Celebrating France in Singapore

16 11 2019

The contributions of the French to Singapore cannot be understated. Their connections go back to Raffles’ arrival in 1819. With him on the Indiana were two French nationals, Pierre-Médard Diard and Alfred Duvacel, naturalists whom Raffles met in Calcutta – whose renderings and documentation of the region’s flora and fauna were among the first to be made. The French would bring Catholic missionaries – responsible not just for building churches such as the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, but also schools that are now well established.

Much later, it was towards the French that Mrs Pamelia Lee of the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board would turn to for conservation expertise – resulting in the involvement of Chief Architect and Inspector of Historical Monuments in France, Mr Didier Repellin, in the restoration of No 53 Armenian Street – an effort that would extend to conservation projects such as CHIJMES and the structuring of our heritage strategy.  This cooperation was celebrated on Armenian Street this morning – as part of the commemoration of 30 years of conservation in Singapore as part of Architectural Heritage season and in conjunction with the French cultural festival Violah! – for which, a plaque was unveiled by His Excellency, Mr Marc Abensour, the Ambassador of France to Singapore and the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Ms Hwang Yu-Ning, Chief Planner and Deputy CEO.

Also unveiled today is an exhibition of twenty photographs from Mr Paul Piollet collection of close to 1000 photographs donated to Singapore on the National Museum front lawn. Taken over three decades from the 1970s, the photos are a record of life and a way of life of a Singapore in transition. The many images of wayangs, the life that went on backstage, elaborate Chinese funerals and of life on Singapore’s living streets, boats and maritime exchanges with the Indonesian Archipelago are full of life. Many also show streets filled with children – something we seem to see a lot less of in the Singapore of today. The exhibition runs until 16 December 2019.

Paul Piollet’s images of the maritime trade with Indonesia – in this case showing bakau poles being offloaded – capture a world now lost to us.


Mr Didier Repellin, Mrs Pamelia Lee, His Excellency Mr Marc Abensour, and Ms Hwang Yu-Ning.

Mr Kelvin Ang, Mr Alvin Tan, Mr Didier Repellin, Mrs Pamelia Lee, His Excellency Mr Marc Abensour, Ms Hwang Yu-Ning and Mr Liu Thai Ker.

The plaque unveiled this morning.

Mr Paul Piollet, His Excellency Mr Marc Abensour, and Ms Hwang Yu-Ning on the National Museum Front Lawn.

Mr Paul Piollet with His Excellency Mr Marc Abensour on the National Museum Front Lawn.

Mr Paul Piollet presenting a book of his photographs to His Excellency Mr Marc Abensour.

Exhibition panels for Mr Paul Piollet’s photographs.


Video mapping by French Artist Julien Nonnon – inspired by the work of Diard and Duvacel, “Revisiting Diard and Duvacel” on Armenian Street from 8 to 11 Nov as part of Violah!


 





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).