Patterns of a once familiar world

12 10 2012

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

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

Once familiar window grilles.

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

Archways of the old that lead to the new.

The new world that has taken over from the old.

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

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

The exit turnstile of the former River Valley Swimming Complex.

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

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

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Order out of the chaos on Hill Street

8 06 2011

The Preservations of Monuments Board (PMB) would be conducting a series of 20 Mounmental Walking Tours of Singapore’s National Monuments in the civic and cultural district during the weekends commencing Saturday 11th June up until the end of July, with an intended aim of bringing history to the whole family. I had the opportunity to have a special preview of the upcoming tours yesterday morning as part of a group yesterday made up of members of the mainstream which was led by Volunteer Guide Ms Jill Wong, during which we were given not just an insight into two of the monuments covered, but also into the background and history of the public institutions that the two monuments were built to house.

The PMB is organising Monumental Walking Tours starting 11th June 2011.

At the starting point of the brief tour, now a pavement outside Funan Centre, which is directly opposite the first of the two monuments we were to cover, the Central Fire Station, we were transported by our guide Jill into a very different Singapore. It was a Singapore of the early years where large gangs of Chinamen with darkened faces had, in the darkness of night, created mischief on the first streets or a new and fast growing colony, taking advantage perhaps of the lack of order that the Singapore of today has come to be known for. It was a Singapore that struggled to cope with the pressures of sudden urbanisation, as the colony grew around the first paved street, High Street, just a stone’s throw away from where we stood, listening to Jill. Indeed, it was a Singapore or “Sin-Galore” as it was known then where chaos had reigned, and one in desperate need for the public institutions that the monuments we were to learn about that morning (the other being the former Hill Street Police Station and now MICA Building), were built to house – hence the name of the tour “Order out of Chaos” from which I borrowed the title of this post.

The Central Fire Station, completed in 1909, features a 110 feet high watchtower which also served as a hose-drying tower.

One of the public institutions that was certainly sorely needed on the congested streets was a fire brigade, which the Central Fire Station was later built to serve. It was only some fifty years after the founding of modern Singapore that the first brigade was formed – a volunteer fire brigade in 1869, developing into a professional outfit close to two decades later. Even with the establishment of a professional force of fire-fighters, the fire brigade was still ill-equipped and ill-prepared to deal with many situations that arose, a fact highlighted by a news article in the 24th September 1890 edition Straits Times (excerpts of which can be found below) relating to a fire on Hock Lam Street – which had once met Hill Street at right angles at the very spot on the pavement on which we stood, which Jill read from. The article makes for interesting reading and in it we are told of a crowd that had gathered to witness a fire that had broken out at a house at No. 8 Hock Lam Street, which, “had the pleasure of watching a fire work its own way without let or hindrance”. What comes out from the article is that it took an hour before water could be doused on the fire, having been delayed partly by the inability of the fire-fighters to locate hydrants on a street just across from where they were based.

Volunteer Guide Ms Jill Wong describing the construction of the Central Fire Station.

The construction of the red and white fire station which was completed in 1909, a National Monument gazetted in December 1998 and the most recognisable in Singapore, represented a change in fortunes of the fire brigade, having being prompted by the arrival of the first professionally trained Superintendent of the Fire Brigade, Montague William Pett from England in 1905. The construction also prompted a modernisation of the brigade’s equipment with motorised fire engines being introduced, which is evident in the various size of exit doors of the station. The station, with its distinctive red and white brick façade, a style often described as “blood and bandages”, also features a 110 feet high watch tower, which when was the tallest structure in the city when it was built, providing a vantage from which a 24 hour watch could then be kept over the city. It also served as a hose drying tower – a feature in many fire stations. The station was later expanded, with a new wing added as well as quarters expanded on land purchased at the corner of Hill Street and Coleman Street from the Chinese Girls’ School which moved to Emerald Hill in the 1920s.

A feature of the pavement outside the Central Fire Station that was explained is that there is no kerb where it meets the road allowing it to be flushed for the passage of emergency vehicles coming out of the station.

The second (and last) stop in the short introductory tour was the former Hill Street Police Station, a six storey Neo-Classical styled building designed by PWD Chief Architect Frank Dorrington Ward completed in 1934, which was also gazetted as a National Monument at the same time as the Central Fire Station. Where the fire station is still used in a function that the building was built for, the Hill Street Police Station is now used by the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA). The building, when built, was an imposing structure which was described as the “Police Skyscraper” and was in fact the largest structure in Malaya. The building featured two open courtyards (now enclosed by a glass roof) and numerous windows (that one can’t help but notice) that opened to the outside as well as into the courtyards, giving the rooms in the building a airy and bright feel – a feature of Frank Dorrington Ward designed municipal buildings. The structure besides serving a function as a police station, also provided housing to policemen and their families with accommodation for up to a thousand people.

Another, an imposing structure that, at the time of its completion, was the largest man made structure in Malaya.

The once largest structure in Malaya, despite being dwarfed by the modern buildings that have come up in the area, is still pretty imposing.

The once open-air courtyard of the former Hill Street Police Station is now encased by a glass roof.

The construction of the building, built at a cost of $494,000, had in the case of the fire station, heralded a change of fortunes for the force, which started as a police force of 12 men in 1820 who weren’t, we were told, too well paid – a combined monthly salary of some $300 was put together by William Farquhar raised through licensing fee for the sale of opium and liquor. The force had apparently attracted the likes of desperate men, stranded sailors for one, seeking a means to obtain money for a passage home, and was poorly equipped unitl the 1930s when improved funding allowed the force was expanded to some 2000 and modern equipment to be introduced. Our attention was also drawn to a series of wall mounted information panels at the second smaller courtyard which provided some of the history of the building as well as provided insights into how life in the separate quarters for the families of the rank and file and the senior policemen was. All in all it was certainly an hour well spent, allowing me to discover more of the monuments in question and some of the conditions that existed when they were built as well as learning a little more on the history of Singapore. Information on the series of Monumental Walking Tours that the PMB has organised can be found below, as well as on the PMB’s website.

A feature of Frank Dorrington Ward designed buildings is the light and airy feel in interiors ventilated and brightened by generous windows which even in the less colourful days of the building, never goes unnoticed.

The Neo-Classical style is commonly seen in municipal buildings in Singapore and has features such as symmetry, the use of columns and pediments such as is seen over the main entrance of the former Hill Street Police Station.



PMB Media Release:

LEARN ABOUT HISTORY THE MONUMENTAL WAY
Monumental Walking Tours and My Monumental Playground offer fun for the whole family

7 June 2011 – History comes alive for the whole family as the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB) launches 20 new Monumental Walking Tours of Singapore’s National Monuments in the civic and cultural district and My Monumental Playground at the Esplanade Park Memorials.

Monumental Walking Tours
Presented with distinct storylines and unique perspectives, Monumental Walking Tours cast our National Monuments in a new light, weaving in stories of Singapore’s diverse immigrant communities. The 20 tours, conducted in English, will be introduced each weekend from 11 June to end July. Along with two existing tours, these will form PMB’s stable of Monumental Walking Tours which will be offered weekly for the rest of the year. Leading the tours are PMB’s adult Volunteer Guides and student Monument Ambassadors who have a strong background and interest in heritage. For the month of June, the Monumental Walking Tours will be available at a special rate of $5 per adult and will feature colonial buildings such as The Arts House and Peranakan Museum.

My Monumental Playground
Specially planned for the little ones, My Monumental Playground will reveal little-known facts about the Esplanade Memorials through storytelling sessions, silent precision drill performances, a treasure hunt and more. Held on 11 and 12 June, this event is part of Children’s Season 2011. Through these exciting events, PMB hopes to develop greater public interest and appreciation for Singapore’s 64 National Monuments. More information on the upcoming events can be found Annexes, and members of the public can refer to www.pmb.sg.

PMB Monumental Walking Tour and My Monumental Playground Programmes:

Administrative Information

Monumental Walking Tour Programme 11th – 12th June 2011

Monumental Walking Tour Programme 18th – 26th June 2011

Monumental Walking Tour Programme to be released in July 2011

My Monumental Playground



Excerpts from the article “Fire on Hocklam Street” from the 24th September 1890 edition of the Straits Times:

“About 9.30 p.m. a fire began in a house No. 8 Hocklam Street, and a crowd immediately commenced to gather and found that they had the pleasure of watching a fire work its own way without let or hindrance. Very soon Chief Inspector Jennings arrived, and pending the arrival of the fire engines did all he could, i.e. watched the crowd. At 10 o’clock the fire had obtained complete possession of the house, and the flames lapped round the casements, and mounted high into the air illuminating the whole town”.

The article goes on to describe how the crowd had admired the uniform of the superintendent as he watched on horseback as the fire made its progress, with water arriving only an hour after the fire by which time No. 8 and 9 were “completely gutted” and added that the “organisation did not know where the nearest hydrants were situated” in spite of the “barracks of the Fire Brigade” being “in the same street as, and exactly opposite to, the burnt houses”.






The far side of the hill

25 02 2010

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

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

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

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

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

Church of the Sacred Heart along Tank Road.

The Church of the Sacred Heart painted brown in 1976.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The area where the National Theatre once dominated the landscape.

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

Van Kleef Aquarium seen on an old postcard.

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

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

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

The entrance area of the River Valley Swimming Complex.

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

The exit turnstile of the former River Valley Swimming Complex.

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

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

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

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


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

National Theatre Staircase

SJI 125th Anniversary Celebrations at the National Theatre in 1977


An old postcard showing Tank Road Station: