Rediscovering the Pearl of Chinatown

21 02 2013

Stumbling across an old world nestled in the new brings great delight to me. It in a little pocket of space, not so distant from the rush and rumble of the streets of the urban world, where I did rediscover one, Pearl’s Terrace, set at the foot of the south facing slope of Pearl’s Hill.

A world seemingly far from the rush and rumble of the busy streets of nearby Chinatown.

A world seemingly far from the rush and rumble of the busy streets of nearby Chinatown.

Pearl’s Hill Terrace is a place one might have been reluctant to visit in times not so long ago. It was where the men in blue had ruled – where not just the home of the Police Force’s Headquarters as well as some important divisions of the force were located, but a place where police officers had called home.

Just a stone's throw away from the rush and rumble of Chinatown is a world that awaits rediscovery.

Just a stone’s throw away from the rush and rumble of Chinatown is a world that awaits rediscovery.

Towering over the slope today, one sees a long slab block of apartments, seemingly an isolated block of public housing that lay forgotten. Built by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) for, it is one of several physical reminders of a world that had existed in the days before we last saw the snake (the last Chinese Year of the Snake, 2001). That block today, 201 Pearl’s Hill Terrace, has seen new life breathed into it. Not longer are its mix of 1 and 2 bedroom apartments rented to the junior police officers it was built in the late 1960s to house, it has since 2006 been turned into a hostel. Its 336 units are now offered to white-collared workers and students for rent.

View of Chinatown 1973 showing the newly completed People's Park Complex. Beside and behind it the slab block of flats that served as the Police Quarters for junior officers, as well as the Upper and Lower Barracks, can be seen.

View of Chinatown 1973 showing the newly completed People’s Park Complex. Beside and behind it the slab block of flats that served as the Police Quarters for junior officers, as well as the Upper and Lower Barracks, can be seen.

The former Police Quarters at 201 Pearl's Hill Terrace.

The former Police Quarters at 201 Pearl’s Hill Terrace.

It isn’t so much in that block where the charms of the old and perhaps where the reminders of the previous world can be discovered, but in the two lower but grander looking large edifices it overlooks. One, the Upper Barracks, set on a terrace immediately below the block of flats is 195 Pearl’s Hill Terrace. The other is a slightly taller building, the Lower Barracks which is at street level facing Eu Tong Sen Street. As their names suggest, both had also served as policemen’s quarters. Completed in 1934, and built in a simplified Neo-Classical style typical of public buildings of the era, the Public Works Department erected the two to house the Sikh Contingent of the then Straits Settlements Police (SSP).

Windows from the past to the present.

The Upper Barracks provides a look through windows from the past to the present.

The Upper Barracks now looks a little run down and is perhaps is accorded with a little less dignity than it deserves having been, since 2007, turned into offices spaces for lease. It is however where many ghosts not just of its past, but also of Singapore’s colonial past await discovery. Built to house married policemen, it is laid out in a bright and airy way – reminiscent perhaps of the Old Hill Street Police Station, with its six spacious courtyards, open corridors, and generous ventilation openings – giving a sense of light and space within the confines of its stern looking exterior.

The Upper Barracks as seen today.

The Upper Barracks as seen today.

Wandering around the Upper Barracks certainly takes one back to a time when air-conditioned public building was a rarity with its generously provided ventilation openings and open corridors.

Wandering around the Upper Barracks certainly takes one back to a time when air-conditioned public building was a rarity with its generously provided ventilation openings and open corridors.

With the disbanding of the SSP soon after the war, the two barracks were turned over to other civic uses. More recently serving as the Police Headquarters, the Upper Barracks had in the time since also served to house the Ministry of Interior and Defence, from Singapore’s independence to 1970, when the Ministry was split into the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The MHA continued to be housed at the Upper Barracks until 1977 when it moved to Phoenix Park.

Courtyards were a common feature of buildings of the good old days.

Courtyards were a common feature of buildings of the good old days – the pull up bars left behind provides a reminder of the building’s past.

The Lower Barracks, to which there is currently no access to, is one which most would be familiar with being at street level. Built for unmarried policemen, the barracks housed several divisions of the law enforcement agencies under the MHA, the most recent being the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Other units it served as a home to include the Police ‘A’ Division, the Registry of Societies, the Anti-Vice Unit, and the Central Narcotics Bureau. Both the Upper and Lower Barracks were vacated in 2001 when the new Police Cantonment Complex opened. The Lower Barracks is at the present being refurbished for use as a students’ hostel which is opening this year.

The Lower Barracks around the time of it opening in 1934 (source: http://www.hometeam.sg/cmsmedia/).

The Lower Barracks around the time of it opening in 1934 (source: Singapore Police Force at http://www.hometeam.sg/cmsmedia/).

The Lower Barracks.

The Lower Barracks.

While the Upper and Lower Barracks have been put to what does seem like less than dignified uses, both have in fact been given conservation status. More on this and as well as an architectural description of the buildings can be found at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Conservation of Built Heritage website, excerpts of which follow:

Upper Barracks

“The 3-storey Upper Barracks was built at a higher level on the hill, facing towards the Singapore River. At almost 160 metres in length, it is one of the longest pre-war civic buildings in existence. The combination of its impressive length and elevated position gives it a commanding presence overlooking the Chinatown area. The overall design treatment is more geometrical, with the details of the building articulated to greater emphasize the length of the thirty-one bays of the building. The building also has its ends emphasised through the protrusion of the building bays, while the central entrance is made prominent with the use of pairs of pilasters, in contrast with the single pilasters elsewhere. The features combine to give an overall appearance of palatial grandeur”.

The Upper Barracks from a Singapore Land Authority tender document  in 2007 (source: http://www.sla.gov.sg/doc/new/AnnexB-5Feb2007.jpg).

The Upper Barracks from a Singapore Land Authority tender document in 2007 (source: http://www.sla.gov.sg/doc/new/AnnexB-5Feb2007.jpg).

Lower Barracks

“The 5-storey Lower Barracks are on street level. Set back from Eu Tong Sen Street with a generous plaza, it creates an impressive contrast to the prevalent two and three storey shophouses of Chinatown across the road. The building follows the Classical tradition of having the three parts of the building clearly articulated. The first storey gives a sense of firmness of appearance by having rusticated horizontal bands in the plaster-work. The top of the building is completed with a deep overhanging entablature with a strongly articulated geometric linear cornice line. The centre of the building is given greater emphasis through a shallow triangular pediment, surmounted by flag-poles”.

Branches on an exterior wall of the Lower Barracks. It is a reminder of a time when less was concealed and perhaps of the building's history serving several  branches of law enforcement agencies over the years.

Branches on an exterior wall of the Lower Barracks. It is a reminder of a time when less was concealed and perhaps of the building’s history serving several branches of law enforcement agencies over the years.

Besides the two barracks, there is also a smaller reminder of the old world close by that deserves to also be looked at, a two-storey villa which based on information at the URA Conservation of Built Heritage site, is though to have been built in the 1920s. Currently housing a education centre, the building at 18 Pearl’s Hill Terrace is also thought to have been built as accommodation for a higher ranking officer of the Police Force (or perhaps a high ranking prison warder – the terrace is known to have been where quarters of warders at the nearby Outram Prison (located where the former Outram Park flats were) were located. Most recently housing the Scene of Crime Unit, it has also housed a CID Training Centre and also from 1978 to 1988, the Syariah Court.

18 Pearl's Hill Terrace today.

18 Pearl’s Hill Terrace today.

There is more of the old world to be found just up the hill close to where the somewhat iconic and very distinctive Pearl’s Bank Apartments stands. The block erected in 1976, a subject matter all on itself, stands next to the crest of the hill where a Victorian era service reservoir is located. It is around it where a green oasis in the midst of the city can be found offering an escape which can be hard to find in the overcrowded streets below it. That, together with the four buildings which have found a new lease of life, is where a reminder of world that we have forgotten to appreciate does seem to exist – for the time being at least. While we do know that three of the buildings are being conserved, it may not be very long before the urban world stakes a claim on it.

A linkway from Pearl's Hill Terrace to the Lower Barracks.

A linkway from Pearl’s Hill Terrace to the Lower Barracks.

The area was part of a wider area which had been the subject of a URA planning exercise in the early 2000s. While in the plans developed then the area would still very much be a green space, developments planned for the area around – particularly at neighbouring York Hill across the Central Expressway (CTE) project that some 5,500 new homes will be built, together with landscaped deck across the CTE to link the two hills. While it is good to see that there are plans to open the wonderful green space up to the wider community, it does also mean that we may be seeing the last of a quiet and insulated space where the remnants of a charming and old world can still be found.

A jungle of letter boxes at 201 Pearl's Hill Terrace.

A jungle of letter boxes at 201 Pearl’s Hill Terrace.

Information on Pearl’s Hill and Pearl’s Terrace:

Previous planning considerations for the area:

Patterns of an old world.

Patterns of an old world.








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