Rediscovering the romance of Chap Goh Mei

19 02 2014

The fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year, Chap Goh Mei (Hokkien for 15th night) as it has been commonly referred to in Singapore, has traditionally been associated with romance. It was perhaps in the hope of rediscovering the romance of a festival that has been lost in the embrace of modernity that drew a healthy crowd of participants to a walk through the streets of Chinatown on the evening of the fifteenth day this year on what coincidentally was also the western day for the celebration of romance, St. Valentine’s Day that was organised by the Conservation Management Department of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

A romantic spot on the streets of Chinatown on Chap Goh Mei.

A romantic spot on the streets of Chinatown on Chap Goh Mei.

The fifteenth night of any Chinese lunar month is of course one that, weather conditions permitting, would be illuminated by the light of the full moon – a setting that certainly is ideal for romance. In the case of Chap Goh Mei, it is a night when Yuanxiao Jie (元宵节) is celebrated, providing an evening for romance to be found not only in the light of the moon, but also in the glow of colourful lanterns; it having been a tradition to have lanterns displayed outside homes and along five-foot-ways, as it was for children to take to the streets carrying lanterns in a fashion similar to the Mid-Autumn festival.

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The search for romance would take many eligible young men and women to the water’s edge - the waterfront along Esplanade was, I am told, a particularly popular spot, from which fruits would be aimed into the water. For the ladies, it would be oranges, representing good husbands, that would be thrown, and for men, good wives taking the form of apples – a practice that I actually did not know about until more recent times.

The lantern parade through the streets of Chinatown on what can be seen as a double Valentine's Day in search for a lost romance.

The search for romance.

While we did not get the chance to toss oranges or apples in the name of romance, we did however get an opportunity to rediscover the romance of Chap Goh Mei and of a Chinatown that would otherwise lie hidden behind the recoloured labyrinth of streets of what would once have been referred to as Tua Poh or the ‘Greater Town’.

The lantern parade.

The lantern parade.

The route we were to take, lanterns in hand, was one of many twists and turns, taking us through a complex of streets that in being referred to as Chinatown, belies the intra-ethnic divisions that did once exist within the greater Chinese immigrant community, divisions that would once have been apparent in moving across the area’s many streets.

Only a thin Ho may enter? The Thin Ho clan association on Ann Siang Road.

Only a thin Ho may enter? The Thin Ho clan association on Ann Siang Road.

The first pause we made was the Ann Siang Hill area where the Cantonese dialect group did have a strong presence. Besides the well known Yeung Ching School (now referred to in the Mandarin form of the name as Yangzheng School) that was perched on top of Ann Siang Hill, there were the many Cantonese clan associations – many of which are still present in the area. Amongst the school alumni are many well known names. This included one that is synonymous with the the lost art of story telling and Redifussion’s Cantonese broadcasts in the 1950s and 1960s, Lee Dai Soh. Another, perhaps lesser known in Singapore, is a certain Xian Xinghai, the composer of the Yellow River Cantata – a work which was to become used as a Chinese revolutionary song. The Yeung Ching foundation does still maintain a presence in the area as is evident from a signboard seen atop a building it owns along Club Street close to its junction with Ann Siang Hill.

The condo in the background would have been where the Yeung Ching school would have stood - atop a since levelled hill the base of which would have been at the condo's sixth floor.

The condo in the background would have been where the Yeung Ching school would have stood – atop a since levelled hill the base of which would have been at the condo’s sixth floor.

Ann Siang Road.

Ann Siang Road.

Club Street.

Club Street.

From Ann Siang Road and Club Street, the procession made its way up to Ann Siang Hill before continuing down to Amoy Street, once a predominantly a Hokkien street, as was Telok Ayer Street where the group was to make a stop in the glow of the beautifully restored Thian Hock Keng temple, a magnificent example of Hokkien temple architecture and a National Monument.

Up Ann Siang Hill.

Up Ann Siang Hill.

The view at the top.

The view at the top.

The pathway down.

The pathway down.

Down Ann Siang Hill.

Down Ann Siang Hill.

Lantern bearers during a pause in the search for romance.

Lantern bearers posing for a photograph outside the Thain Hock Keng temple in the search for romance.

The temple, which now stands across from the watchful eyes of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, is dedicated to the protector of seafarers, the Taoist goddess of the sea, Ma Zu, does point to the fact that the temple did once find itself by the sea, as did the street it is located at – Telok Ayer Street was in the early days of post-Raffles Singapore, a waterfront to which many immigrants would have come ashore at (it was also interesting to learn that the rebuilt Hokkien Huay Kuan, sitting on the site of the temple’s wayang or Chinese Opera stage built over the then shoreline, was designed with a wide through corridor on its ground floor to provide a symbolic passage from the temple to the now distant sea). This did provide the street with a flavour that went beyond the Hokkiens with several other houses of worship and immigrant reception point coming along the street that were put up by other groups of immigrants including a Hakka clan association, Ying Fo Fui Kuan (also a National Monument) and the former Hakka Fuk Tak Chi Temple which was also used by Cantonese immigrants.

The 'watchful eyes' of the Hokkien Huay Kuan.

The ‘watchful eyes’ of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan.

The rather interesting walk ended at another magnificent work of temple architecture, the very recently restored Yueh Hai Ching or Wak Hai Cheng temple at Phillip Street. Set inside a within a walled compound accessible through a narrow doorway from which the sight of coils of incense would first greet the eye, the temple (actually two temples side-by-side), also a National Monument, is another wonderful example of temple architecture, -this time in Teochew style. 

The Yueh Hai Ching temple.

The Yueh Hai Ching temple.

Through the doorway to the newly restored Yueh Hai Ching.

Through the doorway to the newly restored Yueh Hai Ching.

Incense coils.

Incense coils.

The oldest Teochew temple in Singapore (its building dates back to the 1850s), the Yueh Hai Ching features a elaborately decorated roof and is dedicated to Ma Zu and Xuan Tian Shang Di. The temple besides catering to the Teochew community, does also attract worshipers from the Cantonese community – especially during the Chinese New Year – the Cantonese and Teochew communities having an affinity with both having originated from Guangdong (Canton) province. More on the temple can be found at the Ngee Ann Kongsi’s website.

Inside the temple.

Inside the temple.

Another view inside the temple.

Another view inside the temple.

While taking a walk in the company of strangers through now sanitised streets of an old world we in modern times may have seemed to have over-romanticised might not fit into everyone’s idea of how they would want to spend an evening businesses have turned into an excuse for money making, it was a walk in which I was rewarded with the rediscovery of the romance of a festival and of times I might not have otherwise been reminded of.

Smoke from large joss sticks in the compound.

Smoke from large joss sticks in the compound.





Multilevel conversations

28 12 2013

Conversations, taking place at different levels, as observed at the Masjid Angullia (Anguilla Mosque) located at Serangoon Road. The mosque was built on wakaf land donated by the prominent Angullia family. Although the main building we see today is one that is from rather recent times, having been put up in 1970, the entrance gatehouse we do also see today is one which is associated with the previous building (which was demolished in September 1969) and has been put up for conservation under the recently released URA Draft Master Plan 2013. The previous building was thought to have been put up before 1898 on land provided in 1890 by Mohammed Salleh Eussoof Angullia, a trader who had come to Singapore in 1850 from Gujarat in India. More information on the mosque can be found at the MUIS website.

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The call to prayer.

The call to prayer.

The gatehouse which has been put up for conservation, seen with the crowd after sunset prayers.

The gatehouse which has been put up for conservation, seen with the crowd after sunset prayers.

The main mosque building - put up in 1970.

The main mosque building – put up in 1970.





Surviving the tidal wave of development

24 12 2013

Among the many highlights at the URA’s Draft Master Plan 2013 exhibition at the URA Centre (which has been extended to 17 January 2014), is one which relates to the house over a beautiful house over sea in the beautiful and undisturbed world at Lim Chu Kang. Referred to as Cashin House and also known as “The Pier”, I had a chance to see the place, a former home of the late Howard Cashin, back in 2011. It is a house that is said to have played host to teatime visits from the Sultan of Johor and a place in which one is taken back to days of leisure by the sea in times we have well forgotten. It is nice to see that the life of the house, and its rustic surroundings, are being extended and not built around – as too many conserved buildings have unfortunately been. It will be a western gateway to what will be an expanded Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve that will link pockets, such as the Lim Chu Kang East mangroves adjacent to the Cashin House, up, along what is a mangrove dominated northwest coast with the first phase of the reserve east of the Cashin House.

The Pier (Draft Master Plan 2013)

More on the Cashin House can be found in a previous post: A lost world in Lim Chu Kang.

The Pier.

A Lost World in Lim Chu Kang.





Work resumes at St. Joseph’s Church

9 09 2013

Great news delivered over the weekend – the much delayed work on the stained glass restoration at St. Joseph’s Church will be resuming today. The work will restart at the south (or west) transept where the first batch of stained glass windows were taken down in the second half of last year. Work on this batch of windows has in fact been completed and that does mean we shall soon have a first glimpse of some of the beautiful windows restored to its full glory when the windows are finally re-installed.

A look across to the west transept.

A look across to the west transept.

Part of the west transept seen to the right of the sanctuary.

Part of the west transept seen to the right of the sanctuary.

Close up of the window at the end of the west transept.

Close up of the window at the end of the west transept.





Exposing the Convent

6 07 2013

Work has begun on a facelift which will see another significant change occur to a place I will always see as the convent, a lifestyle complex we now know as CHIJMES. The convent was one which dates back to February 1854, when three nuns from the religious order of the Sisters of the Infant Jesus arrived to set it up, with a French Catholic missionary, Fr. Jean Marie Beurel, who is also credited with work to establish St. Joseph’s Institution two years before that, instrumental in bringing them here, having purchased Caldwell House for the purpose. The current work, expected to be completed next year, based on news reports, is aimed at turning it into an upmarket venue and will see part of a wall which has featured through much of the convent’s history, come down to provide an almost full frontal exposure of the former convent – in particularly two of its buildings, the gloriously designed French Gothic style former chapel and Caldwell House, both of which have been gazetted as a National Monument.

Caldwell House and the beautiful former chapel of the convent.

Caldwell House and the beautiful former chapel of the former convent – both buildings have since 1990 been gazetted as National Monuments.

Based on the same news reports, the top part of the wall will be replaced by a grille. While this does permit a fuller exposure of the monument from Victoria Street, it does also mean that what little has been left of the character of the former convent, already significantly altered by the redevelopment on the side along Stamford Road as the SMRT Headquarters, and the digging of a huge hole in the ground behind the chapel to create the sunken courtyard, will soon be lost.

A postcard showing the convent and its walls in the early 1900s.

A postcard showing the convent and its walls in the early 1900s.

While the attempts to restore and conserve many of the buildings of the old convent, once bound by walls along Victoria Street, Bras Basah Road, North Bridge Road and the side of Stamford Canal across from Stamford Road through its redevelopment as CHIJMES in 1996, should be commended, one of the unfortunate outcomes of it is that it does take much of the dignity as well as the soul of the place away – a dignity which will be eroded further with the lowering of its walls. The convent, which was forced out of it premises by land acquisition for urban redevelopment after some 130 years in 1983, had been one established to be of service to those in dire need – providing care and education for the numerous orphans, the unwanted, and the destitute. In its place today is a very different institution – one with which the aim is serve and reap profits for those already well off by the standards of the society.

The former convent seen along Victoria Street and the part of the walls which will come tumbling down.

The former convent seen along Victoria Street and the part of the walls which will come tumbling down.

An artist's impression of how the boundary wall with the wrought iron grille will look like.

An artist’s impression of how the boundary wall with the wrought iron grille will look like.

The alteration to the boundary wall will very much change the way we see CHIJMES. What is a shame is the way conservation in Singapore does seem to focus not on the buildings in their environment, but on the individual buildings as it is the case of CHIJMES. With it this way, there will be little that we will remember, not just of what may the buildings what they were, but what it was that put them there.

A view of the Gate of Hope - and the boundary wall further down which will come tumbling down.

A view of the Gate of Hope – and the boundary wall further down which will come tumbling down.

Unholy spirits being delivered to a former holy place.

Unholy spirits being delivered to a former holy place.

A view of the offending wall through the arches.

A view of the offending wall through the arches of its walkways.

Another view through the archways.

Another view through the archways.

The out-of-character staircase from the sunken courtyard.

The out-of-character staircase from the sunken courtyard.

A view along the walkway leading to the former chapel.

A view along the walkway leading to the former chapel.

A hole where there wasn't - the sunken courtyard over which a glass cover will be put up.

A hole where there wasn’t – the sunken courtyard over which a glass cover will be put up.

The beautiful interior of CHIJMES Hall with its stained glass.

The beautiful interior of CHIJMES Hall with its stained glass.


The upper part of the boundary wall being hacked away as seen on Saturday 6 July 2013.

The upper part of the boundary wall being hacked away as seen on Saturday 6 July 2013.






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.





Finding the old in the new – a walk down part of Thomson Road

12 01 2013

The stretch of Thomson Road between Balestier Road and Moulmein Road is one that I am well acquainted with. It is a stretch that was an invariable part of the twelve years of almost daily bus journeys to kindergarten, primary and secondary school and best known perhaps for a religious landmark, the Catholic Church of St. Alphonsus, popularly known as ‘Novena Church’ – so much so that the church has lent its name to the area where it is located. The twelve years, from 1969 to 1980, were ones in which there were significant changes made to the road and its surroundings. One big change was the widening of the road which resulted in pieces of property on the west side of the road losing valuable frontages. Another was the addition of a private women’s and children’s hospital which has set the standards for maternity hospitals in Singapore.

Developments around Velocity have quickened the pace of change in a world where some semblance of the old can (at least for now) still be found.

Developments around Velocity have quickened the pace of change in a world where some semblance of the old can (at least for now) still be found.

The stretch has seen many significant changes including being widened, but does contain a few recognisable landmarks.

The stretch has seen many significant changes including being widened.

The hospital, Thomson Medical Centre, came up close to the end of the twelve years, occupying a plot of land at the start of the south end of the stretch. Known for its innovative approach towards the birth experience of mothers, it does today feature another innovation – the basement of the refurbished building hides one of the first mechanised car parks in Singapore which was added in the mid 2000s. The hospital is the brainchild of a well known gynaecologist, Dr. Cheng Wei Chen, better known as Dr. W. C. Cheng. Built at a cost of $10 million on a terrace on the western side of the road – one of the buildings it was built in place of was a glorious mansion which Dr. Cheng had used as his clinic, the hospital’s opening in 1979 saw a hospital built so to make delivery a less than clinical experience.

The mansion along Thomson Road in which Dr W C Cheng moved his obstetrics and gynaecology practice to from the 2nd floor of the old Cold Storage.

The mansion along Thomson Road in which Dr. W C Cheng moved his obstetrics and gynaecology practice to from the 2nd floor of the old Cold Storage (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book).

The house which Dr. Cheng used as his clinic was a landmark in the area for many years. Standing on a terrace behind a wall, it never failed to catch my attention over the many bus journeys I made. The house I was to discover, does have an interesting history that goes well beyond the clinic. Besides being the home of Dr. Cheng’s in-laws – Dr. Cheng had moved his practice to the house in the early 1970s from a clinic he operated on the second floor of the old Cold Storage on Orchard Road, the house, was also where the origins of Novena Church in Singapore could be traced to. That I will come to a little later. Besides the clinic, there was another landmark (or so it seemed) that was brought down in 1978 to make way for the hospital – a four storey building named Adam Court and an associated two storey building which served as a garage. Adam Court housed one of the first Yamaha Music Schools in Singapore which moved into it at the end of the 1960s. A check in the online newspaper archives reveals that there was also a private school, Adam Court Educational Centre, which operated for a while in the building at the start of the 1970s. (I have also since posting this learnt that another music school belonging to Mrs. Madeline Aitken, who had once been described as the ‘grand dame of piano teachers’ had occupied the building before Yamaha moved in).

Another view of the mansion - it had been the belong to Dr Cheng's in-laws prior to him setting up his clinic there.

Another view of the mansion – it had been the belong to Dr Cheng’s in-laws prior to him setting up his clinic there (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book). The mansion had also been the first premises of the Redemptorist mission which arrived in 1935 – the Redemptorists run the Novena Church in Singapore.

The four storey building, Adam Court, next to Dr. W. C. Cheng's clinic seen from Thomson Road before it was incorporated into TMC in 1979. The two storey building in the foreground was a parking garage for Adam Court.

The four storey building, Adam Court, next to Dr. W. C. Cheng’s clinic seen from Thomson Road before it was incorporated into TMC in 1979 (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book). The two storey building in the foreground was a parking garage for Adam Court.

What is perhaps today the most recognisable landmark in the area is Novena Church. Its origins can be traced back to the arrival from Australia of the Redemptorist mission in Singapore in 1935. The Redemptorist community is best known for its promotion of devotions to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, devotions referred to as ‘Novena’ from the Latin word ‘novem’ for nine – the devotions involve prayers made over nine consecutive occasions. Devotional prayer services or ‘Novena’ sessions held on Saturdays at the church have over the years proven to be very popular with both followers and non-followers of the faith and the current Redemptorist church, the Church of St. Alphonsus, has come to be referred to as ‘Novena Church’.

Thomson Medical Centre when it it opened in 1979. The bulk of it was built on the side which contained Adam Court.

Thomson Medical Centre when it it opened in 1979 (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book). The bulk of it was built on the side which contained Adam Court.

Thomson Medical Centre today.

Thomson Medical Centre today.

The Redemptorist community upon their arrival, rented the mansion where Dr. Cheng was to later set up his clinic and only moved from the premises after the Second World War ended, first up Thomson Road to where the Chequers Hotel once stood (which later became the ill-fated Europa Country Club Resort). It at the second premises where the first public Novena devotions were held, commencing in November 1945. It was in 1950 that they moved to their current premises. A new chapel which became the Church of St Alphonsus (after the founder of the order) designed by Swan and Maclaren was built and was blessed on 14 May 1950. Several structures have been added since: a bell tower and residences at the back of the Church were added in 1956; side verandahs in the 1980s; and the St. Clement Pastoral Centre and new residences in the 1990s.

Inside Novena Church - the church is always packed on Saturdays during Novena services and a much bigger church is now needed.

Inside Novena Church – the church is always packed on Saturdays during Novena services and a much bigger church is now needed.

Even with the more recent additions the appearance of the church is still as recognisable as it was during my younger days. The church building itself is one dominated by triple arc pediment at the front. There is however, a huge change that may soon render that as a less recognisable feature of the church. Although the building has been gazetted for conservation on 8 June 2011, it will soon see itself in the shadow of a new and much larger church building which will come up next to it. This is part of a necessary $45 million expansion which will not only see a much-needed expansion of the church’s seating capacity, it will also see the construction of a basement car park and a new pastoral centre (the present one will be demolished to make way for the new building). Work will commence once 70% of necessary funds have been raised.

The once familiar façade of Novena Church which has conservation status will soon be dominated by a much larger building.

The once familiar façade of Novena Church which has conservation status will soon be dominated by a much larger building (image source: http://novenachurch.com).

Besides the church, there are also several structures which date back to my days in the school or public bus. There are two sets of private apartment blocks on the same side of the church just north of it which seems to be a constant there. The block further from the church has a row of shops located beneath it. It was in that row of shops where one, Java Indah, had in the 1970s, sold the best lemper udang that I have bitten into. The cake shop was started by an Indonesian lady, Aunty Neo, sometime around 1973 – well before Bengawan Solo started. It was perhaps better known for its kueh lapis, which was also distributed through the various supermarkets. The shop was later run by Aunty Neo’s niece and moved for a while to Balestier Hill Shopping Centre before disappearing. The row of shops also contains a dive equipment shop which is still there after all these years – it was from the shop that I bought my first set of snorkeling equipment back in the late 1970s.

The block where Java Indah and the best lemper udang was once found.

The block where Java Indah and the best lemper udang was once found.

One of two private apartment blocks next to Novena Church.

One of two private apartment blocks next to Novena Church.

The dive equipment shop today.

The dive equipment shop today.

Speaking of Balestier Hill Shopping Centre, that was an addition made sometime midway through the twelve year period. Situated across from where Thomson Medical Centre is today, the low-rise Housing and Development Board (HDB) cluster is where the very first Sri Dewa Malay barber shop moved to from its original location further south opposite Novena Church. Sri Dewa possibly started the Malay barber craze in the late 1960s and early 1970s and at its height, boasted of some 22 outlets. That outlet is one that I visited on many occasions – I was (as many of my schoolmates were) often sent there by the discipline master of Balestier Hill Technical School which I went to for technical classes in Secondary 3 and 4. He did always seem to have very different standards for what short and neat hair meant than our own discipline master.

Balestier Hill Shopping Centre which was completed in 1977.

Balestier Hill Shopping Centre which was completed in 1977.

The cluster which a post office could once be found in has always seemed a rather quiet place. Work on it started sometime in 1975 and was completed in 1977, and it was built partly on land occupied by a row of terraced houses by Thomson Road. What perhaps was interesting was the land behind that row – it and the hill on which the technical school, the first to be purpose built (and two primary schools) came up in the early 1960s. That was once owned by the Teochew clan association Ngee Ann Kongsi and used as a Teochew cemetery around the turn of the 20th century. Evidence of this did surface during the clearing work to build Balestier Hill Shopping Centre – a coffin with some human remains was uncovered at the foot of the hill in December 1975.

The road up to Balestier Hill where three schools were located. The hill was once used as a Teochew cemetery.

The road up to Balestier Hill where three schools were located. The hill was once used as a Teochew cemetery.

Right next to the road up to Balestier Hill in between the shopping centre and the private flats is a Shell service station which has been there since I first became acquainted with it. My father was a regular at the station, Yong Kim Service Station, from the days when he drove his Austin 1300. Loyalty gifts were commonly given to customers then, and my parents do still have some of the sets of cups and drinking glasses that were given out back at the end of the 1960s.

The former Yong Kim Service Station.

The former Yong Kim Service Station.

Besides these structures, there are also several more which have not changed very much along the road. One is another religious complex, across from Novena Church, where the Seventh-day Adventist Chinese Church and the San Yu Adventist School can be found – which dates back to the 1950s. Not far from that is a house which has also been a constant there, retaining its original design over the years. The house is one that was affected by road widening – it once sat on a even larger plot of land which was lined with a row of palm trees along the road.

The Seventh Day Adventist Chinese Church and San Yu Adventist School.

The Seventh-day Adventist Chinese Church and San Yu Adventist School.

A house that was once fronted by a road of plam trees.

A house that was once fronted by a road of plam trees.

Just south of Novena Church, across what is today Irrawaddy Road, is another part of the area which had for seemed to be always there. That however is also soon about to change. The cluster of blue and white buildings and a red brick wall in the fenced off compound takes one back to the late 1950s / early 1960s and were once where stores of the Electricity Department of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) (before that became corporatised) were located. They have since fallen into disuse and a recent tender exercise conducted by the Urban Redevelopment Corporation means that it will soon see it being redeveloped. The tender was awarded to Hoi Hup Realty Pte Ltd, Sunway Developments Pte Ltd and Hoi Hup J.V. Development Pte Ltd and is slated for mixed use development which will include a hotel.

The former stores of the Electricity Department of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) before corporatisation will probably be the next to go.

The former stores of the Electricity Department of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) before corporatisation will probably be the next to go.

Adjacent to the former stores is where two storey shophouses which once lined the road and the Jewish Cemetery behind them have made way for a shopping mall, Novena Square (now Velocity @ Novena Square) and an Novena MRT station. The mall was completed in 2000 and was built by UOL. I remember the shophouses that lined the road for one thing – the image of an elderly man sitting on a chair outside the shophouse has remained in my memory from my upper primary school days. There was also a two storey house that had long stood at the corner of Thomson and Moulmein Roads which always seemed unoccupied and used as a storeroom during my primary school days which has since disappeared.

Velocity as seen close to the junction of Moulmein and Thomson Roads where a two storey house once stood.

Velocity as seen close to the junction of Moulmein and Thomson Roads where a two storey house once stood.

One of the things I should perhaps mention is how busy the sidewalk down the slope from Novena Church were in the 1960s and early 1970s on Saturdays when hourly Novena services are held. Many among the thousands of church-goers that came and went thronged the sidewalks in search of treats from the food and snack stalls set up to cater for the crowd. Among the food vendors there were some who were to set up successful baking businesses later after the stalls were cleared.

The sidewalks just below the slope up to Novena Church were always busy on Saturdays when many stalls selling food and snacks were set up to cater for the church going crowd.

The sidewalk just below the slope up to Novena Church were always busy on Saturdays when many stalls selling food and snacks were set up to cater for the church going crowd.


Afternote:

It has been brought to my attention by Mr William Cheng, the architect of Thomson Medical Centre (TMC) that the old Adam Centre or Adam Court (Yamaha Music School) was not demoished but incorporated into the Right Wing Consultant Suite Block. That is where Dr. Cheng has his consultant suites on the ground floor. In addition, a new elevator core for 2 low speed lifts was added and annexed to the new TMC building with an extra floor was added.

Mr Cheng has also added that the TMC Building was designed and built in a record time of 8-9 months. During the construction Dr. Cheng did not maintained his practice at the renovated consultant suite on the ground of the old Adam Centre which he moved to from the old house and has remained there until today.

Mr Cheng also pointed out that iconic arches were introduced to the top of the TMC building’s façades to “maintain the spirit of the old 339 Thomson Road house”. These were moved to the new façades when the TMC building was extended in 2000 to 2002. The “innovative first-of-its kind in Singapore automatic computer controlled mechanical underground carpark” was built to provide additional car parking spaces.






A walk down Neil Road

30 10 2012

Tucked away in a rather quiet but no less interesting corner of a district of Singapore that has come to be called Chinatown is an area which is often overlooked. The area, in Chinatown’s south-western corner incorporates the Bukit Pasoh Conservation Area, part of the Tanjong Pagar Conservation Area and boasts several architectural gems, which have unfortunately been cast in the shadow of a towering 50 storey public housing development, The Pinnacle@Duxton at nearby Duxton Plain.

Several conservation gems can be found along Neil Road, including what would have been the houses of the very wealthy (judging from the enclosed front yards these units at No. 56 – 60) were provided with.

Units 56 – 60 Neil Road seen in 1983 (from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

The area is certainly one that is worth exploring, not just for the notable clan associations and clubs – one is the Ee Hoe Hean Club, a millionaires’ club dating back to 1895 that is associated with many luminaries including the illustrious Tan Kah Kee, set amongst the many rows of beautifully conserved shophouses. Running partly along the area’s southern boundary is Neil Road which can perhaps be said to lie at the heart of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) conservation efforts – the pilot shophouse conservation project undertaken by the URA stands at No. 9 Neil Road.

The Bukit Pasoh Conservation Area boasts many architectural conservation gems and is also one that has been cast in the shadow of a towering public housing development at nearby Duxton Plain.

The Ee Hoe Hean Club, a millionaires’ club dating back to 1895 that is associated with many of Singapore’s luminaries.

Neil Road starts off where South Bridge Road ends at its junction with Maxwell and Tanjong Pagar Roads, rising up towards the Bukit Pasoh area. It is at this point that a gorgeous and very recognisable piece of architecture, the Jinrikisha Station, greets one’s eye. Built in 1903 in the Edwardian style on a triangular plan with a fairfaced brickwork exterior, the building is one that certainly needs no introduction and is now owned by Hong Kong Jackie Chan. It is just up the road from the Jinrikisha Station that No. 9, which now serves as a home to a Chinese tea shop Tea Chapter, lies.

The Jinrikisha Station at the start of Neil Road – built as a registration centre for rickshaws is now owned by Jackie Chan.

The conservation of No. 9 Neil Road was undertaken as part of a pilot URA shophouse restoration project that took place from 1987 to 1988 that involved a total of 32 shophouses built at the end of the 19th century, with No. 9 selected as a demonstration unit. The restored unit at No. 9 was where HM Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip had tea at during a visit in 1989. The successful conservation project involving the 32 houses was the first phase of a larger effort to conserve a total of 220 government owned shophouses in the Tanjong Pagar area and intended to demonstrate the technical and commercial viability of shophouse conservation. The effort was one that was welcomed by conservationists as it had come at a time when large parts of the city had already been cleared of the pre-war shophouses which once dominated the cityscape.

No. 9 Neil Road – the very first conservation shophouse.

The 220 shophouses are on a 4.1 hectare site that was acquired from 1981 to 1984 by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). The units had contained a mix of businesses and residents including many traditional businesses – one was Chan Pui Kee, an antique dealer and antique furniture restorer which had operated at No. 7 since 1913 (and has since moved to a restored shophouse at Lorong 24A Geylang). The residents of the houses had lived mainly on the upper floors, some at the point of acquisition, having lived there for much of their lives. Many were trishaw riders, craftsmen, and even prostitutes who worked in the area, living in very crowded spaces, renting rooms or cubicles for as little as $4 a month. The acquired houses, many of which had once been in the hands of Arab property owners, were to be demolished to make way for public housing, but a shift in thinking of our urban planners on high density public housing in the city centre saved them from that fate.

Conserved three storey shophouses along Neil Road.

Walking up the incline of the road, there are further examples of the conservation efforts that eventually was to involve a greater part of Chinatown, including several voluntary conservation initiatives. One such initiative is the conservation of the former Eng Aun Tong factory building at 89 Neil Road. As many familiar with the area would be aware of, Eng Aun Tong was a name used by the Haw Par brothers and the factory was where the most famous of their products, Tiger Balm, was once made. Based on information on the URA conservation of built heritage site, the building was built in 1924 in the Neoclassical Style. The starting up of the factory coincided with the Aw family’s move to Singapore from Rangoon (Yangon) in the 1920s. The factory operated until 1971 when production operations were contracted out and production of the famous ointment was moved to the Jack Chia group’s factories in Jurong.

The conserved former Eng Aun Tong factory building – where Tiger Balm had once been made.

The Eng Aun Tong factory building as seen depicted in a 1920s advertisement for Tiger Balm (source: National Archives of Singapore).

Walking past the former Eng Aun Tong factory, one will notice the blue balustrades of a concrete bridge. The bridge is one that passes over what is technically the first rail corridor conservation project. The corridor – now a linear park named Duxton Plain Park was where an extension to the original rail line (pre-1932 Deviation) had been constructed in 1907 to connect the terminal at Tank Road to connect with the waterfront, extending to Pasir Panjang. Operations on the extension were short-lived and the line was dismantled in between 1912 to 1914. A stretch from Yan Kit Road to New Bridge Road was retained as a public park. The park is one that is associated with one of the clubs in the area, a martial arts association – the Chin Woo Athletic Association (精武體育會or 精武体育会), as is evident from a steel sign erected on one of the bridge’s balustrades which reads “精武體育會操場” – the park had long served as a training ground for the association which has had a presence in the area since its formation here in 1922. It has been reported that our first Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew had often watched the association practice lion and dragon dances at the park in his younger days (he had lived as a boy in his paternal grandfather’s residence at nearby 147 Neil Road).

The bridge over the first rail corridor conservation project – now Duxton Plain Park. A sign tells us that it had served as a training ground for the Chin Woo Athletic Association. Living at nearby 147 Neil Road, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had as a young boy often caught many of the associations lion and dragon dance practice sessions at the park.

From this point, Neil Road soon crosses Cantonment Road and takes one west out of the Chinatown district towards another quiet and delightful conservation area, the Blair Plain Conservation Area. Crossing Cantonment Road, I am reminded of the many horror stories I have heard in my younger days that was associated with balancing the clutch on the slope at the junction during driving tests. Those were days when tests were conducted out of the former Maxwell Road driving test centre when the Traffic Police had its headquarters at the building which is today the Red Dot Design Museum. These days, it is across Cantonment Road that we notice a huge police presence – that of a towering new law enforcement complex named the Police Cantonment Complex.

A look into the compound of a conserved row of three shophouses at 56 – 60 Neil Road.

It might be a little hard to notice a little Victorian building that stands beneath the towering complex along Neil Road – especially now with its covered up for restoration work. The very pretty building, despite being very compact, once housed a school, and was where the Fairfield Girls’ School (which later became Fairfield Methodist School and is now Fairfield Methodist School) had operated at from 1912 to 1983. The building, built with the donation of a Mr Fairfield (hence the name of the school) is now part of the Police complex, although intended originally as a childcare centre for staff at the Police complex, the building will now house a Police recruitment centre.

The former Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School (photo on the URA website).

It is beyond the former Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School on the opposite side of the road that we come to the cluster of terrace houses which contains the unit that Mr Lee had spent some of his boyhood years at. Just down from that unit at No. 147, is No. 157 which is probably the jewel in the crown of the conservation efforts along Neil Road. That painted blue in an attempt to restore it to its original colour isn’t only a house which has seen it exterior restored but also one which has had much its fittings and furniture retained and restored and is possibly the best example of a Peranakan or Straits-born Chinese house from the turn of the 20th Century that exists today. The house, thought to have been built in the 1890s, had once belonged to shipping magnate Wee Bin and his descendants, has its interior retained through the conservation efforts of the National University of Singapore (NUS) (which owns the house having purchased it for the historical value of it and its contents) and the URA. Among the wonderfully preserved fittings is a very ornate carved wooden screen which separates the main hall from the interior of the house. The Baba House as it is called now, has some of its original furniture and flooring is well worth a visit. Visits are strictly by appointment only and advance arrangements for heritage tours are required. More information can be found at the NUS website. Do note that photography is not permitted inside the Baba House.

Baba House at 157 Neil Road – now owned by NUS and managed by NUS Museum was beautifully restored from 2006 to 2008.

Units 157 Neil Road (Baba House) seen in 1982 (from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).


The walk along Neil Road was part of a guided walk “Neil Road/NUS Baba House Walking Tour“, one in a series of tours conducted by the URA in conjunction with the URA Architectural Heritage Awards 2012. While registration for two of the remaining tours are closed, there is an ongoing exhibition at the URA Centre Atrium until 10 November 2012 which showcases the five award winners. The exhibition is open Mondays to Fridays from 8.30am to 7pm and on Saturdays from 8.30am to 5pm. It is closed on Sundays and Public Holidays.






Lost in Space

16 10 2012

The Bencoolen Street that I am familiar with is the one that I became acquainted with over the many trips on the bus to school at the end of the 1970s. The street today bears little resemblance to that street I knew. Much has since changed with many modern façades replacing the rows of what primarily were rather old pre-war shophouses that had populated much of the area around the street.

Lost in Space – the ceiling of the fire escape of The Villa at 81 Bencoolen Street. A magical new world set in an old.

Even if not for the ongoing work on the Downtown Line MRT which has closed the section of the street from Middle Road to Bras Basah Road, there seems little that is left to identify the street with the one I had been familiar with, including that Thai restaurant that could not be missed. A figurine on the face of its second level – that of a traditional Thai dancer, made it an instantly recognisable landmark in the area. That along with other landmarks including the old Bengkali Mosque on the other side; the shophouses where the Camera Hospital and K Ratna Sports were; and the Soon Chong Leong Building, have long since made way for the new.

Reflections of the old in the new.

Among the few that did survive, some, such as the former Asia Radio Building now reincarnated as a budget hotel (which has achieved notoriety with its association with a scandal of sorts that has recently been played out in the Courts), bear little resemblance to their former selves. One survivor is one that is immediately recognisable – a large two storey house closed to the junction of Bencoolen Street with Middle Road, No. 81 Bencoolen Street.

A 1982 photo of 81 Bencoolen Street – then the Kian Hua Hotel. From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009.

The new world that is today’s 81 Bencoolen Street.

It was a house which rather intrigued me. What did look like a very spacious two storey house, it was certainly one that must have seen better days. I imagined it to once have been the home of a rich merchant. Many similar houses in the area had been, including the ones found at nearby Waterloo Street which runs parallel to Bencoolen Street. Like a similar house next to the former Middle Road Church, the house was one which a hotel had occupied, the Kian Hua Hotel. On the hotel, I have found little information. Other than several newspaper advertisements in the National Library’s wonderful archives of newspapers that told me only that told me that the hotel had occupied the building at least as far back as 1953, the isn’t much on it except of an apparent suicide – a 26 year old ex-journalist had been found hanging from a ceiling fan in one of the hotel’s rooms one morning in early 1988, with a nylon rope around her neck.

A much grander looking 81 Bencoolen Street today – restored perhaps to its original glory.

The house is now in what has to be its fourth incarnation, having for a while after the hotel’s closure, masqueraded as the gaily decorated Cleopatra Karaoke Lounge. A lot more sober looking today, it does seem to have its former glory I imagined it to have been in, restored, having as part of a S$50 million makeover which involved extensive work on the cluster of old buildings at the corner of Prinsep Link and Bencoolen Street it is a part of to, to restore it as well as transform the house and the adjacent buildings – a more modern commercial building at No. 77, and two units of conservation shophouses at No. 71 and No. 73, into what is today the SPACE Asia Hub, a huge 40,000 sq. foot gallery for premium furniture.

The building at No. 81, as well as two sets of buildings: two storey conservation shophouses at Nos. 71 and 73; and also a modern building at No. 77 has been transformed into the 40,000 sq. ft. Space Asia Hub.

The work, undertaken by local architectural firm WOHA Architects Pte Ltd, is one that has won it an award in the 2012 edition of the URA Architectural Heritage Awards. It was because of this that I had a chance to join a very informative guided tour that was organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as part of a series of tours which also include guided tours of the other 2012 Architectural Heritage Awards winners.

A glass cube – the Glass Block has been created around the existing frame of No. 77 which is next to No. 81 and serves as the focal point of the spacious showroom.

While the tour did not provide me with the information I had hoped to obtain on the original owner or when the house at 81 Bencoolen Street was built, it did give me a chance to take a look at the interiors of the beautifully restored heritage buildings: No. 81 which is now called ‘The Villa’; and Nos. 71 and 73, the ‘Heritage Houses’, as well as the transformation of No. 77 into what is called the ‘Glass Block’ – the focal point of the gallery.

Inside the Glass Block – the existing frame can be seen with floors and walls removed to create a sense of space.

The tour started off at the Glass Block, laid bare by the replacement of its exterior walls to create a beautiful space around its existing frame of concrete columns and beams. What was really interesting was the spaces and access routes that were created, which included a joyous courtyard at the rear with a glass ceiling and a glorious wall of green, an open terrace on its third level and the addition of a wide staircase and a glass encased lift shaft. What was nice to see was in the midst of all the glass, there is the warmth of the colour of bricks to be found – the original bricks of the wall that separates the Heritage Houses from the adjoining Glass Block.

The exposed bricks of the original wall separating No. 77 from No. 73.

The vertical garden at the glass topped courtyard of the Glass Block.

The reverse view of the courtyard.

The open terrace of the Glass Block.

The guide showing the interior of no. 77 prior to the work done on it.

The staircase added into No. 77.

What is notable on the work done on the Heritage Houses is the replacement of a concrete column and beam structure that held its roof up, with two sets of steel trusses which carry the weight of the roof’s now wooden structure over to the walls strengthened for the purpose. This not only frees the spaces below from the previous mess of supporting columns below, but also enables the creation of two very interesting and very usable spaces between each set of trusses, which were referred to as ‘hanging attics’.

The new timber roof supporting structure of the Heritage House at Nos. 71 and 73.

A view through one of the new trusses which free the space below of the numerous columns that had previously been used to support the roof.

One of the hanging attic created between a set of the new steel trusses.

The freed up space below the steel trusses.

The Villa was the last of the three buildings we visited, and the one that interested me the most. Now an exclusive showroom, access to which is only by appointment, the visit provided the opportunity not just to step inside the showroom, but also to have a view of its restored interior. There were a few details on the restoration that were of note, including that of the house’s roof in which the attic was removed to allow the newly installed timber trusses and original masonry structures to be seen. Another design feature of note is one that was added – that of a hollow column of rusted steel – à la Richard Serra I suppose, only thinner guage and supported by internal steel angles, which serves as a fire escape required by the building code. This was added to a glass extension to The Villa which also serves to connect it with the Glass Block next door. More information on the awards and on SPACE Asia Hub, which opened in November 2011, can be found at the SPACE website and also at the URA 2012 Architectural Heritage Awards website.

The upper level of The Villa.

Sliding shades are used for the upper level windows.

The lower level of The Villa.

The fire escape is built into a hollow rusted steel column.

The rusted steel column as seen from the outside.





A secret hideaway

27 09 2012

Lying in a quiet corner of Katong, is an old bungalow, a secret hideaway it may seem, that even with a very modern looking extension that it has recently gained, still exudes a charm it must have had when it was first built. Built at the turn of the last century, the house raised on piers, tells of a time and place we have long forgotten, a time when the song of the sea would be heard from the nearby shore which since been moved. It is today ventilated not by the breeze of a nearby sea that its generous windows were meant to welcome, but choked by a surroundings in it is now out of place in.

A house that feels like a secret hideaway in Katong.

The house which is located at 25 Chapel Road, is one on which much has been done to keep its charm – a recent conservation effort undertaken by the owners won a Urban Redevelopment Auitority (URA) award for conservation – the URA Architectural Heritage Award in 2010. Part of the conservation efforts involved work on refurbishing some of the exterior features such as floral mouldings and ‘Peranakan’ tiles found on the steps that lead up to the house, the excellent condition of which is clearly seen today.

Floral mouldings on the balustrade of a stairway to a forgotten world.

Peranakan tiles on the steps leading up to the house.

Restored floral mouldings on the exterior of the house.

I had a recent opportunity to see the house for myself, the green and white bamboo chicks of a type which once adorned many verandahs and baclonies, colouring what would be the openings on the house’s open verandah, was the first thing to catch my attention. It is up one of the two flights of steps that flank that the verandah, step that are gaily decorated by ‘Peranakan’ tiles and lined by concrete balustrades on which the floral mouldings are evident, that the charm of the very simply furnished and very airy verandah becomes apparent. It would have been a wonderful place to spend quiet evenings relaxing in, fanned by the cool breeze of the sea.

The front of the house with its polygonal verandah and a new extension which now accommodates bedrooms and bathrooms.

Part of the well ventilated open polygonal verandah.

More of the airy verandah.

Another one of the verandah.

Stepping on the restored floorboards of timber, I am taken back to a place of my childhood, a place that is no longer there. The wooden wall panels, and details on them certainly spoke of that time forgotten. I step into the main hall beyond the wood of the wall, greeted by a spacious but cosy room which might in its pre-conserved state, have been sub-divided to accommodate a bedroom, as is the room beyond a transverse partition that separates the hall from what is now the dining room. The back of the dining room was where the back wall of the house would have been, a wall again fitted generously with windows, now serves as a partition between the dining room and an extension added at the rear which accommodates today’s modern kitchen.

A memory of my childhood: seen under the floorboards, the piers that support the house, bringing me back to places of my childhood I can no longer go back to.

The very spacious yet cosy main hall.

Another view of the hall.

The transverse passageway created in the space between the old and the new, leads at one end to a flight of stairs. This serves as the access to the other new additions: a lap pool and another extension, built on the site of the former garage. This extension is where a gym, bathrooms and bedrooms are to be found, new that is seemingly in harmony with the old.

The passage between the rear extension and the original house – the former rear wall of the house is seen on the right.

The new extension where the garage was, seen on the left with the lap pool.

One of the bedrooms in the new extension.

Another bedroom.

A peek at the bathroom in the Master Bedroom.

Another look at the bathroom.

Based on information at the URA’s website, there had been quite a lot of thought that had been put in during the conservation efforts not just to retain the building’s features, but also in preserving the memory of the occupants. More information on the house and the conservation effort can be found at the Conservation of Built Heritage site on the URA’s website.

Another look at the verandah and one of two flights of steps leading up from the front yard..

Old world reflected off a representative of the new world.

A 1993 photograph of the house showing a garage where the extension has been added (from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

Close-ups of some of the details seen at the house can be found at a previous post: Patterns of an old world.





A one hundred year old beauty

26 06 2012

Of the places that remain of a childhood in a Singapore that I will never be able to see again, there is one which carries not just the memories of yesterday, but also the memory of an emotion that has almost been forgotten. The place, a church – St. Joseph’s Church in Victoria Street, which is housed in a building which on the 30th of June will celebrate its centenary, is one that takes me back to years which hold my earliest memories. It was a place where I had spent many Sunday mornings at mass after which I could look forward to sitting by tables and chairs laid by St. Anthony’s Boys’ School in the church’s compound where I could enjoy a bowl fishball noodles from the enterprising school canteen vendor who opened just to serve churchgoers on Sunday. It was also a place to which my grandmother would take me to every Good Friday, when arriving early to get a seat inside the church for its very popular Good Friday service, I would spend hours seated next to my grandmother as she sat in quiet contemplation.

St. Joseph’s Church, Victoria Street.

The church was known then to me as the ‘Portuguese Church’, a name which pointed to its origins in the Portuguese Mission in Singapore and its administration by Dioceses in the Portuguese colony of Goa and later in the Portuguese colony of Macau. The mission’s presence had dated back to the early 1820s – not long after Raffles founded modern Singapore, and predated the French Mission under which the Catholic churches in Singapore were later to come under. The Portuguese presence was to continue through the church which came under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Macau until 1981 and after through priests appointed to the church until 1999 by the Bishop of Macau. This long association with the Portuguese Mission has not only provided us with the beautiful building that houses the church, but also with a little bit of Portugal that manifests itself in the Iberian flavour of the church’s interior as well as traditions and practices that are unique to St. Joseph’s Church which even to this day is still very much in evidence.

The portico of the church with the marble statues of St. Joseph in the centre, flanked by St. John de Brito and St. John of God.

The rectory of the church seen through one of the arches at the entrance portico of the church.

The current church building was blessed by the Bishop of Macau, Dom João Paulino Azevedo e Castro on the 30th of June 1912. The grand ceremony had commenced at 7 am with a procession during which various points around the exterior of the church were blessed before the congregation was admitted into the new church building’s interior in which as newspaper reports would have it “nearly every available space” was occupied.

The interior of St. Joseph’s Church dressed up in red for Easter this year. Newspaper reports mention that ‘nearly every available space’ in the church was occupied for its opening solemnities.

Darkness and light – the beautiful illuminated interior of the church.

The congregation that morning would have been the first to marvel at the splendour that was the new church building’s interior, one that even with the worn appearance that it now wears, is still very much a sight to behold. It is this interior, and its 14th Century style Gothic design that for me makes the church the most beautiful in Singapore. The interior is one that at time of the day is illuminated by a soft and beautiful pale green light that streams through the generous panels of stained glass it is provided with that casts both light and shadow on the many niches that line the walls of the church. The niches are ones which contain statues of Saints – statues which in the Catholic tradition are not as is popularly believed, idols, but reminders of ordinary people who have achieved the pinnacle of holiness. It is a statue of one of the Saints high up on the south wall in the middle of the church’s nave that in my childhood I had a fascination with – that of St. Sebastian depicted as he popularly is, bloodied and tied to a tree.

The church is naturally illuminated by the soft green light that streams through the generously provided stained glass windows.

Windows on the south wall of the nave. The upper windows catch the light beautifully. The upper walls of the nave are lined with niches in which the statues of Saints are placed.

The statue of St. Sebastian on the south wall of the nave.

The church is laid out as was the tradition on a plan in the shape of a cross – a Latin cross in this instance. The nave which ends with the apse in the shape of five sides of an incomplete hexagon in the west which houses the Chancel and the main entrance to the east, is crossed by a transept. The high ceiling allows the provision of the many stained glass windows along the upper levels of the nave and the transept and those that attended the blessing ceremony would have seen this but not the stained glass that has to be seen as the church’s crowning glory – the beautiful panels in the Chancel which although now in a state of disrepair, can still be appreciated as one of the more elaborate works of such kind found in Singapore. The panels were the work of Belgian artisans from Jules Dobbelaere’s studio in Bruges. The church’s stained glass which are now in an obvious state of disrepair will be part of a restoration effort that will commence soon after the church celebrates the building’s 100th Anniversary. The work which will take two years of painstaking effort to complete will be carried out by a Singaporean stained glass artist, Bee Liang, who has extensive experience in the work from her stints in Canada and training in Germany.

The exterior of the south transept – even the exterior of the building catches the light beautifully at certain times of the day.

Closer inspection of a stained soft green glass window on the south transept, illuminated partially by another window across on the rear wall of the transept.

Stained glass panels in the Chancel – work of Belgian artisans from Jules Dobbelaere’s studio in Bruges.

Looking towards the east end of the nave – the gallery can be seen on the upper level.

Another view of the east end of the nave.

The central panels depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus flanked by Our Lady and St. Joseph.

A stained glass panel depicting St. John Berchmans.

A panel depicting St. Francis Xavier.

A panel depicting St. Agnes.

Five panel stained glass window at the end of the south transept.

Morning light streaming into the north transept.

Besides the beautiful stained glass – the very elaborate high altar of white and coloured marble dedicated to St. Joseph is another that is worth taking a notice of. The church also features some excellent carved teak wood pieces – one which runs along the transept is a 40 metre long altar rail along which the faithful would once have knelt to receive Holy Communion. The carved piece that will certainly be noticed is the ornamented teak pulpit with its canopy, one that I never failed to notice every time I visited the church.

The stained glass of the Chancel and the high altar dedicated to St. Joseph.

The ornamented craved teak pulpit and canopy.

The church which once shared its compound with two schools – St. Anthony’s Boys’ School and St. Anthony’s Convent, is the last of the three to remain and having been gazetted as a National Monument in 2005, will be one that will certainly be there for a much more than the 100 years it has stood, for which a mass will be held at 10.30 am on 30th June 2012. Besides the work on the stained glass, there is much more repair work that needs to be done – the ravages not just of time, but also of nearby construction activity are clearly evident which will require funds to be raised. It will not just be the magnificent building and all that it holds that will with its restoration and conservation be retained, but also of a tradition that its has been proud to maintain that dates back to the early days of Singapore.

More views around the church in the morning light

Seeing the light.

Darkness and light.

Statue of St. Anthony of Padua.

The nave windows of the church.

Floor tiles in the church.

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A new world in an old: A peek inside a Geylang conservation house

23 06 2012

I was able to add on to my recent discovery of the streets of sin and salvation by taking a peek into a conservation Late style shophouse that dates back to the 1920s. The shophouse is one along a row of eight delightful shophouses along Lorong 24A that is part of an collective effort by seven architects known as the Lorong 24A Shophouse Series. The project’s aim was to turn each unit into an architect’s mini-showpiece which takes advantage of the features of the buildings and in the case of the unit I was able to visit, no. 21, something that has to be one that one has to see.

I was able to take a peek into a Late style conservation house along Lorong 24A that has been beautifully transformed internally.

Stepping through the foyer at the entrance area and up a short flight of stairs, I found myself transported into a world that seems far removed from the one that I had only just left behind. The lap pool is sure to catch the eye as well as the gorgeous soft light that filters through the frosted glass panels at the front. At the back of the very long unit, clear glass panels allow light into the wet kitchen area as well as up on a beautiful mezzanine area which would serve as a dining area. Also opened is the second level on which one finds a living area and at the front – a room that would serve as a master bedroom which is naturally lit through the original set of front windows at the level. The shophouse is currently opened to the public for an exhibition of second year architecture students’ projects which is on until Monday 25th June 2012. More information on the unit can be found at the Lorong 24A Shophouse Series’ website.

The ground level with the lap pool.

A top view of the lap pool with the reflection of a skylight on the pool’s surface.

The dining area (on the mezzanine).

The lower level and the living area on the second floor as seen from the mezzanine.

What would be the master bedroom at the front end of the second level.

A second level front window.

A juxtaposition of the present on the past … on and through the master bedroom’s window.








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