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

3 09 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ellison Building as interpreted by the Urban Sketchers Singapore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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






Nights out during the ghost month

19 08 2016

If you are not being kept indoors by what traditionally is a time of the year during which one hesitates to venture out into the dark, you should take a pause this and next weekend from trying to catch’em all to catch this year’s edition of the Singapore Night Festival. This year’s festival, revolves around the spirit of innovation with its theme of Inventions and Innovation and will be an enlightening experience with light installations and performances inspired by fantasy, and science fiction as it is be invention.

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As with recent editions of the much anticipated festival, this year’s, the ninth, is laid out across five zones, each packed with installations and performances that will certainly light up one’s weekend. Besdies those I  had a chance to have a peek at listed below, there are several rather interesting installations, performances and goings-on during the nights of the festival. Installations and performances to look out for include: Invasion by Close-Act (Netherlands)A Kaleidoscope of Spring by NAFA (Singapore)The Story Box by A Dandypunk (US)Les AquamenS by Machtiern Company (France)Into Pulsar by Ryf Zaini (Singapore), and The Peranakan Museum Variety Show by Main Wayang (Singapore).

Members of Main Wayang.

Members of Main Wayang.

Once again, a party atmosphere will descend on Armenian Street, the difference being that the roar of Harleys will be heard with Rrready to Rrrumble! by Harley Davidson Singapore, Mod Squad and Speedzone (Singapore) – recalling perhaps the roar of the hell riders who once tore down nearby Orchard Road and Penang Road.

There are also no shortage of opportunities to indulge in food and even shopping with Eat @ Festival Village and Shop @ Festival Village. The offerings by Steamhaus (Halal) and The Ugly Duckling, which I had a chance to savour, are particularly yummy. For those who like it sweet, sinful and frozen, do look out for Husk Frozen Coconut.

For the brave, there also is a Night Heritage Tour by National Parks Board. Registration is required for this. As of the time of writing, tours for the first weekend are booked up and only slots for 26 August are available. Along with these, there are also items being put up by the partners of the Bars Basah Bugis precinct such as PoMo, Prinsep Street and Rendezvouse Hotel, including a free Movie Nights at Rendezvous Hotel. There will also be a chance to go behind the scenes with some of the artists and participate in workshops  in Behind the Night.

The festival runs over two weekends on 19 and 20 August and on 26 and 27 August 2016. More information on the festival and programmes on offer can be found at at festival’s website.


JOURNEY, Feat soundtrack by Ed Carter  | NOVAK (United Kingdom)

Front Lawn, Singapore Art Museum
19, 20, 26, 27 August 2016, 7.30pm – 2am | 21 – 25 August 2016, 7.30pm – 11pm

Journey by NOVAK, which is inspired by the world of Jules Verne.

Journey by NOVAK, which is inspired by the world of Jules Verne.

A dynamic projection-mapping performance inspired by the world of Victorian novelist Jules Verne, known for his creation of a world reflecting the future of Victorian invention and fantasy. NOVAK reinterprets seven of his novels to create a unique adventure dynamically projection-mapped to fit the façade of SAM, including an exploration of Singapore’s art and culture. Highlighting the use of invention to enable adventure, the viewer will be taken on a magical adventure through a series of scenes, each depicting a different landscape, relating to the environments that feature so vividly in Verne’s classic novels.

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The Wheel House | Acrojou (United Kingdom)

Mainground (near National Museum of Singapore)
19 and 20 August 2016 | 8pm – 8.25pm, 9.25pm – 9.50pm, 10.50pm – 11.15pm

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A “tender, post-apocalyptic love story”, The Wheel House is a unique, rolling acrobatic theatre show, which unfolds inside and around a stunning circular home as it travels with the audience walking alongside. The enchanting story is set in a gently comic dystopian future at a time where survival depends on sharp eyes, quick hands and, above all, friendship. Join these traveller-gatherers on the road to nowhere: treading lightly, enduring quietly and always moving onwards.


