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Sep 21, 2019

Happily Ever After For Queenstown Library

It will continue to serve the community and new generation of readers

By Joanna Seow
[Source:  The Straits Times, 25 July 2014]

Standing two storeys tall, the grey building on Margaret Drive looks old-fashioned with its bow-tie motif and lattice facade.

But this venerable keeper of fairytales and stories of faraway lands has been ahead of times.

Queenstown Public Library - the oldest public library still standing in Singapore - became the first branch to be fully air-conditioned in 1978 and the first to computerise its loan system in 1987.

It also opened the first children's corner and was the first to offer free movie screenings.

Now, the 44-year-old library - which became the country's oldest after the original National Library building at Stamford Road was torn down - will be the first of 26 under the National Library Board (NLB) to be preserved.

The 40th Anniversary of Queenstown Branch Library blog here .
Last month, it was gazetted for conservation under the Urban Redvelopment Authority's Master Plan 2014, as part of the medium-term term physical development of Singapore.

"I'm happy it will still be here.  It ties us to our memories, and that's the purpose of conserving a building," said retired Republic of Singapore Air Force officer Tommy Tan, 51, who lived in nearby Margaret Close as a boy.

Queenstown itself is no stranger to firsts.  It was the nation's first satellite town - nearly 20,000 housing units were built there from 1952 to 1968.

A modern town centre developed in the 1960s and 1970s, across from the library building.  The nation's first neighbourhood shopping centre and sports complex sprang up there.

And in 1970, Queenstown's new branch library was opened by then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, kicking off a movement to connect heartlanders to reading.

Built at a cost of $595,000, it lent out more than 293,000 books and registered 12,600 users in its first year.  The figures more than doubled over the first five years.

In the library's heyday, queues for borrowing and returning books snaked out the front door, and Saturday visitors had to squeeze in, said Mrs Kiang-Koh Lai Lin, a former NLB director of reading initiatives and a Queenstown librarian from 1980 to 1982.

Library manager Michelle Kwok (left) with Mrs Kiang-Koh Lai Lin, a Queenstown librarian from 1980 to 1982.

Children loved the storytelling sessions and cosy corner created by Mrs Kiang-Koh, 63, who pestered a carpet firm for several months until it donated a carpet.

"We would get children who didn't enjoy reading to attend programmes like magic shows and then introduce books related to their hobbies," she said.

The building was at the centre of a hive of activity, with a bowling centre, cinemas and hawker food just a short walk away.

"We would say "meet at the library' and decide what to do after that," said Mr Tan, who now visits it once a month with his wife and daughter, aged four.

But time has hushed the neighbourhood.  The Cinema and Bowling Centre closed in 1999, though the building still stands.  Next to the library, the former Queenstown Polyclinic and Dental Clinic is now a dormitory for workers.

Gone are the queues, thanks to automated loan machines.

Sunlight steaming in through giant glass windows illumininates books left open by children visiting with their parents or students seeking a quiet refuge.

Esther Lee, 11, cut a serene figure as she pored over work set by her mother, Mrs Hazel Lee, 36, who home-schools Esther and her three younger siblings.

"We get books related to the topic Mum is teaching," said Esther, who usually reads seven books a week.  "I like the library as it's much quieter than other places."

Civil servant L.P. Lim, 35, who lives nearby, visited the library as a girl and still loves it.  She said: "As the front doors slide open, I often feel a tingle of happiness - it's like being welcomed to a place where stories of Enid Blyton's treetop fairyland still exist."

Visitors appreciate the peaceful atmostphere, as shopping mall libraries tend to be more crowded.

"Other libraries are more central.  This feels more exclusive," said retiree Koh Hock Chong, 63, who reads Chinese magazines there several times a week.

Not content to be a wallflower, the library has turned to programmes such as movie screenings to draw in more readers, said manager Michelle Kwok.  It also holds gardening talks that tie in with its community garden, which is its special feature.

And the area could soon get livelier with the redevelopment of the nearby Tanglin Halt area.  Some residents will move to five new housing projects, two of which are in front of the library.

Many visitors to the library go for their children's sake.  Housewife Jyothi Abburu, 32, who was there recently with her two daughters and mother-in-law, said:  "My younger girl especially likes the storytelling sessions."

Like the building itself, the storytelling tradition has stood the test of time.  Mrs Kiang-Koh often runs into visitors who enjoyed storytime at the library as children.

"I'm very happy I'm around to see the next generation," she said.  "Now, they bring their mothers and their own kids to the library."

Mrs Kiang-Koh Lai Lin, the Reading Ambassador .

Sep 5, 2019

The Moon Festival

Stall at Smith Street in Chinatown selling moon cakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Cake Festival. The Chinese festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month, the night at which the moon is believed to be the roundest and brightest. The Mid-Autumn Festival dates back to the reign of Emperor Tai Tsung of the Sung Dynasty (AD 976-995), but it was only in the Ts'ing period when China was under Manchurian rule (1644-1911) that moon cakes were consumed in celebration. Shaped like the moon, the sweet pastry is traditionally filled with a few types of paste -- lotus, black-bean, yellow-bean, and "golden trotter" (mixture of nuts and sweetened paste of orange peel and ham) -- and often includes a preserved duck's egg yolk. During the festive season, moon cakes are given as gifts and put at the altar as offerings to deities, ancestors and the moon.  Date:  12/09/1983.

The Moon Festival, a tradition that is still going strong in Singapore.

Traditions die hard, and the Eighth Moon Festival - also known as the Mid-Autumn or Moon-cake Festival - is no different.

Chinese in Singapore still continue to celebrate the event, one of the most colourful in the Chinese calendar, although the majority do not really understand its significance, especially among the younger generation.

It climaxed two weeks of activities which saw thousands of dollars worth of moon-cakes bought, exchanged and consumed.

Chinatown, just across the People's Park Complex, is usually the centre of activity before the festival.  Here shops and roadside stalls are well-stocked with traditional items like pomeloes, tea leaves and dust, and, of course, moon-cakes in different variety.

However, with the threat of urban renewal, this area is slowly losing its popularity as THE place for festival shopping.

Ask any of the Chinatown stall-holders and he will readily tell you that business has not been as good as in the previous years.

One of the reasons is that the younger generation are not so keen in celebrating the festival.

"Unlike the older people, the younger ones will only buy a few pieces of moon-cake for the family and one or two lanterns for their children," said one of the shop-keepers who has been years in the business.

"This is bad because if this trend continues, a time will come when no one will celebrate the festival."

There are however, clubs here whch still celebrate the occasion quite elaborately.  The China Society, for instance, holds and annual Mooncake Party for its members and guests, and among its activities are cultural shows and talks on the festival.

For the older folk, festival day means time for exchange of gifts among friends and relatives with mooncakes and caged "piglets" topping the lsit.

It is also time to pray to the Moon Goddess - despite the American intrusion on the planet.

Although no one can say for certain how long this tradition will last in Singapore, most people agree that the festival helps to bring on added touch of colour to the lives of the people here.

[Source:  New Nation, 23 September 1972.  By Jenny Lee].

Madam Lan Lee Ying and her two-year-old granddaughter Annabell Song, in Chinatown to buy lanterns.  Tonight is the celebration of the Mid-Autumn festival which is also known as the lantern or mooncake festival.  Picture by Lau Fook Kong.

The lady in the moon

By Diane Lim [Source:  The Straits Times, 27 September 1987].

When the moon rises high in the sky on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, round and bright as a big lantern, little ones might well wonder about the dim shapes they see on its surface.

If they won't be satisfied with the standard modern explanation that these are shadows made by the mountains and craters on the moon, perhaps the traditional myths may go sown better with mooncakes and Chinese tea.

The central figure in the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations is Chang E, the Lady in the Moon.  Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) mythologies say that she was the beautiful wife of Hou Yi, a skilful archer who saved the earth from drought during the Xia dynasty (circa 2,000 BC) by shooting nine suns from the sky, leaving one we see today.

There are several different accounts of how Chang E got in the moon.  In the most commonly-told version, Hou Yi was rewarded for his feat by being made ruler of the people he had saved.

Unfortuantely, he proved to be tyrannical.  He sent emissaries to Xi Wang Mu, Queen of the Western Paradise, to procure an elixir of immortality.

Chang E foresaw unending misery for her husband's subjects should he become immortal.  So, filled with pity and concern for them, she drank the elixir and fled to the moon to escape Hou Yi's wrath.

Her heroic sacrifice is remembered by those who pray to her as the Goddess of the Moon and symbol of beauty, wisdom and virtue.

In another version of the story, the 10 suns in the sky were the sons of Jade Emperor, supreme ruler of the heavens.  He had instructed them to take turns shining in the sky so as to warm the earth, but they had disobediently appeared together, causing drought and destruction.

Hou Yi was a heavenly emissary sent to reason with them.  Failing to persuade them with words, he shot down all but one.  Angered by this, the Jade Emperor barred Hou Yi and his fairy wife Chang E, who had come to earth with him, from returning to heaven.

Chang E was unhappy with her life among mortals and nagged Hou Yi to find a way for them to regain immortality.  After many difficulties, Hou Yi obtained a medicine from Xi Yang Mu, who gave him enough of it for two.

He returned to Chang E rejoicing and told her about it, but hid it in the roof of the house when he went out again.  Chang E discovered the medicine in his absence.  She had just taken it down when she heared Hou Yi returning.

In confusion, she swallowed it all.  She started to feel lighter and lighter and began to float upwards as her husband watched helplessly.  Finally, she reached the moon, unable to go further, since she was still not permitted to enter heaven.

On a clear night, look at the moon, especially when it is full.  The shadows on the moon may also recall the silhouette of a rabbit.

One story about it goes thus:  A fox, a monkey and a rabbit lived together harmoniously, sharing their food and work.  One day, a holy man came begging for food and shelter.  The three animals welcomed him into their cave.  The fox brought him a carp, and the monkey gave him freshly picked fruit.

Full of sadness that it had nothing better to offer, the rabbit jumped into the fire and roasted itself to provide meat for the old man.

As it turned out, the honly man was the Lord Buddha in disguise and, to reward the rabbit's generosity, he placed its half-burnt carcass on the moon to shine as an example for all eternity....

And what about the mooncakes, their golden brown recalling the gleam of the harvest moon?

It is said that Zhu Yuan Zhang overthrew the Yuan dynasty (1279 AD - 1368 AD) and freed the Chinese from Mongol domination with their help.  On the advice of his lieutenant, Liu Bo Wen, mooncakes were circulated among the people as the festival approached.

Celebrating the festival provided an excuse for Chinese families to gather, as the Mongol soldiers otherwise strictly controlled their movements.

Since ownership of sharp weapons was restricted and 10 families had to share one knife, the need to cut the mooncakes ensured that the people would have arms at the ready when they received the call to rise against the Mongols - by means of notes hidden in the mooncakes.

The rebellion was successful, and resulted in the founding of the Ming dynasty (1369-1644).

Sadly, the authenticity of this well-know story is disputed.  The Mid-Autumn Festival was indeed celebrated from the Song dynasty (AD960-1279) onwards, but mooncakes were not mentioned as being part of the festival until the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), according to C.S. Wong, the late Penang-based expert on Chinese matters.

However, Tan Sri Lee is of the view that the mooncakes do have a long history and may well have existed at the time of the anti-Mongol revolt.

Information published by the Hong Kong Tourist Association supports what Tan Sri Lee said, claiming that mooncakes existed as far back as the Tang dynasty, though their origin is unknown.

    Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations in Chinatown

Sales of mooncakes at Chinatown in the 1950s.

Sales of lanterns at Chinatown in the 1950s.

