The King and I, and a bronze Elephant

25 11 2009

Most of my peers would have had this impression I have of Yul Brynner prancing effervescently around the Siamese royal court, in his delightful and colourful portrayal of Mongkut, the King of Siam, in the 1956 cinematic version of the musical, The King and I.

Growing up, I was given a regular dose of classic movies, by the black and white Setron console television set that served my family for many years, until the picture tube imploded one Christmas Eve. Radio Television Singapore or RTS, as the national broadcasting station was known in those days, provided Singaporeans with what we used to refer to as “feature films” to fill the lazy, sleepy Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Classics such as Gone with the Wind, My Fair Lady, and Ben Hur, were televised, maybe once a year and without much in the form of entertainment in those days, many of us looked forward to the films to keep us occupied. So it was through this avenue that I became acquainted with Anna and the King, Eliza Doolittle, Oliver Twist, Pip in the romanticised forms that the silver-screen, or in this case the television, provided us with.

Anna Leonowens, the subject of the story, Anna and the King, on which the musical The King and I was based on, as portrayed by Deborah Kerr, seemed to wield a lot of influence on Mongkut, as to his children, to who she was an English teacher. Whether or not she was actually the source of influence to Chulalongkorn, Mongkut’s eldest son, is a cause of much discussion and debate. Whatever it was, Chulalongkorn, who succeeded his father, blossomed into a opened minded and progressive monarch, who took great strides in modernising Siam, introducing many political and social reforms.

Chulalongkorn, appointed to the throne at the age of fifteen following his father’s death in 1868, was also widely travelled, starting his travels a few years after ascending to the throne. His travels took him over much of Asia and Europe. What is interesting is that, from a Singaporean perspective, Singapore, then a British colony, was where he first set foot on foreign soil. A testament to this, a gift made by Chulalongkorn on a visit in 1871, a proud bronze statue of an elephant, stands guard in front of an old colonial mansion which served as independent Singapore’s first Parliament House. The statue of the elephant was what I would look out for, each time my father drove past the building, looking out of the window whilst seated in the back seat of my father’s Austin 1100.

Old Parliament House and Chulalongkorn's Bronze Elephant

Information Tablet for the Bronze Elephant

Through the windows of Old Parliament House - the Bronze Elephant and the former Supreme Court in the background

Incidentally, Old Parliament House, as it is known as today, is the oldest government building in Singapore. It was designed and constructed by George Coleman, an Irish architect, in 1927, who was responsible for erecting much of the colony’s early civil infrastructure. Coleman served as the Superintendent of Public Works, and has Coleman Street, as well as the Coleman Bridge, named after him. The Armenian Church, built in the Neo-Classical style in 1835, which stands at the corner of Hill Street and Armenian Street, is a brilliant example of Coleman’s work. As a schoolboy, the church grounds would be a source of saga seeds, little hard red seeds from the pods of the Saga tree (as well as much of Fort Canning Hill, after which Hill Street is named). The seeds are used for games such as Chongkat, a traditional Malay game. As schoolboys, we were more inclined to throw the seeds at each other, than use them for a game of Chongkat or for any other purpose.

Coleman's Masterpiece - The Armenian Church on Hill Street

Side Doors of the Church

On Hill Street, the US embassy stood on the site adjacent to the Armenian Church. The embassy had a resource library which some of my classmates used, but for most of us, the fascination was with the dishes and antenna sticking out from the externals of the building – the cold war was at its height, and most of us schoolboys, fed on a diet of John le Carré, it wasn’t difficult to be caught up in the intrigue of espionage.

Reflections of Today, where the US Embassy once stood on Hill Street

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6 responses

25 11 2009
peter

It was always a toss between going to USIS or the British Council at the old Cathay Building. Both libraries were a/c unlike the National Library. So those 2 places became grounds for self-study. I preferred the USIS because they offered big atlases and video facilities for viewing.

There was a malay employee who worked at the USIS and I remembered well because he slanged like an American whereas the ladies at the British Council were snooties.

25 11 2009
The wondering wanderer

Thanks for your memories Peter.

Interesting! I didn’t realise that the British Council was at the Cathay Building. It wasn’t there by the time I was in school … can’t remember where it was located at then.

Don’t think that many of my schoolmates frequented the libraries for self-study, preferring to do that at home. Most went to the USIS I guess because of its proximity to our school for research. There were some of us who did use the seats located in the very quiet air-conditioned paintings gallery in the East Wing of the National Museum, which did often give us an eerie feeling, to get away from the heat. I remember one of my classmates, who on his first visit there, was spooked by the large illuminated portrait of Sir Stamford Raffles at the end of a hall that kind of gave one a sense that the figure in the painting was moving towards you as you approached it.

4 10 2010
Frankie

Two stone elephants used to sit at the entrance to Aw Boon Haw’s house which is at the corner where Tanglin Rd meets Nassim Rd. I lived at Tanglin when I was a kid and we loved to ride on it. I have some old pictures of this but would entail some digging around. But I am just wondering where have the stone elephants gone to. I read that a bronze tiger have been donated to the museum.

5 10 2010
The wondering wanderer

It must have been nice to live in the area … I remember the old Tanglin Road before the new Orchard Road crept up on it … it be good to find out where the stone elephants you mentioned have wandered off to … perhaps someone reading this might be able to shed some light. 🙂

5 10 2010
Frankie

Yes those were happy days : )

Adjacent to Aw’s residence at Nassim Road was House of Jade. It was a tourist attraction. A band of Indian snake charmers (gully gully man) operated at the entrance daily. We kids used to go there frequently for free entertainment. The Snake Charmers also did cups and balls tricks. Regrettably, I’ve never step into the Jade Mansion to see the exhibits. I just ddn’t appreciate Jade.

Then on every Chinese New it’s open house and it’s something we always look forward to. At the back of Jade House which was essentially Aw’s family garden, was a chinese stone garden with caves and tunnel. It was a lot of trill running through the tunnels and playing hide and seek.

Besides the Elephants and Tiger, the were a number pretty life-like Deers statues at the lawn in front of Jade House. I wonder where have these gone too as well.

5 10 2010
The wondering wanderer

Somehow Nassim Road wasn’t an area I ventured to in my younger days – did hear about the House of Jade … must have been grand!

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