Historic images of Singapore get fresh breath of life

Stills taken by late historian dating from 1965 to 1995 collected in book

SINGAPORE - A collection of 14,500 images charting the transformation of Singapore has been largely unseen by the general public for up to half a century.

The slides, dating from 1965 to 1995 and taken by the late architectural historian Lee Kip Lin, capture memories such as the city centre's inter-connected five- foot-ways, which were designed to shade pedestrians from the tropical weather, as mandated by the 1822 colonial town plan.

Many have since been replaced by modern towers and complexes.

In 2009, two years before Mr Lee died at age 86, his family donated the collection to the National Library Board (NLB).

About 500 of these stills have now been given a fresh breath of life in an NLB-commissioned book by architectural historian Lai Chee Kien.

Dr Lai worked for a year on the project - titled Through The Lens Of Lee Kip Lin: Photographs Of Singapore 1965-1995 - categorising the images into chapters such as landscapes and streetscapes, houses and residential forms, and other buildings and structures.

The themes are in sync with Mr Lee's conservation role with the Preservation of Monuments Board, which is known as the Preservation of Sites and Monuments today. Some of his shots helped to justify the conservation of areas such as Kampong Glam.

"The photos document a period of physical transformation and urban renewal in Singapore," said Dr Lai.

"For Mr Lee to have taken the thousands of photos in such a sustained, consistent and meticulous manner over three decades is very impressive.

"Many of the stills are in black and white to show contrast in the details. They were also taken from angles that only a practised eye such as an architectural historian can capture."

Highlights in the book include a feature on the reclamation of parts of East Coast beginning in mid-1965.

Mr Lee's photos serve as a record of the various steps of the reclamation process, including the introduction of a sandbar in 1969 to mark out the Amber Road reclamation project's boundary.

Later photos show the nearby Chinese Swimming Club, which was engulfed by the reclamation.

Another section in the book is dedicated to reconstructing the now expunged Chong Pang Village, which was part of the estate of rubber plantation owner Lim Nee Soon.

Dr Lai pieced together Mr Lee's 1985 photos according to an earlier map of the village.

The final chapter is dedicated to reviewing the various building forms that used to be a feature of Singapore. These include the rarely documented compound houses and warehouses built with archways for boats to pass through.

The $42 (excluding goods and services tax) book, published by NLB and EDM Books, is on sale at major bookshops.

It will be launched officially next Tuesday at the National Library Building in Victoria Street.

melodyz@sph.com.sg