The Italian captain who bought Pulau Bukom …

10 06 2017

Except perhaps for sculptor Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli, whose magnificent work adorns the old Supreme Court, little is known of Singapore’s many connections with the Italian community – except perhaps of the community’s many culinary offerings we are now able to find. It may therefore come as a surprise that the connections do go well back –  even before Italy as an entity existed and that Singapore’s Pulau Bukom was once owned by an Italian man.

Explore Singapore’s surprising Italian connections at The Italian Connection at the Fullerton Hotel.

Pulau Bukom is perhaps better known to us as the island on which Singapore’s successful journey into the oil refining trade, had its beginnings. Shell, who built and operate the refinery, has long been associated with the island. 20 acres of it was bought by the company in 1891 for the purpose of kerosene storage. The transaction netted the island’s owner,  Capitano Giovanni Gaggino a tidy profit. Gaggino, an Italian master mariner, shipowner and adventurer, purchased the island for $500 in 1884 with the intention to supply freshwater to shipping. His purchase of “Freshwater Island” as it was informally known as, was one of many of Gaggino’s ventures here. He would spend 42 of his 72 years in Singapore from 1876 and passed on in 1918, whilst on a trip to Batavia. Capitano Gaggino was also known to have authored several books, one of which was the very first Malay-Italian dictionary.

Capitano Giovanni Gaggino, who once owned Pulau Bukom (source: Reproduction of “La Vallata del Yang-Tse-Kiang” by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Open source).

Even before Gaggino, Italians – many of whom were involved in shipping and trade, made landfall. One rather famous Italian, the renowned botanist and contemporary of Charles Darwin, Odoardo Beccari, used Singapore as a stepping stone to his well documented explorations of the region’s forests. Credited with the discovery of the giant corpse flower, Beccari also documented a month he spent in March 1866 at the “wooden bungalow” of the Italian Consul, Signor Giovanni Leveson (a.k.a. Edward John Leveson) on the Johor Strait. The bungalow is thought to be where Woodlands in Singapore’s north got its name from.

Odoardo Beccari (source: Sailko, Creative Commons License 3.0).

Like Capitano Gaggino, Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli spent a substantial part of his life in Singapore. He arrived from Bangkok in 1921 and remained – except for a period of internment during the Second World War (as a citizen of Italy, one of the Axis states, he was interned in Australia from 1941 to 1945), until his retirement in 1956 . He worked tirelessly and amassed a huge portfolio of work that began with the second Ocean Building on which he provided the decorative artificial stone facings.

Composite image of Rodolfo Nolli and the main (south) entrance of the GPO. Two sets of works – the coat of arms and a pair of flambeau compositions, went missing during the Japanese Occupation (source of images: National Archives of Singapore).

The majestic Ocean Building did not only launch Nolli’s career in Singapore, it also spelled a new era for the bund along Collyer Quay. Before the end of a decade, three even grander edifices would be added: the Union Building, a second generation Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers, and the grandest of them all, the Fullerton Building. The additions, all of which Nolli had work done on, provided the bund with an appearance that could be compared to Shanghai’s more famous embankment.

Ocean Building in the 1920s (Source: W. A. Laxton, The Straits Steamship Fleets)..

Built to house the General Post Office, several municipal offices as well as the exclusive Singapore Club, the Fullerton was decorated with some of Nolli’s more exquisite pieces of the era. Two precast sculptural works: a pair of flambeau compositions and a royal coat of arms – symbols of enlightenment and empire – adorned the main entrance to the GPO. Sadly, these disappeared during the Japanese Occupation and all that can now be seen of Nolli’s contributions in the building is the magnificent plasterwork of the barrel vaulted ceiling of the Singapore Club’s Billiard Hall. The hall is now the Straits Room of The Fullerton Hotel. The hotel has occupied the Fullerton Building since 2001.

The Straits Room is now where the only works of Rodolfo Nolli’s in the Fullerton Building to have survived can be found.

The historic waterfront, 1932, to which Nolli added decorative finishing touches, and the waterfront today (source: top image, Singapore Philatelic Museum; lower image, Jerome Lim).

Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli, whose works are also found in Bangkok – where he spent 7 years of his life, in parts of Malaysia and also in Brunei, was bestowed with a knighthood by the Italian Crown in 1925. This is an honour that another Italian gentleman connected with the Fullerton Building, Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale, has also received. Cavaliere Viterale, the GM of Fullerton Heritage, is a well respected member of the hospitality industry and it was for his contributions to it that he received the honour. The building, which was opened in June 1928, celebrates its 89th anniversary this month.

Nuns of the Canossian order speaking to Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale at the exhibition opening. The order, which has origins in Italy, first arrived in Singapore in 1894 (source: The Fullerton Heritage).

More on the Italian Community, including on an Italian order of missionaries whose work in tending to those in need continues to this very day, the Canossian Daughters of Charity, can be discovered at an exhibition that I curated with Zinke Aw, “The Italian Connection”. The exhibition, The Fullerton Hotel’s East Garden Foyer, runs until 18 July 2017. Information on the exhibition can also be found at The Fullerton Heritage’s website and through the official press release.






3 responses

11 06 2017
N Narayanan

Thanks once again to Mr Jerome Lim for his dedication in presenting ‘lostalgic’ snippets from the past. This particular post evoked some very personal memories.

‘Shell Royl Dutch’ was a prominent oil-company here in Singapore, but I believe its counterpart or branch across the Causeway was under the name ‘Asiatic Petroleum Company’. A close family friend who worked with the company at Malacca in pre-war days was familiarly known among us as ‘APC- ****’.

Shell Sports Club had their field and premises at Paya Lebar Road, while the company’s office was at Collyer Quay adjacent to a bombed-out site next to Change Alley. For some years in the mid-1960s, the Stock Exchange was at what was then familiarly known as ‘Shell House’ .

But what struck my eye was the photograph of ‘the majestic Ocean Building in Singapore in 1920s’ as it held particular significance to me. The buildings along Collyer Quay were numbered from D’Almeida Street with the Indian Overseas Bank at No 1, while, if my recollection is correct, Estate & Trust Agencies Lrd at No 2, but upstairs. No 3 at the Collyer Quay/De Souza Street corner originally housed a coffee-shop, but was taken up c 1950 by United Commercial Bank from Calcutta. The expanse of Ocean Building from De Souza Street to Prince Street appears in the photo to be one solid building. That may well have been the case ‘in 1920s’ but from my personal observation – from January 1949 onwards – Ocean Building was a greyish-granite building while the adjoining Collyer Quay main-frontage offices, numbered 4 & 4-1, were in a whitish ‘chunam’ colour as was customary in those times, and extended to about the larger tree in the picture. Access to the upper floors was via an entrance along De Souza Street bearing the lettering ‘Cecil House’.- if my memory is not altogether wrong. There was a very slight rift between the two buildings.

No 4 Collyer Quay was where my father worked for a couple of decades until the Jap Occupation, and rather coincidentally where I too started my first job – at 4 & 4-1 – for almost 8 years from 1949 – in a totally unconnected company. In fact post WWII, my father’s company moved to a unit on the 3rd storey.

Today the whole area has been throughly transformed, and Raffles Place MRT stands on the same site.

11 06 2017
Jimmy Y H Yap

Hi Jerome ! So interesting to read about the Italian Connections for Bukom to
the Fullerton. I hope S T to Fullerton Hotel and Shell Bukom will carry your detailed article to priceless photos at their premisses

14 06 2017
N Narayanan

14th June 2017

As the saying goes, ‘Once more into the breach, dear friends…’ So on that note, please bear with me!

This time around, my comment is in reference to ‘The Straits Room’ in Fullerton Building, where incidental mention is made to ‘the very exclusive Singapore Club (which) counted the who’s who of high society as its members’. Tactfully not mentioned is that it was a strictly ‘Whites Only’ club (I am open to correction here!). I did however enter its hallowed portals on one occasion (in the early 1950s) to get urgently the signature of my Scottish boss who had gone there for lunch. But exclusivity of membership in social clubs based on ethnicity was in those times, ‘par for the course’. The Padang Clubs SCC and SRC had only European and Eurasian members respectively, so too SCRC at Hong Lim Green to ethnic-Chinese. Going over to Balestier Plain, Malays had their MFA (Malays Football Association) with its playing ground towards the Rangoon Road end, while those with Ceylon origins generally tended to become members of the.CSC. The Indian Association however, was uniquely ‘open-housed’ to admitting ethnic-Malays who wanted to play cricket, as well as similarly to any ‘Ceylon Tamils’ who could have gone to the adjacent CSC. When I joined the IA in 1949, I was not a little surprised when the skipper of our Second XI turned out to be Malay and the vice-captain a Ceylon Tamil! But in the true spirit of cricket, it was the game itself however that mattered, and over the years that followed, I found this same spirit of camaraderie prevalent when playing on the then-many cricket pitches spread out all over the island. I cannot recall that any time, differences of ethnicity, religion, social &/or economic status, – or even age for that matter – ever reared their heads. The frequent intermittent breaks during play often offered great opportunities to ‘bond’ with people of widely different backgrounds – even if only once or twice a year.The withdrawal of large numbers of British army personnel sadly contributed to this sport being sidelined as ‘a decadent colonial relic’ for some decades, and upstaged by faster-moving sporting activities that took up a lot less time. The two keenly awaited annual cricket events were the ‘FMS vs Singapore’ match at the SCC Padang over the then four-day Easter holidays and ‘Europeans vs Rest’ at the SRC grounds for the C H Clarke Cup later in the year, I think around the ‘August Bank Holidays’. Both matches would attract large appreciative crowds. Despite that last being obviously ‘racist’. the atmosphere in which it was played was in the tradition of ‘may the best side win’

Today, there is little information available of whatever happened to the Clarke Cup Trophy, or even any of the distinguished players. I had however the privilege of knowing one Mr Thio J Leijssius, who I was given to understand was a ‘Ceylon Burgher’ and played for the SRC. He was a good friend of my father, and told me he had turned out for the Singapore Cricket XI against the Australian Test team which stopped over here when returning after its 1926 tour of England. And rather coincidentally, his office was in one of the rooms in the same Ocean Building at Collyer Quay also featured in this post.

N Narayanan

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