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

23 11 2018

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

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

The reception area.

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

A corridor on the upper levels.

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

The rear courtyard.

The swimming pool.

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

A view of the surroundings through steel framed windows.

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

Another view of the hotel’s windows.

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

A spiral staircase in the rear courtyard.

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

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

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


More photographs:

 


 

 

 

 

 

 





The vermilion bridge in the naval base

19 05 2015

The vermilion bridge, of a style and colour that is distinctively Japanese, stands almost garishly out of place in the expansive garden of an equally generously sized colonial house. Set in an area whose flavour is overwhelmingly one of the days of the empire, the bridge, and the landscaped area it arches across, is said to have been constructed through the efforts of Japanese Prisoners-of-War (POWs). It is one of at least two structures that the POWs built in an area that was at the heart of the huge British naval base, the other being a swimming pool on the grounds of Old Admiralty House.

JeromeLim 1574

The house with the bridge, is one of many in the “black and white” style, commonly employed in the construction of homes for the colony’s senior administrators and military men, to be found in the area. Along with several residences with red-brick faces influenced by the arts and crafts movement, the “black and white” houses, in lush green and spacious surroundings, served as married quarters for the base’s senior officers. The house, the largest in its cluster and located so that it commanded a view of the base’s former stores basin and dockyard, was reserved for the dockyard’s most senior officer, the Commodore Superintendent.

An aerial view of the former Commodore Superintendent's residence.

An aerial view of the former Commodore Superintendent’s residence (posted in the Old Sembawang Naval Base Facebook Group).

The dockyard passed into the hands of the then newly formed Sembawang Shipyard in 1968 and the base saw its last days in 1971 with the British pullout, and the ownership of the house was transferred to the State, but with an arrangement that it, along with several other similar property be made available for use to the United Kingdom and also to Australian and New Zealand Forces deployed in Singapore under the Five Power Defence Arrangement. It perhaps is due to this that the house, which subsequent to the pullout, served as the residence of Commander of New Zealand’s Force SEA, and the brightly coloured bridge, set in an area that the the URA’s 2014 Masterplan tells us is “Subject to Detailed Planning”,  still stands today in a part of Singapore in which the winds of change are now blowing ever stronger.


See also: History rich Sembawang, gateway to Singapore’s WWII past (Sunday Times 19 June 2016)





Revisiting Clifford Pier

13 10 2010

Having spent a few hours of my weekend in Rotunda Library of the former Supreme Court, I was able to have a last feel of what must be considered to be the greatest work of Frank Dorrington Ward. This certainly allowed me to have a better appreciation for the genius of the architect who gave us some of the magnificent structures we have inherited from our colonial past, including one that my attention was turned to last evening, Clifford Pier. Ward’s contribution towards the beautiful pier was as the Chief Architect of the team of architects at the Public Works Department that provided the design for what must be the finest pier to be built in Singapore, in which the Art-Deco style features prominently. The pier, which may have looked a little worse for wear in the latter part of its life as a public pier from which many people made their journeys to the southern islands and the gateway for many seamen coming ashore to Singapore, has been wonderfully restored and a large part of it given to use as an exclusive restaurant “One on the Bund”, and the front end of it being converted into an entrance to the very posh Fullerton Bay Hotel.

Clifford Pier at its opening in 1933 (source: Woh Hup 80, Building with Integrity).

The front end of the pier now serves as the entrance to the posh Fullerton Bay Hotel.

The magnificent pier, built to replace Johnston’s Pier in 1933, never seemed to go to sleep and was always alive with activity in the 1970s when I was growing up. It was a place that I certainly have many fond memories of, having visited on many occasions to watch the comings and goings of the passengers of the launches that bobbled up and down the sides of the pier. There was always a frenzy of activity as passengers would scramble up and down the precariously slippery steps to or from the spacious deck of the pier. Already busy as it was, the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar would bring with it the frenzy crowd of pilgrims heading to Kusu Island for the annual pilgrimage. The pier was also where I had embarked on several adventures of my own – to the islands that lay beyond the southern shores of Singapore and also on to the high seas. It would have been nice if the pier had kept its place as a gateway to the southern islands and beyond – a focal point close to the old heart of the city from which a doorway opened to the shores that lay beyond Singapore – an area that is significant to the history of Singapore as one being where many of the our forefathers – the early immigrants who made Singapore what it is would have first set foot on the island. This sadly wasn’t to be as the conversion of what is now known as Marina Bay into a fresh water reservoir with the construction of the Marina Barrage put paid to any thoughts some of us might have harboured on this. The pier ceased operations in 2004 as the Marina Barrage had cut off what had once been the Inner Roads of the harbour to the sea.

An early view of Clifford Pier (c. 1950) from an old postcard (courtesy of Mr. Low Kam Hoong).

The pier is perhaps best known for the beautiful concrete trusses which support its roof structure, which provided a wide unsupported span of the roof supports, allowing a clear and unobstructed space across much of the expansive deck of the once well used pier – another piece of architectural genius given to Singapore by Frank Dorrington Ward and his team. While the trusses have perhaps escaped the eyes of many in the hundreds of thousands who might have passed under the roof they provide support for during the 71 years of the pier’s operation, it was (and still is) a sight to behold.

Deck of Clifford Pier with the beautiful concrete arched trusses of the roof structure above (source: Woh Hup 80, Building with Integrity).

Clifford Pier as it appears today as "One on the Bund".

The beautifully illuminated concrete trusses of the roof structure - not everybody gets to get close up and personal with them anymore.

Another view of the setting of the restaurant that now occupies Clifford Pier.

The restoration and conversion of the use of the pier does provide an opportunity to savour the beauty of the truss structure, particularly in the evenings when the effects of the varied and changing hues provided by the coloured illumination which does seem to bring the beauty of structures out brilliantly. However, it is unfortunate for many of us that much of the pier within the exclusive restaurant remains inaccessible to the general public to allow an up close and personal appreciation of the wonderfully design roof structure. I had in the past attempted to capture the trusses on camera but was prevented from doing so and only got a chance to do it as a guest of an event held at the restaurant last evening. While it is nice to see the restoration of buildings that are our monuments and heritage and the use of them in a very dignified manner as is the case with Clifford Pier, and with the consideration that certainly must be made from a commercial perspective, it would still be nice if at least some parts of it are made accessible to the general public who like me, have a link or a memory to a past that might be worth a revisit from time to time. I do hope that whatever is planned for some of the future heritage sites such as the grand station at Tanjong Pagar that consideration be put in to allow parts of them to at least remain accessible to us.


The beautiful setting inside the restaurant.


More views of the restaurant.

Maybe other ideas on conservation are required to allow the general public to fully appreciate some of our heritage buildings?

The entrance to the Fullerton Bay Hotel at the front end of the pier.

The view of the restaurant from the entrance.

Views of the wonderful structure of the pier.

A close-up of the trusses ...

Air-conditioning vents blend in with the existing structure.


The decor of the restaurant does include many reminders of the past.

More views of last evening’s event:

Dough figurines that were commonly found amongst the vendors that accompanied the the wayangs (street Chinese Operas) of old.

The open air deck at the far end of the pier.





A world apart: a leisurely stroll through some of the streets of Little India

15 08 2010

Continuing on our back to school walk from Thieves Market, my old schoolmates and I crossed the busy Jalan Besar to what seems a world apart from the rest of Singapore: the charming area known to us as Little India. Set just a stone’s throw away from the city centre and its skyscrapers that dwarf much of the older areas around it, this quite delightful part of Singapore is one that I have always enjoyed wandering around. Bounded roughly by Jalan Besar to the east, Sungei Road to the south, Race Course Road to the west, and Kitchener Road to the north, the main part of the Little India area is alive with the colour and activity that much of the streets of Singapore seems to be missing. The area had mostly developed in the late 1800s, when the cattle rearing trade that thrived from the watering holes that the swamps in the area had provided. Many of the names used for and in the area in fact bear the evidence of this, Belilios Road and Lane being named after one of the pioneers of the trade, I.R. Belilios, as well as obvious names such as Buffalo Road, Kerbau Road and Kandang Kerbau. The emergence of this trade, one that was dominated by immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, attracted many other economic migrants from the sub-continent to the area transforming it into a hub of economic activity as well as a home for many Indians immigrants.

Crossing Jalan Besar to Little India, we passed this beautiful pre-war shop house at the corner of Jalan Besar and Veerasamy Road.

A newspaper advertisement for the White House Hotel at the height of its glory.

The route that we had taken to Sungei Road had taken us within sight of an Art Deco style building at the corner of Jalan Besar and Sungei Road. This had once been the White House Hotel, a building that I have never failed to notice. Its distinctive green windows had long reminded me of the panes of the windows and doors that was with me for the six years I was at St. Michael’s School. The building also served as a marker of the midway point of a journey that I would take once a week in my lower secondary school days. Then I would attend technical lessons at McNair Road in the Rumah Miskin area, and getting to school after workshop classes involved a ride on the bus that would take me through Jalan Besar, Bencoolen Street and Bras Basah Road. The building is also positioned such that it also serves as a marker for the south-eastern corner of Little India, and back when I was in school, the hotel had seemed to have seen much better days. These days, having been given a makeover and painted a pleasant light pastel blue, the hotel which is run by the budget chain Hotel 81, has some of the dignity that the building perhaps deserves for its architectural style restored.

The Art Deco styled former White House Hotel, which might have once been a rather grand looking hotel marks the end of Jalan Besar at its junction with Sungei Road. As a schoolboy I used to pass this building on the bus that would take me from the technical workshops at McNair Road to the school I attended on Bras Basah Road, marking the midway point of the bus ride.

Making our way through Veerasamy Road, we noticed that much of the area now seems to be dominated by the rag-and-bone trade … the evidence of which is not difficult to notice: small trucks buried in paper and cardboard pulling alongside shop houses that overflow with used items; weighing scales chained to posts on the streets; trolley loads of cardboard boxes being pushed around by elderly folk, are within sight everywhere.

The area on both sides of Jalan Besar seemed to be dominated by the scrap and rag-and-bone trade ...

Evidence of the rag-and-bone trade ... a weighing scale for weighing newspapers and cardboard boxes.

Trolleys of flattened cardboard boxes being pushed through the streets of Little India are a common sight.

The quick walk through the very colourful streets also took us through Kampong Kapor Road. Turning left into it from Veerasamy Road, where we could see the Kampong Kapor Methodist Church, somehow out of place in the surroundings. Built in 1930, the Art Deco church building was built to house a growing congregation which had outgrown the original church building in which the church had started. The original building was incidentally the Middle Road Church building that is now part of Sculpture Square. It was where we had earlier in our walk, stumbled upon Ngim Kum Thong’s very intriguing art exhibition.

The streets in Little India are washed in colour.

Kampong Kapor Methodist Church on Kampong Kapor Road. The church started as the Middle Road Church, the building of which is now Sculpture Square.

More of the Art Deco style Kampong Kapor Methodist Church building built in 1930.

Continuing on our walk through Cuff Road, it was interesting to notice that what is still essentially an Indian enclave, shows signs of a strong Chinese immigrant presence. Many of those involved in the rag-and-bone business are in fact Chinese nationals. As well as that, there was also evidence of some western influences. Where else would you see a sign over what is essentially an Indian café selling a fare of fried Indian snacks such as pakoras and samosas as “Hot Chips”?

The area since has through its history been a magnet for migrants from India.

These days, Little India also attracts migrant workers from other parts of the world as well.

Little India these days is also a mix of east and west.

The sight of newspapers and magazines displayed on lines was once a common sight all over Singapore, and is today still commonly seen in Little India.

A five foot way - typical of pre-war buildings in Singapore ... now serves as a convenient parking space for all kinds of small vehicles ...

Moving back northwards along Serangoon Road, we crossed over the road near its junction with Belilios Road to the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple. The temple is one of the oldest Hindu temples in Singapore, the history of which is well summed up in the temple’s website. The temple is dedicated to Kaliamman, more commonly referred to as Kali, the Destroyer of Evil, a popular goddess with the workers who were said to have been involved in the construction of the temple in the late 1800s.

The Sri Veeramakaliamman on Serangoon Road is one of the oldest Hindu temples in Singapore, having been constructed in the late 1800s.

Inside the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple.

A Hindu priest inside the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple.

Floral garlands and offerings on sale at Belilios Road next to the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple.

After a short break at Chander Road where we had Masala tea at Masala Hut, we then made our way to Tekka Market, passing by the North Indian Shree Lakshminarayan Temple, and walking through the mall at Belilios Lane / Krebau Road, through the small lane by the former residence Tan Teng Niah, and out to Buffalo Road. This took us across to the HDB complex that houses the new Tekka Market. The original Tekka Market was actually located across Serangoon Road from where the current market is, and had when I was a child, been a source of fascination for me. I remember the shopping trips there with my mother during which I would take in the wonderful aroma of spices and look forward to seeing the mutton sellers towering over their huge chopping blocks which had been cut from large logs. So, I was pleasantly surprised to see that smaller versions of these chopping blocks are still used by some of the mutton sellers – the only difference being that they stand firmly on the ground and do not seem to tower over me any more. That certainly give me a shot of nostalgia as we continued to wander around the market.

Scenes from the colourful shophouses of Chander Road ...

A liquor store on Chander Road.

Beet Root on display at Buffalo Road.

Tekka Market today ...

Fresh fish at Tekka Market.

The log chopping blocks that I was very taken with as a child.

Out of Tekka Market, we decided to head back to school again by MRT. This was not before we encountered a long snaking queue that we might have mistaken for one of the queues that offer a pot of gold to a lucky punter in one of the many lotteries that we have here. These queues get especially long when the prize on offer is not just a pot of gold, but the equivalent of several pots to the tune of a few million dollars. Thinking it was probably a queue for one of these, we were quite surprised to see that it wasn’t. The queue had in fact snaked its way to a POSB ATM machine! I had only prior to this, seen monster ATM queues during the seasons of shopping frenzy, that form in the Orchard Road area, and from my recollection, I don’t think any of these were anywhere as long as the one I was looking at that day – perhaps only a third the length of what I was seeing!

The long snaking queue at the POSB ATM ...