Calling an end to one cycle of time for the Ellison Building

3 09 2016

As if to foretell the end in a cycle of time for the Ellison Building, and the beginning of another, the mayura, a peacock – a mythological representation of the cycle of time, has made an appearance just across Bukit Timah Road from it. In the peacock’s view is the side the building whose time is at it end; an end that is being brought about by the intended construction of the North-South Expressway right under it.

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That a decision was taken to demolish a portion of a building that has been gazetted for conservation is hard to fathom. Protection through conservation, so it seems, counts for very little when the development of national infrastructure is a justification. Constraints of space due to what already exists underground has forced the authorities concerned to take this unfortunate decision. The section that will be demolished, which contains three units along Bukit Timah Road, will be reconstructed and reinstated to the building original design after the expressway is completed in 2026.

The decision caught the public unawares, first coming to light on 7 August 2016. The Chinese language daily Lianhe Zaobao, in an article on the construction of the expressway, made mention that part of the building’s “façade” was to be demolished and reinstated. Further information was then provided by a Straits Times 18 August 2016 report and much shock and disappointment has been expressed [see: Rebuilding parts of heritage building not the answer (Letter to the Straits Times, 18 August 2016), the Singapore Heritage Society’s 18 August 2016 Statement on Ellison Building, and ICOMOS Singapore’s 2 September Statement on the Proposed Demolition and Reconstruction of Part of Ellison Building].

The old style Hup Chiang kopitiam at the Ellison Building, now occupied by a Teochew porridge restaurant.

The news is also upsetting considering that the Ellison is one of the last survivors of the landmarks that once provided the area with its identity. Old Tekka Market, an focal point for many heading to the area in its day, has long since left us. Its replacement, housed at the bottom of a HDB built podium development built across the road from the old market, lacks the presence of the old  – even if the complex towers over the area. The complex sits on the site of another missing landmark, the Kandang Kerbau Police Station. One still there but now well hidden from sight is the Rochor Canal. Flavoursome in more ways than one, the canal would often mentioned in the same breath as any reference that was made to the area. Looking a little worse for war and dwarfed by much of what now surrounds it, the Ellison building with its distinctive façade, still makes its presence felt.

The Ellison Building as interpreted by the Urban Sketchers of Singapore.

The Ellison Building as interpreted by the Urban Sketchers Singapore.

The Ellison building is one of three structures found in the area on which the Star of David proudly displayed, the others being the David Elias building and the Maghain Aboth synagogue at Waterloo Street. Placed between the 19 and 24 on its Selegie Road façade that gives the year of its completion, it tells of a time we have forgotten when the area  was the Mahallah to the sizeable Arab speaking Baghdadi Jewish community. Described as having a feel of old Baghdad, the Mahallah was where the likes of Jacob Ballas and Harry Elias, just two of the communities many illustrious children, spend their early years in. Another link to its origins is an “I. Ellison” one finds over the entrance to No. 237 – one of the units that will be demolished. This serves to remind us of Isaac Ellison who had the building erected, apparently, for his wife Flora. 

The building seems also to have a long association with one of Singapore’s biggest obsessions, food. One food outlet that goes back as far as the building is Singapore’s oldest Indian Vegetarian restaurant, Ananda Bhavan (which still operates there). It was one of two vegetarian places that I remember seeing from my days passing the building on my daily rides home on the bus as a schoolboy. I would look out for the eye-catching displays of brightly coloured milk candy, neatly arranged on the shelves of wooden framed glass cabinets and also the restaurants’ old fashioned counters. Another sight that I never failed to notice was the mama shop along the five-foot-way and its stalk of bananas on display from which bananas would be plucked and purchased individually.

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A lost reminder of the past, an old fashioned Indian Vegetarian restaurant that has since been replaced by a popular nasi lemak shop.

The units that housed the vegetarian restaurants are fortunately on the side along Selegie Road. This will not be affected by the expressway construction and is housed within a larger part of the building that is not being demolished. This is something that should perhaps be looked at positively as unlike the regretful loss of whole places and structures that we have become accustomed to – so that they can keep our world moving,  the Ellison, because of it conservation status will not totally be lost.

Previous instance of moving our world too far and too fast, and in a direction not everyone is comfortable with, we have bid farewell to well loved structures such as the people’s National Theatre, the much-loved National Library, and what probably counts as Singapore’s first purpose built hawker centre – the Esplanade Food Centre.

We have also parted company in more recent times with places such as the remnants of the historic Mount Palmer and  a part of the Singapore’s first polytechnic. Both were flattened earlier this year to allow the final phase of the Circle Line MRT to be completed. Another historic site, Bukit Brown cemetery, has also lost some of its inhabitants to a highway that is being built through it. There is also the case of the proposed Cross Island Line’s proposed alignment that will take it under what should rightfully be an untouchable part of Singapore – the Central Catchment Nature. Of concern is the site  investigation work that will be carried out and its potential for long term damage to the flora and fauna of the nature reserve.

The regret of allowing places such as the National Library and National Theatre to pass into history is still felt. Whatever is intended for the Ellison is something we similarly will regret. Let us hope that the regret is not also one of setting a precedent in the resolution of conflicts to come between conservation and the need for development.


Other views of the Ellison Building over the years found online:

Part of the Selegie Road face of Ellison Building, possibly in the 1980s (snowstorm snowflake on Panoramio).

The Ellison Building, seen from across the then opened Rochor Canal in 1969 (Bill Strong on Flickr).


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7 responses

4 09 2016
gaspinggurami

I spent my childhood around these places. Every evening, dad would walk to the mamak shop at the corner of Ellison House facing Bt Timah Rd to buy the papers.

A bit up the road opposite Selegie House are a row of shophouses that mainly sell patches for broken jeans, stickers for motorcycles and a couple of spice mills.

Yet a bit further up the road, at the junction of Selegie Rd, Middle Rd, Short Street and Sophia Rd, was the Tiger Balm building with its tiger statue. Doh Jin hospital was around there — and people don’t like to be seen going in or out of it as it was specialising in STD at that time. Opposite Doh Jin was the ROV and many car Licence plates and signcraft shops. There’s also a row of Jewish money changers near the junction. I remember being fascinated Bu the Jewish calendar as well as a poster showing a rich man and a poor man with the words “i sold in cash i sold on credit” hanging on the wall.

Thanks for bringing back the old memories.

5 09 2016
Jerome Lim, The Wondering Wanderer

Hi gaspinggurami, thanks for your comments. Sadly, the spice mills you mention, have disappeared from the area. I used to be fascinated by the ones I would come across on my visits to the Tekka Market area. I would pass the Tiger Balm building on the bus back from school and would always look out for it and its tiger. Although it was topped by a tiger, the building was then used by Chung Khiaw Bank. Would you know when the tiger statue was removed from it?

The Doh Jin was notorious and yes, no one really wanted to admit to having sought treatment at the hospital – then the Middle Road Hospital, even if was for reasons unrelated to STDs of VDs as they were referred to then.

On the signcraft shops, I remember Rainbow Signcrafts in particular – opposite the ROV.

When did you live in the area?

5 09 2016
gaspinggurami

Hi Jerome, I lived at Bt Timah Rd (opposite the old KK Hospital) from 1963-1980. In my childhood days, I could walk up Mt Emily from Mackenzie Rd and watch LKY play Golf at the Istana grounds in the evening.

I had Sikh friends who would get makan out from the temple at Niven Rd to share while we explored the Swimming pool on the hill, or watch the weight lifters train on Wilkie Rd.

Unfortunately, like all Singaporeans, I got caught up the the national fervour of progress at all costs. I shut my eyes to what’s happening around me and set my sights on studies and later making a living. So I never even notice the tiger disappearing until recently in the early 2000s when I went for soybean curd and was telling my Wife about my childhood kampong.

Now as I look back, Singapore has become something like a Hyatt — it’s very nice to stay at if you can afford the price. But at the end, you long for your own home. Sad.

Last week, I brought mom back for a walk around the neighbourhood which had become unrecognisable. I intend to bring my Uncle for a visit to Selegie Integrated School very soon, before he loses his memory — he was the first principal of that school, as he oversaw its building.

5 09 2016
Saul

Thanks gaspinggurami,
That was a lovely jaunt down yesteryear. As someone whose uncle lived in the SIT flats in Short Street, i really loved that whole Middle Rd/Selegie/Mt Sophia/Albert St quarter.

5 09 2016
gaspinggurami

Hi Saul, I attended my kindergarten at the CC opposite the SIT flats. In those days, we held our sports day at the SIT flats’ Basketball court.

7 01 2017
Edmund

Hi gaspinggurami , What a summation “Singapore has become something like a Hyatt — it’s very nice to stay at if you can afford the price. But at the end, you long for your own home.” It is unfortunate that it is very hard to uncover links to our “simple” formative years these days. Cheers

7 01 2017
gaspinggurami

I’m now visiting Woodlands Centre. Last gasp for this venerable estate. Shops are all closing up in preparation for the teardown

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