The public bathing pagar at Katong Park

14 01 2020

Katong Park is where a last bastion of a 1870s coastal defence fort, built quite foolishly on sand, can be found. Once fronting the sea, the former defensive position turned recreational space, was also where a bathing pagar – the first to be established by the Municipal Commission for public bathing – was to be found.

Children at the bathing pagar at Katong Park, 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

The construction of the pagar – an enclosure extending from the sea shore originally made of wooden stakes – came on the back of the commission’s thrust to provide public facilities for sporting pursuits (see: A short history of public Swimming Pools in Singapore and Parting Glances: the boxing gym at Farrer Park) in the 1920s and 1930s. The original public pagar at Katong was opened by Mr William Bartley in December 1931 – in the same year that Singapore’s first public swimming pool, built using the disused service reservoir at Mount Emily, also opened.

Another view of the pagar in 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

Private bathing pagars were especially common then. They were constructed primarily to keep bathers safe and keep the sharks outs and were found at seaside homes and hotels, and at private swimming clubs. A shark attack in 1925, which resulted in the death of an unfortunate bather, Ms Doris Bowyer-Smyth, prompted the Singapore Swimming Club to erect its pagar soon after.

A bathing pagar seen in the sea in front of Beaulieu House, which had been a private seaside residence before it was acquired for the construction of the Naval Base in the 1920s (photo: National Archives of Singapore).

The Chinese Swimming Club’s Bathing Pagar.

The Katong Park pagar,  which was concretised in the 1950s, stood until work on reclamation started in 1971. All that now remains to remind us of the seaside – the reason for Katong Park’s coming into being in 1928, is the last bastion of Fort Tanjong Katong.


Fort Tanjong Katong

Among the first set of instructions given by Raffles to Farquhar upon the establishment of Singapore as an East India Company trading post was to have a defensive position in the Tanjong Katong area – at Sandy Point or Tanjong Rhu. The thought of a fort was in fact broached from time to time in reviews conducted of Singapore defences, but it wasn’t until 1878 that a coastal battery at Tanjong Katong would be established with a strengthening of coastal defences in the face of a possible Russian threat.

The sandy base meant that the fort’s high range finding tower moved with each firing, not only requiring a recalibration of the range finders with each firing but also made them impossible to use when the tower shook. The fort, built at sea level, also acquired a reputation for being a “wash-out fort” and was decommission in the early 1900. The fort’s southeast bastion, which were uncovered several times following the conversion of the grounds of the fort into Katong Park were once again uncovered in 2004 and can now be found at a corner of Katong Park.

Fort Tanjong Katong Source: Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0)

 

Fort Tanjong Katong’s southeast bastion.

 

Another view of Fort Tanjong Katong’s southeast bastion.

 

The area where the sea – and the pagar was.


 





When the region’s naval ships were being built at Tanjong Rhu

11 01 2020

Tanjong Rhu – the cape of casuarina trees and once known as “Sandy Point“, has had a long association with the boatbuilding and repair trade. Captain William Flint, Raffles’ brother-in-law as Singapore’s first Master Attendant, established a marine yard there as far back as 1822, for the “convenience of the building and repair of boats and vessels”.  That association would come to an end when the last shipyards relocated in the early 1990s, not so long after one of the larger establishments Vosper Pte. Ltd. Singapore, went into voluntary liquidation in 1986.

High and dry. A Point class U.S. Coast Guard WPB (left) used in Vietnam by the U.S. Navy, being repaired at Vosper Thornycroft. A Royal Malaysian Navy Keris class patrol boat is seen on the right (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

With links to Vosper Thornycroft (VT) – an established name in naval shipbuilding, Vosper Singapore was a major player in the domestic and regional naval market. It also had a long association with Tanjong Rhu that began with John I. Thornycroft and Company setting up its Singapore shipyard there late in 1926. Among Thornycroft’s successes were the construction of motor launches in 1937 for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, a series that included the very first Panglima, a name that would acquire great meaning with the naval forces of a sovereign Singapore some three decades later.

A 1927 ad for Thornycroft Shipyards at Tanjong Rhu.

Thornycroft morphed into Vosper Thornycroft (VT) in 1967, following a merger the previous year of Vosper Limited with Thornycroft’s parent company in Britain. VT would also merge with neighbouring United Engineers here, another long-time shipbuilder based at Tanjong Rhu the same year. The expanded VT would find great success, especially in the regional naval market, obtaining contracts from the Ceylonese Navy, the Bangladeshi Government, and the Royal Brunei Navy – for which it built three Waspada class Fast Attack Craft.

A view towards a bakau laden Bugis pinisi on the Geylang River from Vosper Thornycroft (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

Locally, VT also supplied and serviced the Royal Malaysian Navy, as well as the fledging Singapore navy. A contract for six ‘A’ and ‘B’ Class 110 foot Patrol Boats with Singapore’s then Maritime Command in 1968 involved the lead vessel being constructed in the parent company’s yard in Portsmouth. This arrangement set the tone for how large naval procurement would be conducted here, although VT would play little part in the subsequent naval construction for what became the Republic of Singapore Navy in the years that would follow.

The launch of the ‘A’ Class 110′ Patrol Craft at VT for the Maritime Command in 1969. Interestingly, the main deck of these steel hulled vessels were constructed from aluminium alloy (photo source: National Archives of Singapore).

The yard’s was also involved in commercial ship construction and repair, and naval repair and upgrading work. The U.S. Navy, which was involved in the conflict in Vietnam, sent several small patrol boats to the yard during this time. One of these boats was brought over from Danang by a Kim Hocker late in the fall of 1969. An officer with the U.S. Coast Guard, Kim was seconded to the US Navy. An extended stay in Singapore permitted Kim to put his camera to good use and his captures included bits of Raffles Place, the Meyer Road and Katong Park area close to where he was putting up, and also ones of the shipyard that are used in this post. One thing that is glaringly clear in Kim’s photographs of the yard is the absence of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as hard hats, safety shoes and safety belts – a requirement in the shipyards of today.

Kim Hocker with the author.

No hard hats or safety shoes! (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

VT Singapore became Vosper Pte. Ltd. Singapore in 1977 following the nationalisation of its parent company. Despite contracts from Oman and Kuwait, and an investment in a Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP) production facility partly motivated by a Marine Police Patrol Boat contract,  the next decade would see Vosper Singapore fall on hard times that would herald its eventual demise as a yard here in 1986.  The closure of the yard came a a time when plans for the redevelopment of the Tanjong Rhu for residential use were being set in motion. The shipyard site was purchased by Lum Chang Holdings the following year for the purpose, and was in turn resold to the Straits Steamship Company (now Keppel Land). Together with DBS Land, the site, an adjoining site as well as land that was reclaimed, were redeveloped into the Pebble Bay condominium complex in the 1990s.

A view towards what would become the Golden Mile area from Vosper. The naval vessel seen here looks like one of the Keris class Royal Malaysian Navy Patrol Boat (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

At the time of Vosper’s demise, there were also several shipyards that were still in operation, including privately held ones such as Kwong Soon Engineering and another long time Tanjong Rhu shipyard, Singapore Slipway. Located at the end of the cape since the end of the 1800s, was had by that time owned by Keppel and would come to be part of (Keppel) Singmarine. The last yards moved out in the early 1990s allowing Tanjong Rhu’s redevelopment into what was touted a waterfront residential district, which incidentally, was where the first million dollar condominium units were sold.

More on Tanjong Rhu and its past can be found at “The curious ridge of sand which runs from Katong to Kallang Bay“.


More photographs taken at Vosper Thornycroft from the Kim Hocker Collection:

Painting the old fashioned way (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

 

One more … (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

 

The security guard or jaga … wearing a Vosper uniform (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

 

It was common to see pushcart stalls outside the gates of shipyards and factories in those days (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

 

A store? (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

 

Shipyard workers – again no hard hats (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

 

Welders at work (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).


 





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).


 





A glimpse of Seletar’s past – the Ralph Charles Saunders Collection

5 11 2018

The generous donation of more than 1,400 images on photographic slides from the Ralph Charles Saunders Collection – of Singapore and Malaya (and maybe a few of Lima) taken in the late 1950s – made the news some months back (see : Rare glimpse into Singapore’s colourful past, The Straits Times, Mar 31, 2018). The photographs, many of which were put up by the donor, Dr. Clifford Saunders, on the Facebook group “On a Little Street in Singapore” currently and prior to the donation (the National Heritage Board, NHB, is the custodian), provides us with a peek into a world and a way of life we will never go back to.

Seletar Village, 1959 – from one of the more than 1,400 slides donated by Dr. Saunders.
(The Ralph Charles Saunders Collection – courtesy of Dr. Clifford Saunders / NHB).

Dr. Clifford Saunders at the Indian Heritage Centre.

Dr. Saunders. whose father was the genius behind the well taken and meticulously labelled slides, is currently in town as a guest of the NHB and was kind enough to meet with heritage enthusiasts and members of the Facebook group on Sunday to provide some insights into the images as well as his impressions of Singapore through the eyes of the young and inquisitive boy that he was when his father and family were based at RAF Seletar all those years ago.

Members of ‘On a Little Street in Singapore’ with Dr. Saunders.

The slides include a set of images involving an old lifeboat, the John Willie. Bought off a Dutchman coming out of Sumatra at the time of the Indonesian National Revolution for $200, the leaky lifeboat was repaired and provided the family with a means for offshore adventure – one of many activities that Dr. Saunders, now 69 described during his presentation. He also mentioned that his favourite island was Pulau Ubin, which I understand he will be trying to visit during his short stay here. Other experiences Dr. Saunders spoke of include fishing at fishing ponds, life at Poulden Court in Jalan Kayu, trips “up country” and his impressions of the causeway and river crossings (my own experiences: Crossing the river in days of old), and the rather alien smells and sounds of a then very foreign land.

James Seah seeing the funny side of Dr. Saunders’ story.

More on his wonderful experiences in Singapore – shared over the two hour session at the Indian Heritage Centre and which Clifford feels shaped his life and profession (he is now a neuroplastician) – can be found in these two recordings:


 





A journey through Tanjong Pagar in 1970

23 02 2018

There is always and element of romance connected with train journeys, especially the leisurely paced journeys of the past with which one can take in the magical scenes along the way that one can only get from railway journeys. LIFE Magazine’s Carl Mydans, a legendary photograph whose work spans several decades and includes an extensive coverage of Singapore prior to the war (see “A glimpse of Singapore in 1941, the year before the darkness fell“), took one such journey out of an independent Singapore some 3 decades later, capturing a Singapore we can no longer see but through photographs of the era. The set, also includes scenes along the journey to Bangkok, along with those captured at stopovers made in West Malaysia’s main urban centres.

The photographs of Singapore are particularly interesting. There are some of the old harbour, and quite a few of the twakow decorated Singapore River along which much of Singapore’s trade passed through. There are also several street scenes, once familiar to us in the area of North Bridge Road. A couple of quite rare shots were also taken at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station including one showing a steam locomotive of a 1940s vintage, which the Malayan Railway operated until the early 1970s. There are also images of the steam locos captured during the journey.

The photographs of West Malaysia are also interesting. The replacement of rubber trees with oil palm as a crop, which had been taking place in parts of the peninsula from the 1960s to reduce Malaysia’s reliance on rubber and tin was in evidence. This is something that I well remember from the road trips to Malaysia of my early childhood. Another familiar scene from those trips were of the padi fields, which the trunk road passing through Malacca seemed to weave through. This is something Mr. Mydans also seemed to have captured quite a fair bit of.

The departure platform at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station with a prewar relic of a steam locomotive.

Malaysian Customs Inspection at the Departure Platform.

The Supreme Court and the Padang.

Hock Lam Street.

Corner of Hock Lam Street and North Bridge Road.

North Bridge Road.


The old harbour (Marina Bay today)

View of Clifford Pier and the Inner Road, and Outer Roads beyond the Detached Mole. The view today would be towards Marina Bay Sands and Marina South.

Another view of the harbour – where Marina Bay Sands and Marina South is today. The Harbour Division of the Preventive Branch of the Department of Customs and Excise (Customs House today) can be seen at the lower right hand corner.

A rainbow over the harbour.


Boat Quay and the Singapore River

Walking the plank. Coolies loaded and unloaded twakows by balancing items that were often bulkier than their tiny frames over narrow and rather flimsy planks that connected the boats to the quayside.

A view of the stepped sides of the river around where Central is today.

Boat Quay.

Coolies sliding crates that were too bulky and heavy along the plank.

Lorry cranes were sometimes used instead.

But more often than not manual labour was used.

A view of the “belly of the carp”.


The Journey North

(with stops in Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Bangkok)

A steam locomotive at what looks like Gemas Railway Station.

More steam locomotives (at Gemas?).

Inside the train cabin.

Train along a shunt line.

Rubber estates and rubber tappers were a common sight – even along the roads up north.

So were water buffaloes and padi fields.

Padi field.

Another view of a padi field.

Oil palms taking root. A drive to reduce Malaysia’s dependence on rubber and tin from the 1960s would see oil palms colour a landscape once dominated by rubber trees.

