Our regular feature ‘The Singapore Pages” in our monthly Expat Living print magazine covers the history of Singapore up to current events, plus fun and interesting facts about Singapore, the island’s food and culture, and much more. Recently, we put the spotlight on the Singapore Grand Prix, as well as a Singapore icon, the Merlion statue (which recently turned 50!), and an old tourist spot that no longer stands.
START YOUR ENGINES!
After a two-year absence because of you-know-what, the Singapore Grand Prix returned in 2022 (30 September to 2 October).
About the Singapore F1 race
Track name: Marina Bay Street
Circuit Track length: 5.06km
Number of turns: 23
Race distance: 308.7km (61 laps)
Race duration: Approximately two hours
Fastest race lap: 1 minute 41.9 seconds (Kevin Magnussen, 2018)
Maximum speed: 323 kilometres per hour
Gear changes: 70 per lap
Most wins: 5 (Sebastian Vettel)
Most team podiums: Red Bull
Last winner: 2019, Sebastian Vettel
Fun facts around the Singapore Grand Prix
- The track makes its way past some major Singapore landmarks, including City Hall, the Padang, the Fullerton Hotel, Merlion Park, the Esplanade and the Singapore Flyer.
- The Safety Car has appeared at least once in every Singapore Grand Prix.
- After the inaugural F1 race in 2008, some drivers made comments about the track being “bumpy”, though most seemed happy with the lighting conditions in what was the first-ever F1 night race. (Sebastian Bourdais said, “It’s daylight!”)
- Singapore’s a hot place, and the cockpit of a Formula 1 race car is even hotter. Drivers can lose up to 3kg of fluid during the race.
- For ticket info and more, see singaporegp.sg.
GUESS WHO’S 50?
The famous Merlion statue is a Singapore icon. As of October 2022, it has been shooting water into Marina Bay for half a century. Here’s a fact file!
#1 The Merlion was installed in an official ceremony overseen by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on 15 September 1972.
#2 The 8.6-metre, 70-ton statue was built over the course of 10 months by an award-winning local sculptor named Lim Nang Seng.
#3 As the history on Singapore goes, the Merlion’s location at the time was right at the mouth of the Singapore River, just north of the Fullerton Hotel and beyond Anderson Bridge. (The small photo at right dates to 1994, and shows the Singapore icon in that original spot.)
#4 In 1997, construction of the new Esplanade Bridge blocked the Merlion’s view of Marina Bay. Initially, there was talk of raising the creature to a higher pedestal to compensate, but eventually the decision was made to relocate the statue. In 2002, it was carefully moved via cranes and a barge to its current spot, 130 metres to the southeast. Lee Kuan Yew – who by then was Senior Minister – returned to officiate a welcome ceremony for the new location.
#5 While the statue itself is 50 this year, the Merlion design and symbol is older. It was designed by Alec Fraser-Brunner as the logo for the Singapore Tourism Board in the early 1960s. Fraser-Brunner was a British ichthyologist (i.e., a fish expert!) who was a member of the city’s Souvenir Committee. He also worked in Singapore as curator of the Van Kleef Aquarium – see opposite.
#6 What exactly is a Merlion? It’s a mythical creature with the head of a lion and the body of fish; the prefix “mer-“ means “the sea”, and reflects Singapore’s beginnings as a fishing village called Temasek, while the lion component represents Singapore’s original name “Singapura”, meaning “lion city”.
#7 In 2006, scaffolding went up around the Merlion while it was cleaned and mended for wear and tear. The scaffolding was illustrated to look like shower curtains, so the Merlion appeared to be sticking its head out from above the curtains.
#8 On the afternoon of February 2009, lightning struck the Merlion and broke some fragments from it, leading to further maintenance.
#9 There are currently six merlions in Singapore, including a Merlion “cub” close to the main statue, and another on Mount Faber. There used to be a seventh: the 37-metre Sentosa Merlion. It was built in 1995, and designed and sculpted by Australian artist James Martin, with features including octagon-shaped scales to represent the Taoist bagua symbol. There were two observation decks – one in the creature’s mouth and one at the top of its head. The site closed in 2019.
#10 Singapore’s Merlion makes plenty of appearances in popular culture, from films (Crazy Rich Asians and others) to video games (Animal Crossing and Mario Kart Tour).
History of Singapore
THE OLD AQUARIUM
Singapore is today home to the S.E.A. Aquarium on Sentosa, among the world’s biggest aquariums, with 49 habitats, 800 species (12 species of shark alone!) and a whopping 36-metre viewing panel that feels like watching an IMAX screen. But it isn’t Singapore’s first aquarium!
That honour goes to the Van Kleef Aquarium, built in the 1950s on the southern slope of Fort Canning Park (close to Clarke Quay). It was named for a Dutch expat, Karl Willem Benjamin Van Kleef, who in 1930 bequeathed his entire fortune to Singapore – the equivalent of around $10 million today. Several options for how to spend the legacy were considered, but the idea for an aquarium won the day.
After the Second World War delayed the project, the Van Kleef Aquarium opened to the public in 1955 (tickets were about 30 cents). It featured more than 6,000 sea creatures and 180 species, and soon became very popular, with over a quarter of a million visitors in its first year of operation. This rose to 400,000 at its peak in the 1970s. Piranhas and crocodiles were among the main attractions.
Numbers started to decline in the 1980s, and, despite a major renovation in 1986, the aquarium never really found its mojo again. In 1991, the opening of Underwater World on Sentosa led to the closure of the Van Kleef Aquarium, and the building was knocked down in 1996.
Alec Fraser-Brunner, mentioned as the Merlion designer on the previous page, worked as curator of the Van Kleef Aquarium from 1956 to 1970, before moving to Scotland to work at Edinburgh Zoo.
Did you know? This same southwestern corner of Fort Canning Park was the location of two other well-known Singapore landmarks that are no longer standing: the National Theatre (1963-1986), and the River Valley Swimming Complex (1959-2003), where a Tiong Bahru Bakery sits today.
Search for “Van Kleef Aquarium” on YouTube to find old footage of the aquarium.
INTRODUCING THE CIVET!
EL’s editor-in-chief recently had a close encounter with a civet who was climbing around in her garden in broad daylight; the large and quite friendly animal made repeat visits on other days too. It prompted us to find out more about them. Here are ten things we learnt:
#1 Civets aren’t cats!
#2 They’re actually more closely related to mongooses (we’ve seen them referred to as “a cross between a mongoose, a dog and a racoon”).
#3 There are around 12 varieties of civet, four of which can be found here. The Common Palm Civet is native to Singapore.
#4 Spotting a civet up close and in the middle of the day is rare; you’re more likely to see them at night, most commonly in Siglap, Bukit Timah, Portsdown and the Southern Ridges.
#5 Known in Malay as “musang”, civets are sometimes referred to in English as “toddy cats”. This comes from their habit of climbing coconut trees that had been tapped for their sap and drinking the fermented sap, known as “toddy”.
#6 A civet’s diet includes pretty much anything they can find (they’re omnivores), but they’re particularly fond of fruit such as mangos and bananas. They tend to swallow seeds whole and then defecate them, so they play an important role in dispersing seeds in forests.
#7 Another favourite snack of civets is coffee cherries, though, again, they don’t eat the beans. This gave some bright spark the idea of sifting through civet faeces to find the semi-digested beans and making a cup of coffee out of them. Apparently, the effect of the digestive enzymes on the beans gives them extra flavour and aroma. The resulting coffee, known as kopi luwak, is among the most expensive in the world.
#8 Not that we’ve given it a go, but if you smell the secretions from a civet’s anal scent gland, it’s said to have a similar aroma to pandan. In fact, the smell of pandan is one sign that a civet may be around.
#9 Speaking of a civet’s glandular secretions, these have been used in perfumery for over a thousand years. It sounds eww, but apparently when it’s diluted, the smell is “floral” and “velvety”. Happily for the animals, today a synthetic version of the substance called civetone is primarily used instead. For instance, Chanel replaced the real stuff with the lab-produced stuff back in 1998.
#10 The civet gets a mention in Shakespeare (As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 3). One character remarks, “The courtier’s hands are perfumed with civet,” only for the other to proclaim, “civet is of baser birth than tar, the very uncleanly flux of a cat”.
