The Chinese-styled building on Cairnhill

21 02 2018

I love old and forgotten buildings. There are often lots of stories that can be told about them – as is the case of the former Anglo Chinese Secondary School at 126 Cairnhill Road. That had its story told in an article in Monday’s edition of the Straits Times that spoke of the desire among its current tenants to have the building conserved. Now used by the Cairnhill Arts Centre, it has a history of use in the promotion of learning. Unlikely as it may seem, the building was also where the National Institute of Education (NIE) had its beginnings in as the Teachers’ Training College (TTC) way back in 1950.

The Cairnhill Arts Centre at the summit of Cairnhill was completed in 1928 for Anglo Chinese Secondary School.

The setting up of TTC had come as part of a wider effort, the ten-year Education Plan that was initiated by the postwar Colonial administration’s Director of Education Mr J. Neilson. Its aim was to raise the standard of teaching and to provide (free) universal primary schooling in Singapore to stem the problem of juvenile hawking amongst the children of the fast growing urban population. A lack of funds had hampered the adoption of the plan and it would only be in late 1947 that the plan was adopted. Implementation of the plan began in 1948. An immediate task was to set up the TTC and its would be principal was quickly identified. With ACSS moving to new premises at Barker Road at the end of 1949, its Cairnhill school building became available and was made TTC’s first home. Operations began in 1950 and TTC was officially opened by the Governor of Singapore Franklin Gimson the following year on 8 June 1951.

The building, which was originally to have been erected at Oldham Lane, was designed and also adapted for its new location by Swan and MacLaren.

Described as the “most momentous in the history of education in this colony” in a Straits Times article on 9 August 1950 on the new TTC, 1950 also saw education receive a much needed boost with the adoption and implementation of a five-year Supplementary Education Plan. This plan, initiated by Mr. Neilson’s successor Mr. A W. Frisby, was put in place to accelerate the building of schools as well as the training of teachers. This was much needed in light of the postwar baby boom. The “emergency”  teachers’ training programme was one of the first tasks the new TTC’s was put up to. The supplementary plan would also see several “Emergency Schools” built and completed the same year. TTC’s use of the Cairnhill Road premises continued for a while even after it found a permanent home on Paterson Road. The purpose built new TTC campus at Paterson Road would begin operations in 1956 and was fully completed in 1957. Trainee teachers were known to have to shuttle between the two campuses during this period.

The former TTC at Paterson Road.

The use of the building by Monk’s Hill Primary School just after the war tells another interesting story. A quick return to normalcy was high on the agenda of the British Military Administration (BMA) and this included the reopening of schools. That would however prove to be rather challenging. Many schools buildings had either been damaged and required repair or were destroyed. Some were also being utilised by the military services and could not be returned immediately to civilian use. In the first three months following the return to British rule, less than half of the schools operating prior to the occupation could be restarted. The situation was compounded by the accumulation – over four schooling years of the occupation – of would be enrollees. With places in short supply – especially for those at entry level, many turned to private schools in the interim. The sharing of school buildings helped ease this crunch. Monk’s Hill School was one that would resort to this arrangement, having to hold its classes (briefly in early 1946) in the afternoons at ACSS. ACSS, which was able to reopen in October 1945, held its classes in the mornings. Promotions of students across one or two levels was also introduced to permit those who had their education disrupted to have their progress accelerated.

A view into the building’s courtyard.


126 Cairnhill Road through the years

A sketch of the building to have been put up at Oldham Lane – the plans were later modified for the new site at Cairnhill.

It would seem that the site of ACSS, on the summit of Cairnhill, was in keeping with the Methodist Mission’s penchant for having its schools constructed on elevated positions, it was however not actually the case. The building – initially for a primary school – was to have been built on another site at (old) Oldham Lane off Orchard Road. Developments in the area around Oldham Lane – which was fast turning it into motoring hub – forced a rethink. The Cairnhill site, purchased by the mission in 1920, was then made available for the new school building. The site, some “30 feet above street level”, was thought to give a “more desirable outlook” and also be “free from interruption from street noises”.

ACSS 1928

The building in 1928.

The building, completed in 1928 and opened by Sir Hayes Marriot – the Officer Administering the Government on 17 November of the same year – features quite a unique design with its somewhat Chinese-styled roof. Its plans were based on ones that were drawn up for the Oldham Lane site in 1924 and was adapted in 1926 for the new site. Built with 13 classrooms to accommodate 480 pupils from Standard VI to Cambridge (what would be known as “O” Levels today) level, the main building was supplemented by a science laboratory and a school hall (Tan Kah Kee Hall) cum tiffin shed (canteen), each housed separately. Access to the main building was via a flight of stairs from Cairnhill Road (the road access it now has is more recent). Half the cost of construction for the building was borne by the Straits Settlements Government.

Plans for the Building (modified for the Cairnhill Road site) in the National Archives of Singapore.

Besides its use by the Cairnhill Arts Centre (which opened on 24 April 1993), the two schools and TTC, the building has also been used by the Adult Education Board from 1968 until its merger with the Industrial Training Board in 1978 to become the Vocational and Industrial Training Board (VITB). VITB – the predecessor of the Institute of Technical Education then used the premises as an Instructor Training Centre until 1984 when a new training centre was established in Ayer Rajah. A building found at the bottom of the flight of stairs at Cairnhill Road – the school hall and canteen – has been occupied by a theatre company ACT 3 since 1987.

Plans for the Building (modified for the Cairnhill Road site) in the National Archives of Singapore.


More Photographs

An auxiliary building on the lower terrace – perhaps where the science labs were housed.

Decorative pieces can be seen at the eave ridge ends of the main as well as the auxiliary building.

What would have been the school hall (Tan Kah Kee Hall) cum canteen.

The building is now surrounded on three sides by highrise residential apartment blocks.


 

 

 

 

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2 responses

21 02 2018
Dawn Farnham

Hi Jerome, Love these old buildings and thanks for posting the photographs. As you may know I’m writing about Japanese occupied Singapore and wonder what you know about the Nan Mei Su Restaurant (or brothel) during that period. I heard it was in a building of an older Dutch club but can’t find reference to it other than it was on Emerald Hill or Cairnhill area. Thanks, Dawn

22 02 2018
Jerome Lim, The Wondering Wanderer

Hi Dawn, good to hear that you are writing a novel set in Japanese occupied Singapore. What I do know about the Dutch Club at Cairnhill was that it was located at the bend at the lower end of Cairnhill Road – right across from Hullet Road. The Nan Mei Su Restaurant I have been advised was more of a restaurant and not so much a brothel.

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