Ten 100 year old places in Singapore and the little stories they hide

9 07 2017

Surprising as it may seem, places that go back more than a hundred years are not uncommon in the midst of urban Singapore’s gleaming modernity. Not unexpectedly, many of these places hide a story or two, stories that relate to their history, and also ones that speak of Singapore’s linkages with the wider world. Here is a pick of ten such places with rather interesting tales to tell:


(1) The pagoda supported by eight “dimwits” 

Telok Ayer Street, a landing point for early immigrants in days when the sea washed up to it, is littered with the reminders of the forgotten days of adventure. The street is dotted with religious structures aplenty. Now reconstructions of the simple prayer houses put up by those whom came from distant lands so as to permit thanks to be offered to their gods for the safe passage, they offer insights into the origins of some of modern Singapore’s early settlers.

A cluster of Chinese structures from the mid 19th century, with two well ornamented pagodas, is found in the middle section of the street. The structures, which display the distinctive Minnan style of architecture, tell us of two waves of Hokkien settlers not just to Singapore but also to the region.

One of the pagodas is the Chung-Wen pagoda. Built initially for the worship of the god of literature, and used later as a school, it displays a little noticed but a rather interesting ornamental feature that was introduced to Minnan architecture during the Tang dynasty that takes the form of craved wooden figures of men with distinctively non-Chinese facial features dressed in colourful robes. The carved figures, appended in a corbel like fashion to the junctions of the beams and columns supporting the topmost tier of the pagoda, appear to be propping the structure up. The pieces, of which eight are found on the pagoda, are referred to in a rather disparaging manner as “dim-witted foreigners” in the vernacular. They have no structural function and are apparently a fairly commonly used decorative element in Minnan architecture. Rather than being an attempt to belittle, they are thought instead to have been a commemoration of the efforts of non-native workmen during the Tang period.

More on the Chung-Wen pagoda at : What’s propping a mid 1800s pagoda up on Telok Ayer Street


(2) A mosque with a leaning church steeple

Now fronted by a recently planted grove of gelam or Eucalyptus trees of a type from which Kampong Gelam (or Glam) got its name, is a mosque with an untypical minaret built into its boundary wall, the Hajjah Fatimah Mosque.

While the minaret’s claim to fame may be its tilt of 6 degrees –  for which it is known as the “Leaning Tower of Singapore”, what seems more noticeable is the minaret’s resemblance to a church’s steeple. Strange as it may sound, it may actually have been the steeple of the original St. Andrew’s Church (now the Cathedral) that served as an inspiration. The church  got its steeple in 1842, just a few years before the mosque was built.

Now stabilised, the tilt of the minaret has been attributed to the settlement of the less compact structure of the hand-made bricks employed in its construction. The mosque finds itself in an odd position as a shophouse-lined road, Java Road, once ran along its walls.

More photographs of the mosque and its unique minaret can be found at this link.


(3) A temple with furniture “made in Ngau Che Shui” 

Close-up of characters carved on the table. The Chinese characters ‘牛車水’ indicate that there were furniture craftsmen present in Singapore at a time when a lot of such commissioned work would have been carried out in China.

The Mun San Fook Tuck Chee temple has its roots in the Cantonese and Hakka coolie community who settled around the banks of the Kallang River in the mid-1800s. Many in the community found work in the brick kilns near the village of Sar Kong (or Sand Ridge) and helped established the temple in the 1860s. The term “Mun San” found in the temple’s name, is thought to be a corruption of the Malay word bangsal or shed or workshop and points to the area’s industrial origins.

The temple, which moved to its current premises in the early 1900s, is also a rare example of Cantonese style religious architecture in Singapore. What is perhaps more interestingly, is its furniture. A table used in the temple has the words “牛車水” carved into it, as a mark of its origin. “牛車水”, or ngau-che-shui as it would have been pronounced in Cantonese, translates literally to “Ox-Cart Water” and means “Bullock Water Cart”. This of course is a local reference to what we know today as Chinatown. The table is rather unusual in the sense that such items were then more commonly imported from China and what it does show is that wood craftsmen were then already present in Singapore’s Chinatown.

More on the temple at : On Borrowed Time: Mun San Fook Tuck Chee


(4) The graveyard of the would be successors of the Riau-Lingga Empire

Keramat Bukit Kasita on the slopes of Bukit Purmei, surrounded by block of HDB flats, is quite a curious sight. The old cemetery, with walls that give it an appearance of a fortified compound, has graves dressed both in the yellow of Malay royalty and green of holy men. Although it is quite unlikely, there are those who believe that the graveyard dates back to the 16th century. Even less likely is the claim that one of the graves purportedly belongs to “Sultan Iskandar Shah”.

What seems evident however, is that the oldest tomb goes back to 1721, which is well before Raffles and the British arrived. The cemetery is also known to be the burial place of Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah II, who was the very last sultan of Riau-Lingga, the Dutch influenced remnant of the once great Johor-Riau-Lingga empire. Uncooperative, Abdul Rahman II was driven out by the Dutch in 1911 and died a pauper in Singapore in 1930. Several of his descendants are also buried in the cemetery.

More at : A vestige of 16th Century Singapura?

The Riau-Lingga sultanate was formed in the wake of the death of Sultan Mahmud Shah III – the last ruler of the once great Johor-Riau-Lingga Sultanate. Supported by the Dutch, the half-brother of the would be Sultan Hussein Shah of Singapore – Abdul Rahman (I) was installed as its sultan; a move that would be cemented by the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. The sultanate would see five sultans reign before it was dissolved by the Dutch in 1911.


(5) The house of the rising sun

Emily Hill, a villa that dates back to the end of the 19th century, has had quite an eventful past. It has seen its ownership passed from the hands of the Sultan of Siak, first to a dentist and then to the Department of Social Welfare and its occupants include Managing Directors of a trading firm, dentists, the Consul-General of Japan and former prostitutes. In more recent times, the National Arts Council has taken over and it has been used as an arts school as well as a venue for the arts.

With the clutter that has been added to the area in the last 30 to 40 years, it is hard now to imagine that the house actually occupied a prominent position overlooking Middle Road. The road was the heart of a sizeable Japanese community in the early part of the 20th century, and was known as Chuo Dori (or Central Street) to the Japanese. Because of its position, it was chosen by an increasingly militant Japan to serve as a focal point for the community here as the office of its Consul-General in 1939. As the Japanese Consulate, it flew the flag of the rising sun from a position that was almost as lofty as Government House, perched atop nearby Mount Caroline. This continued until 1941 when the Japanese were expelled from Singapore.

Another aspect of the house that few seem to know about, was the misfortune that befell several of its early occupants in the form of a spate of premature deaths in the 1890s. One unfortunate victim was on of the Katz Brothers’s MDs who took up residence there, the 45 year old Mr Heinrich Bock. His death, from a fall off a balcony on 31 May 1896, occurred in rather mysterious circumstances and was ruled by the coroner to be due to “suicide whilst temporarily insane”.

More on Emily Hill at : A Last Reminder of an Old-Fashioned Corner of Singapore

Middle Road when it would have been referred to as Chuo Dori in the 1930s. Osborne House, the Japanese Consulate from 1939 to 1941 can be seen atop Mount Emily, beyond at the northwest end of the street.


(6) The Portuguese Bishop’s Palace

Built in 1912, the 3-storey rectory of St. Joseph’s Church, wears the appearance described as Portuguese Baroque. Intended to provide a parish hall and well as accommodation for the church’s clergymen, the house also has a room on its second floor and a small chapel on the third, reserved for the Roman Catholic Bishop of Macau. The church’s origins was in the Portuguese Mission. Rather uniquely in Singapore, it was a parish first of the diocese of Goa and later of Macau – both of which were Portuguese colonies. As such, the Bishop of Macau, visited regularly as the head of the diocese and this made it a palace of sorts for the Macanese Primate until the church’s links with Macau ceased in 1999 with the former colony’s transfer to China (the anticipation of Macau’s transfer to China saw St. Joseph’s Church transferred to the Archdiocese of Singapore in 1981, although the Bishop of Macau continued to appoint its priests until 1999).

More on Parochial House, as the rectory building is now known, at: A look into the Portuguese Church’s beautiful Parochial House


(7) A final hiding place among the old gravestones 

The Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery, is one of two old Muslim cemeteries from the 19th century that straddle “Grave Road” or Jalan Kubor in Kampong Gelam. It’s links go back to the prominent Yemeni-Arab Aljunied family with its patriarch, Syed Omar Ali having been buried on the grounds, which he bought and donated to the community as a burial ground, in 1852. The cemetery is also associated with an incident in December 1972 during which two gunmen at the top of Singapore’s most wanted list, who were brothers, took their own lives after being cornered by the police. This came at a time when gun crime was not uncommon in Singapore and when several gunmen were on the loose. The two brothers involved in this case, Abdul and Mustapha Wahab, were especially daring and trigger-happy and the incident brought to a one-and-a-half month reign of terror to a close.

More on this incident can be found in a previous post: When gunmen roamed the streets of Singapore: a showdown at Jalan Kubor.


(8) A grave that holds the remains of 10,000 fallen soldiers

With graves that date back to 1889, the Japanese Cemetery in Chuan Hoe Avenue counts as one of the oldest un-exhumed non-Muslim burial sites in Singapore. Established by Japanese rubber plantation owners who were also brothel keepers to allow hundreds of karayuki-san (women who came over from impoverished parts of Japan to work in the vice trade in the late 1800s and into the early 1900s), the cemetery has not just the simple headstones marking where these unfortunate women are buried but also the graves of several interesting characters. A charnel containing part of the remains of Singapore’s first Japanese resident, Yamamoto Otokichi or John M. Ottoson, is one. Otokichi had quite an eventful life. He survived a 14 month long ordeal in a drifting wreck of a ship to become the first translator of the bible into Japanese and settled eventually in Singapore.

The cemetery is also linked somehow to Singapore’s darkest of days. Besides being where Field Marshal Count Hisaichi Terauchi, the Supreme Commander of Southern Command of the Japanese Imperial Army during the war, was first buried; the cemetery is also where a grave containing the ashes of 10,000 Japanese soldiers who fell during the war in the Pacific is found. The ashes were moved to the site after the Japanese ritually destroyed a war memorial erected at the top of Bukit Batok at which the ashes were originally placed, the Syonan Chureito, in the days leading up to their surrender.

More on the cemetery at : Voices from a forgotten past.


(9) A church building occupied by Sin

Now occupied by Objectifs, visual arts centre, the oldest building now on Middle Road has distinctively church-like features. Built in the 1870s, it originally housed a Christian Institute before turning into a church, the “Malay Church”, from 1885 to 1929. It has for the longest of time however not been used as a church, housing a restaurant during the war before being used from the 1950s to the 1980s as – of all things – a motor vehicle workshop by the name of Sin Sin!
More on the building: A church once occupied by Sin,


(10) A bridge that was a tomb for over 20 years

Anderson Bridge, completed in 1910 so that Cavenagh Bridge could be replaced, seems to have had quite a gruesome past. Known as the “Bridge of Death” in the 1950s for the spate of deaths from accidents involving motorcyclists, it was also one of several locations at which the heads of beheaded criminals were put on display in the early days of the Japanese Occupation to instill fear in the general population.

The bridge also became a tomb for over two decades from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s, without anyone knowing. The skeleton of a man, Mr Ong Choon Lim, was discovered  by a worker carrying out maintenance in February 1987.  Ong, who would have been in his 50s when he died, had last been seen alive by members of his family in 1960. The skeleton was found with two rings, a watch, $9 in currency notes issued prior to 1967, an identity card issued in 1948 and a certificate issued in July 1961. Ong was thought to have died sometime in between 1962 and 1967, which meant that his remains would have lain undiscovered for over 20 years.

The bridge is one of five bridges over the Singapore River that were given conservation status in 2009. More on its conservation: Singapore River Bridges


 





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.





