Celebrating SG50 and a heritage gem

14 08 2015

One of the joys of living in Singapore, a melting pot of immigrant cultures for over two centuries, is the diverse influences seen in the architecture on display across the city-state.  One area where a concentration of this can be admired is in and around Telok Ayer Street, a street once fronting the bay after which it was named and a point of landing for many of modern Singapore’s earliest immigrants.  Along the street, stand two gorgeously adorned pagodas, possibly the oldest in Singapore, both of which were erected by Hokkien immigrants, one of which takes one from earth to heaven and houses an altar to the Heavenly Jade Emperor within what was once the home of the Keng Teck Whay.

The former Keng Teck Whay, now the Singapore Yu Huang Gong.

The former Keng Teck Whay, now the Singapore Yu Huang Gong.

A second pagoda - Thian Hock Keng's Chong Wen pagoda, seen across the roofs of the Hokkien temple from the Keng Teck Way's pagoda.

A second pagoda – Thian Hock Keng’s Chong Wen pagoda, seen across the roofs of the Hokkien temple from the Keng Teck Way’s pagoda.

The Keng Teck Whay, a mutual-aid society, was founded in 1831 by 36 Hokkien Peranakan (Straits Chinese) businessmen from Malacca whose origins can be traced back to Chiang Chew (Zhangzhou), China. The association, membership of which passed from father to eldest son, erected what can be said to be a clan complex around the mid 19th century. Being a very exclusive association, the complex and the fine example of southern Chinese architecture found within it, was kept well hidden from the public eye for much of its long existence.

The ancestral hall where a tablet bearing the names of 35 of the 36 founders - one was apparently ejected. 36 places are however set at the table where food offerings to the ancestors are laid out during the sembayang abu or ancestral prayer sessions - a practice that is now continued by the Taoist. Mission

The ancestral hall where a tablet bearing the names of 35 of the 36 founders – one was apparently ejected. 36 places are however set at the table where food offerings to the ancestors are laid out during the sembayang abu or ancestral prayer sessions – a practice that is now continued by the Taoist. Mission

A National Monument since 2009, the former Keng Teck Whay building – the only surviving example of a Straits Chinese clan complex, has since been taken over by the Taoist Mission. The complex, which was in a state of disrepair when the mission took possession in 2010, was painstakingly restored over a two and a half year period by a team of experts appointed by the Taoist Mission at a cost of some $3.8 million. Having first opened its doors to the public as the Singapore Yu Huang Kong or Temple of the Heavenly Jade Emperor early this year, the newly restored complex was officially opened on 9 August, the day independent Singapore celebrated its golden jubilee.

A view of the central door and the door gods.

A view of the central door (reserved for the Deity) and the door gods.

A view through the opened Deity door.

A view through the opened Deity door.

The opening of the former Keng Teck Whay as the Yu Huang Kong, which was officiated by Mr Sam Tan, Minister of State, Prime Minister’s Office and Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, was a celebration in many ways. Marking the the end of the restoration effort, the ceremony, which also included the commemoration of National Day, was also a celebration of Singapore’s unity in diversity with representatives from Singapore’s many faiths also in the audience.

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There is also much to celebrate about the beauty of the complex and its traditionally constructed structures and decorations. Laid out along a north-south axis, the complex features two courtyards, separated by its rather interesting pagoda. The beautifully constructed pagoda, laid out on a square base with octagonal plan upper tiers, said to represent Earth and Heaven respectively, is thought to have been modelled after the pagoda structures seen in temples to Confucius. It is on the second level of the three tier pagoda that the altar dedicated to the Heavenly Jade Emperor is found. The ancestral hall, housed on the lower level of the rear two storey building, lies across the inner courtyard from the pagoda.

Another view of the pagoda.

Another view of the pagoda.

The entrance building.

The entrance hall.

The altar to the Heavenly Jade Emperor.

The altar to the Heavenly Jade Emperor.

The iron spiral staircase of the pagoda.

The iron spiral staircase of the pagoda.

Doors, frescos and architectural details of the pagoda, beautifully restored.

Doors, frescos and architectural details of the pagoda, beautifully restored.

The ancestral hall, would have been where the main focus of the gathering of members five times a year to conduct ancestral prayers or sembayang abu, was. The hall is where a tablet inscribed with the 35 names of the association’s founding members can be found. While the name of the 36th founder, who was ejected for reasons unknown, is missing from the tablet, 36 places were still somehow set at the sembayang abu food offering table – a practice that the Taoist Mission continues with. More information on the Keng Teck Whay and the sembayang abu food offerings be found at this link:  http://peranakan.s3.amazonaws.com/2005/2005_Issue_2.pdf.

The curved roof ridge of the entrance hall.

The curved roof ridge of the entrance hall.

The upper level of the rear hall.

The upper level of the rear hall.

Further information on the Keng Teck Whay can be also found at the following links:


More photographs of the Opening and SG50 National Day Commemoration ceremony

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More photographs of the beautifully restored Singapore Yu Huang Kong

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The Fullerton Hotel National Day light up

2 08 2015

As a child, one of the highlights of National Day was the nighttime drive to see the city’s birthday lights. The beautifully lit landmarks, buildings and the fountains that once graced the city, although much simpler then, brought a wonderful burst of colour to the city and its surroundings. Among my favourites were the illuminations of the City Hall, the old Supreme Court, and also the old St. Joseph’s Institution, now the Singapore Art Museum, which always seemed to be bathed in green, and where I would eventually attend school at. The fountains looked especially beautifully lit at night, besides the ones that would be normally illuminated at the roundabouts, there was one located at the filter beds off Bukit Timah Road, close to its junction with Cavenagh and New Cemetery Roads, that would be specially turned on and illuminated for the special occasion.

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Light-ups to celebrate our special days these days, tend to be more than just the simple illuminations of old, involving video projections of both light and sound. One to look out for in the lead up to our nation’s 50th anniversary is the video mapping show that is being seen on the face of the last of the grand edifices of our once glorious waterfront, the grand old Fullerton Building, over nine evenings from 1st August.

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Produced in collaboration with Hexagon Solution Pte Ltd, the light-up, an eight minute long projection entitled “A Celebration of  Our Heritage”, will take the audience through key moments in Singapore’s history and the connection the building, the former General Post Office or GPO, had with some of them. One of these moments are the election rallies Fullerton Square was well known for.

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The light-up is part of a slew of activities in the Marina Bay area, where the focal point of the National Day celebrations will take place. One thing to look forward to will be the fireworks and aerial displays on 9 August – the parade will be screened live on LCD screens around the bay. Also to look forward to is the complimentary kacang putih and potong ice-cream that will be given out by Fullerton Hotel on 7 and 8 August at One Fullerton. The Fullerton is also running a Facebook contest that will see ten lucky winners walk away with a complimentary weekend night’s stay at the hotel – all that is needed to enter is to take a photo of the projection and submit it with a birthday wish to the nation via Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #FullertonSG50LightUp (contest closes on 9 August 2015 at 11:50 pm). More information on this and the light-up can be found on the Fullerton Hotel’s Fullerton Hotel website or Facebook Page.

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The National Gallery, naked

7 05 2015

It has been a long four and a half years since two architectural icons of a lost age went into hiding, cloaked for a large part in a dark shroud. That was to permit a huge and costly transformation of the two, the old Supreme Court and the City Hall, to be performed, a transformation that would turn the two  into a jewel that will crown Singapore’s coming of age. The massive 64,000 square metres of floor area that the two buildings share will provide Singapore with the grandest of showcases its huge National collection as the new National Gallery Singapore. The collection numbers some 10,000 works. Composed primarily of the art of Singapore and of Southeast Asia, it is the largest collection of its kind in the world.

The restored historical lobby of the Old Supreme Court.

The restored historical lobby of the Old Supreme Court.

The re-tiled corridors of the Old Supreme Court.

The new shine of the re-tiled corridors of the Old Supreme Court.

The buildings, both National Monuments and ones that for long characterised the city-scape, hark back to the days of the empire. With significant chapters of our history written within their walls, the two are monuments not just of the nation, but also to the nation and what is nice about the transformation, although it may have altered some of the buildings’ characters, is that its does allows an  appreciation of the buildings’s historic and architectural value by providing us and our future generations with access to them and more importantly to their many conserved spaces.

My favourite space in the two buildings, the Rotunda Library, seen in a new light.

My favourite space in the two buildings, the Rotunda Library, seen in a new light.

I had a chance to look at how the transformation has been managed when the buildings made their debut as the National Gallery without the art during the recent series of Naked Museum tours. Having had a look at the two during the open house held just prior to the closure in late 2010, I was especially interested to see how the character of the many conserved spaces within the two have been preserved.

The gathering of local artists and guests at the launch of the National Gallery Open House in 2010 prior to the renovations (National Gallery photo).

The beautifully restored Foyer of the Old Supreme Court.

The beautifully restored Foyer of the Old Supreme Court.

The old stairway that now leads to a new heaven.

The old stairway that now leads to a new heaven.

One of the first things that did catch my eye however, was how the two have been made to become one. A large part of this, is seen in the interface between the two at the former open plaza. Here, we see one of the larger intervention of the architect, Mr Jean François Milou, in the large enclosed space that has been created, encased by glass panels on a framework of steel. The framework is suspended over the two monuments through the use of a rather intriguing looking tree-like support structure. The space is best seen when the sun shines. That is when it takes on an almost magical quality in the soft light that filters through the specially designed screen of perforated aluminium panels.

The atrium between the two buildings.

The atrium between the two buildings.

The moment of inspiration for the screen came on a sun baked afternoon as the architect pondered over how the buildings could be unified sitting on a plastic chair in the Padang. The play of light and shadow through the patchwork of glass and steel, its tree-like support that is also replicated up on the roof of the old Supreme Court, and the sky bridges that allow communication between the two buildings finds meaning as a whole in providing a stunning visual spectacle in which the new is very much in harmony with the old.

A view of the sky bridges between in the atrium created the two buildings.

A view of the sky bridges between in the atrium created the two buildings.

The upper level sky bridge that connects at Level 4.

The upper level sky bridge that connects at Level 4.

The interventions on the roofs of the two buildings, are also best appreciated from the inside. On the previously empty roof of the City Hall, we now see two reflecting pools over the building’s former courtyards. This, found on Level 5, will be lined with F&B outlets. The upper level (Level 6), is where one can now gaze across the Padang to where the generations before once gazed at the lights of the old harbour from a viewing deck that will be opened to the public.

The lower level (Level 5) of City Hall Rooftop will see F&B outlets lining two reflection pools.

The lower level (Level 5) of City Hall Rooftop will see F&B outlets lining two reflection pools.

The view across the reflecting pool of the City Hall Rooftop towards the new Supreme Court.

The view across the reflecting pool of the City Hall Rooftop towards the new Supreme Court.

The City Hall Rooftop viewing deck on Level 6.

The City Hall Rooftop viewing deck on Level 6.

The view through the aluminium panels of the roof.

The view through the aluminium panels of the roof.

It was the roof across the sky bridge that I found especially appealing. Previously an inaccessible are of the old Supreme Court, it is where one finds the minor dome. The skylights on the dome is what casts the delightful glow on the beautifully Rotunda Library below it. The now covered space has a roof similar in construction to the glass enclosure of the atrium between the two buildings, and it is here that in the sunshine, that we also are able to see the gorgeous play of shadow and light it can create.

The Supreme Court Terrace.

The Supreme Court Terrace.

Another view of the terrace with the rotunda dome.

Another view of the terrace with the rotunda dome.

Reflections on the Supreme Court Terrace.

Reflections on the Supreme Court Terrace.

It is under the two domes of the old Supreme Court that one finds the most wonderful of conserved spaces, including what certainly is my favourite of all spaces, the beautiful Rotunda Library. Also conserved and restored are spaces such as Courtroom No. 1, the beautiful corridors on the second level and their skylights, the main staircase, the Historical Lobby and the Grand Foyer.

The Rotunda Library.

The Rotunda Library.

The Rotunda, see from the ground.

The Rotunda, see from a lower angle.

Courtroom No. 1.

Courtroom No. 1.

The beautiful light of the Old Supreme Court main staircase.

The beautiful light of the Old Supreme Court main staircase.

A skylight.

A skylight.

The corridors now feature gleaming marble floor tiles, laid out in a pattern that mimic that of the toxic asbestos filled rubber tiles that had to be replaced. In the area to the left of the staircase one also finds two holding cells, the only ones that have been retained. In the cells, we see a hint of a very necessary sanitary fitting, its opening sealed in cement. When operational, that could only be flushed outside the cells. What would have been nice to see conserved are the narrow caged passageways along which the cells’ occupants could be led, via a trap door, to the courtrooms. These however, were nowhere to be found.

The eight sided foundation stone under which there is a time-capsule that is meant to be opened in the year 3000.

The eight sided foundation stone under which there is a time-capsule that is meant to be opened in the year 3000.

The entrance to the Holding Cells.

The entrance to the Holding Cells.

Inside one ofthe two holding cells that have been retained.

Inside one ofthe two holding cells that have been retained.

Prisoner holding area.

The caged passageway through which a prisoner would be led to the courtroom.

The caged passageway seen with indicted Japanese soldiers being tried for war crimes being led to the courtroom from the holding cells (source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4999).

The caged passageway seen with indicted Japanese soldiers being tried for war crimes being led to the courtroom from the holding cells during the War Crime trials (source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4999).

Another caged relic I would have liked to see, was the cage lift that I remember from a visit I accompanied my mother on in my childhood to a verbatim reporter friend she would sometimes have lunch with. This proved once again to be to be elusive, although I am told that the lift is still there and in working condition.

A look up to the underside of the main dome.

A look up to the underside of the main dome.

One part of the court building I did not have a chance to see previously is the underside of the empty main copper clad dome. That I got to see by special arrangement. With the ceiling that previously obscured it now removed, there is no more need to ascend the spiral staircase to have a glance at its bare underneath and the riveted steel beams that provides support. This view will be one of the treats we can look forward to when the new gallery opens its doors in November.

A voew of the distinctive copper dome from City Hall Rooftop. The dome is said to be a smaller scale version of the famous dome of London's St. Paul's Cathedral.

A view of the distinctive copper dome from City Hall Rooftop. The dome is said to be a smaller scale version of the famous dome of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral.

A view from the balcony towards the pediment. The space left by a missing coat of arms, thought to be removed during the Japanese Occupation, will be left as it is.

A view from the balcony towards the pediment. The space left by a missing coat of arms, thought to be removed during the Japanese Occupation, will be left as it is.

New galleries in the old building. The old Supreme Court wing will be used to house the South-East Asian collection.

New galleries in the old building. The old Supreme Court wing will be used to house the South-East Asian collection.

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The pediment of the old Supreme Court on which Justice is not blind in Singapore.

The pediment of the old Supreme Court on which Justice is not blind in Singapore.

A pigeon's eye view from the balcony of the old Supreme Court.

A pigeon’s eye view from the balcony of the old Supreme Court.

The City Hall also has several conserved spaces of importance, the most important of which is City Hall Chamber. Once said to be the grandest of rooms in all of Singapore, the chamber witnessed several momentous events of our past, one of which was the surrender of Japanese forces in 1945. Another significant event that took place there was the swearing in of our first Prime Minister in 1959. In its refurbished state, the chamber retains much of its character. The entrance to it is now via side doors that previously were windows to the courtyard.

City Hall CHamber, a.k.a. the Surrender Chamber.

City Hall CHamber, a.k.a. the Surrender Chamber.

The courtyard the doors now lead to had been an open-air served car park. It now finds itself under a reflecting pool (the same pool on the roof terrace) and air-conditioned. As the DBS Singapore Courtyard, it will be used for the permanent display of a collection of Singapore art from the 19th century to the present when the gallery opens.

The former courtyard of City Hall.

The former courtyard of City Hall.

The courtyard will be a new exhibition space.

Shadows from the steel framework of the glass roof over the courtyard.

Moving stairways to the new heaven.

Moving stairways to the new heaven.

The Cor­inthian columns of the former City Hall's façade.

The Cor­inthian columns of the former City Hall’s façade.

The central staircase of City Hall.

The central staircase of City Hall.

In a year during which there is much to look forward to in a Singapore that celebrates its 50th year of independence, the gallery’s opening in November is something that will certainly enhance the celebration. The gallery will by itself be a celebration, one not just of art and culture, but also of our nationhood and of our history and heritage.More information on the National Gallery and the history of the buildings can be found at the National Gallery’s website and some of my previous posts, which contain photographs of how some of the spaces looked before the refurbishment.

A last look at the Rotunda Library.

A last look at the Rotunda Library.