Seeing the light through Deepavali Open House 2022

21 09 2022

There is no better time to head down to Little India than in the lead up to Deepavali or Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights. That is when the precinct, now a focal point for the ethnic Indian community, takes on a festive atmosphere with a street light-up that never fails to disappoint and with crowds of shoppers filling much of its ever so busy streets.

A view of the Village of Lime, with the brightly lit façade of the Indian Heritage Centre or IHC, which will be the focal point of the Deepavali Open House from 1 to 23 October 2022. Completed in 2015 the IHC’s façade was inspired by the baoli, or Indian stepwell.

Beyond soaking in the atmosphere on the streets, there is also an opportunity to participate in programmes organised by the Indian Heritage Centre (IHC) for its Deepavali Open House, which runs over four weekends from 1 to 23 October 2022. During this time, admission to the IHC will be free for all. The open house this year sees the return of the popular trishaw rides (Little India Trishaw Trail – Deepavali Edition) that will offer participants a unique way to see the lights. There is also a chance this year to take in the lights from a very different perspective: from the upper deck of an open top double-decker bus through the Deepavali Big Bus Tour.

View Little India’s annual Deepavali light-up this year from the back of a Big Bus during the Deepavali Open House.

Other activities to look out for are Mandala Dot Painting Workshop, Deepavali Cooking Demonstration with Chef Devagi and Chef Vasunthara, Interactive Storytelling for Kids, Cultural Craft Activities. More information can be found at Indian Heritage Centre – Deepavali 2022.

Cultural Craft Activities include creating Ramayana shadow puppets …
Shadow Puppet play.
Community Lego Mural

Community Lego Mural
Oil Lamp decorating.
Interactive Storytelling for Kids through which the triumph of good over evil or the story of Deepavali is told.
An extension of the street light-up inside the IHC.





Forbidden Hill spiced and demystified

27 08 2022

Fort Canning Hill, aka Bukit Larangan or Forbidden Hill, the place of many a schoolboy adventure for me, has always been a place of discovery and rediscovery for me, as well as a space that provides an escape from the urban world. An abode of the ancient kings of Singapura — the spirits of whom are said to still roam the hill, the hill is one steeped as much in history, as it is surrounded by mystery.

Fort Canning Hill, the Forbidden Hill is a place that has long been cloaked with an air of mystery.

The mystery of the place, was quite evident when the British first established their presence in Singapore in 1819. Col William Farquhar’s attempt to ascend the strategically positioned elevation, which commanded a view of the plain across which the settlement and Singapore River, was met with resistance by the followers of Temenggong Abdul Rahman who claimed that the sounds of gongs and drums and the shouts of hundreds of men could be heard, even if all that was present then on the hill were only the reminders of a long lost 14th century kingdom. The claim did not deter Farquhar from making his ascent, nor his colleagues in the East India Company, who would exploit the hill to place the seat of colonial rule in Singapore, as an experimental botanical garden, for the first Christian spaces for the dead, and as an artillery fort and barracks, for fresh water supply to the fast developing municipality and as a strategic military command bunker.

It has long been a place of escape for me.

Much of that history, and mystery, is now wonderfully captured in the new Fort Canning Heritage Gallery — and in a book “Fort Canning Park: Heritage and Gardens” that was launched in conjunction with the gallery’s opening yesterday on 26 August 2022. The gallery is housed in a 1920s barrack block now known as Fort Canning Centre, that has seen use most recently as a staging point for the Bicentennial Experience and as the short-lived private museum, Singapore Pinacothèque de Paris. The centre, which also housed the “world’s largest squash centre” from the 1977 to 1987 during the height of the squash rackets craze in Singapore, sits quite grandly atop the slope we know today as Fort Canning Green and forms a magnificent backdrop to the many events that the former cemetery grounds now plays host to.

Fort Canning Centre, a 1920s barrack block in which the newly opened Fort Canning Heritage Gallery is housed.

Divided into five zones, the gallery provides an introduction to the hill, and through four themed zones, places focus on a particular aspect of the role that the hill has played through its own and also more broadly, Singapore’s history. The stories, told succinctly through information panels, archaeological artefacts excavated from the hill and interactive digital stations, provide just enough information to the visitor to provide an appreciation of the hill history and its heritage. There is also a condensed version of the “From Singapore to Singaporean: The Bicentennial Experience” video that plays in a mini-theatrette within the gallery.

Minister of National Development, Mr Desmond Lee, opening the new Fort Canning Heritage Gallery.

Also opened with the new gallery was an enhanced Spice Garden, which now extends to the 2019 pedestrianised section of Fort Canning Rise and a pedestrian ramp and underpass (that once led to the former car park at the rear of the old National Library). The pedestrian ramp and underpass now features the new Spice Gallery, which I thought was a wonderful and meaningful way to use a space that serves little other practical use today. The Spice Gallery, made possible by the generous support of Nomanbhoy and Sons Pte Ltd — a spice trader with over a hundred years of history, provides an appreciation of the significance of the spice trade to modern Singapore’s early development as a trading hub and also the role that Fort Canning Hill played in Singapore’s early spice plantations.

The newly opened Spice Gallery at the enhanced Spice Garden occupies a former pedestrian ramp and underpass.

A book, “Fort Canning Park: Heritage and Gardens”, authored by Dr Chng Mun Whye and Ms Sara-Ann Ang, which highlights the park’s rich heritage, was also launched together with the opening. This is available for sale Gardens Shop at various locations around the Singapore Botanic Gardens or online at https://botanicgardensshop.sg at SGD 29.90.

A book, “Fort Canning Park: Heritage and Gardens” was launched together with the opening.

Along with the permanent exhibition two galleries, there is also a “Kaleidoscope in Clay (I)” exhibition that features exhibits showcasing 5,000 years of Chinese ceramic history from 26 August to 11 September 2022 at The Gallery@L3, Fort Canning Centre. Also running is the 3rd edition of Festival at the Fort being held in conjunction with the opening and Singapore Night Festival, the programmes of which include movie screenings at Fort Canning Green, guided tours and children’s activities. The festival runs from 26 August to 4 September 2022 and more information can be found at https://www.nparks.gov.sg/activities/events-and-workshops/2022/8/festival-at-the-fort-2022.

Kaleidoscope in Clay (I) at Gallery@L3, Fort Canning Centre.

Fort Canning Heritage Gallery is opened daily from 10 am to 6 pm (expect for the last Monday of each month), while the Spice Gallery is opened from 7 am to 7 pm daily. Entry to both galleries is free to the public.


Photographs of Fort Canning Heritage Gallery during the opening on 26 August 2022.


Fort Canning Centre, various views


Fort Canning Spice Gallery / enhanced Spice Garden






The beautiful Portuguese Church in a new light

22 08 2022

There’s no better time to have a look at the newly restored St Joseph Church than during the Singapore Night Festival. Beautifully illuminated for the festival, the church, which in my opinion is one of the most beautiful churches in Singapore, is quite a sight to behold. What is especially wonderful during the night festival is that the church has been opened to the public for heritage tours and performances featuring the beautiful voice of Corrinne May and also the church’s Sacred Heart Choir.

To appreciate the beauty of the wonderfully restored interior of the church, it is also best to make a daytime visit on a sunny afternoon. That is when the church’s beautiful set of stained glass is best appreciated. The church, which closed for extensive repairs and renovation in August 2017, was reopened in time to celebrate its 110th anniversary. The second church to stand on the site, the current building was consecrated by the Bishop of Macau, Dom João Paulino Azevedo e Castro on the 30th of June 1912.

Established by the Portuguese Mission, the church catered to the Portuguese and Portuguese Eurasian community and continues to the the spiritual home of the Portuguese Eurasian community. The Portuguese Mission’s presence in Singapore can be traced back to 1825 and followed the arrival of Jose D’Almeida to Singapore on a permanent basis. Mass was initially held at Dr D’Almeida’s Beach Road house before a chapel was set up on Bras Basah Road in 1933. The mission then built a church on the current site in the 1850s. The church was for much of its history, administered by the Portuguese Diocese of Macau (and the Diocese of Goa before that). It was only in 1981, that it came under the Archdiocese of Singapore. The Bishop of Macau however, continued to appoint priests to the church until 1999.

Other posts related to St Joseph’s Church:

A one hundred year old beauty (about the church)

A look into the Portuguese Church’s beautiful Parochial House (about Parochial House, which is still being renovated)

Giving the Sacred Heart a right heart (about the restoration of the church’s stained glass in 2014)

Good Friday at the Portuguese Church (about the annual Good Friday procession)





Seeing Bras Basah.Bugis in a new light

19 08 2022

After an absence of two years, the Singapore Night Festival is back! Running from 19 to 27 August, the 13th edition of festival is not just a celebration of the Bras Basah.Bugis (BBB) precinct’s heritage, but also a celebration of life being returned to normalcy after a pause of more than two years. Over 55 events and installations will feature over the nine-day festival period, which in the words of Festival Director David Chew, has gone “hyperlocal” in zooming in on the stories of the precinct and its people, and in celebrating local artists.

More on the night festival can be found at https://www.nightfestival.gov.sg and an overview of the installations and locations. In addition to this, there will also be programmes running at the National Archives of Singapore at No 1 Canning Rise on which a projection mapping, Midnight Show at Capitol, will feature. The projection, by visual artist MOJOKO, will highlight Singapore’s cinemas of the past through a remix of images from the collections of the National Archives of Singapore and National Library in what will be a contemporary twist to the classic movie posters that once adorned the many cinema façades of the precinct. The programmes include talks and performances. I will also be conducting tours, School Bells and Hallways: Memories of Former School Buildings which unfortunately have already been sold out. More information on the programmes at the National Archives of Singapore can be found at: https://curiocity.nlb.gov.sg/events/curiocity-encounters-snf/programmes.


Some photographs from a media preview of Singapore Night Festival 2022:






Erasing the countryside

11 08 2022

The winds of change that are blowing through the area around the area of Bah Soon Pah Road seem to be gathering pace. Long an area in which the march of urbanisation was resisted, it has started to take on the appearance of a site being prepared for the inevitable spread of public housing in Singapore’s relentless quest to overpopulate and overbuild an already overcrowded and overly concretised island nation.

The former Bukit Sembawang assistant plantation manager’s residence near the entrance to Bah Soon Pah Road in 2021.

I am thankful that I had the opportunity to have known the area in its previous form. Located off a section of Sembawang Road that I first set eyes on in the early 1970s, it was set for much of the time that I knew it across a green and rolling landscape that in spite of several changes over the course of half a century, has long had that feel of the countryside. Seeing it The many drives that I was taken on and have myself taken over the years brought great joy to me, as did the escapes that I found in the space whenever I took a long walk through it.

A recent view from Lorong Chencharu towards the bungalow, with clearance work in the foreground.

As frequent and necessary as change may be in Singapore, it is hard to grow accustomed to it. When change does come, it can often be swift and cruel. Not only does change erase that sense of familiarity one has with a space in the blink of an eye, it can break a bond that one may have developed with the space over a course of several decades. This seems to also be the case with the Bah Soon Pah Road area in the sense of the rather abrupt manner that change is taking place as it is being readied for its next chapter as a residential area.

Bah Soon Pah Road no more, August 2022.

Named after the illustrious Lim Nee Soon and originally constructed to serve as a access road to a government holiday bungalow, there have been several iterations in Bah Soon Pah Road’s transformation over the years. Besides being closely associated with the Bukit Sembawang estate by virtue of the prominent placed bungalow that served as its assistant plantation manager’s residence, the area also played host to Malaysian military establishments, a field experimental station, rubber plantations and more recently, farms and plant nurseries.

Nurseries along Bah Soon Pah Road, August 2021.

The spread of what will presumably be an extension to Yishun town, extends to the area now occupied by Orto leisure park and Kampung Kampus and several tropical fish farms in the area south of Bah Soon Pah Road by Lorong Chencharu. Based on a Straits Times report published on 7 August 2022, both Orto and Kampung Kampus will have until June 2023 to operate at their current premises. Judging from reactions amongst members of the public to the news, it seems quite clear that spaces such as these are of great value to many. They provide a much needed and location friendly alternative to the cramped, confined, very concrete and rather infuriating leisure and recreational spaces found in malls and integrated complexes in which one can’t seem to escape from the madness that Singapore has become.

Kampung Kampus at Lorong Chencharu, which will closed by June 2023.
Orto is not only a welcome place of escape, the sight commuters on the MRT line from and to Khatib MRT Station catch of it, breaks the monotony of the journey.

Another change that is already altering the face of the area is the construction of the North-South Corridor, a new expressway that will carry traffic from Singapore’s north to the city centre, the northern part of which will be carried on a viaduct up to the Marymount area after which it will run underground. The widening of roads over which the viaduct will run is already being taking place. This is in order to divert traffic onto whilst the viaduct is being built. Preparations for this are well underway along the stretch of Sembawang Road by Bah Soon Pah Road, where the viaduct will run over before it turns toward Lentor Avenue and before long, a road that I knew for half a century will be quite unrecognisable.

A harbinger of change: hoardings being erected along Sembawang Road in November 2021 in preparation for the widening of the road to allow the North South Corridor viaduct to be built.

One consolation is all of this is that the area to Sembawang Road’s west, the site of Sembawang Air Base, will remain relatively uncluttered. Interestingly, evidence of the air base’s links with the Admiralty, having been develop to serve the fleet air arm, can be found in a few Admiralty land boundary markers placed along Sembawang Road. Hopefully these will survive the construction of the viaduct along Sembawang Road and remain in situ to at least tell the story. The story is part of a greater and more important story of the huge naval base that provided employment and made a significant contribution to the pre-Independence Singapore economy that to this very day has left a mark on the Sembawang area.

An Admiralty land boundary marker.

Lorong Chencharu

URA Master Plan 2019 identifies the area as a future residential site subject to detailed planning.

Views around Bah Soon Pah Road, mostly from August 2021:


Views around Lorong Chencharu, Orto, Kampung Kampus and Sembawang Road, in August 2022:






Life in 1941 Singapore

7 08 2022

Brimming with life and already one of the world’s leading port cities, early 20th century Singapore received quite a fair bit of attention from the world’s press. Numerous news features and press reports were published and beyond that many images were also captured, images that are a visual record of a Singapore that is now difficult to imagine.

