28 March 2010

The Van Kleef Aquarium

An image of the Van Kleef Aquarium in 1960; Source: Chiang Ker Chiu/National Archives of Singapore (NAS)

I wrote briefly about the Van Kleef Aquarium before in my article about the National Theatre here:

"When I think of the National Theatre, memories of the Van Kleef Aquarium just next to it comes flooding back. This aquarium was nowhere near the standard or the size of today’s Underwater World in Sentosa but for a mere S$2 entrance fee, one could gawk at the 2 crocodiles (in an enclosure, of course) at the entrance before entering the aquarium to view the marine fishes. In contrast, today’s entrance fee to Underwater World is more than S$10 and that’s not counting the admission fee to Sentosa Island itself."

A baby fixated at the fascinating sight in the Van Kleef Aquarium; Source: NAS 1970

Most Singaporeans who are at least 30 years' old would have some memories of the aquarium which was situated at the junction of Clemenceau Avenue and River Valley Road, right next to the National Theatre.

A girl reaching out to touch the hawksbill turtle, as if to make sure that it was for real; Source: NAS 1955

Our parents would have brought us there at least once when we were kids and we would have been fascinated by the myriad of exotic sea creatures displayed in the tanks. We would look forward to visiting the aquarium again as we never seemed to get tired of looking at the interesting exhibits.

Even guppies looked so interesting in the aquarium; Source: NAS 1960

In this post, I would like to refresh your childhood memories about this lovely aquarium which we were all so fond of.

It was affordable entertainment for the whole family - at a time when black-and-white TV had not reached our shores yet. But hey, it was as good as watching a 60-inch flat-panel TV display, okay? Source: NAS 1955

Entry in Singapore The Encyclopedia:

Here is an entry in Singapore The Encyclopedia on the Van Kleef Aquarium:

"Opened on 8 September 1955 in River Valley Road, the Van Kleef Aquarium was named after a former Dutch resident, Mr K W B Van Kleef, who bequeathed his estate to Singapore in a will dated 7 July 1900. The Municipal Commission made plans to build the aquarium in 1933, but these were put on hold when the war broke out and only resumed in the 1950s.

In 1964, the ichthyologist A Fraser-Brunner, curator of the aquarium, was commissioned to design the Merlion emblem for Singapore's Tourist Promotion Board.

By 1985, the aquarium housed many interesting and rare species of marine and freshwater fish, amphibians and invertebrates, including tropical fish, small sharks, poisonous lion fish and stone fish, and Amazonian piranhas. Live crocodiles were an additional attraction.

In March 1986, the aquarium had serious maintenance problems and closed for major renovation. By then, annual visitor numbers had declined drastically to 250,000, compared to around 430,000 in its heyday in 1979. After a $750,000 facelift, it re-opened on 26 August 1987 with the aim of becoming a 'public and tourist attraction' as well as a 'permanent exhibition centre for local aquarium fish farmers and exporters'. By 1 June 1991, the aquarium was considered outmoded compared to Sentosa's Underwater World and shut down.

On 1 October 1991, the Primary Production Department handed over the administration of Van Kleef Aquarium to a private company, World of Aquarium, but it too closed on 22 February 1993. Six months later, it was reopened as The Fort Canning Aquarium but this was also shortlived. It closed its doors for the last time in December 1996, and the building was eventually demolished in 1998."

The distinctive logo of the Van Kleef Aquarium on the wall at the right of the building; Source NAS, late 1980s

An undated postcard of the Van Kleef Aquarium in its heydays. If there were so many people outside, you could imagine how crowded it would have been inside.

Article in Singapore Guide And Street Directory 1961

Perhaps even more fascinating is an article about the aquarium in the 1961 edition of the Singapore Guide And Street Directory:

"The Van Kleef Aquarium, so called after the benefactor who bequeathed the major part of the cost of its erection, is maintained by the Government as one of Singapore's most popular amenities.

