Sungei Road, a last reflection

10 07 2017

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

A last reflection on the bazaar.

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

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

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


Last reflections, Sungei Road

Displacement


 

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

21 06 2017

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

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



 





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

6 06 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A dynamite store that used by a nearby quarry.

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

Latex dripping into a clay latex cup.

Remains of narrow necked enzyme bottles used in rubber processing.


Other rubbery posts:


More views around the western end of Pulau Ubin

An abandoned well.

Coconut shells were also utilised as latex cups.

The OBS Reservoir.

A beach on the southwestern shoreline of Ubin.

A solitary tomb of a Madam Goh.

Remains of an old communal stove.

A shrine built in 1979.

Another of the shrine.






1972, when the Concorde first flew over Singapore

28 02 2017

Singapore had a brief love affair with the Concorde. Arguably the only supersonic passenger aircraft to be successfully deployed, a London to Singapore was operated by its National airline, Singapore Airlines, in partnership with British Airways for a few years at the end of the 1970s. The aircraft’s first flight over Singapore however, goes back to 1972, a year that was especially memorable for several events.  I came across a wonderful photograph of that first flight some years back, one that in freezing the Concorde over a Singapore that in 1972 was at the cusp of its own reach for the skies, captured the lofty aspirations of the aircraft’s developers and of the city seen below it

An amazing view of Concorde 002 over the old city. The city 45 years ago, was seeing several of its first generation skyscrapers coming up. Some of the iconic buildings seen in this photograph include the former MSA (later SIA) Building, former Robina House, and a partially completed 3rd Ocean Building (now replaced by the Ocean Financial Centre) (photo souce: online at http://www.concordesst.com/).

The photo of Concorde 002 over the old city centre of Singapore during its month-long demonstration tour of the Far East in June 1972 (online at http://www.concordesst.com/).

1972 was the year I was in Primary 2. I was seven, going on eight, ten months older than the newly independent Singapore, and at an age when any machine that sped were about the coolest things on earth. I was also finding out that going to school in the afternoon was quite a chore. Unlike the morning session I was in the previous year, there was little time for distractions and TV. School days were just about tolerable only because of the football time it could provide before classes started each day and unlike the previous school year, great excitement seemed to come only away from school, and the highlight of the year would be one that I would have to skip, “ponteng” in the language used among my classmates, school for.

A friendly game between two great  primary school football rivals - St. John's Island School and St. Michael's School in the 1970s. 

Football was very much part of the culture at St. Michael’s School, the primary school I attended.

The buzz the Concorde created, even before it came to Singapore in June of the year, left a deep impression with the boys I kept company with and the paper planes we made featured folded-down noses that resembling the Concorde’s droop nose – even if it made they seemed less able to fly. I was fortunate to also see the real McCoy making a descent at Paya Lebar Airport, one that was much more graceful than any of the imitations I made. I have to thank an uncle who was keen enough to brave the crowds that had gathered at the airport’s waving gallery for that opportunity. The event was a significant one and took place in a year that was especially significant for civil aviation in Singapore with the split of Malaysia-Singapore Airlines or MSA, jointly operated by the two countries taking place in the background. The split would see the formation of Mercury Singapore Airlines on 24 January to fly Singapore’s flag. The intention had been to ride on the established MSA name, which was not too well received on the Malaysian side, prompting the renaming of the new MSA to Singapore Airlines (SIA) on 30 June 1972, a point from which the airline has never looked back.

What might have been.

What might have been.

The building that housed MSA and later SIA is prominent in the 1972 photograph, the MSA Building. Completed in 1968, the rather iconic MSA and later SIA Building was one built at the dawn of the city’s age of the skyscraper. The building was a pioneer in many other ways and an early adopter of the pre-fab construction technique. A second building in the photograph that also contributed to frenzy was the third Ocean Building, then under construction. The Ocean was to be the home of another company that was very much a part of Singapore’s civil aviation journey: the Straits Steamship Company. It was during the time of the already demolished Ocean Building that preceded the third that the company set up Malayan Airways in 1937. The airlines, which would only take off in 1947, became Malaysian Airways in 1963, and then MSA in 1965. The company, a household name in shipping, is now longer connected with sea or air transport in its current incarnation as Keppel Land. Other buildings marking the dawn of the new age seen in the photograph include the uncompleted Robina House and Shing Kwang House, and also a DBS Building in the early stages of erection.

The fast growing city, seen at ground level in 1972 (Jean-Claude Latombe, online at http://ai.stanford.edu/~latombe/)

The fast growing city, seen at ground level in 1972 (Jean-Claude Latombe, online at http://ai.stanford.edu/~latombe/)

The new Ocean Building in July 1974 (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

The completed third Ocean Building (left), seen in July 1974 (photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

It was several months prior to the the Concorde’s flight and just four weeks into school, that I would find myself skipping classes for what was to be the highlight of the year and of my childhood: the visit of the Queen, Elizabeth II of England, Price Phillip, and Princess Anne, to the 3-room Toa Payoh flat I had called home. As its was in the case of several other visiting dignitaries, Her Majesty’s programme included a visit to the rooftop viewing gallery of the Housing and Development Board’s first purpose-built “VIP block”. The gallery was where a view of the incredible success Singapore had in housing the masses could be taken in and a visit to a flat often completed such a visit and living in one strategically placed on the top floor of the VIP block had its advantages. Besides the Royal family, who were also taken to a rental flat on the second floor of Block 54 just behind the VIP block, Singapore’s first Yang di-Pertuan Negara and last colonial Governor, Sir William Goode, also dropped by in 1972. The flat also saw the visits of two other dignitaries. One was John Gorton, Prime Minister of Australia in 1968 and the other, Singapore’s second president, Benjamin Henry Sheares, and Mrs Sheares in 1971.

The kitchen during the Queen's visit.

The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne, in the kitchen of my flat on 18 February 1972.

The Queen at the Viewing Gallery on the roof of Block 53 Toa Payoh

The Queen at the Viewing Gallery on the roof of Block 53 Toa Payoh on 18 February 1972.

One thing being in the afternoon session developed was the taste I acquired for epok-epok, fried curry puffs that are usually potato filled. Sold by a man who came around on a bicycle at dismissal time, the pastries that he vended – out of a tin carried on the bicycle – were ones to die for. They were made especially tasty the vendor’s special chilli-sauce  “injected” in with a spout tipped bottle and well worth going hungry at recess time, to have the 10 cents the purchase required, for. Being in the afternoon session, also meant that the rides home from school on the minibus SCB 388, were often in the heavy traffic. The slow crawl, often accompanied by the deep vocals of Elvis Presley playing in the bus’ cartridge player, permitted an observation of the progress that was being made in building Toa Payoh up. Much was going on in 1972 with the SEAP games Singapore was to host in 1973 just around the corner. Toa Payoh’s town centre, also the games village, was fast taking shape.

A view over the area in the early 1970s when Toa Payoh New Town was taking shape. The school can be seen in the lower left of the photo with Times Building then occupying the other part of the former quarry site.

A view over Toa Payoh around 1972.

Toa Payoh’s evolving landscape stood in stark contrast to its surroundings. To its south, across the Whampoa River, was Balestier – where suburbia might have ended before Toa Pyaoh’s rise. That still held its mix of old villas, shophouses, and a sprinkling of religious sites. The view north on the other hand was one of the grave scattered landscape of Peck San Teng, today’s Bishan, as would possibly have been the view west, if not for the green wall of sparsely developed elevations. On one of the hills, stood Toa Payoh Hospital, in surroundings quite conducive to rest and recovery. Potong Pasir to Toa Payoh’s east had still a feel of the country. Spread across what were the low lying plains that straddled one of Singapore’s main drainage channels, the Kallang River, the area was notorious for the huge floods that heavy rains would bring. When the area wasn’t submerged, it was one of green vegetable plots and the zinc topped structures of dwellings and livestock pens.

The grave dominated landscape north of Toa Payoh - with a view towards Toa Payoh (online at https://i1.wp.com/news.asiaone.com/sites/default/files/styles/w641/public/original_images/Nov2014/sgtowns_26.jpg)

The grave dominated landscape north of Toa Payoh – with a view towards Toa Payoh (SPH photo, online at http://news.asiaone.com/).

Potong Pasir (and Braddell Road) during the big flood of 1978.

Potong Pasir (and Braddell Road) during the big flood of 1978 (PUB photo).

Another main drainage channel, the Singapore River, was a point of focus for the tourism drive of 1972, during which two white statues came up. Representations perhaps of the past and the future, the first to come up was of a figure from its colonial past. The statue of Raffles, placed at a site near Empress Place at which Singapore’s founder was thought to have first came ashore, was unveiled in February. The second, was the rather peculiar looking Merlion and a symbol perhaps of new Singapore’s confused identity. This was unveiled at the river’s mouth in September. A strangest of would be National symbols and with little connection to Singapore except for its head of a lion, the animal Singapore or Singapura was named after, the creature was made up in a 1964 tourism board initiated effort. Despite its more recent origins, the statue has come to be one that tourists and locals alike celebrate and that perhaps has set the tone for how Singapore as a destination is being sold.

The View from the Esplanade towards the open sea at the mouth of the Singapore River in 1976. The Merlion in the background, is seen at its original location at the mouth of the river.

The Merlion at its original position at the mouth of the Singapore River (seen here in 1976).

An icon of a developing and newly independent Singapore, the Merlion, stares at the icons of the new Singapore across a body of water that played an important role in Singapore's development.

The Merlion at its position today, staring at the icons of the new Singapore.

1972 was a year that has also to be remembered for the wrong reasons. Externally, events such as the tragic massacre of Israeli Olympians in Munich, brought much shock and horror as did the happenings closer to home in Indochina. There were also reasons for fear and caution in Singapore. Water, or the shortage of it was very much at the top of the concerns here with the extended dry spell having continued from the previous year. There were also many reasons to fear for one’s safety with the frequent reports of murders, kidnappings and shootouts, beginning with the shooting to death of an armed robber, Yeo Cheng Khoon, just a week into the year.

The darkest of the year’s headlines would however be of a tragedy that seemed unimaginable – especially coming just as the season of hope and joy was to descend. On 21 November, a huge fire swept through Robinson’s Department Store at Raffles Place in which nine lives were lost. The devastating fire also deprived the famous store of its landmark Raffles Place home and prompted its move to Orchard Road.  This perhaps also spelled the beginning of the end for Singapore’s most famous square. In a matter of one and a half decades, the charm and elegance that had long marked it, would completely be lost.

Christmas Decorations from a Simpler Time - Robinson's at Raffles Place, 1966

Robinson’s at Raffles Place, 1966.

The burnt shell of Robinson's(SPH photo online at http://www.tnp.sg/)

The burnt shell of Robinson’s (SPH photo online at http://www.tnp.sg/)

Another tragic incident was the 17 September shooting of the 22-year-old Miss Chan Chee Chan at Queensway. While the shooting took place around midday, it was only late in the day that medical staff attending to  Miss Chan realised that she had been shot. A .22 calibre rifle bullet, lodged in her heart, was only discovered after an x-ray and by that time it was too late to save her.

Just as the year had started, shootouts would be bring 1972 to a close in which four of Singapore’s most wanted men were killed. At the top of the list was Lim Ban Lim. Armed and dangerous and wanted in connection with the killing of a policeman, a series of armed robberies on both sides of the Causeway, Lim was ambushed by the police at Margaret Drive on 24 November and shot dead. Over a nine-year period, Lim and his accomplices got away with a total of S$2.5 million. An accomplice, Chua Ah Kau escaped the ambush. He would however take his own life following a shootout just three weeks later on 17 December. Having taken two police bullets in the confrontation near the National Theatre, Chua turned the gun on himself.