If you’ve found a civet in your house, or one that appears to be injured, call NParks’ Animal Response Centre at 1800 476 1600.
HAVE YOU TRIED YOUTIAO?
If not, here’s a fact file!
- Youtiao is a light, fluffy, deep-fried stick of dough most commonly served at breakfast. It’s usually made as two joined strips that can easily be pulled apart when cooked.
- It originated in China in the 12th century – apparently as a type of protest food. The twin strips of dough were said to represent two leaders of the Song Dynasty who had executed a popular general on a trumped-up charge. Dumping the pair of strips into boiling oil was akin to throwing the nefarious leaders into the oil!
- In Singapore, youtiao is often referred to as you char kway.
- There are plenty of ways to eat youtiao – most commonly, it’s chopped up and added to congee, a bit like adding croutons to soup. A popular Singapore style of eating them is with a cup of coffee; you take a bite of youtiao, then dunk the remaining stick into the coffee so it can soak up the liquid.
- Xi De Li are perhaps the best known youtiao makers in Singapore; they started in the 1920s, and today the fourth generation of the family are in charge. They produce up to 10,000 youtiao every day!
Little Island, Big History
We’ve introduced Singapore’s new Heritage Trails in the pages of our magazine before, and now the 22nd of them has been unveiled: the Sentosa Heritage Trail. The trail takes in 30 heritage sites, and traces Sentosa’s transformation from military complex to leisure destination. There are three different themed routes to follow:
#1 Kampongs and Barracks
Two hours on foot, plus public transport, 3km: Explores the lives of the people of “Blakang Mati” (the island’s Malay name from the 1600s onwards), from the Orang Laut to British Army personnel.
Two hours on foot, 4km: Looks at the extensive fortifications on Sentosa, including Fort Siloso, Imbiah Battery and Fort Serapong, and how they featured in the defence of Singapore.
#3 Memories of Sentosa
An hour on foot, 2.5km: Revisits some old locations of Sentosa’s reinvention as a leisure destination in the 1980s and 1990s, including the Musical Fountain and the monorail.
The photos from historic Blakang Mati shown here (courtesy of the Sentosa Development Corporation) give an idea of the insights provided by the new trail.
Did You Know?
- Half of Blakang Mati was covered by pineapple plantations in the 1800s.
- During the war, a Shinto shrine was erected somewhere on the island (it was likely destroyed by Japanese soldiers in 1945).
- Among the first attractions on Sentosa was The Coralarium (opened 1974), which showcased corals and marine life. It was knocked down to make way for Sentosa Cove.
For more information on all 22 Heritage Trails, visit roots.gov.sg/nhb/trails.
Technology: Step back in time
Showing until the end of October at the National Museum is Off / On: Everyday Technology that Changed Our Lives, 1970s–2000s, an exhibition featuring the gadgets of yesteryear, from pagers to portable games. Here’s a rundown of the four exhibition sections and their highlights:
- The “Work in Progress” section recreates Singapore office spaces of previous decades, with typewriters and early models of IBM and Apple computers.
- “Hello Mobile” is all about the development of telecommunication tools. Did you know that in the post-war period, Singapore’s telephone “density” was just 1.6 phones for every 100 people?
- In “Art of Living”, you can visit a dark room and try your hand at developing a photo the old-school way.
- “Game On” is all about gaming, and takes its design inspiration from the Tomy Pocketeer. This was a Japanese brand of handheld games manufactured in Singapore in the 1970s and 1980s, which used magnets and ball-bearings to create challenges for users (before Nintendo lit up kids’ eyes with Donkey Kong…). Find out more at nationalmuseum.sg
Nature on a Note
Which denomination of Singapore currency features a picture of a famous tree on one side, and a hard-to-spot marine animal on the other?
If you’re unsure, we get it – not many of us look at actual money very often these days, right? Things were already going in a cashless direction, and then the pandemic hurried the process along.
The answer is the five dollar note. This note has a “Garden City” theme – which explains the green colour – and on its reverse side is a picture of a Tembusu tree. The Tembusu is a large evergreen tree (Fagraea fragrans), native to Southeast Asia, with bitter-tasting red berries that fruit bats love.
The tree pictured on the $5 note isn’t just any Tembusu, though. It’s the iconic 180-year-old specimen that still stands in the Botanic Gardens today (above). You can find it in a special fenced zone at Lawn E, next to Swan Lake. The tree is 32 metres high with a distinctly long side branch growing very close to the ground (and clearly shown in the banknote).
On the other side of the $5 is another representative from nature – though it’s far harder to spot! It’s a cowrie – as in, the marine snail with the pretty shell. There’s a different type of cowrie on each dollar note; the $5 features a gold-ringed cowrie. Still can’t find it? It’s just above the portrait of the first president of Singapore, Yusof bin Ishak, and to the right. (Yes, the pale blobby thing!)
It makes sense to have a shell on a dollar note – after all, they’re one of the oldest forms of currency in the world. In fact, the cowrie that appears on the Singapore $10 note is the “money cowrie”!
Singapore has an official register of Heritage Trees: currently, 260 specific trees on the island are protected – they include the famous Tembusu mentioned above. But did you know there is an associated list of Heritage Roads? Despite the fame of Orchard, it doesn’t make the cut. Rather, the five roads on the list have been gazetted for being significantly scenic and tree-lined. They are:
#1 Arcadia Road
This peaceful avenue lined with Rain Trees runs off Adam Road in Bukit Timah. The leafy kilometre-long thoroughfare passes the black-and-whites of Adam Park Estate on the left, and then a few condos – as you drive along, it’s hard to imagine that the PIE is only 50 metres to the right, roaring with traffic!
#2 Mount Pleasant Road
Just east of Arcadia is this very pretty road, again lined by colonial black-and-white houses, and flanked in this instance by Saga trees. Follow the road from the PIE and 1.5km later you’ll emerge just behind the Singapore Polo Club and Thomson Road.
#3 Mandai Road
If you’re heading along Mandai, chances are you’re on your way to the Zoo! This is one of Singapore’s oldest carriageways – well over a century and a half old, in fact. It was built to link the farms and villages between Woodlands and Upper Thomson.
#4 South Buona Vista Road
Named after the Italian words for “good view” – though today any sight of the sea is hidden by jungle – this road linking the AYE with the West Coast Highway is well known for its hairpin turns. These slopes were the site of the Battle of Pasir Panjang in 1942.
#5 Lim Chu Kang Road
This road was constructed over a century ago to service rubber, gambier and pepper plantations in the northwest. You’ll still see rubber trees today, along with angsana and mahogany. It’s also the road leading to the island’s main cemeteries.
Other roads have had their names thrown about as contenders for heritage status. Maybe you live near one of them? They include: Goodwood Hill, Lornie Road, Loyang Avenue, Nassim Road, Punggol Road, Redhill Close, Upper Thomson Road, Yishun Avenue 5 and Yuan Ching Road.
WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS!
They might not come along every day, but Singapore has had its fair share of world sporting champs, across a handful of different sports.
# Indoor Skydiving
The latest world beaters are the Singapore indoor skydiving team, who in April this year won multiple golds at the world’s largest indoor skydiving competition, held in Belgium. The team’s Kyra Poh is already a world champion (you should see her tear up the iFly facility on Sentosa!), and she figured heavily in the gold medal haul.
In December last year, 24-year-old Loh Kean Yew won the 2021 BWF World Championships to become the men’s singles world champ – the first Singaporean to achieve the feat. He follows in the footsteps of Wong Peng Soon, who won the All-England Championships four times in the 1950s.
Singapore’s pool stars include Ang Peng Siong, who in 1982 became the world’s fastest swimmer with a 22.69-second lap in the men’s 50m freestyle at the US Swimming Championships. More recently, Joseph Schooling won an amazing Olympic victory (Singapore’s only Olympic gold to date) at Rio in 2016, when he beat Michael Phelps to the wall in the 100m butterfly. And then there’s the incomparable Yip Pin Xiu; she has won all five of Singapore’s Paralympic gold medals!
# Table tennis
After grabbing a history-making silver at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Singapore’s women’s table tennis team took on the might of China in the final of the 2010 World Team Table Tennis Championships in Moscow, and stunned the defending champions 3-1, becoming the new world champs.
