“Lenin’s Tomb” at Raffles Place

17 01 2020

Constructed in an effort to beautify the city, the “underground” car park topped with a roof garden that came to define the Raffles Place of post-independent Singapore, came in for some criticism as it was nearing completion. Likened to Lenin’s Mausoleum, its critics even went so far as to suggest that it be used for the repose of Singapore’s distinguished citizens. Despite the early reservations, Raffles Place Garden – as it was christened, was a quite a joy to behold. With its floral clock, fountain and a backdrop provided by Raffles Place’s characterful buildings, the garden became what could be thought of as the 1960s equivalent of an instagram-worthy spot.

Christmas 1966 on the roof garden at Raffles Place, with Robinson’s behind.

That Raffles Place was certainly a place I connected with.  My visits there usually coincided with the preparations for the year-end season of giving, which invariably led to Robinsons Department Store’s quite memorable toy department. Large and well stocked, the department was every child’s dream. I looked forward to visiting each year, even if that meant having to catch sight of Father Christmas, whom I was terrified of. Out of Robinson’s famous Christmas lucky dip, I once pulled out an orange coloured battery-operated submarine. It was a prized toy, even if I had to contend with using it once every three months during our seaside holidays at Mata Ikan – in the holiday bungalow’s bathtub!

The promise of good food was another thing to look forward to when visiting Raffles Place. Makan time would on a special occasion, lead me to the Honeyland Milk Bar at Battery Road, which was just around the square’s northeast corner. There was always a sense of anticipation that I got as the parting of the café’s heavy doors delivered a cold rush of Worcestershire sauce scented air. The café’s chicken pies were to die for. I enjoyed the pies with a dash of tomato ketchup – which I never could quite manage to cajole out from the sauce bottle without some help.

Raffles Place’s little “corners”, which included Change Alley, added much to area’s unique charm. “Chin Charlie” to me and many non-English speakers like my maternal grandmother, it was a fascinating place to wander through and one of the places that made the Singapore of the 1960s, Singapore. The famous alley, which featured in films and in a BBC newsreel,  seemed to be always be full of life and for a while, laughter – emanating from numerous laughing bags being set off in the alley by its many toy vendors as a form of advertisement. Popular at the end of the 1960s, the toys took the form of tiny drawstring bags that contained sound boxes.

The Raffles Place end of Change Alley, 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

Little did I know it as a young child, but the laughter, along with the Raffles Place that I knew and loved would soon to see lasting change. A tragic fire in November 1972, which resulted in the loss of nine lives, also saw to Robinsons losing its iconic Raffles Chambers home it had occupied since 1941. The subsequent move – of Robinson’s to Specialists Centre in Orchard Road – also severed the store’s connection with the square, which could be traced back to 1858.

Raffles Chambers – before Robinson’s moved in.

By the time of the fire, the area had in fact already been in the cusp of change. At the glorious waterfront – Raffles Place “backyard”, the grand old turret-topped 1923 built Ocean Building had come down in 1970 to make way for a towering third. The 1923 Ocean – the second to stand on the site – was the forerunner of a building frenzy that would shape Singapore’s bund at Collyer Quay, which by the 1930s possessed a quality that could be compared to Shanghai’s more famous embankment. The second Ocean’s demise set a reversal of the process in motion. Two more of the waterfront’s grand 1920s edifices erected a year after the Ocean, Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers and Maritime (ex-Union Insurance) Building, would also make way for the new.

John Little’s Building early in 1946 – when it was used temporarily as the Shackle Club [source: Lizzie Ellis on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)].

On the square, one of its famous landmarks – John Little’s Building – was sold in 1973. This would lead to Raffles Tower (now Singapore Land Tower) being put up in its place. Incidentally, Raffles Tower when it was still under construction,  was the scene of a dramatic aerial helicopter rescue – the first in Singapore’s history. The rescue on 21 October 1980 came at a time when 19 out of tower’s intended 48 floors were completed. A fire broke out on the 18th floor, which left a crane operator stranded on a tower crane perched on the top of the uncompleted building some 60 metres above ground. The daring rescue effort saw the operator plucked from the crane’s boom to safety by the crew of a RSAF Bell 212 helicopter .

Singapore’s first helicopter aerial rescue was over Raffles Place on 21 October 1980.

Raffles Place would also lose its car park and roof garden not so long after this incident. A well-loved feature by that time, the garden’s lifespan fell short of the “many, many decades” that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had predicted it would last when he opened it in November 1965. The construction of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system just two decades later, meant that the structure and its garden, went the way of Raffles Place’s older icons in mid-1984.

Raffles Place – still with its garden – in the late 1970s. The former Mercantile Bank can be seen at the end of the square.

The building of the MRT also took out the other landmarks that could be identified with old Raffles Place. The former Mercantile Bank (built 1929) was one. The building, which marked the square’s southern end, had been purchased by Chartered Bank to house its Singapore headquarters while its 6 Battery Road HQ at the square’s opposite end, was being rebuilt. Chartered Bank’s new premises at 6 Battery Road, which was put up at the start of the 1980s incorporated a provision for the MRT to be built at a time when the question of whether the MRT should be built was still being deliberated.

Over a CBD in transition at the end of the 1970s. Renewal, redevelopment and reclamation would change the face of a part of Singapore that at the point of independence, had a certain old world charm (photo source: Panoramio).

Raffles Place today, wears a look of modernity reflective of Singapore’s impressive progress since the car park and its roof garden was unveiled. Cold as it may have become enclosed by the wall of towering symbols of success, Lenin’s tomb it is not nor a place of repose for the distinguished – other than the distinguished past. There are the reminders of the square that was replaced if one looks hard enough – found in the names that are retained and in some of the new structures that have come to define the new Raffles Place.


 

Raffles Place over the years

 

 

Raffles Place stands on the site of a hill that was levelled in 1822 to provide filler for the reclamation in way of the south bank of the Singapore River that provided the grounds for Boat Quay.

 

Raffles Place in the late 1800s. The garden seen in this G. R. Lambert print was one of Commercial Square’s early features, which was laid out, planted with trees and enclosed by a low wall and a wooden fence in the mid-1830s. The marble drinking water fountain seen in the photograph was the one presented by John Gemmill in 1864. The donation involved more than just the fountain as it required the laying of pipes from Mr Gemmill’s property at Mount Erskine to Raffles Place. The fountain originally had metal cups chained to it. The fountain, which now stands outside the National Museum of Singapore, found its way to Empress Place, before being moved to the museum in the 1970s.

 

Gemmill’s fountain – at the National Museum of Singapore.

 

Another G R Lambert print from the late 1800s. Originally Commercial Square, it was named Raffles Place by the Municipal Commission in 1858.

 

By the 1900s Raffles Place was well developed into a commercial and banking centre. This postcard view of Raffles Place in the 1930s shows several banking institutions established around in the square such as (from left to right): Mercantile Bank of India, Banque de l’Indochine (French Bank) and Yokohama Specie Bank (YS Bank in Meyer Chambers).

 

Preparations for war, 1941. A machine gun pillbox seen in front of a John Little’s Building fitted with brick barricades.

 

Air raid wardens are dousing an incendiary bomb in Raffles Place in 1941 as part of a regular weekly mass demonstration to make Singaporean’s bomb conscious and informed (source: Library of Congress – no known copyright restrictions).

A bomb damaged Raffles Place following the first Japanese air raid on Singapore on 8 Dec 1941.

 

Raffles Place in the 1950s, by which time stores such as John Little – established in the 1840s and Robinson’s, founded in the 1850s, were already very well established and were household names.

 

Plans for a garden at Raffles Place were first announced in Nov 1963 during a State Government policy address made by Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak to the Legislative Assembly – the first with Singapore a State in Malaysia and the last ever. Work commenced on what was to be a 150 car capacity underground car park topped by a roof garden in July 1964. By the time LKY opened the carpark and roof garden in Nov 1965, Singapore was an independent country. LKY expressed his disappointment that the car park had to be elevated a metre above the ground for ventilation and access and observed that some had likened one end of the structure to Lenin’s tomb. He also noted that there were also suggestions that “we might perhaps repose the precious remains of some of our more distinguished citizens in one end of this square”.

 

Mr David Ayres’ capture of Raffles Place in 1966, which made its rounds around the internet in 2012. The photograph shows the roof garden and looks towards the northern end of the square with the Chartered Bank Chambers on Battery Road at the far end (source: David Ayres on Flickr).

 

Another northward view – this one in 1969 courtesy of Mr Kim Hocker (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

The five-foot-way along John Little’s Building in 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

Trishaw riders outside Oriental Emporium at Raffles Place in 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

A view of the car park from street level with a staircase to the roof garden (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

The Malacca Street end of the car park and its location today.

A view towards the north end with MRT construction work, 1987 (National Archives of Singapore).

 

A northward view today. The John Little’s Building is replicated on the main entrances to the MRT.

 

A southward view of Raffles Place today.

 

The Singapore Land tower (R) – where the rescue of the crane operator took place in 1980.

 

One Raffles Place – which occupies the site of Robinson’s and Meyer Chambers.


 





Parting Glances: the cylinder on Pearl’s Hill

2 05 2019

A last look at Pearl Bank Apartments, a Chinatown landmark and a celebrated modern building.


The time has come to bid farewell to Pearl Bank Apartments, that cylinder-shaped apartment block sticking right out – perhaps like the proverbial sore thumb – of the southern slope of Pearl’s Hill. Sold to us here in Singapore Southeast Asia’s tallest residential building during its construction, it is thought of as a marvel of innovative design in spite of a rather unpretentious appearance. Emptied of its residents, it now awaits its eventual demolition; having been sold in February 2018 in the collective sale wave that threatens to rid Singapore of its Modern post-independence architectural icons. CapitaLand, the developer behind the purchase, will be replacing the block with a new development that with close to 800 units (compared to 288 units currently).

The residential block, photographed in 2014.

Pearl Bank Apratment’s development came as part of a post-independence urban renewal effort. Involving the sale of land to private firms for development, which in Pearl Bank’s case was for the high-density housing for the middle class. The project, which was to have been completed in 1974 with construction having commenced in mid-1970, ran into several difficulties. A shortage of construction materials and labour, as well as several fatal worksite accidents, saw to the project being completed only after a delay of about two years.

An advertisement in 1976.

After the completion of the project in 1976, its developer, Hock Seng Enterprises, ran into financial difficulties and was placed into receivership in August 1978. This prompted the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to step in to purchase all eight of the block’s penthouses in 1979. The 4,000+ sq. ft. penthouses (the area included a 1,000 sq. ft. roof terrace) were resold to Civil Servants and Statutory Board officers at a price of $214,000 for an intermediate unit, and $217,000 for the corner unit – a steal even at the prices of the day!

A view from one of the penthouse units.

The 38-storey apartment block also saw problems with its lifts and for over a month in 1978, only two were in working order. Another incident that imvolved the lifts occurred in November 1986 when a metal chain of one of the lifts fell a hundred metres, crashing through the top of its cabin. It was quite fortunate that there was no one in the lift during the late night incident. The building developed a host of other problems as it aged, wearing an increasingly worn and tired appearance over time. Even so, it was still one to marvel at and one that had photographers especially excited.

Built on a C-shaped plan, a slit in the cylinder provided light and ventilation. The inside of this cee is where the complex nature of the building’s layout becomes apparent, as does its charm. Common corridors provide correspondence across the split-level apartment entrances as well as to each apartment’s secondary exits via staircases appended to the inner curve. The apartments are a joy in themselves, woven into one another across the different levels like interlocking pieces of a three-diemnsional puzzle. The result is joyous a mix of two, three and four bedroom apartments.

There have been quite a few voices lent in support of conserving the building and other post-independence architectural icons, which even if not for their architectural merit, represent a coming of age for the local architectural community and a break away from the colonial mould. Several proposals have been tabled previously to conserve the building, including one by one of its architects, Mr Tan Cheng Siong and another by the Management Corporation Strata Title Council.

Part of the waste disposal system.

That sentiment is however not necessary shared by all and the sites central location and view that it offers, does mean that the site’s development potential cannot be ignored. Among its long-term residents, a few would have welcomed the opportunity to cash in. Those occupying units on the lower floors might have had such thoughts. It seems that it was increasingly becoming less pleasant to live in some of the lower units due to choked pipes. One could also not miss the stench emanating from the rubbish disposal system.

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The view from a penthouse roof terrace.

Architectural or even historical perspectives aside, the person-on-the-street would probably not get too sentimental over the loss of Pearl Bank Apartments. Unlike the old National Library, the National Theatre or the old National Stadium in which memories of many more were made, there would have been little opportunity provided to most to interact or get close enough to appreciate the building.

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A last reflection.

All eyes I suppose are now on CapitaLand, to see what in terms of the site’s heritage –  if anything – would be retained. Based on noises being made online, the launch of the project is due in 2H 2019.


More views:


 





Finding a lost Singapore in the images of Paul Piollet

19 11 2018

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

In Conversation with Paul Piollet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A selection of photographs from the Paul Piollet Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 





A postcard from the past: Shaw House and Lido

29 06 2017

Another landmark of the Orchard Road that I loved was the old Shaw House. That, stood at the corner of Orchard and Scotts Road through the 1960s to the 1980s. What made the building special was the branch of The Chartered Bank that was housed on its ground floor, a branch that my mother frequented and one at which I obtained my favourite piggy bank that was modelled after the Disney cartoon character Donald Duck. Completed in 1958, the modern 10-storey block was lit the path for the eventual transformation of Orchard Road. It was one of two that the Shaw Brothers built, the other being Lido Theatre next to it – a cinema at which I caught many Pink Panther movies. In its latter years, Shaw House was also where a popular restaurant Copper Kettle opened.





A postcard from the past: a view over the Killiney Road area in the 1970s

22 06 2017

Another postcard from the past: a view over the Killiney Road and River Valley area in the early 1970s. What can quite clearly be made out is Killiney Road, Dublin Road, Lloyd Road, Tiverton Lane and Devonshire Road at the bottom of the picture. Some of the buildings that are identifiable in the foreground include the old Killiney Road Market (from its roof), Mitre Hotel, and if you look hard enough, the roof of 38 Oxley Road!

What this postcard brings to mind is in fact 38 Oxley Road, which has been very much in the news of late. I was first made aware of it being the house of the then Prime Minister from the backseat of the car of a neighbour, Uncle Singh. We were in the vicinity one evening and Uncle Singh decided to drive through the short stretch of Oxley Road (that was before entry to the stretch was restricted to residents) just to show his son and me where the Prime Minister lived, pointing the Gurkha guards manning the sentry posts out as he drove past. This would have been sometime in 1969 or 1970 as I was in kindergarten then. What I don’t recall was why we were in the area (we were living in Toa Payoh), or what I was doing in his car. I do remember the car, an old and rather beat up Austin Cambridge, which had a corroded floorboard and torn PVC upholstery on its backseat – so much so that the coconut husk used for the filling of its cushion was showing through.





A postcard from the past: Fitzpatrick’s on Orchard Road

21 06 2017

I miss the old Orchard Road. Laid back, when compared to the madness that now consumes the street, little remains of it except for a few memories and some precious photographs, which when they crop up are like postcards sent from the past.

One photograph that I was quite excited to come across is the one below. A scan that a new found friend kindly permitted me to scan, it is a rare shot taken inside Fitzpatrick’s supermarket in the very early 1970s, just as I remember it. The scene, complete with the inside ends of the checkout aisles and the cigarette display racks, brought back an instant recall of a place, its smell and of the brown paper bags the shopping would be packed into. I remember the latter especially well and a time when plastic bags, now a scourge to the environmental, were much less used widely used. Much was also reused and recycled such as the cartons that one picked up from a pile on the left after the checkouts that the shopping, particularly the heavier items were sometimes packed into.



 





A look down the Orchard Road of the early 1970s

20 01 2014

A photograph that would probably have been taken from the top of the Hilton in the early 1970s offers a view of that show how different Orchard Road was back then. The Mandarin Hotel, which was completed in 1971, and the two-way traffic system along the stretch from the junction with Scotts/Paterson Roads provides an indication of when the photograph would have been taken. This was period when I probably enjoyed Orchard Road the most, a time when the crowds we now cannot seem to escape from were non-existent, and a time before the modern shopping malls descended on what has since become a street well-known throughout the world for its shopping offerings.

Orchard Road early 1970s

Of some of the main landmarks seen in the photograph, only the Mandarin Hotel and Liat Towers stands today. In place of Orchard Road Police Station is the Orchard MRT Station and ION Orchard above it. Across the road, the complex that houses Tangs and Marriot Hotel (ex Dynatsy Hotel) now stands in place of the two rows of shophouses and the iconic old CK Tang Building.

Lucky Plaza (1978), one of the first malls to arrive on Orchard Road, stands where Champion Motors (a former Volkswagen dealer) used to be and Tong Building (1978) stands where the Yellow Pages Building and an Esso Petrol Station were, right next to the old Fitzpatrick’s Supermarket.

Fitzpatrick’s went for the Promenade Shopping Centre (1984) to be built. The Promenade, best remembered for its spiral walkway up, has since been demolished for an extension of Paragon (2003) to be built.

The original portion of Paragon (1997) would have been where The Orchard, a shopping centre that was converted from the former Orchard Motors showroom in 1970, had stood. The Orchard would be remembered for its famous Tivoli Coffee House.

Another icon along that old Orchard Road, would be Wisma Indonesia beyond Orchard Road Police Station and separated from the road by an uncovered Stamford Canal and a service road. That housed the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia, and was very recognisable for its Minangkabau styled roof. In its places stands Wisma Atria (1986).

Beyond the Wisma was Ngee Ann Building. It was where the once well-known Mont d’Or Cake Shop was located. The site of Ngee Ann Building (and the then empty land beyond it) is where Ngee Ann City (1993) stands today. The canal one had to cross both to Ngee Ann Building and the Wisma, was covered up in 1974 and its is on top of this that the wide pedestrian walkway running down that side of Orchard Road, now runs.

More related to Orchard Road in the 1970s and 1980s can be found in several posts: