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The five-footway – the equivalent to the modern-day pavement or sidewalk – was a hotly contested space in colonial Singapore. Fiona Lim relives its colourful history. “Crowded, bustling, layered, constantly shifting, and seemingly messy, these sites and activities possess an order and hierarchy often visible and comprehensible only to their participants, thereby escaping common understanding and appreciation.” – Hou & Chalana, 2016 It may seem surprising in today’s context but the concept of a “messy urbanism” as defined by academics Jeffrey Hou and Manish Chalana is an apt description of Singapore in the 19th and mid-20th centuries. Such a phenomenon was played out in the five-footways of the town’s dense Asian quarters, including Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glam. Before Singapore’s skyline was dominated by soaring skyscrapers and high-rise flats, the most common architectural type was the shophouse. A typical shophouse unit comprises a ground-floor shop and a residential area…

The oldest known photographs of Singapore were taken by Europeans in the early 1840s. Janice Loo charts the rise of commercial photography in the former British colony. Photography is the “method of recording the image of an object through the action of light on a light-sensitive material”. Derived from the Greek words photos (“light”) and graphein (“to draw”), photography was invented by combining the age-old principles of the camera obscura (“dark room” in Latin) and the discovery in the 1700s that certain chemicals turned dark when exposed to light. However, it was not until 1839 that the daguerreotype, the earliest practical method of making permanent images with a camera, was introduced. Named after its French inventor Louis Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, the daguerreotype spread across the world, and soon found its way to Singapore. A Marvellous Invention The earliest known description of photography here is found in the Hikayat ­Abdullah (Stories of…

Ronnie Tan recounts the hardship suffered by civilians as a result of the British government’s fight against the communists during the Malayan Emergency. China-Japan relations, which are marked by a long history of animosity that goes back several centuries, took a turn for the worse from the 1870s onwards. During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45), many overseas Chinese who were still loyal to their motherland, including those in Malaya and Singapore, supported China’s war efforts against Japan. Thus, when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Malaya in December 1941, one of the first communities they targeted was the Chinese. To escape torture and persecution, many Chinese fled to the fringes of the Malayan jungles where they set up makeshift homes. The Malayan Communist Party (MCP) had been a formidable element even before the Japanese invasion. It had been set up a decade earlier in 1930 with the primary aim of overthrowing…

Celebrated by Hindus of South Indian origins, the Golu festival is a lively melange of colourful dolls, womenhood and spirituality. Anasuya Soundararajan shares with us its origins. Every year, dolls in various forms and sizes take centre stage in many Hindu households for nine nights and 10 days. Known as Bommai Golu in Tamil (meaning “Court of Dolls”), this celebration is an integral part of the Navaratri festival. Navaratri, meaning “nine nights” (nava is “nine” and ratri is “nights”), honours the Hindu goddess Shakti in all her different manifestations. Navaratri Golu is believed to have been celebrated since the existence of the Vijayanagar kingdom in 14th-century India, and was especially popular with the royal families of Thanjavur and Pudukkottai in the state of Tamil Nadu. Today, Golu is mainly observed by South Indians from the states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka. Interviews with older Singaporeans reveal that…

Paintings by John Turnbull Thomson, poems in Jawi script, an early 19th-century map of Asia and a Russian traveller’s tale of Singapore are some of the paper artefacts featured in the National Library’s latest exhibition, “On Paper: Singapore Before 1867”. J.T. Thomson’s Paintings John Turnbull Thomson is best known for his role as Government Surveyor of the Straits Settlements as well as his design and engineering work on several key early buildings in Singapore. What is less well known is that Thomson, a self-trained artist, also made invaluable contributions to the pictorial documentation of Singapore through his paintings. The four vibrant watercolour works featured here, which exemplify Thomson’s unique artistic approach and style, vividly capture the state of Singapore’s built landscape in the mid-1840s. They also reflect the cultural diversity of the communities and people who made their home on the island. The 1847 painting, “Chinese Temple to the…

This 1927 silent Chinese movie is the first feature film to be made in Singapore and Malaya. Jocelyn Lau traces its genesis with researcher Toh Hun Ping and translation editor Lucien Low. In the mid-1920s, Shen Huaqiang (沈华强), a poor “new immigrant” from China, arrives in Nanyang to seek his fortune. He ends up in Johor, staying with his wealthy Peranakan (Straits Chinese) relatives who help him assimilate to life in Nanyang. Compared with his impoverished counterparts in mainland China, Huaqiang has far better opportunities in his adopted country. Shortly after, Huaqiang’s uncle, Zhang Tianxi (张天锡), finds him a job in Singapore, where over time Huaqiang rises up the ranks through sheer hard work and perseverance. Meanwhile, Zhang’s elder child, a teenage daughter named Huizhen (慧贞), becomes increasingly aware of her own identity and interests through attending school in Singapore, and grows more confident of herself, and of what she…

Barely 13 years old then, K. Ramakanthan and his family escaped with their lives from Perak to Johor during the Japanese Occupation. Aishwariyaa Ramakanthan recounts her father’s harrowing journey. My father’s scramble to safety in the final days before the fall of Malaya to the Japanese in December 1941 is regular fodder for teatime conversation with my parents. I grew up listening to my father tell of his harrowing escape, but it is his ability to recount the journey in such fascinating detail that inspired me to write about it. My father, K. Ramakanthan, was born in December 1929 in Bruas (Beruas), Pahang, and later moved to Perak with his family. His father’s beginnings were quite similar to those of early migrants from South India looking for a better life in Malaya. My grandfather had arrived in Malaya on board the Rhona with his young wife, starry-eyed and full of…

Military camps and training areas comprise a significant portion of Singapore’s land use. What can a single camp tell us about Singapore’s geopolitical history? A lot, as it turns out, says Chua Jun Yan. Travelling along Sembawang Road, you will pass several military installations, including Nee Soon Camp, Khatib Camp and Sembawang Camp. At the end of the road is Sembawang Shipyard, site of the former Singapore Naval Base and the cornerstone of Britain’s ill-fated Far East defence strategy before World War II. This military corridor in the north of Singapore, whose roots go back to the colonial period, is historically significant. Of the various camps along this stretch, Dieppe Barracks (pronounced “dee-ap”) stands out because it housed the last permanent foreign presence in Singapore until 1989, bearing witness to the geopolitical transformations of the 20th century. Today, the barracks is home to the HQ Singapore Guards and the HQ…

No great work of literature is completed in just one draft. In an age where writers have gone paperless, novelist Meira Chand ponders over the value of manuscripts, and what they might reveal about a writer’s thought process. As a young writer many years ago, it thrilled me to go to the Reading Room of the British Museum in London. This massive circular room with a soaring glass-domed ceiling opened in 1857, and it quickly became a mecca for writers from all over the world, who came here to research and write, and breathe in its rarefied literary atmosphere. Until its closure in 1997 and its transformation into an exhibition space in the British Museum, many famous writers and luminaries used the Reading Room, including the likes of Oscar Wilde, Karl Marx, Sun Yat Sen, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to name but…

History may be written by the victors, but what they conveniently leave out can be more telling. Farish Noor reminds us of the violent side of colonial conquest. “All conquest literature seeks to explain to the conquerors ‘why we are here’.” – Robert Bartlett,The Making of Europe (1993) Among the many outcomes of the colonial era in Southeast Asia – from the 18th to the 19th century – is a body of writing that can be best described as colonial literature. By this I am referring not only to the accounts that were written by intrepid European travellers who ventured to this region, but also the writings of colonial bureaucrats, colony-builders and administrators, and the men who took part in the conquest of the region by force of arms. The Justification for Violence It is interesting to see how these authors dealt with the issue of violence that often came…