Get to know this country better through some Singapore books. Secret Singapore is a new book by HEIDI SARNA AND JEROME LIM about the island’s hidden historical and cultural gems that are out there waiting to be explored. Read on for the inside scoop from Heidi – along with a few sample secrets.
What gave you the idea for Secret Singapore?
I was visiting New York City in 2015, where we had lived before moving to Singapore 15 years ago. At a friend’s apartment, I picked up a book on her coffee table, Secret New York, and was hooked. I flipped through it and loved the format – one-page write-ups about quirky, secret, hidden things and places all over NYC, each with a photo.
I immediately sent off an email to the publisher asking if they’d consider doing a Singapore version of the book. And that I wanted to write it! I’ve always been a history buff. I love finding a solitary old gate post at the end of a lane, a crumbling foundation, a faded name on building façade … that sort of thing.
The publisher, Thomas Jonglez of Paris-based boutique house Jonglez Publishing, got back to me quickly and said he was indeed interested in doing Secret Singapore. But he wasn’t a pushover! I had to convince him. We went back and forth for a while. I sent him writing samples and secret samples. He asked lots of questions before commissioning me to write the book. And he also strongly suggested it would be best if I could hook up with a local co-author. That made good sense to me. That’s where Jerome comes in.
How did you come to collaborate with your co-author Jerome Lim on this project?
In the early 2010s, I discovered Jerome while googling various Singapore history tidbits and having his name come up again and again. His blog, The Long and Winding Road (thelongnwindingroad.wordpress.com), is a tribute to the Singapore of yesteryear. It’s written with a tinge of melancholy, a dash of quiet humour, and a bit of poetic phrasing along the way.
Jerome loves the details and the story; he’s a very good writer. He was the perfect co-author. I first met him by taking one of the periodic free tours he has led on behalf of various organisations and causes (and which get booked up almost immediately), this one around Mount Emily.
His passion and knowledge were obvious; Jerome clearly knows a lot about Singapore’s past. I remember being at the top of Mount Emily and Jerome explaining there used to be a big public pool up there – Singapore’s first public pool, which opened in 1931. Ahhh, that’s why today you’ll see a big flat soccer-pitch-like patch of grass! In 1981, due to declining use, the pool was demolished, filled in and repurposed as a popular park that today is bustling with families with kids and people with dogs. Dr Kevin YL Tan, a law professor, writer and former president of the Singapore Heritage Society, also contributed a handful of entries at the start of the project. I met him after going to one of his lectures at the Asian Civilisations Museum around the time the book project was beginning to come together.
Were there any special challenges you faced in compiling the book?
At the very start, I came up with a shortlist of potential secrets I’d heard about, either on one of the tours I took with legendary guide Geraldene Lowe Ismail, who has since retired, or by reading heritage blogs like Jerome’s and others, including Remember Singapore (remembersingapore.org). I also learned lots through Roots.sg (the National Heritage Board heritage portal), National Library Board fact sheets, and the photos from the Kip Lee Lin Collection.
All the secrets had to be something photographable; we couldn’t just write an interesting story, there had to still be something physically there to see. Jerome and I took most of the photos ourselves; in a few cases, we got permission to use someone else’s.
It wasn’t too hard to come up with an initial 100 secrets or so. And then we kept adding more as we discovered them. The overriding challenge was finding something that was actually secret – as in forgotten, little known or hidden – and interesting enough. Thomas, the publisher, emphasised that each entry needed a “hook”. So we couldn’t just write about a cool old house; we had to approach it through some secret or little-known aspect – an inscription above a door; an interesting old painting inside; old tiled tombs hidden in the surrounding tropical sprawl.
With each secret, it was Thomas’s prerogative to say yay or nay. There were a few we lobbied for that he rejected. For instance, Command House on Kheam Hock Road, and a 1920s black-and-white house on Malcolm Road that had been used as Singapore’s first and oldest theatre company, The Stage Club.
Who is the book aimed at?
The book, and the entire “Secret” series, is aimed at locals and long-time residents. It’s for people who don’t want an overview, but who crave a deep dive, and who like the back story, the intrigue and the idiosyncratic.
Can you share the discovery of a secret that particularly surprised or fascinated you? Where to start?
There are so many! One in particular has gotten under my skin, in a good way. We all know that Singapore has reclaimed a lot of land, and I love finding the crumbling remnants of its old seawalls and gate posts – like those along the Marine Parade Road area of the East Coast. At one time, before the 1960s, these led right down onto the sandy beach and the sea. There’s a stretch of them near Nallur Road – finding these really tickled my fancy! – and then I discovered more around Still Road, with the steps still there and, of course, leading nowhere.
As a specialist travel writer, how has the past year or so been for you?
I’ve been a freelance writer and editor for most of my career, with an expertise in unusual and small ship cruising. I even have a website dedicated to this area – QuirkyCruise.com. The past year has been challenging in so many ways for all of us; I’ve missed being able to travel and discover new river cruises and sailing adventures to write about. I feel bad not just for me but also for all the people who work in travel, the tour guides, ship owners and hoteliers and others who have really suffered.
That said, like many people, I took the enforced travel pause as a time to up my game and get ready for the return of travel. Because it will come back, I think, by the end of 2021, and for sure in 2022. So, I redesigned my website and shifted the focus to “micro cruises”. These are cruises carrying just 10 or 20 passengers that can be chartered for private holidays with family and friend groups in remote places – yachts in Indonesia; canal barges in France; river boats on the Mekong; and wee coastal ships in the Scottish Isles. This type of travel feels safer, the itineraries are more flexible. And, if health or other issues crop up, they’re more manageable.
I also took the pause in travel to focus more on Singapore, like many of us. For me, it’s jogging and riding my bicycle around to many of the secrets covered in the book. And trying to discover new ones along the way. I’ve grown to love the mid-century architecture here, for instance. And I’m forever taking photos of funky gates and window treatments.
All of these interests led to my co-founding a small business – BikeALocal.com – with my good friend Robin McAdoo; it marries our mutual love of cycling with her route-mapping prowess and my heritage-spotting nose. This has kept us busy during the pandemic and has led to other opportunities.
Excerpts from Secret Singapore
Excerpt 1: Dutch Windmill on a Chinese Grave
Seh Ong Hill Cemetery – Kheam Hock Road
Outside of the main gates of Bukit Brown Cemetery, in the adjacent Seh Ong Hill Cemetery, semi-circular tombs dot the grassy slopes along both sides of the road. If you’re walking toward the gates via Kheam Hock Road and peer into the tall weeds to the left, you may be surprised to spot a grave from the 1960s that features a series of six beautiful colourful tile panels, likely made in Japan, incorporating European and Asian landscapes.
One tile panel reveals a Dutch windmill, another one a European mountain scene whereas another depicts a Japanese landscape with windswept pine trees, a fishing boat and Mt. Fuji. The peaceful images are said to help surround the departed with the all-important elements of mountains and water for good feng shui, vital principles for many Chinese.
Glazed tiles with elaborate floral motifs imported from Belgium, the UK and Japan, often particularly favoured by Peranakan-Chinese in Singapore, and commonly referred to as “Peranakan” tiles, were used on tombs and also to beautify shophouse facades and kitchens.
Excerpt 2: Corridor of Singapore’s First Railway
Duxton Plain Park – New Bridge Road to Yan Kit Road
“Close to the heart of busy and congested Chinatown – and often overlooked – Duxton Plain Park is a thin green oasis extending from New Bridge Road to Yan Kit Road along a narrow 650- yard corridor. It is cut almost in half at Neil Road, which the park avoids by passing under a bridge.
The bridge at Neil Road holds a clue to the park’s odd proportions and its lush and fascinating history. Built for Singapore’s first railway to carry vehicular traffic over a 1907 extension to Pasir Panjang, it’s now Singapore’s oldest railway relic. And the only structure left that is connected to the 1903-built Singapore Government Railway.
The extension fell into disuse around 1912 to 14 as did the original line in 1932. Still intact in 1955, the stretch was turned into a public park. This represents the first instance of a disused railway corridor being preserved for public use.”
Excerpt 3: Symbol of Sacrifice & Suffering
Old Changi Prison Gates – 982 Upper Changi Road
“Changi Prison is notorious for its role as a place of internment for tens of thousands of sick and starving Prisoners of War during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore in the Second World War. Today, Changi Prison is a modern 21st century facility, nothing like the 1936-built correctional facility in which the POWs suffered.
While much of that old prison was demolished in 2004, a careful observer will notice one section of the old gaol’s walls, its famous gate, and two of its wall-mounted watchtowers.
The preservation of the 650-foot length of Changi’s 200-foot-high walls and its two features did not come easy. The decision was taken only after intense pressure was mounted by Australian politicians in 2003 after the intention to demolish the old complex was announced. Some 15,000 of Changi’s POWs had been Australian, and while the sight of the prison may have evoked painful memories of their time there, it was felt that it would be important to keep it as a symbol of the sacrifice of those who survived and perished, as well as a symbol of the strength of the human spirit.”
Where to find Secret Singapore by Heidi Sarna and Jerome Lim
Secret Singapore can be ordered online via major sellers such as Amazon and Book Depository, and will be available in Singapore bookstores and online from early May, including Kinokuniya, Times, Popular, Huggs-Epigram, Littered with Books, Tango Mango and others. If you’re interested in discounted multiple copies (10 or more), DM Heidi on Instagram @SecretSingaporeTheBook.
This article first appeared in the April 2021 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase the latest issue or subscribe, so you never miss a copy!
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