Sunday, March 6, 2011

Journey Through Time – A Fantasy Tour: Time Travelling at the Civic District

Old historical buildings are one of Red Dot Diva's weaknesses.

So, when online friend @sarahcoldheart tweeted about a short historical fantasy-themed walk by The Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB), Red Dot Diva chose to sign up for it immediately. She also managed to convince her Mom to come along for the little jaunt.

The 1.5-hour walk - named "Journey Through Time - A Fantasy Tour" began at 9.45am at a bus-stop near the Raffles Hotel on Saturday, February 26th. There were about 20 aspiring time explorers, all eager to get started.

After being greeted by the very friendly PMB staff members, the group completed registration forms and were given nifty goodie bags that included a simple but cute "I -heart- Museums" button. With all that settled, it was time to begin the journey back in time!

Instead of making a "Dr Who"-styled time-jump backwards, Red Dot Diva and the group bumped into a pretty lady with a lovely white parasol, dressed in turquoise Edwardian garb at the entrance of the Raffles Hotel. Her name was Julia and she hailed from the year 1914.

Introducing herself very politely in a crisp British accent, Julia told the group that her friend Meng had handed her a letter together with a pendant and the next thing she knew, she was "here" - outside the Raffles Hotel, which was actually near the beach. "But all I see now ... is a road," she huffed. She asked what year it was.

"2011?!" she exclaimed. "It is very noisy in 2011!"

Julia had really pretty shoes!
She then anxiously enquired if anyone has seen her male friend Meng. For she was unsure if he had magically transported to the 21st century with her too. Running suddenly out from nowhere, a simply-dressed Meng appeared, all bumblingly flustered but terribly glad to see a familiar face.

Happily reunited with her friend, Julia continued to share with the group that the pendant came accompanied with a letter written by Thomas - a secret admirer who had penned oh-- such romantic prose. And that she was told to meet him at The Armenian Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator. With a worried frown, she asked if the church still exists in 2011. The modern folks nodded their heads enthusiastically. Some kindly pointed the way towards the Armenian church and agreed to take Julia there.

For those who are beginning to form thoughts of Armenian gangs ala "The Shield", Red Dot Diva cannot quite confirm nor deny if such gangs existed during the 19th century in Red Dot Island. Perhaps they did! However, the Armenians who were well-known here, were of a more respectable nature. The Sarkies Brothers were Armenians. And so was Agnes Joaquim - the cultivator of the Red Dot Island's national flower, an orchid hybrid named Vanda Miss Joaquim.

The group began wandering round the corner of Raffles Hotel along Stamford Road and across the road towards glittery Raffles City. Julia asked bewildedly, "Does this Raffles City mean that the descendants of Sir Stamford Raffles are living here?" Hahaha.

On the way, Meng excitedly fished out black-and-white photos from his pocket, and showed random tour members what the Raffles Hotel and St Andrews Cathedral looked like during his era. The pics were "taken by his older brother", so he said.

It was also revealed that Julia is a teacher and Meng, a maintenance tech-kinda dude (er... the fore-runner of the local geek??!).

The duo was clearly quite confused with the structures and thingamajigs of the modern era.

Julia: Where are the horses?!?
Group member: We have what we call cars now.
Meng: I think it's better. The roads are less smelly and dirty.
Another group member: You don't see the horses now because there are these little horses *inside* the cars.
Julia: Ohhhhhh..! They are running INSIDE the cars!

Meng pointing to MBS: Miss Julia! Look! There's a ship on top of the building!!
Julia: Oh my! Was there a great flood so that such a large ship ended up at the top of that building??
Meng: Miss Julia! Look! There are TREES on the ship!
Julia: *gasp*

Red Dot Diva was thoroughly amused. She also noticed that her Mom couldn't help snickering at the befuddled banter between Julia and Meng, and the tour participants.

A mini detour was made inside the grounds of St Andrews Cathedral just across Raffles City. Julia shared that this majestic-looking building was constructed with the help of Indian convict labourers and Meng eagerly told us what made up the plaster on the exterior walls of the church. Apparently, the mixture included eggs and lime.

One of the highlights of the tour were the little gems of information that Juliet spouted during the walk. ("Ask Miss Julia. She knows everything," Meng affirmed.) Red Dot Diva already has a stash of historical knowledge about the Civic District in her mental storage facility. But there were still interesting and new things that she picked up from the walk. These are the ones she particularly loved:

- the original owner of Raffles Hotel was Arab trader/ philantropist Syed Mohamed Alsagoff, and not the Sarkies brothers as most people thought. The Sarkies operated the hotel under a lease.

- why a little street just round along Raffles Hotel is called "Cad's Alley". Many younger gentlemen used to gather around there and watched the ladies walking by. Not unlike Clarke Quay now, lah.

- there was a poshier hotel across the street of the Raffles Hotel called Grand Hotel de l’Europe. It was situated at the Esplanade (not the currently durian-looking one. Red Dot Diva is referring to the original promenade where the Lim Bo Seng Memorial still stands). The Supreme Court now stands in its place.

- Raffles City was built over the original site of Raffles Institution

- the St Andrew's Cathedral was named after Scotland's patron saint because its construction was funded by Scottish merchants

St Andrews' Cathedral

As it got nearer to noon, the humidity threatened to make the outdoor event rather uncomfortable. It was a good thing that the entire crowd had reached the Armenian Church just before the sun was at its most merciless.

St Gregory's
Julia led the group along the peaceful Garden of Memories, and she was surprised to see the tombstone of Agnes Joaquim there, for the actual graves were supposed to be at nearby Fort Canning Hill. She sighed and said that her dear Thomas was an Armenian.

Most of the Armenians were businessmen and very well respected in the community. And even though small in number (about 16 members), the ethnic group managed to raise enough funds to build the St Gregory's chuch back in 1835 - the very first church in Red Dot Island!

But wait... Where on earth was Thomas??? He was nowhere in sight! Will there be a happy ending to this story?

It was then that Meng stammered and sheepishy revealed to Julia that *he* had something to do with the pendant.... and that love letter. The two decided to return back in time using the magic pendant and entered the Armenian Church in an attempt to return to their time era.

Red Dot Diva was feeling unusually mushy that Saturday morning, so she hoped they made it. Together. ;)

The grounds of St Gregory's and parsonage

"Journey Through Time - A Fantasy Walk" deserves a time-portable Red Dot for its vibrant meshing of interactive story-telling and informative historical tour.

For just a fee of $3, it is a fun and very enlightening way to spend a Saturday. Especially, if one wants to try something other than the usual and boring Red Dot Island activities, like eating and shopping.

Red Dot Diva assures that the facts were not shoved down one's throat like history class in secondary school. History was made easily digestible because it was told from a first-person perspective. Like a fictional tale come to life, as it may.

The actors were excellent and stayed in character the entire time. Coral Ann Tong was effervescently witty as Julia. And one can't help but like Edward Choy's rendering of boyishly innocent Meng. Their off-the-cuff remarks and constant interaction with the participants made the time-travelling romance tale all the more believable. Red Dot Diva learnt that the charming interactive package was produced by Sam Nai, and hopes that PMB will put out more tours like this.

Red Dot Diva admits that her cynical little heart is always moved when she visits historical monuments like these in the Civic District.

She knows that many locals are terribly unaware of the unique fount of history that exists in Red Dot Island's own backyward. The St Gregory's Church looks simple and nondescript but it is nevertheless a testimony to the contribution and tenacity of the early migrants, and its existence gives an insight to what made them decide to call Red Dot Island their home.


There are other dates for the walking tour on March 12th and 13th, at 4pm. (Register by March 7th). Click here to book! There are limited slots so don't wait too long to email them!

At the end of the tour, a PMB representative announced that the walk is one of the promotional events that leads up to "Illuminate 175", a special event celebrating the 175th anniversary of the Armenian Church on March 12th and 13th. (Click here for details of "Illuminate 175".)


PS: Red Dot Diva got interviewed by the Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao.
The Chinese newspaper article appeared the next day. Click here to view a scan!
The Strait's Times' Life! section featured the walk on 7th March! Click here to view a scan!

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