The list doesn’t end there: Aloysius Yapp is currently the number one ranked pool player in the world; and ten-pin bowler Shayna Ng won gold in the women’s singles at the world championships in November last year (beating another Singaporean, no less). Oh, and then there’s 54-year-old Peter Gilchrist, who moved here in 2003, became a Singapore citizen in 2006, and went on to become a six-time world champion in English billiards!
5 things about Slings…
No cocktail is more closely associated with the Lion City than the iconic Singapore Sling. Here’s a fact file on the fruity, boozy, pinkish-red drink.
#1 Though there were drinks called “slings” as early as the 19th century, the Singapore Sling was likely invented in 1915 by Ngiam Tong Boon, a bartender at Raffles Hotel.
#2 Ngiam createed the colourful cocktail to appeal to the eyes – and taste buds – of colonial ladies; it also may have been a way of disguising an alcoholic beverage to make it look like a “socially acceptable” drink for women at the time.
#3 Singapore Slings were originally made with fresh pineapple juice from Sarawak pineapples, which gave them an extrafoamy head.
#4 While the Long Bar at Raffles is considered the “home” of the Singapore Sling, other bars such as Smoke & Mirrors, The Spiffy Dapper, Nutmeg & Clove, Southbridge and Bitters & Love have offered the drink (or a variation of it) at one time or another. The Fullerton Sling is another popular take on the classic.
#5 Hunter S Thompson was a big fan of the drink, which appears in his 1971 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (and the Johnny Depp film adaptation). The only difference is that the characters, in typically debauched style, drink their Singapore Slings “with mezcal on the side and beer chasers”.
Did you know?
Singapore Sling is also the name of …
- an Icelandic rock band – they formed in 2000 and had a song appear on Long Way Around, the travel/motorcycle documentary by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman;
- a Greek underground black and white horror film released in 1990 (there was an Australian TV movie released with the same name in 1993);
- quite a few racehorses around the world, including a South African import who raced successfully in Asia, winning the Hong Kong Classic Cup in 2018. Singapore’s basketball team, the Singapore Slingers, compete in the ASEAN Basketball League.
If you’re keen to replicate the original Singapore Sling at home, here’s how:
- 30ml gin
- 15ml cherry brandy
- 7.5ml Bénédictine
- 7.5ml curaçao
- 120ml fresh pineapple juice
- 15ml fresh lime juice
- 10ml grenadine
- Dash of bitters
Pour everything but the bitters into a cocktail shaker then add ice and shake. Strain into a tall glass filled with ice and garnish with bitters, a maraschino cherry and a slice of pineapple.
An international exhibition of face masks from around the world includes a striking entry from the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM).
It wasn’t long after people realised masks were here for the long haul that creatives began to design variations that went far beyond the standard white or blue medical style. Now, some of the world’s weirdest and wildest have been brought together in a virtual exhibition called Clothing the Pandemic.
One standout is an entry from Singapore, from a current collection on display at the ACM. “Butterfly People” (pictured) is an elaborate mask by Indian designer Rahul Mishra, made of silk and wire, and hand-embroidered and assembled by his team of kaarigars (artisans). Stunning!
Little India stalwarts
For the past three years, the National Heritage Board (NHB) has been setting up a series of “mini-museums” in different Singapore shopfronts to highlight the heritage of various businesses and trades. The project is called Street Corner Heritage Galleries; in 2020, Balestier was the focus, followed by Kampong Glam in 2021. Now, it’s Little India’s turn.
Businessowners have plied their trade in Little India for over a century, selling garlands, gold, saris and spices. A number of stores that have become household names are featured in Street Corner Heritage Galleries, including Jothi Flower Shop, Haniffa Textiles and jewellery store Ani Mani.
Also included are three renowned Little India restaurants. Here are a few facts about them!
- Among Singapore’s oldest Indian vegetarian restaurants, Ananda Bhavan was founded in the 1920s by brothers from India.
- In the early years, the family lived above the restaurant, with different members taking on roles such as cleaning tables and handling accounts.
- Ananda Bhavan has been vegetarian from the start, serving rice and vegetable dishes on banana leaves – an affordable meal for labourers in earlier times.
- The restaurant was one of the first in Little India to introduce a self-service model, where customers order food at a cashier counter.
- Komala Vilas was established in 1947 by Murugiah Rajoo, who took over an older restaurant premises after the owners returned to India. He named his restaurant Komala after the wife of the former owner.
- Murugiah’s brother Sinnakannua was known as “the lieutenant” for keeping the business running smoothly.
- Children and grandchildren learnt the trade as they grew up, then more staff were hired as the restaurant flourished.
- Komala Vilas was among the first eateries in Little India to employ women in a customer-facing role as cashiers, and to offer an air-conditioned dining area on the second floor.
Banana Leaf Apolo
- Banana Leaf Apolo was founded in 1974 by S. Chellappan, who started in the F&B business by operating a small thosai stall.
- The restaurant is apparently named after the Apollo 11 space mission (with a unique spelling adjustment!). Chellappan wanted his establishment to take off like the NASA rocket itself.
- The most famous dish here is the fish head curry, which became a signature thanks to a secret blend of spices and the use of pineapple.
- Today, there are five branches of the restaurant, managed by Chellappan’s son.
Find out more at go.gov.sg/schglittleindia.
World of Weird
We have an appetite for oddities here in the Singapore Pages, so this particular exhibition caught our eye… National Geographic is collaborating with Gardens by the Bay on four shows in the coming two years, and the first of them, “Weird But True!” is on now. You can catch it in the Cloud Forest, and it explores a whole bunch of mindboggling facts taken from National Geographic Kids magazine. Here are ten that you might not know (we certainly didn’t!).
- Vanilla comes from a kind of orchid.
- The world’s termites outweigh the world’s people.
- A piece of cake more than 4,000 years old was found in a tomb in Egypt.
- A bat can eat 3,000 insects in one night.
- If you could travel at the speed of light, you would never get older.
- About 420 million years ago, mushrooms grew taller than giraffes.
- The most overdue library book was 288 years late.
- Some monkeys in Thailand teach their young to floss.
- A palm tree is not a tree – it’s more closely related to grass.
- Ketchup was originally sold as medicine.
Weird But True! runs until 31 July 2022; tickets are included in admission to the Cloud Forest. Find out more at gardensbythebay.com.sg/weirdbuttrue.
Fort Siloso Gets Gazetted
Singapore’s best-preserved 19th-century fort, Fort Siloso, was gazetted as a National Monument in February this year. The timing was just right – not only the 80th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, but also 50 years since Sentosa opened as a destination for tourists.
- This is Singapore’s 74th National Monument.
- The last structures to be gazetted were three of the bridges along the Quays – Anderson, Elgin and Cavenagh – in October 2019.
- The National Monument programme launched in 1973, when the first batch of nine buildings and structures were recognised, including Lau Pa Sat food centre, Sri Mariamman Temple in Chinatown, Saint Andrew’s Cathedral, and the Old Thong Chai Medical Institution, where traditional Chinese doctors dispensed free medicines in the late 19th century.
- Other famous entries in the list of 74 monuments include Raffles Hotel, CHIJMES, The Istana, and the old entrance gate, turret and wall of Changi Prison. About Siloso
- The fort is made up of 11 structures that help to tell Singapore’s military and defence story.
- It was built in 1878; the top section of Mount Siloso was demolished at the time to provide a platform for the military installation.
- The design of the fort was unique in that its guns were placed not in a geometric or aesthetic way, but for strategic firing in different directions; this is why there is a random kind of feel to the layout of the site.
- The old story goes that during the Battle of Singapore in 1942, the guns of Siloso were “pointed the wrong way”; that’s why the Japanese could easily advance from the north. In fact, several of the guns did rotate 360 degrees, and they did indeed fire to the north. The bigger problem was that they used armour-piercing shells designed for ships, and weren’t accurate enough to use effectively against ground troops.
- Today, you can see all kinds of WWII relics on the site, from cannons to tunnels, and visit the Surrender Chambers to see an interactive video documentary with wax models of Japanese and British troops; there’s also a Skywalk trail with a great aerial view of the site.
- The fort likely gets its name from the Malay word for “rock”, though another origin is said to be the Spanish/Tagalog word for “jealous”.
A Big Year for Births!