Since its first opening to the public in 1955 it has been continually improved and now has more than 70 exhibition tanks, with natural settings, containing upwards of 4,000 fishes of some 300 different species; as well as turtles and a variety of invertebrate animals. Although emphasis is on the Malayan fauna, a number of species from elsewhere are shown, particularly in the freshwater section, where South American "man-eating" piranhas and electric eels are an attraction. The marine section contains many items of great interest, particularly a fine display of anemone-fish living in their anemones, the ever popular sea-horses, octopus and sea snakes. Many of the numerous species shown here have lived in their tanks since 1956, and some have bred there.

Sea-water is brought by pipeline to the Aquarium where it is improved chemically and stored in underground tanks. Both fresh and salt water is circulated by pumps and filtered continually. There is a service passage behind the tanks for feeding and cleaning, a quarantine system for newcomers, and a well-equipped laboratory. A specially designed launch collects specimens and sea-food for the tanks.

The exhibition hall is air-conditioned and a spacious foyer provides rest for the visitors.

The Aquarium is opened on week-days from 10.00 a.m. to 12.00 noon, and 2.00 p.m. to 8.30 p.m. except on Fridays, when it is closed all day for maintenance. On Sundays and public holidays, it is open from 10.00 a.m. to 9.00 p.m. Admission prices are 30 cents for adults (over 16) and 20 cents for children over 3 years. Special rates for parties can be arranged with the Curator."

Wow! Can you believe the 30 cents admission charge for adults? It can't even buy tubiflex worms for the fishes in my home aquarium nowadays.

Below are maps of the junction of Clemenceau Avenue and River Valley Road in 1961, 1983 and 2002. You could see the changes through the last half century:

1961 map - Van Kleef Aquarium was constructed in 1955 while the National Theatre had not been built yet.

1983 map - National Theatre standing next to the Van Kleef Aquarium

2002 map - Both the National Theatre and the Van Kleef Aquarium had been demolished. Today, only an NAS Heritage Site marker stands at the location.

Further Reading:

1. The Other Side of Forbidden Hill

2. NAS' Access to Archives On-line (A2O) article

3. Remembering the Van Kleef Aquarium by Kevin Khoo, Assistant Archivist, NAS

21 March 2010

“I’ll Be There”@Peppermint Park - Peter Chan

Between 1974 and 1984, music entertainment in Singapore was confined to lounge music. This period was a pretty boring decade also when you had three guys seated on high stools strumming their acoustic guitars and crooning to the tune of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”. For those who have patronized the Kangxi Lounge at Hotel Taipan would understand what I am saying. This was the situation after the government came down hard on discotheques and long-hair in the 1970s. OK I am wrong! If you had a fat wallet you could go to supper clubs like the Belvedere (Mandarin Hotel) or The Tiara (Shangrila) but that would have made a hole.

Photo 1: The Peppermint Park advertisement of yesterdays (circa 1984)

Through a chance meeting with a former classmate in 1984, I came to know of Peppermint Park and who was behind it. “Have you heard that Dennis our classmate has opened a new place called Peppermint Park at Parkway Parade? The old boys are meeting there this Friday night. Would you come by?” “I’ll be there”, I said.

There was a long queue by 8pm but I managed to get a place upstairs because we just had to mention the password “From RI” and the captain lead the way upstairs. The party was in progress. I must add that National Service must have done some good to us because we now gulp beer by the jug instead of by the glass. Dennis took time off his busy schedule to show us around his new joint.

At Peppermint Park “live” entertainment took on a new direction. The one big difference, the dance floor was missing but there were no complaints about that. It was easily replaced by incredible showmanship, full band sounds, powerful vocal harmonization, atmospheric lightings and the décor was simply way out of this world. These were the important ingredients for a successful entertainment business.

When I put my memories into this blog article, it’s quite easy to describe the attractiveness of Peppermint Park. Let me elaborate further.

Photo 2: Peppermint Park Theater & Lounge at #04-08 Parkway Parade.

T.G.I.F. was like taking an after-dinner stroll in a park. You hear the sounds of crickets chirping until showtime began after 9pm. The miniature lightings resembling the stars at night hung from a jet-black ceiling. White wrought iron garden chairs and tables – items sold in any garden nursery - provided the seating. Center-stage on the ground floor was a big prop of a Southern Plantation type mansion typically found in the big American tobacco plantations in Mississippi. Trees lined the walls and the floor was covered with carpet grass. On the second level was a saloon with Chesterfield sofas, rugs and a wooden floor. There was a small balcony at one end of the saloon where you could watch the stage down below.

