The far side of Fort Canning Hill, as far as the schoolboys from SJI were concerned, was the area where the southern and western slopes of the hill were. It was an area that we would usually pass through on our jogs around the hill during Physical Education lessons (P.E.) – or on our way to River Valley Swimming Pool for the occasional swimming practice for our P.E. This was also how we could get across from school to watch the annual Thaipusam procession, which would make its way along Tank Road to its destination at the Sri Thandayuthapani Temple (also known as the Chettiar Temple).
The western slope which faces Clemenceau Avenue and Tank Road was an area which we would usually try to avoid – several of us had “close encounters” with the boys from the school facing the slope on Tank Road, Tuan Mong High School, which was housed in the distinctive Teochew Building. The Teochew Building built in the early 1960s on the site of the former Tuan Mong High School building, besides housing the school, also housed the Teochew clan associations: Ngee Ann Kongsi and the Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan, as well as the Ngee Ann College, the predecessor to Ngee Ann Polytechnic, when it was established in 1963, for a while until 1968.
Tank road is also home to the Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart, built in the French Gothic style, which was completed in 1910. The church built by the French Catholic missionaries for the Cantonese and Hakka community, was designed by a Rev. Fr. Lambert who was apparently a well-known architect. Interestingly, the site of the church is also close to Singapore’s first railway station: the terminal station of the first railway line running from Kranji to Tank Road built in 1903. The station was demolished around 1939 when the line was dismantled. Drawn perhaps by the concise sermon and perhaps due to the proximity of the newly opened Japanese departmental store, Yaohan, at Plaza Singapura (which opened in 1974), my parents were fond of bringing us for mass at the church on Saturday evenings. We did this for a few years until 1977/78, and would visit Plaza Singapura for dinner and for a walk around the supermarket after mass.
The southern slope of Fort Canning Hill runs along River Valley Road. This was where four landmarks were located: the National Theatre, Van Kleef Aquarium, River Valley Swimming Pool and the Hill Street Police Station at the end, where River Valley Road meets up with Hill Street. Of these, possibly the two most loved ones, the National Theatre and the Van Kleef Aquarium have since disappeared, and the River Valley Swimming Pool sits disused, quietly awaiting its end.
The area would have been dominated by the National Theatre standing prominently at the foot of the hill where Clemenceau Avenue and River Valley Road met. This served as a proud symbol of self-reliance, being designed by a Singapore architect, Alfred Wong in a design competition. The construction of the 3420 seat open air theatre was jointly funded by the Singapore government and the public and the theatre was opened in 1964.
The theatre building was notable for a few features, including a 150 tonne cantilevered steel roof reaching to the slopes of Fort Canning. The façade featured a five pointed diamond shaped patterns, each of which represented one of the five stars on the Singapore flag. An outdoor fountain stood in front yard of the building, representing the crescent moon on the Singapore flag. The theatre had to be unceremoniously demolished in 1986 after it was found to be structurally unsound.
Next to the theatre was one of my favourite places in the 1960s, the Van Kleef Aquarium. The Van Kleef Aquarium was built in the 1950s with funds bequeathed by a Karl Willem Benjamin van Kleef, a successful Dutch businessman who had settled in Singapore, who passed away in 1930 after returning to the Netherlands in 1913, hence the name of the aquarium. When the aquarium opened in 1955, it was one of the most impressive aquariums in the world. The building designed by the local municipal architects, was in itself, an impressive feat of engineering. It featured two underground reservoirs from which water could be pumped to the tanks housing the exhibits by a system of pumps. This was where I had my first glance of beautifully coloured marine fish, including the Lion Fish which was my favourite. While increasing interest in the first 25 years saw visitor numbers to the aquarium peak at 430,000 visitors in the 1979, interest waned in the 1980s, with visitor numbers falling to some 248,000 visitors in 1985, as newer attractions such as the zoo and the bird park became more fashionable. With the opening of Underwater World in Sentosa in 1991, a decision was made to close the aquarium. It finally closed its doors in 1996, and the building was demolished in 1998.
Next to the Van Kleef Aquarium, the River Valley Swimming Complex was built in the late 1950s by the Singapore City Council. It was designed by a British architect, M. E. Crocker and was opened in 1959. The Olympic sized pool was one of the pools we used as schoolboys for P.E. alternating with the one at the then SAF NCO club in Beach Road. Little did we know it then, but the complex was a haunt of men of an alternative orientation. The complex was closed in 2003.
Further along the foot of the hill along River Valley Road, the magnificent Neo-Classical styled Hill Street Police Station building. The building was designed by the Public Works Department and when completed in 1934, it was the largest government building on the island. The building features a courtyard which served as a parade ground and has a total of 911 windows. The building housed Singapore’s earliest jail, as well as housing the police station and serving as the living quarters for police personnel. The Kempeitai was said to have used the building as a prison and torture chamber during the Japanese Occupation. The building was used by the police unitl 1980, and the National Archives used the building from 1983, before the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA) which now occupies the building moved in. One of the things that I clearly remember about the building was a sign which stuck out above a doorway on River Valley Road that I always made a point of looking out for when I was a boy of maybe 5 or 6. The sign had the words “Officers’ Mess” on it, and I was comforted in the knowledge that I wasn’t the only person around who lived with a “mess”! It was only when I was a little older that I came to realise what a “Mess” in that context was.
Some pictures taken inside the old National Theatre during the SJI 125th Anniversary Celebrations in 1977:
An old postcard showing Tank Road Station: