A Travellerspoint blog


Not Chinatown


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I wrote about Chinatown a little while back. Here are some pictures of the rest of Singapore.

Much of the east end of the centre is reclaimed land. This is an old tradition; indeed the Central Business District is built on swampland drained in the 1820s.


This is the Merlion, a rather naff symbol of Singapore, combining the sea (Singapore’s lifeblood) with the lion that gives the city its name. The statue is situated on reclaimed land near the Fullerton Hotel.


Behind the Merlion is the Fullerton Hotel, built in 1928, which was until recently the GPO.



Across the bridge is also reclaimed land – it’s well to the seaward side of Beach Road – and it has, among other things, the Esplanade and Suntec City.


This is Raffles City. The tower is a hotel, designed by IM Pei, an undistinguished building in my view.


Under the same bridge from which the photograph above was taken is an installation called Lightlines, installed for the Singapore Bienniale last year (2008).


This durian skin clothes the Esplanade Theatres, built from 1996 and opened in 2002.


Outside the Asian Civilisations Museum is a ceremonial pole from Sarawak.


Like the National Museum, this museum is worth at least one visit. The tribal collection is inherited from the old Raffles Museum. It dates from the early twentieth century.

Here is a Pejeng-style bronze drum from East Java, 600-300BC. It is about five feet long. The production and trade of bronze drums almost defines southeast Asian culture. This drum is clearly influenced by Ðông Sơn originals (named after a culture that originated in northern Vietnam and introduced wet rice cultivation and metallurgy all over southeast Asia), which were produced around the same time.


Ðông Sơn drums have been found in Yunan; Kon Tum; two places in southern Vietnam; all over southern Laos and northeastern Thailand; Kanchanaburi; Terengganu; Selangor; Kakhon Si Thammarat; southern Sumatra; all over Java; Sumbawa; Flores; Roti; Wetar; Buru and Papua.

They appear along the old trade routes, and they were indeed traded as very valuable luxury goods. On the top and the upper sides are depicted ritual life (music, rice-processing); boats; houses; and lots of birds, particularly crane, herons and egrets. Frogs are usually found around the rim, too.

Here are a couple of Ðông Sơn drums from the History Museum in Hanoi.



Indonesia has 6,000 inhabitants [I meant to say inhabited islands!] and 500 tribes. The Nias islanders, near Sumatra, were famous for their goldwork. But there is no gold nearby. They obtained gold by trading slaves, first with the Malay sultanates, and then with the Dutch. The gold ornaments were used in ceremonies, and their sacred power could only be harnessed by ritual sacrifices of slaves.


This is a Khmer lintel, Banteay style, made in Cambodia in the 12th-13th century. It depicts Yama riding a buffalo. A kala disgorges a two-headed simba (lion).


This is all rather confusing. In Hindu mythology, Kala is supposed to be a another name for Yama, or Time. Time is the source and ruler of all things; Brahma existed in the form of time. I do not know what this means.

In Mahayana Buddhist tradition, there is a king of the same name. I don't know whether they are related. (Avalokitesvara, a male bodhisattva, is typically depicted in Vietnam and China as a goddess of mercy.) From the China gallery, this is one of a series of ten paintings depicting the courts of hell (or, more accurately, purgatory). The soul of the deceased goes through ten courts before it is reborn. King Yama is the presiding judge of the fifth court. Late Qing dynasty, 19th century.


And here is a representation of the same judge from the National Museum in Hanoi.


This is a Dayak shield from Borneo.


At the moment there is a temporary exhibition called 'Neither East Nor West'. It consists of photographic portraits, mainly of Asians in London about a century ago. This is the Maharaja Jam Sahib, photographed in London in 1920.


It is perhaps not the best photo in the exhibition, but cricket nuts will recognise him. His full name is Maharaja Jam Sahib Ranjitsinghji Vibhaji of Nawanagar, known to the British public as Ranjitsinhji. He was one of the greatest batsmen of his era, playing 15 Tests (for England, naturally) against Australia, averaging about 45. He lost an eye in a hunting accident in 1915 and went on to represent India at the League of Nations.

This was in Chinatown, I think. It looks like a cutout of the sky, Magritte-style.


And finally to Changi Airport. As most people know, it is a top airport. There are places to relax and to take a shower, a pool, and free movies. Free internet terminals are dotted around the place. There is wifi everywhere and electrical sockets are provided. There is a food court and a few small islands of green. For example, there is a fern garden, with signs giving information about the ferns, and Kohaku, Showa, shiro utsuri, ku matsuba, tancho, hi utsuri, shusui, and pearl koi in a pond.

There are three terminals, not counting the budget terminal, and you can travel between them both before and after entering the departure lounge. So you can visit a camera store in Terminal 2 and a butterfly park in Terminal 3, and fly from Terminal 1, as I did. (Singapore and Malaysia have 1,000 species of butterfly.) I became completely engrossed and had to run across the entire airport to board my plane.







Enough displacement activity already.

Posted by Wardsan 16:52 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

Si Lat Po

In Chinatown

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Singapore is one big Chinatown, of course, but south of the river there is also a place called Chinatown. There have been Chinese in the city since the British town was founded in 1819.

(In 1819 there was a small Malay village on the river, population 150 or so. Singapore is strategically located on the trade route between India and China, which has been passing through the Melaka Straits since the fifth century. Temasek flourished in the fourteenth century, when it probably came under the influence of the Javanese Majapahit kingdom. But from the early fifteenth century Temasek had been overtaken by Melaka. Trade continued in Singapore until the seventeenth century at least, but in 1613 the Portuguese burned the settlement as part of a campaign against the descendants of the Melaka sultanate, and Singapore fell into obscurity until the British came. Raffles obtained permission from Abdul Rahman, the village head, to establish a trading station, but the grant was ultra vires, since the power resided with the Sultan of Johor, who owed allegiance to the Dutch. Raffles concluded a treaty with the Sultan's brother instead. In 1824 the British bought the entire island, and the Dutch recognised British sovereignty.)

The first to Chinese to come to the British trading post were rich merchants, invited over from Melaka and the Dutch East Indies. The first junk to come from China came from Amoy in 1821. Most immigrants came from the southeast of China, and the two largest groups were the Hokkiens and Teochews.

Most Chinese immigrants came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, driven by famine, the Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion and sundry civil wars. They took a risk: in Imperial China, attempted migration was punishable by decapitation. But they came in such numbers that Singapore is culturally Chinese.

It was an expensive trip. By junk, it took a month to sail to 'Si Lat Po'. By the end of the nineteenth century the steamship had taken over, reducing the journey to a week.

For a subscription, the new arrivals joined clan associations, kongsi. The first association was formed in 1822. The clan associations grouped together people from the same district, those speaking the same dialect and/or those with the same surname. There were four very common names above all: Lin, Guang, Zhang and Zhao.

The societies provided a crèche for those with children, undertook charitable work, offered a place to learn and to practise dancing, martial arts, music and opera. They were job centres, guesthouse, schools, and the focal points of worship, festivals and marriages.

In 1822 a committee convoked by Raffles drew up a town plan that divided the city’s ethnic groups into districts. Arabs, for example, were to live in Kampong Glam, where they still reside. Tamils, known as Chulia, congregated near the south bank, in Kampong Chulia. A second wave of immigrants, mainly Sikhs and Gujaratis, came from the north of India in the late nineteenth century, and settled on High Street. The European enclave was on the north bank of the river, where the old government buildings are. Immigrants from Teo Chew were placed in a district by the river; the Cantonese in Kreta Ayer to the southwest; the Hokkien in the south and the Hainanese in the north.

Some of the clan associations inevitably degenerated into criminal gangs. They competed for territories and levied protection money. They joined who needed to: gamblers, the unemployed and opium addicts. Most addicts were coolies straight off the boat from China. William Farquhar, the first Resident, sold licences for opium, gambling and spirits, which provided most of the government’s income. Until the 1920s the opium trade was run by the government. The trade was banned only in 1946 and there were opium dens in Singapore until the 1950s.

From 1870, brothels had to be registered. Prostitutes came from all over; British prostitutes alone were barred. Brothels were banned in 1930. Apparently prostitution is again legal in Singapore, unlike chewing gum. To a Briton this is strange, but a cold analysis of the side-effects of criminalisation of prostitution and of the externalities of gum might well justify the Singaporean approach.

The first bank to open in Singapore was the Bank of Calcutta, in 1840. Since trade took off from the beginning, factoring business must have gone on before then. Money-lending was initially dominated by Chettiars, clearing houses by the Chinese. (Although the Indian population of Singapore was not much caste-bound, the Chettiars were an exception. They were a money-lending and trading caste from Tamil Nadu. In those days they shaved their heads. They established their businesses along Market Street. They provided microfinance before the term was invented, lending to small businesses and small traders who could not obtain finance from banks.)

In Singapore there are large numbers of the shophouses of the type seen in Melaka and Penang, especially in Kampong Glam and Chinatown.



In front of the shophouses, as in Malaysia, are five-foot ways.


In Hội An, the old commercial buildings were preserved because the port went downhill fast and there was no money to build new stock. Newly independent Singapore rushed to knock down old buildings and modernise. More recently, once the accidental city-state had got rich, it needed a history as fast as it could buy one, and Chinatown was preserved – knocking out much of the soul of it, naturally.


It is close to the central business district, and a convenient spot for lunch.


Nevertheless Chinatown, spruced up and yuppified, is a most interesting place, and more impressive than Melaka. Like any Chinese enclave it is a red place. Red brings luck: it scares a monster that eats people. Loud noises scare it too, so red firecrackers are especially lucky. New Year will be very loud and red.


On Pagoda Street is a Chinese Heritage Centre, which is very much worth a visit. It occupies three buildings that were originally tailors’ shops. There I learnt about the Mooncake Festival, which takes place in mid-Autumn.

Apparently the Earth used to have ten suns. One day they all appeared at once – bad news. Hon Yi saved the day by shooting down all the suns but one, and was naturally made Emperor. But he became tyrannical, and when he decided to steal the Elixir of Life, his wife Chang Er drank it to save the people. (Or so she said.) She floated to the moon, so it seems one of the Elixir’s ingredients is Red Bull. The event is celebrated with mooncakes and lanterns. In the fourteenth century the Han patriot Zhu Yuan Zhang used messages hidden in mooncakes to organise a rebellion against the Mongolians. The rebellion succeeded and Zhu founded the Ming dynasty (1279-1368). He is worshipped during the festival too.

There are a couple of art deco landmarks on Eu Tong Sen Street. One is the Majestic Cinema.


Next door is the Great Southern Hotel, Chinatown’s Raffles. It was built in 1927, and there was a cabaret, a restaurant, a performance area suites for gambling and opium smoking. For a long time it was the tallest building on town, and so it was the only place in town for suicides.


Now it is the Yue Hwa emporium. I saw on sale on the ground floor, at the medicine counter, deer antlers, spatchcocked lizards, deer tails, and roots galore. Some items fetch fantastic prices: S$800 for the deer tail, S$250 for something that looked like a dried caterpillar (but was probably the dried penis of some near-extinct species, although it might have been ginseng).

Upstairs they sell gorgeous teapots. They should be gorgeous. Some price tags: S$15,800, S$8,800, S$18,000, S$85,000, S$48,000, S$36,800. (Multiply by 0.44 to get sterling. Sterling has depreciated from S$2.70 in July to about S$2.15 now.)


They sell some great vases too: S$1,666, S$2,380 (black and gold with dragons), S$4,800 (elephant head handles), $$2,380 (red and gold with dragons), etc. Agate and jade figures retail for up to $10,000.

(At least the chopsticks are cheap. I feel poor in Singapore – and I am, because Singapore is very rich and I don’t have a job. It is an aspect of the human condition to look to the future, and already much of my consciousness is dominated by the idea that when I return to London I shall be unemployed. It is starting to affect my enjoyment.)

If you still have too much cash, wander round the corner to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and buy yourself a place in the Ancestral Prayer Chamber.


The temple was officially opened during Vesak 2007, and consecrated in May this year, so it is spanking new. You can buy a tablet with space for five names at the back wall for S$40,000. Or, at the sides, two names on a smaller tablet for S$8,000. This is Avalokitesvara.


Then go to Sago Lane. This was known as Sey Yan Kai in Chinese: the Street of the Dead. The street specialised in death houses, where people were left to spend their last days. When they were done, there were professional mourners, paid to cry loudly (the Romans had the same). The death houses were abolished only in 1961.

Posted by Wardsan 00:20 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

Rotten pot

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I have passed a couple of ordinary English days at home, reading The Economist, listening to things like Pomp and Circumstance Nos. 1 and 4 and Radio 4 podcasts, deleting photos, surfing the Amazon and blogging. On this trip, though, these are extraordinary days. When I say ‘at home’, I mean at the apartment of Tassos, a friend of mine from Cambridge who ensures he is out of the continent when I visit Singapore. It is in a somewhat higher-rise version of Surbiton (Urbiton, presumably), to the east of the centre. It is lovely being able to potter about a place with a kitchen, a washing machine… Although Tassos forgot to mention the cats. I am confined to the bedroom; if I stayed in the sitting room I would be dead within a few hours.

The money I am saving on hotels I have spent in Carrefour. The night before last I had my first taste of an English beer in nine months: a bottle of Young’s London Ale. I have never heard of it, and perhaps it is export only – it weighs a whopping 6.4% abv. It was simply better than any beer I have drunk while travelling. Last night I had a Fruit Défendu, also not bad, and a spicy Peranakan meal as a nice change.

For lunch yesterday and today: French country (style) bread, a coarse terrine, Roquefort, Gruyère, St Félicien, and a glass of chilled (yes) Wolf Blass red. OMG.

I am wasting time, but I think it is important to do so. By the end of my time in Indonesia the small irritations had started to get to me; a few days in Singapore and I’ll be ready to travel again, although I don’t yet know where: Thailand, New Zealand, Micronesia? The first step is to decide where to stop over Christmas: take the sails down and point into the wind. Half the shop assistants in Makassar (the Christian half) were wearing Santa hats by the time I left. Christmas is a big festival in Singapore, although not as big as Chinese New Year. I ate on Orchard Road last night and the place was heaving with Christmas shoppers, much like Oxford Street (but much nicer).

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An interesting - and needed - article in The Economist on the deep-seated problems in Thai politics.

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The Competition Commission has ruled that BAA must sell Gatwick and Stansted. Quite right, and not before time. Since it was privatised as a monopoly, BAA has consistently and massively underinvested in the London airports – an outcome entirely predictable from the flawed market structure. In ten years time, with a bit of luck, we may have large airports in London that are not a national disgrace.

Asia, meanwhile, possesses most of the airports regularly voted the world’s best. Even Jakarta Soekarno-Hatta is nice. I am now in a good position to judge, having taken off – and landed – twenty-five times in the last six months.


(This is Gate 1 at Makassar Airport.)

Notwithstanding the constant hopping, my carbon footprint is bound to be smaller than yours (although the concept is useless in my opinion, since it ignores the productivity or otherwise of the carbon-burning activities). Travelling in the tropics I do not drive; take public transport everywhere; never use heating, eat food locally sourced (except in Singapore) and rarely use aircon. The UK government should subsidise me.

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According to an article in Ecology Letters (my nightly reading, ahem) in 2006, up to 73 million sharks are killed each year for the fins alone. Live sharks have their fins and tails removed and are then thrown back into the sea. In some places, the livers are also removed, but not in the Moluccas. (Needless to say, I didn’t know this when I ordered shark’s fin soup in Malaysia.)

At auction, fins from a shark of average size sell for $500. Yet the value of a living shark at dive resort destinations is estimated at $10,000-$20,000 a year. (I do not know the method used to estimate this, however. And is it an average value or a marginal one? In fact I do not find this figure credible.)

There is also an ecological cost. When large sharks disappear, there is an increase in the population of small sharks and rays. These, in turn, may be voracious predators of commercially valuable species such as scallops in North Carolina. The absence of large sharks may also allow other undesirable predators such as crown of thorns starfish to grow in number.

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Silly animals to eat, Part VIII: Napoleon wrasse. Napoleon wrasse, also known as giant humphead wrasse or Maori wrasse, are a favourite of divers. They are three feet long or more, green with blue marbling. They weigh up to 20 kg, and are a favourite dish among the Chinese, who eat it for, well, the usual silly reasons.

Fishermen in the Philippines and Indonesia spray reefs with sodium cyanide, the substance used to execute Texans. This stuns the wrasse, which can then be transported alive to Hong Kong and Singapore. (Hong Kong eats its way through 15,000 tons of reef fish a year.) While it stuns the wrasse, the cyanide kills anything smaller, so every time a Napoleon is eaten, hundreds of reef fish have died.

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Companies all over the world – with a few exceptions I suppose, such as Iran and North Korea – like to advertise with snippets of English. In Indonesia, Wings Air says “fly is cheap”. Lion Air boasts “we make you fly”, which seems unnecessarily coercive.

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A few months ago I dived in Tulamben, on the east coast of Bali. It is known for its wreck, the USS Liberty. Divers are delivered to a car park next to the beach in the van from the dive shop. The gear is carried to the beach by local women. They are all members of a cooperative, Sekar Baruna. As with many businesses in the area (laundries, shops), the business was started with a microloan.

More than 75% of microloans go to women. The average loan is about $180 and the repayment rate is about 95%, which compares with credit cards.

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On the Java-Bali-Lombok tour we spent a night at Sengigi. It is an unremarkable port, except for its beach, which is composed entirely of forams. The group Foraminiferida, belonging to the phylum Sarcomatigophora, are single-celled organisms with chambered shells. They range in size from 100 micrometres to several centimetres. Like hard corals, and coralline algae, they have calcium carbonate skeletons, and like many corals, and some clams and nudibranchs, they host symbiotic algae. It has been estimated that 50% of the Earth’s calcareous sedimentary rock formed on sea beds is made up of forams. Much of Kent, for example is chalk: forams in rock form.

Posted by Wardsan 12:11 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

Lion City

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I’m back in Singapore. Five months ago I found it boring. Now, after four months in Indonesia, I am very glad to be here. Singapore: cheese; wine; wifi; English language cinema; English language bookshops; metro; Indian and other restaurants; cheese; hygiene; privacy; hot water; drinkable water; pavements you can walk along; cheese. A relative absence of: hawking and spitting (illegal); blowing your nose into your fingers and then flicking them; uneatable sugary bread; sucking your teeth loudly; litter (illegal); smacking chops while eating; malaria; hissing at someone to attract their attention; potholes; shouting ‘hello mister’ to any white face.

Here is a typical sign in Singapore.


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Flying into Jakarta this morning, the landscape looked very different from four months ago. The fields looked like flooded fens.

I recently read Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard. It is a fictionalised account of the author’s childhood experiences in Shanghai and in a Japanese civilian prisoner camp. It was perhaps even more interesting as an insight into the childhood experiences of Dirk, my roommate on the Papua tour. Dirk was born in the Dutch East Indies – his father was a Resident, or Collector or something – and Dirk was interned in a Japanese camp during the war. His father was interned in another camp and died during the war. After the war, the remainder of his family barely escaped the violence of nationalist Indonesia, sailing to Holland, where Dirk went to school with children four years younger than him, and learned to speak proper Dutch.

The book is beautifully written. Ballard describes a sunset thus:

The sun fell towards the Shanghai hills, and the flooded paddy fields became a liquid chessboard of illuminated squares.

It’s a nice image, and perhaps it works for paddy fields seen from ground level (padi, incidentally, is Indonesian for unharvested rice). From the air yesterday morning it did not work so well, because the fields lack the required rectilinearity. The dikes look more like the filigree pattern of a dragonfly wing, the fields like mercury.

This is an old photo, taken near Makassar; the fields were not so flooded here.


(And here is a cicada from the Baliem Valley, Papua, decorated in Australian colours.)


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Ack, gek, ptaw: durians are on sale on the street outside. I thought the season had finished for a while.

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I have been mildly worrying whether the butterflies I purchased in Sulawesi were protected by law. As I understand it, four species of Papilio and all Troides are protected by Indonesian law. The only one of my twelve specimens protected is the Troides helena. Actually, this one came from a butterfly farm, not from the wild, and is therefore the least objectionable of the specimens.

Which doesn’t quite make it all right.

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Who first formulated a theory of atolls? Charles Darwin. He suggested that an atoll started life as a fringing reef, around a volcanic island that subsequently sinks. The coral builds higher in order to stick close to the surface, forming a coral ring around a central lagoon. He was right. At Enewetak Atoll in the central Pacific, the volcano is 1,219 m below sea level.


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I wondered, a long time ago, why they drive on the left in Indonesia, which came under Dutch rather than British suzerainty. The answer seems to be that, while the Dutch were busy in Europe with the Corsican upstart, the British managed their possessions in the East Indies. Stamford Raffles was Lieutenant Governor of Java between 1811 and 1816, being appointed at the age of thirty. He published A History of Java in 1817 and received a knighthood in 1818.

Here is a statue of Raffles in Singapore, erected at the point where he landed in January 1819. In the background is the financial district. Although his name is for ever associated with Singapore, he only spent a few weeks here. He spent much longer in Java and Sumatra.


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The Republic of Indonesia has reasonably amicable relations with Papua New Guinea. The reason is simple: it is the policy of PNG that Papua, the western part of the island of New Guinea, should be part of an ‘integrated’ Indonesia. A border post between the northern towns of Jayapura and Vanimo should open early next year (although, naturally, people cross all the time and families straddle the border).

Although there are arguments about alleged incursions into PNG by the TNI (Indonesian army), and alleged harbouring of OPM members in PNG, PNG is actually the only neighbour with which Indonesia does not have a border dispute. Indonesia contrives to have two border disputes with stamp-sized Singapore, one on the west and one on the east side. It has dozens of arguments with Malaysia, especially over the border in the Melaka Strait and the Ambalat oil and gas field in the Makassar Strait (both countries have awarded concessions in the territory of the field). With Timor-Leste, most of the land border is agreed, but the sea border is not. Indonesia’s northern border, with the Philippines, is also disputed.

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While we were dining at Two Fish Divers, on Lembeh Island, a tiny gecko fell from the ceiling and landed on the table, missing all the food. Unlike its bigger relatives, it was entirely unafraid. Put anything in front of it and it jumped on to it: so it happily jumped on to fingers, heads, shoulders... and noses. It tickled.


Posted by Wardsan 09:30 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

Singapore Cricket Club

semi-overcast 30 °C
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I don't have much time, so just a brief chapter today. I’m diving in Semporna. Today I saw couple of green turtles, which made my day. And a mandarinfish.

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While wandering around the colonial district of Singapore I saw cricket. The Singapore Cricket Club Social XI were playing a friends’ side first created to celebrate the skipper’s fortieth, and now convened annually.


It is a wonderful place to play cricket: on the Padang, in front of the Supreme Court and City Hall. The court handles so many cases that City Hall is now used to house the overflow. This is City Hall.


There were sports played on the Padang from the early days, but cricket became the most popular. The Singapore Cricket Club was founded in 1852, ten years after the Turf Club. Members also played bowls, tennis and billiards. Football and rugby were introduced in the 1880s and hockey in the 1890s.

All members were male Europeans. Women were admitted in 1938. Today, reflecting the city-state in which it exists, it is a multiracial club.

The present pavilion was built in 1907.


The club was used as a temporary hospital in the battle for Singapore in 1942. During the Japanese occupation it
was used as a restaurant and bar for Japanese officers. It was then used by the British Military Administration for a year before being handed back to the Club.


And outside the club is a Belisha beacon. It all made me nostalgic for home.

Posted by Wardsan 20:14 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

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