The Middle Road area, despite it transformation over the years, is still where reminders of the colourful chapters of its history await discovery. At one end, hints of one chapter can be found in its stars – the stars of David decorating the David Elias building, which tell us of the days of the Mahallah, home to the diaspora of Baghdadi Jews some of whom feature prominently in Singapore’s history.
For another migrant community the stars on Middle Road might have shone on, the Japanese, the reminders are less obviously Japanese. These also take the form of old buildings, two of them. One is the former Middle Road Hospital, which has its origins in the Japanese Doh-jin hospital. The other can be found just off Middle Road, at 155 Waterloo Street. Used as the National Arts Council (NAC) run Stamford Arts Centre since 1988, the building or rather, cluster of buildings, originally had been the Japanese community’s elementary school.
A conserved building since 1994, the original buildings had been erected in 1920 with the support of the Japan Club or what would be the equivalent of the Japanese Association today. The existence of the club, which was founded in 1915 and the school, was perhaps an indication of the growing presence of the Japanese, many of whom established themselves in the area around Middle Road, which was the community’s Chuo Dori or Central Street.
The origins of the school were in the classes a teacher Mr. Miyamura first held in 1912 in a room in the Toyo Hotel, which was on Middle Road. From a group of some 26 to 28 students (accounts differ), enrollment quickly grew. This saw the school moving to Wilkie Road in 1915, before it was to find a permanent home at Waterloo Street.
Known as the Japan Elementary School (日本小学校) during its days at Waterloo Street, the school was one of the community’s focal points. Several notable personalities were reported to have visited the school, including two of the late Emperor Showa’s (Hirohito) brothers. Prince Chichibu, visited in 1925 and Prince Takamatsu, who visited with his wife, the Princess Takamatsu, came in 1930. The school was also where the community held a memorial service for Emperor Taisho (the visiting princes father) in 1927.
The school was closed at the outbreak of hostilities in 1941, before being restarted as the Syonan First Peoples’ School during the occupation. Taken over by the British Military Administration after the surrender in 1945, it was used temporarily to house a recreation centre for soldiers, the Shackle Club, when that was made to vacate the de-requisitioned John Little’s building in January 1947. The Shackle Club occupied the premises very briefly, and moved in July 1947 to fleet canteen at Beach Road so as to allow the buildings to be made available to Gan Eng Seng School (Gan Eng Seng’s own building had been damaged during the war). Stamford Girls School, which was formed in 1951, was next to move in, spending a lot more time on the grounds than its intended occupant and vacating it only in 1986.
Time, it seems, is now being called for the arts centre – at least in the form we have known. A report carried in the Today newspaper last week, tells us of the departure of its tenants in anticipation of its closure for a much needed revamp scheduled to start at the end of the year. A reminder not just of the Japanese community, but also of the post-war drive to extend the reach of primary education to the growing population of children in Singapore, it would be nice to see the charm and laid back atmosphere of it spaces – often lost in the modern day refurbishment of many conserved buildings, somehow retained.
Parting Glances – Stamford Arts Centre