Pagoda Street’s pagoda was probably not the Sri Mariamman Temple’s gopuram

23 07 2021

One of the fascinating things about the streets of Singapore is the stories that are attached to how they were named, either colloquially or officially. One example is Pagoda Street, along which a pagoda — at least in the modern sense of the word — seems quite conspicuously absent.

While is certainly puzzling to Singapore’s visitors, we in Singapore have been schooled to hold the belief that the pagoda in question is the gopuram of the Sri Mariamman temple, Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple. Depending on how creatively this story is told, the temple’s prominent located gopuram at the corner of South Bridge Road and Pagoda Street, might have been mistaken by the common folk as a pagoda or for the want of a better description, identified as one. Whatever the story may have been, they all seem to have ignored the fact that the word “pagoda” in the context of the early 19th century when the street got its name, was one that was in use in the English language in making reference to both Hindu and Buddhist temples in India and in Southeast Asia.

The gopuram of the Sri Mariamman Temple

Historically, the use of the term “pagoda” is quite interesting. Its origins as many would have it is said to lie in the Persian word “butkada”, which is said to translate into “temple of idols”. There are also strong suggestions that it may instead have been derived from Chinese, or at least the Chinese dialects — some would argue, languages — that were in use in the past. The combination of Chinese words describing a “tower of bones of the dead” (白骨塔) or literally “white-bone tower”, is often cited as a possible source of the word, or even “octagonal tower” (八角塔) or literally “eight-cornered tower”. Both combinations, when said in one or several commonly spoken southern Chinese dialects, are similar sounding to the pronunciation of “pagoda” in the English language.

A Chinese-styled pagoda at Haw Par Villa (a personal photograph from November 1976). One suggestion is that the origin of the word “pagoda” is Chinese. The word “pagode” was however already in use in the 16th Century in Portuguese India to describe Hindu and Buddhist temples.

Interestingly, the Portuguese version of the word, “pagode”, was already in use as early as the early 16th century, during a time when Portugal established its presence in India after Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a hitherto elusive sea route from Europe to the subcontinent. The word was utilised to describe the Indian temple complexes, both Hindu and Buddhist, that fascinated the Portuguese and the Europeans that were to follow. One example of this use was in the descriptions of the rock-cut Buddhist temple complex on Salsette Island near Mumbai or as it would have been called by the Portuguese, Bom Bahia. The complex came to be known as “Pagode de Canarim” (also”Pagoda de Canarin”), which the British would later name “Canari Pagoda”. The word “pagode” in the English form would also come also to be widely used, as is evidenced through official accounts, literature and correspondence through the 17th to 19th centuries, to describe either a Hindu or Buddhist temple and in some cases, even a mosque. There is in fact a description of the Sri Mariamman Temple, on a 1846 sketch made by John Turnbull Thomson of the temple and the Jamae Chulia Mosque on South Bridge Road, that does refer to the Sri Mariamman Temple as a “Hindoo Pagoda”. The mosque is referred to in the same description as a “Kling Mosque”.

“View in Singapore town; Hindoo Pagoda; Kling Mosque”; 1846
Thomson, John Turnbull, ourheritage.ac.nz

Descriptions of Hindu temples as “Hindoo pagodas”, were used widely in descriptions of Hindu temples in various English accounts of explorations and travels of the 19th and early 20th century. It therefore is quite probable that Pagoda Street was named, not because of Sri Mariamman Temple’s gopruam having erroneously been looked upon as a pagoda, but the Sri Mariamman Temple in whole, was to the English speakers of the day a “Hindoo pagoda”.

The Sri Mariamman, which is Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple, seen here during the Navaratri festival in 2015, would probably have been thought of as a “Hindoo pagoda”. The term was used in 19th century English to describe Hindu temples.
Sri Mariamman Temple’s gopuram, seen above the rooftops of the streets of Chinatown.

Various illustrations of “pagodas” found in India in 19th century Portuguese and English literature

An illustration of a Hindu temple in the Damāo Pequeno north of Mumbai in “A India Portugueza” published in 1886.
Another illustration of an Indian temple complex, named “Pagode de Chandrenate” in “A India Portugueza”.
A Hindu temple described as a “Hindoo Pagoda” in an illustration found in “India, historical and descriptive: revised and enlarged from “Les Voyages Celebres” with an account of the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857-8, published in 1876.





Lost places: the Geylang house in which a 9 million dollar work of art was painted

22 07 2021

One of the unfortunate things about Singapore and its relentless quest to modernise, is the loss of places rich in stories of the past. One such place was the Huang Clan, which was housed in a two-storey bungalow at Lorong 35 Geylang. The house had a strong connection with the “Father of Modern Chinese Painting”, Xu Beihong (徐悲鸿). It was also where some of Xu’s exceptional works of art, several of which featured anti-Japanese themes were executed. Known as Jiangxia Tang (江夏堂), traditionally a name used to denote the Huang clan’s ancestral hall, it served as his place of abode and his studio during his many sojourns in Singapore as a guest of Huang Manshi (黄曼士). Huang, the General Manager of the Nanyang Brothers’ Tobacco Company, was also the General Secretary of the association and an avid collector of art. His association with Xu, came through his Paris-based elder brother Huang Menggui (黄孟圭). The elder Huang, lent support to Xu in Paris when funding for his Chinese government scholarship to the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts was cut. It was also on Huang Menggui’s recommendation that Xu first found himself coming to Singapore in 1925 as a guest of Huang Manshi. Xu returned on several occasions until 1942, during which time he painted quite a number of art pieces, including a portrait of Straits Settlements Governor Sir Shenton Thomas in 1939.

The former Huang Clan house at Lorong 35 Geylang.
Xu, with Huang Menggui and Huang Manshi at the Geylang house.

It was also in 1939 at the Jiangxia Tang, as Xu was about to depart for India for an exhibition he was putting up at poet Rabindranath Tagore’s urging, that he executed one of his best known works, “Put Down Your Whip“. The painting, which was bought for a record price for a Chinese art work of US$9.2 million in at an auction in Hong Kong in 2007, was done after Xu Beihong watched a play put up by visiting Chinese actress Wang Yin (王莹) and her theatre troupe in support for the anti-Japanese movement in China. The art work, which depicted Wang and the audience, was completed at the Jiangxia Tang in the same month of the performance. The work was also among a stash of artworks that was hidden on the grounds of Han Wai Toon’s rambutan orchard at Upper Thomson (where Thomson Nature Park today), during the Japanese occupation. Another of Xu’s paintings in the same stash that was also done at Jiangxia Tang, “Silly Old Man Moves a Mountain“, set the previous record of US$4.12 million in 2006.


The bungalow, as well as as neighbouring compound house, were acquired in 2018 and were demolished that same year to make way for an eight-storey residential development which will also house the clan association, Sixteen35 Residences.


The former Jiangxia Tang in 2018.
The neighbouring compound house that was also demolished.
The site of the former Jiangxia Tang in 2019.
Another view of the site of the former Jiangxia Tang in 2019.




A memory of the JTC flats at Kampong Java Teban

21 07 2021

Initially set aside for the resettlement of villagers displaced by the industrialisation of Singapore’s south-western coastline and its islands, Kampong Java Teban became the site of a Jurong Town Corporation or JTC developed housing estate that took on the name “Teban Gardens” in the course of this redevelopment. It was one of several major residential developments that the JTC undertook following its spin-off from the Economic Development Board or EDB in 1968 together with DBS Bank and Intraco. The JTC was given the task of real estate management and development, not just for industrial property, but also for housing in industrial estates; a task which had hitherto fallen to the Housing and Development Board (HDB), who constructed housing on behalf of EDB. This was before the management of JTC estates and their flats came under HDB’s purview on 1 May 1982, following the passing of the 1982 amendments to the Housing and Development Act.

Development work on Teban Gardens, Jurong Town’s third residential neighbourhood, commenced in 1973. By the third quarter of 1976, the estate’s first 625 three-room flats were put on sale through a ballot, with the bulk of the estate’s first 3776 units coming up for balloting through much of 1977. While the development was initially aimed at the industrial estate’s workforce, the anticipated demand fell short of expectations due to a slowdown in industrial expansion with the weak economic climate in the mid-1970s. This led to the sale of the flats in Teban Gardens being extended to the general public from June 1977.

The bulk of the flats in Teban Gardens being put on sale during this period were three-room flats. Comparable in size to HDB built three-room flats, the estate featured three-room flats that were quite unique in that they did not open to a common corridor unlike their HDB counterparts. The 10-storey slab-blocks with these flats had common corridors on the third, sixth and ninth levels, along which four-room flats were arranged. With a floor area of 766 sq. ft, the three room units were sold for $15,000, while the 866 sq. ft. four-room common corridor units went for $21,500. Along with the three and four-room units, there were also a number of slab blocks and point blocks with five-room units, measuring between 1147 and 1400 sq. ft. in floor area, which were sold between $30,000 and $35,000.

Among the flats from this first wave of Teban Gardens’ development, were a set of blocks that I last caught a glimpse of in the mid-2010s when they were already emptied of life, having come under HDB’s Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) in 2007. The flats, which numbered 2 to 11 and of which I had a passing familiarity with from my working days in Jurong and in the Pandan area from 1991 to 2008 and from my adventures along the former Jurong Railway line, are no more. All that I have to remember them by are these few photographs, which I captured in 2013.





Beautiful Ridley Park

18 07 2021

Among my favourite Public Works Department or PWD built houses is one at Ridley Park that I was able to photograph a couple of times (seen in the photographs attached to this post). Set in lush green surroundings, the house is among quite a few others found in an estate that took its name from the Singapore Botanic Gardens first director, Henry Ridley. Due to the fact that it was built adjacent to Tanglin Barracks, Ridley Park has often been mistaken as one that the War Office developed for their senior military officers. It however was one of a number that the PWD developed to house for senior government officers and their families.

Having been constructed from 1923 to 1935, a wide variety of PWD residence styles are on display at Ridley Park, which is a a wonderful showcase of the creativity of the PWD Architects’ Branch during what was their most productive of periods blueprint-wise. While many of these PWD houses are described as “black and white” homes or residences, they technically do not qualify as being “black and white” in style; the term being applied quite loosely as a matter of convenience, being perhaps a reference to the manner in which these houses are now painted. The houses in Ridley Park, which have been in government hands throughout their history, may be available for rent where unoccupied.






The “ruins” by Kallang Airport’s gates

16 07 2021

Right by the old gates of the former Kallang Airport, is a crumbling set of structures that pre-date the construction of Singapore’s first civil airport. With a little imagination, the sight of the rather mysterious looking structures could to transport the travel-starved observer to a place like Siem Reap. A closer inspection of the structures will however reveal that the crumbling walls belong not to an ancient temple … or for that matter anything like a palace or istana as recent suggestions have had it as, but to a raised burial plot.

The raised former burial plot, seen in August 2018.

The plot, which shared a boundary with the former Firestone Factory that was established in the 1920s (some may remember the former factory building on the banks of the Kallang River near Sir Arthur Bridge being used by electrical good and furniture retailer Courts in the 1990s), is marked in a 1930 survey map as a “Mohammedan Cemetery” and in a 1936 plan for the new Civil Aerodrome (i.e. Kallang Airport) quite simply as “graves”. An explanation as to why the graves were placed on a raised plot can be found in a 1939 letter to the Straits Times. The writer, who described its location to a tee in saying that an elevated plot of graves could be “seen just inside the entrance to the civil aerodrome, on the right”, recalled seeing them on small eyots or “patches of higher ground” in the mangrove swamp “before the place was reclaimed”. Reclamation work for the airport, it should be noted, was carried out in the 1930s.

The plot in January 2014, with the old airport gates in the background.

While there are no traces of the graves today — they were exhumed sometime in the late 1980s, there is still an item of physical evidence that still exists, if one looks for it along the base on which the structures rests. There, a tablet with inscriptions in the Tamil script can be found and that does in fact confirm that the site was indeed a burial plot — at least based on a translation provided by a local urban exploration group on Facebook in 2019. This translation dates the tablet to 1854, as a burial site for the “kith and kin” of Chinnakkani” — a descendant of “Hajji Ismail of Thiruvarur”.

The tablet seen in September 2018.
The plot in September 2018.
The plot shown in a 1930 survey map (NAS).
The plot shown in a 1936 plan for the aerodrome (NAS).




Where durians and Chinese opera come together

13 07 2021

Once commonly found across Singapore, permanently erected free-standing Chinese opera (also commonly referred to in Singapore as “wayang”) stages have become quite hard to come by in Singapore. Erected to entertain the gods during their visits down to the mortal realm, the were also put to use in several other ways, doubling up as the clan, temple or village schools, depending on where they were built. Only three such stages are left in Singapore, two on the main island and one more on Pulau Ubin and it is always a treat to catch a Chinese opera performance being staged on one of them, especially if one is able to head backstage where in my opinion, the best “action” takes place.

The Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong temple is a place of devotion for many.

