Orchard Road, half a century ago

14 06 2021

Glitzy and glamourous, Singapore’s Orchard Road is sold today as a fashionable destination to find a hotel in, to shop and to have a meal. With much of its two kilometres lined with modern malls, it is no wonder. It however, wasn’t this way when I first got to know the street as a child. This was in the second half of the 1960s, when Orchard Road still wore a rather sleepy aura, lined with shophouses, a multitude of car showrooms, among which two supermarkets were nestled.

 A view down Orchard Road in 1971.
A view down Orchard Road in 1971.

Two of the motor showrooms that would often catch my attention were Champion Motors – a VW dealer, located where Lucky Plaza is today, and Orchard Motors – which sold Vauxhalls and Chevrolets on the site of the older section of Paragon. The latter, stood right next to one of the supermarkets, Fitzpatrick’s, which was the younger of the two supermarkets, having opened in August 1958.

1958 was also the year that the rather famous Orchard Road outlet of C K Tang – housed in a Chinese-styled building that would become quite an Orchard Road icon – opened. The rags to riches tale of C K Tang or Tang Choon Keng, who came as a poor immigrant from China in 1923 is one that has frequently been told. His bold decision, to move from River Valley Road to the more centrally located Orchard Road might be thought of as a stroke of genius. To the superstitious, the site of the new store might have been thought of as being inauspicious, with it facing the former Teochew burial site, Tai Swa Teng, just across the road. Tang’s move, with a view to catching the growing tourist crowd, eventually paid off and was possibly the spark that lit the fire. By 1965, Metro – another household name today – found its way to the street, opening its Metrotex store at Liat Towers, and in 1967, Chinese Emporium opened its outlet at International Building.

By the early 1970s, what could be thought of as the first modern mall – fashioned out of the former Orchard Motors showroom, The Orchard, opened. The mall, housed some upmarket shops such as Charles Jourdan, The Elizabeth Arden Salon, Diethelm Furniture, Jade Palace Restaurant and Thong Sia, a branch of Robina Department Store and was perhaps best known for Tivoli Coffee House. Several large scale mall developments were to follow with Tanglin Shopping Centre at nearby Tanglin Road being completed in 1972 and Plaza Singapura, at which Yaohan became an instant hit, in 1974. The conversion of the former Orchard Motors car showroom may also have spelt the beginning of the end for the motorcar trade on Orchard Road. Orchard Motors’ companion, Champion Motors, soon also gave way to Lucky Plaza, which opened in 1978.





Motoring Days on Orchard Road

26 11 2020

It is hard to imagine it today, but Singapore’s famous main shopping street, Orchard Road, was once lined with car showrooms and motor workshops. Car brands such as Volkswagen, Mercedes Benz, Austin, Morris, Ford, Vauxhall, Fiat … and even Rolls Royce, had a presence there. It was certainly the go-to place to do a test drive and place an order for the still affordable family car, or to send the car for servicing and repair.

Orchard Motors, which was at the corner of Orchard and Bideford Road, became The Orchard in the early 1970s — the home of the (in)famous Tivoli Coffee House (Orchard Motors photo used with the kind permission of Mr Bryan Soh).

Two showrooms that were rather prominent in the regular journeys that I made as a child along Orchard Road between C K Tang and Cold Storage, were Champion Motors and Orchard Motors. Champion, which was then a dealer for Volkswagen is today where Lucky Plaza stands, while Orchard Motors — which dealt with Vauxhalls and Chevrolets, was first converted into The Orchard — a small shopping mall that was better known as the location of the (in)famous Tivoli Coffee House, before being replaced by the Paragon’s original wing.

The Orchard, seen with Lucky Plaza coming up on the site of the former Champion Motors showroom.

Today, only two buildings that bear testament to Orchard Road’s motoring past still stand. One is the wonderfully designed sunburst gabled no 14 to 20 Orchard Road — now used by MDIS, which has a history that goes back to Orchard Road’s early motoring days when it was purpose-built as showroom cum office building for Malayan Motors, a Morris dealer. That stands in a conserved row now opposite Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station — along a stretch of Orchard Road that attracted a host of showrooms and workshops in the early days of motoring and was where Ford motorcars were initially assembled in Singapore. Names such as Universal Cars, a Ford dealer and Borneo Motors, an Austin dealer turned Toyota agent, were also connected with the stretch.

The former Malayan Motors showroom seen in 1984 (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

While it does seem quite well established that the former Malayan Motors showroom is still around, much less has been said about Liat Towers, which was constructed as the headquarters and showroom of Mercedes Benz. Its construction came at a time when the street was on the cusp of its transformation into the world-renowned retail destination that it is today. It would not be long before shopping malls such as Plaza Singapura (1974) and Lucky Plaza (1978) launched the transformation of the street into a retail destination.






Orchard Road’s last shophouses

10 11 2019

Built close to a century ago, the last of Orchard Road’s shophouses stand as a reminder of a time before Singapore’s shopping mile was mall-ed. Comprising four delightful structures at numbers 14 to 38, each a gem of eclectic architectural expression, they also serve to remind us of the rubber trade inspired hopes and aspirations of the decade that followed the end of the Great War. The row, which features three notable edifices and one, no 38, which often goes unnoticed, was acquired by the State in the 1980s following a 1978 gazette for acquisition and gazetted for conservation in November 2000.

The conserved row.

The east end of the row is marked by the cry for attention that the former Malayan Motors showroom is. Designed by Swan and Maclaren’s DS Petrovich, it replaced the Morris and Rolls Royce dealer’s earlier showroom and represented a progression in showroom designs. A length of windows on each side of a projection in its façade provided natural illumination to its upper floors where its upper level showroom was served by a ramp to the ground floor. A scalloped semi-circular gable (if one can call it that) at each end of the roof drew attention to it.

The former Malayan Motors showroom seen in 1984 (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

Completed in 1927, the former showroom can also be thought of as a marker of Orchard Road’s motoring days. Fuelled by the expansion in the rubber market here during the Great War, the demand for the motorcar had risen three-fold between 1913 and 1918, leading to a proliferation in the area of motorcar showrooms, and workshops (several over the canal at what is now Handy Road ) by the 1920s. Vehicle assembly was also introduced and Singapore’s first assembly plant – for Ford – opened in the area with a production capacity of 12 cars a day in 1925. The showroom was built by the Wearnes brothers who also brought in the Fords, which they sold via another dealership, Universal Cars. Besides Morris and Rolls Royce, other brands that the Malayan Motors showroom would have dealt with were Rover and Studebaker.  The showroom made its last sale in August 1980, following which Malayan Motors concentrated its business at its Leng Kee branch. Following its acquisition by the State, the showroom was renovated in 1988 for use by the Singapore Manufacturers’ Association as SMA House. It has been used by MDIS, a private school, since 2002.

The former MidFilm House, then and now.

Another interesting building is the Dutch-gabled former Midfilm House (Middle East Film Building) at no 22 to 24 next to the showroom. This dates back to 1921 and was put up by Middle East Films Ltd, a pioneering distributor of films in Southeast Asia. The building, which is Orchard 22 today, also served as temporary premises for Malayan Motors when its showroom was being rebuilt in 1926-27.

22-24 Orchard Road in 1984 (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

What is probably now the icing in the cake for the row is the somewhat art deco and possibly modern-classical no 26 to 36 next to the former Midfilm House, which since June 2019, is the resplendent Temasek Shophouse. Built  in 1928, it stands on the site of six older shophouses – three of which had each been acquired by Chee Swee Cheng in 1926, and the other three by E Kong Guan from 1925 to 1926. Both Chee and E had roots in Malacca and were tapioca and rubber planters. Chee was also known to have substantial interests in opium and spirit “farming” in North Borneo and a landowner, who held several properties in Singapore. He is associated with the abandoned villa at 25 Grange Road, Wellington House, often incorrectly referred to as the Chee Guan Chiang mansion – after Chee’s son by a second marriage.

The Temasek Shophouse.

It was Guan Chiang who had the 3-storey 26 to 36 Orchard Road co-developed with E – based on plans drawn up by Westerhout and Oman in 1927. The new building’s interior spaces were split down the middle for each of the two owners, with E’s side being the western half numbered 32 to 36. An office space and store was laid out on each side of the ground floor. The upper floors of each half, each contained a 2-bedroom apartment.

No 26 to 36 in 1984 with the Art Furniture Depot and Sin Sin Furniture occupying the ground floor (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

The office spaces found use as showrooms, both initially occupied by The Art Furniture Depot in 1929. It was this store that the building would have the longest association with. The store gave up one of its showrooms in the early 1930s in the face of the Great Depression. The vacant unit would became the Eddystone Radio showrrom in 1933 and after the war, Sin Sin Furniture’s. Both furniture stores moved out around 1986 when the building was acquired by the State. Following this, substantial modifications were made to the building’s interiors so that it could house Pisces Garments Department Store with escalators, lifts and a mezzanine level were put in. The department store, which opened in 1989, morphed into PMart in 1994.

 

The current transformation has opened up the back of no 26 to 36, giving a full view of it.

The current transformation followed on the award of a tender launched in 2017 to Temasek, on the basis of the quality of concept that it had put forward.  The 18-month refurbishment effort that followed reversed several of the interventions of Pisces and gorgeously and sensitively restored the building, earned a 2019 URA Architectural Heritage Award for restoration. The overhauled interiors now feature a double-volume event space with a green wall featuring native plants. That is – in the context of today – not complete without a social-enterprise café. As an alternative to the street entrance, the garden – which the knocking of a boundary wall at the back has opened up – provides a very nice back door. The back is also where a pair of conserved concrete spiral staircases attached to the building’s rear – perhaps one of the tallest now seen – can be admired together with the equally impressive back façade. Offices, co-working spaces, meeting and function rooms – with native birds as themes, offices, a meeting space on its roof garden and space to accommodate its partners complete the picture.

Shophouses beyond the east end of the row – leading to an expunged street named Dhoby Ghaut – that have since been demolished (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

Fresh, innovative and a joy to behold, the Temasek Shophouse brings Temasek Trust and its beneficiaries Temasek Foundation and Stewardship Asia Centre under one roof – with the aim to serve as an incubator of social and philanthropic in initiatives promoting community collaboration and advancing sustainability. It brings, if not for anything else, an injection of purpose to that the conserved row now sorely lacks.

The event space and its green wall.


More photographs of the Temasek Shophouse

A co-working space on the mezzanine.

Another view of the event space and the café.

One of the native bird themed meeting spaces.

Up on the roof.

The rooftop meeting room.

Offices for one or its sustainability partners – which makes furniture out of recycled material.

A pantry within an office space.

A balcony and on of its spiral staircases at the building’s rear.

A balcony overlooking Orchard Road and Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station.

A close-up of the Corinthian capitals of the classical-esque columns on the building’s front façade.

Another view of the front balcony.

And another of the rear spiral staircase and balcony.

A downward view to the back garden from one of the spiral staircases.






A postcard from the past: Fitzpatrick’s on Orchard Road

21 06 2017

I miss the old Orchard Road. Laid back, when compared to the madness that now consumes the street, little remains of it except for a few memories and some precious photographs, which when they crop up are like postcards sent from the past.

One photograph that I was quite excited to come across is the one below. A scan that a new found friend kindly permitted me to scan, it is a rare shot taken inside Fitzpatrick’s supermarket in the very early 1970s, just as I remember it. The scene, complete with the inside ends of the checkout aisles and the cigarette display racks, brought back an instant recall of a place, its smell and of the brown paper bags the shopping would be packed into. I remember the latter especially well and a time when plastic bags, now a scourge to the environmental, were much less used widely used. Much was also reused and recycled such as the cartons that one picked up from a pile on the left after the checkouts that the shopping, particularly the heavier items were sometimes packed into.



 





An alternative view of Orchard Road

3 02 2014

The best view one can possibly get of Singapore’s famous ‘shopping mile’, Orchard Road, is perhaps from up above. It is high up above the ground that one does see an unseen side of the street, known more for its gleaming modern shopping malls: that of the cover of trees – something that is quite easy not to notice with the distractions at ground level. It is a view of the street that I now enjoy most, one that takes me away from the madding crowds one now can’t seem to escape at ground level, and one that does seem to take me back to a time, now forgotten, when I did best like the street.

The most heavenly view one can get of Singapore's famous 'shopping mile', Orchard Road, is really from up above. It is from high up that one gets an amazing sight of the tree cover over the street which isn't quite noticeable at ground level.

The most heavenly view one can get of Singapore’s famous ‘shopping mile’, Orchard Road, is really from up above. It is from high up that one gets an amazing sight of the tree cover over the street which isn’t quite noticeable at ground level.

A view of one half of the almost completed Orchard Gateway towering over what will be the new Singapore Visitor Centre and the conservation houses of Emerald Hill.

A view of one half of the almost completed Orchard Gateway towering over what will be the new Singapore Visitor Centre and the conservation houses of Emerald Hill.

Another look at Emerald Hill and part of the area to its right where the first rail line in Singapore ran through to Tank Road.

Another look at Emerald Hill and part of the area to its right where the first rail line in Singapore ran through to Tank Road.

A look across to Mounts Sophia and Emily which once provided commanding views across the city.

A look across to Mounts Sophia and Emily which once provided commanding views across the city. The dome of the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Sikh Temple between Mount Sophia and Emily can be seen.

Another look towards Mount Sophia - the buildings once used by Methodist Girls' School are clearly visible.

Another look towards Mount Sophia – the buildings once used by Methodist Girls’ School are clearly visible.

A look down Cuppage Road.

A look down Cuppage Road.

A look towards the greenery surrounding the grounds of the Istana.

A look towards the greenery surrounding the grounds of the Istana.

A look west westwards - distinctive roof of the Singapore Marriott (ex-Dynasty) Hotel can be seen.

A look west westwards – distinctive roof of the Singapore Marriott (ex-Dynasty) Hotel can be seen.

Orchard Road at ground level is dominated by the gleaming new edifices of glass and steel that has risen in the last two decades.

Orchard Road at ground level is dominated by the gleaming new edifices of glass and steel that has risen in the last two decades.

Another look through a glass panel.

Another look through a glass panel.

The roof terrace of Orchard Central from which one gets the alternative views of Orchard Road.

The roof terrace of Orchard Central from which one gets the alternative views of Orchard Road.





A look down the Orchard Road of the early 1970s

20 01 2014

A photograph that would probably have been taken from the top of the Hilton in the early 1970s offers a view of that show how different Orchard Road was back then. The Mandarin Hotel, which was completed in 1971, and the two-way traffic system along the stretch from the junction with Scotts/Paterson Roads provides an indication of when the photograph would have been taken. This was period when I probably enjoyed Orchard Road the most, a time when the crowds we now cannot seem to escape from were non-existent, and a time before the modern shopping malls descended on what has since become a street well-known throughout the world for its shopping offerings.

Orchard Road early 1970s

Of some of the main landmarks seen in the photograph, only the Mandarin Hotel and Liat Towers stands today. In place of Orchard Road Police Station is the Orchard MRT Station and ION Orchard above it. Across the road, the complex that houses Tangs and Marriot Hotel (ex Dynatsy Hotel) now stands in place of the two rows of shophouses and the iconic old CK Tang Building.

Lucky Plaza (1978), one of the first malls to arrive on Orchard Road, stands where Champion Motors (a former Volkswagen dealer) used to be and Tong Building (1978) stands where the Yellow Pages Building and an Esso Petrol Station were, right next to the old Fitzpatrick’s Supermarket.

Fitzpatrick’s went for the Promenade Shopping Centre (1984) to be built. The Promenade, best remembered for its spiral walkway up, has since been demolished for an extension of Paragon (2003) to be built.

The original portion of Paragon (1997) would have been where The Orchard, a shopping centre that was converted from the former Orchard Motors showroom in 1970, had stood. The Orchard would be remembered for its famous Tivoli Coffee House.

Another icon along that old Orchard Road, would be Wisma Indonesia beyond Orchard Road Police Station and separated from the road by an uncovered Stamford Canal and a service road. That housed the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia, and was very recognisable for its Minangkabau styled roof. In its places stands Wisma Atria (1986).

Beyond the Wisma was Ngee Ann Building. It was where the once well-known Mont d’Or Cake Shop was located. The site of Ngee Ann Building (and the then empty land beyond it) is where Ngee Ann City (1993) stands today. The canal one had to cross both to Ngee Ann Building and the Wisma, was covered up in 1974 and its is on top of this that the wide pedestrian walkway running down that side of Orchard Road, now runs.

More related to Orchard Road in the 1970s and 1980s can be found in several posts:





When fashion and Fever closed Orchard Road

19 03 2012

One of the busiest stretches of Singapore’s Orchard Road was closed to vehicular traffic for a few hours last evening – all for the sake of fashion. The closure was to allow a 600 metre stretch from ION Orchard to the Mandarin Gallery to be used as a runway for the launch of Fashion Steps Out @ Orchard 2012 (FSO 2012), a six-week long shopping extravaganza that promotes fashion for everyday use. Dubbed “The Day when Fashion Stops Traffic”, the launch saw more than 170 models showing off creations from both international and local designers, including Vivienne Westwood, walking down road turned catwalk. This is the first time here that a busy road has been closed and used as a fashion runway – a brilliant idea that has definitely put the festival in the spotlight as well as allowing the festival to achieve its aim of reaching out to those on the street.

Fashion and Fever on Orchard Road. Alicia Pan entertained with a rendition of Fever right in the middle of the road.

A 600m stretch of Orchard Road was transformed into a fashion runway for the launch of Fashion Steps Out @ Orchard 2012.

One of the busiest stretches of Orchard Road from ION Orchard to Mandarin Gallery was closed to vehicular traffic on what would normally be a busy Saturday evening.

The a downpour prior to the opening and the inconvenience of the closure of the road to vehicular traffic did not at all deter those who came to watch the opening of the event – a large crowd had already lined the barricades well before the show started. The fashion show started with host Junita Simon strutting down the street accompanied by bare-chested male models which must have set the hearts of many in the crowd racing.

A large crowd gathered by the barricades set up well before the show started.

Host for the evening, Junita Simon, struts along the road runway to open the festival.

Over the hour-long show, a steady stream of models showing off collections from Vivienne Westwood, Dsquared2, Dip Drops, Rosebullet, iCB, J.Press, Robinsons, Marks & Spencer, Just Cavalli, Paul & Joe and Maria Grachvogel took to the road turned catwalk. The show also featured the appearance of singer/songwriter Alicia Pan – who seemed to have caught everyone there by surprise with a rendition of Fever on the road right in front of Paragon.

The fashion parade down Orchard Road begins with a collection from one of the participating international designers, Vivienne Westwood.

It wasn't just the models who attracted the attention of the cameras. A glamourously dressed photographer has a camera trained on her.

The opening of fashion festival was certainly one to remember and one that has set the tone for six weeks of activities and deals, including those from MasterCard – the Official Credit Card. More information on the festival which runs until 29 April 2012, can be found at the FSO 2012 website, or the FSO 2012 Facebook Page.

Some highlights of the Fashion Show:





Following the star down Orchard Road

25 12 2010

Every year now, as part of its campaign to draw in the tourist dollar, Singapore transforms what is its main shopping street, Orchard Road, into a wonderful sea of lights in anticipation of what actually is a religious celebration, that as a nation, it has somehow embraced. So with an old classmate who now resides halfway across the world in town for a few days, a few of us decided to join the crowds thronging Orchard Road and take in the bright lights and snap a few photographs along the way. The light-up, now very much a feature of Christmas in Singapore, has been an annual affair since the very first street-wide light-up was organised in 1984 by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) as the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) was know then. That initial light-up had lasted for just 20 days, being launched on 13 December by the then Chairman of the STPB, Dr Wong Kwei Chong, and running up to New Year’s Day. Following the initial success of the light-up, it was extended to 37 days the following year, becoming the annual affair it now is, and this year, the light-up runs for 44 days from 20 November to 2 January. I guess that initial light-up was in keeping to what Christmas was being transformed into in Singapore (and many other parts of the world), a celebration that transcends religious and cultural boundaries, one that sparks a frenzy of shopping and feasting that makes it an annual season of joy for the retailers and restaurateurs, and one that has perhaps taken on a nationwide importance.

It wasn't three wise men but five wise guys who decided to follow the star(s) down Orchard Road.

Walking down Orchard Road and taking in the lights, it is hard to imagine what Orchard Road might have been like some three to four decades ago, and much less what Christmas was about back then. That was a time when Christmas was a simpler, quieter and perhaps more personal affair. While, gift-giving, a tradition that in fact dates back to pre-Christian pagan practices (which Christians adopted together with the time of the year when the birth of Christ, the central figure in Christianity, is celebrated), and now is maybe seen to be associated with the gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh that the three Magi, the Wise Men or Kings of the Orient brought with them when they followed the proverbial star to the east to the manger where the newly born Christ Child had lain in, was very much being practiced, it was mainly between relatives and close-friends, and was never really the expensive affair that it is these days. That was a time of course when even decorations were simpler and a lot more modest than they are these days, with only simple cut-outs and other decorations mounted on the façades of the large department stores – certainly not the elaborate decorations and lightings that we see these days.

A walk down Orchard Road offers a peek into the window of the Commercial side of Christmas in Singapore.

Christmas Decorations from a Simpler Time - Robinson's at Raffles Place, 1966

For us, taking a walk down wasn’t so much for spiritual reasons (other than to partake in a few glasses of spirits at the end) or to reminisce about Christmases of the past, but to take in the lights and action of a city that has left simplicity behind and to catch up with each other. After all, that is what Christmas is really all about! With this I would like to wish one and all a very Happy Christmas! May peace, joy and glad tidings be with all!

Every year in the lead up to Christmas, Orchard Road is transformed into a wonderland of lights.

The appearance of new malls such as ION with lighted façades has added to fairy land of lights.

Shaw House was one with relatively modest decorations.

ION Orchard.

A shop display at ION Orchard to entice the Christmas Shopper.

Not everyone could wait until Christmas to open their gifts.

Street vendors were doing a roaring trade.

In the lead up to Christmas, entertainment was also provided for the crowds on Orchard Road.

Silhouettes of the crowd of people thronging Orchard Road against the back drop of the best dressed building, Tangs.

There was even a procession of floats to add to the bright lights.

Christmas trees came in all shapes and colours. Sizes were mostly XXL.

All that glitters is the gold of Ferrero Rocher. A close-up of the Christmas Tree outside the Heeren.

Signs of the times!

The writing's on the wall this Christmas!

More of the lights over the Stamford Canal ...

Roman gladiators descended onto Orchard Road ... together with angels and a few Wise Men!

Not a case of too many cooks spoiling the kebabs ...

On the blocks to be the new kid on the block next year? Construction activity at the former Orchard Emerald site.

On the rocks this Christmas ...

A red light district off Orchard Road ...

An inevitable end to our walk ... a search for a watering hole ...





The magical world of the Tivoli that was on Orchard Road

7 04 2010

Mention the name Tivoli today, and what probably comes to mind to most of us is that magical gardens set in the heart of Hans Christian Andersen’s Wonderful Copenhagen where we can be immersed in the fantasy world that Hans Christian Andersen conjured up in the many tales he told, of which at least one, his most famous, the Nightingale, was inspired by the gardens in which he was said to have been fascinated with. The beautiful setting of the amusement park, with its theatres and restaurants, and wonderful gardens, best seen in spring when one is greeted by the multitude of colours that the flowers that delightfully decorate the gardens bring, served as an inspiration not just to Andersen, but also to a certain Walt Disney for his own wonderful fantasy land. The gardens had apparently also provided the inspiration to Singapore’s own Tivoli in Orchard Road, and it was this Tivoli that would have come into the minds of many of us back in the 1970s.

Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen is a magical fantasy world that served as the inspiration for Hans Christian Andersen's the Nightingale as well as Disneyland.

The Tivoli Coffee House, was apparently also inspired by the Tivoli Gardens and was located at the left hand corner of The Orchard, and had a sidewalk cafe atmosphere as well as a beautifully and elaborately decorated interior.

Singapore’s own Tivoli was a fantasy land of a different kind, one that transported us into a world that amused us in other ways – with a delightful menu inspired by the cuisines of Denmark and the continent, an array of beverages – including alcoholic ones, as the parasols that provided shade on the tables that spilled onto the sidewalk testified to, pastries and desserts. Tivoli in Singapore wasn’t so much there to amuse us in the way that the gardens from which it got its name would have done, but provided amusement to our palates. It was a coffee house, what would today be called a cafe. Back in the 1970s, coffee houses were everywhere, appealing to young and old in search of a banana split, a vanilla milk shake, or perhaps an iced coffee, which could be savoured in the cool comfort of the air-conditioned premises that attracted many. The Tivoli, which opened in 1971, perhaps drawing on the inspiration that its name provided, was the coffee houses of all coffee houses, serving its selection of food and beverages twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. By day, it drew couples on an outing, families out shopping, and by night it was a popular watering hole, attracting a regular crowd of locals, expatriates, and the boisterous men serving with the Australian and New Zealand forces in Singapore. The Tivoli Coffee House was then located in a two storey building, one that was purposed built as a car showroom that housed Orchard Motors, the distributor for the General Motors (GM) brands such as Vauxhall and Chevolet, converted into a shopping complex around 1970 and named The Orchard. Located at the corner of Orchard Road and Bideford Road, on which the original wing of the Paragon now stands, the shopping complex was right next to Fitzpatrick’s supermarket and housed some upmarket shops including Charles Jourdan, The Elizabeth Arden Salon, Diethelm Furniture, Jade Palace Restaurant and Thong Sia, as well as a branch of Robina Department Store, which made an unsuccessful attempt at breaking into the local retail scene in the 1970s.

The Paragon stands in place of The Orchard which was torn down in 1980.

The Orchard Shopping Complex seen in the mid 1970s.

The area where The Orchard stood as seen today.

Since I am on this area of Orchard Road, I would also touch a little on what the rest of the area would had been like back then. Moving down towards Scotts Road from The Orchard, which was demolished in 1980, along with neighbouring Fitzpatrick’s which was fronted by a opened car park. The Promenade Shopping Centre was built on the land occupied by Fitzpatrick’s, and was later torn down to accommodate an extension to the Paragon (this clarifies a comment posted by a reader, JC Carino, who lived in the area on a previous post on my impressions of Orchard Road of the 1970s). Right next to this was a petrol kiosk, which can been seen in the photograph labelled “Photo 4” on Peter Chan’s post on on the petrol stations in Singapore’s CBD on the Good Morning Yesterday blog. This was in front of a squarish looking building which housed the Phone Book Company, which published the telephone directory and the Yellow Pages.

Fitzpatrick's Supermarket (Source: http://www.singas.co.uk)

The new wing of the Paragon stands where Fitzpatricks and later, the Promenade, stood.

The Tong Building which houses the Rolex Centre stands where a petrol kiosk and the Phone Book Company once stood.

Next was the road that was Mount Elizabeth and Champion Motors in a building that was similar to the car showroom that became The Orchard, which later also housed Orchard Motors together with Champion Motors (I think both were owned by the same company) which was the distributor for Volkswagen then. Where Champion Motors stood, Lucky Plaza now stands. Right next to this was of course the distinctive Chinese architecture inspired CK Tang building, home of CK Tang, which then opened six days a week and never on a Sunday. Here now stands part of Tang Plaza, which occupies the entire stretch up to Scotts Road, also displacing the old curved row of two shop houses that stood at the corner of Orchard and Scotts Roads.

Lucky Plaza stands in place of a car showroom Champion Motors - a dealer for Volkswagen cars in those days, as well as also housing Orchard Motors after it shifted out of the building that was converted into The Orchard.

The part of Tang Plaza where the distinctive CK Tang building stood.

Orchard Road at Scotts Road Junction: The curved row of shop houses next to C K Tang can be seen on the left. On the right side we can see the former Wisma Indonesia (short white building) on which stands Wisma Atria, Ngee Ann Building (where the Mont D'Or Cake Shop was) on which stands Ngee Ann City and Mandarin Hotel under construction (Source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

The Singapore Marriott Hotel and the Tang Plaza occupies the corner of Scotts and Orchard Roads where the curved row of two storey shop houses stood.

Looking down the area today, we see a totally different Orchard Road, one dominated by the cold modern steel and glass fronted shopping malls that have sprung up in place – it amazes me to think  that it wasn’t really that long ago that Orchard Road had a very different and perhaps more homely feel about it …





Impressions of Orchard Road in the 1970s

5 07 2009

Travelling along Orchard Road in the 1970s had a very different feel than it does these days. Far from being the bustling crowded shopping hub it has since been transformed to, Orchard Road had more of a sleepy feel to it back then.  The best recollection I have relates to the stretch from around the Scotts Road junction to Dhoby Ghaut, which I often visited with my parents.

The Scotts Road junction was where the old Lido Cinema building stood next to Shaw House, across from Liat Towers on the other side of Orchard Road. While old Shaw House and Lido has since been demolished, giving way to the new Shaw House which houses the Lido Cineplex, Liat Towers still stands. The branch of Standard Chartered Bank located in Shaw House was one that my mother made frequent visits to.

On the opposite side of Scotts Road, where Tang’s Plaza is now, you would be greeted by the old C K Tang building. Opposite this, across Orchard Road and what was then the open canal, was the distinctive roof structure of the Indonesian Embassy, the Wisma Indonesia, where Wisma Atria now stands. Further along was the old Champion Motors showroom and Fitzpatrick’s Supermarket, probably around where the Paragon now stands. Opposite that there was the old Ngee Ann Building, which housed a number of Specialist clinics as well the the popular Mont D’or Cake Shop, which my parents often got our birthday cakes from.

Heading further down the road, you would come up to the Heeren Building – not that I remember much of it except for a barber shop at the corner. The area maybe a little further down was a little more interesting for me. The old Cold Storage Supermarket, from which my mother would buy the chipolatas and cold cuts which I always looked froward to digging my teeth into. Next to the supermarket on the nearer side of the entrance to the car park, there was the Magnolia Milk Bar which my mother often brought me to to satisfy my childhood cravings for Milk Shakes and Pies. Opposite Cold Storage was an open air car park  which Hawkers took over in the evening – referred to as Glutton’s corner, which my parents would sometimes go to if we visited Cold Storage in the evenings or late afternoons. What my parents frequented more was the well known Beef Noodle stall at Koek Lane, close to the old Orchard Road Market. Koek Lane has disappeared as has the Beef Noodle stall, which initially moved to the food centre at Cuppage Centre (which is now Starhub Centre), but has since moved from the area.

The old Cold Storage building along Orchard Road (a scan from a Cold Storage mousepad give away).

Another view of Cold Storage in way of the entrance to the car park (link).

Further down the road, memories were rather vague, at least until Plaza Singapura was built around 1974. What I can remember is the Borneo Motors showroom next to MacDonald House, MacDonald House itself and Amber Mansions at the end of Orchard Road near Dhoby Ghaut.

Of the other end of Orchard Road near Tanglin, again I don’t recall much except for the Air India advertisment which greeted you on the side of a building at the junction with Orange Grove Road, which provided the effect of the turbaned Maharaja taking a bow, through the sequencing of the neon lighting mounted on the advertising board.

The Turbaned Maharaja at the corner of Orchard Road and Orange Grove Road in the 1970s

The Turbaned Maharaja at the corner of Orchard Road and Orange Grove Road in the 1970s

Added on 27 Aug 2009:
Source: Straits Times 24 Aug 2009

Graphic from 24 Aug 2009 Edition of The Straits Times provides a good idea of what was on Orchard Road in the 1970s.

Graphic from 24 Aug 2009 Edition of The Straits Times provides a good idea of what was on Orchard Road in the 1970s.





My big, strong, and maybe a little less than friendly experiences at the corner of Orchard and Scotts Roads

16 04 2010

There was a time when the prospect of a visit to the bank would fill me with terror. That was during the time when I was a boy of four, perhaps five, and would dutifully accompany my mother on her many errands, shopping trips and visits to the hairdresser and the like. I accompanied her on her banking trips as well, including those that she made to the branch of The Chartered Bank at the bottom of Shaw House on a fairy regular basis. The visits to the bank, which was then touted as being “Big, Strong, Friendly”, somehow never seemed friendly for me. Big and strong maybe. It would always mean that I had to come face to face with the tall burly guard who also served as a doorman, who, wearing the stern look of a bearded and turbaned Sikh, would always open the doors for us. For some reason, I never did take notice of the warm smile my mother tells me that he would usually flash, choosing to focus instead on his imposing appearance which heightened my irrational sense of fear of policeman and security personnel, which was perhaps brought about by having been constantly reminded during my bouts of misbehaviour, that a figure of authority would soon apprehend me. Such was the terror that I felt that I would chose to forego the opportunity for childhood adventure that being outside the stuffy confines of the Austin 1100 would have presented me with, opting to remain in the parked car with nothing to do except stare impatiently out of the partially wound down window. There were actually a few occasions when I did have to overcome my irrational fear, venturing into the banking hall once I remember, to get my hands on the brightly coloured Donald Duck coin box that I so craved. I must have trembled at the sight of the guard, while keeping a tight hold on my mother’s hand as I followed on her on the far side of the guard hoping that her skirt could obscure me .

Lido and Shaw House at the corner of Orchard Road and Scotts Road, seen in 1960 on an old Postcard.

In the later years, a Chartered Bank advertising campaign actually had another burly Sikh security guard as the face of the “Big, Strong, Friendly” slogan, opening the doors to a banking hall with a big cheery smile. I would often then look back in amusement at my own personal experiences as an anxious young boy of the big, strong and maybe a little less friendly banking experience I had in my younger days.

Another view of Shaw House with Lido next to it c.1960 from an old postcard.

I was indeed sad to see the old Shaw House being demolished when that happened sometime in 1990, having been a prominent landmark at the corner of Orchard and Scotts Roads since it was unveiled in 1958. Along the way, it also housed several embassies, consulates and national trade bodies, including the Swiss embassy and also the South Vietnamese embassy until the fall of Saigon in 1975 when it was abandoned. Another landmark next to Shaw House, Lido Cinema, went with it in 1990. I too have a few fond memories of Lido. That was where I had watched many movies with my parents. Lido was also where I watched the first movie unaccompanied by my parents. I went with a few older neighbours in 1975 for the screening of The Pink Panther Returns.

The new Shaw House now houses the Lido Cineplex.

Looking at the area where the new Shaw House has come up over the old, you wouldn’t see anything of how it was all those years ago. In place of the block of offices and a small open car park in front of it where I would often wait in the parked car, and the a cinema next to it, the new Shaw House stands tall, housing the new Lido – a cineplex popular with Singaporeans, as well as Isetan Department Store and several popular eating places. Very little is left behind to remind me of the big, strong and friendly experiences that I had there … maybe only the successor to The Chartered Bank – a branch of Standard Chartered Bank which moved from the old Shaw House to neighbouring Shaw Centre in 1985.





Lost Places: the Killiney Road railway bridge

18 10 2021

Wouldn’t it be cool to have paraphernalia related to a conventional railway line in the Orchard Road area, such as the now well-known girder bridge that ran over Orchard Road, still in existence today? It may come as a surprise but the bridge was actually one of two bridges that were in very close proximity to one another, with a similar girder bridge running across Killiney Road following on the Orchard Road bridge in the direction of the Singapore and from 1907, Tank Road Station.

The railway bridge at Killiney Road.

From the Killiney Road bridge, the line – part of the 1903 Singapore Government Railway or Singapore to Kranji Railway, took ran down an incline towards the Oxley Road and then curving towards Tank Road level crossing and then towards Singapore Station. The line was extended towards the port and Pasir Panjang in 1907 forcing the shift of the station at the triangular clearing where the National Theatre once stood to Tank Road proper. The line would be absorbed into the Federated Malay States Railway (FMSR) in 1913. In 1932, a deviation turned the line from the Bukit Timah area towards Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

The road bridge at Neil Road – a remnant from the 1907 extension of the Singapore Government Railway.


Speaking of the extension, there is in fact a remnant of this extension – a road bridge at Neil Road that was built to carry the road over the railway which ran through what is today Duxton Plain Park and some of this, as well as the stations along the old Singapore and Kranji Railway is discussed here in this History’s Mysteries episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r1HStrNMxxE.





150 metres above Beach Road

31 07 2015

JeromeLim-7742 DHL Balloon (s)Many will remember the DHL Balloon at Tan Quee Lan Street.

Rising high above the Bugis and Rochor areas of Singapore for a short while in the 2000s, the brightly coloured attraction, added not just a burst of colour to an area painted grey by the march of urban redevelopment, but also offered the hundreds of thousands who were to be carried on its gondola a view then unsurpassed over the area from a height of some 150 metres up in the air.

The balloon, touted as the “world’s largest tethered helium balloon” at its launch in April 2006, required the efforts of 40 people over the 12 hours to fill the 6,500 cubic metres of helium it took to inflate it. Once inflated, the balloon at a diameter of 22 metres, was as high as a six storey building. Carrying a maximum of 29 passengers in a gondola suspended below it, it gave a wonderful view of the developments around that were rapidly changing the face of the Beach Road and Marina Bay areas.

Sadly for us, the end came for the DHL Balloon just a little over two years after it was launched as the land on which it was operated (as well as that of its neighbour – the rather iconic New Seventh Storey Hotel) was required for development of the Downtown MRT line’s Bugis Station.  The popular attraction closed at the end of September 2008, by which time the Singapore Flyer was up and running and the balloon was deflated in early October 2008 in half an hour.


Information on the DHL Balloon previously carried by its operator, Singapore Ducktours:

Launched at a cost of S$2.5 million, the DHL Balloon was a joint venture by Aerophile Balloon Singapore Pte Ltd and Vertical Adventure Pte Ltd, and took one year to plan. The project was sponsored by global courier, freight and logistics company DHL, for which it gets exclusive advertising space on the balloon. The business partners involved in the project worked with the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), Singapore Land Authority and Singapore Tourism Board to allow public advertising on the balloon, and arrange for the lease for the site at over S$1 million for two years. S$800,000 was spent priming the ground for the balloon, and another S$60,000 for the helium.

On 19 April 2006, 40 crew members took 12 hours to inflate the French-made balloon, which took its first passengers in May 2006. The DHL Balloon is operated by Singapore Ducktours, a Singapore company which also offers city tours on its amphibious vehicles. As of September 2007, more than 150,000 people have ridden on the DHL Balloon, 70% of whom are tourists. Up to 1,000 people ride the balloon on weekends. Its ridership is the highest among all of Aerophile’s balloons.

The DHL Balloon’s lease on its site on Tan Quee Lan Street will expire on August 2008, and URA has indicated that the lease will not be extended as it has plans for the site. Singapore Ducktours is considering three alternative sites: Beach Road near Park View Hotel, Clarke Quay near Novotel Clarke Quay Hotel, and Gardens by the Bay at Marina Bay. Other plans include relocating the balloon to Kuala Lumpur or Johor Baru in Malaysia. Terminating the venture will cost the company S$1.2 million.

NB: With a capacity of 7,800 cubic metres, Johannesburg and Mexico City are believed to be the largest passenger carrying tethered helium balloons currently in operation.

Ride
Passengers aboard the DHL Balloon can have a bird’s eye view of Singapore’s Central Area, including the central business district, Suntec City, Marina Bay, Orchard Road and Little India, and as far as Indonesia and Malaysia.Standard flights to 150 metres typically lasts between seven to ten minutes, über flights to 180 metres last up to 13 minutes.

Features and specifications

The DHL Balloon measures 22 metres in diameter, and is filled with 6,500 cubic metres of helium. While it is the world’s largest tethered helium balloon, it has been certified as an aircraft. There are only fifteen like it around the world, in cities including Paris and Hongkong.

As the balloon is anchored to the ground with a metal cable, it only ascends and descends vertically. The DHL Balloon was approved by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore to ascend to a maximum altitude of 180 metres, or around 48 stories. Flights to either 150 metres or 180 metres are offered. It can accommodate a maximum of 29 passengers in its gondola.

Piloting

The balloon, which flies between two to six times an hour, is operated by a pilot within the gondola. A hydro-electric winch system controls take-off and landing. As a safety measure, the balloon is not flown when there is lightning, rain, or when the wind speed exceeds five knots on the ground, as measured by an anemometer, on location.

Maintenance

A crew of six pilots, who work in rotation with one pilot working at any one time, conduct routine checks daily, weekly and every three months on the balloon and its equipment. The helium is replenished every four to six months, and engineers visit the balloon every year to conduct an inspection.


Another photograph of the balloon at the Aerophile website: DHL Balloon Singapore.






Celebrating Orchard on National Day

10 08 2013

Celebrating Orchard is an exhibition of photographs I helped the National Heritage Board (NHB) put together for a National Day event. The one day exhibition at the Ngee Ann City Civic Plaza offers perspectives of Singapore’s well known shopping district, commonly referred to as ‘Orchard’ through  a series of photographs – those of eight individuals including myself who have made first impressions of the street and its environs at different periods of its development, post-independence.


Photographs I exhibited:

Reflections

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I love how reflections can sometimes offer interesting perspectives such as these reflections I captured off an Orchard Road shop window, which does represent how I see Orchard’s transformation over the years since my first impressions were formed. The street is now one that is rich in flavour and colour. Full of excitement, it now has an appeal which goes far beyond the shopping and dining venues it is known for and is very much where Singapore comes alive.


The Motor End

JeromeLim 5224

An early impression I had of Orchard was of its car showrooms. Several were found at the ‘Motor End’. It was where my father was to purchase the first five cars he owned from. Three were from Borneo Motors (two Austins and later a Toyota), as well as one from Universal Cars (a Ford) and another from Malayan Motors (a Morris). The building which housed Malayan Motors is one which has survived and is currently occupied by MDIS.


Runway Orchard

JeromeLim 1244

Orchard has always been one to celebrate fashion. Back in the 1960s it became home to trendsetting designer and hairstylist Roland Chow when Roland’s opened on the street. The internationally recognised fashion hub now celebrates in a big way, shutting itself to traffic one evening a year when it transforms itself into a fashion runway for Fashion Steps Out @ Orchard.


About Celebrating Orchard

Orchard Road or ‘Orchard’, as the street and its surroundings is commonly referred to, has over the years offered very different experiences to its many visitors. Lined with car showrooms and several memorable places to shop at the point of Singapore’s independence, it has become a focal point of the new and exciting Singapore. It is where the heart and soul of Singapore can perhaps be found.

Celebrating Orchard explores the famous street through the eyes of eight photographers, who having had their first impressions of the street made during different periods of its development, offer a different take on Orchard Road.

JeromeLim-9031-2

JeromeLim-9021

JeromeLim-8977

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JeromeLim-8970

Other photographers who exhibited:






Finding the old in the new – a walk down part of Thomson Road

12 01 2013

The stretch of Thomson Road between Balestier Road and Moulmein Road is one that I am well acquainted with. It is a stretch that was an invariable part of the twelve years of almost daily bus journeys to kindergarten, primary and secondary school and best known perhaps for a religious landmark, the Catholic Church of St. Alphonsus, popularly known as ‘Novena Church’ – so much so that the church has lent its name to the area where it is located. The twelve years, from 1969 to 1980, were ones in which there were significant changes made to the road and its surroundings. One big change was the widening of the road which resulted in pieces of property on the west side of the road losing valuable frontages. Another was the addition of a private women’s and children’s hospital which has set the standards for maternity hospitals in Singapore.

Developments around Velocity have quickened the pace of change in a world where some semblance of the old can (at least for now) still be found.

Developments around Velocity have quickened the pace of change in a world where some semblance of the old can (at least for now) still be found.

The stretch has seen many significant changes including being widened, but does contain a few recognisable landmarks.

The stretch has seen many significant changes including being widened.

The hospital, Thomson Medical Centre, came up close to the end of the twelve years, occupying a plot of land at the start of the south end of the stretch. Known for its innovative approach towards the birth experience of mothers, it does today feature another innovation – the basement of the refurbished building hides one of the first mechanised car parks in Singapore which was added in the mid 2000s. The hospital is the brainchild of a well known gynaecologist, Dr. Cheng Wei Chen, better known as Dr. W. C. Cheng. Built at a cost of $10 million on a terrace on the western side of the road – one of the buildings it was built in place of was a glorious mansion which Dr. Cheng had used as his clinic, the hospital’s opening in 1979 saw a hospital built so to make delivery a less than clinical experience.

The mansion along Thomson Road in which Dr W C Cheng moved his obstetrics and gynaecology practice to from the 2nd floor of the old Cold Storage.

The mansion along Thomson Road in which Dr. W C Cheng moved his obstetrics and gynaecology practice to from the 2nd floor of the old Cold Storage (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book).

The house which Dr. Cheng used as his clinic was a landmark in the area for many years. Standing on a terrace behind a wall, it never failed to catch my attention over the many bus journeys I made. The house I was to discover, does have an interesting history that goes well beyond the clinic. Besides being the home of Dr. Cheng’s in-laws – Dr. Cheng had moved his practice to the house in the early 1970s from a clinic he operated on the second floor of the old Cold Storage on Orchard Road, the house, was also where the origins of Novena Church in Singapore could be traced to. That I will come to a little later. Besides the clinic, there was another landmark (or so it seemed) that was brought down in 1978 to make way for the hospital – a four storey building named Adam Court and an associated two storey building which served as a garage. Adam Court housed one of the first Yamaha Music Schools in Singapore which moved into it at the end of the 1960s. A check in the online newspaper archives reveals that there was also a private school, Adam Court Educational Centre, which operated for a while in the building at the start of the 1970s. (I have also since posting this learnt that another music school belonging to Mrs. Madeline Aitken, who had once been described as the ‘grand dame of piano teachers’ had occupied the building before Yamaha moved in).

Another view of the mansion - it had been the belong to Dr Cheng's in-laws prior to him setting up his clinic there.

Another view of the mansion – it had been the belong to Dr Cheng’s in-laws prior to him setting up his clinic there (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book). The mansion had also been the first premises of the Redemptorist mission which arrived in 1935 – the Redemptorists run the Novena Church in Singapore.

The four storey building, Adam Court, next to Dr. W. C. Cheng's clinic seen from Thomson Road before it was incorporated into TMC in 1979. The two storey building in the foreground was a parking garage for Adam Court.

The four storey building, Adam Court, next to Dr. W. C. Cheng’s clinic seen from Thomson Road before it was incorporated into TMC in 1979 (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book). The two storey building in the foreground was a parking garage for Adam Court.

What is perhaps today the most recognisable landmark in the area is Novena Church. Its origins can be traced back to the arrival from Australia of the Redemptorist mission in Singapore in 1935. The Redemptorist community is best known for its promotion of devotions to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, devotions referred to as ‘Novena’ from the Latin word ‘novem’ for nine – the devotions involve prayers made over nine consecutive occasions. Devotional prayer services or ‘Novena’ sessions held on Saturdays at the church have over the years proven to be very popular with both followers and non-followers of the faith and the current Redemptorist church, the Church of St. Alphonsus, has come to be referred to as ‘Novena Church’.

Thomson Medical Centre when it it opened in 1979. The bulk of it was built on the side which contained Adam Court.

Thomson Medical Centre when it it opened in 1979 (image from Thomson Medical Centre’s 30th Anniversary Book). The bulk of it was built on the side which contained Adam Court.

Thomson Medical Centre today.

Thomson Medical Centre today.

The Redemptorist community upon their arrival, rented the mansion where Dr. Cheng was to later set up his clinic and only moved from the premises after the Second World War ended, first up Thomson Road to where the Chequers Hotel once stood (which later became the ill-fated Europa Country Club Resort). It at the second premises where the first public Novena devotions were held, commencing in November 1945. It was in 1950 that they moved to their current premises. A new chapel which became the Church of St Alphonsus (after the founder of the order) designed by Swan and Maclaren was built and was blessed on 14 May 1950. Several structures have been added since: a bell tower and residences at the back of the Church were added in 1956; side verandahs in the 1980s; and the St. Clement Pastoral Centre and new residences in the 1990s.

Inside Novena Church - the church is always packed on Saturdays during Novena services and a much bigger church is now needed.

Inside Novena Church – the church is always packed on Saturdays during Novena services and a much bigger church is now needed.

Even with the more recent additions the appearance of the church is still as recognisable as it was during my younger days. The church building itself is one dominated by triple arc pediment at the front. There is however, a huge change that may soon render that as a less recognisable feature of the church. Although the building has been gazetted for conservation on 8 June 2011, it will soon see itself in the shadow of a new and much larger church building which will come up next to it. This is part of a necessary $45 million expansion which will not only see a much-needed expansion of the church’s seating capacity, it will also see the construction of a basement car park and a new pastoral centre (the present one will be demolished to make way for the new building). Work will commence once 70% of necessary funds have been raised.

The once familiar façade of Novena Church which has conservation status will soon be dominated by a much larger building.

The once familiar façade of Novena Church which has conservation status will soon be dominated by a much larger building (image source: http://novenachurch.com).

Besides the church, there are also several structures which date back to my days in the school or public bus. There are two sets of private apartment blocks on the same side of the church just north of it which seems to be a constant there. The block further from the church has a row of shops located beneath it. It was in that row of shops where one, Java Indah, had in the 1970s, sold the best lemper udang that I have bitten into. The cake shop was started by an Indonesian lady, Aunty Neo, sometime around 1973 – well before Bengawan Solo started. It was perhaps better known for its kueh lapis, which was also distributed through the various supermarkets. The shop was later run by Aunty Neo’s niece and moved for a while to Balestier Hill Shopping Centre before disappearing. The row of shops also contains a dive equipment shop which is still there after all these years – it was from the shop that I bought my first set of snorkeling equipment back in the late 1970s.

The block where Java Indah and the best lemper udang was once found.

The block where Java Indah and the best lemper udang was once found.

One of two private apartment blocks next to Novena Church.

One of two private apartment blocks next to Novena Church.

The dive equipment shop today.

The dive equipment shop today.

Speaking of Balestier Hill Shopping Centre, that was an addition made sometime midway through the twelve year period. Situated across from where Thomson Medical Centre is today, the low-rise Housing and Development Board (HDB) cluster is where the very first Sri Dewa Malay barber shop moved to from its original location further south opposite Novena Church. Sri Dewa possibly started the Malay barber craze in the late 1960s and early 1970s and at its height, boasted of some 22 outlets. That outlet is one that I visited on many occasions – I was (as many of my schoolmates were) often sent there by the discipline master of Balestier Hill Technical School which I went to for technical classes in Secondary 3 and 4. He did always seem to have very different standards for what short and neat hair meant than our own discipline master.

Balestier Hill Shopping Centre which was completed in 1977.

Balestier Hill Shopping Centre which was completed in 1977.

The cluster which a post office could once be found in has always seemed a rather quiet place. Work on it started sometime in 1975 and was completed in 1977, and it was built partly on land occupied by a row of terraced houses by Thomson Road. What perhaps was interesting was the land behind that row – it and the hill on which the technical school, the first to be purpose built (and two primary schools) came up in the early 1960s. That was once owned by the Teochew clan association Ngee Ann Kongsi and used as a Teochew cemetery around the turn of the 20th century. Evidence of this did surface during the clearing work to build Balestier Hill Shopping Centre – a coffin with some human remains was uncovered at the foot of the hill in December 1975.

The road up to Balestier Hill where three schools were located. The hill was once used as a Teochew cemetery.

The road up to Balestier Hill where three schools were located. The hill was once used as a Teochew cemetery.

Right next to the road up to Balestier Hill in between the shopping centre and the private flats is a Shell service station which has been there since I first became acquainted with it. My father was a regular at the station, Yong Kim Service Station, from the days when he drove his Austin 1300. Loyalty gifts were commonly given to customers then, and my parents do still have some of the sets of cups and drinking glasses that were given out back at the end of the 1960s.

The former Yong Kim Service Station.

The former Yong Kim Service Station.

Besides these structures, there are also several more which have not changed very much along the road. One is another religious complex, across from Novena Church, where the Seventh-day Adventist Chinese Church and the San Yu Adventist School can be found – which dates back to the 1950s. Not far from that is a house which has also been a constant there, retaining its original design over the years. The house is one that was affected by road widening – it once sat on a even larger plot of land which was lined with a row of palm trees along the road.

The Seventh Day Adventist Chinese Church and San Yu Adventist School.

The Seventh-day Adventist Chinese Church and San Yu Adventist School.

A house that was once fronted by a road of plam trees.

A house that was once fronted by a road of plam trees.

Just south of Novena Church, across what is today Irrawaddy Road, is another part of the area which had for seemed to be always there. That however is also soon about to change. The cluster of blue and white buildings and a red brick wall in the fenced off compound takes one back to the late 1950s / early 1960s and were once where stores of the Electricity Department of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) (before that became corporatised) were located. They have since fallen into disuse and a recent tender exercise conducted by the Urban Redevelopment Corporation means that it will soon see it being redeveloped. The tender was awarded to Hoi Hup Realty Pte Ltd, Sunway Developments Pte Ltd and Hoi Hup J.V. Development Pte Ltd and is slated for mixed use development which will include a hotel.

The former stores of the Electricity Department of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) before corporatisation will probably be the next to go.

The former stores of the Electricity Department of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) before corporatisation will probably be the next to go.

Adjacent to the former stores is where two storey shophouses which once lined the road and the Jewish Cemetery behind them have made way for a shopping mall, Novena Square (now Velocity @ Novena Square) and an Novena MRT station. The mall was completed in 2000 and was built by UOL. I remember the shophouses that lined the road for one thing – the image of an elderly man sitting on a chair outside the shophouse has remained in my memory from my upper primary school days. There was also a two storey house that had long stood at the corner of Thomson and Moulmein Roads which always seemed unoccupied and used as a storeroom during my primary school days which has since disappeared.

Velocity as seen close to the junction of Moulmein and Thomson Roads where a two storey house once stood.

Velocity as seen close to the junction of Moulmein and Thomson Roads where a two storey house once stood.

One of the things I should perhaps mention is how busy the sidewalk down the slope from Novena Church were in the 1960s and early 1970s on Saturdays when hourly Novena services are held. Many among the thousands of church-goers that came and went thronged the sidewalks in search of treats from the food and snack stalls set up to cater for the crowd. Among the food vendors there were some who were to set up successful baking businesses later after the stalls were cleared.

The sidewalks just below the slope up to Novena Church were always busy on Saturdays when many stalls selling food and snacks were set up to cater for the church going crowd.

The sidewalk just below the slope up to Novena Church were always busy on Saturdays when many stalls selling food and snacks were set up to cater for the church going crowd.


Afternote:

It has been brought to my attention by Mr William Cheng, the architect of Thomson Medical Centre (TMC) that the old Adam Centre or Adam Court (Yamaha Music School) was not demoished but incorporated into the Right Wing Consultant Suite Block. That is where Dr. Cheng has his consultant suites on the ground floor. In addition, a new elevator core for 2 low speed lifts was added and annexed to the new TMC building with an extra floor was added.

Mr Cheng has also added that the TMC Building was designed and built in a record time of 8-9 months. During the construction Dr. Cheng did not maintained his practice at the renovated consultant suite on the ground of the old Adam Centre which he moved to from the old house and has remained there until today.

Mr Cheng also pointed out that iconic arches were introduced to the top of the TMC building’s façades to “maintain the spirit of the old 339 Thomson Road house”. These were moved to the new façades when the TMC building was extended in 2000 to 2002. The “innovative first-of-its kind in Singapore automatic computer controlled mechanical underground carpark” was built to provide additional car parking spaces.






Support The Long and Winding Road for the Singapore Blog Awards

23 05 2012

The Singapore Blog Awards is back – for a fifth year with the finalists in each of the fifteen categories announced on Monday. Once again, The Long and Winding Road is in the running in the Best Photography Blog (PANASONIC ECO BEST PHOTOGRAPHY BLOG) Category.

It is a great honour to be selected, having already had the good fortune of being picked as the winner in the same category at last year’s awards – for which I am greatly indebted to the readers of this blog and to the many friends I have made on the journey along the Long and Winding Road who have cast their votes for the blog. Repeating the feat this year will certainly be difficult – as with the last, there are exceptional blogs in the category which are all more than worthy of winning and once more. I would be most grateful for your votes, if you do think the blog is worthy of the accolade, to help in nudging the blog in the right direction – once a day up until the 30th of June. The voting page can be found at the PANASONIC ECO BEST PHOTOGRAPHY BLOG page.

To be able to vote, you would need to first register by clicking on the “REGISTER NOW” text at the top left of the page – you may fill up with any ID number if you do not have an NRIC/FIN Number required to register.

At the same time, I would also like to give a shout-out to some finalists in other categories – some of whom I have become great friends with, whom I think deserve a mention:

  • Fellow Singapore Memory Corp member Lam Chun See, the man behind Good Morning Yesterday (Best Individual Blog). Chun See’s tireless efforts in documenting a Singapore that once was is the benchmark for many nostalgia bloggers – including myself.
  • Self-professed ex-City gal turned expat housewife Karen Lim, whose wonderfully refreshing blog, Story of Bing (Best Lifestyle Blog) takes us on an adventure to South Africa.
  • Wildlife and conservation enthusiast Ivan Kwan, whose morbid fascination with dead animals in the form of updates on Monday Morgue (Best WTH Blog) every Monday certainly has me exclaiming “What The Hell”.
  • Father of four (yes, four!) Andy Lee, who introduces us to his adventures with his kids on Sengkang Babies (Best Family Blog) and is a really nice and down to earth guy.
  • Travel writer Rosemarie John, who takes us on her travels and beyond on Travel and Beyond (Best Travel Blog).

Photography on The Long and Winding Road

I wouldn’t call myself a photographer, but I do use photography as a means to express myself. Photographs to me are a wonderful way to capture that story, an impression or to keep as a record of events, the beauty around us and also the passing of time. Photographs certainly can paint that thousand words, helping a reader to connect with a body of text – a wonderful way to help me keep account of my wanderings along life’s Long and Winding Road. Below are some more recent examples of the stories I try to tell, the impressions and moments in time I try to capture in this blog through the lens. Feel free to browse through them and let me know what you think. 🙂






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.





Beautiful buildings and a tale of buried treasure under a bridge: Memories of Stamford Road

21 02 2010

I loved passing through Stamford Road as a child. This was the road that started with the sight of a needle like structure that is the Civilian War Memorial, rising up where Nicoll Highway and Connaught Drive merged, close to where the Satay Club and that semi-circular hawker centre at the end of the Esplanade were located. The brilliant white needle like structure for me evoked a sense of mystery, looking as if it was a rocket destined for the moon, or perhaps, put there by visitors from another world to serve as an observation post. The structure actually comprises four pillars rising each representing the four main race groups is dedicated to civilians who perished during the Japanese occupation, and was unveiled on 15 February 1967, the 25th anniversary of the fall of Singapore.

The Civilian War Memorial.

A new "needle" the 73 storey Swissôtel The Stamford now towers over the original across Beach Road. When it was built in 1986, the then Westin Stamford was the World's tallest hotel.

The old and the new. The 68m tall Civilian War Memorial at War Memorial Park was completed in 1967 is dwarfed by the 226m Swissôtel The Stamford.

Back then, the now undercover Stamford Canal, which runs parallel to Stamford Road, was open for all to see. On the canal side of the road, bridges over the canal could be found at the intersections of the roads that ran perpendicular to Stamford Road, with names such as Polglase Bridge (on North Bridge Road) and Malcolm Bridge (on Victoria Street). I remember an interesting story about Polglase Bridge sometime in the mid 1970s. An elderly lady sparked off a frantic dig for buried treasure on the bank of the canal underneath the bridge, after relating how while hiding under the bridge during the Japanese occupation, she had witnessed Japanese soldiers forcing some civilians to bury what she thought was gold there – I am not sure if anything was found.

The junction with Beach Road would have been the first intersection along Stamford Road heading north – this would be where the white-washed St. Andrew’s Cathedral would stare at me from the left, and, over the Stamford Canal, the buildings that housed Raffles Institution (RI) before it moved to Grange Road in 1972. For a while the disused buildings stood there looking somewhat tired and abandoned until it was demolished at the end of the 1970s to make way for the I.M. Pei designed Raffles City complex.

Saint Andrew's Cathedral as seen from Stamford Road.

The former Raffles Institution as seen from Beach Road, 1975 (Photo source: Ray Tyers Singapore Then & Now).

Stamford Road in 1976 at the junction with Beach Road. On the area on the right of the picture now stands Raffles City (Photo source: Ray Tyers Singapore Then & Now).

The same junction today with the Swissôtel The Stamford towering over the area.

My favourite stretch of the road began at the junction with North Bridge Road. This was of course where Capitol Building stood, with its façade dominated by a colourful hand-painted canvas mural which brightly advertised what was being screened at the cinema theatre that stood hidden behind the building. The building itself was put up in 1933 and was designed in eclectically in a neo-Classical style. Capitol is in fact one of the five iconic cinema buildings that were featured in a stamp set “Cinema Theatres of Yesteryear” issued by Singpost in 2009, and would deserve more detailed mention in a post on its own.

Capitol building with its façade dominated by a colourful hand-painted canvas mural featuring what was being screened at the cinema that stood hidden behind the building (Photo courtesy of Mr Derek Tait).

Capitol Building today.

The building housing the actual cinema hidden behind the Capitol Building.

This stretch that brings us past the junction with Victoria Street right up to the junction with Armenian Street and Queen Street also featured some wonderful examples of architecture on the left-hand side: Stamford House, Eu Court and the MPH Building. Stamford House, next to Capitol Building, stands at the junction of Stamford Road built in the Venetian Renaissance-style in the early 1900s, was originally the Oranjie Building, and for a while was the Oranjie Hotel in 1930s. The art deco styled Eu Court across Hill Street from Stamford House was built in the late 1920s as an apartment block. Sadly the beautiful building was demolished in 1992 to make way for the widening of Victoria and Hill Streets, being replaced by Stamford Court, a building that seems out of sync with the architecture of the area, sticking out like a sore thumb. MPH building, which was built in 1908 in an Edwardian commercial street style is one that I frequently visited and have fond memories of, housed the MPH bookstore until 2003.

A refurbished Stamford House as seen from the junction of Stamford Road and Victoria Street.

Stamford Court (on the left) sticking out like a sore thumb at the junction of Hill Street and Stamford Road was built over the site of the former Art Deco Styled Eu Court.

Over the canal on the canal side of the street at the section between North Bridge Road and Victoria Streets was the walled compound of the Holy Infant Jesus Convent (CHIJ). A three storey building lined the canal behind the wall. This housed the convent’s secondary school. Looking up on the background of the area, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this was built on the site of what were several bungalows which once were used by a Hotel van Wijk, established to serve Dutch travellers to Singapore in the early 1900s. The bungalows were taken over by the convent in 1933 when the hotel ceased operations, and were used to house St. Nicholas Girls School. The three storey building replaced the bungalows in the early 1950s. In the place of the building, the SMRT headquarters now stands, another building that seems to destroy the character of the area. Along the next stretch, another girls school – the Raffles Girls School was located over the canal between Victoria and Queen Streets. A building belonging to the Singapore Management University (SMU) now stands in its place.

The bungalows that housed the Hotel van Wijk were demolished to make way for a three storey building which housed the CHIJ secondary school in the early 1950s (Photo source: Ray Tyers Singapore Then & Now).

The SMRT Headquarters stands in place of the CHIJ Secondary School Building at the site of the former Hotel van Wyjk.

Past the junction with Armenian Street and Queen Street, the was a row of shop houses on the left – one of the shops there dealt with crocodile skin products and had a glass display of bags, boots, shoes, wallets and a stuffed crocodile, one that I could not help but peer at every time I waited for a bus at the bus stop which was in front of the row of shops. This is the stretch that led up to the iconic red brick National Library building, which sadly, modern Singapore has no place for. The library which closed in 2004 and the stretch of road just that led up towards the end of Stamford Road where the National Museum is has since been swallowed up by the Fort Canning Tunnel. Stamford Road being realigned around the tunnel as a result of this, meeting up with a part of the original stretch in front of the National Museum to where the road ends at Bencoolen Street and Fort Canning Road.

The red-brick National Library building along Stamford Road (Source: National Library http://www.nl.sg)

Left as a reminder of the former National Library, the red-brick posts that stood at the entrance to the library.

Fort Canning Link leading up to the newly constructed Fort Canning Tunnel runs over what used to be the stretch of Stamford Road that led to the National Library.

Fort Canning Link leading up to the Fort Canning Tunnel swallowing up the stretch of Stamford Road that ran past the National Library. Evidence of the bus stop in the form of a bus bay from where I caught service number 166 home still exists. The area along the lower left of the picture along the road used to be lined with a row of shop houses.

Another view of Fort Canning Link.

On the canal side, there was of course the SJI school field between Queen Street and what was Waterloo Street. The basketball court was located at this end of the field and there was a story that circulated then that involved the ghost of a person who was said to have hanged himself at the posts of the basketball court there. I seem to remember that there was a car park on the canal side on the stretch from Waterloo Street to Bencoolen Street, filling the space between the former CYMA and the canal.

The neo-classical National Museum Building was completed in 1887 and marks the end of Stamford Road.

Looking up from the junction where Stamford Road merged into a disjointed section of Orchard Road then, there was a beautiful mansion like building that was the YMCA that would stare at you. The building had served as the headquarters of the Japanese Kempetai during the Second World War and we were told it held prisoners who were tortured by the Kempetai, the much feared Military Police. The old YMCA building which had the distinction of a being at No. 1, Orchard Road, sadly has had to make way for the newer, bigger and more modern premises of the YMCA, being demolished in 1981.

The beautiful old YMCA building on 1 Orchard Road (Photo source: YMCA Singapore).





The ghosts of Christmases past

13 12 2021

First turned-on 37 years ago today on 13th December 1984, Orchard Road’s annual Christmas Light-up is now in its 38th edition. Bringing cheer especially in the last two years with the uncertainty of the pandemic looming over us, the light-up has become a constant in Singapore bringing with it symbols of celebration that have actually little to do with Singapore or for that matter, with the celebration of Christmas. So, how did these symbols come to represent Christmas? When did the practice of lighting-up for Christmas even start? How did Christmas come to be commemorated with such zeal in in Christian minority Singapore? How did what is the only form of lighting-up we are now allowed along Singapore’s main shopping street come about? We may have to call up a few ghosts of Christmases past, to find the answer … 


Christmas is a religious holiday that has become a universal celebration. This is also the case in modern Singapore in which the year-end is now very much anticipated for its promise of cooler weather, as a time for holidays, and for the feeding and shopping frenzy that it seems to bring to Orchard Road –Singapore’s main shopping street. It is a time when the street is also transformed into a fairyland of Christmas lights and is filled with popular symbols that we now associate with the celebration of Christmas. It is not hard to miss a Christmas tree, that jolly and rather rotund figure whom we call Santa Claus or Father Christmas, and representations of wintery scenes and snow – all of which not only have nothing to do with balmy Singapore or for that matter, little to do with the Christmas message.  

Orchard Road during the Christmas Light-Up, 2016

The attempt on my part to tie all of these to the “Ghost of Christmas Past” – a character from Charles Dickens’ well-loved tale “A Christmas Carol” – is quite deliberate. Published in 1843, the tale served as the inspiration for how Christmas would be celebrated in Britain, and throughout the English speaking world. This ultimately, also set the expectations for what we in the modern world and in an urban setting, now consider to be Christmassy.

idPublished in 1843, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is thought to have given us the idea of that wintry Christmas.

Our rather unrealistic expectations in dreaming of that White Christmas, is one of the things that “A Christmas Carol” must surely have inspired. While such wintery scenes isn’t something we might immediately associate with London – the city in which Dickens’ tale is set, it was just what Dickens depicted in his tale drawing on his experience of Christmas in his formative years. It was a particularly cold decade into which Dickens was born into, during which the Thames actually froze over on more than one occasion, and this may just be why we now all dream of that white Christmas.  

A frost fair on the River Thames 1814.

The greeting “Merry Christmas” is another thing that “A Christmas Carol” is thought to have inspired. Used in abundance throughout the tale, the greeting would find its way to the very first Christmas cards, produced in the same year the book was published.

Christmas card designed by John Callcott Horsley, 1843.

One symbol that Dickens did not inspire was Santa Claus – that jolly and rather rotund representation of the Greek saint, Saint Nicholas, whom we often see getting stuck in the chimney. This version of how the saint is represented can be attributed to Thomas Nast, an American political cartoonist of German origins, whose sketch of “Merry Old Santa Claus” – published in Harper’s Weekly in 1881 – was what influenced how generations of children see the ancient saint. Saint Nicholas wasn’t quite depicted as a merry figure prior to this, or even in even in Nast’s initial renderings of the saint going back to the 1863.

Thomas Nast, an American political cartoonist of German origins, whose sketch of “Merry Old Santa Claus” was published in Harper’s Weekly in 1881

While Nast did provide the basis for how we see Santa Claus today, he was by no means the first to identify St Nicholas – Sinterklass to the Dutch – as Santa Claus in the English speaking world, nor the first to sketch him without his saintly robes. An 1823 poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore is often cited as the basis for the identification of Saint Nicholas as Santa Claus. There is however, an anonymous 8-verse poem that was published two years before Moore’s poem, in which “Santeclaus” was illustrated. This was perhaps the first publication in the English language to both identify and depict a modern “Santa”.

1821 depiction of “Santaclaus” accompanying an 8-verse poem.

For many homes, Christmas isn’t Christmas without a Christmas Tree, a tradition that has its roots in continental Europe, particularly in Germany. Like Santa and the idea of a White Christmas, this found its way into the English speaking world in the 1800s. The popularity of decorating fir trees in England took off with the publication of an image of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the royal family gathered around a decorated Christmas Tree in the Illustrated London News in December 1848. Prince Albert, who was of German origins, is said to have introduced the custom to the royal household. The custom seemed to have arrived to the shores of America, where there were also many settlers of German origin, a little earlier, as can seen in a picture published in 1845.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the royal family gathered around a decorated Christmas Tree (published in the Illustrated London News in December 1848).
Picture of a Christmas Tree published in Philadelphia in 1845.

Christmas trees were initially decorated with candles for illumination, a practice that was rather hazardous. An invention in 1879, one of humankind’s most important – the lightbulb – would lend itself to both greater safety and also to the street light-ups of the modern day. The lightbulb’s inventor, Thomas Edison is in fact also credited with inspiring electric Christmas lighting.  Edison’s business partner and friend, Edward Johnson, produced the first string of Christmas Lights in 1882, getting his idea from Edison’s display of lights outside his lab during Christmas two years earlier. It would however take a couple of decades, when electricity became widely available, that the invention would eventually achieve its potential. 

Thomas Edison inspired Edward Johnson’s String of Christmas Lights.

It would then take another couple of decades before lighting up for Christmas became an established practice. Initially, buildings were lit-up individually for Christmas – such as was the case of the Potomac Power Company’s building in 1920. However in 1923, America’s very first National Christmas tree was put up in by President Calvin Coolidge, which was lit by 3000 electric lights.  The decade would also see light-ups on streetwise scale being introduced, such as that of Christmas Tree Lane in Altadena, California in 1923 and by the 1930s, fairly elaborate Christmas street light-ups seem to be a norm in cities across the US.

Potomac Electric Power, Christmas greetings, 1920 / National Christmas Tree, 1923
(source: Library of Congress)
Christmas Tree Lane, Altadena, 1923 / Christmas Lights, Los Angeles, 1937
(sources Security Pacific National Bank Photo Collection / Herman J Schultheis Collection)

The practice of illuminating buildings also made its way across the “pond” to Britain in the 1930s, with large stores such as Selfridges on Oxford Street, lighting up for Christmas since 1935. Britain would only see its first organised street Christmas light-up in the post-World War 2 era. This was introduced in 1954, in an attempt to liven up a dreary post-war London. Lighting up Regent Street, the annual light-up continues to this very day.

Selfridges, Oxford Street, London, 1935.
Regent Street, London, 1955 / Regent Street, London, 2018
(2018 photo: Jerome Lim, The Long and Winding Road)

In Singapore, Christmases were initially celebrated in a big way only by Christians and among the colonial elite who brought with them traditions that included Christmas Trees and Santas, the spirit of giving, and also the excesses that came with the season. From the outset, Christmas seemed as much a religious event as it was a celebration for the shops and on the evidence of advertisements for the sale of Christmas goods that go as far back as the mid 1800s, stores would be stocked up for the season. What many had on offer were toys and other gifts, foodstuff, and ornaments as is the case today. It would seem that it was also very much a celebration for the children.

Christmas in Singapore
Eastern Daily Mail and Straits Morning Advertiser, 6 Dec 1906; The Straits Times, 26 Dec 1912; Daily Mercury, 27 Dec 1941

Homes, churches and certain offices, were initially the places that would be gaily decorated. Decoration -wise, stores that catered to the European clientele, would welcome Christmas in a big way only after the war. Decorations initially involved simple decorations, which on evidence of old photographs, became more elaborate as the years went by. The idea of fake snow, which we may think of as a more recent introduction, actually arrived here as far back as 1949. It was Robinsons in Raffles Place that provided the residents of Singapore with that very first “white Christmas”!

“Snow in Singapore”, Straits Times, 6 Dec 1949.
Christmas Decorations in Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s.

Singapore would have to wait until 1984 for its first Christmas street light-up. This came at the climax of the celebration of Singapore’s 25 years of Nation Building. The year was one when the economy was slowing. An energy-saving drive was in full swing. The light-up was however given the green light in an effort to boost Orchard Road’s flagging reputation as a tourism destination. With permission obtained to introduce the light-up, the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) looked to the light-ups in other Asian cities, particularly Hong Kong, for inspiration.

Christmas Light-up along Orchard road in the early days (Postcards via Roots.sg)

With the aim of promoting Singapore as a vibrant city, the board financed the project, which was the brainchild of Dr Wong Kwei Cheong, then Minister of State for Trade and Industry and chairman of STPB. Among the organisers of that first light up were the Singapore Hotel Association, Singapore Retail Merchants Association and National Association of Travel Agents, Singapore. Turned on by Dr Wong on 13 December 1984,  the light-up featured 100,000 light bulbs installed along a two kilometre stretch from Ming Court Hotel (now Orchard Rendezvous Hotel) to the Istana. The cost of lighting was kept to S$30 per hour and the display was said to have formed a “tunnel of light” through Orchard Road.

The Orchard Road Christmas Light-up in 2013

Encouraged by the success of the first light-up, which lasted a matter of just three weeks, STPB decided to continue with it on an annual basis. The success would also spawn similar light-ups for the major festivals: for Chinese New Year in Chinatown, for Ramadan/Hari Raya Puasa in Geylang Serai, and for Deepavali in Little India in 1985. 

Deepavali Light-up in Little India (2021)

Decorations for the light-ups were relatively simple initially. The introduction of the “Best Decorated Complex” – now the “Best Dressed Building” – would provide a spark for building owners such as Centrepoint – a regular winner – to come up with more elaborate decorations. One example is the Fairy Tale Castle, that Centrepoint was turned into in 1988. With the turn of the century attempts were also made to introduce different themes and colour schemes on an annual basis with each year’s light-up seemingly an improvement on the last. More recently, there have also been growing concerns about the choice of themes, with some feeling that they are a distraction and a deviation from the religious aspects of Christmas. An example of this was the Disney-themed ligh-up in 2018.

Fairy Tale Castle Centrepoint was turned into in 1988 (source: Roots.sg)

Since 2019, light-ups have also been scaled down, with the last two in 2020 and 2021 being put up during the time of the pandemic. As we moved towards the 40th year of the light-up in 2023, it would certainly be nice to see us move away from the tried and tested themes, and from the use of symbols that reflect a more tropical celebration, or perhaps one that will show Singapore as Singapore rather than the clone of any other big city anywhere in the rest of the world Singapore has seemed to become.





Days of Wonder

28 05 2021

Films containing familiar sights and sounds of the past have a wonderful effect of evoking feelings of nostalgia and a sense of coming home. Such was the case when I was provided with the opportunity to view a selection digitised 8mm home movies from the 1960s and 1970s that have been deposited in the National Archives of Singapore with a view to putting together segments of them in preparation for last Thursday’s “Archives Invites” online session “Days of Wonder: Fun and Leisure in 1960s and 1970s Singapore“. The session involved the screening of two videos, each containing scenes of the Singapore I was familiar with as a child, with a focus on sites, attractions and leisure activities that were popular among Singaporeans.

Fun for me in the late 1960s.

Among the activities that I put a spotlight on in the videos were those that took place by the coastal areas, which included scenes of Changi Beach – an extremely popular spot for picnics and dips in the sea at high tide – complete with kelongs in the near distance. Changi Beach, a regular destination for picnics right out the boot of the car (we could once drive right up to the beach), was where I first took a dip in the sea. The beach and the long sandy coastline that ran all the way towards Bedok, featured in many weekend outings and holidays through much of my childhood.

Ayer Gemuroh



It was the same for many in my generation. Changi Beach was often the place to chill out at during the weekend, especially when the timing of the high tide was favourable, which a quick check on tide tables published daily in the newspapers, could confirm. A friend of mine recounted how she looked forward to trips to Changi on the back of a borrowed lorry with the extended family whenever the timing of the tide was good. Pots of chicken curry and loafs of the local version of the baguette would also accompany the . If you were fortunate to have come with a car, there was also the option of driving right up to the beach and parking right under a shady tree to have your picnic right out of the car’s boot. Seeing cars with their wheels stuck in the sand was a pretty common sight because of this. And, if the chicken curry ran out or if one had come without food, there were several beachside cafés that one could visit. There was also the option of waiting for the fish and chips van, and the various itinerant food vendors that also visited the beach throughout the day such as the vadai man, the kacang putih man and the ice-cream vendors.

A small part of the segment on the coast, involved a holiday, taken locally by the sea – as was the fashion back in days when most of us could not afford to take a trip abroad. For me holidays involved the various government holiday facilities along the Tanah Merah coast, at long lost places with names like Mata Ikan and Ayer Gemuroh. A question that was put to me during the Q&A session was what do I miss most of those days. Mata Ikan, the Tanah Merah coast, and also how we seemed to have unlimited access to much of the length of Singapore’s coast, is probably what I miss most. Those were wonderful times for me, walking by the beach and along stretches of seawalls, poking my nose into the numerous pillboxes that lined the coast (boy, did they smell!), wading out when the tide went out, often as far as the kelongs were planted. The coastal regions are much more protected these days and in many parts, blocked off from the public.

Beside my interactions with the Tanah Merah coast, there were many other places in SIngapore that left an impression. I remember how places would come alive by night, as the scenes of an Orchard Road and Guillemard Circus illuminated by neon advertising boards seen in the videos show. Singapore had such a wonderful glow by night with the numerous fountains – many planted on the major roundabouts, also illuminated by night, and the occasional float parades and light-ups during National Day, often adding to the night lights. Adding to the lively scene by night were what would be termed as “pop-up” food centres. Several open-air car parks, such as the famous one on Orchard Road where Orchard Central, transformed themselves into places to indulge in some of the best hawker fare that could be found in Singapore.

The car park at Orchard Road that transformed into a hawker fare paradise by night (Paul Piollet Collection, National Archives of Singapore)



The one at Orchard Road, dubbed “Glutton’s Square” to provide it with greater tourism appeal, was an assault (in a pleasant way) on four of the five the senses. Evening time brought with it the disorderly rush of pushcarts, all of which would somehow be lined up in neat rows in double quick time. Lit by kerosene lamps in the dark, each contributed to the smoke that filled the air together with an unimaginable array of aromas. The sounds of the ladles scraping the bottoms of woks added to the atmosphere. Besides Orchard Road, there were also carparks at Prince Edward Road opposite the Singapore Polytechnic and the one in front of the railway station at which hawkers similarly gathered by night.

Among the other scenes were those of Orchard Road, which was in the 1960s, a place to perhaps shop for cars, to visit the western style supermarkets, which were uncommon then, and perhaps C K Tang. C K Tang, a pioneering departmental store on Orchard Road, was then housed in its rather iconic Chinese-roofed building and right nearby was Champion Motors on which Lucky Plaza now stands, Fitzpatrick’s Supermarket and Orchard Motors. The conversion of Orchard Motors into The Orchard – a shopping centre at which the infamous Tivoli Coffee House was located, possibly marked the beginning of the end for Orchard Road’s motoring days. There are perhaps two reminders left of those days, in the form of Liat Towers – built as a Mercedes Benz showroom and headquarters, and the delightful sunburst topped former Malayan Motors 1920s showroom that can be found opposite Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station.

The former Malayan Motors showroom seen in 1984 (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

Another of my favourite urban sites was Change Alley, which many locals – my grandmother included – seem to pronounce as something that sounded like “Chin-Charlie”. It was such a joy to wander through the alley, which in the late 1960s was filled with the sounds of the chorus of laughing bags being set off. The alley, which also provided correspondence between Collyer Quay and Raffles Place, was described by the BBC’s Alan Whicker in a 1959 newsreel as being “perhaps the most famous hundred yards in Southeast Asia”, a hundred yards of alley where one risked being “attacked in the pocket book”.

Whicker’s World with the BBC’s Alan Whicker wandering through Change Alley in 1959.

During the rather lively Q&A session at the end of the Archives Invites session, I believe that in view of the limited time we had, a number of questions posed went unanswered. Should you have been in that audience, and did not receive answers to the questions you may have posed, or have questions to which I was not able to adequately answer, you may leave them as comments to this post. I will try answering them as best as I can.