A synagogue on Church Street

21 11 2012

A street in Singapore that I have long been familiar with from my many encounters with it throughout my childhood and my days going to school in the area is Waterloo Street. Well-known back in the 1970s for the ‘sarabat stalls’ – a row of food stalls which was a destination for not just good teh sarabat (ginger tea), but also where some of the best Indian rojak in Singapore was to be found, Waterloo Street was also where many rather stately looking buildings could be found – particularly along the stretch that is directly opposite the former St. Joseph’s Institution (now the Singapore Art Museum) which I attended. One which did stand out – was a white building with blue windows and a blue Star of David which we referred to as the synagogue, the Maghain Aboth Synagogue.

Glass at the synagogue’s porch.

The synagogue as seen from Waterloo Street today.

The synagogue was always a place that seemed mysterious to me, and one that has remained a mystery until very recently when I had an opportunity to see its insides through a Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB) Monument Open House walking tour. Maghain Aboth Synagogue, which translates as “Shield of our Fathers”, one of two Jewish houses of worship found in Singapore (the other being the Chesed-El), is the oldest existing synagogue not only in Singapore, but also in South-East Asia. Gazetted as a National Monument in 1998, the synagogue provides a link not just to a small but historically significant ethno-religious community in Singapore, but also to the trade motivated diaspora of Baghdadi Jews which saw the arrival from India of the first members of the community in Singapore in the 1830s.

Maghain Aboth Synagogue in 1982 (source: from the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

The synagogue from inside the compound.

An aerial view of the Bras Basah area in the 1970s in which the Maghain Aboth Synagogue can be seen at the top (left) of the picture.

The Maghain Aboth wasn’t the first synagogue in Singapore. The first was one that was housed in a shophouse. Established in 1841, it was to give Synagogue Street its name and served the community until the 1870s. The limited to its capacity coupled with a fast growing Jewish population in Singapore required a larger building than the shophouse which house a congregation of forty. The land at Waterloo Street (which until 1858 had been known as Church Street) on which the present synagogue, the Maghain Aboth stands, was secured in the 1870s by Sir Manasseh Meyer (who later also built the Chesed-El as a private synagogue) and the Maghain Aboth was built. The synagogue designed in the neo-classical style was completed in 1878 with several extensions added over its 134 years, including a second level seating gallery to allow women to worship. It was close to the synagogue that a larger community of Baghdadi Jews began to settle around – giving rise to the Jewish quarter around the nearby Middle Road and Selegie Road area that came to be known as the Mahallah.

The entrance to the synagogue in the 1970s (source: National Archives of Singapore http://a2o.nas.sg/picas).

A map of the Bras Basah area in the mid 1800s well before the Maghain Aboth was built. Waterloo Street had then been named Church Street.

The layout of the synagogue is very similar to but is much less elaborated decorated than the Chesed-El. The centre of the hall which faces Jerusalem features a bimah, a raised wooden pulpit where the rabbi leads prayers and reads from Torah scrolls (Sefer Torah) during services. At the west end of the hall, the most sacred part of the synagogue, the the ahel or ark is arranged. The ark is where the Torah scrolls are kept, covered by a parochet or curtain.

The prayer hall points west towards Jerusalem. At the end of the hall is the ahel or ark. The pulpit or bimah is seen in the centre.

The eastward view of the prayer hall from the west end.

The ark or ahel behind the parochet or curtains is most sacred part of the synagogue and where the Torah scrolls are kept.

The bimah.

The part of the bimah on which the rabbi leads the prayers.

The ahel or ark.

A more recent extension to the compound on which the synagogue stands is where the stained glass fronted Jacob Ballas Centre now towers over the Maghain Aboth. Built as a community centre, the Jacob Ballas Centre is named after a very successful stock broker, the late Jacob Ballas, who was a prominent member of the community. The centre houses function rooms, offices and accommodation for the rabbis, a kosher slaughter room for fresh chicken, a kosher restaurant as well as a kosher shop. For more information on the Maghain Aboth and the Jacob Ballas Centre, do visit the links below.

Stained glass at the Jacob Ballas Centre.

Stained glass at the Jacob Ballas Centre.

A reading room at the Jacob Ballas Centre.


Resources on the Jewish Community, Sir Manasseh Meyer and the Maghain Aboth Synagogue:

Jewish Community in Singapore (on The Jewish Community of Singapore)
Jewish Community in Singapore (on The Jewish Times Asia)
Sir Manasseh Meyer (on infopedia)
Maghain Aboth (on infopedia)
Maghain Aboth Synagogue (on The Jewish Community of Singapore)
Maghain Aboth Synagogue (on PMB’s website)


More views around the Maghain Aboth





The changing face of Middle Road

9 04 2010

In looking up on the background of the areas around Middle Road and based on feedback received from a reader, Greg Lim, and my mother who was familar with the area having lived in St. Anthony’s Convent as a boarder, I have a better impression of the colourful history that the area around of which that I was only familiar with going to school at nearby Bras Basah Road in late 1970s has had. Over the years, the various parts around the road had played host to various immigrant communities, communities that have provided us living in modern Singapore with the unique blend of cultures and cuisines that we have today. In roughly a century, it has played host to a thriving Jewish quarter inhabited by many Jews of the Iraqi diaspora; a Japanese community, within which homes, businesses, brothels and even a hospital that catered to the Japanese, were set up, and of course the Hainanese or Hylam community which gave us wonderfully aromatic coffee, the many coffee shops which has become a national institution, and of course Hainanese Chicken Rice, made famous by an outlet that was right on Middle Road.

Middle Road looking northwest from the National Library Building facing Victoria Street. Most of the area has been rebuilt, with taller commercial buildings replacing the mostly two and three storey houses with shop on the lower floor and residential units on the upper floor.

There are several suggestions as to how Middle Road got its name. One that seems plausible was that Middle Road was the mid-point between what was the civic district of the British colonial administration and the Sultan’s palace in Kampung Glam. Another similar to this has it that it was the mid-point between the Singapore and Rochore (now Rochor) Rivers. Another suggestion was that it served as a demarcation line of sorts between the civic area and the ethnic settlements as planned by the early colonial administration. Whatever it was, it was served as a main street and focal point for least two of the ethnic groups that settled around it:  the Hainanese, for whom it was Street No. 1, which was referred to by the other locals as “Hylam Street No. 1″; and the Japanese as “Chuo Dori” or “Central Street”. The Hainanese community, which occupied the southeast end of Middle Road and some of the streets around (Purvis Street was Hylam Street No. 2 and Seah Street was Hylam Street No. 3), was the longest surviving of the ethnic communities in the area, settling initially around Hylam Street (which is within the Bugis Junction complex today), before moving towards the waterfront area around Beach Road, where there is still some evidence of the community. The Japanese, prior to the Second World War, settled along much of Middle Road, close to the Japanese Consulate which was located on nearby Mount Emily (at the building which became Mount Emily Girl’s Home), and the Doh Jin Hospital (which later became the Middle Road Hospital) was built to serve the community, as well as around the areas vacated by the Hainanese community around where Bugis Junction (Hylam, Malay, Malabar and Bugis Streets). The area comprised many dilapidated two storey shop houses, and much it was part of the Japanese red light district before the war, which were demolished in the early 1980s. Opposite Bugis Junction, on the area where the National Library stands, there were some other streets that were occupied by the  Hainanese and Shanghainese communities  (the Shanghainese operated the furniture shops that the Victoria Street area was well known for), which I had mentioned in a previous post on Victoria Street.

Incidentally, the streets running perpendicular to Middle Road had local names as well, with North and South Bridge Roads being referred to as “Main Street” or “1st Street”, being the main thoroughfare between what was known to the Chinese community as the “Bigger Town” where the main settlement of Chinese immigrants was across the Singapore River, and the “Smaller Town”, which was initially planned as a European district, where some of the later Chinese immigrants settled in. The other streets running parallel to North Bridge Road, west of North Bridge Road were numbered in sequence, with Victoria Street being “2nd Street”, Queen Street “3rd Street”, Waterloo Street “Fourth Street”, Bencoolen Street “Fifth Street”, Prinsep Street “Sixth Street” and Selegie Road “Seventh Street”.

I have a few photographs that I have taken on a recent walk through the area as well as some scans of old postcards which would perhaps provide a little glimpse of how the area has transformed over the years …

The face of Middle Road has changed over the last century.

The new has overtaken the old ... very little is left to remind us of the colourful history of Middle Road.

The former Bras Basah Community Centre close to the end of Middle Road near where the well known Swee Kee Chicken Rice (which was started by Mok Fu Swee who pioneered the commercialisation of the dish invented by Wong Yi Guan under whom Mok was an apprentice).

The Kiung Chow Hwee Kuan (Hainanese Clan Association) on Beach Road - evidence of the Hainanese community settling in the area.

A figure on the roof of the temple of the Kiung Chow Hwee Kuan (Hainanese Association) on Beach Road watches over the community.

Shaw Tower on Beach Road stands where the Alhambra and Marlborough Theatres stood on Beach Road at the end of Middle Road.

The view northwest down Middle Road from the area where the National Library building stands where the Empress Hotel once stood on the left and where Bugis Junction stands in place of a row of shops that included the Daguerre Photo Studio.

The same area of Middle Road in the 1970s.

The Empress Hotel at the corner of Middle Road and Victoria Street which was demolished in 1985.

The Empress Restaurant at the Empress Hotel was well known for the "Queen of the Mooncakes".

The National Library seen from the Hainanese area by Middle Road.

Bugis Junction was built over an area which was part of a Japanese enclave.

The transformation has seen an area of dilapidated shop houses which were once in an area of brothels is now a air-conditioned shopping mall within which some attempt has been made to recreate the former streets that has been incorporated into the complex.

Malay Street today - part of a shopping mall.

The corner of Hylam and Malay Streets from an old postcard (c. 1930s), when it was part of the Japanese enclave.

The corner of Hylam and Malay Streets today - within the area rebuilt as Bugis Junction.

The buildings that used to be St. Anthony's Convent at the corner of Middle Road and Victoria Street, from which my mother as a boarder had a view of the seedier parts of the Middle Road area.

St. Anthony's Convent in the 1950s.

Another view of the former St. Anthony's Convent building today.





The streets of the Mahallah: Middle Road, where the Doh Jin Hospital once stood

24 03 2010

Continuing on my stroll through the streets of the Mahallah from Selegie Road, I came to what would have been another of the main streets of the Mahallah, Middle Road. What we see of Middle Road today bears little resemblance to the Middle Road that I had known in the 1970s, a Middle Road that I had passed by every weekday on the bus back from school, let alone having much to suggest that it was another thriving part of what was the Jewish Quarter all those years back. There is only the David Elias building, which I had mentioned in the previous post on the streets of the Mahallah, which reminds us of this forgotten past, and nothing much else.

The former Middle Road Hospital stands next to the David Elias Building along Middle Road.

The view down the middle of Middle Road. The road bears very little resemblance to the Middle Road of the 1970s that I was familiar with. There is very little there except for the David Elias building to suggest a Jewish past.

Next to the David Elias building, stands another building that has survived the extensive renewal that Middle Road has seen in the last few decades, not a reminder of the Jewish past, but of a past associated with another ethnic group – the Japanese. The building displays the letters “SIC” prominently at the top, standing next to an empty plot of land – which one could see as a suggestion perhaps, of its previous use. The building today houses Stansfield College, a private college, associated with a previous occupant, the Singapore Institute of Commerce (SIC), which is associated with Stansfield. The building was in fact, up to 1988, one that did house sick occupants, when it was used by the Middle Road Hospital. The building had actually started its life in 1940 as the Doh Jin Hospital, to serve what was a growing Japanese community in the area. The Japanese Consulate was in fact housed nearby, in the building that became Mount Emily Girls’ Home. The hospital became the Middle Road Hospital after the war in 1945, and was referred to by a rather antiquated sounding name, the Social Hygiene Hospital. During the 1970s, I remember my parents would refer to the hospital as a “skin hospital” – it was a centre for the treatment of skin diseases. Along with skin diseases, the hospital was notorious as the centre for treatment of venereal diseases (VD), which we now referred to commonly as STDs or sexually transmitted diseases.

A sign bearing the letters "SIC" perhaps giving a indication of the history of the building? The building had started its life as the Doh Jin Hospital in 1940 and became the Social Hygiene Hospital in 1945.

Another view of what was once the Social Hygiene Hospital.

There is also a little off-shot of Middle Road between the two buildings, which ends in a cul-de-sac, where, on the side of the David Elias building, stands a rather quaint looking building (254, 256 and 258 Middle Road) with a set of bay windows, and a façade very much in the style of the David Elias building. I am not certain of what the origin of this building is. There is in fact an identical building on the reverse side facing Short Street.

Off Middle Road between the David Elias Building and the former Middle Road Hospital, a rather quaint looking house with a set of bay windows stands at the cul-de-sac.

The David Elias building as seen from the cul-de-sac. Part of it was once used as the Sun Sun Hotel. There was a Sun Sun Bar that existed then at the bottom of the hotel.

Crossing Prinsep Street, there is now the IOI Plaza and Prime Centre which stands on a stretch occupied by a row of pre-war shop houses up to the 1980s – I remember this stretch particularly well for a colourful row of three sign makers housed in a rather ramshackle looking single storey shops, sandwiched in between double storey houses. The display of signs and vehicle number plates would catch my eye along with the “Rainbow Signs” signboard on one of the shops. There is still a sign maker, Sin Lian Hua Signcrafts in the area, housed across Middle Road in Sunshine Plaza. The shop has a display, which in a muted way, is reminiscent of the displays of the original shops on Middle Road.

Prime Centre and IOI Plaza stand where a row of shop houses where the colourful displays of three sign makers caught the eye.

Display at Sin Lian Hua Signcrafts in Sunshine Plaza - reminiscent of the displays of the row of three sign makers along Middle Road.

That there was concentration of the sign makers offering vehicle number plates along that stretch of Middle Road was  possibly due to the Registry of Vehicles (ROV) that was located on the opposite side of Middle Road, where Sunshine Plaza now stands, in a compound which also contained the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank (POSB). The ROV, which is now part of the Land Transport Authority (LTA) had occupied the premises since 1948, and it was only in 1983 that the department shifted to its new premises in Sin Ming. The building which the ROV occupied had been built as a court house in 1930. The POSB also occupied the premises in Middle Road up till 1983, when it shifted to new premises built on the site of the former Catholic Centre at the corner of Queen Street and Bras Basah Road. Across Prinsep Street from Sunshine Plaza an empty plot of land now stares glaringly at the observer, where once there were more pre-war shop houses, bringing me back to Selegie Road. I don’t remember there anything notable that stood on this plot of land, except for a five storey building which stood out among the mainly two storey shop houses around it like a sore thumb. This building housed the Straits Clinic, which is now in IOI Plaza.

Sunshine Plaza stands in the plot where the compound where the ROV and POSB was once housed.

Rain in the shadow of Sunshine: A couple stands in the rain looking at the David Elias building and Stansfield College in the shadow of Sunshine Plaza.

An empty plot of land between Prinsep Street and Selegie Road, where more shop houses once stood.





My stroll through the streets that made up the Mahallah: Selegie Road

17 03 2010

Wandering around the Selegie Road area today, there is very little of the old that is left to remind us of the Selegie Road that existed in the when I was growing up in the 1960s, and certainly even less of a time when you might have thought you were in a different world altogether. That was a time we have long left behind as Singaporeans, a past that we have perhaps chosen to forget.

Signs of the times: Selegie Road at the turn of the 21st Century ... a very different world from when it was a bustling street within the Mahallah.

The area today boasts of spanking new edifices, the School of the Arts for one and Wilkie Edge being another, representative perhaps of the Singapore we have become, somewhat cold and grey, seemingly perfect and lacking in identity, much like Huxley’s Brave New World. Interspersed with the new kids on the block are several older structures built in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Peace Centre, Selegie House and the former Selegie School, as well as some pre-war buildings that have hitherto managed to escape the wrecker’s ball.

Spanking new buildings now stand in what was once the Mahallah.

It is the pre-war buildings that provide a glimpse into the forgotten past, when it was part of an area referred to by its inhabitants as the Mahallah, or “place” in Arabic. Of these, two, the David Elias building at the junctions of Selegie Road, Middle Road and Short Street, and the Ellison building which is located at the end of Selegie Road provide the clues as to whom the inhabitants of the Mahallah were, not Arabs as one might have assumed, but members of the Diaspora, the symbol of which, the Star of David, is displayed prominently on the façades. It was a comment on my post on Selegie Road, from a reader Mamadondi, who lived in the vicinity from 1958 to 1978, who suggested a link between the two buildings that prompted me to take a stroll through the area in an attempt to acquaint myself with this past.

Selegie Road today is a mix of modern buildings and pre-war buildings such as the former Tiger Balm building and the David Elias building.

The former Tiger Balm Building at the corner of Short Street and Selegie Road - a surviving pre-war building on Selegie Road without a Jewish past.

The Mahallah was the “place” where the many working class Baghdadi Jews who had settled in Singapore around the turn of the twentieth century, called home, a Jewish Quarter so to speak. They went about the daily business, just as they might have done on the streets of old Baghdad or Calcutta where many had originated from, living amongst the Indian, Eurasian and Chinese families in the area. The area included Selegie Road, Short Street, Wilkie Road, Sophia Road, Prinsep Street and Middle Road. That Arabic was a common language and that the two buildings mentioned both display the Star of David on their façades, provides an appreciation for who the area’s inhabitants were. It was common to see Jews dressed in Iraqi attire, with men topped with a fez, as the new immigrants sought to recreate a familiarity of where they had arrived from, within the surroundings of their new world. The large Jewish families that lived in the area were relatively poor, many with ten or more children, and most were cramped in the many small two storey houses that were common in the area. Many were small traders, rabbis and bakers who came to seek a better life or to serve the community, some following their more successful brethren, for the promise of success. Living in the Mahallah, many struggled to make ends meet. However, it was from the adversity of living in these conditions that many in the community succeeded in life, with many prominent and successful Singaporeans emerging out of the Mahallah, among them Jacob Ballas and Harry Elias.

The David Elias Building with Stars of David displayed prominently provides a link to the area

On this point, it must be said that wider community of Baghdadi Jews had in fact seen tremendous success, with many living in stately mansions away from the Mahallah, or close by on Mount Sophia, among them the Elias family and Mannaseh Meyer. The community also provided Singapore, with its first Chief Minister, David Marshall – the son of an Baghdadi immigrant, Saul Marshall. The Elias family had through their patriarch, Aaron, who passed away in 1902, amassed a huge fortune from the opium trade. At the point of Aaron’s untimely death, the mantle was taken up by the eldest son, Joseph Aaron Elias. The family was known for its stately mansion by the sea on the East Coast, as well as a holiday villa in Tampines which provided Elias Road in Pasir Ris with its name. Several buildings including Amber Mansions that stood on Orchard Road where the Dhoby Ghaut MRT station is today is attributed to Joseph. The David Elias building was built by David J. Elias, who was the second cousin of Joseph Aaron Elias, and brother-in-law, having married Joseph’s sister Miriam, and was a successful import and export merchant in his own right. The building which was designed by the prominent colonial architectural firm, Swan and MacLaren, and built in 1928, contained many offices and shops and the offices of David’s company, D. J. Elias and Company.

Floor tiles on the five-foot way of the David Elias building.

The Ellison Building as seen from the junction of Rochor Canal and Selegie Roads.

At the end of Selegie Road at its junction with Bukit Timah Road, stands the Ellison building which I mentioned in a previous post. The origins of the buildings are rather vague, having been described in an infopedia article as being built for a Jewish lady named Ellison. It could very well have been for a Flora Ellison, having been put up in 1924 by Issac Ellison, a Romanian Jew who owned an Iky’s Bar near Raffles Place which was apparently quite a popular nightspot. Issac was married to Flora who was a Baghdadi Jewess who had come from Rangoon.

Issac (Ike) and Flora Ellison (Source: Joan Bieder's "The Jews of Singapore").

I guess it is hard to imagine how the area once was – an aerial view of Eu Villa on Mount Sophia, which incidentally was also designed by Swan and MacLaren, available on the National Archives PICAS site provides an impression of how it would have looked like in the pre-war years, without recreating the atmosphere that existed. It was good to have Joan Bieder’s excellent book, “The Jews of Singapore”, for which much of the factual information provided here is based on, to accompany my stroll through the area, as a guide. Whatever it was … the Mahallah has ceased to exist, living only the the memory of those who lived there … replaced by the modern structures which struggle to recreate the vibrancy that the inhabitants of the Mahallah once brought to the area.

Aerial view of Eu Villa on Mount Sophia from the National Archives PICAS website providing a good idea of how the area looked like before the war in 1940.








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