Another cabin view.

A break in the journey – a view of the Stadthuys Malacca.

Jalan Kota in Malacca.

View of the Malacca River.

The Arthur Benison Hubback designed (old) KL Railway Station .

Another view of the south end of the KL Railway Station – with a view also of the KL Railway Administration Building.

A southward view down Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin (ex Victory Avenue) with the KL Railway Station on the left and the KL Railway Administration Building on the right, also designed by Arthur Bennison Hubback.

The Railway Administration Building and Masjid Negara.

A view down Jalan Raja in KL with the BagunanSultan Abdul Samad on the left.

Another view down Jalan Raja in KL with the BagunanSultan Abdul Samad on the left and Dataran Merdeka on the right.

Sungai Siput Railway Station.

The Penang Ferry from Butterworth.

A view of Butterworth.

George Town – with a view towards the clan jetties.

The Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang.

Air Itam and the Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang.

What looks like the Leong San Tong in the Khoo Kongsi in George Town.

The Penang Hill funicular railway.

More padi fields.

Possibly southern Thailand.

Bangkok.





A glimpse of Singapore in 1941, the year before the darkness fell

16 02 2018

Singapore in 1941, already one of the world’s busiest ports, was an island – even then – in a state of constant flux. The civic and commercial centres had in the two decades prior to 1941, seen the additions of some of the grandest edifices they municipality had seen. The European flavour of the buildings, many of which exhibited Neo-Classical features, were in sharp contrast to the Singapore River that ran through the heart of the municipality. A centre of the trade on which the fortunes of the institutions housed in the new edifices built fortunes on, the river was lined with well worn godowns into which and out of which bent and frail looking coolies with sun-bronzed bodies moved goods from the twakows over flimsy planks.

1941 was also a year that brought much trepidation with the threat of war looming – even if many fed by pronouncements by Britain over Singapore’s imagined impregnability did not believe would come. Very visible preparations, which would prove to have been grossly inadequate, were being made for war with troops and equipment being shipped in. Thanks to photographer Carl Mydans, who covered Singapore extensively for LIFE Magazine, we are able to get a glimpse at all of this. A collection of Mydan’s many photographs of Singapore taken in 1941 can be found in the LIFE Magazine and features street scenes, people, dwellings on both sides of the very apparent social divide, as well as the preparations that were taking place for a war that was to have far reaching consequences.

The Supreme Court , which was completed in 1939.

The Municipal Building (now City Hall).

The statue of Stamford Raffles in front of Victoria Memorial Hall – with the colonnade that disappeared during the occupation.

Finlayson Green.

The GPO (Fullerton Building), still with the flambeau pieces and Royal Coat of Arms made by Italian sculptor Cav. Rodolfo Nolli.

The Fullerton Road side of the GPO.

Raffles Place looking towards the Mercantile Bank Chambers.

Empress Place Building – preparations for war can be seen around the building.

A view towards the old Supreme Court (now The Arts House) from the new Supreme Court.

The Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers, the Union Building and a view down Collyer Quay.

A view down Raffles Quay.

A view down Robinson Road.

Another view down Robinson Road.

A view down Japan Street (renamed to Boon Tat Street after the war).

Cathay Building and Singapore’s first “skyscraper”.

The waterfront.

Preparations for war at the waterfront.

The Singapore River, close to Cavenagh Bridge.

Cavenagh Bridge.

An aerial view of the “Belly of the Carp”.

Boat Quay.

A coolie “walking the plank”.

The view through the canopy of a twakow.

Boatmen on the river.

A laden twakow.

Boat Quay (image should be flipped horizontally).

A bullock cart along Boat Quay.

“Flags” of Singapore – laundry hung out to dry from shophouse fronts.

Loading rubber sheets along Beach Road,

A rickshaw puller along Boat Quay.

An itinerant hawker.

Sacks of rice loaded into a twakow.

Backstage.

Mother and child.

Kampung boys.

The letter writer.

Waterfront living.

More waterfront living.

The Turf Club.

Aw Boon Haw at the villa that gave Haw Par Villa its name.

Road workers outside the Ford Factory.

Loading rubber sheets onto a lorry at Beach Road (the SSVF Drill Hall can be seen in the background).

A bullock cart.

A view down North Bridge Road towards the Sultan’s Mosque.

An school excursion party at Tiger Balm Gardens (Haw Par Villa).

Rifle drills on the Padang as the threat of war looms.

Troops marching down Robinson Road.

Indian troops landing in Singapore.

Military vehicles being offloaded.

Malay Regiment soldiers taking a break during a training exercise.

Military training in a rubber estate.

Members of the Straits Settlement Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.

Military truck kits from Canada for assembly at the Ford Factory as part of the war effort.

Assembly line inside the Ford Factory.

A Brewster Buffalo being unpacked.

Brewster Buffaloes being assembled.

The Floating Dock off the North Wall of the Naval Base in Sembawang.

A view of the Naval Dockyard.

Coastal Artillery Gun.

One of the “Monster Guns” of the Johore Battery.

Pulling through.


Photographs: © Time Inc. for which Personal and Non-Commercial Use is permitted.






Saving Haw Par Villa from (certain) Death

16 11 2017

The unique, quirky and once immensely popular Singaporean attraction, Haw Par Villa, is probably best remembered for the journey it offers its visitors into hell. Its representation of the path to rebirth imagined by the Chinese in its Ten Courts of Hell is gory and uninhibited. With a full suite of the gruesome range of punishments that is thought to be meted out for earthly misdeeds, the experience is certainly one that is not easily forgotten.

Haw Par Villa in its heyday. It drew visitors from all walks of life and of all races. It was especially popular as a destination for an outing during Chinese New Year.

Hell aside, Haw Par Villa is a garden of many delights, which quite sadly seems to have well been forgotten in an age in which attention has shifted to air-conditioned malls and modern attractions. The crowds that Haw Par Villa once drew has reduced to a trickle; a trickle in which inquisitive tourists, and migrant workers who lack welcoming spaces in which to spend to their days off, far outnumber the locals.

The garden attracts hardly a crowd these days.

Haw Par Villa seems to have embarked on its own journey to damnation. Death, it appears, will soon arrive at hell’s doorstep. A museum, a showcase of rituals associated with death in various cultures, now threatens to swallow hell up. Visitors, for the price of a ticket, can come face to face with death and even have the experience of being put in a coffin. The Ten Courts of Hell, it seems, will become a part of that paid death experience.

Death comes to Haw Par Villa.

I had a peek at an exhibition put up of what is to be expected, sans the coffin that was promised. On the basis of what has been put up, it is hard to see how death could aid Haw Par Villa’s cause. Death, as we know, is quite a taboo subject in this part of the world. It is bad enough that Haw Par is already remembered more for its garish version of hell, an added association with death, serves not just to distract from its value and purpose, but may further erode the already negative image many have of Haw Par Villa.

Wielding justice without his hand, Qinguang the god of the underworld at the first court of hell.

Developed by Mr Aw Boon Haw and spread over the sprawling grounds of a magnificent seven-domed villa by the sea he had built in 1937 for his younger brother Boon Par, it was not Mr Aw’s intention to have hell or for that matter, death, celebrated in the garden. Mr Aw had the grounds decorated with figurines and tableaux with scenes from Chinese folklore and the Chinese classics. Displays also contained messages related to traditional values and moral standards and had Buddhist or Taoist themes. Even if it was a private garden, this was done with the public in mind as Mr Aw had planned to have the garden opened to the public to whom the illustrations could provide moral guidance. Mr Aw made a huge effort to ensure the illustrations were accurate in their depiction, personally supervising artisans involved. This also required Mr Aw to retell the stories associated with the scenes being created to his artisans.

The villa’s swimming pool and changing room, 1941 (source: Private George Aspinall via Australian War Memorial, public domain, copyright expired).

The changing room of the swimming pool c.1950 (Harrison Forman Collection).

The changing room displaced.

There have been several deviations from Mr Aw’s original garden. Boon Par had passed on in 1944 in Rangoon and with the house damaged, Mr Aw had it demolished in the early 1950s. With his initial plan to replace the villa with a “grand palace”, modelled along the lines of the Beijing’s Imperial Palace, as well as a subsequent proposal for a 200 feet high pagoda, rejected by local authorities, Mr Aw set out instead to expand the range of tableaux. It was also in the 1950s, that a purge against “yellow culture”, resulted in the modification and dressing up of several nude figurines.

The gardens, which was opened to the public, was popular with both locals and visitors alike. Here, Australian nurses are seen visiting it in September 1941 (source: Australian War Memorial, public domain, copyright expired).

Australian nurses visiting Haw Par Villa (with the villa seen in the background) in September 1941 (source: Australian War Memorial, public domain, copyright expired).

