Fire: A Catalyst for Modern Singapore

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The title of this blog is reproduced from Chapter 1 of the book “Squatters into Citizens” – The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore – by Loh Kah Seng.

The related blog is available here .

Excerpts are made from this book to share my personal related topics from my interview with the author.   After his interview with me on 21 Oct 2006, the book was published in 2013, seven years later.

He dedicated the book to his parents and other kampong dwellers.

The story of how the 16,000 victims of the 1961 Bukit Ho Swee fire were rehoused in modern housing has become a formative episode in the state-sanctioned historical narrative of Singapore, commonly known as the “Singapore Story”.  According to Singapore’s Housing and Development Board, Bukit Ho Swee had been “an insanitary, congested and dangerous squatter area”, but
the fire disaster was a blessing in disguise for all the occupants there.  It is a far too familiar picture of an inert community who would not think of moving from their unpleasant and dangerous surroundings until a disaster makes the decision for them.

In the Singapore Story, the fire is depicted as a “blessing in disguise” whereby an enlightened government rehoused the “inert community” of squatters after a disaster and set the country on the right path to progress and modernity.  This book suggests a more complex and nuanced story.  The inferno tipped the balance in  a protracted struggle not between modernity and backwards, but between two forms of modernity.  On the one hand, the People’s Action Party (PAP) government, like the British colonial regime before it, envisaged the creation of a well-planned city of public housing estates.  On the other, both administrations confronted the proliferation on the urban fringe of kampongs, built haphazardly and without planning controls.  These kampongs constituted an alternative form of modernity to the official vision.  Squatters were not inert, as depicted, but progressive and urbanised,  and  with effective social autonomy.  The rehousing after the Bukit Ho Swee fire integrated these semi-autonomous squatters into the formal structures of the state, an early project of social engineering that helped accelerate the development of postcolonial Singapore.

The following archived photos with the courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore, these captured moments of the Bukit Ho Swee fire victims packing their treasured belongings before the fire and the aftermath after the day’s fire on 25 May, 1961 to search for whatever that’s left.

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Preface of the book “Squatters into Citizens”

At around 3 p.m. on 25 May 1961 a small fire broke out in Bukit Ho Swee a kampong (village) settlement of wooden housing on the western fringe of Singapore city.  Within hours, the inferno had jumped across two roads and destroyed the homes of nearly 16,000 people.  Kampong fires were not unusual in Singapore, but the scale of this disaster surpassed all previous ones, even the great fire of Februry 1959 at Kampong Tiong Bahru, just across the main road from Bukit Ho Swee, which had rendered 5,000 people homeless.  What ensued at Bukit Ho Swee was even more remarkable.  By 1961 Singapore had become a self-governing state under British colonial rule, and housing thereby came under the purview of the People’s Action Party (PAP) government, elected in 1959 in a landslide victory.  Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew assured the fire victims that they would be rehoused in modern apartments within nine months.  This promise resulted in the first big building project carried out by the Housing and Development Board (HDB), established the previous year to implement the PAP government’s ambitious housing programme.  The HDB quickly erected high-rise blocks of emergency flats on the fire site, enabling former squatters to return to Bukit Ho Swee – not in nine months but within a year.

The fires and flats of Bukit Ho Swee loomed in the background of my childhood years of the 1970s and 1980s.  In 1969 my parents got married and began living with my grandparents in their three-room flat in Block 29, Havelock Road.  I was born in 1972, followed two years later by my sister.  In 1975 our family of four moved into a one-room rental flat in Block 28, Jalan Membina, the site of the emergency housing built after the 1959 Kampong Tiong Bahru fire.  So began my experience of living in one-room housing.  Two years later we shifted to an improved one-room flat in nearby Block 14, and again in 1980 into a lower-rent, improved one-room flat in Block 79, Indus Road.  I found the housing embarrassing and repeatedly urged my parents to obtain a larger home.  But my father was a coolie on a daily wage and my mother  a housewife, although the family also did some handicraft work at home for additional income.  My parents slept on blankets laid over the linoleum in the living room and my sister and I on a bunk bed in a partitioned corner.  Once, my face burned with embarrassment when a classmate from Havelock Primary School visited my home and said,”Your house so small ah?”   The school, as opposed to the flat, was the centre of my life.  I knew nothing of Block 79; as Yeo Seok Thai, a resident in the block, told me in an interview, it was complicated (hock chap), where low-income families sruggled with debt and their children ran aoul of the law.  I graduated well from Havelock and enrolled in River Valley High School on Kim Seng Road, which had sheltered victims of the 1961 inferno.  In 1989 my family at last left the locality for a three-room flat in Yishun New Town, in north Singapore.  This, I thought happily, was the true meaning of progress.  I knew nothing about the great kampong fire and had no wish to return to Bukit Ho Swee.

Although I myself knew nothing about the blazes and the kampong settlements they razed, they have remained in the minds of those of my parents’ generation, the “pioneers” whop made the dramatic transtion from unauthorisecd dwellings to public housing.  Among the first former kampong dwellers I interviewed was my father shared with me what one would call the “history of modern Singapore” as he knew it.  I transcribed and translated the interview, which was in Hokkien, and gave a copy to my sister.My mother had lived in a wooden house in Kim Seng, close to Bukit Ho Swee, before she married my father; she was rather hesitant abut a formal inteview. But she hovered in the background of my conversations with my father, and I was able to piece together a rudimentary narrative of her early life from fragments of her interjections from time to time.  Oral history does not often have a place in households in a city-state that is always looking forward.  My interview with my father addressed an amnesia in the history of Singapore that was both personal and academic.  It crossed a cultural divide between generations created by the advent of public housing.

Did my personal background make me the right candidate to investigate the impact of the 1961 fire?  I knew nothing about the calamity, but having lived in one-room flats in a low-income estate gave me a strong sense of the lives of the renting poor and the role of housing in their lives.  Once I had started my research, I became more confident that I was the right candidate.  I would, I thought, unravel the social history of kampong dwellers and their resistance against the social history of kampong dwellers and their resistance against the colonial state.  I imagined that I knew the social and mental worlds of the “underclass” who still, unlike my parents, live in one-room rental units and who are faceless, voiceless and unplaced in the official Singapore Story about our supposedly historic journeyd from fishing village to First World city-state.  I was invigorated by the prospect of finding an alternate past to the one dominated by the PAP government, a past that loomed large over the present.  My research into the Bukit Ho Swee fire, I thought, would qualify the Singapore Story, which tells a heroic tale of the government building modern flats for homeless squatters.  I was interested in investigating the dynamism of the kampong community and its resistance to unfair eviction.  The wooden house dweller of Bukit Ho Swee seemed to be the perfect subaltern.

My research appeared to be aided by the fact that, as momentuous events that shattered the calm of history, fires are much written about and well remembered.  Besides the interview with my father, I found oral history invaluable for obtaining insights into both the perspectives and experiences of wooden house dwellers.  This book draws from about 100 interviews conducted between 2006 and 2007.  The oral history fieldwork frequently brought me back to Bukit Ho Swee, where several of my informants still resided.  I found many fire victims and eyewitnesses of the disaster by approaching grassroots leaders, visiting coffee shops frequented by elderly residents, and posting open letters at HDB blocks inviting residents to participate in my reserch.  I also interviewed individuals whose life and work were bound up with 1961 fire in other ways:  architects, public officials, firefighters, artists, grassroot leaders, rural activists and social workers.

In using the oral history, I have tried to  both build a collective biography of Chinese kampong dwellers and acknowledge differences in experience due to age, gender and income group.  The interviews comprise the voices of males and females; English, Mandarin and Hokkien speakers (an indicator of economic status in Singapore); and former civil servants, shop owners, hawkers, shipyard cleaners, factory workers, construction workers, general labourers and homemakers.  Where the interview material is sensitive, I have used pseudonyms to protect the individuals’ anonymity.

There are gaps in the oral hstory record.  Although the Oral History Centre of the National Archives of Singapore had conducted interviews in the preceding decades, which helped fill part of the gap, most of my informants were “baby boomers” born after World War II, presently in their late fifties to seventies, with a handful in their eighties.  Their memories of the kampong and inferno were based on the experiences of children, adolescents and young adults.  It was difficult to locate older kampong dwellers, especially to find out about their rehousing in HDB flats after the fire.

Information about them often came second-hand from the recollections of younger people, such as their children.  Still, the strength of oral history is that being a child in the 1950s was rather different from growing up in present-day Singapore.  The kampong child’s social life centered around the immediate locality in which he or she grew up, studied and played.  This produced a keen awareness of the landscape far beyong the child’s age.  Most of my informants remembered the past vividly.  As Samuel Setoh, born in 1944, emphasised, “Old people always say they forgot where they put the keys or what they did just now but long, long ago, they can still remember because it is in the ‘heart disk’.”

Admittedly, memory erodes over time into a reflection, shaped by events both in the individual’s life and in society  The social memory of the fire is marked by official representations.  In his study of the 1922 Chauri Chaura riot, which holds a pivotal place in Indian national history, Shahid Amin finds recollections tainted by the hegemonic master narrative.  How much of my oral history was the independent memory of the “subaltern” and how much a filtered oral history have argued that any influence renders the source wholly unreliable.  My approach has been more modest:  I have tried to distinguish the independent layer of memory from the state-influenced parts, and to use the respective fragments to write about booth individual experience and social myths.

My interviews usually went well, and many individuals, including fomer fire victims, complimented me on a worthwhile and much-needed project.  But I noticed anger and recrimination in some interviews and silence and wariness in others.  This pointed to a story to be told about the present as well as the past.

The research into the Singapore archives was more challenging.  Here, I found, I had been deemed the “wrong candidate” for the project.  Fifty years after the fire, obtaining access to the archives remained fraught with dificulty:  official gatekeepers are mindful of the long shadows cast by the makers of the recent past.  In Singapore, a researcher seeking access to classified government records is requird to obtain the depositing institution’s approval.  The HDB turned down my request “as the records contain personal data of identifiable individuals”.  Subsequently, the assistance o my member of parliament, an academic, enabled me to obtain the depositing institution’s approval.  The HDB turned down my request “as the records contain personal data of identifiable idividuals”.  Subsequently, the assistance of my member of parliament, an academic, enabled me to obtain partial extracts of 8 of the 25 requested HDB files.  The Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports granted me access to 23 Social Welfare Department files, mostly on its relief work for fire victims, with the condition not to release sensitive information prior to the ministry’s clearance – a necessary stipulation.  But I was unsuccessful with the Ministry of Home Affairs and Internal Security Department.  Their documents on what were regarded as politically sensitive issues of police invstigations into the cause of the fire and thework of the rural associations were important for writing a “total history” of the inferno.  The records, I was told, were still classified.  These gaps in the documentary record affected particularly the part of history I wanted to tell after the disaster, while the cause of the fire remains in the realm of social rumours that the inferno was caused by an act of arson by the state to clear the kampong for public housing.  I was not the first researcher on Singapore’s history to experience such a rebuff.

I  was also being followed, I came to discover, by rumours in some official quarters that I was attempting to fix the blame for the fire on the ruling government.  As the researcher, I found myself enmeshed in rumours about rumours.  In academic studies of fires in other places and times, the question of arson is a logical, if politically incorrect, subject of inquiry.  In this case the rumours also usefully captured the fraught relationship, both historical and continuing between the state and squatters.

There was also, among some local academics, a view that I was working on the “wrong” topic.  The Bukit Ho Swee fire was inconsequential in Singapore’s history, they said.  These academic responses also say something, I believe, about what is considered worthy scholarship in Singapore.

The final and most important challenge in my research was mediating between what I had wanted to write and what my documents and inteviews were telling me  My initial idea of an independent kampong community soon had to be modified to a “semi-autonomous” one that before the 1961 fire was alredy lined to the state and formal economy.  I also acknowledged the fact that public housing, no matter how unpopular in the early years, is strongly desired by most Singaporeans (and indeed myself) in the present day.  Most crucially, I found that many of my interviewees did not simply affirm or reject the Singapore Story but moved between it and their own narratives, sometimes weighed down by the official acount, at other times contesting it or even departing from it.  Frequently, the oral testimony reconciled between national and individual narratives as the storytellers shifted between their present and past identities, respetively, as citizens and squatters.  I did not find my subalterns but, rather, individuals whose real agency lay in mediating between different narratives, experiences and memories.  The oral narratives were partially counter-hegemonic, partially afirmative but always entwined with the dominant account.

Excerpts from the book mentioned in the interview with James Seah

James Seah, his parents and four siblings lived in a wooden house at 20 Beo Lane.  His father, a bookkeeper in a trading company, took a bus to the Central Area daily, while his three sisters worked in the steam laundry.

James Seah’s family moved into a one-room emergency flat in Block 9, Jalan Bukit Ho Swee; he was studying nearby at Delta Primary School, while his elder sisters were still working at the Singapore Steam Laundry at Delta Circus.

When this author spoke to former fire victims in 2006-2007, two generations after the inferno, it was evident how deep the social influence of the official discourses was.  For individuals such as James Seah, the 1961 disaster contained an important set of lessons for young Singaporeans.  In Seah’s view, the government suppressed secret societies after the inferno, while low-income families were able to break out of the cycle of poverty as their children acquired higher education.  Seeing the fire as “a breakthrough for the PAP government to really change the whole socio-economic landscapte of a big part of Singapore’s starting time”.  A sense of national identity and support for the government inextricably merged.

James Seah was saddened by young people’s apparent ignorance of the difficult experiences of their elders.  The dangerous desire fore Western-style politics, he said, was the result, which only history could rectify, by “bringing this little kid, who shouts like that, influenced by Western democracy, and putting him in our time to go through the racial riots, the labour strikes, the fire”.  But Seah was also acutely aware it may be impossible to fully convey the intimacy of a terrifying event outside the experience of young Singaporeans:

How do I describe to you the day when it was on fire and we ran?  Then the next day when we came back and saw all was gone?  That element of living through a certain period can never be replicated … I talk to my children, and they say, “Where got such things?” … This is something that I am very fearful of for the children, ecause they can’t imagine the hardship that their parents went through.

In August 2011, 50 years after the fire, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loon in his National Day Rally speech recalled the disaster at Bukit Ho Swee as a key event that nurtured a sense of a shared destiny among older Singaporeans.  He referred to the trauma suffered by James Seah, then 13, on the day of the inferno and in the aftermath, before his family were rehoused within a week in an HDB flat.  Seah’s experience, Lee surmised, was a fitting entry for the state’s Singapore Memory project, which aims to collect five million memories of ordinary Singaporeans by 2015, the 50th year of Signapore’s independence.  It is hoped that this ambitious project will not edit out those fragments of stories from Bukit Ho Swee that do not fit neatly with the state’s account:  the rumours of arson, the contributions of gangsters to the kampong, the official perception of the HDB estate as a “black area”, and the disillusionment of the one-room HDB dwellers.  Such jagged fragments mark boundaries to and gaps in the glossy “shared history” that governments propagate to their citizens.  As Howard Zinn wrote in his A People’s History of the United States, local past may not exactly correspond with the claims of those preoccupied with the unity of the nation.  Yet a nation is richer and more resilient if it can acknowledge events such as the Bukit Ho Swee fire that expose historical and continuing social fissures and tensions.  Such a mature nation is reflective, self-aware and more inclusive.

The blog is posted to share my personal learning experiences in the interview with Kah Seng, who helped me to learn more about myself and the Bukit Ho Swee fire from his meaningful book and the success of his thesis.

These are life lessons for me to learn from my blog to express and to share them to my children, grandchildren, classmates and friends, whom I have not spoken to them about the Bukit Ho Swee fire in person in the past.

The blog mentioned in the National Day Rally 2011 here and the selected section of the video on YouTube.

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Landmarks of A Time Past

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These buildings and landmarks have disappeared from the face of Singapore.  But thanks to the photographic ‘eye’ of Marjorie Doggett, they have been captured for posterity.

By Rebecca Chua

[Source:  The Straits Times, 6 July 1985]

“For me, a building remains like a cold stone monument unless it is possible to visualise the sort of person who constructed it and live in it.  One learns of the scenes of happiness or sorrow enacted within its walls and it is then, in one’s imagination, that the house assumes its atmosphere.”

– Mrs Marjorie Doggett in the foreword to the first edition of her book, Characters of Light.

“Let it still be the boast of Britain to write her name in characters of light; let her not be remembered at the tempest whose course was desolation, but as the gale of spring reviving the slumbering seeds of mind and calling them to life from the winter of ignorance and oppression.  If the time shall have passed away, these monuments will endure when her triumphs shall have beome and empty name.”

