Monuments in Miniature

Drop in with the kids to an exhibition of eight super intricate LEGO models of Singapore’s landmarks at the Central Library this June. 

It’s the June holidays and the kids are at home, growing more and more restless by the hour. You’re not letting them play on the computer for too long, you’ve read them all the books in your bookshelves. Now, you’re hard pressed to occupy them with meaningful activities.  We popped in yesterday at this fantastic little exhibition that just opened at the Central Library and we think it’s well worth bringing the tots down for a look.

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 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. As miniatures, these are pretty big, adult-sized models done in impressive detail, using over 110,000 toy bricks (ie. LEGO which did not sponsor this) in total.


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. Lots of research had gone into doing it: they studied the architectural plans of the buildings (yes, really old documents), flew drones over the them to capture the details from above, and visited many times to take photos to capture the details. And it shows up in the 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 and the bottles that decorate the base of the domes of Sultan Mosque. The largest model is the Mosque which weighs 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.

St Andrew’s Cathedral, the tallest of the models which measured over 1m.
Sultan Mosque, the largest model of the eight which weighed 40 kg.

Getting nose-to-nose  with these models lets you really see and appreciate the details of these buildings which may not be apparent even when  you visit the actual site.

Thian Hock Keng Temple, one of the most painstaking and detailed of the models.

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.

This exhibition would hopefully help start a conversation among grownups and kids about the history of these landmarks and the communities that built them.

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).



Bata’s Long Overdue Revamp (or An Ode To Bata)

“First to Bata, then to school.” I think most people of a certain vintage will remember this refrain from Bata’s advertisements. For many of us in Singapore, Bata has been synonymous with white canvas school shoes with green soles. In the 1970s, the Badminton Master was the must-have article of school clothing. Then it morphed into the stylish BM2000 in the late ’80s, if I remember correctly. All the cool girls in school wore a pair. There were also those wonderful bottles of white wash which Bata sold, with the sponge applicators, so we could whitewash our shoes midweek when they got too dirty, and there was no time to wash them.

Bata was the brand that literally carried me – and many others and over several generations – through my childhood. Their white canvas shoes and sneakers took me from school and playground to assorted longkangs (drains) on guppy- and spider-catching missions. But when I grew up, I ventured away from this reliable old Czech shoe brand that many people probably thought was a local, or Asian brand, to more fashionable stores. Still, Bata hung on at various malls and their flagship at the positively unglamorous Peninsula Plaza, with their reliable, inexpensive, generally conservative shoes.

Many years later when I had my child, I returned to Bata, this time, to buy my daughter’s shoes – first, her tiny sneakers for playdates and playgrounds, and later, her school shoes. “First to Bata then to school.” The refrain returned to my memory. I didn’t notice those bottles of whitewash anymore. But then again, she didn’t go longkang fishing either, so there was less midweek dirt on her shoes. It was then that I gave Bata shoes a good look again as an adult. They weren’t bad, and ventured to buy a casual pair or two.

But apart from the bright sparkly kids’ shoes, Bata was unfortunately still not exciting. But it was a dependable, essential and quiet brand that has been part of Singapore’s shopping landscape forever, like NTUC Supermarket. You needed the product, it was there, and not expensive. It ticked all the right boxes but it didn’t tickle one’s fancy.

A huge Bata store in Prague.

Then on a visit to Prague a few years ago, we saw Bata, a proud shop in the middle of town. We pointed out a familiar brand, and our tour guide went gushing about it. The Czechs viewed the brand and its founders — Tomáš Baťa, his brother Antonin and sister Anna — with much national pride. They came from a family of cobblers. The Czechs looked up to them as role models and inspirations, a historic brand which survived wars and hardships; a national success story that, to them, reverberated around the world. My tour guide’s son got to shake Mr Bata’s hand long ago and for many days, did not want to wash his hands.

That was a new, refreshing perspective to me.

So when Bata announced a brand revamp this week, with a new look, brand direction and refreshed flagship store in Vivocity, it made me sit up. Having been around for 123 years, this was long overdue for the brand. Now, its looks reflect the changes. The store, now doubled in size, is brighter, more fun, with digital screens showcasing international trends. Even the shoes look somewhat fresher, a little less stodgy and ‘sensible’ perhaps. Their marketing slogan is ‘Me & Comfortable With It’. I like that. It has a nice ring: fun, unapologetic, unpretentious and down to earth.

It may not convert devoted fashionistas, and I doubt that is their intention. But it’s refreshed looks will certainly get people revisiting this brand, and likely get fresh converts too. For a brand that’s been around 123 years, Bata’s stamina for the ‘common touch’ and its longevity is admirable.

Take a look at the shoes and the store in these pictures, and decide for yourself. Nursing a bad flu, I didn’t make it down to the opening, but I am looking forward to making my way there sometime soon. Who knows? It could be a return to an old friend and the revival of an old, soleful relationship. Let’s see…

Just had to slip this last one in. Looks like the bottles of whitewash are still there…

Exploring the Bedok Heritage Trail

I’ve lived all my life in the eastern side of Singapore. And as we always say, once as East Coaster, always an East Coaster. There’s something about this part of the island that’s different. It’s cosier, more laid back, prettier, and many say, the air is different. I agree on all points. It’s also more residential, tranquil, with little of those multi-lane highways that cut across high rise flats. And for many of us, the beach is within walking distance or at least, a short ride away.

Known for being a seaside resort back in the day, the East Coast has retained its laid back vibe til today. But it’s got its fair share of history, good and bad. During the recent Heritage Fest 2016, the National Heritage Board launched its newest heritage trail that brings you to multiple historically significant spots in the Bedok/Chai Chee area. As it has always been my hunting ground, and being of the vintage that just about remembers its transition from old to modern day, I couldn’t resist tagging along for the preview.

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The Bedok Heritage Trail covers 15km and is signposted by 10 markers installed at so-called heritage points on the trail. Little of the old landscape is left today, so you have to do quite a lot of imagining to fill in the gaps. The 60-page trail booklet, which is packed with lots of hard-to-find information, will be essential in having a good heritage experience – and it’s well worth keeping on your bookshelf, too.

We started off at the Bedok Heritage Corner opposite the Bedok Interchange hawker centre where sampan-shaped markers carry information about this area’s history. In a nutshell, the area was full of fishing villages, kampongs, markets, as well as rich men’s beachside manors and military installations. (Being of a certain vintage, I do remember some of the great houses, sand-lined roads, coconut trees and kampongs of yesteryear.)

From there, we trundled along Chai Chee Road which was part of the old road that used to meander through the Bedok Hills to the holiday bungalows of Changi and Loyang. These hills have since been levelled to reclaim the land that makes Marine Parade now. It’s hard to imagine this urban landscape having hills and roads hugging cliff faces, but they were indeed there and still part of my childhood memories.

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A section of an old sea wall, and part of Mr Tan Lark Sye’s mansion at the end of Nallur Road.

First stop on the trail was at the end of Nallur Road, where a substantial sea wall still stands. Located opposite the Good Shepherd Kindergarten (my alma mater), the walls and a remaining iron gate are remnants of huge mansions that used to front the seashore. I still remember the house that stood there, owned by the tycoon Tan Lark Sye.

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An aerial view of the seafront bungalows along Upper East Coast area in Siglap, 1958. Singapore Land Authority Collection, Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore
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The Good Shepherd Kindergarten at the end of Nallur Road used to be right by the beach.

It was a sprawling manor just opposite my kindergarten, that was fodder for day dreams every time I got bored or when I had finished my colouring assignment early. In the early 70s, Good Shepherd Kindergarten too faced the beach and you could see the waves from the playground. The road in front — now well paved — used to be a sandy track too. These are from my own memories; not mentioned in the trail booklet. Happy days.

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From there, we pottered over to Upper East Coast Road, opposite the Hua Yu Wee Seafood Restaurant. Housed in a 1920s bungalow, this restaurant which continues to serve up good seafood even now, is the last of the famous seafood strip which counted the original Long Beach, Red House and Palm Beach Restaurant, all of which I too remember with their welcoming neon signs. Head to the back of the restaurant and peer out at the lush forested patch behind; and keep an eye out for the old hop-scotch grid etched into the painted cement floor which no doubt entertained lots of bored children since decades ago. Even earlier, this area had a restaurant called Wyman’s Haven which the oldies would remember.

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An old hopscotch grid at the Hua Yu Wee Restaurant.

These restaurants too used to abut the shoreline, and round Bedok Corner would be hawkers selling seafood by the beach. If you couldn’t afford a restaurant meal, you could still have your seafood fix there. Kampong residents nearby would also head to the beach for parties and regattas during festivals.

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Mr Peter Chan, a serious hobby historian with a photo of Wyman Haven. which was owned by his grandmother. The popular restaurant used to stand where Temasek Secondary School currently stands.

Stretching all the way to Fort Road were pillboxes put there by the British army long ago, while fruit and rubber plantations dotted the hills, and kampongs on the lowlands. People here used to be plantation workers, farmers and fishermen. I remember the pillboxes by the beach. Until they were removed in the late 70s and early 80s, we could still walk into those structures and for kids, it was a fantastic place for hide-and-seek. It was only when we got a little older that we became aware of its grim significance.

Indeed, the darker part of Bedok’s history lie in this vicinity. The Japanese massacred thousands of Singaporeans in this area as part of the Sook Ching purge during WWII, and buried them in mass graves. Little is said about them now, but between 1951 and 1966, over 50 mass graves were found in Bedok, Siglap and Tanah Merah containing the bodies of people killed by the Japanese during the war. The largest was near Tanah Merah which contained over 2000 bodies. Jalan Puay Poon, near the junction of Upper East Coast Road and Bedok South Avenue is one of the sites where several mass graves were found.  All the bodies have since been interred under the Civilian War Memorial. During the war, the Japanese killed 25,000 to 50,000 people in Singapore, mostly Chinese. This was in retribution for supporting the anti-Japanese movement in China.

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Nearer Bedok Corner where the hawker centre sits (known for its famous ching tng stall), is Villa Kahar, an elegant 1920s bungalow which still stands, and once the home of Singapore’s first female doctor, Dr Lee Choo Neo, grand aunt of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Bedok Corner itself marks a perilous turn for motorcycle and car races (all illegal) that used the long straight stretch of Upper East Coast as a racing track late at night. All this is recorded at yet another marker beside the hawker centre.

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This is where we ended the quick preview of Singapore’s latest heritage trail. The only sensible thing to do was to dive into a bowl of ‘ching tng’, all icy and cold and just sweet enough.

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The Frankel family with Albert Einstein and other members of the Jewish community, 1922. Image from Bieder, J., & Lau, A. T. (2007) The Jews of Singapore (Singapore: Suntree Media)

The other parts of the trail takes you to Simpang, Fengshan, Tanah Merah, Opera Estate and Frankel Avenue. I grew up in Frankel Estate, and didn’t realise until now that it was named after a Jewish merchant who used to own huge tracts of land there including Opera Estate. I also didn’t know that Albert Einstein had visited Frankel Estate in the 1930s and waxed lyrical about it in his diary, nor did I know that there is a Keramat (shrine) not far away in tribute to an Indonesian prince who was said to have established the old villages in the Bedok area. But I do know that Bedok is one of the earliest recorded areas of Singapore, which had been mentioned in maps as far back as the 16th century.

While you learn lots of things along this trail, there are a few things to note. It is not a walkable trail, so you’ll need a car or at least a bike. The markers give you a short summary of the history of that area, but for the most part, there are no relics to see, except perhaps the sea wall. Rather than walk the trail, I’d say it’s better to just keep a look out for the markers and give it a good look if you are in the vicinity. If you are thinking of making the trail a fun morning out with the family, you will be disappointed.

For one who remembers the old Bedok area, the trail misses lots of the detail, richness and colour. Do the markers do justice to the history of Bedok? I think it falls short. But it is a good effort and does help preserve the heritage of the area. The trail booklet is an impressive work of research and well worth keeping on your bookshelf though. For more details and to download the heritage trail booklet and map, click here.

Good to know: Incidentally the National Heritage Board has recently launched the Singapore Heritage Trails app that contains over 80 heritage trails around Singapore, created by the NHB as well as community groups and schools.