A time machine to the Singapore of the 60s

31 05 2016

It is wonderful that technology allows the wealth of photographs that exist of a Singapore we no longer see to be shared. Those especially taken by those whose stay in Singapore was temporary, offer perspectives of places as they were that the local might have thought little of capturing. One of my favourite sets of photographs are those of a David Ayres. Shared through a Flickr album Oldies SE Asia containing some 250 photographs, they take us back to Mr. Ayres’ days in the Royal Navy and include many scenes of places of the Singapore of my childhood that I would not otherwise have been able to ever see again.

A part of Singapore we can never go back to. The view is of the waterfront and the Inner Roads from a vantage point just across the mouth of the Stamford Canal from Esplanade or Queen Elizabeth Walk. Land reclamation has since taken this view away, replacing it with a view that will include One Raffles Link and Esplanade Theatres by the Bay (David Ayres on Flickr).

Mr. Ayres interactions in Singapore came from his two stints at HMS Terror (now Sembawang Camp) in the Naval Base. The first in 1963/64, just about the time I was born, and again in 1966/67. Now 71, he finally managed a trip that he said he he just had to make having not been back to Singapore since he last saw it almost 50 years ago at the end of his second stint in 1967.

A HMS Terror (now Sembawang Camp) barrack block, one that is familiar to me as it was the same block I was accommodated during my reservist in-camp training stints in the 1990s (David Ayres on Flickr).

I managed to say a quick hello to Mr. Ayres during his short visit, managing a short chat with him at a coffee shop in what had once been Sembawang Village, an area that is quite well represented in Mr. Ayres’ set of photographs.  Once a busy area of watering holes, shops and makeshift eating stalls located just across one of the main entrances to the huge Naval Base – an entrance used especially by personnel headed to HMS Terror,  all that it has since been reduced to is the row of two-storey shophouses in which the coffee shop was at.

David Ayres (R), with Phil and Nora, the founder of Old Sembawang Naval Base Facebook group.

David Ayres (R), with his mate Phil and Nora, the founder of Old Sembawang Naval Base Facebook group, in the shadow of the Nelson Bar of today.

The Nelson Bar as seen in 1967 (David Ayres on Flickr).

It was interesting to learn that there was much Mr. Ayres could still recognise from his walk earlier in the day around the former Naval Base, a walk he did with his mate Phil with the help of Nora of the Old Sembawang Naval Base Facebook group. It is perhaps fortunate for Mr. Ayres that Sembawang, a part of Singapore he would have been most familiar with, is one of few places left in Singapore in which much of its past is still to be found in the present.

The Red House, as the Fleet Sailing Centre was referred to because of its red roof (David Ayres on Flickr).

The Red House today as seen from SAF Yacht Club. It's red roof tiles have since been replaced by green ones and the sea pavilion is now in a rather dilapidated state.

The Red House today as seen from SAF Yacht Club. It’s red roof tiles have since been replaced by green ones and the sea pavilion is now in a rather dilapidated state.

A good part of the base housing still remains intact, as do the former dockyard and stores basin, both of which still operating under another guise. Part of HMS Terror is also still around, a part that is visible over its perimeter fence. There also is the former “Aggie Westons” on the hill across from the dockyard gates. This saw use as the Fernleaf Centre in the days when the NZ Force SEA had troops based in Sembawang and is now in use by HomeTeam NS as a recreation centre. A sea pavilion, which served as the Fleet Sailing Centre in the days of the Naval Base, is also still visible from the SAF Yacht Club. Referred to as the “Red House” for its red roof tiles, the pavilion has since been turned green and as observed by Mr. Ayres, now looks rather dilapidated.

‘Aggie Westons’ in David’s time in Sembawang, it became Fernleaf Centre during the days of the New Zealand Force SEA and is today used by HomeTeam NS as a recreation centre. David made a stop here during his recent visit to Sembawang (David Ayres on Flickr).

As we poured over some photographs Mr. Ayres had printed over glasses of lime juice, he also made mention that the row of shophouses we were at had not been around during his first stint at HMS Terror. One of the area’s last additions, it had been put up before Mr. Ayres came back for his second tour. It is in the row that several bars including the Nelson Bar were housed and was a popular drinking spot for servicemen up to the days when the New Zealand forces had a presence in the area. It is also worth mentioning that the cluster of stalls found in the area, popular as stopover for personnel looking for a quick bite, was where the improvised hawker dish we know as Roti John is said to have originated from.

