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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 

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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.

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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!

Singapore HeritageFest 2016

Hawkers on the National Museum grounds in the 1960s

Did you know that lots of hawkers lined the grounds of the National Museum decades ago and people would go there and eat? We didn’t! So it was a surprise to see this picture of the National Museum taken in the 1960s!

You’ll get a taste of this when the Singapore HeritageFest swings by again over three weekends from 29 April to 15 May. There’ll be 130 programmes and activities across the island which people can take part in to discover the richness of our history and heritage.

National Museum of Singapore - Image courtesy of National Museum of Singapore

To start with, on the opening weekend, the organisers will transform the museum grounds back to the old days that you see in the photograph. Fifteen 2nd and 3rd generation hawkers will set up stalls here to sell their local specialties like popiah and prata, while people can enjoy performances, outdoor film screenings, storytelling of ghost stories (Yikes!) and a special exhibition on 80 years of radio in Singapore. You can also get on board the Storytelling Van and hear tales about the iconic sites of Singapore, or get busy with some crafty and cooking workshops.

SV Gunalan and Chang Su Hui who continue to run their family business, will be among the hawkers at NMS on the opening weekend.

On the same weekend, Bukit Pasoh will also be closed off for a street party and outdoor performances while historic clan houses in the area open their doors for the first time. Wander in and have a guided tour and see what these mysterious clubs do. You’ll also catch more performances like lion dances and Chinese opera.

From right: The Storytelling Van, Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church, Kong Chow Wui Koon.

The second weekend (6-8 May) brings the festival to the heartlands. Among the many heritage and food trails being conducted that weekend is the new Bedok Heritage Trail via a guided bus tour, and an open house at the majestic Command House. If you’ve never been there, this is a gem of a chance. Then there’s A-Go-Go Night at Kampong Gelam, with a mini concert at the Malay Heritage Centre that pays tribute to the legacy of 1960s Singapore bands like The Siglap Five and The Quests. Drag your grandfather along and make sure he puts on his old dancing shoes. It would surely take him back to his younger days.

The third weekend (13-15 May) brings the Heritagefest to Pulau Ubin, with adventure walks, music performances by local musicians, and film screenings under the stars on this nature-filled island.

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From top right: Pulau Ubin, retro radio studio at the 80 years of radio in Singapore exhibition at NMS, the Aliwal Arts Centre, and Maghain Aboth Synagogue

There are simply loads more programmes across the island, such as a week of activities by the Hokkien Huay Kuan Thian Hock Keng, with movies under the stars, stiltwalking and dragon dances, (26 Apr – 1 May) and the first ever Eurasian Heritage Bus Tour. There’s a heap of other cultural and historical tours that you can join in — guided walks to explore the heritage of Jurong, Dakota Crescent, Joo Chiat; Indian, Chinese and Malay heritage tours, even a tour of Tanglin Halt at 4am in the morning (see how the neighbourhood wakes up everyday!), and open houses at a host of buildings that you probably have never stepped foot in, from temples to mosques and even historic schools.

There’s just too much to list, so it’s best you get onto their website for more details. Some activities are ticketed or require registration which starts on 22 April at 2pm. Get your name down early as the popular events sell out in a snap.