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Nov 14, 2019

Our Forgotten Zoo

Singapore's first zoo, housed on the grounds of a family bungalow, had so many exotic animals like seals, tapirs, zebras and orang utans that even a visiting Albert Einstein was impressed.

By Yuen Sin

[Source:  New Paper, 15 July 2012]

Mention a local zoo and the world-renowned Singapore Zoo, established in 1973, is probably the only one come to mind.

Yet, back in the early part of the last century, a collection of animals here was already making waves around the world.

It was situated on the grounds of a large family bungalow in Upper Serangoon Road in the 1920s.  A wealthy animal; trader of Indian descent, Mr William Lawrence Soma Basapa (1893-1943), had housed an extensive private collection of 200 animals and 2,000 birds there.

It came to be known popularly as the Ponggol Zoo.

After it began to pull in the crowds on the weekends, an entry fee was charged, and it had to move to a 10-ha plot near the Punggol seafront in 1928 to accomodate the large number of both animals and visitors.

It was later renamed the Singapore Zoological Gardens and Bird Park (not related to the current zoo).  It was offficially granted a licence by the now-defunct Rural Board in 1937.

Mr Lawrence Basapa, 66, grandson of the late Mr W.L.S. Basapa, recalls tales about the famed zoo as told by his family.

"They told me that many people came on the weekends - locals from all walks of life, and British expatriates because they like nature," says Mr Basapa, a corporate director on the board of two private companies.

"My father had fond memories of weekends at that house by the sea, swimming and watching the crowds."

Mr W.L.S. Basapa was a flamboyant character who knew how to live life to the fullest, says his grandson.

"He owned a Bengal tiger called Apay (ah pek) and it used to follow him around like a dog.

"He loved animals, lived in a carefree way and was able to make a living out of what he loved," says Mr Basapa.

Famed scientist Albert Einstein visited in 1922.

According to press reports of the time, Einstein was in Singapore to raise funds for the Hebrew University.  He noted in his travel diaries that he came across "a wonderful zoological garden".

Today, little remains of this amazing, if little-known, part of Singapore's history.

In 1942, just before the Japanese invasion, the zoo was ordered by the British to close and the authorities were given just 24 hours to clear the area of birds and animals.

The dangerous varieties of animals were killed, while harmless ones were released into the forest.

The skins of some of these animals were donated to the then-Raffles Library and Museum (now the National Museum of Singapore).

Around 80 of these were moved to the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research at the National University of Singapore in the 1970s.  And they are still there, says the museum's collections manager Kelvin Lim.

"The specimens have been preserved for scientific use and research," he says.

The land, inherited by trustees after Mr W.L.S. Basapa's death in 1943, was sold to a private investor in 1948.

The site has now become part of the Punggol Promenade (photos below).

Says Punggol resident of 10 years Chew Xin Yu, 20:  "It's hard to imagine that such a zoo actually existed in this fast-paced environment, and though I've lived here for so long, I never really heard about it."

For Mr Basapa, who lives in East Coast, retaining the memory of places that once existed is an important step in nation-building.

"It's part of our heritage, for us to remember our roots and what the Asian immigrants contributed to Singapore," he says.

"People of humble backgrounds from China, India and the Middle East came, and in the process we built a nation."

First zoo in Singapore rated 'wonderful" by Albert Einstein
By Melody Zaccheus

[Source:  Straits Times, 6 April 2013]

Albert Einstein

Nation's status as a hub for animal collectors is featured in exhibition

Singapore's first zoo, which had its beginnings at a family bungalow in Serangoon Road, has at least one unique bragging right.

Albert Einstein, the father of modern physics, was among the first visitors to the private zoo, which was run by animal lover William Lawrence Soma Basapa from 1920 to 1922.

His zoo and the history of Singapore's status as a hub for animal collectors in the late 18th and early 19th century, are part of a travelling exhibition by the National Heritage Board.

The month-long exhibition, held in conjunction with the Singapore Zoo's 40th anniversary, was launched on 5 April, 2013.  It will include the Woodlands and Jurong regional libraries and Central Public Library.

The board's director of heritage institutions, Mr Alvin Tan, said it hopes to raise public awareness about Singapore's "little known early zoos".

According to press reports from the period, Einstein was in Singapore to raise funds for The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  He had written in his travel diary that he had come across " a wonderful zoological garden".

With its role as a trading centre, Singapore was the port of call for collectors and officials from zoological societies in Britain and the US who traelled here to source rare local specimens.

Zoological enthusiasts included Singapore-based Chinese businessman Hoo Ah Kay, who kept rare animal and bird species at his mansion at Whampoa Gardens in the mid-1800s, and Haji Marip, who ran an exotic animal trade shop from 1880 to 1915.

But it was Singaporean-Indian landowner Basapa, who captured the hearts of local residents.

Basapa, who was often accopanied by a full-grown Bengal tiger named Apay, moved his collection of animals and birds from his Serangoon home to an 11ha seafront estate in Punggol.

Networking with international zoos, he was the first in Singapore to import seals.  He also brought in Arabian cames, black wans and Shetland ponies from South Africa, America and Australia respectively.

With a collection of 200 animals and 2,000 birds, Punggol Zoo became a major attraction both nationally and internationally in pre-war Singapore.

The zoo which cost $35 a day to run, charged visitors 40 cents.

But Badapa's foray into zoo-keeping was short-lived.  At the start of World War II, the British moved their forces to the north of Singapore in anticipation of invading Japanese forces.

Basapa was given 24 hours to relocate his animals and birds.

The time-frame was too tight so the British took the land, released the birds, and shot the rest, said his grandson Lawrence Basapa, 66, a company director.

"It makes us very sad till today that the animals were slaughtered and sacrificed.

"My grandfather died a broken-hearted man."

He said, however, that he is glad the efforts of Singapore's pioneers are being remembered.

"It's a good way to refresh our memory of what our zoos used to be like - simple but with a lot of heart."


Nov 3, 2019

People's Market - If Walls Could Talk

SundayLife! traces the 118 year history of Lau Pa Sat, which went from a wet market close to the sea to a foodcourt surrounded by skyscrapers.  Courtesy of NewspaperSG for the archived newspaper to share on this blog.

By Clarissa Oon

[Source: Straits Times, 22 July 2012]

With its cream-coloured clock tower, octagonal curve's and intricately crafted columns and arches, this grande dame of hawker centres is 118 years old, but has not experienced such sweeping changes as in the last four decades.

A feat of Victorian-era engineering, Lau Pa Sat - Old Market in Hokkien - was completed in 1894 at its present site at Raffles Quay, along Shenton Way.

Entirely prefabricated, the building is made up of more than 3,000 pieces of standardised cast iron which had been manufactured in Europe and shipped to Singapore in the early 1890s.

Were he still alive, architect and municipal engineer James MacRitchie, who also designed and gave his name to MacRitchie Reservoir, would have no trouble recognising the conserved exterior and internal skeleton of Lau Pa Sat, then also called Telok Ayer Market.

What would floor him would be its transformation from a rustic wet market close to the sea, to a food court dwarfed by the surrounding skyscrapers of a glittering financial district.

The metamorphosis began in 1973, when the Environment Ministry decided to turn it into a hawker centre.  The poultry sellers with their cages of live squawking fowl - slaughtered on the spot for customers - and fishmongers with tanks of iridescent fish and baskets of twitching shrimp gave way to cooked food stalls.

Around the market, attap huts and shophouses packed with residents, sundry shops and makeshift food stalls were replaced gradually by office buildings.

The sea was once barely 400m away from the market and, during high tide, would cause floods around the market.

But the land reclamation of the Telok Ayer Basin from the 1970s expanded the Central Business District and pushed Lau Pa Sat a would away from the seafront.

In the mid-1980s, a Mass Rapid Transit tunnel was laid under the building.  To protect the gazetted national monumnets, its hawkers were moved out and the entire cast-iron framework dismantled.  A few years later, the building was reassembled painstakingly, piece by piece.

After an early 1990s stab by private developer Scotts Holdings at turning Lau Pa Sat into a food hall and flea market - in the manner of London's Convent Garden - it is now a 24-hour food court run by food-court operator Kopitiam Group.

One of those with fond memories of the market before urban renewal left its mark is Mr Adron Loi, 58, executive chairman of kaya-toast chain Ya Kun International (photo above).

In the early 1940s, Mr Loi's father began selling crispy toast - slathered with homemade egg-and-coconut jam - at a stall in Telok Ayer Basin, across the road from Lau Pa Sat.

After the market became a hawker centre, the elder Loi moved the family business there in the late 1970s.  They stayed until 1985, when all the hawkers were relocated elsewhere due to the building's dismantling and reconstruction for MRT works.

Home for the Loi family of 10 in the 1950s and 1960s was in Cross Street, which faces one of Lau Pa Sat's eight entrances.  They share a cramped shophouse unit with five other families, where Hong Leong Building is now.

Mr Loi remembers, as a boy, playing badminton with friends in the compound around the market.  Back then, Lau Pa Sat had a gate and a fence around it, which kept out some of the flood water.

Mr Loi and other boys also used to catch small ornamental fish in the drains at the back of the market, that had been discarded by fish sellers.

It was quite a rough-and-tumble neighbourhood in those days.

There were a lot of gangsters in the Chinatown area and, occasionally, fights broke out in and outside the market.  From our house, we could see people chasing one another with a knife," he recalls.

By the 1950s, cooked food and drink stalls had popped up in and around the wet market, serving both workers and towkays who kept the many trading businesses and warehouses in Chinatown and Tanjong Pagar ticking round the clock.

Old-timers recall Lau Pa Sat as a hive of 24-hour activity.

In the daytime, housewives and domestic helpers would descend ont he market, leaving in trishaws armed with bags of groceries.  Businessmen would nurse their cups of black coffee and talk shop.
At night, coolies and labourers would congregate after finishing the day's work.

Food critic Violet Oon, 63, saw the market in the 1960s as an unlikely "millionaire's playground", and remembers eating "really good Hokkien zi char" at Lau Pa Sat with one of her school friends from CHIJ and her friend's towkay father.

She recalls: "His chauffeur would pick us up from school for lunch and we would have treats such as ngoh hiang and dark sauce Hokkien mee with fresh oysters, fresh crab meat and pee hee, or dried plaice."

But Lau Pa Sat was also a working man's joint, says Kopitiam chairman Lim Bee Huat, 60.  He started out at age nine as a drinks stall assistant at the then Esplanade Food Centre.

After knocking off at close to midnight, he would walk over to Lau Pa Sat and unwind over a five-cent cup of teh halia (ginger tea).

He recalls that the market in the 1960s "was the meeting place for labourers looking for work.  Coolies would gather in groups, waiting for stevedoring jobs to be distributed.  They would then take the sampans to reach big ships docked just outside Telok Ayer Basin, and carry the goods back to land".

Today, the food court he turned Lau Pa Sat into is more likely to serve Shenton Way office workers than millionaires or labourers, but its architecture remains more or less the same.

The building was gazetted as a national monument in 1973, which means its roof, facade and cast-iron structure cannot be altered.  Any changes have to be approved by the Preservation of Monuments Board.

Back in the 19th century, the building was designed by MacRitchie with high ceilings, airwells and an absence of interior partitions to maximise air circulation.

Nonetheless, observers say Lau Pa Sat is more open and better ventilated today than before the 1990.  Apart from the addition of electric ceiling fans, timber louvres that used to cover the exterior walls have been removed.

The sides of Lau Pa Sat are now largely exposed, aside from tilted glass panels or cloth awnings to keep out rain.

The building's first major renovation in 1973 came as the Government felt a wet market was an incongruilty in the emerging business district.

It was outfitted as a proper hawker centre with 144 stalls.  Tables, stools, electrical fittings and a new mosaic floor were installed, as were sewers so waste water would not flow into open drains.

The taking apart and reconstruction of Lau Pa Sat from 1985 to 1989 was unprecedented for any building here.

Architect Lam Kin Chong, 58, who headed he Public Works Department team tasked by the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board with the project, recalls:  "The building is one of a kind and I had to do a lot of research to figure out how to conserve it."

Now deputy managing director of ST Architects and Engineers, he says that before the cast-iron structure was dismantled, each of its mroe than 3,000 parts had to be labelled, the number logged into a computer and then carefully stored.  Broken parts had to be replicated.

In 1990, Scotts Holdings took over the reconstructed building with an ambitious $10-million plan to turn it into a festival market - a concept coming out of places such as Boston where old waterfron structures had been transformed into vibrant food and flea markets offering retail as well as live entertainment.

A 3,853 sq m pavilion with a mezzanine level was created inside Lau Pa Sat, housing a pub, four restaurants, 14 local and international food outlets, 41 retail stalls and 24 trolley carts.

However, the venture did not take off.

Scotts executive director Rafiq Jumabhoy conceded in a 1993 interview with Business Times that the concept  felt "artificial" when transplanted here. The comapany was torn apart by a family feud two years later.

The inside of  Lau Pa Sat underwent further surgery after Kopitiam took over in 1995.  An expansive food court was created by removing the mezzanine floor and increasing the number of seats to more than 2,000 and food stalls to 88.  It reopened a year later after renovations costing more than $5 million.

The stalls as well as the ornate trusses and arches are now looking faded, but Kopitiam has plans to rejuvenate the building next year.

Architecture aside, a handful of hawkers have also weathered the test of time and plied their trade at Old Market for nearly two decades.

One of them, kway chap seller Goh Soon Chwee, has run his stall since 1988 at the now-defunct Telok Ayer Transit Food Centre across the road, and then a Lau Pa Sat from 1997.

What has kept hom moored to the historic neighbourhood?  "A lot of the customers know me and keep coming back, I don't have many years left in me to be braising pig intestines and pork belly over a hot stove, but I'd like to spend it here," says the 62-year-old in Mandarin, with a big grin.


1894:  The present Lau Pa Sat, then also know as Telok Ayer Market, was completed on reclaimed land at Raffles Quay.  It was designed by British architect and municipal engineer James MacRitchi.
It replaced an earlier demolished wet market at the same name, also octagonal and built around 1824 at the western end of nearby Market Street.  That was commissioned by Sir Stamford Raffles a few years after establising Singapore as a trading outpost.

1942-1945:  The market survived the Japanese Occupation.

1973:  Renovated at a cost of more than $650,000 to become a food centre.  Gazetted as a national monument.
1985-1989:  The building was dismantled to protect its Victorian-era architecture while an MRT tunnel that ran beneath it was laid.  Hawkers were moved to the now-defunct Telok Ayer Transit Food Centre across the street.  The more than 3,000 pieces that made up Lau Pa Sat's cast-iron structure were tagged, logged into a computer and stored.  They were later reassembled for $6.8 million.

1990-1995:  Developer Scotts Holdings won the tender for a 30-year lease of the building.  Following renovations costing around $10 million, it became a Festival Market (above) - a food hall-cum-flea-market with live entertainment - in 1992.  But the venture incurred losses and Scotts then sold the building to Kopitiam Investments, now known as the Kopitiam Group, for $8 million.
1996:  Lau Pa Sat reopened as a 24-hour food court after more than $5 million in renovations.

"The building is one of a kind and I had to do a lot of research to figure out how to conserve it."

     -  MR LAM KIN CHONG, the architect who headed the Public Works Department team tasked to take apart and reconstruct the Lau Pa Sat in the 1980s.

Way Done in the Past - Lau Pa Sat

Please check the related blog on the ways done in the past at Lau Pa Sat here .


Oct 19, 2019

The real and reel of Edmund Chen

"To HOUGANG with LOVE ... from THE CHENS'

I am surprised to bounce on this article by Lynn Lee in The Straits Times on 3 June 2005 to share on this blog.

No, that's not the name of a new sitcom starring Edmund Chen.  This is for real.  Television actor Edmund Chen, younger brother Eric and sister Loretta, are all active grassroots volunteers in Hougang.  They tell insight how it became a family affair.

"Edmund's presence adds spice to grassroots activities.  In fact, more people want to take pictures with him than with me!"

- Mr Eric Low, grassroots adviser and People's Action Party candidate to Hougang

Growing up, Edmund Chen and his siblings Eric and Loretta used to see their father rise early on weekends to accompany then-Queenstown MP Jek Yeun Thong on his rounds.

Other nights, their father Mr Tan Chiew Hock, 69 in 2005, would return home late from the beauty contests and fund-raising dinners he helped organise for residents.

Mr Tan is conversant in English, Mandarin, Malay, Hokkien and Teochew, and was an active grassroots volunteer for many years.

In 2005, thirty years later, it's the Chen children who are active in grassroots organisations in Hougang, helping the grassroots adviser and People's Action Party candidate Eric Low.

Edmund Chen, 43, better known as Chen Zhicai (陈之财)  to fans of Mediacorp Chinese drama serials, is a member of the Hougang Citizens' Consultative Committee (CCC).

Younger brother, Eric, 40, runs an events management company, and is the PAP branch secretary for Hougang.

The "baby" of the family, Loretta, 29, is a Young PAP member and research fellow with the National University of Singapore who also dabbles in theatre and is creative director of her own events management firm.

Loretta Chen, sister of Edmund Chen

How did they get involved in grassroots work?

It all started, they say, when Eric met Eric.

Mr Eric Chen;s firm, VM&SD, was in charge of organising the event to launch the Christmas celebrations along Orchard Road.

The night before the lights went on, the company was told that the decorations needed some jazzing up.

Instead of just barking out orders, Mr Low rolled up his sleeves and pitched in to help the crew.

Recalls Mr Chen: "He stayed till 3 or 4am helping us.  I was so impressed with him, and that was what began and sealed our friendship."

Three years later, Mr Chen joined the Young PAP branch at Clementi.  Mr Low was active in the CCC there.

When Mr Low was despatched to Hougang as the second adviser to its grassroots bodies in 1999, Mr Chen followed.

By then, the friendship had grown to become a family affairs.  Mr Chen's older brother, Edmund, became friends with Mr Low, and their family members all got to know one another.

When Mr Low, whom Edmund affectionately refers to as lau hia or older brother in Teochew, asked him to join the CCC last year, he did not hesitate.

Says Edmund: "I think that I've been quite lucky and blessed.  So I believe in giving back to society.  And Eric is a dear friend so why not help him."

The Chen brothers then roped in younger sister Loretta, who was looking for community work to get involved in, after returning from studies in the United States.

After her first Meet-the-People's session in January, she knew she had found a worthy cause to be active in.

Referring to the constituents who came to see Mr Low for help, she says: "Seeing those hardship cases made me feel privileged to have what I have.  Some of them don't know that there are policies in place to help them, so that's where I can help explain it to them.

It has given me an insight into another slice of life that I wouldn't otherwise know about."

For these siblings, volunteer work goes hand-in-hand with cementing family bonds.

Mr Eric Chen explains: "In the past, we never met as often, because both Edmund and myself were busy and Loretta was studying overseas.  Now, we have a common platform to do what we enjoy."

The Chens say they like being in Hougang, a laid back Teochew-speaking area.  Although none lives there now, they have fond memories of eating at hawker stalls there in their childhood days, after visiting their grandmother on weekends at her Serangoon Garden home.

Nostalgia aside, there is no doubt they are all active in Hougang also because of a certain loyalty to Mr Low.

Mr Chen describes him as a "righteous, firm and fair man with a quirky sense of humour".

Mr Eric Chen adds that Mr Low has "done a lot for Hougang", citing as examples a programme to provide free medical checkups for the elderly, and a weekly programme to serve free breakfast of kaya toast and boiled eggs for senior citizens.

On his part, Mr Low knows he is fortunate in having the Chens help out in Hougang.

For example, Edmund lends star appeal to community events like Teochew Opera night.

The rosy-cheeked father of two aged five and 14, sits in regularly when Mr Low meets residents.  He has also participated in community events to plant trees and hand out bursaries to bright Hougang students.

"Seeing me on television makes people feet like they already know me.  So it's easier to connect with them because they warm up to me quite easily.

"It's like going back to the kampung," he says.

As for Mr Low, he is quick to stress that having Edmund on the CCC is not a ploy to gain political advantage.

"I do not make use of Edmund's presence to swell the ground.  Neither do I feel small around him, and the rest of my 250 or so grassroots leaders for their help.  All of them help enhance the work I do."

He adds that his close-knit community of helpers have been key, for example, in raising Hougang Community Club's profile and qualify of activities offered.

Two years ago, it was ranked close to the bottom in a nation-wide survey of community clubs.  Now, it has climbed to eighth spot out of 75 CCs.

The Chens now want to use their different strengths, such as Edmund's prowess in art and acting, Eric's expertise in technical work and logistics, and Loretta's flair for directing and producing to organise different activities, like fund-raising and community-bonding events, for Hougang residents.

Edmund Chen the artist

They've already had one successful collaboration.  Last November, they staged a musical with a cast of 30 at the launch of the International Crime Prevention Conference.

Mr Low is looking forward to more contributions from the Chens.  He acknowledges: "Edmund's presence adds space to grassroots activities.  In fact, more people want to take pictures with him than with me!"

Real and Reel Roles of Edmund Chen

I am not an actor or a celebrity on TV, and I was not acting with Edmund and Xiang Yun in these photos on the blog.  We are friends on Facebook for many years, but met as real persons for the first time here .
We are like-minded friends and heritage fans as volunteers at the Singapore Memory Project.


Oct 12, 2019

A family takes in the museum

Raffles Museum (now National Museum of Singapore in 1950s.  Photograph is taken by Dr Carl Gibson-Hill, Curator of Zoology, Raffles Museum, from 1947 to 1956 and Director from 1956 to 1963.  [Courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

[Source:  The Straits Times, 21 June 1985]

One Saturday afternoon, a three-generation family group - John and Margaret Yin, their son Jonathan, Margaret's parents Mr and Mrs Yeo, and her nephew Gerald and niece Geraldine Chan - visited the much-publicised revamped National Museum.

K. MALATHY, who went with them, records their impressions.

The Yeos

They have been to the museum before, but that was some time ago.  Both said the museum had changed for the better.

"The displays are effectively arranged, the lighting good," said Mr Yeo, 67, who is retired.  He especially liked the Straits Chinese Gallery because "it brings me back to my childhood days".

Mr Yeo grew up among Babas, and his knowledge of their culture was evident as he explained to his grand-children the nature and use of various exhibits.

He also enjoyed looking at the exhibits in the 19th Century Singapore Gallery, because, he said, some of the things were familiar to him and brought back memories.  He spied some beautiful silver curtain hooks - "my mother had them, you know".

Mrs Yeo, 63, did not say much, but she looked at the exhibits quietly and carefully, putting on her glasses whenever she came across a particularly interesting exhibit.

She found the museum interesting, she said, but all the walking around was a little tiring.

The Yins

It was Hongkong-born John Yin's first visit to the museum.  "I must say I'm a bit disappointed.  I came expecting something else ... I don't know what," said John, 36, a manager with a container leasing company.

He thought the museum atmosphere was all wrong.  A museum should be hushed, almost reverent, he said, "But here everyone is just walking in and out ... it's too casual."

In that sort of atmosphere, he felt that it was difficult to respond properly to the exhibits.  "Maybe the attendants should see that people don't run around or talk loudly."

His wife Margaret agreed with him, but she felt the crowds wouldn't last," and after that, it will be all right".

Margaret, 37, a housewife, has been to the museum before and she thought that it had improved - the range of exhibits was wider, for instance.

The Straits Chinese Gallery was her favourite - "the displays are visually very effective."

Also, the dim lighting and the coolness of the gallery made it mysteriously inviting.

It was the first part of the museum that the family visited, and Margaret feld that it created a very favourable first impression.

This was 10-year-old Jonathan Yin's first visit to the museum and he couldn't really say what he felt about it.  He usually wore a bemused look while his grandfather and parents told him about the various exhibits.

In the 19th Century Singapore Gallery, he noticed a medicine grinder.  When asked how it worked, he said: "I think you put a coin in somewhere and it moves."

When his grandfather explained how it actually worked, his eyes grew round.

Jonathan liked the Southeast Asian Gallery, especially, he said cryptically, "the guitar with the hole in it".  The rest of the museum was okay, but he didn't like the Chinese Puppet Theatre - "the faces are spooky".

His cousins, Geraldine and Gerald Chan, reacted differently.

They said they enjoyed everything about the museum, but some things move than the others.  And, unless the adults, they didn't seem to mind the crowd.

Eleven-year-old Geraldine's favourite was the parlour in the Straits Chinese Gallery, "because it looks so real, and it's such a lady's room".

Gerald, 12, was, in a way, the most interested person in the group.  He reacted to the museum spontaneously, not bothering to analyse as the adults did, what moved him.

He was happiest with the historical dioramas.  He explained (and very well too) to his family about each of the little dioramas.

The Coolie Room fascinated him, and he noted and pointed out every details - the spitoons, the coolie hats, the man smoking opium ...

He explained his interest a little shyly.  "I'm doing History in school, you see ... and this is what it's all about."

The family took slightly more than an hour to complete their tour, and Margaret felt they didn't really do justice to the wide range of exhibits.  "We'll come back another day to go over everything properly."

Also, they wanted to see the Audio-Visual Show, which they had missed.

All of them liked the galleries on the first storey (History of Singapore, Straits Chinese and Southeast Asian) better then the ones on the second storey (National University of Singapore, 19th Century Singapore, Trade Ceramics, and Jade).

John Yin explained it this way:  "The sculptures and ceramics upstairs are really beautiful but their appeal is more remote.  It's basically aesthetic.

"The displays downstairs, on the other hadn, relate to us directly.  There are more exhibits and they are more colourful and visually exciting.  This is especially true of the Straits Chinese Gallery."

Breathing life into museums

By Adeline Chia
[Source:  The Straits Times, 11 October 2007)

Museums are getting exciting under the National Heritage Board's new CEO Michael Koh.

Something is happening in Singapore's museums.

Heartlanders are making the rounds of them in sponsored tours.  Museums feature prominently in a children's book.  And if you look carefully at the TV suspense drama Metamorphosis on Channel 8, you'll see footage of the Asian Civilisation Museum (ACM) in the background.

The video of "National Museum of Singapore 125 years of history" on YouTube here .

And in December, taxi drivers will be invited to attend museum open houses so they can be better guides to their passengers.

The man behind all these initiatives is Mr Michael Koh, the chief executive officer of the National Heritage Board (NHB).

Since he hopped on board a little over a year ago, the 46-year-old architect by training has introduced some snazzy changes to the NHB, the statutory board that runs nine museums and heritage centres in Singapore.

Under his charge are:  the ACM, the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), the National Museum, the Singapore Philatelic Museum, Reflections at Bukit Chandu, the Heritage Conservation Centre, the National Archives of Singapore, Memories at the Old Ford Factory and the Peranakan Museum.

In September last year, he left the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), where he had worked for more than 10 years on and off, to join the NHB.

He is the third and youngest CEO to join the board since it was set up in 1993.  His predecessors were Mrs Lim Siok Peng and, before her, Mr Lim Siam Kim.

The charismatic Mr Koh, an architecture graduate from the National University of Singapore, was a star city planner.

His first job was with the URA as a planner in 1990, and he rose through the ranks to become director.

In 1992, the authorities gave him a scholarship to pursue a master's in design studies at Harvard University.

In 2002, he left URA for a brief stint in Temasek Holdings and its subsidiary, Mapletree Holdings.  He returned to URA in 2003, where he was director of urban planning and design.

And last year, he made the leap from city planning to the heritage sector.

At the Olio Dome Cafe at SAM on Monday, he tells Life! that it was not an easy decision.

After NHB chairman Professor Tommy Koh sounded him out, he went through "months of angst and soul-searching" before he took the plunge.

He says:  "Most people probably thought that I was very daring to make the move.  I wanted something different, and I saw a lot of opportunity at NHB.  It's already a brand, but it needs to be refreshed, rejuvenated and reinvented."

Besides, the father of two - he has been married to housewife Lim Chiwen for 15 years and tthey have a daughter, sevn and son, six - says that he always had an interest in art and in collecting.

Sweeping changes

Thirteen months on the job, and the changes are significant.

For one thing, the NHB's new annual report, covered in blue velvet and sporting the chic title Muse In Vogue is decidedly more plush than last year's standard government publication.

Just last month, fresh showbix faces joind NHB as board members, including actor Qi Yuwu and MediaCorp Raintree piectures managing director Daniel Yun.

On whether this could dumb down the heritage and culture sector in Singapore for mass appeal, Mr Koh sayd:  "We want to engage the creative indugstries and grab a bigger audience.  It's not just becaude of star quality."

He adds  "When people saw Yuwu on the list, they were shocked at first.  But he is a serious collector of Chinese contemporary art and knows some Chinese artists personally.

And he stresses that rigourous scholarship and curatorship should jform the backbone of exhibitions.

He says:  "We can't be seen as lowering the quality of exhibitions, which must be rooted in scholarship and research.  It is only in the manner of presentation that we need to change, and which we have to tailor to different audiences.

Conclusion:  It works

His unconventional methods might raise some eyebrows, but they work.  Qi's popular tour of SAM's exhibition of the Chinese painter Zeng Fanzhi brought in about 100 fans, some of whom were museum first-timers.

Mr Koh is also working hard to attract visitors from "emerging communities" such as heartlanders and children.  For this, he has worked with the People's Association to bring families from community centres on free bus trips to museum.

And to educate and entire more taxi drivers, whom he calls "ambassador of our museums", he is organising an open house for them in December, where they will be led on guided tours and get vouchers for free entry.

The man is also known to add a personal touch to his work.

Because of him, the Sasha children's books series now has a Sasha Visits The Museum (below) book that was launched in August.

While reading to his daughter one night, he thought:  "There's Sasha Visits The Botanic Gardens, Sasha Visits The Zoo, but Sasha never went to the museums."

So he mooted the idea of the book, and author Shamini Flint wrote it in a tie-up between the NHB and her publishing company Sunbear Publishing.

He also emceed the inaugural Patron of Heritage Awards this year to personally thank the benefactors who had donated and loaned some $118.5 million worth of artefacts between April 2004 and December last year.

Socialising with patrons and donors has meant a lot more late nights for the busy man.  He says:  "In the past, you could just take your work home.  Now there is socialising and events at night.  And you still take your work home afterwards."

And then on weekends, home goes to work.

Dr Kenson Kwok, 58, ACM director and a family's friend, says that Mr Koh combines good administrative skills with a genuine love of the arts.

He says: "He takes his kids to the museum on Sundays and give feedback on how they found the facilities.  You would thinki he wouldn't want to go to his workplace on weekends."

The NHB's director of corporate communications Walter Lim, 37, who has worked with all three CEOs, says that his current boss is "an atypical CEO" with his informal style.

"We can just pop into his room to discuss matters, we're on an SMS basis," Mr Lim adds.

Prof Koh, who approached Mr Koh for the job, says he is "an outstanding individual with a love of culture, has many creative ideas and a sense of style, which is important in this job".

He adds:  "It was a bold move for him to leave the URA, where he was performing so well and had a bright future.  But I am delighted with his performance, and he has really rejuvenated the NHB.

One year into the job, and the man is not slowing down.  Integrated museum programming, a significant project he started this year, is already rolling out in museums.

Under this plan, exhibitions and activities at various museums will be grouped under a common theme to better market them.

Under this year's themem, Celebrate Asean!, are activities such as The Big Picture Show at SAM, featuring large artworks from ASEAN countries, and Common Threads at a ACM, on different textiles in these countries.

Up next year is the Vietnam festival, a cultural extravaganza at the National Museum and a Vietnamese art show at SAM.

Visitors can expect Laos and Philippines festival in 2009.

Visitorship to the six NHB museums crossed the 1.3 million mark in the last financial year, a near 20 per cent increase over 2005, and Mr Koh has plans to grow it further.

He says:  "The heritage sector is a growth industry.  It's about creating value for the nation and the people, and making people proud to say 'this is my heritage'.  After all, we have so many shared memories."

On his achievements, the man remains modest:  "One man cannot change the world in one year.  The wheels were already in place.  I only took things to the next level."

More funky after 15 years

By Adeline Chia
[Source:  The Straits Times, 31 July 2008]

More blockbuster exhibitions, more private museums is the promise of tomorrow as the National Heritage Board celebrates its 15th birthday.

Museum goes, mark your calendars; three blockbuster exhibitions are coming to Singapore.

There is the showcase of treasures from the reign of the Kangxi Emperor in March, 2008, exquisite jewellery from the Mughal Empire in July and an exhibition on Egyptian mummies at the end of the year.

And for those curious about what collectors have in their private collections, new private museums will be opened by individuals, including businessman Oei Hong Leong and cosmetic surgeon Woffles Wu.

These plans to enrich the cultural and heritage landscape come as the National Heritage Board (NHB) celebrates its 15th birthday marking the day in Aug 1, 1993 when the National Archives, National Museum and Oral History Department merged to form a new statutory board.

It was tasked with setting up specialised museums for art, Asian culture and Singapore history.

There is plenty to celebrate as the board has had its strongest year yet.

The first national Peranakan Museum opened in April.  Visitorship to the board's nine museums last year hit an all-time high of 1.86 million, up from 1.34 million the previous year.

Its lively outreach events, including Explore Singapore! and the Singapore Heritage Festival attracted 4.36 million people, a steep jump from 2006's 1.93 million.

The reason?  Heartlanders stepping into museums in increasing numbers and exciting programmes that appealed to a broad spectrum of interests.

NHB chief executive Michael Koh, 46, says the board will continued to court visitors aggressively with outreach events.

He says:  "We went to Sengkang and Woodlands with traditional arts performances.  We expect an even higher showing next year." 

But nothing attracts visitors like blockbuster exhibitions, and the museums have lined up three.

Next year, from March to May, the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) is having an exhibition on Kangxi Emperor, who ruled China from 1661 to 1722.  On show will be artefacts from the Palace Museum in Beijing, including paintings of the royal family, scroll paintings of the emperor's birthday celebrations and his expeditions and ancient scientific tools.

In July, the museum will put on an exhibition called Treasury Of The World: Jewelled Arts Of India.  In The Age Of The Mughals.  Visitors will see jewelled necklaces, rings, intricately carved hilts of swords and turban ornaments, among other dazzlers.

Rounding off next year will be the Egyptian mummy exhibitions at the National Museum.  Details are still being worked out but the last time Egyptian mummies went on show here in 1999, they attracted 102,000 visitors to the ACM.

NHB is also trying to grow the number of museums here, not by opening more but by helping collectors to start their own.

Mr Koh says:  "We hope we can be the tipping point for collectors to think about setting up their museums seriously.

To do this, the board soft-launched the Heritage Industry Incentive Programme recently, a $500,000 fund to help people who want to promote heritage and culture by writing books on Singapore culture, organising educational tours or setting up private museums to show off their collections.

The board will help the private museums by subsidising the cost of catalogue printing, and helping with event and exhibition planning.

The fund has already been used to help Singapore writer Adeline Foo publish two children's books on Peranakan culture.  The Kitchen God and The Beaded Slippers, and to develop a pub crawl along the historic Boat Quay stretch which educates participants on the area's history.

The Board has come some way since the merger of those three sleepy departments.

Over the years, it set up the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) in 1996, the ACM  in 1997 and gave the grand old National Museum a complete makeover in 2003, re-opening it in 2006.

Besides these museums, it also oversees the Singapore Philatelic Museum.  Reflections at Bukit Chandu, the Heritage Conservation Centre, the National Archives of Singapore.  Memories at the Old Ford Factory and the newly opened Peranakan Museum.

Its staff strength has grown from about 50 people to 382. 

National Museum Director Lee Chor Lin (above), 45, joined the museum in 1985 as an assistant curator in the South-east Asian Department.

She worked for some years in the reference library at the museum, which had a three-storey-high wall of books.

"I'm nostalgic about the old days," she says.  "The National Museum was a sleepy little place, with not many visitors.  But we had to do everything ourselves: curating, insstalling the exhibition, even dabbling with design.  It was a geat way to learn."

She adds that the budget for acquiring artefacts and artworks in the 1980s was about $30,000 to $40,000 - "not enough to buy a used car".

The sum has balloned over the years.  In 2007, the total acquisition budget for all the museums was $3 million, separate from $75.5 million given by the Government for operation costs.

On NHB's growth, Dr Kenson Kwok, 58, director of the Asian Civilisations Museum, says:  "We went from a museum that was not well-funded to four different major museums which have regional and international reputation as institutions with high, professional standards.  The progress is great."

The appointment in 2006 of Mr Koh, a former urban planner, as chief executive of the board brought a palpable sense of glamour and buzz.

Celebrities such as singer-songwriter Dick Lee and singer Kit Chan were named to boards within the NHB and various museums.  Hunky actor Qi Yuwu leads tours through Chinese contemporary art shows, Salt-of-the-earth actor-comedian Mark Lee is a museum ambassador.

Museums are becoming funkier too.  The recently concluded Night Festival, a free outdoor arts and music festival, drew 50,000 visitors to the National Museum over two weekends.

During the festival, renowned Italian performance group Studio Festi wowed audiences with huminous, aerial antics and Sydney-based lighting effects company, The Electric Canvas, transformed the facade of the museums with magical projections.

The work goes on.

In two weeks' time, the edgy, industrial-looking 8Q sam, an extension of the Singapore Art Museum, will open its doors to the public and showcase contemporary art.

And visitors are lapping it all up.

Freelance dancer Lim Yizhen, 25, who attended the Night Festival on both its weekends, says it was a well-organised event that mixed both the traditional and contemporary.

She adds:  "When I get off work, museums are often closed.  During the festival, the National Museum had free admissions until 2am.  I finally got to see all the galleries inside."

Housewife Cindy Ong, 30, brought her 2 1/2 -year-old son to the National Museum for an interactive exhibtion called Mozart: A Child Proddigy during the June school holidays.

She says:  "It was the first time I had stepped into the museum since I was a child, and I was really impressed.

"I think they did a geat job for the kids' programmes and there should be more.  I'm keen on getting my children to do something different, rather than just being mall rats all the time."

As I passed by National Museum of Singapore one day here .

Sep 28, 2019

Shaik Kadir's Birthplace, a National Monument



The writer is a retired teacher and author of several books

[Source:  The Straits Times, 17 January 2011]

Not many people in their 60s these days have the good fortune of being able to see the building they were born in, so rapid has been the pace of development in Singapore.

I am one of the lucky ones.  My birthplace has not only been left intact by the inexorable march of development.  It is going to be rejuvenated.

I was born 65 years ago, in the Nagore Dargah, an Indian Muslim religious monument, located at the corner of Telok Ayer Street and Boon Tat Street.  My father was the caretaker there from 1940 until he died in 1953 when I was seven years old.  My younger sister and I were born in that building, in the caretaker's room.

Nagore Dargah is a replica of a shrine by the same name in South India, which houses the tomb of 13th-century Islamic preacher Syed Shahul Hamid.  The Singapore monument was built in his honour around 1828 by Chulia Tamil Muslims who migrated to Singapore.  It was gazetted a national monument in 1974.

The monument, with its unique blend of Indian-Arab features and three prominent minarets, has attracted the attention of those who walk past its distinctive facade - but they were unable to see its interior for it was locked most times for many years.

As Muslims become more educated, both secularly and Islamically, beliefs in superstitions and visits to shrines declined.  Islam prohibits the worship of humans, dead or alive, however pious they may have been, and asking for divine favours from the dead.

In my adult life, at least once in two years, I would take a trip to Telok Ayer Street to view the building and reminisce about my childhood days there.  The building became so dilipidated from disuse I feared its days would be numbered.

I was therefore delighted to hear of the community's efforts with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), which takes care of the property, to give the building a new function.  After restoration, the Nagore Dargah Indian Muslim Heritage Centre, will open in May, 2011.

Nagore Dargah, once a centre of Indian Muslim activity, is more than a national monument to me.  For me, it holds a lot of personal and family memories.

The rooms in the building and the streets around it were my play area.  Telok Ayer Street would become a hive of activity in the evening.  Chinese medicine men came, clashing cymbals to explain their wares.  Elderly people listened intently to story-tellers spinning yarns of faraway provinces of China.

The food boy would make his rounds from Telok Ayer Street to Boon Tat Street soliciting home deliveries with his bamboo knockers , wounding tik-tok, tik-tok, tik-tok till somebody called him for orders.

Boon Tat Street too would come alive.  Here, roadside push-carts sold food.  While people ate, Chinese instrumental songs, often accompanied by the soulful sound of the erhu, blared from the Chinese association building in nearby Amoy Street.

Kreta Ayer was a Chinese area that also had a stron Indian presence.  There were many Indian "hole-in-the-wall" shops in this area, selling anything from ciagarettes to sweets and toiletries.

One was just across the road from my home, on the side wall of the coffee shop.  Once, the owner came to my father to talk about sponsoring food for the up-coming Kandhuri Urs or maulud, the 14-day annual religious celebration.

The celebration would begin after sunset with a flag-raising ceremony.  Flags would be raised on several masts erected from the open-air floor of the building against its lace-like upper walls.

During these two weeks, visitors, mostly South-Indian Muslims, would come to offer thanksgiving prayers and doa (blessing) to Syd Shahul Hamid.

On the 10th night, more people would come to keep vigil till dawn.  Musicians, sitting cross-legged on the matted floor, kept them awake with Tamil Islamic songs.

After the 14th evening of the celebration, the flags would be lowered and Nagore Dargah would be left bereft of visitors for the rest of the year, except for occasional visitor on Thursday nights.

Like many others in the Indian Muslim community, I am delighted that such a beautiful building will come to life again and hope its visitors will spend time learning about the history and contributions of the Singapore Indian Muslim community.

Please check out Shaik Kadir's blog here .

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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 .