Some of you may remember a previous post of mine on a road in Singapore, named after my great-uncle, René Onraët. The family lore told of that road, of my uncle’s career as a police officer in the Straits settlements at the beginning of the 20th century. The above was sent to me by my niece Véronique on a trip to Singapore she took last year.
This is the only family photograph of my great-uncle René Onraët. He was born in India, in 1887, where his father Henry-Felix worked for the Maharajah of Gwalior, Rao Scindia. René spoke French (our family was established in India for two centuries, mid 1700′ to mid 1900’s), English of course (British Raj and all that), Hindustani. He later learnt fluent Hokkien, the language of the Straits Chinese, and Bahasa Malayu.
When we arrived in Singapore last December as the first stop of our Asian journey, I obviously pressed the family to include Onraet Road in the programme. On the map, it looked like a small road off a major highway, called PIE, north-east of the Botanical gardens. Got a UBER and off we go!
The driver keyed in the destination. Had never hear of that road, but who cares? A sign on the highway said: “Onraet road” to the left. Ok. Turning left… And almost immediately we found ourselves surrounded by barbed wire fences on each side of the road. Police barracks left and right! Until we came to a barrier manned by police officers. We turned around. Passed another barrier, where the officer came to the car, slightly tense, asking what we were doing in a protected Police zone. The driver answered something in some unidentified language. We thought we might be arrested, but they let us go! I explained the story to the driver who burst out laughing, and led us to the entrance of the road, where I took the obligatory picture of a somewhat destitute family road. 🙂
That was clearly the roar of the day for us. Putting things in perspective. Okay. So “we” have a road somewhere. Fine. Cool. Just 100 yards long. Even cooler. 🙂
Off we went, exploring Singapore, Penang, Bangkok, Angkor. We flew back from Cambodia to Singapore, to spend the night before boarding our plane back home the next afternoon. We decided to take Singapore’s splendid transportation system (MRT):
Destination? The National Museum of Singapore on Stamford Road. (Stamford as in Sir Stamford Raffles, the “founder” of Singapore.
Set in a splendid mid-19th century building, the Museum is an absolute must to understand Singapore’s history and culture. A very well put together museum. As we were rushing a bit from room to room, thinking of our flight, I passed a small room, with photos and texts hanging on the wall. I almost skipped the room when a quote on the wall caught my eye:
What?! René Onraet? I stopped. Brushed my eyes. Read the sign again, on the left wall of the room. Then looked around. The room was dedicated to my (great-)uncle. No way! In the Singapore National Museum?
So that was the story! Special Branch. And as my emotions swelled, I found photos hanging on the wall. Of a much older uncle René:
There he is, front row, centre. With his fellows-in-arms. Black shoes impeccably polished.
The head of Special Branch around 1916 earned 720 pounds a year. 720 Quid! Enough to live very well indeed. Uncle René at the end his career was also the President of the Singapore Polo Club. When he retired to England he raised polo horses. Frighfully nice, old Chap.
René Onraët (left on the photo) retired in 1939. Don’t you love “the Special Branch tea party by the sea”? He was in England at the outbreak of the war. Volunteered for the Army. Was made a major. After the war he wrote a book on polo horses and his experience in the Singapore Police. He died in 1952 in England.
As I watched this photo, I could recognize features of my grandmother: the black hair, dark eyes, the strong nose and chin. Her brother no doubt. Family.
And then another thought crossed my mind. Why on earth was there an “Onraet room” in the National Museum of Singapore? Granted, not a big room. More like a walk-in closet, but a room nonetheless. Dedicated to a long-forgotten European. General Mac Arthur does not have a room that I saw. The only other European on “display” is Sir Stamford Raffles, if I recall correctly. René Onraët must then be considered an important part of Singapore’s history.
So why uncle René? And why have the roads kept their English names? And why is English the main language? In most “post-colonial” countries I know, the former colonial powers, influence, language, are… rejected, to put it mildly, erased from history. Not in Singapore. Not in Penang. (Sample of two only. But significant).
I believe that it is the mark of what I would call the “Fusion” process”, by which, some former colonies have adopted some traits of the West (the former colonial power) as their own. Without rancor, nor losing their own cultural specificities. Just a fusion of several cultures. Taking what works and discarding the rest. I have only seen such Fusion on this Asian trip. (I also believe it applies to Japan and possibly mainland China to some extent). But again, only in Asia have I seen this, not in the many other places I have roamed. (I have more elements to support that theory, which I will post in due time).
Thank you for driving on Equinoxio’s Time-Space Shuttle to an obscure road in Singapore. Enjoy the coming week-end.