One occasion during which I had the good fortune of doing just this was during the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations at the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple at Balestier Road in September 2016 from which the photographs in this post were captured. The temple, having links to Hokkien plantation workers from Joseph Balestier’s venture to grow sugarcane by the Whampoa River, has a history that dates back to 1847. Its stage, which came up in 1906, was built by Tan Boo Liat — the great-grandson of Tan Tock Seng, and who is also well-known for erecting Golden Bell — the Edwardian-style mansion on Mount Faber that is now the Danish Seamen’s Church.

It is also a place where Chinese opera performances take place (at least pre-Covid) on one of Singapore’s last permanently erected free-standing wayang stages.

The temple, besides being a place of devotion and a place to catch a wayang, has also become a place that is synonymous with indulgence in the “king of all fruits” — durians. Durians have been sold in and around the area for, which was also known for its cinemas, for a long time and right by or in front of the temple ever since I can remember. Much of the area has changed, even if there is much that is is familiar physically. The durian stalls of old, are however, still very much a common sight every durian season. Not only do you see them just by temple, but also in the side lanes in the area. Like the temple, and the stage when it comes alive, they are among the last vestiges of the living side of the old Balestier Road, a side that long lives in my memory.

Durians and Chinese opera.
Another view of the temple.
Joss sticks at the temple.

Photographs of the Chinese Opera preparations and performance in September 2016






Giving back the Sacred Heart a right heart

12 07 2021

For years, the central stained-glass panel above the sanctuary of the Portuguese Church, depicting the Sacred Heart, spotted a piece of green coloured glass in the place where the Sacred Heart’s heart us represented – as a crude replacement. The series of photographs below show the Sacred Heart given back its heart back in 2014.





The Bidwell houses at Gallop Road

6 07 2021

Two beautiful conservation houses, Atbara and Inverturret at No 5 and No 7 Gallop Road, grace the newly opened Singapore Botanic Gardens Gallop Extension. Both wonderfully repurposed, Atbara as the Forest Discovery Centre and Inverturret as the Botanical Art Gallery, they are among the oldest and finest surviving examples of residential properties that English architect Regent Alfred John (R A J) Bidwell designed in Singapore.

Bidwell, who had an eventful but short two-year stint in the Selangor Public Works Department (PWD) as Chief Draughtsman and assistant to Government Architect A C Norman, came across to Singapore in 1895 to join pre-eminent architectural firm Swan and Maclaren. In a matter of four years, he became a partner in the firm; an arrangement that lasted until 1907. Bidwell would continue his association with the firm as an employee until 1912. His 17 years with Swan and Maclaren, was one marked by the string of notable contributions that he made to Singapore’s built landscape. His architectural works include many of Singapore’s landmarks of the early 20th century, which include the Goodwood Park Hotel — built as a clubhouse for the Teutonia Club; Victoria Theatre and Victoria Memorial Hall (the theatre component of the pair was a modification of a previously built Town Hall that also gave it an appearance similar to the 1905 erected Victoria Memorial Hall; and Stamford House — built as Whiteaway and Laidlaw Building in 1905. Also notable among his contributions were several buildings that have since been demolished, one of which was the old Telephone exchange on Hill Street that was designed in the Indo-Saracenic style.

The Indo-Saracenic style was something that Bidwell would have been extremely familiar with, having been heavily involved in the design of the Government Offices in Kuala Lumpur or KL, now the Sultan Abu Samad Building. Hints of the style are also found in one of the first design efforts in Singapore, which is seen in the unique set of piers on which Atbara is supported. The bungalow, along with several others that Bidwell had designed, is thought to have influenced the designs of numerous government, municipal and company residences, the bulk of which were constructed from the 1910s to the 1930s. Many of these are still around and are often erroneously referred to as “black and white houses”, a term that is more descriptive of their appearance — many are painted white with black trimmings — rather than a description of a their style or of a particular architectural style (see also: The Eastern Extension Telegraph Company’s Estate on Mount Faber).

Atbara has in fact earned the distinction of being Singapore oldest “black and white house” even if it does display a variety of architectural influences; influences that are also seen in many of the designs of the various residences. Built in 1898, apparently for lawyer John Burkinshaw, Atbara’s piers, timber floorboards and verandahs are among the features or adaptations applied to the residences of the early 20th century, all of which were intended to provide their occupants with a maximum of comfort in the unbearable heat and humidity of the tropics. Many of these adaptations were ones borrowed from the bungalows of the Indian sub-continent, from plantation style houses, and also the Malay houses found in the region. There was extensive use of pitched-roofs, a feature seen in the then popular Arts and Crafts style that the English architects of the era would have been familiar with. These roofs lent themselves to drainage and the promotion of ventilation through convection when combined with generous openings. Tropical interpretations of the Arts and Crafts style were in fact widely applied to several residences built during the era.

Atbara, which early “to-let” advertisements had as having seven rooms, five bathrooms, with a large compound and with extensive views, came into the possession of Charles MacArthur, Chairman of the Straits Trading Company, in 1903. MacArthur added the neighbouring Inverturret soon after in 1906. Also designed by Bidwell, Inverturret rests on a concrete base and is of a distinctively different style — even if verandahs, ample openings and the pitched roof found in Atbara are in evidence.

The two properties were eventually acquired by the Straits Trading Company in 1923, who held it until 1990, after which both were acquired by the State. The houses had several prominent tenants during this period. Just before the Second World War, Inverturret briefly served the official residence of the Air Officer Commanding (AOC), Royal Air Force Far East, from 1937 to 1939. During these two years, Inverturret saw two AOCs in residence, Air-Vice Marshal Arthur Tedder and Air-Vice Marshal John Babington. Their stay in Inverturret was in anticipation of a much grander residence — the third of a trio that was to have been built to house each of the senior commanders of the three military arms. Two, Flagstaff House (now Command House) to house the General Officer Commanding, Malaya and Navy House (now old Admiralty House) for the Rear Admiral Malaya, were known to have been built.

From 1939 to 1999, both Atbara and Inverturret were leased to the French Foreign Office by the Straits Trading Company up to 1990 and following their acquisition in 1990, by the State up to 1999. Except for the period of the Japanese Occupation (it is known that Inverturret was used as a residence for the Bank of Taiwan’s Manager during the Occupation) and shortly thereafter, Atbara served as the French Consular Office and later the French Embassy, and Inverturret as the French Consul-General’s / French Ambassador’s residence. It was during this period that those like me, who are of an age when travel to France required a visa, may remember visiting Atbara. The process of obtaining a visa involved submitting an application with your passport in the morning, and returning in the afternoon to pick the passport and visa up, a process that was not too dissimilar to obtaining an exit permit at the nearby CMPB!


