Lost places: The shrine across the Divine Bridge

7 04 2014

The Japanese couldn’t have picked a more divine setting in Singapore for the Syonan Jinja (昭南神社), the Light of the South Shrine that was to be the grandest of Shinto shirnes erected in the southern reaches of the empire. Even today, despite its site having been reclaimed by the forest , it is not difficult to find the beauty and peace the site was chosen for, in an area that even today does seem far removed from the urban world.

The site of the Syonan Jinja where remnants of what was once South-East Asia's  leading Japanese Shinto shrine is today an eerie yet peaceful spot. What is seen in the photograph is one of the more visible remnants, a sacred granite water trough for ritual purification.

The site of the Syonan Jinja where remnants of what was once South-East Asia’s leading Japanese Shinto shrine is today an eerie yet peaceful spot. What is seen in the photograph is one of the more visible remnants, a sacred granite water trough for ritual purification.

A worship ceremony involving Japanese troops at the opening of the Syonan Jinja in 1943 (source: http://www.himoji.jp/himoji/database/db04/images_db_ori/2200.jpg).

A worship ceremony involving Japanese troops at the opening of the Syonan Jinja in 1943 (source: http://www.himoji.jp/himoji/database/db04/images_db_ori/2200.jpg).

The shrine, built with labour provided by the Allied prisoners-of-war (POW), was one of several that came up in Singapore during the Japanese occupation. One of two of the more notable shrines – another was the Syonan Chureito on Bukit Batok, the Syonan Jinja stood on a slope of a hill that rose from the water’s edge around the western reaches of MacRitchie Reservoir, across a what from the evidence presented in photographs of it, was a beautifully crafted bridge, known as the Divine Bridge.

The Torii Gate at the bottom of the stairway leading up to the Syonan Jinja seen in 1943 (Showa History Vol. 10: Pacific War Breaks Out、Mainichi Newspapers Company, uploaded to http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3d/Shonan_Shrine.jpg).

The Torii Gate at the bottom of the stairway leading up to the Syonan Jinja as seen in 1943 with the Divine Bridge in the background (source: Mainichi Newspapers Company, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3d/Shonan_Shrine.jpg).

The shrine and its site and the grand plans for it, which was opened to commemorate the first anniversary of the fall of Singapore in 1943, have been described in the National Library’s infopedia page on the shrine:

a beautiful wooden structure that featured the clean, simple lines of classic Japanese architecture. It was built on a raised stone platform and it had a large granite ceremonial fountain for ritual purification. The surrounding area was designed to be a Japanese garden with gentle pebbled streams, stone lanterns, a stone-stepped path, small torii gates (traditional Japanese gates commonly found at the entrance of Shinto shrines), and landscaping featuring native and imported plants. Four to five tonnes of pebbles were imported from Borneo for this project, while religious artifacts and certain plants were sourced from Japan. The wood used for the shrine, however, was from Singapore”

The area around the shrine was to be transformed into a 1,000-acre park with public recreational and sporting facilities. These facilities were to include gardens, promenades, playgrounds and a lake for fishing and boating. The proposed sports compound was to feature a stadium, a swimming pool, wrestling arenas and public bandstands, and would be a possible venue for the Greater East Asiatic Olympic Games envisioned by the Japanese. The planners also declared that a new city would develop with the Syonan Jinja at its centre

General Yamashita and Japanese troops crossing the Divine Bridge at the opening of the shirne (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_207.jpg).

General Yamashita and Japanese troops crossing the Divine Bridge at the opening of the shirne (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_207.jpg).

What remains of the Divine Bridge today - wooden stumps in the water that were part of the columns that supported the bridge.

What remains of the Divine Bridge today – wooden stumps in the water that were part of the columns that supported the bridge.

Little today is left for us to see of what it might once have been – wooden stumps, only visible when the reservoir’s water levels are low enough, tell of of the location of the Divine Bridge and where the Torii gate and the stairway up to the shrine would have been. Across the reservoir, it is through the thick undergrowth of the secondary forest that has reclaimed the area, that one finds the flight of stairs, rising first to a terrace on which a water trough hewn out of a block of granite still stands. The trough would have served to hold water for the ritual purification asked of visitors to the shrine.

A concrete retaining wall around the terrace on which the trough is found.

A retaining wall around the terrace on which the trough is found.

A panorama of the site.

A panorama of the site (click to enlarge).

Beyond the trough, the stairway leads to another platform – the main site of the shrine and except for a few slabs of stone lying around and the platform itself, there is little but that sense of an uneasy calm that one does feel at the site of the shrine, which was destroyed before the Japanese surrender to prevent it from being desecrated.

Concrete slabs at the site.

Granite slabs at the site.

The platform for the shrine seen in the forest.

The platform for the shrine seen in the forest.

Some of what we do know of what did go on at the shrine, comes through the accounts of local residents who participated in some of the rituals that did go on. One practice that did get mentioned is that of the Japanese community’s visits first to the Syonan Jinja to participate in Shinto rites early in the morning on New Year’s Day, before they made their way to the Syonan Chureito to pay respects to the war dead, an observance that also involved employees of the Japanese and would be followed by a lavish lunch (see “The Last Days of the Japanese Occupation”, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 1976).

More stone slabs.

More stone slabs.

One of the things about the shrine does does come out in some of the accounts is of the pebbled streams in what must have been a beautifully landscaped area. The pebbles, ” four, five tons” of them, as is described in one account, were apparently ones that had been had been brought in from Borneo for the Bukit Timah rapid gravity filter beds that were being constructed.

A close up of the foundations.

A close up of the foundations.

A view of the stairway.

A view of the stairway.

The site does attract a fair amount of interest despite it being rather difficult to access. It has been designated as a Historic Site since September 2002 and a marker / information plaque on it can be found at the junction of Sime and Adam Roads – from which it is an over 2 kilometre walk that does take one through parts of the gravel paths in the MacRitchie forest, as well as along the water’s edge past what is some of the most picturesque landscapes to be found in Singapore.and for that alone, it is well worth the effort involved.

POWs provided the labour to build the shrine (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_206.jpg).

POWs provided the labour to build the shrine (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_206.jpg).





A last reminder of an old-fashioned corner of Singapore

27 11 2012

With the recent demolition of the house that had until 1991 served as the residence of the late Major Derrick Coupland, there stands one last remnant of a forgotten world that had once existed on Mount Emily in the form of the white villa at the end of Upper Wilkie Road that has come to be known as Emily Hill and is probably known more as the former Mount Emily Girls’ Home to many of my generation. Once described as a quiet, pleasant and old-fashioned corner of Singapore of Victorian villas and charming terrace rows, the face of Mount Emily, a spur that extends out from neighbouring Mount Sophia, has seen significant change since its glory days when it would have commanded a magnificent view of the developing city that lay some 100 feet below it. The villa itself bears testimony to the change, having been built as a grand residence which had not just a “beautiful view over the town and the harbour”, but also came with “2 tennis courts and stables for 5 horses and 4 carriages”, it has been put to a variety of use over its time.

A Victorian villa with a rather chequered past, the former Osborne House and what is today Emily Hill, stands as a reminder of Mount Emily’s glorious past.

I have not quite managed to establish when the villa was built. Referred to as Osborne House up to the point when the Japanese Consul-General’s offices shifted into it from Union House in April 1939, references to the villa before the turn of the twentieth century do exist – the earliest being an announcement of the birth of the daughter of Mr Heinrich Bock, Managing Director of the trading firm Katz Brothers in December 1891. This puts its completion at a date that precedes that of the former Tower House and makes it the oldest structure on both Mount Sophia and Mount Emily.

A view through the main entrance. The villa was probably built at the end of the 1880s or early 1890s, making it the oldest structure on Mount Sophia and Mount Emily – the earliest reference to it is a birth announcement in 1891.

That Osborne House had served as the residence of Mr Bock, and his at least two of successors at Katz Brothers’, Mr Frederick Lederer and Mr Arthur Loeb, does suggest that the villa had been in the possession of Katz Brothers at the time. Further evidence of this is seen in an advertisement in The Straits Times on 28 February 1910 in which the house, described as having “4 large bedrooms with dressing rooms attached, dining room, saloon; 2 tennis courts, stables for 5 horses and 4 carriages” was put up to be let with applications to be made to Mr Loeb, c/o Katz Brothers.

The wooden staircase and the landing. The villa served as the residence of the Managing Directors of the trading firm Katz Brothers in its early days.

One interesting reference to the villa is one that involves the sale of it in 1935 to a Mr Jukichi Ikeda, a Singapore based Japanese dentist who had a practice opposite the Central Fire Station in Hill Street. Mr Ikeda is reported to have paid what must have been a tidy sum then of $22,000 to buy the property from a certain Mr Shariff Kassim bin Hashim. Mr Kassim was probably better known in those days as the reigning Sultan of Siak Sri Indrapura, or the Sultan of Siak in short, Siak being a sultanate which was then under the protection of the Dutch in Riau Province in Sumatra. It is known that the Mr Kassim’s father, the previous Sultan of Siak, Syed Hashim bin Kassim, who resided at Jalan Rajah in Singapore, had substantial holdings in property in Singapore and had been in debt to Katz Brothers and also to Mr Loeb and it could very well have been Syed Hashim would had the rather stately Osborne House constructed at the end of the nineteenth century.

Another view of the villa’s front. There is a suggestion that the house could have been built by the Sultan of Siak, Sultan Syed Hashim bin Kassim. What is known is that the villa was sold by the Syed Hashim’s successor, Shariff Kassim to a Singapore based Japanese dentist Jukichi Ikeda in 1935 for $22,000.

The view west from the villa at the rest of Mount Emily. The villa is the last of the Victorian era houses that used to occupy the spur from Mount Sophia that is Mount Emily.

It is from the point of Mr Ikeda’s purchase of the property in 1935 that the villa’s history becomes a little less murky. What is known is that Mr Ikeda had additions and alterations done to Osborne House from the Cartographic and Architectural Records database of the National Archives of Singapore. It was under Mr Ikeda’s ownership when the Japanese Consul-General’s offices moved to the villa on 27 April 1939, serving three Consul-Generals, the first being Issaku Okamoto who was replaced by Kaoru Toyoda in September 1939 who in turn was replaced in November 1940 by the last Japanese Consul-General to serve in Singapore before the Japanese Occupation, Ken Tsurumi. Mr Tsurumi was recalled to Japan in November 1941 – his intended replacement, Suemasa Okamoto, never arrived as events that led to an unfortunate episode in Singapore’s history unfolded. It was only in 1953 that the next Japanese diplomatic representative, Ken Ninomiya was to be appointed.

Middle Road when it would have been referred to as Chuo Dori in the 1930s. Osborne House which was to serve as the Japanese Consulate from 1939 to 1941 can be seen atop Mount Emily at the end of the street.

A spacious space on the upper floor. The house was thought to have had 4 large bedrooms with dressing rooms attached, dining room, saloon; 2 tennis courts, and stables for 5 horses and 4 carriages.

The siting of the Japanese Consulate-General at Osborne House in 1939, came at a time when a community of Japanese had established themselves in the Middle Road area, with Middle Road being referred to as “Chuo Dori” or “Central Street”. A remnant of this Japanese presence on Middle Road are the buildings belonging to the former Middle Road Hospital which began as a Japanese built hospital Doh-Jin in 1940. Osborne House does in fact rise at the end of Chuo Dori, lying along its axis. The house passed into the hands of the Department of Social Welfare following the end of the war and served as an orphanage, a home for boys home, a halfway house for the rehabilitation of young prostitutes up to the age of 21, and girls’ home and finally the Wilkie Road Children’s Home in the 1980s, before falling into disuse and becoming Emily Hill, an arts centre in 2007.

Light through coloured glass panels on the landing of the staircase.

Once described as a quiet, pleasant and old-fashioned corner of Singapore, Mount Emily is still offers a pleasant escape escape from the city 100 feet below it.

In trying to dig up the villa’s rather chequered past, I stumbled upon another interesting fact that had not been known to me. Down the slope east of the villa’s rear is a cul-de-sac at the end of Wilkie Terrace to the right of which the Christian Assembly Hall now stands. The Christian Assembly Hall sits on what before the war was a Shinto Shrine. Mention is made of this in a report relating to an Official Secrets Case in which charges were brought against several members of the Japanese community in 1940 where the shrine is referred to as a “Japanese Temple”. The report makes for interesting reading and further reports on the case do suggest that there was a path that led from the shrine uphill to what had at the time been the Japanese Consulate. All traces of the shrine and the path to the consulate have of course been erased over time. What does remain of that past which many may wish not to remember is a reminder that also is one of a time we should not want to forget.

Wilkie Terrace down the eastern slope from the villa, does hold some interesting finds.

The land on which the Christian Assembly Hall stands at the end of Wilkie Terrace was once the site of a Shinto Shrine.


An article in Japanese on Emily Hill and the former Osborne House: 「日本人街」の歴史も知る丘の上の邸宅シンガポール、 Emily Hill(エミリー・ヒル.








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