NHB launches dialect tours to showcase Kreta Ayer's rich history and heritage

Docents Ang Bee Lian (left) and Low Kah Meng will be giving tours of Kreta Ayer as part of a pilot dialect series by NHB. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - Retiree Ang Bee Lian, a Mandarin volunteer docent since 2003, felt her conversational dialect was put to the test when she had to prepare her lines in Hokkien and Teochew to share about Kreta Ayer for a new tour series.

The 65-year-old depended on friends who are well-versed in the dialects to help her months ago.

Ms Ang is one of the 15 Mandarin docents who volunteered for a new pilot dialect series, Discover Through Dialects: Kreta Ayer Heritage Tours, which will take place every last Saturday of the month from March to December this year.

The 1½-hour tour will be conducted in Cantonese, Teochew or Hokkien by rotation monthly.

Mr Alvin Tan, deputy chief executive (policy and community) with the National Heritage Board (NHB), said the pilot series targets seniors, those who are dialect-speaking, and anyone who is interested in tours in dialects.

"The dialect tours will complement our existing programmes in English and Mandarin.

"They will also increase accessibility to the history and heritage of the Kreta Ayer and Chinatown areas, and help us to reach out to different demographics," he said.

NHB hopes to reach out to 150 people with the new series, with each of the 10 tours taking in a maximum of 15 participants.

It will review public interest and feedback before deciding on holding more runs. Mr Tan said other Chinese dialects can be considered if there are guides who are proficient in them.

Work on the tours started in 2020 but was disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Tan added.

Last June, NHB restarted the docents' training and began sharing the content with them again.

The tours will take participants to NHB's Kreta Ayer Heritage Gallery, where they can learn more about five intangible cultural heritage elements introduced by early Chinese immigrants.

They comprise Chinese opera, nanyin music (an ancient form of Chinese opera music), Chinese puppetry, painting and calligraphy, and tea drinking and appreciation, all of which are still practised in the area.

Participants will also visit key landmarks including the iconic red and white Tong Ah building, former home of the Tong Ah Eating House known for its Nanyang breakfast of butter and kaya toast as well as Nanyang coffee.

A docent conducting a tour at Kreta Ayer Heritage Gallery on March 23, 2022. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

The tour also includes Cundhi Gong temple, where the Cantonese domestic workers or majie made their vows of celibacy, and the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar temple which provides a glimpse of the history of Chettiars and Hinduism in Singapore.

Besides getting to view the buildings' distinctive architectural features, participants will also hear stories about the communities that lived in the area.

The Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar temple provides a glimpse of the history of Chettiars and Hinduism in Singapore. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

To make the tours even more interesting, Mr Low Kah Meng, a docent who will be giving tours in Cantonese, will be singing a few verses of nanyin.

He will also show photographs of the former red-light district in Keong Saik Road.

The 67-year-old, who has been a Mandarin guide since 2009, said: "I did my research on the Internet and from books. The more I discover, the more eager I am to share my findings."

Using Cantonese to share Kreta Ayer's history, which used to have many Cantonese-speaking residents and practices linked to the dialect such as yum cha (tea drinking), feels even closer to heart, he added.

Mr Low Kah Meng conducting the tour in Cantonese in Keong Saik Road on March 23, 2022. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

To assist with the organisation of the tours, NHB is collaborating with 16 senior volunteers from RSVP Singapore The Organisation of Senior Volunteers to support registration and road safety.

Tickets can be booked through Peatix on a first-come, first-served basis at $5 each.

In addition to the dialect tours, the Kreta Ayer Heritage Gallery is offering guided tours of the Kreta Ayer/Chinatown area in English every month from March.

Tickets can also be booked through Peatix at $5 each.

The gallery will also be launching Mandarin tours in the second half of this year.

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