The Singapore River is Ageless

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The above photo was published in The Straits Times on 26 October 2017 here , with courtesy of the Singapore Press Holdings.

Singapore River is ageless until the end of times, meaning lasting forever, eternal for as long as Singapore last on this planet.  Since time immemorial, centuries before Stamford Raffles founded the island of Singapore in 1819, the Singapore in its original geography position and location existed.  The Singapore River is not man-made.  Its size, shape, length and location was naturally created in Singapore.

However, the land utilisation and purposes of the Singapore River over the decades has changed for inland transportation, the buildings along the river-banks, the open spaces for recreation  and sight-seeing which visitors, tourists and Singaporeans to enjoy.

Over the decades, the government and peoples of Singapore worked together to transform the Singapore River to change and improve the environment into a better, clean, green and beautiful Garden City.

The Singapore River precinct, with three distinctive quays –  Boat Quay, Clarke Quay and Robertson Quay – is the historic heart of the  city and the foundation upon which Singapore has been built.   Its diverse offerings and welcoming ambience are a draw for both locals and visitors.  Its preservation and continued vitality are important for reasons both economic and cultural.

In the early days, the Singapore River provided an ideal natural artery around which the city could flourish as trade ebbed and flowed  across the archipelago.  The transformation from tidal creek to port and commercial centre was necessary to the rapid growth of the island as an entrepot in Southeast Asia.  Unfortunately, the river also suffered problems with congestions and pollution over the years.   From the initial days of flourishing trade and activity at the Singapore River had become heavily polluted.

During its early stages as an independent nation state, the Singapore Government embarked on a massive program of renewal and reform.  The end of the colonial era had pressing issues that needed attention: urban overcrowding and lack of basic amenities such as piped water and sewerage – especially in the city’s heart near the river.  The 1960s ushered in a period of unprecedented urban renewal, as run down and dilapidated sections of the city were cleared to give way to modern high rises.  By the 1970s, the river became unable to deal with modern container shipping and trading activity gradually moved to Keppel Harbour, paving the way for the redevelopment of the river.

In 1977, the government – spearheaded by the Ministry of Environment – began the mammoth task of cleaning up Singapore River.  By the end of 1983, the river’s environment had improved dramatically, and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) would take the responsibility of formulating comprehensive redevelopment strategies for derelict areas around the river.  Works undertaken to redevelop Singapore River included dredging the river, rebuilding the river walls along the entire stretch of Singapore River and the construction of a 6km long promenade along both banks of the waterfront.

Today, Singapore River has been reborn.  Transformed from a working waterway to an attractive waterfront environment for housing, recreation, entertainment and commercial new developments have generated renewed activity, while conserved buildings lend charm and preserve the memory of the river’s past.

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Singapore River Festival 2017

With thanks to Singapore River One and Asia PR Werks Pte Ltd, I have the pleasure and opportunity to be invited to participate in the Singapore River Festival 2017 events and activities.

Please watch the Singapore River One video on YouTube.

Singapore is a country of immigrants from India, China, Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries from all over the world.  It is not a homogeneous country for mainly natives.

Our forefathers arrived in Singapore in the 1930s mainly by sea and landed at the Singapore River.  Some returned to their homeland later while others, like my father, rooted in Singapore and set up a family as Singapore Citizens and never return to China when he passed away in 1977.

In fact, the site where Stamford Raffles first landed on the Singapore River, near the Parliament House in Singapore, is marked as the historical spot to learn the history of the Singapore River.

However, the purpose of the Singapore River for inland transportation has changed over the decades. When Singapore was a colony under the British Administration, the emphasis of the economy was for entrepot trade to take advantage of the strategic position to trade with countries of the east and west in the world.

In 2011 when I posted the blog about my father and the Singapore River here and another blog in 2014 here , I did not expect the archived blogs could be revived in the Singapore River Festival 2017 initiative as “People of the River”.  The personal material which I have researched and blogged as the resources for the Singapore River Festival 2017 as “People of the River” to share.

