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

18 08 2016

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

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

William Farquhar.

William Farquhar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fishing spears employed by the orang laut.

Fishing spears employed by the orang laut.

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

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

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

The name Cawah seems most obscure.

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

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

A crater, Kawah Sikadang, near Yogyakarta in Indonesia.

A crater, Kawah Sikadang, near Yogyakarta in Indonesia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View today over the three hills.

View today over what had once been the Prinsep estate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nutmeg plantations in Singapore, mid 1800s..

Nutmeg plantations in Singapore, mid 1800s..

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Sale

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

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

Singapore, 13th April, 1859.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carrington House, as seen from Osborne House, 1880.

Carrington House, as seen from Osborne House, 1880.

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

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

– The Straits Times, 10 May 1936

Eu Villa and the view from it.

Eu Villa and the view from it.

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

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

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

Adis Lodge in 1908.

Adis Lodge in 1908.

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

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

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

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

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

Lambert Mount Emily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wall around Mount Sophia seen from Prinsep Street.

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

Walls of concrete, glass and steel around Mount Emily.

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


Notes:


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 





The last pelican

12 08 2016

I was going through my archives of photographs last weekend when I came across this photograph I took sometime in February 2012 of the last pelican playground; its backdrop a sea of greenery that left untamed brings a sense of calm that is missing in the manicured green spaces we in Singapore now seem to have too much of.

The last pelican, which went in June 2012.

Sadly, there seems little place in a Singapore that has little place for surroundings such as these. The pelican, which became a symbol of the loss many here feel for their well-loved places that no longer exist, is no more; demolished some four months after the photograph was captured. One of the more used themes adopted in the terrazzo and mosaic playgrounds introduced from the late 1970s, it served the children of Blocks 30 to 39 Dover Estate for some three decades before the death knell was sounded for it when the estate was taken back through a Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) exercise.

I had several encounters with a similar pelican themed playground in Ang Mo Kio where I had moved to in the second half of the 1970s. Small compared to the one in Toa Payoh where the better part of my childhood was spent in and with rather static implements, and for the fact that I had outgrown playgrounds by that time; I never found much fun in them. I found the all metal merry-go-round, with its chequered steel deck, especially hard to move as compared to the

The last pelican was among a handful that also includes a dove at the soon to go Dakota Crescent, that survived a cull of the locally designed playgrounds. Designed by a Housing and Development Board (HDB) team led by Mr Khor Ean Ghee, the series also included other animal based themes, the grandest of which was the mythical dragon. There were also elephantsfruits and vegetables, twakows and even fairy tale type clocks.

At least one of the playgrounds, which would have been most familiar to the children of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, will have its life extended. That, now sits abandoned by those whose lives it was a part of. Several of the blocks around it, including the twenty-storey tall Block 28, which was itself a landmark have since been demolished for redevelopment. In renewed surroundings that will include blocks of flats that will even be higher than Block 28, the orange dragon will at least stand tall, a reminder of the efforts of a dedicated team of designers who provided a generation of Singaporeans with something to remember that childhoods by.

See also:





A look into the Portuguese Church’s beautiful Parochial House

31 07 2016

In the shadows of clutter of structures that has descended on Victoria Street post 1970s, it is easy to miss the beautiful 104 year old Parochial House that sits just across the street from Bras Basah Complex. Built with a hint of old Portugal, the building speaks of its links to a old Southeast Asian community that has its origins in the days of the Portuguese conquest of Malacca.

Parochial House, seen through an arch of St. Joseph's Church.

Parochial House, seen through an arch of St. Joseph’s Church, was designed by Donald McLeod Craik.

Parochial House was designed by Donald McLeod Craik (who also designed the beautiful Moorish arched Alkaff’s Arcade in Collyer Quay, Wesley Methodist Church, the Masonic Hall and Jinrikisha Station) in the Portuguese Baroque style, and adorned with Gothic accents. Part of a rebuilding programme that involved its more noticeable neighbour, the current St. Joseph’s Church (also known locally as the Portuguese Church), it was completed together with the church in 1912. It replaced an older parish house that was also the headquarters of the Portuguese Mission. That had been given over to the Canossian Sisters in 1899 to allow the expansion of the convent at Middle Road that became known as St. Anthony’s Convent.

