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.





Park Lane, Mayfair and Hyde Park

29 04 2010

The mention of Park Lane and Mayfair would bring memories of the many evenings spent in my childhood playing the board game of Monopoly with the family. The two properties on the Monopoly board are of course the most expensive and sought after, guaranteed to give one an excellent chance of winning the game. Having acquired the game at Marican and Sons which was located along East Coast Road when I was maybe six or seven, it was was one of those things I were grateful to have as a child, as it was able to keep me entertained in a time when the world that did not have the distractions that the world today brings to her children. It was perhaps my favourite game, as it was one which maybe depended less on skill and age for a fair chance of winning.

It was only later in life, that I would associate Mayfair and Park Lane with the exclusive district in London of the same name. Mayfair bounded by Oxford Street to the North, Regent Street to the East, Piccadilly and Pall Mall to the South and Park Lane to the West, would be an area where I would often find myself wandering around during a sojourn in London in 1990, being close to Hyde Park (Park Lane runs along the eastern boundary of Hyde Park) and Speaker’s Corner. Well before I got to wander around the streets of London, we did have a Mayfair, Park Lane and even a Hyde Park here, close to the area where I went to school, not perhaps the exclusive areas that the parts of London they were named after, but names that were familiar to many nonetheless. We had the Mayfair Hotel along Armenian Street, Park Lane Shopping Mall built in the late 1970s, and Hyde Park Café.

The Mayfair Hotel by the time I was growing up, had been a hotel that had seen better times. Housed in an art deco styled building that has recently been refurbished along Armenian Street, the hotel opened in 1950 and was quite a decent enough establishment to play host to the BOAC (now British Airways) air crew on their stopovers. The hotel closed due to poor business in 1976, and reopened in 1979 as the New Mayfair Hotel. By that time, the hotel had become quite a sleazy place and it wasn’t too long before it closed its doors again.

The art deco building that once housed the Mayfair Hotel along Armenian Street.

A short walk from Armenian Street, down to Bras Basah Road and pass the row of now demolished shop houses that housed the well known Rendezvous Nasi Padang restaurant at the corner of Bras Basah Road and Prinsep Street and another row of now demolished shop houses that housed the Tiong Hoa Hotel along Prinsep Street, there is a quaint little row of conservation shop houses that we see today known as Prinsep Court. You will see at the end of this row, just beside what is now the Elections Department building, the Hyde Park Café. The café had its origins across Selegie Road at a shopping complex that has also seen better times, Park Lane Shopping Mall. Hyde Park Café is of course associated with a Singapore food institution, Soon Heng Fish Head Curry and was started by the daughter of the founder of Soon Heng.

The Elections Department Building along Prinsep Street.

The corner of Bras Basah Road and Prinsep Street in the 1950s (Source: national Archives of Singapore).

Selegie Road and Prinsep Street in the 1950s (Source: National Archives of Singapore).

To get to Park Lane from where Hyde Park is today, one will pass by a bright yellow coloured building at the corner of Selegie Road and Prinsep Street – this was something we always noticed from the bus – I can’t quite remember what it was used as before and I don’t quite know when it was built – perhaps one of you can enlighten me … but I am glad it still stands today as a reminder of what was once like.

The distinctive Selegie Arts Centre Building at the corner of Prinsep Street and Selegie Road.

View of Selegie Road and Prinsep Street - Park Lane Shopping Mall is on the left of the photograph.

Prinsep Court - a row of conservation shop houses.

Hyde Park Cafe.





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.





When did the tiger at the corner of Selegie Road and Short Street go missing?

15 03 2010

While looking at a photograph I had taken of that distinctive building which stands at the corner of Short Street and Selegie Road, a building that has been a feature on Selegie Road for as long as I can remember, it came to me that I once used to see a tiger at the top of the building. The 4 storey building which was, when I was growing up, used by the Chung Khiaw Bank and later after its merger with United Overseas Bank (UOB), by the UOB Group, had more recently housed the offices and a food court of Banquet Holdings Pte Ltd, operators of the Banquet chain of halal food courts. The building, I sadly learnt, would soon be making way for a 12 storey entertainment hub named 10 square after its 100 Selegie Road address which would feature a 14 metre wide LED screen on its façade.

The very distinctive building at the corner of Short Street and Selegie Road.

The tiger I used to see was not a live one of course … it was one that we are well acquainted with in Singapore – the tiger that we see on the labels of Tiger Balm. This does provide a clue to the history of the building, which my father had referred to as the Tiger Balm Building. It had housed a Eng Aun Tong Medical Hall, as is evidenced by a 1941 photograph seen at http://kaufmann-mercantile.com/tiger-balm/. The photograph also shows that an additional floor had been added on at some point in time.

The Tiger Balm Building, 1941 (Source: http://kaufmann-mercantile.com/tiger-balm).

It would not be hard to explain how the building came to be used by Chung Khiaw Bank – the bank had been established in 1950 by Aw Boon Haw, the man who together with his brother Aw Boon Par, gave us Tiger Balm, Haw Par Corporation and the Haw Par Villa. When, the use of the building changed, I was not able to establish, as with when the tiger disappeared. What I do know is that the tiger could still be seen in a 1975 photograph of Selegie Road. I also remember looking out for it on the bus ride home when I was receiving my lower secondary education between 1977 and 1978. By 1990, as seen in another photograph in Ray Tyers book, the tiger had already gone missing, a fate that now awaits its former home.

The tiger still seen above the former Tiger Balm Building in a photograph of Selegie Road taken in 1975 (Source: Ray Tyers Singapore Then & Now).





Vel, Vel, Vadivel: Thaipusam in Singapore

30 01 2010

Thaipusam is one of several religious festivals which makes a grey Singapore a little more colourful. It is one of those things that is still very much practiced in the same fashion as it had been when the first Tamil immigrants brought the tradition over from Tamil Nadu. I have been fascinated with the festival since my days as a schoolboy, particularly the sight of tongues, cheeks and various parts of the body pierced with vels, skewers or imaginary spears. Going to school along Bras Basah Road, I wasn’t far away from the “action”. This  took place one a year during the Tamil month of Thai, on the day of the full moon. The procession of devotees carrying Kavadis of various forms and milk pots, accompanied by friends and family members and the sound of drums, musical instruments (only drums are permitted today) and the chants of “Vel, Vel, Vadivel“, through a four kilometre route from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road to the Sri Thandayuthapani Temple in Tank Road would pass close by at Dhoby Ghaut. As schoolboys, several of us would follow a part of the procession from Selegie Road to Penang Road and sometimes on to Tank Road, where some of the more daring ones would go inside the Sri Thandayuthapani Temple, where a vegetarian meals served on banana leaves would await them.

I have somehow never photographed the event and did so today. The tradition of Thaipusam provides interesting reading, but there would be enough of it already explained elsewhere so I guess it is best to let the photographs do the talking …

The Vel Kavadi is synonymous with Thaipusam in Singapore

The Vel Kavadi is adorned with peacock feathers and attached to the devotee through 108 vels or skewers pierced into the skin on the chest and back.

Peacock feathers on a Kavadi.

Devotees carrying a milk pot and a simple Kavadi.

Milk Pots are carried by both men and women, young and old.

The procession on Selegie Road.

Kavadis along Selegie Road.

Devotees with milk pots along Selegie Road.

Devotee carrying a simple Kavadi.

Concentration and silence is maintained by the Kavadi bearers.

Devotees carrying milk pots.

Old and young carrying milk pots.

Hooks on the back of a devotee pulling a chariot.

More scenes and faces captured during the procession along Upper Serangoon and Selegie Roads today.








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