Thursday, 28 March 2013

My Katong Park of the 60s

A hot afternoon, a nice nap at Katong Park. Those see-saws are familiar, no? Pic: 1982.

Katong Park used to be vast. Picture taken in 1982. Revisited  (below). Picture taken 29 March, 2013. This segment shown in the picture is no longer part of the present day Katong Park at Fort Road -- at least I don't think so. Aside: Surprisingly, in today's Straits Times, a decomposed head was found hanging from a tree near Fort Road! It was discovered on Saturday, just a day after I had visited the area for these coloured photographs.

WHAT's the best part of Katong Park? The rectangle of sea impounded by a wall. Not because you can swim in it -- the water is often too dirty for swimming. But because it's fun daring yourself to walk as far out as possible into the sea, walking on the narrow ledge of the wall. It gets really scary when the tide is high and the water laps at the wall only a few inches from your feet. And when you look back towards the park, the canteen with mum and dad sitting there seems so far away.

It's been a long time since I've gone back. Of course, those features of my childhood days are gone. One thing remained though (at least the last time I passed by which was about five years ago) -- the zig-zag gate that's almost like a turnstile, made that way to prevent bicycles from going in, I supposed. And the breezy palm trees that spell HOLIDAY are still there!

As early as 1866, the British community in Singapore felt the need for a swimming pool. Charles Burton Buckley wrote in his book, An Anecdotal History of Singapore:

"There was at this time, a fresh-water swimming bath which Mr W B Scott allowed the use of to certain subscribers at Abbotsford. It was the only one in the place, but it was very little used. A meeting was held, a subscription made, and a bath was made of stakes on a sand bank off the beach, some way from the shore, at Tanjong Katong, with a dressing room at one end, on posts in the sea. It was only used for a year or two, as it necessitated a row of over a mile in a sampan from Johnston's Pier. Mr Charles Crane was the working hand in it. A swimming bath in the sea was proposed many times in the older days of the Settlement, but this was the only attempt to carry it out."

 In 1905, the Chinese Swimming Club was founded by a handful of young men who styled themselves the 'Tanjong Katong Swimming party'. Their first pool was also fenced from the sea. The Katong Park swimming pool must be another such attempts to form a "swimming bath in the sea".

An old building from the past which is now converted to a church. Picture taken in March, 2013.
I can't be sure. But this house looks like the building in the picture above, which is now a church. 

The popular way to the Katong Park is through Fort Road, so called because it once led to the old Katong fort. The fort was demolished and the place became Katong Park. One used to be able to see the remains of two old air-raid shelters at Tanjong Rhu, next to the Singapore Swimming Club.
Remains of air shelter. Picture: 1982.

Before the East Coast Parkway reclamation, one could walk from the park to these shelters if you didn't mind trudging through swampy land and lallangs. Go further down and there was the Tanjong Rhu Club. Its heydays were during the time of the rubber magnate, Tan Lark Sye. Previously by the sea, it was a popular resort for members to gather for mahjong. It was also nicknamed the "millionaires' club". Along Tanjong Rhu were also holiday villas for the rich.
The 'Millionaire's Club'. Picture: 1982
Relics waiting for demolition. Picture: 1982

Gateway to where? Anyway, the pillars no longer exist. Picture: 1982
Idyllic... Picture: 1982

Kg Arang today. The road used to house a row of undertakers. Ship repair and boat-making workshops dotted the area. Today, Kg Arang still leads to streets with names like Sampan Place and Jalan Benaan Kapal (shipbuilding in Malay) which remind one of the shipbuilding days at Tg Rhu.  Picture taken in March 2013.

Today, all these are gone, along with the row of undertakers at Kampong Arang which branches off from Tanjong Rhu Road. Below, is an excerpt from a 1982 interview with Mr Lee Thian Siew, Chairman of the Citiziens' Consultative Committee of Katong -- for an article intended for a series on disappearing places for The Singapore Monitor but was not published as the newspaper closed down in 1985.

An hour walk to Beach Road
Mr Lee Thian Siew at his sawmill in Tangong Rhu. Picture: 1982.
Mr Lee Thian Siew, 68, has been living in Tanjong Rhu since 1937. When the Japanese came, he left and returned in 1957 to set up a sawmill.

"When I came, there was no electricity and water. Tanjong Rhu was the only road running through the area. On the side of the road was the sea and the other side, swampy land. The Japanese filled them up. But still when the tide was high, the stilts of our houses stood in two feet of water. The land was further reclaimed when the PAP came to power."
When he returned, he said he could see from one end of the road to the other. There was only a wide expanse of bare reclaimed land. "I had to wheel four huge barrels of river water each day, from my friend's place to my house on a cart. And this only for bathing and washing. Water for drinking was obtained from a public water stand on the main road.

"We got water piped to our house only in 1968 and electricity supply in 1964," he said. Being the headman of the village, he petitioned for electricity. Before that, lighting the lamp posts was the task of a small Indian boy who scaled up each post every morning.

"For five cents, you could get a sampan to row you over to Beach Road from Tanjong Rhu. But we usually walked in those days. It was an hour's walk to Beach Road, and half an hour to the airport which was then at Kallang," he recalled.

It would cost about 30 cents if one took a jinrickshaw. "Then, I only earned $30 a month at a sawmill in Kallang Basin before I set up my own business. A cup of coffee cost only three cents then."

Actually, Mr Tan could swim to Beach Road if he wanted to. He did once, from Katong Park -- he challenged a friend -- and won.

More "idyllic" pictures of the area, all taken in 1982:

Chip Guan Tiah Kee Electric Saw along Kg Arang.

Morning Glory and other childhood flowers

The climber, Morning Glory used to line the fence at Serangoon Garden Primary  South School which separated the school compound from Tavistock Avenue. One end of the avenue (towards Ang Mo Kio) was a kampung. My classmate, Steven Spencer used to point at the fence where he went through to take a shortcut and where he claimed he was chased by a bull. It was a great story in those days. Still is now, for me.
THIS is the most familiar flower of my childhood. In primary school, this was the name of the first flower we studied. I love the colour of this flower -- a milky purple (at least those which were commonly found in the area where I used to lived). I love its trumpet shape too. After that, I think the next most common flower our teachers pointed out to us was the Lily.

Oh yes, there were also those gorgeous Flame of the Forests.

Flame of the Forest. They are just too much to handle with my pencil colours.

Where have they all gone. Flame of the Forests were once the best eye candy I could ever get -- especially when the entire road was lined with the trees. A sea of bright orange-red on wide spreading branches that grew from a stout trunk, conveying such strength, courage and beauty. The trunks, with scaly barks, have such character. And when the flowers withered, they fell to the roadside with such grandeur.

And there were the Yellow Cassias -- clusters of the most cheerful yellow. There were many lining Brockhampton Drive where I used to live. I remember my sis in law had a brooch that was in the form of a sprig of flowers from this tree. I had a blue dress made from cheese cloth which I thought went so well with the brooch. She gave it to me and it was one of my favourite brooches. After the toil up the hill that was Chartwell Drive, it was a great pleasure to see the Yellow Cassias -- and the thought of lunch or dinner waiting at the table. If mum cooked her famous stewed chicken and chestnuts, that would complete my day -- with a flourish.

And of course, the hibiscus. Almost every house I knew during my childhood has a hibiscus plant in the garden. And for parts of the flowers (Science lessons), which flower did we use but the hibiscus!

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Sawmills of Lavender Street

When sawmills were still around Lavender Street. Pic taken 1982.

Lavender Street, 1982.
Lavender Street today, Feb, 2014.
Lavender Street today, Feb 2014 -- development still in progress.
My impression of Lavender Street  written below, is based on interviews done in 1982. How the street got its name has been much written about. So I would like to talk more about its old sawmills -- because coincidentally, Cho Ah Chee who sailed in with Stamford Raffles and "awarded" an attap house at No. 1 Lavender Street, had quite a bit of association with wood -- being a carpenter.  The House of Cho was demolished in the 70s along with road widening and development. 
The Sin Ler Cheong Sawmill's office at Lavender Street, 1982.

THE sawmills began moving out of Lavender Street by 1969. Most of them have moved to Kranji. Before the war, there were 12 of them at Lavendar Street. Only one survived to join the proliferation of sawmills after the war, concentrated round Lavender Street because the Kallang River used to run all the way in, roughly parallel to the street. Barges carrying timber up to 200 tonnes could enter.

Mr Tan Chong Hee who works with the Sin Ler Cheong Sawmill, one of the oldest there, said, "We could stock up to 2,000 tonnes of timber in our premises -- and the rest we left in the river."

The river was reclaimed some time in the 70s and flatted factories built over the land. "At that time, Toa Payoh was being developed and the soil obtained from levelling the area was dumped as earth filling on the river," he said.

The cutting of planks used to be done by steam turbines which turn huge circular saws. Electricity was not used till 1960. There were boilers to work the turbnes which perhaps gave the area the native name "fire city" (火成). But a more probable reason may be the Kallang gaswork nearby.

An old Cathay cinema seat acquired by
Mr Tan as part of his office furniture.
"Around the 60s, the area here was also a haven for thugs. I remember having to pay protection money. These thugs came during festivals such as the 7th month and Chinese New year," recalled Mr Tan.

"Funny thing was that we became so familiar with them that after a while, they felt bad to take money from us. These youths were jobless and so if we had vacancies at our sawmills, we asked them to join us.  But some of them were nasty and would set fire to your sawmill if you do not give them money!"

Their sawmill is now in Kranji, leaving only a temporary office at Lavender Street. Mr Tan has some treasures in this old office yet. His clients take pleasure in sitting on his "ancient" seat -- an old Cathay cinema seat bought at an auction by his father long ago. There is also an antique mirror.

The little temple at 48, Lavender Street, 1982 which houses ancestral
 tablets dating back to Ming and Qing Dynastics.

A tiny 80-year-old temple at No. 48 Lavender Street houses wooden ancestral tablets dating back to the Ming and Ching Dynasties. Its main deity is the earth god, commonly known as the "Datuk". It is represented at its altar by boulders over 100 years old. Its caretaker is a 63-year-old man who makes gungfu swords for a living. He has been a resident in Lavender Street for 30 years before moving to Whampoa.

Its 200 ancestral tablets were once housed at the premises of one of the sawmills. It was not uncommon for worshipers to group there. But during those days when underground societies were rife, constant police checks were made to ensure they were not illegal gatherings. The owners of the sawmill did not want to be associated with such clandestine meetings and hence ordered the tablets to be moved to the temple.
Mr Tang Choo Han (2nd from right) and his "kakis" at the Lone Vale  Musical and Dramatic Association at Lavender Street, 1982.
View from the window of a shophouse along Lavender Street. 1982.
There is also the Lone Vale Musical and Dramatic Association, an amateur group established 46 years ago. It occupied the upstairs of a coffee shop next to the temple. Mr Tang Choo Han, 63, the oldest member there, said: "The premises was previously used for residential purpose. Some 20 families lived here and we had to remove the partitions when we came after the Japanese Occupation. The residents shifted to Serangoon Road."

"The coffee shop below was used as a workshop for retreading tyres during the Japanese Occupation -- run by Chinese. We had some 200 members then. Now we have 102, but they are younger and we have since included Mandarin pop songs in our repertoire, besides Cantonese operas," said Mr Tang.

The Kwong Fook Chinese School built in 1917, named after a temple which provided most of the funds, was replaced by a new building in 1956. It was an enduring landmark -- if you want to get to Lavender Street, just tell the taxi driver "Kwong Fook".

Older taxi drivers may even know the name "Crossroad" (十字路) which was once given to Lavender Street because of the junction it forms with Kallang Road and Crawford Road.
Pciture taken in 1982. Tamil Murasu was quite a landmark in those days.

Adis Road, A-changing

The gate pillars, all that was left of the Eu Villa when this picture was taken in 1982. The building itself was torn down in 1981.
The entrance to the old Eu Villa from Sophia Road (1982).

This is my impression of Adis Road and its surrounding area, as captured in my interview with residents and photographs of the area in 1982:

ADIS Road, you can play badminton or even "police and thief" on this short street once. Traffic hardly existed. But now, it is dyed red with earth. Lorries carrying great loads of clay rumble along its length every hour of the day.

During weekends, families in saloon cars zoom by, pet dogs sticking their heads out of the windows. A showflat has attracted these visitors. Development is certainly the name of the game now.  The Eu Villa once stood on this lofty point. But in its place, a condominium of some 200 units will be built on this sprawling 20,230 sq metres site. The villa built in 1915 was demolished in June 1981 and foundations are being laid for the new development.

All that is left of the villa now are the two grand gate pillars standing at the end of Adis Road, on top of Mount Sophia. It had an entrance at Sophia Road as well once -- and was the grandest landmark of the area.

Though none of the houses round the area could beat the grandeur of the Eu Villa, charming residential houses are not lacking. Rambling bungalows, pre-war terraced houses with interesting motifs moulded on their walls -- they have a nostalgic charm of their own.

But these houses are fast disappearing too. Various constructions are taking place. Down the slope of Adis Road where it meets Sophia Road, a lawyer's pre-war bungalow had been knocked down to make way for a modern one. And below at Sophia Road, in a pocket of land sandwiched between old houses, a caterpillar drone among the rubble.
105, Adis Road (1982).

Interesting pre-war terraced houses along Adis Road (1982).
 A teacher, Mr D Vijayalakshmi, 27, living in one of the pre-war terraced houses said: "The changes that are going on here are fantastic. I have been here for only four years and the scene here is quite different already."

Of the remaining old-world houses, No.105, is currently occupied by the Ho family. Its imposing pillars at the entrance reach upwards to support a balcony. Perched on each pillar is a huge granite receptacle, apparently for flowering shrubs.

A narrow garden with steps leading up to the old
terraced house which is really quite spacious inside,
with five rooms (1982).
Sophia Road in the 19th Century was on the jungle fringe. It was named after Sophia Cooke, a missionary who came from England in 1853 to work in the Chinese Girls' School which later became St Margaret's at the nearby Wilkie Road.

There is now a mixture of Jews, Indian Christians, Sikhs and Chinese living in Sophia Road. The small Sikh community occupies the lower section of Sophia Road towards Selegie Road. It was a bigger community before but many have moved out. In a pre-war two-storey bungalow previously occupied by Sikhs, 13 Indian families from different ethnic background are now the tenants.

Mrs Mary Sandena, 43, came with her family from Penang in 1956. Living conditions in the bungalow have not changed, she said, except for the rent. She now has to pay $63 a month for a cubicle and shares a communal kitchen with other tenants. But there is refrigerator and colour TV.

The landlord is one Gian Singh, but the plaque at the gate says: Mehewan Singh, Accountant, Auditor, Secretary. Nobody seems to know the connection.
The pre-war bungalow that houses 13 families in its two storeys (1982).

Adis Road, an off-shoot of Sophia Road, was named after N N Adis, a Jew connected with the Hotel Del' Europe of old. It has the quiet residential charm of Sophia Road, though its houses are less splendid.

Nine units of pre-war terraced houses line one side of the street. The other side overlooks building tops of Sophia Road. Two-storey high, the houses each has a narrow garden with a short path leading from the gate to a cosy porch. They look narrow from the front, but inside is really rather spacious with five rooms and high ceiling. The upper storey has wooden flooring.

Said Ms Janice Lam, 21, a clerk who has been living there since she was born. The Eu Villa was for her, the greatest attraction of their childhood. It was only one house away from hers.

"We used to sneak into its premises because we knew their jaga (watchman).. One could get lost in the premises. It has big lawns, a fountain and marble statues. And there was even a lift inside the house!"

When the Eus moved out, there were a number of thefts. Most of the stained window panes were stolen, Janice added.

The Eu Villa was built by Eu Tong Sen, a philanthropist (1877-1941) at the cost of $1,000,000. Song Ong Siang who wrote "One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore" described the villa thus:

"It was built on an ideal spot and occupies a very conspicuous position. The handsome furniture was supplied by well-known firms in Paris and London, while the marble statures are fine examples of Florentine art."

It was certainly built on an "ideal sport" as Janice and her friends could testify. One National Day, they had sneaked into the compound again and had a splendid view of the fireworks.

Other pictures of buildings in the area, taken in 1982:

Sophia Flats built in 1930 at junction of Niven Road and Wilkie Terrace. 1982.

The Church of Christ of Malaya at Sophia Road. 
Peace Restaurant at Peace Centre was  a rather popular restaurant in the 80's.
Peace Centre and Sophia Road (with the oncoming traffic) in the 80s.

Peace Centre today. Pic taken Jan 2015.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Days of the Operas

The old Thong Chai Building in 1982.
WAYANG Street, so called because of the Chinese street operas (or 'wayang' in native language) which were staged there everyday, is no longer on the map of Singapore. But happily, a landmark from those days, the old Thong Chai building survived and is now a heritage. The Thong Chai building, with its quaint serpentine gabled walls and carved wooden beams was acquired by the Singapore Preservation of Monuments Board in 1973.

Though renovated, all wooden beams, doors, columns and tablets were left intact for aesthetic and historic reasons.  It was a free clinic for the poor when it was built in 1892. The clinic was seeing more and more patients. In 1949 it served 68,000 patients, and in 1958, 100,000.

When I did the interview for a story on places for the Singapore Monitor (1982-1985) an old safe presented by Gan Eng Seng, an early Chinese pioneer, was preserved in the building. More than a 100 years old, nobody could open it as the key was lost. But officials assured that it was empty and held no dark secrets.

The history of Thong Chai has been well documented. But anyone heard of Yee Yuan or Da Thong Emporium which were once landmarks in their own rights at the nearby Merchant Road? I hope you like the story below (one of those interviews I did for a series on places for The Singapore Monitor.

Emporium in Chinatown that 'even air hostesses patronise'

Opera or no opera, this cat keeps a lion company. The lion head was among the hodgepodge of things sold at the Da Thong Emporium, once an opera house. The building has been demolished. Picture taken in 1982.

CHINATOWN old timer, Mr Teo Boon Lee, 52, returns to chat with his cronies even though he has moved to Queenstown some 30 years ago, He recalled that going to the opera was great entertainment when he was a lad. An opera hall was built in Merchant Road, in 1921. Called "Yee Yuan" (Arts Garden), it was the focal point for socialising. Teochew operas were most common then because the residents around the area were mainly Teochews. Sometimes, Cantonese and Hokkien operas were staged too. There were two shows everyday, 1pm to 4 pm and 7pm to 11pm. Opera troupes changed every week.

The entrance to Da Thong Emporium, its upstairs housed a workers' association. Pic: 1982.

"For 10 cents, you could sit at the balcony. However the preferred seats were those on the ground floor, near the stage. Those you need to pay 20 cents," said Mr Tan Siew Hong, 54, an old neighbour of Mr Teo.  He has lived in Wayang Street for the last 53 years.

"The operas stopped after the Japanese Occupation. When the British returned, they inspected the theater and disallowed any more operas to be staged there because they feared the building might collapse," he added.

The building managed to survive time and became Da Thong Emporium. The name sounded grand but it was really dark and dank. A Chinese medicine stall guarded the entrance. Inside, a few shabby stalls sold clothes, pots and pans and other sundries. You could get khaki pants and shorts for just $5. Popularly known as  "old man's pants" they had pleats in front and buckles at the sides for adjusting the waistband. They were supposedly trendy for the young. Even air hostesses came to buy from her shop, claimed the old woman manning the stall.

Old posters publicising names of various opera troupes were still pasted on the inside walls. And spotlights still hung from the ceiling, covered with cobwebs. The foot of one stairway that led to the balcony bore a signboard that read "Ling Tong Studio". The crumbling balconies once housed the photography studio as well as a workers' association after the days of the operas.

Opera... old man's shorts, anyone?

More pictures of the Da Thong Emporium:

Ruby necklace

Anyone owns a similar necklace?
MY dad brought me to a jewelry shop -- somewhere in Raffles Place I should think -- to get me my first necklace. It must be some time in the early 60s and I don't think I have started school yet.  I vaguely remember the shop as huge and dome-like, with windows all round. The shop must be on an upper floor as I could remember looking into a great view of Singapore. The shopkeeper was an Indian and he was very nice and chummy with my dad. The floors were wooden. I wish I could remember the name of the shop, or the place it was located. Perhaps Chulia Street? Chulia Street seemed to be a place my parents went quite often, though I was not sure for what. Probably dad had some business friends there.  But they mentioned it quite often in their conversations.

This necklace was unique -- made up of red and white pieces. The red pieces (which my dad said were rubies -- but of course they were not -- probably plastic) were interspersed with the white ones which looked like skittles. 

It was dismantled and re-threaded many times to test out different designs -- three rubies, one white skittle... or two white skittles, one ruby... In the later stage of my childhood, I was left with one ruby which I carefully put in a small velvet pouch, with some skeins which belonged to my mum's green skirt. She said to save the skeins in case she needed them to mend her skirt. 

I wish I have kept that pouch.