Seen in 2014 before it was refurbished.

Seen in 2014 before it was refurbished.

The Mission, which operated under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Macau, first came to Singapore in 1825. It served a parish of Portuguese and Portuguese Eurasian Catholics until 1981, after which the Portuguese Church was transferred to the Archdiocese of Singapore. Links were however maintained until 1999 when the last Macau appointed parish priest completed his term.

An old letter box and signboard for the church now displayed in Parochial House.

An old letter box and signboard for the church now displayed in Parochial House.

Along with providing a home to priests appointed to the parish, Parochial House also served as the residence of the Bishop of Macau on his visits to Singapore. A reminder of this is found in the still intact spartanly furnished room used by the Bishops on the second floor, last used in 1999. Also intact is the tiny chapel of the Bishop on the third floor. Based on an article in the 24 July 2016 edition of the Catholic News, it seems that bone fragment relics of the 12 apostles are kept in the chapel.

Windows at the end of the second level hallway, which would have a view down Bain Street across Victoria Street.

Windows at the end of the second level hallway, which would have a view down Bain Street across Victoria Street.

The Bishop of Macau's room.

The Bishop of Macau’s room.

An example of a trunk used by missionaries coming over from Europe.

An example of a trunk used by missionaries coming over from Europe, now placed in the Bishop’s room.

The Bishop's chapel.

The Bishop’s chapel.

The approach to the chapel.

The approach to the chapel.

Up until Parochial House was opened for the series of guided visits that were held on the weekend following the announcement of its conservation on 30 June 2016 (coinciding with the church building’s 104th anniversary), not many would have seen its wonderfully preserved upper floors. Many parishioners would however have seen its ground floor, where communal activities were held and where a canteen operates to serve churchgoers on Sundays since 1960. Some evidence of the type of communal activities are found in the room in which the church’s registers are maintained on the second floor across the hallway from the Bishop’s room. Items from the church’s past are displayed on an old wooden table here include film projectors used for the screening movies for the community.

A movie projector.

A movie projector.

A seal press from the days of the Portuguese Mission.

A seal press from the days of the Portuguese Mission.

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The baptism record of the grandfather of Singapore National Swimmer Joseph Schooling.

The communal space on the ground floor.

The communal space on the ground floor.

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Encaustic floor tiles.

Several interesting features are found through the building. One is the grand staircase that takes one up from the ground floor to the upper levels, which is decorated with a carved wooden balustrade. There are also several instances of interesting tile work such as the encaustic floor tiles with patterns rich in religious symbolism. There also are nine sets of decorative tin glazed blue and white Azulejo wall tiles typical of the Iberian peninsula found both in the buildings interior and exterior. More information on the building’s history and architecture can be found on the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Facebook Page.

The carved wooden balustrades of the grand staircase.

The carved wooden balustrades of the grand staircase.

Azulejo tile work depicting St. Anthony of Padua, a patron saint of Portugal.

Azulejo tile work depicting St. Anthony of Padua, a patron saint of Portugal.

The stairway to heaven.

The stairway to heaven.

The other end of the second floor hallway - the part beyond the brown door would once have led to a walkway to the former St. Anthony's Boys' School next door.

The other end of the second floor hallway – the part beyond the brown door would once have led to a walkway to the former St. Anthony’s Boys’ School next door.

The keystone of the house, a statue of Our Lady of Fatima.

The keystone of the house, a statue of Our Lady of Fatima. Gothic pinnacles decorated with crockets top the roof structure of the building.

Parochial House in 2010.

Parochial House in 2010.

Following its refurbishment this year.

Following its refurbishment this year.

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The PM seen in the roundel along Victoria Street refers to the Portuguese Mission.

Photographs of the Archbishops of Singapore since the handover as well as the last Bishop of Macau the church was under the jurisdiction of.

