Archive for the ‘Past and Present’ Category


Unwanted child of S’pore conservation?

April 20, 2008

I hope the relevant authorities would come up with a more long term plan for Tiong Bahru Estate as well. Everyone is left wondering what’s next. Will they let the lease run out and turn this place into some commercial place or they will keep tossing this project around until it lands on someone’s lap. Shudders……

The Straits Times
April 20, 2008

By Warren Fernandez

Will recent reports of fresh plans for the Capitol Theatre finally happen – after almost two decades? I’m not holding my breath…

For too long, the once-lovely Capitol Theatre has stood forlorn and forgotten, the unwanted child of Singapore conservation.

Newspaper reports once held out hope of it being transformed into a performing arts centre for musicals, plays and ballets.

That, alas, was in January 1996.

Even then, the report quoted government officials as saying that the plans were ‘still being studied’.

Never mind that the site had been earmarked for development in 1984, and acquired by the state in 1987, nearly a decade earlier.

More delays followed. In 1998, Capitol screened its last movie and the cinema was shut down amid much sadness and hopeful talk of plans to put it to better use.

The project was handed over to the Singapore Tourism Board to pursue in 2000. But in 2006, it decided not to proceed and handed it back to the Singapore Land Authority. Last year, it was finally declared a conservation area.

Sadly, over the years, nobody seemed either to own the project or to care all that much about it.

So, pardon me, but I could not help being more than a little sceptical when I read a report earlier this month which talked of fresh plans for the Capitol Theatre and the structures around it – Capitol Building, Capitol Centre and Stamford House.

The report raised as many questions as it answered: Just what do the authorities now envisage for the site, which they say will be sold as an ‘integrated one’ next year? So far, officials have said only that the area has not been ‘fully maximised to its development potential’ – indeed! – and the ‘timing and details’ of their plans ‘are being finalised’.

Why has it taken decades for any progress to be made on conserving this area? What is the cost of leaving Capitol idle all these years, allowing it to crumble away to a dusty death? And just who will ensure that the plans are realised this time?

These are legitimate questions, not least since the buildings concerned are very much part of Singapore’s architectural heritage.

Capitol Theatre turns 80 next year. The neo-classical style building was built in 1929 by M.A. Namazie, an early Singapore pioneer of Persian origin. The accompanying four-storey building, where the popular Magnolia Snack Bar once stood, was completed in 1933 and called the Namazie Mansions back then.

The cinema was Singapore’s very first, where the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks performed to promote their silent movies. In the 1960s, the Capitol hosted variety shows featuring performers like Sakura Teng and Rita Chao.

The adjacent Stamford House has an even longer history. It was designed for commercial use in 1904 by R.A.J. Bidwell, the man behind other outstanding buildings such as the Raffles Hotel and Goodwood Park Hotel.

Few seem to recall the furious debate that broke out in 1991 over whether Stamford House should be saved instead of Eu Court, built in the 1930s, across the street.

Then National Development minister S. Dhanabalan declared that Stamford House would be preserved as it had a ‘more outstanding architectural style’.

I was prepared then to give the minister the benefit of the doubt, and wait to see if the ramshackle Stamford House of those days would indeed be transformed into the conservation gem he envisioned.

So, when the Victorian facade of the building was unveiled three years and $13 million later, I had to concede that it did look splendid, as the minister had said.

But sadly, it never quite lived up to his promise of becoming ‘an active and successful commercial centre’, given its motley collection of furniture shops, galleries and eateries, several of which came and went.

The wider issue here is this: Just how does Singapore go about conserving its architectural heritage, saving grand old buildings and giving new life to them?

Of course, given the space constraints on this tiny island, I have never believed in keeping buildings as museum pieces, or standing in the way of development.

But, in these days of globalisation and rapid change, a sense of place and continuity is needed if Singaporeans are to remain rooted to this country.

Indeed, at the moment, Singapore is undergoing another spurt of redevelopment. Just as in the 1980s and 1990s, when familiar sites like the modest C.K. Tang store or the huge open field where Ngee Ann City now stands gave way to skyscrapers, the Ion Orchard and Orchard Central are rising rapidly from the ground in Orchard Road. These, and the redevelopment of the Asia Hotel site in Scotts Road, as well as the new St Regis Hotel in Tanglin Road are transforming the face of the downtown area as we know it.

So how to ensure continuity in the face of such change?

Well, to be fair, there have been quite a few success stories in conservation over the years, such as the Fullerton Hotel, Raffles Hotel, the National Museum, the old Parliament House, and the old St Joseph’s Institution building.

In these cases, the buildings’ structures were painstakingly conserved, even as their interiors were retrofitted to allow for new uses, commercial or otherwise. Sure, the purists moaned, but the conservation purpose was served.

There have been some bad misses too. Orchard cinema and the National Library were both razed to the ground despite fervent public protests.

Or ponder this: Just what is the difference between the ghastly named Orchard Cineleisure and the supposedly conserved Cathay building?

Precious little, actually. The former was built after tearing the old cinema down completely, while the latter was simply erected around a sliver of the facade of what was Singapore’s first skyscraper, as a sop to the conservationist lobby.

Clearly, there are lessons to be learnt from these hits and misses over the decades to help ensure that the re-development of the Capitol area turns out right.

To do so, the authorities need to:
Spell out their Capitol conservation plans in much greater detail.

While they are at it, they should consider redeveloping the SMRT HQ building across the street. Why a public transport operator needs such a large prime site, all walled up and uninviting, has always been a mystery to me.

There is much potential to liven up the entire area on both sides of Stamford Road, with an array of streetwalk dining, retail and entertainment options.

Engage the public, both to get ideas and foster a sense of ownership of this historic district.

Surely, Singaporeans should not wait until plans are announced to demolish an old building before taking an interest? Nor should they be left to bemoan conservation efforts gone awry after the fact.

Announce a timeline to make clear how and when the authorities will ensure that the area’s ‘development potential is fully maximised’, at long last.

It would be a pity if Singaporeans have to wait another decade to read the next report on new plans ‘being studied’ for Capitol.


Almost Unchanged

April 12, 2008
Check this out!

If you are around the Tiong Bahru Estate, walk over to Block 37 Lim Liak Street to look at stack 45 & 47. These two stacks (or columns) have remained almost unchanged all these years.

It seems that no one has moved out before. (Just look at the ORIGINAL WINDOWS!) Even if the units did changed hands, the current occupants did not do much renovation to the units.

MediaCorp, if you need an authentic 1950’s backdrop, this place would be the one!

Better hurry before someone decided to renovate and you would have lost the opportunity FOREVER.

Here are some more past and present photos to ignite some nostalgia:

Block 37 Lim Liak Street in the 2008

Block 37 Lim Liak Street in the 1950s
Collection of Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts,
Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore


Can you spot the difference?

April 11, 2008
Location: Block 43 & 36 Moh Guan Terrace
2008 Moh Guan Terrace
1950s Moh Guan Terrace
Collection of Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts,
Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

For the 1950’s picture, the building on the left has open balconies whiles the 2008 ones are covered up with concrete.

It is the same for the buildings on the right. HDB put in the windows in 1973 when they sold the units to the tenants.

The substation is still there but a fence surrounds it now.

I bet you could spot more differences and I shan’t rob you of the fun.

Trishaw Man

March 18, 2008

I was pleasantly surprised during my “early” morning stroll today.

As I stepped off the escalators within the Tiong Bahru Market, happily sipping my coffee, I spotted this trishaw man resting in his “sar leng chia”. (It means a 3-wheeled vehicle in Hokkien).

He is resting in the exact spot where many of his “KAKIS” (Buddies) used to hang out.

In the distant past (in the 1970s), a dozen of them could be found here in the mornings and many uncles and aunties would use them to get around. Some of my classmates even travelled to school in them.

My grandma, on days when she needed to get to Neil Road to visit her relatives, would bring my brother and me to board a trishaw at the exact spot where this guy is sitting. (She only rides the trishaw when she won money in the “Chap Ji Kee”, otherwise, it would be leg power.)

I could still remember the trishaw man pedalling tirelessly through the “SI PAI POR” compound to get us to Neil Road.

Now that I am much heavier, I don’t think this guy would be interested to help me ride down memory lane today. So I just took some pictures (secretly) and carried on with my stroll.

Doing some online research on Trishaws in Singapore (History of Trishaw), I found out that Trishaw became popular back then because petrol was not readily available.

With the petrol prices hitting the roof, maybe, we will see more of these “uncles” around.

New "Enhancement"

March 6, 2008

This rustic laid back image has been erased forever.

For the whole of last week, I was wondering why there were so much hacking and drilling activities and I thought a new neighbour was renovating their place.

It was only when I was walking to the Tiong Bahru Market that I spotted some workers along this pavement. I thought they were repairing the drains or just doing some resurfacing of the walkways as there were some cracks along the pavement.

Perhaps someone complained about those cracks as it made roller blading a little bit more challenging.

Anyway, I walked off thinking that it was just some routine maintenance undertaken by the Tanjong Pagar Town Council who responded to some of the resident’s frivolous request.

Saw this yesterday while on the way to Eng Watt Street. So not only did the town council made this pavement a better place to roller blade, they made it a nicer place to roller blade as well!

I hope this “enhancement” will quell all talks about this place being en-bloc in the near future.

By the way, I do not know how to roller blade and I am hoping to learn it someday. Yes, someday.


February 19, 2008

Here’s an opportunity not to be missed!

Heritage Guide, Geraldine, will be conducting a tour this weekend (24th Feb 2008) from 9:30am to approximately 12:30pm.

If you are keen, please give Geraldine a call at +(65)6737-5250 or +(65) 8155-1390.

Cost per person is SGD$30/=

The following is what you could be expecting from the tour :

Heritage Guide Geraldine will start the tour with a short talk of the history of the area and Cheong Hong Lim, the donor of the most amazing Geok Hong Tian Temple 1887.

The group would be able to witness devotees celebrating the birthday of the Jade Emperor & the Monkey God which happens around the ” Chap Go Mei” – first full moon after Chinese New Year.

The walk will bring the group past some interesting trees and also the grave of a well-known philanthropist, Mr Tan Tock Seng, founder of 4 hospitals in Singapore!

The group will stop to have refreshments near the famous Singing Bird corner that was once a Tiong Bahru Landmark. The bird corner is closed temporarily but we all hope it would be back in a jiffy!

Along the way, the group will also check out the best local cake shop and the new Tiong Bahru Market whilst walking through some of the 1930’s Art Deco block of flats.

The tour will end with a visit to Eng Hoon Street to observe the Monkey God’s birthday celebrations and to hear about the rituals & customs that are practiced there.

After which the group can have lunch at the numerous eating places nearby.

If you are interested to join this tour, pick up the phone and call or SMS Geraldine now. Don’t procrastinate.



Many thanks to Kelvin Ang and Melvyn Wong for forwarding the email for this event to me.



February 15, 2008
The Straits Times
Saturday Special Report
Feb 9, 2008
By Ho Ai Li
Love blossomed for Mr and Mrs Chan at the Tiong Bahru market where they worked. They met 50 years ago.

IN 1958, love matches were not yet in the air. Most couples here were still match-made.

But at the Tiong Bahru market though, two young people found each other amid heaps of kang kong and pork knuckles and fell in love.

Then 23, Mr Chan Lay Boo ran a fresh poultry stall to support his mother and four younger siblings. He became the man of the house at age 13 after his father, distraught over a failed business, left his family in Singapore and returned to Fujian, China.

Then 17, second daughter Chiang Yee Lui helped her mother sell cai xin and watercress from her grandmother’s farm in Potong Pasir. She had lost her father too; he had died from a nasty cold when she was seven.

There was no money for school. Both learnt all they needed to know at the wet market.

For Mr Chan, now 73, it was ‘yi jian zhong qing (love at first sight)’. Mrs Chan, now 67, was an outgoing beauty with a host of suitors, many of them educated young men from well-off families. But she preferred the quiet, steady and stoical Mr Chan.

While they were forward-looking for their time, they were traditional in other ways. He made the first move, by inviting her to a movie. ‘Of course he asked me. How can it be me?’ she asks with a chuckle.

After finishing work, the lovebirds would go to the Majestic cinema in Chinatown in the evenings to watch movies starring actresses like Lin Dai or Ge Lan.

Three years later, they inked a marriage certificate at a mass ceremony with 16 other couples at the Hokkien Huay Kuan in Telok Ayer Street.

Both their mothers approved. ‘He was already very burdened. I was then running my own stall and a little boss myself. I didn’t need anyone to support me. It was free love,’ says Mrs Chan.

She did not mind the hard life at all, or taking care of his siblings. ‘I was used to hardship. It was not like I was a xiao jie (rich man’s daughter).’

After marriage, she gave up her own stall and went from sorting vegetables to slaughtering fowl. The couple would sleep at 11pm and rise by 2am to prepare and open for business.

At noon, they started their second shift and opened their chicken rice stall, Tiong Huat Chicken Rice, at the Margaret Drive hawker centre.

Their work day ended after 9pm. This went on every day, including the eve and first day of Chinese New Year for over 20 years.

‘We had no choice but to work hard. We had a lot of mouths to feed, including his siblings and our children. At that time, I had the strength to kill a few tigers,’ she jokes.

A year after they wed in 1961, Mrs Chan had her first baby. They went on to have nine children in all, seven girls and two boys.

The children work in fields like marketing, travel and graphic design.

All this time, the couple have never exchanged birthday gifts or celebrated wedding anniversaries. Nor do they hold hands, or display affection publicly.

Prompted to put their arms around each other during a photo shoot, Mr Chan mutters with some awkwardness: ‘This is the first time we are doing so in tens of years.’

Their love is forged instead on years of solidarity and sacrifice. For example, to raise capital to expand the stall, Mrs Chan pawned her gold wedding ring – which she redeemed subsequently. She melted it down years later to make nine keys to give to each of her children when they reached 21.

Mr Chan says he admires his wife for how forthright, capable and ‘wan neng’ (which translates to omnipotent) she is. ‘She doesn’t lie to me, I don’t lie to her,’ he says.

She chimes in: ‘Yes, I can do work, can talk and can scold.’ She finds his laid-back nature endearing.

She is proudest of their nine children and 14 grandchildren. On weekends and evenings, their ground-floor flat in Tiong Bahru is abuzz with children zipping in and out, and adults crowding the living room chatting and watching TV.

They do not dish out love advice to their children, seven of whom are married.

‘As long as they can communicate, it doesn’t matter who they marry – whether they are Chinese or not,’ says Mrs Chan. One daughter is married to a Caucasian, another to an African-American.

She sums up: ‘You must show concern, understanding and forgiveness. If you are petty, you won’t have any friends, let alone family.’