The cluster of food stalls at Sembawang Village, where Roti John was said to have been invented (David Ayres on Flickr).

Besides those in and around the Naval Base, Mr. Ayres captures include many other places that featured in my younger days; places in and around the city centre, then referred to as Singapore, as well as a few far flung places such as Changi. There are also scenes found in the set taken in peninsula Malaysia that are familiar to me from the drives my father was fond of making north of the Causeway. The photographs of the city centre have proved to be particularly fascinating to younger Singaporeans. One taken of Raffles Place in its landscape car-park rooftop garden days  in the direction of Battery Road, made its rounds in 2012, going viral in Singapore. One impression of the modern city that had replaced the one in his photographs that Mr. Ayres and his friend Phil had, was of seeing very few elderly people in it; this perhaps is a manifestation of the disconnect with the brave new world that the city centre has become many in the older generation feel.

Mr. Ayres’ capture of Raffles Place in 1966 made its rounds around the internet in 2012 (David Ayres on Flickr).

Mr Ayres’ photographs have a quality that goes beyond simple snapshots. Well composed and often offering a wider view of the places he found himself in, they not only take us back to the places we once knew but also immerse us into the scene being captured. The photographs are for me, a means to travel back in time, back to the places I could otherwise have little hope of seeing again, and back to a world I would not otherwise have been able to go home to.

A street that once came alive in the evenings with its food offerings – the section of Albert Street at its Selegie Road end where Albert Court Hotel is today (David Ayres on Flickr).

An “Ice Water Stall” outside what is today the National Museum (David Ayres on Flickr).

The gate post and the Indian Rubber tree today. The tree has since gained the status of a protected tree, having been listed as one of Singapore’s 256 Heritage Trees.

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Changi Creek, 1966 (David Ayres on Flickr).

Changi Creek today.

Changi Creek today.

A familiar scene along Canberra Road that Mr. Ayres captured in 1966. The convoy of dockyard (and later Sembawang Shipyard) workers rushing home was seen into the 1980s (David Ayres on Flickr).

Jalan Sendudok in Sembawang. Notice that the Chinese characters used for Sembawang differ from those used today. The road, which still exists, has since been realigned (David Ayres on Flickr).

Where Selegie met Serangoon over the Rochor Canal, 1966. This photograph helps take me back to visits to Tekka market, the roof of which can be seen on the left of the photo, with my mother whenever mutton curry was on the menu (David Ayres on Flickr).

The same area today, Sans the open canal and and unfamiliar buildings, it now looks completely different.

The same area today, Sans the open canal and and now unfamiliar buildings, it looks a completely different place.

1966. The North Bridge Road that I knew, close to its junction with Bras Basah Road, close to where Jubilee and Odeon Theatres were, which would have been behind the photographer (David Ayres on Flickr).

The same area today.

The same area today.

Further down North Bridge Road in 1966 – a back entrance to Raffles Institution is seen on the left and the walls of the former Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (now CHIJMES) can be seen on the other side of the road (David Ayres on Flickr).

The same area today.

The same area today.

A river crossing in Malaysia in 1967. Not in Singapore but many from Singapore who travelled up north by road would have had this experience before road bridges across the major rivers were completed. One such crossing was at Muar. This existed up to the 1960s. My own experience was of two crossings on the road up to Kuantan in the 1970s and early 1980s. One had been at Endau, at which a tow boat similar to what is seen here was used. The other was a narrower crossing at Rompin that utilised a ferry pulled by wire-rope (David Ayres on Flickr).

