Many of us these days would probably have forgotten about the Straits Steamship Company and the significant role that the company played in Singapore’s development as a maritime nation. The company, when it was incorporated in 1890, was perhaps a reflection of what Singapore had become – a mix of east and west, with both investors of European origin as well as several of Asian origin. The fleet of ships that the company operated, numbered as many as 53 at its height, linking ports in much of the Malayan Peninsula and British Borneo, facilitating the development of many of the more remote parts of the region. The company had its headquarters at the curve of Collyer Quay, where it meets Cecil Street, and for a while was housed in a beautiful five storey example of colonial architecture, not the original, but the second Ocean Building (the first was built on the site in 1864). The building, construction of which was started in 1919 and completed in 1923, was designed by a British architect, Somers H. Ellis. It featured overhanging balconies on the second and fifth levels and verandahs on the third and fourth levels. The building was topped with a tower that rose some 49 metres above ground, making it the tallest building in Singapore back when it was built.
That glorious Ocean Building stood for some 47 years until 1970, when it was demolished to make way for yet another Ocean Building – this time a 28 storey tower block which was built on an expanded site that included Prince Street which once linked Collyer Quay with Raffles Place and Prince Building across from the older Ocean Building. The new building was completed in 1974 and housed the offices of many shipping companies as well as that of the Straits Steamship Company. It also housed the Mercantile Bank, which had prior to that, operated from Raffles Place since 1861. During the time the third building stood, the Straits Steamship Company disappeared, a victim of the rapid growth in containerisation and the growing irrelevance of conventional regional shipping. The company was sold to Keppel in 1983 and a shift in focus to land development saw a change of name to Straits Steamship Land Ltd, before it became Keppel Land in 1997. The company finally withdrew totally from shipping in 2004.
The third 28 storey Ocean Building is now gone as well, having stood for some 33 years. On its site and what was the neighbouring Ocean Towers, the new 43 storey Ocean Financial Towers which is scheduled for completion in 2011, is being built. With this, we would probably find it harder to remember that beautiful curved building that stood at the corner of Collyer Quay and the Straits Steamship Company which had a long association with the buildings of the name.