One hundred steps to a new heaven?

28 10 2014

It has been a while since I last ventured to the once magical world of Mount Sophia. Perched one hundred feet above the city, scaling its heights was best done on foot via a flight of one hundred steps (and a little more these days), taking you into a world that seemed to me to be the closest thing that there might have been to heaven on earth.

The new world reflecting on a past being erased..

The new world reflecting on a past being erased.

What remains of the former MGS.

All that remains of an old school.

Heaven, as it might have been when I made the first of my wanderings through the area in the 1970s, was much changed place by the time I was reacquainted with the hill in more recent times. Much of its magic faded when Eu Villa, a mansion that was the stuff of which fairy tales are made, was demolished at the start of the 1980s. Scarred today by the barbs that have replaced its once wondrous architectural landscape, much of the charm of its days of glory, has never been seen again.

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

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

The triumph of the weapons of past destruction.

The triumph of the weapons of past destruction.

A more recent loss was that of the large cluster of buildings that has collectively been referred to as “Old School”, leaving but a few reminders of a yesterday that has largely been forgotten. The complex of buildings was where over six decades of the memories of old girls of Methodist Girls School (MGS), until 1992, had been made. All that remains today is a lone building, abandoned by its companions, but soon to forge new friendships.

Last one standing - Olson building, abandoned by the other buildings of old MGS.

Last one standing – Olson building, abandoned by the other buildings of old MGS.

And the walls come tumbling down. A retaining wall belonging to the former MGS being demolished.

And the walls come tumbling down. A retaining wall belonging to the former MGS being demolished.

The lone structure, now sitting forlornly surrounded by a scene of devastation, the Olson building, dates back to 1928 – having been built to facilitate the school’s move up the hill from nearby Short Street that had been attributed to the then principal Mary Olson, after whom the building was named. Destined now to be a clubhouse within the Sophia Hills residential development that will colonise a good part of Mount Sophia, it is one of four reminders of an enchanted past that have been conserved on the hill.

Olson building will become a clubhouse as part of the Sophia Hills development.

The sprawling condominium development, spread not only over the grounds of the former MGS, but will also include the former premises of Nan Hwa Girls’ School at the junction of Adis Road and Sophia Road, and the area next to Old School that was used by Trinity Theological College (TTC), will also include two of the remanining three conserved structures. One is the pre-war building that housed Nan Hwa, which will be put to use as a kindergarten cum childcare centre. The other is the former TTC chapel, which is intended for use as a fine-dining restaurant.

The former Nan Hwa Girls' School.

The former Nan Hwa Girls’ School.

The former Nan Hwa will be leased out as a kindergarten cum childcare centre.

The former chapel of TTC - being turned into a fine-dining restaurant.

The former chapel of TTC – being turned into a fine-dining restaurant.

The chapel, which has stood out on the hill since the 1960s, is recognisable from its very distinctive roof structure, which takes the form of the Chinese character representing people or人 (ren), when viewed from the front. A fourth conserved structure on the hill that is not part of the development, is the former Tower House, which now houses House on the Hill, a childcare centre.

An artist’s impression of what the fine-dining restaurant will look like.

House on the Hill across the road from the Sophia Hills development.

House on the Hill across the road from the Sophia Hills development.

With the chill brought by the winds of change sweeping through a once familiar part of Singapore, comes much pain. We have to be numb as there is little room to be sentimental in a Singapore where looking to the future makes us forget the past. There are the small reminders of yesterday we sometimes hold on to. These, however, often lose their meaning in being made into a part of tomorrow.

The once magical hilltop of Mount Sophia being cleared for new magic to be created.

The once magical hilltop of Mount Sophia being cleared for new magic to be created.

There is the promise of a new magic. But to feel its enchantment, we have to fall out of love with the Singapore we have grown to love. It is only then that we can fall in love again, with a Singapore where love for anything else but all that now glisters, is hard to find.

The promised land as seen on a hoarding at the site.

The promised land as seen on a hoarding at the site.





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.








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