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.





A memory that is going to the dogs

24 12 2012

Long abandoned by its erstwhile companions, the building that served as the former Nee Soon Post Office had stood for many years alone and almost forgotten. The bustling villages that once occupied an area that was dominated by a huge rubber factory for which it was built to serve are long gone, leaving the post office and a few other buildings behind to serve as an only reminder of what had once been. At the building, the only evidence of its former use is found in the post office boxes (P.O. Boxes) at an extension to its right and a post box painted in the bright and unmistakeable colours of the Telecommunication Authority which once ran the post offices.

Evidence of when the Nee Soon Post Office closed - a orange and white postbox with the old Singapore Telecom logo.

Evidence of when the Nee Soon Post
Office closed – a orange and white postbox with the old Singapore
Telecom logo.

PO Boxes at the disused Post Office.

PO Boxes at the disused Post Office.

It wasn’t too long ago when hoardings were erected around the building, after which the building’s roof came off. With the recent demolition of the former Jalan Kayu Post Office building, there was some concern that the building was about to suffer a similar fate. A sign posted on the hoardings did however serve to provide reassurance that the building wasn’t being demolished, but rather, it was about to go to the dogs – literally! A veterinary clinic had taken over the premises for its use.

The building that housed the former Nee Soon Post Office is being given a new lease of life.

The building that housed the former
Nee Soon Post Office is being given a new lease of life.

The renovation and refurbishment of the former post office is now almost complete. The freshly painted building now stands with a new extension added to its left. The two reminders of the building’s previous use, the post box and the P.O. Boxes can still be seen – the P.O. Boxes have been relocated to the new extension as the extension to the right at which they were located has been torn down. While the P.O. Boxes do bear the finish that they were left with, the post box will look very new with a fresh coat of paint – something I wish that wasn’t done as the worn and faded look it was left in did give the appearance of a forgotten memory that had been frozen in time.

The disused Post Office building now stands as a reminder of the old Nee Soon Village.

The disused Post Office building before the recent renovation.

While it would have been nice to see what certainly is a building which stands as one of the only reminders of a world that once was, it is good to see that some use has been found that will allow the building to be maintained – is always difficult in a Singapore that is quick to abandon its past and where conservation has more often than not to pay for itself, to find use in a way that is ideal. That in it going to the dogs does help to keep the building standing, may perhaps be not such a bad thing after all.

Nee Soon Post Office when it was in use.

The post office when it was in operation.

Painting over

Painting over a memory that was frozen in time.





New Year’s Eve with a Concubine: a stroll around the streets of Old Ipoh

3 01 2011

One of the wonderful things about wandering around old towns in Malaysia is their ability to delight you with a few surprises from time to time. One such town (or city as it is now) is Ipoh, which I have passed through many times over the years without paying much attention to, which I had decided to spend a night at recently, motivated primarily by the desire to pay a visit to the grand old Railway Station building given to the city by one of the architects that Kuala Lumpur owes its rich architectural heritage to, with the bonus of the promise of the sumptuous treats that awaits the visitor to the city.

Motivated by the desire to have a look at the magnificent piece of railway architecture designed by A. B. Hubback, I decided to spend a bit more time in Ipoh than I normally would have thought of spending.

Ipoh had always been a town that I had not paid much attention to, often serving as a mere stopover on journeys to the north and the west of the town. It is a town that I have always associated with the tin mines that brought the town much of its status and wealth in the days gone by, one characterised by the many grand old buildings in the old town and the large bungalows along the approach into town that greet the visitor. My first ever visits there had been on an ambitious road trip my father took the family on in the early 1970s, when we had stopped first to pay a visit to the parents of his Brother-in-law who lived in Canning Garden on the way from Cameron Highlands to Penang, which I remember very little of except for sweltering in the mid day heat. We did also stop on the return trip – an unscheduled stop forced upon us by the temperature that I was running, to consult with a doctor and get some rest to recover before setting off for Kuala Lumpur.

Ipoh is named after the Ipoh, Epu or Upas Tree which was apparently abundant in and around Ipoh. This Ipoh Tree stands in the Town Square just in front of the Railway Station.

There were two other visits that I had made during my youth, both en route to Pulau Pangkor. One was notable more for the return coach journey on the Mara Express on which left passengers in a state that wasn’t far from a homonym of Mara in Malay. The other was when we had actually spent a few days – once again at Canning Garden where we stayed with the parents of a colleague of my mothers. That trip I remember most for being bored, mah-jong being the source of adult entertainment, thus leaving my sister and myself, the only juveniles stuck within the confines of the four walls and looking forward to the forays made into town for meals for which I remember the crunchy bean sprouts most and perhaps the sight of the old Cold Storage Supermarket which somehow caught my attention. It wasn’t some 25 years after that, at the beginning of 2008 when I had a short stint in Penang, that I visited Ipoh again, once again for a short stopover driven by curiosity of a place I had only vague memories of. On that and a subsequent stopover I made at the end of 2009, there wasn’t really much to change my impression of the town, which is in fact the administrative and commercial capital of the state of Perak, based on its reputation as being not much more than a sleepy hollow.

Ipoh, set against the backdrop of limestone hills has a reputation of being a sleepy hollow.

This time around, equipped with a little more time than I had given myself on my other recent visits, I was able to see a part of Ipoh that had previously escaped me. I was indeed surprised by its architectural heritage around a part of Ipoh that I had not previously known – seeing only in photographs the magnificent Railway Station and the beautiful building that is home to the sister institution to my own alma mater, St. Michael’s Institution.

Ipoh has some architectural masterpieces including St. Michael's Institution which was built over a period of 30 years from 1922, which is a sister institution to my alma mater in Singapore, St. Joseph's Institution.

After a early morning exploration of the beautiful Railway Station of which I would devote another post to, I was able to take a stroll around another of Arthur Benison Hubback’s masterpieces – the Town Hall, which has sadly fallen into a state of disrepair – although signs of restoration work around the rear of the building which was once the Post Office were evident. The Town Hall was built by the Public Works Department (as were the Government Buildings of that time) as part of an effort to provide Ipoh with public buildings that were “worthy of the town” in the early part of the 20th Century, the same effort which provided the Railway Station and the Town Square that separates the two magnificent edifices which were meant to provide, as the town planners had put, “a fine entry into the town“. Construction on the Town Hall and Post Office commenced in 1914 and after a delay due to the late arrival of materials from England, the building was completed in 1916. The Post Office moved in early 1917.

Ipoh Town Hall, which also housed the Post Office at the back of the building, was another building designed by A. B. Hubback.

A view of one of the wings of the Neo Classical styled Town Hall.

Inside the Town Hall.

Some of the other notable buildings in the vicinity that I was able to see on my stroll around the area just behind the Town Hall, bounded by Jalan Panglima Bukit Gantang Wahab (Club Road), Jalan Dewan (Post Office Road), Jalan Sultan Yussuf (Belfield Road), and the Padang are the High Court, built in Neo-Classical style and completed in 1928; the Straits Trading Building (now occupied by OCBC) built in 1907 in the Italian Renaissance style; the Chartered Bank Building built in 1924; the Art Deco styled Mercantile Bank (1931); the Perak Hydro Building (1930s) which housed the Perak River Hydro-Electric Power Company which supplied power to the tin mines around Ipoh; the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building (1931), built in the Neo Renaissance style and was for a long time the tallest building in Ipoh until the post-independence era; and the building that housed the FMS Bar and Restaurant from 1923 – reputed to be the oldest restaurant in Malaysia which was started by a Hainanese immigrant and catered exclusively to European Miners and Plantation Owners. Along Jalan Tun Sambanthan (Hale Street) by the Padang, there is also a row of terrace town houses worth a look at which once was occupied by the practices and residences of legal professionals.

The High Court building is another notable building in Ipoh, just across from the Town Hall.

Another view of the High Court.

The Straits Trading Building (1907).

The Chartered Bank Building (1924).

The Mercantile Bank Building (1931).

The Perak Hydro Building (1930s).

The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building (1931) which for a long time was the highest building in Ipoh.

The building that housed the FMS Bar and Restaurant, reputedly the oldest restaurant in Malaysia.

Across Jalan Tun Sambanthan from the Padang, are a row of pre-war town houses which housed the offices and residences of legal professionals.

So what does all this have to do with the concubine in the title of this post you may ask? Well, the stroll did certainly help in working up an appetite and in deciding to head to nearby Leech Street or what is now Jalan Bandar Timah where I was given to understand had some of the best “Sar Hor Fun” – flat rice noodles (commonly referred to as Kway Teow in our part of the world) of which Ipoh has reputedly the best (in terms of it being silky smooth), served with shredded steamed chicken and prawns in a clear chicken broth, in town, I stumbled upon another of the delightful surprises Ipoh held in store for me: Panglima Lane. Panglima Lane or Lorong Panglima is a narrow alleyway lined with two rows of two-storey pre-war houses that date back to the turn of the 20th Century. The lane had apparently been a hotbed of vice activity, home to gambling, prostitution and opium dens, which later became a residential area from which it got its name “Second Concubine Lane” being one of three streets where the Chinese wealthy had housed their concubines. Today, what greets the visitor are the crumbling and closely spaced units, some still occupied, and others, structurally unsound, lying abandoned. Signs of life are still very much in evidence around the occupied units – a well known restaurant occupies one of the units close to the main road beyond which the sight of laundry poles overhead, potted plants, opened doors and bicycles and tricycles greet the eye, along with evidence of the units that are slowly but surely falling apart. There are apparently plans to conserve and redevelop the houses along the lane, which I guess is something to look forward to, and something that has to be done before it all crumbles away.

A delightful find off Jalan Bandar Timah (Leech Street) is Lorong Panglima, a narrow street which is also known as "Concubine Lane".

Two rows of houses dating from the turn of the 20th Century line both sides of Concubine Lane, some showing signs of age and neglect. The lane was once a hotbed of vice activity and later became a residential area where rich Chinese men kept mistresses or concubines.

Another view of Concubine Lane. Some units still serve as residences, while some have been abandoned and left to crumble.

A tricycle outside a house in Concubine Lane.

More signs of life.

Windows on Concubine Lane.

A peek into one of the abandoned units on Concubine Lane.

As an added treat, I had my bowl of “Sar Hor Fun” in a coffee shop on the ground floor of a building on Leech Street that was built in the 1920s, as a hostel for performers at a Chinese Opera theatre that was just next door to it (since demolished). It was really a toss-up between the “Sar Hor Fun” stall next door at No. 73 which seemed more popular, and the one at No. 75 (Kong Heng Coffee Shop) where the so-called Dramatists’ Hostel was housed. I went for the one at No. 75 perhaps for the history of the building and wasn’t disappointed. The bowl of silky smooth noodles in the tasty chicken broth (which didn’t at all feel like it had been flavoured with MSG) was one of the best I have tasted. What struck me sitting in the coffee shop was that besides the bowl of noodles, people were also eating satay – which came from a well-known stall at neighbouring No. 73 – satay where I come from is usually only eaten only in the evenings. With the bowl of noodles finished, there was only one thing left to do … that was to sip on the steaming hot cup of Ipoh White Coffee, before heading back to the hotel for a rest.

The former "Dramatists' Hostel" along Leech Street once was home to performers of the Chinese Opera Theatre that stood next door (since demolished).

The ground floor of the former "Dramatists' Hostel" now houses the Kedai Kopi Kong Heng, at which I had a piping hot bowl of the well known Ipoh Sar Hor Fun.

A view from the window of the coffee shop.

The very satisfying bowl of "Sar Hor Fun" that I had.

The Sar Hor Fun stall at Kong Heng.





Windows 1.0

7 11 2010

One of the simple things that I love is how light streams through the frosted or textured panes of an old window, casting a soft and somewhat surreal glow on the space it is meant to provide light to. For me, being bathed in that soft glow, often tinged with a green coloured tint the glass is given somehow brings with it a sense of calm, a calm that exudes a surprising coolness that allows one to take refuge from the warm and oppressive heat that lies beyond the translucent panes. It is for me a light so beautiful that it always draws me to the space that it illuminates – a light that somehow we have in our quest to erect the new edifices of glass and steel, we have long forgotten about.

Soft light streaming into a room of a building that was designed in the mid 1900s.

I guess many of these windows came from a time when necessity dictated that windows would provide light necessary to illuminate a space in the day, serving as a means to ventilate as well as keep out the heat and glare of the tropical sun. Most would have been frosted or textured to provide for the latter consideration as well as for privacy – something that perhaps is achieved for practical reasons with adornments to windows such as the blinds that are commonplace with the windows of today.

Soft light streaming from textured windows of a shophouse from the 1930s in Wan Chai, Hong Kong.

The frosted or textured panes of glass, sometimes coloured, sometimes not, always succeeds in evoking a sense of nostalgia in me, a nostalgia for a time when I sat in the warm glow of the green frosted and textured windows of the primary school that I attended. It was a time for me when there was much to discover through the eyes of a child with the wonderment of world at his feet, and when many of the friendships made have lasted through the half a lifetime that has since passed. I guess those were the formative years that made me the person I am today, and gave me the eyes with which I now look at the world through.

Green coloured frosted glass adds a cool and calm to the light that filters through them.

The green coloured versions somehow casts a tranquility that envelops the space, something that is very much in evidence in the grand old Supreme Court building. It is in providing Singapore with a masterpiece of his architectural genius, that Frank Dorrigton Ward, makes wonderful use of frosted as well as clear glass windows and skylights, that makes it unnecessary to use artificial lighting during the day. What is simply brilliant about the work is that the soft light that filters through, bathes the internal spaces such as the Rotunda Library, the Courtrooms, Judges’ Chambers and passageways with a glow that speaks of a calm that only seeing can describe. This was something that I was fortunate enough to savour on a few visits to the grand old building before work begins to transform it into the National Gallery of Art. It is certainly comforting to know that once the transformation is complete, we will still see much of the magnificent light that it is now bathed in, comforting in the sense that there is still a place to which I can go to feel the glow that only those wonderful windows of old can bring.

Soft light on the main staircase of the old Supreme Court.

Another view of the staircase of the old Supreme Court.

Soft light entering the former Chief Justice's Office in the old Supreme Court.

The soft light of the Rotunda Library.

The old Supreme Court features strategically placed skylights and windows that allow filtered natural light to illuminate its corridors and chambers.

Even the lobby of the prisoner holding area is bathed in a wonderful soft light that streams in through the windows.

A coloured frosted window in the old Supreme Court.

Coloured frosted windows of the old Supreme Court.

A window to a light well in the old Supreme Court.

Soft light of a room illuminated by light filtered through the frosted glass panes of a window.

Textured and frosted glass is commonly used in older buildings of the pre-glass and steel days.

A close up of textured and frosted glass panes.

Timeless old world illumination reflected off the instrument of illumination of the new world.








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