Curry puffs, brightly coloured candy and a bus garage: Selegie and Mackenzie Roads

3 02 2010

As a child, I often passed through MacKenzie Road, a street that my father would use as a means to get to Kampong Java Road on our way to our home in Toa Payoh. What I remember most of the street is the area where Rex Cinema is where there were back lanes of food stalls, and the bus depot which always caught my attention. My parents sometimes stopped by, visiting the back lanes for chendol and Indian Rojak. There was some nice Indian Muslim and Malay food as well. My mother sometimes would pick up goreng pisang there and of course the delicious Rex curry puffs from a coffee shop in the area.

Back lane next to Rex - which was once be filled with food stalls.

Back lane across Rex - which was once be filled with food stalls.

The original cinema was opened in 1946 by the Shaw Brothers and ceased operations in 1983. The building then housed the Fuji ice skating rink at the end of the 1980s and early part of the 1990s, and was also used as a church at some point. Rex is of course one of the five iconic cinemas featured in a stamp set “Cinema Theatres of Yesteryear” issued by Singpost in 2009, being one of two still used as cinemas. It saw its rebirth as a cinema sometime last year, screening mainly Indian movies – with the help of two enterprising businessmen. I don’t think I patronised the cinema much as I only can recall one occasion on which I accompanied some older neighbours for a movie there, having visited one of the Malay food stalls in the back lane across the road for lunch.

Rex Cinema - opened in 1946 was used as an ice-skating rink and a church before being reborn as a cinema in 2009.

The reborn Rex Cinema now screens Indian movies.

Shop along MacKenzie Road where the Selera Rex curry puffs are found.

The area around Rex was also interesting to me. On Selegie Road – we could see the tallest school building in Singapore, all ten storeys of it, which belonged to Selegie School. Being used to walking up to classrooms from Assembly class by class in rows of two, I often wondered how pupils could do that with the lifts. Next to the school building was Selegie House – a complex of HDB blocks of flats with shops and restaurants below – passing by, I always noticed the sign at the foot of the block closer to Selegie School with the words “Gomez Curry”. Gomez was known for some of the hottest curries around Singapore. My parents mentioned that Gomez had moved there from nearby Sophia Road where he had first set up shop – operating out of a car garage, with a long table from which he sold his curries!

The ten storey former Selegie School building as seen along Selegie Road.

Selegie House - I used to watch out for the "Gomez Curry" sign at the foot of one of the blocks.

Closer to the junction with Rochor Canal and Bukit Timah Roads, opposite Mackenzie Road, there was of course Albert Street, where supposedly some of the best food in Singapore could be found. The stretch joining Selegie Road is now a pedestrian mall. On the opposite side at the junction with Bukit Timah Road, there is the very distinctive façade of the Ellison building, with its domes on the roof, believed to have been built for a Jewish lady named Ellsion in 1924. The roof was reportedly where Colonial governors would watch the races at the neaby Race Course. From the vantage point of the bus I took home during my secondary schools, I would often observe the going-ons at the shops at the stretch of the building along Selegie Road – there was a little shop that sold magazines that operated out of a little unit next to a restaurant, with items displayed on a wooden rack fronting the shop, as well as on shelves in the narrow passage. I remember that there would usually be a bunch of bananas on the stem that hanging outside, from which customers would pluck bananas off the stem to purchase them from the shopkeeper.

Ellison Building as seen from the junction of Rochor Canal and Selegie Roads.

One of the domes atop the Ellison Building.

There were also a couple of Indian vegetarian restaurants there – I remember noticing the wooden counter at the entrance of the Sri Vijaya Restaurant and the display opposite it which would be filled with Indian sweets and candies … what always attracted my attention was the brightly coloured coconut candy, similar to the very sweet tasting ones that a Sikh neighbour would make with condensed milk during the Deepavali celebrations, stacked high in the display cabinet.

Cubes of brightly coloured coconut candy - one of the things I observed from the bus.


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30 responses

3 02 2010
peter

yes Gomez Curry was at Sophia Road. Went there with my father and also the kopitiam ground floor at Selegie House. I like their mutton balls, fish slices and potato cutlet (got green chillies inside). Also tried fish head curry.

Here u got email address? I wanna contact you about Toa Payoh and Jalan Toa Payoh when u lived there in the 1970s

3 02 2010
peter

Selegie House famous for suicide cases whne it was first opened.

10 02 2010
The wondering wanderer

Interesting. Seems like many of the taller public buildings had the same reputation, including the 14 storey Forfar house in Queenstown and the very block I lived in in Toa Payoh which was 19 storeys high.

5 02 2010
The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Daily SG: 4 Feb 2010

[…] – The Frame: Singapore airshow 2010 [Pictures] [Thanks Gerald] – The Long and Winding Road: Curry puffs, brightly coloured candy and a bus garage: Selegie and Mackenzie Roads – Dee Kay Dot As Gee: Twitter force some users to change their password due to suspected phishing […]

6 02 2010
The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Weekly Roundup: Week 06

[…] I tried – The Frame: Singapore airshow 2010 [Pictures] [Thanks Gerald] – The Long and Winding Road: Curry puffs, brightly coloured candy and a bus garage: Selegie and Mackenzie Roads – Dee Kay Dot As Gee: Twitter force some users to change their password due to suspected phishing […]

7 02 2010
Erik

Remember what was directly opposite the colonial Bar on the other side of the canal ? I remember the wooden shacks that were on the sloping banks of Rochor canal between the bridge to Bencoolen and Serangoon Road. There were even small bumboats that unloaded along the the canal at sungei road. Where OG now stands, it used to be a sewrage plant where the bucket trucks would empty their cargo. That place stank like crazy.

8 02 2010
The wondering wanderer

Yes, I remember the banks of the canal which was built with steps which people used to be able to gain access to the canal. I remember seeing people doing their laundry in the river as well as washing themselves near the area around where Jalan Besar meets Sungei Road. And yes, the place used to really smell as you have mentioned.

18 02 2010
vhboy

When Rex Theatre was closed in 1983, it was never converted into an ice skating rink thereafter. Before it was being converted into an ice skating rink, it was once became a live theatre known as Rex Live Theatre in early 1984 I think. However, it was only short lived and it eventually leads to the closure at the end of that year.

20 02 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks vhboy for your input – I wasn’t sure what Rex was used as in between closing in 1983 and being transformed into the Fuji Ice Palace at the end of the 1980s … so I didn’t mention it! 🙂

27 02 2010
mamadondi

Lived in Race Course Rd. from 1958 till 1978 am very familiar with Selegie Rd.
Rex Theatre. The Colonial bar in the Elliason building is not named for a lady.
The building was built by David Ellias a Jew and was probably named as to
include his son with his name. Mr Elias build a lot of property .Ellias Road
is named after him. All his buidings had the Star of David and the year built.
on the front. He built from 1908 till the thirties.

27 02 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks for your comments Mamadondi. Guess it could well have been – my info is based on the information contained in this article: http://www.jewishexponent.com/article/12733/, and I guess that information came from the infopedia article on Selegie Road http://infopedia.nl.sg/articles/SIP_586_2004-12-30.html. Perhaps this needs further research. Elias Road I understand, is named after a the family of a Joseph Elias who owned a holiday bungalow at the end of the road. The family also built among other buildings, Amber Mansions, which was named after his mother’s family. Amber Road is also named after this family.

27 02 2010
peter

Mamadondi:

Can u help me on this one. There was a building after after Niven Road but before the former STC workshop (now secondhand car dealer mart). There is this 4 or 5 storey building which had a comemrcial school called REGAL SCHOOL. Do you know in which year the school moved out or closed shop?

Thanks
peter

2 03 2010
mamadondi

My info on the Elias family is all from my father who passed on in Oct.2009 at the age of 97. He had a house on Upper Wilkie Rd. and was living there in the mid 1930s. The Elias family had a few Bungalows in that area. The 2 houses I know that the extented family lived are the ones on Wilkie Rd. opposite the Sikh temple built in 1911 and 1912. The star of david has been removed in 1982 from both houses. In around 1965/6 the Sikh temple bought the empty adjoing land from the Elias/Amber family for around $2. a sq. ft. i.e 20.000 for 10.000 sq. ft. The family had alarge lot on #1 jalan rumbia on a hilltop. which they offered. This area is by River valley/orchard rd. where the imperial oberoi hotel was built. To Peter I have forgoten those dates but remember going to the coffeshop there for beers.
regards.

4 03 2010
The wondering wanderer

That is quite interesting, mamadondi, thanks! Provides a good reason to look further into the history of the areas you mentioned and some of the buildings around. Do you have any information as to whether David Elias was related to Joseph Elias? The infopedia article (http://infopedia.nl.sg/articles/SIP_1206_2008-12-05.html) on Joseph names his brothers as being Ezra, Isaac (Ike) and Raphael (Ralph) … but in a Straits Time report dated 9 Dec 1951 (http://newspapers.nl.sg/Digitised/Article.aspx?articleid=straitstimes19511209.2.52&sessionid=4714b3e1ce574e2bbcc4604e311cd38b&keyword=Joseph+AND+Elias), a David Elias is identified as the brother of Joseph.

13 03 2010
mamadondi

Hi,
WW tried to get confirmation that Joseph and David were brothers from a old timer who knew the Elias family but mental stage not the best so no answer from him. However if not bros. must be very close relatives. A little bit about me born in 1952 . MIgrated to Canada in 1978 but still have family house in Spore. My father had a car garage/workshop at 37/40 Sumbawa Rd.from before the Jap.war till 1974 when Govt took over all that area. This spot is where the Passport building is. This location is where Tan Kah Kee had his Rubber manufaturing plant. My email is mss@shaw.ca.

14 03 2010
The wondering wanderer

Hi Mamadondi, thanks for the information and also on the very interesting background about yourself!

I have managed to establish that Joseph and David were second cousins and also brothers-in-law, with David being the David J Elias mentioned in the infopedia article on Joseph, and indeed, they were collectively responsible for erecting many buildings including the David Elias building, Amber Mansions etc. The Ellison building apparently was put up by a Issac Ellison, a Romanian Jew. I would have some further information in a post I am in the midst of preparing to provide a more complete picture of the area.

I am not familar with the Sumbawa Road area – only thing I have an impression of is the gas works that seemed to dominate the surroundings in that part of the woods. Do you have any further information about the area?

17 03 2010
9 10 2010
Lori

My grandparents, Isaac and Flora Ellison owned Ellison building. My father and uncle inherited the property upon the death of my grandmother and they later sold it. I believe it is heritage listed. Good to see it still standing.

My grandparents also owned 87 Wilkie Road and the house next to it, both of which were located opposite the Sikh temple. I spent most of my early childhood living in Wilkie Road. As you are probably aware, both houses have been demolished and condos built in their place.

Btw, a friend of mine referred me to your site. Excellent work, keep it up. I will be be revisiting!

9 10 2010
The wondering wanderer

Hi Lori, it certainly is nice to hear from someone with a connection to Singapore’s heritage and in particular the beautiful Ellison building! Wow! Great you also hear that you lived on Wilkie Road – I loved wondering around the area as a schoolboy … it’s certainly a shame that many of the wonderful houses around have been replaced by condos. Many thanks also for you kind feedback … it is very much appreciated! 🙂

15 03 2010
When did the tiger at the corner of Selegie Road and Short Street go missing? « The Long and Winding Road

[…] photograph I had taken of that distinctive building which stands at the corner of Short Street and Selegie Road, a building that has been a feature on Selegie Road for as long as I can […]

17 03 2010
My stroll through the streets of that made up the Mahallah: Selegie Road « The Long and Winding Road

[…] the streets of that made up the Mahallah: Selegie Road 17 03 2010 Wandering around the Selegie Road area today, there is very little of the old that is left to remind us of the Selegie Road that […]

4 04 2010
harry

Hi,
Many thanks for your write up on Selegie rd. I have fond memories of the area and used to walk from RI on Bras Basah Rd. to Rex to save on bus fare.
There use to be a casket shop at the stretch of shophouses before the old OCBC office and I remember passing by one day an open coffin with a body being readied for a funeral just along the five foot way.
Selegie Rd in the fifties and sixties had much more pedesterian traffic than it does now.

5 04 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks Harry for your comments and sharing your interesting observations. Where exactly was this casket shop? I knew Selegie Road in the seventies – and it did have a lot more going on then as well.

5 04 2010
peter

On Selegie Road opposite the Selegie Complex, was a YMCA building. A fire knocked out this building. There were also many Indian spice shops who could grind spices for customers (think near the pedestrian traffic light junction today).

5 04 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks Peter, I did come across the story somewhere – I think it was the Chinese YMCA which burned down in 1966 – were the Indian spice shops you mention on the same side of the road? I used to see similar spice shops around the old Tekka market whenever I went to the market with my mother in the 1970s.

5 04 2010
The wondering wanderer

the building at the time of the fire on the PICAS site …

5 04 2010
peter

The spice shops were opposite to Selegie House (I get confused between Complex and House). They grinded spices and also rice. There was also a Chinese pawn shop near the OCBC bank (or some bank opposite Selegie Complex).

There was a Selegie Complex with a Peking restaurant on the second floor (was it called Peking???). There was a shop that sold Aprica prams on the ground floor in the early 80s.

5 04 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks Peter, think I have a general idea where they would have been. There was a Chung Khiaw Bank at the former Tiger Balm Building at the corner of Short Street and Selegie Roads, and one at Selegie House – not sure if the first is what you mean. Selegie Complex had a Prince Room restaurant – my aunt held her wedding banquet there in the late 1970s, and yes there was a shop which sold prams and bicycles – called Ewan I think – it was there in the 1970s as I now remember that I bought my first bicycle from that shop … think it may have been connected with Hock Swee Leong. There was also another restaurant over at Selegie House – Singapura.

23 01 2012
cyril gabriel

During the 50s, the most prominent building at Maczenkie Road was the Head Office, Depot and workshops of the SINGAPORE TRACTION Co. As a 12 year old I was fascinated by the buses, there were still trolley buses and watching through the wooden garage doors along Bukit Timah Road, I remember looking at how the buses were repaired.

28 06 2016
iffah

Hi i am interested in knowing the specific community that dwelled in these shophouses at mackenzie road, specifically the ones across the REX Cinema. Like what were the shophouses used for? Where were the very first owners from? Would be nice if someone who had lived there in the 1960s perhaps to tell me the heritage of these shophouses.

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