A new garden of Silly Fun

11 10 2019

Set in a 50-hectare area that once contained Han Wai Toon’s Silly Fun Garden – or “The Garden of Foolish Indulgences” as coined by Dr. Lai Chee Kien in an essay published in Global History, NParks’ latest nature park – Thomson Nature Park is now opened. Complete with ruins of the Hainanese village of which Mr. Han’s “garden” was an extension of, guests at the park’s opening also included many of its former residents.

The residents included a racing legend Mr. Looi. The Looi’s ran Looi Motors, a motorcycle shop that was located at the current road entrance to the park, along with Thai Handicraft and the family of Mr. Han Wai Toon. More on the Hainanese village, the area’s rambutan orchards and the Silly Fun Garden (where a stash of valuable works of Chinese painter Xu Beihong including “Put Down Your Whip”, which fetched a record price for a Chinese art work of US$9.2 million in 2007 and “Silly Old Man Moves a Mountain“ – sold for US$4.12 million in 2006), can be found at :

With the granddaughter of Han Wai Toon, Rose, who has authored soon-to-be-launched book on Han Wai Toon’s orchard.

Mr Desmond Lee, Minister for Social and Family Development and Second Minister for National Development, with a motorcycle racing legend Mr. Looi, whose family ran Looi Motors, a motorcycle shop and a Thai Handicraft shop close to where the entrance to the park now is.

Bricks salvaged from the remnants of the village, used to cover potholes in the existing road. NParks did as little intervention as possible and repaired the village roads, originally built by the villagers, for use as trail paths.

A blue-rumped parrot seen in the park. The park is rich in fauna and is a key conservation site for the critically endangered Raffles’ Banded Langur.

 

Entrance to the home of the Hans – the family behind Hans Cake Shop.


More photographs from this morning’s opening:





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.






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, there 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” (I have since been advised that the term “The Garden of Foolish Indulgences” was coined by Dr. Lai, who used it in an essay published in Global History. It was this essay that the authors of the Graphic Novel, based part of their work on).

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. An artistic work Xu executed during a stay in the (soon to be demolished) Huang Clan in Geylang in 1939, “Put Down Your Whip”,  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 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 nearby by a group of archaeologists that included Han. 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. He 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, passing 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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The last, and a soon to be lost countryside

22 09 2016

A charming and a most delightful part of Singapore that, as with all good places on an island obsessed with over-manicured spaces, is set to vanish from our sights is the one-time grounds of the Singapore Turf Club. Vacated in 1999 when horse racing was moved to Kranji, it has remained relatively undisturbed in the its long wait to be redeveloped and is a rare spot on the island in which time seems to have stood very still.

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The last …

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… soon to be lost countryside.

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Light and shadow in a part of Singapore in which light may soon be fading.

Once a rubber estate of more than 30,000 trees, the grounds grew from an initial 98 hectares that the original turf club purchased in 1929 to the 141 hectares by the time the club’s successor vacated it, spread across what has been described as “lush and undulating terrain”. By this time, it was occupied by two racetracks, several practice tracks, up to 700 stables, pastures and paddocks, accommodation units, a hospital for horses, an apprentice jockey school, two stands, car parks with many pockets of space now rarely seen in Singapore in between. Parts of the grounds gave one a feel of a countryside one could not have imagined as belonging to Singapore. Full of a charm and character of its own, it was (and still is) a unique part of a Singapore in which redevelopment has robbed  many once distinct spaces of their identities.

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The former grounds of the Singapore Turf Club offers a drive through a countryside we never thought we had in Singapore.

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As un-Singaporean a world as one can get in Singapore.

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A wooded part of the former turf club grounds.

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More wooded parts.

A section of the grounds that is particularly charming is the site on which the Bukit Timah Saddle Club operates. Set across 10.5 hectares of green rolling hills decorated with white paddock fences, the area has even more of an appearance of the country in a far distant land. The saddle club, which was an offshoot of original turf club, was set up in 1951 to allow retired race horses to be re-trained and redeployed for recreational use. It has been associated with the grounds since then, operating in a beautiful setting in which one finds a nice spread of buildings, stables and paddocks in a sea of green.

