Windows into the past

23 11 2009

A visit to the Asian Civilisations Museum which is housed in the Empress Place Building, just by the Singapore river, has served to open up some windows into the past. The building itself, built gloriously in the Neo-Palladian style, housed Government Offices as far back as I could remember. Standing at the side of the building, just across from the Victoria Theatre, I found myself transported back in time, to the exact spot where as a six year old, I had stood, peering into the large open louvered wooden windows, to rows of desks stacked with papers, as the chorus of clickaty-clack, clickaty-clack, made by the numerous black typewriters that were being worked on, punctured the air. The large windows served to ventilate the large airy rooms naturally as air-conditioners were very much a luxury then.

The wooden louvered windows of the Empress Place Building

The Singapore River, seen through a window of the Empress Place Building

Empress Place Building provides a window into Singapore's colonial past

The building, built by the colonial masters of Singapore, was constructed over a period of half a century, commencing in the mid 1860s, and served as the seat of the colonial administration for a time. In the 1970s and 1980s it housed the National Registration Office, and it was here that I had my Identity Card replaced at the age of 18. My parents must have made visits to the various departments that were housed in the building, including the passport office, where we would get both our restricted and international passports renewals processed,  as I remember stepping into the offices on several occasions, as a primary schoolboy, being greeted by the rows of wooden benches and the large numbers of people waiting to be served. At the entrances and on the walls, there were of course the posters of a forgotten era – what springs to my mind are the posters that must have been there that suggested that males with long hair would be attended to last, and those which promoted the stop at two policy.

The Empress Place Building houses the Asian Civilisations Museum

The Empress Place Building against the backdrop of modern Singapore

The Empress Place area itself holds many memories of my childhood. The fascination I held for the black statue of Sir Stamford Raffles – “Stir Stamford Raffles” to a three year old, that stood guard in front of Victoria Memorial Hall. The Victoria Memorial Hall which now houses the Victoria Concert Hall, used to be a venue for exhibitions. The area was known for food as well, there was a hawker centre that stood for a while in front of the main entrance of the building – just by the Singapore River, which if I remember correctly – had sumptuous Southern Indian food including Mee Goreng, Indian Rojak, and Soup Kambing, as well as another one across the river, accessible by Cavenagh Bridge, sandwiched in the space between the commercial buildings that lined the river and the river wall.

The Clock Tower, Victoria Concert Hall and Theatre

The statue of Sir Stamford Raffles that I held a fascination for as a child

The Empress Place Building as seen from where the Hawker Centre used to be

I should of course mention the pedestrian tunnel – which provided access under Fullerton Road to the Esplanade. My parents were regular visitors to the Esplanade in the evenings – where we could stroll about in the sea breeze that blew from the Southern Harbour, leaving the car parked at Empress Place, and crossing over through the tunnel – which my sister and I had held a fascination for, stamping our feet and calling out as we went through, listening to the echoes that the tunnel produced. The tunnel was sometimes lined with beggars, as well as vendors selling colourful small plastic toys, windmills, and colourful air-filled balloons tied to the end of a thin long balloon that served to hold the balloons up.

The pedestrian tunnel linking Empress Place to the Esplanade

Postcard of Empress Place in 1950 (Courtesy of Mr Low Kam Hoong)




7 responses

24 11 2009

Thanks for reminding me about Empress Place. Your description of that era is very true. I was there in the early 1960s; Immigration Office and the Board of Currecny office (if you recall was just after parliament house). There was also a Maritime Police building (next to the hawker center) but now demolished. There was a statute of an elephant in parliament house; is it there still? Victoria Theater was the place where we staged our school drama plays – there was a side entrance through the present open-air space between the theater and the memorial hall.

24 11 2009
The wondering wanderer

Thanks Peter for your comments and adding your memories of Empress Place. The statue of the elephant in front of what is now the old Parliament House is indeed still there, I have a photograph of the statue which I would include in post that is coming up.

1 02 2010
The Mughals, a treasury of the world « The Long and Winding Road

[…] in the museums in Singapore bring to us these days. The Asian Civilisations Museum, housed in the Empress Place Building of which I have fond memories of, runs a series of exhibitions and activities which brings history […]

8 03 2010
A hidden secret that one of the bridges at the mouth of the river once held … « The Long and Winding Road

[…] our civic district in Singapore. From the glorious columned and domed civil buildings such as the Empress Place Building, the old Supreme Court, City Hall, and the National Museum Building, to the many bridges that […]

20 04 2010
Saying hello to an old acquaintance. « The Long and Winding Road

[…] my parents were fond of taking in my childhood, one that we made regularly which would take us from Empress Place via Anderson Bridge to Clifford Pier, when it seemed to deserve no more than a cursory glance. […]

1 07 2010
The joy of being caged in the courthouse « The Long and Winding Road

[…] 1933 and the municipal had purchased the land which was in Ward’s plan to be part of the new Empress Place. The old Supreme Court is one of the instantly recognisable landmarks that feature along the F1 […]

9 07 2010
The Raffles walkabout « The Long and Winding Road

[…] out whenever my parents ventured to the area, be it to visit the government offices housed in the Empress Place Building next door, to visit an exhibition at the Victoria Memorial Hall which now is used as the Victoria […]

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