Singapore’s lost elegance

26 09 2015

Modern Singapore stands today, close to 200 years after it came into being as a trading post, as one of the most advanced cities in the world. Icons of the new age now dominate the metropolis, its financial district, much of which came up on land that was made out of marshland and water, is now an amazing maze of glass and steel for which the sky seems the only limit.

Against all of this, it probably will be difficult to imagine Singapore as having been anything other than a city of skyscrapers – even if some fragments of the past are still found within the modern world; certainly not the elegant municipality it seemed to be a century ago as postcards and photographs from the era certainly depict. Having the air, almost, of a European urban centre, the commercial centre of the municipality had by the centenary of its founding, already taken on the appearance of the “great commercial emporium” its founder, Stamford Raffles, had envisioned of it.

Progress has seen that that charming and dignified old Singapore could not survive. The 1950s was probably when the beginning of the end came with the addition of the first “skyscrapers” to the waterfront (interestingly there was an attempt to limit the height of buildings at the waterfront back in the 1920s to a height of 96′ 6″). Much was also to follow, especially in the post independent years and by the 1970s the face of the financial district would drastically be changed.  The 1970s also saw substantial amounts of land being reclaimed, creating the land on which Singapore has built its city of future.


Empress Place and Princess Square

The statue of the founder of modern Singapore, Raffles, was moved to (its current location at) Empress Place from the Padang on the occasion of the centenary of British Singapore's founding.

The statue of the founder of modern Singapore, Raffles, was moved to (its current location at) Empress Place from the Padang on the occasion of the centenary of British Singapore’s founding. The colonnade seen around it was damaged and removed during the war years.

Another view of Empress Place, with the Fullerton Building (completed 1928) already constructed.

Another view of Empress Place, with the Fullerton Building (completed 1928) already constructed.

Princess Square - looking up High Street towards Fort Cannin Light. The Singapore Cricket Club is on the right and the Hotel de L'Europe stands where the old Supreme Court (now part of the National Gallery) now stands.

Princess Square – looking up High Street towards Fort Canning Light. The Singapore Cricket Club is on the right and the Hotel de L’Europe stands at the location of old Supreme Court (now part of the National Gallery).


Battery Road / Fullerton Square

Fullerton Square, before the Fullerton Building came up. Part of the first HongKong Bank Chambers can be seen on the left. The Exchange and the old General Post Office on the right is where the Fullerton now stands.

Fullerton Square, before the Fullerton Building came up. Part of the first HongKong Bank Chambers can be seen on the left. The Exchange and the old General Post Office on the right is where the Fullerton now stands.

Battery Road, seen with the Tan Kim Seng fountain (now at Esplanade Park).

Battery Road, seen with the Tan Kim Seng fountain (since moved to Esplanade Park).

Another view of Battery Road at Fullerton Square.

Another view of Battery Road at Fullerton Square. The Medical Hall is where the Straits Trading Building now stands.

Battery Road at the turn of the century.

Battery Road at the turn of the century. The Dispensary, at the corner of Bonham Street is where 6 Battery Road (Chartered Bank) now stands.

Another view up Battery Road.

Another view up Battery Road.


Finlayson Green

Finlayson Green at the turn of the last century. The Straits Times offices can be seen on the left with the offices of the Dutch shipping company Koninklijke Paketvaart Maatshappij on the right along with the three storey headquarters of Behn Meyer.

Another view of Finlayson Green.

Another view of Finlayson Green.


Anson Road / Robinson Road

Anson Road, with the once iconic Boustead Institute at the meeting of Anson and Tanjong Pagar Roads.

Anson Road, with the once iconic Boustead Institute at the meeting of Anson and Tanjong Pagar Roads.

Robinson Road. Part of Telok Ayer market can be seen on the left.

Robinson Road. The Neo-Classical former Eastern Extension Telegraph Company Building (1927) and part of Telok Ayer market can be seen on the left.

Another view of Robinson Road.

Another view of Robinson Road.


Collyer Quay and the lost waterfront

Built along a bund constructed by convict labour in the mid-1800s, Collyer Quay was completed in 1864 and was soon lined with rather grand looking edifices. By the time the road was widened in the second decade of the 1900s through further reclamation, buildings such as the Alkaff’s Arcade and the five storey St. Helen’s Court had already been erected.

