29 June 2010

When You Have No Shoes (2)

Do you remember this post which I wrote more than 3 years ago? It is about a foreign domestic worker whom I met in my block's lift. Her footwear had given way and she was making her way home barefooted.

Well, last Sunday the same thing happened again. No, I didn't meet another woman whose footwear was spoilt. This time, one of the pair of sandals I was wearing decided that its time was up:

I was stranded somewhere in wilderness of Marine Parade Central and was left with little choice but to drag my right foot along with the broken sandal when I walked. (Trust me, you'll never realise how far away the nearest shoe shop is until you are forced to walk this way. Although the shop is barely 100 feet away, it seems more like a mile.) I had to endure curious stares from passers-by. Stares were still alright but two young ladies even had the audacity to giggle to each other on seeing me in this predicament. How come nobody was kind enough to offer me a hand slipper in a time of need like this? Talk about working towards being a gracious society! Tsk, tsk, tsk. Frankly, I think we are a long way off.

After a literally dragging long time, I finally arrived at the shoe store. At $4.90 a pair of flimsy slippers, they were probably overpriced. But then when you are in my broken sandal shoes, you will realise that you do not have any bargaining power at all. So I reluctantly paid up without putting up any fight.

I was just glad that I wasn't climbing Mount Kinabalu when my footwear broke.

22 June 2010

Who Stole The Carved Ceremonial Pole?

Chun See went to Empress Place this afternoon but he couldn't see the Carved Ceremonial Pole from across the river.

I thought to myself, "Oh no! Could someone have stolen the Carved Ceremonial Pole?" If so, being an alert and responsible citizen, I must report the theft to the National Heritage Board. Otherwise, I could be accused of being bochap (couldn't care less, can't be bothered, complacent, etc.) just like what MRT staff have been criticised for after the recent case of the train vandalism came to light. However, I should verify the facts myself first. So I made a special trip down to Empress Place after 8 pm tonight (to beat the ERP because the pole was located inside the CBD).

To my great relief, the pole was still standing, as ramrod straight as ever. (The date/time stamp for this photo shows that I took the photo tonight, i.e. I did not cheat.)

Maybe my illusion trick made the pole look gigantic. Actually, it is only about 30-foot (9-metre) high, i.e. only slightly taller than a flag pole and a bit fatter, as the photo below shows. So Chun See could have easily been misled missed it, especially when he was looking from across the river.

So that the trip was not completely wasted, I might as well attempt a second shot of the old Marine Police Station:

21 June 2010

A 1920s View Of Empress Place

This is a 1920s view of Empress Place. Chun See has an Old Buildings Quiz here which shows the building in the foreground. This building has been demolished long ago. The area is now an open field where the following Carved Ceremonial Pole could be found.

The Carved Ceremonial Pole was presented by the State Government and People of Sarawak to the Government and People of Singapore, after the 'Singapore-Sarawak Link' exhibition at the old National Museum in Jan 1991. Doesn't it look taller than the skyscrapers? Of course, that is just an illusion.

You can see part of Cavenagh Bridge and Anderson Bridge at the right of the first photo. Note the background of the photo, which is the city centre, is practically devoid of tall buildings. In fact the tallest structure in the area seems to be the clock tower of the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, previously called the Town Hall or the Victoria Memorial Hall.

Philip Chew said that the building in the foreground was the former Marine Police Station in Empress Place. I think he is right.

When AIDS Had A Very Different Meaning

We all know that AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and an AIDS Society helps people inflicted with AIDS. But did you know AIDS and AIDS Society had very different meanings in the 1960s?

This is a photo of the building standing at the junction of Victoria Street and Albert Street. It was probably taken around the year 1980 as Golden Landmark Hotel (now known as Landmark Village Hotel) could be seen in the bottom-right of the photo. Note the English sign on the old building - it says FOH SONG MUTUAL AIDS SOCIETY (Chinese - He Shang Hu Zhu Hui or 和商互助會. 'He' or 和 is a Chinese surname.) The Chinese sign on the top of the building says He Shan Gong Hui or 禾山公會. Note that in those days, it was common to write Chinese characters from right to left.)

Below is a photo of the same building taken at night in 1964 from the then Bugis Street, courtesy of Peter Chan:

Note the lighted advertisement in shape of a soft drink bottle on the building. There are also flags strung across the street and a round sign on the facade of the building which says that the society was celebrating its 60th Anniversary that year. In the background of the photo is the SIT flat that I blogged about here and here:

So there you have it - solid proof that the SIT flat was in the then Albert Street. (This portion of Albert Street has since been renamed as New Bugis Street.)

Of course, no blog post of old places in Singapore is complete without a second shot of the same place today:

Notice the F1 Team on top of the bus stop? It is a static advertisement for the Singapore 2010 Formula 1 Night Race that will be held from 24-26 Sep 2010. This modern and realistic advertisement is certainly a far cry from the 1960s advertisement of the soft drink bottle, isn't it?

With the amorous activities happening in the nearby Bugis Street then, AIDS in Singapore could very well have started in this area. If so, then the signboard of the AIDS society had certainly been very prophetic.

15 June 2010

Old National Library Revisited (2)

Old National Library, circa 1970s

Sad remnants of the old National Library today - 2 red pillars and some fencing

I have blogged about the old National Library here and there.

I am really no authority on the National Library but somehow, I do get enquiries from research students on the subject every now and then. Reproduced below is one such email interview late last month:

1. What was the issue at stake for the public in the demolition of the old National library?

The public could be divided into 3 main groups as described below. What issue was at stake depends on which group the person belonged to:

a. Those who were all for the demolition of the old National Library (NL). They felt that the National Library (NL) stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the modern architecture of the SMU and the neo-classical and elegant National Museum. Built in 1960, they felt that it was not that old and not worthy of preservation. There was also nothing very special about the architecture of a basically red-brick building. Of course, being sited on very expensive land in the city made the reason to have it demolished even stronger. The opportunity cost for retaining the old NL would be very high. LTA obviously fell into this group.

b. Those who were indifferent about the fate of the NL. This group was likely to be the very young who never or seldom visited the old NL or who did not grow up in Singapore. They have no emotional attachment to the old NL. If they remembered it at all, it was just an old red-brick building standing besides a very busy thoroughfare. They did not care whether it was preserved or not - they had nothing to lose if it were to go, neither did they have anything to gain if it were to be preserved.

c. Those who were dead against the demolition of the old NL. This group grew up with the old NL. They visited it often when they were young, before the advent of the Internet completely changed the way traditional research was done. They spent a lot of time in the old NL, i.e. the children and adult sections on the lower level and the air-conditioned reference section on the upper level. They had such fond memories of the old NL that they were emotionally attached to it. This group was also the most vocal - in the print media, on-line forums, blogs and lately, on facebook. Needless to say, I belong to this group.

2. How did the community react to these issues?

The group against the old NL's demolition was vocal and articulated their views passionately. They wrote many letters to the press on why the old NL should be preserved and also suggested alternate uses for this red-brick building. The following passage titled 'Public Dissent' is quoted from this Wikipedia link:
"From March to April 1999, there arose a huge groundswell of public dissent in the media over the National Library building's fate, as well as the drastic physical alterations of its environs. A number of featured columns by journalists touched on gradually disappearing heritage landmarks, as well as shared memories of Singaporeans.

On 24 January 2000, after SMU chaired a technical workshop to obtain feedback on three alternative proposals, a well-known architect named Tay Kheng Soon held a press conference at The Substation to unveil his unofficial SMU masterplan. URA was invited to the presentation but did not show up. His proposal entailed re-routing the tunnel in order to save the National Library building. A week later, Tay wrote to the Prime Minister's Office regarding his proposal which was referred to the MND. Many members of the public wrote in publicly either in support of Tay's plans or argue for heritage conservation in general. A few articles and letters highlighted that the adamant official response to public dissent ran counter to the spirit of the Government's S21 Vision, which expressed a desire to foster civic participation and active citizenry."

3. Could you describe the process/actions the government/stakeholders had taken to address the issues?

The experience or perception of the public is that if the authorities have the intent to carry out a plan or action, a public outcry seldom changes the final outcome. A case in point is the two IRs. The government/stakeholders did not seem to have taken much action in the old NL case except to say that the public feedback had been given due consideration but still, demolition was in the final analysis, the better option. Again quoting from the same Wikipedia link:
"On 7 March 2000, the Minister for National Development, Mah Bow Tan, announced in Parliament that the National Library building would have to go. According to Mah, the authorities had assessed Tay's plans but concluded that the URA's plan was a better proposal for preserving the Civic District's ambience and being more people-friendly. With no choice, the public and activists accepted the final decision to demolish their beloved Library and the debates slowly frizzled off."

4. Have the above actions helped to address the issues?

No. The public experience or perception is still the same. And so will be the likely outcomes for any future issues.

5. What do you think could have been done better?

In my opinion, it is not matter of what could have been done better but rather, would they want to do it or not?

6. Looking back, how do you feel now?

More angry than sad at first. But now, more sad than angry.

06 June 2010

Old Grange Road Bungalow (Circa 1920s)

The old bungalow located along Grange Road - Circa 1920s - Photo credit: Sean

The old bungalow's verandah - Circa 1920s - Photo credit: Sean

1. Some of the earlier expatriate community lived in very grand colonial houses in Singapore. Earlier this week, I received the following email from Sean of Perth, Australia:

Hi Victor,

Have just come across your blog when looking for a house in Singapore. My grandfather was born in the house in 1920 and I have always wondered if it was still standing as it was in Grange Rd, which I believe has been developed. I have attached two photographs of it and wonder if you know of the house? The back of the external photograph simply reads "Grange Rd, Singapore". My family was there until about 1923. Anything you can tell me about the house would be wonderful.


2. Below is my reply to Sean

Hi Sean,

Thank you for writing. What a beautiful bungalow that your grandpa stayed in!

Unfortunately, I am not very familiar with the old houses on Grange Road. However, if it is still standing near the main road, I would surely have noticed it as I have driven past this road many times. If you could provide the house number, it would have been easier. (The house numbers on Grange Road ranged from 1 to 130, according to my 1963 Street Directory.)

There are several high-rise condominiums, apartments and commercial buildings that have been built along this road in the last few decades. The properties in this area command a very high price because they are located in prime postal districts 9 and 10. (Under the old postal district system, 9, 10 and 11 are the prime areas in Singapore. For example, the famous shopping belt of Orchard Road is located in postal district 9.) Because the land in this area commands a very high premium, I am afraid that there is a very good chance that the bungalow could have been demolished to make way for one of the new developments. After all, it has been almost a century since your family stayed there.

The owner of the bungalow would certainly have reaped a very handsome windfall by selling it for redevelopment. Such a big bungalow in that area could be worth tens of millions of dollars today, with most of the value being attributed to the prime land which the bungalow sits on.

If you have no objection, may I suggest that I post the 2 photos on my blog and ask if anyone remembers seeing this bungalow on Grange Road before. Who knows? You may just get lucky.

Hope to hear from you again, Sean.

Best regards,


3. And Sean's response:

Hi Victor,

Thank you so much for your email.

Indeed, it was a beautiful bungalow. I just wish the number had been written on the back of the photograph, but my grandfather has passed away and was just three when he left Singapore so probably wouldn't have known, anyway. His parents died many years ago and, I suppose, the information went with them.

I doubt my great grandfather owned the house at any time as the family had little money when they arrived in Australia and rented for at least the first ten years here, only buying a house with the help of a wealthy relative. There is actually another photograph of my great grandfather at a Singapore property, which refers to him being "at Melrose". Unfortunately, there is little of the building in the background of that photograph to suggest what "Melrose" might have been. Perhaps that was the name of the house in Grange Rd? Perhaps it was a house in Melrose Drive in Serangoon?

Anyway, I have no objections to the posting of my email, including the photographs, on your blog. It would be wonderful if any of your followers are able to help.

For the record, my great-grandfather was a clerk at WH Mansfield & Co at Collyer Quay. Mansfields were the local agent for the Blue Funnel Line shipping company and my great grandfather had lived in Singapore since about 1908, returning to the UK in 1917 to marry his long-time girlfriend and then returning to Singapore until 1923 when the family moved to Australia. I assume there would be no record of the family in Singapore (given the damage done to the island in WWII), but I'd love to hear from anyone who might have suggestions about finding any further records of them in Singapore. I know my grandfather was never able to obtain a British passport during his lifetime because the record of his birth in Singapore (in 1920) was destroyed during the war.

Thanks again for your help.
Kind regards, Sean

4. Thanks to Peter Chan's friend who once lived in Grange Road. He provided the first input below:

From my somewhat fading memory, this building may have been part of the East Staff English School premises located near the junction of Grange/Leonie Hill Rd. I don't know who the owner/residents were before it became a school.

If you have any nostalgic memories of this old house, Sean and I would certainly appreciate if you could share them with us here.