The ghosts on Forbidden Hill

27 11 2015

Fort Canning Hill, the scene of many a schoolboy adventure, is a place I constantly find myself drawn to. The attraction of the hill, where mortals once feared to tread in its days as Bukit Larangan – the Forbidden Hill, is perhaps the air of mystery that surrounds it. Its slopes were believed to be the abode of the kings of ancient Singapura, in life and in death. Even with the interventions of the ever changing world, it still is where the ghosts of a Singapore well forgotten, are ever present.

Not a typical ghost seen at Fort Canning Green.

Not a typical ghost seen at Fort Canning Green.

The area of the forbidden hill (what Bukit Larangan, its name in Malay, translates into) that I find the greatest fascination for is its north-eastern slope. Here, the opportunities for an encounter with a ghost of the past, are plenty. The slope is where a mysterious a tomb is found, purportedly that of the last of the kings of old Singapura, Iskandar Shah.

The Keramat, which some believe to be the tomb of the last king of Singapura, Iskandar Shah.

The Keramat, which some believe to be the tomb of the last king of Singapura, Iskandar Shah.

This tomb, venerated as a keramat, gained the attention of John Crawfurd on his first visit to the hill, just three years after the East India Company’s settlement was established. Crawfurd, who was later to be appointed Singapore’s second Resident, made a note of his walk around the hill in his diary. The interest he had on the hill was motivated perhaps by the observation that the “only remains of antiquity at Singapore, besides the (Singapore) stone, are contained on the hill”.

On the eastern slopes of Fort Canning Hill.

On the eastern slopes of Fort Canning Hill.

Crawfurd describes the ruins that were observed on “a greater part of the west and northern side of the hill”. Going further , he takes note of “another terrace, on the north declivity of the hill … said to have been the burying place of of Iskandar Shah“, a claim he suggested was apocryphal for good reason.  It should be noted that Crawfurd was mistaken in his assumption that the long axis of the hill ran east-west instead of north-northwest to south-southeast and he would have been referring to the eastern slope of the hill in relation to the location of the tomb.

An artist’s impression of Parameswara, thought to also be Iskandar Shah (source: Wikipedia).

The tomb seemed already a place of veneration even then. Crawfurd also takes note of the “rude structure” raised over the tomb, to which “since the formation of the new Settlement … Mohammedans, Hindoos, and Chinese equally resort to do homage”.  The tomb has certainly added much to the mystery and superstition that has surrounded the hill over the intervening years. One rumour has it that unexplained events that led to occupying Japanese troops abandoning the British Military built barrack blocks on the hill during the war, had be due to the intervention of the tomb’s occupant.

The barrack block at Cox Terrace with the cemetery in the foreground (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

The barrack block at Cox Terrace with the old Christian cemetery in the foreground (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

One of these barrack blocks, lies just northwest of the tomb at Cox Terrace. A squash centre in my schooldays and and arts centre after, it now masquerades as the fancy sounding Singapore Pinacothèque de Paris, a private art museum. The museum overlooks what is today a most wonderful of space we know as Fort Canning Green. It comes to life occasionally when events such as theatre and musical performances under the stars, are held on it. And when it is kept clear,  it is a place, as it was in the days of my youth, where an escape could be found in.

Fort Canning Green today, well manicured, but still where many ghosts of the past are to be found.

Fort Canning Green today, well manicured, but still where many ghosts of the past are to be found.

A stage set for the spirits of a Shakespearean play, The Tempest, at Fort Canning Green.

A stage set for the spirits of a Shakespearean play, The Tempest, at Fort Canning Green.

There is much on and surrounding the green that will remind us of its previous use. A brick wall that encompasses most of the grounds around much of its perimeter give very clear hints of its days as an old Christian cemetery, as do the two cross adorned Gothic style gates intended as entry points. Information on the cemetery, the second Christian cemetery to be used in Singapore, is mostly contained in a 1912 register compiled by H. A. Stallwood. The register was published in the Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (JSBRAS) and was an attempt to create on as no register of burials for the cemetery could then be found.

A general view of the cemetery in the 1912 JSBRAS paper.

A general view of the cemetery in the included with the 1912 register.

The south east corner of the cemetery in 1921 (The cemetery seen in 1912 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

The south east corner of the cemetery in 1921 (The cemetery seen in 1912 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

We see from the register that the cemetery was divided down its east-west axis by a wall. The cemetery’s Anglican section was located south of this division, with the northern half allocated to the burials of other Christian denominations. The background to the cemetery is also given:

The Cemetery stands on the slope of Fort Canning Hill, and is approached from the South by Fort Canning Road, through a gateway designed partly in the Gothic style of Architecture. It was opened in 1822 to take the place of the first Christian Cemetery which was situated close to where the flag-staff at Fort Canning now stands. It was closed when the Cemetery in Bukit Timah Road was opened in 1865.

One of the two gothic gates that serve as the entrances to the old Christian cemetery at Fort Canning (source: JSBRAS paper). The gates are still standing.

One of the two gothic gates that serve as the entrances to the old Christian cemetery at Fort Canning – also from the 1912 register. The gates are still standing.

Possibly one of the last burials to have taken place, that of young Ada Sutcliffe (year of death incorrectly recorded in the JSBRAS paper as 1865).

Possibly one of the last burials to have taken place, that of young Ada Sutcliffe (year of death incorrectly recorded in the 1912 Regsiter as 1865).

Close-up of a tomb, possibly taken in the late 1940s by Richard Stone (online: http://www.stone-family.info/stone-richard-photos.html).

Close-up of a tomb, possibly taken in the late 1940s by Richard Stone (online: http://www.stone-family.info/stone-richard-photos.html).

The register makes mention of the attraction of the grounds to “those who appreciate quiet, contemplative surroundings“, something that as mentioned above, is the case even today. We are also reminded of the cemetery’s historical value, what perhaps was the main motivation for Stallwood’s effort:

To those who feel an interest in Singapore and its history, few places in the Settlement offer so much of interest.  Many old residents lie buried here, and many tombstones testify to the number of lives sacrificed by members of the Civil Service, who were called to rest at a very early age, whilst taking their share in the administration of this Settlement, of which we are all so proud. The United Services also yield their quota of names, unfortunately, some well-known, if not illustrious, in the annals of their country.

Fort Canning Green is still an attraction for those who appreciate quiet, contemplative surroundings.

Fort Canning Green is still an attraction for those who appreciate quiet, contemplative surroundings.

The layout of the cemetery from the 1912 Register.

The layout of the cemetery from the 1912 Register.

The oldest tomb identified by Stallwood, one from 1821, belongs to a John C. Collingwood of the ship “Susan”. Its presence in the cemetery, which was only opened in 1822, was attributed to it having been relocated from the original cemetery. The last burial was however incorrectly identified as being that of two year old Marie Dominica Scott in 1868. A check against the register’s listing of graves has the child’s death occurring instead in 1858. The 1858 death was also confirmed by the brother of the deceased in a letter published in the Straits Times on 17 July 1912, written to point the error out.

A photograph from the JSBRAS paper. The memorial to the men of HMS Niger mentioned in the paper, is in the centre of the picture.

A photograph from the 1912 Register. A memorial to the men of HMS Niger that is also mentioned in the paper, is in the centre of the picture.

The cemetery seen in 1912 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

The cemetery seen in 1912 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Within the walls, two noticeable structures that belonged to the cemetery remain. Both are in the southwest corner. The larger of the two, said to have been the largest in the former cemetery, is dedicated to the memory of James Brooke Napier, the infant son of William Napier. It was after William, a lawyer and the founder of the Singapore Free Press, that Napier Road was named.

A photograph of the memorial to James Brooke Napier from the JSBRAS paper.

A photograph of the memorial to James Brooke Napier from the 1912 Register.

The Napier Memorial and a former barrack block turned art museum at the top of Fort Canning Green.

The Napier Memorial and a former barrack block turned art museum at the top of Fort Canning Green.

William Napier was for a short while the Lieutenant-Governor of Labuan. He serve under Governor James Brooke, who is better known to us as the first of the white Rajahs of Sarawak. It was after Brooke that the infant was named. James Brooke Napier died at sea on 17 February 1848 at the age of 5 months and 24 days. His mother was Maria Frances Napier was the widow of the illustrious George D. Coleman, who Napier married not long after Coleman’s death in October 1844.

The memorial today.

The memorial today.

George Coleman, Singapore’s first public works architect, is best known to us as the man behind the beautiful Armenian Church and for lending his name to the street on which he had his house and to a bridge over the Singapore river. The cemetery is also one connected with Coleman in more than one way with the second set of the large structures mentioned, the two cupolas were thought to have been designed by him. Located just down the slope from the Napier memorial, the cupolas seem to have been of ornamental value and intended – it is suggested – to provide shelter for rest and for contemplation.

The southwest area of the cemetery with the cuploas clearly visible. Possibly taken in the late 1940s it is from a wonderful online collection of photographs taken in Singapore from 1948 to the mid-1950s by Richard Stone (online: http://www.stone-family.info/stone-richard-photos.html).

The southwest area of the cemetery with the cupolas and the memorial to James Brooke Napier visible. Possibly taken in the late 1940s, it is from a wonderful online collection of photographs taken in Singapore from 1948 to the mid-1950s by Richard Stone (online: http://www.stone-family.info/stone-richard-photos.html).

The cupolas today.

The cupolas today.

Coleman was also laid to rest in the cemetery. An Irishman, he was believed to have been a member of the Church of Ireland. A mausoleum to Coleman, who died in 1844, was located at the non-Anglican section, in the cemetery’s northwest corner. All that remains of that is its memorial tablet, which can be found embedded in the western wall of Fort Canning Green, not far from where his mausoleum was located.

Coleman's cupolas with a view towards the northern Gothic gate.

Coleman’s cupolas with a view towards the northern Gothic gate.

The tablet belonging to the grave of George D. Coleman on the western wall - just below Fort Canning Centre.

The tablet belonging to the tomb of George D. Coleman on the western wall – just below Fort Canning Centre.

George D. Coleman's tomb in the northwest corner seen in 1956. The tomb was one of about 120 graves retained when the cemetery was converted into a 'Garden of Memory' in 1954 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

George D. Coleman’s tomb in the northwest corner seen in 1956. The tomb was one of about 120 graves retained when the cemetery was converted into a ‘Garden of Memory’ in 1954 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Coleman’s tomb was one of those that stood until the early 1970s. It was one of some 120 tombs identified for preservation by the Committee for the Preservation of Historic Sites when a decision was taken in the 1950s to turn the cemetery into a “garden of memory” in the early 1950s. The decision, prompted by the state of neglect and ruin the historic site was in, resulted in the exhumation of more than four hundred graves. An effort was also made to preserve the memory of those buried in the exhumed graves by embedding the headstones and memorial tablets of the removed graves into the walls of the cemetery. An extension to the existing wall had also to be constructed at then open eastern perimeter to permit this and the work was completed in 1954.

The garden, still with a scattering of graves, in 1974 ( (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

The garden, still with a scattering of graves, in 1974 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Another view of the former cemetery in 1974 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Another view of the former cemetery in 1974 (photo online at http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Gravestones embedded into the walls.

Gravestones embedded into the walls.

The writing on the walls now include grave stones from a mid-1970s exercise that saw all remaining graves exhumed and yields a rather interesting mix of stories from the former graves. In it we see many who came from far and wide bringing a diversity to the new settlement. We also see many names of notable personalities from the settlement’s earliest days. Examples of both include names such as Aristake Sarkies, who was Singapore’s first Armenian merchant, and also Jose D’Almeida, who was to be knighted by the Queen of Portugal and who was to become the first Portuguese Consul General to the Straits Settlements. D’Almeida Street is named after him.

The memorial tablets embedded in the walls tell us of many who came from far and wide in the early decades of British Singapore.

The memorial tablets embedded in the walls tell us of many who came from far and wide in the early decades of British Singapore.

A tablet belonging to the grave of Aristake Sarkies.

A tablet belonging to the grave of Aristake Sarkies.

From the grave of Charles Spottiswoode, a merchant after whom Spottiswoode Park is named.

From the grave of Charles Spottiswoode, a merchant after whom Spottiswoode Park is named.

There are also the stories of those who are less recognisable. One name that I could not help but notice on the walls is that of Emily Louisa Ottoson. Ottoson is a name that I am familiar with as that of Singapore’s first Japanese resident, John Matthew, also known as Otokichi Yamamoto. Behind the name is a fascinating tale that begins with Otokichi’s unitended departure from the country of his birth (a previous post on the Japanese Cemetery touches on the story). Emily Louisa it turns out, was John Matthew’s young daughter. She died in November 1852, a few months short of her fifth birthday.

The memorial tablet for Emily Louisa Ottoson, the four year old daughter of John Matthew Ottoson a.k.a. Otokichi. A resident of Japanese origin, Otokichi had a very eventful life out of Japan that started with him being lost at sea fro 14 months (see: https://thelongnwindingroad.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/voices-from-a-forgotten-past/).

