Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Joo Chiat Walking Tour

The Straits Times has a Special Travel page every Tuesday. On Tuesday November 10 2009 it published an article about The Best Travel Experience Award won by Betal Box Backpacker Hostel at Joo Chiat Road. I know the Company's director Tony Tan and sent him a congratulatory message. I was curious to know how a small hostel like Betel Box could outdo the big guys in town. According to him his walking tours of Joo Chiat and Katong took about 4 to 8 hours and could go on to 12 hours including night tour. My elderly foreign friends joined his youthful hostel guests for the Joo Chiat walking tour on Saturday 13 November 2009. For me the Joo Chiat walking tour was my walk down memory lane. The tour group had briefing at Tony's hostel about the three main ethnic groups in the area. He also talked about the Eurasains, the Peranakan in Katong and the holiday bungalows by the sea along the East coast before the WWII.
We left the Betel Box Hostel for our first destination, the Kuan Im Temple at Tembling Road/Joo Chiat Lane junction. I remember the railway lines at Joo Chiat Lane which was disused after the war. On my way to school I used to do balancing act by walking on the metal rail. Kuan Im Temple was another nostalgic place. My grandmother visited the temple quite often and I had to tag along. I had a phobia for the 4 large idols (door gods), 2 on each side of the prayer hall. I liked the wall paintings of the inner halls. The first inner hall paintings on the wall was about filial piety. One painting showed a woman breastfed the mother-in-law during famine while her baby waited by the side. Another showed a son bare his body for the mosquitoes to bite him so that his father lying by the side would be spared. There were altogether 24 filial piety paintings. The inner most hall had wall paintings of hell depicting the 18 types of punishment for sinners.
Our next stop was at Kim Choo Kueh Chang. While Tony was explaining to the group about the meat dumpling and the story behind it, my mind was focusing on an apartment block across the road opposite the shop. Thereat once stood a permanent wayang stage and a Chinese temple facing it. The two buildings were built by my granduncle. Whenever there was a wayang performance I would be there, not to see the show but to watch kids playing tikam tikam ( a game of chance) and hawker selling beh leh ko (malt sugar) by twisting the candy. Another type of beh leh ko could be made into the shape of a fish and frog by blowing the malt sugar into a mould. I liked to watch artist making figurines from dough of various colours. The most expensive and difficult to make was the Chinese warrior and the cheapest was the cockerel figurine.

On our way to Joo Chiat Road we stopped at a fruit shop and Tony bought some mangosteens for the group to eat and experienced our local fruit. We walked passed the vacant land next to Joo Chiat Hotel. Chew Joo Chiat's residence and my former house were on the same vacant land. The place reminded me of my childhood. The lane from the main road and the kampong behind my house was my playground. The two gable walls separated by a lane was my canvas. As a kid I like to draw. Even at my present home I continued to paint on the walls until some time ago.

At Joo Chiat Road Tony took us to the 17th level of an HDB block for a panoramic view of the area. The sky was bright and clear and we could recognise the landmarks far away. Looking downwards we saw the Malay Village, Geylang Serai Market and the former Singapura Theatre. We moved to the right corner of the common corridor to see the eastern part of Singapore. The sea was within view and I could see my point block home at Marine Parade. There was also many ocean going ships anchored near the coast.

It was already passed noon and we had our lunch at Geylang Serai Market food centre. We spent about half an hour there before proceeding to Malay Village. There was nothing of interest in the village. It was almost deserted. We took a few photographs at the main building for souviner. We crossed the road to Haig Road HDB housing estate and Tony bought some Peranakan cakes from Bengawan Solo cake shop. Sheng Siong Supermart was nearby. Tony led the group there to show our foreign guests the live seafood such as fish, crabs, frogs, cockles and others. He bought some mooncakes for the group.

We gathered at a semi-circular gallery to sample all the cakes bought by Tony. He had a story to tell with each type of cake including the moon cake festivals. At this point our walking tour ended. It started at 9.30 am and finished at about 3.30 pm. I have never come across a walking tour that lasted so long (6 hours). It covered only Joo Chiat area. What about Katong? Maybe another 6 hours. It is truely the best travelling experience for the tourists.

Map of Joo Chiat Walking Tour

Elderly group joining the youngster for the walk

Walking tour started from Betel Box Hostel

Kuan Im Temple

Kim Choo Kueh Chang shop

Level 17 panoramic view of the area

Panoramic view looking east and the sea

Geylang Serai Market

Geylang Serai Market food center

Front View of Geylang Serai Market

Malay Village

At Sheng Siong Supermart

End of Joo Chiat Walking Tour

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Unique Crossed Road Junction

Bird's eye view of the unique road junction

This unique crossed road junction refers to four roads of different names converging at the common traffic light junction. The roads are Geylang Serai, Changi Road, Joo Chiat Road and Geylang Road.

Briefly, Geylang Serai was a Malay Settlements before. They lived in kampong houses as shown in the pictures below. After Singapore became independence in 1965, they were resettled to nearby HDB housing estates such as Eunos, Chai Chee and Marine Parade.

Photo credit to the book on Geylang Serai

Photo credit to the book on Geylang Serai

Photo credit to the book on Geylang Serai

Malay Village at Geylang Serai (now)

This was followed by landscape changes in the area. A Malay Village was built on one side of Geylang Serai to showcase the past kampong living of the Malays in the area. On the other side was the Geylang Serai wet market cum food centre. There was no permanent stall. The hawkers in the food centre had to provide their own stalls, tables and chairs. Around the market were 3 blocks of flats with shops on the ground floor.

Photo credit to the book on Geylang Serai

Photo credit to the book on Geylang Serai

In 2006 due to the redevelopment of the area, the hawkers in Geylang Serai market cum food centre moved to a temporary shed at Sims Ave opposite the Malay Village (picture below).
They were given proper hawker stalls with fixed tables and chairs for customers to eat their food.

Geylang Serai temporary market cum food centre

The landscape at Geylang Serai will change further when the hawkers at the temporary market cum food centre move into their permanent home on 13 July 2009.

New Geylang Serai market cum food centre

Opposite Geylang Serai is Joo Chiat, a predominant Chinese area where most of the shops were Chinese owned. There were a few Indian muslims shops selling provision/spices and shops that ground cereals into flour but not a single Malay shop. There were two wet market adjacent to each other. One was facing Changi Road and the other was facing Joo Chiat Road. Both markets were demolished and is replaced by Joo Chiat Complex, a shopping centre. At Joo Chiat Road opposite Joo Chiat Complex were 2 blocks of pre-war shophouses (picture below) separated by a narrow side lane where Javanese food hawkers took up position every evening to sell satay, mee rebus, mee siam. soto ayam and others.

Photo credit to the book on Geylang Serai

The 2 blocks of shopshouses at Joo Chiat/Geylang Road junction were rebuilt into a 3 and 4 storey buildings with shops on the ground floor, thus completed the changes of the 4 corners at this unique road junction. This crossed roads is also unique not only there are landscape transformations but also changes in business community. The influx of Malay businessmen and entrepreneurs into Joo Chiat is sight never seen before. There are more Malay shops than the Chinese now. Maju lah, Geylang Serai!

Joo Chiat Complex and the new 4 storey shophouses

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Business As Usual

An old Chnese bakery at Joo Chiat
Credit to URA
There was a Chinese bakery at Joo Chiat when I was a school boy. It occupied two shop fronts. Besides the bungalows, it was the only single storey building along this stretch of road. The building was very plain and passers by would not want to have a second look. Whereas its neighbour on both sides were 2 storey peranakan shop houses with motifs and details symbolic of the Peranakan Culture. Curious to know whether the bakery is still there, I visited the place and was pleasantly surprised to find business as usaul for the bakery. Except for the front awning that had been removed, the frontage remained as it was before. The peranakan buildings on both sides had upgraded with new paint works and an extension of another storey at the rear. I went inside the bakery and it appeared that time had stood still. The breads were done maunually except for the electric bitter and the electric oven. Two men were seen working. One was preparing the dough for making breads. The second man was about to put the finished products into the electric oven for baking.

Bread shelves no longer in use
In Joo Chiat area, there were a few Chinese and Indian bakeries before. Today they had all gone except the one mentioned above which is still going strong. But how long more would it lasts I wonder.

Guess the exact location of this bakery

Baking trays, electric bitter and dough kneading table

Preparing dough for making bread

Putting finished products into the electric oven for baking

Sunday, May 10, 2009

History of Mountbatten Road

Pre-war map of Grove Estate

The above map shows clearly the railway line starting from Grove Road to Jalan Eunos. It cuts through Tanjong Katong Road, Haig Road, Joo Chiat Road, Joo Chiat Place and Changi Road.

In 1962 I lived at Tanjong Rhu HDB flats. I drove through Mountbatten Road daily without knowing its history. I became interested only lately when I posted Joo Chiat Railway Line in my blog. It was then that I discovered the railway line started from Kallang Basin at Grove Road (now Mountbatten Road).

Grove Road was renamed as Mountbatten Road after Lord Louis Mountbatten on 1 June 1946. He was in Singapore on 12 September 1945 to receive the surrender of the Japanese Imperial Forces at a ceremony in the Municipal Building (now City Hall).

Grove Road was the main thoroughfare of Grove Estate which was bounded by Tanjong Katong Road/Dunman Road/Geylang River/Grove Road/Fort Road and Katong Park. The estate was mainly a coconut plantation. There was a pineapple factory, a saw-mill and a few small cottage industries. Fronting the sea from Katong Park and Tanjong Katong were many seaside holiday houses owned by foreigners and local tycoons. Grove Hotel and Sanatorium were there too.

Grove Road was a pleasant thoroughfare with shaded trees on both sides. The road ended in a cul-de-sac before Tanjong Katong Road. As more rich people moved to live in Grove Estate, many unique architecural design bungalows were built, each with a large compound. There was no shortage of land as Singapore population then was less than a million. The only inconvenience living there was the constant flood as it was in a low lying area with very poor drainage. Grove Estate was known as the 'ponding area'.

During the Japanese occupation, Grove Road was also known as Japanese Street. After the war, the road was under the jurisdication of the British RAF. The road was closed a number of times which caused inconveniences to the residents who complained to the press. Even after the road was named Mountbatten Road on 1st June 1946 there was still no through road to East Coast Road. In September 1946 about half a mile of the road was opened. Finally in December 1946 it was fully open and vehicles could pass to and from East Coast Road.

Whenever I passed through Mountbatten Road, I like to admire at the old buildings which have distinctive architectural styles especially the early-style bungalows. The area was mainly residential and associated with the rich and wealthy. After 1970s the area has its share of landscape tranformation and lost some of its charm as old bungalows were demolished for modern style buildings. It is fortunate that URA took action in time to conserve some of the pre-war bungalows that are still standing.

Mountbatten Road and Tanjong Katong Road cross section

New style building replace old style bungalows

Old building refurbished

An old unique style bungalow

Another old unique style bungalow

Pre-war majestic building which still maintains its charm

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Visting Chew Joo Chiat's grave

I visited Chew Joo Chiat's grave on Saturday 11 April 2009 morning. Together with me were my uncle and his son, and a female cousin from another Chew family. My uncle was familiar with the location of my great grand-father's grave for he visited the grave annually like a pilgrimage. Our visit that day was still within the Qing Ming Festival (Tomb Sweeping Festival). The burial ground is known as Bukit Brown Cemetery and it is more than one hundred years old. Many graves there have been neglected and in very bad shape. Some were completely covered by overgrown vegetations. I am very glad that my uncle and his family was the only Chew's descendants maintaining his grave. If not for him I was not able to see my great grandfather's grave.

It would be quite a task to find Chew Joo Chiat's grave without the direction of my uncle and his son. The ground was wet, soggy and slippery due to the heavy downpour the day before. Following the well trodden track was easy except to watch out for the muddy water while meandering our way carefully to the site. From the open track we turned right towards the overgrown vegetations and made our way the site. It reminded me of my school days as a boy scout when I had to depend on a compass to hike through thick bushes and overgrowth to reach my destination. Once through the barrier of overgrown vegetations Chew Joo Chiat's grave appeared before us. It was a double tomb grave. One tomb contained the body of Chew Joo Chiat and the other which is still empty was for his peranakan wife. I was told that she was buried at another cemetery.

I examined my great grandfather's tombstone and found the Chinese characters inscribed on it were still legible. It had the names of his 2 sons, 3 daughters and 8 grandchildren. In the book 'Joo Chiat a living legacy' Chew's grandson Lee Beow Guan stated that he had 6 sons and 4 daughters. The number of Chew's children with their names on the tombstone showed that Lee's memory had failed him.
I looked at my great grand-father's tomb and wandered how he came from China to Singapore as a pauper and died a millionaire. My imagination went back to the year 1877 when he arrived here as a 20 year old young man without a penny to his name. But later he became very wealthy owning property, coconut and rubber plantations in various parts of Singapore. According to records, he was also a major share holder of 2 banks (Pacific Bank & Batu Pahat Bank) and two tin mining companies in Malaya (now Malaysia) and presided at their meetings. He died on 5th February 1926.

Dirt track to Chew Joo Chiat's grave

Going through the overgrown vegetations

Offering prayer and burning joss papers

A photo for souvenir

A double tomb grave

Empty tomb of Chew Joo Chiat's peranakan wife