The far side of the hill

25 02 2010

The far side of Fort Canning Hill, as far as the schoolboys from SJI were concerned, was the area where the southern and western slopes of the hill were. It was an area that we would usually pass through on our jogs around the hill during Physical Education lessons (P.E.) – or on our way to River Valley Swimming Pool for the occasional swimming practice for our P.E. This was also how we could get across from school to watch the annual Thaipusam procession, which would make its way along Tank Road to its destination at the Sri Thandayuthapani Temple (also known as the Chettiar Temple).

The Sri Thandayuthapani Temple as seen from the foot of the western slope of Fort Canning Hill. Also known as the Chettiar Temple, the temple serves as the end point of the annual Thaipusam procession in Singapore.

The western slope which faces Clemenceau Avenue and Tank Road was an area which we would usually try to avoid – several of us had “close encounters” with the boys from the school facing the slope on Tank Road, Tuan Mong High School, which was housed in the distinctive Teochew Building. The Teochew Building built in the early 1960s on the site of the former Tuan Mong High School building, besides housing the school, also housed the Teochew clan associations: Ngee Ann Kongsi and the Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan, as well as the Ngee Ann College, the predecessor to Ngee Ann Polytechnic, when it was established in 1963, for a while until 1968.

The Teochew Building housed Tuan Mong High School, Ngee Ann Kongsi and the Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan, as well as the Ngee Ann College.

Tank road is also home to the Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart, built in the French Gothic style, which was completed in 1910. The church built by the French Catholic missionaries for the Cantonese and Hakka community, was designed by a Rev. Fr. Lambert who was apparently a well-known architect. Interestingly, the site of the church is also close to Singapore’s first railway station: the terminal station of the first railway line running from Kranji to Tank Road built in 1903. The station was demolished around 1939 when the line was dismantled. Drawn perhaps by the concise sermon and perhaps due to the proximity of the newly opened Japanese departmental store, Yaohan, at Plaza Singapura (which opened in 1974), my parents were fond of bringing us for mass at the church on Saturday evenings. We did this for a few years until 1977/78, and would visit Plaza Singapura for dinner and for a walk around the supermarket after mass.

Church of the Sacred Heart along Tank Road.

The Church of the Sacred Heart painted brown in 1976.

Another view of Tank Road in front of the Church of the Sacred Heart in 1976. The shophouse on the left has since disappeared - the Oxley flyover and the Haw Par Glass Tower can be seen in the background.

The southern slope of Fort Canning Hill runs along River Valley Road. This was where four landmarks were located: the National Theatre, Van Kleef Aquarium, River Valley Swimming Pool and the Hill Street Police Station at the end, where River Valley Road meets up with Hill Street. Of these, possibly the two most loved ones, the National Theatre and the Van Kleef Aquarium have since disappeared, and the River Valley Swimming Pool sits disused, quietly awaiting its end.

An aerial view of the southern slope of Fort Canning Hill along River Valley Road in the 1960s on an old postcard.

The area would have been dominated by the National Theatre standing prominently at the foot of the hill where Clemenceau Avenue and River Valley Road met. This served as a proud symbol of self-reliance, being designed by a Singapore architect, Alfred Wong in a design competition. The construction of the 3420 seat open air theatre was jointly funded by the Singapore government and the public and the theatre was opened in 1964.

National Theatre located at the foot of Fort Canning Hill at the corner of Clemenceau Avenue and River Valley Road. The theatre was demolished in 1986 after it was found to be structurally unsound.

The theatre building was notable for a few features, including a 150 tonne cantilevered steel roof reaching to the slopes of Fort Canning. The façade featured a five pointed diamond shaped patterns, each of which represented one of the five stars on the Singapore flag. An outdoor fountain stood in front yard of the building, representing the crescent moon on the Singapore flag. The theatre had to be unceremoniously demolished in 1986 after it was found to be structurally unsound.

Another view of the National Theatre as seen on the cover of a photo album.

A reminder now stands at the site of the former National icon.

The area where the National Theatre once dominated the landscape.

Next to the theatre was one of my favourite places in the 1960s, the Van Kleef Aquarium. The Van Kleef Aquarium was built in the 1950s with funds bequeathed by a Karl Willem Benjamin van Kleef, a successful Dutch businessman who had settled in Singapore, who passed away in 1930 after returning to the Netherlands in 1913, hence the name of the aquarium. When the aquarium opened in 1955, it was one of the most impressive aquariums in the world. The building designed by the local municipal architects, was in itself, an impressive feat of engineering. It featured two underground reservoirs from which water could be pumped to the tanks housing the exhibits by a system of pumps. This was where I had my first glance of beautifully coloured marine fish, including the Lion Fish which was my favourite. While increasing interest in the first 25 years saw visitor numbers to the aquarium peak at 430,000 visitors in the 1979, interest waned in the 1980s, with visitor numbers falling to some 248,000 visitors in 1985, as newer attractions such as the zoo and the bird park became more fashionable. With the opening of Underwater World in Sentosa in 1991, a decision was made to close the aquarium. It finally closed its doors in 1996, and the building was demolished in 1998.

Van Kleef Aquarium seen on an old postcard.

Evidence of the staircase from Fort Canning Hill beside the former Van Kleef Aquarium.

A path along River Valley Road that led up to the Van Kleef Aquarium now leads to a grassy slope.

Next to the Van Kleef Aquarium, the River Valley Swimming Complex was built in the late 1950s by the Singapore City Council. It was designed by a British architect, M. E. Crocker and was opened in 1959. The Olympic sized pool was one of the pools we used as schoolboys for P.E. alternating with the one at the then SAF NCO club in Beach Road. Little did we know it then, but the complex was a haunt of men of an alternative orientation. The complex was closed in 2003.

The entrance area of the River Valley Swimming Complex.

The life guard post of the disused swimming complex as seen through the entrance.

The exit turnstile of the former River Valley Swimming Complex.

Further along the foot of the hill along River Valley Road, the magnificent Neo-Classical styled Hill Street Police Station building. The building was designed by the Public Works Department and when completed in 1934, it was the largest government building on the island. The building features a courtyard which served as a parade ground and has a total of 911 windows. The building housed Singapore’s earliest jail, as well as housing the police station and serving as the living quarters for police personnel. The Kempeitai was said to have used the building as a prison and torture chamber during the Japanese Occupation. The building was used by the police unitl 1980, and the National Archives used the building from 1983, before the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA) which now occupies the building moved in. One of the things that I clearly remember about the building was a sign which stuck out above a doorway on River Valley Road that I always made a point of looking out for when I was a boy of maybe 5 or 6. The sign had the words “Officers’ Mess” on it, and I was comforted in the knowledge that I wasn’t the only person around who lived with a “mess”! It was only when I was a little older that I came to realise what a “Mess” in that context was.

The magnificent neo-classical styled former Hill Street Police Station building which now houses MICA.

Possibly the door above which the "Officers' Mess" sign once stuck out from.

The building has been since renamed as the Hill Street Building and now sports brightly coloured windows.


Some pictures taken inside the old National Theatre during the SJI 125th Anniversary Celebrations in 1977:

National Theatre Staircase

SJI 125th Anniversary Celebrations at the National Theatre in 1977


An old postcard showing Tank Road Station:

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12 responses

26 02 2010
The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Daily SG: 26 Feb 2010

[…] the universe and everything – The Long and Winding Road: The far side of the hill – Tan Kin Lian’s Blog: Renting and owning a property – Dee Kay Dot As Gee: How to skip the […]

26 02 2010
Ah Tee

Does anyone knows what happened to the fishes when Van Kleef Aquarium closed?

28 02 2010
peter

Transfered to Sentosa

9 03 2010
Golf – Saturday Feb 20th - My Let's Break 80 Golf Journal

[…] The far side of the hill « The Long and Winding Road […]

7 04 2010
edith hadiansyah

very interesting.
nice info thanks for sharing..

7 04 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks Edith, appreciate your comments.

13 05 2010
Farewell to the last of a trio « The Long and Winding Road

[…] the way of two of its former companions. We have already lost two icons that once stood there, the National Theatre and Van Kleef Aquarium which remain only in the memories of those that knew them. The third, the […]

1 10 2010
Frankie

I am now addicted to all you Heritage Blogs since stumbling onto Lam Chun See’s Blog. Still lots of reading to keep me awake at night. Wonderful contents you have here.

Sacred Heart Church celebrates 100 years anniversary this year! We used to call her “chocolate church” haha.

4 10 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks for the feedback Frankie. :) Yes the chocolate church! Do you go to church at Sacred Heart?

7 10 2010
Frankie

The last couple of years my wife and I became “nomadic parishioners”, hoping to where ever our Sunday program takes us. Yes Sacred Heart, St Mary’s, St Teresa’s, Risen Christ and Good Sheppard. Sometimes St Bernadette and OLPS. What about you? Still going to Sacred Heart?

7 10 2010
The wondering wanderer

Stopped going to Sacred Heart many years ago, when Yaohan was still operating … last time I was there was for a cousin’s wedding at the end of the 1990s. I usually go to Star of the Sea these days …

22 09 2014
Steven Kee

Yes, I remember the chocolate church, that’s where I attended my mom’s brother marriage ceremony held there during the late 70s. Sadly, my uncle has since passed away 2 years back after a long fight with cancer. However, I can’t help to think about it whenever I drive past the church. It’s was such a bitter sweet memories. As for the National theater, I have many fond memories as I used to accompany my younger sister there for her ballet classes. There were no words to discribe the anguish when it’s was torn down. I always felt they could have done something about it rather than just torn it down. Same goes for the Van Kleef Aqurium. Thank you for the article.

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