A public bath on the museum’s front lawn

28 10 2013

In what is probably a first in Singapore, some 100 people were seen to be taking a very public bath together at the National Museum of Singapore’s (NMS) front lawn on Saturday evening. The public display of cleansing was actually carried out as part of the Singapore Biennale 2013 on its opening weekend – a public performance put up by Malaysian artist Sharon Chin named Mandi Bunga, which literally means Flower Bath.

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Taking a flower bath, although not necessarily a public one in a crowd, is actually a ritual practiced across much of east Asia – as a means to cleanse body and soul of evil and ill luck, or as I was told in my younger days, to “buang suay” or throw out bad luck. The idea for the performance did in fact come from a call to cleanse, one which the Bersih movement in Sharon’s country of origin calls for, with the artist dreaming it up in 2012 after her experience of two Bersih street rallies – hence the yellow that is prominent throughout the display that is seen in the basins used as well as in the sarongs which the participants wore.

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While what most of us got to see was the public display, the 100 or so participants did actually attend workshops which were carried out on several weekends preceding during which participants got to design their sarongs for the event. The performance also involved the participants gathering at another Singapore Biennale venue, the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) – assembling at the courtyard where school assemblies (when the buildings were used by the original occupants, St. Joseph’s Institution) had once been held. The participants then walked in their sarongs over to the NMS.

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While the performance – at which all involved seemed to have tremendous fun at, is a one evening event, the project’s process and outcomes have been documented and will be installed at SAM for the Singapore Biennale which runs until 16 February 2014. More information on the Singapore Biennale 2013 can be found at the event’s website.

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Playing with fire

22 08 2013

Photographs taken at last evening’s media preview of the Singapore Night Festival of a performance, Redux, by Starlight Alchemy – one of the highlights of the annual festival which be held over two weekends in the Bras Basah precinct this year which will see a nocturnal extravaganza of performances over four days.

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Describing themselves as “a constellation of international artists orbiting around Singapore that manipulate light, fire and skill toys to bring a sense of wonder to the performing arts” it was indeed with much wonder that a sneak peek of their performance – set against the façade of the National Museum, Redux, was greeted last evening.  Their performances will take place during the first weekend on 23 and 24 August 2013 at 8.45 pm, 10 pm and 11.15 pm. The last performance of each night will allow some interactivity with a free jam-and-play session at the end during which visitors will get to play with LED manipulation tools the group will use in their performances along with fire.

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Interactivity will be a feature of this year’s edition of the festival – the Night Lights segment of it will see several projections which will permit interaction.  The festival also promises to be bigger and better with the participation of an increased number of stakeholders and partners from the area – more than twice that of 2012. It will also see the addition of several more venues stretching from Plaza Singapura to Raffles City. New venues this year include the two malls mentioned, as well CHIJMES, 222 Queen Street and Sculpture Square. This year will also see lots of food on offer with Hawker Food Alley set up at the alleyway between The Substation and Armenian Street and So Sedap at the SMRT Walkway along Stamford Road.

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Re-branded from “Night Festival” to the “Singapore Night Festival” to reflect it being a platform to highlight and showcase local talents, this year’s festival runs over two weekends on the evenings of 23 and 24 August 2013 and 30 and 31 August 2013. There is also late night free admission to the participating museums to look out for during the festival. These museums are the National Museum of Singapore, the Peranakan Museum, and the Singapore Art Museum and will be on the festival nights from 7 pm to 2 am.  Do stay tuned for more festival highlights see at the preview for the first weekend. More information on the Singapore Night Festival can be obtained from the festival’s website.

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Information on Singapore Night Festival






Recoloured memories

21 03 2013

It is in the silence of a once familiar world disfigured by the winds of change, that I often wander, clinging on to what little there is to remember of a forgotten time that the winds have not swept away. The memories I have are plenty. They are of wonderful times past painted in the colours of a world we have sought to discard. They are today, recoloured by bright hues that mask the grayness painting the world today.

A recoloured memory seen silos that seek to recolour another memory -  the former Stamford College repainted in the colours of the Oxford Hotel, seen through construction storage silos on the site of the former Stamford Community Centre.

A recoloured memory seen silos that seek to recolour another memory – the former Stamford College on Queen Street repainted in the colours of the Oxford Hotel, seen through construction storage silos on the site of the former Stamford Community Centre.

Along with the recoluring of the reminders, a gust from the winds of change has recently blown through, taking buildings which once belonged to the community which since has been dispersed – that of the former Stamford Community Centre on Queen Street. Rising in place of that will be a building that looks like another that will take attention away from the ones we should really be paying attention to.

The former Stamford Community Centre - where with schoolmates I often climbed into to kick a football on the basketball court has been demolished - in its place, a China Cultural Centre is bing built.

A window into a changing world. The former Stamford Community Centre – where with schoolmates I often climbed into to kick a football on the basketball court has been demolished – in its place, a China Cultural Centre is bing built.

The new building will be the home of the China Cultural Centre, intended to promote the understanding of Chinese culture and deepen ties with between China, which is setting it up with Singapore. The setting up of the centre in the heart of a historically rich district of Singapore is representative perhaps of the growing influence of an economically powerful and increasingly influential China and the influx of the new Chinese immigrants from that new China which all have the effect of recolouring the rich mix of Chinese cultures and sub-cultures that were brought in by the early Chinese immigrants who gave Singapore a huge part of its culturally rich and diverse flavour.

Signs of the times - the growing influence of a people descends on a world once built for the people.

Signs of the times – the growing influence of a people descends on a world once built for the people.

The school that I spent four wonderful years in, has also since moved, a contemporary art museum now occupies the buildings which were left behind. The main building – with its beautiful façade, its curved wings and portico giving it a very distinct and welcoming appearance, was one that welcomed the many white uniformed schoolboys – as many as 2200 were enrolled at its peak. Gazetted as a National Monument in 1992, it is one that I am thankful is being preserved, allowing me to keep some of my memories of the space intact, recoloured or otherwise.