Singapore in 1941, a year during which the dark clouds of war were looming over the Far East, was especially well documented. For many here for much of 1941, the threat of war seemed a distant possibility, even if there were very visible preparations being made for the eventuality. Singapore was after all the bastion of British imperial power in the Far East, a great naval base, and if Britain were to be believed, an “impregnable” fortress.

Among the photographic records of Singapore from 1941, are the wonderful archives of unpublished photographs of Harrison Forman and Carl Mydans, which were captured for National Geographic magazine and LIFE magazine respectively. What can be seen in many of these photographs, some of which have already been featured in the linked articles, are preparations for war, street scenes, the legal processing, sale, and consumption of chandu (processed opium, and various aspects of the tin and rubber industry.

Many of the images, such as those of Carl Mydans that have been presented below, also offer a window into how life was like for both the common folk and the colonial elite and the contrast that is seen between the two is pretty stark.


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






The former Police Coast Guard HQ at Kallang

5 08 2022

Seemingly uninteresting and rather unexciting, the cluster of buildings that were used by the Police Coast Guard (PCG) to house their headquarters from 1970 to 2006, now hide an interesting secret. Repurposed as the National Youth Sports Institute (NYSI), the buildings have not only found a new life, but have been repurposed with a minimum of intervention and have retained much of the fabric of its past.

NYSI at Kallang, occupies a space that was used as a flying boat reception and maintenance facility and later by the PCG as its headquarters.

The former base, which was carved out of the former Kallang Airport’s flying boat reception and maintenance facilities (its ramp/slipway is still there, except it is part of the National Cadet Corp (Sea) facility next to NYSI), was turned into a base for what was then the Marine Police in 1970 at the cost of S$1 million. Having been based at the congested Singapore River by what is now the Asian Civilisations Museum, a new base with a maintenance facility was much needed to permit enable a swifter repair turnaround time for its boats, improve response and also accommodate the Marine Police’s expanding fleet.

A piece from its days as the flying boat facility.

Amongst the structures that were put up during the development of the Kallang Marine Poilce HQ, was a two storey building that served as its nerve centre, which is the same building that NYSI has operated out of since November 2015. The building and an annex, which once housed offices, interrogation rooms, an armoury and even a lock-up, is now home to gyms, sports laboratories, accommodation, recovery rooms counselling rooms, and even chill out spaces. While that may have been expected, what is unexpected is the manner in which the building has been redone in a way that not only allows it to keep many of its reminders of its days as a Marine Police base, but also with little need for light and ventilation other than that which occurs naturally. This rather intelligent, sustainable, no-frills and rather affordable approach is a breath of fresh air and should really be a model for many of our developments in which old spaces and building are repurposed. Most projects, quite unfortunately, have gone down the path of being flamboyant and gimmicky.

Decently exposed.

The Marine Police, morphed into the Police Coast Guard in 1993 and vacated the base in 2006 due to the intended closing up of Marina Bay through the construction of the Marina Barrage. It is now based in Pulau Brani.


A walk around NYSI Kallang

Chin-up bars – a reminder of the past.
Inside the old electrical distribution box.
The former arms clearing station.
Recalling the armoury.
Exposing the dividing line between the main building and an annex.
A breath of fresh air, the non-air-conditioned gym.
Notice the manhole in the gym flooring (previously a wet space).
A performance lab.
Heaters to simulate hot dry conditions.
An “Endless Pool” for swimmers.
Another reminder of the past.
Maximising natural ventilation.
Dorms – a curtain separates the male and female sections.

Common spaces


The former lock-up


Other views around the facility






Singapore’s last traditional puppet stage maker?

3 08 2022

Puppet shows once made appearances around Taoist temples scattered all across Singapore. Like the Chinese street opera and the more modern getai performances, they were usually put up for the pleasure of visiting Taoist deities on their earthly sojourns, or for hungry ghosts who as belief would have it, roam the earth when the gates of the underworld are opened during the Chinese seventh month. Puppet shows also found great appeal with the common, especially amongst the young ones. These days however, the distractions of the modern world hold sway and the appeal of tradition seems to have waned. Just a handful of troupes still perform around today leaving supporting craftsmen such as Mr Leong Fong Wah, whose lifetime’s work has been in painting and putting together puppet stages, a dying breed.

A typical Chinese puppet stage is really an assembly of pieces of plywood on which colourful decorations and backdrops are painted on one side and reinforced on the other. All it takes is a few weeks to add the decorative work before a stage can be put together. This quick turnaround time, the lack of a customer base, and the fact that a stage can be used and reused for as long as ten years, does mean that there is little in terms work in the area for the business that Mr Leong runs, Leong Shin Wah Art Studio. Having been started in the 1940s by Mr Leong’s father, whose name the business is identified with, the workshop must have been involved in putting together a countless number of stages. With nothing in way of puppet show stage orders in sight beyond an order that Mr Leong is currently in the process of fulfilling, this last stage that he is building may be one of the last, if not the last, traditional puppet show stages being made not just at Mr Leong’s workshop, but also in Singapore.


A typical traditional puppet show stage set up:

A puppet stage set up at Telok Ayer Street.
The stage set up also hides puppeteers and musicians behind a backdrop and other decorated plywood panels.

Chinese Puppetry in Singapore:

A lifelong passion pulling strings (Henghwa string puppet troupe)

The last performance of the Sin Sai Poh Hong puppet troupe (Teochew Rod Puppet Troupe)






Chilling out in Pasir Panjang

30 07 2022

Deprived of the long beach that it took its name from, and with its one-time star attraction Haw Par Villa having been set on a course for hell, there seems little to draw the visitor to Pasir Panjang — that is except for the vegetable wholesale centre that has become synonymous with it, Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre. The huge centre, which is spread over a 15.2 ha site that was reclaimed from the sea, comes alive in the dark of night and draws vegetable, fruits and dried goods traders to it, along with others in search of a bargain.

Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre is Singapore’s main vegetable, fruit and dried goods distribution centre.

Developed by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and opened in 1983, Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre was built to consolidate vegetable, fruits and dried goods wholesalers from the urban centre who were being displaced by urban redevelopment and the river clean-up effort, the centre was initially populated by 90 wholesalers from Clyde Terrace and Maxwell Road markets, plus over 350 from the Upper Circular Road / Carpenter Street and the Tew Chew Street / Chin Hin Street area. The centre features four sections with 9 out of its 26 blocks dedicated to fruits, another 8 blocks in its vegetable section, 4 blocks housing cold rooms and another 5 blocks for dried goods. With several hundred cold and chilled stores, it is quite literally a cool place to chill out at!

Tew Chew Street, which was one of the wholesale centres around Singapore. It was one of the places where imported vegetables from Cameron Highlands found buyers until 1983/84.

An opportunity not just to chill out, but also learn more about the centre and some of the people whose nocturnal existence puts fresh fruits and vegetables on the shelves now presents itself with the My Community Festival 2022. Among its offerings is a tour of Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre that is led by guide Ms Pamela Loh, who takes participants on an interesting walk through cold stores, a fruit distributor and through the especially large vegetable section — a hive of activity at the midnight hour six days a week, whether it is the seventh month or not. Besides an “insider” view of the wholesale centre, the opportunity to meet and learn about the lives of some of the people who run businesses at the centre, is a wonderful bonus.

Ms Pamela Loh leading a group at the cold room section.

Organised by My Community, My Community Festival runs from 5 to 21 August 2022. On offer is a host of unique experiences including this tour to Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre. There are also after dark tours to seafood wholesale centres at Jurong and Senoko Fishery Ports. For more information on the festival, please visit https://mycommunityfestival.sg/.


Chilling out at the cold room section where temperatures are maintained at 4 degrees C for vegetables.
The inside of a cold room.
At the fruits section, where a treat awaits …
Huge and juicy chilled US cherries being offered for sale at KSY, a fruit distributor – a must buy!
Mrs Fong, who runs a vegetable wholesale stall with her husband.
Fresh winter bamboo shoots!
Giant cauliflower.
Giant pandan leaves.
The centre’s vegetable section comes alive at night.
The guardian of Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre.





The luck of Eden Hall

10 07 2022

There is no better time to visit Eden Hall — the rather grand official residence of the British High Commissioner at Nassim Road, than on an occasion when a party is thrown. It provides an opportunity to view the house in all its splendour and indulge in some good old British fish and chips. Having received an invitation to Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee celebration by virtue of my appearance in a video in which I recalled Her Majesty’s visit to my Toa Payoh flat in 1972 that the High Commission had put together, I was able to do just that in early June. It was my second visit to the grand old residence, but one due to the significance of the occasion, was rather special.

Eden Hall on the occasion of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, June 2022.

Eden Hall has been an object of fascination for me ever since I learnt of its link to Ezekiel Saleh (E S) Manasseh. A wealthy Baghdadi Jew, Manasseh held a substantial fortune and together with a younger brother Rupert, ran the Singapore arm of a firm that together with four other brothers, had inherited from their father Saleh Manasseh of Calcutta. The firm had considerable success in the trade in opium, and later in jute, which was used for making gunny sacks . E S Manasseh, who was perhaps best known as being a co-founder of Goodwood Park Hotel, passed on in May 1944 as a civilian internee in Sime Road Camp (to which civilian internees were moved to from Changi prison that same month).

Her Excellency Kara Owen, the British High Commissioner to Singapore, speaking during the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Celebrations.

Designed by R A J Bidwell of Swan and Maclaren and built for E S Manasseh, Eden Hall was set on a sprawling 1.8 ha site. The site was one carved out of the former Lady Hill estate and had been purchased in 1903 by business partner in the family firm, Saul Jacob Nathan. While the construction of the house dates back to 1904, Manasseh apparently only purchased the site outright in 1912. Manasseh had it named Eden Hall, relating it to a goblet on which a family’s fate depended, “The Luck of Eden Hall” — that was the subject of a poem of the same name that was known to Manasseh. A rather interesting feature that distinguishes Eden Hall from other mansions is its Wedgwood Jasperware-like sprig relief type patterns decorating its façade.

E S Manasseh

Through S Manasseh and Co, Eden Hall was initially let out to a Mrs Elizabeth Campbell, who ran a boarding house in it that might have been quite a rowdy place. Following his marriage to a widow, Elsie Trilby Bath in 1916, E S Manasseh moved in with his new wife and her children from a previous marriage. Also moving in in 1916 was another of E S Manasseh’s brothers, Alan, who had come to Singapore to replace Rupert as E S’ partner. Alan Manasseh, incidentally was the father of the renowned British architect Leonard Manasseh, who was actually born at Eden Hall in May 1916 not long after his parents had moved in.

Chole Manasseh, granddaughter of Leonard Manasseh, at Eden Hall in May 2019.

The mansion was reportedly used by the Japanese as an officers’ mess during the Japanese Occupation, and after the war and death of E S Manasseh, came into the hands of Vivian Bath, Manasseh’s stepson and one of Elsie Bath’s two children. Bath would sell it to the British Government in 1955 for £55,000 for use by its Commissioner General. At Bath’s insistence, a plaque with the words “May the Union Jack fly here forever” was fixed to the base of the flagpole flying the Union Jack. Eden Hall subsequently became the residence of the British Commissioner and then upon independence, the High Commissioner to Singapore.

The plaque with the words “May the Union Jack fly here forever”, seen during the Platinum Jubilee celebrations.

Fears emerged in 1983 that the Union Jack’s perch atop the Nassim Road flagpole would be brought to an end by an austerity drive that targetted lavish diplomats homes. During that time, the fact that there were in fact calls for the Foreign Office to dispose Eden Hall since 1973. Fortunately for Eden Hall and Britains subsequent High Commissioners to Singapore, a decision was made to keep Eden Hall in 1984. The size of the land that surrounds the mansion has however been substantially reduced through sales of several plots. The first in April 2001, of a 1.01 ha plot to motoring tycoon Peter Kwee and “Popiah King” Sam Goi, netted just over $50 million. An exercise was also held to offer two additional plots totalling 0.31 ha in 2015. Though initially unsuccessful, the two sites would eventually be sold when their sale was relaunched the following year, with OUE paying a reported $56.6 million for the plots.

A clearer image of the plaque.
Eden Hall in 2019.

Around Eden Hall, during the jubilee celebrations and in May 2019.





An old new world: the old train depot at Sentul

29 06 2022

I love an old space, especially one in which one finds a character that speaks very loudly of its past. It seems increasingly difficult to find one, especially as the pace seems to have quickened when it comes to repurposing old spaces to remain relevant in the present and for the future. Many, having been redeployed in a meaningful way, seem to lose the essence of what they were in the effort to keep them up to speed with the demands of modern world. It was thus quite a refreshing for me to step into three wonderful examples of repurposed spaces that remain a portal into the past in a short span of less than a fortnight — the first being Sentul Depot, which is across the causeway in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

Tiffin at the Yard at Sentul Depot, which is quite an instagrammable place to visit.

Old train maintenance yards always have a certain appeal for me and in them one finds many tales of the past and structures with much character. Stepping into the one at Sentul, which has partially been repurposed by a private developer as an arts and lifestyle destination, brought to mind the yard we once had in Singapore that had been part of the former railway complex at Tanjong Pagar. It is certainly a shame that the yard in Singapore or at least part of it, could not be retained and transformed in a similar way.


Workshops and maintenance sheds of the former railway yard at Tanjong Pagar seen in 2011
(since demolished)


The siting the depot at Sentul, originally named Central Railway Workshops, can be traced back to the formation of the Federated Malay States Railways (FMSR). The railway administration made a decision to house its huge build and maintenance complex in the area in 1902. The location, just three miles out of town along Batu Road, offered several advantages, chief among which was its position relative to both the main line running through the administrative centre of Selangor and the FMS, and to the Batu Caves. The Batu Caves were where the granite quarries that were exploited to provide railway ballast could be obtained from. A branch line was built to serve the workshop complex — described as “eclipsing anything of the sort in the East” — could also be extended to the quarries.

The entrance to Tiffin at the Yard at Sentul Depot

Construction on the Sentul complex began in 1903 and the workshops were fully operational by August 1906. The complex featured “huge blocks of buildings ” that housed stores, engine and carriage working sheds, running sheds, factories and foundries with a shed that was observed to be 38 feet (~11.6 metres) by 150 feet (~45.7 metres) wide. The complex was able to handle the working of up to 700 miles (1126.5 km) of open line. There were also quarters built for the engineers, supervisory staff, and also coolies (workmen) — quite a number of whom were members of the Tamil community.

Tiffin at the Yard at Sentul Depot
USAAF Raid on Sentul, 1945

Much of the yard and workshops would be destroyed by bombing during the latter stages of the Japanese Occupation. An obvious target for bombing raids made by the United States Army Air Force (USAAF), well over 60 per cent of the yard and workshop area, which covered an area of some 5.7 hectares, was destroyed in early 1945. This forced the Japanese to move and disperse the railway works further afield. Following the end of the war, a huge effort was undertaken to clear the wreckage left by the air raids. The major part of the rehabilitation effort was completed only at the end of 1952, some seven years after the end of the war, having been delayed by the communist insurgency. During this time, the site became known as the Sentul Works (or Workshops).

A view of one of the disused sheds.

Sentul Works, which employed a workforce of five thousand at its height, remained in use until the the early 2000s and was decommissioned in 2009 (although KTM — the successor of the FMSR and later Malayan Railway maintains an EMU Depot next to it). The complex has since been bought up a a private developer YTL, and is in the process of being redeveloped. Among the attractions housed within the Sentul Depot complex is Tiffin at the Yard, which provides an opportunity not just to visit the former railway works, but also to dine in it.

Tiffin at the Yard at Sentul Depot




Highlights of i Light 2022

2 06 2022

i Light Singapore is back — after a two-year hiatus. This year’s edition of the popular light art festival sees twenty eye-catching and highly instagrammable light installations scattered around Marina Bay, featuring the creations of artists from fourteen countries. A key focus and message of the festival — as always, is sustainability and this is seen in the use of energy-saving lights and materials that are environmentally-friendly and/or upcycled.

Meet Me Under the Moon at Esplanade Park

Organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and presented by DBS, the festival’s theme this year is Spark of Light, with the colour violet serving as an inspiration. The colour, which has the shortest wavelength, is also the most powerful electromagnetic energy in the visible light spectrum and was chosen to signify the awakening of senses when an idea in is sparked in one’s mind.

Fallen at the Lawn next to One Marina Boulevard

The festival runs from Friday 3 June 2022 up to Sunday 26 June 2022. Besides the twenty installations, there are also exciting festival programmes to look out for, including walking tours and forums. An interesting addition to the festival is Lightwave: Isle of Light (which is ticketed). The installation, which is empowered by OPPO, features five immersive and highly instagrammable zones. More information on this and the festival, including a festival map and information on installations, can be found at the i Light 2022 website.  

Underworld, at Esplanade Park
The crowd favourite: Firefly Field at The Promontory at Marina Bay
Firefly Field, long exposure taken hand-held – one reason to bring a tripod!
One of the zones at Lightwave: Isle of Light
Swans, at OUE Tower
Florescentia, at Clifford Square
Re-Act at Queen Elizabeth Walk waterfront steps
Keep on Moving, at Marina Bay Waterfront Promenade
Alone Together, at the Marina Bay Link Mall Entrance
Collective Memory, at the Breeze Shelter
Here and There, at the Event Square
Plastic Whale, at Marina Bay Sands Event Plaza


 





A last Hari Raya open house, Last Kopek Raya

28 05 2022

The MHC’s or Malay Heritage Centre’s Hari Raya Open House, “Last Kopek Raya” — a reference to the last bits of the celebration of Aidilfitri (Eid al-Fitr), which is celebrated over the “Raya month”, Syawal, in this part of the world — opened with a bang last evening (27 May 2022) by Minister for Social and Family Development, Masagos Zulkifli. The launch party featured senior members of Firaqatul Wannazam and Keroncong Jazz Band, Nobat Kota Singapura, providing guests with a nostalgic treat through a wonderful and truly nostalgic keroncong performance.

The open house this last “Raya” weekend (27 to 29 May 2022) will be the last to be held before MHC closes in August for a two-year revamp and sees a series of events, activities and displays that include live performances, art installations, craft workshops, and storytelling sessions. More information on the events for the open house can be found at the MHC’s website and also on the event registration page.

Minister for Social and Family Development, Masagos Zulkifli.
The event launch.





The joy of light

29 04 2022

If you are looking for something to light up the long long weekend, why not take in the sights of the last few days of the Ramadan bazaar to soak in the atmosphere of Kampung Gelam. The bazaar does end this Sunday (1 May 2022), but what you will be able to also see this weekend is a delightful light installation on the lawn of the Malay Heritage Centre, Rainbow Connection II.

Conceptualised by local artist Lee Yun Qin and co-created with members of the community, the effort is presented by the Malay Heritage Centre (MHC) in collaboration with Brighton Connection, a social service agency. Featuring 500 suspended solar light modules, each made from upcycled cookie containers, uniquely and colourfully decorated, the installation has its moment of magic as it comes to life in as day turns into night just as the strains of the azan — the Muslim call to prayer — fills the air with a sense of calm and peace.

The light modules of Rainbow Connection II, are decorated in two themes: “In the Woods” and “In the Deep” and lights up the lawn from 29 April to 29 May 2022, after which it will travel to MacPherson estate and Somerset Youth Park. The MHC’s grounds will remain open (Tuesdays to Sundays) until 9 pm during the period.





An enlightened space

4 04 2022

Voluminous spaces amply illuminated by natural light are often a visually treat. We have quite a number of these spaces in Singapore, including several that go back to a time when harnessing natural light and ventilation for interior spaces all seemed very logical.

A view of the main hall of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

One fine example of a such a voluminous space is the main hall of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. The hall features a high vaulted ceiling that rises to a height of some 21.6 metres to keep its users cool. A fair amount of natural light also streams into the space through windows placed at its roof’s gable ends and also along the sides, making it quite a joy to behold. The station is one of many designs that have flown off the drawing boards of architectural firm Swan and Maclaren. The design of the hall’s gable ends recalls the one of the firm’s earlier works, the Malayan Motors showroom on Orchard Road.

The former Malayan Motors showroom.

Designed in 1925, the building — like Tanjong Pagar Railway Station — can still be admired. It now stands at the end of a delightful row of conserved buildings opposite Dhoby Ghaut MRT station and looking at it, it is not hard to see how the former showroom must have been quite an attraction on Orchard Road when it was completed in early 1927. The showroom’s façade, which is effectively a gable end, is topped by a sunburst like decorative feature that seems very much to be a call for attention. The window arrangement on this face does also seem quite similar to that of the gable ends of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station’s main hall, although in being dressed to act as the showroom’s street facing façade, is much more elaborately designed.

Similarities can be seen between Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the former Malayan Motors showroom.

The former showroom, which now stands as a marker of a stretch of Orchard Road that was at the heart of Singapore’s motoring trade, has long fascinated me. Other than its showroom on the ground floor, which I had chance to visit as a child when my father purchased a Morris Marina in the 1970s, I’ve often wondered what lay behind the glorious face of building and its multitude of windows. I long imagined that was a showroom or perhaps a workshop on its upper floors and I was rather disappointed to learn from the building’s plans that what did lie under the rather elaborate roof were offices — at least at the point of design. Knowing this, what now intrigues me is why all that elaboration for a set of mere offices? Whatever it was however, it must have been quite a space to marvel at.

What lies behind the face of the Malayan Motors showroom’s gabled ends.

The showroom’s construction came at a time when the motoring trade was on the up and when Orchard Road had established its place a centre for the business of getting around. The street in its post-plantation era, had become a choice residential neighbourhood and both residents and visitors needed a means to move around, especially with Orchard Road being some distance from the commercial area. By the late 1800s, livery stables from which horses and carriages could be hired, lined the street. Hackney carriages plied the street as much as taxis now do, and carriages makers and horse traders set up shop.

Stables on Orchard Road.

The introduction of the motorcar would see a change of fortunes for those involved in the trade. Some of those involved in the business of horses and carriages would become among the first to trade instead in horsepower, leading to the area retaining its place as a hub as the private transportation business evolved. New entrants to the business, with a greater capacity to respond to shifting demands, soon dominated the scene, with names such as Cycle and Carriage and C F F Wearne (later Wearne Brothers) — now household names in the trade, setting up shop in the area in the early 1900s. By the end of the second decade of the twentieth century, at least a dozen car dealerships had been established in the area close to the entrance to Government House — something I touched on during the Age of Locomotion tour that I recently conducted as part of a series of four historical tours of Orchard Road for Design Orchard’s “The Non Season”.

The “motor” end of Orchard Road, a hundred years apart.

C F F Wearne and Co, one of many success stories associated with the motoring trade, was founded by two Western Australian brothers Charles Frederick Foster Wearne and his brother Theodore James Benjamin (T J B or Theo). The two had come across to Singapore in 1892 and worked their way up from being apprentices at the New Harbour Dock Company to qualify as marine engineers. In 1906, with a startup capital of 700 Straits dollars that Theo provided, C F F Wearne and Co was established as a motor garage in Theo’s brother-in-law’s coach house. This was a time when there were just a handful of cars on the island. In a matter of months, C F F Wearne and Co moved into two shophouse units in Orchard Road. Having secured the agency for Oldsmobiles, the company would expand its portfolio to include makes such as Morris, Rolls Royce, Bentley and Ford and in no time, established themselves as a main player in the business with C F F Wearne and Co becoming Wearne Brothers.

The 1910 built C F F Wearne Garage

By 1924, Wearne Brothers would be producing car bodies locally for assembly to Ford car chassis shipped to Singapore by Ford Canada for the local market. A small assembly plant was established at Penang Lane to handle the work. To avoid any conflict of interests between the Ford agency and other agencies under the Wearne Brothers umbrella, a subsidiary, Malayan Motors, was set up the same year acting as agents for agents for Armstrong-Siddley, Morris, Sunbeam, Packard, Rolls-Royce, Essex, Erksine and Standard motorcars. Malayan Motors operated out of the 1910 constructed C F F Wearnes’ garage, which stood on the site of the 1927 built Malayan Motors showroom at 14-20 Orchard Road. The 1927 building does in fact have the 1910 building appended to it, having been built in front of the older structure. This is quite evident from the difference in floor levels of the older back section and newer front section of the former showroom.

The difference in floor levels between the old and new sections of the building.

Wearne Brothers, which established the first local airline to operate out of Singapore in 1937, Wearnes Air Services (Charles Wearne was also a great aviation enthusiast), would be greatly affected by the war. War not only disrupted Wearnes Air Services operations just as it was about to see returns on the investment and Wearnes’ other businesses operations, war would affect the Wearne brothers in a very personal way. Whilst Charles and Theo made it out of the very last shipping convoy to leave Singapore just a few days before the inglorious Fall of Singapore, two of Charles’ sons would become Prisoners of War. Charles also passed on at the age of 71 in Mandurah, Western Australia, a year before the war ended.

Malayan Motors made its last sale in the showroom in August 1980, after which the company consolidated it operations at its Leng Kee Road branch. The showroom was renovated in 1988 and used by the Singapore Manufacturers’ Association as SMA House and from 2002 to 2020, the building was used by the private school Management Development Institute of Singapore or MDIS.

The former showroom was a witness to war.

Let there be light!






A lost world

10 03 2022

Photographs of a lost world that exists in a part of Singapore that has been reclaimed by nature.





A delightful song and dance about Katong

22 02 2022

Betel Box Tours must be applauded for its most recent effort at bringing out the wonderful tales that are connect with the especially colourful district of Katong. Titled Katong Dreaming: A Musical Tour, the tour involves a walk of discovery through the district’s much storied streets with its stories told through verse, through song and through dance. Created by August Lum, Marc Nair, Mark Nicodemus Tan and Valerie Lim, and produced by Jamie Lee, two of the wonderfully talent team – Mark Tan, who takes on the role of guide, narrator and singer (he dances too) and independent movement artist Valerie Lim, expertly provide a highly entertaining and refreshing take on Katong’s streets, back lanes, personalities, cultural and religious sites. The tour is certainly well worth the two hours and the price of the ticket!

The musical tour runs until the end of March 2022 and tickets (and further information) may be obtained through: https://katongdreaming.peatix.com/.

Katong Dreaming: A Musical Tour — performed by Mark Tan and Valerie Lim.

About Katong Dreaming: A Musical Tour

Katong is always a delight to visit, with its colourful houses, sleepy streets and culinary treasures. But Katong also holds a rich history, steeped in Peranakan culture and traditions, brimming with surprising stories.

Katong Dreaming: A Musical Tour, is a performance art tour created by August Lum, Marc Nair, Mark Nicodemus Tan, and Valerie Lim. It is produced by Jamie Lee for Betel Box Tours, supported under the STB-NAC Performing Arts Tours Pilot Grant, an initiative by the Singapore Tourism Board and National Arts Council to encourage the development and test-bedding of innovative performing arts tours by tour operators.

This two-hour walking tour begins at the southern border of Katong at East Coast Road before winding through Ceylon Road, Joo Chiat Road, Koon Seng Road, and Tembeling Road. In three broad chapters, familiar experiences of food, faith and historical landmarks are woven together through cross-disciplinary art forms into a groundbreaking blend of musical theatre, site-specific performance and tour guiding.


Valerie Lim and Mark Tan

About the Artists:

Marc Nair is a poet who works at the intersection of art forms. His work revolves around the ironies of everyday life. He has published ten collections of poetry.

Valerie is an independent movement artist. The mysteries of the human body, multi-disciplinary and immersive works deeply thrill her. She believes life must be spent pursuing what makes us feel the most alive.

August is a musical storyteller, who has been making sounds for a variety of mediums, from stage to film to theme parks as well. Included in his wish-list is the desire to write music for a dramatic series, as well as background music for certain public spaces.

Mark is a musician, writer, performer, and tourist guide. All of the aforementioned stages allow him to talk about his loves for art, music, history, football, and cricket, to audiences who have no choice but to listen.


Photographs taken during the tour





Yishun and its links to a 1847 secret society attack off Batam

21 12 2021

Yishun is a satellite town in modern Singapore with a reputation for being in the news for the wrong reasons. It does seem that this may also have been the case in its earliest days — at least as the settlement that the town traces its roots to. The settlement would eventually to be known as “Nee Soon”, Yishun’s name in Teochew and the name of a since-erased village that through its association with the illustrious Lim Nee Soon in the early 20th century, was named after him.

Yishun, on the left bank of what is today Lower Seletar Reservoir. The reservoir was created through the construction of a dam across the mouth of Sungei Seletar.

Located on what could be thought of as the left bank of Sungei Seletar — now Lower Seletar Reservoir, Yishun occupies one of several riverine areas of Singapore that attracted pioneering pepper and gambier planters in Singapore’s earliest days as a East India Company factory (or some say even before). The early planters were almost exclusively from the Teochew dialect group, and had links to the secret societies whose assistance and protection were essential to survival in the early days. The secret societies were however, also a constant source of trouble, with violence often being used as a means towards resolving disputes.

A beautiful sight along the Springleaf Park Connector, this now spruced up upper section of the Sungei Seletar permitted the area to be accessed and provided for its development for gambier and pepper cultivation.

In 1847, the discovery of six boats armed with cannons along with a huge cache of arms in a plantation by Sungei Seletar by a police party, led to them to the arrest of Neo Yang Kwan (Neo Liang Quan). Neo, who was described to have been of “doubtful character”, had come over from the Riau islands and was affiliated with Ngee Heng Kongsi, a Teochew secret society. It was also discovered that he had been behind a well planned and brutal attack on plantations on Galang Island south Batam from Singapore just prior to the discovery, which resulted in the destruction of twenty-eight plantations and the violent deaths of over a hundred.

Still waters do run deep.
It was in a plantation by the river that a cache of arms and cannon-armed boats belonging to a Secret Society affiliated Teochew planter were discovered by the police in 1847. The weapons and boats were apparently used in a brutal reprisal attack on an island off Batam.

Neo’s exit from the plantation scene, possibly after he was taken into custody, nor the issue of land titles that J T Thomson’s 1846 survey of Singapore’s interior provided for, did little to end the disputes that were often over control of land. The first land title that was taken up was in fact related to the area in which Neo had his plantation. Allocated to another Teochew man by the name of Chan Ah Lak in 1850, the settlement came to be known as Chan Chu Kang (曾厝港) [chu kangs (厝港) were river clan settlements that were established up several rivers in Singapore].

Locations of Kangkars (riverside landing areas) and Bangsals (plantation plots) related to chu kangs in Singapore in 1885 (source: Chinese Agricultural Pioneering in Singapore and Johore)

Chan, who seemed well connected and of apparently good standing, was another who was affiliated with Ngee Heng Kongsi. Among the contributions he made was a sum of money that went towards the construction of the temple of literature, Chong Wen Ge, at Telok Ayer Street. As with his predecessor, Neo, Chan cultivated gambier and pepper, on his land allocation, which amounted to some 44 acres (17.8 ha).

A gambier plantation, c. 1900.

Despite the legitimacy of land occupation that the land title offered, secret society activities continued and continued to be a source of trouble. The anti-Catholic disturbances in 1851, during which Catholic owned plantation were targeted, was an example of this. Although not directly affecting Chan Chu Kang, an outcome of this would be the erection of a police thannah (a station or outpost) in Chan Chu Kang that same year. The presence of the thannah however, did little to prevent Chan Chu Kang from being drawn into an even more serious disturbance in 1854 that would leave some four to five hundred dead across Singapore and over three hundred houses destroyed. Remote areas, including Chan Chu Kang, were especially badly affected, and reports had a number of ”wholesale murders” along with the burning of homes taking place at Chan Chu Kang.

An 1865 Map of Singapore showing locations of settlements such as Chan Chu Kang.

While the apparent trigger for the riots may have been a dispute over the price of rice between a Teochew buyer and a Hokkien shopkeeper, tensions between the two dominant Chinese communities had been brewing for some time. Reasons for the rift were wide ranging and included control of gambier and pepper plantations, into which the Hokkiens were making inroads. An influx of an unusually large number of Chinese fleeing China in the wake of the Small Sword Society’s uprising in 1853 together with the disputes that arose over contributions between the two communities to the effort to oust the Qing emperor could also be added to this mix.

A poster depicting the Small Sword Society’s uprising in Shanghai (source: https://chineseposters.net/posters/e37-374)

The troubles in Chan Chu Kang, did not end with the quelling of the riots. On the basis of newspaper articles throughout much of the 1800s and early 1900s, murders, riots, instances of arson, fights between members of rival secret societies or communities and break-ins kept the police thannah very especially busy. Chan Chu Kang’s transformation into Nee Soon Village, which followed Lim Nee Soon’s establishing a rubber processing plant in the village around 1912 and his subsequent purchase of the estate, did little to stop news of murder and crime being reported with regularity.

Besides rubber, Lim Nee Soon’s ventures in the area also included pineapple cultivation and canning. This, together with its location at a three-way junction, made Nee Soon village a significant rural centre for the agricultural north of Singapore. Its position would be further augmented with the development of Singapore as a military garrison from the late 1920s. Not only was huge naval base built at the end of Chan Chu Kang / Seletar Road, which passed through Nee Soon, the village would also benefit from the construction of Nee Soon Barracks late in the 1930s. At the same time, a fully equipped post office was also added to the village late in 1939.

Not long after the construction of the barracks was completed, it became the scene of a murder. In March 1941, an Indian soldier with the Royal Artillery quartered in the camp’s H-Block was brutally killed with a machete. A suspect, a fellow soldier, was charged for the murder but was acquitted. War and occupation was on the horizon, during which time Nee Soon Camp become a POW camp for British Indian Army soldiers.

Nee Soon
A view down Transit Road towards Nee Soon Village in the 1960s (David Ayres on Flickr).

The end of the war in 1945, saw Nee Soon Barracks turned into a holding camp for Dutch and Javanese refugees, and as No.1 British Transit Camp transit camp for demobolised military personnel being sent home. Its role as a transit camp would continue, serving for personnel and their families arriving from Britain (hence the name Transit Road). Just before the British pullout in 1971, it became a camp for the Royal New Zealand Army. Australian units, were housed in it as part of the ANZUK force deployed in Singapore post-British-pull-out, after which it became the Singapore Armed Forces’ School of Basic Military Training (SBMT) from 1975. All through this post-war period, murders, gangland activities, and violent crime, continued to make the news — even as the village was being vacated in the early 1980s.

Today, little is left to remind us of a place whose very colourful and eventful modern chapter in its history goes back to the early 1800s. The much altered camp is still around, as its the former post office. The building that house the post office, could be thought of as quite literally having gone to the dogs, having been repurposed as a veterinary clinic. At least it is still there. Also in the area is Springleaf Nature Park. The beautifully spruced-up waterway that is a feature of the park and of the Springleaf Park Connector, could be thought of as a reminder of the waterway that first brought settlement to the area. The use of the former village’s name for the new town does also provide a connection to the past, although this comes through a difficult to relate to and rather different sounding “Yishun”. The physical displacement of the place name by several kilometres, and the subsequent use of the name “Springleaf” to describe the area of the former village, does however, minimise that link that the area has with its colourful and somewhat eventful past.