There must have been something in the water last year, because Singapore’s four wildlife parks – Jurong Bird Park, Night Safari, River Wonders and Singapore Zoo – welcomed 900 newborn animals, almost twice as many as the previous year! Around 160 species were represented in the figures, 44 of which are officially listed as threatened. Here’s a look at some of the new arrivals.
Sunda Slow Loris: The perfect Christmas present came to Night Safari, in the form of a baby loris, born on 25 December. Native to Southeast Asia, the Sunda is endangered as a result of the illegal pet trade. Trivia: Lorises likely take their name from an old Dutch word meaning “fool” or “simpleton”.
Southeast Asian Box Turtle: This endangered turtle, native to Singapore, received a boost last year when three hatchlings arrived on the scene. The turtle has a distinctive yellow-striped head.
Grevy’s Zebra: The world’s largest wild equid (the family of horses and related animals), this is also the most threatened of the three species of zebra. Last year, two foals, Izara and Tari, were born at the Zoo. Trivia: The zebra is named after Jules Grévy, a 19th-century French president.
Straw-headed Bulbul: This songbird is critically endangered (up-listed from endangered in 2018) – probably because of being traded for its beautifully melodic voice. So, the arrival of three chicks at Jurong Bird Park last year was great news.
Golden Mantella: Endemic to Madagascar – and among that country’s most threatened amphibian – this small frog has beautiful yellow/red skin that warns predators of its poisonous nature. Seventy babies were born here in 2021.
Giant Panda: The biggest baby news from 2021 was the birth of panda cub Le Le on 14 August. The name derives from the ancient Chinese word for Singapore, Shi Le Po, a transliteration of the Malay term “selat”, meaning “straits”. Statistics and photos: Mandai Wildlife Group
Flashback – 5o Years Ago
For Singapore shopaholics, 1972 was a good year, with a number of new retail locations and concepts unveiled – including this one on Orchard Road.
Specialists’ Shopping Centre
Opened on the spot previously occupied by one of Singapore’s leading picture theatres, the Pavilion, Specialists’ Shopping Centre took its name from the many medical services found there in its early days. But it soon developed into a popular retail hub, thanks largely to the presence of a John Little outlet. John Little was Singapore’s oldest department store chain – it first started trading all the way back in 1842, founded by an 18-year-old Scotsman, John Martin Little. (The last John Little store in Singapore closed in 2016, bringing a 174-year chapter to an end.)
Specialists’ sat alongside the Hotel Phoenix, which also opened in 1972. The 400-room hotel was an early adopter of the electronic key-card for room access; it also introduced a new computerised lift system that allowed lifts to stop at different floors when not being used, to minimise waiting times.
Both the shopping centre and the Phoenix were demolished in 2007/2008. You’ll now find 313@Somerset, Orchard Central and JEN Singapore Orchardgateway in the same location, keeping the retail and hotel vibe going.
1972 also saw the launch of the first OG department store, with the 10-storey OG Building opening at People’s Park in Chinatown. There are still three OG outlets today – the initials stand for “Ocean Garments”, which was the original name of the family-run fashion business from the 1960s.
Expat Living’s Judit Gál shares one of her favourite long walks on the island.
Rail Corridor – Woodlands
Checkpoint to Tanjong Pagar We might not be able to cross the border easily for now, but you can cross the country on foot in just a few hours! An easy but long hike of about 25km, the Rail Corridor passes through forested and residential areas following the former Malaysian Railway line, which ceased operation in 2011. It’s a walk down memory lane for those who had the chance to take the train when it was up and running, and a little slice of Singapore’s history for those who didn’t.
There are shops along the way so you don’t have to carry much – the silver lining of urban hiking. But do take water, sunscreen lotion and a raincoat with you. GPS comes in very handy as some parts of the corridor are closed for upgrading works (ongoing for the next couple of years) and you sometimes need to navigate amongst blocks of flats. Remember to record the walk – it looks really cool on Strava!
Find out more at nparks.gov.sg/railcorridor/rail-corridor.
Singapore Quiz Corner
Time to test the grey matter with a few SG-themed questions. See how you go!
#1 Nelson Mandela, Kate Middleton, Elton John, Jane Goodall and Joseph Schooling have all had what named after them in Singapore?
#2 Which year saw the fall of Singapore?
#3 Name the large Indonesian island, beginning with “S”, to the west of Singapore.
#4 In 1998, what protective feature was introduced as a compulsory feature in all new Singapore residential developments?
#5 What’s the name of the official residence of Singapore’s President?
#6 Which country provided the first frozen meat and dairy shipment to the Cold Storage depot in 1905?
#7 Which Singlish word means “competitive” or having a fear of missing out?
#8 Name the only other Asian country that is smaller than Singapore in area.
#9 Which street became well known as a nightly gathering spot for transvestites in the 1950s,1960s and 1970s?
#10 Which island was known in Malay as Pulau Ujong?
1. An orchid 2. 1942 3. Sumatra 4. Bomb shelter 5. The Istana 6. Australia 7. Kiasu 8. Maldives 9. Bugis Street 10. Singapore (the mainland)
In late 2021, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) released a commemorative coindepicting Singapore’s hawker culture. The two versions of the coin – in silver, and in nickel-plated zinc – featured a hawker centre scene of people preparing and eating various famous local foods. Among the pictured dishes were big-hitters like Hokkien mee, roti prata and nasi lemak; front and centre, though, was a simple plate of kaya toast.
What is kaya? It’s a jam made from coconut, eggs and sugar that was initially created by Hainanese immigrants to replicate the Western-style fruit jams loved by Brits. The word kaya means “rich”, and a rich spread it is, too – sweet and creamy, with a colour that varies from brown to green (resulting from the use of pandan leaf as a flavouring).
How do you eat it? The most common way is in the popular breakfast combo of half-boiled eggs, kaya toast and coffee. The idea is to break the runny eggs into a bowl, and season them to taste with soy sauce. The toast comes sandwiched together with a couple of generous slabs of cold butter and plenty of gooey kaya. Or, you can try it in a fancier, more modern version, such as French kaya toast, or even served on crackers.
Where to try it? Specialist chains such as Killiney Kopitiam, Ya Kun Kaya Toast, and Toast Box, or standalone kopitiams including Good Morning Nanyang Café and Tong Ah Eating House.
Who was Whampoa?
Today, Whampoa is a housing area in Balestier – you’ve probably passed through it, or at least heard the name. That name comes from a leading Chinese businessman of the 19th century, Hoo Ah Kay (1816- 1880), better known as “Whampoa” after his birthplace of Huangpu in China’s Guangdong Province.
After arriving in Singapore as a teenager, Whampoa went on to become fluent in English and serve on Singapore’s Executive Legislative Council; he was also involved in the Tan Tock Seng Hospital. His company, Whampoa & Co, worked mainly in shipping and provisions. One of its innovations was to import blocks of ice from America’s frozen lakes. (Whampoa’s ice factory was located where the G-Max Reverse Bungy recently operated at Clarke Quay! The Victorian-style building with wrought-iron balustrades was torn down in 1981.)
He was also known for his grand home, which occupied a large tract of land on the site of today’s Boon Keng MRT Station. In particular, Whampoa’s amazing gardens attracted travellers from near and far.
One of these was American author and travel writer Frank Vincent, who wrote the following passage in his travel memoir, The Land of the White Elephant (1882):
“In the afternoon, we go by road to the house and gardens of the Honourable Mr Whampoa, a Chinese merchant who has settled for life at Singapore, where he has been for a long time in business, and is reported to have made a fortune of $2,000,000. Mr Whampoa is a well-educated gentleman, speaks English perfectly, and is a member of the town council. His house, three miles from the town, is a complete museum, filled with expensive and beautiful curios from all countries, while his gardens – he is a great lover of flowers – are one of the first things a stranger is asked by European residents of Singapore: ‘Have you see the Chinaman’s gardens? If not, be sure and do so before leaving’.
“These gardens are rather a work of art than nature, with shrubs tortured into the most fantastic shapes by means of clipping and confining with wires. One may see living dogs, dragons, fish and exactly formed boats, pagodas and baskets. Walking along, we saw fish ponds, summer houses, canals, hedges, a network of paths, neatly gravelled, and then we came to the pig-sty, a long shed in which immense pigs of different breeds were wallowing; one hog – nearly the size of a cow – being too fat to stand upon its feet.”
Ten years later, another 19th-century writer, Reverend George Murray Reith, wrote the following description in his Handbook to Singapore:
“For many years, the private gardens of Mr Whampoa, a Chinese gentleman, have been considered one of the chief sights of Singapore. By the courtesy of the proprietor, the public are freely admitted to the gardens, which are very beautifully laid out and well worth a visit. They are in Serangoon Road (right-hand side), two miles from town”
“Whampoa, Singapore” (above) is an old illustration by Russian traveller Aleksei Vysheslavtsev, who was another visitor to the gardens, in the 1860s; his sketch presumably shows the area where the Whampoa River opens into Kallang.
Expat Living’s Judit Gál enjoys exploring the island, and here she puts the spotlight on a little known corner of the north coast.
Masjid Petempatan Melayu Sembawang
If you’re cycling or walking around Sembawang Park, it’s worth taking a detour to this well-hidden little mosque. The two roads leading to the place (Jalan Mempurong and Jalan Selimang) already give an idea of what you can expect, as they’re lined by thick jungle on both sides.
Built in 1970 (though some websites say it was 1963), and surrounded by a beautiful lush garden, the place has a serene atmosphere that time has left unchanged. This is a place of religion, so remember to dress accordingly!
Did you know?
• The large rubber tree that stands adjacent to the mosque is thought to be over 100 years old. It may be the oldest surviving tree of its kind on the island.
• A crumbling old gateway can be found just beyond the mosque, on Jalan Selimang (see it in Judit’s photo here); it once led to a grand seaside bungalow belonging to Chua Boon Peng, who headed up Cycle & Carriage from 1957 to 1985.
Flashback – A solo traveller
Lilian Leland was just 25 when she set out from New York in 1884 to travel the globe and write. Her subsequent book, Traveling Alone: A Woman’s Journey Around the World (1890) recounts adventures in a wide range of destinations: from Chile and Hawaii, to Egypt, Japan, Turkey, India … and Singapore.
One critic said: “Leland was not eager to immortalise her name by attempting to add one more to the long list of tedious guide books, but wrote in a delightfully free and offhand fashion.”
This off-hand approach is evident from her very first sentence about Singapore: “It requires a stretch of the imagination to believe it is in fact November, for the temperature here is suggestive of ovens.”
She then follows up with this line about the local fauna: “I haven’t observed any sociable cobras or boa constrictors in my hotel room yet, but, as the Irishman said, ‘I have great hopes.’”
More interesting, perhaps, is her account of how she was treated at Singapore’s Hotel D’Europe, where clearly the staff hadn’t seen too many solo women travellers in their time…
“Dear me, what a dreadful thing it is to be a woman and to travel alone! I have thrown the hotel quite into a commotion. The unhappy clerk is in a pitiable state. He comes to my room and closes a shutter of my window that somebody in an adjacent room might possibly look through by partially dislocating his neck, and explains apologetically that there is so much curiosity and they ask him so many questions.
He also inquires doubtfully what my business is and I reply by way of reassuring him that I travel for my health, and to write. The table is at the time strewn with my manuscript, so the reply is eminently satisfactory.
He thinks that I ought to feel strange and frightened at being alone in a hotel, so he escorts me upstairs and downstairs to the table and back again. What a shocking sinful thing a woman is, to be whisked away and tucked into a back room, out of sight. I ought evidently to blush for my womanhood. But I don’t. On the contrary, I glory in it. I have come so far in comfort and safety, and I feel every day more confidence in myself and the innate goodness of human nature”
You can read more of the book online at Google Books – just search for “Lilian Leland”.
Animals – hawksbill hatchings
A significant hatching of hawksbill turtles took place recently on Sentosa. The hawksbill turtle is critically endangered – and that’s no surprise, as humans have prized the animal for its shell and meat for 2,500 years. But the past century has been particularly unkind, with biologists estimating the hawksbill population may have dropped by around 80 percent in that short period.
Which makes the news of a hatching on Sentosa’s Siloso Beach even more welcome. At around dawn on 1 November, 85 hawksbill turtles emerged from a nest that had been found on the beach back in September, and were safely released into the sea.
Their plight was helped by the Environment Management Team of the SDC (Sentosa Development Corporation), who built a temporary home for the nest to keep it safe from monitor lizards, crabs, humans and other disturbances. You might have seen the bright blue timber shed on a recent visit.
This is the sixth time since 1996 that hawksbill turtle eggs have hatched on Sentosa – the last time was in 2019.
As this issue was going to press, we were waiting to hear about the imminent hatching of a second nest of hawksbills, this time on Palawan Beach. Good luck, little turtles!
Tips from the SDC on protecting Singapore’s turtles
- Be quiet and keep your distance
- Don’t make loud noises or shine a torch; if a turtle is scared it will stop laying eggs and return to the sea
- Don’t dig up the nest
- If you see turtle tracks on beaches, leave them as they are, as they can be used by researchers to gather information
- If you spot a turtle nest on Sentosa, call the SDC at 1800-SENTOSA
While you’re there
Sentosa is home to other native wildlife such as the common palm civet, colourful bee-eaters, green-crested lizards, as well as peafowls, monkeys and monitor lizards. There are various nature trails to explore, and you can also visit the new Geology Gallery to learn more about the island’s rock formations and flora and fauna.
Exploring – Singapore’s newest museum
In December, EL attended the opening of the new Jews of Singapore Museum at the Jacob Ballas Centre at Waterloo Street. The permanent exhibition traces the 200-year history of Jews in Singapore, showcasing their significant contribution to society and the economy.
The museum touches on three themes: the timelines of Jewish arrivals from 1820 to today; profiles of Jewish community leaders; and festivals, culture and religion. You can learn more about all of these through photographs, videos and audio recordings.
Prominent people and places
Members of the Jewish community who have made their mark on Singapore:
- David Marshall – First Chief Minister
- Sir Manasseh Meyer – Businessman and philanthropist
- Jacob Ballas – Stockbroker and philanthropist
- Joseph Grimberg – Supreme Court Judge
- Harry Elias – Senior Counsel
- Frank Benjamin – Entrepreneur
- Victor Sassoon – Entrepreneur
The legacy of the Jewish community in roads, institutions and buildings:
- Synagogue Street
- Frankel Avenue
- Meyer Road
- Nassim Road
- Elias Road
- Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden
- Ellison Building
Did you know? In 1922, Albert Einstein travelled to Singapore a week before he won the Nobel Prize in Physics to lobby the Singapore Jews to contribute to the Hebrew University.
The Museum is free and open to the public by appointment. For more, visit singaporejews.com/museum.
Flashback – Singapore’s first phones
When was the first phone call made in Singapore? Possibly 142 years ago, in 1879. That was the year when Bennett Pell (1842- 1912), local manager of the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company, set up an exchange on the island. Singapore became known as the first city in the East to have a telephone system. (Alexander Graham Bell had only patented his new invention three years earlier, in 1876!) One of the very early connections was made between Raffles Square and Tanjong Pagar.
Despite this, it would be another 58 years before Singapore’s phone network went international, when a call to London was connected on 1 December 1937.
The first public coin-operated phone probably appeared in Singapore in the 1950s; by the early 1960s there were 250 of these, rising rapidly to 650 by 1965. (remembersingapore.org) The switch from coins to cards happened in the mid-1980s, in part to avoid the problem of people stealing coins from the boxes.
As mobile phones came into vogue, pay phones began to be phased out. And, with mobile phone penetration currently at around 150 percent of the population (that is, every person owns one and a half phones!), you’ll likely see fewer and fewer of them.
Did you know?
Singapore phone numbers had just five digits in the 1950s; an extra digit was added in the 1960s, and then seven digits became the norm in the 1980s. The eight-digit numbers we know today were introduced in 1995 for mobile phones and pagers (with the addition of a “9” at the front) and in 2002 for land lines (with the addition of a “6”).
Animals – Meet the Malayan Colugo
Along with all those macaques trying to steal your picnic treats at MacRitchie Reservoir, there are some interesting creatures that call Singapore home. Here we take a look 10 facts about one of them, the Malayan colugo.
- Malayan colugo is just one name you’ll hear this animal given. It’s also commonly referred to as the Sunda colugo, Malayan flying lemur, Sunda flying lemur, flying cat, cobego and kubong.