Photographs of the Archbishops of Singapore since the handover as well as the last Bishop of Macau the church was under the jurisdiction of.

A balustrade along the third floor hallway.

A balustrade along the third floor hallway.

A view down the second floor hallway.

A view down the second floor hallway.

A side stairway down from the second floor to the exterior.

A side stairway down from the second floor to the exterior.

A view out the window to St. Joseph's Church.

A view out the window to St. Joseph’s Church.

 





Lost beauty

15 07 2016

I can’t help but feel a sense of loss wandering around the former Bukit Timah Railway Station. Set in one of the greener and isolated stretches of the rail corridor in the days of the railway, it was a magical place that had the effect of taking one far away from the madness of a Singapore that had come too far too fast. Now a sorry sight behind an unsightly green fence, its still green settings is an much altered one scarred by the removal of the railway’s tracks and ballast, turfing and maintenance work.

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The station had a special charm. Built in 1932 as part of the railway deviation scheme, it wore the appearance of a rural railway station, especially in surroundings that were most unlike the post-independence Singapore we had come to know. A passenger station in its early days and a point where racehorses transported for races at the nearby turf club were offloaded, the station in its latter days functioned more as a signal box for the exchange of key tokens (the token handed authority to the passing trains for the use of the single track that ran south to Tanjong Pagar and north to Woodlands).

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The world around station is due to be upset further. Work to lay a water pipeline that will supply Singapore’s future needs, will start in the area of the station, is due later this quarter.  It will only be at the end of the 2018 before the area is to be reopened, when it will, without a doubt, bear the scars left by the activity. There is however hope for its restoration, at least as a green space. This future, is now in the hands of the winning design consultants for the Rail Corridor concept plan.

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As part of the concept plan, a detailed design exercise is being carried out for a 4 km signature stretch. This includes the area of the former station. Feedback obtained through engagement efforts with various stakeholders and the public is being taken into consideration for this. What is left to be seen is its outcome, which should be interesting to see. This should be made public in the months ahead. It would of course be impossible to recreate the world that once was, but what would be good to see in the detailed design is that it remains a place in which one can run far from a Singapore we already have too much of.

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The last forested hill in Sembawang

11 07 2016

Sitting in relative isolation and surrounded by a lush forest of greenery for much of the 77 years of its existence, Old Admiralty House may soon find itself in less than familiar settings. The National Monument, built as a home away from home for the officer in command of the British Admiralty’s largest naval base this side of the Suez, will soon find itself become part of Sembawang’s sports and community hub.

Dawn over a world on which the sun will soon set on. Old Admiralty House in its current isolation on top of a hill, with the fast invading sea of concrete in the background.

The hub, it seems from what’s been said about it, will feature swimming pools, multi-play courts, a hawker centre, a polyclinic and a senior care centre; quite a fair bit of intervention in a quiet, isolated and of late, a welcome patch of green in the area’s fast spreading sea of concrete. Plans for this surfaced during the release of what became the 2014 Master Plan, which saw a revision on the intended location of Sembawang’s sports and recreation complex from the corner of Sembawang Avenue and Sembawang Road to the parcel of land on which the monument stands.

The original intended location of the sports and recreation complex in Sembawang (area shaded in light green) [URA Master Plan 2008].

The original intended location of the sports and recreation complex in Sembawang (area shaded in light green) [URA Master Plan 2008].

The monument, a beautifully designed Arts and Crafts movement inspired house, is without a doubt the grandest of the former base’s senior officers’ residences built across the naval base.  Set apart from the other residences, it occupies well selected position placed atop a hill in the base’s southwestern corner, providing it with an elevation fitting of it,  a necessary degree of isolation and privacy, and the most pleasing of surroundings – all of which will certainly be altered by the hub, notwithstanding the desire to “incorporate the natural environment and heritage of the area”.

A day time view.

A day time view.

The revised location of the sports and recreation complex in Sembawang (area shaded in light green) [URA Master Plan 2014]

The revised location of the sports and recreation complex in Sembawang (area shaded in light green) [URA Master Plan 2014].

The naval base that Old Admiralty House recalls is one to which colonial and post-colonial Singapore owes much economically. With the last working remnants of the base are being dismantled, the area is slowly losing its links to a past that is very much a part of it and Singapore’s history and whatever change the creation of the sports and community hub brings to Old Admiralty House and its settings, it must be done in a way that the monument at the very least maintains its dignity, and not in a way in which it is absorbed into a mess of interventions that will have us forget its worth.

Detail of a 1945 Map of the Naval Base showing the area where ‘Admiralty House’ is. The house is identified as the ‘Admiral Superintendent’s Residence’ in the map.


More on Old Admiralty House: An ‘English country manor’ in Singapore’s north once visited by the Queen


Around Old Admiralty House

The former Admiralty House, likened by some to an English country manor.

The former Admiralty House, likened by some to an English country manor.

The swimming pool said to have been constructed by Japanese POWs.

A swimming pool said to have been constructed by Japanese POWs.

Evidence of the through road seen in an old lamp post. The post is one of three that can be found on the premises.

An old concrete lamp post on the grounds.

What remains of a flagstaff moved in May 1970 from Kranji Wireless Station.

What remains of a flagstaff moved in May 1970 from Kranji Wireless Station.

Inside the bomb shelter.

An air-raid shelter found on the grounds.





Well Well Well – A Natural Resource Lost

24 06 2016

Well Well Well  – A Natural Resource Lost
A guest post by Edmund Arozoo, once of Jalan Hock Chye, who now takes a look back to his kampong days from Adelaide.

Bore Water Warning Sign


I have recently returned from a tour of the northern remote arears of South Australia. It is usual for the motels in these arears to have warning signs over the sinks cautioning guests not to drink water from the taps as the supply is usually from bore water.

As described on the SA Health website:

Bore water is groundwater that has been accessed by drilling a bore into underground aquifers (water storages) and pumping to the surface. Aquifers may contain chemicals and micro-organisms that are potentially harmful. Some of these chemicals are naturally occurring (such as those present in soils and rocks) while others are a result of contamination.

Confined or deep aquifers are usually deep underground which helps protect the water source. These types of aquifers are usually covered by more than 20 meters of rock or clay which act as a natural filter preventing microbial contamination. Unconfined or shallow aquifers are not protected by thick layers, because they are closer to the surface above and are susceptible to both chemical and microbiological contamination.

Thus while bore water can be used for cleaning and showering it cannot be used for cooking and drinking. Water from rainwater tanks is used for this.

This brought back memories of my kampong days in “Owkang” where at one stage in the past the whole area depended on underground springs to provide water for all purposes. Virtually every house had a well or a large well was shared by a group or cluster of nearby houses.

A recent photograph of one of the two wells in the township of Two Wells, north of Adelaide E. Arozoo 2016

A recent photograph of one of the two wells in the township of Two Wells, north of Adelaide (E. Arozoo 2016).

From memory the whole area around my kampong seemed to be “springy”. You did not have to dig deep to strike an underground spring. I clearly remember the little pits we used to have for burning garden waste and rubbish. The pit was essential to ensure that the fire was confined and did not pose a threat to the attap roofs of the surrounding houses. Gradually these pits used to become shallow and required a “re-dig” to maintain this confinement of fire and ashes. Often, when the dig was in progress we would strike water seepage. Also occasionally as kids when we roamed the area during our carefree time we would come across a natural spring by the side of a lane.

The wells somehow seemed to be connected by underground streams. I remember how we used to be puzzled by the appearances of fish in our well.  We knew our neighbours kept fishes in their well to prevent mosquitoes from breeding. We did not need fishes because our well was in constant use.

A photograph taken by Edmund Arozoo's late father from his album. A well at one of the two houses he stayed at in Jalan Hock Chye.

A photograph taken by Edmund Arozoo’s late father from his album. A well at one of the two houses he stayed at in Jalan Hock Chye.

Our well also underwent regular cleaning after a few years. A couple of odd job men would be employed to do this. After draining as much of the water in the well using the buckets one of the men would descend the well using a wooden ladder and scrape away at the silt that had built up through the years. The slit too was brought to the surface via the use of buckets. It was during this process that when we peered down the well we could see the supply source of our water. I clearly remember seeing water spouting out from one side of the well wall very similar to that from an underground pipe. In my mind then I could imagine an underground stream with water flowing thorough to all wells around that area. And that seem to explain the presence of fishes in our own well.

Once the well was cleaned and the water level reached the normal level my grandmother who lived with us used to do the cleansing ritual of dropping in a palm sized piece of alum (Aluminium sulphate) into the well. Alum I learnt later in my Chemistry classes is used as a flocculating agent in the purification of drinking water by creating sedimentation of the particles and rendered the water crystal clear. These days the side effect of exposure to alum is debatable.

The level of water in the well fluctuated with the seasons and the rainfall. After days of heavy rain the level would reach almost ground level and we had the task of keeping the level down by scooping up buckets of water and emptying the contents into the drain. In the hot dry months the level would drop quite a bit. But during all of my years of living there thank goodness our well never ran dry.

Another photograph taken by Edmund Arozoo's late father from his album. A well at one of the two houses he stayed at in Jalan Hock Chye.

Another photograph taken by Edmund Arozoo’s late father from his album. A well at one of the two houses he stayed at in Jalan Hock Chye.

The method of drawing water at our place was with a metal (galvanised iron) bucket attached to a fibre rope with a big knot at the free end to prevent the rope from slipping though our hands.  Some wells had a pulley system  hung across the well but that meant having to reach out to the middle of the well when the bucket was raised to drag the bucket in while still holding on to the end of the rope. This task was very difficult for kids with our shorter arms. In contrast at our place when we kids reached the height that enabled us to look over the concrete ring perimeter of the well we could draw water on our own. Often the rope would slip through our hands and we would see the bucket sinking to the bottom.  But at hand there would always be the bamboo pole with a hook attached to one end.  Retrieving the bucket was a simple method of using this pole and  hooking on to the bucket handle and then slowly raising the pole with the bucket dangling from the hook.

One of the chores assigned to us as we got older was to fill up the big earthen jar in the nearby bathroom.  Folks of my generation would remember having to use a ladle to scoop up water from these jars to take a bath. Water from the well and the jar was usually cool and thus baths were quick and very “refreshing”.

With communal wells it was common to witness neighbours bathing in the open dressed in sarongs and often having conversations with whoever else  was around the well!

Water used for drinking was boiled in pots using the charcoal stoves which always stayed alight with glowing embers to enable quick rekindling of the fire.  But waiting for the water to boil took a while. Then with the introduction of thermos flasks the hot water was stored so that there could be instant access when needed. This was great if you needed a hot drink late at night (Holicks or Ovaltine …)

On reflection well water was truly Nature’s gift to everyone in the kampong. We did not have to pay a cent for the usage and there was abundance for everyone.

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An abandoned well in an area reclaimed by nature in Singapore.

I sometimes wonder what has happened to this underground water course in the current area around Houggang with the area now well built up. We had an incident a few years back around my current house where a neighbour in the next street below ours had flooding in his garage. This never happened before and there was an investigation by the local council into the cause. Modifications were made to all our houses on the street to ensure storm water drainage adhered to the Council regulations. But this still did not stop flooding until it was finally discovered that one of the newly built houses on our row required deep excavation to remove huge rocks before the concrete house footing could be laid. This resulted in change in course of the subsoil drainage. And following a few days of wintry rains the water took the new course of draining into the garage. Provision had to be made to address the problem and thus stop the flooding.

So where have all the undergrown streams in Owkang gone? Maybe like the kampongs they are lost forever!





The moon between the coconut palms

20 06 2016

THE MOON BETWEEN THE COCONUT PALMS:
A guest post by Edmund Arozoo, once of Jalan Hock Chye, who now reminisces in the light of the silvery Adelaide moon …

 


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(Photograph: Edmund Arozoo)

Digital Photography has indeed simplified the task of producing quality images of the moon. The ability to mount my old 600 mm manual mirror lens to the body of my DSLR has allowed me to capture some good images indeed. However to push the challenge further I have for past few years been a keen “Moon transit” photographer i.e. capturing aircraft as they fly across the face of the moon.  I am fortunate that where I now live the Moon’s orbit and most of the commercial flight paths make it easy for me to set up my gear in my back balcony or backyard to achieve this. In addition there are many on-line apps that allow real time monitoring of flight paths. However this quest requires lots of patience and luck. Often there are long periods of waiting in-between flights. During these breaks I find myself staring at the moon and my mind wanders back to my kampong days in Singapore.  I start thinking of the significance the moon played then and the beliefs both religious and superstitious of the various races and groups of people in my kampong.

Copy of an old slide image taken in Jalan Hock Chye digitally post processed (Photograph: Edmund Arozoo)

Copy of an old slide image taken in Jalan Hock Chye digitally post processed (Photograph: Edmund Arozoo)

One colourful memory that I always chuckle when I think about it is the ritual that my Chinese neighbours undertook during the eclipse of the moon.  I remember as a kid suddenly hearing the din of pots and pans being struck constantly. Even the large kerosene tins would be brought into play. Most of the Chinese households would be involved and I learnt that the belief was that a Dragon was swallowing the Moon and the noise created was to scare the dragon from completely removing the Moon from the sky. This ritual did go on regularly whenever there was an eclipse for most of my early years but as society became educated the practice faded away.

When I relate this to some of my friends a few remember this practice but others think I made it up.

The significance of the moon is central in Chinese culture. Most if not all festivals are tagged to the lunar calendar

Likewise the Indian celebrations are also pegged to their own lunar calendar. The two main ones Deepavali  which occurs  during the New moon of Ashvin (Hindu calendar) and  Thaipusam which  is celebrated during  the full moon day of the Tamil month of Thai

In the past the Malay Hari Raya dates were determined by the sighting of the new moon by local religious authorities. During those pre mobile phone years the method of relaying the successful sighting was by the use of carbide cannons. Carbide was mixed with water in the hollow of a bamboo cylinder and when the fuse was lit a small explosion took place and this could be heard for miles in the quiet of the evenings. When this was heard in a kampong one of the Malay families would then in turn fire a cannon and the message would then spread from kampong to kampong until the entire Malay community across the island would be informed to start celebrating the following day.

For the Eurasian and Christian households the main festival linked to the moon was Easter which is held on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. The other Holy days of Lent are adjusted accordingly. As kids when we were brought by our parents for the traditional “visitations of churches” on Maundy Thursday we often noticed the bright nearly full or full moon as we walked along the Queen Street / Victoria Street area. The significance of the moon was unknown to us or rather we were more focussed on the treats that we were rewarded with for being well behaved. Treats like freshly baked Hot Cross Buns from the two well-known bakeries around the vicinity “Ah Teng” and “The Red House Bakery”. The other treat would be the Kueh Putu Piring (or Kueh Tutu as it is now known as).

Similarly the dates of Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday vary each year. The former celebrated forty days after Easter, and the latter ten days after the Ascension (50 after Easter).

When Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969, you can just imagine the reaction from the different families in the kampong. There was disbelief, taunting and scepticism.

The full or near-full moon was often a blessing if you came home late at night because it lighted your way home. There were no street lights in the lanes leading to our houses. With the moonlight we could avoid the portholes and on rainy days the resultant puddles that were ever so present.

However the moonlight also did cast numerous shadows from the trees and bushes. With movies like “Pontianak” on our minds combined with the fragrant scent of the newly blossomed frangipani flowers walking home usually turned into a quick paced trot.

I guess these days in Singapore, the Moon between coconut palms is only a recollection of some of the older generation. Moonlight between high-rise would be the norm.


Edmund’s other experiences of a Singapore that doesn’t exist anymore:


 

 








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