Atbara


Inverturret


R A J Bidwell and Kuala Lumpur’s Sultan Abu Samad Building



Built as Government Offices for the Selangor Government from 1894 to 1897, the Sultan Abu Samad building – a landmark in Kuala Lumpur was described as the “most impressive building in the Federated Malay States”. Although the architectural work for it has been widely attributed to A C Norman, the Selangor Public Works Department’s Government Architect, it is widely accepted that it was R A J Bidwell who developed the finer architectural details of its eye-catching Indo-Saracenic lines. Bidwell, who was assistant to Norman from 1893 to 1895, developed the plans with input from C E Spooner – the State Engineer, who directed that initial plans for the building be redone in what he termed as the “Mohammedan style”.

Bidwell’s disaffection with his position and salary, saw to him resigning from the Selangor PWD — as is reflected in his correspondence relating to his resignation. The Selangor PWD’s loss would turn into Singapore’s gain, with Bidwell moving to Singapore in 1895 to join Swan and Maclaren .






A final journey through Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, 10 years ago

30 06 2021

Remembering the 30th of June 2011 – the last day of train operations involving Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. Intended to be a gateway from continental Asia to the Pacific and Indian Oceans when it was built in 1932, the grand old dame, said to have been modelled after the grand railway stations of Europe, was never to fulfil the promise that it was built with, closing for good ten years ago – its last day of operations being 30 June 2011.

On the last train into Tanjong Pagar

More on the station and its final day:

Parting glances: Tanjong Pagar Railway Station as it will never again be

Tanjong Pagar: a promise that we now know would never be fulfilled

A final journey: a tearful departure from Tanjong Pagar

A final journey: the last passage to the north

A final homecoming into Tanjong Pagar





A temporary Kempeitai HQ at Beach Road

23 06 2021

Convicted as a spy and imprisoned in Changi Prison during a stint as a press attaché with the Japanese Consulate in Singapore, Mamoru Shinozaki is also viewed in some circles as the “Oskar Schindler” of Singapore for the role he may have played in bringing the terrible Sook Ching Massacre to an end. While he remains a controversial even after his death in the 1990s, his accounts of the wartime Singapore remains a valuable resource. In oral history interviews contained in “My Wartime Experiences in Singapore” published by the Institute of South East Asian Studies in 1973, we learn that he was brought to Beach Road upon his release from in Changi Prison by the Japanese Army on 16 February 1942 – right after Singapore fell. Describing his arrival at Beach Road, Shinozaki said, “All along Beach Road, all the houses were closed and I did not see even a cat or dog. It was a ghost town.”

Since demolished buildings at the former Beach Road Police Station.

What was would to follow was his meeting with Lt. Col. Yokota, who had been placed in command of several units of the East Branch of the Kempeitai. “At Beach Road, now the temporary Voluntary Headquarters, the chief of the Yokota Kempei unit, Lt. Col. Yokota, was waiting. When I got down from the lorry he greeted me: “you have suffered so long, please take this.”” This very scene is, quite amazing, one that also exists in a visual record. A Japanese newsreel which contains the scenes that followed the Japanese Army’s taking of Singapore captured by Kameyama Matsutarō, Marē senki : shingeki no kiroku (Malaya War Record: A Record of the Onward March). This newsreel also contains a scene that shows Shinozaki being greeted by Yokata outside what can be identified as Beach Road Police Station (rather than the Volunteer Force Headquarters as identified by Shinozaki). The building, a conserved structure, is still around today and is currently being incorporated into Guocoland’s MidTown development.

While the former police station’s building may have been retained, the redevelopment of the plot as MidTown has resulted in the loss of two other buildings to the rear of the main structure that were part and parcel of the larger Beach Road Police Station complex that was completed in 1934. The construction of the station, came as part of a decade-long effort to upgrade the facilities of the Straits Settlements Police Force and bring about greater professionalism in the face of the high rates of crime in Singapore – or “Sin-Galore” as it may then have been known as. The state of disorder in the colony, also dubbed the “cesspool of iniquity”, even prompted comparisons to be made with Chicago! It was the through the same effort, initiated in the mid-1920s, that the Police Training School at Thomson Road – the old Police Academy – was established and Hill Street Police Station, was built along with several other stations.

A Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets visit to Beach Road Police Station in October 2017.

Built at a cost of $319,743, the Beach Road complex replaced an earlier station that had been located further east along Beach Road at Clyde Terrace. The two demolished buildings at the station’s rear were all built at the same time to serve as modern quarters in an attempt to provide improve policemen’s living standards. A three-storey block accommodated 64 married man and their families, while 80 single men and NCOs were accommodated in another three storey single-men’s block. The latter also contained a mess and recreation room on its ground floor. Along with this, the most senior ranking officers at the station were accommodated in its three-storey main building, which was described as being of a “pretentious type”. The building was laid out to provide quarters for two European and two “Asiatic” Inspectors on the second and third levels, while its ground floor was where the offices of the station, a guard room, an armoury and a number of stores were located. Immediately behind the main block – right behind the guard room, was an annex cell block in which the lock-up was located and “approached from it (the guardroom) by a covered way”.

Besides the episode involving Shinozaki, the station’s played several other wartime roles. A hundred or so Japanese “aliens” were rounded up and held in it following the outbreak of hostilities with Japan on 8 December 1941, before they were moved to Changi Prison. The scene was to repeat itself upon Singapore’s inglorious fall, when civilians from the other side were held with the station serving as a holding facility for civilian internees prior to them being sent to Changi Prison. The civilians rounded up by the Japanese Army included Jews and individuals of various European backgrounds and nationalities, along with members of the Chinese and Indian communities.

Beach Road Police Station also found itself in the thick of action in the tumultuous period that followed the end of the Second World War. During the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950, policemen from the station were amongst paramilitary personnel sent to quell disturbances in nearby Kampong Glam. The policemen involved were however forced into retreat with the station serving as a refuge for them along with scores of civilians seeking safe refuge.

Following independence, the station served as the Police ‘C’ Division headquarters until May 1988 – when the division HQ was moved into new premises at Geylang Police Station. The buildings were then used as Central Police Division headquarters from November 1992 until 2001, after which the division HQ moved into Cantonment Police Complex. The decommissioning of the station led to its use by the Raffles Design Institute for some six years. During this time, two sets of newer quarters that had been added on an adjacent piece of land – two four-storey blocks that were built in the 1950s, and a 12 storey block in erected in 1970, were demolished.

Sitting on a prime 2-hectare reserve site, the former station and barracks was sold for a whopping $1.62 million in 2017 and members of the public got to see it for the last time as it was during a “Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets” visit in October 2017.


A last look at the former Beach Road Police Station as it was in 2017.






Reflections on Singapore

22 06 2021

Reflections have captivated me since I was a child, when I used to think of mirrors as portals into a parallel world. That is perhaps why I take great joy from capturing reflections with the camera, be it one taken off a shop window, a mirror, and especially off puddles of water. In the set of photographs seen below are 37 reflections taken across Singapore. They include ones of places that we see everyday, ones that are a little harder to get to, and a few of places that no longer exist.





Parting Glances: Shaw Towers

9 06 2021

Shaw Towers, a landmark along Beach Road since its completion in 1976, is now in the process of coming down. Built on a site that had partly been occupied by the old and popular Alhambra and Marlborough cinemas, the 35-floor building was, at the point of its completion, the tallest on Beach Road.

Designed by Iversen, van Sitteren and Partners and built during a time when cinema-going was a popular activity in Singapore, Shaw Towers was the first building in Singapore to house two cinemas, Prince and Jade. Occupying the second to the seventh floors of one corner of the building’s 13-storey podium, the 1952 seater Prince Theatre was then the largest cinema in Singapore. Its screen, at 28 metres wide, was the widest in the Far East. The cinema was where Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws drew the crowds in Singapore, making its debut with the cinema’s opening on 14 July 1976. Following a run of 128 days, Jaws raked in some $1.25 million in box office receipts at Prince – setting a record at the time.

Occupying the ground to third floor of the podium’s extension towards Nicoll Highway, Jade opened in November 1976 and provided a more intimate setting, with less than half the seating capacity of Prince with a capacity of 844. The cinemas were converted in the late 1980s to cineplexes and were the first multi-screen cinemas to make an appearance in Singapore.

The opening of Jade also coincided with the completion of Shaw Towers. At its completion, the first two levels of the podium featured some 242 shops. The podium also featured a carpark from the third to eleventh levels and offices from the 12th to 35th levels. Over the years, the building’s office space attracted a host of advertising firms stung by increasing rents in the Shenton Way area and also broadcasting companies. Among the latter were names such as NHK and the BBC, which moved in when its regional HQ was moved to Singapore in the year 2000.

The building, which featured the innovative use of more than 2,500 specially designed precast and pre-finished concrete units, is being replaced by a much taller building that will rise some 66 metres higher which is expected to be completed by 2024.






The last charcoal shop in Singapore?

7 06 2021

Photographs taken in 2018
©Jerome Lim





Colouring Edo and a monochromatic take on a colourful side of Kyoto

8 05 2021

Japan and the rather unique experiences it has to offer, has captured the imagination of many image makers over the history of image-making. How this has evolved over time is wonderfully presented in an exhibition Life in Edo | Russel Wong in Kyoto, which opened at the Asian Civilisations Museum on 16 April 2021. Running until 19 September 2021, the exhibition provides a wonderful walk-through of the various aspects of Japanese art of woodblock print making — a popular medium of expression during the Edo period. The art form is also placed in contrast with the modern art of photography, seen through the skilfully and very patiently captured work of renowned Singaporean photographer Russel Wong in the forbidden world of Kyoto’s Gokagai (five kagai).

The exhibition starts with a study of the Japanese art of ukiyo-e or woodblock printing. Ukiyo-e, which translates into “pictures of the transient world”, or as the Britannica has it, “pictures of the floating world”, came to the fore during a period of cultural and social renaissance in 18th and 19th century Edo, with the term “transient world” or “floating world” being a euphemism for Edo’s popular entertainment quarters. Produced for the mass market, ukiyo-e, with its depictions of popular theatre artistes, courtesans, and maybe the seedier aspects of life in the pleasure quarters, could be thought of as a platform for the social influencers of the day — much like what social media and the likes of Instagram is, in the world of today.

Different class of travel in the age of the ukiyo-e.

Comparing ukiyo-e to Instagram may devalue the craft and effort that goes into the production of ukiyo-e. The value of its craft is thankfully not lost in the journey that the exhibition takes visitors through with 157 expertly made prints on show that provide a glimpse of life during the Tokugawa shogunate, themed according to the subjects of travel, beauty, food, entertainment and even the keeping of pets. The production of ukiyo-e would have involved a publisher; artists to draw the design, carve the woodblocks, and to ink, align and press the various blocks individually to add each of the various colours to the prints. The display of a complete set of mid-20th century woodblocks made by the Kyoto Hanga Institute to reprint Hokusai’s “South Wind, Clear Sky” — popularly known as “Red Fuji”, provides visitors with a better understanding of the skill and labour involved in the craft. Overtaken by machine printing and photography, interest in the tedious method of printing would decline in the late 1800s. It is only through the efforts of artisans and institutes such as the Hanga, that the craft has been preserved.

It is probably apt the the transition from the traditional to the modern in the exhibition takes place through the crossing of a bridge and a journey from Edo to Kyoto. The starting point in this journey is the display of Utagawa’s Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e print of Nihonbashi – at the beginning of the coastal Tokaido Road from Edo to Kyoto and the first of 53 halting or rest stations (which included the start and end points) Hiroshige depicted in his print series “The 53 Stations of the Tokaido”. This will be replaced (as will the other woodblock prints on display due to their sensitivity to light) in the second half of the exhibition period with a print of the last station, the Sanjo Bridge in Kyoto, which is also depicted at the point where the journey into Russel Wong’s Kyoto begins. Hiroshige’s series provided the inspiration for some of Wong’s work in Japan and Wong’s photograph of the Sanjo Bridge that is on display, was taken with very much the same craft and care that went into Hiroshige’s efforts.

Wong’s captures of the secluded world of the tea houses of the Gokagai, is for the photographer in me, the draw of the exhibition. The story that is seen in his masterfully taken photographs of the Geiko (how Geishas in Kyoto are referred to) and the apprentice Maiko, is as much about the unseen aspects of life in the tea houses, as it is about Wong’s craft and patience. An effort some 13 years in the making, it involved establishing the right connections and a wait of five years before he was even able to step into a tea house. This incredible journey, is supplemented by his efforts to capture the colours of the Kyoto that most of us will only get to see, but in a way few would have the patience for. Seen in his work in colour of Kyoto through the four seasons in the public space where the journey into Edo and Kyoto begins, it is also seen in the monochromatic display of the crowd-free Kinkaku-ji in winter taken through falling snow just as the alarm levels on Covid-19 were being raised and just before travel restrictions were put in place in early 2020.