Photo 3: A Southern Plantation mansion found in Mississippi

Showtime started with the appearance of the groups, three bands instead of just one and often fronted by female back-up vocalists. I believe Dennis was able (and still does a fantastic job at St James Power Station) to capture what a demanding market wanted; solid sound, skits and dance routines.

This could only come from foreign bands, mind you only the Filipino showbands could deliver an excellent performance. To get a feel of what energetic Filipino showmanship is all about, click on the video clip below and watch “Everybody needs somebody” (circa 1996).

The Filipino groups rapped with the audience, not just screaming those cliché, “Are you happy tonight. I can’t hear you”. Many local musicians commented that the Filipinos must have under-cut the market to get contracts at our night spots but I say it is entertainment value they provided. When you see them (Filipinos) doing different genres at the same time - top of the chart, classical jazz and even new renditions of old evergreens - you begin to have your doubts of our local musicians. We got “Kharma Chameleon” (Culture Club), “McArthur Park” (Three Degrees) and “I don’t know how to love him” (Andrew Lloyd Webber). There was one novel act which I thought was attention-grabbing. There was a white screen showing a singer’s silhouette until she appeared visible to the audience. This was choreographed to the theme “Candle on the Water” from a Walt Disney animated film Pete’s Dragon.

Photo 4: Left - Filipino showband at the reception area of Peppermint Park (circa 1984). Right - The showband reunion in Manila (circa 1996)

Local names that appeared at Peppermint Park included Anita Sarawak, Kaye Hamid & Hangloose, Tania, and Adam & Ben.

When I took on a regional career posting, I lost touch with Peppermint Park. Some years later I saw that it was called Park Avenue and managed by different owners. Today I hear there is Peppermint Park but this time inside St James Power Station. Is this same Peppermint Park of 1984? I shall soon discover this Friday.

15 March 2010

Changing Landscape Of Singapore (3)

I was at the Civil Service College last month to attend a course. Copies of PS21's Challenge magazine were available for free at the college. I picked up a copy and found an interesting article titled An Urban Cowboy's Riddle which was written by renowned journalist Ravi Veloo. The article is about urban planning in Singapore and explains to a certain degree why some changes in our landscape, though unpopular, are in fact unavoidable:
IT'S fascinating to think that the urban planning of the entire island was once in the hands of a 20-year-old, younger than some of our most famous laksa recipes.

And that nearly 200 years later, we still have our Central Business District and civic area located on both sides of the Singapore River.

The face of Singapore's landscape was then in the hands of one Lieutenant Philip Jackson, a young British Royal Navy officer who was ordered to draw up the first detailed city plan for Singapore by an irritated Stamford Raffles who returned in 1822 for his third and final visit and found the colony growing helter-skelter.

You can be sure that the people now planning where things go in Singapore have a few more years on them. Some are even as fond and sentimental as the rest of us about the places which we have grown up in and plan to conserve them.

Yet the riddle of modern Singapore remains - that what is defined as public interest often overrides public sentiment.

Yes, there is much effort in finding out from Singaporeans what they want, and in general terms, the government delivers. More nature areas and parks, and better access to them; it will materialise.

But if you drill down to the specifics, that's more of a pickle. For example, there was a loud clamour to save the old brick-walled National Library building where every earnest student of a certain generation once spent many hours. It still made way for the shortest road tunnel in Singapore.

A sensible public will just have to accept that in tiny Singapore, the planning will generally be driven top-down, with fine-tuning mainly based on public sentiment and feedback. There are just too many sensitive issues involving space and planning and we have grown so used to having it that way that we are now uncomfortable with candid discussion.

It also doesn't help when a loony fringe now and then makes demands out of step with the general public, like the group that once demanded the reclaimed Marina Bay area be declared a nature reserve because some migrating birds had built nests there.

But there is still no great reason for a large gap between ground and ceiling when it comes to problem areas such as cyclists on sidewalks, void decks which are nothing but that on certain occasions, sleazy sex shops fronting some of our busiest buildings in Orchard Road and the civic centre, and a host of other areas.

