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 second 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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The unseen passageway in the National Gallery

4 04 2016

One of the functional spaces now can a glimpse of within the former Supreme Court in its reincarnation as a wing of the National Gallery Singapore, are the two prisoner cells. Once part of what I often refer to as the caged passageway – a unseen network of spaces under the courtrooms through which defendants in criminal cases could be bought for their court appearances with a minimum of fuss and away from public spotlight, the cells are the most visible of the parts of this network that are still with us today.

The entrance to the Holding Cells.

The Holding Cells today – a popular spot for a photograph to be taken.

Much of it, including interview rooms and office spaces arranged around the cells, have since been converted. Part of a corridor, I am told, and the two cells – once part of a row of twelve, are all that is left today to remind us of the unseen passageway. Now a popular spot to have a photograph taken at, the two cells are now the unseen passageway’s most visible part, serving to remind us of the building and its short but eventful history.

The caged passageway seen with indicted Japanese soldiers being tried for war crimes being led to the courtroom from the holding cells (source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4999).

The caged passageway seen during the post-war war crimes trials (source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4999).


Photographs of the “caged passageway” taken in 2010

The entrance - the steel doors opened up to the service road being the courthouse and ii was through them that vehicles ferrying defendants from prison to the Supreme Court entered.

The entrance – the steel doors opened up to the service road being the courthouse and ii was through them that vehicles ferrying defendants from prison to the Supreme Court entered.

Entry to an office space.

Entry to an office space.

Another office space.

Another office space.

A filing cabinet.

A filing cabinet.

A caged stairway.

A caged stairway.

The row of cells.

The row of cells – there would have been twelve such cells.

Inside a cell.

Inside a cell.

The WC inside the cell.

The WC inside the cell.

The passageway leading to the courtrooms.

The passageway leading to the courtrooms.

The stairway up to a courtroom, entry to which was through a trapdoor (which can still be seen in their closed positions).

The stairway up to a courtroom, entry to which was through a trapdoor (which can still be seen in their closed positions) placed behind the dock.


 

 





Good Friday at a slice of Portugal in Singapore

26 03 2016

The Portuguese Church, as the Church of St. Joseph’s at Victoria Street is referred to, is where the religious traditions of the Portuguese Eurasian community in Singapore are kept alive. It is every year on Good Friday, a day of fasting, reflection and prayer, that we see the most colourful manifestation of these traditions, in an elaborate service which culminates in procession illuminated by the light of candles carried by the sea of worshippers that crowd the church’s compound.

The sea of candlelight every Good Friday.

The sea of candlelight every Good Friday at the Portuguese Church.

The procession, would in the past, attract worshippers in their thousands, some of whom would crowd the compound just to see the procession pass. Worshippers would also spill out to Queen Street and in more recent times to the lower floors of the podium at Waterloo Centre. It was at Queen Street where many candle vendors would be seen to do a roaring trade, offering candles of all sizes. I remember seeing some on sale that were of such a length that they needed to be propped up by pieces of wood, which we no longer see these days.

The head of the procession with a bier containing a life-sized representation of the body of Christ makes its way through the grounds of the church.

The head of the procession with a bier containing a life-sized representation of the body of Christ makes its way through the grounds of the church.

Worshippers carrying candles follow the procession.

Worshippers carrying candles follow the procession.

While the candle vendors have been chased off the streets, the procession, even with the smaller crowds we see today, still adds much life and colour to the area. In keeping the traditions of a small and rarely mentioned community in Singapore alive, the procession also reminds us that what colours Singapore is not just the influences of the main ethnic groups but also of the smaller groups that have added to the flavour of Singapore’s rich and diverse cultural heritage.

Another view of the procession through the grounds.

Another view of the procession through the grounds.

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A face seen in the clouds as the crowds gathered for the procession.

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More on the procession and the Portuguese Church:

 





The eighth night

1 03 2016

Chinese New Year, celebrated over a fifteen day period that culminates with Chap Goh Mei or Yuanxiao Jie (元宵节), is an occasion for much joy and feasting for the Chinese community here in Singapore. It is also an occasion when the many sub-cultural practices brought in by the diverse group of early Chinese immigrants are brought to the surface. One such observation is that of the Heavenly Jade Emperor’s birthday. Commemorated on the ninth day of the Chinese New Year, it is celebrated by members of the Hokkien community.

The Thian Hock Keng at Telok Ayer Street, Singapore's oldest Hokkien Taoist temple.

The Thian Hock Keng at Telok Ayer Street, Singapore’s oldest Hokkien Taoist temple.

For the community, who were among the earliest group of immigrants to come ashore in British Singapore, the observation is of great importance. Referred to as Pai Tee Kong in Hokkien (or Bai Tian Gong, 拜天公 in Mandarin), it is sometimes also called the “Hokkien New Year”.

Pai Tee Kong prayers held at the former Keng Teck Whay.

Pai Tee Kong prayers held at the former Keng Teck Whay.

As to how the community came to regard the birthday as the most important of the fifteen days, there are several versions of the story (one of which is found here). The many variations do have one thing in common – that members of the community were able to elude would be attackers by taking refuge in a field of sugarcane and praying to the Jade Emperor for deliverance.

Stalks of sugarcane going on sale on the seventh day.

Stalks of sugarcane going on sale on the seventh day. Legend has it that a field of sugarcane offered Hokkiens fleeing from attackers a place of refuge.

Where the story differs is in when it took place and who the Hokkiens were running from, ranging from the incident taking place during the time of the Song or Mongol dynasties with Hokkien (or Fujian) province under attack by the armies loyal to the ruling dynasty, to it taking place during the days of the Ming Dynasty and the Hokkiens being pursued by bandits or pirates. Whatever it was, it was on the ninth day – coincidentally the birthday of the Heavenly Jade Emperor – Taoism’s most supreme deity, that the Hokkiens were able to emerge from their hiding place and celebrate the new year.

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Preparations to greet the Heavenly Jade Emperor begin in earnest on the eve of the ninth day. Stalks of sugarcane are purchased by Hokkien families who place them by the doors of their homes or on either side of a table of offerings. The offerings include items such as pineapples, sweets, roast pigs and huat kueh (steamed “prosperity cakes” often used as prayer offerings), all of which also have a special significance.

A table of offerings together with two stalks of sugarcane, placed at the front of a business. Similar tables are also seen outside the homes of Hokkien Taoist families.

A table of offerings together with two stalks of sugarcane, placed at the front of a business. Similar tables are also seen outside the homes of Hokkien Taoist families.

Temples are probably where the celebrations are at their most colourful. At the Thian Hock Keng, Singapore’s oldest Hokkien temple and the spiritual home of Hokkien culture in Singapore along Telok Ayer Street, a temporary altar to the Jade Emperor is erected to which prayers and offerings made. It is however just next door at the former home of a Hokkien Peranakan mutual-aid society, the Keng Teck Whay, that one of the more elaborate ceremonies is held.

The temporary altar to the Jade Emperor at the Thian Hock Keng.

The temporary altar to the Jade Emperor at the Thian Hock Keng.

The crowd at the Thian Hock Keng on the eighth night.

The crowd at the Thian Hock Keng on the eighth night.

The beautifully crafted 19th century Keng Teck Whay, long in a state of disrepair, has only very recently been restored by the Singapore Taoist Mission. The mission now runs the National Monument as the Singapore Yu Huang Gong temple and maintains many of the practices of the Keng Teck Whay. Dedicated to the Heavenly Jade Emperor, the temple’s Pai Tee Kong, all of which was conducted in the Hokkien vernacular, is especially elaborate and a wonderful reminder that Singapore, in all its modernity, is still where many traditions have not lost their place.

The ceremony at the former Keng Teck Whay ...

The ceremony at the former Keng Teck Whay …

Which was taking place at the same time as a getai performance across the street. Street opera and getai performances are often held to provide entertainment to the deities during Taoist festivals.

… which was taking place at the same time as a getai performance for the Thain Hock Keng across the street. Street opera and getai performances are often held at temples to provide entertainment to the deities during Taoist festivals.





Lost in the rising sea at Telok Ayer

12 02 2016

It is hard now to imagine the sea coming right up to Telok Ayer Street where the original shoreline had once been.  The Telok Ayer Reclamation scheme of the 1880s moved the shoreline to where Shenton Way is today, adding some 1,808,028 square feet or 167,971. square metres of land where Telok Ayer Bay had been. A portion of the land, reclaimed at a cost of 51 cents per square foot, was sold initially (in 1896) for an average price of $1.13 per square foot.

One of the earliest structures to be erected in the land where the bay had been is what we now know as Telok Ayer Market or “Lau Pa-Sat” – meaning old market in the Hokkien dialect with pa-sat being a Hokkien loan word from Malay used locally. The “New Town Market” replaced a 1833 market that had been built along the earlier shoreline and would possibly be the only one of the reclamation’s early structures to have stood to this very day (it did disappear over a three year period in the late 1980s when it was dismantled to protect its structure from damage from tunnelling works for the MRT).

A National Monument, the former market and now a food centre, is a showpiece of exquisite Scottish ironwork. Although it still remains very recognisable for its distinctive octagonal plan and its clock tower, the old market has become a lot less noticeable now that it is lost in the new sea at the former Telok Ayer Bay; a sea not of water but of towering skyscrapers that has risen in the last four decades or so.

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Lost in the sea of skyscrapers, the former Telok Ayer Market. This view of it is down Maxwell Link, running in between Robinson Road and Shenton Way, along which newer and taller buildings are now replacing the first generation skyscrapers of 1970s vintage.

The view from Mount Wallich

When the air was much clearer – a view from Mount Wallich, which was soon to be levelled, towards the Telok Ayer Reclamation, possibly in the late 1890s, soon after the “New Town Market”, also seen in the picture, was constructed. The road closest to the viewer would be Cecil Street, with Robinson Road running parallel and what would became Shenton Way just by the sea.

Carnival time on the reclamation – the Manila Carnival during the Malaya-Borneo Exhibition in 1922 where Shenton Way is today. The market can be seen in the background (National Archives of Singapore Photograph).

 





The National Gallery Singapore: a sneak peek

23 11 2015

After five long years, the transformation of two of Singapore most recognisable National Monuments, the former Supreme Court and City Hall into the National Gallery Singapore, is finally complete. The new cultural institution, which oversees the largest collection of modern art in Southeast Asia, will open its doors to the public tomorrow – an event that is being accompanied with a big bash.

Visitors to the gallery can expect to see a display of Singapore and Southeast Asian art drawn from Singapore’s huge National Collection in the permanent exhibitions, Siapa Nama Kamu? – featuring close to 400 works of Singapore art since the 19th Century, and Between Declarations and Dreams, which features close to 400 works of Southeast Asian art from the same period.   There will also be two special exhibitions that can be caught from 26 Nov 2015 to 3 May 2016. One, Beauty Beyond Form, features the donated works of traditional Chinese painter, Wu Guanzhong. The other After the Rain, will see 38 works of one of Singapore’s leading ink painters, Chua Ek Kay on display. Also on display will be the beautifully restored interiors of the two buildings, and the stunning impact the architectural interventions have had on them (see also : The National Gallery, Naked).

More information on the National Museum’s opening celebrations and visitor information can be found on the celebrations brochure (pdf) and also at the National Gallery Singapore’s website. Admission to the National Gallery Singapore will be free for all visitors from 24 November to 6 December 2015.


A Sneak Peek at the National Gallery Singapore

The former Supreme Court, which houses the galleries of the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery

Art in a former courtroom.

Art in a former courtroom.

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The former Courtroom No. 1.

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Manit Sriwanichpoom’s Shocking Pink Collection.

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Reflections on the Rotunda Dome.

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The former Courtroom No. 1.

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The spiral staircase to the main Supreme Court dome.

An art resource centre in the former Rotunda Library.

An art resource centre in the former Rotunda Library.

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Inside the resource centre.

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City Hall, which houses the DBS Singapore Gallery, the Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery, the Wu Guanzhong Gallery and several education centres

The Keppel Centre for Art Education.

The Keppel Centre for Art Education.

Chua Mia Te's Epic Poem of Malaya.

Chua Mia Tee’s Epic Poem of Malaya.

Liu Kang's Life by the River.

Liu Kang’s Life by the River.

The DBS Singapore Gallery.

The DBS Singapore Gallery.

Lots to think about ...

Lots to think about …

City Hall Chamber.

City Hall Chamber.

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The red SG50 Steinway.

The red SG50 Steinway.

Not quite a permanent display.

Not quite a permanent display.


Miscellaneous Views (see also: The National Gallery, naked)

The columns of City Hall.

The columns of City Hall.

Corridors of the former Supreme Court - the original rubber tiles, which contained asbestos, had to be replaced.

Corridors of the former Supreme Court – the original rubber tiles, which contained asbestos, had to be replaced.

Another view.

Another view.

The former City Hall Courtyard.

The former City Hall Courtyard.

Roof terrace bars at City Hall.

The roof terrace bars at City Hall …

... provides stunning views of the cityscape.

… provide stunning views of the cityscape.

The view of the Padang, the Esplanade and Marina Bay Sands from the roof terrace.

The view of the Padang, the Esplanade and Marina Bay Sands from the roof terrace.

 

 





Closing the Circle

29 10 2015

One of the things the announcement identifying the sites of the Circle Line Stage 6 stations that will not go unnoticed is that parts of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station’s platforms will have to be removed for the construction of Cantonment Station. This may come as a surprise to many as the former station, at which operations ceased on 30 June 2011, was gazetted as a National Monument in April of that same year. Currently unoccupied, it is the subject of a concept plan being developed under the Rail Corridor RFP, part of which seeks to identify a use in the interim prior to the development of the future Greater Southern Waterfront.

The final journey on the Malayan Railway on 30 June 2011.

The final journey on the Malayan Railway on 30 June 2011.

The platforms of the former railway station are historically significant. They are amongst the longest found along the Malayan Railway’s lines, having been dimensioned to accommodate the longest mail trains. The platforms however, at least for the stretch that will be affected and based on the April 2011 gazette that accords the former railway station with National Monument status, have not been protected as part of the monument.

An extract of the May 2011 gazette showing the part of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station designated as a National Monument.

An extract of the Apr 2011 gazette showing the part of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station protected as a National Monument.

The end of the former station's platforms seen after its closure.

The end of the former station’s platforms seen after its closure.

Considerations made in selecting the site of Cantonment Station (its working name) include the need to protect the National Monument from damage as well as the presence of existing structures in the vicinity such as the Keppel Viaduct to the immediate south and HDB flats to the immediate north. Construction would involve tunneling work deep under the former railway station and the excavation of part of the area where the platforms are to construct the station.

The platforms were constructed in a modular manner and LTA is looking at removing the platforms in way of the excavation site in sections and reinstating them.

The platforms were constructed in a modular manner and LTA is looking at removing the platforms in way of the excavation site in sections and reinstating them.

The excavation work in way of the future MRT station will see sections of the platforms removed. It does seem that the intention is to dismantle the parts of the affected parts of the platforms, which were built in a modular manner, and restore and reinstate them once construction is complete. Other options that are being been considered include demolishing the platforms altogether and either reconstructing them in the same style or in a style that is in keeping with the former station’s intended use.

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Work is scheduled to commence in 2017. As this will only be completed in 2025, it does mean that we will not get to see the platforms on which many memories have been made, for close to a decade.

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Thinking about it, it does perhaps make perfect sense to have the new MRT station integrated into the former railway station, whatever its intended reuse in the future. While this may deviate from what had been intended in building the grand old dame, modelled some say after Helsinki Central to serve as the gateway to the oceans, it would be in keeping with its intended use as a transportation hub and serve as a fitting reminder of what once was.

Further information on Circle Line 6 can be found in the joint LTA / SLA Press Release found here.


More of the platforms in forgotten times

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