Launch of book about Chew Joo Chiat

Catch the launch of the book about Chew Joo Chiat, of which the Peranakan-centric place of Joo Chiat is named after. This book is by Philip Chew, the eldest Great Grandson of Chew Joo Chiat, who has passionately collected these stories over the years in an effort to trace his own roots.

Am happy to have played a part in introducing Philip to the publisher a couple of years ago.

Launch of “A Penniless Boy, Chew Joo Chiat”

SG50 Joo Chiat – The way we were

The area in and near the current Joo Chiat SMC has many interesting buildings and shops that date to before Singapore became independent nearly 50 years ago. During GE2011 and after GE, I had visited many of these places, some with great stories to tell.

Last week, instead of our usual house visits, we decided to revisit some of these places to photograph them to tell stories about what life in the Joo Chiat area 50 years ago may be like through these old institutions.

Shops

New Star Barber - established since the 1960s

New Star Barber – established since the 1960s

Our first stop was a barber shop along East Coast Road in Siglap that many long-time residents would know of. The New Star Hairdressing Saloon is everything you would expect an Indian barber to be. New Star was established by Mr Pakiri Kothandapani in the early 1960s when he migrated to Singapore. The current location of New Star was not where it was in those days. It was right across the road, in the middle of a row of three Peranakan-styled shophouses for the longest time until they had to move out when the landlord wanted to redevelop the shops.

Former location of New Star, now occupied by a Pet Shop. The building was rather run down and was redeveloped around 10 years ago with the original façade maintained in line with building conservation laws on heritage buildings.

Former location of New Star, now occupied by a Pet Shop. The building was rather run down and was redeveloped around 10 years ago with the original façade maintained in line with building conservation laws on heritage buildings.

New Star was an attraction those days, one of just a few barber shops in the vicinity and it was air-conditioned, a big deal 50 yeas ago. I received most of my haircuts there since I was young until I became an adult. Even my son went there for his haircut a few times until other more convenient barber shops sprung up everywhere. I would meet many of my classmates at the barber shop whenever I went. I recall reading once a news article on New Star where Mr Kothandapani had said that even former minister George Yeo used to go there for his haircut.

Old radio and poster, together with a photograph of Mr Kothandapani

Old radio and poster, together with a photograph of Mr Kothandapani

Mr Kothandapani was not at the shop when we visited. His son, Mr Parathi, 51 is now running the shop. Mr Parathi was born in Singapore. Mr Parathi said that his dad, now 84 was not so well these days. They live just down the road from the shop. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he had studied at my alma mater, St. Patrick’s too and was one year my senior. His primary school was Opera Estate Boys’ School.

The shop may have been relocated across the road, but many of the familiar icons of the shop were brought over and continued to be used. The old radio that blasted Tamil music was still blasting away when we visited last week, with an old Brycleem poster still sitting on top of the radio. They looked exactly like what they were when I was waiting patiently for my haircut turn as a kid. Those days, I sometimes had to wait up to an hour for my hair to be cut. The bottles of lotion still looked the same. These were the lotion the barber would douse me with after each haircut, leaving my hair with a distinct smell for a few hours. Nothing seemed to go to waste. Even the cupboards were relocated from the old shop.

Wong Clinic and a more recent Siglap Family Clinic

Wong Clinic and a more recent Siglap Family Clinic

Other old shops in the neighbourhood include those at the two Siglap HDB flats, which I had documented in an earlier post. More than half of these were started when the flats were built just before Singapore’s independence. The most iconic of these is probably Wong’s clinic. It was one of just a few clinics in the neighbourhood in those days. Dr Wong was famous for making swift medical diagnosis. He passed away suddenly in 2009 and the clinic has since been sold. However, a nurse from the early days had remained in the clinic at least up till 2011. I had met her during GE2011 and she recounted to a reporter how I used to go to the clinic in my pyjamas as a child. That story was featured in the Straits Times.

The Katong stretch of shops along East Coast Road has many more shops dating to our independence. The most iconic building would be the Red House Bakery. The building has now been hoarded for many years and restoration work is supposed to be done on it as it has been deemed to be unsafe. In its heydays, the Red House Bakery and the Tay Ban Guan Supermarket behind the bakery were the places to be in.

Serving Hammer outside of an old-school confectionery

Serving Hammer outside of an old-school confectionery on one of our Sunday’s Hammer sales

A favourite food place of my parents was Chin Mei Chin Confectionery, where my parents would say is the only place with true Kaya spread. It was not opened when we went by last week. However, we have a file photo of the confectionery from an earlier visit to the place. It is one of the very few old-school confectionery left in Singapore.

 

Parkway East Hospital, which once was St. Mark's Hospital. One of my sibling was born here.

Parkway East Hospital in Telok Kurau, which once was St. Mark’s Hospital. It was originally established as Paglar Maternity and Nursing Home in the 1930s. One of my siblings was born in St. Mark’s.

Houses

Kampong House on Palm Drive

Kampong House on Palm Drive. The external toilets are on the left of the picture, partly covered by plants.

We visited what may be the only remaining kampong-styled house in the area. I had twice come to this house during GE and post-GE house visits but there was no one at home then. It sits on a really huge land without any fence. The toilets were outside of the house. I imagine this was how kampong houses were like in the past and where neighbours walk freely into each other’s homes because they were not fenced up.

This time round, a lady responded to my greetings at the door. It turned out that the house and the land around it belong to a Malay lady who lives there with her youngest son. Three other children have grown up and are living elsewhere. She said that the house, built over 70 years ago had belonged to her father who has since passed on. The house was next to an even larger parcel of an old Muslim graveyard belonging to MUIS. The graves have since been exhumed and the land will likely be developed soon.

The Katong and Joo Chiat area has many heritage houses with distinct character. Here are some of them.

Peranakan houses in Joo Chiat area

Peranakan houses in Joo Chiat area

Peranakan styled houses in Onan Road leading to what was Tay Ban Guan Supermarket (now replaced with a low-rise condominium)

Peranakan styled houses in Onan Road leading to what was Tay Ban Guan Supermarket (now replaced with a low-rise condominium)

Circular staircases at the back of old buildings in Stangee Road area

Circular staircases at the back of old buildings in Stangee Road area

Schools

The east has many schools with a long history. The following are some of them.

St Stephen's School, since 1957

My alma mater, St Stephen’s School, established since 1957 -Schools such as St Stephen’s and Opera Estate provided education to many in the Siglap neighbourhood. The building in this photograph is a new one, built on a slope that we had fond memories playing on, and where I once broke my arm rolling down the slope while playing catching.

St. Patrick's School, since 1933

St. Patrick’s School, since 1933. Up till the 1970s, there was a beach right next to the school. With land reclamation, Marine Parade estate has now occupied that space where the beach once was.

Telok Kurau Studio, where Telok Kurau Primary school once was

Telok Kurau Studio, where Telok Kurau Primary school once was. The most famous student from this school is Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Another building of the former Telok Kurau Primary School

Another building of the former Telok Kurau Primary School.

A kindergarten celebrates its 60th anniversary even as our country celebrates our 50th birthday. My elder sister and my son had their kindergarten education here.

A kindergarten on Frankel Street celebrates its 60th anniversary even as our country celebrates our 50th birthday. My elder sister and my son had their kindergarten education here.

Places of Worship

The area is dotted with places of worship too. Here are some of them.

Masjid Abdul Aleem Siddique, since 1953

Masjid Abdul Aleem Siddique, since 1953

A temple just besides Masjid Abdul Aleem Siddique

The 大觉寺 temple just besides Masjid Abdul Aleem Siddique. Within another 50m of these two is the headquarter of a Christian organisation, the Navigators. Various religions have co-existed peacefully with one another for a long time.

The Kwan Im Tng temple in Joo Chiat, since 1919

The Kwan Im Tng temple in Joo Chiat, since 1919

The Sri Senpaga Vinayagar Temple in Katong. Established in 1923 by the Singapore Ceylon Tamils’ Association, it is currently under renovation

The Sri Senpaga Vinayagar Temple in Katong. Established in 1923 by the Singapore Ceylon Tamils’ Association, it is currently under renovation

Our Lady of Perpetual Succor Church

Our Lady of Perpetual Succor Church in Siglap, where I had also received my kindergarten education. Many Catholics in the neighbourhood attend this church.

Beauty in the eyes of the beholder

Daughter Week

Daughter Week

I chanced upon the above photo in a friend’s Facebook share today. Apparently, there’s such a thing as Daughter Week and it was early last month. An image struck me as I read the quote on the photo, “If you have a beautiful daughter…”. It was not an image of a beautiful and cute child like the one in the photo. It was the image of a lady, probably in her 30s that I had met yesterday in my weekly walkabout at Keris Estate, off East Coast Road.

Keris Estate is a quiet residential estate that was built over 50 years ago. I had blogged about the beauty of the landscaping by residents almost three years ago.

Yesterday, we came to a house that is almost in the original condition, as built over 50 years ago. As we called out our usual house visit line from the front gate, an lady in her 60s slowly emerged at the door. I introduced myself, as loudly as I could from the gate so that she could hear me from inside the house. She asked me to wait. And we waited. A minute later, the lady in her 30s struggled to the door, supported by the elderly lady and another elderly gentleman.

The elderly lady apologised for our wait, and shouted out that the younger lady wanted to come and see us. The young lady is apparently having some physical disabilities from the distance that we were at but managed to wave at us. I thanked them for coming to the door and said I would leave our reading materials in the letterbox for them.

After two hours in the humid weather, we were done with our house visits around the estate for the day. As we walked to my car, I saw the same elderly couple (I presume they are the parents) supporting the young lady walking on the street. It was already evening and the weather was cooler. The mother said they were doing the regular evening walk with the lady. The lady struggled to stretch her hand out to me and I shook her hand. She asked who I was and I introduced myself as the NCMP who had contested in this neighbourhood at the last General Elections. She immediately replied, “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord”, to which I thanked her for her blessings.

She appeared to have Cerebral Palsy. She could not walk on her own and her speech was slurred. The elderly couple must have spent considerable time and resources to care for her all these years. I could see their patience in wanting to involve her in the daily routines of life, including getting her to come to the door to see who was visiting their house, and getting her to walk around the neighbourhood daily. These are simple tasks for the able-bodied, but require immense efforts for her and her caregivers.

This is parents’ love. I am sure they must have wished for a normal and beautiful child. Instead, the child has Cerebral Palsy, a condition that will take a lifetime to patiently care for. To them, I believe they still see their child as beautiful, a gift of life no matter how imperfect in the eyes of others. And these are the people society can provide better support for because of the deep struggles they have to go through on a daily basis just to attempt to do the ordinary things.

Let’s count our blessings, however imperfect and less than beautiful the blessings may seem to be.

Interesting homes along Changi Road and in Siglap

Walkabouts can be fun, especially when you enter into houses that are unusual.

David Wee and his wide collection of antiques and quant stuff

David Wee and his wide collection of antiques and quant stuff in the front of the house

In our walkabout today, we came upon several interesting homes. First was the house of David Wee, a Temasek Polytechnic graduate-turned-entrepreneur. David was wearing his TP T-shirt and he proudly declared that he still go back to the polytechnic once a while to help out. His was an interesting trade. He had started to collect antiques and quaint stuff. Besides selling them, he actively rents them for community events and other activities that require quaint decorative pieces.

We were attracted to the house when we saw from the gate, a vast array of old things such as signboard, fans, wooden tables, the frame of a sewing machine and cupboards packed with bowls, plates, cutleries, telephones and many more.

We were invited into the house, where we saw an even more impressive collection of old clocks, records, containers and more that he termed as the “Wee’s Collection”. His home along the busy Changi Road is also his store and office.

After graduation, David first worked in the community, doing mainly event management. He is now busy supporting events with his huge collection of ‘toys’, some of which he also trades.

Clocks galore

Clocks galore

More clocks and stuff

More clocks and stuff

Even more stuff - decorative dolls and collectibles

Even more stuff – decorative dolls and collectibles

A couple of houses down, we came upon a house full of fish tanks. The owner was watering the plants and she invited us in. The tanks belonged to her father, who rears fish as a hobby. There were many glass tanks, cement tanks and jars. The jars were for the fishing fish. It turned out that she is the cousin of David, whom we had just met. Unfortunately, some of the fishes had recently died, so the collection was not as big as before.

Some of the glass tanks on the front porch of the house

Some of the glass tanks on the front porch of the house

Cement tank of fishes

Cement tank of fishes

More tanks

More tanks

White House Letter Box

White House Letter Box

Next was a house that the owner had termed as ‘The White House’ along Siglap Avenue. Besides being white and quaint, it had a letterbox shaped as a white house. Often, owners are not at home when we visit on the weekends. No one was at ‘The White House’ and so our literature went into the ‘White House Letterbox’.

Finally, after 2 hours in the hot sun, we knocked on the last house and was invited in for refreshing drinks by the owner. Amongst other businesses, the family collects and trades old art collections, mainly large statues. Several were human-sized pieces from the 17th and 18th century from Myanmar and Thailand. She patiently explained each piece to us and how one can tell where the pieces originated from. I certainly learnt quite a bit from the conversation.

Team WP done with the day's walk

Team WP done with the day’s walk

A walk around the (Telok Kurau) park

The weather was cool. The showers had come and gone. The clouds sheltered us from the sun. It was the perfect weather to visit houses in the afternoon.

I picked the area around Telok Kurau Park for yesterday’s visit. It was after all, an area I had spent 13 years living in, and my children grew up playing at the park.

It was a pleasant surprise that the very first house that we visited turned out to be the home of a pair of cute twin boys whom I had taken photos with 2 years ago when I also visited the same park. The twins were then babies with their grandpa who lived just across the park. I wouldn’t have recognised them if not for their dad who told me I had met his children before and had blogged about the encounter (https://joochiattoday.wordpress.com/2011/07/31/telok-kurau-park/). The twins are now running around like active boys and not shy to interact with me. And how they have grown!

Photos with the twins, two years ago and now

Photos with the twins, two years ago and now. They posed showing off their muscles.

Newly completed covering of drains

Newly completed covered drains

One thing that I noticed was the covering of the drains. Works are still on-going and most parts of the few streets around the park had the drains covered. I recall drains were a big complain of Telok Kurau residents during GE2011. There had been floods during heavy rainfall previously. Some drains were badly clogged or cracked. I wrote a few times to PUB since then over drainage issues and was pleasantly surprised at their speed of response.

Today, the drains are mostly covered and I supposed also widened to better handle water flow. That has allowed more space in front of the houses. Residents have started to creatively landscape the extra spaces. One resident confidently told me that there are less mosquitoes now. He believes the exposed and clogged drains were the main problems for mosquitoes in the past.

Many pots of plants already laid out along this recently completed covered drain

Many pots of plants already laid out along this recently completed covered drain

Work in progress on covering this drain

Work in progress on covering this drain

Resident hard at work creating a new garden patch outside their house after drain has been covered

Residents hard at work landscaping a new garden patch outside their house after the drain had been covered

A multi-coloured plant, formed by gardener grafting different plants together. Freshly planted by a resident of Joo Chiat Walk.

A multi-coloured plant, formed by gardener grafting different plants together. Freshly planted by a resident of Joo Chiat Walk.

Examining the fresh plot of plants as the resident explains his and his wife's hard work and investment on this plot outside their house.

Examining the fresh plot of plants as the resident explained his and his wife’s hard work and investment on this plot outside their house.

Stagnant water in a sunken and clogged drain in a photo taken 2 years ago. This drain is now repaired and covered.

Stagnant water in a sunken and clogged drain in a photo taken 2 years ago. This drain is now repaired and covered.

There’s the gate along Lorong J which had fascinated me during my first visit here in GE2011. It has musical notes on it. I was told by someone that it is the tune of the Chinese song, “我的家庭真可爱” (that is “My lovely family”), though I am not sure.

Musical gates

Musical gates

There was also the home of an amazing animal lover we met whom we chatted with for some 20 minutes. She has lots of tales of animal rescues and advice for us on how we should handle strays. I had met her previously during GE2011 too. This time, it was more leisurely and we could talk for longer. A minute after we had left, she and her daughter came running with drinks which we gladly took to quench our thirst from some 2 hours of house visits.

Photo taken at the animal lover's home

Photo taken at the animal lover’s home

We ended the evening chatting with residents at the park. It was wonderful catching up again with people I had met during GE2011 and making new acquaintances.

Chatting with residents in the park

Chatting with residents in the park

告别吧,老杂货店

Article contributed by Yap Keng Ann, a long time resident of Telok Kurau.

文/图:叶景安   《今日如切》邀请作者提供中文稿

住在直落古楼(Telok Kurau)一带的老居民们一定会知道在与如切坊(Joo Chiat Place)交界处有这么一间老旧的杂货店。

住得30年或更久的,甚至会称它为“刘永合”。其实“刘永合”是“昭赐商店”的前身。杂货店内的橱架上就高高地悬置着有一块写着“曾昭赐”的招牌。“曾昭赐” 就是“昭赐商店”的老板曾先生的父亲。据曾先生说,“昭赐商店”原本是在旧的实乞纳(Siglap)巴刹哪儿。后来实乞纳巴刹拆了建成现在的实乞纳中心,“昭赐商店”自1988年就搬到这里来。

我的母亲至今还经常到“刘永合/昭赐商店”买东西。

老人家在家里煮饭,如果需要用到盐,葱头,蒜头或怎么的,不可能马上搭车到超市去买。一走出街头,就是这家绝无仅有的杂货店,没有再比它更方便的了。

有时候,如果要买重一点的,比如米,罐头,那杂货店还会用脚车把东西送上门。有这样贴心的服务,老居民们能不对它死心塌地吗?

杂货店的柜台

 

曾老板用来送货的脚车,后面架有两块木板,用来放东西

这与直落古楼的老居民们共度了近25年的“昭赐商店”再过几个星期就会永远走入历史了。这也是我母亲最近告诉我的。我一听,马上去找曾老板问。

曾老板和老板娘说,他们的杂货店就开到这九月底。这店的主人打算连同隔壁的住家一同翻新。曾老板和老板娘表示他们不打算继续做了。他们的两个儿子都已经30几岁而且有自己的事业。这店虽然陪伴他们一家经历了四分之一个世纪,这也是他们俩该退休的时候了。曾老板和老板娘透露,他们现在的店租每个月不到$2000,以目前的生意量来说,还应付得来。可以预见的是翻新后,就不可能有这个价钱了。

磅秤,磅秤,老居民对老杂货店的感情有多重,你磅得出吗?

作者记得曾经有一架磨椰子的机器,就摆放在这个褪色的木橱的位置。

即将于“昭赐商店”一起翻新的114号住屋。

如切和直落古楼的老居民们,还有已经搬离这区的老朋友们,希望你们看到这篇刊登在《今日如切》(Joo Chiat Today)的特写后,马上来跟这个即将消失的一个地标,一段感情,一个熟悉的老杂货店告别吧。

杂货店旁有一颗老榕树。曾老板说,很久前这个路口是个小型的巴士总站。这些神像多是那个时候留下来的,这一带的居民们还继续供奉这些守护着如切和直落古楼的神明。

或许“刘永合/昭赐商店”最独特的,就是它那长满锈斑的浅蓝色圆圈花纹的铁门了。白天去,铁门合起来你看不到。晚上,当铁门关上时,你就能感受到。
说起这铁门,我还有一则故事:我记得在我儿子没出世前(至少10年前)的一个佛诞节的晚上,我听到深夜里除了附近佛堂念经的声音,还连绵不断地插杂着凄惨的叫声。我于是出门去随着声音的来源追查,来到“昭赐商店”的门前。原来店里有一只刚出生不久的小狗,它的头部穿过了圆圈铁花,却缩不回。我越是帮它,它叫得更惨。没法子,我只好打电话请民防部队来。当消防员来了,他们用大铁夹小心地把卡着小狗头部的铁花剪去一角。这个破洞,至今还在。

曾老板和曾老板娘平时在店外等顾客上门时喝茶看报纸。

原来曾老板也曾经是龙狮团的负责人,但现已经交给侄儿管理了。龙田武术龙狮团曾经两度在全国性的比赛中获奖。

2012年8月20日,非选区议员余振忠与同僚们造访“昭赐商店”,向杂货店的曾老板和老板娘了解这家老杂货店的历史。

红灯不能让如切区的发展停下来。这一带的旧屋子,都一一拆除,建成一座座的私人公寓。40多年前,我就是在右边这家医院(叫圣马克医院 St Mark Hospital)出世,住在这里不曾搬走。曾老板说这排旧屋子有70年的历史了。我唯一能做的就是用我的摄影机,将这即将消失的老杂货店记录下来。
再见了,“刘永合”,再见了,“昭赐商店”。

Goodbye to an old provision shop

I was recently informed by a long time Telok Kurau resident that the provision shop at the junction of Telok Kurau Road and Joo Chiat Place (opposite Parkway East Hospital) will be shutting down for good at the end of September 2012. The shop and the house immediately beside it will be renovated by the landlord. The current tenant, there since 1988 will be retiring for good.

We decided to visit the shop and do a photograph documentation of the place. This is one of the few remaining provision shops within the Joo Chiat SMC and one that may hold memories for long time customers. It is a quaint shop, typical of the many provision shops we had in the Singapore of old before they started disappearing with economic development and competition.

Telok Kurau Provision Shop

On 20 August 2012, a group of 5 of us visited the shop called Chang Cheow Ser. We met Mr and Mrs Chang, second generation proprietors of the shop. Mr Chang explained that Chang Cheow Ser is the name of his father, who had operated a provision shop in the old Siglap Market. The market was demolished to make way for the current Siglap Centre and he relocated the shop to the current Telok Kurau road location.

Group Photo

Chatting with the Changs outside the provision shop

Signboard inside the shop

They have no intention to carry on the business anymore. Their two sons are already in their 30s and have their own vocations. The shop had seen the family through their daily needs in the past. It is now time for them to retire. They expect rental to increase after the renovation by the landlord, as they had observed was the case with other shops. Currently with rental at less than $2,000 a month, they can manage the expenses.

Payment Counter

Cubby holes full of stuff

The shop used to be stacked full of goods. With just 6 weeks remaining for them to vacate the premises, some shelves are already empty. Still, one can see stackloads of goodies in old cupboards and on the concrete floor. Perhaps only the proprietors know full well how to locate items compacted within the space.

Stuff stacked on the floor

Close-up of payment counter. Every space is maximised.

More stuff on the floor

Inside the shop, time stood still. The old cupboards have seen better days. The weighing scales are a blast from the past. Many objects have a story to tell. If one is to look carefully at the iron grills that lock up the shop at night, there is one spot where a small part of the tough iron had been cut off. A puppy had its head stuck in between the iron patterns on the grill one weekend when the shop was locked, and was yelping helplessly away. A resident, the same one who alerted me to the closure of this shop, had spotted the dog and called the fire brigade. The firemen arrived and prompty cut through the iron to rescue the puppy. Since the hole was too small to cause a security issue, the proprietors had left it alone all these years.

One of several well-used cupboards

Old weighing scales. Hungry for biscuits anyone?

Iron gates where a puppy once had its head caught in between the patterns

Hole in iron grills made by firemen when they rescued a puppy over 10 years ago

We spotted a dragon and lion dance sign at the top corner of the shop. Mr Chang proudly declared that they have an award-winning team. They had won twice nationally at competitions held at Takashimaya. The troupe is now led by his nephew, representing the next generation. They are popular and active during Chinese New Year, where the collection during that period will see to most of the troupe’s needs throughout the rest of the year.

Next door, one of my favourite coffeeshop (try the chicken rice!) was closed for the public holidays. The coffeeshop is owned by a different landlord and will not be undergoing renovation. However, the house immediately beside the provision shop belongs to the same landlord and will also be renovated. It is just as unusual as the provision shop, with stone walls, wooden doors, old window grills and a worn-out letterbox.

Pre-war doors

A pre-war house next to the provision shop, owned by same landlord

A tree guarding the neighbourhood. Mr Chang said the worship items was there from a long time ago when there was a mini bus interchange at the junction. Residents continued to offer their prayers under the tree.

As we moved off, Mr and Mrs Chang went back to their table to sip tea as usual waiting for the next customer. Soon the curtain will fall on this provision shop, a symbol of what life was like in the Singapore of old.

Tea time for the Changs

Acknowledgement: Photographs by Yap Keng Ann

Kindling the pioneering spirit of our forefathers

Speaking with Philip Chew, great grandson of Chew Joo Chiat brought me back to Singapore in the 1800s and 1900s where our forefathers came mostly with nothing on them.

Chew Joo Chiat was one of them. He came to Singapore in 1877 at the age of 20 years. He was from a farming family in Fujian and already had 2 sons and 2 daughters at age 20 when he left home due to harsh conditions in China.

He landed in Singapore as a penniless young man. Like many who came to Singapore to escape difficult conditions at home, he worked hard to achieve his dream. He earned enough to start a small business. Endowed with resourcefulness and business acumen, he became a successful businessman.

At the turn of the 20th century he bought land in eastern Singapore from the Alsagoff family to grow spices. Spices were in great demand by the Europeans then. Later he turned his land into a coconut plantation when coconut produce fetched good money. He bought more lands near to the east coast beach from the Little Family to enlarge his coconut plantations. Later, he bought freehold building allotments along the Confederate Estate Road to increase his land bank.

Besides being a planter, in 1908 he was a ship chandler with an office at Philip Street. He was also a timber trader with a sawmill at Beach Road.

By 1916, the east coast shore line was dotted with seaside houses and holiday bungalows. Access to them was through the Confederate Estate Road dirt track on land owned and maintained by Chew Joo Chiat.  Chew bequeathed the dirt tracks to the Municipality without compensation for construction into roads. In 1917, after the road had been constructed, it was renamed as Joo Chiat Road.

The new road to the east coast beach also brought in migration of people especially the Peranakans and the Eurasians from other parts of Singapore to live on both sides of East Coast Road. Chew divided his land into building plots for development of shophouses, terraced houses and bungalows. He also had roads laid in the area. By 1920, Chew was a well-known landed property, coconut and rubber estates owner, principally in the districts of Siglap and Changi.

(Source: http://mychewjoochiat.blogspot.com/feeds/posts/default?orderby=updated)

Chew died in 1926 and was buried in Bukit Brown. He had built his fortune here from nothing and had brought his children over from China to live in Singapore.


The Straits Times, 11 February 1926

Like Chew, there were others who came penniless, laboured hard and through good business foresight, build up massive fortunes. I can also think of Lien Yien Chow, founder of OUB Bank who came with a few coins in his pocket at age 14 and built a banking empire.  There’s also Tang Choon Keng, popularly known as C K Tang, who started as a door-to-door peddler before investing in a shop and then a department store. Tan Lark Sye migrated to Singapore poor at age 18 and became a successful industrialist through rubber and donated to start Nanyang University.

Tan Kim Seng came to Singapore and became a successful trader and philanthropist. So did Tan Kah Kee who built a sprawling business conglomerate after the collapse of his father’s rice store in Singapore. Rajabali Jumabhoy, nicknmed “the Grand Old Man of Scott’s”, came to Singapore in 1917 when his father passed away and built a trading and property empire that once included Scotts Holding.  Arabs, such as the Al-junieds, Al-sagoffs and Al-Kaffs came too and made the most of opportunities in Singapore and in the neighbouring region. They made their fortunes here and donated generously back to the community.  

Sometimes, people tell me that the period where these people could build their fortune from nothing is over. We cannot buy cheap land or start something to compete in an established and competitive environment.

Opportunities may perhaps not come in the same manner as they did for our forefathers, but if we are alert, opportunities are even greater today than before. The Internet and easy travel connectivity across the world have opened up new opportunities never available before. Mark Zackurberg, founder of Facebook became the youngest self-made billionaire at 23, four years after starting Facebook while still in university. Such speed of wealth accumulation was impossible in the days of our forefathers. In China, we have successful Internet entrepreneurs such as former teacher Jack Ma who is now a billionaire with his successful e-commerce site Alibaba.com.

Locally, we have many examples too. Ivan Lee and wife Grace Goh started Thai Express humbly in 2002 and built it into a successful chain. It was sold for $80 million 8 years after its formation.

Through something as basic as bread which is a product that has existed for thousands of years, George Quek made it fashionable through Breadtalk and took it to public listing within just 3 years of the opening of the first outlet.

Singaporean Roland Ong planted himself in China to explore opportunities there at the turn of the millennium. He discovered an opportunity in Internet gaming, then in its infancy in China. He co-founded China The9 and riding on the distributorship rights of the World of Warcraft, took the company to listing on NASDAQ within 5 years. He has since cashed out and started other Infocomm ventures in Asia.

There are many more examples. Opportunities may be of a different type from those faced by the pioneers of Singapore, but they exist for those who can spot new markets as the world opens up and as technology create new frontiers.

Our forefathers came with little and demonstrated that through hard work and strong business acumen, we can succeed. We can invoke that spirit and succeed in the new frontiers of today too

Passionately preserving our heritage

Meet Mr Philip Chew, retired civil servant, active volunteer, great grandson of Mr Chew Joo Chiat and passionate defender of the Joo Chiat heritage.

 I came across Philip’s blog (http://mychewjoochiat.blogspot.com/) yesterday while researching about Joo Chiat for my blog. His blog contained such rich information about philanthropist Chew Joo Chiat (of which Joo Chiat was named after) and about the heritage of the place and culture that I immediately emailed him. He responded the same day, we spoke and met today. Interestingly, Philip was featured last night in Foodage on OKTO at 10pm. Foodage is a show that captured our heritage through food. Last night’s episode covered Joo Chiat and the Peranakan food culture.

Philip shared why he started the blog. There were information about his great grandfather, but sometimes inaccurate and with missing details. These were mostly gathered from various oral sources. He went about diligently researching from news archives of over 100 years old from the library. Soon, he was invited to give talks about Joo Chiat. He challenged various websites, some from government that portrayed inaccurate information about his great-grandfather using the information he had researched. I was amused by one story which Philip narrated.

Someone living in Katong had inaccurately told some authorities doing an oral history of Joo Chiat that Katong is the grandfather of Chew Joo Chiat. Well, Katong is the name of an exortic turtle! According to Philip, Katong was then a coconut plantation extending westward from Tanjong Katong road towards the city, while Chew Joo Chiat later also grew coconut trees in his land between Tanjong Katong to Telok Kurau. Katong and Joo Chiat were separate places. Chew Joo Chiat came to Singapore directly from China and he did not have his grandfather in Singapore.

Philip patiently wrote to websites that carried the inaccurate information about Katong being the grandfather of Joo Chiat. All corrected the information except a certain government website which insisted the information was correct. After being ignored several times, he finally wrote to a higher authority and threatened a legal suit to correct the information, since this is a government website that one would expect to be authoritative.  Immediately, they responded and corrected the information. Interesting, I googled “Katong grandfather Joo Chiat” and I still found a website with the misinformation. To Philip’s credit, I found another site that had a strikethrough of the paragraph stating this wrong lineage information and they credited Philip with providing them the correction.

Such is Philip’s passion to maintain accurate information of his great grandfather and all things Peranakan. He and his wife have appeared on TV and magazines featuring Peranakan cooking. In yesterday’s episode of Foodage, he and another friend James re-enacted a typical street scene in Joo Chiat involving a duck hawker playing a game of chance with patrons to allow them to win a duck from a 30cts bet. These duck hawkers were the originator of the “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” game of double or nothing!

From Philip, I found out other interesting nuggets of information about Chew Joo Chiat and Joo Chiat the place. He shared memories of collecting durians from his family plantation in Chai Chee and cycling with them back to their home on Joo Chiat road. Realising that many wanted to live in the east, Chew Joo Chiat started opening up his estate to others and built houses based on the Peranakan style. Others who bought land from him also built houses the Peranakan style, some mixed with western and other with Chinese influence. Sadly, much of the land the family owned has been acquired through land acquisition. The original home that Chew Joo Chiat stayed was acquired, demolished and still lie vacant after some 30 years. Philip now lives in Marine Parade.

Philip is a happy grandfather, with grandchildren in America, UK and of course Singapore. Amazingly, already in his mid 70s, Philip is comfortable with the computer, maintaining his own blogs. He volunteers as a trainer for other senior citizens every Wednesday teaching them IT skills. This is what I call active ageing.

I found I have two active helpers during GE2011 who are from the maternal side of the Chew Joo Chiat’s lineage. I was given contacts to several others in the clan whom I shall be contacting soon. The project is interesting to me when I realised that there is such rich heritage behind  important personalities in Singapore’s history. It has been my privilege to be living in the Joo Chiat  since birth and to be called the Joo Chiat local boy during GE2011. Hence, it is my own interest to find out more about this place and the man who started it all here.