Sungei Road, a last reflection

10 07 2017

As with all other places connected with the charming and less pretentious side of Singapore there is little place for in the Singapore version of Utopia our planners seem hellbent on creating, the second-goods bazaar at Sungei Road will become a thing of the past. The bazaar, referred commonly to by the name of the street it was centred on, is more of a gathering of hawkers setting up makeshift stalls and had once a reputation of offering goods that could not be commonly obtained. Rough, unpolished and certainly out of place in the brave new world, it will join the club of the Singapore that we miss come the 11th of July (see: 11 July 2017, the day the thieves of Sungei Road will be executed).

A last reflection on the bazaar.

The bazaar drew the crowds over the weekend, its last weekend of operations. The crowd was especially thick on Sunday as the streets along which it has been allowed to operated, filling with residents and visitors alike in search perhaps of a last bargain, and to get a last glimpse of yet another place being made to disappear. 

The fate of the hawkers post 10 July is quite uncertain. While several licensed ones have taken up stalls allocated to them in several markets,  the scattering of hawkers across several locations will not have the same impact as an entire bazaar dedicated to the trade. There are also those who either have not taken what has been offered or have nowhere to go. Hope for them exists in the form of a temporary solution to their inability to convince the authorities to allow the market to operate at an alternative site. A flyer being distributed over the weekend informs of a move to Golden Mile Tower. An announcement on this (see: post on the Save Sungei Road Market Facebook Page) will apparently be made this evening at 7.30 pm.

It will never be the same of course once the streets around Sungei Road are emptied. In no time there will be little to link the area to this and some of its rather colourful past and what it will surely become is just another piece in a jigsaw puzzle that is of a single shape and colour.


Last reflections, Sungei Road

Displacement


 





Ten 100 year old places in Singapore and the little stories they hide

9 07 2017

Surprising as it may seem, places that go back more than a hundred years are not uncommon in the midst of urban Singapore’s gleaming modernity. Not unexpectedly, many of these places hide a story or two, stories that relate to their history, and also ones that speak of Singapore’s linkages with the wider world. Here is a pick of ten such places with rather interesting tales to tell:


(1) The pagoda supported by eight “dimwits” 

Telok Ayer Street, a landing point for early immigrants in days when the sea washed up to it, is littered with the reminders of the forgotten days of adventure. The street is dotted with religious structures aplenty. Now reconstructions of the simple prayer houses put up by those whom came from distant lands so as to permit thanks to be offered to their gods for the safe passage, they offer insights into the origins of some of modern Singapore’s early settlers.

A cluster of Chinese structures from the mid 19th century, with two well ornamented pagodas, is found in the middle section of the street. The structures, which display the distinctive Minnan style of architecture, tell us of two waves of Hokkien settlers not just to Singapore but also to the region.

One of the pagodas is the Chung-Wen pagoda. Built initially for the worship of the god of literature, and used later as a school, it displays a little noticed but a rather interesting ornamental feature that was introduced to Minnan architecture during the Tang dynasty that takes the form of craved wooden figures of men with distinctively non-Chinese facial features dressed in colourful robes. The carved figures, appended in a corbel like fashion to the junctions of the beams and columns supporting the topmost tier of the pagoda, appear to be propping the structure up. The pieces, of which eight are found on the pagoda, are referred to in a rather disparaging manner as “dim-witted foreigners” in the vernacular. They have no structural function and are apparently a fairly commonly used decorative element in Minnan architecture. Rather than being an attempt to belittle, they are thought instead to have been a commemoration of the efforts of non-native workmen during the Tang period.

More on the Chung-Wen pagoda at : What’s propping a mid 1800s pagoda up on Telok Ayer Street


(2) A mosque with a leaning church steeple

Now fronted by a recently planted grove of gelam or Eucalyptus trees of a type from which Kampong Gelam (or Glam) got its name, is a mosque with an untypical minaret built into its boundary wall, the Hajjah Fatimah Mosque.

