A temporary Kempeitai HQ at Beach Road

23 06 2021

Convicted as a spy and imprisoned in Changi Prison during a stint as a press attaché with the Japanese Consulate in Singapore, Mamoru Shinozaki is also viewed in some circles as the “Oskar Schindler” of Singapore for the role he may have played in bringing the terrible Sook Ching Massacre to an end. While he remains a controversial even after his death in the 1990s, his accounts of the wartime Singapore remains a valuable resource. In oral history interviews contained in “My Wartime Experiences in Singapore” published by the Institute of South East Asian Studies in 1973, we learn that he was brought to Beach Road upon his release from in Changi Prison by the Japanese Army on 16 February 1942 – right after Singapore fell. Describing his arrival at Beach Road, Shinozaki said, “All along Beach Road, all the houses were closed and I did not see even a cat or dog. It was a ghost town.”

Since demolished buildings at the former Beach Road Police Station.

What was would to follow was his meeting with Lt. Col. Yokota, who had been placed in command of several units of the East Branch of the Kempeitai. “At Beach Road, now the temporary Voluntary Headquarters, the chief of the Yokota Kempei unit, Lt. Col. Yokota, was waiting. When I got down from the lorry he greeted me: “you have suffered so long, please take this.”” This very scene is, quite amazing, one that also exists in a visual record. A Japanese newsreel which contains the scenes that followed the Japanese Army’s taking of Singapore captured by Kameyama Matsutarō, Marē senki : shingeki no kiroku (Malaya War Record: A Record of the Onward March). This newsreel also contains a scene that shows Shinozaki being greeted by Yokata outside what can be identified as Beach Road Police Station (rather than the Volunteer Force Headquarters as identified by Shinozaki). The building, a conserved structure, is still around today and is currently being incorporated into Guocoland’s MidTown development.

While the former police station’s building may have been retained, the redevelopment of the plot as MidTown has resulted in the loss of two other buildings to the rear of the main structure that were part and parcel of the larger Beach Road Police Station complex that was completed in 1934. The construction of the station, came as part of a decade-long effort to upgrade the facilities of the Straits Settlements Police Force and bring about greater professionalism in the face of the high rates of crime in Singapore – or “Sin-Galore” as it may then have been known as. The state of disorder in the colony, also dubbed the “cesspool of iniquity”, even prompted comparisons to be made with Chicago! It was the through the same effort, initiated in the mid-1920s, that the Police Training School at Thomson Road – the old Police Academy – was established and Hill Street Police Station, was built along with several other stations.

A Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets visit to Beach Road Police Station in October 2017.

Built at a cost of $319,743, the Beach Road complex replaced an earlier station that had been located further east along Beach Road at Clyde Terrace. The two demolished buildings at the station’s rear were all built at the same time to serve as modern quarters in an attempt to provide improve policemen’s living standards. A three-storey block accommodated 64 married man and their families, while 80 single men and NCOs were accommodated in another three storey single-men’s block. The latter also contained a mess and recreation room on its ground floor. Along with this, the most senior ranking officers at the station were accommodated in its three-storey main building, which was described as being of a “pretentious type”. The building was laid out to provide quarters for two European and two “Asiatic” Inspectors on the second and third levels, while its ground floor was where the offices of the station, a guard room, an armoury and a number of stores were located. Immediately behind the main block – right behind the guard room, was an annex cell block in which the lock-up was located and “approached from it (the guardroom) by a covered way”.

Besides the episode involving Shinozaki, the station’s played several other wartime roles. A hundred or so Japanese “aliens” were rounded up and held in it following the outbreak of hostilities with Japan on 8 December 1941, before they were moved to Changi Prison. The scene was to repeat itself upon Singapore’s inglorious fall, when civilians from the other side were held with the station serving as a holding facility for civilian internees prior to them being sent to Changi Prison. The civilians rounded up by the Japanese Army included Jews and individuals of various European backgrounds and nationalities, along with members of the Chinese and Indian communities.

Beach Road Police Station also found itself in the thick of action in the tumultuous period that followed the end of the Second World War. During the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950, policemen from the station were amongst paramilitary personnel sent to quell disturbances in nearby Kampong Glam. The policemen involved were however forced into retreat with the station serving as a refuge for them along with scores of civilians seeking safe refuge.

Following independence, the station served as the Police ‘C’ Division headquarters until May 1988 – when the division HQ was moved into new premises at Geylang Police Station. The buildings were then used as Central Police Division headquarters from November 1992 until 2001, after which the division HQ moved into Cantonment Police Complex. The decommissioning of the station led to its use by the Raffles Design Institute for some six years. During this time, two sets of newer quarters that had been added on an adjacent piece of land – two four-storey blocks that were built in the 1950s, and a 12 storey block in erected in 1970, were demolished.

Sitting on a prime 2-hectare reserve site, the former station and barracks was sold for a whopping $1.62 million in 2017 and members of the public got to see it for the last time as it was during a “Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets” visit in October 2017.


A last look at the former Beach Road Police Station as it was in 2017.






The beautiful Masjid Sultan as you may not have seen it

10 06 2021

Designed in the Indo-Islamic1 style by the prolific Denis Santry of Swan and Maclaren in 1924, the beautiful Masjid Sultan or Sultan’s Mosque stands today as a focal point of the Muslim community here in Singapore. Work commenced in 1928 and the first part of the mosque was completed around 1930. T he mosque replaced an older mosque that was built in a style that is commonly found across the Malay archipelago featuring a multi-tiered roof. The older mosque was built for Sultan Hussein Shah around 1824 with a contribution of 3,000 Spanish dollars from Sir Stamford Raffles. The photographs below, many of which were taken from the roof, belong to a set that I took in 2016 during a visit to it organised in conjunction with the URA 2016 Architectural Heritage Awards – at which the mosque restoration project was awarded a prize for restoration.


Note:

1 The style of the Sultan’s Mosque has widely been described as Indo-Saracenic. However, architect and historian LaI Chee Kien would rather have the style described as Indo-Islamic rather than Saracenic. The reason provided was that the British used more elements from the Mughal period there in India than in Arab-Muslim or Turkish-Muslim areas.



The older Sultan’s Mosque

Masjid Sultan, 1846, by John Turnbull Thomson
Hocken Pictorial Collections – 92/1155 a12134 https://otago.ourheritage.ac.nz/items/show/4675.





Parting Glances: Shaw Towers

9 06 2021

Shaw Towers, a landmark along Beach Road since its completion in 1976, is now in the process of coming down. Built on a site that had partly been occupied by the old and popular Alhambra and Marlborough cinemas, the 35-floor building was, at the point of its completion, the tallest on Beach Road.

Designed by Iversen, van Sitteren and Partners and built during a time when cinema-going was a popular activity in Singapore, Shaw Towers was the first building in Singapore to house two cinemas, Prince and Jade. Occupying the second to the seventh floors of one corner of the building’s 13-storey podium, the 1952 seater Prince Theatre was then the largest cinema in Singapore. Its screen, at 28 metres wide, was the widest in the Far East. The cinema was where Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws drew the crowds in Singapore, making its debut with the cinema’s opening on 14 July 1976. Following a run of 128 days, Jaws raked in some $1.25 million in box office receipts at Prince – setting a record at the time.

Occupying the ground to third floor of the podium’s extension towards Nicoll Highway, Jade opened in November 1976 and provided a more intimate setting, with less than half the seating capacity of Prince with a capacity of 844. The cinemas were converted in the late 1980s to cineplexes and were the first multi-screen cinemas to make an appearance in Singapore.

The opening of Jade also coincided with the completion of Shaw Towers. At its completion, the first two levels of the podium featured some 242 shops. The podium also featured a carpark from the third to eleventh levels and offices from the 12th to 35th levels. Over the years, the building’s office space attracted a host of advertising firms stung by increasing rents in the Shenton Way area and also broadcasting companies. Among the latter were names such as NHK and the BBC, which moved in when its regional HQ was moved to Singapore in the year 2000.

The building, which featured the innovative use of more than 2,500 specially designed precast and pre-finished concrete units, is being replaced by a much taller building that will rise some 66 metres higher which is expected to be completed by 2024.






A beautiful campus by the sea

20 04 2021

A peek into the beautiful BNP Paribas Asia-Pacific Campus. Established in 2014, the campus occupies two beautifully restored former barrack blocks of the former (Royal Engineers) Kitchener Barracks in Changi. The two blocks, currently Block 34 and 35 and formerly B an C Blocks, were among the first to be built in the Changi Cantonment that was developed from the end of the 1920s into the late 1930s and provide an excellent example of how such buildings could be restored and repurposed in the light of the recently announced Ideas Competition for Changi Point and old Changi Hospital (see also: Ideas sought to repurpose Old Changi Hospital, enhance surrounding Changi Point area).

The former B-Block, together with the former H-Block (now Block 24, which in 1947 was repurposed as RAF Hospital, Changi), were in fact the first barrack blocks to constructed in Changi and were completed by 1930. The cantonment also included barracks for the Royal Artillery at Roberts Barracks — now within Changi Air Base (West) and for the infantry at Selarang Barracks, as well as smaller camps for various Indian Army units.

In the 1920s, Britain had moved to establish a large naval base in Sembawang to defend its Far East interests in the face of rising Japanese ambition. The setting up of the cantonment followed this decision and was carried out to install, maintain, man and secure coastal artillery being placed around the eastern mouth of the Tebrau or Johor Strait to protect the naval base against naval attack.

The cantonment, which sustained some damage in the lead up to the Fall of Singapore but remain largely intact, was evacuated on 12 February 1942. Singapore fell on 15 February 1942 and with Japanese forces overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of surrendering Allied troops in Singapore, they found a solution to accommodating some of these troops in the emptied barracks in Changi. On 17 February 1942, close to 50,000 British and Australian Prisoners-of-War (POWs) were marched to Changi and placed in the various camps. The troops forming the last line of defence in Singapore, the Singapore Fortress Southern Area troops, which included some volunteer units, were allocated Kitchener Barracks. The Australians were kept separately in Selarang. POW hospitals, which were set up in former field hospitals in Roberts and Selarang, were consolidated at Roberts Barracks — this is where the Changi Murals were painted.

The POWs would initially have little contact with their captors, who got them to wire themselves into the various camps. Discipline was maintained by the officers among the POWs, who also took it upon themselves to keep the morale up. Sports, theatrical performances and even university classes were organised — there were several professional sportsmen amongst the ranks and also lecturers from Raffles College who were with the volunteer units and in Kitchener Barracks, the Southern Area College operated. With the Fortress troops — who were not involved in the retreat down Malaya — being amongst the fittest of the POWs, the men of the camp at Kitchener were among the first to be picked for the Japanese organised work teams, many of which would be sent to provide labour in places like the Thai-Burma ‘Death’ Railway. The numbers in Kitchener dwindled to the point that it could be closed as a POW camp in May 1943, followed by Roberts in September 1943. In May 1944, the POWs, which included those who had survived the Death Railway, were concentrated at Changi Prison, which had previously been used as a civilian internment camp (the civilians were moved to Sime Road Camp).

The two camps would then be occupied by Japanese units involved in the construction of the Japanese airstrip at Changi (operational at the end of 1944), around which the Royal Air Force would establish RAF Air Station Changi (RAF Changi) in 1946. The blocks of the former Kitchener Barracks were then used by the RAF, with RAF Hospital Changi being established in 1947. Among the renumbered blocks, Block 35, housed HQ Far East Air Force (FEAF) Command. The various roads within the former Kitchener Barracks were renamed after RAF Air Stations. Following the British pull-out in October 1971, the barrack buildings (except for Block 24 and 37), were used by the Singapore Armed Forces as Commando Camp. Of the various barrack developments, only the former Kitchener remains largely intact today.





Escape from Tanglin Barracks

16 04 2021

Tanglin Village or Dempsey Hill, a spacious and joyous site on the fringes of Singapore’s city centre, has a history that goes back more than a hundred and fifty years. Established as Singapore’s first purpose-built military camp, Tanglin Barracks, it is a place with stories abound. There are quite a few that I find especially intriguing, including one which has as its leading protagonist a rather flamboyant German mariner by the name of Julius Lauterbach, whose exploits on and off the high seas make for quite an interestIng read.

Tanglin Village today

Lauterbach’s chapter in Tanglin’s history is set against the backdrop of the First World War, a conflict which pitted his native Germany against Singapore’s colonial master, Great Britain. Almost overnight, friends found themselves on opposing sides and even if the war may have been raging far from Singapore’s shores, its fallout extended to the island in one way or another. On 24 October 1914, some three months into the conflict, nationals of Germany and Austria in Singapore received an order to report to the P&O Wharf. There were a number of prominent members of the mercantile community amongst the group. Initially interned on St John’s Island, the group would be moved into Tanglin Barracks‘ vacant blocks and were joined by internees who had been detained in Malaya.

St. John’s Island.

The choice of Tanglin Barracks as a place of internment was only possible as the British infantry units who would have normally be quartered at the barracks were most — in Europe. This arrangement however, would leave Singapore with threadbare defences, although there seemed to be little of concern with the main threat to the island’s security having been ascertained as internal rather than external. The responsibility for maintaining order was placed squarely on the shoulders of the officers and men of a British Indian Army infantry regiment — the 5th Light Infantry, which was quartered at Alexandra Barracks.

The former Gillman Barrack’s officers’ mess – close to the site where the first shot was fired to signal the start of the mutiny.

At Tanglin Barracks, a total of about 250 civilians were held, accommodated in a cluster of barrack buildings which had been ‘wired in’ with scaffolding used as watch towers. The 5th Light Infantry provided the camp’s security details together with a handful of men from the volunteer units. Within the confines of the camp boundary was also a ‘small bungalow’ that was converted for use as a hospital for internees. Tanglin Barracks’ Teutonic flavour was also to be enhanced by a group of about sixty Prisoners of War (POWs) from the German naval cruiser, SMS Emden, which brought the total number of internees at the camp to 309. The POWs were housed separately within the confines of the camp in a barrack block that acquired the name ‘Emden Villa’.

The cricket field and P-Block.

The Emden must have been quite well known in Singapore, having gained notoriety for the damage and disruption to Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea that it had inflicted in the early months of the war. Among the cruiser’s exploits was a daring raid on Penang harbour during which two ships — a Russian cruiser and a French destroyer — were sunk. The Emden, as did many naval vessels on both sides, also employed tactics that could be compared to pirate ships in sending boarding parties to storm merchant ships, either to scuttle them, or if the cargo was valuable enough, to commandeer these vessels as a ‘prize’. The men of the Emden who had found their way to Tanglin were in fact members of ‘prize crews’ of three ships that were recaptured by the Allies, the most senior of whom was Reserve Lieutenant Julius Lauterbach. Lauterbach was taken along with the prize crew of the collier, Exford, which was carrying a cargo of 6000 tons of coal when it was recaptured by the armed auxiliary cruiser, HMS Empress of Japan, off Sumatra on 11 December 1914.

Postcard, S.M.S. Emden, circa 1914, Germany, maker unknown. Te Papa (GH002110)

Lauterbach was already well known in many circles in Singapore in his days as a master mariner who was based at the port of Tsingtao (Qingdao), which Germany held as a concession port from 1898 to 1914. He had been an established fixture on the merchant marine scene and many among the civilian internees had made the passage on ships that Lauterbach had captained. His arrival at Tanglin was said to have been greeted with a loud cheer because of his fame. Being the highest ranking officer among the POWs, Lauterbach was afforded with a degree of respect by his captors, who put him in a three-room house on his own within the camp perimeter and close to the Emden Villa.

Julius Lauterbach at Tanglin

As soon as Leuterbach arrived in Tanglin, he set out plotting an escape and after having observed security arrangements at the camp, he determined that a tunnel would best serve his purpose. On 27 January 1915, with help from a group of trusted men he started on his dig right under the noses of the camp guards, under the guise of doing gardening. It could also have been that the members of 5th Light Infantry who were guarding the camp and who were free to interact with the internees, was under Lauterbach’s influence. Lauterbach was also able to have the company of a French-Chinese Eurasian admirer during his internment, albeit with a locked gate in between them. The young lady, according to a boast that Lauterbach made, had come to Singapore to see to his wellbeing having made her way from her native Shanghai once she got wind of his plight and was also able to hand information such as maps to him to aid in his intended escape.

A very special ward.

Mutiny

All this while, unhappiness was fermenting (some say fermented by Lauterbach and company) among members of the 5th Light Infantry. In January 1915, a decision was made to deploy the 5th to Hong Kong. The destination was however not communicated to the troops. There were rumours abound that the destination was not East, but West in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). With it large Muslim contingent, many among the rank and file were incensed by the prospect of having to fight fellow Muslims. In a move to quell the growing sense of unease, the transfer was brought forward. With the 5th due to be sent out on 16 February 1915 — the day after the three day Chinese New Year holiday weekend, the unit stood down from its duties at Tanglin on 14 February 1915 and camp security was left in the hands of one British and three native officers and twelve men of the Johore Military Forces, who were without ammunition, and a deployment of volunteers.

