A reflection of Niven Road

14 08 2013

One of my favourite roads to walk down in Singapore has to be Niven Road. A fairly quiet street found off a fairly busy Selegie Road and at the foot of Mount Sophia and Mount Emily, it is one dominated but a beautiful row of conservation two-storey pre-war shophouses, several of which are still with the once fashionable pintu pagar (swinging bar doors). The street is also one which is very much associated with the Sikhs – a Sikh temple, the three-storey Khalsa Dharmak Sabha is found at its southern end, having been built on land on which a two storey temple was constructed in 1936. The street is one named after the first superintendent of the Botanic Gardens, Lawrence Niven, who served from 1860 to 1875, having been the supervisor of a adjacent nutmeg plantation (Niven was the man responsible for giving us much of the garden’s layout which is still intact today). The street is one which also does connect me with a time forgotten – one of the business found on the street is K. Ratna Sports – a sporting goods shop which was located at Bencoolen Street up to the early 1980s. It was one I always looked out for from as I passed on the bus on the way to school at Bras Basah Road.

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Seeing the light in a world for which the lights will soon go off

25 06 2013

I recently stepped into an old world soon to be discarded in an obscure corner of Mount Emily, a corner which has until now, resisted the changes which have taken away much of the area’s old world charm. The world I stepped into at 13 Wilkie Terrace, a semi-detached two storey house perched atop a terrace above which a house I suspect was built by the Sultan of Siak (the former Osborne House) proudly stands at the top of Mount Emily, will soon make way for a new residential development. Having been the home of the Chia family since 1935, the family decided to bid farewell to it by hosting a community arts exhibition, Displacements (which closed on Sunday), which has not only allowed the artists involved to express the subject of being displaced – a theme relevant not just to the house but to Singapore as a whole, but has also given the curious (I should really say kay-poh – local speak for a “busybody”) like me to have a peek inside a house which has always seemed mysterious to me.

Windows into a once mysterious world that was 13 Wilkie Terrace.

Open windows leading into a once mysterious world that was 13 Wilkie Terrace.

A passageway into a world filled with memories.

A passageway into a world filled with memories.

Climbing the stairs to terrace, brings the house into full view. I was immediately drawn to the many windows the house has been generously provided with, typical of houses built in its era. It is through the many windows, which I always see in old places as portals into the past, where we do find lingering memories of the house and the reminders of a simpler time we have long forgotten.

The stairway to the terrace on which the house is perched.

The stairway to the terrace on which the house is perched.

Through the main door, a hall where too much seemed to be going on, came into view. In one corner, what seemed to be a flea market contributed much to the colour and clutter, clutter that was also contributed by the group crouched over a long table at the far end where a workshop was being held. Right by the door, a few cages filled with cat, apparently on sale, added to the confusion in the seemingly small pace. The confusion perhaps a reminder of the many extended family gatherings we are told had once brought much life to what did eventually became a silent and empty space.

Displacement through a window.

Displacement through a window.

The confusion that was the hall.

The confusion that was the hall.

A workshop being held.

A workshop being held.

A cat in a cage.

A cat in a cage.

It is beyond the hall where I found most interesting – the high ceiling spaces of the interior beyond which, coloured by the changing patterns of shadow and soft light streaming through the windows, both on the lower and upper levels were a joy to behold. In and around the rooms, there also were the many memories in the objects present, of times which have passed. An old piano for which the music has died, sits on an open area of the upper level. Laid bare, the signs of age and neglect for which it has been abandoned are very evident, a reflection of the once grand houses of the area, for which time did very quickly pass.

The passageway past the main hall.

The passageway past the main hall.

A room on the lower level.

A room on the lower level.

Another room on the lower level.

Another room on the lower level.

An installation which does reflect the displacement of spaces in Singapore where many place names have been displaced moving with where development takes them.

An installation which does reflect the displacement of spaces in Singapore where many place names have been displaced moving with where development takes them.

A hallway.

A hallway.

The stairway to the upper level.

The stairway to the upper level.

The view down the stairway.

The view down the stairway.

Bakelite switches and the controls of a ceiling fan.

Bakelite switches and the controls of a ceiling fan.

A old piano laid bare.

A old piano laid bare.

A Butoh dance performance by Syv Bruzeau seen during my visit to the house.

A Butoh dance performance by Syv Bruzeau seen during my visit to the house.

An installation.

An installation.

A Victorian era rotary knife cleaner.

A Victorian era rotary knife cleaner.

It is not just this house for which time will soon pass, the signs can already be seen of the transformation which will completely change the face of the terrace – on a plot where an empty terrace once separated No 13 from a neighbouring house at No. 7 (since demolished), sales office and a show flat for the new residential development taking place there have come up and it will not be long before another piece, one of few that is surviving, of an old world I once enjoyed wandering around, will be lost.

7 Wilkie Terrace (since demolished) seen in Nov 2012.

7 Wilkie Terrace (since demolished) seen in Nov 2012.

Signs of the change that will soon come to Wilkie Terrace.

Signs of the change that will soon come to Wilkie Terrace.

More photographs of 13 Wilkie Terrace

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A annual walk of faith

28 01 2013

Thaipusam is perhaps the most colourful of the religious and cultural traditions brought in by the early immigrants to modern Singapore that is today celebrated on the streets of Singapore. Celebrated by Tamils from southern India during the full moon of the Tamil month of Thai, the festival in Singapore is notable for the 4 kilometre procession over which devotees carry a “burden”, in the form of a kavadi. The procession which starts from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple along Serangoon Road and ends at the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple (Chettairs’ Temple) at Tank Road sees hundreds of devotees every year making their way along the route carrying kavadis which range from milk pots placed on their heads to more elaborate kavadis such as spike kavadis and chariot kavadis. The spike (or “vel”) kavadis is perhaps the most elaborate and involves the piercing of up to 108 spikes onto the body. The chariot kavadis involves the attachment of hooks to the backs of bearers which is attached to ropes pulling a chariot. Devotees often also have other piercings carried out including with skewers through the tongue and cheeks with holy ash applied to the area before hand. The piercings are said to inflict no pain as well as leave no scars (no blood is spilled as well) – devotees go through a 48 day spiritual cleansing prior to Thaipusam – which involves a strict regime of fasting, abstinence, and prayer. More information on the festival can be found at the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple’s website.

Photographs from Thaipusam 2013

(Black and Whites)

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(In Colour)

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Photographs from previous years’ Thaipusam observations:

Thaipusam (2012)
Thaipusam (2011)
Thaipusam (2010)

A similar festival celebrated in the Tamil month of Panguni in the Sembawang area:

Panguni Uthiram (2012)
Panguni Uthiram (2011)





A last reminder of an old-fashioned corner of Singapore

27 11 2012

With the recent demolition of the house that had until 1991 served as the residence of the late Major Derrick Coupland, there stands one last remnant of a forgotten world that had once existed on Mount Emily in the form of the white villa at the end of Upper Wilkie Road that has come to be known as Emily Hill and is probably known more as the former Mount Emily Girls’ Home to many of my generation. Once described as a quiet, pleasant and old-fashioned corner of Singapore of Victorian villas and charming terrace rows, the face of Mount Emily, a spur that extends out from neighbouring Mount Sophia, has seen significant change since its glory days when it would have commanded a magnificent view of the developing city that lay some 100 feet below it. The villa itself bears testimony to the change, having been built as a grand residence which had not just a “beautiful view over the town and the harbour”, but also came with “2 tennis courts and stables for 5 horses and 4 carriages”, it has been put to a variety of use over its time.

A Victorian villa with a rather chequered past, the former Osborne House and what is today Emily Hill, stands as a reminder of Mount Emily’s glorious past.

I have not quite managed to establish when the villa was built. Referred to as Osborne House up to the point when the Japanese Consul-General’s offices shifted into it from Union House in April 1939, references to the villa before the turn of the twentieth century do exist – the earliest being an announcement of the birth of the daughter of Mr Heinrich Bock, Managing Director of the trading firm Katz Brothers in December 1891. This puts its completion at a date that precedes that of the former Tower House and makes it the oldest structure on both Mount Sophia and Mount Emily.

A view through the main entrance. The villa was probably built at the end of the 1880s or early 1890s, making it the oldest structure on Mount Sophia and Mount Emily – the earliest reference to it is a birth announcement in 1891.

That Osborne House had served as the residence of Mr Bock, and his at least two of successors at Katz Brothers’, Mr Frederick Lederer and Mr Arthur Loeb, does suggest that the villa had been in the possession of Katz Brothers at the time. Further evidence of this is seen in an advertisement in The Straits Times on 28 February 1910 in which the house, described as having “4 large bedrooms with dressing rooms attached, dining room, saloon; 2 tennis courts, stables for 5 horses and 4 carriages” was put up to be let with applications to be made to Mr Loeb, c/o Katz Brothers.

The wooden staircase and the landing. The villa served as the residence of the Managing Directors of the trading firm Katz Brothers in its early days.

One interesting reference to the villa is one that involves the sale of it in 1935 to a Mr Jukichi Ikeda, a Singapore based Japanese dentist who had a practice opposite the Central Fire Station in Hill Street. Mr Ikeda is reported to have paid what must have been a tidy sum then of $22,000 to buy the property from a certain Mr Shariff Kassim bin Hashim. Mr Kassim was probably better known in those days as the reigning Sultan of Siak Sri Indrapura, or the Sultan of Siak in short, Siak being a sultanate which was then under the protection of the Dutch in Riau Province in Sumatra. It is known that the Mr Kassim’s father, the previous Sultan of Siak, Syed Hashim bin Kassim, who resided at Jalan Rajah in Singapore, had substantial holdings in property in Singapore and had been in debt to Katz Brothers and also to Mr Loeb and it could very well have been Syed Hashim would had the rather stately Osborne House constructed at the end of the nineteenth century.

Another view of the villa’s front. There is a suggestion that the house could have been built by the Sultan of Siak, Sultan Syed Hashim bin Kassim. What is known is that the villa was sold by the Syed Hashim’s successor, Shariff Kassim to a Singapore based Japanese dentist Jukichi Ikeda in 1935 for $22,000.

The view west from the villa at the rest of Mount Emily. The villa is the last of the Victorian era houses that used to occupy the spur from Mount Sophia that is Mount Emily.

It is from the point of Mr Ikeda’s purchase of the property in 1935 that the villa’s history becomes a little less murky. What is known is that Mr Ikeda had additions and alterations done to Osborne House from the Cartographic and Architectural Records database of the National Archives of Singapore. It was under Mr Ikeda’s ownership when the Japanese Consul-General’s offices moved to the villa on 27 April 1939, serving three Consul-Generals, the first being Issaku Okamoto who was replaced by Kaoru Toyoda in September 1939 who in turn was replaced in November 1940 by the last Japanese Consul-General to serve in Singapore before the Japanese Occupation, Ken Tsurumi. Mr Tsurumi was recalled to Japan in November 1941 – his intended replacement, Suemasa Okamoto, never arrived as events that led to an unfortunate episode in Singapore’s history unfolded. It was only in 1953 that the next Japanese diplomatic representative, Ken Ninomiya was to be appointed.

Middle Road when it would have been referred to as Chuo Dori in the 1930s. Osborne House which was to serve as the Japanese Consulate from 1939 to 1941 can be seen atop Mount Emily at the end of the street.

A spacious space on the upper floor. The house was thought to have had 4 large bedrooms with dressing rooms attached, dining room, saloon; 2 tennis courts, and stables for 5 horses and 4 carriages.

The siting of the Japanese Consulate-General at Osborne House in 1939, came at a time when a community of Japanese had established themselves in the Middle Road area, with Middle Road being referred to as “Chuo Dori” or “Central Street”. A remnant of this Japanese presence on Middle Road are the buildings belonging to the former Middle Road Hospital which began as a Japanese built hospital Doh-Jin in 1940. Osborne House does in fact rise at the end of Chuo Dori, lying along its axis. The house passed into the hands of the Department of Social Welfare following the end of the war and served as an orphanage, a home for boys home, a halfway house for the rehabilitation of young prostitutes up to the age of 21, and girls’ home and finally the Wilkie Road Children’s Home in the 1980s, before falling into disuse and becoming Emily Hill, an arts centre in 2007.

Light through coloured glass panels on the landing of the staircase.

Once described as a quiet, pleasant and old-fashioned corner of Singapore, Mount Emily is still offers a pleasant escape escape from the city 100 feet below it.

In trying to dig up the villa’s rather chequered past, I stumbled upon another interesting fact that had not been known to me. Down the slope east of the villa’s rear is a cul-de-sac at the end of Wilkie Terrace to the right of which the Christian Assembly Hall now stands. The Christian Assembly Hall sits on what before the war was a Shinto Shrine. Mention is made of this in a report relating to an Official Secrets Case in which charges were brought against several members of the Japanese community in 1940 where the shrine is referred to as a “Japanese Temple”. The report makes for interesting reading and further reports on the case do suggest that there was a path that led from the shrine uphill to what had at the time been the Japanese Consulate. All traces of the shrine and the path to the consulate have of course been erased over time. What does remain of that past which many may wish not to remember is a reminder that also is one of a time we should not want to forget.

Wilkie Terrace down the eastern slope from the villa, does hold some interesting finds.

The land on which the Christian Assembly Hall stands at the end of Wilkie Terrace was once the site of a Shinto Shrine.


An article in Japanese on Emily Hill and the former Osborne House: 「日本人街」の歴史も知る丘の上の邸宅シンガポール、 Emily Hill(エミリー・ヒル.





Putting life back on the footpaths

2 12 2011

An interesting project that is being rolled out by the National Heritage Board (NHB) this weekend is Heritage Along Footpaths, which seeks to re-introduce trades that were once common at two designated sites within the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct – the Singapore Art Museum and Stamford Arts Centre (along the mural wall facing Middle Road). On this weekend and on the next, members of the public will find tradesmen such as traditional street barbers, ice-ball sellers, fortune tellers and kacang puteh sellers peddling their trades and wares at prices that we were used to in the heyday of street tradesmen – a haircut will cost a mere 50 cents and a stick of kacang puteh will go for 20 cents. The tradesmen will be present at the two locations on 3 and 4 December 2011 as well as 10 and 11 December 2011 from 10.00am to 5.00pm each day (more information including a map of the locations of the two sites can be found at www.nhb.gov.sg/brasbasahbugis/BBB_KeyEvents.html). See also more recent posts on the Five-Foot-Way Barber and Cobbler.

The Heritage Along Footpaths project seeks to re-introduce trades that were common in the past such as traditional street barbers ...

... fortune tellers ....

... and cobblers.

About The Heritage Along Footpaths project:

The Heritage Along Footpaths project seeks to re-introduce trades that were once common at two designated sites within the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct – the Singapore Art Museum and Stamford Arts Centre (along the mural wall facing Middle Road). At each of the sites, tradesmen that were once commonly found along alleyways or five-foot ways – namely street barbers, cobblers, fortune tellers, ice-ball sellers and kachang puteh sellers – will ply their wares at prices of the past. Research conducted on these once-common trades will also be on display for the public to learn more about Singapore’s history and heritage.

Heritage Along Footpaths is part of the NHB’s initiative to inject greater vibrancy into the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct, an area rich in the arts and heritage. Said Mr Alvin Tan, Director, Heritage Institutions & Industry Development: “Through this project, NHB hopes to re-introduce once familiar street sights and businesses in the arts and cultural district and in doing so, re-acquaint Singaporeans with trades that were once an integral part of our community heritage. It also presents the perfect opportunity for younger Singaporeans to experience first-hand the early lives of their grandparents, and, in the process, reinforce bonding across the generations who share a common history and identity.”





Windows to Heaven

30 11 2011

High on a hill in Singapore’s city centre, sits a quaint and proud old house. Having seen many of its companions in over the 12 decades of its existence come and go, it is one of the survivors of a moment in time when one might have seen the setting it was in as Heaven in Singapore. The hill is one that would have commanded a spectacular view of the fast growing city around it, making it an ideal choice for the well-off to build homes that were worthy of their status. Much of that has disappeared through the ravages of time and urban development, and although it is still a fairly exclusive residential neighbourhood, it is in towering blocks of private apartments which now obscure that once magnificent view, that its residents now live in.

An early photograph of the House on the Hill on display.

An elevation off a copy of the original plans for the former Tower House. The quaint old building was designed by Crane Brothers' Architects and built in 1892.

The house, with an exterior of concrete decorated by its wood and wrought iron work fittings, speaks not just of a style from a forgotten past, but also of one that was built very much with the local climate in mind. It is certainly one that is hard to miss, standing tall across the entrance to the Old School complex on Mount Sophia that once housed Methodist Girls’ School and apart from the developments that makes it seem like it is out of place. It is probably ironic that it owes its survival over the years to the buildings across the road whose own survival is now in question, having been owned by the Methodist Mission that ran the school for a good part of its later life during which time it was referred to as ‘Tower House’.

The House on the Hill.

A window to the Old School complex with which the history of the old house is intertwined.

A patio-like space at the entrance to the house.

Beautiful ironwork grilles.

A view through the fence to the patio.

One of the features of the house’s architecture is the generous amount of light and ventilation it is afforded through the generous amount of shuttered windows and balcony doors, and it is this that immediately catches the eye – not so much the tower it was named after that rises above the second floor. It was the doors and windows that were more often than not closed that first drew my attention to the house, imagining them to hide something sinister from a past that was not known to me which I often wondered about. And it was only through a recent exchange of correspondance with Mr Oliver Bettin, who has taken over the lease of the house and through his kind invitation to a party he held over the weekend that I was able to discover that it had a past less sinister that I might have liked to have imagined. Mr Bettin has not just done the place up beautifully, in preparation for its use as a pre-school ‘The House on the Hill’ which will commence operations next year, but also sought to find out more of its past.

I've often wondered what secrets the numerous shuttered windows and doors had hidden.

Windows and doors that would have once opened up to a view of what might have been called a piece of Heaven. A doorway through which the magical sight of Eu Villa would have once greeted the eye.

Inspired by what’s he has read of the glorious past of Mount Sophia, Mr Bettin has sought to also find out more on the house he now leases, making headway with some of what he’s found in the Methodist Church’s archives. One of the things Mr Bettin has managed to establish, is that the house, designed by Crane Brothers’ was constructed in 1892, on the basis of a copy of the original building plans he obtained from the archives. The Methodist Church he has also found out, bought the house in 1932, using it first as an extension of the growing school as well as to house missionaries before finally turning it to the Women’s Society of Christian Service for its use until it was acquired by the Singapore Government in 1998.

Mr Bettin has managed to find out quite a bit on the history of the house.

I was certainly thankful to have an opportunity to see the insides of the beautiful house. It was indeed it was a wonderful place to spend a Sunday evening exploring. While there is probably very little left to connect it with its original state, it is not difficult to imagine how it might have been with large well ventilated rooms that open out to the garden or to a verandah or the expansive balcony through what would once have been shuttered windows and doors some of which might possibly have been the original ones when the house was built. It was in the shuttered doors and windows that I took most delight in, the carved venitilation openings at the top being very much a joy to behold. It is also in looking out of the windows and doors as well as from the balcony and the tower – probably opened originally but is now enclosed by more recently added glass louvered windows, that it is not difficult to imagine the view that the house had in its early days commanded of the growing city a hundred feet below and of the harbour in the distance. That view was certainly the motivation not just for the building of the house where it is, but also for how it had been designed with its balcony and tower. The view would certainly have been a magnificent one, overlooking not just the southern slope of Mount Sophia, Government House to the west, a growing city to the east, and Fort Canning Hill to the south, but also over the eastern slope on which first Adis’ grand villa made its brief appearance, being replaced not long after by Eu Tong Sen’s fairy tale like mansion. That must certainly have been a magical view, one which staring out towards, might have looked like it was a slice of Heaven that one was looking out into.

Possibly the original wooden shuttered windows?

And matching wooden shuttered doors.

The staircase.

Window Grilles by the staircase.

The spacious balcony.

A view from the balcony.

The generous space in the airy rooms make the house ideal for use as a pre-school.

At the top of the tower - glass louvered windows that would have been added later.

The view from the Tower.

A view through a ventilation opening.

Glass louvered windows where that might have been wooden shuttered ones.

More windows - again probably not the original ones.

A new window to the new world built over what had been Eu Villa.

A view of where Heaven might now be through glass louvered windows.

A verandah.

Doors to the balcony.

A view through to the balcony.





The crumbling bungalow at Upper Wilkie Road

4 03 2011

There was a time when Mount Sophia had been a magical world, a place where men who made it big in the developing colony of Singapore had sought to build several wondrous mansions. This was a world that I have described in previous posts: “One hundred steps to Heaven”, and “The magical hill with a fairy-tale like mansion that was Mount Sophia” and one that we, in the last four decades or so, have seen crumbling before our eyes. There is little of what is left to remind us of the wonderful villas, some that once would have commanded a magnificent and unobstructed view of the world around, the Abdullad Shooker Home for one, the mansion that was used as the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Sikh Temple another. There is one as well that stands up the hill at No. 8 Upper Wilkie Road, just a stone’s throw from another which had been a Japanese consulate and a girls’ home. That, unfortunately has been left vacant since 1991, when its occupant, Major Derrick Coupland, passed away, and the evidence of some two decades of abandonment has been pretty evident for a while.

The abandoned bungalow at Upper Wilkie Road which was the residence of Major Derrick Coupland.

The bungalow at No. 8 would probably be beyond restoration, but it would really be nice to have seen some attempt to preserve the building or at least something put up to remember Major Coupland, who died of bone cancer at the age of 70, for his contribution to Singapore and his role as the President of the Ex-Services Association which he held for some two decades right up to his death. Major Coupland was well known for his role during the war, being amongst the group of British officers who organised Force 136. He later served on the personal security staff of Lord Mountbatten. It is also notable for the part he played after the war, in which he was reported as being the force behind the Ex-Services Association’s charity work with war widows and those affected by the war. As a naturalised Singaporean, Major Coupland also contributed in our early days of independence, serving as a training officer for the first batches of National Servicemen in the late 1960s. He also served in the Singapore Volunteer Corps and was a founding member of the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association, as well as serving as a director for the Singapore Council of Social Services for 7 years. He was conferred with an OBE in 1976 and is buried at the British Military Cemetery at Kranji.

Views around the crumbling former home of the late Major Derrick Coupland:


Closeby:

  • The former Mount Emily Girls’ Home – the oldest surviving building on Mount Emily and Mount Sophia which might have been built by the Sultan of Siak and was once used as a Japanese Consulate
  • And, what is probably the oldest on Mount Sophia, the former Tower House




One hundred steps to Heaven

1 03 2011

If heaven was to be a place in Singapore, there would probably not be a better candidate for a suitable location than the Mount Sophia that previously existed. These days of course, Mount Sophia is associated more with sought after high-rise residential units in a prime location close to the heart of the city. However, back in the early part of the 20th century, it must certainly have been a truly magical and heavenly place, dominated by the magnificent Eu Villa that commanded a view of much of the surrounding areas of the fast growing city that lay on the areas some 100 feet below, and the many other grand bungalows and mansions, paticularly around Adis and Wilkie Roads. By the time I was going to school in Bras Basah Road and wandering curiously around the area, many of the heavenly places were still around, albeit in dilapidated condition – and mostly I guess crumbling to a point that it would have taken a monumental effort to preserve them. Still one could easily imagine how grand the area, which seemed a world apart from the rough and tumble of the mixed residential and commercial districts that lay below, would have been.

An aerial view of Mount Sophia and the surrounding area in the 1960s. It is easy to see why the well heeled would choose to build their magnificent mansions on the geographical feature which commanded an excellent view of the area around it. The Cathay Building can be seen on the south of Mount Sophia and the castle like Eu Villa to the top and right of it. The Istana and its grounds, which together with Mount Sophia and adjoining Mount Emily were part of Charles Robert Prinsep's huge nutmeg plantation can be seen on the left of the photo (Photo Source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

I was fortunate to be able to have seen all that I guess and place myself in that magical world, then accessible either via Sophia Road or by the so-called one hundred steps up from Handy Road. Given the choice of access options, the adventurous schoolboy that I was would certainly have chosen the latter route – after all, it was a shortcut we occasionally took to get to Plaza Singapura, then not accessible through Handy Road, which would involve climbing into the upper level of the car park at Plaza Singapore right next to western slopes of Mount Sophia, where Yaohan and a popular hangout for teens then, the Yamaha Music School run Do Re Mi cafe, beckoned. These days, much of that magic that I felt back then, is absent, with the manisons, most of which went in the 1980s and 1990s, with Eu Villa itself being demolished in 1981 after being sold by the Eu family for a princely sum of S$ 8.19M in 1973 to a property development company, having given way to a mess of monstrous apartment blocks, and it’s difficult to return to that magical world that I once wandered around.

The fairy-tale like Eu Villa, once the home of Eu Tong Sen. It was built in 1915 at a cost of S$1M on the site of Adis Lodge which Eu had purchase from Nissim Nissim Adis, the owner of the Grand Hotel de L'Europe in 1912.

I had an opportunity to do just that, return to the magical world that is, taking a walk with the National Library Board around the area, and trying to transport not just myself, but also a group of 30 participants to that world that I once knew. It was good to have on board two ladies who attended two of the schools in the area, who were able to share their experiences as well of going to Nan Hwa Girls’ School and Methodist Girls School (MGS). Both described ascending the one hundered steps to get to their schools, describing how it rose precariously up the steep slope from Handy Road with no railings to speak of and the steps being uneven in height – far different from the reconstructed steps in the vicinity of the original we see today. The ex MGS girl described how her schoolmates and her would race down the steps … something I am sure many would have not been able to resist in impetuosity of youth. We also confirmed that there were actually 100 steps – something I never thought of trying to establish in the many occasions on which I ascended the steps.

The one hundred steps offered a short cut for the adventurous to Plaza Singapura (seen here in its very early days - source: http://www.picas.gov.nhb.sg).

The walk started with a short introduction at the library, after which we were transported to the magical hill not by the one hundred steps, but by air-conditioned coach to the top of Mount Emily, I guess in keeping with the new age. What we saw were some remnants of there area that I loved, including the former Mount Emily Girls’ home which for a while was used as the Japanese Consulate prior to the war, becoming a halfway house for underage street prostitutes before becoming the girls’ home in 1969 and later the Wilkie Road Children’s Home in the 1980s. There was also the location of the first public swimming pool in Singapore, built on the site of the waterworks on Mount Emily, a pool that I visited in my younger days, being one of my father’s favourite pools, across from which we could see the hoardings surrounding the former bungalow of the late Major Derrick Coupland who passed away in 1991. Major Coupland was well known as a World War II veteran and the President of the Ex-Services Association heading it for some 20 years prior to his death from bone cancer in June 1991. I understand from a reader that the bungalow has been left empty since and the deterioration from 20 years of abandonment was evident before the hoardings came up some time at the end of last year – I suppose that the building is being prepared for demolition right at this moment.

The hoardings havve come up around the crumbling former residence of Major Derrick Coupland.

From the original coat of arms, used during the years of self-govenrment that can be seen on the structure at the entrance to Mount Emily Park, we made our way down Wilkie Road, past the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Sikh Temple. The current temple with its distinctive white dome, is a later one, built in 1983, next to an old house which as a plaque indicates, was purchased in 1932 (I was told from a Jewish gentleman), and originally housed the temple. Most of the magnificent mansions, including one owned by M J Nassim, that lined Wilkie Road have been replaced by apartment blocks … one that remains is the Abdullah Shooker Welfare Home at 81 Wilkie Road which is described in a previous post.

Wilkie Road used to be lined with magnificent mansions including one that still stands - the Abdullah Shooker Welfare Home, left by the late Abdullah Shooker, a Baghdadi Jew who died during internment by the Japanese in 1942, to the Jewish community.

Further down Wilkie Road, the participants were introduced to the Sophia Flats, once the home of the illustrious F J Benjamin, across from which we could once get a glimpse of the roofs of the magical Eu Villa over a retaining wall which marked the edge of the table on which the villa and its huge grounds once stood. Sadly the wall has come down, perhaps the last reminder of the villa that was left, along with the table which is being levelled for what is probably a commercial/residential project.

And the wall came tumbling down ... the last reminder of Eu Villa comes down - a retaining wall that marked the edge of the table of land on which the villa once stood (as seen in January 2011).

The last bit of the wall next to Peace Centre on Sophia Road.

At the corner of Adis and Sophia Roads, the excited chatter of a former student of Nan Hwa Girl’s School was heard, as she reminisced about her schooldays. The building which was completed in 1941, before being used by the Japanese during the war and the British forces after before being returned to Nan Hwa in 1947, is now used as a student hostel – and as one participant on the walk pointed out, the flag poles in front of the basketball courts which also served as an assembly area were still very much in evidence. Besides this, we learnt of a popular ice-kacang stall that both the girls of Nan Hwa and MGS patronised after school which was at the corner opposite Nan Hwa.

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

A former student at Nan Hwa Girls' School sharing her experiences of going to school outside the former Nan Hwa Girls' School.

The corner of Adis Road and Sophia Road at which the ice kacang stall that both girls of Nan Hwa and MGS patronised, was located.

Before we hit the new one hundred steps, we stopped by the Art Deco styled building which housed San Shan Public School which was built in the 1950s by the Foochow Association, which ran the school up to the 1970s when the running of it was handed to the Ministry of Education. The school after moving from its Mount Sophia premises in the 1980s has stopped functioning. Next was the former Trinity Theological College which was established in 1948. The cluster of buildings that belonged to the college including the church with the distinctive roof shaped to the Chinese character for people, 人 (Ren), were built in the 1960s. The college moved in the 1990s to its current location along Upper Bukit Timah Road – and the roof of the church there is identical to the one on Mount Sophia. Next to the college, the cluster of buildings (now Old School) that house MGS still stands. The former pupil of MGS spoke of how she could see the gardens of Eu Villa from her class window, and how the classes were organised, C being the best class and A for the weakest students, of the three classes that each form had in the 1960s.

A view of the former MGS.

From the hundred steps down, we made our way to the corner of what used to be Dhoby Ghaut and Bras Basah Road, now dominated by another monstrous piece of architecture which did not agree with most of the participants – one remarked that it “stuck out like a sore thumb”. Where that building which is the School of the Arts (SOTA) stand, there was what had been Dhoby Ghaut, gone as a road that carried the name in an area that once was used by the Indian Dhobis to gain access to the fresh water stream that has since become the Stamford Canal. What survives of that Dhoby Ghaut which hold memories of the row of shops which included the Red Sea Aquarium and an A&W outlet that I frequented as a schoolboy and another row of houses up behind on Kirk Terrace which included a Sikh temple, is only the name of the MRT station in the vicinity.

The row of shops at Dhoby Ghaut next to Cathay Building was where the Red Sea Aquarium as well as the A&W was. Today the SOTA building stands on top of the area where Dhoby Ghaut was (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

We then walked up Prinsep Street, named after Charles Robert Prinsep, the owner of the nutmeg plantation which once included Mount Emily, Mount Sophia and Mount Caroline and extended to the Istana grounds (100 acres were purchased in 1867 for the Governor’s House which became the Istana). There were suggestions that the three mounts were named after three daughters of Prinsep, but what is more likely was that when Prinsep purchased the land, Mount Sophia (which appears earlier as Bukit Selegi) would have already been named after the second wife of Raffles, modern Singapore’s founder, Sophia Hull, and if anything, Prinsep named the two adjoining hills after two other daughters, having been part of the former estate of Raffles’ brother-in-law and Singapore’s first Master Attendant, Captain Flint.

Kirk Terrace over Dhoby Ghaut (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

It was then a leisurely stroll back to the library via Middle Road, where we stopped by the site of the former POSB headquarters facing Prinsep Street and the Registry of Vehicles (ROV) facing Bencoolen Street, where Sunshine Plaza stands, but not before introducing the former Tiger Balm Building, the David Elias Building and the former Middle Road hospital. At Sunshine Plaza, we saw a few signcraft shops – remnants of those that featured in the area when demand for vehicle number plates existed due to the presence of the ROV in the vicinity. Then it was past the former Middle Road Church (now Sculpture Square), used as a motor workshop when I went to school in the area in the 1970s, and the former St. Anthony’s Convent, before hitting the site of the former Queen of the Mooncakes (Empress Hotel) – our destination where the Central Library building now stands.

Middle Road once featured sign craft shops serving the demand from the nearby ROV, including Rainbow Signs which I well remember from passing many times on the bus home from school (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

It was the end of a rather enjoyable walk for me, and I hope the participants had as good a time as I had. Before what was left of the participants dispersed, there was still time to exchange a story, one about the sighting of an Orang Minyak (translated from Malay as “Oily Man” – one that is said to be cursed to an existence as an dark oil coated being that possesses supernatural powers, but more likely as a participant Jeff pointed out, was a man coated in oil to ensure a smooth getaway), reputed as one that terrorises the fairer sex. I had heard about one which was reportedly known to lurk in the compound of St. Joseph’s Church across Victoria Street, through a reader Greg Lim, who lived in Holloway Lane in the 1950s. My mother who boarded at St. Anthony’s Convent in the 1950s could not confirm this, but did mentioned that there were rumours of one lurking in the stairwell. Jeff, who himself lived on nearby Cashin Street in the 1950s confirmed that there was indeed sightings reported, and he was in one of the crowds that had gathered to try to catch a glimpse of the Orang Minyak. Another participant, the mother of Ms Thiru (who is with the NLB and organised the walk), also confirmed that she was aware of the story. It was certainly an interesting end to the walk, one that took a little longer than anticipated, but one that was thoroughly enjoyable.

The Empress Hotel at the corner of Middle Road and Victoria Street which was demolished in 1985.





Sights sans sounds of Thaipusam in Singapore

20 01 2011

Thaipusam each year brings with it the colourful sights and sounds of tradition that is missing from much of the remade Singapore. This year, the annual event which takes place on the day of the full moon during the Tamil month of “Thai” has been somewhat overshadowed by the Hindu Endowments Board’s guidelines which advises devotees of the existing ban on the playing of recorded music and use of gongs or drums during the procession. Nevertheless, Thaipusam, sans some of the familiar sounds, does bring a burst of colour and life to streets which are otherwise coloured only by the rush of traffic. For more information and photographs of Thaipusam in Singapore, please read my post published last year on last years procession at this link.

Scenes from 2011's Thaipusam in Singapore.

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Back to school in many ways …

9 08 2010

It was back to school for some of my old schoolmates and me yesterday. With our old school building as a focal point, we wandered around much of the area we might have in the all whites of our school uniform all those years ago, when the area was so different from what it is today. It was for us a journey not just back in time, but one in which we were able to rediscover and catch up with some of the parts of Singapore around our old school grounds that we might have once been familiar with, but have since forgotten.

The old school building served as our focal point on a walk to rediscover the areas we were once familiar with.

The walk first took us down Waterloo Street, past the mansions and buildings of old, looking grander than they would have when we were in school. Much has changed since then, memories of what had been around flooded back: the hole-in-the-wall “mama” shop around the corner of Bras Basah Road, where boys would have obtained many items including banned cigarettes came to mind; the infamous toilet block across the street of which the then sealed second level we were given to believe was used as a Japanese torture chamber …

A window in the Sculpture Square complex. Wandering around the old church building that was used as a motor workshop when we were in school opened up a window into past and present.

A vice at Sculpture Square ... perhaps a reminder of what it once had been used as ...

Arriving at what is now Sculpture Square, of which the former Middle Road Church building which during our days as schoolboys was used as a motor workshop, we stumbled upon Ngim Kum Thong’s world of Deconstruction, Destruction and Destination, in a rather interesting exhibition of contemporary art. Ngim has apparently worked with the highly regarded educator and sculptor, the late Brother Joseph McNally, founder of the LA SALLE College of the Arts and someone who as schoolboys we were very fond of, having been associated with the La Salle brothers who ran the La Salle Christian Brothers’ Schools of which St. Joseph’s Institution was a part of.  The first impression I had was that the artist’s theme seemed a little strange as most would focus on creation rather than on destruction, but wandering through the exhibits with the artist himself as a guide, one wonders if he is indeed actually making sense of how he sees the world we live in. One particular exhibit caught my attention, the Third Hand that perhaps is the unseen force that controls our lives … we “live” looking in once direction and face “evil” looking from the other … “evil” being “live” spelt backwards. Looking at it, maybe the artist is correct in his observation of things around, the inevitability of deconstruction and destruction in the destination of all that we create, in how evil can be seen to dominate how we live … still, it is all a little too abstract for me …


Deconstruction, destruction and destination ... the inevitability of life?


Evil in the eyes of the artist ...

The potential world of knowledge that is in the internet ... and what it

A third hand in our lives? We "live" and looking back ... "evil"?

Moving further, past Middle Road to the Camera Hospital at Sunshine Plaza which we used to see around Bencoolen Street where we were greeted by the bodies of old cameras that perhaps were reminiscent of those we would have been familiar with as schoolboys, we talked about what had once been there … the old Registry of Vehicles and Post Office Savings Bank headquarters and the host of sign makers we would see across the street. We then moved on to Prinsep Street … down to the newly opened LaSalle College of the Arts on the new aptly named McNally Street, unique in the sense of its clean appearance on the outsides with shape and form expressed within the clean exterior … the college is perhaps what links the past … being boys from a school that is associated with the name and the founder, the present in the sense of our brush with the works of Ngim, a student of Brother McNally, and the future … being the future that the college represents for the arts in Singapore.

LaSalle College of the Arts on McNally Street.

With the intention to make our way to the new Thieves Market near Sungei Road, close to where the original Thieves Market would have been on Sungei Road, we wandered past Albert Mall at the end of Waterloo Street. This section of Waterloo Street, now a pedestrian mall, is perhaps one of the most delightful corners of Singapore that I have stumbled upon. Crawling with devotees to the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple and Sri Krishnan Temple, street vendors and many offering services of all kinds fill the streets along with street performers, adding colour and life to the mall … a verve that is missing in much of Singapore these days.

The walk to Thieves Market took us past Albert Mall at the end of Waterloo Street.

Seen on Albert Mall, a British man who plies his trade as a traditional Chinese fortune teller ...

... and is apparently popular with the locals ...

Floral offerings are a colourful sight outside the well attended Sri Krishnan and Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temples on Waterloo Street.

Many services are also offered along the mall.


See along Albert Mall ...

Having made our way pass the mall, we took a route along the old Sungei Road, much less foul smelling than it would have been back in our schooldays towards the mentioned Thieves Market, a flea market which in the days as a schoolboy, had also been referred to by many names such as “Robinson Petang” or literally “Afternoon Robinson” (with reference to the popular Robinson’s Department Store where one could shop for just about anything), popularly amongst us schoolboys as “Sungei Road” and of course “Thieves Market” (with reference to the contraband and stolen goods that were once thought to have been sold there). That was where we could then get just about anything … my mother was fond of visiting to buy large bottles which she could then mosaic and many other used items for arts and craft which she taught in school … later in life, it was where I could get our coveralls for my stints in shipyards required by the course of study that I was doing at the Polytechnic. These days, I am told there are other thieves to be careful of … petty thefts such as pickpocketing is apparently common there. Looking at the range and quality of items on offer there, perhaps it is one place that I would give a miss in future … Next, it was across Jalan Besar … which will be covered in another post to follow …

The joke back in the days when we were schoolboys was that if you ever had a bicycle stolen ... you would be able to find it being sold at Thieves Market ... one wonders if it may still be the case today ...

Laser Discs on sale ... from not too distant a past ... but forgotten all the same.

A deal that would blow you away!





Park Lane, Mayfair and Hyde Park

29 04 2010

The mention of Park Lane and Mayfair would bring memories of the many evenings spent in my childhood playing the board game of Monopoly with the family. The two properties on the Monopoly board are of course the most expensive and sought after, guaranteed to give one an excellent chance of winning the game. Having acquired the game at Marican and Sons which was located along East Coast Road when I was maybe six or seven, it was was one of those things I were grateful to have as a child, as it was able to keep me entertained in a time when the world that did not have the distractions that the world today brings to her children. It was perhaps my favourite game, as it was one which maybe depended less on skill and age for a fair chance of winning.

It was only later in life, that I would associate Mayfair and Park Lane with the exclusive district in London of the same name. Mayfair bounded by Oxford Street to the North, Regent Street to the East, Piccadilly and Pall Mall to the South and Park Lane to the West, would be an area where I would often find myself wandering around during a sojourn in London in 1990, being close to Hyde Park (Park Lane runs along the eastern boundary of Hyde Park) and Speaker’s Corner. Well before I got to wander around the streets of London, we did have a Mayfair, Park Lane and even a Hyde Park here, close to the area where I went to school, not perhaps the exclusive areas that the parts of London they were named after, but names that were familiar to many nonetheless. We had the Mayfair Hotel along Armenian Street, Park Lane Shopping Mall built in the late 1970s, and Hyde Park Café.

The Mayfair Hotel by the time I was growing up, had been a hotel that had seen better times. Housed in an art deco styled building that has recently been refurbished along Armenian Street, the hotel opened in 1950 and was quite a decent enough establishment to play host to the BOAC (now British Airways) air crew on their stopovers. The hotel closed due to poor business in 1976, and reopened in 1979 as the New Mayfair Hotel. By that time, the hotel had become quite a sleazy place and it wasn’t too long before it closed its doors again.

The art deco building that once housed the Mayfair Hotel along Armenian Street.

A short walk from Armenian Street, down to Bras Basah Road and pass the row of now demolished shop houses that housed the well known Rendezvous Nasi Padang restaurant at the corner of Bras Basah Road and Prinsep Street and another row of now demolished shop houses that housed the Tiong Hoa Hotel along Prinsep Street, there is a quaint little row of conservation shop houses that we see today known as Prinsep Court. You will see at the end of this row, just beside what is now the Elections Department building, the Hyde Park Café. The café had its origins across Selegie Road at a shopping complex that has also seen better times, Park Lane Shopping Mall. Hyde Park Café is of course associated with a Singapore food institution, Soon Heng Fish Head Curry and was started by the daughter of the founder of Soon Heng.

The Elections Department Building along Prinsep Street.

The corner of Bras Basah Road and Prinsep Street in the 1950s (Source: national Archives of Singapore).

Selegie Road and Prinsep Street in the 1950s (Source: National Archives of Singapore).

To get to Park Lane from where Hyde Park is today, one will pass by a bright yellow coloured building at the corner of Selegie Road and Prinsep Street – this was something we always noticed from the bus – I can’t quite remember what it was used as before and I don’t quite know when it was built – perhaps one of you can enlighten me … but I am glad it still stands today as a reminder of what was once like.

The distinctive Selegie Arts Centre Building at the corner of Prinsep Street and Selegie Road.

View of Selegie Road and Prinsep Street - Park Lane Shopping Mall is on the left of the photograph.

Prinsep Court - a row of conservation shop houses.

Hyde Park Cafe.





Where the stork once visited: Prinsep Street (Rochor to Middle Roads)

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 turn of the last century. Prinsep Street, spelt Princep Street in the days of the Mahallah, was named after a Charles Robert Prinsep, a descendent of a John Prinsep who featured prominently in the British East India Company. Charles Prinsep had own several nutmeg estates in the new colony and one on nearby Mount Sophia that occupied much of the land on which are now the grounds on which the Istana stands. The street is made up of two sections, the first running from Bras Basah Road, by Dhoby Ghaut up to Middle Road, and the second from Middle Road to Rochor Road. The second section is where much of the Mahallah would have been centred on, and is where perhaps the most significant changes have taken place since the early 1900s when it was part of the Mahallah.

The door of the former Salmon's Maternity Home brings some colour to an area with a colourful past.

This was the stretch of the street that perhaps made some notable contributions to healthcare in Singapore and was where the island’s first Maternal and Child Health Clinic was set up in 1923, and where one of the pioneers of private Obstetric and Gynaecological healthcare in Singapore, a Dr. S. R. Salmon had first a practice and subsequently a private maternity hospital, the Salmon’s Maternity Home. Dr. Salmon, a General Practitioner (GP), had along with Professor J. S. English, Singapore’s first Professor of Midwifery and Gynaecology and another GP, Dr. Paglar who established the Paglar Maternity and Nursing Home on which the Parkway East Hospital now stands in Joo Chiat, been attributed with raising the understanding of the need for ante-natal and post-natal care in Singapore.

Prinsep Street has undergone a transformation where there is little left of its forgotten past.

Interestingly the wonderful Art Deco styled building (there is a nice sketch of the building at this blog) that housed Dr. Salmon’s Maternity Home, set up in 1950 on 110 Prinsep Street, still stands, as a reminder of a time when ante-natal and post-natal care was very much in the hands of GPs and midwives, before specialist ante-natal and post-natal care as a norm was established in the 1960s. It is interesting to note that Dr. Salmon’s daughter Dr. Yvonne M. Salmon, had a distinguished career in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Kandang Kerbau Hospital (KKH) in a career spanning 44 years.

The former Salmon's Maternity Home at 110 Prinsep Street was built in 1950 by Dr. S. R. Salmon..

The Art Deco styled façade of the former Salmon's Maternity Home.

A reminder of what the building was once used as.

Across the street from the former Salmon’s Maternity Home, is another landmark, the very recognisable red brick building at 77 Prinsep Street, which is the Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church, built in 1931. The church has an interesting history, having been established in 1843 as the Malay Chapel to serve the Malay community by Rev. Benjamin Peach Keasberry. The church was subsequently known as the Straits Chinese Church to reflect its growing ministry to the Straits-born Chinese, and was where the Boys’ Brigade movement in Singapore was born. The current church building was designed by SSwan and MacLaren and built in 1931 in place of the old chapel.

The distinctive red brick Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church was built in 1931 on the site of the former Malay Chapel.

The Singapore Life Church at 144 Prinsep Street.

Much of the area that is around the churches and the former maternity home had in the early part of the twentieth century been rather run down and has been renewed, first with the construction in the late 1950s by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) the predecessor to the HDB of the blocks of flats that include the low rise blocks that are now used by the SMU for student housing, and several high rise blocks that included Albert House and Rochor House on the plots of land between Prinsep and Short Streets leading up to Rochor Road which has since been torn down, partly replaced by the interesting looking (and award winning!) LaSalle College of the Arts building with its clean black façade of aluminium and granite and open interior spaces, between a new road McNally Road, named after the founder of LaSalle College, Brother Joseph McNally, and the pedestrian mall that was the former Albert Street. The building also sits where there was once a street called Prinsep Court and before that (up to the 1950s) Veerappa Chitty Lane. The plot from Albert Street up to Rochor Road across from Sim Lim Square, which came up in 1987, is being developed into the Rochor MRT station.

The award winning LaSalle College Building with its black façade of aluminium and granite was built in 2007 and located at 1 McNally Street off Prinsep Street.

LaSalle College of the Arts as seen from Prinsep Street, stands on the grounds of what were SIT flats that were built as part of a renewal of the district in the late 1950s.

The low rise SIT flats which are now used by the SMU for student housing.

The pedestrian mall that was Albert Street between LaSalle College and a construction site for the new Rochor MRT station where Rochor House once stood.

The SIT built Rochor House was constructed in the late 1950s along with Albert House and a few low rise blocks of flats bewteen Prinsep Street and Short Street (Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rochor_House,_Aug_06.JPG).





The streets of the Mahallah: Middle Road, where the 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, Middle Road. What we see of Middle Road today bears little resemblance to the Middle Road that I had known in the 1970s, a Middle Road that I had passed by every weekday on the bus back from school, let alone having much to suggest that it was another thriving part of what was the Jewish Quarter all those years back. There is only the David Elias building, which I had mentioned in the previous post on the streets of the Mahallah, which reminds us of this forgotten past, and nothing much else.

The former Middle Road Hospital stands next to the David Elias Building along Middle Road.

The view down the middle of Middle Road. The road bears very little resemblance to the Middle Road of the 1970s that I was familiar with. There is very little there except for the David Elias building to suggest a Jewish past.

Next to the David Elias building, stands another building that has survived the extensive renewal that Middle Road has seen in the last few decades, not a reminder of the Jewish past, but of a past associated with another ethnic group – the Japanese. The building displays the letters “SIC” prominently at the top, standing next to an empty plot of land – which one could see as a suggestion perhaps, of its previous use. The building today houses Stansfield College, a private college, associated with a previous occupant, the Singapore Institute of Commerce (SIC), which is associated with Stansfield. The building was in fact, up to 1988, one that did house sick occupants, when it was used by the Middle Road Hospital. The building had actually started its life in 1940 as the Doh Jin Hospital, to serve what was a growing Japanese community in the area. The Japanese Consulate was in fact housed nearby, in the building that became Mount Emily Girls’ Home. The hospital became the Middle Road Hospital after the war in 1945, and was referred to by a rather antiquated sounding name, the Social Hygiene Hospital. During the 1970s, I remember my parents would refer to the hospital as a “skin hospital” – it was a centre for the treatment of skin diseases. Along with skin diseases, the hospital was notorious as the centre for treatment of venereal diseases (VD), which we now referred to commonly as STDs or sexually transmitted diseases.

A sign bearing the letters "SIC" perhaps giving a indication of the history of the building? The building had started its life as the Doh Jin Hospital in 1940 and became the Social Hygiene Hospital in 1945.

Another view of what was once the Social Hygiene Hospital.

There is also a little off-shot of Middle Road between the two buildings, which ends in a cul-de-sac, where, on the side of the David Elias building, stands a rather quaint looking building (254, 256 and 258 Middle Road) with a set of bay windows, and a façade very much in the style of the David Elias building. I am not certain of what the origin of this building is. There is in fact an identical building on the reverse side facing Short Street.

Off Middle Road between the David Elias Building and the former Middle Road Hospital, a rather quaint looking house with a set of bay windows stands at the cul-de-sac.

The David Elias building as seen from the cul-de-sac. Part of it was once used as the Sun Sun Hotel. There was a Sun Sun Bar that existed then at the bottom of the hotel.

Crossing Prinsep Street, there is now the IOI Plaza and Prime Centre which stands on a stretch occupied by a row of pre-war shop houses up to the 1980s – I remember this stretch particularly well for a colourful row of three sign makers housed in a rather ramshackle looking single storey shops, sandwiched in between double storey houses. The display of signs and vehicle number plates would catch my eye along with the “Rainbow Signs” signboard on one of the shops. There is still a sign maker, Sin Lian Hua Signcrafts in the area, housed across Middle Road in Sunshine Plaza. The shop has a display, which in a muted way, is reminiscent of the displays of the original shops on Middle Road.

Prime Centre and IOI Plaza stand where a row of shop houses where the colourful displays of three sign makers caught the eye.

Display at Sin Lian Hua Signcrafts in Sunshine Plaza - reminiscent of the displays of the row of three sign makers along Middle Road.

That there was concentration of the sign makers offering vehicle number plates along that stretch of Middle Road was  possibly due to the Registry of Vehicles (ROV) that was located on the opposite side of Middle Road, where Sunshine Plaza now stands, in a compound which also contained the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank (POSB). The ROV, which is now part of the Land Transport Authority (LTA) had occupied the premises since 1948, and it was only in 1983 that the department shifted to its new premises in Sin Ming. The building which the ROV occupied had been built as a court house in 1930. The POSB also occupied the premises in Middle Road up till 1983, when it shifted to new premises built on the site of the former Catholic Centre at the corner of Queen Street and Bras Basah Road. Across Prinsep Street from Sunshine Plaza an empty plot of land now stares glaringly at the observer, where once there were more pre-war shop houses, bringing me back to Selegie Road. I don’t remember there anything notable that stood on this plot of land, except for a five storey building which stood out among the mainly two storey shop houses around it like a sore thumb. This building housed the Straits Clinic, which is now in IOI Plaza.

Sunshine Plaza stands in the plot where the compound where the ROV and POSB was once housed.

Rain in the shadow of Sunshine: A couple stands in the rain looking at the David Elias building and Stansfield College in the shadow of Sunshine Plaza.

An empty plot of land between Prinsep Street and Selegie Road, where more shop houses once stood.





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.





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.





When did the tiger at the corner of Selegie Road and Short Street go missing?

15 03 2010

While looking at a photograph I had taken of that distinctive building which stands at the corner of Short Street and Selegie Road, a building that has been a feature on Selegie Road for as long as I can remember, it came to me that I once used to see a tiger at the top of the building. The 4 storey building which was, when I was growing up, used by the Chung Khiaw Bank and later after its merger with United Overseas Bank (UOB), by the UOB Group, had more recently housed the offices and a food court of Banquet Holdings Pte Ltd, operators of the Banquet chain of halal food courts. The building, I sadly learnt, would soon be making way for a 12 storey entertainment hub named 10 square after its 100 Selegie Road address which would feature a 14 metre wide LED screen on its façade.

The very distinctive building at the corner of Short Street and Selegie Road.

The tiger I used to see was not a live one of course … it was one that we are well acquainted with in Singapore – the tiger that we see on the labels of Tiger Balm. This does provide a clue to the history of the building, which my father had referred to as the Tiger Balm Building. It had housed a Eng Aun Tong Medical Hall, as is evidenced by a 1941 photograph seen at http://kaufmann-mercantile.com/tiger-balm/. The photograph also shows that an additional floor had been added on at some point in time.

The Tiger Balm Building, 1941 (Source: http://kaufmann-mercantile.com/tiger-balm).

It would not be hard to explain how the building came to be used by Chung Khiaw Bank – the bank had been established in 1950 by Aw Boon Haw, the man who together with his brother Aw Boon Par, gave us Tiger Balm, Haw Par Corporation and the Haw Par Villa. When, the use of the building changed, I was not able to establish, as with when the tiger disappeared. What I do know is that the tiger could still be seen in a 1975 photograph of Selegie Road. I also remember looking out for it on the bus ride home when I was receiving my lower secondary education between 1977 and 1978. By 1990, as seen in another photograph in Ray Tyers book, the tiger had already gone missing, a fate that now awaits its former home.

The tiger still seen above the former Tiger Balm Building in a photograph of Selegie Road taken in 1975 (Source: Ray Tyers Singapore Then & Now).





Danger on Wilkie Road?

4 02 2010

While walking around the Selegie Road area I came across this sign next to Wilkie Edge – which stands on the grounds of the former Selegie Complex, in which one of my aunts had hosted her wedding in one of the restaurants …

I guess the whoever had put up the sign did not realise that the words on the sign could be understood quite differently …

Drop off at Wilkie edge?





Curry puffs, brightly coloured candy and a bus garage: Selegie and Mackenzie Roads

3 02 2010

As a child, I often passed through MacKenzie Road, a street that my father would use as a means to get to Kampong Java Road on our way to our home in Toa Payoh. What I remember most of the street is the area where Rex Cinema is where there were back lanes of food stalls, and the bus depot which always caught my attention. My parents sometimes stopped by, visiting the back lanes for chendol and Indian Rojak. There was some nice Indian Muslim and Malay food as well. My mother sometimes would pick up goreng pisang there and of course the delicious Rex curry puffs from a coffee shop in the area.

Back lane next to Rex - which was once be filled with food stalls.

Back lane across Rex - which was once be filled with food stalls.

The original cinema was opened in 1946 by the Shaw Brothers and ceased operations in 1983. The building then housed the Fuji ice skating rink at the end of the 1980s and early part of the 1990s, and was also used as a church at some point. Rex is of course one of the five iconic cinemas featured in a stamp set “Cinema Theatres of Yesteryear” issued by Singpost in 2009, being one of two still used as cinemas. It saw its rebirth as a cinema sometime last year, screening mainly Indian movies – with the help of two enterprising businessmen. I don’t think I patronised the cinema much as I only can recall one occasion on which I accompanied some older neighbours for a movie there, having visited one of the Malay food stalls in the back lane across the road for lunch.

Rex Cinema - opened in 1946 was used as an ice-skating rink and a church before being reborn as a cinema in 2009.

The reborn Rex Cinema now screens Indian movies.

Shop along MacKenzie Road where the Selera Rex curry puffs are found.

The area around Rex was also interesting to me. On Selegie Road – we could see the tallest school building in Singapore, all ten storeys of it, which belonged to Selegie School. Being used to walking up to classrooms from Assembly class by class in rows of two, I often wondered how pupils could do that with the lifts. Next to the school building was Selegie House – a complex of HDB blocks of flats with shops and restaurants below – passing by, I always noticed the sign at the foot of the block closer to Selegie School with the words “Gomez Curry”. Gomez was known for some of the hottest curries around Singapore. My parents mentioned that Gomez had moved there from nearby Sophia Road where he had first set up shop – operating out of a car garage, with a long table from which he sold his curries!

The ten storey former Selegie School building as seen along Selegie Road.

Selegie House - I used to watch out for the "Gomez Curry" sign at the foot of one of the blocks.

Closer to the junction with Rochor Canal and Bukit Timah Roads, opposite Mackenzie Road, there was of course Albert Street, where supposedly some of the best food in Singapore could be found. The stretch joining Selegie Road is now a pedestrian mall. On the opposite side at the junction with Bukit Timah Road, there is the very distinctive façade of the Ellison building, with its domes on the roof, believed to have been built for a Jewish lady named Ellsion in 1924. The roof was reportedly where Colonial governors would watch the races at the neaby Race Course. From the vantage point of the bus I took home during my secondary schools, I would often observe the going-ons at the shops at the stretch of the building along Selegie Road – there was a little shop that sold magazines that operated out of a little unit next to a restaurant, with items displayed on a wooden rack fronting the shop, as well as on shelves in the narrow passage. I remember that there would usually be a bunch of bananas on the stem that hanging outside, from which customers would pluck bananas off the stem to purchase them from the shopkeeper.

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

One of the domes atop the Ellison Building.

There were also a couple of Indian vegetarian restaurants there – I remember noticing the wooden counter at the entrance of the Sri Vijaya Restaurant and the display opposite it which would be filled with Indian sweets and candies … what always attracted my attention was the brightly coloured coconut candy, similar to the very sweet tasting ones that a Sikh neighbour would make with condensed milk during the Deepavali celebrations, stacked high in the display cabinet.

Cubes of brightly coloured coconut candy - one of the things I observed from the bus.








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