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A paddle through the Jalan Gemala Nature Area

2014 December 15

The Jalan Gemala area at Lim Chu Kang is as remote and wild as it can possibly get on the island of Singapore. Set along the banks of the upper reaches of the Sungei Kranji, once a tidal river lined with rich mangrove forests up to the extent of the tidal influence,  it finds itself at the edge of a reservoir of freshwater, created by the damming of the mouth of the Kranji River.

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The river itself had in the past been one that served as a communication link, bringing in settlement to an area where early gambler plantations had been established. An area of mangroves – the river was lined with the watery forests up to the limits of the tidal influence, it now supports an area of freshwater marshes, wet grasslands and secondary woodland that is teeming with bird, plant and insect life - it is thought to support a colony of fireflies.

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The area was one of two identified in the 2013 Land Use Plan and subsequently the URA Master Plan for conservation as Nature Areas – the other being Pulau Unum and Beting Bronok.  The Land Use Plan has this to say about the area:

Jalan Gemala at Lim Chu Kang has varied habitats such as wet grassland, freshwater marshes as well as tall secondary woodland and freshwater reservoir that are near the area. Its addition as a nature area is significant given its rich wet grassland, with two rare plants (Leea angulata and Cayratia trifolia) being sighted. The inclusion of Jalan Gemala will also help secure the sustainability of the existing Kranji Marshes site at Neo Tiew Lane. The Pink-necked Green Pigeons and Mallotus paniculatus, a quick growing shrub that provides food for small birds are some wildlife species that can be found here.

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Based on information provided by the Nature Society (Singapore) the Jalan Gemala Nature Area is spread along a length of 4 to 5 kilometres and includes secondary forest, grassland and wetland running along the Kangkar inlet into Kranji Reservoir and is adjacent to Kranji Marsh.

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A blue-tailed bee eater in flight

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A rare blue-eared kingfisher


Works being currently bing carried out by NParks

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The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

The mound of ears

2014 December 14

I first caught sight of the Mimizuka (耳塚) in the fading light of dusk. What can best be described as a mound of earth topped with a gorinto - a five-tiered pagoda often used as gravestones; the Mimizuka looked mysterious and curiously out of place against the backdrop of the line of low lying roofs silhouetted against the twilight sky. Surrounded by what largely is a quiet residential neighbourhood in the Higashiyama district of of Kyoto, the mound, I was to discover, stands as a relic of a brutal past.

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Translated from Japanese as “Mound of Ears”, it is where the remains of tens of thousands of humans are buried. Originally named as the “Mound of Noses” or Hanazuka (鼻塚), the remains it contains are in fact noses – those that were severed from at least 38,000 Koreans killed during the Japanese military expeditions into the peninsula initiated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi at the end of the 1500s. Preserved in brine and shipped to Japan as trophies, the noses were buried at the location in 1597 during the time of the second invasion of Korea.

It is in an area that is very much associated with Toyotomi Hideyoshi that one finds the rather macabre monument, just down the very generously proportioned Shomen-dori (正面通) that runs west from the Toyokuni Jinja (豊国神社), a shrine dedicated to the cruel but much revered daimyo.

The area is also where the grand Hoko-ji (方広寺) temple housing the great Buddha of Kyoto was put up by Toyotomi Hideyoshi - intended to rival the Daibutsu, or giant Buddha, of Nara, in scale. Much of the temple, construction of which began in 1586, and its Buddha was destroyed in an earthquake in 1596  and only its bell has survived to this day.

More information can on the little known Mimizuka can be found in a New York Times article written for the 400th anniversary of the mound, Japan, Korea and 1597: A Year That Lives in Infamy as well as in a Wikipedia entry. More on the Hoko-ji, the Toyokuni Jinja and the area can also be found at this site.


The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

The Fire Dragon’s Lair

2014 December 11

It is in the last remnant of the village of sand that we find the lair of the fire dragon. The dragon, the only one in Singapore, lies in wait , its mouth wide open, expelling not a breath of fire, but of flames that reignite the memories of a time and place that might otherwise have been forgotten.

Inside the dragon's lair. Inside the dragon’s lair.

The residence of the dragon, a small corner of the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee (萬山福德祠) – housed in a century old structure erected during the days of the now forgotten village, is the temple’s newly completed Sar Kong Heritage Room. The room is where the story of the dragon, that of the area’s heritage, and also of the humble origins of the temple and the community it served, now awaits discovery.

