The haunted island in Northwest Singapore and its laird

17 11 2017

Pulau Sarimbun, a little known island tucked away in the northwest corner of the Johor or Tebrau Strait, has quite an interesting chapter in its history. Now forlorn and isolated due to the area’s heightened security, it was once a picnic spot and later a place of retirement for a Boer War veteran turned planter, tin miner and waterworks engineer, Mr W A Bates Goodall.

1932 Malaya, Jahore Straits, Pulau Serimban near Lim Chu Kang

Mr Goodall’s bungalow on Pulau Sarimbun in 1932 (photo courtesy of Mr Stephen Downes-Martin).

Mr Goodall arrived at our shores as part of his deployment when he was in the service with the Manchester Regiment in the early 1900s but left soon after as “soldiering in the east did not appeal to me”.  He visited the island regularly for picnics from 1923 to 1932 and as the “Robinson Crusoe life” appealed to him, decided to live in a bungalow perched on a cliff on the island upon his retirement after 13 years in the waterworks department in 1932. Mr Goodall was sometimes also referred to as the Laird of Sarimbun Island and “ruled” over four “subjects”: a Cambridge educated Chinese clerk, a Malay boatman and two Chinese servants and rented the island for some $35 annually. Mr Goodall lived on the island until his passing in October 1941 – just a few months before the Japanese invaded.

Pulau Sarimbun as seen on a 1938 map.

Interestingly, Mr Goodall wasn’t the island’s first inhabitant. There was apparently a mysterious Russian who lived in a hut on the island, who paid  a rent of “three peppercorns” annually at the end of the 1800s. Sarimbun Island was described in a The Straits Times 15 March 1936 article as “sunny, shady and delightful a spot as can be imagined” and commanding a view “embracing the Jalan Scudai waterfront of Johore, and the Pulai, and Plentong Hills”. The same articles also explains that its name means “shady island” in Malay*, which the people of the strait thought was haunted. A rare indigenous fossil fern thought to have been extinct in Singapore, the Dipteris, was found on the island in 2003.


Mr Max Bevilacqua Bell and the attempt to cross breed Friesian cows with Indian cows in Lim Chu Kang 

It is hard to imagine that Singapore had an agricultural past. The northwest corner, while we know was given to rubber (see also: A Lost World in Lim Chu Kang), was apparently also where cattle was reared.

The very rare photograph of Pulau Sarimbun was sent to me by Mr Stephen Downes-Martin in October 2015. Mr Downes-Martin, who lived in Singapore as a child in 1959, 1960, and then again in 1970, was the stepson of Mr Max Bevilacqua Bell,  a businessman whose association with Singapore began from the early 1920s and lasted until the 1970s. Among Mr Bell’s ventures in Singapore was in cattle rearing. Mr Bell had a farm in Lim Chu Kang on which he attempted to cross breed Friesian cows with Indian cows but the war put a halt to that venture. A photograph of Mr Bell’s house in Lim Chu Kang also came in the same email.

Mr Bell’s farm in Lim Chu Kang in the 1930s (photo courtesy of Mr Stephen Downes-Martin).


* Sarimbun probably follows the naming convention adopted for Singapore’s islands by the Orang Laut, which have a prefix sa- or se-. Rimbun in Malay translates to “lush” from a perspective of vegetation – which well describes the island.

 

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Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets: Beach Road Police Station and Barracks

22 09 2017

Update 22 September 2017

Registrations have close as all available slots have been taken up as of 10.05 am. Do look out for the next visit in the series (location to be advised) on 21 October 2017.

More on the series:


The sixth in the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) supported series of guided State Property visits, “Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets“, takes us to the former Beach Road Police Station.

The details of the visit are as follows:
Date : 7 October 2017
Time : 10 am to 12 noon
Address: 99 Beach Road Singapore 189701

The size of the group for the visit is limited to 30 and registrations will be required. To register, kindly fill this form in: https://goo.gl/forms/kDn5piD8NglKGH1W2


Background to the station and barracks:

The station and two barrack buildings were completed in 1934 at the tail end of a decade of reorganisation for the police force. The efforts also saw the establishment of a Police Training School at Thomson – the old Police Academy, as well as the construction of new stations and living quarters across Singapore, in the face of a relative state of disorder that had prompted comparisons between the “cesspool of iniquity” that was Singapore, a.k.a. Sin-galore, and Chicago.

The complex was a replacement for an earlier station, which had been located further east along Beach Road at Clyde Terrace and was built at a cost of $319,743. The barracks provided quarters for 64 married man in one of its three storey blocks. 80 single men and NCOs were also accommodated in another three storey singlemen’s block in which a mess and recreation room was also arranged on the ground floor. The three storey main station building, described at the point of its construction as being of a “pretentious type”, also had quarters  – for two European and two “Asiatic” Inspectors – on its second and third levels. Its ground floor contained offices, a guard room, an armoury and a number of stores. A cell block – the lock-up – was also arranged “behind the guardroom”, “approached from it by a covered way”.

The station would play a part in a series of tumultuous events that followed its completion. A hundred or so Japanese “aliens” were held in it at the outbreak of war on 8 December, before they were moved to Changi Prison. This was a scene would repeat itself after Singapore’s fall. The station was used as a holding facility for different ethnic groups of civilians including Jews, individuals of various European backgrounds and nationalities, and also members of the Chinese and Indian community, before internment in Changi.

Beach Road Police Station also found itself in the thick of action during the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950, when policemen from the station were sent to quell disturbances in nearby Kampong Glam – only to have the men involved retreat into the station, along with scores of civilians, for safety.

The station served as the Police ‘C’ Division headquarters until May 1988, when that moved into new premises at Geylang Police Station on Paya Lebar Road. The Central Police Division headquarters moved in to the station in November 1992 and used it until 2001 when that moved into the newly completed Cantonment Police Complex. The decommissioned former station was also used by the Raffles Design Institute for some six years. Two sets of quarters, added on an adjoining piece of land – two four storey blocks in the 1950s and a 12 storey block in 1970 – have since been demolished.

The station complex sits on a 2 hectare reserve site that is now the subject of a Government land sales tender exercise and as the successful developer will have the option of demolishing the two barrack blocks as part of the redevelopment, this may be a last opportunity to see the complex as it is. The main station building itself has been conserved since 2002 and will be retained.


 





Ten 100 year old places in Singapore and the little stories they hide

9 07 2017

Surprising as it may seem, places that go back more than a hundred years are not uncommon in the midst of urban Singapore’s gleaming modernity. Not unexpectedly, many of these places hide a story or two, stories that relate to their history, and also ones that speak of Singapore’s linkages with the wider world. Here is a pick of ten such places with rather interesting tales to tell:


(1) The pagoda supported by eight “dimwits” 

Telok Ayer Street, a landing point for early immigrants in days when the sea washed up to it, is littered with the reminders of the forgotten days of adventure. The street is dotted with religious structures aplenty. Now reconstructions of the simple prayer houses put up by those whom came from distant lands so as to permit thanks to be offered to their gods for the safe passage, they offer insights into the origins of some of modern Singapore’s early settlers.

A cluster of Chinese structures from the mid 19th century, with two well ornamented pagodas, is found in the middle section of the street. The structures, which display the distinctive Minnan style of architecture, tell us of two waves of Hokkien settlers not just to Singapore but also to the region.

One of the pagodas is the Chung-Wen pagoda. Built initially for the worship of the god of literature, and used later as a school, it displays a little noticed but a rather interesting ornamental feature that was introduced to Minnan architecture during the Tang dynasty that takes the form of craved wooden figures of men with distinctively non-Chinese facial features dressed in colourful robes. The carved figures, appended in a corbel like fashion to the junctions of the beams and columns supporting the topmost tier of the pagoda, appear to be propping the structure up. The pieces, of which eight are found on the pagoda, are referred to in a rather disparaging manner as “dim-witted foreigners” in the vernacular. They have no structural function and are apparently a fairly commonly used decorative element in Minnan architecture. Rather than being an attempt to belittle, they are thought instead to have been a commemoration of the efforts of non-native workmen during the Tang period.

More on the Chung-Wen pagoda at : What’s propping a mid 1800s pagoda up on Telok Ayer Street


(2) A mosque with a leaning church steeple

Now fronted by a recently planted grove of gelam or Eucalyptus trees of a type from which Kampong Gelam (or Glam) got its name, is a mosque with an untypical minaret built into its boundary wall, the Hajjah Fatimah Mosque.

While the minaret’s claim to fame may be its tilt of 6 degrees –  for which it is known as the “Leaning Tower of Singapore”, what seems more noticeable is the minaret’s resemblance to a church’s steeple. Strange as it may sound, it may actually have been the steeple of the original St. Andrew’s Church (now the Cathedral) that served as an inspiration. The church  got its steeple in 1842, just a few years before the mosque was built.

Now stabilised, the tilt of the minaret has been attributed to the settlement of the less compact structure of the hand-made bricks employed in its construction. The mosque finds itself in an odd position as a shophouse-lined road, Java Road, once ran along its walls.

More photographs of the mosque and its unique minaret can be found at this link.


(3) A temple with furniture “made in Ngau Che Shui” 

Close-up of characters carved on the table. The Chinese characters ‘牛車水’ indicate that there were furniture craftsmen present in Singapore at a time when a lot of such commissioned work would have been carried out in China.

The Mun San Fook Tuck Chee temple has its roots in the Cantonese and Hakka coolie community who settled around the banks of the Kallang River in the mid-1800s. Many in the community found work in the brick kilns near the village of Sar Kong (or Sand Ridge) and helped established the temple in the 1860s. The term “Mun San” found in the temple’s name, is thought to be a corruption of the Malay word bangsal or shed or workshop and points to the area’s industrial origins.

The temple, which moved to its current premises in the early 1900s, is also a rare example of Cantonese style religious architecture in Singapore. What is perhaps more interestingly, is its furniture. A table used in the temple has the words “牛車水” carved into it, as a mark of its origin. “牛車水”, or ngau-che-shui as it would have been pronounced in Cantonese, translates literally to “Ox-Cart Water” and means “Bullock Water Cart”. This of course is a local reference to what we know today as Chinatown. The table is rather unusual in the sense that such items were then more commonly imported from China and what it does show is that wood craftsmen were then already present in Singapore’s Chinatown.

More on the temple at : On Borrowed Time: Mun San Fook Tuck Chee


(4) The graveyard of the would be successors of the Riau-Lingga Empire

Keramat Bukit Kasita on the slopes of Bukit Purmei, surrounded by block of HDB flats, is quite a curious sight. The old cemetery, with walls that give it an appearance of a fortified compound, has graves dressed both in the yellow of Malay royalty and green of holy men. Although it is quite unlikely, there are those who believe that the graveyard dates back to the 16th century. Even less likely is the claim that one of the graves purportedly belongs to “Sultan Iskandar Shah”.

What seems evident however, is that the oldest tomb goes back to 1721, which is well before Raffles and the British arrived. The cemetery is also known to be the burial place of Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah II, who was the very last sultan of Riau-Lingga, the Dutch influenced remnant of the once great Johor-Riau-Lingga empire. Uncooperative, Abdul Rahman II was driven out by the Dutch in 1911 and died a pauper in Singapore in 1930. Several of his descendants are also buried in the cemetery.

More at : A vestige of 16th Century Singapura?

The Riau-Lingga sultanate was formed in the wake of the death of Sultan Mahmud Shah III – the last ruler of the once great Johor-Riau-Lingga Sultanate. Supported by the Dutch, the half-brother of the would be Sultan Hussein Shah of Singapore – Abdul Rahman (I) was installed as its sultan; a move that would be cemented by the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. The sultanate would see five sultans reign before it was dissolved by the Dutch in 1911.


(5) The house of the rising sun

Emily Hill, a villa that dates back to the end of the 19th century, has had quite an eventful past. It has seen its ownership passed from the hands of the Sultan of Siak, first to a dentist and then to the Department of Social Welfare and its occupants include Managing Directors of a trading firm, dentists, the Consul-General of Japan and former prostitutes. In more recent times, the National Arts Council has taken over and it has been used as an arts school as well as a venue for the arts.

With the clutter that has been added to the area in the last 30 to 40 years, it is hard now to imagine that the house actually occupied a prominent position overlooking Middle Road. The road was the heart of a sizeable Japanese community in the early part of the 20th century, and was known as Chuo Dori (or Central Street) to the Japanese. Because of its position, it was chosen by an increasingly militant Japan to serve as a focal point for the community here as the office of its Consul-General in 1939. As the Japanese Consulate, it flew the flag of the rising sun from a position that was almost as lofty as Government House, perched atop nearby Mount Caroline. This continued until 1941 when the Japanese were expelled from Singapore.

Another aspect of the house that few seem to know about, was the misfortune that befell several of its early occupants in the form of a spate of premature deaths in the 1890s. One unfortunate victim was on of the Katz Brothers’s MDs who took up residence there, the 45 year old Mr Heinrich Bock. His death, from a fall off a balcony on 31 May 1896, occurred in rather mysterious circumstances and was ruled by the coroner to be due to “suicide whilst temporarily insane”.

More on Emily Hill at : A Last Reminder of an Old-Fashioned Corner of Singapore

Middle Road when it would have been referred to as Chuo Dori in the 1930s. Osborne House, the Japanese Consulate from 1939 to 1941 can be seen atop Mount Emily, beyond at the northwest end of the street.


(6) The Portuguese Bishop’s Palace

Built in 1912, the 3-storey rectory of St. Joseph’s Church, wears the appearance described as Portuguese Baroque. Intended to provide a parish hall and well as accommodation for the church’s clergymen, the house also has a room on its second floor and a small chapel on the third, reserved for the Roman Catholic Bishop of Macau. The church’s origins was in the Portuguese Mission. Rather uniquely in Singapore, it was a parish first of the diocese of Goa and later of Macau – both of which were Portuguese colonies. As such, the Bishop of Macau, visited regularly as the head of the diocese and this made it a palace of sorts for the Macanese Primate until the church’s links with Macau ceased in 1999 with the former colony’s transfer to China (the anticipation of Macau’s transfer to China saw St. Joseph’s Church transferred to the Archdiocese of Singapore in 1981, although the Bishop of Macau continued to appoint its priests until 1999).

More on Parochial House, as the rectory building is now known, at: A look into the Portuguese Church’s beautiful Parochial House


(7) A final hiding place among the old gravestones 

The Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery, is one of two old Muslim cemeteries from the 19th century that straddle “Grave Road” or Jalan Kubor in Kampong Gelam. It’s links go back to the prominent Yemeni-Arab Aljunied family with its patriarch, Syed Omar Ali having been buried on the grounds, which he bought and donated to the community as a burial ground, in 1852. The cemetery is also associated with an incident in December 1972 during which two gunmen at the top of Singapore’s most wanted list, who were brothers, took their own lives after being cornered by the police. This came at a time when gun crime was not uncommon in Singapore and when several gunmen were on the loose. The two brothers involved in this case, Abdul and Mustapha Wahab, were especially daring and trigger-happy and the incident brought to a one-and-a-half month reign of terror to a close.

More on this incident can be found in a previous post: When gunmen roamed the streets of Singapore: a showdown at Jalan Kubor.


(8) A grave that holds the remains of 10,000 fallen soldiers

With graves that date back to 1889, the Japanese Cemetery in Chuan Hoe Avenue counts as one of the oldest un-exhumed non-Muslim burial sites in Singapore. Established by Japanese rubber plantation owners who were also brothel keepers to allow hundreds of karayuki-san (women who came over from impoverished parts of Japan to work in the vice trade in the late 1800s and into the early 1900s), the cemetery has not just the simple headstones marking where these unfortunate women are buried but also the graves of several interesting characters. A charnel containing part of the remains of Singapore’s first Japanese resident, Yamamoto Otokichi or John M. Ottoson, is one. Otokichi had quite an eventful life. He survived a 14 month long ordeal in a drifting wreck of a ship to become the first translator of the bible into Japanese and settled eventually in Singapore.

The cemetery is also linked somehow to Singapore’s darkest of days. Besides being where Field Marshal Count Hisaichi Terauchi, the Supreme Commander of Southern Command of the Japanese Imperial Army during the war, was first buried; the cemetery is also where a grave containing the ashes of 10,000 Japanese soldiers who fell during the war in the Pacific is found. The ashes were moved to the site after the Japanese ritually destroyed a war memorial erected at the top of Bukit Batok at which the ashes were originally placed, the Syonan Chureito, in the days leading up to their surrender.

More on the cemetery at : Voices from a forgotten past.


(9) A church building occupied by Sin

Now occupied by Objectifs, visual arts centre, the oldest building now on Middle Road has distinctively church-like features. Built in the 1870s, it originally housed a Christian Institute before turning into a church, the “Malay Church”, from 1885 to 1929. It has for the longest of time however not been used as a church, housing a restaurant during the war before being used from the 1950s to the 1980s as – of all things – a motor vehicle workshop by the name of Sin Sin!
More on the building: A church once occupied by Sin,


(10) A bridge that was a tomb for over 20 years

Anderson Bridge, completed in 1910 so that Cavenagh Bridge could be replaced, seems to have had quite a gruesome past. Known as the “Bridge of Death” in the 1950s for the spate of deaths from accidents involving motorcyclists, it was also one of several locations at which the heads of beheaded criminals were put on display in the early days of the Japanese Occupation to instill fear in the general population.

The bridge also became a tomb for over two decades from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s, without anyone knowing. The skeleton of a man, Mr Ong Choon Lim, was discovered  by a worker carrying out maintenance in February 1987.  Ong, who would have been in his 50s when he died, had last been seen alive by members of his family in 1960. The skeleton was found with two rings, a watch, $9 in currency notes issued prior to 1967, an identity card issued in 1948 and a certificate issued in July 1961. Ong was thought to have died sometime in between 1962 and 1967, which meant that his remains would have lain undiscovered for over 20 years.

The bridge is one of five bridges over the Singapore River that were given conservation status in 2009. More on its conservation: Singapore River Bridges


 





Singapore in untypical light

25 03 2017

What defines Singapore isn’t just its well photographed icons of the modern age, food, its colourful festivals and its now ubiquitous blocks of public housing flats. Lots go on without ever being noticed, including what these twelve untypical views of some of what makes Singapore, Singapore, depict:


The darkness at sunrise

An incoming storm.

Rainstorms are very much a part of life in Singapore. They can be a nuisance, but are also welcomed for the cooler temperatures they bring. One storm system that is particularly dramatic, arrives with suddenness in the early mornings around dawn, bringing with it a fury of lightning, thunder and heavy rain. The squalls, which blow in from March to November, are known as the Sumatras – after the Indonesian landform they blow in from.


The (once) shimmering shores

Sembawang Beach, one of the last natural beaches, illuminated by the lights of a celebration brought in by one of Singapore’s immigrant communities.

The Malay Annals, the chronicles of the kings of old Singapura, makes one of the earliest recorded mention of Singapore’s shores. In one of it more well-known stories, a glance at the shimmering white sands of then Temasek was all it took to have Sri Tri Buana or Sang Nila Utama sail over from Batam. Confronted by the sight of a magnificent looking beast that the royal party believed to be a lion, Sri Tri Buana decided to remain on the island and establish a kingdom that he named Singapura after the beast. Except for a vicious attack of sawfish – told in another of the annals’ intriguing tales, the shores provided calm. The British East India Company would see great value in the shores some 6 centuries after Sang Nila Utama and came to lay what would be the foundations for modern Singapore.


Crossing at speed

Crossing MRT lines, as seen from a moving train.

Modern Singapore makes a huge investment in public transport infrastructure, a key component of which is the MRT. Construction of the first lines, which was initially resisted, began in the 1980s. Three decades on, Singapore is still in a frenzy of building a criss-cross of lines with a view to reduce the dependence on road transport in the longer term. In will also only be a matter of time before the MRT crossing into neighbouring Malaysia. Plans are in place to have the MRT run under the Tebrau Strait and into Johor Bahru.


The lights do not go out on the shipyards

Working lights at Sembawang Shipyard at dawn.

Once thought of as a sunset industry, the shipbuilding and repair business continues to serve Singapore well. With a long tradition in the industry, it would only be after independence that the business came to the fore. The two shipyard giants, Keppel and Sembawang, have their roots in the post-independence era, built on facilities inherited from civilian and military facilities established by the British. Both were an important source of jobs in early years and together with other shipyards, have established a reputation for efficient turnaround repair times. One contributing factor is the effort put in by some of the hardest workers across the industries that keep the shipyards running 24-7 whenever that is needed.


Upwardly mobile

Inner workings of a multi-level ramp-up logistic centre revealed by its illuminations.

The entrepôt trade, and what supports it, is one of the things Singapore has been built on. The arrival of the age of containerisation in the early 1970s, transformed the trade and also the ports and goods handling facilities. Like in public housing and in the light industrial landscape, goods handling has also now gone high-rise. Multi-level ramp-up logistics centres have become a feature of the industrial and suburban landscape over the last two decades with much more being built. The transport and storage trade, associated with these facilities, accounts for a significant 8% of the GDP.


Offshore oil

The petrochemical complex on Pulau Bukom and Pulau Ular / Pulau Bukom Kechil, seen from an offshore patch reef. Pulau Bukom is the site of Singapore’s first oil refinery.

For the oil industry in Singapore, going “offshore” takes on another meaning. Singapore’s beginnings as a main refining centre was in 1961 when Shell opened the first refinery offshore on the island of Pulau Bukom. Singapore has since also ventured into petrochemical processing. Although there are some onshore facilities still running, much goes on offshore with a man-made island made from a cluster of islands off Jurong, Jurong Island, being a main centre. Petrochemical processing facilities have also sprouted up on an expanded Pulau Bukom and on the neighbouring island of Pulau Bukom Kechil (which now has Pulau Ular and Pualu Busing appended to it).


The light brought by a moving dock

Inside the belly of a Landing Ship Tank.

One way in which Singapore plays its part as a member of the international community is in providing humanitarian assistance in the event of crisis and disaster in the region. With 4 locally designed and built Landing Ship Tanks capable of moving men, machine and cargo over large distances, the Republic of Singapore Navy is well equipped to provide support for such a response when needed – as was seen in the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami in Aceh.


Corridors of sin and also of salvation

A corridors of sin and salvation. The lights are of a Buddhist Religious Centre.

Geylang may be a neighbourhood that has built a reputation for its association with several of the 7 deadly sins, gluttony and lust included. What is perhaps surprising about the neighbourhood is that it is also where the largest concentration of religious institutions in Singapore can found  (see also:Streets of Sin and Salvation).


Islands of many tales and legends

Kusu Island at twilight.

The southern islands of Singapore, once inhabited by members of the Orang Laut community, have long been the subject of myths and legends. Handed down over the generations, the stories – of spirits and genies suggest how the islands were formed and how the islands acquired their names. Sadly, with the communities now dispersed, much is being forgotten. One that will not be forgotten as quickly is that of Kusu or tortoise island, which legend says a tortoise in rescuing two shipwrecked sailors, turned into the island. The island actually resembled a tortise at high-tide before land reclamation altered its shape. Chinese and Malay shrines maintained on the island, continue to attract Chinese devotees,  especially during the annual pilgrimage that takes place over the ninth Chinese month,


Regeneration

The deconstruction of the 1973 built National Stadium in 2010, where two perhaps three generations of Singaporeans connected to during the days of Singapore’s participation in the Malaysia Cup football competition.

Regeneration of old places, neighbourhood and places Singaporean have grown to love, is very much a feature of life in Singapore. Many, especially from the older generations have had to cope with the loss of familiar places and the loss of that sense of home such places bring (see Parting Glances: Rochor Centre in its last days, Parting glances: Blocks 74 to 80 Commonwealth Drive and A world uncoloured).


Light of a not so foreign land

Good Friday at the Church of St. Joseph – where the religious traditions of Portugal are most visible in Singapore.

With a large majority of the population made up of the descendants of the ethnic Chinese immigrants and also an influx of new immigrants from the mainland, and large minorities of Malays and those from the Sub-Continent, Singapore’s many smaller minorities tend to be overlooked. Over the years, Singapore has seen the likes of Armenians, Arabs, Jews, Japanese and as well as those from the extended Nusantara flavour the island. There is also a group that has in fact long had links with the area, the Portuguese or Portuguese Eurasians who feature quite prominently. Many have maintained the traditions of their forefathers and it is on Good Friday every year when some of this is seen in the Good Friday candlelight procession in the compound of the Portuguese Church.


Where the light does not shine

Where the light doesn’t shine. Workers on yet another skyscraper construction project waiting for transport to their dormitories, many of which are located in faraway and remote locations, late in the night.

Work goes on on many construction sites, which employ labourers from various countries including China, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, without whom the skyscrapers of modern Singapore would not have been built. These workers, not unlike the shipyard workers, work extremely long hours and are housed in dormitories located in some of the remotest of locations in Singapore.


 

 

 

 





The last days of Empire

6 02 2017

On the afternoon of Chinese New Year’s day, 75 years ago in 1942, Singapore fell to the Japan. It was to bring three and a half years of hardship on Singaporeans and a shift in power that would bring about the end of the once mighty British Empire. The capitulation of the Empire’s “impregnable fortress” had come swiftly, in a manner nobody might have expected. Just two months had elapsed since the Japanese Imperial Army launched its invasion of Malaya, and in a matter of one week since making landfall on Singapore’s northwest coast, the jewel in the crown was firmly in the hands of Japan.

On the ground, the poorly equipped, ill-trained and demoralised troops defending Malaya and the island were no match for the experienced, efficient and motivated fighting force Japan had committed to the task. With their back to the walls in Singapore, the defenders – British, Australian and Indian troops and members of the Malay Regiment, plus those of volunteer units such as the Chinese organised Dalforce, fought gallantly but there was little that could be done to stem a tide that had already turned against them.

In the less threatening environment we live in today, it is probably difficult to appreciate what these desperate defenders would have been put through. While it will of course not be possible to fully appreciate that, we can attempt to have some sense of it through the testimonies captured of those who have fought – what the National University of Singapore’s Southeast Asian Student’s Society hopes to do in putting together “The Last Days of Empire: Japanese Advance along Bukit Timah Road, 1942”. The guided tour, is one of 12 to look out for this February and March (see also: The ruins on Sentosa and a rare chance to visit), as part of the National Heritage Board’s (NHB) commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore.

The trail starts at the University Cultural Centre (UCC). The UCC stands where the assault on the strategic Pasir Panjang Ridge commenced on 13th February 1942. A vicious battle would be fought over the ridge over two days, which culminated in the Malay Regiment’s last stand on Bukit Chandu and the taking of the British Military Hospital, Alexandra Hospital today, at which a massacre occurred.

Dr. Effendy at the foot of Bukit Timah Hill.

Dr. Effendy at the foot of Bukit Timah Hill.

From the UCC, the trail backtracks the Japanese advance north along Clementi Road – then Reformatory Road, a main thoroughfare that links with Bukit Timah Road and thereby connects north and south of the island. Stops along the way include the site at Dover Road at which the Rimau Commandos were executed. The rather strange spot at which the 10 of brave commandos lost their lives – just a couple of months before Japan was to surrender, was selected by the Japanese apparently for the view to honour the bravery of the men, who were said to have gone to their deaths laughing (see: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19600228-1.2.63). Operation Rimau, mounted by a total of 23 British and Australian commandos and intended as a sequel to the highly successful Operation Jaywick, was aborted with 11 commandos being captured alive.

Marker for the Rimau Commando execution site at Dover Road.

Marker for the Rimau Commando execution site at Dover Road.

Participants are also brought to the sites near the Buona Vista Battery, where a couple of monster 15 inch guns were mounted. More on these guns can be found at Peter Stubbs’ FortSiloso.com. It is though that remnants of the emplacement for No.1 Gun, tunnels serving the guns as well as an underground Battery Plotting Room for the battery are still intact – below what had previously been Mowbray Camp. Some remnants of No. 2 Gun are also thought to exist in the area of Pine Grove, which was also where a POW Cemetery, the Ulu Pandan Cemetery existed until 1975.

A view down Ulu Pandan Road, to the areas on both sides of the road where the 15" guns of the Buona Vista Battery were mounted.

A view down Ulu Pandan Road, to the areas on both sides of the road where the 15″ guns of the Buona Vista Battery were mounted.

Dr Effendy speaking on the Buona Vista Battery.

Dr Effendy speaking on the Buona Vista Battery.

The former Mowbray Camp - remains of No. 1 Gun emplacement, tunnels and a battery plotting room are thought to still exist.

The former Mowbray Camp – remains of No. 1 Gun emplacement, tunnels and a battery plotting room are thought to still exist.

Other sites that will be visited are the area close to Bukit Timah Village, where participants hear of the use of bamboo tyres by Japanese troops on bicycles; the foot of Bukit Timah Hill where the little known contributions of Dalforce is spoken about; and the POW built stairs that once led to the Syonan Chureito – a memorial to the fallen. The memorial, which contained the ashes of 10,000 Japanese who perished in the Pacific war, also included a small memorial for allied soldiers. Some of the local population will be mobilised during special occasions, such as the New Year, to attend ceremonies at the memorial (see also : my entry on Syonan Jinja). The Syonan Chureito was destroyed by the Japanese prior to their surrender for fear of its desecration and the remains of the Japanese war dead moved to the Japanese Cemetery at Chuan Hoe Avenue.

POW built steps leading up to the Syonan Chureito at Bukit Batok as seen during the Occupation.

POW built steps leading up to the Syonan Chureito at Bukit Batok as seen during the Occupation.

Dr. Effendy and students at the steps of the Syonan Chureito.

Dr. Effendy and students at the steps of the Syonan Chureito.

The tour will end off with a guided tour at the Old Ford Factory’s newly revamped Syonan Gallery. The old Ford Factory was where the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese Imperial Army took place on 15 February 1942. The tour will be led by Dr Mohamed Effendy and at the Old Ford Factory, by Syonan Gallery docents. More information on the tour and other tours can be found at:

A view towards the area where Bukit Timah Village was.

A view towards the area where Bukit Timah Village was.





The ruins on Sentosa and a rare chance to visit

3 02 2017

Sentosa, or the island of peace and tranquility and now also of posh homes, fancy boats and overpriced hotels, was once the rather sinister sounding Pulau Blakang Mati – the island of death at the back. No one seems quite sure of the origins of the name, although there have been several suggestions including one that is tied to the legend that Pulau Tekukor to Blakang Mati’s south had once seen duels to the death pitting Bugis warriors against ones from the Malay world.

Ruins on Mount Serapong.

It was in putting up a deference to violent confrontation that was to be Blakang Mati’s purpose for a large part of British rule. Strategically positioned, it served not only as a natural breakwater for the new harbour. Endowed with high points, it was only a matter of time before guns to protect the harbour from seaward attack were positioned on the island. The idea was in fact already mooted by William Farquhar, Singapore’s first resident, as early as 1820 – a year after the British arrived.

The first military installations would however only come up in the late 1800s. Undeterred by outbreaks of malaria and “Blakang Mati fever”, fortifications requiring extensive use of concrete – then newly introduced to Singapore, were constructed at the end of the 1870s on Mount Serapong – Blakang Mati’s highest point. It would only be in 1885 that work started on the installation of coastal artillery on Serapong. Two 8 inch guns were installed with supporting infrastructure such as casemates built into the terrain, which contained magazines, accommodation and other working spaces.

By 1912/13, the guns at Serapong Battery would be upgraded to 9.2 inch calibre guns and a separate Spur Battery, also equipped with a 9.2 inch gun added. These guns would be decommissioned in the later half of the 1930s when 9.2 inch guns at Fort Connaught were installed. Two 6 inch guns would however be placed on the spur (renamed Serapong Battery) after a review in 1936 and this was operational up to the final days before the fall of Singapore. Both guns were spiked and destroyed, No. 2 on 14th and and No. 1 on 15th February 1942.

With the development of Sentosa today, it may perhaps be surprising that extensive remnants of the installations scattered over Mount Serapong – just a stone’s throw away from the luxury developments at Sentosa Cove – can still be found today. The remnants include a underground magazine built for the 9.2 inch spur battery that was converted for use for Serapong Battery’s 6 inch No. 1 Gun, the battery’s gun emplacements, as well as several other support structures built in the 1930s for the battery. What may be more surprising are casemates, thought to have been built around 1885 can be found along with mountings for the 9.2 inch guns and best of all, a bunker 20 metres under the casemates that served as the Blakang Mati Command Centre. The bunker, with several chambers is in a damaged condition and has a vertical escape shaft at the top of which is a hatch.

The National Heritage Board, through a series of guided tours to mark the 75th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, offers an excellent opportunity to learn more about and see these remnants. One tour, Fort Serapong @ Fort Siloso, for which 3 sessions on the 25 February, 4 and 11 March (from 9.30 am to 12 noon) will be held. Places are limited. More  on the tours and other programmes can be found below.

For more on the guns at Serapong, on Sentosa and also across Singapore, do visit Peter Stubbs excellent FortSiloso.com site.


Photographs of the ruins on Mount Serapong

On the spur, the Gun No. 1 Gun duty personnel rooms and gunners’ shelter.

On the spur, the Gun No. 1 Gun duty personnel rooms and gunners’ shelter.

The collapsed structure of the 6 inch Gun No. 1 emplacement on the spur.

The collapsed structure of the 6 inch Gun No. 1 emplacement on the spur.

The underground 6-inch Gun No. 1 magazine on the spur, converted from that for the 9.2 inch spur battery.

The underground 6-inch Gun No. 1 magazine on the spur, converted from that for the 9.2 inch spur battery.

Inside the Other Ranks shelter in the magazine.

Inside the Other Ranks shelter in the magazine.

In the 'courtyard' of the magazine.

In the ‘courtyard’ of the magazine.

Inside the magazine.

Inside the magazine.

The 1936 kitchen complex.

The 1936 kitchen complex.

More of the kitchen complex.

More of the kitchen complex.

Another view.

Another view.

The 1936 bathroom.

The 1936 bathroom.

Fort Connaught's Battery Command Post (BCP), positioned on the highest point.

Fort Connaught’s Battery Command Post (BCP), positioned on the highest point.

Another view.

Another view.

9.2 inch gun mounting studs.

9.2 inch gun mounting studs.

A close-up.

A close-up.

The 9.2 inch shell hoist.

The 9.2 inch shell hoist.

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Nature reclaiming the space.

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Stairs at the casemate.

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Space inside the casemate.

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Part of the casemate.

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Inside a casemate space.

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Another collapsed structure.

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A underground reservoir.

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Magazine inside the casemate.

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Another view.

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The Blakang Mati Command Centre.

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Another view.

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The view up the escape shaft.

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The hatch at the end of the escape shaft.



Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore

This 15 February will mark 75 years since the Fall of Singapore, an event that brought about 3½ years of occupation by the Japanese and a period of immense hardship.  The National Heritage Board is commemorating the anniversary with  “Battle for Singapore – Years under the Sun Empire: Tales of Resilience” that will see guided tours, talks and activities organised by various Museum Roundtable museums from 16 February to 12 March.

There would be 12 different tours with a total of 49 tour runs to look out for. These will cover 11 World War II related sites and structures, including some rarely opened places such as the former Fort Serapong and the former Command House. There is an opportunity to also hear accounts of battle and survival and learn about the contributions and courage of the local population to the effort to defend Singapore.

Also to look forward to is the re-opening of the Former Ford Factory, which has been closed for a year-long revamp. This will reopen to the public on 16 February 2017 and see a new exhibition gallery with never-been-seen-before archival materials, There is also an interactive component offering a more immersive account of the days of war and suffering. Special exhibitions and programmes are also being put up by the Army Museum, Battlebox, the Singapore Discovery Centre. the Eurasian Heritage Centre, and Reflections at Bukit Chandu. More information is available at  www.museums.com.sg. Sign-ups for the Battle for Singapore 2017 programmes can be made at this link: https://www.eventbrite.sg/o/national-heritage-board-9384989257 (available from 6 February 2017 at 10.00am onwards). Slots are limited and will be allocated on a first-come first-served basis.






Ancient music in Jackie Chan’s ancient houses

20 10 2016

A most delightful gift to Singapore made by Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan is the set of four structures that now grace the campus of the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) at Somapah. Dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties, the structures were originally from Zhejiang province in China. A chance to have a look at them came with a Nanyin performance by the Siong Leng Musical Association held in the structures that I was invited to recently.

Ancient music in ancient structures. A performance by the Siong Leng Musical Association held in a main hall that was part of a house from Zhejiang.

Ancient music in ancient structures. A performance by the Siong Leng Musical Association held in a main hall that was part of a house from Zhejiang.

Part of a collection of ten ancient structures purchased by martial arts star with the intention that they be dismantled and re-erected as a home for his parents, the structures were put in storage for much longer than was intended. Little was documented on the assembly of the structures, which proved a challenge when the university looked at reassembling them.

The pavilion.

The pavilion.

The structures feature some rather interesting and previously unseen features in Singapore in which many Chinese structures are of the Minnan style. An examples of this is the exquisitely carved oversized wooden corbels seen in one of the structures, a late Qing dynasty pavilion. The pavilion, interestingly, also features a mix of styles seen in the wooden balustrades with a Suzhou flavour.

The Suzhou style is also seen in some of the features of the pavilion.

The Suzhou style is also seen in some of the features of the pavilion.

Close to the pavilion, another of the structures – an opera stage, has an interesting feature on its ceiling – a dome of sorts that acts to enhance the stage acoustics.

A feature on the ceiling of the opera stage that enhances the stage's acoustics.

A feature on the ceiling of the opera stage that enhances the stage’s acoustics.

Hokkien opera on an ancient opera stage.

Hokkien opera on an ancient opera stage.

A close-up.

A close-up.

There are also two structures, complementing parts of a Ming dynasty house and a Qing dynasty house, that have been put together in the setting of a lake. Featuring a mix of old and new in the glass panels that keep the air-conditioning in, the parts which have only a small difference in width, find harmony even if they were from different houses and from different times. The parts are a main hall and an inner hall where bedrooms would have been located. An interesting contrast between the two are the finished wooden columns seen in the main hall where guests would be entertained and the coarser looking (and less costly) unfinished columns in the inner more private area.

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In the inner hall.

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The two parts of two houses, complementing each other in the setting of a lake.

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The opera stage by night.

A carved corbel on the stage.

A carved corbel on the stage.

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