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, localbooks.sg, 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

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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..

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Waiting for the story to start

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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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.

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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?

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#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.