While the minaret’s claim to fame may be its tilt of 6 degrees –  for which it is known as the “Leaning Tower of Singapore”, what seems more noticeable is the minaret’s resemblance to a church’s steeple. Strange as it may sound, it may actually have been the steeple of the original St. Andrew’s Church (now the Cathedral) that served as an inspiration. The church  got its steeple in 1842, just a few years before the mosque was built.

Now stabilised, the tilt of the minaret has been attributed to the settlement of the less compact structure of the hand-made bricks employed in its construction. The mosque finds itself in an odd position as a shophouse-lined road, Java Road, once ran along its walls.

More photographs of the mosque and its unique minaret can be found at this link.


(3) A temple with furniture “made in Ngau Che Shui” 

Close-up of characters carved on the table. The Chinese characters ‘牛車水’ indicate that there were furniture craftsmen present in Singapore at a time when a lot of such commissioned work would have been carried out in China.

The Mun San Fook Tuck Chee temple has its roots in the Cantonese and Hakka coolie community who settled around the banks of the Kallang River in the mid-1800s. Many in the community found work in the brick kilns near the village of Sar Kong (or Sand Ridge) and helped established the temple in the 1860s. The term “Mun San” found in the temple’s name, is thought to be a corruption of the Malay word bangsal or shed or workshop and points to the area’s industrial origins.

The temple, which moved to its current premises in the early 1900s, is also a rare example of Cantonese style religious architecture in Singapore. What is perhaps more interestingly, is its furniture. A table used in the temple has the words “牛車水” carved into it, as a mark of its origin. “牛車水”, or ngau-che-shui as it would have been pronounced in Cantonese, translates literally to “Ox-Cart Water” and means “Bullock Water Cart”. This of course is a local reference to what we know today as Chinatown. The table is rather unusual in the sense that such items were then more commonly imported from China and what it does show is that wood craftsmen were then already present in Singapore’s Chinatown.

More on the temple at : On Borrowed Time: Mun San Fook Tuck Chee


(4) The graveyard of the would be successors of the Riau-Lingga Empire

Keramat Bukit Kasita on the slopes of Bukit Purmei, surrounded by block of HDB flats, is quite a curious sight. The old cemetery, with walls that give it an appearance of a fortified compound, has graves dressed both in the yellow of Malay royalty and green of holy men. Although it is quite unlikely, there are those who believe that the graveyard dates back to the 16th century. Even less likely is the claim that one of the graves purportedly belongs to “Sultan Iskandar Shah”.

What seems evident however, is that the oldest tomb goes back to 1721, which is well before Raffles and the British arrived. The cemetery is also known to be the burial place of Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah II, who was the very last sultan of Riau-Lingga, the Dutch influenced remnant of the once great Johor-Riau-Lingga empire. Uncooperative, Abdul Rahman II was driven out by the Dutch in 1911 and died a pauper in Singapore in 1930. Several of his descendants are also buried in the cemetery.

More at : A vestige of 16th Century Singapura?

The Riau-Lingga sultanate was formed in the wake of the death of Sultan Mahmud Shah III – the last ruler of the once great Johor-Riau-Lingga Sultanate. Supported by the Dutch, the half-brother of the would be Sultan Hussein Shah of Singapore – Abdul Rahman (I) was installed as its sultan; a move that would be cemented by the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. The sultanate would see five sultans reign before it was dissolved by the Dutch in 1911.


(5) The house of the rising sun

Emily Hill, a villa that dates back to the end of the 19th century, has had quite an eventful past. It has seen its ownership passed from the hands of the Sultan of Siak, first to a dentist and then to the Department of Social Welfare and its occupants include Managing Directors of a trading firm, dentists, the Consul-General of Japan and former prostitutes. In more recent times, the National Arts Council has taken over and it has been used as an arts school as well as a venue for the arts.

With the clutter that has been added to the area in the last 30 to 40 years, it is hard now to imagine that the house actually occupied a prominent position overlooking Middle Road. The road was the heart of a sizeable Japanese community in the early part of the 20th century, and was known as Chuo Dori (or Central Street) to the Japanese. Because of its position, it was chosen by an increasingly militant Japan to serve as a focal point for the community here as the office of its Consul-General in 1939. As the Japanese Consulate, it flew the flag of the rising sun from a position that was almost as lofty as Government House, perched atop nearby Mount Caroline. This continued until 1941 when the Japanese were expelled from Singapore.

Another aspect of the house that few seem to know about, was the misfortune that befell several of its early occupants in the form of a spate of premature deaths in the 1890s. One unfortunate victim was on of the Katz Brothers’s MDs who took up residence there, the 45 year old Mr Heinrich Bock. His death, from a fall off a balcony on 31 May 1896, occurred in rather mysterious circumstances and was ruled by the coroner to be due to “suicide whilst temporarily insane”.

More on Emily Hill at : A Last Reminder of an Old-Fashioned Corner of Singapore

Middle Road when it would have been referred to as Chuo Dori in the 1930s. Osborne House, the Japanese Consulate from 1939 to 1941 can be seen atop Mount Emily, beyond at the northwest end of the street.


(6) The Portuguese Bishop’s Palace

Built in 1912, the 3-storey rectory of St. Joseph’s Church, wears the appearance described as Portuguese Baroque. Intended to provide a parish hall and well as accommodation for the church’s clergymen, the house also has a room on its second floor and a small chapel on the third, reserved for the Roman Catholic Bishop of Macau. The church’s origins was in the Portuguese Mission. Rather uniquely in Singapore, it was a parish first of the diocese of Goa and later of Macau – both of which were Portuguese colonies. As such, the Bishop of Macau, visited regularly as the head of the diocese and this made it a palace of sorts for the Macanese Primate until the church’s links with Macau ceased in 1999 with the former colony’s transfer to China (the anticipation of Macau’s transfer to China saw St. Joseph’s Church transferred to the Archdiocese of Singapore in 1981, although the Bishop of Macau continued to appoint its priests until 1999).

More on Parochial House, as the rectory building is now known, at: A look into the Portuguese Church’s beautiful Parochial House


(7) A final hiding place among the old gravestones 

The Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery, is one of two old Muslim cemeteries from the 19th century that straddle “Grave Road” or Jalan Kubor in Kampong Gelam. It’s links go back to the prominent Yemeni-Arab Aljunied family with its patriarch, Syed Omar Ali having been buried on the grounds, which he bought and donated to the community as a burial ground, in 1852. The cemetery is also associated with an incident in December 1972 during which two gunmen at the top of Singapore’s most wanted list, who were brothers, took their own lives after being cornered by the police. This came at a time when gun crime was not uncommon in Singapore and when several gunmen were on the loose. The two brothers involved in this case, Abdul and Mustapha Wahab, were especially daring and trigger-happy and the incident brought to a one-and-a-half month reign of terror to a close.

More on this incident can be found in a previous post: When gunmen roamed the streets of Singapore: a showdown at Jalan Kubor.


(8) A grave that holds the remains of 10,000 fallen soldiers

With graves that date back to 1889, the Japanese Cemetery in Chuan Hoe Avenue counts as one of the oldest un-exhumed non-Muslim burial sites in Singapore. Established by Japanese rubber plantation owners who were also brothel keepers to allow hundreds of karayuki-san (women who came over from impoverished parts of Japan to work in the vice trade in the late 1800s and into the early 1900s), the cemetery has not just the simple headstones marking where these unfortunate women are buried but also the graves of several interesting characters. A charnel containing part of the remains of Singapore’s first Japanese resident, Yamamoto Otokichi or John M. Ottoson, is one. Otokichi had quite an eventful life. He survived a 14 month long ordeal in a drifting wreck of a ship to become the first translator of the bible into Japanese and settled eventually in Singapore.

The cemetery is also linked somehow to Singapore’s darkest of days. Besides being where Field Marshal Count Hisaichi Terauchi, the Supreme Commander of Southern Command of the Japanese Imperial Army during the war, was first buried; the cemetery is also where a grave containing the ashes of 10,000 Japanese soldiers who fell during the war in the Pacific is found. The ashes were moved to the site after the Japanese ritually destroyed a war memorial erected at the top of Bukit Batok at which the ashes were originally placed, the Syonan Chureito, in the days leading up to their surrender.

More on the cemetery at : Voices from a forgotten past.


(9) A church building occupied by Sin

Now occupied by Objectifs, visual arts centre, the oldest building now on Middle Road has distinctively church-like features. Built in the 1870s, it originally housed a Christian Institute before turning into a church, the “Malay Church”, from 1885 to 1929. It has for the longest of time however not been used as a church, housing a restaurant during the war before being used from the 1950s to the 1980s as – of all things – a motor vehicle workshop by the name of Sin Sin!
More on the building: A church once occupied by Sin,


(10) A bridge that was a tomb for over 20 years

Anderson Bridge, completed in 1910 so that Cavenagh Bridge could be replaced, seems to have had quite a gruesome past. Known as the “Bridge of Death” in the 1950s for the spate of deaths from accidents involving motorcyclists, it was also one of several locations at which the heads of beheaded criminals were put on display in the early days of the Japanese Occupation to instill fear in the general population.

The bridge also became a tomb for over two decades from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s, without anyone knowing. The skeleton of a man, Mr Ong Choon Lim, was discovered  by a worker carrying out maintenance in February 1987.  Ong, who would have been in his 50s when he died, had last been seen alive by members of his family in 1960. The skeleton was found with two rings, a watch, $9 in currency notes issued prior to 1967, an identity card issued in 1948 and a certificate issued in July 1961. Ong was thought to have died sometime in between 1962 and 1967, which meant that his remains would have lain undiscovered for over 20 years.

The bridge is one of five bridges over the Singapore River that were given conservation status in 2009. More on its conservation: Singapore River Bridges


 





That Singapore that has been taken away from us

8 07 2017

Several screen-grabs  from a wonderful video montage put up by the Huntley Film Archives of that Singapore that has been taken away from us – a Singapore I called home. The video montage can also be found below.





A postcard from the past: Shaw House and Lido

29 06 2017

Another landmark of the Orchard Road that I loved was the old Shaw House. That, stood at the corner of Orchard and Scotts Road through the 1960s to the 1980s. What made the building special was the branch of The Chartered Bank that was housed on its ground floor, a branch that my mother frequented and one at which I obtained my favourite piggy bank that was modelled after the Disney cartoon character Donald Duck. Completed in 1958, the modern 10-storey block was lit the path for the eventual transformation of Orchard Road. It was one of two that the Shaw Brothers built, the other being Lido Theatre next to it – a cinema at which I caught many Pink Panther movies. In its latter years, Shaw House was also where a popular restaurant Copper Kettle opened.





A postcard from the past: a view over the Killiney Road area in the 1970s

22 06 2017

Another postcard from the past: a view over the Killiney Road and River Valley area in the early 1970s. What can quite clearly be made out is Killiney Road, Dublin Road, Lloyd Road, Tiverton Lane and Devonshire Road at the bottom of the picture. Some of the buildings that are identifiable in the foreground include the old Killiney Road Market (from its roof), Mitre Hotel, and if you look hard enough, the roof of 38 Oxley Road!

What this postcard brings to mind is in fact 38 Oxley Road, which has been very much in the news of late. I was first made aware of it being the house of the then Prime Minister from the backseat of the car of a neighbour, Uncle Singh. We were in the vicinity one evening and Uncle Singh decided to drive through the short stretch of Oxley Road (that was before entry to the stretch was restricted to residents) just to show his son and me where the Prime Minister lived, pointing the Gurkha guards manning the sentry posts out as he drove past. This would have been sometime in 1969 or 1970 as I was in kindergarten then. What I don’t recall was why we were in the area (we were living in Toa Payoh), or what I was doing in his car. I do remember the car, an old and rather beat up Austin Cambridge, which had a corroded floorboard and torn PVC upholstery on its backseat – so much so that the coconut husk used for the filling of its cushion was showing through.





A postcard from the past: Fitzpatrick’s on Orchard Road

21 06 2017

I miss the old Orchard Road. Laid back, when compared to the madness that now consumes the street, little remains of it except for a few memories and some precious photographs, which when they crop up are like postcards sent from the past.

