A road in Singapore. Epilogue

IMG_2866.JPG ONRAET ROAD-A

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.

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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. 🙂

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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):

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Destination? The National Museum of Singapore on Stamford Road. (Stamford as in Sir Stamford Raffles, the “founder” of Singapore.

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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:

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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?

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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:

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There he is, front row, centre. With his fellows-in-arms. Black shoes impeccably polished.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

65 thoughts on “A road in Singapore. Epilogue

    • The road was a laugh, really. But the room in the Museum was a major surprise. I was so busy shooting the exhibits, I forgot to take a picture of the whole room! Ha! 🙂

  1. Wow, what an extraordinary story, especially because it’s real … it’s like you’re the happy owner of a time machine! I think it is a wonderful and at the same time overwhelming feeling to discover that someone in your family has written history for another nation!

  2. Great and grand. To have knowledge of your ancestors like this is a gift of great value. I did wonder on the transportation thing. Why is it the rest of the developed world seems able to have clean reliable, safe, on time, fast mass transit subways, trains, and buses yet the US can’t seem to do it? I loved the transit system in Germany back in the 1980’s as a young man in the US Army. I could go anywhere including between West Berlin and West Germany by train , and all over West Germany and West Berlin by mass transit in comfort. I had left my car in the States and did not miss it. Transportation was affordable, timely , and went everywhere. I miss it. Hugs

    • So you were stationed in Germany? How interesting. In the days Uncle Sam still cared about Europe. 🙂
      Yes, with ups and downs, mass transit is well developed in Europe. Bombardier, the Canadians, are very strong, both in Europe and Singapore. Luxury trains. (And I just learnt it is a criminal offense to take pix in the Tube in Singapore. 😦
      Cheers

    • Thank you Tish. I had not realized the twists and tangles. I guess it is the way I write. And it was fascinating to put more… history on another family member. Because of distance he was always referred to as “Oh, yes, the one who was Chief of Police in Singapore…” His older brother Frank, the tiger-hunter was the star of the family.
      Bon week-end rafiki.

  3. Fascinated by your uncle’s story. Your family clearly went places, Brianji. The photos and magazine cuttings are precious. It must have been such a proud moment for you to stand beneath that road sign named for your uncle. I would have strutted around, proud as a peacock.

    • Haha! The road was a bit of an anti-climax. The Museum was… quite a surprise. And I almost passed by. Bunch of old photos and newspaper clippings… 🙂
      I’m glad to have seen that. And Singapore recognizes his contribution. That is a fascinating city(State)
      Bon week-end ma’amji.

      • Last winter when I was home, my brother and his family took time off to visit Singapore. When they returned, his every sentence started with, ‘In Singapore…’ So apart from wanting to club him, I reckoned it was impressive. I remember bits and parts of it from when my parents took us there as children, but I have to refresh my memories of it.
        You have a wonderful weekend too 🙂

      • So we possibly crossed path with your brother? 🙂
        I must say (pliz don’t club me) that the place is impressive. I was born and have lived “South” most of my life, and there is always something that is not working. Corruption, crime, bad cops, violence. Singapore is clean. GDP per capita figures support that. (You need to go)
        Au revoir mon amie. 🙂

      • Hah I like the pliz. If you insist, I have to revive my old memories of it, which are decidedly blurry. Except for the Singapore Zoo which is carved clearly into my cells, if only for the sake of the spectacle of a waif thin man relaxing between the jaws of a crocodile. I have not been able to forget it, as much as I want to!

    • Some families seem to concentrate… “talent”. My grandmother’s brothers and sisters and cousins had most fantastic lives. Right time and place I guess? Wait till I tell of my other great-uncle Frank the tiger-hunter. 🙂
      Have a lovely week-end, Dina.

  4. How great is that to stumble upon relatives at the museum!!! And all you expected was to see the sign. It sounds like they are proud of his legacy. What more could we ask for?

  5. There were times when a single person could make a difference. For the bad or for the good. The latter doesn’t quite apply anymore, not that I see it. This century is not a good one. Scotty, any chance for a time warp…?

  6. what an amazing blast from the past, that must have been so exciting to see ❤ so you're like royalty almost then, ha 🙂 good family roots and that they're still forever a piece of history, way cool!

    • Haha! No, not royalty! I am a total Democrat. “We, the People…” But I was born in an interesting family with a lot of wanderlust in their genes. (And there are more to comment about) 🙂
      Have a lovely week, Kim

  7. Whoa! Brian, did you know he wrote a memoir as well? It must be something to find family so far off and with such a remarkable footprint on a place’s history (as you said… Macca got nothin’!). Your family sounds incredibly interesting, a true citizenry of the world before it became an Instagram profile cliché.

    Fabrizio

    • Ciao Fabrizio. It was known in the family that he had written a memoir, but somewhat brushed aside. No-one had gone to Singapore since the war. 🙂 And yes they were world travelers before the cliché. Now spread from Canada to Mexico to England to France to South Africa to Tahiti to Australia… (I’ve just found a way to scan the typewritten family history my father wrote years ago. Working on it. So you guys will be submitted to more. 😉
      (Congratulations to President Mattarella for holding the fort! Bravíssimo!)

  8. Your family tree is quite literally unbelievable Brian. What a truly amazing story, and I thought the uncle who fought his way to Berlin was extraordinary, but being part of Singapore’s national story is right up there as well.

    • Yes. Amazing. Not to mention the cousin who ran Marlon Brando’s hotel in Tahiti… A very rare concentration of wanderers in a single family across just a few generations.

  9. Hah …. great tale, Senor. I am surprised you didn’t go back after dark and nick the road sign. I would have. 😉

    And in that last photo there is a distinct resemblance to Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther.
    Coppers both!

    • You are frightfully right old chap. 😉 Hadn’t thought of that. Though nicking a road sign probably means life sentence in Singapore. 😉
      And Clouseau! C´est vrai! (Tan ta dan, tadan tadan tadan…)

  10. That is SO exciting! It is hard to work out why no one in the family knew of the historical importance of your ancestor, Brian. To have discovered this by chance is wonderful. Your family must’ve been as thrilled as you are.

    • Singapore is a long way away from France and England. All knew he’d been “Chief of police” in Singapore before the war. But that’s it. Remember: people then rarely talked about themselves. It would be unfit of a gentleman. 😉 And most certainly no-one knew he had “a room” in the (brand-new) National museum. Now why? Don’t know. I guess I will have to go back to Singapore and ask around. 🙂
      All well I hope?

      • My health is a constant pain in the . . . well, everywhere, 😊 but I do have some exciting news. You are the first to hear in the blogosphere, Brian. I’ve been approached to be interviewed for an audio documentary about the Flinders Street photobooth. The journalist works for a national radio network. I can’t say more at this time but I’m pretty excited about it. ☺️

      • (I know about the pain in the… There are a few French expressions about that which only make sense when you are in it… my view? ignore it as much as one can and Tradol!)
        On the other news: congratulations! It is very exciting! Do let us know how it went. Bon week-end Kate

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