A new garden of Silly Fun

11 10 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


More photographs from this morning’s opening:

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Tigers, elephants, rambutans and Xu Beihong in a garden of foolish indulgences

2 12 2016

Hidden in the thick vegetation in the swathe of land between Old Upper Thomson and Upper Thomson Roads are the remains of a forgotten community for whom the area was home. Interestingly, there is a lot more that lies hidden. Interwoven with the story of the lost community are also names, personalities and events that provided the area with a surprising amount of colour.

The remnants of a lost village are found in the forested area between Old Upper Thomson and Upper Thomson Roads.

The remnants of a lost village are found in the forested area between Old Upper Thomson and Upper Thomson Roads.

The stretch of Old Upper Thomson and Upper Thomson Roads is quite famously associated with the Singapore Grand Prix; not the current incarnation of the motoring race, but one that reflected humbler times. While that may be another subject altogether, there are the inevitable links the area and its community has to the event, and one of it is the references to the village at the now lost Jalan Belang as the “Grand Prix kampong”.

A concrete structure in the former “Grand Prix kampong”.

The “belang” in Jalan Belang, which translates in Malay to “stripes” is said to have been a reference to the stripes of a tiger and speculation has it that it may have been due to a tiger having been sighted there. One of two privately built roads in the area, it provided access into the narrow strip from the area of Old Upper Thomson known as the snakes. Another road, the Lorong Pelita (“pelita” is Malay for “oil lamp”) lay further north. Lorong Pelita, it would appear, was quite a fitting name as electricity supply only reached the area in the late 1960s.

A kerosene lamp at Lorong Pelita.

A kerosene lamp at Lorong Pelita.

While the remains of the village do not reveal much of their composition of its residents, it can be seen in the proportions of the concrete and brick structures that have survived, some would have been doing quite well. Interestingly there are also numerous concrete receptacles, large and small – seemingly for collection of rain water – and the conspicuous absence of wells.

A fallen electricity pole at the area where Jalan Belang was.

A fallen electricity pole at the area where Jalan Belang was.

There are lots of water receptacles.

There are lots of water receptacles.

What is perhaps most interesting is the links the land has with a certain Han Wai Toon. Han, a Hainanese immigrant who arrived at our shores in 1915, purchased 2 1/2 acres in 1936 for some $700 and embarked on a quest to cultivate trees that would yield the perfect rambutan – as research by various individuals including architectural historian, Dr. Lai Chee Kien reveals. A 1960 article in the Singapore Free Press, “The Long Search for Better Rambutans” also provides information on this. The orchard, which Han named “Silly Fun Garden”, or as a graphic novel set in the garden written by Oh Yong Hwee and illustrated by Koh Hong Teng, describes it in more poetic language as  “The Garden of Foolish Indulgences” (I have since been advised that the term “The Garden of Foolish Indulgences” was coined by Dr. Lai, who used it in an essay published in Global History. It was this essay that the authors of the Graphic Novel, based part of their work on).

There are lost of fruit trees in the area besides the remnants of the Han Rambutan Garden.

There are lost of fruit trees in the area besides the remnants of the Han Rambutan Orhcard.

A sketch of the 'Han Rambutan Orchard' by Lim Mu Hue (Singapore in Global History p. 164).

A sketch of the ‘Han Rambutan Orchard’ by Lim Mu Hue (Singapore in Global History p. 164).

Despite its frivolous sounding name, the garden attracted also serious cultural and artistic exchanges. Amongst its visitors was Xu Beihong, a famous Chinese artist with whom Han shared an interest in Chinese ceramics. An artistic work Xu executed during a stay in the (soon to be demolished) Huang Clan in Geylang in 1939, “Put Down Your Whip”,  fetched a record price for a Chinese art work of US$9.2 million in 2007. The painting, which has a strong anti-Japanese theme, was one of several that Han had hidden on the grounds of his garden during the Japanese occupation. Another of Xu’s paintings in the stash, “Silly Old Man Moves a Mountain“, sold for US$4.12 million in 2006.

Put Down Your Whip by Xu Beihong.

Put Down Your Whip by Xu Beihong, which sold for a record US$9.2 million in 2007 (source: Wikipedia).

The garden of foolish indulgences?

The garden of foolish indulgences?

Han, who would make a name for himself in the study of art, ceramics and archaeology and was the author of 55 scholarly articles, made a permanent return to China in 1962 before passing away in 1970. Rather interestingly, a discovery attributed to Han during his time at Upper Thomson, was that of a Ming Dynasty Chinese tomb in the area in 1949. The tomb of a certain Chen Chow Guan, provided evidence that Chinese settlement in Singapore and the region went as far back as the 15th century. In addition to the tomb, a cluster of five Teochew graves from the early 19th century was also found nearby by a group of archaeologists that included Han. It is not known what has become of the graves.

An edible flower, bunga kantan or torch ginger flower, better known here as rojak flower (its bud is used in the rojak dish).

An edible flower, bunga kantan or torch ginger flower, better known here as rojak flower (its bud is used in the rojak dish).

Yesterday no more.

Yesterday no more.

Those of my generation will probably remember Thai Handicraft, which was on the fringes of the area at Upper Thomson Road, and the family who were associated with it. It was hard to miss its showroom passing in the bus or a car with the attention the huge wooden cravings of elephants standing guard drew to the showroom. The shop, set in from the side of the road, dealt with imports of wooden cravings from Thailand and was owned by the Looi family whose links to the area also extended to the races.

There's pineapple too!

There’s pineapple too!

The location of the shop, which was right by the start and finish point of the Grand Prix circuit, was also where the Loois had operated a motorcycle shop, Looi Motors. The Loois also had racing in their blood and produced two generations of motorcycle racers. One member of the family, Gerry Looi, would become a household name in the motorcycle racing circuit in the 1970s. He participated in the latter races of the Singapore Grand Prix with brother Fabian until its last race in 1973. Sadly, Gerry would meet a tragic end doing what he loved most, passing away at the age of 33 in October 1981 –  just a few days after a crash at the Shah Alam circuit had left him in a coma.

A red brick structure in the forest.

A red brick structure in the forest.

The privately held area was last inhabited in the mid-1980s when it was cleared out after its acquisition by the Housing and Development Board. While this would suggest that the intention then had been to give it to public housing, the site – now a wonderful oasis of green having been reclaimed by nature, will be where the future Thomson Nature Park will be. Work on the park will commence next year and is expected to be completed at the end of 2018. Part of the plan for the park involves the preservation of the site’s mature trees and the incorporation of the village ruins with the trails that will run through it and that will hopefully keep both the lush greenery and the rich history of the area alive.

Further information:

Online:

NParks announces plans for Upcoming Thomson Nature Park

NParks Factsheet (Thomson Nature Park)

History and nature meet at upcoming Thomson Nature Park, The Straits Times, 8 Oct 2016

The long search for better rambutans, The Singapore Free Press, 4 March 1960

Ming tomb claim in Singapore, The Singapore Free Press, 15 December 1949

‘Oldest Chinese cemetery’ find, The Straits Times, 11 January 1950

Han, 69 studies history from old China, The Singapore Free Press, 5 January 1961

Loois will make motor racing fans feel proud,The Straits Times, 15 April 1973

Daring racer was scared of the dark, New Nation, 24 October 1981

Offline:

Lai, Chee Kien 2011. “Rambutans in the Picture: Han Wai Toon and the Articulation of Space by the Overseas Chinese in Singapore”,  in Singapore in Global History,  edited by Heng, Derek and Aljunied, Syed Muhd Khairudin, 151-172, Amsterdam University Press.

Wong, Sharon 2009. “Negotiating Identities, Affiliations and Interests: The Many Lives of Han Wai Toon, an Overseas Chinese”,  in Reframing Singapore in Global History,  edited by Heng, Derek and Aljunied, Syed Muhd Khairudin, 155-174, Amsterdam University Press.


More photographs:

The remnants of quite a large house.

The remnants of quite a large house.

A room in the house.

A room in the house.

And the washroom.

And the washroom.

A forest stream.

A forest stream.

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From watching for free from a muddy slope to the luxury of the Paddock Club: The Singapore GP then and now.

12 03 2010

There was a time when watching the Grand Prix in Singapore meant having to brave the heat of the afternoon sun on the muddy tree lined slopes of Old Upper Thomson Road. Being run over the Easter weekend, going to the races offered a young boy something to look forward to besides Easter eggs, hot cross buns and the tedium of the very long Good Friday services and vigil masses that my grandmother was fond of dragging me to. I always looked forward to accompanying my father, his trusty old thermos flask filled to the brim with thick black coffee, and a thick wad of old newspapers, to the slopes which offered a glimpse of the cars and motorcycles that sped by as they made their way through the narrow and treacherous three mile street circuit.

The treacherous old GP circuit at Old Upper Thomson Road offered the public free access to witness the thrills and spills up close.

35 years after the original Singapore GP was banned in 1973 - a very different Singapore GP was re-introduced, run in the lights on the streets of down town Singapore.

That was a time when life I guess, was a little simpler, when we were content just to be able to catch the action up close, sitting on a piece of newsprint which protected our clothes from being soiled by the mud underneath. Most of us probably wouldn’t have thought of spending the seemingly exorbitant sums involved with watching the GP these days.

Spectators watching the motorcycle race perched on the muddy slopes.

The original Singapore GP had started off as the Orient Year Grand Prix in 1961, being renamed the Malaysian Grand Prix in 1962, and after independence, the Singapore Grand Prix. The GP was run right up to 1973, following which concerns about safety – there having had been seven fatalities and numerous injuries up to that point, and the negative influence it was thought to have on the driving habits of the local motorists, saw it being banned. It was not until 2008 when the GP was reintroduced, with the lure of the money and glamour that the sport brings to it host cities an overriding factor. The reintroduction has also given the F1 GP season its first and only night race – run on a street circuit that brings spectacular views of the illuminated Singapore skyline. The inaugural race received some mixed reactions and even some drama with one personality even describing the night race as a circus.

The inaugural F1 night race brought the GP back to Singapore after an absence of 35 years. The street circuit runs through the beautifully illuminated iconic structures of the night time Singapore skyline.

The inaugural F1 night race in 2008 runs past some icons of Singapore including the old Supreme Court and City Hall.

I suppose one does have a choice of how to catch the race these days … spending close to nothing catching the action from the comfort of one’s armchair in one’s living room or perhaps forking out a relatively small sum of money to walk the race track or a more painful sum to be seated at the grandstands … for the more fortunate, there is of course the ridiculous sums that one has to pay to get into the Paddock Club. There is also that chance you can get your hands on an invitation to one of the team’s hospitality suites … where the contrast with that muddy slope I sat on more than three decades ago, couldn’t be more apparent …

The comfort and luxury of a Paddock Club hospitality suite offers the ultimate experience in being up close to the GP - a far cry from watching from the muddy slopes of Old Upper Thomson Road.

The Scuderia Ferrari suite.

The Paddock Club offers a free flow of bubbly, spirits and just about anything else.

Top class chefs are flown in specially for the event.

A lounge - put up just for 3 days of action.

Live entertainment is also provided at the Paddock Club.

The Paddock Club also offers access to the Grandstand where the action and roar of the engines can be caught up close.

The suites offer a close up view of the action on the pitwall as well.

As well as the pits ...

Life in the pits.

The pit crew in action.