More winds of change blowing through Queen Street

7 02 2014

Besides the stretch of Queen Street at the Cathedral end, another section of the street in the midst of change is the stretch between Bras Basah and Middle Roads. It is one that although is already much changed from the street that I was familiar with in my younger days, which is littered with reminders of a past when the European missionaries left what did once seem like an indelible mark on it.

A view of part of the area from the (new) National Library - the three blocks of Waterloo Centre can be seen at the top left of the photograph. St. Joseph's Church and the former St. Anthony's Convent can be seen in the foreground.

A view of part of the area from the (new) National Library – the three blocks of Waterloo Centre can be seen at the top left of the photograph. St. Joseph’s Church (the Portuguese Church) and the former St. Anthony’s Convent can be seen in the foreground.

One new addition to the stretch that will definitely leave a mark on the street will be the China Cultural Centre that is fast coming up (which got a mention in a post in March of last year). The centre, built as an effort on China’s part “to help people understand Chinese culture and deepen ties with the host country”, is one that will certainly change the character of an area once flavoured by schools which have since been moved out and two beautiful churches – legacies of the important contributions made by the French and the Portuguese missionaries to modern Singapore.

The China Cultural Centre  is seen rising up just beyond the burnt siena coloured Oxford Hotel.

The China Cultural Centre is seen rising up just beyond the burnt siena coloured Oxford Hotel.

The centre stands on a plot of land that once had been occupied by the Stamford Community Centre, a place that I had been familiar with in my school days in nearby Saint Joseph’s Institution. The centre was where in May 1978, a balloting exercise was held for would be residents of the three residential Housing and Development Board (HDB) blocks of flats built over a lower podium block – a public housing complex that has for some 35 years now, dominate this stretch of the street. 

The former Stamford Community Centre. I had climbed over the gate a few times with several of my classmates to play street football on the basketball court.

The former Stamford Community Centre.

The development of Waterloo Centre, which was completed in 1978, could be considered to be a significant one from a public housing perspective. It was one of several mixed commercial and residential built in the city centre at the 1970s and in the early 1980s that were built to accommodate some of the many residents and businesses that were being displaced by what was a huge wave of redevelopment sweeping across urban Singapore. 

The Waterloo Centre Podium with its mix of old and new.

The Waterloo Centre Podium with its mix of old and new.

Taking a walk around Waterloo Centre’s podium these days, one can’t help but feel the sense of time standing very still there; the podium is one that still contains many remnants of its shop lots’ first occupants – the motor spare parts dealers that were moved into it having been displaced from the redevelopment of the Sungei Road and Rochor areas. 

Shops housing motor spare parts dealers.

Shops housing motor spare parts dealers.

Another look at the podium.

Another look at the podium.

Although there now is a mix of newer business with some of the original occupants, Waterloo Centre does seem a lot quieter compared to similar urban podium block complexes such as the nearby Albert Complex with its wet market and popular food centre, and Bras Basah Complex with its mix of bookshops and art supply shops and printing business. And that is perhaps why the complex is being given a makeover into Arts Place – a centre that perhaps fits into the vision set out for the area as a destination for the arts and culture.

Waterloo Centre seems to be in the middle of a transformation into ArtsPlace.

Waterloo Centre seems to be in the middle of a transformation into Arts Place.

SAM @ 8Q - formerly  the Catholic High School - now an extension to the art museum.

SAM @ 8Q – formerly the Catholic High School – now an extension to the art museum.

On part of the plot where Waterloo Centre stands today was where a private school, the Mercantile Institution did once stand. The school, which was started in the late 1920s, was where my father did once enroll in, in the mess that came with the end of war when many publicly run schools were still shut and places were in short supply. It was only to be for a short while though, my father did eventually get a place in Monk’s Hill Boys School. There were a couple of things he did tell me of his experiences in the Mercantile Institution – one was that as the war had disrupted the education of many, there were many older boys who had to enrolled into the entry level classes. Another was that the name of the school was often mispronounced – coming across sounding like “Makan-tahi Institution” – “makan tahi” many in Singapore would know as Malay for (pardon the crudeness) “eat shit”.

Area where Waterloo Centre is today, as seen in 1959 - the Mercantile Institution, a private school established in the 1920s, can be seen on the left right next to Nantina Home (ex Nantina Hotel) (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Area where Waterloo Centre is today, as seen in 1959 – the Mercantile Institution, a private school established in the 1920s, can be seen on the left right next to Nantina Home (ex Toyo Hotel) (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Further along from the Mercantile Institution, there were two other buildings that many familiar with the area would remember. One was the former Nantina Home, which functioned as the Japanese owned Toyo Hotel before the war (it was the second Toyo Hotel – the first was demolished in 1937 to make way for Cathay Building) . As the Nantina Hotel after the war, it was used to accommodate returning European internees who came back via India, before it was handed over to the Department of Social Welfare who turned it into a home for the aged and destitute. That operated until 1959 when the building was taken over by the Trades Union Congress.

The area in 1975 with the former Nantina Home still standing next to Queen Street Post Office (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

The area in 1975 with the former Nantina Home still standing next to Queen Street Post Office (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Right next to Nantina Home was another building many might remember – the Queen Street Post Office, housed in a four storey building. The building was demolished after the post office was closed in May 1978. What stands in its place (or at least partly in its place) today is the five storey Bylands Building of 1980s vintage, right next to Middle Road.

Queen Street Post Office which was to close in May 1978 is seen next to the already demolished former Nantina Home (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Queen Street Post Office which was to close in May 1978 is seen next to the already demolished former Nantina Home (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

The part of Queen Street where the Mercantile Institution, the Nantina Home, and Queen Street Post Office was, is where a spectacle does takes place once a year on Good Friday. That is when part of the street and the compound of Saint Joseph’s Church next to it, becomes a sea of candlelight as part of a procession. That is a time when the rich religious traditions of the Portuguese missionaries, who did leave us one of the most beautiful churches on the island, does manifest itself – a celebration that does serve to remind us of what the area should really be remembered for.

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8 responses

10 02 2014
James Lim

Hi Jerome, Am going to show my dad the photo of the Mercantile Institute, i am sure he will be delighted but also bring back not so happy memories haha… why? Prior to his enrolment into the “Makan Tahi” school, he was originally enrolled in Saint Anthony school… was there for more than two weeks but was force to leave because some old boys of St. Anthony complained that their children were deprived of vacancies due to ‘outsiders” were admitted. There were more than a dozen of them asked to vacate. His father enrolled him in Mercantile from hear say that private schools are better than government run ones !

My dad mentioned that most of the teachers there were Indians. He will always remember a particular teacher telling them to “remumbar” (remember).

10 02 2014
Jerome Lim, The Wondering Wanderer

Hi James, thanks for your comments! When was your Dad there? Would be nice to add some further memories of the school and the area if he does have more to share. 🙂

10 02 2014
James Lim

hi Jerome, shared your blog with dad over dinner just now, he was delighted to see the school building photo ! He enrolled in 1947/8… He “remumbared” the school principal was one Edmund Pereira. Also the two sons were teaching in the school. One of the son at the time was in the police volunteer corp, he would come to school and show off his revolver to the students, so hilarious! According to dad, the two sons may only have “O – Levels” but yet they were teaching the secondary level students! And the school fees for the Makan Tahi school was not cheap at the time. The principal used to take taxi rides from my grandfather until he got himself a car. Dad even remembered the principal’s residence – at No.2 Branksome road, gosh! I must say Mr Edmund Pereira was a successful business man.

We google mapped for victoria street and Queen street, brought back memories for dad every time he passed by St. Anthony school, the red and beige building partially hidden from view from Queen street, he can still see his class room even though he was there for only a brief period. Dad remembered just across Queen street in front of St. Anthony was a big tree where the Waterloo Centre complex now stands.

Among his class mates at Mercantile was the son of one Jeweller, he would come to school chauffeured. But there was no airs about him, they played like typical school mates and had a good time. Dad also remembered the top boy of the school. He would always top the class every year and Mrs Pereira liked him a lot! After school, he would rush home to help tend the liquor shop belonging to his uncle until closing at 10 pm. His father passed away during the Japanese occupation. According to my father, his dad was Singapore’s top billiard champion before the war! The liquor shop used to be near the junction of Middle road and Queen street where now the Midlink Plaza stands. It would be great to dig up some archival photos of the roll of shop houses there, haha. He went on to Raffles Institution after Mercantile and won a scholarship to the United States. Mekan Tahi can also produced a scholar! Haha.

Thanks for the memories Jerome 🙂

12 02 2014
Jerome Lim, The Wondering Wanderer

Nice to know! He was there not long after my dad moved to Monk’s Hill. Great memories! Thanks for sharing them – you may want to contribute them to the Singapore Memory Project. 🙂

10 02 2014
James Lim

Hi Jerome, i guess your dad must be older than my father because you are older than me haha 🙂 Incidentally, we also stayed in Toa Payoh, my parents moved in @ 1969, around Kim Keat. Will ask him for more info, he likes to talk about the past.

12 02 2014
Jerome Lim, The Wondering Wanderer

Thanks James 🙂

13 02 2014
james lim

Oh yes, mom joined in the discussion. Indeed the saint Joseph church brings back memories for her especially the good Friday procession. Mom being baptized at 15 in the st. Paul and st. Peter church, would joined the procession… I remembered attending once when mom brought me along as a young boy. It was so crowded and we inched our way through the procession. They even have the red cross or st. John ambulance volunteers on stand by duties. It was an experience to be remumbared, haha 😊

30 09 2015
Clement Mesenas

I am surprised to learn that James Lim’s dad used to give Mercantile Institute’s principal a lift. In the late 50s, when I attended St Anthony’s Boys School — it was run by a very kind principal, Bro Patrick, a Burmese — Mercantile’s principal drove a huge white American car, a Plymouth. His wife, a Chinese woman, drove a smaller nattier car, a Nash, or on occasion, a Karmann Ghia, a Volkswagen sports coupe. I thought they were extremely wealthy as they also owned three houses in Queen Street. I was aware of the Makan Tahi name given to Mercantile Institute. We were told that if we did not study and do well in our school,we would end up in Makan Tahi. The students of Makan Tahi were a tough lot, even tougher than the thugs I attended school with. One afternoon as I was roaming the street after school , I came across an astounding sight — the Makan Tahi’s principal’s massive white car was desecrated by a huge lump of snot, a greenish yellow lump right on its pristine bonnet. It was a sight to behold. It was there for all of five hours or so, before it disappeared, when I trudged home later that afternoon.

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