Singapore HeritageFest

Meet some of the people behind Singapore HeritageFest

The Singapore HeritageFest this year will take visitors to Tanglin Halt and Pulau Ubin

In celebration of all things to do with Singapore culture and history, this year's Singapore HeritageFest is chock-a-block with activities that go round the clock and even spill over to Pulau Ubin.

For the next three weekends, you could choose to tour Tanglin Halt before the sun rises, following hawkers and newspaper delivery men as they start their day at 4am.

Or venture to Pulau Ubin, where you can watch the premiere of Royston Tan's new documentary, Homecoming, about former Ubin residents who still visit the village, and also new settlers on the island.

Of course, no respectable festival of Singapore heritage can do without food - there will be a recreation of Singapore's 1960s street hawker scene on the lawn of the National Museum.

All the participating stalls will be run by young hawkers, second- or third-generation entrepreneurs who have taken on their family business.


Singapore HeritageFest, which is in its 13th edition, has a sprawling programme of more than 130 activities, including neighbourhood tours, talks, performances and parties, often for free or for a small fee. It runs across three weekends from today to May 15.

Organised by the National Heritage Board, the festival is about sharing "lesser-known stories and creating new memories", says festival director Angelita Teo.

The festival attracted 1.6 million visitors last year.

Online registration for activities opened last Friday and, so far, nine tours and trails are fully booked. These include food trails in Changi Road, Joo Chiat and Balestier, as well as a specialist tour of Pulau Ubin by anthropologist Vivienne Wee.

•Sign up for activities at

Hawker food at the museum

The Chinatown expert

Dr Ho Nai Kiong will talk about growing up in Chinatown.ST PHOTO: MARCUS TAN

Retired paediatrician Ho Nai Kiong, 78, is an expert on Chinatown. After all, he grew up there and returns to the area regularly even though he now lives in Bukit Timah.

The eldest of eight children, he lived on the second floor of a shophouse in South Bridge Road from 1941 to 1964, and subsequently spent the next 51 years as the chairman of his family's jewellery business On Cheong Jewellery in the same road.

His youngest brother runs the business as managing director now.

The soft-spoken grandfather of six will share his tales of having 75 years of association with Chinatown at a talk on Sunday as part of the Singapore HeritageFest.

In an interview with The Straits Times, Dr Ho easily recalled childhood memories and the Chinatown of yesteryear.

He studied at Yao Hung School in Upper Hokkien Street during the Japanese Occupation.

However, he did not enjoy it as "school life was boring - we were not allowed to talk, leave the seat or make any noise".

When the air raid siren sounded, he would be happy instead of scared because it meant class would be dismissed.

Dr Ho's father, Mr Ho Yew Ping founded On Cheong.

After he died in 1965, Dr Ho had to take over the reins of the business as he was the eldest son - all while studying to be a doctor at the University of Malaya.

He still has many photos of his neighbourhood taken with a boxy Mamiya camera starting from when he was 11.

Until the 1990s, there were at least 10 goldsmiths in South Bridge Road.

"They were mainly run by the Cantonese so that was the most common dialect you heard on the streets."

The busy roads were populated by rickshaws and, in the evenings, crowds congregated in Smith Street which would transform into a bustling hawker street.

"People would go there after work as there was nowhere else to go and for the poor, they would rather be out than go home to their cramped cubicles," he says.

Eventually, people began moving out of the area as they were resettled in flats and other professions such tailors, provision shops and dentists popped up.

Chinatown has changed greatly since and Dr Ho says he misses "hearing Cantonese walking along the streets and over the radio".

"It's a different atmosphere now," he says.

Good old kampung life

Author Josephine Chia at a mock-Tudor house in her childhood kampung.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Even though Potong Pasir is all built up now, author Josephine Chia has no problem locating where her childhood kampung once stood more than 50 years ago.

Seamlessly weaving her way through the HDB blocks along Potong Pasir Avenue 1, she stops at Block 107.

The vivacious 65-year-old then points out a helpful landmark: a distinctive mock-Tudor house standing on elevated ground across the road.

She recalls: "The British used to live there so when we were very hungry and desperate, we would pick chikus and rambutans off the fruit trees in their compound or dig through their bins for food."

Growing up in a poor Peranakan family in Kampong Potong Pasir from the 1950s to 1970s, Chia wants to impress upon the younger generation, especially girls, the value of education in her talk on Sunday at the National Museum.

"It was not the norm during my time to send girls to school. Whatever money there was went towards food and education for the boys," she says.

The fifth of eight boys and girls of a housewife and bill collector, she begged her mother to let her go to school.

Her mother agreed and together, they sold nasi lemak to fund her education.

She worked through primary school and helped her mother with chores at home too.

Her hardscrabble childhood made her a stronger person, she says.

"It taught me resilience and to appreciate things in life now," she says. She is divorced with two children and four grandchildren.

The writer has penned her childhood experiences in Kampong Spirit Gotong Royong: Life In Potong Pasir, 1955 To 1965. The memoir, which is one of nine books she has written, won the Singapore Literature Prize 2014's non-fiction award.

Her old neighbourhood had a strong kampung spirit. She says: "We used to sit outdoors once the sun had set and people had finished work... and everyone would come together and share stories, recite pantuns (Malay poems) and sing songs."

With no money to buy toys, the children devised games such as hantam bola, which is similar to dodgeball, and horse's hoof, where they moved on half-cut coconut shells on their feet to race around the kampung.

She says: "We had to make up toys and games out of nothing and that really brought out our creativity."

In her kampung, the Chinese lived a little farther away, rearing pigs. On her side of the village, were mainly Malays, Indians and Peranakans such as herself. Because of this, Chia mixed with the different races and they all communicated in Malay.

"When I was growing up, I never realised that people were different from me. We were not aware of race until much later and that was one of the lovely things about kampung life," she says.

Hawker food at the museum

Young hawkers and siblings (from left) Jack, Faye and Anna Sai, who run Coffee Break; and Ms Cho Ai Min and Mr Jonathan Cho from Cho Kee Noodle.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Mr Jack Sai, 32, along with his twin sisters Faye and Anna, 29, run Coffee Break, a drinks stall at Amoy Street Food Centre.

Besides the usual kopitiam fare of kopi-o and teh-si, they offer pumpkin spice latte and melon milk tea. Their kaya toast options are also creative, with additional toppings such as black sesame, taro and rum and raisin.

"Think of us as a cafe but in a smaller, more localised and intimate setting," says Faye.

The Sai siblings are among third-generation hawkers in their late 20s to 30s who gave up their jobs to join their family businesses.

They represent a new breed of enterprising hawkerpreneurs, many of whom will be participating in a Singapore HeritageFest event that aims to re-create the vibrant street hawker scene in the 1960s.

The outdoor food fair takes place on the front lawn of the National Museum tonight and tomorrow and the 15 stalls taking part are all run by second- and third-generation young hawkers.


  • WHERE: National Museum of Singapore, 93 Stamford Road

    WHEN: Today and tomorrow, 6pm

    ADMISSION: Free, but pay for the food


Participants include HarriAnns Nonya Table, The Prata Place and Katong Laksa.

The Sai siblings' paternal grandfather started his business in 1935. They were "forced to help out" at the stall in their teens, but as they got older, they realised that running the business could be a viable career.

Jack, the oldest sibling, was the first to work there full-time in 2011 after leaving his job as a teacher. Former barista Faye soon followed and Anna rounded up the pack, resigning from her job as a pre-school teacher.

Another hawker stall taking part in the Singapore HeritageFest is Cho Kee Noodle, which has been selling wonton noodles since 1965.

It is now run by siblings Cho Ai Min, 30, and Jonathan Cho, 28, who always knew that they would eventually join the family business, which was a pushcart stall started by their paternal grandmother before it moved to Old Airport Road Food Centre.

When they were schoolchildren, their parents had discussed their careers and both had said they were interested in taking over the stall.

Ms Cho worked at a bank for three years before joining the family business in 2011. Her younger brother joined Cho Kee straight after graduating from university two years ago with a degree in marketing.

He says: "I felt it would be more fulfilling to work hard with my own family than working for someone else."

They also have an elder sister who is an accountant but helps out with the business' accounts.

With the two on board, business has expanded and there are now three new outlets in Toa Payoh Central, Singapore Polytechnic and ITE College Central.

Besides manufacturing their own egg noodles, the company sells them in different flavours, such as beetroot, seaweed and carrot.

Despite 12-hour days, they find their work meaningful.

Ms Cho says: "People ask our parents why they forced us into this, making them feel guilty, but we tell them that we don't mind as this is a family business. If they can do it, why can't we?"

Comics champion

Masseur Roger Kua has a collection of more than 10,000 Chinese comics.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Masseur Roger Kua has amassed more than 10,000 manhua (Chinese comics) over the past five decades, but you would not know it entering his tidy four-room HDB flat in Tampines.


  • WHEN: Monday, 1pm

    WHERE: Grassroots Book Room, 25 Bukit Pasoh Road


    INFO: Presented in Mandarin. Go to collecting-comics-for-50-years

Mr Kua, 54, stores the comics in the TV cabinet, in carefully labelled boxes in his storeroom and even in the cupboards in his son's room.

He says: "I keep the comics in whatever space I can still find in the house."

He will speak about his love affair with Chinese comics - primarily from China and Hong Kong - and the evolution of the literature during a free session as part of Singapore HeritageFest on Monday.

His hobby began at the age of eight, when a neighbour from a wealthy family shared his stash of comics with him.

"We had no TV, no computer games and no entertainment, so reading comics was how many boys passed their time and it became a big part of our lives," he tells The Straits Times, speaking in a mixture of Mandarin and English. He is married to a masseuse. They have three children aged 16 to 29.

Since then, the Chinese-educated Mr Kua began collecting any manhua he could get his hands on. Some days, he even skipped meals so he could save his pocket money to buy the latest comic book.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, a Chinese comic book cost 20 cents. Now each costs between $4 and $5. He estimates that he has spent more than $40,000 so far.

In the 1970s, when Mr Kua started collecting comics, he said bookstores in Singapore carried pocket-sized titles based on epic Chinese classics and history such as Journey To The West and The Three Kingdoms. These were mainly drawn by Chinese artists from China, but from the 1960s, Hong Kong comic artists emerged and the content centred on fighting and the quest for justice.

His favourites are the Oriental Heroes series by famed Hong Kong artist Wong Yuk Long and another on martial arts icon Bruce Lee.

Mr Kua has collected about 3,500 comics from these two series. He cannot find any Singapore bookstores carrying these titles, so he orders them through a friend who has a supplier in Hong Kong.

To him, these comics are closely tied to the martial arts films screened in that era. He explains: "When Bruce Lee appeared on film, the interest in comics spiked in the 1970s."

The avid fan never tires of reading comics. "I feel like a kid again when I read them."

His wife did not feel the same about his comics collection however.

"She used to get very angry and would threaten to throw the comics away," he says. After he told her that some are worth a couple of hundred thousand dollars, she calmed down.

He doubts he will sell any of them though. "They are too precious and part of my childhood memories."

Festival highlights


This new trail explores Bedok's history through its old food markets, military lookouts and seawalls found far inland today. Along the way, sample the scrumptious eats that the neighbourhood is known for.

Where: Meet at ground floor of Princess Theatre, 445 Bedok North Street 1 When: May 7 and 8, 9 and 11am, 2 and 4pm Admission: $5 Info:


Explore Toa Payoh, the first town designed by the Housing Board, with your camera. This is hosted by the Toa Payoh Photography Club and participants will be led to distinctive landmarks such as the iconic dragon playground in Lorong 6. Where: Meet at Toa Payoh Community Library, 6 Toa Payoh Central

When: May 7 and 8, 3.30pm Admission: Free (online registration required) Info: Participants are required to bring a camera or phone camera and tripod. Go to


While most are fast asleep at 4am, the day begins early for others. Tail a veteran hawker as he heads to his stall to prepare peanut pancake, watch newspaper delivery men in action and meet a longtime worshipper who wakes up early to head to Sri Muneeswaran Temple.

Where: Meet at Commonwealth MRT station, Exit D When: May 7 and 8, 4am Admission: $5 Info:


Using their bodies, eight students and alumni from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) will each present what they think it means to be Singaporean through physical theatre.

Where: Level 1, The Concourse, National Museum When: Today and tomorrow, 7 and 7.30pm Admission: Free Info:


Revisit the legend of Sang Nila Utama as performers from Indian performing arts company Bhaskar's Arts Academy use the ancient classical Indian danceform Kathakali to tell the story behind Singapore's name. The performance is presented in Malay with English surtitles. Where: Front lawn, National Museum When: Today and tomorrow, 7pm Admission: Free Info:


A street party will break out at Bukit Pasoh this weekend. Expect wushu performances, Nanyin music and a bustling street market reminiscent of the old days.

Where: Bukit Pasoh Street When: Tomorrow and Sunday, from 6pm Admission: Free Info:


Revisit tunes from Singapore's golden era of music, the 1960s, at this mini-concert in Kampong Glam. Singapore indie bands The Pinholes, The Voodoo Sound and Lion City Ska Jazz Ensemble will perform covers of music by iconic bands such as The Quests, The Swallows and Siglap Five.

After the concert, there will be a film screening of A-Go-Go '67 (1967) featuring performances of pop yeh yeh bands and dance groups.

Where: Bussorah Street When: May 7 and 8, 5pm Admission: Free Info:


The German Girl Shrine on Pulau Ubin.PHOTO: SINGAPORE HERITAGEFEST

Did you know that a Tudor-style house and a shrine dedicated to a German girl exist on the rustic island? Discover more about these lesser-known sites on this tour led by volunteers from the National Heritage Board and NParks. Where: Pulau Ubin. Meet at National Museum or Tampines MRT station When: May 14 and 15; 9.30am, 2.30 and 4.30pm Admission: $18 (includes shuttle bus, two-way bumboat ride, island taxi van and tour) Info:


Catch the world premiere of Singapore film-maker Royston Tan's new documentary Homecoming. Specially commissioned for the festival, the one-hour film features the stories of former Ubin residents who still return to the village and others who have left their homes elsewhere to settle down on Ubin.

Fellow home-grown director Kirsten Tan's award-winning film Dahdi (Granny) will also be screened. It won Best South-east Asian Short Film at the Silver Screen Awards 2014. The film is on an elderly widow living on Pulau Ubin who unexpectedly comes across a young girl seeking asylum.

Where: Wayang Stage, Pulau Ubin. When: May 14, 7.30pm Admission: Free although the public is recommended to buy an SHF - Ubin Access Pass. The $10 pass includes access to the designated seating area for the screening plus two-way boat and bus rides. Info:


Learn how to make nasi kerabu (a Malay rice dish where blue rice is eaten with fish or chicken) and ice kachang in a century-old kampung house. The owners of the house will also share stories on the island.

Where: Pulau Ubin. Meet at National Museum or Tampines MRT station. When: May 15, 10am and 12pm Admission: $38 (includes shuttle bus, two-way bumboat ride, island taxi van and tour) Info:

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2016, with the headline 'Rocking history'. Subscribe