A fiery September’s evening

12 09 2016

The fire dragon of Sar Kong came to life last night, making its way in a dizzying dance around the area of its lair at the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee temple.

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Last night’s dance of the fire dragon.

The dance of the dragon has its origins in Guangdong, from where many came from to work in the area’s brick kilns in the mid-1800s. The dance, rarely seen in a Singapore in which tradition has become an inconvenience, came at the close of the temple’s 150th Anniversary celebrations. The celebrations, held over a three day period, also saw a book on the temple’s history being launched. An exhibition on the history of the area is also being held in conjunction with this, which will run until 14 September 2016.

A book on the temple and the community's history was launched.

A book on the temple and the community’s history, A Kampong and its Temple, was launched.

Minister, Prime Minister's Office, Chan Chun Sing - a former resident of the area, being shown a model of the Sar Kong village area at the exhibition.

Minister, Prime Minister’s Office, Chan Chun Sing – a former resident of the area, being shown a model of the Sar Kong village area at the exhibition.

The parade of the straw dragon through the streets, is also thought to help dissipate anger caused by the disturbance of the land in the area of the temple being felt by the temple’s deities. The area, is once again in the midst of change – with a huge condominium development, Urban Oasis, just next door. The site of the development, incidentally, is linked to the current outbreak of the mosquito borne Zika virus in Singapore.

Lit joss sticks being placed on the straw dragon's body prior to the dance.

Lit joss sticks being placed on the straw dragon’s body prior to the dance.

There may perhaps be anger felt at the uncertainty for the future that temple itself faces. The land on which it sits on has long since been acquired for redevelopment by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and the temple operates on it only through a Temporary Occupation License. The parcel of land it sits on is one shared with HDB flats that were taken back by the HDB under the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) in the second half of the 2000s and it is left to be seen if the temple will be allowed to continue on the site when the area is eventually redeveloped.

The dragon offering respects to the altar prior to its dance.

The dragon offering respects to the altar prior to its dance.


The temple, Mun San Fook Tuck Chee (萬山福德祠), is thought to have its origins in the 1860s, serving a community of Cantonese and Hakka migrant workers employed by the area’s brick kilns, sawmills and sago making factories. The temple moved twice and came to its present site in 1901.

The dance of the fire dragon that is associated with the temple, although long a practice in its place of origin, only came to the temple in the 1980s. The dragon used for the dance is the result of a painstaking process that involves the making of a core using rattan and the plaiting of straw over three months to make the dragon’s body. Lit joss sticks are placed on the body prior to the dance and traditionally, the dragon would be left to burn to allow it to ascend to the heavens.

More information on the temple, its origins and its practices can be found in the following posts:


More photographs:

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The fallen star of MacTaggart Road

6 09 2016

Long a landmark in the area, the Star at the corner of MacTaggart and Burn Roads – the former Khong Guan Biscuit Factory, is sadly, having its insides ripped out. The building, which was constructed in 1952 and given conservation status in December 2005. Sitting now behind hoardings, it seems that its face is all that is being conserved.

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The Star and its delightful front grille gates in April 2013.

Described in a Straits Times report earlier this year as a three-storey modernist structure, the building also provided office space for the family owned business which has long been a household name in Singapore, as well as store spaces, a shopfront and accommodation to members of the family. The architect of the building and Khong Guan’s company architects since the 1950s, Chung Swee Poey & Sons, also had their offices on the second floor of the building.

Seen from MacTaggart Road in January this year.

Seen from MacTaggart Road in January this year.

More on the building can be found at the following links:


Photographs of the former Khong Guan Biscuit Factory

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The former factory as seen from Burn Road in April 2013.

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A display window at the former factory as seen in April 2013.

Entrance to offices along MacTaggart Road, Seen in January 2016.

Entrance to offices along MacTaggart Road, Seen in January 2016.

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The front of the former factory as seen in April 2013.

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The former factory behind hoardings in September 2016.

The former factory behind hoardings in September 2016.

It appears that all that is being conserved is the building's façade.

It appears that all that is being conserved is the building’s façade.






A dragon awakens

5 09 2016

The fire dragon of Sar Kong, in a rare reprise of the its smoking performance earlier this year, will come alive once again this September on the occasion of the 150th anniversary celebrations of the temple its lair is found in, the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee (萬山福德祠) . The temple has its origins in Sar Kong (沙崗) or “Sand Ridge, where a community of Cantonese and Hakka coolies had settled in.

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The practice of parading the burning dragon has its origins in Guangdong – the origins of many in the community. Made of straw that has been imported from China, such a dragon would previously have been constructed for the feast day of the temple’s principal deity and sent in flames to the heavens.  In more recent times, such straw dragons would be paraded on an average of once every three years.  This particular dragon, which made for a more recent Chingay Parade, is not burnt but set alight only by the placement of joss sticks on its body.

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More information on the practice, as well as the historic setting for the village and the temple, can be found in the temple’s heritage room. More on the temple and its history can also be found at the post: On Borrowed Time: Mun San Fook Tuck Chee.


Schedule for the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee 150th Anniversary Celebrations

A number of events held in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee: Taoist priests from Ching Chung Koon in HK invited here to conduct rituals over 3 days, a seminar on Dabogong (Tua Pek Kong), a heritage exhibition, a book launch, and the finale – the one and only fire dragon dance in Singapore.

9 Sep 2016 (Fri)
0900-1145 Preparing ritual space
1400-1600 Rituals
1800-1900 Opening of heritage exhibition
1900-2100 Rituals

10 Sep 2016 (Sat)
0900-1145 Rituals
0930-1200 Seminar and discussion on Dabogong
1400-1600 Rituals
1900-2130 Rituals
2000-2100 Crossing the bridge for devotees

11 Sep 2016 (Sun)
0900-1145 Rituals
1000 Lion dance to welcome foreign visitors
1045-1145 Paying of respects by foreign visitors
1100-1400 Mid-autumn event for respecting elders in the community
1400-1600 Rituals
1600-1730 Salvation rituals
1930 Fire dragon performance / Book launch / Exchange of souvenirs with foreign guests


Photographs from the parade of the Fire Dragon in March 2016

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Calling an end to one cycle of time for the Ellison Building

3 09 2016

As if to foretell the end in a cycle of time for the Ellison Building, and the beginning of another, the mayura, a peacock – a mythological representation of the cycle of time, has made an appearance just across Bukit Timah Road from it. In the peacock’s view is the side the building whose time is at it end; an end that is being brought about by the intended construction of the North-South Expressway right under it.