Media Session on 24 October, 2017

The Singapore River Festival 2017 returns on November 3 and 4, 2017.  Unlike previous year’s edition, this year’s edition focus on the local people and stories of Singapore River and will celebrate the vibrant lifestyle of our three quays – Clarke Quay, Boat Quay and Robertson Quay – with a series of events and activities.  To pay tribute to the people and memories that make up the rich heritage of the iconic river, the Singapore River organisers, Singapore River One, which invited Captain Frederick James Francis and I among those featured in the Singapore River Festival’s first ever initiative that pays homage to those intrinsically linked to the river and its heritage.

It is indeed my privilege and honor to be invited to share my personal stories about the Singapore River memories.

The following photos of the media session on 24 October, 2017 which I presented together with Captain Frederick James Francis, author of the book “Singapore History – Islands and Islanders”.

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Lianhe Wanbao published on 29 October, 2017

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Channel News Asia “live” interview with “Singapore Tonight” on 27 October, 2017

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At the interview, I mentioned about the unpleasant remarks by some tourists about the water in the Singapore River in the old days before the clean-up of the river.

The following archived photos of Singapore River with courtesy of NewspaperSG, National Library Board, Singapore.

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One of the two-cent ferries across the Singapore River between Robertson Quay and Havelock Road which save pedestrians a walk of more than a mile.

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Glenda Chong, my favorite English news presenter on MediaCorp TV smiled when I mentioned about what some tourists said: “The water in the Singapore River should be bottled and sold as ‘smelling salt’ 🙂

Pls watch the video clip at YouTube here .

Channel News Asia “live” interview with “Hello Singapore” on 2 November, 2017

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Pls watch the video clip at YouTube here .

Fond Memories of Singapore River for the young generations of Singaporeans

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Please share these fond memories of Singapore River photos of my son and daughter taken in 1987.

I hope these third generation of “People of the River” to pass on our younger generations of Singaporeans.  During the Singapore River Festival 2017, I would like to encourage every Singaporean to visit the Singapore River with their great grandparents, grandparents, family, relatives and other People of the River for inter-generational activities for family bonding and meaningful fun experience for everyone.

At National Day 1968, the story of Singapore – and the Singapore River – unfolded in a four-part mass display segment:

  1. ‘River of Life’ – The murky river turned blue – signifying our progress in nation-building.  The final scene: A bridge spanning a clean, calm Singapore River – symbolising our common destiny over individual differences.
  2. ‘River of Soul’ – The audience helped pass down beach balls, symbolising passing our shared values to the next generation.
  3. ‘River of Hope’ – This ends with the river-like NDP ’98 logo.
  4. ‘River of Joy’ – With spectacular fireworks displays, laser and light effects.

Pls watch the video clip at YouTube here .

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Thong Chai Medical Institution in Singapore

20171017_162334Former Thong Chai Medical Institution at 50, Eu Tong Sen Street, Singapore

The former Thong Chai Medical Institution is a historic building constructed in 1892 and housed one of the best known Chinese charity medical centres in Singapore.  Traditional Chinese doctors or sinsehs used to dispense free treatment and medicine to patients of all races in Singapore.  Today, it is used as a commercial building for the Singapore office for Forever Living Products.

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The side photo of the Thong Chai Medical Institution.   Funama Hotel in the background.

History of the Thong Chai Medical Institution

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The plaques in English (above) and Chinese (below) are displayed on both sides of the Thong Chai Medical Institution entrance.

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In 1867,  two Chinese merchants got together to set up Singapore’s first traditional Chinese medical institution for the poor.  These compassionate men saw an urgent need for a charitable organisation that provided medical advice and assistance to those who could not afford to pay for it.

Thong Chai dispensed free medical consultation, treatment and herbal medicines to the poor, regardless of race or religion.  Its sincere efforts were appreciated and recognised and more benefactors joined its ranks.  They came from all Chinese communities: Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew, Hainanese and Hakka.

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Initially, Thong Chai operated out of a small rented shophouse on Upper Pickering Street, then know as Upper Macao Street.  It was then called Tong Chay Ee Say.  In 1892, it bought the building of 50 Eu Tong Sen Street, with which it has become most strongly associated, and changed its name to Thong Chai Medical Institution.

From this building, Thong Chai continued to serve the poor and sick but it also became a centre for business and political activities.  Several clan associations set up their headquarters there; the Chinese Chamber of Commerce was conceived in this building, and its first office operated there until 1906 when it moved to its own premises.  In the early years of the twentieth century, when political tensions between China and Japanese high, Chinese loyalists held public meetings at Thong Chai to garner support for their motherland.

Thong Chai Medical Institution is now located in a 10-storey building in Chin Swee Road, carrying on the Thong Chai tradition much in the way of its predecessors.  They celebrated 150 years of operations in 2017.

The former Thong Chai Medical Institution was gazetted as a national monument on 6 July, 1973.  [Source:  Boden-Kloss]

Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at Thong Chai Medical Institution to officiate swearing-in ceremony of the Institution’s Management Committee members on 26 March, 1963.

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Favorite Teochew Heritage Food Stalls at Eu Tong Sen Street

With thanks to my blogger friend, Victor Yue, the “Chinatownboy”  who posted another blog about Thong Chai Medical Institution. He is also the creator of the Heritage Singapore Food group on Facebook.

He mentioned that the delicious food were found at the pushcart stalls located outside Thong Chai in the 1960s.

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The juxtaposed photo of the then Thong Chai hawker stalls located at Eu Tong Sen Street (above) with courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore and the present photo (below) at the courtesy of Mr Lam Chun See of the Good Morning Yesterday blog.

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Most of the hawkers were Teochew who lived in the Eu Tong Sen Street, Merchant Road and Ellenborough Street.

My former secondary school classmate Steven Sim and his family lived in Merchant Road at the back of the Thong Chai hawker stall in 1962.   Whenever I visited him in the evening and passed the stalls to smell the aroma of mouth-watering food, it brought me a hunger pang.

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Unlike the food stalls at another famous place for foodies at the former Orchard Car Park Glutton Square which were only opened in the evening,  the Thong Chai food stalls were opened in the day and night.   The stalls were very crowded during lunch time patronised by office workers around the Chulia Street and Raffles Place areas.

Pioneer generation Teochew foodie friends will never forget their favorite Teochew food stalls at Thong Chai.

The Present Thong Chai Medical Institution at Chin Swee Road, Singapore

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Singapore Thong Chai Medical Institution website here .

Queen Elizabeth II Visit National Library Building at Victoria Street, Singapore

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Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of United Kingdom visited the National Library Building at 100, Victoria Street, Singapore on 17th March, 2006.

The archived photos shared on this personal heritage blog with the courtesy of the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, National Archives of Singapore and the National Library Board.

Information on the National Library Building is available here .

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She is flanked by Chairman of National Library Board  (NLB) Ms Lim Soo Hoon and NLB Chief Executive, Dr N Varaprasad.

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History of National Library Singapore

The National Library traces its history back to the establishment of the first public library as a result of suggestions by Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore.

This library, renamed the Hullett Memorial Library in 1923, was co-located with Singapore’s first school, Raffles Institution, at a site now occupied by the Raffles City complex.

It moved to a separate Library and Museum Building in 1887 under the name of Raffles Library as part of the Raffles Museum, before moving to the Stamford Road premises in 1960 under the name of the National Library of Singapore opened by Yang di-Pertuan Negara of Singapore Inche Yusof Ishak.

As Singapore gained its independence in 1965, and as the country’s population spread into the suburbs, the library, in collaboration with the city’s urban planners, established a presence in the suburbs by building a library branch in most of the new towns built by the Housing and Development Board.

These branch libraries were each considered a physical extension of the original library at Stamford Road, rather than distinct institutions in their own right, thus the term “National Library” could be said to apply to the original institution and all its affiliates.

On The Red Dot – National Library at Stamford Road, Singapore

Please watch the related video on YouTube here with the courtesy of MediaCorp Singapore.

 

Koo Chye Ba Sheng Hong Temple 100th Anniversary Celebration in 2017

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In 2017, the Singapore Koo Chye Ba Sheng Hong Temple at 15, Arumugam Road , Singapore.

The history of Koo Chye Ba Sheng Hong Temple (jiu cai ba cheng huang miao) can be traced to 1918 when the abbot of Anxi Cheng Huang Miao brought the 5th replica of Qing Xi Xian You Bo Zhu (Anxi Cheng Huang Ye) to a Chinese Marionette House at Craig Road. A few years later, the statue of Cheng Huang Ye was ‘invited’ to Tian Gong Tan on Pineapple Hill (Mt Vernon) for worship.   (Source: http://www.beokeng.com).

