A walk around Fort Canning Hill with two of my schoolmates from SJI on a quiet Sunday evening brought back memories of the Fort Canning Hill of that many of us were fond of wandering around as schoolboys back when we attended SJI in the late 1970s. The hill for many of us then, was shrouded in much mystery, as it had been when it was once referred to as “Bukit Larangan” or Forbidden Hill by the locals at the time of the arrival of the British to Singapore. The locals believed the hill to be haunted, being the burial ground of the former kings of what was once Temasek. We sometimes also went to Fort Canning Hill for our Physical Education (P.E.) lessons – the shady tracks on the hill and the gentle slopes were ideal for cross country practice.
The British perhaps made the hill a little less mysterious, with the hill being referred to as Government Hill with the establishment of Government House on the hill in 1822, the same year Sir Stamford Raffles built his residence on the southern slope of the hill. Its current name, Fort Canning Hill, comes from the fort that was established at the site of Government House (which was demolished to make way for the fort), in 1859. The fort was named after Viscount Charles John Canning, the Governor-General of India at that time and its first Viceroy.
Much of the mystery that surrounded the hill for us schoolboys had to do with the stories we had heard of the spirits of the inhabitants of the cemeteries that had existed, haunting the hill. There was of course the Keramat Iskandar Shah, purportedly the tomb of Raja Iskandar Shah, the last king of Singapore who ruled in the 14th Century, located on the eastern slope, to add further mystery. It could have been due to an overactive imagination, but somehow we always felt like we were being watched whenever we walked passed the Keramat. The fascination we had for some of the strange structures and features we discovered on our trips around the hill also added to the mystery: walls with gravestones, a cluster of tombstones nestled in a corner, two Cupolas, a solitary Gate at the top of the hill …
Starting our walk from the escalators beside the National Museum, we were reminded of the red bricked National Library building that once stood there next to the Museum building, and the little shed next to it which housed a Wonton noodle stall that many of would frequent for lunch when we were bored of the food at the Sarabat stalls along Waterloo Street, or at the coffee shop along Victoria Street close to the junction with Bras Basah Road we used to refer to as “Smokey”.
Next we came to the grounds of a former Christian cemetery, now the Fort Canning Green, with the cluster of tombstones standing in the northeast corner. Fort Canning Green, bounded by the Fort Canning Centre at the top of the slope, and the Gothic gates and walls on two sides on which had the tablets of the gravestones that once stood embedded into them, is these days a popular venue for open air concerts, looks very much as it did in the 1970s, except for the immaculately groomed lawn where there was once an unkempt field of overgrown grass. The Cupolas designed by George Coleman still stand proudly close to the southwest corner, as it did back then.
Fort Canning Centre, a magnificently grand building that served as a barracks for the British Army stands at the top of the slope of Fort Canning Green. The building is used as a dance centre housed squash courts where there are now dance studios, as a squash centre back in the days when squash was one of the most popular sports and when Singapore dominated the regional squash scene.
Further up near the top of the hill, just by the summit where there is a covered reservoir, Fort Canning Gate with its two sets of heavy doors, stands as it did in the 1970s. The top of the gate is still accessible through an iron gate and a narrow flight of stairs as it was back then. It is of course much cleaner now, smelling a lot less foul than it did when we were scrambling around in the all whites of our school uniform. Where the clearing adjacent where the gate is, is now stands, there was a cemented skating rink where some of us would come with our skateboards. Skateboards were thought of as a public nuisance then and were banned from use in most public places then.
The walk around also took us to the area where maybe as schoolboys we frequented less – the western slope along Clemenceau Avenue, where we sometimes encountered schoolboys from a rival school, and the southern side, where Raffles had his residence and where the Fort Canning Lighthouse stands. This brought us back to the eastern slope, where the Spice Garden is located, as well as where the Archaeological Excavation Site from which artefacts from the 14th Century have been uncovered – not that we knew anything about it back when we were in school, near the area where the Keramat is, and back to Fort Canning Green.