The National Gallery, naked

7 05 2015

It has been a long four and a half years since two architectural icons of a lost age went into hiding, cloaked for a large part in a dark shroud. That was to permit a huge and costly transformation of the two, the old Supreme Court and the City Hall, to be performed, a transformation that would turn the two  into a jewel that will crown Singapore’s coming of age. The massive 64,000 square metres of floor area that the two buildings share will provide Singapore with the grandest of showcases its huge National collection as the new National Gallery Singapore. The collection numbers some 10,000 works. Composed primarily of the art of Singapore and of Southeast Asia, it is the largest collection of its kind in the world.

The restored historical lobby of the Old Supreme Court.

The restored historical lobby of the Old Supreme Court.

The re-tiled corridors of the Old Supreme Court.

The new shine of the re-tiled corridors of the Old Supreme Court.

The buildings, both National Monuments and ones that for long characterised the city-scape, hark back to the days of the empire. With significant chapters of our history written within their walls, the two are monuments not just of the nation, but also to the nation and what is nice about the transformation, although it may have altered some of the buildings’ characters, is that its does allows an  appreciation of the buildings’s historic and architectural value by providing us and our future generations with access to them and more importantly to their many conserved spaces.

My favourite space in the two buildings, the Rotunda Library, seen in a new light.

My favourite space in the two buildings, the Rotunda Library, seen in a new light.

I had a chance to look at how the transformation has been managed when the buildings made their debut as the National Gallery without the art during the recent series of Naked Museum tours. Having had a look at the two during the open house held just prior to the closure in late 2010, I was especially interested to see how the character of the many conserved spaces within the two have been preserved.

The gathering of local artists and guests at the launch of the National Gallery Open House in 2010 prior to the renovations (National Gallery photo).

The beautifully restored Foyer of the Old Supreme Court.

The beautifully restored Foyer of the Old Supreme Court.

The old stairway that now leads to a new heaven.

The old stairway that now leads to a new heaven.

One of the first things that did catch my eye however, was how the two have been made to become one. A large part of this, is seen in the interface between the two at the former open plaza. Here, we see one of the larger intervention of the architect, Mr Jean François Milou, in the large enclosed space that has been created, encased by glass panels on a framework of steel. The framework is suspended over the two monuments through the use of a rather intriguing looking tree-like support structure. The space is best seen when the sun shines. That is when it takes on an almost magical quality in the soft light that filters through the specially designed screen of perforated aluminium panels.

The atrium between the two buildings.

The atrium between the two buildings.

The moment of inspiration for the screen came on a sun baked afternoon as the architect pondered over how the buildings could be unified sitting on a plastic chair in the Padang. The play of light and shadow through the patchwork of glass and steel, its tree-like support that is also replicated up on the roof of the old Supreme Court, and the sky bridges that allow communication between the two buildings finds meaning as a whole in providing a stunning visual spectacle in which the new is very much in harmony with the old.

A view of the sky bridges between in the atrium created the two buildings.

A view of the sky bridges between in the atrium created the two buildings.

The upper level sky bridge that connects at Level 4.

The upper level sky bridge that connects at Level 4.

The interventions on the roofs of the two buildings, are also best appreciated from the inside. On the previously empty roof of the City Hall, we now see two reflecting pools over the building’s former courtyards. This, found on Level 5, will be lined with F&B outlets. The upper level (Level 6), is where one can now gaze across the Padang to where the generations before once gazed at the lights of the old harbour from a viewing deck that will be opened to the public.

The lower level (Level 5) of City Hall Rooftop will see F&B outlets lining two reflection pools.

The lower level (Level 5) of City Hall Rooftop will see F&B outlets lining two reflection pools.

The view across the reflecting pool of the City Hall Rooftop towards the new Supreme Court.

The view across the reflecting pool of the City Hall Rooftop towards the new Supreme Court.

The City Hall Rooftop viewing deck on Level 6.

The City Hall Rooftop viewing deck on Level 6.

The view through the aluminium panels of the roof.

The view through the aluminium panels of the roof.

It was the roof across the sky bridge that I found especially appealing. Previously an inaccessible are of the old Supreme Court, it is where one finds the minor dome. The skylights on the dome is what casts the delightful glow on the beautifully Rotunda Library below it. The now covered space has a roof similar in construction to the glass enclosure of the atrium between the two buildings, and it is here that in the sunshine, that we also are able to see the gorgeous play of shadow and light it can create.

The Supreme Court Terrace.

The Supreme Court Terrace.

Another view of the terrace with the rotunda dome.

Another view of the terrace with the rotunda dome.

Reflections on the Supreme Court Terrace.

Reflections on the Supreme Court Terrace.

It is under the two domes of the old Supreme Court that one finds the most wonderful of conserved spaces, including what certainly is my favourite of all spaces, the beautiful Rotunda Library. Also conserved and restored are spaces such as Courtroom No. 1, the beautiful corridors on the second level and their skylights, the main staircase, the Historical Lobby and the Grand Foyer.

The Rotunda Library.

The Rotunda Library.

The Rotunda, see from the ground.

The Rotunda, see from a lower angle.

Courtroom No. 1.

Courtroom No. 1.

The beautiful light of the Old Supreme Court main staircase.

The beautiful light of the Old Supreme Court main staircase.

A skylight.

A skylight.

The corridors now feature gleaming marble floor tiles, laid out in a pattern that mimic that of the toxic asbestos filled rubber tiles that had to be replaced. In the area to the left of the staircase one also finds two holding cells, the only ones that have been retained. In the cells, we see a hint of a very necessary sanitary fitting, its opening sealed in cement. When operational, that could only be flushed outside the cells. What would have been nice to see conserved are the narrow caged passageways along which the cells’ occupants could be led, via a trap door, to the courtrooms. These however, were nowhere to be found.

The eight sided foundation stone under which there is a time-capsule that is meant to be opened in the year 3000.

The eight sided foundation stone under which there is a time-capsule that is meant to be opened in the year 3000.

The entrance to the Holding Cells.

The entrance to the Holding Cells.

Inside one ofthe  two holding cells that have been retained.

Inside one ofthe two holding cells that have been retained.

Prisoner holding area.

The caged passageway through which a prisoner would be led to the courtroom.

The caged passageway seen with indicted Japanese soldiers being tried for war crimes being led to the courtroom from the holding cells (source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4999).

The caged passageway seen with indicted Japanese soldiers being tried for war crimes being led to the courtroom from the holding cells during the War Crime trials (source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4999).

Another caged relic I would have liked to see, was the cage lift that I remember from a visit I accompanied my mother on in my childhood to a verbatim reporter friend she would sometimes have lunch with. This proved once again to be to be elusive, although I am told that the lift is still there and in working condition.

A look up to the underside of the main dome.

A look up to the underside of the main dome.

One part of the court building I did not have a chance to see previously is the underside of the empty main copper clad dome. That I got to see by special arrangement. With the ceiling that previously obscured it now removed, there is no more need to ascend the spiral staircase to have a glance at its bare underneath and the riveted steel beams that provides support. This view will be one of the treats we can look forward to when the new gallery opens its doors in November.

A voew of the distinctive copper dome from City Hall Rooftop. The dome is said to be a smaller scale version of the famous dome of London's St. Paul's Cathedral.

A view of the distinctive copper dome from City Hall Rooftop. The dome is said to be a smaller scale version of the famous dome of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral.

A view from the balcony towards the pediment. The space left by a missing coat of arms, thought to be removed during the Japanese Occupation, will be left as it is.

A view from the balcony towards the pediment. The space left by a missing coat of arms, thought to be removed during the Japanese Occupation, will be left as it is.

New galleries in the old building. The old Supreme Court wing will be used to house the South-East Asian collection.

New galleries in the old building. The old Supreme Court wing will be used to house the South-East Asian collection.

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The pediment of the old Supreme Court on which Justice is not blind in Singapore.

The pediment of the old Supreme Court on which Justice is not blind in Singapore.

A pigeon's eye view from the balcony of the old Supreme Court.

A pigeon’s eye view from the balcony of the old Supreme Court.

The City Hall also has several conserved spaces of importance, the most important of which is City Hall Chamber. Once said to be the grandest of rooms in all of Singapore, the chamber witnessed several momentous events of our past, one of which was the surrender of Japanese forces in 1945. Another significant event that took place there was the swearing in of our first Prime Minister in 1959. In its refurbished state, the chamber retains much of its character. The entrance to it is now via side doors that previously were windows to the courtyard.

City Hall CHamber, a.k.a. the Surrender Chamber.

City Hall CHamber, a.k.a. the Surrender Chamber.

The courtyard the doors now lead to had been an open-air served car park. It now finds itself under a reflecting pool (the same pool on the roof terrace) and air-conditioned. As the DBS Singapore Courtyard, it will be used for the permanent display of a collection of Singapore art from the 19th century to the present when the gallery opens.

The former courtyard of City Hall.

The former courtyard of City Hall.

The courtyard will be a new exhibition space.

Shadows from the steel framework of the glass roof over the courtyard.

Moving stairways to the new heaven.

Moving stairways to the new heaven.

The Cor­inthian columns of the former City Hall's façade.

The Cor­inthian columns of the former City Hall’s façade.

The central staircase of City Hall.

The central staircase of City Hall.

In a year during which there is much to look forward to in a Singapore that celebrates its 50th year of independence, the gallery’s opening in November is something that will certainly enhance the celebration. The gallery will by itself be a celebration, one not just of art and culture, but also of our nationhood and of our history and heritage.More information on the National Gallery and the history of the buildings can be found at the National Gallery’s website and some of my previous posts, which contain photographs of how some of the spaces looked before the refurbishment.

A last look at the Rotunda Library.

A last look at the Rotunda Library.





The last of the grand Teochew mansions

4 05 2015

Occupying a prominent position at the corner of Penang Road and Clemenceau Avenue, an old temple like structure stands on its own, seemingly out of place in the surroundings of the modern city. The structure, a house that in its past has often been referred to as “Temple House” for its resemblance to a southern Chinese house of worship, will for those of my generation, be remembered as the headquarters of the Salvation Army.

The last of the "four grand mansions", the House of Tan Yeok Nee on Penang Road.

The house once known as “Temple House”, once served as the Headquarters of the Salvation Army.

The house is a traditional southern Chinese courtyard house, one of a handful that were built in Singapore in the 19th century, a fact that makes its survival all that more remarkable. Built from 1882-1885 for a wealthy Teochew merchant, Tan Yeok Nee, its stands today as the last of its kind on the island, the last of four houses of Teochew merchants that have collectively been referred to as the “four grand mansions and has since 1974, been listed as one of Singapore’s National Monuments.

The House of Tan Yeok Nee, the last of four grand mansions of Teochew merchants.

The House of Tan Yeok Nee, the last of four grand mansions of Teochew merchants.

The three other grand Teochew mansions have over the course of the 20th century, all made way for redevelopment, the last being the former Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce (SCCCI) building on Hill Street, which in 1964 was replaced by the current one. That, had started its life in 1878 as the House of Wee Ah Hood.

House of Wee Ah Hood used as the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce, c. 1930s. (Photo online at the National Archives of Singapore catalogue).

The first to go was Tan Seng Poh’s 1869 house at the corner of Hill Street and Loke Yew Road, which came down in 1904. The second to be built, the 1872 house of Seah Cheo Seah (one of the sons of Seah Eu Chin) was along North Boat Quay.

House of Seah Cheo Seah along North Boat Quay, c. 1913 (Photo online at the National Archives of Singapore catalogue).

It is probable that Tan Yeok Nee’s house might have suffered the fate of the other three, well before its architectural and historical value could be recognised in 1974, if not for the transfer of its ownership following Tan’s 1902 passing (some would attribute its survival to the house’s good feng shui). Acquired for use by Singapore’s first railway, it served as the residence of the stationmaster from 1903 when the first section of the Singapore Kranji Railway, which terminated at Tank Road, opened. That lasted until 1912, after which it passed into the hands of the Church of England when it was used as a home and girls’  school. The Salvation Army was to take over in 1938. Except for an enforced break during the Japanese Occupation, the house was where the organisation had its headquarters until 1981.

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The house must surely have been a symbol of its owner’s wealth and standing at the time of its completion, both of which Tan Yeok Nee had no shortage of. Having had humble beginnings as a cloth peddler, Tan was quick to find success, making his fortune from the gambier and pepper trade as well as the lucrative opium, spirit and gambling franchises or farms in Singapore and in Johor.

The first courtyard.

The first courtyard.

Tan’s successes in Johor were possible due to close relationship he had established with the man who would be the first modern day Sultan of Johor, Maharaja Abu Bakar. This had its roots in Tan’s days as a cloth peddler, when the then heir to Temenggong Ibrahim, resided at Telok Blangah.

A side courtyard.

A side courtyard.

Tan held multiple rights to kangchus in Johor, all of which were granted by the ambitious Abu Bakar and served at one point as a Major China. He was also conferred a “Dat0-ship” by Abu Bakar and is also known as Dato’ Tan Hiok Nee across the Causeway. A street, Jalan Tan Hiok Nee in Johor Bahru, is named after him.

Layout of the House of Tan Yeok Nee.

Layout of the House of Tan Yeok Nee.

The Central Hall

The Central Hall as seen from the first courtyard.

Temple House, as one would expect, has its halls laid out symmetrically along a central axis as is typical of southern Chinese architecture. Also typical of such structures are the elaborate decoration work that the house is known for, seen in places such as the walls, roof ridges and supporting structures. An example of this is found on the wooden beams in the Central Hall, which feature gold painted decorations as well as intricately carved creatures. One such creature is the aoyu (鳌鱼), a carp with a dragon head that as myth would have it, is one of few carps who are transformed after successfully swimming against the flow and leaping the waterfall of the Dragon Gate.  The creature is often is used to symbolise courage, determination and accomplishment.

The mythical aoyu (鳌鱼) craved on a wooden beam bracket in the Central Hall.

The mythical aoyu (鳌鱼) craved on a wooden beam bracket in the Central Hall.

The entrance into the first courtyard, as seen from the courtyard. The roof ridges of the house are decorated with a particular method referred to as 'inlaying porcelain'.

The entrance into the first courtyard, as seen from the courtyard. The roof ridges of the house are decorated with a particular method referred to as ‘inlaying porcelain’.

A side courtyard.

A side courtyard.

The Inner Courtyard.

The Inner Courtyard.

Seeing the house, there will be little doubt of Tan Yeok Nee’s accomplishment. This can be seen not just in the symbolism of its decorative elements, but also in a rather explicit expression of it that is seen above the house’s entrance portal. There, the characters 资政第 “Zi Zheng Di” are prominently displayed, giving us a sense of its occupant’s high ranking. The characters, which tell us that the house is a residence of a Qing Dynasty Second Ranked Official, also remind us of one more thing – how ties with the lands of the ancestors were maintained by many who embarked on their journeys into the new world, all with the hope that they would find success and bring that back home with them.

The main entrance with the words 资政第 of Zi Zheng Di, denoting it as the residence of a second-ranked official of the Qing dynasty.

The main entrance with the words 资政第 of Zi Zheng Di, denoting it as the residence of a second-ranked official of the Qing dynasty.

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A window into its roof supports.

A window into its roof supports.





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.


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A peek inside the book.





The very grand house that Brewer built

2 04 2015

Perched on a small hill just south of hills given to the those who have passed on at Bukit Brown, is a place built as a dwelling for the living, so grand, that it has had members of royalty, a president as well as many powerful military men, find shelter within its walls. The dwelling, Command House, is well hidden from the public eye. It only is on the incline of its long driveway, well past the entrance gate at Kheam Hock Road, that we get a glimpse of its scale and appearance; the drive in also provides an appreciation of the expanse of the sprawling 11.5 acre (4.5 ha.) estate the house is set in.

Command House at 17 Kheam Hock Road.

Command House at 17 Kheam Hock Road.

The scale of the mansion, built in 1938 with six bedrooms with bathrooms attached, a huge wine cellar as well as servants quarters and other service buildings laid out over its grounds, must impress. It however is its simple but aesthetically pleasing design that catches the eye. Said to have been inspired by the Arts and Craft movement of which its creator, the well respected Singapore based architect Frank W. Brewer, once of Swan and MacLaren, was a keen follower of, the mansion features elements of Brewer’s interpretation including the distinctive exposed brick voussoirs that is also seen in other Brewer designed houses (some examples: 5 Chatsworth Park and 1 Dalvey Estate).

Many of Brewer's work feature very distinctive exposed brick voussoirs.

Many examples of Brewer’s work feature very distinctive exposed brick voussoirs.

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Several recognisable architectural contributions have been attributed to Brewer. In Singapore, these include the Cathay building and St. Andrew’s School. Visitors to Cameron Highlands would not have missed another of his works, the Tudor style Foster’s Smoke House, a landmark in the popular Malaysian mountain resort.

A Google Maps satellite view of the grounds and the surrounding area.

A Google Maps satellite view of the grounds and the surrounding area.

Built as Flagstaff House, the residence of Malaya’s most senior military commander, the importance placed on its intended occupants can be seen in the house’s grand appearance, as well as in its expansive setting and its somewhat lofty position. Flagstaff House’s completion had come at the end of decade in which the emphasis was on building Singapore up militarily to support its role as an outpost for the British in the Far East.

Command House after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

Command House after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

The back of the mansion.

The back of the mansion.

Laid out on a “butterfly plan”, commonly seen in the architecture of the early Arts and Crafts movement, the mansion and its beautiful grounds must be as perfect a spot as any in Singapore for a dream wedding. While that may not be possible today given the current use of Command House, playing host to a grand wedding reception was in fact what Flagstaff House’s very first act was, shortly after its completion. In September 1938, Flagstaff House played host to a reception for a wedding described in this Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Adviser article of 8 September 1938 as being “the biggest military wedding yet seen in Singapore”.

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The wedding was of Lieutenant O C S Dobbie and Ms Florence Mary Dickey, held just a month or so before the house’s intended occupant, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of Malaya, was to move in. This was possible as the groom, Lieut. Dobbie, was not only the GOC’s aide-de-camp, but also his son. Lieut. Dobbie’s proud parents, Major General W G S Dobbie, had then still not moved from the older Flagstaff House at Mount Rosie.

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Two other GOCs were to occupy the house before the Japanese made nonsense of the illusions the British held of their invincibility. The last before the inglorious event was Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, the unfortunate face of what has been described as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”. Based on an account by an eyewitness, Herman Marie De Souza, an officer in the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force, at his interview with the National Archives, the last time Percival set foot in the house would have been on Saturday 14 February 1942:

“On a Saturday afternoon, I was at Flagstaff House ground when I saw a large car approaching. I jumped to the road and stopped the car. And there was Percival in the car. I recognised him, I had met him before. And I said, I don’t think you place is very safe, because the shells are flying all the time. You hear the whizzing over. But he said he had something to do there.  He went in there, and I didn’t realise he was burning his papers. And there I was holding, looking after him, sort of, until he finished what he had to do and went off. He wished me goodbye and went back to Singapore.”

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Following the fall, the mansion is thought to have been used to accommodate Japanese troops. The British military commanders returned to live in the house after the occupation ended. Lord Mountbatten, the uncle of the future Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, was one, he stayed in the house in his capacity as the Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia Command, in 1946. Prince Philip, the consort to the Queen, was also to stay as a guest later, doing so during a visit to Singapore in February 1965, by which time, the property was already referred to as Command House.

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In all, Flagstaff / Command House was to see some fifteen commanders pass through its doors as residents; Commanders-in-Chief of the British Far East Land Forces in the post-war period. The pull-out of British forces in 1971 gave the Singapore government possession of the property and it continued its distinguished service when it became the official residence of the Speaker of Parliament. Dr Yeoh Ghim Seng, who held the position from 1970 to 1989, was the only speaker to have taken up residence at Command House. Dr Yeoh’s successors, Mr Tan Soo Khoon in 1989 and Mr Abdullah Tarmugi in 2002, decided against using the official residence.

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It was during Mr Tan’s tenure as Speaker that Command House was briefly made the official residence of the President of the Republic of Singapore, who was then Mr Ong Teng Cheong. The move was necessitated by the extensive renovations to the Istana that took place between 1996 and 1998.

Command House, when it was used as the official residence of the President. Here, we see the then High Commissioner-designate of Zambia at his ceremonial welcome in 1997 (Photo: National Archives of Singapore online catalogue).

Command House after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

Command House after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

Today, Command House, stands not as a residence, but as a place of learning, the UBS Business University. Its tenancy was taken up in 2007 by UBS, a Swiss based financial services company, who initially used it as the UBS Wealth Management Campus-Asia Pacific, before relaunching it as the Business University. Command House was gazetted as a National Monument on 11 November 2009.

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An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

 





The magazine under Talbot’s Hill

7 02 2015

An area of Singapore that still has much history buried under it is the area where the former British Naval Base was. Under parts of the former base, which covered an area stretching from the Causeway in Woodlands to what is today Sembawang Park, lies several underground structures, one of which is a the so-called Attap Valley bunker that has recently been brought to light.

The entrance to the Attap Valley bunker.

The entrance to the Attap Valley bunker below Talbot’s Hill.

Worshipping a new religion? Participants on a heritage tour to the site examining part of a ventilation system.

Worshipping a new religion? Participants on a heritage tour to the site examining part of a ventilation system.

The bunker, opened to the public for the first time today, is the last surviving structure of an armament depot constructed by the British within the huge Naval Base in the Talbot’s Hill and Attap Valley area. A ammunition and armament storage magazine, specifically Magazine No. 4, it was one of seven other bomb-proof magazines that were built into Talbot’s Hill by the British before 1942.

An extract of a 1945 map of the Naval Base showing the area and the layout of the ammunition depot, including the seven magazines under Talbot's Hill.

An extract of a 1945 map of the Naval Base showing the area and the layout of the ammunition depot, including the seven magazines under Talbot’s Hill (click to enlarge).

The National Heritage Board (NHB), which has been studying the site since April 2014, has also established with the help of a 1945 map of the Naval Base, that the magazines were part of a network of eighteen bunkers, warehouses and workshops spread over the Attap Valley site, that formed the Royal Naval Armament Depot.

The tour group being led into the bunker.

The tour group being led into the bunker.

The passage to the storage area.

The passage to the storage area.

Evidence points to the magazine, which is the size of two 5-room HDB flats, being used by the Japanese during the occupation – a cache of Japanese weapons and ammunition was found by MINDEF when they used the site for the Sembawang Ammunition Depot.

The storage area where  corrugated ceiling reinforcements can be seen along with a gantry hoist.

The storage area where corrugated ceiling reinforcements can be seen along with a gantry hoist.

What appears to be a light fitting from the time of the bunker's construction.

What appears to be a light fitting from the time of the bunker’s construction mounted on the ceiling.

According to NHB, part of the floor of the bunker, now a mess of mud and water, would have had rail tracks running over them to allow the ammunition to be moved in and out, accounting for the rusty colour of the mud and water in the bunker. While there is nothing left of the tracks to be found, there are several fixtures and fittings that might have originally been there at the time of its completion. This includes vents from an all important ventilation system, light fixtures, and pipes. A travelling gantry hoist, complete with a sign giving its Safe Working Load rating, can be seen in the inner chamber where the ammunition would have been stored. Access into the inner chamber is via a curved passageway designed so as explosions could be contained.

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Talbot’s Hill and the surviving magazine under it now lies well within a fenced up area of land, which was returned to the State by  MINDEF when the depot was decommissioned in 2002. Access to it is only via the NHB tours, being organised as part of a Battle of Singapore commemoration that coincides with the 73 anniversary of the Fall of Singapore and also the 70 anniversary of the liberation in September 1945. More information on this, including the Case Files from the Singapore War Crimes Tribunal Exhibition scheduled to open next week at the National Museum of Singapore, can be found at the NHB website.

More photographs of the bunker and its surroundings

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Postscript
An account relating to the last days of the Royal Naval Armament Depot before the Fall of Singapore: A Singapore Story – 1942.


 





The Fire Dragon’s Lair

8 12 2014

It is in the last remnant of the village of sand that we find the lair of the fire dragon. The dragon, the only one in Singapore, lies in wait , its mouth wide open, expelling not a breath of fire, but of flames that reignite the memories of a time and place that might otherwise have been forgotten.

Inside the dragon's lair.

Inside the dragon’s lair.

The residence of the dragon, a small corner of the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee (萬山福德祠) – housed in a century old structure erected during the days of the now forgotten village, is the temple’s newly completed Sar Kong Heritage Room. The room is where the story of the dragon, that of the area’s heritage, and also of the humble origins of the temple and the community it served, now awaits discovery.

A view of the heritage room from the outside.

A view of the heritage room from the outside.

As with much of the Geylang that had developed along the banks of the rivers and tributaries of the area, the origins of the village of Sar Kong (沙崗) whose community the temple served, is one that is tied to the trades that thrived due to the geography of the area. In Sar Kong’s case, it was the kilns that fired the much needed building blocks for the fast developing Singapore, providing employment to a community of Cantonese and Hakka coolies. Established through the efforts of the community, the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee is unique in that among many early Chinese temples that has survived to this day, it owes its setting up not to an act of philanthropy by well-established individuals, but to the efforts of a coolie community.

Among the exhibits is a set of historical photos and building plans that is set against part of a wall that has its plaster removed to reveal its original brickwork.

Among the exhibits is a set of historical photos and building plans that is set against part of a wall that has its plaster removed to reveal its original brickwork.

Much of the information on geographical and historic setting for the village and the temple can be found within the exhibits of the heritage room, along with the background to some of the temple’s more interesting religious practices as well as the role it played from a social perspective. There also is information to be discovered about the dance of the fire dragon, which has its origins in Guangdong, Made of straw imported from China, the dragons previously made would have been constructed for the feast day of the Earth Deity, to whom the temple is dedicated, and sent in flames to the heavens.  The dragon that is on display is one made for a more recent Chingay Parade.

Putting up the plaques.

Putting up the plaques.

More information on the temple, which is under threat from future development, can be found in a previous post, On Borrowed Time: Mun San Fook Tuck Chee. The newly completed heritage room is due to be opened officially in Jaunary 2015.

Early birds to the heritage room.

Early birds to the heritage room.

The fire dragon.

The fire dragon.

A one way ticket from a personal collection on display.

A one way ticket belonging to a personal collection on display.





All at sea

24 07 2014

The launch on Saturday of Singapore HeritageFest 2014, bring us to focus on one of the key reasons for Singapore’s being, the sea. This year’s festival much of which revolves around a maritime based theme, “Our Islands, Our Home” has us looking at our maritime past as well as our present as a maritime nation.

HeritageFest 2014 opens a window to Singapore's island heritage.

HeritageFest 2014 opens a window to Singapore’s island heritage.

It is to raise the profile of this heritage, one that goes back to times well before the arrival of Raffles, that is in fact what the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) and the National Heritage Board (NHB) hopes to achieve with the establishment of the S$500,000 Maritime Heritage Fund, which the two agencies will administer – for which a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by the two agencies at Saturday’s launch.

One of the highlights of this year's HeritageFest is a lighthouse trail that includes a stop on Pulau Satumu, Singapore's southernmost island, on top of which Raffles' Lighthouse is perched.

One of the highlights of this year’s HeritageFest is a lighthouse trail that includes a stop on Pulau Satumu, Singapore’s southernmost island, on top of which Raffles’ Lighthouse is perched.

Once a common scene in the waters off the Southern Islands. Boats such as the kolek on the right, are very much part of our maritime heritage (a similar kolek is on display at the Balik Pulau Exhibition at the National Museum).

Once a common scene in the waters off the Southern Islands. Boats such as the kolek on the right, are very much part of our maritime heritage (a similar kolek is on display at the Balik Pulau Exhibition at the National Museum).

The focus of the fund, which complements the NHB’s S$5 million Heritage Grant Scheme launched last year, will be on developing community-initiated projects related to Singapore’s maritime heritage that will promote a greater understanding and appreciation of Singapore’s maritime connections, as was touched on by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Community, Culture and Youth, in his speech at the festival’s launch.

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of NHB launching Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of NHB launching Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Mr Wong also spoke of the transformation that will soon take place at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), where the launch event was held. Besides a revamp of the museum with expanded galleries that will include a space allocated for the Tang Cargo and see new shops and dining outlets, the museum will be given a new entrance that will open it up to the river and give it a direct connection into the historic heart of Singapore.

Another lighthouse - the very pretty Sultan Shoal Lighthouse at the western extremities of Singapore's waters seen during the lighthouse trail as part of Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

Another lighthouse – the very pretty Sultan Shoal Lighthouse at the western extremities of Singapore’s waters seen during the lighthouse trail as part of Singapore HeritageFest 2014.

The revamp is part of the ongoing effort to develop a civic and cultural belt around Singapore’s colonial civic district (see: The Old Vic’s ticking again) that involves also the newly refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, and the conversion of the Old Supreme Court and City Hall into National Gallery – due for completion in 2015.

The Old Vic's definitely back!

The newly refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall.

A cultural performance at the launch of Singapore HeritageFest2014.

A cultural performance at the launch of Singapore HeritageFest2014.

The launch also coincided with the first evening of a two-night series of programmes taking place around the ACM and the river, River Nights. The event, brought much life and colour to the river, and celebrated its changing identity over the years – in the same way the well received series of activities  for Singapore HeritageFest 2014 celebrates the islands.

A dragon dance performance at the start of River Nights at the ACM's front lawn.

A dragon dance performance at the start of River Nights at the ACM’s front lawn.

More information on the Maritime Heritage Fund, Singapore HeritageFest 2014, River Nights and on Balik Pulau: Stories from Singapore’s Islands (an exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore held in conjunction with HeritageFest 2014) can be found in the following links:








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