Orchard Road’s last shophouses

10 11 2019

Built close to a century ago, the last of Orchard Road’s shophouses stand as a reminder of a time before Singapore’s shopping mile was mall-ed. Comprising four delightful structures at numbers 14 to 38, each a gem of eclectic architectural expression, they also serve to remind us of the rubber trade inspired hopes and aspirations of the decade that followed the end of the Great War. The row, which features three notable edifices and one, no 38, which often goes unnoticed, was acquired by the State in the 1980s following a 1978 gazette for acquisition and gazetted for conservation in November 2000.

The conserved row.

The east end of the row is marked by the cry for attention that the former Malayan Motors showroom is. Designed by Swan and Maclaren’s DS Petrovich, it replaced the Morris and Rolls Royce dealer’s earlier showroom and represented a progression in showroom designs. A length of windows on each side of a projection in its façade provided natural illumination to its upper floors where its upper level showroom was served by a ramp to the ground floor. A scalloped semi-circular gable (if one can call it that) at each end of the roof drew attention to it.

The former Malayan Motors showroom seen in 1984 (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

Completed in 1927, the former showroom can also be thought of as a marker of Orchard Road’s motoring days. Fuelled by the expansion in the rubber market here during the Great War, the demand for the motorcar had risen three-fold between 1913 and 1918, leading to a proliferation in the area of motorcar showrooms, and workshops (several over the canal at what is now Handy Road ) by the 1920s. Vehicle assembly was also introduced and Singapore’s first assembly plant – for Ford – opened in the area with a production capacity of 12 cars a day in 1925. The showroom was built by the Wearnes brothers who also brought in the Fords, which they sold via another dealership, Universal Cars. Besides Morris and Rolls Royce, other brands that the Malayan Motors showroom would have dealt with were Rover and Studebaker.  The showroom made its last sale in August 1980, following which Malayan Motors concentrated its business at its Leng Kee branch. Following its acquisition by the State, the showroom was renovated in 1988 for use by the Singapore Manufacturers’ Association as SMA House. It has been used by MDIS, a private school, since 2002.

The former MidFilm House, then and now.

Another interesting building is the Dutch-gabled former Midfilm House (Middle East Film Building) at no 22 to 24 next to the showroom. This dates back to 1921 and was put up by Middle East Films Ltd, a pioneering distributor of films in Southeast Asia. The building, which is Orchard 22 today, also served as temporary premises for Malayan Motors when its showroom was being rebuilt in 1926-27.

22-24 Orchard Road in 1984 (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

What is probably now the icing in the cake for the row is the somewhat art deco and possibly modern-classical no 26 to 36 next to the former Midfilm House, which since June 2019, is the resplendent Temasek Shophouse. Built  in 1928, it stands on the site of six older shophouses – three of which had each been acquired by Chee Swee Cheng in 1926, and the other three by E Kong Guan from 1925 to 1926. Both Chee and E had roots in Malacca and were tapioca and rubber planters. Chee was also known to have substantial interests in opium and spirit “farming” in North Borneo and a landowner, who held several properties in Singapore. He is associated with the abandoned villa at 25 Grange Road, Wellington House, often incorrectly referred to as the Chee Guan Chiang mansion – after Chee’s son by a second marriage.

The Temasek Shophouse.

It was Guan Chiang who had the 3-storey 26 to 36 Orchard Road co-developed with E – based on plans drawn up by Westerhout and Oman in 1927. The new building’s interior spaces were split down the middle for each of the two owners, with E’s side being the western half numbered 32 to 36. An office space and store was laid out on each side of the ground floor. The upper floors of each half, each contained a 2-bedroom apartment.

No 26 to 36 in 1984 with the Art Furniture Depot and Sin Sin Furniture occupying the ground floor (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

The office spaces found use as showrooms, both initially occupied by The Art Furniture Depot in 1929. It was this store that the building would have the longest association with. The store gave up one of its showrooms in the early 1930s in the face of the Great Depression. The vacant unit would became the Eddystone Radio showrrom in 1933 and after the war, Sin Sin Furniture’s. Both furniture stores moved out around 1986 when the building was acquired by the State. Following this, substantial modifications were made to the building’s interiors so that it could house Pisces Garments Department Store with escalators, lifts and a mezzanine level were put in. The department store, which opened in 1989, morphed into PMart in 1994.

 

The current transformation has opened up the back of no 26 to 36, giving a full view of it.

The current transformation followed on the award of a tender launched in 2017 to Temasek, on the basis of the quality of concept that it had put forward.  The 18-month refurbishment effort that followed reversed several of the interventions of Pisces and gorgeously and sensitively restored the building, earned a 2019 URA Architectural Heritage Award for restoration. The overhauled interiors now feature a double-volume event space with a green wall featuring native plants. That is – in the context of today – not complete without a social-enterprise café. As an alternative to the street entrance, the garden – which the knocking of a boundary wall at the back has opened up – provides a very nice back door. The back is also where a pair of conserved concrete spiral staircases attached to the building’s rear – perhaps one of the tallest now seen – can be admired together with the equally impressive back façade. Offices, co-working spaces, meeting and function rooms – with native birds as themes, offices, a meeting space on its roof garden and space to accommodate its partners complete the picture.

Shophouses beyond the east end of the row – leading to an expunged street named Dhoby Ghaut – that have since been demolished (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

Fresh, innovative and a joy to behold, the Temasek Shophouse brings Temasek Trust and its beneficiaries Temasek Foundation and Stewardship Asia Centre under one roof – with the aim to serve as an incubator of social and philanthropic in initiatives promoting community collaboration and advancing sustainability. It brings, if not for anything else, an injection of purpose to that the conserved row now sorely lacks.

The event space and its green wall.


More photographs of the Temasek Shophouse

A co-working space on the mezzanine.

Another view of the event space and the café.

One of the native bird themed meeting spaces.

Up on the roof.

The rooftop meeting room.

Offices for one or its sustainability partners – which makes furniture out of recycled material.

A pantry within an office space.

A balcony and on of its spiral staircases at the building’s rear.

A balcony overlooking Orchard Road and Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station.

A close-up of the Corinthian capitals of the classical-esque columns on the building’s front façade.

Another view of the front balcony.

And another of the rear spiral staircase and balcony.

A downward view to the back garden from one of the spiral staircases.






Lost Places: the park at the new cemetery

28 10 2019

In a Singapore where spaces for the dead are often repurposed to meet the needs to the living, it will come as no surprise to find new life being welcomed on a site once devoted to eternal rest at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital – Singapore’s largest maternity hospital. The hospital’s grounds since its move in 1997 from across Kampong Java Road, it was part of a larger site that was occupied by Bukit Timah Cemetery. Singapore’s third Christian cemetery, it was also referred to as “New Cemetery” when it opened in 1865 after the old Christian Cemetery on Fort Canning Hill had reached its capacity.

A view of Bukit Timah Cemetery from the Singapore Heritage Society publication “Spaces of the Dead, a case from the living”.

The cemetery closed to new burials from 1 January 1910, after Bidadari – for which land was acquired by the Municipality in the 1903 – had been opened, but not before a small northwest expansion in 1906 saw its area increased by 0.24 ha. Burials however continued on reserved plots well into the 20th century. Among the graves at the cemetery, were those belonging to Russian and German sailors, and interestingly, that of Singapore’s first Japanese resident, Yamamoto Otokichi a.k.a. John Matthew Ottoson.    

Kampong Java Park and its pond.

“Eternal” in the case of the rest that was afforded to those interred in Bukit Timah, was a maximum of a hundred years. The cemetery was exhumed in 1970 to make way for Kampong Java Park – part of which would in the 1990s, be redeveloped for the hospital.  The park – the first in Singapore to be provided with lighting – was where Kentucky Fried Chicken opened a well-patronised drive-in outlet in 1979 together with the Kampong Java Squash Complex that it developed. The park has since made way and is now the site of tunnelling work for the future North-South Expressway.

Kampong Java Park with a view to KKH.

Reminders of the Bukit Timah Cemetery can be found on the site of the cemetery at Fort Canning Hill that it replaced, where 12 gravestones deemed to be of historical value were moved to following the exhumation. These stand at the northeast corner of Fort Canning Green. 


Gravestones from Bukit Timah Cemetery at Fort Canning Green

Gravestones moved from the ‘New Cemetery’ at the northeastern corner of Fort Canning Green.

 

 

 


 





The Class VIII Government quarters at Haig Road

26 10 2019

Built as government housing by the Public Works Department (PWD) in 1951, the cluster of 42 simple two-storey houses off Haig Road in the news this week, are representative of the period of austerity they were built in. Originally 48 units, arranged in 8 rows of 6 (1 of which has since made way for a road project), their design was a departure from the housing that the government had provided its officers with prior to that. Given a “Class VIII” designation, the two-bedroom units housed junior officers of various departments, including Broadcasting, Civil Aviation, Education, Postal and Telecoms. The quarters line streets named after common trees, Tembusu, Gajus (cashew), Binjai (a type of mango), and Beringin (weeping fig).  

A 1951 PWD Photograph.

The construction of the quarters was part of a PWD effort that also saw the erection of three schools over a 12 ha. site. The unique quality of the development was reported by the Singapore Free Press, who in a June 1951 article, made the observation that “there would be nothing like this when it is completed”. The schools that came up with the housing were two primary schools Haig Boys’ School, Haig Girls’ School, and a secondary school, Tanjong Katong Girls ‘s School.


The houses today

The houses have been rented out by the State on short term (2-year) tenancy agreements through managing agent Knight Frank, with 34 units currently tenanted. Despite the short term nature of the arrangements and the age of the properties, the very attractive rents (I have been advised that the median rate is $2700/- per month for the 100 square metre built-up area units) make the houses an appealing proposition. A walk around the neighbourhood will reveal the varied tenant mix this has attracted, as well as the condition that some of the houses are in. Feedback has been given by some tenants on leaking roofs and choked toilets, pipes and drains.

The southern section of Jalan Tembusu.

The Singapore Land Authority (SLA), who maintains the property on behalf of the State, will be carrying out extensive repair and upgrading works from January 2021. This will address the issues raised and ensure that the properties are in good condition for the longer term and will include electrical, plumbing and roof works. SLA has been engaging tenants individually since April 2019 on this, and has permitted an extension to existing tenancy arrangements to the end of 2020. The works are expected to be completed at the end of 2021 and existing tenants who are interested in returning once the works are completed will be able to register their interest to rent the property, which will be let out at prevailing market rates.

Part of the demolished row at the northern section of Jalan Tembusu.

 

One of the units that is in a relatively better condition.

 

The southern section of Jalan Tembusu – its proximity to East Coast Road and its shops and eating places also makes the houses an attractive choice for short term rental.

 

The meeting of Haig Road and the southern section of Jalan Tembusu.

 

The house have both front yards …

… and back yards that allow tenants to grow fruit tree and daily use items.

 

One of the since demolished units – seen in 2018.

 

Another unit from the northern section of Jalan Tembusu. The units feature living and dining spaces at ground level and two bedrooms on the upper level. Access is provided by a well-lit staircase arranged in the extended part of the house.

 

A vacant unit in relatively good condition.

There are signs of water seepage in quite a few of the units.

Ventilation openings – an essential part of the tropical architecture of old – is very much in evidence.


A look around the unit that is probably in the worst condition among the 42

The inside of a unit that will require a quite a lot of work to be done on it.

There seems a fair bit of water seepage from the roof of this unit – as is evident in the condition of the ceiling boards.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 





Lost places: Woodlands Town Centre

24 10 2019

The old Woodlands Town Centre, with its proximity to the checkpoint and the causeway, could have been thought of as a border post.

It certainly felt like it, with scores of folks crossing the causeway from Johor Bahru – many on foot – thronging the busy bus terminal and the shops in the old centre.  Completed in 1980/81, the centre belonged to the generation of Housing and Development Board (HDB) designs that followed on the second generation Ang Mo Kio, Bedok and Clementi New Town projects.

A unique feature the town centre was given was a bazaar, which house 88 shops resettled from the length of Woodlands Road. The town centre’s air-conditioned shopping complex could also be thought of as a pioneering attempt by the HDB to venture into shopping complex development.

Vacated in 2017, its proximity to the causeway was probably a contribution to its demise – part the the site which the now demolished centre occupies will be used to build an extension to the especially busy Woodlands Checkpoint.

A plan of Woodlands Town Centre (source: HDB).


Photographs:


The old bus terminal.

 

Woodlands Cinema.

 

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A floating city calls at Changi

21 10 2019

I had an opportunity to go onboard the Nimitz-class nuclear powered aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan. The huge flagship of the US Navy’s Carrier Strike Group 5 (CSG 5), with its array of aircraft, a flight deck of 1.82 hectares, a complement of some 5000 and a above water profile that rises some 20 storeys, is nothing short of impressive.

Displacing some 88,000 tonnes, the carrier has a length of 333 metres and a beam of 77 metres. With her huge complement and the various services required to meet the personnels’ needs – some 15,000 meals are served daily – the carrier  is sometimes thought of as a floating city.  More on the carrier can be found at: https://www.reagan.navy.mil/media.html.

 

On the flight deck.

The hangar bay of the carrier, in which aircraft are stowed.

The hangar bay decked out for the carrier’s visit to Singapore.

 

An elevator, seen from the hangar bay. It is capable of moving two aircraft to the flight deck in 6 seconds.

 

A view of the hangar bay.

Another view of the hangar bay.

 

A F/A-18 Hornet marked in memory of FDNY firefighters during 9/11.

Another view of the memorial marked Hornet.

 

An E-2 Hawkeye on the flight deck.

 

 


On the elevator


More views of the flight deck:



 





Deporting the port

15 10 2019

Change often seems the only constant in Singapore. Its relentless pace has altered its face, so much so that many in my generation feel that home is foreign place. Nothing seems sacred, places that we have grown accustomed to and build ties with can disappear in the blink in an eye.

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Vanishing scenes at Tanjong Pagar.

One change Singapore is in the midst of, the redevelopment of the Greater Southern Waterfront. This, while positive in the longer term, has the impact of removing places that are not only familiar, but are also markers of significance to Singapore’s past. The port, which the city has long been associated with, and the reason for uch of the development along the southern shores, is being moved in two stages to the far west. The closure of Tanjong Pagar Terminal, the cradle of Singapore’s shipping container revolution, has already been effected. Cleared of most of its container handling paraphernalia, the terminal seems to have been put to use for handling Ro-Ro cargo.

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The container terminal has been stripped of it container handling paraphernalia and is being temporarily put to use as Ro-Ro cargo reception facility.

Tanjong Pagar – a promontory on which the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company, formed in 1864, would establish wharfs and graving docks. The company initially constructed a wharf of 229 metres in length in 1866, capable of berthing 4 ships of “ordinary size”, a graving dock, Victoria Dock would also be built in 1868. The opening of the Suez Canal late in 1869, brought with it increased steamship traffic and more wharfage was added. Albert Dock was also built in 1879.

Victoria Dock 1890s

A G. R. Lambert print of Victoria Dock in the 1890s. A ship in Albert Dock can also be seen in the background.

By 1885, the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company would acquire the Borneo Company. This gave the company access to 2 kilometres of wharves. The 1899 acquisition of the (older) New Harbour Dock Company at New (now Keppel) Harbour, formerly the Patent Slip and Dock Company, which built No. 1 and No. 2 Docks at New Harbour, made it a monopoly. In 1905, the company was expropriated and the Tanjong Pagar Dock Board, the predecessor to the Singapore Harbour Board and PSA, took over.

Borneo Wharf

Borneo Wharf, which Tanjong Pagar Dock Company acquired from the Borneo Company in 1885. The extended Tanjong Pagar promontory can be seen in the background.

Keppel Shipyard would assumed control of the PSA repair facilities, when the former was formed in 1968. Centred at Keppel Harbour, it continued using the historic Victoria and Albert docks until they were filled in during the 1983 PSA expansion of  Tanjong Pagar Container Terminal during. Keppel Island (the near shore Pulau Hantu) came into Keppel Shipyard’s hands in exchange.

The container terminal goes back to 1972. Its first berths, at Tanjong Pagar’s East Lagoon, came into use on 23 June 1972, when the M.V. Nihon – the first container vessel to call here came alongside. This was an especially significant event, which launched the Port of Singapore’s journey into a mode of cargo transport that now dominates sea trade.

Now that Tanjong Pagar has been emptied of the containers, its container cranes and the container ships that have become synonymous with the name, the area hasn’t looked the same. The container terminal at Keppel are also being cleared, with Brani to follow. The container terminals built at great expense at Pasir Panjang, now operational, will also eventually be cleared. A huge southern extension created out of the sea southwards from Singapore’s western reaches, the Tuas South reclamation, will house the Tuas Mega Port. This will gradually be put into service from 2021, and by 2040 will be where port operations will be concentrated. The extension will also be the future home of the ship-repair and ship-building industry.


Parting glances:

Juxtapositions (2014).

 

A mega-container vessel, the APL Mexico City coming into port (2014) – the increased sizes of container vessels require larger and deeper berths, prompting the need to develop newer terminals.

 

Another view of a Tanjong Pagar still in operation (2014)


More views of the since deported port:

In 2012.

In 2012.

Keppel Terminal in 2018.

Keppel Terminal in 2018.

Keppel Terminal in 2018.


 





A new garden of Silly Fun

11 10 2019

Set in a 50-hectare area that once contained Han Wai Toon’s Silly Fun Garden – or “The Garden of Foolish Indulgences” as coined by Dr. Lai Chee Kien in an essay published in Global History, NParks’ latest nature park – Thomson Nature Park is now opened. Complete with ruins of the Hainanese village of which Mr. Han’s “garden” was an extension of, guests at the park’s opening also included many of its former residents.

The residents included a racing legend Mr. Looi. The Looi’s ran Looi Motors, a motorcycle shop that was located at the current road entrance to the park, along with Thai Handicraft and the family of Mr. Han Wai Toon. More on the Hainanese village, the area’s rambutan orchards and the Silly Fun Garden (where a stash of valuable works of Chinese painter Xu Beihong including “Put Down Your Whip”, which fetched a record price for a Chinese art work of US$9.2 million in 2007 and “Silly Old Man Moves a Mountain“ – sold for US$4.12 million in 2006), can be found at :

With the granddaughter of Han Wai Toon, Rose, who has authored soon-to-be-launched book on Han Wai Toon’s orchard.

Mr Desmond Lee, Minister for Social and Family Development and Second Minister for National Development, with a motorcycle racing legend Mr. Looi, whose family ran Looi Motors, a motorcycle shop and a Thai Handicraft shop close to where the entrance to the park now is.

Bricks salvaged from the remnants of the village, used to cover potholes in the existing road. NParks did as little intervention as possible and repaired the village roads, originally built by the villagers, for use as trail paths.

A blue-rumped parrot seen in the park. The park is rich in fauna and is a key conservation site for the critically endangered Raffles’ Banded Langur.

 

Entrance to the home of the Hans – the family behind Hans Cake Shop.


More photographs from this morning’s opening: