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Colours of April: The Hindu festival of Panguni Uthiram

2014 April 13

A colourful Sembawang tradition that goes back to the days of the Naval Base, is the commemoration of the Hindu festival of Panguni Uthiram by the Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple. While much of the landscape through which the procession of kavadis that is associated with the festival has been altered by the move of the temple away from its original premises with its route not only changed, but also shortened over the years; it is good to see that it is celebrated with as much fervour as it was when my first encounters with it back in the 1980s.

A view through a kavadi. A view through a kavadi at today’s Panguni Uthitam.

This route of the procession of this year’s festival, which is celebrated on the full moon of the month of Panguni, took devotees from the empty plot of land off Canberra Drive , down Canberra Lane and Canberra Link to the temple’s premises at Yishun Industrial Park A. More information on the festival and previous Panguni Uthiram celebrations can be found in several previous posts and at the temple’s website:

A walk into the light. Devotees carrying milk pots along the procession route at sunrise. A walk into the light. Devotees carrying milk pots along the procession route at sunrise.

The tent erected at the start point where preparations are made. The tent erected at the start point where preparations are made.

Sugarcane is used by couples who have prayed for the blessing of a baby to carry the baby along the route as an offering of gratitude. Sugarcane is used by couples who have prayed for the blessing of a baby to carry the baby along the route as an offering of gratitude.

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More photographs from Panguni Uthiram 2014

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The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

A pathway to the divine

2014 April 9

It is a magical pathway on which one makes a journey in the search of the divine, the lost and almost forgotten Divine Bridge. The pathway that leads up to the area where the bridge once stood, traces a route by the water’s edge at MacRitchie Reservoir, and in doing so, passes through an area that offers some of the prettiest views of water, trees and space that Singapore does have. Part of the landscape is dominated by the manicured greens of one of the golf courses at what is the Bukit location of the Singapore Island Country Club (SICC). It is at this location, where the SICC will return one of the two courses it operates to the government for use as a public course in 2021 when its lease expires. A paved public walkway now runs by the course close to the water’s edge, leading up to the area where what does remain of the Divine Bridge, the wooden stumps that were once part of the columns supporting the bridge, can be seen.

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The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

The shrine across the Divine Bridge

2014 April 7

The Japanese couldn’t have picked a more divine setting in Singapore for the Syonan Jinja (昭南神社), the Light of the South Shrine that was to be the grandest of Shinto shirnes erected in the southern reaches of the empire. Even today, despite its site having been reclaimed by the forest , it is not difficult to find the beauty and peace the site was chosen for, in an area that even today does seem far removed from the urban world.

The site of the Syonan Jinja where remnants of what was once South-East Asia's  leading Japanese Shinto shrine is today an eerie yet peaceful spot. What is seen in the photograph is one of the more visible remnants, a sacred granite water trough for ritual purification. The site of the Syonan Jinja where remnants of what was once South-East Asia’s leading Japanese Shinto shrine is today an eerie yet peaceful spot. What is seen in the photograph is one of the more visible remnants, a sacred granite water trough for ritual purification.

A worship ceremony involving Japanese troops at the opening of the Syonan Jinja in 1943 (source: http://www.himoji.jp/himoji/database/db04/images_db_ori/2200.jpg). A worship ceremony involving Japanese troops at the opening of the Syonan Jinja in 1943 (source: http://www.himoji.jp/himoji/database/db04/images_db_ori/2200.jpg).

The shrine, built with labour provided by the Allied prisoners-of-war (POW), was one of several that came up in Singapore during the Japanese occupation. One of two of the more notable shrines – another was the Syonan Chureito on Bukit Batok, the Syonan Jinja stood on a slope of a hill that rose from the water’s edge around the western reaches of MacRitchie Reservoir, across a what from the evidence presented in photographs of it, was a beautifully crafted bridge, known as the Divine Bridge.

The Torii Gate at the bottom of the stairway leading up to the Syonan Jinja seen in 1943 (Showa History Vol. 10: Pacific War Breaks Out、Mainichi Newspapers Company, uploaded to http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3d/Shonan_Shrine.jpg). The Torii Gate at the bottom of the stairway leading up to the Syonan Jinja as seen in 1943 with the Divine Bridge in the background (source: Mainichi Newspapers Company, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3d/Shonan_Shrine.jpg).

The shrine and its site and the grand plans for it, which was opened to commemorate the first anniversary of the fall of Singapore in 1943, have been described in the National Library’s infopedia page on the shrine:

a beautiful wooden structure that featured the clean, simple lines of classic Japanese architecture. It was built on a raised stone platform and it had a large granite ceremonial fountain for ritual purification. The surrounding area was designed to be a Japanese garden with gentle pebbled streams, stone lanterns, a stone-stepped path, small torii gates (traditional Japanese gates commonly found at the entrance of Shinto shrines), and landscaping featuring native and imported plants. Four to five tonnes of pebbles were imported from Borneo for this project, while religious artifacts and certain plants were sourced from Japan. The wood used for the shrine, however, was from Singapore”

The area around the shrine was to be transformed into a 1,000-acre park with public recreational and sporting facilities. These facilities were to include gardens, promenades, playgrounds and a lake for fishing and boating. The proposed sports compound was to feature a stadium, a swimming pool, wrestling arenas and public bandstands, and would be a possible venue for the Greater East Asiatic Olympic Games envisioned by the Japanese. The planners also declared that a new city would develop with the Syonan Jinja at its centre

General Yamashita and Japanese troops crossing the Divine Bridge at the opening of the shirne (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_207.jpg). General Yamashita and Japanese troops crossing the Divine Bridge at the opening of the shirne (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_207.jpg).

What remains of the Divine Bridge today - wooden stumps in the water that were part of the columns that supported the bridge. What remains of the Divine Bridge today – wooden stumps in the water that were part of the columns that supported the bridge.

Little today is left for us to see of what it might once have been - wooden stumps, only visible when the reservoir’s water levels are low enough, tell of of the location of the Divine Bridge and where the Torii gate and the stairway up to the shrine would have been. Across the reservoir, it is through the thick undergrowth of the secondary forest that has reclaimed the area, that one finds the flight of stairs, rising first to a terrace on which a water trough hewn out of a block of granite still stands. The trough would have served to hold water for the ritual purification asked of visitors to the shrine.

A concrete retaining wall around the terrace on which the trough is found. A retaining wall around the terrace on which the trough is found.

A panorama of the site. A panorama of the site (click to enlarge).

Beyond the trough, the stairway leads to another platform – the main site of the shrine and except for a few slabs of stone lying around and the platform itself, there is little but that sense of an uneasy calm that one does feel at the site of the shrine, which was destroyed before the Japanese surrender to prevent it from being desecrated.

Concrete slabs at the site. Granite slabs at the site.

The platform for the shrine seen in the forest. The platform for the shrine seen in the forest.

Some of what we do know of what did go on at the shrine, comes through the accounts of local residents who participated in some of the rituals that did go on. One practice that did get mentioned is that of the Japanese community’s visits first to the Syonan Jinja to participate in Shinto rites early in the morning on New Year’s Day, before they made their way to the Syonan Chureito to pay respects to the war dead, an observance that also involved employees of the Japanese and would be followed by a lavish lunch (see “The Last Days of the Japanese Occupation”, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 1976).

More stone slabs. More stone slabs.

One of the things about the shrine does does come out in some of the accounts is of the pebbled streams in what must have been a beautifully landscaped area. The pebbles, ” four, five tons” of them, as is described in one account, were apparently ones that had been had been brought in from Borneo for the Bukit Timah rapid gravity filter beds that were being constructed.

A close up of the foundations. A close up of the foundations.

A view of the stairway. A view of the stairway.

The site does attract a fair amount of interest despite it being rather difficult to access. It has been designated as a Historic Site since September 2002 and a marker / information plaque on it can be found at the junction of Sime and Adam Roads – from which it is an over 2 kilometre walk that does take one through parts of the gravel paths in the MacRitchie forest, as well as along the water’s edge past what is some of the most picturesque landscapes to be found in Singapore.and for that alone, it is well worth the effort involved.

POWs provided the labour to build the shrine (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_206.jpg). POWs provided the labour to build the shrine (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_206.jpg).


The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

The Peace Boat docks at the POD

2014 April 6

It was two Sundays ago at the National Library’s the POD that the opportunity arose to hear the accounts of the Hibakusha. Survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki close to seven decades ago, the group of seven, together with other participants of the Peace Boat Hibakusha Project, were in Singapore to share their remarkable accounts of survival in the face of the effects of what has to be one of the most horrifying weapons mankind has employed in an armed conflict. The project, has participants making a global voyage on a passenger ship, and is aimed at promoting peace and sustainability and ultimately, a nuclear-free world.

Small group discussions with the Hibakusha at the POD. Small group discussions with the Hibakusha at the POD.

It is much more than time and distance that separate us from the horrors of a war in which Singapore had been very much a part of. We in the Singapore of today, have had the good fortune of being separated from some of the conflicts of more recent times and it would be very difficult for us to imagine what it was like living through the war, let alone attempt to comprehend what the survivors of the atomic bombs must have lived through.

Mr. Lee Jongkeun, a second-generation Korean resident in Japan who was 15 when the bomb fell on Hiroshima. Mr. Lee Jongkeun, a second-generation Korean resident in Japan who was 15 when the bomb fell on Hiroshima.

The first of the Hibakusha we did hear from was Mr. Lee Jongkeun, not a Japanese, but a second-generation Korean resident in Japan. Aged 15 when the bomb fell on Hiroshima, Mr. Lee spoke, among other things, of the discrimination he faced, even to this day, as a resident of Korean origin. The presence of Mr. Lee, also highlighted the fact the the victims of the a-bomb weren’t just Japanese, but also many other nationalities. The victims included some 70,000 who were forcibly brought from the then Japanese colony of Korea to work in Japan, as well as Chinese who were there in similar circumstances and also the many prisoners of war being held in the areas at the time.