A cafe at the Bukit Timah Saddle Club.

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The Bukit Timah Saddle Club.

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A cafe at the Bukit Timah Saddle Club.

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A 12 year-old horse named Chavo, being given a run in a paddock.

In the vicinity of the saddle club, there is an equally charming area where one finds a cluster of low-rise buildings that hark back to a time we have almost forgotten. Built in the 1950s as quarters for the turf club’s sizeable workforce and their families, the rows of housing containing mainly three-roomed units are now camouflaged by a wonderfully luxurious sea of greenery. Some of those these units would have housed were apprentice jockeys, syces, their mandores, riding boys and workers for the huge estate workers that the turf club employed. The community numbered as many as 1000 at its height and was said to have a village-like feel. Two shops served the community with a small mosque, the Masjid Al-Awabin, and a small Hindu temple, the Sri Muthumariamman put up to cater to the community’s spiritual needs.

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Former Quarters, many of which would have been built in the 1950s.

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Former Turf Club quarters.

Not far from the area of housing and the saddle club at Turf Club Road is what has to be a strangest of sights in the otherwise green settings – a row of junk (or antique depending on how you see it) warehouses known as Junkies’ Corner that many have a fascination for. This, for all that it is worth, counts as another un-Singaporean sight, one that sadly is only a temporary one set in a world that will soon succumb to the relentless tide of redevelopment.

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Junkies’ Corner.

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Traffic going past Junkie’s Corner.

The signs that time is being called on the grounds are already there with the former turf club quarters surrounded by a green fence of death. Based on what has been reported, the leases on several of sites on the grounds including that of the saddle club (it has occupied its site on a short term basis since the 1999 acquisition of the turf club’s former grounds) and what has been re-branded as The Grandstand will not be extended once they run out in 2018.  A check on the URA Master Plan reveals that the prime piece of land would be given for future residential development and it seems quite likely that this will soon be added to the growing list of easy to love places in Singapore that we will very quickly have to fall out of love with.

Former Turf Club Master Plan

URA Master Plan 2014 shows that the former turf club grounds will be redeveloped as residential area.


More views of the area:

(aslo at this link: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10210755341268240.1073742271.1491125619&type=1&l=77fc0ee8cf)

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A Pacific Swallow.

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Update 23 September 2016:

It has been brought to my attention that there may be an small extension of the tenancy period, at least for The Grandstand, granted beyond the expiry of its lease in February 2018. The possible extension of 2 years and 10 months, reflected on the SLA website, will go up to the end of 2020, and its seems then that redevelopment of the area may take place only after that.


 





Reliving the good old days

17 06 2015

Pulau Ubin, the Granite Island, is possibly the last place left in Singapore in which we are able to rediscover how life might once have been. The island, which provided material with which the early structures of modern Singapore were built, is where the last remnants of village life in a setting reminiscent of the rural world that seems to have become irrelevant to the now ultra-modern Singapore is now to be found.

A village house on Pulau Ubin.

A village house on Pulau Ubin.

A resident of Ubin, an oriental pied hornbill.

A resident of Ubin, an oriental pied hornbill.

Despite the goings-on at the various sports venues across Singapore, the island managed to grab some attention from Singaporeans over the weekend when an almost carnival-like atmosphere descended on it for Ubin Day 2015. The two-day event, which attracted boat loads of visitors, provided an opportunity for many to relive the good old days with a host of activities that ranged from a Malay wedding showcase, a tour of a traditional Chinese kampong house (House 363B), and traditional games to nature and outdoor related action.

A silat performance at the 'Malay wedding'.

A silat performance at the ‘Malay wedding’.

Minister of State, National Development at the opening of Ubin Day 2015.

Minister of State, National Development at the opening of Ubin Day 2015.

Windows into the past.

Windows into the past – the windows of a kampong house.

Among the “guests” of the Malay wedding, were several VIP visitors, including Minister for National Development, Mr Khaw Boon Wan and Minister of State for National Development Dr Maliki Osman – who rode a bicycle to the house. The VIPs, besides being treated to a silat performance, also dropped in on Mdm Kamiriah Abdullah in her century old kampong house.

Madam Kamariah's century old Malay kampong house on Ubin.

Madam Kamariah Abdullah’s century old Malay kampong house on Ubin …

... which received some VIP guests ...

… which received some VIP guests …

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It was especially encouraging to see the many kids in the crowd show interest in the various nature conservation groups who had their booths set up at the old basketball court. The kids were also given an opportunity to try their hands at some of the traditional games – although it did seem like the overgrown kids were having most of the fun in rediscovering their childhood days…

A boy playing a traditional game hopscotch.

A boy playing a traditional game hopscotch.

A kid grown up showing her amazing zero-point skills.

A kid grown up showing her amazing zero-point skills.





The three last stages of Singapore

17 09 2014

A structure that often featured in the rural landscape during the days of my childhood, was the wayang stage. Constructed usually out of wood, the wayang stage was often found in the vicinity of a rural Chinese community’s temple and together with the temple, such stages became focal points for the village folk during important festive celebrations.

A wayang performance on one of the last permanent wayang stages left in Singapore.

A wayang performance on one of the last permanent wayang stages left in Singapore.

The festivals often required that the gods be kept amused. Entertainment often took the form of the retelling of traditional tales through the strained voices of garishly dressed performers with gaudily painted faces, all of which played out on the stage, attracting not just the gods but also many non- celestial beings.

A permanent wayang stage in Tuas, 1978 (source: Ronni Pinsler / http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Interest in the tradition, wayangs  – as the various genres of Chinese opera practiced here have come to be referred to, has long since dwindled and have largely been replaced by entertainment forms that reflect the national desire to abandon age-old practices. But this isn’t quite what is to blame for the disappearance of the (permanent) wayang stage. The displacement the rural world by urban townships and the dispersion of the members of the rural communities in the process, meant that many of the temples equipped with such stages have had to vacate their once generous spaces. The squeeze put on new spaces has made it less practical to have occasionally utilised permanent stages on the temples’ premises these days and today, only there are only a handful of such stages that can be found in Singapore.

Another permanent structure that was located in a village in Choa Chu Kang (source: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

The brightly coloured century-old stage at the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple along Balestier Road, would be one that many would have noticed. The temple is one that has long been a very recognisable part of the road’s landscape having been established as far back as 1847. An article in the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Jan/Feb 2012 edition of Skyline gives us the background on the temple as well as on the wayang stage:

Historically, Balestier had been a swampy area infested with tigers and malarial mosquitoes. In a bid to ward off these dangers, Chinese Hokkien immigrants built the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong temple in 1847, asking deity Tua Pek Kong for protection. Years later, Tan Boon Liat, grandson of philanthropist Tan Tock Seng, funded the creation of a free-standing wayang (theatrical performance) stage in 1906.

Seventh-month festivities at the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong's with a performance on the wayang stage.

Seventh-month festivities at the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong’s with a performance on the wayang stage.

A second permanent stage, is one found in a less obvious location, well hidden deep inside a private housing estate in Ulu Pandan. The concrete world that now dominates the area was where the Chua or Tua Kang Lai village had once been spread across at which the Tan Kong Tian temple, to which the stage belongs to, was established at the turn of the last century. The stage, built together with the current temple’s building in 1919, based on information at the Beokeng.com site, was rather interestingly also used as a classroom when a school, Li Qun, was setup in 1927:

Tan Kong Tian Temple (yuan fu dian) was founded in 1904 in the old village Tua Kan Lai, which means ‘near the Big Canal ( Sungei Ulu Pandan)’, and for this reason, Tan Kong Tian is also known as Tua Kang Lai Temple. Majority of Tua Kan Lai’s residents go by the surname Chua, which gave rise to another name Chua Village Temple.

The statue of Dong Gong Zhenren was brought over from Jin Fu Dian temple in Anxi county of Fujian province. The temple was rebuilt in 1919 with a opera stage, which was also used as classroom for Li Qun School setup in 1927. The school was closed in 1980 but the stage is still standing today beside the temple.

The wayang stage at Tan Kong Tian in the Ulu Pandan area.

The wayang stage at Tan Kong Tian in the Ulu Pandan area.

The approach to Tan Kong Tian and the wayang stage.

The approach to Tan Kong Tian and the wayang stage.

The two, are the last to be found on Singapore’s main island. A third is found at the Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple on Pulau Ubin. The three, now serve as a reminder, not only of  tradition we are fast losing, but also of a time and a way of life that has long passed us.

A view of the wayang stage during the evening's performance.

The wayang stage in Pulau Ubin.





A window into a Singapore we have discarded

6 05 2014

Update, 3 December 2016:

The house featured, Teck Seng’s Place, will be open on the 2nd and 4th weekend of the month and public holidays, from 10.00am – 2.00pm from. The house is also one of the highlights in NParks’ Kampung Tour, which is held on every third Saturday of the month. The house together with the Ubin Fruit Orchard will also feature in NParks’ new Rustic Reflections Tour, which will commence next year on every third Saturday of the month. More information on the tours can be found at https://www.nparks.gov.sg/ubin.


It may well be on the island from which the early building blocks of modern Singapore was obtained that we will find the last reminders of a way of life the new world it built has rendered irrelevant. The island, Pulau Ubin or the granite island, is the last to support the remnants of a once ubiquitous village community, a feature not only of the island but also much of a rural Singapore we no longer see.

A window into a forgotten way of life.

A window into a forgotten way of life.

While in all probability, the days for what’s left of the island’s village communities are numbered; there remains only a handful of villagers who now number in their tens rather than in the low thousands at its height and who hold stubbornly on to a way of life that will have little appeal to the generations that will follow; there at least in a well preserved village house, House 363B, that little reminder of a time and place that does now seem all too far away.

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House 363B is typical of a Chinese village dwelling, with a zinc roof, and a cemented base supporting half cemented and half wooded walls. Outside it, rubber sheet rollers tell us of days when much of the rural landscape had been dominated by rubber trees. On the inside, there is a collection of once familiar household items. These include a food safe – complete with receptacles placed under its four legs to keep insects out (a necessity in homes in the pre-refrigerator era), classic furniture, foot-pedal sewing machines, dachings and other implements of that forgotten age. It is in the house where life as it might have been, sans life itself, is being showcased, providing the generations of the future with a glimpse of how we did once live.

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The house is perhaps symbolic of what we in Singapore hope for Ubin, not just an ready made escape from the brave new world we have embraced just a short boat ride away, but in its wild, undisturbed, and unmanicured state, a world where we can relive a life we have discarded.

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Ubin does of course offer potentially more than that. The authorities do seem to be committed to not only keeping it in its rustic state for our future generations, but are also taking efforts to regenerate and protect its natural environment. This along with the noises being heard on an interest to keep what is left of the island’s heritage, the efforts taken in developing environmentally friendly solutions in the provision of electrical power for the island, and the attempts to engage Singaporeans on what they would like to see of Ubin (see also Enhancing Pulau Ubin’s heritage and rustic charm), does give us hope that Ubin will not become another part of a forgotten Singapore that will be lost.

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On the subject of Pulau Ubin, the Tua Pek Kong Temple on Pulau Ubin (Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Ting Da Bo Gong Temple or 乌敏岛佛山亭大伯公庙), hosts an annual festival in honour of the deity over 6 days this year from 12 to 17 May 2014. It is well worth a visit there to soak up an atmosphere of a traditional religious celebration in a setting that is only available on the island.

The highlights of the celebration, besides the religious ceremonies, include Teochew Opera performances on each of the first five evenings (12 to 16 May) at 7pm and one in the morning of the last day at 10 am, as well as a Getai performance on the last evening that does draw a huge crowd. Free boat rides to Ubin will also be offered during the festival evenings from 6.30 pm (to Ubin) and up to 10 pm (from Ubin). More information on this year’s festival can be found at this site.

More information on previous Getai and Teochew Opera performances on Pulau Ubin can be found at the following posts:


About house 363B, Teck Seng’s Place (information from NParks)

Overlooking the Sensory Trail ponds, House 363B has been refurbished and conserved as a model of a Chinese kampung house. Built in the 1970s, the house was owned by Mr Chew Teck Seng who used to operate a provision shop in the village centre known as ‘Teck Seng Provision Shop’. When Mr Chew’s family resettled to mainland Singapore mainland in 2005, the house was returned to the state.

Renamed ‘Teck Seng’s Place’, the house offers visitors a nostalgic trip back in time to life on Pulau Ubin during the 1970s. The interpretive signs and memorabilia, like retro furniture and old photographs, centre around the fictional narrative of the Tan family, highlighting key milestones such as the grandfather’s first voyage to Pulau Ubin from China, the family’s struggles to eke out a sustainable living, as well as the growth of the family.

The house will be open on the 2nd and 4th weekend of the month and public holidays, from 10.00am – 2.00pm. Teck Seng’s Place is currently one of the highlights in NParks’ Kampung Tour, held on every third Saturday of the month. Ubin Fruit Orchard and Teck Seng’s Place will also be highlights in NParks’ new Rustic Reflections Tour, which will commence next year on every third Saturday of the month. Members of the public can visit NParks’ website (https://www.nparks.gov.sg/ubin) for updates and more information on how to register for these guided tours.






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.





A dying tradition lives under the light of the silvery moon

3 09 2012

The seventh month in the Chinese calendar is a month that is held with much superstition in a predominantly Chinese Singapore. It is a month when, as beliefs would have it, the gates of hell are opened and it’s residents return to the earthly world. It is a time when the air fills with the smell of offerings being burned and when tents and stages appear in many open spaces all across Singapore to host dinners during which lively seventh month auctions are held during which entertainment (for both the returning spirits and the living), more often than not, in the form of Getai(歌台) – a live variety show, is often a noisy accompaniment.

Offerings are made to the spirit world when the gates of hell are opened during the seventh month.

Getai, popular as it is today, is however, a more recent addition as entertainment to accompany seventh month dinners. Before its introduction in the 1970s, it would have been more common to see Chinese opera performances and various forms of Chinese puppet shows at such events and during festive occasions at the various Taoist temples in Singapore.

Chinese opera was a common sight at seventh month festivities in the 1960s and 1970s.

The various forms of Chinese opera back in the 1960s and 1970s as I remember them, were always looked forward to with much anticipation by the young and old. My maternal grandmother, despite her not understanding a word of the Chinese dialects that were used in the performances was a big fan, bringing me along to the opera whenever it hit town. Travelling opera troupes were common then, moving from village to village setting up temporary wooden stages on which served not only as a performance stage but also as a place to spend the night. The travelling opera troupes brought with them a whole entourage of food and toy vendors with them and it was that more than the performances that I would look forward to whenever I was asked to accompany my grandmother to the wayangs as Chinese opera performances are often referred to in Singapore and in Malaysia.

A temporary opera stage set up during a Teochew Opera performance at the Singapore Flyer.

It was also common then to see more permanent structures that served as stages back then – they were a feature of many Chinese villages and were also found around temples. Perhaps the last permanent stage in Singapore is one that is not on the main island but one found in what must be the last bastion of ways forgotten that has stubbornly resisted the wave of urbanisation that has changed the landscape of the main island, Pulau Ubin, an island in the north-east of Singapore. Although many of the island’s original residents have moved to the mainland and many of their wooden homes and jetties that once decorated the island’s shoreline have been cleared, there is still a small reminder of how life might once have been on the island – a small community still exists, mainly to provide services to the curious visitors from the main island who come to get a taste of a Singapore that has largely been forgotten.

The permanent stage at Pulau Ubin – it was common to see such stages around temples and in Chinese villages up until the 1980s.

The permanent stage at Pulau Ubin is one that sits across a clearing from the village’s temple which is dedicated to the popular Taoist deity, Tua Pek Kong (大伯公). It is also one that is still used, playing host to Teochew Opera performances by the temple’s opera troupe twice a year – once during the Tua Pek Kong Festival and once during the seventh month festivities. I have long wanted to catch one of the performances in a setting that one can no longer find elsewhere in Singapore, but never found the time to do it – until the last weekend when I was able to find some time to take the boat over for the seventh month festivities which were held on Friday and Saturday evening.

The Tua Pek Kong Temple on Pulau Ubin.

The clearing in front of the temple at Pulau Ubin with the tent set up for the seventh month auction.

For me, it is always nice to take the slow but short boat ride to the island – something I often did in my youth, not just because Pulau Ubin offers a wonderful escape for the urban jungle, but also because it takes me back to a world that rural Singapore once had been. We do have a few places to run off to on the main island, but it is only on Pulau Ubin that one gets a feel that one is far removed from the cold concrete of the urban world in which I can return to the gentler times in which we once lived.

On the slow boat to Ubin.

Ubin in sight – all it takes is a short boat ride to find that a little reminder of a Singapore that has long been forgotten.

Pulau Ubin offers an escape from the maddening urban sprawl.

Although the festivities on the island are now a quieter and a less crowded affair than it might once have been here and in similar celebrations that once took place across the island, it is still nice to be able to witness a dying tradition held in a traditional setting that we would otherwise not be able to see in Singapore any more. While it still is difficult for me to understand and appreciate what was taking place on stage, especially with the amplified voice of the auctioneer booming over the shrill voices of the performers on stage, it was still a joy to watch the elaborately made-up and kitted-out performers go through their routines. It was also comforting to see that the members of the troupe included both the young and the old, signalling that there is hope that a fading tradition may yet survive.

The stage manager calling lines from the script out to the performers – a necessity as the troupe members are all doing this part-time.

The treat that comes with any wayang performance is that it brings with it the opportunity to go backstage. It is here where we get to see the performers painstaking preparations in first doing up their elaborate make-up and in dressing up in the costumes, as well as watch the musicians who provide the characteristic wind, string and percussion sounds that Chinese Opera wouldn’t be what it is without.

Going backstage is always a treat. A performer gets ready as a drummer adds his sounds to the opera in the background.

A performer preparing for the evening’s performance backstage.

The same performer doing her make-up.

Another putting a hair extension on.

The fifteen year old little drummer boy.

Performers also double up as musicians as the troupe is short of members.

I would have liked to have spent the whole night at the festivities, but as I was feeling quite worn out having only returned to Singapore early that morning on a late night flight, I decided to leave after about two hours at the wayang. The two hours and the hour prior to that on the island were ones that helped me not just to reconnect with a world I would otherwise have forgotten, but also to the many evenings I had spent as a child catching the cool breeze in my hair by the sea. Those are times the new world seems to want us to forget, times when the simple things in life mattered a lot more … There will be a time that I hope will never come when this world we find on Pulau Ubin will cease to exist. I will however take comfort in it as long as it is there … and as long as there are those who seek to keep traditions such as the Teochew opera we once in a while are able to see there, alive.

The light of the silvery moon seen on Pulau Ubin – the festivities are held during the full moon of the seventh month.

A section of the audience and participants in the seventh month dinner.


Close-ups of performers and scenes from the Teochew Opera:





The last memories of the rural Singapore of old

17 01 2011

I must admit that there was a time when I would have been reluctant to set foot in a kampung (village) in Singapore being very much the urban kid that I was growing up in the new highrise village of Toa Payoh. Back in the early days of Toa Payoh, much of Singapore still lived in the attap and zinc roofed wooden houses set in the densely packed villages all over the rural parts of the island. I had myself, had several experiences of a kampung in my early days, having been made to visit a so-called “sworn-sister” of my maternal grandmother at least once every Chinese New Year when we would spend most of the second day at the chicken farm in Punggol which she and her husband had in their care.

Despite my reluctance to visit kampungs in my early childhood, kampung days were never far away with regular visits to one in Punggol.

The visits to Punggol would inevitably mean that I would have to bear a few hours of boredom, stuck in the confines of what served as the living and dining room of the house with the simple furnishings of a formica topped folding table, a few stools, a food cabinet, two armchairs, and a small coffee table to keep me company. All there was to break the monotony of the room would be the sound of the Rediffusion speaker breaking the relative silence of the room, as I impatiently waited for one of my parents to make an appearance. The great outdoors where my parents would invariably spend the first part of the visits at wasn’t something that I was exactly enamoured with, particularly the fresh country air that would be laced with the smells that came from the rows of chicken coops nearby, a mixture of the smell of chicken feed and chicken droppings, with that of the generous amounts of natural fertiliser that would be used on the numerous plots of vegetables growing around. The fascination that I had with some of the livestock certainly wouldn’t have been enough to presuade me to move from my perch on one of the stools, let alone step across the threshold to join my parents in admiring the ripening array of tropical fruits that awaited their harvest outside.

It certainly has been a long time since I last took in the sights of zinc roofed wooden house in Singapore.

Not all kampungs are made the same of course, and I certainly, as a casual visitor, appreciated some of the coastal villages a lot more than I did the one I regularly visited at Punggol. My earliest encounters with the villages by the seaside would have been at Mata Ikan and Ayer Gemuruh in my very early years, passing through on my hoildays around the Tanah Merah and Mata Ikan area. It only much later in life that I got to wander around some of them in earnest, with one on our northern shoreline just east of the Mata Jetty at the end of Sembawang Road, being one that I would visit often, Kampung Tanjong Irau. The coastal villages were usually more pleasing to the eyes, and it was always nice to encounter the often colourful sight of fishing boats ashore and fishing nets strung up to be mended. This sight would often be accompanied by the whiff of the sea that would be mixed with the smells left on the nets that the catch the nets had held, carried by the gentle breeze from the sea.

The smell of fishing nets was something to look forward to during visits in my childhood to the coastal villages which I seemed to enjoy more.

It was in the latter part of the 1980s that I started to lose touch with the kampungs that I knew, as the busy schedule of my tertiary education and National Service, as well as time spent away from Singapore, took me away from the routines that occupied my childhood. Distracted by what was going on in my life then and the years of my career, the opportunity to say goodbye to the villages of my youth had soon passed me by, as it was during that time that, one by one, the villages that had been very much a part of Singapore’s rural landscape started to disappear as modernisation in Singapore caught up with them. My grandmother’s “sworn-sister” had during that time, been forced to abandon the lifestyle she had known all her life and resettled in Ang Mo Kio, just a stone’s throw from where I lived.

Zinc roofs were once common all over rural Singapore and started to disappear with the wave of urbanisation that swept through rural Singapore in the 1980s.

It was only well into the arrival of the new century that I realised that there had been one village, Kampung Lorong Buangkok, that had somehow resisted the tide of development that had swept through the island and it was in reading a New York Times article “Singapore Prepares to Gobble Up Its Last Village” in early 2009 that I had thought of having a look at what has been touted as the last remaining village on mainland Singapore. Having on many occasions cycled through the area during my teenage years, the village was actually tucked away in an area that was familiar to me, although it was the grounds of the road that led up to the mental hospital, Woodbridge Hospital, named after the main access road to the area, Jalan Woodbridge, that I took more notice of (Jalan Woodbridge has in the intervening years been renamed Gerald Drive in an effort by property developers to avoid any association housing developments in the area could have with the mental hospital (which has since moved to nearby Hougang and renamed as the Institute of Mental Health), but it wasn’t until the National Library Board organised a visit to the kampung recently that I got to have my look around.

The area around Gerald Drive bear very little resemblance to the road that I had once cycled around when it was called Jalan Woodbridge.

An old road sign with the old four digit postal code.

The visit was certainly one that was well worth the while, rather than having to explore the are on my own as besides navigating through the labyrinth that is the village, the guide, Mr Bill Gee, was able to also provide some information on the village as well. The village as it currently stands, sits on a one and a third hectare plot of land (equivalent to the size of three football fields) which is owned by a Ms Sng Mui Hong, a 57 year old resident of the village. Ms Sng had inherited the land from her father who had bought the land when she was three (in 1956), constructing a village which at its height occupied an area roughly twice its current size with 40 households living on it. Today, Ms Sng rents the zinc roofed housing units out to the 28 households that remain, keeping rents at levels that make the rents (by a long way) the cheapest on the island at between S$6.50 to S$30 (excluding electricity and water).

An address plate at a house along Lorong Buangkok where the last village on mainland Singapore stands.

A Chinese home at the entrance to the last village.

Lorong Buangkok as it looks today.

A well photograph sign points the way to the Surau (Muslim Prayer Room).

It certainly felt surreal walking through the kampung, especially in the context of what Singapore has become. The village did appear very much as if time has left it behind, as I weaved my way through the maze of wooden houses, each with a distinct character and colour. The houses were certainly typical of the kampung houses of old, with cemented floors and a grilled gap left between the zinc roofs and the exterior walls of wood to provide ventilation. Wood is used as a structural building material not just because that it is a traditional material, but also as the use of brick and mortar would render the houses too heavy to be supported by the soft muddy ground that lies below due to the area having once been a swamp which was fed by a creek upstream of Sungei Punggol, which my mother had been familiar with in her own childhood, as having lived at the sixth mile area of Upper Serangoon Road not far away, it was where as she would recall, “my father would jump into, not having a care in the world for the possible dangers that the waters held”, stopping the practice only after a mangrove snake had been spotted on one of their forays into the creek. There certainly still is some evidence of what was a brackish water swamp: mud lobster mounds and the red-brown petals of the flowers of the Sea Hibiscus tree are clearly visible on the ground in the area of the village just by what is now a canalised Sungei Punggol. Being built in a low-lying area where a swamp had formed, the village is also one that is prone to flooding, as the evidence – a flood level marker and a signboard providing information on days when there is a risk of flooding at road in from the main road, across from the well photographed sign giving directions to the village’s Surau (a Muslim prayer room), does suggest.

Mud Lobster mounds are clearly visible in the area near the canalised Sungei Punggol, bearing testament to the swamp that existed in the area.

The area is prone to flooding. A PUB signboard is used to inform villagers of days on which flooding is likely to occur.

A flood level marker is seen in the drain close to the PUB signboard.

In the vicinity of the village near where the flood level marker is, is the site of the former SILRA Home (a home for ex-Leprosy patients run by the SIngapore Leprosy Relief Association – hence SILRA) along Lorong Buangkok, of which the entrance remains with a wall on which the faint words “SILRA HOME” can be made out. The home moved to Buangkok View in 2004.

A wall is all that remains of the entrance to the former SILRA Home along Lorong Buangkok.

Many of the Malay and Chinese residents have lived in the village for well over forty years, with many not wanting to move out having been used to the laid back lifestyle and access to open spaces which moving into the modern suburbia would rob them of. It was certainly nice to encounter some of the villagers, who readily smiled at the curious group of visitors that had descended on the village breaking the calm and peace of the village, of whom I am sure they get too many of as interest in the last kampung has increased with all the publicity it has received in recent years. Peaceful the kampung certainly was compared to my first memories of the kampung in Punggol, where the were the sounds of the clucking of hens, the crowing of roosters, the quacking of ducks, the snorting and grunting of pigs and the barking of dogs never seemed to cease. It was in this sea of sounds that one which I would never forget would pierce through each evening – the unmistakable and shirll crescendo that was the chorus of pigs squealing as if they might have been singing for their supper.

The kampung's Surau.

The wooden houses each have a character of their own, painted in the different colours that add a certain charm to the village.

Other sights around Kampung Lorong Buangkok …

Modern times I guess have caught up with the last kampung - I mentioned my parents experience being the first in Kampong Chia Heng to own a TV in a previous post - back then, doors were unlocked and everyone in the village could walk into the living room to have a curious glance at the TV set.

A hinge for a gate ...

Clothes pegs on a laundry line.

A view through a set of bamboo blinds ...

A hibiscus in full bloom.

Ornamental flags flapping in the wind.

A resident on a bicycle.

Malay residents of the kampung.

The star of the kampung - a star made by Jamil Kamsah, a resident of the kampung.

A hurricane lamp ...

and another ...

One of the last places in Singapore to have cables overhead ...

A fallen fruit from a Starfruit tree ...

A Buddha statue.