30 January 2010

Old National Library Revisited

I wrote about the Old National Library here before.

Ms Clara Ann, a 4th year History major from the National University of Singapore will be writing on the former National Library at Stamford Road for her dissertation. In an email dated 26 Jan 2010, she asked me some questions (in blue below) about the library for which my answers are in italics:

1. What was a typical visit to the National Library like for you?

It depends on what age I was at. When I was in primary school (1963-1968), I visited the Children's Section. While in secondary school and Pre-U (1969-1974), I visited the Adult Section. At that time, I was staying at Cheng Yan Place which was about 15 minutes' walk away from the National Library. I always walked to and from the library.

To make full use of the visit, each time I would try to borrow the maximum allowable number of 4 books. I think the books were due to be returned in 3 weeks' time. The due date was chopped on a leaflet which is glued onto the first page inside the front cover of the book. I always tried to return books on time. The fine then was 5 cents per book per day of overdue. It is not considered a big sum today but in those days, it was a significant amount, considering that I was given only 20 cents for pocket money everyday.

2. What do you recall and feel about the times you spent at the library?

I remember more about using the Adult Section. I spent many Saturday evenings at the library. I often stayed till closing time at 9 pm. At that time, four persons can share a table. Sometimes, I hoped that a pretty girl would come join the table... but I was usually disappointed. :p Of course, besides looking at girls, I studied as well.

Once around 1970, there was a film crew from the English TV station at the library. They were filming a snippet for the newsreel (a segment of film which was broadcast during the TV news). The crew asked for permission to film me borrowing a book at the checkout counter. They told me to behave normally. That evening, I appeared on TV as promised. It was my proud "5 seconds" of fame which I am sure nobody cared a hoot about.

I was a victim of an attempted robbery while walking home from the library late one night. I think it happened in Queen Street. One guy from a group of 3 ran from across the street to accost me. He checked my breast pocket but found no money. Then he lifted up my left forearm to take a closer look at the old and worn watch on my wrist in the dim street lighting. After realising that my watch had "zero book value" (pardon the "book" pun), he decided to go away empty-handed. But before he went away, he made me promise not to tell anybody of our encounter. Believe it or not, I am breaking that promise only now.

3. How did you feel/react when you heard about plans to demolish the Old National Library?

Sad of course, like most people. But I didn't take any photos of the building because film photography and digital cameras were expensive then. I also didn't have the time.

4. Why do you think it was demolished when there were many who felt it was worthy of preservation?

The authorities always have "very good reasons" for demolishing any buildings. National Theatre is a very good example (reason - "unstable cantilever"). New 7th Storey Hotel is another (reason - construction of Downtown MRT line). Sometimes the reasons seem valid, sometimes they appear to be just excuses. For instance, as stated in my blog, the National Library was originally claimed to be demolished to make way for the Singapore Management University. However, today only a big hole stands in its place, otherwise aptly known as the "shortest tunnel in Singapore that terminates with an ERP gantry".

5. How did you feel about the eventual outcome? That despite attempts to save the Old National Library, it was still demolished.

Sad of course. It was like a part of your memories being wiped out. You can only look at old photos and even these are hard to come by.

6. How do you find the new National Library at Victoria Street as opposed to the old one?

It is modern, spacious and well-stocked with good books. There are also talks and exhibitions held at the new National Library. These were unheard of in the old National Library. Oh, by the way, did you know that the new National Library was built by demolishing an old hotel that was also worthy of preservation, in my opinion?

Update on 1 Feb 2010

Thanks to James Seah who sent me some photos on what the old National Library site looks like today:

Compare the above photo with one that shows the old National Library behind the same set of red pillars and you can see how much this place has transformed:

The following passage is extracted from this Wikipedia entry:

"The old National Library was eventually torn down in 2005. Today, all that remains of the building at its original site are two red-bricked entrance pillars standing near the Fort Canning Tunnel. The controversy surrounding the building's demise has been credited for sparking greater awareness of local cultural roots and an unprecedented wave in favour of heritage conservation among Singaporeans."

You can refer to James' very interesting post on the old National Library here.

23 January 2010

Going Round In Circles

My name is Trachemys scripta elegans
That's what I am know in science
Otherwise just call me red-eared slider
Actually I live on land more than in water

I should have a long life
But deep I can't dive
Grew up in this vessel
Not been outside this circle

Used to have a companion
But not long was our union
Yearning all day for freedom
He probably died of boredom

Why must I be imprisoned?
Sometimes even seasoned
And cooked into a soup
We strongly protest as a group

You are not doing me a favour
My lifestyle you never can cater
Why did you have to adopt me?
Can't you just let me be?

My movement may be slow
But Iet me decide where to go
Please treat me kindly
Though you can't set me free

Caught between a rock and a hard place
I long for better days
I don't want to live and die
In this miserable pig sty

19 January 2010

Save Our Film

A screen grab from the film The Last Communist which is loosely based on the autobiography of Chin Peng, the legendary Malayan communist guerrilla leader. The film tells of the little-known role of the Communist Party of Malaya towards the dissolution of British rule in the country. (Photo taken from Asian Film Archive.)

I received the following email from Ling Goh who represents a group of NTU students involved in a very worth cause. Please help them if you can.

Help a group of NTU students and do your part to help 'Save Our Film' as well! The 'Save Our Film' campaign is a nationwide outreach effort to raise awareness amongst those aged 15 to 35 and educate them on the importance of saving our local film for the future. It is held as a part of the 5th Anniversary celebrations of the Asian Film Archive, a local charity dedicated to collecting, conserving and sharing our local films from before the Golden Era ('50s and '60s) till today, and will launch on 30 January till the end of February.

Part of the 'Save Our Film' campaign involves a nation-wide Call for Memories where we invite members of the public to contribute video clips of themselves or their "memory-keepers" like parents and grandparents to share their recollections of Singapore film. This can include actual Singapore films and the experience of watching films in Singapore in the good old days of large hall cinemas and the like. These video clips will be amassed on the Asian Film Archive YouTube group to form an online video memories exhibition accessible to the public and our targeted audience of youths who will not have these memories of their own.

We would like to extend a warm invitation to anyone who holds and wishes to share their favourite local film memories and will arrange to interview and record you and any other friends or family you can gather for this personal sharing session. This is a wholly non-profit endeavour aimed at recreating experiences for our youths and creating conversations between the generations. Please feel free to email us at saveourfilm@gmail.com and do come forward to join us in this very worthy but overlooked cause!

Ling Goh

16 January 2010

The Adam Park Project

Below is an email from Mr Jon Cooper who is the Project Manager of a research project called The Adam Park Project. He would appreciate if you could contribute any related information:


The Adam Park Project (TAPP) Team are looking at the potential for battlefield archaeology in Singapore. Our case study is the defence of Adam Park estate by 1st Batt Cambridgeshire Regiment fro 12th-15th February 1942.

We have pulled together lots of information on the British version of events we are currently pursuing leads to the Japanese side of the story. However we would now like to know more about the Singaporean memories of the fighting around Adam Park and the Watten Estate and life on the estates up to, during and immediately after the war years.

If you have memories, photos or anecdotes that may help us then please drop me an email at jonalicooper@googlemail.com.

Hope you can help us.

Jon Cooper
TAPP Project Manager

14 January 2010

An Appeal For Your Help

Do you remember this post which I wrote on 16 Feb 2009? It was about Muhd Noor Azri Abdul Rahman, an ex-Victorian, who was badly injured in a skiing accident. Read about his story here.

Azri requires costly continued treatment and therapy for his disabilities which are likely to be life-long. Azri's father, Mr Abdul Rahman Bin Abdul Hamid, has set up a new blog to appeal for your kind donations. Please help the family if you can.

09 January 2010

Old "Baggage"

The National Museum of Singapore is currently holding a very interesting exhibition called "The Bag - Carrier Bags in Singapore from the 1950s to the 1980s":

"From basic utilitarian objects, carrier bags in Singapore have come a long way to become museum pieces. This exhibition traces the evolution of local consumer culture through 60 carrier bags from the 1950s to the 1980s."

Empress Restaurant Paper Carrier Bag - This signature brown carrier bag was designed to hold mooncake boxes, which sit nicely on the brown square base. Over the years, the graphic designs on mooncake carriers have changed but their shape has remained pretty much the same.

Never did I imagine that the humble bags which my late mother used to carry live chickens back from the market would one day make it to the museum as exhibits! As a kid, I always looked forward to seeing the brown paper bag that brought delicious mooncakes and little pastry piggies in plastic cages from the Queen Of The Mooncakes. After the festival was over, the bag would be recycled for carrying things... and sometimes, even a live chicken. It was amazing how well the bag fitted the chicken snugly like a glove so it could not flap its wings. It was as if the bag was tailor-made for the chicken. Only its head and neck would be exposed and its head would bob about, surveying the surroundings like a submarine periscope. The light brown colour of the paper bag matched well with the darker brown feathers of the chicken. And if the chicken soiled the bag, simply discard it (the bag not the chicken). If not, you could recycle the bag again.

They say that a picture paints a thousand words. My friend Peter recently said that I've got great IT skills. So, here is a photoshopped photo to show you what I mean:

Chicken in a brown paper bag

Bata Carrier Bag (1960s) - Bata, a Czech shoe company which started operations in Singapore in 1931, positioned itself as a one-stop shoe store for everyone. Its carrier bag said as much with the picture of a family holding a big leather shoe.

Oh yes, I remember the Bata bag which came with intertwined red and white strings for a handle and the slogan "First to Bata then to school". And then there were some people who made fun out of the brand by saying that it stood for "Buy And Throw Away". But in a way, that is true even today, isn't it? If you don't use your old shoes until they are good bad enough to throw away, would you have the chance to buy new ones? Definitely not in those days when most families were poor.

PVC Carrier Bag (1970s) - In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the production of the plastic bag emerged as the largest manufacturing group in Singapore's plastic industry. Consumers preferred such bags as they were light, water-resistant, easy to carry and durable. Thick bags with die-cut handles such as this were extremely popular.

I was given a bag similar to the one above when I collected my black plastic spectacles from Chai Meng Optician located on the ground floor of a 9-storey red-brick SIT flat in Upper Pickering Street. Maybe they had to use such a heavy-duty bag because my glasses were thick and heavy like the "bottom of a Coca Cola bottle", as a so-called "friend" puts it. The SIT flat, my thick glasses as well as the friend are gone today - I had cataract operations done for both eyes 10 years ago and the short-sightedness was corrected as a "side-benefit". I don't think I need to elaborate why the other two items disappeared as well.

Unidentified student wearing thick black plastic-rimmed spectacles (not an exhibit) like mine.

Other exhibits include the following items:

Paper Carrier Bag With Advertisement (1954) - The oldest carrier bag in the exhibition doubles up as an advertisement for Goles kidney purifying tablets, with text in English and Burmese. An accompanying image shows how the bag travelled with its owner to public spaces.

Letterpress Metal Template (1980s) - This template belonged to Hup Huat Paper Products, which went into the paper-bag business in 1942. Eventually, the production of paper bags became less profitable and the family-run business stopped making them in the 1990s to focus on supplying paper instead.

Paper Carrier Bag for Robinsons French Fortnight (1967) - It seems Singapore's oldest department store Robinsons has always done things in style. This carrier bag was created specially for the store's French Fortnight from Sept 18 to 30, 1967.

Melwani's Paper Bag (from far left) 1960s; Heng Lee Paper Carrier Bag 1970s; Hilda's Paper Bag 1960s - Before the emergence of Orchard Road as a shopping hub in the 1970s, Singaporeans thronged boutiques and textile shops in Raffles Place, North Bridge Road and High Street. These shops' carrier bags often featured women, their key customers.

Carrier Bag For Nestle With Milo Advertisement (1960s to 1970s) - Advertising text and illustrations covered bags, promoting products and services like posters and banners did. Bold prints and colours were used to make the message or product stand out.

Paper Bag (1980s) - This paper bag of Chuen Fong Soy Company advertises the product and comes with intertwined red and white strings for a handle.

More About The Exhibition:

Where: National Museum of Singapore, The Balcony, Level 2, 93 Stamford Road
MRT: City Hall
When: Till April 18, 10am - 8pm
Admission: Free
Tel: 6332-3659

You can find out more about the exhibition from this link.

Source of photos and captions used for this post:

Photos - Aidah Rauf, National Museum of Singapore

Captions - Lifestyle Section, Straits Times dated 1 Jan 2010


Here's a sypnosis of the exhibition from the organisers themselves, i.e. the National Heritage Board, extracted from the Dec 09 - Jan 10 issue of the NHBuzz:

This one by Lactogen, a brand of baby formula milk, is in Malay. Translation by Victor: "Throughout Malaya, prize-winning children drink Lactogen. Children's food that is complete. Contains 9 vitamins and iron." (Note that there are even 2 asterisks to indicate that the phrase on top should join to the one below. How thoughtful!)

"From its humble beginnings as a form of packaging to its present status as a fashion accessory, the simple carrier bag has come along way. And paying tribute to this daily necessity is a special exhibition titled THE BAG: Carrier bags in Singapore from the 1950s to the 1980s at the National Museum of Singapore. Featuring over 60 rare vintage carrier bags (Bata and Yaohan anyone?) from the National Museum's collection, THE BAG documents Singapore's consumer culture through the years.

Apart from their utilitarian function, mass produced carrier bags also serve as markers of Singapore's retail history and evolution. Changing patterns of affluence, the growth of local consumer demand and the influence of Western culture were all instrumental in bringing about changes in Singapore's retail industry, and these were captured through carrier bags. Paper bags, for one, gave way to the increasing popular plastic bag in the late 1970s which were favoured for their lightness and durability. Preceding the onset of mass media, carrier bags were also one of the earliest and simplest forms of mobile advertising as businesses started using carriers to publicise their products and services.

Aside from charting the progress of our retail scene, this exhibition also shows how carrier bags spawned an industry of paper bag makers made up of industrious women who worked hard to produce the bags to help supplement family income in Singapore's early post-war period.

Amidst the sea of carrier bags we have today that take on all shapes and forms, THE BAG takes a nostalgic walk down memory lane and provides a refreshing look at the retail icons of yesteryears. Don't miss the chance to view original vintage carrier bags that have endured the times and survived chapters of Singapore's history."

02 January 2010

Old Singapore Quiz (16) - Answer - Garden City Built But Garden Street Lost

Singapore built a Garden City but lost a Garden Street. Garden Street was an old L-shaped street that joined Beach Road to Rochor Road. It existed up till the early 1990s. The 1963 road map below shows the exact location of Garden Street. (The red arrow shows the direction in which the camera lens was pointing when the 1970s photo was taken.)

Note that one end of the street was opposite the Clyde Terrace Market while the other was opposite the New 7th Storey Hotel. Sadly, both landmarks are no longer around - the former was demolished in 1983 while the latter was demolished only last year, i.e. 2009. Clyde Terrace Market was torn down to make way for the Gateway twin towers while the New 7th Storey Hotel had to go because of the construction of the Downtown MRT line. Below are some old images of New 7th Storey Hotel and Clyde Terrace Market compared to what the sites look like today.

New 7th Storey Hotel, a year or two ago.

The site where New 7th Storey Hotel used to be.

Clyde Terrace Market on right of photo (c 1900). Source: NAS.

Clyde Terrace Market (c 1900). Source: Singapore - 500 Early Postcards.

Clyde Terrace Market (c 1920). Source: Singapore - 500 Early Postcards.

Beach Road (c 1930). Clyde Terrace Market being visible from Beach Road; many rickshaws and a few cars are parked alongside the market. Source: Singapore - 500 Early Postcards.

The twin towers of the Gateway today stand on the former site of Clyde Terrace Market

In fact, these are not the only 2 landmarks that had disappeared from the 1963 map or the 1970s photo. There have been many changes in the landscape of this area since the 1960s. The other changes are described below:

1. Masjid Bahru ("New Mosque") in Jeddah Street, labelled no. "30" in the map. First built about 1870, and rebuilt in 1928. The majority of the smaller streets in this neighbourhood were laid out between 1860 and 1875, when Beach Road ceased to be a fashionable residential area, and most of the nearby buildings date from this period.

2. "Redstone" from this forum summarised it very well:

"I remember when I was young, like around 1994/5/6, the shophouses on Parkview's current 'field' is still around. The Blanco Court was still around, so was Kallang Gasworks and the shophouses around 7th storey hotel. It's really very sad, for it was THE original "old town" of Singapore. Seriously it's a very bad decision.

Clyde Street and Beach Road junction (c 1963). Source: NAS.

Clyde Street (c. 1979). Source: NAS.

From old maps the streets names were Fraser, Farquahar, Barnard, Clyde, Sin Koy, Garden, Jeddah, Beach Lane, and one Shiek "something", an Arabic name which I forgot. The streetscape was almost same as the Kampong Glam core. With the main street, Beach and North Bridge Roads, Ophir and Rochor Roads on all 4 sides. The central street, Jeddah Street, of which is a cul-de-sac, and has a mosque, if I remember correctly from the Street Directory as late as 1995, the name was Masjid Bahru. The mosque has been demolished too. If given a choice, the old town of Singapore versus the whole Beach Road / Jln Sultan / Crawford public housing estates and even in exchange for Parkview Square, I would like to have the Old Town. Now there are only a few shophouses fronting the original beachfront at Beach Road.

Last time the shophouses stretched all the way from Blair Plains almost unbroken all the way Crawford, then again at Katong. Now... I think only 30% remain?"

Note: The "shiek something" which Redstone forgot was Shaik Madersah Lane.

3. Blanco Court, the building under construction in the top right of the 1970s photo, was ironically "blanco-ed" from the area towards the end of the 1990s to make way for Raffles Hospital which was officially opened on 16 Mar 2002. Blanco Court was a place where you could get everything you needed for a kid's party. It also had a food court which sold delicious fried fish bee hoon and kway chap.

4. Blk 405 Victoria Street - the tall 20-odd-storey HDB block that you see in the 1970s photo was demolished a few years ago. I remember eating Bak Kut Teh in the coffeeshop below the block many years ago. Bugis MRT Station was located right next to this block.

If you blow up the 1970s photo, you could vaguely see the street name "Garden Street" on the left of the photo. (I am a little surprised why Icemoon, who has always been very meticulous, had missed out this important detail.)

Comparing the 1970s photo of Garden Street with a second-shot of the same view today ...

... as well as the 1963 map with today's map

... and you will surely agree that this area, otherwise known as Kampong Glam, has undergone tremendous changes over the last few decades. However, the old landmarks were certainly not sacrificed because Singapore wanted to built a Garden City. On the contrary, they were somehow lost in the process of turning our city into a concrete jungle that lacks the character and the charm of the Old Town, as Redstone so fondly called it.