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That a decision was taken to demolish a portion of a building that has been gazetted for conservation is hard to fathom. Protection through conservation, so it seems, counts for very little when the development of national infrastructure is a justification. Constraints of space due to what already exists underground has forced the authorities concerned to take this unfortunate decision. The section that will be demolished, which contains three units along Bukit Timah Road, will be reconstructed and reinstated to the building original design after the expressway is completed in 2026.

The decision caught the public unawares, first coming to light on 7 August 2016. The Chinese language daily Lianhe Zaobao, in an article on the construction of the expressway, made mention that part of the building’s “façade” was to be demolished and reinstated. Further information was then provided by a Straits Times 18 August 2016 report and much shock and disappointment has been expressed [see: Rebuilding parts of heritage building not the answer (Letter to the Straits Times, 18 August 2016), the Singapore Heritage Society’s 18 August 2016 Statement on Ellison Building, and ICOMOS Singapore’s 2 September Statement on the Proposed Demolition and Reconstruction of Part of Ellison Building].

The old style Hup Chiang kopitiam at the Ellison Building, now occupied by a Teochew porridge restaurant.

The news is also upsetting considering that the Ellison is one of the last survivors of the landmarks that once provided the area with its identity. Old Tekka Market, an focal point for many heading to the area in its day, has long since left us. Its replacement, housed at the bottom of a HDB built podium development built across the road from the old market, lacks the presence of the old  – even if the complex towers over the area. The complex sits on the site of another missing landmark, the Kandang Kerbau Police Station. One still there but now well hidden from sight is the Rochor Canal. Flavoursome in more ways than one, the canal would often mentioned in the same breath as any reference that was made to the area. Looking a little worse for war and dwarfed by much of what now surrounds it, the Ellison building with its distinctive façade, still makes its presence felt.

The Ellison Building as interpreted by the Urban Sketchers of Singapore.

The Ellison Building as interpreted by the Urban Sketchers Singapore.

The Ellison building is one of three structures found in the area on which the Star of David proudly displayed, the others being the David Elias building and the Maghain Aboth synagogue at Waterloo Street. Placed between the 19 and 24 on its Selegie Road façade that gives the year of its completion, it tells of a time we have forgotten when the area  was the Mahallah to the sizeable Arab speaking Baghdadi Jewish community. Described as having a feel of old Baghdad, the Mahallah was where the likes of Jacob Ballas and Harry Elias, just two of the communities many illustrious children, spend their early years in. Another link to its origins is an “I. Ellison” one finds over the entrance to No. 237 – one of the units that will be demolished. This serves to remind us of Isaac Ellison who had the building erected, apparently, for his wife Flora. 

The building seems also to have a long association with one of Singapore’s biggest obsessions, food. One food outlet that goes back as far as the building is Singapore’s oldest Indian Vegetarian restaurant, Ananda Bhavan (which still operates there). It was one of two vegetarian places that I remember seeing from my days passing the building on my daily rides home on the bus as a schoolboy. I would look out for the eye-catching displays of brightly coloured milk candy, neatly arranged on the shelves of wooden framed glass cabinets and also the restaurants’ old fashioned counters. Another sight that I never failed to notice was the mama shop along the five-foot-way and its stalk of bananas on display from which bananas would be plucked and purchased individually.

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A lost reminder of the past, an old fashioned Indian Vegetarian restaurant that has since been replaced by a popular nasi lemak shop.

The units that housed the vegetarian restaurants are fortunately on the side along Selegie Road. This will not be affected by the expressway construction and is housed within a larger part of the building that is not being demolished. This is something that should perhaps be looked at positively as unlike the regretful loss of whole places and structures that we have become accustomed to – so that they can keep our world moving,  the Ellison, because of it conservation status will not totally be lost.

Previous instance of moving our world too far and too fast, and in a direction not everyone is comfortable with, we have bid farewell to well loved structures such as the people’s National Theatre, the much-loved National Library, and what probably counts as Singapore’s first purpose built hawker centre – the Esplanade Food Centre.

We have also parted company in more recent times with places such as the remnants of the historic Mount Palmer and  a part of the Singapore’s first polytechnic. Both were flattened earlier this year to allow the final phase of the Circle Line MRT to be completed. Another historic site, Bukit Brown cemetery, has also lost some of its inhabitants to a highway that is being built through it. There is also the case of the proposed Cross Island Line’s proposed alignment that will take it under what should rightfully be an untouchable part of Singapore – the Central Catchment Nature. Of concern is the site  investigation work that will be carried out and its potential for long term damage to the flora and fauna of the nature reserve.

The regret of allowing places such as the National Library and National Theatre to pass into history is still felt. Whatever is intended for the Ellison is something we similarly will regret. Let us hope that the regret is not also one of setting a precedent in the resolution of conflicts to come between conservation and the need for development.


Other views of the Ellison Building over the years found online:

Part of the Selegie Road face of Ellison Building, possibly in the 1980s (snowstorm snowflake on Panoramio).

The Ellison Building, seen from across the then opened Rochor Canal in 1969 (Bill Strong on Flickr).






Sophia, Caroline and Emily, and the spiced up Hills of Babylon

18 08 2016

Just north of a hill of much history known to the early inhabitants of Singaporeans as the Forbidden Hill or Bukit Larangan, is a cluster of low hills that are known today as Mounts Sophia, Emily, and Caroline.  The hills, three sisters if you like, go back a long way and have a rather storied past.

The value of these elevations, rising some 30 to 35 metres above the plain which Raffles designated as the new settlement’s European precinct, and the harbour that was the very reason for which the settlement was founded beyond it, had certainly been recognised in the early days. Two of the protagonists of the new trading post soon had their hands on parts of them. In a letter written by Singapore’s first resident, William Farquhar, to Raffles on 23 December 1822,  Raffles is told that parts of the hills had been cleared at government expense, with 33 acres of “Silligie” Hill  occupied by Captain William Flint, the Master Attendant, and 20 acres of the next hill to the north, “Bukit Cawah”, that the Resident had himself taken possession of.

William Farquhar.

William Farquhar.

In the letter, Farquhar also describes the state of the hills at the time of the founding – the “commencement of the establishment” as he had put it. “Silligie” was “occupied in the western side by a Chinese planter who had formed a Gambier Plantation there”. Its eastern side had been “a primitive forest” and “Bukit Cawah” had been “totally unoccupied and covered with primitive forest trees”.

Gambier, an extract from the leaves of the plant is used in dyes and in the tanning of leather and also in the chewing of betel nut. Gambier was planted in Singapore by the Chinese even before the British arrived.

Gambier, an extract from the leaves of the plant is used in dyes and in the tanning of leather and also in the chewing of betel nut. Gambier was planted in Singapore by the Chinese even before the British arrived.

Raffles, who was at odds with Farquhar over his handling of the affairs of new settlement, had allegations made that Farquhar had appropriated more (land) than he was entitled to on Bukit Cawah. In an essay  “William Farquhar, First Resident and Commandant of Singapore”1, one of the foremost authorities on Raffles, John Sturgus Bastin, informs us that Raffles had referred to what Farquhar had his hands on as his “Hills of Babylon” – a reference to the hills in the Book of Revelations that one of the beasts of the end times, Babylon, rests on.

From a map of Singapore dated 1822-23. Cawah is probably misspelt as Rawa.

From a map of Singapore dated 1822-23. Cawah is probably misspelt as Rawa.

We know of Bukit Cawah today as Mount Emily and Silligie Hill (or Bukit Selegie) as Mount Sophia. Early maps and documents use several variations in the spelling of the names, the origins of which, seem rather obscure. An attempt is made by Victor Savage and Brenda Yeoh in “Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics” to offer possible explanations. One relates to a Bugis chief with a band of followers called the “Orang Selegie”, while another gives Selegie, spelt Seligi, to be a reference to the nibong palm  used in the making of fishing stakes or of spears of the same name. There apparently is a sharpened wooden spear used by the Borneo based Iban tribe that is known a “seligi”. That is made of the trunk of the nibong palm.

From a map entitled "Part of Singapore Island", 1825, which identifies both Bukit Selegie and Bukit Kawah.

From a map entitled “Part of Singapore Island”, 1825, which identifies both Bukit Selegie and Bukit Kawah.

I should think that Selegie must have less exotic origins. A set of sketches of fishing implements employed by the Orang Laut seen in Cynthia Chou’s book on the Orang Suku Laut2, who were among the earliest inhabitants of Singapore, offers a possible clue. A multi-pronged tip of a fishing spear commonly used in “pre-settlement” daysis found in them, made not necessarily from the nibong palm that is identified as a “seligi“. How this seligi became mixed up with the hill is anybody’s guess. One explanation I can offer is that the two hills may have stuck out of the undeveloped pre-settlement landscape like the prongs of seligi.

Fishing spears employed by the orang laut.

Fishing spears employed by the orang laut.

As opposed to the Iban seligi, there should be little doubt that the seligi fishing spear would be ones that are readily recognisable in Singapura. Spearing of fish was the main method of fishing, as had been observed by Munshi Abdullah, a scholar and translator from Malacca, as is recorded in his autobiography, Hikayat Abdullah. The introduction of the hook and line by fishermen coming over from his native Malacca post-settlement put an end to the practice. It is not unimaginable that the two hills had collectively been referred to as Bukit Selegie. An indication of this is seen perhaps in G.D. Coleman’s 1836 Map of Town and Environs, which shows a Mount Sophia that had been marked in earlier maps as Bukit Selegie alongside a Mount Emily (Bukit Cawah) that is instead marked as “Bukit Selegie”.

From the 1836 Map of Town and Environs, based on a survey carried out by G D Coleman.

From the 1836 Map of Town and Environs, based on a survey carried out by G D Coleman (click to enlarge).

The name Cawah seems most obscure.

One explanation that has been offered is that Cawah is a variation in the spelling of Jawa or Java, and the hill was so named due to the proximity of a Javanese settlement at Kampong Jawa. The “C” in this case might have been pronounced as it is in modern Malay spelling, as a Ch. We do however see the name spelt with a K, Kawah, and what this means is that the name would more likely have been pronounced as Ka-wah rather than as Cha-wah.

The word Kawah finds widespread use in Indonesia to describe a volcanic crater. It also translates into English as a cauldron or even a large pot. As with the name Selegie, Kawah could have been a reference to the shape of a geographical feature, such as that of the depression found in between the two hills. But without no evidence to back this up, it would be hard to put a finger on it.

A crater, Kawah Sikadang, near Yogyakarta in Indonesia.

A crater, Kawah Sikadang, near Yogyakarta in Indonesia.

The hills’ modern day names are in themselves, a cause for much speculation. While it has been generally accepted that the Sophia in Mount Sophia was Raffles second wife Sophia Hull, who the Flints who moved up the hill were thought to have honoured;  there also are suggestions that it may have been one of several Sophias also connected with the hill, of which there are a few.

The Flints, Mary Ann, Raffles' sister and Captain William, the Master Attendant.

The Flints, Mary Ann, Raffles’ sister and Captain William, the Master Attendant.

One, is none other than the Flints’ daughter, Mary Sophia Anne, who was born in 1823, the year the Flints moved to their new address. The name Sophia Cooke also comes up. Cooke was an Anglican missionary who arrived in 1853 to run the Chinese Girls’ School on the hill that is now St. Margaret’s School. There is also Sophia Blackmore. Ms Blackmore founded Methodist Girls School in 1887. Although the school only moved up from Short Street to Mount Sophia in 1925, Ms Blackmore other connections with the hill date back to the 1890s.

