How much do you know about Singapore’s history and heritage? In the lead-up to Singapore Heritage Festival 2017, we dig up some lesser-known facts about our little red dot.
BY PAMELA HO
Published on 26 March 2017
BY PAMELA HO
How did the kopitiam culture come to Singapore? Why is Chinatown dotted with Indian temples and mosques? Who was Caldecott Hill named after? And did you know we have our very own Leaning Tower of Singapore?
Singapore may be relatively young as a country, but we have modernised so rapidly that even our more recent past has become lost to us. But if you’re curious enough to dig a little deeper, you’ll realise there are hidden stories everywhere — not just at heritage sites and historic districts, but within housing estates and coffee shops.
As the annual Singapore Heritage Festival (SHF) rolls back into town this month, we set the wheels of discovery in motion with some lesser-known facts about Singapore to whet your appetite.
Stroll around Chinatown and you’ll notice the presence of houses of worship built by the Indian community: Hindu temples like the Sri Mariamman Temple (built by an Indian pioneer) and the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple (built by the Chettiar community), as well as the Masjid Jamae, built by the South Indian Tamil Muslim community. While this historic district takes its name from the Chinese settlement known as the ‘Chinese Campong’ designated by Sir Stamford Raffles’ 1822 Town Plan for Singapore — and the area on the southwestern bank of the Singapore River did house many Chinese communities from various dialect groups — the Indian community has always lived alongside the Chinese in Chinatown.
Serangoon Road was one of the earliest roads to be laid across the island, after those in the town centre. It was the first arterial road to run northwards from the south, linking the city centre to Serangoon Harbour in the northeast. It can be traced back to 1828, when goods such as gambier and pepper were transported from Johor to Serangoon Harbour and then into the city centre. This early road gave the area its name until the 1980s when the term ‘Little India’ came into use.
Until the 1930s, one could still find Bengali and Tamil milkmen around Buffalo Road and Chander Road. They went from house to house with their goats and cows to deliver fresh milk to their customers. With this milk, Indians made the delicacy thairu (yoghurt in Tamil). This SHF, discover the history of traditional Indian food through the Indian Heritage Centre’s tours and programmes at Little India.
Completed in 1846, the Hajjah Fatimah Mosque is one of the oldest mosques in Singapore and a rare example of one named after a woman. Its architecture is uniquely eclectic, featuring an octagonal minaret tower designed in a distinctively European style. Unfortunately, the minaret began to tilt after its construction. While the tilt was supposedly corrected during renovations in the 1970s, it still appears to be leaning slightly, thus earning the mosque its nickname. The mosque was gazetted as a National Monument in 1973.
Before dining by the Singapore River meant bars and restaurants along Boat Quay, Clarke Quay and Robertson Quay, locals could enjoy fuss-free hawker fare at the old Empress Place Food Centre. Located in front of Empress Place Building — which is now the Asian Civilisations Museum — the food centre first opened in September 1973 at the site of the old Marine Police Station, as part of Singapore’s efforts to clear hawkers off the streets. It was demolished by the early 1990s, but you can relive memories of hawker food by the Singapore River this SHF!
Being one of the sturdiest buildings in Singapore, Cathay Building was used as a shelter by civilians when the Japanese air raids began. On 15 February 1942, as one of the conditions of surrender, the British were instructed to fly a Japanese flag and a white flag atop the Cathay Building for 10 minutes. During the Japanese Occupation (1942–1945), the Japanese Military Administration established their broadcast station and propaganda office — or Sendenhan — in the building, which continued to function as a cinema for Japanese movies and pro-Japanese propaganda films under the new name, Daitoa Gejiko (Greater East Asian Theatre).
Caldecott Hill was named in 1936 after Sir Andrew Caldecott, who was a distinguished and highly regarded colonial administrator. He had served as acting Governor of the Straits Settlements and Colonial Secretary in the 1930s, before becoming Governor of Hong Kong and then Ceylon. You may be aware that the former Mediacorp campus was located along Andrew Road, but did you know the neighbouring Olive Road was named after his wife, Lady Olive? The nearby Joan Road and John Road were named after their children. You can discover more this SHF, with exclusive access to the Caldecott Broadcast Centre estate!
Before Bishan became the bustling town it is today, it was home to the Peck San Teng Cemetery. Established in 1870, it was the final resting place for many Cantonese and Hakka communities, as well as the poor and kinless. Gradually, a community began to settle around the cemetery. Named Kampong San Teng, it had a strong community spirit and a rich multiracial flavour, particularly during the war when immigrants from various Chinese dialect groups and other ethnic backgrounds were welcomed into the kampong. Records show that some Indian families lived and studied within the kampong and were fully conversant in Mandarin and other Chinese dialects. Find out more about this community at the National Museum of Singapore’s A Lighter Side of History talk this SHF.
Holland Village is a bohemian enclave today, but back in the 1870s, the area was occupied by rubber plantations and the Shuang Long Shan Cemetery, established in 1887 by a Hakka clan association. The area grew in the 1930s with the installation of the Pasir Panjang and Alexandra military bases nearby, which brought British army personnel to the area and led to shops springing up to cater to their needs. In the 1950s, Holland Village was a lively kampong, dotted with zinc-roofed shops and houses, pigsties, a bullock-cart centre, timber yard and the unforgettable Eng Wah open-air cinema. Chip Bee Gardens was established in the mid-1950s, and housed many British soldiers and their families till the 1970s when British troops were withdrawn from Singapore.
The Hainanese settled in Singapore in the early 20th century — much later than the Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese, who were by then already entrenched in local trade, commerce and agriculture. As such, the Hainanese had little choice but to carve their niche in less- lucrative trades. Most ended up in the service sector, working as cooks and waiters in hotels, restaurants and bakeries; or as cooks and housekeepers in wealthy European and Peranakan homes. This probably explains why they became adept at Western food and beverage. After the war, they quite naturally moved into the hotel industry and set up their own restaurants and coffee shops or kopitiams. The Hainanese have thus been credited with introducing the kopitiam culture to Singapore.
The Singapore Heritage Festival 2017
is on from 28 Apr to 14 May. Visit www.heritagefestival.sg for details.
This year, we’re excited to introduce SHF Takes Over!, where participants get to explore lesser-known sites they would normally not have access to,” reveals Angelita Teo, festival director of the Singapore Heritage Festival (SHF). “For example, Caldecott Hill has been such a local icon as the home of entertainment for generations of Singaporeans, yet few have had the chance to visit this site. Our first edition will offer exclusive access to the Caldecott Broadcasting Centre estate.
“SHF aims to share lesser-known stories about Singaporeans’ shared spaces and way of life. It’s a festival by the people, for the people. As such, I’m excited to see the festival grow each year — not just in size, but in the level of engagement and participation from the community. Such partnerships only make our festival richer and more vibrant,” says Teo. “Over the years, the average age of our audience has also been getting younger, demonstrating that heritage is not irrelevant to our youth.”
Gan Ee Bee, 42, is the centre director of the Gan Heritage Centre, an 80-year-old clan association building that’s been converted into a living museum. The Gans have a history that spans more than 2,500 years, across 80 generations. The two storeys of artefacts, storyboards and videos trace their origins in China to their migration south and eventually to Singapore, and tell a tale of how they contributed to the socio-economic development of Singapore.
An interactive experience is created for visitors, making it accessible even to younger audiences. Thanks to technology and a new partnership with the Google Cultural Institute, the museum’s over 80 artefacts can now be viewed online (google.com/culturalinstitute) by people around the world. A specially designed Street View ‘trolley’ took 360-degree images of selected galleries, which were then stitched together, enabling smooth virtual navigation of several halls within the museum.
“The Centre aims to uphold the clanship spirit and promote its relevance in a modern, changing world,” says Gan, a chartered accountant by profession and an 86th-generation Gan. “This is the fifth year we’re participating in Singapore Heritage Festival, and we’re looking to combine our Yan style calligraphy with outdoor performances, as well as working with the Singapore Film Society to organise short film screenings and sharing sessions. There will also be student-guided tours by at least two partnering schools, Gan Eng Seng School and Anderson Secondary School.”