Sir Stamford Raffles, Singapore 1823

Little did Sir Stamford Raffles know, when he declared Raffles Institution open in June 1823, that the school, which he envisaged for students of all races and religions as “the means of civilising and bettering the conditions of millions”, would not stand the test of time.

Where the Raffles Institution used to stand, Raffles City now towers.

In fact, Singapore has changed so much in the past quarter of a century that many of the buildings Marjorie Dogget photographed in Singapore almost 30 years ago have disappeared.

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Even roads have vanished.  Although the Hadji Fatimah Mosque is still standing, a mite tipsily, it must be admitted, “Java Road, the charming little street where it once stood, parallel to North Bridge Road, has ceasted to exist”, she said.

Most of the buildings that have been earmarked for preservation are places of worship.  But Mrs Doggett feels that “you can’t just save the building and not the environs”.

“The Hadji Fatimah Mosque, for example, is a misfit, standing amidst a redeveloped area of modern highrise flats.  There used to be a large area of the surrounding environment with which the building was the building was so compatible, but all that’s been demolished.

Still, she believes, it’s not too late to take stock and start preserving not just the building, but the surrounding that give a building its character and sense of place in the community.

Mrs Doggett is no fanatical conservationist.  She remembers how the architects wanted to save Raffles Institution, and how impassioned letters to the press lobbied for both preservation and demolition.  But the official verdict to demolish came in July 1968.

“Okay, one realises you’ve got to progress,” she admitted.  “Some things have got to go.”

And yet … what if they hadn’t demolished it and had restored it, instead?

“They could’ve made it a history museum and constructed an underpass to the Japanese obelisk,” she suggested.

That would have reinforced a Singaporean’s sense of history – after all, the Raffles Institution was the very first monument to education here – and provided a tourist with a starting point.

When she first began taking photographs for this book, Mrs Doggett did not realise how history was to repeat itself, or what an ironical turn the title, Character of Light, would take.

She had come with her husband Victor to Singapore from England in January 1947, arriving a month before published Donald Moore, who was to become a good friend.  She had been trained as a nurse and at first worked at the Kandang Kerbau Hospital.

In those early days, her bouts of photography consisted of taking pictures of visiting musicians to enhance the walls above the steps of the Victoria Concert Hall.  She had been interested in photography ever since she was a teenager and had, at the age of 15 or 16, a home-made enlarger (made from a soapbox) that engrossed her.

More than a decade later, a fortuitous meeting with photographer C.A. Gibson-Hill set her camera clicking.  With the encouragement of some friends, she took countless pictures.

She still has hundreds of negatives, all meticulously washed and developed and neatly filed away in individual waxed paper sleeves in several drawers.

The book was first published in 1957 by Donald Moore as a guide to the buildings of Singapore.  But even then, it was not the buildings alone that mattered to the young woman.

In the foreword to the first edition, she had written:  “For me, a building remains like a cold stone monument unless it is possible to visualise the sort of person who constructed it and lived in it.  One learns of the scenes of happiness or sorrow enacted within its walls and it is then, in one’s imagination, that the house assumes its atmosphere.”

The book had been written in the closing years of the British colonial era, “The British were leaving, people started knocking things down,” she said.

It was, perhaps, a natural tendency to ignore and discard all reminders of the previous colonial power.  The book went out of print, and Mrs Doggett herself only has a few copies left.

When Times Book International decided on a second edition, it was a chance for Mrs Doggett to revise and update not only the text, but to add pictures hitherto unused from her store of original negatives, still in good condition after nearly 30 years.

The result:  a nostalgic picture book of public buildings, places of worship, schools, hotels, private homes, the old Chinatown and the Singapore River.

For her only son, Nicholas, 25, and part of the new generation of Singaporeans, it is a means of getting acquainted with the past, with the history that is reflected in the architecture and the lifestyle of another age.

When she first started taking those pictures, she could not have guessed that, one day, many of them would make their way into the archives.  For in their eagerness to build the new Singapore, few bothered to record for posterity the buildings that would be torn down.  It seemed apposite, when she was casting around for a title, that the phrase “character of light” in Raffles’ speech at the laying of the foundation stone of Raffles Institution should come to mind.

But now, a century and a half later, the monuments which Raffles hoped would endure long after the waning of the British empire are no more than dust.

“Fullerton Building and the Victoria Memorial Hall,” landmarks on the southern coast, are now lost to view amidst a virtual forest of multi-storey office blocks in what has become the business centre of the city, and many of the buildings described in the book have fallen under the axe of progress.”

Still, it is not the past that commands her attention.  “Singapore has miraculously survived and flourished.  If, at times, one is apt to dislike some of the inevitable effects of progress, perhaps this is merely a sign of an older generation resenting change,” she said.

Recognising that the future lies with the new generation, she added:  “I hope that these young people will work out some agreement between the conflicting policies of conservation and development, retain some of the atmosphere of old Singapore, and find time to savour occasionally the nostalgia of a past era (because) historical value cannot be counted in economic terms.”

Excerpts of the book “Character of Light” by Marjorie Doggett

In the research for this blog to search for the book at many bookshops but was told that its like searching a needle in haystack, so to speak.  Bookshops would only carry books which customers are interested to buy, not old books exclusively for readers of nostalgia.

Fortunately, I was able to find a copy of “Character of Light” at the Reference Section of the National Library.  The book is not for loan outside the library.   With the courtesy of National Library Board, excerpts of this “treasure” to share on this blog.

FOREWORD

Singapore is such an interesting place, so little understood outside and so little appreciated inside, that it really is worth writing about.”

ROLAND BRADDELL, The Lights of Singapore

This book makes no pretence to be a technical work on Colonial architecture, but is produced in the hope that it may be of some help of those who are interested in the short but fascinating history of Singapore.

Isolated names of the old pioneers often make little impression, but when one can visit the places where they lived and worked, and imagine the scene as they must have known it, both buildings and people come alive and assume an added attraction.

It is for this reason that I have written at times at greater length on the residents than on the actual building itself, for to me a building remains like a cold stone monument unless it is possible to visualise the sort of person who constructed it and live in it.  One learns of the scenes of happiness or sorrow enacted within its walls and it is then, in one’s imagination, that the house assumes its atmosphere.

I do hope that the succeeding pages will convey something of the pleasure, and nostalgia too, which I have found in their compilation, and will evoke a faint echo of the life and times of old Singapore.

To all the people who have so kindly given information, and permission for me to take photographs, I am most grateful.  My especial thanks must go to Dr. C. A. Gibson-Hill, an elusive but inexhaustible source of knowledge who first inspired a fascinatin search; to Mr. Lincoln Page, A.R.I.B.A, and Mr T. H. H. Hancock, A.R.I.B.A., for their helpful advice; to the Rev. Canon R. K. S. Adams for time so freely given; and last, but not least, to my husband without whose assistance his book would not have been possible.

MARJORIE DOGGETT, Singapore, December, 1955.

Assembly House

The dates back to 1827 when it was built by G. D. Coleman for a merchant, John Argyle Maxwell.  It was never used as a residence, but was leased to the Government for use as a Court House and Offices, and finally purchased by them in 1841.  The building was extended in 1873-75 and again at the beginning of the present century, so that it is now difficult to visualise the original structure, although the arches inside the porch, so distinctive of nearly all Coleman’s work in Singapore, remain as he built them.

The bronze elephant standing in front of the main entrance was erected in 1872 to commemorate the visit to Singapore of the King of Siam in 1871; it originally stood in front of the old Town Hall.

Entrance to Assembly House (photo below).

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The Supreme Court and City Hall

A private house originally occupied the present site of the Supreme Court and City Hall.  This house was built by G. D. Coleman in about 1830 and was occupied firstly by Mr James Clarks and later by Mr. Edward Boustead, the founder of the commercial firm which still bears his name.  The house became the main building of the London Hotel when Mr. Dutronquoy moved there from Colemkan Street in 1845, was later called the Hotel de l’Esperance and finally, in 1865, became the well-known Hotel de l’Europe when Mr. Casteleyns, the proprietor, transferred himself and his signboard from his premises in Beach Road.  At that time, the Court House stood where Assembly House is today.

The City Hall was designed by a Municipal Architect, the late Mr. A. Gordon, and was built in 1926-29.