The case that had Singapore on tenterhooks due to the one and a half month trail of violence and terror left by the pair of gunmen involved, would play itself out just the evening before the gunfight involving Chua. It was one that I remember quite well from the manner in which the episode was brought to a close in the dark and seemingly sinister grounds of the old Aljunied al-Islamiah cemetery at Jalan Kubor. The trigger-happy pair, Abdul Wahab Hassan and his brother Mustapha, crime spree included gun running, armed robbery, gunfights with the police, hostage taking and daring escapes from custody (Abdul Wahab’s from Changi Prison and Mustapha’s from Outram Hospital). Cornered at the cemetery on 16 December and with the police closing in, Abdul Wahab shot and killed his already injured brother and then turned the gun on himself.

A view from the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery across to the Kampong Glam conservation area.

The Aljunied Al-Islamiah Cemetery off Jalan Kubor and Victoria Street, where two gunmen met their deaths in 1972.

Besides the deaths of the four, quite a few more armed and dangerous men were also shot and injured as a result of confrontations with the police. A 23 December 1972 report in the New Nation put the apparent rise in shootouts to the training the police had received to “shoot from the hip, FBI style”. The spate of crimes involving the use of firearms would prompt the enactment of the Arms Offences Act in 1973, which stipulates a mandatory death penalty for crimes that see the use of or the attempt to use a firearm to cause injury.

The tough measures may possibly have had their impact. The use firearms in crimes is now much less common. This has also brought about an increased the sense of safety in Singapore, as compared to 1972. Many who grew up in that age will remember being warned repeatedly of the dangers on the streets, particularly of being kidnapped. The same warnings are of course just as relevant today, but the threat was one that could be felt. Many stories of children disappearing off the streets were in circulation and that heightened the sense of fear. While many could be put down to rumour, there was at least one case of a child being abducted from a fairground, that I knew to be true. There were also many reports of actual kidnappings in the news, including one very high profile case in 1972 that saw the abduction of a wealthy Indonesian businessman. The businessman was released only after a ransom was paid.


Singapore in 1972:






11 July 2017, the day the Thieves of Sungei Road will be executed

14 02 2017

The once bustling flea market, known to me as “Robinson Petang” – Afternoon Robinson’s or simply as Sungei Road in my younger days, will soon be more of a distant memory. Come the 11th of July this year, the too little that is still left, will disappear and never again return when the free-hawking zone that today’s traders are operating in gets shut down (10 July will be its last day).

Thieves Market today, a pale shadow of Robinson Petang in its heyday.

Thieves Market today, a pale shadow of Robinson Petang in its heyday.

An aerial view of a part of Singapore that is in the midst of huge changes. The market is seen in the lower part of the photo.

An aerial view of a part of Singapore that is in the midst of huge changes. The market is seen in the lower part of the photo.

Resembling a shanty town with its makeshift shacks and temporary stalls mixed into shophouse lined streets in its heyday, Robinson Petang had a reputation that spread far and wide – one reputation it also had was the “aroma” that the nearby Rochor Canal gave to the area.  Also known as “Thieves Market”, for a variety of very obvious reasons, it was the place to go to get one’s hands on any pre-loved item imaginable. Many of the goods on offer, which also included unused items, were otherwise rarely found. One of the things I remember my parents’ heading there regularly for at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, was huge glass bottles – which my mum decorated with mosaic and macramé for use as flower vases. There were then lots of other items on offer: antiques (or junk – depending on how one looked at them), electrical goods, surplus army items, and old clothes sold by weight and even new ones that in today’s world are diverted to factory outlet stores. Fake goods were also sold and a joke often shared among friends was that a prized item had been acquired from Sungei Road – thereby suggesting that it wasn’t the real MaCoy. The bazaar, traces its history to the antique trade, which developed its presence in the area in the 1930s, with secondhand goods traders only moving in after the war.

The flea market in its heyday (source: National Archives of Singapore Online).

