“Lenin’s Tomb” at Raffles Place

17 01 2020

Constructed in an effort to beautify the city, the “underground” car park topped with a roof garden that came to define the Raffles Place of post-independent Singapore, came in for some criticism as it was nearing completion. Likened to Lenin’s Mausoleum, its critics even went so far as to suggest that it be used for the repose of Singapore’s distinguished citizens. Despite the early reservations, Raffles Place Garden – as it was christened, was a quite a joy to behold. With its floral clock, fountain and a backdrop provided by Raffles Place’s characterful buildings, the garden became what could be thought of as the 1960s equivalent of an instagram-worthy spot.

Christmas 1966 on the roof garden at Raffles Place, with Robinson’s behind.

That Raffles Place was certainly a place I connected with.  My visits there usually coincided with the preparations for the year-end season of giving, which invariably led to Robinsons Department Store’s quite memorable toy department. Large and well stocked, the department was every child’s dream. I looked forward to visiting each year, even if that meant having to catch sight of Father Christmas, whom I was terrified of. Out of Robinson’s famous Christmas lucky dip, I once pulled out an orange coloured battery-operated submarine. It was a prized toy, even if I had to contend with using it once every three months during our seaside holidays at Mata Ikan – in the holiday bungalow’s bathtub!

The promise of good food was another thing to look forward to when visiting Raffles Place. Makan time would on a special occasion, lead me to the Honeyland Milk Bar at Battery Road, which was just around the square’s northeast corner. There was always a sense of anticipation that I got as the parting of the café’s heavy doors delivered a cold rush of Worcestershire sauce scented air. The café’s chicken pies were to die for. I enjoyed the pies with a dash of tomato ketchup – which I never could quite manage to cajole out from the sauce bottle without some help.

Raffles Place’s little “corners”, which included Change Alley, added much to area’s unique charm. “Chin Charlie” to me and many non-English speakers like my maternal grandmother, it was a fascinating place to wander through and one of the places that made the Singapore of the 1960s, Singapore. The famous alley, which featured in films and in a BBC newsreel,  seemed to be always be full of life and for a while, laughter – emanating from numerous laughing bags being set off in the alley by its many toy vendors as a form of advertisement. Popular at the end of the 1960s, the toys took the form of tiny drawstring bags that contained sound boxes.

The Raffles Place end of Change Alley, 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

Little did I know it as a young child, but the laughter, along with the Raffles Place that I knew and loved would soon to see lasting change. A tragic fire in November 1972, which resulted in the loss of nine lives, also saw to Robinsons losing its iconic Raffles Chambers home it had occupied since 1941. The subsequent move – of Robinson’s to Specialists Centre in Orchard Road – also severed the store’s connection with the square, which could be traced back to 1858.

Raffles Chambers – before Robinson’s moved in.

By the time of the fire, the area had in fact already been in the cusp of change. At the glorious waterfront – Raffles Place “backyard”, the grand old turret-topped 1923 built Ocean Building had come down in 1970 to make way for a towering third. The 1923 Ocean – the second to stand on the site – was the forerunner of a building frenzy that would shape Singapore’s bund at Collyer Quay, which by the 1930s possessed a quality that could be compared to Shanghai’s more famous embankment. The second Ocean’s demise set a reversal of the process in motion. Two more of the waterfront’s grand 1920s edifices erected a year after the Ocean, Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers and Maritime (ex-Union Insurance) Building, would also make way for the new.

John Little’s Building early in 1946 – when it was used temporarily as the Shackle Club [source: Lizzie Ellis on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)].

On the square, one of its famous landmarks – John Little’s Building – was sold in 1973. This would lead to Raffles Tower (now Singapore Land Tower) being put up in its place. Incidentally, Raffles Tower when it was still under construction,  was the scene of a dramatic aerial helicopter rescue – the first in Singapore’s history. The rescue on 21 October 1980 came at a time when 19 out of tower’s intended 48 floors were completed. A fire broke out on the 18th floor, which left a crane operator stranded on a tower crane perched on the top of the uncompleted building some 60 metres above ground. The daring rescue effort saw the operator plucked from the crane’s boom to safety by the crew of a RSAF Bell 212 helicopter .

Singapore’s first helicopter aerial rescue was over Raffles Place on 21 October 1980.

Raffles Place would also lose its car park and roof garden not so long after this incident. A well-loved feature by that time, the garden’s lifespan fell short of the “many, many decades” that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had predicted it would last when he opened it in November 1965. The construction of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system just two decades later, meant that the structure and its garden, went the way of Raffles Place’s older icons in mid-1984.

Raffles Place – still with its garden – in the late 1970s. The former Mercantile Bank can be seen at the end of the square.

The building of the MRT also took out the other landmarks that could be identified with old Raffles Place. The former Mercantile Bank (built 1929) was one. The building, which marked the square’s southern end, had been purchased by Chartered Bank to house its Singapore headquarters while its 6 Battery Road HQ at the square’s opposite end, was being rebuilt. Chartered Bank’s new premises at 6 Battery Road, which was put up at the start of the 1980s incorporated a provision for the MRT to be built at a time when the question of whether the MRT should be built was still being deliberated.

Over a CBD in transition at the end of the 1970s. Renewal, redevelopment and reclamation would change the face of a part of Singapore that at the point of independence, had a certain old world charm (photo source: Panoramio).

Raffles Place today, wears a look of modernity reflective of Singapore’s impressive progress since the car park and its roof garden was unveiled. Cold as it may have become enclosed by the wall of towering symbols of success, Lenin’s tomb it is not nor a place of repose for the distinguished – other than the distinguished past. There are the reminders of the square that was replaced if one looks hard enough – found in the names that are retained and in some of the new structures that have come to define the new Raffles Place.


 

Raffles Place over the years

 

 

Raffles Place stands on the site of a hill that was levelled in 1822 to provide filler for the reclamation in way of the south bank of the Singapore River that provided the grounds for Boat Quay.

 

Raffles Place in the late 1800s. The garden seen in this G. R. Lambert print was one of Commercial Square’s early features, which was laid out, planted with trees and enclosed by a low wall and a wooden fence in the mid-1830s. The marble drinking water fountain seen in the photograph was the one presented by John Gemmill in 1864. The donation involved more than just the fountain as it required the laying of pipes from Mr Gemmill’s property at Mount Erskine to Raffles Place. The fountain originally had metal cups chained to it. The fountain, which now stands outside the National Museum of Singapore, found its way to Empress Place, before being moved to the museum in the 1970s.

 

Gemmill’s fountain – at the National Museum of Singapore.

 

Another G R Lambert print from the late 1800s. Originally Commercial Square, it was named Raffles Place by the Municipal Commission in 1858.

 

By the 1900s Raffles Place was well developed into a commercial and banking centre. This postcard view of Raffles Place in the 1930s shows several banking institutions established around in the square such as (from left to right): Mercantile Bank of India, Banque de l’Indochine (French Bank) and Yokohama Specie Bank (YS Bank in Meyer Chambers).

 

Preparations for war, 1941. A machine gun pillbox seen in front of a John Little’s Building fitted with brick barricades.

 

Air raid wardens are dousing an incendiary bomb in Raffles Place in 1941 as part of a regular weekly mass demonstration to make Singaporean’s bomb conscious and informed (source: Library of Congress – no known copyright restrictions).

A bomb damaged Raffles Place following the first Japanese air raid on Singapore on 8 Dec 1941.

 

Raffles Place in the 1950s, by which time stores such as John Little – established in the 1840s and Robinson’s, founded in the 1850s, were already very well established and were household names.

 

Plans for a garden at Raffles Place were first announced in Nov 1963 during a State Government policy address made by Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak to the Legislative Assembly – the first with Singapore a State in Malaysia and the last ever. Work commenced on what was to be a 150 car capacity underground car park topped by a roof garden in July 1964. By the time LKY opened the carpark and roof garden in Nov 1965, Singapore was an independent country. LKY expressed his disappointment that the car park had to be elevated a metre above the ground for ventilation and access and observed that some had likened one end of the structure to Lenin’s tomb. He also noted that there were also suggestions that “we might perhaps repose the precious remains of some of our more distinguished citizens in one end of this square”.

 

Mr David Ayres’ capture of Raffles Place in 1966, which made its rounds around the internet in 2012. The photograph shows the roof garden and looks towards the northern end of the square with the Chartered Bank Chambers on Battery Road at the far end (source: David Ayres on Flickr).

 

Another northward view – this one in 1969 courtesy of Mr Kim Hocker (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

The five-foot-way along John Little’s Building in 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

Trishaw riders outside Oriental Emporium at Raffles Place in 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

A view of the car park from street level with a staircase to the roof garden (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

The Malacca Street end of the car park and its location today.

A view towards the north end with MRT construction work, 1987 (National Archives of Singapore).

 

A northward view today. The John Little’s Building is replicated on the main entrances to the MRT.

 

A southward view of Raffles Place today.

 

The Singapore Land tower (R) – where the rescue of the crane operator took place in 1980.

 

One Raffles Place – which occupies the site of Robinson’s and Meyer Chambers.


 





A journey through Tanjong Pagar in 1970

23 02 2018

There is always and element of romance connected with train journeys, especially the leisurely paced journeys of the past with which one can take in the magical scenes along the way that one can only get from railway journeys. LIFE Magazine’s Carl Mydans, a legendary photograph whose work spans several decades and includes an extensive coverage of Singapore prior to the war (see “A glimpse of Singapore in 1941, the year before the darkness fell“), took one such journey out of an independent Singapore some 3 decades later, capturing a Singapore we can no longer see but through photographs of the era. The set, also includes scenes along the journey to Bangkok, along with those captured at stopovers made in West Malaysia’s main urban centres.

The photographs of Singapore are particularly interesting. There are some of the old harbour, and quite a few of the twakow decorated Singapore River along which much of Singapore’s trade passed through. There are also several street scenes, once familiar to us in the area of North Bridge Road. A couple of quite rare shots were also taken at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station including one showing a steam locomotive of a 1940s vintage, which the Malayan Railway operated until the early 1970s. There are also images of the steam locos captured during the journey.

The photographs of West Malaysia are also interesting. The replacement of rubber trees with oil palm as a crop, which had been taking place in parts of the peninsula from the 1960s to reduce Malaysia’s reliance on rubber and tin was in evidence. This is something that I well remember from the road trips to Malaysia of my early childhood. Another familiar scene from those trips were of the padi fields, which the trunk road passing through Malacca seemed to weave through. This is something Mr. Mydans also seemed to have captured quite a fair bit of.

The departure platform at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station with a prewar relic of a steam locomotive.

Malaysian Customs Inspection at the Departure Platform.

The Supreme Court and the Padang.

Hock Lam Street.

Corner of Hock Lam Street and North Bridge Road.

North Bridge Road.


The old harbour (Marina Bay today)

View of Clifford Pier and the Inner Road, and Outer Roads beyond the Detached Mole. The view today would be towards Marina Bay Sands and Marina South.

Another view of the harbour – where Marina Bay Sands and Marina South is today. The Harbour Division of the Preventive Branch of the Department of Customs and Excise (Customs House today) can be seen at the lower right hand corner.

A rainbow over the harbour.


Boat Quay and the Singapore River

Walking the plank. Coolies loaded and unloaded twakows by balancing items that were often bulkier than their tiny frames over narrow and rather flimsy planks that connected the boats to the quayside.

A view of the stepped sides of the river around where Central is today.

Boat Quay.

Coolies sliding crates that were too bulky and heavy along the plank.

Lorry cranes were sometimes used instead.

But more often than not manual labour was used.

A view of the “belly of the carp”.


The Journey North

(with stops in Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Bangkok)

A steam locomotive at what looks like Gemas Railway Station.

More steam locomotives (at Gemas?).

Inside the train cabin.

Train along a shunt line.

Rubber estates and rubber tappers were a common sight – even along the roads up north.

So were water buffaloes and padi fields.

Padi field.

Another view of a padi field.

Oil palms taking root. A drive to reduce Malaysia’s dependence on rubber and tin from the 1960s would see oil palms colour a landscape once dominated by rubber trees.

Another cabin view.

A break in the journey – a view of the Stadthuys Malacca.

Jalan Kota in Malacca.

View of the Malacca River.

The Arthur Benison Hubback designed (old) KL Railway Station .

Another view of the south end of the KL Railway Station – with a view also of the KL Railway Administration Building.

A southward view down Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin (ex Victory Avenue) with the KL Railway Station on the left and the KL Railway Administration Building on the right, also designed by Arthur Bennison Hubback.

The Railway Administration Building and Masjid Negara.

A view down Jalan Raja in KL with the BagunanSultan Abdul Samad on the left.

Another view down Jalan Raja in KL with the BagunanSultan Abdul Samad on the left and Dataran Merdeka on the right.

Sungai Siput Railway Station.

The Penang Ferry from Butterworth.

A view of Butterworth.

George Town – with a view towards the clan jetties.

The Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang.

Air Itam and the Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang.

What looks like the Leong San Tong in the Khoo Kongsi in George Town.

The Penang Hill funicular railway.

More padi fields.

Possibly southern Thailand.

Bangkok.





The knight whose works enriched a “cultural desert”

16 06 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The old Supreme Court’s Allegory of Justice

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

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

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

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

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


The old Supreme Court friezes and works incorrectly attributed to Nolli

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

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

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






The Italian captain who bought Pulau Bukom …

10 06 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 





Carless in the city

29 02 2016

It wasn’t a typical Sunday morning in Singapore’s Civic District. Freed of cars and the normal motorised traffic, claim to the streets was laid instead by hundreds of cyclists, joggers, walkers and roller-bladers for what was Singapore’s first Car-free Sunday.

The first of six car-free Sundays planned for the last Sunday of each month from February, the initiative aims to promote a car-lite culture in Singapore. Organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) in partnership with the National Parks Board (NParks), National Arts Council (NAC), Health Promotion Board (HPB) and Sport Singapore (SportSG), the event also saw a buzz come to some of the Civic District’s public spaces.

One public space that came alive was the newly completed Empress Lawn at Empress Place. The lawn, part of a Civic District public space enhancement drive initiated by the URA, was a venue for temporary food stalls  and mass exercise sessions – the food stalls perhaps a reminder of days when good and affordable food – now missing from much of the Civic District, had been one of the draws of the Empress Place area.

JeromeLim-0042

A closed St. Andrew’s Road at first light.

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Representatives from the organisers together with Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure and Minister of Transport, Khaw Boon Wan and Minister for National Development, Lawrence Wong on the steps of City Hall for the flag-off.

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Car-free Anderson Bridge.

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Robinson Road, which was partially closed.

