28 November 2009

Old Singapore Quiz (14) - Answer

What a disappointment! Despite so many clues given, nobody came up with the correct guess for the last quiz. I am sure that once I reveal the answer, you will be saying to yourself, "Why didn't I think of that?"

Quiz Question:

Where did these patterns come from?


Not from an old blanket but from Fairfield Methodist Church (花菲卫理公会). This church is located at the junction of Maxwell Road and Tanjong Pagar Road. The building has been conserved. (Owners of conservation buildings cannot demolish the buildings or make major alterations to their structures or facades.)

Mr Mah Bow Tan, Minister for National Development at the 2005 URA Architectural Heritage Awards Presentation Ceremony at Malay Heritage Centre on 26 Sep 2005 said:
"Another post-war building approved for conservation is the former Metropole Cinema, otherwise known as Jing Hwa Cinema. Together with the Majestic and the Oriental, Jing Hwa Cinema, built in 1958, was one of Chinatown’s three famous cinemas. Some of you may recall traveling from outlying areas to catch your favourite Chinese movies there. Its successful new life as Fairfield Methodist Church today shows that modern-style buildings can be retained and modified for new use."
The building was built in 1958 as Metropole Theatre (金華大戯院). It was one of three famous cinemas in Chinatown - the other two being Majestic Theatre and Oriental Theatre. In the 1990s, Metrolpole Theatre was converted into Fairfield Methodist Church.

As I mentioned in one of the clues, I took the photos from only one side of the building. As indicated by the red arrows, all the 4 patterns appeared in this photo:

Metropole Theatre (1958-1985)

The following description of Metropole Theatre was taken from 4 posters displayed on its ground floor:

This was the main ticketing booth of Metropole Cinema. Patrons could purchase $1 and $1.50 tickets for seats in the main cinema hall at Level 2. The cheaper $1 seats were in the first few rows.

Kuehn Hall [entrance door in the centre of the above photo] was part of the cinema's basement car park. This car park is significant because it is the first basement car park ever constructed in an air-conditioned cinema in Singapore!

The front of Kuehn Hall was the ticketing booth for the more expensive $2 and $2.50 circle seats at Level 4.

At both ticketing booths, cinema goers would choose their seats from a piece of paper that displayed the overall seating arrangement before the seat numbers were manually written on the tickets.

A typical cinema seating plan in those days looked like the one in the above photo. The ticket seller, usually a woman, would cross out with a blue or red colour pencil the seats on the plan for which the tickets have been sold.

To get to the various levels of the cinema, patrons could either use the main spiral staircase...

...or the lift which was manually operated by a dedicated lift operator. (You can see the current lift in one of the photos above.) The lift had a foldable iron gate as the lift door. (Please see this post for a description of a similar cage lift.)

More Recent Photos of the Church

But How Did The Interior of the Cinema Look Like in the 1960s?

All the black-and-white photos below are by courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore:

The above photos were taken at a speech by C.V. Devan Nair, Member of Education Advisory Council at the Metropole Theatre in 1964.

Do you recognise this very famous Cantonese star who made an appearance at the Metropole Theatre in 1967? She was only 16 then.

This is how she looks like today:

Yes, she is Sit Kar Yin, also known as Nancy Sit. She is still pretty and charming after all these years, just like the Metropole Theatre.

Further Reading:

BullockCartWater's Metropole Cinema (Kum Wah)

21 November 2009

Old Singapore Quiz (14) - Old Blanket or Old Building?

The above photo looks like part of my old homemade blanket. However it is not. (In the olden days, thrifty mothers would save scraps of cloth left over from making clothes for their children. They would then use these mismatched scraps to sew blankets for the family.)

Quiz Question:

Where did these patterns come from?

Clue 1: This is an old building and not an old blanket.

Clue 2: This is not a rock climbing facility.

Clue 3: "These patterns came from Victor's camera" is true but not the correct answer.

Clue 4: Like all of Icemoon's quizes, this is an easy one.

Update on 24 Nov 09

Thank you for all your answers. It seems like this quiz is not so easy after all as nobody has got the right answer so far. Hence I will accede to Chun See's request for more clues.

But first, I am quite sure that most of you have seen this building before. If I show you the entire building, you would certainly have no problem identifying it. This seems to teach us a philosophical lesson, i.e. sometimes in life, when you look at a problem too closely, you might miss the wood for the trees and cannot solve the problem. You may need to take a step back and view the problem from a different perspective.

Okay, here are another 4 clues:

Clue 5: Like Whiteaways used to be, this building is located in town.

Clue 6: But unlike Whiteaways, this building is still in existence today. In fact, it has been conserved.

Clue 7: The 4 photos in the montage are all taken from the outside of the building. In fact, the 4 patterns are all visible from just one photo which I will show you when I reveal the answer in a few days' time.

Clue 8: One photo in the montage is deliberately shown upside down. It should be clear which one.

There, it should be much easier now. Happy guessing.

Update on 26 Nov 09

There are still no correct guesses. Alright, one last clue - a photo taken from the inside of the building. This should give the game away. If not, I will reveal the answers by this weekend.

17 November 2009

In Your (60s) Neighbourhood, Where You Gonna Call?

The inspiration for the title of this article came from Ray Parker Junior's very catchy 1984 hit, the Ghostbusters:

However, I must confess that the inspiration for writing this article came from Chun See's article on a similar topic.

In the 1960s, whenever we "city folks" wanted to call someone, we would use the phone of the coffeeshop located below our block.

The coffeeshop owner was nice enough not to charge us for the use of the phone. (But then again, my mother paid in another way via her illegal chap ji ki bets placed through the coffeeshop owner.) The numbers "9" and "0" were locked with a copper padlock so that people could not make unauthorised IDD and trunk calls which required the dialling of a "0".

The telephone looked exactly like the one in the illustration above but was black in colour. On its front (bottom portion) was emblazoned a gold-coloured logo with the letters STB which was superimposed onto an image of a flying swallow, if I remember correctly. The letters stand for Singapore Telephone Board, I think. (Telecommunications, both the capability and the word, may not have been invented then.)

I would not be surprised at all if people of the younger generation today tell me that they do not know how to use the telephone. So how would a telephone number be dialled then? You must follow adhere to the following dozen steps strictly:

1. Make sure no one is using the phone. (Queue for your turn, if necessary.)

2. Ask the coffeeshop owner for permission to use the phone.

3. If permission is given, lift up the handset.

4. Listen for the presence of a dialling tone in the ear piece.

5. Dial the first digit by poking your digit index finger into the hole marked with the correct number behind it.

6. Turn the dial clockwise with your finger until it stops at the metal catch at the 5-o'clock position. (Try as you might, the dial could not be turned anti-clockwise.)

7. Unplug your finger from the hole. (The dial will return to its original position.)

8. Repeat steps 5 to 7 until all the numbers are dialled.

9. Listen for ringing tone in the ear piece and answering party's "Hello".

10. If connected, say what you have to say and keep your conversation short (less than 3 minutes).

11. When call ends, replace handset onto the cradle of the phone.

12. Last but not least, remember to thank the coffeeshop owner for using his phone unless you are not going to do it ever again.

As you can see, the elaborate dialling process itself could take up to half a minute or more. Luckily in those days, local telephone numbers were only 6-digit long.

Although I am not an engineer by training, I can tell you that there was another way with which you could get connected without ever touching the dial. How? You use the cradle instead of the dial. Follow Steps 1 to 4 above but instead, Step 5 onwards is as follows:

5. Tap the cradle in quick succession the same number of times as the first digit of the telephone number.

6. Pause for about a second.

7. Tap the cradle in quick succession the same number of times as the second digit of the telephone number.

8. Repeat Steps 5 to 7 until all the numbers have been entered.

You should get a connection if you have done the process correctly if the coffeeshop owner has not stopped you by now. I know it works because I have tried it before. This is because the telephones in those days work on a "pulse dialling" system. (You can't do that with the later "tone dialling" system which is still in use today, if I am not wrong.) The pulse dialling occurs in Step 7 if you use the dial, and both Steps 5 and 7 if you use the cradle.

It was certainly a good thing that we finally got our own telephone when we moved to our new Haig Road flat in the mid-70s.

Update on 20 Nov 2009:

I have found a National Archives photo of the black telephone described above on Laokokok's blog here:

15 November 2009

British Withdrawal From Singapore

Singapore faced many challenges in its early years of independence, one of which was the British withdrawal by the end of 1971. This development was well-documented in various media:

Singapore - From Settlement to Nation Pre-1819 to 1971

A further challenge came about when the British announced that it would be withdrawing its military forces from Singapore by the end of 1971. At that time, British military expenditure amounted to 12.7% of Singapore's Gross National Product (GNP). Read what Dr. Toh Chin Chye, the then Deputy Prime Minister, said about the British withdrawal in 1968:

"Besides 30,000 civilian workers employed in the military bases being faced with the possibility of losing their jobs, there would be hundreds more who would be affected because their business and their livelihood depend on supplying goods and services to the British servicemen living in Singapore." (Adapted from The Straits Times, 1 Jan 1968, a New Year message by Dr. Toh Chin Chye.)

Other than the economic impact, the withdrawal also meant that Singapore now had to build up its own defence to protect the nation from both internal and external threats. Without securing political and social stability, it would not be possible for economic development to take off.

Singapore - Journey into Nationhood

In July 1967, Britain dropped a bombshell on Singapore: it would pull out all its troops by 1968. At least £50 million or close to 20 per cent of Singapore's economy came from the British military presence. Nearly one family in ten depended on the troops for its livelihood. There were some 30,000 civilian workers in the bases. Thousands of women worked as domestic helpers. Shops, restaurants and bars depended on the patronage of soldiers and their families. Singapore was facing a major economic crisis as well as a security one. The presence of British troops meant a minimum of precious funds had to be spent on defence.

Negotiations in London led to agreement that troop withdrawals would be phased out and completed by the mid-1970s. However, Britain went back on the agreement and in January 1968 said that withdrawal was to be completed by 31 December 1971. This was an extension by nine months of the original March deadline, reached after some desperate negotiations. To soften the blow, the British threw in all the bases and their facilities to which they had title, as a gift.

A Bases Economic Conversion Department was set up to look into commercial uses for these assets. The three Royal Air Forces bases alone covered some 2,428 hectares of land. The naval bases had potential as shipyards.

The nine extra months gave Singapore a little more time to make the changes necessary to meet the economic crisis. To prevent a recession, urban renewal was accelerated, industrialisation speeded up and infrastructure projects carried out in order to spend $900 million, the amount the British military would have spent between 1968 and 1971. The Singapore Armed Forces was expanded which also settled the question of security as well as increased jobs. So frantic was the pace of economic development that by the time the British completed their pull-out in 1971, Singapore was moving towards full employment.

Singapore - The Encyclopedia

In January 1968, the British government announced that it would pull out its troops in Singapore (and Malaysia) by spring 1971. This sudden and unexpected news shocked the Singapore government as it had been given to understand that the British would defend Singapore after its independence. Apart from security issues, the move would also affect the economy - at least 20 per cent of Singapore's economy then came from the presence of British military personnel. About 10 per cent of the working population depended on the troops for its livelihood. There were about 25,000 civilian workers in the bases. Thousands of women worked as domestic helpers and many shops depended on the patronage of British soldiers. British services spending in Singapore was as much as $550 million a year at the height of the Confrontation in Malaysia. In short, Singapore was facing a major economic crisis in addition to physical insecurity.

During defence talks with British leaders in London, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew told reporters that he would forgo economic aid in return for security for Singapore and would have to hire mercenaries to defend Singapore if Britain pulled out its forces too quickly. The British agreed that the withdrawal of troops would be phased and completed only by mid 1970s to facilitate major cuts in Britain's armed forces and overseas defence spending. However, the British later changed their mind and informed Singapore that the withdrawal was to be completed by November 1971.

To fill the vacuum that followed the ending of the Anglo-Malayan Defence Agreement (AMDA), the British proposed the Five-Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) made up of the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore, that would be consultative, not a binding defence obligation. On 31 October 1971, AMDA was replaced by FPDA.