The memorial tablet for Emily Louisa Ottoson, the four year old daughter of John Matthew Ottoson a.k.a. Otokichi. A resident of Japanese origin, Otokichi had a very eventful life out of Japan that started with him being lost at sea for 14 months (see: Voices from a Forgotten Past).

The young ages of many who were interred in the cemetery is also hard not to notice. Many names in the walls are those of children and infants. There are also many who passed on in their prime, which the 1912 register touches on, saying: “many tombstones testify to the number of lives sacrificed by members of the Civil Service, who were called to rest at a very early age, whilst taking their share in the administration of this Settlement, of which we are all so proud“.

A tablet from the grave of Edward Presgrave, a civil servant who passed away at the age of 35.

A tablet from the grave of Edward Presgrave, a civil servant who passed away at the age of 35.

One in this category was an Edward Presgrave. A contemporary of John Crawfurd, Presgrave served as the Registrar of Imports and Exports and concurrently as the Deputy Resident of Singapore. He reportedly died from a sudden attack of paralysis in 1830. On the basis of the register, he shared a vault with the Rev. Robert Burn. The Reverend, who died in 1833, was the first Anglican Resident Chaplain in Singapore and his appointment in 1826 is significant from the perspective that it marks the founding of the Anglican Church in Singapore.

A tablet belonging to Rev. Robert Burn, Chaplain of the Settlement, who apparently shared the same vault as Edward Presgrave in the Anglican section at the top of the slope.

A tablet belonging to Rev. Robert Burn, Chaplain of the Settlement, who apparently shared the same vault as Edward Presgrave in the Anglican section at the top of the slope.

There are many more stories that are to be found in the walls. Estimates of the number buried in the cemetery vary greatly. The 1912 register has list of over 550 names, while a Straits Times report in September 1952 has it as more than 700. The vast majority of those buried would have been of those of European descent. There are however a substantial number of Chinese, early converts to Christianity, who were also buried there, evident from the embedded grave stones with Chinese inscriptions. From these we can also see that the tradition was maintained in the manner the graves were inscribed, even with the embrace of a non-traditional faith.

A tablet in Chinese.

A Chinese head stone.

An example of an early Chinese Christian grave in which the Chinese tradition is maintained found another old cemetery in Singapore.

An example of an early Chinese Christian grave in which the Chinese tradition is maintained found another old cemetery in Singapore.

Mixed into the reminders of the old (Christian Cemetery), there are also the reminders of the new (Christian Cemetery). The “New Cemetery” or the Bukit Timah Christian Cemetery, replaced the Fort Canning cemetery as a Christian burial site and it was from the new cemetery that the cluster of gravestones seen in the northeast corner of the grounds had been moved from. The move was made when the graves in the new cemetery, located at what is today Kampong Java Park, were exhumed in 1970. The twelve graves stones that were moved were ones deemed to be of historical value by the then sub-committee on the Preservation of Buildings and Sites of Architectural and Historical Interest.

Gravestones moved from the 'New Cemetery' at the northeastern corner of Fort Canning Green.

Gravestones moved from the ‘New Cemetery’ at the northeastern corner of Fort Canning Green.

The exhumation of the remaining graves, undertaken in the mid 1970s, was part of an exercise to turn turn the hill into a huge park and green lung in the city. Named Central Park, it extended the reach of a previous public park, King George V Park on the west side of the hill, across to the east of the hill and incorporated parts of which had previously been used by the military, as well as the former cemetery site. Plans then included a roller skating rink, which was built, and also a cascading founding. The latter would have occupied the grounds of the cemetery and was fortunately not built, leaving us with a space in which the ghosts of the past are not forgotten.

King George V Park.

King George V Park.

A southward view through the James Brooke Napier memorial.

A southward view through the James Brooke Napier memorial.

JeromeLim-7938

 

 

 





The glow in the park

12 05 2015

The quiet green surroundings of Fort Canning Hill provides the setting for the Pinacothèque de Paris’ home away from home, in a building whose best features the museum seems to have brought out, especially with its nighttime illuminations. The rather majestic looking building, looking resplendent after a huge makeover, dates back to 1926, beginning its life as a barracks block of the Malaya Command Headquarters. The Malaya Command HQ occupied a large part of the grounds of a mid-18oos British fortification, of which part of the wall and a gate, the Fort Gate, remains. Named after Lord Canning, the Governor-General and Viceroy of British India at that time, the fort was also what gave the hill its modern name.

The new glow at the formerly very dark cemetery at Fort Canning.

The new glow at the formerly very dark cemetery at Fort Canning.

I first got to know the three storey building that is now the Pinacothèque in my days of youthful adventure when the hill was a draw for as much for its seclusion of the hill, as it was for its mystery. Known also as Bukit Larangan, the Forbidden Hill, it was so named as it was the abode of the ancient kings both in life and in the afterlife. The dark and uncertain slopes, desecrated by the ornaments of the new order the most noticeable of which were the reminders of Singapore’s first Christian burial ground, seemed more forbidding  then than forbidden.

Fort Canning Centre at the start of its transformation into the Pinacotheque de Paris.

Fort Canning Centre at the start of its transformation into the Pinacotheque de Paris.

The monuments on the hill to the garrison no one imagined could be defeated, were less forbidding. In former barracks block, then converted into the “world’s largest squash centre”, Singapore Squash Centre, one was never without company. Established in 1977 when the game of squash rackets was at the peak of its popularity in Singapore, the centre boasted of 25 courts and as a facility for the game, was well used up until the 1980s. Unfortunately, the good times were to be brought to an end at the end of the 1980s. Plans were announced in 1985 to revamp Fort Canning Hill into a focal point for cultural and recreational activities in the city, with the barracks block serving as its hub. Following the expiration of the centre’s lease for the building in 1987, the building was renovated and unveiled as the Fort Canning Centre in 1991 into which arts related tenants such dance studios and theatre groups moved.

The building in the 1980s (National Archives of Singapore).

Overlooking Fort Canning Green, the site of the former Christian cemetery, the Pinacothèque de Paris, which opens its doors on 30 May 2015, adds not just a stunning backdrop to the now open-air concert venue, but also provides a good reason to head up a hill on whose slopes much of our early history was written.





The skateboard ban of 1978

22 09 2013

Passing by Somerset Skate Park and watching a skateboarder in action, I was reminded of a time when skateboards first made an appearance in Singapore some three and a half decades or so in early 1976. Then, there were no skate parks catering to skateboarders to speak of and many would take to footpaths and even the streets. This was until a ban was imposed on skateboarding in public places including parks and void decks in May 1978 when I was in Secondary 2 – with the police warning that they would not hesitate to prosecute anyone caught as skateboarding was thought to be not just a nuisance, but also a dangerous activity. With a rink in Sentosa which had been popular with skateboarders (it was also possible to rent skateboards there) deciding to also close their doors to skateboarders not long after that, many skateboarders had to turn to secluded spots. One such spot was right at the top of Fort Canning Hill – there was actually a underused roller skating rink built in the clearing by Fort Gate which did become quite popular with skateboarders.

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Over time, skateboarding did start to gain acceptance as a pursuit with several community centres offering courses, with a even a display of it during Chingay in 1989. There are today several skate parks to skateboard in including the one at Somerset which was opened in 2006.





The road immediately after marriage

14 06 2013

One reason why it may not be a very good idea to get married at the Registry of Marriages at Fort Canning Hill in Singapore … the path we take goes immediately downhill and the signs at the start of the journey certainly do not look very promising …

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Patterns of a once familiar world

12 10 2012

The stretch of River Valley Road that starts at its junction with Tank Road and leads you to that grand edifice that is the MICA Building at its junction with Hill Street is one that I am familiar with through many encounters I have had with it in my younger days. It is one that takes a southeast path and runs along the foot of the southern slope of the mysterious Forbidden Hill where three well-known landmarks did once stand.

A doorway into a once familiar world at one end of the stretch of River Valley Road that I was once familiar with.

Once familiar window grilles.

It however was an air of emptiness that greeted me as I took a stroll along that path, seeking that world which I was once familiar with in what now seems an unfamiliar place. Two of the landmarks: one, meant as a symbol of Singapore’s coming of age in attaining self-government, designed by the people for the people, the National Theatre, was a well loved one; the other, the Van Kleef Aquarium, was a source of fascination especially for the young ones; have since departed, with not so much as a trace left. And only fragments of the third, the least significant of the three, the River Valley Swimming Complex, are now left behind – the only reminders of a time we seem to want to forget preserved in the former complex’s entrance, its exit turnstile, and a few auxiliary buildings. Traces of its two pools vanished when they were filled up not so long ago.

Archways of the old that lead to the new.

The new world that has taken over from the old.