As a sometime grassroots leader myself, I realise there needs to be a more robust mechanism in place to tap into the public psyche, to rethink where necessary and to deliver on the shape of what is really about "how we live, work, play and dream".

On the broad strokes, a lot of things are like our main airport - they're in the right place after they were rethought and relocated. On the details of everyday life, there still remains a lot to be gained by having an ear to the ground.

07 March 2010

Jack Neo Admits Affair With Model

I was shocked to read about Jack Neo having an extra-marital affair with a 22-year-old girl by the name of Wendy Chong - read articles here and here.

Jack made a name for himself as Singapore most successful film-maker with his first film Money No Enough in 1998. He even earned a mention by the then Prime Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong in his National Day Rally Speech on 18 August 2002:

Why not be like Jack Neo? He has applied his creative energy to produce three movies. Two of them were highly successful ? "Money No Enough" and "I Not Stupid". I watched "I Not Stupid". I can understand why it touched many parents' heart. My wife liked it so much that she watched it three times. She felt that Jack Neo deserved a National Day award. But I told her, "Two No Enough"!
Indeed, in 2004 he became the first local filmmaker to be honoured with a National Day Award. In the following year, he won the Cultural Medallion by the National Arts Council (NAC), the highest art and cultural award in the nation.

All these years, the public's impression of Jack is that he is a model husband who will not stray in marriage. In fact, Jack himself told The New Paper in a 1996 interview that it was too difficult to have a secret affair:

My philosophy on an affair: I have no time for it. If you want to look for a secret lover, you got to pay for it, not in terms of money but something more valuable - time. You got to make lovey-dovey phone calls, go pak-tor (dating), spend time making yourself look good for the woman. (Sigh) Too difficult for me, lah.
Now let me try to interprete the real meaning behind the sentences in the preceding paragraph:
Jack: I have no time for it.
Meaning: You will find time if you take her along on overseas working trips.
Jack: You got to make lovey-dovey phone calls
Meaning: SMS also can
Jack: Go pak-tor
Meaning: See movie Lucky Star also same same
Jack: Spend time making yourself look good for the woman.
Meaning: Actually, I look quite good already. With or without the clothes. Maybe better without.
I remember the dialogue in one of Jack Neo's movie (can't remember which one) said something like this:

Translated, it means "when you steal a bite (=stray), remember to wipe your mouth clean (=remove all incriminating evidence)". Tsk, tsk, tsk, talk about dishing out advice which you don't follow yourself. Seems like Jack forgot to follow that golden rule.

They say that marriages go through the seven year itch. Wah, Jack is 20 years late - he is married for 27 years already. Maybe it is because his name Liang Zhi Qiang 梁智强 has the same hanyu pinyin as 两支枪 which means "have 2 guns". No wonder for him "that one no enough".

And I am not withholding any admonition for the woman in the story either. No, not Madam Irene Kng (Jack's wife) who is the real victim but Wendy Chong. The latter said that she just wanted people to know that "(Jack Neo) may say that he loves me, but the next moment, he lies to me".

Hello young woman, is lying more severe a crime than being a third party to a marriage? I certainly don't think so. And whoever invited reporters and photographers to come along for the meeting in Crowne Plaza hotel definitely had an ulterior motive.

Why not be like Jack Neo? Do be careful where you apply your creative energy though.

But alas, Jack seems to be playing Tiger Woods too. Aw come on, that girl is young enough to be your daughter, okay? What do you have to say? That you are human too and are prone to making mistakes just like all of us? Sigh, I just hope that this whole episode didn't actually happen but is only a publicity stunt for your current movie, aptly titled Being Human. But then, it is too early for an April Fool's joke, isn't it? Aiyah never mind lah, you can always make good use of this third-party first-hand experience to make your next "social issue" movie.

Who knows? You could even earn another mention in this year's National Day Rally Speech. If this happens, I hope it is for the right reason. I wish you well.

03 March 2010

Changing Landscape Of Singapore (2)

Singapore's landscape has been changing rapidly since its independence. Time and again, there have been calls by concerned people for the pace of change to slow down. Some even wrote letters to local newspapers appealing to the authorities to consider saving what is left of our past. If the authorities had heeded these calls, some of which came decades ago, we might not have needed the Integrated Resorts to bring in the tourists.

Today, I reproduce one such letter published in the Straits Times of 15 June 1985 and bring you some old photos which evoke the memories conjured up by the letter writer, aptly called by the pseudonym "well-wisher". To the best of my knowledge, the letter remains unanswered, up till now.

Time to think about saving what's left

I have lived in Singapore for many years and I suppose it goes without saying that I like it here. I admire this country and I defend its policies. But there is one policy which puzzles me because it seems to be self-defeating. We are concerned at the reduced level of tourism, yet we are systematically removing many of the features that tourists love. I am speaking of the older colourful parts of our town.

I am frequently involved in taking out visitors and amongst those who know anything about Singapore, there is hardly a single one who fails to ask to be taken to places such as the Orchard Road car park (long gone), Bugis Street (going), Albert Street and Fatty's (going soon), Raffles Hotel (hanging on), and the Chinatown night market (gone).

My visitors lament when they learn that these pieces of original Singapore are gone or going. They are, of course, impressed by our new hotels, shopping complexes and skyscrapers. Singapore has been outstanding in these developments and they marvel at such obvious progress. However, there is a boring sameness about such structures; from Hongkong to Houston they are similar and unlikely to be of sustaining interest to tourists.

And when it comes to local colour, tourists prefer the real thing, not artificial copies. Visitors want to experience Singaporean life rather than something concocted specifically for tourists - like themselves.

After we have eliminated the last street market, the last eating stall, the last wayang, the life of the streets will be extinct and it will not be possible to recreate that atmosphere ever again.

Presently the pressure to provide land for redevelopment has eased - one might say expired. We probably have enough office space, hotel rooms, shopping complexes, warehouses to last us for some years to come. Could we not use this breathing space to rethink policies and perhaps to save some little of what we have left?

Singapore 1128

Orchard Road carpark, before the hawkers (and the bulldozers) moved in. Could you see the hand pointing "this a-way" to the carpark for those who had lost their way? Only kidding, of course. It is actually a Federal Motors signboard advertising the sale of Austin cars and trucks.
(Circa 1960s. Photo credit: P's Collection)

The hawkers queueing up on Orchard Road before moving into the carpark. Did you notice the topless man? Would you dare to buy your food from such a hawker today? And I wonder if he would have managed to obtain even a "D" grading from the NEA if he were to serve food in that outfit now.
(Circa 1960s. Photo credit: P's Collection)

The hawkers have taken up their strategic positions now. Soon comes nightfall and this carpark will be teeming with hungry customers. The pointing finger is still there but the advertising signboard on the left has different pictures from the first photo above. And now we know that the concrete road divider was the first thing to go.
(Circa 1960s. Photo credit: P's Collection)

Similarly, the day scene in Bugis Street will be transformed into a very different one at night...
(Circa 1960s. Photo credit: Derek Tait)

What did I tell you? Bugis Street at night - another food haven to rival the one at Orchard Road carpark.
(Circa 1960s. Photo credit: Derek Tait)

And for beef kway teow lovers, there are not one but two stalls located opposite each other in Malabar Street to whet their appetite. Hmm... yummy! Simply haven... er, I mean heaven! Aiyah, whatever lah! Just give me my beef.
(Circa 1960s. Photo credit: Derek Tait)

Night market in New Bridge Road near Chinatown.
(Circa 1962. Photo credit: National Archives of Singapore)

Night market. The stall on the left is selling fireworks and fire crackers. The stall on the right is selling sweet Swatow Mandarin oranges at only 60 or 70 cents a KATI. Wah, so cheap! But still, look at who has more customers. Ahh, those were the days, my friend.
(Circa 1960s. Photo credit: Derek Tait)

Undated postcard showing Raffles Hotel in the daytime many decades ago.

Recent photo of Raffles Hotel at night. Raffles Hotel was gazetted as a National Monument on 6 March 1987 and 3 June 1995. Hmm... I wonder why it had to be gazetted 2 times? To be doubly sure or what?
(Photo credit: Victor Koo)