One photograph that I was quite excited to come across is the one below. A scan that a new found friend kindly permitted me to scan, it is a rare shot taken inside Fitzpatrick’s supermarket in the very early 1970s, just as I remember it. The scene, complete with the inside ends of the checkout aisles and the cigarette display racks, brought back an instant recall of a place, its smell and of the brown paper bags the shopping would be packed into. I remember the latter especially well and a time when plastic bags, now a scourge to the environmental, were much less used widely used. Much was also reused and recycled such as the cartons that one picked up from a pile on the left after the checkouts that the shopping, particularly the heavier items were sometimes packed into.



 





Making the cut (rubber and the forgotten art of rubber tapping)

6 06 2017

The cultivation of rubber, once the mainstay of the Malayan economy, has left a mark not just on our northern neignbours, Malaysia, but also here in Singapore. Clusters of aging rubber trees or even individual trees in Singapore’s less developed parts mark former rubber plantations, the largest of which are found on Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong. In the northwest, a pier turned sea pavilion, built to move rubber out of a long isolated area of Singapore in the 1920s, also recalls a business on which many fortunes were made (and lost) and in the west, two surviving dragon kilns speak of the pottery making trade fed by the demand for clay latex cups from the many plantations. There is also a little corner of a former rubber plantation in the northeast in which its past is commemorated by five old rubber trees found in a corner. The five are all that remain of hundreds that a Japanese monk had planted to acknowledge the donation of the plot by the plantation’s owners – to be used as a burial place for hundreds of karayuki-san who died penniless.

Latex being collected in a clay latex cup – many kilns were established across Singapore, including the two surviving dragon kilns at Jalan Bahar, to produce these cups.

One of the things I found fascinating as a child was the sight of rubber tappers moving from tree to tree that I would catch on the many drives to Malaysia. From comfort breaks taken in and around rubber estates – due to their isolation – I could see the results of the tappers’ actions. The cuts made on the trees’ bark were quite visible as were the cups of latex. What I was not able to see close up however was how the tapper actually made the cut; that is, until just a few days ago when I was able to catch a demonstration of the art. The live demo (see video below) was performed by a retired rubber tapper, Uncle Ah Ha, as part of an Outward Bound School (OBS) UBiNavigate 2017 trail organised for Pesta Ubin 2017.

An old rubber press in the OBS area of Pulau Ubin – in surprisingly good condition.

UBiNavigate also gave its participants the opportunity to explore the western part of Pulau Ubin. An area in which OBS operates, the area is normally off-limits to the general public. Once where Ong Seng Chew owned a rubber estate, this corner of the island is still filled with many reminders of that past such as an old rubber press lying in a bed of tree fall, broken bottles that once held the enzymes required for the rubber production process, and rubber trees that have long been abandoned.

Part of the UBiNavigate trail taking participants through the relatively unexplored western side of Ubin.

Several aspects of Ubin’s much storied past were also in evidence, some of which were related to the quarrying activities that provided much of the granite used to build modern Singapore. Besides the sight of a former quarry – just beyond the fence of OBS Camp 1, two concrete storage rooms could be seen, fitted with heavy steel doors. These storerooms were apparently used for the storage of dynamite that the nearby quarry used for blasting.

A dynamite store that used by a nearby quarry.

Several other interesting “discoveries” tell us of the the island’s previous inhabitants: a solitary tomb of a Madam Goh that is still tended to by her descendants, a disused well, a concrete communal stove, and the concrete base of a Chinese village-style dwelling. More on UBiNavigate, which was held on 3 June 2017, can be found at https://ubinavigate.wixsite.com/2017.

Latex dripping into a clay latex cup.

Remains of narrow necked enzyme bottles used in rubber processing.


Other rubbery posts:


More views around the western end of Pulau Ubin

An abandoned well.

Coconut shells were also utilised as latex cups.

The OBS Reservoir.

A beach on the southwestern shoreline of Ubin.

A solitary tomb of a Madam Goh.

Remains of an old communal stove.

A shrine built in 1979.

Another of the shrine.









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