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Raffles Museum and Library

The origins of a Singapore Library and Museum date from April, 1823, when
Sir Stamford Raffles held a meeting to consider the establishment of a Malayan College in Singapore. This college, the Raffles Institution of today, and then known as the Singapore Institution, acquired a small collection of books, and, though these could be borrowed by anyone on payment of a very small fee, it never developed ino much more than a school library. The Museum never apppears to have been stared at all, probably due to lack of funds, and perhaps, internet.

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The Victoria Theatre and Memorial Hall

The old Assembly Rooms, which had been designed by McSwiney in about 1848, and which were situated at the foot of Fort Canning opposite Whampoa’s Ice House, were falling into a bad state of repair by 1854. It was decided at a meeting of the Trustees that instead of repairing the old building, they should build a new and larger hall to satisfy the needs of the growing Settlement.

They gave up their old building to the Government, on the understanding that the new hall would be erected by a Municipal Committee; this Committee agreed to double the amount of money given by public subscription towards the building.

The site chosen was that of the present Victoria Theatre and the foundation stone was laid by the Governor, Col. W.J. Butterworth, on March 17th, 1855. The cost of building proved to be much greater than the original estimate, and, after various difficulties had been overcome, such as that created by the timber contractor, who vanished after receiving an advance part-payment, the hall was finally completed in 1862, Mr John Clunis superintending its construction. The design, highly esteemed at the time, was by Mr. John Bennett.

The Memorial Hall was built as a memorial to Queen Victoria. Various suggestions were received as to what form this memorial should take, but at a meeting in May, 1901, the Hall was finally agreed upon by all.

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Goodwood Park Hotel

The “nut and bolt” columns proclaim the architect, R. A. J. Bidwell of Swan and MacLaren.

Originally built as the Teutonia Club (the tower at that time boasting a short spice) it was opened on September 21st, 1900, with a gala ball. The Teutonia Club was established in 1856 and the members were responsible, amongst other activities for forming the earliest musical society in Singapore. Looking back over a century to the year 1856, the year of Schumann’s death, it does perhaps seem appropriate that the German community should have been the first to introduce the music of the great European masters to the Colony.

After the war the building was taken over for use as a hotel, apart from a short period immediately following the Japanese surrender when it was
used as a War Crimes Court.

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Telephone House, Hill Street

Mr Bennett Pell was the first owner of a small private telephone system, which the Oriental Telephone Company bought in 1882. The exchange, which had been in Paterson Simons and Company’s offices in Prince Street, was removed by them in 1898 to Robinson Road. The company transferred to a central exchange in Hill Street in 1907, their building being designed by Mr. Bidwell, who had joined Swan and MacLaren in 1895.

Mr Bidwell originally came out to Selangor, where under Mr. E. C. Spooner, he designed the public offices in Kuala Lumpur, which no doubt accounts for the reappearance of the Saracenic motif in this unique building in Singapore.

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H.M. Prison, Outram Road

The foundation stone of the oldest block was laid in February, 1847 and was built by Capt. Faber had a rather unfortunate career in Singapore, his previous undertakings – a bridge, a landing place and a market – all more or less disintegrasting of their own accord soon after being built.  Mount Faber is named after him.

The gaol was extended in 1879 from designs prepared by Major J. F. A.  McNair.  It might be interesting to mention that Major McNair, Executive Engineer and Superintendent of Convicts, learned photography while in England in 1861 so that he could photograph the convicts for identification purposes.   It was quite common for ladies and gentlement of that time to visit the gaol to be photographed by the major.

The first gaol in Singapore was for transported Indian convicts and was situated in Queen Street.  The first gaol for local felons, built about 1823, occupied the site of the present Central Police Station in South Bridge Road.

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Collyer Quay

The land on which Collyer Quay is built was all reclaimed from the sea, the shoreline in the early days of Singapore taking a route which would now lead approximately through the centre of the Padang, across Fullerton Building, along the centre of the buildings standing on the south side of Raffles Place to Finlayson Green, where it turned even farther inland to continue just in front of Telok Ayer Street to Tanjong Pagar and Keppel Harbour.

Col. George Chancellor Collyer, after whom the quay is named, arrived in Singapore in 1858 to reconstruct the fortifications of the town.  He was appointed Chief Engineer.  He made plans for a new sea-wall, to extend from Johnston’s Pier to the old Telok Ayer market, but left Singapore in 1862 before this was completed.

By the end of 1861 the sea-wall was almost finished, the foundations having had to be proceeded with at fortnightly intervals in over a foot of water in ordinary tides.  The land behind, where a road and godowns were to be built, had to be gradually filled in, and this was not finished until 1864.

By 1806 nearly all the buildings along the sea front were constructed; they had godowns on the ground floors and ofices above, and must have presented a scene similar to that which can be seen even today along Boat Quay, with merchandise being unloaded straight from the boats into the warehouses.  From the wooden verendahs of the offices, the merchants would watch through telescopes for the ships to arrive, and great was the excitement and bustle as the boat drew alongside.

Some of the original buildings of 1864 are still standing on Collyer Quay today.  One of these is Shell House, and in the tower of the building can be seen a small door which, in those early days, was used for hauling up merchandise to the first floor.

Another original building extends from Collyer Quay up Prince Street.  This was the offices of Paterson Simons and Company and the first home of the Telephone Company.

A third building dating from these times is the office of Nassim and Company.  Originally two storeys high, a third floor was added in about 1880, and at a later date the building was refaced, and some of the wooden verandahs were removed, those remaining now being seen along De Souza Street.

Johnston’s Pier, now demolished, was named after one of Singapore’s earliest citizens, Alexander Laurie Johnston, who arrived here in 1820 when the Colony was little more than uninhabited swamp and jungle.  He was one of the first magistrates to be appointed by Sir Stamford Raffles, the first Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, and his name figures prominently in all public affairs of that day.

He established the firm of A. L. Johnston and Company, the pioneer mercantile firm of Singapore, and he become one of the most esteemed merchants in the country.  His premises were situated where Whiteway’s stands today, and were then at the mouth of the Singapore River.  He retired to Scotland in 1841, and, when he died in 1850, left a generous donation in his will to Raffles Institution.  His premises were moved in 1848 to the site of the present Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank.

At the time that Johnston’s Pier and Clifford Pier stood almost side by side, they were known as “Old” Johnston’s Pier and “New” Johnston’s Pier separately, and there was quite a public outcry in the papers when the new pier was given its present name.  It does seem rather a pity that Johnston’s name should have been lost as Singapore with the demolition of his old pier.

It was to Johnston & Co., that Charles Burton Buckley was appointed when he came to Singapore in 1864.  Buckley, “C. B.” to his friends, was for ever generous and warm-harted, a man perhaps best remembered by the children of his day for whom he did so much.  During his forty-eight years’ residence he collected the information which forms his History of Singapore from its foundation to the time when it was transferred to the Colonial Office in 1867.

This was a labour of love, his sole reward being a great discovery during his researches – that of recovering the original Treaty made between Sir Stamford Raffles and the Temenggong of Johore on February 6th, 1819, which authorised the original Settlement as a British dependency .   In 1912 Buckley paid what was intended to be a short visit to England but the old man contracted a chill and died, far from the land he loved and had served so selflessly.

Corner of Prince Street … Prince Street, once leading to Raffles Place, no longer exists.  In its place is a cul-de-sac leading to the car-park of the new Ocean Building to its left.

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Intimate look at Queenstown Singapore

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Intimate look at Singapore’s oldest housing estate

Residents’ personal stories a big part of heritage project by community group

By Janice Tai

[Source:  Straits Times, 17 February 2013]

Seized by the desire to preserve the memory of Singapore’s oldest housing estate, a civic group has come up with not one, but five, heritage trails in Queenstown.

To do so, they had the help of residents, who shared personal photographs and memories.

The trails, which can be accessed through the MyQueenstown app on an iPhone, cover the whole of Queenstown and are organised along themes of publc housing, religion, old shops and natural heritage.

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They are believed to be the first few historical trails initiated by a community organisation and incorporating the personal recollections of hundred of residents.  Their creation was much in the vein of recent community conservation projects that grew ground-up.

An islandwide network of 10 trails has been introduced by the National Heritage Board (NHB) to highlight the history and identity of different areas of Singapore.

The NHB’s Queenstown heritage trail was launched in 2007 but it left out some important landmarks and collective memories close to the hearts of the residents, said Mr Kwek Li Yong, president of civic group My Community.  “We wanted a different kind of trail, something more intimate which includes greater input from the residents and not a top-down approach,” said 24-year-old under-graduate, who lives in Jurong.

For example, Mr Kwek said, the residents suggested including Princess House, a seven-storey red-brick building at the junction of Alexandra Road and Commonwealth Avenue, home to the first Singapore Improvement Trust and HDB  headquarters.  Queenstown become Singapore’s first satellite estate in 1953.  They also wanted to include sites like the junction of Dawson and Alexandra roads, where the 1955 Hock Lee bus riots occurred.

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The former depot of Hock Lee Bus Company in Alexandra Road on 1/5/1955.  Photos courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.
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Mr Kwek said it was also time for an update as places along the NHB trail such as the Queenstown Remand Prison and Commonwealth Avenue Cooked Food Centre have been demolished.  So they developed their own trails, though some sites overlap with NHB’s.

This ground-up initiative started in 2009 when Mr Kwek was volunteering at a senior activity centre in the neighbourhood.  He noticed the elderly residents enjoyed sharing their recollections of the place.

“Unlike other elderly who usually talk about their family or grandchildren, they had a strong attachment to the estate and were keen to share their memories,” he said.

He and a friend decided to set up My Community, a registered civic society that champions the preservation of history and heritage.

The group adopted Queenstown as their first project as many local institutoions were pioneered there.

After reruiting 12 other heritage buffs, they fanned out and interviewed residents in Queenstown.

For four years, they pounded the ground, starting with the neighbourhood wet markets, then knocking on every door in the estate.  They also talked to residents at communal facilities such as schools, libraries and churches.  The photographs and memories collected from the residents, many of whom had lived in Queenstown since the 1960s, were uploaded onto the app.

The mobile app is funded by the Queenstown Citizens Consultative Committee and developed by software company Tocco Studios.  It uses Global Positioning System technology to guide users.  At different sites, it narrates the history, displaying photographs and recounting memories from the residents.

For example, if the user approaches the site of the Hock Lee bus riots, he would hear Strathmore Avenue resident Sim Cher.  Miss Thangamma Karthigesu, director of the education and outreach division of NHB.  “We also worked with the grassroots to hold roadshows over two weekends to let people know we were planning a trail and memorabilia and stories to share to come forward,” she added.

But she acknowledged that not everything could be included in recounting the history of a place.

NHB said it is heartened by the efforts of My Community to take ownership of the area’s heritage and is in discussion with the group to install information boards along the trail.

Academic Terence Chong, an executive committee member of the Singapore Heritage Society, feels historical narratives are best shaped by both the authorities and the community, with one providing the official narrative and the other the local colour and personal recounts.  “The more conversations between national and local stories we have, the more textured and layered the Singapore story will be.”

Madam Alice Lee, a resident in Tanglin Halt for more than 40 years,” said she looks forward to exploring the five trails.  “It is history at our doorstep abd we walk past it every day,” said the 65-year-old.  “The places contain so many of our stories.”

My Community will move on to Bukit Timah next, where it will develop trails over the next two years.

Kheng, 69, recalling:  “I was visiting my friend at Buller Terrace when I saw from the window a group of riot police spraying tear gas at the rioters.  The rioters were not afraid of the police and marched aggressively towards them.”

As the group wanted to include such personal memories without compromising on accuracy, they took pains to corroborate the material with the national archives.

In developing heritage trails, NHB said it starts with the official history, and complements it with social and communal history from interviewing people on the ground.

For its Queenstown trail, which covers historic sites such as places of worship and community facilities, it worked with grassroots leaders, who helped identify long-time residents for interviews.  “Our researchers also independently walked the ground speaking to some hundred residents, religious organisations and business owners, and schools in Queenstown,”

Queenstown rolls out heritage plan

5-year blueprint includes $2m museum to connect the present with the past

By Melody Zaccheus

[Source:  Straits Times, 14 August 2014]

Queenstown has unveiled a five-year plan to protect its heritage, becoming the first estate here to clearly outline its preservation efforts.

The plan will seek to not only conserve sites in Singapore’s first satellite estate, but also connect the present with the past with a $2 million museum by 2020 and a festival once every two years.

A highlight of its ambition is a network of galleries, heritage corners and markers to be rolled out across various parts of Queenstown by 2015.

The blueprint by civic group My Community and Queenstown Citizens Consultative Committee maps out tangible goals even as different pockets of the 61-year-old estate undergo development.

My Community founder Kwek Li Yong, who has been championing the estate’s heritage, said:  “It incorporates feedback from residents on what they feel is important to conserve.  Rather than just ride the wave of nostalgia, we worked out concrete plans for the neighbourhood.”

These include the construction of 11 galleries displaying residents’ old photographs across void decks, walkways and public institutions, and the installation of 38 site makers highlighting historic places and buildings.

The six Queenstown neighbourhoods will also have areas carved out to pay homage to the precincts’ rich history.  These heritage corners will feature interactive spaces with photographs, artefacts, 3D displays and stories from residents.  These will brighten up the half a dozen neighbourhoods including Commonwealth, Tanglin Halt, Princess, Duchess, Mei Ling and Queen’s Close.

Each area is distinct, said Mr Kwek: “There’s the industrial heritage of Tanglin Halt, the Hakka tombstones of Commonwealth, the military camps of Princess estate, the old town centre of Duchess estate and the Malayan Railway which used to run through Queen’s  Close,” he said.  He also gave the example of Block 145, Mei Ling Street which will have a kampung-themed exhibition that pays tribute to its early years as the site of Boh Beh Kang village.

Speaking at the blueprint’s launch on 14 August, 2014, Tanjung Pagar GRC MP Chia Shi-Lu said the aim is for Queenstown to become a centre for community heritage which people can visit to “relive their memories … and understand how different social institutions have evolved”.

It is also part of the estate’s bid for the National Heritage Board’s Heritage Town Award 2014.

Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing, who was guest of honour at the launch, said balancing redevelopment and heritage will  continue to be a top piority.  “If we can do this well in Queenstown, it will be a testimony to how we can do things on a larger scale in Singapore, balancing conservation and development at the same time.”

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Please check out the related blogs shared here , here and here .

Queenstown housing estate in the 1960s (photo below) .  Photo courtesy of Eelke Wolters contributed to the National Archives of Singapore.

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To Have Lock It Both Ways

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Bryna Singh finds that despite the 1960s look of some parts of Havelock, it is a whole new world inside.

[Source: The Straits Time, 9 August 2013]

It has been 14 years since I visited Havelock Road, where my late maternal grandmother Wan Yit Poh used to live at Block 29.  But I have longed to go back to rekindle memories of playing at por por’s (Cantonese for grandmother) flat, terrorising her pretty plants and tearing through the corridor.

She died in 1999, at age 77.

The route to her house, which is along this oldest 1km stretch of Havelock Road, is easily identified by the chilli-red Giok Hong Tian or Jade Emperor Temple.

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But I arrive at Block 29 only to find it swathed in constructon material.  Demolition, the sign reads.

This is hugely disappointing, but I will my feet to move forward:  Perhaps this is a chane to seek more than fleeting childhood memories.

Looking around, I see two Havelocks.

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To my left is Block 22, which has the same facade and ground-floor shops as por por’s Block 29.  Further down are grimy, unimpressive three-storey shophouses.

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At the back of Block 29, Havelock Road (photo above).  The front of the building facing Havelock Road.

Then on my right are sleek, towering, build-to-order HDB flats – Havelock View, a wannabe condominium.

The contrast between old and new is stark.  And it is the old that draws me, and ultimately teaches me that there are fresh stories behind familiar facades.

It is a short stretch of vintage tiled flooring at one old shophouse that leads me to this discovery.  When I look up from the tiles, I see a shopfront seemingly transported from a bygone Signapore, with its flaked-paint doors and classsic cross-hatched grilles  Above, a mosaic of faded red-and-white square tiles form words in English and Chinese:  Chou Dispensary, 733.

What shop is this?  I ask around.

“Sometimes, I see people going in to put things.  But I don’t know what’s inside,” says Mr Thomas Koh, 53, who runs the next-door Dine and Chill Bistro.

On the second-storey landing, a sign with distinctly non-olde-worlde words “Havelock Speedway” greets me.

