A cross at a crossroad

15 04 2013

The long and somewhat winding road journeys of my childhood are ones I now look back with much fondness. They are ones that were to put in touch with a Singapore that I grew to love, and a Singapore we have long forgotten. One of these drives which would take place during the Chinese New Year and on the occasions we ventured to one of the “ends of Singapore” to indulge in seafood, was to Punggol. Punggol was then a world away where the livestock population would in all probability have outnumbered the area’s human inhabitants.

A church which was one of two landmark which marked the start of Punggol.

A church which was one of two landmark which marked the start of Punggol.

Punggol for me began at the junction where we would have to make a left turn from a busy Upper Serangoon Road even then to Punggol Road. It was at this point that it felt we would leave the built-up world behind and turn-off into what could probably have been considered a countryside we no longer have. It was where coconut trees seem to dominate the landscape (that at least was my impression) – that I noticed them more than anything else was probably because of the curious sight of many of them without their lightning struck tops – a sight that was in fact common throughout rural Singapore.

Coconut trees with their tops struck off by lightning were once a common sight in much of rural Singapore, including in Punggol.

Coconut trees with their tops struck off by lightning were once a common sight in much of rural Singapore, including in Punggol.

The junction was one which was marked by two structures. One was the St. Francis Xavier Minor Seminary and the other a beautiful church which seemed out of place in the environment around it. And while much of the landscape of the area has been altered beyond recognition – the trees and high-density dwellings of pigs and poultry have now been replaced by towering blocks of high-density human dwellings and the stretch of Punggol Road where the junction is has been renamed as Hougang Avenue 8, the two structures – now looking further out of place in the new environment, are still there to serve as reminders of a time and place we would otherwise have little memories of.

Windows into a world we have forgotten.

Windows into a world we have forgotten.

The church, the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary – Nativity Church in short, is one that is hard to miss, with its steeple rising high above the structures around it. One of several beautiful examples of a legacy that the French Catholic Missionaries left behind in South-East Asia, the church is of a form we seem to have forgotten to appreciate. Several examples of the style, commonly used in Catholic houses of worship built by the French missionaries in the 1800s and in early 1900s exhibit, do exist on the island. These include the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, the de-consecrated CHIJ Chapel (now part of the CHIJMES complex) and the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, all of which now feature in the growing list of Singapore’s National Monuments.

The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of several examples of the French Gothic church architecture adapted for the tropics.

The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of several examples of Neo-Gothic church architecture adapted for the tropics. The marble statue of Mary in the foreground is interestingly a gift from Sultan Ibrahim of Johor in 1946.

Built in what can possibly be described as a European inspired Neo-Gothic style adapted for the tropics, the buildings are very similar in appearance. Nativity Church which was completed in 1901, is however, the only one that was placed in a rural setting – pointing not just to a pattern of faith of the community in the area, but also perhaps of a pattern of immigration to and settlement on the island of Singapore.

The transept which was an addition to the original church building illuminated by the soft natural light of the morning.

The transept which was an addition made in 1933 to the original church building illuminated by the soft natural light of the morning.

The area is of course one of several rural areas in which the Teochew community, the second largest group of Chinese immigrants to Singapore, was dominant. The community, many of whom converted to the Catholic faith as well as to other forms of Christianity, were involved in fishing, in farming, as well as in the rubber (and before that pineapple) plantations through much of the countryside along the northern coast of Singapore. With the community and the adoption of faith, missionaries erected several houses of worship – and there are, as a result, several reminders of this in the form of churches, or in the absence of them, parishes which had their origins in these rural Teochew communities. These include the Nativity Church, the Parish of St. Anthony (now in Woodlands) which was previously based off Stephen Lee Road in Mandai, and also a church with a very distinct Teochew flavour in its architecture, St. Joseph’s Church at Upper Bukit Timah Road.

Seeing the light - the soft light illuminating the nave - part of the original structure.

Seeing the light – the soft light illuminating the nave – part of the original structure.

The background to the parish community, the church, as well as on the architecture of the beautiful building is well documented. Much of this information is available on the church’s website, as well as on the Preservation of Monuments Board’s page on the building. Being a Catholic myself, buildings such as these represent a time when architecture and much of what when on around the church, was dedicated to the greater glory of the maker. On a personal level, my interactions with the parish and church are limited, coming to the church only on occasion – the last time I did spend some time in it was on the occasion of my sister’s wedding at the church some years ago. The opportunity to step in to the church again came recently when I found myself nearby with some time to spare.

A holy water font at the entrance of the church.

A holy water font at the entrance of the church.

The nave of the church.

The nave of the church.

Churches are always places where I find a great sense of peace in and in the quiet of the Saturday morning I was there, it was just that I found in stepping through the huge doors at the entrance, finding the interior bathed in the soft natural light of the morning streaming through the generous openings typically found in the tropically adapted Neo-Gothic church design. The church both internally and externally is a visual treat. On the insides, its high vaulted ceiling is accompanied by the rows of arches which would typically line the nave. Focus is drawn towards the Sanctuary bathed in the coloured light of stained glass a building such as this would look bare without.

Some of the church's stained glass windows.

Some of the church’s stained glass windows.

The interior with its adornments and furnishings, is a wonderful reminder of how Catholic churches used to be. The dark stained carved wooden pews is a rare find now with most churches around having been built in more modern times. The walls of the transept are where the statues representing the various saints are placed. These are typical of most Catholic churches and in the older ones it would be in purpose built niches as the ones found in this church in which the statues are placed. The windows, which can be opened, provide not just natural ventilation, but also light – typical of architecture adapted for the tropically environment which we do not see in modern buildings built to be air-conditioned.

A view down the aisle.

A view down the aisle.

A statue of St. Vainney placed in a niche at the transept.

A statue of St. John Vianney placed in a niche at the transept.

There is a lot as well that is interesting about the church’s history, including that a statue of Mary was donated by Sultan Ibrahim of Johor (the great grandfather of the current Sultan of Johor). Placed in a prominent position in front of the church, that is a reminder of the close ties bewteen the southern sultanate and colony which was once a part of it. The church today, while serving the needs of the parish community – which is still predominently Teochew, has also reached out to newer migrants – since the end of last year, it is also where the Korean Catholic community has been based at.

Coloured glass windows.

Coloured glass windows which can be opened allow the church to be naturally illuminated and ventilated.

The church in continuing to serve the spiritual needs of the evolving community does stand as a reminder of the purpose it was built to serve. Gazetted as a National Monument since 2005, it is one that will also stand as a reminder of the area’s past, a past which with the spread of the urban world to the area, is one which is increasing hard to remember.


The roads less travelled …

9 02 2010

As trivial as a fence may appear, a fence does have a place in the memories I have of my childhood. It is a fence that I now pass on the drive to work, which for a while seemed to deserve no more than a cursory glance at, part of the uninspiring landscape along the stretch of Tampines Road which is visible from the Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway (KPE). The KPE is the latest addition to the Singapore’s impressive expressway network, which should really make travelling across Singapore a breeze.

The KPE running across Tampines Road.

All too frequently, though, driving along the KPE, as with many of the other expressways, is hardly a breeze, and one wonders if it would soon join the ranks of the “every road pay” network. “Every road pay” is of course what many locals use to refer to Electronic Road Pricing or ERP. It was on one of these crawls that I allowed my thoughts to drift as I surveyed the scene before me, and drift it did, as I was soon back in the back seat of my father’s Austin 1100, peering out of the open window at the fence.

Tampines Road in the 1960s - as it would have looked in the 1970s.

Tampines Road in the 1960s – as it would have looked in the 1970s.

For me, the fence, which marks the northern boundary of Paya Lebar Airbase (it was then the Paya Lebar International Airport), had served as a marker of sorts on the frequent long drives my father took along Tampines Road. Looking out for the fence helped to break the monotony of what seemed a long and boring journey, a journey that I willingly partook in for the reward that lay at the end of it, be it a fun day at the beach or wandering around the old Changi Village.

The high fence along Tampines Road.

The journey on Tampines Road would start with a right turn from Upper Serangoon Road, near the sixth milestone, just after the sixth mile market, an area my mother had fond memories of, having spent a part of her childhood in. She would never fail to mention a thing or two about her memories as my father turned into Tampines Road, about which my father would sometimes tease her about. The start of Tampines Road seemed to always be rather busy, as we followed the mini-convoys of rubbish trucks on their way to the Lorong Halus landfill.

The Upper Serangoon Road 6th Milestone area ... a well known market stood the left of the picture which has since disappeared - this is the junction where turn off to Tampines Road is.

The start of Singapore's longest road: Tampines Road.

The right trun from Upper Serangoon Road to Tampines Road would be accompanied by stories my mother had of the 6th milestone area from her childhood.

The first sight of the fence along the road was the precursor to the start of a meandering path eastwards through what was Singapore’s longest road. It was a path that would start with a large bend that brought us past a cluster of houses at Jalan Telawi, seemingly the last sighting of civilisation before we descended into the greener, narrower and quieter section of the road, passing by villages and fishing ponds … and of course Elias Road – the gateway to Pasir Ris beach.

The fence and the bend in the road signified the start of the meandering part of Tampines Road.

Immersed in the musings of a time when journeys on roads less travelled could only be undertaken at a pace far slower than what we are used to these day, my mind drifted off to the many journeys of my childhood along the other roads less travelled: Jurong, Choa Chu Kang, Lim Chu Kang, Neo Tiew, Punggol, and Sembawang Roads to name a few. While many of these roads have been swallowed up or disfigured by redevelopment, a few remnants of the old stretches of these roads still remains, very much as how it had must have been, albeit devoid of the life the roads were built to sustain. These remnants sit silent and forgotten, discarded for the numerous highways that have replaced them to enable the sheer volume of today’s traffic to be carried.

A remnant of Jurong Road running parallel to the Pan Island Expressway.

The journeys on these roads always seemed to take forever. They were never journeys that were taken for the love of a long drive, but usually for the incentive that the destination provided. The ones to some of the “ends” of the island was usually reward with a feast of seafood in one of those wooden shacks that lay at the end of the road where land met the sea. Punggol and Tuas (accessible from Jurong Road) Roads featured these popular old style seafood restaurants where utensils and teacups would be brought to the table in a bowl of steaming hot water. There would of course be the customary bowl of water with lime cut in half bobbing up and down on the surface of the water. These were meant to clean one’s fingers as one fiddled with the delicious mess of gravy coated crabs and prawns that were served. The thought of this brings to mind a story that a friend of my father’s related. He had brought a foreign visitor to one of these restaurants and on seeing the bowl of water place on the table, the visitor prompted squeezed the lime in the bowl of water and emptied the contents of the bowl into his mouth, believing that it was a refreshment of sorts!

On occasion, the journey to Tuas would involve seafood harvested straight from the sea, in the glow of camphor lamps – the smell of which still lingers in my memory. This wasn’t a journey that my mother was particularly fond of, as it often meant a drive home in the wee hours of the morning, past a shadowy part of the old Jurong Road where the rather spooky looking Bulim cemetery always seemed to leap out at you. This was the road that would go through what would now be Bukit Batok housing estate, to the junction with Upper Bukit Timah Road. My mother would always heave a sigh of relief at he sight of Bukit Timah Fire Station and the huge Green Spot bottle at the entrance of the Amoy Canning factory, as this signified our the re-entrance to civilisation.

Where civilisation began ... the start of Jurong Road at the Bukit Timah Fire Station and the Green Spot Bottle next door.

Jurong Road would be the road the buses took on the many school excursions of my primary school days. Even then, the journeys seemed to take forever. I would look out for the distinctive JTC flats with the louvered windows of their exteriors at the junction of Jurong and Upper Jurong Roads, Jalan Bahar, and Jalan Boon Lay, where HDB flats seemed to feature common corridors, as it meant the journey would be drawing to its close. The turn left along Jalan Boon Lay would always be greeted with anticipation by my classmates, for near the end of the road, a whiff of chocolate would always greet us as we passed the Van Houten chocolate factory as we made our way along what seemed like a grand avenue lined with trees on the wide central divider.

What is nice to know is that there are a few remnants of the narrow roads less travelled that remain, some sitting beside their modern replacements which carry a much heavier volume of traffic to and from the huge densely populated public housing estates, constructed where there were once farms and villages. They serve as a reminder of the journeys that I have taken in my childhood some of which I have lasting impressions of.