It is at the two ends of this stretch where there is a greater semblance of the once familiar world. At Tank Road, there stands a house that has retained much of the old charms with which it had been provided; charms with its modern neighbours seem to have lost their love for. And, at the other, there is the magnificent MICA Building, the former Hill Street Police Station, which once was described as the ‘Police Skyscraper’ being the largest built structure in all Malaya.

Grilles at the former entrance of the River Valley Swimming Complex.

The exit turnstile of the former River Valley Swimming Complex.

A brick wall that has been painted over at the former entrance of the River Valley Swimming Complex.

The pattern of columns of the former Hill Street Police Station … it was not a sign warning of danger that we once would have seen, but one overhead which had the words ‘Senior Officers’ Mess’ further along the row of columns.





An old world hidden on Forbidden Hill

14 05 2012

Hidden on a terrace behind the blood and bandages of the Central Fire Station is a delightful old bungalow set amid the luscious greenery of a hill that was once an abode of the Kings. From the world that lies below, it is hard to imagine the world that does exist on the terrace – the entrance to the grounds on which it is set in is well hidden, nestled in between the mystery of the Masonic Hall and a building that I had once remembered as housing the Methodist Book Room, now the Singapore Philatelic Museum.

The entrance to the Flutes at the Fort housed in a century old colonial bungalow is hidden between the mysterious Masonic Hall and the Singapore Philatelic Museum.

A pathway takes one along the back of the Central Fire Station up to a terrace on which the delightful black and white century old bungalow sits.

I found myself heading up to the bungalow one afternoon, headed for an event held to honour the founder of Azimuth, Alvin Lye as The Glenlivet Pioneer of the Year. Stepping through the hidden entrance way, a sign reveals that it is to the Flutes at the Fort that I was heading to, up through a shady part that ran along the back fence of the Central Fire Station, up to a world a large part of I am familiar with from my many explorations in the area during my days in school. To the bungalow that stood on a terrace above the pathway, I had not previously ventured to, and it was as much to satisfy my curiosity for what is a conserved black and white bungalow – the only one now on the hill that was in the days of the Kings of Singapore known as “Forbidden Hill“, as well as to attend the event itself, that I found myself making my way up to the terrace.

A view from the pathway.

The bungalow and an auxiliary building.

The bungalow elevated on stilts and with a generous amount of openings to keep it cool and airy – as is common in many similar houses built to house senior officers of the Colonial administration which this one apparently also built as, was built at the turn of the last century during the same period that the Central Fire Station itself was. It served as the quarters of the Superintendent of the Singapore Fire Brigade convenient in its location at the back of what had been the first and main fire station it overlooks. Although available information identifies the bungalow as being one built in 1908, it does appear that the construction took place after the start of construction of the Central Fire Station. It was built at a cost of $7,800 with the tender for its construction “in accordance to plans and specifications” drawn up by the Municipal Engineer that was awarded to the same contractor that built the Central Fire Station, a Chia Tien Siew, in May 1909.

The bungalow sits on a terrace over the Central Fire Station.

Elevated on stilts, the bungalow features a generous amount of openings that is typical of colonial residences.

The very first occupant of bungalow when it was completed was perhaps fittingly the then Superintendent of the Fire Brigade, Montague William Pett, the first professionally trained Superintendent of the Fire Brigade, who arrived from England in 1905 and served as the Superintendent up until 1912. In his time here, Pett had seen to the construction of the fire station, seen to the modernisation of the fire brigade’s equipment and transformed the fire brigade into a respected and effective force.

The stairway up to the bungalow.

A view from the verandah.

The lovely setting in which the very spacious and airy bungalow off what is Lewin Terrace that served as the residence of Pett and the colonial Superintendents of the Fire Brigade that followed has been given conservation status since November 2005 makes it an ideal place to hide a restaurant, Flutes at the Fort, away that in the words of the restaurant itself, is “a vineyard inspired experience (that) affords a time away from the noise of the city and modern distractions”. On the basis of what I discovered, it certainly is a place that takes one far away from the noise of the city, and to a time

The verandah.

The bungalow is now used by a restaurant Flutes at the Fort.





Farewell to the last of a trio

13 05 2010

It was with a tinge of sadness that I realised that the last of a trio of landmarks that stood at the bottom of the southern slope of Fort Canning Hill has gone the way of two of its former companions. We have already lost two icons that once stood there, the National Theatre and Van Kleef Aquarium which remain only in the memories of those that knew them. The third, the River Valley Swimming Pool, not so much an icon, but a feature nonetheless at the foot of Singapore’s Forbidden Hill has somehow remained intact all these years after its closure in 2003, until recently. I had mentioned in a post on what I referred to as the far side of the hill, that the swimming pool, that once served as the pool where as a schoolboy going to Saint Joseph’s Institution not so far away, I had gone for swimming lessons that were conducted for our Physical Education (P.E.), was awaiting its end, hoping vainly that it would not. Alas, its end has come, and what remains where the pool had been, is now levelled with red earth that the two excavators which proudly sit atop it must have had a hand in filling.

The disused River Valley Swimming Pool seen from Fort Canning Hill in 2009 .

The entrance and exit of River Valley Swimming Pool seen early this year which is still largely intact.

The swimming pool, as I had previously posted, was built in the late 1950s by the Singapore City Council. Designed by a British architect, M. E. Crocker, it opened in 1959. Little did I know it when I was a schoolboy, the complex was a haunt of men of the alternative orientation. The swimming pool does hold many memories for my schoolmates and me. One fondly remembers frequenting the pool not because of the men, but to watch the Saint Nicholas Girls’ School swimming team train there.  The complex closed in 2003 and stood unused until the pools were filled up recently. At least, not all is lost, it does appear that the buildings that were part of the complex, are being refurbished. It is sad though to see that the pool is gone.

The life guard post of the disused swimming complex as seen through the entrance, that was still intact earlier this year.

A close up of the life guard post that is now gone.

The pools have now disappeared, levelled with the filling of red earth.

Two excavators stand proudly over the buried pools.





The far side of the hill

25 02 2010

The far side of Fort Canning Hill, as far as the schoolboys from SJI were concerned, was the area where the southern and western slopes of the hill were. It was an area that we would usually pass through on our jogs around the hill during Physical Education lessons (P.E.) – or on our way to River Valley Swimming Pool for the occasional swimming practice for our P.E. This was also how we could get across from school to watch the annual Thaipusam procession, which would make its way along Tank Road to its destination at the Sri Thandayuthapani Temple (also known as the Chettiar Temple).

The Sri Thandayuthapani Temple as seen from the foot of the western slope of Fort Canning Hill. Also known as the Chettiar Temple, the temple serves as the end point of the annual Thaipusam procession in Singapore.

The western slope which faces Clemenceau Avenue and Tank Road was an area which we would usually try to avoid – several of us had “close encounters” with the boys from the school facing the slope on Tank Road, Tuan Mong High School, which was housed in the distinctive Teochew Building. The Teochew Building built in the early 1960s on the site of the former Tuan Mong High School building, besides housing the school, also housed the Teochew clan associations: Ngee Ann Kongsi and the Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan, as well as the Ngee Ann College, the predecessor to Ngee Ann Polytechnic, when it was established in 1963, for a while until 1968.

The Teochew Building housed Tuan Mong High School, Ngee Ann Kongsi and the Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan, as well as the Ngee Ann College.

Tank road is also home to the Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart, built in the French Gothic style, which was completed in 1910. The church built by the French Catholic missionaries for the Cantonese and Hakka community, was designed by a Rev. Fr. Lambert who was apparently a well-known architect. Interestingly, the site of the church is also close to Singapore’s first railway station: the terminal station of the first railway line running from Kranji to Tank Road built in 1903. The station was demolished around 1939 when the line was dismantled. Drawn perhaps by the concise sermon and perhaps due to the proximity of the newly opened Japanese departmental store, Yaohan, at Plaza Singapura (which opened in 1974), my parents were fond of bringing us for mass at the church on Saturday evenings. We did this for a few years until 1977/78, and would visit Plaza Singapura for dinner and for a walk around the supermarket after mass.

Church of the Sacred Heart along Tank Road.

The Church of the Sacred Heart painted brown in 1976.

Another view of Tank Road in front of the Church of the Sacred Heart in 1976. The shophouse on the left has since disappeared - the Oxley flyover and the Haw Par Glass Tower can be seen in the background.

The southern slope of Fort Canning Hill runs along River Valley Road. This was where four landmarks were located: the National Theatre, Van Kleef Aquarium, River Valley Swimming Pool and the Hill Street Police Station at the end, where River Valley Road meets up with Hill Street. Of these, possibly the two most loved ones, the National Theatre and the Van Kleef Aquarium have since disappeared, and the River Valley Swimming Pool sits disused, quietly awaiting its end.

An aerial view of the southern slope of Fort Canning Hill along River Valley Road in the 1960s on an old postcard.

The area would have been dominated by the National Theatre standing prominently at the foot of the hill where Clemenceau Avenue and River Valley Road met. This served as a proud symbol of self-reliance, being designed by a Singapore architect, Alfred Wong in a design competition. The construction of the 3420 seat open air theatre was jointly funded by the Singapore government and the public and the theatre was opened in 1964.

National Theatre located at the foot of Fort Canning Hill at the corner of Clemenceau Avenue and River Valley Road. The theatre was demolished in 1986 after it was found to be structurally unsound.

The theatre building was notable for a few features, including a 150 tonne cantilevered steel roof reaching to the slopes of Fort Canning. The façade featured a five pointed diamond shaped patterns, each of which represented one of the five stars on the Singapore flag. An outdoor fountain stood in front yard of the building, representing the crescent moon on the Singapore flag. The theatre had to be unceremoniously demolished in 1986 after it was found to be structurally unsound.

Another view of the National Theatre as seen on the cover of a photo album.

A reminder now stands at the site of the former National icon.

The area where the National Theatre once dominated the landscape.

Next to the theatre was one of my favourite places in the 1960s, the Van Kleef Aquarium. The Van Kleef Aquarium was built in the 1950s with funds bequeathed by a Karl Willem Benjamin van Kleef, a successful Dutch businessman who had settled in Singapore, who passed away in 1930 after returning to the Netherlands in 1913, hence the name of the aquarium. When the aquarium opened in 1955, it was one of the most impressive aquariums in the world. The building designed by the local municipal architects, was in itself, an impressive feat of engineering. It featured two underground reservoirs from which water could be pumped to the tanks housing the exhibits by a system of pumps. This was where I had my first glance of beautifully coloured marine fish, including the Lion Fish which was my favourite. While increasing interest in the first 25 years saw visitor numbers to the aquarium peak at 430,000 visitors in the 1979, interest waned in the 1980s, with visitor numbers falling to some 248,000 visitors in 1985, as newer attractions such as the zoo and the bird park became more fashionable. With the opening of Underwater World in Sentosa in 1991, a decision was made to close the aquarium. It finally closed its doors in 1996, and the building was demolished in 1998.

Van Kleef Aquarium seen on an old postcard.

Evidence of the staircase from Fort Canning Hill beside the former Van Kleef Aquarium.

A path along River Valley Road that led up to the Van Kleef Aquarium now leads to a grassy slope.

Next to the Van Kleef Aquarium, the River Valley Swimming Complex was built in the late 1950s by the Singapore City Council. It was designed by a British architect, M. E. Crocker and was opened in 1959. The Olympic sized pool was one of the pools we used as schoolboys for P.E. alternating with the one at the then SAF NCO club in Beach Road. Little did we know it then, but the complex was a haunt of men of an alternative orientation. The complex was closed in 2003.

The entrance area of the River Valley Swimming Complex.

The life guard post of the disused swimming complex as seen through the entrance.

The exit turnstile of the former River Valley Swimming Complex.

Further along the foot of the hill along River Valley Road, the magnificent Neo-Classical styled Hill Street Police Station building. The building was designed by the Public Works Department and when completed in 1934, it was the largest government building on the island. The building features a courtyard which served as a parade ground and has a total of 911 windows. The building housed Singapore’s earliest jail, as well as housing the police station and serving as the living quarters for police personnel. The Kempeitai was said to have used the building as a prison and torture chamber during the Japanese Occupation. The building was used by the police unitl 1980, and the National Archives used the building from 1983, before the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA) which now occupies the building moved in. One of the things that I clearly remember about the building was a sign which stuck out above a doorway on River Valley Road that I always made a point of looking out for when I was a boy of maybe 5 or 6. The sign had the words “Officers’ Mess” on it, and I was comforted in the knowledge that I wasn’t the only person around who lived with a “mess”! It was only when I was a little older that I came to realise what a “Mess” in that context was.

The magnificent neo-classical styled former Hill Street Police Station building which now houses MICA.

Possibly the door above which the "Officers' Mess" sign once stuck out from.

The building has been since renamed as the Hill Street Building and now sports brightly coloured windows.


Some pictures taken inside the old National Theatre during the SJI 125th Anniversary Celebrations in 1977:

National Theatre Staircase

SJI 125th Anniversary Celebrations at the National Theatre in 1977


An old postcard showing Tank Road Station: