Tag Archives: singapore

Seeing Kranji and my WWII Obsession

My current reading list are mostly WWII books these days. Like “Tears in the Darkness” by Michael Norman, about the horrors of the Bataan Death March. Another is “Counting the Days” by Craig B. Smith, chronicles of POWs and stragglers in the pacific war. I have two more that I haven’t even started reading.

WWII literature are the most accessible online. If you’re searching under “Philippine History” you get more hits about WWII than any other time (or subject) in our history. The library here (Singapore) has plenty of great titles too. Some are in digital format that you can download using their app.

Although the Spanish-Philippine epoch has long been my area of interest, lately, I’m getting more and more fascinated by WWII stories. For one, it reminds me of my father’s experiences as a boy during the Japanese occupation. I interviewed several individuals in the past that shared with me their unbelievable stories of hardship, courage and spirit. My current reading list echoes their voices inside my head.

WWII happened less than a hundred years ago. Almost every Filipino knows relatives, or know someone, that survived it. For something that happened fairly  recent in our history it is without doubt greatly underappreciated. I don’t think our standard history text in schools gives it justice.

I admire Japanese who travels to the islands to offer their prayers, flowers, and paper cranes for their war dead. I was told that in Muntinlupa’s Japanese Cemetery, these visitors would still weep and sing the popular Japanese 1940s song ”Night Goes on in Muntinlupa” (composed by Japanese prisoners, later pardoned by Quirino). And these visitors are not that old. They’re much younger. They probably only heard of their dead relative’s fate from their older folks.

The Japanese have long memories. There was a Japanese soldier, said to be of royal origin, that was buried somewhere in downtown Dumaguete. The relatives never stopped​ looking until they finally did half a century later. WWII artifact hunter Tantin Cata-al shared this story with me. He gets regular Japanese visitors. Whenever he stumbles upon dead Japanese soldiers from Mt. Talinis during his expeditions, he puts them in a sack and brings them home. He’s got two when I visited, he was expecting Japanese representatives to get them.

I remember visiting Libingan ng mga Bayani a few years ago. I came to pay my respects to our WWII dead and to Nick Joaquin, the national artist. I lingered long enough time to see the portions that are neglected. Then I spoke to the guy cleaning Nick’s gravesite. He told me then that he hasn’t been paid yet.  “By who? the government?” I asked. By the dead’s relatives.

What?!?

Why does the living has to pay for contractors to maintain the grass? to clean the marker? Is the cost too much for the government to shoulder? these men unselfishly served the nation. What’s wrong with us people?

– – –

When I visited Kranji cemetery it was Sunday. There were only five people. Most likely visiting relatives because they were busy locating a tombstone. A maintenance crew told me that visitors are rare even during weekends. Only exception is when dignitaries make official visits. Two years ago the British Royals, Kate and William, dropped by to pay their respects. Crowds gathered to take a glimpse of their former royalties. The event highlights the importance of Kranji Cemetery as a war memorial.

The area where Kranji cemetery is located was converted by the Japanese into a prison. It was a camp and ammunition storage previously. Not far, down the Kranji river, was where the Japanese forces first landed in Singapore. They crossed the straits of Johor, some in bikes. The cemetery is elevated, on a clear day you can see Johor Bahru’s skyline.

There’s less than 100 tombstones in Kranji but there are around 4400 that are buried in its grounds, more than 800 are unidentified. Its memorial walls has the name of 24000 allied soldiers.

Kranji cemetery also serves as a state cemetery. The first Singapore president, Yusof Bin Ishak, the only man featured in the country’s paper currency, was buried on the northern portion of the cemetery.

Like the American Cemetery in Taguig, Kranji is managed by a non-local European group tasked to oversee maintenance and commemoration of allied soldiers and servicemen. It is funded by member states unlike the American Battle Monument Commission (ABMC). The ABMC representative, a retired Marine, told me that their funding is not granted by congress’ budget. So I assume they operate from grants and contributions.

ABMC’s first chairman was Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing. A US military legend who mentored Patton, MacArthur and Bradley, even Eisenhower. He served in Mindanao where legend has it that he scared the Moros by dipping bullets in pigs blood. This is unfounded (but was mentioned by Trump during the presidential campaign!) and is believed to be inaccurate but it could also be a real, a psychological tactic employed to sow fear. This kind of historical rumors don’t crop up from nothing.

gloomy day it was #WWII #kranji #kranjiwarmemorial

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I’ve been deep in my reading WWII books lately that I feel compelled to visit historical sites here linked to WWII events. If there’s something that binds Singapore and the Philippines aside from being close South East Asian neighbors is that both experienced the brutal Japanese occupation.

Back home, we have so many places that witnessed​ the war: old houses used as Japanese residence, rice fields once converted to air strips, larger buildings converted to makeshift hospitals, bomb shelters, even caves that were used as temporary covers. There’s so many to see. When I get back, I’m visiting the Mabalacat airstrip used by Japanese pilots to launch deadly attacks against the allied forces. The Kamikaze East Airfield in Mabalacat is where the Kamikaze pilots first took off.


The RSAF “open house” experience

These planes are parked like cars

I visited the Royal Singapore Air Force museum in 2011. I heard then that the RSAF use to have a yearly  “air show” but that it had been put off indefinitely. It made a comeback this year. I thought I should see it. Who knows if they’ll have one again next year.

I’m a huge aviation fan and I try to see air shows and aviation museums when I’m near one. Not many know that the Philippine Air Force have a museum in Villamor near NAIA Terminal 3. There’s not much to see but the effort is laudable considering our military is cash strapped. The museum traces its beginnings in 1974 during Marcos’ rule (actually then it was called Marcos Museum).

The joke since I was a boy was that Philippine Air Force is all air, no force. Thanks to the intensifying tensions in West Philippine Seas we’re slowly building back air power. We recently bought Korean made FA-50’s. At least we’re back in the supersonic age.

The RSAF open house’s in Paya Lebar Air Base lasted for two day and was attended by some 400 thousand visitors. The biggest attendance in its history.

There’s no direct transport that goes to the base but you don’t worry about this here. Singaporeans are masters in securing and running events. The organizers paid dozens of private buses that shuttled people in and out of the venue.

The static display gave the public the chance to inspect the RSAF assets.  They even allowed visitors to sit on the cockpit of the F-15s and F-16s, the Apache, the Seahawk, the Chinooks, the C-130s and the Stratotanker KC135.

I remember having a poster of an Apache attack helicopter when I was in my teens. I have never seen one up close until last Sunday. So I joined the long line, together with some kids, to get a closer look.

I recall a Zamboangeño friend who had a brother-in-law in Armed Force of the Philippines. He would occasionally hitch a ride in one of the PAF’s C-130 from Villamor Air Base to Zamboanga back in the 90’s. I asked him if I could try and we were cleared to go except my Mother threatened to suspend my allowance if I did. Zamboanga and Sulu is a place no parent wanted their children to see even now.

The highlight of the show was how RSAF demonstrated their ability to go airborne in just minutes to intercept an unknown aircraft. The scramble demo involved two F-15s and two F-16s. Remarkable high level performance topped with aerial acrobatics.

Singapore has a 719.1 km² land area, smaller than Marinduque, but it has the biggest air force in South East Asia. According to experts, they’re the “best trained, led and equipped in the region.” 

There’s a reason why the smaller nations is spending more in military hardware than its neighboring countries. Bigger nations naturally coerce and influence what they perceive to be weaker states around them. History tells us this to be true.

We don’t need to look far—read what’s happening in the West Philippine Seas.

I tell people that the Scarborough now guarded by the Chinese coast guards is so near that Zambales fishermen frequents it—I heard this from some of them. The Chinese recently placed buoys around the shoal and there’s nothing we can do but to express our displeasure. Our neighbor is literally in our doorsteps and we can’t get rid of them.

In the 1990’s no foreign military vessel would wander off in Scarborough. The US, with their air bases in the area then, routinely went on target practice there. Truth is we won’t be getting what we lost anytime soon. We can only hope to continue building our military to defend what’s out there, what’s ours.

Let’s learn from the Singaporeans.

Formations above, static displays below…

All roads leads to RSAF’s Open House last Sunday

The mighty Apache


National Gallery Singapore, a must-visit for every Filipino

Singapore is home to some of the most impressive art galleries and museums in the region. This certainly is not an accident. The government creates art programs accessible to its people and attractive to its visitors. Most museums are discounted if not free for its citizens.

I recently visited the new National Gallery Singapore. How they transformed the old City Hall and Supreme Court, buildings of great historical importance, into one modern museum is a feat that merits admiration.

NGS’s exhibit, the world largest collection of modern and classical SE Asian art, was just as impressive.

I feel like I’m already beating a dead horse in this blog when I say we need to emulate Singapore’s adaptive reuse of its old buildings. They’re under tremendous pressure to build and expand but they do so without knocking down their historic structures.

Now back to the museum.

For Filipinos, living or visiting the island, NGS is a must stop over. Put it on your to-do list paisanos.

Why?

Inside you’ll find works from our greatest painters: Juan Luna, Felix Resurrecion-Hidalgo, Fernando Amorsolo and Carlos “Botong” Francisco. Men hailed as art pioneers in the region. Their obra masetras—national symbols to us Filipinos.

Like Luna’s “España y Filipinas” that speaks of the Filipino past and identity. There’s so much symbolism in this obra. One could spend an entire day figuring out the concealed message it tries to convey.

There are three known “España y Filipinas,” all painted by Luna. I have seen the one in Lopez Museum 8 years ago. Another version is in Cadiz Spain. The one in the NGS’s collection appears to be the piece that was recently auctioned in Sotheby’s. I did check with a staff and I was told that the painting is on loan. So, I’m confused now. Maybe Ambeth Ocampo could help us figure this out.

Then there’s “The Christian Virgins Being Exposed to the Populace” by Félix Resurrección Hidalgo. This painting placed second to Luna’s massive “Spoliarium” in an art competition in Spain. I first saw this painting in Metropolitan Museum of Manila. The original was destroyed in a fire in Vallodolid.

The works of Fernando Amorsolo were so palpable you could feel his emotion. I learned about this painter in poster reproductions that adorned our elementary classrooms. I was too young to appreciate art then but those posters embedded in my mind the joyous nature of Filipinos, the beauty of our old barrio life and our great traditions.

Amorsolo’s painting during WWII are chilling reminders of a war that’s not that distant from us but many had already forgotten. NGS has two of his work during the occupation, “Defend Thy Honour” and “Marketplace during the Occupation”.

There were also art works from modern Filipino artists: Alfredo Manrique, Vicente Manansala, Ben Cabrera, Imelda Cajipe Endaya, Pablo Baens Santos, Romeo V Tabuena, Roberto Chabet, Hernando R Ocampo and Lee Aguinaldo.

The building that house’s NGS is in itself a great historical and architectural exhibit. I briefly joined the guided tour. The guide took the group around explaining its parts, history and even materials used. The visitors were entertained when she showed the temporary holding cells of the supreme court and later the trap door that opens to the courtroom upstairs.

The city hall is where Admiral Mountbatten accepted the surrender of the Japanese in 1945. Lee Kuan Yew, the island nation’s first prime minister, held office in this same building.

The National Gallery Singapore consists of two wings, the City Hall and the Supreme Court, connected by a link bridge.  The DBS Singapore Gallery focuses on local artists while the UOB gallery features classic and contemporary SE Asian artists. Both buildings went under painstaking restoration work. The entire project is a text book effort in architectural reuse.

I look forward to seeing the museum again, hopefully some of you guys can join me!

The city hall, from a distance, the supreme courts dome. These two building were adapted to house the Singapore National Gallery

Part of the Supreme Court wing of NGS. Good view of the Marina Bay Sands

Filipino artists work on display!

 


The Terror in Torre de Manila

I doubt it if we’ll ever get rid of DMCI’s Torre de Manila. These guys are buying time—or whatever can be bought. After those senate investigations and all the media attention, after decades of delays brought about by legal technicalities, their construction would slowly creep back in.

Companies like DMCI makes their money from such developments. A friend who bought a “Torre de Manila” unit told me that the condominium was advertised for its proximity to the park. So he and his partner bought one. They’re now regretting their decision. Not because the building turned out to be obstructing the Luneta skyscape but they fear they’ll lose their investment.

Real estate companies are liable only to their stockholders and unit owners—if these two are pleased—they did their job. On the other hand, our local government and its agencies are tasked to catch projects that are disadvantageous to the general public—in this case to a heritage site.

IMG-20140429-00280

Well, at least this monument in Calamba is still clear of visual obstructions. But this is not Manila where land deals amounts to the millions.

Some believes that pockets were greased to get this project rolling—this of course is not beyond the realms of possibilities. Let’s no kid ourselves now. Manila city hall are acting like they woke up one day with that horrific building already standing.

Manila’s City Hall together with other Philippines agencies that were suppose to regulate heritage zoning in the capital dropped the ball on this one—as they did in so many other so called land developments that ended up destroying historical sites.

* * *

I decided not to blog about this issue until I see the Rizal shrine with its “photobomber” first hand. Last month I drove pass the monument.

Yes, it did ruin the view—a visiting dignitary offering a wreath to honor Rizal would most likely wonder what’s that obnoxious building is doing behind it!

You know the problem with Manila is that it gets leaders like Lito Atienza, who’s now a lion campaigning against “Torre de Manila” Someone should remind this guy that if he had not ordered the demolition of that historic art deco building called Skydome there would be no Terror de Manila.

He asked for it to be leveled so Manila could build a justice hall or something—what ever happened to that? From a government office to a condominium building!?!

It must be my deviant sense of humor that makes me laugh hard about how these guys’ runs Manila. It is literally a circus that never leaves town.

I don’t know how permits are issued in Manila, who calls the shots, who sits on these meetings? But like many old cities, it does have a zoning plan that’s supposed to safeguard its heritage sites. It is safe to assume that if such a zoning plan is in placed that it is loosely enforced—and I’m being polite here.

Heck, even in Intramuros a building was built not too long ago. It would not surprise me if SM Manila would one day annex parts of the city hall. It seems like everything’s up for grab in Manila for the right price.

* * *

There are some quarters that suggest that there’s nothing wrong with the Torre de Manila condominium towering over the shrine. Some even backs the construction, saying Filipinos are again “over reacting,” Some say that those making a big fuzz out of it are people that never read Rizal.

A former colleague told me that we should accept that development around the area is inevitable. I reminded her that aside from being Rizal’s final resting place the area used to be killing fields for revolutionaries—for me and to countless Filipinos it’s hallowed grounds. I asked her if someone decides to build a house or a public restroom next to her family mausoleum would she allow it? “No,” she said. So why should Filipinos say “yes” to DMCI I replied.


Bedok Reservoir and other Lake Stories

Last month we were invited by some friends to eat “bulalo” in Lucky Plaza, the mecca of Filipino overseas workers here in Singapore. During weekends Filipinos, mostly domestic workers, congregate around the area.

We shared stories about our diversions. I told them I enjoy biking around the 4 kilometer shoreline of the Bedok Reservoir especially before the crack of dawn. During this time of the day the manmade lagoon provides spectacular scenes unlike anywhere else.

One of the older women there cautioned me that “it’s not safe”. She started telling me about the numerous “mysterious” deaths that has occurred in the lake. She used to live near the reservoir and claims to having sensed some “bad spirits” in it. I sat there in torment listening to her other supernatural stories but her story about unknown entities residing in lakes did not surprised me.

* * *

I recall this news of children drowning in Taal lake a few years ago. Curious was how the correspondents seem to link the deaths to the paranormal and not measures the local government failed to enact. Why would they assume that spirits are randomly taking lives in that placid lake?

My mother said Visayan folklore also attributes drowning deaths to mysterious sea vortex that abruptly appears from nowhere. They call it “Lilo” or “Liloan”. Some littoral towns carries this name to this day. I wonder if they were named after the fabled whirlpools.

When I was in Laoag, I read about the myth of its lake’s origin. According to local legend the lake was once a town called San Juan de Sagun; apparently an unforgiving god sunk it to teach the wicked townsfolk a lesson. The legend sounded biblical like Soddom and Gomorrah.

Fresh water lakes are remnants of catalytic natural catastrophes. I could imagine whatever creature had been left to struggle in it would ultimately adapt. It is possible that monsters people claimed to have seen in lakes are literally monstrous prehistoric animals.

Speaking of adaptation, the only known fresh water sardines, the tawilis, are from Taal Lake. These once sea dwelling fish learned how to live in fresh water conditions. Now that’s fascinating. One of my favorite history book about Batangas is “The Mysteries of Taal: A Philippine Volcano and Lake” by Thomas Hargrove. In the book he marveled how the lake, categorized as fresh water, appears to have sustained species intended only for the sea.

* * *

One of my favorite legend around Laguna de Ba’y is the one told by old timers of Pila-Pila in Binagonan.

The story goes that a gorgeous lady who had countless suitors decided to test them. She would make her husband the man who can erect a bridge from Pila-Pila to Los Banos’s main market. Because it was practically impossible all of the men back off except one—a fine-looking man who took on the task.

The following night, the barrio was awaken by loud activities. To their shock they found demons building the foundation of the bridge! Turns out that the man was the devil himself. The maiden then went to the church and took the cross from the altar and brought it to where the demons were busy setting up the foundation for her bridge. They all scampered but left the vestiges of their work there in Pila-Pila.

I’m sure those rock formation, called “Fuente del Diablo,” have some scientific explanation behind it but these stories are amusing. But what’s more fascinating is that some people believe in it.

* * *

While biking along the lake shore of Laguna de Ba’y in Muntinlupa two years ago I came across some local fishermen. They were casting their nets and were catching milkfish. What they catch they prepare for their families, any surplus they sell.

I asked these men if a bigger ship could still ply the lake. “You need to get rid of those private fish pens in the middle of the lake first,” they said with these big smiles on their faces. They told me that there’s potential for using the lake for transportation if our government is willing to invest in it. They should know because not only do they boat around it, they swim on it too.

But the fishermen also said that ships must be modest in size for a larger vessel would run into some shallow waters particularly during summer. They told me that the deepest depth of the lake is around 6 feet “mas o menus”. They got it right, LLDA classified the lake as a “shallow freshwater” with maximum depth of 2.8 meters.

* * *

Now going back to the Bedok Reservoir. It was recently the site of some of the water sports for the SEA games where held. Not far from it is the 30 hectare campus of the Temasek Polytechnic. It has the most idyllic site for a learning institution that I have ever seen.

The tree lined pathway of the Bedok Reservoir

I did check some online articles and found that some believe the reservoir is cursed, some say it’s haunted, others attribute its location as bad fengshui. But I’m of the opinion that these so called mysterious deaths are nothing more but coincidence. The lake’s so peaceful and attractive that troubled souls would naturally gravitate to it—to die? Maybe, we don’t know what really goes on the minds of those people who unexpectedly plunge in its still waters.

Also, the lake have a maximum depth of 18 feet. Extremely dangerous for someone who can’t swim. I could barely swim so I’m not thinking of dipping in its placid water anytime soon. I’m happy biking around it in a sunshiny picture-perfect Sunday.


A Page From Leonardo Da Vinci’s Book…

I recall how my brother Samuel, now living in the US, would sit me down and show me pictures of great paintings, ancient buildings and perfect sculptures. It was the 80’s and I was in grade school. We had an encyclopedia, a 29 volume hardbound Funk and Wagnalls, which my parent paid for in installments. We were the only family in that impoverished Makati neighborhood to own one.

When you’re a child, it is not letters and numbers that attracts you but pictures. I could not forget the images of art works, particularly that of the Renaissance era, these were tattooed on my mind. Of all the great minds that came out of this period, Leonardo, my brother said, is the greatest.

The big circle drawing is called a Mazzocchio. It is a medieval hat with 256 faces. Believe it or not, he’s trying to capture the image in 3D. And this was like, what, 500 years ago? The first two image (1) a mechanical drum, yeah, a drum that does not have a drummer! (2) a Perspectograph, an instrument used to obtains outlines of objects.

Since then, I became a huge admirer of Da Vinci. Read everything that I could get my hands on about him. Except, Da Vinci Code; I find it too silly.

Last year, I visited Singapore’s Old Parliament building to catch a glimpse of the controversial Isleworth Monalisa. Some expert say it’s a Leonardo original, some say it’s not—I would like to believe it is.

While I was in Germany, three years ago, I tried to make it to Paris. I was staying in the historic Heidelberg town then; the French capital was four hours away by public commute. I could have seen the Louvre, where the Mona Lisa is on permanent display but I have no money for the trip.

The angels, saints or maybe Leonardo himself must have pitied this man and granted his wish. The Isleworth Monalisa was only the beginning.

When I arrived a few weeks ago, I read an on line article featuring the on going exhibits at the ArtScience Museum in Marina Bay Sands. What caught my eyes is the one dedicated to Leonardo, entitled “Da Vinci: Shaping the Future.” The show features impressive presentations and actual pages from the Codex Atlanticus, the largest collection of Leonardo’s drawings and writings.

While following the incredibly laid out presentation about how Leonardo inspired countless innovations  I was hoping that the original pages (which is at the end part of the exhibit) would include the ones I saw when I was a lil’ lad. I was a bit disappointed that the anatomical drawings was not part of the exhibit (but there were facsimiles complete with annotations) but the giant crossbow and the mechanical wing are there! I recall seeing these!

Leonardo studied under great masters that influenced his life and work. He was educated in almost everything. He does not know Latin which was a disadvantage as it was the lengua franca of his time and some of the most important books were written using it. You would not notice this handicap though because he accomplished more than any man!

There were also his studies in geometry, dam, castles, town planning, Archimedes screw, mechanical cannon, theatrical stage and other mechanisms.

The original pages are protected by glass and no one’s allowed to take photos. But when the security was not looking, I touched some of the protective glass— so that I could tell my son one day that I came that close to our race’s greatest genius! You can’t get any closer than that, no, not even in Louvre.

I was told that the museum would bring a new batch of pages from the Codex for February before the exhibit comes to an end. I would most likely go again. There is also a section dedicated to the works of his students. One painting, a rendition of the iconic painting John the Baptist, is from Salaì, believed to be Leonardo’s lover; He used him as model for his John the Baptist.

Seeing this exhibit reminded me of the importance of taking notes, of writing observations and thoughts on a piece of paper.Technology is slowly taking this away and I wonder if the future generation would need to visit museums to see what paper notebooks and writing pens used to looked like.

I must confess that I am addicted to museums. Why not? They are great alternatives to movie houses and malls. As that prominent writer Sionil Jose said, they are practically libraries, “the ultimate storehouse of knowledge, human thought and civilization.”

I regard our museums with great appreciation. I grew up going to the National Museum. I have fond memories of the Ayala Museum and its dioramas—every child should see this. Worthy of mention are the Metropolitan and the Lopez Museums. The former have a remarkable collection of tribal ornaments. The latter have a great and friendly library.

But without a doubt, Singapore’s Museums receives more visitors and funding. Because of this, they’re better in everything; example, the Artscience’s bathroom resembles that of a five star hotel; go just outside, near the main entrance and you’ll find an Anish Kapoor sculpture. Their museums showcases famed international exhibits; programs and exhibits are not static, by doing so, they keep people interested.

I remember seeing that moving exhibit “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” a few years ago. Deep inside I was hoping that they would bring it to our country. But this, as we all know, is wishful thinking as it is unlikely that such an exhibit would generate interest and yes, profit. We’re not known for patronizing museums and art galleries—and this is just sad. To many Filipinos why pay to see a museum when there are gigantic shopping malls and international pop music concerts?

 

 


Otters, Mangroves and Pasir Ris Fishermen

With the haze almost gone, I went out today to see some nature. It’s ironic that I could do this with ease here and not in Manila. The Singaporean government has made it possible for people to experience nature by making their nature parks and reserves accessible to the public. For example, they managed to link their major parks through what is called ‘park connectors’, these are series of pathways that allows people to hop from one park to another. Town planning here as you can see is unbelievably impeccable–something we Pinoys could all, well, forget it.

Quietly reeling in all kinds of fish. Small but plenty. Pasir Ris has some good beach scenery when weather is feeling generous.

I frequent this place because it’s not far from where I stay–meaning it cost very little to go here. The entire area is called Pasir Ris park–a 17 hectare of natural and ‘man made’ nature. An interesting spot, a personal favorite, is the ‘mangrove forest’. They constructed elevated wooden pathways and platforms so people could observe the fascinating biology in full display when its low tide. You could see crabs, monitor lizards,fishes and birds that feeds on mud creepers that’s only visible to them. But I’m cautious whenever I’m around these parts because I once saw a curled up brown snake (looks like a pit viper) resting in one of the branches near the pathway. But that’s what these reserves are all about–people experiencing nature. As long as you keep your distance from these animals you’re fine. Last year when we visited the river near the area, we saw these giant monitor lizards basking in the sun. Somehow they managed to crawl up to the sides of those slanted thich trees near the river to catch some sun!

Bakawan in Tagalog. Mangroves is know for its resiliency. Scientists has been experimenting on its chemical properties looking for something that could help save mankind! Talk about survival, this plant not only survive but it thrive in some of the harshest conditions.

Two years ago, some people spotted a python near a housing estate up north. When wildlife officers came, they just instructed people not to go near it. The python then went to a grassy ditch, then disappeared. When I was a young boy I remember my uncle (may he rest in peace) catching a large python (after the Pinatubo eruption). He killed the poor animal, skinned it and cooked it! Conservation of wild life is something that’s lost in our society, the ‘ubos ubos biyaya’ is our attitude towards nature!

We once rented bikes and went around this wide park. Trouble is that you can’t go in the forest side if you’re on a bike. I noticed a growing number of Filipinos biking in the area–they’re some of the best dressed, best equipped bikers you’ll ever see. The beach of Pasir Ris is always serene but rarely you’d see people swim its waters. Even when there’s strong winds the waves remains small and this makes the area great for fishing. Across Pasir Ris is one of the bigger island in the country, Pulau Ubin–which is also accessible but much wilder–monkeys and wild pigs freely roam this island–I think they took over after the British left their mines!

This area is popular for those who wants to shoot (with their cameras and not guns) birds that visits the area whenever tide goes down.

Along the beach of Pasir Ris there’s a floating house which I think is a shelter for local fishermen. I  like seeing those old guys fishing along the surf. I don’t think they care that much what they manage to reel in–for sure, it’s that zen-sque moment that a rod and reel gives a man that makes even a catch-less day worth it. The banks were said to have been developed with anglers in mind. It was also last year that I saw otters in this beach. I didn’t know then that there were such animals in the area, so just imagine my surprise when I saw these animals!:

Along with Changi, Pasir Ris are in the east side of the island and were once dominated by Malay ‘kampong’, rural villages that was prevalent before the development of the country. “Landscape Planning in Singapore” by Edmund Waller provides great detail how the new town Pasir Ris was planned. Here I learned that the name of the town means ‘white sands’ in Malay. The old town was known for its coconut plantations, fish ponds and mangroves. “Kampong” villages, still exists in Malaysia and even in our country, in the south where families in wooden homes are brought together by livelihood and religion. Even today, Islamic influence could be seen in the towns central bus terminal, which also serves as the convention point for young Singaporeans serving in the army during weekends. There’s an island not far from here that was developed to serve as training grounds for these young soldiers. They’re mandated by law to render two years of military service.

In the 1960’s, several skulls and bones were found in the town which were believe to be that of WWII casualties. These bodies were exhumed and given proper burial. A curious place gaining popularity in this town is what locals call the ‘Red House’. I have not seen this place nor I intend to but I know this is of interest to those people seeking ghosts. I don’t know why some people would you want to see one but there are people that do. They’re not crazy, just a little weird! This is Remembersingapore‘s most hunted. If there’s one thing I found out about Singaporeans is that they’re like us, they like these kind of stuff.

I was having a great time reading some of the comments of Filipinos about the ‘haze’ here in Singapore. I thought we would be the last to react but I guess some Pinoys enjoys the attention and making ‘drama’ (one comment in Inquirer even said she felt it was the ‘end of the world’!). The haze was pretty bad but it’s temporary and I don’t think it’s as bad as the smog that chokes us in Manila everyday!

Message to Pinoys: C’mon, stop being sissies and drama queens.


Filipino Entertainers in old Singapore

On my way to Mustafa  (a mall popular for its low prices and 24/7 business hours) I passed by the white old gates of the ‘New World‘ located just outside Farrer MRT. I’ve seen it before but it’s only now that I decided to take a closer look. The gate appears prettier during night time when spotlights highlight its distinctive colonial art design.

I find the restoration effort impressive because not only did they retained the gate but made sure that it’s in a place where it would be seen. But more impressive is that the restoration of the gate was an entirely private venture. The gate once stood at Jalan Besar, it is now in front of the modern City Square mall as a reminder of the old entertainment business in the island.

In the 60’s, the decade when entertainment shifted to television and radio the business operations inside these amusement parks (there were three of them) was shut down. The land where ‘New World‘ once stood has long been developed. The arch and gate  moved to its present location along the Kirchener Road–an acknowledgement of the amusement park’s historical significance.

Filipino entertainers pass through this gate in the 1900’s

The history of this ‘New World Amusement’ park is interesting for us Filipinos. It is the only Singaporean heritage site I know that has a marker that mentions us. Turns out that some of our countrymen in the early 1900’s managed to take part in the local show business:

“First opened in 1923 by the two Straits Chinese merchants brothers, Ong Boon Tat and Ong Peng Hock, who were sons of prominent businessman, Ong Sam Leong, the New World attracted visitors from all walks of life – from Europeans, affluent local merchants to labourers, families and local residents. New World was a destination of fund and entertainment until the 1950’s. It featured many exciting programmes and attractions from boxing and wrestling matches to variety shows, operas from various ethnic groups and a small cabaret with Filipino arstistes.”

While ‘cabaret’ is a workplace of dubious reputation in our vocabulary, working in such places in other countries meant making a living out of “performing music, dance, recitation and comedy.” A master of ceremonies introduces performers, boxers, wrestlers and just about everything people would pay to see. The Filipinos were mostly artists, as the marker states in the ‘New World’ gate.

This Filipino presence  is an important reminder that we’ve always had good artists–a reputation that to this day continues–and that we’ve been coming to work in this wonderful country for centuries. Filipino migration to this island is not new. Let’s not forget about  the  Filipinos in Singapore in the late 19th century that attempted to save Rizal while he was detained in a ship (anchored in Singapore’s harbor) bound for Manila. The British denied the request to give the Filipino a refuge in the English colony but just imagine if they granted Rizal a safe pass!

There’s around half a million Filipino tourist that visits Singapore yearly. Last year, Filipinos ranked six among international visitors. This is attributed to increased number of flights going to the island, as well as the improving economy back home. It is a fact that a significant percentage of Filipinos who visits Singapore gives job hunt a stab but due to recent restrictions this is slowly becoming a fruitless pursuit for most Pinoys.

With this I hope Filipinos who come to see the islands explore it for its historical ties with us. But with all the other major attractions the island state offers, encouraging Filipinos to spend some time visiting historical landmarks (i.e., River Valley Rd., Good Shepherd Church) connected us is a tall order, if not impossible.


So That’s What Haze Looks Like…

I was forewarned that Singapore’s haze levels has hit record high.

But what is a ‘haze’?

Below, the East Coast beach area. Normally visible at this altitude.

According to an online source, haze is an atmospheric phenomenon where dust, smoke and small particles obscure the  sky. Lowering visibility is definitely a safety concern but an even bigger problem is the threat the haze here (literally smoke from a burning forest!) poses to humans on the ground.

Yesterday, was the worst levels ever I was told–so bad that recently extended work breaks and even stoppages are being mulled by the government. Not sure if that would make any difference considering the air you breath inside your home is the same air you breath outside. It’s a no-brainer that the best solution is for the Indonesians to extinguish the fire–question is if they can control the raging forest fire themselves!

When the plane started to descend earlier, I saw how thick smoke has engulfed the landscape. Normally, when the plane is about to land you’ll get a nice glimpse of the amazing terra and sea beneath–today, you could hardly see a thing.

The strange part is that you could actually smell a bit of the smoke sip into the plane! Even in the terminal, you could see the faint traces of smoke hover above. Outside, you could smell burning wood–you could feel it in your eyes, too.

Most Filipinos who grew up in and around Manila are used to poor air quality. So I don’t really feel that bad being here but I could only imagine how local Singaporean feels since they’ve never been under such poor air conditions. While this is not new (there had been ‘haze’ issues here before) I heard that this is the worst case the nation has ever encountered. As of this writing, the level was on the ‘hazardous’ level.


The Week for Thoughts…in Singapur

While waiting at  the bus stop a few days ago I overheard this old man, his English heavy accented (imagine Rex Navarette skits), conversing with a child that spoke to him in typical Singlish. Their brand of English that at first is difficult to understand, but once you get the hang of it, becomes easy to follow — even learn.

The Filipino professionals that came to Singapore in the last 10- 20 years now have their families here. They’re also sending their children to local schools. And these children are rapidly integrating into Singaporean society. I could no longer distinguish Filipino from local sometimes. It’s quite fascinating, how children adapt to their environment almost effortlessly.

As Singapore updates their immigration policy (substantially cutting back on foreign labor) these Filipino-Singaporean generation (from the 90’s up to present) would most likely be the first and only big wave of Filipino immigrants here — subsequent Filipino migration would likely become less and less as years go by. Singapore is expected to adapt stricter measures to ensure the core population don’t get completely diluted. People like me would one day come home but these Filipino Singaporeans would stay and help build their country’s future.

The pioneer of Filipino labor here are the “Domestic Helpers”. These DH’s in fact was here long before the so called Filipino professionals started coming in the 90’s (when Singapore broadly opened its door to foreign workers). Some of them arrived in the island as early as the 70’s. Around the time the economy was starting to pick up and the Singaporeans needed people to look after their children while they help build their modern Singapore.

These Filipinos live a hard life. Out of desperation to support their family leaves country and family behind. Breaks my heart whenever I hear fellow Filipinos look down on these hardworking Filipinos just because they toil in the lower rungs. I suspect that this attitude must be some form of a psychological defense mechanism. We abhor the image of what our nation and her people has become – we disrespect our own because we have little respect for ourselves. We forget that their condition in life is the result of our collective failure as a nation.

I respect these people because my mother worked as a housemaid for rich relatives in Manila in the 60’s. She would recount to us her children how difficult that life was. She did it so she could support her siblings in Negros (they were orphaned very early in life). Fortunately, she was treated very well. The lady of the house, Manang Lolet, wife of the founder of Cafe Puro, was the one that taught her how to cook. I know because once I asked her to teach me how to prepare “achara” (pickled papaya) and she reminded me that it was Manang Lolet that taught her. I then asked what else did she taught her and she just laughed. I guess that means a list too long to enumerate.

I’m not sure if there has been any study made on the economic impact of  Filipina DH’s here in Singapore. I’m sure their service had some positive effect on the local economy back in the day because their presence allowed Singaporeans parents to work. And not only this, I believe that most of them also helped educate young Singaporeans. A friend of mine told me that not only did their Filipina “maid” improved his English, she also helped the brood with their mathematics and other homework (she also learned to cook Teochew dishes from his grandma and this friend remembers well how they all cried at the airport when she left for good). I asked if she happens to be a teacher back in the Philippines, he said no, but he was certain that she had a college degree!

Once I spoke with a Chinese Singaporean cab driver who married an Ilonga that worked before as a Housemaid here. His family, wife and daughter are in Iloilo (I forgot what town). He plans to retire in the Philippines and become a full time “rice farmer”. He said he owns two vehicles that carry farm produce to be sold with the help of his “tatay” . Recently, this man bought a “small rice land” as “investment”. The guy also built for himself a two storey home with his extended family occupying several rooms. As for his daughter, he intends to enroll her in a Chinese school in Iloilo city. I’ll never forget these words from him, “here I am poor, but in the Philippines I am a rich man with big family!”

The frigate Intrepid, one of 6 in service for RSN. The exhibit was an oppurtunity for the local population to see their Navy up close. There were also booths inside the vivocity mall displaying Navy equipment  Most popular among the kids are the real guns that they can hold but not fire of course.

This afternoon we went to see a Singapore Navy stealth frigate berthed in the waters near vivocity for the public to see. They’re trying to drive up local interest in military careers especially in their navy which is a vital military institution for them. A powerful navy ensures protection of their maritime interests. Remember, they have one of the busiest sea port and shipping passages in the world. My brother, a retired US Navy, told me that the Malacca straits (not that far from here) to this day is littered with pirates. He said that their ship would be put on alert every time they pass this body of water. I remember looking it up because I can’t believe that we still have pirates in this part of the world today. Turns out that’s true!

You would be surprised to know that even though Singapore’s considered the richest in South East Asia, the biggest navy in the region belongs to Vietnam. And they don’t plan to scale things down. They’re projected to spend most of their military budget buying more submarines and ships. This explains why they have courage to stand up against China;s bullying in the West seas. We’re also vocal, too confrontational at times, but this posturing has more to do with the guarantees Uncle Sam gives us.

I think it’s time for us to imitate our neighbors. We should stop this modernization with US hand-me-downs (my goodness, last year we receive a WWII ship! c’mon! you kiddin’ me!). The Singaporeans build corvettes and patrol vessels — why don’t we negotiate with them? It doesn’t matter if takes time to modernize as long as military procurement are wisely made. Lets skip making more concessions in exchange for free and discounted used arms. Our neighbors managed to modernize their navies without any external funding and assistance – let’s learn from them.

1st – 2nd week, March 2013


Chijmes and or chimes

The CHIJMES with Swissotel as background.

Singaporeans could get really creative with how to make use of  their remaining heritage buildings. There’s not a lot around so collective effort are directed towards salvaging what’s left of their historical and cultural sites.

I was in the Victoria St. area earlier to take photos of CHIJMES. I marveled at the gracious and innovative transformation the historic convent underwent. One of the best example of architectural reuse I’ve ever seen.

You usually hear old churches and convents located in prime development areas giving way to new development. CHIJMES’ a unique exception. All the significant architectural features of the church and convent was retained. Then the entire area was leased to businesses. Ensuring its continuous utilization and survival for years to come.

The former Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus was established in 1840. Subsequent improvements in the property includes the eerily beautiful Gothic chapel. The entire complex is now a site for events, restaurants and shopping.

The new convent is located somewhere near the East Coast area of the island. I accidentally stumbled upon it when I took a new route on my way home (wanting to cut time). Someone, spirits from the old convent, wanted to show me where they’ve relocated?

With modern skyscrapers dwarfing the CHIJMES, the scene in Victoria St. is a fascinating contrast of new and old. A kind of visible historical strata that livens up not only the town but anyone with an imagination for the past.

Two gazetted structures can be found in the CHIJMES area: the Gothic Chapel and the neoclassical Caldwell house, designed by the British architect Coleman. It now houses contemporary art exhibits.

Near the gate of the chapel is a wooden door called “The Gate of Hope”. Here babies were dropped inside baskets for the Nuns to pick up in the past. According to a marker inside, “for over 100 years the orphanage was born to children from poor and broken families as well as unwanted babies.”

The orphanage and the mission here continued until 1983.

Father Jean Marie Beurel, who’s said to had bought the Caldwell House for the nuns of CHIJ with his own money, would be proud of the lasting legacy the mission left behind.

The curious globe trotting Jose Rizal wandered around this same area during his first visit.  Singapore holds the distinction as the country the national hero visited the most, a total of five times.

The area’s a great destination for those looking for religious and historical connection. The churches that Rizal saw in his time are still here. Victoria St. is where CHIJMES and the church of Good Shepherd are located. Not far, in Queen St., the church of Sts. Peter and Paul. There’s the Singapore Art Museum, a former La Sallian school established in the 1800’s. Then there’s the Portuguese founded St. Joseph church near Bugis, right in front of the towering National Library. Walk pass Middle St., and you’ll come across Manila St., (which is more of a back alley actually).

For a century, this door received hundreds of orphaned souls. The missionary nuns reared and educated those little angels. Where are they today? Those Sisters were unbelievably unselfish, dedicated human beings. Church people you would want others to know and members to be proud of.

The back side of the humble Gothic chapel. At a distant, the Good Shepherds bell tower.

Trees has begun to obscure the great architecture that has been preserved for the future generations of Singaporeans to witness.

The convent block as seen from Queen St.


Graffiti as Art

“The Substation should be anything anyone wants it to be; open and flexible enough to do things his or her own way — KPK”

While walking along Armenian Street I noticed this wall with graffitis on it. It’s located in the small pathway between the Peranakan Museum and the Substation, a local place for contemporary arts founded in the 1990’s. Now, graffiti is a rarity here, obviously this one was created by the artists in the center and I’m sure they were allowed to do so.

It’s a fascinating art form. Their presence gives a city the appearance of gritty realism. I see it as an expression of struggle, of trying to overcome challenge. However, not all can be considered art. Some are downright vandalism. It takes a real artist, someone who has a vision to turn ugly surfaces into inspiring artwork to tie it all together.

Seeing these wonderful creations in that little corner made me respect graffiti art more.


Revisiting the Historic Fort Canning

The last time I saw Fort Canning was in 2008. Same year I visited the island state for the first time. The country made a great impression on me that I visited it a dozen times since then. And as fate would have it, I was assigned to work in the island early 2012.

There are guided walks here (here). I think these volunteers would do a better job telling you the story of this historic hill. I wanted to talk to these folks but never had the chance. But these guys makes your visit easy with these literatures on line (here) available for free – if you decide to travel alone like I do. There are tons of information in these catalogs that you could probably apply to become a tour guide once you’ve read them all!

This hill is without a doubt the most historic site in Singapore. Its ancient name was Bukit Larangan (bukit is hill, where we got bukid, Larangan is their word for “forbidden” because the ruler lived here). The last king. Iskandar Shah, ruled Singapore for nine years until 1398. Then the Majapahit empire took over his kingdom. An interesting side note is that prehispanic Philippines was part of this Asiatic empire. While this Iskandar Shah was vanished to Malacca by the Majapahit’s, he found his way back to Singapore. His dead body that is. He’s buried in the hill where he oversaw his kingdom. The grave site (pictured above) is revered by many as a holy site. A few years ago, researchers unearthed pottery and porcelains near the Shah’s burial site.

Another fascinating remnant of the past within the hill is the country’s first Christian cemetery. It’s a fine example of how the early European settlers buried their loved ones. Jewish, Russian Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants were interred side by side. The burial grounds was later moved but some of the more grand tombstones were left behind. There’s an interesting one that had Manila written as his birthplace. There was once a time when there’s prestige telling people that you were born in Manila. The first Catholic church here was partly funded by the Manila Cathedral.

When Stramford Raffles established a British outpost in the islands, he made his cabin bungalow on top of Fort Canning. Subsequent British administrators improved and expanded this house. I’m not sure how original the present day structure is but it is said to be exactly where Raffle’s installed the foundations of his shelter. There’s a reservoir on top of the hill that once supplied the neighborhood below. It appears that it’s still being used today because not only was it fenced for good measure but there are signs warning would be trespassers of getting shot!

The old colonial fortress gate of Fort Canning. The thing about fortresses in Asia is that one of the reason why they were built was so the Europeans would have a place they can go to in times of uprisings. Which tells you that they know that someday, the people they conquered would figured out what’s going on. What’s intriguing about the hill’s fortress is that there was a moat that once surrounded its ancient wall. Could you imagine a fortress on top of a hill complete with a moat?

There’s a spice garden not far from the Fort Cunning Center (this building was built in the 20’s for the British Army). Easily, one of my favorite spot. I remember seeing this three years ago. It’s possible that Rizal spent time here during his visits. They’ve collected a variety of spice plants. There are giant gingers and pandan all over the place. There are wild peppers, camias, tanglad, name the spice and the garden have it. The lesson here was that the European came to SE Asia for these little known spices – to enrich the flavor of their cuisine. Of course, that’s an interesting story but spices was not the only reason why they came.

Wild black peppers. Yeah, I think that’s the scientific name.

A south American tree stranded on the hill. You don’t have to be a hardcore botanist to tell that this tree is old. It looks old. It would take a dozen adults to embrace this mammoth tree.

I forgot what this is — but it’s a very important spice. Damn. Ah, jalapeno? Urgh!

Entrance to the “Battle Box”. During the WWII, the British high commanders made the hill their headquarters. The tunnels are now preserved and is open to the public. What many people don;t know is that there were more British troops in their Malaysian colony (incl. Singapore) during the Japanese offensive than in their native UK. They were out to protect their colonies but the Japanese sliced thru their defense like knife to a butter. There’s just so much to see around this hill that I wonder why tourist doesn’t come here in droves.


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