In 1938, Pineapple Hill was acquired by the British Army for military use and the temple moved to a village known as Koo Chye Ba (near Lorong Koo Chye). Due to land acquisition by government in the 1980s, Koo Chye Ba Sheng Hong Temple moved into Cheng Feng Lian He Miao with Leong Wan Giam Temple and Hong Hian Keng in 1988.

In 1993 the sixty-tai-sui hall was setup with “Joss Ash” from Bai Yun Guan temple in Beijing. This is probably the first of its kind in Singapore.

In 1926, a group of Anxi residents from Pineapple Hill moved to West Coast area to develop a new village and they brought along the ‘Joss Ash’ of Qing Xi Xian You Bo Zhu (Anxi City God) to build Yang Tao Yuan Sheng Hong Temple.

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The month-long cultural, religious and community activities from September 23 to October 1, 2017 organised by the Organising Committee of the Koo Chye Ba Sheng Hong Temple.

The highlight of the celebration on September 26, 2017 of the 100 anniversary dinner held at the compound of the Koo Chye Ba Sheng Hong Temple.  The Guest-of-Honour is Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.

On this special occasion, the Inter-Religious Organisation of Singapore’s representatives attended the dinner.  The religion leaders and members of the  different faith communities in Singapore prayed together on stage for the success, peace and blessings for Singapore,  the temple  and everyone.

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Without religious harmony, a multi-racial society would very quickly degenerate into chaos, and ruin.   This recognition of the importance of religious harmony in Singapore began more than 50 years ago.  Learn more about the Inter-Religous Organisation here .

Koo Chye Ba Sheng Hong Temple

The original temple was formerly located at ‘koo chye ba’ (‘leek vegetable kampong’ in Hokkien).  The present location of the temple is convenient as easily accessible by public transport by taxi, bus or train.

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Chinese opera stage at the temple

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During the period of the anniversary celebration, the stage was constructed on the temple compound.

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One for the memory of the Singapore Koo Chye Sheng Hong Temple 100th anniversary on 26 September, 2017.

Grandmother teaching her grand-daughter the ways to pray at the temple

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Cross the “Bridge of Peace and Blessings”

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Please watch the Sheng Hong Gong  video in Hokkien, courtesy of the Koo Chye Ba Sheng Hong Temple.

Sin Hock Hin Village 7th Lunar Month Dinner in 2017

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The “Seventh Lunar Month Dinner” organised by the Sin Hock Hin Society on 23 August, 2017 at 7.30 pm at the open space and playground at Guan Chuan Street in Tiong Bahru.

Although the location for the dinner was surrounded by the flats, the residents (many of whom also attended the dinner) are understanding and did not complain to the organising committee.

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Many decades ago, the Tiong Bahru housing estate was developed by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT)  in 1936, some parts of the village were swampy ground for the planting of taro.  109 years ago, the villagers formed the Sin Hock Hin Society to organise the 7th Lunar Month festival  (also known as the ‘Hungry Ghost Festival’ or the “Festival for the Wandering Souls” (Zhong Yuan Jie 中元节 in Chinese)  every year.

The censer or incense burner used for the first time 109 years ago, it is kept safely and carefully by the Sin Hock Hin Society to use today.

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Educational tour by Kelvin Ang, Jeffrey Eng and Tiong Bahru Heritage Volunteers 

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Reserved tables for friends of Kelvin Ang 

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Kelvin Ang chatted with Jeffrey Eng before the dinner started.   They are the pioneers and guide leaders of the Tiong Bahru Heritage Volunteer group.

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Unlicensed waiter serving to the friends

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Favorite dishes for tasting experiences

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Auction for Good Luck & Blessings

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The famous golden hen filled with donations of blessings from all attending the dinner.

Toasting with Ms Indranee Rajah, Member of Parliament for Tanjong Pagar GRC – Tiong Bahru

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More about the ‘Hungry Ghost Festival’

This year, the ‘Hungry Ghost Festival’ starts on August 22 and end on September 19, 2017.

It is believed that the gates of the netherworld are opened during this time for spirits to roam the living world.

The eResources of the National Library Board are available here and the Visit Singapore site  are available  here .

Taboos to Follow:

1.Avoid swimming during the 7th month. It is believed that those previously drowned evil ghost might cause you to drown in
the swimming pool. Such ghost need to find victims in order for them to be go for rebirth.

2.  Children and young adults are also advised to return home early and not to wander around alone at night. This belief is due to the reason that the wandering ghosts can possess children easily.

3. Avoid moving into new homes and opening new businesses this month as it is considered inauspicious and bad luck on new ventures.

4. Avoid getting married during this month because couples will have bad ending. Some bad ghost may cast a bad spell on couples during their wedding.

5. Avoid going for jungle trekking and going on camping trips as chances of injuries, possession and death are high.

6. Drive very carefully during this month to avoid accidents, as there may be many wandering spirits who died of accidents
previously that are searching for next victims so that they could be reincarnated.

7. Protect your entrances with the genuine. Peachwood Sword. This is the most excellent protector of ghost and evil spirits, claimed by many of our customers. Alternatively one may also choose to use the Seven Stars Sword of Chung Kwei.

8. Avoid starting any construction work or engaging in renovation repairs at home such as fixing a tile or banging the floor and wall for the entire month.

9.  Avoid spitting and blowing your nose in the street or at any tree/plant.

10. Do not leave open wounds unattended as this will attract ghosts in following you home. Keep them plastered at all times.

11. Do not make negative comments or crack jokes about offering items in the streets or poke fun about chinese opera seen with empty chairs of chinese communities. Those chairs are for the ghosts.

12. Do not pick up anything including money found on the street and never bring it home.

13.  Avoid getting emotional and crying in the middle of the night. A weak, sad and emotional mind gives ghosts the
opportunity to possess you and harm you.

14. Do not whistle after the sun set. This will attract the attention of ghosts that may stick to you for a long time giving your a spate of long term bad luck.

[Acknowledged with thanks to Lina Koh, Kelvin Ang and Jeffrey Eng for sharing the memorable photos on this blog].

Where in the world is the Piccadilly Circus?

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The entrance of the Royal Air Force Seletar, Singapore  c 1950.  Courtesy of Simon Hawketts.

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The entrance of the Royal Air Force Seletar, Singapore  c 1950.  Courtesy of Derek Lehrle who contributed the photo to the National Archives of Singapore (NAS).

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The entrance of the Royal Air Force Seletar, Singapore  2012.  Courtesy of Frank Yap.

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The entrance of the Royal Air Force Seletar, Singapore.  Photo taken by James Seah on  8 August, 2017.

The juxtaposed photos of the entrance of the RAF Seletar in Singapore are posted on this blog to show the same place, different times, different memories for many of us.

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Where in the world is the Piccadilly Circus?   More than one place with the same name but the most famous original Piccadilly Circus in London.

Piccadilly Circus is a road junction and public space of London’s West End in the City of Westminster, built in 1819 to connect Regent Street with Piccadilly. In this context, a circus, from the Latin word meaning “circle”, is a round open space at a street junction.

Another Piccadilly Circus is found at Seletar in Singapore.

My long-time friend and school-mate, Uncle Frank, blog about his first experience to visit Piccadilly Circus here .

Road Names in Singapore of British places

As a former British colony, Singapore is full of British road names – for instance, those based on places such as Lambeth Walk , Maida Vale, Edgeware Road, Mornington Cres, etc.

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The majority of Singapore’s roads and places were named during the colonial period, but there was no move to remove these names after 1965, unlike other post-colonial cities that have been only too eager to erase such signs of their colonised past.

Behind every road name is a story of Singapore.

Indeed, so little of the past has been preserved that it can be hard to keep in mind Singapore’s rich history.  What has survived, though, is a tapestry of road and place names going back decades and even centuries, which serve to anchor the past in our ever-changing landscape.

In particular, many road names point to individuals and communities who helped shape Singapore, and whose stories are quietly embedded in our surroundings, awaiting our discovery.  The Piccadilly Circus at Seletar is in existence in Singapore for over a century.

