Taking a stroll through what were once the streets of the Mahallah, I was drawn to another area close by that I had been acquainted with in my younger days, Mount Sophia. Mount Sophia, back in the days as a SJI schoolboy was a place that I would occasionally visit with a few of my friends, not for the opportunities it presented for meeting the girls who went to school atop the hill, but as a means to get to Plaza Singapura, inaccessible then through Handy Road. The journey we took to Plaza Singapura would take us up the “100 steps” – a long flight of steps behind Cathay cinema which brought up to the top of the hill, also referred to by some as the “99 steps”. This would bring us right up close with Methodist Girls’ School (MGS), an area from where we would be able cross over to one of the upper floors of the multi-storey car park at the back of Plaza Singapura.
There were a few occasions that we chose to wander around the hill, the streets of which were lined with delightful villas and houses – many of which have since disappeared. I was of course previously acquainted with the area – my father had on several occasions, taken me swimming at Mount Emily Swimming Pool, Singapore’s first public swimming pool, built on the site of a municipal reservoir in 1930 on adjoining Mount Emily, which has also since, vanished without a trace. The area where the pool was is now part of the extended Mount Emily Park. It was certainly nice then to re-acquaint myself with the area, which seemed in my childhood, to be a like a magical hill where a fairy-tale like mansion of a very wealthy man had stood.
Walking around Mount Sophia today, one is greeted by a mix of the old and new … the old seemingly overshadowed by the taller structures of the apartment blocks that have replaced the stately homes of which, many had belonged or had been lived in by the more successful Jewish immigrant families. It would have been convenient for these families to live in what was an upper and middle class area located just by the Mahallah, where many would have conducted their businesses and gone about their day-to-day activities. The girls’ school, MGS, on top of Mount Sophia was also where many would have sent their daughters to.
Of the buildings that still exist, several have had connections to this past. On Wilkie Road, at the corner of Niven Road, we can see a delightful apartment block, the Sophia Flats, built in 1930, on the edge of the old Mahallah. This is where one of the prominent members of the local Jewish community, Frank Benjamin, had lived after the war. Frank’s father Judah had owned a thriving textile business and the family lived in a big house on Adis Road prior to the war. Returning from Bombay after the war, the Benjamin family moved to the more modest lodgings at the Sophia Flats. This was also where Frank set up an office to trade office stationery and photographic equipment in 1959, a business which has since grown into the international fashion retailer company F J Benjamin is today. F J Benjamin is associated with names such as Guess?, Banana Republic, La Senza, Céline, GAP and Girard-Perregaux, presently and had at one time held the license for names such as Gucci and Lanvin.
At 81 Wilkie Road, there is also the Abdullah Shooker Welfare Home, housed in a bungalow once owned by an Iraqi Jew, Abdullah Shooker, who had come over to work in the offices of Manasseh Meyer, before opening his own successful business. Abdullah passed away in 1942 whilst being interned by the Japanese, bequeathing his bungalow for use as a home for the destitute in the community.
There are also several other notable buildings that still stand, including several former schools: the buildings that were the MGS atop the hill alongside the former Trinity Theological College, the former Nan Hwa Girls’ High School at the corner of Sophia Road and Adis Road, and the former San Shan Chinese School off Mount Sophia – just down from the former Trinity Theological College. A mansion that was once used as the Mount Emily Girls’ Home, which is now Emily Hill, an arts centre, stands at the end of Upper Wilkie Road. One girls’ school that is still functioning at Mount Sophia is St. Margaret’s Primary School.
There are several wonderful buildings, the stuff of fairy tales perhaps, that have sadly disappeared. One such building was the magnificent villa that belonged to Eu Tong Sen, Eu Villa that once dominated the landscape in the area – which as schoolboys we could get a glimpse of atop the high retaining wall just next to Peace Centre from where Wilkie and Sophia Roads met near the Sophia Flats. Eu Villa was in 1915, constructed on the site of Adis Lodge which, when it was built in 1907, was said to be one of the most magnificent mansions east of the Suez. Adis Lodge was owned by Nassim Nassim Adis, the owner of Hotel de L’Europe and sold to Eu Tong Sen in 1912. Another magnificent mansion that has vanished, was one owned by M. J. Nassim at 89 Wilkie Road.
Nestled amongst the magnificent buildings were several places of worship which still stand. These include the Church of Christ at the junction of Sophia and Wilkie Roads and the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Sikh Temple on Wilkie Road (the temple is now housed in a new building built in 1983 next to the older house next to it that was used as a temple from 1932). The buildings that we still see and those that now tower over the old mansions, schools and houses of worship, are certainly not the buildings that fairy-tales are made of. For that, I suppose, there is that fairy-tale like atmosphere that we can now find in Singapore – not up a magical hill, but on an island called Sentosa ….
This photograph (click on link) on the Memories of Singapore site provides a good idea of the area in the 1960s. It would have been some time after Selegie House and Selegie School came up in 1963 as these are clearly visible in the photograph. Eu Villa stands out just to the right of Cathay Building and it is not hard to appreciate how the villa would have stood out on Mount Sophia before Peace Centre was built.