A cross at a crossroad

15 04 2013

The long and somewhat winding road journeys of my childhood are ones I now look back with much fondness. They are ones that were to put in touch with a Singapore that I grew to love, and a Singapore we have long forgotten. One of these drives which would take place during the Chinese New Year and on the occasions we ventured to one of the “ends of Singapore” to indulge in seafood, was to Punggol. Punggol was then a world away where the livestock population would in all probability have outnumbered the area’s human inhabitants.

A church which was one of two landmark which marked the start of Punggol.

A church which was one of two landmark which marked the start of Punggol.

Punggol for me began at the junction where we would have to make a left turn from a busy Upper Serangoon Road even then to Punggol Road. It was at this point that it felt we would leave the built-up world behind and turn-off into what could probably have been considered a countryside we no longer have. It was where coconut trees seem to dominate the landscape (that at least was my impression) – that I noticed them more than anything else was probably because of the curious sight of many of them without their lightning struck tops – a sight that was in fact common throughout rural Singapore.

Coconut trees with their tops struck off by lightning were once a common sight in much of rural Singapore, including in Punggol.

Coconut trees with their tops struck off by lightning were once a common sight in much of rural Singapore, including in Punggol.

The junction was one which was marked by two structures. One was the St. Francis Xavier Minor Seminary and the other a beautiful church which seemed out of place in the environment around it. And while much of the landscape of the area has been altered beyond recognition – the trees and high-density dwellings of pigs and poultry have now been replaced by towering blocks of high-density human dwellings and the stretch of Punggol Road where the junction is has been renamed as Hougang Avenue 8, the two structures – now looking further out of place in the new environment, are still there to serve as reminders of a time and place we would otherwise have little memories of.

Windows into a world we have forgotten.

Windows into a world we have forgotten.

The church, the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary – Nativity Church in short, is one that is hard to miss, with its steeple rising high above the structures around it. One of several beautiful examples of a legacy that the French Catholic Missionaries left behind in South-East Asia, the church is of a form we seem to have forgotten to appreciate. Several examples of the style, commonly used in Catholic houses of worship built by the French missionaries in the 1800s and in early 1900s exhibit, do exist on the island. These include the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, the de-consecrated CHIJ Chapel (now part of the CHIJMES complex) and the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, all of which now feature in the growing list of Singapore’s National Monuments.

The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of several examples of the French Gothic church architecture adapted for the tropics.

The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of several examples of Neo-Gothic church architecture adapted for the tropics. The marble statue of Mary in the foreground is interestingly a gift from Sultan Ibrahim of Johor in 1946.

Built in what can possibly be described as a European inspired Neo-Gothic style adapted for the tropics, the buildings are very similar in appearance. Nativity Church which was completed in 1901, is however, the only one that was placed in a rural setting – pointing not just to a pattern of faith of the community in the area, but also perhaps of a pattern of immigration to and settlement on the island of Singapore.

The transept which was an addition to the original church building illuminated by the soft natural light of the morning.

The transept which was an addition made in 1933 to the original church building illuminated by the soft natural light of the morning.

The area is of course one of several rural areas in which the Teochew community, the second largest group of Chinese immigrants to Singapore, was dominant. The community, many of whom converted to the Catholic faith as well as to other forms of Christianity, were involved in fishing, in farming, as well as in the rubber (and before that pineapple) plantations through much of the countryside along the northern coast of Singapore. With the community and the adoption of faith, missionaries erected several houses of worship – and there are, as a result, several reminders of this in the form of churches, or in the absence of them, parishes which had their origins in these rural Teochew communities. These include the Nativity Church, the Parish of St. Anthony (now in Woodlands) which was previously based off Stephen Lee Road in Mandai, and also a church with a very distinct Teochew flavour in its architecture, St. Joseph’s Church at Upper Bukit Timah Road.

Seeing the light - the soft light illuminating the nave - part of the original structure.

Seeing the light – the soft light illuminating the nave – part of the original structure.

The background to the parish community, the church, as well as on the architecture of the beautiful building is well documented. Much of this information is available on the church’s website, as well as on the Preservation of Monuments Board’s page on the building. Being a Catholic myself, buildings such as these represent a time when architecture and much of what when on around the church, was dedicated to the greater glory of the maker. On a personal level, my interactions with the parish and church are limited, coming to the church only on occasion – the last time I did spend some time in it was on the occasion of my sister’s wedding at the church some years ago. The opportunity to step in to the church again came recently when I found myself nearby with some time to spare.

A holy water font at the entrance of the church.

A holy water font at the entrance of the church.

The nave of the church.

The nave of the church.

Churches are always places where I find a great sense of peace in and in the quiet of the Saturday morning I was there, it was just that I found in stepping through the huge doors at the entrance, finding the interior bathed in the soft natural light of the morning streaming through the generous openings typically found in the tropically adapted Neo-Gothic church design. The church both internally and externally is a visual treat. On the insides, its high vaulted ceiling is accompanied by the rows of arches which would typically line the nave. Focus is drawn towards the Sanctuary bathed in the coloured light of stained glass a building such as this would look bare without.

Some of the church's stained glass windows.

Some of the church’s stained glass windows.

The interior with its adornments and furnishings, is a wonderful reminder of how Catholic churches used to be. The dark stained carved wooden pews is a rare find now with most churches around having been built in more modern times. The walls of the transept are where the statues representing the various saints are placed. These are typical of most Catholic churches and in the older ones it would be in purpose built niches as the ones found in this church in which the statues are placed. The windows, which can be opened, provide not just natural ventilation, but also light – typical of architecture adapted for the tropically environment which we do not see in modern buildings built to be air-conditioned.

A view down the aisle.

A view down the aisle.

A statue of St. Vainney placed in a niche at the transept.

A statue of St. John Vianney placed in a niche at the transept.

There is a lot as well that is interesting about the church’s history, including that a statue of Mary was donated by Sultan Ibrahim of Johor (the great grandfather of the current Sultan of Johor). Placed in a prominent position in front of the church, that is a reminder of the close ties bewteen the southern sultanate and colony which was once a part of it. The church today, while serving the needs of the parish community – which is still predominently Teochew, has also reached out to newer migrants – since the end of last year, it is also where the Korean Catholic community has been based at.

Coloured glass windows.

Coloured glass windows which can be opened allow the church to be naturally illuminated and ventilated.

The church in continuing to serve the spiritual needs of the evolving community does stand as a reminder of the purpose it was built to serve. Gazetted as a National Monument since 2005, it is one that will also stand as a reminder of the area’s past, a past which with the spread of the urban world to the area, is one which is increasing hard to remember.





The last train from Tanjong Pagar

14 05 2011

On the 30th of June, we will see the last day of operation at the grand old station at Tanjong Pagar. The station, grand not in terms of scale, but in the magnificent style in which it was built, has served Singapore as the southern terminal station for close to eight decades, having been completed in 1932 to provide a city fast growing in economic importance with a station befitting of its status, and being part of a deviation of the railway which had prior to that, run through the Bukit Timah corridor before terminating at Tank Road. With the return of the railway land which has been held on a lease by the successors of the Malayan Railway, Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) and the shift of the southern terminal on the 1st of July, the age of rail travel across Singapore, which has lasted a little over a century, would draw to a close.

Operations at the grand building which has served as the southern terminal of the Malayan Railway since 1932 will cease on 1st July 2011.

In what form the station, which has recently received status as a National Monument, will be conserved following the handover we do not know, but whatever does happen, it would only serve as a reminder of the once working station which had for many years been an oasis of the laid back old world feeling that is missing from the modern Singapore that we have gotten used to. Gone will be the whistles and the drone of the diesel engines, the coming and going of passengers, the popular food outlets and what has become an institution at the railway station, the Habib Book Store and Money Changer. Gone will also be the opportunity to soak up the feel of the mood around the station, and lazily sip away at a cup of tea seated at the station end of the arrival platform.

A vanishing scene at Tanjong Pagar: Habib Book Store and Money Changer.

Another vanishing scene at Tanjong Pagar: The coming and going of passengers.

No more opportunity to lazily sip a cup of tea on the arrival platform come the 1st of July.

All good things must come to an end, as the saying goes, and come to an end will be an era and to mark this end, a last train would be be leaving Tanjong Pagar on the 30th of June. This train would be special as it would be driven by none other than HRH Sultan Ibrahim Ismail of Johor. More information on how to get on this train I understand would be available from KTM’s headquarters and tickets I understand would cost somehwere in the order of $300. For me, I would choose to instead to be on the last train in … and be the last passenger to alight … that just to bring not just an era but also a chapter in Malaysia’s and Singapore’s history to a close … as a memory of a railway that I will certainly miss in the years to come …

The last train out will be one that would have a special driver ...

The Sultan of Johor will drive the last train out of Tanjong Pagar on 30th June 2011 (photo source: http://www.thestar.com.my).

I would rather be that last passenger to alight at Tanjong Pagar.


To read my series of posts on Journeys through Tanjong Pagar, please click on this link.


If anyone is keen to join Clarissa Tan, Notabilia, and myself on the last train into Singapore (not the last train which will be the northbound train from Tanjong Pagar), do indicate your interest by leaving a comment at Notabilia’s post on the subject.

In the Lianhe Zaobao on Sunday 29 May 2011

网上召集搭未班火车回家

约两周前,网上已有人开 始召集在6月30日到马来西亚一同搭回返丹戎巴葛火车站的最后一班火车,为火车站来个 “欢送会”。据召集人之一林坚源了解,当天晚上10时抵新的班车应孩会是火车战停用前最最后一班在这里停 的火车靠的火车。

“虽然丹戎巴葛火车站的最后一班车据说是当天晚上10时半由柔佛州苏丹亲自开往马来西亚的班车, 但是我们新加坡人来说,搭乘南向火车回家更具意义。”


Update 14 June 2011 (New Straits Times)

Tickets snapped up for KTMB’s final Tanjong Pagar service

2011/06/14
By Atiqa Hazellah
news@nst.com.my

KUALA LUMPUR: More than 170 people will be on the last train out of Tanjong Pagar station in Singapore on June 30, but chances are, they will not be rushing to get aboard before the green flag signifying the start of the journey is waved.
Almost all of the 172 tickets for the final journey were snapped up after they went on sale at noon yesterday, pointing to the possibility that many wanted to be a part of the historic occasion.

Just five hours after the ticket counters opened for business, the second class sleeping coach tickets were sold out, while the first and second class coaches had only two and 56 tickets left, respectively.

The Ekspres Senandung Sutera locomotive will depart at 10pm from the Tanjong Pagar station, breaking the silence of the darkness of the night for one last time. The express train service ends at the Kuala Lumpur Sentral station.

Keretapi Tanah Melayu Bhd corporate communications executive Kelvin Khew said a sending-off celebration would be organised to commemorate the historic occasion. “The celebration will start at 11pm with many activities lined up, (including) selling the train’s memorabilia.” Besides that, said Khew, an exhibition would be held at the Tanjong Pagar station from June 26 to 29, in collaboration with Tourism Malaysia.

The Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, will drive a special train from Tanjong Pagar and stop at the Woodlands Immigration checkpoint, then continue to Johor Baru Sentral after getting a licence last year.

Meanwhile, a page has been set up by several people on social networking site Facebook.

Called “The Last Train Into Tanjong Pagar”, it has already accumulated 357 fans since it was created earlier this month.

Most of them expressed their sadness over the closure of the Tanjong Pagar station.

On July 1, the curtains will come down on the Tanjong Pagar and Bukit Timah stations in Singapore as KTMB terminates its rail services in the republic south of the Woodlands train checkpoint.

The Tanjong Pagar and Bukit Timah stations have been providing rail services for Malaysians and Singaporeans since 1932 and 1915, respectively. The Tanjong Pagar site and other KTMB land parcels in the island republic will be jointly developed by MS Pte Ltd, a company with a 60 per cent stake held by Khazanah Nasional Bhd and 40 per cent by Temasek Holdings Ltd.

This was agreed upon during a series of bilateral meetings which also involved Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and his Singapore counterpart, Lee Hsien Loong, last year.

Read more: Tickets snapped up for KTMB’s final Tanjong Pagar service http://www.nst.com.my/nst/articles/TicketssnappedupforKTMB__8217_sfinalTanjongPagarservice/Article#ixzz1PF2AiKGG









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