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Mar 25, 2016

Media Preview - Commonwealth & Holland Village Heritage Tour by My Community (Part 1)

Media Preview - Commonwealth & Holland Village Heritage Tour

Having accepted the invite to the media preview of the new heritage tour by My Community, I made my way to Holland Village MRT Station on a Sunday morning to catch the group of "media folks" assembling at 8.15am for the tour. As a first-time participant of their heritage tour, I was given a copy of their "My Queenstown Heritage Trail" booklet which I'm told would be revised soon. By the way you can download the booklet and other publications on My Community's page. All participants were handed bottled water. While the tour took place mostly within sight of civilization housing estates, I'm glad for this bottle even though I brought my own, for it served me well in the arduous journey ahead. Like they say, save the best for the last.




What's unusual is that we were also handed this red compact multi-channel wireless receiver, complete with lanyard and earpiece. No prize for guessing its purpose. With the device, the guide who has the wireless sender can be some distance away from the participants doing an auditory introduction of the landmark without shouting his voice hoarse. Call me suaku (mountain tortoise) but I have never used one in my tours local or overseas. Credit to My Community for innovative use of technology. The device is useful for it allows the participants to wander away from the tour group (not too far of course) and still enjoy running commentary from the guide.

Media Preview - Commonwealth & Holland Village Heritage Tour
The audio receiver that accompanied me for the trip. Sad to see it go back to its rightful owner when I took this picture at the end of the trip. The earpiece is disposable but I will keep it as a souvenir. 

We were told guides for My Community tours are not fixed. Our tour guide this time is Huang Eu Chai who is a volunteer guide and trainer in Friends of My Community. From his personal website I learnt that he is actually a travel consultant specializing in Italy. Eu Chai spent his childhood and adult years in Queenstown. With such relevant personal and industry experience, he is the best man for the job. Indeed, his excellent tour leading skills coupled with the smooth delivery of his commentary shine through on that Sunday morning.

First stop was Chip Bee Gardens but the storytelling started at Holland Village Station. Eu Chai shared with us one interesting nugget on the station design; the proposal to have the exit situated right after the fare gate that would lead one ascending from concourse to ground level to the open space in front of the shop houses, i.e. what is Holland Village Park today. This was not realized; we have exit B and C today on the Holland Village side connected by a "Shop and Dine" corridor to the station.

Design of Holland Village Station exits (image credit: SMRT). Read this complaint how commuters are forced to walk 300m to catch a train.
The post-war history of Holland Village can be read in the context of expanding suburban civilian and military population in Queenstown, Pasir Panjang and Alexandra. It was at Chip Bee Gardens that a military estate comprising six blocks of apartment flats, semi-detached houses and two rows of shop houses was established in the mid-1950s to house British army personnel and families. The apartment flats, between Jalan Rumia and Jalan Merah Saga, are history; in its place is the Merasaga Condominium built in the 1990s. The two rows of shop houses are still at Jalan Merah Saga. While at the back-lane of the Jalan Merah Saga shop houses, Eu Chai shared one geographical tidbit. According to him, the lane did not acquire the name "Warna Road" until quite recently and this apparently was an inconvenience for a residence with opening to the lane. A quick check of old street directories seems to support this. Willyn Ville address is 1 Holland Ave but the entrance is along Warna Road.

Media Preview - Commonwealth & Holland Village Heritage Tour
The shop houses along Jalan Merah Saga. The ground floor served as a mess hall for the British soldiers before they were converted for retail in 1978, according to info from My Community. Does anyone know which unit exactly?
Media Preview - Commonwealth & Holland Village Heritage Tour
The back-lane of Jalan Merah Saga shop house that is now Warna Road
Warna Road
Old street directories (left: 1998, right: 2000). The 2000 edition is the first time Warna Road is marked. Considering Willyn Ville was built in 1982, Warna Road did not have a name for many years? The 1998 edition also has a small mistake in the position of the premature right-angled exit of Warna Road.

Having finished Chip Bee Estate, the group made our way to Holland Road Shopping Centre opposite. The new building on my right seems a little out of place. Then I realized the old Taman Warna Post Office which I used to see from Holland Village side had been demolished. By the way, Holland Village with its trademark windmill building (more on this later) was not named after a Dutch settlement. By most accounts, it was an architect and amateur actor Hugh Holland that Holland Road was named after in 1907 and from which the village derived its name.

