure provides an indication of when the car park would last have been used.

Parts of the building provided wonderful perspectives of the buildings around, including of the Capitol Theatre.

Parts of the building provided wonderful perspectives of the buildings around, including of the Capitol Theatre.

Another perspective - the steeple of St. Andrew's across North Bridge Road seen over one of the airwells .

Another perspective – the steeple of St. Andrew’s across North Bridge Road seen over one of the airwells .

A view through a grilled opening of a staircase.

A view through a grilled opening of a staircase.

With the redevelopment, the place of Capitol Centre, and before it the National Showroom with its towering neon advertisement which featured prominently in the city skyline for much of the 1960s and early 1970s, will be taken by a 15 storey luxury residential tower sitting on a four storey shopping mall and a public plaza between in part of the space which will stretch across from the mall to the Capitol Building and Theatre. Judging from impressions of the redevelopment released by the developers, the tower will rise rather prominently above the iconic Capitol Building and dominate the development in the same way the National Tower before the Capitol Centre took its place had once dominated the area.

With the Capitol Redevelopment, Capitol Theatre will be restored as a theatre / cinema and the Capitol (former Shaws Building) will be converted into part of a luxury hotel.

With the Capitol Redevelopment, Capitol Theatre will be restored as a theatre / cinema and the Capitol (former Shaws Building) will be converted into part of a luxury hotel.


 





Mapping memories of the Bras Basah area

8 06 2012

The streets around the Bras Basah Road area are ones that I am familiar with through my four years of interactions with them as a secondary schoolboy and also from going to church in the area in my early years. A lot has changed since those days – the school I went to and the many others in the area have all moved out along with the many businesses and household that were displaced when the wave of redevelopment swept through the area in the 1980s. Today, the world that I find is one that, without the buzz that all that has been displaced over the three decades since I left school, is silent and without colour.

The streets around the former SJI are ones that although is not devoid of life, now seem silent and without colour.

Silent, colourless and changed as the streets may seem, there is still the many memories of them embedded in the many places around the area – memories that I have attempted to capture through entries in this blog, as well as through photographs as a trigger of memory On a Little Street in Singapore – a little Facebook group that I started with the aim of sharing memories of a Singapore we have all left behind. On a Little Street in Singapore has proven not just to be a place to share memories, but has also turned out to be a repository of the memories of many, separated by circumstances, by time and by unfamiliarity, are connected by their interactions with the same places.

One that has resisted the wave of redevelopment – St. Joseph’s Church in Victoria Street, helps to connect the present with the past.

I have been scratching my head on a way in which the captured can be connected – not just those on this blog, but also those on the Facebook Group – which isn’t as easy to navigate through as I would have liked it to be. It wasn’t until I decided to help a friend on a project to record memories of the Bras Basah precinct that I thought of doing what now seems obvious – place them on a map. With an available online tool such as Google Maps, that not only makes putting placemarks to mark the location of a memory possible, it is also possible to connect the places with captured memories through links to photographs, blog entries and even discussions on the Facebook Group. This I have done for the Bras Basah area – and maybe a little beyond it and with that (the navigable map can be found embedded below), it becomes not just a tool to capture and navigate through the memories of the area, but also to aid in the appreciation of the area’s recent and otherwise forgotten history and to discover little bits of the past that lies beneath the glass and steel edifices that now dominate the area.





The glow in the dark

5 07 2010

Wandering around in the glow of the Shanghai night, I was reminded of the fascination I have always had for the bright lights of a city. Somehow, wandering around in the warm glow of city lights seems to provide me with a lift, transporting me at the same time into a world that seemingly is one where fairytales would be made of. It is perhaps that same magical feeling one gets in the fairytale world of the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, where one somehow becomes immediately immersed in the delightful fantasies that the gardens had contributed to Hans Christian Anderson in the telling of his stories. It is a wonderful feeling that the glow of a city gives, whispering in the language of the hustle and bustle of the streets that seem, as in the words of the Christmas tune “Silver Bells”, to be “dressed in holiday style” by the luminescent neon and incandescent glow.

The lights of Shanghai draw people from all over China ... a tourist waits in the bus in the warm glow of the Shanghai night.

The National Billboard on North Bridge Road (source: Derek Tait)

I suppose my fascination had started all those years back when as a child, Singapore seemed to be awash in the glow of lights. Neon signs seemed to be omnipresent and one could never seem to escape being bathed in the glow of neon. I remember Guillemard Circus being particularly bright – dominated by the huge advertisement billboards that glowed in the dark. Speaking of huge billboards, the mother of all billboards, one that rose some 50 metres above ground and with an area of some 186 square metres, had stood above the National Showroom along North Bridge Road, in between Capitol and the big Bata store, dominating the skyline of the civic district. That billboard stood for some 11 years, having been erected sometime in 1963, before being taken down in 1974 when the National Showroom shifted out to make way for redevelopment. The blocks of flats that I had lived in didn’t escape as well. A huge flashing neon Setron advertisement wrapped around the cylindrical water tank could be seen for miles (Setron was a homegrown maker of TV sets).

The glow of Shanghai on a rainy evening.

The dimming of Singapore started in 1972, when a ban on flashing neon signs came into effect. The oil crisis of 1973 played a part as well, as efforts to save energy came into effect and bright light started losing favour. Further restrictions came into effect in the late 1970s as the use of outdoor advertising and neon signs was discouraged, making it difficult to obtain a license for erecting billboards and neon advertisements, for reasons ranging to the distraction these would have to motorists, to the clutter that it was said to add to the skyline. Still, there were those occasions when Singapore still had a bit of a glow, one of which would be the light-up which put a glow on the evening of National Day. Many buildings in the civic district would be illuminated, and it was during those occasions that it was always nice to wander around the city. The grandest buildings that would be lit up would be the Supreme Court, City Hall, the Victoria Memorial Hall and Empress Place Building, the GPO (now Fullerton Hotel), and the building that housed the school that was to become my alma mater which is now the Singapore Art Museum. One light up that I always looked forward to seeing was the one that involved the filter beds at the corner of Cavenagh Road and Bukit Timah Road, opposite the Japanese Club, where there would be the streams of the fountain dancing in the coloured lights.

The neon glow of Shanghai.

What is nice to see these days is that some of the glow has been regained with a rethink of restrictions that now see areas such as Orchard Road brightened up. It is also nice that many of the wonderful buildings we have are also aglow, and with the first ever F1 night race in Singapore, for three evenings, audiences worldwide are treated to the spectacle of not just of a race under lights, but one that provides the world with a view of the beautifully illuminated edifices in our civic district. Whether I am in Singapore, or in a city like Shanghai, the warm glow of the illuminated cityscape is something that never fails to lure me and it is something that I can’t help but marvel at.

The street circuit, seen during the inaugural F1 night race in 2008, runs through the beautifully lighted iconic structures of down town Singapore.

More photographs of the Shanghai glow:

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