The flea market in its heyday (source: National Archives of Singapore Online).

The Thieves Market of today bears little resemblance to that Sungei Road. Resettlement and the area’s redevelopment since the 1970s, spelt the end for many of the trades around the area. Many of the area’s hawkers were moved in the 1970s and 1980s, including an exercise in August 1982 intended to put an end to the bazaar for good, following which a handful of 31 licensed rag-and-bone traders were left to ply the remnants of the trade. The bazaar, now centred  on Larut Road and Pitt Street, was designated a free-hawking zone (the only one in Singapore) in the year 2000, opened to traders who were Singapore Citizens or Permanent Residents and sees some 145 to 200 vendors operating on the busier days.

Sungei Road in 1978.

Sungei Road in 1978 (source: National Archives of Singapore Online).

Sungei Road in the late 1980s (source: National Archives of Singapore Online).

Sungei Road in the late 1980s (source: National Archives of Singapore Online).

Sungei Road in the 1980s (source: Mike Fong on 'On a Little Street in Singapore').

Sungei Road in the 1980s (source: Mike Fong on ‘On a Little Street in Singapore’).

A five-foot-way barber in the area - such trades were moved in the 1970s and 1980s (source: Mike Fong on 'On a Little Street in Singapore').

A five-foot-way barber in the area – such trades were moved in the 1970s and 1980s (source: Mike Fong on ‘On a Little Street in Singapore’).

In 2012, the Association for the Recycling of the Second Hand Goods, representing the traders, was informed of the decision to close the free-hawking zone. Despite appeals and attempts by the association to propose alternative sites, a decision was taken by the authorities to only allow flea markets to operated on a non-permanent basis – such as at street bazaars and trade fairs. Reasons given for the decision include the dis-amenities the market creates such as the obstruction and risk mosquito breeding in places traders use for storage. Assistance, including an offer made for the allocation of stalls in a nearby centre, will  be provided to 21 traders who hold a permit as well as to other traders affected.

Letter of appeal submitted by the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods in 2015.

Letter of appeal submitted by the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods in 2015 (source: the Association’s Facebook Page).

The is still a variety of goods on offer.

The is still a variety of goods on offer.

Watch parts are commonly sold.

Watch parts are commonly sold.

It appears that preliminary work for the area’s eventual redevelopment – which based on Master Plan 2014 is reserved for a residential development “with commercial at first storey” with a plot ration of 4.9 – will take place soon after the closure. This work may see the disappearance of a few of the area’s streets including Pitt Street and Larut Road (another road in the area, Pasar Lane, has already disappeared) and with the MRT station that is opening this year, will give the place a completely different complexion and erase a long held memory of the old Robinson Petang, for good.

Plans for future redevelopment (Master Plan 2014). The market is in the area circled.

Plans for future redevelopment (Master Plan 2014). The market is in the area circled.

Larut Road in the 1980s (source: Mike Fong on 'On a Little Street in Singapore').

Larut Road in the 1980s (source: Mike Fong on ‘On a Little Street in Singapore’).

The market today is centred on a shophouse cleared Larut Road and Pitt Street.

The market today is centred on a shophouse cleared Larut Road and Pitt Street. The new MRT station is seen on the top right of the photograph.

More on the market, including photographs and also video documentation carried out by the National Heritage Board, can be found at: https://roots.sg/learn/resources/virtual-tours/sungei-road-flea-market.





Losing its fizz: the third milestone without the former National Aerated Water plant

11 12 2016

It seems that time may finally be called on the former National Aerated Water Company’s bottling plant at 1177 Upper Serangoon Road. Long a landmark at the 3rd Milestone, it sits on a valuable freehold site that has just been sold for quite a tidy sum to a Malaysian developer according to on a report in yesterday’s Straits Times. One of a handful of structures left along a stretch of the Kallang River that recall the river and the area’s rich industrial past.

An icon at the 3rd Milestone.

An icon at the 3rd Milestone (Nov 2016).

Those of my vintage will remember the plant with fondness. Built with hints of an Art Deco influence, it will not only be for its unique and “un-industrial” appearance in the context of the industrial buildings of a more recent age, but also for its production of Kickapoo Joy Juice and Sinalco. Kickapoo in its signature green bottle and inspired by the comic strip Li’l Abner – which had a lengthy run in the local newspapers, was an especially popular choice. Sinalco, of German origin,  might have been less so, but had its fans. A third drink that would be introduced by the plant in the 1970s, Royal Crown or RC Cola, had much less of an impact.

A view through the fence to a reminder of the past.

A view through the fence to a reminder of the past (April 2012).

While one could quite easily miss noticing the row of shophouses just up the road with its stone working shops that catered to the demand for headstones and religious statues from Bidadari cemetery just a mile down the road and an oddly located shop hawking Czechoslovakian Petrof pianos; the factory and another iconic structure nearby, the Serangoon Fire Station, would have caught the attention of most who passed through. The rather notorious Woodsville junction or previously roundabout just down the road, where chaos reigned with its confluence of six major roads, brought traffic to a slow enough crawl, allowing for more than just a cursory glance at the plant.

jeromelim-0054

Locked gates (Nov 2016).

naw-petaling-jaya-2012The factory added its presence in 1954, the same year the National Aerated Water Company had marked its 25th anniversary. The investment, amounting to some S$500,000, gave the company an output to 48,000 bottles a day – more than twice what its previous plant at Hamilton Road could manage (see New $500,000 soft drinks factory opens in Oct, The Straits Times, 23 July 1954). The motivation for the new plant was the exclusive rights the company had won in 1952 to bottle and distribute Sinalco in the region.  Sales of the company’s products grew at a phenomenal rate, increasing 30% year-on-year through the new facility’s first decade. A second plant would built in 1964. Located in Petaling Jaya near the “Rothmans Roundabout”, it catered to the growing demand up north.

A peek inside.

A peek inside (Apr 2012).

Things began however to head south at the end of the 1970s. The death knell for the plant would be sounded in the 1990s when the Kickapoo licensor, Monarch Beverage, cancelled the agreement it had with the company. The company would also face a suit for copyright infringement, which it lost  (see : Infopedia page on the National Aerated Water Company) and the plant ceased production at the end of the 1990s. The site was left abandoned with a clutter of crates and empty bottles at its front yard for what seemed the longest of times.

The front yard cleared of its clutter.

The front yard cleared of its clutter (Apr 2012).

That the buildings are still around has very much to do with the fact that the sale and redevelopment of the site had been prevented by a long standing tussle over shares one of its shareholders, the late Ching Kwong Kuen (see: Ching Chew Weng Paul v Ching Pui Sim and Others [2009] SGHC 277) had placed in trust with one of his brothers and a niece. The Chings, whose roots were in steel work and ship repair business with Kwong Soon Engineering, interests in the bottling company began in 1953. Connected with Kwong Soon Engineering are two other industrial buildings with a non-industrial appearance including a 1933 Art Deco style foundry where it started. Both buildings are still around and found  at Cavan Road, which is just next to Hamilton Road where National Aerated’s first plant had been located.

Kwong Soon Engineering's two buildings at Cavan Road, including its former foundry on the left.

Kwong Soon Engineering’s two buildings at Cavan Road, including its former foundry on the left.

Kwong Soon Engineering, some might remember, made the news in January 1996 when the RV Calypso, the famous mine-sweeper turned research vessel used by the legendary oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, sank at its yard in Tuas. The vessel was hit by a barge that had broken free of its moorings and left under 4.8 metres of water with only part of its superstructure and mast exposed.

Another look at the former foundry.

Another look at the former foundry.

With the privately held site long marked for residential development (with a plot area of 2.8), there seems little chance of anything being kept even if there are renewed calls being made for its conservation.  It will certainly be a shame to lose an icon that has long been part of the area’s identity and representative of a past being too rapidly forgotten to just another towering apartment block the area seems to already have much too much of.

The third milestone is being colonised by towering apartment blocks.

The third milestone is being colonised by towering apartment blocks (Nov 2016).


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Tigers, elephants, rambutans and Xu Beihong in a garden of foolish indulgences

2 12 2016

Hidden in the thick vegetation in the swathe of land between Old Upper Thomson and Upper Thomson Roads are the remains of a forgotten community for whom the area was home. Interestingly, there is a lot more that lies hidden. Interwoven with the story of the lost community are also names, personalities and events that provided the area with a surprising amount of colour.

The remnants of a lost village are found in the forested area between Old Upper Thomson and Upper Thomson Roads.

The remnants of a lost village are found in the forested area between Old Upper Thomson and Upper Thomson Roads.

The stretch of Old Upper Thomson and Upper Thomson Roads is quite famously associated with the Singapore Grand Prix; not the current incarnation of the motoring race, but one that reflected humbler times. While that may be another subject altogether, the are the inevitable links the area and its community has to the event, and one of it is the references to the village at the now lost Jalan Belang as the “Grand Prix kampong”.

A concrete structure in the former “Grand Prix kampong”.

The “belang” in Jalan Belang, which translates in Malay to “stripes” is said to have been a reference to the stripes of a tiger and speculation has it that it may have been due to a tiger having been sighted there. One of two privately built roads in the area, it provided access into the narrow strip from the area of Old Upper Thomson known as the snakes. Another road, the Lorong Pelita (“pelita” is Malay for “oil lamp”) lay further north. Lorong Pelita, it would appear, was quite a fitting name as electricity supply only reached the area in the late 1960s.

A kerosene lamp at Lorong Pelita.

A kerosene lamp at Lorong Pelita.

While the remains of the village do not reveal much of their composition of its residents, it can be seen in the proportions of the concrete and brick structures that have survived, some would have been doing quite well. Interestingly there are also numerous concrete receptacles, large and small – seemingly for collection of rain water – and the conspicuous absence of wells.

A fallen electricity pole at the area where Jalan Belang was.

A fallen electricity pole at the area where Jalan Belang was.

There are lots of water receptacles.

There are lots of water receptacles.

What is perhaps most interesting is the links the land has with a certain Han Wai Toon. Han, a Hainanese immigrant who arrived at our shores in 1915, purchased 2 1/2 acres in 1936 for some $700 and embarked on a quest to cultivate trees that would yield the perfect rambutan – as research by various individuals including architectural historian, Dr. Lai Chee Kien reveals. A 1960 article in the Singapore Free Press, “The Long Search for Better Rambutans” also provides information on this. The orchard, which Han named “Silly Fun Garden”, or as a graphic novel set in the garden written by Oh Yong Hwee and illustrated by Koh Hong Teng, describes it in more poetic language as  “The Garden of Foolish Indulgences”.

There are lost of fruit trees in the area besides the remnants of the Han Rambutan Garden.

There are lost of fruit trees in the area besides the remnants of the Han Rambutan Orhcard.

A sketch of the 'Han Rambutan Orchard' by Lim Mu Hue (Singapore in Global History p. 164).

A sketch of the ‘Han Rambutan Orchard’ by Lim Mu Hue (Singapore in Global History p. 164).

Despite its frivolous sounding name, the garden attracted also serious cultural and artistic exchanges. Amongst its visitors was Xu Beihong, a famous Chinese artist with whom Han shared an interest in Chinese ceramics. One of the artistic works Xu executed during a stay in 1939 was “Put Down Your Whip”, which  fetched a record price for a Chinese art work of US$9.2 million in 2007. The painting, which has a strong anti-Japanese theme, was one of several that were Han had hidden on the grounds of his garden during the Japanese occupation. Another of Xu’s paintings in the stash, “Silly Old Man Moves a Mountain“, sold for US$4.12 million in 2006.

Put Down Your Whip by Xu Beihong.

Put Down Your Whip by Xu Beihong, which sold for a record US$9.2 million in 2007 (source: Wikipedia).

The garden of foolish indulgences?

The garden of foolish indulgences?

Han, who would make a name for himself in the study of art, ceramics and archaeology and was the author of 55 scholarly articles, made a permanent return to China in 1962 before passing away in 1970. Rather interestingly, a discovery attributed to Han during his time at Upper Thomson, was that of a Ming Dynasty Chinese tomb in the area in 1949. The tomb of a certain Chen Chow Guan, provided evidence that Chinese settlement in Singapore and the region went as far back as the 15th century. In addition to the tomb, a cluster of five Teochew graves from the early 19th century was also found by a group of archaeologists that included Han close by. It is not known what has become of the graves.

An edible flower, bunga kantan or torch ginger flower, better known here as rojak flower (its bud is used in the rojak dish).

An edible flower, bunga kantan or torch ginger flower, better known here as rojak flower (its bud is used in the rojak dish).

Yesterday no more.

Yesterday no more.

Those of my generation will probably remember Thai Handicraft, which was on the fringes of the area at Upper Thomson Road, and the family who were associated with it. It was hard to miss its showroom passing in the bus or a car with the attention the huge wooden cravings of elephants standing guard drew to the showroom. The shop, set in from the side of the road, dealt with imports of wooden cravings from Thailand and was owned by the Looi family whose links to the area also extended to the races.

There's pineapple too!

There’s pineapple too!

The location of the shop, which was right by the start and finish point of the Grand Prix circuit, was also where the Loois had operated a motorcycle shop, Looi Motors. The Loois also had racing in their blood and produced two generations of motorcycle racers. One member of the family, Gerry Looi, would become a household name in the motorcycle racing circuit in the 1970s and participated in the latter races of the Singapore Grand Prix with brother Fabian until its last race in 1973. Sadly, Gerry would meet a tragic end doing what he loved most and passed away at the age of 33 in October 1981 –  just a few days after a crash at the Shah Alam circuit had left him in a coma.

A red brick structure in the forest.

A red brick structure in the forest.

The privately held area was last inhabited in the mid-1980s when it was cleared out after its acquisition by the Housing and Development Board. While this would suggest that the intention then had been to give it to public housing, the site – now a wonderful oasis of green having been reclaimed by nature, will be where the future Thomson Nature Park will be. Work on the park will commence next year and is expected to be completed at the end of 2018.Part of the plan for the park involves the preservation of the site’s mature trees and the incorporation of the village ruins with the trails that will run through it and that will hopefully keep both the lush greenery and the rich history of the area alive.

Further information:

Online:

NParks announces plans for Upcoming Thomson Nature Park

NParks Factsheet (Thomson Nature Park)

History and nature meet at upcoming Thomson Nature Park, The Straits Times, 8 Oct 2016

The long search for better rambutans, The Singapore Free Press, 4 March 1960

Ming tomb claim in Singapore, The Singapore Free Press, 15 December 1949

‘Oldest Chinese cemetery’ find, The Straits Times, 11 January 1950

Han, 69 studies history from old China, The Singapore Free Press, 5 January 1961

Loois will make motor racing fans feel proud,The Straits Times, 15 April 1973

Daring racer was scared of the dark, New Nation, 24 October 1981

Offline:

Lai, Chee Kien 2011. “Rambutans in the Picture: Han Wai Toon and the Articulation of Space by the Overseas Chinese in Singapore”,  in Singapore in Global History,  edited by Heng, Derek and Aljunied, Syed Muhd Khairudin, 151-172, Amsterdam University Press.

Wong, Sharon 2009. “Negotiating Identities, Affiliations and Interests: The Many Lives of Han Wai Toon, an Overseas Chinese”,  in Reframing Singapore in Global History,  edited by Heng, Derek and Aljunied, Syed Muhd Khairudin, 155-174, Amsterdam University Press.


More photographs:

The remnants of quite a large house.

The remnants of quite a large house.

A room in the house.

A room in the house.

And the washroom.

And the washroom.

A forest stream.

A forest stream.

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