KEYFRAMES | Groupe LAPS (France)

National Museum of Singapore Façade
19, 20, 26, 27 August 2016, 7.30pm – 2am | 21 – 25 August 2016, 7.30pm – 11pm

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Through micro-stories weaved upon the stately National Museum of Singapore facade, KEYFRAMES offers narration in the city – urban stories where bodies and their movements play main roles. Part animation and part moving sculpture, the LED figures and their routine imbue static buildings with energy and excitement. This new installation – part of the KEYFRAMES series – brings glimmers of the past to life.


HOUSE OF CURIOSITIES | Sweet Tooth by CAKE (Singapore)

(Ticketed Performance)

Cathay Green (field opposite The Cathay)
19, 20, 26, 27 August 2016 | 6pm – 8pm, 8.30pm – 10.30pm, 11pm – 1am

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Tickets are available for purchase from 27 July onwards via SISTIC or at the door (while stocks last)
Adults: $16 (inclusive of $1 SISTIC fee) | Concession: $13 (inclusive of $1 SISTIC fee) Students (full time, with valid student pass issued by enrolled institution), senior citizen (60yrs and above, with valid identity pass showing proof of age), NSF (with valid 11B pass)

The House of Curiosities is an event featuring performance, activities and more. Based on the storyline of The Mechanical Heart, it is a story of adventure, curious man-made machines and the wonderful capacity of the human mind and spirit to discover and invent. Professor Chambers is a celebrated explorer and inventor. With his son Christopher, he builds a time machine that takes them on an expedition to find crystal caves in the subterranean depths. On the journey back, a monstrous octopus attacks them, injures Christopher and escapes. The devious octopus is a man-made contraption, but who is behind it? Find out in this exhilarating performance.


:Samara | Max Pagel & Jonathan Hwang

Armenian Church
19, 20, 26 and 27 August 2016, 7.30pm – 2am | 21 – 25 August 2016, 7.30pm – 11pm


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:Samara reflects on the duality of progress and sacrifice. What are we willing to give up in order to advance? Sometimes we regret accepting the cost of progress and try to recreate past experiences that have been lost forever. Inspired by the loss of the artist’s favourite tree, :Samara is an interactive illuminated tree sculpture created to give closure to a lost space. :Samara invites us to reflect on the authenticity of using modern technology to recreate what we lose in our fast-changing environment. At the same time, it gives us the opportunity to acknowledge and let go of these losses.

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The tree, lost to development at Paya Lebar Central, that inspired :Samara. 


Shifting Interactions | LASALLE College of the Arts

Glass Atrium, Level 2, National Museum of Singapore
7.30pm – 2am (dance performance at 8pm – 11pm) 21 – 25 August 2016 | 7.30pm – 10pm

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Tying together electronic media, sculpture and dance, LASALLE College of the Arts presents Shifting Interactions, a performance installation. Dancers will traverse a dynamic performance space dotted with a series of static and animated objects. Conceptualised as a durational and improvised performance piece, participants will shape, change and vitalise the space over time through sound, light and movement.


Singapore Night Festival 2016 ‘Tap to Donate’ | Xylvie Huang (Singapore)

Platform, Level 2, National Museum of Singapore
19, 20, 26, 27 August 2016 | 7pm – 12.30am 21 – 25 August 2016 | 7pm to 10pm

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The Singapore Night Festival is turning ten next year and we would like you to join us in “building” the 10th Singapore Night Festival!

Come by the National Museum at level 2 from 19 to 27 August 2016, make a donation of $2 by tapping your ez-link card and you will be given a LEGO brick to add on to a wall installation of LEGO Bricks by Singapore artist Xylvie Huang. All donations go towards “building” the Singapore Night Festival 2017.

Help build our Singapore Night Festival LEGO Wall Installation (located on Level 2 of the National Museum of Singapore) with four easy steps:

1. Tap your ez-link Card

2. Collect your LEGO brick

3. Build on the wall installation of LEGO Bricks

4. Collect your Candylious candy and watch the wall being built

The first 250 festivalgoers who ‘tap to donate’, gets a generic designed ez-link card (of no loaded value)!

This programme is supported by Ms Xylvie Huang Xinying, Brick Artist, EZ-Link, Wirecard and Candylicious.






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.


 





Canal-less Rochor

8 08 2016

Even if it is probably for the better, I shall miss seeing the now covered up Rochor Canal in my drives down the Tekka area. Buried under a temporary roadway deck for much of the period during which the Downtown MRT line was being constructed, it has already been all but forgotten and it was only the sight of the green grass that now grows on top of a permanent deck that has given me the realisation that I will never see the open canal at this stretch.

A view over the now hidden canal.

Never a pretty sight even after the river cleanup initiative launched in 1977 took away the smell that was the source of many a joke, the canal was however, one of the sights that broke the monotony of the long ride to school on the public bus. That always seemed much to take in around the area by the canal, particularly on its then stepped sides, including the sight of squatting people scrubbing their laundry.

The once open Rochor Canal, seen at the meeting of Serangoon, Selegie, Sungei, Rochor Canal and Bukit Timah Roads (National Archives Photo).

The deck of green grass is the latest addition to an area that already looks very different to the one I passed as a schoolboy. The transformation of the area, which has seen the likes of the familiar old Tekka market, Kandang Kerbau Police Station, and Stamford Estate go, as well as Kandang Kerbau Hospital move – its former premises now occupied by the Land Transport Authority, is however not complete.

An online Straits Times photo of the canal with the old Tekka Market on the right.

The canal with its stepped sides (Raymond Morris on Flickr). The SIT flats of Stamford Estate, Albert House and Rochor House can also be seen.

In a city that never rests – from a construction viewpoint, the next upheaval planned for the area is already on the cards – the construction of the North-South Expressway (NSE). That will see the much loved Rochor Centre demolished. It does also seem that, from the a Zaobao article on 7 August 2016, the NSE’s construction will also see one of the more recognisable old structures in the area still standing – the Ellison Building affected. Part of the façade of the conserved building, built by Issac or Ike Ellison for his wife Flora in 1924, will apparently have to be removed and will have to be restored. The NSE is expected to be completed in 2026.

The Ellison Building will have part of its façade removed and restored for the NSE construction.

The Ellison Building will have part of its façade removed and restored for the NSE construction.

The open Rochor Canal at the Tekka area with the Ellison Building in the background c. 1969 (Bill Strong on Flickr).





One hundred steps to a new heaven?

28 10 2014

It has been a while since I last ventured to the once magical world of Mount Sophia. Perched one hundred feet above the city, scaling its heights was best done on foot via a flight of one hundred steps (and a little more these days), taking you into a world that seemed to me to be the closest thing that there might have been to heaven on earth.

The new world reflecting on a past being erased..

The new world reflecting on a past being erased.

What remains of the former MGS.

All that remains of an old school.

Heaven, as it might have been when I made the first of my wanderings through the area in the 1970s, was much changed place by the time I was reacquainted with the hill in more recent times. Much of its magic faded when Eu Villa, a mansion that was the stuff of which fairy tales are made, was demolished at the start of the 1980s. Scarred today by the barbs that have replaced its once wondrous architectural landscape, much of the charm of its days of glory, has never been seen again.

Eu Villa - the magical home of Eu Tong Sen (Source: www.singapedia.com.sg).

Eu Villa – the magical home of Eu Tong Sen (Source: http://www.singapedia.com.sg).

The triumph of the weapons of past destruction.

The triumph of the weapons of past destruction.

A more recent loss was that of the large cluster of buildings that has collectively been referred to as “Old School”, leaving but a few reminders of a yesterday that has largely been forgotten. The complex of buildings was where over six decades of the memories of old girls of Methodist Girls School (MGS), until 1992, had been made. All that remains today is a lone building, abandoned by its companions, but soon to forge new friendships.

Last one standing - Olson building, abandoned by the other buildings of old MGS.

Last one standing – Olson building, abandoned by the other buildings of old MGS.

And the walls come tumbling down. A retaining wall belonging to the former MGS being demolished.

And the walls come tumbling down. A retaining wall belonging to the former MGS being demolished.

The lone structure, now sitting forlornly surrounded by a scene of devastation, the Olson building, dates back to 1928 – having been built to facilitate the school’s move up the hill from nearby Short Street that had been attributed to the then principal Mary Olson, after whom the building was named. Destined now to be a clubhouse within the Sophia Hills residential development that will colonise a good part of Mount Sophia, it is one of four reminders of an enchanted past that have been conserved on the hill.

Olson building will become a clubhouse as part of the Sophia Hills development.

The sprawling condominium development, spread not only over the grounds of the former MGS, but will also include the former premises of Nan Hwa Girls’ School at the junction of Adis Road and Sophia Road, and the area next to Old School that was used by Trinity Theological College (TTC), will also include two of the remanining three conserved structures. One is the pre-war building that housed Nan Hwa, which will be put to use as a kindergarten cum childcare centre. The other is the former TTC chapel, which is intended for use as a fine-dining restaurant.

The former Nan Hwa Girls' School.

The former Nan Hwa Girls’ School.

The former Nan Hwa will be leased out as a kindergarten cum childcare centre.

The former chapel of TTC - being turned into a fine-dining restaurant.

The former chapel of TTC – being turned into a fine-dining restaurant.

The chapel, which has stood out on the hill since the 1960s, is recognisable from its very distinctive roof structure, which takes the form of the Chinese character representing people or人 (ren), when viewed from the front. A fourth conserved structure on the hill that is not part of the development, is the former Tower House, which now houses House on the Hill, a childcare centre.

An artist’s impression of what the fine-dining restaurant will look like.

House on the Hill across the road from the Sophia Hills development.

House on the Hill across the road from the Sophia Hills development.

With the chill brought by the winds of change sweeping through a once familiar part of Singapore, comes much pain. We have to be numb as there is little room to be sentimental in a Singapore where looking to the future makes us forget the past. There are the small reminders of yesterday we sometimes hold on to. These, however, often lose their meaning in being made into a part of tomorrow.

The once magical hilltop of Mount Sophia being cleared for new magic to be created.

The once magical hilltop of Mount Sophia being cleared for new magic to be created.

There is the promise of a new magic. But to feel its enchantment, we have to fall out of love with the Singapore we have grown to love. It is only then that we can fall in love again, with a Singapore where love for anything else but all that now glisters, is hard to find.

The promised land as seen on a hoarding at the site.

The promised land as seen on a hoarding at the site.





A reflection of Niven Road

14 08 2013

One of my favourite roads to walk down in Singapore has to be Niven Road. A fairly quiet street found off a fairly busy Selegie Road and at the foot of Mount Sophia and Mount Emily, it is one dominated but a beautiful row of conservation two-storey pre-war shophouses, several of which are still with the once fashionable pintu pagar (swinging bar doors). The street is also one which is very much associated with the Sikhs – a Sikh temple, the three-storey Khalsa Dharmak Sabha is found at its southern end, having been built on land on which a two storey temple was constructed in 1936. The street is one named after the first superintendent of the Botanic Gardens, Lawrence Niven, who served from 1860 to 1875, having been the supervisor of a adjacent nutmeg plantation (Niven was the man responsible for giving us much of the garden’s layout which is still intact today). The street is one which also does connect me with a time forgotten – one of the business found on the street is K. Ratna Sports – a sporting goods shop which was located at Bencoolen Street up to the early 1980s. It was one I always looked out for from as I passed on the bus on the way to school at Bras Basah Road.

JeromeLim NovenRoad IMG_3838





Seeing the light in a world for which the lights will soon go off

25 06 2013

I recently stepped into an old world soon to be discarded in an obscure corner of Mount Emily, a corner which has until now, resisted the changes which have taken away much of the area’s old world charm. The world I stepped into at 13 Wilkie Terrace, a semi-detached two storey house perched atop a terrace above which a house I suspect was built by the Sultan of Siak (the former Osborne House) proudly stands at the top of Mount Emily, will soon make way for a new residential development. Having been the home of the Chia family since 1935, the family decided to bid farewell to it by hosting a community arts exhibition, Displacements (which closed on Sunday), which has not only allowed the artists involved to express the subject of being displaced – a theme relevant not just to the house but to Singapore as a whole, but has also given the curious (I should really say kay-poh – local speak for a “busybody”) like me to have a peek inside a house which has always seemed mysterious to me.

Windows into a once mysterious world that was 13 Wilkie Terrace.

Open windows leading into a once mysterious world that was 13 Wilkie Terrace.

A passageway into a world filled with memories.

A passageway into a world filled with memories.

Climbing the stairs to terrace, brings the house into full view. I was immediately drawn to the many windows the house has been generously provided with, typical of houses built in its era. It is through the many windows, which I always see in old places as portals into the past, where we do find lingering memories of the house and the reminders of a simpler time we have long forgotten.

The stairway to the terrace on which the house is perched.

The stairway to the terrace on which the house is perched.

Through the main door, a hall where too much seemed to be going on, came into view. In one corner, what seemed to be a flea market contributed much to the colour and clutter, clutter that was also contributed by the group crouched over a long table at the far end where a workshop was being held. Right by the door, a few cages filled with cat, apparently on sale, added to the confusion in the seemingly small pace. The confusion perhaps a reminder of the many extended family gatherings we are told had once brought much life to what did eventually became a silent and empty space.

Displacement through a window.

Displacement through a window.

The confusion that was the hall.

The confusion that was the hall.

A workshop being held.

A workshop being held.

A cat in a cage.

A cat in a cage.

It is beyond the hall where I found most interesting – the high ceiling spaces of the interior beyond which, coloured by the changing patterns of shadow and soft light streaming through the windows, both on the lower and upper levels were a joy to behold. In and around the rooms, there also were the many memories in the objects present, of times which have passed. An old piano for which the music has died, sits on an open area of the upper level. Laid bare, the signs of age and neglect for which it has been abandoned are very evident, a reflection of the once grand houses of the area, for which time did very quickly pass.

The passageway past the main hall.

The passageway past the main hall.

A room on the lower level.

A room on the lower level.

Another room on the lower level.

Another room on the lower level.

An installation which does reflect the displacement of spaces in Singapore where many place names have been displaced moving with where development takes them.

An installation which does reflect the displacement of spaces in Singapore where many place names have been displaced moving with where development takes them.

A hallway.

A hallway.

The stairway to the upper level.

The stairway to the upper level.

The view down the stairway.

The view down the stairway.

Bakelite switches and the controls of a ceiling fan.

Bakelite switches and the controls of a ceiling fan.

A old piano laid bare.

A old piano laid bare.

A Butoh dance performance by Syv Bruzeau seen during my visit to the house.

A Butoh dance performance by Syv Bruzeau seen during my visit to the house.

An installation.

An installation.

A Victorian era rotary knife cleaner.

A Victorian era rotary knife cleaner.

It is not just this house for which time will soon pass, the signs can already be seen of the transformation which will completely change the face of the terrace – on a plot where an empty terrace once separated No 13 from a neighbouring house at No. 7 (since demolished), sales office and a show flat for the new residential development taking place there have come up and it will not be long before another piece, one of few that is surviving, of an old world I once enjoyed wandering around, will be lost.

7 Wilkie Terrace (since demolished) seen in Nov 2012.

7 Wilkie Terrace (since demolished) seen in Nov 2012.

Signs of the change that will soon come to Wilkie Terrace.

Signs of the change that will soon come to Wilkie Terrace.

More photographs of 13 Wilkie Terrace

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