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.





Order out of the chaos on Hill Street

8 06 2011

The Preservations of Monuments Board (PMB) would be conducting a series of 20 Mounmental Walking Tours of Singapore’s National Monuments in the civic and cultural district during the weekends commencing Saturday 11th June up until the end of July, with an intended aim of bringing history to the whole family. I had the opportunity to have a special preview of the upcoming tours yesterday morning as part of a group yesterday made up of members of the mainstream which was led by Volunteer Guide Ms Jill Wong, during which we were given not just an insight into two of the monuments covered, but also into the background and history of the public institutions that the two monuments were built to house.

The PMB is organising Monumental Walking Tours starting 11th June 2011.

At the starting point of the brief tour, now a pavement outside Funan Centre, which is directly opposite the first of the two monuments we were to cover, the Central Fire Station, we were transported by our guide Jill into a very different Singapore. It was a Singapore of the early years where large gangs of Chinamen with darkened faces had, in the darkness of night, created mischief on the first streets or a new and fast growing colony, taking advantage perhaps of the lack of order that the Singapore of today has come to be known for. It was a Singapore that struggled to cope with the pressures of sudden urbanisation, as the colony grew around the first paved street, High Street, just a stone’s throw away from where we stood, listening to Jill. Indeed, it was a Singapore or “Sin-Galore” as it was known then where chaos had reigned, and one in desperate need for the public institutions that the monuments we were to learn about that morning (the other being the former Hill Street Police Station and now MICA Building), were built to house – hence the name of the tour “Order out of Chaos” from which I borrowed the title of this post.

The Central Fire Station, completed in 1909, features a 110 feet high watchtower which also served as a hose-drying tower.

One of the public institutions that was certainly sorely needed on the congested streets was a fire brigade, which the Central Fire Station was later built to serve. It was only some fifty years after the founding of modern Singapore that the first brigade was formed – a volunteer fire brigade in 1869, developing into a professional outfit close to two decades later. Even with the establishment of a professional force of fire-fighters, the fire brigade was still ill-equipped and ill-prepared to deal with many situations that arose, a fact highlighted by a news article in the 24th September 1890 edition Straits Times (excerpts of which can be found below) relating to a fire on Hock Lam Street – which had once met Hill Street at right angles at the very spot on the pavement on which we stood, which Jill read from. The article makes for interesting reading and in it we are told of a crowd that had gathered to witness a fire that had broken out at a house at No. 8 Hock Lam Street, which, “had the pleasure of watching a fire work its own way without let or hindrance”. What comes out from the article is that it took an hour before water could be doused on the fire, having been delayed partly by the inability of the fire-fighters to locate hydrants on a street just across from where they were based.

Volunteer Guide Ms Jill Wong describing the construction of the Central Fire Station.

The construction of the red and white fire station which was completed in 1909, a National Monument gazetted in December 1998 and the most recognisable in Singapore, represented a change in fortunes of the fire brigade, having being prompted by the arrival of the first professionally trained Superintendent of the Fire Brigade, Montague William Pett from England in 1905. The construction also prompted a modernisation of the brigade’s equipment with motorised fire engines being introduced, which is evident in the various size of exit doors of the station. The station, with its distinctive red and white brick façade, a style often described as “blood and bandages”, also features a 110 feet high watch tower, which when was the tallest structure in the city when it was built, providing a vantage from which a 24 hour watch could then be kept over the city. It also served as a hose drying tower – a feature in many fire stations. The station was later expanded, with a new wing added as well as quarters expanded on land purchased at the corner of Hill Street and Coleman Street from the Chinese Girls’ School which moved to Emerald Hill in the 1920s.

A feature of the pavement outside the Central Fire Station that was explained is that there is no kerb where it meets the road allowing it to be flushed for the passage of emergency vehicles coming out of the station.

The second (and last) stop in the short introductory tour was the former Hill Street Police Station, a six storey Neo-Classical styled building designed by PWD Chief Architect Frank Dorrington Ward completed in 1934, which was also gazetted as a National Monument at the same time as the Central Fire Station. Where the fire station is still used in a function that the building was built for, the Hill Street Police Station is now used by the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA). The building, when built, was an imposing structure which was described as the “Police Skyscraper” and was in fact the largest structure in Malaya. The building featured two open courtyards (now enclosed by a glass roof) and numerous windows (that one can’t help but notice) that opened to the outside as well as into the courtyards, giving the rooms in the building a airy and bright feel – a feature of Frank Dorrington Ward designed municipal buildings. The structure besides serving a function as a police station, also provided housing to policemen and their families with accommodation for up to a thousand people.

Another, an imposing structure that, at the time of its completion, was the largest man made structure in Malaya.

The once largest structure in Malaya, despite being dwarfed by the modern buildings that have come up in the area, is still pretty imposing.

The once open-air courtyard of the former Hill Street Police Station is now encased by a glass roof.

The construction of the building, built at a cost of $494,000, had in the case of the fire station, heralded a change of fortunes for the force, which started as a police force of 12 men in 1820 who weren’t, we were told, too well paid – a combined monthly salary of some $300 was put together by William Farquhar raised through licensing fee for the sale of opium and liquor. The force had apparently attracted the likes of desperate men, stranded sailors for one, seeking a means to obtain money for a passage home, and was poorly equipped unitl the 1930s when improved funding allowed the force was expanded to some 2000 and modern equipment to be introduced. Our attention was also drawn to a series of wall mounted information panels at the second smaller courtyard which provided some of the history of the building as well as provided insights into how life in the separate quarters for the families of the rank and file and the senior policemen was. All in all it was certainly an hour well spent, allowing me to discover more of the monuments in question and some of the conditions that existed when they were built as well as learning a little more on the history of Singapore. Information on the series of Monumental Walking Tours that the PMB has organised can be found below, as well as on the PMB’s website.

A feature of Frank Dorrington Ward designed buildings is the light and airy feel in interiors ventilated and brightened by generous windows which even in the less colourful days of the building, never goes unnoticed.

The Neo-Classical style is commonly seen in municipal buildings in Singapore and has features such as symmetry, the use of columns and pediments such as is seen over the main entrance of the former Hill Street Police Station.



PMB Media Release:

LEARN ABOUT HISTORY THE MONUMENTAL WAY
Monumental Walking Tours and My Monumental Playground offer fun for the whole family

7 June 2011 – History comes alive for the whole family as the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB) launches 20 new Monumental Walking Tours of Singapore’s National Monuments in the civic and cultural district and My Monumental Playground at the Esplanade Park Memorials.

Monumental Walking Tours
Presented with distinct storylines and unique perspectives, Monumental Walking Tours cast our National Monuments in a new light, weaving in stories of Singapore’s diverse immigrant communities. The 20 tours, conducted in English, will be introduced each weekend from 11 June to end July. Along with two existing tours, these will form PMB’s stable of Monumental Walking Tours which will be offered weekly for the rest of the year. Leading the tours are PMB’s adult Volunteer Guides and student Monument Ambassadors who have a strong background and interest in heritage. For the month of June, the Monumental Walking Tours will be available at a special rate of $5 per adult and will feature colonial buildings such as The Arts House and Peranakan Museum.

My Monumental Playground
Specially planned for the little ones, My Monumental Playground will reveal little-known facts about the Esplanade Memorials through storytelling sessions, silent precision drill performances, a treasure hunt and more. Held on 11 and 12 June, this event is part of Children’s Season 2011. Through these exciting events, PMB hopes to develop greater public interest and appreciation for Singapore’s 64 National Monuments. More information on the upcoming events can be found Annexes, and members of the public can refer to www.pmb.sg.

PMB Monumental Walking Tour and My Monumental Playground Programmes:

Administrative Information

Monumental Walking Tour Programme 11th – 12th June 2011

Monumental Walking Tour Programme 18th – 26th June 2011

Monumental Walking Tour Programme to be released in July 2011

My Monumental Playground



Excerpts from the article “Fire on Hocklam Street” from the 24th September 1890 edition of the Straits Times:

“About 9.30 p.m. a fire began in a house No. 8 Hocklam Street, and a crowd immediately commenced to gather and found that they had the pleasure of watching a fire work its own way without let or hindrance. Very soon Chief Inspector Jennings arrived, and pending the arrival of the fire engines did all he could, i.e. watched the crowd. At 10 o’clock the fire had obtained complete possession of the house, and the flames lapped round the casements, and mounted high into the air illuminating the whole town”.

The article goes on to describe how the crowd had admired the uniform of the superintendent as he watched on horseback as the fire made its progress, with water arriving only an hour after the fire by which time No. 8 and 9 were “completely gutted” and added that the “organisation did not know where the nearest hydrants were situated” in spite of the “barracks of the Fire Brigade” being “in the same street as, and exactly opposite to, the burnt houses”.









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