The urban redevelopment resettlement centre that became Funan

1 07 2016

The lights went out on Funan DigitalLife Mall last night. The well-loved mall will be closed for three years for redevelopment and from the sound of the “experiential creative hub” it is being made into, the new Funan will bear little semblance to the Funan we all knew and loved.

The lights of Funan.

The lights of Funan.

While I shall miss Funan, a dignified alternative to Sim Lim Square for electronics and IT related merchandise shopping, I shall not mourn its passing in the same way I mourn the rather iconic Hock Lam Street that it buried. What can best be described as a very colourful example of Singapore in less ordered days, is on the evidence of the many photographs and postcards that exist of it, must have been one of the city’s most photographed streets.

Hock Lam Street, as seen from Colombo Court across North Bridge Road (source: National Archives of Singapore online).

The street, at its junction with North Bridge Road,  was where the Tai Tien kopitiam (coffee shop) was located. Popular with office workers from the vicinity and shoppers from the nearby shopping streets as a lunch destination, the kopitiam or rather the five-foot-way around it, would be where I would often find myself seated for the post shopping treat my parents would give me of Hock Lam Street’s famous beef ball soup.

A popular lunch stop for office workers from the area and for shoppers from the High Street area, the Tai Tien coffee shop at the corner of Hock Lam Street and North Bridge Road (source: National Archives of Singapore online).

It is from Hock Lam that Funan in fact takes its name; Funan being the pinyin-ised Mandarin pronunciation of the Hokkien Hock Lam (福南). The name, an attempt to remember the lost icon,  is perhaps a also reminder of a period in our history when we saw fit to distort place names that reflected the diversity of the Chinese diaspora to Singapore through the Mandarinisation of many of them.

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) before its demolition  in 1976. Businesses displaced were moved temporarily to the Capitol Shopping Centre – the flat roofed building seen at the top of the picture, before being moved to Funan Centre in 1985 (source: National Archives of Singapore online).

Funan Centre, as it was known in its early days, was completed in 1985 after much delay (it was initially scheduled to be completed in 1979 but a design change resulted in its delay). Built as a permanent “resettlement centre” by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), it’s purpose was to house the many businesses being displaced by the huge wave of redevelopment that was then sweeping through the city, including the many hawker stalls the street had been well known for. Examples of such centres include the former Blanco Court, since converted to Raffles Hospital, and the former Cuppage Centre (now 51 Cuppage Road). The latter was built to house market vendors and food stalls from the former Orchard Road Market and the area around Koek Road and Koek Lane.

Funan with its floors of IT and Electronic shops.

Funan with its floors of IT and Electronic shops.

When it opened in early 1985, Funan Centre featured a mishmash of shops and businesses, organised by the floor according to the categories of goods and services they offered. Many had roots in the area, and moved over from a nearby temporary resettlement centre, Capitol Shopping Centre and the neighbouring temporary food centre. Already then, Funan was touted as a place to shop for computers – its opening coinciding with the dawn of the personal computing age. One floor, the sixth, was devoted to the forty to fifty shops that made up its Computer Mart.

Capitol Centre just before its demolition.

The since demolished Capitol (Shopping) Centre.

The hawkers of Hock Lam Street found themselves elevated seven floors above it in the Funan Food Paradise – described then as Singapore’s first custom built air-conditioned hawker centre, what we today are perhaps fond of referring to as a food court (it actually opened a couple of months before Scotts Picnic Food Court, which was widely recognised as being Singapore’s first air-conditioned food court). Besides the popular Beef Noodle stall from Hock Lam Street, Funan Food Paradise became well known for Carona Chicken Wing, which built up a popular following when it was located at temporary food centre.

Packing the food court up. Some may remember the original food centre on the 7th floor from which the likes of Carona Chicken WIng operated.

Packing the food court up. Some may remember the original food centre on the 7th floor from which the likes of Carona Chicken WIng operated.

The floor below Computer Mart, the fifth, featured hairdressing salons while the fourth was where one shopped for home appliances and music. The third level was where shops dealing with fashion apparel and accessories were found, including a downsized Cortina Department Store, which had moved over from Colombo Court. The second level, as it was before it closed, was the place to buy camera equipment. Fast food outlets such as A&W and Big Rooster were then found on the ground floor. A post office also made a brief appearance, opening at the end of 1985 and closing two years later.

An eatery on the first level.

An eatery on the first level.

The ownership and management of URA owned commercial property passed on to Pidemco Holdings in 1989. Pidemco Holdings, later Pidemco Land, was a privatised property ownership and management arm of URA formed in 1989. Pidemco, which is an acronym for Property Investment, Development and Estate Management Company, merged with DBS Land in 2000 to form CapitaLand, the mall’s current owners. The mall was upgraded by Pidemco in the 1990s and took on a more IT / Computer related flavour. It was renamed Funan The IT Mall in the late 1990s and Funan DigitaLife Mall in the mid 2000s.

More information on the redevelopment can be found at the following links:


Parting Glances

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Well Well Well – A Natural Resource Lost

24 06 2016

Well Well Well  – A Natural Resource Lost
A guest post by Edmund Arozoo, once of Jalan Hock Chye, who now takes a look back to his kampong days from Adelaide.

Bore Water Warning Sign


I have recently returned from a tour of the northern remote arears of South Australia. It is usual for the motels in these arears to have warning signs over the sinks cautioning guests not to drink water from the taps as the supply is usually from bore water.

As described on the SA Health website:

Bore water is groundwater that has been accessed by drilling a bore into underground aquifers (water storages) and pumping to the surface. Aquifers may contain chemicals and micro-organisms that are potentially harmful. Some of these chemicals are naturally occurring (such as those present in soils and rocks) while others are a result of contamination.

Confined or deep aquifers are usually deep underground which helps protect the water source. These types of aquifers are usually covered by more than 20 meters of rock or clay which act as a natural filter preventing microbial contamination. Unconfined or shallow aquifers are not protected by thick layers, because they are closer to the surface above and are susceptible to both chemical and microbiological contamination.

Thus while bore water can be used for cleaning and showering it cannot be used for cooking and drinking. Water from rainwater tanks is used for this.

This brought back memories of my kampong days in “Owkang” where at one stage in the past the whole area depended on underground springs to provide water for all purposes. Virtually every house had a well or a large well was shared by a group or cluster of nearby houses.

A recent photograph of one of the two wells in the township of Two Wells, north of Adelaide E. Arozoo 2016

A recent photograph of one of the two wells in the township of Two Wells, north of Adelaide (E. Arozoo 2016).

From memory the whole area around my kampong seemed to be “springy”. You did not have to dig deep to strike an underground spring. I clearly remember the little pits we used to have for burning garden waste and rubbish. The pit was essential to ensure that the fire was confined and did not pose a threat to the attap roofs of the surrounding houses. Gradually these pits used to become shallow and required a “re-dig” to maintain this confinement of fire and ashes. Often, when the dig was in progress we would strike water seepage. Also occasionally as kids when we roamed the area during our carefree time we would come across a natural spring by the side of a lane.

The wells somehow seemed to be connected by underground streams. I remember how we used to be puzzled by the appearances of fish in our well.  We knew our neighbours kept fishes in their well to prevent mosquitoes from breeding. We did not need fishes because our well was in constant use.

A photograph taken by Edmund Arozoo's late father from his album. A well at one of the two houses he stayed at in Jalan Hock Chye.

A photograph taken by Edmund Arozoo’s late father from his album. A well at one of the two houses he stayed at in Jalan Hock Chye.

Our well also underwent regular cleaning after a few years. A couple of odd job men would be employed to do this. After draining as much of the water in the well using the buckets one of the men would descend the well using a wooden ladder and scrape away at the silt that had built up through the years. The slit too was brought to the surface via the use of buckets. It was during this process that when we peered down the well we could see the supply source of our water. I clearly remember seeing water spouting out from one side of the well wall very similar to that from an underground pipe. In my mind then I could imagine an underground stream with water flowing thorough to all wells around that area. And that seem to explain the presence of fishes in our own well.

Once the well was cleaned and the water level reached the normal level my grandmother who lived with us used to do the cleansing ritual of dropping in a palm sized piece of alum (Aluminium sulphate) into the well. Alum I learnt later in my Chemistry classes is used as a flocculating agent in the purification of drinking water by creating sedimentation of the particles and rendered the water crystal clear. These days the side effect of exposure to alum is debatable.

The level of water in the well fluctuated with the seasons and the rainfall. After days of heavy rain the level would reach almost ground level and we had the task of keeping the level down by scooping up buckets of water and emptying the contents into the drain. In the hot dry months the level would drop quite a bit. But during all of my years of living there thank goodness our well never ran dry.

Another photograph taken by Edmund Arozoo's late father from his album. A well at one of the two houses he stayed at in Jalan Hock Chye.

Another photograph taken by Edmund Arozoo’s late father from his album. A well at one of the two houses he stayed at in Jalan Hock Chye.

The method of drawing water at our place was with a metal (galvanised iron) bucket attached to a fibre rope with a big knot at the free end to prevent the rope from slipping though our hands.  Some wells had a pulley system  hung across the well but that meant having to reach out to the middle of the well when the bucket was raised to drag the bucket in while still holding on to the end of the rope. This task was very difficult for kids with our shorter arms. In contrast at our place when we kids reached the height that enabled us to look over the concrete ring perimeter of the well we could draw water on our own. Often the rope would slip through our hands and we would see the bucket sinking to the bottom.  But at hand there would always be the bamboo pole with a hook attached to one end.  Retrieving the bucket was a simple method of using this pole and  hooking on to the bucket handle and then slowly raising the pole with the bucket dangling from the hook.

One of the chores assigned to us as we got older was to fill up the big earthen jar in the nearby bathroom.  Folks of my generation would remember having to use a ladle to scoop up water from these jars to take a bath. Water from the well and the jar was usually cool and thus baths were quick and very “refreshing”.

With communal wells it was common to witness neighbours bathing in the open dressed in sarongs and often having conversations with whoever else  was around the well!

Water used for drinking was boiled in pots using the charcoal stoves which always stayed alight with glowing embers to enable quick rekindling of the fire.  But waiting for the water to boil took a while. Then with the introduction of thermos flasks the hot water was stored so that there could be instant access when needed. This was great if you needed a hot drink late at night (Holicks or Ovaltine …)

On reflection well water was truly Nature’s gift to everyone in the kampong. We did not have to pay a cent for the usage and there was abundance for everyone.

JeromeLim-1850 Well

An abandoned well in an area reclaimed by nature in Singapore.

I sometimes wonder what has happened to this underground water course in the current area around Houggang with the area now well built up. We had an incident a few years back around my current house where a neighbour in the next street below ours had flooding in his garage. This never happened before and there was an investigation by the local council into the cause. Modifications were made to all our houses on the street to ensure storm water drainage adhered to the Council regulations. But this still did not stop flooding until it was finally discovered that one of the newly built houses on our row required deep excavation to remove huge rocks before the concrete house footing could be laid. This resulted in change in course of the subsoil drainage. And following a few days of wintry rains the water took the new course of draining into the garage. Provision had to be made to address the problem and thus stop the flooding.

So where have all the undergrown streams in Owkang gone? Maybe like the kampongs they are lost forever!





The moon between the coconut palms

20 06 2016

THE MOON BETWEEN THE COCONUT PALMS:
A guest post by Edmund Arozoo, once of Jalan Hock Chye, who now reminisces in the light of the silvery Adelaide moon …

 


Edmund Moon Coconut Palms 1

(Photograph: Edmund Arozoo)

Digital Photography has indeed simplified the task of producing quality images of the moon. The ability to mount my old 600 mm manual mirror lens to the body of my DSLR has allowed me to capture some good images indeed. However to push the challenge further I have for past few years been a keen “Moon transit” photographer i.e. capturing aircraft as they fly across the face of the moon.  I am fortunate that where I now live the Moon’s orbit and most of the commercial flight paths make it easy for me to set up my gear in my back balcony or backyard to achieve this. In addition there are many on-line apps that allow real time monitoring of flight paths. However this quest requires lots of patience and luck. Often there are long periods of waiting in-between flights. During these breaks I find myself staring at the moon and my mind wanders back to my kampong days in Singapore.  I start thinking of the significance the moon played then and the beliefs both religious and superstitious of the various races and groups of people in my kampong.

Copy of an old slide image taken in Jalan Hock Chye digitally post processed (Photograph: Edmund Arozoo)

Copy of an old slide image taken in Jalan Hock Chye digitally post processed (Photograph: Edmund Arozoo)

One colourful memory that I always chuckle when I think about it is the ritual that my Chinese neighbours undertook during the eclipse of the moon.  I remember as a kid suddenly hearing the din of pots and pans being struck constantly. Even the large kerosene tins would be brought into play. Most of the Chinese households would be involved and I learnt that the belief was that a Dragon was swallowing the Moon and the noise created was to scare the dragon from completely removing the Moon from the sky. This ritual did go on regularly whenever there was an eclipse for most of my early years but as society became educated the practice faded away.

When I relate this to some of my friends a few remember this practice but others think I made it up.

The significance of the moon is central in Chinese culture. Most if not all festivals are tagged to the lunar calendar

Likewise the Indian celebrations are also pegged to their own lunar calendar. The two main ones Deepavali  which occurs  during the New moon of Ashvin (Hindu calendar) and  Thaipusam which  is celebrated during  the full moon day of the Tamil month of Thai

In the past the Malay Hari Raya dates were determined by the sighting of the new moon by local religious authorities. During those pre mobile phone years the method of relaying the successful sighting was by the use of carbide cannons. Carbide was mixed with water in the hollow of a bamboo cylinder and when the fuse was lit a small explosion took place and this could be heard for miles in the quiet of the evenings. When this was heard in a kampong one of the Malay families would then in turn fire a cannon and the message would then spread from kampong to kampong until the entire Malay community across the island would be informed to start celebrating the following day.

For the Eurasian and Christian households the main festival linked to the moon was Easter which is held on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. The other Holy days of Lent are adjusted accordingly. As kids when we were brought by our parents for the traditional “visitations of churches” on Maundy Thursday we often noticed the bright nearly full or full moon as we walked along the Queen Street / Victoria Street area. The significance of the moon was unknown to us or rather we were more focussed on the treats that we were rewarded with for being well behaved. Treats like freshly baked Hot Cross Buns from the two well-known bakeries around the vicinity “Ah Teng” and “The Red House Bakery”. The other treat would be the Kueh Putu Piring (or Kueh Tutu as it is now known as).

Similarly the dates of Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday vary each year. The former celebrated forty days after Easter, and the latter ten days after the Ascension (50 after Easter).

When Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969, you can just imagine the reaction from the different families in the kampong. There was disbelief, taunting and scepticism.

The full or near-full moon was often a blessing if you came home late at night because it lighted your way home. There were no street lights in the lanes leading to our houses. With the moonlight we could avoid the portholes and on rainy days the resultant puddles that were ever so present.

However the moonlight also did cast numerous shadows from the trees and bushes. With movies like “Pontianak” on our minds combined with the fragrant scent of the newly blossomed frangipani flowers walking home usually turned into a quick paced trot.

I guess these days in Singapore, the Moon between coconut palms is only a recollection of some of the older generation. Moonlight between high-rise would be the norm.


Edmund’s other experiences of a Singapore that doesn’t exist anymore:


 

 





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.

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).

 

 





Singapore in the 1960s – three blasts from the past

25 05 2016

Footage found online that take us back to a Singapore we have all but forgotten.

The first is a video posted online by Gary Porter on the Memories of Singapore Facebook group that shows the National Theatre crescent-shaped fountain, the fountain at Holland Circus and a gathering of hawkers. The second is an excerpt from a French / Italian 1967 movie Cinq gars pour Singapour or Five Ashore in Singapore that was filmed in Singapore in 1966 that takes has us take walk through one of my favourite childhood places, Change Alley. The third is from the 1967 British film Pretty Polly, which starred Hayley Mills and Shashi Kapoor.

 





Lessons from the tuck shop

12 04 2016

A guest post by Edmund Arozoo, now of Adelaide, but once of Jalan Hock Chye and Montfort School:


Greetings from Adelaide!

I started to write my memoirs of life in a kampong more than fifteen years ago but did put it on the back burner numerous times. However through Facebook I was fortunate to become friends with persons with similar interest in Singapore’s nostalgic past. On my visits back to Singapore I was privileged to meet and chat with two bloggers who have inspired me not only to contribute with posts and comments on fb but also rekindled my interest to finish what I had started. I like to extend a big THANK YOU to Jerome Lim and Lam Chun See. I also found Chun See’s book “Good Morning Yesterday” an inspiration. Here is a snippet that I penned recently that I like to share on their blogs. 


For the past month or so I have been watching an interesting TV series – “The Brain”. This series from China showcases the unbelievable potential of the mental abilities of the contestants.  Witnessing their mental recall capabilities was jaw dropping for me!  Fast approaching seventy my memory recall does pale in comparison – only a slight fraction of theirs indeed.

Often I do question my memories of the “old days”.  I deliberately left out the adjective “good”. I acknowledge that life was simple but challenging then, especially for those of us from humble beginnings. Reading the many posts and comments on the various Facebook group pages, I realised that there are many out there who remember their own “rustic” years. However nostalgic emotions sometimes do tend to colour our memories. Maybe we were young and saw things through childhood innocence.

The Montfort School tuck shop (1985 Montfort School Annual / Montfort Alumni-Singapore Facebook Page).

The Montfort School tuck shop (1985 Montfort School Annual / Montfort Alumni-Singapore Facebook Page).

Perhaps too as kids we were protected by our parents, who in their little ways tried their best, as we were growing up, not to make us feel that we were poor.  I may be wrong but I also feel that the society then was different. I don’t recall being snubbed by “the rich”. Maybe we knew our places and accepted each other.  A leveller at that time if I recall correctly was the beach.  The rich would drive their cars right up to the beaches like Tanah Merah, Changi etc . The other families would arrive by bus with their home cook meals and simple unchilled drinks etc.  But all the kids would have the time of their lives till it was time to return home either by car or bus, all sunburnt.

Changi Beach in the 1960s, when you could drive your car right up to the beach.

Having spent twelve years in the same school I should have more vivid memories of my school days. But all I have are snippets here and there and a few photographs as reminders. But what I clearly remember is that the majority of my schoolmates came from similar “rustic” backgrounds. Personally I was taught not to feel sorry for the limited “pocket money” I took to school each day being often reminded that some of my classmates had to contend with so much less. Looking back I often chuckle when I recall that if you dropped your coins through the holes in your pocket that were caused by the marbles you carried – the response would be “tough”. You learnt the hard way to cherish the few coins you were given. When the time came for school fees to be paid, the notes were carefully wrapped in a knot tied at the corner of a handkerchief. This was to ensure we did not lose the money easily.

For sure there would have been more memorable moments of those carefree schooldays but I cannot recall as much as I would like to. However there is one incident that has always been dominant in my mind and I am reminded of it whenever I witness poverty either first hand or on TV.

This occurred while I was in primary school. It was a normal “recess” break and the “monitors” or prefects were diligently performing their duties to ensure order and that we were safe in getting our hot meals to the tables in the tuck shop / canteen.  We were all having our meals when suddenly there was a shout followed by a commotion.  Looking out we saw the prefects running out and chasing a student. They soon caught him and brought him back to the canteen. Then we realised what had happened.

A school tuck shop typical of the old days (National Archives photograph).

The student was a classmate and his family if I remember correctly had a farm in Ponggol. On that day he did not have any money for a meal and probably did not even have breakfast at home. Unknown to us, this perhaps could have been the norm for him for most of his school days. But on that day the pangs of hunger overcame him and drove him to snatch a large triangular “curry puff” from the Indian stall that also sold bread, Indian cookies and of course our favourite “kachang puteh”.

Another of the Montfort School tuck shop (1985 Montfort School Annual / Montfort Alumni-Singapore Facebook Page).

Another of the Montfort School tuck shop (1985 Montfort School Annual / Montfort Alumni-Singapore Facebook Page).

As he was brought back to the canteen I witnessed the humiliation on his face and that expression I will never never forget! He was made to face the Indian stallholder probably to apologise and perhaps make arrangements for reimbursement for the curry puff. This was witness by everyone in the canteen.

A triangular curry puff.

A triangular curry puff.

What ensued always stands out from this unfortunate incident. I witness compassion. The Indian kachang puteh man, who possibly was by no means rich, looked at the poor unfortunate boy and saw the anguish on his face. Then in a typical Indian manner with a slanted twist of his head and a wave of his flat palm rolling at the wrist he signalled that it was okay – he did not want any payment and allowed the boy to keep the curry puff. The boy was then marched to the principal’s office and what happen after I cannot recall.

Earlier Montfort School tuck shop (Montfort School Alumini Facebook Page)

A tuck shop at Montfort School from earlier times but not the one Edmund has his lesson in (Montfort Alumini Singapore Facebook Page).

These are two striking lessons I learnt from this unfortunate incident that I will always remember.  Firstly how hunger can drive good persons to do things in desperation. I can understand when I read about people doing things they normally would not do, when they become desperate especially on seeing their children crying in hunger.

On the other side I also learnt that day that you do not have to be rich to be compassionate, understanding and benevolent. Perhaps this is in fact the essence of the “kampong spirit” that in our memories was prevalent in those days. I must confess that I often chuckle when I read of attempts to recreate this spirit which I feel was lost with the eradication of kampongs. It was the environment of the rustic surrounds and first hand observation of the everyday struggles of most families that were the basis of this spontaneous compassion. Observing the elders of the household – our parents, grandparents etc. and their empathy for the neighbours perhaps also does flow down and shape our own behaviour towards others. In addition experiencing the kindness our neighbours extended to our own family completes the cycle of goodwill.

The whole world has changed and with the current abundance of affluence and affordability the plight of those in need are often not obvious. The average person cannot relate to this and thus perhaps the spontaneous responses that were around in the past are not forthcoming. These are my perceptions. I may be right or completely wrong so I will leave you, the reader to make your own judgement. In my heart I will always cherish the lessons I learnt in the tuckshop.

Edmund Arozoo

April 2016


 





The fight for freedom from where freedom had once been curtailed

20 02 2016

I miss the Bras Basah Road of my schooldays. Wet rice road as “bras (or beras) basah” translates into, and the area around it, had a life about it and a charm that now seems lost.

A Bras Basah still with its many reminders of the past. The Cox Club at Waterloo Street can be seen on the left behind the bus (F W York Collection, National Archives of Singapore).

A Bras Basah still with its many reminders of the past. The Cox Club at Waterloo Street can be seen on the left behind the bus (F W York Collection, National Archives of Singapore).

The row of Indian Rojak stalls at Waterloo Street – a favourite makan destination during my days in school (posted on AsiaOne).

The street, a destination for those in search of sporting goods, books and good affordable food, was also where school was for some. Several of Singapore’s pioneering schools, including our very first, Raffles Institution, have their roots in the area.

Bras Basah Road as seen from the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in 1968. The row of shophouses where bookshops and sporting goods shops were concentrated can be seen just beyond Saint Joseph’s Institution (now the Singapore Art Museum). The Cathay building, ‘Singapore’s first skyscraper’, can be seen at the end of Bras Basah at Dhoby Ghaut (http://www.goingplacessingapore.sg).

The row of book and sporting goods shops opposite the remnants of a 18th century gaol along Bras Basah Road (National Archives photograph).

Without the shops, the makan places and children hurrying to school, an air of emptiness now surrounds the place; an emptiness that also extends to a built environment that now lacks several markers of the area’s eventful past.

The former Raffles Institution as seen from Beach Road, 1975.

The former Raffles Institution as seen from Beach Road – where Raffles City now stands.

The streets around the Singapore Art Museum are ones that were familiar to me from my school days at the end of the 1970s. Then it wasn't just traffic that brought movement at 7.20 in the morning, but the comings and goings of school children, workers and residents of the area.

The emptiness that is today Bras Basah Road.

One missing piece of this past would have taken us back to forgotten days when Singapore served British India as a penal colony. This piece, a cluster of structures belonging to a nineteenth century convict gaol, had long been a prominent feature on the Bras Basah Road until it was demolished in the late 1980s.

A view of Bras Basah Road from Mount Sophia on a 19th century postcard The gaol is seen just beyond the drying laundry at Bras Basah Green - what gave Dhoby Ghaut its name.

A view of Bras Basah Road from Mount Sophia on a 19th century postcard The gaol complex is seen just beyond the drying laundry at Bras Basah Green – what gave Dhoby Ghaut its name.

The cluster stood close to where Bencoolen Street crossed Bras Basah Road, its most noticeable structure being one I initially suspected was the gaol’s gate-house. Built flush with what would have been the outer walls of the gaol, an arched passageway wide enough for a carriage to pass suggested it might have been one.

The inside of the gaol, photographed by G H Lambert, looking towards what appears to be the former apothecary (National Archives photograph).

The cluster was all that remained of a prison complex that old maps show to stretch southwards to the Stamford Canal, originally the Freshwater Rivulet, and eastwards to Victoria Street over the plot on which Raffles Girls School at Queen Street would be built.

The Layout of the Bras Basah Gaol.

The Layout of the Bras Basah Gaol.

The gaol gates - where the southward extension of Waterloo Street was to be constructed..

The gaol gates – where the southward extension of Waterloo Street was to be constructed..

Where the gates would have been across Bras Basah Road.

Where the gates would have been across Bras Basah Road.

The gaol, built by the convicts themselves, was completed in 1860. It last saw use as a prison in 1882, some years after the last of the convicts brought from India had been released in 1873. The convicts were put to work, clearing forests, hunting tigers and building Singapore – many of Singapore’s first paved roads including Bras Basah, structures such as the bund at Collyer Quay, St. Andrew’s Cathedral and the Raffles and Horsburgh lighthouses were built by these convicts. What remained of the gaol was also perhaps a reminder not just of the penal colony but also of the contribution made by the convicts in the building up of early British Singapore.

Pulau Satumu or "One Tree Island", the southernmost island of Singapore, is home to Raffles Lighthouse.

Raffles Lighthouse, among the structures built by convict labour.

A map of the Bras Basah area in the mid 1800s well before the Maghain Aboth was built. Waterloo Street had then been named Church Street.

A map of the Bras Basah area in the mid 1800s showing the location of the gaol.

The gaol proper was laid out across an area that included what became the sports field of the school I attended, Saint Joseph’s Institution (SJI) and the now paved over southward extension of Waterloo Street that was known in more recent times for the famous row of Indian Rojak stalls.  The area had apparently already been cleared and was in use as a playing field, referred to as the “Children’s Corner”, in the early twentieth century.

Saint Joseph's Institution on Bras Basah Road in the 1970s

The Saint Joseph’s Institution field in the 1970s.

The “gate-house”, it turns out, had not been the gaol’s gates, but an apothecary – part of the set of buildings laid out along the western boundary to house the gaol’s hospital and lunatic asylum.

The former apothecary used by the CYMA as seen in the 1970s.

The former apothecary used by the CYMA along Bras Basah Road (c. 1970s).

If not for the fact that the lunatic asylum and the gaol had long moved out, one might have suspected that it might have been one of its inmates who sent part of the former gaol’s perimeter wall tumbling down in October 1978. This bizarre incident involved a Singapore Bus Service bus that had been stolen from the Toa Payoh bus depot by a 15-year old boy. The portion of the wall that it crashed into was one that was shared with the bedroom of a house used by the caretaker of what had then been the Catholic Young Men’s Association (CYMA) and it was fortunate that no one was hurt.

The 1978 incident involving a stolen SBS bus (National Archives photograph).

Besides becoming the home of the CYMA, the hospital section of the former gaol also saw use by the Malay Company of the Singapore Volunteer Corps up to the late 1930s. Part of the grounds also found use after the war as the Cox Club for Indian troops, which was later to house the Malayan Air Training Command (MATC). It was during its time as the MATC HQ that a Spitfire Mk 24 that some in the “pioneer generation” may remember seeing, found its way to the grounds.

A photograph taken in 1970 from the National Museum showing the section of the former gaol's grounds west of Waterloo Street, when it was used by the CYMA. The former apothecary can quite clearly be seen. Scouts can also be seen in the foreground - the troop from Catholic High School had their den on the grounds.

A photograph taken by Randal McDowell in 1970 from the National Museum showing the section of the former gaol’s grounds west of Waterloo Street, when it was used by the CYMA. The former apothecary can quite clearly be seen. Scouts can also be seen in the foreground – the troop from Catholic High School had their den on the grounds.

The former apothecary in the days when the grounds were used by the Malay Company of the Singapore Volunteer Corps.

