The Government Housing gems at Seton Close

22 03 2020

Found around the fringes of the Municipality of Singapore are several government housing gems such as several that were built using blueprints developed by the Public Works Department (PWD) in the 1910s. These, which include four Class III houses at Seton Close that were beautifully renovated for modern living in 2018, can be thought of as being among the PWD’s first purpose built designs.

A Seton Close residence.

The four at Seton Close, belonged to a larger set of six put up to house senior government officers in 1922. These are again, quite different from what could be thought of as an actual black and white house and feature a fair amount of masonry and have a main framework of concrete (as opposed to timber) columns and beams. Some of the upper level framework on the balcony projections and verandah (and of course roof supports) were however of timber. Much of these wooden structures would have been coated in black tar-based coatings, and would have (as they do to some extent now) featured a fair bit of black “trim”.

The since enclosed upper verandah.

Designed with a porte-cochère, with a (since enclosed) verandah space above that would have served as a lounge in the evenings, the houses had their reception and dining spaces below. The well-ventilated bedrooms on the second level also opened to balconies, which have also since been enclosed.

A bedroom.

More photographs


The houses that the SIT’s architects built – for themselves!

21 03 2020

Built for Singapore’s colonial administrators by the municipal commission, government and military, several hundred residences set in lush surroundings, stand today. Widely referred to as “black and white” houses, the bulk of these residences actually exhibit a range of styles that are not quite as black and white as the commonly used description would suggest and include some with more modern styles such as a set of residences built at Kay Siang Road for senior officers of the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT). Designed by the SIT’s own team of architects and built from the 1940s to the 1950s, the houses – like the majority of the colonial homes that were built are not technically of the black and white style.


One of the “air-conditioned” SIT designed houses. These were built for the SIT’s most senior officers.

One thing that marks these modern residences in Kay Siang Road are their low ceilings –  a departure from the high ceilings of the typical colonial home. This feature was for the simple reason that the houses had been designed for air-conditioning, which was much more of a luxury back then than it is today. For the same reason, the houses lack. the verandahs, generous ventilation openings, and the airiness that came with them.

A close-up of the house.

The SIT, which was set up in 1927, took on the role of building public housing and urban planning until it was replaced by the Housing and Development Board in 1960. Among the estates that it housed its European staff at was at Adam Park and Kay Siang Road, the latter being where the SIT’s senior staff were put up. The colonial estate at Kay Siang Road was developed in the 1920s and was located north of Wee Kay Siang’s estate after which the road is named. The early homes at the estate were of the Public Works Department style and it was only later that the SIT’s architects added a flavour of their own to the area.

Inside the house

The Eastern Extension Telegraph Company’s Estate on Mount Faber

18 03 2020

Some of you would probably have read the news about the possibility of a heritage trail in the Pender Road area in the Straits Times over the weekend. The trail involves the estate containing five wonderfully designed houses that were erected by the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company’s relatively junior engineering staff in the early 1900s. The company, which was part of a group established by Sir John Pender that had a monopoly on the British Empire’s submarine cable network and hence a virtual monopoly on worldwide communications. It morphed into Cable and Wireless in 1929 through a merger with Marconi, which had a stranglehold on radio communications.

Designed by Swan and Maclaren and built between 1908 and 1919, the houses are among a wealth of several hundred residences that were built during colonial-era, which are often referred to in Singapore as “Black and White houses”. While the term is correctly applied to these houses, which are timber framed, which coated in black tar based paints do exhibit a distinct resemblance to the English Tudor-style houses from which the term is derived, the same cannot be said of Singapore’s other colonial residences.

The bulk of the colonial houses, particularly those built from the mid-1920s for senior municipal, government and military officers feature Public Works Department designs with concrete columns and beams. Although many of these are coated in white finishes and feature black painted trimmings today, not all have been coated in the same colours historically. The term also prevents us from looking at the many styles that can be found among the colonial homes.

Visits to the estate – an important note:

Much of the estate at Pender Road is tenanted. To maintain the residents privacy and to avoid causing nuisance, the estate is out-of-bounds to the general public. However, do look out for a series of controlled visits that will give the public an opportunity to visit the estate and learn more about these architectural gems. These are being planned in collaboration with the Singapore Land Authority as part of the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets series of guided visits. Hopefully, this can start in the second half of this year.

The Estate’s Houses in Photographs

Married Engineer’s Quarters (two off, built in 1919)


Bachelor Jointers’ Quarters (built 1908 and extended in 1914)

Married Jointer’s Quarters (three off, built 1919)


The Class VIII Government quarters at Haig Road

26 10 2019

Built as government housing by the Public Works Department (PWD) in 1951, the cluster of 42 simple two-storey houses off Haig Road in the news this week, are representative of the period of austerity they were built in. Originally 48 units, arranged in 8 rows of 6 (1 of which has since made way for a road project), their design was a departure from the housing that the government had provided its officers with prior to that. Given a “Class VIII” designation, the two-bedroom units housed junior officers of various departments, including Broadcasting, Civil Aviation, Education, Postal and Telecoms. The quarters line streets named after common trees, Tembusu, Gajus (cashew), Binjai (a type of mango), and Beringin (weeping fig).  

A 1951 PWD Photograph.

The construction of the quarters was part of a PWD effort that also saw the erection of three schools over a 12 ha. site. The unique quality of the development was reported by the Singapore Free Press, who in a June 1951 article, made the observation that “there would be nothing like this when it is completed”. The schools that came up with the housing were two primary schools Haig Boys’ School, Haig Girls’ School, and a secondary school, Tanjong Katong Girls ‘s School.

The houses today

The houses have been rented out by the State on short term (2-year) tenancy agreements through managing agent Knight Frank, with 34 units currently tenanted. Despite the short term nature of the arrangements and the age of the properties, the very attractive rents (I have been advised that the median rate is $2700/- per month for the 100 square metre built-up area units) make the houses an appealing proposition. A walk around the neighbourhood will reveal the varied tenant mix this has attracted, as well as the condition that some of the houses are in. Feedback has been given by some tenants on leaking roofs and choked toilets, pipes and drains.

The southern section of Jalan Tembusu.

The Singapore Land Authority (SLA), who maintains the property on behalf of the State, will be carrying out extensive repair and upgrading works from January 2021. This will address the issues raised and ensure that the properties are in good condition for the longer term and will include electrical, plumbing and roof works. SLA has been engaging tenants individually since April 2019 on this, and has permitted an extension to existing tenancy arrangements to the end of 2020. The works are expected to be completed at the end of 2021 and existing tenants who are interested in returning once the works are completed will be able to register their interest to rent the property, which will be let out at prevailing market rates.

Part of the demolished row at the northern section of Jalan Tembusu.


One of the units that is in a relatively better condition.


The southern section of Jalan Tembusu – its proximity to East Coast Road and its shops and eating places also makes the houses an attractive choice for short term rental.


The meeting of Haig Road and the southern section of Jalan Tembusu.


The house have both front yards …

… and back yards that allow tenants to grow fruit tree and daily use items.


One of the since demolished units – seen in 2018.


Another unit from the northern section of Jalan Tembusu. The units feature living and dining spaces at ground level and two bedrooms on the upper level. Access is provided by a well-lit staircase arranged in the extended part of the house.


A vacant unit in relatively good condition.

There are signs of water seepage in quite a few of the units.

Ventilation openings – an essential part of the tropical architecture of old – is very much in evidence.

A look around the unit that is probably in the worst condition among the 42

The inside of a unit that will require a quite a lot of work to be done on it.

There seems a fair bit of water seepage from the roof of this unit – as is evident in the condition of the ceiling boards.








The Jacksons of Sembawang

30 07 2019

Sembawang is one of just a few places in Singapore in which still holds the charm of a bygone era. The modern world, dominated by the sea of concrete is however, knocking increasing at its door; its latest convert being the the wonderful settings that lent context to (old) Admiralty House. The National Monument, built as the home of Commander of the huge British naval base in 1940, has seen the isolation it was provided with taken away in the effort to provide residents in the area with a sports and community hub. Similarly threatened with modernisation is the area by the coast just east of Sembawang Park and once an area of idyllic seaside villages where the villages of the new world have started to take root. One project that quite thankfully bucks the trend is the recently announced dementia-care village at Gibraltar Crescent. Currently the subject of a URA tender exercise, the village will make use of existing structures inherited from the days of the naval base and (hopefully) preserve some of the environment that the structures now find themselves in – at least for a 30-year period following the award of the tender.

A window into the past.

A quiet area of seemingly typical colonial residences,  a closer examination of the buildings of Gibraltar Crescent will reveal that they are actually quite unique even if they bear quite a fair bit of resemblance to and have many of the features of the residences that have come to be described as “black and white houses”. With the exception of a building that served as the former Dockyard Theatre or the “Japanese Theatre”, the longer than typical structures are raised on concrete columns of a height sufficient to permit a person to walk comfortably underneath the floorboards. Wood is also the main material on the buildings and masonry seems to have been used quite sparingly and used, besides in the supporting columns, in wet areas and in the ground level service structures. Quite interesting because of the wood featured in the buildings’ exterior walls, the structures tended to look more black than white in the days of the naval base as black bituminous paints that weatherproofed the wood.

A view towards the former Dockyard Theatre – a uniquely built structure along Gibraltar Crescent. It is the only large building along the street that is not raised on columns.

There are quite good reasons for the features adopted in the buildings, which were among the first to be erected by the contractor for the naval base, Sir John Jackson & Co, for the purposes of housing its European staff. Known as The “Jacksons” for this reason, they were completed in mid-1929. Features found in other “black and whites”, such as the raised supports, generous verandahs and openings, pitched roofs and wooden floorboards, kept the interiors cool, airy and bright. Although now among the oldest “permanent” residences in the former naval base, as well as being the first to have been purpose built, the buildings were intended as quasi-permanent residences and hence the extensive use of wood.

The Jacksons are raised on concrete supports and feature wooden walls except in the service areas and wet spaces.

Two “Jacksons” under construction in April 1929 (online at National Archives of Singapore).

It is also interesting to note how the various residences, while similar in appearance, have been laid out in what seems to be two distinct arrangements. One type seems to have had more of a layout with more common spaces and was perhaps used to house the lower ranking staff. This design has a centrally arranged service area and besides the access staircases at the back has two arranged at each end in the buildings’ front. The other design seems to have been subdivided into individual units, each with a service area and with what appears to have been an access staircase at both the front and the back.

A unit with a layout that lends itself to a more dorm-like use.

A Jackson which would have been subdivided into three individual units – each with its own service area.

Reports relating to the construction of the base, point to it being one of the largest engineering projects in the world at the time. The contractor employed a daily average of 3,000 coolies and had at least 30 European staff at any one point supervising through the 8 year period (from 1928 to 1936) over which the main contract was executed. The reports point to some 23 residences were built for European staff, along with numerous coolie lines. The residences were eventually handed over the the Admiralty and several among the 23 survived including the structures that are now the subject of the tender survived the war.

The front of one of the Jacksons with projections that would have served as staircase landings.

An exception may have been the Dockyard Theatre, the site of which, based on older maps seems to have been occupied by another of the “Jacksons”. Thought to have been constructed during the occupation – hence the references to it as the “Japanese Theatre” – the multi-use hall is built on a ground-level platform of concrete and is also built primarily of wood. The theatre was used as a to hold live performances including pantomimes and performances by the Naval Base Singers, as well as serving as a hall in which badminton was played in the period after the war until the British pull-out in 1971.

One of two access staircases at the rear in the first type of residence.

The verandah of the second type with privacy screens at what would have been the boundaries of the individual units.

Inside one of the residences.

Inside one of the residences.

Inside one of the residences. 

News related to the tender for the dementia care village:










The Quadrant, built as a temporary Oversea Chinese Bank HQ

2 12 2018

There has been much mystery over the origins of The Quadrant at 19 Cecil Street. Identified in Gretchen Liu’s wonderful compilation of images charting Singapore’s progress over the year’s, Singapore: A Pictorial History 1819-2000, as having been built for the Kwangtung Provincial Bank, it turns out that it was for another Chinese bank – the Oversea Chinese Bank – for which it was erected for.

The Quadrant

Built in 1928/29 and designed by Keys and Dowdeswell, the motivation for the construction of the quadrant shaped Art Deco building – in an area that wasn’t considered by the directors of the bank to have been in a “not quite central” location – was the need to search for temporary premises. The bank’s HQ at 62-63 Chulia Street was affected by the implementation of the 1909 amendment to the Municipal Ordinance known as the “Back Lane Scheme” (more on the scheme: Off a little street in Singapore), which effectively cut its premises into half.

As the Kwangtung Provincial Bank, 1939 to 1979.

Rather than invest time and effort to seek new premises, the bank decided instead to erect a new building on a site at the corner of Cecil and Market Streets occupied by 6 three-storey shophouses they had acquired. The bank felt that the building – even if there were no plans to use it once a more central location (closer to the hub of commercial activity by the Singapore River) was found – was a “good investment”. The bank moved out once its permanent premises at China Building in Chulia Street (current site of OCBC Centre), which was co-developed and shared with Chinese Commercial Bank, was completed in late 1931. The two banks together with Ho Hong Bank merged in 1932 in the face of the Great Depression under the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) banner and China Building became OCBC’s HQ.

China Building, completed in 1931.

The temporary HQ was occupied by wine merchants, Eastern Agencies from 1933 to 1938, the Kwangtung Provincial Bank from 1939 to 1979 and Four Seas Communications Bank from 1982 to 1990 (which was already part of the OCBC group by that time). Pacific Can, when the building was renamed Pacific Can Building, occupied it from around the early 1990s to the 2000s, by which time I have been advised it had come into the hands of the State. Other occupants were Cherie Hearts – a childcare group, and then the Homestead Group, , which has a lease on it until 2021. The group had planned to lease the premises out to a bank, but despite much interest, the economic put paid to the idea and instead has sub-let out the lower level of the building to The Black Swan. The grand banking hall the building was given is still very much in evidence in the gorgeously decorated bar and bistro – almost three decades since it was last used as a bank.

The Black Swan.

Stairway to the gallery (mezzanine).

Also in evidence at the rear section of the 20 feet high banking hall is an upper level “gallery” from which the bank’s managers could have a view of what went on below, which the bistro uses as a cocktail bar, The Powder Room. There is also a private dining area located in the former vault.

The former banking hall – seen during yesterday’s Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets.

The Powder Room.

The former bank vault.

The upper levels of the building – access to which is through a beautifully built stairwell where a rebuilt 1929 vintage Marryat and Scott elevator is installed – is occupied by a co-working space run by WOTSO.

The stairwell.

Some of the lift’s original mechanism.

WOTSO’s co-working spaces on the upper levels.


Another view of the Powder Room.

The visit to The Quadrant was organised on 1 December 2018 as part of the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets series of State Property Visits, supported by the Singapore Land Authority, the Homestead Group, The Black Swan and WOTSO.


Dark clouds on the northern horizon

8 10 2018

I have long thought of the Sembawang area as a final frontier, and a last part of modern Singapore in which much of yesterday remains to be discovered. Progress is however eating away at these remnants of a soon to be forgotten time; the latest bit of Sembawang being absorbed into the brave new world is the area’s last forested hill on which the grand Admiralty House is perched. Now with almost the entire western slope of the hill denuded, the settings that provided the house with its charm and also its much needed isolation for its eight decades of existence, will never again be the same.

Dark clouds on a northern horizon … the denuded western slope of the last forested hill in Sembawang.

Completed in 1940, the house with its distinctive Arts and Crafts inspired flavour, was built as the residence of the Rear Admiral, Malaya. Its scale and appearance would have been most fitting to house the  commander of the then newly opened Naval Base – the largest and most important of Britain’s bases east of the Suez. It would only acquire the name best known to most, Admiralty House, when it became the residence of the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s Far East Station in 1958.

Another view showing the extent of the clearance on the western slope.

Handed over to the Singapore Government in 1975 after a spell as the residence of the Commander of the ANZUK Force, the house – and the hill has since resisted the advance of concrete that has seen a new HDB town sprout up around it. Time was finally called on the hill when plans for a sports and community hub surfaced in the 2014 Master Plan. At the project’s launch in 2016, an announcement was made that some 200 of the hill’s mature trees, just over a quarter of the existing trees, would be retained – with a greater number of new trees planted. While this may be the case – even with most of the hill’s western slope now stripped bare – the terracing necessary for the project and the construction of new structures and footpaths, will permanently alter the hill’s character and add much unwelcome concrete to an already heavily concretised area.</p?

The still forested hill, seen in July 2016.

The hub, which will feature a food centre, a swimming complex, other sports and recreational facilities, is due to be opened in phases from the first half of 2020. It will eventually incorporate the former Admiralty House, a National Monument since 2002. Work on this phase will commence when Furen International School, vacates the house in 2020.

Another view of the hill in 2016.

More on the hub and the former Admiralty House can be found at:

The front of the former Admiralty House.

The house has been likened to an English country manor.

The view the house commanded until fairly recently.


Discovering 10 Hyderabad Road

20 07 2018

Update (20 Jul 2018, 12.30 pm)

Registration has closed as all 40 slots have been taken up. Do look out for the next visit in the series – registration will open on a Friday two weeks before the visit date.  More information at Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets is back.

The third visit in the 2018 “Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets” series of State Property Visits, which the Singapore Land Authority is supporting, is to No. 10 Hyderabad Road. The property, which is now wonderfully repurposed as the Singapore campus of the S P Jain School of Global Management (who are also hosting and supporting the visit), features a set of buildings that may seem vaguely familiar to some. The buildings, the oldest on the campus, feature tropicalised classical façades and can be found replicated across several former British military camps across Singapore dating back to the 1930s. Built as officers’ messes as part of the wave of military barracks upgrading and construction works of the era, this one at Hyderabad Road was put up for the same purpose by the officers of Gillman Barracks.

The British military pull-out in 1971 saw the building handed over to the Singapore government. The Dental Health Education Unit moved in in 1973 and then the Institute of Dental Health (IDH) – when the Dental Education Unit was incorporated into it in 1975. It was during this time that the campus’ six-storey learning centre and hostel was put up for use as a central facility for the training of dental therapists, nurses, dental assistants and technicians. Outpatient dental health clinics were also set up in the building.

The buildings of the former officers’ mess is now used by S P Jain as an administration building as well as as “hotel” for visiting faculty and features 20 very comfortable rooms as well as a beautifully decorated lounge and banquet hall.  There are also staff rooms, discussion rooms, a music room, a chill-out lounge and a library in the buildings – which participants can hope to see.

Details of the visit and registration link:

Location : 10 Hyderabad Road, Singapore 119579
Date : 4 August 2018
Time : 10 to 11.45 am
Registration :

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More on 10 Hyderabad Road:

More on Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets:

Beautiful in its abandonment: the red-brick power station at Pasir Panjang

20 06 2017

Photos taken during visit as part of the Singapore Heritage Festival 2018 on 22 April:

There is a certain charm about the utilitarian, red-brick faced ‘A’ power station at Pasir Panjang. Comparable in appearance to the much-loved and now lost National Library at Stamford Road, the former station stands in relative obscurity in a neglected corner of Singapore.

Pasir Panjang ‘A’ Power Station. Commissioned in 1953, it was Singapore’s second power station. Decommisisoned in the early 1980s, it lost its two iconic 235 foot high chimneys in the 1990s.

‘A’ station, completed in 1952-53, acquired the designation ‘A’ when a second or ‘B’ station was added just adjacent to it in 1965. Built at a time when such red-brick faced constructions seemed the fashion, it is evocative of an age at which the foundations for Singapore’s huge transformation were being laid. The elegance that ‘A’ station wears, one that seems to be missing in the form of its nearby and more modern counterpart, belies the fact that the station had been built in desperate circumstances. At the point of its opening, Singapore’s second station, constructed almost three decades after the first, was badly needed due to an acute shortage in electricity supply. St. James, Singapore’s first power station, which had been built with an initial capacity of 2 MW in 1926., was producing a maximum of 37 MW by 1948 (see also Electricity in Singapore). However, by 1950, maximum demand stood at 43.5 MW, and with the supply clearly insufficient, load shedding was introduced. This affected one-third of the electrical consumers in the municipality turned city each night.

The red brick power station and its two 235 feet high chimneys in the early days of the station (online at

‘A’ power station was opened by Governor Sir John Nicoll on 3 July 1953 to great promise. Two of the intended six 25 MW turbo-alternators had been commissioned by then. More were to be added and by 1958, it had reached it intended output of 150 MW – a number that was thought at the planning stage to be sufficient to meet power supply requirements for 20 years. In that time, 260 substations were also built, some 230 kilometres of 22kV distribution cables laid (there also was an upgrade from a 6.6 kV transmission system to a 22 kV one) and 34,700 consumers added. Bulk supply could also provided to Johor Bahru. Power supplied by the station also helped launch Singapore’s big industrial push in the 1960s. With demand already reaching 105.7 MW in at the point of the commissioning of the sixth alternator, an additional 25 kW was added to Pasir Panjang ‘A’ station’s capacity in 1962. With demand increasing,  the construction of a new station, the ‘B’ station, commenced soon after  in 1963.

The former Pasir Panjang ‘B’ Power Station, which was opened in October 1965.

‘B’ station opened with an initial capacity of 120 MW in October 1965, half of its planned capacity of 240 MW. Even this would not be enough to fuel the rapid growth in demand and a new 240 MW power station in Jurong Industrial Estate had to be planned for as the ‘B’ station was taking shape. The commissioning of ‘B’ Station also allowed electrical power supplied to the island of Pulau Bukom from November 1965. Power on the island, where Shell commissioned Singapore’s first refinery in the early 1960s, had to be drawn from the island’s own generating plant prior to this. The opening of the ‘B’ station also saw the transmission system upgraded to 66kV with the existing 22 kV system relegated to a sub-transmission system (the current high voltage transmission network, introduced in 1976, distributes electricity at 230 kV).

Inside the Turbine Hall of the ‘A’ power station (online at National Archives of Singapore Online).

The death knell for the stations was sounded in the late 1970s with more advanced, higher capacity, and cleaner (one common complaint was of soot falling from the sky in the area) power stations such as Senoko and Pulau Seraya being built. ‘A’ station was decommissioned in mid-1980 and ‘B’ in the late 1990s. The stations’ buildings were re-purposed following their decommissioning and are still standing today sans their iconic chimneys. While ‘A’ station is now left vacant, ‘B’ station’s main building is currently in use as the Pasir Panjang District Office of SP PowerGrid Ltd. It is not known what the future holds for the two sets of buildings as the only thing that the URA Master Plan tells us, is that the stations sit on a “reserve site”.


Note: My visit to the former Pasir Panjang Power Station was made with the kind permission of the Singapore Land Authority.

The abandoned Pasir Panjang ‘A’ Power Station

The cleared out Turbine Hall.

Tall steel columns of the Turbine Hall – part of the metal skeleton of the building.

Reflections on the Turbine Hall.

The building has a generous amount of windows to allow natural light in.

Space under the platform of the Turbine Hall.

Reflections of the skylight in the Turbine Hall.

A steel beam, marked with its origin.

Electricity was distributed at 6. 6 kV before Pasir Panjang was built, when high-voltage transmission was done at 22 kV. The Pasir Panjang generators produced electricity at distribution voltage, and this be fed directly into the transmission network.

Transmission was switched to a higher voltage of 66 kV when the ‘B’ station was completed in 1965 and the 22 kV transmission network was used as a sub-distribution system.

Colour coded fire hydrant.

Stairway to the platform level.

The Boiler Hall.

Steel columns on the platform level.

Another view of the platform level.

Bracing on the steel framework.

Storage tanks for the power station’s oil fired boilers.

A weighbridge.

A last look at the Turbine Hall.

Some ‘B’ station facilities

‘B’ station’s pump house – the cooling plant, originally supplied by Mather and Platt Ltd, could supply 50,000 gallons of water a minute.

Inside the pump house.

Inside the pump house.

The added capacity of the ‘B’ power station permitted the supply of power to Pulau Bukom in Nov 1965. The commissioning to the ‘B’ power station also saw a shift to a 66 kV high voltage distribution network with the 22 kV network relegated to a sub-transmission system.

A room inside the chlorine handling facility.

Inside the chlorine handling facility.

Electricity in Singapore

The use of electricity for the purposes of lighting in Singapore goes back to 1897 when the Tanjong Pagar Dock company introduced electric lighting to its machine shops. It would be some years before the Municipality would adopt electric street lighting, which was introduced to Raffles Place, North Bridge Road and Boat Quay in 1906. This move coincided with the installation of a generator by the Singapore Tramways Company (later Singapore Traction Company) at MacKenzie Road for the purposes of powering its electric trams. Excess electricity distributed via a 460 V D.C. three-wire network, was sold in bulk to the Municipality, who in turn also sold electricity to some 42 consumers. This grew to 110 consumers in the first year and expanded rapidly thereafter.

The generating station at Singapore Tramways Company’s MacKenzie Road depot.

This arrangement went on for some 20 years, with supply also provided by the Singapore Harbour Board from 1924, until the coal fired St. James Power Station was built in 1926. The construction of the station were on the recommendations of a commission appointed by the Municipal Commission. The site at the promontory at St. James was selected due to its location by the coast as well as its proximity to the railway line, which ran to Pasir Panjang. This allowed the coal required to fire the station’s boilers to be delivered either by sea or by rail.

The last forested hill in Sembawang

11 07 2016

Sitting in relative isolation and surrounded by a lush forest of greenery for much of the 76 years of its existence, Old Admiralty House may soon find itself in less than familiar settings. The National Monument, built as a home away from home for the officer in command of the British Admiralty’s largest naval base this side of the Suez, will soon find itself become part of Sembawang’s sports and community hub.

Dawn over a world on which the sun will soon set on. Old Admiralty House in its current isolation on top of a hill, with the fast invading sea of concrete in the background.

The hub, it seems from what’s been said about it, will feature swimming pools, multi-play courts, a hawker centre, a polyclinic and a senior care centre; quite a fair bit of intervention in a quiet, isolated and of late, a welcome patch of green in the area’s fast spreading sea of concrete. Plans for this surfaced during the release of what became the 2014 Master Plan, which saw a revision on the intended location of Sembawang’s sports and recreation complex from the corner of Sembawang Avenue and Sembawang Road to the parcel of land on which the monument stands.

The original intended location of the sports and recreation complex in Sembawang (area shaded in light green) [URA Master Plan 2008].

The original intended location of the sports and recreation complex in Sembawang (area shaded in light green) [URA Master Plan 2008].

The monument, a beautifully designed Arts and Crafts movement inspired house, is without a doubt the grandest of the former base’s senior officers’ residences built across the naval base.  Set apart from the other residences, it occupies well selected position placed atop a hill in the base’s southwestern corner, providing it with an elevation fitting of it,  a necessary degree of isolation and privacy, and the most pleasing of surroundings – all of which will certainly be altered by the hub, notwithstanding the desire to “incorporate the natural environment and heritage of the area”.

A day time view.

A day time view.

The revised location of the sports and recreation complex in Sembawang (area shaded in light green) [URA Master Plan 2014]

The revised location of the sports and recreation complex in Sembawang (area shaded in light green) [URA Master Plan 2014].

The naval base that Old Admiralty House recalls is one to which colonial and post-colonial Singapore owes much economically. With the last working remnants of the base are being dismantled, the area is slowly losing its links to a past that is very much a part of it and Singapore’s history and whatever change the creation of the sports and community hub brings to Old Admiralty House and its settings, it must be done in a way that the monument at the very least maintains its dignity, and not in a way in which it is absorbed into a mess of interventions that will have us forget its worth.

1945 Map Detail

Detail of a 1945 Map of the Naval Base showing the area where ‘Admiralty House’ is. The house is identified as the ‘Admiral Superintendent’s Residence’ in the map.

More on Old Admiralty House: An ‘English country manor’ in Singapore’s north once visited by the Queen

Around Old Admiralty House

The former Admiralty House, likened by some to an English country manor.

The former Admiralty House, likened by some to an English country manor.

The swimming pool said to have been constructed by Japanese POWs.

A swimming pool said to have been constructed by Japanese POWs.

Evidence of the through road seen in an old lamp post. The post is one of three that can be found on the premises.

An old concrete lamp post on the grounds.

What remains of a flagstaff moved in May 1970 from Kranji Wireless Station.

What remains of a flagstaff moved in May 1970 from Kranji Wireless Station.

Inside the bomb shelter.

An air-raid shelter found on the grounds.

Not all Black and White at Mount Pleasant

1 11 2015

In a Singapore now overrun by the clutter of the modernised world, there is nothing that better celebrates the Singapore we have long abandoned better than the “Black and White” houses we still see scattered across the island. Characterised by their whitewashed and black trimmed exteriors and set in lush green surroundings, the houses – built in the early decades of the twentieth century to house the colony’s administrators, carry themselves with a poise and elegance that is sadly lacking in the architecture of the modern world.

The 'black and white' house at 159 Mount Pleasant Road.

The ‘black and white’ house at 159 Mount Pleasant Road.

The rear of the house - with the kitchen and servants quarters arranged in typical fashion behind the main house.

The rear of the house – with the kitchen and servants quarters arranged in typical fashion behind the main house.

I am always grateful for the opportunity to have a look into one of these houses, a good number of which are today leased out for quite a tidy sum by the Singapore government. One that I recently got to see – thanks to arrangements made by a friend and fellow blogger James Tann and with the kind permission of the house’s occupant, was at 159 Mount Pleasant Road. Laid out in a style typical of the early “Black and White” house – of single room depth and with a carriage porch arranged under a projecting second storey verandah, the house at #159 is one of a cluster of similar houses built in the 1920s along the north facing slope of Mount Pleasant to serve as residences for the fast developing municipality’s Municipal Councillors.

The carriage porch and projecting second storey verandah.

The carriage porch and projecting second storey verandah.

The projecting second storey verandah.

The projecting second storey verandah.

Located close to the top of Mount Pleasant, one of the high points in the series of undulations that extend to the burial grounds to its northwest at the area of Bukit Brown, there is much to admire about the house and its expansive grounds. I was to learn from James that what was most interesting about the house was however neither its architecture nor the beauty of its setting but a secret it held for some seventy years.

From the porch one steps into an entrance hall and the stairway - again typical of an daly 'Black and White' house design.

From the porch one steps into an entrance hall and the stairway – again typical of an early ‘Black and White’ house design.

The dining room on the ground level, as seen from the entrance hallway.

The dining room on the ground level, as seen from the entrance hallway.

James, who was photographing the house for a book on the Adam Park Project, shared what had been learnt about #159 and about some of the houses in the vicinity from piecing together evidence found in history books, maps and also what had quite recently been uncovered on the grounds. The project, which is led by battlefield archeologist Jon Cooper, seeks to establish what did go on in and around Adam Park in the dark days of the first half of February 1942 from archaeological evidence.

The area in the foreground was where both spent ammunition and a cache of unused British ammunition was recently uncovered.

The area in the foreground was where both spent ammunition and a cache of unused British ammunition was recently uncovered.

Jon Cooper paints a picture of the events of the last days leading up to what does seem to have taken place on the morning of 15th February 1942, the day of the surrender, in a video that relates to a dig carried out at #159 early this year. Meeting with stiff resistance from the Cambridgeshire regiment who held the ground for three days at Adam Park, the Japanese forces move slightly to the north. On the evening of 14th of February, the Japanese break through positions held by 4th Battalion of the Royal Suffolks at the Singapore Island Country Club and at Bukit Brown. The Suffolks retreat, falling back across a valley (which would be the low ground at Jalan Mashhor / Gymkhana Avenue), to positions on Mount Pleasant. Here, a mixed of units including the 125th Anti Tank Regiment, the Royal Engineers and elements of the 9th Northumberland Fusiliers, have the area fortified for a Japanese attack, with the “Black and White” houses there serving as defensive positions.

Cooper tells us also of two well documented attacks on Mount Pleasant that follow. One comes from an account recorded by Henry Frei, who once taught at the NUS, based on interviews with Japanese veterans. This account makes mention of an attack on “Hospital Hill” which wipes out a whole company of Japanese troops.

The house that was thought to be used as a hospital on the top of Mount Pleasant.

The house that was thought to be used as a hospital on the top of Mount Pleasant.

Another account Cooper refers to speaks of attempts on the morning of 15th February to retake a house that had been infiltrated by the Japanese. The house, on the north side of Mount Pleasant Road, is described as as hard to take due to its elevation below the road. Following two failed attempts to retake it, the house is hit with 12 anti-tank shells fired from a gun positioned at the junction of Mount Pleasant Road and Thomson Road. The house catches fire, is cleared of Japanese troops, and eventually burns down. Evidence provided by 1948 aerial photographs point to the house being one with a new roof at #160. This lies right across Mount Pleasant Road from #159 and seems also to be confirmed by a Singapore Free Press article of 25 June 1948 reporting the discovery of the remains of 8 soldiers on the grounds of a “bombed house” at 160 Mount Pleasant Road.

160 Mount Pleasant Road, which was infiltrated by Japanese troops and subsequently bombed.

160 Mount Pleasant Road, which was infiltrated by Japanese troops and subsequently bombed.

The far end of #159’s garden, was also where one set of remains was located, that of a British officer whose remains were subsequently moved to Kranji. One of the aims of the dig at #159 was to find any other evidence related to the officer that may have possibly been left behind.

A view towards the far end of the garden. The remains of a British officer killed in the course of fighting, was buried.

A view towards the far end of the garden. The remains of a British officer killed in the course of fighting, was buried.

While no evidence of that was found, the main focus of the dig, which took place at the near end of the huge garden, did meet with success. With some of what had lay buried in this area having been exposed following the removal of a tree and the gradual washing away of the topsoil by rainwater, the dig there managed to uncover thousands of pieces of ammunition. The find, which includes both spent cases and a cache of unused ones that had deliberately been buried, confirms that there had been fighting in the garden of #159, which would have been used as a staging point for the attack on #160. The large quantity of unused ammunition of British origin, provided evidence of the final positions of British troops as they made their preparations prior to surrender.

Mount Pleasant Road served as the final battle line before the capitulation.

Mount Pleasant Road, seen here running between #159 and #160, served as a final battle line before the capitulation.

There is probably a lot more that currently lies buried on the grounds of #159 and the other “Black and White” houses in the vicinity. It may be that the grounds of these houses may never reveal their secrets. Based on what’s seen in the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s 2014 Master Plan, it does seem that the area will be the subject of future redevelopment, perhaps as part of the intended Bukit Brown estate on the evidence of the two MRT stations in the vicinity. It would be a shame if and when this happens as not only will we lose a green part of Singapore with its “Black and White” reminders of a forgotten age, we will lose a link to a chapter in our history that must never be forgotten.

The URA Master Plan 2014 indicates that the area will be redeveloped in the future.

The URA Master Plan 2014 indicates that the area will be redeveloped in the future.

More photographs of 159 Mount Pleasant Road




























An ‘English country manor’ in Singapore’s north once visited by the Queen

28 05 2015

From its position some 90 feet above what once was the southern fringes of the His Majesty’s Naval Establishments in Singapore, the grand and architecturally rather interesting building we know today as the Old Admiralty House would have offered its occupants with a wonderful vantage point over the area’s rolling landscape.

The former Admiralty House, likened by some to an English country manor.

The former Admiralty House, likened by some to an English country manor.

Windows into a time forgotten.

Windows into a time forgotten.

Its lofty position, and the scale of the house – likened by some to that of an English manor, tells us of the rank and status of the mansion’s intended occupant, the Royal Navy’s officer in command of the huge naval base. The house, would have been one of a trio of large residences planned for at the end of the 1930s.

The front of the former Admiralty House.

The front of the former Admiralty House.

The three were to house the each of the three commanding officers of the armed services, with what was to be Admiralty House built so as to permit the Officer in charge of His Majesty’s Naval Establishments in Singapore, a appointment held by the Commodore (later Rear Admiral), Malaya, to be moved on to the grounds of the base. The Commodore’s residence, had been at the then Navy House, located a long drive away in ‘Singapore’ at Woodstock Drive (which became the Grange Road end of today’s Orchard Boulevard).

Rather delightful looking smaller buildings around the house thought to have housed the commanders' aides.

Rather delightful looking smaller buildings around the house thought to have housed the commanders’ aides.

The porch.

The porch.

The two other residences intended, were to be at Kheam Hock Road and in Tanglin. The one at Kheam Hock Road, was to be a replacement for Flagstaff House, the residence of the General Officer Commanding (GOC), Malaya. This residence is the one we know today as Command House, a National Monument. The Tanglin residence, which I have not been able to find further information on, was intended to be the home of the Royal Air Force’s Air Officer Commanding (AOC), Far East.

Command House at 17 Kheam Hock Road.

Command House at Kheam Hock Road.

As with the new Flagstaff House, the design of Admiralty House was very much influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement. It is widely attributed to the illustrious architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens, whose work left a mark not just in Britain, but also in New Delhi. However, there little evidence of this.


Thought to have been completed in 1940, two years after the opening of the massive King George VI graving dock – an event that marked the completion of Great Britain’s most important naval station east of the Suez – the house first occupants would have been Rear Admiral and Mrs. Thomas Bernard Drew, if they had not elected to stay on at Woodstock Drive. Rear Admiral Drew, who was posted to Singapore in February 1939 as a Commodore, Malaya, was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral in August of the same year.

1945 Map Detail

Detail of a 1945 Map of the Naval Base showing the area where ‘Admiralty House’ is. The house is identified as the ‘Admiral Superintendent’s Residence’ in the map.

It was to be Rear Admiral Drew’s successor as Rear Admiral, Malaya, Ernest John “Jack” Spooner and his wife Megan, who were to be Admiralty House’s first residents, moving into the house in August 1941. Mrs Megan Spooner, née Foster, interestingly had been a renowned soprano back in Britain.

Nelson Gate

Nelson Gate at the bottom of Nelson Road at the perimeter fence of the Naval Base along Sembawang Road (photograph used with the kind permission of Mr Chan Kai Foo).


We are able to get a feel of how the house was laid out and decorated in Ms. Mary Heathcott’s article published in the 18 October 1941 edition of The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser. Here, Ms Heathcott refers to the house as ‘Navy House’, but it quite certainly is a description of the Naval Base’s Admiralty House (Mrs. Megan Spooner also referred to the house as ‘Navy House’ in her diary entries):

Navy House has been built for about a year, was never occupied by the Drews as they were settled in Singapore.

It is large, pillared, cream coloured and grand and when Mrs. Spooner has finished her interior decoration should be a very elegant home indeed for Malaya’s Rear Admiral.

The dining room is furnished already, with solid walnut-polished teak furniture, sober jade green leather chairs. It has an immensely long dining table for big dinners, a small round one for less formal affairs.

A long, many windowed drawing room leads off the dining room, and this Mrs Spooner plans in Empire style, with the delicate graceful studied furniture of the period, mirrors on the walls, console tables, pastel colourings. Off this is a smaller sitting room, informal and restful.

Three hundred and fifty people were recently entertained at a cocktail party in the dining and drawing room of the house and there was no crush at all, which gives you some idea of their pleasant spaciousness.

Upstairs are the private quarters of the Spooners, a big landing sitting room where Mrs. Spooner has her desk, with its photographs of their nine-year old son, now at school in England. Here too, will be a corner settee to offset the rather difficult angles.

For most rooms of the house, there is a pleasant green vista, and from one side can be seen the Straits of Johore through a cutting in the trees.

The garden is as yet a plain green lawn, but there are plans for that too.


A balcony the private quarters open into.

A balcony the private quarters open into.

What would have been the private quarters.

What would have been the private quarters.

Possibly the reading or dining room, based on Ms. Heathcott's description.

Possibly the reading or dining room, based on Ms. Heathcott’s description.

The drawing room, used in the days of the Admiralty also as a ball room.

The ‘large, many windowed’ drawing room, used in the days of the Admiralty also as a ball room.

That it was referred to as ‘Navy House’, points to the fact that the house probably did not have an official name at its completion. There are also several references to it as ‘Admiral House’ and ‘Admiralty House’ from accounts of its early years.

The main staircase.

The main staircase.


Geoffrey Till, in his book “Understanding Victory: Naval Operations from Trafalgar to the Falklands”, makes mention of the stay of Rear Admiral Tom Phillips, Commander-in-Chief of the hastily put together Eastern Fleet, in late 1941, at “the new, rambling, vaguely “Arts and Crafts” Admiralty House in Sembawang, Singapore”, identifying Phillips’ hostess as Mrs. Megan Spooner (Admiral Phillips stay at ‘Navy House’ is also mentioned in Mrs. Spooner’s diary).

A doorway on the upper level.

A doorway on the upper level.


We also find in another book, “Course for Disaster: From Scapa Flow to the River Kwai”, the recollections of its author, Richard Pool, of his meetings with Mrs. Spooner as a naval officer. One of these encounters was at “Admiralty House in Singapore” on the occasion of a cocktail party Admiral and Mrs. Spooner had hosted, “the day after (HMS) Repulse arrived at the Naval Base”. Pool was a naval officer serving on the ill fated HMS Repulse, and was to survive its sinking not long after that meeting.

The balcony the private quarters' opens into with the drawing room below.

The balcony the private quarters’ opens into with the drawing room below.

The front balcony.

The front balcony.


Both the accounts are related to the events of December 1941, the month in which hostilities between the Britain and Japan rapidly escalated. Little did Admiral Spooner or his guest at Admiralty House, Admiral Phillips, know of it then, but fate was soon to deal each with a cruel blow. Phillips fate was sealed on board his flagship HMS Prince of Wales in the days that followed. Both the flagship, which Phillips went down with, and the HMS Repulse were sunk off Kuantan in the days that followed Britain’s declaration of war with Japan.

Admiral Sir Tom Phillips (hands on hips) watches his flagship HMS PRINCE OF WALES berth at Singapore on 4 Dec 1941 (source: Imperial War Museums ©IWM (A6787)).

What used to be an open sitting area that opened up to the front balcony.

What used to be an open sitting area that opened up to the front balcony.

Admiral Spooner, whose last days in Singapore was spent organising the evacuation of civilians, attempted an escape in a motor launch two days before Singaore was to fall. The launch was tracked and attached by the Japanese and having run aground on the island of Cebia (or Tjeba) near Pulau Bangka off Sumatra, Spooner was to spend his last days there, dying in April 1942. He was survived by Mrs. Spooner, who was evacuated on 10 February, and an eight year old son James, who had been left behind in Britain to attend school.


It was only after the war, that the house was to provide the calm its seclusion was meant to give. There are suggestions that it was used as a residence of the Commodore Superintendent of the Dockyard, although I do have my doubts. What is known is that it became the residence of the Flag Officer, Malayan Area as ‘Nelson House’ from September 1948. The transfer of the British Far East Fleet Headquarters to Singapore required the Flag Officer to vacate the residence at 51 Grange Road so that it could then be used to house the Commander-in-Chief (C in C), Far East Station, as ‘Admiralty House’.

The house has been likened to an English country manor.

The house has been likened to an English country manor.

This arrangement was to last until March 1958, when a reorganisation of British forces in the Far East meant that the Flag Officer’s appointment was assumed under the responsibility of the C in C. With this, ‘Nelson House’ became the official residence of the C in C and was renamed ‘Admiralty House’. The old ‘Admiralty House’ at Grange Road was later to be demolished, making way at the end of the 1960s for Raffles Institution’s new campus. It was in the days of ‘Admiralty House’, at least in the 1960s, that open houses were to be held annually. This allowed servicemen to visit the grounds for a swim in the pool and maybe have a picnic in the garden.

Old Admiralty House in Grange Road, which was demolished to make way for Raffles Institution at the end of the 1960s (online catalogue of the National Archives).

Naval Base Police Award

A member of the Naval Base Police receiving an award at Admiralty House (photograph used with the kind permission of Alfa Andy).

The pullout of British forces in 1971 and the closure of the naval base saw Admiralty House become the residence of the Commander of the ANZUK Force. It was during this time, in 1972, that Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh had lunch at the house, as part of a visit to ANZUK forces in Singapore.  Admiralty House, also known as ANZUK House, as the official residence of the ANZUK forces commander,  was to accommodate only two commanders. The force was disbanded in 1975 following decisions by first the Australian, and then British governments’ to pull out of the arrangements. The last to leave was Air Vice-Marshal Richard Wakeford in early 1975, following which the keys to the house was passed to the Singapore government.

Another view of what I think was the dining room.

Another view of what I think was the dining room.

Much has happened since the house saw its last military officer. Newspaper reports in May 1976 point to it being rented by an undisclosed local company for S$4750 per month. It was turned into a restaurant and guest house that opened in 1978, which apparently was rather popular with an occupancy rate of 90%. In 1988, plans were announced to turn the building and its grounds into a country club with a caravan park. The application was not approved, and it was relaunched in mid 1989 as the Admiralty Country House. The house and its grounds did eventually play host to a country club as Yishun Country Club in 1991, and then from 2001 to 2006, as the Karimun Admiralty Country Club. It was during this time that the building was gazetted as a National Monument in 2002.

An old telephone junction box inside the house.

An old telephone junction box inside the house.


Over the years, and changes in use, the grounds of the building has seen several changes. One change is to Old Nelson Road, the roadway leading up to the house. That used to be Nelson Road (it was renamed in the 1970s, possibly to avoid confusing it with the Nelson Road in the Kampong Bahru area – since expunged), and a through road. The south end of the road was at Nelson Gate, which opened up to Sembawang Road. The road was truncated in the late 1970s when Sembawang Road was widened and the gate removed. There would also have been a helipad in the grounds at the building’s north, probably added in the 1950s.

Evidence of the through road seen in an old lamp post. The post is one of three that can be found on the premises.

Evidence of the through road seen in an old lamp post. The post is one of three that can be found on the premises.

The grounds today also see more recently introduced structures such as an entrance gate, a pond, buildings around the swimming pools. Accommodation and classroom blocks were also added by the Furen International School (FIS), which since 2012 has run a boarding school for international students on the premises. As part of the arrangement for the lease of the building, FIS was required to repair and restore the building, which they have done so rather beautifully. This required a huge investment (in the order of a seven digit number) and replacement of fittings true to the original style employed in the building, where these had been previously removed.

What remains of a flagstaff moved in May 1970 from Kranji Wireless Station.

What remains of a flagstaff moved in May 1970 from Kranji Wireless Station.

Windows and brass fittings had to be recreated as part of the restoration effort.

Windows and brass fittings had to be recreated as part of the restoration effort.


Speaking of the swimming pools, one – the deeper pool, is said to have been built by 200 Japanese Prisoners of War (POWs) in 1945. There is another suggestion however, that it was the deepest swimming pool in Singapore and it was built by British POWs in the hope that their captors, who were accommodated in the house, drown during their morning swim!

The swimming pool said to have been constructed by Japanese POWs.

The swimming pool said to have been constructed by Japanese POWs.

Another reminder of the war on the grounds is a bomb shelter located across the driveway of the building. This was rediscovered in 1990. The shelter is rather small and was perhaps built to accommodate the main occupants of the buildings. Light fittings can be found in the shelter as well as what remains of a squatting water closet.

What remains of a squatting water closet.

What remains of a squatting water closet.

Inside the bomb shelter.

Inside the bomb shelter.

Beautifully restored, the building, and its adjoining and auxiliary buildings are now ones we can and should marvel at. Much is in evidence of the Arts and Crafts influence, including the exposed brick seen on the house’s façade at the upper level and the “high-hipped roof” with overhanging eaves that is mentioned in the Preservation of Sites and Monuments write up on the monument. Also in evidence are the generously provided windows and ventilation openings – all designed to maximise comfort in the tropical heat and humidity.

The exposed brickwork on the upper levels.

The exposed brickwork on the upper levels.

The reception area with evidence of its generous ventilation openings.

The reception area with evidence of its generous ventilation openings.

What is particularly interesting is how some of the service rooms are attached to the main building – these typically were detached. It appears that these were where the kitchens and other service rooms were from which access was provided via the back of the main house into the dining room and to the bedrooms upstairs through a narrow staircase. Also around the main house are smaller single storey detached buildings, thought to have accommodated the aides to the commanders.


The narrow stairway up to the bedrooms intended for the service staff.

The narrow stairway up to the bedrooms intended for the service staff.

The house today remains as a reminder of what once was. Much of the area around it has seen a transformation. The vantage point it offers is no longer ones of green rolling hills but of the structures of a growing population on an island state that has benefited greatly from the huge naval establishment the occupants of the house presided over.

The view it now commands is not one of a rolling landscape but of a strange new world that has replaced the naval base its occupant once presided over.

The view it now commands is not one of a rolling landscape but of a strange new world that has replaced the naval base its occupant once presided over.

While the building itself is protected as a monument, what surrounds it is not. What the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s 2014 Master Plan reveals is that the hill Admiralty House is perched on, or at least a large part of it, will be given to much needed sports and recreation facilities in an area where the pace of public residential developments is very quickly picking up. It may not be long before much of the green around it – the setting Admiralty House was meant to be given, is lost to grey. We do however, still have that opportunity to celebrate the house and the setting it is in, before that, like in the case of many others before it, is lost to us forever.


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.

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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)

Coloured corridors

13 11 2013

Conceived by the founder of modern Singapore Sir Stamford Raffles, the five-foot-way was a feature that was stipulated in the Jackson Town Plan of 1822 and is seen today in the shophouses which once dominated the urban landscape of Malaya and Singapore. In Singapore today, over 6000 of these shophouses have been conserved and their five-foot-ways remain colourful spaces through which I often enjoy a walk through. The photographs that follow, are ones from some of the more colourful areas of Singapore in which clusters of shophouses with five-foot-ways, old and new, can be found. More on the five-foot-way and the idea behind them can be found in two of my previous posts, the links to which are at the end of this post.

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Other five-foot-way adventures:

Kaki lima

27 06 2013

The kaki lima or the five-foot-way, is a feature of the shophouse, which was once dominant in the urban landscapes across much of British influenced South-East Asia. Sheltered from the blazing tropical sun and the frequent torrential downpours, they made an ideal communal space, as well as one in which many trades thrived.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Tun H S Lee.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Tun H S Lee.

The five-foot-ways I encountered in my childhood, full of bustle, colour and texture, were ones I found to be thoroughly fascinating. I never did have a dull moment walking along one, even in the evenings – the corridors, even those emptied of life and traders, found other uses. It was common to see bicycles and tricycles parked as well as other clutter. A common sight that we don’t see today is that of the jaga, more often than not an elderly turbaned Sikh man, seated on a charpoy – a wooden framed rope bed, outside the business premises he was to guard. It would also have been, especially in the smaller towns across the Causeway, common to hear a noisy chorus of swallows who built their nests overhead in the corners of the ceiling.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Sultan with a hole-in-the-wall shop still commonly found along many such corridors.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Sultan with a hole-in-the-wall shop still commonly found along many such corridors.

The kaki lima of today, particlarly those we find in Singapore, are much less lively versions of those of yesterday. They are still however wonderful places to explore and can often offer as enjoyable an experience as they might have in the days of my youth, throwing up a surprise every now and again. One area where I did find myself wandering through the kaki lima recently, was around the Jalan Sultan and Jalan Petaling area, in the heart of old Kuala Lumpur, where the set of photographs in this post were taken.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Tun H S Lee north of Jalan Pudu just outside a now quiet textile shop which must have once done a roaring trade.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Tun H S Lee north of Jalan Pudu just outside a now quiet textile shop which must have once done a roaring trade.

The shophouses in this part of the Malaysian capital once contained many traditional businesses. With many abandoned by the organic businesses which had brought much life to them and their sheltered corridors, the rows of shophouses seem to be in the throes of a slow death. It is a sense of sadness that I am filled with finding little reminders of what did once used to be as well as businesses still there for which time has obviously passed.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Petaling. A sign for a tailor shop which has closed reminds us of a time forgotten.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Petaling. A sign for a tailor shop which has closed reminds us of a time forgotten.

In Singapore, with over 6000 shophouses conserved, the more colourful shophouse five-foot-ways are still easy to find even as vast areas of its urban landscape are now populated with modern buildings. The ones around several conservation areas including in Little India, Kampong Glam, Geylang and Chinatown, are still rather interesting. These five-foot-ways were the subject of a contribution of photographs I made to a recently concluded three-month long exhibition on vanishing trades held at the National Museum of Singapore which looks at how spaces some of the early traders were commonly found it have evolved.

Another five-foot-way along Jalan Petaling where the remnants of an “old trade” was spotted.

The idea of the five-foot-way as an architectural feature was to provide a continuous sheltered walkway and as a space where trades could operate and has been attributed to Sir Stamford Raffles. He had it stipulated in the 1822 Jackson Town Plan that he oversaw, requiring that “all houses constructed of brick or tile should have a uniform type of front, each having a verandah of a certain depth, open at all times as a continuous and covered passage on each side of the street”. It is thought that Raffles’ got this idea from buildings in Dutch administered Batavia he had observed during his time as the Governor of Java, influenced it is suggested by verandahs found around squares in southern Europe. From Singapore, the five-foot-way spread to other parts of South-East Asia.

Watching time slowly pass on a five-foot-way along Jalan Sultan.

Watching time slowly pass on a five-foot-way along Jalan Sultan.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Panggong.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Panggong.