when i first came to singapore i remember getting a strange response almost every time i said i am bengali.
“bengali?” would come the reply quickly and with a nod that said the person had placed me in a slot in his or her mind. then a hand would go up and make a little circular motion around the head. the first time this happened, i frowned and looked lost. “babu, right? singh?? turban?” i gawked. had a bengali just been mistaken for a punjabi sikh? while finding it fairly funny, since such a mix up would most likely not be happily entertained by members of either community, i was completely intrigued. why would punjabis be called bengalis?
soon, in a book called the malayan trilogy, i found the answer which was later confirmed by people i asked and of course, the net. sikhs first started coming to malaya and singapore as part of the bengal regiment of the british indian army… and so came to be called bengali over time. for whatever reason they decided not to set the record straight. i liked the idea. what’s with all these major differences anyway… though yes, we have distinct cultures and both are pretty wonderful.
my walking partner aj and i had decided to look around mount sophia that day. as i got off the cab, i told him, right here somewhere is a large sikh gurdwara. i used to see it every day on my way home from work. what i didn’t know was that there are in fact two lovely old sikh temples here. gurdwara sahib sri guru singh sabha on wilkie road and the grand colonial looking gurdwara khalsa dharmak sabha on niven road. both the temples have been in their present locations since the 1930s.
mount sophia rises gracefully along winding mellow roads and alleys at the end of orchard road. it sits between orchard and little india: a pretty, green neighbourhood with many signs from another time even as the condos come up fast and furious and determinedly glassy and grey. really, how many more grey buildings do we need? and if they are that colour, i hope they are half as interesting as peace centre which is one of the oldest commercial-residential complexes around here and sits at the the foot of the hill at 1 sophia road with its many shops and ktv lounges. all these years in singapore and i have never been to a karaoke lounge, i sighed.
part of singapore’s posh district 9, the hill was named after the second wife of sir stamford raffles by captain william flint according to singapore infopedia. captain flint was the first resident of the hill back in 1823, his daughter was called sophia as well and i believe he was the brother in law of sir stamford raffles. the hill was also known as flint’s hill and before the new name came along, it was simply bukit selegie.
as we walked up, we saw a sprawling bungalow that was built a while back, an orange balloon floated in front of it with the name of the condominium that would soon come up in its place.
when i see things like this i never can decide whether i should be sad or just accept change as a necessary element of life.
once, all along these roads were lined with bungalows amid their well tended lawns; the abdullah shookar home is still there, the house of a baghdadi jewish gentleman who bequeathed it to the jewish community and which is now a home for the aged. this area used to be part of the jewish “mahallah”, or neighbourhood. most of the jews living here were not that wealthy, though some were better off than others. there are conservation shop houses on adis road and niven road, always attractive to the expat. we turn into a path that leads down to handy road and opposite a construction site find a kindergarten housed in what must have been a wealthy person’s home once, now a little ramshackle and rambling. we go back up sophia road walking along the boundary wall of the istana toward mount emily park.
beautiful thick greenery around us and a sense of history despite all that’s new. being a port city, singapore attracted people from everywhere i guess. a large number of jews lived on selegie/mount sophia, there are sikh temples, and eu tong sen, the well known and very wealthy businessman who grew up in foshan in china, lived in a bungalow somewhere here, the eu villa.
if i close my eyes, i feel the excitement and drama of another time… the throb of an island in the heart of business routes.
aj gets totally ebullient when he spots st margaret’s primary school. he tells me about the girls’ schools that were considered “in” when he was a student. seems all the girls from these schools, he mentions chij and katong convent, were beautiful. yes, all. they were very “tha’n” as he puts it, avant garde. his wife is from chij i think, he’s a happy man. the methodist girls school, which was founded by sophia blackmore, an australian missionary, in 1887, moved to mount sophia in 1925. it started life as tamil girls’ school with just nine students. it has shifted to another place now.
we choose the road that takes you to the top of the hill and come to mount emily park. there are mature trees standing tall and beautiful, one of them has roots fanning out all around, not too many people, just a couple of joggers and lots of calm.
as we trundle down, by now perspiring and the sun getting hotter, we decide we’ll take the cabbie’s advice and get some beancurd at the famous rochor original beancurd. it’s delicious, silky smooth, soft and mildly sweetened… and very very cheap.
while looking through the net for some facts on mount sophia, i see that it is rich in history, part of the early years of singapore’s establishment as a major port… with homes of many who were actively involved in this history. what i find really interesting is the contrast between the quieter upper streets and the market feel of the paths leading up, a sense of little india already seeping in. i realise that some of the buildings i have taken pictures of are not just old but also kind of famous. names, dates… i don’t want to crowd the moment with too much information, just look at the pictures and you’ll feel that sense of another time.
road to singapore, mount sophia and selegie, 06/05/2015 #SG50
end of 1997, we moved to singapore from india. in 2015, the country celebrated fifty year of independence. singapore has given me much and i am fascinated by the spirit of this gutsy city state with hardly any land or resources, but oh what dreams and chutzpah (the finest interpretation of the word), the ability to reach big, hunker down and hold and strategise and act and grow. despite my many years here, i haven’t seen a lot of the island, which started out at only 28 miles by 18. now of course it’s bigger, thanks to that spirit i spoke of. so i thought why not see singapore in this landmark year, and celebrate #sg50. aj, my friend and trainer, and i traipse in different parts of the city every week. hope you enjoy the walk talk. you’ll find more in my index. and the walks continue in singapore’s year 51.