Ms Hattori Michiko, who was a 16 year-old nurse 3.5 km away from the hypocentre in Hiroshima. Ms Michiko Hattori, who was a 16 year-old nurse 3.5 km away from the hypocentre in Hiroshima.

Following the testimony of Mr. Lee, there was a short performance by Ms. Ayumi Hamada – an actress and a youth participant in the Peace Boat project, who recited a poem, before another Hibakusha, Ms Michiko Hattori, spoke. A 16 year-old nurse with the Military Medicine Department in Hiroshima at the time of the bombing, Ms Hattori, she was only 3.5 km away from the hypocenter, and related some of the horrifying scenes she encountered after she recovered consciousness and attended to the other casualties in the aftermath of the bombing.

Ms. Ayumi Hamada with Ms. Michiko Hattari. Ms. Ayumi Hamada with Ms. Michiko Hattari.

There was an opportunity to also hear from the other Hibakusha - all with a common tale not just of what was encountered in the immediate aftermath, but also of the discrimination they faced long after, along with the after effects of exposure to radiation that left many with long term illnesses and the fear many felt of what were uncertain futures. Many had difficulty finding marriage partners as a result.

Ms. Nobuko Sugino, who was 1 year old and 1.3 km from the hypo centre. Ms. Nobuko Sugino, who was 1 year old and 1.3 km from the hypocentre.

Ms. Nobuko Sugino, who was a year old when the bomb was dropped, and at her home 1.3 km away from the hypocentre, was too young to remember  the aftermath. She spoke of the fears she had growing up due to the exposure she had to radiation. We were reminded of the story of Sadako Sasaki and the 1000 origami paper cranes. Sadako was 2 at the time of the bombing, and at her home at a distance of some 1.6 km from the hypocentre. She had been in good health for some 9 years before she became ill and was diagnosed with leukaemia before dying at the age of 12. Sadako had attempted to fold 1000 paper cranes in the hope that it would allow her wish to be granted by the gods, falling short of her target before the disease claimed her life. The story of Sadako had many like Ms. Sugino fearing that they might suffer a similar fate.

Ms. Noriko Sakashita, who was 2. Ms. Noriko Sakashita, who was 2.

Ms. Motoko Nakamura who was 11 months. Ms. Motoko Nakamura who was 11 months old.

Another survivor that did recount what it was like in the immediate aftermath was Mr. Takanari Sakata. He was 15 and working at the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries shipyard in Hiroshima as a part of the mobilisation of students. He has very vivid memories of the scenes that he was to witness after regaining consciousness. He spoke of the scene that greeted him as he had walked across a bridge near the only building that had been left standing in the hypocentre – what is today the iconic A-Bomb Dome that serves as a memorial. From the bridge, one side of which had collapsed inwards and the other outwards, he could see many blackened bodies of victims in the river and many who had survived asking for water, which he was advised not to give as it would have killed them.

Mr. Takanari Sakata, who was 15 and working at a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries shipyard in Hiroshima, 3 km from the hypocentre. Mr. Takanari Sakata, who was 15 and working at a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries shipyard in Hiroshima, 3 km from the hypocentre.

It is in hearing from the Hibakusha, who have shown great courage and determination in attempting to reach out to the world in the hope that their testimonies will help with the realisation that the experience they had been in, should never again be repeated and it is only with a nuclear-free world that the risk of it happening again will diminish.

A youth participant speaking. A youth participant speaking.

On the Peace Boat, now in its seventh global voyage for a nuclear-free world, with the Hibakusha, are several youths who hope to raise awareness of the need for a nuclear-free world to fellow youths worldwide through their participation. Besides their involvement in workshops, they hope to interact with the young from different countries. The Peace Boat, having left Singapore, continues on what will be a 104 day voyage around the world that will see it calling at 20 ports in 18 countries, before returning to Yokohama on 24 June 2014. More information on the project and the Hibakusha can be found at the Peace Boat’s website, www.peaceboat.org.

An image of children quenching their thirst on snow that had covered the hypocentre in Hiroshima on display. An image of children quenching their thirst on snow that had covered the hypocentre in Hiroshima on display.

Some of the horrifying images seen in the aftermath - on display at the session. Some of the horrifying images seen in the aftermath – on display at the session.


The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

The end of the Middle

2014 April 3

Long abandoned, a reminder of a time we have well forgotten, the former Bras Basah Community Centre, lies crumbling as it awaits a fate that does seem almost inevitable. For the moment, it serves as a reminder of the once gentle world that the new world seems to have little place for, one in which humble urban spaces for the community such as these were ones we could celebrate.

Patterns of a discarded world - ventilation openings from simpler and less energy dependent times. Patterns of a discarded world – ventilation openings from simpler and less energy dependent times.

More patterns from forgotten times. More patterns from forgotten times.

The former community centre, with group of single-storey buildings is set in a very generously provided space - unlike the compact, cluttered and overly crowded ones we have gotten used to seeing today. Opened in November 1960 as the Middle Road Community Centre, it was built to provide the community, at a time when the area did host a large resident population, with a point of focus. It also provided a safe place where the young  could expand their energy in with the provision of facilities such as two basketball courts which could also be used for badminton and sepak-takraw, as well as those for games such as chess and table-tennis.

An aerial view of the former Middle Road / Bras Basah Community Centre - the Empress Hotel, where the National Library now stands, can be seen at the top of the left hand side of the photograph. An aerial view of the former Middle Road / Bras Basah Community Centre – the Empress Hotel, where the National Library now stands, can be seen at the top of the left hand side of the photograph.

A view of the grounds of the former community centre from high above where the Empress once reigned. A view of the grounds of the former community centre from high above where the Empress once reigned.

The former centre provides a contrast against the new and modern world that has come up around it. The former centre provides a contrast against the new and modern world that has come up around it.

One of the basketball courts was indeed where some of the young did, in early 1963, expand some energy in. An article I did come across in the National Library’s newspaper archives from 20 April 1963’s edition of The Straits Times, tells us of children discovering a hoard of banknotes and coins – believed to have been buried by residents of the area prior to the fall of Singapore to the Japanese , in digging a hole for a game of marbles on one of the centre’s two basketball courts.

A stash of buried money was found under one of the centre's two basketball courts in 1963. A stash of buried money was found under one of the centre’s two basketball courts in 1963.

One of the basketball courts today. One of the basketball courts today.

The centre was closed in 1987, after the area was cleared of its residents in the decade of what I term as the Great Wipeout. It found use for a while as a kindergarten called the Kinder World Educare Centre, but has in more recent times, remained vacant and has suffered from neglect. With the state of the grounds of the community centre and its buildings are in, it perhaps may not be long before holes are dug to remove the former community centre, and with that what’s left to remind us of the various communities it did once serve.

A view of the centre from a service road.. A view of the centre from a service road.

Reminders of the use of the former community centre as a kindergarten. Reminders of the use of the former community centre as a kindergarten.

More views around the former Community Centre

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The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

We did once enjoy getting hit by a ball

2014 March 28

This photograph, which was taken at a school yard during my wanderings to Kathmandu in Nepal in April 2011, takes me back to my own days in primary school some four decades ago, when children looked forward to the opportunities for physical activity and outdoor play that presented itself during recess time as well as before and after school hours. It didn’t matter then that we would be sweaty, our uniforms often bearing the marks left by balls or through falling during play. It was pure fun and a perfect way to interact.

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Many of the games we played in the expansive fields involved a good run around. Games such as “catching”, football, rounders were popular, as was the game that the photograph does remind me of, “hentam bola“, or as we did pronounce it, “hantam bola“.

Translated from Malay as ”hit with (or by) a ball”, although grammatically not quite correct, the game involved a player, singled out as one who ”pasang“ - who initially would have drawn the short straw through a selection process that might have involved mini-games of chance (a common one used was “oh-bey-som“, similar to rock, paper, scissors).

Played in an open field, the objective of “hentam bola” for the “pasang” was to chase the other players (who would be trying to give the “pasang” a run around), and attempt to hit another player by throwing a ball with as much strength as one could muster. A successful hit would mean that the player hit would be the next to throw the ball. The ball we used was a small compressed air filled rubber ball, which could sometimes do some damage, not just to the players, but to glass panes in windows and doors.

It is sad that the outdoors feature less in children’s play in Singapore these days, not just due to the gadget age, but also with open space at a premium - many schools have sacrificed parts of their great outdoors for the greater indoors in the form of sports halls and the opportunity for such outdoor play does seem to be greatly reduced.


The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

Windows into Singapore: juxtapositions of time

2014 March 27

A view out of the window from the POD atop the National Library building, out towards what would once have been an almost clear view of the sea off the promenade that ran along Nicoll Highway.

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Part of what has been a landmark along Beach Road since its completion in 1976, Shaw Towers, can be seen on the right of the photograph. Built over a site that had previously been occupied by the Alhambra and Marborough cinemas, the 35 floor Shaw Towers was at the point of its completion, the tallest kid on the block at Beach Road. It was also the first building in Singapore to house two cinemas, Prince and Jade, built in a decade when cinema going took-off in Singapore. Prince was at its opening, the largest cinema in Singapore with its 1952 seats. Prince occupied the second to the seventh floors of one corner of the building’s podium. Its screen, at 28 metres wide, was the widest in the Far East. Jade was to provide a more intimate setting, holding less than half the crowd Prince would have held. The cinemas were converted in the late 1980s to cineplexes – the first multi-screen cinemas to make an appearance in Singapore.

A close up of the boats in the Kallang Basin close to Nicoll Highway (posted in Facebook group, On a Little Street in Singapore).

Nicoll Highway, Singapore’s first highway, did once run along the coast right behind Shaw Towers. Completed in 1956 - after the closure of Kallang Airport permitted a much needed link to be built along the coast, it provided an artery to take vehicular traffic from and to the populated eastern coast into and out of the city. Offering a view of the sea and the scatter of boats up to the early 1970s,  a drive today provides a view of a scattering of trees and isolated structures that herald the arrival of a brand new world - where the wooded patch is in the foreground of the first photograph.

Nicoll Highway, the Merdeka Bridge, Beach Road and the Kallang Basin, 1967 – before the 1970s land reclamation (posted in Facebook group, On a Little Street in Singapore).

A view down Nicoll Highway. A new development South Beach is seen rising beyond Shaw Tower. A view down Nicoll Highway. A new development South Beach is seen rising beyond Shaw Towers.

Another view down Nicoll Highway during peak hour. Another view down Nicoll Highway during peak hour.

The body of water beyond which we can see the Benjamin Sheares Bridge rising, is itself one that has seen a significant change. Where it once was the sea, it now is a body of fresh water, forming a part of the huge Marina Reservoir, having been cut-off from the sea by land reclamation and the construction of the Marina Barrage. The barrage, closes up the channel between Marina East and Marina South, Marina East being land reclaimed off Tanjong Rhu, a cape once referred to as a “curious ridge of sand” on which shipyards, the charcoal trade and a flour mill had once featured.

An advertisement for Khong Guan Flour Mills. The grain storage silos once dominated a landscape at Tanjong Rhu now dominated by condominiums. An advertisement for Khong Guan Flour Mills. The grain storage silos once dominated a landscape at Tanjong Rhu now dominated by condominiums.

A more recent landmark on Beach Road, the 41-storey The Concourse and a view toward Tanjong Rhu beyond it. A more recent landmark on Beach Road, the 41-storey The Concourse and a view toward Tanjong Rhu beyond it.

Reclaimed land by Nicoll Highway, the Kallang Basin area of Marina Reservoir and Tanjong Rhu beyond it. Reclaimed land by Nicoll Highway, the Kallang Basin area of Marina Reservoir and the Marina South area beyond it.

It is at Tanjong Rhu, where Singapore first million-dollar condominium units were sold, that the eastern end of the iconic 1.8 km long Benjamin Sheares Bridge comes down to earth. Opened to traffic on 26 September 1981, it provided the final link for a coastal highway that had been built to take traffic around and not through the city centre, the planning for which went back to the end of the 1960s (see The Making of Marina Bay).

Land reclamation in the Kallang Basin / Tanjong Rhu area in 1973 (posted in Facebook group On a Little Street in Singapore).

This stretch of that coastal highway, East Coast Parkway (ECP), did take up much of the traffic that was being carried on what was becoming an increasingly congested Nicoll Highway that had been built some 25 years before it. Now, some 32 years later, as with the highway it took traffic away from, it sees its role taken up in a similar fashion by a new highway, the Marina Coastal Expressway (MCE). Built at the cost of S$4.3-billion, the 5 kilometre MCE runs mostly underground and partly under the sea and see the series of coastal highways move with the shifting of the coastline. The MCE features a 3.6 km tunnel and has a 420 metre stretch that runs under the sea.

Tanjong Rhu and the Benjamin Sheares Bridge. Tanjong Rhu and the Benjamin Sheares Bridge.

The expressway, which opened to traffic on 29 December 2013, was built so as to remove the constraints that the ECP, in running right smack through the centre of Marina South, had placed on the development of Singapore’s new downtown (the expansion of the city to Marina South that was really an afterthought, having come after urban planners had realised the potential that land, which had initially been reclaimed for the construction of the ECP, had in providing much needed space for the expansion of the city). The availability of new and undeveloped land through reclamation did allow parts of old Singapore slated for redevelopment, to be spared the wreckers’ ball.

A view over the Marina Reservoir and Marina East, with the Benjamin Sheares Bridge seen to the left of the capsule. A view over the Marina Reservoir and Marina East, with the Benjamin Sheares Bridge seen to the left of the capsule.

The deceptively blue waters in the first photograph’s background, is that of the Eastern Anchorage. It is at the anchorage that ships lie patiently in wait, far removed from the frenzy at the wharves of what is one of the world’s busiest ports. It is one place in Singapore where time does seem to stand very still, at least for now. Time doesn’t of course seem to stand very still in a Singapore constantly on the move, and time will certainly bring change to shape of the distribution of the shipping infrastructure along the coast- with the journey to west for the city shipping terminals, at Keppel, Pulau Brani and Tanjong Pagar, due to completed by 2030.

The Eastern Anchorage. The Eastern Anchorage – where time does seem to stand still.

There is of course the potential that developments away from Singapore has for influencing change. One possible game-changing development we in Singapore are keeping our eyes on is the possibility that of a dream long held by Thailand, the cutting of a shipping canal through the Isthmus of Kra, coming true. If a recent report, purportedly from the Chinese media, is to be believed, work is already starting. The cutting of the so-called Kra Canal is an idea that was first mooted back in the late 17th Century (see: How a Thai Canal Could Transform Southeast Asia on http://thediplomat.com) and talk of building it does crop up from time to time – the effort required and the associated costs in recent times serving as a huge deterrent. If built, the canal would save shipping a 1,500 nautical mile journey through the Straits of Malacca and around Singapore.

A proposal for the Kra Canal (http://schillerinstitute.org/conf-iclc/2013/1102_la/images/kra_canal-map.gif).

The proposed canal does have the potential to undermine Singapore’s so far unchallenged strategic position with regards to shipping, although it would probably take a lot more than a canal to do that. In the meantime, it is the change that is driven within that we will see add to another area in Singapore in which change does seem to always be a constant.


The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

Light after dark: Twilight falls on West Hill

2014 March 24

7.44 pm, Sunday 23 March 2014. Night falls on an area around where West Hill had once stood, at  the end of extremely hot day in Singapore.

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The now forgotten West Hill was a relatively high point that rose above the swampy ground around Sungei Sembawang. It had lent its name to West Hill Village – a village that grew around the south-eastern fringes of the huge naval base that once dominated Singapore’s northern coast. The village that was in more recent times known to us as Chong Pang Village in which names of schools such as West Hill School and Si San (西山 – West Hill in Chinese)Public School served to remind us of the village’s original name. There is little that remains of this part of the area’s past and much of the area is now dominated by the public housing estate that has come up around the Sembawang area.


The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

A headless Chairman Mao

2014 March 22

Offering a fresh perspective on the great Surrealist master Salvador Dali, one that does look at him on a very personal level, SALVADOR DALI: The Argillet Collection opens its doors today at the REDSEA Gallery. The exhibition, featuring 112 of the artist’s works, a great number of which are etchings with which he collaborated with long time associate and friend Pierre Argillet on, is being brought in by Argillet’s daughter Christine and the gallery for what is the largest display of the collection as well as one that is seen for the very first time in Asia.

Madame Argillet on the Poems of Mao Zedong. Madame Argillet on the ‘Poems by Mao Zedong’.

The works, all of which are available for private acquisition, span from traditional interpretations we see recurring in much of the artist’s work, to the ones influenced by the contemporary. In the series, Mythologie, we see works in which Dali reinterprets the symbolism in Greek mythology, often starting with a smudge. The series also sees the employment of Dali’s creative genius in which he experimented with various unconventional tools in working on the copper plates, including using a real Octopus immersed in acid in the etching for his work Medusa.

Medusa, Mythologie Series, 1963. 57 x 77 cm. Mixed-media print incorporating heliogauvre and drypoint etching. Arches. © CHRISTINE ARGILLET ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Medusa, Mythologie Series, 1963. 57 x 77 cm. Mixed-media print incorporating heliogauvre and
drypoint etching. Arches. © CHRISTINE ARGILLET ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Beside the many works from the period of the artist’s collaboration with Pierre Argillet, the exhibition also features a series of works that traces its origins back to the 1930s, The Songs of Maldoror. The work stems from a commission the artist received from Albert Skira to provide illustrations for the book Les Chants de Maldoror – a literary work by Lautreamont that serves as a source of inspiration for the Surrealist movement, for which 44 copper etchings were produced. 42 original plates were purchased by Argillet in 1971 with Dali reworking 8 of the plates – and what we do see at the exhibition will be the suite of 50 prints.

The entrance to the exhibition with an Aubusson tapestry 'Burning Giraffe'. The entrance to the exhibition with an Aubusson tapestry ‘Burning Giraffe’.

What I did think were particularly interesting were two series being exhibited and on which Madame Argillet elaborated on at the media preview. One, the Poems by Mao Zedong, was commissioned in 1967 by Argillet and involves eight illustrations some of which were political satires. The works were executed during the cultural revolution was to include one that had told Argillet would be a portrait of Mao – what turned out to be a headless figure. Dali’s explanation for this was that the Mao was so tall that he could not be depicted in full in the illustration. The works also needed the blessings of the Chinese embassy for which Argillet was somehow able to obtain.

Portrait of Chairman Mao. Portrait of Chairman Mao.

The Hippies, based on photographs from a visit Argillet made to India, involves an etching that had originally been worked on during a rare public appearance by Dali. As related by Madame Argillet, Dali had appeared in the presence of a huge crowd of journalists with a strange look in his eyes – producing nothing but a series of swirls on the copper plate, following which he promptly left despite Argillet’s attempts to convince him otherwise. He was to ask Agrillet for the plate a few day following that, saying that he had no recollection of the appearance as he had, at someone’s suggestion, taken LSD. From that – he was to produce Women in Waves, a etching that was to be one that would be very well received.

Madame Argillet on the Hippies series and 'Women in Waves'. Madame Argillet on the Hippies series and ‘Women in the Waves’.

Women in the Waves. Women in the Waves.

Beside the many striking etchings that bear many elements of the artist’s style, there are also three tapestries hand-woven in Aubusson. One, the Burning Giraffe, greets visitors at the entrance to the gallery. Despite its rather macabre depiction of a bullfight, with a burning giraffe that is depicted in several of the artist’s work, the tapestry does somehow have a rather charming quality.

Madame Argillet on 'Piano Under Snow'. Madame Argillet on ‘Piano Under Snow’.

All works in the collection have been authenticated and signed by Salvador Dali and have never before left the Collection. The collection will be on display at the exhibition from 22 March to 20 April 2014 at the REDSEA Gallery located at Block 9 Dempsey Road.


The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

New journeys to the west

2014 March 20

Once a place in Singapore that drew in the crowds, the gory, somewhat gaudy but mystical gardens that a tiger built, Haw Par Villa or Tiger Balm Gardens, has worn the look of another discarded icon of the past. It would have been a place that would have featured in many a childhood outing in simpler days. I for one, have an abundance of snapshots taken from times when I was held in my parents arms to the latter stages of my childhood. It really was such a shame to see an attraction that had once captured the imagination of local residents and tourists alike, suffer from neglect as our attention turned towards the new-age attractions of a Singapore we were not.

A photograph from a visit in November 1976. A photograph from a visit in November 1976.

The gory Haw Par Villa - a one time favourite outing destination. The gory Haw Par Villa – a one time favourite outing destination.

It is certainly a welcome sign to see that an attempt is now being made by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) to revive interest in the fascinating world that Aw Boon Haw, the “Tiger Balm King” had built around a villa erected for his brother Boon Par, especially in a way that is very much in keeping to the spirit of what Boon Haw had wished for, expressing just prior to his death in 1954 – that the gardens should be kept open to the public to enter for free.

A journey to the west. A journey to the west.

Getting Singapore residents to reconnect with its attractions of the past is what the STB – the custodian of the grounds since the Singapore government’s acquisition of it in 1985, aims to do as it celebrates its fiftieth year of promoting tourism, starting with Haw Par Villa.  The effort sees a three-phased approach that will attempt to get us in Singapore to Reminisce, Rediscover, Celebrate.

Riding not the tiger but the leopard in 1976. Riding not the tiger but the leopard in 1976 – Singapore residents are encourage to relive Haw Par Villa’s past.

Through the effort, Tourism50, STB hopes to raise awareness and appreciation of past as well as more recent tourism developments, and more importantly, encourage interest and participation. And as part of the series of events STB has planned for Tourism50, Haw Par Villa will host two weekends of activities, Reliving Haw Par Villa. The first on the weekend of 15/16 March, drawing the crowds – the very welcome downpour not at all dampening the spirits.

Haw Par Villa, a hidden treasure. Haw Par Villa, a hidden treasure.

The weekend activities  - there is one more weekend to look forward to on 22 and 23 March 2014, include free guided tours from 9.30 am to 4 pm (registration is required at the Tour Registration booth). The tours will be conducted by local heritage tour specialist, Journeys, in both English and Mandarin. The will also be cultural performances such as storytelling, skits, puppet shows and acrobatic displays, to look forward to, as well as a vintage flea market and most importantly, food! On the subject of food – do keep a look out for the to-die-for Durian Creme Brulee, for which I would return to hell (one of the attractions Haw Par Villa is very well known for is the Ten Courts of Hell) many times over!

Reliving Haw Par Villa through food. Reliving Haw Par Villa through food.

The activities do go on throughout the day with the first at 11 am and the last starting at 5 pm. Admission as is in more recent times is free. It does pay to be early though as the first 1,000 visitors each day can look forward to a Tourism50 goodie bag. If you do intend to visit, do note that car park will be closed during the event and getting there by public transport is probably the best option.

The popular cure-all balm being marketed at Reliving Haw Par Villa - must have cured Singapore of the long dry spell. The popular cure-all balm being marketed at Reliving Haw Par Villa – must have cured Singapore of the long dry spell.

Besides the goodies in the bag, do also keep a look out for the Tourism50 postcards. Designed by local freelance illustrator and Architecture student Richard Li, the postcards feature icons of the past like Haw Par Villa, Sentosa Monorail and Raffles Hotel. Besides being made available at the event, you will also find the cards at the ZoCard racks, in all community libraries, at the Singapore Visitors Centre, the Chinatown Heritage Centre, all Sentosa ticketing counters and at the Singapore Tourism Board (Tourism Court) from 15 March 2014.

The Tourism50 Postcards. The Tourism50 Postcards.

Local residents who mail the postcards to their friends and loved ones will get to enter a Lucky Draw that offers a top prize of a 2D1N Grand Hotel Suite Staycation at Raffles Hotel Singapore (includes Limousine Transfer + Breakfast & Dinner for 2). Other prizes on offer include 50 Sentosa Islander Family Membership (1 year), and 50 paris of FORMULA 1 SINGAPORE GRAND PRIX Walkabout Tickets.

The rain did deter not visitors over the first weekend. The rain did deter not visitors over the first weekend.f

More information on Tourism50, activities, on Haw Par Villa, the event at Haw Par Villa and also the lucky draw can be found at www.xinmsn.com/rediscoversg and at lifestyle.xin.msn.com/en/rediscoversg/reliving-haw-par-villa

Singapore's most photographed archway in the rain.

Singapore’s most photographed archway in the rain.


Haw Par Villa over the years
JeromeLim 277A3840
Haw Par Villa did once feature in the lives of many of us in a Singapore. A place to head over to for a school excursion or a family outing, it must, judging from the many photographs of it over the years, possibly have been one of the most photographed attractions in Singapore in days well before the modern icons of tourist Singapore were created.

Once by the sea, Haw Par Villa has seen the shoreline gradually being moved away over the years. The Pasir Panjang terminal is now seen on more recently reclaimed land.

Once by the sea, Haw Par Villa has seen the shoreline gradually being moved away over the years. The Pasir Panjang terminal is now seen on more recently reclaimed land where the sea once was.

For me, it was one of the places from which I do possess an abundance of photographs taken through my childhood and a place I did enjoy that occasional visit to. This, in spite of it being the source of more than a few nightmares, that is, until the time a dragon gobbled it up.

Stupa-shaped memorials to the Aws are now seen in the grounds. Stupa-shaped memorials to the Aws are now seen in the grounds.

The dragon, Haw Par Villa Dragon World, was a vain and rather costly attempt by the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB), which in its current incarnation is the STB, to turn the previously free to visit gardens, into a theme park.  The theme park had been an attempt to revive interest in an attraction for which time seemed to have left well behind – it was literally crumbling in the face of its huge maintenance costs, following the acquisition of it in 1985 by the Singapore government.

Spider spirits who have seen their levels of modesty adjusted through the years. Spider spirits who have seen their levels of modesty adjusted through the years.

Some S$80 million was expanded during a two year makeover that took place from 1988 to 1990. That saw the gardens being refurbished and several displays removed. Rides were also installed, including what some of my younger friends tell me was a memorable water ride in their childhood, for the wrong reasons, into the horrifying ten courts of hell. Reopened as Haw Par Villa Dragon World in 1990, it did not live up to its promise and as soon as the novelty wore off, visitor numbers fell and huge running losses were incurred. It eventually closed in 2001 and with its closure, there were fears that the dying embers of an attraction that certainly was like none on the island, was soon to be extinguished.

Dioramas high on messages of morals and Confucian ethics are found ih the gardens, Dioramas high on messages of morals and Confucian ethics are found in the gardens.

It was nice to see that the park not only was kept open by the STB, but also that admission to it was kept free in keeping with what Aw Boon Haw had wished. It does now draw a steady stream of visitors although not in anyway near the visitor numbers of its heyday when it would be packed with local residents especially on public holidays. It was initially on certain public holidays that Aw Boon Haw had opened what was really the private grounds of a villa that offered a magnificent view of the nearby sea in Pasir Panjang, which he had built for his younger brother Boon Par.

Hell freezing over. The second court in which being hell is frozen for sins such as robbery and corruption. Hell freezing over. The second court of hell in which hell is frozen for sins such as robbery and corruption.

The actual villa, a model of which can be seen at Haw Par Villa today, was erected in 1937. Boon Haw filled the sprawling grounds with figurines and dioramas depicting scenes from Chinese mythology such as the 8 Immortals and the Journey to the West, along with many that offered lessons in Confucian values. The gardens were said to be badly damaged during the Japanese occupation during which time Boon Par passed away in Rangoon in 1944. Boon Haw was said to have demolished the villa out of anguish when he returned after the war.

Steps to a lost villa. The terrace where the villa that Aw Boon Haw built for his brother once stood. Steps to a lost villa. The terrace where the villa that Aw Boon Haw built for his brother once stood.

The entrance archway leading to what had been Boon Par's villa. The entrance archway leading to what had been Boon Par’s villa.

The archway seen in 1976. The archway seen in 1976.

Boon Haw did however restore the gardens to it former glory adding to it over the years until his death in 1954. Following his death, new flavours were added to the grounds by his nephew, Aw Cheng Chye, creating “international corners” within the gardens. In the corners, Cheng Chye erected figurines associated with countries he had travelled, adding them through the 1960s until his death in 1971. While some of these are still around such as the Statue of Liberty and the Sumo Wrestlers all seemingly a curious addition to the largely Chinese themed gardens, several did get gobbled up by the dragon. One that did get removed was one of my favourites – a 4.5 metre Maori tiki (with two accompanying kiwis) at what had been a New Zealand corner that was installed in January 1966.

The tiki at the New Zealand corner in 1976. The tiki at the New Zealand corner in 1976.

One part of Haw Par Villa that will be difficult for any visitor to forget is the Ten (previously eighteen) Courts of Hell. It was through the Ten Courts – stages through the Chinese interpretation of purgatory in the process of reincarnation, living souls were taken on a slow boat to see its many gruesome scenes, then tucked away in belly of the theme park’s dragon. It was seeing it on foot during the pre-dragon world visits that must have been the source of many of my nightmares, the scenes all very graphic in depicting the many horrible punishments that awaited the souls of sinners in their journey to reincarnation.

A graphic journey through the Chinese interpretation of purgatory in the journey to reincarnation.  A graphic journey through the Chinese interpretation of purgatory in the journey to reincarnation.

It is perhaps a journey of reincarnation that Haw Par Villa is itself embarked on, one in which it has been punished for sins not entirely of its doing. It would certainly be wonderful if the journey is one in which we will see the return of what has for too long, been a lost and wandering soul.

JeromeLim 277A2413


The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.



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