i don’t know what exactly is art, but if it’s something that makes you stop, stare, feel a strange attraction and look at a thing differently, then this was definitely art. it made me want to go close, touch the thing. on lavender street that day, the sun blazing, traffic going by at its usual weekday pace, i couldn’t look away from that burst of colours and intriguing shapes. what was it? what was it doing here? shouldn’t it be in a museum?
even after i realised it was just the rack where the hardware store stacked steel rods, it looked like a beautiful sculpture. it made me happy, it made me want to tarry, take more pictures, read what’s written on those labels not so neat and tidy. the man at the store was quite unmoved by my giddy joy.
we were ambling about king george’s avenue, part of the jalan besar area, which sort of wraps around, and at places intersects with, little india. i’d come here a while ago on a bizarre quest. to take studio photographs; those cheesy family shots, all posed and plastic and really very funny. why one should do this i have no idea, but we did. the raffle’s studio on king george’s avenue was set up in 1947, the year of india’s independence. the photographer was from another time, none of the cool “just relax, move around, take it easy, we’ll do candid shots” about him. he liked things done a particular way. and you sat still. he was very sure of exactly how i should place my hand on my lap and how much our heads should tilt and in which direction. in the corner of the studio sat a young man at a desktop computer, ready to “fix” our looks any way we liked.
this part of singapore was all swampland once, mangroves and waterways, lying between two rivers: kallang and rochor. it was home to snipes, flying ducks, fish, mud lobsters, and other creatures. there were multi-coloured snakes here too. thankfully, now you only have many hued steel rods. sometime in the 1830s, the norris brothers bought (ref., roots.sg) “three hectares of land from the east india company… for 113 rupees.” i read that and had to grin, imagine buying land in singapore in rupees.
the norris siblings began growing betel nut and nipah palm. and a road began to take shape through the orchards, in time it would expand and stretch and become a long wide avenue, farms giving way to buildings and factories, homes, theatres, temples… and the road would get a name: jalan besar.
in malay, the big road.
we walked to the head of lavender. to our left, buddha sat atop the tai pei buddhist centre under an umbrella. on the right on kallang road, loomed the ica building, no nonsense and opaque. this is singapore’s main immigration office. it’s where the issuing and renewal/extension of employment and other passes get done; your pr/citizenship application is assessed, and you’re accepted or rejected, all very briskly; things like that. it’s a busy place, people wait in rooms on every floor, coupon numbers flash on screens, reams of paper move from hand to hand accompanied by usually crisp and smile-free exchanges.
lavender street apparently was named so because of the not too pleasant odour from the fresh organic fertilizer used in the vegetable farms around here.
the ica building on the left.
we passed penhas street. it was named after rahmin penhas, a jewish merchant. islands are supposed to be cut away from the rest of the world. no such thing in singapore, the whole world met here it seems, and often decided to stay on.
the buildings on king george’s avenue are not modern and shining, they are from an earlier era, not too tall or fancy, but a nice air about them. there are all sorts of stalls, godowns, and workshops along the way. at lian heng canvas trading, large sheets of canvas are spread out on the pavement and work is in progress. a sewing machine with outsize reels of thread makes me linger. that sense of another time, something stable and warm in it… something unfettered.
the mailman cycled by, the singpost box on his carrier. we passed the jalan besar football stadium. it has been upgraded recently, the stadium opened in 1929 and is considered the “birthplace of singapore football”. aj and i went up to the top floor of an hdb block to get a better view. during the japanese occupation, the stadium was used as one of the “sook ching mass screening sites”, where chinese men and women considered hostile to the japanese were “purged”. in 1964, a huge rally was held here to mourn the death of jawaharlal nehru, i never knew that. the field stretched, evenly green and most twenty-first century below us.
french road? i peer at the street sign. the roads leading off king george’s are mostly named after english and french heroes of ww1. there’s even a petain road nearby; philippe petain later fell from esteem, but the name remains despite petitions to change it; at least for now. french road refers to john french, a british field marshall.
on syed alwi road, a row of absolutely beautiful shophouses with ornate features and an aura of elegance. even the unprepossessing vehicles parked along this busy market road don’t mar that. syed alwi bin ali aljuneid, after whom the road is most likely named, belonged to a business family from yemen who came and settled in singapore almost two hundred years ago. the rubber boom of 1900 to 1930 led to many of the new rich building fanciful houses that flaunted their wealth. and taste. elaborate notes of european architecture were favoured, and so were chinese, malay, oriental touches. the result: these really quaint and delightful shophouses and terrace houses in many parts of singapore. the jalan besar shophouses are now marked for conservation.
61 to 69 syed alwi road are built in the ornamented and playful rococo style. i love those oval ox eye or œil de bœuf windows. the bas relief curling and sashaying all around is so very pretty and otherworldly… really, why have we gone all glass, straight lines, and grey now? must get a window like that some day. the pernakan tiles with roses and the flowery capitals are lovely. to find a structure like this in the middle of a street that is today anything but posh.
this place is known for makan. food. we passed endless cafes, coffee shops, restaurants, eateries huddling with repair shops, hardware stores, convenience stores, small trading shops, etc. i wonder why we never stopped to dig into some good food. we did take a breather over coconut water though, and i tried very hard to get a good shot of the man with tattoos who worked in the cycle shop, smoking casually.
finally we were on jalan besar: noisy, messy, and definitely grand. the big road. i remembered my erstwhile boss telling me about the turtle soup stalls here. seemed men liked to have the soup straight after a visit to the brothel; there are plenty in the vicinity. sitting at a cafe as we waited for lunch, my eyes fell on the houses on the other side. they were a little rundown, but there stood two magnificent shophouses surrounded by traffic, unremarkable hdb blocks, and indifferent passersby. in unlikely places one finds beauty, something so undeniable about it.
road to singapore, lavender street, king george’s avenue, syed alwi road, jalan besar, 25/05/2016 #SG50
end of 1997, we moved to singapore from india. in 2015, the country celebrated fifty years 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 anthony john or aj as i call him, my walking partner, and i decided to do fifty walks in the island to celebrate #SG50. well, we didn’t stop at fifty; couldn’t. there was still so much to see and feel and also how not to let the hot, merciless, climate-change sun not have its way with us. so the walks continue, as does the walk talk. hope you enjoy, try to bring an umbrella.
if you’d like to find out more about jalan besar, do visit https://roots.sg/visit/trails/jalan-besar-heritage-trail
from an hdb upper floor, beyond the skyscraper, the kallang river.
plenty of backpacker hostels in the area, “unlimited questions” included in the services.
nice name, huh. another backpacker joint.
the studio with the old world photographer.
such picturesque trees all over the city.