The knight whose works enriched a “cultural desert”

16 06 2017

I have long been fascinated by Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli, the Italian sculptor who spent a better part of his life in Southeast Asia. Over a period spanning 35 years, his mastery in pre-cast decorative mouldings and finishes provided many of Singapore’s buildings with a finishing touch. All in all he would spend 42 years away from his native Italy, leaving his mark not just in Singapore, but also in Siam, Malaya and Brunei.

Collyer Quay at the end of the 1920s, a world that Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli had a hand in decorating.

Of the numerous structures Cavaliere Nolli lent a hand to in Singapore, it is on the old Supreme Court that we see his impressive works. Built in 1939, the old Supreme Court features the largest concentration of Cavaliere Nolli’s efforts now found in the city-state. His decorative and finishing touches cover the grand old dame’s exterior with the exception of the friezes on the porch and a now missing coat of arms. It is however the massive sculptural pieces that adorn its pediment that is most eye-catching. Weighing a total of 13 tons, and measuring 2.7 metres high at the apex and 11 metres wide, the sculptural depiction of the Allegory of Justice in very classical form is the grandest of works that Cavaliere Nolli has here to his name. It is not just the sheer scale of the work that will impress, but also the display of artistic mastery found in the sculptures.

Much of the exterior decorative work on the old Supreme Court (now the Supreme Court Wing of the National Gallery) can be attributed to Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli.

Cavaliere Nolli considered his efforts on the old Supreme Court to be his “proudest achievement”. They would have provided him with at least some measure of having achieved an ambition he had hoped to achieve by coming across to Asia in 1913 – to make a name as a famous sculptor. Once here, he found Singapore especially to be a “cultural desert” and most of what he did would be in a capacity as a stonework contractor.

A map showing the reach of Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli’s work in Southeast Asia (Exhibtion panel from “The Italian Connection”).

As a stonework contractor, Cavaliere Nolli worked tirelessly. He excelled in plasterwork – a skill he picked up working on the finishing on the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall in Bangkok – and also in casting artificial stone. There was particularly in high demand for the latter driven by the use of new building techniques such as the use of reinforced concrete. He produced artificial stone finishing tiles to clad these new edifices. These granolithic tiles, made from cement with aggregate mixed in, gave the new buildings the appearance of having been built out of solid granite without the expense involved. The lightweight tiles were made very economically through the use of moulds. This allowed both repeatability and consistency necessary for mass production.

The Billiard Room of the Singapore Club – showing the exquisite plasterwork of Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli on its barrel vaulted ceiling. The room is now the Straits Room in the Fullerton Hotel (The Fullerton Heritage).

The technique could also extended to produce stone-like ornamental pieces and other decorative elements such as crests and coats of arms. It was for such work, commissioned for the completion of the (second) Ocean Building, that drew Cavaliere Nolli from Bangkok in 1921. Cavaliere Nolli was also employed to provide similar finishes for the Union Building and the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers, two more additions made to Collyer Quay in the 1920s.

A close-up of the smooth granolithic finish on the exterior of the old Supreme Court.

Nolli was heavily involved in the decorations of many more of the decade’s new buildings such as the David Elias Building, Connell House and the Netherlands Trading Society Building. Castings of crests, coats of arms and semi-sculptural work were also popular and that same decade, the Edward VII College of Medcine, Elgin Bridge, Crawford Bridge, and the Fullerton Building were beneficiaries of this work. Much, much more was to follow. Granolithic finishes produced by Nolli found their way to numerous new erections, one of which was the old Supreme Court.

One of the works of Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli on the (Edward VII) College of Medicine Building – an eagle with spread wings (a symbol of protection).

Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli’s skills in casting, also extended to the production of artificial stone columns and their capitals. The Ionic capitals he produced for the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers was one of the first he worked on. Also out of Cavaliere Nolli’s Scotts Road workshop were the huge columns and intricate Corinthian capitals that we see on the old Supreme Court.

Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli at the top of the old Supreme Court with a close up of the columns and the intricate Corinthian capitals that were cast by him (Lina Brunner Collection, National Archives of Singapore).

Cavaliere Nolli was bestowed with the Order of the Crown of Italy – a form of knighthood that carried with it the title Cavaliere – in 1925. While his life here may have appeared to have gone on rather smoothly, it was not without incident or setback. A motoring accident, early one Sunday morning in October 1934 at Meyer Road, left him seriously injured. Both of the sculptor’s arms were fractured and he required surgery on the right arm. A citizen of one of the Axis states, Cavaliere Nolli was also interned in Australia during the Second World War from 1941 to 1945. On his return to Singapore in 1946, he found his Scotts Road studio and workshop in a rather poor state. All that he had left in it was also missing, including a collection of over 300 art books and his set of tools.

One of the first postwar works Cavaliere Nolli produced was this precast crest for Hongkong and Shanghai Bank on MacDonald House in Orchard Road.

Cavaliere Nolli overcame that setback and received several commissions before his retirement in 1956. Among his last works in Singapore were a pair of sculptured stone lions for the Bank of China and a coloured sculptured plaque for Van Kleef Aquarium. The last large scale project he worked on before his retirement was the decorative stonework for the magnificent Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Bandar Seri Bagawan, Brunei. He returned to his native Italy following his retirement and passed away in December 1963 at the age of 75. He left a daughter, the then Hong Kong based Mrs Lina Brunner, behind.

One of Cavaliere Nolli’s last works in Singapore was a pair of lions for the Bank of China. Left: Cavaliere Nolli with one of the lions in his studio (Lina Brunner Collection, National Archives of Singapore). Right: The pair of lions seen today.

To discover more on Cavaliere Nolli’s life and work and his reach outside of Singapore, do visit The Italian Connection, which I had a hand in curating for The Fullerton Hotel. Held at the East Garden Foyer of The Fullerton Hotel, the exhibition has been put up as part of the Fullerton Building’s 89th Anniversary this June. Besides providing a glance at Cavaliere Nolli’s life, the exhibition also looks at the Italian community and  its connections with modern Singapore that go back to the early 19th century. There is also that connection that the Fullerton Building has, through Cavaliere Nolli at its very beginnings and today through the illustrious General Manager of The Fullerton Heritage, Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale.

One of Cavaliere Nolli’s more obscure works – reliefs of angels made for the chapel of St. Anthony’s Convent in 1952.


More on the exhibition and the works Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli can also be found at:


The old Supreme Court’s Allegory of Justice

Cavaliere Nolli’s Allegory of Justice in the tympanum of the old Supreme Court.

The old Supreme Court’s sculptures, which took Cavaliere Nolli more than a year to complete, are as interesting as they are impressive. Its centrepiece is Lady Justice, which alone weighs 4 tons. Quite noticeably missing is the blindfold, an attribute thought to be central to the depictions of Justice representing impartiality.

There has been many suggestions as to why this may be so, but Justice’s depiction in this manner is actually quite consistent with many classical representations through history, which Cavaliere Nolli would have drawn inspiration from. A beautifully executed example of this is Luca Giordano’s 1680s Allegory of Justice. The blindfold, the use of which was apparently popularised in the 16th century, is also missing from several well-known depictions of Lady Justice, such as in the Old Bailey.

Two other attributes of Lady Justice, a pair of scales and a sword turned downwards, are in plain sight. The scales, weighing evidence, are positioned well above the sword delivering punishment; the symbolism of this being that evidence and court takes precedence above punishment in the administration of justice.

As with many classical representations, deceit, discord and strife is counterbalanced by the order and security that the administration of the law achieves. Deceit, represented by the the two-headed snake, is seen biting a man far to Justice’s right. Legislators and the bent figure of a supplicant, begging for mercy, are also depicted and represent the administration of justice. The fruits of order and security – abundance and prosperity – can be seen in the bull and a farmer leading a rich harvest of wheat on Justice’s left.


The old Supreme Court friezes and works incorrectly attributed to Nolli

The old Supreme Court friezes, which some have attributed to Cavaliere Nolli, are the work of Alec Wagstaff. They were based on designs made by George Thomas Squires as part of a competition. The son of the illustrious Hong Kong based British sculptor W W Wagstaff, Alec was killed in action during the Second World War. Squires, who lived at the Crescent Flats in Meyer Road, as it turns out was the father of Isabel Mary Ferrie – the wife of James Westwater Ferrie. Ferrie was a well-known figure in the field of architecture as well as being an artist known for his watercolours of local seascapes. Many were painted at his house by the sea in Sembawang, His architectural firm, James Ferrie & Partners, is now run by a son Alasdair. 

A number of other prominent sculptural works have also been incorrectly attributed to Cavaliere Nolli. These include the triumphal figures on the façade of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, as well as the two lions of the Merdeka Bridge monument now hidden away in SAFTI Military Institute. Both sets of works were in fact contracted to Signor Raoul Bigazzi, a Florence based sculptor and businessman. Signor Bigazzi ran a successful marble supply and sculptural business and took on quite a fair bit of work in Asia. The railway station’s sculptures were crafted by his firm’s artistic director Professor Angelo Vannetti. The Merdeka Bridge lions were sculptured in the Philippines based on a design made by Mr L W Carpenter of the Public Works Department.

The friezes seen on the porch of the old Supreme Court are the works of Alec Wagstaff, the son of Hong Kong based sculptor W W Wagstaff.






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).






The Japanese school at Waterloo Street

27 04 2016

The Middle Road area, despite it transformation over the years, is still where reminders of the colourful chapters of its history await discovery. At one end, hints of one chapter can be found in its stars – the stars of David decorating the David Elias building, which tell us of the days of the Mahallah, home to the diaspora of Baghdadi Jews some of whom feature prominently in Singapore’s history.

A passageway into the past.

A passageway into the past.

For another migrant community the stars on Middle Road might have shone on, the Japanese, the reminders are less obviously Japanese.  These also take the form of old buildings, two of them.  One is the former Middle Road Hospital, which has its origins in the Japanese Doh-jin hospital. The other can be found just off Middle Road, at 155 Waterloo Street. Used as the National Arts Council (NAC) run Stamford Arts Centre since 1988, the building or rather, cluster of buildings, originally had been the Japanese community’s elementary school.

The buildings now housing the Stamford Arts Centre were put up to house an elementary school for the Japanese community in 1920.

The buildings now housing the Stamford Arts Centre were put up to house an elementary school for the Japanese community in 1920.

A conserved building since 1994, the original buildings had been erected in 1920 with the support of the Japan Club or what would be the equivalent of the Japanese Association today. The existence of the club, which was founded in 1915 and the school, was perhaps an indication of the growing presence of the Japanese, many of whom established themselves in the area around Middle Road, which was the community’s Chuo Dori or Central Street.

The Japanese Elementary School in its early days.

The Japanese Elementary School at Waterloo Street. The three-storey extension was added in 1931 (source: The Japanese Association).

The extension block today.

The extension block today.

The origins of the school were in the classes a teacher Mr. Miyamura first held in 1912 in a room in the Toyo Hotel, which was on Middle Road. From a group of some 26 to 28 students (accounts differ), enrollment quickly grew. This saw the school moving to Wilkie Road in 1915, before it was to find a permanent home at Waterloo Street.

The first anniversary in 1913 of the school started by Mr. Miyamura. Mr Miyamura is seen seated in the front row.

The first anniversary in 1913 of the school started by Mr. Miyamura. Mr Miyamura is seen seated in the front row (source: The Japanese Association).

Known as the Japan Elementary School (日本小学校) during its days at Waterloo Street, the school was one of the community’s focal points. Several notable personalities were reported to have visited the school, including two of the late Emperor Showa’s (Hirohito) brothers. Prince Chichibu, visited in 1925 and Prince Takamatsu, who visited with his wife, the Princess Takamatsu, came in 1930. The school was also where the community held a memorial service for Emperor Taisho (the visiting princes father) in 1927.

The Main Hall (on the second floor of the main building) in 1927.

The Main Hall (on the second floor of the main building) in 1927 (source: The Japanese Association).

The school was closed at the outbreak of hostilities in 1941, before being restarted as the Syonan First Peoples’ School during the occupation. Taken over by the British Military Administration after the surrender in 1945, it was used temporarily to house a recreation centre for soldiers, the Shackle Club, when that was made to vacate the de-requisitioned John Little’s building in January 1947. The Shackle Club occupied the premises very briefly, and moved in July 1947 to fleet canteen at Beach Road so as to allow the buildings to be made available to Gan Eng Seng School (Gan Eng Seng’s own building had been damaged during the war). Stamford Girls School, which was formed in 1951, was next to move in, spending a lot more time on the grounds than its intended occupant and vacating it only in 1986.