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On Robinson Road. Minister Khaw Boon Wan and Minister Lawrence Wong who both cycled two rounds around a car-free circuit.

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The dogs had their day too.

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The flag-off for the Love Cycling in Singapore group.

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URA CEO Ng Lang and Francis Chu of Love Cycling Singapore at the flag-off.

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Temporary tables and benches set up at Empress Lawn.

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The buzz at Empress Lawn.

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Mass aerobics at Empress Lawn.

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Mr Khaw Boon Wan at Empress Lawn.

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Public art on the lawn – giant saga seeds.

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A roller-blader, a jogger and a cyclist coming down St. Andrew’s Road.





The Fullerton Hotel National Day light up

2 08 2015

As a child, one of the highlights of National Day was the nighttime drive to see the city’s birthday lights. The beautifully lit landmarks, buildings and the fountains that once graced the city, although much simpler then, brought a wonderful burst of colour to the city and its surroundings. Among my favourites were the illuminations of the City Hall, the old Supreme Court, and also the old St. Joseph’s Institution, now the Singapore Art Museum, which always seemed to be bathed in green, and where I would eventually attend school at. The fountains looked especially beautifully lit at night, besides the ones that would be normally illuminated at the roundabouts, there was one located at the filter beds off Bukit Timah Road, close to its junction with Cavenagh and New Cemetery Roads, that would be specially turned on and illuminated for the special occasion.

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Light-ups to celebrate our special days these days, tend to be more than just the simple illuminations of old, involving video projections of both light and sound. One to look out for in the lead up to our nation’s 50th anniversary is the video mapping show that is being seen on the face of the last of the grand edifices of our once glorious waterfront, the grand old Fullerton Building, over nine evenings from 1st August.

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Produced in collaboration with Hexagon Solution Pte Ltd, the light-up, an eight minute long projection entitled “A Celebration of  Our Heritage”, will take the audience through key moments in Singapore’s history and the connection the building, the former General Post Office or GPO, had with some of them. One of these moments are the election rallies Fullerton Square was well known for.

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The light-up is part of a slew of activities in the Marina Bay area, where the focal point of the National Day celebrations will take place. One thing to look forward to will be the fireworks and aerial displays on 9 August – the parade will be screened live on LCD screens around the bay. Also to look forward to is the complimentary kacang putih and potong ice-cream that will be given out by Fullerton Hotel on 7 and 8 August at One Fullerton. The Fullerton is also running a Facebook contest that will see ten lucky winners walk away with a complimentary weekend night’s stay at the hotel – all that is needed to enter is to take a photo of the projection and submit it with a birthday wish to the nation via Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #FullertonSG50LightUp (contest closes on 9 August 2015 at 11:50 pm). More information on this and the light-up can be found on the Fullerton Hotel’s Fullerton Hotel website or Facebook Page.

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New Year at the old harbour

1 01 2015

An occasion that is celebrated in a big way in Singapore in the New Year, which since 2005, sees fireworks illuminate the night sky against the backdrop of the ultra modern skyline at Marina Bay. The occasion, providing an opportunity not just to usher in the new year, but also to celebrate Singapore’s amazing transformation over the years, especially so this year with Singapore celebrating 50 years of independence.

Fireworks over Marina Bay at the stroke of midnight, 2015.

Fireworks over Marina Bay at the stroke of midnight, 2015.

While the 2015 countdown at Marina Bay, marks the tenth anniversary of the event being held there, the location has in fact been one that has traditionally been associated with the New Year – as the Inner Roads of the old harbour, it was where a New Year’s Day event that could be traced back to 1839 – just 15 years after Raffles founded modern Singapore, the New Year Sea Sports, had been held annually – except for the intervention of war, until the end of the 1960s.

A kolek race held during the New Year Sea Sports, 1951 (National Archives of Singapore).

The sea sports event, held in the waters off Collyer Quay, featured a series of races with traditional boats such as koleks, as well as competitions that ranged from tub-races, greasy poles, swimming, diving and even cock-fighting and attracted participants from the islands not just of Singapore, but also from those in the Riau Archipelago – maintaining a centuries old cultural connection that has in the post-independent years been broken with the tighter enforcement of border controls.

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A tub race during the sea sports event, 1960 (Straits Times).

Tracing its origins to a regatta that was organised in 1834, five years before it became an annual event by European merchants, the sea sports event would draw crowds in the tens of thousands to Collyer Quay. With the introduction of races that featured traditional boats, the event would keep alive Singapore’s coastal inhabitants connections with the sea for well over a century. Sadly, as with many of the traditions that were very much a part of who we were, the new year races have long been abandoned in a Singapore that cares little for its past.

A greasy-pole competition during the New Year Sea Sports in 1929 (National Archives of Singapore).

The tens of thousands that are now drawn to the areas where the Inner Roads were – much of which now forms the western part of the new world that is Marina Bay, are treated to a very different spectacle these days. The especially big celebration  at this year’s countdown event included a concert on The Float @ Marina Bay – a temporary floating stage that was originally intended to stand-in as an event venue in the time it took the National Stadium to be constructed; saw the likes of popular local artistes such as the Dim Sum Dollies, Stefanie Sun and Dick Lee and Kit Chan, as well as popular K-Pop group BIGBANG create a big bang.

K-Pop group BIGBANG - clearly the highlight of the evening's lineup on stage.

K-Pop group BIGBANG – clearly the highlight of the evening’s lineup on stage.

As might have been expected, BIGBANG drew the loudest response of screams from the youthful crowd. It would however have been Kit Chan’s rendition of local favourite “Home” for which she was accompanied by Dick Lee – the song’s composer, on piano just before the turn of the year, that made the event especially memorable for all of Singapore as it prepares to celebrate its jubilee year.

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The city's ultra modern skyline - illuminated in colours selected for the New Year.

The city’s ultra modern skyline – illuminated in colours selected for the New Year.

Dick Lee and Kit Chan gave a stirring performance of Home.

Dick Lee and Kit Chan gave a stirring performance of Home.





The lost waterfront

19 09 2013

The former waterfront at Collyer Quay is certainly one place which exemplifies how Singapore has transformed over the years, discarding much of what made Singapore a Singapore which was full of character and flavour, to the sea of glass, steel and concrete Singapore has become today.

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The waterfront we inherited from our colonial masters was one of wonderfully designed buildings which might have rivaled Shanghai’s Bund. Even in 1971 after the Overseas Union Shopping Centre (see image above) did spoil some of that flavour, it still retained much of its original character. Then, the three “skyscrapers” that came up in the 1950s: the modern looking 15 storey Shell House (1959); the Bank of China Building (1954); and the Asia Insurance Building (1954) (out of picture), still dominated. It was however the grand looking edifices – several of them attributed to architecture firm Swan and MacLaren which designed many notable buildings from our past, which would have been noticed. This included the Maritime Building (former Union Building) with its tower and the HongKong Bank Chambers (1924) next to it. The Fullerton Building (1928) which housed the General Post Office also wouldn’t have been missed.

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The beginning of the end for the old waterfront came at the end of the decade with the demolition of the HongKong Bank building notable not just for its English Renaissance style design, but also for its stained glass skylight over its main banking hall and huge bronze entrance doors, in 1979. The Maritime Building, built originally for the Union Insurance Society of Canton and which once housed the Far East headquarters of the Royal Air Force, soon followed in the early 1980s. What we do see today is a towering skyline of glass and steel against which the surviving “skyscrapers” of the 1950s are now dwarfed. The buildings along old waterfront which did survive are the Fullerton Building (Fullerton Hotel), Clifford Pier (part of Fullerton Bay Hotel), Bank of China Building, Customs House, and the Asia Insurance Building (Ascott Raffles Place).

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The new world rising from the sea

30 07 2013

A view along Singapore’s former waterfront at 7.37 pm on 28 July 2013. To the left of the photograph, a brand new world has grown on land reclaimed more recently from the sea, dwarfing the Asia Insurance Building, once the tallest building in South East Asia. What has been left behind from when the waters were those of the old harbour can be seen on the right side of the photograph. These include the Fullerton Building (former General Post Office) and Clifford Pier, both built along a bund that was in itself build on land reclaimed in the mid 1800s – one of the first land reclamation to take place in Singapore. The bund was completed in 1864 along with a road which has since been named Collyer Quay.

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Dawn in the new world

26 07 2013

6.38 am on 23 July 2013. The colours of the breaking day illuminate the icons of the new Singapore, which the Merlion probably best represents. The body of water, Marina Bay, now a reservoir of fresh water, had once been the sea where the inner harbour, the Inner Roads, once fed Singapore with its immigrants and with goods from east and west , the foundation on which Singapore’s early success was built upon.

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The rise of the new Ocean

31 03 2013

The vantage provided by Stellar at 1Altitude atop One Raffles Place, one of three tallest buildings in Singapore, gives a magnificent view of the new world around Marina Bay, as well as a building diagonally across Raffles Place from it, the new Ocean Financial Centre. At 245 metres high and with 43 floors, the Ocean Financial Centre, which was completed in 2011, is certainly much higher than the building it replaced, the 28 floor curved Ocean Building – which dominated the skyline of the former waterfront along Collyer Quay for some 33 years from 1974 to 2007. Although taller than its predecessor,  the building is one that does not dominate, becoming absorbed into the backdrop of the rising skyline in the area, a skyline which is no longer associated with the harbour which brought Singapore to life.

The rise of a new Ocean - the Ocean Financial Centre, the fourth Ocean Building on the site (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

The rise of a new Ocean – the Ocean Financial Centre, the fourth Ocean Building on the site (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

The 28 floor Ocean Building was in fact the third building of the same name to rise on the site. It was a name that was very much associated with a one time local shipping giant, the Straits Steamship Company. Incorporated in 1890, the company played a significant role in Singapore’s development as a maritime nation, and at its height, operated a fleet of 53 ships and was instrumental in linking ports in the Malayan Peninsula and British Borneo. Most who were around in the 1960s would probably remember the second Ocean Building which was a grand example of the wonderful works of architecture along Singapore’s bund, standing proudly at the end of the row of the glorious row of buildings along Collyer Quay which we have lost, from 1923 to 1970. More on this an the other Ocean Buildings can be found in a previous post.

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

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

A little known fact about the Straits Steamship Company is that it can probably be considered as the founder of a giant in the airlines business, Singapore Airlines. The company registered Malayan Airways which it later sold off. That was to later become Malaysian-Singapore Airlines (MSA) in 1966 which split into Malaysian Airline System (MAS) and Singapore Airlines (SIA) in 1972. With the advent of containerisation, the Straits Steamship company’s conventional regional shipping business became less relevant and the company was sold to Keppel in 1983. A shift in focus to land development saw its name changed to Straits Steamship Land Ltd, before becoming Keppel Land in 1997. With the Straits Steamship Company making a complete withdrawal from the shipping business in 2004 and the demolition of the third Ocean Building which it erected, all that remains to remind us of a once proud shipping, is nothing more than another building named Ocean standing on where the three previous Oceans of the Straits Steamship Company once stood.

The new Ocean Building in July 1974 (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

The new Ocean Building in July 1974 (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).





The making of Marina Bay

8 11 2012

The decades that followed Singapore’s somewhat reluctant independence from Malaysia were ones of enormous growth and development which has led to an amazing transformation of a city state, with a burgeoning population, the threat of unemployment and facing much uncertainty into the modern city that it is today. One place where that transformation is very apparent is in and around the city centre, particularly in the Marina Bay area which has seen it morph from the old harbour on which Singapore’s wealth was built into the city of the future built around what has become Singapore’s 15th fresh water reservoir that it is today.

The dawn of a new Singapore at Marina Bay.

View of Clifford Pier, the Inner Roads and the Breakwater in the 1950s from an old postcard (courtesy of Mr. Low Kam Hoong).

Map of Singapore Harbour in the 1950s showing the Detached Mole, Inner Roads and Outer Roads.

The transformation that took place was a story that began in the years that followed independence. Singapore embarked on the State and City Planning Project (SCP) in 1967, assisted by the United Nations under the UN Development Programme’s special assistance scheme for urban renewal and development for emerging nations. The SCP which was completed in 1971, Singapore’s first Concept Plan, identified the need to build an adequate road transportation network. This included a coastal highway to divert traffic that would otherwise have to go through the city. For this land was to be reclaimed, with the construction of what is today Benjamin Sheares Bridge providing a vital link. Initial thoughts were that a green belt could be created on the reclaimed land with space created providing for a future expansion of the city. What did become of the plan and further developments over the years was to give us not just the highway which is the East Coast Parkway (ECP), but in addition to that a city of the future, a city in a garden, and certainly what is a truly amazing new part of Singapore we celebrate today.

Singapore’s City in a Garden concept is very much evident in the transformation of Marina Bay.

The last decade has seen the many developments which were the result of decades of planning take shape around Marina Bay.

You can find out more about this transformation and how it took place by participating in a guided walk this weekend or the next, ‘The Making of Marina Bay‘ which be conducted by Zinkie Aw, held as part of a month long ‘Loving Marina Bay‘ event organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). Details of the walk (and also one more that I will be conducting on 25 Nov 2012 entitled ‘A Walk Around the Old Harbour’) can be found at The Loving Marina Bay site. To sign up for the walks, do visit the Eventbrite signup page. The month long event will also feature a street museum exhibition at Clifford Square (in between Clifford Pier and One Fullerton) in which photographs of the old have been superimposed on the new to provide an appreciation of the changes around the bay through which you can also discover where places such as the Satay Club once were.

A ‘Street Museum’ panel at Clifford Square.

Discover where places such as the Satay Club were through the street museum.


About Loving Marina Bay

See the story of Marina Bay through our AmBAYssadors

Located at the heart of Singapore’s city centre, Marina Bay is the centrepiece of Singapore set to be a thriving 24/7 destination with endless exciting events and a necklace of attractions where people from all walks of life come together to live, work and play.

This photography exhibition showcases the different facets of the Marina Bay precinct through over 100 enthralling photos taken by 20 of our beloved AmBAYssadors made up of Singapore’s popular bloggers and photographers.

Heritage is very much part of the precinct’s foundation, captured in key historical landmarks such as Merlion Park and Collyer Quay.

An interesting Street Museum section chronicles Marina Bay’s story over its first few decades since the 1960s, telling a story of strategic, far-sighted and meticulous planning and committed engagement to reach its present state through archive photos superimposed on its modern-day context.

Join us during the month-long event where every weekend is full of exciting activities such as heritage walks and photography workshops led by our very own AmBAYssadors. We want you to be part of Loving Marina Bay too – submit a photo taken at Marina Bay anywhere, anytime to win prizes; or simply pen a Love Note to your family/friends, drop it into the red pillar post boxes at The Fullerton Hotel Singapore and we will send it anywhere in the world for you! Visit www.marina-bay.sg/lovingmb for more details.