A view of the heritage room from the outside. A view of the heritage room from the outside.

As with much of the Geylang that had developed along the banks of the rivers and tributaries of the area, the origins of the village of Sar Kong (沙崗) whose community the temple served, is one that is tied to the trades that thrived due to the geography of the area. In Sar Kong’s case, it was the kilns that fired the much needed building blocks for the fast developing Singapore, providing employment to a community of Cantonese and Hakka coolies. Established through the efforts of the community, the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee is unique in that among many early Chinese temples that has survived to this day, it owes its setting up not to an act of philanthropy by well-established individuals, but to the efforts of a coolie community.

Among the exhibits is a set of historical photos and building plans that is set against part of a wall that has its plaster removed to reveal its original brickwork. Among the exhibits is a set of historical photos and building plans that is set against part of a wall that has its plaster removed to reveal its original brickwork.

Much of the information on geographical and historic setting for the village and the temple can be found within the exhibits of the heritage room, along with the background to some of the temple’s more interesting religious practices as well as the role it played from a social perspective. There also is information to be discovered about the dance of the fire dragon, which has its origins in Guangdong, Made of straw imported from China, the dragons previously made would have been constructed for the feast day of the Earth Deity, to whom the temple is dedicated, and sent in flames to the heavens.  The dragon that is on display is one made for a more recent Chingay Parade.

Putting up the plaques. Putting up the plaques.

More information on the temple, which is under threat from future development, can be found in a previous post, On Borrowed Time: Mun San Fook Tuck Chee. The newly completed heritage room is due to be opened officially in Jaunary 2015.

Early birds to the heritage room. Early birds to the heritage room.

The fire dragon. The fire dragon.

A one way ticket from a personal collection on display. A one way ticket belonging to a personal collection on display.


The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

The tallest building in Southeast Asia

2014 December 10

Standing tall at 82 metres when it was completed in 1955, the former Asia Insurance Building had the distinction of being not just the tallest building in Singapore, but also in Southeast Asia. Wearing an art-deco façade, the building, now the Ascott Raffles Place, was the creation of Dr Ng Keng Siang, who also designed it as Southeast Asia’s first “earthquake proof” building.

The view from the one-time tallest building in Singapore towards what is today the tallest building. The view from the one-time tallest building in Singapore towards what is today one of three tallest buildings in Singapore that is almost  3.5 times its height.

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Soon after it was completed in the mid-1950s (source: National Archives of Singapore). Soon after it was completed in the mid-1950s (source: National Archives of Singapore).

While it is dwarfed today by the towers of glass and steel that now dominate the financial district that has grown around it, the beautiful building maintains a majestic presence at its location at the corner of Finlayson Green and Raffles Quay having undergone a huge restoration effort from 2006 to 2008. The effort, a huge part of which involved the painstaking restoration of the 20,000 pieces of its Travertine marble face, saw the building being awarded with the URA Architectural Heritage Award in 2009, with it being gazetted for conservation in 2007.

Singapore’s tallest buildings over the years (source: URA’s Facebook Page).

70sAdThe building, put up by the Asia Insurance Company at a cost of $8 million, was officially opened by the then Governor of Singapore, Sir Robert Brown Black, on 10 December 1955. Besides the Asia Insurance Company, which occupied the second and third levels of the 18 storey building; the Royal Dutch Airlines, KLM and the Belgian and Indonesian Consulates were among the building’s first tenants.

Construction of the building seen during the year of the Coronation, 1953. Construction of the building seen during the year of the Coronation, 1953 (source: National Archives of Singapore).

Besides the marble face, other features of note include the black Nero Portaro Italian marble found at the base of the building including two Nero Portaro pillars on which inscriptions commemorating the laying of the foundation stone by Commissioner-General for South-east Asia, Sir Malcolm MacDonald, in the year of the coronation of the Queen in 1953, and for the official opening of the building in 1955. The building also wears a crown of stainless steel, placed at its top to commemorate the 1953 coronation.

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The building, was acquired by the Ascott Group in July 2006 for $109.5 million, and has since been converted as the hospitality group’s flagship building offering 146 luxury suites. More information on the building and its conservation can be found at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) conservation website. What may also be of interest are the memories of interactions with the building through the six decades of its existence. This can be found in several posts on the On a Little Street in Singapore Facebook Group (see Post1, Post2, Post3).

The stainless steel crown at the top of the building. The stainless steel crown at the top of the building.

The staircase to the roof terrace. The staircase to the roof terrace.

Despite being in teh shadows of the taller buildings around, the roof terrace of the Ascott offers a great view of the surroundings, including Raffles Place. Despite being in the shadows of the taller buildings around, the roof terrace of the Ascott offers a great view of the surroundings, including Raffles Place.


A look inside the Brown Suite during a recent URA Architectural Heritage Award Tour:

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Additions to the existing building include a swimming pool, a drop-off point and a curved staircase in the lobby:

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The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

Magical road journeys: Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1

2014 November 18

On a bright and sunny morning, the light of the newly risen sun, in streaming through the glorious canopy of trees, transforms a stretch of Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 into an enchanted world. The stretch is one along which I have made many a journey, having opened in 1977, when I was living just off it. It is only in more recent times that I have seen it cast in this magical light, best observed in the half an hour or so after the sun has come up.


The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

Say goodbye to the former Queenstown Driving Test Centre

2014 November 12

Built more to be functional than for any aesthetic appeal, the plain looking building along Commonwealth Avenue just across from where the Queenstown MRT Station is, is one that a generation or two of Singaporeans, would have a connection with. The building, wearing what probably is its brightest appearance since it came up, the former Queenstown Driving Test Centre, was built in 1968 as Singapore’s second driving test centre to compliment the one then at Maxwell Road. It was where I took my Highway Code test sometime in the early 1980s.

In passing - the soon to be demolished former Queenstown Driving Test Centre as seen through the platform doors of the Queenstown MRT Station. In passing – the soon to be demolished former Queenstown Driving Test Centre as seen through the platform doors of the Queenstown MRT Station.

The introduction of the driving test circuit, the first test of which was conducted in Kampong Ubi in December 1985, spelled the beginning of the end for the test centre. Before it was eventually shut down ten years later, the test centre continued to operate as a location for theory tests. The building was put to use for a while as a police centre and saw other uses before being left vacant to await what will be its eventual demolition.

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For those who are sad to see the centre go, there will be an opportunity to say a last goodbye to it – the former test centre will be opened on 13 December 2014 from 10 am to 2 pm. More information can be found on the My Queenstown Facebook Page.


The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

Back to school in Victoria Street

2014 November 10

Several hundred girls from CHIJ Toa Payoh secondary and primary schools found themselves back in school on Sunday, not in the familiar surroundings of Toa Payoh, but in ones once familiar in Victoria Street. It had been in Victoria Street some 160 years ago, that four nuns of the Congregation of the Holy Infant Jesus’, having arrived following a long and arduous journey from Europe to the Singapore via Penang, began their mission in Caldwell House with just a bed, 2 mats, 2 chairs and 2 stools, establishing the convent in February 1854.

Back to school in once familiar surroundings. Back to school in once familiar surroundings.

The convent was to grow, establishing within the walls of its expanded premises on Victoria Street,  not just an enlarged physical presence that was to be defined by the wonderful examples of architecture built to the glory of the supreme being, but also as a leading institution that provided both care for many in need as well as one that has and continues to play a significant role in providing education to girls in Singapore.

Late for school - 30 years too late! The schools moved out from the premises of the former convent at the end of 1983 after almost 130 years. Late for school – 30 years too late! The schools moved out from the premises of the former convent at the end of 1983 after almost 130 years.

While it is sad that the magnificent buildings erected for the nuns to carry out their mission can no longer be used for the purpose – the convent having had to vacate its oasis in the city in 1983 (the schools in the premises moved to Toa Payoh in 1984 and a third school, CHIJ St. Nicholas, to Ang Mo Kio), and even sadder that the complex has been repurposed in a way that trivialises the original intent; it is good to see that there is still a connection that the schools can make with their spiritual home, now called CHIJMES.

Once familiar scenes returned for a day to the corridors of the old convent. Once familiar scenes (except for the mobile devices) returned for a day to the corridors of the old convent.

The girls, dressed in the familiar blue pinafores, made more than that connection yesterday. Together with their teachers and members of their alumni, a physical connection was also established, with 402 lining up, tallest to the shortest, with hands joined to form what is believed to a world record for the longest human chain (tallest to shortest) – subject to confirmation by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Confirmation  of a Singapore Record. Confirmation of a Singapore Record.

Primary school participants being arranged in order of height. Primary school participants being arranged in order of height.

Hand-in-hand for the world record attempt. Hand-in-hand for the world record attempt.

Part of the schools’ commemoration of their 160th Anniversaries, the apparent success of the effort dubbed IJ Link, was celebrated in song and dance immediately after. Along with the world record attempt, which surpasses the previously held record of 311, a bazaar, brunch at the former chapel and arts performances were also held on the grounds of the former convent.

The celebration after ... The celebration after …

An assembly held in the field behind the chapel. An assembly held in the field behind the chapel in the good old days (photograph: National Archives of Singapore).

Happy days were here again! Happy days were here again!


More photographs:

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The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

Horses dancing on the Istana’s lawn

2014 November 6

One of the memories that connects me to Tanah Merah, a magical place that I dearly miss by the sea, is of seeing what had first appeared to me to be grown men at play on cardboard horses. Tanah Merah was a wondrous place to me, not just because of that little moment of magic, but also due to its physical landscape. Set along a coast marked by cliffs from which the area derived its name, it a naturally beautiful world into which I could in my childhood, often find an escape in.

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Four decades now separates me that memory. The place has long been discarded by a Singapore that has little sentiment for its natural beauty, but what I remember of it, the horsemen I saw at play,  continues to be a source of fascination for me, play a dance that is surrounded by much mystique.

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The dance, known as Kuda Kepang here in Singapore, is thought to have its origins in the animistic practices of pre-Islamic Java and part of the mystery that surrounds it are the spirits invoked in joining man with the horses they stand astride on. The trance the horsemen fall into provide the ability to do what science cannot explain.

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I revisited these memories of what I had witness as a young child from the safety of the side of the road at the village of Kampong Ayer Gemuroh in Tanah Merah. With the familiar strains of the dizzying gamelan-like accompaniment playing, I watched, enthralled, as men possessed pranced on their two-dimensional horses in the shadows of a former royal palace .

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The palace, once the Istana Kampong Glam, is now a centre to promote the history and culture of the Malay community of which the descendants of the Javanese immigrants in Singapore have largely assimilated into. Known as the Malay Heritage Centre, it was on its now well manicured lawn on which I was able to catch what today is a rare performance of the age-old dance.

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Where it had once been quite commonly seen, especially at happy occasions such as weddings, performances in public have become few and far between as a change in lifestyles, social perceptions, and religious objections, have seen such ritual practices having been all but discarded.

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While I have in fact put up a post on the dance, sitting through an entire performance does mean I have a newer and more photographs of the dance to share in this post. My previous post does however contain a more complete description of my first impressions of Kuda Kepang and on the dance itself, and should you wish to visit it, it can be found at this link.


Before the performance

Prayers offered before the performance. Prayers offered before the performance.

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Preliminaries

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During the Dance

Smoke from the kemenyan (incense) being breathed in. Smoke from the kemenyan (incense) being breathed in.

Men becoming one with the horse. Men becoming one with the horse.The performers are obviously in a trance-like state. The performers are obviously in a trance-like state.

Drinking from a bucket of water. Drinking from a bucket of water.

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The horses are whipped, apparently without any pain being felt. The horses are whipped, apparently without any pain being felt.

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The Barong

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Performers being brought out of the trance

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The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

Artistic Impressions by Shunji Matsuo

2014 November 3

Renowned for his artistic creations in the hair salon, hairstylist Shunji Matsuo unleashes another dimension in his creative genius in Artistic Impressions, an exhibition running until 13 November 2014, which showcases not only his contribution to hairstyles, but also some 40 paintings and over 20 sculptures and headdresses. The exhibition, curated by Steven Lim, a late bloomer in the field of art – interestingly he was a ship designer before he put himself through art school close to the age of 60, is being held at the Japan Creative Centre in Nassim Road.

A model dressed in Shunji Matsuo's happy colours at the opening of the exhibition on Friday. A model dressed in Shunji Matsuo’s happy colours at the opening of the exhibition on Friday.

I thought that the works, which in most part have a recurring theme centered around women and hairstyles – have also been inspired by contemporary artists such as Yayoi Kusama and subjects such the Amasan in Japan, are rich in colour (yellow is said to be his happy colour) and have a rather intriguing child-like quality.

A work inspired by Yayoi Kusama. A work inspired by Yayoi Kusama.

Matsuo at the opening. Matsuo at the opening.

The exhibition is well worth a visit not just for Matsuo’s happy expressions of creativity, but also because it gives you an opportunity to step into the gorgeous old world house that the Japan Creative Centre is housed in. More information is available at http://www.sg.emb-japan.go.jp/JCC/invite_shunji%20matsuo.html.

The gorgeous house the Japan Creative Centre is housed in. The gorgeous house the Japan Creative Centre is housed in.

Matsuo's contributions to 50 years of fashion evolution. Matsuo’s contributions to 50 years of fashion evolution.

Curator, Steven Lim. Curator, Steven Lim.

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The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

One hundred steps to a new heaven?

2014 October 29

It has been a while since I last ventured to the once magical world of Mount Sophia. Perched one hundred feet above the city, scaling its heights was best done on foot via a flight of one hundred steps (and a little more these days), taking you into a world that seemed to me to be the closest thing that there might have been to heaven on earth.

The new world reflecting on a past being erased.. The new world reflecting on a past being erased.

What remains of the former MGS. All that remains of an old school.

Heaven, as it might have been when I made the first of my wanderings through the area in the 1970s, was much changed place by the time I was reacquainted with the hill in more recent times. Much of its magic faded when Eu Villa, a mansion that was the stuff of which fairy tales are made, was demolished at the start of the 1980s. Scarred today by the barbs that have replaced its once wondrous architectural landscape, much of the charm of its days of glory, has never been seen again.

Eu Villa - the magical home of Eu Tong Sen (Source: www.singapedia.com.sg). Eu Villa – the magical home of Eu Tong Sen (Source: www.singapedia.com.sg).

The triumph of the weapons of past destruction. The triumph of the weapons of past destruction.

A more recent loss was that of the large cluster of buildings that has collectively been referred to as “Old School”, leaving but a few reminders of a yesterday that has largely been forgotten. The complex of buildings was where over six decades of the memories of old girls of Methodist Girls School (MGS), until 1992, had been made. All that remains today is a lone building, abandoned by its companions, but soon to forge new friendships.

Last one standing - Olson building, abandoned by the other buildings of old MGS. Last one standing – Olson building, abandoned by the other buildings of old MGS.

And the walls come tumbling down. A retaining wall belonging to the former MGS being demolished. And the walls come tumbling down. A retaining wall belonging to the former MGS being demolished.

The lone structure, now sitting forlornly surrounded by a scene of devastation, the Olson building, dates back to 1928 – having been built to facilitate the school’s move up the hill from nearby Short Street that had been attributed to the then principal Mary Olson, after whom the building was named. Destined now to be a clubhouse within the Sophia Hills residential development that will colonise a good part of Mount Sophia, it is one of four reminders of an enchanted past that have been conserved on the hill.

Olson building will become a clubhouse as part of the Sophia Hills development.

The sprawling condominium development, spread not only over the grounds of the former MGS, but will also include the former premises of Nan Hwa Girls’ School at the junction of Adis Road and Sophia Road, and the area next to Old School that was used by Trinity Theological College (TTC), will also include two of the remanining three conserved structures. One is the pre-war building that housed Nan Hwa, which will be put to use as a kindergarten cum childcare centre. The other is the former TTC chapel, which is intended for use as a fine-dining restaurant.

The former Nan Hwa Girls' School. The former Nan Hwa Girls’ School.

The former Nan Hwa will be leased out as a kindergarten cum childcare centre.

The former chapel of TTC - being turned into a fine-dining restaurant. The former chapel of TTC – being turned into a fine-dining restaurant.

The chapel, which has stood out on the hill since the 1960s, is recognisable from its very distinctive roof structure, which takes the form of the Chinese character representing people or人 (ren), when viewed from the front. A fourth conserved structure on the hill that is not part of the development, is the former Tower House, which now houses House on the Hill, a childcare centre.

An artist’s impression of what the fine-dining restaurant will look like.

House on the Hill across the road from the Sophia Hills development. House on the Hill across the road from the Sophia Hills development.

With the chill brought by the winds of change sweeping through a once familiar part of Singapore, comes much pain. We have to be numb as there is little room to be sentimental in a Singapore where looking to the future makes us forget the past. There are the small reminders of yesterday we sometimes hold on to. These, however, often lose their meaning in being made into a part of tomorrow.

The once magical hilltop of Mount Sophia being cleared for new magic to be created. The once magical hilltop of Mount Sophia being cleared for new magic to be created.

There is the promise of a new magic. But to feel its enchantment, we have to fall out of love with the Singapore we have grown to love. It is only then that we can fall in love again, with a Singapore where love for anything else but all that now glisters, is hard to find.

The promised land as seen on a hoarding at the site. The promised land as seen on a hoarding at the site.


The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.



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