- What exactly is a colugo? Well, it’s not a lemur, and it can’t fly – so a few of those names we just mentioned aren’t too accurate! Officially, a colugo is an arboreal (tree-dwelling) gliding mammal that is native to Southeast Asia.
- The flying reference comes from the fur-covered membrane that stretches between the colugo’s limbs and fingers, which works like a cape (think Batman…) and allows the creature to glide from tree to tree. How far? One individual has been recorded travelling 150 metres in a single glide.
- While they’re elegant in the air, the Malayan colugo is an awkward-looking tree climber, moving up and down the trunk with a stop-start hopping motion. And on the ground they’re even less mobile – in fact, they go out of their way to avoid the jungle floor.
- The animal’s diet includes leaves, buds, flowers, shoots, fruit and sap.
- In Singapore, while they’re relatively common, they can be tricky to spot as they’re almost wholly nocturnal. Take a quiet early morning stroll on the trails and boardwalks at Lower Peirce Reservoir, and you’ve got a decent chance. Colugos have also been seen in more built-up areas – even in the Botanic Gardens.
- The Malayan colugo is also found in Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia.
- It has amazing stereoscopic vision, allowing it to easily see which branch it’ll grab onto at the end of a glide, even in very dim lighting.
- While they look like the most mellow of animals, Malayan colugos can apparently make a racket, especially when two males are fighting. Their call has been described as a very loud “ripping” sound that can be heard from a considerable distance.
- Nobody knows exactly how many of these creatures live in Singapore; in 1994, they were listed as being vulnerable, based on an estimated population of just 200 animals; today, it’s generally thought this number is in the low thousands instead.
Find out more about Singapore wildlife in our series of nature stories at expatliving.sg.
Museums – newly reopened
Lovers of military history are in a for a treat, with another important Second World War site in Singapore reopening after a makeover. Having closed in 2018 for a major reno, Reflections at Bukit Chandu (RBC) is now open again. The museum tells the story of the Battle of Pasir Panjang (12-15 February 1942), when heavily outnumbered soldiers from the Malay Regiment fought valiantly against a much bigger force of 13,000 Japanese troops.
RBC is located on Pepys Road in Kent Ridge Park; it’s housed in a bungalow that was built in 1930 for senior British staff of an opium packing plant further down the hill. Right nearby is “Point 226”, the military position that marks the heroic last stand of the Regiment.
There are, of course, all kinds of military-themed artefacts to explore, from rifles and machine-guns to bullets and helmets. What’s also interesting, though, are the everyday objects that archaeologists have retrieved from the site. Here are three of them:
#1 This small bottle made of handblown glass dates to the early or mid-20th century. It’s most likely a Chinese medicine vial, perhaps used by a domestic helper.
#2 Made of tin, this mess cup was owned by the Regiment’s Lieutenant Ibrahim Sidek; he was executed by the Japanese on 28 February 1942.
#3 A more recent discovery is this silver and glass talisman with a scroll inscribed with a Thai writing script. It perhaps belonged to a labourer working in Singapore around 40 years ago.
The reopening of Bukit Chandu comes hot on the heels of the new-look Changi Chapel and Museum beginning operations again this year, also after a three year redevelopment. You can read more about that site in our June 2021 issue.
RBC is at 31-K Pepys Road. Entry is $5 (free for Singapore citizens and PRs) and $15 for a family. Open daily except Monday.
Singapore travel – the old route from South to North
If you’re making the trip from Boat Quay to the Woodlands Checkpoint these days, it’ll take around 30 minutes, zipping along the AYE, PIE or CTE. But what about 130 years ago?
Reverend George Murray Reith (1863-1948) was a Scottish minister of Singapore’s local Presbyterian church (plus a member of the Straits Philosophical Society and the Raffles Library), and a keen traveller on the side. He wrote one of the earliest guidebooks to the island, Handbook to Singapore, published in 1892. Below is his account of the half-day journey to Johor (“Johore”).
From the Wharves to Kranji via Singapore Town, and thence to Johore Bahru.
“If the traveller has ten to twelve hours to spare, he cannot do better than cross the island to Kranji, and thence pass over to the kingdom of Johore on the mainland; for he passes through the town of Singapore en route, and also has the opportunity of seeing the general appearance of the coffee, gambier and pepper plantations, and of the jungle in the interior of the island.
A carriage and horses for this excursion can be hired from one of the Livery Stables. From the Christian Cemetery, instead of turning into Thompson Road, the traveller keeps his course along the Bukit Timah Road, on which, seven miles out, he passes the hill that gives its name to the road: Bukit Timah or “ Hill of Tin”, the highest point in the island (height 519 feet).
The ascent of this hill is made by carriage or on foot. There is a Government Bungalow on the summit, to which residents go occasionally for a change of air. There are two Mission Chapels in the Bukit Timah district, for Chinese converts. One belongs to the English Presbyterian Mission; the other, the Chapel of St. Joseph, to the French Catholic Mission. From Bukit Timah to Kranji, the road winds through plantations and jungle for seven miles. At the village of Kranji there is a small pier whence Chinese and Malay sampans transport passengers across the Strait to Johore.
The Johore Strait (Silat Terbau), varying from three quarters of a mile to two miles in breadth and thickly wooded on both sides to the water’s edge, charms the visitor with beauties that are peculiar to land and water scenery; the ever-changing light and shade throw the landscape into combinations of colour as pleasing as they are varied. Travellers have compared it favourably with the Rhine scenery, with Loch Lomond, and with the best views on the estuaries of the Forth and the Tay.
Johore Bahru (“New Johore”), the capital of the dominions of the Sultan of Johor and Muar, is a town with a population of 20,000. The chief place of interest is the Istana, or palace, which faces the Strait. It has been tastefully furnished in the European style by the present Sultan, who is a staunch ally of the British Government.”
New Street Art
There are a couple of cool new alfresco art installations to enjoy right now – track them down on your next weekend wander!
The People’s Gallery
National Gallery Singapore has rolled out The People’s Gallery, which transforms more than 25 open spaces around the island – mostly void decks of HDB blocks – into galleries for discovering 50 surprising artworks by Singapore and Southeast Asian artists, using QR codes and Augmented Reality (AR) technology. The void decks are located in eight heartland neighbourhoods: Bishan, Toa Payoh, Jurong West, Marine Parade, Serangoon, Pasir Ris, Punggol and Yishun.
Singapore Art Museum
Though the museum itself is closed for a major makeover, it continues to be a “Museum in Action”, by bringing art to everyday and unexpected spaces in Singapore. For instance, keep an eye out for the newly commissioned artworks by Kray Chen and Sam Lo on the hoardings of SAM’s heritage buildings along Bras Basah Road and Queen Street. Pictured is one section of Sam Lo’s piece, Our Future is In(con)clusive.
Find out more at singaporeartmuseum.sg/museuminaction.
History – Sembawang’s past
Last year, we previewed the new Hougang Heritage Trail in our Singapore Pages. Now, there’s another new trail to explore! The National Heritage Board’s Sembawang Heritage Trail launched in August 2021 and features 21 historic sites across three different routes, each taking a couple of hours. Here’s a taste of what you’ll discover.
#1 Giant Dock
Sembawang boasted the world’s largest dry dock in the 1930s. Named the King George VI Dry Dock, it was over 300 metres long and could fit the Royal Navy’s largest battleship. Once a ship entered, water was pumped from the dock so repair works could be carried out on dry land. When Britain withdrew its military forces from Singapore in the late 1960s, the dockyard became a commercial operation, the Sembawang Shipyard.
#2 House on the Coast
Sembawang’s Former Admiralty House is a gazetted National Monument and was once home to the most senior officer at the former Sembawang Naval Base. Called Nelson House for a time, after Lord Nelson, it’s been renamed Canberra House and is being developed as a community hub and library, opening in 2022.
Sembawang fact file
- Located at Singapore’s pointy northern end, east of Woodlands, north of Yishun.
- First mentioned in maps from the early 1800s (as “River Tambuwang”)
- Named after the pokok sembawang, a tall tree found in various parts of Southeast Asia, and still in Sembawang Park today.
- Once a major rubber-growing area (early 1900s), then an important naval facility for Britain’s Far East Fleet.
#3 Scoring Goals
A famous Sembawangian (if that’s a word!) is Singapore former national football player Quah Kim Song; he used to live in a coastal kampong in the area and play football with the dockyard workers at the Deptford Road field (pictured). Renowned as a fast striker, he scored two goals in the 1977 Malaysia Cup Final in Kuala Lumpur to help Singapore claim a 3-2 victory over Penang.
#4 Boiled Eggs
Singapore’s only natural hot spring park is in Sembawang. It was converted into an onsen during the Japanese Occupation, before becoming a popular spot in the 1950s to cook eggs or soak sore muscles. (Bathing during horseracing season would apparently bring good luck.) You can visit today – and still cook eggs! Check nparks.gov.sg for updates around COVID restrictions.
#5 From Tree to Temple
The Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple dates to 1962, when a dockyard worker had a dream about a Hindu god and a golden cobra under a jujube tree. The worker then saw the same tree from his dream near Canberra Road and began to pray at it. A simple altar was built, then a wooden shed, and finally, in 1971, a proper temple.
If you’re a history buff, there are 20 other official trails and walks to follow in Singapore – from Tampines to Tiong Bahru – taking you past points of interest and information signs. Find out more and download maps at roots.gov.sg/visit/trails.
Sport – medal moments
At the recent Tokyo Olympic Games, Singapore unfortunately didn’t come away with a medal. While there was a bit of fuss about this from some corners, it’s worth keeping in mind that the Team SG was only 23 strong. America sent 657 athletes to the Games!
Here are some other stats:
Singapore at the Games
Number of Olympic appearances: 17 (1948-2020)
Number of Olympics with no medals: 13
First medal of any colour: Silver, 1960 Rome
First gold: Joseph Schooling, 2016, Rio
Total medal haul over 72 years: 5 (1 gold, 2 silver, 2 bronze)
Rather than dwell on numbers, though, let’s focus on the stories – and we’re sure the athletes who performed their hearts out in Tokyo have a few to tell. For now, though, here’s the tale of Singapore’s first ever medallist, Tan Howe Liang.
Tan was a weightlifter whose two Olympic appearances were dramatic, to say the least! At the 1956 Games in Melbourne, he blacked out while attempting a particularly heavy lift. The team manager tried to retire him from the competition, but he insisted on finishing, coming a very respectable ninth.
In Rome, four years later, Tan suffered pain in his legs after his first lift, and the authorities tried to shuffle him off to the athletes’ village for treatment. Tan didn’t give up. He went on to beat 33 competitors on his way to claiming silver for Singapore. Oh, and he also broke a world record for the clean and jerk in the lightweight category!
Another nine Olympic Games would pass before the country won another medal, a silver in table tennis at the Beijing Olympics.
Neighbourhoods – 100th anniversary of Amber Road
It’s interesting what you find when you dig into the past. In one of our recent Street Talk columns in our print magazine, we chatted to a family who lived in Amber Gardens. When we took a casual look in the books to see if it had any historical significance, we quickly discovered it does!
Located in Tanjong Katong, Amber Gardens runs perpendicular to the L-shaped Amber Road, at the western end of Marine Parade Road. It was built exactly a century ago this year. The word “Amber” appears in various placenames in the neighbourhood and elsewhere in Singapore from that time, and while its direct origin is unknown, it’s almost certainly connected to the family of Joseph (“Joe”) Aaron Elias (1881-1949). (His mother was sometimes referred to as Mrs Sarina Elias Amber.)
According to Singapore Infopedia, Elias was a prominent Jewish businessman of the day; he owned one of Singapore’s first shopping centres, Amber Mansions. It was located near where Dhoby Ghaut MRT is today, and was demolished in 1984.
The area around Amber Road was also the site of an earlier Malay kampong, Kampong Amber, which was active in the 1940s and 1950s, and known for the multiculturalism of its Chinese, Indian and Malay villagers.
Another piece of trivia: Mandalay Villa was a prominent house on Amber Road, and apparently the place where Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew proposed to his wife, Kwa Geok Choo!
The Chinese Swimming Club, which is still on Amber Road today, was launched in 1905 as a swimming group for Straits Chinese who couldn’t join the Singapore Swimming Club set up for European members by the British. Some superb swimmers launched their careers at the club, including Patricia Chan, Singapore’s flag bearer at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, and Mark Chay, who swam at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics (and who was recently appointed a new Nominated Member of Parliament.
Nature – check out the chiku
Singapore is a goldmine for fans of tropical fruit. Go to any food centre and you’ll find an amazing array of fruit that you can enjoy either fresh on a stick, or in juices, ice creams and more. We’ve tried most of them, from rambutan and mangosteen, to durian and dragon fruit, but we admittedly know less about chiku (also “ciku” and “chikoo”). If you’re in the dark, too, here are 10 fast facts!
- Native to Central and South America, chiku came to Singapore via the Philippines, where it was introduced during Spanish colonisation.
- It’s commonly known in many Englishspeaking countries as sapodilla.
- The fruit is round or egg-shaped, and up to 10 centimetres in diameter. It has a thin, brownish-grey skin and a light brown-orange flesh with large black seeds.
- The taste of chiku has been described as “caramel-like” – or “pear sprinkled with sugar”!
- In an official tree-planting campaign of the 1970s and 1980s, chiku was one of the fruit trees chosen to be planted around housing estates in Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew planted a chiku tree at Spottiswoode Park Road on 3 November 1985.
- In the first half of the 20th century, an area of the East Coast had its streets renamed after tropical fruit. Chiku Road is still there today – it’s a short dead-end street running off Joo Chiat Place.
- Chiku trees are known to attract bats, so you’ll often see the fruit wrapped in newspaper as it hangs from the branches
- Known as chicle, the sap from the chiku tree and other similar tree varieties was once used as the base for making chewing gum.
- The plant is said to have medicinal qualities, with the bark used in the Philippines to treat fever and diarrhoea, and the flowers in Indonesia in a body ointment for women after childbirth.
- The dark and durable wood of the chiku tree can be used to make furniture.
Food – McChicken Rice?
The reviews are in. And they’re … mixed. To commemorate National Day in August 2021, McDonald’s launched a new Crispy Hainanese Chicken Burger, inspired by Singapore’s “national dish”, chicken rice. It features a crispy chicken patty with crunchy salad and three sauces (ginger, garlic chilli and a sweet dark sauce). YouTube has a feast of reviews where the burger’s pros and cons are discussed at mind-numbing length! In the meantime, here are a few other factoids about the popular hawker favourite.
- An average serve of chicken rice has around 600 calories. We couldn’t find a calorie count for the new McDonald’s burger, but a Big Mac has 1,020 calories.
- Chicken rice has inspired at least two Singapore films. Chicken Rice War (2000) is a rom-com featuring young lovers from different chicken rice-making families. (Loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, apparently!) And Rice Rhapsody (2004; Jackie Chan executive producer) is set in a successful chicken rice restaurant in Chinatown.
- There’s a chicken rice franchise in Japan called Mr Chicken, launched by a couple of young Japanese foodies who grew up in Singapore.
- The late Anthony Bourdain did a segment on chicken rice for a show, and the place he chose to eat at was … drumroll … Tian Tian Chicken Rice at Maxwell Food Centre. The stall opened in 1987 and continues to be popular today. (Having said that, everyone has their own “best chicken rice” stall, right?!)
Who would be a snake?
Egerton K Laird was an Englishman (born in Birkenhead in Cheshire) who wrote about his leisure travels around the world in the 1870s. One of these trips brought him to Singapore for a couple of weeks, the details of which he recounted in his 1875 book, The Rambles of a Globe Trotter. There are some interesting perspectives in its pages, including this reflection on Laird’s encounter with one of Singapore’s most confronting animals.
“I saw a boa-constrictor brought into town today, 25 feet long; it was caught only 6 miles from here and was killed whilst in a state of stupor, having just demolished a large sow weighing about 200 pounds [90kg]. It’s not pleasant to think that there are such customers here at hand. I only weigh 118 lbs [53kg], so I would have been a mere pastime for it; but I flatter myself that I would have been somewhat angular and more difficult of digestion; however, if he had, as they always do, covered me with saliva I dare say I would have glided down easily enough – what a curious idea. I was told that one was once found with the head of a deer sticking out of its mouth, as the horns were rather too much of a good thing, even for a boa; so it would have slept until the horns gradually dropped from decay. Who would be a snake?”
Singapore commemorates Anzac Day (25 April) each year with an annual service at Kranji War Memorial in remembrance of Australians and New Zealanders who served their countries. (See cwgc.org for more info.) Here, we take a look at a key event featuring Australian soldiers in Singapore’s Second World War history.
In December 2020, a Japanese flag made by Australian and British troops in 1943 sold at auction, together with some WWII medals, for around S$70,000. The flag had been used to help conceal a boat, the MV Krait (pictured), during an Allied mission in Singapore titled Operation Jaywick.
That mission saw a 14-man crew disguise themselves as Malay fisherman and sail the Krait – named after a type of snake – all the way from Western Australia and into Japanese-occupied Singapore Harbour in September 1943.
On the night of 26 September, six soldiers in three canoes paddled into the harbour and placed explosives on the hulls of a group of Japanese ships. The men escaped safely. When the explosives were detonated, at least three of the ships were destroyed, with three more damaged in some way.
The raid was considered a success by Allied forces – not only from a strategic viewpoint, as it further stretched the already thin Japanese resources, but also from a morale standpoint. However, there would be unfortunate ramifications for those on the ground in Singapore. Since the operation took the Japanese by surprise, they believed it had been carried out by the civilian population. In what became known as the Double Tenth Incident, more than 50 people were arrested and tortured. Though, of course, they also had no idea how the ships came to be destroyed.
Among this group was Elizabeth Choy (1910-2006). Together with her husband, she had been risking her life smuggling messages and food to prisoners-of-war at Changi. She somehow survived the Double Tenth ordeal, going on to become an educator and politician, and known as one of Singapore’s war heroines (swhf.sg/profiles/elizabeth-choy).
Exploring Singapore – A new chapter at Changi
Exciting news for history buffs: after closing in 2018 for a major redevelopment, Changi Chapel and Museum (CCM) reopened recently (May 2021). There’s a whole bunch of interesting new stu to see, including fascinating artefacts donated and loaned from families of internees at the infamous Changi prison camp.
The 114 artefacts are showcased across eight galleries highlighting the daily lives of internees, and how they responded to the hardships they faced. Over 80 of these items have never been displayed before – here’s a glimpse at just four!
#1 Toothbrush Fashioned From Scratch
These toothbrushes were made between 1942 and 1945 in a broommaking workshop at Changi. POWs used their skill and innovation to produce 30,000 items during the workshop’s operation. Coconut fibres were used as bristles, and attached to a bamboo handle by bitumen from roadways.
#2 A 400-page Diary
Arthur Westrop was a civilian internee at Changi who risked retribution by keeping a diary, with entries styled as letters to his wife (in Rhodesia at the time). He took care to hide the diary under the floorboards of his cell, and it was never found by the Japanese.
#3 Christmas Dinner Menu
When Private Albert Riley of the Royal Army Medical Corps was interned at Changi, he had in his possession a Christmas menu he’d enjoyed aboard the US troopship that brought him to Singapore in 1941. The menu features roast turkey, giblet gravy, cranberry sauce, plum pudding and other goodies, and includes the following poem: “We’re way out here upon the sea And not where we should like to be / But don’t complain on Christmas Day / Just smile and to each other say / ‘Merry Xmas’ – that’s the way / To be real happy all the day”.
#4 An Old-school Camera
Like Arthur Westrop’s diary, this metal Kodak Brownie Camera was painstakingly hidden from Japanese troops by internees for the duration of their time at Changi. It belonged to Sergeant John Ritchie Johnston, and was given to him by his wife.
Other highlights include a section of the Changi Wall, a Morse code device hidden in a matchbox that was used by internees to transmit messages, and replicas of biblical murals that were painted for spiritual comfort.
In addition to artefacts, you’ll find new multimedia offerings in the revamped CCM, which help to convey stories of the time. These include a projection show of the key events of the three-and-a-half year Japanese Occupation; you can also step inside a recreated Changi cell to get a sense of the cramped living confines, while listening to historical recordings of internees’ conversations.
Did you know? The logo of the Changi Chapel and Museum incorporates the site’s acronym (“CCM”) in a way that shows the silhouette of the chapel’s architectural shape, while also representing prison bars. It’s a clever nod to the site’s history and significance.
Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 9.30am to 5.30pm. For info and tickets, visit changichapelmuseum.gov.sg or CCM’s Facebook and Instagram pages.
Flashback – 0ne of Singapore’s earliest hotels
Today, there are over 400 hotels in Singapore, including dozens of big-name international brands. Back in the 19th century, however, only a handful of lodgings existed. The best known were Raffles (of course!), the Adelphi Hotel, Hotel de la Paix and the one we’re looking at here, Hotel de l’Europe.
Originally built on Hill Street in 1857 by a French entrepreneur, the premises shifted to its final location – the spot now occupied by the Old Supreme Court Building (the current National Gallery) – in 1865. In the early 1900s, it was rebranded as the Grand Hotel de l’Europe. By this time, it had over 100 luxury rooms, with all the “mod cons”, including electric lights and fans. There was even a roof garden.
In the 1930s, the hotel was demolished, and replaced by the courthouse of the Supreme Court, which opened in 1939.
About the photo: The image dates to around 1900, with the Hotel de l’Europe front and centre. The Padang is in the foreground, with Fort Canning Hill in the distance. Out of shot are St Andrews Cathedral, to the right, and the Cricket Club, in the left foreground.
A review of Hotel de l’Europe
Here’s what American author and travel writer Frank Vincent had to say about the hotel in his 1882 book, The Land of the White Elephant.
“This hotel we find to be very large and comfortable, situated in the midst of beautiful gardens, facing ‘the green’ and commanding a fine view of the straits, the large island of Bintang [sic] in the distance, and the Chinese junks and foreign shipping in the harbour. Attached to the establishment, which is kept by a German, is that ‘peculiar institution’, an American barroom, where California mixed drinks are served. There is also a ‘regular down east’ Boston Arctic soda-water fountain; a billiard-room; and a reading-room, where one will find papers and journals in four or five languages, from New York, London, Bombay, Calcutta, Batavia, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Yokohama and San Francisco.”
Singapore Trivia – four world records
We have our fair share of world beaters in Singapore. Here’s a handful just to begin with!
#1 Fluoro Flowers
Anyone who’s strolled in the Botanic Gardens knows that Singapore does a great orchid. The national flower is a type of orchid. And the country leads the world in creating new hybrids of orchids. But have you ever seen one that glows? Back in 1999, Professor Chia Tet Fatt from the National Science Academic Group produced the first ever successful bioluminescent flowers – orchids, of course – and set a Guinness World Record in the process.
The professor used a white-petalled strain of orchid known as the “Dendrobium White Fairy #5” and transferred biologically active DNA containing a gene from the firefly into the orchid’s tissues. He then propagated them, and was eventually able to grow stable orchids that retained the firefly gene. The flowers emitted a greenish-white glow from petals, roots, stem and leaves that lasted up to five hours at a time.
#2 Yoga Guru
A more recent record was achieved in Singapore by Jeyaseelan Venkadasamy of India. On 4 December 2020, he set a new Guinness World Record for the “longest time to hold the tree pose”. His time of 1 hour, 12 minutes and 59 seconds eclipsed the old record by around six minutes. Known as Vrikshasana and named after the Sanskrit word for “tree”, this balancing yoga pose is centuries old. It involves placing one foot on the inside of the opposite thigh, while leaving the other foot on the ground.
#3 Longest Satay
The world record for the longest satay stands at just over 140 metres. (That’s nearly the length of one and a half football pitches!) The Kopitiam Group of Companies (Singapore) set the record at famous food centre Lau Pa Sat on 21 July 2007. Around 150kg of chicken was marinated with cumin, coriander, fennel, ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, onion, sugar and salt, and then grilled over charcoal by 150 staff.
#4 Largest Game of Pass the Parcel
A record-breaking 3,918 students gathered at Nanyang Technological University on 28 February 1998, where they played a 2.5-hour game of Pass the Parcel, removing 2,200 wrappers from an enormous parcel (1.5m x 1.5m x 0.5m). Though they still hold the record for the most participants, the record for the largest parcel used in Pass the Parcel was set in the UK in 2014. It was the size of a car!
This article first appeared in Expat Living. Purchase the latest issue or subscribe so you never miss a copy!
For more interesting facts and trivia about Singapore, see our Things To Do section.
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