Orchard Road’s last shophouses

10 11 2019

Built close to a century ago, the last of Orchard Road’s shophouses stand as a reminder of a time before Singapore’s shopping mile was mall-ed. Comprising four delightful structures at numbers 14 to 38, each a gem of eclectic architectural expression, they also serve to remind us of the rubber trade inspired hopes and aspirations of the decade that followed the end of the Great War. The row, which features three notable edifices and one, no 38, which often goes unnoticed, was acquired by the State in the 1980s following a 1978 gazette for acquisition and gazetted for conservation in November 2000.

The conserved row.

The east end of the row is marked by the cry for attention that the former Malayan Motors showroom is. Designed by Swan and Maclaren, it was an add on to the Morris and Rolls Royce dealer’s earlier showroom and represented a progression in the design of motor showrooms. A length of windows on each side of a projection in its façade provided natural illumination to its upper floors. A scalloped semi-circular gable (if one can call it that) at each end of the roof drew attention to it.

The former Malayan Motors showroom seen in 1984 (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

Completed in 1927, the former showroom can also be thought of as a marker of Orchard Road’s motoring days. Fuelled by the expansion in the rubber market here during the Great War, the demand for the motorcar had risen three-fold between 1913 and 1918, leading to a proliferation in the area of motorcar showrooms, and workshops (several over the canal at what is now Handy Road ) by the 1920s. Vehicle assembly was also introduced and Singapore’s first assembly plant – for Ford – opened in the area with a production capacity of 12 cars a day in 1925. The showroom was built by the Wearnes brothers who also brought in the Fords, which they sold via another dealership, Universal Cars. Besides Morris and Rolls Royce, other brands that the Malayan Motors showroom would have dealt with were Rover and Studebaker.  The showroom made its last sale in August 1980, following which Malayan Motors concentrated its business at its Leng Kee branch. Following its acquisition by the State, the showroom was renovated in 1988 for use by the Singapore Manufacturers’ Association as SMA House. It has been used by MDIS, a private school, since 2002.

The former MidFilm House, then and now.

Another interesting building is the Dutch-gabled former Midfilm House (Middle East Film Building) at no 22 to 24 next to the showroom. This dates back to 1921 and was put up by Middle East Films Ltd, a pioneering distributor of films in Southeast Asia. The building, which is Orchard 22 today, also served as temporary premises for Malayan Motors when its showroom was being rebuilt in 1926-27.

22-24 Orchard Road in 1984 (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

What is probably now the icing in the cake for the row is the somewhat art deco and possibly modern-classical no 26 to 36 next to the former Midfilm House, which since June 2019, is the resplendent Temasek Shophouse. Built  in 1928, it stands on the site of six older shophouses – three of which had each been acquired by Chee Swee Cheng in 1926, and the other three by E Kong Guan from 1925 to 1926. Both Chee and E had roots in Malacca and were tapioca and rubber planters. Chee was also known to have substantial interests in opium and spirit “farming” in North Borneo and a landowner, who held several properties in Singapore. He is associated with the abandoned villa at 25 Grange Road, Wellington House, often incorrectly referred to as the Chee Guan Chiang mansion – after Chee’s son by a second marriage.

The Temasek Shophouse.

It was Guan Chiang who had the 3-storey 26 to 36 Orchard Road co-developed with E – based on plans drawn up by Westerhout and Oman in 1927. The new building’s interior spaces were split down the middle for each of the two owners, with E’s side being the western half numbered 32 to 36. An office space and store was laid out on each side of the ground floor. The upper floors of each half, each contained a 2-bedroom apartment.

No 26 to 36 in 1984 with the Art Furniture Depot and Sin Sin Furniture occupying the ground floor (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

The office spaces found use as showrooms, both initially occupied by The Art Furniture Depot in 1929. It was this store that the building would have the longest association with. The store gave up one of its showrooms in the early 1930s in the face of the Great Depression. The vacant unit would became the Eddystone Radio showrrom in 1933 and after the war, Sin Sin Furniture’s. Both furniture stores moved out around 1986 when the building was acquired by the State. Following this, substantial modifications were made to the building’s interiors so that it could house Pisces Garments Department Store with escalators, lifts and a mezzanine level were put in. The department store, which opened in 1989, morphed into PMart in 1994.

The current transformation has opened up the back of no 26 to 36, giving a full view of it.

The current transformation followed on the award of a tender launched in 2017 to Temasek, on the basis of the quality of concept that it had put forward.  The 18-month refurbishment effort that followed reversed several of the interventions of Pisces and gorgeously and sensitively restored the building, earned a 2019 URA Architectural Heritage Award for restoration. The overhauled interiors now feature a double-volume event space with a green wall featuring native plants. That is – in the context of today – not complete without a social-enterprise café. As an alternative to the street entrance, the garden – which the knocking of a boundary wall at the back has opened up – provides a very nice back door. The back is also where a pair of conserved concrete spiral staircases attached to the building’s rear – perhaps one of the tallest now seen – can be admired together with the equally impressive back façade. Offices, co-working spaces, meeting and function rooms – with native birds as themes, offices, a meeting space on its roof garden and space to accommodate its partners complete the picture.

Shophouses beyond the east end of the row – leading to an expunged street named Dhoby Ghaut – that have since been demolished (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

Fresh, innovative and a joy to behold, the Temasek Shophouse brings Temasek Trust and its beneficiaries Temasek Foundation and Stewardship Asia Centre under one roof – with the aim to serve as an incubator of social and philanthropic in initiatives promoting community collaboration and advancing sustainability. It brings, if not for anything else, an injection of purpose to that the conserved row now sorely lacks.

The event space and its green wall.

More photographs of the Temasek Shophouse

A co-working space on the mezzanine.

Another view of the event space and the café.

One of the native bird themed meeting spaces.

Up on the roof.

The rooftop meeting room.

Offices for one or its sustainability partners – which makes furniture out of recycled material.

A pantry within an office space.

A balcony and on of its spiral staircases at the building’s rear.

A balcony overlooking Orchard Road and Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station.

A close-up of the Corinthian capitals of the classical-esque columns on the building’s front façade.

Another view of the front balcony.

And another of the rear spiral staircase and balcony.

A downward view to the back garden from one of the spiral staircases.


The oldest public library building, conservation, and a hornbill

27 04 2015

One of the few reminders of the old Queenstown town centre still left standing, the Queenstown Public Library commemorated a milestone on Saturday when it celebrated it 45th birthday.  The library, Singapore’s oldest branch library, is also housed in a conserved public building that, unusually for Singapore, is still being used for the purpose it was built for. The opening of the library in 1970, was a major step in making books available to the masses through the decentralisation of library services.

Guest of Honour Dr Chia Shi-Lu speaking at the opening of the Queentown Library's 45th Anniversary celebrations.

Guest of Honour Dr Chia Shi-Lu speaking at the opening of the Queentown Library’s 45th Anniversary celebrations.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew at the opening of the library on 30 April 1970.

Opened officially on 30th April 1970 by the then Prime Minister, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the library, as described by Mr Lee in his opening address, was meant not just to bring books to the masses, but was also intended to be a sanctuary of peace and quiet.

The library at its opening in 1970.

The library has indeed been a sanctuary to many, based on what was shared during the “Cakap Heritage” session that preceded the main celebrations. The session saw members of the community, librarians and members of the Friends of the Library speak of their personal experiences and connections to the library, how outreach to children was done and what the library meant to them. One of the things that did come out was how the library crowd at Queenstown was quieter and better behaved as compared to the National Library in Stamford Road.

Librarians speaking about their experiences in the Queenstown Public Library.

Librarians speaking about their experiences in the Queenstown Public Library at the Cakap Heritage session.

A member of the Friends of the Library speaking about the formation of the group by four undergraduates as part of a project to study group dynamics.

A member of the Friends of the Library speaking about the formation of the group by four undergraduates as part of a project to study group dynamics.

The celebrations also saw the introduction of two publications by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). The first is a wonderful poster of conserved buildings in the Queenstown area. Besides the library, the conserved buildings include the nearby former Commonwealth Avenue Wet Market and Food Centre and the Church of  the Blessed Sacrament. An “e-version” of the poster can be downloaded at the URA’s website.

Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

The church's interior.

The church’s interior.

The second publication that was launched is a picture book on heritage buildings, Looking at Heritage Buildings, aimed at the young. Produced by John Koh and supported by the URA, the book features the 75 buildings gazetted for conservation as part of the URA Master Plan 2014, taking a look the the buildings through the eyes of Billie the hornbill.

John Koh speaking on how hornbills and dragons are linked to conservation buildings.

John Koh speaking on how hornbills and dragons are linked to conservation buildings.

The idea for the book came as a result of John’s interactions with the URA in finding a home for a dragon, a sculpture the author acquired in producing another children’s picture book, Marco Goes East. One of the challenges the author spoke of, during a brief chat I had with him, was in defining the age group of its target audience. I thought that the book, in which the buildings are organised into five groups according to their location, with strong visuals that is accompanied by very concise information on the histories and unique architectural features, does make the book, even if it is intended for the young, a useful walking trail resource even for the less youthful.

The cover of the book.

The cover of the book.

The buildings are organised into 5 groups.

The 75 conservation buildings are organised into 5 groups.

The book is available both in print and in e-book format. The 26 page print version is available at the Singapore City Gallery and at public libraries and the e-book can be downloaded from the URA website.

A peek inside the book.

A peek inside the book.

The beautiful campus at Hyderabad Road

19 03 2015

A good reason to visit the S P Jain School of Global Management’s campus at 10 Hyderabad Road, I am told, is the great naan and curries that the canteen there serves. Set in generous and lusciously green surroundings with two glorious old buildings from the 1930s, even if not for the naan, the school and its grounds are well worth a visit.

The Singapore campus of the S P Jain School of Global Management is surrounded by lush greenery,

The Singapore campus of the S P Jain School of Global Management is surrounded by lush greenery,

The S P Jain School of Global Management with a bust of its founder.

The S P Jain School of Global Management with a bust of its founder.

S P Jain’s Singapore campus, one of Asia’s top ranked business schools, lies on the fringe of Alexandra Park, an area with a distinctively colonial flavour, seen in the structures and in the street names. That is, except for Hyderabad Road. Curiously out of place next to Berkshire, Bury, and Cornwall, it is suggested that Hyderabad became so due to a connection it has with the Nizam of Hyderabad.

The canteen, where good naan is served.

The canteen, where good naan is served.

The Nizams, a line of princes that stretched back to the last days of Mughal India, held great wealth during their reign, all of which was to come to an abrupt end with the passing of the British Raj. The last Nizam, once labelled as the world’s wealthiest man, is said to have owned property along the road (see The Hindu, 10 April 2007), and so the road was named after the then princely state1.


Whatever the case may have been, the links the road has with the subcontinent has now been reaffirmed with the Mumbai based business school having established one of its three international campuses there in 2007. The school, which came to Singapore at the invitation of the Singapore government, runs both graduate and undergraduate programmes and students enrolled in its MBA courses get to spend a term at its beautiful Singapore campus and a term each at its two other campuses in Sydney and Dubai.

A portal for learning that is also a portal into the past.

A portal for learning that is also a portal into the past.

Having taken over the tennancy for the premises from the Singapore Land Authority in 2006, the school set off by refurbishing the buildings for its use. The work also involved restoration on the two heritage buildings. Having been left vacant since 1998 when its previous occupants, the Institute of Dental Health (IDH), moved out, the structures needed quite a fair bit of effort to bring them back to their original glory.

The condition of the heritage building before S P Jain refurbished it (photographs courtesy of S P Jain School of Global Business.

The condition of the heritage building before S P Jain refurbished it (photographs courtesy of S P Jain School of Global Management).

The current boundaries of the property would probably have been defined in the early 1970s when the Ministry of Health (MOH) took over. It housed the Dental Health Education Unit in 1973 and then the IDH, into which the Dental Education Unit would be incorporated into. The setting up of the IDH in 1975 was to allow for the centralisation of training for dental therapists, nurses, dental assistants and technicians, and in doing so, also provided outpatient dental health facilities. A six-storey third building on the grounds was constructed in 1976 for this purpose, for which two older buildings were demolished. This new annex is the same building that the business school now uses as a learning centre (where it holds its classes) as well as a hostel.

The IDH gate still graces one of the exits that is now used as a service gate.

The IDH gate still keeps one of the exits that is now used as a service gate, closed.

At its opening in 1977, the annex housed administrative offices, demonstration surgeries, X-Ray rooms, dispensaries, laboratories, sterilising rooms, teaching facilities, as well as two dental surgery wings. It also played host to the Ministry of Health (MOH), when that had to be moved there temporarily in 1978 after a fire had damaged the building MOH was using in Palmer Road.

The 1977 annex, seen from the corridors of the heritage buildings.

The 1977 annex, seen from the corridors of the heritage buildings.


It is the two older buildings that have more of a story. The two, one probably an annex of the other, provide the clearest hint of what the grounds were before the MOH took over. Visually, they can very quickly be identified as the remnants of the British military build-up in the Far East that took place between the wars, the height of which was in the 1930s. The build-up was part of a strategy of deterrence the British adopted against what was seen to be an increasingly aggressive Japan. This saw airbases and a naval base established on the island with buildings with identical appearances, replicated in the several other barracks established during the era across the island.

The heritage buildings are recognisable as structures put up by the British military.

The heritage buildings are recognisable as structures put up by the British military.

The two buildings, built in 1935, feature a Classical style adapted for the tropics. Featuring large windows or doors and provided with generous ventilation openings and corridors, the rooms buildings were light and airy, keeping their occupants cool in the oppressive tropical heat. The two-storey design, is one seen in at least two other buildings from the era we still see, each built as an Officers’ Mess. One, the former Tanglin Barracks Officers’ Mess, is now used by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Another is the former Officers’ Mess of Selarang Barracks, now Selarang Camp. This is still in active military service and is now the home of the army’s 9th Division HQ.

A front to back corridor in the middle of the main heritage building - very much the same as a similarly designed building at Selarang Camp.

A front to back corridor in the middle of the main heritage building – very much the same as a similarly designed building at Selarang Camp.




The buildings at Hyderabad Road, were built to be used as the Officers’ Mess for Gillman Barracks, a large part of which was on the opposite side of Alexandra Road. Together with other military propetry, they were handed over to the Singapore government when the pull out of British forces was completed in 1971. Initial thoughts on the reuse of these two structure included their conversion for use a motel or a rest house – something that perhaps one of the buildings is now partly used as.

The upper corridors where rooms for visiting faculty are laid out.

The upper corridors where rooms for visiting faculty are laid out.

A visiting faculty room.

A visiting faculty room.


The transformation of the buildings by S P Jain has seen twenty very comfortable rooms on the upper level of the main heritage building fitted out so that visiting faculty could be put up on the premises. Along with this, a beautifully decorated lounge and banquet hall has been provided on the lower level. The buildings also see rooms fitted out for staff as well as students such as administrative offices, faculty offices, discussion rooms, a music room, a really cool chill-out lounge and a library, which is on the upper level of the smaller building.

The music room.

The music room.

The Banquet Hall.

The Banquet Hall.

The Lounge.

The Lounge.

The Library.

The Library.

Beautifully bright office space created by closing the arches along the corridor of the smaller building with glass.

Beautifully bright office space created by closing the arches along the corridor of the smaller building with glass.

Having visited the campus, I must say it is the nicest belonging to an institution of higher learning that I have come across in Singapore. The grounds and its buildings, is a perfect fit with the school, providing an environment that is well-suited to learning that seems far away from the urban word – an wonderful example of how old places and buildings that have lost their original purpose can be retained and made relevant to a world that would rather have them forgotten.

Discussion room.

Discussion room.





The greenery that the school's campus is set in.

The greenery that the school’s campus is set in.

What I am told are mounds that hide underground bunkers that were used for storage.

On the grounds: what I am told are mounds that hide underground bunkers that were used for storage.

The probable origins of the road’s name would be the Russell’s Infantry’s 95th Battalion, who were stationed at Alexandra Barracks from 1905 to 1908. The British Indian Army unit traced its origins to one of two Russell Brigade regiments raised in 1813 by Sir Henry Russell – the British Resident of Hyderabad for the Nizam of Hyderabad’s Army.   Besides Hyderabad Road, a Russells Road can also be found in the area – all of which was once part of Alexandra Barracks.

Lost in Space

16 10 2012

The Bencoolen Street that I am familiar with is the one that I became acquainted with over the many trips on the bus to school at the end of the 1970s. The street today bears little resemblance to that street I knew. Much has since changed with many modern façades replacing the rows of what primarily were rather old pre-war shophouses that had populated much of the area around the street.

Lost in Space – the ceiling of the fire escape of The Villa at 81 Bencoolen Street. A magical new world set in an old.

Even if not for the ongoing work on the Downtown Line MRT which has closed the section of the street from Middle Road to Bras Basah Road, there seems little that is left to identify the street with the one I had been familiar with, including that Thai restaurant that could not be missed. A figurine on the face of its second level – that of a traditional Thai dancer, made it an instantly recognisable landmark in the area. That along with other landmarks including the old Bengkali Mosque on the other side; the shophouses where the Camera Hospital and K Ratna Sports were; and the Soon Chong Leong Building, have long since made way for the new.

Reflections of the old in the new.

Among the few that did survive, some, such as the former Asia Radio Building now reincarnated as a budget hotel (which has achieved notoriety with its association with a scandal of sorts that has recently been played out in the Courts), bear little resemblance to their former selves. One survivor is one that is immediately recognisable – a large two storey house closed to the junction of Bencoolen Street with Middle Road, No. 81 Bencoolen Street.

A 1982 photo of 81 Bencoolen Street – then the Kian Hua Hotel. From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009.

The new world that is today’s 81 Bencoolen Street.

It was a house which rather intrigued me. What did look like a very spacious two storey house, it was certainly one that must have seen better days. I imagined it to once have been the home of a rich merchant. Many similar houses in the area had been, including the ones found at nearby Waterloo Street which runs parallel to Bencoolen Street. Like a similar house next to the former Middle Road Church, the house was one which a hotel had occupied, the Kian Hua Hotel. On the hotel, I have found little information. Other than several newspaper advertisements in the National Library’s wonderful archives of newspapers that told me only that told me that the hotel had occupied the building at least as far back as 1953, the isn’t much on it except of an apparent suicide – a 26 year old ex-journalist had been found hanging from a ceiling fan in one of the hotel’s rooms one morning in early 1988, with a nylon rope around her neck.

A much grander looking 81 Bencoolen Street today – restored perhaps to its original glory.

The house is now in what has to be its fourth incarnation, having for a while after the hotel’s closure, masqueraded as the gaily decorated Cleopatra Karaoke Lounge. A lot more sober looking today, it does seem to have its former glory I imagined it to have been in, restored, having as part of a S$50 million makeover which involved extensive work on the cluster of old buildings at the corner of Prinsep Link and Bencoolen Street it is a part of to, to restore it as well as transform the house and the adjacent buildings – a more modern commercial building at No. 77, and two units of conservation shophouses at No. 71 and No. 73, into what is today the SPACE Asia Hub, a huge 40,000 sq. foot gallery for premium furniture.

The building at No. 81, as well as two sets of buildings: two storey conservation shophouses at Nos. 71 and 73; and also a modern building at No. 77 has been transformed into the 40,000 sq. ft. Space Asia Hub.

The work, undertaken by local architectural firm WOHA Architects Pte Ltd, is one that has won it an award in the 2012 edition of the URA Architectural Heritage Awards. It was because of this that I had a chance to join a very informative guided tour that was organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as part of a series of tours which also include guided tours of the other 2012 Architectural Heritage Awards winners.

A glass cube – the Glass Block has been created around the existing frame of No. 77 which is next to No. 81 and serves as the focal point of the spacious showroom.

While the tour did not provide me with the information I had hoped to obtain on the original owner or when the house at 81 Bencoolen Street was built, it did give me a chance to take a look at the interiors of the beautifully restored heritage buildings: No. 81 which is now called ‘The Villa’; and Nos. 71 and 73, the ‘Heritage Houses’, as well as the transformation of No. 77 into what is called the ‘Glass Block’ – the focal point of the gallery.

Inside the Glass Block – the existing frame can be seen with floors and walls removed to create a sense of space.

The tour started off at the Glass Block, laid bare by the replacement of its exterior walls to create a beautiful space around its existing frame of concrete columns and beams. What was really interesting was the spaces and access routes that were created, which included a joyous courtyard at the rear with a glass ceiling and a glorious wall of green, an open terrace on its third level and the addition of a wide staircase and a glass encased lift shaft. What was nice to see was in the midst of all the glass, there is the warmth of the colour of bricks to be found – the original bricks of the wall that separates the Heritage Houses from the adjoining Glass Block.

The exposed bricks of the original wall separating No. 77 from No. 73.

The vertical garden at the glass topped courtyard of the Glass Block.

The reverse view of the courtyard.

The open terrace of the Glass Block.

The guide showing the interior of no. 77 prior to the work done on it.

The staircase added into No. 77.

What is notable on the work done on the Heritage Houses is the replacement of a concrete column and beam structure that held its roof up, with two sets of steel trusses which carry the weight of the roof’s now wooden structure over to the walls strengthened for the purpose. This not only frees the spaces below from the previous mess of supporting columns below, but also enables the creation of two very interesting and very usable spaces between each set of trusses, which were referred to as ‘hanging attics’.

The new timber roof supporting structure of the Heritage House at Nos. 71 and 73.

A view through one of the new trusses which free the space below of the numerous columns that had previously been used to support the roof.

One of the hanging attic created between a set of the new steel trusses.

The freed up space below the steel trusses.

The Villa was the last of the three buildings we visited, and the one that interested me the most. Now an exclusive showroom, access to which is only by appointment, the visit provided the opportunity not just to step inside the showroom, but also to have a view of its restored interior. There were a few details on the restoration that were of note, including that of the house’s roof in which the attic was removed to allow the newly installed timber trusses and original masonry structures to be seen. Another design feature of note is one that was added – that of a hollow column of rusted steel – à la Richard Serra I suppose, only thinner guage and supported by internal steel angles, which serves as a fire escape required by the building code. This was added to a glass extension to The Villa which also serves to connect it with the Glass Block next door. More information on the awards and on SPACE Asia Hub, which opened in November 2011, can be found at the SPACE website and also at the URA 2012 Architectural Heritage Awards website.

The upper level of The Villa.

Sliding shades are used for the upper level windows.

The lower level of The Villa.

The fire escape is built into a hollow rusted steel column.

The rusted steel column as seen from the outside.