A lean, tanned man comes to the door.  This turns out to be Mr Yuey Tan, 31, a Singaporean race-car driver who regularly competes in the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia.  He runs Havelock Speedway, which promotes the Singapore Karting Championships.

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Clearly used to life in the fast lane, he speaks a mile a minute in Australian-accented English – he spent his growing-up years in Adelaide, and returned here in 2000.

“I’ve been overseas my whole life, but this is home,” he says, banging his can of Coke on the table for emphasis.

I’m startled, but unconvinced.  To me, the Coke is a metaphor for the man: an international product.  He continues: “This is a family building, you know?”

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Chow Dispensary at Havelock Road (photo above).

Does he know who owns the dispensary downstairs then, I ask.

“That would be a dude, a doctor called Chou Chung Shih ran it.  It closed only last year, when he turned 97,” he replies.  He adds casually:  “That would be my granddaddy.”

I am delighted.  The puzzle pieces are snapping into place, and he reveals more.

“He’s still alive, and just celebrated his 98th birthday.  He treated hundreds of patients during the Bukit Ho Swee fire of 1961.  It was crazy,” he says.

Four people died and 16,000 people were left homeless in the inferno.

Mr Tan now uses the dispensary space to store kart parts, but has left its layout intact.

In remembrance of his granddad’s clinic, he has named his animation and film company, also on the second floor, The Film Dispensary.

“When I’m not racing, I’m here,” says the bachelor, whose career sends him all over Asia.

It strikes me then, that perhaps he means what he says about this being home.

Two Singapores

I begin to see a young man who is the face of two Singapores in Havelock:  In his blood courses the need for speed, and he hears the call of the world.  Yet, he is also intent on building atop family history and creating a pit stop for himself, right here.

Working alongside him in The Film Dispensary are two friends from Down Under – Mr Shea Bennett and Mr Mitchell Chapman, both 25 – who arrived in February 2012.

They came, they saw, and they ate.

“Chilli crab with fried buns.  Awesome,” says Mr Bennett.

Some other foreign occupants along that same stretch of shophouses view work and life here as a mere step in their journey to becoming global citizens.

“I hang out with couch-surfers: I learn salsa here.  I want to work and travel around the world,” says Chinese national Anitz Xie, 24, a customer relations officer at Food Junction.

For others, money is the sole reason for being here.  Chinese national Wang Zhen, 27, who shares a spartan dormitory with other workers, has been working as a hotel housekeeper for the past three years.  “I want to work hard, earn money, and then I’m going back home,” he says.

Such sojourners in our midst usually flit behind the scenes, their tales disappearing as they leave.  But stories begin afresh as new people come to take their places in these worn dormintories; what once was become what now is.

Outside, dusk is falling.  I walk on the same side of the road to Block 22, which was built in the 1960s to house those made homeless by the Bukit Ho Swee squatter fire.

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Chin Hoe fruit shop owner Raymond Ang, 54, stands outside, serving customers with wife Melina Ang, also 54.  He’s been running the business for 30 years, after taking over from his father.

Today, his son Jeremy, 30, an air force pilot, is at the shop with his two-year-old son, Oliver.

Says Mr Ang: “This is a dying trade.  How to compete, with FairPrice supermarket nearby?”

He’s moving with the times, however.  A box of plump beetroot sits atop a chiller.  Posted above is a menu of fruit juice combinations.  “We’ve added these over the last few years,” he says.

“We’ll run this shop for as long as we can”

Also in reinvention mode is Mr Alan Goh, 66, who runs provision shop San Huat Company a few doors away.

He’s been going into wholesale to keep his goods moving.  He says in Mandarin: “People come only when they are out of something.  And if they buy, they buy one or two pieces.  How to sustain?”

The company started out selling cloth, but that shop burnt down in the Bukit Ho Swee fire.  His father resumed business at this Havelock Road shop space in 1964 when Mr Goh was 10.  The shop has evolved – from peddling cloth, it started selling PVC fooring and sundries, and then everything.

Today, it is packed to the rafters with vintage treasures.  There are 1980s Chinese tableware, sugarcane juice mugs, metal spittons, clogs, and a lone accordion from the 1950s.

I detect stubborn pride as he says:  “Not many buy, but everything can be sold.”

None of his three children will take over.  Gesturing at his shop, he adds:  “This to me is survival.  But if someone gives me a good price, I will sell, and tour the world.”

I am proud of Mr Goh and Mr Ang – remnants of old Havelock and stalwarts of their trade.

They, too, are the face of two Singapores in Havelock:  ageing, but doing their best to stay relevant.

My memory of Havelock Road now encompases not just the past, but also a contemporary dynamic.  I do not know when I will return, but I will have space for new memories.

My personal memories of Havelock Road

The places which Bryna Singh mentioned is his old newspaper article are shared on this blog .

lks_at_blk29_havelock_road_pubDr Loh Kah Seng once lived at Block 29, Havelock Road

birthplace_pubLina Koh and her husband once lived in Block 22, Havelock Road

Former Hong Lim pasat (Havelock Road) in the 1950s (photo below).

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Chinatown memories live on

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[Source:  The Straits Times, 31 March 1983]

An exhibition on Chinatown, tracing its growth and development was held from 1 April to 10 April 1983 at Thong Chai Medical Institution, Wayang Street.  Organised by the Archives and Oral History Department, this is the first comprehensive exhibtion on Chinatown and held in its own environs.  A book, jointly published by the department and Times Book International, Chinatown: An Album of a Singapore Community.  Fiona Hu remembers her carefree days as a Chinatown girl.

Whenever anything happened to grieve He Jie there would appear a faraway look of resolution in her eyes, and she would then tell us of her intention to return in her coolie quarters.  The thought of it frightened and dismayed us.

She had lived with us for years, fed us, carried us and had been that ever-comforting presence.  Unthinkable, nay, inconveivable for her to return to that place she was constantly speaking of, and that mysterious sisterhood she claimed would care for her.

That unknown but menacing image was, I believe, my first real association of Chinatown.

Left to my own devices I was happy enough to roam about this part of old Singapore.  As far as I was concerned from the mamak stall at Upper Chin Chew Street evolved the first provision store.

A five-cent coin in those days purchased a precious packet of sours.  The strips of preserved mango were my favourite, to be savoured slowly to produce a delicious shudder.

Also clipped tantalisingly to strings against the wall were the Dell comics, which saw me through many a rainy afternoon and the Chinese movie magazines which I pored over to marvel at Lin Dai’s limpid eyes and absorb the latest gossip involving Betty Loh Ti and Peter Chen Ho.

Once in a long while, I would actually go to the big screen at Majestic Theatre.  With widening eyes I watched almond-eyed Li Lihua brew a nasty potion for her ailing husband, surreptitiously dusting some power into it.

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Then with mounting horror saw the contorted features of the husband as the poison started to take effect.

Cinema-going in Chinatown was not complete without a brown bagful of warm chestnuts to clutch on to and relish during such moments of melodrama.

It was a short walk from Upper Chin Chew Street to the shops lining South Bridge Road.  Along the five-foot way were cobblers who obliged with instant repairs and women who had just picked out their week’s selection of vegetables.

In the early 60s traffic was already considerably heavy, so a careful threading brought me across into the commercial district of South Bridge Road.

The pawnshop always seemed formidable, a place one never went to unless the family fortune was at stake.

On the way to the bookstore it was usual to hear shopkeepers clicking their abacuses with easy confidence – more remarkable than the touch of the modern calculator.

Glancing past the dazzle of the goldsmith shops and the foreign herbal smell of Chinese medical halls, I could see the Chinese bookstore into which I would eagerly burrow.

Sheer pleasure it was to finger those pastel and fragrant erasers, and gaze fascinatingly at miniature globe sharpeners and smooth-tipped new pencils.  There was that bunch of fragile web-thin leaf bookmarks to slip into favourite pages.

It was then, too, that I bought a Made-in-China fountain pen that functioned reliably for many years till the ink can dry and refused to flow despite all manner of pumping and coaxing.

Childhood recollection are strangely indelible.  One other commitment to memory is the elevator which seemed characteristic of Chinatown.

Until the invention of the bubble lifts which look outwards, most times one is caged within.  Not so the old Chinatown elevators.

Before its arrival, there was a gasping abyss below, a devouring darkness.  Attached to the elevator was a thick black snake and each time the snake began to slither one knew that the elevator was on its way.  One was made very aware of its ascent and descent.