From “Chinatown” to “China Town”

3 12 2021

The development of Singapore’s Chinatown, its reason for being, and how it does not quite fit into the same mould as the Chinatowns found across the non-Chinese world, was the topic of my previous post. Chinatown’s evolution in more recent years, first into a conservation and a tourist site as one of three of Singapore’s “ethnic quarters”, does have a significant influence on what has become of Chinatown today as a go-to place for the newest additions to the Chinese community in Singapore.

Chinatown today is part tourist attraction, a place for Singaporeans to find traditional goods for the occasion and for the new Chinese to get a taste of home.

The “new Chinese”, if I may call those more recently arrived from China that, started arriving in the wake of the setting up of diplomatic ties between the People’s Republic of China and Singapore in 1990. That opened the doors for an inflow of much needed migrant workers, along with academics, professionals, students and “study-mamas” (or peidu mama) in large numbers. Recent estimates has it that there could be as many as 400,000 new Chinese who have come Singapore, some of whom have been naturalised. Similar ethnically with their long-time Singaporean Chinese cousins who have mainly descended from southern Chinese immigrants, the new Chinese have a wider diversity in their origins, have quite different values and cultural perspectives, speak differently and have differing tastes. A natural consequence of this is the appearance of the many businesses, eateries and stores that now cater to the tastes, wants and needs of this numerically significant group.

Well patronised Northern Chinese and Sichuan food eateries along New Bridge Road.

Chinatown, and in particular, People’s Park Complex, is now where a concentration of such business can be found. People’s Park Complex, perhaps for it long-time role as a place to purchase Chinese made products since its opening in 1970, and where several remittance agents were set up in the 1990s, would attract travel agents specialising in the Chinese market, food and snack stalls, stores dealing in Chinese foodstuffs, and most recently, supermarkets. These have more or less become permanent fixtures in the shopping centre. Beyond this, food outlets are also made an appearance in and around the area of the complex. People’s Park Food Centre has now a range of food stalls offering food representative of northeastern China and also from the numb and spicy (mala) food from the Sichuan area.

Eateries and food stalls lining People’s Park Complex and People’s Park Food Centre offer a taste of home for many new Chinese.

Nearby, a long-time Chinatown landmark in the form of the former Great Southern Hotel, has been the home of Yue Hwa Chinese Products, a Hong Kong store which brings in Chinese goods and foodstuffs since 1996. The store has been a go-to place for ingredients for the more exotic types of Chinese food. It has however seen the arrival of a new competition, Scarlett Supermarket, whose name in Chinese ShiJiaKe (思家客) translates into “homesick”. The supermarket, which brings in Chinese snacks and foodstuffs and offers them at very reasonable prices, has in the short time since it opened its Trengganu Street outlet in October 2020, become popular both with new Chinese and with many Singaporeans. It has since opened stores across Singapore, including a flagship store in People’s Park Complex and by January 2022, will have 10 stores in total.

Yue Hwa Chinese Products, a Hong Kong store that was established at the former Great Southern Hotel in 1996. It has long been a go-to place to obtain ingredients for more exotic Chinese cooking.
The new kid on the block – Scarlett Supermarket, which opened its first store in Oct 2020, and has since opened several other stores across Singapore, including a flagship store in People’s Park Complex in Feb 2021.

What has become especially lively is the Chinatown food scene. This isn’t just confined to the area in and around People’s Park Complex, but has also added flavour to the scene across Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road. That is where the heart of old Chinatown was. Now an area that is at the heart of the tourist side of Chinatown, new Chinese eateries can be found along with several others along Upper Cross Street, Mosque Street, Pagoda Street, and Smith Street.

Eateries lining Mosque Street.

While the eateries may have been set up with the aim of bringing a taste of home to the multitude of new Chinese here in Singapore, many have also found regular patrons elsewhere. Three northeastern (dongbei) Chinese restaurants along Upper Cross Street for example, have become popular with the Koreans and Japanese and are featured on websites and other social media channels not just here but also in their home countries. In this way perhaps, Chinatown could be seen as playing a role of bringing people together, much like it did in the past.

A dongbei restaurant along Upper Cross Street.

While the focus of this post is on Chinatown becoming “China Town”, Chinatown today a lot more than that. As we heard in the video attached to my previous post, it is also a place for Singaporeans, especially those with past connections to the place. The renewal of Chinatown has also brought with it a host of new attractions such as the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Although the authenticity of the relic that it houses has been questioned, and perhaps whether the temple’s place in Chinatown is appropriate, it is here to stay. The temple and much of today’s Chinatown could be thought of as a continuation of the Chinatown of the past. Although not quite the same, it is still very much a place that brings people and cultures together.

Not Chinatown and not Singapore? A structure that perhaps defines the new Chinatown, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Consecrated in 2008, it was built to hold what is claimed to be a tooth of Buddha that was housed in an earthquake damaged stupa in Myanmar. Questions have been asked about the authenticity of the relic.

From Chinatown to “China Town” (video)

From Chinatown to “China Town”





Parting Glances: Old Police Academy

24 11 2021

The old Police Academy (OPA) off Thomson Road has a place in the hearts of many. This will include those from the police force who trained on its grounds, members of the National Police Cadet Corps (NPCC), and those who in one way or another, have found joy in its spacious grounds. The announcement about its redevelopment as a new public-housing estate does not come as a surprise with the knowledge that Mount Pleasant MRT station is already being constructed. Some, like me will however, lament its loss as a space that holds the memories of many and a space that has long escaped the inescapable advance of the clutter and concrete has covered much of this overcrowded island.

The expansive grounds of the old Police Academy.

The old academy’s presence along Thomson Road goes back to 1929, when it made its debut as the Police Training Depot. It setting up came as part of a greater effort to bring transformation to the then Straits Settlements Police Force (SSPF) in response to the growing level of lawlessness. Not only did Singapore come to be known as ”Sin-galore”, comparisons with mob-ruled Chicago were frequently made. To deal with this, an programme to modernise and instil professionalism in the SSPF was launched by it Inspector-General from 1925 to 1935, Harold Fairburn. Along with the setting up of a purpose-built training facility, modern police stations and living quarters being built. The new stations included the so-called “Police Skyscraper“, Hill Street Police Station, Maxwell Road Police Station, and also Beach Road Police Station.

One feature of the new depot was the expansive sports fields and parade grounds that it was provided with. The fields would see hockey, rugby and football matches being played with ones held on Sunday afternoons attracting a healthy crowd. The parade ground saw numerous parades, drills and event rehearsals taking place, some of which involved stunts on motorcycles, with many of spectators finding “seating” on the slope leading to the grounds.

A passing-out parade on the parade grounds with a view towards Block 2 and Block 1 (National Archives of Singapore online).
A view towards the parade ground, part of which is now a construction site.

With the academy having completed a move to the new Home Team Academy in Choa Chu Kang 2005, the death knell on the OPA site was sounded. While the recent announcement has confirmed much of what might have been exp