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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.