New Age of Heritage
New Age of Heritage
BURST OF COLOUR: Hougangâ€™s iconic rainbow-painted flat was built in the 1980s, and is among the landmarks featured in documentary Old Places. Photo courtesy of Objectifs Films
F e at u re s
Editorial team: Clara Lock Kenneth Goh Ronald Loh
ON THE COVER: New heritage merchandise put a chic and functional spin on enduring local culture. See page 30. Photos courtesy of National Heritage Board, FARMSTORE, Ang Ku Kueh Girl and wheniwasfour.
of the past 10 His story repeats itself 14 Memories for keeps 18 Journey through time 20 A tale of two shophouses 24 Inn with the old 27 Vintage in vogue 32 Bite into the past 34 A walk to remember 37 About us 38 Acknowledgements
A Final Year Project by the Wee Kim Wee School of Communications and Information, Nanyang Technological University
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of the past Changing landscapes, rapid development, and global brands. Singapore is advancing, but people are becoming more nostalgic. Is the past truly catching up?
Paul See turned up for his wedding in a thick, red, silk tunic embroidered with phoenixes and a round hat with a heavy gold brooch on its front. Even he admitted he “looked more like a vampire” than a groom. Despite the eclectic getup, getting married in full Peranakan fashion was something the 37-year-old had dreamed of since young. So he wasn’t troubled by the elaborate costume he had to wear throughout the day, or the intensive wedding rites—one of which required him to lead a procession of serunai musicians and family members on foot to the bride’s house. His bride-to-be initially was. Esther Loo is shy by nature and slight in stature, yet had to wear the heaviest outfit of the day—a hand-embroidered gown that took three years to make. See’s love for his heritage, though, grew on Loo, and she eventually agreed to go along with the themed celebration. Things only got better. A month before their big day last July, The Main Wayang Company, a Peranakan events company, approached the couple to headline its wedding showcase, The Grandest Peranakan Wedding. It was like a wedding rehearsal for the couple, who later engaged Main Wayang to organise their Peranakan-themed wedding held at Marina Bay Sands. “I have Peranakan roots, so growing up I always wanted a Peranakan wedding. Our culture is colourful, loud, and lively, and it was a memorable way to start this new chapter of my life,” says See, a branch manager at a financial advisory firm. Swapping the chic black tuxedo for a “hot and heavy” costume, See is among an increasing number of Singaporeans who are marry-
million. That’s how much the government plans to spend on preserving heritage over the next five years. Source: Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth
NYONYA NUPTIALS: Paul See and Esther Loo swapped their tuxedo and wedding gown for traditional Peranakan garb at their wedding last July. Photo courtesy of Paul See
ing their past with the present. From retro-themed cafes, to avid collectors of classic Bentleys and Mini Coopers, to frequent staycation guests at oldstyle hotels, the Republic is witnessing a growing interest in and awareness of its past, says Yeo Kirk Siang, deputy director of the National Heritage Board’s (NHB) community engagement division. Other government initiatives such as the Singapore Memory Project, set up by the National Library Board (NLB) in 2011, are also taking off. This year, the NHB will unveil community museums, such as the newly opened one at Taman Jurong, which showcase the heritage in heartland areas. They will also launch new heritage walking trails in Tiong Bahru and Tampines. “In a world where our purchases and lifestyles are becoming mass-produced, people cling on to their heritage for that sense of exclusivity and identity,” says Yeo. “It brings them back to a time when they were happier. Surrounding themselves with things or elements from the past adds value to their lives today. “We now seek a lifestyle that’s more than just functional. We want more holistic living.” Businesses, too, are adopting these themes. Heritage-based entertainment companies are emerging, while vintage cafes and restaurants are also sprouting up around the island. Carpenter and Cook, a cafe along Lorong Kilat, serves modern
cakes and sandwiches, but is known for its antiques and vintage collectibles that fill every corner of the shop. Rusty typewriters and old ticking mechanical clocks line the counters, while its 1960s teak tables and chairs creak at the slightest touch. A pedal-operated sewing machine, with its thread wheel still intact, anchors the shop front display.
‘In a world where our purchases and lifestyles are becoming mass produced, people cling on to their heritage for that sense of exclusivity and identity.’ — Yeo Kirk Siang, deputy director of the NHB’s community engagement division
It’s this scent of the past that draws customers, says co-owner Eunice Yeo, 32. She and her two partners took pains to design a cafe that transports patrons back in time. “We started out with the love of heritage. I was in London three years ago and I fell in love with their vintage cafes because of their rich history,” she says.
“People are searching for meaning in their lives today, especially with modernisation and the many new things that are rapidly happening. A piece of the past serves as a good contrast to that.” Student Nicholas Goh, 18, is a regular customer, and was drawn to the antique furnishings. “I love the quirky charm of vintage cafes, and I can read about the history of the vintage furniture, on top of just having cakes,” he says. This growing enthusiasm for heritage and nostalgia, though, stems from a mushrooming fear that the country’s past is vanishing at an alarming rate, say academics and experts from the NLB and NHB. Coupled with the increasingly cultured mindset of locals and the influx of foreign culture, Singaporeans feel the need to embrace their past—a reflex move to keep “feeling good and true to themselves”— says Wan Wee Pin, assistant director of the Singapore Memory Project. This sense of loss first emerged when the NLB moved to its new building at Victoria Street in 2005. As more treasured monuments disappeared from the cityscape— such as the iconic Tanjong Pagar Railway Station (2011), Old School (2012) and even the McDonald’s outlet at East Coast Park (also 2012)—Singaporeans began bemoaning their young nation losing too much of its heritage, says Wan. “Only when many of these buildings and lifestyles are lost, do people realise they need to preserve what is important,” he says. J
“With things disappearing quickly, one after another, within a short span of a few years, people start to feel there is no longer a sense of permanence.” Dr Chua Ai Lin, an assistant history professor with the National University of Singapore, says: “These were places where many generations grew up. They give rise to memories that people could relate to across generations—something so powerful, yet missing in our lives today.” Dr Chua developed a newfound appreciation for Singapore’s past after returning from the United Kingdom where she studied. She was going through the national archives and uncovered what life was like back then. “I was fascinated by how communities were built around old temples back then; that was how our cosmopolitan society developed,” she says. But today, many of these places are gone, leaving Singaporeans scrambling to cling onto a piece of their past. “When places like these disappear, people start falling back on what they feel the most for, and what they’re most familiar with. “Back to a time when they’re more secure and happier. That’s why people are becoming nostalgic,” she says. That was the driving force of the Memory Project, set up in 2011. Funded by the NLB, the Memory Project serves as a conduit between people and their heritage by gathering and documenting photographs and interviews with Singaporeans. Over 400,000 memories have been collected so far. Of these, an entire section is dedicated to the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. Photos, essays and videos contributed by the public commemorate the former link between Singapore and Malaysia. Such exhibitions serve as a constant reminder to treasure the past, and can even become an inspiration for businesses and creatives, says Wan. “We want to take these memories and showcase them through comics or
animations, especially to the younger generation,” he says. “If there is something that could be used as research for a short film or project, we can help the creative industry especially by giving them inspiration.” But the growing interest in heritage goes beyond a sense of guilt that people aren’t doing enough to preserve their past, says Yeo. “Singaporeans are becoming more affluent, and our standard of living has increased since independence in 1965,” he says.
‘We can’t wait until things are gone before we start worrying and reminiscing.’ — Wan Wee Pin, assistant director of the Singapore Memory Project
With the Republic now a First World country, people’s mindsets have also evolved, says Dr Chua. “We were too focused on material development and progress in the 1960s, and many traditions and customs were eroded as a result,” she says. “We kept pushing for progress; we chose the fastest and most efficient methods. But today, we want that sense of identity and what it means to be us back.” This is where heritage is starting to become more significant in everyday lives. “From the 1960s to the 90s, most families lived with one breadwinner, and life was more functional. Many didn’t know how to appreciate our roots and culture,” says Dr Lynda Wee, an associate marketing professor with Nanyang Technological University. “But today, people resist the global brands. They want relevance to their purchases. We’re constantly looking for ways to express individualism and
Maslow’s Hierarchy: Singapore-style SINGAPOREANS’ needs have evolved across time. As the Republic becomes more developed and affluent, it’s moved up the levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which include physiological needs, safety, belonging and selfesteem—for the economically driven citizens. With one of the world’s highest gross domestic product per capita last year, Singapore is at the the highest level of the pyramid—self-actualisation, according to Wan Wee Pin, assistant director of the Singapore Memory Project. This includes greater awareness of heritage and reflecting on one’s memories. Graphic courtesy of Alan Choong
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OLD MEETS NEW: Thian Hock Keng Temple, which was built 174 years ago by Chinese immigrants, stands out amid the modern facades of Tanjong Pagar’s high-rise buildings. Photo courtesy of Wan Zhong Hao
differentiate ourselves. A vintage piece stands out from the wave of mass-produced items.” She may be right. With the influx of foreigners and their cultures, people are realising there is more to lose than just buildings. “We feel that our cultural confidence is threatened,” says Dr Chua. “Locals feel they’ve been here longer, and hence feel a stronger connection to the area. That’s something they are fiercely trying to protect today.” From living in conserved shophouses, to collecting antiques, to organising heritage-based interest groups, this is the fight many are taking up to prevent the erosion of their culture due to globalisation. The trend looks set to stay, at least for the next few years, says Yeo. “This interest in heritage will evolve but I don’t believe it will die out, especially when there’s active work going on to hold dear to our needs and beliefs.” But there’s also the competing pressure of modernisation. “There are many causes that people will continue to champion: continued development and progress, lifestyle pressures and the struggle for better living standards. These will detract from our efforts in preserving heritage,” says Yeo. With the younger generation engaged through social media and fancy modern initiatives, such as the SMP’s latest smartphone app
for sharing memories, modern means are what keep heritage appealing and relevant to the younger generation, says Wan. “The youth are the ones who are becoming more interested in our past. Perhaps due to the novelty of heritage, and an interest to find out what it was like during their parents’ time,” he says. “They are the ones who are starting conversations and blogs, and reviving old practices. We need to empower them with the technology and means to do so.” Interest groups, such as the Singapore Heritage Society, and museums also organise forums and talks regularly. “They’re always packed with people wanting to find out more than what they scarcely learnt in their textbooks,” says Dr Chua. But perhaps the simplest methods are still the most effective. “Talk to your grandparents and find out their stories of the past. Keep the conversation about heritage going with the people around you. That’s the best way of keeping our traditions alive,” says Dr Chua. Wan agrees. “We can’t wait until things are gone before we start worrying and reminiscing,” he says. “We’ve got to keep our citizens constantly engaged and aware of things happening around them. “It’s not just about our history and whatever that’s happened. It’s also about the present, because one day, that will become our children’s past.” s
REEL GOOD TIMES: Film stills from documentaries Old Places and Old Romances capture Singaporeans’ childhood haunts, some of which have since been demolished. Photos courtesy of Objectifs Films
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While most keep their memories to themselves, these filmmakers and event planners broadcast their past for all to share.
ilmmaker Eng Yee Peng’s most vivid memory of her childhood home is watching it being torn down. In 1986, the family moved from their Lim Chu Kang kampung into an HDB flat when the land was cleared for industrialisation. When they went back to visit the site of their former home a few weeks later, Eng, who was seated in the back of a lorry, saw the demolition from afar. “Tears were running down my face before I could feel anything,” she says. It was a move that Eng, then only nine, could not comprehend. “I didn’t have closure, but I didn’t know it at that time” said Eng, who lost neighbours, playmates, and even the family dog, Johnny, a mongrel too big for their Jurong flat. Haunted by her lost childhood, the filmmaker trained her lenses on her former home in two documentaries, Diminishing Memories 1 and Diminishing Memories 2. The projects are as introspective as they are public, and have brought her closure after a quarter of a century. “When younger generations watch the films, I believe they will understand what the kampung spirit is like,” says Eng, 35, who portrays kampung life through interviews with family members and relatives she grew up with. For film critic Stefan Shih, 37, the vast Lim Chu Kang landscapes in the first documentary brought to mind growing up in Bedok. “Fengshan Community Centre used to be an open field—a no man’s land with uncut grass, where we played football and
million. That’s how much It’s a Great Great World, a film on the Great World Amusement Park in the 1940s, earned at the box office. It was the highest-grossing local film in 2011. Source: Media Development Authority
catching,” he says. Nostalgia is a big draw for Shih, who will choose a heritage-related film over something more modern. “Films are a reprieve from the daily grind. You go through life with one foot on the accelerator, so films about heritage bring you back to a time when things seemed simpler.” Amidst the race for progress, filmmaker Eva Tang wants to share what she knows and loves about home. Tang is one of the trio, which includes acclaimed director Royston Tan, who helmed documentary Old Places and its sequel, Old Romances. The films take viewers on a road trip through Singapore’s old places—family businesses, wet markets, parks and homes—all J
unchanged since their inception years ago. Some, like Katong confectionery Chin Mee Chin, need no introduction, while others are as nondescript as an overhead bridge along Lorong Chuan, enclosed on all sides save for large hexagonal windows. Tang and her co-directors—Tan and Victric Thng—encouraged Singaporeans to phone in anonymously with their memories, which add colour to these spaces. The outcome is a film that celebrates the old, even in the face of rapid modernisation in Singapore. There is urgency in their cause—a sense that if they do not record now, they may never get another chance. “When you film or photograph something, you expect that it is going to disappear, so you want to record something that will not be forgotten. Essentially you are recording the death of a moment,” says Dr Liew Kai Khiun, a broadcast professor at Nanyang Technological University. Often, Tang and her two co-directors felt like they were working against the clock to capture spaces before they were gone. Some, like the iconic pelican playgrounds in Dover and Seletar airbase, have been demolished after appearing in Old Places, which was first screened in 2010. Their mission to capture the old and forgotten resonated with viewers, making Old Places the best-rated documentary on Okto channel in 2010.
It was a wake-up call for financial adviser Tan Geng Hui, 36, who was inspired to visit and shoot the featured places to relive his growing-up years. “I wanted to go back in time and capture what I couldn’t in the past, because I did not realise what we were losing then,” says the photography buff, who has visited about a quarter of the places shown. He documents the pictures and stories on his blog so that others from the Internet generation will be interested. Tang, 41, agrees: “You have to show the young ones that there are good things in our past and history, so that eventually they will form their identity around their roots.” Appealing to youths is the way forward for Alvin Oon, 45, one of the three founders of The Main Wayang Company. The cultural arts performance company holds events, plays and shows, and fuses modern elements into their performances. “Peranakan theatre is always geared towards heavy traditions, so it’s not very appealing to the modern person,” he says. Plays are performed in Peranakan patois—a poetic hybrid of Malay, Hokkien and English that includes many proverbs—making it difficult for audiences to relate. “It’s an integral part of Peranakan culture, but a language that most no longer use,” says Oon. So Oon, who arranges music and sings with five-man troupe The Main Wayang Singers, created Baba Nonya Style, a nod to
Korean rapper Psy’s ubiquitous horse-riding number, and choreographed a joget rendition of Train’s Hey Soul Sister. The self-taught musician also translated a traditional Malay poem into hip hop and rap number Ho Mia Lah Lu, which is sung in English and a smattering of Malay. Oon hopes that introducing the Peranakan language in manageable degrees will help people pick up key phrases and prevent it from dying out. The modern update is also important, he says, to help the younger generation relate. “There’s no point appealing to the older generation because they know the culture already. Our focus is on the younger set, although we still want the older folks to enjoy themselves,” he adds. While Peranakan culture, aided by the popularity of Mediacorp
‘There’s no point appealing to the older generation because they know the culture already. Our focus is on the younger set, although we still want the older folks to enjoy themselves.’ — Alvin Oon, 45, co-owner of The Main Wayang Company
drama The Little Nyonya, has seen a revival in recent years, the fate of street opera remains more tenuous. In the 1970s and 80s, HDB estates were once replete with makeshift stages housing opera troupes and the tok tok chiang of the drums and cymbals that accompanied each performance. But the sight has dwindled as the lack of fresh talent and public interest led to the closure of many troupes. So for Nick Shen, it is a race against time to spread the word of Chinese opera. His Chinese opera events planning company, Tok Tok Chiang, which is slightly over a year old, performs updated versions of Teochew opera that are easier to understand than their counterparts from the 1970s. They perform at schools, Teochew restaurants and outdoor public spaces like the Esplanade—where Shen keeps the segments short and includes a synopsis and subtitles for each folktale, so audiences can follow the action. They have to, he says, because fewer people speak dialects these days. Tok Tok Chiang is named after the sounds of the performances his grandmother, a “die-hard opera fan”, took him to as a child. “The excitement of watching Chinese opera was like going to the Night Safari, or Disneyland,” he says. “I want people to feel the same kind of excitement about our culture and art forms.” s
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Memories for keeps These collectors have transformed their hobbies into collections that span more than half their lives. THE WHEELS OF TIME
IN REVERSE GEAR: Each of David Christie’s 500 car models evokes a different memory from his childhood.
avid Christie first hit the roads when he was just nine—at the wheel of his father’s Austin A40. “My job was to start the car and let the engine run so the battery wouldn’t die,” says the car enthusiast, now 51. But he took it a step further one day, driving the family car up and down their driveway. His father, a school principal, was shocked but eventually allowed his son to take the car for short spins around their Katong neighbourhood. Christie soon moved on to driving other cars, such as the one that belonged to his mathematics tutor, who let him take the wheel when he got all his sums correct. It is a halcyon time Christie remembers fondly, and has attempted to relive through a collection of classic car models that lines the walls of his landed property in Pasir Ris. “I wanted to recreate something for all the cars I grew up knowing—those that belonged to my neighbours, my schoolteachers. I wanted to make sure they were never forgotten,” says Christie, who is Mediacorp’s director of programme standards and practices. His collection of die-cast models—he is quick to point out that they are not ‘toys’—comprises 500 pieces today. His proudest piece is a 1:43 scale model of a 1972 Morris Mini that fits comfortably on his palm, which he bought from the now-demolished Katong shopping centre Tay Buan Guan when he was 10. It’s a car he also owns in real life, one he has been fascinated with since he saw a neighbour drive it past his house when he was five. “I felt complete in the company of a Mini. It’s like a grown-up toy,” says Christie, who finally bought one in 1991 from his mechanic. While it belonged to the mechanic, the car only served one function—to reserve lots for his customers, something Christie found hard to stomach. So when he was offered the Mini at the end of its COE period, he jumped at the offer, paying $2,000 for the car that has been with him ever since. He refurbished it in the same colours of his scale model—white with a black roof. “I decided back then, once I get my own Mini, these are the only colours I’ll do,” he says. Driving it brings Christie, who admits to being a child at heart, back to his youth. “If I don’t look in the mirror, I still think I’m a kid,” he says. “I surround myself with the things that make me happy—cars, model cars—so I’ll never grow old.” J
FOR THE FAMILY: Suhaimi Subandie sold off three-quarters of his toy collection to fund his children’s university education.
TIME TO COLLECT
hen Suhaimi Subandie was growing up as the eldest of three siblings, they only had one toy a year to share. His army officer father left when Suhaimi was 11, leaving his chambermaid mother to support the family on her own. Money was so tight that the four of them shared a roof with his grandparents and relatives. Despite this, Suhaimi was intrigued by comics and drawn to Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi figurines. Upon completing National Service, he took on a job at Metro, and bought his first vintage toy—a Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back figurine—to relive the youth he missed out on. “I had a sense of satisfaction. Finally, after so many years, I could buy toys, so I treasured them a lot more,” he says.
‘I don’t have much savings or CPF, but at least I have my toys to back me up.’ — Suhaimi Subandie, 48, toy collector
Suhaimi began buying one toy per month at $1.90 each, out of his $300 paycheck. Over three decades, his teenage hobby became a lifelong investment. He expanded his collection, getting stock directly from distributors and reselling them to other collectors, or trading his toys for other pieces. At its peak, he had about 4,000 pieces stored in his four-room HDB flat in Pasir Ris. But last year, the father of four, who named his 14-year-old twins Luke and Leia, sold off about 70 per cent of his collection—which he valued between $50,000 and $80,000—to fund his four children’s education. His eldest and second daughter have finished their polytechnic and A-levels respectively, and are both looking to start university this year. But parting with his beloved toys was no easy decision. “It was very hard to sell my toys, but even harder to know that if I didn’t, I would not be able to provide for my kids. Everything that I didn’t have last time, I want to give them,” says the 48-year-old. He keeps the remaining 30 per cent of toys because they hold sentimental value, like the Star Wars figurine his wife gave him while
they were dating. But he is prepared to sell them off when his children get married, or should the family need money. “I don’t have much savings or CPF, but at least I have my toys to back me up,” he says. Personal collections may be unconventional assets, but Suhaimi is not alone in his savings scheme. Antique collector Charlie Lim is also ready to cash in on his collection, which he hopes will tide him through retirement. The photographer poured his life savings into a display of intricately carved olive, peach and walnut seeds—a collection he estimates is worth $600,000 to $800,000. “This seed collection is my CPF,” says the 60-year-old. He started buying the seed carvings from local emporiums in his twenties, paying anywhere between $1.50 and $1,300 per seed. Drawn at first to the elaborate carvings, it was only in his thirties that Lim, then a painter and art director, decided to turn his interest into a savings plan. “Twenty-five years ago I wondered—if I have money, should I buy a house or antiques? I decided to buy antiques,” says the divorcee, who lives in a rented apartment near his Telok Blangah studio. Over the years, he has spent an estimated half a million on the seed carvings, as well as a host of other antiques. Among them is a strand of hair with Chinese characters carved in it, and a tiny ivory book—complete with eight pages of text—that measures 1cm square. Lim is still intrigued by how the carvings from China are made. “It’s their national secret. Nobody has ever been able to explain it to me,” he says. While Lim and Suhaimi have dedicated over half their lives to their collections, both are now ready to let them go. “I always joke with my kids, one day when you can afford it, you’d better buy the toys back for me,” says Suhaimi. “But now, I’ve reached a point where I’ve learnt the meaning of life. It’s not materialism. Now I just want to be healthy and happy.”
PRIDE OF PLACE: Only Alvin Yapp can sit in his $70 rattan planter’s chair that was his first antique purchase.
n Alvin Yapp’s two-storey Joo Chiat shophouse, every corner is filled with Peranakan antiques. A towering ancestral altar that greets visitors occupies most of the doorway, scrolls and paintings line the walls, and a row of beaded slippers peek out from beneath a wedding bench. But climb the stairs (adorned with colourful tiffin carriers and spittoons) to his loft, and Yapp’s first purchase still takes centre stage. The wood-and-rattan planter’s chair, an iconic feature in any Peranakan household, cost Yapp $70 when he was 18, a hefty sum which he raised through performing on a Yamaha keyboard at public events. “It had a flavour that appealed to me and looked like it would fit into an old house,” says the 43-year-old businessman, who gave it pride of place in his bedroom of his family’s five-room Bishan flat.
‘It appealed to me and looked like it would fit into an old house.’ — Alvin Yapp, 43, businessman
Photo courtesy of Nicholas Yeo
His interest was piqued after a family outing to Peranakan play Menyesal (‘regret’ in Malay)—even though the entire dialogue, delivered in Baba Malay, flew over his head. It drew Yapp to learn about his roots; a desire that took him to flea markets and garage sales where sellers taught him about the items he carted home. The planter’s chair, for instance, was what his grandfather would have reclined on to drink his morning coffee or read the newspapers. Almost three decades later, the chair is still in good shape, although Yapp no longer allows visitors to his home museum to sit on it, in order to preserve the wood. Every year, hundreds of guests stream through The Intan, the name of his museum that means ‘rose-cut diamond’ in Malay. With a healthy stockpile of collectibles today, Yapp hopes to spread the collecting bug by helping other Peranakan enthusiasts source items, and organising yearly sales for collectors to sell to the public. “The more people collect Peranakan culture, the higher chance of survival it has. I hope other people can also learn about the items they are buying,” he says. s
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Journey through time
It’s getting harder to find history in our modern city-state. Heritage buffs suggest eight spots where you can still go back in time.
A MOTORING JOURNEY ALONG CHANGI “Ride with me in my classic Mini, past Changi Prison, Changi Village, down the coastal roads. A lot of people have the perception that Singapore is a very modern country, but there are parts of Singapore where you can be transported back in time, where I could tell you it’s 1970 and you’d probably still believe me.”
— David Christie, 51, car model collector
Colonial houses in Sembawang
“The area from Queen’s Avenue to Gibraltar Crescent still has black and white bungalows from the colonial times. What’s fascinating is that they showcase a marriage of Eastern and Western influences, such as spacious verandas and overhanging eaves.”
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Graphic courtesy of Alan Choong
— Mohamad Saddiq, 24, copywriter
taman jurong community museum “People think the Western side of Singapore has no culture, but Taman Jurong Community Museum has an exhibit on the old Vespa factory along Bukit Timah Road, which was around long before Vespas were cool.” — Prabhu Silvam, 23, Singapore Institute Management student
Botanic Gardens “Singapore was once a tropical paradise, but has turned into a concrete jungle. The sight of old rooted trees, such as the Tembusu Tree, comforts me.” — Eva Tang, 41, filmmaker
chinatown “The place used to house opium dens and coolie quarters all jam-packed with workers trying to make a living.” — Stefan Shih, 37, film critic
Dakota estate, off old airport road “It showcases the communal use of space in early public housing, and the huge amount of space between blocks. It’s quiet and peaceful there and it makes you go into a daze. That’s something missing in Singapore today.” — Kenny Leck, 35, owner of BooksActually
Koon Seng Road in Joo Chiat “It is an architectural display of typical twostorey Peranakan shophouses, and represents where the Peranakan community used to stay.” — Peter Wee, 67, Peranakan antique collector and owner of Katong Antique House
Bukit brown cemetery
“Brave souls can take a trip around the cemetery. The tombstones are packed with so much history, including famous names of Singapore’s immigrant past such as Lim Chong Pang. Some tombs also have the Sikh statues as guardians of some tombs. It’s a good chance to catch them before some graves get exhumed later this year.” — Lydia Wong, 24, web designer
Tale of two shophouses N e w
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Two homes along Marshall Road are a wall away, but worlds apart. One is dingy and dark, while the other is spruced up and modern, but both house a trove of memories for the families in them.
Photo courtesy of Lim Mu Yao
LIVING WITH THE PAST: Khoo Ah Suar has lived in the same shophouse for 37 years, but has no plans to move.
The Ng Family 5 Marshall Road
tep into the Ngs’ home, and the first thing that hits is the musty pong of damp wood. Beyond the sparsely furnished living room lies a stairwell filled with what looks like a rag-and-bone man’s collection. Piles of clothes rest on a chest of teak drawers that belonged to a Japanese household during World War II. A chaotic jumble of crockery, household equipment and toiletries are stacked precariously on dusty boxes lining the stairs. Number five Marshall Road is exactly what it has been since Amanda Ng moved in 37 years ago. The 1940s shophouse looks trapped in time with its timbershuttered windows, topped with diamond-shaped window vents, and iron-grilled gates. Its neighbours have moved on to sliding glass windows and oval glass front doors. It has not. Inside, an ancestral altar sits on a teak display cabinet, which houses memorabilia with a combined age of more than a century. They include a gold-rimmed traditional Chinese tea-cup set used in Ng’s mother’s wedding ceremony more than 50 years ago, old Guinness bottles, and porcelain glass shoes. While most people depend on yellowed photographs and retro music to jolt childhood memories, Ng, who works as an examinational supervisor, relives hers just by gazing around her home, which she shares with her parents, an older brother and sister. “Looking at the back door reminds me of the days of buying satay and wanton noodles from makeshift hawkers along the back lane of my home, or rushing back from Fowlie Primary School within a minute when I forgot my homework,” says the 40-year-old. “It is rare to be able to live in nostalgia every day in a modern city.” Her mother Khoo Ah Suar also has a strong attachment to the shophouse, which they bought for $40,000 in 1975. The canteen vendor is certain that she will never sell her house,
Photos courtesy of Lim Mu Yao
despite offers from property agents to buy it at more than 20 times its original cost. “This house carries too much sentimental value. This is where I saw the different stages of my children’s lives—when they graduated from university or got married,” the grandmother of two says. Another stay-put factor is the “kampung spirit” that is very much alive in the neighbourhood. Khoo can confidently single out more than 10 neighbours, and even knows how long each family, identified by their unit numbers, has been living near her. “Unlike life in HDB flats, we make small talk with our neighbours every day whenever we walk past their units, and look out for parking lots for each other before they get occupied by the public,” says the 76-year-old. They also keep in touch with their former neighbours who still visit them and catch up during the Hungry Ghost Festival every year. Despite living in the same shophouse for over three decades, the only adjustments the Ngs made were repairs to the kitchen’s leaking roof, fitting of retro floral tiles in the kitchen, and a paint job for the facade. “We are so used to this way of life that we don’t notice the accumulating mess, and don’t see an urgent need to change,” Ng says. As much sentimental value the house contains, one cannot help but notice that the state of disarray that unveils at the creaky wooden stairwell behind the hall, and the narrow alley that leads to woodpartitioned rooms upstairs. But change is inevitable as the family is planning an extensive renovation later this year. Ng is making the house easier for her parents—especially her mother—to move around in. She expects to spend half a million dollars to knock down walls, build concrete partitions for the rooms, carve up a room for her mother on the first level and add another half-storey. The revamp is a bittersweet affair for Ng. She notes that many of her home’s design features, such as the wooden-frame windows, will have to make way for modern ones. “I will feel a sense of loss, as they have already been with us for so long, and hold so much memories. I plan to take photos around the house as keepsakes before renovation work starts,” she says.
RETRO REVAMPED: The Lims spent more than half a million on their two-storey shophouse in Joo Chiat.
The Lim Family 7 Marshall Road
ith glossy terracotta tiles, fancy pendant lights and white PVC French windows, Henry Lim’s shophouse looks nothing like those found in history textbooks. But when he first viewed the 70-year-old shophouse with his wife, Jane Goh, 18 years ago, it was dilapidated. The wooden staircase that spiralled through the two-storey building creaked and groaned with each step, while its timber-shuttered windows fell off when Goh opened them. A year-long, $200,000 renovation made a world of difference for the 1,600 sq ft shophouse, which is roughly the size of two four-room HDB flats. Save for the slender airwell that illuminates the staircase with sunlight, all of the home’s original features have been replaced with modern but nondescript counterparts. To make up for erasing the physical history of his home, Lim makes the effort to expose his two sons to the Peranakan culture of their Joo Chiat neighbourhood—from its rows of ornate shophouses built in the 1900s to popular eateries, such as Kim Choo restaurant, famed for its ayam buah keluak (stewed chicken with Indonesian black nuts). “Since we have the opportunity to be surrounded by Peranakan architecture, eateries and Peranakan neighbours, we thought, why not just immerse ourselves in the culture,” says the 51-year-old retired sales manager. Lim cycles around the labyrinth in Joo Chiat once every three months to snap shots of shophouse facades and shares them with his family. “It is a way of appreciating the vividly-crafted art motifs of flowers on pillars and doors, and a reminder to my children to take a second look at heritage around them,” he says. The Lims, as a result, are “more culturally aware” of the heritage at their doorstep. “We started by learning about architectural features of shophouses, from the decorative mouldings of pillars, to cornices on the facade,”
Goh said. “We would compare these elements to exteriors of other shophouses when we walk around Chinatown or other parts of Joo Chiat.” That sparked a keen interest in local shophouse architecture for her older son, Mu Yao. Curious about the refurbishment process behind his home, the undergraduate started reading books on it when he was 14. “Though the historical design features at home have been refurbished, I am intrigued by the functional and cultural significance behind them, and can better appreciate them now,” he says. Goh hopes living in a shophouse will better acquaint her sons with local heritage, and ensure that such knowledge gets passed down to future generations. “The recent influx of foreigners has diluted Singapore’s culture. If we do not take the effort to affirm it, our roots and identity will be eroded; how can the young still have sentiments for Singapore,” says the retired vice-president of an engineering firm. Sentiment was what drew the Lims to pay $350,000 for their shophouse in 1993. “We are familiar with this area and it holds fond memories of its food and cinemas,” says Goh. She remembers rushing to the now-defunct Odeon-Katong theatre to catch romance films starring matinee idols, Lin Chin Hsia and Chin Han, after lessons at the nearby Anglican High School every week. “Movie tickets were so cheap then at just a dollar. My friends and I also look forward to buying ice kachang and popiah from the street hawkers nearby,” she says. It was likewise for Lim, who spent his childhood years in a colonial bungalow near Mountbatten Road. “Living in such a culturally unique property is a continuation of our past in the East, and it also enables us to own a piece of Singapore’s history.” The couple’s fondness of Joo Chiat’s rich heritage has rubbed off on their children, and Mu Yao hopes to live there till he gets married. “I want to preserve this house as far as possible, as living in a wellregarded symbol of Singapore’s culture gives me a sense of pride. It’s the best possible connection to what it was like living in the past,” he says. s
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Inn with the old Old buildings are injected with a new lease of life as heritage hotels, while staying true to their roots.
ustralian couple Brad and Tracey Baird have visited Singapore over a dozen times since they retired, and thought they had seen it all. But a feature in The Sydney Morning Herald, about a hotel housed in a colonial-style building that was the British Far East Command’s headquarters during World War II, intrigued them. So last December the Bairds, both 55, checked into Hotel Fort Canning—one of the growing number of heritage boutique hotels here. “We liked how the hotel came packaged with so much history, in a building that felt so much like the past,” says Brad. “We’ve always stayed in modern hotels when we visited Singapore previously, but this one is different. It’s close to the city, but set on in a colonial building a hill. It feels just like the countryside,” he adds. Located just above Fort Canning Park, the 86-room hotel exudes colonial grandeur. A large sweeping staircase—which feels stolen from the set of Gone With The Wind—fills the spacious lobby, which is lit by opulent white chandeliers. Glass-encased archaeological pits filled with 14th and 19th century artefacts are on display at each end of the ground floor. “It was more expensive than the usual hotels we’ve stayed at, but the ambience certainly made up for it,” says Tracey. Over the past three years, well-known players like The Sultan and New Majestic Hotel have opened their doors to the public. They usually come with specially designed, one-of-a-kind rooms, and are housed in conserved buildings. These include Mövenpick Heritage Hotel at Sentosa—a military parade square with six blocks of barracks that belonged to the British Royal Artillery during World War II—and the 70-room Kam Leng Hotel at Jalan Besar, which occupies a URA-conserved building that used to house hardware and metalwork shops. “There is a growing demand for services beyond the bed and breakfast,” says Mae Noor, marketing communications manager for Unlisted Collection, which runs Hotel 1929, New Majestic Hotel and Wanderlust Hotel. Despite banking on heritage as a marketing concept, some amenities remain constant: air-conditioning, a hot shower, and a large LCD television. Charmaine Ong, vice-CEO of The Sultan, stresses the need to keep these heritage boutique hotels appealing. She says keeping guests comfortable is the hotel’s top priority, even if it means presenting an “idealised and fancy version of the past”. J
Photo courtesy of New Majestic Hotel
(Clockwise from top) AT YOUR SERVICE: New Majestic Hotel lends a touch of tradition to an otherwise modern room with a mural of a samsui woman, an odd job labourer. KEEPING IT REAL: Walls adorned with faded paint and bare concrete walls give Kam Leng Hotel an old rustic feel. A CUT ABOVE THE REST: A refashioned purple barber chair makes a good talking point among the guests at Wanderlust Hotel. Photo courtesy of Wanderlust Hotel
LI N eVwI N aGg e S Poa fc ehse r i t a g e
(RIGHT) A PLACE IN THE COMMUNITY: Charmaine Ong (right), vice-CEO of The Sultan, hopes guests can be acquainted with the rich Malay culture surrounding Kampong Glam. (BELOW) HOUSES OF HERITAGE: Old shophouses and buildings now serve a new generation of visitors—tourists.
Photo courtesy of Hotel 1929
After all, it’s the modern amenities that bring back the visitors, she says. The Sultan, which won URA’s Architectural Heritage Award last year, comprises 10 conserved shophouses in Kampong Glam—the original Arab quarter of Singapore. When they took over the compound, Ong and her hotelier father Ong Pui Wah gave the buildings an $11 million makeover, but kept the white pillars, arches and square-cut floor tiles—now all part of the hotel, restaurant and bar. “But we aren’t explicitly promoting the heritage that used to be abuzz here,” Ong says. “We try to open the eyes of our guests through rooms that are designed like mini shophouses, or through the plaque displayed at the main lobby that indicates this building used to be a Malay printing press,” she adds. The 64-room Sultan, though, still embodies its bustling past. Prayer calls from the nearby mosque resound through the neighbourhood at 6am, occasionally frightening guests. “They would phone the reception and ask if anything was wrong,” says Ong. “But it actually left many of them interested to find out more about Muslim traditions.” Other heritage hotels are also taking it upon themselves to educate their guests about the history that surrounds them. The trio of Wanderlust, New Majestic and 1929 sells publications about Singapore’s heritage in their lobbies, among them the coffee-table book Singapore Shophouse by anthropologist Julian Davison. At New Majestic, a specially-designed shelf made from washboards, a tool used by housewives in the past, houses these books. “We hope these can capture the essence of what Chinatown was like in the past,” says Mae. The heritage concept is catching on among local guests as well. Businessman El Lee, 26, estimates he stays at these heritage hotels about twice a month. “I only choose boutique hotels with a heritage twist,” he says as he checks in at Kam Leng on Jalan Besar. “I may not know about what they used to be and stand for, but that’s the fun in staying at these places. “I get to find out about its history and background, while enjoying the comforts of the luxury hotel,” he says. For admin manager Joseph Taylor, 51, who migrated here from the United States, these heritage hotels serve as the best conduit with the past. “I came here nine years ago not really knowing about Singapore’s history. But staycations at heritage hotels provided me with insights in to the different districts and their backgrounds,” he says. “They made me realise how special the country is.” s
TILES OF MEMORIES: Peranakan tiles, which are commonly found in shophouses along Joo Chiat Road, are now refashioned into pin-on metallic badges at retail shops and museums. Photo courtesy of National Heritage Board
Vintage in vogue From bags to badges, a new wave of heritage products has emerged. But does this mean the end of the road for vintage collectible and antique shops?
row of floral patterned badges stands out amid the whitewashed display shelves of the National Museum’s gift shop. They are lightweight and delicate, each the size of a SD card—unobtrusive enough to be pinned on a lapel or tote bag, yet distinctive in their Peranakan influence. The comeback of these Peranakan floral patterns is spearheaded by local design col-
lective Singapore Souvenirs, who have sold a few hundred badges since launching them last August. Over at View Point Trading and Collectibles near Chinatown, however, interest in the real thing is waning. Stacks of 50-yearold ceramic Peranakan tiles, which used to adorn shophouses in the 1950s, have been relegated to a dusty corner. They have remained there for the past five years—not a soul has bought them. J
WEAR YOUR KUEH: Business analyst Sheryl Wong (left) sells accessories and bags inspired by ang ku kuehs—a traditional rice cake—at a flea market. Photo courtesy of Goh Chay Teng
“Some people may not know where and how to buy collectibles, so the easiest way is to buy alternatives that look like what they’re looking for, and at a lower price,” says Michael Poh, 51, owner of View Point. To stay alive in the business, it seems, even vintage needs an update. New heritage merchandise is giving time-honoured collectibles and antiques a run for their money. With a functional and chic spin on enduring local culture, they are more appealing to customers than mementos from the past. Over the last three years, at least six design companies have come up with products that draw inspiration from yesteryear. From necklaces shaped like childhood game five stones to plastic folders depicting 1980s courtesy campaign mascot Singa the Lion, these products target 20 to 40-year-olds who want to keep their childhood memories alive. Retailers of such products are doing well—design studio Farm, which started selling updated nostalgic merchandise in 2009, saw a 40 per cent increase in sales over the past year.
‘Nostalgia is the easiest way to introduce a new product to buyers as it draws on familiar local concepts.’
— Edwin Low, 33, owner of design studio Supermama Popular products from their list of 50 are erasers shaped like kueh tutus (a traditional rice flour snack, with coconut or peanut filling), and the Merlion shopper—a reusable polyester version of the Merlion-print plastic bags handed out at provision stores. These two products have been reprinted five times, with up to 2,000 pieces per batch. Local flavour is the biggest draw, says Farm’s director Selwyn Low, 33. “These products express people’s experiences and tell stories about local culture. “For example, people used to buy kueh tutu from roadside hawkers, use tear-a-day calendars, or wipe their faces with a Good Morning towel.” Edwin Low, 33, who owns design studio Supermama, agrees. He sells more than 10 heritage-themed products, which include postcards of designs from White Rabbit Candy or Haw Flake wrappers, and acrylic paperweights resembling the multi-coloured kueh lapis (steamed layered cake). “Nostalgia is the easiest way to introduce a new product to buyers as it draws on familiar local concepts. It’s the first superficial level of creating content,” he says.
FAR FROM OVER: In the face of declining business, owner of View Point Trading and Collectibles, Michael Poh (bottom) turned to social media platforms to advertise his shop. One-fifth of his customers now buy his merchandise online.
New players such as Sheryl Wong, 36, are revitalising these local concepts into everyday products. The business analyst spent $30,000 to start a design line last November, and has created whimsical character Ang Ku Kueh Girl, who wears a hat resembling an ang ku kueh, a tortoise shell-shaped glutinous rice cake. Wong uses Ang Ku Kueh Girl to depict past national movements that people can relate to, such as the Speak Mandarin Campaign in the 1980s, on notebooks. “I’ve wanted to incorporate heritage into merchandise for two years. When such products started appearing, I knew I had to act fast before the trend becomes stale,” says Wong, who sells her tote bags and stationery at flea markets twice a month. Her products are practical and functional, a trait Booksactually founder Kenny Leck says is important in attracting buyers. “While bulldog designs on the pre-1965 Guinness stout glasses are exquisite, how many times can a person drink from a glass at home in one day,” says the 35-year-old, whose independent bookstore along Yong Siak Street hawks everything from F&N drink glasses to rusty school trophies from the 1980s. He uses graphic design software to trace the rooster and cat motifs usually seen on enamel bowls, and prints them on stickers to make them more attractive. While there is healthy demand for new heritage products, sales of antiques and vintage collectibles are declining. Antique shop owner David Leow, 51, whose sales have dropped by a third over the past year, cites the ease of social media transactions and shrinking home sizes as threats to his business. More people are buying and reselling their antiques over Facebook, said Leow, whose 21-year-old shop David’s Antiques at Rangoon Road sells Peranakan furniture. He picks up teak dining tables and medicine cabinets from mature estates such as Tiong Bahru and Whampoa once a week. While he used to earn more than $2,000 per month in the 1990s, he now struggles to earn half the amount. Still, Leow is adamant about surviving without technology. “Antique trading is a sunset industry here. I have already been in this line for so long, I can rely on wordof-mouth recommendation to survive comfortably,” he says. View Point’s Michael Poh reveals his sales have declined by 40 per cent last year, despite the rise in promotion of heritage here.
This is due to a significant drop in customers—he receives around 20 visitors on a weekday, while the number swells up to more than 100 on weekends. However, this is still a far cry from the heydays of the 1990s when the walk-in traffic was twice that. “Singapore is modernising too fast; most collectibles before the 1950s such as enamel drink signboards and glass figurines from China’s cultural revolution eras have either been thrown away or sold off, and those who own collectibles are more aware of their value, and will sell them at a higher price,” he says. He also points out that most of his shop’s visitors “treat it like a museum”—and mostly browse without buying. “Collectibles are not a necessity in people’s lives these days, they are more for appreciation than everyday use,” he says. His 600 sq ft shop is an eclectic trove of local vintage collectibles dating back to the 1960s. Shelves housing brass ice kachang machines, oil lamps and traffic police helmets leave barely a foot-long aisle for customers. Nowadays, Poh earns around $5,000 a month, 80 per cent of which comes from participating in heritage exhibitions, and renting out items for corporate events and films. For the remaining sales, he depends on regular customers, who are mainly working adults in their 20s and 30s. “They usually look out for retro items that their grandparents or parents use in the 1970s, such as telephone handsets,” he says. To keep up with the times, Poh has taken to using social media to promote his shop since last year. “Nowadays, around 20 per cent of my customers know about my shop from its Facebook page, where I post photos of new collectibles every day,” he says. “That’s the first thing I do every morning after I brush my teeth,” he says. Despite the less than rosy prospects, Poh enjoys being surrounded by collectibles every day. After all, they bring back the “rolling good times” of living on a chicken farm along Upper Changi Road when he was a child. “I would accompany my father to pick up discarded coffee tables around the estate in his lorry, and sell it to the karang guni man for $10,” he says. “Selling collectibles is my way of connecting with those wonderful memories.” “In fact, I intend to do this until the day I die.” s
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Past present products Local designers are giving icons of yesteryear a trendy facelift. We present our top six.
FIVE STONEs NECKLACE
Jotter book cushion
Ang Ku Kueh tote
Instead of tossing cotton Five Stones parcels in the air, wear them as a necklace from design company wheniwasfour.
Miss scribbling notes furiously in jotter books during class? Hug these big brown cushions from wheniwasfour.
The red tortoise-shell pattern on ang ku kueh, a traditional rice cake, is found on tote bags and wristlets by Ang Ku Kueh Girl.
Photos courtesy of FARMSTORE, wheniwasfour, Ang Ku Kueh Girl, Makansutra, National Heritage Board, Jocelyn Teo, Wong Pei Ting & Wendi Gratz
Kueh Tutu eraser
During Lunar New Year, families and friends huddle around brass steamboat pots, which are reinterpreted into this ceramic decorative piece from design collective Singapore Souvenirs.
Erase old mistakes with Singapore Souvenirsâ€™ kueh tutu erasers, which resemble steamed rice flour cakes stuffed with grounded peanut or shredded coconut.
Relieve memories of using the tear-a-day Chinese almanac calendar with this notebook from wheniwasfour, which is wrapped in pages torn from the traditional calendars.
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Bite into the past Cooking with time-honoured tools is time-consuming and laborious, but some families feel preserving the taste of tradition is worth it.
A Nosh-talgic: Traditional cooking ware, such as kueh boluh moulds, adorn a wall at the Katong Antique House. Today, they bear memories of joyful meals past. Family affair: Jarib Soh (second from left) and his cousins try their hand at getting the proportions of their grandmother’s signature ngoh hiang right.
t the centre of Lim Ah Keiow’s living room, a dining table heaves with bowls of raw vegetables, eggs and minced meat. The air is thick with the smell of freshly chopped onions and Chinese parsley. Huddled around the table is a family spanning three generations. Lim is the 77-year-old matriarch teaching her five grandchildren how to make ngoh hiang, or steamed five-spice pork rolls. One glance and she knows how much more flour must be sifted into the filling and the correct size of the diced ingredients. The greenhorns, aged 18 to 22, punctuate their faltering chopping skills with a stream of banter, ribbing each other’s cooking ineptitude and misshapen rolls. But things weren’t so convivial during Lim’s childhood. Her late father, a vegetable farmer, would scold her when the rolls were folded unevenly, or if they tasted too salty. “It was the tough way to learn, but that’s why I will never forget the recipe my mother taught me,” says Lim, who has been making the dish for more than 60 years. Her second son Soh Hua Lee, who organised the family workshop, doesn’t want his children and nephews to forget the recipe either. After all, the family agrees theirs taste juicier and more flavourful than commercial, factory-made rolls. Struck by his father’s death 12 years ago, he started to help his mother make ngoh hiang, her signature dish that only appears during the Lunar New Year. “I want to ensure this family tradition gets passed down to the next generation, or else it will be quietly forgotten over time,” says the 49-year-old businessman. The process, which takes eight hours to make 60 rolls, is labourintensive—the gooey filling must be mixed by hand for 30 minutes until it is semi-solid, while adding eggs, flour and spices. But his son Jarib Soh, who did most of the stirring and kneading, did not mind. “I enjoy the process, and am curious to find out the work that goes into this dish my grandmother has been cooking for years,” says the 21-year-old who is waiting to enter university. These time-tested cooking methods may be arduous, but they are also a labour of love for Ng Ah Suar, 76. The former private bus driver made kueh boluh, or egg sponge cakes, to supplement her family’s income over two decades. Although she has since stopped baking the buttery pastries due to poor health, she still keeps the patina-coated brass mould that has 10 shell-like depressions. The bite-sized cakes can be polished off in seconds, but making a jar’s worth required an entire night’s work. Two weeks before each Lunar New Year, Ng and her four children would toil over a charcoal burner in their backyard for at least five hours every night. They took turns to stir a batter of egg, sugar and
flour with a kueh boluh beater—a bell-shaped circular spring. Once it became a white semi-thick batter, Ng would pour it into the mould, and lift up the brass lid with a pair of tongs every other minute to ensure the cakes were evenly baked. “Timing is everything; one minute late and the cakes will turn from golden brown to charcoal black,” says Ng. She sold to 200 jars to her passengers each year. “I cherish those times when the family would huddle around the burner to make kueh boluh till midnight, and enjoy the fragrance,” she says. It’s likewise for David Soh. Drawn by the aroma from the steamboat broth, he has been using the charcoal burner for the past 15 years. He serves up the steamboat soup base for the 250 or so guests that visit his family on the second and third days of Chinese New Year. The broth is a modified recipe from his mother, and is cooked with eight ingredients including pig bones, chicken feet, honeybaked ham, bacon and wolfberries. David boils the soup overnight, waking up multiple times to stoke the fire and add charcoal. “It is tiring, but the soup is more full-bodied compared to artificial salty taste of chicken stock. It is brewed with love,” says the 51-year-old businessman. For the past two years, the father of three has had some help. His second son Soh Guo Zhe has taken over soup duty—he replenishes charcoal pieces in the two burners, fans the smouldering pieces, and tops up the stock with ingredients. The younger Soh toils at the burners at least six hours a day, missing out on most of the festivities and sometimes even on red packets. His parents and brothers are dressed to the nines, but the 19-year-old wears a white singlet and shorts that quickly become soot-stained.
‘I cherish those times when the family would huddle around the burner to make kueh buloh till midnight.’ — Ng Ah Suar, 76, former bus driver
But the ITE student remains unfazed. “I want to continue this traditional way of cooking as not many people get to cook in such a way in their homes these days,” he says. Besides the grime, using old cooking tools can be quite the workout. Just ask Sim Ee Waun, 44, who cooks every day with a 1kg pigiron wok, which has been in her husband’s family for 80 years. “This is one kitchen heirloom that I have lifted up to cook with for the past 10 years,” says the food writer. She values the wok more after finding out that her husband’s late grandmother, who lived on a pig farm in Punggol, also used it to cook every day for the family. “It has been used to cook home-cooked meals for so many people after all these years and no one is trying to be contrived or funky about it,” she adds wistfully. The self-taught cook can whip up a myriad of dishes in the weather-beaten wok, from braised soya sauce chicken to fancy fare like coq au vin (a French dish of braised chicken in red wine). The food may not taste distinctly different, but Sim relishes the hefty feel of hoisting the wok when cooking, and the wok-hei aroma that lingers. Sim hopes to pass the wok down to her 14-year-old daughter. “The wok is used to cook meals as an act of love. It’s important (to pass) this act onto the next generation so that heritage can continue living beyond you.” s
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A walk to remember by ronald loh
A journey along a historic district uncovers a growing hunger for stories of Singapore’s past.
KEEPING PACE: Walking tours through the Tanjong Pagar district showcase monuments like the Thian Hock Keng Temple (pictured), and Telok Ayer Methodist Church. Photo courtesy of Wan Zhong Hao
t’s been an hour in the sun. My iPhone tells me it’s 34 Celsius at 3pm. Telok Ayer feels like a furnace, without a smidgen of shade for respite. Yet the crowd around me remains fascinated, unleashing a barrage of questions about Thian Hock Keng temple as we are shown about its compound. “When was this temple completed?” asks a participant. “What’s so special about the architecture of this place?” pipes up another. Every query is answered by a 25-year-old volunteer walking tour guide Low Zhiqi. “1842, and the entire temple was constructed without the use of a single nail. Everything, from the wooden supporting beams to the ceilings, is glued together.” The answers are furiously penned down on dog-eared notepads, or quickly keyed into smartphones. We visit a mosque camouflaged as a shophouse, and finally Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church. Throughout the 90-minute tour, not a member of the 20-odd Singaporean group relents in their bombardment of Low. The group consists of middle-aged couples, retirees and teenagers. Each paid $5 (half that price for students and senior citizens) to join the Preservation of Monument Board’s (PMB) walking tour. These guided trips around Singapore started in 2010, and run approximately once a week. Often they turn people away, a testament to the growing interest in heritage, Low says. “There’s so much of our history that we don’t know,” says Heng Aik Keng, 42, on his third walking tour. “It’s especially relevant today with the rapid development of Singapore and many parts of our heritage going missing.” Peggy Lee, 61, a PMB volunteer guide who joined the tour as a participant, agrees with him. “Other guides know things we don’t, and there’s no harm finding out more about our country,” she says. “Today with our country becoming more affluent, and breadand-butter issues not as pertinent, we have time to look back and reminisce. J
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LEADING THE PACK: Volunteer guide Low Zhiqi (above), is only 25, but is one of the most experienced among PMB’s 30-odd guides.
“That’s why people are becoming eager to learn more about what we used to be.” Before the tour ends, most participants eagerly scribble their email addresses on a feedback form, indicating they’d be open to more in the future. Low receives neither tips nor remuneration for her time. “I’ve always wanted to share the stories that I’ve learnt in geography class. I wanted to give back to society and I’m happy to be able to do so now,” she says. The National University of Singapore administrator signed up with PMB in late 2010 and underwent a six-month series of workshops, lectures and tests before conducting her first tour in June 2011. At 25, she is one of the most experienced of the 30-odd guides with PMB. Low and Lee are among a growing number of volunteer guides. Other than PMB, the National Parks Board (NParks) and Singapore Tourism Board also conduct such tours. These organised trips, led mostly by volunteers, guide participants anywhere from Fort Canning Hill to the streets of China-
To sign up for a walking tour, visit http://www.pmb.sg. Tours usually run on weekends and cost $5 for adults and $3 for students and senior citizens.
town to Changi Museum and its chapel. Victor Woo, 62, is an NParks volunteer guide who specialises in the walking tours around Fort Canning Hill, an area previously occupied by Malay royalty and later, the British military. Today it’s a museum, with audio, video and animated exhibitions depicting the last days before Singapore fell to the Japanese. “School teachers cannot possibly impart every detail of our heritage to students,” he says. “But we need to know our roots, and we could always do with learning more.” Students aren’t the only ones doing the learning—Magdalene Teo started going on walking tours four years ago when she realised her foreign friends knew more about Singapore than she did. The 40-year-old lawyer now attends about one tour per month, and documents her visits on her blog, Accidental Tourist in Singapore. “These are places I wouldn’t have visited if I didn’t make it a point to learn about the country I live in,” she says. With many significant buildings such as the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the old National Library Board building now gone, Woo believes Singaporeans should start learning about and treasuring their past, before more is lost. This is where he believes he has a duty to keep this knowledge alive. “You’re never too young or too old to learn about your past. It’s our country after all.” His words resonated with me as I trudged away from Telok Ayer while uploading a vintage-hued picture onto my iPhone app Instagram. Buildings, lifestyles and products may be gone, but in the present, our heritage lives on. s
BEHIND THE SCENEs: (From left) Kenneth Goh, Clara Lock and Ronald Loh all share a passion for heritage.
Photo courtesy of Wan Zhong Hao
e’re just 23, 24 and 25, but when we were looking for something to write about, we were surprised to find that a passion for the past underlines all our interests. Kenneth is a self-confessed hoarder whose shelves overflow with ticket stubs, copies of 8 Days magazine dating back more than 10 years, and even his examination timetable from secondary one. Sports journalist Ronald was drawn to the demolition of the old National Stadium, a landmark that has rumbled countless times with the cheers of a nation. And flea market junkie Clara loves finding gems amidst other people’s old threads—almost half her wardrobe comprises second-hand clothes. So we set out to discover what it meant to cherish the past, Together we are three seniors from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (Nanyang Technological University) who dedicated their final year project to a celebration of the past, and the new age of Singapore’s heritage. We hope you share the excitement of the people in these stories. s
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Acknowledgements We would like to extend our sincere thanks and gratitude to:
Alvin Oon Alvin Yapp Amanda Ng Brad Baird Charlie Lim Charmaine Ong David Christie David Leow David Soh Dr Chua Ai Lin Dr Liew Kai Khiun Dr Lynda Wee Edwin Low El Lee Eng Yee Peng Esther Loo Eunice Yeo Eva Tang Fiona Lam Henry Lim Heng Aik Keng Kenny Leck Khoo Ah Suar Lim Ah Keiow Lim Mu Yao Low Zhiqi Lydia Wong Jane Goh Joseph Taylor Jarib Soh Mae Noor Magdalene Teo Michael Poh
Mohamed Saddiq Nicholas Goh Nick Shen Paul See Peggy Lee Peter Wee Prabhu Silvam Selywn Low Sheryl Wong Soh Guo Zhe Soh Hua Lee Sim Ee Waun Stefan Shih Suhaimi Subandie Tan Geng Hui Tracey Baird Victor Woo Wan Wee Pin Yeo Kirk Siang
Photographers: Goh Chay Teng Lim Mu Yao Wan Zhong Hao
Graphic artist: Alan Choong
Wong Pei Ting
Everyone who has, in one way or another, contributed to this project.
Our families and partners...
Thanks for the support during the late nights and continual absences. Your encouragement and love were crucial to the success of this project.
thank you Mr Andrew Duffy for laughing at with us, pushing us to be better writers, and always keeping the faith.