A building that was the school I went to - recoloured as a museum for contemporary art. The far corner to the right of the portico was where a fish pond shaded by a guava tree was in my schooldays.

A building that was the school I went to – recoloured as a museum for contemporary art. The far corner to the right of the portico was where a fish pond shaded by a guava tree was in my schooldays.

A view recoloured - looking towards at the end of the wing where the 2104 Pelandok Scout Den had been.

A view recoloured – looking towards at the end of the wing where the 2104 Pelandok Scout Den had been.

Another that is recoloured, the former Middle Road Church at the corner of Middle Road and Waterloo Street, thankfully in this case for the better, is a favourite of mine for the curious sight it offered in my younger days – a motor workshop. That is the subject of a very recent post and a memory that, as with the others I am still fortunate to have, I will long hold on to.

The recoloured former church which was coloured by the oil and grease of a motor workshop in the days of my childhood.

The recoloured former church which was coloured by the oil and grease of a motor workshop in the days of my childhood.





Whispers of an otherwise silent world

26 03 2012

The streets around the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) are ones that once spoke to me. It was on these streets and some that are no more that as a schoolboy, I had spent four years wandering through a little more than three decades ago, developing a strong attachment to them as they were back then. My schooldays in the area ended at the end of 1980, and leaving that behind me, I did not realise that that it was the world around it that I so loved that I was to leave behind as well.

The streets around the Singapore Art Museum are ones that were familiar to me from my school days at the end of the 1970s. The streets are colourless and silent now, a silence that is broken by the sounds of traffic that pass it by.

I often wander down the same streets today, hoping to find that world that in the distractions of my passage into adulthood was swept away by the winds of change that blew over the area in the decade that followed my last days of school. It is not the voices that I had been familiar with that now greet me, but the screams of a deafening silence that I am unable to close my ears to. The world that was coloured by the uniforms of school children scurrying to school or thronging the many book shops the area had a reputation for; its silence broken by the passing of those who lived, worked and shopped along the well worn sidewalks and five-foot ways; is but a pale shadow of its former self, rendered silent and colourless by the world we have chosen to embrace.

A world that has changed.

Once a world dominated by the towering spires and domes that flavoured the area, it is now a world where the same spires and domes have become mere reflections on the glass and steel edifices that now tower over the area. It is in these reflections that the voices of that old world are sometimes heard. They no longer are the loud and confident voices I had grown accustomed to, but fading whispers which I struggle to hear over the loudness of the silence that has befallen the area.

A world once dominated by the spires and domes, is now one where the spires and domes have become mere reflections of that world in the glass and steel of the new world.

A reflection on a world that I once knew - the SAM reflected on the polished walls of the NTUC INCOME Centre.

One whose whispers I can sometimes hear is the soul of the magnificent domed building that is today’s SAM. The building, gazetted as a National Monument in 1992, was where I attended school – St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI), one that I spent four wonderful years going to. Although a lot has changed since it held airy classrooms behind the green louvered wooden doors that are now painted grey, it is a building that I still have a deep attachment to. Beyond the coolness of the climate controlled galleries that now fill the spaces behind the grey doors, there are many areas in which I can hear those whispers of its forgotten past.

The buildings of the former St. Joseph's Institution now houses the Singapore Art Museum.

It is no longer through gates manned by school prefects identifiable by the green ties that stood out against the all white uniforms we wore that I now pass through – the half height walls on which iron grilles had stood are no more, but across a lawn that I rebelliously can now walk across to arrive at the portico on top of which a famous statue stands. The lawn had been a garden populated not just by shrubs, but also a weather station and a fountain that I don’t remember seeing come on.

SJI in the 1970s

St. Joseph's Institution by night in the 1970s.

The garden in front of the school building in the 1980s.

The famous statue is that of St. John the Baptist de la Salle, showing what seems to be the way to two boys beside him. St. John the Baptist de la Salle was the founder of the De La Salle Brothers – a Catholic missionary organisation dedicated to the education of boys from poor backgrounds. Aside from the many jokes we heard about the statue that wore a coat of silver paint back then, it was famous as a landmark for the area, having stood in its place above the portico since 1913. The bronze statue was cast with money donated, coincidentally it may seem, by an old boy of the school John La Salle on the occasion of the school’s Diamond Jubilee in 1912. The statue is a replica a marble sculpture by Cesare Aureli that stands in Saint Peter’s Basilica.

The statue of St. John the Baptist de la Salle above the portico of the former school building (seen here in 1980), served as a landmark for the area.

To the right of the portico is another area that whispers loud enough to be heard. The shallow fishpond coloured green by algae lay and the guava tree which lent its shade to the pond is now an area that has been paved. The pond had been a convenient point for several of us to meet. Immediately behind the area where the pond was, the corridor beyond the arches of the building had been one that led towards first the staff room and turning left at the end of it, the tuck-shop. The tuck-shop was on the ground level of a building which had above it, the Brothers’ Quarters, along Queen Street. The building is one that has since been replaced by a new building. The Brothers’ Quarters with flagpoles mounted on the ledge on the second level was where we faced as we said our prayers, sung the National Anthem and recited the Pledge during our school assemblies that were held on the tarred surface of a courtyard that has now been made much smaller. At right angles to the Brothers’ Quarters with its back to the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, was another building that lined the courtyard that has been replaced. This held rooms for several societies including the Co-op and the 2013 Hippo Scout troupe’s den.

Assembly at the Courtyard.

The 2103 Hippo Scout Unit had its den at a building that lined one side of the courtyard.

Prize giving during school assembly. The doors led to the school's tuck-shop on the ground level of the building that housed the Brothers' Quarters.

Across from the Brothers’ Quarters was the building (still there) which held the dark school hall (now the very bright Glass Hall) on the lower floor, and the school’s chapel (now the Chapel) on the upper floor. The chapel was where as schoolboys we could sit in quiet contemplation. The chapel stripped of its benches and Sanctuary does still fill me with a sense of calm and peace. It does still thankfully bear some reminders of its days as the school’s chapel: the floor tiles; the ceiling panels; and the plaques that served as the 14 Stations of the Cross a Catholic place of worship is never usually without.

The chapel in 1977.

The building we see today, wasn’t always how it had looked like. It took on its distinctive appearance in 1903 when the curved wings and the portico were added. The school the building was home to dates back long before 1903. It started its illustrious life as Saint John’s School on 1 May 1852 on the premises of an old Catholic church on the same grounds. It establishment in 1852 was due largely to the efforts of a French missionary priest, Father Jean Marie Beurel. Father Beurel, who arrived in Singapore in October 1839, had spared no effort in the early years of his posting to Singapore in trying to enlist the services of the De La Salle Brothers to set up what was to be the first De La Salle school in the Far East. Father Beurel was also instrumental in the construction of the new prior to that – the Church of the Good Shepherd (which is the present Cathedral of the Good Shepherd) and also in bringing the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) to our shores two years later in 1854.

Fr Jean Marie Beurel, a French priest whose efforts were instrumental in the setting up of not just SJI, but also the setting up of the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus and the construction of the Church (now Cathedral) of the Good Shepherd.

A view of CHIJ as it was in its early days. Father Beurel is credited with bringing the Convent in two years after his efforts brought the De La Salle Brothers to our shores.

The complex of buildings that housed CHIJ and also the Cathedral are ones where the spires that dominated the area stands, along with that of the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul (then referred to as ‘Chinese Church’) on Queen Street. The three (or parts of then in the case of CHIJ) have also been gazetted as National Monuments. The most beautiful of the buildings that hold up the spires is the beautiful Gothic styled former chapel of CHIJ – now the CHIJMES complex. It is however the other two whose whispers I hear, having interacted with them both as a child and during my days in school when we attended many school Masses in both churches. The earliest of the buildings to be gazetted as a National Monument, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd (gazetted in 1973) is one that is perhaps one that is most in need of attention. The structure of the building has suffered not just from its age (it was opened on 6 June 1847), but also from more recent construction activity in the area – ironically ones that were to have a minimal impact on the character of the area, the tunnelling work for the MRT as well as the construction of the Singapore Management University campus which was to blend in with the surroundings (some think it otherwise).

Temporary shoring of the Cathedral's structure is obvious when seen from Victoria Street.

Stepping into the Cathedral, one can’t help but notice the large crack at the wall at the far end to the right above the Sanctuary, and behind that – very obvious temporary shoring can be seen supporting the building’s structure on the outside. Being a National Monument that is run by a religious or non-profit organisation, the Cathedral is only able to draw on the limited public funds available to such monuments badly in need of repair. Based on information on the Preservation of Monuments Board’s (PMB) website, the funds available for the 29 monuments run by a religious or non-profit organisations for such urgent repair work is limited to a total of $5 million that is to be distributed to qualifying monuments over a five-year period (i.e. $1 million per year) from 2009. A pre-requisite for monuments to qualify for the funding is that the organisations involved must first have the means to fund the required work. The amount does seem rather misery considering the amounts being spent on some of the other National Monuments. The repair has been estimated to cost up to some $35 million. As of now only a fifth of the amount needed has been raised. The Cathedral is attempting to raise the remainder of the much-needed funds privately with fund raising activities organised at the Cathedral.

A large crack is clearly visible on the wall of the Cathedral's Sanctuary.

The Cathedral is attempting to raise much needed money - some S$35 million is needed, to repair and restore the building.

A close-up of an information board providing the progress of the fund raising shows that only about a fifth of the money required had been rasied as of December 2011.

As I leave behind the whispers of familiar voices, the contrast that the silent new world is becomes apparent. In the coldness and greyness and in the hush of that new world, I can sometimes hear the silent screams of the faces of the old. The screams are ones that fade with the passage of time. The whispers are ones that in the decrescendo of voices that I hope I would still be able to listen to, in a world where the only other sounds are the sounds of traffic that passes it by, much as the new world that has now passed it by.

The Cathedral is an oasis of calm in a sea of deafening silence.





A 20¢ ice-ball and one cool customer

10 12 2011

The 20 cent ice-ball makes a comeback this weekend (10 and 11 Dec 2011) at two locations in the Bras Basah – Bugis precinct, at the National Heritage Board’s (NHB) Heritage along Footpaths project. Once commonly found snack vendors such as ice-ball and kacang puteh seller, along with barbers, fortune tellers and cobblers, have been brought back for the project, and on the evidence of the crowds that turned up the last weekend, were a huge hit.

The 20 cent palm sugar (Gula Melaka) and syrup laden ice-ball makes a come back this weekend,

Evaporated milk is another favourite topping!

Seen amongst the crowds last weekend was one cool customer – a young lady, who discovered entirely on her own, how best to eat that 20 cent ice-ball. It was certainly not with the sheet of plastic that is used for hygienic reasons these days … but with her bare hands … allowing the sticky syrup laden melting liquid dribble down her chin and through her fingers. And when it did get too cold for her tiny fingers, she found herself a wonderful solution ….

Now, it doesn't quite feel right with the sheet of plastic ...

... now that feels a lot better ....

oops ... it's melting!

And, brrr ... it's cold!

But delicious!

Yummy!

My fingers are frozen ... now what do I do?

I guess that's what the pocket in my bib is for!

Now for a second bite.


About The Heritage Along Footpaths project:

The Heritage Along Footpaths project seeks to re-introduce trades that were once common at two designated sites within the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct – the Singapore Art Museum and Stamford Arts Centre (along the mural wall facing Middle Road). At each of the sites, tradesmen that were once commonly found along alleyways or five-foot ways – namely street barbers, cobblers, fortune tellers, ice-ball sellers and kachang puteh sellers – will ply their wares at prices of the past. Research conducted on these once-common trades will also be on display for the public to learn more about Singapore’s history and heritage.

Heritage Along Footpaths is part of the NHB’s initiative to inject greater vibrancy into the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct, an area rich in the arts and heritage. Said Mr Alvin Tan, Director, Heritage Institutions & Industry Development: “Through this project, NHB hopes to re-introduce once familiar street sights and businesses in the arts and cultural district and in doing so, re-acquaint Singaporeans with trades that were once an integral part of our community heritage. It also presents the perfect opportunity for younger Singaporeans to experience first-hand the early lives of their grandparents, and, in the process, reinforce bonding across the generations who share a common history and identity.”






Cobbler, Cobbler, Mend my Shoe

7 12 2011

Sidewalk cobblers, a rare breed now in Singapore, can still be found if one looks hard enough. Once a common sight along sidewalks, five-foot-ways and back lanes, the age of disposables and trends has seen a falling demand for the trade. My mother frequently visited the sidewalk cobbler to have her shoes mended or resoled. I remember many of them around the sidewalks and footpaths around Raffles Place back in the 1970s and they did a roaring trade with a steady stream of customers – particularly ladies whose shoes needed a broken heel fixed – seated patiently on a stool, and feet in flip-flops the cobbler provided, as the cobbler did a quick fix. The sidewalk cobbler is one of the trades that the National Heritage Board (NHB) has brought back to bring life back to the footpaths in their Heritage along Footpaths project which was launched last weekend – you would be able to catch them in action again for one more weekend (10 and 11 Dec 2011) at two locations in the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct – the Stamford Arts Centre and the Singapore Art Museum, where you would be able to have a pair of shoes fixed at prices that we have not seen since the good old days.

The sidewalk cobbler, once a common feature in Singapore, has seen falling demand for his services in the age of disposables and are now more commonly found in other parts of South East Asia like this one in Kluang, Malaysia.

Tools of the trade - now seldom seen in Singapore.

Replaced by modern conveniences such as roll-on shoe polish and ...

... the tin of glue.

The sidewalk cobbler at NHB's Heritage along Footpaths where you can have your shoes fixed at 50 cents a pair

The sidewalk cobbler at work.

A close-up of the cobbler.

The customer might have been provided with a pair of flip-flops and a stool to sit on by a sidewalk cobbler as she waits for that quick shoe fix.


About The Heritage Along Footpaths project:

The Heritage Along Footpaths project seeks to re-introduce trades that were once common at two designated sites within the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct – the Singapore Art Museum and Stamford Arts Centre (along the mural wall facing Middle Road). At each of the sites, tradesmen that were once commonly found along alleyways or five-foot ways – namely street barbers, cobblers, fortune tellers, ice-ball sellers and kachang puteh sellers – will ply their wares at prices of the past. Research conducted on these once-common trades will also be on display for the public to learn more about Singapore’s history and heritage.

Heritage Along Footpaths is part of the NHB’s initiative to inject greater vibrancy into the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct, an area rich in the arts and heritage. Said Mr Alvin Tan, Director, Heritage Institutions & Industry Development: “Through this project, NHB hopes to re-introduce once familiar street sights and businesses in the arts and cultural district and in doing so, re-acquaint Singaporeans with trades that were once an integral part of our community heritage. It also presents the perfect opportunity for younger Singaporeans to experience first-hand the early lives of their grandparents, and, in the process, reinforce bonding across the generations who share a common history and identity.”






The five-foot-way barber

6 12 2011

Once upon a time, in a Singapore we have long forgotten, you probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid seeing someone having his hair cut on the five-foot-way. These days, the five-foot-way, sidewalk, roadside or back alley barber, as he might be known as, is less of a common sight in a Singapore that has abandoned its previous life on the streets for the more comfortable air-conditioned premises we partake of most of our daily activities in. The sidewalk barber did made a reappearance at two locations last weekend in a part of Singapore that I will from my previous interactions always associate with that Singapore they were commonly found in. This was part of the National Heritage Board’s (NHB) Heritage along Footpaths initiative, which saw not just the once familiar sight of barber chairs and mirrors mounted on walls, but also the likes of cobblers, fortune-tellers and ice-ball vendors making an appearance along the five-foot-way.

Old style barbers - those along the sidewalks and in barbershops always started with the customary spray.

I myself have never had the experience of having my hair cut along a five-foot-way or in a back lane, my father preferring to take me to the more santised premises of the neighbourhood Indian barber shop with its mirror lined walls I loved to stare into and the unmistakable smell of talcum powder and hair oil. I certainly don’t remember prices that the NHB has set – 50 cents, for haircuts … remembering them to be $2 perhaps when I was able to make my own visits to the barber in the early 1970s. I do remember however that a neighbour of mine did frequent a five-foot-way barber in his old neighbourhood at Ah Hood Road at which he paid 70 cents for his monthly crop.

Closed cropped hairstyles were a standard of the sidewalk barbers.

I was never fond of the Indian barber – who on my father’s instructions never failed to give me a close-crop or a crew-cut and later in life when I could make my own choice, I preferred (as most of my peers did) to visit the Malay barber instead – one Bugs Bunny, in Toa Payoh opened at the start of the 1970s and is still right where it opened, with its decor not having changed in four decades. The Malay barbershop grew in popularity in the 1970s as they delivered crops that in line with the latest styles. Many of the popular Malay barbershops were as a matter of fact run by barbers that had come off the streets – one of the very successful chains – Sri Dewa was started by a certain Mr Ramadan bin Fahmi who had started his trade under a cherry tree in Thomson Road.

Barber chairs making a reappearance on the five-foot-way.

The barbers would be returning to the two locations this weekend (Sat 10 Dec 2011 and Sun 11 Dec 2011 – 10 am to 5 pm), the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and at the Stamford Arts Centre. Based on what a satisfied customer I met at the SAM said, be prepared for a queue which he said had already formed before the start of business at 10 am for a crop at prices which the gentlemen said “you can’t find in Singapore anymore”.

Tools of the trade being used - a comb and a pair of scissors.

Giving a shave - no longer used is a blade sharpened on a strap of leather but one with a disposable razor.


About The Heritage Along Footpaths project:

The Heritage Along Footpaths project seeks to re-introduce trades that were once common at two designated sites within the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct – the Singapore Art Museum and Stamford Arts Centre (along the mural wall facing Middle Road). At each of the sites, tradesmen that were once commonly found along alleyways or five-foot ways – namely street barbers, cobblers, fortune tellers, ice-ball sellers and kachang puteh sellers – will ply their wares at prices of the past. Research conducted on these once-common trades will also be on display for the public to learn more about Singapore’s history and heritage.

Heritage Along Footpaths is part of the NHB’s initiative to inject greater vibrancy into the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct, an area rich in the arts and heritage. Said Mr Alvin Tan, Director, Heritage Institutions & Industry Development: “Through this project, NHB hopes to re-introduce once familiar street sights and businesses in the arts and cultural district and in doing so, re-acquaint Singaporeans with trades that were once an integral part of our community heritage. It also presents the perfect opportunity for younger Singaporeans to experience first-hand the early lives of their grandparents, and, in the process, reinforce bonding across the generations who share a common history and identity.”






Putting life back on the footpaths

2 12 2011

An interesting project that is being rolled out by the National Heritage Board (NHB) this weekend is Heritage Along Footpaths, which seeks to re-introduce trades that were once common at two designated sites within the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct – the Singapore Art Museum and Stamford Arts Centre (along the mural wall facing Middle Road). On this weekend and on the next, members of the public will find tradesmen such as traditional street barbers, ice-ball sellers, fortune tellers and kacang puteh sellers peddling their trades and wares at prices that we were used to in the heyday of street tradesmen – a haircut will cost a mere 50 cents and a stick of kacang puteh will go for 20 cents. The tradesmen will be present at the two locations on 3 and 4 December 2011 as well as 10 and 11 December 2011 from 10.00am to 5.00pm each day (more information including a map of the locations of the two sites can be found at www.nhb.gov.sg/brasbasahbugis/BBB_KeyEvents.html). See also more recent posts on the Five-Foot-Way Barber and Cobbler.

The Heritage Along Footpaths project seeks to re-introduce trades that were common in the past such as traditional street barbers ...

... fortune tellers ....

... and cobblers.

About The Heritage Along Footpaths project:

The Heritage Along Footpaths project seeks to re-introduce trades that were once common at two designated sites within the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct – the Singapore Art Museum and Stamford Arts Centre (along the mural wall facing Middle Road). At each of the sites, tradesmen that were once commonly found along alleyways or five-foot ways – namely street barbers, cobblers, fortune tellers, ice-ball sellers and kachang puteh sellers – will ply their wares at prices of the past. Research conducted on these once-common trades will also be on display for the public to learn more about Singapore’s history and heritage.

Heritage Along Footpaths is part of the NHB’s initiative to inject greater vibrancy into the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct, an area rich in the arts and heritage. Said Mr Alvin Tan, Director, Heritage Institutions & Industry Development: “Through this project, NHB hopes to re-introduce once familiar street sights and businesses in the arts and cultural district and in doing so, re-acquaint Singaporeans with trades that were once an integral part of our community heritage. It also presents the perfect opportunity for younger Singaporeans to experience first-hand the early lives of their grandparents, and, in the process, reinforce bonding across the generations who share a common history and identity.”





A mountain of faceless white-collar workers and a last cannibal supper

9 11 2011

An exhibition will open on the 11th of November at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) which would feature 15 contemporary works of art, finalists in the Asia Pacific Breweries (APB) Foundation Signature Art Prize shortlisted from over 130 nominations from 24 countries in the Asia-Pacific. Together with several other bloggers, I had a sneak preview of the exhibition yesterday evening, during which we were not just given an excellent guided tour by Senior Curator Joyce Toh, but also had a chance to hear the first hand explanations of three of the artists: Kim Jongku, Michael Lee and Bui Cong Khanh, about their shortlisted works.

A striking piece by a New Zealand photographer of Samoan origin, Greg Semu, who uses iconic images in western art, such as, in this case, the Pietà, to depict the religious colonisation of the Kanak people of Noumea in a series of 9 images.

Amongst the works that caught my attention was Korean artist Kim Jongku’s ‘Mobile Landscape’, Vietnamese artist Bui Cong Khanh’s ‘The Past Moved’, Aida Makoto’s ‘Ash Color Mountains’ and a striking collection of 9 photographs by a New Zealand photographer of Samoan origin, Greg Semu, ‘The Last Cannibal Supper’. ‘Mobile Landscape’ is interesting from the perspective of the use of steel powder which the artist had painstakingly ground to add a third dimension to two-dimensional traditional calligraphy and landscape ink paintings showing the meeting between the horizontal and vertical plane through a camera on a ground and a projection on a screen.

Kim Jongku speaking about 'Mobile Landscape', as Senior Curator, Joyce Toh looks on.

Vietnamese artist, Bui Cong Khanh, on the other hand, uses two-dimensional backdrops – almost life-size charcoal-on-paper sketches of soon to be demolished areas of his hometown Ho Chi Minh City in front of which he invites residents as well as outsiders to pose for photographs (which are also on display), to document a space and time. What is interesting is his observation of the reactions of the different individuals that pose for a photograph – with residents being easier to photograph as they felt at home in the recreated surroundings, compared to non-residents who took more time to be at ease.

Joyce Toh with Bui Cong Khanh in front of the charcoal on paper backdrop created by the artist.

One work that certainly was thought-provoking for me is Aida Makoto’s ‘Ash Color Mountains’ which resembles a traditional depiction of a soft mountainous landscape, which on closer inspection, reveals a pile of bodies – that of faceless white-collar workers. We are told that this conveys an underlying sense of violence and destruction that often characterises many of the artist’s works.

Aida Makoto's 'Ash Color Mountains' - piles of bodies of faceless white-collar workers in the depiction of a traditional mountainous landscape (image courtesy of SAM).

A close-up of 'Ash Color Mountains'.

The most provocative work was for me Greg Semu’s ‘The Last Cannibal Supper’, a series of 9 photographers which features Semu himself at the centre of the work which explores the religious colonisation of the Kanak people of Noumea at a symbolic last supper in which the people leave their traditional and cannibal ways to adopt the ways of their colonial masters. Central to the work is the re-enactment of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper using local actors and with a local setting with palm branches, flax walls, and shells. Semu grew up in a religiously indoctrinated family, and recalls everyday of his childhood looking at a wall size rug of Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece hanging above the fireplace in the family home. The other photos include the use of other iconic images in western art, including the re-enactment of a Pietà.

The central photograph in Semu's work - a re-enactment of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece (image courtesy of SAM).

The exhibition is on until 4 March 2012. The winner of the Grand Prize (SGD 45,000) and three Jurors’ Choice Award recipients (SGD 10,000 each) will be announced on 17 November 2011, selected by an international jury which comprises a panel of five eminent art experts: Mr. Fumio Nanjo, Director, Mori Art Museum; Mr. Gregor Muir, Executive Director, Institute of Contemporary Arts London; Mr. Hendro Wijanto, leading Southeast Asian writer, critic and curator; Mr. Ranjit Hoskote, Curator of the India Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011 and leading South Asian poet-writer, curator and critic, and Mr. Tan Boon Hui, Director, SAM. A People’s Choice Award will also be presented to the public’s most loved work and the public is encourage to nominate their favourite finalist work for the award online at www.singaporeartmuseum.sg/signatureartprize from 1 October 2011 or cast their votes in person at the Asia Pacific Foundation Signature Art Prize 2011 Finalists Exhibition. Those who vote will stand the chance to win an Apple MacBook Air, or receive one of 20 limited edition commemorative catalogues about the Prize, the finalists and their artwork.





Play it again, SAM

6 05 2011

It did take me a while to go beyond what was on offer at Old Kallang Airport to explore the other venues of the Singapore Biennale 2011. This perhaps, was motivated by a desire to get my fill of the what was Singapore’s first commercial airport before its character is altered by the plans the Urban Development Authority (URA) has for the buildings and the grounds. Having had my feel of the old airport and with a pass courtesy of the Singapore Biennale, I decided to head out to the other venues, which were the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), Marina Bay and the National Museum of Singapore (NAS) recently.

It took me a while to explore what was on offer at the Singapore Biennale 2011 beyond that at the Old Kallang Airport venue.

My first stop was naturally at the SAM, being fond of visiting the magnificent building on Bras Basah Road that now hosts the museum. It was a building that holds many memories for me, having spent four years of the latter part of my schooling when St. Joseph’s Institution occupied the premises. My motivation was of course very different from my previous visits … choosing to have an encounter with what is perhaps some of the more eye-catching exhibits on display at the Singapore Biennale.

The building that now hosts the SAM was one that I have many fond memories of having gone to school there some three decades ago.

I suppose the most eye-catching of the exhibits for me would be a somewhat morbid display of work by Filipino artist Louie Cordero – a set of works entitled My We. This we are given to understand, was inspired by (in the artist’s own words) the “recent spate of murders of Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ in Filipino karaoke bars. The works feature a set of figures, impaled by different objects and a videoke machine that repeatedly plays the song with images relating to reports of bar fights and murders supposedly over how the song should be sung.

Louie Cordero's 'My We' features gruesome cast human forms impaled with all kinds of objects.

... as well as a videoke machine, inspired by "the recent spate of murders of Frank Sinatra's My Way in Filipino Karaoke Bars".

Having a taste of the gruesome, the other exhibits seemed mild in comparison. Simon Fujiwara’s Welcome to the Hotel Mumber was disappointingly closed for reasons not stated, with two other exhibits to be found on the main SAM site which is Ryan Trecartin’s Re’Search Wait’S a four part video installation which as the guide would have it, “features a cast of manic characters, played by Trecartin and close friends, in a series of overlapping realities in which identity is endlessly fluid”. The videos feature subjects in frenetic speech that reflect the effect that “the mass media and new technologies” have on “how we imagine and express ourselves” – something that I can certainly identify with. The other exhibit at the SAM that I could see is German artist Julian Göthe’s Popcorn and Politics, afternoon, two sculptured objects that as the guide would have it “combine minimalist severity and baroque excess”, supplemented by rope drawings on the walls that “construct a theatrical environment for his sculptures”, that supposedly were to “evoke moods of glamour, erotism and danger”, something that I somehow didn’t all feel, feeling only a sense of danger that the angular sculptures and the all encompassing net somehow gave me.

Julian Göthe’s "Popcorn and Politics, afternoon", features two sculptured objects surrounded by rope drawings on the walls.

There was still some time after looking around to reminisce, walking down corridors that I walked some three decades in the past, it was certainly nice to be able to do that and I am grateful that the magnificent building, that despite the maybe somewhat abstract and gruesome installations that have made a short appearance for the Biennale, still welcomes us in the same way with its seemingly outstretched arms. Time then to head out to the next destination of the Biennale’s circuit – SAM at 8Q, on which I will devote another post to …

Walking down the corridors I spent four years of my life some thirty years ago always gives me a chance to reminisce ...





Something’s fishy about the old school building

30 09 2010

Somehow, as school boys going to school in the magnificent old school building that housed St. Joseph’s Institution along Bras Basah Road which has since become the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), we always seemed to have a reason to feel that way, after all, the building did have a questionable past, having been used in some capacity by the Japanese occupiers during the Second World War. There were certainly ample reasons as well for suspicion: the sealed second floor of the old toilet block along Waterloo Street and many spots including the dome which had been out of bounds. However, whatever our suspicions were, we were never able to confirm any of them, and were happy to leave them behind when we left the old school. These days, as the SAM, some of the main structures are still there for us to wander into from time to time to satisfy any desire for nostalgia. While the toilet block is no longer there, the dome is – still inaccessible as it had been all those years back … perhaps holding the same mysteries that we had been told of during our schooldays. However, having been there on many occasions, there hasn’t been any reason to fell that there was anything mysterious that is left. Come Saturday however, there is going to be something fishy that would be uncovered …

Children of ages between 4 to 7 and their parents will discover something fishy about the old school building, now the SAM on Saturday 2 Oct 2010.

The SAM would in fact be holding a party specially for Children’s Day on 2 October 2010. The party would be held to also launch SAM’s very first picture book “Salted Fish”, aimed at children between the ages of 3 to 8, a colouring book based on the artworks of the pioneer artist Cheong Soo Pieng. So what so fishy about the party and “Salted Fish” you may ask. Well, in the book, the main character, Lynn visits an art museum for the first time and discovers something “fishy” about an important painting by a famous artist in Singapore … and to help Lynn solve the mystery, the SAM is inviting parents with children between the ages of 4 to 7 to participate. At $35 for a parent-child pair, participants would get the following to help Lynn:

1) A FREE “Salted Fish” children’s storybook (worth $16.10) pre-autographed by the author and artist;

2) A FREE children’s colouring book;

3) FREE entry for adult and child to the Cheong Soo Pieng exhibition – SAM’s most impressive showcase to date!

Do come along for two hours of fun with your kids … details of the party and registration can be found below.


Salted Fish Children’s Book Party

Date: Saturday, 2 October 2010
Time: 2:00pm – 4:00pm
Venue: Singapore Art Museum, Glass Hall
Suitable for Children ages 4-7.

Happy Children’s Day! We are launching our very first picture book, Salted Fish. In the book, Lynn is on her first visit to an art museum and she discovers something strange about an important painting by a famous artist in Singapore. Come join us and learn more about this story of how art touches the life of a child.
The programme includes story-telling performances, interactive art activities and FREE admission to the exhibition.*

Admission fee: $35 for a child and an accompanying parent. Each additional adult pays $12.

The admission includes a pre-autographed copy of Salted Fish, a colouring book based on the artworks of the pioneer artist Cheong Soo Pieng.

Please e-mail to RSVP for the party. Tickets can be paid for upfront or at the registration desk by the Glass Hall on the day.

RSVP and Enquiries:
Masitah Ismail
Education Support Officer
DID: + 65 6332 5274
Fax: + 65 6336 5740
Email: masitah_ismail@nhb.gov.sg

* Admission covers ONE adult only. All children below 7 receive free admission but children aged 7 and above must show their student identity cards to receive a waiver of admission.

Front and Back cover of the book - participants would receive a pre-autographed copy of the book.






Now from the outside looking in and from the inside looking out …

6 09 2010

From the world apart at Little India, my ex-schoolmates and me made our way back to Bras Basah Road by MRT for the final part of a walkabout which had started right where we found ourselves back to. Tired from what was a hot afternoon’s stroll, this leg was thankfully (for me at least), more of a winding down session. Emerging from the trains at Bras Basah Station, we found ourselves right below what had been the school field all those years back, on which we would have had a good time at kicking footballs. These days, a glass bottomed pool serves as a skylight of sorts, sits right where the part of the field closest to the school had been on what is now SMU Green.

A skylight where we had once kicked footballs on a grassy field.

Aerial view of the former SJI and the SJI Field (c. late 1960s).

Once on street level we were welcomed by the familiar sight of the building which had been school, Saint Joseph’s Institution (SJI) for four wonderful years of our schooling life. With its two curved wings which had always appeared to arms reaching out to protect us as school boys. These days, as the Singapore Art Museum, it still stands as a reminder to the many school boys who it nurtured over the years, and with the statue of Saint John the Baptist de La Salle serving to remind us of what the school had once stood for. There are of course the many jokes about the statue … one has it that La Salle in pointing in the direction of Stamford Road, is reminding the two boys standing beside him that if they are not diligent in their studies, they might end up in the rival school at the foot of Fort Canning Hill (which in our days, had a reputation for having producing boys who had female tendencies).

The former SJI building, which now houses the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), is a landmark along Bras Basah Road as it was back when we were in school.

Bras Basah Road (seen here in the 1950s) has been completely transformed over the last three decades. Three landmarks that are left along the road are the former SJI, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, and the former CHIJ.

The statue of Saint John the Baptist de La Salle.

We took the opportunity to wander into the courtyard where we had once had our assemblies. It had been a lot bigger in our school days, able to take in the 30 or so classes of 45, assembled in rows of two. The courtyard had been for many of us back in school, the focal point of the school, and most would stand around the courtyard during recess or before classes. A popular activity had been feeding the pigeons with kacang putih bought from the tuck shop, an act that the pigeons sometimes repaid by blessing a few unfortunate boys with the digested bits of the feed that were expelled from their perch on the rafters above.

Reflection of a courtyard which had once been where. as school boys, we had assembled.

The passage way that had once been a main thoroughfare to get to the courtyard and tuck shop, running by what was once the staff room.

The kacang putih seller, seen in an old school annual.

There were some familiar sights, the green louvered wooden doors seemed very much like it was back then, which I guess helped in bringing a few memories back to us, transporting us back some 30 years in time. Somehow, we could picture ourselves in the place as it was back then, seeing sights and hearing sounds that we were once familiar with. It is always nice to relive old memories from time to time, and I guess we as students of SJI and one of the few with the privilege to do so at leisure, primarily because of what the buildings that were the school is used as today.

Back to school seeing what was yesterday reflected in what is today.

Another reflection of what once was.

Familiar sights ...

and maybe some less familiar ... but even then, some things never change ... the school building has a reputation for ghostly apparitions ...

An unfamiliar sight in a familiar place.

Leaving the Art Museum, we made our way through the compound of the Cathedral, where mass was going on. We were of course very familiar with the cathedral as boys, having attended mass there many times in the white of our school uniform. It was always on the agenda as well for my family for our church visits for Maundy Thursday. I had in fact visit the cathedral on several occasions as a young boy with my parents for mass as well. Each Sunday morning that we were there, we would encounter this rather impossible person who was the warden in charge of directing cars parking in the compound, which even then always seemed to fill up. The warden, a certain Mr Prince, never failed to find himself as a source of displeasure to church goers in his attempts to convince them to park their cars in the tightest of spots. The Cathedral, a gazetted national monument, is these days sadly in need of repair, having been damaged by much of the construction activity including tunneling work for the Circle Line which runs underneath Bras Basah Road. It is quite sad to see part of the structure needing to be propped by wooden shoring, and hopefully the damage and be completely repaired.

The spire of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd is now dwarfed by the buildings that have come up around it.

Shoring now supports part of the cathedral's structure which has suffered damage from all the construction activity that has gone on around the national monument.

Across Victoria Street from the Cathedral, what was the walled compound that used to house the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) stands. Back when we were school boys, much of what went on behind the walls was a big mystery to us. Looking at CHIJ then from the streets around it, one would have been confronted by what appeared to be a rather thick wall, almost as if it was some kind of fortification, parts of which were topped off by broken pieces of glass cemented in with sharp edges facing up. Along two sides of it, running along Bras Basah and North Bridge Roads, were rooms ventilated by small openings in the walls that I understand, had housed rooms which were used by the nuns who ran the convent. Along the Stamford Canal, another wall concealed much revealing only the secondary school building. The only glimpse we could get of what it was like beyond the walls was along Victoria Street, through the tall iron main gate, and perhaps by peeking through the small opening in the so called “Gate of Hope” close to the junction with Bras Basah Road.

From the outside looking in ... what was behind the walls were a mystery to many of us schoolboys.

The Gothic styled chapel dominated the compound.

A view of CHIJ as it was in its early days.

The view port on the Gate of Hope, where abandoned babies where left. The nuns ran an orphanage which took these unwanted babies in.

The wall of the former CHIJ along Bras Basah Road.

As boys we were always curious to know what was beyond the walls that swallowed up many of the pretty faces we had encountered each morning going to school, not being able to see beyond the magnificent structure of the Gothic styled chapel that proudly stood just behind the tall iron gate. I did have some first hand accounts from my sister who spent the first two years of her school life there before deciding that leaving for school at 5.30 each morning was something she could do without, but being at that age, she didn’t really have too much to share about the school. I did have an opportunity to see what did go on behind the walls, having been chosen to attend a girl guides campfire as a scout. I guess what the flickering glow of the campfire didn’t reveal much of the convent’s secrets as I do not not much of an impression of what was within the premises besides the field where the sunken courtyard we see today is, and the buildings that surrounded the field making it seem almost like a cloister of sorts.

The Gothic styled former chapel as seen on our recent walk.

The field that was behind the chapel ... now the sunken courtyard of CHIJMES.

Times have changed I guess, and the usage of the buildings of the former convent has as well. The convent moved to its present premises in Toa Payoh in 1982 before the complex of buildings were restored and transformed into what we see today … a dining, entertainment and shopping venue that in keeping with its past (only in name) has been named CHIJMES (pronounced “chimes”). So, now the once unadulterated grounds have been overrun by establishments that maybe serve some of what the nuns may have frowned upon. The complex is dominated by the sunken courtyard behind the former chapel that was once the school field, perhaps telling of how low the use of the premises has sunk to (from a spiritual viewpoint). That knowledge did not stop us from enjoying a couple of beers in the now unholy cloister.  What is nice about the place is that the sunken courtyard that provides a very Mediterranean feel about it.

The former cloister now houses food and entertainment outlets.

Mass being celebrated in the chapel.

The building that housed St. Nicholas Girls' School from 1949 to 1983.


The building today.

Although CHIJMES is today used in a manner that is perhaps not what the buildings were originally intended for, what is nice about it is that we are now able to see and appreciate efforts placed in giving us the magnificent examples of art and architecture erected to the “greater glory of God”. There is certainly an opportunity to savour what has to be some of the best examples of European style religious architecture in the this part of the world, works that were once only seen by those who lived and went to school within the closed compound. What must certainly stand out in this respect is the former chapel, built in the gothic style complete with flying buttresses that support the spire, which was completed in 1904. The chapel’s splendid architecture is complemented by what has to be some of the best examples of the medieval art of stained glass making in this region, made by a master craftsman, a certain Jules Dobbelaere, schooled in the Bruges tradition. Burges is a city which has received a lot of attention for some of the best preserved medieval edifices, in particular the many churches and the works of stained glass that seek to leave those fortunate enough to bathe in the glow in total awe. More information on the stained glass windows in the former chapel can be found on the CHIJMES website. On thing that would really be nice if the interior of the former chapel, now a private function hall, can be made accessible to allow the general public with an opportunity to have a close up view of the magnificence of the stained glass windows.

The stained glass windows above the altar area.

Stained glass in one of the side chapels.

Close up of the Nativity scene over the former altar area.

Stained glass above the entrance.

Another pane inside the chapel.

A pane at the entrance area ...

The chapel and the Neo-Gothic gallery flanking the chapel.

The grounds are full of delights waiting to be found … that in the brick and mortar of the buildings, in the glass work as previously described, and also in some wonderful pieces of ironwork that can be found in the gates and spiral staircases that lead up to what were the primary school classrooms above the Neo-Gothic galleries that flank the chapel. It’s certainly nice to have the opportunity to be able to discover all these and to savour the treat to the eyes that, for so long, the nuns at CHIJ had kept as a secret to the world outside.

Besides the wonderful chapel ... there's a lot more delightful work to be discovered ...

particularly in the Neo-Gothic galleries flanking the former chapel ...

including some delightful ironwork ...

on the spiral staircases ...

and floor tiles ... we had similar tiles when we were in SJI.





Seeing the former SJI in a different light …

4 01 2010

Illuminations that were on until 3 January 2010 on the façade of the former SJI building which is now the Singapore Art Museum to celebrate the season … thought it is a great way to see and appreciate the old building where I had spent four wonderful years as a secondary schoolboy, and look at it in a light different from how I had looked at it as a schoolboy some 30 years ago.

A photograph from the souvenir magazine commemorating the opening of the new SJI campus at Malcolm Road, April 1989 of how the school building looked back in the good old days (perhaps not as how we saw it – but maybe how some of the pigeons we used to share our kacang putih with in the courtyard of the school would have looked at it)…

And one maybe as how we would have looked at the building as schoolboys …

How it looked to us back then - from the SJI Annual 1980








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