In her 80s now, but still amazingly alert.  He Jie lives in Chinatown but not in any of the coolie quarters she gently threatened us with.

If wisdom is indeed visible, then there is wisdom in every etched wrinkle, and yes, beauty in one so simple, so good.

One often wonders what Chinatown was like when she first arrived from Guandong as a yong girl.  That, surely, is another story.

Down lanes that lead back in time

Behind the crowded streets and high-rise towers of modern Singapore lie alleys untouched by the influences of time and caught between two worlds.

[Source: The Straits Times, 29 January 2001]

Far-removed from the city’s shiny skyscrapers, towering office blocks and orderly housing estates are Singapore’s quiet back streets.

Behind the bustling coffeshops, provision stores and old shophouses is a world that rarely enters the consciousness of most Singapore residents.

Even fewer of the 7.6 million tourists who came here last year would have left having glimpsed that other world.

It exists in the back lanes of Chinatown, Little India, Geyland and Bugis, and is known only to those who live and work in those areas.

The narrow alleys provide a stark contrast to the ultra-modern, ultra-efficient face that this city-state shows off to the world.  There is contrast, too, between the back lanes, some of which reek of urine, and the front street that the general public usually sees.

As people rush to buy Chinese New Year goodies from Chinatown shops, a middle-aged man relieves himself against the wall of a back lane – unconcerned by the occasional passer-by  This is not an unusual sight, nor is it isolated to men.

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At night, foreign workers shower in the relative privacy of a dimly-lit lane in the Geylang area.  Wearing towels for modesty, five or six men take turns at washing under a hose connected to a tap inside one of the houses.

At all hours, stray cats roam around as if they own the place.

Motorbike riders use the lanes for free parking, while residents and shopkeepers use them as storage space for stacks of chairs and other unwanted furniture.

Icons from the past, like old Khong Guan biscuit tins, are recycled as letter boxes, for example.  They are a striking contrast to the modern furniture inside some of these old houses, not a few of which are home to trendy young Singaporeans

A walk down these streets is akin to a journey back in time, to a place that Singapore forgot, or would like to forget.  Except, in some ways, these roads lead back to the very heart of Singapore, old and new.

Do-it-yourself tour of Chinatown

Singaporeans shop at People’s Park and think they have been to “Chinatown,” says a tourist guide.  But a good proportion of them have never really seen the true Chinatown.  Today, we take you on an armchair tour of the area.

Story:  M. H. Yong,  Pictures:  Wan Seng Yip

[Source:  The Straits Times, 8 March 1980]

“About 40 per cent of Singaporeans have never really seen Chinatown,” said our tourist guide, shaking his head sadly.  “They go shopping at People’s Park and think they’ve been in Chinatown.”

Guilty, I thought to myself.  I have lived all my life in Singapore, yet the guide was able to show me a thing or two.

Playing tourist in your own city is easy.  All you need is a couple of hours and a pair of sturdy legs.  Start early in the morning (about nine) before the streets get too crowded and the sun too hot.  Wear cool, comfortable clothes (preferably cotton), sensible sandals, and be prepared to walk – for Chinatown can only be explored on foot.

Begin your tour at New Bridge Road and stroll down Pagoda Street to look at the old shophouses.  The buildings here are over 100 years old and the architecture is particularly interesting when you compare it with that of other Chinatowns.

Stained glass

New York’s Chinatown, for example, tries very hard to be Chinese and even the phone booths have pagoda-type roofs, in contrast, our Chinatown is actually European in architecture and one or two 19th century stained glass windows can still be seen.

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James Seah in Chinatown, New York.

This photo was taken during my first trip to USA. It was tracked by Facebook to revive my 8-year-old “memory-aid” which I had forgotten about it. Thanks to Facebook as a user-friendly personalised service to all Facebook users to share. Pls watch out for your favorite photos and share them on your FB timeline

Chinatown in Singapore is more authentic with the feelings of an untouched places compared to Chinatown in New York.

Turn right into Trengganu Street and here, at the Temple Street corner, is where gourmet cooks to to when they’re planning to have turtle or eel on the menu.  They make their selectionsw here, from tanks filled with these creatures, and take them home alive in plastic bags of water.

Just beyond, you’ll find yourself in the middle of a vegetable market, with more than 30 varieties of vegetables, all looking absolutely fresh and astonishingly clean.  Some little old ladies in a corner ae even plucking the roots off bean sprouts.

At the corner of Trengganu and Smith Streets, a crowd gathers to watch the butcher slaughtering pythons and iguanas.  “Python meat, $5 a pound, good for asthma and eyesight,” he offers, and it must work too, for he’s often sold out by 10.00 a.m.

Turn left now into Smith Street, sort of the Harley Street of Singapore, with its 300 varieties of medical herbs and weedsw.  Here lies the cure for almost any illness under the sun, if only you knew the right formula.  Rabbits and guinea pigs are sold here too, mainly to school labes, and sometimes there are white mice.  “Swallow a live mouse and cure an ulcer,” tempts the stall-holder.

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Even if you’ve never been to Chinatown, you surely must have heard or seen pictures of the roadside letter writer and fortune teller.

Brolly man

But what about the umbrella repair man?  Now, there’s a rare sight.  He’s tucked away in a nameless lane to the right of Smith Street, near the South Bridge Road end, and will mend your brolly for a couple of dollars.

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Make your way through this backlane and on to Sago Street, a marklet of the freshest fish and biggest prawns you’ve ever seen.  Even shark’s meat is available, but only little sharks, not the “Jaws” variety.

A colourful clog factory is here on the left, though, of course, no true Singaporean would be caught dead in a pair of Chinatown clogs.  Still, they make original gifts for foreign friends.

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Next door, you’ll find an example of a typical Chinatown staircase – dark, narrow and so steep it’s like climbing Batu Caves each time you wnt to get home.  A most gloomy contrast to the splendid paper palaces across the street, with their paper limousines parked outside, and sometimes even a waiting Concord, also of paper.

All to be burned at a funeral ceremony.  What the Chinese lack in this life, they’re certainly determined to enjoy in the next.

Once, though Banda Street, you’re on Sago Lane, where the grannies of Chinatown go to have their hair done.  Behind a makeshift curtain of flour sacking, the roadside hairdresser gets to work, styling a bun or pigtail with smooth starch, or removing facial hair with thread and powder.

Lanterns

If, like me, you’ve always been curious about the famous Death Houses of Sago Lane, now’s the time to have a good look.  They’re the last two houses on the right, near the South Bridge Road end.  You can tell these funeral parlours are in use when you see lanterns hanging outside.  Opposite is a casket shop and a stall selling clothes for mourning.

For many people, the highlight of the tour must be the Popiah Man.  No, he doesn’t sell “popiah” (though you’re probably quite hungry by now), he makes he skins and does so with much skill and aplomb.  Swinging an enormous lump of dough, he presses it lightly on the charcoal hotplate in fron of him.  Just 30 seconds, and the paper-thin pancake skin is ready to be peeled off.

Incredibly, the Popiah Man keeps up this rhythmic swinging-pressing-peeling all day long.  It’s quite a performance.

Photos below:  Prime Minister of Denmark Poul Schluter was being briefed on the making of ‘popiah’ skin on 13/10/1985.  Courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

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Chinese New Year shopping in Chinatown

Please check out the related blog of Chinese New Year shopping in Chinatown  here .

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Ang Teng uncle’s bittersweet goodbye

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By Ng Tze Yong  [Source:  The New Paper, 29 March 2006]

With strong arms and a hopeful heart, Ah Jiu set out to forge a new life in Singapore.

The year was 1947 and he was then 27.

At Clifford Pier, the immigrant from China ferried sailors on his sampan to cargo ships.

Ah Jiu, whose real name is Png Shui Zhui, worked day and night, sleeping in his sampan.

Today, skyscrapers have sprouted around the pier.

Tourists swarm the ultra-chic One Fullerton next door.  The glittering roof at the Esplanade beckons from across Marina Bay.

GHOST TOWN

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Clifford Pier is now a ghost town, but Ah Jiu, now 86, is still rowing his rickety boat.

Clad in jeans as weathered as his bronzed wrinkled face, he still does what he has been doing for almost six decades.

But this Saturday, when ferry operations move to the new Marina South Pier and Clifford Pier awaits redevelopment into a lifestyle hub, old-timers such as Ah Jiu would have to say goodbye.

“What to do?” he said in Hokkien, the only language he speaks, when The New Paper caught up with him last week.

Standing at the mouth of the Singapore River, Clifford Pier used to be the landing point of immigrants.

Built in 1933, it was named after Governor Sir Hugh Charles Clifford.

But locals renamed it as the more affable “Ang Teng” (meaning “Red Lamp” in Hokkien), after the many resident prostitutes and the red oil lamp that used to hang at the end of the pier to guide seafarers.

These days, Clifford Pier sees little more than a trickle of foreign sailors, tourists and the odd photographer.

Ferry services to the Southern Islands and container ships anchored offshore still operate.

But the pier is so quiet that at lunch time, Shenton Way-types go there for a quick siesta, sprawled on the benches in thier business attire.

Twice a week, you will find 63-year-old retiree K S Leong sitting on his favourite bench, reading, and nursing a cup of tea.

“It’s quiet and peaceful here.  Nobody disturbs me,” he said.

CHILDHOOD HANGOUT

Clifford Pier used to be his childhood hangout.

In the 1950s, he used to go there every day with his buddies after school, “to walk-walk, eat and see fish”.

“There used to be schools of groupers in the water, this big!” he said, stretching out his hands.

“Sometimes, I would bring a loaf of stale bread from home and we would sit on the pier to feed them.”

He still remembers Ah Jiu.

He was the kind boatman who gave students cheap sight-seeing rides along the coastline on his sampan.

“Ah Jiu charged according to how you dress,” he recalled.  “Since we were students, he charged us only $5 for everyone.”

It was a time when shopkeepers spoke Russian and Italian, picked up from passing sailors.

Hawkers sold Ang Teng’s famous roti john and mee rebus in carts, and the grand arrival hall resonated with the cries of rival boatmen bustling passengers.

On weekends, anglers and families took the boats out for picnics at Kusu Island and Pulau Bukom.  Couples came her to “pat-toh”.  (Hokkien for “date”).

“Sometimes, we even ‘ponteng’ (Malay for “play truant”) to come here.”

Mr Leong said.  “It was such a fun place.”

But for the boatmen, it was a tough life of life.

“We worked under the sun and we were at the mercy of the waves,” said Ah Bian, a 70-year-old retired boat captain.  “But seafaring was all we knew.  We’re not educated folks.”

Ah Bian, who’s real name is Fang Jing Guo, landed here with is mother and younger sister in 1947.

His father was already working as a boatman here.

“Most of us who came here originally only wanted to stay for two or three years,” he said.  “But life was hard and we didn’t make much money. We couldn’t go home like that.”

Serving the British sailors was also difficult.

“We were often insulted because we were Asians.  But we had to pretend we didn’t understand them,” he said.

Sometimes, sailors hopped onto his boat, drunk after a night out on shore.

“When you’re out at sea and the drunk passengers refuse to pay, what can you do?” he asked.

These days, Ah Bian still travels faithfully every day from his Jurong East flat to chat with his buddies at the ticket counter.

CAMARADERIE

They go back a long way.  Most of the boatmen here hailed from the same region of Jinmen Island in China.  Theirs was a camaraderies forged through hardship.

“But there are so few of us left now.  Most have left or passed away,” Ah Bian said.

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore has guaranteed the boatmen mooring space at Marina South Pier at the same rental of $10 per month, but the old-timers still worry about their future.

On the outside, Ah Jiu said he “wouldn’t miss Clifford Pier one bit”, and that he will just move with the rest and “see how”.

But he’s worried inside.

When he first started out, he made $4 a day.

It wasn’t much, but he had enough to spend 30 cents every day on his favourite Red Cat cigarettes.

These days, he earn $15 a day working fromn 8am to 5pm.

NO MONEY TO RETIRE

Last year, a the age of 85, he stopped smoking to save money.

Ah Jiu, who’s single, lives at a rented flat at Chin Swee Road with two old friends.

He wants to retire.  “But no money, how to retire?”

Pointing to the horizon, he said: “This used to be the open sea.  You could see Batam from here.”

But today, cranes breaking ground at the reclaimed Marina South, site of the future Integrated Resort, dominate the skyline.”

Related blog about Clifford Pier previously posted  here .

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Hong Kong actress Li Hua Hua (李華華) at Clifford Pier in 1950s for film-shooting.  Photos courtesy of the National Library Board.

Clifford Pier in 1930 (below).  The archived photo with the courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

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Remembering the Singapore of old

20190915_154542Jerome Lim

HARDCORE Singapore

As our population swells, the concept of a ‘Hardcore Singaporean’ is becoming murky.  In the ongoing series to find the Singaporean Core – a term raised in Parliament during the Population White Paper debate – we speak to people with pink IC to see how red and white they truly are.

By ANDRE JOSEPH THENG  [Source:  New Paper, 11 July, 2013]

A young Singaporean would not be able to recognise many of the places in the photos on his blog.  In fact, many of the places do not even exist any more.

And this is precisely the reason naval architect Jerome Lim, 48, chooses to blog about these from Singapore’s past.

His blog, The Long and Winding Road (thelongnwindingroad.wordpress.com), features a contrast of existing places with old photographs and his collection of what it looked like when he was growing up.

He said: “It’s sad that many places that were special to me exist only in my memory.  My blog is partly an attempt to revisit my memories as well as to show how things have changed.”

Mr Lim started blogging after he was posted to Penang for a job in 2007.  As he had more free time, he started to explore his new surroundings, which reminded him of old Singapore.

“There were many reminders of my childhood, such as shop displays and five-foot-ways,” he said.

While he returned to Singapore in early 2008, he started blogging more seriously only in 2010.

Now he spends about two hours every day on his blog, taking photographs in the morning before work and writing the entries at night and on weekends.

One place he misses is the Tanah Merah area, a popular holiday spot as many government organisations had bungalows that civil servants could apply to use.

He said:  “It was an idyllic place by the sea.  It offered an escape from the city and it was marked by its undulating terrain and cliffs overlooking the sea.”

The coastline has since changed because of land reclamation, after which Changi Airport was built.

Another place he writes about frequently is Toa Payoh.  He lived there from 1967 to 1976 at Block 53, which had a viewing gallery for VIPs.

He even shook hands with Queen Elizabeth II when she visited his flat in 1972.

Jerome Lim’s 10-minutes with Her Majesty here .

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‘Grew up with Singapore’

Mr Lim was born just before Singapore gained independence, and so he describes himself as someone who ‘grew up with Singapore”.

“Just as I was finding my feet in the 1970s, so was Singapore,” he said.

Reflecting on the progress that Singapore has made, he feels that we can do more to preserve our past.

He said: “Progress is inevitable but I think that we have discarded too much of our past, and in the process, much of who we were as Singaporeans.

“Our identity as Singaporeans is something which should be allowed to evolve naturally.”

While the father of four hopes that his children will one day read his posts to understand the Singapore he grew up in, he also acknowledges that they have less time to explore their surroundings due to the more hectic lifestyle.

He said: “I am sure they will also find their own experiences and places they will reminisce about when they are older.  After all, today is yesterday’s tomorrow.”

What qualities do you have that make you Singaporean?

I am passionate about my country and our history.

How would you describe Singapore to a stranger?

That we have a lot more to offer than our tourist attractions, in the sense that we have a rich culture.

What are the little quirks you see every day?

I think that we can be more patient when things – like flash floods or MRT breakdowns – happen, as we don’t live in a perfect world.

What food do you miss when you’re overseas?

Char kway teow, laksa and sambal chilli.

Your favourite Singlish phrases or words?

I don’t have any, as I don’t really speak Singlish.

Iconic dragon playground in Toa Payoh

Designed by Mr Khor Ean Ghee, a former interior designer at the HDB, it was built in the ’70s, when playground designs reflected aspect of Singapore’s culture and identity.  A similar playground can be found along Ang Mo Kio Ave 3 and there are also smaller versions in Braddell and Macpherson.

Several heritage buffs have chronicled these old-school playgrounds online and called for their preservation, including blogger Jerome Lim, who welcomed the preservation of the dragon playground.

“It does give us a sense of belonging, a sense of place, especially in Singapore where places we are familiar with are all too quickly disappearing,” said Mr Lim, who runs the blog The Long and Winding Road.

20190916_144044.jpgPhoto courtest of TODAY.