The Kinkaku-ji in winter as captured by Russel Wong

Life in Edo | Russel Wong in Kyoto runs until 19 September 2021 at the Asian Civilisations Museum. Tickets are priced at $12 for Singaporeans and Permanent Residents and $20 for Foreign Residents and Tourists. For more information, visit https://www.nhb.gov.sg/acm/whats-on/exhibitions/life-in-edo-russel-wong-in-kyoto.


A ukiyo-e depiction of a brothel room with hidden messages.
Beauty techniques – offered by the “influencers” of the day on ukiyo-e.
Interactions with pets was a popular ukiyo-e subject.
Utagawa’s Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e print of Nihonbashi – the first of “The 53 stations of the Tokaido”
Russel Wong on using black and white and more …





An Abundant Celebration

14 01 2021

2020 could be thought of having been a lean year. Much of the year was dominated by the global COVID-19 pandemic and the economic fallout as a result of it. As we move towards the halfway point in the first month of the new year, there is renewed hope. It is perhaps apt that the first cultural festival that we celebrate in 2021, the Tamil harvest festival of Pongal, is all about celebrating abundance.

The Tamil harvest festival of Pongal brings life and colour to Singapore’s Little India.

One thing that Pongal brings to Singapore and in particular to the streets of Singapore’s Little India is great colour. Even if the situation on the ground does seem much less subdued, this seems to also be the case this year. A walk around Campbell Lane, Clive Street and Dunlop Street last evening — the eve of the festival, the colourful displays of festival essentials such as decorated clay pongal pots, floral garlands, stalks of sugarcane, de-husked coconuts and fresh produce, could be seen. The festival, which heralds the arrival of the Tamil month of Thai is celebrated over a four day period in mid-January. The first day of Thai, the festival day proper, falls on 14 January this year.


Sights and sounds of Pongal on the streets of Little India





The Last Christmas

12 01 2021

Robinsons, which shut down over the weekend, had a long association with Christmas and had Singapore dreaming of its very first white Christmas in 1949.


Robinsons’ last Christmas, 2020.

For a while, Christmas in Singapore wouldn’t be Christmas without a visit to Robinsons. The store — a long time Singaporean retail institution, which had a strong link with the year end season of cheer, had its long and eventful history brought to a sad end when it shut its doors for good on 9 January 2021 – just a few weeks short of its 163 birthday.

Robinsons – building it occupied at Raffles Place from 1891 to 1941, prior to moving across the square to Raffles Chambers.

Growing up, Robinsons was certainly the place to go to get a feel of Christmas. The prospect of having to say hello to Father Christmas, of whom I was terrified, did not stop me from visiting the toy department. Robinsons vast array of toys made its toy department possibly the largest in Singapore at that time. Even if there wasn’t much prospect of getting my hands on what I truly desired, it made it the place to be at, if only to gawk at the toy selection and a model railway that never failed to have me enthralled. There was also the Christmas lucky dip to turn towards if all manners of persuasion at getting a toy that I badly wanted failed. For the price of what may have been two bowls of noodles, the gifts that one pulled out of the dip did sometimes surprise and I obtained one of my favourite toys in this manner, an orange battery operated submarine.

Raffles Chambers, Christmas 1966.

Those were days when Robinsons occupied its rather iconic Raffles Chambers premises in a building that, quite tragically, was destroyed in a huge fire that claimed nine lives in November 1972. The old building in Raffles Place was not Robinsons first store. It moved to it late in 1941, just a month or so before the war came to Singapore. It was however a location that was Robinsons’ most recognised and remembered in its stores right up to the point at which it closed. Raffles Chambers was also where Robinson’s introduced some of its more elaborate ways to welcome the season — a season that for Robinsons must have had the cash registers ringing for many years. Among the innovative ways in which Christmas came to Robinsons at Raffles Chambers was with Singapore’s very first “White Christmas” — when a movie set snowstorm blew in a Christmas themed display in a shop window. Snow made from chemically treated fibre was brought over from England for this with fans used to blow fake snow around the set.

A 1930s newspaper advertisement – Robinsons has had a long association with Christmas.

The history of Robinsons went back to February 1858, when Philip Robinson — who had arrived from Melbourne just the year before, and James Gaborian Spicer, established Spicer and Robinson. The “family warehouse” dealt in a large assortment of imported household goods, outfitting and foods from its premises at 9 and 10 Commercial Square or Raffles Place. The partnership did not last very long. In October 1858, Spicer pulled out of the arrangement and as Robinson and Co, the store continued operating with Robinson and a new found partner George Rappa Jr at the helm. The store prospered, and after being on the move and moving out of Raffles Place, eventually found a large “warehouse” back in Raffles Place in 1891. By that time Robinson and Co operated departments for drapery, hosiery, haberdashery, furnishings, motors and cycles, photographic apparatus and sports requisites. The store also dealt with arms and ammunition, as sole agents for Messrs Kynochs, a Birmingham based ammunition manufacturer.

Raffles Places in the late 1800s.

Soon after its move across the square to Raffles Chambers, the first Japanese bombs fell on Singapore in December 1941. The building would be partially damaged by the air raids twice — on 8 December 1941 and on 13 February 1942, even if it continued operations before eventually closing when Singapore fell. The occupation years brought a different occupant in the form of a Japanese department store, Matsuzakaya, which moved into the premises on 21 March 1943 after extensive repairs that were partially paid for by the Japanese military were made to the building. Robinsons would only return in June 1946, operating first on the ground floor and the basement before the building was fully returned by the British Military. A Royal Air Force amenities store in the interim following the reoccupation of Singapore in September 1945.

The iconic Raffles Chambers, which was topped by a statue of Mercury, was built to house another store, Katz Brothers, in 1912 (postcard: roots.sg).

The post war years would see Robinsons prosper further and lead the way in innovations. In June 1955, the store became the first department store in Malaya and Singapore to be fitted with full air-conditioning. The tragic fire of 1972 brought an end to Robinsons connection with Raffles Place and perhaps heralded the beginning of the end for the long time shopping icon. The store was able to reestablish itself on Orchard Road — first at Specialists Shopping Centre before making a move to Centrepoint in 1983. Several changes of ownership and the store’s opening of several branches did little to stem Robinsons slow slide into obscurity. In 2013, Robinsons moved its flagship store to The Heeren, which was given a more upmarket feel. That perhaps put the final nail in its coffin for the old store. In October 2020, Robinsons announced its intention to close and on 16 December 2020 it closed its flagship store and on 9 January 2020, its last store at Raffles City.