The former apothecary in the days when the grounds were used by the Malay Company of the Singapore Volunteer Corps.

Interestingly, and ironically perhaps, the same grounds, used in its early days to curtail freedom of people shipped from the British India, was to find use in the fight to free India from British rule. It was there that the Indian National Army’s all women Rani of Jhansi regiment found their first training camp, which opened on 22 October 1943.

Capt. Lakshmi and Subhas Chandra Bose inspecting the members of the INA Rani of Jhansi regiment at the camp in Bras Basah Road. The former apothecary building and the arched verandahs of what became the Soon Choon Leong building at the corner of Bras Basah Road and Bencoolen Street can quite clearly be seen.

Capt. Lakshmi and Subhas Chandra Bose inspecting a guard of honour presented by members of the Rani of Jhansi regiment at the camp in Bras Basah Road. The former apothecary building and the arched verandahs of what became the Soon Chong Leong building at the corner of Bras Basah Road and Bencoolen Street can quite clearly be seen.

The area of the former Rani of Jhansi camp today.

The area of the former Rani of Jhansi camp today – where the Singapore Management University’s School of Information Systems is located.

The Japanese Imperial Army supported INA found its second wind under the newly appointed Subhas Chandra Bose, seeking recruits among captured troops from the British Indian army units and the civilian population with the aim of freeing India from British rule. The events in Singapore of October 1943 represented a significant milestone for the INA. Not only was the women’s unit training camp established, a Provisional Government of Free India had, only a day before on 21 October 1943, been proclaimed by Subhas Chandra Bose at Cathay building.

Members of the Azad Hind posing for a photograph in Singapore on 21 October 1943.

Members of the Azad Hind posing for a photograph in Singapore on 21 October 1943.

The women’s regiment was formed in July 1943 through the efforts of the very young Captain (Dr.) Lakshmi Swaminathan (later Sahgal), who had come to Singapore only three years before to practice medicine. It drew its members mainly from the working classes in the Indian community of Singapore and Malaya  and counted some 1500 women in its ranks. Capt. Lakshmi besides being the leader of the regiment, was also appointed as the Minister in Charge of Women’s Organisation in the Azad Hind.

The women's regiment drew many recruits from the working class in Singapore and Malaya.

The women’s regiment drew many recruits from the working class in Singapore and Malaya.

An article, apparently written by Dr. Lakshmi, “My days in the Indian National Army”, offers some insights into the regiment and its training, which was to commence on 23 October 1943. In it she reveals:

“Our training lasted three months. It was very rigorous. We all had to wear a khaki uniform of pants and bush shirt, and cut our hair short. I had hair below my knees which my mother had never allowed me to cut. So I was really glad to have it cut and never grew it back since”.

Dr. Lakshmi’s account also tells of the women’s regiment’s participation in guerrilla attacks in Burma, to which the unit had been deployed in 1944 and 1945. The unit disbanded in 1945, at a time when the turning tide of the war in Burma had the Japanese Imperial Army and the INA in retreat.

The area where the apothecary building was.

The area where the apothecary building was.

As controversial as Subhas Chandra Bose and the INA, due to their collaboration with the occupying Japanese army, may be, the memory of the Bose and INA is one that has been kept alive here in Singapore. A marker at the Esplanade stands at the site of a memorial of the INA, now a historical site.

The INA memorial at Esplanade, marked with the words Ittehad, Itmad aur Qurbani, which in Urdu means Unity, Faith and Sacrifice  (National Archives photograph).

While the INA and Bose have not been forgotten, little however is now said of the Rani of Jhansi regiment and of Dr. Lakshmi, who passed away at the age of 97 in India in 2012. Like the gaol, the grounds of which the regiment also had its roots sunk into, the few physical reminders left have now been swept away by faceless buildings the man on the street struggles to find a connection to. That connection, brought about by the everyday things that drew us to the area and the many stories its buildings told of the history not just of one of Singapore’s oldest roads, but also of Singapore itself, is one that now seems to forever be broken.

BRITISH REOCCUPATION OF SINGAPORE, 1945

A view down Bras Basah Road following the surrender in 1945, © IWM (IND 4817). The structures of the former goal – used by the Rani of Jhansi regiment as a training camp, can be seen at what would have been the gaol’s northwest corner.








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