Celebration of Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festivals in 2003

President SR Nathan, Guest of Honour for official opening and light-up ceremony of the Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festival at New Bridge Road on 31 August, 2003.

My personal Chinatown Mid-Autumn Blogs

In 2013, I had the pleasure and privilege to share my blog and personal memories of Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festival in 2013 here .

Please watch the YouTube video here .

The still photos captured from the Mediacorp Channel 8 screened on Frontline on 20 September, 2013 below:


Aug 26, 2019

Raising the REX

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the Rex Cinema is once again resurrected.

By Jason Johnson

[Source:  New Paper, 14 September 2009]

Talking to business people can be frustrating.  Here I was interviewing Mr Narayanasamy Muthu, the man who has brought the Rex Cinemas (formerly known as the Rex Theatre) back to life after 26 years - yay! - and somehow I seemed more excitwed about the prospect than he did.

Mr Narayanasamy Muthu

"Is this the theatre you went to when you were a boy?" I asked, hoping to get some misty-eyed tale about how he'd seen his first movie there, thus embarking upon a life-long love affair with cinema.

Instead, Mr Muthu filled me in on how he's in the film distribution business, and how getting into film exhibition will supplement and enhance his current operation.

Also, he runs a successful jewellery business.  Specialises in gems.

As far as sepia-toned childhood memories go, I didn't get much.

"When I was young," he said, "I was very interested in the film line, and plus I was wroking in a jewellery shop.  Both had a hold on my mind, and I thought in the future I would do both businesses."

But perhaps expecting poetry from a man who has spent a lifetime wheeling and dealing, buying and selling film prints and precious stones, is just silly.

Bottom line, Mr Muthu is making an immense contribution to the community in and around Little India.

His reborn Rex - which has been completely refurbished, top to bottom, over the past five months - will fill a niche that sorely needs to be filled in Singapore.

"I intend to play movies of many different languages in the cinema," he said.

"Not just English movies, but Malay movies, Hindi movies, maybe even big Chinese movies.  Of course, being in Little India, the main thing we have to show is Tamil films.

"In Singapore, there are so many different languages spoken, I've even had Nepali people asking me to show their films!"

The question is, how on earth can the Rex compete in a market already saturated with state-of-the-art megaplexes?

"Everyone knows about the Rex," said Mr Muthu, who at 62 is just one year younger than the Rex itself.

"After it was opened by the Shaw Brothers in 1946, all the races would come here to watch movies.  All those people have experience the Rex.  Everybody knows about the Rex Cinemas.

"For example, the Rex is on Mackenzie Road, but if you ask people where Mackenzie Road is, they don't know.  If you ask them where Rex is, they know."

As Mr Muthu gave me a tour of his new theatre, his obvious pride in the plae came through.

He might be unwilling to verbally express his excitement, but pointing out the various features of the new Rex, he was obviously delighted with the place.

The poor Rex has had its shares of ups and downs since it ceased operations as a movie theatre way back in 1983, due in large part to the rise of home video.

It's been used as a Methodist church, an ice-skating rink and a disco.  For the past two years, it was abandoned, after its last tenant, the Indian nightclub Amaran, closed shop.

Now, finally, the Rex has been restored to the former glory, thanks to the $3 million-plus investment of Mr Muthu and his Malaysian business partner, Murugan Soppurayan.

It has three cinema halls.  The main hall boasts of a super-wide screen,a nd has a seating capacity of 700.  Two smaller - but still quite big - halls are upstairs.

Ticket prices will be about the same as those of Rex's competitors.

On the outside, the theatre maintains the essence of its art deco origins, the nice simple lines of the original architecture enhanced with bright orange trim.

Inside and outside, there are movie posters everywhere.  My fave is one for a Hindi moview called "Daddy Cool".

Daddy cool

It made me want to call Mr Muthu Daddy Cool, but I didn't.

Mr Muthu's son, Mr N Senthilkumaran, helped in the design of the theatre.  He said:  "Our screen design is from India.  In India, the screen design is very big - they like big things (laughs).  Our screen is 70mm (built for large format film projection).  It curves to offer a better viewing experience.

"Even if you're sitting up front, you can see everything."

By the end of my time with Mr Muthu, I still hadn't managed to get him sentimental about the Rex (obviously, I'm no Barbara Walters), but I did take note when he spoke of how people in his community had reacted to his latest venture.

"Sometimes when I'm in a shop, people come and congratulate me.  They tell me that when they were young, their parents would like them to the Rex.  They're so happy, I hear that all the time."

Rex Cinema brings back fond memories for this 70-something


[Source:  New Paper, 23 September 2009]

Your report, "Raising the Rex" (The New Paper, 14 Sep), has made my day.

Far too many building and places in Singapore which I can relate to are gone.

Even the Cuppage Road house where I was born, preserved at one time, is now a food court without a trace of my childhood home left.

I am now in my mid-70s and Rex Cinema brings back fond memories.

As a regular patron, I was there at the afternoon opening show of Rock Around The Clock, with policemen on duty in the theatre just in case over enthusiatic rock 'n' roll fans got out of hand.

It was at the Rex Book Stall, by the side of the building that I made my purchase of sex education book, which taught me so much.

And, during my undergraduate days, I made almost daily trips on a Green Bus to the hawker stalls there for my lunch of Indian rojak and mee siam.

On the first floor of the corner coffee shop building on Mackenzie Road (where the popular curry puff was sold) there was a Hainanese run halal restaurant selling Chinese food.  It was probably the first of such restaurants.

I wish Mr Narayanasamy Muthu every success in his endeavour to revive the Rex Cinema.

First "Sensurround" film "Earthquake" at Rex Cinema

Crowd at Rex Cinema queuing for the film "Earthquake".  It was the first film shown in Singapore that featured the new "Sensurround" sound effects that also sent vibrations through the cinema seats to simulate a real earthquake.

The archived photos to share on the blog with courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

Roti Prata seller

A roti prata seller at his stall behind the Rex Cinema.  Photo dated 24/20/1972.

Junction of Kitchener and Serangoon Roads with cinema advertisements for the Capitol, Rex and Prince Cinemas owned by the Shaw Brother organisations in the background on the right is one of the entrances to New World Amusement Park where an advertisement on trade fain 1982 is placed.

Photo dated 01/11/1982 courtesy of Ronni Pinsler Collection, National Archives of Singapore.

Photo dated 18/7/1948 courtesy of Wong Kwan collection, National Archives of Singapore.

Please share the heritage blog "Rex Cinema Then and Now" here .

  • Rex Theatre main entrance at Mackenzie Road, Singapore in 1982.

Aug 17, 2019

If the past is no longer present

Night life at Bugis Street (1980)

Where exactly was the infamous toilet in Bugis Street in the 1980s (photo above)?

Thanks to Icemoon's 2ndshot blog here .

I share my sentiments about heritage memories with Ong Soh Chin who wrote her article "If the past is no longer present" on People and Places at The Straits Times on 9 August, 2006.

[ As I write this National Day essay about the places which make Singapore special to me, bombs are raining down on Beirut and Haifa  and a tsunami has just devastated parts of Java.

As I attempt to root my Singaporeanness in physical entities - such as human beings or addresses - I cannot help but wonder if the Lebanese, Israelis and Javaneses who have lost their homes and loved ones feel any less Lebanese, Israeli or Javanese.

Probably not.  In their circumstances, the traumatic loss of these physical anchors probably makes what is now missing even more vivid and alive - the way a person can still "feel" his freshly amputated arm.

To a very much lesser extent, of course, it is this same lack of permanence that characterises what it means to be Singaporean.  While we have, thankfully, been spared the ravages of nature and warfare for the most part, we have fallen easily under the boot heels of time and progress.

Most of the landmarks of my childhood are now gone or transformed beyond recognition.  For example, the former Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus is now CHIJmes, its name itself a mutant hybrid of a truncated past and a tinkly music-box present.

Bugis Junction is a souped-up mall where once roadside "zi char" stalls with overpriced drinks used to stand.  I remember on one night in 1984, when parents were less uptight about textbook morality, being taken there for dinner and being enthralled by three dolled-up creatures of the night.

Night scenes at Bugis Street in the 1980s

The archived photos of Bugis Street in the past to share on this blog with courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

The following year, the bulldozers pulled in and the transvestites pulled out, taking with them forever the colour and craziness that had once made the street so uniquely Singapore.

The Lido, Orchard and Cathay cinemas of my misspent youth are now spanking new cineplexes teeming with a new generation of youngsters in the process of forming their own memories.

They will never know, however, what it means to sit on a lumpy cinema seat pockmarked with holes or to be interrupted midway through a movie by a stray cat in the dark brushing past their legs.'

Every generation in every country laments the passing of time and yearns for the good old days.

We all recognise sullenly that progress is necessary and inevitable.  And with progress, the old must give way to the new, the inefficient to the ISO-worthy.

Certainly there are parts of the past I am glad not to relive.  Despite my fond memories of the old buses, I am happy we don't have to pack ourselves in like sardines any more and that our sturdy buses today have proper doors, unlike the old rust-bucket models which had a big uncovered holes carved out of one side.

However, with our great progress has come not only ease and comfort, but also a certain mental and spiritual flabbiness and a gaping hole where a sense of national identity should be.  Other countries have the luxury of a long rich history and culture to fall back on when they lose their way.  We just have the Merlion.

At worst, our lack of cultural awareness and maturity manifests itself in a solipsistic arrogance.  Everyone has heard anecdotes about Singaporean businessmen throwing their weight around in China, for example.

Back home, coffeeshop chatter about the foreigners who have decided to make Singapore their home is inevitably negative.  Forgetting that we, too, come from lowly immigrant stock, we constantly speak ill of Chinese study mamas, Vietnamese prostitutes, Filipino and Indonesian maids and Bangladeshi workers.

There is certainly a lot in our tiny nation to be proud of and we should never be ashamed of our many achievements.  But it should not be pride practised in a vacuum.

As former Minsister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew himself once noted, one must remember the past in order to move ahead meaningfully into the future.  In Singapore with its dramatic and rapid changes, this is especially important.

If we recognise that Singapore has changed dramatically in the last half century - from kampungs to condos, richshaws to MRT, one-way streets to expressways, karang guni to vintage couture - why is it so hard to recognise that there are many people who cannot keep up?

The other day, I visited two friends who had just moved into a rented terrace house in Kuo Chuan Avenue.  Come see it, they exhorted.  You won't believe your eyes, they added.

And they were right.  Tucked away in Katong is a tiny residential street where time appears to have stood still. 

Many of the houses on the street are in their original condition, or, to some Singaporeans, "run-down".  Their wood windows have ventilation slats, their floor is cement, their window grilles are metal twirls, the kind you see in old Hong Kong movies.

The house is filled with shelves, tables, beds, chairs and lamps they have created painstakingly from driftwood and junk thrown out by upgrading Singaporeans.

You could call them recyclers, artists or, simply, hoarders.  But I find what they do touchingly patriotic.  Here are people who don't think of the past as something to be discarded but who, instead, see its beauty and use it meaningfully to forge a better future.

My friends, incidentally are not Singaporean.  One is English and the other Is American.  But they have shown me what I, as a Singaporean, have lost.

A nation with no understanding of the past is like a house of cards, easily toppled by strong winds.  As we hurtle purposefully forward, are we in danger of losing our collective history, simply because we cannot remember it, appreciate it or worse, because we don't even know it?

The future will always be there but the past, once gone from our memories, will be lost forever, like a shelled town.]

Please check out the heritage blog of Bugis Street here .

Juxtaposed photos of the backlane of Bugis Street then and now.  Note the spiral staircases of the same buildings, same location at Bugis Street.