An ‘English country manor’ in Singapore’s north once visited by the Queen

28 05 2015

From its position some 90 feet above what once was the southern fringes of the His Majesty’s Naval Establishments in Singapore, the grand and architecturally rather interesting building we know today as the Old Admiralty House would have offered its occupants with a wonderful vantage point over the area’s rolling landscape.

The former Admiralty House, likened by some to an English country manor.

The former Admiralty House, likened by some to an English country manor.

Windows into a time forgotten.

Windows into a time forgotten.

Its lofty position, and the scale of the house – likened by some to that of an English manor, tells us of the rank and status of the mansion’s intended occupant, the Royal Navy’s officer in command of the huge naval base. The house, would have been one of a trio of large residences planned for at the end of the 1930s.

The front of the former Admiralty House.

The front of the former Admiralty House.

The three were to house the each of the three commanding officers of the armed services, with what was to be Admiralty House built so as to permit the Officer in charge of His Majesty’s Naval Establishments in Singapore, a appointment held by the Commodore (later Rear Admiral), Malaya, to be moved on to the grounds of the base. The Commodore residence, had been at Navy House, located a long drive away in ‘Singapore’ at Woodstock Drive (which became the Grange Road end of today’s Orchard Boulevard).

Rather delightful looking smaller buildings around the house thought to have housed the commanders' aides.

Rather delightful looking smaller buildings around the house thought to have housed the commanders’ aides.

The porch.

The porch.

The two other residences intended, were to be at Kheam Hock Road and in Tanglin. The one at Kheam Hock Road, was to be a replacement for Flagstaff House, the residence of the General Officer Commanding (GOC), Malaya. This residence is the one we know today as Command House, a National Monument. The Tanglin residence, which I have not been able to find further information on, was intended to be the home of the Royal Air Force’s Air Officer Commanding (AOC), Far East.

Command House at 17 Kheam Hock Road.

Command House at Kheam Hock Road.

As with the new Flagstaff House, the design of Admiralty House was very much influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement. It is widely attributed to the illustrious architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens, whose work left a mark not just in Britain, but also in New Delhi. However, there little evidence of this.

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Thought to have been completed in 1939, in the year that followed the opening of the massive King George VI graving dock – an event that marked the completion of Great Britain’s most important naval station east of the Suez, the house first occupants would have bee Rear Admiral and Mrs. Thomas Bernard Drew, if they had not elected to stay on at Navy House. Rear Admiral Drew, who was posted to Singapore in February 1939 as a Commodore, Malaya, was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral in August of the same year.

Detail of a 1945 Map of the Naval Base showing the area where ‘Admiralty House’ is. The house is identified as the ‘Admiral Superintendent’s Residence’ in the map.

It was to be Rear Admiral Drew’s successor as Rear Admiral, Malaya, Ernest John Spooner and his wife Megan, who were to be Admiralty House’s first residents, moving into the house in August 1941. Mrs Megan Spooner, née Foster, interestingly had been a renowned soprano back in Britain.

Nelson Gate at the bottom of Nelson Road at the perimeter fence of the Naval Base along Sembawang Road (photograph used with the kind permission of Mr Chan Kai Foo).

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We are able to get a feel of how the house was laid out and decorated in Ms. Mary Heathcott’s article published in the 18 October 1941 edition of The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser. Here, Ms Heathcott refers to the house as ‘Navy House’, but its is quite certainly a description of the Naval Base’s Admiralty House:

Navy House has been built for about a year, was never occupied by the Drews as they were settled in Singapore.

It is large, pillared, cream coloured and grand and when Mrs. Spooner has finished her interior decoration should be a very elegant home indeed for Malaya’s Rear Admiral.

The dining room is furnished already, with solid walnut-polished teak furniture, sober jade green leather chairs. It has an immensely long dining table for big dinners, a small round one for less formal affairs.

A long, many windowed drawing room leads off the dining room, and this Mrs Spooner plans in Empire style, with the delicate graceful studied furniture of the period, mirrors on the walls, console tables, pastel colourings. Off this is a smaller sitting room, informal and restful.

Three hundred and fifty people were recently entertained at a cocktail party in the dining and drawing room of the house and there was no crush at all, which gives you some idea of their pleasant spaciousness.

Upstairs are the private quarters of the Spooners, a big landing sitting room where Mrs. Spooner has her desk, with its photographs of their nine-year old son, now at school in England. Here too, will be a corner settee to offset the rather difficult angles.

For most rooms of the house, there is a pleasant green vista, and from one side can be seen the Straits of Johore through a cutting in the trees.

The garden is as yet a plain green lawn, but there are plans for that too.

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A balcony the private quarters open into.

A balcony the private quarters open into.

What would have been the private quarters.

What would have been the private quarters.

Possibly the reading or dining room, based on Ms. Heathcott's description.

Possibly the reading or dining room, based on Ms. Heathcott’s description.

The drawing room, used in the days of the Admiralty also as a ball room.

The ‘large, many windowed’ drawing room, used in the days of the Admiralty also as a ball room.

That it was referred to as ‘Navy House’, points to the fact that the house probably did not have an official name at its completion. There are also several references to it as ‘Admiral House’ and ‘Admiralty House’ from accounts of its early years.

The main staircase.

The main staircase.

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Geoffrey Till, in his book “Understanding Victory: Naval Operations from Trafalgar to the Falklands”, makes mention of the stay of Rear Admiral Tom Phillips, Commander-in-Chief of the hastily put together Eastern Fleet, in late 1941, at “the new, rambling, vaguely “Arts and Crafts” Admiralty House in Sembawang, Singapore”, identifying Phillips’ hostess as Mrs. Megan Spooner.

A doorway on the upper level.

A doorway on the upper level.

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We also find in another book, “Course for Disaster: From Scapa Flow to the River Kwai”, the recollections of its author, Richard Pool, of his meetings with Mrs. Spooner as a naval officer. One of these encounters was at “Admiralty House in Singapore” on the occasion of a cocktail party Admiral and Mrs. Spooner had hosted, “the day after (HMS) Repulse arrived at the Naval Base”. Pool was a naval officer serving on the ill fated HMS Repulse, and was to survive its sinking not long after that meeting.

The balcony the private quarters' opens into with the drawing room below.

The balcony the private quarters’ opens into with the drawing room below.

The front balcony.

The front balcony.

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Both the accounts, related to the events of December 1941, the month in which hostilities between the Britain and Japan very rapidly escalated. Little did Admiral Spooner or his guest at Admiralty House, Admiral Phillips, know of it then, but fate was soon to deal each with a cruel blow. Phillips fate was sealed on board his flagship HMS Prince of Wales in the days that followed. Both the flagship, which Phillips went down with, and the HMS Repulse were sunk off Kuantan in the days that followed Britain’s declaration of war with Japan.

Admiral Sir Tom Phillips (hands on hips) watches his flagship HMS PRINCE OF WALES berth at Singapore on 4 Dec 1941 (source: Imperial War Museums ©IWM (A6787)).

What used to be an open sitting area that opened up to the front balcony.

What used to be an open sitting area that opened up to the front balcony.

Admiral Spooner, whose last days in Singapore was spent organising the evacuation of civilians, attempted an escape in a motor launch two days before Singaore was to fall. The launch was tracked and attached by the Japanese and having run aground on the island of Cebia (or Tjeba) near Pulau Bangka off Sumatra, Spooner was to spend his last days there, dying in April 1942. He was survived by Mrs. Spooner, who was evacuated on 10 February, and an eight year old son James, who had been left behind in Britain to attend school.

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It was only after the war, that the house was to provide the calm its seclusion was meant to give. There are suggestions that it was used as a residence of the Commodore Superintendent of the Dockyard, although I do have my doubts. What is known is that it became the residence of the Flag Officer, Malayan Area as ‘Nelson House’ from September 1948. The transfer of the British Far East Fleet Headquarters to Singapore required the Flag Officer to vacate the residence at 51 Grange Road so that it could then be used to house the Commander-in-Chief (C in C), Far East Station, as ‘Admiralty House’.

The house has been likened to an English country manor.

The house has been likened to an English country manor.

This arrangement was to last until March 1958, when a reorganisation of British forces in the Far East meant that the Flag Officer’s appointment was assumed under the responsibility of the C in C. With this, ‘Nelson House’ became the official residence of the C in C and was renamed ‘Admiralty House’. The old ‘Admiralty House’ at Grange Road was later to be demolished, making way at the end of the 1960s for Raffles Institution’s new campus. It was in the days of ‘Admiralty House’, at least in the 1960s, that open houses were to be held annually. This allowed servicemen to visit the grounds for a swim in the pool and maybe have a picnic in the garden.

Old Admiralty House in Grange Road, which was demolished to make way for Raffles Institution at the end of the 1960s (online catalogue of the National Archives).

A member of the Naval Base Police receiving an award at Admiralty House (photograph used with the kind permission of Alfa Andy).

The pullout of British forces in 1971 and the closure of the naval base saw Admiralty House become the residence of the Commander of the ANZUK Force. It was during this time, in 1972, that Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh had lunch at the house, as part of a visit to ANZUK forces in Singapore.  Admiralty House, also known as ANZUK House, as the official residence of the ANZUK forces commander,  was to accommodate only two commanders. The force was disbanded in 1975 following decisions by first the Australian, and then British governments’ to pull out of the arrangements. The last to leave was Air Vice-Marshal Richard Wakeford in early 1975, following which the keys to the house was passed to the Singapore government.

Another view of what I think was the dining room.

Another view of what I think was the dining room.

Much has happened since the house saw its last military officer. Newspaper reports in May 1976 point to it being rented by an undisclosed local company for S$4750 per month. It was turned into a restaurant and guest house that opened in 1978, which apparently was rather popular with an occupancy rate of 90%. In 1988, plans were announced to turn the building and its grounds into a country club with a caravan park. The application was not approved, and it was relaunched in mid 1989 as the Admiralty Country House. The house and its grounds did eventually play host to a country club as Yishun Country Club in 1991, and then from 2001 to 2006, as the Karimun Admiralty Country Club. It was during this time that the building was gazetted as a National Monument in 2002.

An old telephone junction box inside the house.

An old telephone junction box inside the house.

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Over the years, and changes in use, the grounds of the building has seen several changes. One change is to Old Nelson Road, the roadway leading up to the house. That used to be Nelson Road (it was renamed in the 1970s, possibly to avoid confusing it with the Nelson Road in the Kampong Bahru area – since expunged), and a through road. The south end of the road was at Nelson Gate, which opened up to Sembawang Road. The road was truncated in the late 1970s when Sembawang Road was widened and the gate removed. There would also have been a helipad in the grounds at the building’s north, probably added in the 1950s.

Evidence of the through road seen in an old lamp post. The post is one of three that can be found on the premises.

Evidence of the through road seen in an old lamp post. The post is one of three that can be found on the premises.

The grounds today also see more recently introduced structures such as an entrance gate, a pond, buildings around the swimming pools. Accommodation and classroom blocks were also added by the Furen International School (FIS), which since 2012 has run a boarding school for international students on the premises. As part of the arrangement for the lease of the building, FIS was required to repair and restore the building, which they have done so rather beautifully. This required a huge investment (in the order of a seven digit number) and replacement of fittings true to the original style employed in the building, where these had been previously removed.

What remains of a flagstaff moved in May 1970 from Kranji Wireless Station.

What remains of a flagstaff moved in May 1970 from Kranji Wireless Station.

Windows and brass fittings had to be recreated as part of the restoration effort.

Windows and brass fittings had to be recreated as part of the restoration effort.

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Speaking of the swimming pools, one – the deeper pool, is said to have been built by 200 Japanese Prisoners of War (POWs) in 1945. There is another suggestion however, that it was the deepest swimming pool in Singapore and it was built by British POWs in the hope that their captors, who were accommodated in the house, drown during their morning swim!

The swimming pool said to have been constructed by Japanese POWs.

The swimming pool said to have been constructed by Japanese POWs.

Another reminder of the war on the grounds is a bomb shelter located across the driveway of the building. This was rediscovered in 1990. The shelter is rather small and was perhaps built to accommodate the main occupants of the buildings. Light fittings can be found in the shelter as well as what remains of a squatting water closet.

What remains of a squatting water closet.

What remains of a squatting water closet.

Inside the bomb shelter.

Inside the bomb shelter.

Beautifully restored, the building, and its adjoining and auxiliary buildings are now ones we can and should marvel at. Much is in evidence of the Arts and Crafts influence, including the exposed brick seen on the house’s façade at the upper level and the “high-hipped roof” with overhanging eaves that is mentioned in the Preservation of Sites and Monuments write up on the monument. Also in evidence are the generously provided windows and ventilation openings – all designed to maximise comfort in the tropical heat and humidity.

The exposed brickwork on the upper levels.

The exposed brickwork on the upper levels.

The reception area with evidence of its generous ventilation openings.

The reception area with evidence of its generous ventilation openings.

What is particularly interesting is how some of the service rooms are attached to the main building – these typically were detached. It appears that these were where the kitchens and other service rooms were from which access was provided via the back of the main house into the dining room and to the bedrooms upstairs through a narrow staircase. Also around the main house are smaller single storey detached buildings, thought to have accommodated the aides to the commanders.

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The narrow stairway up to the bedrooms intended for the service staff.

The narrow stairway up to the bedrooms intended for the service staff.

The house today remains as a reminder of what once was. Much of the area around it has seen a transformation. The vantage point it offers is no longer ones of green rolling hills but of the structures of a growing population on an island state that has benefited greatly from the huge naval establishment the occupants of the house presided over.

The view it now commands is not one of a rolling landscape but of a strange new world that has replaced the naval base its occupant once presided over.

The view it now commands is not one of a rolling landscape but of a strange new world that has replaced the naval base its occupant once presided over.

While the building itself is protected as a monument, what surrounds it is not. What the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s 2014 Master Plan reveals is that the hill Admiralty House is perched on, or at least a large part of it, will be given to much needed sports and recreation facilities in an area where the pace of public residential developments is very quickly picking up. It may not be long before much of the green around it – the setting Admiralty House was meant to be given, is lost to grey. We do however, still have that opportunity to celebrate the house and the setting it is in, before that, like in the case of many others before it, is lost to us forever.

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Monday not so blue

20 05 2015

It has been a long while since we a celebration of the new day as spectacular as the one seen on Monday.

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Colours of the new day, Monday, 18 May 2015, 6.48 am as seen from the beach at Kg Wak Hassan.





Panguni Uthiram 2015 in photos

4 04 2015

Panguni Uthiram, a Hindu festival similar in the way it is celebrated to the better known Thaipusam, is celebrated during the full moon in the Tamil month of Panguni (which falls in March or April). In Singapore, the tradition is observed at the Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar temple, a temple now at Yishun Industrial Park A with its origins in the British Naval Base. The original temple was located off Canberra Road and it was there that the festival was first celebrated at the temple in 1967.

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The lively festival, which unfortunately music and singing has been disallowed (along the procession route), features both a procession of the Silver Chariot on the eve and a kavadi procession on the day itself. More on the festival and photographs from the previous festivals can be found at these links:

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The magazine under Talbot’s Hill

7 02 2015

An area of Singapore that still has much history buried under it is the area where the former British Naval Base was. Under parts of the former base, which covered an area stretching from the Causeway in Woodlands to what is today Sembawang Park, lies several underground structures, one of which is a the so-called Attap Valley bunker that has recently been brought to light.

The entrance to the Attap Valley bunker.

The entrance to the Attap Valley bunker below Talbot’s Hill.

Worshipping a new religion? Participants on a heritage tour to the site examining part of a ventilation system.

Worshipping a new religion? Participants on a heritage tour to the site examining part of a ventilation system.

The bunker, opened to the public for the first time today, is the last surviving structure of an armament depot constructed by the British within the huge Naval Base in the Talbot’s Hill and Attap Valley area. A ammunition and armament storage magazine, specifically Magazine No. 4, it was one of seven other bomb-proof magazines that were built into Talbot’s Hill by the British before 1942.

An extract of a 1945 map of the Naval Base showing the area and the layout of the ammunition depot, including the seven magazines under Talbot's Hill.

An extract of a 1945 map of the Naval Base showing the area and the layout of the ammunition depot, including the seven magazines under Talbot’s Hill (click to enlarge).

The National Heritage Board (NHB), which has been studying the site since April 2014, has also established with the help of a 1945 map of the Naval Base, that the magazines were part of a network of eighteen bunkers, warehouses and workshops spread over the Attap Valley site, that formed the Royal Naval Armament Depot.

The tour group being led into the bunker.

The tour group being led into the bunker.

The passage to the storage area.

The passage to the storage area.

Evidence points to the magazine, which is the size of two 5-room HDB flats, being used by the Japanese during the occupation – a cache of Japanese weapons and ammunition was found by MINDEF when they used the site for the Sembawang Ammunition Depot.

The storage area where  corrugated ceiling reinforcements can be seen along with a gantry hoist.

The storage area where corrugated ceiling reinforcements can be seen along with a gantry hoist.

What appears to be a light fitting from the time of the bunker's construction.

What appears to be a light fitting from the time of the bunker’s construction mounted on the ceiling.

According to NHB, part of the floor of the bunker, now a mess of mud and water, would have had rail tracks running over them to allow the ammunition to be moved in and out, accounting for the rusty colour of the mud and water in the bunker. While there is nothing left of the tracks to be found, there are several fixtures and fittings that might have originally been there at the time of its completion. This includes vents from an all important ventilation system, light fixtures, and pipes. A travelling gantry hoist, complete with a sign giving its Safe Working Load rating, can be seen in the inner chamber where the ammunition would have been stored. Access into the inner chamber is via a curved passageway designed so as explosions could be contained.

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Talbot’s Hill and the surviving magazine under it now lies well within a fenced up area of land, which was returned to the State by  MINDEF when the depot was decommissioned in 2002. Access to it is only via the NHB tours, being organised as part of a Battle of Singapore commemoration that coincides with the 73 anniversary of the Fall of Singapore and also the 70 anniversary of the liberation in September 1945. More information on this, including the Case Files from the Singapore War Crimes Tribunal Exhibition scheduled to open next week at the National Museum of Singapore, can be found at the NHB website.

More photographs of the bunker and its surroundings

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Postscript
An account relating to the last days of the Royal Naval Armament Depot before the Fall of Singapore: A Singapore Story – 1942.


 





Where once there were trees …

27 01 2015

Where trees once spoke to me, and birds rejoiced in the colours of the new day, there will now be no tomorrows, for the songs of yesterday …

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The magic of the new day, 18 February 2012, corner of Gambas Avenue and Woodlands Avenue 10.

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The tragedy of the new world, 25 January 2015,  corner of Gambas Avenue and Woodlands Avenue 10.





A magical Christmas sunrise

25 12 2014

The colours of sunrise, as seen at the Tebrau Strait at 6.41 am on Christmas Day 2014.

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The burning boat

14 10 2014

One evening a year, a burning boat lights up the dark and forgotten shores of Kampong Wak Hassan. The fire burns quickly, its flames completely consuming the boat ‘s paper shell and its wooden frame in a matter of minutes, sending nine divine beings on a journey to their celestial abodes. The journey brings the beings’ annual nine-day sojourn into the human world to a close and is one that follows a ritual that brings much colour to the shores of Singapore.

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It isn’t only at Kampong Wak Hassan that we see this send-off in Singapore, it is also seen at several waterfront locations across the island. The boat burning act comes at the end of the Kew Ong Yah or Jiu Wang Ye (九王爷) or the Nine Emperor Gods festival, a festival that commemorates the visit of the nine stellar gods – the nine stars of the Big Dipper (seven visible and two invisible). The festival begins with the gods being invited to earth and ends with their journey home on the ninth day.

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The Taoist festival is celebrated with much fervour by the devotees of the Nine Emperor Gods, especially so in southern Chinese immigrant communities in several parts of Thailand and Malaysia. Devotees observe a strict vegetarian diet throughout the festival, which falls on the first nine days of the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, starting on the festival’s eve.  It would once have been common during the festival to observe mediums, many sporting piercings through various parts of the face and on the body, going into a trance. What I especially recall from my younger days was the sight of mediums swords in hand performing acts of self-flagellation, as well as hearing the sounds of cracking whips, all of which over the years seem to have become less common.

A medium sporting a peircing – seen in 1979 (source: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline).

More information on the festival itself is to be found in a Singapore Infopedia article. The article identifies twelve temples in Singapore at which the festival is observed, one of which is the Tou Mu Kung temple at Upper Serangoon Road. Thought to be the first in Singapore at which the festival was celebrated, the temple’s festival observance culminates these days in a send-off for the gods at Pulau Punggol Timor, a man-made island off the much altered Seletar coastline that is accompanied by much pomp and ceremony.

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The ceremony at Wak Hassan, is that celebrated by the Kew Ong Yah temple, which has its origins in Chong Pang Village – it was originally located just stone’s throw away from the landmark Sultan Theatre. Now housed within the Chong Pang Combined temple in Yishun, the temple also commemorates the occasion with much colour, sending the gods off at the seawall of what was a former village by the sea. It was the temple’s ceremony that I found myself at on the evening of 2nd October, the the ninth day of the ninth month this year.

The crowd at Kampong Wak Hassan.

The crowd at Kampong Wak Hassan.

There was already much anticipation in the air when I arrived at 9 pm, more than an hour before the procession was to arrive. A small crowd, made up of many extended families, had already gathered and the chatter included the excited voices of the many children in the crowd. While there was a hint of a sea breeze, it was a sticky evening and many sought relief from the strategically positioned ice-cream vendor and the ice-cream wielding crowd brought an almost festive like atmosphere that is not often seen in the area.

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The anticipation seemed to grow with the passing minutes. A commotion announced the arrival of the two paper boats that were to be used in the ritual. The first, with the head of a dragon, was one that was to be set alight on the beach in which offerings were to be placed. The second, was to carry the gods out to sea and set alight – the flames transporting the gods to the heavens. The presence of the boats, which were moved down to the beach, also provided the signal that arrival of the of the procession of the gods and their paraphernalia was imminent, prompting a frenzy of joss stick lighting among the devotees in the crowd.

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A thunder of drums heralded the arrival of the gods. Representations of the nine gods, masked men dressed in an almost gaudy fashion, circled the roundabout at the end of Sembawang Road in an unsteady dance before the procession moved down to the seawall.  A violently swaying sedan chair brought in the sacred urn. The urn is where the spirits of the gods are carried and the chair is swung from side to side by its bearers as a sign the divine presence. Among those making their way down to the seawall with the procession was Mr K Shanmugam, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Law and an MP for Nee Soon GRC, who takes part regularly in the Kew Ong Yah temple’s Nine Emperor Gods festival celebrations.

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It was close to midnight when a semi-melodious chant in Hokkien rose above the gentle sounds of the waves of the nearby sea – the chants prayers sung, almost, by a Taoist priest. Once the prayers were completed, it was time for the party of temple officials and the Minister to wet launch the boat carrying the gods, setting it alight in the process, after which attention was turned to the second boat. Fanned by the strengthening sea breeze, the flames seemed in both cases to leap off the burning boat, offering onlookers such as myself, quite a sight to behold. It was past midnight when it was all over, and as quickly as the fire consumed the boats, the crowd dispersed.

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Together with the accompanying ceremony, the fiery end makes the send-off ceremony one of more colourful religious rituals that is seen today in Singapore. The setting for the send-off by the sea provides a connection to who we are and to where we came from; the sea being a naturally where we might, in the past, have sought a connection with the beliefs of our forefathers, many whom arrived here from the coastal communities of Southeast Asia, India and China. Now one of the few religious rituals celebrated by the sea that still is quite visible, the festival serves to connect us with a shore we are very quickly losing sight of. The shore that made us who we were is today a shore that has turned us into who we are not.

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