My stroll through the streets that made up the Mahallah: Selegie Road

17 03 2010

Wandering around the Selegie Road area today, there is very little of the old that is left to remind us of the Selegie Road that existed in the when I was growing up in the 1960s, and certainly even less of a time when you might have thought you were in a different world altogether. That was a time we have long left behind as Singaporeans, a past that we have perhaps chosen to forget.

Signs of the times: Selegie Road at the turn of the 21st Century ... a very different world from when it was a bustling street within the Mahallah.

The area today boasts of spanking new edifices, the School of the Arts for one and Wilkie Edge being another, representative perhaps of the Singapore we have become, somewhat cold and grey, seemingly perfect and lacking in identity, much like Huxley’s Brave New World. Interspersed with the new kids on the block are several older structures built in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Peace Centre, Selegie House and the former Selegie School, as well as some pre-war buildings that have hitherto managed to escape the wrecker’s ball.

Spanking new buildings now stand in what was once the Mahallah.

It is the pre-war buildings that provide a glimpse into the forgotten past, when it was part of an area referred to by its inhabitants as the Mahallah, or “place” in Arabic. Of these, two, the David Elias building at the junctions of Selegie Road, Middle Road and Short Street, and the Ellison building which is located at the end of Selegie Road provide the clues as to whom the inhabitants of the Mahallah were, not Arabs as one might have assumed, but members of the Diaspora, the symbol of which, the Star of David, is displayed prominently on the façades. It was a comment on my post on Selegie Road, from a reader Mamadondi, who lived in the vicinity from 1958 to 1978, who suggested a link between the two buildings that prompted me to take a stroll through the area in an attempt to acquaint myself with this past.

Selegie Road today is a mix of modern buildings and pre-war buildings such as the former Tiger Balm building and the David Elias building.

The former Tiger Balm Building at the corner of Short Street and Selegie Road - a surviving pre-war building on Selegie Road without a Jewish past.

The Mahallah was the “place” where the many working class Baghdadi Jews who had settled in Singapore around the turn of the twentieth century, called home, a Jewish Quarter so to speak. They went about the daily business, just as they might have done on the streets of old Baghdad or Calcutta where many had originated from, living amongst the Indian, Eurasian and Chinese families in the area. The area included Selegie Road, Short Street, Wilkie Road, Sophia Road, Prinsep Street and Middle Road. That Arabic was a common language and that the two buildings mentioned both display the Star of David on their façades, provides an appreciation for who the area’s inhabitants were. It was common to see Jews dressed in Iraqi attire, with men topped with a fez, as the new immigrants sought to recreate a familiarity of where they had arrived from, within the surroundings of their new world. The large Jewish families that lived in the area were relatively poor, many with ten or more children, and most were cramped in the many small two storey houses that were common in the area. Many were small traders, rabbis and bakers who came to seek a better life or to serve the community, some following their more successful brethren, for the promise of success. Living in the Mahallah, many struggled to make ends meet. However, it was from the adversity of living in these conditions that many in the community succeeded in life, with many prominent and successful Singaporeans emerging out of the Mahallah, among them Jacob Ballas and Harry Elias.

The David Elias Building with Stars of David displayed prominently provides a link to the area

On this point, it must be said that wider community of Baghdadi Jews had in fact seen tremendous success, with many living in stately mansions away from the Mahallah, or close by on Mount Sophia, among them the Elias family and Mannaseh Meyer. The community also provided Singapore, with its first Chief Minister, David Marshall – the son of an Baghdadi immigrant, Saul Marshall. The Elias family had through their patriarch, Aaron, who passed away in 1902, amassed a huge fortune from the opium trade. At the point of Aaron’s untimely death, the mantle was taken up by the eldest son, Joseph Aaron Elias. The family was known for its stately mansion by the sea on the East Coast, as well as a holiday villa in Tampines which provided Elias Road in Pasir Ris with its name. Several buildings including Amber Mansions that stood on Orchard Road where the Dhoby Ghaut MRT station is today is attributed to Joseph. The David Elias building was built by David J. Elias, who was the second cousin of Joseph Aaron Elias, and brother-in-law, having married Joseph’s sister Miriam, and was a successful import and export merchant in his own right. The building which was designed by the prominent colonial architectural firm, Swan and MacLaren, and built in 1928, contained many offices and shops and the offices of David’s company, D. J. Elias and Company.

Floor tiles on the five-foot way of the David Elias building.

The Ellison Building as seen from the junction of Rochor Canal and Selegie Roads.

At the end of Selegie Road at its junction with Bukit Timah Road, stands the Ellison building which I mentioned in a previous post. The origins of the buildings are rather vague, having been described in an infopedia article as being built for a Jewish lady named Ellison. It could very well have been for a Flora Ellison, having been put up in 1924 by Issac Ellison, a Romanian Jew who owned an Iky’s Bar near Raffles Place which was apparently quite a popular nightspot. Issac was married to Flora who was a Baghdadi Jewess who had come from Rangoon.

Issac (Ike) and Flora Ellison (Source: Joan Bieder's "The Jews of Singapore").

I guess it is hard to imagine how the area once was – an aerial view of Eu Villa on Mount Sophia, which incidentally was also designed by Swan and MacLaren, available on the National Archives PICAS site provides an impression of how it would have looked like in the pre-war years, without recreating the atmosphere that existed. It was good to have Joan Bieder’s excellent book, “The Jews of Singapore”, for which much of the factual information provided here is based on, to accompany my stroll through the area, as a guide. Whatever it was … the Mahallah has ceased to exist, living only the the memory of those who lived there … replaced by the modern structures which struggle to recreate the vibrancy that the inhabitants of the Mahallah once brought to the area.

Aerial view of Eu Villa on Mount Sophia from the National Archives PICAS website providing a good idea of how the area looked like before the war in 1940.

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19 responses

17 03 2010
The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Daily SG: 17 Mar 2010

[...] Life, the universe and everything – The Temasek Review: Singapore National Football Team: Let’s talk about statistics – The Long and Winding Road: My stroll through the streets of that made up the Mahallah: Selegie Road [...]

19 03 2010
The magical hill with a fairy-tale like mansion that was Mount Sophia « The Long and Winding Road

[...] like mansion that was Mount Sophia 19 03 2010 Taking a stroll through what were once the streets of the Mahallah, I was drawn to another area close by that I had been acquainted with in my younger days, Mount [...]

20 03 2010
The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Weekly Roundup: Week 12

[...] Singapore National Football Team: Let’s talk about statistics – The Long and Winding Road: My stroll through the streets of that made up the Mahallah: Selegie Road – The Pattern Trader: Why Traders Fail – Lesson 1 – Small steps for Social PR: Are Starhub [...]

24 03 2010
The streets of the Mahallah: Middle Road, where the Doh Jin Hospital once stood « The Long and Winding Road

[...] Doh Jin Hospital once stood 24 03 2010 Continuing on my stroll through the streets of the Mahallah from Selegie Road, I came to what would have been another of the main streets of the Mahallah, [...]

27 03 2010
Danny

Hi, my name is Danny,Harry Elias is my grand uncle. My mothers side all lived in Sophia road Singapore. We often walk around there in our many visits to Singapore. Recently, my grand uncle Johnny Ellis, passed away, and a few years ago Yona Elias who spent his last years in Wilki road. Thank you

28 03 2010
The wondering wanderer

Hi Danny. Thanks for your comments. Wow, it’s great to hear that you are related to Harry Elias and that your mother’s side lived in the Sophia Road area! I loved the area when I was a schoolboy and walking around the area recently reminded me of why I loved the area then, although much has changed. Thanks for the information as well about your grand uncles – I understand that there are also seven other siblings – are they all in Singapore? It was interesting to read about Harry’s experiences in the Mahallah in Joan Bieder’s book, and interestingly there is a link to the Empress Hotel, which I mentioned in a post on Victoria Street. The family I understand were put up in the hotel by the British after the war, while the Mahallah was being repaired, before moving to 19 Wilkie Road.

8 04 2010
mamadondi

Hi Danny do you know or remember the Evergreen Atheletic/Weightlifting club on Wilkie Rd. This was on a location up from the Sophia Flats. Also on Niven Rd. again near Sophia Flats a kindoff bombed-out lot.
Regards

8 06 2011
trump

hi danny i like to find out from u is the david elias building name under the current owner?do u know the owner of the building?i am looking for his contact number.if u kn pls kindly email me at trumpkoh@yahoo.com.thank u.

30 03 2010
Where the stork once visited: Prinsep Street (Rochor to Middle Roads) « The Long and Winding Road

[...] 29 03 2010 In taking my stroll through the streets of what once was Singapore’s Jewish Quarter, the Mahallah, I realised that among them, Prinsep Street has probably seen the most dramatic changes since the [...]

9 04 2010
The changing face of Middle Road « The Long and Winding Road

[...] blend of cultures and cuisines that we have today. In roughly a century, it has played host to a thriving Jewish quarter inhabited by many Jews of the Iraqi diaspora; a Japanese community, within which homes, businesses, [...]

22 04 2010
charles clarke

my great grandfather was joseph aaron elias. I unfortunately have never been to Singapore, my mother (nee elias) lived there for a short time but we are all living in (well, the majority) either the UK now.

22 04 2010
The wondering wanderer

Charles, thanks for your comments and feedback. It is certainly wonderful to know that a great grandson of the illustrious Joseph Aaron Elias has found his way into the streets of the old Mahallah that I attempted to describe. I do hope that you would find your way here one day and maybe walk physically on the streets that your great grandfather and his family would have walked on. Which part of the UK are you based in? :)

10 05 2010
Jack Hunter

My Family lived in S’Pore.And were a big part of the Mahallah,in fact the house that my family lived in is still standing,unbelievable in today’s S’pore where everything gets torn down,and replaced.

Beautiful island,beautiful people,greatest food on earth,this from one who has traveled the globe.Cheers from Oz.

11 05 2010
The wondering wanderer

Jack, thanks for the note. When did your family live in the Mahallah? Which is the house you mention? Guess we have very little that is left of the buildings that many of us lived and grew up in, which is a shame, but I suppose we don’t have much of a choice given the limited land area – much of the old has had to be replaced with buildings that reach for the sky. It certainly is nice to see some of the older buildings that have escaped the wrecker’s ball. Glad that you have a nice impression of Singapore – Oz is wonderful as well. Cheers! :)

15 05 2010
Jack Hunter

TWW,try Sydney there are a lot former Singaporean Jews living there,they could supply you with their fond memories of Singapore.Your site is great,and I will try to promote it for you.I sometimes meet Singaporeans that come here,when I ask them are you from Singapore,they ask how did you know……The accent is a dead giveaway LA……..Cheers from OZ.

16 05 2010
The wondering wanderer

Jack, guess there would be. Be great if you do that. Thanks! Yes the accent is always the giveaway la! :) Cheers!

30 06 2011
danny

hi, its danny again!, im back in singapore with my 2 kids and wife, still get nostagic and showing my kids how my forefathers lived! still go to take them to sophia rd etc! im a descendent living in sydney, we have a large family and are around eastern suburbs. most enjoy coming back to singapore to mainly eat and catch up with friends and relatives!

23 11 2011
Baldiv Singh

Hi,

It’s really very good contributions to re-live my sweet memories of Mt Emily, Niven Road, Wilkie Road and Selegie Road areas. I grow up and played in this little enclave between 1959 and 1971. Thanks for your contributions again.
Baldiv
Canada

14 10 2013
Linda -Inka Marka

Isaac & Flora Ellison are my Great grandparents. Love the pic you posted of them above, We do not have a fmaily copy of this . Flora Lived in Wilkie road and My mother with her mother ( my grandmother ) grew up in Lloyd road.I found this article whilst googling their names and the Jewish community of Singapor.

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