Boon Par’s son Cheng Chye introduced several displays that broke with the garden’s theme and its Chinese flavour after his uncle’s death in 1954. An avid traveller, Cheng Chye put up International Corners to mark his overseas trips, which contributed to the garden’s quirkiness, even if it altered its character. Judging from the numerous photographs found online, the figurines Cheng Chye introduced, were popular spots to have photographs taken at.

Yours truly mimicking the tiki at the New Zealand (International) corner in 1976. The tiki was removed during the remaking of the gardens into a theme park in the late 1980s.

The biggest change came to the garden in the late 1980s. Haw Par Villa, which had lost its lustre by this time, had come into the hands of the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, STPB (the current day Singapore Tourism Board, STB). At a cost of some S$80 million, a partnership formed by F&N and Times Publishing, turned the garden into the Haw Par Villa Dragon World. The theme park featured a water ride into a Ten Courts Of Hell that was swallowed by a dragon. The conversion resulted in several of the garden’s displays removed, including several of the International Corners. Haw Par Villa Dragon World, which opened in 1990, ran at a loss for most of its operational period and closed 11 years later in 2001.

The dragon that swallowed hell up – during its theme park days.

It would seem that Haw Par Villa has not recovered since, even the attempt to revive interest with a relaunch of it in 2014 as part of STB’s Tourism50 initiative. That promised much, but very little seems to have been delivered thus far. A contract, that if my memory serves me right was worth something to the order of $7 million, was awarded to a local operator in August 2015 for the running of the park and its rejuvenation. This, based  on a 15 October 2015 op-ed by Melody Zaccheus in the Straits Times, should have included the opening of five dining outlets and the transformation of the park into a place for art exhibitions, performances, flea markets, and yoga, taiji and wushu sessions. More than two years into this, little except that is for sketchy mentions of intent and promises for an application for UNESCO Heritage listing to be submitted, seems to have been done.

A view of the “Signature Pond” c.1950 (Harrison Forman Collection).

Drowning in sorrow – thin crowds and a now submerged Signature Pond .

Describing the garden as a “unique Chinese cultural resource”, “the only one of its kind left in the world”, the writer opined that urgent attention was needed with regards to its conservation. Little also seems to have moved in this respect since then. A heritage survey would have been conducted based on what was also mentioned. It would be interesting to see what, if anything, that could tell us about the park’s potential for conservation.

A display that has since been censored. A depiction of the Spider Spirits who attempted to impede the progress of the Monk Xuanzang in the story Journey to the West by trying to entice him through their transformation into beautiful maidens (source: G. Bertschinger on Flickr, Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 2.0).

The spider spirits were modified to appear less provocative and clothed in response to a movement against “yellow culture” in the 1950s.

The urgency to have Haw Par Villa conserved is certainly there with the development of the Greater Southern Waterfront looming over the horizon. That may not be due for some time yet, but this being Singapore, the planning effort for that would surely be carried out well in advance. Haw Par Villa, if it isn’t already in it, has to be part of that plan.

A Datuk Kong, who has quite clearly been resettled.

The park’s value from a heritage perspective, is not just in the lessons in Chinese values and culture it offers, but also for it as a showcase of a well forgotten side Chinese culture. Brought in by our less refined Chinese immigrant forefathers, it serves to remind us as well as tie us to a less refined side of a culture than isn’t necessary the same as the Chinese culture that is pervasive today. The garden is also a monument to the legacy of Mr Aw Boon Haw, who besides putting Singapore on the map with Tiger Balm, made significant contributions to society and was well regarded as a philanthropist. The park, built at a time when the municipality lacked public recreational spaces, is a reminder of this.

An ad for UTA French Airlines in 1965 suggesting a stopover in Singapore for its attractions, one of which was the “fantastic presentation of Chinese mythology at Haw Par Villa”.

The challenge in preserving Haw Par Villa for our future generations is in the revival and the subsequent maintenance of interest and relevance. In a letter written to the press on 31 Oct 2017, Mr Toh Cheng Seong expressed concern on the Death Museum and at the same time, provided several useful ideas. Rather than going on their own, STB and its operator will do well to seek input from the likes of Mr Toh, members of the wider community – young and old alike, and subject experts. For the attraction’s dying ambers to be rekindled, it has to be in the hearts and minds of all of us in Singapore. Any attempt to move ahead with none of us in mind will surely see the last of the 20,000 lights that Haw Par Villa once had a reputation for, extinguished.