The Last Christmas

12 01 2021

Robinsons, which shut down over the weekend, had a long association with Christmas and had Singapore dreaming of its very first white Christmas in 1949.


Robinsons’ last Christmas, 2020.

For a while, Christmas in Singapore wouldn’t be Christmas without a visit to Robinsons. The store — a long time Singaporean retail institution, which had a strong link with the year end season of cheer, had its long and eventful history brought to a sad end when it shut its doors for good on 9 January 2021 – just a few weeks short of its 163 birthday.

Robinsons – building it occupied at Raffles Place from 1891 to 1941, prior to moving across the square to Raffles Chambers.

Growing up, Robinsons was certainly the place to go to get a feel of Christmas. The prospect of having to say hello to Father Christmas, of whom I was terrified, did not stop me from visiting the toy department. Robinsons vast array of toys made its toy department possibly the largest in Singapore at that time. Even if there wasn’t much prospect of getting my hands on what I truly desired, it made it the place to be at, if only to gawk at the toy selection and a model railway that never failed to have me enthralled. There was also the Christmas lucky dip to turn towards if all manners of persuasion at getting a toy that I badly wanted failed. For the price of what may have been two bowls of noodles, the gifts that one pulled out of the dip did sometimes surprise and I obtained one of my favourite toys in this manner, an orange battery operated submarine.

Raffles Chambers, Christmas 1966.

Those were days when Robinsons occupied its rather iconic Raffles Chambers premises in a building that, quite tragically, was destroyed in a huge fire that claimed nine lives in November 1972. The old building in Raffles Place was not Robinsons first store. It moved to it late in 1941, just a month or so before the war came to Singapore. It was however a location that was Robinsons’ most recognised and remembered in its stores right up to the point at which it closed. Raffles Chambers was also where Robinson’s introduced some of its more elaborate ways to welcome the season — a season that for Robinsons must have had the cash registers ringing for many years. Among the innovative ways in which Christmas came to Robinsons at Raffles Chambers was with Singapore’s very first “White Christmas” — when a movie set snowstorm blew in a Christmas themed display in a shop window. Snow made from chemically treated fibre was brought over from England for this with fans used to blow fake snow around the set.

A 1930s newspaper advertisement – Robinsons has had a long association with Christmas.

The history of Robinsons went back to February 1858, when Philip Robinson — who had arrived from Melbourne just the year before, and James Gaborian Spicer, established Spicer and Robinson. The “family warehouse” dealt in a large assortment of imported household goods, outfitting and foods from its premises at 9 and 10 Commercial Square or Raffles Place. The partnership did not last very long. In October 1858, Spicer pulled out of the arrangement and as Robinson and Co, the store continued operating with Robinson and a new found partner George Rappa Jr at the helm. The store prospered, and after being on the move and moving out of Raffles Place, eventually found a large “warehouse” back in Raffles Place in 1891. By that time Robinson and Co operated departments for drapery, hosiery, haberdashery, furnishings, motors and cycles, photographic apparatus and sports requisites. The store also dealt with arms and ammunition, as sole agents for Messrs Kynochs, a Birmingham based ammunition manufacturer.

Raffles Place in the late 1800s.

Soon after its move across the square to Raffles Chambers, the first Japanese bombs fell on Singapore in December 1941. The building would be partially damaged by the air raids twice — on 8 December 1941 and on 13 February 1942, even if it continued operations before eventually closing when Singapore fell. The occupation years brought a different occupant in the form of a Japanese department store, Matsuzakaya, which moved into the premises on 21 March 1943 after extensive repairs that were partially paid for by the Japanese military were made to the building. Robinsons would only return in June 1946, operating first on the ground floor and the basement before the building was fully returned by the British Military. A Royal Air Force amenities store in the interim following the reoccupation of Singapore in September 1945.

The iconic Raffles Chambers, which was topped by a statue of Mercury, was built to house another store, Katz Brothers, in 1912 (postcard: roots.sg).

The post war years would see Robinsons prosper further and lead the way in innovations. In June 1955, the store became the first department store in Malaya and Singapore to be fitted with full air-conditioning. The tragic fire of 1972 brought an end to Robinsons connection with Raffles Place and perhaps heralded the beginning of the end for the long time shopping icon. The store was able to reestablish itself on Orchard Road — first at Specialists Shopping Centre before making a move to Centrepoint in 1983. Several changes of ownership and the store’s opening of several branches did little to stem Robinsons slow slide into obscurity. In 2013, Robinsons moved its flagship store to The Heeren, which was given a more upmarket feel. That perhaps put the final nail in its coffin for the old store. In October 2020, Robinsons announced its intention to close and on 16 December 2020 it closed its flagship store and on 9 January 2020, its last store at Raffles City.

When Robinsons had its flagship store at Centrepoint
Its flagship store at The Heeren
Its last window display at its Raffles City store
Its iconic Raffles Chambers store remembered in the Raffles City outlet

Parting Glances – A Last Look at Robinsons

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Following the star down Orchard Road

25 12 2010

Every year now, as part of its campaign to draw in the tourist dollar, Singapore transforms what is its main shopping street, Orchard Road, into a wonderful sea of lights in anticipation of what actually is a religious celebration, that as a nation, it has somehow embraced. So with an old classmate who now resides halfway across the world in town for a few days, a few of us decided to join the crowds thronging Orchard Road and take in the bright lights and snap a few photographs along the way. The light-up, now very much a feature of Christmas in Singapore, has been an annual affair since the very first street-wide light-up was organised in 1984 by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) as the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) was know then. That initial light-up had lasted for just 20 days, being launched on 13 December by the then Chairman of the STPB, Dr Wong Kwei Chong, and running up to New Year’s Day. Following the initial success of the light-up, it was extended to 37 days the following year, becoming the annual affair it now is, and this year, the light-up runs for 44 days from 20 November to 2 January. I guess that initial light-up was in keeping to what Christmas was being transformed into in Singapore (and many other parts of the world), a celebration that transcends religious and cultural boundaries, one that sparks a frenzy of shopping and feasting that makes it an annual season of joy for the retailers and restaurateurs, and one that has perhaps taken on a nationwide importance.

It wasn't three wise men but five wise guys who decided to follow the star(s) down Orchard Road.

Walking down Orchard Road and taking in the lights, it is hard to imagine what Orchard Road might have been like some three to four decades ago, and much less what Christmas was about back then. That was a time when Christmas was a simpler, quieter and perhaps more personal affair. While, gift-giving, a tradition that in fact dates back to pre-Christian pagan practices (which Christians adopted together with the time of the year when the birth of Christ, the central figure in Christianity, is celebrated), and now is maybe seen to be associated with the gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh that the three Magi, the Wise Men or Kings of the Orient brought with them when they followed the proverbial star to the east to the manger where the newly born Christ Child had lain in, was very much being practiced, it was mainly between relatives and close-friends, and was never really the expensive affair that it is these days. That was a time of course when even decorations were simpler and a lot more modest than they are these days, with only simple cut-outs and other decorations mounted on the façades of the large department stores – certainly not the elaborate decorations and lightings that we see these days.

A walk down Orchard Road offers a peek into the window of the Commercial side of Christmas in Singapore.

Christmas Decorations from a Simpler Time - Robinson's at Raffles Place, 1966

For us, taking a walk down wasn’t so much for spiritual reasons (other than to partake in a few glasses of spirits at the end) or to reminisce about Christmases of the past, but to take in the lights and action of a city that has left simplicity behind and to catch up with each other. After all, that is what Christmas is really all about! With this I would like to wish one and all a very Happy Christmas! May peace, joy and glad tidings be with all!

Every year in the lead up to Christmas, Orchard Road is transformed into a wonderland of lights.

The appearance of new malls such as ION with lighted façades has added to fairy land of lights.

Shaw House was one with relatively modest decorations.

ION Orchard.

A shop display at ION Orchard to entice the Christmas Shopper.

Not everyone could wait until Christmas to open their gifts.

Street vendors were doing a roaring trade.

In the lead up to Christmas, entertainment was also provided for the crowds on Orchard Road.

Silhouettes of the crowd of people thronging Orchard Road against the back drop of the best dressed building, Tangs.

There was even a procession of floats to add to the bright lights.

Christmas trees came in all shapes and colours. Sizes were mostly XXL.

All that glitters is the gold of Ferrero Rocher. A close-up of the Christmas Tree outside the Heeren.

Signs of the times!

The writing's on the wall this Christmas!

More of the lights over the Stamford Canal ...

Roman gladiators descended onto Orchard Road ... together with angels and a few Wise Men!

Not a case of too many cooks spoiling the kebabs ...

On the blocks to be the new kid on the block next year? Construction activity at the former Orchard Emerald site.

On the rocks this Christmas ...

A red light district off Orchard Road ...

An inevitable end to our walk ... a search for a watering hole ...