 

 





More than just fishy business

16 01 2013

The wet markets we find in Singapore today are much more orderly versions of the wet markets in that Singapore I that grew up in. Yesterday’s markets were always lively, serving not only as places to obtain fresh produce during a time when refrigerators were less common, but also as places where people could come together at a social level. In the age of refrigerators and supermarkets, wet markets are today a lot quieter and are now much less of a focal point. Many come to life only during the weekends and just before festive occasions. Despite this, wet markets are however still very much a sensory treat and wonderful places to discover the texture, colour and smell of a Singapore which through these markets we cling on to. One market I particularly enjoy visiting is Tekka Market. The market had in its previous incarnation been one I have long held a fascination for, its passageways filled with the wonderful aroma of spices and the sight of mutton vendors standing over logs which served as chopping blocks. Finding itself across the road from where it originally was, the market is one which still attracts shoppers from across the island in search of some of best cuts of beef and mutton; the wide selection of fish its fishmongers seem to have more of than those in other markets do; and the exotic offerings such as buah keluak that seem to only be found there.

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Pongal in the Village of Lime

16 01 2012

An area in Singapore I find myself from time to time wandering in is the area that is referred to as Little India today. It is an area full of life and awash with colour, one that over time, has be successful in retaining its ethnic flavour in a way that the other ethnic districts on the island have not be able to. The area is one that has developed from its early days as a southern Indian settlement that had been established along Serangoon Road. It was an area referred to as “Soonambu Kambam” or “The Village of Lime”, an area that during my childhood drew many from all over Singapore. The old market, Tekka, had been the main draw with the hard-to-find range of spices and exotic ingredients, as well as a fine collection of mutton butchers that were available. It was in accompanying my mother to Tekka that provided me with an introduction to the area which developed into a fascination for it. That would have been more than four decades ago, when Singapore had been a very different place. Time has since made its mark on the area – that old Tekka market set has since been pulled down with the market moving right across Serangoon Road. It is not this incarnation of the old that now draws visitors to the area, but perhaps a new market that now pulls the crowds in. The new comes in the form of Mustafa – a departmental store whose reputation has spread far and wide attracting many in search of a bargain crowding its narrow passageways.

A reflection off a discarded mirror in a back lane. A walk through the Village of Lime does allow for reflection through the windows it provides to the past.

The former Tekka market (with the red roof tiles) was a big draw for many in Singapore (the former Kandang Kerbau Police Station can be seen across Serangoon Road from the old Tekka market) (photo source: National Archives of Singapore).

It is not the old nor the new market that I seek when I visit the area, but it is for the area as it still is today. Despite the encroachment of non traditional businesses – the rag-and-bone trade, budget lodgings, non traditional cafes and watering holes, the soul of the area as it was has still very much been left intact, becoming very much a focal point for many more – the new immigrants and transient workers, who seek the comfort it offers them of a home away from home.

I am drawn to the area by what it still is today.

The Village of Lime is today one that exhibits many moods, moods that are influenced by the time of day, the day of the week, and also the time of the year. The brightest moods are ones seen during the many Hindu festivals – celebrated maybe less boisterously than in the days of old, but one that still adds a flavour that only the area can have. The festivals bring much colour and activity, whether it is the lights and crowds that the lead up to the festival of lights, Deepavali, brings; the noisy street procession during which an extreme act of faith and devotion – the carrying of a Kavadi during Thaipusam is seen; or the four day harvest festival, Pongal, celebrated at this time of the year. Sundays also bring with it a somewhat festive mood, when crowds of transient workers on their precious days off throng the streets and open spaces to escape from the monotony that the long work hours and the stifling confines of their crowded and far-away dormitories bring, creating a new buzz on the streets in the area.

Floral garlands at this year's Pongal bazaar - festivals bring much colour and buzz to the streets of today's Little India.

The Pongal bazaar along Campbell Lane.

Wandering around over the weekend had the added bonus of the Pongal bazaar at Campbell Lane in the lead up to this year’s Pongal celebrations. It is during the lead up and during the four day celebrations that Campbell Lane bursts to life, being where the main festivities are held. This attracts many to the stalls at the bazaar where much of what is needed is to be found – colourful floral garlands, clay and steel pots, and stalks of purple sugarcane and more. The hub for the festivities is a marquee a corner of which an enclosure has been set up to hold cows and goats – a rare sight in urban Singapore, to be honoured during the festival. To get the best feel of the festivities and to soak the atmosphere up, it is best that Campbell Lane is visited during the evenings, when the streets are also lighted up for to celebrate Pongal.

Stalks of purple sugarcane during Pongal.

Cows are honoured during the harvest festival.

A cow is milked at the Pongal celebrations.

Clay pots, decorated with painted mango leaves on sale - new clay pots are used to cook pongal - sweetened rice cooked in milk, as offerings for Pongal.

Steel pots on sale.

Ginger on sale.

Even in the absence of a festival which does change the mood of the place, much of the area’s charm can still be discovered. Best seen on foot, the streets around are littered with colourful double storey pre-war shophouses and is awash in colour. Even when, as I did, one wanders in the relative calm of the morning, there is no shortage of colour on the streets. Sundry shops found around the Dunlop Street area with their displays of fruits and vegetables are ones that immediately catch one’s attention and are ones that shouldn’t be missed.

Having a cup of tea on a five-foot-way outside a cafe.

Onions and potatoes on sale at a sundry shop - essential ingredients in southern Indian cooking.

Gourds on sale.

Wandering around the area and getting lost in the maze of colour is certainly not without reward. There is an astonishing number of places in which the appetite worked up walking around can easily be satisfied (not that anyone needs that excuse for that). And even when satisfying one’s food cravings isn’t on the agenda, it must really be difficult to resist the calling from that nice heartwarming cup of Masala Tea …

A lady dressed in the traditional sari, shops along Dunlop Street.

A lady carrying a young child at a sundry shop.





A world apart: a leisurely stroll through some of the streets of Little India

15 08 2010

Continuing on our back to school walk from Thieves Market, my old schoolmates and I crossed the busy Jalan Besar to what seems a world apart from the rest of Singapore: the charming area known to us as Little India. Set just a stone’s throw away from the city centre and its skyscrapers that dwarf much of the older areas around it, this quite delightful part of Singapore is one that I have always enjoyed wandering around. Bounded roughly by Jalan Besar to the east, Sungei Road to the south, Race Course Road to the west, and Kitchener Road to the north, the main part of the Little India area is alive with the colour and activity that much of the streets of Singapore seems to be missing. The area had mostly developed in the late 1800s, when the cattle rearing trade that thrived from the watering holes that the swamps in the area had provided. Many of the names used for and in the area in fact bear the evidence of this, Belilios Road and Lane being named after one of the pioneers of the trade, I.R. Belilios, as well as obvious names such as Buffalo Road, Kerbau Road and Kandang Kerbau. The emergence of this trade, one that was dominated by immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, attracted many other economic migrants from the sub-continent to the area transforming it into a hub of economic activity as well as a home for many Indians immigrants.

Crossing Jalan Besar to Little India, we passed this beautiful pre-war shop house at the corner of Jalan Besar and Veerasamy Road.

A newspaper advertisement for the White House Hotel at the height of its glory.

The route that we had taken to Sungei Road had taken us within sight of an Art Deco style building at the corner of Jalan Besar and Sungei Road. This had once been the White House Hotel, a building that I have never failed to notice. Its distinctive green windows had long reminded me of the panes of the windows and doors that was with me for the six years I was at St. Michael’s School. The building also served as a marker of the midway point of a journey that I would take once a week in my lower secondary school days. Then I would attend technical lessons at McNair Road in the Rumah Miskin area, and getting to school after workshop classes involved a ride on the bus that would take me through Jalan Besar, Bencoolen Street and Bras Basah Road. The building is also positioned such that it also serves as a marker for the south-eastern corner of Little India, and back when I was in school, the hotel had seemed to have seen much better days. These days, having been given a makeover and painted a pleasant light pastel blue, the hotel which is run by the budget chain Hotel 81, has some of the dignity that the building perhaps deserves for its architectural style restored.

The Art Deco styled former White House Hotel, which might have once been a rather grand looking hotel marks the end of Jalan Besar at its junction with Sungei Road. As a schoolboy I used to pass this building on the bus that would take me from the technical workshops at McNair Road to the school I attended on Bras Basah Road, marking the midway point of the bus ride.

Making our way through Veerasamy Road, we noticed that much of the area now seems to be dominated by the rag-and-bone trade … the evidence of which is not difficult to notice: small trucks buried in paper and cardboard pulling alongside shop houses that overflow with used items; weighing scales chained to posts on the streets; trolley loads of cardboard boxes being pushed around by elderly folk, are within sight everywhere.

The area on both sides of Jalan Besar seemed to be dominated by the scrap and rag-and-bone trade ...

Evidence of the rag-and-bone trade ... a weighing scale for weighing newspapers and cardboard boxes.

Trolleys of flattened cardboard boxes being pushed through the streets of Little India are a common sight.

The quick walk through the very colourful streets also took us through Kampong Kapor Road. Turning left into it from Veerasamy Road, where we could see the Kampong Kapor Methodist Church, somehow out of place in the surroundings. Built in 1930, the Art Deco church building was built to house a growing congregation which had outgrown the original church building in which the church had started. The original building was incidentally the Middle Road Church building that is now part of Sculpture Square. It was where we had earlier in our walk, stumbled upon Ngim Kum Thong’s very intriguing art exhibition.

The streets in Little India are washed in colour.

Kampong Kapor Methodist Church on Kampong Kapor Road. The church started as the Middle Road Church, the building of which is now Sculpture Square.

More of the Art Deco style Kampong Kapor Methodist Church building built in 1930.

Continuing on our walk through Cuff Road, it was interesting to notice that what is still essentially an Indian enclave, shows signs of a strong Chinese immigrant presence. Many of those involved in the rag-and-bone business are in fact Chinese nationals. As well as that, there was also evidence of some western influences. Where else would you see a sign over what is essentially an Indian café selling a fare of fried Indian snacks such as pakoras and samosas as “Hot Chips”?

The area since has through its history been a magnet for migrants from India.

These days, Little India also attracts migrant workers from other parts of the world as well.

Little India these days is also a mix of east and west.

The sight of newspapers and magazines displayed on lines was once a common sight all over Singapore, and is today still commonly seen in Little India.

A five foot way - typical of pre-war buildings in Singapore ... now serves as a convenient parking space for all kinds of small vehicles ...

Moving back northwards along Serangoon Road, we crossed over the road near its junction with Belilios Road to the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple. The temple is one of the oldest Hindu temples in Singapore, the history of which is well summed up in the temple’s website. The temple is dedicated to Kaliamman, more commonly referred to as Kali, the Destroyer of Evil, a popular goddess with the workers who were said to have been involved in the construction of the temple in the late 1800s.

The Sri Veeramakaliamman on Serangoon Road is one of the oldest Hindu temples in Singapore, having been constructed in the late 1800s.

Inside the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple.

A Hindu priest inside the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple.

Floral garlands and offerings on sale at Belilios Road next to the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple.

After a short break at Chander Road where we had Masala tea at Masala Hut, we then made our way to Tekka Market, passing by the North Indian Shree Lakshminarayan Temple, and walking through the mall at Belilios Lane / Krebau Road, through the small lane by the former residence Tan Teng Niah, and out to Buffalo Road. This took us across to the HDB complex that houses the new Tekka Market. The original Tekka Market was actually located across Serangoon Road from where the current market is, and had when I was a child, been a source of fascination for me. I remember the shopping trips there with my mother during which I would take in the wonderful aroma of spices and look forward to seeing the mutton sellers towering over their huge chopping blocks which had been cut from large logs. So, I was pleasantly surprised to see that smaller versions of these chopping blocks are still used by some of the mutton sellers – the only difference being that they stand firmly on the ground and do not seem to tower over me any more. That certainly give me a shot of nostalgia as we continued to wander around the market.

Scenes from the colourful shophouses of Chander Road ...

A liquor store on Chander Road.

Beet Root on display at Buffalo Road.

Tekka Market today ...

Fresh fish at Tekka Market.

The log chopping blocks that I was very taken with as a child.

Out of Tekka Market, we decided to head back to school again by MRT. This was not before we encountered a long snaking queue that we might have mistaken for one of the queues that offer a pot of gold to a lucky punter in one of the many lotteries that we have here. These queues get especially long when the prize on offer is not just a pot of gold, but the equivalent of several pots to the tune of a few million dollars. Thinking it was probably a queue for one of these, we were quite surprised to see that it wasn’t. The queue had in fact snaked its way to a POSB ATM machine! I had only prior to this, seen monster ATM queues during the seasons of shopping frenzy, that form in the Orchard Road area, and from my recollection, I don’t think any of these were anywhere as long as the one I was looking at that day – perhaps only a third the length of what I was seeing!

The long snaking queue at the POSB ATM ...








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