On a quiet Saturday morning at Telok Ayer Street, a small group of people are gathered around a man in front of Thian Hock Keng Temple, trying to imagine a totally different world.
"Where you're standing now, this used to be where the water was," the man says, brandishing an old black-and-white photo of the area.
"In the 19th century, children would be running around buying street food and bullock carts would go by here."
"Imagine the smell - occasionally, the sea breezewouldbring relief." The speaker is 52-year-old engineering- trained Liew Kwong Chin, who is a volunteer guide leading walking tours of historic buildings on weekend mornings.
Called Monumental Walking Tours, these 11/2 hour tours have been run by the Preservation of Sites and Monuments (PSM) division of the National Heritage Board since 2010 to interest people in the history of important buildings.
The tours, which cost $5 a person, cover national monuments such as the Central Fire Station at Hill Street and the Former Telok Ayer Market, now Lau Pa Sat.
They also feature historic sites which are not national monuments but are important in Singapore's history. These include Fuk Tak Chi museum at Telok Ayer Street and Queen Elizabeth Walk at Esplanade Park.
In July, 13 new tours were added, bringing the total number of themed tours offered to more than 30.
These include the Mixed Blessings tour led by Mr Liew that highlights the different religious monuments on Telok Ayer Street.
Besides weekend tours, special tours may also take place during public holidays or the annual Istana Open House.
New tours are also added when new monuments are gazetted. For example, a new tour, Expressions Of Faith, covers the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple at Tank Road, which was gazetted at the end of last year.
The tours, which can accommodate 15 to 20 people, are well subscribed, having reached out to more than 24,000 people since 2010.
Explaining the popularity, organisers say that there is more curiosity about old buildings and traditions as Singapore progresses as a nation.
Finance worker Ken Tan, 35, who attended the Mixed Blessings tour with her sister, finds the tours a good way to spend weekends.
"The tours cover varied and interesting topics. You get to learn new things about buildings that you think are commonplace, or cultures yougrew upwith," she says.
The Monumental Walking Tours are led by a group of volunteers, who design their own routes based on their research through books, old articles and National Archive materials, supplemented by notes given by National Heritage Board during their training.
For the more independent minded, the heritage board also offers self-guided heritage trails, such as the recently revamped Singapore River Walk One may download the trail route and information about each marked site from its website.
Historian Frederik Rettig, 44, a German permanent resident here, prefers guided tours to self-guided ones.
"Sometimes, I feel a bit shy to enter religious sites," he says. "On a tour, I can do so because the guide has permission to take us into the building."
What sets the Monumental Walking Tours apart is the human touch of the guides.
Of course, it helps that they make the tours a lively experience, often spicing up their talks with interesting personal tales and anecdotes.
History lover Sam Yun-Shan, 33, decided to sign up to be a Monumental Walking Tour guide earlier this year, seeking a different experience from the "controlled environment" of a museum, where she has led tours before.
"With outdoor tours, there's traffic, it's hot and, sometimes, you're talking about something that doesn't exist anymore, so you have to find ways to be engaging," says the civil servant.
The guides often use archive materials, maps and photos to help illustrate their stories. Sometimes, it is those who attend a tour that bring it to life.
Mr Liew was leading a tour of Raffles Hotel, a national monument gazetted in 1987, in August with a group that included a 92-year-old British woman.
"She told me that she visited the hotel in 1957, the same year that actress Elizabeth Taylor visited," he says. "There's a treasure trove of history around us."
Five tours to check out
What: On this tour designed by guide Lee Ai Ling, learn the hidden stories behind some of the monuments in the civic district.
For example, the site of the Former Hill Street Police Station, now a government building, used to be where fancy arty shindigs were held in the 1800s, and firefighters from the Central Fire Station had a bad reputation as robbers.
Monuments: Central Fire Station, Former Hill Street Police Station, Former Parliament House (present-day Arts House)
Remembering Singapore's Old Waterfront
What: Discover the monuments and sites along Collyer Quay that stand where Singapore's historic waterfront used to be. The tour is designed by guide Alvin Yeo, who will also point out interesting facts about the skyscrapers in the area when he leads the tour.
Monuments: Former Telok Ayer Market (present-day Lau Pa Sat), Former Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House (present-day Singapore Conference Hall)
Historic sites: Former Singapore Polytechnic (present-day Bestway Building)
What: Find out about the "invisible" forces that helped build Singapore's oldest Anglican church, the St Andrew's Cathedral, and the former Empress Place Building, which is now the Asian Civilisations Museum.
Created by guide Sam Yun-Shan, the tour sheds light on the early colonial engineers and convict labourers who toiled in the past to construct these iconic buildings.
Monuments: St Andrew's Cathedral, Former Empress Place Building (Asian Civilisations Museum)
A Stroll In The Jewish Quarters
What: Guide Catalina Tong shares her in-depth knowledge of the old Jewish quarters, located in the areas near Sophia Road and Selegie Road, in this tour.
Interesting facts include how the former Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf outlet at Waterloo Street, owned by the prominent Sassoon family, used to serve kosher food to the Jewish community in the area.
The tour includes a visit to the oldest surviving Jewish synagogue in South-east Asia, the Maghain Aboth Synagogue.
Monuments: Maghain Aboth Synagogue
Stories Of Kampong Glam
What: The Istana Kampong Gelam, now the site of the Malay Heritage Centre, is the latest building to be gazetted a national monument.
In this tour created by guide Kenneth Soon, you will learn how to identify gelam trees that gave the vicinity its name and describe what life in the neighbourhood was like. Look out for a special Banyan tree that has a secret of its own.
Monuments: Sultan Mosque and Istana Kampong Glam
November tours are all fully booked. Go to www.nhb.gov.sg for information on upcoming tours. Tickets cost $5 and are available on www.peatix.com.sg.
This article was first published on Nov 6, 2015.
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