One hundred steps to Heaven

1 03 2011

If heaven was to be a place in Singapore, there would probably not be a better candidate for a suitable location than the Mount Sophia that previously existed. These days of course, Mount Sophia is associated more with sought after high-rise residential units in a prime location close to the heart of the city. However, back in the early part of the 20th century, it must certainly have been a truly magical and heavenly place, dominated by the magnificent Eu Villa that commanded a view of much of the surrounding areas of the fast growing city that lay on the areas some 100 feet below, and the many other grand bungalows and mansions, paticularly around Adis and Wilkie Roads. By the time I was going to school in Bras Basah Road and wandering curiously around the area, many of the heavenly places were still around, albeit in dilapidated condition – and mostly I guess crumbling to a point that it would have taken a monumental effort to preserve them. Still one could easily imagine how grand the area, which seemed a world apart from the rough and tumble of the mixed residential and commercial districts that lay below, would have been.

An aerial view of Mount Sophia and the surrounding area in the 1960s. It is easy to see why the well heeled would choose to build their magnificent mansions on the geographical feature which commanded an excellent view of the area around it. The Cathay Building can be seen on the south of Mount Sophia and the castle like Eu Villa to the top and right of it. The Istana and its grounds, which together with Mount Sophia and adjoining Mount Emily were part of Charles Robert Prinsep's huge nutmeg plantation can be seen on the left of the photo (Photo Source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

I was fortunate to be able to have seen all that I guess and place myself in that magical world, then accessible either via Sophia Road or by the so-called one hundred steps up from Handy Road. Given the choice of access options, the adventurous schoolboy that I was would certainly have chosen the latter route – after all, it was a shortcut we occasionally took to get to Plaza Singapura, then not accessible through Handy Road, which would involve climbing into the upper level of the car park at Plaza Singapore right next to western slopes of Mount Sophia, where Yaohan and a popular hangout for teens then, the Yamaha Music School run Do Re Mi cafe, beckoned. These days, much of that magic that I felt back then, is absent, with the manisons, most of which went in the 1980s and 1990s, with Eu Villa itself being demolished in 1981 after being sold by the Eu family for a princely sum of S$ 8.19M in 1973 to a property development company, having given way to a mess of monstrous apartment blocks, and it’s difficult to return to that magical world that I once wandered around.

The fairy-tale like Eu Villa, once the home of Eu Tong Sen. It was built in 1915 at a cost of S$1M on the site of Adis Lodge which Eu had purchase from Nissim Nissim Adis, the owner of the Grand Hotel de L'Europe in 1912.

I had an opportunity to do just that, return to the magical world that is, taking a walk with the National Library Board around the area, and trying to transport not just myself, but also a group of 30 participants to that world that I once knew. It was good to have on board two ladies who attended two of the schools in the area, who were able to share their experiences as well of going to Nan Hwa Girls’ School and Methodist Girls School (MGS). Both described ascending the one hundered steps to get to their schools, describing how it rose precariously up the steep slope from Handy Road with no railings to speak of and the steps being uneven in height – far different from the reconstructed steps in the vicinity of the original we see today. The ex MGS girl described how her schoolmates and her would race down the steps … something I am sure many would have not been able to resist in impetuosity of youth. We also confirmed that there were actually 100 steps – something I never thought of trying to establish in the many occasions on which I ascended the steps.

The one hundred steps offered a short cut for the adventurous to Plaza Singapura (seen here in its very early days - source: http://www.picas.gov.nhb.sg).

The walk started with a short introduction at the library, after which we were transported to the magical hill not by the one hundred steps, but by air-conditioned coach to the top of Mount Emily, I guess in keeping with the new age. What we saw were some remnants of there area that I loved, including the former Mount Emily Girls’ home which for a while was used as the Japanese Consulate prior to the war, becoming a halfway house for underage street prostitutes before becoming the girls’ home in 1969 and later the Wilkie Road Children’s Home in the 1980s. There was also the location of the first public swimming pool in Singapore, built on the site of the waterworks on Mount Emily, a pool that I visited in my younger days, being one of my father’s favourite pools, across from which we could see the hoardings surrounding the former bungalow of the late Major Derrick Coupland who passed away in 1991. Major Coupland was well known as a World War II veteran and the President of the Ex-Services Association heading it for some 20 years prior to his death from bone cancer in June 1991. I understand from a reader that the bungalow has been left empty since and the deterioration from 20 years of abandonment was evident before the hoardings came up some time at the end of last year – I suppose that the building is being prepared for demolition right at this moment.

The hoardings havve come up around the crumbling former residence of Major Derrick Coupland.

From the original coat of arms, used during the years of self-govenrment that can be seen on the structure at the entrance to Mount Emily Park, we made our way down Wilkie Road, past the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Sikh Temple. The current temple with its distinctive white dome, is a later one, built in 1983, next to an old house which as a plaque indicates, was purchased in 1932 (I was told from a Jewish gentleman), and originally housed the temple. Most of the magnificent mansions, including one owned by M J Nassim, that lined Wilkie Road have been replaced by apartment blocks … one that remains is the Abdullah Shooker Welfare Home at 81 Wilkie Road which is described in a previous post.

Wilkie Road used to be lined with magnificent mansions including one that still stands - the Abdullah Shooker Welfare Home, left by the late Abdullah Shooker, a Baghdadi Jew who died during internment by the Japanese in 1942, to the Jewish community.

Further down Wilkie Road, the participants were introduced to the Sophia Flats, once the home of the illustrious F J Benjamin, across from which we could once get a glimpse of the roofs of the magical Eu Villa over a retaining wall which marked the edge of the table on which the villa and its huge grounds once stood. Sadly the wall has come down, perhaps the last reminder of the villa that was left, along with the table which is being levelled for what is probably a commercial/residential project.

And the wall came tumbling down ... the last reminder of Eu Villa comes down - a retaining wall that marked the edge of the table of land on which the villa once stood (as seen in January 2011).

The last bit of the wall next to Peace Centre on Sophia Road.

At the corner of Adis and Sophia Roads, the excited chatter of a former student of Nan Hwa Girl’s School was heard, as she reminisced about her schooldays. The building which was completed in 1941, before being used by the Japanese during the war and the British forces after before being returned to Nan Hwa in 1947, is now used as a student hostel – and as one participant on the walk pointed out, the flag poles in front of the basketball courts which also served as an assembly area were still very much in evidence. Besides this, we learnt of a popular ice-kacang stall that both the girls of Nan Hwa and MGS patronised after school which was at the corner opposite Nan Hwa.

The former Nan Hwa Girls' High School at the corner of Adis and Sophia Roads.

A former student at Nan Hwa Girls' School sharing her experiences of going to school outside the former Nan Hwa Girls' School.

The corner of Adis Road and Sophia Road at which the ice kacang stall that both girls of Nan Hwa and MGS patronised, was located.

Before we hit the new one hundred steps, we stopped by the Art Deco styled building which housed San Shan Public School which was built in the 1950s by the Foochow Association, which ran the school up to the 1970s when the running of it was handed to the Ministry of Education. The school after moving from its Mount Sophia premises in the 1980s has stopped functioning. Next was the former Trinity Theological College which was established in 1948. The cluster of buildings that belonged to the college including the church with the distinctive roof shaped to the Chinese character for people, 人 (Ren), were built in the 1960s. The college moved in the 1990s to its current location along Upper Bukit Timah Road – and the roof of the church there is identical to the one on Mount Sophia. Next to the college, the cluster of buildings (now Old School) that house MGS still stands. The former pupil of MGS spoke of how she could see the gardens of Eu Villa from her class window, and how the classes were organised, C being the best class and A for the weakest students, of the three classes that each form had in the 1960s.

A view of the former MGS.

From the hundred steps down, we made our way to the corner of what used to be Dhoby Ghaut and Bras Basah Road, now dominated by another monstrous piece of architecture which did not agree with most of the participants – one remarked that it “stuck out like a sore thumb”. Where that building which is the School of the Arts (SOTA) stand, there was what had been Dhoby Ghaut, gone as a road that carried the name in an area that once was used by the Indian Dhobis to gain access to the fresh water stream that has since become the Stamford Canal. What survives of that Dhoby Ghaut which hold memories of the row of shops which included the Red Sea Aquarium and an A&W outlet that I frequented as a schoolboy and another row of houses up behind on Kirk Terrace which included a Sikh temple, is only the name of the MRT station in the vicinity.

The row of shops at Dhoby Ghaut next to Cathay Building was where the Red Sea Aquarium as well as the A&W was. Today the SOTA building stands on top of the area where Dhoby Ghaut was (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

We then walked up Prinsep Street, named after Charles Robert Prinsep, the owner of the nutmeg plantation which once included Mount Emily, Mount Sophia and Mount Caroline and extended to the Istana grounds (100 acres were purchased in 1867 for the Governor’s House which became the Istana). There were suggestions that the three mounts were named after three daughters of Prinsep, but what is more likely was that when Prinsep purchased the land, Mount Sophia (which appears earlier as Bukit Selegi) would have already been named after the second wife of Raffles, modern Singapore’s founder, Sophia Hull, and if anything, Prinsep named the two adjoining hills after two other daughters, having been part of the former estate of Raffles’ brother-in-law and Singapore’s first Master Attendant, Captain Flint.

Kirk Terrace over Dhoby Ghaut (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

It was then a leisurely stroll back to the library via Middle Road, where we stopped by the site of the former POSB headquarters facing Prinsep Street and the Registry of Vehicles (ROV) facing Bencoolen Street, where Sunshine Plaza stands, but not before introducing the former Tiger Balm Building, the David Elias Building and the former Middle Road hospital. At Sunshine Plaza, we saw a few signcraft shops – remnants of those that featured in the area when demand for vehicle number plates existed due to the presence of the ROV in the vicinity. Then it was past the former Middle Road Church (now Sculpture Square), used as a motor workshop when I went to school in the area in the 1970s, and the former St. Anthony’s Convent, before hitting the site of the former Queen of the Mooncakes (Empress Hotel) – our destination where the Central Library building now stands.

Middle Road once featured sign craft shops serving the demand from the nearby ROV, including Rainbow Signs which I well remember from passing many times on the bus home from school (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

It was the end of a rather enjoyable walk for me, and I hope the participants had as good a time as I had. Before what was left of the participants dispersed, there was still time to exchange a story, one about the sighting of an Orang Minyak (translated from Malay as “Oily Man” – one that is said to be cursed to an existence as an dark oil coated being that possesses supernatural powers, but more likely as a participant Jeff pointed out, was a man coated in oil to ensure a smooth getaway), reputed as one that terrorises the fairer sex. I had heard about one which was reportedly known to lurk in the compound of St. Joseph’s Church across Victoria Street, through a reader Greg Lim, who lived in Holloway Lane in the 1950s. My mother who boarded at St. Anthony’s Convent in the 1950s could not confirm this, but did mentioned that there were rumours of one lurking in the stairwell. Jeff, who himself lived on nearby Cashin Street in the 1950s confirmed that there was indeed sightings reported, and he was in one of the crowds that had gathered to try to catch a glimpse of the Orang Minyak. Another participant, the mother of Ms Thiru (who is with the NLB and organised the walk), also confirmed that she was aware of the story. It was certainly an interesting end to the walk, one that took a little longer than anticipated, but one that was thoroughly enjoyable.

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





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.





Smokey’s and a Red House: Memories of Victoria Street from Bras Basah to Middle Road

28 02 2010

For the SJI schoolboy in the late 1970s, Victoria Street offered an appealing escape from the boredom of the classroom. It was not just for the two convent schools that stradled the ends of the stretch of Victoria Street in question (from Bras Basah Road to Middle Road), but also for the other distractions to the classroom that was on offer. The area around the corner of Bras Basah Road was perhaps where we were most familiar with. As we made our way from school or from the bus stop in front of the City Music outlet on Bras Basah Road roughly where the NTUC Income Centre is today, we would come to this corner where the window display of test tubes, beakers and laboratory supplies of the Central Medical Hall which occupied the corner unit of Victoria Building never failed to catch my eye.

A building belonging to the Singapore Management University stands in place of the two storey Victoria Building at the corner of Bras Basah Road and Victoria Street. The Central Medical Hall occupied the corner unit of the Victoria Building.

Around the medical hall, was the row of shops that included a coffee shop that we dubbed as “Smokey’s”, where many of us grabbed a cup of tea in the morning, motivated by the steady stream of convent school girls that dropped in on their way to school. I never found out why we called it Smokey’s and I understand that there were sumptuous beef brisket noodles on offer there, not that I noticed it then. Perhaps we did not have the time to dwell on all that, with the distractions offered by the comings and goings that we observed over the steaming hot cups of tea.

Two rows of steel pillars now lines the row where Smokey's and the Shanghai Bookstore was.

Tea was always served piping hot there, in the thick walled kopi-tiam (coffee shop) cups and saucers of old, complete with green motifs and hairline cracks in the baked porcelain that appeared through the glazing. This offered us the opportunity to observe world within the confines of the white tiled walls of the coffee shop, across the marble table tops and wooden chairs typical of the coffee shops of old.

Further down the row, perhaps at the end of Victoria Building, was the Shanghai bookstore, with its two storeys of Chinese books, smelling as a bookstore of those days did – a smell that I can still recall to this day. The second floor of the shop had a stationery section where many of the white uniformed boys of SJI could be seen, cooling off in the coolest part of the air-conditioned bookshop.

The Shanghai Bookstore was a popular hangout.

A few doors away from the bookstore, the Victoria Hotel stood. Next to the lobby on the ground floor of the hotel, there was another place that offered respite from the heat – one of the few air-conditioned chicken rice restaurants in those days, the Victoria Restaurant, which was quite popular with Singaporeans, seeking an cooler dining alternative from the more popular Swee Kee Restaurant on nearby Middle Road.

The Victoria Restaurant on the ground floor of the Victoria Hotel was popular for its Chicken Rice and Air-conditioned premises.

The Victoria Restaurant was located on the ground floor of the Victoria Hotel.

The stretch where the Shanghai Book Store and the Victoria Restaurant was.

Further along, there was the Hotel New Hong Kong, which became the Hotel Tai-Pan when I went to school. This is where the Allson Hotel now stands. Next door to this is the rectory building of St. Joseph’s Church and the entrance to the compound which holds the Church, St. Anthony’s Boys School and St. Anthony’s Convent, before the junction with Middle Road.

The rectory of St. Joseph's Church along Victoria Street.

St. Joseph's Church as seen from Victoria Street.

St. Anthony's Convent (see here from Middle Road with the National Library in the background) used to look across Victoria Street to the Empress Hotel.

The view of St. Anthony's Convent in the 1950s from a similar vantage point.

My own memories of the area on the other side of the road, where the brand new National Library building now stands, are rather vague and on this I have been helped out by a reader Greg Lim, who lived in the area in the 1950s, as well as by my mother who was a boarder at St. Anthony’s Convent in the late 1940s and the 1950s. There was the Empress Hotel which stood at the corner, which was apparently known for its mooncakes. My mother describes a sign that she remembered, standing out of the hotel building, proclaiming that the “Queen of Mooncakes” was sold there. My mother describes the hotel as being a rather seedy place, to which the nuns at the convent forbade the boarders and orphans whose windows in the boarding house across the street from the hotel faced, to look at. Greg also mentions that the six storey Empress Hotel was also notorious for being a location that was popular with people attempting to commit suicide.

The National Library Building now dominates the area bounded by Middle Road, Victoria Street, North Bridge Road and Bain Street and stands where the Empress Hotel, Lorong Sidin and Holloway Lane once stood.

Holloway Lane in 1958 (Source: Ray Tyers Singapore Then & Now).

Moving on this side of the street back towards Bras Basah Road, there were two streets there which have since disappeared, Lorong Sidin and Holloway Lane, still within the parcel of land on which the National Library is built on. Both were lined with rows of shophouses. The area is described by Greg as being referred to as the Hylam streets, a reference to the Hainanese families and businesses that dominated the area. The area also featured many furniture shops, and my mother says that an uncle of mine had bought his first set of furniture from the area.

Bain Street today - devoid of the vibrancy that the area was once know for.

Bain Street on which Greg lived, which is still there, running along Bras Basah Complex, as Greg describes was dominated by a four storey building named Victoria Court, at the junction with Victoria Street. On the ground floor, there was a furniture shop called Comfort Furniture and on the opposite corner, there was a shop that made mattresses. Bras Basah complex, which was built in 1980, was built in the area between the once vibrant Bain, Cashin, Carver and Miller Streets that were known for bookshops and hawker food. The complex itself housed many of the bookshops and watch dealers that were moved out of Bras Basah Road and North Bridge Road areas. Greg mentions that most shops along Victoria Street were furniture shops. Bain St as Greg notes was famous for Hainanese coconut pastry and beef noodles in black sauce. Miller Street is dominated by the Siakson building and with Carver Street, served as the main access for many of us heading to Odeon Cinema which was along North Bridge Road – that was where I watched Star Wars in 1977.

Bras Basah complex, which was built in 1980, was built in the area between the once vibrant Bain, Cashin, Carver and Miller Streets that were known for bookshops and hawker food.

The Siakson Building dominates Miller Street.

The spiral staircase of the Siakson Building.

Past Miller Street, right at the end of this stretch of Victoria Street at the junction with Bras Basah Road, where the Carlton Hotel now stands, was the well known red painted shophouse that housed the popular Red House Bakery and Cafe which was popular which many students for the reasonably priced set meals on offer.

The corner where the Red House was.


Added on 14 April 2010:

Victoria Street c.1981. The four storey building would be Victoria Court which was at the corner of Victoria and Bain Streets. The HDB block of flats in the background is Bras Basah complex (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).









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