The magical hill with a fairy-tale 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 Sophia. Mount Sophia, back in the days as a SJI schoolboy was a place that I would occasionally visit with a few of my friends, not for the opportunities it presented for meeting the girls who went to school atop the hill, but as a means to get to Plaza Singapura, inaccessible then through Handy Road. The journey we took to Plaza Singapura would take us up the “100 steps” – a long flight of steps behind Cathay cinema which brought up to the top of the hill, also referred to by some as the “99 steps”. This would bring us right up close with Methodist Girls’ School (MGS), an area from where we would be able cross over to one of the upper floors of the multi-storey car park at the back of Plaza Singapura.

The rebuilt "100 steps" to the former magical world of Mount Sophia as it is today.

The former Methodist Girls' School atop Mount Sophia.

There were a few occasions that we chose to wander around the hill, the streets of which were lined with delightful villas and houses – many of which have since disappeared. I was of course previously acquainted with the area – my father had on several occasions, taken me swimming at Mount Emily Swimming Pool, Singapore’s first public swimming pool, built on the site of a municipal reservoir in 1930 on adjoining Mount Emily, which has also since, vanished without a trace. The area where the pool was is now part of the extended Mount Emily Park. It was certainly nice then to re-acquaint myself with the area, which seemed in my childhood, to be a like a magical hill where a fairy-tale like mansion of a very wealthy man had stood.

Another view of the former MGS.

An old Singapore Coat of Arms appears at the entrance to Mount Emily Park.

Mount Emily Park offers a peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of the city below the hill.

A lady in Punjabi dress stares into the space that was the Mount Emily Swimming Pool, the dome of the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Sikh Temple in the background.

An early timetable for Mount Emily Swimming Pool (c. 1930s).

Walking around Mount Sophia today, one is greeted by a mix of the old and new … the old seemingly overshadowed by the taller structures of the apartment blocks that have replaced the stately homes of which, many had belonged or had been lived in by the more successful Jewish immigrant families. It would have been convenient for these families to live in what was an upper and middle class area located just by the Mahallah, where many would have conducted their businesses and gone about their day-to-day activities. The girls’ school, MGS, on top of Mount Sophia was also where many would have sent their daughters to.

New apartment blocks being put up against the backdrop of the older structures on Mount Sophia.

Of the buildings that still exist, several have had connections to this past. On Wilkie Road, at the corner of Niven Road, we can see a delightful apartment block, the Sophia Flats, built in 1930, on the edge of the old Mahallah. This is where one of the prominent members of the local Jewish community, Frank Benjamin, had lived after the war. Frank’s father Judah had owned a thriving textile business and the family lived in a big house on Adis Road prior to the war. Returning from Bombay after the war, the Benjamin family moved to the more modest lodgings at the Sophia Flats. This was also where Frank set up an office to trade office stationery and photographic equipment in 1959, a business which has since grown into the international fashion retailer company F J Benjamin is today. F J Benjamin is associated with names such as Guess?, Banana Republic, La Senza, Céline, GAP and Girard-Perregaux, presently and had at one time held the license for names such as Gucci and Lanvin.

Sophia Flats, built in 1930, was where Frank Benjamin had lived in after the war and set up his first office in 1959.

At 81 Wilkie Road, there is also the Abdullah Shooker Welfare Home, housed in a bungalow once owned by an Iraqi Jew, Abdullah Shooker, who had come over to work in the offices of Manasseh Meyer, before opening his own successful business. Abdullah passed away in 1942 whilst being interned by the Japanese, bequeathing his bungalow for use as a home for the destitute in the community.

The Abdullah Shooker Welfare Home at 81 Wilkie Road.

There are also several other notable buildings that still stand, including several former schools: the buildings that were the MGS atop the hill alongside the former Trinity Theological College, the former Nan Hwa Girls’ High School at the corner of Sophia Road and Adis Road, and the former San Shan Chinese School off Mount Sophia – just down from the former Trinity Theological College. A mansion that was once used as the Mount Emily Girls’ Home, which is now Emily Hill, an arts centre, stands at the end of Upper Wilkie Road. One girls’ school that is still functioning at Mount Sophia is St. Margaret’s Primary School.

The former Nan Hwa Girls' High School at the corner of Adis and Sophia Roads.

The buildings that used to be part of the Trinity Theological College on top of Mount Sophia.

The former San Shan Chinese School off Mount Sophia.

The former Mount Emily Girls' Home - now an arts centre.

There are several wonderful buildings, the stuff of fairy tales perhaps, that have sadly disappeared. One such building was the magnificent villa that belonged to Eu Tong Sen, Eu Villa that once dominated the landscape in the area – which as schoolboys we could get a glimpse of atop the high retaining wall just next to Peace Centre from where Wilkie and Sophia Roads met near the Sophia Flats. Eu Villa was in 1915, constructed on the site of Adis Lodge which, when it was built in 1907, was said to be one of the most magnificent mansions east of the Suez. Adis Lodge was owned by Nassim Nassim Adis, the owner of Hotel de L’Europe and sold to Eu Tong Sen in 1912. Another magnificent mansion that has vanished, was one owned by M. J. Nassim at 89 Wilkie Road.

Eu Villa - the magical home of Eu Tong Sen (Source: http://www.singapedia.com.sg).

Nestled amongst the magnificent buildings were several places of worship which still stand. These include the Church of Christ at the junction of Sophia and Wilkie Roads and the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Sikh Temple on Wilkie Road (the temple is now housed in a new building built in 1983 next to the older house next to it that was used as a temple from 1932). The buildings that we still see and those that now tower over the old mansions, schools and houses of worship, are certainly not the buildings that fairy-tales are made of. For that, I suppose, there is that fairy-tale like atmosphere that we can now find in Singapore – not up a magical hill, but on an island called Sentosa ….

The Sri Guru Singh Sabha Sikh Temple (1983) on Wilkie Road.

Old Building belonging to the Sikh Temple which was used as the temple from 1932 to 1983.

Information plaque of the building belonging to the Sikh Temple.

Afternote:

This photograph (click on link) on the Memories of Singapore site provides a good idea of the area in the 1960s. It would have been some time after Selegie House and Selegie School came up in 1963 as these are clearly visible in the photograph. Eu Villa stands out just to the right of Cathay Building and it is not hard to appreciate how the villa would have stood out on Mount Sophia before Peace Centre was built.

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27 responses

26 03 2010
mamadondi

thanks WW for the good write up on Selegie area .Going back to Sumbawa Rd. If you were driving down Victoria St. towards Kallang Rd. past the Indian muslim mosque/ cemetery and just before vICTORIA BRIDGE sUMBAWA RD. would be on the right. If coming from Kallang Rd. over Crawford bridge past Kg.Glam police station Sumbawa rd. would be on your right. You would be driving American style.If memory is correct Sumbawa ran from Victria st, to Beach rd.
Selegie writeup brought lots of memories. Had a childs a/c at the Chung Khiaw bank at Short st. You could choose a lion elephant or sky scraper as piggy bank.The piggy bank was made of a brass material. The David Elias building on the ground floor was in early seventies occupied by a notorieus girlie bar.
Also remember going to Eu villa in early 60s and also when no one stayed there.I think it was for sale in mid sixties. Mount Emily swimming pool was one of the better public pool as the crowd was small.From Mackienze rd. where it merges to Bukit timah near the water work quarters there was a small trail(shortcut) up to Mt. Emily. Now it is a sentry post. The pic. of the older Sikh temple was a bungalow belonging to a Jewish family who fell on hard times due to the Great deppresion. The newer part of the temple was on land purchased from Elias/amber families.
Another area which needs research is the underground reservoir at Bukit timah/ Mackenzie area where water from Johor is stored(could just be rumour)
regards

30 03 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks Mamadondi for your comments and interesting information once again … my father remembers Sumbawa Road and also Jellicoe Road on the other side of Victoria Street for having quite a number of motor workshops. I had a piggy bank from Chung Khiaw too! It was of brass and I think it was a rhino that I had … my favourite ones were from Chartered Bank though … I especially liked the Donald Duck one ….

I think it was the Sun Sun Bar that you remember below the David Elias building. Anything you can share about your visit to the Eu Villa?

Based on an old map – the underground reservoir you mentioned is where a set of filter beds were installed in the early 1900s and could perhaps be where water from Johor is processed – I’ll have a further look up of this.

8 04 2010
mamadondi

RE EU villa I had some relatives who lived right opposite the school at the junction of Sophia-Adis rd. In fact i forgot the name of Adis rd till i saw your pic. The locals in that area called it the big house . We used to wander around the gardens and up to the front doors as i think it was vacant and there was a gardner . It was still not too shabby. Re ROV Iwent there quiet often as my father had 12 taxis( #s I still remember) and some SZ plated cars. This were for hire cars based in a specific place like Naval Base, RAF Changi. Ask your dad if he remembers the Registrar of vehicles who was a Englishman who looked like Col. K.F.C. and drove a Rolls Royce.

9 04 2010
The wondering wanderer

Hi Mamadondi, thanks again for some more interesting information :). I’ll ask Dad about the Colonel look-a-like – when would this have been?

15 04 2010
mamadondi

Col. KFC would have been around in the fiftes early sixties . I did see him once in the mid seventies when he was quiet old. The occasion was when the Vintage car and motorcycle clubs of Spore and Malaya had a show somewhere aroud Tanglin area.

15 04 2010
The wondering wanderer

Ok thanks once again Mamadondi – will check with my Dad if he remembers …

19 04 2010
The wondering wanderer

My Dad worked at the ROV in 1956 – but doesn’t remember the Colonel lookalike …

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

[...] War, settled along much of Middle Road, close to the Japanese Consulate which was located on nearby Mount Emily (at the building which became Mount Emily Girl’s Home), and the Doh Jin Hospital (which later became the Middle Road Hospital) was built to serve the [...]

4 05 2010
Wen Foong

Hi Mamadondi, Wonderful info !
My family and I often visit the Mount Emily Park, the girls love the playground. We noticed an old house when we parked along Upper Wilkie road ( very run down with lots of trees and bushes ) next to the back of Gurdwara Sri Guru Sing Sabha temple. Do you happen to know the history of this house ?

5 05 2010
The wondering wanderer

Hi Wen Foong, I think I know which house you meant – it is the one in this photo. Was trying to find out about its background myself. Perhaps, Mamadondi or someone else might be able to shed some light.

8 05 2010
Wen Foong

Yes Yes.. Thats the one. : )

18 06 2010
They don’t build schools like they used to « The Long and Winding Road

[...] was before that, the temporary home for St. Margaret’s Primary School while the premises at Mount Sophia were being rebuilt soon after the Girls’ School closed its doors. It would however, really be [...]

22 06 2010
room and garden

Thanks for the photos! I love the old buildings. Can’t get enough of them.

1 07 2010
The joy of being caged in the courthouse « The Long and Winding Road

[...] preparation work for construction started on the site on which the Hotel de L’Europe, owned by Nassim Nassim Adis, the owner of Adis Lodge, had stood, in 1935. The majestic hotel had faced financial difficulties [...]

15 08 2010
TK Chia

The old English gentleman was Derrick Coupland, an ex British Army officer who ran Decca Orient till his death in late 1990s. He had a vintage Rolls Royce.

16 08 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks for the info TK! :)

31 03 2013
John Coupland

Hi.

Major (Retired) Derrick Coupland was my late father, a British WW2 veteran who became a Singaporean. He was MD of Decca Records (Far East) in the 1960s & 70s and ran a shipping agency in the 1980s. He was also the President of the Ex-Services of Singpaore for 21 yeas, raising money for war veterans, no matter what race or creed, earning him an OBE in the 70s from Queen Elizabeth II. He passed away in 1991 due to cancer.

I was brought up in the house you mention much of my early childhood and went to school in Singapore. I was the youngest of 6 children living there with our parents.

I live in London now however, as I still have family there, I visit every 2 / 3 years. Although we moved out of the house shortly after my Dad passed away in the early ’90s, I do sometimes take a walk in the area when I visit as I’m very fond of the locality and have great memories of the neighbourhood. As a young child, I used to play with the local Chinese, Malay and Indian children in and around the park and go swimming with them when Mount Emily swimming pool existed. (It was opposite the house but, sadly, was turfed over around 25 years or so ago).

It’s a real shame that whoever has since been responsible for the house (8 Upper Wilkie Road), has allowed it to deteriorate in such a way it has. In fact, given that Singapore, quite rightly, has strict laws deterring water entrapment to prevent dengue fever, etc, it more than surprises me that the property was allowed to degenerate so much as it must have become mosquito breeding area over many years. Quite an irony, given that I remember government inspectors* visiting and checking our pristine garden in the 70s, ensuring there were no pots, etc, collecting water. *(Our guard dogs – alsatians – loved them – not!) ;)

I recall there were at least 2 other, similar, colonial houses along the same road. In their prime, they were substantial and historical properties. Those 2 other houses were knocked down to make way for flats years ago. At the time of writing this, I am unsure if 8 Upper Wilkie Road has now finally been cleared as any potential to recover it was lost years ago.

I’m being very diplomatic here, (especially given the location I’m writing about here is less than half a mile away from the grounds of the Istana); however, this is yet another example of old Singapore neglected and lost forever.

I hope this helps clarify and thanks for your interest.

John Coupland
London, England

16 08 2010
TK Chia

The mystery house in Upper Wilkie road is the house that Major Derrick Coupland lived in. He rented it from a Chinese man from the 1950s and lived there till he passed on in the 1990s.

18 08 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks for the info!

24 10 2010
The second part of the walk down the Bukit Timah corridor: The mysteries around Hillview « The Long and Winding Road

[...] had hitherto remained unnoticed by me. It is of course the roof of the church that is part of the Trinity Theological College, and is identical to the one on top of the building that was church of the same college, that still [...]

24 07 2011
Zitrone

Thank you so much for writing about Mount Sophia Road where I had spent 10 years of my childhood. The ‘demise’ of Eu Villa is still the greatest disaster in our conservation history. I only found out recently that the architect who built Eu Villa was the same genius who built Raffles Hotel and Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. As a seven year old, the only chance of admiring Eu Villa was to stand at the balcony,outside my classroom. So being sent outside the classroom for misbehaving wasn’t such a bad experience then. When it was tore down in the early 1980s, i really missed its imposing iron gates at its forefront and the mysterious surroundings. Another mansion which I found intriguing is 12 Mount Sophia. I understood then that it also belonged to the Australian Methodist Missions (the other property being the old MGS). Spectacular Victorian architecture. It was used as a classroom in the 1950s. I wonder who designed it.

This is also the first time that I have seen the new 100 steps leading from Handy Road to Mount Sophia. I cannot recognise it anymore. They ought to have remove it altogether instead of rebuilding it.

5 11 2011
House on the Hill

Hi there,
I am trying to track down info on the building at 12 Mount Sophia. I have just taken over the lease and opening a pre school. Any info you have to point me in the right direction to uncover its history would be most gratefully received. It is indeed a wonderful building.
Thanks

9 04 2012
Kenneth Tan

What a wonderful read, especially the photos which kept history intact. Love your write up.

1 09 2013
Kemlyn Tan Bappe

Thank you for including 100/99 Steps. I spent many days trudging up those steps to go to school at MGS. I was looking for a picture of those steps and found it on your narrative.

21 04 2014
Shehzad

Thank you for this wonderful, well-researched and well-documented trip down the memory lane.
I lived on Sophia Rd. for a while in 2002. Even back then I could sense that this was a magical, part-forgotten pocket of a different, yesteryear’s Singapore – incredibly, within shouting distance from the hustle and bustle of Orchard Road. Old Malay/Arab institutions, wartime Japanese offices, prewar Sikh temples which one would struggle to find elsewhere in the city were still standing here shoulder to shoulder. Of course, it was only a matter of time before the developers arrived and starting putting up glass-and-steel condominiums, thus burying much of the street’s thistory and genius loci, and turning the place into yet another Anywhere.com.

28 07 2014
Sophia Hills

Thank you and I simply love your write up on Mount Sophia’s history but do you or anyone else remember the address of former Nan Hwa Girls’ High School?

17 10 2014
Sam

I grew up at the istana quarters in the late 1970s (I’m 44 now). These quarters were situated just beside a long slope which leads to mckenzie road from mount sophia. Reading this article sure brings back a lot of fond memory… :( The quarters also had a huge car park with housed the white mecedes benze used by our country’s leaders…*Sigh* those were the days…

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