The oldest public library building, conservation, and a hornbill

27 04 2015

One of the few reminders of the old Queenstown town centre still left standing, the Queenstown Public Library commemorated a milestone on Saturday when it celebrated it 45th birthday.  The library, Singapore’s oldest branch library, is also housed in a conserved public building that, unusually for Singapore, is still being used for the purpose it was built for. The opening of the library in 1970, was a major step in making books available to the masses through the decentralisation of library services.

Guest of Honour Dr Chia Shi-Lu speaking at the opening of the Queentown Library's 45th Anniversary celebrations.

Guest of Honour Dr Chia Shi-Lu speaking at the opening of the Queentown Library’s 45th Anniversary celebrations.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew at the opening of the library on 30 April 1970.

Opened officially on 30th April 1970 by the then Prime Minister, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the library, as described by Mr Lee in his opening address, was meant not just to bring books to the masses, but was also intended to be a sanctuary of peace and quiet.

The library at its opening in 1970.

The library has indeed been a sanctuary to many, based on what was shared during the “Cakap Heritage” session that preceded the main celebrations. The session saw members of the community, librarians and members of the Friends of the Library speak of their personal experiences and connections to the library, how outreach to children was done and what the library meant to them. One of the things that did come out was how the library crowd at Queenstown was quieter and better behaved as compared to the National Library in Stamford Road.

Librarians speaking about their experiences in the Queenstown Public Library.

Librarians speaking about their experiences in the Queenstown Public Library at the Cakap Heritage session.

A member of the Friends of the Library speaking about the formation of the group by four undergraduates as part of a project to study group dynamics.

A member of the Friends of the Library speaking about the formation of the group by four undergraduates as part of a project to study group dynamics.

The celebrations also saw the introduction of two publications by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). The first is a wonderful poster of conserved buildings in the Queenstown area. Besides the library, the conserved buildings include the nearby former Commonwealth Avenue Wet Market and Food Centre and the Church of  the Blessed Sacrament. An “e-version” of the poster can be downloaded at the URA’s website.

Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

The church's interior.

The church’s interior.

The second publication that was launched is a picture book on heritage buildings, Looking at Heritage Buildings, aimed at the young. Produced by John Koh and supported by the URA, the book features the 75 buildings gazetted for conservation as part of the URA Master Plan 2014, taking a look the the buildings through the eyes of Billie the hornbill.

John Koh speaking on how hornbills and dragons are linked to conservation buildings.

John Koh speaking on how hornbills and dragons are linked to conservation buildings.

The idea for the book came as a result of John’s interactions with the URA in finding a home for a dragon, a sculpture the author acquired in producing another children’s picture book, Marco Goes East. One of the challenges the author spoke of, during a brief chat I had with him, was in defining the age group of its target audience. I thought that the book, in which the buildings are organised into five groups according to their location, with strong visuals that is accompanied by very concise information on the histories and unique architectural features, does make the book, even if it is intended for the young, a useful walking trail resource even for the less youthful.

The cover of the book.

The cover of the book.

The buildings are organised into 5 groups.

The 75 conservation buildings are organised into 5 groups.

The book is available both in print and in e-book format. The 26 page print version is available at the Singapore City Gallery and at public libraries and the e-book can be downloaded from the URA website.

A peek inside the book.


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A peek inside the book.





A new journey through Tanjong Pagar begins

18 03 2015

Close to four years since the close of the railway that ran through Singapore, the  much anticipated Request for Proposal (RFP) for the Rail Corridor is finally out – announced at 11 am today. Key highlights of the RFP include the submission of a Concept Master Plan and Concept Proposals. This will require the development of concept designs for four key activity nodes and two special interest areas, one of which is Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, which involves a proposal for its reuse as a community space for a period 20 years until the port is moved out.  Also noteworthy is the identification of the Kranji MRT area as a northern gateway, which I understand will also involve a realignment of the rail corridor in the area. More information on the RFP can be found in the press release which is appended and at t http://ura.sg/railrfp.

We waved goodbye to the Malayan Railway trains through Singapore close to 4 years ago on 30 June 2011.

We waved goodbye to the Malayan Railway trains through Singapore close to 4 years ago on 30 June 2011.

Bukit Timah Railway Station, one of four activity nodes for which concept designs are to be proposed.

Bukit Timah Railway Station, one of four activity nodes for which concept designs are to be proposed.


NEWS RELEASE BY THE URBAN REDEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY

URA LAUNCHES REQUEST FOR PROPOSAL FOR THE RAIL CORRIDOR

Input from the community to crystallise Concept Master Plan and Concept Proposals

18 March 2015 – The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) launched the ‘Rail Corridor – An Inspired and Extraordinary Community Space’ Request for Proposal (RFP) today, inviting design professionals to develop a Concept Master Plan and Concept Proposals for Singapore’s Rail Corridor.

The Rail Corridor: A unique community space of exceptional possibilities

The 24 km-long Rail Corridor spans north to south of Singapore. It threads through diverse landscapes such as housing, business, industrial, and recreational areas, and key landmarks that are rich in nature and heritage. See Annex A for the current uses along the Rail Corridor.

Over the past three-and-a-half years, the URA has engaged different segments of the community extensively through various platforms to gather feedback on their aspirations for the Rail Corridor. The URA has taken on-board the community’s input and distilled them into a set of Planning and Design Goals that now forms part of the RFP brief, to guide participating teams’ proposals for the Rail Corridor. See Annex B for this set of goals.

Mr Ng Lang, Chief Executive Officer of the URA, said, “The return of the former railway land presented a unique opportunity for us to shape the future of the Rail Corridor and its surrounding areas together with the community. The Corridor has the potential to become an extraordinary cross-island green artery and an inclusive community space that provides an exceptional experience for Singaporeans from all walks of life. We have taken the time to engage the community widely, and their input will now guide the development of the RFP proposals. Our intention is to continue to sensitively stage the development of this project with the community, and not rush into developing the whole stretch at one go.”

The RFP will be looking for design professionals to develop an overall Concept Master Plan and Concept Proposals for the Rail Corridor. The proposals should have nature and greenery, celebration of heritage, and connectivity as hallmarks of the Rail Corridor experience. They should be sensitive to the local context so that the Rail Corridor will become more accessible and comfortable for the wider community to enjoy. Retaining and enriching the signature ‘green corridor’ experience is also one of the key requirements. In addition, the proposals must be robust to accommodate the evolving needs of the community.

The RPF calls for an overall Concept Master Plan and Concept Proposals for the Rail Corridor. These include concept designs for four key activity nodes as well as smaller community nodes. There will also be Concept Designs for two special interest areas.

(1) The Concept Master Plan and Concept Proposals should create a unique and endearing Rail Corridor experience. The Concept Master Plan should be embedded with a strong identity and clear design approach that includes proposals for a community connector, amenities, and programming for community use. It should also include landscape, heritage and urban design strategies. Teams should also propose innovative design strategies to sensitively integrate developments with nature and greenery along the Rail Corridor. In addition, participating teams are to propose creative concept designs for four key activity nodes along the Corridor that can support a range of activities, namely:

(i) Buona Vista (near one-north)

This can become a vibrant community space for the nearby business park and research community, as well as residents of the Queenstown neighbourhood. Its design should consider integrating the Rail Corridor with surrounding developments using appropriate urban design strategies. As it is located next to the Buona Vista MRT interchange station and is easily accessible by the public, the space could be designed to accommodate mass activities and events. Formerly the site of the Tanglin Halt Railway Station, teams can also look at recapturing the railway heritage of the area in a creative way.

(ii) Bukit Timah Railway Station area

This is the green heart of the Rail Corridor. This midway point of the Corridor can become its green gateway with supporting visitor facilities. The planning and design of this node should be complementary to its idyllic natural setting anchored by the conserved Bukit Timah Railway Station. The Station itself should be repurposed for uses that complements the vision for this node. This is where occasional community events can be held. At most other times, it can be a place of retreat and where one can enjoy the serene, green landscape.

(iii) Former Bukit Timah Fire Station

The former Bukit Timah Fire Station and quarters will become a new gateway into the Rail Corridor. A new pedestrian link will be provided from the Fire Station site directly into the Rail Corridor where visitors could explore the parks fringing the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve such as Dairy Farm Nature Park and Bukit Batok Nature Park. The buildings within the Fire Station site will be retained and should be repurposed for uses that complement its function as a gateway into the Rail Corridor.

There could also be suitable linkages from the former Fire Station to nearby heritage sites such as the Old Ford Factory and site of the Battle of Bukit Timah, which are steeped in World War 2 history.

(iv) Kranji (opposite Kranji MRT Station)

This is envisioned to become the northern gateway into the Rail Corridor. Located across from the Kranji MRT station, it is highly accessible as a major gathering place for the community to hold events and start the journey south towards the city. Its design should complement and be sensitive to key landmarks in the area such as the Singapore Turf Club, Kranji War Memorial, and Mandai Mangroves.

The successful team for the Concept Master Plan will also be required to carry out a preliminary design for a selected 4 km signature stretch of the Rail Corridor. More details of this selected stretch will be provided to shortlisted teams.

(2) Special interest area 1: Concept Designs for the adaptive reuse of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

This National Monument located at the edge of the city will become the most prominent and important gateway into the Rail Corridor. Participating teams should consider how the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station can be put to adaptive reuse as a community building for the next 20 years, pending the development of the Greater Southern Waterfront. They are to propose suitable uses that will give the building a new lease of life. The space should allow for multi-functional community activities that supports its position as the anchor node into the Rail Corridor. The public should have unfettered access so that they can appreciate the heritage of this building and its surroundings.

(3) Special interest area 2: Concept Designs for an urban-green-blue tapestry at Choa Chu Kang

The stretch of the Rail Corridor at Choa Chu Kang that is adjacent to the Sungei Pang Sua Canal provides an opportunity to weave a unique urban-green-blue tapestry in the precinct. Currently, that stretch has low plant biodiversity, while the Sungei Pang Sua is fully canalised. Participating teams are to come up with innovative design concepts to enhance and integrate that segment of the Rail Corridor with Sungei Pang Sua to create an ecologically richer and more vibrant natural environment, and merge it seamlessly with future housing design in the area.

See Annex C which highlights the Rail Corridor, the four key activity nodes, and the two special interest areas.

Request for Proposal process

The RFP exercise comprises a 2-stage Tender Selection Process. Participating teams’ submissions will be assessed by a distinguished 11-member Evaluation Panel. Collectively, the panel members have deep and extensive experience and knowledge in urban planning and design, architecture, landscape architecture, building heritage, nature conservation, sustainable development, and park management. See Annex D for details of the RFP process and Annex E for the list of Evaluation Panel members.

The successful team(s) of consultants will be announced in October 2015. There will be a public exhibition of all shortlisted submissions from October to December 2015.

Continued community involvement

To ensure that the Rail Corridor lives up to its vision as an outstanding and inclusive public space for the community, the URA will continue to engage the community to gather further feedback on the proposals during the public exhibition. Following that, URA will work closely with the consultant(s) to refine the awarded Concept Master Plan and Concept Proposals, taking into account the public’s input.

The implementation will be studied carefully, taking into consideration various factors including the broader development plans for surrounding areas, the laying of underground services below the Rail Corridor, and the needs and aspirations of the community.

More information on the RFP exercise is available at http://ura.sg/railrfp.





Digging the Empress up in search of Singapura

14 02 2015

Just six months or so after the dust seemed to have settled on Empress Place with completion of a four-year long refurbishment of the now almost too clean looking Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, the dust levels seem to be rising again. Since 2 February, a huge hole has appeared in the shadow old Vic, one that is being dug so as to find pieces of our buried past.

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The archaeological excavation, the largest ever undertaken in Singapore, is organised by the National Heritage Board (NHB) with the support of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as part of an effort to commemorate 31 years of archaeology in Singapore.

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The dig, right in a place that when I first came to know it was a car park, has unearthed artefacts that are thought to be highly significant that could possible date as far back as the 14th century. The finds in a previously archaeologically unexplored site, include pieces of porcelain and clay figurines that are thought to originate from as far away as China and  help provide an understanding of a Singapura that seemed to have been at the crossroads even before the British made it so.

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Colouring (and discolouring) the Rail Corridor

11 03 2014

Take a walk down the Buona Vista stretch of the Rail Corridor, plans for which have not been announced as yet, and you can’t help but notice the graffiti like artwork that has recently come up on the two walls beneath the Commonwealth Avenue viaduct. It may surprise that the colourful renderings are works that are in fact sanctioned by the State and are the results of an initiative by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to inject life and colour to the Rail Corridor, which is supported by the National Arts Council (NAC) that was announced in December last year (see: New journeys on the Rail Corridor).

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The initiative does provide a much needed opportunity for street artists to develop their skills in producing artwork and is curated by RSCLS, an urban art collective and a recipient of the NAC Seed Grant. And besides the artworks, there will also be to Street Art jams to look forward to that will provide opportunities for first-hand experiences with street art.

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There have been several examples we have seen of  street art appearing in an indiscriminate around several structures of the rail corridor where graffiti has defaced several items of heritage value and paint and inks or their removal can potentially do long term damage to structures. One of the outcomes it is hoped that this initiative will result in, is to encourage the would be graffiti artists to channel their talents and energy in a positive and responsible way through collectives like the RSCLS.

A recent example of indiscriminate graffiti on a heritage structure along the rail corridor (on truss bridge close to The Rail Mall), which can potentially do long term damage to it.

A recent example of indiscriminate graffiti discolouring a heritage structure along the rail corridor (on truss bridge close to The Rail Mall), which can potentially do long term damage to it.

It does appear that the work, which defaces the heritage structure and can do damage to it, was done for a wedding shoot.

It does appear that the work, which defaces the heritage structure and can do damage to it, was done for a wedding shoot or similar.


More photographs

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The Rail Corridor leading up to the Commonwealth Avenue viaduct.

The Rail Corridor leading up to the Commonwealth Avenue viaduct.





Rediscovering the romance of Chap Goh Mei

19 02 2014

The fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year, Chap Goh Mei (Hokkien for 15th night) as it has been commonly referred to in Singapore, has traditionally been associated with romance. It was perhaps in the hope of rediscovering the romance of a festival that has been lost in the embrace of modernity that drew a healthy crowd of participants to a walk through the streets of Chinatown on the evening of the fifteenth day this year on what coincidentally was also the western day for the celebration of romance, St. Valentine’s Day that was organised by the Conservation Management Department of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

A romantic spot on the streets of Chinatown on Chap Goh Mei.

A romantic spot on the streets of Chinatown on Chap Goh Mei.

The fifteenth night of any Chinese lunar month is of course one that, weather conditions permitting, would be illuminated by the light of the full moon – a setting that certainly is ideal for romance. In the case of Chap Goh Mei, it is a night when Yuanxiao Jie (元宵节) is celebrated, providing an evening for romance to be found not only in the light of the moon, but also in the glow of colourful lanterns; it having been a tradition to have lanterns displayed outside homes and along five-foot-ways, as it was for children to take to the streets carrying lanterns in a fashion similar to the Mid-Autumn festival.

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The search for romance would take many eligible young men and women to the water’s edge – the waterfront along Esplanade was, I am told, a particularly popular spot, from which fruits would be aimed into the water. For the ladies, it would be oranges, representing good husbands, that would be thrown, and for men, good wives taking the form of apples – a practice that I actually did not know about until more recent times.

The lantern parade through the streets of Chinatown on what can be seen as a double Valentine's Day in search for a lost romance.

The search for romance.

While we did not get the chance to toss oranges or apples in the name of romance, we did however get an opportunity to rediscover the romance of Chap Goh Mei and of a Chinatown that would otherwise lie hidden behind the recoloured labyrinth of streets of what would once have been referred to as Tua Poh or the ‘Greater Town’.

The lantern parade.

The lantern parade.

The route we were to take, lanterns in hand, was one of many twists and turns, taking us through a complex of streets that in being referred to as Chinatown, belies the intra-ethnic divisions that did once exist within the greater Chinese immigrant community, divisions that would once have been apparent in moving across the area’s many streets.

Only a thin Ho may enter? The Thin Ho clan association on Ann Siang Road.

Only a thin Ho may enter? The Thin Ho clan association on Ann Siang Road.

The first pause we made was the Ann Siang Hill area where the Cantonese dialect group did have a strong presence. Besides the well known Yeung Ching School (now referred to in the Mandarin form of the name as Yangzheng School) that was perched on top of Ann Siang Hill, there were the many Cantonese clan associations – many of which are still present in the area. Amongst the school alumni are many well known names. This included one that is synonymous with the the lost art of story telling and Redifussion’s Cantonese broadcasts in the 1950s and 1960s, Lee Dai Soh. Another, perhaps lesser known in Singapore, is a certain Xian Xinghai, the composer of the Yellow River Cantata – a work which was to become used as a Chinese revolutionary song. The Yeung Ching foundation does still maintain a presence in the area as is evident from a signboard seen atop a building it owns along Club Street close to its junction with Ann Siang Hill.

The condo in the background would have been where the Yeung Ching school would have stood - atop a since levelled hill the base of which would have been at the condo's sixth floor.

The condo in the background would have been where the Yeung Ching school would have stood – atop a since levelled hill the base of which would have been at the condo’s sixth floor.

Ann Siang Road.

Ann Siang Road.

Club Street.

Club Street.

From Ann Siang Road and Club Street, the procession made its way up to Ann Siang Hill before continuing down to Amoy Street, once a predominantly a Hokkien street, as was Telok Ayer Street where the group was to make a stop in the glow of the beautifully restored Thian Hock Keng temple, a magnificent example of Hokkien temple architecture and a National Monument.

Up Ann Siang Hill.

Up Ann Siang Hill.

The view at the top.

The view at the top.

The pathway down.

The pathway down.

Down Ann Siang Hill.

Down Ann Siang Hill.

Lantern bearers during a pause in the search for romance.

Lantern bearers posing for a photograph outside the Thain Hock Keng temple in the search for romance.

The temple, which now stands across from the watchful eyes of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, is dedicated to the protector of seafarers, the Taoist goddess of the sea, Ma Zu, does point to the fact that the temple did once find itself by the sea, as did the street it is located at – Telok Ayer Street was in the early days of post-Raffles Singapore, a waterfront to which many immigrants would have come ashore at (it was also interesting to learn that the rebuilt Hokkien Huay Kuan, sitting on the site of the temple’s wayang or Chinese Opera stage built over the then shoreline, was designed with a wide through corridor on its ground floor to provide a symbolic passage from the temple to the now distant sea). This did provide the street with a flavour that went beyond the Hokkiens with several other houses of worship and immigrant reception point coming along the street that were put up by other groups of immigrants including a Hakka clan association, Ying Fo Fui Kuan (also a National Monument) and the former Hakka Fuk Tak Chi Temple which was also used by Cantonese immigrants.

The 'watchful eyes' of the Hokkien Huay Kuan.

The ‘watchful eyes’ of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan.

The rather interesting walk ended at another magnificent work of temple architecture, the very recently restored Yueh Hai Ching or Wak Hai Cheng temple at Phillip Street. Set inside a within a walled compound accessible through a narrow doorway from which the sight of coils of incense would first greet the eye, the temple (actually two temples side-by-side), also a National Monument, is another wonderful example of temple architecture, -this time in Teochew style. 

The Yueh Hai Ching temple.

The Yueh Hai Ching temple.

Through the doorway to the newly restored Yueh Hai Ching.

Through the doorway to the newly restored Yueh Hai Ching.

Incense coils.

Incense coils.

The oldest Teochew temple in Singapore (its building dates back to the 1850s), the Yueh Hai Ching features a elaborately decorated roof and is dedicated to Ma Zu and Xuan Tian Shang Di. The temple besides catering to the Teochew community, does also attract worshipers from the Cantonese community – especially during the Chinese New Year – the Cantonese and Teochew communities having an affinity with both having originated from Guangdong (Canton) province. More on the temple can be found at the Ngee Ann Kongsi’s website.

Inside the temple.

Inside the temple.

Another view inside the temple.

Another view inside the temple.

While taking a walk in the company of strangers through now sanitised streets of an old world we in modern times may have seemed to have over-romanticised might not fit into everyone’s idea of how they would want to spend an evening businesses have turned into an excuse for money making, it was a walk in which I was rewarded with the rediscovery of the romance of a festival and of times I might not have otherwise been reminded of.

Smoke from large joss sticks in the compound.

Smoke from large joss sticks in the compound.





The celebrating of Spring in the greater town

27 01 2014

The arrival of spring, commemorated by the Chinese by the celebration of the new year, brings much colour and life to the streets of the “Greater Town”, tua poh, as it was known as to the local population. Besides the street market – long a popular source of goods necessary to welcome in the new year, the area since 1985, has also been livened up by the illuminations of an annual Chinese New Year light-up.

No horse run - this year's light-up is perhaps light years ahead ...

No horse run – this year’s light-up is perhaps light years ahead …

Crowds thronging the street market.

Crowds thronging the street market this year.

I managed to take in the festive atmosphere on the streets, packed with crowds that the weekend before  the new year brings, but not before I attended a rather interesting sharing session on the celebration of Chinese New Year held at the URA Centre. Entitled “Cakap Heritage: All About Chinese New Year in Kreta Ayer / Chinatown” and jointly organised by the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the session provided a view not just of how the festival in years past would have been celebrated in the area, but also of the many ways in which Chinese New Year was observed all across Singapore through the recollections of several of the session’s participants.

A bus passenger The an gazes out at the festive light-up. The annual light-up is now a spectacle not to be missed.

A bus passenger The an gazes out at the festive light-up. The annual light-up is now a spectacle not to be missed.

One topic that was discussed at length during the session was shopping. Besides shopping for festive goodies, cards and decorations, Chinese New Year is also when new clothes and shoes – a must for every Chinese, are bought. For some it would be the only occasion to splurge on a new outfit and while many had theirs tailored, clothes for children were often bought from the Tua Poh street market – although as one former Changi Village resident did testify, shopping wasn’t necessarily confined to the streets of Chinatown.

Festive goodies on offer at the street market.

Festive goodies on offer at the street market.

A seemingly popular shop to buy shoes from, was the Phoenix Shoes Company, located in a shophouse along South Bridge Road. Although the shop wasn’t one I was familiar with, it did bring back memories of another shoe shop – further east along South Bridge Road, from which my parents got their shoes from. That shop, the Crane Shoe Store, is one I well remember for how a light green box in which the pair of shoes in the size desired, would come rushing down a chute from the store room above – almost without delay whenever the shop assistant shouted an order out.

The streets come alive in the lead-up to Chinese New Year.

The streets of the greater town come alive in the lead-up to Chinese New Year.

Other experiences ranged from the buying gold jewellery (On Choeng – a goldsmith on South Bridge Road, seemed a popular choice), to waxed products and ducks eggs. A name synonymous with the prelude to Chinese New Year these days, Lim Chee Guan – known for the long queues for what is today a must-have Chinese New Year treat, bak kwa or long yuk (sometimes translated to pork jerky or barbecued dried pork), did also get a mention. A participant did make the observation that queues would have been non-existent back in the 1950s – when it would be difficult for many. Another luxury mentioned was feasting on bats – something that a restaurant by the name of Oriental in the 1950s, was along with monkeys and squirrels, apparently quite well known for.

Shoppers at the street market.

Shoppers at the street market.

One the subject of luxuries, mention was also made of how for some of the less well-off folks – such as the Samsui women, Chinese New Year would be one of the rare, if not only occasion on which they would put meat, in the form of chicken, on the table, saving through the year to do so.  The mention of chicken does take me back to the Chinese New Years of my early childhood, when the second day involved visiting a family friend who helped on a chicken farm in old Punggol – besides the squealing of pigs for their supper and perhaps an unfortunate incident in which I swallowed a loose teeth biting into an ang ku kueh, a memory that does linger from those visits is the sight of a headless chicken bound for the pot, scampering around on the sandy ground. 

The colour of gold.

The colour of gold.

A consequence of the decades of social engineering in Singapore, is perhaps the loss of the use of the Chinese dialects, along with dialect group specific cultural practices such as was observed in the celebrations of yesteryear. Besides dialect group specific such as the Hokkien practice of Bai Ti Gong (honouring the Jade Emperor) still seen today, there are dialect group specific practices that have been adopted by the wider community such as the tossing of raw fish salad, yu sheng – a widely practiced Chinese New Year custom now in Singapore. This was confined initially to the Cantonese –  a gentleman recalled his first experience of it that went back to 1955. Other dialect group specific practices included taboos associated with Chinese New Year such as not sweeping the floor, and not throwing rubbish out of the house on the first days of the new year. 

A young shopper.

A young shopper.

One practice that was common across the community was letting-off firecrackers. The thunderous burst of noise, the acrid smell of gunpowder that lingered in the air and the sea of red paper that littered the streets, would not be something the younger folks would of course remember. Firecrackers which were banned after 1972 in Singapore – the first modern version of the Chingay parade organised in 1973 was offered as to compensate for that. These were however very much an integral part of the celebration before the ban and several of the participants did share experiences from the 1950s and 1960s, before the ban kicked in, such as how as girls they would not dare venture out on their own out of fear of mischievous boys would would lie in wait to scare the girls by throwing lighted crackers at them.

Scenes from Chinese New Years of days gone by ... the smell of gun powder and smoke that filled the air, and the sea of red left behind .... (source: National Archives, www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

Scenes from Chinese New Years of days gone by … the smell of gun powder and smoke that filled the air, and the sea of red left behind …. (source: National Archives, http://www.archivesonline.nas,sg).

Still on the subject of firecrackers, a Danish couple shared how it was also common practice to let off crackers for the new year. Firecrackers are known there as “Chinese” – the smaller ones “one-cent Chinese” and the larger ones “two-cent Chinese” – a reference possibly to the origins of firecrackers.

Preserved fruits on offer,

Preserved fruits on offer.

Without the sound of firecrackers going off through the night, and perhaps with the distractions of the modern world and the dilution of cultural practices, Chinese New Year does seem a quieter affair these days. Chinese New Year, is however, very much still an occasion for the family to gather – the family reunion dinner is still very much an important part of the celebration for many families. And if one does brave the crowds on the streets of the Greater Town, streets that while perhaps are over sanitised and modernised, are where one does discover that the spirit of Chinese New Years past is one that is very much alive in the present. 

A view over the sanitised Chinatown and the modern city that has grown around it.

A view over the sanitised Chinatown and the modern city that has grown around it.

A view of the busy New Bridge Road with the galloping horses of the light-up.

A view of the busy New Bridge Road with the galloping horses of the light-up.





New journeys on the Rail Corridor

23 12 2013

It has been over two years since we saw the last train make its journey through the 26 kilometres of the Rail Corridor from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands. While we do know that the corridor will be preserved as a continuous and green corridor in its entirety, detailed plans have not as yet been developed on its future usage. Much of the corridor is today opened up as a space for the public to enjoy leisure and recreational activities and it is nice to see the corridor being used for events such as mass participation runs along stretches of it. One further use it will see in the interim is as an art space – the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) in partnership with the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) and the National Arts Council (NAC) has announced that an interim art space will be made available underneath the Commonwealth Avenue viaduct structure along the Rail Corridor from Jan to Dec 2014.

The (former) rail corridor embarks on a different journey.

The (former) rail corridor embarks on a different journey.

The sheltered space – two walls beneath the viaduct structure, is to be transformed into a canvas that will provide an opportunity for street artists to develop their skills in producing artwork and perhaps bring life to a part of the Rail Corridor. RSCLS, an urban art collective and a recipient of the NAC Seed Grant, has been engaged by the NAC to curate the art work at space from February 2014 onwards and we can look forward to Street Art jams that will provide opportunities for first-hand experiences with street art. 


More on the Rail Corridor, it as a Green Corridor and the public effort to preserve it:









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