Balestier: 3 Major Monuments

In my last post, I wrote about wandering along Balestier Road on the National Heritage Board’s Heritage Trail. The final segment of that walk takes you clear off of Balestier Road and up the nearby streets to some pretty fabulous places. The first of these that we visited was the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall.


This villa was built in the late 1800s by a wealthy Chinese businessman (for his mistress). It was eventually offered to Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the Chinese revolutionary who would go on to overthrow the last emperor of China, for his base of operations and fundraising in Southeast Asia. And after the Chinese Revolution of 1911, it became the local headquarters of the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang. If you visit, here are a few things you might want to know before you go:

1. The museum is bigger than it looks. Significantly bigger. I don’t know how they fit so much into what appears to be a fairly typical Singaporean black and white bungalow, but you could easily spend an hour inside.


2. To make it through the first two galleries, you have to be willing to stumble (or perhaps suffer) through a lot of names. The museum spends a lot of real estate first on the villa’s various owners and then on all of Sun Yat Sen’s cronies and sympathizers in Singapore and the region. The only one that stuck with me was Tan Kah Kee, who donated lots of money and spearheaded a huge fundraising drive — but the only reason I remember his name is that he has been memorialized by a stop on my subway line.


3. You can learn a lot of great history here, and not just about Sun Yat Sen’s planning and revolutions (though you can learn about those in remarkable detail). There are plenty of tidbits about the Chinese in Singapore (such as the fact that between 1824 and 1901, the number of Chinese in Singapore increased from 10,683 to 226,842 — which meant that the ratio of the Chinese population to the total population went up from 31% to an astounding 72%). There’s also a huge section dedicated to the way that society changed in both China and the Chinese world in Southeast Asia (Nanyang) following the Chinese revolution. This was the section I liked the most, in no small part because it had the best artifacts. For example, it had a section on the social reforms in China after 1911, such as the prohibition on footbinding. Here is a pair of women’s (not girl’s) shoes from that exhibit:


Print media played a central part in spreading the word about the Chinese Nationalist movement, and it also contributed significantly to changing social expectations and norms in Singapore in the early twentieth century. The museum has a wonderful example of a Chinese printing press — with character blocks!

IMG_48694. As you might expect, Sun Yat Sen is everywhere. He is in statues…



… and in portraits…


… and in paintings …

IMG_4871… where he is generally depicted in a white suit, and often surrounded by the huddling, grateful masses.


5. The museum has a beautiful outdoor area. While we were there, they were celebrating the mid-autumn festival with lanterns hung across the yard:


There’s also a wonderful outdoor history-of-Singapore mural and a sculpture dedicated to “The Nanyang Volunteer Drivers.” These 3,200 volunteers traveled from Singapore to China to work as drivers and mechanics in the building of the Yunnan-Burma highway, which China developed at the onset of WWII when Japan blocked its access to war supplies by sea. Needless to say, this highway was a treacherous project, and nearly a third of the volunteers lost their lives. Here is Prescott at the sculpture that commemorates their efforts.


Right next door is the incredible Maha Sasana Ramsi Burmese Buddhist Temple.


I had never been to a Burmese temple before, so I had a lot to process on this visit. First of all, there are all sorts of great creatures, from these guardian lions (chinthe)…


… to these guys (animal type unknown) …


… to this panca rupa, an elephant-horse-deer-bird-carp (that’s a real mythological thing):


This temple was built by a Burmese physician in the early twentieth century. He found a 10-tonne slab of marble in Burma (now Myanmar), had it carved into an 11-foot tall Buddha …


… and then had that Buddha transported to Singapore and enshrined in a temple in in 1925. This is the main prayer hall where the Buddha now sits:


If you walk up to the third floor you can see story of the Buddha statue related in a mural over the sanctuary door:

IMG_4887The third floor also has another huge prayer hall, which is dominated by this statue:

I’m not sure that I’ll ever quiet understand the use of neon lights in Asian temples, but I  found this one mesmerizing.

Before I left, I took a moment to ring the bell outside. It’s meant to keep evil spirits away (but I have no idea what the significance might be of the people who are carrying it).


To get to my final stop, I walked along the Whampoa Park Connector, which parallels the Whampoa River (we don’t like our rivers to run wild here; we corral them whenever possible).


I walked under lots of HDBs, and Saturday is laundry day!


My final destination was the Church of St. Alphonsus, also known as Novena Church.


This church was built by the Redemptorist order in 1950, but I gather that they prettied it up in 2011. It looks brand new.


The church was amazingly crowded on a Saturday afternoon — all of the pews were filling up for 5:30 mass. The space inside is beautiful…


… complete with stained glass windows:


I love that St. John’s eagle looks so quintessentially American, but I found St. Luke’s bull even lovelier:


The church’s tiny prayer garden feels unusually Asian in character.


These three monuments are well worth an afternoon’s visit, especially if you are interested in places of worship. And if you time your walk a little better than I did, you can stop at Loong Fatt Eating House and Confectionery — according to my guidebook, “Balestier’s famous flaky confectionery” — for sweet tau sar piah. I missed out on this trip by about ten minutes, but I hope to get there someday!


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