The synagogue at Belle Vue

19 10 2012

One of the wonderful things about Singapore is the diverse cultural and religious practices, some modified with time, some influenced by the environment, but many that remain distinct reflecting the many lands far and wide from which immigrants to Singapore have arrived from. Besides the myriad of festivals that seem to go on all year around, this diversity is also reflected in its architectural heritage – some 28 of its 64 National Monuments are places of worship which are very much in use today.

A page from religious diversity of Singapore – a Sefer Torah at the Chesed-El Synagogue.

Two of the 64 that I had an opportunity to visit during a recent Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB) walking tour were the Hong San See Temple and the Chesed-El Synagogue. The Hong San See or Temple on Phoenix Hill is one that I already am familiar with from a previous visit. A magnificent and beautifully restored example of Fujian Lam Ann (Nan’an) religious architecture, its last restoration effort from 2007 to 2009 earned a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2010. More information on the temple can be found in my previous post The Temple on Phoenix Hill.

The Chesed-El Synagogue at Oxley Rise was one of two religious monuments I recently had an opportunity to see as part of a Monumental Walking Tour organised by the PMB.

The main motivation for my participation in the tour was more for the opportunity it provided to visit a synagogue as I had never in stepped into one. While there are two such places of worship in Singapore, such opportunities are rare, especially due to more recent security concerns and this provided me with a look of what it was like behind the façade of a religious building belonging to a small and sometimes lesser known local community which has made a significant contribution to Singapore.

Opportunities to visit a synagogue are rare especially with more recent security concerns.

A look beyond the Chesed-El’s façade. The wooden pulpit or bimah is seen in the centre of the hall with the ahel or ark at the end.

The Jews in Singapore have certainly made a huge contribution to its development with many notable names through Singapore’s history, members of the community. One of its prominent members in the early days of Singapore was a certain Sir Manasseh Meyer, a highly successful businessman and property owner, who counted among his properties, the Sea View Hotel and the Adelphi Hotel, lending his name to Meyer Road. It was also Manasseh Meyer who built the Chesed-El, Singapore’s second synagogue (after Maghain Aboth in Waterloo Street).

Participants on the walking tour had a chance to look at the second of two synagogues in Singapore.

The Chesed-El completed in 1905 on Manasseh Meyer’s sprawling estate in Oxley Rise, Belle Vue, was designed by Regent Alfred John Bidwell of architectural frim Swan & Maclaren (which was responsible for many of the monumental works of architecture in Singapore) in the Palladian style. What had prompted Manasseh Meyer to build Chesed-El, which translates as the “bountiful mercy and goodness of God” were differences of opinions which members of the community from differing backgrounds had at the Maghain Aboth, which was built as a private synagogue.

The synagogue was completed in 1905.

The building was built in the grand Palladian style.

Besides providing the opportunity to have a look into the synagogue, the visit also allowed a better appreciation of the layout of a synagogue. Placed in a westward facing direction to Judaism’s eternal city, Jerusalem, a wooden pulpit rises at centre of the hall. The pulpit or bimah, is where prayers where the rabbi leads the prayers, and where the Torah scrolls (Sefer Torah) are placed and read during services.

The entrance to the synagogue.

A closer look at the bimah.

The entrance and the balconies on the upper gallery.

Inside the lower gallery.

A reminder.

The visit also allowed us a peek at the upper gallery where the women are kept separated from the men during services. The balconies on the upper gallery feature iron work that we were told were imported from Scotland which provided an appreciation of the effort taken in the building of the house of worship for the greater glory of the Maker.

The balconies on the upper gallery, reserved for women, feature beautifully crafted ironwork imported from Scotland.

The staircase to the upper gallery.

A view through an arch on the upper gallery.

The women’s perspective.

A quiet room on the upper gallery.

Another view from the upper gallery.

The upper gallery.

The highlight of the visit was a close-up look we had at Sefer Torah as well as a look into the holiest part of the synagogue, the ark or ahel – a room where the Sefer Torahs are stored. The sefers or scrolls are made from specially handwritten parchment and are ones donated by members of the congregation, and includes one that is a hundred years old.

The ahel at the front end of the hall is behind three curtains.

A rabbi opening a Sefer Torah.

A hundred year old Sefer Torah in the ahel.

Floor tiles.

The ahel’s entrances are covered by a curtain or parochet.

Ironwork above the ahel.

The look at the synagogue was one that provided not only an insight into the religious practices of a small but important community in Singapore, but also one which offered a window into the role the many successful immigrants who came from far and wide played in building and supporting their respective communities. It is these communities which have provided the foundation on which Singapore’s success is built and which makes Singapore that wonderful celebration of cultures and religions that it is today.

The grounds of the synagogue.


Resources on the Jewish Community, Sir Manasseh Meyer and the Chesed-El Synagogue:

Jewish Community in Singapore (on The Jewish Community of Singapore)
Jewish Community in Singapore (on The Jewish Times Asia)
Sir Manasseh Meyer (on infopedia)
Chesed-El Synagogue (on infopedia)
Chesed-El Synagogue (on The Jewish Community of Singapore)
Chesed-El Synagogue (on PMB’s website)


Advertisements




Order out of the chaos on Hill Street

8 06 2011

The Preservations of Monuments Board (PMB) would be conducting a series of 20 Mounmental Walking Tours of Singapore’s National Monuments in the civic and cultural district during the weekends commencing Saturday 11th June up until the end of July, with an intended aim of bringing history to the whole family. I had the opportunity to have a special preview of the upcoming tours yesterday morning as part of a group yesterday made up of members of the mainstream which was led by Volunteer Guide Ms Jill Wong, during which we were given not just an insight into two of the monuments covered, but also into the background and history of the public institutions that the two monuments were built to house.

The PMB is organising Monumental Walking Tours starting 11th June 2011.

At the starting point of the brief tour, now a pavement outside Funan Centre, which is directly opposite the first of the two monuments we were to cover, the Central Fire Station, we were transported by our guide Jill into a very different Singapore. It was a Singapore of the early years where large gangs of Chinamen with darkened faces had, in the darkness of night, created mischief on the first streets or a new and fast growing colony, taking advantage perhaps of the lack of order that the Singapore of today has come to be known for. It was a Singapore that struggled to cope with the pressures of sudden urbanisation, as the colony grew around the first paved street, High Street, just a stone’s throw away from where we stood, listening to Jill. Indeed, it was a Singapore or “Sin-Galore” as it was known then where chaos had reigned, and one in desperate need for the public institutions that the monuments we were to learn about that morning (the other being the former Hill Street Police Station and now MICA Building), were built to house – hence the name of the tour “Order out of Chaos” from which I borrowed the title of this post.

The Central Fire Station, completed in 1909, features a 110 feet high watchtower which also served as a hose-drying tower.

One of the public institutions that was certainly sorely needed on the congested streets was a fire brigade, which the Central Fire Station was later built to serve. It was only some fifty years after the founding of modern Singapore that the first brigade was formed – a volunteer fire brigade in 1869, developing into a professional outfit close to two decades later. Even with the establishment of a professional force of fire-fighters, the fire brigade was still ill-equipped and ill-prepared to deal with many situations that arose, a fact highlighted by a news article in the 24th September 1890 edition Straits Times (excerpts of which can be found below) relating to a fire on Hock Lam Street – which had once met Hill Street at right angles at the very spot on the pavement on which we stood, which Jill read from. The article makes for interesting reading and in it we are told of a crowd that had gathered to witness a fire that had broken out at a house at No. 8 Hock Lam Street, which, “had the pleasure of watching a fire work its own way without let or hindrance”. What comes out from the article is that it took an hour before water could be doused on the fire, having been delayed partly by the inability of the fire-fighters to locate hydrants on a street just across from where they were based.

Volunteer Guide Ms Jill Wong describing the construction of the Central Fire Station.

The construction of the red and white fire station which was completed in 1909, a National Monument gazetted in December 1998 and the most recognisable in Singapore, represented a change in fortunes of the fire brigade, having being prompted by the arrival of the first professionally trained Superintendent of the Fire Brigade, Montague William Pett from England in 1905. The construction also prompted a modernisation of the brigade’s equipment with motorised fire engines being introduced, which is evident in the various size of exit doors of the station. The station, with its distinctive red and white brick façade, a style often described as “blood and bandages”, also features a 110 feet high watch tower, which when was the tallest structure in the city when it was built, providing a vantage from which a 24 hour watch could then be kept over the city. It also served as a hose drying tower – a feature in many fire stations. The station was later expanded, with a new wing added as well as quarters expanded on land purchased at the corner of Hill Street and Coleman Street from the Chinese Girls’ School which moved to Emerald Hill in the 1920s.

A feature of the pavement outside the Central Fire Station that was explained is that there is no kerb where it meets the road allowing it to be flushed for the passage of emergency vehicles coming out of the station.

The second (and last) stop in the short introductory tour was the former Hill Street Police Station, a six storey Neo-Classical styled building designed by PWD Chief Architect Frank Dorrington Ward completed in 1934, which was also gazetted as a National Monument at the same time as the Central Fire Station. Where the fire station is still used in a function that the building was built for, the Hill Street Police Station is now used by the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA). The building, when built, was an imposing structure which was described as the “Police Skyscraper” and was in fact the largest structure in Malaya. The building featured two open courtyards (now enclosed by a glass roof) and numerous windows (that one can’t help but notice) that opened to the outside as well as into the courtyards, giving the rooms in the building a airy and bright feel – a feature of Frank Dorrington Ward designed municipal buildings. The structure besides serving a function as a police station, also provided housing to policemen and their families with accommodation for up to a thousand people.

Another, an imposing structure that, at the time of its completion, was the largest man made structure in Malaya.

The once largest structure in Malaya, despite being dwarfed by the modern buildings that have come up in the area, is still pretty imposing.

The once open-air courtyard of the former Hill Street Police Station is now encased by a glass roof.

The construction of the building, built at a cost of $494,000, had in the case of the fire station, heralded a change of fortunes for the force, which started as a police force of 12 men in 1820 who weren’t, we were told, too well paid – a combined monthly salary of some $300 was put together by William Farquhar raised through licensing fee for the sale of opium and liquor. The force had apparently attracted the likes of desperate men, stranded sailors for one, seeking a means to obtain money for a passage home, and was poorly equipped unitl the 1930s when improved funding allowed the force was expanded to some 2000 and modern equipment to be introduced. Our attention was also drawn to a series of wall mounted information panels at the second smaller courtyard which provided some of the history of the building as well as provided insights into how life in the separate quarters for the families of the rank and file and the senior policemen was. All in all it was certainly an hour well spent, allowing me to discover more of the monuments in question and some of the conditions that existed when they were built as well as learning a little more on the history of Singapore. Information on the series of Monumental Walking Tours that the PMB has organised can be found below, as well as on the PMB’s website.

A feature of Frank Dorrington Ward designed buildings is the light and airy feel in interiors ventilated and brightened by generous windows which even in the less colourful days of the building, never goes unnoticed.

The Neo-Classical style is commonly seen in municipal buildings in Singapore and has features such as symmetry, the use of columns and pediments such as is seen over the main entrance of the former Hill Street Police Station.



PMB Media Release:

LEARN ABOUT HISTORY THE MONUMENTAL WAY
Monumental Walking Tours and My Monumental Playground offer fun for the whole family

7 June 2011 – History comes alive for the whole family as the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB) launches 20 new Monumental Walking Tours of Singapore’s National Monuments in the civic and cultural district and My Monumental Playground at the Esplanade Park Memorials.

Monumental Walking Tours
Presented with distinct storylines and unique perspectives, Monumental Walking Tours cast our National Monuments in a new light, weaving in stories of Singapore’s diverse immigrant communities. The 20 tours, conducted in English, will be introduced each weekend from 11 June to end July. Along with two existing tours, these will form PMB’s stable of Monumental Walking Tours which will be offered weekly for the rest of the year. Leading the tours are PMB’s adult Volunteer Guides and student Monument Ambassadors who have a strong background and interest in heritage. For the month of June, the Monumental Walking Tours will be available at a special rate of $5 per adult and will feature colonial buildings such as The Arts House and Peranakan Museum.

My Monumental Playground
Specially planned for the little ones, My Monumental Playground will reveal little-known facts about the Esplanade Memorials through storytelling sessions, silent precision drill performances, a treasure hunt and more. Held on 11 and 12 June, this event is part of Children’s Season 2011. Through these exciting events, PMB hopes to develop greater public interest and appreciation for Singapore’s 64 National Monuments. More information on the upcoming events can be found Annexes, and members of the public can refer to www.pmb.sg.

PMB Monumental Walking Tour and My Monumental Playground Programmes:

Administrative Information

Monumental Walking Tour Programme 11th – 12th June 2011

Monumental Walking Tour Programme 18th – 26th June 2011

Monumental Walking Tour Programme to be released in July 2011

My Monumental Playground



Excerpts from the article “Fire on Hocklam Street” from the 24th September 1890 edition of the Straits Times:

“About 9.30 p.m. a fire began in a house No. 8 Hocklam Street, and a crowd immediately commenced to gather and found that they had the pleasure of watching a fire work its own way without let or hindrance. Very soon Chief Inspector Jennings arrived, and pending the arrival of the fire engines did all he could, i.e. watched the crowd. At 10 o’clock the fire had obtained complete possession of the house, and the flames lapped round the casements, and mounted high into the air illuminating the whole town”.

The article goes on to describe how the crowd had admired the uniform of the superintendent as he watched on horseback as the fire made its progress, with water arriving only an hour after the fire by which time No. 8 and 9 were “completely gutted” and added that the “organisation did not know where the nearest hydrants were situated” in spite of the “barracks of the Fire Brigade” being “in the same street as, and exactly opposite to, the burnt houses”.