As the Shackle Club, January to July 1947.

As the Shackle Club, January to July 1947.

As the Stamford Girls’ School, 1972 (source: URA Conservation Portal).

Time, it seems, is now being called for the arts centre – at least in the form we have known. A report carried in the Today newspaper last week, tells us of the departure of its tenants in anticipation of its closure for a much needed revamp scheduled to start at the end of the year. A reminder not just of the Japanese community, but also of the post-war drive to extend the reach of primary education to the growing population of children in Singapore, it would be nice to see the charm and laid back atmosphere of it spaces – often lost in the modern day refurbishment of many conserved buildings, somehow retained.

Students and staff posing at the back of the school (it appears that this was taken before the extension was added) – (source: National Archives of Singapore).

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The back of the main building today.


Parting Glances – Stamford Arts Centre

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What’s cooking on the museum’s front lawn

29 05 2014

The front lawn of the National Museum of Singapore seems to be a staging ground for some rather unusual and un-museum like happenings of late.  It was just last year that Malaysian artist Sharon Chin had a group of people taking a bath  taking a bath in full view of the public on the lawn. That followed the drama that involved the “sexiest woman in magic”, Singapore’s very own Magic Babe Ning, who pulled off a couple of dramatic Houdiniesque escape stunts.

It's masak-masak time on the museum's front lawn.

It’s masak-masak time on the museum’s front lawn.

The latest happening sees a curious effort perhaps to recreate the playgrounds that have somehow become a symbol of a new-found Singaporean desire to cling on to the worn and tired emblems of less complicated times. And, in the inflatable imitations that now appear, we perhaps see an attempt to reintroduce to a connected yet disconnected generation with the simple ways fun would have been packaged in the past.

Worshiping  a temporary hero on the front lawn.

Worshiping a temporary hero on the front lawn.

While it may be sad that the imitations do seem to attract more love and interest than the real McCoys – the orange mosaic faced beast that is the somewhat iconic dragon of Toa Payoh and a lesser known elephant that is now only seen in Pasir Ris; the gimmicky adaptations, on the evidence of the droves of of bouncing children that turned up despite the unforgiving heat and humidity of the weekend, does seem to have worked to generate a buzz amongst the young at the museum that does go beyond the excitement I got as a child of hearing about the eerie happenings at the museum’s notorious spiral staircase.

The smaller imitation.

The smaller imitation.

The happenings on the front lawn, are all part of the Children’s Season at the national Museum that is titled Masak-Masak, launched to coincide with the June school holidays. Besides the air-filled version of the once ubiquitous playgrounds, Masak-Masak sees several interactive installations, a good number of which seem to revolve around the simplicity of play in less complicated times. One the kids would definitely have great fun participating in is Come and Play by Justin Lee at the Salon on Level 1. The activity allows children to use carton boxes to create a “dream-home”.

Come and Play at the Salon on Level 1.

Come and Play at the Salon on Level 1.

Besides what’s on the lawn and at Level 1 (there is also Larger-than-Life Games – literally larger-than-life versions of popular games of the past such as five-stones at the Concourse), there are also a host of interactive and immersive activites on Levels 2 and 3. Masa-Masak: My Childhood runs from 24 May to 3 Aug 2014 with the Playgrounds on the Lawn available only during the weekends (every Sat & Sun from 24 May to 3 Aug at 11am to 1pm & 3pm to 5pm). More information can be found on a downloadable exhibition brochure at the National Museum of Singapore’s website (click here).

Rouleaux by Anastassia Elias (France) on Level 2 features an eclectic collection of miniature dioramas.

Rouleaux by Anastassia Elias (France) on Level 2 features an eclectic collection of miniature dioramas.

An elated participant even as the bouncy versions of the playgrounds lie deflated.

An elated participant dancing on the lawn even as the bouncy versions of the playgrounds lie deflated.

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One hundred steps to Heaven

1 03 2011

If heaven was to be a place in Singapore, there would probably not be a better candidate for a suitable location than the Mount Sophia that previously existed. These days of course, Mount Sophia is associated more with sought after high-rise residential units in a prime location close to the heart of the city. However, back in the early part of the 20th century, it must certainly have been a truly magical and heavenly place, dominated by the magnificent Eu Villa that commanded a view of much of the surrounding areas of the fast growing city that lay on the areas some 100 feet below, and the many other grand bungalows and mansions, paticularly around Adis and Wilkie Roads. By the time I was going to school in Bras Basah Road and wandering curiously around the area, many of the heavenly places were still around, albeit in dilapidated condition – and mostly I guess crumbling to a point that it would have taken a monumental effort to preserve them. Still one could easily imagine how grand the area, which seemed a world apart from the rough and tumble of the mixed residential and commercial districts that lay below, would have been.

An aerial view of Mount Sophia and the surrounding area in the 1960s. It is easy to see why the well heeled would choose to build their magnificent mansions on the geographical feature which commanded an excellent view of the area around it. The Cathay Building can be seen on the south of Mount Sophia and the castle like Eu Villa to the top and right of it. The Istana and its grounds, which together with Mount Sophia and adjoining Mount Emily were part of Charles Robert Prinsep's huge nutmeg plantation can be seen on the left of the photo (Photo Source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

I was fortunate to be able to have seen all that I guess and place myself in that magical world, then accessible either via Sophia Road or by the so-called one hundred steps up from Handy Road. Given the choice of access options, the adventurous schoolboy that I was would certainly have chosen the latter route – after all, it was a shortcut we occasionally took to get to Plaza Singapura, then not accessible through Handy Road, which would involve climbing into the upper level of the car park at Plaza Singapore right next to western slopes of Mount Sophia, where Yaohan and a popular hangout for teens then, the Yamaha Music School run Do Re Mi cafe, beckoned. These days, much of that magic that I felt back then, is absent, with the manisons, most of which went in the 1980s and 1990s, with Eu Villa itself being demolished in 1981 after being sold by the Eu family for a princely sum of S$ 8.19M in 1973 to a property development company, having given way to a mess of monstrous apartment blocks, and it’s difficult to return to that magical world that I once wandered around.

The fairy-tale like Eu Villa, once the home of Eu Tong Sen. It was built in 1915 at a cost of S$1M on the site of Adis Lodge which Eu had purchase from Nissim Nissim Adis, the owner of the Grand Hotel de L'Europe in 1912.

I had an opportunity to do just that, return to the magical world that is, taking a walk with the National Library Board around the area, and trying to transport not just myself, but also a group of 30 participants to that world that I once knew. It was good to have on board two ladies who attended two of the schools in the area, who were able to share their experiences as well of going to Nan Hwa Girls’ School and Methodist Girls School (MGS). Both described ascending the one hundered steps to get to their schools, describing how it rose precariously up the steep slope from Handy Road with no railings to speak of and the steps being uneven in height – far different from the reconstructed steps in the vicinity of the original we see today. The ex MGS girl described how her schoolmates and her would race down the steps … something I am sure many would have not been able to resist in impetuosity of youth. We also confirmed that there were actually 100 steps – something I never thought of trying to establish in the many occasions on which I ascended the steps.

The one hundred steps offered a short cut for the adventurous to Plaza Singapura (seen here in its very early days - source: http://www.picas.gov.nhb.sg).

The walk started with a short introduction at the library, after which we were transported to the magical hill not by the one hundred steps, but by air-conditioned coach to the top of Mount Emily, I guess in keeping with the new age. What we saw were some remnants of there area that I loved, including the former Mount Emily Girls’ home which for a while was used as the Japanese Consulate prior to the war, becoming a halfway house for underage street prostitutes before becoming the girls’ home in 1969 and later the Wilkie Road Children’s Home in the 1980s. There was also the location of the first public swimming pool in Singapore, built on the site of the waterworks on Mount Emily, a pool that I visited in my younger days, being one of my father’s favourite pools, across from which we could see the hoardings surrounding the former bungalow of the late Major Derrick Coupland who passed away in 1991. Major Coupland was well known as a World War II veteran and the President of the Ex-Services Association heading it for some 20 years prior to his death from bone cancer in June 1991. I understand from a reader that the bungalow has been left empty since and the deterioration from 20 years of abandonment was evident before the hoardings came up some time at the end of last year – I suppose that the building is being prepared for demolition right at this moment.

The hoardings havve come up around the crumbling former residence of Major Derrick Coupland.

From the original coat of arms, used during the years of self-govenrment that can be seen on the structure at the entrance to Mount Emily Park, we made our way down Wilkie Road, past the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Sikh Temple. The current temple with its distinctive white dome, is a later one, built in 1983, next to an old house which as a plaque indicates, was purchased in 1932 (I was told from a Jewish gentleman), and originally housed the temple. Most of the magnificent mansions, including one owned by M J Nassim, that lined Wilkie Road have been replaced by apartment blocks … one that remains is the Abdullah Shooker Welfare Home at 81 Wilkie Road which is described in a previous post.

Wilkie Road used to be lined with magnificent mansions including one that still stands - the Abdullah Shooker Welfare Home, left by the late Abdullah Shooker, a Baghdadi Jew who died during internment by the Japanese in 1942, to the Jewish community.

Further down Wilkie Road, the participants were introduced to the Sophia Flats, once the home of the illustrious F J Benjamin, across from which we could once get a glimpse of the roofs of the magical Eu Villa over a retaining wall which marked the edge of the table on which the villa and its huge grounds once stood. Sadly the wall has come down, perhaps the last reminder of the villa that was left, along with the table which is being levelled for what is probably a commercial/residential project.

And the wall came tumbling down ... the last reminder of Eu Villa comes down - a retaining wall that marked the edge of the table of land on which the villa once stood (as seen in January 2011).

The last bit of the wall next to Peace Centre on Sophia Road.

At the corner of Adis and Sophia Roads, the excited chatter of a former student of Nan Hwa Girl’s School was heard, as she reminisced about her schooldays. The building which was completed in 1941, before being used by the Japanese during the war and the British forces after before being returned to Nan Hwa in 1947, is now used as a student hostel – and as one participant on the walk pointed out, the flag poles in front of the basketball courts which also served as an assembly area were still very much in evidence. Besides this, we learnt of a popular ice-kacang stall that both the girls of Nan Hwa and MGS patronised after school which was at the corner opposite Nan Hwa.

The former Nan Hwa Girls' High School at the corner of Adis and Sophia Roads.

A former student at Nan Hwa Girls' School sharing her experiences of going to school outside the former Nan Hwa Girls' School.

The corner of Adis Road and Sophia Road at which the ice kacang stall that both girls of Nan Hwa and MGS patronised, was located.

Before we hit the new one hundred steps, we stopped by the Art Deco styled building which housed San Shan Public School which was built in the 1950s by the Foochow Association, which ran the school up to the 1970s when the running of it was handed to the Ministry of Education. The school after moving from its Mount Sophia premises in the 1980s has stopped functioning. Next was the former Trinity Theological College which was established in 1948. The cluster of buildings that belonged to the college including the church with the distinctive roof shaped to the Chinese character for people, 人 (Ren), were built in the 1960s. The college moved in the 1990s to its current location along Upper Bukit Timah Road – and the roof of the church there is identical to the one on Mount Sophia. Next to the college, the cluster of buildings (now Old School) that house MGS still stands. The former pupil of MGS spoke of how she could see the gardens of Eu Villa from her class window, and how the classes were organised, C being the best class and A for the weakest students, of the three classes that each form had in the 1960s.

A view of the former MGS.

From the hundred steps down, we made our way to the corner of what used to be Dhoby Ghaut and Bras Basah Road, now dominated by another monstrous piece of architecture which did not agree with most of the participants – one remarked that it “stuck out like a sore thumb”. Where that building which is the School of the Arts (SOTA) stand, there was what had been Dhoby Ghaut, gone as a road that carried the name in an area that once was used by the Indian Dhobis to gain access to the fresh water stream that has since become the Stamford Canal. What survives of that Dhoby Ghaut which hold memories of the row of shops which included the Red Sea Aquarium and an A&W outlet that I frequented as a schoolboy and another row of houses up behind on Kirk Terrace which included a Sikh temple, is only the name of the MRT station in the vicinity.

The row of shops at Dhoby Ghaut next to Cathay Building was where the Red Sea Aquarium as well as the A&W was. Today the SOTA building stands on top of the area where Dhoby Ghaut was (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

We then walked up Prinsep Street, named after Charles Robert Prinsep, the owner of the nutmeg plantation which once included Mount Emily, Mount Sophia and Mount Caroline and extended to the Istana grounds (100 acres were purchased in 1867 for the Governor’s House which became the Istana). There were suggestions that the three mounts were named after three daughters of Prinsep, but what is more likely was that when Prinsep purchased the land, Mount Sophia (which appears earlier as Bukit Selegi) would have already been named after the second wife of Raffles, modern Singapore’s founder, Sophia Hull, and if anything, Prinsep named the two adjoining hills after two other daughters, having been part of the former estate of Raffles’ brother-in-law and Singapore’s first Master Attendant, Captain Flint.

Kirk Terrace over Dhoby Ghaut (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

It was then a leisurely stroll back to the library via Middle Road, where we stopped by the site of the former POSB headquarters facing Prinsep Street and the Registry of Vehicles (ROV) facing Bencoolen Street, where Sunshine Plaza stands, but not before introducing the former Tiger Balm Building, the David Elias Building and the former Middle Road hospital. At Sunshine Plaza, we saw a few signcraft shops – remnants of those that featured in the area when demand for vehicle number plates existed due to the presence of the ROV in the vicinity. Then it was past the former Middle Road Church (now Sculpture Square), used as a motor workshop when I went to school in the area in the 1970s, and the former St. Anthony’s Convent, before hitting the site of the former Queen of the Mooncakes (Empress Hotel) – our destination where the Central Library building now stands.

Middle Road once featured sign craft shops serving the demand from the nearby ROV, including Rainbow Signs which I well remember from passing many times on the bus home from school (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

It was the end of a rather enjoyable walk for me, and I hope the participants had as good a time as I had. Before what was left of the participants dispersed, there was still time to exchange a story, one about the sighting of an Orang Minyak (translated from Malay as “Oily Man” – one that is said to be cursed to an existence as an dark oil coated being that possesses supernatural powers, but more likely as a participant Jeff pointed out, was a man coated in oil to ensure a smooth getaway), reputed as one that terrorises the fairer sex. I had heard about one which was reportedly known to lurk in the compound of St. Joseph’s Church across Victoria Street, through a reader Greg Lim, who lived in Holloway Lane in the 1950s. My mother who boarded at St. Anthony’s Convent in the 1950s could not confirm this, but did mentioned that there were rumours of one lurking in the stairwell. Jeff, who himself lived on nearby Cashin Street in the 1950s confirmed that there was indeed sightings reported, and he was in one of the crowds that had gathered to try to catch a glimpse of the Orang Minyak. Another participant, the mother of Ms Thiru (who is with the NLB and organised the walk), also confirmed that she was aware of the story. It was certainly an interesting end to the walk, one that took a little longer than anticipated, but one that was thoroughly enjoyable.

The Empress Hotel at the corner of Middle Road and Victoria Street which was demolished in 1985.





The Stairway … uh, wait a minute, Escalator to Heaven

30 07 2010

One of the fascinating things about Hong Kong is how simple names that are attached to some of the places or features are. One such feature is the Central Mid-Level Escalators, Central because of its starting point in the Central district of Hong Kong, Mid-Level because of its end point which is on the Mid-Level area, and Escalator, because it is indeed an escalator or a set of escalators that was built in 1993 to ease congestion on the narrow streets at a cost of $245 million Hong Kong Dollars. It is estimated that some 54,000 pedestrians use it a day, twice what was originally estimated. The 800 metre long set of escalators moves downhill from 6 am to 10 am and uphill from 10.15 am to midnight, climbing some 135 metres in height. The escalators also provide the visitor with opportunities to see some of the older parts of Hong Kong and a notable building along the route of the escalators is the classical styled former Central Police Station main building with a façade featuring Doric columns, which was completed in 1919.

The Mid Level Escalators were built in 1993 and provides quick and easy access from Central to SoHo and the Mid-Levels.

The Mid Level Escalators were built in 1993 and provides quick and easy access from Central to SoHo and the Mid-Levels.

The escalators make ascending the steep slope of Victoria Peak a breeze.

The escalators make ascending the steep slope of Victoria Peak a breeze.

The Mid-Level Escalators provides sightseeing opportunities to the visitor - the Main Building of the Central Police Station on Hollywood Road constructed in 1919 is seen here.

The Mid-Level Escalators provides sightseeing opportunities to the visitor - the Main Building of the Central Police Station on Hollywood Road constructed in 1919 is seen here.

The escalators provide many a photographic opportunity.

The escalators provide many a photographic opportunity.

The escalators also provide an opportunity for the visitor to get up close to day-to-day lives of the working folk of Hong Kong.

The escalators also provide an opportunity for the visitor to get up close to day-to-day lives of the working folk of Hong Kong.

A shop window seen from the escalators.

A shop window seen from the escalators.

The escalators when built, also served to revive some of the areas higher up which had up to then been rather inaccessible and forgotten, particularly the area that has become known as SoHo. Sharing a name with the red-light district of London’s West End, and with New York’s trendy area South of Houston Street, Hong Kong’s SoHo, in this case South of Hollywood Road, has since been transformed into a trendy nightlife hub with a cluster of cafés, restaurants and bars, as well as trendy outlets that cater to the young and upwardly mobile.

The area south of Hollywood Road along the route of the Escalator is referred to as SoHo and has been transformed by the construction of the escalators.

The area south of Hollywood Road along the route of the Escalator is referred to as SoHo and has been transformed by the construction of the escalators.

Hollywood Road.

Hollywood Road.

The SoHo area features cafes, bars, restaurants and trendy shops.

The SoHo area features cafés, bars, restaurants and trendy shops.

A trendy SoHo cafe.

A trendy SoHo café.

The Mid-Levels area that the escalators are intended is not an area that I can claim to have visited, but from descriptions that I have read of the heavenly views of Victoria Harbour the location halfway up Victoria Peak provides to its exclusive and upmarket residents, it can perhaps be described as being heaven on earth. What I did have the opportunity to visit, together with some of my fellow bloggers on the guided walk with Mr. Leon Suen (please visit the post on Wing Lee Street in Sheung Wan), is perhaps a surer stairway to Heaven – the stairway that leads to the Jamia Masjid, off the escalators on Shelly Street. The mosque that we see today is built in an Indian Islamic style and is the second mosque building that has stood in its place, having been rebuilt in 1915 by a certain Essack Elias of Bombay. What is interesting is that the name of the benefactor who would probably have been a convert to Islam, is of Jewish origin, and can probably be traced back to the numerous Baghdadi Jews who settled in Bombay in the 1800s and could perhaps be linked to the Eliases of Singapore who left us Elias Road and the David Elias Building. The original mosque was apparently named the “Mohammedan Mosque” and built in 1890 and wasn’t large enough to cope with the growing Muslim population in Hong Kong.

A surer Stairway to Heaven ... the steps leading up to the Jamia Masjid, off Shelley Street.

A surer Stairway to Heaven ... the steps leading up to the Jamia Masjid, off Shelley Street.

The Jamia Masjid seen from Shelley Street.

The Jamia Masjid seen from Shelley Street.

The mosque was rebuilt in 1915 by a certain Essack Elias.

The mosque was rebuilt in 1915 by a certain Essack Elias.

Wandering around the grounds of the mosque and inside the mosque itself, one is somehow transported away from the hustle and bustle of the busy streets of Hong Kong just down the escalators, into a world that seems so cool, calm and peaceful, and I could almost imagine myself being brought to another world (that is on a quite Monday – I am not sure if that would be the case on Fridays when I guess the compound and mosque would be teeming with Muslims coming for Friday prayers). It was a certainly a nice respite from what was an extremely hot, humid and hurried day, and should anyone be in the area and seeking a respite from the hurried pace of life around, this is certainly the place to be.

The mosque and its grounds offers a respite from the backdrop of the busy Hong Kong that surrounds it.

The mosque and its grounds offers a respite from the backdrop of the busy Hong Kong that surrounds it.

It also offered us respite from the midday sun...

It also offered us respite from the midday sun...

Views of the very tranquil Mosque and the grounds of the Mosque

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Note: this is a repost of my post on the omy My Hong Kong Travel Blog site. Please visit the My Hong Kong Travel Blog where you can vote for you favourite blogger and stand a chance to win a trip to Hong Kong. Details would be provided at the voting page.





The streets of the Mahallah: Middle Road, where the Doh Jin Hospital once stood

24 03 2010

Continuing on my stroll through the streets of the Mahallah from Selegie Road, I came to what would have been another of the main streets of the Mahallah, Middle Road. What we see of Middle Road today bears little resemblance to the Middle Road that I had known in the 1970s, a Middle Road that I had passed by every weekday on the bus back from school, let alone having much to suggest that it was another thriving part of what was the Jewish Quarter all those years back. There is only the David Elias building, which I had mentioned in the previous post on the streets of the Mahallah, which reminds us of this forgotten past, and nothing much else.

The former Middle Road Hospital stands next to the David Elias Building along Middle Road.

The view down the middle of Middle Road. The road bears very little resemblance to the Middle Road of the 1970s that I was familiar with. There is very little there except for the David Elias building to suggest a Jewish past.

Next to the David Elias building, stands another building that has survived the extensive renewal that Middle Road has seen in the last few decades, not a reminder of the Jewish past, but of a past associated with another ethnic group – the Japanese. The building displays the letters “SIC” prominently at the top, standing next to an empty plot of land – which one could see as a suggestion perhaps, of its previous use. The building today houses Stansfield College, a private college, associated with a previous occupant, the Singapore Institute of Commerce (SIC), which is associated with Stansfield. The building was in fact, up to 1988, one that did house sick occupants, when it was used by the Middle Road Hospital. The building had actually started its life in 1940 as the Doh Jin Hospital, to serve what was a growing Japanese community in the area. The Japanese Consulate was in fact housed nearby, in the building that became Mount Emily Girls’ Home. The hospital became the Middle Road Hospital after the war in 1945, and was referred to by a rather antiquated sounding name, the Social Hygiene Hospital. During the 1970s, I remember my parents would refer to the hospital as a “skin hospital” – it was a centre for the treatment of skin diseases. Along with skin diseases, the hospital was notorious as the centre for treatment of venereal diseases (VD), which we now referred to commonly as STDs or sexually transmitted diseases.

A sign bearing the letters "SIC" perhaps giving a indication of the history of the building? The building had started its life as the Doh Jin Hospital in 1940 and became the Social Hygiene Hospital in 1945.

Another view of what was once the Social Hygiene Hospital.

There is also a little off-shot of Middle Road between the two buildings, which ends in a cul-de-sac, where, on the side of the David Elias building, stands a rather quaint looking building (254, 256 and 258 Middle Road) with a set of bay windows, and a façade very much in the style of the David Elias building. I am not certain of what the origin of this building is. There is in fact an identical building on the reverse side facing Short Street.

Off Middle Road between the David Elias Building and the former Middle Road Hospital, a rather quaint looking house with a set of bay windows stands at the cul-de-sac.

The David Elias building as seen from the cul-de-sac. Part of it was once used as the Sun Sun Hotel. There was a Sun Sun Bar that existed then at the bottom of the hotel.

Crossing Prinsep Street, there is now the IOI Plaza and Prime Centre which stands on a stretch occupied by a row of pre-war shop houses up to the 1980s – I remember this stretch particularly well for a colourful row of three sign makers housed in a rather ramshackle looking single storey shops, sandwiched in between double storey houses. The display of signs and vehicle number plates would catch my eye along with the “Rainbow Signs” signboard on one of the shops. There is still a sign maker, Sin Lian Hua Signcrafts in the area, housed across Middle Road in Sunshine Plaza. The shop has a display, which in a muted way, is reminiscent of the displays of the original shops on Middle Road.

Prime Centre and IOI Plaza stand where a row of shop houses where the colourful displays of three sign makers caught the eye.

Display at Sin Lian Hua Signcrafts in Sunshine Plaza - reminiscent of the displays of the row of three sign makers along Middle Road.

That there was concentration of the sign makers offering vehicle number plates along that stretch of Middle Road was  possibly due to the Registry of Vehicles (ROV) that was located on the opposite side of Middle Road, where Sunshine Plaza now stands, in a compound which also contained the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank (POSB). The ROV, which is now part of the Land Transport Authority (LTA) had occupied the premises since 1948, and it was only in 1983 that the department shifted to its new premises in Sin Ming. The building which the ROV occupied had been built as a court house in 1930. The POSB also occupied the premises in Middle Road up till 1983, when it shifted to new premises built on the site of the former Catholic Centre at the corner of Queen Street and Bras Basah Road. Across Prinsep Street from Sunshine Plaza an empty plot of land now stares glaringly at the observer, where once there were more pre-war shop houses, bringing me back to Selegie Road. I don’t remember there anything notable that stood on this plot of land, except for a five storey building which stood out among the mainly two storey shop houses around it like a sore thumb. This building housed the Straits Clinic, which is now in IOI Plaza.

Sunshine Plaza stands in the plot where the compound where the ROV and POSB was once housed.

Rain in the shadow of Sunshine: A couple stands in the rain looking at the David Elias building and Stansfield College in the shadow of Sunshine Plaza.

An empty plot of land between Prinsep Street and Selegie Road, where more shop houses once stood.





My stroll through the streets that made up the Mahallah: Selegie Road

17 03 2010

Wandering around the Selegie Road area today, there is very little of the old that is left to remind us of the Selegie Road that existed in the when I was growing up in the 1960s, and certainly even less of a time when you might have thought you were in a different world altogether. That was a time we have long left behind as Singaporeans, a past that we have perhaps chosen to forget.

Signs of the times: Selegie Road at the turn of the 21st Century ... a very different world from when it was a bustling street within the Mahallah.

The area today boasts of spanking new edifices, the School of the Arts for one and Wilkie Edge being another, representative perhaps of the Singapore we have become, somewhat cold and grey, seemingly perfect and lacking in identity, much like Huxley’s Brave New World. Interspersed with the new kids on the block are several older structures built in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Peace Centre, Selegie House and the former Selegie School, as well as some pre-war buildings that have hitherto managed to escape the wrecker’s ball.

Spanking new buildings now stand in what was once the Mahallah.

It is the pre-war buildings that provide a glimpse into the forgotten past, when it was part of an area referred to by its inhabitants as the Mahallah, or “place” in Arabic. Of these, two, the David Elias building at the junctions of Selegie Road, Middle Road and Short Street, and the Ellison building which is located at the end of Selegie Road provide the clues as to whom the inhabitants of the Mahallah were, not Arabs as one might have assumed, but members of the Diaspora, the symbol of which, the Star of David, is displayed prominently on the façades. It was a comment on my post on Selegie Road, from a reader Mamadondi, who lived in the vicinity from 1958 to 1978, who suggested a link between the two buildings that prompted me to take a stroll through the area in an attempt to acquaint myself with this past.

Selegie Road today is a mix of modern buildings and pre-war buildings such as the former Tiger Balm building and the David Elias building.

The former Tiger Balm Building at the corner of Short Street and Selegie Road - a surviving pre-war building on Selegie Road without a Jewish past.

The Mahallah was the “place” where the many working class Baghdadi Jews who had settled in Singapore around the turn of the twentieth century, called home, a Jewish Quarter so to speak. They went about the daily business, just as they might have done on the streets of old Baghdad or Calcutta where many had originated from, living amongst the Indian, Eurasian and Chinese families in the area. The area included Selegie Road, Short Street, Wilkie Road, Sophia Road, Prinsep Street and Middle Road. That Arabic was a common language and that the two buildings mentioned both display the Star of David on their façades, provides an appreciation for who the area’s inhabitants were. It was common to see Jews dressed in Iraqi attire, with men topped with a fez, as the new immigrants sought to recreate a familiarity of where they had arrived from, within the surroundings of their new world. The large Jewish families that lived in the area were relatively poor, many with ten or more children, and most were cramped in the many small two storey houses that were common in the area. Many were small traders, rabbis and bakers who came to seek a better life or to serve the community, some following their more successful brethren, for the promise of success. Living in the Mahallah, many struggled to make ends meet. However, it was from the adversity of living in these conditions that many in the community succeeded in life, with many prominent and successful Singaporeans emerging out of the Mahallah, among them Jacob Ballas and Harry Elias.

The David Elias Building with Stars of David displayed prominently provides a link to the area

On this point, it must be said that wider community of Baghdadi Jews had in fact seen tremendous success, with many living in stately mansions away from the Mahallah, or close by on Mount Sophia, among them the Elias family and Mannaseh Meyer. The community also provided Singapore, with its first Chief Minister, David Marshall – the son of an Baghdadi immigrant, Saul Marshall. The Elias family had through their patriarch, Aaron, who passed away in 1902, amassed a huge fortune from the opium trade. At the point of Aaron’s untimely death, the mantle was taken up by the eldest son, Joseph Aaron Elias. The family was known for its stately mansion by the sea on the East Coast, as well as a holiday villa in Tampines which provided Elias Road in Pasir Ris with its name. Several buildings including Amber Mansions that stood on Orchard Road where the Dhoby Ghaut MRT station is today is attributed to Joseph. The David Elias building was built by David J. Elias, who was the second cousin of Joseph Aaron Elias, and brother-in-law, having married Joseph’s sister Miriam, and was a successful import and export merchant in his own right. The building which was designed by the prominent colonial architectural firm, Swan and MacLaren, and built in 1928, contained many offices and shops and the offices of David’s company, D. J. Elias and Company.

Floor tiles on the five-foot way of the David Elias building.

The Ellison Building as seen from the junction of Rochor Canal and Selegie Roads.

At the end of Selegie Road at its junction with Bukit Timah Road, stands the Ellison building which I mentioned in a previous post. The origins of the buildings are rather vague, having been described in an infopedia article as being built for a Jewish lady named Ellison. It could very well have been for a Flora Ellison, having been put up in 1924 by Issac Ellison, a Romanian Jew who owned an Iky’s Bar near Raffles Place which was apparently quite a popular nightspot. Issac was married to Flora who was a Baghdadi Jewess who had come from Rangoon.

Issac (Ike) and Flora Ellison (Source: Joan Bieder's "The Jews of Singapore").

I guess it is hard to imagine how the area once was – an aerial view of Eu Villa on Mount Sophia, which incidentally was also designed by Swan and MacLaren, available on the National Archives PICAS site provides an impression of how it would have looked like in the pre-war years, without recreating the atmosphere that existed. It was good to have Joan Bieder’s excellent book, “The Jews of Singapore”, for which much of the factual information provided here is based on, to accompany my stroll through the area, as a guide. Whatever it was … the Mahallah has ceased to exist, living only the the memory of those who lived there … replaced by the modern structures which struggle to recreate the vibrancy that the inhabitants of the Mahallah once brought to the area.

Aerial view of Eu Villa on Mount Sophia from the National Archives PICAS website providing a good idea of how the area looked like before the war in 1940.





The roads less travelled …

9 02 2010

As trivial as a fence may appear, a fence does have a place in the memories I have of my childhood. It is a fence that I now pass on the drive to work, which for a while seemed to deserve no more than a cursory glance at, part of the uninspiring landscape along the stretch of Tampines Road which is visible from the Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway (KPE). The KPE is the latest addition to the Singapore’s impressive expressway network, which should really make travelling across Singapore a breeze.

The KPE running across Tampines Road.

All too frequently, though, driving along the KPE, as with many of the other expressways, is hardly a breeze, and one wonders if it would soon join the ranks of the “every road pay” network. “Every road pay” is of course what many locals use to refer to Electronic Road Pricing or ERP. It was on one of these crawls that I allowed my thoughts to drift as I surveyed the scene before me, and drift it did, as I was soon back in the back seat of my father’s Austin 1100, peering out of the open window at the fence.

Tampines Road in the 1960s - as it would have looked in the 1970s.

Tampines Road in the 1960s – as it would have looked in the 1970s.

For me, the fence, which marks the northern boundary of Paya Lebar Airbase (it was then the Paya Lebar International Airport), had served as a marker of sorts on the frequent long drives my father took along Tampines Road. Looking out for the fence helped to break the monotony of what seemed a long and boring journey, a journey that I willingly partook in for the reward that lay at the end of it, be it a fun day at the beach or wandering around the old Changi Village.

The high fence along Tampines Road.

The journey on Tampines Road would start with a right turn from Upper Serangoon Road, near the sixth milestone, just after the sixth mile market, an area my mother had fond memories of, having spent a part of her childhood in. She would never fail to mention a thing or two about her memories as my father turned into Tampines Road, about which my father would sometimes tease her about. The start of Tampines Road seemed to always be rather busy, as we followed the mini-convoys of rubbish trucks on their way to the Lorong Halus landfill.

The Upper Serangoon Road 6th Milestone area ... a well known market stood the left of the picture which has since disappeared - this is the junction where turn off to Tampines Road is.

The start of Singapore's longest road: Tampines Road.

The right trun from Upper Serangoon Road to Tampines Road would be accompanied by stories my mother had of the 6th milestone area from her childhood.

The first sight of the fence along the road was the precursor to the start of a meandering path eastwards through what was Singapore’s longest road. It was a path that would start with a large bend that brought us past a cluster of houses at Jalan Telawi, seemingly the last sighting of civilisation before we descended into the greener, narrower and quieter section of the road, passing by villages and fishing ponds … and of course Elias Road – the gateway to Pasir Ris beach.

The fence and the bend in the road signified the start of the meandering part of Tampines Road.

Immersed in the musings of a time when journeys on roads less travelled could only be undertaken at a pace far slower than what we are used to these day, my mind drifted off to the many journeys of my childhood along the other roads less travelled: Jurong, Choa Chu Kang, Lim Chu Kang, Neo Tiew, Punggol, and Sembawang Roads to name a few. While many of these roads have been swallowed up or disfigured by redevelopment, a few remnants of the old stretches of these roads still remains, very much as how it had must have been, albeit devoid of the life the roads were built to sustain. These remnants sit silent and forgotten, discarded for the numerous highways that have replaced them to enable the sheer volume of today’s traffic to be carried.

A remnant of Jurong Road running parallel to the Pan Island Expressway.

The journeys on these roads always seemed to take forever. They were never journeys that were taken for the love of a long drive, but usually for the incentive that the destination provided. The ones to some of the “ends” of the island was usually reward with a feast of seafood in one of those wooden shacks that lay at the end of the road where land met the sea. Punggol and Tuas (accessible from Jurong Road) Roads featured these popular old style seafood restaurants where utensils and teacups would be brought to the table in a bowl of steaming hot water. There would of course be the customary bowl of water with lime cut in half bobbing up and down on the surface of the water. These were meant to clean one’s fingers as one fiddled with the delicious mess of gravy coated crabs and prawns that were served. The thought of this brings to mind a story that a friend of my father’s related. He had brought a foreign visitor to one of these restaurants and on seeing the bowl of water place on the table, the visitor prompted squeezed the lime in the bowl of water and emptied the contents of the bowl into his mouth, believing that it was a refreshment of sorts!

On occasion, the journey to Tuas would involve seafood harvested straight from the sea, in the glow of camphor lamps – the smell of which still lingers in my memory. This wasn’t a journey that my mother was particularly fond of, as it often meant a drive home in the wee hours of the morning, past a shadowy part of the old Jurong Road where the rather spooky looking Bulim cemetery always seemed to leap out at you. This was the road that would go through what would now be Bukit Batok housing estate, to the junction with Upper Bukit Timah Road. My mother would always heave a sigh of relief at he sight of Bukit Timah Fire Station and the huge Green Spot bottle at the entrance of the Amoy Canning factory, as this signified our the re-entrance to civilisation.

Where civilisation began ... the start of Jurong Road at the Bukit Timah Fire Station and the Green Spot Bottle next door.

Jurong Road would be the road the buses took on the many school excursions of my primary school days. Even then, the journeys seemed to take forever. I would look out for the distinctive JTC flats with the louvered windows of their exteriors at the junction of Jurong and Upper Jurong Roads, Jalan Bahar, and Jalan Boon Lay, where HDB flats seemed to feature common corridors, as it meant the journey would be drawing to its close. The turn left along Jalan Boon Lay would always be greeted with anticipation by my classmates, for near the end of the road, a whiff of chocolate would always greet us as we passed the Van Houten chocolate factory as we made our way along what seemed like a grand avenue lined with trees on the wide central divider.

What is nice to know is that there are a few remnants of the narrow roads less travelled that remain, some sitting beside their modern replacements which carry a much heavier volume of traffic to and from the huge densely populated public housing estates, constructed where there were once farms and villages. They serve as a reminder of the journeys that I have taken in my childhood some of which I have lasting impressions of.