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A "recycled teenager" learning to blog.

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.


Aug 6, 2019

Bound for posterity: Portraits of neighbourhoods

Books on beloved S'pore districts, including painting series, published

[Source:  The Straits Times, 12 August 2013]

By Debbie Lee

A growing wave of nostalgia is sweeping across Singapore as more residents put together books about their beloved neighbourhoods.

At least three such title have been published this year, ranging from recollections of the blue glass-louvred windows in 1960s Queenstown to watercolour sketches of Bedok, Toa Payoh and Tiong Bahru.

For engineering consultant Tan Kok Yang, 59, it was his first time writing a book.

Dr Tan spent 10 years compiling his memories and photographs for From The Blue Windows:  Recollection Of Life In Queenstown, Singapore, In the 1960s And 1970s.

The book, which was published in April by NUS Press, cost him $4,000 to produce.  He successfully applied for a National Arts Council grant, which covered half the cost, and paid the rest himself.

"There's no going back to this era and it's good for younger people to know about life back then," said Dr Tan, who spent 18 years in Queenstown during his childhood.  He lives in Toh Tuck Road near Bukit Batok estate.

Another series involved a tie-up between a commercial publisher and an informal group, Urban Sketchers Singapore.

Publisher Epigram Books conceived the We Love ... series, which has so far covered Bedok, Toa Payoh and Tiong Bahru.  A fourth, on Queenstown, is about to be released.

"We wanted to reinforce the idea of a real neighbourhood through drawings, text and various methods," said its chief executive officer Edmund Wee.

Each title has watercolour paintings of the respective neighbourhoods done by the urban sketchers, who visit the area to paint their surroundings.  In return, they receive complimentary copies of the books.

"It's a win-win situation as their sketches make it into a book and they get more publicity for their work," said Mr. Wee.

Urban Sketchers Singapore founder, Madam Tia Boon Sim, agreed.  "I felt honoured to be able to share with people our sketches of these neighbourhoods," said the 58-year-old.

"It is our little contribution to the country".

While the majority of the books are written by Singaporans, American writer Stephen Black penned I Ate Tiong Bahru, which was published in May.

"I wrote this book as the Tiong Bahru I know is disappearing, as a result of increasing gentrification and the fact that many of the long-term residents are passing on," said Mr Black, 35.  He frequently visited the area's famous market at 4.30am to write about the historic estate's early morning buzz.

The writers and publishers are unfazed by the prospect that their works may not be commercially viable.

Mr Wee, who said his series has not yet sold enough to break even, said: "We intend to continue, as we have the conviction that neighbourhoods are important for all Singaporeans."

Added Dr Tan:  "If you do something you like, it is not too difficult.  It gives me a sense of personal satisfaction to be living the past again."

From The Blue Windows

The title of the book "From The Blue Windows" written by Tan Kok Yang attracted me the recollection of life in Queenstown, Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s.

I did not know about this book until I read Debbie Lee's article in The Straits Times published six years ago.

In the course of my research for material of the 'memory-aids' from various sources ... old newspapers, magazines, all sorts of publications and books I have come across by accident.

There are many topics covered in this book, but I would mention in the blog only those which I am familiar and would like to share the collective heritage memories about kampong life in Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s.

"Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than the magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration."

- Charles Dickens (1812-70)


"To forget one's ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without roots."

- Chinese Proverb

PREFACE by Tan Kok Yang

From The Blue Windows is a first-hand account of events based on my recollections while growing up in the public housing estate in Queenstown, Singapore.  This area was then known colloquially as "The Blue Windows" because of the unique, blue Georgian-wired glass louvred windows in the low-rise housing estate.  Being one of the earliest public housing estates in Singapore, Queenstown has since undergone immense changes and celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2012.

I wrote this book over a period of ten years out of a love for the Blue Windows.  This is how common people once lived in one of the first housing estates in Singapore.  In the book, I have tried to recount nostalgically the times and lives in Queenstown during those early days.  Indeed, I hope that this book will bring back fond memories of times past, and successfully evoke the lives of the people who once lived there.  The episodes in Blue Windows cover the period from when I was an inquisitive seven-year-old boy to my teenage years, when a redevelopment programme in the estate forced my family to move to Tiong Bahru.  For me, the memories of my early childhood are inseparable from the joy of festive seasons, and other interesting ocurrences at the Blue Windows.  As such, I have intentionally filled the book with what I hope are fascinating recollections of the customs, lifestyle, and games that we played as children during those days.

I have also included poignant real-life stories of people who resided at the Blue Windows - some were relatives, others were neighbours and the rest were technically strangers - and hope that they may give readers a better understanding of the socio-economic situation of Singaporeans at that time.  Although this work is neither political nor academic, I have also touched on historical events in Singapore's past - such as the racial riots and the student unrest in the 1960s - from the perspective of how they impacted the daily lives of residents at the Blue Windows.

Indeed, the mention of the Blue Windows invokes memories of the simple, yet fulfilling lifestyle of Queenstown residents during the 1960s and 1970s.  Through the narrative, it is my wish that readers take away an understanding of the humble, "kampong-like" lifestyle then.  Unfortunately, such a way of life no longer exists in modern-day Singapore.  I hope that this modest work will appeal to anyone with interest in Singapore's past and the various districts that have a rich history.  Hopefully, the tales in this book can also offer readers, particularly those from the younger generation, a glimpse of what life was like in Queenstown in the not-too-distant past.  Perhaps, it will enable readers to have a better understanding of our roots here in Singapore, and help them appreciate the richness of the multi-cultural and multi-racial way of life in Singapore.

The tales and happenings in this book are now but precious memories.  Yet this book will allow the experiences I had living at the Blue Windows to be recorded for posterity.  I believe that those who have at one time or another experienced living there, will from time to time fondly recall those good old days at the Blue Windows.  This is my tribute to my family, old neighbours and friends, any fortunate ones who share a connection with Queenstown, especially those who lived there, and to Queenstown itself.

In Queenstown, many of the three-storey low-cost flats were installed with typical blue-glass louvred windows.  The people who lived there called their estate the "Blue Windows"; "Lam Poh Lay" in Hokkien ( 蓝玻璃,blue glass) and "Nam Tieng Meng" in Teochew (蓝天门 , blue sky doors").  It was not uncommon that someone who wished to go to Queenstown to visit friends and relatives would tell the taxi driver to go to the Blue Windows.  Those flats with blue glass were unique - one could not find flats with such signature windows anywhere else in Singapore.

Three-storey flats near Tan Kok Yang's block along Margaret Drive in the late 1970s, built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT).

Low-rise two-storey terrace houses built by SIT at the Dawson Estate.  These have been torn down but similar units still stand along Stirling Road.

Forfar House in 1996.  It was subsequently demolished; Forfar Heights now stands in its place.

Princess House in the 1960s, where the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) was located.

Tan Kok Yang in the mid-1960s.  The cardboard box on the shelf behind him contained their first home telephone.

Our first home telephone

Modern - or rather what we then co0nsidered "modern" - gadgets began to surface in the late 60s and early 70s.  My family got our first home telephone in 1969 when I was in Secondary Three.  Everyone at home was excited and wanted to learn how to use it.  It was not the first time we had seen a telephone since most of us knew about the rotary telephone at the provi8sion shop; Father must have used one in his office as well.  Yet, when the Telephone Man cme to our house to install the all-black, round-dial gauge telephone, we were very proud of it.  But like country bumpkins we were too frightened to use it since we found it strange to talk to a box and not a human.  One of my younger sisters once ran to hide in the room when the telephone rang, generating much laughter from the rest of the family.  Of course, all of us became used to the telephone in due course and it slowly become indispensable at home.  In the mid 1970s, our old round-dial gauge telephone was replaced with a light-grey, push botton telephone.

Tan Kok Yang with his younger brother and three sisters.  The photo was taken at Margaret Drive during Chinese New Year in 1968.

Tan Kok Yang spent his formative years in Queenstown in the 1960s to 1970s.  He attended Kim Seng Technical School and Queenstown Secondary Technical School in the 1970s.  In 1980, he graduated with a Degree in Building from the University of Singapore and went on to obtain a Masters Degree in Building Science (Acoustics Major) in 1988 from the National University of Singapore.  He also holds a Doctorate (1997) in Housing and Environmental Studies from the University of New England, N.S.W. Australia.  A former lecturer in Environmental Science at the Singapore Polytecnic, he now runs hias own acoustic consultancy firm.  His interests in environmental issues, in particular, that which affect human habitation, prompted him to write about life of the people who once lived in Queenstown.

