The Italian captain who bought Pulau Bukom …

10 06 2017

Except perhaps for sculptor Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli, whose magnificent work adorns the old Supreme Court, little is known of Singapore’s many connections with the Italian community – except perhaps of the community’s many culinary offerings we are now able to find. It may therefore come as a surprise that the connections do go well back –  even before Italy as an entity existed and that Singapore’s Pulau Bukom was once owned by an Italian man.

Explore Singapore’s surprising Italian connections at The Italian Connection at the Fullerton Hotel.

Pulau Bukom is perhaps better known to us as the island on which Singapore’s successful journey into the oil refining trade, had its beginnings. Shell, who built and operate the refinery, has long been associated with the island. 20 acres of it was bought by the company in 1891 for the purpose of kerosene storage. The transaction netted the island’s owner,  Capitano Giovanni Gaggino a tidy profit. Gaggino, an Italian master mariner, shipowner and adventurer, purchased the island for $500 in 1884 with the intention to supply freshwater to shipping. His purchase of “Freshwater Island” as it was informally known as, was one of many of Gaggino’s ventures here. He would spend 42 of his 72 years in Singapore from 1876 and passed on in 1918, whilst on a trip to Batavia. Capitano Gaggino was also known to have authored several books, one of which was the very first Malay-Italian dictionary.

Capitano Giovanni Gaggino, who once owned Pulau Bukom (source: Reproduction of “La Vallata del Yang-Tse-Kiang” by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Open source).

Even before Gaggino, Italians – many of whom were involved in shipping and trade, made landfall. One rather famous Italian, the renowned botanist and contemporary of Charles Darwin, Odoardo Beccari, used Singapore as a stepping stone to his well documented explorations of the region’s forests. Credited with the discovery of the giant corpse flower, Beccari also documented a month he spent in March 1866 at the “wooden bungalow” of the Italian Consul, Signor Giovanni Leveson (a.k.a. Edward John Leveson) on the Johor Strait. The bungalow is thought to be where Woodlands in Singapore’s north got its name from.

Odoardo Beccari (source: Sailko, Creative Commons License 3.0).

Like Capitano Gaggino, Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli spent a substantial part of his life in Singapore. He arrived from Bangkok in 1921 and remained – except for a period of internment during the Second World War (as a citizen of Italy, one of the Axis states, he was interned in Australia from 1941 to 1945), until his retirement in 1956 . He worked tirelessly and amassed a huge portfolio of work that began with the second Ocean Building on which he provided the decorative artificial stone facings.

Composite image of Rodolfo Nolli and the main (south) entrance of the GPO. Two sets of works – the coat of arms and a pair of flambeau compositions, went missing during the Japanese Occupation (source of images: National Archives of Singapore).

The majestic Ocean Building did not only launch Nolli’s career in Singapore, it also spelled a new era for the bund along Collyer Quay. Before the end of a decade, three even grander edifices would be added: the Union Building, a second generation Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers, and the grandest of them all, the Fullerton Building. The additions, all of which Nolli had work done on, provided the bund with an appearance that could be compared to Shanghai’s more famous embankment.

Ocean Building in the 1920s (Source: W. A. Laxton, The Straits Steamship Fleets)..

Built to house the General Post Office, several municipal offices as well as the exclusive Singapore Club, the Fullerton was decorated with some of Nolli’s more exquisite pieces of the era. Two precast sculptural works: a pair of flambeau compositions and a royal coat of arms – symbols of enlightenment and empire – adorned the main entrance to the GPO. Sadly, these disappeared during the Japanese Occupation and all that can now be seen of Nolli’s contributions in the building is the magnificent plasterwork of the barrel vaulted ceiling of the Singapore Club’s Billiard Hall. The hall is now the Straits Room of The Fullerton Hotel. The hotel has occupied the Fullerton Building since 2001.

The Straits Room is now where the only works of Rodolfo Nolli’s in the Fullerton Building to have survived can be found.

The historic waterfront, 1932, to which Nolli added decorative finishing touches, and the waterfront today (source: top image, Singapore Philatelic Museum; lower image, Jerome Lim).

Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli, whose works are also found in Bangkok – where he spent 7 years of his life, in parts of Malaysia and also in Brunei, was bestowed with a knighthood by the Italian Crown in 1925. This is an honour that another Italian gentleman connected with the Fullerton Building, Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale, has also received. Cavaliere Viterale, the GM of Fullerton Heritage, is a well respected member of the hospitality industry and it was for his contributions to it that he received the honour. The building, which was opened in June 1928, celebrates its 89th anniversary this month.

Nuns of the Canossian order speaking to Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale at the exhibition opening. The order, which has origins in Italy, first arrived in Singapore in 1894 (source: The Fullerton Heritage).

More on the Italian Community, including on an Italian order of missionaries whose work in tending to those in need continues to this very day, the Canossian Daughters of Charity, can be discovered at an exhibition that I curated with Zinke Aw, “The Italian Connection”. The exhibition, The Fullerton Hotel’s East Garden Foyer, runs until 18 July 2017. Information on the exhibition can also be found at The Fullerton Heritage’s website and through the official press release.

 

 

 





In search of love in the old GPO

14 04 2017

I loved the old GPO. It was a post office like none other in Singapore. Its main hall, which you entered after a climb up a short flight of stairs, was grand and airy. Stretching almost the entire length of the building, the hall was also where the long postal counter was found. That ran along the hall’s length and held the distinction of being the longest in the world.  Like all old buildings, the GPO – now the Fullerton Hotel has its collection of stories, including ones that tell of romantic liaisons.

In search of romance – a civil servant, played by Isabelle Chiam, gets everyone at the Minsitry of Finance involved.

An opportunity to discover the romances of the past, and also the building’s colourful history – in a fun and amusing way – presents itself with “A Fullerton Love Story Tour”.  Led by a resident tour guide, participants are taken on a search for romance – not of their own – but between a love struck postman at the GPO, played by Edward Choy, and his love interest – a civil servant with the Ministry of Finance housed in the same building – played by Isabelle Chiam. Participants also become part of the story as they move through various historic spots that include the Singapore Club, Fullerton Square, the Presidential Suite and the location of the Fullerton Building’s former lighthouse.

The love struck postman, played by Edward Choy.

View from the lighthouse towards what used to be the harbour.

Tours, which will be held from 8pm to 9.30 pm on 29 April, 6 May and 13 May 2017, are available for booking at http://afullertonlovestorytour.peatix.com. Priced at $78 nett for adults and $58 nett for children between 6 to 11, the tours will be followed by desserts at The Courtyard crafted by Executive Pastry Chef, Enrico Pezzelato.

The resident tour guide.

Besides the tour, which is being held in conjunction with the Singapore Heritage Festival 2017, the Fullerton Hotel is also bring back the TENG Ensemble for a showcase of brand new Singapore-inspired works. The showcase, “Where the River Always Flows II”, will include songs by P. Ramlee and Zubir Said and two East-West pieces specially commissioned  by the Fullerton Heritage.  Tickets for the concert, which will be held at the East Garden on 29 April 2017 at 7 pm, are available at $3 each at http://wheretheriveralwaysflows2.peatix.com.  More information on the concert and the tour can be found at the Fullerton Heritage’s website.

Enchanted Garden – one of five desserts guests on the tour will get to choose from.





Yesterday Once More at the GPO

2 03 2013

Take a stroll through a Singapore we have forgotten about through a series of postcards on display at The Fullerton Hotel. The postcards are part of a collection of 500 that were donated to the Singapore Philatelic Museum in July 2006 by renowned philatelist, Professor Cheah Jin Seng. The postcards date back to the pre-war years and go as far back as to 1893. The exhibition, Yesterday Once More, was officially opened yesterday by Mr. Sam Tan, Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

A photo of one of the postcards on display showing the former Orchard Road Market (where Orchard Point is today) in its early days before an extension at the front took away the little square and fountain. The fountain can now be found at Raffles Hotel.

A photo of one of the postcards on display showing the former Orchard Road Market (where Orchard Point is today) in its early days before an extension at the front took away the little square and fountain. The fountain can now be found at Raffles Hotel.

Yesterday Once More which is being held as part of The Fullerton Heritage’s Art in the City Programme. Yesterday Once More and is organised in collaboration with The Singapore Philatelic Museum, not only takes one back in time but also provides an appreciation of the transformation Singapore has seen through the last century. The highlights are the parts of the collection which show how much areas such as Orchard Road and the area around the old waterfront where The Fullerton is located has changed.

Detail of another postcard showing an aerial view of the city. The present National Museum can be seen in the foreground as well as the old YMCA Building.

Detail of another postcard showing an aerial view of the city. The present National Museum can be seen in the foreground as well as the old YMCA Building.

Postcards which were first used as an economical and convenient means to communicate, evolved to the picture postcards which in the days before the advent of the internet, served to document the tales of travellers. In time, these also served to archive places, faces and events. It is probably appropriate that the exhibition is also held at The Fullerton, which older Singaporeans fondly remember as the General Post Office or GPO – a special guest at the launch was Mr Subramaniam, independent Singapore’s very first Postmaster General, who is in his 90s. He was a treat to speak to, having many tales of his time first as the Director of the Post Office, and after separation, as the Postmaster General, to share.

Singapore's first Postmaster General, Mr. Subramaniam who is in his 90s.

Singapore’s first Postmaster General, Mr. Subramaniam who is in his 90s.

Yesterday Once More runs until 30 April 2013 and is being held at The Fullerton’s East Garden Foyer.

More photos from the launch: 

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