When Robinsons had its flagship store at Centrepoint
Its flagship store at The Heeren
Its last window display at its Raffles City store
Its iconic Raffles Chambers store remembered in the Raffles City outlet

Parting Glances – A Last Look at Robinsons





Shadow Play

8 01 2021

Growing up at a time when, and in space where my cultural experiences had little to do with the state prescribed definition of my ethnicity, has given me a wonderful set of childhood memories. There was much that I took joy from in a household were the languages used and the food we enjoyed was anything but what one might have expected. Some of my fondest memories were of the interactions with my grandmother. Having come across from the Dutch East Indies before the war and being conversant only in Bahasa Indonesia, she had a penchant for watching reruns of P Ramlee movies on black and white television, doing her shopping at Kampong Jawa (Arab Street) and catching screenings of Kelantanese wayang kulit or shadow puppet performances that aired on Radio Television Malaysia 2 (RTM2 — or Channel 10 as its was then better known as).

Wayang kulit, which has its origins in pre-Islamic Java, is something I still enjoy watching, although what we see now of it in Malaysia and in Singapore seems quite different from the performances that I caught seated next to my grandmother all those years back. That would have been in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the ancient art form — used for generations as a vehicle for the handing down of oral traditions — was still expressed in a manner that was little changed, and featured characters and stories rooted in the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. A rise in religious consciousness, particularly in Kelantan where the art form had a particularly large following where a ban was imposed in the wayang kulit performances in the 1990s, saw to a gradual changed to a more modern form that we tend to see today with non-religious and contemporary characters and stories being introduced.

While the tradition has been greatly modified here, it is still very much alive in its spiritual home in Central Java — assisted perhaps by its inscription as one of several forms of Indonesian wayang theatre on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List since 2008. It is not only possible to watch performances there, but also see how the puppets are made from water buffalo hide. The process of making a puppet from a piece of cured hide is a painstaking one and involves carefully cutting the hide to shape, hand-punching patterns and painting each character over a period of up to two months.

The following are some photographs taken at a workshop in Yogyakarta during a visit in 2013, a visit that included a bonus in the form of an impromptu performance put up by a dalang or master puppeteer:





Remembering Dakota (Crescent)

5 01 2021

Dakota Crescent — part of the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) 1958 development that was known as Old Kallang Airport Estate — will not be forgotten for two reasons. The first, is that six out of seventeen of its block that are representative of the former estate, including a 1970s playground that the six are arranged around, are being kept as part of a future housing development.

The second reason is the widely circulated myth that the fatal Dakota DC-3 crash that Dakota Crescent is said to have been named after, occured at Kallang Airport in a thunderstorm on 29 June 1946. While it can be established that DC-3 carrying 22 crew and Royal Air Force personnel that originated from Kallang on the date did crash in bad weather, it can also be established that where the crash happened was not at Kallang but in northern Malaya and after the aircraft had taken off at Butterworth on its way to Mingaladon.

How I will remember Dakota, is through the various visits that I made to the old estate and through the photographs that I took of it. My impressions of it was that the estate was worn, tired looking and had seen much better days. Still there was much to take in and much to capture and in this post are a few that I wish to share.


Remembering Dakota





Geylang, through the eyes of a long time “street-walker”

4 01 2021


I have been walking the streets of Geylang for close to a decade now. As much as it is a destination for a gluttonous excursion, and, if that isn’t sinful enough for the disreputable indulgences that Geylang has gained a certain notoriety for, the district’s main roads and numerous lorong-lorong (lanes) running off the main streets, are also full of colour — having been spared from the level of development that has robbed much of modern Singapore of character. An amazing array of religious institutions and houses of worship exist in the area, which has also become an abode for many transient workers. There is certainly no shortage of what the explorer and the photographer in me can take joy in. Here are some of what I have captured of Geylang, seen in quite different light, in fifty photographs:


1 | Seeing the light | 14 Nov 2014
Geylang is possibly home to Singapore’s largest concentration of religious institutions. This photograph shows one of them, the Masjid Khadijah and particularly its minaret, brought to prominence by the light of the rising sun as dark rain clouds cast a shadow on Geylang Road.
2 | Playing with Fire | 11 Sep 2016
The Mun San Fook Tuck Chee temple, a temple with more than a century of history and is threatened by redevelopment, lies off Sims Drive and what used to be an extension of Geylang’s Lorong 17. One of its traditions, albeit relatively recently introduced in the 1980s, is the fire dragon dance – for more information on the dance, and the temple, do click on the photograph.
3 | Rain Coloured Streets | 16 Nov 2016
The rain-coloured Geylang Road.
4 | Seeing the light II | 11 Oct 2018
Like much of Singapore, Geylang Road is constantly under repair and maintenance. This sometimes presents rather unique opportunities for the photographer.
5 | Breakfast / Fast Break | 7 Jun 2019
Home to many migrant workers, Geylang comes to life almost as soon as its nocturnal side comes to a rest,
6 | Light and Shadow | 16 Oct 2018
Patrons at a coffeeshop partially illuminated by the light of the rising sun.
7 | Restocking | 26 Sep 2018
Breakfast time at a metal section supplier — just after the day’s supply of hollow metal sections of various cross-sectional shapes have been delivered.
8 | Shelter from the Storm | 8 Aug 2018
A five-foot-way illuminated by the neon signs of the Buddhist Art Centre.
9 | The Rain Again | 16 Nov 2016
10 | Lorong 34 | 17 Jan 2018
A view down Lorong 34, one of Geylang’s prettier lorong-lorong.
11 | Lorong 34 II | 26 Jul 2019
A set of pretty conservation shophouses along Lorong 34 – seen in the morning light,
12 | Old Made New | 20 Jun 2012
“Conservation” work to turn shophouses along Lorong 41 into The Lotus.
13 | Green Lane | 1 Oct 2018
Geylang may be greener than you think!
14 | Survivor | 17 Jan 2018
Hidden in Geylang’s lorong-lorong are a few survivors of Geylang’s past.
15 | Survivor II | 30 Aug 2017
Another house temple, this one set in a compound house that is a reminder not only of Geylang’s past, but also of a rural Singapore that we no longer see.
16 | A New Old World | 30 Aug 2017
A replica of a two-storey conservation bungalow that was demolished by the developer of a condominium at 5 Lorong 26. A photograph of the actual bungalow can be viewed by clicking on the photograph.
17 | A New World in an Old | 22 Jun 2012
A view of a conservation shophouse along Lorong 24A – from another.
18 | Back Alley Colours | 11 Jun 2012
Geylang’s back lanes can be especially colourful.
19 | SG50 | 7 Sep 2015
A lorong dressed up for National Day.
20 | Reflections on Geylang | 14 Nov 2014
A reflection of Geylang Road off a bus window.
21 | Portals into the Past | 18 Oct 2018
Night soil ports seen in a Geylang back lane.
22 | Backstage Colours | 10 Mar 2016
Backstage at a Cantonese opera performance at the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee temple.
23 | Backstage Colours II | 10 Mar 2016
A Cantonese opera performer at the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee temple.
24 | Off to School | 9 Oct 2016
A grandparent accompanying a child to school — Geylang is also home to many families.
25 | Against the Tide| 23 Feb 2016
Another set of rules does seem to apply in Geylang.
26 | Seeing No Light | 7 Sep 2015
The day begins when the night has not ended for some.
27 | Festive Light | 23 Jan 2017
Bee Cheng Hiang opening early for the Chinese New Year shopper.
28 | Painted Face | 23 Feb 2016
One of the most photographed corners of Geylang.
29 | Door Guardians | 22 Oct 2018
Entrance to a temple in Geylang.
30 | Stairway to Heaven| 12 Jan 2017
A long vacant house that has recently been renovated.
31 | Kopitiam | 9 Oct 2018
An early morning Geylang coffeeshop scene.
32 | A Different Light | 25 Oct 2014
Inside a conservation shophouse along Lorong 24A.
33 | Crossing | 16 Oct 2018
Madrasah Al-Ma’arif students crossing Geylang Road.
34 | Teamwork| 26 Sep 2018
Unloading a delivery truck.
35 | Light of a New Day | 26 Sep 2018
With an east-west alignment, Geylang Road is well positioned to welcome the new day.
36 | Milestone | 1 May 2014
The last mile(stone) — a reminder of days when roads were marked with milestones. The milestone was removed by the National Heritage Board in 2014 and is now in the Heritage Conservation Centre.
37 | Upward Spiral | 22 Nov 2018
Colourful reminders of the “back lane” scheme in Singapore.
38 | Overgrowth | 17 May 2018
Conservation in Geylang often involves the addition of taller apartment blocks — within height limits – to the rear of conservation shophouses.
39 | Pretty in Pink | 30 Aug 2017
Geylang Road was once lined with private residences such as this bungalow — built possibly c. 1920. This is now used as a hotel.
40 | Takeaway | 15 Jan 2015
Members of the migrant workforce waiting for transport by the roadside, seen with packets of takeaway food bought from Geylang’s enterprising food vendors, many of whom open before the sun rises.
41 | Backend | 17 May 2018
Much of the Geylang’s streetscape is dominated by conservation shophouses.
42 | Rush Hour| 22 Nov 2018
Geylang’s bus-stops are especially busy during morning rush hour. The pillars of shophouses by the bus stops serve as convenient advertising board for accommodation and services that the transient population in Geylang may require.
43 | A Geylang Tragedy I| 9 Mar 2017
The Huang Clan house, which has since been demolished for a residential development. The house was where the “Father of Modern Chinese Art”, Xu Beihong, painted some of his most famous works, whilst a guest at the clan house in the 1930s. Some of the paintings, which expressed Xu’s anti-Japanese sentiments, were hidden away in Han Wai Toon’s rambutan orchard in Upper Thomson (now Thomson Nature Park).
44 | A Geylang Tragedy II | 9 Mar 2017
The former house of a Banjarese diamond merchant, which was earmarked for conservation but had deteriorated to a point that it is being rebuilt as part of a new residential development.
45 | Spillover | 18 Oct 2018
A worker getting preparing for the work day in a Geylang back lane.
46 | Gatepost Guardian| 2 Oct 2015
The qilin is commonly seen across the district.
47 | Unclothed| 15 Feb 2016
A break in the plaster of a shophouse exposing the red bricks — possibly from the kilns of the Geylang area — used in its construction.
48 | Rush Hour II | 15 Feb 2016
Geylang’s bus-stops during the morning rush hour are often very photographable.
49 | The Promised Land| 26 Jul 2019
All roads lead to a new residential development, or so it seems.
50 | Seeing the Light II | 15 Nov 2018
Masjid Khadijah in the light of another new day.





Parting Glances: the slow boat to Penang

30 12 2020

There is something magical about the Penang ferry. Much like stepping onto one of the passenger ferries crossing Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, the magic is perhaps how time seems to stand absolutely still from the moment one drives onto a ferry to or from Penang for the twenty minutes or so that the journey takes.

A ferry making the crossing to Penang island at sunrise.

Sadly, the ferries — at least how I knew them — are being retired at the end of December. I would have made a long drive up to Penang just to have a last ride on one if not for the current restrictions on travel. Not having been able to do that, I am thankful that I did take a few photographs the last time I found myself on a Penang ferry in June 2016, some of which I will be including in this post.

A ferry approaching George Town.

A ferry service between Penang and the mainland has apparently been around since 1893/94. That was introduced at a time when the motorcar had not been seen in this part of the world. The first vehicle ferries were only introduced on 1 May 1925. Two lighters, onto which vehicles could be loaded onto were initially used, each pulled by a steam powered boat. A third craft, the Seberang — the first to be purposed built for the service and which had been on order with the Singapore Harbour Board’s (SHB) dockyard at Keppel — was added at the end of the same year. The Seberang, which had a length of 116′ and a beam of 22′, had a capacity of up to five vehicles and up to some 300 passengers.

Two ferries going in opposite directions.

The phenomenal growth in motorcar traffic across the channel, which doubled in the first year of operation, saw to orders for two larger vessels placed wth the SHB in 1928. The two, the SS Kulim and SS Tanjong, with a length of 128′ and a beam of 31′ had a capacity of 16 cars and 360 passengers.

The Penang Bridge, which was completed in the 1980s. The bridge is one of two that takes the bulk of the road traffic making the crossing between Penang and the mainland.

With two bridges linking the mainland to Penang island, taking up the bulk of vehicular traffic, it would only have been a matter of time that the vehicle carrying ferry service would eventually outlive its purpose. With the condition of the current fleet of vehicular ferries, which were built from 1975 to 2002 deteriorating, the vehicle ferry service will be withdrawn just a few years short of 100th year of operation. What will replace the aging roll-on/roll-off ferries will be faster and perhaps cheaper to operate passenger only ferries that lack the charm and grace of the old slow boats to Penang.

The vehicle deck.
The passenger deck.

More photographs taken in 2016: