Rooms with more than a view

28 07 2013

Tucked away on a hill some 38 metres above street level in an obscure corner of Singapore, is a building with a reputation for being one of the scariest places in Singapore. The building, better known to most who are familiar with it as the former View Road Hospital, was in fact once used as a barracks to house Asians serving in the Naval Base Police. The Naval Base Police, which was disbanded when the British forces vacated the Naval Base in 1971, recruited its members from far and wide and had a large contingent of Sikh policemen which does explain why there was once a Sikh temple located next to the barracks. The building’s history does seem to go a little further back – a 1968 map of the Naval Base has it also as the “Old Maritime HQ”, of which I have not been able to find out anything on.

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Following the pullout of the British forces, the building was converted for use as an secondary hospital to supplement the overcrowded Woodbridge Hospital, providing rehabilitation for recovering mental patients, particularly those with chronic schizophrenia. The first batch of 34 patients were moved into the 250 bed hopsital in September 1975. The rehabilitation  programme included providing skills training to the patients to allow them to return to society. The hospital was shut in 2001 and the building was converted into the View Road Lodge – a foreign workers’ dormitory which functioned until a few years back. The building today lies unoccupied.

View Road Lodge in January 2011.

View Road Lodge in January 2011.





The swastika at the tenth mile

9 07 2013

One very distinct memory from a childhood of many wonderful moments to remember is of the red swastika at Somapah Village. The village was one I had many encounters with in the late 1960s and very early 1970s, stopping by or passing through it on the many journeys we made to Mata Ikan at the other end of Somapah Road where a favourite holdiay destination for my family – the Mata Ikan Government Holiday Bungalows was located.

A photograph of the old Red Swastika School along Somapah Road (source: Red Swastika School's website).

The red swastika along Somapah Road (source: Red Swastika School’s website).

The swastika belonged to the Red Swastika School, just down the road from the main part of the village. It adorned the simple single storey zinc-roofed  school building, rising above it over the entrance and never failed to catch my attention from my vantage in the back seat of the car – a symbol I would always associate with the now lost village. The memories I do have of the village and the school are largely contained in a post I had put up at the end of 2010 on the village:  Memories of the lost world that was Somapah Village. What motivated me to touch on this again is a few old photographs of the school, apparently taken during a school sports day in the 1970s, sent by a reader Mr. Alvin Lee, which follows.

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The school traces its history back to the founding of the Wan Tzu School by the World Red Swastika Society at the village in 1951, built to serve residents of the rural community in the Changi 10th Mile area where Somapah Village was located and provided free education to them. Sometime in the 1950s, the name of the school was changed to the Red Swastika School – a name now well respected for its academic achievements.  Its enrollment was to grow quickly, from 300 at its starting, it had by the end of its first decade a population of some 1000 students who were accommodated in its 12 classrooms over two sessions. With the days of the village coming to an end in the 1980s the school moved to new premises in Bedok North Avenue 3 in 1981 where it still operates today.

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The star of Chong Pang Village

3 07 2013

A landmark that would have been hard to miss on a northern journey to the end of Sembawang Road or to Sembawang Shipyard was the Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea, which occupied a corner of Chong Pang Village. The corner which the church occupied, was where a fork in the road gave one a choice of taking a left to Canberra Road or a right to continue along Sembawang Road. For many in the pre-1971 days of the Naval Base, the church would have marked the area which led to Canberra Gate – an entrance along the southern boundary of the huge base which had stretched along the northern coast of Singapore from a line which ran northeast from Canberra Gate all the way west close to the Causeway to what is today the western end of Woodlands Waterfront.

The Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea in Chong Pang Village (photo used with the kind permission of Mr Henry Cordeiro).

The Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea in Chong Pang Village (photo used with the kind permission of Mr Henry Cordeiro).

The church building, small by today’s standards (it would have had a seating capacity of maybe a hundred or two) and surrounded by a iron picket fence typical of fences of old, had a wonderful homely feel to it. The building was completed in 1953 through the efforts of its then parish priest, Fr. Albert Fortier. It  was blessed on 13 December 1953 by the visiting New Dehli based Apostolic Internuncio to Malaya (and India), Monsignor Martin Lucas who had a busy Sunday – he also blessed the Church of  the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Highland Road earlier on the same day.

The back of the church building (photo used with the kind permission of Mr Henry Cordeiro). The church was blessed on 13 December 1953.

The back of the church building seen in 1989 (photo used with the kind permission of Mr Henry Cordeiro). The church was blessed on 13 December 1953.

The parish’s history does go back a little further than the building that stood at the start of Canberra Road. Based on information on the church’s website, the origins of the parish goes back to the beginnings of the Naval Base when priests based at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes sought to extend their ministry to the small community of Catholics from 1926 – probably involved in the construction of the base which was fully completed only in 1938.  Services were to first be held in a makeshift building on the grounds of the Naval Base School before the parish was established by Fr. Dominic Vendargon at a building at Jalan Kedai (this would be the area across Canberra Road from where Sembawang Mart is today) which had been used  as a school during the Japanese Occupation in August 1949. It was Fr. Vendargon’s successor, Fr. Fortier, who had to put up a new church building after the former school was deemed unsafe in 1952 and the simple building was built at a cost of some $53,000. A statue of Christ which stood in the grounds just outside the church, another landmark, was added in February 1956.

A view of the church from the main road in 1989 (photo used with the kind permission of Mr Henry Cordeiro).

A view of the church from the main road in 1989 (photo used with the kind permission of Mr Henry Cordeiro). The statue of Christ can be seen to the right.

The church building was one which I did visit from time to time in the 1970s and 1980s. Then, it did serve a large community of Tamil and Malayalee      parishioners, many of whom worked at Sembawang Shipyard which had taken over the Naval Dockyard in 1968. With the days of the village coming to a close in 1989 – it was being cleared to make way for the new public housing estate of Sembawang, the church (its land was also acquired) had to seek new premises. Its then parish priest, Fr. Louis Amiotte announced the construction of a new church at Yishun Street 22, designed in it was said to be in the shape of Noah’s Ark, which was completed in 1992. The new church building, built at the cost of $4 million, was blessed on 30 May 1992 by then Archbishop Gregory Yong.

The new church building at Yishun Street 22 - shaped like Noah's Ark, was completed in 1992.

The new church building at Yishun Street 22 – shaped like Noah’s Ark, was completed in 1992.

Much has changed in the area since the village disappeared at the end of the 1980s and the start of the 1990s. The new housing estate started coming up at the end of the 1990s and very little traces of the once bustling village are left. Much of the land on and around which the church had stood – except for the expanded road, is now vacant, awaiting future development which, at least based on the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Master Plan 2008, will see sports and recreation facilities coming up.

The corner where the church stood as seen today. Part of the grounds would be on what would today be the widened Sembawang Road. The corner at Sembawang Avenue and Sembawang Road is slated to be used for future development of sports and recreation facilities.

The corner where the church stood as seen today. Part of the grounds would be on what would today be the widened Sembawang Road. The corner at Sembawang Avenue and Sembawang Road is slated to be used for future development of sports and recreation facilities.

Map of Chong Pang Village c.1978

Map of Chong Pang Village c.1978





Lost on the ridge

23 05 2013

Perched at the edge of Pasir Panjang Ridge (a.k.a. Kent Ridge) facing south is a remnant of a time and place there is little memory of lying hidden and forgotten. The cluster of flat roofed buildings, designed such that they could quite easily be hidden, are what remains of an military outpost that was part of a defence line that had been established well before the war along the southern ridges – preserved only because they have long remained hidden from view.

A world that remains lost.

On a hill not so far away lies a world that remains lost.

The opportunity to visit the outpost, which is in more recent times closed-off to the public for safety reasons, came during a walk to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of Pasir Panjang I had participated in. Stepping through the vegetation which has it well camouflaged, and into the area through one of the buildings was like stepping through a doorway into a parallel world well lost in time.

Access to the buildings is through vegetation that has them well camouflaged.

Access to the buildings is through vegetation that has them well camouflaged.

A close-up of the writing on the wall giving an indication of when the outpost was built.

A close-up of the writing on the wall giving an indication of when the outpost was built.

A doorway into a parallel world.

A doorway into a parallel world.

That there were signs that life did once exist there added an air of, if I may call it, surreality. A room, its walls coloured green by algae, has the obvious signs that it was a kitchen. In another, a bath tub could be seen with a piece of debris that at first glance, resembled a body part. That we do see that is certainly evidence that the outpost was meant to operate on its own, as perhaps as a surveillance post perched on an isolated corner of the strategically important ridge.

The kitchen.

The kitchen.

The bathroom.

The bathroom.

It is along the stretch of Kent Ridge which runs from what now is Clementi Road east towards where it meets Marina Hill at South Buona Vista Road at a pass which had been known as The Gap occupied by the National University of Singapore (NUS) where we find the outpost, close to its high point. The ridge made a natural position from which the military installations in the Wessex Estate area could be defended from a ground assault from the south and it was on it that one of the last battles in the lead-up to the fall of Singapore in February 1942, was fought. That it was only rediscovered in more recent times is perhaps one reason that while much of paraphernalia associated with the former military presence on the ridge has been lost over time, the outpost has survived to this day, serving as a physical reminder of a past we perhaps have been too quick to forget.

A building on the upper terrace.

A building on the upper terrace.

A stairway.

A stairway.

A building on the lower terrace.

A view through the vegetation to a building on the lower terrace.

The buildings, arranged on two terraces, which might have remained abandoned following the war, do show signs perhaps of a more recent use. A tyre lies along a corridor littered with fallen leaves, as does a metal pail, which does somehow increase the sense of eeriness which takes over as soon as the initial sense of surreality fades. In the silence of the lost world, there perhaps were voices of the past to be heard. But with the little time there was to dwell in the silence of the forgotten world, the voices are ones which do remain unheard.

A closer look at the building on  the lower terrace.

A closer look at the building on the lower terrace.

A tyre along a corridor.

A tyre along a leaf strewn corridor.

A metal pail close by.

A metal pail close by.

A window into a forgotten world.

A window into a forgotten world.





The rise of the new Ocean

31 03 2013

The vantage provided by Stellar at 1Altitude atop One Raffles Place, one of three tallest buildings in Singapore, gives a magnificent view of the new world around Marina Bay, as well as a building diagonally across Raffles Place from it, the new Ocean Financial Centre. At 245 metres high and with 43 floors, the Ocean Financial Centre, which was completed in 2011, is certainly much higher than the building it replaced, the 28 floor curved Ocean Building – which dominated the skyline of the former waterfront along Collyer Quay for some 33 years from 1974 to 2007. Although taller than its predecessor,  the building is one that does not dominate, becoming absorbed into the backdrop of the rising skyline in the area, a skyline which is no longer associated with the harbour which brought Singapore to life.

The rise of a new Ocean - the Ocean Financial Centre, the fourth Ocean Building on the site (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

The rise of a new Ocean – the Ocean Financial Centre, the fourth Ocean Building on the site (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

The 28 floor Ocean Building was in fact the third building of the same name to rise on the site. It was a name that was very much associated with a one time local shipping giant, the Straits Steamship Company. Incorporated in 1890, the company played a significant role in Singapore’s development as a maritime nation, and at its height, operated a fleet of 53 ships and was instrumental in linking ports in the Malayan Peninsula and British Borneo. Most who were around in the 1960s would probably remember the second Ocean Building which was a grand example of the wonderful works of architecture along Singapore’s bund, standing proudly at the end of the row of the glorious row of buildings along Collyer Quay which we have lost, from 1923 to 1970. More on this an the other Ocean Buildings can be found in a previous post.

Ocean Building in the 1920s (Source: W. A. Laxton, The Straits Steamship Fleets)..

The second Ocean Building in the 1920s (Source: W. A. Laxton, The Straits Steamship Fleets).

A little known fact about the Straits Steamship Company is that it can probably be considered as the founder of a giant in the airlines business, Singapore Airlines. The company registered Malayan Airways which it later sold off. That was to later become Malaysian-Singapore Airlines (MSA) in 1966 which split into Malaysian Airline System (MAS) and Singapore Airlines (SIA) in 1972. With the advent of containerisation, the Straits Steamship company’s conventional regional shipping business became less relevant and the company was sold to Keppel in 1983. A shift in focus to land development saw its name changed to Straits Steamship Land Ltd, before becoming Keppel Land in 1997. With the Straits Steamship Company making a complete withdrawal from the shipping business in 2004 and the demolition of the third Ocean Building which it erected, all that remains to remind us of a once proud shipping, is nothing more than another building named Ocean standing on where the three previous Oceans of the Straits Steamship Company once stood.

The new Ocean Building in July 1974 (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

The new Ocean Building in July 1974 (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).





The silence of a world forgotten

10 12 2012

I recently had a look in and around the former Bukit Timah Railway Station, lying quiet and abandoned while plans have not been made for its future use. The station, the last on the old Malayan Railway (known in more recent times as Keretapi Tanah Melayu or KTM), where the old key token exchange system was employed, was vacated on 1 July 2011 when the southern terminal of the railway was moved to Woodlands, and is now a conserved building.

A bridge that's now too far.

A bridge that’s now too far.

Bukit Timah Railway Station is now world that almost seems forgotten.

A world that almost seems forgotten.

The station is one that was built as part of the 1932 railway deviation. The deviation raised the line (hence the four bridges south of Bukit Panjang – one of which, a grider bridge over Hillview Road, has since been removed), as well as turned it towards Holland Road and the docks at Tanjong Pagar. Bukit Timah Railway Station in more recent times prior to its closure operated almost forgotten, seen mainly by passengers on passing trains, operated only in a signalling role. It was only as the closure of the railway line through Singapore loomed that more took notice of the station and the archaic practice of exchanging key tokens.

A window into the forgotten world.

A window into the forgotten world.

The ghost of station masters past?

The ghost of station masters past?

Together with the nearby truss bridge, one of two longer span railway bridges over the Bukit Timah area, which in some respects gives the area some of its character, the station lies today somewhat forgotten. The frenzy that accompanied the last days of the railway and the days that followed prior to the removal of the tracks has since died down – the post track removal turfing work intended to level the terrain and prevent collection of rain water has probably served to do the opposite and rendered the ground too soft and mushy to have a pleasant walk on).

The tracks along much of the rail corridor has since been removed with only short sections such as this one at the truss bridge at close to Bukit Timah Railway Station left behind.

The tracks along much of the rail corridor has since been removed with only short sections such as this one at the truss bridge at close to Bukit Timah Railway Station left behind.

The last half dozen or more than 30 levers that were once found in the signalling room of the station.

Through broken panes, the last half dozen of more than 30 levers that were once found in the signalling room of the station is seen.

While interest in the rail corridor seems to have faded with the passage of time, there may yet be motivation to pay a visit to it in the next month or so. A recent announcement (see Removal of structures along Rail Corridor dated 23 Nov 2012) made by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) points to the removal of unsound structures. These unsound structures include two of the signal huts at the former level crossings, one of which does have a memorial of sorts to the last day of railway operations and the last train. Besides the huts, some buildings that served as lodgings including the ones at Blackmore Drive, will also be demolished. Work on removal of the structures, based on the announcement, are to be completed by the end of January 2013 and this December probably offers the last opportunity to see the affected areas of the rail corridor as it might once have been.

A Brahminy Kite flies over the formaer railway station.

A Brahminy Kite flies over the formaer railway station.

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The curved buildings at the end of Collyer Quay and the Straits Steamship Company

24 06 2010

Many of us these days would probably have forgotten about the Straits Steamship Company and the significant role that the company played in Singapore’s development as a maritime nation. The company, when it was incorporated in 1890, was perhaps a reflection of what Singapore had become – a mix of east and west, with both investors of European origin as well as several of Asian origin. The fleet of ships that the company operated, numbered as many as 53 at its height, linking ports in much of the Malayan Peninsula and British Borneo, facilitating the development of many of the more remote parts of the region. The company had its headquarters at the curve of Collyer Quay, where it meets Cecil Street, and for a while was housed in a beautiful five storey example of colonial architecture, not the original, but the second Ocean Building (the first was built on the site in 1864). The building, construction of which was started in 1919 and completed in 1923, was designed by a British architect, Somers H. Ellis.  It featured overhanging balconies on the second and fifth levels and verandahs on the third and fourth levels. The building was topped with a tower that rose some 49 metres above ground, making it the tallest building in Singapore back when it was built.

Ocean Building in the 1920s (Source: W. A. Laxton, The Straits Steamship Fleets).

That glorious Ocean Building stood for some 47 years until 1970, when it was demolished to make way for yet another Ocean Building – this time a 28 storey tower block which was built on an expanded site that included Prince Street which once linked Collyer Quay with Raffles Place and Prince Building across from the older Ocean Building. The new building was completed in 1974 and housed the offices of many shipping companies as well as that of the Straits Steamship Company. It also housed the Mercantile Bank, which had prior to that, operated from Raffles Place since 1861. During the time the third building stood, the Straits Steamship Company disappeared, a victim of the rapid growth in containerisation and the growing irrelevance of conventional regional shipping. The company was sold to Keppel in 1983 and a shift in focus to land development saw a change of name to Straits Steamship Land Ltd, before it became Keppel Land in 1997. The company finally withdrew totally from shipping in 2004.

The third Ocean Building (seen on the left of the picture) in 1974 (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

The third 28 storey Ocean Building is now gone as well, having stood for some 33 years. On its site and what was the neighbouring Ocean Towers, the new 43 storey Ocean Financial Towers which is scheduled for completion in 2011, is being built. With this, we would probably find it harder to remember that beautiful curved building that stood at the corner of Collyer Quay and the Straits Steamship Company which had a long association with the buildings of the name.

The fourth "Ocean Building", the Ocean Financial Tower is scheduled to be completed in 2011. It is being erected on the site of the 28 storey Ocean Building which was demolished in 2007.








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