The Deaconess Home (later Nind Home), acquired in 1894, was used by Ms. as a boarding house. The site at No.6 Mount Sophia (later No. 11), based on the details of the lease, could possibly be where Flint had his house.

The Deaconess Home (later Nind Home), acquired in 1894, was used by Ms. as a boarding house. The site at No.6 Mount Sophia (later No. 11), based on the details of the lease, could possibly be where Flint had his house.

One rather interesting suggestion that comes up from time to time is that the hills along with Mount Caroline, are named after the three daughters of Charles Robert Prinsep. This may have its origins in a Straits Times article from 10 May 1936. Charles Robert Prinsep, a barrister with the East India Company based in Calcutta, was also a plantation owner and the man behind the second phase of the hills’ development. He may have first purchased Bukit Cawah from the Farquhar estate in 1831,  adding to it a huge tract of land that extended to Mount Sophia and Mount Caroline, soon after.

View today over the three hills.

View today over what had once been the Prinsep estate.

All 270 acres of Prinsep’s sprawling estate, roughly the size of today’s Gardens by the Bay. was given to the cultivation of nutmeg. The arrival of nutmeg as a crop to our shores, and before that to Penang, was prompted by the desire of the British to challenge the monopoly the Dutch had on a spice that was worth more than its weight in gold.

The nutmeg fruit, seen on a tree on Fort Canning Hill.

The nutmeg fruit, seen on a tree on Fort Canning Hill.

By 1848, Prinsep’s estate was among 20 such plantations that were to alter the landscape of the previously forested hills on both sides of what we know today as Orchard Road. The estate of 6,700 trees had one of the highest yields and at its height produced some 22,000 nutmegs daily. Besides nutmeg, another spice Mace, is obtained from the “nuts”, ground from the seed’s aril. The spice nutmeg is from the seed itself. The plantations, by the way, were what gave Orchard Road its name.

Nutmeg, the only plant from which two spices are obtained. Mace from the red aril covering its seed and nutmeg from the seed itself.

Nutmeg, the only plant from which two spices are obtained. Mace from the red aril covering its seed and nutmeg from the seed itself.

It was around the time of the establishment of the Prinsep estate in 1831 that the name Mount Sophia first crops up (this on the basis of newspaper articles, the archives of which do not go further back than 1831 but the manner in which it does crop up points to its adoption around the same time). This was some five years before Coleman’s 1836 map was published. The mention is found in a letter to the Singapore Chronicle and Commercial Register, published  on 26 May 1831, in which the writer makes mention that “Flint’s Hill”, the location named of a fire that was the subject of an earlier report, should have been referred to as “Mount Sophia”.

A letter from Willaim Farquhar to Lt. Jackson making a request to have the identified hills, including Bukit Selegie and Bukit Cawah, surveyed. The various parties who were in possession of the hills are also identified.

A letter from Willaim Farquhar to Lt. Jackson making a request to have the identified hills, including Bukit Selegie and Bukit Cawah, surveyed. The various parties who were in possession of the hills are also identified.

By 1839, Prinsep’s estate had apparently been quite well established. Mention of the estate, and more importantly the three hills by name, is made in a published account of a visit paid by the crew of the United States frigate Columbia, to the estate. The Columbia, on a well documented round the world voyage, made a stopover in Singapore in February 1839. The accounts of the voyage were to be published in two volumes in 1840. On the visit to the estate, the account states:

The first of these estates, that of Mr. Princeps, who resides in Calcutta, is laid out with excellent taste upon beautiful grounds. It occupies about two hundred and fifty acres, including three lovely hills, Mount Sophia, Mount Caroline and Mount Emily, each surmounted by a neat bungalow, from which avenues radiate and intersect all over the plantation.

When we were there, the superintendent, who politely show us every part and answered our inquiries, informed us that they had already planted four thousand nutmeg trees; twenty thousand coffee shrubs; two hundred orange trees; two hundred clove trees; and one hundred and fifty areka trees, besides a few of many other kinds.

– “Around the World: A Narrative of a Voyage in the East India Squadron under Commodore George C. Read”, Volume 2, 1840, Page 143.

The extent of the Prinsep Estate, seen in an 1870 map.

The extent of the Prinsep Estate, seen in an 1870 map. The 106 acres bought for Government House, is marked as “New Government Property”.

This account discounts that possibility of the hills being named after Prinsep’s daughters. The first, Sophia Catherine, only came into the world three years after the visit, in 1842. To add to the improbability of this, Prinsep, who married Louisa Anne White in 1837, was to have three other daughters, none of whom had the name Caroline. His other daughters were Annie Mary (b. 1848), Louisa Sophia (b. 1851), and Mary Emily (b. 1853). The account. plus the fact that Mount Sophia is mentioned as early as 1831, also puts paid to the suggestions concerning both Ms Cooke and Ms Blackmore.

Mary Emily Prinsep (Julia Margaret Cameron, photograph,1866). Could she have been the Emily in Mount Emily?

Mary Emily Prinsep (Julia Margaret Cameron, photograph,1866). Probably not the Emily in Mount Emily.

Further investigation does however throw up the possibility that a different set of sisters in the Prinsep family are behind the names. Charles Robert, it turns out, had three sisters who coincidentally, were named Sophia, Caroline and Amelia (affectionately known as Emily). There is every likelihood that it was this set of sisters, who had been born before Charles Robert’s plantation came into being, who lent their names to the hills. It could also have been the case that Prinsep, on finding that one of the hills had already carried the name of one of his sisters, had decided to follow on, naming the other two main hills of his estate after his other sisters. This is perhaps less likely as the report of 1831 tells us that the name Flint’s Hill for Bukit Selegie was very much still use three years after his unfortunate demise in 1828. Incidentally, there is also a less significant hill in the estate, Mount Louisa. This appears in some maps as Lock’s Hill and it is probable that the Louisa in the name is  that of Prinsep’s wife.

Nutmeg plantations in Singapore, mid 1800s..

Nutmeg plantations in Singapore, mid 1800s..

Prinsep’s plantation was to go the way of the island’s other nutmeg plantations. Despite thriving initially, disease was to dent the ambitions that the plantation owners held. By the time Prinsep had the lease on his estate extended in 1859, nutmeg as a crop had already been wiped out. This was to pave the way for the next phase of the development on the hills, one that saw it becoming an estate for the very well-heeled.

A sketch of a young Charles Robert Prinsep by his sister Emily, 1824.

A sketch of a young Charles Robert Prinsep by his sister Emily, 1824.

Sophia Charlotte Haldimand (née Prinsep) - another sketch by Emily Prinsep. Could she be the Sophia in Mount Sophia?

Sophia Charlotte Haldimand (née Prinsep) – another sketch by Emily Prinsep. Could she be the Sophia in Mount Sophia?

The estate was put up for sale in 1859 into the early 1860s, the evidence being advertisements placed in the newspapers. The sale in parts of the estate was allowed for and a familiar name in that of Mr (Lawrence) Niven features in the advertisements. Niven, after whom Niven Road at the foot of Mount Emily was named, is perhaps more well known for his efforts setting up of Singapore’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Singapore Botanical Gardens, as its very first superintendent. He had been the superintendent of Prinsep’s nutmeg estate prior to his appointment to the Botanical Gardens position and must have held both appointments concurrently at some point in time.

For Sale

In the immediate neighbourhood of the town of Singapore, the very desirable property of C. R. Prinsep, Esquire, lying between the Orchard and Bukit Timah Roads, consisting of Hills and Low grounds daily increasing in value.

This lands may be sold in lots to suit purchasers and all further particulars may be learned from Mr Niven, the Superintendent of the Estate or Messrto to be & Co.

Singapore, 13th April, 1859.

Well documented is the sale in 1867 of 106 acres of the western section of the estate,, covering Mount Caroline and Mount Louisa, to the Governor, Sir Harry St. George Ord. This was for a new Government House (now the Istana) to be erected. The placement of the fort on the original Government Hill, Bukit Larangan,  had displaced the Governor’s residence. The new Government House on the top of Mount Caroline was completed in 1869. Mount Caroline had in fact been identified in the 1850s by Army Engineer Captain George Chancellor Collyer, as a possible location to move Government House to. This came with the recommendations he made a 1858 report to fortify Bukit Larangan. Mount Caroline, was described by Collyer, as the “most commanding spot on the island”. Together with Government House, the Colonial Secretary’s residence (now Sri Temasek), was also completed at the same time at Mount Louisa.

A photograph of Government House perched on Mount Caroline in the 1880s, seen from Fort Canning. Mount Sophia is in the background on the left.

A photograph of Government House perched on Mount Caroline in the 1880s, seen from Fort Canning. Mount Sophia is in the background on the left.

The remaining parts of Mount Sophia and Mount Emily were to be subdivided and sold. Their elevation, and prime location in the vicinity of the heart of the thriving municipality, made the plots being offered a very attractive prospect. It did not take long before the exclusive neighbourhood that was to boast some of the grandest residences to be seen on the island, started to take shape and by the 1880s, several large residences occupied prime positions across the twin peaks.

An 1881 map showing the tops of the hills of the former Prinsep estate populated by newly built residences.

An 1881 map showing the tops of the hills of the former Prinsep estate populated by newly built residences.

A view across Mount Sophia towards Mount Caroline and Government House. The building in the foreground is Olson Building - the only one of the buildings of the former Methodist Girls School that is being conserved.

A view across Mount Sophia towards Mount Caroline and Government House. The building in the foreground is Olson Building – the only one of the buildings of the former Methodist Girls School that is being conserved.

There is little doubt that one had to be someone of means to move up to the hills, which would have been most accessible by horse and carriage. One of the first grand residences to secure a footing on the hills would have been Carrington House around 1873. Little is known about the house except for the fact that a panther was cornered and shot in it sometime in December 1883. The very brave man credited with making the killing, Mr Maurice Drummond, apparently received a reward of $25 for his troubles.

Carrington House, as seen from Osborne House, 1880.

Carrington House, as seen from Osborne House, 1880.

Carrington House, we can see from the 1880 photograph, found a perch in quite a prominent location on the slopes of Mount Sophia. One can only imagine the views it must have offered in days when one’s gaze could be cast across the settlement for as far as the eye could see. It is no wonder that two of the grandest mansions Singapore has seen were to be built on its site. Carrington House was to be replaced by the ostentatious Adis Lodge and then an even grander Eu Villa. It is in the days of Eu Villa that were are able to get an appreciation of what the view must have been like from a 1936 Straits Times article:

From Eu Villa the view on three sides, out over the harbour and away to Keppel Hatbour on one side and Katong on the other, is simply breathtaking, especially in the evening when the city takes on an indefinite soft and delicate colouring. This is not the highest point on the hill, but, because the house juts out with no encumbrance on either side, the view is better than on the actual brow of the hill above Eu Villa … it is a magical place to be on a moonlight night, overlooking the lights of the city and the junk anchorage.

– The Straits Times, 10 May 1936

Eu Villa and the view from it.

Eu Villa and the view from it.

A view over Mount Sophia towards the harbour c. late 1940s. Eu Villa can be seen in the lower left part of the photograph.

A view over Mount Sophia towards the harbour c. late 1940s. Eu Villa can be seen in the lower left part of the photograph. Cathay building, which came up in the late 1930s, Singapore’s “first skyscraper”  was the first tall building to block the view one got from the top of the hill.

Adis Lodge, which came up in 1907, was built by Nissim Nissim Adis. Adis was the proprietor of very grand Grand Hotel de L’Europe at the corner of St. Andrew’s Road and High Street, the location today of the old Supreme Court wing of the National Gallery. It was after him that Adis Road on Mount Sophia was named. Opulently furnished and decorated, Adis Lodge carried the reputation of being one of the “most magnificent of mansions east of the Suez”. It did not last long however. It was sold to the “king of tin” Eu Tong Sen in 1912. Eu had the lodge replace in 1915 with Eu Villa. Eu Villa, which had a fairy tale like quality, survived for quite a bit longer. It was sold in 1973 for S$8.19 million and was only demolished in the early 1980s.

Adis Lodge in 1908.

Adis Lodge in 1908.

Mount Sophia was also a name that was synonymous with the Methodist Mission and Methodist Girls’ School (MGS). The Methodist presence took root in the 1890s with its purchase of several of the grand houses at the top of the hill. Methodist Girls’ School, which started as a Tamil girls’ school in a shophouse on Short Street, made a move up the hill in 1925, staying until 1992. It wasn’t the first school to be established on the hill. That would have been St. Margaret’s whose presence on the hill as Chinese Girls’ School goes back to 1861.

Wesley House, at No. 5 Mount Sophia, which was acquired by the Methodist Mission in 1894.

The Methodist Girls School complex, used as a centre for the arts while awaiting redevelopment.

The former Methodist Girls School complex, used as a centre for the arts in 2010 while awaiting redevelopment.

On the other peak, Mount Emily, its rather flat and elongated top must have made it a perfect spot to play host to a service reservoir. One was put there in the late 1870s to supply treated water to the municipality. It was to be made redundant by the much larger Fort Canning Reservoir in 1929. The reservoir was then turned into Singapore’s first public swimming pool around which the beautifully set Mount Emily Park was established. The pool opened in 1931 and was in use until the early 1980s with it serving as the setting for the qualification of Singapore’s very first woman lifeguard, Miss Ann Tay, in February 1952.

Lambert Mount Emily

A G R Lambert photograph of the reservoir on top of Mount Emily taken from Osborne House.

A large residence, humble by the standards of Eu Villa or Adis Lodge, Osborne House, made its appearance near the top of Mount Emily about the same time the reservoir was completed. The house does have its fair share of stories. Perched on a part of the hill that could be seen from Middle Road, it served for a while as a symbol to the sizeable pre-war Japanese community who were centered on Middle Road (Chuo Dori to the community) as the Japanese consulate. There also seems a connection to the Sultan of Siak. More about Osborne House’s rather intriguing past can be found in an earlier post, A Last Reminder of an Old-fashioned Corner of Singapore.

Middle Road when it would have been referred to as Chuo Dori in the 1930s. Osborne House which was to serve as the Japanese Consulate from 1939 to 1941 can be seen atop Mount Emily at the end of the street.

Middle Road when it would have been referred to as Chuo Dori in the 1930s. Osborne House which was to serve as the Japanese Consulate from 1939 to 1941 can be seen atop Mount Emily at the end of the street.

Osborne House today, known to us now as "Emily Hill".

Osborne House today, known to us now as “Emily Hill”.

Farquhar’s “Hills of Babylon”, Mount Emily and neighbouring Mount Sophia, have a very different beast now to contend with these days. Much of the magic that motivated the construction of residences such as Adis Lodge and Eu Villa has sadly, long been lost, taken away by the wall of glass, steel and concrete that now surrounds much of the hills. The “trees” of the new estate are ones that are mostly grey. The yields they give is gold that is of great value in the concrete plantation that much of Singapore has become.

Tower House at the top of the southern slop of Mount Sophia. A wall of concrete, glass and still has obscured part of the view it once commanded.

Tower House at the top of the southern slope of Mount Sophia. A wall of concrete, glass and still has obscured part of the view it once commanded.

On the hill tops are but a few survivors of the high life, one Tower House on Mount Sophia is a conserved structure. The future of Osborne House on Mount Emily, is much less certain and it may be a matter of time before it and the many connections it has with an especially interesting past are forever lost.

The wall around Mount Sophia seen from Prinsep Street.

The wall around Mount Sophia seen from Prinsep Street. Flint’s house may have been located in the area now blocked by the School of the Arts (SOTA).

Walls of concrete, glass and steel around Mount Emily.

Walls of concrete, glass and steel around Mount Emily. The roofs of Olson Building and Tower House at the top of Mount Sophia at the upper left part of the photograph can barely be seen. Mount Emily is in the centre of the photo and Mount Caroline on the extreme right.


Notes:


Published in “Natural History Drawings: The Complete William Farquhar Collection, Malay Peninusla 1803-1818”.


“The Orang Suku Laut of Riau, Indonesia: The inalienable gift of territory”.


The Ellison Building at the foot of one of the three sisters, Mount Emily

A report in this morning’s edition of the Straits Times reveals that part of the Ellison Building, a very distinctive conserved building at the corner of Selegie Road and Bukit Timah Road near the foot of Mount Emily, will be demolished and reconstructed due to the construction of the North-South Corridor. The part that will be affected is along Bukit Timah Road with units 235, 237 and 239 to be demolished. This follows on an earlier report in the Chinese language Lianhe Zaobao article on 7 August 2016 that first broke the news of the building being affected. In the earlier report, it was mentioned that only “part of the (building’s) façade” would be affected. The Ellisons, Issac and Flora, had their home at 87 Wilkie Road, another of the grand residences that found their way on the slopes of Mounts Sophia and Emily. The residence, was demolished in the 1980s and a multi-storey residential development was put in its place and the Ellison Building is what’s left to remember them.

A view over the Selegie Road and Bukit Timah Road junction with the part of the Ellison Building (the curved building in the lower right) that will be affected facing the viewer.

A view over the Selegie Road and Bukit Timah Road junction with the part of the Ellison Building (the curved building in the lower right) that will be affected facing the viewer.

Incidentally, the entrance to the upper level one of the units being affected, 237, is where one find the words “I. Ellison” or Issac Ellsion – the man who had the building constructed, on a sign above it. This makes the demolition of this part of the building, even if it is to be reconstructed, even more tragic.

The five-foot-way of the Ellison Building where one of the units that will be demolished and then reconstructed, No. 237. A sign on top of the gateway is marked with "I. Ellison" or Issac Ellison - the man who had the building constructed.

The five-foot-way of the Ellison Building where one of the units that will be demolished and then reconstructed, No. 237. A sign on top of the gateway is marked with “I. Ellison” or Issac Ellison – the man who had the building constructed.


 








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