Now around which some of the tallest buildings are found, limits on the height of buildings along the waterfront was a subject of much discussion in the 1920s. In 1921, the Municipal Commission took a decision to limit the height of buildings along the waterfront to 96′ 6″ (about 29.5 metres), the height of St. Helen’s Court. This was to permit “much needed circulation of air at ground”. This was to however be challenged by the architects for soon to be built Union Building, who were successful in having the restrictions relaxed despite objections. One objection raised by John Little’s positioned behind the new building was motivated by a concern that the height of the Union Building would be of “disadvantage and inconvenience to them in the matter of light” (see: The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 30 January 1922).

Collyer Quay in the late 19th century. The first HongKong and Shanghai Bank chambers can be seen at the near end.

Collyer Quay in the late 19th century. The first HongKong and Shanghai Bank chambers (completed in 1892) can be seen at the near end.

A view from the far end of Collyer Quay at Finlayson Green.

A view from the far end of Collyer Quay at Finlayson Green. Princes Building, the 1909 built Alkaff’s Arcade can be seen along with 5 storey St. Helen’s Court. St. Helen’s Court, which was later to be renamed Shell House and subsequently Clifford House after the new 15 storey Shell House was built, was then the tallest building along Collyer Quay.

Collyer Quay in the 1920s.

Collyer Quay in the 1930s, with the second Ocean Building (built in 1924) along with Princes Building, the Arcade, St. Helen’s Court, Union Building (1924) and the Fullerton Building (GPO, 1928) already up. Trolley buses had by that time replaced trams as public transport.

The waterfront in the late 1920s with Johnston's Pier.

The waterfront in the late 1920s with Johnston’s Pier.

Clifford Pier, built in 1933, in uncluttered settings.

Clifford Pier, built in 1933, in uncluttered settings.

The view of the waterfront from the inner roads.

The view of the waterfront from the inner roads with the Union Building, HongKong and Shanghai Bank Chambers and the Fullerton Building.

A view of the Fullerton Road end of the waterfront.

A view of the Fullerton Road end of the waterfront.

The waterfront in the 1960s. By this time, taller buildings such as the Asia Insurance Building, had already begun to transform the skyline.

The waterfront in the 1960s. By this time, taller buildings such as the Asia Insurance Building, had already begun to transform the skyline.


The Esplanade

The Esplanade.

The Esplanade, late 1920s.

Anderson Bridge, when first completed.

Anderson Bridge, when first completed.

Connaught Drive, possibly in the late 1920s.

Connaught Drive, possibly in the late 1920s.


 

 

 

 

 

 





The Wonderland at Battery Road

10 09 2010

There were two places with the name “Wonderland” that I enjoyed visiting as a child, one was of course the Wonderland Amusement Park that used to sit in what is now the open car URA car park next to Kallang Leisure Park. The other wasn’t so much a wonderland of fun, but one of pies and shakes – it was a little cafe on Battery Road just around the corner from Raffles Place that I never, whenever I had a chance, pass up on going to, the name of which I had forgotten about until a recent conversation with my parents. One thing that I certainly remembered the cafe for was what it had smelt like – it was a smell that would greet me as the heavy metal framed glass doors opened, one that was laden with the delicious aroma of baking pastry with a lingering smell of vinegar that came from the HP sauce and tomato ketchup that somehow always seemed a great complement to the delectable pastries that were served. It was actually a smell that familiar in many ways, being very much similar to the ones that came with the many coffee houses and snack bars that were popular back then. The aroma would always be met with a sense of anticipation – the anticipation of the sumptuous treat that was to follow … one that would certainly have seemed to be a just reward for the hours spent with walking behind my mother as she navigated her way through the shelves and racks of Robinson’s or John Little’s at nearby Raffles Place (not that I was an unwilling accomplice – as it alway meant a stopover the wonderful toy department in Robinson’s). That treat was none other than a tasty mush of potatoes, carrots, peas and pieces of diced chicken wrapped in a crust of fresh puff pastry that made the taste buds crave for more. It was Wonderland’s wonderful chicken pie, which for a while, seemed all I lived for and my love affair with it probably fueled my passion for all kinds of pies …

An aerial view of the Singapore River area in the 1950s ... Battery Road as it was is seen on the left of the photograph (source: Over Singapore 50 Years Ago).

