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).

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’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.