Remembering the victims of the Mutiny – a plaque at the Victoria Concert Hall.

The growing sense of unhappiness and the impending move to what was rumoured to be Mesopotamia provoked members of the 5th Light Infantry into action and just after 3 pm on the afternoon of 15 February 1915, members of the regiment’s Right Wing — numbering just over 400 men, mutinied (infantry regiments were then split into two wings, each with four companies). A group of about eighty rebels headed to Tanglin, intent on freeing German prisoners in the hope that they would lend support to the rebellion. At 3.45 pm, the mutineers reached Tanglin with a group among the eighty laying siege to Tanglin Military Hospital and firing into its administration building. In spite of coming under fire, Staff Sergeant Vickers, RAMC, managed to make his way to the medical officers bungalow some 300 yards away (270 metres). Finding the Medical Officer out, he was able to raise the alarm to the police, Fort Canning and a Dr Fowlie. A group of fifteen men reached the POW camp about half an hour later around 4.15 pm and also fired on the guards. The lock to the gate was then blown up. In the chaos of the attack, four officers were killed along with ten men. One German prisoner was also fatally wounded.

Buildings of the former Tanglin Military Hospital.

An eyewitness, Corporal J F Bray, RAMC, who was stationed at the prisoner hospital recalled being roused by the firing. German prisoners then told him that a mutiny had broken out. He then rushed to the POW hospital’s dispensary to get dressings in order to attend to the wounded, one of whom was a prisoner in W-Block (now Block 17). Inside W-Block, Bray witnessed six to seven members of the 5th freeing German prisoners before moving them into Y-Block (Block 26). Bray also witnessed the leader of the mutineers shaking hands with the German prisoners. Unsuccessful in their attempts to enlist the help of the Germans, the mutineers then left, promising to return with arms and ammunition. The bulk of the German prisoners, including Lauterbach, had in fact refused to take up arms; some went on to help in attending to the wounded, and transport the more seriously hurt to Tanglin Military Hospital.

Block 17 – a block that many who served National Service in the army will remember as the Enlistment Centre

Lauterbach’s Epic Escape

In the commotion of the disturbance at Tanglin, Lauterbach made a final push to finish the tunnel that he had been working on. Determined to get away unnoticed, he decided against walking out the open camp gate and use the tunnel he had worked on. Selecting a handful of prisoners to go with him for their ability to speak English made the escape as the darkness fell, having to making a vault over a final set of barbed-wire that lay beyond the tunnel exit. Leaving at around 8pm, the group decided that the main roads were to be avoided and took a route through grass, lallang and rubber plantation — a decision that got their guide and themselves lost. With some further help obtained through a handsome bribe, the group eventually found their way to the coast, some five hours after leaving Tanglin. There the scene was set for a voyage to Karimun. The long twelve hours that it would take them to get to the islands, which lay on the neutral Dutch side of the Melaka Strait, would only be the first leg of what was to become an epic journey of escape. The journey was to involve trudging through the jungles of Sumatra, a journey from Padang to Batavia (Jakarta) to Surabaya, a passage on a Dutch steamer to the Celebes (Sulawesi), a five day passage across the Celebes Sea to Mindanao in a leaking boat that required water to be bailed out by hand continuously, a voyage disguised as a Dutchman from Manila to China’s north coast where he made his way down to Shanghai. From Shanghai, he would head east to Japan, then Hawaii, and San Francisco from where he boarded a train for New York. At Hoboken — across the Hudson from Manhattan, Lauterbach signed on to a Oslo bound Danish ship as a Swedish stoke. Making landfall in Europe, he made his way to Copenhagen before finding himself on German soil on 10 October 1915 — some eight months after his escape from Singapore and ten months after his capture onboard the Exford.





History Misunderstood: Changi Point

5 04 2021

Set in scenic surroundings in Singapore’s rustic north-eastern corner, the area we refer to as Changi Point, is one in which I have found great joy in. It is an area of much beauty with much of its natural geographical features intact and wears a charm that is little changed from the time I first interacted with it more than half a century ago. Over the years, I have also discovered that the area is one with quite a history; a history that is even recorded in maps of a 17th century battle off Changi. Also as fascinating is Changi Point and its more recent past, one that goes back to the early decades of Singapore as a British East India Company trading port.

Changi today – with a view towards Pulau Ubin

Remote and inhospitable and with its surroundings dominated by mangrove and terrestrial forests in British Singapore’s earliest years, Changi Point’s charm must have already been in evidence then; so much so that several adventurous souls amongst the gentry recognised its potential as a spot for a retreat.  Among the first to see this was Mr Gottlieb, who put up Fairy Point bungalow on what could be thought of as the prime of prime locations on the seaward side of an elevation he christened Fairy Point Hill.

Fairy Point – the site of Mr Gottlieb’s Bungalow

In addition to Mr Gottlieb’s place of escape, the government had also had a bungalow built. Besides serving as a stay-over location for officers sent to the remote area for surveys, its use was extended for leisure purposes.  By the mid-1840s, Changi Bungalow – as it had come to be known, had gained the reputation of being a “fashionable resort for picnic parties”. Constructed of wood, the bungalow had to be rebuilt several times over the years with its last iteration being demolished in 1965. The expansive grounds of the bungalow is an area that until today, has been in the hands of Singapore’s successive governments and amongst the structures now found on it is the 1950 built Changi Cottage, as well as several other holiday facilities.

Changi Cottage

One holiday home from Changi’s past that is still standing is a bungalow that belonged to Mr Ezekiel S Manasseh, who is often confused with Sir Manasseh Meyer. A founder of Goodwood Park Hotel, Mr E S Manasseh is better known for his mansion in Tanglin, Eden Hall, which is the British High Commissioner’s residence today. Mr Manasseh also maintained a holiday home in Changi Point. Located on the left bank of Changi Creek, he often extended its use to newlyweds for their honeymoon early in the 1900s. The bungalow stands today as the CSC Clubhouse.

Muslim graves at the foot of Batu Puteh Hill – a reminder perhaps of Kampong Batu Puteh.

Around this time (the early 1900s), a Japanese owned hotel also made an appearance along the beach just east of Fairy Point in the area of a Malay kampung named Kampong Batu Puteh.  The wooden hotel, which was perched on stilts that extended across the foreshore, was rumoured to have offered more than a getaway and was rumoured to have been a place of ill repute. Whatever the hotel may have offered, time would soon be called on it with events on the world’s stage setting a new course for Changi Point.

While the Great War of 1914 to 1918 did not affect Singapore directly, its impact was and would be felt in many ways, not least through the fluctuations in the price of rubber through the war. There was also that episode of the insurrection that began at Alexandra Barracks during Chinese New Year in 1915 that was founded partly on a rumour being spread among the Sepoy Muslim mutineers  that they were being sent to Mesopotamia to fight fellow Muslims. Among Britain’s allies who responded to calls for help were some 190 Japanese resident volunteers, and another force of 142 from two Japanese naval ships.

Memorial to the victims of the 1915 Mutiny at Victoria Concert Hall

The Imperial Japanese Navy had been on the rise for a number of decades. Having acquired knowhow to build its own naval hardware as well as in naval tactics from Britain and France, by the time the war started, the Japanese navy was in a good position to support its allies in the Entente. Japan actions in the naval arena would also however lay its ambitions bare, especially in regard to German held territory in China. The sense of discomfort in Britain grew in the post-war period with Japan having the third largest navy in the world after the United States and Britain. By 1921, a decision had been taken by Britain to protect its Far East interests through the construction of a huge naval base in Singapore.

HMS Bulwark off the northwall of the Naval Base in the 1960s – the northwall is where the far end of the shipyard is today (source: http://www.acig.org/artman/publish/article_203.shtml).

A consequence of building the naval base in Singapore, and having it sited in Seletar – as the Sembawang area was also known as, was in the placement of coastal artillery around Changi to defend the base against naval attack. Changi, located at the eastern entrance to the Tebrau or Johor Strait, was hence, strategically sited at the entrance to the naval base. With the need to install, man, maintain and protect the guns, Changi was also developed as a military cantonment.

An extract from a 1935 map showing positions or intended positions of Defence Electric Lights at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Johor (including those at Pengerang) and their coverage (National Archives of Singapore online).

The first section of the cantonment was built at Changi Point. Work progressed in in a stop-start manner, first from 1927 to 1930 and again from 1933 to 1935, due to the evolving political situation in Britain.  Being the first barracks on site and located in a prime location, this section became the home of Royal Engineers’ units as Kitchener Barracks. There would also be barracks constructed for the Royal Artillery at Roberts Barracks and for infantry units at Selarang Barracks. In addition to these, a few other camps were also established for the rank and file among the British Indian Army troops protecting the area.

Selarang Barracks Officers’ Mess

The huge investment in the base and in facilities at Changi and elsewhere across the island did little in terms of doing what it was meant to do and on 15 February 1942, the “impregnable fortress” that Singapore had been touted as, fell into the hands of Japanese forces – a mere two months after Japan launched its invasion of Malaya. Except for the feint assault on Pulau Ubin on the eve of the Imperial Japanese Army’s 8 February 1942 invasion of Singapore, and the firing of Changi’s huge coastal guns against advancing Japanese troops, Changi would see little in terms of military action in the lead up to this inglorious fall. Contrary to popular belief, the guns were used with at least one of the monster guns of the Johore Battery firing about eighty rounds before its rifling started to protrude. Although the guns were fired, they did little to stop the advance. The armour piercing rounds that they were supplied with in anticipation of a naval assault, were ineffective against ground forces. On 12 February 1942, with Japanese forces made rapid progress coming down the down and west, the order was given to units defending Changi to pull back to Singapore’s urban centre. The cantonment and its lightly damaged buildings were left empty, and Changi’s guns destroyed. It would be some days later, on 17 February 1942, that Changi would come into the spotlight.

The spiked No 2 Gun, one of three 15″ guns of the Johore Battery.

The Fall of Singapore left the Japanese invasion forces with quite a big headache. With tens of thousands of surrendering British and Australian led personnel from units that made the retreat down Malaya and troops defending Singapore, they were overwhelmed. There was the need to accommodate, secure and maintain the discipline among the Prisoners of War (POWs) and a solution provided by Changi and its abandoned cantonment. On 17 February 1942, some 50,000 prisoners-of-war or POWs, were made to march to Changi to occupy its various barracks and camps.

Barrack Hill in Kitchener Barracks – part of the POW camp for Southern Area forces from Feb 1942 to May 1943.

The former Kitchener Barracks was used to accommodate members of the Southern Area forces with some 15,000  Australian POWs occupying Selarang.  The POW hospital was also to be centralised in Roberts Barracks on 26 February 1942, one of two sites – the other being Selarang – at which hospitals were established prior to the Fall of Singapore and immediately after the POWs were moved to Changi.  It would be in the chapel at Roberts Hospital that the famous Changi Murals would be painted. The murals still exist today. Found in Block 151 in Changi Air Base West, they are quite unfortunately out of bounds to members of the public. In the early part of camp life, there had apparently been minimal contact with their captors, with prisoners being tasked with wiring themselves into the various barrack areas as well as taking care of their own discipline.

Block 151. Now in Changi Air Base West, this was one of the Roberts Barracks blocks that served as the POW Hospital from February 1942 until September 1943.

Life as a POW in Changi, and in Kitchener Barracks was tough for many reasons and not least through the lack of food and nutrition as well as the diseases that the POWs were exposed to due to conditions in captivity. Still, many found the strength to go on through the activities that were organised. Sports became a means to provide distractions to the routine of life as a POW – at least in the first year of captivity. Among the ranks were several professional sportsmen, including Johnny Sherwood, a footballer who played in the war time FA Cup final.  The sports fields and facilities that the barracks in Changi had been provided with proved useful with cricket and football matches being played on them. Theatrical performances were also organised and college level courses. In Kitchener, classes of the Southern Area College were taught by academics, some of whom were from Raffles College. Several were members of volunteer units which had been placed under the Fortress Singapore command.

The Changi Padang – it was used for sporting activities during the first year of POW captivity.

In the many comparisons that were made by POWs at Changi, there is a consistent theme of how life may have been hard, but was in fact “heaven” compared to what many were to face elsewhere. Throughout the initial period of captivity starting in April 1942, work teams were organised and sent to various of Singapore to work on building and construction projects. Teams would also be sent to the Thai-Burma Railway, which the Japanese were constructing to provide a supply line to support their push into Burma and towards the Indian subcontinent. Often described as the “Death Railway” it was where the POWs really suffered, being put to hard labour. Besides an extreme lack of nutrition, POWs also suffered from deliberating diseases, with many succumbing to them.  

River Kwai, Kanchanaburi in Thailand in Dec 1984, the area was where many POWs were sent from Singapore to work on the Death Railway .

Kitchener Barracks, being where the bulk of the troops defending Singapore were being held – as opposed to troops that had made the retreat down Malaya – had the healthiest POWs and hence, was where many of the members of the first working teams were drawn from. By May 1943, POW numbers had dwindled to the point that Kitchener Barracks was closed as a POW camp and in September 1943, Roberts was similarly closed, with the POWs and the POW Hospital being concentrated at Selarang Barracks. Both Kitchener and Roberts Barracks were taken over by Imperial Japanese Army units who were involved in the construction of an airstrip at Changi. This started with POW labour in September 1943 and by the end of 1944, the airstrip was operational.

While all this was happening, returning POWs from the Death Railway were placed at Selarang Camp and also at Sime Road Camp. A change in POW administration would however see the POWs concentrated in Changi Prison and its grounds from May 1944. Civilian internees, who were being held at Changi Prison from February 1942 to May 1944 were moved to Sime Road to make way for the POWs.

The main Changi Prison gate – one of the structures of the prison that has been kept. The prison was a site of civilian internment from Feb 1942 until May 1944, following which POWs were moved in.

One of the myths that have been spread about Changi and the POW experience is that of the hospital in Kitchener Barracks being a place of torture by the Kempeitai. There is however no basis for this myth. Not only was there no functioning hospital in Kitchener Barracks during the period of captivity, there are certainly not reports or accounts that exist. Instances of torture by the Kempeitai did however take place in the wake of Operation Jaywick, which involved a commando raid on Japanese shipping in Singapore harbour. During what has been termed as the “Double-Tenth Incident”, civilian internees at Changi Prison were suspected of aiding the commandos through radio transmissions. Several were interrogated and executed in exercise that would involve the arrest and subsequent torture of Elizabeth Choy at the YMCA in Orchard Road.

Changi would find a new purpose after the war. The Royal Air Force (RAF) found the airstrip that the Japanese had added particularly useful in landing transport aircraft bringing in much needed supplies. This would lead to the strengthening and subsequent use of the runway for the RAF’s heavy aircraft and the setting up of RAF Changi, an air station that would become the RAF’s principal air station in the Far East. The former Kitchener Barracks, would become the headquarters of the Far East Air Force (FEAF) command, with Barrack Hill, renamed FEAF Hill. The roads in the area, were also renamed after RAF air stations.

A view from FEAF Hill

To support the new air station, more accommodation was also added across the area, starting with several single floor bungalows. A number of semi-detached accommodation would also be added. Many of these buildings can still be found. In addition to this, a hospital was set up for the RAF on FEAF Hill. This initially involved the former sick quarters on top of the hill (renamed Block 37) and the former H-Block – a three-storey barrack block of Kitchener Barracks which was turned into a ward block 24. Separated by a flight of 91 steps, transfer pf patients between the two blocks required an ambulance. The construction of a third block – the six storey Block 161 (with four usable floors) – with lifts and walkways to connect the two older blocks in 1962, helped ease that burden.    

Blocks 161 and 24 of the former Changi Hospital.

Following the pull-out of British Forces in 1971, the former barracks were put to use in several ways with the barrack blocks along Hendon Road accommodating Singapore’s Commando Unit and several of the accommodation units being turned into holiday facilities for civil servants. Sports and recreation clubs, such as the Changi Swimming Club, the Beach Club and the Sailing Club were also established using existing facilities left by the RAF. One outcome of the development of the air base, is the idea of developing Changi also for civil aviation. There were in fact plans announced in 1948 to develop a world class airport in Changi . That did not quite happen, but the idead came up once more in the 1970s leading to the development of Changi Airport.

One of the post WW2 semi-detached additions, seen in September 1987. These served as married quarters during the RAF days and were converted for use as government holiday chalets in the 1970s.

Today, much of the area of the former Kitchener Barracks and the RAF camp is still intact. Many of the sites and structures completed from 1928 to 1935, including barrack blocks and residences are still standing. Some, such as have gain prominence having been used by Raintr33 Hotel and Changi Hospital. There are also some still in use, such as BNP Paribas APAC Training Centre, Coastal Settlement, and the recreational spaces such as the former Officers’ Club – now the Beach Club and the Yacht Club – now Changi Sailing Club. There are also the oldest structures – the officers’ residences at Batu Puteh Hill and Fairy Point Hill, including one, that sits on the site of Mr Gottlieb’s demolished bungalow. The collection of barrack structures of the former Kitchener Barracks, are perhaps the last, almost complete set of structures from the interwar militarisation of Singapore that is still around, structures which tell a story of Changi’s development, of war, and of how through a series of twists and turns, it became a key aviation staging ground for the RAF and then for Singapore.





Remembering Dakota (Crescent)

5 01 2021

Dakota Crescent — part of the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) 1958 development that was known as Old Kallang Airport Estate — will not be forgotten for two reasons. The first, is that six out of seventeen of its block that are representative of the former estate, including a 1970s playground that the six are arranged around, are being kept as part of a future housing development.

The second reason is the widely circulated myth that the fatal Dakota DC-3 crash that Dakota Crescent is said to have been named after, occured at Kallang Airport in a thunderstorm on 29 June 1946. While it can be established that DC-3 carrying 22 crew and Royal Air Force personnel that originated from Kallang on the date did crash in bad weather, it can also be established that where the crash happened was not at Kallang but in northern Malaya and after the aircraft had taken off at Butterworth on its way to Mingaladon.

How I will remember Dakota, is through the various visits that I made to the old estate and through the photographs that I took of it. My impressions of it was that the estate was worn, tired looking and had seen much better days. Still there was much to take in and much to capture and in this post are a few that I wish to share.


Remembering Dakota





Adis Lodge – another Crazy-Rich-Asian mansion near Dhoby Ghaut

10 12 2020

In my previous post, I identified one of Singapore’s real Crazy-Rich-Asian residences which was at Dhoby Ghaut – the mansion of Mr Teo Hoo Lye. That was only one of a few that came up in and around the area. The elevation that Mr Teo’s mansion stood at the foot of, Mount Sophia, with its proximity to the urban centre and the wonderful views that it offered, was in fact littered with the opulent homes of the well-to-do. One of these was the residence of Mr Nissim Nissim Adis. Built in 1907, it was thought of as “one of the most magnificent of mansions east of the Suez”. It was after Mr Adis, that Adis Road at Mount Sophia, was named.

Adis Lodge

Mr Adis, who owned the very grand Grand Hotel de l’Europe (where old Supreme Court — the Supreme Court Wing of the National Gallery now stands) and was also the man behind the stockbroking firm of Adis and Co. A Baghdadi Jew who was originally from Calcutta – where he was an aspiring lawyer before deciding to venture in 1876 — at the age of nineteen into stockbroking. He did not have much luck after brief success and decided to move to Hong Kong in 1888, having lost much of what he had made. The story was to be repeated in Hong Kong and this prompted Mr Adis to move to Singapore in 1893. He found greater success in Singapore, not so much from his stockbrokerage but from the investments that he made in property.

Adis Lodge in 1908.

Adis Lodge, which was designed by Tomlinson and Lermit and built at a cost of $300,000 Straits Dollars (approximately SGD 5½ million in today’s terms), boasted of eight bedrooms — each fitted with a dressing room and a bathroom with running hot and cold water (a big deal in those days). The house also had a “well-appointed” billiard room, spacious verandahs, and a beautifully furnished dining room on the ground level — where two of the bedrooms were arranged. Six bedrooms were laid out on the upper level along with a breakfast room and a drawing room. The mansion did not stand for very long. It was sold to Mr Eu Tong Sen in 1912 – just five years after it came up. Mr Eu, had the lodge replaced by what could be thought of as an even more magnificent mansion, Eu Villa, in 1915.





The Crazy-Rich-Asian mansion at Dhoby Ghaut

8 12 2020

Described as a Victorian-style mansion, the mansion of shipowner Teo Hoo Lye once graced the site that is now occupied by The Cathay. Built in 1913 and demolished in the late 1930s, the mansion was — at some points in its short history — also used in parts by several tenants, one of which was the Royal English School, a private school.

Teo Hoo Lye’s mansion – as seen from the Raffles Museum and Library.

The school moved into part of the premises in 1925 before being evicted in 1931 — after Teo had lent his name to the Teo Hoo Lye Institution. Established by a Methodist minister, Chanan Singh, the school took the name in 1929 through a mutual arrangement which saw Teo providing part of his mansion for the school’s use rent-free.

A postcard of the mansion c.1920 (National Archives of Singapore)

Teo passed on in 1933 and the grand house came down about four years later in 1937, when Mrs Loke Yew and Loke Wan Tho purchased the site for Cathay Cinema.





A hundred and more steps to an unexplored heaven

2 11 2020

Have you ever wondered what lies behind Singapore’s most famous clock face, or what keeps the clock ticking?

Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall – and it famous clock tower, lies atthe heart of the civic district (photo: Arts House Limited).

The chance to discover all that comes with Trafalgar’s Near Not Far “Singapore’s Heritage Highlight” 2D1N staycation, which I am glad to say that I am involved in. For this I will introduce guests to two of the historic civic district’s iconic monuments — The Arts House, and Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall — and uncover some fascinating stories of the buildings and their spaces.

Inside Victoria Theatre, a venue for a key historical event in Singapore’s nation building (Photo: Arts House Limited).

The highlight of the tour will be a never-done-before visit to VTVCH’s clock tower — exclusive to Trafalgar’s guests. There I will enlighten guests about the clock, its history, and its connection to London’s Big Ben. One of the things that will also be apparent in the over 100 step climb up the tower is the sheer simplicity of the clock.

More information on the Trafalgar staycation package can be found below. Details can be obtained through the Trafalgar website at https://www.trafalgar.com/staycations.

See also:

Holidaying without your passport: Trafalgar’s new tour of Singapore makes local heritage more alive and kicking than it has any right to be (Business Times 30 Oct 2020).

Stairway to a strange heaven?
A highlight of the tour – a look at what lies inside the clock tower.
The Arts House chamber (photo : Arts House Limited)
Read the rest of this entry »




Cashin’s Pier, lost and found

19 08 2020

Built by Alexander Cashin in 1906 to provide for the transportation of rubber from the Cashin estate to Kranji, The Pier in Lim Chu Kang became a retreat for the Cashin family in the 1920s when it was converted into a sea pavilion. As one of two sea pavilions to have survived intact to this day, it is a rare example of an age of seaside retreats as well as a reminder of a time when there were boundaries between Singapore and its northern neighbour meant little — the Sultan of Johor made visits to it on his boat.

The Pier in 2011.

The pavilion, which saw action during the invasion of Singapore — it was one of the landing points during the first wave of attacks the Japanese launched on Singapore on the night of 8 Feb 1942 — became a home to Howard Cashin and family in the 1960s. Among the work that Howard Cashin had to carry out to transform The Pier into a home was the removal of a Shinto shrine that the Japanese had erected.

Another view of The Pier from 2011.

The house has been left vacant since 2009 following Mr Cashin’s passing. In 2013 it was announced that the house was to be a gateway to and expanded Sungei Buloh Nature Park and we hear from NParks today that it will now be part of what has been rebranded as Lim Chu Kang Nature Park.

More on The Pier: A Lost World in Lim Chu Kang

From NParks Press Release
(Full Press release here)

Lim Chu Kang Nature Park – a new nature area towards the west of Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

The 18-hectare green corridor that forms a continuous coastal extension west of the Reserve towards the Lim Chu Kang nature area, will be conserved as Lim Chu Kang Nature Park. It comprises a variety of habitats such as mangroves, woodlands, scrublands and grasslands. The diversity of habitats provides homes to coastal birds such as the Grey-headed Fish Eagle and grassland dwellers like the Baya Weaver. The new Nature Park, formerly referred to as Western Extension, will feature outdoor nature-play spaces inspired by the various habitats and its inhabitants, encouraging children and youths to spend more time outdoors and reconnect with nature.

Lim Chu Kang Nature Park will also encompass Cashin House, a building that will be enhanced sensitively for both natural and built heritage and will be used for educational programmes. Cashin House will include new facilities such as an exhibition space, seminar rooms for workshops and a seaview terrace. The surrounding area will be kept rustic and existing vegetation retained and sensitively enhanced. Visitors will be able to enjoy exploring Cashin House and its surroundings while learning about the historical significance of the area.

NParks will shortly be calling a tender for works on Cashin House and its surrounding areas. Works are expected to commence in 4Q 2020, and slated to be completed in early 2022, subject to the evolving COVID-19 situation.





Tanglin’s 1884 garrison chapel?

18 08 2020

There is little doubt that The White Rabbit, an exclusive dining destination in the former Tanglin Barracks, occupies a building that was built as a small church. The only question is when. Little does seem to have been documented about the building, or its history other than the fact that it was used in the post-British military pull-out era as a chapel — the Ebenezer Chapel — for two different Protestant denominations, before its conversion. There is also that suggestion that the church building dates back to the 1930s, although it does seem to predate that. One less known but well established fact, is that it served the barracks’ Roman Catholic congregation in its post-second-world-war era until the pull-out as the Church of Christ the King (no relation to the Roman Catholic church in Ang Mo Kio of the same name, a period of time when it play host to quite a few weddings.

The White Rabbit at 39C Harding Road.

It is its location, relative to the former Tanglin Barracks’ garrison church of St George — across what used to be the barracks’ parade ground, that holds a clue to its origins. Now a parish church of the Anglican church’s diocese of Singapore and a National Monument, St George’s was built in the second decade of the twentieth century to replace an older and smaller garrison church that based on the church’s publications was erected in 1884 and was located west of St George’s. The position of The White Rabbit, on the western edge of the parade grounds — a venue for the church parade services that the British military had a tradition of — and on a site that is shown in pre-St George’s era maps (including one produced in 1892) to be occupied by a similarly proportioned structure, provides a strong hint that The White Rabbit was that older 1884 church. Along with this, the existence of a photograph taken in 1903 in Tanglin Barracks provides further evidence that the structure, in what is more or less its current form and possessing identical architectural features, was very likely to be that of the 1884 garrison church. The structure is identified as a “Chapel School” in maps of the barracks during the interwar period — a possible carry over from its use prior to St George’s being built. The use is consistent with that of buildings built to serve the religious needs of servicemen and their children in various other late 19th and early 20th century military barracks across the Commonwealth.

A view of the east end of the building with what is possibly the remodelled north side where the 1903 photograph could have been taken.

While St George’s continued in its use as a church following the late 1971 pull-out of British forces, the older church fell into disuse before becoming the Hebron Bible-Presbyterian Church’s chapel in 1979 until 1983 and then the New Life Baptist Church’s chapel from the late 1985 to 1993. It wasn’t until 2007 that the delightful old church saw life breathed into it again, when The White Rabbit took up tenancy. The restaurant opened the following year in 2008 and it hasn’t looked back since.

A view through the grilles of one of the lancet windows. The grille-work dates back to the building’s days as the Roman Catholic garrison church.

A westward view across the former parade grounds to The White Rabbit.

An eastward view across the former parade grounds to St George’s Church.

Another view of The White Rabbit.


A comparison of the building seen in a Tanglin Barracks photograph dated 1903 with The White Rabbit today. Several of the building’s external features such the position of the pair of lancet windows with respect to a gothic arched doorway at what would have been the altar of the church, the gothic arched windows next to it and the label moulds and label stops above the openings match quite perfectly. (Do note that the top image is flipped along the horizontal axis – one explanation for this is that the photograph is taken on the other side of the building which has since been remodelled. This would also explain the slight differences in the structural column).

 

An 1892 map showing a building on the site of the present day The White Rabbit (just west of the Parade Ground) that is thought to have been the same building.


 





Northern journeys: where Admiralty Road’s East meets West

22 07 2020

Thought of as “ulu” or remote, Sembawang is still a place where much of the past seems still to be around. It is for this reason that it is still one of the prettiest area of Singapore even if some of its beauty spots — such as the once beautifully wooded hill on which old Admiralty House is perched, have since yielded to the march of urbanisation.

I always enjoy a walk around the lesser developed parts of the area and a stroll along its still natural shoreline. Mornings are especially pleasant by the sea, when it can serve as a very nice backdrop for an especially dramatic sunrise. The area’s lush greenery, found not only in Sembawang Park, but also in the areas where the residences of the former naval base still stand, should also be celebrated — especially with the threat of redevelopment now looming over it.

Where Admiralty Road East and West meets – an area around which some of the oldest residences built for the former naval base can be found.

An area that has been spared from redevelopment is the stretch of Admiralty Road East and Admiralty Road West that runs between Canberra Road and Sembawang Road.  Much of the area has been today marked out either for future residential redevelopment or as a reserve site (see Master Plan 2019). The use of the area to serve existing military arrangements, as a port and the continued use of the former naval base dockyard by Sembawang Shipyard has seen that its flavour has been kept, although some of its old structures fronting the road were lost to a road widening exercise that took place at the end of the 1980s. The end of the lease that the shipyard holds on the what it calls Admiralty Yard is however, on the horizon. That will expire in 2028, although the yard does intend to move its operations to Tuas by 2024. Detailed planning for the area will likely take place to coincide with this move and until then, it would not be known what the future for a still green area will hold.

Among the earliest residences to be built for the naval base were these 1929 built dockyard chargemen’s residences along Wellington Road. Many of the area’s roads are named after cities in the Commonwealth.


More photographs:

 

A 2013 photograph showing the beautiful settings in which the old residences of the former naval base in Sembawang have been given.

 

A bridge built by Japanese Surrendered Personnel on the grounds of the former residence of the dockyard’s Commodore Superintendent.

 

The former vicarage of the Dockyard Church of St Peter. The old church, which fronted this along Admiralty Road East, was consecrated in the 1950s and was demolished in the late 1980s to allow the road to be widened.

 

Timber walled residences – built in the 1940s.

 

Canada Road.

 

Many of the residences built in the 1930s are of designs adapted from PWD plans.

 

Another view of a 1930s built residence.

 

Admiralty Road West – there used to be visible entrances to underground bunkers in the area opposite the dockyard entrance.

 


 





When Kallang counted among the world’s best airports

15 07 2020

Changi Airport today has the reputation of being one of the world’s foremost airports. It wasn’t however the first airport in Singapore to win that accolade. Singapore’s very first civil airport, Kallang Airport, was in fact thought of by no less a personality as Amelia Earhart as the “peer of any in the world” when she flew into it on 20 June 1937 — just eight days after it had opened.

The streamline-moderne terminal building of the former Kallang Airport.

Kallang Aerodrome plan showing with its circular landing area, with an aerial view of the site today. The circular outline of the former airfield can still be seen.

Just like Changi, the land for Kallang Airport grew out of an area of water — a huge “pestilential fever ridden swamp” and a “plague spot of squelching mud covered only at high water” in Kallang’s case. The site, where the Geylang, Kallang and Rochor rivers spilled out into the sea, was selected as it was close to the urban centre and, well placed to receive flying boats (aircraft with boat hulls to enable landing and take-off on water) — then the mainstay of luxury travel and the airmail service.

Work proper to reclaim the swamp commences in 1932 and was on completed in 1936. The reclamation involved some eight million tons of soil obtained from Paya Lebar and created some 137 ha of land much of which was a circular landing area to permit landing from all directions — a feature found in the modern aerodromes of the era. This circular outline is still in existence today. A flying boat ramp and slipway (which was more recently used as part of the since vacated Police Coast Guard repair facilities) was constructed to service the flying boat service. This is still in existence today. The jewel in the new aerodrome’s crown was perhaps its gorgeous streamline-moderne terminal building. Designed by PWD architect Frank Dorrington Ward, who also designed the old Supreme Court, the terminal resembles a bi-plane. Used by the People’s Association as its headquarters from 1960 until 2009, the building is now one of several structures belonging to the former airport that has been conserved.

A conserved hangar.

 

The first regular air services into Singapore

While Kallang may have been Singapore’s first civil airport, the first regular commercial flights actually operated out of RAF Seletar – when that was completed in 1930. That was operated by KNILM — Koninklijke Nederlandsch-Indische Luchtvaart Maatschappij or Royal Dutch East Indies Airway, which inaugurated a weekly Batavia-Palembang-Singapore service on 4 March of that year. Singapore would have to wait until 1933 before it saw the first London-bound flights. This was operated by KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines) flying from Batavia with a Fokker F-XVIII. The outbound journey took seven days and inbound eight days. Imperial Airways — one of the parent companies of the present day British Airways also commenced regular services to and from London later in the same year. The one-way journey took about ten days.

Up on the roof of the former terminal during a #SLASecretSpaces guided visit (photo : Stanley Chee).

 

Kallang Airport’s runway

Originally equipped with an unpaved landing area — aircraft tended to be small and light in the early days of aviation, Kallang Airport was equipped with a paved landing strip during the Japanese Occupation (it was used as a fighter airfield by the Allies in the lead up to the Fall of Singapore). This went some way in preparing the airport to receive the postwar airliners and the first ever jetliner to land in Singapore — first on a strengthened version of the Japanese-laid runway and then in 1951 on an extended version of it (into what is today Old Airport Road).

The arrival of the jet-age

While Kallang may have heralded the arrival of the jet-age to Singapore with the landing of the BOAC De Havilland Comet on a test flight, its runway was however deemed inadequate and regular jetliner services, which we started in October 1952, used RAF Changi to land and take-off from — with arriving and departing passengers bussed to and from the terminal at Kallang Airport.  The use of jetliners reduced travel time to less that one-day, when it would have taken at about two days on the modern propeller powered aircraft of those days.

The control tower.

The BOAC Constellation crash

By the time of the arrival of the first regular Comets, a decision had been taken to build a new civil airport in Paya Lebar with work on it starting early in 1952 — a decision was taken none too soon as Kallang’s deficiencies were clearly exposed when on 13 March 1954, a BOAC Super Constellation hit a seawall on landing. The inquest into the crash, which killed 33, blamed the crash on pilot error. The inadequate ground support and response in both equipment and trained personnel was however, also cited as a reason for the high death toll.

A view of the terminal from the West Block.

Last flights

Kallang Airport would see its last regular flight on 21 August 1955 when Paya Lebar Airport opened. Its last plane – which had been undergoing repairs – would however, only be able to depart on 14 October. The closure of Kallang, allowed the construction of Nicoll Highway — a much needed arterial road into the city, which was completed the following year in 1956 (see: The treble-carriageway by the Promenade).

The terminal building as People’s Association HQ, 1960 to 2009.

 


The Main Hall

Although modestly proportioned by the standards of today, the terminal building’s Main Hall would have been its the main feature.

The Main Hall.

Occupying a double-volume space, it was designed to resemble the main hall of a railway station. In the space, offices for operating companies and a post office could be found with “accommodation for outgoing and incoming traffic”. There were also offices for immigration and customs, and medical services with a refreshment room and bar, and waiting rooms arranged. The main hall was naturally lit by a clerestory above the second level.

The main hall, seen from the second storey today.


Amelia Earhart on Singapore and Kallang Airport

Amelia Earhart, the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic, landed at Kallang Aerodrome on the evening of 20 June 1937 – just eight days after it opened. The flight was part of an attempt by Ms Earhart to become the first aviatrix to circumnavigate the Earth. Ms Earhart was clearly impressed with Singapore and its new airport. In her diary entry, which she had sent back, she had this to say:

“Then Singapore. The vast city lies on an island, the broad expanses of its famous harbour filled, as I saw them from aloft that afternoon, with little water bugs, ships of all kinds from every port.

Below us, an aviation miracle of the East, lay the magnificent new airport, the peer of any in the world. As a reminder that this was indeed the East when I shut off the engines, music from a nearby Chinese theatre floated up to greet us. West is West, and East is certainly East. The barren margins of our isolated Western airports could scarcely assimilate such urban frivolities.

From the standpoint of military strategy, Singapore holds a predominant position in the Far East. Today, less than 100 years old, it is the tenth seaport city in the world. Yesterday it was a jungle, its mangrove swamps shared by savage Malay fishermen, tigers and pythons; today it is the crossroad of trade with Europe, Africa, India, Australia, China, and Japan. Tin and rubber are the mainstays of its export”.

Sadly, the Lockheed Electra with Ms Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan, disappeared over the South Pacific on 2 July 1937 less than two weeks after her departure from Singapore early on 21 June 1937 for Bandung.


Flying Boats at Kallang

Flying Boats with their more voluminous airframes and ability to land anywhere where there was a sufficiently large and clear body of water, carried air mail and provided for luxurious air travel. A one-way journey from London to Singapore back then would have taken as long as ten days with multiple stops and cost in the region of SGD 22,000 in today’s money.

Short Empire off Kallang

A Short Empire Flying Boat taxiing on the water “runway” off Kallang for take off, c. 1941.

Besides services to Europe, there were also trans-Pacific flights. Pan Am introduced a fortnightly service from San Francisco to Singapore in 1941, with stops at Honolulu, Midway, Wake, Guam and Manila. A one-way ticket cost US$825 – the equivalent of just over SGD 20,000 in 2020 terms.

Pan Am Clipper off Kallang

A Pan Am Clipper flying boat off Kallang.

Commercial flying boat services to Kallang Airport ceased in 1949.


 





The lovely red-brick residences of northern Singapore

5 07 2020

Among the earliest permanent residences that the Admiralty’s contractor Sir John Jackson and Co put up in Sembawang as part of the construction of the naval base, are a lovely and quite unique collection of houses that are found in the vicinity of the dockyard.  Built from 1928 and completed in early 1929, three categories of these were built, the largest being those intended to house “superior” officers at Kings Avenue. There were also a number built to house subordinate officers at Canada Road, and a row at Wellington Road for chargemen.

The red-brick chargemen’s residences in the former naval base.

 

The same residences seen around the time of their completion in April 1929 (online at https://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

The set of houses are quite unique in character and unlike the commonly seen PWD type designs seen in the residences erected in the naval based in the 1930s and also across many housing estates built for both the government and the military from the late 1920s into the 1930s, have a design that is quite strongly influenced by the Arts-and-Crafts architectural movement. Among their distinct features are steeply pitched hip roofs and fair-faced brick finishes.

Another view of the naval base chargemen’s residences.

It is not presently known what the future holds for these houses, which are now in their 92nd year of existence. Based on the URA Master Plan, the houses lie in an area earmarked for future residential use that is subject to detailed planning.

Residences for subordinate officers, set in the lush green surroundings that are also a feature of the naval base and many other housing estates built for European government and military officers in Singapore.

 

Subordinate officers’ residences at their completion in April 1929 (online at https://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

 

Superior officers’ residences at their completion in April 1929 (online at https://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

 

A Superior Officers’ residence seen today.

 


Some other views 

Timber is used extensively in frames and floorboards …

… and also banisters.

Servants’ quarters and kitchens are arranged external to the houses.


 

 

 

 

 





The Stallwood houses

24 03 2020

In Singapore, Herbert Athill Stallwood is probably better known for his effort in documenting the Old Christian Cemetery on Fort Canning Hill. What perhaps is not as well known is the legacy that he has left Singapore in his capacity as the Government Architect. It the set of plans that he drew up during this time that a large proportion of Singapore’s so-called “Black and White Houses” were built to.

The first of the Stallwood designed houses are seen at Malcolm Park, built in 1925.

Stallwood, who arrived in Singapore in October 1906 and was appointed as a draughtsman in the Public Works Department (PWD) in November 1906, would take on the position of Architectural Assistant following his qualification as an architect in 1912. In 1920, Stallwood was appointed as Government Architect. Among Stallwood’s assistants was Frank Dorrington Ward, whose is perhaps the better known PWD architect whose later works included the old Supreme Court and Kallang Airport. It was during Stallwood’s time as Government Architect that the plans for what would become the PWD’s Government Class III Quarters were derived from.

These houses, which tended to be built into sloping terrain, featured concrete piers supporting timber upper structures in which the living spaces were arranged. They were provided with spacious verandahs, high ceilings and lots of ventilation openings to maximise airflow and light.  The residences are seen replicated in some form across many estates built to house senior government, military and municipal officers from the second half of the 1920s onwards.


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The Government Housing gems at Seton Close

22 03 2020

Found around the fringes of the Municipality of Singapore are several government housing gems such as several that were built using blueprints developed by the Public Works Department (PWD) in the 1910s. These, which include four Class III houses at Seton Close that were beautifully renovated for modern living in 2018, can be thought of as being among the PWD’s first purpose built designs.

A Seton Close residence.

The four at Seton Close, belonged to a larger set of six put up to house senior government officers in 1922. These are again, quite different from what could be thought of as an actual black and white house and feature a fair amount of masonry and have a main framework of concrete (as opposed to timber) columns and beams. Some of the upper level framework on the balcony projections and verandah (and of course roof supports) were however of timber. Much of these wooden structures would have been coated in black tar-based coatings, and would have (as they do to some extent now) featured a fair bit of black “trim”.

The since enclosed upper verandah.

Designed with a porte-cochère, with a (since enclosed) verandah space above that would have served as a lounge in the evenings, the houses had their reception and dining spaces below. The well-ventilated bedrooms on the second level also opened to balconies, which have also since been enclosed.

A bedroom.


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The houses that the SIT’s architects built – for themselves!

21 03 2020

Built for Singapore’s colonial administrators by the municipal commission, government and military, several hundred residences set in lush surroundings, stand today. Widely referred to as “black and white” houses, the bulk of these residences actually exhibit a range of styles that are not quite as black and white as the commonly used description would suggest and include some with more modern styles such as a set of residences built at Kay Siang Road for senior officers of the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT). Designed by the SIT’s own team of architects and built from the 1940s to the 1950s, the houses – like the majority of the colonial homes that were built are not technically of the black and white style.

 

One of the “air-conditioned” SIT designed houses. These were built for the SIT’s most senior officers.

One thing that marks these modern residences in Kay Siang Road are their low ceilings –  a departure from the high ceilings of the typical colonial home. This feature was for the simple reason that the houses had been designed for air-conditioning, which was much more of a luxury back then than it is today. For the same reason, the houses lack. the verandahs, generous ventilation openings, and the airiness that came with them.

A close-up of the house.

The SIT, which was set up in 1927, took on the role of building public housing and urban planning until it was replaced by the Housing and Development Board in 1960. Among the estates that it housed its European staff at was at Adam Park and Kay Siang Road, the latter being where the SIT’s senior staff were put up. The colonial estate at Kay Siang Road was developed in the 1920s and was located north of Wee Kay Siang’s estate after which the road is named. The early homes at the estate were of the Public Works Department style and it was only later that the SIT’s architects added a flavour of their own to the area.


Inside the house






The Eastern Extension Telegraph Company’s Estate on Mount Faber

18 03 2020

Some of you would probably have read the news about the possibility of a heritage trail in the Pender Road area in the Straits Times over the weekend. The trail involves the estate containing five wonderfully designed houses that were erected by the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company’s relatively junior engineering staff in the early 1900s. The company, which was part of a group established by Sir John Pender that had a monopoly on the British Empire’s submarine cable network and hence a virtual monopoly on worldwide communications. It morphed into Cable and Wireless in 1929 through a merger with Marconi, which had a stranglehold on radio communications.

Designed by Swan and Maclaren and built between 1908 and 1919, the houses are among a wealth of several hundred residences that were built during colonial-era, which are often referred to in Singapore as “Black and White houses”. While the term is correctly applied to these houses, which are timber framed, which coated in black tar based paints do exhibit a distinct resemblance to the English Tudor-style houses from which the term is derived, the same cannot be said of Singapore’s other colonial residences.

The bulk of the colonial houses, particularly those built from the mid-1920s for senior municipal, government and military officers feature Public Works Department designs with concrete columns and beams. Although many of these are coated in white finishes and feature black painted trimmings today, not all have been coated in the same colours historically. The term also prevents us from looking at the many styles that can be found among the colonial homes.

Visits to the estate – an important note:

Much of the estate at Pender Road is tenanted. To maintain the residents privacy and to avoid causing nuisance, the estate is out-of-bounds to the general public. However, do look out for a series of controlled visits that will give the public an opportunity to visit the estate and learn more about these architectural gems. These are being planned in collaboration with the Singapore Land Authority as part of the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets series of guided visits. Hopefully, this can start in the second half of this year.


The Estate’s Houses in Photographs


Married Engineer’s Quarters (two off, built in 1919)


 

Bachelor Jointers’ Quarters (built 1908 and extended in 1914)


Married Jointer’s Quarters (three off, built 1919)


 





The second iteration of the Singapore Art Museum

19 01 2020

A set of buildings in Singapore close to my heart are those that belong to the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) on Bras Basah Road. I spent four memorable years at them at the end of the 1970s, when the structures that have been protected as a National Monument, belong to St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI). With the school vacating the site it had occupied since 1852 in 1987 and urban redevelopment having already then arrived at Bras Basah Road’s doorstep, the former campus and the world around it has changed almost beyond recognition. I am grateful for at least the familiar sight of the school’s protected façade, which with its curved wings appearing like the arms of a mother to embrace her children with a warmest of welcomes. Another thing that I am grateful for, is the dignified manner in which the school’s old buildings have been repurposed.

Singapore Art Museum, which is undergoing redevelopment, will only reopen in 2023.

We should soon seen a second iteration of SAM in the former SJI, since the first that came in its 1996 conversion.  Several structures of the old school were torn down in the 1996 iteration, which included the much loved Brothers’ Quarters on Queen Street. The quarters’ building, the bottom of which contained the school’s tuck shop, was replaced with a service block which has been demolished to accommodate the set of changes that will come next. The proposed interventions, which will perhaps take a bit of taking to, will include an entrance plaza at Queen Street, the addition of a floating box over the two courtyards known as the Sky Gallery, and a gallery bridge that will link the set of structures on the SJI side of the SAM to the SAM @ 8Q section on site of the former Catholic High School (CHS).

Mr Chan Soo Kian of SCDA Architects presenting the proposed new entrance plaza at Queen Street.

In isolation and on first impressions, the new additions will seem almost monstrous in proportions, and the gallery bridge does seem to give the impression of an archway into Queen Street — where several other structures that I refer to as “monsters in our midst”, now seem to dominate. Having had the opportunity to hear from the creators of the proposed new additions and a chance to look at the artist impressions of the structures together with the parts that make the National Monument up  – the conserved main façade, the former Anderson Building on Waterloo Street, and the chapel block, it does seem that as a whole the additions are for the better.

An artist impression of the proposed Queen Street entrance plaza with the Sky Gallery also seen (©Singapore Art Museum).

The Sky Gallery was the addition that grated most on the senses — at first glance and seemingly something that would stick out like the proverbial sore thumb that will overwhelm the monument’s landmark façade. On closer inspection, the feature does however serve to provide a backdrop that could help in neutralising the effect of clutter currently behind the SAM. This could have the effect of drawing greater focus on the façade. The gallery will also series of reflective glass panels running its length, with each angled towards the dome — which does seem a brilliant touch. The effect to the observer is the shifting of reflections as one moves past, reflecting both the old but with the dynamism of the continuously changing and multi-faceted new — something that the museum hopes to do to enhance its position as a showcase of present and future contemporary Southeast Asian art.

An artist impression of SAM’s façade with the proposed Sky Gallery (©Singapore Art Museum).

The façade seen in May 2019.

The additions will not only create space as the SAM seeks to enhance its position as a show case of Southeast Asian contemporary art, but also make the old and new spaces much more usable. The additions will help to increase gallery space, which will grow some 30% area-wise. The more significant impact is to also have space created that will have greater height and volume – as will be seen in the two courtyards. Once spaces for assembly and play and now covered by the “floating” Sky Gallery, they will see large volume and column-free gallery space being created. Although not ideal for the old boy that I am looking to reminisce about things such as the aerial threat that was carried by the pigeons with seemingly overactive digestive systems who inhabited the rafters above, the change will make the space a lot more usable, more comfortable and perhaps much better appreciated.

An artist impression of the view from Queen Street of the former buildings of CHS with the gallery bridge and the proposed interventions at CHS (©Singapore Art Museum).

The gallery bridge — along which more gallery space will be created — will help integrate the isolated former CHS section fo the museum. To be erected over Queen Street, it will seem very much like a gateway into street from Bras Basah Road and place a focus on the street at street-level.

An artist impression of the gallery bridge (©Singapore Art Museum).

Another change that I thought will be positive, is the removal of glass panels along the previously open verandahs of the main building. It will give me a chance to walk the corridors as I once did and gaze at the statue of St. John the Baptist de la Salle – the founder of the religious order behind the school. The statue, a feature that was used as a navigation landmark, is a replica of a marble sculpture by Cesare Aureli in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican that was donated to the school on the occasion of its Diamond Jubilee.

An artist impression of the Queen Street Courtyard (©Singapore Art Museum).

 

An artist impression of the Waterloo Street Courtyard (©Singapore Art Museum).

The reopening of SAM, has been moved to 2023 due to the restoration effort that is required on the old buildings. On the evidence of what is in store, it would be well worth the added wait. The redeveloped museum will see learning studios and a library, public art spaces and promises “exciting” retail and café spaces. SAM will however continue to remain active during the extended period of closure through partnerships with both Singapore and overseas art spaces and museums. More information on SAM related events in 2020 can be found at the calendar of events on the SAM website.

Dr Eugene Tan, Director, SAM and an old boy of SJI.