We stopped at Thambi Magazine Store and Money Changer where arrangement had been made to interview the young boss Sam (Mr P. Senthilmurugan). The elder Mr Thambi (Periathambi G) whom many associated with this iconic magazine stall had passed away in 2013. We learnt from Sam that the business started from his grandfather who delivered newspapers to the military camps and his father expanded into magazines due to a demand from the British servicemen and their families in the area. The store carries about 4000 magazines in the course of the year. Many are in English dealing with specialised / hobbyist topics commanding price tags typical of imported goods; there is certainly an upmarket feel browsing them along the five-foot way. One Caucasian tour participant remarked, "I like them, very simple". He was referring not to the magazines but the mass market children toys on display outside the entrance, reminding us their clientele does span a wide segment of the population.

Media Preview - Commonwealth & Holland Village Heritage Tour
Eu Chai interviewing Sam on the history behind Thambi Magazine

Media Preview - Commonwealth & Holland Village Heritage Tour
One is spoilt for choice at Thambi Magazine
Further down from Thambi Magazine, we stopped at the site of former Eng Wah Open Air Cinema at 3 Lorong Liput. Popular among local residents, the open-air cinema was established in the mid-1950s and specialised in Chinese wayang. I learnt the rows of benches for the theater were each rented for 50 cents per show. Affordable entertainment, assuming the bench was long enough to be shared! There is a link here with Thambi Magazine; as shown in My Community's file photo, it was at one corner of the site that the business had their makeshift stall (according to Sam, the business moved around Holland Village before settling at the current spot). The site was boarded up during our visit. No, it is not the open air cinema that was boarded up but Holland Road Shopping Mall (to distinguish from Holland Road Shopping Centre along the main road). The mall had been demolished. Yes, you read it right, Holland Village's iconic windmill building is no more in the name of makeover.

Media Preview - Commonwealth & Holland Village Heritage Tour
Tucked between the two units at Lorong Liput is a staircase access advertising ice agent and school bus service business. Eu Chai also shared one particular unit along this road that is often changing owner due to ... bad fengshui?

Next stop was Jia Ying Wu Shu Memorial Hall / Ying Fo Fui Kun Cemetery accessible via Holland Ave - Holland Close. This is a significant landmark in the trail as the Ancestral Hall actually predated Queenstown as part of the original 88-acre cemetery established in 1887 for Yin Fo Fui Kun clansmen from Jia Ying prefecture in Guangdong for burial and ancestral worship. The original cemetery (Shuang Long Shan or Double Dragon Hill) was compulsory acquired by HDB in the 1960s as a "logical extension of the Queenstown development". This extension are the estates of Buona Vista and Commonwealth; the hillock we see today walking down Holland Ave is a stark reminder of the cemetery's location. Today only 4.5 acres remain of the original 88; the neat rows of headstones, all looking surprisingly uniform, are from the original cemetery. The group learnt there are no physical remains under the headstones (note: from MyQueenstown Heritage Trail booklet, the ashes in urns were placed at either under the headstones, at the columbarium in the old Ancestral Hall or at the newer Ying Fo Fui Kun Memorial Hall; it remains to be seen how any urns are still under the headstones). As it was approaching Cheng Beng (Chinese's All Souls' Day), we saw folks making offerings and a canopy set up in front of the Ancestral Hall to prepare for the occasion. The Hall houses ancestral tablets since early 20th century and in 1926 a school was established in the hall (Ying Xin School) to provide education for the children.

Media Preview - Commonwealth & Holland Village Heritage Tour
Remnants of the original Shuang Long Shan at Ying Fo Fui Kun Cemetery. Ironically the hillock that once embraced these tombstones now house the HDB blocks while the tombstones are on flat ground.
From Google Map. The Ancestral Hall with the half-moon lake in front; as pointed out by the guide, the building is not aligned with the tombstones due to traditional practice of chinese buildings facing south.
Media Preview - Commonwealth & Holland Village Heritage Tour
We were directed to the slope at the back of the Ancestral Hall by one of their folks to look at this stone. This is no ordinary stone; it is one of the five element stones used in the construction of the Hakka Ancestral Hall.

Ying Fo Fui Kun Cemetery marks the beginning of the Commonwealth Trail for our tour. We have left Holland Village, which many residents see as part of Buona Vista neighborhood, to venture into another neighborhood in Queenstown.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

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