Forbidden Hill spiced and demystified

27 08 2022

Fort Canning Hill, aka Bukit Larangan or Forbidden Hill, the place of many a schoolboy adventure for me, has always been a place of discovery and rediscovery for me, as well as a space that provides an escape from the urban world. An abode of the ancient kings of Singapura — the spirits of whom are said to still roam the hill, the hill is one steeped as much in history, as it is surrounded by mystery.

Fort Canning Hill, the Forbidden Hill is a place that has long been cloaked with an air of mystery.

The mystery of the place, was quite evident when the British first established their presence in Singapore in 1819. Col William Farquhar’s attempt to ascend the strategically positioned elevation, which commanded a view of the plain across which the settlement and Singapore River, was met with resistance by the followers of Temenggong Abdul Rahman who claimed that the sounds of gongs and drums and the shouts of hundreds of men could be heard, even if all that was present then on the hill were only the reminders of a long lost 14th century kingdom. The claim did not deter Farquhar from making his ascent, nor his colleagues in the East India Company, who would exploit the hill to place the seat of colonial rule in Singapore, as an experimental botanical garden, for the first Christian spaces for the dead, and as an artillery fort and barracks, for fresh water supply to the fast developing municipality and as a strategic military command bunker.

It has long been a place of escape for me.

Much of that history, and mystery, is now wonderfully captured in the new Fort Canning Heritage Gallery — and in a book “Fort Canning Park: Heritage and Gardens” that was launched in conjunction with the gallery’s opening yesterday on 26 August 2022. The gallery is housed in a 1920s barrack block now known as Fort Canning Centre, that has seen use most recently as a staging point for the Bicentennial Experience and as the short-lived private museum, Singapore Pinacothèque de Paris. The centre, which also housed the “world’s largest squash centre” from the 1977 to 1987 during the height of the squash rackets craze in Singapore, sits quite grandly atop the slope we know today as Fort Canning Green and forms a magnificent backdrop to the many events that the former cemetery grounds now plays host to.

Fort Canning Centre, a 1920s barrack block in which the newly opened Fort Canning Heritage Gallery is housed.

Divided into five zones, the gallery provides an introduction to the hill, and through four themed zones, places focus on a particular aspect of the role that the hill has played through its own and also more broadly, Singapore’s history. The stories, told succinctly through information panels, archaeological artefacts excavated from the hill and interactive digital stations, provide just enough information to the visitor to provide an appreciation of the hill history and its heritage. There is also a condensed version of the “From Singapore to Singaporean: The Bicentennial Experience” video that plays in a mini-theatrette within the gallery.

Minister of National Development, Mr Desmond Lee, opening the new Fort Canning Heritage Gallery.

Also opened with the new gallery was an enhanced Spice Garden, which now extends to the 2019 pedestrianised section of Fort Canning Rise and a pedestrian ramp and underpass (that once led to the former car park at the rear of the old National Library). The pedestrian ramp and underpass now features the new Spice Gallery, which I thought was a wonderful and meaningful way to use a space that serves little other practical use today. The Spice Gallery, made possible by the generous support of Nomanbhoy and Sons Pte Ltd — a spice trader with over a hundred years of history, provides an appreciation of the significance of the spice trade to modern Singapore’s early development as a trading hub and also the role that Fort Canning Hill played in Singapore’s early spice plantations.

The newly opened Spice Gallery at the enhanced Spice Garden occupies a former pedestrian ramp and underpass.

A book, “Fort Canning Park: Heritage and Gardens”, authored by Dr Chng Mun Whye and Ms Sara-Ann Ang, which highlights the park’s rich heritage, was also launched together with the opening. This is available for sale Gardens Shop at various locations around the Singapore Botanic Gardens or online at https://botanicgardensshop.sg at SGD 29.90.

A book, “Fort Canning Park: Heritage and Gardens” was launched together with the opening.

Along with the permanent exhibition two galleries, there is also a “Kaleidoscope in Clay (I)” exhibition that features exhibits showcasing 5,000 years of Chinese ceramic history from 26 August to 11 September 2022 at The Gallery@L3, Fort Canning Centre. Also running is the 3rd edition of Festival at the Fort being held in conjunction with the opening and Singapore Night Festival, the programmes of which include movie screenings at Fort Canning Green, guided tours and children’s activities. The festival runs from 26 August to 4 September 2022 and more information can be found at https://www.nparks.gov.sg/activities/events-and-workshops/2022/8/festival-at-the-fort-2022.

Kaleidoscope in Clay (I) at Gallery@L3, Fort Canning Centre.

Fort Canning Heritage Gallery is opened daily from 10 am to 6 pm (expect for the last Monday of each month), while the Spice Gallery is opened from 7 am to 7 pm daily. Entry to both galleries is free to the public.


Photographs of Fort Canning Heritage Gallery during the opening on 26 August 2022.


Fort Canning Centre, various views


Fort Canning Spice Gallery / enhanced Spice Garden






Parting Glances: Farrer Park Swimming Complex

10 08 2022

The rapid pace of change in Singapore’s robs many of places dear to them. These places, ones Singaporeans may have grown up with and made memories in, provides a connection to the country in a way that can never be replaced, and is what anchors people to a place and to a large extent is what makes home, home.

Farrer Park Swimming Complex

One place where memories for many in my generation were made, was Farrer Park, at which the last laps were swum at its 65-year-old swimming pool yesterday on 9 August 2022. From attending school sporting meets, to catching childhood football heroes “in action” and watching sports on a Sunday afternoon for free, Farrer Park seemed the go-to place for anything connected with sports. Its small (by the standards of today) swimming complex was also a popular spot to spend an especially warm day, being a lot more accessible than Singapore’s first public pool up on Mount Emily.

A swimming pool that played a big part in establishing the foundation on which the swimming career of Ang Peng Siong, once the “world’s fastest swimmer”.

Like Mount Emily, Farrer Park Swimming Pool was showing the signs of its age by the time I got to use it. Nevertheless, it was one of my favourites. It had that homely feel that seemed missing from the newer public swimming complexes, such as the one at Toa Payoh at which I would learn to swim.

Designed by City Architect, M E Crocker, Farrer Park’s swimming pool was built as Singapore’s third public pool (see: A Short History of Public Swimming Pools in Singapore) at the cost of $460,000. Officially opened on 22 February 1957 by the then Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock, it drew a huge crowd following day —  when it was opened to the public. A thousand pool users were reported to have used the pool that first day alone, with queues forming some two hours before its 7.30 am opening time.

A last look at Farrer Park Swimming Pool

Farrer Park would go on to become the “grounds” on which a one-time “world’s fastest swimmer”, Ang Peng Siong, was groomed. It was at the pool that Ang’s father, a supervisor at the pool, taught him to swim and provided him with his early training. In 1982, Ang became the “world’s fastest swimmer” when he recorded the world’s fastest time in the 50 metres freestyle. Ang would return to Farrer Park following its closure as a public pool in 2003, when the APS Swimming School which Ang founded in 1995, moved in 2004. The school has used the swimming complex since then until its closure this August.

The sun goes down on Farrer Park Swimming Pool

While a proposal was made to retain the swimming complex and refurbish it for future use in an area on which some 1,600 flats will be added, an announcement was made earlier this year that it would not be feasible to do so. The pool is now set to be demolished … to be replaced by a modern new-age integrated sporting complex in which new swimming facilities would be added, breaking yet another link that Farrer Park has to Singapore’s sporting history.


Parting glances: Farrer Park Swimming Complex






Life in 1941 Singapore

7 08 2022

Brimming with life and already one of the world’s leading port cities, early 20th century Singapore received quite a fair bit of attention from the world’s press. Numerous news features and press reports were published and beyond that many images were also captured, images that are a visual record of a Singapore that is now difficult to imagine.

Singapore in 1941, a year during which the dark clouds of war were looming over the Far East, was especially well documented. For many here for much of 1941, the threat of war seemed a distant possibility, even if there were very visible preparations being made for the eventuality. Singapore was after all the bastion of British imperial power in the Far East, a great naval base, and if Britain were to be believed, an “impregnable” fortress.

Among the photographic records of Singapore from 1941, are the wonderful archives of unpublished photographs of Harrison Forman and Carl Mydans, which were captured for National Geographic magazine and LIFE magazine respectively. What can be seen in many of these photographs, some of which have already been featured in the linked articles, are preparations for war, street scenes, the legal processing, sale, and consumption of chandu (processed opium, and various aspects of the tin and rubber industry.

Many of the images, such as those of Carl Mydans that have been presented below, also offer a window into how life was like for both the common folk and the colonial elite and the contrast that is seen between the two is pretty stark.


Photographs: © Time Inc. for which Personal and Non-Commercial Use is permitted.






The former Police Coast Guard HQ at Kallang

5 08 2022

Seemingly uninteresting and rather unexciting, the cluster of buildings that were used by the Police Coast Guard (PCG) to house their headquarters from 1970 to 2006, now hide an interesting secret. Repurposed as the National Youth Sports Institute (NYSI), the buildings have not only found a new life, but have been repurposed with a minimum of intervention and have retained much of the fabric of its past.

NYSI at Kallang, occupies a space that was used as a flying boat reception and maintenance facility and later by the PCG as its headquarters.

The former base, which was carved out of the former Kallang Airport’s flying boat reception and maintenance facilities (its ramp/slipway is still there, except it is part of the National Cadet Corp (Sea) facility next to NYSI), was turned into a base for what was then the Marine Police in 1970 at the cost of S$1 million. Having been based at the congested Singapore River by what is now the Asian Civilisations Museum, a new base with a maintenance facility was much needed to permit enable a swifter repair turnaround time for its boats, improve response and also accommodate the Marine Police’s expanding fleet.

A piece from its days as the flying boat facility.

Amongst the structures that were put up during the development of the Kallang Marine Poilce HQ, was a two storey building that served as its nerve centre, which is the same building that NYSI has operated out of since November 2015. The building and an annex, which once housed offices, interrogation rooms, an armoury and even a lock-up, is now home to gyms, sports laboratories, accommodation, recovery rooms counselling rooms, and even chill out spaces. While that may have been expected, what is unexpected is the manner in which the building has been redone in a way that not only allows it to keep many of its reminders of its days as a Marine Police base, but also with little need for light and ventilation other than that which occurs naturally. This rather intelligent, sustainable, no-frills and rather affordable approach is a breath of fresh air and should really be a model for many of our developments in which old spaces and building are repurposed. Most projects, quite unfortunately, have gone down the path of being flamboyant and gimmicky.

Decently exposed.

The Marine Police, morphed into the Police Coast Guard in 1993 and vacated the base in 2006 due to the intended closing up of Marina Bay through the construction of the Marina Barrage. It is now based in Pulau Brani.


A walk around NYSI Kallang

Chin-up bars – a reminder of the past.
Inside the old electrical distribution box.
The former arms clearing station.
Recalling the armoury.
Exposing the dividing line between the main building and an annex.
A breath of fresh air, the non-air-conditioned gym.
Notice the manhole in the gym flooring (previously a wet space).
A performance lab.
Heaters to simulate hot dry conditions.
An “Endless Pool” for swimmers.
Another reminder of the past.
Maximising natural ventilation.
Dorms – a curtain separates the male and female sections.

Common spaces


The former lock-up


Other views around the facility






Chilling out in Pasir Panjang

30 07 2022

Deprived of the long beach that it took its name from, and with its one-time star attraction Haw Par Villa having been set on a course for hell, there seems little to draw the visitor to Pasir Panjang — that is except for the vegetable wholesale centre that has become synonymous with it, Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre. The huge centre, which is spread over a 15.2 ha site that was reclaimed from the sea, comes alive in the dark of night and draws vegetable, fruits and dried goods traders to it, along with others in search of a bargain.

Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre is Singapore’s main vegetable, fruit and dried goods distribution centre.

Developed by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and opened in 1983, Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre was built to consolidate vegetable, fruits and dried goods wholesalers from the urban centre who were being displaced by urban redevelopment and the river clean-up effort, the centre was initially populated by 90 wholesalers from Clyde Terrace and Maxwell Road markets, plus over 350 from the Upper Circular Road / Carpenter Street and the Tew Chew Street / Chin Hin Street area. The centre features four sections with 9 out of its 26 blocks dedicated to fruits, another 8 blocks in its vegetable section, 4 blocks housing cold rooms and another 5 blocks for dried goods. With several hundred cold and chilled stores, it is quite literally a cool place to chill out at!

Tew Chew Street, which was one of the wholesale centres around Singapore. It was one of the places where imported vegetables from Cameron Highlands found buyers until 1983/84.

An opportunity not just to chill out, but also learn more about the centre and some of the people whose nocturnal existence puts fresh fruits and vegetables on the shelves now presents itself with the My Community Festival 2022. Among its offerings is a tour of Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre that is led by guide Ms Pamela Loh, who takes participants on an interesting walk through cold stores, a fruit distributor and through the especially large vegetable section — a hive of activity at the midnight hour six days a week, whether it is the seventh month or not. Besides an “insider” view of the wholesale centre, the opportunity to meet and learn about the lives of some of the people who run businesses at the centre, is a wonderful bonus.

Ms Pamela Loh leading a group at the cold room section.

Organised by My Community, My Community Festival runs from 5 to 21 August 2022. On offer is a host of unique experiences including this tour to Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre. There are also after dark tours to seafood wholesale centres at Jurong and Senoko Fishery Ports. For more information on the festival, please visit https://mycommunityfestival.sg/.


Chilling out at the cold room section where temperatures are maintained at 4 degrees C for vegetables.
The inside of a cold room.
At the fruits section, where a treat awaits …
Huge and juicy chilled US cherries being offered for sale at KSY, a fruit distributor – a must buy!
Mrs Fong, who runs a vegetable wholesale stall with her husband.
Fresh winter bamboo shoots!
Giant cauliflower.
Giant pandan leaves.
The centre’s vegetable section comes alive at night.
The guardian of Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre.





Northern Singapore’s last fishery port

26 07 2022

Believe it or not, the northern coast of Singapore once played host to a large fleet of fishing vessels. The fleet’s port of call was at old Kangkar Villlage down the Serangoon River, located right at the end of Upper Serangoon Road. The fleet was moved to Punggol Fishery Port when that was set up in the 1980s to move the fleet and consolidate the fish wholesalers of Kangkar and also Bedok. At the point of its move in 1984, Kangkar accommodated a fleet of 90 fishing boats and 16 fish wholesalers. Another move was made in 1997 to Senoko Fishery Port, which will itself close in 2023, after which all fish wholesale activity will be consolidated at Jurong Fishery Port. The move, which in tiny Singapore terms seems to a place a world away, will bring to a close the northern coast’s longtime connection with the fishing and the fish wholesale business.

The entrance to the port.
The floor of the wholesale market at Senoko Fishery Port.

The link that it has with old Kangkar does mean that Senoko has become home to a tightly-knit community of fish wholesalers who are of Teochew origin. Several of Senoko’s businesses have their roots in Kangkar’s fishing fleet operators whose boats would spent 3 to 4 days fishing in the waters close to Horsburgh Lighthouse (on the island of Pedra Branca). Over the years, close ties have been forged between the businesses which span several generations and what that does mean is that in Senoko there is a spirit of cooperation rather than competition. The closure of Senoko will thus not only bring a huge dose of sadness to its business operators but surely bring to the end that sense of community and that “kampung spirit” that is quite clearly evident in Senoko.

While the atmosphere in Senoko, which supplies a small portion (some 4% in 2020) of Singapore’s chilled seafood imports, certainly does come anywhere close to Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market — with which it has often been compared to, visiting it is a must due to its impending closure. As with Tsukiji, visits have to be made at an ungodly hour, in the wee hours of the morning. That is when its offerings, which are now imported mainly from Malaysia and other parts of Asia, come in and when the regular buyers come to obtain their supplies. There may also an opportunity to purchase seafood at wholesale prices, although one has to be prepared to buy in larger quantities with some exceptions, and be armed with an ice-box. While the port may be accessible to the public (you will need you NRIC and it is opened from 2 to 6 am except for Monday mornings), getting to Senoko may proof difficult. There is however an opportunity that presents itself for a guided visit during the My Community Festival. Organised by My Community, the annual festival runs from 5 to 21 August 2022 and offers programmes that provide a host of unique experiences — including visits to both Jurong and Senoko Fishery Ports and also Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre (for vegetables).

Lian Yak Fish Merchant, is the oldest of the businesses. It started business way back in 1955 and operated a fleet of fishing vessels out of Kangkar Village.

More information on My Community Festival can be found at https://mycommunityfestival.sg/.

Seafood is sorted into baskets for buyers.
Crustaceans are among the items on offer.

More photographs of Senoko Fishery Port






Elizabeth House, nurses’ quarters to part of a nursing home , or will that be just a mirage?

14 07 2022

Developments around Singapore General Hospital in the last five years or so, have altered the complexion of its much storied surroundings. With that, a number of markers, which linked the area to its much storied past were permanently lost. Future developments threaten to do the same with old Alexandra Hospital, with plans to redevelop a part of its grounds as a nursing home for dementia patients recently announced. While it may seem to involve only a small part of the grounds, what it signals is the beginning of the end for the hospital campus and some of its historically significant sites as part of what will eventually be the “Alexandra Health Campus”. 

Alexandra Military Hospital

It is good that three of the hospital’s existing buildings, ones that serve as the face of the hospital, are already protected for conservation. There is however a question of context in keeping older structures, especially when they are drowned or find themselves minimised by the scale that new developments are often given.  Given the history of the hospital and the significance of many of its structures and spaces, there must be more of the campus that deserves to be considered for conservation.

The spacious, green and quiet grounds of the hospital could be overtaken by the mess of concrete in the near future as there are plans to turn it into the Alexandra Health Campus.

Alexandra Hospital’s roots lie in its construction as Singapore’s main military hospital. This came at the tail end of an effort to turn Singapore into the “Gibraltar of the East”, and a naval outpost to which the British fleet could be sent to in event that its assets in the Far East could be defended. This brought new garrisons of troops to the island. With only the aging and glaringly inadequate Tanglin Military Hospital to serve the huge contingent of European soldiers on the island, there was a need for a large enough hospital. In July 1940, Alexandra opened as the British military establishment’s most modern hospital this side of the Suez and counted among the largest medical facilities that were built for the British army.

In Alexandra Hospital’s campus, there is a mix of pre and post World War II buildings.

Tragedy was to befall the hospital within a year and a half of its opening when on the eve of the Fall of Singapore, the hospital became the scene of a most horrendous of atrocities. In spite of the hospital being clearly marked and identified as a medical facility, Japanese troops entered the hospital late in the morning of 14 February 1942, allegedly in pursuit of British Indian Army soldiers who had fired on them. What followed was the wanton killing of staff and patients over the course of two days. Estimates of those killed in the course of the two days of savagery go as high as 300. More information on the massacre can be found in this link.

One of the hospital’s ward blocks not protected for conservation. This houses the auditorium, which was a chapel during the war and one of the points of entry of Japanese troops.

Two buildings, Blocks 18 and 19, are threatened by the development of the nursing home. Even if the signs seem to point to the buildings’ retention, how that will work could involve the buildings being incorporated as parts of larger structures. Block 19, also known as Elizabeth House, is the newer of the two blocks and is particularly unique. Having been constructed in two parts to house female nursing staff in 1949 and in 1958, what distinguishes the modernist blocks are exterior ventilation blocks that serve as privacy screens.

The former Elizabeth House, Block 19, with its older and newer sections and its privacy screens.

The construction of Elizabeth House came at a time when Britain was involved in the counter insurgency efforts against the communists in Malaya in a campaign known as the Malayan Emergency. With Alexandra Hospital, also known then as British Military Hospital Singapore, being Britain’s principal military facility in the Far East, it played a crucial role in supporting the effort. New buildings were built on the campus including Elizabeth House in support of the large amount of military personnel sent by Britain to Singapore and Malaya. Elizabeth House was closely associated with nurses with the then exclusively female Queen Alexandra Royal Army Nursing Corps or QARANC in short and known as tyhe “Garden Billet” to what were known as the QAs or nurses. Among the stories that have been told of the block was how its residents would sunbathe at the badminton court behind it.

Alexandra Hospital is a historical site with a plaque to recall its history placed in its gerden,

Based on what the Ministry of Health (MOH) has announced, as reported by the Straits Times on 26 June 2022, it is hard to see Elizabeth House surviving without substantial change or even demolition. While the sounds are for keeping the structure, there seems ample leeway given to the the successful tenderer (for consultancy services in regard to the nursing home development). What will be required of the tenderer is an assessment as to what opportunities there are to design the nursing home with respect to the heritage value of Blocks 18 and 19 — whatever that means. It seems quite possible that the option or a “documentation and heritage interpretation” route, with “elements of the blocks incorporated in the nursing home’s design” could be possible given the site’s constraints. If that is the case, Blocks 18 and 19 may just be a reinterpreted illusion. Without an actual form, and certainly without substance, we could just be left with a mirage that we in Singapore seem so fond of creating.

Block 18, built as the Commanding Officers’ residence.

Corridors of Block 19 – the former Elizabeth House.





A house on which Singapore’s modern port was built

12 07 2022

There is little doubt that Singapore’s port has been a key driver of its success. The roots of the port as we know of it today were really laid by commercial dock companies established in the mid-1800s, chief amongst which were the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company and the Patent Slip and Dock Company (later the New Harbour Dock Company). Their possession of wharfage originally put up to support repair and resupply activities in the decade that preceded the opening of the Suez Canal, placed Singapore in an excellent position to meet the growth in shipping that followed and the advances in ship technology that had already been taking place.

Singapore Harbour Board Map, c. 1920s, showing location of Keppel House

Through consolidation, a duopoly was formed between the two dock companies before collaboration, first through a somewhat monopolistic joint-purse arrangement and eventually, through a merger saw to the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company emerging as a single big player in the provision of port and ship repair services in the final years of the nineteenth century. A direct result of this was the Straits Settlements government expropriation of the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company and the formation of Tanjong Pagar Dock Board . As a state-controlled body run with the interests of Singapore in mind, the board which morphed into the Singapore Harbour Board (SHB) and from 1964, the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA), was able to develop the port in a structured manner that was necessary to meet the challenges that were to follow.

Stairway to place of much mystery, 11 Keppel Hill was built to house a manager of the New Harbour Dock Company and is thought to have been completed around 1899. The house, which has invited much interest, has more than a tale or two to tell.

Today, all that seems left to tell the story of the port’s origins are a handful of historical assets and former graving docks that now enhance residential developments around Keppel Bay as water features. Among the artefacts are those that came into the possession of Mapletree during the corporatisation of PSA. These include a steam crane that can now be found outside the revamped and somewhat unfriendly former St James’ Power Station, now the Singapore headquarters of Dyson. What could be thought of as another piece in the jigsaw would the former residence of the Chairman of SHB. This sits somewhat forlornly in isolation, in a quiet corner on the southern slope of Mount Faber. What I find especially interesting about the mansion is that it stands to recall the original players in the port’s operations having been completed just as the ball on the eventual formation of the Tanjong Pagar Dock Board was set in motion and is thus a marker of a significant point in the port’s history.

Perched on the southern slope of Mount Faber, the house would have offered an wonderful view of Keppel Harbour when it was first built.

The house in question, lies close to the reservoir that was (allegedly) rediscovered in 2014, at 11 Keppel Hill. Completed in the final years of the 1800s and on land that was owned by the New Harbour Dock Company, it would have been erected to house the company’s most senior manager, being the largest of a cluster of new residences designed by Lermit and Westerhout that company had been in the process of erecting around and after 1897. While I have not come across plans for the house at 11 Keppel Hill, there seems to be several similarities in the plans developed by the architects for the other bungalows. This includes a central air and light well (if I can call it that) that is topped by a jack roof. A mention of what appears to be the house in question can also be found in a 1899 newspaper article. That describes a climb made by a party from the dock company from a reservoir it was constructing on the slopes of Mount Faber to the site of its “new house”. A description of its location of the house was also provided, with the house being “overlooked by the Mount Faber flagstaff”, and that it commanded a “splendid view of New Harbour and its surroundings.” The house, is the only one of the cluster of residences, one of which was Keppel Bungalow, that has been left standing.

An interesting feature of the house is a set of cast iron columns mounted on a concrete base. The rather incongruous overhang that the columns support would probably have been an upper floor verandah that someone saw fit to enclose.

With the amalgamation of the two dock companies, the house was named “Keppel House” and housed the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company’s Resident Civil Engineer, a position that was created in 1901 with the extensive construction works that the company had embarked on in mind. The first to hold the position was a Mr J Llewelyn Holmes, who left the position in June 1903. Holmes’ replacement, Mr Alan Railton, was known to have taken up residence at Keppel House.

Close up of the base of an iron column.

Having been left vacant following the expropriation, Keppel House was then put up for rent before becoming the official residence of the Chairman of the SHB some time around 1918. It was then already occupied by Mr Stanley Arthur Lane. Lane’s move into the house occured sometime around 1916. A civil engineer, once of Sir John Jackson and Company, Lane came to Singapore late in 1907 to take up the role of Assistant Manager with the Tanjong Pagar Dock Board. Often acting as the Chairman of the Singapore Harbour Board in the absence of his predecessor John Rumney Nicholson, Lane’s appointment as Chairman came in 1918.

Stanley Lane, a resident of 11 Keppel Hill from around 1916 to 1923.

Keppel House most eventful years would come with the appointment of Mr George Trimmer —  Sir George Trimmer from 1937, as Chairman upon Lane’s retirement in 1923. Trimmer retired in 1938, having overseen a massive port expansion programme that added almost a kilometre of new wharfage to accommodate large ocean-going vessels and added a number of new transit godowns. Trimmer was known to be an excellent host. It was also during Trimmer’s tenure at Keppel House that the nearby reservoir doubled up as a private swimming pool for the house’s residents and its guests.

Sir George Trimmer, a long time resident of Keppel House.

An especially interesting event that took place during Trimmer’s stay in Keppel House was the successful transmission of both live and recorded music from it to a shortwave transmitter several miles away and then over the air. The experiment was conducted by an amateur radio broadcaster, who was also an employee of SHB, Robert Earle. Earle ran a radio station, V1SAB, with his wife for several years in the 1930s, broadcasting late in the evening twice a week.

The garage and the servants’ quarters. The house would have had stables originally.

Trimmer’s successor was Mr H K Rodgers, whose confirmation as Chairman and General Manager of the SHB was confirmed in August 1939 just as the dark clouds of war gathered over Europe. Rodgers would soon find himself caught up in the SHB’s own preparations for war. Keppel House would itself become a venue for events connect with the war in Europe and later, with the war’s arrival to Singapore’s shores. The performance of Dutch choir at a 1941 Christmas party thrown by Rodgers, saw guests, which reported numbered a hundred, join in the singing of Silent Night, Holy Night and Noel. Rodgers, would soon find himself organising an evacuation of SHB’s European staff, many of whom left Singapore on board the Bagan — a Penang ferry —  on 11 February 1942 with Singapore’s fall seemingly imminent. Rodgers, who saw to the organisation of the evacuation from his residence, would himself leave Singapore early on 14 February 1942 — a day before Singapore’s inglorious fall — on the Tenggaroh, a launch that belonged to the Sultan of Johor. Rodgers eventually found his way to Australia, having made his way to Sumatra on the Tenggaroh. He returned to Singapore in 1946 to take up the role of the Managing Director of United Engineers Limited, a firm which operated a shipyard at Tanjong Rhu.

Iron balustrades on the rear verandah.

The Japanese Occupation, saw the operation of SHB’s repair facilities as the Syonan Shipyard by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) with staff from MHI’s Kobe yard. The first batch of MHI employees arrived in Singapore in March 1942 and immediately set about the task of restoring the damaged facilities. The working conditions at the yard took their toll on the MHI staff. At the end of 1944, some 15% of MHI employees sent to Singapore had either perished or return home due to illness. Among those who died was an engineer whose tomb can be found near Keppel House. It is quite probably that the engineer, as well as other members of MHI’s Syonan Shipyard’s senior staff, were in residence at Keppel House during this time.

A view of the rear of the house.

After the war, the house reverted to being a residence for the SHB Chairman with Mr H B Basten being its first post-occupation resident. The arrangement would end in 1964 with the formation of PSA. The house found several uses over the years, becoming the PSA Central Training School in the 1970s, following which it was leased out as offices. Its tenants included a management consulting firm and an architectural firm who maintained flats on the upper floor for its staff. The house, which is currently vacant, was part of a group of houses on the southern ridges that were given conservation status in 2005.


This visit to Keppel House was carried out with the kind permission of the Singapore Land Authority.



Inside and around the house :






A place of mystery and a place of discovery: Baroque House at Rowell Road

7 07 2022

Old spaces made new often lose a certain level of their charm in the effort to refresh them in the way that the modern world demands. More often than not, their age-old fabric is discarded, and out with it goes the stories that the years and users of the space may have been woven into it. It was therefore with great delight that in rather quaint old space by the name of Baroque House, which has retained its fabric even with renewal, and along with it, a certain charm and mystery. Housed in a century-old shophouse, its name was inspired by the term “Chinese Baroque”, which is applied in Singapore to describe very ornately adorned shophouses. In Baroque House, one finds quite an unlikely setting for what it has become: a private kitchen, an event space, and most of all, a place to discover.

Ventilation blocks from the past inside Baroque House.

My journey of discovery began almost from the off, when I received an invitation from Sonia Ong, the proprietress of Baroque House. The invitation, laced with a tinge of mystery, promised a “secret garden” tour, and more importantly, the irresistible company of good “spirits” through Baroque House’s Bourbon Tasting Omakase dinner menu, which did not take any persuasion for me to agree to. So, armed with only a hint of what to expect and an address, I made my way down Rowell Road one Monday afternoon. Rowell Road is of course a street that is better known for the wrong reasons and I was just as curious as to what Baroque House was all about, as I was about why Rowell Road?

Inside Baroque House.

It wasn’t hard to identify the house in question, its closed pink timber doors and windows and its floral decor setting it apart from the other shophouses along the same row. The exterior was just about all about Baroque House that matched what I had imagined it would be. With the parting of the doors — which did not creak when they were opened as I might have expected them to, I was greeted by Sonia herself who on stepping aside, brought the somewhat oddly and somewhat spartanly furnished space into view. A large chandelier made the space all the more curious, as did the hall’s well worn decorative floor tiles. The cement tiles had age written all over them and that added to mysterious quality of the place. Written in the tiles was not just age but also faded-glory, as it was safe to say that they were laid for an occupant or owner who was rather well off. This set the tone for the visit and I found myself eager to discover more! Joyfully, through Sonia’s Baroque House Secret Garden Tour, I was very soon able to learn much more.

Doors that are apparently a century old, beyond which lies the rather intriguing old world that is Baroque House.

Sonia would reveal was that the house was one of a pair (Nos. 29 and 31), both of which were constructed circa 1919 for a Fong Sien Long. Fong, as it turns out, was a member of the nearby Kampong Kapor Methodist Church. A seemingly wealthy property owner, Fong’s portfolio extended to sites around MacKenzie Road, Jalan Besar, Queen Street and Koek Road. The Rowell Road houses were, quite interestingly, designed by well-known Eurasian architect J B Westerhout. Architectural works in Westerhout’s name include what is known today as the Temasek Shophouse, and the Stamford Arts Centre.

No 29 and 31 Rowell Road, which were a pair built for Mr Fong Sien Leong that were designed by J B W

From what I have dug out on my own, it would appear that the house may have exchanged hands in 1931 when N B Westerhout — J B’s elder brother and a lawyer was reported to have purchased 29 Rowell Road at a mortgagee’s tender. What Sonia has found out was that more recently, the house — built originally as a residential shophouse and used as a low-cost residential unit at some point in time, was used as a commercial space by Cheng Fong Signcraft. After the sign craft shop moved out, the unit remained unoccupied for a period of about five years before Sonia chanced upon it. It would seem that it is their stories that have been “etched” in patterns of wear on the floor tiles. What seems remarkable to me is that the tiles have not only survived all these years, but were also — save for the wear, very much intact and that Sonia made a conscious effort to retain the character of the shophouse by keeping them.

Worn decorative floor tiles.

For Sonia, creating Baroque House has been a labour of love. It was in a quest to fulfil a life-long dream of owning a shophouse that she stumbled upon this well-worn house in Little India — or as I prefer to call it, the Village of Lime (Soonambu Kambam). Drawn by its character and the stories of past glory that the shophouse’s well worn fabric seemed to tell, it was love at first sight for Sonia. She set about purchasing the house and as she puts it, “nursed it back” to its current condition. Intent to keep the sense of use and history of the house, Sonia ignored suggestions to have much of the shophouse’s fabric replaced, renewing and replacing only what was needed such as termite infested timbers. She was thus able to keep the character of the house as she first saw it and retain it as a veritable treasure trove of past memories.

The reception hall.

Necessary repairs, carried out on the roof, would reveal what has become one of the highlights of Sonia’s secret garden tour, a hidden secret that the shophouse must have held through the course of its one-hundred and more years! The secret, a decorated party wall that appears to have served as an end gable wall, had been kept well hidden behind the house’s ceiling boards. In the motifs of the plasterwork there is also much mystery and begged the question of what it represented or why it was put there. What Sonia speculates is that the decorative plasterwork, and perhaps the floor tiles on the ground floor, may be an indication that what would have been a vacant plot of land before 29 and 31 Rowell Road was built was some kind of yard for the house next door — which rather curiously is numbered No 21.

Mysterious plasterwork that remained hidden for a hundred years.

Sonia’s choices in decorating the house is in keeping with the baroque in its name. Beside the chandelier, ornate furniture pieces that include an exquisite antique Chinese conjugal bed, artwork by local artist Jeremy Hiah, an antique baby grand piano, and somewhat out-of-place but yet in-place skateboard decks decorated with the likeness of Paul Gauguin’s art are some of items that Sonia has brought in, giving the house a quirky and curious quality.

The dining room with the best table.

With the discovery of the house’s interior complete (I did not have enough and actually had a second look later), it was time for an equally intriguing dining experience, and not to forget of course, some bourbon! This was served in the dining room (at the best table) with dessert served in the hall and was experience in itself! The ornately decorated dining room does put one in the mood for food and conversation and that started with the serving of the first course, with which foie gras and pumpkin soup served with fig cracker was paired with a Wild Turkey Rare Breed. Next was a Maker’s Mark 46 — which I instantly took to, served with a meaty but tender and delicious main course of wood-fired Wagyu brisket, pulled pork, spare ribs and smoked chicken. Dessert was interestingly a banana and marshmallow pudding, which I could douse with a bit of Angel’s Envy bourbon before doing a DIY flambé of the assembly.

The first course of the Bourbon Tasting Omakase dinner menu.
The main course with Makers’ Mark 46.
DIY time.

In all, the experience was really quite unique and one that, especially if you are looking for something quite unique and laced with discovery, I highly recommend. The experiences are not confined to the Secret Garden Tour, or to private dining and Baroque House offers an array of other activities such as Bourbon Tasting, Murder of a Millionnaire Mystery Night (a live-action game along the lines of jubensha) which comes with props, facilitators, 3-course dinner and a glass of Prosecco,  Scones at Baroque House (for tea), Wine and Cheese Club, Special Rum Tasting, Sake Tasting, Champagne Tasting, Little India Marketing and Cooking Tour, Chinese Heritage Kueh cooking class, Tea Tasting sessions (and I am told unique tasting sessions such as Indian Mango tasting during the season). The house is also available for rent. For more information, please visit www.baroquehaus.com.


 





Lost places: the police station at Singapore’s “little garden suburb”

26 06 2022

The area around the fifth milestone of Aukang / Serangoon was once described as a “little garden suburb”. That was back in the 1930s, around the time when the area gained a degree of prominence as a rural centre with the opening of RAF Seletar just three miles up Yio Chu Kang Road. The period was indeed a busy period in terms of the development of the area with the construction of several of the area’s landmarks. This included the building of a new police station, which replaced an older station, a Municipal market at Lim Tua Tow Road which could be thought of as being the predecessor of the 1950s built market that many in my generation would know, and the older Paya Lebar Methodist Church (and the girls school).

Paya Lebar Police Station, 1958
(Charles Ralph Saunders, posted by Stewart Saunders on On a Little Street in Singapore)

The police station traced its history back to the 1870s, having been set up along what was essentially on of the first cross-island roads that led to Serangoon Harbour (Kangkar). The station building that most will remember was a replacement that was built around 1929; its construction comings as part of a decade-long modernisation effort that was initiated by Inspector General Harold Fairburn to bring greater professionalism the Straits Settlements Police Force. That station was also one built as a police division headquarters or HQ (Paya Lebar Division was initially named “G” Division before becoming “F” Division), and thus bore the characteristics of many of the some of the larger out-of-town stations of the era and also several buildings within the Old Police Academy. As with the main stations coming up back then, Paya Lebar’s was provided with low-rise barrack blocks to house the rank and file. Over the yeats, a nursery and orchard were added, along with a fish pond and an aviary. Prior to the station’s decommissioning, the practice of housing police officers and their families was stopped and the barracks were converted for use as police offices.

The fifth mile area in 1967. The police station can be seen top centre on the left and the older Paya Lebar Methodist Church top centre on the right of Upper Serangoon Road (photo: National Archives of Singapore)

What was interesting about the “F” Division was that it was the second largest in Singapore, covering an area of some 139 square kilometres. This extended to a part of Singapore that included two airports (Paya Lebar International Airport and Seletar Air Base), the area of the former Naval Base where the UNHCR maintained a refugee camp, and the notorious Tai Seng, Ang Mo Kio and Chong Pang areas, which were hotbed of secret society activity and the officers at the station certainly had their hands full.

The area before the Forest Woods development came up, dominated by the Upper Serangoon Viaduct (the former barracks can be seen on the left)

The division also served a population of almost 450,000 by the time the station was decommissioned in August 1987 following its move to Ang Mo Kio. This coincided with the completion of a new division HQ station and Paya Lebar Division morphing into the current Ang Mo Kio Police Division. Rapid urbanisation and redevelopment, including the development of the huge Ang Mo Kio New Town, and the need for modern infrastructure, made the move necessary. The former station’s buildings were then used by the 3rd Division SCDF from 1988 until a new Divisional HQ and fire station was completed in 2005 at Yishun Industrial Park A.

The widening of Upper Serangoon Road in way of its junction with Upper Paya Lebar and Boundary Roads to accommodate a flyover, saw to the demolition of the former station. The other reminders of the station, in the form of its former accommodation blocks, used in the interim as educational premises, were only demolished in late 2016 following the sale of the plot in late 2015 through a tender exercise for private residential development. The site, which was bought for some SGD321 million is now where Forest Woods, a condominium complex, now stands.

Harold Fairburn

Modernising the Straits Settlements Police Force (SSPF)

The effort to modernise the police force was an initiative of Harold Fairburn, Inspector General of the Straits Settlements Police Force (SSPF) from 1925 to 1935. It came during a period of time when the SSPF faced great challenges in dealing with a wave of criminal activity. Singapore, then also known as “Sin-galore”, had the reputation of being the “Chicago of the East”. An improvement in policing methods, in recruitment of personnel, and in the methods of training was sorely needed. A massive building programme was also initiated to improve facilities, and living conditions of police personnel and their families and out of this programme, came the Police Training Depot (old Police Academy), stations such as the “Police Skyscraper” or Hill Street Police Station, Maxwell Road Police Station and Beach Road Police Station, were built. Stations also featured barrack accommodation. Accommodation facilities for also provided for the Sikh contingent at Pearls Hill.





Goodbye to a View

30 05 2022

The pace of development in the north of Singapore, a part of the island of which I have some wonderful childhood memories of, seems to be quickening. The recent demolition of all but one of the blocks of KD Malaya and the loss of its parade square has left the section of the old naval base closest to the causeway almost unrecognisable. Nearby, former residents of another marker of memory, the former “Torpedo Lines” at Khalsa Crescent — most recently a prison, returned to say goodbye and have their memories collected ahead of its probable eventual demolition in an event organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) last week. A little further east, it has already been some time since the loss of part of the elevation that played host to a UNHCR refugee camp for “Boat People” fleeing South Vietnam. The same elevation was also home to the former View Road Hospital, a branch of Woodbridge Hospital (now Institute of Mental Health), which stood at its top. The building that housed it, which dates back to 1941 and is still standing, is a longtime marker that if the URA Master Plan for the area is to be realised, may also soon disappear from sight.

The observation tower at View Road.

Although the former View Road Hospital, once also a home to Asian Naval Base Policemen and their families may be of little architectural value and of little significance in the whole scheme of buildings within the former naval base, it has, since I started conducting tours in collaboration with the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) in 2017, has become one of my favourite places. Why that is so is for the views one is able to get from its lookout tower, one that now provides an idea of the scale of redevelopment that is taking place in and around it. An example of the development work that is now in evidence, is the Rail Transit System link that will connect Woodlands North to Bukit Chagar in Johor Bahru via a 25 metre high bridge. Scheduled to open by the end of 2026, it will transform the area into a major entry point for cross border human traffic with its peak capacity of 10,000 passengers per hour.

Among the other developments that is already taking place in the area, is that of the future Woodlands North Coast, a component the overall Woodland Regional Centre. Based on the URA Master Plane, that does appear to spell the end for the former hospital.

The future of View Road (URA Master Plan 2019).




Parting Glances: Khalsa Crescent, home turned prison

24 05 2022

Once home to a huge naval base that stretched from the Causeway to Sembawang Road, Singapore’s rather sleepy northern coast seems set for a huge transformation. Work to build a much-anticipated rail transit system link to Johor Bahru is already underway and the signs are that the ground is already being prepared for a role as key component of the future Woodlands Regional Centre. The demolition of much of the former KD Malaya complex is now already complete, and all that is left of the longtime landmark, sited in an area close to Woodlands North MRT Station is gone, save for the conserved administration building. One set of structures that may likely disappear is the former quarters at Khalsa Crescent, which many of us would only know as Khalsa Crescent Prison.

The former Khalsa Crescent Prison, which has a much storied past. Block 6 (Prison Block F) was used as accommodation for policemen and featured a recreational space below where lectures and police parties during Sikh religious festivals were held. The space also functioned as a games room.
The watchtowers of the former prison are what draws notice to the complex.

Built in 1950 on the site of the Torpedo Depot “coolie lines”, Khalsa Crescent (Asian) quarters provided Asian members of the naval base workforce and their families, with a roof over their heads. Among those who were housed on the site were members of the Naval Base Police Force and the Naval Base Fire Service, for whom the set of quarters was affectionately known as “Torpedo”, having been know initially as “Torpedo Depot Lines”. When built, the quarters comprised seven two-storey blocks cont laid out with some 170 rooms that could accommodate up to 180 families. Among the blocks were ones housing bachelors with common spaces such as rest and mess rooms and recreational spaces found on the ground floors. Flag Officer (Malaya), Rear Admiral Clifford Caslon, who opened the estate on 10 January 1950, described the construction of new housing units as evidence that interest to the welfare and comfort of the base’s civilian staff was being shown by the Admiralty.

The newly built accommodation blocks in 1950, with Blocks 1 and 2 (far end) on the left, and Blocks 3 (far end) and 4 on the right.
The scene today.

During its first years, the quarters accommodated a fair number of Sikhs families, who men served in the Naval Base Police Force. As a result of this, a gurdwara was established in the eastern section of the ground floor of Block 5. Due to this association with the Sikh members of the force, the road through the estate was named “Khalsa”, which means “pure” in Punjabi. Khalsa, which also describes the guiding principle of the Sikh religion community, is often used as a reference to the Sikh community. The gurdwara moved to View Road (Rimau), where an Asian Naval Base Police Barracks was established, together with the Sikh policemen and their families in 1959. Some naval base policemen continued to stay in Khalsa Crescent while there were others who also relocated to Cochrane Crescent at about the same time. In the 1960s, a surau for Muslim policemen and their families was established at Block 5.

The section of Block 5 where I am told the gurdwara was.

The British military pullout, which took place at the end of October 1971, also saw to the eventual disbandment of the various services associated with the naval base and while the quarters continued in their use as accommodation units, the winds of change would eventually blow through the estate. In late 1974, some three years after the pullout, several of the accommodation blocks at Khalsa Crescent were converted for use as a remand centre and the forerunner of the Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC) — the DRC system was apparently formalised in 1977, although the term was already in use – as part of a broader scheme to segregate drug inmates (also according to the number of times they were hauled in). But while this may have been the intention, one of the centre’s first uses was for the detention of illegal immigrants, more specifically a group of 56 who had fled South Vietnam as the situation deteriorated in the lead up to the Fall of Saigon in April 1975. The group of 56, with 18 women and 10 children among them, arrived on a stolen military plane on 3 April 1975. Having come without the necessary visas, they were detained as illegal immigrants and were held at Khalsa Crescent where they spent 3 weeks, after which they were sent on to Guam.

A view of the former prison.

This drug rehabilitation scheme saw further changes to it and by 1995, drug addicts would first be sent to Sembawang DRC, where they would be observed and further processing was carried out. They would then be placed based on their previous records. Khalsa Crescent DRC was where third time offenders were sent to. Khalsa Crescent’s capacity was increased from 500 to 1050 during a renovation exercise that was carried out in anticipation of this new arrangement. In June 2005, Khalsa Crescent DRC became simply Khalsa Crescent Prison.

Members of the Khalsa Crescent Sikh Community.

The modernisation and expansion of the Changi Prison complex in 2009, saw to the move of some 5000 inmates from prisons like Khalsa Crescent Prison, which was described as the “largest transfer of prisoners in local history”. What that also meant was that older facilities such as Khalsa Crescent Prison were made redundant and surplus to requirements. Decommissioned, the former prison lay hidden behind its tall green security fence — that is until 21 May 2022 when former residents of the one-time Asian quarters were allowed to take a short but sweet walk back in time in anticipation of the complex’s eventual demolition.

Memories of Khalsa Crescent.

Vietnamese Refugees in Singapore
Following the incident involving the 56 refugees arriving by plane, the opium treatment centre at St John’s Island was temporarily set aside for refugees. Addicts under treatment on the island displaced by the arrangements were then moved to Khalsa Crescent Remand Centre, where the 56 had been held. The island refugee camp would be closed in October 1975 and subsequent to that, Singapore took a strong stand against refugees who began to leave the former South Vietnam by boat. A policy of restocking refugee boats before towing the boats back out to sea was initially put in place. It would only be in 1978 at a time when the refugee crisis reached its peak that Singapore permitted refugees to land on the condition that a guarantee was made of resettlement in a third country within three months by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR was also allowed to set up and run a refugee camp at Hawkins Road, not far from Khalsa Crescent.


The evolution of the area through maps and aerials

Maps of the Torpedo Depot area showing the former coolie lines in 1945 and the blocks of the Asian quarters in 1968.
Plans of the site before and after the quarters were built.
Aerial views of the site during the time of the coolie lines and after the barracks were built (Maps from National Archives of Singapore)
What the crystal ball that is the URA Master Plan says that the Khalsa Crescent will be – a future residential development.

A walk around the former prison

The caged passageway built for the prison along the former Block 5, which became the prison’s Admin Block.
An Interview Room in the Admin Block.
A passageway between the Admin Block and the Workshop section of the prison.
A view towards the former RMN Sports Grounds, where the Rail Transit System link from Woodlands North to Bukit Chagar in Johor Bahru is being built.
Inside Workshop 2, one of two prison workshops that were added during the prison days.
Inside a second workshop.
Staircase at Block 7, which was apparently a bachelors’ block.
Block 7, which had bachelors’ accommodation on the top. A Sikh cook prepared meals for the bachelors according to one former resident.
The Kitchen at Block 7.
Potential weapons have to be kept safe.
The Housing Unit – the roof was added to allow the space between the former accommodation and service blocks to be usable.

Inside a “Housing Unit”


More views of the former prison






The Singapore debut of The Capitol of Singapore

4 05 2022

Anyone stepping into Capitol Theatre will get an immediate sense of a grace and elegance that is a reflection of the age that the theatre was built in and that and the building’s evolution over the years has been captured on film, through a documentary “The Capitol of Singapore” that makes its Singapore debut this Friday, 6 May 2022, at The Capitol! Two screenings of the film have been scheduled in conjunction with Singapore HeritageFest 2022, the other screening being on 7 May. Directed by French filmmaker Raphaël Millet, Friday’s screening of the film — also known as “Le Capitol de Singapour”, the film, will mark the first time that it will be seen outside of France. More information on the screenings and a link to the booking page can be found at this link.


Capitol Theatre

Built from 1929 to 1930, the theatre was designed by Keys and Dowdeswell at a time when the formerly government employed pair had ventured into private architectural practice. The cinema, the most progressive of the day in Singapore and Malaya, reflected the aspirations of the architect, as much that it did those of its wealthy owner, Mr Mirza Mohamed Ali (M A) Namazie — a Madras (Chennai) born Muslim of Persian origin who had substantial holdings in property and also in the rubber trade.

No expense seems to have been spared in the building of the Capitol. Not only was it large by the standards of the day, but the Capitol was also the first cinema hall in Singapore and Malaya to feature forced ventilation. Maximising the comfort of its patrons, the ventilation system reduced the necessity for large ventilation openings, thus keeping noise at a minimum. This would have been especially desirable, given that the cinema was built during the progression from the silent age of cinema to the new era of the talkies.

Before its refurbishment,

That Capitol Theatre is still with us over 90 years after it screened its first movie, is itself a remarkable story.  The cinema faced a string of challenges from very outset; its opening night plagued by the poor performance of its audio system due to Singapore’s high levels of humidity. Caught up in the excitement of watching Bebe Daniels and John Boles star in the musical production “Rio Rita” in a cinema of Capitol’s stature, not many apparently noticed.

At the end of its refurbishment in 2015.

The death of Mr M A Namazie in July 1931, and the effects of the Great Depression, prompted a change of ownership at the end of 1932. The Japanese Occupation of Singapore would see the cinema utilised as the Kyoei Gekizyo, opening in November 1942. Besides screening movies, the Kyoei also played host to recitals, concerts and other performances, as well as rallies and meetings, some of which were organised by the Overseas Chinese Association. Anti-Japanese saboteurs set off an explosion in early 1945, which caused sufficient damage to see that it would never used by the Japanese again. Capitol Theatre was given a new lease of life in January 1946 when it reopened, having been refurbished by the Shaw Brothers at a cost of half-a-million dollars. The cinema screened its last movie in December 1998 before being revived as a theatre in May 2015.

The Capitol’s elegant interior.


Synopsis

At the heart of Singapore’s Civic and Cultural District stands Capitol Theatre, a historical landmark that has borne witness to Singapore’s transformation over the years.

The documentary film, The Capitol of Singapore, traces the evolution of this historical building, from its founding in 1930 as a state-of-the-art theatre and shopping arcade; its requisition by the Japanese during the Second World War; its years as a top cinema where Hollywood blockbusters and local movie premieres were shown; its eventual decline into disuse and disrepair; and finally, its resurrection, after undergoing preservation and conservation works, to its present day incarnation as part of the integrated development Capitol Singapore, which is owned and managed by Perennial Holdings Private Limited. Capitol Singapore houses The Capitol Kempinski Hotel Singapore, Eden Residences Capitol as well as a retail mall and the iconic theatre.

The film delves into the heritage of Capitol Theatre through a look at the theatre’s original architecture and personal stories recounting what it has meant for many Singaporeans. Like a phoenix reborn, Capitol Theatre has stood the test of time, reinventing itself at every turn to stay relevant for each generation to come. In telling the story of Capitol Theatre, the film also explores, in parallel, the history of Singapore cinema, highlighting the golden years of film production when Singapore was at the centre of Southeast Asia’s film industry, producing films in Malay and the various Chinese dialects and drawing talent from across Asia.

During this period, Singapore was also a known locale for international film productions, attracting filmmakers from both Hong Kong and Hollywood. The Capitol Theatre made Singapore a top Asian destination for many film stars, with celebrity visits from the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Ava Gardner and Douglas Fairbanks who graced their film premieres in Singapore.

Through the story of Capitol Theatre, the film journeys into Singapore’s past and in doing so, reflects upon its present and future.






An enlightened space

4 04 2022

Voluminous spaces amply illuminated by natural light are often a visually treat. We have quite a number of these spaces in Singapore, including several that go back to a time when harnessing natural light and ventilation for interior spaces all seemed very logical.

A view of the main hall of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

One fine example of a such a voluminous space is the main hall of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. The hall features a high vaulted ceiling that rises to a height of some 21.6 metres to keep its users cool. A fair amount of natural light also streams into the space through windows placed at its roof’s gable ends and also along the sides, making it quite a joy to behold. The station is one of many designs that have flown off the drawing boards of architectural firm Swan and Maclaren. The design of the hall’s gable ends recalls the one of the firm’s earlier works, the Malayan Motors showroom on Orchard Road.

The former Malayan Motors showroom.

Designed in 1925, the building — like Tanjong Pagar Railway Station — can still be admired. It now stands at the end of a delightful row of conserved buildings opposite Dhoby Ghaut MRT station and looking at it, it is not hard to see how the former showroom must have been quite an attraction on Orchard Road when it was completed in early 1927. The showroom’s façade, which is effectively a gable end, is topped by a sunburst like decorative feature that seems very much to be a call for attention. The window arrangement on this face does also seem quite similar to that of the gable ends of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station’s main hall, although in being dressed to act as the showroom’s street facing façade, is much more elaborately designed.

Similarities can be seen between Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the former Malayan Motors showroom.

The former showroom, which now stands as a marker of a stretch of Orchard Road that was at the heart of Singapore’s motoring trade, has long fascinated me. Other than its showroom on the ground floor, which I had chance to visit as a child when my father purchased a Morris Marina in the 1970s, I’ve often wondered what lay behind the glorious face of building and its multitude of windows. I long imagined that was a showroom or perhaps a workshop on its upper floors and I was rather disappointed to learn from the building’s plans that what did lie under the rather elaborate roof were offices — at least at the point of design. Knowing this, what now intrigues me is why all that elaboration for a set of mere offices? Whatever it was however, it must have been quite a space to marvel at.

What lies behind the face of the Malayan Motors showroom’s gabled ends.

The showroom’s construction came at a time when the motoring trade was on the up and when Orchard Road had established its place a centre for the business of getting around. The street in its post-plantation era, had become a choice residential neighbourhood and both residents and visitors needed a means to move around, especially with Orchard Road being some distance from the commercial area. By the late 1800s, livery stables from which horses and carriages could be hired, lined the street. Hackney carriages plied the street as much as taxis now do, and carriages makers and horse traders set up shop.

Stables on Orchard Road.

The introduction of the motorcar would see a change of fortunes for those involved in the trade. Some of those involved in the business of horses and carriages would become among the first to trade instead in horsepower, leading to the area retaining its place as a hub as the private transportation business evolved. New entrants to the business, with a greater capacity to respond to shifting demands, soon dominated the scene, with names such as Cycle and Carriage and C F F Wearne (later Wearne Brothers) — now household names in the trade, setting up shop in the area in the early 1900s. By the end of the second decade of the twentieth century, at least a dozen car dealerships had been established in the area close to the entrance to Government House — something I touched on during the Age of Locomotion tour that I recently conducted as part of a series of four historical tours of Orchard Road for Design Orchard’s “The Non Season”.

The “motor” end of Orchard Road, a hundred years apart.

C F F Wearne and Co, one of many success stories associated with the motoring trade, was founded by two Western Australian brothers Charles Frederick Foster Wearne and his brother Theodore James Benjamin (T J B or Theo). The two had come across to Singapore in 1892 and worked their way up from being apprentices at the New Harbour Dock Company to qualify as marine engineers. In 1906, with a startup capital of 700 Straits dollars that Theo provided, C F F Wearne and Co was established as a motor garage in Theo’s brother-in-law’s coach house. This was a time when there were just a handful of cars on the island. In a matter of months, C F F Wearne and Co moved into two shophouse units in Orchard Road. Having secured the agency for Oldsmobiles, the company would expand its portfolio to include makes such as Morris, Rolls Royce, Bentley and Ford and in no time, established themselves as a main player in the business with C F F Wearne and Co becoming Wearne Brothers.

The 1910 built C F F Wearne Garage

By 1924, Wearne Brothers would be producing car bodies locally for assembly to Ford car chassis shipped to Singapore by Ford Canada for the local market. A small assembly plant was established at Penang Lane to handle the work. To avoid any conflict of interests between the Ford agency and other agencies under the Wearne Brothers umbrella, a subsidiary, Malayan Motors, was set up the same year acting as agents for agents for Armstrong-Siddley, Morris, Sunbeam, Packard, Rolls-Royce, Essex, Erksine and Standard motorcars. Malayan Motors operated out of the 1910 constructed C F F Wearnes’ garage, which stood on the site of the 1927 built Malayan Motors showroom at 14-20 Orchard Road. The 1927 building does in fact have the 1910 building appended to it, having been built in front of the older structure. This is quite evident from the difference in floor levels of the older back section and newer front section of the former showroom.

The difference in floor levels between the old and new sections of the building.

Wearne Brothers, which established the first local airline to operate out of Singapore in 1937, Wearnes Air Services (Charles Wearne was also a great aviation enthusiast), would be greatly affected by the war. War not only disrupted Wearnes Air Services operations just as it was about to see returns on the investment and Wearnes’ other businesses operations, war would affect the Wearne brothers in a very personal way. Whilst Charles and Theo made it out of the very last shipping convoy to leave Singapore just a few days before the inglorious Fall of Singapore, two of Charles’ sons would become Prisoners of War. Charles also passed on at the age of 71 in Mandurah, Western Australia, a year before the war ended.

Malayan Motors made its last sale in the showroom in August 1980, after which the company consolidated it operations at its Leng Kee Road branch. The showroom was renovated in 1988 and used by the Singapore Manufacturers’ Association as SMA House and from 2002 to 2020, the building was used by the private school Management Development Institute of Singapore or MDIS.

The former showroom was a witness to war.

Let there be light!






Breaking KD Malaya’s last ship up

11 03 2022

For those whose connection with Singapore’s far north go back to the 20th century, the road to the causeway was one littered with an interesting range of sights. One such sight that would certainly have caught the eye, was that of KD Malaya, a camp from which Malaysia’s navy – Tentera Laut DiRaja Malaysia (TLDM) or Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) had its fleet based at until 1979, and which was used as a TLDM training facility right until 1997.

KD Malaya from Admiralty Road West – the layout of the buildings gave an appearance of the bow of a huge ship.

The centrepiece of the base was it large parade ground, beyond which an administrative building and two barrack buildings took on the appearance of the bow of a huge ship with the camp’s flagstaff seemingly a foremast. This was quite a remarkable sight, as one came around an area of Admiralty Road West that contained Hawkins Road refugee camp and View Road Hospital (the area was featured in Secrets in the Hood Episode 5).

The former KD Malaya, seen in 2020 after Admiralty West Prison vacated it.

The wondrous sight of the former KD Malaya is now one has quite sadly been lost to the frenzy of redevelopment has now reached Singapore’s once sleepy north, with the Woodlands North Coast development beginning to take shape. While the camp’s streamline moderne inspired former administration block may have been kept for posterity, the two barrack buildings that contributed to the sight has since been demolished. Along with that, the parade square, which had provided the setback to take the wonderful view in, has also been consigned to history. This breaking of a link with our shared history with Malaysia, through the removal of a significant physical reminder of it seems especially ironic with the development nearby of a new link to Malaysia through the Rapid Transit System.

Only the administration block remains today (with a granite-faced staircase leading up to it).

I shall miss the sight of the former KD Malaya, with which I have been familiar with since my childhood. Together with the wonderful spaces and landmarks in and around it, it has provided great joy and comfort, especially with much of the rest of a Singapore being transformed in a way made it hard to identify with. While KD Malaya’s administration block is being kept, my fear is that it becomes just another building in a space overcrowded with a clutter of structures of a brave new world – as seems the case many other developments in which heritage structures are present. An example is the transformation of the joyously green space around old Admiralty House into the monstrous Bukit Canberra development into which a ridiculous amount of concrete has been poured in and around which a clutter of structures has conspired to reduce the presence of the stately arts and crafts movement inspired old Admiralty House.

A road is being built around the site.

There is also the matter of KD Malaya’s gateposts, which will have to be relocated. Whatever happens to it and wherever it will eventually be re-sited, my hope is that it doesn’t go the way of the old National Library’s gateposts. Originally left in situ to mark the site of a much loved Singaporean building, the gateposts have since suffered the indignity of being displaced and put in a position in which it has become …. just another part of the scene.

KD Malaya’s old gate.
The road to perdition. Work on the Rapid Transit System is taking place, which will cross over that body of water that is seen to Johor Bahru.
Will the former Rimau Offices / View Road Hospital (and its unusual above ground “bomb-proof” office) be the next to go?




A lost world

10 03 2022

Photographs of a lost world that exists in a part of Singapore that has been reclaimed by nature.