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)


 





Celebrating France in Singapore

16 11 2019

The contributions of the French to Singapore cannot be understated. Their connections go back to Raffles’ arrival in 1819. With him on the Indiana were two French nationals, Pierre-Médard Diard and Alfred Duvacel, naturalists whom Raffles met in Calcutta – whose renderings and documentation of the region’s flora and fauna were among the first to be made. The French would bring Catholic missionaries – responsible not just for building churches such as the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, but also schools that are now well established.

Much later, it was towards the French that Mrs Pamelia Lee of the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board would turn to for conservation expertise – resulting in the involvement of Chief Architect and Inspector of Historical Monuments in France, Mr Didier Repellin, in the restoration of No 53 Armenian Street – an effort that would extend to conservation projects such as CHIJMES and the structuring of our heritage strategy.  This cooperation was celebrated on Armenian Street this morning – as part of the commemoration of 30 years of conservation in Singapore as part of Architectural Heritage season and in conjunction with the French cultural festival Violah! – for which, a plaque was unveiled by His Excellency, Mr Marc Abensour, the Ambassador of France to Singapore and the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Ms Hwang Yu-Ning, Chief Planner and Deputy CEO.

Also unveiled today is an exhibition of twenty photographs from Mr Paul Piollet collection of close to 1000 photographs donated to Singapore on the National Museum front lawn. Taken over three decades from the 1970s, the photos are a record of life and a way of life of a Singapore in transition. The many images of wayangs, the life that went on backstage, elaborate Chinese funerals and of life on Singapore’s living streets, boats and maritime exchanges with the Indonesian Archipelago are full of life. Many also show streets filled with children – something we seem to see a lot less of in the Singapore of today. The exhibition runs until 16 December 2019.

Paul Piollet’s images of the maritime trade with Indonesia – in this case showing bakau poles being offloaded – capture a world now lost to us.


Mr Didier Repellin, Mrs Pamelia Lee, His Excellency Mr Marc Abensour, and Ms Hwang Yu-Ning.

Mr Kelvin Ang, Mr Alvin Tan, Mr Didier Repellin, Mrs Pamelia Lee, His Excellency Mr Marc Abensour, Ms Hwang Yu-Ning and Mr Liu Thai Ker.

The plaque unveiled this morning.

Mr Paul Piollet, His Excellency Mr Marc Abensour, and Ms Hwang Yu-Ning on the National Museum Front Lawn.

Mr Paul Piollet with His Excellency Mr Marc Abensour on the National Museum Front Lawn.

Mr Paul Piollet presenting a book of his photographs to His Excellency Mr Marc Abensour.

Exhibition panels for Mr Paul Piollet’s photographs.


Video mapping by French Artist Julien Nonnon – inspired by the work of Diard and Duvacel, “Revisiting Diard and Duvacel” on Armenian Street from 8 to 11 Nov as part of Violah!


 





Orchard Road’s last shophouses

10 11 2019

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

The conserved row.

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

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

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

The former MidFilm House, then and now.

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

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

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

The Temasek Shophouse.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The event space and its green wall.


More photographs of the Temasek Shophouse

A co-working space on the mezzanine.

Another view of the event space and the café.

One of the native bird themed meeting spaces.

Up on the roof.

The rooftop meeting room.

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

A pantry within an office space.

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

A balcony overlooking Orchard Road and Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station.

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

Another view of the front balcony.

And another of the rear spiral staircase and balcony.

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






37 Emerald Hill Road to be conserved

30 08 2019

It seems that three buildings of the former Singapore Chinese Girls’ School (SCGS) campus at 37 Emerald Hill Road is to be conserved. The campus, used in the interim by Chatsworth International School, features two buildings from the early 20th century as well as the additions of more recent times.

The Song Ong Siang Block, the newest of the buildings that the URA proposes to conserve.

A view over Emerald Hill Road, much of which was gazetted as a conservation area in 1989. The former SCGS was not then included in the conservation area.

The three buildings, assessed to be of high historical and architectural significance, are the Main Block built in 1925, the Principal’s House built in 1930, as well as the Song Ong Siang Block. Built in 1956 and fronting Emerald Hill Road, the Song Ong Siang Block is named after one of the school’s founders, and has served as the face of the school for many. The older buildings were designed by architecture firm Messrs. S. Y. Wong and Co. – the architects for the New World – on English and American principles”.

Once an area in which a jungle of trees that yielded a spice that was worth more than its weight in gold, the area is now dominated by a concrete jungle put to use in mining the gold of the new age.

Founded in 1899, the school occupied a site at the corner of Hill and Coleman Streets (now occupied by the extension to the Central Fire Station) prior to moving to Emerald Hill late in 1925. It is regarded as a pioneer in the provision of education to Straits-born Chinese girls. The Emerald Hill site, previously owned by Dr. Lim Boon Keng, was bought for a sum of 50,000 Straits Dollars in 1924 by the Straits Settlements Government for the school. The school was granted a 99-year lease for the site in exchange for the its Hill Street premises, and occupied the site until it moved to Dunearn Road in 1994.

The 1930’s built Principal’s quarters.

The school, which was renamed Emerald Hill Girls’ School in the early part of the Japanese Occupation, was said to have also been used as a comfort station. This has not been verified, although it is known that several other buildings in the area were put to such use. The Sakura Club, was one known comfort station at Emerald Hill Road. Another, the Nanmei-Soo, which was identified as a comfort station in Goh Sin Tub’s “The Nan-Mei-Su of Emerald Hill, was reportedly more of a ryotei  – a restaurant. The Nanmei-Soo reportedly employed hostesses to provide services beyond serving food and drink. This operated out of the ex-Hollandse Club at 30 Cairnhill Road.

The front view of the Main Block, built in 1925.

The decision to conserve the three buildings, comes on the back of a community effort driven by former students of SCGS, “Keep 37 Emerald Hill“. The effort saw various proposals put forward for the reuse of the buildings in a manner that the history of the site is not lost.

The main block as seen from the back.

Another view of the front of the Main Block.

The Song Ong Siang Block.

The Main Block as seen from the Song Ong Siang Block. The Lee Kong Chian Block, an addition in the 1970s seen on the right of the Main Block is not one of the three being proposed for conservation.

Stairway in – if I remember correctly – the Song Ong Siang Block.

Another view towards the Lee Kong Chian Block.

The Principal’s Quarters.


 





A sneak peek at Maxwell Chambers Suites

24 07 2019

I had the opportunity to pay the soon to be opened Maxwell Chambers Suites a visit, thanks to a Ministry of Law (MinLaw) organised guided visit. I must say that the former Traffic Police Headquarters turned design museum looks resplendent in its transformation, having morphed over a period of two-years into an extension of Maxwell Chambers. Maxwell Chambers is the world’s first integrated dispute resolution complex right next door that is housed in the former Customs House. The extension, which is set to open on 8 August, will help cement Singapore’s position as a hub for international dispute resolution.

Windows from the past with reflections of the future – at the former Traffic Police HQ turned dispute resolution complex.

The conserved building has, both literally and metaphorically, had quite a colourful past. Completed early in 1930 as the Police “D” Division headquarters and barracks, a corner of it was used to house the Traffic Branch. The new Division HQ cum barrack block had been built during the decade-long effort to modernise and bring greater professionalism to the Straits Settlements Police Force. The effort, the brainchild of the force’s Inspector General, Harold Fairburn, came in days when “Sin-galore” might have seemed as appropriate a name for the municipality as Singapore. The force was reorganised, expanded and better trained – with the construction of the new Police Training School (old Police Academy). New and modern facilities were also built, including police stations and barracks to house the expanded police force.

The gorgeously decorated Business Centre at Maxwell Chambers Suites.

The re-organisation also saw the Traffic Branch (as the Traffic Police in its infancy was known as) move from Central Police Station to the new station and barrack building at Maxwell Road. The Traffic Branch, and later the Traffic Police, would maintain an almost unbroken association with the building until 1999. That was when the Traffic Police made a move to it current home at Ubi Ave 3.

Standing tall – the former traffic police headquarters seen in new light against the backdrop of Singapore’s tallest building.

The dreaded driving test would be on the minds of many of the older folks when the Traffic Police HQ is mentioned. The process of obtaining a driving licence here, required the prospective driver to pay Maxwell Road a visit or two. This arrangement lasted until December 1968, after the Registry of Vehicles (ROV) took over the conduct of driving tests and built a second test centre in Queenstown. Tests continued to the conducted at Maxwell Road until May 1978.  

The rear façade of the building where the communal barrack kitchens were arranged on the upper floors and next to which was the compound where the “test circuit” was set up.

The version of the building that is probably etched in the minds of most would be the incarnation that had many of us see red – as the “red dot Traffic Building” and the home of the Red Dot Design Museum. The museum open in 2005 and was housed in the building until it was acquired by MinLaw in 2017.

As the Red Dot Traffic Building, which housed the Red Dot Design Museum from 2005 to 2017.

Interestingly, it does seem that it wasn’t just as the Red Dot that the building may have attracted attention due to its colour scheme. The building’s conservation architect, Mr. Ho Weng Hin, in sharing about how the current colour scheme was selected also revealed that its initial coat was a mustard-like yellow with green accents. This may have been in keeping with the Art Deco influences of the day. The colours have certainly mellowed over the years and it is in keeping with the colour schemes of its latter years as a police building that its current colour scheme was selected.

Maxwell Chambers Suites has had its colour restored to reflect the colour scheme of the late 20th century Traffic Police Building.

As with several other urban street-side police barrack buildings of the era, Maxwell Chambers Suites’ façade displays an orderly array of wooden framed windows. These, along with the original cast iron gutters also on its face, have been painstakingly restored. A discovery that was made during the restoration pointed to the origin of the gutters, which was a well-established Glaswegian foundry named Walter MacFarlane and Co. With its openings now sealed with glass, the restored wooden windows have been left in an “opened” position. It will be interesting to note how air-conditioning intake vents have been quite creatively placed in the upper (top- opening) sections of the wooden windows – arranged to give the impression that some of the upper window sections have been opened quite randomly.

Vents are arranged to give an impression that the top opening sections of the exterior windows have been opened in a random manner.

Inside the building, offices, meeting rooms and an beautifully decorated business centre – for the use of visiting legal practitioners – now occupy spaces that had originally been the homes of policemen and their families or service spaces such as communal kitchens. These are laid out around an internal courtyard that had also been restored. Part of the courtyard was closed for use by the museum proper during the buildings Red Dot days. Courtyards are a feature of many of the civic buildings of the era and were used to maximise light and ventilation. In the case  urban police barrack buildings, they also provide privacy to the living spaces from the public streets.

The courtyard.

The opening of Maxwell Chambers Suites is timed to coincide with the Singapore Convention Week (3 – 9 August), the week when Singapore will witness the signing of the Singapore Convention on Mediation – the first United Nations treaty to be named after Singapore on 7 August. The Convention will provide for the cross-border enforcement of mediated settlement agreements and will give businesses greater certainty that mediated settlement agreements can be relied upon to resolve cross-border commercial disputes. More on Maxwell Chamber Suites can be found at this link.

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Once barrack rooms.

A mural depicting the memories of a traffic policeman – of floods when the Singapore River spilled over.

Mr Ho Weng Hin pointing out the MacFarlane trademark on the cast iron gutter.

The Walter MacFarlane trademark.

A cornice-like feature – once part of an opened roof deck at the building’s rear and now part of an enclosed space.

A meeting room on an upper floor with a reflection of the office spaces across the courtyard.

An upward view from the courtyard.

Restored windows in the bulding’s rear seen in a new light.

Another look at the building’s front.

 

What would once have been communal kitchens in the building’s rear – with prefab plaster canopy hoods.


Inside Maxwell Chambers (the Former Customs House)

The iconic Cavenagh Room under the dome of Maxwell Chambers (the former Customs House). Maxwell Chambers Suites has been linked to Maxwell Chambers by a link bridge.

Stairway to heaven.


Maxwell Chambers Suites in its time as the Red Dot Traffic Building

Linda Black’s depiction of Venus – at Chairity, an event held at the Red Dot Design Museum in 2012 that was graced by the late Mr. S. R. Nathan in his capacity  as the President of Singapore.

 






Golden Bell and the intended Anglo-Chinese College on Mount Faber

8 05 2019

Much has been told of Golden Bell (mansion). Built in 1910 as Tan Boo Liat’s stately hilltop residence at Pender Road, an air of romance and some mystery perhaps, surrounds the place. It has quite a proud and distinguished past and its guests included Chinese revolutionary leader Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who spent a night there in 1911. Lavish parties were said to have been thrown at house in the brief period that Tan Boo Liat occupied it. In the little more than a century that has elapsed, neither the romance nor the mystery seems to have been lost, even with its use since 1985 by the Danish Seamen’s Church. Those curious enough to have stolen a glance at the grand residence on the way down from Mount Faber will also have little doubt of its majesty. 

Golden Bell today.

A chapter in the Golden Bell story that seems to be missed by most, is one that relates to the Methodist Mission, and its plans to establish an institution of higher learning in Singapore. The ambitious idea was long held by Anglo-Chinese School’s founder, Bishop William F. Oldham, when it was set in motion through the arrival of Rev. James Stewart Nagle in 1914. Rev. Nagle, picked as the principal of the 3-decade old ACS so that he could also put plans for the college in place, set to work immediately. A College Council was established. Its members counted prominent figures such as Tan Kah Kee, Lee Choon Guan, and Tan Cheng Lock, all of whom made generous pledges and contributions.

Anglo-Chinese College Council, 1918. Seated left to right: Tan Kah Kee; William Thorpe Cherry Junior; Lee Choon Guan; Chan Kang Swi; and Rev. J.S. Nagle. Standing: 3rd from left – Reverend P.L. Peach (ACS Principal, 1922-1924); 4th from left – Reverend Boughman; and extreme right – Tan Cheng Lock.

By late 1917, a reported 26½ acres (10.7 hectares) of land on a “hilltop location in Telok Blangah” had been secured, including Golden Bell. Contrary to the popularly held view that it remained in Tan Boo Liat’s hands unil his death in 1934, the mansion, which had already been vacated by late 1914, had been put up for sale in 1916.

Extract from a 1922 Thomas Cook Guide to Singapore, published by the Methodist Publishing House, that lists the “red brick mansion known as ‘Golden Bell'” as belonging to thr Methodist Mission and “intended as an educational site”.

It was also in 1917 that the Mission sent a deputation to Governor Sir Arthur Young – to “seek Government sanction” for the college. Young (as did his successor in 1919, Sir Laurence Guillemard) had misgivings about the plan. It was seen as a threat to British prestige as the Mission was very much an America one. A letter, sent by the Colonial Secretary F. S. James some weeks after the 29 August meeting, stated that while the Government did not object to the setting up of the college, it could neither support the project nor sanction the granting of degrees by it.

Inside Golden Bell’s turret – originally a Billiard Room.

Rev. Nagle and the Council pressed ahead in spite of the apparent objections. In 1918, a Propectus of the Anglo-Chinese College was issued. The prospectus laid out the aims of the intended college, which was to provide “equal facilities with all other students for qualifying of any public degrees that may be instituted by the Government …” and prepare students for degree examinations that “might be instituted by the Straits Settelments Government, or for degree examinations of any recognised British University”. This was clearly intended to address the concerns that the Government had.

Golden Bell’s dining room – now a place of worship.

While the Council may have met with some success in its efforts to raise funds, which by 1920 had grown to a tidy sum of $400,000, it wasn’t as successful in changing the minds of those that mattered. The continued reluctance on the part of the Government to lend its support – who in 1918 embarked on its own plans for a publicly run college – and the unscheduled departure of Rev. Nagle in 1922, would lead to the plan’s demise. With that, funds raised for the college were channelled instead towards the mission’s other educational endeavours. This was the case with Tan Kah Kee’s subscription of $30,000 (Straits Settlements Dollars), which was transferred with his approval to the ACS’s physics and chemistry funds.

The Entrance Hall.

The house, and the land that had been acquired for the college, remained in the possesion of the Methodist Mission into the 1930s – despite attempts to have that sold once the plan had fallen through. While the Methodist Mission may have failed, its efforts prompted the Government to move on their own plans up for an insitution of higher learning. The outcome of the Government’s plans was Raffles College, the forerunner of the University of Malaya and what is today the National University of Singapore, which was set up after some delay in 1928.

More on the intended Anglo-Chinese College can be found at this links:


Addendum 8 May 2019

The use of Golden Bell as the “Singapore Private Hospital” – an untold mini-Chapter in the Golden Bell story:

It has come to my attention (via Khoo Ee Hoon) that Golden Bell was also used briefly as the “Singapore Private Hospital”, which opened in August 1924. Newspaper reports mention its opening above “Plantation Bahru” on a site “200 feet up on hilly ground west of Mount Faber”, “overlooking Keppel Golf Course” and with accommodation for 14 patients. It also had an “operating theatre with modern surgical theatre and an X-Ray plant for examination and treatment” and had “fully trained English Sisters in charge of nursing”.

The hospital seems to have closed some time the following year. Advertisements for an auction sale of hospital equipment at the property appear in November 1925. “To Let” advertisements for the property subsequent to this – at least up to 1934, list addresses that are associated with the Methodist Mission.


Golden Bell and Tan Boo Liat

Designed by a “local” architect, Wee Teck Moh – whose signature appears on the plans of many shophouses built at the end of the 1800s, the Edwardian-style mansion was given the “blood and bandages” fairfaced brick and plaster face appearance that seemed popular at the time. Local examples of buildings erected during the period with a similar appearance are the Central Fire Station, the former MPH Building and the rectory of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd. The house also exhibits several “local” features such as the Buddhist stupa shaped roof that adorns a turret. The house is thought to have been named after Tan Boo Liat’s grandfather, Tan Kim Ching – the son of Tan Tock Seng (“Kim Ching” translates into “Golden Bell” in Hokkien).

Plans for Golden Bell approved in 1909 (National Archives of Singapore).

Tan Boo Liat, who took over his grandfather’s rice milling business interests in Siam and was a racehorse owner with a reputation for having lived lavishely, hosted parties at Golden Bell. The mansion also saw some illustrious guests, playing host to Dr. Sun Yat-sen, when he made a short visit to Singapore in December 1911.

Plans for Golden Bell approved in 1909 (National Archives of Singapore).

Tan Boo Liat seems to have used the mansion up to about 1913-14, after which he was constantly on the move. Besides being away in Bangkok for long periods in the 1920s, and in Shanghai for two years until his death there in 1934, he also moved quite a fair bit around Singapore. His residential addresses here included 60 Emerald Hill Road, and 8 Simons Road (Angullia Park today). It was at his Simons Road residence and not at Golden Bell as stated in a 2011 Zaobao article, that Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanath of Siam, brother of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) and heir apparent to the Siamese throne, passed away during a stopover in Singapore on 13 June 1920 at the age of 37.

A group photograph at Golden Bell with Lim Nee Soon and Tan Chor Lam among the faces in the crowd (National Archives of Singapore).

Golden Bell would eventully fall into the hands of the Port of Singapore Authority, who used it until 1985 and from whom Danish Seamen’s Church initially leased it from. The State Property, still used by the church, has since been transferred to the Singapore Land Authority.

A wooden grille with a golden bell motif on it in the mansion,


 

 

 





Inside the new star of MacTaggart

29 11 2018

Uniquely shaped, the former Khong Guan factory stands out at the corner of MacTaggart and Burn Roads – especially so with a recent 8-storey extension that certainly added to the presence that its conserved façade has long commanded.

Having won an award for Restoration & Innovation at AHA 2018, its doors were recently opened for tours conducted by the URA, which provided an opportunity to have that much desired peek inside.

More on the factory and the restoration effort can be found at the following links:

2 MacTaggart Road : Stellar Landmark (URA)

The new star rising at MacTaggart Road

The fallen star of MacTaggart Road


Photographs of the interior and also of the restored exterior: 

The attention grabbing mosaic and iron grille work on the ground level of the triangular shaped building’s apex. The star is apparently a trademark of the maker of the iron grilles, Lea Hin Company (at the corner of Alexandra and Leng Kee Roads).

Inside what used to be a retail outlet that students from neighbouring Playfair School (across Burn Road) would frequent.

Iron grilles – very much a reminder of the days when the building came up in the 1950s. This one – a gate which the family used to gain access to their accommodation in the old building.

A view of the actual gate.

The reception – lit by a glass covered skylight.

The conjurer and his apprentice: Lee Yan Chang of URA showing the workings of the skylight’s blinds.

The skylight as seen from the terrace above.

Stairway to a new heaven.

The stairway, which leads from the lobby to the corporate offices of Khong Guan’s HQ.

The view from above.

A terrace on what used to be the roof deck of the old building.

A view of the extension from the terrace. Lightweight cladding, with aluminium honeycomb backing, is used on the exterior.

The former entrance to the building’s offices. What it looked like previously: please click.

A display window. What it looked like previously: please click.

 


 





The “attractive” 1940 built public-housing block in Little India

23 11 2018

I have long admired the building that houses The Great Madras, a boutique hotel on Madras Street. The edifice in its incarnations as a hotel has brought a touch of Miami to the shophouse lined streets of a busy corner of Serangoon. The opportunity to have a look beyond the building’s gorgeous Streamline-Moderne façade came this Architectural Heritage Season with tours organised by the URA. The hotel won an Architectural Heritage Award for the efforts made in the restoration of the building,

Deliciously decorated, the hotel’s common areas on the ground floor provide a great introduction to its well thought of interiors. The lobby and a restaurant and bar, which opens up to the outside is what first greets visitors. There is also a barber shop and a utility area at the building’s rear. A sliding privacy door hides the hostel-like accommodation on the same floor. Here, its private sleeping spaces carry the names of established travel influencers.

The reception area.

The hotel’s rooms are laid out across the building’s two upper floors. Corridors decorated with quirky neon signs and ventilated through the steel-framed glass windows of a forgotten era, provide correspondence to the rooms. It is along a corridor on the second floor that a pleasant surprise awaits. This takes the form of an especially delightful and photograph-able view of the hotel’s retrofitted swimming pool, framed by a circular opening in the pastel pink party wall that separates the pool from its sun deck.

A corridor on the upper levels.

The alterations made in the building’s interiors does make it hard to think of the building having been put to any other use other than the current, and quite certainly not as a public-housing block of flats it was built as in early 1940, There is of course that Tiong Bahru-esque appearance and quality that may give the fact away but the standalone nature of the block will mask the fact that it was the Singapore Improvement Trust or SIT that built it. The SIT – the predecessor to the HDB – besides having had the task of addressing the demand for public housing, also took on the role of town planner. The public housing projects that it embarked on tended to be built in clusters, such as in the case of Tiong Bahru.

The rear courtyard.

The swimming pool.

There is however a good reason for the Madras Street block’s isolation. A 1940 report made by the SIT holds the clue to this. It turns out that the block – erected to take in the area’s residents displaced by the demolition of older buildings – was meant to have been part of a larger improvement scheme that the SIT had planned for the area. The scheme was to have seen the demolition of a dozen “old and unsanitary” buildings in the months that would follow  to provide for a southeasterly extension of Campbell Lane past Madras Street. There was also to have been the metalling of the area’s roads and the construction of much-needed drains. The orientation and alignment of the 70 by 60 feet block does suggest that it was laid out with the extension of Campbell Lane in mind.

A view of the surroundings through steel framed windows.

The scheme’s overall aim was to provide accommodation in greater numbers, make an improvement in (transport) communication and the layout of of the very congested area. There was also a need to address the area’s poor sanitary conditions. It is quite evident from what we see around that the scheme did not go much further. Perhaps it may have been a lack of funds, as it was with many public schemes in those days. There was also the intervention of the war, which was already being fought in Europe by the time of the block was completed.

Another view of the hotel’s windows.

From the report, we also get a sense of the “attractive” building’s original layout. Three flats were found on each floor, hence the three addresses 28, 30 and 32, giving the building a total of nine flats. Each flat contained three rooms, one of which would have been a living room that opened to the balcony. A kitchen cum dining room was provided in each flat, as well as a bathroom and a toilet – “in accordance with Municipal Commissioners’ requirements”.

A spiral staircase in the rear courtyard.

The report also tells us of how much the flats, which were fully booked before the building’s completion, were rented out for: $23 per month for ground floor units and $26 per month for the units on the upper floors.

More on the restoration efforts that won the Great Madras Hotel the award: 28, 30 & 32 Madras Street Charming Revival.

Restored granolithic (Shanghai Plaster) finishing on the column bases.


More photographs:

 


 

 

 

 

 

 





Dark clouds on the northern horizon

8 10 2018

I have long thought of the Sembawang area as a final frontier, and a last part of modern Singapore in which much of yesterday remains to be discovered. Progress is however eating away at these remnants of a soon to be forgotten time; the latest bit of Sembawang being absorbed into the brave new world is the area’s last forested hill on which the grand Admiralty House is perched. Now with almost the entire western slope of the hill denuded, the settings that provided the house with its charm and also its much needed isolation for its eight decades of existence, will never again be the same.

Dark clouds on a northern horizon … the denuded western slope of the last forested hill in Sembawang.

Completed in 1940, the house with its distinctive Arts and Crafts inspired flavour, was built as the residence of the Rear Admiral, Malaya. Its scale and appearance would have been most fitting to house the  commander of the then newly opened Naval Base – the largest and most important of Britain’s bases east of the Suez. It would only acquire the name best known to most, Admiralty House, when it became the residence of the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s Far East Station in 1958.

Another view showing the extent of the clearance on the western slope.

Handed over to the Singapore Government in 1975 after a spell as the residence of the Commander of the ANZUK Force, the house – and the hill has since resisted the advance of concrete that has seen a new HDB town sprout up around it. Time was finally called on the hill when plans for a sports and community hub surfaced in the 2014 Master Plan. At the project’s launch in 2016, an announcement was made that some 200 of the hill’s mature trees, just over a quarter of the existing trees, would be retained – with a greater number of new trees planted. While this may be the case – even with most of the hill’s western slope now stripped bare – the terracing necessary for the project and the construction of new structures and footpaths, will permanently alter the hill’s character and add much unwelcome concrete to an already heavily concretised area.</p?

The still forested hill, seen in July 2016.

The hub, which will feature a food centre, a swimming complex, other sports and recreational facilities, is due to be opened in phases from the first half of 2020. It will eventually incorporate the former Admiralty House, a National Monument since 2002. Work on this phase will commence when Furen International School, vacates the house in 2020.

Another view of the hill in 2016.

More on the hub and the former Admiralty House can be found at:


The front of the former Admiralty House.

The house has been likened to an English country manor.

The view the house commanded until fairly recently.


 





Finding joy in a space in which Joy was bottled

21 12 2017

The photographs of the site of the former National Aerated Water Co. used in this post were taken during a private visit organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) for invited guests and have been used with the kind permission of the site’s current owner. Do note that the site is not opened to the public.


Disused spaces bring great joy, even as in the case of the former National Aerated Water Co’s bottling plant at 3MS Serangoon Road, the paraphernalia associated its use has long been removed. There is much to learn from the spaces, especially those that were conceived with little in way of frills in an age of greater simplicity. The disused plant, fronted by an art-deco-esque tw0-strorey structure placed along a thoroughfare that would have been hard to miss, last saw use some two decades ago. Associated with the bottling of two popular soft-drink labels, Sinalco and the joy in a green bottle that was the comic strip inspired Kickapoo Joy Juice,  there are many now who look back fondly at the now empty building that is one of few constants in an area that has seen much change.

The art-deco front of the former factory is a rare constant in an area that has seen much change.

The good news we heard just last week was that a portion of the former plant – its front – is being conserved. Selangor Dredging purchased the site for residential redevelopment just last year and has over the year been working with the URA on the conservation of the former plant’s most recognisable feature and its face – the art-deco main building.

The disused factory offers us a window into the past.

The factory, of a 1954 vintage, last saw operations some two decades ago. Built at a time of increasing demand for soft drinks, the home-grown company’s new plant found immediate success. The investment in the state-of-the-art factory and bottling equipment on the company’s 25th Anniversary was motivated by Sinalco’s 1952 award of exclusive bottling and distribution rights. An interesting nugget of information was shared by the URA about the rather peculiar name of the German drink was that it was derived from the words “sine alcohol” or without (in Latin) alcohol. More on the plant and the company can be found in a previous post: Losing its fizz: the third milestone without the former National Aerated Water plant.

Writings on the wall: soft drinks bottled at the plant … plus a secret formula perhaps.

The L-shaped building being conserved was where the company was run from. Offices and a mixing room were located on the upper floor and a reception, the storage area and distribution spaces on the lower level. The conserved building has several interesting features. These include a purpose designed “signage tower” on which the Sinalco logo was emblazoned, a tapering balcony at the front with a fair-faced brick parapet facing the road on which the company’s name is mounted, and a built-in sun shade projecting out from the building’s side that spirals out of a circular window (see: Conserved features of the building at “Former National Aerated Water Factory building to be gazetted for conservation” identified by URA). Parts of the building will have to be rebuilt. This includes the southeast corner, which will have to be knocked-down to permit vehicular entry to the site for construction.

A sun shade or concrete, spiraling out of a circular window.

The signage tower.

Office space on the upper floor.

Redevelopment will take place on the site just to the rear of the conserved building and this will see several structures removed, including the wide-span steel truss supported roof structure under which the main shopfloor of the plant was sited. This roof construction, topped with corrugated roofing sheets, has ample window covered openings built in to it to maxmise the entry of light and ventilation. An auxiliary building, that would have contained service spaces including toilets that can still be seen, can be found close to the rear perimeter of the site.

The shopfloor and the roof structure through which light into the factory was maximised.

The building at the rear of the site.


A look around …

A last reflection. The reception area at the southeast side of the building.

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The fair-faced brick parapet.

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Windows from the past into the present.

The main staircase.

The tapered front facing balcony.

The rear of the office space – which overlooked the shopfloor. Part of the roof structure can be seen.

Timber doors and matching ventilation grilles above are seen on the outward facing boundaries of the main building.

A view from the former shopfloor towards the main building. The right portion of the building was where crates of soft drinks were stored and dispatched.

The southwest side of the building.

The part of the building that will be reconstructed.

The office space on the upper floor.

The mixing room.

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Joyful switches.

A view out the back of the office space towards the roof and the shopfloor below.

A close-up of the corrugated roofing sheets.

Frosted or textured glass is in evidence throughout to filter light that would otherwise have been too harsh.

Close-up of a textured glass panel.

Up on the roof.

A view over the top.

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Textured glass windows.

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A ventilation house?

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Dead slow ahead. The part of the factory that will be demolished as seen from the driveway.

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The pump at the driveway, which is visible from the outside.

Comfort facilities at the rear.


 





Yay! The former National Aerated Water Co. plant is being conserved!

15 12 2017

Notices in the back pages of the press can sometimes bring joy.

An notice that gave me a sense of happiness appeared in today’s edition of the Straits Times, which contained a list of proposed amendments to the Master Plan being made by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). One is the re-designation of part of a certain Lot 05052P, Mukim 17 at Serangoon Road as a Conservation Area, which OneMap identifies as the site of the former National Aerated Water Company’s bottling plant. The possibility of its conservation was actually discussed a year back after the site was purchased by property developer Selangor Dredging. The developer intends to redevelop the site for residential use, which interestingly appears as the “Jui Residences” – a play I suppose on the Hokkien word for water Jui or 水, on OneMap. What is now left to be seen is how much of the former factory can be retained.*

More on the plant, the social memories connected with it, and its history can be found in this post: Losing its fizz: the third milestone without the former National Aerated Water plant.

The notice on page C16 of today’s Straits Times and the lot as identified on OneMap.

The former National Aerated Water plant by the Kallang River.


*A press release issued by the URA indicates that the conservation will be of the two-storey L-shaped main building facing Serangoon Road. Part of the conserved building (I suppose the corner where the road access now is) will however have to be demolished and reconstructed to allow vehicular access to the rear of the site.

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The corner of the building that would have to be reconstructed.


More photos previously taken of the plant

(see also: https://thelongnwindingroad.wordpress.com/2016/12/11/losing-its-fizz-the-third-milestone-without-the-former-national-aerated-water-plant/):


Update 15 Dec 2017, 11.30 am

URA Press Release (link):
Former National Aerated Water Factory building to be gazetted for conservation

Published Date: 15 Dec 2017

The main building of the former National Aerated Water Factory at 1177 Serangoon Road will be gazetted for conservation by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

Recognising the building’s heritage value, its role as a landmark in the area and the social memories it holds for the community, the building owner, Selangor Dredging Berhad (SDB) is supportive of the conservation efforts and is working closely with URA to keep the building as part of our national history.

Ms Teh Lip Kim, Managing Director of SDB said, “As the building owner and a responsible community stakeholder, Selangor Dredging Berhad is pleased to support the conservation effort on the former National Aerated Water Factory, a well-known heritage landmark in the Serangoon area. We are glad to partner URA on this conservation journey to retain the building and integrate it as part of the new development. The building will be transformed into a unique and lively commercial area located next to a park connector, adjacent to the Kallang River. We are keen to contribute to sustainable projects where we can, and will put in our best effort to make these projects distinctive.”

Contributing to the heritage of Kallang River

Completed in 1954, this Art Deco Style building is a well-known local landmark along Serangoon Road. It was the bottling factory that produced popular soft drinks such as Sinalco, Kickapoo Joy Juice and Royal Crown Cola.  It is also one of the last few remaining structures along the stretch of Kallang River that reflect the area’s rich industrial past, and contribute to the heritage of the Kallang River.

Mr Lim Eng Hwee, Chief Executive Officer of URA said, “This building is not only historically significant as a familiar landmark along the Kallang River, it also holds fond memories for Singaporeans for the popular soft drinks it produced from 1950s to 1990s. We are heartened that Selangor Dredging Berhad sees the significance of the building and supports its conservation. The conservation of this heritage-rich building would not have been possible without the support from the owner and recognition of the building’s significance from the community.”

Conserved features of the building

The two-storey L-shaped main building facing Serangoon Road will be conserved. This includes the signage tower, a representative feature that many will be familiar with.  Other significant features are the balcony with fair faced brick parapets, the Art Deco timber transom panels and the concrete sun shading ledge that spirals out of a circular window.

Retaining heritage while meeting Singapore’s development needs in land-scarce Singapore requires a delicate balance. The conserved building will be integrated into a new residential development, allowing the story of the building to be brought to life through adaptive re-use. The conserved building will be kept fenceless along the main road and the river, giving the public a chance to get up close and personal with this heritage gem from Singapore’s past.

To facilitate adaptive re-use of the conserved building and allow vehicular access to the rear of the site, reconstruction of a corner of the building and the internal floors will be required. URA will work closely with the building owner to guide the reconstruction when the residential development is completed.

As part of its efforts to celebrate Singapore’s built heritage, URA works with owners of developments, stakeholders and the larger community to tell stories of days gone by involving our built heritage, such as for this National Aerated Water Factory building. Members of the public who wish to be our partners in promoting the heritage of this building or share their memories of this building can write to us at URA_Cons_Portal@ura.gov.sg.






The beer train from the Anchor Brewery

30 10 2017

A wonderful set of photographs popped up On a Little Street in Singapore last week. The photographs were posted by Lies Strijker-Klaij and includes several of the old Anchor Brewery at which Mrs Strijker’s husband, the photographer, headed its Brewhouse and Bottling Hall in the 1960s as an employee of Heineken. The set of the brewery includes several rare photographs of the railway siding and the bonded store that was sited across Alexandra Road (where IKEA stands today), as well as an overhead conveyor bridge that was used to convey beer across to the store. Together with the brewery, the bridge was a longtime landmark in the area.

An aerial view showing the brewery, the bridge , the bonded store, and the railway siding (photo: Th. A. Strijker).

The brewery, occupied the spot where Anchorpoint (the shopping mall) and the Anchorage (a condominium) stands today. It was one of two breweries along a partly industrialised Alexandra Road, the other brewery being the Malayan Breweries Limited (MBL), a venture between Fraser and Neave (F&N) and Heineken. The Anchor Brewery, producing Anchor Beer, began as a $1 million venture by the Dutch East Indies based Archipel Brouwerij Compagnie named the Archipelago Brewery Company (ABC) on 4 November 1933. As a rival to MBL, which produced Tiger Beer, it entered into a five-year pooling agreement in March 1938.  The agreement, secured for it a 40% share of the beer market and 70% of the stout market in Malaya, with the intention that it was to eventually be extended to the breweries’ other markets in Southeast Asia, India, Hong Kong and China.

The bridge to the bonded store over Alexandra Road, 1969, decorated for the 150th Anniversary of the founding of modern Singapore  (photo: Th. A. Strijker).

A turn of events in Europe just one and a half years later would lead to MBL’s acquisition of ABC. Britain had declared war with Germany following the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. ABC, which Germany’s Beck’s Brewery had an interest in, was then abandoned by its German management team and found itself in the hands of the government, who decided to keep the brewery running under their care before putting it up for sale in 1940. MBL submitted the winning bid and set up a subsidiary – the Archipelago Brewery Company (1941) – to run the brewery in 1941.  It wasn’t to be long however before another turn of events – the Japanese invasion and occupation – saw the brewery’s operators change hands once again when Dai Nippon, the producer of Asahi Beer in Japan, was asked to operate the brewery from late 1942.

The bonded store and a train leaving it (photo: Th. A. Strijker).

MBL returned to running the breweries after the war and it was in this post-war period in 1949 when the conveyor bridge, built 6 metres above Alexandra Road, was added along with a bonded storehouse (where IKEA is today). A private railway siding, connected the store with a pre-existing industrial branch line that connected with the main line across Jalan Bukit Merah. The industrial line was in use until the early 1980s, after which it was dismantled. The brewery closed in 1990 when MBL’s brewing operations were relocated to a new factory in Tuas and together with its iconic conveyor bridge and its store, were demolished in 1993 – except for a Arts and Crafts movement inspired house along Alexandra Road – the former residence of the brew master. The conservation building, now used as a restaurant, along with several hints of the former brewery found in the names of the mall and condominium that has replaced it (and also the ABC Brickworks Food Centre), are all that now remains of a brewery that introduced to Singapore what became until the 1980s at least, its favourite beer.

A loaded train leaving the siding (photo: Th. A. Strijker).

366A Alexandra Road – another Arts and Crafts styled house in the brewery compound – in which Mr and Mrs Strijker lived in (photo: Th. A. Strijker)  

The former Brewmaster’s House – conserved in 1993.





Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets: Beach Road Police Station and Barracks

22 09 2017

The barracks have since been demolished to make way for Guoco Midtown. Only the former police station, a conserved building which is being incorporated into the mixed-use development, now stands.

Update 22 September 2017

Registrations have close as all available slots have been taken up as of 10.05 am. Do look out for the next visit in the series (location to be advised) on 21 October 2017.

More on the series:


The sixth in the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) supported series of guided State Property visits, “Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets“, takes us to the former Beach Road Police Station.

The details of the visit are as follows:
Date : 7 October 2017
Time : 10 am to 12 noon
Address: 99 Beach Road Singapore 189701

The size of the group for the visit is limited to 30 and registrations will be required. To register, kindly fill this form in: https://goo.gl/forms/kDn5piD8NglKGH1W2


Background to the station and barracks:

The station and two barrack buildings were completed in 1934 at the tail end of a decade of reorganisation for the police force. The efforts also saw the establishment of a Police Training School at Thomson – the old Police Academy, as well as the construction of new stations and living quarters across Singapore, in the face of a relative state of disorder that had prompted comparisons between the “cesspool of iniquity” that was Singapore, a.k.a. Sin-galore, and Chicago.

The complex was a replacement for an earlier station, which had been located further east along Beach Road at Clyde Terrace and was built at a cost of $319,743. The barracks provided quarters for 64 married man in one of its three storey blocks. 80 single men and NCOs were also accommodated in another three storey singlemen’s block in which a mess and recreation room was also arranged on the ground floor. The three storey main station building, described at the point of its construction as being of a “pretentious type”, also had quarters  – for two European and two “Asiatic” Inspectors – on its second and third levels. Its ground floor contained offices, a guard room, an armoury and a number of stores. A cell block – the lock-up – was also arranged “behind the guardroom”, “approached from it by a covered way”.

The station would play a part in a series of tumultuous events that followed its completion. A hundred or so Japanese “aliens” were held in it at the outbreak of war on 8 December, before they were moved to Changi Prison. This was a scene would repeat itself after Singapore’s fall. The station was used as a holding facility for different ethnic groups of civilians including Jews, individuals of various European backgrounds and nationalities, and also members of the Chinese and Indian community, before internment in Changi.

Beach Road Police Station also found itself in the thick of action during the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950, when policemen from the station were sent to quell disturbances in nearby Kampong Glam – only to have the men involved retreat into the station, along with scores of civilians, for safety.

The station served as the Police ‘C’ Division headquarters until May 1988, when that moved into new premises at Geylang Police Station on Paya Lebar Road. The Central Police Division headquarters moved in to the station in November 1992 and used it until 2001 when that moved into the newly completed Cantonment Police Complex. The decommissioned former station was also used by the Raffles Design Institute for some six years. Two sets of quarters, added on an adjoining piece of land – two four storey blocks in the 1950s and a 12 storey block in 1970 – have since been demolished.

The station complex sits on a 2 hectare reserve site that is now the subject of a Government land sales tender exercise and as the successful developer will have the option of demolishing the two barrack blocks as part of the redevelopment, this may be a last opportunity to see the complex as it is. The main station building itself has been conserved since 2002 and will be retained.


 





Singapore’s oldest Catholic church now looks like its newest

28 11 2016

The beautifully restored Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, Singapore’s oldest Catholic church and a National Monument, re-opened on 20 November 2016 when it held its first mass in over three years. Sitting on a foundation of nothing more than compacted earth, its structure had been quite badly affected by ground disturbance caused by construction work in, around, and under it, which required it to be closed for repair work could be carried out.

As it turned out, the repair effort was quite timely. Columns supporting the pediment at the cathedral’s Victoria Street end gave way as the building was in the late stages of repair on 3 September 2015. Fortunately, the incident – which also saw the pediment come crashing down – happened at night and no one was hurt. The incident also led to the discovery that the supports, on which the weight of the steeple and bell tower also rests, were inadequate and required strengthening and a decision was taken to replace the original brick columns with stronger but lighter steel columns due to weight (which would increase structural load on the base) and time considerations. Another consequence of the collapse would have was in the discovery of the original time-capsule. This was placed beneath the cornerstone when that was laid on 18 June 1843. It was only found due to the work that was needed on the new structure. The time-capsule contained coins, newspapers and a service booklet from the time and its contents are now on display in the Cathedral Heritage Centre.

The entire project, which also involved restoration of the Cathedral and its rectory, as well as the construction of a new three-storey annex block – where the heritage centre is being housed – came at a cost of S$40 million. One of the key areas of repair required was in the underpinning of the cathedral building due to the lack of a suitable foundation. The intervention also allowed service ducts to be run under the building to carry both electrical cables and ducting for air-conditioning – a much welcome addition. The gallery pipe-organ  – Singapore’s oldest pipe-organ – was also restored. This required it to be shipped to the Philippines, which has a rich organ building. The restored pipe-organ also made its debut during the reopening mass when it so wonderfully accompanied the cathedral choir.

The Cathedral Choir making its entry before the opening mass on 20 Nov 2016.

The Cathedral Choir making its entry before the opening mass on 20 Nov 2016.

Standing room only. The opening drew a large crowd and pews were already filled as early as an hour and a half before mass.

Standing room only. The opening drew a large crowd and pews were already filled as early as an hour and a half before mass.

The sanctuary after the reopening.

The sanctuary after the reopening, with a new altar.

In 2013 with a large crack clearly visible on the wall behind it.

In 2013 with a large crack clearly visible on the wall behind it.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2016.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2016.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2013.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2013.

View down the nave, 2016.

View down the nave, 2016.

View down the nave, 2013.

View down the nave, 2013.

The repaired and restored Victoria Street end and the steeple.

The repaired and restored Victoria Street end and the steeple.

The view during the restoration, when steel columns were introduced (to be clad with masonry) for reasons of weight and time when the original structure gave way.

The view during the restoration, when steel columns were introduced (to be clad with masonry) for reasons of weight and time when the original structure gave way.

With its columns braced in 2010.

With its columns braced in 2010.

A close-up.

A close-up.

Archbishop William Goh after unveiling a new Pietà before the opening mass.

Archbishop William Goh after unveiling a new Pietà before the opening mass.

The old Pietà, seen in 2013.

The old Pietà, seen in 2013.

Another view of the new Pietà.

Another view of the new Pietà.

The old Pietà and the staircase to the choir gallery in 2013.

The old Pietà and the staircase to the choir gallery in 2013.

The choir organ in 2013, which has been removed.

The choir organ in 2013, which was in the north transept and has since been removed.

Where the choir organ was located.

Where the choir organ was located.

The cathedral in 2016.

The cathedral in 2016.

The Cathedral in 2013.

The Cathedral in 2013.

The Good Shepherd, 2016.

The Good Shepherd, 2016.

The Good Shepherd, 2013.

The Good Shepherd, 2013.

The annex building and the rectory as seen from Queen Street.

The annex building and the rectory as seen from Queen Street.

The view of the rectory from Queen Street in 2013.

The view of the rectory from Queen Street in 2013.

Balustrades, an original feature, were restored to the second level of the rectory turret.

Balustrades, an original feature, were restored to the second level of the rectory turret.

The turret before restoration.

The turret before restoration.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The garage, which was also demolished.

The garage, which was also demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The restoration was originally scheduled for two years,

The restoration was originally scheduled for two years,

Before the restoration.

Before the restoration.

During the restoration.

During the restoration.

Exposed brickwork of the columns seen during the restoration.

Exposed brickwork of the columns seen during the restoration.


More views of the beautifully restored cathedral

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What’s propping a mid 1800s pagoda up on Telok Ayer Street

27 09 2016

A curious sight found at one of Telok Ayer Street’s two beautifully restored mid-19th century Chinese pagodas, the Chung-Wen pagoda or Chong-Wen Ge (崇文阁), are eight figures that are seen propping up the pagoda’stop tier. Referred to rather disparagingly in  colloquial Hokkien as “dim-witted foreigners”, these figures carved from wood have no structural function and are purely decorative features. Similar figures, which are also sometimes made of clay, are apparently, quite commonly used in Minnan architecture and are thought to have their origins in the Tang Dynasty when they may have been used to commemorate the efforts of foreign labourers who were often involved in building projects.

The Chung Wen Pagoda.

The Chung Wen Pagoda.

Support beams for the uppermost tier of the pagoda, which feature carvings of non-Chinese men depicted as lending support to the structure.

Support beams for the uppermost tier of the pagoda, which feature carvings of non-Chinese men depicted as lending support to the structure.

A night-time view of the pagoda.

A night-time view of the pagoda.

The eight wooden cravings are just some of an amazing array of decorative work found in the incredibly beautiful pagoda. Built between 1849 and 1852, the pagoda, besides it features that define a strong Chinese flavour, also has features that speak of the influences present in the 18th century Singapore such as a wrought iron sprial staircase that was put in during a restoration effort in 1880 and encaustic floor tiles, which can also be found in other Chinese buildings in the country.

Decorative details.

Decorative details.

The second tier.

The second tier.

The reverse view.

The reverse view.

The wrought iron staircase.

The wrought iron staircase.

Linked with the Hokkien community, whose spiritual centre was at the next door Thian Hock Keng temple, the Chung-Wen pagoda apparently also had the support of other groups within the wider Chinese community. This is evident in one of three steles found on the site. The stele, which commemorates the pagoda’s construction, sees the names of Teochew leader Seah Eu Chin as well as that of a Hakka, Liew Lok Teck, alongside names associated such as Tan Kim Seng, Ang Choon Seng, Wee Chong Sun and Cheang Sam Teo from the Hokkien community.

The stele commemorating its construction.

The stele commemorating its construction.

A view of the entrance doorway to the Chong-wen Ge from the upper tier of the pagoda.

A view of the entrance doorway to the Chong-wen Ge from the upper tier of the pagoda.

We also see on the stele that a shrine dedicated to Zitong Dijun (梓潼帝君) was placed on the pagoda’s second tier. Zitong Dijun, also known as Wenchang (文昌), is considered to be the Chinese god of culture and literature, and is a patron deity of scholars. This is a clear indication of the Chung-Wen pagoda’s intended purpose as a place given to promoting learning, although not all experts agree on the manner in which it was done. What is clear however, is that the Chong-Wen Ge was where the written word was venerated. This was carried out through the practice of the burning of papers on which words have been written, in honour of the inventor of Chinese characters, Cangjie (倉頡). The installation of a small paper burning pagoda on the site for this purpose is also recorded on the stele.

A view from the pagoda across to the Thain Hock Keng and the former Keng Teck Whay.

Old world gods now surrounded by the gods of the new world  – a view from the pagoda across to the Thain Hock Keng and the former Keng Teck Whay and the financial centre of the city beyond it.

The building which housed the Chong Hock School.

The building which housed the Chong Hock School.

The practice of burning the written word ended in 1910 when the trustees of the Chong-Wen Ge handed control of it over to the Thian Hock Keng temple, although it can be said that the written word was then celebrated in a different manner with the founding of the Chong Hock School for girls in 1915. The school operated in the simple but lovely two storey building adjacent to the pagoda and only moved out in 1985 as Chongfu School.  The school’s building have seen several uses since and now houses the Singapore Musical Box Museum on its upper level. An encaustic tile shop and a Peranakan café is also now found on its ground level.

A view of the Chong Hock School building from the pagoda.

A view of the Chong Hock School building from the pagoda.

The Chong-Wen Ge, which translates as the Institute for the Veneration of Literature, was gazetted as a National Monument in 1973 with the Thian Hock Keng. Its wonderfully restored state is the result of its last major restoration effort which was undertaken between 2001-2003. More information on it and other conserved former school buildings can be found in a URA Heritage Schools Pamphlet.

Decorative detail on a door on the pagoda's second level.

Decorative detail on a door on the pagoda’s second level.

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A view from Telok Ayer Street.

A view from the cafe.

A view from the cafe.


A close-up of the eight “dim-witted foreigners”

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The fallen star of MacTaggart Road

6 09 2016

Long a landmark in the area, the Star at the corner of MacTaggart and Burn Roads – the former Khong Guan Biscuit Factory, is sadly, having its insides ripped out. The building, which was constructed in 1952 and given conservation status in December 2005. Sitting now behind hoardings, it seems that its face is all that is being conserved.

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The Star and its delightful front grille gates in April 2013.

Described in a Straits Times report earlier this year as a three-storey modernist structure, the building also provided office space for the family owned business which has long been a household name in Singapore, as well as store spaces, a shopfront and accommodation to members of the family. The architect of the building and Khong Guan’s company architects since the 1950s, Chung Swee Poey & Sons, also had their offices on the second floor of the building.

Seen from MacTaggart Road in January this year.

Seen from MacTaggart Road in January this year.

More on the building can be found at the following links:


Photographs of the former Khong Guan Biscuit Factory

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The former factory as seen from Burn Road in April 2013.

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A display window at the former factory as seen in April 2013.

Entrance to offices along MacTaggart Road, Seen in January 2016.

Entrance to offices along MacTaggart Road, Seen in January 2016.

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The front of the former factory as seen in April 2013.

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The former factory behind hoardings in September 2016.

The former factory behind hoardings in September 2016.

It appears that all that is being conserved is the building's façade.

It appears that all that is being conserved is the building’s façade.






Calling an end to one cycle of time for the Ellison Building

3 09 2016

As if to foretell the end in a cycle of time for the Ellison Building, and the beginning of another, the mayura, a peacock – a mythological representation of the cycle of time, has made an appearance just across Bukit Timah Road from it. In the peacock’s view is the side the building whose time is at it end; an end that is being brought about by the intended construction of the North-South Expressway right under it.

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That a decision was taken to demolish a portion of a building that has been gazetted for conservation is hard to fathom. Protection through conservation, so it seems, counts for very little when the development of national infrastructure is a justification. Constraints of space due to what already exists underground has forced the authorities concerned to take this unfortunate decision. The section that will be demolished, which contains three units along Bukit Timah Road, will be reconstructed and reinstated to the building original design after the expressway is completed in 2026.

The decision caught the public unawares, first coming to light on 7 August 2016. The Chinese language daily Lianhe Zaobao, in an article on the construction of the expressway, made mention that part of the building’s “façade” was to be demolished and reinstated. Further information was then provided by a Straits Times 18 August 2016 report and much shock and disappointment has been expressed [see: Rebuilding parts of heritage building not the answer (Letter to the Straits Times, 18 August 2016), the Singapore Heritage Society’s 18 August 2016 Statement on Ellison Building, and ICOMOS Singapore’s 2 September Statement on the Proposed Demolition and Reconstruction of Part of Ellison Building].

The old style Hup Chiang kopitiam at the Ellison Building, now occupied by a Teochew porridge restaurant.

The news is also upsetting considering that the Ellison is one of the last survivors of the landmarks that once provided the area with its identity. Old Tekka Market, an focal point for many heading to the area in its day, has long since left us. Its replacement, housed at the bottom of a HDB built podium development built across the road from the old market, lacks the presence of the old  – even if the complex towers over the area. The complex sits on the site of another missing landmark, the Kandang Kerbau Police Station. One still there but now well hidden from sight is the Rochor Canal. Flavoursome in more ways than one, the canal would often mentioned in the same breath as any reference that was made to the area. Looking a little worse for war and dwarfed by much of what now surrounds it, the Ellison building with its distinctive façade, still makes its presence felt.

The Ellison Building as interpreted by the Urban Sketchers of Singapore.

The Ellison Building as interpreted by the Urban Sketchers Singapore.

The Ellison building is one of three structures found in the area on which the Star of David proudly displayed, the others being the David Elias building and the Maghain Aboth synagogue at Waterloo Street. Placed between the 19 and 24 on its Selegie Road façade that gives the year of its completion, it tells of a time we have forgotten when the area  was the Mahallah to the sizeable Arab speaking Baghdadi Jewish community. Described as having a feel of old Baghdad, the Mahallah was where the likes of Jacob Ballas and Harry Elias, just two of the communities many illustrious children, spend their early years in. Another link to its origins is an “I. Ellison” one finds over the entrance to No. 237 – one of the units that will be demolished. This serves to remind us of Isaac Ellison who had the building erected, apparently, for his wife Flora. 

The building seems also to have a long association with one of Singapore’s biggest obsessions, food. One food outlet that goes back as far as the building is Singapore’s oldest Indian Vegetarian restaurant, Ananda Bhavan (which still operates there). It was one of two vegetarian places that I remember seeing from my days passing the building on my daily rides home on the bus as a schoolboy. I would look out for the eye-catching displays of brightly coloured milk candy, neatly arranged on the shelves of wooden framed glass cabinets and also the restaurants’ old fashioned counters. Another sight that I never failed to notice was the mama shop along the five-foot-way and its stalk of bananas on display from which bananas would be plucked and purchased individually.

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A lost reminder of the past, an old fashioned Indian Vegetarian restaurant that has since been replaced by a popular nasi lemak shop.

The units that housed the vegetarian restaurants are fortunately on the side along Selegie Road. This will not be affected by the expressway construction and is housed within a larger part of the building that is not being demolished. This is something that should perhaps be looked at positively as unlike the regretful loss of whole places and structures that we have become accustomed to – so that they can keep our world moving,  the Ellison, because of it conservation status will not totally be lost.

Previous instance of moving our world too far and too fast, and in a direction not everyone is comfortable with, we have bid farewell to well loved structures such as the people’s National Theatre, the much-loved National Library, and what probably counts as Singapore’s first purpose built hawker centre – the Esplanade Food Centre.

We have also parted company in more recent times with places such as the remnants of the historic Mount Palmer and  a part of the Singapore’s first polytechnic. Both were flattened earlier this year to allow the final phase of the Circle Line MRT to be completed. Another historic site, Bukit Brown cemetery, has also lost some of its inhabitants to a highway that is being built through it. There is also the case of the proposed Cross Island Line’s proposed alignment that will take it under what should rightfully be an untouchable part of Singapore – the Central Catchment Nature. Of concern is the site  investigation work that will be carried out and its potential for long term damage to the flora and fauna of the nature reserve.

The regret of allowing places such as the National Library and National Theatre to pass into history is still felt. Whatever is intended for the Ellison is something we similarly will regret. Let us hope that the regret is not also one of setting a precedent in the resolution of conflicts to come between conservation and the need for development.


Other views of the Ellison Building over the years found online:

Part of the Selegie Road face of Ellison Building, possibly in the 1980s (snowstorm snowflake on Panoramio).

The Ellison Building, seen from across the then opened Rochor Canal in 1969 (Bill Strong on Flickr).






Sophia, Caroline and Emily, and the spiced up Hills of Babylon

18 08 2016

Just north of a hill of much history known to the early inhabitants of Singaporeans as the Forbidden Hill or Bukit Larangan, is a cluster of low hills that are known today as Mounts Sophia, Emily, and Caroline.  The hills, three sisters if you like, go back a long way and have a rather storied past.

The value of these elevations, rising some 30 to 35 metres above the plain which Raffles designated as the new settlement’s European precinct, and the harbour that was the very reason for which the settlement was founded beyond it, had certainly been recognised in the early days. Two of the protagonists of the new trading post soon had their hands on parts of them. In a letter written by Singapore’s first resident, William Farquhar, to Raffles on 23 December 1822,  Raffles is told that parts of the hills had been cleared at government expense, with 33 acres of “Silligie” Hill  occupied by Captain William Flint, the Master Attendant, and 20 acres of the next hill to the north, “Bukit Cawah”, that the Resident had himself taken possession of.

William Farquhar.

William Farquhar.

In the letter, Farquhar also describes the state of the hills at the time of the founding – the “commencement of the establishment” as he had put it. “Silligie” was “occupied in the western side by a Chinese planter who had formed a Gambier Plantation there”. Its eastern side had been “a primitive forest” and “Bukit Cawah” had been “totally unoccupied and covered with primitive forest trees”.

Gambier, an extract from the leaves of the plant is used in dyes and in the tanning of leather and also in the chewing of betel nut. Gambier was planted in Singapore by the Chinese even before the British arrived.

Gambier, an extract from the leaves of the plant is used in dyes and in the tanning of leather and also in the chewing of betel nut. Gambier was planted in Singapore by the Chinese even before the British arrived.

Raffles, who was at odds with Farquhar over his handling of the affairs of new settlement, had allegations made that Farquhar had appropriated more (land) than he was entitled to on Bukit Cawah. In an essay  “William Farquhar, First Resident and Commandant of Singapore”1, one of the foremost authorities on Raffles, John Sturgus Bastin, informs us that Raffles had referred to what Farquhar had his hands on as his “Hills of Babylon” – a reference to the hills in the Book of Revelations that one of the beasts of the end times, Babylon, rests on.

From a map of Singapore dated 1822-23. Cawah is probably misspelt as Rawa.

From a map of Singapore dated 1822-23. Cawah is probably misspelt as Rawa.

We know of Bukit Cawah today as Mount Emily and Silligie Hill (or Bukit Selegie) as Mount Sophia. Early maps and documents use several variations in the spelling of the names, the origins of which, seem rather obscure. An attempt is made by Victor Savage and Brenda Yeoh in “Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics” to offer possible explanations. One relates to a Bugis chief with a band of followers called the “Orang Selegie”, while another gives Selegie, spelt Seligi, to be a reference to the nibong palm  used in the making of fishing stakes or of spears of the same name. There apparently is a sharpened wooden spear used by the Borneo based Iban tribe that is known a “seligi”. That is made of the trunk of the nibong palm.

From a map entitled "Part of Singapore Island", 1825, which identifies both Bukit Selegie and Bukit Kawah.

From a map entitled “Part of Singapore Island”, 1825, which identifies both Bukit Selegie and Bukit Kawah.

I should think that Selegie must have less exotic origins. A set of sketches of fishing implements employed by the Orang Laut seen in Cynthia Chou’s book on the Orang Suku Laut2, who were among the earliest inhabitants of Singapore, offers a possible clue. A multi-pronged tip of a fishing spear commonly used in “pre-settlement” daysis found in them, made not necessarily from the nibong palm that is identified as a “seligi“. How this seligi became mixed up with the hill is anybody’s guess. One explanation I can offer is that the two hills may have stuck out of the undeveloped pre-settlement landscape like the prongs of seligi.

Fishing spears employed by the orang laut.

Fishing spears employed by the orang laut.

As opposed to the Iban seligi, there should be little doubt that the seligi fishing spear would be ones that are readily recognisable in Singapura. Spearing of fish was the main method of fishing, as had been observed by Munshi Abdullah, a scholar and translator from Malacca, as is recorded in his autobiography, Hikayat Abdullah. The introduction of the hook and line by fishermen coming over from his native Malacca post-settlement put an end to the practice. It is not unimaginable that the two hills had collectively been referred to as Bukit Selegie. An indication of this is seen perhaps in G.D. Coleman’s 1836 Map of Town and Environs, which shows a Mount Sophia that had been marked in earlier maps as Bukit Selegie alongside a Mount Emily (Bukit Cawah) that is instead marked as “Bukit Selegie”.

From the 1836 Map of Town and Environs, based on a survey carried out by G D Coleman.

From the 1836 Map of Town and Environs, based on a survey carried out by G D Coleman (click to enlarge).

The name Cawah seems most obscure.

One explanation that has been offered is that Cawah is a variation in the spelling of Jawa or Java, and the hill was so named due to the proximity of a Javanese settlement at Kampong Jawa. The “C” in this case might have been pronounced as it is in modern Malay spelling, as a Ch. We do however see the name spelt with a K, Kawah, and what this means is that the name would more likely have been pronounced as Ka-wah rather than as Cha-wah.

The word Kawah finds widespread use in Indonesia to describe a volcanic crater. It also translates into English as a cauldron or even a large pot. As with the name Selegie, Kawah could have been a reference to the shape of a geographical feature, such as that of the depression found in between the two hills. But without no evidence to back this up, it would be hard to put a finger on it.

A crater, Kawah Sikadang, near Yogyakarta in Indonesia.

A crater, Kawah Sikadang, near Yogyakarta in Indonesia.

The hills’ modern day names are in themselves, a cause for much speculation. While it has been generally accepted that the Sophia in Mount Sophia was Raffles second wife Sophia Hull, who the Flints who moved up the hill were thought to have honoured;  there also are suggestions that it may have been one of several Sophias also connected with the hill, of which there are a few.

The Flints, Mary Ann, Raffles' sister and Captain William, the Master Attendant.

The Flints, Mary Ann, Raffles’ sister and Captain William, the Master Attendant.

One, is none other than the Flints’ daughter, Mary Sophia Anne, who was born in 1823, the year the Flints moved to their new address. The name Sophia Cooke also comes up. Cooke was an Anglican missionary who arrived in 1853 to run the Chinese Girls’ School on the hill that is now St. Margaret’s School. There is also Sophia Blackmore. Ms Blackmore founded Methodist Girls School in 1887. Although the school only moved up from Short Street to Mount Sophia in 1925, Ms Blackmore other connections with the hill date back to the 1890s.

The Deaconess Home (later Nind Home), acquired in 1894, was used by Ms. as a boarding house. The site at No.6 Mount Sophia (later No. 11), based on the details of the lease, could possibly be where Flint had his house.

The Deaconess Home (later Nind Home), acquired in 1894, was used by Ms. as a boarding house. The site at No.6 Mount Sophia (later No. 11), based on the details of the lease, could possibly be where Flint had his house.

One rather interesting suggestion that comes up from time to time is that the hills along with Mount Caroline, are named after the three daughters of Charles Robert Prinsep. This may have its origins in a Straits Times article from 10 May 1936. Charles Robert Prinsep, a barrister with the East India Company based in Calcutta, was also a plantation owner and the man behind the second phase of the hills’ development. He may have first purchased Bukit Cawah from the Farquhar estate in 1831,  adding to it a huge tract of land that extended to Mount Sophia and Mount Caroline, soon after.

View today over the three hills.

View today over what had once been the Prinsep estate.

All 270 acres of Prinsep’s sprawling estate, roughly the size of today’s Gardens by the Bay. was given to the cultivation of nutmeg. The arrival of nutmeg as a crop to our shores, and before that to Penang, was prompted by the desire of the British to challenge the monopoly the Dutch had on a spice that was worth more than its weight in gold.

The nutmeg fruit, seen on a tree on Fort Canning Hill.

The nutmeg fruit, seen on a tree on Fort Canning Hill.

By 1848, Prinsep’s estate was among 20 such plantations that were to alter the landscape of the previously forested hills on both sides of what we know today as Orchard Road. The estate of 6,700 trees had one of the highest yields and at its height produced some 22,000 nutmegs daily. Besides nutmeg, another spice Mace, is obtained from the “nuts”, ground from the seed’s aril. The spice nutmeg is from the seed itself. The plantations, by the way, were what gave Orchard Road its name.

Nutmeg, the only plant from which two spices are obtained. Mace from the red aril covering its seed and nutmeg from the seed itself.

Nutmeg, the only plant from which two spices are obtained. Mace from the red aril covering its seed and nutmeg from the seed itself.

It was around the time of the establishment of the Prinsep estate in 1831 that the name Mount Sophia first crops up (this on the basis of newspaper articles, the archives of which do not go further back than 1831 but the manner in which it does crop up points to its adoption around the same time). This was some five years before Coleman’s 1836 map was published. The mention is found in a letter to the Singapore Chronicle and Commercial Register, published  on 26 May 1831, in which the writer makes mention that “Flint’s Hill”, the location named of a fire that was the subject of an earlier report, should have been referred to as “Mount Sophia”.

A letter from Willaim Farquhar to Lt. Jackson making a request to have the identified hills, including Bukit Selegie and Bukit Cawah, surveyed. The various parties who were in possession of the hills are also identified.

A letter from Willaim Farquhar to Lt. Jackson making a request to have the identified hills, including Bukit Selegie and Bukit Cawah, surveyed. The various parties who were in possession of the hills are also identified.

By 1839, Prinsep’s estate had apparently been quite well established. Mention of the estate, and more importantly the three hills by name, is made in a published account of a visit paid by the crew of the United States frigate Columbia, to the estate. The Columbia, on a well documented round the world voyage, made a stopover in Singapore in February 1839. The accounts of the voyage were to be published in two volumes in 1840. On the visit to the estate, the account states:

The first of these estates, that of Mr. Princeps, who resides in Calcutta, is laid out with excellent taste upon beautiful grounds. It occupies about two hundred and fifty acres, including three lovely hills, Mount Sophia, Mount Caroline and Mount Emily, each surmounted by a neat bungalow, from which avenues radiate and intersect all over the plantation.

When we were there, the superintendent, who politely show us every part and answered our inquiries, informed us that they had already planted four thousand nutmeg trees; twenty thousand coffee shrubs; two hundred orange trees; two hundred clove trees; and one hundred and fifty areka trees, besides a few of many other kinds.

– “Around the World: A Narrative of a Voyage in the East India Squadron under Commodore George C. Read”, Volume 2, 1840, Page 143.

The extent of the Prinsep Estate, seen in an 1870 map.

The extent of the Prinsep Estate, seen in an 1870 map. The 106 acres bought for Government House, is marked as “New Government Property”.

This account discounts that possibility of the hills being named after Prinsep’s daughters. The first, Sophia Catherine, only came into the world three years after the visit, in 1842. To add to the improbability of this, Prinsep, who married Louisa Anne White in 1837, was to have three other daughters, none of whom had the name Caroline. His other daughters were Annie Mary (b. 1848), Louisa Sophia (b. 1851), and Mary Emily (b. 1853). The account. plus the fact that Mount Sophia is mentioned as early as 1831, also puts paid to the suggestions concerning both Ms Cooke and Ms Blackmore.

Mary Emily Prinsep (Julia Margaret Cameron, photograph,1866). Could she have been the Emily in Mount Emily?

Mary Emily Prinsep (Julia Margaret Cameron, photograph,1866). Probably not the Emily in Mount Emily.

Further investigation does however throw up the possibility that a different set of sisters in the Prinsep family are behind the names. Charles Robert, it turns out, had three sisters who coincidentally, were named Sophia, Caroline and Amelia (affectionately known as Emily). There is every likelihood that it was this set of sisters, who had been born before Charles Robert’s plantation came into being, who lent their names to the hills. It could also have been the case that Prinsep, on finding that one of the hills had already carried the name of one of his sisters, had decided to follow on, naming the other two main hills of his estate after his other sisters. This is perhaps less likely as the report of 1831 tells us that the name Flint’s Hill for Bukit Selegie was very much still use three years after his unfortunate demise in 1828. Incidentally, there is also a less significant hill in the estate, Mount Louisa. This appears in some maps as Lock’s Hill and it is probable that the Louisa in the name is  that of Prinsep’s wife.

Nutmeg plantations in Singapore, mid 1800s..

Nutmeg plantations in Singapore, mid 1800s..

Prinsep’s plantation was to go the way of the island’s other nutmeg plantations. Despite thriving initially, disease was to dent the ambitions that the plantation owners held. By the time Prinsep had the lease on his estate extended in 1859, nutmeg as a crop had already been wiped out. This was to pave the way for the next phase of the development on the hills, one that saw it becoming an estate for the very well-heeled.

A sketch of a young Charles Robert Prinsep by his sister Emily, 1824.

A sketch of a young Charles Robert Prinsep by his sister Emily, 1824.

Sophia Charlotte Haldimand (née Prinsep) - another sketch by Emily Prinsep. Could she be the Sophia in Mount Sophia?

Sophia Charlotte Haldimand (née Prinsep) – another sketch by Emily Prinsep. Could she be the Sophia in Mount Sophia?

The estate was put up for sale in 1859 into the early 1860s, the evidence being advertisements placed in the newspapers. The sale in parts of the estate was allowed for and a familiar name in that of Mr (Lawrence) Niven features in the advertisements. Niven, after whom Niven Road at the foot of Mount Emily was named, is perhaps more well known for his efforts setting up of Singapore’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Singapore Botanical Gardens, as its very first superintendent. He had been the superintendent of Prinsep’s nutmeg estate prior to his appointment to the Botanical Gardens position and must have held both appointments concurrently at some point in time.

For Sale

In the immediate neighbourhood of the town of Singapore, the very desirable property of C. R. Prinsep, Esquire, lying between the Orchard and Bukit Timah Roads, consisting of Hills and Low grounds daily increasing in value.

This lands may be sold in lots to suit purchasers and all further particulars may be learned from Mr Niven, the Superintendent of the Estate or Messrto to be & Co.

Singapore, 13th April, 1859.

Well documented is the sale in 1867 of 106 acres of the western section of the estate,, covering Mount Caroline and Mount Louisa, to the Governor, Sir Harry St. George Ord. This was for a new Government House (now the Istana) to be erected. The placement of the fort on the original Government Hill, Bukit Larangan,  had displaced the Governor’s residence. The new Government House on the top of Mount Caroline was completed in 1869. Mount Caroline had in fact been identified in the 1850s by Army Engineer Captain George Chancellor Collyer, as a possible location to move Government House to. This came with the recommendations he made a 1858 report to fortify Bukit Larangan. Mount Caroline, was described by Collyer, as the “most commanding spot on the island”. Together with Government House, the Colonial Secretary’s residence (now Sri Temasek), was also completed at the same time at Mount Louisa.

A photograph of Government House perched on Mount Caroline in the 1880s, seen from Fort Canning. Mount Sophia is in the background on the left.

A photograph of Government House perched on Mount Caroline in the 1880s, seen from Fort Canning. Mount Sophia is in the background on the left.

The remaining parts of Mount Sophia and Mount Emily were to be subdivided and sold. Their elevation, and prime location in the vicinity of the heart of the thriving municipality, made the plots being offered a very attractive prospect. It did not take long before the exclusive neighbourhood that was to boast some of the grandest residences to be seen on the island, started to take shape and by the 1880s, several large residences occupied prime positions across the twin peaks.

An 1881 map showing the tops of the hills of the former Prinsep estate populated by newly built residences.

An 1881 map showing the tops of the hills of the former Prinsep estate populated by newly built residences.

A view across Mount Sophia towards Mount Caroline and Government House. The building in the foreground is Olson Building - the only one of the buildings of the former Methodist Girls School that is being conserved.

A view across Mount Sophia towards Mount Caroline and Government House. The building in the foreground is Olson Building – the only one of the buildings of the former Methodist Girls School that is being conserved.

There is little doubt that one had to be someone of means to move up to the hills, which would have been most accessible by horse and carriage. One of the first grand residences to secure a footing on the hills would have been Carrington House around 1873. Little is known about the house except for the fact that a panther was cornered and shot in it sometime in December 1883. The very brave man credited with making the killing, Mr Maurice Drummond, apparently received a reward of $25 for his troubles.

Carrington House, as seen from Osborne House, 1880.

Carrington House, as seen from Osborne House, 1880.

Carrington House, we can see from the 1880 photograph, found a perch in quite a prominent location on the slopes of Mount Sophia. One can only imagine the views it must have offered in days when one’s gaze could be cast across the settlement for as far as the eye could see. It is no wonder that two of the grandest mansions Singapore has seen were to be built on its site. Carrington House was to be replaced by the ostentatious Adis Lodge and then an even grander Eu Villa. It is in the days of Eu Villa that were are able to get an appreciation of what the view must have been like from a 1936 Straits Times article:

From Eu Villa the view on three sides, out over the harbour and away to Keppel Hatbour on one side and Katong on the other, is simply breathtaking, especially in the evening when the city takes on an indefinite soft and delicate colouring. This is not the highest point on the hill, but, because the house juts out with no encumbrance on either side, the view is better than on the actual brow of the hill above Eu Villa … it is a magical place to be on a moonlight night, overlooking the lights of the city and the junk anchorage.

– The Straits Times, 10 May 1936

Eu Villa and the view from it.

Eu Villa and the view from it.

A view over Mount Sophia towards the harbour c. late 1940s. Eu Villa can be seen in the lower left part of the photograph.

A view over Mount Sophia towards the harbour c. late 1940s. Eu Villa can be seen in the lower left part of the photograph. Cathay building, which came up in the late 1930s, Singapore’s “first skyscraper”  was the first tall building to block the view one got from the top of the hill.

Adis Lodge, which came up in 1907, was built by Nissim Nissim Adis. Adis was the proprietor of very grand Grand Hotel de L’Europe at the corner of St. Andrew’s Road and High Street, the location today of the old Supreme Court wing of the National Gallery. It was after him that Adis Road on Mount Sophia was named. Opulently furnished and decorated, Adis Lodge carried the reputation of being one of the “most magnificent of mansions east of the Suez”. It did not last long however. It was sold to the “king of tin” Eu Tong Sen in 1912. Eu had the lodge replace in 1915 with Eu Villa. Eu Villa, which had a fairy tale like quality, survived for quite a bit longer. It was sold in 1973 for S$8.19 million and was only demolished in the early 1980s.

Adis Lodge in 1908.

Adis Lodge in 1908.

Mount Sophia was also a name that was synonymous with the Methodist Mission and Methodist Girls’ School (MGS). The Methodist presence took root in the 1890s with its purchase of several of the grand houses at the top of the hill. Methodist Girls’ School, which started as a Tamil girls’ school in a shophouse on Short Street, made a move up the hill in 1925, staying until 1992. It wasn’t the first school to be established on the hill. That would have been St. Margaret’s whose presence on the hill as Chinese Girls’ School goes back to 1861.

Wesley House, at No. 5 Mount Sophia, which was acquired by the Methodist Mission in 1894.

The Methodist Girls School complex, used as a centre for the arts while awaiting redevelopment.

The former Methodist Girls School complex, used as a centre for the arts in 2010 while awaiting redevelopment.

On the other peak, Mount Emily, its rather flat and elongated top must have made it a perfect spot to play host to a service reservoir. One was put there in the late 1870s to supply treated water to the municipality. It was to be made redundant by the much larger Fort Canning Reservoir in 1929. The reservoir was then turned into Singapore’s first public swimming pool around which the beautifully set Mount Emily Park was established. The pool opened in 1931 and was in use until the early 1980s with it serving as the setting for the qualification of Singapore’s very first woman lifeguard, Miss Ann Tay, in February 1952.

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A G R Lambert photograph of the reservoir on top of Mount Emily taken from Osborne House.

A large residence, humble by the standards of Eu Villa or Adis Lodge, Osborne House, made its appearance near the top of Mount Emily about the same time the reservoir was completed. The house does have its fair share of stories. Perched on a part of the hill that could be seen from Middle Road, it served for a while as a symbol to the sizeable pre-war Japanese community who were centered on Middle Road (Chuo Dori to the community) as the Japanese consulate. There also seems a connection to the Sultan of Siak. More about Osborne House’s rather intriguing past can be found in an earlier post, A Last Reminder of an Old-fashioned Corner of Singapore.

Middle Road when it would have been referred to as Chuo Dori in the 1930s. Osborne House which was to serve as the Japanese Consulate from 1939 to 1941 can be seen atop Mount Emily at the end of the street.

Middle Road when it would have been referred to as Chuo Dori in the 1930s. Osborne House which was to serve as the Japanese Consulate from 1939 to 1941 can be seen atop Mount Emily at the end of the street.

Osborne House today, known to us now as "Emily Hill".

Osborne House today, known to us now as “Emily Hill”.

Farquhar’s “Hills of Babylon”, Mount Emily and neighbouring Mount Sophia, have a very different beast now to contend with these days. Much of the magic that motivated the construction of residences such as Adis Lodge and Eu Villa has sadly, long been lost, taken away by the wall of glass, steel and concrete that now surrounds much of the hills. The “trees” of the new estate are ones that are mostly grey. The yields they give is gold that is of great value in the concrete plantation that much of Singapore has become.

Tower House at the top of the southern slop of Mount Sophia. A wall of concrete, glass and still has obscured part of the view it once commanded.

Tower House at the top of the southern slope of Mount Sophia. A wall of concrete, glass and still has obscured part of the view it once commanded.

On the hill tops are but a few survivors of the high life, one Tower House on Mount Sophia is a conserved structure. The future of Osborne House on Mount Emily, is much less certain and it may be a matter of time before it and the many connections it has with an especially interesting past are forever lost.

The wall around Mount Sophia seen from Prinsep Street.

The wall around Mount Sophia seen from Prinsep Street. Flint’s house may have been located in the area now blocked by the School of the Arts (SOTA).

Walls of concrete, glass and steel around Mount Emily.

Walls of concrete, glass and steel around Mount Emily. The roofs of Olson Building and Tower House at the top of Mount Sophia at the upper left part of the photograph can barely be seen. Mount Emily is in the centre of the photo and Mount Caroline on the extreme right.


Notes:


Published in “Natural History Drawings: The Complete William Farquhar Collection, Malay Peninusla 1803-1818”.


“The Orang Suku Laut of Riau, Indonesia: The inalienable gift of territory”.


The Ellison Building at the foot of one of the three sisters, Mount Emily

A report in this morning’s edition of the Straits Times reveals that part of the Ellison Building, a very distinctive conserved building at the corner of Selegie Road and Bukit Timah Road near the foot of Mount Emily, will be demolished and reconstructed due to the construction of the North-South Corridor. The part that will be affected is along Bukit Timah Road with units 235, 237 and 239 to be demolished. This follows on an earlier report in the Chinese language Lianhe Zaobao article on 7 August 2016 that first broke the news of the building being affected. In the earlier report, it was mentioned that only “part of the (building’s) façade” would be affected. The Ellisons, Issac and Flora, had their home at 87 Wilkie Road, another of the grand residences that found their way on the slopes of Mounts Sophia and Emily. The residence, was demolished in the 1980s and a multi-storey residential development was put in its place and the Ellison Building is what’s left to remember them.

A view over the Selegie Road and Bukit Timah Road junction with the part of the Ellison Building (the curved building in the lower right) that will be affected facing the viewer.

A view over the Selegie Road and Bukit Timah Road junction with the part of the Ellison Building (the curved building in the lower right) that will be affected facing the viewer.

Incidentally, the entrance to the upper level one of the units being affected, 237, is where one find the words “I. Ellison” or Issac Ellsion – the man who had the building constructed, on a sign above it. This makes the demolition of this part of the building, even if it is to be reconstructed, even more tragic.

The five-foot-way of the Ellison Building where one of the units that will be demolished and then reconstructed, No. 237. A sign on top of the gateway is marked with "I. Ellison" or Issac Ellison - the man who had the building constructed.

The five-foot-way of the Ellison Building where one of the units that will be demolished and then reconstructed, No. 237. A sign on top of the gateway is marked with “I. Ellison” or Issac Ellison – the man who had the building constructed.


 





Another Ubin celebration

24 05 2016

Just as the festivities in honour of the Taoist deity Tua Pek Kong are taking place at Pulau Ubin, a celebration of a different kind was being held in another part of the island at the Ubin Living Lab. Graced by Senior Minister of State (Home Affairs and National Development) Desmond Lee, the event, held in conjunction with the International Day of Biological Diversity on 22nd May, was marked by the planting of mangrove saplings by volunteers of all ages at  the lab’s rather muddy mangrove arboretum.

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The former Celestial Resort, now used as the Ubin Living Lab.

The mangrove arboretum.

The mangrove arboretum.

Those present for the event also learnt of several important and timely initiatives – all part of the Ubin Project, to enhance the island’s biodiversity and to protect its badly eroded northern shoreline from further damage. These include species recovery efforts aimed at increasing the diversity of insect eating bats on the island and the Oriental Small-clawed Otters. Native to Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong, this species of otters are less commonly seen than the Smooth-coated Otters that have been making waves across Singapore and are critically endangered.

Senior Minister of State (Home Affairs and National Development) Desmond Lee speaking.

Senior Minister of State (Home Affairs and National Development) Desmond Lee speaking.

The effort to rehabilitate the northern shoreline, which includes the badly eroded Noordin Beach – once a popular camping spot, will also see a 500 metre coastal boardwalk being built (see photographs below). Work on this will commence in 2017 and more information on this and on the species recovery efforts can be found at the NParks website.

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Volunteers planting trees at the mangrove arboretum at the Ubin Living Lab.

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The younger ones got involved too.

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Posters on display at the event with information on the initiatives

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Ubin’s biodiversity.

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Species recovery efforts on Pulau Ubin.

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Restoration of the shoreline.

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Restoration of the shoreline.

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The proposed boardwalk off Noordin Beach.


 





Windows into the past: where Percival and a President once resided

11 05 2016

A rare opportunity to have a look inside the former Command House came over the weekend when it was opened to the public. Organised by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) as part of their Celebrating Places and Memories photo contest, the open house, unlike a previous visit I had previously arranged, allowed me the freedom to roam through the interior of the beautifully restored former residence, the last occupant of which would have been Mr. Ong Teng Cheong in his capacity as the President of the Republic of Singapore.

A window into a rather interesting past.

A window into a rather interesting past.

Now in use as the UBS Business University, the house has had a colourful past that goes far back beyond its use by the Republic’s Head of State, much of which can be found in a previous post: The very grand house that Brewer built. Built in 1938 in a style influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, it is one of the grander residences built by Singapore’s colonial masters. As a replacement for Flagstaff House, the official residence of the GOC, Malaya’s chief military officer, it was to see a string of top military commanders take up residence, the last leaving at the point of the British pullout in 1971. This was however not before the third GOC to be accommodated, Lieutenant-General Arthur E. Percival, put all delusions the British may had held of their invincibility to an abrupt end  in a conference room in Bukit Timah one February’s afternoon in 1942.

As Flagstaff House in 1957, when it housed the most senior British Military Commander in the Far East (online at the Royal Green Jackets and Former Regiments Photographic History pages).

The pullout, by which time the house had already taken on the name Command House, saw ownership pass on to the Government of Singapore. The house first became the official residence of the Speaker of Parliament. Only one Speaker, Dr Yeoh Ghim Seng,  would use it. Two of Dr Yeoh’s successors declined the use of the house before renovations to the Istana prompted its temporary use as the official residence of the President from 1996 to 1998.

The road up to the former Command House.

The guardhouse on the road up to the former Command House.

The guardhouse in 1957 (online at the Royal Green Jackets and Former Regiments Photographic History pages).

Much of what we see of the house today, would be from its days as the President’s residence. Even with the interventions made by its tenant since 2007, Swiss based financial services company, UBS, for use as a place of instruction, much of the grandeur and dignity the house must held had during the days of the President, is still very much in evidence.

A view from the second floor.

A view from the second floor.

The entrance hallway, which one steps into entering the house, is dominated by a grand staircase coloured by the earthy hues the wood of its wall and balustrade panels that are thought to have been added in during its time as the President’s house. The hallway opens up on either side to what would have been a verandah, typically seen in the many examples of colonial architecture adapted  for the hot and steamy tropics, that provide access, ventilation and insulation to the rooms found in each of the house’s two wings. Two large rooms dominate each wing and that would have been where the house’s dining and reception areas would have been arranged.

The grand staircase.

The grand staircase.

A large room that may originally have served as a dining room.

A large room that may originally have served as a dining room.

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Another room in its wings.

A room at the end of one of its wings.

A room at the end of one of its wings.

The verandah in the wing.

The lower floor verandah in the east wing.

One of the large rooms found in the wings.

One of the large rooms found in the wings.

On the right side of  the staircase, a door separates what is intended to be seen from the unseen – spaces used by hired help that is hidden on both levels at the back of the house. The spaces, connected between floors by a narrow staircase, would have had access to kitchens, larders, cleaning and maintenance stores and the servants quarters, housed in the annexes and in separate buildings at the back of the main building and on the terrace below.

The servant's staircase.

The servant’s staircase.

A view down the servant's staircase.

A view down the servant’s staircase.

A garage on the lower terrace.

A garage on the lower terrace.

Buildings that could have served as servant's quarters on the lower terrace.

Buildings that could have served as servant’s quarters on the lower terrace.

The back of the house - an external staircase has been added at each wing for escape purposes.

The back of the house – an external staircase has been added at each wing for escape purposes.

At the top of the grand staircase, the most beautifully furnished of the house’s spaces, a very homely looking lounge, comes into sight. Arranged in the space above the house’s porch,  three of the space’s furniture – a television cabinet and two chests, are thought to have survived from the days of the President. As with the hallway below, access to the rooms in each wing, is provided by a what would have been a verandah that is now enclosed by windows. The President’s private rooms, a study, a walk-in wardrobe and a bedroom, as I understand it, were located in the east wing. The west wing on the other hand would have been where a guest room and a children’s bedroom would have been found.

The lounge area.

The lounge area.

A view out the front windows.

A view out the front windows.

A window at the side of the lounge.

A window at the side of the lounge.

A view down the grand staircase.

A view down the grand staircase.

The balcony outside the former President's bedroom.

The balcony outside the former President’s bedroom.

The verandah on the upper floor.

What would have been a verandah on the upper floor.

What would have been the President's bedroom.

What would have been the President’s bedroom.

A view from the bedroom into the verandah.

A view from the bedroom into the verandah.

The view through one of its original windows.

The view through one of its original windows.

Exposed brickwork on its arches and voussoirs is clearly evident in the house. It is a feature that Frank W. Brewer employed in his Arts and Crafts influenced designs.

Exposed brickwork on its arches and voussoirs is clearly evident in the house. It is a feature that Frank W. Brewer employed in his Arts and Crafts influenced designs.

More exposed brickwork.

More exposed brickwork.

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Besides the former Command House open house, the will be open houses at two more venues that SLA is holding this month. One is the regular public holiday open house at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station on Vesak Day. The second will be at old Kallang Airport on Sunday (15 October 2016) from 10 am to 1 pm. The open houses and the Celebrating Places and Memories photo contest (details here) are being held to create awareness and appreciation of State Buildings. Details on how to register for the Old Kallang Ariport open house can be found in this post on SLA’s Facebook Page. More information on the contest and State Buildings can also be found in this post: Celebrating Places and Memories – a photo contest by SLA.

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