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Memories of RAF Seletar

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This shabby building (photo above) was once a part of Seletar Camp. Now, its paint is peeling and the signboards are rusting away. Seletar was one of three Royal Air Force (RAF) bases here before the British pullout in 1971.

The juxtaposed photos (above & below) of the same building beside the side entrance into the RAF Seletar airbase.

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The front (above) & back (below) of the same heritage building.

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Since 2002, the camp’s entrance has been moved deeper into the complex, and the old main gate, guardhouse and several buildings have been abandoned since. A group of former airmen from the RAF and the Republic of Singapore Air Force want the entrance preserved as a historical site.

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Within the compound, not much has changed either. Houses there have retained their black and white exteriors, and roads still bear names like Regent Street, Oxford Street and Sussex Garden. There’s even a Piccadilly Circus.

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In an interview with The Straits Times on 21 February, 2014,retiree Ho Bak Hai, 76, paints an idyllic picture of life in Seletar – he spends some afternoons playing football with his grandson in their garden.In the evenings, he takes a quiet, solitary stroll around the estate.

He sees colourful birds circling the area’s undulating terrain and well-manicured green fields. Butterflies, dragonflies, frogs and even the occasional snake visit his Maida Vale home. “The fresh air is good for the soul. It’s a quiet respite and a nice place to retire with the company of your family.”

His neighbour, Dutch national Edith Kraaijeveld, 45, a Seletar resident of nearly two decades, feels its beauty and heritage should be shared with the rest of Singapore. An interactive gallery showcasing the area’s heritage, with artefacts such as vintage cars, will be one way to engage families.

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Architectural historian Lai Chee Kien hopes the history and culture of the area’s original occupants – the Orang Seletar or sea nomads – can be showcased.

The area has special significance in Singapore’s history – it’s changing occupants reflecting the changes in the region and the Singapore’s rise and fall. From the early 1800s until the 1950s, “the riverine landscape was home to the Orang Seletar and their boats”, says Dr Lai. Immigrants from China and India who settled there grew pepper, gambier and rubber.

The colonial government set up a camp – the largest British RAF base in the Far East then. It became operational in 1928. To ease servicemen’s homesickness, roads and roundabouts were named after places in London, such as Piccadilly Circus, Hyde Park Gate and Baker Street. There still stand today.

The camp fell into the hands of the Japanese navy during World War II. In the late 1960s, after the British withdrawal, the Singapore Armed Forces took over the eastern part of the camp and its residential and commercial parts were made public.

Ms Kraaijeveld says: “Seletar is a really special place with a rich history longing to be told.

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The 2 military buildings at the former Royal Air Force (RAF) Seletar camp.

Block 179: The RAF’s station headquarters, along Seletar Aerospace Drive, is one of the oldest buildings in the area. It
was the target of air raids and suffered extensive dame in World War II.

Block 450: This was desigwas one of several large barracks in the area. Lke nearby Block 179, it was designed in the tropical Art Deco style.

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RAF Air Show at Seletar in 1953

“The Silver Hanger” fly past marking the 13th anniversary of the Battle of Britain on 11 September, 1953.  (Archived photos with courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore).

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Inspirations from “Lost Films” Website

With thanks to Simon Hawketts who created this special site, a bit different from a lot of photo sharing sites because the pictures are not attributed to any particular photographer but are pictures which were taken by lots of unknown photographers, using unknown cameras and in unknown locations. These are pictures found on rolls of film in second hand cameras that I’ve bought, or in boxes of colour slides which I’ve picked up on auction sites and car boot sales.

Although it is common these days, in the age of social media, to share a lot of pictures, years ago pictures were only shared amongst family and friends. It’s interesting to think that over the last 100 years there must have been millions of pictures taken which have only ever been seen by a handful of people or by no one at all. Many have been destroyed, many are sitting in people’s attics and cupboards forgotten about and many partially exposed rolls of film are still sitting in a lonely camera somewhere waiting to be discovered. The aim of this site is to release those pictures and allow people to view them.

Please find out more about Simon’s innovative ideas shared here .

This blog is inspired by Simon’s archived photo of the RAF Seletar airbase entrance and led me to research the relevant sources to share with our friends at the RAF Seletar Singapore, RAF Seletar & Tengah, Ex Far East Brit Brats groups on Facebook. I hope to bring them fond nostalgic memories of their days in Singapore and their RAF services at Seletar.

Please watch the video of the old photos developed from the “found films” here .

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The archived photo of the Seletar Swimming Pool in 1950s, courtesy of NAS.

The Sumiko Phenomenon

20170802_131531Photo courtesy of The Straits Times & NewspaperSG (National Library Board, Singapore)

This article is reproduced with courtesy of The Straits Times, 10 December, 2000 to share on this blog.

The Sumiko phenomenon, celebrated columnist.

Serene Goh examines the Sumiko Tan Pheomenon, the turn of the spotlight from newsmakers to the people who write the news – journalists.  Tan Dawn Wei contributed to this report.

Heroes.  Those necessary icons of our generation.  Move over Gandhi and Lennon.  In today’s Singapore, one name stands out above the rest:  Sumiko Tan.

We know her as the dulcet belle and deputy editor on The Straits Times’ Life! section.  A celebrity in her own right, here is a faithful following besotted with her fortnightly Sunday Plus diary entries on her life.

And it’s been so since July 3, 1994, with some 135 pieces on a plethora of topics: her career, her love life, disrobing for a Japanese bath, her break-up, her addiction to watching the Olympics, her love life.

When Sumiko goes to the hawker centre, it’s a Kodak moment.  Her A-Z shopping guide is a clip-out op.  Her insights into bad hair days display a deep understanding of the true disaster of unyielding tresses.  Thriving in the new economy, her online chat generated marriage proposals in a stream of hits only marginally less mighty than the Senior Minister’s.

Let’s face it:  She’s a star.  Telling, then, that at one Star Awards, the camera rested on her face, seated among local television glitterati.  After all, it’s a face that’s as much recognised for gracing and campaigns for UOB Lady’s Card and Lee Hwa Jewellery, as for being protagonist of the running serial, the Life! and times of Sumiko Tan.

Call it a Zeitgeist in journalism.  The New York Times reports that the modern byline doesn’t simply identify authorship, but works like a conventioneer’s identification tag.

It puts a human face on the institution, writes Felicity Barringer, citing the growing trend for newspapers to run e-mail addresses and/or telephone numbers with bylines.

Whereas in the past, the invisible journo played wall-flower to hardcore news, or expert commentary on current events, today, the author’s personality is a selling point too.

Stalwarts such as Dave Barry or Zuzie Menkes, for instance, have long been prized as specialists on humour and fashion.

But Sumiko has gone a step further.  She isn’t beloved for being the respected journalist of 15 years that she is.  Most don’t realise her influences include Time magazine’s Pico Iyer and feminist writer Camille Paglia.  Or even that she’s authored 12 books on crime, corporations, The Singapore Parliament, as well as co-authored a biography of  Lee Kuan Yew.

Rather, she’s most famous for her columns on her after-office hours.  Confessional and earnest, the flavour of her columns don’t quite fit the beefy blend of the five-sectioned Straits Times.  Yet, it’s a voyeuristic taste that’s addictive.

Alwyn Lim, sociology tutor at the National University of Singapore, said this is due to an emerging culture where people are induced to tell all.  “It’s like that with popular talk shows and people who post their diaries on the Internet.”  Her insights, he said, are a necessary breather.  “Sumiko Tan’s (columns) are about the most open we can get in Singapore’s newspapers, since any highly personal political opinions would probably be directed to the Forum or the Speakers’ Corner.”

Such as, say, braving Speakers’ Corner in Moschino sling-backs.  It’s not every nation that can boast a journo who’s popular simply because, well, she shares deeply.

London’s Sunday Times columnist Zoe Heller came close, detailing her trysts in what she called a horribly indiscreet weekly narrative.  Though wickedly funny, her pieces were largely popular among what she calls “dirty old men”.  She finally stopped because she was typecast as a “girly writer”.

“I thought: ‘why am I telling three million people the intimate details of my life every Sunday morning?'” she said.

“Before I started, I worked for four years as a features journalist at the Independent on Sunday.

“After a couple of years, I was only ever asked to write giggly pieces about condoms, or articles such as Whither Romance In The 21st Century/”

Sumiko faces the same pigeonhole.  As with pop icons, she has detractors; harsh ones, whose criticisms involve such words as “juvenile”, “uninspiring” and “diabolically insidious”.

Readers such as Annie Leong, restaurant owner and biochemistry graduate, pulls no punches.  “She whines, and she whines.

“I would have thought she was fresh out of school.  There’s no depth,” Leong complains.

“I don’t have any arguments with her topics, but her approach is just not worth the ink.”

No stranger to venom, Sumiko reckons her positive feedback outweighs the negative by about 7-to-3, with some comments getting very personal.

“I remember a man who left a message in my office mail saying sneeringly and condescendingly:  “Please Sumiko Tan, do you really think people care about what you say?  Your pieces make me sick.  Why don’t you just shut up,” she said.

“Mostly, it’s from folks who say they are disgusted at how I keep writing about myself, or how my topics are always trivial (love, relationships, hairstyles, clothes), and how dare I take up space in a national paper with my petty concerns.”

But, she counters: “It is not as if I’m some exhibitionist who takes great joy in revealing intimate details of my life.  It’s just that over the years, I’ve realised that it is usually anecdotes that get people hooked onto a story.

Because my column is meant to be a ‘personal’ one as opposed to, say, a political-analytical type of column.  I’ve concluded that it is only anecdotes from my own life that I can tell with honesty and sincerity.”

It’s  a formula that works among those who identify with bleeding hearts than a hulky-sulky Xena.  Ultimately, there’s a comfort in knowing someone – anyone – faces the clumsy everyday we call life with the same lows we do.

As Lim points out: “Sumiko’s column ‘happens’ for the same reason people watch Ally McBeal: They want to take a lighthearted look at their everyday lives.”  And if you even have a trace of an inner sap, you’ll say aww to that.

The truth is – are you sitting down? – Sumiko has outgrown herself, becoming greater than the sum of her parts.

If you think the sole distinction between her and creations such as Ally McBeal or Bridget Jones is that Sumiko is a real person expressing real thoughts, you are mistaken.

In the world of everyday heroes, journalistic personalities such as her mark the industry’s contribution to mass mascots.

So she isn’t a morose lawyer, or a chubby media toady.  Still, her column, and consequently her persona, functions as a behind-the-scenes look at a profession built on exposing others.  Sociologically speaking, it’s an answer to intellectual snobbery:   Mass communication at its purest.

For Sumiko, it’s an objective fulfilled.  “I have a column to write … my job is to get them read.

“From feedback, I gather that some of my columns like those on death and relationships, have been cathartic for readers, because I am voicing for them what they have experienced.”

After all, even her harshest critics still follow her, whatever their morbid fascinations.

As Lim points out: “Love her or hate her, people will still continue to read Sumiko’s column because she has offered herself as the voice of fluff of the nation.  And what’s wrong with that?”

Nothing, of course.  Not even if that means working through the lachrymose tale of a tortured Tamagotchi-lookalike pet called Dinkie who shrivelled up and died from neglect.

Sob.

Note:  The quoted italic passages above are highlighted to share my personal sentiments.

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AskST@NLB at the Central Public Library

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The new series of talks held on the first Friday of every month at Programme Zone, Central Public Library.  The askST@NLB talks, a joint effort between The Straits Times and the National Library Board (NLB).  There are 12 in each run.

Starting it off is the talk by Executive Editor of The Straits Times, Sumiko Tan as she shares about her experiences with life, love and loss.

Sumiko Tan wrote her first personal column as a young reporter in 1994.  Over the next 22 years, her fortnightly column in The Sunday Times gathered a faithful readership and made her a household name.  With heartfelt honesty, her columns chronicled the ups and downs of singlehood, working life and when it finally happened when she was 46, married life.

Her new book “Sundays with Sumiko” was recently launched.  It is a collection of her most representative columns over the past two decades, exploring family, love, friends, career, dogs, death and marriage.

I am pleased to attend an enlightening talk by Sumiko Tan and she graciously agreed to pose a photo with me for keepsake.20170802_172400