Looking sexy at 40

13 09 2012

A Singapore icon that has for much of its life been an instantly recognisable one is the Merlion, a creature which, much like Singapore, combines the best of two worlds. Conceptualised in the early 1970s for use in the promotion of tourism in what was a Singapore that was beginning to find its feet as an independent nation, the Merlion has become much more than that, becoming a well-loved symbol of Singapore and perhaps one that can be seen to have heralded the remaking of Singapore into what it is today.

An icon of a developing and newly independent Singapore, the Merlion, stares at the icons of the new Singapore across a body of water that played an important role in Singapore’s development.

Originally located at the mouth of the Singapore River, the Merlion was certainly one that was much photographed, including serving as a backdrop for the bevy of beauties that graced our shores during the Miss Universe pageant that Singapore hosted in 1987. And as it celebrates it 40th birthday, having been unveiled by Singapore’s elder statesman and first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, on 15 September 1972, the Merlion provides an opportunity for Singaporeans to celebrate it and be photographed in a new light. A 7 minute light, sound and pyrotechnic show, Merlion & I: An Inspiring Journey, presented jointly by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and event sponsor Far East Organization (FEO), will come on six times a night up until 16 September 2012 (Sunday). The show which was launched yesterday evening includes spectacular 3D projections on the icon, fresh from a 2 month long makeover, as well as a musical segment, and a video segment shown on a 8m by 4m LED screen set on a floating pontoon facing the Merlion, which includes a nostalgic element in the form of photographs of past encounters both Singaporeans and visitors have had with the Merlion over its 40 years.

A look back: the Merlion at its original location at the mouth of the river in 1976.

The music and lyrics of An Inspiring Journey is the work of music director, Mr Kenn Chua, who has been behind concerts for local artistes such as Corinne May, Kit Chan and Stefanie Sun. The song is performed by Mr Jim Lim, a member of the popular local group Dreamz FM (a MTV version of the song has also been recorded by Ms Serene Koong). The light projections are the work of Mr Andrew Gardner who has worked extensively in South East Asia, and is behind the lighting of Singapore’s Esplanade Theatres on the Bay. The show will also see an energetic street dance, choreographed by Mr Ryan Tan to accompany the song. Showtimes (13 to 16 September) are 7:15pm, 7:45pm, 8:30pm, 9:15pm, 10.00pm and 10:30pm. For more information, do visit YourSingapore.com.

Photographs from the launch of the Merlion’s 40th Birthday Celebrations

The celebrations are launched ….

There was also a birthday cake in the shape of the Merlion.





The Tunnel

15 06 2012

In a part of Singapore where the remnants of an old world finds itself cloaked in the garments of the new, lies a relic that even in the new garment that it wears, is one in which I am often reminded of halcyon days that accompanied what is now a lost childhood. The relic, a now underused and largely ignored pedestrian underpass, is one that I am well acquainted with from those days, days when family outings often involved visits to the sea shore to enjoy the cool of the evening breeze. The Esplanade or Queen Elizabeth Walk, as Esplanade Park was more commonly referred to then, was a popular choice with my parents. Its stone benches provided a wonderful place to sit and enjoy the breeze, as well as a vantage from where we could watch the dance of lights, flickering lights of the ships in the harbour that coloured the darkness for as far as the eye could see.

The pedestrian underpass under Connaught Drive today – corrugated metal sheathing once lined its walls.

I had always looked forward to visiting the Esplanade. It wasn’t just for the sights it offered and the cool evening breeze, but also where there was chendol (a sinful dessert made with shaved iced, coconut milk, bits of green jelly shaped like worms and sweetened with palm sugar) to die for which came from a semi-circular food centre located close to where the Stamford Canal spilled into the sea. There were also the itinerant vendors to look forward to – the kacang putih seller with a table load of nut filled canisters balanced on his head and the balloon vendor who held up a colourful bunch of balloons that in the days when helium filled balloons were rare, were air-filled and held up by a long tubular balloon. It was however not the chendol or the vendors that would most interest me, but the underpass under Connaught Drive which my sister and I would refer to as ‘the tunnel’, a passage through which was always necessary to take us from Empress Place where my father would leave his car to the Esplanade. I would never fail to take the opportunity to stamp my feet as I passed through it, not in a show of temper, but to hear the echoes of the sound it made that bounced off the corrugated metal sheathing that had then lined the walls of the tunnel.

Singapore’s first overhead bridge in Collyer Quay, opened a month and a half after the underpass at Connaught Drive (source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

The tunnel, I have discovered, was completed in the days when Singapore was a part of its now northern neighbours. It was built to ease the flow of traffic which in stopping to allow pedestrians to cross, was reported to have backed-up all the way to the Merdeka Bridge. Those were days when Connaught Drive served as a main thoroughfare that took traffic (reportedly some 4,200 vehicles and hour at its peak) from Nicoll Highway into the commercial heart of the city. Built at a cost of some $85,000, the 28 metre tunnel which is about the width of a road-lane at 2.4 metres, was opened on 23rd February 1964 – just before Singapore’s first overhead bridge at Collyer Quay was completed in April 1964. This makes the underpass a historic one, being the first non-conventional (non-surface) pedestrian crossing built in Singapore. That fact is today is largely forgotten, as is the underpass. The recent developments in the area involving roads, public transport, and use of buildings in Empress Place, has seen pedestrian traffic in the area falling off, as well as vehicular traffic on Connaught Drive and the underpass in the context of all that does seem rather irrelevant. What greets me today, is a tunnel that stripped of its corrugated lining, vendors and beggars, contains not the echoes of today’s footsteps, but the silence of one that is forgotten.





75 feet above the harbour

30 03 2012

From a vantage point 75 feet (about 23 metres) over Singapore’s former harbour, officers with the Harbour Division of the Preventive Branch of the Department of Customs and Excise (which later became Singapore Customs), stood watch over the Inner Roads of the harbour for more than three decades. The vantage point, a panoramic lookout tower that we still today, was part of the Customs Harbour Branch Building built over an L-shaped pier along the waterfront at the end of Collyer Quay. The building and pier, built at a cost of S$1.8 million, was completed in October 1969. The complex housed the 300 strong force of the then Harbour Division, as well as provided berths and maintenance facilities (which included a slipway) for some 35 launches and speedboats of the Division when it first opened. The building also provided cargo examination facilities and its construction allowed the Division to move from its somewhat makeshift premises in a godown in Telok Ayer Basin.

What is today a posh dining destination, Customs House, with its very distinct 75 foot lookout tower, was formerly the Customs Harbour Branch Building. It was completed in October 1969 and housed the Harbour Division of the Customs Preventive Branch.

The Customs Harbour Branch Building in 2006 (source: URA site on Conservation Matters).

Collyer Quay in July 1974 seen beyond the Detached Mole, a breakwater that sheltered the Inner Roads from the opened Outer Roads. The Customs Harbour Branch Building and its distinct 75 foot tower is seen on the extreme left of the photograph (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

While 75 feet in the context of what now surrounds the former Customs complex, the tower allowed customs officers to keep a round-the-clock watch over the harbour for small boats attempting to sneak dutiable goods into Singapore. The octagonal shaped and fully air-conditioned watch tower which is supported by a cylindrical base provided a panoramic view which extended beyond the Inner Roads to the mouth of the Singapore River, the Geylang River and Tanjong Rhu. Officers spotting a suspicious boat could then alert their colleagues manning the speedboats which were on standby by the pier who would then head out to intercept the suspicious boat.

A side elevation of the former Customs Harbour Branch Building with its very distinct lookout tower (source: URA site on Conservation Matters).

At the bottom of the 75 feet climb up a spiral staircase to the lookout tower - reminiscent of climbs up several lighthouses I've visited.

In between heavy panting, I managed to appreciate the view halfway up.

At the end of the 75 feet climb - a view of the lookout tower's ceiling.

Looking down at the cause of my heavy breathing.

Use for the building and the pier in its intended role ended with the construction of the Marina Barrage which cut what were the Inner Roads of the old harbour off from the sea and the building then under the Maritime and Port Authority’s charge was passed over to the Singapore Land Authority in 2006. Customs House was given conservation status in 2007 and was reopened as a dining destination under the management of Fullerton Heritage, which also manages the former Clifford Pier and the Fullerton Hotel. The tower itself is however disused and remains inaccessible to the general public.

At the top of the lookout tower.

The lookout tower no longer commands a view of a harbour littered with bumboats, twakows and tongkangs, but of the new world that is Marina Bay.

Show me the money! An interpretation perhaps of the new view - as seen in the reflection of a window of the lookout tower offered by one of the installations for i Light Marina Bay 2012 - Teddy Lo's MEGAPOV.

Seeing double - BIBI's Bibigloo and a reflection of it as viewed from the lookout tower.





Rediscovering a 40 year old icon in a new sea of light

12 03 2012

I’ve often wandered down Collyer Quay in the evening in the days when the smell of the sea filled the air to catch the evening’s breeze. Glancing out to where the sky met the sea, the view in the dark was one of the flicker of the sea of lights of the numerous ships that lay at anchor, interrupted by the sweep of the beam that shone from Fullerton Light – the lighthouse that stood atop the Fullerton Building – then the General Post Office (GPO). It was always a fascinating sight for me – one that I was always thrilled to take-in. That was years ago and the world as I had known it then, has been transformed to the glow of lights that seemed to have grown out of the seeds planted by of the lights of the old harbour. The glow is the new world that is Marina Bay, a world that glitters with the gold that the old harbour it grew out of has given. The new glow – brighter than the old, makes Marina Bay a world that is one to marvel at and one that for three weeks will glow even brighter with the colours and the lights that i Light Marina Bay 2012 brings to it.

Coming of age - one of the older icons in the brand new Marina Bay will be bathed in a sea of light during i Light Marina Bay 2012.

The highly anticipated festival, the second edition of i Light Marina Bay, was opened officially by Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minster and Minster for Finance and Minister for Manpower on Friday. At the ceremony at the Promontory @ Marina Bay, Mr Shanmugaratnam spoke of his pleasure to be at Marina Bay, which he said attracted a record 23 million visitors last year, “to be immersed in the energy of a new downtown which has been evolving” and observed that the many developments in the area have transformed the skyline, and “imbued our city with more excitement, colour and vibrancy”. Mr Shanmugaratnam in his speech, spoke of the ‘software’ that was required to make and sustain a place – such as the festival, which serves to bring the community together to enjoy the place, and also help in defining an identity for the Bay. The Deputy Prime Minister also observed that “do so through a display of beautiful light art installations is creative, fun and delightful”.

Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam speaking at the opening ceremony of i Light Marina Bay 2012.

Launching the festival.

After Light, an installation involving projections on shipping containers, is seen behind the stage at the opening.

Street performers - who were present at the opening, will also feature in the area during the period of the festival (top photo taken with LUMIX GF-3).

Fun and delightful the festival certainly has, in the first few days of the opening, proved to be. The festival’s 31 installations drew large crowds to the bay area over the weekend and judging from the number of visitors – one of the crowd favourites must be the Light of The Merlion – the brainchild of Nuno Maya and Carole Purnelle of OCUBO. OCUBO translates into “The Cube” in Portuguese, a name which reflects the geometric nature of the team’s projection work which for the work commissioned for i Light Marina Bay involves the projection of a combination of colours on the surface of the Merlion that are determined purely by members of the public through an interactive screen at the site. It is through this interactivity – a feature of all the group’s work, that the colours of the 40-year-old much-loved icon are changed through the evening – something which is designed to create a memorable experience with which the Merlion can be rediscovered with members of the public placed in the role of the creator. Based in Sintra, a delightful hilltop town in Portugal which boasts of the magical Sintra National Palace, OCUBO – an art and multimedia studio dedicated to light projects has presented light, multimedia and interactive art works in countries such as Japan, Australia, Singapore, Israel, Germany, the Netherlands, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Poland and also conceived, produced and directs Portugal’s only light festival, the LUMINA Light Festival.

Light of The Merlion allows members of the public to play the role of the creator through an interactive panel which lets the public choose the colours to be projected on the much-loved 40-year-old icon (photo taken with LUMIX GF-3).

Nuno Maya (left), one half of OCUBO, at the opening ceremony (photo taken with LUMIX GF-3).

The many colours of the Light of The Merlion ... (photo taken with LUMIX GF-3)

After the opening ceremony, Mr Shanmugaratnam and guests were also able to take a tour of the bay by boat – a wonderful way of not just taking-in the sights around the bay, but also to have an excellent view of The Light of the Merlion and other installations that are around the bay’s waterfront including the festival’s largest projection Garden of Light, and the unmistakable red glow in the dark – BIBI’s Bibigloo at the Promontory @ Marina Bay. The eye-catching installation is an igloo made of 250 plastic jerry cans and is a replacement igloo intended to spread awareness of global warming and melting glaciers. BIBI has since 1992, attempted to explore man’s relationship to the environment, as well as the capacity to confront the contradictions with regard to waste production, through the use of everyday objects made from materials such as plastic using light to give life to his installations.

The eye-catching red glow in the dark - Bibigloo made out of 250 plastic jerry cans aims to raise awareness of rising temperatures and melting glaciers with a replacement plastic igloo (photo taken with LUMIX GF-3).

BIBI (right), the creator of Bibigloo.

The Festival Director, Ms Mary-Anne Kyriakou (centre) with artists present at the opening and Mr Mark Goh of URA.

The trial of light that I followed after the boat ride, somehow compelled me to take a walk towards the ArtScience Museum and onwards to the seating gallery at the Float @ Marina Bay, under which there are several other interesting installations. One – Sweet Home, which a mention of was made in my previous post, is an attempt by Swedish based Aleksandra Stratimirovic to make ugly places pretty. Ms Stratimirovic’s attempt to create a homely atmosphere through the use of lanterns must have been a very good one as the artists had used the installation to hold an opening night celebration late into the night.

Sweet Home an installation by Swedish based Aleksandra Stratimirovic under the seating gallery of the Float @ Marina Bay, aims to make an ugly place pretty - colourful forms of lanterns used in the installation are designed to spread warmth and homeliness in the urban environment (photo taken with LUMIX GF-3).

The artists certainly gave their thumbs-up! They found Sweet Home homely enough to spontaneously hold a party there on opening night (photo taken with LUMIX GF-3).

i Light Marina Bay 2012 is on until 1 April 2012 and several fringe activities and events will be held during the weekends – for a listing, do visit the events page on the i Light Marina Bay 2012 website. Information on Boat Taxis which provide an excellent way to see the installations on the waterfront also operate during the weekends, departing every 15 minutes between 7.30pm to 10.00pm from Fridays to Sundays from 10 March to 1 April and cost $4 per trip – more information is also available on the website’s events page.





Exposing the lotus

30 09 2011

An exhibition worth visiting at the Fullerton Hotel’s East Garden Foyer is the Lotus Fantasia Photography Exhibition which features the work of a highly acclaimed photographer from Hong Kong, Dr. Leo K. K. Wong, which was launched on 28 September 2011 and will be on until 23 October 2011. What the exhibition promises the visitor is a captivating display of 20 masterpieces of Dr. Wong’s work in what is his first photography exhibition in Singapore.

The Lotus Fantasia exhibition is on at the Fullerton Hotel up until 23 October 2011.

Viewing the prints on display, one is certain to be taken by the diffusion of soft colours which lend a somewhat dramatic quality to each of the images of lotuses captured in a way where they reflect the essence of the season they were captured in. The images are taken using a multi-exposure technique and telephoto lenses, and are not post-processed in any way. Inspiration for the images is drawn from Chinese ink painting – in which Dr. Wong has a deep interest in (along with other forms of traditional Chinese art), the effect of the technique mimicking brush strokes of Chinese ink painting giving the photographs a ink paiting like quality. On the subject of lotuses, Dr. Wong feels that they “evoke different feelings with seasonal changes, but remain utterly beautiful all the same throughout the year”. He hopes that through the exhibition, the public’s appreciation of the lotus is enhanced.

Autumn Fantasy, 1983.

The exhibtion is held as part of the Fullerton Heritage’s Art in the City Programme. Dr Wong’s works are on sale and has pledged the proceeds of the sale to Beyond Social Services, an organisation which focuses on improving the lives of families and individuals from disadvantaged low-income backgrounds.

Dr Wong autographing his book at the opening.

Bliss, 2009.


Lotus Fantasia – Photography by Leo K. K. Wong

‘Lotus Fantasia’ features 20 works by veteran photographer Dr Leo KK Wong, who embraces the state-of-the-art multiple exposure and telephoto lens techniques. The works of Dr Wong are both poetic and modernistic with a sublime beauty drawn from Chinese ink painting. The fleeting moments of the lotus in different seasons are meticulously captured in this superb series of photographs.

29 September to 23 October 2011
10am to 7pm
The Fullerton Hotel Singapore, East Garden Foyer






Revisiting Clifford Pier

13 10 2010

Having spent a few hours of my weekend in Rotunda Library of the former Supreme Court, I was able to have a last feel of what must be considered to be the greatest work of Frank Dorrington Ward. This certainly allowed me to have a better appreciation for the genius of the architect who gave us some of the magnificent structures we have inherited from our colonial past, including one that my attention was turned to last evening, Clifford Pier. Ward’s contribution towards the beautiful pier was as the Chief Architect of the team of architects at the Public Works Department that provided the design for what must be the finest pier to be built in Singapore, in which the Art-Deco style features prominently. The pier, which may have looked a little worse for wear in the latter part of its life as a public pier from which many people made their journeys to the southern islands and the gateway for many seamen coming ashore to Singapore, has been wonderfully restored and a large part of it given to use as an exclusive restaurant “One on the Bund”, and the front end of it being converted into an entrance to the very posh Fullerton Bay Hotel.

Clifford Pier at its opening in 1933 (source: Woh Hup 80, Building with Integrity).

The front end of the pier now serves as the entrance to the posh Fullerton Bay Hotel.

The magnificent pier, built to replace Johnston’s Pier in 1933, never seemed to go to sleep and was always alive with activity in the 1970s when I was growing up. It was a place that I certainly have many fond memories of, having visited on many occasions to watch the comings and goings of the passengers of the launches that bobbled up and down the sides of the pier. There was always a frenzy of activity as passengers would scramble up and down the precariously slippery steps to or from the spacious deck of the pier. Already busy as it was, the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar would bring with it the frenzy crowd of pilgrims heading to Kusu Island for the annual pilgrimage. The pier was also where I had embarked on several adventures of my own – to the islands that lay beyond the southern shores of Singapore and also on to the high seas. It would have been nice if the pier had kept its place as a gateway to the southern islands and beyond – a focal point close to the old heart of the city from which a doorway opened to the shores that lay beyond Singapore – an area that is significant to the history of Singapore as one being where many of the our forefathers – the early immigrants who made Singapore what it is would have first set foot on the island. This sadly wasn’t to be as the conversion of what is now known as Marina Bay into a fresh water reservoir with the construction of the Marina Barrage put paid to any thoughts some of us might have harboured on this. The pier ceased operations in 2004 as the Marina Barrage had cut off what had once been the Inner Roads of the harbour to the sea.

An early view of Clifford Pier (c. 1950) from an old postcard (courtesy of Mr. Low Kam Hoong).

The pier is perhaps best known for the beautiful concrete trusses which support its roof structure, which provided a wide unsupported span of the roof supports, allowing a clear and unobstructed space across much of the expansive deck of the once well used pier – another piece of architectural genius given to Singapore by Frank Dorrington Ward and his team. While the trusses have perhaps escaped the eyes of many in the hundreds of thousands who might have passed under the roof they provide support for during the 71 years of the pier’s operation, it was (and still is) a sight to behold.

Deck of Clifford Pier with the beautiful concrete arched trusses of the roof structure above (source: Woh Hup 80, Building with Integrity).

Clifford Pier as it appears today as "One on the Bund".

The beautifully illuminated concrete trusses of the roof structure - not everybody gets to get close up and personal with them anymore.

Another view of the setting of the restaurant that now occupies Clifford Pier.

The restoration and conversion of the use of the pier does provide an opportunity to savour the beauty of the truss structure, particularly in the evenings when the effects of the varied and changing hues provided by the coloured illumination which does seem to bring the beauty of structures out brilliantly. However, it is unfortunate for many of us that much of the pier within the exclusive restaurant remains inaccessible to the general public to allow an up close and personal appreciation of the wonderfully design roof structure. I had in the past attempted to capture the trusses on camera but was prevented from doing so and only got a chance to do it as a guest of an event held at the restaurant last evening. While it is nice to see the restoration of buildings that are our monuments and heritage and the use of them in a very dignified manner as is the case with Clifford Pier, and with the consideration that certainly must be made from a commercial perspective, it would still be nice if at least some parts of it are made accessible to the general public who like me, have a link or a memory to a past that might be worth a revisit from time to time. I do hope that whatever is planned for some of the future heritage sites such as the grand station at Tanjong Pagar that consideration be put in to allow parts of them to at least remain accessible to us.


The beautiful setting inside the restaurant.


More views of the restaurant.

Maybe other ideas on conservation are required to allow the general public to fully appreciate some of our heritage buildings?

The entrance to the Fullerton Bay Hotel at the front end of the pier.

The view of the restaurant from the entrance.

Views of the wonderful structure of the pier.

A close-up of the trusses ...

Air-conditioning vents blend in with the existing structure.


The decor of the restaurant does include many reminders of the past.

More views of last evening’s event:

Dough figurines that were commonly found amongst the vendors that accompanied the the wayangs (street Chinese Operas) of old.

The open air deck at the far end of the pier.





The Wonderland at Battery Road

10 09 2010

There were two places with the name “Wonderland” that I enjoyed visiting as a child, one was of course the Wonderland Amusement Park that used to sit in what is now the open car URA car park next to Kallang Leisure Park. The other wasn’t so much a wonderland of fun, but one of pies and shakes – it was a little cafe on Battery Road just around the corner from Raffles Place that I never, whenever I had a chance, pass up on going to, the name of which I had forgotten about until a recent conversation with my parents. One thing that I certainly remembered the cafe for was what it had smelt like – it was a smell that would greet me as the heavy metal framed glass doors opened, one that was laden with the delicious aroma of baking pastry with a lingering smell of vinegar that came from the HP sauce and tomato ketchup that somehow always seemed a great complement to the delectable pastries that were served. It was actually a smell that familiar in many ways, being very much similar to the ones that came with the many coffee houses and snack bars that were popular back then. The aroma would always be met with a sense of anticipation – the anticipation of the sumptuous treat that was to follow … one that would certainly have seemed to be a just reward for the hours spent with walking behind my mother as she navigated her way through the shelves and racks of Robinson’s or John Little’s at nearby Raffles Place (not that I was an unwilling accomplice – as it alway meant a stopover the wonderful toy department in Robinson’s). That treat was none other than a tasty mush of potatoes, carrots, peas and pieces of diced chicken wrapped in a crust of fresh puff pastry that made the taste buds crave for more. It was Wonderland’s wonderful chicken pie, which for a while, seemed all I lived for and my love affair with it probably fueled my passion for all kinds of pies …

An aerial view of the Singapore River area in the 1950s ... Battery Road as it was is seen on the left of the photograph (source: Over Singapore 50 Years Ago).

Battery Road today ... the area where the Wonderland Cafe was ... just around the corner from the area of Raffles Place where John Little's was.

Another view down the same stretch of Battery Road.

Battery Road and adjoining Raffles Place and Fullerton Square back in the days of Wonderland’s chicken pie (the late 1960s) featured some of the best architectural treasures we had in Singapore, amongst them the very grand Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building across from the Fullerton Building (the General Post Office then and now the Fullerton Hotel), the Chartered Bank Building at 6 Battery Road, and the glorious buildings that lined Raffles Place – a wonderland of beautiful buildings. Most of those buildings have sadly vanished today, in part due to a lack of appreciation for what was our architectural heritage, and in part due to the pressing need to modernise the city in which there wasn’t much time for us to stop and think about what we were losing. What is left today is the Fullerton Building, and the once towering 16 storey Bank of China Building which was the tallest bank building when it was erected in the early 1950s as well as being the tallest building in the area until the mid 1970s. Now the building is part of the Bank of China complex there which includes a newer taller building behind it and is dwarfed by the concrete, steel and glass towers of the neighbouring bank buildings which is somehow seen as defining Singapore’s economic success since gaining independence.

Collyer Quay, 1976. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building is across from the Fullerton Building at the corner of Fullerton Square and Collyer Quay (source: Ray Tyers' Singapore Then & Now)

A view of Collyer Quay from the Harbour, July 1974. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building can be seen on the left of the Fullerton Building (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

The new 21 storey high HSBC building that replaced the old building after that was demolished in 1979.

Raffles Place had been where some of the best shops of those days were found – Robinson’s and John Little’s being two that my parents frequented. The former commercial heart of Singapore was then dominated by an underground carpark (it was partly underground with windows that served as vents lining the part of it that stuck out of the ground. Its roof top had a well landscaped roof garden which was accessible via a short flight of steps from the street level and was a place where I had many a photograph taken. Robinson’s for me represented another type of wonderland – one of toys in the toy department that provided me with much amusement and also with many of my acquisitions … toy soldiers, a go-kart, building blocks and one of my favourites – a Red Indian costume complete with a feathered head dress.

Raffles Place in 1966 was dominated by an underground car park with a landscaped roof top garden and some wonderful buildings which have now been replace by the cold of concrete, steel and glass.

An MRT station sits underground where there was once an underground car park at Raffles Place, surrounded by skyscrapers that have replace some of the architectural treasures that have been lost.

Besides the wonderland of pies and buildings, Battery Road did also have another attraction for the young boy in those days – a pair of stone lions that still stand guard outside the entrance of the old Bank of China building at the corner of Battery Road and Flint Street. For some reason, I would always look up the lions whenever I am in the area, and approach them with the same sense of fascination I had as that young boy. These days however, there are no more pies … somehow, but for the stone lions, the area would seem cold and distant, and it makes me wish I could be that boy again back in a place that now only remains in photographs, a place that perhaps I did not have much of a chance to say good-bye to.

Once the tallest bank building in Singapore, the Bank of China is now dominated by the towering bank buildings that have sprouted up around it.

One of the two lions standing guard in front of the Bank of China Building at the corner of Battery Road and Flint Street.

A view of Raffles Place with the Chartered Bank Building at 6 Battery Road seen at the end of Raffles Place. The Bank of China Building is seen towering over the rest of the area on the right (source: Over Singapore 50 Years Ago).

The 44 storey building at 6 Battery Road, a new Chartered Bank that replaced the old which was demolished in 1981.





The curved buildings at the end of Collyer Quay and the Straits Steamship Company

24 06 2010

Many of us these days would probably have forgotten about the Straits Steamship Company and the significant role that the company played in Singapore’s development as a maritime nation. The company, when it was incorporated in 1890, was perhaps a reflection of what Singapore had become – a mix of east and west, with both investors of European origin as well as several of Asian origin. The fleet of ships that the company operated, numbered as many as 53 at its height, linking ports in much of the Malayan Peninsula and British Borneo, facilitating the development of many of the more remote parts of the region. The company had its headquarters at the curve of Collyer Quay, where it meets Cecil Street, and for a while was housed in a beautiful five storey example of colonial architecture, not the original, but the second Ocean Building (the first was built on the site in 1864). The building, construction of which was started in 1919 and completed in 1923, was designed by a British architect, Somers H. Ellis.  It featured overhanging balconies on the second and fifth levels and verandahs on the third and fourth levels. The building was topped with a tower that rose some 49 metres above ground, making it the tallest building in Singapore back when it was built.

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

That glorious Ocean Building stood for some 47 years until 1970, when it was demolished to make way for yet another Ocean Building – this time a 28 storey tower block which was built on an expanded site that included Prince Street which once linked Collyer Quay with Raffles Place and Prince Building across from the older Ocean Building. The new building was completed in 1974 and housed the offices of many shipping companies as well as that of the Straits Steamship Company. It also housed the Mercantile Bank, which had prior to that, operated from Raffles Place since 1861. During the time the third building stood, the Straits Steamship Company disappeared, a victim of the rapid growth in containerisation and the growing irrelevance of conventional regional shipping. The company was sold to Keppel in 1983 and a shift in focus to land development saw a change of name to Straits Steamship Land Ltd, before it became Keppel Land in 1997. The company finally withdrew totally from shipping in 2004.

The third Ocean Building (seen on the left of the picture) in 1974 (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

The third 28 storey Ocean Building is now gone as well, having stood for some 33 years. On its site and what was the neighbouring Ocean Towers, the new 43 storey Ocean Financial Towers which is scheduled for completion in 2011, is being built. With this, we would probably find it harder to remember that beautiful curved building that stood at the corner of Collyer Quay and the Straits Steamship Company which had a long association with the buildings of the name.

The fourth "Ocean Building", the Ocean Financial Tower is scheduled to be completed in 2011. It is being erected on the site of the 28 storey Ocean Building which was demolished in 2007.