Mother and Small Aunt on Chinese New Year day in the 1960s.

Mother and three younger sisters making "love letters" for Chinese New Year in the early 1970s/

Map of Queenstown in the 1960s and 1970s.

The following topics are inspired from Tan Kok Yang's book "From The Blue Windows".  Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s at different parts of our island nation, the memories of our kampong life is almost similar.

"Chap Ji Ki"

... The hawker whom my mother used to buy bean sprouts from was also an illegal bookie who took bets for a very popular game at that time in the 60s, known as "chap ji ki" (Hokkien:  十二支, twelve sticks). 

The game is quite simple:  if you wished to place a bet, you simply wrote two digits on a tiny piece of paper.  All bets must come in one day before, and the results would be announced at noon the following.  The sums involved were not large and the changes of winning were definitely higher than 4D, which requires four digits.  At the same time, the winnings were not huge either.  Like many other housewives at the time, my mother often picked the numbers of her choice and scribbled them on a small piece of paper.  She gave it to me, together with some coins, to pass to Uncle Botak Head.

Like now, housewives would pick their numbers based on some special event that occurred or on interpretations of their dreams.  For example, if there was a wedding, the age of the bride and bridegroom could be considered good numbers to bet on.  As for dreams, my mother would consider betting, for example, on the number four and two if she dreamed of two persons sitting at a table.  Since a table has four legs and there were two persons - the logic goes - the number to buy was "42".  There were of course various other interpretations for which I am no expert.

Ice Ball

One other food items we children loved very much was colourful ice balls.  Ice was first compressed into a ball with bare hands and different syrups then added to create a vibrantly coloured ball.  There was red bean at the centre of the ball, and milk was sometimes added to its surface.   Because bare hands were used to shape the ice (there were no rubber gloves at that time), the health authorities put a stop to the sale of the ice balls.  Ice kachang, served in a bowl instead, became more popular.  While this is surely a more civilised way to enjoy the dessert, the fun of eating from a ball of ice is lost.  What a pity indeed!

"Char Kway Teow"

...  The other type of kway teow "black and white" kway teow.   This was the stall nearer our flat, and was located just at the corner of our opposite block.  This hawker operated his stall from a timber cart.  This type of hawker was a common sight in all parts of Singapore in the 1960s.  The stall stayed open from about 7 o'clock in the evening till late at night.  Each plate of fried kway teow came with fresh cockles and lap cheong (Cantonese:  腊肠,  Chinese sausage) and cost only 20 cents without egg and 30 cents with egg.  There were no styrofoam boxes or waxed paper for takeaways then.  Instead, the food was wrapped with opeh leaves, and was tied with thine cane, not raffia, string.

Malay Satay Man

Itinerant hawkers were also a common sight at the Blue Windows.  I remember vividly an elderly Malay Satay Man, who wore a traditional sarong and a songkok, who came to our estate, mostly during the weekends to sell his delicious satay.  During those early years, satay was mostly sold by the Malays just as roti prata was sold by the Indians.  The Malay Satay Mdan would usually call at about dinner time, carrying a wooden pole with two small timber cabinets hanging at each end of the pole.  He used to station himself at the badminton court and start a makeshift barbecue fire.  We could choose from chicken, lamb and beef satay.  His satay was grilled over red-hot charcoal in a homemade stove and was accompanied by a delicious but spicy peanut gravy that contained mashed pineapple.  Another interesting aspect about satay stalls at that time is that most hawkers would charge their customers by counting the number of satay sticks there were after the meal.  Naturally, there were cases of dishonest customers who secretly hid or threw away the sticks before the Satay Man counted them.  Eventually, this practice was discontinued when the Satay Man wisened up!

...  we thoroughly enjoyed the meal, which included ketupats (Malay: rice cakes) in satay gravy and Red Spot orange drinks in glass bottles .

Bread seller home delivery service with a basket

I also recall how we children would wait eagerly almost every afternoon for a middle-aged Indian man to pass by our flat.  He had a very special way of carrying the basket of bread that he sold:  he placed them on his white turbaned head.  It was indeed fascinating that he could move his head from side to side as he talked to his customers, even with that basket-load of bread on his head.  Whenever we wanted to buy bread, we would call out to him and use rope to lower a basket from our first floor flat.  The friendly bread seller would place the bread inside the basket, after which we would retrieve the basket and take out the bread.  We would put coins in its place and lower the basket down again to the bread seller.  This commonn practice is interesting in retrospect and reflected the simplicity of life at that time; the bread seller trusted that we would pay him in good faith.  Like all our neighbours, we did so every time.  However, it is clearly no longer feasible to continue this practice today, not with the more suspicious nature of people living in our urbanised society today.  Besides, lowering a basket in this matter from a twently-storey HDB flat is simply unthinkable now!

"Tit Tot" Hokkien prawn mee

The other hawker who formed a lasting impression was the young boy who took orders of Hokkien prawn mee.  He went around the estate alerting postential customers with the tit tot sound he created by hitting two short bamboo sticks together.  He would then rush back to the stall after an order was placed and come back later with the bowls of noodles on a tray.  It was the equivalent of a home delivery service.  Once, my brother ordered the mee, then a mere 20 cents a bowl, for all of us in celebration after winning five dollars in a riddle contest organized by Rediffusion Singapore.  And so the boy brought all of us bowls of noodles on a Saturday afternoon.  He would come back a while later to collect the empty bowls.  Such was the practice then, when trust and honesty were the order of the day.

The Bukit Ho Swee fire

During the Hari Raya Haji holiday on the 25 May 1961, the whole estate was shocked to learn about a big fire that occurred at the Bukit Ho Swee area along Tiong Bahru and Havelock Road.  The entire area was totally destroyed in a short span of time.  Fortunately, those who stayed at the Blue Windows were not affected since the fire occurred at a distance from the Margaret Drive area.  In total, four people were killed and approximately 16,000 were rendered homeless.

All our neighbours were concerned about the fire, which naturally became the talk of the town for a few weeks.  As a young boy then, I was not sure about what was going on.  I only remember my father saying that we all needed to be more aware of the dangers of fire.  This vigilance as an extension of his personality; even before sitting down on a bench next to a tree, Father would survey his surroundings just in case anything fell on him or his loved ones.

The fire eventually impacted the Blue Windows indirectly.  Very soon, some of the previous Bukit Ho Swee residents began moving into our estate.  Another consequence of the fire was that the Housing and Development Board (HDB) kicked off a mass housing programme for the displaced residents.  The new satutory board later inaugurated a home ownership scheme in which citizens could use their Central Provident Fund (CPF) to purchase their flats.


The older lower-rise flats at Duchess Estate contrast starkly with the more recent high-rise developments.


It has been almost four decades since my family and I moved out of the Blue Windows.  They say time flies and I have come to agree with this.  I've stayed in various areas in Singapore since but none of these places can inspire the same sense of nostalgia that I feel for the Blue Windows.  For most people of my generation, the "good old days" are dead and gone, and will only remain as sweet memories.

In a recent visit back to Queenstown, I drove along the now almost unrecognizable Margaret Drive.  I felt conflicted by the new but congested developments that were taking place there.  The once familiar landscape no longer existed.  It was indeed painful to realize that many of the old Queenstown landmarks were gone, including the low-rise SIT flats with the blue louvre glass windows.  Yet the new, imposing HDB flats, with their huge glass panes and beautifully designed facades amazed me.  A sense of remorse overcame me: a part of our national heritage and our rich past had been eliminated in the endless pursuit for a more modern lifestyle.

The scarcity of land in Singapore makes it understandable: urban planners need to get rid of the old to make way for the new.  Is it possible to be more selective and cautious when deciding what should be torn down and what should be preserved?  Not all these strucjtures may be high-profile but they may possess value in terms of their unique architecture or historical significance.  A case in point would be Forfar House, regarded as one of the earliest high-rise public flats in Singapore.  Yet every time I visit Queenstown, I realize a chunk of it has disapppeared.


Still, I sometimes wonder if there will be any landscapes familiar to my generation that future generations will be able to come into actual contact with.  The Queenstown of my childhood is gone and a new dwelling enclave has emerged in its place.  It is now up to the next generation to tresure their living space.  As for me and those who once stayed at Queenstown, the Blue Windows lives on, if not in our hearts, then at least between the covers of this book.


Aug 1, 2019

A Village Remembered - Radin Mas 1800s - 1973

On 1 September 2013, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong launched the book "A Village Remembered: Kampong Radin Mas 1800s - 1973" which specially for former residents of Kampong Radin Mas.

The birthplace of many Malay-Muslim institutions, Mr Lee said Radin Mas also produced leaders who made important contributions in politics, as well as in arts and culture.

"How did Radin Mas produce so many talented people?  Some people said it's because of the 'air pancur', the spring water, which flowed from Mount Faber to the kampung.  Others said maybe it was the ice ball kaching or the kuti kuti and the kana," he said.

"But everybody agrees that the 'gotong royong' spirit had a lot to do with it, where people help one another, where everybody knew everyone be else and each spurred the others to go on and do their best.

Former Minister Haji Othman Wok was born in Radin Mas and he helped at the 'gotong royong' projects (photo above).

With his wife Lin in 2012 (photo below).

He added: "Even today, when we are in Housing and Development Board flats - much bigger towns, not a few hundred thousand people, but hundred thousand people perhaps - it's still necessary for us to maintain that strong community spirit for us to do well."

Kampong Radin Mas is believed to be among the oldest villages in Singapore. 

The book documents life in the Radin Mas village before it was demolished in 1973 to make way for a satellite town.

The Lim Brothers

Lim Soon Heng (above) and his brother Soon Leng grew up in their grandfather's house in Kampong Radin Mas from the time they were little.  Their grandfather Lim Keng Cheow had come to Singapore from Amoy, China in the early 20th century looking for work and found his niche supplying coolies for the Singapore Harbour Board (now Port of Singapore Authority or PSA).  The elder Lim's house was one of the few Chinese homes in the kampong, where he lived with his wife Tan Swee Lian.  The couple adopted six children, including the mother and the father of the two Lim brothers.  Soon Heng, the older of the two brothers by six years, was born in 1944.  There are five other siblings:  Ah Swee, Kim Swee, Gek, Soon Hock and Soon Huat.

Soon Heng's earliest and most enduring memory of life is the kampong is that of his father Lim Seng Chiang working very hard.  A serang (junior supervisor) at the Singapore Harbour Board, he worked three shifts a day on most days including Sundays.  Said Soon Heng, "At daybreak my father would already be riding on his trusty bicycle to Gate 5 for the first shift at 6.30am.  At 11.30am he would head home with a food container of food rice provided free by his employer, this helped to supplement the family's meals.  After his meal and a short break, he would be off again to work at 1pm for the second shift.  His day did not end with the setting sun, as he often worked the third shift loading and unloading cargo."

The many trips out of the kampong and back could not have been easy.  Their house was farther up the hill slope of Mount Faber, deep within the kampong.  Said Soon Leng:  "There were only about six Chinese house making up a sort of mini Chinese kampong within Kampong Radin Mas.  We were about one kilometre from the main road where the school was, and the walk out took twenty minutes.  For a young boy like me, the journey seemed to last forever.  What made the walk even more difficult was that towards our side of the kampong, the mud road was very uneven and surrounded by tall lallang and bamboo; snakes were quite common."

The upside of these natural surroundings was that their part of the kampong was filled with fruit trees, more noticeably durian, papaya, pomelo, jackfruit, rambutan and cempedak as well as the pink variety of guava and mata kucing, which is now a rarity.   "In our younger days, we did not have much food to eat but we were never short of fruits.  We had about ten durian trees in our compound, all yielding some of the best variety of the fruit I have tasted," added Soon Leng.

Another brother Lim Soon Hock (left) with his cousin William Lim in front of 77-T Kampong Radin Mas, a sub-division of their grandfather's house at 97-3.

Soon Heng at his favourite spot in the kampong

Lim Soon Heng in front of the black-and-white house at the foot of Mount Faber, a short distance from where Kampong Radin Mas used to be.  By a strange twist of fate, his house became his living quarters when he was a management trainee at Keppel Shipyard in 1969.  He said:  "For a kampong boy, this was dizzying luxury."  Above, Soon Heng at his favourite spot in the kampong.

Being towards the tail end of the kampong also meant that the standpipe was a good 200 metres from their house.  They would connect a rubber hose to the pipe to collect enough water for a day's supply in their cement tank.  From this large cement tank, they used a hose to drain the water into a smaller tank in their bathrooms for washing clothes and for bathing.  They lived without the convenience of piped water for years until the kindly teacher stepped in to help.

"Mr Khoo Boo Eng taught me English and Music at Radin Mas School," said Soon Heng.  "Whe he hard how the family went to such great pains to collect water, he wrote a letter to the Public Works Department (now Public Utilities Board or PUB) and requested for a standpipe to be erected nearer our home.  I will always be grateful for Mr Khoo's concern."

The brothers' fond memories of kampong life are marred by two incidents.  While the family was living in the kampong during World War II, the Japanese rounded up Chinese men, including their grandfather and uncle.  Their grandfather was shot dead but the uncle was released.  More than twenty years later, their father was accosted by Malay youths in teh kampong during the 1964 race riots.  He was pushed from his bicycle and took a bad tumbler, breaking his jaw and losing all his teeth in the process.  He was hospitalised for a few days.

The Lim family.  Front row from left:  Soon Heng, matriarch Ng Guek Eng, patriarch Lim Seng Chiang and Soon Leng.  Back row from left:  Soon Huat, Kim Swee, Ah Swee, Gek and Soon Hock.

Soon Heng with his mother Madam Ng at his graduation in 1968.

"The whole family was traumatised," said Soon Leng.  "Fearing for our safety, we moved to a relative's house in Silat Road.  Looking back, we are sure that those Malay youths who pushed our father were not from our kampong but some troublemakers who had been seen loitering there, I am confident our kampong friends would never do such a thing.  They were all very nice and helpful, almost like family." Soon Heng and Soon Leng moved out of the kampong when they were in secondary school and today lead different lives.

Soon Heng lives in Singapore but travels around the region as a shipyard consultant.  He is married to Gaye and has two children, Joyce and Max.  Soon Heng has retired to New Zealand, after having worked in cities like New Delhi, San Francisco and Sydney.  He is married to Siew Hoon and has three children, Herman, Heidi and Simon.

Having found success in their careers, the brothers are grateful for the sacrifices their parents made, including putting them through university.  Said Soon Heng:  "Those were simple days and parents had just one simple, unyielding ambition - to see to it that their progeny had better days ahead of them than they did.  In that our parents did admirably well, despite having so many mouths to feed.

"Before my brothers and sisters came along and on the rare days when my father was not working, I would be given the occasional treat of a film show and makan.  As the number of my siblings grew - at the average rate of one every two years - the little 'luxuries' became a strain on my father's pocket.  The growth of his family simply outpaced his wages.  Inspite of the hardship, my parents raised seven children who have turned out well.  It is quite sad that a few years before my mother's dealth at ninety-five years of age, dementia had gradually robbed the memories of her achivements."

Visit of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to Radin Mas in 1964

Archived related photos of Radin Mas with courtesy of the book publisher,  National Archives of Singapore and generous contributers of other sources:

Mr Ong Kim Seng, hailed as Singapore's foremost watercolourist, attended Radin Mas School from 1954 to 1958.  The school, which was a stickler for rules and believed in corporal punishment, was a big influence on him, he said, and he credited it for nurturing his talent for painting.  He remembered in particular a Eurasian man he knew only as Mr Edmund, his class teacher in Primary One and Primary Two.  He said:  "Mr Edmund was a very nice, encouraging teacher.  He was one of those teachers who did not need a cane to instil discipline in us.  We loved and respected him.  He was the first one who recognised my talent for painting.  I won a picture colouring book as school prize for having the best piece for Art & Handwork in Primary One.  Now and then he would give me special art papers to draw on; they were hard to come by in those days.  This was a big encouragement for me.

Besides attending Radin Mas School, Kim Seng has ties with Kampong Radin Mas through his maternal grandparents, Mdm Bay Eng and Mr Goh Siang, who were among the few Chinese residents living in this predominantly Malay enclave.  The kampong had been their home since the early 1910s until they were resettled to Silat Road in 1973.  All their children, including Kim Seng's mother, Mdm Goh Choon Hoon, were born in Kampong Radin Mas.  Later, she and her husband Ong Teng Kee moved to Silat Road and this is where the young Kim Seng grew up.  He continued:  "My grandparents were simple kampong folk.  My grandfather was a sailor and would be away from home for long stretches at a time.  Yet I'd never known them to lock their doors.  Everyone knew everyone, and everyone helped everyone.  My grandparents spoke Malay and got along very well with their Malay neighbours.  At Hari Raya, their Muslim friends would invite them over for lunch and give them all sorts of kuih to take home and at Chinese New Year, my grandparents would offer them oranges and soft drinks.  I remember a favourite with the young kids was F&N Sarsaparilla, which we called Sarsi.

"I would say kampong life was full of activity, and there was never a dull moment.  Kampong residents were always ready to help one another.  For instance, whenever the kampong got flooded and left a hugh mess, we would all clean it up.  If we didn't. who would?  We never thought about gain or loss, as we were all equally poor!  We looked out for each otheer, we knew who was sick and needed help.  This system of sharing drew us together and made ours a cohesive community.

"But change has to come.  Kampong people may have fond memories of what life was like back then, but they would not want to go back to those days.  Now we live in nice, comfortable homes; there's modern sanitation, piped water and reliable power supply.  Everything works.  We like to observe the kampong but we would not want to live in one anymore.  That's probably why so many of us like to visit kampongs in other regions.  But to live under those conditions again ... that's something most of us would find hard to accept."

Memories of Bukit Purmei before the kampong was resettled by HDB

In the 1970s, I was working as a part-time enumerator for the Census of Population in the evening after work at the Outpatient Services at Maxwell Road.   

It was the household survey undertaken in Singapore, collecting information on key characteristics of the population and households.  I was assigned to conduct the census once at Bukit Purmei where I have never been there before.  Other areas I had assigned to Bedok, Lucky Height, Tampines, Katong and a few places I have forgotten.  As the records were confidential to submit to the Census of Population, I did not keep any private records and information.

I found that the Bukit Purmei kampong was similar to where I grew up in Bukit Ho Swee kampong.  The conditions and environment of the kampongs where the residents were mostly poor.

The road was pitted with pools of muddy water.  There was no signboard or house numbers and both sides were attap houses, some of which had lavatories near the road.  Residents said mosquitoes were disturbing their sleep.  Bukit Purmei was originally a track for bullock carts which used to bring goods.  It was interesting to note that the church and a temple were located side by side.

With courtesy of NewspaperSG excerpted article of Berita Harian, 4 December 1980 to learn about the resettlement of Bukit Purmei to be developed and built as a new HDB estate in Malay.

Bukit Purmei jadi estet perumahan baru, 2,300 unit flat siap dlm 1981/82

Pemohon-pemohon flat Lembaga Perumahan dan Pembangunan (HDB) di estet perumahan Telok Blangah akan berpeluang mendapatikan flat di kawasan yang berhampiran.

Sebuah estet baru di Bukit Purmei (gambar atas), sedang dalam pembinaan.  Terletak di pinggir bandar, estet baru ini dibina di sebelah Bandar Baru Telok Blangah dan hanya lima hingga tujuh kilometer dari pusat bandar. Ia akan mempunyai 2,300 unit flat bila siap seluruh pembinaannya.  Buat masa ini, 878 flat tiga bilik, 1,284 flat empat bilik dan 135 flat lima bilik sedang dalam pembinaan.  Flat-flat ini dijangka siap pada akhir 1981 atau awal 1982.

Estet seluas 20 hektar ini akan mempunyai kawasan seluas 14 hektar untuk bangunan dan 6 hektar untuk kemudahan-kemudahan yang biasa terdapat di estet-estet perumahan HDB.

Estet ini termasuk dalam Zon Jurong yang mempunyai empat bandar baru dan empet estet perumahan iaitu Bandar Baru Telok Blangah Clementi, Jurong Timur, dan Jurong Barat.

Purpose to share old books on the blog

The book, "A Village Remembered, Kampong Radin Mas 1800s - 1973", was published in 2013 and the readers may buy it at the bookshop if still available. However, if the book is already sold out or out of stock and not reprinted, please loan it from the National Library [Call No: 959.57 VIL].

This is not a book review and not the whole book is reproduced on the blog. 

The purpose is to share related topics which nostalgic memories which are note-worthy and meaningful to the readers.  The photo entitled 'Where the kampong people gathered' with courtesy of the the book supported by the National Heritage Board as gifts to the National Library for the readers' knowledge and to learn more about Singapore.

Present-day Bt Purmei Rd

Where the Radin Mas community gathered and still active