Discovering History One Lego Block At A Time

Mixing play with heritage is a great way to entice kids to discover the past. This June holidays, a little exhibition plays out at the Central Library and we popped in on the first day to see what it’s all about. 

Building History: Monuments in Bricks and Blocks is a brand new exhibition of eight of Singapore’s historical monuments, all built using LEGO.  Your kids like LEGO too? Bingo. They’d love it.

The eight landmarks turned into models include the National Museum, the lovely red and white Central Fire Station, old Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, the Thian Hock Keng Temple, St Andrew’s Cathedral and Sultan Mosque. These big, adult-sized models were built with impressive detail, using over 110,000 toy bricks (ie. LEGO which did not sponsor this) in total.

Temple resized

The exhibition was organised by the National Heritage Board’s  Preservation of Sites and Monuments division, but the models were built by three designers from My Little Brick Shop Pte Ltd. We love the amount of research that went into designing and building the models, so they were as authentic and true to the original monuments as possible. According to the builders, they studied the original architectural plans of the buildings that they got hold of from the national archives (yes, really old documents), flew drones over the the buildings to capture the details from above, and visited many times to take photos to capture all the other details. That effort shows up in the 8 models which took seven months to complete– from the floor patterns of the Thian Hock Keng Temple to the coloured glass window of St Andrew’s Cathedral.

Temple resized 2
Thian Hock Keng Temple was where the Chinese immigrants went to give thanks when they first arrived in Singapore. It used to stand right by the sea, which is now a distance away.

We were also thrilled to see that the bottles that decorate the base of the domes of Sultan Mosque were not left out too. As you well know, these bottles were donated by the poor in the Muslim community when the mosque was being built. It showed how inclusive the community was, where the poor was also given recognition–not just the wealthy. (You can read more about this story in The Little Singapore Book.) This was the largest model at the exhibition, weighing 40 kg and could not fit through a door. Just one of the golden domes itself is made up of 1,511 pieces of toy bricks.

Mosque resized 2 (2)
The Sultan Mosque is where the official start of Ramadan is announced in Singapore every year.

Making these models had its challenges and the model makers had to improvise sometimes. For instance instead of green dragons on the roof of the Thian Hock Keng Temple model, they had to use red snakes instead as LEGO did not make toy dragons. The pillars of at its main entrance are gears with chains, instead of grand dragons coiling upwards. But you get the idea. The main hall of the temple was recreated by memory work because the security lady in the hall was adamant that no photography was allowed.

Fire station resized
The Central Fire Station was Singapore’s first fire station built in 1909. The watch tower was where firemen used to look out for fires way back when.

Getting this close to the landmarks lets you really see and appreciate the details of these buildings which may not be apparent even when you visit the actual site. This exhibition is a good way to start a conversation with youngsters kids about their history. What were they about? Who built them? And why? The answers to these will surely be a vivid tale of the communities that used them and all the amazing stories that lurk in their past.

St Andrew resized
This is the oldest Anglican church in Singapore. It was built on land donated by Singapore’s first Arab settler, Syed Sharif Omar bin Ali Al-Junied, who was a trader and landowner.

The exhibition runs from now until 30 June. Guess the number of bricks used to build the Sultan Mosque and the three closest guesses will win LEGO models. The next 10 closest guesses will win a children’s storybook on national monuments. Just upload a photo of the Sultan Mosque model with your answer on your personal Facebook or Instagram accounts with the hashtags #BuildingHistorySG and #librarysg.

The exhibition will then travel to other libraries: Marine Parade Library (1-30 July), Jurong regional Library (1-30 August), Tampines Regional Library (1-29 Sep), Ang Mo Kio Library (1-30 Oct), Sengkang Public Library (1-29 Nov) and  Choa Chu Kang Library (1-30 Dec).

Sing’s Tips on Reducing Plastics

It’s World Environment Day today. Well, happy World Environment Day!

But it’s not really that happy, of course, because the rivers and seas are choked with our plastic and the sea creatures are suffering and dying everyday. Just recently, a pilot whale died off Thailand and was found by rescuers to have eaten over 80 plastic bags! That’s just the most recent of thousands of sad tales of marine animals dying because of our plastic habit.

There are plenty of calls now to reduce using plastic. Change is slow, understandably but people are waking up to it. But is life with no plastic so unimaginable?

Palmer Road - Picture 3 Watermarked

In our book The House on Palmer Road, the little protagonist Sing lived in 1930s Singapore when hardly any plastic was used at all. Perhaps we can take a few tips from her on living with little plastic or none at all. Here are a few tips from Sing.

Metal Lunch boxes 

Plastic free lunch box 2

Mother always packed Sing’s sandwiches in a metal lunch box for recess in school. This was great because she didn’t have to queue to buy food at the tuckshop, leaving her with more time to play five stones with her best friend Beng Neo. (You can read more about that in our upcoming sequel The House on Silat Road.) Take some inspiration from her — instead of plastic lunch boxes for school, use metal or stainless steel ones. The metal lunch boxes we have these days are just as funky (maybe even more than plastic ones!) and have the added benefit of looking sleek and chic. Bring it in a pretty insulated plastic-free lunch bag which will keep things either hot or cold if you use in icepack.

Tiffin carriers 

If you’re buying food home from the hawker centre, bring your own container for the hawker to use. Ah Seem or Big Sister would have used a tiffin carrier usually made of enamel to bring warm porridge or some lunch treat when they visited Grandmother during the war years. (You haven’t read about that, too? Look out for it in the upcoming sequel!) In fact, tiffin carriers are making a comeback decorated in pretty designs, like retro beauties pictured here. We like! So does Sing.


Bring your own Coffee Mugs

In the same vein, bring your own reusable cup for your regular coffee fix, instead of using those nasty styrofoam cups that hawker centres provide, or the paper cups at Starbucks and the like. These days there are lots of really nice stainless travel mugs that you can use, while making a stylish statement for the environment. We’d like one of these please…or five.

JMJ houseware stainless steel cups.png

Water bottles instead of bottled water

…And instead of bottled water from the nearby Seven-eleven, put a teensy bit of effort and fill up water in your own plastic-free bottle or flask. After all, Singapore’s tap-water is completely drinkable. What’s more, an insulated flask gives you the added benefit of keeping cold drinks cold all day. Think iced water or ice lemon tea. A plastic disposable bottle can’t beat that.



Baskets for the Market 

Ah Seem would have brought her trusty wicker basket to  the market every day.  It would have carried everything she needed–from vegetables to fish wrapped in newspaper, dried prawns and eggs sitting in their paper mache carriers. And still have room for her wax paper umbrella in case it rained! Shop like Ah Seem and bring your own to the wet market or supermarket, and say no to the plastic bags which turtles and whales eventually choke on!


A Bar of Soap

Lots of plastic bottles are used for our liquid soap and shower gel. Think of how many we use every few months and how many are tossed away. Even if you used refills, they too come in plastic bags. Sing and her big family used good old bars of soap to bathe and wash their hands. It was so effective, even the night soil man carried his own bar of soap at the back of his truck! Liquid soap and shower gel were totally unheard of then.

Bars of soap come mostly packed in paper. Even if they did come in plastic packaging, it uses a lot less plastic than the bottles of liquid soap! So turn to bar soap, and help save the world with every bath you take!

Soap bar

So you see, it’s not that bad, is it? Sing, now 84 years old, has this one thing to say on World Environment Day, “People just don’t want to wash up after themselves these days! That’s why they use so much plastic.” If we just put in little more effort, we’ll go a long way to reducing plastic and doing some good for the only home we have. 🙂

Happy Environment Day, everyone!

The First National Day

It’s Singapore’s 52nd National Day today! Majulah Singapura! On this very exciting day, we thought we’d share a piece of writing that didn’t make it into The Little Singapore Book because of space constraints. We had wanted to include a bit more fun details about Singapore’s first national day in 1966. So here goes…

“Singapore’s first national day parade took place at the Padang on the morning of 9 August 1966. It rained that day but no one left their seats or position on the parade ground. Like today, the national anthem was sung, there was a 21-gun salute, performances and a huge march past. The finale was huge lion and dragon dance featuring 60 lions and dragons in total — the biggest ever in Singapore. At night, fireworks were set off at Fort Canning and lots of people went to enjoy it. The fireworks could be seen from the Istana, too, where Singapore’s first President Yusof bin Ishak was holding a party for 1,000 guests. Out at sea, there was an illuminated ‘sea dragon’ that was towed by boats across the waterfront off Princess Elizabeth Walk, near where the Esplanade is now. It measured 152m long, 12m high and was lit by 12,500 light bulbs! What a grand sight!”

If you want to find out more, see this video link below and watch the original participants reminisce about that amazing day!





Our Second Book – “The House on Palmer Road”

Can you imagine what life in Singapore was like over 75 years ago? A lot more different than we probably think. No plastic at all, no flushing toilets, cars without windscreen wipers or electric headlights, and lalang-covered fields where cows and goats wander. It’s in this setting that our second storybook takes place and we are too excited about it.

Titled “The House on Palmer Road”,  it recounts the adventures of Sing, a playful, tree-climbing, 8-year-old girl who lives with her family of in a wooden house in Palmer Road, together with her 9 brothers and sisters. Comprising 15 light-hearted tales, it is set in late 1930s Singapore, when the island was still a British colony, and just before WWII and the Japanese Occupation. In its pages, young readers go on all sorts of adventures with Sing, from frog hunting in the wasteland, to being chased by guard geese in dark godowns, to evenings in the Great World Amusement Park. Often taking place in the sunlit outdoors, it promises to be a playful enjoyable read for youngsters.

But in the background, the world is on the brink of World War II: readers (and Sing) encounter this through distant snatches of conversation and references by the grown-ups about impending war, the advance of the Japanese, the plight of relatives back in China. While all worrying, these are half understood by Sing and both protagonists and readers are focused on the playfulness of the stories without feeling too threatened by what’s happening around the world.

The stories, characters and places in The House on Palmer Road are all real, because they are based on the childhood of co-author Si Hoe S.S., a first time author at 83 years old!  The wooden house on Palmer Road, after which the book is titled and where the family of 13 lived, was built by her father, a building contractor. The landscape is vividly detailed based on her also-photographic memory, which we also verified against old maps and photographs and archival material to ensure accuracy.

We had released this book in early February, just before Singapore observed the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore in WWII (15 Feb 1942). This is significant because the story ends when Singapore fell.

What’s particularly unique about this book is it presents pre-war Singapore through the eyes of a local, and a child to boot. There is very little written of this period from a local’s perspective: most accounts of pre-war Singapore have been written by the British colonials then, and many local people of that time — except for the local elite — were not educated enough to do so. So this presents a rarely seen account of Singapore.

Meanwhile, we got a really talented Singaporean artist Lim Anling to provide us lots of charmingly playful illustrations to go along with it. Helping to tell the story are her 58 illustrations which you see a sample of here. She is incidentally also the artist behind our Singapore postage stamp series “Vanishing Trades”. The House on Palmer Road was published with some help from a grant by the National Heritage Board.

It is currently available at the Books Kinokuniya, Books Ahoy, Woods in the Books,, Closetful of Books, Tango Mango, and at the National Museum of Singapore and Asian Civilisations Museum. Priced at $12 before GST.

The Little Singapore Book Comes Alive at Children’s Season 2017

Children’s Season opens tomorrow and we can’t be more excited. Starting 27 May until end of July, kids can literally walk into the pages of The Little Singapore Book at the National Museum.

The authors and illustrator testing out the puppet theatre.

Two installations for the Children’s Season brings The Little Singapore Book alive in full, walk-in 3D! Diane’s amazing illustrations now stand child-height, complete with fun activity stations, and additional landmarks not featured in the book.
The exhibits highlight three old forms of transport in Singapore — the trolley bus, trishaw and bumboat (or tongkang).

The first installation, on the first floor foyer of the museum, is the Bumboat Trail. Created in collaboration with first and second year visual arts students from the School of the Arts Singapore (SOTA), it’s a fun-filled space that brings to life the landmarks along the Singapore River on which bumboats used to ply. Our favourite is the re-creation of the Cavenagh Bridge, complete with silver cables and the old sign prohibiting cows and horses to cross. The Old Parliament House is done in miniature too, and doubles up as a puppet theatre, while the Fullerton Building’s former role as the General Post Office is remembered by the mail sorting game.

Kids can even pen a postcard to themselves, stick on a read stamp (all provided by the museum) and mail it off at the vintage red British mailbox in the middle of the installation. The museum will get it into our real postage system and kids will receive their postcard at home a few days later. How cool is that?

Upstairs the Trolley Bus & Trishaw Trial is a larger installation, created in collaboration with students from NTU. In this small, colourful space, kids can sample Singapore’s old cultural and entertainment landmarks, including Haw Par Villa, Chinatown and the Happy World.

There are lots of photo ops here — look out for the very detailed wall of Peranakan houses — and fun stations like colouring Peranakan ’tiles’ and creating your own heritage town. Remember to read the exhibition panels — like in our book, it offers nuggets of little known information about Singapore years and years ago.

Please bring your kids to enjoy the National Museum. Grandparents too would probably enjoy this blast from the past, and have lots to share with the family.

Beyond our two fun spaces, there’s also a tongkang bouncy castle on the front lawn, a sleeping giant in the basement, and a giant suspended netted lounger at the main rotunda where you can climb into and enjoy the view of the coloured glass dome.

National Reading Day at the Marine Parade Library

All ready for heritage stories and traditional games

It was Singapore’s first ever National Reading Day last Saturday (30 July) and we were thrilled to be part of the Marine Parade Library’s (MPPL) activities that afternoon. It was held at the library’s beautiful activities room on the children’s floor. We had a great time with our audience of almost 30 enthusiastic children who couldn’t stop asking about our country’s past, from who Raffles was to World War II and some even asked about the atomic bomb that finally ended the war. It’s always delightful to see children so interested in our past, and to know that their parents have obviously told them tales about it.

After the storytelling, little kids need to expend some youthful energy. So we thought it was very apt to try out some heritage games that most Singaporeans would have played decades ago at school….and for the children to have a feel of the games illustrated in the schoolyard scene in The Little Singapore Book. They tried their hand at five stones, and zero point (with some modifications to the original game). We are so grateful to the librarians at MPPL who were such gems in leading the way for this part of our programme! Thanks for giving us the opportunity to be part of the library’s activities, to parents for bringing their kids over to join us, and our little happy audience too. Hope you all enjoyed it.

Here are some pictures from our storytelling session..

Waiting for the story to start

IMG_7444 IMG_7453 IMG_7458 IMG_7460

Every child got a ‘Little Singapore Book’ activity book to bring home.


10 Things We Learnt On The Bedok Heritage Trail

The National Heritage Board recently launched the Bedok Heritage Trail. The 15km route takes you through 10 markers that indicated ‘heritage spots’ in an area that liberally stretches from Chai Chee to Frankel Estate, to Upper East Coast, Fengshan and Simpang. The route is not walkable – you’ll need a car or at least a bike. Unfortunately, there is not a lot left to see of the old landscape either, even at the markers, so you’ll have to do quite a lot of imagining to fill up the gaps. So the best thing to do is to keep an eye out for the markers when you are in the area. The Bedok Trail comes with a map and a very interesting booklet that fills you in on the details of this area’s history. You can download it here.

We went along for the ride, and here are 10 fascinating things we learnt about Bedok along the way.

#1. Bedok is one of the oldest inhabited parts of Singapore, and dates back over 400 years. One of the earliest records of Bedok was map dated 1604 by cartographer (map maker) Manuel Goginho de Eredia. It indicated ‘Sunebodo’, which is the Sungei Bedok we know of today.

#2. Bedok used to be a very hilly place. In fact, Tanah Merah means ‘red cliffs’ in Malay. These cliffs and hills had been levelled in the 1960s and the earth was used to reclaim the land that is now Marine Parade and East Coast Park. But you can still see the remnants of the hills in parts of Bedok – like along Chai Chee Road, Kew Gardens, Opera Estate and Bedok Rise opposite Tanah Merah. To get to Changi beach decades ago, you had to meander through narrow lanes that hugged the mountainside, rose up then down, past kampongs, farms and rubber and coconut plantations before you arrived at your picnic spot.

IMG_0172 - Copy

Tan Lark Sye Mansion
Tan Lark Sye’s mansion at the end of Nallur Road. Singapore Land Authority Collection, Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

#3. The sea used to come all the way to Marine Parade Road. You can still see some of the old seawalls that belonged to the great mansions that used to front the sea. On the Bedok Heritage Trail, a marker stands at the end of Nallur Road, pointing to a wall complete with iron gate. The house that stood there belonged to Tan Lark Sye, a tycoon who built one of his great mansions by the sea. Opposite is the Good Shepherd Kindergarten which too, used to stand by the sea, until the land was reclaimed. Pupils there could watch the waves from the playground. (I know because I was a student there long ago!)

Marker 5_02_kolek
Fishermen and their kolek. Collection of National Museum of Singapore, image courtesy of National Heritage Board

#4. People who lived in the East were mainly fishermen, but there were also plantation workers, farmers. The rich would have their holiday homes here as well. The fishermen would sail out in their kolek, traditional boats, while their family members would hunt for clams, cockles and mussels by the shore. People could wait by the beach early in the morning and when the fishermen returned to shore, the early housewives would buy the fresh fish from them.

#5. Mangrove swamps and kampongs used to dot the coast. Kampong Siglap was one of the earliest and largest fishing villages in the area. According to Malay legend, Siglap was founded by a Tok Lasam, a Minangkabau prince from Sumatra in the early 19th century. His grave is still here today at the end of Jalan Sempadan where he is buried with his wife and ‘panglima’ or Commander in Chief.

#6. Along Siglap Hill is a Muslim cemetery called Kubur Kassim which you’ll spot easily by its bright yellow gateway. Dr Hafeezduin Sirajuddin Moonshi, the first Muslim to set up a medical clinic in Singapore, is buried here. What’s really interesting here is that a few plots of land in the cemetery is dedicated to Orang Bunian, (“hidden people”), benevolent supernatural beings from Malay folklore.

#7. During WWII, Japanese soldiers massacred tens of thousands of Singaporeans particularly as a result of Sook Ching. The Japanese rounded up all Singaporean men between 18 and 50 years old for ‘inspection’. Those that didn’t pass were rounded up by the lorry loads, driven away and never seen again. A great number of them were massacred in the Siglap, Bedok and Tanah Merah. In February 1942, 100 Malay, Eurasian & Chinese soldiers captured by the Japanese were also killed on Bedok Hill and buried. After the war, over 50 mass graves were found in this area, including the largest one which contained the bodies of over 2000 people. It is estimated that the Sook Ching purge resulted in 25,000 – 50,000 deaths in Singapore.

Marker 3_01_reclamation 1963
Reclaiming land one truckload at a time. Image courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

#8. During the reclamation of land for Marine Parade, a 16km long conveyor belt brought the earth from the Bedok Hills to the coast! One thousand families had to be resettled in a new housing estate in Upper Changi Road, while the farms and plantations at Bedok had to be cleared.

Marker 2_02_Frankel Family
Albert Einstein (front row, third from left) with the Frankel family. Credit: Image from Bieder, J., & Lau, A. T. (2007) The Jews of Singapore (Singapore: Suntree Media)

#9. Did you know that Albert Einstein visited Frankel Estate during the 1920s? This estate was named after a Jewish family who migrated from Lithuania to Borneo then to Singapore in 1878. They built their fortune from a furniture store and a bakery. The family matriarch Rosa Frankel could speak only Yiddish. Everytime she went to the market, she would bring a feather and an eggshell to inform the stallholders what she wanted to buy – eggs or chicken. Can you figure out how she made herself understood?

IMG_0189 - Copy

#10. Along Upper East Coast Road used to be a whole row of seafood restaurants, including the famous Long Beach, Red House and Palm Beach restaurants. It used to be very popular among Singaporeans who would in the open air by the sea and enjoy their dinner. The only one standing now is Hua Yu Wee restaurant which occupies a grand 1920s house. For a retro experience, go there for dinner, and look out for the old hopscotch grid etched into the painted cement floor at the back of the restaurant. It is surely something which entertained generations of restless children over the decades.

Recipe for Kids: Agar Agar Eggs

agar agar egg.jpgThese agar agar eggs that mimic real eggs were a party favourite among children in the 1970s. To prepare the eggshells, punch a small hole at the narrow end of the egg and shake out the white and yolk. Soak the empty shells and wash them very well before using.

12-15 empty eggshells
500 ml coconut cream
500 ml coconut water
200 g sugar
12 g powdered agar agar
4 – 5 canned peach slices, cut into thirds

1. Mix coconut cream and coconut water in a pot, then sprinkle in the agar agar powder slowly. Let the powder absorb the liquid before you add in more. Stir it to mix well.
2. Bring the coconut mixture to a boil and add in the sugar. Stir until it all dissolves.  Remove from heat and pour it into a jug.
3. Stand your empty eggshells in an egg tray. Pour the coconut mixture into an eggshell until it is 3/4 full. Repeat until all the shells are filled.
4. Leave them to cool for a few minutes. Using a toothpick, gently stuff in a piece of peach in each eggshell.
5. When they are cooled to room temperature, pop them into the fridge to chill.

The agar agar eggs are ready when they are set and chilled. Crack them open as you would a real egg and enjoy!

Craft for Kids: Tiger Mask

A long, long time ago, tigers roamed the virgin jungles of Singapore. Changi, in particular, was very popular with the tigers, who swam across the Straits of Johor and landed at an area called Fairy Point.
1 tiger v1 flattened
These days, the only live tigers you will spot are the ones in the Singapore Zoo. The last wild tiger on the island was killed in the Choa Chu Kang area in the 1930s. Still, tigers are very much part of the island’s rich, varied history. Here’s a easy fun way to bring them to “life” for the little ones in the family.

A Note to Grown-Ups: This activity is ideal for children aged 5 to 8, with adult supervision. Younger children (aged 2 to 4) will need lots of help with cutting and gluing the bits together, and drawing in the tiger’s mouth. But you can be sure they will have as much fun, if not more, pretending to be little tigers around the house!

You will need:

White paper plates
Orange paint & paint brushes
Craft sticks or ice cream sticks
One sheet of black construction paper
One sheet of orange construction paper
Black marker pen
Clear tape

  1. Trace and cut out two holes in the paper plate using a penknife, like in the picture above. These are for the tiger’s “eyes”.
  2. Now paint the reverse side of the paper plate and the ice cream stick orange.
  3. Set them aside to dry completely.
  4. Draw 2 triangles on the orange construction paper. They should be the same size, roughly measuring 6x7x7 cm. Cut them out.
  5. Draw 8 triangles on the black construction paper. They should be the same size, roughly measuring 4x7x7 cm. Cut them out.
  6. Draw another triangle on the black construction paper. This is for the tiger’s “nose”. It should be curved on one side and measure roughly 3 cm on the other 2 sides.
  7. When the paint on the paper plate is dry, glue in the two orange triangles near the top of the plate. These are the tiger’s “ears”.
  8. Next, glue on the black triangles: two between the “ears” in the centre, and three on each side below the “ears”, like in the picture. These are the tiger’s “stripes”.
  9. Glue on the last triangle, the tiger’s “nose” just below and between his “eyes”.
  10. Use the black marker pen to draw in the tiger’s mouth, like in the picture.
  11. Lastly, tape on the ice cream stick to the back of the paper plate. You are ready to play tiger!