The Quadrant, built as a temporary Oversea Chinese Bank HQ

2 12 2018

There has been much mystery over the origins of The Quadrant at 19 Cecil Street. Identified in Gretchen Liu’s wonderful compilation of images charting Singapore’s progress over the year’s, Singapore: A Pictorial History 1819-2000, as having been built for the Kwangtung Provincial Bank, it turns out that it was for another Chinese bank – the Oversea Chinese Bank – for which it was erected for.

The Quadrant

Built in 1928/29 and designed by Keys and Dowdeswell, the motivation for the construction of the quadrant shaped Art Deco building – in an area that wasn’t considered by the directors of the bank to have been in a “not quite central” location – was the need to search for temporary premises. The bank’s HQ at 62-63 Chulia Street was affected by the implementation of the 1909 amendment to the Municipal Ordinance known as the “Back Lane Scheme” (more on the scheme: Off a little street in Singapore), which effectively cut its premises into half.

As the Kwangtung Provincial Bank, 1939 to 1979.

Rather than invest time and effort to seek new premises, the bank decided instead to erect a new building on a site at the corner of Cecil and Market Streets occupied by 6 three-storey shophouses they had acquired. The bank felt that the building – even if there were no plans to use it once a more central location (closer to the hub of commercial activity by the Singapore River) was found – was a “good investment”. The bank moved out once its permanent premises at China Building in Chulia Street (current site of OCBC Centre), which was co-developed and shared with Chinese Commercial Bank, was completed in late 1931. The two banks together with Ho Hong Bank merged in 1932 in the face of the Great Depression under the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) banner and China Building became OCBC’s HQ.

China Building, completed in 1931.

The temporary HQ was occupied by wine merchants, Eastern Agencies from 1933 to 1938, the Kwangtung Provincial Bank from 1939 to 1979 and Four Seas Communications Bank from 1982 to 1990 (which was already part of the OCBC group by that time). Pacific Can, when the building was renamed Pacific Can Building, occupied it from around the early 1990s to the 2000s, by which time I have been advised it had come into the hands of the State. Other occupants were Cherie Hearts – a childcare group, and then the Homestead Group, , which has a lease on it until 2021. The group had planned to lease the premises out to a bank, but despite much interest, the economic put paid to the idea and instead has sub-let out the lower level of the building to The Black Swan. The grand banking hall the building was given is still very much in evidence in the gorgeously decorated bar and bistro – almost three decades since it was last used as a bank.

The Black Swan.

Stairway to the gallery (mezzanine).

Also in evidence at the rear section of the 20 feet high banking hall is an upper level “gallery” from which the bank’s managers could have a view of what went on below, which the bistro uses as a cocktail bar, The Powder Room. There is also a private dining area located in the former vault.

The former banking hall – seen during yesterday’s Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets.

The Powder Room.

The former bank vault.

The upper levels of the building – access to which is through a beautifully built stairwell where a rebuilt 1929 vintage Marryat and Scott elevator is installed – is occupied by a co-working space run by WOTSO.

The stairwell.

Some of the lift’s original mechanism.

WOTSO’s co-working spaces on the upper levels.

 

Another view of the Powder Room.


The visit to The Quadrant was organised on 1 December 2018 as part of the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets series of State Property Visits, supported by the Singapore Land Authority, the Homestead Group, The Black Swan and WOTSO.


 

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Inside the new star of MacTaggart

29 11 2018

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

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

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

2 MacTaggart Road : Stellar Landmark (URA)

The new star rising at MacTaggart Road

The fallen star of MacTaggart Road


Photographs of the interior and also of the restored exterior: 

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

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

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

A view of the actual gate.

The reception – lit by a glass covered skylight.

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

The skylight as seen from the terrace above.

Stairway to a new heaven.

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

The view from above.

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

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

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

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

 


 





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

23 11 2018

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

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

The reception area.

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

A corridor on the upper levels.

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

The rear courtyard.

The swimming pool.

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

A view of the surroundings through steel framed windows.

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

Another view of the hotel’s windows.

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

A spiral staircase in the rear courtyard.

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

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

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


More photographs:

 


 

 

 

 

 

 





Finding a lost Singapore in the images of Paul Piollet

19 11 2018

Such is the pace at which change takes place that little exists of the Singapore those of my generation grew up with. It was one whose city streets and rural spaces, filled with life and colour, were places to discover. Lost to progress, that Singapore can never be revisited again – except perhaps through images that we are fortunate to see of them.

In Conversation with Paul Piollet.

I, for one, am especially grateful to the good folks behind these images. Several collections have been publicly available through their generous donations or in some cases, through donations made by family members. These images provide us, and our generations with a visual record that in many cases would not otherwise exist of places and more importantly a way of life from a time when few had the means to capture them.

The opportunity to hear from the donors of two of these visual collections came our way this November. The first, Dr Clifford Saunders, donated an extensive and very well documented collection of over 1,400 photographs to the National Heritage Board. The images were taken by his father, Ralph Charles Saunders in the late 1950s, when he was stationed here at RAF Seletar – with his family, which included a young Dr Saunders.

Just in the middle of the last week, we were graced by the visit of another donor, Mr Paul Piollet, with whom we were able to hold a “conversation” with at the Urban Redevelopment Authority as part of the Architectural Heritage Season. The unassuming Mr Piollet, now in his 80s, has certainly had a past. His career in oil took him across the world, and he found himself in Balikpapan in Kalimantan in 1970 as a result of that. It was there that he developed a fascination for Indonesia and its maritime heritage. He would also find himself in Singapore, where he immersed himself in much that went on around and on its lively streets.

Mr Piollet’s photos of a Singapore in transition are especially intriguing. We find in them a record of life and a way of life of a Singapore in transition. We can see what fascinated Mr Piollet from the many images of wayangs, the life that went on backstage, elaborate Chinese funerals and of life on Singapore’s living streets, which were not only full of life but also filled with children (an observation was made during the “conversation” of how children are now missing from our city streets). Images of street food vendors, which Mr Piollet regularly frequented (he rattled off a few Hokkien names of local fare he enjoyed), also features in his collection.

While the focus of the “conversation” may have been on his images of Singapore (more than 180 can be found in the National Archives of Singapore), I was fortunate to be able to hear about his efforts to document the Indonesian maritime world through a brief conversation we had just before the event started.  Of particular interest to him were the wooden sail boats and the people who crewed them. Much of the craft and skill in rigging and sailing these beautiful hand-crafted boats, once a backbone of trade across parts of the widely spread archipelago, have quite sadly been lost to motorisation.

Pages out of one of Mr Piollet’s books, “Équipages et voiliers de Madura”, documenting Indonesia’s lost maritime heritage.

Thankfully, there are at least thousands of photos taken by Mr Piollet, as well as several books that he authored. Along with photographs and sketches that Mr Piollet made, there are also registry records that he copied by hand. Mr Piollet’s books, of ways of life that have since been lost, can be found at the French Bookshop at 55 Tiong Bahru Road.

“Équipages et voiliers de Madura” or “The crews and boats of Madura”, which Mr Piollet very kindly gave me a copy of.


A selection of photographs from the Paul Piollet Collection

One of Mr Piollet’s photos from 1975. A lost corner of Singapore that was familiar to my parents and me – where Rangoon Road met Norfolk Road and Moulmein Green – see : Moulmein Road Journeys (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

I thought this looks similar to the hairdresser that my mother used to visit at Rangoon Road with me in tow. From its name, this wasn’t it and only closer examination, looks like it was located in the row of shophouses close to the Balestier Road end of Tessensohn Road (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

What looks like part of the row of shophouses close to the Balestier Road end of Tessensohn Road (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Life as it was, when streets were not complete without the sight of children playing (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Days of street wayangs. I thought this might have been a street in the Ellenborough Market area but it seems more likely to have been Chin Nam Street (parallel to Hock Lam Street) with a view towards Fort Canning Hill  (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

Pau steamers – wgich caught the eye of Mr. Piollet (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).

A scene now hard to imagine on Sungei Rochor (Paul Piollet Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).


 





A glimpse of Seletar’s past – the Ralph Charles Saunders Collection

5 11 2018

The generous donation of more than 1,400 images on photographic slides from the Ralph Charles Saunders Collection – of Singapore and Malaya (and maybe a few of Lima) taken in the late 1950s – made the news some months back (see : Rare glimpse into Singapore’s colourful past, The Straits Times, Mar 31, 2018). The photographs, many of which were put up by the donor, Dr. Clifford Saunders, on the Facebook group “On a Little Street in Singapore” currently and prior to the donation (the National Heritage Board, NHB, is the custodian), provides us with a peek into a world and a way of life we will never go back to.

Seletar Village, 1959 – from one of the more than 1,400 slides donated by Dr. Saunders.
(The Ralph Charles Saunders Collection – courtesy of Dr. Clifford Saunders / NHB).

Dr. Clifford Saunders at the Indian Heritage Centre.

Dr. Saunders. whose father was the genius behind the well taken and meticulously labelled slides, is currently in town as a guest of the NHB and was kind enough to meet with heritage enthusiasts and members of the Facebook group on Sunday to provide some insights into the images as well as his impressions of Singapore through the eyes of the young and inquisitive boy that he was when his father and family were based at RAF Seletar all those years ago.

Members of ‘On a Little Street in Singapore’ with Dr. Saunders.

The slides include a set of images involving an old lifeboat, the John Willie. Bought off a Dutchman coming out of Sumatra at the time of the Indonesian National Revolution for $200, the leaky lifeboat was repaired and provided the family with a means for offshore adventure – one of many activities that Dr. Saunders, now 69 described during his presentation. He also mentioned that his favourite island was Pulau Ubin, which I understand he will be trying to visit during his short stay here. Other experiences Dr. Saunders spoke of include fishing at fishing ponds, life at Poulden Court in Jalan Kayu, trips “up country” and his impressions of the causeway and river crossings (my own experiences: Crossing the river in days of old), and the rather alien smells and sounds of a then very foreign land.

James Seah seeing the funny side of Dr. Saunders’ story.

More on his wonderful experiences in Singapore – shared over the two hour session at the Indian Heritage Centre and which Clifford feels shaped his life and profession (he is now a neuroplastician) – can be found in these two recordings:


 





Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets : Healing in the Garrison

19 10 2018

November’s #SLASecretSpaces guided visit takes participants to the former Tanglin Barracks. There an introduction would be made to two of the barracks’ institutions of healing: physical healing in the form of the former military hospital, and spiritual, in the form of a beautiful garrison church.

The barracks traces its history to the early 1860s, when it was among the earliest that were purpose-built in Singapore. The design of the original barracks is attributed to Captain George Collyer (after whom Collyer Quay is named). Many of the structures that we see today are the interventions of the early 20th century when the current church building as well as what we see today of former military hospital were put up.

Singapore’s main military hospital before the completion of the modern hospital at Alexandra in 1940, the complex featured three main buildings. The larger two were where large and airy wards were laid out. The visit will end in St. George’s Church, which although is no longer a garrison church, is still very much in use. Completed in 1913, the history of the church actually dates back to the early days of the barracks. The church was gazetted as a National Monument on 10 November 1978.

More on the history of both institutions will be shared during the visit.


Visit Details & Registration

When : 3 November 2018, 9 to 11 am

Where : Loewen Cluster, Dempsey Hill (the visit will end inside St. George’s Church)

Participants should be of ages 18 and above.

A unique registration will be required for each participant and each registration admits only one (1) person.
(Duplicate registrations in the same name shall count as one registration).

Please register only if you are sure that you will be able to make the visit.

To register, please visit this link: https://goo.gl/forms/B8g3tDo5eGWfpTVl1 [Please note that all spaces for the visit have been taken up]


Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets #SLASecretSpaces is organised with the support and collaboration of the Singapore Land Authority.

Both St. George’s Church and Country City Investment (CCI), which manages Dempsey Hill, have also lent their support to this visit.


More photos of St. George’s Church


News on the series:


 





Journeys of faith and devotion from Kampong Gelam

13 10 2018

An insightful exhibition featuring the journeys of faith that Hajj pilgrims take in both body and in spirit, ‘Undangan ke Baitullah: Pilgrims Stories from the Malay World to Makkah’, was launched together with the Malay Culture Fest 2018 yesterday (12 Oct 2018).

 

A performance at the opening, reenacting a pilgrim’s journey of faith.

The exhibition, which runs from 13 October 2018 to 23 June 2019, takes a look at Kampong Gelam’s role in supporting the Hajj. The district, having been an important port town, saw Muslims from across the Nusantara congregate in preparation for the often difficult passage by sea to Mecca in days before air travel (the area around Busorrah Street was also known as ‘Kampong Kaji‘ – ‘kaji’ was apparently the Javanese pronunciation of ‘haji‘).

Mdm Halimah Yacob, President of the Republic of Singapore, launching the exhibition and the Malay Culture Fest.

Many businesses such the popular nasi padang outlet Hjh. Maimunah had its roots in the pilgrimage. The restaurant, which has an outlet at Jalan Pisang, is named after the founder’s mother Hajjah Maimunah, who was Singapore’s first female Hajj broker (or sheikh haji). The enterprising Hajjah Maimunah also ran a food business during the Hajj catering to pilgrims from this part of the world in Mecca.

JeromeLim-7679

The Malay Culture Fest, which was opened together with the exhibition, runs from 12 to 28 October 2018 and will feature lectures and performances over the three weeks. More information can be found at :   https://peatix.com/group/40767/events.

Entrance to one of the exhibition’s galleries.

The hajj passport of a child pilgrim on display at the exhibition.

A trunk and a suitcase used by pilgrims on display.