Photos from National Archives of Singapore

27 April 1967 - British Defence Secretary Denis Healey at a press conference held at Phoenix Hotel. He announced that British troop withdrawal from the Far East is targetted at 20,000 before April 1968

1972 - Preceding 3 photos show Changi Cinema and shops in Changi Village. Changi, the last area in Singapore to see the British forces pull-out, is in the throes of transition today. With the Royal Air Force (RAF) troops out and the British withdrawal completed they could expect the going to be rough temporarily but it has a prosperous future as neighbouring Bedok will be the site of a new satellite town, the fourth in the republic.

Finally, Dr Loh Kah Seng is writing a book on the British bases and military withdrawal from Singapore. (Please see his open letter below.) If you or anyone you know have any stories to share, please get in touch with him. You can find out more information from his blog.

Dear fellow Singaporeans

I am a Singaporean historian looking to speak to people who remember the British bases and their withdrawal in the early 1970s. The withdrawal was the first major crisis independent Singapore faced. The 56 bases, contributing a fifth of the country’s GDP, were its largest industry, and the pullout threatened the livelihood of one-sixth of the labour force, including an estimated 8,000 amahs.

The pullout also transformed the economy, society and landscape of Singapore in the 1970s. Most of the bases were converted to commercial use, while many base workers underwent a 3-month retraining crash course. Technical and vocational education also expanded, as new laws sought to increase labour productivity and attract foreign capital investment.

These developments resonate with us today: the retraining programmes, the mobilisation of the young, the philosophy that ‘no one owes Singapore a living’. There is also a forgotten social history to unearth: how retrenched base employees coped with the crisis and how workers adjusted to new work routines.

If you remember the British bases and rundown, or have a family member, relative or friend who does, kindly contact me to lend your voice to an important episode of our national story.

Please pass this message along to those who might be interested.

Thank you.

Loh Kah Seng (Dr)
Visiting Research Fellow
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies,
Mobile: +65 81981172
Blog: Click here

Further Reading:

1. Infopedia: British Withdrawal from Singapore;

2. Wikipedia: History of the Republic of Singapore

3. Mindef Singapore: 1968 - British Withdrawal

08 November 2009

Old Singapore Quiz (13) - Answers - Nothing Over $10

Thank you for all your answers to the last quiz. The photo used for the quiz was edited from the above 1961 photo from National Archives of Singapore.

Here is a summary of all the comments:

Don't be misled by Thimbuktu's youthful-looking photo in his avatar. Although Thimbuktu is way above 50, he didn't know any of the answers. He explained that his "area of operation" as a youth was limited only to places within postal district 3. Chun See also didn't know but possibly still thinks that he's young enough to deserve more clues. The saving grace came first from PChew. He was spot on with his guesses:

Q1. What was the name of the building at that time?
A1. Whiteaway.

Q2. What was it used for?
A2. Department store.

Q3. Where was its location?
A3. Battery Road.

Q4. The building changed ownership in the 60s. Who took over the building?
A4. Malayan Banking.

The department store's full name was quite a mouthful - Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co. Ltd. Its Chinese name was Hui Luo You Xian Gong Si (惠羅有限公司). The company was incorporated in England. In its heydays, Whiteaway was a giant company. It had branches in about 20 cities all over the world. Regionally, it had stores in the Straits Settlements, including Singapore, Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Taiping, Seremban, Klang, Malacca and Telok Anson.

Below is an extract on Whiteaway, Laidlaw and Co. from Singapore: The Encyclopedia:

Department store. The firm of Whiteaway, Laidlaw and Co. established its flagship store in Singapore in November 1900 on D'Almeida Street. Later, the store moved to the corner of Hill Street and Stamford Road before moving back to Battery Road at Raffles Place, where it remained until its closure in the 1960s. The company was the leading draper of its day. In addition, the store had a boot-and-shoe department, a crockery department and a general outfitter. Whiteaways - as the store was sometimes called - was considered the biggest rival of the other two major department stores: John Little and Robinsons.

In the 1950s, Whiteaways advertised itself as 'The Department Store that Offers You Everything Under One Roof' and 'The Store of a Thousand Good Things'. Its ground-floor perfume department was legendary. It was the agent for Elizabeth Arden cosmetics, among other brands. In addition to its Singapore store, the company also had stores in India, China, Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), South Africa and South America.

Whiteaway Laidlaw is now the name of a Manchester-based bank in UK. As to how the department store ended up being a bank, I have no idea at all.

Now let me show you some old photos and advertisements of Whiteaways. (Unless otherwise stated, photos are by courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.)

Whiteaway at the junction of Cecil Street and D'Almeida Street in the early 1900s.

Whiteaway at Battery Road, possibly in the 1910s-20s. (Photo from Singapore: The Encyclopedia.)

Whiteaway at Battery Road in 1935. (Photo from book "Singapore Silver Jubilee Celebrations" - NLB.)

Whiteaways on the left, Bank of China on the right and Cavenagh Bridge in the foreground - 1954.

PM Lee Kuan Yew at an election rally on 18 Sep 1963. The background of the photo shows Whiteaway Building undergoing renovation to become Malayan Bank Chambers.

Malayan Bank Chambers standing at where Whiteaways used to be - 1969.

Whiteaways had stores in other parts of the world. On the facade of this Whiteaway building, you can read the words Calcutta, Shanghai, Hongkong, Singapore, etc. (Could this be the Whiteaway building in Calcutta?) - circa 1930s.

So how did it look like inside the Whiteaways?

The gown salon inside Whiteaways - 1954.

The clientele of Whiteaways - mostly wealthy Westerners - 1954.

Hats at Whiteaways dress salon - 1955.

Santa Claus at a Christmas celebration in Whiteaways - Dec 1955.

Some Whiteaways advertisements in our local papers:

1958 advertisement from Singapore: The Encyclopedia

The above image shows a full-page Whiteaways advertisement in a local Chinese newspaper in 1932. You may find it hard to believe that the prices of the merchandise on offer at Whiteaways did not exceed $10! But then again, you must remember that most salaried workers earn less than $1 a day then. To get an idea of how expensive and up-market the department stall was, you must multiply all amounts by a factor of 50, at least. Below is a table showing the prices of all the advertised items:

What a Cheap Sale! From 27 June - 2 July 1932 Only!

Price ($)
Men's Hat (A)4.501.75
Men's Hat (B)
Men's Sheep Fur Inner Shirt
Turkish Bathrobe
Belt (A)
Belt (B)
Belt (C)
Men's Shoes/Pair (A)18.5010.00
Men's Shoes/Pair (B)8.504.50
Table Cloth 50"x50"
Table Cloth 70"x70"
Table Cloth 78"x88"
Table Cloth 70"x106"
Sheets & Pillow Cases
Reliable Raincoat
Men's Hankerchieves/Dozen
Printed Cotton Bedspread
Bath Sheet
Doric Wristlet Watch
Ladies' Shoes/Pair10.00-16.502.00
Cotton Tea Cloth
"Kumfy" Girl's Vest/3 pcs
Household Damask Napkins/Dozen
Bath Soap/Box
"Bryaroot" Pipe
Table Lamp8.50-12.504.95-5.95
Drinking Jug With Cover
Ladies' Hankerchieves/Dozen
Water Colours/Box
Travelling Rugs
Pendant Light17.508.95

Update on 9 Jan 2010

The following passage is extracted from Page 49 of Chronicle of Singapore:

"27 December 1961 - After 60 years of business in Singapore, leading department store Whiteaways announced it would close shop in February the following year.

Whiteaways cited the termination of its lease and poor business as reasons for the closure. The sale of its landmark building in Fullerton Square was finalised in October.

The store had tried to find new work for its 90 local employees three weeks prior to dismissal.

In an advertisment that appeared in The Straits Times, Whiteaways said its staff would get the 'highest recommendations' for their prospective employers."

Further reading:

1. Infopedia article - Whiteaway Laidlaw.

2. Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co. - Calcutta

3. Stamford House built for Whiteaway Laidlaw.