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.


noelbynature said...

"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"."

hahaha! I can just imagine the sarcasm dripping off your chin, Victor.

peter said...

"Yau Mo kau Chor" Saturday nite@National Library hoping to catch girls? Pretty girls dont hang-out there on Saturday nites - you should go on weekdays (Mondays to Thursdays) in the afternoons.

Adult/Children Section no a/c. On a hot day can get dizzy because air insdie library very stuffy. I remember inside Children's Section got one more special glass room only for young readers (<6 yrs). They have special furniture tailored to children's height; small chairs and small tables painted sky blue. There was also one section inside Children's Section that we can go upstairs. Not sure what it was but maybe Malay/Tamil books or maybe even arts and craft section.

There was this fierce looking Eurasian librarian, Anwar Haque or soemthing like that who goes around chekcing whetehr visitors were sleeping on the table.

Sometimes NLB got exhibition, usually pots and pans and Chinese calligraphy. Need to enetr from the side and not the main entrance.

Victor said...

Thanks to Noel and Peter for your comments. You should also read James very interesting account of the old National Library too. He even got a photo of the old canteen!

Thimbuktu said...

Thanks for the memorable "Old National Library Revisited" blog, Vic. Since there were no photos of the old NL show on elsewhere blogs after the demotion, I would appreciate you post your blog the yesterday photos I sent you. You can see a "Now" and "Then" comparison of the NL Stamford Road. There's the red brick gate pillars and the metal fences to remember them. Pls post the photos on behalf to share with us. Thanks.

Thimbuktu said...

Sorry for typo error to 'demotion' instead of 'demolition'...

Pls help to add these new photos to this topic blog for a virtual comparison of the location at the same Stamford Road at the different time apart.


Victor said...

Thanks, James. I have updated the post.

Thimbuktu said...

Thanks for sharing the 2 additional photos of your relevant blog topic.

The red-brick pillars are located at the same old National Library at Stamford Road. Beside the bushes covered on the right of the pillar remains unchanged. I guess the metal fences is the original location.

The current hill slope with escalators where the old National Library with red-brick building where it once existed and now gone forever our history and heritage...its the price of progress and land-scarce, resources limited Singapore.

peter said...

They didn't just tear down NL but also an old building which was behind the old canteen (the carpark is the only remnant left of the past).

It was the CPIB bdlg when CPIB was first set up in the early 70s. Then CPIB moved to Cantonment Road to take over an existing school, and now over at Jalan Bukit Merah.

Icemoon said...

Good second shot opportunity.

Eh, how come I see the Museum new annex in the present photo? So the museum took away part of library land?

peter said...

Point of clarification.
James's photos of the pillares belong to the "exit" of NL. Your old photos (bus stop next to it) shows the "Enter" entrance. Behind the bus stop was the old canteen. and the carpark next to it and in front of the CPIB bdlg. Today only the carpark remains and that banyan tree (I think).

fighting fit said...

The part between the old National Library and the Museum had a lot of trees and I think there were one or two sheds there. The big trees blocked out much of the street lights at night and the pathway was quite dark. I remember one night having to walk past that area with my date. This guy came from the shed and asked for some money. I guess that was better than being robbed.

Lam Chun See said...

Victor, I think you should link to Kenneth's post showing the ugly tunnel.

Anonymous said...

I first visited the National Library in 1962 when a primary six classmate from Sennett Estate School brought me there. It was quite a facinating visit and I felt that the library building looked very statelY. The first book I borrowed was one on the biography of the legendary Spurs footballer Jimmy Greaves and I have since remained a keen fan of Spurs. In any case Spurs was the glamour team of the English League and many people of my generation grew up to be life long supporters of Spurs. Oh, on my subequent visits, I wouldd make it mandatory to visit the food stall at Waterloo, especially the Indian Rojak which I thought was the best in Singapore. Wonder this operator is still around and doing his business. There was that popular wanton mee at the canteen located within the compound of the National Library, next to the then CPIB office, which was also very popular with students and other visitors to to the library. During our primary schooldays, in the early 60s, a visit to the National Library or for that matter other favourite places like Cathay Cinema, National Musuem was normally one of the highlights of our day and we would look forward earneslty to the visit. Those were the good old days. I remember Singapore then was not so crowded as it is now.

Anonymous said...

I emailed but just in case you didn't see it so i repost it here. desperate for a response.

Hello Victor !

I am Soo Yong, an architecture student currently writing a dissertation on conservation psychology, questioning the relationship between memory and object in the context of Singapore. In Singapore, when physical erasure is inevitable, I am to study the negotiation, struggles and resistance of individuals against state control urban transformation. I am interested in exploring the alternatives between complete conservation and total erasure of built object. Hence, I have a question in mind that I believe you are the most apt person I can refer to.

On the case of the old national library, I am a foreigner who didn't get to see or use the building before it was demolished. The left over brick post didn't strike any strong feeling in me. I am interested in knowing what helps you in recollecting the memories of the old national library so vividly (in your post dated 30 Jan 2010). Are they tangibles elements like photographs, the standing brick post or intangibles like a smell, a sound or an action? Which are they that trigger the recollection of the long gone time in the old national library? Or they are remembered purposely from time to time so that you won't forget?

Hope that my questions won't bother you too much. Just let me know which you feel comfortable with.

Thank you very much !


Soo Yong

Victor said...

Hi Soo Yong, I have written a post in reply to you here.