Extortion on Club Street

27 02 2019

The pain of the darkest of times that descended upon Singapore 77 years ago is still found in the hearts of many. That comes as no surprise, tens of thousands disappeared in the first weeks of the Japanese Occupation; a large number it has to be assumed, victims of the vicious purge we now refer to as “Sook Ching”.

The fear that the act instilled in the local Chinese population – the target of the purge – was an intended consequence. Many among the community’s elite had supported the resistance effort against the Japanese invasion of China in one way or another. Several were in detention and needed little persuasion to “cooperate” through the formation of the compliant Overseas Chinese Association. From the association’s members, “tribute money” could also be extracted.

The first act in the sequence that would lead 50 million Straits dollars being pledged, took place on the 27th of February 1942- as the murderous purge was being enacted. Its stage was the hall of the exclusive Goh Loo Club to which several senior members of the Chinese community were summoned. High on the agenda for that tense first meeting, which was set by a collaborator of Taiwanese origin, Wee Twee Kim, was the development of proposals for “cooperation”. The meeting is depicted in a wall mural at the club’s clubhouse, in which Dr. Lim Boong Keng – the association’s president designate – can quite easily be identified.

It was at subsequent meetings when the sum of money, which amounted to 20% of what was in circulation in Singapore and Malaya, was agreed upon – which can perhaps be thought of having put an end to the purge. Raising the amount required many in Malaya and Singapore to dispose of their assets, and depleted the savings the Chinese population held. It also took two deadline extensions and a loan of $22 million (taken from the Yokohama Specie Bank). A cheque would eventually be presented to General Tomoyuki Yamashita by Dr. Lim on 25 June 1942 at a 3 pm ceremony. This ceremony took place at the Gunseibu headquarters that was set up in the Fullerton Building.

The Goh Loo Club.
The mural.
The hall on the second level where the meeting took place.
A view of Club Street from the clubhouse.
A more agreeable depiction perhaps – with Yamashita behind bars.
A receipt to acknowledge a “donation” made towards the $50 million issued by the OCA (source: https://roots.sg/Roots/learn/collections/listing/1121258).

The Goh Loo Club

Founded in 1905, the club moved to its location on Club Street in 1927 and is one of a handful of exclusive establishments from which the street takes its name.

It was set up by a group of select Chinese businessmen and its members included Dr. Lim Boon Keng and Lee Kong Chian. Its name, 吾盧, which means “love hut” is apparently inspired by a poem written by the Jin dynasty poet Tao Yuanming in which he describes his house.

Its clubhouse bears many of the characteristics of the shophouse with the exception of its unusually large width. A consequence of this is the very obvious set of columns seen in the halls on the clubhouse’s lower floors.

Interestingly, the Basketball Association of Singapore was housed on the first level of the clubhouse from its founding in 1946, to 1971 – as can be surmised from the window grilles on the ground floor. The association was founded by Mr Goh Chye Hin, who was then the president of the Goh Loo Club.

The mural

The mural depicting the first meeting of the OCA, found on the outside wall of the clubhouse, was installed in 2016. Amongst the faces found on it is the reviled General Tomoyuki Yamashita. The mural also celebrates the members of the working-class Chinese community and prominent figures in the community such as the revolutionary leader, Dr. Sun Yat Sen.

The mural is best viewed from the compound of the Singapore Chinese Weekly Entertainment Club.

A reminder of the clubhouse’s association with the Basketball Association of Singapore.
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A new face to a once familiar place

24 11 2011

Some might remember a time when Punggol Point lay at the end of a somewhat long and winding road – the old Punggol Road that meandered through a countryside that we have since lost. The road, which started at its junction with Upper Serangoon Road where the St. Francis Xavier Minor Seminary served as a landmark, took one past some five miles of the many tracks of Punggol, villages and farms with attap and zinc roofed houses and a lot of which I don’t quite remember. What I did remember was the unmistakeable pong that hung in the air – one that was fed by the numerous poultry and pig farms that had thrived in the area, and perhaps the evening’s chorus of squeals – that of pigs calling for their dinner.

The beach at Punggol Point - now cleaned up and freed of the boatels and boats that added colour to the landscape.

The end of the road offered a lot to those who did brave the journey. There was first and foremost the cluster of seafood restaurants that drew many with the reward of reputedly some of the best and freshest seafood dishes on the menu in which service always seemed to begin with the customary basin in which one found the table’s utensils and teacups, cleansed in the water that the basin held. There was also the weekend crowd that came: those armed with rods to fish at the jetty, or board a boat to attempt to reel in a bigger catch offshore – which invariably included a lot of Ikan Sembilang; and those who sought to satisfy a need for speed planing over the water on waterskis – either off Punggol Point or at nearby Coney Island. For some, Punggol Point also offered a quiet escape from the fast moving concrete world that was taking over much of the rest of Singapore – the fishing village it hosted by the sea adding to the rustic charm that the area already held.

Punggol Point before the big change that took place at the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s (source: http://picas.nhb.gov.sg).

The last I saw of that Punggol Point and of Punggol Road was at a time when I was still in my youth, and with the distractions of a decade when I made the transition from being a curious child to adulthood, a decade that probably saw the most significant change in Singapore’s rural landscape – the 1980s, the clearing of Punggol as it was at the end of the 1980s seemed to have passed me by. Some business at Punggol Point like the seafood restaurants and boatels did have an extended lease of life, but they too went in the early 1990s, and Punggol, as with much of Singapore, was to be changed forever.

Looking west today towards what was the area close to the mouth of Sungei Punggol.

I was to discover how much has changed as I made my way over the weekend for the first time in over two decades to Punggol Point for the official opening of Punggol Point Walk and Punggol Point Park. The journey was there of course now made a lot easier by the Tampines Expressway (TPE) which runs below an elevated stretch of Punggol Road, no longer was there a need to make one’s way over Upper Serangoon Road to the start of that long and narrow Punggol Road. There wasn’t much that I had expected to see that would have reminded me of the old Punggol Road and Punggol Point, as I tirelessly drove along what is now a wide dual carriageway, flanked not by attap and zince roofed houses and greenery, but by the new HDB estate that has risen out of the ashes of the old Punggol. A surprise awaited at the last stretch of the road – the dual carriageway merged, after a wide junction into a stretch on which for a moment, gave me a feeling that I was on my way to that old Punggol Point. Flanked by a line of trees which provided cover to the short but winding stretch of road, it did look as if I was heading down the old Punggol Road – which this stretch was a part of, kept almost as it might have been as a heritage road. Althought the ‘Tracks’ of Punggol Road were gone, there is still a couple of familar streets – one Ponggol Seventeenth Avenue brings with it memories I have of campfires and walks by a narrow beach that led to the mouth of Sungei Punggol. It is after the next familiar name, Ponggol Twenty-Fourth Avenue, that the realisation sinks in that it is not to that old Punggol Point that I was heading to, as the break in the cover of trees reveals the brand new world which will attempt to retain some of that rustic charm that the old Punggol Point had been known for.

The tree lined stretch of road that leads to the end - reminiscent of the Punggol Road of the days gone by.

Past the Outward Bound School, I soon arrived at the end of the road. Desperate to see what Punggol Point has become, I quickly make my way up a viewing deck, which I was to find out later, shaped like a ship. The viewing deck offered a wonderful panorama of the Straits of Johor and Pasir Gudang beyond the jetty which it overlooked, where stakes used to moor boats and the boats tied to them would have once greeted the eye. On both sides, a beach that looked a lot cleaner than the one I remembered ran up and down the coastline, cleared of the boatels and the stilted houses of a Malay kampung that once stood close to the water’s edge. The beach, and perhaps the jetty are perhaps what can connect us with the past, and a reminder in the form of a National Heritage Board sign of an unfortunate and tragic episode in our history that took place on the beach – the Sook Ching Massacre.

The jetty today.

The lookout that I stepped on to, is part of what is a 1.2 km promenade and park, the Punggol Point Walk and Punggol Point Park, which is one of three thematic zones of the $16.7 million 4.9 km long Punggol Promenade project undertaken by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) that was officially opened by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean on 20 Nov 2011. This is a component of its Parks and Waterbodies and Identities Plans which aims to open up and introduce new recreational activities and amenities to coastal areas, and also preserve the laid-back and village-like appeal that the areas are known for. Punggol Promenade will link up two recreational clusters at Punggol Point and Punggol East, as well as link to the park connectors along Punggol Reservoir and Serangoon Reservoir. This will form a continuous 17 km loop around the north-eastern part of Singapore. The two other thematic zones are the 1.3 km Riverside Walk which anchors a growing recreational cluster at Punggol East which opened in March this year and a 2.5 km Nature Walk, scheduled to be completed next year.

Punggol Point Walk and Punggol Point Walk was officially opened by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean on 20 Nov 2011.

Ms Penny Low, Member of Parliament for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, speaking at the opening.

Location Plan of Punggol Promenade and Punggol Point Walk and Punggol Point Park. © Urban Redevelopment Authority. All rights reserved.

A dragon who's eyes were painted by DPM Teo used in a dragon dance performance at the opening.

Dragon dance performance by Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC residents.

The Punggol Point Park offers a lot more besides the viewing deck and the beach, there are also the calm of Lily Ponds, a 81 metre by 10 metre Event Plaza and a Children’s Playground to draw families to enjoy the newly opened park. There is certainly more to look forward to – a reserve site has been released by the URA for sale by tender for food and beverage development – which will perhaps see the return of seafood to the area, and a horse-riding school will also soon open. The Promenade at Punggol Point Walk will feature both a 3 metre wide cycling track for use by cyclists and roller skaters and a parallel 3 metre wide footpath constructed of simulated timber. A sustainable approach is in fact adopted in the selection of materials for use in the project that also involves the use of permeable Tegula pavers on hard scaped area which eliminate the need for drainage systems, the use of bio-swales to filter surface run-offs and the use of Laterite earth.

The Lily Pond.

Besides the mobile ice-cream vendor - there is now a lot more to attract those with children to visit the park and promenade.

The Children's Playground. © Urban Redevelopment Authority. All rights reserved.

Footpaths and cycling paths at the waterfront promenade. © Urban Redevelopment Authority. All rights reserved.

I must say that although I didn’t really find much of the old Punggol Point that I might have hoped for, I am grateful to have taken the opportunity to visit the area. The drive through the heritage road did help trigger a few memories that I have stored away, as did my walk around the new park. While much of the old world rustic charm has inevitably been lost, there is still some of that charm that is left to draw vistors to the area and to also draw me back not just for the chance to escape from the urban world, but also for the opportunity it offers me to rediscover and reconnect with a part of Singapore I have might have almost forgotten about.