The fight for freedom from where freedom had once been curtailed

20 02 2016

I miss the Bras Basah Road of my schooldays. Wet rice road as “bras (or beras) basah” translates into, and the area around it, had a life about it and a charm that now seems lost.

A Bras Basah still with its many reminders of the past. The Cox Club at Waterloo Street can be seen on the left behind the bus (F W York Collection, National Archives of Singapore).

A Bras Basah still with its many reminders of the past. The Cox Club at Waterloo Street can be seen on the left behind the bus (F W York Collection, National Archives of Singapore).

Sarabat Stalls along Waterloo Street

The row of Indian Rojak stalls at Waterloo Street – a favourite makan destination during my days in school (posted on AsiaOne).

The street, a destination for those in search of sporting goods, books and good affordable food, was also where school was for some. Several of Singapore’s pioneering schools, including our very first, Raffles Institution, have their roots in the area.

Bras Basah Road as seen from the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in 1968. The row of shophouses where bookshops and sporting goods shops were concentrated can be seen just beyond Saint Joseph’s Institution (now the Singapore Art Museum). The Cathay building, ‘Singapore’s first skyscraper’, can be seen at the end of Bras Basah at Dhoby Ghaut (http://www.goingplacessingapore.sg).

The row of book and sporting goods shops opposite the remnants of a 18th century gaol along Bras Basah Road (National Archives photograph).

Without the shops, the makan places and children hurrying to school, an air of emptiness now surrounds the place; an emptiness that also extends to a built environment that now lacks several markers of the area’s eventful past.

The former Raffles Institution as seen from Beach Road, 1975.

The former Raffles Institution as seen from Beach Road – where Raffles City now stands.

The streets around the Singapore Art Museum are ones that were familiar to me from my school days at the end of the 1970s. Then it wasn't just traffic that brought movement at 7.20 in the morning, but the comings and goings of school children, workers and residents of the area.

The emptiness that is today Bras Basah Road.

One missing piece of this past would have taken us back to forgotten days when Singapore served British India as a penal colony. This piece, a cluster of structures belonging to a nineteenth century convict gaol, had long been a prominent feature on the Bras Basah Road until it was demolished in the late 1980s.

A view of Bras Basah Road from Mount Sophia on a 19th century postcard The gaol is seen just beyond the drying laundry at Bras Basah Green - what gave Dhoby Ghaut its name.

A view of Bras Basah Road from Mount Sophia on a 19th century postcard The gaol complex is seen just beyond the drying laundry at Bras Basah Green – what gave Dhoby Ghaut its name.

The cluster stood close to where Bencoolen Street crossed Bras Basah Road, its most noticeable structure being one I initially suspected was the gaol’s gate-house. Built flush with what would have been the outer walls of the gaol, an arched passageway wide enough for a carriage to pass suggested it might have been one.

The inside of the gaol, photographed by G H Lambert, looking towards what appears to be the former apothecary (National Archives photograph).

The cluster was all that remained of a prison complex that old maps show to stretch southwards to the Stamford Canal, originally the Freshwater Rivulet, and eastwards to Victoria Street over the plot on which Raffles Girls School at Queen Street would be built.

The Layout of the Bras Basah Gaol.

The Layout of the Bras Basah Gaol.

The gaol gates - where the southward extension of Waterloo Street was to be constructed..

The gaol gates – where the southward extension of Waterloo Street was to be constructed..

Where the gates would have been across Bras Basah Road.

Where the gates would have been across Bras Basah Road.

The gaol, built by the convicts themselves, was completed in 1860. It last saw use as a prison in 1882, some years after the last of the convicts brought from India had been released in 1873. The convicts were put to work, clearing forests, hunting tigers and building Singapore – many of Singapore’s first paved roads including Bras Basah, structures such as the bund at Collyer Quay, St. Andrew’s Cathedral and the Raffles and Horsburgh lighthouses were built by these convicts. What remained of the gaol was also perhaps a reminder not just of the penal colony but also of the contribution made by the convicts in the building up of early British Singapore.

Pulau Satumu or "One Tree Island", the southernmost island of Singapore, is home to Raffles Lighthouse.

Raffles Lighthouse, among the structures built by convict labour.

A map of the Bras Basah area in the mid 1800s well before the Maghain Aboth was built. Waterloo Street had then been named Church Street.

A map of the Bras Basah area in the mid 1800s showing the location of the gaol.

The gaol proper was laid out across an area that included what became the sports field of the school I attended, Saint Joseph’s Institution (SJI) and the now paved over southward extension of Waterloo Street that was known in more recent times for the famous row of Indian Rojak stalls.  The area had apparently already been cleared and was in use as a playing field, referred to as the “Children’s Corner”, in the early twentieth century.

Saint Joseph's Institution on Bras Basah Road in the 1970s

The Saint Joseph’s Institution field in the 1970s.

The “gate-house”, it turns out, had not been the gaol’s gates, but an apothecary – part of the set of buildings laid out along the western boundary to house the gaol’s hospital and lunatic asylum.

The former apothecary used by the CYMA as seen in the 1970s.

The former apothecary used by the CYMA along Bras Basah Road (c. 1970s).

If not for the fact that the lunatic asylum and the gaol had long moved out, one might have suspected that it might have been one of its inmates who sent part of the former gaol’s perimeter wall tumbling down in October 1978. This bizarre incident involved a Singapore Bus Service bus that had been stolen from the Toa Payoh bus depot by a 15-year old boy. The portion of the wall that it crashed into was one that was shared with the bedroom of a house used by the caretaker of what had then been the Catholic Young Men’s Association (CYMA) and it was fortunate that no one was hurt.

The 1978 incident involving a stolen SBS bus (National Archives photograph).

Besides becoming the home of the CYMA, the hospital section of the former gaol also saw use by the Malay Company of the Singapore Volunteer Corps up to the late 1930s. Part of the grounds also found use after the war as the Cox Club for Indian troops, which was later to house the Malayan Air Training Command (MATC). It was during its time as the MATC HQ that a Spitfire Mk 24 that some in the “pioneer generation” may remember seeing, found its way to the grounds.

A photograph taken in 1970 from the National Museum showing the section of the former gaol's grounds west of Waterloo Street, when it was used by the CYMA. The former apothecary can quite clearly be seen. Scouts can also be seen in the foreground - the troop from Catholic High School had their den on the grounds.

A photograph taken by Randal McDowell in 1970 from the National Museum showing the section of the former gaol’s grounds west of Waterloo Street, when it was used by the CYMA. The former apothecary can quite clearly be seen. Scouts can also be seen in the foreground – the troop from Catholic High School had their den on the grounds.

The former apothecary in the days when the grounds were used by the Malay Company of the Singapore Volunteer Corps.

The former apothecary in the days when the grounds were used by the Malay Company of the Singapore Volunteer Corps.

Interestingly, and ironically perhaps, the same grounds, used in its early days to curtail freedom of people shipped from the British India, was to find use in the fight to free India from British rule. It was there that the Indian National Army’s all women Rani of Jhansi regiment found their first training camp, which opened on 22 October 1943.

Capt. Lakshmi and Subhas Chandra Bose inspecting the members of the INA Rani of Jhansi regiment at the camp in Bras Basah Road. The former apothecary building and the arched verandahs of what became the Soon Choon Leong building at the corner of Bras Basah Road and Bencoolen Street can quite clearly be seen.

Capt. Lakshmi and Subhas Chandra Bose inspecting a guard of honour presented by members of the Rani of Jhansi regiment at the camp in Bras Basah Road. The former apothecary building and the arched verandahs of what became the Soon Chong Leong building at the corner of Bras Basah Road and Bencoolen Street can quite clearly be seen.

The area of the former Rani of Jhansi camp today.

The area of the former Rani of Jhansi camp today – where the Singapore Management University’s School of Information Systems is located.

The Japanese Imperial Army supported INA found its second wind under the newly appointed Subhas Chandra Bose, seeking recruits among captured troops from the British Indian army units and the civilian population with the aim of freeing India from British rule. The events in Singapore of October 1943 represented a significant milestone for the INA. Not only was the women’s unit training camp established, a Provisional Government of Free India had, only a day before on 21 October 1943, been proclaimed by Subhas Chandra Bose at Cathay building.

Members of the Azad Hind posing for a photograph in Singapore on 21 October 1943.

Members of the Azad Hind posing for a photograph in Singapore on 21 October 1943.

The women’s regiment was formed in July 1943 through the efforts of the very young Captain (Dr.) Lakshmi Swaminathan (later Sahgal), who had come to Singapore only three years before to practice medicine. It drew its members mainly from the working classes in the Indian community of Singapore and Malaya  and counted some 1500 women in its ranks. Capt. Lakshmi besides being the leader of the regiment, was also appointed as the Minister in Charge of Women’s Organisation in the Azad Hind.

The women's regiment drew many recruits from the working class in Singapore and Malaya.

The women’s regiment drew many recruits from the working class in Singapore and Malaya.

An article, apparently written by Dr. Lakshmi, “My days in the Indian National Army”, offers some insights into the regiment and its training, which was to commence on 23 October 1943. In it she reveals:

“Our training lasted three months. It was very rigorous. We all had to wear a khaki uniform of pants and bush shirt, and cut our hair short. I had hair below my knees which my mother had never allowed me to cut. So I was really glad to have it cut and never grew it back since”.

Dr. Lakshmi’s account also tells of the women’s regiment’s participation in guerrilla attacks in Burma, to which the unit had been deployed in 1944 and 1945. The unit disbanded in 1945, at a time when the turning tide of the war in Burma had the Japanese Imperial Army and the INA in retreat.

The area where the apothecary building was.

The area where the apothecary building was.

As controversial as Subhas Chandra Bose and the INA, due to their collaboration with the occupying Japanese army, may be, the memory of the Bose and INA is one that has been kept alive here in Singapore. A marker at the Esplanade stands at the site of a memorial of the INA, now a historical site.

The INA memorial at Esplanade, marked with the words Ittehad, Itmad aur Qurbani, which in Urdu means Unity, Faith and Sacrifice  (National Archives photograph).

While the INA and Bose have not been forgotten, little however is now said of the Rani of Jhansi regiment and of Dr. Lakshmi, who passed away at the age of 97 in India in 2012. Like the gaol, the grounds of which the regiment also had its roots sunk into, the few physical reminders left have now been swept away by faceless buildings the man on the street struggles to find a connection to. That connection, brought about by the everyday things that drew us to the area and the many stories its buildings told of the history not just of one of Singapore’s oldest roads, but also of Singapore itself, is one that now seems to forever be broken.

BRITISH REOCCUPATION OF SINGAPORE, 1945

A view down Bras Basah Road following the surrender in 1945, © IWM (IND 4817). The structures of the former goal – used by the Rani of Jhansi regiment as a training camp, can be seen at what would have been the gaol’s northwest corner.

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So, it wasn’t the cat after all!

17 06 2010

So it wasn’t really the cat after all, or the dog for that matter. The PUB confirmed this in a statement issued late this afternoon. Quoting a Channel NewsAsia report, “in its statement the PUB said the drain’s capacity is adequate as it has handled previous rains of similar intensity”. In the statement, the PUB blamed the flooding on the build up of debris which were trapped in a culvert near Delfi Orchard. The culvert which diverts water from Nassim and Cuscaden Road into two sections of Stamford Canal, runs along Orchard Road. As a result of the heavy build-up of debris the rainwater from the heavy rainfall was diverted to only one the sections of the canal.

High and dry ... this cat certainly wasn't the culprit, nor the dogs that were said to have fallen with the cats!

The PUB did say in the statement that it would be increasing the frequency of maintenance and inspections of critical closed drains as a result. While this does help to prevent future repeat occurrences of Wednesday’s flood, it would certainly be more effective if we were to tackle the problem at its source. Walking around Singapore these days, there is certainly a lot of litter that can be seen strewn around: plastic cups, plastic bags, plastic bottles, styrofoam food containers etc. Many of these do eventually find their way into the drains and canals when it rains. The recent launch of the new anti-littering drive which was announced last week and the associated measures to curb littering now takes on a greater degree of importance. Let’s hope the recent flooding helps to bring the message to everyone that the consequences of littering can be a lot more far reaching than many of us would like to believe.

The heavy downpour caused debris to be trapped diverting water into only one of two sections of the canal. An open section of the canal is seen here behind Tanglin Shopping Centre.

Walking around Singapore these days, litter such as plastic cups, styrofoam containers, plastic bottles and bags, etc. can be found everywhere.

Much of the litter eventually ends up in the drains and canals, not just choking them, but also diverting them into our rivers and reservoirs.





Beautiful buildings and a tale of buried treasure under a bridge: Memories of Stamford Road

21 02 2010

I loved passing through Stamford Road as a child. This was the road that started with the sight of a needle like structure that is the Civilian War Memorial, rising up where Nicoll Highway and Connaught Drive merged, close to where the Satay Club and that semi-circular hawker centre at the end of the Esplanade were located. The brilliant white needle like structure for me evoked a sense of mystery, looking as if it was a rocket destined for the moon, or perhaps, put there by visitors from another world to serve as an observation post. The structure actually comprises four pillars rising each representing the four main race groups is dedicated to civilians who perished during the Japanese occupation, and was unveiled on 15 February 1967, the 25th anniversary of the fall of Singapore.

The Civilian War Memorial.

A new "needle" the 73 storey Swissôtel The Stamford now towers over the original across Beach Road. When it was built in 1986, the then Westin Stamford was the World's tallest hotel.

The old and the new. The 68m tall Civilian War Memorial at War Memorial Park was completed in 1967 is dwarfed by the 226m Swissôtel The Stamford.

Back then, the now undercover Stamford Canal, which runs parallel to Stamford Road, was open for all to see. On the canal side of the road, bridges over the canal could be found at the intersections of the roads that ran perpendicular to Stamford Road, with names such as Polglase Bridge (on North Bridge Road) and Malcolm Bridge (on Victoria Street). I remember an interesting story about Polglase Bridge sometime in the mid 1970s. An elderly lady sparked off a frantic dig for buried treasure on the bank of the canal underneath the bridge, after relating how while hiding under the bridge during the Japanese occupation, she had witnessed Japanese soldiers forcing some civilians to bury what she thought was gold there – I am not sure if anything was found.

The junction with Beach Road would have been the first intersection along Stamford Road heading north – this would be where the white-washed St. Andrew’s Cathedral would stare at me from the left, and, over the Stamford Canal, the buildings that housed Raffles Institution (RI) before it moved to Grange Road in 1972. For a while the disused buildings stood there looking somewhat tired and abandoned until it was demolished at the end of the 1970s to make way for the I.M. Pei designed Raffles City complex.

Saint Andrew's Cathedral as seen from Stamford Road.

The former Raffles Institution as seen from Beach Road, 1975 (Photo source: Ray Tyers Singapore Then & Now).

Stamford Road in 1976 at the junction with Beach Road. On the area on the right of the picture now stands Raffles City (Photo source: Ray Tyers Singapore Then & Now).

The same junction today with the Swissôtel The Stamford towering over the area.

My favourite stretch of the road began at the junction with North Bridge Road. This was of course where Capitol Building stood, with its façade dominated by a colourful hand-painted canvas mural which brightly advertised what was being screened at the cinema theatre that stood hidden behind the building. The building itself was put up in 1933 and was designed in eclectically in a neo-Classical style. Capitol is in fact one of the five iconic cinema buildings that were featured in a stamp set “Cinema Theatres of Yesteryear” issued by Singpost in 2009, and would deserve more detailed mention in a post on its own.

Capitol building with its façade dominated by a colourful hand-painted canvas mural featuring what was being screened at the cinema that stood hidden behind the building (Photo courtesy of Mr Derek Tait).

Capitol Building today.

The building housing the actual cinema hidden behind the Capitol Building.

This stretch that brings us past the junction with Victoria Street right up to the junction with Armenian Street and Queen Street also featured some wonderful examples of architecture on the left-hand side: Stamford House, Eu Court and the MPH Building. Stamford House, next to Capitol Building, stands at the junction of Stamford Road built in the Venetian Renaissance-style in the early 1900s, was originally the Oranjie Building, and for a while was the Oranjie Hotel in 1930s. The art deco styled Eu Court across Hill Street from Stamford House was built in the late 1920s as an apartment block. Sadly the beautiful building was demolished in 1992 to make way for the widening of Victoria and Hill Streets, being replaced by Stamford Court, a building that seems out of sync with the architecture of the area, sticking out like a sore thumb. MPH building, which was built in 1908 in an Edwardian commercial street style is one that I frequently visited and have fond memories of, housed the MPH bookstore until 2003.

A refurbished Stamford House as seen from the junction of Stamford Road and Victoria Street.

Stamford Court (on the left) sticking out like a sore thumb at the junction of Hill Street and Stamford Road was built over the site of the former Art Deco Styled Eu Court.

Over the canal on the canal side of the street at the section between North Bridge Road and Victoria Streets was the walled compound of the Holy Infant Jesus Convent (CHIJ). A three storey building lined the canal behind the wall. This housed the convent’s secondary school. Looking up on the background of the area, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this was built on the site of what were several bungalows which once were used by a Hotel van Wijk, established to serve Dutch travellers to Singapore in the early 1900s. The bungalows were taken over by the convent in 1933 when the hotel ceased operations, and were used to house St. Nicholas Girls School. The three storey building replaced the bungalows in the early 1950s. In the place of the building, the SMRT headquarters now stands, another building that seems to destroy the character of the area. Along the next stretch, another girls school – the Raffles Girls School was located over the canal between Victoria and Queen Streets. A building belonging to the Singapore Management University (SMU) now stands in its place.

The bungalows that housed the Hotel van Wijk were demolished to make way for a three storey building which housed the CHIJ secondary school in the early 1950s (Photo source: Ray Tyers Singapore Then & Now).

The SMRT Headquarters stands in place of the CHIJ Secondary School Building at the site of the former Hotel van Wyjk.

Past the junction with Armenian Street and Queen Street, the was a row of shop houses on the left – one of the shops there dealt with crocodile skin products and had a glass display of bags, boots, shoes, wallets and a stuffed crocodile, one that I could not help but peer at every time I waited for a bus at the bus stop which was in front of the row of shops. This is the stretch that led up to the iconic red brick National Library building, which sadly, modern Singapore has no place for. The library which closed in 2004 and the stretch of road just that led up towards the end of Stamford Road where the National Museum is has since been swallowed up by the Fort Canning Tunnel. Stamford Road being realigned around the tunnel as a result of this, meeting up with a part of the original stretch in front of the National Museum to where the road ends at Bencoolen Street and Fort Canning Road.

The red-brick National Library building along Stamford Road (Source: National Library http://www.nl.sg)

Left as a reminder of the former National Library, the red-brick posts that stood at the entrance to the library.

Fort Canning Link leading up to the newly constructed Fort Canning Tunnel runs over what used to be the stretch of Stamford Road that led to the National Library.

Fort Canning Link leading up to the Fort Canning Tunnel swallowing up the stretch of Stamford Road that ran past the National Library. Evidence of the bus stop in the form of a bus bay from where I caught service number 166 home still exists. The area along the lower left of the picture along the road used to be lined with a row of shop houses.

Another view of Fort Canning Link.

On the canal side, there was of course the SJI school field between Queen Street and what was Waterloo Street. The basketball court was located at this end of the field and there was a story that circulated then that involved the ghost of a person who was said to have hanged himself at the posts of the basketball court there. I seem to remember that there was a car park on the canal side on the stretch from Waterloo Street to Bencoolen Street, filling the space between the former CYMA and the canal.

The neo-classical National Museum Building was completed in 1887 and marks the end of Stamford Road.

Looking up from the junction where Stamford Road merged into a disjointed section of Orchard Road then, there was a beautiful mansion like building that was the YMCA that would stare at you. The building had served as the headquarters of the Japanese Kempetai during the Second World War and we were told it held prisoners who were tortured by the Kempetai, the much feared Military Police. The old YMCA building which had the distinction of a being at No. 1, Orchard Road, sadly has had to make way for the newer, bigger and more modern premises of the YMCA, being demolished in 1981.

The beautiful old YMCA building on 1 Orchard Road (Photo source: YMCA Singapore).





Schools, churches and a candlelight procession: Memories of Queen Street

18 02 2010

As a schoolboy in Saint Joseph’s Institution (SJI), the sections of Queen Street that I was most familiar with were the two sections of the street closest to the school. These were the stretches that ran southwards past the Cathedral towards the Armenian Street end which led to the MPH book store, and the other that ran along the school canteen northwards towards the junction with Middle Road.

The part of the street that I most saw was of course the southern section, the all important route to MPH, the bus stop along Stamford Road to catch bus service number 166 home, the National Library, and the little place by the library where there were a few hawker stalls including a wan ton noodle stall and ice kacang. This ran from the Cathedral, past the Cathedral Rectory, the little garden with stone tables and chairs by the Rectory and grounds of the primary section of Raffles Girls School on the east side of the street, before coming to a little road bridge over the then open Stamford Canal at the junction with Stamford Road. On the west side of the street, was the fence of the SJI school field along which there was a row of trees from which flying foxes were frequently constructed by the scouts. The footpath along the fence would be the route to Fort Canning Hill for the occasional jog or cross country training held during P.E. lessons, which many of us returning from the jogs would use to race in a mad dash to the junction with Bras Basah Road.

The Armenian Street end of Queen Street in 1976 (looking at Armenian Street at the junction with Stamford Road). Notice the bridge over the then open Stamford Canal which you don't see today (Photo source: Ray Tyers Singapore Then and Now).

The view southwards today toward Armenian Street.

The site of the former Raffles Girls School (RGS) on what was Queen Street (now a section of the realigned Stamford Road with the construction of the Fort Canning Tunnel) near the junction with Stamford Road. The building that stands on the site is part of the Singapore Management University (SMU) campus. The wide walkway that can be seen on the bottom right of the photograph runs over what used to be an open Stamford Canal

The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd along Queen Street.

A view of the south end of Queen Street looking North. Buildings belonging to the SMU campus stands where the SJI field was on the left and RGS on the right.

The next section of the street was where the building that housed the Brother’s quarters on the upper floors and the school canteen on the ground floor ran along. On the street side of the building there was a little door which the canteen stall holders would use to enter and exit the canteen. It was through this door that outsiders could make purchases from the canteen, with Char Kway Teow and Mee Siam being a popular choice. The Mee Siam seller also parked his cart next to the door, on which he would load his pot of gravy onto at the end of each day and continue his business along the streets.

The Brothers Quarters of SJI along Queen Street (as seen from the courtyard inside the school). The ground floor of the block housed the school canteen which had a back door to Queen Street from which outsiders make food purchase through. The Mee Siam seller parked his cart next to the door (Photo source: SJI 125th Anniversary Magazine).

Opposite the Brother’s quarters on the east side, there was the Kum Yan Methodist Church (which is still there) and the buildings that housed the Catholic High School, part of which was also housed across the street in the compound of the “Chinese Church”, the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul. Further along the west side there was this tall narrow building which housed Stamford College, a private college which was popular with students sitting for their GCE “A” Level examinations privately, which is now used as the Oxford Hotel. Sited next to this building was the Stamford Community Centre and its compound. With some of my schoolmates, desperate for a place to kick a ball around before school, I had on occasion, climbed over the gate which was opened only in the evenings to have our game of street football on the basketball court.

The former Catholic High School building.

The building that housed Stamford College.

The former Stamford Community Centre. I had climbed over the gate a few times with several of my classmates to play street football on the basketball court.

Close to the junction with Middle Road on the east side of the street is where the back entrance is to the beautiful St. Joseph’s Catholic Church which is also known as the Portuguese church, having been established by the Portuguese missionaries . The church was run by the Diocese of Macau up to 1999 when it was handed over to the Archdiocese of Singapore. Within the compound of the church, were St. Anthony’s Convent and St. Anthony Boys School. My memories of the church deserves mention in another post, but the reason I have brought the church up is that having been run in the Portuguese tradition, many of the practices have endured and on Good Friday every year, a candlelight procession is held in the church compound. Besides the participants within the compound, there would be many others who would gather beyond the wall of the church on Queen Street with tall lighted candles in hand. This evenings on Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday) and Good Friday would probably be the time of the year when these two stretches of Queen Street comes to life. Besides the procession, on Good Friday where many candle vendors and hawkers would line the street, on Maundy Thursday when many local Catholics practice visiting of churches to say prayers, with the concentration of Catholic churches along the street, the street would be bustling with people as well as hawker stalls.

The beautiful Portuguese Church (St. Joseph's Church).

The building on the right housed St. Anthony's Boys School within the compound of the Portuguese Church.

The buildings that housed St. Anthony's Convent within the compound of the Portuguese Church.








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