Battery Road today ... the area where the Wonderland Cafe was ... just around the corner from the area of Raffles Place where John Little's was.

Another view down the same stretch of Battery Road.

Battery Road and adjoining Raffles Place and Fullerton Square back in the days of Wonderland’s chicken pie (the late 1960s) featured some of the best architectural treasures we had in Singapore, amongst them the very grand Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building across from the Fullerton Building (the General Post Office then and now the Fullerton Hotel), the Chartered Bank Building at 6 Battery Road, and the glorious buildings that lined Raffles Place – a wonderland of beautiful buildings. Most of those buildings have sadly vanished today, in part due to a lack of appreciation for what was our architectural heritage, and in part due to the pressing need to modernise the city in which there wasn’t much time for us to stop and think about what we were losing. What is left today is the Fullerton Building, and the once towering 16 storey Bank of China Building which was the tallest bank building when it was erected in the early 1950s as well as being the tallest building in the area until the mid 1970s. Now the building is part of the Bank of China complex there which includes a newer taller building behind it and is dwarfed by the concrete, steel and glass towers of the neighbouring bank buildings which is somehow seen as defining Singapore’s economic success since gaining independence.

Collyer Quay, 1976. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building is across from the Fullerton Building at the corner of Fullerton Square and Collyer Quay (source: Ray Tyers' Singapore Then & Now)

A view of Collyer Quay from the Harbour, July 1974. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building can be seen on the left of the Fullerton Building (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

The new 21 storey high HSBC building that replaced the old building after that was demolished in 1979.

Raffles Place had been where some of the best shops of those days were found – Robinson’s and John Little’s being two that my parents frequented. The former commercial heart of Singapore was then dominated by an underground carpark (it was partly underground with windows that served as vents lining the part of it that stuck out of the ground. Its roof top had a well landscaped roof garden which was accessible via a short flight of steps from the street level and was a place where I had many a photograph taken. Robinson’s for me represented another type of wonderland – one of toys in the toy department that provided me with much amusement and also with many of my acquisitions … toy soldiers, a go-kart, building blocks and one of my favourites – a Red Indian costume complete with a feathered head dress.

Raffles Place in 1966 was dominated by an underground car park with a landscaped roof top garden and some wonderful buildings which have now been replace by the cold of concrete, steel and glass.

An MRT station sits underground where there was once an underground car park at Raffles Place, surrounded by skyscrapers that have replace some of the architectural treasures that have been lost.

Besides the wonderland of pies and buildings, Battery Road did also have another attraction for the young boy in those days – a pair of stone lions that still stand guard outside the entrance of the old Bank of China building at the corner of Battery Road and Flint Street. For some reason, I would always look up the lions whenever I am in the area, and approach them with the same sense of fascination I had as that young boy. These days however, there are no more pies … somehow, but for the stone lions, the area would seem cold and distant, and it makes me wish I could be that boy again back in a place that now only remains in photographs, a place that perhaps I did not have much of a chance to say good-bye to.

Once the tallest bank building in Singapore, the Bank of China is now dominated by the towering bank buildings that have sprouted up around it.

One of the two lions standing guard in front of the Bank of China Building at the corner of Battery Road and Flint Street.

A view of Raffles Place with the Chartered Bank Building at 6 Battery Road seen at the end of Raffles Place. The Bank of China Building is seen towering over the rest of the area on the right (source: Over Singapore 50 Years Ago).

The 44 storey building at 6 Battery Road, a new Chartered Bank that replaced the old which was demolished in 1981.





The gateway to the roads that lay to the south of Singapore

21 05 2010

There was a time when embarking on a journey to not just a distant land, but to a destination that would now be considered closer to home, would mean saying goodbye not at the terminal building of Kallang or Paya Lebar Airport as it might have then been, but perhaps at a wharf in Tanjong Pagar or a pier along Collyer Quay. That was a time when the journey would invariably have had to be one made by sea, not with the intent of a leisurely cruise as we are inclined to do these days, but out of necessity. So it was that piers came into prominence as entry and exit points through which the many immigrants, some of whom were our ancestors, arriving in Singapore, and travellers setting off on their journey would pass.

Clifford Pier as seen today. The pier would have been the starting point for many a journey from Singapore back in the earlier part of the 20th Century.

View of the Roads in the 1950s from an old postcard. Clifford Pier, the Inner Roads, the Detached Mole (breakwater) and the Outer Roads beyond can be clearly seen (courtesy of Mr. Low Kam Hoong).

In those days, the inner harbour that would have greeted the immigrants to Singapore, or where those setting off on their journey from Singapore would have had a last glimpse of the island, would have appeared to be very different to what is in the area today. For much of the twentieth century, Singapore’s busy harbour been separated by a breakwater referred to as the “Detached Mole”, built in 1911, which ran parallel to the shoreline. This in the area where today, another breakwater of sorts, the reclaimed parcel of land which now forms part of the southern boundary of the Marina Bay reservoir, and on which the Marina Bay Sands Integrated Resort and part of the East Coast Parkway has been built on, now sits. The breakwater back then, separated what was referred to as the Roads – the Inner Roads within the breakwater where the smaller coastal vessels and the tongkangs and twakows (lighters and bumboats) and passenger launches could be safely anchored. The smaller boats ferried their cargoes of goods and people to and from the larger ocean going vessels, being less susceptible to the effects of waves and wind, anchored in the Outer Roads that lay beyond the breakwater.

Another view of Clifford Pier, the Inner Roads, and the Breakwater in the 1960s (source: http://www.singas.co.uk)

Map of Singapore Harbour in the 1950s showing the Detached Mole, Inner Roads and Outer Roads.

Where the limits of the Inner Roads, the Breakwater would have been. On this sits the reclaimed land on which the Marina Bay Sands Integrated Resort has being built on.

The starting point for many a journey would have taken place at Clifford Pier, named after Sir Hugh Charles Clifford, the Governor of the Straits Settlements from 1927 to 1929, which replaced the original Johnston’s Pier opposite Fullerton Square in 1933. The wonderfully built structure features a roof structure supported by beautiful concrete arched trusses designed by the Public Works Department, served as the arrival point for many immigrants as well as a departure point for many seafarers and travellers out of Singapore. It was one of my favourite places, growing up in Singapore in the 1970s, being first of all, across another favourite place of mine, Change Alley, on which Derek Tait has an interesting post on, and also being where I could, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the going-ons of the pier, observe the comings and goings of travellers and seafarers through the wide hall like deck of the pier, and up and down the numerous stairs at the pier’s end and sides from which the colourful wooden launches took or discharged their passengers. It was also where, I could catch the sea breeze on a muggy evening, standing by its open sides.

View of the Inner Roads from Collyer Quay in the 1960s with a fleet of passenger launches moored in the foreground (Source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

Looking across Marina Bay from the Esplanade Theatres by the Bay across the area that would have once been the Inner Roads.

Change Alley across from Clifford Pier as well as Clifford Pier, was one of my favourite places in the 1970s. I remember being greeted by the sound of the many Laughing Bags that the vendors set off filling the alley as you walked through it.

Clifford Pier would also have been where boats that would take us to what seemed then to me as the distant shores of the then inhabited islands that lay to the south could be boarded, with the promise of an adventure on the high seas that I would somehow associate with a trip to what I would see as my Islands in the Sun. It was also from Clifford Pier that I also later embarked on a voyage of adventure of my own, far beyond my Islands in the Sun, one which I would be describing in another post. It is also interesting to note that the pier is known to locals as Hong Ten Ma Tou 红灯码头, or Red Lamp Pier, named after a red lamp that was placed on it to serve as a navigation aid to seafarers, or so the information plaque says. It is thought however that it was actually hung on Johnston’s Pier and the locals continued the use of the name for the new pier when it replaced Johnston’s Pier.

The beautiful arched concrete trusses that support the roof of the pier.

A window in the façade of the pier.

It may be comforting to know that despite the large wave of land reclamation and redevelopment that has swept over much of the Inner Roads and the areas around Collyer Quay and has seen Clifford Pier cut off from the boats, ships and islands that provided it with a reason for her being. But alas, Clifford Pier is now, despite looking none the worse for wear, only a pale shadow of what it was in its heyday. Where the pier had once been alive with the continuous footsteps of seafarers, travellers and the many interested onlookers that pass through its deck, it is now devoid of life, surrounded by waters that can only lap sadly and silently onto the columns that hold it up.

Plaque commemorating the opening of Clifford Pier in 1933.

Information plaque on Clifford Pier.