The rise of the new Ocean

31 03 2013

The vantage provided by Stellar at 1Altitude atop One Raffles Place, one of three tallest buildings in Singapore, gives a magnificent view of the new world around Marina Bay, as well as a building diagonally across Raffles Place from it, the new Ocean Financial Centre. At 245 metres high and with 43 floors, the Ocean Financial Centre, which was completed in 2011, is certainly much higher than the building it replaced, the 28 floor curved Ocean Building – which dominated the skyline of the former waterfront along Collyer Quay for some 33 years from 1974 to 2007. Although taller than its predecessor,  the building is one that does not dominate, becoming absorbed into the backdrop of the rising skyline in the area, a skyline which is no longer associated with the harbour which brought Singapore to life.

The rise of a new Ocean - the Ocean Financial Centre, the fourth Ocean Building on the site (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

The rise of a new Ocean – the Ocean Financial Centre, the fourth Ocean Building on the site (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

The 28 floor Ocean Building was in fact the third building of the same name to rise on the site. It was a name that was very much associated with a one time local shipping giant, the Straits Steamship Company. Incorporated in 1890, the company played a significant role in Singapore’s development as a maritime nation, and at its height, operated a fleet of 53 ships and was instrumental in linking ports in the Malayan Peninsula and British Borneo. Most who were around in the 1960s would probably remember the second Ocean Building which was a grand example of the wonderful works of architecture along Singapore’s bund, standing proudly at the end of the row of the glorious row of buildings along Collyer Quay which we have lost, from 1923 to 1970. More on this an the other Ocean Buildings can be found in a previous post.

Ocean Building in the 1920s (Source: W. A. Laxton, The Straits Steamship Fleets)..

The second Ocean Building in the 1920s (Source: W. A. Laxton, The Straits Steamship Fleets).

A little known fact about the Straits Steamship Company is that it can probably be considered as the founder of a giant in the airlines business, Singapore Airlines. The company registered Malayan Airways which it later sold off. That was to later become Malaysian-Singapore Airlines (MSA) in 1966 which split into Malaysian Airline System (MAS) and Singapore Airlines (SIA) in 1972. With the advent of containerisation, the Straits Steamship company’s conventional regional shipping business became less relevant and the company was sold to Keppel in 1983. A shift in focus to land development saw its name changed to Straits Steamship Land Ltd, before becoming Keppel Land in 1997. With the Straits Steamship Company making a complete withdrawal from the shipping business in 2004 and the demolition of the third Ocean Building which it erected, all that remains to remind us of a once proud shipping, is nothing more than another building named Ocean standing on where the three previous Oceans of the Straits Steamship Company once stood.

The new Ocean Building in July 1974 (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

The new Ocean Building in July 1974 (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).





The curved buildings at the end of Collyer Quay and the Straits Steamship Company

24 06 2010

Many of us these days would probably have forgotten about the Straits Steamship Company and the significant role that the company played in Singapore’s development as a maritime nation. The company, when it was incorporated in 1890, was perhaps a reflection of what Singapore had become – a mix of east and west, with both investors of European origin as well as several of Asian origin. The fleet of ships that the company operated, numbered as many as 53 at its height, linking ports in much of the Malayan Peninsula and British Borneo, facilitating the development of many of the more remote parts of the region. The company had its headquarters at the curve of Collyer Quay, where it meets Cecil Street, and for a while was housed in a beautiful five storey example of colonial architecture, not the original, but the second Ocean Building (the first was built on the site in 1864). The building, construction of which was started in 1919 and completed in 1923, was designed by a British architect, Somers H. Ellis.  It featured overhanging balconies on the second and fifth levels and verandahs on the third and fourth levels. The building was topped with a tower that rose some 49 metres above ground, making it the tallest building in Singapore back when it was built.

Ocean Building in the 1920s (Source: W. A. Laxton, The Straits Steamship Fleets).

That glorious Ocean Building stood for some 47 years until 1970, when it was demolished to make way for yet another Ocean Building – this time a 28 storey tower block which was built on an expanded site that included Prince Street which once linked Collyer Quay with Raffles Place and Prince Building across from the older Ocean Building. The new building was completed in 1974 and housed the offices of many shipping companies as well as that of the Straits Steamship Company. It also housed the Mercantile Bank, which had prior to that, operated from Raffles Place since 1861. During the time the third building stood, the Straits Steamship Company disappeared, a victim of the rapid growth in containerisation and the growing irrelevance of conventional regional shipping. The company was sold to Keppel in 1983 and a shift in focus to land development saw a change of name to Straits Steamship Land Ltd, before it became Keppel Land in 1997. The company finally withdrew totally from shipping in 2004.

The third Ocean Building (seen on the left of the picture) in 1974 (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

The third 28 storey Ocean Building is now gone as well, having stood for some 33 years. On its site and what was the neighbouring Ocean Towers, the new 43 storey Ocean Financial Towers which is scheduled for completion in 2011, is being built. With this, we would probably find it harder to remember that beautiful curved building that stood at the corner of Collyer Quay and the Straits Steamship Company which had a long association with the buildings of the name.

The fourth "Ocean Building", the Ocean Financial Tower is scheduled to be completed in 2011. It is being erected on the site of the 28 storey Ocean Building which was demolished in 2007.





An adventure on the “high seas”

13 06 2010

In today’s age of air travel, it would probably be difficult for many of us to want to embark on a journey between continents that might have taken weeks, or even a journey between cities in the region taking at least a few days, other than when one is perhaps considering going on a leisurely cruise. There was a time however, when such a journey would have had to be made out of necessity and not to indulge oneself in leisure as we would be inclined to these day. It was perhaps in the 1970s when air travel became accessible (and affordable) to many, and up to that point, travel between the regional ports would have probably been made aboard a cargo liner on which passengers were allowed to be carried on.

The M.V. Kimanis and several other cargo liners owned by the Straits Steamship Company plied the route between Borneo and the Malayan Peninsula (Source: W.A. Laxon, The Straits Steamship Fleets).

This was a time when just the thought of a voyage by sea might have evoked the romantic notion of travelling in style and luxury that is associated with the ocean liners of the North Atlantic. Indeed, for the well heeled, the leisurely journey might have been taken in lavishly decorated cabins, whilst being waited on by a steward dressed in all whites, in a setting, as I was told, could be compared to one in a Joseph Conrad novel. For the less well off, there would have been a choice of a more modest second class cabin which would have been comfortable enough for the journey; or, in a less than comfortable third class dormitory like cabin (if there were any – many of the ships coming from India had this), or perhaps as a deck passenger. A passage as a deck passenger would be unheard of these days, especially with the adoption of the International Ship and Port Security (ISPS) Code – one of a slew of measures implemented in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. Back then, it would have been a cheap and practical means of getting about, with deck passengers having to brave the elements during the passage on the open deck or perhaps, where the situation might have allowed it, in the cargo holds.

The M.V. Kimanis was a 90 metre long, 3189 ton, cargo liner built in Dundee in 1951 and was in the Straits Steamship fleet up to 1982.

One of the local shipping companies that ran a passenger service was the now defunct Straits Steamship Company. The Singapore based company was founded in 1890 and at its height, operated a fleet of 53 vessels, plying routes that connected ports in the Malayan peninsula, including Singapore with ports in the far flung corners of British Borneo. Many of the ports in Borneo would have had names steeped in the history of the rule of the British and the White Rajahs (in Sarawak), such as Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu). Many of the ships that the company operated had themselves been named after the ports which the company served.

A subsidiary of Straits Steamship Company started Malayan Airways, which later became MSA and was split into two entities, Singapore Airlines and Malaysian Airline System.

By the time the 1970s had arrived, air travel had taken root and demand for passenger travel by sea had diminished (incidentally, it was a subsidiary of the Straits Steamship Company, that started Malayan Airways, the predecessor to Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA), from which both Malaysian Airline System (MAS) and Singapore Airlines (SIA) were born). The Straits Steamship Company thus promoted passenger travel on the ships they operated for leisure (as a cheaper alternative to the one offered on the M.V. Rasa Sayang which was then offering cruises on the Malacca Straits and around the Indonesian Islands before being sold off a year or so after a tragic fire killed a few crew members in 1977), offering a window into a world of a forgotten age of sea travel. The cost of was a very affordable $80 for the three day return trip to Port Swettenham (or Port Klang as the port had just been renamed as), and it was on such a voyage, aboard one of the Straits Steamship’s vessels, the M.V. Kimanis, that I had an opportunity to have that experience, not once, but twice in 1975.

On the main deck of the Kimanis.

The first voyage that I had on the Kimanis would best be described as an adventure of a lifetime. It had been my very first experience on board a ship and one in which provided me with a view, not just into what life was on board, but also a first hand experience of the stories that I had heard of a voyage on what seemed to me, the “high seas”. It was a voyage that began one evening from Clifford Pier, and via a launch that took us out from the Inner Roads to the Outer Roads and the Eastern Anchorage, where the M.V. Kimanis was anchored. Arriving at the accommodation ladder of the davit rigged black vessel, which featured three white deckhouses, it was with some difficulty that we got onto the ladder having to contend with the violent rolling and heaving of the launch, needing the assistance of the receiving crew members of the Kimanis. I still remember being quite afraid of falling in – even as I was ascending the ladder to the main deck of the vessel.

Wandering around the main deck of the Kimanis was an adventure in itself.

Once onboard, we were greeted by the Chief Steward, a Hainanese man with a greying head of hair, decked in a starched white shirt with epaulettes that seemed to extend up from his shoulders, and brought to our cabins by a steward. The second class cabins we were to stay in were on the next deck above, located along the ship’s side, and had tiny portholes from which we could have a view of the numerous ships that lay at anchor. The cabins were modestly furnished, two single bunks, a rattan chair and dresser, a wardrobe and a wash basin. Showers were to be taken and visits to the toilet were to be made in the communal washrooms arranged on the centreline at the aft end of the alleyway. A door at this end on the aft bulkhead opened to an open deck which also provided access to the main deck below and the deck above. Right at the after end of the next deck was an open deck with an awning that offered partial shelter from the elements on which a bar counter was located, with tables and chairs that formed an open air lounge area. That was where passengers would sit and exchange stories and I remember a man who had started his journey in Tawau with quite a few interesting stories to tell. I can’t remember any of them, but what I do remember very vividly was how he looked – he wore the scars of burns to his face very prominently. We had also on that voyage, met a very friendly and talkative Australian man, from whom I had first heard of what we call the papaya being referred to as a “paw-paw”. He also introduced to a gourd to us which he said was delicious, which he referred to as a choko – which we would later discover was also planted in the Cameron Highlands.

The bar area where passengers exchanged stories.

Besides lounging around at the bar, the day long voyage to Port Klang provided an opportunity for my sister and me to roam the main deck – I was fascinated by the vents that seemed to rise like trumpets out onto the main deck. Somehow, I had imagined them to be sound pipes through which the men working below decks could communicate with crew on the main deck. Meal times were particularly interesting and a steward would alert passengers to meal times by walking through the accommodation area ringing a bell, which would trigger a procession of children following the steward around as if he was the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Meals were served very formally and besides having to dress appropriately for meals, we had to pay careful attention to table etiquette. That was also the first occasion in which I was to be confronted by the intimidating array of cutlery on the table. I quickly learnt the trick for navigating through the cutlery, starting from the outside in as each course was served.

Meal times were particularly interesting on board the Kimanis. A typical menu (Source: W.A. Laxon, The Straits Steamship Fleets).

Arriving at Port Klang, we were greeted by the sight of the wharf side container cranes, which I imagined to be chairs of giants, half expecting to meet a giant on the passage into port. Tugs boats appeared as the ship was guided into port, and went alongside, as I looked forward in anticipation of being able to go ashore. It was on this particular trip that we first visited Genting Highlands, taking a bus into Kuala Lumpur where we could catch a taxi to Genting. I remembered the journey down quite well for the way the taxi driver negotiated the hairpin bends at a seemingly high speed, and as a result, my mother swore never to take a taxi to Genting again! The stay in Port Klang which had been scheduled for one day, spilled over into a second day. We were told that there was always a slowdown for one reason or another at the port – and so we were to have a four day stay on board for the price of three days!

Up on the Bridge - the children on board were given a treat by the Scottish Captain who allowed each of us to handle the helm for about a minute or so.

Little did I know it then, it was on the return voyage to Singapore that the children on board were in for a treat. The ship’s Captain, a Scotsman, invited us children up to view the Bridge, and provided each of us with the chance to be at the helm where we could have a hand in steering the ship. While this experience lasted maybe only for a minute or so, it was certainly a big treat leaving a big impression on me, and at that moment, I decided that I did not want to be a pilot that I seemed to always have wanted to be, and instead thought that it would be more my cup of tea to sail the seven seas and see the world at the same time. I was to have a second experience on the Kimanis later that same year, one which perhaps, I would devote another post to. However, it was this first experience that was to be the one that I would most remember.








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